The Beginning of the End


by Holly



Slim looked across to where Jess Harper was sitting on the old rocking chair beside the fire. Jess looked exhausted. His head nodded onto his chest a couple of times then jerked back as he forced himself to stay awake.

Jonesy and Andy were busy in the kitchen preparing supper. The noise of pans and cutlery, cheerful chatter, and the smell of stew filtered through to the main room.

Slim and Jess had been out all day working strays down to the lower pastures. The wind and rain had made the job difficult, and both men were drenched to the bone and chilled by the time they arrived back at the ranch and relay station.

Without thinking, Slim had gone to his room and changed into dry clothes, but now he noticed Jess was still in his sodden jeans although he was wearing a different shirt. “Jess, you gonna change them pants? You’ll end up with chills if you don’t.”

Jess looked up from the flames that flickered around the logs in the small hearth. “They’ll dry quick enough.”

Slim thought to how little Jess had when he arrived. Drifters traveled light. Jess only had what he could carry in a saddle bag or inside his bedroll. Jonesy had washed a few things for Jess yesterday, but the rain had resulted in them still being wet and left outside on the line. Slim stood up, put his book down, and said “Come with me.”

Jess frowned, but meekly followed Slim into the bedroom they now shared. Slim opened the old pine chest that stood in the corner and rummaged deep within, finally pulling out a pair of faded jeans. “Here, these will do you, at least until you can get into town and buy some spare pairs. You’ll need them with winter comin’.”

Jess shook his head “ No Slim. I don’t need charity. I’m fine. I...”

“Get them pants off, and no arguments. While you work here, you share everything like the rest of us.”

Jess stood there gazing at Slim, unsure.

“Jess.” Slim cautioned no resistance.

Jess decided it wasn’t worth an argument, took the offered pants, and began to unbuckle his belt.

“An’ hurry up will ya, Jonesy’s dishin’ up,” Slim ordered as he left the room.

Slim, Jonesy, and Andy were all seated at the table, full plates in front of them when Jess finally emerged clutching his wet jeans.

Jonesy said, ” Well don’t just stand there, put them wet pants in the bucket, and get your supper afore it’s as cold as you look. We’re all starvin’ to death waitin’ for you.”

Jess duly added his pants to Slim’s wet clothes in the bucket and collected his supper from the stove. Making his way back to the table, he sat. ”You didn’t have to wait for me,” he muttered.

Andy replied, “Oh yes we did, Slim says family always eat together when possible, didn’t ya, Slim?”

“Didn’t YOU,” Slim corrected his younger brother.

Jess now looked even more embarrassed, “I ain’t no family.”

Jonesy said, ”Maybe not, but you live here, and that’s enough. Now stop gabbin’ and eat afore I throw this stew out to the hogs!”

Jess winked at Andy. “Reckon them there hogs will be already up an’ runnin’ they hear a threat like that.”

The meal was devoured quickly, and Slim and Jess stood in the tiny kitchen washing the dishes while Jonesy helped Andy with his homework.

“Jess, I have to ride into town in the next day or so. You should come too. I can introduce you around a bit, and you can pick up some new gear from the store.”

Jess stopped drying a plate and frowned. ”Slim, I can’t afford anythin’ for the time bein’.”

“Well, if all goes according to plan I’ll be able to give you an advance on your wages.”

“I don’t take money I haven’t earned.”

“Jess Harper, you are a stubborn man,” Slim observed. ”You’ll earn that money twice over, believe me.”

“I might be stubborn, but I ain’t blind or stupid. I ‘ve worked enough places to know you are strugglin’ to keep this place afloat. I can wait awhile afore you pay me anythin’. What do I need new duds for? After all, who do I need to impress way out here? I aint seen a purty gal since I got here.”

“And next you’ll be telling me you wouldn’t be interested if you did.”

“Well a man needs to steer clear of them country girls. They only got marryin’ on their minds. Guess I’ll stick with my ol’ horse. At least he don’t try to hobble me.”

Slim stopped smiling and said seriously, “Jess, I appreciate your offer to wait, but like I said, if all goes well we’ll be in town before the end of the week having us a good time.”

The following day, Slim was up early and anxiously waiting for the morning stage to arrive.

Jess was busy chopping logs. He glanced up as the stage pulled in and leaving his chore, gave a hand changing the team. Once done, he returned to his growing pile of firewood. He noticed the look of disappointment on Slim’s face as he sorted through the mail delivered by the stage.

“Expectin’ a letter from someone special?” Jess asked between strokes.

Slim just walked past him and made his way slowly towards the house.

There was something wrong so Jess dropped his ax and followed Slim.

The house was empty. Jonesy was in the barn busy mixing some obnoxious concoction no doubt to be used at some later date on whoever was unlucky enough to be taken ill.

Slim was sitting at the dining table, head in his hands, a picture of misery.

Jess quietly waited a second or two, but when Slim failed to acknowledge his presence, Jess asked, ”What’s up?”

“Nothing you can do anything about.”

Jess sat down opposite and gazed into Slim’s face, his voice concerned, ”Come on Slim, tell me.” The usual veneer of toughness was gone, the deep voice soft.

“The stage-line money hasn’t come through in time.”

“In time for what?”

“To pay off the bank. I was hoping the money they owed me would be here today at the latest.”

“You relied on that? Slim you know what big, back-east based companies are like. Out here in the West, we don’t count for a plug nickel. Amid all that paper shufflin’ and stuff, why that payment could be weeks, heck, months late. Do you think some clerk way back in New York or some such place, gives a damn if a rancher out in Wyomin’ goes late getting paid? Hell no! Not unless one of their suit-struttin’ company men happen to stop off here on his way to some big business meetin’.”

Slim rose angry, unsure if it was with himself or Jess. “Yes, go on! Really make me feel good Harper!”

Jess tried to calm things “Look, Slim, can’t you figure another way of raisin’ the cash?”

“Don’t you think we’ve been in this position before? Look Jess, I’ve sold everything worth sellin’ long ago. That last bad winter, I had to increase our loan from the bank or the horses and cattle would have starved. Without the horses, we would have lost the stage-line contract. The only hope we have now is if the bank will wait until we do that deal with the army for the spare horses. But knowing Rowlands at the bank, I doubt he’ll give us any extra time.”

“Well you won’t know ‘less you ask him.”

“No, maybe you’re right. We’ll ride in tomorrow, talk to him, and then visit the store to get you some new pants.”

“I told you Slim, the jeans can wait a spell.”

“You sure? Stand up.”

Jess looked surprised at this but slowly stood.

Slim didn’t say a word. He didn’t have to. He just stared at where the borrowed jeans hung from Jess’ slender hips and pooled in wrinkles at his ankles.

Jess frowned. ”Ok, ok, so we ain’t exactly the same size, but I ain’t finished growin’ yet.”

Slim smiled. “Up or outwards? You look like you need to do both before they’ll fit.”

“Anymore of Jonesy’s stew and they wont fit you no more either,” Jess observed.

Despite the banter, both men were worried about the threat to the ranch, and they didn’t sleep well that night.

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

Banker Rowlands looked up over the rim of his spectacles at his two visitors. “Well, Mister Sherman, there isn’t anything I can do. Your next payment is due the day after tomorrow.”

“But, surely you could wait until...”

“No. I am sorry, but your father agreed to the terms of the mortgage, Mister Sherman, and I am in no position to override that contract.”

Jess stood up and turned to his companion. “Come on, Slim. Can’t you see we’re just wastin’ time here? That old goat ain’t gonna give you a fair deal.”

Slim looked slightly embarrassed at Jess’s outburst and said hastily, “You go and wait outside, Jess. I’ll handle this.”

“Suit yourself, but he ain’t aimin’ on nothing but seeing you lose the place, Slim. I’ve come across rats like him before.”

“JESS!”

“Ok, ok, I’m goin’.” Throwing one final glare at Rowlands, Jess left slamming the door behind him.

“Who IS that?” asked Rowlands.

“He’s my new hand, Jess Harper.”

Rowlands loosened his tie slightly. It was hot in the tiny office. “I hope you haven’t brought in that gunman to put pressure on me, Sherman, because it won’t work.”

“The only pressure around here is on me, Mister Rowlands. I told you you’ll have the payment, but I won’t have the cash until we can sell some of the horses. A buyer from the army is due Tuesday. Soon as I get the money, you’ll have it. I give you my word on that.”

“Look, I’m not an unreasonable man, Sherman. Friday night, that’s the limit.”

Slim stood up clutching his hat. “Friday! That’s no good! I don’t get the money till Tuesday. I just told you that!”

“Friday or we foreclose Mister Sherman.”

Slim could see any further argument was pointless and moved towards the door until the banker added, “And keep that hired gun away from me!”

Slim didn’t reply.

Back on the busy street, he saw Jess across the street perched on a hitching rail, one leg swinging idly. Seeing Slim, Jess crossed the street. One look at Slim’s face told him everything. “Didn’t want to play ball, eh?”

“Well, your little contribution didn’t exactly help! He thinks I hired you to put pressure on him to defer the payment.”

Jess chewed idly on a matchstick, thought for a moment, and smiled wickedly. “Now that ain’t a bad idea. You like me to go pay him a visit, Slim?”

Slim sighed loudly. “No. I don’t want you to pay him a visit. Aren’t I in enough trouble already?”

Jess smoothly drew his gun and lovingly stroked the barrel. “You sure, Slim? Solve a lot of problems, for you and Miz Rowlands. If there is one that is.”

“Oh yes, there certainly is a Missus Rowlands, and if anything she is even worse than he is. Now put that gun away and behave yourself.”

Jess shrugged but did as he was told. “Aw’, Slim, I could have had me some real fun.”

“I thought you wanted to be a respectable ranch hand? Settle down and all that.”

“No. That’s what you want me to do.”

“Do I?”

“Don’t you?” Jess asked all wide eyed and innocent.

Slim smiled for the first time in days. Jess could always tie him in knots.

Jess slapped him hard on the back “C’mon. I’m gonna treat you to a drink.”

“You can’t afford it. I haven’t paid you yet.”

“Well, that ain’t strictly true. I got a coupl’a dollars from Jonesy.”

“He hasn’t been paid either.”

“No. He took it from the petty cash.”

“We don’t have any petty cash.”

Jess was enjoying this. His eyes twinkled with mischief. “Well, I guess not, but next best thing.”

“What’s that?”

“Your pant’s pocket.”

“WHAT?”

“Well, he was doin’ the washin’, and these coins kinda fell out. I was getting’ a cup of coffee and saw ‘em and we got to talkin’ an'...”

“Oh, just get in there and order the drinks,” Slim said trying hard not to grin.

The saloon was not busy. In fact, nowhere in Laramie was busy midweek. Slim chose a table and sat down while Jess went to the bar and ordered two beers.

Slim gazed idly around the dim room until finally his eyes settled on Jess, who leaned on the bar waiting for Freddie to finish pouring the beers. His new found hand was almost too thin. His boots were worn, as was his shirt. Once blue, it was almost faded to a grey. He had changed back into his own black jeans, now freshly laundered by Jonesy, and they too looked as if they had seen better days. Only the gunbelt looked cared for.

The gun hung low for a fast draw. Jess turned the beers in hand and caught Slim’s stare. His face clouded for a brief second as he approached the table. Carefully placing the beers down, he stood making no attempt to sit and said softly, “Slim, I was only joshin’ when I said I would pay old Mister Rowlands a visit.”

“I know that, Jess.”

“Do you? The way you were lookin’ at me just then. Well, I’ve seen that expression before. Look, I only use this gun to keep from dyin’. Despite what you might think, I ain’t no killer.”

0 “I never thought that, but you have used that gun more than most, Jess,” Slim said looking Jess in the eye, any humour suddenly gone from their conversation.

“I guess, but I really want things to change, Slim. A man gets tired of forever movin’ on having to watch his back cuz there’s always someone out to get himself another notch.”

“Well, I think it only fair to let you know I might not be able to keep you on much longer. If I don’t pay up the installment by Friday, I lose the ranch.”

Jess’ cheek twitched as he sat down slowly and gazed into his beer.

“Slim, how much money will it take to keep the place?”

Slim smiled laconicly. “More than you’ll see in a while.”

“How much?” Jess asked again.

“Five hundred seventy.”

Jess nodded. “See what you mean.”

“I’ve paid two hundred from my savings, but the army doesn’t arrive for the horses till Tuesday. Without that payment, I can’t meet the deadline, and the bank will foreclose.”

Jess took a long drink of his beer, deep in thought.

“I’m sorry, Jess, but it seems like there’s nothin’ we can do to change things. Time’s against us.”

Jess suddenly looked up. “Yes there is!”

“What?”

“We ride out with the horses and meet up with the army half way. They get their horses without having to ride all the way here, and we get paid early. We’ll have to ride like the devil’s on our tails to get back in time, but it’s better than just givin’ up.”

Slim grinned ear to ear. “By heck, yes! Let’s do it!” He rose to his feet excited at the sudden glimmer of a possible reprieve.

“What? You wanna go now? This minute?” Jess asked weakly.

“Sure.” Slim said already moving towards the batwing doors.

“But the beer?”

He didn’t catch Slim’s parting remark.

Slim stopped off at the telegraph office to contact the army post and arranged to meet a patrol approximately half way between the post and the relay station to complete the sale and delivery of the horses.

Jess was waiting with their horses. When Slim came out, one look told Jess there was a chance to save the ranch, but they had some hard riding ahead. They pushed their horses to the limit leaving Laramie in a cloud of dust as they headed back to the ranch.

On the way they enlisted the help of the Miller brothers from the neighboring ranch with promises of help during the round-up later in the year to repay their labors.

Within a few hours, the four men were on the road leading strings of fifty head of horses.

The trail was in good condition, and they made excellent time, camping that evening only thirty miles from the arranged meeting place.

Slim bedded down with a good feeling that, with a little luck, he would be able to pay the mortgage on time and save the ranch.

He rolled over and saw Jess asleep only a few feet away, only the dark curly hair peeping from the top of the blanket.

Slim felt a wave of affection sweep through him for this man.

Only four months since they met, and within a few weeks Jess had ridden away with Slim’s angry words ringing in his ears. But Jess had returned despite all the odds and had made a real effort. His work had improved, although he still seemed the outsider, at times restless, with a temper as quick as his hair trigger. Yet despite all the problems they had getting along, some strange tie seemed to hold them together.

Slim decided he actually liked Jess, liked the wicked sense of humor, the strange morality. He even admired his skill with fist or gun, in the right situation.

There had been times late in the evenings when both men had talked like old friends. Jess never said so, but it came across to Slim that there had been real bad and lonely times in his life, and he was yearning to get away from his past, but it just was too hard to buck, so he had given up trying.

Slim mulled over the last few days. How Jess had quietly been there, steadfast in his support. It was a good feeling knowing Jess was beside him during, what was for Slim, his worst nightmare, the threat of losing the ranch.

Maybe when this was all over, they could come to a more permanent arrangement, but Jess had always said it was only a trial, and he might well move on.

That was the trouble with Jess. Slim never really knew how he stood with the restless drifter. If what Jess had told Andy was true, he hadn’t stayed anywhere long, always moving on. So would the Sherman place just be one more stopping off place in Harper’s travels? Only time would tell.

Dawn saw them back on the road. Jess and Slim leading the way with the Miller boys bringing up the rear. Now the trail began to narrow as the hills grew steeper. The horses slowed to a walk as the going got harder.

Jess turned in his saddle and yelled to Slim. He could see the army scout just ahead. Slim moved up and together they approached the Indian.

Jess hung back while Slim talked, crooning softly to the lead horses to keep them calm as they waited until Slim turned back and signaled to move on. They slowly followed the trail as it began to wind down through the tree line to a pleasant green meadow below.

Slim sighed in relief as he saw the army men waiting for them. Turning in his saddle, he handed Jess the lead rein. “Here, take ‘em down to that picket line while I sort out the money.”

“Sure.” Jess urged the horses towards the make-shift camp as Slim followed the scout to the officer’s tent which was set aside from the enlisted men’s tents.

Dismounting, Slim was met by a tall white haired officer. “Mister Sherman, Captain Maxwell. Come this way.” Slim was led inside the tent where another officer was already counting out the payment for the horses.

“We will just wait for the company vet to complete a cursory inspection. In the meantime, would you and your men like some coffee?”

Slim smiled. “That would be most welcome, Captain. Thank you.”

“I’ll arrange for the men to be accommodated. Just one moment...” The captain left and when he returned, Jess was with him.

“Everything all right, Jess?” Slim asked.

“Sure, the vet says they are in real good shape. He’ll be across in a minute to okay the payment.”

“Thank goodness for that.” Slim looked relieved.

Coffee was served and afterwards Captain Maxwell and Slim signed the contract. Then the money was handed to him in a small leather bag embossed with U.S.C. Not wanting to waste time, Slim and Jess said their goodbyes and rode out the way they had come, back towards Laramie. This time not hindered by the horse strings, they dug their heels in and once past the rocky hilltop, made good time.

Slim and Jess left the Millers at the Laramie spur after shaking hands and reiterating their promise to re-pay the help at the round-up. They came to the Cemetery road crossroads. It branched three ways. One way led to the relay station, the second towards Laramie, and the third to Medicine Bow.

Slim turned to Jess and said, “No need for both of us to go to town. I’ll go in and pay old Rowlands. You head back to the ranch. Tell Jonesy to make a real good supper. I think we both deserve it.”

Jess nodded. “You be okay?” he questioned.

“Sure, I just want to see his face when I slap this money in front of him.”

“Maybe I should come along too.”

“No. It’s ok. You get back. I won’t be long.”

“Whatever you say, Slim.” Jess urged his horse into a gallop leaving Slim smiling at the thought of seeing Rowlands disappointment when he handed over the payment on time.

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^-

Jess rode into the Sherman yard and stiffly dismounted. It had been a stressful day, and he was glad to be home. He mulled over that thought. Home. There had been times he never dreamed he would ever be using that word in relation to himself. ‘Home’ was something other people had, not him. Not for years. Too many years.

He led the horse into the barn and unsaddled him. Fetching a towel, he began to rub down his horse. As Traveler tried to nuzzle his shoulder, Jess smiled and stopped rubbing long enough to kiss the soft velvet nose.

“Take it easy, pard. You’ll be gettin’ all them mares out there jealous.” After taking care of his horse, he took his time making sure the stall was clean and comfortable and the hay rack full. Then Jess led his horse inside, gave him one final pat, closed the barn door, and made his way slowly towards the house.

Jonesy was busy in the kitchen. He looked up as Jess came in. “Well it’s about time..” Then seeing Jess was alone, he asked, ”Where’s Slim?”

Jess picked up a piece of pie, discovered it was hot, and tossed it between hands blowing on it. “He’s gone to town to pay that banker.”

Jonesy snatched the piece of pie from Jess and as it crumbled, dropped it back on the plate. “Leave that alone! That’s for after the stew.”

“Aw, stew again?”

“Yes, and don’t you go complainin’. Bet it’s a darn lot better than you got before you dropped on your feet here. Now go wash up. It’s ready.”

“I already did.”

“No. I don’t mean in the horse trough. Do it right or no supper.”

Jess grinned. ”Now, Jonesy don’t go sayin’ things like that. I just might never take a wash again.” He ducked as the towel sailed over where his head had been. Picking it up, he went across to the sink and pumped some fresh water into the bowl. He was just in the middle of scrubbing his hands when he heard the sound of a horse outside. Turning, he saw Jonesy was busy with the stew so he said, “I’ll see who’s there,” and hastily dried his hands before opening the door.

At first it looked as if he had been mistaken and no one was there, but he heard a slight noise. Backing up, Jess moved out of the well-lit doorway and drew his gun. “Stay there, Jonesy,” he ordered. Then he moved carefully back and slipped quietly outside.

Something was moving in the darkness.

Jess edged towards the sound and drew a quick breath as he recognised Slim’s horse. It had no rider and stood as if uncertain whether to run or stay. He reached for the bridle and the horse went to shy away, but Jess caught him and silently moved close. His hands explored first the saddle, then across the neck. There his fingers came back sticky. At first, he just stood there in the darkness, dumbly staring at his hand. He knew exactly what covered his fingers. It was blood even though in the poor light it looked black.

Jess pulled himself together and spun around, gun at the ready. All was silent. He scoured around but found nothing. He tied the horse to the hitching rail and went back into the kitchen once again at the water bowl. He stared down at his blood covered hand.

Jonesy stopped what he was doing and came to stand beside Jess. “What is it, boy?”

At that moment Andy walked into the small kitchen from the main room.

Jess plunged his hand into the water. “Nothin’,” Jess answered, not wanting to scare the boy.

“Not from the look of your face it ain’t,” Jonesy said.

“Slim’s horse is out front,” Jess said quietly.

“Where’s Slim?” asked Andy, suddenly aware something was amiss.

Jess turned to Andy and said “You stay here. That’s an order!”

Andy was so taken aback by the sudden, serious tone of Jess’ voice that he just sank into a chair and stayed there as Jess roughly dried his hands on his pants and pushed past Jonesy into the living room.

The older man followed. ”What in tarnation is goin’ on?”

“I think he must have been thrown.”

Jonesy pulled Jess around by his sleeve. ”Don’t give me that! Slim’s a good horseman.”

Jess grabbed a rifle from the rack and proceeded to load it. “You know as well as I do Jonesy, never a horse couldn’t be rode, never a man couldn’t be throwed.”

“That’s true. Then why the rifle?”

Jess pulled his arm from Jonesy’s grasp. “Slim was carrying a lot of money. That’s reason enough.”

“I’m comin’ with you.”

“No you stay here. Take care of Andy. Besides Slim might make it back before I do.”

“But it’s dark. You won’t be able to see anything.”

“I‘ll find him,” Jess said with conviction. “If I don’t find him by mornin’, I’ll get the law to help look.”

Jonesy nodded ‘Good luck’ and watched as Jess saddled up Traveller and rode off towards the Laramie crossroads before going back inside to try to answer the questions Andy was bound to ask.

It was a nightmare ride. Both Jess and the horse were bone tired, but Jess drove on searching along the dim brush covered edges of the road trying to find a trace of where Slim had come off.

Mort shook his head. “No, you gone and lost him? There was that pretty gal workin’..,”

Jess cut him short, ”I want to know where the banker lives.”

“Now why would you be wanting to know that at this time of night, Jess? Can’t you wait ‘til mornin’ to pay in your wages?” Mort smiled but Jess could see he was curious.

Jess bit his lip unsure just how much to tell Mort. He decided Slim wouldn’t want a hell of a fuss if all he had done was fall asleep in the saddle and fell off, but on the other hand. If something bad had happened the law would be involved sooner or later.

“Mort, Slim was due to pay off some mortgage money tonight and I just want to check he did it ok.”

Mort’s eyes opened a little wider. ”Since when has the hand checked on the boss like that? I think Slim is perfectly able to take care of business on his own, don’t you?”

Jess didn’t answer.

Mort peered into his face. ”Is anything wrong Jess?”

“No, Mort, not anything you can hang a hat on, but if I can talk with the banker I’ll feel a whole mite better.”

Mort sighed, ”Alright then, but you promise me if anything is amiss, Jess you’ll tell me first before actin’ on it. I don’t want you goin’ off half cocked.”

Jess looked as if he was having a real hard time deciding on which way to go, but finally said, ”Sure, Mort. If there’s anything you should know I’ll come tell you.”

Mort didn’t feel very confident Jess would keep his word, but he knew if Jess wanted to find the banker he would, with or without his help.

”Rowlands and his wife live in the big blue painted place at the far left of East Street.-you ever met Missus Rowlands, Jess?”

“No, why?”

“You best polish them boots, and mind your manners when you’re around her.” Somehow Mort thought Jess meeting with Missus Rowlands would be something to behold.

Jess followed Mort’s instructions and came to the banker’s house. It was the biggest house in town, almost as big as the hotel, and probably as many rooms too. Jess hammered loudly at the door. At first nothing happened so he hammered some more.

Finally a light came on and a window was raised. Mister Rowlands peered out. ”Who is it at this time of night?” he bellowed.

“Jess. Jess Harper, Mister Rowlands.”

“Who? Who is it?” Missus Rowlands appeared at her husbands shoulder.

“Oh my, it’s that hired gunman,” Rowlands said fearfully. ”Get back inside, dear quickly before he kills us both.”

Jess yelled at the top of his voice, ”Come down here, Rowlands. We need to talk.”

“Go away!” Missus Rowlands screamed before being dragged back into the room by her husband.

Jess continued to hammer on the door until at last a terrified Rowlands opened it. Jess pushed his way into the hallway.

“What do you want?” Rowlands demanded. ”My wife has gone to fetch the Sheriff. You lay one hand on me...”

Jess peered hard into the banker’s face. ”I want to know if Slim came to the bank tonight and paid you the money.”

“That’s all?” The banker suddenly looked relieved. ”Well no, he didn’t. He has until Friday I told him that.”

“Yes, real generous!” Jess moved closer. ”You tellin’ me you haven’t seen Slim?”

“No-yes...uh…no,” Rowlands stammered. ”I mean, he hasn’t paid any money. I haven’t seen him since he came in asking for more time--well you should know! You were there.”

Jess turned to leave only to be met with Missus Rowlands dragging Mort Corey towards him.

“There he is, Sheriff, you arrest him this very minute!”

Jess went to walk away, but Mort grabbed his arm. “Whoa there, Jess! You aren’t goin’ anywhere just yet.” Then, “Now, Missus Rowlands, just you tell me what I should be arrestin’ Jess for.”

Mister Rowlands stepped forward and said, “He threatened us, sheriff.”

“Oh? “ Mort glared at Jess. ”Is this true ?”

Jess shook his head. “No”

“Yes it is!” shreaked Missus Rowlands. “He near enough broke the door down! He‘s a gunman! Everyone in town knows that, Sheriff. He was brought in by that Slim Sherman to kill us.”

“Oh now, come along Missus Rowlands, you cant go around making allegations like that without proof. Now Slim just happens to be a good friend of mine, and I can’t believe you would accuse him of bringing in a hired gun. Why would he do such a thing?” Mort asked calmly.

“Because he’s about to loose his ranch, that’s why!” Rowlands said confidently.

“Over my dead body he is!” yelled Jess moving closer.

Mort got between the banker, his wife and the, by now furious Jess Harper.

“Calm down all of you or you’ll all be spending the rest of tonight in jail.” Then turning to Jess, Mort took him by the arm. ”You! Get back to the office. I want to talk to you, NOW!”

Jess could see Mort meant business and so he reluctantly turned and walked back towards main street leaving the sheriff to deal with the outraged Rowlands couple.

Twenty minutes later Mort was sitting and listening to Jess’ story. He didn’t make any comments at all until Jess had finished. Then said, ”Jess, I just want you to listen to me for one minute without goin’ off half-cocked. Here’s how most of the townsfolk see it. Rancher takes on a hand with a reputation as a gunslinger, a drifter, no one knows much about. Rancher has a lot of money on him. Only the new hired hand and a couple more respectable citizens know about it. Rancher goes missing under suspicious circumstances...a leading citizen and his wife claim they were threatened by said hired gunman. Now, who is going to be prime suspect in Slim’s disappearance?”

Jess sat up straight in the chair he had been lounging in, his dark blue eyes narrowed as he looked at Mort with something akin to rage. ”I never touched Slim.” He enunciated very clearly.

“Now that’s not entirely true, Jess. The Judge himself witnessed you punchin’ Slim a few weeks back.”

Jess sighed in frustration. ”That was on orders of Bud Carlin. I didn’t have much choice, not with Carlin’s colt pointin’ at Jonesy’s gut!”

“But the judge heard Carlin say he was givin’ you a chance to finish what you had started earlier..aint that true?”

“Kinda.”

“And he also heard you refuse at first to help Slim go after Carlin. You see, Jess, it looks bad.”

“Sure, if you are set to read it that way. You’ve got me pegged out already, aint you, Mort?”

“Well, this doesn’t help either.” Mort pulled a drawer of his desk open and tossed a wanted poster across the table.

Jess stared down at it, then he slowly looked back up at the sheriff. “I was cleared of that charge.”

“All right, prove it!”

Jess said, ”I can’t unless you can talk to Judge Portland He was presidin’ that day.”

“I’ll need more than that, Jess.”

Jess slammed a fist hard on the desk. ”Not every damn town has prim and proper law, Mort! Portland said I was innocent. That was good enough for me. Isn’t my word good enough for you?”

“That isn’t enough. Did he record anything said at your trial? Did he give you a letter? Anything? He didn’t get these posters recalled, that’s for certain.”

“How the hell do I know! I was so close to a necktie party I just rode the hell outta there, first chance I got!” Then Jess added quietly, “I’ve got a letter ‘bout another case, not that one.”

Mort walked around to stand beside Jess. ”Seems trouble and you ain’t no strangers, Jess. I ‘m sorry, son, but I have to lock you up, at least until I can verify you’re no longer wanted.”

Jess kicked the chair back as he stood up. “What about Slim?”

“I’ll get a search party organized in the mornin’. Now you step into that cell. I don’t want any trouble.”

Jess turned meekly to enter the open cell behind him. Mort relaxed and it was a mistake because he was suddenly gripped by the throat and pinned against the bars.

“Mort I ain’t got time for all this. I’m goin’ to find Slim, and not you or anyone will stop me!”

Jess was still holding the Sheriff when the doctor and a woman entered the jail. The woman screamed loudly as the doctor slowly drew his gun and pointed it at Jess.

“What’s going on here?”

Jess knew he could stay and explain. or run, but the odds were against him running, with the doctor’s gun aimed at him. Slowly he raised his hands. He had done enough running in his life. It was a mess and he needed to sort it out.

Mort struggled free and Jess slowly stepped back. Mort rubbed his neck and turned to the doctor, and the woman cringing behind him.

“What do you two want?” he asked. ”And put that gun away, it’s not needed.”

The doctor, keeping a wary eye on Jess, slowly holstered his gun.

Jess had the grace to look sheepish. ”Sorry, Mort,” he whispered.

The doctor said, “I don’t know what’s going on here, but I have Slim Sherman in my office. Missus Wilson here found him lying in the alley behind her shop as she was locking up.”

Jess’ face paled and he turned to Mort, desperation in his voice, ”Please, Mort, let me go see him.”

Mort ignored Jess’ plea and asked, ”How is he, Doc?”

“Fine, just a mild concussion. He’s awake, asked me to fetch you Mort.”

The sheriff turned to Jess, ”You get into that cell.”

Jess’ face hardened, but he didn’t argue, knowing now that Slim’s injuries were not life threatening.

Mort locked the cell door and said, “Jess, you near stepped over the line just then. I suggest you calm down a mite, while I go across to doc’s and talk with Slim. Once I‘ve sorted out what happened to him, I’ll be back to have a little chat with you. I don’t care how riled you were, no one is above the law around here, understand?”

Jess gripped the bars of his cell until the knuckles showed white. ”Yeah.”

Ten minutes later Mort was back, and not looking too happy. Jess sprang up from his bunk and stood at the cell door. ”What’s up?” Then, “Is Slim ok, Mort?”

Mort came across to stand a few feet from his prisoner. ”Slim’s alright, a mite dizzy still. Doc is keeping him over night, to be on the safe side.”

Jess visibly relaxed, but it didn’t last long. ”Did he say who did it?”

“Did what?”

“Bushwacked him.”

“Now we don’t know that for sure. Slim can’t remember seeing anyone. He only remembers waking up in Doc’s. He could have fallen or somethin’.”

Jess slammed against the bars. ”Don’t be stupid! He was carryin’ the mortage money! He didn’t fall! What you got? Beans for brains?”

Mort looked Jess in the eye, his voice low. “Harper, you sure are tryin’ my patience. Now Rowlands and his wife are convinced you’re here to cause trouble. You tryin’ to prove them right? Now until Slim is fit enough to make a statement, we don’t know exactly what happened, so I ‘m keepin’ an open mind. But if he was robbed, then it’s my job to check out anyone who might be a suspect. That includes you. Wouldn’t be the first time a hired hand robbed his boss. Don’t you leave Laramie until I can check out that poster, you hear?”

Jess looked at him in disbelief. ”You’re letting me go?”

“Only for the time bein’, but if I get the smallest hint you were involved you will be back in that cell so quick your britches will be ablaze, you understand me?”

“Sure, Mort,” Jess replied.

“Well I hope you do, because old man Rowlands is convinced you’re trouble, and after you rough-handed me I think I tend to agree with him. Get outta here.” Mort unlocked the cell and Jess walked across to the desk.

“Well, what you waitin’ for?” Mort inquired.

“My gun.”

“Oh no! You don’t get the gun ‘til this is sorted out. Count yourself damn lucky to be free at all. Now git!”

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

Jess made the doctor’s office in record time. The doctor had only returned minutes before him, and was reluctant to let him in. It was only when Jess assured him Mort Corey had taken his gun, was he finally admitted to the back room where Slim lay on the single bed, covered with a brightly colored quilt.

Jess waited a while until Slim opened his eyes and said weakly, “Jess?”

“Sure, Slim. It’s me.”

The big blond tried to sit, but moaned, clutching his head and slowly sank back down to the pillow. “Aw, whoever it was, got me real good. Took the money, too.”

Jess nodded, ”Thought so. Did you get a look at ‘em, Slim?” he asked, already knowing the answer.

“No whoever it was came at me from behind, dropped from a roof I guess. Knocked me clean off my horse. I was right near the bank too. Another minute I might have made the payment,” his voice faded, as he fought against the dizziness.

Jess decided he might check out the side streets around the bank area in the morning, just in case there were any tracks, but he didn’t hold out much hope of finding any.

“Slim, I’ll stay in town tonight and if Doc says it’s ok, I’ll get you home in the mornin’.” He rose to go, worried he had taxed Slim enough. ”You get some sleep.”

Slim rose and grabbed his arm. ”Jess! ...I guess you know I’ve lost the ranch now. I can’t pay you yet for the work you’ve done, but I promise you I will, soon as I can. Just let me know where you’ll be so I can send it on to you.”

Jess shook his hand away. ”I ain’t goin’ anywheres yet, Slim.”

As Jess closed the door behind him, Slim whispered, ”No, but it’s only a matter of time until you do.”

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

The saloon was noisy. A piano player from Cheyenne was passing through Laramie and giving the keys a right hammering. The piano had never really been in tune, despite Jonesy’s occasional attempts to put it in some sort of order. Too many drunken cowboys had shot holes in it, for any hope of it retaining it’s former glory. But no one seemed to care, as long as it was loud, and provided background sound.

The house dealer had a game going in the corner with two cow hands, who Jess knew by sight from his previous visits to town.

Milly, the resident “girl” was trying to persuade a rough looking character to buy her another drink, although Jess thought she looked as if she had had more than enough already.

Jess spotted Carl, who did occasional work for the livery .He made his way down the bar and tapped Carl on the shoulder. ”Hey, Carl. Want to earn a couple of dollars? My horse is outside, take him down to the livery and bed him down for me? I’ll be along later.”

He didn’t say he planned to sleep there himself because if he had a much-needed drink he wouldn’t be able to afford a room at the boarding house, let alone the hotel.

Carl thought long and hard about it, then grunted, ”Ok,” and moved off.

Jess turned and gave his order to Freddie, ”Whiskey.”

Freddie pulled out a glass and filled it to the brim with the house brand, distilled on the premises, it had the kick of a mule with a hangover to match. Jess swallowed it in one shot.

Without waiting, Freddie refilled the glass. ”On the house. We heard about Slim.”

“Thanks.” Jess decided to take more time drinking this one. His throat was still protesting the first.

Milly had finally given up all attempts to weedle a drink from the rough looking man, and turned her attentions to Jess.

“Hello, handsome, buy a lady a drink?”

“Sure, once I find one,” Jess answered, turning away.

“Now that ain’t nice!” she shouted, moving herself to stand in front of Jess once more.

Jess nodded, ”It surly is as bad as getting a face full of stale whisky. Go to bed Mill, and sleep it off.”

“Oh, I’ll be pleased to do that, if you’ll come, too. Come on, Jess, you know you liked it last time.”

“You were sober last time...and it was the last time.”

“Please yourself. There’s plenty more saddle bums out there with more to offer than you, Jess Harper.”

“Sure.” Jess watched her move over to the gambler’s table to try her luck there. He took another sip of the whiskey. It burned hot down his throat. Today hadn’t been one of the best. He was tired, worried for Slim, Andy and Jonesy, yet he didn’t know what he could do to help them. Usually he only had himself to worry about. This was a whole new experience. One he had encountered before, but never had it been so overwelming. Their hurt was his. If Slim lost his home, Jess knew he would be loosing his too, for that’s how he was thinking of the small ranch and relay station. He had no right to feel this way. After all he was just a hired hand when all was said and done, a drifter with nothing to offer but his labor.

At sixteen he had lost his family, home, everything, and he had survived. Andy had Slim and Jonesy to watch out for him. Things were better here than they had been in Texas all those years ago. They’d be ok. They had friends who would step in and help. This was just a temporary set back. So Slim was attached to the land settled by his father, but at the end of the day it was only land. It could be replaced. Even brought back eventually if that’s what Slim wanted.

Jess could never go back, never rebuild his past. It had gone forever, and maybe that was best. Funny how he tended to only remember the good times back then, never the beatings, the starvation, the daily battle just to survive. No, Slim would be fine. He just didn’t know it yet.

It was time for Jess to move on. He had been here too long, got too attached. He’d go in the morning. It would be better for everyone with one less mouth to feed. If he just disappeared Slim wouldn’t worry himself half to death over wages owing.

Besides what if Mort’s inquiries turned out to be bad news and he was still wanted? That the poster was still valid? Then he’d face a long time behind bars, or even swing from a gallows. He finished the whisky in one gulp.

Freddie offered him another, but he would need a clear head in the morning. He planned to leave early. Thanking the barman, he turned to leave only to see a familiar face staring at him from the doorway.

Jess took a deep breath. Mike Oldfield. There was no avoiding the man so Jess nodded a greeting and waited as Oldfield came across.

“Jess! Well fancy seein’ you here. Why the last time was in El Paso weren’t it? How ya doin?”

“Oh ok. You?”

“Fine. Here, let me get you a drink. Two here barman!”

Freddie put up two clean glasses and proceeded to pour out the drinks.

Oldfield looked Jess up and down. ”Boy you sure look right skinny. You don’t ever pad out them ribs. How many was it you broke?”

Jess took a swallow of whisky. ”Three, Youbroke three.”

“Yeah, well you was in the way Jess.”

“I was tryin’ to stop you from stealin’ my horse.”

“The damn thing broke his leg a quarter a mile further on. Waste of time for all of us.”

“Least you could have done was put the horse out of its misery.”

“Now, Jess, would I waste a good bullet on a nag? With the law a mile behind me? You never was too bright.”

“No, I reckon not,” Jess replied, ”or I’d have never let you get so close.”

“Now, now, boy, I was bein’ real friendly to a lost kid with a quick temper. I just needed your horse, that’s all. Let’s let bygones be bygones. Things have changed quite a bit since them days back in El Paso. Why you look at least a foot taller, and me, I.m a reformed man. Yes sir, real reformed, I am. No more scratchin’ around and stayin’ one step in front of the law. No siree, I am off to ‘Frisco soon as I can get.” He took a long drink. ”Say, Jess, you wanna come along for the ride? I plan to travel in style, get me a train ticket for part the journey. How about it?”

Jess shook his head. ”No thanks, Mike, I’d sooner take a rattler for company. At least you hear them ‘bout to strike.”

“Now, Jess is that a way to talk? You and me could be good together. I could let you in to my new business as a full-fledged partner. Fifty-fifty. What ya say?”

“What kind of business, Mike? Robbin’ old ladies?”

“Naw, the hire business. I hire out...stuff.” He took another big drink and then, “Hey, barman, less of this rot-gut, let’s have some of the decent stuff you keep under the counter. Snap to it.”

Freddie looked to Jess, then said, “It’s ten dollars a bottle mister. You sure you want it?”

“Sure I’m sure. Pour it out.”

Jess put a gloved hand across his glass. ”Not for me Freddie.”

Mike shrugged. “Ok Jess, but I feel like celebrating, and I don’t like doin’ it alone. Say, you stayin’ around here tonite?”

“I’m gonna sleep with my horse in the livery.”

Oldfield burst out laughing. “You surely love your horses, Jess-boy! Me, I just might ask that little filly over yonder to keep me company tonight.”

Jess looked across at Milly. ”Best of luck. You’ll need it. She’s drunker’n a skunk.”

“You say you’re sleepin’ in with your horse? No, here, take this here money and get yourself a decent hotel room Jess. Kinda make up for them ribs.”

He dug into his coat and pulled out a wad of dollar bills. He didn’t count them before giving them to Jess.

Jess’ eyes narrowed as he gazed at the cash. ”Thanks, Mike. Guess I will get a room after all.” He left Mike chatting to Milly and made his way across the street to the hotel.

No one was on the desk so he reached across and was helping himself to a key when the clerk came through from the back room.

”Can I help you?” he asked, glaring at the key in Jess’ hand.

“Yes, I’m a friend of Mike Oldfield. He has a room here. I’d like one close by.”

The clerk held out a hand for the key Jess held. ”Then you’ll need one facing the street, not the bridal suite, sir which is at the rear.”

Jess quickly handed the key back in exchange for another.

“Room three. Left at the top of the stairs. It’s next door to your friend’s. He’s in number one. There’s new sheets on the bed. We expect ‘em to stay that way.”

Jess raised a eyebrow and wondered just what the clerk thought he might do to the precious sheets. The clerk answered his unasked question, ”We expect all spurs removed before using the bed.”

Jess nodded and made his way upstairs, and let himself into his room. Like all rooms on this floor the window opened onto a small balcony that ran the length of the front of the hotel. It took but a moment to climb out of the window and across to the window of room one.

Once inside, Jess went straight to the bed and checked under the mattress. Nothing. Then under the bed itself. Nothing. He continued his search until at last, tucked behind the one and only picture he found a small leather pouch with the embossed USC. United States Cavalry. Exactly the same as the one Slim had received containing payment for the horses.

Jess tipped the pouch up on the bed and pulled out the rolls of notes. A rough count told him it was almost the full amount Slim had lost. His anger at the discovery was almost outweighed by the relief that he had found it.

“Put it down, Jess and move over against the wall.”

Jess looked up to see Oldfield holding a gun pointed right at his head. Slowly Jess did as he was told.

“Well now, Jess, Milly has been tellin’ me all about you. How you worked for Sherman. Small world, ain’t it? Here’s me and you, friends from way back, and now I go rob your boss. Guess them there’s part your wages eh?”

“We were never friends Mike.”

“Well, we certainly ain’t now are we, Jess eh? Bet you’d really like to shoot me, but you cant.” The voice was a whine. ”Cuz I hear the sheriff done gone took you’re gun. He might have done such a thing, cuz people, all them law abidin’ people out there, think you’re one real nasty son of a gun, eh, Jess-boy? Well, why don’t we just let ‘em keep on thinkin’ that way eh? What’re them nice citizens of Laramie gonna think when you disappear, eh? A drifter, a no good bit of southern trash.”

Oldfield moved closer, still holding the gun at Jess’ head. Suddenly he brought it down with a sickening thud and Jess crumpled to the floor.

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

Slim woke up to hear voices. At first he thought he was back home at the ranch, but as his vision cleared he could see shelves filled with drugs, medicines, herbs and other potions, and he remembered where he was.

He gently felt the back of his head. There were two stitches holding the jagged wound together. The voices got louder and he struggled to sit up. The room seemed to tilt alarmingly but after he rested his head between his knees for a moment, he regained his equilibrium.

The door opened and the doctor came in. “Well, Slim, how are you feeling now?”

“I’ve had better days, Doc. Thanks for patching me up.”

“No problem. Do you feel well enough to come outside, we need this room?”

Slim slowly stood and with the doctor’s help moved to the front office. Mort Corey and a couple of men were holding a body covered by a white sheet lying on a plank being used as a temporary stretcher. As Slim stood back they carried the body into the back room.

Slim turned to the doctor. ”Who’s that?” he asked.

The doc shook his head. ”Poor Rowlands. He was shot dead last night. Whoever did it stole the keys to the bank and cleaned it out. His wife is under sedation at Missus Phillip’s place. I’m going over to see her in an hour or two. Terrible business. Terrible.”

Mort came out and after thanking the men for their help, turned to Slim. ”You ok?”

Slim tried to smile but it didn’t last. ”It hurts like the devil.”

“You sure took a nasty fall there, Slim.” Mort looked a little uneasy. ”Er, can we have a talk over in my office?”

“Sure, Mort just don’t expect me to move too fast.”

The two men made their way to the sheriff’s office, and after Mort had pulled up a chair for Slim, he sat on the edge of his desk. At first said nothing, as if unsure where, or how to start. Finally he began.

“Slim, how much do you know about Jess?”

Slim raised his eyebrows and answered, ”As much as I need to, why?”

“Did you know he was wanted?”

“Sure, he told me he’d sown a few wild oats, but that he’d done the time, or been pardoned.”

Mort leaned over and opened the desk drawer pulling out the wanted poster on Jess and handing it to Slim.

“Know about this?”

“No,” Slim answered, “but I’d guess this is out of date.” A pause. “Isn’t it?”

Mort sighed, ”I don’t know yet. I sent a telegraph this morning to find out.”

Slim began to have a very uneasy feeling “Mort, what exactly are you getting at? What’s going on? Is Jess in some kinda trouble?”

“That’s what I am trying to find out. Mister Rowlands told me Jess was hired by you to put pressure on him to ease off the mortgage demands. Is that true? Did you bring Harper in for that reason?”

“Oh Mort! You know me better than that. Just because someone kills Rowlands and robs the bank doesn’t give you grounds to accuse Jess.”

“But, this does.” Mort went into the drawer once more and pulled out a blue patterned bandana. “Recognize this?”

Slim couldn’t lie. ”It looks like Jess’.”

“It was used to gag Rowlands.”

“That’s not enough to make me believe Jess was involved.”

“Then how about the fact Missus Rowlands was screaming his name before Doc sedated her. She was a witness to the murder, Slim.”

“Well, where is Jess? Ask him.”

“I’d like to but it seems he’s high-tailed it out of town.”

Slim closed his eyes. He couldn’t believe this was happening. First he looses the ranch. Now Jess.

”So what happens now?”

“I wait to see what comes back from the inquiry I made on the poster, I ask a lot of questions around town, and I look for Harper.” His eyes narrowed. ”Slim, you know it’s your duty to turn him in if he turns up at your place.”

Slim smiled ironically. ”I won’t have a place after next week Mort.”

Mort nodded. “I know. It did cross my mind Jess just might have done this to get money to help you out with the payment. He thought a lot of you.”

“He’d know I could never accept money got with a man’s life. No, I can’t believe he would do anything like this.”

“Well where is he then?” Slim shook his head. “I don’t know, but I aim to find out.” ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^ Jess came to lying on the hotel room floor. He tried to move but a boot came down, sending his face back into the rug with a sickening thud. Somewhere far away he could hear Oldfield’s voice. “I told you to stay away from me. You want to ruin everything?” A woman’s voice, “I needed to know what’s going on Mike. Sherman wasn’t part of this. What were you thinking of, attacking him?” “I was checkin’ out the layout of the bank and he just happened by. I thought he might have seen me so I jumped him. Handy I did. He was carrying a nice bonus for me.” “Wasn’t the bank money enough? We had it all planned. You got the money if you killed my husband, and I got the property. Now we have Sherman, the sheriff and Harper going to be after us.” “No we don’t. I fixed it. Harper here will be gone by mornin’, and Sherman and the Sheriff will think he did it. Attacked his boss for the money, killed the banker during the robbery, and high tailed it out Back on the drift, like always. He always rode close to the line. No one would question his goin’ over it, especially as there’s so much cash involved.” “Well, you cant leave him here. Someone is bound to notice something is going on. Get him out now. There are horses in my stable behind the house. Take the money and go. I never want to see you again.” “Oh listen to the grieving widow! My stable, eh? Ok you go and make sure the back stairs are clear.” Jess heard the door open and close. A hand gripped his belt and heaved him up to his feet. He swayed as he tried to keep upright. He couldn’t see well with the blood dripping into his eyes from where the boot had caught his forehead. “Get over there!” Oldfield ordered roughly, giving Jess a push so he staggered to the wall. Jess managed to rub his eyes with his sleeve and recover some vision. He felt sick. There was a tap on the door and Oldfield opened it just enough to see who stood outside, then he opened it fully and in came Missus Rowland. ”The back stairs are clear. Hurry!” Jess was pulled, then pushed out of the room, across the narrow landing and out through a door leading to the back stairs. These were old and narrow, seldom used, the steps often missing a plank or two. Jess tried to negotiate them as best he could, but impatient Oldfield pushed him just a little too hard and he fell, tumbling for at least half the flight to land with a crash at the bottom.

“Get up!” hissed Oldfield and Jess was dragged to his feet.

Breathing was difficult and Jess knew he had done some internal damage. In his dazed state he muttered to himself, “The bastard has busted my ribs again.”

“Shut up.”

Jess was half pulled , half dragged across the back alley towards the Rowland house. Behind the magnificent house was a private stable. Jess was steered inside where he collapsed onto a pile of hay.

Oldfield could see Jess was semi-conscious, and unlikely to pose a threat, so left him where he lay and began to saddle up two horses.

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

“Slim! Wait on up,” Mort Corey called from his office, “Here.”

Slim crossed the street and entered the small office. ”What is it Mort?”

“How you doin’? Found Jess yet?”

“Not had a chance to start yet. Jonesy came into town with Andy in tow. He wanted to know what was going on. I just told him to get back to the ranch. He took some convincin’ nothing was wrong. He smells a rat. Kept asking for Jess. I told him Jess was ok. I pray to God I‘m not wrong.”

“Well this came a few minutes ago. Might make you feel a bit better.” Mort handed over a slip of paper.

Slim read what was written and looked up, a grin on his face, ”Not wanted.”

“Well, not for that. Now we have to prove Jess isn’t involved in your bushwack, or the bank killin’.”

Slim looked worried, ”You don’t believe it was Jess, not now?”

Although he himself recalled how, after the meeting with Rowlands at the bank, Jess had offered to pay the banker a friendly visit as he stroked his gun. Slim pushed the thought away. He couldn’t believe Jess could be responsible for shooting anyone in cold blood, especially a man tied up and helpless.

“It doesn’t matter what I think, Slim. It’s what the law will think. We need to find Jess and quick.”

“Well, we aren’t doing it jawing here, Mort. Where was Jess last seen?”

“Freddie says he spent some time in the saloon. We’ll start there.”

As they began to cross the street, Carl came out of the Livery and called to them to stop.

“Hey, Sherman, when is that hand of yours gonna settle up his bill? He promised me a couple of dollars to take care of his horse.”

Slim stared at the scruffy man. “When was this?”

“Last night, in the saloon.”

“Was he with anyone?” asked Mort.

“Naw, don’t recall...might have been talkin’ to Milly.”

Slim and Mort looked at one another and went to move off towards the saloon, but ever persistent, Carl caught them up and held out his grubby hand.

Slim dug in his jeans and deposited a couple of coins in Carl’s fist. ”There you go.”

As Mort and Slim went to carry on, Carl called after them, “What about the horse?”

Slim spun around, ”What?”

“Harper’s horse. It’s in the stall and I need…” He didn’t finish because Slim was off and running towards the livery, followed by the sheriff.

Slim skidded to a halt at the doors staring in to where Jess’ horse was quietly munching oats. He turned to Mort, triumphant, ”He’s still here!”

Mort looked mystified.

“Jess would never leave Traveller behind. He’s still in Laramie.”

“Well let’s go and have a little chat to Millie.”

They found her upstairs at the hotel, “entertaining” a cowboy. Mort persuaded him it would be better to leave.

Milly recalled very little of the previous night until Mort explained she would be held as a witness in jail. She said she had spent most of the evening with Mike Oldfield. Neither Slim nor Mort knew the man.

Milly said, “Well I didn’t know him either. He seemed nice at first, thought I was on to a good thing, if you know what I mean.” She winked at Slim. ”But then he got all moody when I mentioned Jess. Seemed like he knew Jess, too, from way back. Asked what Jess was doing in town and when I said he worked for you, Slim...well, he just up and left. Not a by-your-leave ‘er nothin’. I wondered why he was so interested in Jess.”

“Do you know where he went?”

“No, Sheriff, but I think he mentioned earlier we could go back to his room at the hotel.”

Slim and Mort’s next stop was the hotel. The clerk remembered Jess asking for a room next to his friend’s, and at Mort’s insistence, took them up to Jess’ room.

It was obvious no one had spent time in the room. The bed was undisturbed, the washbowl clean, the jug still full.

Mort turned to Slim, ”Looks like a dead end.”

Slim was about to agree when something caught his eye. It was the thin calico curtain fluttering in the breeze. He turned to the hotel clerk. ”Was that window open before Jess checked in?”

The clerk shook his head. ”Certainly not! Why we would get every saddle bum between here and Medicine Bow bedding down for nothing, what with the balcony out there for them to climb on.”

Slim went and poked his head outside the window, then climbed through and carefully walked along the balcony until he reached the next room. The blind was drawn obstructing his view. The window, however, was open, and he clambered through.

The room was in dark shadow so he pulled the blind up. It revealed a room in disarray. Slim carefully looked around. A lamp was upturned and drawers were emptied, in a hurry by the way they had been pulled out and thrown onto the bed.

Mort, closely followed by the clerk, came in through the door and were met by Slim on his hands and knees.

“Slim?” Mort asked.

“It’s blood,“ Slim said as he ran a finger across a small stain on the rug. ”The question is…whose?”

“This room belongs to Mr Oldfield,” the clerk stated. ”I just hope if you catch up with him, you make sure he pays for any damages.”

“Oh, he’ll pay alright,” Slim said quietly. ”Mort, I think we should go see if Missus Rowland can tell us anything about the man who attacked her husband. Maybe now she has had time to get over the shock, she’ll be able to give us a description.” He turned to the clerk, ”What did Oldfield look like?”

“Well, he’s big, beefy, had a beard. Dark hair, but not black. More brown, going grey at the temples, but why ask me? Missus Rowland would be able to tell you better than me...she visited him when he first arrived in Laramie about a week and a half ago.”

“Are you sure?” asked Slim, suddenly beginning to see this could be important.

“Yes, because I remember thinking at the time what would a lady like her want with a man like that. Not that it’s any of my business, you understand.”

Slim looked at Mort. ”I think we need to pay Missus Rowlands a visit.”

Within minutes they were on their way to the banker’s house. Just as they turned a corner into the narrow side street, Slim heard horses moving fast, and glanced towards the sound.

He caught sight of two riders disappearing behind some trees that lined the entrance to the private stable behind the house. One rider was slumped over the horse’s neck, and there was something very familiar about that slight build, the arm hanging loose, the black-gloved hand.

“JESS!” Slim screamed, but both riders ignored his cry.

Mort and Slim had no time to run back and get horses. It looked as if there was nothing they could do. Slim ran for the banker’s stable and Mort followed.

It wasn’t a big building, but it was grand for a private residence to have its own stable. There were three stalls and two were empty. The third held a stocky little mare.

Slim rushed forward, not bothering with a saddle he grabbed a bridle and once it was on, leapt up and raced past Mort after the two riders.

Mort shouted he would follow as soon as he got himself a mount.

At first Slim thought he had lost them, but once out of town he spotted the riders heading up into the hills, heading for the rocky outcrops that would make pursuit difficult. A man up there with a rifle could hold off an army as long as his bullets held out.

Slim knew he couldn’t let them get to the rocks. He drew his gun, cursing the fact that he hadn’t gotten his saddle with its rifle in the boot.

The second rider was still slumped forward and making less time than his companion. As Slim drew closer, the first rider, who he was pretty sure was Oldfield, turned in the saddle and began shooting some warning shots.

Slim just kept going.

The rocks drew closer. Time was running out.

Suddenly the second man pitched from his horse and rolled to lie still on the rocky ground. Oldfield slithered to a halt and, leaping from his horse, ran to crouch beside the still figure.

Slim drew closer and pulled his little mare to a halt once he was close enough to see Oldfield holding a gun to Jess’ head.

Slim gazed at Jess who lay deathly still, dried blood covering his forehead and trailing rivulets down his face, looking like some Indian on the warpath wearing full paint.

“Hold it right there, Sherman! Back off! All I want is the money. Just you turn around and get back to Laramie.” He grinned wickedly, ”Tell you what, you get going and you can have the money back I took from you. That’s fair isn’t it? I hear you need it bad for a ranch or somethin’? I might even toss in a few more hundred. Just think what you can do with that. Heck, you could buy two ranches.”

“What about Jess?”

“What about him? He’s dyin’ anyway. May as well leave him here. I left his bandana at the bank, He’ll take the blame, keep the heat off us. Dead men don’t tell tales. Whatcha say, Sherman?”

Jess began to move. Weakly he looked across to Slim. “Do as he says, Slim. Take the money. Save the ranch. I’m done for. Don’t be…,” he coughed, fresh blood smeared his lips, ”please, Slim, just do it.”

Oldfield looked across to Slim. ”Well? You goin’ to do a deal, or what? I aint got all day.”

Slim slowly lowered his gun. “It’s mighty tempting...alright, it’s a deal.”

“Glad you see it my way, Sherman.” He lowered the gun that was aimed at Jess’ head.

With that, all hell exploded! Jess was on him in a instant, punching and biting, using anything he could to hold Oldfield until Slim raced across and yelled, ”Jess, get out of the way! YOU’RE IN MY WAY!”

At last there was enough of a break between the two for Slim to aim a punch and send Oldfield flying backwards off Jess, to lie unconscious.

Slim had no time for him, but went to where Jess crouched, coughing up blood and gripping his ribs.

“You ok?” Slim asked.

Jess looked up through blood stained and matted hair. He struggled to find breath. ”What do you think?” he wheezed.

Slim dug in his pocket and pulled out a clean linen handkerchief. He carefully mopped away some of the blood from Jess’ face. Gently he pushed the hair back from the jagged cut on his forehead. ”Boy! You sure are a mess, Harper,” he said. ”Wait there while I go through his saddlebags and see if there’s anything we can use to tie them ribs up ‘til we can get to the doc’s.”

He found nothing but the bank money, so he went across to Oldfield who was still out cold and proceeded to divest him of his shirt. Tearing it into strips he carefully lifted Jess and bound his chest. The remaining strips he used to tie Oldfield’s hands behind him and his feet to the stirrups of his horse.

Confident Oldfield was secure and couldn’t escape, he helped Jess to mount. It took a while and by the time they were all ready to set off for the road back to Laramie, Jess was coughing again. Slim looked across and Jess grinned, showing a neat row of bloody teeth.

Somehow Slim just knew everything was going to be all right.

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

“You know, Slim, That reward came in mighty handy,” Jess said as he sipped his lemonade and stretched out his legs showing off his brand new jeans.

“It was good of Mort to settle things so quickly so we could get the mortgage paid and get you all rigged out. Mort was sayin’ your friend Oldfield was wanted in four states...”

“Just a doggon minute, Slim! Oldfield was no friend of mine! He busted my ribs not once, but twice, you know,” Jess said indignantly. ”OWW, they hurt.”

“Serves you right.”

“How’s that?”

“Insisting on riding home instead of staying in town ‘til they where set proper.”

“I just had to Slim.”

“Why? I could have taken care of things here.“ “Milly was offerin’ to nurse me back ta health...uhhhh,” he shuddered and pulled a face.

“Jess, tell me something. What exactly went on between you and Milly that night?”

“What night?”

“You know, that night.”

Jess looked uncomfortable. “Slim, a man shouldn’t have to re-live anything so awful as that night.”

Slim crossed his arms. ”You aren’t going to tell me are you?” he accused.

Jess grinned, his face one big smile. “Nope.”

end


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