The Real Hard Part

by ajm

Saying goodbye was never one of Jess Harper’s strong suits, even though he’d been a drifter since the age of sixteen. He’d gotten used to leaving and moving on—often ending earlier chapters in his life with just a note of thanks on the kitchen table, or a handshake. Not this time.


Jess swiveled his bare feet over the edge of the bed looking at the white morning sun light shining in the Boarding House’s second floor window and reflected on the past few weeks. It was a rare occasion that an individual made an impression on him so much so that, when parting company, he felt like he was slicing out a chunk of himself and leaving it behind. Seems he’d been dealt a run of them lately-- ever since he came to Rock Springs.


First, a friend from way back, Vic Stoddard, had written a letter summoning Jess from the Sherman Ranch near Laramie, Wyoming, his home all of eight months. In response, Jess departed almost immediately, arriving in Rock Springs that evening, only to be welcomed by the obituary of the very friend he’d come to help.


Unhappy that any justice had been served, he’d sought to find the culprit who cavalierly put an end to Vic’s life. There he found another individual that changed his life; Tully Hatch, the sheriff who settled the matter. He took a cautious liking to him right off. In Hatch, Jess saw an admirable man, one who was strong in his convictions, one who knew the law and how to enforce it, and one who needed a hand.


Jess reluctantly pushed himself off the mattress, stood and stretched. The cool morning air caused him to shiver. Rubbing his hands over his arms and bare chest, he padded his way over the cold floorboards to the wash sink. Something shining on the dresser caught his eye. It was his deputy star throwing off the morning beams.


Hatch…Jess had volunteered to assist him as deputy. In so doing, he’d let his guard down and really took a shinin’ to him. Looked up to him like a father or older brother…and just like a lot of things that get put high on a pedestal, came crashin’ down on him--hard. Hatch’d made a mistake; fell for the wrong kind of woman—as if there was a right kind-- left his senses and the law he’d served for so long and threatened to leave off with all the towns people’s money. Although Hatch hadn’t robbed the bank, personally, he did get too close to the spoils—just close enough to catch paper-gold fever, and try to light off with it--forty-two thousand dollars- and a lady to spend it on. Shattered, Jess caught him, stopped him, and in self-defense, shot him dead. His funeral was two weeks ago.


Seems like it’s been ages. He thought. And yet it seemed like his ears were still ringing from his gun firing the bullet into Hatch’s chest.


The young deputy ruminated before splashing water onto his whisker-shadowed face. Hatch had lived honorably for his entire life and spent the last part as the town’s protector. Upon paying his last respects, Jess silently vowed to take the secret with him to his own grave.


Thanks to Jess Harper, the people of Rock Springs bid a hero’s farewell to Tully Hatch and would memorialize him in that light. The decision wasn’t one that would ever make him smile, but one that let him face his reflection in the mirror.


Today, another good-bye awaited Jess. As he brought the towel to his face to catch the drips of wash water he thought about the woman he’d come to know as simply ‘Ma’, the woman who owned and ran the boarding house. The same woman who brought him clean towels and wash clothes, sat across the table from him as he read the morning flier during breakfast, filled him with lemonade and biscuits, and held his arm to and from church…and for whom he was proud and pleased to carry groceries and run the occasional errand.


Although she looked after all of her boarders as ‘family’, somewhere along the line, Jess had become family. Likewise, she’d become his. Ma deserved more than a note with a key upon checking out. He’d miss her.




The lump that had formed in his throat began to swell as he treaded heavily onto the wooden steps of the porch. Ma sat with her shawl wrapped around her shoulders, in the chair closest to the screen door; her white hair catching the gilded pink hues of the strong morning sun.


She looked up and smiled naturally as she did whenever greeting the handsome dark haired young man.


“Daisies?” Her gray eyes beamed at the picture that had just walked up to her. “Why…this is the earliest time o’ day that a man’s ever come to my porch a-courtin’!’


With a clean-shaven half-grin, Jess shrugged and presented his humble bouquet. ‘Just wanted to to say ‘Thanks-you.’ Sorry. It’s all I could come up with. Wish they could be roses and box of chocolates or something fancy. I’d like to do something special for all you’ve done for me these past couple of months.“


“Lettin’ an ol’ lady like me tag around on your arm is payment enough. Besides. I’m more of the daisy type. Roses are pretty particular about where they grow. Daisies shoot up just about anywhere and when they do, they make wherever they are a might brighter! That’s pretty special if you ask me.”


“I reckon so.”


“Now, I have something for you. ‘ She disappeared into the house behind a slam of the screen door and returned, carrying a bulging satchel made of canvass and leather. Pleased with her decision, Ma handed it to him.


Hesitantly, Jess took it and began to look it over. “It’s a mighty fine bag.” He peered at the bag, examining the grain of canvass; heavy, well worn, and beautiful. His smile dropped to a look of concern. “But…Ma…I don’t know when I’ll be back to return this--.”


She hushed him with a wave of her hand. “Don’t need to return it…”


“You mean for me to keep this?”


“It’s still plenty sturdy…lots of good wear left. Shouldn’t be too heavy…you think?”


“Oh no it’s just right—I expect it’ll come in real handy. It’s just..”


“Somethin’ wrong, Boy?”


He shook his head. “Its …well it’s just about the nicest thing anyone’s ever given me.”


Her arms folded over one another as she took enjoyment in Jess’ surprised response. ‘It was my husband, Clive’s. I used to pack it full…he’d take it with him wherever he went—he’d be gone for long bouts at a time. He said it was like takin’ a little of me along.”


‘You sure you want to part with it?” Jess asked thoughtfully.


She nodded affirmatively. “Barely ever saw it home when he was livin’. Never liked it hangin’ around the house after he died. Just served as a reminder of what wasn’t comin’ home anymore.”


“I’ll take good care of it.’” His smile widened then faded a little as he caught her gaze.


The woman’s gray eyes welled for the second time since he’d met her. The first was at Hatch’s funeral. ‘I know you will.”


He moved to look in the bag.


“Don’t bother. It’s only some applesauce cookies and a canteen of lemonade.”

“Thought I smelled somethin’ bakin ‘ when I woke up this mornin’. Judgin’ from the size of the bag I might even have some to share with Andy and Jonesy when I get back to Laramie. “


“What about poor Slim? From what you tell me, he deserves something for lettin’ you set foot off the ranch.” More than a boarder, Jess had become her right hand man. She could only imagine how Slim must’ve counted on him to handle an entire ranch and relay station as well.


“I reckon he can have a crumb or two.”


“Better give him more than a crumb—I have to make peace with him for keepin’ you so long.” Her voice was weakening.


He chuckled quietly to maybe give them both a little extra measure of strength. “You didn’t need to go to all this trouble.”


“No trouble at all…not when it’s someone care about and—.” The words could no longer get beyond her throat. Her head bowed in surrender to her heavy tears. Jess felt his arms open and slide around her trembling shoulders, as she fell into his comforting embrace. After a few sobs, she sniffed together some composure and wiped at her tears. “Sorry Jess, didn’t mean for that to happen. Hoped it wouldn’t…guess I knew it would. Expected you’d be wantin’ to get back home soon enough.”


“No need to apologize, Ma.” The word ‘home’ resonated in the wrinkles of Jess’ brain a while, as he held her tight. Through squinting red eyes, she looked up at him.


“Those folks your goin’ back to---kinda like family, ain’t they?” She’d observed from the many stories he’d told her, remembering how astonished she was when he’d revealed that he’d lived there just less than a year.


“Guess you could say that.” If the truth were told they were his family, and the Sherman Ranch was fast taking the place of the call of the great wide open as his home. Something inside him couldn’t wait to see them again. He gingerly slung the strap of the canvass bag over his shoulder watching Ma struggle to hold on to her smile. “Think you could get a letter off to Laramie Relay Station now and then?”


Ma never passed up the chance to kid a little. “If I have the time…”


“Why, I thought a woman your age had all kinds of time.” Jess returned in kind with a grimace and a twinkle in his eyes that gave him away. Ma was the busiest woman he’d ever met, young or old; always mending and tending to something or somebody. Smart too, and bullet-quick with a phrase.


She took a step back. ‘You know…the sparkle in those blue eyes….could bring any diamond to jealous tears….” Her lips pursed as she swallowed against a dry throat. “I’ll miss you, Jess.”


“Ah. You’re likely to forget about me before those daisies gone.”


“Most likely. One tumbleweed’s about the same as the next…no matter how tight they wear their britches. ” She teased, her eyes brightened as, arm in arm, they made their way to his horse. “Still…it’s a shame to see you go. This town has youngsters that could learn a thing or two from a sheriff like you.’


He corrected her with a shake of his head. “Only deputy. That’s all I ever aimed to be was Deputy.”


She shrugged, not about to give up on her argument. Could be Sheriff—if you wanted it to be. Rock Springs’ Sheriff Office has some mighty big shoes to fill.” They both looked down the street at the new man wearing a silver star who threw them a morning wave before entering the town’s five-cell jail. “No doubt in my mind you could fill ‘em. “


“I’ve known Charlie Barnes for quite a spell before he came. I only worked with him a little over a week now but… I’m sure he’ll keep things in line just fine ‘til someone can come along permanent….and if I remember right, his boots are pretty good sized too.”


She looked speculatively at the twinkle of regret in his eyes as Jess stared at the lock-up building for a lingering moment. ‘Takin on as deputy …it’s done somethin’ to you, hasn’t it?’


Breaking his gaze, Jess shook his head. “What d’ya mean, Ma?”


‘You’re takin’ somethin’ with you…something you didn’t come with….ever since you came back from findin’ Hatch dead. Oh, no doubt that changes a man –but there’s more to it isn’t there? You’ve got something heavy weighin’ on your mind…like maybe a …a secret or somethin—“


A moment of decision had come. Ma deserved to know the truth about Hatch. No doubt she would understand and let the sludge settle beneath the still waters of a creek running deep. The question is would she want to know? Did she need to know? He felt a heavy sigh clear his chest. If she ever found out Jess was holdin’ out on her about the truth of Tully Hatch, the hurt would fold her over worse than an arrow in the heart.


“Ma, I better tell you somethin’—it ain’t easy to tell, and it ain’t gonna be easy to take. Only one other soul knows about it and she’s gone for good. Nobody else needs to know-- or wants to… ”


“Jess.” Ma’s warm wrinkled hand gently quieted his lips then rested against his cheek. “Did you make a promise to someone?”


He slumped at the woman’s insight. “Only to myself. Didn’t promise anybody else anything.”


Her hand dropped to his as she took it and patted it firmly. “Then, you keep it.” Her grip tightened as she added. “That’s a mighty important person you have to stay on good terms with….”


Maybe there was a ‘right kind’ of woman, after all.


No more to say now. It was time for good-bye. As she kissed his cheek, he felt a tear pressed between them. This was the real hard part.


Jess let his eyes do the talkin’ rather than a voice he couldn’t trust at the moment. Bye Ma. He returned a tender peck to her soft creased temple. A few heartbeats later, he mounted his ready horse.


“Bye, Jess. Come by some time and have that satchel filled?”


A quick remark came to him and lifted the corners of his mouth. If I have the time...”


“A fella your age…better make the time.” Ma cautioned although she was fairly certain that someday, someway the young cowboy would in deed.


“I’ll do that.” With a wink and smile, Jess tipped his hat, turned, and rode away a little sadder than when he rode in to Rock Springs---kinda felt like he was leavin’ home again. But, a little happier too--kinda felt like…he was headed home…again.

That’s It!



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