The Fine Edge


by Holly



It had only been three weeks, maybe the longest three weeks Slim could remember. Harper had to go! Slim sat outside on the small porch mulling over how events had unfolded, not at all how he had imagined. It wasn’t that he was ungrateful for the help Jess Harper had given him, but when he had invited the drifter to stay on, he hadn’t reckoned on the effect it would have on Andy, or the rest of them for that matter.

Ever since Jess Harper had arrived in Laramie, things had been turned upside-down. For one thing, Andy had begun to talk back. It was as if the lad had found a new confidence he hadn’t had before. Always a boy willing to follow his elder brother’s lead, since Harper came, Andy now tended to question every little thing. Jonesy had noticed the change and warned Slim that Harper needed a tight rein or before long Andy would go on the drift just like his hero. Slim knew that in Andy’s eyes, Jess was a hero, with his tales of adventures, real and imaginary.

Some hero! A homeless drifter with a past, and Slim was sure there was a lot more to that past that Jess wasn’t telling. Twice in the time he’d been at the ranch, Slim had caught Harper asleep when he should have been working. Jess had just shrugged and walked off to finish the tasks he had so easily abandoned. Slim felt real anger at the easy laid back attitude of his hired hand. He couldn’t climb up into the hayloft to take a nap just whenever the mood took him!

He couldn’t sit around chewing hay and watch his horse graze when so much work needed to be done around the place. Mortgages didn’t pay themselves, but Jess just didn’t seem to live by the clock at all. If he felt sleepy, he would sleep, hungry, he would eat, much to the despair of Jonesy, who tried to make their meagre rations eek out till the end of each month.

Responsibility wasn’t in Harper’s dictionary. He had been drifting since he was sixteen, or so he had told Andy It was only a matter of time until Jess decided it was time to move on, and when that time came, who would be left to pick up the pieces? A devastated Andy wouldn’t be easy to handle. NO, if Harper stayed any longer it would only make the day his departure harder to deal with, better he go sooner than later.

Andy had never been further than the town of Laramie in his whole life, so each evening since Jess had rode in with Slim, he had sat at Jess’s feet beside the fire, asking questions about the life of adventure Jess had led. These stories were often curtailed by a glare from Slim that stopped Jess from going into too much detail.

Slim knew he could never hope to match the exciting tales, after all, how could he? Since his father’s death he had spent all his time and energy trying to keep the Sherman Ranch viable, and raising his brother as best he could, like his mother would have wanted. Only the war had given him any adventure in his life-if you could call seeing such horrors adventure. No, after that, the Sherman Ranch looked good and he would give his all to keep it out of the hands of the bank.

Jonesy had worked for his father years before, until a bad back had forced him to retire .On the devastating news of the killing of Slim’s father, Jonesy had wasted no time in coming back out to the ranch to offer his services. He was a good man and Slim valued not only his company but his council as well.

As Slim rocked back and forth, the old chair creaked and groaned as the rockers hit the worn porch planks. Yet another job to tackle in the morning. He thought how best to tell Jess Harper he was no longer welcome, ”I’m sorry....,” but was he?

Well, yes. A small part of him was. Jess had helped tackle the Carlin gang and he had made a difference with the work-load, allowing for the fact Slim had to chase him to do most of it. But there were other considerations to take into account.

A peel of laughter interrupted his thoughts. Andy shrieked with pleasure, until Jonesy’s voice rang out, ”For goodness sake Jess, put him down.” There was a loud thud and running feet.

”I’ll get you for that, Tiger,” Jess’ mellow voice was followed by a slamming door.

Far worse than telling Jess to move on would be telling Andy he was going, and why. Would the boy understand how dangerous Jess could be? How being that fast with a gun wasn’t an advantage, but a liability on a law abiding ranch, and boy, Jess was fast!

There was that time Slim had walked into the barn while Jess was busy replacing a harness rack, hammering away he hadn’t heard Slim approach until he was close. Jess had turned and drawn his gun in one smooth continual movement-slickest Slim had ever seen.

Oh, Jess had been apologetic alright. He put his gun away sheepishly, and got back to his hammering, leaving Slim counting his blessings he wasn’t lying with Harper’s bullet in him

Slim was no slouch when it came to drawing a gun, but he wasn’t a gunfighter. It was obvious from the care Jess took cleaning his rig, how important it was to him. The leather was oiled and supple, the gun wasn’t shiny and bright, but was clean as a whistle. The grip was worn, used often. It didn’t have notches, but Harper wasn’t the type to brag or need to keep record of his kills.

Jess was showing it to Andy one evening, when the boy had wanted to hold it and Jess had casually replied, ”No, Andy, better not. That there is a hair-trigger. Likely you’d shoot poor ol’ Jonesy’s hat clean off.”

Slim had looked up from where he had been doing the accounts at that, and caught the alarm in Jonesy’s eyes. A hair-trigger just confirmed to them both how deadly Jess was. No ordinary drifter who was quicker than most, but a gunman well practiced in his art.

Slim rocked some more, convincing himself of the need to be rid of Jess Harper before something bad happened.

The evening sky darkened and two hours later, Slim still sat in the worn rocker as the door opened, flooding the porch with light, before it closed again, returning the porch to shadows. Jonesy sat himself down beside the younger man. ”There’s fresh coffee indoors.”

“In a minute, Jonesy. I’m just thinkin’ things through.”

“’Bout Harper?”

“That, and other things.”

“Umm, well, if you ask me, and you’re sure to eventually, that there fella’s carryin’ a whole lot o’ troubles right along with him,” Jonesy observed sagely.

Slim nodded, ”What’s he doin’ now?”

“Andy asked him for a story.”

“ He in bed yet?”

“Yeah, just gone now. Jess’ tellin’ him the story was the only way of getting him there.”

“That’s ridiculous!” stormed Slim,”We never had this trouble getting him to bed before.”

“-before Harper came” Jonesy finished for him.

“Yeah.”

“You’re having second thoughts about that hasty invite, ain’t you, Slim?” Jonesy stated calmly as he sipped his coffee.

“Sure. Don’t tell me you think Harper bein’here is a good idea?”

“Well now, if you’re askin’ my opinion...”

“I am.”

Jonesy took a deep breath, as he gathered his thoughts. He knew Slim valued his input. “Jess is ok. It’s the baggage he’s bringin’ with him. He’s tryin’ hard to fit in, but--”

“Yeah,” Slim cut in.

Jonesy pulled a face, when the cards were down on the table it was Slim’s hand to play. He’d said his peace. There was more he’d liked to have said, but Slim was cut up enough about it all. He’d hoped Harper was the man he needed to help pull the ranch back up to its former state...and it seemed he wasn’t. It was between Slim and Jess now.

They both sat gazing out into the dark Wyoming night, wondering what the next day would bring.

Slim was up before dawn. There were horses to bring down from the upper pastures. Collecting a canteen and a hunk of bread, he began to saddle up. .Half-way through the process, he found Jess Harper walking towards him, hastily pulling on his shirt.

“Slim, you want me to come?”

“No.” Slim continued to adjust the saddle.

“Where you goin’ so early?”

“Round up the herd in the pastures.”

“Oh.” Jess stood there for a while, hesitant as Slim busied himself with getting ready to leave.

When Slim mounted, Jess reached and took the bridle, stopping him from riding off.

“Slim, is there something wrong?”

“No.”

“You seem awful short with me--”

“Look, Jess, I’m busy.”

“Yeah, I know, but...”

“Just do what you’re told, alright? Now that buckboard needs a new wheel-get to it! I’ll see you when I get back!” Turning his horse, and pulling the bridle from Jess’s hands, he rode off without a backward glance, leaving Jess to stare after him.

It was well past noon by the time Slim rode back with a string of horses in tow. “Hey, Jess! Come out here and give me a hand,” he yelled.

There was no reply, so he herded the horses into the tempory corral, and stormed towards the house, muttering under his breath

Jonesy was hanging the wash and looked up as Slim approached. Guessing at once what the problem was, he indicated the house with a nod of his head. ”No good lookin’ in there, iffen you’re looking for Jess, Slim. He’s took Andy fishin’.”

“What?”

“You heard, fishin’.”

“Where?”

“Andy just said he knew a great place.”

“Blackeye pool?”

“I guess.”

“RIGHT-that does it!” Slim turned and strode back to his horse. The pool was only a short ride, and he was there in no time at all, only to find the banks deserted.

“ANDY? JESS?” he yelled. There was no reply, just the rustle of wind in the conifers. He searched around but couldn’t find tracks-no sign at all. No one had been there for weeks, just a deer track to the waters edge..

Slim made his way back to the ranch and strode into the house. ”They back yet?” he asked Jonesy.

“Nope.”

Without another word Slim headed out to the barn. The buckboard stood, complete with new wheel. On close inspection Jess had made a fair job of it-not perfect, but then, what would a gunfighter know about repairing anything anyway?

The three o’clock stage was due in twenty minutes, so Slim gave up looking for Jess and Andy, and got on with hitching up a fresh team of horses.

Dead on time the Great Overland stage clattered into the yard. Mose was driving this run with Jeff Gates riding shotgun.

“Hiya, Slim!”

“Hi, Mose, Jeff,” Slim greeted as he moved towards the passenger door. ”Got any passengers this run?”

“Just the one.”

As the stage drew to a halt, Slim opened the door and stooped to pull the step into position, but it wasn’t needed, for a tall, scruffy looking man jumped down, nearly knocking Slim out of his way as he did so. He was tall, taller than Slim by at least three inches.

“There’s coffee inside,” Slim said in a friendly tone. The man grunted something inaudible as he strode towards the house.

Mose leaned down from his seat on the box, and, pulling a face said, ”Calls himself Maydell, a real nasty piece of work. Steer well clear, Slim. He’s been askin’ about a fella called Harper. I didn’t say nothin’ but isn’t that hand you took on called Harper or somethin’ like it?”

Slim didn’t answer, turning, he gazed after the passenger as he entered the house.

“Yes,” he finally answered, sounding distracted.

“Thought so. Well I’d be careful then, that fella don’t look too friendly to me.”

“Right. Jeff, can you take care of this for me?”

Jeff swung down from the box with the ease of long practice. ”Sure, Slim,” taking the harness from Slim, who quickly made his way to the house.

He found Jonesy pouring hot coffee into the passenger’s cup. A plate of hot biscuits lay untouched on the table.

Jonesy glanced up as Slim entered. “Coffee, Slim?”

“No thanks Jonesy, I’m fine.”

The man barely looked up as he sipped the strong, black coffee.” You know a Harper? Jess Harper?”

“Who wants to know, and why?”

The passenger slammed his cup down, splashing coffee on the clean gingham cloth. ”I asked a question,” he hissed through clenched teeth.

Slim’s mouth set in a tight line. “Yeah, so did I,” he said firmly.

The man looked up into Slim’s eyes. ”Look mister, we can do this easy or hard. Now I asked if you knew Jess Harper.”

Slim stood his ground.

The man stood, sending his chair rocking backwards.

Sensing trouble, Jonesy quickly stepped between them, ”Sure we do. He works here.”

Turning his attention to Jonesy, the stranger asked, “Where is he?”

Slim’s hand moved down nearer his holster.

“I don’t know,” Jonesy said, looking across at Slim, trying to judge what Slim might do, faced with this volatile man.

“What do you mean, you don’t know? You said he worked here, didn’t you?”

“Sure, but Jess hasn’t been around all day. I’ve no idea where he is now,” Jonesy answered truthfully.

“You the boss?” This was directed at Slim.

“Yes.”

“And you don’t know where he is?” he said, disbelieving.

“No, I don’t, but when he turns up he’s fired.”

The door suddenly flew open and Mose stood framed in the entrance. ”Everything all right Slim? We’re ready to leave, Mister.”

“Right,” the stranger answered, picking up his hat and moving to follow Mose to the stage. Slim blocked his way.

“I’ll say this just once, Mister,” Slim said firmly, ”I don’t know nor care what your business is with Jess Harper, but my young brother is with him, and if any harm comes to him ‘cause of you, I will find you and kill you-understand?”

The man smiled. ”Some brother you are-letting kinfolk hang around with the likes of Jess Harper.”

The passenger pushed roughly past Mose to go to the stage. Slim waited until he was gone and said softly, “Mose, if you see Andy with Harper anywhere on the road to Laramie, make any excuse you can to get Andy on board and take him on into town. I don’t want Andy anywhere near Jess while gunmen like that one are wanderin’ around looking for him.”

Mose nodded, ”So, Jess is that Harper, our delightful passenger is lookin’ for then?”

“Yes.”

“Well, you be mighty careful Slim. Want me to send Corey out here?”

“No, I‘ll ride in and get him if need be,” Slim replied.

They walked back to the stage, where Jeff had changed teams and was eager to get going. He tossed the weekly mail to Slim as Mose climbed on board.”Looks like all bills to me, Slim,” and with a cheery wave sent the stage into motion.

The passenger leaned out of the window and yelled to Slim, “Tell Harper...never mind I’ll tell him myself.” His words nearly lost as the stage headed down the trail in the direction of Laramie.

Jonesy came across the yard, a worried frown creasing his forehead, ”Guess we’d better find Andy real quick.”

Slim agreed, ”Yes, I’ll take the pool and work around to Hawkin’s old trail, you check the back road.”

By evening there was still no sign of Andy or Jess. Slim was seriously thinking of making the ride to town and ask Sheriff Mort Corey to organize a search, He had a nagging suspicion Jess might have left for good and either taken Andy with him, or that his brother, unknown to Jess, had followed the drifter in search of a more exciting life than the Sherman Relay stop could offer him.

Supper was a miserable affair. Jonesy had just re-heated leftovers and both men sat, meal untouched, not talking.

The front door suddenly opened and Andy came strolling in.”Save any supper Jonesy?” he asked. Both men leapt from the table and rushed to the boy who stepped back, surprised at their reaction to his entrance. “What’s the matter?” he asked.

“Where the dickens have you been?” Slim shouted louder than he meant to, feeling a mixture of relief and anger.

“What?” The boy was taken aback by the emotion in his brother’s voice.

“Don’t just stand there, like nothing’s happened,” Slim said, giving in to his anger, as control was lost.

Jonesy quietly interrupted with, ”Now, Slim, can’t you see Andy’s not understandin’ the hassle? Let me deal with this, you go make us all some fresh coffee-you could do with a drink, couldn’t you Andy? I know I could.”

Andy nodded,still looking frightened and confused. “What’s happened, Jonesy? Why is Slim so mad?”

“Well son, we’ve been lookin’ all over for you since this mornin’.”

“But I was with Jess, Jonesy, I told you.”

“Yes we know, but you said you was goin’ fishing.”

“We did.”

“But Slim went to the pool-you hadn’t been there Andy.”

“Jonesy, I didn’t say where we was goin’, did I?”

Slim walked back into the room, coffee pot in hand. ”You told Jonesy fishing and there’s only one place around here, Andy.”

“Well you’re wrong! Jess found this wonderful place up in the hills, there were fish like you’ve never seen-great big-,” he was interrupted by Slim.

“It was up to Jess to tell me he was planning to take you.”

“But Jess did,” Andy stressed.

“NO HE DID NOT!” Slim shouted, control nearly gone.

“HE DID!” Andy‘s eyes filled with tears.

With all the shouting no one noticed the door open or Jess Harper’s entrance. What’s goin’ on, Andy?“ he asked quietly.

“Tell ‘em Jess...,” Andy sobbed.

“What?” Jess asked, innocently looking from one to the other.

Slim crossed the room in two strides and threw a punch.

Jess, caught completely unawares, was thrown backwards by the impact, crashing onto the leather couch under the window. Rubbing his jaw, he slowly pulled himself up into a sitting position, gazing up at his attacker. As he wiped blood from his cut lip, he asked, ”What’d I do to deserve that?”

“Where do you want me to start?” Slim hissed. ”How about takin’ Andy off without my permission?”

Jess’s blue eyes opened wide. ”Permission?”

“You heard me! We’ve been worried sick”

“Oh, well you should be, if you can’t trust the boy to do anything without you ridin’ point. Anyone could see the boy needs some slack.”

Slim went to swing another punch, but Jess moved quick, off the couch and neatly side-stepped, having Slim’s arm in a lock behind the ranchers back in no time at all. “Now calm down and listen,” he ordered.

At that very moment a slight noise made Jess turn. Jonesy stood there with a rifle aimed at him.

“Ok, Jess, just let Slim go, real slow like.”

Jess let Slim free, allowing him to turn, glaring at Harper, fists raised.

“Now, Slim, you just behave yourself, too, ”Jonesy ordered. ”Sit down, both of you.” When they hesitated, the order came again, firmer this time, “Sit!”

Reluctantly both men sat at opposite ends of the table.

Slowly, Andy ,still tearful, went to stand behind Jess, keen to show everyone who he was backing.

“Andy, go to your room!” Slim ordered.

“No!”

Jonesy said, ”Go on, Andy, do as Slim says.”

The boy stood his ground until Jess twisted around in his chair and said, ”Best do it, Tiger.”

“Alright.” On reaching his bedroom door, Andy turned to Jess and gave a weak smile. ”I don’t care what happens, Jess,I had a great day.”

“Me too, Pard.”

Andy closed his door and Jess turned to face Slim, his lips trembled with anger. ”Ok, now let’s get down to it. What’s put that burr under your saddle? You got a problem with me, don’t take it out on Andy. Tell me what all this is about, Slim.”

“Like I said-you took Andy...”

“NO, it’s not just that, is it?” Jess cut in, ”It’s more than that, why don’t you just spit it out?”

Slim looked across to where Jonesy stood, saw the slight nod of encouragement.

“Ok, it’s not just the fact you enjoy trying to turn Andy’s head, set him against me.”

“I never-,” protested Jess.

“Let me finish! Like I said, maybe you didn’t mean to do it, but since you’ve been here, Andy has begun to…”

Jess was smiling, this wasn’t the reaction Slim expected, and it stopped him in mid sentence.

“Oh, I get it,” grinned Jess, ”Yes, I sure do...you’re jealous!”

“What?”

“You’re jealous, ‘cause Andy prefers my company to yours. That’s it, isn’t it, eh Slim? Come on- you’re the one who is always preaching about being honest, lets have a sample now. I ain’t stupid, Slim, I know what you think of me.”

Jonesy couldn’t help but think there was some truth in Jess’s words. He guessed Slim did too.

Slim did indeed seem to calm down and think for a moment before answering.

“I’m not jealous, I’m concerned. Concerned you are trying to usurp my authority here. Andy’s welfare is the most important thing in my life. I only want him to grow up a good man. You think I’m boring, this place is boring, the work is boring. Andy was content until you came along ,showing him another life. I think it’s you who’s jealous. Jealous because we have a home , a family, something to work for...what have you got? On the drift with just a gun for company. What you gonna do, Jess? Shoot me? Is that gun the answer to all your problems? Well I don’t want that for Andy. He’s worth more than that.”

“That’s enough!” Jess snapped, his voice hard. So was his expression, but the blue eyes lacked the steel they usually did, there just seemed a vulnerability there, his hand automatically hovered above his gun. ”Look, Slim, you don’t have to spell it out. You want me outta here, I don’t need tellin’ twice.”

Jonesy stepped forward, concerned at the way things were going. ”Look you both ought a sleep on this and talk it thru in the mornin’.”

“No.” Jess said firmly. ”Slim wants me out, and so do I. I’ll get my gear.” He left the room without another word.

Jonesy turned to Slim, ”Don’t you think-”

“No, lets leave it be.”

Jess didn’t take long to get his gear together. He travelled light. Without a word he went to where his horse was hitched by the barn, still saddled. While he strapped on the saddle bags, Slim came out and stood watching.

“Don't worry, Slim, I ain’t stealing anything.”

He didn’t get an answer. Swinging up into the saddle in one smooth movement, he was surprised when Slim gripped his knee.

“Wait a minute, Jess.”

Jess looked down at the man he had once thought might be a friend, ”What’s there to say, Slim? It was crazy of both of us to think it could work” He half-smiled, ”What with you all respectable, and me…,” the smile disappeared as quickly as it had come. He sighed. “Look, don’t feel bad. I would’ve probably rode out anyhow- eventually. Just tell Andy-tell him...,” the words seemed to fail him and he pulled the horse so Slim’s hand left his knee. ”Better to say nothing. Don’t want to encourage him to follow me.”

Jess spurred his horse and as he turned towards the Laramie road. Slim shouted, “Don’t flatter yourself, Harper,” but the words didn’t make him feel any better, as Jess disappeared from sight. Slim was left with a strange empty feeling.

When he walked back into the house Jonesy was waiting for him. ”Jess gone?”

Slim nodded.

“Well I think you should see this.” He handed Slim a crumpled piece of paper. ”Found it on the kitchen table, seems Jess left it for you earlier.”

Slim looked at the awkward printing, obviously penned by someone with limited schooling.

He read aloud, ”Slim, gone fishing with Andy. Back tonight, chores all done. Jess.”

Slim looked at Jonesy. ”It makes no real difference, he’d have gone eventually. Andy will be better off this way, we all will.”

=============================================================

Jess slowed his horse to a walk once he was out of sight of the relay station. He turned in the saddle, half hoping Slim would be coming up behind him, but the road was empty, as empty as he felt at that moment. He shook his head and told himself it was just a mistake to think he had found somewhere he could have settled down, at least for a few months..maybe. Had he dared to hope, longer. But it wasn’t to be, so he had just better get on with it. Put it down as another episode in his life he needed to forget.

After all, he hadn’t been planning to stay in Laramie at all. He’d only reached this part the country because his search for that cheatin’ rat had led him this way. Could’ve been anywhere, Montana maybe. Perhaps he should try there. Wyoming had seemed a good place to be, but he needed a fresh start. How many times had he thought that?

It was strange to ride into the town of Laramie, knowing this would be the last time. He had begun to think of it as almost as much a home as the Sherman place.

Jess made his way to the hotel. Hell! He needed a drink! Several maybe.

He steered his horse over to the saloon hitchin’ rail and swung down, draping the reins over the worn wood. Crossing the boardwalk, he slowly pushed open the batwing doors.

Several hours later Jess staggered out of the saloon and taking his horse, headed up the street to the livery stable. Jake took the horse thru to a stall and unsaddled it before asking Jess how long the horse needed stabling. Jess said just the one night, to which Jake remarked, “Slim want you back in the mornin’?”

Jess didn’t answer, so Jake continued, ”Iffen I was you, I’d get yourself sobered up a mite before then ‘cause Slim’s liable to be real mad at you if you turn up for work in that state.”

Before Jake knew where he was, he was pinned by the throat to the wall. Jess’s blood-shot blue eyes flashed inches from his face. ”Mind your own business!” he warned, then as quickly as he was imprisoned, Jake found himself free from the iron grasp.

Jess lurched out of the barn in the direction of the hotel. Jake breathed a sigh of relief, and made a mental note never to even speak to Harper again unless he was sober.

Mort Corey was just beginning his nightly rounds, checking locks were secure, streets clear of troublemakers, when he saw a figure stagger from the shadows. Within seconds Mort was across the street and intercepting the drunk.

“Jess!” Mort couldn’t hide his surprise at the identity of the man. To his knowledge Jess had only ventured into town twice since he’d landed the job with Sherman, and never seemed the type unable to hold his liquor. Jess looked at him through bleary eyes, but as Mort tried to steady the swaying man, Jess swung a punch. By more luck than skill it landed square on Mort’s jaw and he fell backwards to land with a thud in the dusty street. As he lay there, more stunned than hurt, Mort heard Jess muttering “leave me alone, just let me be...”

Mort got to his feet saying, “You know I cant do that Jess, you’d better come along with me son, I’ll get you a room in the hotel so you can sleep it off.”

“No.”

“Now come on, don’t make me ask twice, Jess. You need a good sleep and I’ll send you back to Slim in the mornin’, like nothin’ happened. But, if you give me trouble, I ain’t got no choice but to lock you up.”

He went to take Jess by the arm to help him but the man tugged away ”No!”

“Jess,” Mort pleaded, “don’t make me do anything official. Come on, son.”

“JUST LEAVE ME BE!” Jess shouted. ”I‘ve had enough.”

“You sure have,” Mort replied, and snapped a handcuff on a slender wrist. Jess pulled to get free and stumbled over to lay on the ground in a heap.

Mort shouted across to Fred, the saloon barkeep, who was just making his way home. ”Give me a hand here, Fred. Jess Harper has really laid one on.”

Between Mort and Fred they got Jess into the jail, where he was quickly deposited in a cell for the night. He was asleep or unconscious within minutes.

Mort thanked Fred and asked what Jess had been doing while in the saloon, looking for some clue as to why the man had got himself into such a state. Fred said Jess had just ordered a bottle and gone to a side table and quietly drank the lot, without a word to anyone. But Fred did say, “You know, Mort, when you’ve worked in the trade as long as I have, you get to know the different ways drinkers put it away. Jess was drinkin’ to blot something out. Something’s happened, or is going to happen. That fellas got a reputation as a damn quick gun and with a temper to match. I sure will be keepin’ out of his way come mornin’.”

Mort checked on Jess several times during the night, his breathing was steady and Mort had turned him onto his side with a slop bucket nearby -just in case.

The next morning Jess woke with sunshine on his face. He squinted his eyes against the glare. “Hey, Mort, let me outta here,” he yelled. A sharp pain shot thru his head, just to remind him he had drunk far too much and was going to regret it for a few hours yet.

Mort came through from the outer office carrying a tray covered with a bright towel. ”Here, Jess, get some of this down you. I’ll be back for the tray later.” The tray was pushed under the cell door. Jess lifted the corner of the towel, only to drop it immediately. ”Uhh.” The smell of bacon and beans was just too much and he made the slop bucket just in time.

Forty minutes later Mort came back to collect the tray, this time he opened the cell door and gave Jess a look of disdain, picking up the tray he walked back into the office leaving the cell door swinging open. Jess took this as a indication he was free to go, and followed Mort out.

“Where do you think you are goin’?” Mort asked.

Jess had the good grace to look sheepish. ”To get my horse.”

“Oh no you aren’t. Not yet, you’re not.”

Jess stopped mid-stride. ”What? You charging me?”

“No.”

A shadow crossed Jess’s face. ”What then? Come on, Mort, I ain’t in the mood for games.”

“And I ain’t in the mood to clean out slop buckets...so you get back in there and sort things out, or you're staying. You understand?”

Jess nodded, he had the look of a school boy about to get the cane.

Once the job was done, Jess was finally allowed to strap on his gunbelt.

“I’ll be on my way,” he said, reaching up to the peg to get his hat, which looked even more dusty that usual. He slapped it across his thigh and looked up to see Mort standing between him and the door.

“Aw, what now, Mort? You said I could go. I done what you wanted, didn’t I?”

“Yes. Tell me, Jess, does Slim know you came to town?”

“Sure.” Jess didn’t lie, but didn’t like the way this was going. He had always felt uncomfortable around the law. Mort had been friendly ever since Slim had introduced them, but Jess had wondered if that was genuine or just because the sheriff simply didn’t know everything about his past. Even he wasn’t too sure all his past misdemeanours had been wiped from the records. He had been on the drift for years and covered a lot of territory, not always in the best of company. He tried to sound nonchalant. ”Can I go now?”

“Do you think Slim would be happy to know the state you got yourself into last night?”

Now Jess was getting mad. ”Why? You plannin’ to tell him?” Jess’ voice was raised.

“Aren’t you?” Mort asked calmly.

“Didn’t know I had to report like some kid.”

“Well, Jess, no one said you were a kid, but maybe you should think about Andy. He is a kid. How’d you think he will take knowing you was sprawled all over main street last night?”

Jess took a deep breath and sighed, ”You finished preachin’ at me, Mort?”

“Jess, just take it easy next time you come to town ok?”

Jess didn’t answer.

Mort said, “Ok. You can go, Jess, just bear in mind what I said.”

Jess didn’t answer, just nodded in acknowledgement and strode off in the direction of the livery stable.

Mort stepped out of the office, some fifteen minutes later, to see Jess ride out of town, but in the opposite direction from the road to the Sherman relay station. Maybe Slim had sent him out on a errand or something so the sheriff didn’t give it much thought ,he had more pressing matters to worry about than a hired hand with a hang over.

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

The night Jess left the ranch, Jonesy went to bed at his normal time, but Slim stayed up until the early hours reflecting over all that had happened since Jess had first entered their lives. Jonesy finding the note had shaken him. He had been too quick to jump down Jess’ neck. Maybe Harper was right and he was jealous after all.

Since the end of the war, life had been a struggle, filled with responsibilities to the living and the dead. He had a deep need to try to do everything his father would have done had he still been alive and running the place. But tonight in the flickering lamplight, Slim for the first time began to think he had been wrong to live in his father’s shadow. He should be more governed by his own needs...maybe then this affair wouldn’t have happened and he would have been sitting here exchanging tall tales with Jess, or talking over the work they needed to do in the morning.

A crash of lightning broke the silence and lit the room in a quick flash of blue. The winter storms were violent at times. Slim rose up and had to stop himself from going to Jess’ room to ask for help checking the horses were secure.

Jess wasn’t there. Wouldn’t be. That would take some getting used to. He saw to the job alone.

Breakfast the next morning was eaten in silence. Far from the outburst Slim had expected from Andy, all he got were accusing glares. Finally he couldn’t stand them any longer and said, ”Andy, if you have something to say spit it out.”

Andy rose from the table and turning to Jonesy said, ”I’m going to my room. Jess said it needed cleanin'.”

Slim waited until Andy had gone and said, “He’ll get over it.”

“Think so?”

“Sure I do. He’s just kickin’ his heels a bit, that’s all.”

Jonesy nodded, ”You mean like Jess probably did at his age.”

“There’s no comparison at all, and you know it! Andy isn’t totin’ a gun. “

“You’re right, Slim, no comparison at all. Andy has a home, always has, and someone who cares what happens to him-bet Jess didn’t.”

Slim rose from the table and taking his gunbelt began to strap it on.

“Where you off to,so early? Thought you were gonna work on the books today?”

“The books can wait, I’m goin’ into town, see if I can find Jess.”

“To ask him to come back?” Jonesy couldn’t hide the hope in his voice.

“No, to pay him what’s coming-I forgot yesterday.”

“Oh.” Jonesy said. ”Look, Slim I know it ain’t for me to interfere, but I…”

“No. It isn’t.”

Slim went out slamming the door behind him.

Jonesy smiled as he watched him ride off. ‘Slim Sherman, you are as stubborn as a mule, but you certainly met your match in Jess. Maybe that’s the trouble. Well go get him boy.’

But hours later Slim returned alone.

Jonesy poured out coffee and waited until Slim was ready to talk.

“It seems Jess got pretty drunk last night. Mort put him in a cell,” Slim said, with no hint of emotion.

He sipped the hot coffee, until Jonesy, impatient to know more, said, ”He still there, in the cell?”

“Nope.”

“Well?”

Slim shrugged, ”He rode out of town this morning. Mort said he headed north on the Medicine Bow road.”

“Slim, you going to go after him?”

Slim put his cup down, and bit his lip, before turning to face his old friend. ”How can I? Do you think Jess would listen? And anyhow he could be anywhere by now. That little horse of his can really travel.”

“Jess has really gone?” Andy had come into the room, unheard until now. He ran to Slim and began to punch and kick his brother. ”It’s all your fault,” he cried. “Jess tried to be your friend.” Tears rolled down his cheeks and finally he sank into a chair, unable to keep up the one-sided fight.

Jonesy went to the boy and put a arm around his shoulders. “Easy Andy, it wasn’t all Slim’s fault. Jess didn’t exactly help himself, you know. It takes time for a man like him to settle. Some never do. Bit like a wild critter, they don’t take to bein’ penned in one place all the time.”

“But you never gave him a chance,” Andy sobbed, looking at Slim. ”He helped you and you owed him. You always said a man pays his debts.”

“Yes I know and I am sorry you feel this way but Jess just wasn’t a good influence for you Andy.”

“And you are? You asked him to stay, you did! Then you as good as throw him out, just because he didn’t measure up to your...your...,” his voice wavered with emotion. ”You treated him awful, he just wanted to be your friend, that’s all. He was my friend!”

Slim was lost for words.

Jonesy tried to comfort Andy by saying, “Maybe Jess’ll come back someday.”

“He won’t ever come home,” Andy sobbed.

It was just before the four o’clock stage eastbound that Sheriff Mort Corey rode in. Slim was over by the barn and turned at the sound of the approaching horse. ”Hi Mort.”

“Slim, we need to talk some.”

Slim put the rope he was repairing down. Mort dismounted and came across, looking serious.

As Slim went to lead the way towards the house, Mort caught his sleeve, stopping him. “I prefer it if we talk out here, Slim. No need to go upsettin’ Andy.”

“Andy has gone with Jonesy to visit the Carters. Why, what is it Mort? “

“Did you have a Gerry Maydell out here in the last few days?”

Slim thought for a moment

“You say Maydell? There was this fella on the stage heading for Laramie, he was asking for Jess Harper, but we didn’t talk much , ‘cause Jess wasn’t here. Is he the one?”

“Yeah, sounds like it. Slim, I had a telegram from Amarillo. This fella Maydell broke out of prison there. He’s looking for Jess Harper.”

“Oh, so how does he know Jess?”

Mort frowned. “Seems they were arrested along with three others for horse stealin’.”

Slim nodded. ”I knew there was more to Jess’ past than he was letting on. Didn’t think it was horse stealing though.”

“Jess pleaded not guilty, Slim.”

“So?”

Mort shrugged. ”The court didn’t believe him. He was sentenced along with the others.”

Slim looked shaken. ”He escaped? He’s on the run?”

“No, Slim, he was released. There was a pardon.”

“A pardon? What happened to the others?”

“Like I said, Maydell escaped. The other three were hung.”

Slim sighed, ”So why wasn’t Jess? Did he turn states evidence or something?”

“No Slim, Jess was fifteen years old.”

“Fifteen?”

“Yes, the story I’m getting is that Maydell got him to be a look-out for the gang. Jess didn’t actually take any of the horses, so the court released him due to his age and the circumstances.”

“What circumstances, Mort?”

There was a brief silence then Mort looked Slim straight in the eye, gauging his reaction, “Maydell wasn’t kept with the others once they were arrested, Slim.”

“ Mort! Get to it...what are you saying?”

“Maydell wasn’t kept with the others because he was mentally insane. He was sent to the State Prison Hospital. He was classed unfit to stand trial and was given no prospect of release, but he escaped two months ago.”

“And he’s looking for Jess even after all these years?” Slim said quietly. The full realization of what that might mean showing on his face.

“Yep Slim. Has Jess got back yet?”

“Back?”

“From wherever he went off to, when you two locked horns the other day.”

Slim shook his head, “No, and I doubt he will be back, Mort. We kinda both decided it was for the best he leave.”

Mort stared. ”You two seemed like you could have been real good buddies.”

“Well, we’ll never know now, will we? Jess can take care of himself...he’s long gone from this territory, Mort. Maydell will never be able to track him down.”

“He tracked him from Texas to here, Slim.”

“Yes, guess he did, but Jess can be slippery as an eel when he wants to be. He’ll be ok, Mort.”

“I hope you’re right, Slim. Does Jess know Maydell was lookin’ for him?

“No, I never got around to telling him.”

“Then I hope Jess is out of the territory. You know I kinda took a liking to him.”

Slim was worried, and cursed the way he and Jess had parted. He should have curbed his tongue and things would probably have worked out between them eventually. But there was nothing he could do now except hope, like Mort that Jess had put many miles between himself and Maydell.

Mort slapped him on the back, ”Ok, Slim, well I guess that’s all I can do. I kinda hoped Jess was still around so we could have put him in protective custody, or at least have warned him Maydell was out. Guess he’s on his own now. I’ll telegraph the local law in the area just in case he or Maydell show up. I’ll be in touch if I get any news, but I suppose you’ll just want to put all this behind you. Just keep alert in case Maydell thinks Jess is still here and comes back.”

“I’ll do that, Mort, thanks.”

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Jess had put distance between himself and Laramie. He was now well past Casper, and moving towards Sheridon. The land was less populated here, the weather turning colder the further north he went. The icy wind cut through his jacket and despite the layers of clothing, he felt as if he was riding naked.

Night was rapidly falling now and he began to look for somewhere sheltered to stop, but the land was open with little cover. He had no choice but to keep going. Pulling his hat low, he squinted his eyes against the wind and urged his horse onwards.

Finally he saw a rocky outcrop ahead, with brush growing in sparse clumps nearby. At last he could stop and rest.

The brush not only provided fuel for his campfire, but cover from the wind which was beginning to howl. Snow was in the air for sure. Jess tended his horse, and, satisfied the animal was secure and fed, he turned his attention to trying to keep the fire alight long enough to heat up some coffee. He chewed on jerky and biscuits, then wrapping himself in his blanket he tried to sleep.

The open road had been his home for so long now he was used to it, but his thoughts kept wandering back to the Sherman place. Slim was probably in his bed by now, after an evening spent poring over the ranch accounts. Jess had never been one for books or writing, never having more than a couple of years of schooling, but even he could see how precarious the financial state of the ranch was. Without the stageline franchise, Slim would be in serious trouble with the banks.

Jess regretted the way they had parted. He could understand why Slim had wanted him to leave. He hadn’t really pulled a fair share of the work, but that was because he had been exhausted when he arrived in Laramie, having travelled miles in his search to track down Pete Morgan. Every time he fell asleep, Slim seemed to find him. It was if Sherman had a alarm bell that went off each time. Boy he sure was mad! Jess had to smile at the thought of Slim hoppin’ up and down in a rage. Then there was Andy, and he remembered Case. How old had he been when the Bannisters had killed him? Maybe a couple of years older than Andy was now.

He had tried to pull Case out the window, but the flames had burnt his arm and he’d let go…if only he hadn’t let go.

Case used to follow him around, share his dreams of a life better than the Harper family had, grubbin’ for a living, working someone else’s land for the right to continue to own just enough of a share to build a shack on. Case was so like Andy...dreamin’ of a new life, but he had died with no chance to fulfil any dreams.

Jess’s eyes filled with tears that he impatiently rubbed away with the back of his hand. What the hell was he doin’ even thinking about back then?

It was history, just like Slim, Andy and Jonesy were.

He fell into exhausted sleep, only to dream of the past he tried so hard to forget.

Suddenly the past was no longer a dream.

He woke to feel a cold blade against his throat. Jess stared up into the face of the devil himself-Maydell, and Jess Harper was no longer a man, but a fifteen year old kid, scared to death.

“Why hello, Jess. I’ve been looking for you.”

“Maydell, what you want?”

“Now, Jess boy, is that any kinda welcome?” The voice gentle, then a hand snaked out and Jess was roughly pulled to his feet, the cold blade biting into his throat. ”WHY’D YOU LEAVE ME?WHY?WHY?”

The sudden change in Maydell brought a stunned Jess back to his present situation. ”Let me go and I‘ll explain.”

Maydell wasn’t in the mood , and just held on tighter. Jess was finding it hard to breathe. As suddenly as the knife had appeared at his throat, it was gone, and Maydell pushed him backward to land with a thud against his bedroll.

”Why’d you leave?” Again the question.

“I didn’t.”

“Don’t lie to me, Jess.”

I‘m not! I was took, just like you.”

“We’re goin’. Get saddled up.”

“Where?”

“Where you think? Back to Texas. We got to get the rest of the boys.”

Jess stared unbelieving. “But...”

“NO BUTS!” screamed Maydell, ”You never could take orders, Harper! We need the boys to help us with the bank.“

Jess slowly edged towards his saddle, with its rifle in the boot. “There’s no bank waiting, Maydell. No boys either. They’re dead. All dead.” Jess dived towards the rifle. He nearly made it, but Maydell was quicker, the knife raised and fell.

Jess felt the weight of Maydell’s body land on him as his fingers groped for the rifle, too late. A burning thud in his side seemed to rob him of all his energy and he collapsed like a rag doll.

It was dark and Jess cursed himself for waking too soon. Jonesy wouldn’t have started breakfast yet, he couldn’t smell bacon or coffee. It was quiet. He listened for Slim moving around but all was silence. Boy he felt giddy. Too much whisky? No, he hadn’t drank last night had he? Wasn’t that after the argument? Andy’s face was there inches from his own. No it was Case, his brother. Case was calling to him, wanting him, needing help. The flames were licking around his arm ,burning, hurting him, but he mustn’t let Case go. ‘Cause if he did...

“GET UP!” and Jess suddenly was propelled to his feet back to consciousness. Maydell gripped him by the jacket, and Jess saw blood covering the hand that held him. Maydell was wounded, now maybe he could break free. But it was his own blood on Maydell’s hand, it was seeping through his shirt, a slow but relentless ebb.

Jess looked down with bleary eyes to where Maydell’s knife had struck him, trying to think if the spot was near anything vital, but his brain didn’t seem to be working too well. He knew Maydell was talking but couldn’t seem to be able to decipher the words. The world was pitching and dipping. Jess fought to keep his balance, but he knew if Maydell let go of his jacket he was liable to fall face down again.

Snow began to flutter down, slowly coating the rocky ground in a light dusting of white. As Jess’ head lolled down he saw splashes of blood turn the snow red at his feet.

“Oh, Jess boy, you’ve hurt yourself,” Maydell said with concern. He let go off the jacket and sure enough Jess tumbled into a heap at his feet.

Kneeling down Maydell wiped his bloodstained hand on Jess’ jacket, before carefully opening the once blue shirt to inspect the injury. Frustrated by the underwear, he used the knife to rip it, exposing the jagged wound.

Leaping to his feet he moaned gripping his head and proceeded to walk aimlessly around the small clearing, muttering incoherently for several minutes. Finally he turned back to where he had left the still figure of Jess only to find he had gone.

Maydell let out a roar and rushed to where the horses were hobbled determined to hunt down the missing man.

As Maydell struggled in his haste to untie his horse with icy fingers, there was no warning as Jess charged from behind a rock and sent them both rolling into the snow. Maydell struggled to get the wild demon from his back, but Jess held on with the desperation of a man who knew this was his only chance to survive. As they struggled around in the snow, Jess’ searching fingers found a loose rock and he brought it smashing down with all his failing strength on Maydell’s head.

Nothing happened. Maydell continued to fight, finally gaining the upper hand, and it was Jess who was stretched out flat on his back as Maydell sat astride, spittle dripping from his mouth as he smiled in victory.

Jess suddenly went slack, his eyes closed. Maydell relaxed. A bad mistake.

Jess twisted under him and with a loud groan of pain managed to free an arm and bring the rock crashing once again on Maydell's skull. This time Maydell collapsed across Jess.

Struggling free from the dead weight, Jess rose and staggered to his horse. He pulled a shirt from his saddle bag and wrapped it as best as he could around his lower chest, trying to stem the now almost steady flow of blood. Satisfied he had done as best as he could, he turned back to where Maydell lay.

The man was unconscious. Jess searched thru his pockets and, taking the knife and small hide-away gun he tossed them as far as he could into the snow covered shrub. Then he picked up his bedroll and made his way slowly back to the horses. Releasing Maydell's, he struggled to mount his, and worn out by the effort let the horse pick its own way back down the trail.

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

It was nearly four days later that Mort brought Slim the telegram. “It’s from Sheriff Clark of Casper,” Mort said, handing it across. ”Didn’t know if you’d be interested Slim.”

Slim took the yellow slip and carefully unfolded it. He read the message and looked up at Mort. ”Jess is in Casper.”

“Yep.”

Slim turned and yelled, ”Jonesy ! Get some food packed up, I’m going to Casper.”

“Want me to come along?” asked Mort.

“No, Mort, I’ve got some humble pie to eat, and I’d prefer to do it with as small an audience as possible.”

“Looks like Andy might get a better surprise birthday present than that pair of boots then?”

“Who told you about the boots?”

Mort grinned, ”Well now, Slim, I’m the sheriff, it’s a crime to withhold information from me, now isn’t it?”

“I’ll sort Jonesy out when I get back.”

“Now I didn’t say it was Jonesy, did I?”

“You didn’t have to.”

The ride to Casper gave Slim plenty of time to practice just what he would say to Jess. Hitching his horse outside the Grand Hotel, he strode into the lobby. A smile crossed his face as he looked around the plain wooden decor. The name was the only thing “grand” about this place. The receptionist was a prim middle-aged woman with spectacles that perched precariously on the end of her nose. She peered up from her newspaper as Slim approached. “Yes?”

Slim took off his hat, ever the gentleman, and smiled in a friendly manner, only to let it fade at her cold expression. ”You have a Jess Harper staying here?”

“We sure do. Are you here to see him? ‘Cause if you are, I think you should be made aware this is a hotel of some considerable reputation, which we are extremely anxious to maintain. The kind of guest like Mr Harper is should really be seeking accommodation in something a little more ...down market, if you get my meaning.”

Slim glared at her. ”Which room?”

She pointed to the stairs. “Third on the left, top of the stairs, room 10.”

As Slim turned to go, she added, ”Mister Harper owes eighteen dollars.”

Slim turned back and said quietly, “Eighteen dollars? That’s a might steep. I was told he's only been here a couple of days.”

“Since Tuesday. There were…other expenses.”

Slim grinned to himself. Jess didn’t seem the type to have to pay for company, He reached in his pocket and tossed a twenty dollar bill onto the counter. ”Keep the change. Maybe you could buy yourself a smile,” he said before heading upstairs.

Room 10 stood at the end of a dim corridor with no windows. Slim tapped at the door and waited. There was no reply and so he knocked a little harder. There was a shuffling noise and finally he heard Jess’ familiar voice ask, ”Who’s there?”

“Slim,” then, “Sherman” he added needlessly.

Slowly the door opened a crack and Jess said, ”What are you doin’ here, Slim?”

“I’ve come lookin’ for you. Do we have to talk through a door?”

The door opened and Slim entered, turning to look Jess in the face, and got a shock. The suntanned skin was deathly pale. Pain was etched in the blue eyes.

Jess didn’t waste any time in moving to sit stiffly down in a chair. Slim pulled up another chair and sat opposite. ”Jess, are you ok?”

“Mm, nothin’ for you to worry about.”

“Well you don’t look too good.”

“Thanks.” Jess had a faint grin at the corner of his lips. ”You always did know how to flatter a body-a real hit with the women.”

“From the hotel bill I ‘d say it was you who’d been hittin’ the women. Was it that that’s worn you to a frazzle?”

“Eh?” Jess, clearly not understanding.

Slim explained. ”The woman on the desk said you’d run up a bill of eighteen dollars including the ‘extras’.” He winked knowingly.

Jess just continued to look blankly, then he understood just what Slim was thinking. “OH, yes. Yes I had a few extras alright. Now what are you here to see me for?“ His faced fixed with sudden concern, “Is Andy ok?”

“He’s fine, but missing you, Jess.”

Jess stood up and walked to the small window, pulled the lace curtain to one side and stared out at the street. ”I miss him. You sure rode a long way just to tell me that.”

“I wanted to say I was sorry,” Slim said flatly.

Jess turned and stared at him. ”What?” He seemed taken aback, as if that was the last thing he expected to hear.

“I was unfair to you. I didn’t give you a chance, time to settle in at the ranch. Didn’t allow for the difference in the way you had been livin’ and the way we had. I guess I was strung-up, what with the bank on my shirt tail and trying to cope with the stage lines demands to bring the place up to standard. Look, I don’t want to stand here, makin’ excuses, the bottom line is, I’m sorry and I’m here to ask you to come home with me.”

Jess sighed, ”I can’t.”

Slim sat forward, “Why not? I mean it, Jess, I am sorry.”

“I know you are, Slim. It wasn’t just you, it was me too. We got off on the wrong foot but it isn’t anything to do with you. I just can’t come back, not right now.”

Slim shook his head. ”Isn’t there any way...”

“No, Slim, I have business to sort out. But I promise, soon as it’s done, if I can I will be back If you’ll still have me.”

“Jess, are you in any kind of trouble?” Slim asked.

“Nothin’ for you to sweat about, Slim.”

“Maydell!”

Jess couldn’t hide the fear. “What?”

Slim stood up and moved nearer to Jess. ”He was looking for you, just before you left the ranch. With all the fuss I forgot to tell you.”

“He was at the ranch?” Jess looked really worried. ”He spoke to you?”

“Yes, what is he to you, Jess? Why is he after you?”

“It’s best you keep out of this, Slim. Get back to Andy and leave Maydell to me.”

“I don’t want to sound personal, Jess, but lookin’ at you at this moment, I don’t think you could handle a cup of coffee, let alone Maydell. You ARE comin’ home now, if I have to hog-tie you to the saddle.”

“You don’t understand, Slim. If I go back to the ranch, it’ll only be a matter of time until he comes lookin’...and just maybe you, Jonesy or Andy will be in his way...I can’t risk that.”

“You want to watch out there, Harper, you’re beginning to sound like you care.”

“Maybe I do.”

“Well that works both ways, mister. If you think I’m riding off and leaving you here to face that madman, you’re wrong, now pack your stuff and let’s get home.”

Jess just stood as if rooted to the spot.

“What’s the matter?” asked Slim.

“No ones ever talked like that to me before.”

“Well, get used to it. We’re goin’ to be workin’ our butts off to get that ranch the best damn place in Wyomin’.”

Jess smiled as he moved slowly, bent stiffly to drag his saddle bags from the wardrobe.

”You hurt?” Slim asked.

“A mite, nothin’ a couple of weeks won’t put right.”

“Let me see.”

“It’s ok, Slim, the extra ‘expenses’ you paid for downstairs weren’t a woman. It was for the doc’ to stitch me up.”

“I still want to see,” insisted Slim.

Jess slowly lifted his shirt and revealed a row of fine stitches. ”He did a good job, don’t you think?”

“Mm Hm, but you be careful till it’s healed over. They could easily bust open.”

“You know me Slim.”

“Yes, I’m just beginning to. That’s why I want you careful-now tell me all about Maydell.”

“Why don’t I tell him, eh, Jess?” a gruff voice answered.

Slim spun around to the door to see who had spoken, while Jess dropped his bag and reached for his gun, holstered and lying beside the bed.

“No Jess boy, don’t you go doin’ anything silly or I will have to pull this here trigger.”

Jess stopped in mid-action, his eyes on the gun in Maydell’s hand, aimed directly at Slim.

“Now both of you move to the sofa and sit.”

Slim glanced across at Jess and they exchanged a look of understanding. Here was someone so dangerous they would have to be very sure of success before making a move against him. They both sat as instructed.

Maydell moved further into the room and kicked the door shut behind him, before sitting in the chair vacated by Jess.

“So, you want to know about me?” Maydell asked Slim.

“I want to know what you want from Jess,” Slim replied.

“Oh, me and Jess here go back a long way. Way back, don’t we boy?”

Jess didn’t answer.

Maydell continued, ”He was such a pretty boy you know, that’s what I liked about him. There was this family of dirt trash, all runnin’ around barefoot and ragged-how many was there Jess? Well, it don’t matter. Too many, too many.”

Maydell seemed to go off into a world of his own but before Slim could move, he was back again, recalling the past. ”Jess had a brother called Jacob. Now he was a real bad kid, into all kinds of trouble, and Jess here used to trail around behind him sometimes, didn’t you boy?”

Jess remained silent, but his blue eyes never left Maydell's face.

“So when I rounded up a gang that included Jacob and we needed a lookout, why we had one already...little Jess. But things didn’t go to plan, DID THEY?” He screamed the last words at Jess, then continued normally. “Jess here gave us away.”

“I didn’t,” Jess said, looking at Slim, not Maydell. ”Jacob got drunk drinkin’ moonshine, and blabbed to a girl. She must’ve told the law. They were waitin’ for us.”

“And we all ended up in jail, ‘cept you,” Maydell accused.

Jess sighed, ”They aren’t in jail, Gerry, they was hung. You know that.”

Maydell lowered the gun as he gripped at his head, as if in awful pain.

Jess moved like lightening, but Slim was closer. He threw himself at Maydell, and they both ended up in a pile of flailing arms and legs on the floor.

Jess moved to where the gun had fallen, but before he could pick it up, Maydells voice stopped him, ”Don’t, iffen you want this here fella to live.”

Jess slowly moved away from the gun and looked across to where Maydell held a jagged piece of a vase, broken in the struggle, against Slim’s neck.

“Now, both of you sit back down, and behave.”

As Jess went to help Slim to his feet, Maydell took the gun and pointed it at him. ”Don’t make me kill you Jess.”

Jess slowly backed away and sat down, watching as Slim dragged himself up and joined him on the sofa.

“I don’t like it when you make me angry, Jess,” Maydell hissed. ”Now we are going to get the boys.”

“They’re dead,” insisted Jess.

“No! No ! Don’t you say that!”

“But it’s true,” Jess insisted.

“YOU’RE MAKIN’ ME ANGRY,” Maydell screamed.

Slim turned to Jess, ”Maybe you’d better go along with him, Jess. No telling what he might do if he looses it.”

“YES, Jess, you don’t want another fire do you?” Maydell asked.

Jess suddenly stiffened, ”What?”

“I had to make you pay last time, Jess.”

Jess looked stricken, but couldn’t speak, hardly able to take in what Maydell was saying.

“What is he talking about Jess?” asked Slim.

Jess looked at Maydell, ”What about the fire?”

“I had to pay you back, Jess for tellin the law 'bout us,” Maydell explained in a whiney voice.

“How?” Jess had a sinking feeling he knew.

“It took time, persuading the Bannisters...”

Maydell didn’t finish, he didn’t get the chance. Jess was on him in one leap, raining punches. Maydell tried to defend himself, but to no avail. Slim moved, grabbing Jess by the shoulders, trying to haul him off.

”Stop it, “ he shouted.

It was several minutes before Jess finally quieted down and allowed Slim to pull him away from the bloody Maydell.

“Enough, Jess, it’s over,” Slim said softly. ”You need a doc’. Them stitches have busted open.”

Jess looked down to the growing patch of red, staining his shirt.

”We’ll hand him over to the law, see the doc’, then let’s go home, ”Slim said softly.

Jess looked up and biting his lip nodded, still too emotional to speak, but the blue eyes said it all.

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------Epilogue

As it happened, Jess and Slim didn’t see home for another week. Before the doctor arrived, Jess had passed out from the blood loss. Slim had put him to bed and then dragged Maydell down the hotel stairs and across the street to the sheriff’s office. As he passed the woman at the desk, Slim shouted, “Get someone to get the doctor up to room ten. NOW!”

The flustered woman ran from behind the counter, sidestepping the bloody man in the middle of her lobby and rushed to find the doctor.

The doctor had re-stitched the gaping wound and ordered food, fluids and bedrest for at least a week. An order that, in normal circumstances, Jess would’ve ignored as soon as he was feeling better, but in this case was enforced by his new guard dog, one Slim Sherman.

Slim wired home to let Andy and Jonesy know that Jess was okay and would be coming home with him when he was well enough to travel. A day later, they received an answer back from Laramie. Slim opened the envelope and smiled, and then handed the telegram to Jess. It contained the following: They have gone fishing  stop  Come quick, or all is lost  stop  Signed,   The Relay Horses  
end






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