Too Late

By Badgergater

Missing scene and epilogue to The Fugitives

Jess has to tell Slim the truth about Greevy’s escape; and the answer to a couple of nagging questions

Beta by Hired Hand, whose expertise is greatly appreciated as always

(Posted Aug. 2011)

< -------------------- >< --------------------- >< -------------------- >< --------------------- >

Too late, too late, too late, too late.

The words echoed round and round in his head to the urgent drumbeat of his horse’s galloping hooves.

Too late, too late, too late, too late.

Jess Harper pushed his horse to a faster pace, but he couldn’t outrun the words.

Too late, too late, too late, too late.

< -------------------- >

Jess wasn’t worried at all about what he’d just done in Laramie.

He’d committed two serious crimes, crimes he knew he could go to jail for, but at the moment, that didn’t concern Jess at all. Yes, he’d slugged the sheriff, a man who was one of his best friends, and then he’d broken an outlaw out of the Laramie jail. He knew Mort would be okay; the sheriff would wake up with a headache, sure, but Jess had made sure his old friend was breathing. And as for that no-good, sniveling Joel Greevy, he wouldn’t be free for long; Jess would round up that worthless skunk again.

Chase him all the way to Canada or Mexico or San Francisco if he had to.

But that would be later, when his first and most important job was done.

When he’d found Slim.

Slim, who’d saved him so many times he couldn’t count.

Slim, who’d taken him in and treated him, not just like some gunslick drifter, which he’d been, or a hired hand, which he’d been, too, but like a friend and a brother.

Slim, to whom he owed every good thing in his life.

Slim, who without doubt was counting on Jess Harper to save him.

And Jess Harper was not going to let him down.

Jess tapped his horse with his spurs, and Traveler stretched out his stride and found a faster pace. They raced through the Wyoming darkness, across the sage-dotted range, toward Wind River canyon.

Jess had ridden to the canyon lots of times, but he’d never thought it was so far away, or that a horse could move so slow.

The ride seemed endless.

Reaching the canyon’s north rim at last, Jess pushed Traveler on until he came upon the spot Greevy had described, the place where the spur trail turned off. He pulled his lathered horse to a halt and listened, but there was no sound except for the wailing of the cold wind. Jess ignored the mournful sound and shouted “Slim!” but the word was snatched away by the gale. “Slim! Slim! It’s me, Jess! Slim!”

Long, long minutes passed while he searched, riding back and forth and calling out as loud as he could, but there was no answer. Jess hollered until his throat was raw and his voice had gone hoarse, but he couldn’t stop.

Wouldn’t.

It wasn’t too late. He wasn’t going to let himself think that, he wasn’t.  Slim was alive. He had to be. He was a force of nature, a big and solid and good man, and Jess tamped down the nagging little voice in his head that reminded him that good and solid men died every day.

He kept searching.

The landscape was pitch black, dark clouds scudding across the sky obscured the moon and stars. The sagebrush and bunchgrass were simply deeper shadows in the night, shadows that wavered with each gust of wind. “Slim!” Jess could hear the desperation in his own voice.

He pulled the collar of his sheepskin-lined coat tighter around his neck and shivered with the chill. “Slim! Answer me! Slim!”

The cold, Jess reminded himself, was both a curse and a blessing. It could be deadly in its own right, but it could also slow the bleeding from a gunshot wound, slow it enough to keep a man alive until he could be found and saved.

“Slim!”

Why didn’t the dang fool answer? The little voice in Jess’ head insidiously whispered that dead men didn’t talk. Jess resolutely ignored the suggestion, reminding himself that wounded and unconscious men didn’t speak, either.

“Slim!”

It was so dark he couldn’t be sure what he was seeing in the shadows, so he got down from his horse and walked through the scattered clumps of sagebrush. Finding nothing, he walked further, almost running, a feeling of dread, and of failure, growing inside of him, twisting his stomach into knots.

Just when he was beginning to wonder if Greevy had lied to him after all, that Slim was nowhere around, he spotted an odd shaped shadow, long and low to the ground. “Slim?”

Jess ran the last few strides to kneel beside the motionless body, and his reaching hand found Slim’s gloved one. It was cold but not ice cold, not the cold of death but still holding the warmth of life.

“Slim,” Jess’ voice was no longer frantic but soft now, soft and low and reassuring. “I’m here, pard. Found ya’ at last. I’m sorry it took me so long but that no good Greevy...”

He tamped down his anger as he pulled off his gloves and his fumbling fingers found the pulse at Slim’s throat, thin but most definitely there. His fingers reached further and discovered the blood soaked upper corner of the shirt that led him to the bullet wound, low in the rancher’s left shoulder.  “Hang on, pard. I’ll be right back. I gotta git the blankets.”

The cowboy ran back to his horse, pulled off the pair of thick woolen blankets he’d tied to his saddle and quickly unfolded them, wrapping them snugly around the wounded man. Slim didn’t stir, not even when Jess tried to get him to drink, nor when he used the man’s bandana as a bandage.

There was a lot of blood, an awful lot of blood.

Slim needed a doc, and fast, but the ranch, and Daisy, were closer.

And Daisy was as good as any doctor.

< ---------- >

An awake Slim, able to help, would have made Jess’ next task a good bit easier, but at the same time, Jess was grateful knowing that he wasn’t inflicting pain on his pard. Desperation lent him the strength to overcome his weariness and pick up the bigger man, hoisting the wounded rancher up over his saddle.

Jess then quickly swung up behind the saddle, keeping one hand firmly on Slim’s back to steady him and hold the blankets in place. At the same time, the gesture provided him with the reassurance that his pard was still breathing.

Jess wanted to set spurs to his horse, to race back to the ranch, to get Slim to help and warmth as fast as possible, but he knew that would be foolhardy. Minimizing the already substantial blood loss was even more important than speed, and though that fact galled him, eating away at his already razor-thin store of patience, Jess curbed his impatience and held the horses to a walk.

He spoke to his pard as they traveled, talking about nothing of importance, but Jess knew from personal experience that the sound of a familiar voice could be soothing when you were floating in that space between living and dying. It could anchor you as nothing else could.

The wind died down shortly before Jess spotted the first pale shards of sunrise to the east. The start of a new day was normally a sight that cheered him, but not today, not when it only reminded him of how many long hours Slim had gone without help.

“We’re almost there, Slim, just about home. And you know what home means, more than anyone I know,” Jess reassured. ‘’We’ll get you warm, an’ Daisy will get you patched up good as new. Just stay with me a little bit longer now, pard.”

The sun had climbed fully above the horizon by the time Jess rode into the ranch yard, surprised that a posse wasn’t already waiting there for him. But his own fate wasn’t of any concern; getting Slim inside where Daisy could fix him up was all that mattered.

He eased the big man off the horse, staggering under the dead weight of the unconscious form, carrying him into the house and with Daisy’s help easing him down on the black leather sofa near the warmth of the fireplace.

Daisy went right to work, her no-nonsense, take-charge attitude reassuring him.

Jess had never been more thankful for her presence, or her medical skills.

< ---------- >

The fact that Slim hadn’t woken worried Jess to no end. During the long ride back, the move into the house, and the shift from couch to table, Slim had shown no signs of coming around. Only when Daisy started working on him, started digging to find the bullet, then Slim hadn’t really wakened but just reacted to the pain, and Jess had been forced to fight to hold the big man still. The whole time the only sound Slim had made had been a deep sigh when she was done, as if he’d realized the worst was over. That was what Daisy insisted – that the worst was over, and Jess tried his best to believe it.

The bullet out, the bleeding stopped, once more Jess carried Slim, this time into the bedroom to the big man’s own bunk, and then let Daisy fuss with blankets and pillows on the bed while he stood and watched. Slim was pale as a ghost, silent and very, very still.

But he was breathing sure and steady, Jess reassured himself.

Satisfied at last that her patient was settled, Daisy turned around, catching the dark-haired cowboy’s pensive expression. Worry was written plain on his face, overriding even the exhaustion of a sleepless, anxiety-filled night. “Jess?”

“I don’t know if I found him in time, Daisy.” He was admitting his biggest fear to her, fear that Slim would die and it would be his fault, and the guilt of that would eat him alive.

“You did,” she reassured him gently, hiding her own worry.

He shook his head. He wanted to believe her, but… “I, Daisy I,” Jess stammered, unable to put his worries into words.

He should have realized he didn’t need to, not with her. She stepped toward him and laid her hand on his arm. “Jess, you did all that anyone could do. You found him, and you got him here alive, and you helped me get that bullet out. No one could have done more for him. He will be fine.”

 Her confidence steadied him and he raised his gaze to meet hers. “You’re sure?”

“Yes, I’m absolutely sure,” she insisted firmly. “And once it gets dark, you will ride out and find that man, that outlaw Mr. Greevy, and get him back to jail before he shoots anyone else.”

“Thanks, Daisy.” He couldn’t quite manage a smile for her, he was too weary and anxious for that, but his grim expression eased.

 “Now, why don’t you rest a bit? You haven’t slept.”

“I don’t think I can.”

“Try.”

She left him there in the bedroom, watching over Slim, as she went to the kitchen to start supper.

< ---------- >

Once Daisy closed the door, Jess sank down wearily to sit on his bed, his exhaustion palpable as he rubbed a hand across his chin, heedless of the rough stubble. It was the first moment he’d had the chance to think about the events of the past two days, and the realization of the possible consequences of what he’d done, impulsive as it had been, suddenly landed square on his shoulders like a ton of bricks.

He could go to jail for his actions, striking a lawman and breaking a prisoner out of jail. He knew that, and it wasn’t that he didn’t care, because he sure as hellfire didn’t ever want to see the inside of another prison. Saving Slim, though, that was worth whatever price he had to pay. He’d have done what he did a hundred times over, no matter the cost, and twice on Sundays, for his pard. Like he’d told Daisy, he’d be wrong all the time if that was what it took to save Slim.

To save Slim, who, soon as he was able, would be giving Jess the chewing out of his life for breaking the law.

He couldn’t wait for that to happen; whatever Slim said would be music to his ears because a Slim who was talking would be a Slim who was on the mend.

He stayed hidden in the bedroom while Daisy deflected the posse, keeping them from searching the house and finding the two men.

Now he just had to rein in his impatience until darkness fell. Jess was confident he could elude the one man left on guard out front. Bates was a good man, but Jess knew that posse work, especially out in the cold and wind, wasn’t to his liking.

Impatient at the best of times, Jess paced the room between bouts of sitting at Slim’s bedside, reassuring himself that the big man was still breathing slow and steady. Listening to the quiet sounds of Daisy working in the kitchen, humming as she fixed a meal helped soothe him, the peaceful sound countered by the heavy tread of Bates’ boots pacing back and forth across the front porch.

Too full of nervous energy to sleep, anxious to get on Greevy’s trail and get him back to jail, Jess nevertheless was not too preoccupied to notice the change when it happened.

The insistent wind, blowing raw and cold for the second day now, wasn’t easing; if anything, as darkness fell, it increased.

And more importantly, it shifted.

Swung around, not so much out of the north now, but out of the west.

Meaning Bates, on the front porch, was going to be feeling the brunt of it.

Enough so that he just might decide to find himself a bit of shelter from the gale by walking around to the east side of the house. And walking around to the east side of the house, he couldn’t help but see in the window.

And see Slim.

Even if Jess closed the shutters, they didn’t fit perfectly tight. Anyone who looked, could see in.

One look and Slim would be spotted, and there was no explaining how Slim had gotten there.

Jess looked around the room and made a quick decision. He stepped over to the bed and looked down at the big rancher. Good, he was still unconscious, though his breathing was steady and strong, much more so than when he’d arrived back at the ranch. Once more, Jess took a deep breath and picked up Slim, carrying him just the few steps to the room’s third bunk, the one against the outside wall. It had been Jonesy’s bed and now was used only on the rare occasions Andy came home to visit. Most importantly, its occupant couldn’t be seen from either of the room’s pair of windows.

Jess carefully put the big man down on the bed and then straightened slowly. “You ought’ta skip that second piece of Daisy’s pie once in a while, pard. You’re gettin’ too big for me to carry,” he suggested as he tucked the quilt around Slim. The big man shifted uneasily on the bunk, but failed to wake.

Jess sighed, checking the angle to the window.

Good.

Slim was safe from prying eyes now.

And soon it would be dark enough for Jess to leave and finish his business with Joel Greevy.

< ---------- >

Not long after, Jess rode away from the ranch. He had waited until after dark, but he should have ridden away quietly, which meant slowly, but his anxiety got the better of him. In his haste he pushed Traveler out of the yard at a rolling gallop.

Once safely on his way, he held the horse to the fast pace, following the information Mike had gotten from Adam Tolliver. Jess reckoned he was going to owe young Adam way more than the silver dollar he’d already given the boy. A twenty dollar gold piece wasn’t near enough reward for all the kid had done, Jess thought as he quickly found Greevy’s trail.  Just as young Tolliver had said, the wagon tracks were plain and they led him straight back to Wind Canyon, where Greevy and the other stage robbers were hiding out.

Greevy had laid a trap, but in the end, it was the outlaws who fell victim to it. Maybe, if he’d been less tired, less angry over what had been done to Slim, less worried over Myra maybe getting caught in the crossfire, he might have taken some of the stage robbers in alive. As it was, he’d been forced to fight for his life, and hers, with no time to place his shots.

Three outlaws were dead, and harsh as it was, Jess had no regrets.

They had chosen their own fates in robbing the stage, taking Myra against her will, and then setting an ambush for him.

He couldn’t help but feel bad for Myra, though. Seeing her brother die had been hard on her. Rough as Jess had treated her, as much blame as he’d laid on her, he still believed she didn’t deserve to be witness to her brother’s ugly end. No one should ever have to see family die – he knew that all too well.

Once he had the outlaws’ bodies loaded into the wagon and covered with the blankets from their bed rolls, Jess helped Myra up onto the seat, then climbed up beside her. He drove the wagon back toward town, neither of them saying a word as they traveled. Finally they reached the cutoff to the Sherman Ranch and he glanced over at her. She looked as exhausted as he felt, and he felt bad for asking her, but he couldn’t drive on without knowing. “I know you’re tired an’ cold, Myra, but I gotta check on Slim.”

“Of course,” she agreed without complaint, huddling on the seat beside him, her face red from the cold air.

Jess drove the rig into the yard and parked it by the barn, hopefully far enough away that Mike’s curiosity wouldn’t lead him to check out what lay under the blankets in the bed of the wagon. He helped Myra down from the seat and escorted her to the door, pleased to see there was no longer a guard. Of course, it didn’t make much sense for Bates to be standing on guard, once Jess had ridden out the night before.

Jess entered the house without bothering to knock.

Daisy, working at the table, jumped to her feet when the door opened, and then her face broke into a wide, delighted smile. “Jess!”

That smile told him all he needed to know. “Slim?”

“He’s asleep right now.”

“He’s doin’ all right?”

“He’s doing just fine. The doctor left about an hour ago; he agreed Slim will recuperate without complications.”

Jess felt a great weight lift from his shoulders. “That’s good to know.”

“Yes, it is.” Daisy looked from Jess to the sad-eyed Myra, her smile dimming. “What about Joel Greevy?”

Jess shook his head, and Daisy, understanding what that meant, started across the room to console the woman. She wrapped an arm around Myra and steered her toward the hearth. “Dear, you look frozen solid. Come on and sit here by the fire to get warm, and I’ll get you some coffee.” Turning back to Jess, she looked from him to the doorway of the bedroom, giving her permission for the dark-haired cowboy to go in.

The door stood very slightly ajar, and at Daisy’s nod, Jess headed for Slim’s bedside.

He stepped quietly into the room. Slim was still in the spare bunk, but he looked much better than he had when Jess had ridden out the night before. There was more color in his face and his breathing was reassuringly even and regular. Jess sat down on the chair Daisy had left beside the bed, and it made a scraping sound as he slumped into it. The big man scowled, shifted on the bed, and then his eyes opened lazily.

Jess smiled. “Hey, pard. How ya’ feelin’?”

“Tired.”

“You and me both.” Two sleepless, worry-filled nights didn’t begin to compare with what Slim had gone through, but Jess was worn out.

Slim’s voice was soft. “Daisy said you went after Greevy.”

“And I got him.”

“Back in jail?”

Jess looked down. “He wouldn’t surrender. He’s out in the wagon, along with the rest of the gang that robbed the stage. And the money, too.”

“Knew you’d do it.”

Jess nodded uncomfortably.

Slim, a faint smile on his face, let his heavy eyelids fall closed. “Just like I knew you’d find me.”

Jess was glad the big man couldn’t see his face, or the restless twisting of his hands. “Not nearly soon enough.”

Slim shook his head faintly, his voice drifting. “Hard to track in the dark. Even for as good a tracker as you.”

“Reckon so.” Jess stood. “You need to sleep, pard. I’ll talk to you later.” Could be a long time later, depending on how long Mort kept him in jail for aiding in the escape of a prisoner, not to mention assaulting a peace officer. “I got to get to town, get those outlaws taken care of, an’ get the money back ta’ the Overland office.”

The rancher forced sleepy eyes open. “You did good, Jess.”

The cowboy kept his eyes firmly fixed on his boots. He knew Slim would be retracting those words real fast once he found out exactly what it was Jess had actually done. “I just did what needed doin’.”

“Sure.” Even weak as he was, Slim’s tone sounded disbelieving. “And Jess, you’ll tell me the rest, later?”

“What rest?” Jess asked innocently. Obviously, Daisy hadn’t told the wounded man the whole story, and he wasn’t about to, not if he could avoid it.

The weary eyes were open once again, and fixed on Jess’ face. “All the rest, Jess. What really happened.”

Jess chuckled. There was no hiding the truth from Slim. “Yeah, yeah, I will. Once I know the whole story, I’ll fill you in. You rest easy.”

Slim raised a hand weakly and waved Jess out of the room.

Jess emerged from the bedroom to find Myra and Daisy seated at the kitchen table, sharing coffee. Daisy poured him a cup and Jess took it gratefully, the caffeine raising his flagging energy. He drained the hot liquid quickly and then stood to go.

He looked over at Myra. “We need to be getting’ to town. Reckon I’ll have some explainin’ to do.”

Daisy rose, too, worry written plain on her face. “Jess? The sheriff, what will he do?”

“Mort an’ me, we’ll work it out, Daisy,” he looked back at the bedroom door. “As long as Slim is okay, nothin’ else matters.”

< ---------- >

Jess drove the wagon into town, watching warily as he and Myra traveled down Laramie’s main street, not sure if he’d be greeted by a posse. He took it as a good sign that people didn’t flee the street nor grab for their guns as he steered the wagon to a spot in front of the sheriff’s office. He helped Myra down from the seat and then he tugged his hat down tight, stepped up onto the boardwalk, and opened the door, holding it for her and following her inside.

It was dang near as cold inside as the weather outside, not because the potbellied stove wasn’t putting out heat, which it was, but because of the icy glare Mort Corey fixed on him. Jess fought back the urge to shiver as he stepped up to the desk and set a pair of fat saddlebags on it. “There’s the money from the stage robbery, Mort. And the men who took it are out in the wagon.”

Mort stood and looked toward the street. “All of them? Including Joel Greevy?”

“Yes, including my brother, sheriff,” Myra interjected, stepping forward.

Mort nodded, but his expression didn’t soften. “Reckon you ought to bring them on in, then, Jess.”

The cowboy shook his head. “They’re goin’ down to Elbee’s.”

“The undertaker’s? All of them?”

Jess nodded, and his heart sank when he saw Mort’s face harden.

The sheriff’s voice was full of warning, “Jess Harper…”

“It was clear self-defense, sheriff, I’ll testify to that,” Myra spoke up quickly, her chin trembling and Jess was proud of her courage. “I saw it all. My brother didn’t give Jess any choice at all. Or those other men, either. Jess shot them to save me, and himself.”

Mort threw a glare at Jess, but turned back to the woman. “I’m sorry about your brother, Myra.” The lawman’s face remained stern.

“I am, too, sheriff.” She sighed and straightened her shoulders, her tone full of resignation as well as grief. “It was going to happen sometime. I knew that, I always knew that, I just didn’t want to see it.”

Mort nodded, his look over at Jess still cold. “Stage office is closed for the night, so I’d best put this in my safe in the back room.” He reached down to take the money-filled saddlebags, and ordered Jess, “You wait here until I get back, young man.”

“Yes, sir.”

Mort started for the door to the back of the jail, stopped and turned back to the cowboy. “You do know that Slim is doing fine?”

“I know,” Jess answered. “We stopped by the ranch on the way back here.”

Mort nodded and left the room.

“Will you be in trouble, Jess?” Myra asked.

“Mort’ll get over it.” I hope, he added silently.

He bid goodbye to Myra, waiting anxiously for the sheriff’s return, and then Jess turned on the roguish charm that had more than once gotten him out of a jam. It worked this time, too, and he soon had Mort laughing at, and forgiving, him.

As the sheriff watched Jess leave, he had to concede that, while Jess’ actions hadn’t exactly been within the letter of the law, they had saved an injured man’s life, rescued Myra from her outlaw brother, brought three thieves to justice, and recovered the stage company’s stolen money. The sheriff sighed. Sometimes, on the frontier, it was better to close one’s eyes to the how and just be glad that justice in the end was done.

Even when a sheriff’s dignity was as bruised as his jaw.

< ---------- >

Having cleared the air with Mort, Jess hurried out to his horse, swung aboard and started out of town at a gallop. He was in a hurry to get home, in need of a warm fire, a good night’s sleep, and a conversation with his pard.

Except, once he got home, he found himself avoiding the conversation. It was true, Slim was asleep when Jess arrived, and he didn’t want to wake the man. Tired as the dark-haired cowboy was, there were chores that needed doing before he could rest, chores that were too much for Mike and Daisy, like cutting wood, which they were going through at an alarming rate due to the cold. The weather hadn’t broken at all and was giving no sign that it was going to anytime soon, either.

There were a hundred other little things that had been left undone with Slim and Jess having both been gone. Catching up quickly ate up the rest of the afternoon and the early hours of the evening.

Slim was sound asleep again before Jess made it into the house for supper.

Finally, he checked on Slim before heading to his own bunk, asleep before his head hit the pillow.

Despite the two night’s sleep he’d missed, Jess was up and out early, once more diving into the backlog of chores. And then the afternoon stage came in, and Jess had to prep and change the teams, and before the coach was out of sight, the monthly grain delivery arrived and needed to be unloaded and stacked. Then Jess noticed one of the horses had a cut fetlock that needed doctoring and another had thrown a shoe that needed to be re-set. Before he knew it, another whole day had gone by.

The next morning, early chores done and eager for breakfast, Jess was ready to go inside and warm up when Daisy finally called him in for the morning meal. But instead of letting him sit at the table for breakfast, she handed him a plate and shooed him toward the bedroom.

“Go sit with Slim. He’s been asking for you,” Daisy ordered.

Knowing his time was up, Jess carried his food and his coffee into the bedroom, sitting on the edge of his bed with his plate on the chair.

Slim was in bed propped up by pillows, his own breakfast on a lap tray, mostly eaten.

“Looks like you’ve got your appetite back, pard,” Jess observed, steering the conversation in a nice, safe direction as he tucked into his eggs.

The big man nodded. “Some, anyway.”

“You’re lookin’ better.” Jess devoured two slices of bacon.

Slim chuckled. “Couldn’t look much worse.”

Jess could have disagreed, but didn’t. “Still cold out today.” He wolfed down two forkfuls of Daisy’s fried potatoes and another of eggs.

“Looks like it. Clear days this time of year usually are.”

“Not too cold, though. The weather didn’t slow down the stage run none yesterday,” Jess polished off the last of his eggs, picked up his plate and cup and climbed to his feet, ready to head out of the room. “Reckon they’ll be keepin’ to the schedule today so I’d better be…”

“You avoiding me, Jess?” Slim skewered the cowboy with a look that stopped the man in his tracks.

“Avoidin’ you, pard?” Jess asked, feigning innocence.

Slim wasn’t buying it. “Yes, avoiding me. As in not wanting to talk to me and answer my questions.”

“Why would I do such a thing?” Jess put on his best poker face; then again, he’d never been all that successful as a card player.

“Because you don’t want to tell me what happened with Greevy.”

“Didn’t Daisy tell you?”

Slim scowled. “No. Whatever it is you did, even SHE doesn’t want to talk about it; said you could speak for yourself. And Mike, he said you gave him a quarter not to tell me anything that happened.”

Jess bristled. “Why that little… I’m gonna….”

Slim grabbed Jess’ sleeve. “Jess!” he started warningly, waving at the cowboy to sit down again. “I want the truth. Now sit down and tell me straight.”

Jess sat. “Aww, Slim, you don’t really want to know.”

“I want to know.”

“Maybe it would be better if ya’ didn’t know….”

“I want to know. Not knowing is worse.” The more Jess protested, the more Slim knew he absolutely had to find out the truth.

 “Slim, I wouldn’t want to be responsible for a man in your condition havin’ a relapse…”

“Jess,” there was a warning note creeping into Slim’s tone.

“Dadgum, Slim….“

“No more stalling.” The rancher smiled, lightening his tone. “C’mon, Jess, it can’t be that bad. You found me, you got the money back, and you stopped the robbers. That sounds like good news, pard.”

“Slim, you don’t…”

The big man’s patience vanished, and his smile with it. “I do.” He glared at the dark-haired cowboy. “Spit it out, Jess. From the beginning.”

One look at Slim’s face told him the big man wasn’t going to take no for an answer. “Well, um, you were missing, an’ when I went lookin’ for ya’, I come upon Greevy ridin’ your horse.”

Slim nodded carefully. “He must have taken Alamo when he shot me.”

“Exactly.” Jess’ temper boiled at the recollection of Greevy claiming Slim had ambushed him. “He was ridin’ along just bold as brass,” the cowboy agreed. “I caught him an’ took him to town, put him into Mort’s custody.”

Slim looked skeptical. “You handed Greevy over to Mort?”

“Yup.” Jess couldn’t meet Slim’s eyes.

“Just handed him over, just like that, after you found him with my horse?”

Jess nodded.

“An he told you where I was?” the tall man asked, disbelieving.

Jess squirmed. “Well, uh, yeah.”

Slim was skewering him again with a razor-sharp look.

“Not ‘til later, a’course,” Jess clarified.

“Later?”

“After I went and got his sister, Myra.”

There was a bit of a pause while Slim waited for Jess to go on, but when he didn’t, Slim probed, “So Mort had  Joel Greevy in jail, suspected of bank robbery and knowin’ he stole my horse, and then Greevy just up and told you where to find me?” He summarized, amazement in his voice.

“It was sorta’ like that, Slim, yeah.”

The rancher was far from recuperated, but nevertheless his brain was working just fine, fine enough to know that there was a lot missing from the story Jess was telling, a whole lot of likely very important facts. “So how did Greevy get out of jail?”

“Busted out,” Jess answered too quickly.

Slim glared.

“Slim, maybe you should rest now,” Jess suggested quickly, “not get all worked up. I got a lot of work waitin’ on me an’….”

“No,” Slim disagreed. “I don’t need to rest. I need to know what happened, like just how was it that Greevy get out of jail, Jess?”

“With, ah, help.”

“Whose help?” Slim already had a pretty good idea.

Jess gave up trying to beat around the bush and blurted out the truth. “With, mine… Slim, I knew Greevy could tell me where to find you, and he wouldn’t, not so long as he was in that jail, and Mort got all stubborn and wouldn’t let him go…”

“No, he wouldn’t. Mort takes the law seriously,” Slim noted sternly.

“So I did what I had to do,” Jess answered defiantly.

Slim had a bad, bad feeling. “You drew your gun on Mort?”

“No.”

“Then what?” Getting Jess to tell this story was like pulling teeth, and Slim was getting tired and frustrated.

“I, ah…”

He was out of patience. “Spit it out, Jess.”

“I hit him. I didn’t mean to, not really, and mostly I just shoved him because he grabbed me…”

“Mort grabbed you?” Slim asked, incredulous.

“Right when I was getting’ Greevy to tell me…”

 “And just how was it that Greevy was suddenly going to talk?” Slim demanded suspiciously.

“Well, ah…”

“How, Jess? How were you gonna get Greevy to tell?”

“Well, Mort let me go back to talk to him. I gave Mort my gun and I wasn’t in the cell or nothin’. And Greevy was just smirkin’ and sayin’ how you were dyin’ and next thing I knew I kinda sorta lost my temper and had him in a headlock.…” Jess looked up. “And then Mort was grabbing hold of me and I sort of pushed him out of the way and he went down.”

“You hit Mort?” Slim asked, amazed.

Jess nodded.

“And you’re not in JAIL?”

“Mort’s a forgivin’ sort.”

Slim shook his head in disbelief. “I’ll say. I’m surprised he didn’t lock you up and throw away the key just on general principles. He had every right to, you know.”

“I know,” Jess answered softly, and then he couldn’t hold back any more, and his voice rose. “Look, Slim, I know it was maybe wrong…”

Slim’s eyebrows rose nearly to his hairline at the maybe.

“.. but I had to do somethin’, an’ sometimes wrong is the only choice that works.”

“Doin’ wrong is never the right choice, Jess, you know that.”

Jess jumped to his feet, eyes flashing. “Slim, I had to do what needed to be done and no one was gettin’ in my way, not Mort and not Greevy and not even you and your high and mighty conscience remindin’ me that I was doin’ the wrong thing. You don’t approve of what I did and I didn’t reckon you would. But I’d do it again cuz it’s the reason you’re here instead of down at Mister Elbee’s in a pine box.” Jess stopped, took a deep, calming breath, and then turned wordlessly and headed for the door.

“Jess!”

The cowboy paused, his hand on the doorknob.

“Jess. Stop an’ listen for a minute, would ya?”

He listened, not because it was an order, but because he heard the emotion in Slim’s weary tone. Jess stopped but he didn’t turn back toward the wounded man on the bed.

It was Slim’s turn to carefully take a deep breath, gather his thoughts and then speak softly. “I can’t say that I agree with your methods, Jess, because you know that I don’t. It’s one of the things that’s different about us. But disagreeing doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate what you did, because I do appreciate it. I’d a died out there if it hadn’t been for you.”

Slim saw some of the tension drain out of Jess’ shoulders, so he went on, his voice soft and serious. “I laid out there in the dark, alone, not knowing if I was livin’ or dyin’. But the one thing I was absolutely sure of, the one thing I knew for certain, was that I had to hang on every second that I could because you’d find me. You would never quit lookin’. An’ I can never be mad at you for that.”

Jess turned back, dark blue eyes momentarily locking onto pale blue ones, and then they nodded at each other, having said all that needed to be said.

And then Jess turned and was gone out the door, back to his chores. Slim laid back on the bed, easing his shoulder down carefully, ready now to rest and mend.

 

0..…. The End …...0

                                                                                                                                                             



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