Twisters from Texas

( Second Season)

by  Iphigenia  Smytes  Tomes

 

                                               

PART ONE

 Bounty Hunter Wagon

 

 

Chapter 1 

 

Jess Harper was curious, and that condition was not likely to change if he didn’t turn his attention back to loading supplies into the back of Slim Sherman’s buckboard where it sat outside Benson’s general store in the territorial town of Laramie.   After thumping the second sack of flour down onto the first one resting among the ranch’s other needed provisions, he stepped back up onto the boardwalk outside the store.  In the early morning spring sun, he tipped back his wide-brimmed black hat to take a long look over at a small canvas-covered wagon parked only a few yards away.   Both the faded green paint and dirty canvas of the wagon as well as the tired looking pair of mules hooked up to it,  were wearing the road dust of a fair amount of travel; and he curiously wondered where their journey had started from, and if Laramie was its final stop.  

 

He stood there long enough for his curiosity to finally pull him unresistingly to the wagon for a closer view.  Jess wasn’t sure what he had expected to see when peering into the back of its bed, but he certainly wasn’t anticipating seeing amid stacks of blankets, a number of iron chains with locking cuffs attached at each end.   It appeared to him to be enough lying in a heap on the wagon’s bed, to safely chain up a sizable gang of outlaws.  Almost immediately, the skin on his wrists began to itch, recalling past experiences with metal cuffs and how they could rub skin raw in a short amount of time.     

 

Eyes glancing over at the rest of the wagon’s bed, he saw next to the blankets several ropes and a pair of lanterns.  It seemed to him to be a pretty strange collection for someone traveling any distance.  The driver, he knew was still in the general store, stacking canned goods, sacks of dried beans and flour for purchase, all on the wide wooden counter in front of Jock Benson, the store’s young owner. 

 

Making his way back to pick up the remaining supplies for the ranch Slim had sent him to town to fetch; Jess spotted the driver at the store’s counter, a tall dark-skinned and powerfully-built man with a harsh look about him.  And he carried the envy of any man in Wyoming territory, the latest model Winchester, and it was a carbine, the shorter barreled version.    While Jock was still tallying Slim Sherman’s list of supplies for Jess, the stranger began asking questions.  To Jess, the words were friendly enough; richly deep in sound, but the tenor was not; it seemed to hold an underlying tone of menace. 

 

Pretending interest in one of the new rolls of Manila rope on the other side of the store, as if to judge a length needed for purchase, Jess listened to the talk between the store keeper and the stranger.  Soon he felt his curiosity running to serious concern when the stranger inquired about anyone new moving into Laramie in the last few months, in particular two women, possibly from Cheyenne or Denver City.    When Jock told the man the only new women in the area were the ones that had purchased Dan Baxter’s place west of town, Jess moved in a little closer, barely able to conceal his eavesdropping.  He was seriously hoping to learn something about Sherman ranch’s newest neighbors, and why someone who smelled like a bounty hunter, might be looking for them. 

 

*****

 

Meanwhile, moving along the rocky southwestern border of the Sherman Ranch where it partially bordered upon Roy Hallorin’s land, Slim Sherman, ranch owner and employer of Jess Harper, was riding fence to assess winter damage.   Despite the fact that the days had grown longer and spring rains would soon be expected, unseasonably cool temperatures still willingly supported patches of snow amid tree clusters and thickets, as well as deep in the shaded areas around the banks of snow fed streams.  

 

Winter had come down hard on Wyoming, judged Slim, long and harsh, taking its toll not only on fencing and unsheltered cattle, but the people who took care of them.  Old Mose, long time stage driver for the Great Central and Overland Mail Stage company, complained of the winter of ‘73 as the second worst winter he had seen.   When asked what winter could possibly have been worse than this last one, he would shake his gray-haired head and say, it was the one he hadn’t seen yet.   

 

Despite the Sherman ranch’s location only twelve miles outside Laramie, Slim was sure if it had not been for the relay station contract with the stage line to supply team changes, he would not have seen anyone during the isolation of winter; except for Jess, who was currently in town picking up supplies.   As Slim urged his horse up along the fence line, he thought it difficult to consider Jess Harper as anything other than a big part of running the Sherman ranch, instead of as a drifter with a violent gun-fighting past.

 

In fact as Slim recalled, their first meeting nearly two years ago had gone badly.  Jess was adventure on the drift, captivating the hero worshipping friendship of Slim’s young brother, Andy Sherman, almost immediately after the boy first watched Jess step into their corral to calm a skittish horse.  The act bonded the two instantly in their love of horses and the ease of being around them, caring for them and having an innate understanding of their needs. 

 

At first, Slim wanted the gambling, saddle tramp off the Sherman ranch and as far away from his twelve year old brother as possible.  But subsequent events had provided a different course, resulting in not only Andy but Slim somewhat adopting the ex-Texas drifter into their small family.  Jess Harper might not be a Sherman, but he definitely felt like a brother to both Andy and Slim.

 

And if Jess was an adopted brother, completing their small family was the older Jonesy, long-time friend of Slim and Andy’s father. In a way, he was the adopted uncle who kept their household together while offering advice to both the brothers in place of the parents they had lost.  Matt Sherman and his wife, Mary, were buried on the Sherman ranch, leaving the Wyoming homestead as legacy to Slim and his brother equally.  Now Andy, in Jonesy’s close care, was off in Saint Louis for school as Slim had promised their ma before she died. 

 

But the reality of fulfilling the promise had left only Slim and Jess to complete the ranch’s never ending list of work.  And then there were the relay station duties to handle that both Andy and Jonesy had provided a great deal of help with, now falling to Jess and himself along with all the other work that came with running a ranch.  Slim had to admit if things didn’t go a little smoother coming out of winter into spring roundup, he would have to hire on another ranch hand to complete winter repairs before spring calf branding started. 

 

And yet if pressed,  he would have to admit the list that kept him busy, gave him less time to get all twisted up in the longing for Andy’s return in summer, hopefully with Jonesy.   Only he wasn’t so sure the older man would leave St Louis where he had family, and an ailing back making travel more difficult every year.   Frequent letters from Andy and sometimes the advice-giving Jonesy provided Slim with some relief from sorely missing them.  In fact reading their letters out loud to Jess, had made it seem to Slim as if his brother and the older friend were still living at the ranch with them.  And sometimes the look on Jess’s face when Slim had finished a letter, told him Jess missed Andy as much if not more than he did; giving Slim the feeling he still had another brother, one in Jess, to keep his family's ranch going.     

 

And like two brothers, he and Jess had also shared in winter’s cabin fever, roughly teasing and cajoling each other, and sometimes nearly coming to blows over who was doing the cooking or washing, or any of the other domestic duties formerly handled by Jonesy or Andy.   Considering it was Jess’s turn to cook this week, Slim hoped laying out his ma’s cookbook on the kitchen’s small table would help; it certainly couldn’t make things worse. At least Jess had stopped burning most things before they came out of the cook stove’s oven to hit the ground outside the back door.    

 

Slim’s thoughts were interrupted as he came to a downed section of the fence line along which ran the paw print tracks of wolves.  The packs were likely roaming down from Sheep Mountains which lay to the west of them on the horizon, behind which rose up the Snowy Range Mountains. Wolves would be looking for ranch livestock as easier prey until the deep snows of the higher elevations melted.  But it was the tear-drop pad tracks of a large cat, a cougar, overlaying the older tracks of the wolves that concerned him even more, and he would have to remember to tell Jess.   Old man winter had left everyone hungry and short-tempered waiting for spring to arrive, and Slim hoped it was sooner than later.   

 

Movement caught Slim’s attention, a horse and rider off in the distance, galloping along Baxter Ridge towards Roy Hallorin’s place.   Running a horse like that usually meant something amiss, and his eyes searched for clues.  The horse was dark and long legged; and it was hard to determine if the rider was of medium build, or a youth.  When a hat flew up and billowed out on its stampede strings behind the rider’s head, Slim considered it was neither man nor boy, but a woman with her hair flying in long dark waves upon the air behind her.  Suddenly the horse stomped to a stop to rear up on its two hind legs and Slim held his breath.  He released it when the rider not only remained in her saddle, but reached up to pull the hat back into place before turning the animal around.  Slower at first, and then speeding into the same gallop, she was heading back in the direction she had ridden from. 

 

He smiled as he sat up in his saddle, stretching his long legs and  thinking whoever it was, she was likely out for the pleasure of a spring ride; maybe shaking off the last of old man winter’s cold chains.

 

 

 

Chapter 2 

 

So the BRB, Dan Baxter’s ranch was sold to two women thought Jess Harper when he had overheard Jock Benson telling the stranger.   Both Jess and Slim knew Dan Baxter was looking to sell after his wife Abigail had died last summer leaving him to care for a set of twin girls and a younger two year old boy.   Because the Baxter place bordered along the south side of the Sherman ranch where it gave way to open range, Slim had longingly mentioned buying the place from Dan.  The Sherman ranch was doing fairly well all things considering, only Slim, in the end, cooled to the thought of getting extended credit at the bank before discovering the full extent of winter’s costs.  He cited the loss of cattle to several harsh storms, and repairs to not only fencing, but to the ranch house as it was in need of a new roof.  If Dan’s place was still for sale in the coming fall Slim had told him, and things were running good, and if the price might be dropped, he would seriously consider it.  Not long ago came the rumor it had been sold sometime during winter, and Slim later found out from Mort Cory, sheriff of Laramie,  the circulating talk of a sale was accurate.     

 

In his store, Jock Benson had told the stranger, two women were living up on Dan Baxter’s place, but he didn’t know if one of them went by the last name of, Mezzlee, or not, only Harris had been the name he recalled of the one he had waited on, and she was pretty he had added as well.   The questions were polite enough, but Jess’s instincts told him the man was up to something;  and it didn’t bode well  especially after Jess had seen what the man was hauling in his wagon; his gut was telling him the man was a bounty hunter.   Well, thought Jess, maybe this was a good time for someone to pay a neighborly visit, even if it would be without Slim, which is why he was riding out of town well behind and out of sight from the stranger heading for Baxter Ridge under Jock’s directions.

 

After the wagon ahead had taken the cutoff to Dan Baxter’s place, Jess pulled off the road to park the buckboard.  He had one advantage; he knew where Dan’s place was located on the southern side of the ridge. And he knew a short cut there.  On foot, he could easily make the climb through rocks and scrub up until the ridge crested to an elevation of a hundred feet or so higher,  and then downward through more scrub giving way to the dark evergreen trees below the ridge.  Farther to the southwest he could see, Two Buttes where the land rose to become the foothills of the Snowy Range Mountains.   When his path brought him closer to the winding road towards the ranch, he caught sight of the wagon, only to halt when he saw it had stopped.  

 

Crouching amid trees and brush,  Jess watched the stranger walk to the back of the wagon to lean in for a long time as if he were moving things around, searching for something.  After several minutes, the man pulled something out, and Jess could see it was a dark leather gun belt, rolled up in a coil around a pistol.  Once the belt was strapped low around the man’s hips and secured by the tie down strings to his leg, he returned to the wagon’s seat and slapped the reins, urging the two mules forward.   Waiting a minute or so, Jess resumed making his own way towards the Baxter ranch, under cover and out of sight.    

 

From where he crouched, Jess surveyed the ranch’s layout, much as he remembered it the last time he and Slim had visited Dan after Abigail’s funeral.    There set in a clearing of trees was Dan’s newer built single story house with its large porch wrapping around the front, and to the right with the porch swing Dan had built for Abigail when the twins were born.  Nearby was a winter fallow garden that appeared someone was getting ready for spring planting.  Several yards over to the right was the barn and round pen, with a smaller wooden pen on its other side where a bucket and stool cow stood quietly watching a dozen or so chickens scattered about.   Several feet away to right of the barn was standing Dan’s buckboard; it must have been sold with the ranch thought Jess with other equipment Dan would not have taken back east when he left with his three children.   

 

The doors to the barn were open and to the left were stacked several newer metal cans of what looked to be paint, probably for the buckboard whose finish was well past its original condition and not likely for the barn which Dan had painted last spring.  Dan’s barn was considerably larger than the one on Slim Sherman’s ranch, and the thought flitted through Jess’s mind that Slim had always talked about adding on to the structure, but with the never ending chores demanding attention, it meant there had never been time to start the new project.  

 

A small slender woman came walking out of the barn to turn towards the garden, catching Jess by surprise.  Not by the movement, but that she was wearing the loose black pants and over-sized, multi-colored print jacket he recalled seeing on some of the few Chinese women in the larger towns in Colorado such as Denver City.   He was puzzled; the woman failed to fit the description given by Jock back at the general store as a girl with dark, reddish hair; this small woman had black, shiny hair pulled back into a knot at the nape of her neck.   She looked up at the approach of the wagon, stopping to watch its progress towards her.  

 

Jess became aware of the tight knot in his gut beginning to unwind as he thought his detour to satisfy his curiosity regarding the safety of their new neighbors had been for just that, curiosity.  He was certain the man would think the same as he did, the women he searched for were not here.  Jock must have been mistaken, the women who bought Dan Baxter’s place were not as he described. 

 

However, before backing up and turning away, Jess caught sight of the woman’s face before she raced to the house and in through the front door to disappear inside; it was one of alarm.  Outside, the wagon pulled up past the barn to swing around to the house and stop.  As the two mules were reined slowly to a stop, the front door opened.  Stepping out onto the front porch came a young girl dressed in a flowery skirt and long sleeved blouse with her reddish hair loosely tied back with a bright green ribbon. The last thing Jess noticed about her, was her grip on a sawed off double barrel shotgun.

 

Before the man could step down from the wagon, she had brought the weapon up to aim it at him where he stood on the front of the wagon’s box.   “You’re not welcome here,” she shouted to him, “so just turn that wagon of yours around and leave.” 

 

Jess waited, watching the man looking down at her. Then he heard him call her by name.  “Aw come on Allie, you know why I’m here.  You got something that don’t belong to you, and I ain’t leaving ‘til I fetch it back.”

 

“Tilkey Joe,” she shouted up at him, pulling back the rabbit ears of first one and then the other to cock the weapon while stepping down onto the first of three steps.  “The only thing you’re gonna be bringing back is a couple of bullets in the chest.  Now get off our land or get buried on it!”

 

Jess watched as the man slightly raised his hands in a surrender gesture.  “Have it your way Allie, but If I go back empty handed,  ol Miz Kassie’s just gonna send someone else.  Ain’t gonna be someone as nice as me, and certainly not as pretty.”

 

The girl took another step down, aiming the shotgun higher, “At this here range Tilkey the buckshot won’t miss.  And there goes your pretty!”

 

“Allie, Allie, you know you can’t handle a big gun like that there twelve gauge of Beck’s,” he said smoothly.  “It will kick you like a mule on your sweet little backside.”

 

"I'm telling  you,  Tilkey,” she took another menacing step down, keeping her aim steady on the man as he stood there. “Leave now!  Cause if I fire, you ain’t gonna live to see me landing on anything least ways my backside.”

 

“All right Allie, all right,” he said to the girl before sitting back down, picking up the reins and releasing the wagon’s brake. 

 

“You can tell that over-painted cow you’re bounty hunting for,” she told him, “nothing of hers has been taken, nothing she can lay claim to.  You hear me Tilkey.” 

 

Jess didn’t think the man had said anything in response, but he saw the wagon moving forward in a wide turn to leave, the barrel of the gun tracking its movement.  

 

“I’ll let Miz Kassie know you sent your regards,” the man laughed over his shoulder as he drove the wagon away from the house,  and seemed to be leaving the threat of a shotgun discharge, whether it would be accidental or intentional. 

 

So the stranger Jess had followed to the Baxter ranch was a bounty hunter, thought Jess, but he wasn’t so sure the man was giving up so easily when it came to finishing a job.   Remaining out of sight, Jess watched as the wagon made its way slowly up the ridge,  and when it could no longer be seen from the ranch’s buildings,  it came to a halt.  

 

The driver climbed down to move around to the back of the wagon’s bed where he leaned in to pull out a large, heavy sack along with a coil of rope.  From where he continued to hide, Jess understood the intention of the stranger to do as Jess had done, use the cover of scrub and the scattered trees to make his way back down to the ranch. Following until he lost sight of the man moving behind the barn, Jess came to a stop and waited. 

 

Minutes passed and nothing seemed to be happening, then from behind the house came a small child, a little, black-haired girl who looked to be a miniature version of the oriental woman Jess had seen before, but dressed in a high collar blue working jacket and pants.   She was half running and half skipping and now followed by another smaller child, a brother thought Jess, dressed the same in playful chase after the little girl who had run into the barn.  But the boy stopped before entering the barn and took a step back; and soon Jess saw the reason.

 

The bounty hunter emerged from the barn, the little girl held up in one arm with the coil of rope hanging from the crook of his elbow; draped over his other arm were the heavy chains from the wagon.  After dropping the chains to the ground as the boy continued to stand and watch him, the man transferred the coil of rope to his other hand, still continuing to hold the little girl.  When he drew a large knife from a back sheath on his belt, the boy suddenly screamed.   

 

Before he realized it, Jess found his hand reaching down in quick movement to draw the revolver from its holster, despite the fact his head knew he was too far away to chance missing, or hitting the child.   He thought of his rifle, still tucked away in the buckboard and judged it would take too long to retrieve it.  For now, he needed to move down, closer until he was in range and wait for the opportunity.  

 

Gun in hand, he cautiously moved ahead, then stopped when he saw the girl known as Allie open the front door and walk out onto the home’s porch, once again toting her shotgun.   Now she was followed in rapid succession by three women, all dress in the same similar clothing as the first women, all small and slender, and very oriental looking.  Three Chinese women and two Chinese children, thought Jess, what was going on here?  What would someone like this Tilkey Joe, this bounty hunter want with these women?

 

When the boy spotted one of the women on the porch, he scampered over to throw his arms up around her as she leaned down to pick him up.  Stepping down off the porch came the girl with her shotgun, intent upon walking to the barn where the man she had called Tilkey stood holding the other child, knife in threat to her.

 

“Hold it right there, Allie,” ordered the man. While Jess could see the little girl he held was small, he judged how quiet she remained, her understanding the need to be still, and he thought she was probably older than her size indicated.

 

“Let her go, Tilkey,” yelled Allie raising the shotgun menacingly at him. 

                                                        

“I told you I wanted something, Allie,” the bounty hunter shouted back, “and you know what I come for.  I’m telling you I ain’t leaving until I get it.  Now I’ll let the little one go but you gotta do as I say; starting with dropping that scatter gun of yours.   On the ground.”

 

When he saw no forthcoming cooperation, he pulled the little girl he held closer to him.  The hand holding her suddenly shook causing the child to give a high pitched yelp of surprise.  “Now!” the man bellowed and Jess watched as the girl called Allie slowly crouched down to set the shotgun carefully on the dirt.      

 

‘Now get Miz Kassie’s chink-chink girls over here, one at a time.”      

                                                            

The bounty hunter made two steps closer and Jess moved down a few more steps to get into range as he watched one of the women move slowly towards the man holding the child.  When she was within five feet of him, the bounty hunter told her to pick up a metal cuff and place it around her right ankle.   She crouched down and when the cuff was attached, he yelled another order.  “Now have that gal nearest you pick up that scatter gun Allie, by the barrel end, careful like, and drag it over here to lay it down.    Just getting it outta temptation’s reach cause this here little girl’s gonna thank you for that when she’s growed up.”  He jiggled the little girl, and when she remained silent he grunted, “Ain’tsha honey!  Good!”

 

When the second Chinese girl had laid the shotgun down, the bounty hunter ordered the first woman to place a metal cuff on the woman’s ankle and lock it.   Jess wasn’t sure the purpose until he heard the man order the open cuff on the other end of each chain be locked into each other.  It made a longer length of chain between the two women.  When the third woman left the small boy now crying on the porch, she came to lock a cuff around her leg and as instructed, locked the other cuff into the center of the cuff between the two other women.   The result was they were chained together like spokes to a wheel hub.

 

“Now for you, Allie Cat,” the man ordered slipping the coil of rope from his elbow to his hand and tossing it towards the girl.  “Now sit down on that pretty little backside of yours and tie your feet together.  Then toss the other end back here.”

 

Jess was now as close as he could get and still remain unseen; gun in hand he waited, watching the girl pick up the rope and slowly lower herself to the ground and begin to tie her feet together as told.   Before she could toss the end to the rope, Jess saw the bounty hunter’s head start to turn from her, to his right at the sounds of an approaching horse. 

 

Taking his chance, Jess stayed low to tumble and roll across the dirt preparing to aim as the man’s attention was on the approach of a horse and rider galloping towards him from behind the barn.  The sound of gun fire split the air; the horse reared and took a fall, throwing its rider, and Jess saw body of the bounty hunter slowly slip to the ground, still holding the child.

 

 

 

 

Chapter 3

 

Scrambling to his feet, Jess ran to the little girl to release her from the tight clutch of the dead man; swinging her up into his arms to feel her shaking as she clung to him, soundlessly burying her head into the shoulder of his jacket.   The groaning squeal of a horse brought his attention around to see the animal awkwardly getting to its feet, then shaking itself violently, trying to lose its slipping saddle, leather parts creaking and flapping in disarray.   A faint image raced through his mind of the horse and its rider rushing in to catch the attention of the bounty hunter, giving Jess the seconds of distraction to shoot; and his attention went to the rider whose body lay face down, motionless.  

 

“Becks,” cried the girl who had untied the rope from around her ankles to cast it on the ground and scramble to her feet, “Becks!”

 

Jess turned to see the three women moving closer together, chained by the leg to one another.  Still holding the little girl, he knelt down and with one hand searched the dead man’s pockets until he found the key to the cuffs.  In several steps, he reached one of the women to hand the little girl to her before she passed the child to another who was likely her mother.    Kneeling down he began unlocking cuffs as the small boy came running up behind him to hang onto one of the women.   When he stood up, they were still huddled together, only now nodding and smiling to him, their words indecipherable, yet there was no mistaking their gratitude.   

 

Jess turned his attention back to the fallen rider and the girl kneeling down on the ground; as he walked towards them, he reached a hand down to pick up the discarded shotgun.   The girl was calling to him as he approached, and now he could see how young she really was, and pretty.

 

“Help me, please!  Beck’s hurt. Please!”   

 

Jess looked down at the slouch hat and dark oversized jacket in disarray over faded denims.   Whoever it was didn’t seem to have been shot, likely just stunned from the fall, the breath probably knocked out of them.   Leaning the shot gun to the girl who took it, he knelt down to feel the rise and fall of steady breathing.  Pulling the rider’s arm up and over his own shoulder, he carefully lifted and turned to follow the girl who carried the shotgun ahead of him toward the porch, and in through the front door. 

 

*****

 

Inside, Jess saw the front room was a parlor with a large fireplace to his left and a long settee in front of it with two high backed chairs set on either side, and on the wood planked floor between them was spread a thick, dark rug.  The women and children followed him in as he carried the boy to the settee;  and watched him carefully removing the rider’s hat after laying him onto his back.  And they flinched when he suddenly exclaimed, “What in tarnation?”  

 

Long thick strands of auburn hair were falling out around the boy’s face and shoulders, revealing the fallen rider to be a she person, a woman.  Bending over he took a closer look into the pale face whose eyes were beginning to flutter open.   He heard her small moan of discomfort as he looked over fading freckles sprinkled across high cheekbones and then down to her full mouth.  He noticed her high forehead beginning to show signs of bruising, but there was something about her, thought Jess, something that seemed awful familiar to him.  When her lashes finally raised up to reveal dark, blue-green eyes dusted with flecks of gold, Jess suddenly yelped, “Blue We!”

 

Jess honestly had to admit he never saw it coming; he never saw the hand coming up to slap him so hard across the face to sting for minutes after. “Hey what was that for,” he asked standing up and stepping back, his hand to his cheek trying to rub away the stinging pain of the slap.

 

“You’re a Harper!” she mumbled, her eyes rolling tightly closed, “one ah you always deserves it!” 

 

“Becks,” squealed the other girl moving around Jess, leaning the shotgun next to the settee so she could help the woman sit up.  “You all right, Becks?  Anything broken?”

 

“My pride for one thing, Sis, and my backside when this gun-toting fool started shooting up the place,” snappishly answered her sister yet still looking up at Jess.

 

“Now wait a darn minute here Blewie…” started Jess.  “If you hadn’t come in like a long horn stampede, you’d a seen I was already taking care of the situation.”

 

But he was interrupted by the auburn haired woman snapping back at him.  “Well, you could have gotten her killed in the doing of it, like some steer chasing cowboy!” She rubbed her forehead.  “Damn near killed me, or my horse, you.  You, Texas dare devil.  You…” She reached for further words of disgust, “you, Panhandle jack ass!”

 

“Rebecca Blewe Harris, you might be my big sister,” suddenly scolded the younger girl, “but you have no call acting this way when mister, um.    Mister…?”  She was reaching for the name that had been spoken earlier.

 

“Harper,” said her sister, now rubbing the back of her neck, “Jess Harper.”  She frowned at him before turning to her sister.  “Alianna Katilly, meet one of our neighbors from Daddy’s old Palo Pinto ranch.”  

 

Jess Harper had not heard the name of that place for a long time, not since after the war when he had returned home to Texas to find nothing there for him but memories, not even his sister Francie.   How long had it been since he had seen Beckah Blewe Harris, he wondered, maybe seven or eight years.  And what was she doing here buying the Baxter place?  That she was dressed in men’s clothing had not surprised him nearly as much as seeing her here, in Laramie with a bounty hunter sprawled out in her front yard, a bullet in his head and very dead.

 

Beckah Blewe  rose from the settee, and seeing the shotgun laying nearby, she pulled it up to point it at him, tottering only a little as a wave of dizziness came over her,  still reeling from the fall she had taken, and the surprise of seeing someone who knew her; someone who knew her past.  Someone who would want to ask questions she wasn’t in the mood to answer.   Poking the end of the shotgun’s barrel at him, she began yelling at him to leave before he got himself shot.

 

Caught off balance with her gun-wielding outburst, Jess immediately backed up a step.  Again, the angry Beckah Blewe Harris poked the gun tip into his chest as she stepped forward, and again he backed up.   He was looking at her; uncertain if he should take the shotgun from her, but quickly discarded the idea as a bad one in a room filled with women and children.  He backed up another step towards the front door looking from Blewie to the other women now standing closer to each other, fear flooding their faces and he winced realizing it was now fear of him.   

 

Looking back at Blewie he considered she had taken a rough spill and probably wasn’t thinking clearly, even if she had so clearly remembered him.  Only what was she so mad at him for? And she was mad, bear angry;  it flared up in her dark eyes, the flecks of gold growing more noticeable, something he had noticed about her even back then. 

 

 “Dad-gum Blewie, ain’t no need to get all plug ugly here.  It was a lucky thing I trailed that good for nothing all the way out here from town, where I heard him asking questions; reckoned he was up to something and he was.  He’d be hauling these women right outta here now by now, if I hadn’t showed up.    What were you thinking riding in like that?”   

 

“If I was you I’d get outta here right now Harper,” she told him loudly, “’Cause I think I can just about keep my finger from pulling the trigger on this scatter gun for another five minutes.  Maybe give you a head start; you might want to take it.”

 

Jess gave an angry shake to his head, “Dad-gummit Bliewie…”

 

“You want me to count it out for you,” she growled at him, “you Harper boys were always on the slow side when it came to ciphering.”

 

“You can wipe off the war paint Blewie,  I got no intentions taking up any more of your gracious hospitality,” snapped Jess angrily and he turned away to strafe his spurs noisily across the floor on his way out the front door, slamming it behind him.    “Dad-gum woman!” he spat out the curse as he made his way back up into the slope, up  into the trees, and then into the thinning brush, back to where he had left the buckboard filled with supplies. 

 

As he drove to the Sherman ranch knowing he was late;  late to haul in provisions, and late to start the cooking for their evening meal, he knew Slim would be back from checking winter damage along the southern fence line;  he would be coming in from the barn, expecting Jess to be there.  And, he would be expecting the buckboard’s supplies to be put away, and a fire in the cook stove with the promise hanging in the air of something hot and ready to eat.  

 

Only Jess was still mad and he wasn’t thinking of anything other than playing and replaying what had just happened up at the Baxter place during his unexpected run in with Beckah Blewe Harris, and the way she took on, like he was some feared criminal. 

 

 “Dad-gum woman,” he growled loudly, slapping the reins as he headed for the Sherman ranch barely aware the sun was slowly dropping lower on the horizon of  the ridge behind him to cast long shadows ahead,  foretelling the end of yet another  day.

 

 

 

 

Chapter 4 

 

Slim Sherman was standing in front of his stove where a cast iron skillet heated, a kitchen towel wrapped around his midsection for an apron, and a large bowl of batter cradled in one arm  and mixing spoon in the other when the back door to the kitchen burst open.  He turned to see Jess moving past him with a sack of flour over one shoulder to make his way across the room to the storeroom off the kitchen and drop the sack with a loud thump, before angrily stomping back.

 

Slim stopped stirring the batter and said, “You’re late!”

 

Jess paused in mid step to frown at him, “I don’t remember her being that bad!  But I reckon I ain’t the same neither,” he barked at Slim and shaking his head continued out the kitchen door to return with another sack of flour over his shoulder.

                                                                                                  

You know it was your turn to cook,” stated Slim crossly as Jess continued to the storeroom to heavily drop the second sack of flour.   “You’re late, and do I hear it’s on account of a woman?” 

 

“E-Ya,” barked Jess crossly before gruffly correcting himself,  “No!”    

 

“Well what is it,” snapped Slim as he followed Jess to the door, still stirring the batter and abruptly taking a step back out of Jess’s way when he came stomping back in with a wooden crate of foodstuffs.     

 

Slim set the bowl down on the counter next to the stove with a rough thud.   “You gonna tell me about it?  Just so I know why I’m the one cooking and you’re not when it’s supposed to be your turn.”

 

When Jess had dropped the crate down on the table, he turned to Slim, “I met our new neighbors today, you know the ones that bought Dan Baxter’s place.”

 

“And that’s why you’re late,” concluded Slim irritably.  

 

“That,” huffed Jess, “and shooting a bounty hunter who was trying to chain up three Chinese women.”

 

“All right,” spoke Slim eyebrows  in a slow rise, “that’s an unexpected excuse, even for you.”

 

“You’re dad-gum right,” growled Jess, “and I wasn’t expecting to find Dan Baxter’s place bought out by Blewie.  Just what in the heck is she doing buying a dad-burn ranch up here anyway and dressed up in men’s clothes like some kinda cow hand to surprise a fella like that?”    

 

“Who’s Blewie?” asked Slim abruptly in frustration.

 

“Rebecca Blewe Harris.  At least that’s the name she’s going by now, or maybe it’s, Mezzlee, or something; only I knew her as Blewie; we worked her family’s ranch before Frank Bannister burned us out.

 

“Now I find  Blewie’s bought Dan Baxter’s old place, she and her little sister.  And I’ll be darned if she’s not hiding those other women and two little ones down there.  Confounded, riding in like a Kansas twister, coulda got that little girl killed if I’d missed the shot on accounta her.   And I’m telling you Slim those women were scared, they must be running from something, or someone.  You’d think it was me how Blewie was carrying on and all, poking the barrel of that dad-gum shotgun in me every time I tried getting a word in sideways.   Quick as a hiccup she’da shot me full of buckshot she was so mad, at me and for what, nothing, she had no call to go tearing into me like that;  That dad-gum woman!” 

 

“Sit down and start from the beginning Jess,” was all Slim could advise him. 

 

*****

 

Later as they were finishing up Slim’s impromptu meal of flapjacks and scrambled eggs, Jess had ended his tale with the recounting of his being ordered off the Baxter place, under threat of being shot.  Fork settled on his empty plate, Slim stood up from the small kitchen table to fetch the warming pot of coffee off the stove, refilling their cups before asking, “So who do you think those women are?”

 

“I dunno,” responded Jess forking up the last of the eggs on his plate.  “They didn’t speak English that’s for certain.   I, sure couldn’t understand ‘em.”

 

“You sure they were Chinese?”

 

“I’ve seen a few of them up in the mountains in the tie camps, and in places where the Union Pacific’s brought the men in for building rail.   Slim, those women at Blewie’s place were dressed fancier, like some I’ve seen in Denver or Cheyenne, and not in the best of places.”

 

“Not many Chinese women in the country,” shrugged Slim, “it’s mostly men who came over to work for the railroads when they broke the strike.   You thinking what I’m thinking,” continued Slim giving him a serious look, “that they might be smuggled into the country for some kind of slavery run by their own kind; maybe from San Francisco.”

 

“Don’t know, but Blewie’s mixed up in all of it somehow.” 

 

“And what about the sister?” asked Slim changing thoughts.

 

“Sister?” Jess gave him a blank look as he forked up the last flapjack from the serving platter on the kitchen table.

 

“You said this Blewie has a sister there,” said Slim, “What’s she like?”

 

“Blewie’s sister, Allie?” said Jess thoughtfully, “Must be about Andy’s age or so.”

 

“From what you said, I thought she was older,” said Slim sitting back down to his own refilled cup.

 

“As I recollect Allie was two or three years old when I left Texas. She might be Blewie’s baby sister; but I reckon she don’t have Blewie’s bad temper.”  Suddenly Jess dropped his fork on the table to say angrily to Slim, “She’s like ten miles of bad trail ending in scorched desert, I mean it!”  

 

“That bad, huh?” asked Slim setting his cup down.

 

Tight lipped, Jess added,   “Like a mamma grizzly with two cubs and a sore tail.”

 

“Think maybe she was just scared, about what happened?”   

 

“Blewie?” considered Jess. “Never knew her to be scared of anything when we were kids.  It weren’t safe country back then with Comanche raiders around making trouble for ranchers, and even the other tribes.  You grow up fast learning no place is safe and how to shoot.  Heck at thirteen, Blewie was the best shot for a hundred miles around thanks to her pa.  Just, well I don’t remember her going off like a stick of dynamite on a short fuse like that, getting so riled up at nothing.”       

 

“Wells she’s not the only one riled up,” observed Slim.

 

“You’d meet her, you’d know,” grumbled Jess shaking his head.

 

“Seems to me,” spoke Slim carefully choosing his words, “If I’m not mistaken here, you got some pretty strong feelings yourself.”

 

“Feelings,” questioned Jess crossly, “any feelings there oughta be are the feelings of my hand coming down on her backside; she could use it, take some of that grizzly out of her!”

 

“Really?”  Slim’s eyebrows rose in surprise as he looked at Jess starting to speak again and stopping when he realized the implications of his remark.  Looking at him, Slim took a guess, “She’s pretty isn’t she?”

 

“Blewie?” hesitated Jess, eyes narrowing, “yeah, I reckon she’s pretty enough, even in all those men’s clothes.”

 

A deep frown furrowed along Jess’s forehead as he thought about his answer, and when he continued  it was with less frustration and more explanation, “She was the daughter of the rancher who owned the place we worked;  and I was a kid in a wild family.  Yeah there weren’t a boy around who didn’t want to tote her books home from school, but she wouldn’t have anyone of ‘em.  Blewie was her father’s heart, taking to riding and shooting better than her two younger brothers.  Only in the end, her ma won out, and the last time I saw Blewie, it was just before she was sent off to some fancy school back east, before the war started.  Never saw her after that;  the Bannisters burned us out and I left.”

 

“And she reminds you of your family,” observed Slim quietly. 

                                            

“I guess,” shrugged Jess.  “Blewie and my sister Francie knew each other, and while I reckon Blewie’s ma didn’t want any Harpers hanging around her, Miz Harris could see my sister was all right.   It was on accounta Francie they took the two of us in right after the fire.”    The memory of burying family momentarily dulled Jess’s eyes before he continued.

 

“Slim, I was so full of hate running after Bannister, not even thanking her folks for what they did for Francie and me.  And when I came back after the war they were dead and their place was gone, so I hired on as a drover for Charlie Goodnight who had bought them out;  never thought much about them again.    Heck, maybe Blewie’s got a right to be mad at me for what I was like back then.”

 

“And you are not the same, Jess,” pointed out Slim calmly picking up their empty plates and standing up, “Right now you just got off to a bad start is all.  And she’s probably cooled off some, and you could talk to her, maybe in the morning, see if she might need some help.”  

 

“The mood Blewie was in when I left her, I’m not so sure that bounty hunter’s not buried under six feet of Baxter dirt by now, wagon and all.” 

 

Slim gave him a questionable look, and Jess returned it with a shrug.   “All right maybe I’m all wrong, maybe I’ll ride in to see Mort in case she don’t know he’s the sheriff and he’ll need to know.”  And then he added, “And afterwards I’ll ride over to see her.”    Looking at Slim holding their plates, he gave a shrug, “Thanks for cooking.”

 

Glancing down at the dirty plates he still held, Slim offered, “I’ll take care of these; you take the evening chores instead.  And you’re not getting off easy; your turn goes another day before switching.”  Jess nodded in agreement and moved to the back door.

 

“And Jess,” called Slim behind him, “after you’re finished with the buckboard, load it up will you, with a dozen or so fence posts and the digger and wire.  I want to work on that west fence line along Roy’s land before the morning stage comes through.  There’s a lot to do, so I can use any help when you can swing down there, after you’re done mending some other fences.” 

 

Jess gave a shrug and closed the back door behind him, leaving Slim standing there thinking about how Jess Harper had changed.   Only a few years ago he had drifted in, staying to drive a stake into Wyoming land when he had joined the Sherman family.  But there was something else that could drive the stake deeper; something he was ready for, that could settle him down even more considered Slim; and that was being married and maybe starting a family.  Re-acquaintance with a new neighbor who had grown up with him, thought Slim; now that showed some serious courting potential for Jess, a bit of a rocky beginning, but promise, all things considered.  

 

 

 

 

Chapter 5

 

Mort Cory, a sad-eyed slender man of about fifty who was sheriff of Laramie,  dismounted to throw reins around the hitching post in front of Dan Baxter’s home;  no he mentally corrected himself,  the former home of Dan and Abigail Baxter;  having been sold to a new owner.   He moved around his horse to approach the house with Jess Harper walking next to him.  Less than an hour ago, it was Jess who had stood in his office telling him about shooting some stranger out at the Baxter ranch; and further, to his surprise, Jess had told him of rescuing three Chinese women from being chained up by that same, now dead stranger. 

 

Mort found Jess was upset the new owner, who he called Blewie, had not brought the dead man into town, to the sheriff’s office, his office to report what had happened.   Mort had told him, no dead bounty hunter was laying across his steps yesterday, or any time today for that matter.  And yes he was interested in riding out to find out why.   And, Mort had also considered, Jess had done something Mort had not, met the new owner, Rebeckah Blewe Harris and her sister, Alianna. 

 

The front door to the house opened and Jess saw Blewie’s sister Allie step out onto the porch.  She looked from Jess to the older man noting he wore a metal badge engraved with the title, Sheriff.      With a raised eyebrow of curiosity she looked back to Jess; and he got the feeling she was finding something amusing, and whatever it was, she would likely keep to herself.         

 

“Is Blewie around?” asked Jess curtly.

 

“Mam,” interrupted Mort tipping his hat at the young girl,  and giving a sideways frown at Jess.  “I’m Sheriff Cory from Laramie.  I understand you have already met the rude Mr. Harper here.  You must be Miz Harris’s sister, Alianna.  Can you tell me if she’s available to answer some questions?”  

 

“She’s gone riding,” said Allie calmly standing there  in a blue dress,  a matching ribbon tying back  her long red hair.  She was staring at Jess as she spoke, and Mort Cory took note of it.   

 

When asked, she told the sheriff she had seen Jess Harper the day before as he rode in to see who bought the Baxter ranch.  And no, she didn’t know he lived on the ranch to the north of them, but she knew there was a relay station run by a rancher named Sherman, and no, she didn’t know him.  No, there were no Chinese women staying at the ranch with them, nor any children, just herself and her sister and did he want to come inside and look around.   And when Mort asked her, she said she and her sister had not recently seen a stranger, much less a dead one.   

 

“Where is she, Allie,” asked Jess angrily, “out burying the body?  The one I shot here yesterday, right over there.”  He pointed to where the man had stood demanding three women chain themselves together. 

 

“Simmer down Jess,” Mort ordered in his official voice, and turning to the young girl standing on the porch, he asked her if she was alone.  When she told him she was expecting their foreman to return from town with the mail, Mort asked if she would be agreeable to his looking around and talking to the man.

 

“Whatever you want,” she smiled at him and Jess immediately became suspicious.  He stood there looking at her as she moved across the porch to the hanging swing, and sitting down on it, began to gently rock back and forth on it. Shaking his head, Jess turned quickly to trail after Mort who was walking to the barn toward its open doors.

 

Inside Mort looked around to find it empty, stalls were cleaned and fresh straw had been pitched down, tack and various harness and saddles were racked and pegged in place.  Behind him he listened to Jess telling him the girl was lying; she knew the man calling him by his name, Tilkey Joe and now she was acting as if nothing had happened. 

 

Mort Cory took into consideration Jess had several times worn the badge of a lawman as an acting deputy, and he did take the job seriously.  Maybe he just wasn’t seeing the clues to support his claims about what happened.   

 

Jess was talking but he didn’t know if Mort was listening as he strolled around the empty barn ahead of him.  When Mort stepped to an open area of the barn meant typically for storage of wagons or buggies, Jess watched him crouch down and poke in the straw. 

 

“Someone must have been painting something here,” commented Mort who held up a few dry blades of straw, now speckled with dark green paint. 

 

Jess thought of the buckboard outside, looking like it needed some refurbishing, but then thought he hadn’t seen it when they had ridden up.   Maybe this foreman was returning in it and it had been repainted, but the paint would hardly have had time to sufficiently cure to use this soon.

 

Mort stood up and walked over to the closest wall of the barn to pick up an unmarked metal container.  He removed the cap to take a sniff.  “Kerosene,” he told Jess replacing the cap and setting the container down on the straw.  “Someone’s storing kerosene here, probably using it to thin out the paint they were using here; not a good idea leaving it laying about in a barn.”    He took one more view of the barn and said, “Well, unless they’re painting this bounty hunter of yours invisible, there’s nothing here Jess.”

 

The sheriff walked out of the barn to look around at the corral to the right and its half dozen horses, then beyond to the barren garden and finally to the house where Allie sat in the porch swinging as she watched them.   To their left came the sounds of a rider and both Jess and Mort saw Simon Bortell come riding in to dismount before walking up onto the porch; he carried a string-tied bundle of letter sized papers and a small, plainly wrapped box. 

 

Bortell handed the bundle of what must be mail to Allie and set the box down on the porch, then put a hand up to hold one of the swing’s chains in order to slow its motion.   Allie looked up at him with a smile on her face and eyes that were flirting, then glanced over at Jess who was again trailing after Mort approaching the porch intent on talking to Bortell. 

 

Both Mort and Jess had little use for Simon Bortell, a tall, rough-faced no a count in his late twenties and in and out of fights like most people took to breathing; typically landing in jail for bullying and beating up some cow poke looking for a peaceable drink in one of Laramie’s several saloons on a Saturday night.  Jess always wondered where Simon got his drinking money, and was surprised to find him here, supposedly earning an honest dollar; and working for Blewie.  What the hell was going on with Blewie? Didn’t she know what kind of low life she had hired?

 

Mort greeted Simon Bortell and asked the same questions he had earlier asked of the girl, only in slightly different words about seeing three women and two children staying at the house.  Bortell looked down at Allie sitting with the mail in her lap, and finally back to speak to Mort telling him he hadn’t been aware of anyone living at the house, other than the owner Miss Harris and her sister.

 

Jess already disliked Bortell and now had further reason to dislike him in the way in which the man answered the questions, looking to Allie for approval of his answers.  “Well,” angrily spoke Jess, “what about a covered wagon and a team of horses; you see them riding around here with a dead man driving it!”

 

Mort made an uh huh sound in his throat and turned away from Jess’s outburst to address the young girl sitting in the swing.  “Miss, do you know when your sister will be returning?”   From where she sat on the swing, Bortell standing nearby, Allie shook her head and gave a shrug. 

 

Mort Cory put his hands in his back pockets and thought for a while before speaking.  “Well I guess there’s not much more I will be needing here Miss Harris.   I would appreciate it if you could ask your sister to come into town to stop by and see me so I can ask her some questions.  Nice meeting you and thank you for the time.”  He tipped his hat respectfully to her returned nod, and walked over to the hitching post to his waiting horse. 

 

Jess turned from looking at Allie to Mort’s back as he walked away from him.  He looked again to Allie who had moved from the swing and now stood on the top step to the porch, arms folded around her waist,  Simon Bortell now moving up to stand behind her.    A fleeting image of her toting a shotgun the day before flashed through Jess’s mind, but he cleared it,  and took several steps to catch up to Mort. 

 

“Mort,” half pleaded half complained Jess when he had stepped closer, giving another uneasy glance back to Allie who he now swore the corners of her mouth were beginning to turn upwards,  as if registering some kind of success. 

 

“I got more important things to do back in town; I hope you can appreciate that,” said Mort adjusting the cinch on his saddle.  “There’s nothing more I can do out here.”

 

“Aw ca’mon, Mort,” said Jess, “you don’t think I made all this stuff up do you?”  But the look of Mort’s raised eyebrows gave Jess the impression Mort had, but was too respectful to say it to Jess. 

 

Looking back to Allie, Jess took in her face, trying to understand how she could deny the fact that only a few yards from where he now stood; he had shot a man who held a knife to the throat of a small child. 

 

“Well,” frowned Mort looking from Jess back to the girl on the porch, “I guess I can see what’s going on here.”   

 

“Thanks Mort, you’ll stay and talk to Blewie,” sighed Jess. 

 

“I don’t think so,” said Mort putting a foot into the stirrup and stepping up into his saddle.

 

“What?” exclaimed Jess, his face going stormy. 

 

Adjusting the reins in his hands Mort leaned down to speak quietly to Jess, “if that sister of hers is half as pretty as this one,  it’s clear what’s going on here.”

 

“You think what?” uttered Jess watching Mort turn his horse to make his way back to town. 

                                

Allie still remained on the porch watching him, Bortell standing a little closer to her, causing Jess to give her a tight lipped glare.  Then grabbing the reins and a fist of his horse’s mane, he jumped up to slip a foot into the stirrup before swinging his other leg over the saddle.  Giving her one last look, he gruffly spoke.

 

“You tell Blewie I’ll be back, Allie.  I ain’t in the habit of shooting down bounty hunters who suddenly don’t exist!”  

                                            

 

 

 

Chapter 6

 

 

“Simmer down Jess,” urged Slim Sherman finally getting a word in to the conversation as he wrapped new wire around a brace post and moving over to where Jess was standing, ready to take the wire to loop it around another anchor post.  Repairs were moving along faster once Jess had joined him that afternoon on the west fence line of the south pasture on the Sherman ranch.

 

“Yeah well that’s what Mort said and then he left believing I was dreaming all this stuff up,” growled Jess tightening the wire on the anchor post.  Slim wrapped wire around the upper part of the brace post once and then again while speaking, “I don’t see what more can be done until Mort talks to your friend.” 

 

“Friend?” growled Jess, “that sure ain’t the word I got for her right now. Blewie must have told that little sister of hers to lie, and I’m gonna find out why when I ride back over there to talk to her.”

 

“There’s probably some reasonable explanation,” said Slim, “but it’ll have to wait; I want to get this section restrung before heading over to that south line to finish up there.  And it’s still your turn to cook tonight.  You haven’t forgot?”

 

“No I ain’t forgot!  And I ain’t forgot I shot a man dead at Blewie’s place yesterday morning and nobody seems to know anything about it except me!” 

 

“Well you got Mort out there, Jess,” Slim pointed out, “he’s the law and it’s up to him what will need to be done.  He’ll do his job; it just might take a little time to get things sorted out.  You don’t think she was on her way into town to see him, do you?”

“If she was we would’ve met her on the road; and besides, why wouldn’t Allie tell Mort,” said Jess who then stopped while still holding wire ready to begin restringing the next row between the posts, “and those women Slim, not speaking English and the way they were all dressed; and that bounty hunter, his knowing Blewie’s sister Allie and her lying to Mort about all of it.  She’s mixed up in something.”

 

“Maybe she’s on her way back to where it all started; getting the law there involved,” suggested Slim taking the wire from Jess who stood thinking.

 

“I dunno Slim,” Jess finally said shaking his head and moving to the wagon for another box of fasteners. “And that’s not the worst of it, Blewie’s got Simon Bortell there working as foreman. Didn’t Jake Pierson fire him off the Lazy J spread last summer after only a couple of days?”

 

“Yeah I remember,” answered Slim in agreement, “a bad apple just about every place he shows up.”

 

“And that ain’t all.   When Mort and I rode over to Blewie’s place, he said Nate Harwell was in for supplies telling Jock Benson he had hired on with the new owner of the Baxter place.  I reckon that’s something else Blewie don’t know; Nate’s got an older brother serving time and two more on their way towards doing the same.” 

 

“Doesn’t mean Frank’s youngest is like the others,” commented Slim with a raised eyebrow.  “He worked roundup last year, remember?  Seemed decent enough, and pretty good with a rope.”

 

“Yeah well he might’a learned a thing or two from that cattle rustling brother of his,” said Jess. “he shore had a winning way with cattle all right.   Way I figger it, rustlers are just the best cow hands at handling someone else’s property.”

                                            

“You saying Nate Harwell’s rustling?” asked Slim stopping to stare seriously at him.

 

Jess also stopped to look at him, then shifted his stance a little uneasily, “No.”  Then he shook his head, “just saying, he’s got a pretty good example to learn from.”

 

“Bert Harwell’s in prison,” Slim commented walking towards the next upright post in place. “Nate might be paying attention to that.  Makes a good example of what not to do.”

 

“Maybe,” said Jess, “but he’s working with Bortell, ain’t no good gonna come from that.”

 

“Well I’ll be,” suddenly said Slim tipping  his hat back as he looked to the south toward Baxter Ridge,  “there’s that rider I was telling you about the other day, coming from Roy’s place; races like a streak of lightening.” 

 

Jess immediately looked up and on the distant horizon caught sight of the horse and rider as Slim had described.  “Well I’ll be dad-gum,” he uttered under his breath, “It’s Blewie.”

 

“You sure that’s her?” asked Slim straining to make out the details of the rider. “Hey, where are you going?”

 

Jess had dropped the wire nearly stretched to its full length and was sprinting to his horse, “To pay a little neighborly visit and get some answers before I leave.”  A quick jump up to slip at boot into the stirrup and he was in the saddle and reining his horse around as Slim called out after him.  “I wanted to finish this up before dark.  Say how can you be sure that’s even her?”

 

“It’s Blewie all right, or I’ll eat my hat,” shouted Jess over his shoulder.   

                                            

And Slim shouted after him, “Well it’s your turn to cook tonight, and that ‘hat’ better not be on the menu.” 

 

Slim’s voice trailed off as he wasn’t so sure Jess had heard him.  He removed his own hat to run a hand through his hair before setting the Stetson back in place and thought, well I guess I wouldn’t hear much if that was what I was chasing.  She sure could ride he thought watching the long-legged horse quickly crossing the distance along the ridge, unaware of Jess in pursuit.      

 

Bending down to pick up the post-hole digger, Slim looked at it for several moments before deciding to toss it into the back of the wagon, along with the rest of the tools.   As he hefted the roll of wire upwards into the wagon’s bed, the far off cry of a large cat came drifting through the air from the south, and Slim stopped to listen.

 

 

*****

 

Blue-Eee!” called out Jess Harper as he rode up to see Beckah Blewe carrying her saddle toward the barn. Turning around she saw him dismounting before his horse had come to a stop.  She had only seconds to glance over to see her rifle leaning up against the corral’s fence, where she had set it after slipping it out of its saddle scabbard.   Continuing to hold her saddle, not willing to give Harper the satisfaction of beating her to the weapon if she should drop the saddle to scramble for it; she waited as he walked up to her, his face dark in anger. 

 

Jess took in Blewie, holding the saddle and it’s blanket and wearing loose men’s clothing, her hat slipped down on stampede strings to lay atop her long dark red hair loose and wind-blown.  He could see her cheeks were still flush from the ride, but her mouth was pressed thinly tight, and her eyes locked into a hard disapproving look at him.   

 

Blue-Eee!” exclaimed Jess, “Just what kind of a cross-eared Texas jug head do you think I am?  First you go all bobcat on me for showing up and helping you,   and today when the sheriff shows up, your sister acts like nothing’s happened; I reckon you put her up to that.  I don’t know why, but I wanna know what happened to the man I killed here yesterday.  And what about the wagon he was driving?  I’m hoping they ain’t buried out on your land somewhere in a shallow grave,  cause I’m about mad enough to go out and dig up your property looking for ‘em,  just so I can drag ‘em into Mort Cory’s office  to prove I ain’t gone loco. ”

 

Beckah Blewe held the saddle, looking at him through narrowing eyes.  In response, Jess took in two angry breaths before starting up again.  “Dad gum it Blewie what’s the matter with you thinking up some different version about what happened here.  How cum you got the need to make me out some kind of idiot, or wait, do you just like doing that in front of the law?  And what about Allie? You and she having a good laugh over all this?”

 

“Are you done airing your lungs Harper,” was all she offered him in response.

 

“You,” said Jess indignantly gesturing a gloved hand at her, “are involved in something here and I want answers about what it is you think you gotta lie to the law about;   you’re digging that hole you’re in,  a whole lot deeper when it comes to involving me,  making me look like some kinda fool.”  

 

“Don’t you know,” said Beckah Blew swinging the saddle around, “no one can make a Harper look like a fool,” and she continued walking to the barn as she said, “when they just naturally are.”   

 

“Well I reckon I must be one, ‘cause only a fool argues with a white striped skunk or a  stubborn mule in winter,  or a dad-gum stubborn mule of a woman,” he tossed off as he followed her into the barn.  She racked the saddle next to several others before leaning over to pick up a dark cloth and ignoring him, began wiping down the leather.

 

“Blewie  I oughta take you over my knee right here and now,  you are just asking for it,” Jess growled in frustration. 

 

“Listen Harper,” she turned around to him.  “I am not about to be bully ragged  here, by you!  You got that straight?”

 

“Well coming from you that’s just plain,  well just plain ig-norent cause you ain’t done nothing but throw dust in my eyes  ever since I showed up here in time to put a window in that bounty hunter’s skull before you got yourself killed,  and no telling what else.”  He leaned forward in anger, hands going to rest on his belt, his breath gone ragged.

 

“You done kicking like a bog-ridden steer Harper?” she demanded, one hand on the saddle and the other giving a shake to the wiping cloth at him, “or am I not giving off the right signs here?” 

 

“Ca’mon Blewie,” Jess came back at her, “You’re up to your saddle skirts in something and judging by the way you look, that’s about the only kinda skirt you’ve seen in a long time!”

 

“I’m warning you Harper, “ she growled back at him, “go stick that out-of-joint nose of yours in someone else’s business and leave me to take care of my own.”

 

“It’s those Chinese girls, isn’t it,” his voice unexpectedly dropped in concern, “they’re fallen women.  That’s it, izzen it Blewie?” 

 

“Yep, you’re right there Harper,” she agreed sharply and turning back to wiping the saddle down said, “And they just ‘fell’ off the face of the earth, as far as you’re concerned!”

 

He rolled several images around in his head until he came up with the right one, the one of Allie talking to the wagon’s driver.  “That wagon of his weren’t no cat wagon that's for sure.  What was it he said, he was from a ‘Miz Kassie’, whoever that is, sent to pick up her ‘property’ like they were slaves.  He must’ve tracked them all the way from Denver, from some kinda house.”  She interrupted him, “Does it really matter Harper? Let’s just say they sure didn’t belong there.”  Then turning to face him, she observed thoughts racing across his face toward unwanted questions, questions needing to be deflected.

 

“A serious cow puncher like you, you can’t tell me you haven’t been in one,” she said mockingly and when his eyes glanced away from her,  she felt a slight surprise,  for most drovers would have returned either a bold, or a sheepish grin proudly confirming the statement.

 

“Bet you were a favorite,” she added with a faint disapproval in her voice. 

 

“What gives you the right to call the brands,” his eyes went back to her, a flash of something she hadn’t expected.    

 

“We all judge Harper,” she spoke harshly, “one way or another we go about branding things we disapprove.”

                                            

“You should talk,” erupted Jess, “there was a time you didn’t think all us Harpers were bad.”

                                            

The comment brought quick agreement from her, “You’re right, there was one of you;  Francie was a Harper worth something,”  Beckah Blewe turned back to cleaning the saddle again as she said lowly more to herself than to him, ‘married now, and hopefully with a passel of young ones like we always talked.” 

 

Jess started to reach a hand out to her, but dropped it to his side instead as he told her.   “Francie’s dead Blewie.”  It came out more blunt than he intended, and he added softly, “She died.”

 

When she looked back at him, he immediately took in the effect on her face, her blue green eyes slowly blinking dull. And when her voice went to a whisper as she asked how, Jess glumly wished he had not told her so bluntly.  His voice went low as he looked away, “I guess it was some kinda sickness,” he said, “I learned from someone down on Galveston Island where she was living;   he said there were so many dead they had to bury them in the bay, and he said her name was in the papers among.”  His voice had slowed as he continued telling her what he knew. “He said Francie was listed in the papers among the dead.”  

 

When he looked back to her, he saw her standing there lost somewhere deeply within herself, and he added apologetically.  “I didn’t even find out ‘til much later.”    

 

“Francie,” she whispered unwilling to believe the news to be true, “I know we lost track of each other.  I mean, her last letters never said anything about moving.”    Beckah Blewe went quiet and in her turning away from him, she barely realized she was standing there with Francie’s brother,  his telling of it still hurting him as much as her now hearing it.

 

“I’m sorry Blewie I didn’t know,” offered Jess, “I didn’t know you stayed in touch.”

 

“How could you!” She faced him once again, her eyes burning, “you took off without a word leaving her with my folks!  I guess that’s what men folk do isn’t it just run off when it suits you never mind taking care of those who need you or care about you, never mind hurting them.  She may have been your older sister but you were sixteen, and you were old enough to be responsible Harper, you were the only one remaining for her and you ran off.” 

 

Beckah stepped forward to shove a hand into one of his shoulders.  “You ever think about that Harper; no, you just lit out with no thought to her and how she was going to make ends meet.”   Her hand rolled into a fist and she pushed it into his shoulder, hard enough to cause him to step back. “Just like Aubrey Lang, going off to war and when it’s all over and by some unknown miracle you’re not dead, what do you do, you go on the drift and recklessly get yourself killed never thinking of the family you leave behind, the destroyed folks, never thinking about anyone but yourself.”    Her voice was loud as she pushed him until his back bumped up against the wooden divider boards of one of the stalls and he could go no further.    

 

For several seconds they just stood looking at each other. 

 

Then Jess exploded, “Dad-gummit Blewie I can’t change what I did, or what happened to your brother.  But I ain’t sixteen anymore and you ain’t neither, and Francie ain’t here, but I am.  And  I can see you’re in trouble.  I can help, but you gotta tell me what’s going on here.”  Just as suddenly his voice softened, “Ca’mon Blewie, if Francie were here you’d take her help.”

                                            

Beckah studied his face, her eyes scrutinizing his dark eyebrows raised in concern over worried blue eyes; she mentally judged what she could tell him, how he would respond, and what she would do.  But in the end she could only reluctantly shake her head and turn away. 

 

Jess reached out to grasp her arm stopping her; and when she failed to look at him, failed to meet his eyes he said in a rasp, “You don’t trust me, do you.”

 

Beckah Blewe jerked her arm away from him and continued walking out of the barn, “Right again, Harper.”

 

 

 

 

Chapter 7                 

 

 

The wind rolling down the Snowy Range Mountains towards the Laramie basin was known to carry sound for miles, or only a few yards, depending upon the time of day or any other capricious reason involving differing elevations of a wide open landscape.   Slim couldn’t determine the direction the cries of the cougar were coming from as he stood listening.  Before long the sound was lifted upon the gusting spring wind and faded into different directions.    His rifle lay in the front of the buckboard, but he had decided not to retrieve it, for now. 

 

Instead he was looking to the west where behind shadow-darkened peaks; there loomed a grease gray sky, indicating to him there would be a change in weather before morning arrived.  Upon noticing the chill, he snatched his jacket from where it lay across the seat of the buckboard and shrugged into it, buttoning it and climbing up into the wagon.  The tools, wire spool and other fence mending paraphernalia had been loaded up once he had decided to return to the ranch as he had considered it unlikely Jess would be there in time to start cooking a hot meal for the evening.  Jess was off chasing the new neighbor of theirs and there was no telling what would come of that, or when. 

 

He smiled to himself wondering if things would work out for him. Thoughts of Jess and their new neighbor gave Slim something to occupy the time on his drive home until he began to see white snowflakes bouncing in and along the windy gusts of cold air.  He wondered if there would be a dusting of snow or several inches by morning, it was always difficult to judge the wind’s mood.   But a thin coating of snow would mean the tracks of any prey in the area would be easily spotted if someone had a mind to look.   He made a mental note to himself to tell Jess they should be packing extra ammo when going back out to finish up repairs, just in case.

 

It was nearly dark as he drove the team up towards the house, surprised to see smoke rising from the center chimney.  He didn’t know what he was looking forward to more, a warm fire in the large stone fireplace, or a warm meal if Jess had been wrong about the rider, and it had not been their new neighbor.   Either way, there would be interesting talk over the table tonight.  

                                            

*****

 

“Women ranchers,” finally Slim said forking up the last slice of fried potato with a piece of smoked ham from his plate, “I don’t know, now they got the vote I don’t think they like being told what to do; if you ask me, a man’s offering to help might be like telling them they’re not good enough and they’d take it downright unfriendly.  Maybe that’s your friend’s problem.” 

 

“And if you’re asking me,” offered Jess in return, “giving some of them the vote was taking on a whole lot o’ trouble.”

 

“Seems to me Jess  if a man wants a woman to work the land beside him,” spoke Slim earnestly, “he’d better be prepared to listen to what she has to say, or he’s soon going to find his bed empty and the kitchen stove cold.” 

 

“I guess I’d agree with that, but they don’t have to be so hard headed about everything, especially when you gotta tell ‘em they ain’t making the right decisions; and for another thing, why is it, when they get into trouble they just plum don’t think straight!”

                                            

Slim laid the fork over his empty plate to look at Jess, “What do you want to do about her, Jess?” 

 

“That’s just it I, dunno,” he replied shaking his head, “I guess Blewie ain’t really done anything wrong.”  Slim interrupted him to point out, “Other than hide a dead man and lie about it to the law.”

 

“Maybe she did,” shrugged Jess, “I know I killed him, but it’s why she’s lying about it that don’t set right with me.”  He leaned forward towards Slim, “I keep thinking it’s connected to something in Denver City;  where that bounty hunter came from, looking for those women, and why they were staying with Blewie.   Only now they’re gone too, like they  never existed.”

 

“You think they might have left,” offered Slim, “taking the wagon with them to go up north looking for men folk of their own; maybe up to the camps where they’re laying rail.”

 

Jess again gave a shrug, “and take a dead body with ‘em?  It’s just down-right strange Slim.   Even more the way Blewie’s acting.”

 

Standing up, Slim took his plate and reached over to take Jess’s empty one and then set them on the counter before reaching for the coffee pot to refill both their cups.  Jess pulled the steaming cup towards him, but was still staring at it when Slim sat back down.   He looked at Jess, “What is it?”

 

Jess rubbed a hand over his face, “Guess I keep seeing the look on Blewie’s face when I told her about my sister.  The way I told her.”

 

“Sounds like they were close,” commented Slim drinking his coffee.

 

“Dad-gummit Slim,” snapped Jess mostly to himself, “why is it I can’t seem to do anything right when it comes to Blewie?”

 

Slim set his coffee down before resting his elbows on the table, “You know Jess, when a man’s younger he has ‘feelings’ for women, I think when he gets a little older, he starts finding himself thinking about women; and when he meets one he can’t stop thinking about, seems his mouth goes all haywire, and he finds he has two left feet whenever he’s around her, and he is not much good when he’s not.”  

 

“That’s supposed to make me feel better?” asked Jess giving him a puzzled look. 

 

“Probably not,” grinned Slim at him, “I guess I’m just telling you to stay inn there; until you wear her down, maybe she needs time to get used to you.”

 

“Then you haven’t run into Texas stubborn,” spoke Jess getting up.  Slim gave a small laugh at him, “Somehow I think I already have, about two years ago.”

 

“Hay it’s snowing,” said Jess drawing the curtain farther aside on the window in the kitchen. “Don’t winter ever quit up here?”

 

“Might not get much from it,” observed Slim, “spring storms have a way of just blowing through, but if any’s left on the ground, think I’ll ride out in the morning and  look for cougar tracks down near that southwest corner;  the ground cover will help.    After you took off yesterday I heard sounds of a cat.  Hard to tell where but just in case, it wouldn’t hurt to set some traps.  We’ve lost enough stock to winter, I’m not aiming to lose more to predators looking for easy pickings.”

 

“Yeah,” agreed Jess pulling out a large pan to fill it from the hot water reservoir on the cook stove.  “I know where those traps are in the back of the old shed; if I remember right they’ll need some cleaning and oiling up again.  I'll see there's two of 'em in the wagon with the rest of the load.”

 

Slim dropped his empty coffee cup into the dish pan as he mentioned to Jess, “You might want to ride down to warn our new neighbor there’s a mountain lion roaming about the ridge.  Give you a reason to see her again, maybe get her used to seeing you around.  I mean in a neighborly way.”

 

“Right,” agreed Jess frowning, “if she don’t shoot me first, in a neighborly way.”

  

 

 

 

Chapter 8

 

 

Slim stood up and pushed his hat back on his head to look around at the snow dusted mountains off in the distance to the west, and then to the south towards Baxter Ridge.  He took in the sparkle of the bright morning sunlight along the snow covered ridge, noting the patches blown bare from the storm’s strong winds.  Earlier that morning under a clear sky, he had ridden out along the ranch’s westerly fence line next to Roy Hallorin’s property, looking for signs of prey.  A couple of hours into the morning and after setting two traps,  he arrived at the south west corner of the Sherman ranch where it bordered on the Hallorin’s spread and the Baxter ranch.  Slim was the longest distance he could travel across the Sherman Ranch, or the farthest away, were a crow to fly straight from the warm ranch house he had left shortly after breakfast.   

 

What he found there was unlikely storm damage, but deliberate damage; several fence posts were down, the corner posts and their cross bracing along with wire, all laying underneath a few meager snow drifts.  The wire hadn’t been cut, but the posts looked to have been dragged out of their holes to bring the wire along until it stretched to the ground.  What puzzled him the most wasn’t the now snow dusted tracks of horses heading in the direction of Roy Hallorin’s place, but that they were coming from Baxter Ridge,  from their new neighbor’s property. 

 

To the west, past Roy’s land lay open range, and Slim angrily considered the riders might be ‘sooners’;  cow hands sent out to search for strays before spring round up officially started, out on the open range secretly branding unmarked stock before everyone agreed roundup started.  Surviving calves could be branded or ear marked, meaning they would no longer be mavericks who had survived losing a mother cow over the winter months, and no longer available for dividing fairly among the ranchers participating in round up.

 

Only why would they cross from Baxter Ridge through the Sherman property and why damage fences on their way?  It was strange to go through Roy’s land when due west from Baxter Ridge was less distance to the open range and there were no fences.   Dan Baxter had not been one to fence in the west side of his property making it easy to move to the open range for him.  What he did fence in, was to the east towards town, where he planted crops of hay and oats.   

 

Slim Sherman, like most ranchers, needed to learn a number of useful skills in order to run a successful ranch,  however blacksmithing was one skill few ranchers tackled.   As a part of running a relay station for the stage line,  Slim had become a fairly good blacksmith, and farrier who had shod a great number of horses,  meaning he could not only recognize a good shoeing from a bad one, but a shoeing job done in town by Olaf Gunderson in his old world style at his blacksmith shop.  And unlike a lot of other ranchers, who didn’t know a coon track from a cow track, Slim Sherman could track a rabbit to St Louis if he had to, as Jonesy often told others; which is why Mort Cory frequently enlisted his help to ride posse when they might be going into difficult terrain for tracking.

 

Slim crouched down again to look at the tracks, determining there had been four horses and they were definitely going in one direction, maybe a day or two earlier.   If they were rustlers, they weren’t very bright or very good at it, as the tracks were obvious; no one had taken time to brush them out.  He found it disturbing where they were coming from and, something else.  One set clearly was quite different, a shoe print he had not seen in the area before and it aroused his curiosity.

 

Walking past the downed fence towards the ridge, he bent down to brush snow from a few more tracks, clearly seeing where the riders must have waited while the fence posts came down.   The night’s snow and cold temperatures kept the detail, but he was sure they were from the day before and no earlier.  Looking back toward Baxter Ridge he considered back tracking them as far as he could to their source, partly because he was just plain angry about the damage done, but also because he hoped to find Jess hadn’t been right about Nate Harwell.

 

As he turned to retrieve his horse, something ahead on the ground and to his left caught his eye.  The imprints in the snow were in the tear drop shape of a cougar’s paws, and they were on top the snow, large, freshly made, and heading south.  More compelling to him, they just happened to be running alongside the tracks coming up from the south, from the ridge, the tracks made by the riders who had downed his fence.

 

Slim rode southeast but soon found the tracks veering off in a more southerly direction, into deeper snow.   His pace slowed as the drifts made it difficult to follow whoever had ridden up through his property, but the direction still indicated they were coming from the Baxter ranch. Soon he found the cougar tracks deepened, and he judged it was running fast, probably in pursuit of quarry. 

 

Arriving at the crest of the ridge, he found the wind had blown most of the snow from the higher, rocky ground to the lower areas to the south.  The wind still gusted around him, moving toward the Laramie basin to the sharp drop in elevation, and eventually sloping towards the Little Laramie River.  Off in the distance he could see the road from town running due west for another ten or so miles to the tie camp at the base of the Snowy Range Mountains.  Dismounting, he dropped the reins to the ground, and slipped his rifle out.  He turned to scan the horizon; all the while unaware, he was visible to another rider. 

 

*****

 

Beckah Blewe usually rode out in the early mornings, rarely at the end of the day, but she had been on her way back from Needle Eye Pass the evening before last when she had spotted tracks running northwards across her property.  Suspicious, she had followed them to where the Hallorin and Sherman ranch joined to border hers. The tracks were the same tracks Slim Sherman now followed that morning, unaware the fourth set of tracks were from her own horse as she investigated.

 

What she found was the corner fence of the Sherman ranch down and the tracks trailing off into Hallorin’s land.   Continuing across his land, she found another fence down and realized she was out on open range according to the meager maps she had acquired of the surrounding areas.  Turning south towards the Sheep Mountains, she noticed more tracks joined up, but these were the tracks of cattle, a half dozen or so, running ahead of the riders.  Fairly certain whoever it was, they were moving toward Sheep Mountains, she followed until the ground went too rocky.  But when the sun began to show signs of setting, Beckah left the tracks to head south east until she came to the westerly rise of Baxter Ridge.  From there she rode as fast as she could for home, unaware she had been sighted and followed by Jess Harper, and later confronted by him upon her return to the ranch. 

 

Out riding this morning, the next day after the snow, she was enjoying the crisp air and when she slowed to cool her horse, she spotted someone to the west, up on the ridge.  She took concern and wondered if whoever it was, belonged to the tracks she had followed.  Moving closer she slipped her carbine out and urged her horse upwards. 

 

Whoever it was, he was tall, she judged as she watched him dismount and pull a rifle from his saddle, and turn to scan the area to the south.  Guardedly she considered it might be a sniper, and she the target.  Maybe Tilkey Joe had a friend who had somehow viewed his shooting on her ranch; Harper had been there, no telling who also might have been lurking around, someone working with Tilkey Joe maybe.  No she thought, he worked alone, she was counting on that arrogant habit of his.   And since she was not one to change a well-liked habit of her own of riding the ridge, she urged her horse forward, prepared for confrontation. 

 

Allowing her horse to slowly pick its way along the ground, now gone rocky in its upwards rise along the ridge, she was certain she could remain out of sight while moving up closer until she would be behind him and to his left.  When she saw the man shoulder the rifle and aim it southward, Beckah Blewe stopped her horse to pull the Winchester carbine upwards, cocking its lever as she swung it into shooting position.   Standing up in the saddle she sighted the weapon on the man’s chest, knowing from this distance of nearly two hundred yards she would have little difficulty making the shot.   The lighter weight ‘73 Winchester carbine with its 44 40 cartridge she now carried, thanks to Tilkey Joe, gave her the advantage, that, and her father’s well taught shooting skills.     

 

Ready to fire if she should be targeted, she kept her weapon up until a few moments later she watched the man lower his to lay it across both arms and begin stepping downwards among the rocks.  In her gun sights she tracked him until all that remained visible to her was his hat.  Relaxing slowly back into her saddle while resting the carbine across her left arm she urged her horse closer,  twisting her way up through the rocks until she was no more than about four hundred feet away from him.  She stopped when she saw the man step up onto a rocky outcropping, giving her view of the full length of him as he was staring southward searching for something, or someone. 

 

Luckily as she waited, the sun still had not reached an overhead position; an advantage which allowed her to continue watching him through her gun sights, unaware she was now on higher ground with the eastern sun at her back, and in his eyes should he unexpectedly turn around and decide to shoot.  Her finger was barely touching the carbine’s trigger, prepared to gently squeeze it if needed, when she spotted movement along the rocks ahead, a tan colored streak of something moving fast; and it was heading toward the man she still held within her gun sights.      

 

 

 

 

Chapter 9

 

 

Slim wasn’t sure what caused him to turn to his left, into the sun’s glare to see the cougar sprinting towards him.  Instinctively he grabbed his rifle swinging it around to fire, hoping his shot hit the cat as he needed time to cock the rifle again for another shot.  He knew one shot would unlikely take down a cat this size making a frontal attack, and he was right.  He felt the impact of the cougar’s body hitting him hard, just after it locked its mouth painfully around his hand.  Another shot sounded, only far away and his last thought before falling backwards,  along with the weight of the cat over the rocky ledge, was that the shot fired had not been, his.

                                         

As he woke, Slim immediately knew he was lying on rocky ground, and it was cold.  The sun was overhead and in his eyes, causing him to squint until something gave shaded relief from its glare.  Someone was peering into his face, someone with a dark brimmed hat, but he couldn’t quite make out who it was; and that bothered him.  His hand moved to his gun only to find it wasn’t there in its holster, so he rested the palm of his hand on the ground instead, and tried to sit up.

 

“I wouldn’t try that if I were you,” came a soft voice in warning. 

 

Good advice he thought considering the attempt didn’t feel so good, so he eased himself back onto the hard ground, his eyes going closed.  Soon aches and pains made themselves known as they reported in from parts all over his body; yet he didn’t think anything was broken when he fell.  When the word formed in his mind, it conjured up the feeling of falling backwards with a charging cougar attached to his arm.  Eyes snapping open, he again attempted to raise himself up to be stopped by a hand on his chest pushing him back down.

 

“You don’t listen very well,” said the same soft voice, a woman’s voice, and he connected it to the hat wearing person now shifting away from him to allow the glare of the overhead sun to hit his eyes once again.   

 

“What happened?” he asked blinking, “You shoot it?”

 

“I shot the mangy varmint, if that’s what you mean.”

 

“I missed it then,” he stated more than asked. 

 

“Seems my bullet’s the only one in it,” she answered.  “It’s lying over there, but I thought I’d bandage you instead.”

 

Slim wasn’t sure how to take the response; he was trying to track the face under the hat where the answers were coming from.  Once again trying to prop himself up onto his right elbow, he found it awkward for she suddenly gripped his left arm tightly keeping him off balance. “If you don’t stop moving around,” she said softly, “I can’t finish bandaging this hand of yours, and it will start bleeding again; now lie back or it’ll be your head needing bandaging next.”

 

The soft tone in which she spoke the threat almost made Slim smile, but he did as she requested, he laid back and as he did he turned his head to face her, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the dark contrast of her face in shadows against the harsh sunlight.   To shield his eyes, he slowly raised his right arm for shade, and when she flinched as she noticed, he murmured something about the sun. 

 

Before she went back to wrapping a strip of cloth around his hand, he had noticed the color of her eyes, a blue green and he thought something else.  Now he looked at an oval shaped face with high cheek bones and full lips, and the eyes looking down at his hand were heavy lidded with long lashes.  He wished she would raise them so he could see her eyes once more, to make sure he had not mistaken their color. 

 

She held his hand up to begin tearing the strip in a smaller piece and wrapping it around again to tie it off, and when she was done she looked back to him, her eyes meeting his.  He could only continue to stare at her, amazed at the flecks of gold floating in a sea of blue green;  then his eyes went down to her lips for they had parted slightly, and their corners seemed to be taking on an amused tip upwards. 

 

Beckah Blewe looked down at the man she was positive was her neighbor to the north, Slim Sherman.  When she had asked around about the owners of the lands bordering her ranch, she had him described to her by several town shop keepers.  The man who had been knocked over by a mountain lion to take a tumble several feet down into scrub, was definitely tall and slim, and had blond hair.  While he was unconscious she had determined his eyes were blue, as she had been told they would be by the blacksmith’s wife who seemed rather taken with him, delighted to describe him as having a long straight nose above full lips in a wide face framed by a sharp jaw line, resembling many strapping young handsome men back in her homeland somewhere. What was it she thought near Sweden maybe? 

 

It was likely more that Beckah Blewe noticed the S R brand on his horse when she brought it down to where he lay unconscious after his fall.  ‘S  R’ for  Sherman Ranch, she thought, so this is the man who had hired ex-Texas drifter Jess Harper to work for him.  As she looked down into his blue eyes, she found she understood the blacksmith’s wife.

  

For a long time Slim continued staring at the woman, as she was still holding his bandaged hand.  She was telling him something, maybe about her cleaning out the injury to his hand, only his eyes were distracting him.   Then a puzzled look traced across her face and she reached a hand over to rest it softly on his cheek before speaking to him, “You still with me?”  

 

And when he finally gave her a nod, still feeling her hand on his face, she asked him, ‘Can you get up?”

 

“I think so,” he hoarsely told her, and sat up for several seconds before beginning to get his legs under him.  He was grateful she helped him to his feet by holding his arm in support.  When he finally stood, he swayed a little, and he hurt a lot, but he was fine, he told her.  She released his arm and took a step back to look at him, judging whether he would remain on his feet as he had indicated. 

 

Slim could now look at the woman who had helped him.  She was dressed in a man’s large jacket and loose britches, her wide brimmed hat tipped back revealing dark red hair underneath, and she was fairly tall for a woman even allowing for the heeled riding boots.   He must have given her a strange look as he realized who she was, for she had to ask him twice if he could ride, and when he dumbly nodded to her, she leaned down to pick up his hat and hand it to him.  

 

Then reaching down for the Winchester, she swung it upwards to aim the weapon at him.   She cocked the carbine.   “I want you off my land.”  The words were flat and cold.

 

Startled he began telling her who he was, but she interrupted him, “I know who you are.  Now your rifle, and your gun are on that saddle over there, and that’s where you need to be if you’re going to get off my land without any further injury. 

 

“Do I make myself clear?”

 

 

 

 

Chapter  10

 

 

A couple of hours after the noon stage had been through; Jess came walking out of the barn to see Slim riding towards him.  When he was closer, Jess called out in a loud and teasing voice to him, “I was beginning to think you were staying away on account of its still my turn to cook.”   But when Slim awkwardly dismounted and Jess saw his hand wrapped in strips of white cloth he quickly asked,   “What happened, lose a couple of fingers to that mountain lion?” 

                                                                                  

“You could say that,” was Slim’s curt reply,   “I met our new neighbor today.”  He turned his attention to his horse and unloosening the latigo strap with one hand only to have Jess step over and move him aside, to do the work of unsaddling Slim’s horse for him.

 

“You say you met Blewie?” asked Jess watching Slim move stiffly around his horse and using his good hand, lift the rifle from its scabbard.   As  Jess continued flipping the stirrup up over Slim’s saddle to hook it onto its horn before loosening the rest of the straps, he  noticed the bruise on Slim’s face as well as the generally disheveled look about him.    “What happened, she shoot you?”

 

Frowning, Slim wasn’t sure what he wanted to say about his meeting with the woman Jess called, Blewie; which was surprising since his head had been full of quite a few good words about her as he rode back to the ranch in irritation and anger; wanting to turn around and ride to her home and explain to her just what he was doing there on her land.  He wanted to do that so she wouldn’t be justified in coldly pulling a gun on him; thinking she needed to threaten him to leave her property.  But he hadn’t done that, he didn’t want to consider she had a reason she didn’t want him on her land, because that reason just might be one that wouldn’t set well with him if he knew.

 

“Slim?” asked Jess, looking to see him standing in thought.  He waited until Slim glanced back at him and he questioned him again, “the hand?  She do that to you?”

 

“Ah, no, she bandaged it though.  I got it caught in the mouth of a cougar just before it  took me for a tumble into the brush;  haven’t seen a cat that big in a long time; tracked it down onto her property.  If she hadn’t shot it, I’d probably be dead.”

 

Jess stopped working on the saddle to look at him, “Are you all right Slim?” his voice went serious in concern, “taking a fall like that, maybe you ought to lie down or something.”  

 

Slim shook his head, but Jess wasn’t so sure his dismissal of the suggestion was a good idea given how he looked.  Warily Jess gave a disapproving sound and lifted the saddle and its multi colored pad from the horse to carry it into the barn and store it among the others.  Slim slowly followed him to move past him where he racked the rifle on the far wall.   Waiting until he turned around, Jess asked him, “So what do you think of Blewie?”

 

“I’m not sure,” said Slim looking at him while cradling his wrapped hand, “she took care of bandaging this, and then aimed a gun at me and ordered me off her land.”

                                            

“You tell her who you were?” asked Jess in surprise, “what you were doing.”  

 

“Strange thing is, I started to, and she said she knew who I was; and then she threatened to shoot me if I didn’t get on my horse and ride out.”

 

“Well that’s Blewie for you,” shrugged Jess, “meeting her is like showing up on the wrong end of a shooting gallery.”

 

“Yeah kinda felt like that,” agreed Slim.  “Wonder what set her off.”

 

“Hard to tell with Blewie; might be just ‘cuz I work here,” offered Jess as the two of them walked out of the barn.

 

“Somehow I don’t think so,” said Slim thoughtfully. 

 

Jess moved Slim’s horse into the corral, and as he was removing its bridle he said, “I was just fixing to go into town to Olaf Gunderson’s to pick up more horseshoes.  After shoeing Maizie  we’re down to those two smaller sizes; and the way these spring roads are wearing the feet off those broom tails, or old Mose is driving them over short cuts through the rocks, we’re gonna need to lay in a supply.  Might even need ‘Olaf’ out here for shoeing if your hands still bad.”

 

Slim glanced down at his wrapped hand, “a day or two, it’ll be fine.  I’ll be needing a new pair of gloves though.  And you could pick up a few more rolls of wire at Jock’s place; that whole south west corner fence is down.  And maybe some nails too.”

 

“The whole corner?” uttered Jess in disbelief.

 

“Yeah cross bracing and all; someone took it down on their way tracking into Roy’s land,” said Slim seriously, “looks like maybe sometime yesterday;  saw tracks of four riders.  I’m not sure what that’s about, but we need to get those posts and wire back up, and maybe keep checking for any other damage.  You better stop by Mort’s office and let him know.”

 

Jess shook his head, “I don’t Slim, Mort didn’t put much store in the last information I gave him.  Maybe I should bring a note from you.”        

 

“No note,” said Slim rubbing the back of his neck, “if he wants, he can talk to me.  The ranchers aren’t planning on meeting on spring roundup until week after next; the other ranchers should know so they can watch for anything suspicious.  Right now, I’m interested in warming up in front of a fire.”

                                            

“Need any of Jonsey’s special remedy?” called Jess after Slim who was walking to the house, “I’m sure I can dig a bottle outta the back shed for you.”

 

“And never hear the end of that if he finds out; no, I’ll be fine,” said Slim walking toward the house. 

 

 

 

 

Chapter  11

 

 

That afternoon, with her hat slipped back, Beckah Blewe stood in Olaf Gunderson’s dimly lit blacksmith shop watching the man and his young son quickly carrying a glowing hot rim over to a stone slab, where they dropped it on the wooden works of a wagon wheel.   Discarding long tongs for a mallet, the blacksmith began hammering along the rim’s edges until it started shifting downward into place around the wooden wheel, while his son poured water around the metal rim encouraging it to shrink down to a tight fit. 

 

It was another broken wheel Beckah Blewe needed to bring in for repairs, along with two broken hasps and two shed door latches.  No wonder Gunderson was all smiles whenever she showed up at his shop in need of forge work; she had become a frequent customer these days, and to the blacksmith’s delight, she was a cash paying customer.  

 

Well she finally had to admit someone was causing trouble for her; all these broken wheels, fences pulled or torn down and other assorted damages,  although minor items that had be irritating at first,  now giving her suspicions someone was deliberately  making her life difficult.   She could only speculate about who might be causing trouble for her.  Maybe, she thought, another rancher, one not so happy a woman was running a ranch by herself; men could be like that, but the  irony, she thought was that she had moved from Denver City and bought the Baxter place due to women having rights in Wyoming territory, the right to vote, to own property.  Well someone was not so happy with the territorial laws when it came to female ranchers.   Beckah Blewe just wasn’t sure what to think about Laramie men.

 

And then there was her foreman, hired for her; she didn’t know what to make of him, he seemed helpful enough, but there was something about his eyes; the way they always washed slowly over her sister, Allie.  To her exasperation, no amount of warning Allie was going to stop that for her sister was more than happy to give him the freedom of looking.  And despite the way Beckah Blewe dressed in the comfortable working clothing of men, she would unexpectedly find his eyes on her much the same way, only colder as if he knew something she didn’t.   Well, you can’t fire a man for looking, she thought, or she’d never find any to hire.

 

The hiss of steam shooting off the rim  mixed in with the smoky scent of burning wood and filled the air as Olaf and his son worked and she watched, thinking about her morning’s encounter with the owner of the Sherman ranch.  His property bordered along hers to the north and west; and would stand to benefit if she were forced to move, forced to sell out cheaply, at a loss.  She knew Jess Harper was working for him; and if Harper wasn’t trustworthy, what did that say about his employer?

 

But that afternoon when she had brought the wheel and other items in for repair, she had asked Olaf Gunderson about Mister Slim Sherman, only to find his answers didn’t quite fit the picture she had formed before meeting her neighbor; nor after spotting him when he was trespassing on her land.  Sherman had left easy enough, and she had not been about to give him any opportunity to do otherwise.  But there had been that moment, when he genuinely seemed flustered, almost boyishly so, to be informed she knew who he was, which gave way to his realizing her own identity.   She didn’t expect it, the look in those blue eyes of his, as if she had shot him instead of the cougar.  She found the image had stayed in her mind, slowly turning it over as it continued to puzzle her.                  

 

She had listened to Gunderson go on about the upstanding Slim Sherman, often serving as temporary law in Laramie;  riding posse when the sheriff needed to track down criminals;  running the Overland stage relay station, and raising a younger brother now off in school.  All in all, she considered things had gone well that morning for the community of Laramie; Sherman had left her property and she, on her part, had not shot him.  

 

Now standing in the blacksmith shop, she reluctantly had to admit to herself; her opinion about Sherman was changing, and that meant the possibility existed that her views on Harper might well follow.   And she wasn’t happy about that.   Bringing her attention back to Gunderson who had finished the wheel to stand it upright on its new metal rim; she heard him instructing his son to roll it out and place it in her buckboard.

 

“Yah that Slim,” Gunderson was telling her, “nice fellow; he’s a good one with shoeing too. Next to mine, pretty good.  You say you have meeting with him?”

 

“In a way,” Beckah Blewe said to him as his son passed her rolling the wheel along out of the shop.    

 

“You need someone, don’t worry,” Gunderson was telling her as he stood wiping a stained handkerchief over his perspiring forehead, “Slim Sherman is good neighbor, always helping.  Don’t worry about him. You see.”    

 

“How much for the repairs, Mister Gunderson?”  She was reaching for her money, but he held up his hands to tell her she could pay at the end of the week, when her other items would be done.  “And who knows,” he gave her a serious look, “if you should have misfortune; maybe other broken items to need repair.  You just be careful, and maybe not so many.”  

 

She held his gaze for several moments judging his spoken and unspoken advice.  Giving him an understanding nod, she turned to leave him to his other work, and saw Jess Harper standing in the open doorway of the shop.   Frowning she wondered how long he had been there, watching her.  

 

Heading to the doorway to leave, she stopped in front of him for he stood in her way, looking as if he was going to say something to her.   When he didn’t, she informed him, “I seem to be having a problem with my trigger finger today Harper, you just might want to step aside.”

 

He continued looking at her for several moments while she shifted her stance waiting for him.  When he spoke it was in a low toned growl of disapproval to her.   Just like a dad-gum woman, always spoiling for a dad-gum fight.” 

 

When she started to open her mouth, he calmly cautioned her,   Don’t get your feathers on end Blewie!   I ain’t standing here to argue with you.”

 

“Well then,” she huffed, narrowing her eyes at him, “you sure are making a great imitation of it here Harper.”

 

“Blewie,” he started, but rolled his mouth tight and shook his head as if to choose different words once again; when he had, he continued, “Slim told me.  This morning, your shooting that cougar; saving his life and all.  I just wanted to say, thanks.” 

 

“Well,” she surprised him with a flustered come back, “I wasn’t aiming for the cat.”

 

“In a pig’s eye,” exclaimed Jess with a quick smile, and when he saw her face mirror his own, he impulsively told her, “You know you look a lot better with a smile on your face Blewie.”

 

Instantly Beckah Blewe tensed, the smile gone, and Jess quickly offered, “Don’t go all boiling over now Blewie, I was just saying.”   He hesitated, and taking a deep breath he continued in a calmer tone, “thanks, that’s all.  I’m just saying thanks.”

 

“I don’t care what you were saying Harper; thanks or not, your employer was on my land, and he’s lucky I didn’t shoot him for a cow thief.” 

 

“What are you talking about, Blewie?  Slim’s no rustler,” snapped Jess angrily.

 

“Not saying he is,” she responded defensively and gave a shrug, “I guess I don’t know what I’m saying; he was on my land is all. Might have been tracking that cat, might not have been; how would I know?”

 

“Cause I’m telling you that’s how,” snapped Jess vehemently taking a step closer, “and it’s not just cause I happen to work for him.  Slim’s my friend Blewie.  Heck, he’s so dern law-abiding; he’d even arrest Sheriff Cory for not upholding the law.  What would give you the idea he was looking to steal cows; you having problems?”

 

“If I did, and I’m not saying I do, it’s nothing I can’t handle,” she told him cautiously. 

 

“Well if you got that no account Bortell working for you,” said Jess sternly, “likely you have problems you can’t handle.  I couldn’t help but hear Olaf talking about your, misfortunes.”  He waited a breath and continued. “Slim told me he found that corner fence of ours down between your and Roy’s land, and there were tracks showing it was no accident.  I reckon you might be having some of the same.”

 

Beckah Blewe turned away from him, crossing her arms as she needed to think; to consider his opinion of Bortell. She had nothing other than suspicions; and suspicions weren’t proof she told herself.  But instincts told her Harper was being truthful;  and to hear he didn’t like Simon Bortell, she had to admit she found her attitude shifting about Harper; and in some way it made her uneasy to think of trusting someone like him.  She wasn’t going to make that mistake again. 

 

She felt him move to stand behind her, and when he put a hand on her shoulder, she flinched and when she immediately turned around to look at him, his hand dropped back to his side.  “Blewie,” he said quietly, “I’m still offering to help.  It’s there if you want it; from me, or from Slim for saving his life.”  When she remained silent, he said, “If nothing else, just as neighbors helping out, like neighbors do when someone needs it.”

 

As she stood standing close enough to feel the warmth of his breath on her face, looking into his intense blue eyes, taking in their clarity,  weighing their honesty, she knew she was going to regret her next words.  “I’ll think about it Harper.”   And then she was surprised to see him visibly relax in front of her.

 

With her mouth tight and her eyes narrowed in thought, she said to him, “There is one thing you can do for me.”

 

“Yeah, sure, whatever you need Blewie,” he sputtered in some kind of relief that seemed strange to her.

 

“You can get the hell outta my way now Harper.” 

 

Immediately he stood aside to let her pass, and over her shoulder she tossed parting words, “And I mean that in, a neighborly way.”

 

Olaf Gunderson came up to stand next to Jess watching Blewie climb up onto her buckboard, slap the reins and pull away.  Jess turned to him with a grin, “Ol' Slim was right.”

 

The blacksmith gave a questioning look.

 

“Slim said I should just keep wearing her down.”

 

“This wearing down, it is working?”

 

”Sure,” said Jess, “she’s gonna think about it.”   Then concerned the blacksmith might have misunderstood, he added, “about neighborly things that is.”

 

"Ya know, My Helga?”  Olaf gave him a smile. “She vas neighbor.”

 

 

 

 

Chapter  12

 

 

Early the next morning, the scent of freshly brewed coffee blending into the heavy aroma of smoked ham sizzling in a cast iron skillet, filled the kitchen.  Opening the oven door to check the biscuits weren’t burnt again, Jess decided he was taking no chance; and using a kitchen towel, grabbed the pan to slip it from the oven into the upper warming compartment of the cook stove.

 

“Well ain’t you the sight,” declared Jess looking up to see Slim standing there still dressed in the same clothes from the day before, only without boots in his stocking feet and needing a shave.   “I reckon you must be hungry after missing supper last night.”  Jess reached over to pull a cup from the rack and poured hot coffee into it before handing it to him.  

 

Slim blinked sleepy-eyed taking the steaming cup. “Guess I must have fallen asleep after I built up the fire.   You should have woke me when you got back from town.”

 

Jess set a large bowl next to the stove where a basket of eggs waited.  “It was late, and I figgered you needed the shut eye more than my cooking.  So I laid several more logs into the fireplace, left you there and went to bed figgering you’d be up when you slept out.”  Jess started cracking eggs into the bowl, “Besides, nothing like missing a meal or two to make my cooking taste better.”

 

Slim took a sip of his coffee and said, “I dunno Jess, I don’t know if I could stand to miss that many meals.”

 

“Very funny pard,” chided Jess piling ham on a platter to slip it into the upper oven next to the warm biscuits, then tossing the mixture of eggs into the skillet.  “My cooking may not be prize winning, but there’s lots of it. Those hens must be just as happy to see winter go; got an egg from everyone of ‘em this morning; gave congratulations to the ladies when I collected.”

 

“You’re in a good mood this morning, any reason?” asked Slim sitting down at the small table where he was surprised to find plates and utensils already in place.   He set his coffee down and ran a hand through his sleep tossed hair as he waited for Jess to answer.   

 

“Blewie,” Jess told him stirring the eggs as they cooked. 

 

“Something happen to her?” asked Slim suddenly uneasy.

 

“Ran into her at Olaf’s place having some work done yesterday afternoon,” Jess pulled another platter out to empty the skillet’s scrambled eggs onto it and set the platter on the table.  “It was just like you said.”   He returned to the stove to pull the biscuits and ham from the warming oven as Slim asked him, “What did I say?”

 

“You know,” Jess said as he brought the food to the table, “about getting her to get used to seeing me around.”

 

"Did I?” said Slim watching Jess spoon some eggs off the platter before handing it to him.

 

“Sure,” said Jess, “and we had a nice little talk while she was getting a wheel fixed.”

 

Slim set the platter of eggs down after serving himself.  

 

“Then,” said Jess, “I thanked her for saving your hide yesterday, and she only threatened to shoot me once.”  He grinned grabbing a biscuit to toss it to Slim and reached for another one for himself. “One thing I can tell you,” he continued, “you sure got Blewie stirred up yesterday.”

 

Slim stopped mid fork waiting for Jess to continue.

 

“She was asking all sorts of questions about you Pard.”

 

“Like?” asked Slim in concern.

 

“Near I can tell from Olaf, she wanted to know if you were some kind of law-breaking, low life type or something,” said Jess between forkfuls of eggs and ham. “Aw don’t worry hard rock, I think she believed all them  nice things Olaf was saying about you; and just to be on the safe side, I told her you had a mile-wide mean streak of law-abiding honesty in you, and it couldn’t be beaten out.”

 

“Thanks I guess,” commented Slim frowning.

 

“For a while there,” spoke Jess thoughtfully, “she seemed like the Blewie I remembered.”   He gave a shrug and said, “then it was gone; she was all for scrapping again when I told her about overhearing Olaf going on about all the repairs she’s been bringing in to him lately, and that it might be on accounta she has that sidewinder Bortell working for her,  she wouldn’t admit having problems with him.  Funny thing,  when I told Blewie about that corner fence of ours down, it was like taking the slack outta her rope.”  

 

“You think she knew about it?” asked Slim setting his fork down.

 

“With Blewie it’s hard to tell,” said Jess reaching for another biscuit, “but it’s as plain as paint, something else is going on.  Thought I might take a ride down to her place on Friday; when Olaf says those other parts she’s waiting for are ready; I thought I’d be real neighborly like  and deliver ‘em.”   Jess paused to look at Slim as he told him, “maybe get her to wash off the rest of all that war paint of hers so I can find out what’s going on.”

 

“You’re pretty set on helping her?” observed Slim.

 

“There’s been a lot of sour hay pitched from the loft to the ground and back to the barn, and I guess I’m wanting to find out why; just wanna know why.”

 

You talk to Mort?” abruptly questioned Slim. 

 

“Nah!  He was out so I left him a note about the damage.”  Jess lifted another slice of ham to his plate and looked up at Slim who was holding his cup, deep in thought, his plate of eggs mostly untouched.

 

“What’s the matter Hard Rock,” he asked him in jest, “lose that hollow leg of yours?”

 

When Slim failed to give acknowledgement of the question, Jess set his fork down to ask, “You’ve been kinda quiet this morning; that hand of yours bothering you?”

 

Slim slowly brought his attention to the question, looked at his bandaged hand still resting on the table and said, “I guess.”

 

“Why don’t you go in and see the doc about it; and maybe have him give you a good looking over,” suggested Jess, “I reckon that fall  might a loosened all those hinges and bolts of yours up a little more than you thought.”

 

Slim gave a slow nod to the idea, “Yeeah I think I’ll do that.   And, maybe talk to Mort while I’m there; find out if he’s heard anything from the other ranchers.”

 

Scraping the remaining scrambled eggs from the platter to his plate Jess declared, “Since you’re off your feed this morning, guess it’s up to me not to insult those laying hens of ours; wouldn’t want to give ‘em the wrong idea if we weren’t appreciating their efforts.”

 

Slim stood up, but as he picked up his plate to move it to the counter, Jess grabbed it.  “And since I’m gonna be working for two for a couple of days, I’ll take these as well,” and he took the plate to scrape the remaining eggs onto his.  “And by the time you’re cleaned up, your horse will be saddled.  That is, unless you’re feeling poorly and need to take the buckboard.”

 

“I can ride,” said Slim with a frown as he turned to leave the kitchen.

 

“Say, Mose is driving noon stage into Laramie today, I’ll tell him to be on the look out for you in case you go all feather headed or something,” called Jess after him.

 

“I’ll be fine Jess.”  

 

Only Slim didn’t really feel truthful about his reply.  At the least, he couldn’t judge what he did feel until he talked to Mort Cory.  And after that, he wanted to do some serious thinking on his own.    

 

 

 

 

Chapter 13

 

 

Two days later, when morning had given bright promise to a warm spring day,  Jess had left the ranch in the buckboard, loaded up with several replacement posts for the downed corner fence between the three ranches, theirs,   Roy’s and Blewie’s.    Only Mother Nature was to break her earlier promise; kicking up the wind and turning the sky from blue to grease gray, as she announced the coming of her dark and stormy mood.  It left Jess regretting he had not grabbed his winter jacket from the hook by the door on his way out that morning.  But he hadn’t, and if he wanted to stay warm as the temperature dropped, he needed to work faster in setting the last of the fence posts.  The plan was to return the next day with Slim, his hand nearly healed, and the two would make short order of the job of re stringing wire and finishing the cross-bracing of the corner; something Slim had been chewing on him to get done.  

 

Several times, as the wind picked up, gusting and rushing about, Jess thought he heard something on the air, and he recalled Slim’s earlier warnings about wolves down from the winter snow-filled mountains, roaming about in search of easy prey.    Next to the rifle behind the wagon’s seat was tucked an extra box of ammo Slim had handed to him along with the warning before he left.  He thought of Slim standing there as he pulled away from the ranch, looking as if he were relieved Jess would be gone for the better part of the day.

 

In fact, now that he had time to think about it, Slim had been on the uneven side of contrary  since tangling with that cougar a couple of days ago.  As a result of his injured hand, the two of them had switched chores, Jess outside work and Slim, with his bandaged hand,  to quietly handle the inside duties of cooking and cleaning.  And when Jess had jokingly remarked Slim’s one-handed cooking wasn’t much better than his own two-handed attempts, it riled Slim enough to snap back to him that he could make a meal of his own teeth if he didn’t lay off him.  And things didn’t get much better yesterday afternoon when Slim found out from Mose who came driving the west bound stage in for a team change,   a stage line superintendant was coming in for inspection the next day.  

                                                      

Slim could be tetchy at times thought Jess, when things weren’t going well on the ranch, but he had been either barking at him or ignoring him since he got back from town after seeing the doc.   Jess had deemed it on accounta the injury to his hand, but according to the doc, Blewie had done a fine job on bandaging it, and it would be good as new in a short time.  Only Slim didn’t act like it; and Jess had to conclude the injury or any other kind of injury at this time of year with the work needing to be done before spring calf round up, had likely worried Slim into a bad mood. As a result, Jess found himself feeling restless and on edge, and digging new holes and re-setting posts that morning to escape the ranch, was a good enough reason to be working by himself  

 

Thinking of bad moods, Jess glanced over to where the buckboard was standing, both horses Maizie and Two Socks,  were getting restless as the afternoon wore on.   He was sure they felt the same as he did, a storm was coming.  Noticeably picking up speed, the wind had been building to a noisy rush through scrub and cottonwood trees, driving the first wisps of snowflakes along in warning of more to come.   Only half a dozen more posts to set, and Jess and the two girls would be heading back to the ranch, where he hoped that superintendent was done and gone; may be leaving Slim with a better disposition when he returned.  

                                                

Later when he had just dropped the digger to lift the next post upwards and sink it into position, there came the cry of a cat floating along the wind.  Jess tensed and waited, but there were only the sounds of the two horses restlessly stamping feet, rattling harness and gear.  Moving back to the wagon he looked around, scanning the area, the snowflakes no longer teasing but flying furiously enough to obscure his vision several yards out.

 

Cautiously he moved to the front of the wagon to step up on the wheel’s hub and reach down to grab his rifle when another cry came sharply along the air, and he knew the predator was much closer.  As a result, the two horses were wildly stamping and pawing the ground, wide-eyed with ears back, nostrils flaring as they jostled each other.  The wagon’s jerky movement caused Jess to swing an arm out to keep from losing his balance, unaware he had knocked against the brake stick nearly disengaging it.  Slipping to the ground he took a step away from the wagon, rifle cocked, eyes searching for movement as he slowly, carefully, made his way around to the back of the wagon. 

 

Jess sensed the cat as much as discerned the dark outline of its long body stretched out in a run towards the wagon.  Instinctively,  he pulled the rifle up to aim across the wagon’s bed.  He took the shot and stepping around to the back of the wagon, cocked the rifle again for a second shot if needed, but the cat had taken the hit, dropping instantly to the ground.

 

In the excitement of hearing the rifle fired, Maizie on the left, already nervous at the approach of the cougar, squealed in panic and reared to fall back on her rump against Two Socks. Both horses shoved the wagon’s tongue back at an angle, the corner of the bed knocking into Jess, pushing him awkwardly backwards, causing him to accidentally fire the rifle.

 

Upon hearing the second shot the two horses were frantic to escape, lunging forward to fully disengage the brake as they bolted in terror.  The sudden movement propelled the last two wooden posts from the wagon’s bed to hit Jess in the chest.  Slammed backwards into one of the fence posts set behind him, he felt the air violently knocked from his lungs.  Stunned, he slid to the ground, rifle in hand, desperate to draw air back into his chest, and painfully failing the efforts, he soon passed out. And as he lay slumped against the post, motionless, Mother Nature quietly cared for him, laying her winter-white blanket of snow down on him.

                                                                                          

 

 

Chapter 14

           

Not unlike a finely chiseled statue, Slim Sherman stood leaning against the front porch post deep in thought.  Turning over several concerns in his mind, he found his thoughts kept drifting back to the woman who had bandaged his hand as he looked up into her blue green eyes, before realizing she was his new neighbor, the one who Jess knew as Blewie. 

 

Even when riding back to the ranch after his encounter with her, he was uncertain about what he should say to Jess.  Could he tell him their fence was deliberately dragged down, and the tracks of the perpetrators included the tracks of the horse she was riding that day?   He had ridden away as she ordered him, under threat of her weapon, and as he did he had spotted the hoof prints of her horse and followed them.  Once out of sight he slipped down from his saddle for a closer view, judging them to be similar enough to be the same tracks he had seen around the damaged fence.  

 

And the next day, Slim had found it easy to take the suggestion of Jess, to ride into town to see the doc about his hand; it gave convenience to talk to Mort Cory about the damage to the ranch’s fencing, among other things.    He had been surprised to learn from Mort, there had been no reports from any of the other ranchers, even Roy Hallorin, nothing of any damage or other unexplained events.   

 

Slim had known Mort Cory a long time as the two of them rode together for a while after the war was over; the older man returning earlier to Laramie to hire on as a deputy before eventually becoming sheriff.  Maybe all the necessary words weren’t spoken between them, but Slim could see Mort picked up on his reluctance to personally take his suspicions to Roy’s place about their neighbor; and that reason was Jess’s involvement with this Blewie.  Mort assured him he would keep an eye open, and if Roy Hallorin hadn’t stopped in with any problems, Mort might just take a friendly ride over to visit Roy and his new wife in a day or two, maybe share the latest gossip.   If there was anything wrong, he’d hear it then.

 

Slim wanted to give Beckah Blewe Harris the benefit of a reasonable explanation, and charging over to Roy’s place would surely be ill-taken by Jess,  if later it were to be revealed someone else had been riding her horse.  And that’s what he kept telling himself, let Mort look for the explanation.  As sheriff he was still looking into the incident Jess had reported of shooting someone out at the Baxter Ranch; and the damaged fencing was just one more reason Mort should be asking the questions. 

 

Jess knew there was more going on surrounding the ranch’s new owner;  and now Slim shared that same concern.  Only Slim had one other concern, one that bothered him even more than he wanted to admit; Rebeckah Blewe Harris was someone he wanted to be innocent, to be the victim and not the villain in all this.  He couldn’t say why it mattered to him, why it mattered not just because she was someone from Jess’s past, connected to his family; it just did matter to him.            

 

When he eventually noticed a chill to the air, he scrutinized the western sky now grown dark, giving off the signs of another approaching storm.  The east bound stage was due in, and Mose would be driving, so he moved back into the house to make a fresh pot of coffee.  

 

The cups were out and ready when Mose came racing the team in for fresh horses.  But Mose loudly proclaimed he needed to high tail it out again, no time for coffee.  He was running only a few lengths ahead of a screamer coming down from Montana, already snowing up through Copper Creek; and it was following him eastward, chasing him towards Cheyenne where he wanted to be before it caught up to his aching bones.  When Mose asked, Slim told him Jess was down in the south pasture setting posts, but he’d probably be back soon given the change in weather. 

 

Later that afternoon, a couple of  hours since Slim had waved Mose onto Laramie,  Jess still hadn’t returned, and coming back out to the porch to find he needed warmer clothing, gave Slim the reason he could no longer wait.  After grabbing Jess’s winter jacket left on its hook by the door, he quickly made his way out to the barn.  With his left hand wrapped up tightly, he slipped it into one of his new gloves before managing to saddle up his horse and ride out in the direction of the south west corner fence, hoping to meet Jess, making his way back home in the buckboard.  As he turned his collar up against the cold wind with its flakes of snow beginning to fill the air, Slim was worried.

 

*****

 

“Jess!”  yelled Slim as he stood up in his saddle.   Turning around, he needed to reach for the brim of his hat as the wind kept trying to madly reshape it, and again he yelled into the driving snow for Jess.   Urging his horse forward he looked up at the sky now prematurely gone dark as the storm moved down from the north west.  Uneasily Slim calculated there would only be a few hours of fading light before it would be too dark to continue his search, and he would need to turn back, or find shelter until the worst of it swept over the open range.   Mose always said, it might snow in Wyoming, but it drifted into the Nebraska and Kansas territories.

 

Judging by the large familiar cluster of cottonwoods ahead, Slim was fairly certain he was getting close to the south west corner fence where Jess had gone to work.  A lull came in the wind and he could make out the outline of the two horses and buckboard ahead.   It must have been late that Jess realized,  he needed to get himself back before dark,  only to find he had run into problems.   Despite the relief Slim felt to finally find Jess, there came an awareness of culpability washing through him, for not starting out sooner.  Pulling his hat down to keep the cold wind from driving snow into his face, Slim spurred his horse in the wagon’s direction thinking Jess would be pretty damn happy to get his winter jacket in this cold wind.            

 

As he approached the buckboard and saw no sight of Jess, he knew something was wrong; Jess wouldn’t leave a wagon here in a storm to head out on foot; he’d unhook Maizie and Two Socks, the team, and ride one out leading the other in the direction of home.     Like a rider-less horse, an abandoned team and wagon signaled the worst for those who encounter them, conjuring up the possibility their owner was either dead or injured, or afoot in dangerous territory. 

 

Dismounting and tying the reins to the wagon’s seat, he made his way around looking for Jess while the two horses nervously stamped snow crusted hooves on the ground, their snorting breath visible on the wind as it blustered about them.   When he reached the other side of the wagon, it suddenly moved forward several feet, and he could see the brake was disengaged. 

 

Shoving it back into position,  he put a foot up on the hub of the wheel and climbed up into the wagon to stand.  There he shouted for Jess again; turning he raised his gloved hands to cup them around his mouth, and against the wind he shouted several more times.  Listening above the storm for a response, he waited.  He watched the swirling snow, nervously flowing in and around the dark trunks of the cottonwoods and scrub, creating little drifts only to have them blown away into the rocks.   But there was no sign of Jess, no sound of an answer to his call.

 

Glancing down he saw the wagon’s bed was empty, there were no tools and the back tail board was in the down position,  now filling with bits of snow moving about until they drifted underneath the seat.  Reaching down, his hand searched and found only a box of ammo wedged into a corner, no rifle as either of them always carried.  He stepped down from the wagon, and brought his horse around to tied the reins to the back of the buckboard before returning to the wagon’s seat.   He urgently directed the two horses towards the south west corner of the Sherman Ranch, as it was the next likely place he might find Jess, and the answer to why he wasn’t with the team.     

 

 

*****

 

Moving along the fence line to his right, Slim managed to guide the buckboard at a slow, but steady pace despite the wind and driving snow.   Finally a break in the wind came, and he realized he was only a few yards from the corner fence.  Standing up as he pulled the horses to a stop, he could see where Jess had set nearly all the posts except for a few;  a gap remained on the south section of the corner.   His eyes searched the area until they came to a dark shape about two posts away from the north side of the corner.  Slapping the reins he brought the wagon closer and stopped, setting the brake and quickly scrambling down. 

 

He had found Jess sitting on the ground with his back to one of the fence posts, head slumped forward and holding his rifle.   Slim knelt down on the snow, quickly setting a hand on Jess’s shoulder to rouse him, calling his name, and at the same time slipping his other hand down to feel if Jess was still breathing.   After Slim called his name several more times, Jess finally began to stir.

 

“Are you hurt?” Slim asked him over the sound of the wind, “Anything broken?”

 

Jess coughed several times before he could manage to shake his head.   Giving a lop-sided grin up at Slim, he told him through chattering teeth. “Hey Slim, got me a mountain lion.” 

 

Slim looked over in the direction Jess had managed to gesture to see about ten feet away, the snow covered, white outline of a mountain lion, smaller than the one Beckah Blewe had shot.  He looked back down at Jess, clothes covered in blowing snow sticking to every crease and fold, and his face drawn and so pale it was almost white.  But Jess’s hand was tugging on Slim’s arm as he gave a croaking laugh, “Got hit by a wagon!”

 

“Anything broken?” again asked Slim; he took the rifle from his gloved hand.  Jess shook his head, but wrapped his arms around himself and began shivering from the cold.   It didn’t take long for Slim to retrieve the jacket rolled up behind his saddle.  “Get this on,” he told Jess as he helped him get his left arm into one of the sleeves, but he stopped moving him forward when Jess suddenly gave a gasp in pain.   

 

“Are you sure nothing’s broke,” Slim had to shout to him over the increasing wind. 

 

Jess shook his head again, but bringing his left hand over to the upper part of his chest, he said, “…sometimes hurts, to breathe.”

                                             

Slim carefully moved Jess’s right arm upwards as he felt along his upper chest and up towards the shoulder.  “I don’t think you broke your collar bone, but you can’t stay here.   How bad is it?  Can you get up?” he asked.

 

“I can make it,” Jess looked up at him, “just get me over…to the wagon.”   Slim nodded and reached his arm around Jess to raise him upwards to his feet.  Once standing, Jess leaned against Slim as he got his right arm into the jacket before Slim buttoned up the front securely.  While he couldn’t hear much over the storm, Slim knew Jess’s breathing was rough.  “How you doing?” he asked as Jess heavily leaned his weight into him.   

 

Jess answered after a few coughs, “Just cold is all; just…damn cold. Think I inhaled half this damn storm.”    

 

Slim straightened as he held onto Jess in order to look at the horizon to the west where the sky had begun to glow behind the dark clouds.  It told him the worst of the storm was yet to come before it would be over, more snow would follow to swallow them where they stood.  Suddenly the air was filled with the booming sound of thunder, and  Slim Sherman knew the storm was taking a mean and ugly turn; they would need to find shelter soon, and it needed to be warm shelter or Jess wasn’t going to make it.    

 

Half hauling, half walking Jess over to sit on the back of the buckboard,  Slim  shouted to him,   “We’re not going to get the wagon out; we’re gotta ride out.  You think you can do that?” 

 

“Jess,” he called again over the wind, but Jess was unresponsive as he sat slumped against the side of the wagon.   Slim moved him until he was lying on his back on the wooden bed, and almost immediately Jess curled his body upwards onto his right side, knees to his chest to make a smaller target for the wind’s blast.   Moving quickly, Slim unhooked the two horses, Maizie first to lead her around to the side of the wagon and tie her long reins up, and then Two Socks bringing her around behind the other horse and tying her lead into Maizie’s harness to insure the two horses would follow his own when he was ready to leave.

 

Slim came back to where Jess lay on the wagon’s bed to tell him, “you got to get up now, we’re leaving.”   He reached to pull Jess towards him until he got him to the edge of the bed and onto his feet.  Jess was more leaning than standing against Slim.  Over the wind, Slim shouted at him,   “You need to walk Jess, you need to move or you’ll freeze out here.”   Jess seemed confused and unable to move, and Slim continued yelling at him until Jess walked the steps towards the waiting horse with him.  “Ca’mon, Jess, we don’t have much time, you need to get up in the saddle.”  

 

As Jess leaned against Slim’s horse, Slim reached down to grab his left leg by the boot to lift him upwards hoping he could hang onto the saddle’s horn.  Once he was sure Jess was seated far enough ahead, Slim untied the reins of his horse and turning sideways, slipped a foot up into the stirrup to launch himself upwards and behind Jess.  Adjusting his weight while securing both feet into his stirrups, he moved his arms around Jess, as much in support as to use the reins to guide his horse around to the two waiting animals.  Awkwardly reaching down, he tied Maizie’s long reins to the back of his saddle, and began moving away from the abandoned buckboard, the team now following him. 

 

Once Slim could get his bearings in the wind driven snow, he urged his horse upwards towards the crest of Baxter Ridge, where he knew he could find the closest warm shelter from the storm.   Their progress would prove to be slow and treacherous for the two men and three horses, and worried Slim if they could make it through the storm that night.   And he worried even more about the greeting they would be given, once they had arrived half-frozen on the doorstep of Rebeckah Blewe Harris.  

 

 

 

 

Chapter 15

 

 

When Beckah Blewe opened the front door, it was with a well aimed sawed-off double-barreled, twelve-gauge scatter gun.   How else would she answer trouble these days, especially when it came loudly pounding on her door in the middle of the night,  Luckily it had come announcing itself before she had retired for the evening, when her mind had been on things as she had sat watching flames flicker lowly in the fireplace of her living room.

                  

Now standing in the open door way, the yellow-gold lamp light washed out from behind her to illuminate two men, one with his arm around another one slumped against him as snow flurried about them.  When she recognized the face of the taller man, she quickly set the gun aside.  Wordlessly reaching out her arm, she tugged him into the warm room, and closed the door to the storm behind them.

 

“Get him on the settee,” she ordered her neighbor Slim Sherman, and she moved to the fireplace to load two more logs into the fire, roughly thrusting a poker in to rock them over the glowing coals until the flames brightly snapped as they flared upwards.   When she turned around to look at the trouble she had invited into her home, she saw Sherman down on one knee next to her settee, removing the black leather gloves of the other man who was hunched forward, half unconscious in a sitting position. 

 

When the snow covered hat came off next to reveal dark curly hair and long full sideburns, she realized it was  Jess Harper and he didn’t look good,  eyes closed, his face pale and obviously in some kind of distress.  Even as she moved to stand next to the settee, she could tell his breathing was coming with difficulty as he continued shivering from being outdoors in the cold.    She looked down at him and asked, “What happened?”

 

Sherman was unbuttoning Harper’s heavy jacket, the crusty snow beginning to melt into droplets before running down along the material to shake out onto the rug laying on the wood floor.  “Mountain lion,” he said turning to glance up at her and upon her giving a look of surprise, he added, “he killed it; probably the mate to the other one.”  

 

As Harper’s jacket was carefully eased off, he coughed several times, giving a soft groan.  Beckah Blewe immediately reached out to help pull the other jacket sleeve off, taking the garment to place it on the back of a chair near the fireplace to dry out.   Sherman continued speaking to her as he carefully moved Harper into a laying position on her settee, before going about removing one of his boots. 

 

“He was out setting fence posts at our south corner, and the cat probably spooked the team;   I think he got hit by the wagon and slammed into one of the posts.”  He looked to her with worried blue eyes and added, “Your place was closer with the storm; I’m sorry to bother you, but I didn’t think I could get him back to the ranch in time; it’s pretty bad out there.” 

 

She looked back to Harper where he lay on the settee, now mumbling between coughs and finding it difficult to draw in air.  Wordlessly she knelt down next to the sofa to put a ear to his chest and listen to his breathing.  As she leaned back, she ran her hands down along his shivering chest and over the wet shirt feeling for his ribs as his chest expanded and contracted.  “I don’t think he broke any ribs, might have bruised some of the upper ones, might be cracked, but I don’t’ think that’s the problem.”

 

She looked up and over to see her young sister, Allie, standing across the room in her long white nightgown watching  the two visitors,  but as she continued speaking to Sherman, she said, “We need to get him out of these wet clothes and under some warm blankets; he’s cold as ice.”   Then addressing her sister, Beckah Blewe called to her, “Allie get those two wool blankets out of the chest right away and bring them here.”    Her sister looked at her sleepily, but turned to leave the room.  

 

Bending over him again, Beckah listened to Harper’s breathing once again, her ear on his chest and feeling his shallow breath flow across her face.  She could hear the rough scratchy sounds as he drew in a breath, and again when exhaling.  It was something she had heard before, and it wasn’t pneumonia, though some might mistake it for that.  

 

“What is it?” Sherman asked watching her kneeling back on her heels to look at him.  She inquired, “You think he had the wind knocked out of him?”

 

“I guess if he was shoved hard enough into the post I found him laying up against; must have been there for some time before I found him.” 

 

“Did he complain of any sharp pain when taking a deeper breath?” she asked, and took Sherman’s return nod as confirmation.  “His lungs might have been jostled pretty hard,” she said to him and finished her explanation as she stood up, “I’ve heard it before when someone took a bad fall; can shake up the lungs good and hard, loosens up something inside.  Could clear up on its own; as long as it doesn’t turn into pneumonia.  He’s been out in the cold too long, and that’s not good; probably why he’s so disorientated.  I don’t think it’s from any internal bleeding.” 

 

Beckah Blewe leaned down and began unbuckling Jess’s gun belt. As she turned her head to catch the profile of Slim Sherman while he worked getting Harper’s other boot off, she could see he was worried, but there was something else, she couldn’t define.   Carefully slipping the gun belt from under Harper, her eyes took in how lean and compact his body was laying there.

 

“Don’t you believe in feeding the help Sherman?” she asked him not sure why she felt the need to take some of the worry out of his face.

                                                                 

He glanced over at her as he set the second boot on the floor next to the first.  “We split the cooking between us.  Problem is neither of us is any good at it.”  

 

“Then I guess my little sister is the only one around here should be allowed near a stove,” she said as she unbuckled Harper’s other belt to slowly slip it from its loops.  She looked over to see Sherman’s face had relaxed; and his glance showed he took in her full meaning. 

 

She had started unbuttoning Jess’s shirt when Allie came up to stand behind her, sleepily holding the blankets.  “Sis, unfold one of them; lay it over that chair nearest the fire to warm it up.” 

 

Suddenly Beckah Blewe realized something, and quickly stood up. “I need to get your horses in the barn for the night.” 

 

“I can do it,” said Slim starting to move.

 

But she stopped him with a quick gesture, “no you need to get Harper out of those wet clothes; all of them, and under these blankets as quickly as you can.   I’ll get the horses into the barn, and I have a mare about to foal that I want to check on.   Besides you’re still half froze yourself; you must get outta that jacket of yours, and stand by the fire to warm yourself.”   Her expression gave him no room to object to her orders.

 

Turning to her sister, she said, “Come along Allie;  you need to get into the kitchen to get a pot of coffee going;  Mister Sherman here needs something hot in him before he catches his death of cold.”  

 

As she moved her sister towards the kitchen, Beckah Blewe continued talking to her, “and before you take a chill yourself, get a robe on.   I will be back in once their horses are bedded down for the night; that is, unless Tilly Rose has decided to have her colt during this storm.”

 

*****

 

It took Beckah Blewe some time to move the three horses into her barn, needing to take them one by one due to the storm’s blowing snow.   After looking in on her mare who stood quietly waiting in the double stall with extra freshly pitched straw, Beckah went about unsaddling Sherman’s mount,  and removing bridles and collars of the two other horses, before feeding and watering them.   She had quickly brushed down all three horses, making sure they were dry and clean, and noting they were fine animals, docile and appearing well cared for.  It was something she thought, spoke well about their owner. 

 

Later, she fought her way through the storm back into the kitchen, to feel its welcoming warmth, and take in its heavy aroma of freshly brewed coffee.  Once her jacket, scarf and hat were hung up next to the door, she made her way through the kitchen and around to the open dining area where she found her sister there.  

 

Allie, now dressed in her favorite red robe, stood holding Sherman’s heavy jacket as she curiously observed the two men in their living room.  Beckah Blewe stepped to her, to touch her sister on the arm, giving her a questioning look.  Allie only smiled at her before turning around to drape Sherman’s jacket over the back of one of the tall dining room chairs behind her. 

 

She reached an arm around Beckah Blewe to draw her closer to her and whispered in her ear, “You smell like that mare out there in the barn. You might wanta do to something about that.” 

 

Raising an eyebrow at the suggestion, Beckah whispered back to her, “and why would I want to do that when I’m just going to be going back out again?’   Allie gave her a little head gesture to where Sherman was trying to make a restless Harper more comfortable under the blankets on her settee.

 

She looked at the two men, and back to her sister. “I think you’re fresh enough for the two of us Allie; now why don’t you get yourself into bed, and let me take care of the company.”    With a slight tilt to her head, Allie gave a gentle squeeze of affection to her sister’s waist and moved off in the direction of her room, leaving her sister alone with the two men.

 

After a few moments of studying the storm’s unexpected guests, Beckah Blewe walked across the living room to stand next to her neighbor.    Reaching a hand down, she placed a palm on Harper’s forehead, and when he tried turning his head away, she continued to firmly hold her hand there, steadying him in place even as he tried squirming away.   His skin felt hot and moist to her.

 

“He has a fever,” she pronounced looking up at Sherman, then added, “It’s his body’s way of correcting itself.  There’s something I have that might help him a little with the pain in his lungs.”  She turned to walk away and stopped when she heard Harper speak.

 

“Slim?” he croaked as if calling out half asleep in a dream.  Concerned, Sherman bent down, putting one hand on the back of the settee and the other next to Harper’s shoulder to lean in closer to him.  “What is it Jess?”     

 

“What happened,” Harper managed to weakly ask before coughing again.

 

“You were hurt, an accident with the wagon, remember?”  

 

Harper shook his head slightly before taking in a deeper breath between coughs, and winced from the pain before rasping,  “I mean, where are we?”

 

“The storm got bad Jess, I had to bring you down to Blewie’s place,” he told him, and gave a sideways glance to where she stood in front of the fire place now, arms folded in front of her watching.      

 

For several moments, Harper didn’t say anything, his breathing was shallow and labored, then drawing a hand from under the blankets, he rubbed his forehead.  Sherman waited for any further response, leaning in deep concern over him.  Eyes slightly opened to look up at Sherman, Harper started to speak again, only he coughed, and when he could manage it, he said in a wheezing voice, "you gotta … make her, Slim…"   He paused, and rolled his eyes tightly closed as again he took the pain of a deeper breath.  

 

“Jess?” questioned Sherman.                                          

 

Harper’s eyes lifted slightly up to him, and in the lamp light Beckah Blewe could see they glistened, now taken with the fever moving through him.

 

“Make her what Jess?” anxiously asked Sherman again.

 

Harper drew in a pained breath, and groaned, “Make Blewie, unload her guns, Slim.  Don’t let her …. shoot you.”  Then exhausted, he seemed to drift into a restless sleep.  

 

Sherman stood up, turned to look at Beckah Blewe apologetically, “I’m sure he didn’t really mean that,” but she cut him short as she told him, “Don’t call me Blewie.”

 

Sherman’s eyebrows raised in reaction, and she continued as she shifted her hands to rest behind her where she stood enjoying the fire.  “And, I’m not unloading my guns, especially when it comes to Harper, even if he is laying half dead on my living room furniture.”  She paused to punctuate her position with a curt nod, and then added, “And I’d rather you call me, Beckah Blewe.” 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 16                                                                                

 

 

Beckah Blewe sat on the floor with her back against the settee on which Harper lay sleeping, his breathing now steady and appearing to be less painful for him.  His face had relaxed into that little boy quality that reminded her of her brother, Aubrey Lang Harris.

                                                    

The two were alike in other ways as well, both Harper and her brother, in their wild inclination to test themselves physically whenever the opportunity arose; and their quick temper, irrespective of consequences.  Wrap that up, with their overriding judgment they were better than nearly anyone they came up against, and they were a real danger.  Not just to themselves and others around them,  but unintentionally to the ones that loved them.

 

She gave an internal sigh, concluding no amount of arguing could get them to understand what experience would eventually teach them, also bringing painful regret along with it; if they lived long enough.   Aubrey hadn’t, shot several times in a gun fight on the noisy streets of a Saturday night in Abilene,  and she  wondered about Harper, when his street would take him in a violent ending.    

 

Yet somehow, Harper had managed to survive long enough for her to unexpectedly encounter him; and surprising her to learn he had been working for a rancher near Laramie for the last two years.  Why couldn’t it have been Harper killed in Abilene, instead of Aubrey, she bitterly chastised her brother’s irresponsible behavior.   Uninjured he had survived the last two years of the war, only to come home nearly a year later and only long enough to get involved in frequent fights;  and killing a man after ending up taking a bullet in the leg. 

 

One day, when she had been living in Waco, Aubrey came drifting through long enough to tell her he was on a cattle drive north to Sedalia, and wasn’t staying home to run their own ranch as their father needed.   Not long after, her mother wrote of her father’s death, and her mother’s need to sell their land and her taking little Alianna to New Orleans,  to live with her mother’s older cousin.

 

And two years later, when Beckah was living in Abilene Kansas, Aubrey showed up somehow finding her.  A week later he was killed, and she bitterly wrote to her mother in New Orleans of Aubrey’s death.  Shortly after, her mother suddenly took ill, and before she could travel to her, she had died.   Aubrey Lang didn’t just get himself killed, she judged, he managed to take both her parents with him when he had not returned from the war to take care of his family.  Not unlike Jess Harper.

 

Pulling her knees up to wrap her arms around them; she rested her head upon them, and judged by the faint light behind the window curtains, sunrise was less than an hour away.  She knew the storm was finished almost two hours ago when she had trudged out the kitchen’s back door a third time that night to find the sky nearly clear.   But the ground would continue playing host to swirling snow drifts for several more hours, as the storm’s wind continued to blow eastward. 

 

Out in the barn, she had been surprised each time, finding her mare had yet to deliver her baby; and the pregnant horse seemed contented to patiently wait.  Beckah Blew had been certain the storm would have brought on the delivery of the colt, as storms often did when a birth was nearing its time.  And while there, she had checked on Sherman’s three horses, resting quietly, happily indoors and seeming no worse for their trek through the storm.

 

It was something that couldn’t be said about her guests.  Harper was in her living room laying on her settee fighting as Sherman quietly tended to him.  And after returning to the house, to her warm living room, she had brought a cup of coffee to him, convincing him to take one of the chairs by the fireplace while she took over with cold compresses to ease Harper’s fitful fever.  Several times during the last hours,  she had even managed to get Harper to drink some tea mixed with a tincture of willow bark,  hoping it would help with the painful aches of the fever.  She thought it had.

 

Turning her attention to the sleeping Sherman, she took in how he leaned slightly against the side of the high, wing-backed chair, under the light blanket she had laid over him once he had dozed off.  Exhausted, he had fallen asleep, and thankfully remained undisturbed by Harper’s ranting fever talk,   mixed in with the curses ranch hands frequently tossed off at unruly stock.  She recognized Harper’s Texas panhandle lingo, it was one of those things she could do, tell by a drover’s choice of words just about where he had been raised, or learned his trade.

                                                                                                                     

One of the unexpected things about drovers she had discovered once you got to know them was how naturally talkative almost all of them were among their own kind.  It probably came from all the lonely hours spent out in the big open, so far away from anything resembling the distractions of civilization.  Set them in front of one or more strangers and they’d silently shrug, and throw off eye rolls, or kick a toe in the dirt, but barely utter a word, giving most easterners one of the most erroneous impressions about all those western heroes of the dime novels selling back east. 

 

From time to time, Harper would fall into a low, agitated mumbling, and every once and a while she would hear him call for his employer.   But it was the way in which he sometimes spoke the man’s name, Slim; that caused her to look over at the sleeping rancher.   Well, she thought, many a cow hand was close to a saddle buddy, intimately confiding in them more than they would ever a wife, even after they had married.  It was a strong bond of friendship.  She had listened to the numerous  stories, most of a similar nature of shared dangerous on the cattle drives up from Texas to the rail heads.  It was the special reliance on each other during times of stampedes, Indian raids and other unexpected hazards that could forge strong ties between the men who faced them, and survived. 

 

She curiously wondered if that was what the two men shared, a drover history together before ranching.  But somehow Beckah Blewe couldn’t imagine the blond Slim Sherman as a cow pusher.  For one thing, he was too tall, maybe two or three inches over six feet;  most drovers in her experience were of a smaller, wiry physique, light on horses who needed to quickly maneuver around skittish cattle.  No she thought, this tall man was definitely a rancher, a cattle grower, not a cattle pusher.  

 

And then there was the possibility they had served together in the war; but if she had to place Sherman on one of the sides, she would say Union, not the South where  Harper would have placed his loyalty.  In fact, Harper still carried that wounded dog look, so many Johnny Rebs continued showing the world,  never having gotten over losing the war of the succession, and having to face others who lauded it over them.      

 

Head resting on her knees, she concluded Harper had simply drifted up into Wyoming one day, and Sherman had hired him to work on his ranch, and he somehow ended up befriending him.   Lucky for Harper, she thought as she fell asleep, waiting for daybreak.  

                

 

*****

 

In one of the large, high backed chairs by the fireplace, Slim had drifted into sleep sometime during the night to wake that morning under a light blanket laid over him.  On waking and realizing where he sat, his eyes went to where Jess lay, lying quietly under the dark blankets, eyes closed, and with a calmness now holding in his face.  Sitting on the floor next to the settee, her back resting against it, was Beckah Blewe, head laying to the side on one arm as it lay along the edge of the blankets.     

 

Slim looked at her through his waking eyes, at her face, quiet without its traces of the severe  expression she sometimes wore.  He noted several escaping strands of dark red hair dropping down to curl alongside her forehead and cheek, giving her the look of someone much younger. He liked the lay of high, rounded cheekbones above her full lips, now slightly parted as her breath came slow and even in sleep.  And he curiously wondered what it would feel like to touch her. 

 

She was still dressed in the blue-gray, shadow-plaid wool shirt, the sleeves rolled up revealing the red material of her union under clothing.  As he took in the loose dark gray britches bunched up along the top of her stocking feet, he noticed nearby on the floor stood her boots next to a large open book.   He glanced back to Jess who stirred slightly only to have her hand instinctively move to him in her sleep to rest upon his arm, as if to keep him from rising from the settee.  She had sat up with him most of the night after taking them both into her home, and he wondered,  if it had been himself injured, and Jess bringing him to her ranch, would she have done the same? 

 

The scraping sounds of a burning log in the fireplace shifting drew his attention and when he turned back he saw her eyes fluttering open, catching his, and unexpectedly smiling at him. 

 

“Fever’s broke,” she told him bringing her arm down to press its palm on the floor slightly shifting her position, before bringing it up to rub her knees as she looked at him.  Wordlessly he smiled back to her.    When he could see she had decided to get up,  he moved from his chair to reach a hand down to help her to her feet.  She looked up at him, surprised to see his hand waiting there for her.  Despite her hesitation, he continued offering his assistance until she put her hand in his,  and he slowly brought her to her feet to stand next to him.   Catching the sleep-warm scent of her, his mouth went dry, yet he managed to offer a good morning to her.       

 

“Ah,” offered Beckah Blewe, pausing to glance down to where Sherman held her hand.  She looked away to where Jess lay on the settee and said, “I don’t think you should move him this morning, um now I mean.” 

 

She was reaching for words and hoped he didn’t realize how uncomfortable she was, standing so close to him.  

 

“I went through our medical book.  It seems he might have something called, pleurisy.” 

 

He could tell she saw the concern in his face as she continued, “In a chest injury, the lining can get knocked loose inside.  It’s why breathing deep hurts him when he does it.”

 

“Is it serious,” he asked looking down to Jess who lay sleeping.

 

“Enough rest and it should heal in a week or so,” she said to him, “um,  right now, I think after the night he’s had, it would be better to let him sleep as long as possible, before you take him home.” 

 

Slim nodded in understanding, still holding her hand, he said, “Well, I guess I should get the buckboard here for him.   It will have to be this afternoon if I have to dig it out of any snow.   Think you can keep him down that long?” 

 

She looked at Jess, “I don’t think there will be any worthwhile struggle from him.”   Turning her attention back up to Slim, he saw her realize he still held her hand.  Slowly she withdrew it, and leaning down, picked up her boots to head into the kitchen.  For several moments he stood in thought before following her.  

 

Coming around through the dining area to the kitchen, he saw she had already slipped into her boots and was standing next to the stove, pouring coffee from a large blue porcelain pot.  She took several steps to him and handed him a white cup of the steaming liquid.   After getting another cup for herself, she reached over to pull the curtains aside to observe the day.  “Looks like the snow is finally done with us,” she told him before drinking her coffee.

 

At the sound of footsteps, she turned back to him, it was to watch her sister, dressed in a blue calico dress and a matching blue ribbon in her hair, walking past him to the small kitchen table where she pulled out a chair and sat down.  Giving a smile to each of them, she asked, “Did I miss anything?”

 

Beckah Blewe took another sip of her coffee, and said, “Allie, make some breakfast for Mr. Sherman before he leaves this morning.  I’ll be out in the barn getting his horses ready, need to check on that mare.” 

 

With that said, she quickly set her unfinished coffee down to reach for a heavy jacket hanging next to the door to shrug into it.   When he called to her, she reluctantly turned around.

 

“The name’s Slim,” he said to her, “and I can get the horses and be on my way.”  He waited as she looked at him, uncertain what she was thinking, likely something serious given the frown creasing her forehead.

 

“Well,” she cleared her throat, “um, Slim.  I think you need something hot in you before you leave.  Allie will scramble some eggs, and by the time you finished them, I’ll have your horses ready.”   When Slim opened his mouth to object, she firmly added, “I insist.” With that she turned to leave the kitchen, closing the back door behind her.

 

Slim looked at Allie now standing near the stove, reaching for a cast iron skillet and an apron.   “Is she always like this?” he asked her.

 

Allie turned to cross the kitchen to the pantry for the basket of eggs as she tied the apron’s strings behind her. “You caught her on one of her better mornings; must because you’re company.”  Then her eyes danced a little as she gave him a quick smile before retrieving the basket, and going about preparing his breakfast.

 

*****

 

When one of the doors to the barn opened, Beckah Blewe glanced over her shoulder from where she was grooming Tilly Rose to see the tall Sherman enter.   Turning back to brushing along the mare’s neck and down along her withers, she could hear him closing the door behind him to the outside cold.   Tilly Rose still carried her colt, its outline now extremely visible along her sides, indicating her time was close, likely she would deliver before night fall.  After readying Sherman’s horses, she had noticed the mare had not touched her morning oats, giving the expectation the mother to be would soon start shifting about before things would begin their course; and Beckah Blewe was pleased to be at hand for the event. 

 

Walking toward her, Slim Sherman glanced over to see his two horses in harness, and tethered to a post ring patiently waiting for his retrieval.  Next to them, his own horse was saddled and looked well considering last night’s rocky trek through a snow storm, carrying the heavy weight of two riders.  He moved up to the double wide stall where Beckah Blewe was grooming the mare she had spoken of earlier.

 

He stood watching her as he carefully removed his leather gloves and asked, “May I?”

 

She turned from brushing the mare to give him a nod to his request to approach the horse.  But glancing down at his bandaged left hand, the one the cougar had injured, she realized in the handling of the night’s more urgent needs,  she had not thought to ask him about it.  “How is the hand?” 

 

He pulled it up to look at it as if he hadn’t given it much thought, but now seriously considered her question.  “It’s healing well, I guess.” 

 

Leaving the brush lay on the mare’s back, she stepped to him to take his hand in hers to examine it, turning it over to rest it palm upright in one of her hands while using her fingertips   to carefully press and move each of his long fingers.  “Any pain?” she asked him as she flexed each of the exposed fingers.

 

“No just a little stiff,” he assured her quietly, wanting to take the wide brimmed hat from her head so he could see her hair.  Instead, she tipped her head upwards to look into his face, giving him full view of her dark blue green eyes, intriguing him with their golden flecks as they caught the light of the hanging lantern behind him.  He suddenly thought, this must be like standing on the deck of a rolling ship, staring across the horizon of some vast ocean in search of landfall.      

                                                              

When she had released his hand to move back to the mare, picking up the brush, he wondered if she had asked him something and he had not responded.  Several moments passed as he watched her brushing the mare before he came to stand next to her,  to ease his hands down along the mare’s side, feeling the outline of the unborn colt.   “She’s ready,” he murmured approvingly as his eyes and hands examined.   “First one?”

 

“For her,” responded Beckah.  He gave her a raised eyebrow at the answer, and returned his attention back to the mare.  Slowly Beckah stepped back to put some distance between them.  Holding the brush in her hand, she observed Sherman.   

 

His eyes on the mare, he commented, “She’s not a breed you see out here much.”  Running his hands down the mare’s coat, he seriously observed, “long neck, high withers and a deep chest.”  And crouching, he began to feel along the mare’s front leg, down to the fetlock and stopping short of her hoof, where he paused as if considering something.  

 

Straightening back up, he continued admiring the mare, “and a short back, good depth of hind quarters and long legs, and special shoeing for a narrow hoof.”   He suddenly glanced up at Beckah Blewe as he said, “and I’d bet a lot of speed. You must have been riding another of these up on the ridge the other day.” 

 

“There are three others that came with me,” she answered looking at the mare. “Tilly Rose was already bred.”  She was curious to note the serious, yet distracted tone he had taken as he asked her about the mare, almost as if his thoughts were elsewhere.  She wanted to ask him what it was, but didn’t.

 

“Four of them?” questioned Slim hoping she was unaware of his racing thoughts of possibilities not considered.  He turned his head to stare at her and ask, “You plan on breeding?”

 

She had to look away from him, wondering if this man knew how uneasy he was making her feel, just standing there in the barn’s stall, now admiring one of her horses.   When she glanced back to his waiting face, his blue eyes calmly looking to her as his hand rested on the colt’s outline, she found her voice had gone weak and uneven sounding as she told him.

 

“Um, yes, with some selected wild ones in the area, uh, to blend speed with endurance.  I have somewhat of a,  partner.”  She saw a strange look draw across his face and inexplicably felt she needed to add, “a sort of silent partner I guess you could call him; back in Denver who helped me with the mares; in summer he’s sending.”   She stopped speaking, suddenly feeling angry with herself, telling him of things that were important to her.  And a flash of anger for liking how Slim Sherman looked at her, with his steady blue eyes, and his quiet strength, standing there with a gentle hand on an unborn colt as if it were the most amazing thing to him.   

 

Slim straightened at hearing her revelation, drawing his hand back from the mare’s side.  He hoped, and somehow dreaded she would tell him more.   Beckah Blewe remained silent as she continued watching him, and the remembrance of all those things she had come searching for in Laramie;  and the capacity of a man like the one standing in her barn, could so easily jeopardize.   Don’t she mentally warned herself; don’t start something to risk what you have done here to keep you and Allie safe.   

 

“Need any help with her?” he asked as he stood up and pulled his gloves from the pocket of his jacket to slowly tug them on. 

 

“Thanks, but everything’s just fine,” she suddenly went so abrupt with him he could see the tenseness rise in her face.  He couldn’t understand it, yet somehow he thought he was making her feel uneasy, almost skittish if he had to define her change in mood.  It took him unaware, given the strong self assurance she carried about her, and at the same time, he found himself growing suspicious about her uneasiness.  Was there something she was hiding, nearly revealing to him.  He had been uncertain about coming to her place last night, but there had been no other choice given the condition Jess was in; and she had freely taken them into her home, and he thought, maybe even saving Jess from dying from the storm’s cold.   Because of that, he had set aside his suspicions she had been involved in the damage done to his property, and maybe other incidents.  Could be, he speculated, she was tangled up in something not to her liking, unable to handle it.  The thought crossed his mind; it might be why she was so contrary with Jess, warning him off; as if she did have feelings for him.   

 

Taking a step towards her, he again pressed, “I’m just asking if there was anything I could do; for taking us in last night, from the storm; for taking care of.”   Only she interrupted him again, her eyes shifting away, “you will need to get back to your place.” Turning away from him, she tossed the grooming brush she had been holding to clatter onto a nearby bench.  He watched her reach for her jacket, taking it from a hook to slip into it, and make her way to the barn doors.  For a moment his mind flashed with the curiosity of what she really looked like under all those men’s clothes, were there feminine curves, soft and warm, begging to be touched. 

 

After opening both the barn doors in order to allow him to lead the three horses out, she called to him,

 

 “You coming, Sherman?”

 

 

 

 

Chapter 17

 

                                     

Jess Harper was on the brink of consciousness, an in between place where he could perceive but not act upon things happening around him.  Slim was talking to someone, maybe it was him, but the words didn’t seem to penetrate his brain with any meaning as cavernous shadows flitted around him.   And he was afraid of being engulfed by them again, before he could fully wake.   He tried moving his lips thinking the effort would keep the darkness away.  “Slim?” he finally managed a croaking sound,   “Slim?”  

 

Sitting down on the edge of the settee, Slim leaned over Jess to see his eyes finally flutter open.  “What is it Jess?”

 

A few small coughs passed before Jess could talk again.  He was trying hard to stay awake, his voice faltered, fading to little more than a hoarse whisper.   “I think I’ve been busting broncs,  all night.”  

                                                                                                                                      

“You had me kinda worried there,” said Slim, “lucky I found you.” 

 

“I ‘most froze to death out there,” wheezed Jess trying to nod in agreement. 

 

“You feeling any better?” Slim asked and waited for his answer. 

 

“Feels like rocks keep tumbling around inside here,” finally responded Jess, his hand coming up in gesture to his chest.  Taking in a deep breath, his face went tight in pain.  “Not as bad now; musta coughed up, some of ‘em stones, last night.”

 

“Well you can cough up a few more,” said Slim, “’cause you’re staying here until I get back with the buckboard to fetch you.”

 

Frowning with pained difficulty Jess reached out his hand to grasp Slim’s arm. “You’re leaving me with Blewie?”

 

Slim gave a low chuckle, “No Jess, her sister, Allie is going to take care of you.  Blewie’s out in the barn.  She’s got a mare ready to deliver a colt; she won’t have any time to be aiming any guns at you; at least not for a while.  I’ll be back by then.”  

 

Not realizing Slim had stood to leave, Jess was already losing himself to the shadows of sleep, no strength to keep them away. 

 

                                                                                                                            

*****

 

It was nearly eight hours later when Jess became aware someone was nearby;   he could sense it more than hear it.  Eye lids drawn back a crack, he saw a young woman sitting next to his bed; intently staring at him.   Closing his eyes again, he thought he must be dreaming, or had he over slept when the morning stage came in and there were passengers in his room.  No, he wasn’t in his own bed, he thought, at least it didn’t feel like his own bed. 

 

“You awake?” came the young woman’s voice, “’cause if you’re awake you need to drink this.”

 

“I what?” he spoke opening his eyes again to give a look at her.  She was young and pretty, with red hair and a spattering of light freckles across the tops of her cheeks, and she was Blewie’s sister, Allie!  Then he remembered.  He was in Blewie’s house, lying on Blewie’s settee.  And that little, lying Allie was there with him.    What in tar nation was going on?

 

He stirred, awkwardly attempting to sit up.   The sudden movement caused Allie to abruptly tilt back in the chair she had earlier moved from the dining room in order to sit next to him, elbows on knees, her face in her hands and leaning forward to stare at him while he had slept for the last hour or so.   She gave him a wide grin when he realized as he sat up, the blankets had fallen away to reveal his bare chest.  

 

Swiftly grabbing a fist full of blanket, he modestly drew the material up to his chin to cover himself.  “Where’s Blewie?” his low croaking voice managed to ask before he started coughing.  

 
“Out in the barn; with one of those precious mares of hers,” answered Allie reaching down for a cup that was set atop a large closed book on the floor near her, and shove it towards him.  “Here,” she said, “you got to drink this; Beck’s orders.”

 

He squinted at her suspiciously.  “What is it?”

 

“I don’t know,” shrugged Allie giving an unpleasant look to him, “some kind of bark thing I think; and between you and me, it does give off an awful stink; I know ‘cause  I’ve been sitting here next to it, waiting for you to wake up;  I’m supposed to give it to you then; to help your breathing.”

 

“Ain’t nothing wrong with my breathing,” he said looking down at the cup of amber liquid she was pushing towards him.

 

“Oh yeah; well then take a deep breath,” she told him.

 

Jess looked down at the liquid she continued to offer, and back to her.   “Go on,” she urged him.  “Take a big fat old, deep breath for me; I dare you.”

 

Still clutching the blanket’s edges, only now having drifted a few inches below his chin, he did just that.  As he took air into his lungs, he winced when he felt the pain along the top of his chest.  It was bad but it wasn’t all that bad, he told himself, only his lungs were painfully adamant about remaining unconvinced.

 

“Drink it,” she ordered moving the cup up to his mouth, causing his eye brows to rise up even tighter.  And to her surprise,   he drank several swallows.

 

First came a distasteful look to be followed by several coughs; and finally catching his breath he started to swear, but stopped himself.   “You sure that ain’t turpentine?” he choked back to her.

 

“Finish it,” ordered Allie with a determined set to her face, as she tip the edge of the cup to his lips again.  And he did as she asked, finishing the rest of the tea mixture,  all the while watching her face mirroring his own repulsive reaction.

 

Wiping the edge of the blanket across wet lips, he caught his breath and sputtered, “Is your sister trying to poison me?”

 

“No.”  she said matter-of-factly setting the empty cup back on its resting place atop the book, and  looking back up at him she smiled to him.  “No need to; she has…guns.”

 

He gave her a crossed face after looking around the room, judging it to be afternoon by the color of the light.  “Where’s,” he started to ask her, only she finished his question by saying, “your friend? “   He nodded at her and she continued, “Oh he left a long time ago, might be coming back; may be.  He left you here; with me and Becks.”

 

Jess gave her a frowning glare, “Is that supposed to mean something?”

 

She pursed her lips, and frowning she asked him, “Are you afraid of her?”

 

“No,” he said eying her guardedly.  “No!”

 

With a sigh, she stood up in her blue calico dress, smoothing it with her small freckle spattered hands, and looking down at him to observe how he still held the blanket to himself.  “I need to stir something on the stove,” she told him and turned to leave for the kitchen.

 

A little baffled by the comment, Jess watched her walk away, and when he was sure she was out of the room, he lifted the blanket from his chest.  Cautiously he looked down to see as he suspected, he was wearing nothing but his birthday suit. 

 

“Hey, Allie!”  Jess angrily called out to her, “where’s my clothes?” 

 

Allie came around the corner from the kitchen, a long wooden spoon in her hand.  “The better question, Mister Harper might be, who took them off?”

 

“What?” Jess shot back at her as his face slightly reddened.

 

“Don’t you mean ‘who’?” she quipped back to him, and when she saw his face flush a deeper red, she rolled her eyes at him.  “All right, it wasn’t me or Becks; it was your friend; you were half dead when he brought you here; and they were up all night with you.  I thought you might die.”


“Still might, if I don’t get my clothes back,” snapped Jess.

 

“Oh!”  Allie suddenly remarked looking past him.

 

“What is it??” Jess craned his neck around to look in the same direction.   When he didn’t notice anything, he watched her walking over to the window next to the front door to draw the curtain back.  As she picked up something and stepped back to the settee.  He could see she was carrying a folded stack of clothing; his clothing. 

 

Dropping the folded garments heavily down onto his chest, she announced, “Someone’s here.  You might want to get dressed!”

 

With that suggestion, Jess snatched his red union suit just as the rest of his clothes went sliding to the floor when he pulled the blankets up over his head. 

 

*****

 

Allie opened the door to Slim Sherman just before his hand came up to knock; and he saw she carried a long wooden spoon in her hand, idly toying with it, as if it were some kind of royal jewel encrusted,  Scepter and she a very bored princess taking in his appearance on her doorstep.

 

 He smiled at her, tipping his hat in greeting, and said, “Afternoon, Allie.” 

 

“He’s awake.” She immediately informed him. 

 

“Guess that’s what you want to know, Mister Sherman.”  Stepping back, she fully opened the door to allow him entry into the warm living room, and closed it behind him. 

 

Slim took his hat off after walking in, but stopped to stare at the settee where a bundle of blankets agitatedly churned as if some wild animal were attempting a frenzied escape.  He glanced over to Allie who gave him a small smile before she stepped over to the settee.  She paused momentarily to look down at the undulating covers, and to Slim’s surprise, she heavily smacked the wooden spoon down hard, causing a responding loud, but muffled yelp of pain from Jess.

 

“When you’re done fooling around under there,” she loudly called down to the blankets, “there’s hot soup in the kitchen for you to eat.  And yes, that’s another one of Beck’s orders.” Taking her wooden spoon, she left for the kitchen.  And over her shoulder she also informed him, “Don’t forget your boots, they are warming by the fireplace.  Hope the toes aren’t too crisp.”

 

Slim wasn’t sure if he was more amused or relieved, but her behavior indicated to him Jess was likely better than when he had last left him that morning.   Leaning over the settee, he lifted a corner of the blanket upwards to see Jess’s head come up, hair in disarray, glowering at him before realizing he wasn’t Allie. 

 

“Slim!” uttered Jess in relief.  

 

“You all right under there, pard?” asked Slim holding the blanket upwards as he talked to him.

 

“I will be when I get my dad-gum clothes on!”    

 

Slim smiled at him, “don’t get all your undies in a bundle Jess.  Take your time; there’s something I need to do.”  Slim dropped the blanket, but before leaving, he lifted it again.  “Oh, and Jess?”

 

“What?”

 

“I guess they really ARE sisters, aren’t they?” he remarked before dropping the blanket down on Jess again.

 

 

 

 

Chapter 18

 

                                                       

Slim walked out towards the barn, convincing himself he only wanted to see if the new colt had been born, not because he wanted to make the attempt once again to thank Beckah Blewe for helping them last night; and not just because he wanted to directly ask her about what happened to the corner fence and was she involved.  He had decided, if the opportunity presented itself, he would ask her; and watch her face for signs he knew would tell him if she had been there.  After last night, he couldn’t believe she had been, yet she acted strangely when he asked about her horses; uneasy and evasive.

 

Slipping in through the barn doors, he saw the mare had indeed delivered her baby, and Beckah Blewe, arms wrapped around her waist, stood gazing at the mare licking the new colt clean.  In the lantern’s light, Slim approached her and when she looked up at him, he saw something in her face.  He could not define it other than the feeling of wonder, mixed with the deep understanding of what it meant to be in the presence of a newly created life.  It was a feeling he always had, no matter how many times experienced.  Taking his hat off, he stepped closer until he stood next to her, watching the mare now softly nickering to her new baby, gently nudging it to get on with that new life of its.

 

 “Isn’t he perfect,” proudly whispered Beckah Blewe to him, her eyes on the colt.   

 

“As perfect as they get,” agreed Slim appraisingly. 

 

Amid the musky smell of horses and the fresh tossed hay, he soon discerned her scent from the others, holding it in his head until it remained the only one.  Inside him, came floating in a calm and peaceful stillness; and something else to amaze him; a sense of being at home, a soothing feeling of belonging where he stood, next to her as they admired the beginning of a new life.

 

When she turned to look up at Slim Sherman, Beckah Blewe found his eyes on her, and the depth of their blueness held her own to his.  Standing close enough for her to feel the heat from his tall body, she suddenly found she wanted to pull that warmth of his next to her, until his arms wrapped tightly around her.  Just let me lean into that calmness of yours for a little while, she thought.  Just a little while, let me feel safe somewhere.    

 

Next she wasn’t sure if she had taken the small step closer, or he to her, but his hands were on her shoulders, and his head came bending down towards hers.  The heat of his face warmed her own face, as his lips touched hers; gentle at first, like the feel of a butterfly.  And when she tipped her head back for more, he followed, his lips parting as they took hers.   Wrapping arms around him, she pulled him closer to her, until she felt as if she could melt into him, into all of him; and the desire for more hotly washed through her.  She ached with it, and when he seemed to want to give her more, there came a rush of intense pleasure of being touched by him.  His lips moved to whisper kiss along her cheek, and then down along her neck until she had arched it to give him the freedom to explore, hoping he would go lower.  She nudged a leg in between his, wanting to feel him, needing to know if he wanted her, as much as she wanted him; and she was pleased to find he did.

 

Nearby came the high pitched, soft whinny of a colt delighted in getting up onto its wobbly long legs, and one other sound;  one that neither of them heard; that of someone opening the door to the barn to enter it.

 

Eyes nearly drifted closed, her head tipped back in the pleasure of the embrace, Beckah Blewe caught sight of something out of the corner of her eye.  Someone was standing there just inside the closed barn doors, watching them.  

 

Slim was ready to move back to her lips, to kiss her again, when he felt the palm of her hand slap him hard across the face, and he abruptly stepped back, releasing her.  She took a step back from him as well, putting even more distance between them.  

 

He was confused, for she had given all the indications to him,  she would have him, right there, down on the loosely piled straw as bedding; wanting him as a woman wants a man,  rushing into him.  Then she was gone; leaving the taste of her on his lips, and the feel of her body’s need continuing to resonate through his own.  With his head still lost in wanting her, his breathing gone ragged, he gave her a questioning look.            

 

“I think you had better go now, Sherman,” she coldly stated, and abruptly turned to retrieve her jacket, from where it lay on the straw.  “I have business to take care of, and you need to fetch Harper out of here.” 

 

As she slipped into the jacket, Slim had taken note of the direction her eyes had shifted, and turning his head he saw Simon Bortell walking towards them.   In a flash, his frustration shifted into an awkward anger at being spied upon.   He leaned down to pick up his hat, tapped it against his leg to shake some clinging pieces of straw from it before placing it on his head. 

 

He looked to her, but she had already turned her attention to Bortell now only a few feet away and watching the new colt taking its first wobbly steps.   The desire to be the one standing next to her flashed hotly through Slim; he wanted to be the one with her, enjoying the sight of a young horse finding its legs for the first time, and knowing what it meant to be on them.  But it was Bortell who stood between them, and when the man tossed a smirk in his direction, Slim walked away, to do as she had said; he was going to retrieve Jess and take him home.            

 

 

 

 

Chapter 19

 

 

Leaving the barn, Slim felt the cold air blowing across his burning face. What had he done here, he mentally confronted himself as he walked towards the house.  Jess was pursuing Blewie, and Slim thought she was, underneath all that bluster, interested in Jess, not him.  She and Jess had a distant past in Texas; and hadn’t she stayed up to take care of him last night.  He thought of how, only just that very morning, she had protectively laid her hand across Jess’s arm in her sleep.  Yet now, being with her in the barn, her kissing him, it had left Slim unsure about a lot of things, except one, about his still wanting her.   

 

He walked past the buckboard where the two horses stood patiently waiting to be heading home again.  After taking the steps, he started across the wide porch of the house, only to hesitate before opening the front door.  His insides were twisted tight thinking about Jess waiting on the other side of that door; unaware of what had just happened in the barn, and the interruption of something Slim admitted, he still ached to continue.   He turned to lean his gloved hands against the porch railing, needing a few moments to think.

 

It had been himself, the one to advise Jess to go after Beckah Blewe, telling him to wear her down.   The hasty idea bothered him she might be playing them both. Crossly considering it, he knew he wouldn’t compete in that kind of game against Jess, not with a friend, even if he now realized he had wanted Beckah Blewe from the first time he looked into her face.  His thoughts once again drifted back to that day, when she had bandaged his hand, before coldly ordering him off her land at gun point.       

 

At the crunching sounds of someone walking from the barn, Slim looked up to see Simon Bortell moving to a saddled horse tied to one of the posts on the corral and mount up.   Drawing the reins upwards, the foreman pivoted his horse to head upwards along the long driveway leading towards town.  The foreman tipped his dark hat and gave a sneering grin at Slim, who only stared coldly back at him before turning away to cross the porch to the front door.

 

Entering the front room of the ranch house, Slim found the room empty; the settee also empty, no Jess.  From the kitchen, he could hear Beckah’s sister talking.  Angrily snatching Jess’s hat and then his jacket from the hook next to the door, he strode past the fireplace following Allie’s voice,  to come around to the archway separating the dining room from their kitchen, where he saw Jess sitting at the table nearly finished with a bowl of soup.   Across from him was Allie, still laughing as she abruptly looked up to see Slim standing there.  When Jess noticed her attention suddenly drawn to something behind him,   he turned around to flash a lop-sided grin up at Slim in greeting.     

 

Jess looked better, assessed Slim still frowning as he hooked the jacket to the back of Jess’s chair.  He could see the paleness of his face now made more pale by the growth of stubble from missing a morning’s shave, but he looked good enough to drag home.   And he was about to say the same, when the back door to the kitchen opened, and Beckah Blewe came walking in.  She stopped, her eyes immediately going to his, and as he held her gaze, the air in the kitchen suddenly grew still.  His mouth dried at the thought of what had happened between them just moments ago; and then came the remembering of her slapping him. 

                                                                                        

Only standing there looking at her, he didn’t care; it wasn’t his cheek that still burned, but his lips, still carrying the soft feel of hers.  And when her face suddenly flushed, and she turned around to close the kitchen’s door,  he ached to know what she was thinking, or worse wondering if she would turn  around to order him off her property once again.  Instinctively he glanced about for any weapons, and seeing there were none,  he realized he wouldn’t have cared if she did aim one at him.

 

Beckah stood facing the door as she shrugged out of her woolen jacket, slowly hanging it on one of the wooden pegs, before removing her hat and leather gloves.  Turning around, trying to keep her eyes from going to where they wanted to stray, she busied her hands by reaching for one of the hanging cups to fill it from the porcelain coffee pot.    Looking down at the cup now filled with steaming liquid,  she awkwardly thought she should be offering coffee to Sherman, standing there in her kitchen watching her with those longing blue eyes of his.   She set the coffee pot down and turned her head to ask if he wanted something hot to warm him up.  

 

Still holding Jess’s hat in one hand, Slim found his legs had immediately taken the few steps to her, and he took the offered coffee, noticing the shake to her hand as she handed the cup to him.  Was she still angry with him?  For the brief moment she glanced up at him, he wanted her to feel the same as he did; standing right there in her kitchen, wishing there was no one else there but the two of them.  

 

Beckah Blewe had to look away from Slim Sherman, anywhere away, or the thoughts of their embrace in the barn would run hotly through her, and headlong into what might have happened if her foreman had not walked in on them.   She turned to Allie who had moved next to her to take another cup from the rack near the stove, to fill it and hand it to her. “I think you need something hot in you as well,” she said quietly, “you’ve been out in that barn most of the day with that mare, you’d think you were the one giving birth, you must be chilled.”  

 

Beckah took the coffee, wrapping both hands around it finding she needed to steady her grip on the cup or she would be in danger of spilling it.  Her sister was saying something to her, but Beckah wasn’t fully listening, nodding to her as she sipped the coffee, while Sherman stood there, within touching distance of her.   And she wanted to touch him; even though only a few moments earlier, when her foreman had entered the barn to interrupt them,  she had slapped him hard across the face to see the questioning look of hurt he gave her.   She wanted him, would have lost herself to him in that weak moment of hers; and that would bring trouble for her, and for Allie.  

 

Her sister stood next to her, asking her about the new baby horse, but Beckah could only mumble, it was fine, really fine, as she stared distractedly at her.   Allie gave her the look only sisters could instantly share in wordless communication with one another, knowing something was up, and that it definitely involved the tall Mister Sherman. 

 

Beckah lowered her eyes to the coffee while behind her she could feel Sherman’s eyes on her.   She couldn’t turn around to look at him; in the barn she had asked him to leave and take Harper with him.  Now she had offered him coffee in her warm kitchen; when all she really wanted to do was throw off the tight chain of responsibilities she had assumed, and haul him back out into the barn to finish what they had started.  He needed to leave now, she thought, her body had gone painfully tight in conflicting needs.  After setting the cup down along the window’s ledge by the stove, she folded her arms about her waist.  Before she could turn around, she heard his footsteps on the kitchen’s floor moving away from her.

 

“I brought extra blankets in the buckboard,” Slim told Jess as he came to the table to roughly set the half empty cup down.   “It’ll be a cold ride back with the wind.  Get your jacket on, we need to leave.  I want to be back before dark.”  He impatiently lifted the jacket from where he  had left it,  hung on the back of Jess’s chair and thrust it at him.

 

“You brought the buckboard?” questioned Jess surprised as he took the garment.

 

“Yeah, I thought you would need it,” said Slim looking at him, but his eyes went back to where Beckah stood in the kitchen next to her sister, her back to him.  Her body told him, she wanted him gone; so he was going.  He continued talking to Jess.  “You can ride in the back; there’s enough blankets to keep you warm.”

 

“I don’t think so,” said Jess standing up, but once he did, he started coughing again, and when he began to sway trying to catch his breath, Slim grabbed him by the arm to steady him.

 

“I said we’re leaving now, Jess,” he firmly told him and snatching the jacket from him, he began helping him into it.  “And you’re riding in the back; even if I have to tie you down myself.”

  
“What,” started Jess in protest, but he stopped speaking when he went lightheaded, giving no fight to Slim buttoning him up in his own jacket.

 

“I mean it, Jess,” Slim finished the last button and picked up the hat laying on the table to set it firmly on Jess’s head.  He thought he looked paler now, and he wondered if he was going to pass out.

 

“What’s got you so all-fired ornery, somebody tie a knot in your tail or something?” complained Jess but taking a deep breath he started coughing again. 

 

“Even if I have to load you up like a sack of potatoes, and carry you out to the back of the buckboard, that’s the way you’re going if you keep it up.”

 

Jess sputtered at him, “the mood you’ve been in lately, I guess you would wouldn’t you!”   He turned to Allie,  and giving the respectful gesture of touching his hat, his voice came out in nearly a whisper, “Thank you for the soup; sorry the storm blew us into your place last night, but it gave you time to practice some of those gawd awful bedside manners of yours, Allie.”  

 

“Anytime,” she smiled at him and glancing over at her sister said, “and maybe next time, Becks can use you for target practice.  How ‘bout it, Becks?”  

 

Jess turned to Blewie standing in the kitchen, her back to him, and he politely addressed her, “Blewie, thanks for doing what neighbors do.”

 

She turned around to look at him for a few moments before speaking, “Sure, Jess, real neighborly like.  I didn’t even once get the urge, to shoot you.”

 

*****

 

“You heard it, didn’t you?” said Jess, wrapped up tightly in two blankets sitting next to Slim after convincing him he was good enough to ride on the seat of the buckboard instead of laying down in the back.  “You heard her call me by name.  She called me, Jess.  Not Harper.  Jess!” 

 

“Yeah, I heard her,” answered Slim slapping the reins to urge the team ahead as they picked up the main road running out of Laramie, eventually to take the cut off for the Sherman Ranch.  “Sounds like you and Allie came to some kinda truce,” he idly commented to Jess. He looked over at Jess again, seeing the pain in his face as he started coughing again, and wondered if he should have insisted he ride lying down in the back of the buckboard.   And later, as Slim guided the team instinctively making the turn that would take them from the main road towards the ranch; he once again looked over at Jess, to see his eyes closed. 

 

“Are you going to make it?” he asked him.   When Jess didn’t respond, Slim pulled up on the reins and applied his foot to the buckboard’s brake slowing the anxious team to a halt.

 

 “Jess,” he called louder to him, waiting until his eyes opened briefly.  “That’s it,” ordered Slim, “you’re in the back.”

 

When they finally had arrived at the ranch, Slim drove the team right up to the front door, climbed down and came around to the back of the buckboard to pull the blankets Jess lay sleeping upon towards him until he could lift him up and over his shoulder, blankets and all.

 

“Yep,” muttered Slim to himself as he brought Jess in through the front door, “just like a sack of newly dug up potatoes.  Should have just put you in the back in the first place.”  

 

When he had laid Jess out on the bed, he left him wrapped up in the blankets for their warmth, and lighted the nearby lamp. After snatching the thick cotton quilt from his own bed to lay it across his sleeping friend, Slim sat down on the edge of the bed to lift Jess’s hat off.  He noted his pale face, but was relieved his breathing looked steady, and the coughing had lessened despite the ride home in the cold air.   Slim took one of his gloves off to lay a palm against Jess’s forehead, checking for a return of the fever, and finding none, he reached to turn the lamp’s wick down low and returned to the other room where he built up the banked fire in their large stone fireplace.

 

After putting the team away and bedding down the rest of the stock for the night, he came back in to make sure Jess was warm enough before removing his boots and belt, and adding another blanket.   And while Jess slept, Slim settled down in front of the fireplace and crossed his long legs in front of him, intent upon doing some serious thinking.   

  

 

 


 

 

PART TWO

 

 Invitations

 

 

 

 

Chapter 20

 

 

It was Saturday night; and it had taken Jess more than two days to finally talked Slim into riding into town to spend a couple of hours at Charlie’s saloon that night. 

                        

Prior to Andy and Jonesy’s leaving in fall for St. Louis, Slim rarely went to town on a Saturday night, and then, only at the insistence of Jonesy that he join Jess, who tripped into town on most  Saturday nights for a bit of wagering and whiskey, and some female company.   Jonesy knew it took some of the knots out of Slim to get away and spend a bit of time unfettered by the need to be the responsible older brother who worried about running a relay station, and a struggling ranch while raising a younger sibling.  

 

Without Andy around, Jess found it easier to pull Slim into town for a few hours at the end of a hard week’s work.  But then winter came, keeping them both tied down at the ranch for its long weeks of rough weather.  Although spring had arrived, Jess had been injured during the last storm, leaving Slim to handle the bulk of the chores until he was too exhausted at the end of a day to do much other than fall asleep in front of the fireplace.  Something Jess noticed he seemed to be doing quite a lot lately.  

 

In a little over a week, Jess was back to picking up most of his share of the work, and the last several days feeling good enough to spend the longer hours on catching up the chores Slim had been unable to tackle and deemed less urgent until Jess could finish them.

 

Now Jess thought it only right to be tugging Slim off to town for a few drinks;  besides Jess was feeling restless after his long recovery, looking for a change in scenery.  And a trip into town on a Saturday night was likely to loosen up the tight reins Slim seemed to be holding on everything going on at the ranch these days, including Jess.

 

Charlie’s Place was one of several saloons in Laramie, but it was a favorite with the two men, due to its feel of a social club of sorts.  At the best of times it was a haven for relaxation where men only enjoyed their hand rolled smokes and affordable cigars, and the wagering at one of the place’s tables where cards could be both seriously, and sociably played.  Whether they were gaming or just standing at the bar drinking and engaging in talk about the latest goings on in and around Laramie and other places of importance, patrons usually found an evening leisurely spent at Charlie’s Place.  

 

It was also a routine stop for Sheriff Mort Cory, often saved up until the latter part of his day before returning to his office at the jail to finish paperwork and heading home.   At the worst of times, Mort had to show up earlier in the evening with a .30 .30 under his arm in order to break up the disagreements Charlie or one of his bartenders couldn’t handle.

                                 

After several hands of cards, Jess noticed Slim still sat alone at one of the back tables, still nursing his first shot of whiskey of the night;  and he knew he needed to do something if he ever wanted to see Slim untie that knot he was so tightly twisted into.  Scooping up his winnings from the table, Jess moved over to the bar for something that might liven the night, and make it more enjoyable for the two of them.

 

“Girls,” said Jess with a wide grin as he came to stand next to Slim’s table, “what you see here is a sad situation.  A man who has had to work so hard for so long he has become too tired to look up and appreciate the rare sight of two beautiful women such as yourselves.”

 

At the sound of a female giggle, Slim glanced up to see Jess with his left arm around a small brunette in a fiery red dress,  and his right arm around a tallish, well endowed blonde who held a  bottle of whiskey in one hand,  and a pair of shot glasses in the other.   Somehow Jess had managed to get both new additions to Charlie’s saloon on each arm; much to the glaring animosity of the bar’s other patrons.

 

As the blonde set the glasses down on the table and poured whiskey into them, Jess said, “Slim, I want you to meet, Magda.  She’s not much on small talk; heck she’s not much on any talk at all, just learning to speak our lingo.  And this here’s Patty Sue.”  He indicated the brunette with a tilt of his head.

 

“Patty Sue, Magda, this here’s Slim Sherman, rancher and relay station operator, and my lonely, lonely friend.”

 

The brunette gave another small giggle, still hanging onto Jess, but smiling at the man who had been introduced to her.  The rancher gave a small, quick smile back to her and a nod to the blonde.  

 

Now Patty Sue might be new to Laramie, but she was experienced enough to know, this serious looking man wasn’t in the mood to be a generous tipper, and unlikely a night of drinking would be able to change that.  She turned her attention back to Jess Harper, hat tipped back on his head, and took his hat off to set it upon her own dark curls.   She thought to herself, this handsome cow puncher was in the right mood to spend, and she gave him an appreciating smile.     

 

“You drink,” said the blonde Magda to Slim as she pushed one of the filled shot glasses towards him.  “You have gud time.”  

 

He looked up at the well-formed blonde with her peaches and cream complexion, and noted the tightly laced satin dress designed to lure men’s eyes.   Slim gave a glance down at the offered drink placed on the table.   Jess took in Slim’s raised eyebrow response to Magda; and noticed Slim’s eyes darting back to the still unfinished drink in his hand.  In a quick thought,  Jess  turned and flashed a grin at Patty Sue as he drew her closer to him until he could feel her soft body relax into his, and one of her hands slipping around to rest her fingers upon his belt’s buckle.

 

“Patty Sue, I declare you are the best thing Charlie ever decided to do for decorating around this here saloon.  But I’m thinking I shouldn’t be roping you all to myself.  Why don’t you and Magda here give some of the other boys your fine female attentions, ‘afore they come looking for it.”

 

She gave him a disappointed look, and pulled away from him before glancing over at Sammy, who was bartending on duty until Charlie would be in for the later, more boisterous part of the night.   Stepping around Jess, she put an arm on the blonde to tug her away.  

 

“Only leave the bottle,” said Jess fishing out several coins from a vest pocket to hand to her in exchange for having Magda set the bottle down.   Patty Sue looked at the coins he had given her, and realizing it was for more than a generous tip, flashed him one of her best smiles.  Then giving a long, and very audible sigh, she glanced back to the sullen looking man whose company this good looking, spender was choosing over all she could offer for the evening. 

                              

Before Patty Sue walked away, Jess pulled his hat from her head to set it down on the table next to Slim’s; and he watched the two girls swish their fancy skirts across the room before he pulled out a chair with the toe of his boot to sit down on it near Slim.  With the chair at an angle, it gave Jess easy view of the busy end of the bar near the saloon’s entrance.  

 

“No need to disappoint the fancy petticoats,” remarked Slim watching the girls approaching their customers,  giving rise to a loud greeting of male laughter generously mixed in with swaggering prattle.

 

“Can’t be helped once they’ve seen a good looking cow hand,” smiled Jess as he watched them.   “Or his money,” sharply commented Slim finishing the remainder of his drink to set it down empty on the table.    He reached for one of the glasses Magda had filled, taking one and pushing the other towards Jess.  Making a thanking gesture, Slim raised a glass.   “Here’s to that hard earned, easily spent money of yours I pay you.”

 

Jess swiped the other glass from the table in response, correcting him. “Make that, to T. J. over there, whose bad hand of playing cards,  gave my hand the generous coins to drink tonight; and to me for giving up the chair at his table ‘afore he won it all back again.”   

 

Finishing the shot, Jess set the glass down and looked at Slim who still held his drink, now staring across the saloon to the other end of the bar.   Jess glanced there to see Simon Bortell and several others entering the saloon, all spraddled out in their best for an evening’s good time, and eyeing Charlie’s new waitresses.  The girls were serving whiskeys and beers to several of the other working men and soon turned their attention to Simon Bortell, and to Nate Harwell, Owen Harwell’s younger brother.      

 

Turning back to Slim, Jess noted he was pouring himself another shot.  Wanting to continue the conversation along the same earlier, more pleasant tone, Jess said to him, “it was a good idea of Charlie’s to hire the girls.  Good for business; gotta keep up with the competition in town,  and it ain’t none too bad for the customers.  Mebbe even cause a run on clean towels and soap down at the barber shop.”    He glanced to see Slim quickly finishing his whiskey, seemingly unaware he had been talking to him, his eyes watching Simon Bortell.

 

Under his breath, Jess told him, “You keep eyeing Bortell like he pitched a dead cat into the party room.”

 

“He was there,” quietly said Slim as if the conversation up to that point in his head had been spoken aloud. 

 

“At the association’s meeting?” asked Jess glancing over to the far end of the saloon.  He had heard little of the latest of the periodic meetings held by the local ranchers from Slim when he returned last week.  All Slim grumpily said was spring roundup would be late this year; it had been set for the last week of May. 

 

And for Jess, the start of everything meant a spring dance, something he enjoyed before searching the open range for stock that had drifted out over the winter months.   Spring roundup meant cow hunting, the dirty and often difficult job of searching for the new, unbranded spring calves or stock that had been missed in the fall round up.    Each rancher would be setting up their own camp site for separating the individual cattle, and owners identified their calves by the mother’s cow brand, and branded them accordingly at this time.  Stray calves remaining unidentified were divided up fairly among the roundup participants by the head ramrod, someone chosen at the association’s spring meeting from among all the ranches.      Later the individual herds would be driven into the upper grassy meadows for summer grazing.

 

Jess understood, from the usual amount of cow talk around the poker table earlier that night, Slim had a disagreement with someone at the meeting who had accused him of working ahead of the agreed upon startup date for roundup, that is, going out on the open range to brand up unclaimed calves with the Sherman brand.  Sooners, they called them up in Wyoming, but in Texas where Jess was from, they just plain called them, cow thieves. 

                                                                                               

“Yeah he was there, she brought him with her,” said Slim pouring himself yet another drink from the bottle on their table, “Strange; she let him do all the talking.”

 

“And he was the one who accused you of working ahead of roundup?” stated Jess as he observed the hard set Slim’s face had taken on,  “you didn’t tell me about that.”

                                         

“He was the one,” affirmed Slim, “stood there, right in front of her, accusing the Sherman ranch of branding ahead.”   He turned to Jess and informed him.  “Bortell said someone took shots at them up on the west side of the ridge, not far from our south pasture.”

 

“You didn’t tell me that either,” commented Jess with narrowing eyes.

 

“Yeah I guess I didn’t,” responded Slim with a shrug.  He drained his glass and poured himself another refill. 

 

“You believe him?” 

 

“Doesn’t matter what I believe,” said Slim, “he said it, and it will hang out there for every rancher to chew on.”

 

“Well I reckon he’s probably lying about being shot at,” argued Jess shaking his head.  As he watched, Slim finished his whiskey and refilled both their glasses, setting the bottle down before leaning back in his chair.  Once again, he was directing his attention to Simon Bortell. 

 

Around them, Jess was becoming aware of the tables filling up with more cow hands looking for the decks of cards to be brought out on trays filled with drinks.  And amid the jingle of coins hitting the table tops as the betting started, Jess could hear Simon Bortell.  Blewie’s foreman had shifted down along the long bar, more by design than courtesy, as other Saturday night ranch hands entered in search of a few drinks as they watched the others win and lose at the cards. 

 

Bortell was foreman at Blewie’s ranch and Jess still found it difficult to understand why, if she had hired him without knowing his reputation, she continued having him work for her.   When Jess had been laid up after that night of the last spring snow storm, he had the time to think about it.  And the pieces he had to fit together weren’t forming a good picture for Blewie; the runaway Chinese girls who were likely from a house of ill repute in Denver, as much as admitted by her; and the dead bounty hunter whose body had disappeared.  On top of all this, was the suspicion Simon Bortell was up to something, likely the cause of all those downed fences and other repairs Blewie had been plagued with since buying Dan Baxter’s place.  And he wondered if Bortell knew Jess was beginning to suspect things.   Or maybe there was something he knew about Blewie that Jess didn’t.     His instincts told him she was in trouble, but now he was not so sure she wasn’t a part of that trouble,   especially since she was keeping Simon Bortell on her payroll.  

 

At the now crowded bar, surrounding Blewie’s foreman were four or five well-seasoned range riders who had the look of being on the drift for a while, before looking to be hired on for spring round up, likely by Bortell in his duties as her foreman.   And then there was Nate Harwell, young and Jess thought, not all that comfortable drinking with his range hardened crew.  If that was true, why had Nate come to town with them, or was he just plain uncomfortable running into the owner of the Sherman Ranch, and possibly being recognized as one of the riders taking down Slim’s corner fence.

 

Bortell had a grip on Nate Harwell’s arm as he was loudly giving him advice.  “A good woman can get you killed kid.  But a bad woman, well you’re just as dead.  Only you’ll enjoy the ride a whole hell of a lot  ‘more’  if you take my meaning.”  He paused to finish his drink and still gripping Nate’s arm, he poured another one from the bottle on the bar.  “And you can’t tell how good a woman is, until you’ve tried her out.  Right boys?”  

 

Before the laughter erupted, Jess could hear the creaking sounds of Slim’s chair when he reached to pour himself another whiskey.   What had it been for him, thought Jess, four or five shots since Simon Bortell and his crew walked into the place.  And what was it with Bortell?  Was Slim edgy, thinking Bortell was trying to goad Jess into a fight with all his loud and wooly talk?     Liquor talk was something Bortell was fluent at, spinning his words wider and louder, resting a boot heel on the rail of the bar.  Jess always thought, if you had to talk about it, you likely couldn’t have done it, before or after the whiskey.

 

“Fellas let me tell you,” loudly started Bortell up again as he leaned back, elbows on the bar, and almost seeming to be aiming his words in the direction where Jess sat.   “I gotta tell you boys, it’s a sweet, sweet job working for a woman, like that.    They smell better.  They walk better.  And they feel, bet’er.”   With that Bortell slammed a fist onto the bar to give weight to his boasting.     

 

“If I hadn’t been laid up for so long,” growled Jess, “I could take the excitement that’s gonna break out here when my fist happens to get stuck in that loud mouth of his.”   He pushed his chair back, standing to give his growing anger some breathing room.  

 

“Don’t take the bait,” warned Slim tightly under his breath.

 

“If I can’t shut that mouth of his,” growled Jess as he sat down again, “then coming into town wasn’t such a good idea.”      

                                                  

“Not for Bortell,” said Slim.

 

Simon Bortell, still standing at the bar turned again to face their table, now with a raised glass of whiskey,  high as if he were saluting them.

 

“Well boys!  Here’s to the good woman.   And here’s to the man, who discovers,  she ain’t.  And boys, I’m telling you, I am the, ‘sure man’ for the job.”   

 

Suddenly Slim was standing, the color rising in his face.  Jess looked up to see the furrowed forehead gone angry,  the determined way in which his mouth rolled tight. and recognized the look;  it occurred just before Slim was about to throw a punch into someone’s face. 

 

On his long legs, Slim moved the several steps from his table to the bar so fast Jess couldn’t stop him.   In a lunge at Bortell, Slim threw the first punch,  taking on the foreman in one of those barroom brawls its participants would talk about for months to come, or at least until the next memorable altercation occurred.   Sammy sent a runner for Mort Corey, only to be told Nate Harwell had already headed off for the sheriff’s office when he saw the tall Slim Sherman slam a punch so hard into Simon Bortell’s face,  it sent the foreman flying backwards into the bar.  

                                    

Tables were knocked over to draw other customers into the fray as Jess deflected blows and punched out several cow hands in his way to where Slim was fighting Bortell’s crew, unaware of the mayhem erupting around him.  Just before Jess managed to get to Slim,  Mort Cory came in to immediately assess the situation with his shotgun,  and fired off the .30 .30 upwards in efforts to stop the fighting.   One of Bortell’s men used the opportunity of a lull in the fighting to crack a liquor bottle over Slim’s head, dropping him lifelessly to the floor.

 

“Now I don’t care who started it, but it’s ending now,” shouted Mort Corey.  “Since the jail’s not big enough to arrest the whole lot of you, as each one of you fellas file outta here on your way home,  you’ll be paying towards repairing the damage.  Weapons put away and money out. Now!”

 

As Simon Bortell’s crew was picking up their foreman to carry him out, unconscious with a badly bloodied face,   Jess was trying to wake Slim.   Around them others were doing as Mort instructed.  One cow hand dropping his share of coins on the bar, also dropped Slim’s hat and then Jess’s next to it on the bar’s top as he passed them.

 

Finally able to get a dazed Slim to his feet, and tossing the last of his poker winnings from T  J onto the bar, Jess half carried Slim as they followed the rest  of the others leaving the saloon.  Before they reached the saloon’s swinging doors, Mort Cory stepped in front of Jess to give him a stern look;  one Jess had received on more than one occasion since knowing the lawman.   “No Mort,” grinned Jess at him, “for a change, I didn’t start it.  Old hard rock here did.”

 

Mort shook his head in surprise and tucking his shotgun up under one arm,  he used his other arm to help Jess take Slim out onto the boardwalk outside.  After they managed to get the groggy Slim onto his horse, the sheriff stepped back to ask.  “Are you sure you don’t want to take him up to Doc Collier’s to have him checked out?”     


Jess looked up the street to see an unconscious Bortell being carried to the doc’s office, and back to Slim slumped forward over his saddle.  “With the number of shots he had tonight, he’ll be all right,” he assured the lawman, “just gonna be a long ride home for him.” 

 

“Well it’s your call,” said the sheriff shaking his head, “Haven’t known him to do something like this in a long time.“

 

“Well one thing’s for sure,” Jess told him as he settled up into his own saddle to look down at Mort,

 

“What’s that?”

 

“It was purely agreeable,” quipped Jess, “watching Slim take down Bortell, and almost half his crew, near by himself.”  He grinned, “Night, Mort.”

 

“Night, Harper.”

 

 

 

Chapter 21

 

 

Late in the morning, barefooted and wearing only unbelted Levi’s, Slim Sherman had limped into the kitchen carrying one of the porcelain wash basins from the bedroom in search of fresh water.    Now bending over the basin set on the kitchen’s small table, he felt the cool wetness soothing the cuts and bruises resulting from the prior night’s activities.  In a sullen mood, he was listening to Jess sternly talking to him.  

 

“Slim, you know as well as I do, Bortell would just as soon fight with anybody ‘til hell  froze over, and then skate ‘em down onto thin ice, and given the chance, shove ‘em under it.” 

 

Jess took another sip of his coffee as he leaned up against the wall near the stove watching Slim.  “What got into you last night?  You’re usually the one stopping a fight, not starting one.”

                                                                                        

With his back to Jess, Slim was ignoring him as he continued cleaning up the cuts on his face, and carefully testing the tenderness of the bruises. He was saying nothing.

 

“Going into town for a couple of drinks should have taken some of that ornery outta you,” started Jess in again, “only you jump up to slug it out with Blewie’s foreman, starting a brawl with her whole,  dad-gum crew.  By the time Mort got there, Charlie’s place was near broke up.   Mose came driving in here on the west bound this morning cackling about how Bortell spent the night up at Doc Collier’s office,  with a broken nose, broke in two places,  and a couple of cracked ribs; and how everyone in town knows you were the one who tore into him first.  Most of ‘em happy you did.”

 

“The morning stage was through?” questioned Slim suddenly straightening up to turn and look accusingly at Jess, “You didn’t wake me?”

 

“And risk getting a left-over fist in the face for breakfast,” quipped Jess sternly shaking his head. “No sir, slugger.”   

 

Slim glared at him for a moment before turning back to the basin of cold water as Jess harshly continued.  “I ain’t seen a person as prickly as Blewie, but you’re running a close second in that race ever since she shot that cougar out from under you.”

 

Silently Slim began easing the wet cloth to the back of his neck. 

 

“By the way how’s the lump on your head this morning?” asked Jess as he moved  to the stove to pour himself more coffee.   He turned to see Slim flinch, when cautiously reaching fingers up along the spot, where one of Bortell’s boys had found the next most popular use for a full bottle of whiskey in a Saturday night saloon.  

 

Dropping his voice to a quieter tone, Jess kept speaking to Slim.  “That day in Blewie’s kitchen I know I was pretty feather headed, on accounta not breathing so good from being stove up, but I’ve done some thinking on it since.”

 

Slim turned around, a towel in hand to glare at him.  “And,” he crossly asked Jess.  

 

“About how you were acting like you got your spurs all tangled up or something; not thanking Blewie that day, for all she done taking us in from the storm.”   Giving a long shrug, Jess decided to ask the question he had spent time mulling over as they rode home from town.  

 

“I dunno Slim, the way you took on Bortell when he was spoiling for a fight; I realize now it was with you, and not me.  And I’m thinking it’s to do with Blewie, like something happen at her place that day.”

 

Slim’s mouth rolled tight as he looked to Jess, considering an explanation could be given, or would it be worse to remain silent.  Finally his eyes shifted away and he offered, “Yeah I guess you could, say that.”

 

Jess’s face flashed a mixture of questions and possible assumptions before he asked. “She didn’t try shooting you again, did she, for showing up on her doorstep with me?”

 

Slim considered the remark before reluctantly shaking his head, “I kinda wished she had, and I wouldn’t be feeling like this.”

 

A thought jumped wildly across Jess’s face and he gave a low chuckle, “Wait a minute!  You weren’t the one doing the shootin’ were you?  I mean, she can get a body pretty riled up just opening her mouth.”

 

“No,” gruffed Slim turning around to toss the towel onto the table before dropping his hands down and once again leaning over the wash basin.  His back to Jess, not facing him, he finally said, “It was nothing like that.  It was.”

 

“It was what?”

 

“Kissing her.”

 

Slim turned around to Jess before he could respond and offered, “I didn’t intend to go behind your back Jess. We were in the barn. just talking.  Next thing I know, it was happening.”     “What?” uttered Jess in surprise.   “You kissed Blewie?  On the lips?   Dad-gum you’re lucky you weren’t picking buck shot outta your hide the next couple a days!”        

 

Slim’s glare hit Jess squarely causing him to suddenly stop in mid laugh when he realized what he was telling him.    Jee ease, Slim.”

 

Leaning back against the table, Slim needed to disclose what he had not wanted Jess to know about his encounter with Beckah Blewe in the barn that afternoon.  “And it wouldn’t have stopped there,” he told him, “she wanted more from me; and I was more than willing to give it, right then, right there.”     

 

“And?” uttered Jess in concern. 

 

“We were interrupted; that’s when she slapped me,” answered Slim in a whisper.   

 

 “Well.”  Jess gave his assessment of the situation, “she didn’t shoot you.  So I’m guessing she probably feels the same way you do.”

 

Slim’s head tipped downwards as he considered the reaction to his admission, his feeling of guilt among several other conflicting feelings he had been grappling with since first meeting Beckah Blewe.  

 

“And Bortell? He was the one doing the interrupting,” stated Jess bitingly. 

                                                                                                     

“He was there.  Just long enough,” glumly confirmed Slim. 

 

“All those insults thrown from Bortell last night, were for you, weren’t they?”

 

Jess took in Slim’s nod, to understand his guess had been correct.  

 “I’m sorry Jess.”                                              

A long pause passed before Jess gave a tilt to his head to look at Slim.  “Well Pard don’t be.  I still want what’s best for Blewie, until she proves different.”   He gave a shrug and said, “For your sake I’m hoping it’s only the occasional bullet hole I’ll be needing to patch up.”   Reaching for an empty cup, Jess poured coffee into it and handed it to Slim, while advising him.  “And you might want to take it slow with her.   Blewie’s still either mixed up in something, or part of it.”

Slim took the coffee and looking down into the cup, slowly reflected. “Feelings don’t always take advice.”

 

“Even after knowing she stood there letting her foreman near accuse you of rustling?”

 

When Slim gave him no answer,  Jess carefully chose his words before offering.  “I guess that’s what happens when a woman gets to you like that.  It fogs up your head, twists your insides into knots, whether you’re with her or not.   And there ain’t anything you can do to change it, you just ride it out thinking maybe, maybe you won’t get thrown hard.”

 

Jess waited for his words to sink in, but when he could see Slim’s attention was barely on them, he said, “Slim, a public humiliation will be festering with Bortell.   Right now the chances of your taking any advice to pay attention and watch your back, would be like telling the sun to rise in the west;  ain’t gonna happen.”  He gave Slim a friendly thump on the shoulder. “So I’ll be watching your back for you; just in case Bortell’s stupid enough to try something.”

 

Visibly relieved, Slim barely nodded his thanks when a loud pounding sounded on the front door. 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 22

 

 

As the pounding continued, Jess crossed the living room to reach the front window where he parted the curtains to see tied to their porch post a single horse, one he recognized.   Quickly stepping to the front door, he opened it wide to greet their impatient visitor. 

 

“Mourn’in Blewie,” he called out giving her one of his best lopsided grins.

 

Storming in past him, dressed in an oversized gray shadow-plaid jacket flapping open, and heeled boots striking sharply across their wood-planked floor, Beckah Blewe turned to glower at Jess for several seconds before demanding.  “Where is the cow jerk who beat up my foreman last night?”

 

“I’m not sure Blewie,” Jess was still grinning at her, “which cow jerk are you referring to, Bortell takes to fighting as often as a preacher’s son takes to vice.”

 

She narrowed eyes at him, “You’re acting dumber than a sack of hammers this morning Harper! You know who I’m talking about.”

 

“That cow jerk would be me,” claimed Slim as he stiffly walked from the kitchen to stand facing her,  the towel still hanging over one of his bare shoulders.  “Your foreman was outta line last night, and it was in a public drinking place,” he told her.

                                                       

“He’s right about that Blewie,” interjected Jess reaching out a hand to give the door a shove, swinging it shut.    “And I would have stepped in to defend your honor, honest but old hard rock here beat me to it, with those long legs of his.”

 

Beckah’s hand reached up to tip her wide brimmed hat back on her head; and scrutinized Slim Sherman.  He was dressed only in dark-colored working trousers; bare-footed and shirtless, and waiting for her to speak her peace.

 

“A man needs a good reason to start a fight Sherman.  You have a good reason? A reason for busting up my foreman knowing spring roundup is only a week away?”

 

“Well I wouldn’t have if he hadn’t been shooting off his mouth,” responded Slim as a frown creased his face in reaction to her harshness with him.  While he wasn’t saying it, Slim’s opinion was Bortell had been asking for the fight as he came closer and closer to revealing that moment in the barn he had witnessed between the two of them.  

 

“And for that he got his ribs caved in?  That’s all, all to it?”   Her voice rose in anger, and she shook her head she was so infuriated with him.    “You broke his nose!   You broke his con-founded nose Sherman!”

 

“Ca’mon Blewie,” offered Jess, “I’m telling you, your foreman was the one asking for it;     Bortell’s a no good sidewinder who’s been in saloon fights so often,  his  name’s carved up above one of those rock-hard bunks of Mort’s down at the jail.”  

 

Moving towards the two of them,  Jess stood with Blewie to his left, and ready to defend Slim on his right.

 

Bringing up a gloved fist Beckah jabbed a finger towards Jess’s face, “Harper, you might want to hobble those lips of yours before I do it for you.  This discussion is between me and your big bully of a keeper here.”

 

“Jess is right,” spoke Slim as evenly to her as he could manage given the tone of her insulting words.  “It was a bad idea to hire Bortell in the first place.  He’s no good. You need to get him off your place.”

 

“Well now that would be my business Sherman,” she shot back at him, her hands pushing the jacket back until she could plant her fists on the top of her hips.   Jess felt his gun hand reaching for the side of his leg before he realized not only was she not wearing any weapons,  neither was he.

 

“I saw that Harper!” she growled at him. 

 

“Look Blewie,” awkwardly shrugged Jess before shoving both his hands quickly into his pockets, “Don’t go skinning bark off the wrong tree here; your foreman was itching for a fight with Slim last night, and he only obliged him.”

 

 “You,” she turned back to Slim, “seemed to have found an easy reason to strike back for his speaking up at the association’s meeting last week.  Was that it?”

 

 “Now wait a minute!” uttered Slim taking a step forward and raising his voice to her.

 

 “How could you take...”    He bristled at her as he stopped and then suddenly erupted in declaration to her, “I have never met a person who could jump faster in the wrong direction, with a more ornery disposition doing it!”

 

Jess watched as Slim’s hands nervously began clenching and unclenching where they hung at his sides, and then to Blewie when she stepped closer to Slim,  her fists rolled tight as if to throw a punch.  “Whoa now folks,” cautioned Jess in alarm.   Suddenly, he was certain he would need to step in to pin Blewie’s arms back in order to keep her from hitting Slim, and whatever might happen after that.

 

 “Stay outta this Jess!” growled Slim at him.  And turning back to her, he loudly drew in a breath to speak, only to be interrupted by her continuing to snap up at him.

 

 “That’s it, isn’t it; all too easy to put pressure on a woman rancher to get her to sell out.  And cheaply too!  Just start running her stock out into open range so you can steal the calves; not to mention taking pot shots at the few cow hands even willing to work for a woman!  I’ll be lucky if I have anyone left besides Nate Harwell working for me; and that’s only because he’s mooning so badly over my little sister, he’s too stupid to leave us.  Does that make you happy Sherman?  Does that make you feel like the big nice looking rancher waiting for me to be scared enough so you can step in and buy me out? Does it?”

 

“Hold on here,” glared Slim at her, “Is that what you think?  Lady, you’re in so far over your head, you don’t even know it.  You got problems with rustling?  Look to your foreman cause it’s a good chance he’s behind it all.”

 

“And your downed fences?” she shot back, “are you blaming my crews for that?”

 

“Well somebody ripped ‘em down and all the tracks were coming from your land,” Slim pointed an angry, very furious finger in emphasis at her,  “and a set of those tracks were from one of your mares. For your information, those tracks are what I was following that day you nearly shot me.”

 

“I don’t nearly shoot anyone Sherman,” she shouted back at him, ‘they’re either shot or not shot, never nearly!”  Before Jess could look to Slim for his response, Beckah’s voice took on a perplexed tone catching his attention.    “One of my mares?” she uttered, “one of mine?”

 

Suddenly her mouth when grim and both hands rolled into fists. “Why you bare-chested brawler, those were my tracks when I followed whoever it was who crossed my land, and you think I would do something like that?”

 

‘Yours?”

 

“Yeah mine, Sherman,” she snapped back at him, “And I suppose you’re the one who’s been taking shots at me, trying to scare me off.”  She stepped closer to him, pulling her fists upwards.  “For god’s sake you could have hit one of my mares, what were you thinking; do you need my ranch that badly?”

 

His anger abruptly falling away, Slim dropped into a distressed silence to think she could have been unintentionally shot by whoever was obviously trying to scare her. 

 

It stunned Beckah to see the intense worry flash through Slim Sherman’s eyes, hitting her hard to realize with a deep certainty,   he had not been the cause of her problems as she had been led to believe.    Jess continued looking from one to the other thinking any moment one or both of them would erupt into violent action, and he would need to risk his well being by slipping in between the two of them.  He waited, holding his breath.

 

After the silence of several heartbeats, Slim snapped at her, “The spring dance is Saturday.  I want you to go with me.”   He completed his instructions with raised eyebrows, “and no argument.”

 

The color swiftly leaching from her face, Beckah Blewe stared up at him. Her eyes showed the leap from anger to visible astonishment he could ask such a thing during the middle of their argument.   She searched his face looking for answers to questions forming and reforming since that day in the barn, and watched him patiently waiting for her response.  

 

“Fine,” she snapped at him, nodding her head and repeating, “Fine.”  

                                                                                                            

Then to his amazement, Jess listened to Blewie shouting her instructions to Slim, “and Allie comes with us.  No argument!”

 

“Fine!” quickly agreed Slim to her request and nodding back to her.

 

Stunned Jess watched her turn on a booted heel and walk to the door.  Her last words tossed over her shoulder before slamming their front door behind her were, “Five o’clock and don’t be late!”   

 

Jess knew he wasn’t the only one holding his breath; next to him  he heard Slim slowly releasing the air from his lungs while he stared at the closed door.

 

“Well-now, pard,” exclaimed Jess reaching a hand upwards to run it thoughtfully through his dark hair.  

 

“Why is it always confusing when something goes right with that woman?”

 

 

 

Chapter 23

 

The spring round up dance arrived in Laramie the same day Neil Mason stepped down from the west bound Overland stage. Scanning the streets, he decided to head for the closest saloon in search of a few friendly drinks after his long trip from Denver City.

 

In the entrance of a Laramie saloon as his eyes adjusted from the sun’s exterior glare,  he stood to view the bar’s interior, finding its tables mostly vacant that mid afternoon.  Neil was a tall, broad-shouldered and thin-hipped gentleman, well dressed and on the still dark-haired handsome side of forty with a swaggering awareness of his appeal to the fairer sex.  Immediately upon seeing him, a pretty brunette endeavored to give him her best smile while moving to accompany him to a table where they enjoyed several friendly drinks together.  During his short meal of free bar food, Neil ascertained a few bits of local gossip, among which he was told of a dance to be held that very night, to celebrate the start of spring roundup.  Glumly the brunette had also pointed out it meant business would be slow that night, and she would have to share the few customers for the evening with the saloon’s other hostess. 

 

Neil stood to pay for his meal and considered he would like to attend this dance and that meant he needed to immediately ride out to invite the woman he had come to Laramie to call upon.    Maybe after the dance was over, if the mood was right, she would accompany him back to his hotel room for a few sociable drinks, and there they could talk business, amongst several other things on his mind. 

 

Neil very generously tipped the very pleasant and informative Patty Sue, after purchasing a bottle of whiskey for the evening, and then he left to secure a hotel room for a couple of nights.    Later he stopped at the livery stable to rent the saddle horse he would need for the day or so to complete his business.  It was with a mild surprise he found the owner of the livery remembered him from his previous visit nearly a year ago, and it left him thinking not much happened in this unsettled part of Wyoming territory, not without its residents taking notice, and remembering. The owner verified Neil’s vague remembrance of directions to the old Baxter ranch, and Neil set out northwest of town toward Baxter Ridge. 

 

Several miles later passing the small cemetery, he easily spotted the cutoff which would take him along the ridge and then down to the ranch where Beckah Blewe Mezzlee and her little sister, Alianna Harris now lived.  Other than the addition of a large garden near the house, everything looked pretty much the same to him when, as representative for Beckah Blewe Mezzlee, he had successfully negotiated the price of the ranch with its former owner.

 

The horse’s reins now tied to the hitching post, he straightened his suit coat and took the few porch steps to approach the front door.  To his right he noticed the porch swing and tried to recall if it had been there originally or if it had been added later by its new owner.  He paused at the front door when he had the feeling of being watched. Slowly turning around he searched the ranch’s large open yard behind him,  from the wooded area to his right, the entrance drive ahead,  and around to his left across the wood pens and finally to the barn where he caught sight of someone standing in the open doorway of the barn,  a ranch hand. 

 

He wasn’t sure at first, but he finally recognized the man as one he had hired to take care of things after he had arranged the purchase of the ranch for Beckah Blewe.   It was the same man whose last written correspondence had been more than a week ago, prompting Neil’s unannounced visit.  As if to signal to him, the ranch hand raised a hand, only Neil Mason chose to ignore the man for the time being.  Turning to the front door, he knocked several times and waited. 

 

When she opened the door, Beckah Blewe’s bright smile suddenly dulled upon recognizing him.  Her facial expression indicated she had been expecting someone else.   As he took in her surprised greeting for him sanding there in front of her, it validated his reason for the trip to Laramie.  His eyes quickly moved from her face down to the deep blue silk dress she was wearing; gathered high in a soft ruffle at the neck with its loose bodice joined at her small waist by a full skirt to end in a ruffle, it was the kind of dress, with its satin sheen, a man could spend hours wondering what lay under it to give such appealing shape and feminine form.

 

Removing his hat he said to her, “Why Rebeckah Blewe Mezzlee,  country air so well agrees with you, I didn’t think it possible you could look even more beautiful.”   Not waiting to be invited in, Neil stepped through her doorway giving her no choice but to step back in admitting him into her home.  

 

“Neil,” she said a little flustered at seeing him at her front door.

 

“Sorry not to provide the pleasantries of sending a calling card ahead to announce my visit,” he smiled at her, “but the trip was a sudden decision. And I must say, certainly worth the lovely greeting.”

 

“Sudden?” she repeated the word in a questioning whisper while moving around him to close the door as he turned to look about her home.  He took in the large floral patterned settee and high backed chairs by the fireplace, and the other feminine arrangements since he had talked to its prior owner. 

“Yes,” he continued, “I wanted to deliver the news in person about the new place being nearly finished.  It’s ahead of completion time, and far better than I had envisioned.”   He took a step closer to her, “And I guess the real reason for my visit is my desire to ascertain for myself how you were faring in this new venture of yours, to find out if it has been all you wanted?”  He was prepared, with his half smile, to hear a litany of the multiple incidents he knew she had been plagued with since moving to the place; only he found Beckah Blewe had little to say other than fine, and her assurance she and her little sister were doing well. 

 

Neil was beginning to consider all the money wasted he was sending to be informed about his directions to make sure her life would be miserable.   In fact, the last report he had received was one to greatly concern him, as it described Beckah Blewe’s behavior in the arms of the neighboring rancher in her barn.  What was the man’s name, Sherman something?   This poacher as the true reason for his trip, to learn firsthand about who was infringing upon something he considered belonging to him.

 

Again Neil moved closer to her, only to have her step back to rest a hand on the large floral print settee, and remain just out of reach from his raised hand.  Evasive, but polite, Beckah told him there would soon be someone arriving to take her and Allie to the dance in town, and she was just waiting for her sister to finish dressing. 

 

“As a matter of fact,” said Neil, “I just heard of the social event when I arrived.”  He gave her another polite smile, “I had hoped to obtain your acceptance to my rather impromptu invitation to attend this dance in my company; perhaps giving me the opportunity to continue with our last conversation.”   It was disappointing for Neil to see the confusion flash across her face before she recalled that he had asked her to marry him.  

 

“Only now.”  He said giving her an exaggerated sigh of disappointment before continuing, “I find you already have accepted another gentleman’s invitation.”   Making a wide gesture with his hand around the room, he asked, “And further, am I to understand this new life has replaced any thoughts of what awaits you back in Denver City?”

 

She moved around the settee, to stand closer to the fireplace and crossed her arms in front of her to observe him for several seconds before speaking.  “Neil, I can’t give you what you want from me,” she told him. 

 

Neil came around the settee towards her, catching the soft sent of lavender still hanging on the air as it followed in the wake of her movement.  “Beckah, I know what you truly need, and this is not it.  You are meant to be enjoying the finer things life has to offer. You deserve them.”

 

She interrupted him, “And what about Allie? Ruin another life?  I left Denver City with Allie for a reason Neil, and that has not changed, nor has my answer to your offer.”

 

Shrugging slightly, as if to dismiss something he didn’t like hearing, his voice took on a hard edge, “You were just with the wrong man Beckah; not in the wrong place.  Surely all the things I have done for you have proved that.” 

 

“Neil,” she stated firmly and evenly to him, “There is much to be grateful for what you have done for me, and for Allie.”    

 

Suddenly Neil took the few steps to stand next to her as he reached out to take her arm and pull her closer to him.  “Beckah Blewe Mezzlee, I am in love with you, and it has been since the first time we met,” he declared to her.  “I want you to come with me tomorrow when I return to Denver; we can be married before the week is out; and on our way to San Francisco for the fancy honeymoon you deserve.   And when we return, everything will be ready for us.  And I promise you, no bad memories; together we can make new ones, and very, very rich and profitable ones at that.”

 

Although her face went dark in a concerned frown, he was prepared to pursue her, and pressed her by offering, “You can take care of Allie without any interference by me or what I do.  I’ll even hire a governess from back east for her, or send her off to an expensive finishing school there, give her the kind of education you had.”

 

As he waited for her to reconsider his proposal, he heard a voice calling from another room in the house.  Beckah turned her head to the approaching sound of her sister’s request if Mister Sherman had arrived?   Slowly Neil released her arm, his hand falling to his side.  He had no intentions of talking further to her in the presence of her little sister.

 

“I’m asking you to leave now Neil,” quietly requested Beckah, her voice polite but firm.

 

His tone suddenly changed and he coldly asked, “and miss giving my regards to your little sister.”

 

“Please go, Neil,” she said glancing to the clock set on the mantel of the large fireplace.

 

“Oh I understand,” he continued smiling at her only now with narrowing eyes, “I am to miss an introduction to your gentleman caller.”

 

When Alianna entered the room Neil suddenly turned his attention to her. His expectations based upon the last time he had seen Beckah’s little sister quickly vanished.  He had always deemed the little Alianna something that came between himself and Beckah, keeping her from him as she insisted,  it was her responsibility to raise her sister now that her mother had died.

 

“Well  well  well,” he smiled pleasantly as he left Beckah’s side to move towards the little sister who no longer looked like a little sister.  His dark eyes flashed with pleasant surprise as he took her white-gloved hand to bring it to his lips to give her the polite kiss of a gentleman.

 

This little sister with the light red hair and dusting of freckles across the tops of her high cheek bones had blossomed into a well shaped young female any man would pay to remain in her company.  The light green material of her dress draped away from a low ruffled neckline, revealing the full curves of a high youthful bosom that gave promise of more to come.   With a smile of true delight, he looked back to Beckah who stood frowning at him.

 

“This can’t be little Alianna Katilly now can it!”  Turning back to Allie he gave a curt bow to her as he said, “My dear you are a rare spring blossom to be found in this wilderness.  And I am jealous of any young man who will be enjoying your company on the dance floor tonight.”

 

“Neil,” started Beckah in the tone signally he had outstayed his welcome with her.

 

“Yes I know, Beckah.”  Turning from a smiling Alianna to Beckah Blewe, he took a serious and slightly demanding tone as he spoke to her.  “I shall expect you will take consideration of our conversation this afternoon.  I’m staying in town for a day or two on other business, and would like the pleasure of calling upon you once again, to discuss some additional matters.  Perhaps tomorrow?”

 

She gave a tilt to her head as she considered his request and in a strange voice she responded, “I’d rather not.”

 

He frowned, but politely nodded to her showing his indulgence in agreeing to withdraw from an unfinished conversation.  Turning back to Alianna, Neil saw her puzzled expression directed to her sister before she realized he had taken her hand once again, only now to bid farewell. 

 

As he held the young girl’s gloved hand, he considered something, but only gave her a warm smile instead.  He found himself quite taken with her wide-eyed expression of expectation as he released her small hand. With an exaggerated nod of his head, Neil bid the two of them good evening; and donning his short-brimmed dark hat, he turned to leave their home.

 

Once again finding himself standing on the wide porch of the house, Neil Mason considered it was time to express his displeasure with the hired help.  He glanced towards the barn to see the ranch hand leaning up against the open doorway, still waiting for him.  Moving down to untie his horse from the post, he tugged it along to the water trough, placed next to the corral’s fence.  While the animal drank water, he walked towards the barn’s entrance, now taking notice of the white bandage plastered across the face of Simon Bortell.

                                  

  

 

 

Chapter 24

 

Jess could hear the lively fiddle, and accordion music mixing in with excited laughter,  as he quickly moved with the other couples toward a large, outdoor pavilion decorated for the spring round up dance.    After easily spotting the tall Slim Sherman ahead in the moving crowd, dressed in a black trimmed, blue-gray frock coat, Jess reached out a hand once he was close enough to tap him on the back. “Hey pard, you’re here!” 

 

Turning around Slim gave him a broad smile before telling him,  “And with two of the loveliest ladies of the evening!”

 

Jess didn’t realize his lower jaw had drifted downwards after the woman next to Slim turned around to face him.    “Well Harper that’s a rare sight, your mouth’s open and nothing’s coming out,” Beckah Blewe chided him.

 

“I reckon not anymore rare a sight at seeing you in a dress Blewie.”  He took a step back to sweep his eyes upwards along the gown’s deep blue folds of material, to the matching lace gloves and dark red hair piled high in swirls. “Sure is a sight. And I can’t even tell.”

 

“Tell what?” she frowned at him.  

 

“Where you’re hiding that Winchester carbine of yours Blewie,” said Jess.

 

It was Slim who piped up to observe, “And I can’t tell where you’re hiding that dance partner of yours Jess. I thought you were bringing Mae’s new waitress. What happen, she take a good look at you and have second thoughts?”

 

“Well I got stood up.   It was on accounta ‘her’ friend got stood up and she’s staying with her for the evening.”

 

“And you’re foot loose for the night,” concluded Slim.  “Yeah and it’s a  fortunate thing too,  cause I reckon to steal a number of dances from that pretty partner of yours here, and I couldn’t do that if I was spoken for,” grinned Jess at the two of them.  

 

“Oh no, I’m not sharing tonight, they’re all reserved,” Slim told him.  Glancing over to where Beckah’s sister, Allie was facing the dancers, intently searching the crowd moving on and off the wooden platform, he offered, “But I think you just might have a chance, with the second prettiest female here.”

 

“I might at that,” agreed Jess, “’cause I ain’t seen any of your crew here tonight, Blewie.  I thought Nate Harwell would be all slicked up, and stepping Allie across the floor ‘til there was no dance left in her.  You ordered the boys to stay back at the ranch, not wanting ‘em to catch sight of the boss in a skirt?”

 

“I expect they’ll be along to give competition Harper,” she responded, “only partner you’ll have tonight is all that hot-air prattle of yours.” 

 

Giving a shrug, Jess was about to move towards Beckah’s sister, only someone from behind him  had slipped an arm around his.  He turned to see it was Sally Rykert,   Luke Marlowe’s steady girl. 

 

“Why, Jess Harper, you promised the next time my Luke was one of the dance marshals, you would give me the pleasure of your company across the floor.”  She drew him closer and leaned in to him to whisper loudly, “and I understand due to unfortunate circumstances, you are definitely free to honor that promise.” 

 

While it wasn’t always so clear who was and wasn’t the best rider, roper, calf brander or fighter in a brawl in Laramie,  Jess Harper had no competition in one category in which most all Laramie men were happy to concede to him;  Jess was a dancer.  Long before the musicians were engaged or the party decorations crafted, the female population knew who was going to be on the arm of Jess Harper at the next dance.  The lucky girl, usually new in town, would soon discover a well crafted conspiracy resulting in Jess Harper dancing with nearly every woman in attendance at least once, and more than once if she was lucky enough to be in the right place.  As for Jess, he took it all in stride,  rarely missing a turn across the floor, and never lacking a partner, even if he failed to bring one to the dance.      

 

Slim watched as Sally Rykert took Jess in tow past others on the open side of the pavilion where they were listening to the evening’s music and observing the dancing couples, and past Luke Marlowe standing at the railing of the dance floor giving his nod of approval. 

 

Quickly scanning the crowd hanging around the pavilion, Slim spotted young Eddie Parker standing with several other young boys hoping to snag a dance or two with a single girl attending the spring event with her family.  Slim signaled to him once he had obtained his attention and the boy came walking over.

 

“Evening Mister Sherman,” politely spoke Eddie to them, “Evening ladies.”

 

“Evening Eddie,” returned Slim who then did the introductions, “Beckah, Allie, this is Eddie Parker.  Eddie this is the new owner of the Baxter ranch, Beckah Blewe Harris and her sister Alianna.   I am sure if it would be agreeable to Alianna, you might ask her to dance.” 

 

Eddie Parker’s face flushed, but he seemed to find the opportunity one he was prepared to take before it was as easily withdrawn.  “Miss,” he looked to her.   To his delight she took his hand, and the two eagerly rushed off and out onto the wooden platform just as the fiddler signaled the start of the next song by calling out, “Heel Toe Polka, folks!”    

 

Slim leaned down to quietly tell Beckah, “You needn’t worry about Allie.  The Parker boy is from a good family.”

 

“For a Wyoming rancher, you are full of surprises,” she whispered to him, “next you’re going to tell me you do the polka.”

 

“Won’t tell you that,” he smiled at her, “I intend to show you!”  He took her hand to draw her towards the dance platform where they stepped up to blend into the boisterous crowd of couples moving around about to the lively music.

 

As they danced Slim considered her words spoken in observation to him, for a rancher he was full of surprises, she had told him.  Only for Slim, it was Beckah Blewe Harris who was full of far more surprises.  To be honest with himself, he had not known what to expect when, hat in hand, he had knocked on her door at precisely five o’clock that afternoon to escort her and her sister to the spring dance.    What he saw when she had opened the door, had rendered him without the words of a polite greeting. Looking up at him with eyes more blue than green as they reflected the deep blue shine of her evening dress, she was an incredible vision to him.  

 

For several moments he had stood there staring at her.  And when his eyes fell to her full lips,  the desire to kiss her rose so strongly upwards within him, it rushed through his head in a loud roar to wash away the capacity for words. 

 

He must have been standing in her doorway wanting to kiss her, for what seemed an eternity before she reached out a lace-gloved hand to slowly draw him into her home.   Even now, he could not recall the words she had spoken in greeting to him, or that she had called for her sister to join them. The next he knew, the three of them were sitting atop the seat on his buckboard, driving to Laramie, an while  listening to Allie doing the talking of the dance as they drove to town,  he couldn’t recall specifically her words, but he was aware Beckah had remained silent sitting next to him.  Several times when he had glanced over to look at Beckah Blewe, she seemed preoccupied, staring at the road ahead of them, and he had wondered if she was regretting her acceptance of his invitation given in the heat of their argument.   

 

Since that morning several days ago, he had not been able to cease thinking about her, or her words as she angrily faced him in his home.  It was then both had discovered, things were not as they had appeared to be for each other.   And he had taken the daunting chance,  it was the only obstacle standing between their wanting to be with each other;  standing in the way of repeating his long and unforgettable kiss taken in her arms the day in her barn.     

 

She had accepted his invitation, and he took meaning from it that in some way, she had accepted him.  Sitting next to her,  his mind had already turned to the end of the evening, to the opportunity to be kissing her again.  Only he found self-doubts moving in with his reflection upon her silence.  It was because Beckah Blewe had been quiet from the start of what he had been considering a potential evening, and he didn’t rightly know what to say or do.  He determined nothing spoken on his part would be more respectful; give her the room to decide, was his advice to himself.  And when they were less than a mile from town, he cast another sideways glance at her and found himself pleased when she turned to him, to meet his gaze.   There came a racing of his heart when the look in her eyes gave him to understand the reason for needing her sister to accompany them that night.  Smiling he turned his attention back to the team to slap their reins, sharply urging them to pick up speed.   

 

Now with her hand in his, and his other hand on her lower back above her waist as they danced,  he had grown concerned she was still as quiet.  It left him again speculating if he had misunderstood her feelings towards him.  When the music switched to a slower waltz, he was relieved to feel her relax as he held her, guiding her among the other dancers. 

 

Leaning in closer, he said to her, “You’re mighty quiet this evening.”

 

She looked up at him, as if it took her a few moments to understand what he was asking.   “It’s just,” she started out, but glancing around to the other couples, she said, “I haven’t been to a dance, like this, in a long while.”

 

“Well then,” he smiled broadly at her, “I aim to correct that situation in the future.”

 

“I’d like that,” she said softly to him.  The strange longing in her voice instinctively filled him with the need to draw her closer to him as they moved amid the other couples to the music in each other’s arms.           

 

 

 

 

Chapter 25

 

Across the dance floor, across the crowd of breathless dancers, resting before they took on the next dance, and across the single, hopeful males of all ages, searching for the opportunities to dance with the few female residents of Laramie, stood Neil Mason, hands in his pockets watching Slim Sherman.  His eyes took in the attention the tall rancher was paying to Beckah Blewe Mezzlee, as if she were some fragile creature to be adored.    When she smiled up at this new competition, Neil felt his insides twisting up into knots.  And when the man held her closer as the music slowed, he felt his fingers itching for the long stiletto discretely hidden in his right boot.   

 

But curiosity came to distract Neil; in the middle of the next lively dance, he caught sight of a dark-haired man easily moving Beckah Blewe away from Sherman.  Upon seeing the congeniality all around, Neil thought it must be someone who was a friend of the rancher.   Yet as he observed Sherman remaining off the floor, the man’s eyes never left Beckah Blewe as she danced with this new partner to whom he had yielded the pleasure of her company. 

 

From the other side of the dance floor, Neil caught sight of Beckah’s little sister, Alianna dancing with yet another young boy, while another one moved up to cut in for a few moments with her.   Neil was drawn to observing her flirting face with each new current partner, all while smiling in acknowledgment to yet another boy preparing to interrupt for his few dance steps with her.   He watched the newly departing boy walk off to rejoin a group of similar fellows, teasing and calling out to each other, as they watched the night’s activities from the side of the pavilion.  He soon discerned they were drawing straws for the next opportunity to cut in for a dance with Alianna Harris.  His eyes turned back to Allie and his thoughts began to dwell on something he had nearly failed to identify; something that might make the difference between a trip of disappointment to Laramie, and a trip of profit.

 

However, Neil Mason was not the only male noticing the buzz of boys around Blewie’s little sister that night.  Jess Harper had also taken notice when he temporarily assumed duties for one of the dance marshals, Jimmy Hoskins.  The tall Ellie Jane Hoskins had nearly worn Jess out with her vigorous love of a good polka, leaving him to wonder if she had been the one requesting the last several in a row.  In catching his breath, he had brought Jimmy’s wife to him, offering to take his duty of surveying the dancing crowd for potential problems as Jimmy danced with his own wife, something untypical of such an event.  

 

While observing the crowded dance floor, Jess sighted Slim dancing with Blewie.  And for a short moment, he had not recognized her as she looked up into Slim’s face.  Someday, he thought, before I finally hang up my spurs, I want a woman to look at me like that. 

 

As he dwelled on the thought, another dance marshal, Sam Winthrop, came over to lean against the dance railing next to Jess.  In his soft Virginia drawl, he said to him, “Who’s the looker on the arm of that bean-pole boss of yours tonight?”

 

“Old friend of mine who bought Dan Baxter’s place,” responded Jess still watching the two dancers. 

 

“Harper, you let those stage coach nags out at your relay station kick you in that head of yours often?” questioned Sam. “She sure ain’t old; and she sure ain’t a friend of yours if you’re not the one out there doing the dancing with her.”

 

Jess turned to give a shrug to him, “The lady’s made her wishes known Sam, she wants the boss.  Best I can do is make sure no one tries to horn in on him.”

 

“Well then,” Sam stood up straighter to look around, “you might want to keep an eye on that dandy looking fella over there.  He’s been casting some serious eye-balling on both of ‘em ever since he rode in here tonight.”

 

Jess looked in the direction at the back of the milling crowd where Sam was indicating.  He spotted a tall, dark haired older man dressed in a gray dress coat, white shirt and wide dark tie.  The broad-shouldered man was obviously interested in Blewie and Slim, as Sam had cautioned him.  “You know him?” curiously asked Jess.

 

“Nope.  Thought you might; he seems real interested in Slim and the lady on his arm,” said Sam watching the crowd and then glancing back to Jess.  “Might want to keep a watch on him though; stranger in town.”

 

“Well Sam,” chuckled Jess considering the comment as he looked back to him, “in case you haven’t noticed, there are a lot of strangers in town for the spring roundup, and especially for tonight’s dance.”

 

“Seems to me, he’s not like the rest of the waddies in town, looking for a good time before hiring on for the cow round up.  Seems to me,” repeated Sam in his soft drawl, “he’s the kinda stranger looking for something, and it ain’t work.”

 

When Jimmy Hoskins came back to clap Jess on the back, ready to resume his dance marshal duties, he was pleased to inform him that Ellie Jane was seeing to female business,  and if Jess might be wanting to find a less strenuous partner for the next dance, he best be doing it before she came looking for him.   Laughing Jess shook his hand and headed in the direction of Blewie’s sister, Allie who he could see was about to be in the middle of a disagreement between two boys vying for the next dance with her.  

 

*****

 

Despite his reputation as a former gun fighter, Jess Harper had served Laramie as an acting deputy for Mort Cory, and frequently rode posse when the sheriff had called upon him for the duty of bringing in various types of outlaws.     So it was with considerable weight of this reputation, both young Ned Connors and Billy Jameson were more than willing to yield up the next dance with Beckah’s sister to him, and not cut back in.       

 

Neil watched on as Sherman’s dark-haired friend, moved across the dance floor to Alianna who stood between two youths arguing which one was to have the next dance with her.  Once it was obvious both recognized the man approaching them, they immediately took apologetic stances, and were agreeable to leave the pavilion, each one managing to thrust out an angry sideways fist into the other’s shoulder once out of sight. 

 

Neil glanced back through the crowd to note some couples were leaving the dance floor before the next dance began and others were milling about talking.  He quickly searched for sight of Beckah, and when he spotted the tall Sherman making his way to a long table of refreshments off to the left of the pavilion, he found Beckah at the rancher’s side.  Upon retrieving cups of punch, the two remained standing near the table when the music started up again, neither giving any indication they would return to the floor.  Neil considered approaching Beckah for the next dance, and discarded the thought as too early in the evening, and instead turned his attention back to Allie. 

 

The fiddle player announced a waltz and Beckah’s sister accepted the offered hand of Sherman’s friend. Gracefully maneuvering Allie across the dance floor, the man gave Neil an unexpected revelation.    The rambunctious polka, gaining in popularity ever since the war ended, seemed more the style of western cow towns; not the flowing movements of the man’s waltz around the dance floor in the out reaching frontier of Wyoming territory. But then again, what did he expect they would do out here, whoop and stomp like wild Apaches.      

 

About to turn attention back to Beckah, Neil took sudden notice of Allie and her dance partner for they had abruptly stopped dancing amid other couples continuing to move around them.  To Neil Mason, it appeared the man was displeased with her, the shake of his head indicating he was reprimanding her.  In response, Allie had coyly lowered her chin, looking up at him with the smile of one who was not taking his words seriously. 

 

Neil watched as a moment later, the man once again took Allie’s hand to dance; only now it seemed as if the hand he had placed on her waist gave intent to keep them farther apart.  Taking it in, Neil smiled to himself as he continued watching Beckah’s little sister circling around the floor with her partner.   When several couples obstructing his view maneuvered around them until he could again observe Allie, he saw she had closed between them the distance two dancers would normally acknowledge as appropriate.   With a slight pushing movement, her partner widened the space between them, and Neil could see the unheard words quickly spoken by him to her.    Well, well, well, he thought to himself, this is an interesting development.  

 

So intent was Neil upon watching the game being played, the moving in closer and her partner repeatedly widening the distance, he nearly took a hasty step forward when he lost sight of the two of them behind several other couples.   Losing them, he thought to search for Beckah Blewe and Sherman, but failed to find them before Allie came back into his view again.  He now saw Allie following her dance partner, his hand firmly clasped on her arm, taking her from the dance floor to the less crowded side of the pavilion. 

 

Neil eased through the on-lookers, careful to trail Allie and Sherman’s friend while remaining concealed as long as possible.  The music had paused and he was intent upon hearing what was being said between the two.  He deemed an opportunity was preparing to make itself known to him, and he was planning to be in the right place for it.   He moved around several couples as if he were strolling, nodding to them until finally he faced the pavilion observing the musicians, his back to where Allie and her partner stood conversing several feet away.  It allowed him to almost catch the words of their conversation amid the others going on around him.

 

Sherman’s friend was doing the talking. Neil could hear the man’s deep gravel tones of reprimand, making out only a few words until their voices began to rise in emotion.

 

  “…and you’re a might too young to know what you’re doing Allie, you don’t know what men are like. Didn’t your sister teach you any proper manners?” the man’s tone had gone sharp, scolding her as if she were young child.  “You know what I’m talking about.  I have half a mind to drag you over to Blewie and let her decide if she should take you home right now; only I ain’t into spoiling the evening for Slim.  And if it means sitting out every dance with you to keep you out of trouble until she does decide to leave, I aim to do it.”

 

“Well I don’t think so, Mister Jess Harper,” retorted Allie with a shake of her head and a crossing of her arms in front of her.  “I shall be dancing with whoever I like, and in any manner I shall like.  And I do know what men are like; for your information, so does Becks!”

   

Upon hearing this declaration from the young girl, Neil turned to quickly move towards the two of them, to offer a smile and polite greeting as he interrupted them.  “Evening Miss Alianna.  Is it possible you would honor me with this next dance?”  

 

She looked up at him, a smile lighting her face as she recognized him and took his offered hand.  “Why I hadn’t expected to see you here tonight, Mister Mason.”

 

“You don’t mind, do you sir?  Not monopolizing this young lady’s evening,” said Neil to Sherman’s friend who had gone sternly silent upon noticing his approach.

 

“As a matter of fact.  I.”

 

But Neil only disregarded the protest, and walked Allie to the dance floor, leaving behind her scowling friend. 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 26

 

 

Because this stranger Sam Winthrop had cautioned him about, seemed to know Allie, judging by her friendly recognition of him, as well as her words given in accepting his hand, Jess hesitated taking after him to retrieve Allie.  Instead, he searched the dance floor for Slim and Blewie, and failing to find them, looked across the milling crowd, and over to his left in the unlikely possibility they were making use of the temporary benches set out for those few older couples, or chaperones resting between dances.   The only possibility remaining was Slim had taken her to the backside of the pavilion; to find that private place where a young man, out of sight of his dance partner’s parents, was known to steal away for a kiss or two before the night ended.  

 

Calmly standing there when something riled him was not Jess.  Stopping him from retrieving Allie was the thought the stranger likely knew Blewie as well, and Jess wanted to talk to her first.  But not now, the idea of speaking to Blewie would intrude upon Slim’s privacy, and Jess would not interrupt a pard sparking his girl.  Instead, he leaned up against the railing of the pavilion, and considered the unexpected behavior of Blewie’s sister out on the dance floor. 

 

Several thoughts later, Jess slammed his fist down onto the railing thinking he’d rather be throwing a fist into the face of that slick-mannered, older man who had interrupted their unfinished talk.  And there was the way the man had been watching Slim and Blewie earlier that disturbed Jess.  However for now, Jess resisted the urge to act, deciding to keep an eye on Allie, making sure she was in safe.  But safe from what he wondered, this older man, or herself?   Dad-gumit  Blewie, Jess mentally criticized her;  what is going on with you?  Bounty hunters showing up at your home, and hiring low life like Bortell. How are you raising this little sister of yours? Andy’s near the same age, and Slim made sure his younger brother understood manners. 

 

But something else was bothering Jess about Allie.  He couldn’t help thinking about her comment to him, about knowing what men were like, and so did Blewie.  Surfacing again, only clearer in his mind now, was the bothersome thought he had acquired that day when confronting Blewie, about the bounty hunter looking for the Chinese women at her place.   There had been no denial given to his guess the women were from a bawdy house.  It was her helping them, her connection to them, he now put next to Allie’s comment, and his mouth went dry knowing what he would eventually have to ask Blewie. 

 

When Jess located Allie again amid the fast moving dancers, he watched her enjoying the older, dark-haired stranger’s company.   And Jess wasn’t mistaken when he observed the man’s hands discreetly brushing against her feminine form as they danced to the fast paced music.    And he wasn’t happy to see she was encouraging him to continue taking the improper liberties.

 

*****

 

Behind the dance pavilion, where the pale light of a spring moon nearly three quarters full gave silver cast to the distant rise of Baxter Ridge, and the laughing noise of the crowd had become muted, Slim stood with one boot resting on the large cotton wood stump where Beckah sat looking up at him.      

 

“When my little brother Andy came along for my parents, I was much older.  Soon after, the war broke out, I left to join the army, never really getting to know him.  By the time I found my way back home, he was nearly ten; paw had died two years earlier.  And maw, well she was just plain worn out.  After she took sick, it was just Andy and me.”

 

Beckah’s eyes were taking in his words as they played across his face.  “I know what you mean, it was the same with Alianna when I came to get her in New Orleans after our mother died.  It felt like I needed to step into being mother for her, as well as big sister.”

 

Slim nodded thoughtfully and gave a shrug.   “I knew Andy sorely missed the two of them.  But my trying to replace paw sure didn’t go over well.  I know I was a lot harder on him than paw would have been, expecting more from him on the ranch.   And we seemed to argue all the time.  At one point he even threatened to run off; with Jess as a matter of fact.”  He gave her slight grin as he recalled his meeting up with Jess Harper the day when outlaw, Bud Collier, came calling, threatening the lives of Jonesy and Andy. Later with Jess’s help, they captured the man and Slim offered work to Jess Harper.

 

“When it comes to people, I should just trust Andy’s judgment.  It’s something I think he inherited from our maw.  Andy latched onto Jess, like they were long lost brothers.  Funny, in a way I guess that’s what he is.  The brother between Andy and me,  the one that should have grown up with us.  Now, it’s hard to imagine not having him around.” 

 

“You care about him a great deal,” she offered quietly, “a friend like that doesn’t come along very often.”   “No they don’t,” he agreed with her. “Both Andy and I were very fortunate.   But tell me, how is it with you and Allie?  I understand from Jess, she and Andy are about the same age.”

 

“Well,” she hesitated as she considered how she could answer the question, “we have our spats, and I expect she thinks I am too hard on her.  It’s just some days it seems as if she is trying to grow up too fast.  And it scares me; there’s so much she doesn’t know about the world, all its dangers.”

 

“I know,” Slim gave thoughtful agreement, “and you forget you survived them yourself, but you’re afraid they won’t.  Must be like having children of your own.”

 

“Survive,” she contemplated the word out loud.  “Why is it the doing of it, more painful than it sounds?” 

 

In the pale moon light Slim waited for her to go on, but when he could see the deep concern in her face as she seemed to be recalling something unpleasant, he removed his foot from where it had rested upon the stump, and said to her.  “This is a dance, and we are meant to be enjoying it. Shall we return?” 

                                                                                           

Extending his hand down he waited for her to slip hers into his.  When she finally did, he held onto her gloved hand, feeling its smallness in his as she looked up at him, the moon’s soft light reflecting brightly back to him in her eyes.   When he brought her to her feet, he continued bringing her closer to him, slipping an arm around her waist to pull her upwards and gently into him.   Leaning his head downward until his lips touched her soft mouth, finding it ready for him, ready for kissing, and he slowly savored her response.  Her hands moved around him to tighten their embrace.  And when she tipped her head back to catch her breath, he heard her soft sound of pleasure from the kiss.  The excitement of being undeniably where he belonged nearly overwhelmed him where he stood with her.  

 

From the other side of the pavilion came Bobby Sanders with Earl Jameson’s youngest daughter.  The two were laughing and catching one another with playful hands until they leaned up against the back of the pavilion’s wooden structure.  There Bobby Sanders easily stole a kiss from the young girl.  In a short silence, both couples came to awareness of each other at the same time, each dropping hands to their sides, but it was the younger couple flushing with color.

 

Slim tried to mask his amusement at being interrupted in doing what he had also been doing, stealing a kiss from a pretty girl in the moonlight behind the dance stage.  Taking Beckah’s hand, he walked her past the now reticent Bobby, and his giggling kissing partner.  With a hand gently on her back, Slim guided Beckah around to the other side of the pavilion where they stepped up to the dance floor, resuming a place among the waltzing couples. 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 27

 

 

From where he stood several yards from the single males who were on alert for opportunities to snag a dance from the small number of female residents of Laramie, Jess could watch the couples moving around the floor; and in particular, Allie as she danced the last two dances with the stranger who had interrupted their conversation.   When Slim’s tall frame came strolling from around the backside of the pavilion with Blewie, it caught Jess’s attention.  And by the look on Slim’s face, Jess was sure there had been a moonlight kiss or two going on between the two of them.  He watched a Blewie and Slim slipped in amid the other couples who were starting the next dance, a slower waltz, Slim now holding her closer to him as they turned across the floor. 

 

Only moments into the dance and Jess saw Blewie suddenly stop dancing, leaving him to wonder what Slim was asking her.  Jess looked to Blewie’s face, and followed the direction her eyes had taken.  It was to Allie and her older dancing partner several couples away.  A sigh of relief came from Jess as he concluded Blewie was as upset with Allie as he was in her behavior with this older man.  Or was there more, he wondered as he continued watching Slim and Blewie resumed dancing.  Jess could clearly see Blewie’s eyes were for the man holding her sister and not her sister; and he didn’t like the insincere, sleek smile spreading across the man’s face for Blewie, knowing she was watching him.  Jess wasn’t certain if Slim was aware of the exchange.  

 

Slim was about to say something to Beckah when he felt a firm tap on his shoulder.  Turning around certain it would be Jess, instead he found a well-dressed older man, now dance partner to Allie. The man was requesting a change of partners, and looking to Beckah, as did Slim.  He was surprised to see recognition for this stranger on her face.

 

Obliging, Slim stepped back to take Allie’s reluctant hand, and watched Beckah take steps away from him, in the arms of this other man.   Concerned she had turned her attention away from him to this stranger, and never looking back to him as she danced away, Slim felt an ill feeling beginning to swell up within him as he danced with Allie.  He wondered what the man meant to Beckah and was about to ask Allie when he felt another tap on his shoulder. 

 

Young Eddie Parker was requesting Slim yield Allie’s hand to him.  Again, Slim politely obliged; only this time with a smile before he stepped from the dance floor.   Noticing Jess standing on the side, Slim strolled over to him, taking notice he was watching Beckah moving along the dance floor.  As he stood next to Jess, Slim also kept his eyes on Beckah and asked,   “You know him?”

 

“No but Allie does,” remarked Jess glancing over to Slim, and back again to Blewie dancing across the floor.   

 

Slim’s voice was tight with uneasiness as he said, “And I guess, so does Beckah.”

 

“Name is Mason,” said Jess looking over at him, “And I don’t much cotton to him.  And by the look on Blewie’s face, I don’t think she does either. ”

 

Slim glanced away from Jess and started back towards the dance to cut back in on this Mason fellow, only Jess grabbed his arm to hold him back.  “Blewie can handle herself Slim.  If he gets outta line, she’ll probably pull out a hog leg from one of those petticoats of hers and shoot him.” 

 

*****

 

Walking through the milling crowd, Roy Hallorin approached Jess and Slim as they stood several feet from the pavilion, watching the dancers.    

 

Slim gave him a quick nod before turning back to follow Beckah’s movements.   But Jess reached out a hand for a quick shake in greeting, “Evening Roy; where’s that new wife of yours?  Give up on your two left feet so early?”

“I must look like a bear stomping around a bee hive afraid of getting stung,” said Roy with a self-deprecating chuckle.  He was a work-worn rancher slightly taller and heavier set than Slim, on the approaching side of forty with dark flashing eyes and dark hair faintly graying at the temples. 

 

“Martha’s off chatting with the other hens, giving me a break. She knows I’d rather be busting wild mustangs, but I’m out there doing a bit of boot scuffing, and making a fool of myself; consequences of having a young wife I guess.  Still, I’d recommend it to both you young bucks.”

 

“What’s that, Roy?” asked Jess grinning at him, “dancing, or marrying?”

 

“Both!” he laughed back, “neither of you two are getting any younger.”

 

“I dunno, Roy,” said Jess shaking his head, “I’m kinda happy with the chasing part, for right now.”

 

“Suit yourself, boy,” Roy chuckled, “but find the right kinda woman, and there’s no telling what a man is capable of doing.”

 

As the music continued and couples moved around the pavilion’s floor, the three men watched.  When he deemed it appropriate, Roy Hallorin turned to Slim,   “Sorry I had to miss the association’s spring round up meeting; heard about it though.  Couldn’t attend; instead took my Martha on a shopping trip to St Louis for new dress material; she had her heart set on it, but I sure didn’t think it would take several weeks.  Since we got married, I’ve been spending a lot of time in Saint Louis,  but I couldn’t disappoint her,  it’s where her family is.  Besides, when it comes to those meetings, my words don’t usually carry much weight with the bigger ranches; my interest right now is in supplying horses for the army.  Not getting serious about herding cattle ‘til I get thrown from that last wild bronc I can’t break.” 

 

“I think that’ll be a while, Roy,” offered Jess standing next to him as Slim continued eying the dance floor and Blewie and her partner.

 

“Martha told me Slim here brought our new neighbor to the dance tonight.”  

 

“That’s right,” said Slim eyes still on Beckah, “I’m the one who brought her.”  

 

“Ever since we got back from Saint Louis, Martha’s been hankering to go calling on her, but I’ve been wanting her to wait awhile, ‘til after the association’s spring round up meeting, to see how things work out.”

 

“How’s that, Roy?” asked Slim glancing over at him.  

 

“Oh I guess ‘cause of talk around town lately about the new owner being sorta,” Roy chuckled, “half man.  Good to see all the talk was for nothing.  She certainly is a pretty thing, isn’t she?”

 

“And what else?” Suddenly Slim’s tone had changed with Roy, causing Jess to take notice as Roy cautioned.   “Don’t get your fur rubbed the wrong way son, she is easy on the eyes is all I’m saying; can’t fault you for that, it’s just I’m not so sure how easy a neighbor she’s going to be to get along with.”

 

“Why don’t you just say what’s on your mind, Roy,” said Slim directly.

 

“Well,” Roy said looking at the two of them, “after Mort stopped by I started spending some time looking at winter damage; found some signs of tracks coming from the south, from our new neighbor’s land; and I’m not sure what it means.  I don’t have much stock around, you know that; and some has likely drifted out on open range.  Can’t tell what might be missing. Least not until round up that is.”

 

Slim’s face grew dark as his tone grew challenging, “just what are you saying, Roy?”

 

“I don’t want to be starting off on the wrong foot with a neighbor is all.”  He gave Slim a shrug,   “especially if I don’t know much about her, and you seem to know more, bringing her to the dance.”

 

“She’s not a rustler if that’s what you’re getting at,” snapped Slim impatiently.  “No, no I not saying that son, it’s just there’s a lot of talk flying around,” quickly offered Roy only to have Slim interrupt him,  “you mean talk from Bortell at the meeting?”

 

“About her foreman accusing you of being a sooner?” 

 

“Yeah that kind of talk,” confirmed Slim.

 

“You know I’d believe a dead rattler before I’d take stock in that boy;  if anyone was on my list for cow stealing, it sure wouldn’t be you,” Roy looked directly into Slim’s eyes when he spoke, “I always said, it’s easy to accuse when you’re aiming to deceive, and Bortell is always aiming in that direction.  But it does leave me wondering if he’s speaking by her instructions.” 

 

“You saying she’s hiding something?” angrily asked Slim turning his whole body towards Roy as Jess immediately placed a cautioning hand on Slim’s arm.

 

“Simmer down, son,” responded Roy standing taller now as he faced Slim, “all I’m saying is there’s more going around than just talk, things  like that broke fence of yours; saw it when I was out riding.  Wanted to hear your opinion about her; why she’s got Bortell on her payroll.”

 

Just as Slim was about to heatedly respond, Roy’s wife came up to laughingly draw him away from his conversation with the two of them, and back towards the refreshment table. As the Hallorin’s moved away from them, Jess cautioned Slim, “Like Roy said Slim, take it easy.  He’s got the same opinion about Bortell as just about everybody else.” 

 

Jess dropped his hand from Slim’s arm and asked him, “You have any idea when Blewie’s gonna fire that sidewinder?”

 

Rolling his mouth tight Slim judged the question before giving a shrugging answer. “No and talking to her so far hasn’t seemed like a good idea.”

 

“Yeah you’re probably right,” said Jess in agreement, “nobody’s likely to push Blewie about anything if she don’t already have a mind to it.  And even then, she’s likely to change it, without warning.”   

 

Returning his attention back to seeking out Beckah and her partner on the dance floor, Slim failed to find them.  And turning to the standing crowd at the refreshment table, to search the other side of the pavilion where couples milled about talking, Slim still could find no sign of either of them.  

 

While the fiddle music had stopped and everyone was waiting for the next dance to be called, Jess’s eyes also searched across the dance floor,  but only located Allie.  She was starting to dance with another partner, and Jess saw it was now with Elroy Watkins, a burly, red-haired youth who work for Clive Sutterfield’s, Bar-J-Bar spread, one of the larger operations south of town.  It left Jess momentarily noticing he still had not caught sight of any of Blewie’s crew showing up at the dance that night.  Jess continued watching Eddie Parker walk off the floor to join the other single males.   Among them Ned Connors, now passed him as he made his way back onto the dance floor.  Taking note of his surly face, Jess was certain he knew what couple the boy was intent on coming between.   “Well there’s trouble brewing for sure,” Jess alerted Slim.

 

Only Slim was taking several long strides away from him towards the other side of the pavilion into the thickest part of the crowd.  Jess quickly took steps to follow him, only to have his attention drawn by the sharp chorus of sound rising from the crowded dance floor.  

 

Allie was standing a scant few feet away from a fist fight going on between Elroy Watkiins, and Ned Connors.  Couples around them had stopped dancing to move away from the fight, and Jess rushed towards the fracas.  Dance marshals,  Luke Marlowe and Sam Winthrope were also hurrying to do the same,  o pull the two boys apart.  

 

 

 

 

Chapter 28                

 

 

Meanwhile, behind the dance pavilion, in the same moonlight that had earlier floated softly over Beckah Blewe while Slim Sherman had kissed her, now stood Neil Mason facing her, demanding an answer from her once again, one he was going to make sure was more suited to his liking.

                          

“I’m asking you, Beckah,” he was saying to her, “to leave here tomorrow for Denver City with me.”

 

“And if I don’t,” she asked, her voice sounding cautious with him, “if I want to stay here with Allie.”

 

“You can bring Allie with us; you know between us we can see to it there’s enough money to send her to some fancy finishing school back east, one you can pick for yourself.  That’s what you want for her, a future marriage to someone who can ‘properly’ take care of her.”

 

Folding her arms in front of her,  she continued firmly, “I can take care of Allie here until she marries; there are plenty of good families here in Laramie for her,”  She turned away from him to stare out into the pale landscape as she said,   “Neil, you need to accept that I’m never going back with you.” 

 

She waited for him to agree to the finality of her answer.

 

Stepping closer to look down at her, his voice grew demanding. “You know I’ve been patient with you, Beckah, waiting for you.  But it’s been long enough for you to come to your senses now about this ranching idea; for you to get it out of your head and to understand what you mean to me and who you are,  and what we can do together.”

 

He couldn’t see her face darken in the moonlight as she said in a steady and even voice. “When Brad died, that part of me had to die with him, Neil.”

 

“Yes.” His eyes narrowed at her as he darkly spoke to her, “and that was very fortunate for you, wasn’t it.”

 

Beckah suddenly turned to face him to abruptly offer, “You know I had nothing to do with what happened to Brad.”  Dropping her arms to her sides, she lowered her voice to him, “Some would say you had more to gain from Brad’s death, Neil; some would even say you were not with Lynn Sue Fong that night, not that night as you claimed.”

 

His easy smile faded, no longer to give cover to the cold threat in his voice, and he told her, “True enough, but they would be safe to leave that kind of gossip alone when many of them knew you had every reason, and more, to hate Brad enough to see him dead.  I can’t say I’m sorry he’s dead Beckah; even though he was my partner; and yes,  I will admit I find myself pleased to see it finally has  freed us.” 

 

Taking a step closer to her, placing his hand on her arm, he entreated her, “You are free to marry me Beckah, now.” 

 

Turning away from him until his hand dropped back to his side, she reiterated firmly to him as much as to herself, “I left that life Neil.   I belong here with Allie, where we have a new start. Please, Neil, believe me, I won’t go back with you.”

 

Grabbing her arm to turn her back to him, Neil made a sweeping gesture with his other hand, hotly telling her, “you think you can stay here, safe with your past; here where any day some drifter passes through and recognizes you?”

 

“There won’t be anything to recognize,” she protested to him, “things are different here; I’m different and I look different.”

 

“Do you?” asked Neil fingering the sleeve of her blue satin dress.  “You clean up a little Beckah, come to a dance like this and you still turn men’s heads.   Oh I’ve seen it out there tonight when they look at yew; wanting more than just looking, wanting all of you.    Only difference between me, and those frontier hicks out there, is I know what it can feel like to fully have a woman like you.”   Neil pulled her closer to him to whisper to her, “Beckah.”  Wrapping his arms around her, he suddenly jerked her upwards into him as he threatened, “Do you think ‘he’ is gonna want you when he knows what you are?”

 

“Don’t,” she snapped, eyes flashing at him as her head tipped back to look up at him in the light of the moon.  His hold tightened around her, and he sharply added,   “Don’t tell him about how you can make a man feel.  Don’t tell him, ‘that’ Beckah?  Anyone can see it’s what he wants from you; the only question you need to ask is, ‘how much is he willing to pay for it’?”

 

Neil drew her closer to him, inhaling her intoxicating scent of lavender and something more subtle.  Aware of her soft shape against him, he brought his head down towards hers and softened his voice,  until it became more intimate as he spoke to her,  “You know we were always meant for each other Beckah.  You must know, he can’t begin to give you all the things I can, all the finer things you deserve.  

 

“Beckah Blewe Mezzlee,” he continued, now whispering to her,  his hot breath flowing over her face, “you are a great deal of woman.   And I realize, too much woman for any one man!   Your rancher fellow won’t understand that, but I do.  And my dear, I don’t mind sharing you.  But only when it is profitable for me.”

 

Caught up in his embrace, she felt his lips come down to take hers; and doing the only thing she could in the moment, she surrendered herself to him, taking the kiss, pressing her body closer into him, until she could feel his arms relax around her as passion overtook him.

 

Standing with her in his arms under the moon’s soft light, Neil Mason was savoring what he had always considered to be his, since the first day he saw Beckah Blewe, on the arm of her husband, Brad Mezzlee.  

 

 

 

Chapter 29

 

At the same time Neil Mason was claiming what was his, Slim came around to the back of the pavilion to see the stranger’s arms wrapped around Beckah Blewe, kissing her; just as earlier that evening, he had also been holding her in his arms and kissing her in the same soft moonlight.   On the other side of the pavilion as the muted music played on for the dancers, he stood there, a sharp coldness rising up inside him in the moon’s dim light.  He knew he would have to accept it; Beckah Blewe Harris didn’t really belong to him.   Here was another man, and she was obviously his. 

 

Only slightly aware of the music suddenly ceasing and the noise of a crowd rising, he urged himself to leave before the two became aware of him, to consider him spying on them.  Yet his feet remained, rooted to the ground, unable to take him away from the cold realization he had lost something that had never even been his to lose.    Finally, forcing himself to turn away,  he took steps to return to the dance, to rejoin Jess, and to give himself time to decide what he would do when he next faced her.

 

At the unexpected sound of an outburst of someone swearing, Slim’s attention was jerked back to see Beckah Blewe struggling to pull away from Mason.  Instantly, Slim understood she was being held against her will, now roughly being pulled closer to Mason as he once again tried kissing her.  She was fighting back as he violently jerked closer into him, to force himself on her.  Slim’s long legs carried him across several yards of ground to the grappling couple where he yanked one of Mason’s arms from around Beckah.   

 

Jerked around, Mason received the full force of a fist in the face, knocking him to  reel backwards, and causing him to release his hold on Beckah Blewe.  Still able to remain on his feet, he recognized her rancher fellow Sherman, as his attacker.  With a wide grin, Mason swung an arm up to return the blow; he knew something this hick rancher did not.  

 

While Neil Mason had at least ten years on Sherman, the rancher didn’t know Neil had trained as a boxer in his youth, a skill he never really needed to lose as he worked the sordid jobs making his way through life.  He judged it a well-matched fight against the rancher.  Though slightly taller than himself, Sherman was a lighter build, and Neil  was still muscular for his age, something he considered would come as a surprise to this man who was willing to fight him for Beckah.

 

Slim tried ducking the returned blow, but it struck him with dizzying force above the left eye to knock him off balance.  He would have fallen hard, but as he stumbled backwards, he hit the wooden framework of the pavilion.   Pushing himself off the frame, he lunged to drive a fist deep into Mason’s midsection.  

 

Neil doubled over only to have another fist come flying upwards into the top of his cheek.  It had failed to achieve its potential, but he felt the bruising impact nonetheless, and took a step back to right himself before he could duck the next attempt at his face.

 

Slim’s next punch missed, requiring him to regain his balance before side stepping Mason’s attempted blow.  Turning completely around, Slim gathered the momentum to deliver his right fist directly into the man’s face; this time knocking him backwards several steps.  Taking advantage of the opening, Slim stepped forward to jab his other fist into Mason’s jaw.   Only he was surprised as his opponent suddenly dropped and came upwards to drive hard into his own midsection to send him reeling once again, backwards into the now unsteady wall of the pavilion.  Hitting the back of the wooden structure knocked the breath from Slim’s lungs,  and only vaguely aware someone was shouting, he pushed off once again to drive a fist into Mason’s face.  

                                                                                                           

Neil took Sherman’s well-delivered blow, hard to the side of his head, the force knocking him to the ground where soon he felt himself being picked up by the lapels of his coat.  Before he could be hit again, Neil brought his arms up to break Sherman’s hold on him.  His arms free, he rammed a fist into the exposed jaw of the surprised Sherman.

 

Breathing gone heavy and labored, Slim’s head buzzed with the last blow delivered.  He gathered his energy to take a step forward to thrust another solid blow to Mason’s midsection, dropping him to the ground in a grunt of pain. 

 

On the ground, still clutching his stomach and trying to catch his breath, Neil came to the cold realization he had underestimated this tall rancher who surprisingly knew how to fight well.  Twisting around onto his hands and knees, he coughed and spat out the blood that had pooled in the corner of his mouth.   When he could, he reached with one hand down to his boot where he grasped the ivory handled of the stiletto from its sheath. 

 

Swaying and gasping for breath, Slim stood waiting for the man to get up so he could knock him down again. And keep knocking him down, again and again until he was satisfied Mason would never try forcing himself on Beckah Blewe again.   He looked over to where she was standing, unable to understand why she was looking at his downed opponent, as if she were more worried about him.   It was her face before she shouted in warning that gave Slim the few seconds to turn around to see light glinting off a long slim knife before it was thrown in his direction. 

 

Leaning back, Slim heard the soft sound of the blade cutting through the air as it flew past him before softly thudding into the back of the wood pavilion. 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 30

 

 

When the dancers came spilling from around the pavilion to its backside, it was to view who was fighting, and over which young girl who had attended the dance that night, and who she was likely to be leaving with at the end of the evening.     Among them came Jess, leaving Luke Marlowe and the other dance marshals to finish dealing with Allie’s scuffling suitors. 

 

From the sounds going on behind the pavilion, Jess was certain it was an altercation, and even more certain it would be  involving Slim.  And he was right, Slim and the older stranger were slugging it out while Blewie stood off to the side, tightlipped and intently watching the two men.  Jess saw Slim leaped forward to throw another punch into the stranger’s midsection, causing him to bend over forward.  It gave Slim the next right cross to his jaw to send the man backwards from the force of the hit. 

 

“Dad-gum it Slim,” shouted Jess running to grab Slim by the shoulders, only losing him as Slim violently shook him off, dropping Jess to the ground on his backside.   As Jess was getting to his feet again, the long-legged Sam Winthrope was sprinting towards Slim to thrust out an equally long arm for him.

 

Slim Sherman felt an arm go around his waist from behind, and found he could not stop himself from being yanked backwards.  In seconds he managed to gain his footing again by kicking a boot back into whoever had grabbed him, and launching himself away he made a headlong dive into Mason.   The momentum of Slim’s lunging attack carried both men to the ground,  first Slim on top until they rolled several times, and then Mason coming up on top trying to get a fist into Slim’s jaw and missing; and then Slim twisting to throw him off and failing.    Next he knew, Slim was struggling against more arms seizing his to lift him from the ground before he could throw another punch. 

 

Sam Winthrope, along with Jess, was barely able to hold Slim back from lunging at the stranger, while  Jimmy Hoskins and Luke Marlowe were pinning the stranger’s arms back in efforts to keep him on his feet and away from Slim.     

 

But it was Mason who was the one to cool first, suddenly giving no struggle to the two men who firmly gripped his arms behind him.  “Gentlemen,” started Mason smiling as he look from one to the other of them, “I was only defending myself, and the lady here, from the unexpected attack.”

 

“You were the one,” shouted Slim gruffly still catching his breath after the exertion of the fight, “forcing yourself on her!” He struggled to free his arms wanting to land a fist directly into the man’s lying face. As Jess and Sam Winthrope held Slim, Jess could feel the anger racing through his body as he twisted in efforts to free himself.   “Settle down slugger,” barked Jess to him, but he was certain Slim wasn’t hearing him, his blood still up from the rush of fighting.  

 

“I think what we have here, gentlemen,” gasped Neil Mason managing a polite smile, “is just a little misunderstanding.  It’s fine now that we recognize each others point of view, even if it’s not appreciated.”  Pulling his arms away from the two dance marshals who were slowly releasing him,  Niel straighten his jacket and brushed the dirt from its material while he stood next to the two men cautiously watching him. 

 

Turning to Beckah Blewe, Neil gave her a polite nod.  Now intent upon gaining the advantage of the situation, he said to her, “I hope to beg your forgiveness that such, a lady as yourself,  should have been subjected to the witnessing of such violent and uncouth behavior.  My apologies that I should have taken part in this barbaric and ill-mannered display of temper.”

 

As the man was speaking to Blewie, Jess could feel Slim’s body angrily lunge forward to pull away from them.  Holding him tighter, Jess sharply warned him, “Stand down Slim or you’re gonna be warming a bunk in Mort’s jail tonight.”   This time he was sure Slim heard him, but Jess was startled to see the look in his face, he had never seen Slim so angry. 

 

“It’s done pard,” spoke Jess again, calmly and when he could feel Slim’s body beginning to relax, he started releasing his hold on him, leaving only Sam Winthrope with one arm wrapped around him, the other on his shoulder.  “You all right now?” Jess asked him and waited until he could see some composure finally settling into Slim’s face. 

 

When Slim turned his attention back to Mason, he saw he was now speaking to Beckah.   From where he stood next to Slim, Jess could see Blewie’s face, and it concerned him.  He didn’t actually know what he had expected from her, but certainly not the look she gave this stranger as he was apologizing to her.  As her eyes darted away from him, and not to Slim, but to the back of the pavilion, Jess took a glance in the same direction.  The faint light was enough to snatch his eye to the small white handle of a knife embedded in the wood.  He returned his attention to Blewie who had taken a step back from Mason as he continued to speak privately to her.  

 

Next to him, Slim erupted in a growling sound as he tried pulling himself from Sam’s grip, and Jess thrust out an arm across Slim’s midsection to help hold him back.  “Whoa, pard,” cautioned Jess.   He couldn’t help feeling the same, his dislike of the man increasing upon seeing the thrown knife.  He also wanted to punch the man deeply into that smiling face of his, but he knew his responsibility lay in keeping Slim from doing the same.

                                          

Neil stepped closer to Beckah, his hand wiping the last of the blood from the cut on his lip where Sherman had hit him.  He could still feel the sting on his left cheek bone where he was certain a large bruise was beginning to form.  Looking down at her he spoke quietly and firmly.  “You need to seriously reconsider my proposal, Beckah.  And I am willing to give you the extra time, shall we say, until tomorrow afternoon.  I will be riding out to fetch you then. That is, unless you would rather I had another conversation with your rancher friend, when there will be no one around to interrupt us.  Until then, my dear, I would suggest you start packing.”

 

Jess couldn’t hear what Mason was saying to Blewie, but he could read her face as she took another step back from the man, the crowd around her yielding the space, and he watched the man turn and walk away from her.  

 

Slim’s eyes hotly followed Mason as he strolled away with a swagger and both Luke Marlowe and Jimmy Hoskins trailing behind him, making sure he was leaving the dance and instigating no further altercations.  Before rounding the pavilion, however, Mason turned to give Slim a polite nod, and the smile of one who declared victory over an opponent, regardless of the truth.

 

As Jess stepped back from the pavilion’s wall while placing something in an inside pocket of his jacket,  he took in the look Mason gave to Slim.  Before Jess could catch Slim to talk to him,  Sam Winthrope had already released him and he was moving to Blewie.  Considering something for a moment, Jess decided to follow Mason instead.

 

Slim approached Beckah, but she wasn’t looking at him; her eyes were on the back of this stranger as he walked away with Luke and Jimmy following him.    He glanced at Mason’s back and then to Beckah as he stepped closer to her.  Reaching a hand up to run his fingers through fight tossed hair, Slim hoped he didn’t look too disheveled as he waited for her to look up at him.  It had been a strange night; having gone from losing her only moments ago, to rescuing her.  He gave a small smile wishing he could tell her how much he wanted to wrap his arms around her, to be sure she had not been hurt, and to let her know she was safe,  and to feel her gratitude. 

 

Only when she turned to look up at him, she wasn’t giving him any clues to what she was thinking, and it turned his insides stone cold.  She wasn’t saying anything, just staring at him.  So he tried clearing his throat, to give room for the words he thought he might say.  Only none were coming to rescue him from the cold awkwardness that had sprung up from nowhere to come between them. 

 

Finally she pursed her lips, preparing to speak; and he politely waited for her.

 

“I want to go home now.  You need to take us; Allie and me.  You understand?”

 

Her words stung him as if she had slapped him hard across the face, and his smile faded as he dumbly nodded to her.

 

With that quiet agreement on his part, she nodded back to him, and turned to walk away.

 

*****

 

When Jess had come around to the other side of the pavilion, ahead he saw Allie had stopped Mason holding her hand on his arm, talking to him.  Jess failed to close the distance quickly enough in order to hear any part off their conversation before Mason ended it.  He watched the man slowly move on, leaving Allie amid several youths coming to surround her as they waited for the music to resume once the pavilion’s walls had been righted 

 

Jess followed long enough to see Mason heading for Charlie’s saloon, and enter.  He stood for a few moments considering there was something he wanted to talk to Slim about.

 

Approaching the dance pavilion, Jess heard the musicians starting up again, and saw couples take to the floor for a lively jig.  Unless there were any additional altercations,   the dancing would go on until  early dawn.   Not far from where he had last seen Allie, he spotted Blewie talking with her.  Even from his distance, he knew the two were exchanging angry words, and while he wondered what Blewie was saying to Allie, he needed to find Slim.   

 

Quickly Jess made off for where horses,  buckboards and buggies waited for their dancers to eventually head homeward,  to find Slim as he was climbing up into their buckboard.  “You cooled off enough now?” asked Jess looking up at him.   

 

“Yeah I guess ‘cause I’m the one taking her home. That’s gotta count for something,” but Slim didn’t sound as confident as he had intended. 

 

“Slim?” called Jess sharply as he raised the long slender knife from an inside pocket of his dress coat. 

 

Slim frowned when he looked down at the ivory handled stiletto earlier thrown by his opponent.

 

“Yeah he pulled it from his boot.”

“Listen Slim, I think I’m gonna hang around in town awhile, maybe see if someone knows anything about this silk-tongued piece of low life.  Maybe have the opportunity to return this.”

 

“That pleasure belongs to me,” exclaimed Slim as he reached for the weapon only to have Jess slip it back from him as he could see Slim had missed something in the wake of the fight with Mason that night.   “You need to do something else right now, you need to get Blewie home.

 

“And Slim,” said Jess quietly up to him, “I ain’t never seen Blewie like that before.”

 

“How’s that?” asked Slim crossly.    

 

“Scared,” replied Jess, “really scared.”

                    

Slim’s face registered surprise at the comment, and before he could learn the reason for it, Jess left him saying, “See you back at the ranch later.”

 

 

 

 

Chapter 31

 

It had been a long, cool ride back to Beckah Blewe’s home, with Slim driving and the two sister sitting next to him, warmly tucked under a lap blanket.  He had been grateful for Allie’s nonstop talk nearly the entire drive back, prattling on about dresses and every boy she had danced with that night, yet never once mentioning the fight.  Next to him, listening to her sister, Beckah had remained silent; and Slim had ached to have time alone with her, without Allie around them, to talk to her.

 

Escorting them up and onto the wide porch after they had arrived, Slim stood under the light of the outside lantern’s glow to nod to Allie after she politely said, good night Mister Sherman and took her folded blanket from him.   But after opening the door to their home, she paused at its threshold to give her sister a puzzled expression.  Beckah moved to her, to give her a quiet good night and to send her off inside indicating whatever the question was, it would remain unanswered.

 

Beckah pulled the door closed behind Allie and turned around to face Slim.  Standing there on her porch, hat politely in hand while filtered light from an inside lamp being lit by Allie, washed over his face, his eyes asking questions.

 

More than ever, Slim ached to pull her close to him, to hold her, taking the chance she would allow him to kiss her again that night.  And when he did, he would know; he would know the truth of her feelings for him.  Reaching his hand up to rest against the door frame under which she stood, he leaned down closer to her, waiting for her to look up at him.  And when she did, he knew she would want him to kiss her; and he would taste her soft lips.  

 

Certain Slim Sherman meant to kiss her, Beckah turned away from him, ending the closeness that had begun to build between them, causing him to lean back, moving his hand to his side.  She took a step away from the closed door, towards the porch’s railing to look out across the ranch’s open yard, the lower moon’s rays now giving length to the shadows of the night.

 

“Neil Mason,” she roughly spoke his name, “Neil was my husband’s partner.”  She turned around to face Slim and in the dim light she could see his face register surprise.  Knowing she owed him more explanation, she continued, “My husband was killed in Denver several months ago, robbed and murdered.  Neil was in business with him.” 

 

“You’re a widow?” he said slowly releasing his breath before adding, “I’m sorry. And Mason?”     

 

“It’s complicated,” she offered looking up at him.  “There are still things to be sorted out.”  

 

“By sorting out, do you mean your feelings about him?” he boldly asked, then added, “Is that why you’re here, and not in Denver City?” 

 

“Yes…” she finally said before turning around to place her hands on the porch’s railing, to keep from facing him, “Maybe.   I don’t know.  I’m.  I’m just not sure.  Neil has done a great deal for me, and for Allie.   We.   I…should be grateful.”  

 

Taking a step to stand behind her, Slim said, “I’m not blind to the kind of gratitude he was looking for tonight, and neither should you be, Beckah.  Don’t think you owe what you don’t feel,” he strongly pressed her, only to see her body tense to the advice he was offering.

 

“Well that’s my business what I feel, or don’t feel I owe someone.  For anything!” she sharply criticized him as she turned to look up at him, her mouth set tight. 

 

 “Are you going to see him again?” he suddenly asked as a look of worry washed across his face, wondering where he stood regarding this Neil Mason.     

 

“And what if I do?” she demanded his answer with a tilt upwards of her chin, “are you going to slug him again?  Knock him down because you don’t like what you see?  Is that how you act out here?”  She continued showing him her anger by bringing her hand up to point a finger at him and speak accusingly,   “Or do you think I can’t take care of myself, Mister High and Mighty Slim Sherman?” 

 

“Well it sure looked like you needed some help from me tonight!’ he said surprised he needed to defend his painful rescue.

 

“Is that it?” she growled at him, jabbing her finger into his open jacket to prod his midsection sharply.  “You think you got to be my defender whether I want it, or not?” 

 

Slim involuntarily took a defensive step back.   “I guess I should have known with that right hook of yours you don’t need protecting,” he retorted, “or maybe you like someone who can treat you badly, someone like this Mason fellow who can treat you rough.  Maybe you like it that way!”  

 

Her voice was cold as she told him, “You had better leave now, Sherman.”

 

”All right,” he growled, but then his breath stopped for a few beats before he could draw in another.   Suddenly he could only continue standing there looking at her

 

“Beckah,” he finally spoke her name as he shook his head, his voice calmer, apologetic and nearly pleading.  He waited and when she remained silent, he whispered to her, “Don’t do this. Don’t say it.” 

 

“I don’t want to see you anymore,” she said in a chilling tone and moved past him to her front door.  

 

“Please go,” was all she finally said to him before she closed the door quietly behind her.

 

Outside on the porch,  standing there looking at the closed door,  Slim’s  mouth was open, waiting for the words still caught in his throat; and wondering where wanting a good night kiss had gone to his being kicked off her porch, and kicked out of her life.   

 

 

 

 

Chapter 32

 

 

The next morning Jess followed the aroma of hot coffee into the empty kitchen where he use a towel to grab the handle on the porcelain coffee pot, while reaching over for a cup from the wall rack.  He inhaled the scent of the dark liquid before taking his first sip of Arbuckles for the day, and setting the pot back onto the wood cook stove, looked around to find the kitchen surprisingly clean and orderly. 

 

From outside came the sounds of an axe splitting wood, and Jess followed the noise through the kitchen door and to the back of the house.  There, coffee in hand, he stood barefoot in his belted Levi’s, a spring breeze flowing over bare skin to swing his blue unbuttoned shirt freely away from his body.   Sipping his coffee, he looked from the mass of split fire wood laying about in two rather large piles, and then to Slim, shirtless and sweated in the morning sun, swinging the axe down hard to drive it deeply into another log.

                                                                           

“Anybody ever tell you Sunday was a day of rest,” Jess commented  as he watched Slim reach for another large piece of wood to set  it up right before swinging the axe down and scattering the two halves to the ground.  Leaning down, Slim picked up one half and split it again before tossing both pieces onto a pile of cut fire wood.  What Jess meant was, what are you so all-fired angry about? 

 

“You came in pretty late last night,” was Slim’s curt statement between axe blows.  “Yeah,” responded Jess observing him.  “And you’ve been up early; got the wash all hung out and I’ll bet the chickens are fed and the barn stalls mucked out as well?”   “Yeah?” grunted Slim bringing the axe down hard to split the wood, the halves scattering several feet to either side of the chopping block.  Jess flinched as he took a step back, barely keeping his coffee from spilling.

 

“So you mind telling me what happened last night got you so all fired agitated you’re doing my chores; I’m not minding but if you don’t slow down there ain’t gonna be a tree left within a mile of here that ain’t kindling.”   

 

“It was a fight,” said Slim bringing the axe back. “One minute we’re on the porch and the next minute she’s telling me she doesn’t want to see me again.” He swung the axe down to crack the log. Slim picked up the split wood to toss it roughly on the growing pile.

 

“Blewie said that,” responded Jess thoughtfully.  “You sure you didn’t try something,”    “Never got the chance,” Slim huffed as he reached for another log to set it upright into position, “Told me she was married,” the axe came back for the swing.  “..but her husband’s dead.”  The log was split, “murdered,” he said gruffly.  Picking up the wood to toss it, he stopped to look at Jess and asked, “Did you know that?”

 

“No,” Jess shook his head in surprise, “Blewie married, I mean a widow.  No.”

 

“Well she told me he was robbed and killed,” said Slim, “and she knows this Mason fella from Denver City.”   

 

“What she say about him?’ asked Jess with a caution in his voice.

 

Slim brought the axe down forcefully to explode another log.  “Said he was her husband’s partner or something, a Niel Mason.”   “Partner?” questioned Jess gulping the last of his coffee and setting the cup down on the tall wood bench next to the house.   “And,” continued Slim drawing the axe back once again.  “That’s when we started arguing.”

 

Slim was setting up another log when he looked up at him and asked, “You find out anything about him last night?”

 

“If you put down that axe of yours, I’ll tell you,” said Jess.    Abruptly Slim stopped, holding the axe in both hands to glare at him. 

 

“But first you gotta put down the axe,” repeated Jess who waited as Slim’s face turned from a frown into a scowl before reluctantly swinging the axe down hard enough to bury it’s head a couple of inches into the chopping block; something Jess took note of.

 

“All right, now tell me,” said Slim, glowering at him.

 

Jess stared back at Slim, grabbing at thoughts and discarding them as quickly as to what he could say about what Patty Sue had told him about Neil Mason.

 

“Jess?” questioned Slim impatiently.

 

“Ah,” started Jess, “it might be a good idea to stay away from Blewie and this Mason right about now.”

 

“Why?” angrily asked Slim taking a step forward.

 

Jess offered, ‘Blewie told me a while back she had a kindah silent partner, I didn’t think anything of it at the time, thought it might be in owning the ranch.”

 

“And?” questioned Slim growing concerned.

 

“It might be this Mason fellow,” offered Jess in speculation.   “I waited around outside  Charlie’s place late last night and went in after he left to talk to Patty Sue.  One thing’s sure this Mason is too slick for anybody’s good.”  

 

“What are you saying?” asked Slim tight-lipped as he took another step forward to him to wait for clarification.

 

“Blewie can take care of herself,” firmly stated Jess, “she knows him and she might not want him around, probably send him packing.”  

 

“And if she doesn’t?” asked Slim.

 

“It’s better you know now,” advised Jess. 

 

“Well I’m not gonna stand here and let him talk her into something she’ll regret.  I’m not going down without a fight, if that’s what you mean, Jess!”

 

“Listen Slim, you go rushing down there like a bull buffalo confronting Blewie about him, she’s gonna dig her heels in deeper, maybe threaten to shoot you again, or maybe worse.”   

 

“Like going back to Denver with him,” snapped Slim at him.

 

“Maybe,” said Jess sharply, “could be her choice.”

 

“What is that suppose to mean,” barked Slim in frustration, “you’re not telling me something here, Jess; what is it?” 

 

 “I just know Blewie better than you do.”  

 

“Yeah I’ll bet you do,’ growled Slim at him. 

 

Before Jess could take offense at the comment, his head turned at hearing the sounds of a rider coming up behind him.  It was Roy Hallorin riding in with a serious set to his face, and Jess was concerned to see him on a Sunday go to church morning.    

 

 “Good!  You two are here,” Roy called to them as he reined his horse to a stop,  yet strangely remaining in his saddle.

 

“Morning Roy, what brings you over?” said Jess curiously.

 

“Wanting  to know how long that boss of yours is going to be straddling the picket fence when it comes to our new neighbor,” responded the older man giving a glance to Slim where he stood behind Jess.

 

“What’s the problem, Roy,” asked Slim moving up to stand next to Jess. 

 

“Just came from your southwest fence line where I found it tore down again, wanted you to know.  Got home early this morning and spotted some light up on the west end of the ridge.  I rode out to check it.”   His horse shifted, and Roy continued talking over the sounds of saddle leather creaking, “Came across a fresh camp site, pretty spread out, looked like someone was doing a little rebranding work while the rest of us were dancing to the fiddler in town last night; tracked about four horses and likely half dozen or so of my beeves headed to the Baxter place.”

 

“That doesn’t mean Beckah Blewe is responsible,” said Slim calling the assumption as he looked up at him.  “Well that’s where our opinions differ son; I think so.    There were tracks of about three or four horses coming up from her place to join up with ‘em. And they were headed for your land.  I followed the tracks until I could see a lot of your cattle were driven out of that south pasture of yours. What did you have there, about a hundred beeves?   Is that enough proof for you, son?  Proof you made a bad call regarding that little filly.   Bortell’s her man all right, and it looks to me they’re in it deep.”

 

“Roy.” started Jess to be interrupted by their neighbor.

 

 “I just wanted to tell you,” said Roy heatedly, “I’m headed into town to see the sheriff, to get a posse up to go after those rustlers, and you can come with me if you like; if not.  Well you’ve had fair warning.”   Turning his horse around, Roy Hallorin rode away without another word.

 

Quickly Jess began buttoning his shirt as he headed for the back door to the kitchen as he said to Slim,   “None of Blewie’s crew were at the dance last night and it looks like Roy might be right.  I’m riding down to see what she has to say.”

 

“I’m coming with you,” said Slim following him as he grabbed his own shirt, but Jess turned to stand in his way.

 

 “That ain’t a good idea pard.  You won’t get a word in edgewise if she’s not cooled off about last night.”  

                                                                                                           

“And if Bortell is there?” asked Slim in challenge. 

 

“Slim, you know I don’t think Blewie’s a part of any of this any more than you do, but let me  talk to her, get her to go in to see Mort Cory.   She might want Bortell in jail just as much as Roy does when she hears about last night.  Besides the stage is due in here any minute and someone has to change teams.  You can meet us in town after.   Roy goes to stirring up a posse; she’ll be safer in town at Mort’s office.”

 

Unexpectedly Jess gave him a grin, “That way if she tries to shoot you, Mort can arrest her right there.”

 

“And what makes you think she’s not gonna shoot ‘you’ on sight,” argued Slim.

 

With a quick thump to Slim’s chest, Jess offered, “For one thing, I ain’t stopping in for a good night kiss, and if you hadn’t noticed.   I present a lot smaller target than you!”

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 33

 

 

Shortly after noon, about the same time Slim had slipped up into his saddle to leave the Sherman ranch for Laramie,   Neil Mason had casually stepped out of Mae’s Restaurant in town.  Collecting his thoughts, he stood on the wood planked boardwalk, pocket watch in one hand, and toothpick rolling in the other hand, indicating the end of a hearty breakfast, and his intention to return to his hotel room.  Neil was expecting a number of things that day, and he stood there, considering which might possibly occur, and how could they benefit him.

 

Simon Bortell was to meet him about noon to report on the night’s activities, and take directions as to his next move.   And then there was the little sister Alianna, young but surprisingly headstrong.  He wondered if she would follow her bold declarations made to him last night at the dance.  If she did, he smiled to himself, it would certainly give him something he had never foreseen in his coming to Laramie to retrieve Beckah Blewe. 

 

Despite that unexpected revelation, events had not exactly gone well; another man had stood in his way of retrieving Beckah, and their argument revealed more about Neil than he had intended.   Getting even in the long run; that was a philosophy Neil had adopted early on in life, and  always found more satisfying once he could resist the temptation of losing his temper in the heat of the moment, as he had last night.  It had cost him a number of advantages, along with one of his favorite ivory handled blades.    

                  

About to step down from the boardwalk, he looked before crossing the day’s fairly busy street of  horses and buckboards, wagons,  and buggies; many coming from the large white, steeple-church at the far end of town.  To his right, one rider among others caught his attention; a young, red-haired girl.   Immediately recognizing Beckah Blewe’s sister, Allie, he stepped back onto the boardwalk, retreating into the darker doorway of the restaurant, in order to observe her.

 

Allie rode up to the hitching post in front of his hotel, and he watched her dismount to slip the reins of her horse around the front post before freeing a carpetbag from her saddle, and enter the hotel.  With a smile on his face, Neil started across the street, to follow her, knowing she would be going to his room, looking for him.   The day was showing signs of promise, he thought to himself.    

 

At the same time Allie had pulled up in front of the hotel, Jess Harper pulled up his horse several yards down from Doc Colllier’s office, dismounting and pretending to check his saddle as he watched Allie enter the hotel with a large carpet bag.  She had been riding fast when he saw her on the road ahead of him, coming from the Baxter Ridge cut off, a travel bag strapped to the back of her saddle and it had raised his curiosity.  In the moment, he thought it better to follow Allie, and take the chance she was headed into town, and possibly headed into trouble.  Last night’s dance had left him gut wary of her and this Neil Mason; Blewie was afraid of this man and Allie was not.  Now she was in town, going into the hotel where Jess was certain the man had a room.      

 

Pulling his horse along by the reins down the street, Jess stopped when he saw Neil Mason crossing the street to the hotel, the same hotel Allie had entered.   Slowly Jess continued walking his horse down the street until he tied its reins to the post outside Mae’s Restaurant.   Looking around, he stepped up onto the boardwalk and entered the restaurant, telling Mae, ‘just coffee.’  He took a seat by the window, unaware Neil Mason had recently vacated the same table.

 

Neil moved through the lobby to take the stairs quickly, not realizing Simon Bortell had already arrived and was quietly moving in through the back of the building in order to meet with him upstairs.  Simon was to report to Mason by early afternoon that day about his night’s activities.    He and his crew had covered a great deal of ground last night while the area ranchers attended the spring dance.  Now close to a thousand head of cattle were being held in Bison Canyon to the west, ready to move down along the Overland trail and over to Denver City.   Simon Bortell didn’t regret his decision to leave Laramie to work for Neil Mason in Denver.  He thought of the share of money that would be his for the sale of the cattle, and then the easy job awaiting him at one of Neil’s gambling houses. 

 

Coming up the stairs, he abruptly stopped and leaned back against the wall when he saw Mason letting the red-haired sister of his boss into his hotel room.   When the door closed, Bortell went over, removed his hat from his head and placed an ear to the door.    

 

Later, Neil Mason opened the door to his room, having given firm instructions to Allie to wait in his room until he finished some business after which they would dine and leave on the later stage for Cheyenne and onto Denver City.  He closed the door and turned to see Simon Bortell waiting at the top of the stairs for him. 

 

“I see you got the little sister,” smiled Bortell as he continued playing with his hat. “Guess one is just as good as the other, when it comes down to it.”

 

“You come in the back way like I told you?” crossly questioned Mason when he stepped closer to him. 

 

“Yeah, like you said.”

 

“Well, leave the same way, I won’t have anyone see us together,” instructed Mason, “Across the street I heard talk about a posse being raised to ride out to the Baxter place to look for rustlers.” 

 

“It’s what you wanted, wasn’t it?” stated Bortell taking concern for his own part in his employer’s plans.

 

“And the cattle?” asked Mason disregarding the comment. 

 

“The boys got’em safe in a canyon ready to move out tonight,” responded Bortell.  “Funny how them brands don’t show up so good in the moon light, it takes a campfire to see ‘em real clear like.”

 

Decidedly ignoring Bortell’s lame effort at humor,  Neil moved past the now frowning man and down the stairs as he ordered,  “Meet me about a mile or so out of town and we’ll ride to the ranch; she’ll be alone, according to her sister.” 

 

“And why would we be doing that?” asked Bortell suddenly concerned as he followed him.

 

“Why to rescue her.  From a lynching,” informed Mason before they parted ways.  

 

 

*****

 

About twenty minutes after he had entered the hotel, Neil Mason came out, alone to step over to Allie’s horse where it stood patiently tied at the hitching post.  After changing the length of her saddle’s stirrups to suit him, Mason mounted up and slowly rode north out of town.  From across the street where Jess Harper watched, he was unaware Simon Bortell had also left the hotel, only through its back exit, to retrieve his own horse and ride north out of town.

 

Placing money down on the table for Mae’s coffee, Jess left the restaurant to stand on the boardwalk  and consider following Neil Mason, or going across to his hotel and look for Allie.   Deciding on the latter, he stepped down to cross the street just as four horsemen came roughly riding past him;  Mitch Rozzmann, a rancher to the north east of Laramie with two of his men, and Joel Turner, another rancher adjacent to Rozzmann’s Double-Z ranch.   It was Joel Turner who reined his horse to a stop in order to talk to Jess,  telling him they were headed to the sheriff’s office  to see Mort Cory about raising a posse and going after rustlers.  It was on account of both Mitch Rozzmann and Joel having stock stolen last night while they were at the dance;   Rozzmann losing about two hundred head and Joel claiming they took near a hundred of his own steers.   Now, Joel told him Roy Hallorin and Mort’s deputy Charlie Craig were about three quarters of an hour behind them with Clive Sutterfield and three of his men from the Bar-J-Bar ranch ready to join the hunt.

 

Jess let Joel assume he would be meeting them down at Mort Corry office to ride out to Baxter Ridge.  Watching Joel continue down the street to join the others who were already dismounting horses outside the jail, Jess stood next to his horse.  He looked over to the hotel,  and then back down the street  to Mort’s place.  When he had decided, he untied the reins to his horse and walked it down to join the others.    

 

 

 

Chapter 34

 

About two miles out of Laramie, Neil rode up to spot Simon Bortell waiting, off to the side of the road for him.   Urging his horse over to Bortell, he had noted the man was holding a Sharp’s rifle under his right arm. 

 

“Expecting trouble?” Neil asked him.

 

Sherman’s ahead, on his way into town,” said Bortell before reining his horse back until he could maneuver it into a position behind several scrub trees.  Mason immediately understood and followed, pulling up next to him until they were side by side on horseback, now facing the road and hidden from the view of any traveler who would pass on their way into Laramie.   

 

The two of them watched as Slim Sherman, unaware of them, moved along the road at a canter towards town.  They waited for Sherman to take the curve to the right in the road before Bortell kicked his horse to move up on the road again.   Pulling up his Sharp’s upwards,  he waited until he could see Sherman’s back  coming into view as he rode away from them.   

 

Neil urged his own horse up to wait next to Bortell, ready to control the animal from being startled at the sound of close gunfire.  He watched as Bortell took aim, readying himself for the opportunity to fire the long gun.  

 

Luckily for Slim the west bound stage came in early that day, and with the help of Mose and very little argument from the fresh team, they made quick time changing out the two pair of tired broom tails.  It allowed Slim to leave the ranch shortly before noon.  The next Overland stage, the east bound, wasn’t due in until nearly sunset, and he would need to be back to help made a team change once again.  

 

As he rode past the cut off road to Baxter Ridge, he had hoped Jess had been able to talk Beckah Blewe into riding in to see Mort Cory before the sheriff showed up at her place with an angry Roy Hallorin.    He still considered Simon Bortell had to be behind it everything going on.  And the possibility Nate Harwell might be getting himself mixed up with Bortell gave Slim an uneasy feeling.   He had known more than one cow hand working a ranch  to be known to rustle a few cows as a way to take up ranching on his own.  All that was needed was a long rope and a running iron handy, and the nerve to use them both.  Simon Bortell seemed to be one who looked for easy money, robbing a payroll delivery from a stage would not surprise Slim, so why the hard work of rustling   He hated thinking Nate could be part of Beckah Blewe’s missing stock.  If the boy were following in the footsteps of his older brother Owen, he might be trying to succeed where his brother had failed.  

  

Slim rode easily in his saddle, effortlessly absorbing the fast gait by leaning slightly forward and maintaining a firm even pressure on the stirrups.  When he felt his horse start to stumble, thinking a hoof hit a larger stone in the roadbed, it momentarily it threw him off balance.  In response  he subconsciously leaned back, adjusting his weight slightly until the animal regained its footing, and resumed its canter.

 

As he leaned forward once again, he felt something strike his left shoulder with the jarring force of a club; the impact so paralyzing,  he failed to grab the saddle’s horn before sliding sideways and down to the ground.  The momentum carried him farther down along the steep, brush covered embankment.

 

Laying sprawled on his back several yards down from the road, he found himself looking upwards into the sky.  It took a few heart beats before he felt the searing pain in his left arm and realized he must have been shot.  Instinctively he reached for his gun, only to find the holster empty;  the gun likely lost in his fast downwards tumble.

 

He wasn’t sure, but replaying the last minute in his mind yielded up the cracking sound of a distant rifle shot.   Racing through his bloodstream was the sharp dread the shooter might be heading in his direction for a closer view of  his work, and  he forced himself to roll over onto his knees.  Using his good arm, he   clutched the closest scrub tree to raise himself.  Once upright, and somewhat shaky, he was moving back up the embankment towards the road.     He needed to find his horse and the rifle he had secured in the saddle’s scabbard.

 

“Why that, Stubborn, Son of ah…,”   muttered Simon Bortell raising his rifle as he looked down the  embankment to see Slim Sherman on his feet,  awkwardly climbing upwards.  When Sherman’s head came up to see them, Bortell fired the Sharp’s again, and the rancher’s body jerked backwards to slide head first several feet before coming to a stop.   Bortell waited for movement, and although there was none, he started to dismount.

 

Mason stopped  him, “Don’t worry about him.  He’ll bleed out before anyone finds him down there;  let’s move,   I have things to do.”

 

 

 

 

Chapter 35

 

Slim’s eyes rolled open to gaze upwards at several thin clouds slowly drifting across the afternoon sky.   He soon grew disturbed that he should find them so absorbing when there was something else he should be doing,  but what was it?  It was a natural impulse to shake his head in order to clear his thoughts,  but his instincts were that it wasn’t a good idea.  Probably due to the pain beginning to sharply throb in his head and the awareness he was on his back with a burning sensation in his left shoulder.    It came back to him; Simon Bortell had shot him, twice.   He recalled looking up to see Bortell and Neil Mason on horseback looking down at him, then came a blinding flash followed by nothing until now, until the pain.   It was the pain that told him he was still alive.  

 

When he could, he tried raising himself upward, but his body wasn’t cooperating.  Immediately he fell back with a groan when the dizziness overwhelmed him.  Instead he decided to cautiously reach his right hand up to his aching head. The stickiness he found there, he knew was blood and there was a lot of it running down the side of his neck, some of it caking dry at the edges.

 

Drawing in a deep breath, he forced himself to roll over onto his side, and using his right arm, pushed himself to his knees.   Lightheaded and slightly queasy he checked for any damage taken from his long tumble down the embankment, and was relieved nothing seemed to be broken.  However, he knew his real problem was he had been shot in the left arm, about three of four inches below the shoulder.  As he had lay unconscious, he wasn’t sure how long, blood had soaked through the jacket’s sleeve. 

 

Kneeling back on his heels, he loosened his red print neck scarf with one hand, wadded it up and stuffed it under the sleeve of his jacket against the shirt’s blood wet material, wincing when he felt the sting.  It was the best he could do until he could get to town.  Looking up the embankment, he felt certain, if he was still alive, it was because Bortell had likely decided would soon be dead with two bullets in him;  it was a pretty good assumption he would bleed out.   Neil Mason had been with Bortell and Bortell was Beckah’s foreman, and that worried Slim.  He needed to search the ground for his gun and his hat, and locate his horse, necessarily in that order; and he needed to get to Mort Cory’s office.   Only first came one thing to accomplish, getting to his feet.

 

Once upright, his footing was awkward through the brush, needing to grasp one-handedly at the more sturdy plants and larger rocks to aid his progress.  Several times he had to stop as a cold wave of dizziness washed over him, and the blackness at the edges of his vision cleared up.   He knew he needed to find his horse for the ride of a mile or so into town.  If he didn’t, Simon Bortell would be pleased to know he had been correct in his assumption about leaving Slim Sherman for dead.  

 

*****

 

Jess had been in Mort Cory’s office for the last half hour head to head with Mitch Rozzmann, unable to convince him Blewie had nothing to do with his cattle being stolen.  It had been an intense exchange of words about the noticeable absence of Blewie’s crew at the dance and Roy Hallorin’s reports of tracks to her place, and his alerting assumption she was responsible.  During the airing of Rozzmann’s frustration at having to wait, another rancher showed up to report the same problem, stolen cattle and a willingness to join a posse.  Now, the only thing keeping the five men standing around in Mort’s office and not on horseback, was the report Clive Sutterfield had over five hundred head taken, and he was riding in with half a dozen men to join up with them.   It would make a good sized posse capable of handling, according to various estimates proposed, the number of rustlers it took to pull off a theft involving multiple ranches in one night. 

 

Stepping outside the jail for some air, Jess considered he needed to warn Blewie, get her to leave with him before she would find on her doorstep, an angry mob pretending to be a posse.  And where was Slim to help keep a lid on things Jess wondered.  Then came the guilt in his midsection for not riding to see Blewie  as he had told Slim he would, and his curiously following Allie to town. Had Slim changed his mind and headed to Blewie’s ranch instead, and was his delay due to getting her to see Mort Cory.  And where was Mason in all this, he asked himself.  About to head across the street to find Allie and question her about  Mason,  Jess became aware Mort Cory had also left the noisy jail, closing the door quietly behind him to step next to him and ask, “any sign of Slim?” 

                     

Jess looked up the street as if he would see Slim come riding into view that very instant,  and when he didn’t,  Jess just shook his head and said,  “Mose was early when I passed him on the road;  Slim should’ve been here half hour ago.”  

 

“Well I sure could use him right about now the mood those ranchers are in, and it won’t be improved when Roy and Clive Sutterfield get here.  Slim’s had stock stolen just like they have, and maybe he can help talk some sense into them, keep ‘em from doing what they’ll regret later.”

 

“It’s a woman we’re talking about here,” said Jess looking at him surprised at the sheriff’s dark assumption, and growing concerned when he could see the thought deepening the lines of the lawman’s face. 

 

“Not if they’re sure she’s guilty,” responded Mort, “you gotta admit it looks bad  all of ‘em being at the dance with her while their stock’s being stolen and yes,  I know Jess, there’s no proof Bortell is involved, and just thinking he might be, ain’t enough for a rope trial no matter how many of their beeves have been taken.” 

 

Jess had stopped listening midway in the lawman’s discourse, looking away across the street at the sight of something unexpected.  A muscle contracted in his jaw before he spoke.   “Mort, you gotta do something for me.”   Suddenly Jess was walking away,  crossing the street to step up onto the boardwalk, Mort Cory trailing behind him.  Moving two stores past Mae’s restaurant he stopped next to Allie was who was staring into the window of a dress shop.  She remained intently unaware of his approach until he reached out to latch a hand on her arm.

 

“Does Blewie know you’re in town seeing Neil Mason in his hotel room?” Jess angrily demanded as he turned her around to face him. 

 

She glared at him, trying to pull her arm out of his tight grasp and failing.  “What I do is none of your business, Mister Jess Harper, who do you think you are?” 

 

“Allie, so help me,” suddenly barked Jess at her, his face going dark, “I saw you go into the hotel with a travel bag, what was in it; what’s going on?”

 

“If you must know,” she drew herself up to glare at him, “I’m leaving for Denver City with Mister Mason.   I’m going there to work for him.” 

 

“You’re what?” Jess suddenly erupted as he reached his other arm out to grab her shoulder. “Do you even know what kinda work he wants from you?”

 

 “As a matter of fact, I do,” she snapped back at him.

 

 “Why you little fool,  I oughta take you over my knee,” growled Jess at her.  Instead he turned to Mort who stood behind him watching the two of them.  “Do me a favor Mort and lock her up in one of those cells of yours until I get back.”    

 

Jess started walking to the jail, his arm clamped tight on Allie’s, giving her no choice but to complain as she stumbled behind him.   Mort Cory was following the two of them as he told Jess, “You know I can’t do that, she’ hasn’t committed any crime.” 

 

“Well there’s sure gonna be one if you don’t lock her up and now,” snapped Jess  dragging Allie behind him.  

 

“If I ran my office like that, Harper, I’d have to lock up half the town come Saturday night,” rattled off Mort in complaint, “starting with yew!”

 

Still holding a squirming Allie by the arm, Jess suddenly stopped in mid step when he looked up to see a horse and rider passing by.

 

 “Hey Slim, you made it,” called out Jess, and Mort Cory looked up to see Slim Sherman riding toward his office on the other side of the street where half a dozen horses stood tied up outside the  jail.  

 

But Jess knew something was wrong when Slim’s horse came to a stop several feet from the hitching post behind the other horses, and Slim leaned forward over the saddle’s horn, awkwardly grasping it.    Jess released his grip on Allie’s arm to sprint the several yards towards Slim who had begun a slow slide from his saddle to the ground.  With Mort following him, the two men barely reached Slim in time to grab him, keeping him on his feet and leaning up against his horse.  When Jess saw the blood caked around the hole in Slim’s jacket and looked up to see he was also bleeding along the side of his head, he demanded, “Who did this Slim?  Who shot you?”   

 

Slim wanted to answer, only the blackness seeping in around his head had grown too strong for him as it pulled his attention away from answering.   It was draining him of the last of his resolve until he barely realized, he was passing out.   

 

*****

 

Slim wasn’t sure, but he thought he could hear voices; only the loud pounding in his head made it impossible to understand what was being said.   And it left him to wondering if the words were meant for him.  He felt himself fade away for a few moments and woke later when a loud buzzing noise raced through his head.  Opening his eyes in curiosity, he saw an older, wispy-haired man with a deeply lined, kindly face looking down at him and he was saying something.  Behind him was another face and Slim needed to raise his head upwards to focus, and when he did, the pain came so fast he groaned and laid back, closing his eyes again until it lessened.   

 

“I think he might be coming around now,” said Doc Collier as he sat on the edge of the bunk leaning over his patient.  The Laramie physician had been fetched to the jail, to find Slim Sherman unconscious on a bed in one of its two cells.   Jess Harper and Mort Cory, and about half a dozen ranchers and a young red-haired girl all were crowded in Mort Cory’s office, all intent upon knowing who had shot Slim Sherman and was he going to live? 

 

“Doc, how is he?’” asked Jess Harper looking over Sweeny’s shoulder at Slim.  Behind him was patiently standing Mort Cory, also waiting for the physician’s opinion.

 

“Well I not worried about the bullet he took in the arm, it passed through and exited cleanly; he’ll recover from that.”   Slim’s arm had been bandaged and the doctor was tying off the last strip of cloth wrapped around the head wound caused by another bullet to the right side of his skull.   “What concerns me is this hit to his head he took; he’ll be lucky if he doesn’t have a concussion, or for that matter a fractured skull,  I can’t tell.”

 

“He’d be a whole lot luckier if he hadn’t been shot at all,” bitingly remarked Jess.

 

“Slim?” Doc Sweeny spoke in slow and even words to him, “can you open your eyes for me?”  He waited until his patient obeyed.    “Good,” said the physician pulling out a match from one of his vest pockets and lighting it.  Moving it in front of Slim’s face, he watched as his eyes tracked the flame, and when satisfied, extinguished the match.  “And do you know who I am?”  he asked him. 

 

Slim seemed puzzled at the question for a moment.  “Doc,” he hoarsely whispered.  “Where am I?” 

 

 “You’re in jail, Pard,” said someone.

 

‘Jess?” uttered Slim, eyes rolling nearly closed trying to stay away from whatever it was trying to drag him downwards.  But he needed to know something, even if it took all his efforts to get the words out.   When he could, he asked, “Where’s Beckah?”  

 

Doc Collier stood up and turned to Mort Cory, “he’s asking questions, it’s a pretty good sign he might answer some of yours but later would be better.   Best if you would have some of the boys here move him up to my office where I can keep an eye on him for a couple of hours, over night if needed.”  The sheriff agreed by immediately sending one of the ranchers standing nearby to the livery stable for a buckboard. 

 

Before Mort Cory could officially question Slim, Jess had taken the physician’s now vacated place on the edge of the bunk to lean over him as he asked once again, “Who did this Slim, who shot yew?”

 

Slim’s thoughts strayed with another question put to him; one bringing up the painful image of being shot as he rode towards town; and tumbling down through scrub brush and rocks and later getting up only to be shot again. 

 

“Who did this, Slim?”  Jess urgently repeated. 

 

“Bortell,” finally said Slim opening his eyes to look up at him.  “Mason was with him, on the road.”

 

Jess’s face went dark and he started to rise, but Slim reached for him.     “Jess.”

 

 “What is it, Slim?” 

 

 “Where is she?”  

 

When Jess didn’t answer, Slim tried raising himself up only to have Jess’s hand settle him back down again,  “Don’t worry pard,”  said Jess, but his words were tight with anger,  “Bortell’s not going anywhere near her I can promise you, I’m gonna make sure of it.”

 

“It’s Mason,” continued Slim looking up at him, “they were headed out to...”   “I know, Slim,” interrupted Jess, his hand still on Slim’s shoulder.    “Now will you take it easy and do what the doc says until I get back.” 

 

Slim slowly gave him an agreeing nod, but repeated his words to him, “He’s with Mason.”   

 

Jess waited until Slim appeared to be drifting out again.  Getting to his feet he glanced over to see Allie watching them. 

 

“Jess,” said Mort Cory placing a hand on his shoulder.  But Jess only looked at him and shrugged off the lawman’s hand as he walked through the cell’s open doorway.    The sheriff had to move quickly to follow him through the office and out onto the boardwalk outside.  

 

“Harper,” sharply called out Mort now reaching him in time to clamp a hand firmly onto his arm to abruptly turn him around so the two of them faced each other.    “I’m not having you getting into trouble because of what happened to Slim.   I got enough of that kind of trouble inside without worrying about you going after Bortell by yourself.” 

 

Grim faced, the sheriff lowered his voice as he told him, “You know as well as I do it’s a powder keg in there ready to go off.  One of Red Tayler’s  boys came in a while ago saying a hand of theirs was shot when he started chasing a couple of men driving off their steers early this morning.  He recognized two of them; told them Bortell was one.    Red’s boy said they lost over five hundred head last night, and that ranch hand died.”

 

Jess stared at him, taking in the information, and waiting for Mort to finish what was obviously on his mind.  

 

“People don’t forgive a killing, Jess,” said Mort Cory leveling with him.  “They hunt down the ones that did the killing.  When Red Taylor gets here and that’s going to be about any minute now, they will be heading out to the Baxter place. And it’s gonna be looking for trouble.  I’m not so sure I can keep a lid on things, even with that deputy of mine when he gets back here, and especially with Slim shot by her foreman.  Right now I don’t need you going off with the same mind-set!”

 

“I told Slim I would watch his back,” spoke Jess in biting anger.

 

“I’m asking you to bring in that neighbor of yours before Red Taylor and the rest of them ride out there.  There’s no telling what might happen.”

 

Several thoughts tracked across Jess’s face as he considered what Mort Cory was asking of him.   

 

“I don’t want any lynchings,” firmly stated Mort giving a curt nod in emphasis, “you understand me boy?   You just get her in her so we can sort things out;   let me go after Bortell, bring him in,   and whoever’s riding with him, not you.  Split ‘em up and it’ll be half the temptation for a rope trial.”

 

Mort Cory observed Jess Harper as he waited for him to consider his request. 

 

“All right Mort, it’s your way,” finally said Jess, much to the older man’s relief.   Stepping down from the boardwalk to untie his horse’s reins, Jess told him,   “you just delay ‘em as long as you can.  ‘Cause I might have to shoot Blewie myself, just to get her to come in with me.” 

 

“I’m coming with you,” said Allie closing one of the jail’s doors behind her. “Becks will listen to me and she’ll come.”

 

“No you’re not,” Jess turned to contradict her, and pointing a fist at Mort he barked “now are you going to lock her up like I asked?”

 

Grabbing his saddle’s horn, Jess jumped up to slip his foot into a stirrup, and pulled his horse away from the hitching post just as the sheriff moved to place a hand on the young girl’s arm.  But Allie eluded him, quickly moving past him and towards Slim’s horse where it stood untied and patiently waiting behind the others.   Snatching the ends of the reins from the ground, she clutched the horse’s saddle to hoist herself upwards onto its back.   Yanking the reins up sharply, Slim’s horse reared up as it backed away from the sheriff trying to reach for its bridle.     Turning the animal, Allie slapped the ends of the reins across its rump to follow Jess Harper. 

 

Mort Cory lifted his hat from his head to run a hand through his salt and pepper hair as he stood watching her ride away.  Giving a sigh as he placed his hat back on and muttered to himself, “damn if I know which of us has the harder job here.”  With that he turned to reenter his offices, the buzz of inside talk growing louder, and to him, sounding dangerous. 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 36

 

 

“You know you still have time to pack your things,” said Neil Mason from where he stood in Beckah Blewe’s barn, watching her tending to a young colt laying on the straw covered floor.  He had been standing there watching her for several minutes, knowing she was unaware he had slipped in though the half opened barn door.  According to Allie, Beckah had spent most of the morning in the barn nursing one of her sick horses,  oblivious to the younger sister filling a traveling bag and leaving for town to meet him.

 

“Neil!” uttered Beckah in startled acknowledgement. Quickly getting to her feet, she looked for the Winchester, knowing the weapon was leaning up against one of the barn’s wooden center posts where she had set it in anticipation of his possible return as he had promised.  Now her problem was its location, closer to Neil’s reach than hers. 

 

He saw her eyes darting to the Winchester carbine and immediately stepped over to pick it up.  “I certainly hope you won’t be needing to pack this, wrapped up in that delightful blue silk dress of yours.”  With that he tossed the carbine down to the straw on the barn’s floor behind him, and she watched as it landed several feet from the barn’s entrance.

 

Her eyes shifted back to him as he moved towards her. Years of dealing with her husband Brad’s unpredictable moods instinctively kept her rooted to where she stood, as then, needing  to determine how Brad’s  inevitable intimidation would take shape.  After last night, seeing the violent, more treacherous side of Neil, she wasn’t so sure Neil didn’t share more than her husband’s business acumen in their partnership.   She waited as he came to stand next to her, to look down at her, and reach for one of her hands.

 

Neil brought Beckah’s hand upwards to his lips, and kissed it all the while looking into her eyes.  When he did, he found something in them made him angry; it was the look he recognized, the slight edge of fear in her eyes whenever he had seen her with her husband.   To no avail, Neil had been angry with his partner for how he had treated her, and now he was angry at her.  She had no right to look at him as if he were Brad Mezzlee; he wasn’t that kind of man.

 

“Things are over for us, Neil; you know I won’t return with you,” she quietly told him as if her hopes of making him understand her would be realized, and he would go away and leave her to her life of taking care of Allie.

 

“And the fault is mine for not asking you properly,” he smiled at her.   “Not asking you in the way you needed to be asked.”   Pulling her hand closer to him, he leaned forward to reach his other hand around her waist.  He was gentle as he slowly drew her to him, his head coming down to hers, to nuzzle along her face until he found her warm lips, softly parting them, urging her to yield to the kiss.

 

Beckah found herself surrendering to his familiar scent, and the demanding caress of his lips as they found hers, all calling up the memories of fast nights with him.  He had always been willing to pay dearly to be with her, despite his partnership with her husband, and she had found in him,  hat Brad had never been able to give her from the day they had been married.   Until she had been with Neil that first night, she had never known what married meant, and how that night should have been her first with Brad.   

 

Only now everything was different; her life was mixed up and different ever since Brad had been killed.  She thought she knew what she wanted when she left Denver City with Allie,  leaving her old life behind, taking only a few regrets, Neil being one of them.  Her life changed with Brad’s death, and she needed to change.   But things just kept falling apart on her no matter what she did to protect Allie from what lay behind her.   

 

And then there was this rancher, Slim Sherman, someone unaware he had slipped in to spark something she never knew was inside her, and it drew her to him; running the heat through her at the thought of his touch,  and chilling her to know she was doomed to lose it.  While she had left her turbulent life in Denver City, now she was more than certain, all doubts dissolved within her, that she had left Neil as well.  A coldness slipped into her as she became uncertain what he would do if he was not at the end of his pursuit of her, not willing to lose this once last bid for her return to the unacceptable partnership he proposed for her. 

 

“Don’t, Neil,” she said to him once she could pull her lips from his.  

 

“Don’t, Beckah?” he mimicked in question back to her, his head lowering again to hers.  “Don’t leave without holding you in my arms once again; don’t leave without feeling your passion; without feeling what we have between us.  That, don’t Beckah? Is that what you’re saying to me?”  He gave a sigh while tightening his embrace around her waist and said,  “You can’t fault me for wanting to feel your  heart racing in my arms again as you give your answer,  the right one this time,  without your rancher fellow to interrupt us.”

 

His head came down to hers, to kiss her once again and his arms pulled her upwards into him as he continued unaware her own arms were remaining at her sides.   Gradually he could feel her warm body, although pressed close into him, going rigid in his arms, and he pulled back from her mouth to look crossly at her.  

 

It was a sufficient gap and Beckah slipped her right arm up to strike him hard across the face.  It surprised him and he leaned back from her, but his arms still remained securely around her.

 

“Why you little,” Neil snapped back at her.  Just as she brought her hand back up again,  this time he caught it, stopping her while using his other arm to yank her tightly into him.  He took another kiss, forcefully, bringing his mouth down hard on hers as she struggled to turn her head away.  His hand held her arm behind her back, forcing her body upwards into his until he could feel the full shape of her breasts pressed hard against his chest.  Beckah Blewe was tall, but Neil took advantage of his own height and strength to keep her from pulling away from him. 

 

Continuing to struggle against him, Beckah tried slipping one of her legs between his in order to give her the needed leverage to kick away from him.   But Neil was forcing her to back up, closer to one of the barn’s large center posts until she felt the jarring pain of her back being wedged up against it, pinned between his body and the post. With her now held nearly immobile, one of his hands was free to roughly roam over her; and for a moment she thought of her husband, dreading what would come next for her. 

                                                                                                    

From the other side of the barn came the rustling sounds of straw, and the sharp tang of someone kicking a metal object.   Neil abruptly turned his head in the direction to see Simon Bortell standing next to an overturned container.  “I told you to wait outside,” he gruffly reprimanded her foreman as he held her tightly. 

 

“She’s never going with you if you’re gonna ask her that way,” offered Bortell drawing his gun from its holster.  “You already got that pretty sister of hers; this is a waste of time.”

 

Beckah was looking from Neil to the barn door, to the carbine where it lay nearby on the straw, thinking if she could just free herself, she could make it to the weapon.  Only now she froze as she heard Simon Bortell continuing to express his opinion to Neil Mason.   

 

“What do you want with her; she’s bad tempered and mean mouthed; no man’s gonna shell out cash for that when he can get that at home,” he told him in a mocking laugh, “you don’t need this one, that sister of hers is a whole lot more willing from what I can see.”

 

With Neil’s attention drawn to her foreman, the fear that surged through Beckah Blewe helped her twist enough in his grip to slip the few inches down the post until she could get the heel of her boot against it.  She pushed hard enough to move Neil backwards, and in several stumbling steps she fled from him towards the barn’s half opened door;  not stopping for the Winchester as she raced to the front porch of the house. 

 

Throwing open the front door, she called out Allie’s name several times as she ran through the house until she came to her sister’s bedroom.   Reaching the doorway to it, she saw across the bed the few discarded items of clothing;  the dresser drawers left open,  and a wardrobe door hanging slightly ajar.  Her sister had left the ranch.

 

No Beckah whispered to herself, not Allie. Please not Allie.  Running back to the front porch she stopped when across the ranch’s yard she saw Neil Mason walking from the barn towards her.   “She’s not there is she,” Neil told her as he languidly approached the porch and stopped several yards from it to watch her.  “She’s not there because she’s waiting in my hotel room for me to return, and later to take the stage to Denver City with me.”

 

“No you don’t,” said Beckah her voice flooding with cold anger, “you won’t leave Laramie once I ride in to see the sheriff, he’ll arrest you!”

 

His eyebrows rose in surprise, “arrest me?”    He gave her a moment and broadly smiled at her as he asked, “Arrest me for what?  Accompanying a young lady traveling alone on the stage?”

 

“For killing Brad,” she choked out, angry and scared for Allie; reaching for something in his past to threaten him, to bargain with him to get Allie back. 

 

“And what proof will you give him?” he crossly asked her.

 

‘Lynn Sue Fong,” stated Beckah standing on the porch, holding onto its railing for support.  “I know you sent Tilkey Joe after her, after she left with the others to come here.   She was your alibi for that night, the night Brad was murdered.”    Beckah’s voice faltered; daring to meet his threat with one of her own.  “Lynn Sue told one of the other girls, she had never been with you that night, that you made her lie for you to the marshal.  Tilkey Joe never got his hands on her, and he never will; she’s safe now Neil.” 

 

“That’s not much, Beckah,” he told her, “a slant-eyed girl from a cat house who can’t speak proper English, her word against mine.  And I really doubt you have even told your own sister about it.”

                                                                                                  

“You have no alibi, Neil,” said Beckah stepping down from the porch to walk towards him as she continued telling him of her inevitable conclusion, “and Brad was stabbed several times; the marshal told me when he came to me that day; he said it was with a thin blade, the same kind of blade you tried throwing last night at Slim Sherman.  He saw the weapon, probably has it now.”

 

“Well well," smiled Neil at her.  His next words came measured as he declared his failed efforts to win her, “and here I thought I was doing us a favor.  You were leaving Brad, and I knew he wasn’t about to allow that to happen; he could ill afford to lose you.  And I thought he was the only thing standing in our way, until now, until this this rancher of yours I find you with.”

 

“He’s not my rancher,” she contradicted him fiercely thinking of her angry words with Slim Sherman on her porch where she last night needing to keep him away from Neil.  “Not anymore,” her voice dropped to a whisper.

 

“Yes,” smiled Neil at her, “you are ‘right’ about that.”

 

As she puzzled his statement, to her left, Beckah heard the nervous sounds of horses and became aware the gate to the corral now stood open, and Simon Bortell was moving around the half dozen horses.

 

“Time’s running out, Beckah,” Neil called to her, taking her attention from Bortell.  “I’m afraid I neglected to mention one other thing you should know. You don’t need to ride into town to see the sheriff.  Any moment now he will be here.  That’s because he will be leading a very angry posse right up to your front door, looking to arrest somebody, likely you for cattle rustling.  While you were out dancing last night, your cow hands were stealing your neighbors’ cattle under orders by you and your foreman,  who by the way is prepared to accompany you to Denver City where he will continue working for you.  Allie and I will be meeting you when we arrive on the stage.”      

 

“What?” exclaimed Beckah in astonishment as she looked from Neil to her foreman who was tying off one of her horses to a fence post to throw a saddle over it, “are you mad?  I’ve had stock stolen from me!”  

 

“Have you told anyone who will believe you?” he asked.

 

Beckah looked back to Simon Bortell,  recalling all those times her foreman had gone into town to retrieve the mail and supplies, instructed to inform the town’s sheriff of her missing cows, and the damages to her place,  only to now come to the sickened thought he had not.  She realized Neil was talking to her, “One way or another, I will have you, Beckah Blewe,” he was telling her,  “you decide how, and it had better be quickly.    Allie is waiting for me; you don’t come, you lose her, and,” he pointed to where Bortell was yelling among her horses, “…you lose more, maybe even your life when that posse arrives.” 

 

Beckah had already turned away from Neil to run to the corral, shouting at her foreman.  As the frightened horses ran past her, she was in danger of being trampled as Simon Bortell was chasing them off.  She was angry until she smelled what her horses had more keenly become aware of; smoke.  Standing still, she turned around scanning for the source, finding it curling out and upwards from the barn’s upper loft door. 

 

In panic she made a run for the water trough just outside the corral to snatch up one of the hanging wooden buckets.  She filled the bucket and carried at a run to the barn.   But Neil stood in her way, facing her.   When she tried moving around him, he shoved his hand hard up against her, causing her to jerk back a step and drop the full bucket.  Water splashed along the ground as he grabbed one of her arms to yank her up close to him.  “I can let it burn to the ground,” he told her angrily, “and everything inside, unless you agree, right now, to come back to me.” 

 

“I’ll just fetch Allie back and rebuild,”   her fear of what the fire could do gave her voice angry defiance as she told him, “get out of my way, Neil!” 

 

“Oh I don’t think you will, Beckah,” he sneered at her.  “I made the business decision to purchase this place by putting it in both our names, and then mortgaging it to fund our new operations in Denver City.  The things we needed to do there, to be first class for you, cost money.  You couldn’t sell this land for half of what is owed on the place, and you can’t even sell that unless I agree to it.  You have nothing without me.”

 

Stunned, she could only stand there staring at him.   Lost, was the only word her mind could offer; all the money she had from selling their house in Denver City, the money given to Neil to buy this place in Wyoming for her and Allie, and it was lost, all of it lost to him. 

 

Behind him, she heard the nervous sounds of the mare in her stall next to the colt.   “Let me go, Neil!” she shouted at him, but he started to drag her away from the barn, away from rescuing the two horses that remained inside it, something she could save.  

 

When he finally stopped and turned around, he pulled her arm up behind her until they both faced the barn to watch the smoke drifting upwards along its roof.    As she stood there, held by Neil, her throat went tight when she felt him bring his mouth to her ear and gruffly announce to her.

 

“Now, do you want the house to burn as well?”  

 

 

 

 

Chapter 37

 

 

It was mid afternoon when Nate Harwell could finally return to the ranch to report back to his boss.   Nearly a thousand head of stolen cattle were now held in a canyon to the southwest in Sheep Mountains; most of it rustled last night during the big kick off dance to celebrate the beginning of spring round up. 

 

And young Nate Harwell hadn’t been happy about that.  Mostly because the night for him had not been spent dancing with Alianna Harris as he had planned;  instead of dance music, his night had been filled with the sounds of cattle being driven hard into the canyon to be quickly re-branded.  Nate had never been this tired in his entire life of nearly twenty years.  Since late yesterday afternoon, he had followed his foreman, Simon Bortell out to Bison Canyon, where he checked on the stolen Baxter ranch cattle grazing on spring grasses, and visited the nearby makeshift camp with its remuda of two dozen horses. 

 

Nate had been hanging in the saddle and now it was mid afternoon the next day.  He had been looking for his foreman, having lost sight of him in the early morning hours after several new riders came into the canyon with more stolen stock to join the hidden herd.  Nate had recognized two of the new rustlers as friends of his older brother Owen, and he wondered where they were hiding out while Owen served his time making horse hair bridles in prison.  When he turned his attention back to locating Bortell again, Nate noticed he was no longer to be seen, leaving him curious about where the foreman had gone.  So Nate had spent the rest of the morning searching, only to abandon the undertaking for a return to the ranch, thinking Bortell may have also decided the same.      

 

But Nate’s thoughts weren’t mostly on Bortell; some were of the possibility of getting a couple of cups of strong coffee and a hot meal, and maybe an hour or two of hard sleep.  Nate hated rustling, it was hard work that carried dangerous consequences.  His brother Owen got caught and sent to prison for it; and Nate was sure of one thing, he had no intentions of getting caught and sent to prison for rustling;  especially when he had plans to start ranching some day,  maybe even getting married and raising some kids to work alongside him.  Nate was a planner, that’s what Allie called him, almost like an accusation as if it weren’t a desirable thing in a man for a woman.   

 

Coming up the slow rise of the ridge, he quickly spotted the long curl of smoke spiraling upwards.  Ahead was the ranch on the steep south side of Baxter Ridge, and Nate instinctively knew smoke thickening that fast was likely a building on fire; and the only buildings around were those on the ranch ahead of him.   Immediately thinking of Allie and her sister, a cold fear caused him to spur his tired horse into a gallop, praying he wouldn’t be too late, and fearing he just might be. 

 

****

 

Near a newly saddled horse standing outside the empty corral, Simon Bortell watched the smoke escaping from the open doorway of the barn.  It fascinated him to watch it seep determinedly from around the edges of the barn’s upper loft doors and upwards along various cracks in the outside walls of the building.   At the sounds of a single horse coming up fast in his direction, Bortell turned to see young Nate Harwell, barely reining his horse to stop before leaping from its saddle.  On a run, je snatched one of the remaining buckets from its peg to fill it in the trough. 

 

At the same time, Simon Bortell slid his gun from its holster and pulled back its hammer.  He watched as the full bucket was lifted up from the water, then fired off a shot, getting the boy’s attention.  It was a surprised Harwell who swung around, still holding the bucket, now spouting a stream of water, bullet hole sized from its side.

 

Nate stared at his foreman now aiming a gun at him and he thought of his own gun holstered on his belt.   Rarely did Nate carry a pistol as a ranch hand, but yesterday he had felt the need for one before he trailed off behind Bortell to Bison Canyon.   Now he wondered if it really would have mattered if he had not.    Even at his best, Nate Harwell couldn’t draw a gun fast enough and expect to hit accurately, and the intensity of the situation was certain to hamper the action.

 

When he had ridden in, Nate’s eyes had been for the smoking barn, barely aware there was another man standing several yards behind his foreman.  He had time to recognize the man as the stranger who had come calling at the ranch the prior day, hanging around to talk to his foreman.  He watched as Allie’s sister was struggling to break away from him and wondered if he was keeping her from running to the barn.  He looked for Allie, and not seeing her in the open yard or on the front porch of the house, hoped she was staying somewhere safe inside.

 

Nate’s eyes shifted back to Bortell and considered things were worse than he had suspected.  He had seen and heard things prompting him to approach Allie’s sister, telling her and reluctantly agreeing to remain watchful for any further, unusual activity on the part of his foreman.   He had been spying on Simon Bortell for his boss, and was now facing the confirmation of all those suspicions.

 

Holding the draining bucket, Nate stood less than ten feet from Bortell, calculating he would be dead before he could drop it and pull his weapon.  Bortell would have more than enough time to shoot him two or three times or at least once taking careful aim.    Instead Nate suddenly drove his body downwards to the ground, sending the bucket flying in the direction of Bortell.  He had guessed correctly, Bortell hadn’t been expecting a bucket rolling towards him and fired the gun, missing him, and missing the bucket. 

                                                      

On the ground, Nate was astonished to see Bortell sprinting towards him, aiming a boot into the side of his head, his gun held upwards.  Your mistake, thought Nate as Bortell’s boot made contact with the side of his head, sending him rolling over along the dirt, and wondering why the man didn’t shoot him instead.  

 

His head hurt from the jarring he received from the kick, but Nate managed to scramble to his feet to see Bortell had holstered his weapon.   His foreman wanted a fist fight, and judging by the grin on Bortell’s face, Nate knew his foreman had finally found a way to scratch that itch for a fight festering ever since being bested by Slim Sherman in a recent bar room brawl.  But Nate Harwell was no Slim Sherman; Bortell outsized him by a couple of inches, not to mention the more than forty pounds of meanness the man aggressively carried on his stocky frame.   Nate prepared himself for the fight, hoping to miss the punch coming at his face.  Only he didn’t.

 

The blow took him down to the ground again, and he couldn’t recall getting back up on his feet; Bortell must have pulled him up by his jacket to hit him again, knocking him backwards.   He wasn’t sure how he stayed on his feet, but he did, and he managed somehow to duck Bortell’s left fist.

 

Drawing his arm back, Nate threw his own fist into Bortell’s side as hard as he could, connecting with the man’s ribs, forcing the air from his lungs.    In response, Bortell bent over but immediately came back up with a solid hit to the underside of Nate’s chin.  A flash of light streaked through his head and Nate nearly passed out from the pain.  Stumbling backwards, he looked at Bortell who was still grinning at him, not even breaking a sweat. 

 

Nate’s hands went to his knees as he bent over trying to keep from blacking out. He could taste the sharp tang of blood in his mouth, and for a moment he recalled the fights his brother Owen used to drag him into, fights he usually lost. But not this time, he thought, not when someone was trying to burn out someone he cared about.  He couldn’t see Bortell, but he knew he was coming at him, to hit him again.   

 

At the last moment, Nate brought his hands together into one large fist and brought that ball of desperate fight upwards to connect under Simon Bortell’s jaw.   Bortell’s head jerked upwards, with Nate’s fists rising higher to come crashing back down into the foreman’s face.  Only Nate had missed his intended target of Bortell’s nearly healed broken nose, and struck him on the top of the left shoulder instead.  

 

Bortell grunted when the boy’s blow hit him, but shrugged it off as he looked at Nate Harwell.  The boy was barely able to stay on his feet and Bortell was hoping he could lay in a couple more, well placed punches  before there was no fight left in him.   It would have been a lot more satisfying if he were smashing in the face of Slim Sherman.   Too bad he had to shoot the toplofty rancher.  The only satisfaction for Bortell in that was Sherman looking up from the embankment at the last minute,  to know Bortell was the one who killed him.          

 

 

*****

 

Neil Mason tightly held Beckah Blewe as Simon Bortell continued throwing his fist into the face of the ranch hand interrupting their afternoon business.  Beckah had nearly stopped struggling as she watched the fight, giving Neil opportunity to pull her closer to him as he told her, “and don’t expect your rancher friend to rescue you either.  He’s dead now.  Sherman is dead, Beckah.”

 

Beckah Blewe looked up at him, scrutinizing his face for the truth of what he spoke.  After Neil’s fight last night with Slim, she feared something would happen, but not this.   Unwilling to believe him, she whispered,   “you’re lying! You're lying to me, Neil!”

 

Behind her, several yards away, Nate Harwell finally went down, knocked unconscious to the ground by Simon Bortell.

 

“Oh yes, Beckah,” Neil smiled triumphantly down at her, “he’s very dead at the bottom of a gully off the road with two bullets in him.  He won’t be coming ‘round to see you anymore.”   

 

Observing her taking in the finality of his pronouncement, he saw her face go as slack as her arms had now gone, no longer struggling against him, accepting the truth.  Although Neil knew he had won, he still held her close to him as he informed her, “and now it's time I ride back into town and take the stage to Denver with Allie.”  He glanced over to see his horse still  tied to the front hitching post next to Bortell’s horse, and turned back to tell her,   “I came for one sister and would prefer to leave with two, but I will settle for leaving with at least one, for now. I trust you see things my way; there’s nothing left here for you.” 

 

Only Beckah Blewe remained silent, her eyes telling him her thoughts were elsewhere and he was certain they were about this Sherman.   With that he shoved her away from him.  “Given that you are free from your rancher fellow for good, I expect you will join us if you want to see Allie again.”   

 

Walking away from her to his horse, he offered her his last words of advice, “And don’t forget the posse that’s coming for you.  I imagine Simon’s ready to leave, with or without you.”

 

With his words of Slim’s death, Neil had sucked the very breath from her body, and it had hollowed out her soul knowing she was the reason for Slim Sherman being murdered.  Feeling alone and helpless as she had all those years under Brad’s threats, escaping only to find she would face the same under Neil, her despair deepened. And when it became a dark and deep chasm that could grow no deeper, she gasped for air, and the chasm began to fill with anger, anger at what had happened to Slim Sherman, anger at herself for what was happening to her and to Allie because of this man.  Rolling her hands into tight fists, she ran towards Neil and began to beat on him, momentarily forgetting the mare and her colt, forgetting the fire, and knowing she would be destroyed as they would be, trapped in the burning barn as she was helplessly trapped by this man.

 

 

 

Chapter 38

 

Jess Harper came in fast, riding down the sloping entrance into the ranch’s wide yard to see the gray smoke billowing from the open door of the barn.  Ahead of him and several yards from the barn, Simon Bortell was reloading his gun while he stood over someone lying on the ground.  Jess barely took notice of Neil Mason standing near the house with Blewie, her arms flailing against him. It was because upon seeing Jess Harper, Bortell closed the loading chamber of his gun and raised it to fire off a shot in his direction.

 

Jess was already sliding from his saddle to roll along the ground, unaware the bullet had torn through the upper sleeve of his jacket, to graze the skin underneath.  Instead, he was bringing up his gun from its holster and firing at Bortell who was already going for cover behind a water trough.  Seconds later Bortell raised his head to take two rapid shots, both missing Jess running for his own cover near the smaller wooden pen on the opposite side of the barn; the two bullet whined past him.  

 

Holding his gun upwards, Jess looked over to see Neil Mason now roughly held Blewie’s arm behind her back, having swung her around until she stood in front of him.   Jess was surprised Mason held no weapon, and neither did Blewie, leaving him to wonder what had gone on before he had arrived. For now, the only one firing on him was Simon Bortell, keeping him pinned down and from getting to Blewie.  

 

It was true Neil Mason seldom carried a gun, typically using hired men such as Bortell who carried firearms.  He preferred the silence of a well placed blade between the ribs of an opponent.  But having lost his stiletto the prior night, he gripped Beckah Blewe as a shield between himself and Sherman’s friend, should the man decide to aim bullets in his direction.  He only needed to get to his horse, take Beckah with him for protection, and ride out while their intruder was occupied by Bortell.    But Beckah wasn’t cooperating with his improvised plan as she was continuing to struggle in efforts to get away from him as he dragged her towards the horses.

 

Racing towards the sounds of gun fire coming from the ranch, Alianna Harris galloped in on Slim Sherman’s horse.  Across the open yard she was barely aware the barn was on fire, nor did she take notice of Jess Harper crouching near the barn’s smaller pen, or someone lying on the ground not far from the water trough.  It was Beckah she saw being dragged by Neil Mason towards the front porch that caused Allie to immediately dig her heels into the flanks of Slim’s horse, urging it to continue the momentum of its gallop across the yard to the house.  She slid off in mid stride, her feet hitting the ground to run to her sister’s aid. 

 

Neil had taken no notice of Allie’s arrival at the ranch as he was nearly to his horse dragging Beckah Blewe behind him, her every efforts slowing his progress.  It was a surprise to him when he felt someone grab him by the coat to pull on him, as he was pulling on Beckah.  Allie was doing her best to help free her sister from Neil Mason’s grasp, and when he looked at her in surprise, wondering why she was here and not waiting for him at the hotel, she took the opportunity to slam hard against him hoping to knock him off balance. 

 

It was only a little movement on Neil’s part tilting backwards, but it gave Beckah the opening to jerk herself free and move back from him.  In effort to keep his balance, Neil reached out a free hand for one of Allie’s arms, grabbing her and keeping her from following Beckah.  Laughingly he realized he head had indeed, exchanged one sister for another.

 

Beckah had stumbled away from Neil, only to see  he now held Allie tightly to him. Her face darkened and she immediately charged towards him,  but as she did,  Neil swung his other arm up to hit her hard across the head, sending her falling to the ground, momentarily stunned.   With both hands on the ground,  Beckah raised her head waiting for it to clear.  And when it did, she looked up to see  Allie bringing her mouth down on Neil’s hand. 

 

The sudden pain Neil felt from Allie sinking her teeth into the back of his hand caused him to involuntarily release his grip on the girl.  Allie pulled away from him, but she didn’t run to Beckah or to the safety of the house.  She had recognized the fallen Nate Harwell,  still lying crumpled on the ground.  Beckah watched Neil’s eyes shift from her to Allie now running toward Nate and she saw the decision he was weighing,  which sister would give him the advantage in the situation.  When she saw his eyes had spotted Nate’s gun, still holstered,  unfired, and waiting for someone to pick up, she knew unless Nate sprang up revolver in hand, there was little Allie could do to keep Neil from the gun.  Beckah knew what she had to do.

 

Meanwhile Bortell had slowly crawled around to the other side of the water trough and took another shot  at Jess as he scrambled several feet closer along the pen’s fencing, edging his way closer to the barn where the smoke might give him cover to take another shot at Bortell.   When he thought it did, he took the shot  as  Bortell came up with his gun.   Jess saw Bortell ducked the bullet about the same time he saw Blewie come rushing towards the burning barn.

 

Digging the heels of his boots into the dirt, Jess lunged from his cover, trying to get to her, to intercept her, to pull her down to the ground.   He moved towards her, firing his gun to keep Bortell occupied, needing the time to tackle Blewie before Bortell could fire again. 

 

As expected, Bortell came up to take another shot, and later no one would know if it had been at Blewie or at Jess, as both were moving targets.  Luckily Bortell’s bullet failed to hit either of them.   But Jess hit the ground to fire off two rapid shots at the stationary target Bortell had made of himself.  The last shot dropped Bortell, and Jess watched as the man’s hand released the revolver into the water trough.   Jess rolled over to look for Blewie, but she had already disappeared into the smoke filled barn.  

 

Seconds later, when she emerged from the barn on a run, she carried the Winchester carbine in her hands.  

 

*****

 

Still holding his gun Jess Harper stood up, not more than five feet from Blewie, looking from her to Mason who now held Allie in front of him.   Mason began awkwardly lowering  himself down, until he was close enough to snatch the handle of a gun from the holster of a ranch hand, Jess considered as possibly dead.   He looked to Blewie and under his breath told her, ‘I gotta reload Blewie, toss me the Winchester!”   When Jess glanced back to Mason, the man had pulled the gun upwards. aiming at the two of them as they stood only a few yards away from the barn.

 

Beckah ignored Jess, keeping the Winchester aimed at Neil Mason.  “You let her go Neil or so help me I’ll shoot you!” 

 

“You won’t shoot me, Beckah,” shouted Neil back at her, “you never had it in you to shoot that miserable husband of yours, so I’m going to take Allie and ride out of here right now and there’s nothing you can do about it.  She wants to go with me.”

 

“Don’t believe him, Becks!” yelled Allie to her as she tried twisting from his grip.

 

“You little liar!’ exclaimed Neil glancing over at her,  “I oughta shoot you just for that one!”  

 

“Let me go!” shrieked Allie at him, increasing her efforts against him.

 

“What is it Beckah?  Let me go, or I take her,” asked Neil roughly keeping her next to him.       

 

Nate Harwell made a moaning sound as he became aware he was still alive and feeling the pain as proof.   Luckily for him, the noise of a burning building kept the stranger standing above him from knowing he was no longer unconscious.   When his eyes could focus better, he saw Allie trying to free herself from the man’s arm around her waist.  The thought she could be hurt by this stranger cleared his head, but he cautiously glanced around for Simon Bortell, trying to determine what had happened to him after he had punched him out.  

 

Smoke was still coming from the barn several yards away where Allie’s sister stood facing them, a rifle raised at the man standing above Nate.   Next to her was Jess Harper.  Nate looked back up at the stranger, and his foggy mind considered the risk.  When he thought he could do it, he reached over and grabbed one of Allie’s ankles and yanked it as strongly as he could.   She screamed!  Neil felt Allie slipping down and startled; his finger involuntarily pulled the trigger of Nate Harwell’s gun, firing across the ranch’s yard.  At the same time, Beckah fired the Winchester carbine.

 

When Jess reached the fallen Neil Mason, Nate Harwell was already on his feet pulling Allie to him, wrapping his arms around her.  She had begun to cry despite his assurances she was going to be fine.  Jess looked down at Mason’s sightless eyes staring skywards. There was little blood seeping from the hole in his chest where the .44 .40 bullet had lodged itself directly into Mason’s heart, no doubt to stop it mid pump.   He turned around to look at Blewie to find she wasn’t there, only the Winchester carbine lay on the ground.  Jess was certain he knew where she had gone as he started shrugging out of his jacket to throw it over his head, running towards the barn and into the thick smoke.

 

 

 

 

Chapter 39

 

 

Tugging with all her strength on a rope tied around the mare’s neck, Beckah emerged from the burning barn, dragging the terrified mare, a saddle blanket barely covering its head.   She moved passed Nate Harwell standing in front of the porch with Allie, bringing the horse along until she could tie the rope around the porch’s railing to secure the frightened animal.   Reaching up, she snatched the blanket from the mare’s head and the horse reared up.   She had no time to calm her and carrying the blanket,  Beckah turned to head back to the barn, passing Nate again, and now hearing Allie shouting for her not to return to the barn.  But Beckah had to go back for the colt. 

 

“No Becks!” yelled Allie again, struggling to get away from Nate, intending on catching her sister and stopping her.   

 

“Keep her there!” Beckah Blewe ordered Nate and began coughing as she ran toward the barn, only to stop in amazement.  Staggering from the burning barn came Jess Harper, jacket slung over his head and carrying the colt, its long legs dangling in front of him.  Behind Jess came the loud sound of an explosion, followed by the sudden expulsion of black smoke mixed with burning splinters of wood and straw.   The powerful whoosh of heated air forced Jess forward in a struggle to remain upright, the colt in his arms 

 

Beckah reached Jess, keeping him on his feet while tossing the blanket over the two of them for protection as burning embers continued to fall to the ground outside the barn.   Nate Harwell dashed to them, with Allie behind him to help the two of them, but Beckah was already guiding Jess closer to the house, safely away from the fire now enveloping the barn.    

 

When they were near the front porch, Beckah tugged the blanket from Jess to toss it to the ground.  Wordlessly he took her directions and knelt down to carefully place the colt down upon it.   Immediately, she knelt down next to him, running her hands searchingly over the colt, touching his as she searched for signs of injury. She looked at him the same time he turned his face to hers, mirroring her own relief at the close escape.  She thought of the tin can of kerosene, likely blowing in the heat of the fire, and his escape before it could have killed them both.  It was relief and gratitude,  mostly gratitude remaining in her eyes for him.  “Thank you, Jess!” she whispered to him.

 

Allie was grabbing at Beckah’s arm, bringing her up to her feet and into her arms; the two were wrapped together with Beckah trying to assure her sister she was unhurt.  Behind the two of them, Jess stood to watch as did Nate Harwell who gave him a nod of respect for taking the chance.  

 

Jess leaned down to pick up his jacket from the ground where it had fallen next to the colt, and shrugged back into it before turning to face the barn now engulfed more in flames than smoke.   Standing there as the fire did its work, he watched it aggressively moving across the ridge of the roof,  spreading its flames like water rolling across an empty stream bed.  Burning embers were still mixing into dark smoke gushing from the peak of the roof to rise high into the afternoon’s sky.  Suddenly the growing crackle of burning wood rose to a roar when one of the supporting beams inside gave way, and wood splinters filled the air in a loud burst.  From where he stood near the house, Jess surveyed the lay of the buildings, taking notice of how they were situated on the south slope of the ridge, nestled down among tall trees, all allowing the smoke and glowing embers to funnel upwards, in a chimney effect, to leave the rest of the buildings untouched.     

 

When she could, Beckah pulled Allie’s arms from around her to bring her to Nate and spoke her thanks to him.  Turning to her sister, Beckah placed her hands on both sides of Allie’s tear-streaked face and told her, “You stay with Nate; I have to do something now. He has to know.  I have to tell him.” 

 

Her sister’s face slowly rolled into puzzlement, but Beckah had already moved away from her to where Jess stood watching her barn burn, eventually to become a pile of ash.   It was a small loss, she bitterly told herself, considering what he had lost that day, and all because she had come to this town to start over.   

 

“Sorry we can’t save the barn,” said Jess when he saw her looking at him, “your stock’s out and you and Allie are safe. You can rebuild; Slim and I can help, maybe get some of the neighbors when they know what really happened.”

 

Her face twisting into a strange seriousness, she told him, “It doesn’t matter, Jess, not now, now when.   I’m so sorry.”

 

“It weren’t your fault,” Jess offered, moving towards her.  But she took a step back from him, holding up her hands, “I have to tell you, and.”  She stopped, reaching for the right words, maybe better words, but she knew they would still hurt.  

 

Surprised at the sudden change in her expression, he asked, “What is it Blewie?”  Her mouth opened to speak just as he turned his head away from her.

 

She had also heard the same sounds, the noise of horses and riders growing louder over the sounds of the burning barn.  She looked to see a dozen or more men on horseback, reining fire frightened horses to a stop, backing them away in efforts to control their mounts.  Mort Cory slipped his .30 .30 out of its saddle scabbard and gave the hand signal for the others to wait as he dismounted.  He tossed his horse’s reins to one of the riders remaining on horseback.  Several had pulled out six shooters, and a few were lifting up rifles.  Roy Hallorin climbed down from his horse to pull a shotgun from his saddle, only to have Mort Cory order him to stay with the others.  

 

Jess watched Red Taylor, armed with a Spencer, step down from his large buckskin, to follow Clive Sutterfield who stood next Mort Cory talking to him.   The three men then walked across the open yard, mindful of the burning barn to their right, but steadily towards the ranch’s house.   Jess saw Mort Cory’s eyes taking in Simon Bortell now slumped dead over one end of the water trough by the corral, and the blood slowly pooling around the nearby body of Neil Mason shot in the chest.    Before Mort and the two ranchers reached them, Jess stepped in front of Blewie.

 

*****

 

Mort Cory came to a stop in front of Jess.  He looked from Jess standing in front of Beckah Blewe Harris to Nate Harwell  next to her young sister, Alianna, and back again to Jess before he spoke to them.  “Anyone want to tell me what happened here, and just who I should be arresting?”

 

“Arresting’s too good for a rustler and a murderer,” spouted Red Taylor behind Mort Cory.  “Harwell’s one of her men,” continued the angry rancher, “just like his brother. We can take care of him right here and now, save the law some time.”

 

Nate Harwell took a step forward, and when Red raised his Spencer, he stopped and declared, “I ain’t no cow thief.  But Finn Turgis and Whitey Paulson are; they rode with my brother Owen.   And they’ve been riding with Simon Bortell, along with the rest of ‘em he hired to run stock off this ranch.”

 

“Looks like Bortell’s not gonna be doing any talking here boy!” angrily claimed Red Taylor, “so maybe you’re just lying to save your thieving neck from a rope.”

 

Jess reached out a hand to stop Blewie from stepping away from him as she spoke out.. “Nate’s no thief!   He came to me about things happening around here, and I told him to tag along after my foreman,  find out what he could, and when he had something, we’d come in to see the sheriff to get him arrested.”

 

“And you’re lying to cover for him and yourself,” exclaimed Red hotly, “he’s one of your own men.”

 

“That’s not it!” hotly exclaimed Nate Harwell, “For the last couple of weeks Bortell was stealing stock from Miz Harris and holding ‘em in the canyon  along some from Mr. Sherman’s place and some from Mr. Hallorin, but mostly hers.  And there’s been other stuff too, but it was all Bortell.  He got Finn and Whitey and some others to go after the other ranches last night, I heard him tell ‘em to take as much stock as they could run off ‘cause they had a big buyer waiting.   I followed ‘em like Miz Harris wanted me to, but I lost track of him and came back to the ranch to find him here, setting fire to her barn.  I don’t know why,   I don’t know what he has against Miz Harris, but whoever that stranger is lying over there,  he was sure in on it. I saw the two of them talking yesterday, and it was right after that when Bortell rode out and I followed him to Finn and Whitey.”

“Red,” spoke Jess, “it looks to me if you want to catch up with your cattle, and take in the real thieves, you’d need to be riding down to that canyon, and not standing here accusing the people helping you.”

 

Both Red Taylor and Clive Sutterfield started yelling in protest, but Mort Cory raised his voice louder for them to settle down.  Eyeing Jess Harper for several moments, he considered how and where he needed to enforce the law in his jurisdiction before speaking. 

 

“We’ll ride down to Bison Canyon and if what Harwell says is true, we’ll catch them red-handed.”  The sheriff looked to both men waiting for their agreement.  “Harper will stay here with ‘em and if young Harwell’s story’s not true, we’ll be back and I’ll arrest ‘em; simple as that.”

 

Both Red and Clive started up again, and Mort raised his hand to them, “All right, all right.  Turner can stay here guarding ‘em.   Now let’s move before those cattle disappear.” 

 

The two men reluctantly lowered their long guns and turned away to stalk back to their horses and rejoin the others.  Mort Cory remained to face a relieved Jess, and told him, “And don’t thank me until we get back.”  Raising a finger in Jess’s direction he continued, “and you’d better be here when I get back  ‘cause I’m gonna need a real good explanation about why those two are dead.” 

 

With that admonishment, the sheriff walked away after directing Joel Turner to remain behind.  As Mort mounted up to take his posse away from the Baxter Ranch to Bison Canyon, he was set on finding the missing cattle there, and taking in the true thieves to stand trial.    

                                          

*****

 

 

Gun in hand, Joel Turner pulled his horse up to the hitching post to tie it off next to two other horses reined there.  He noticed a horse behind them, reins trailing on the ground.  On the other side of the porch, tied to a railing was  a long-legged mare nervously moving around, probably due to the fire. 

 

Nearby on the ground lay a colt where Nate Harwell and a young red-haired girl were standing, the girl hanging onto Harwell.  The only one with a weapon among the four people he was to guard, was Jess Harper, who’s revolver remained holstered.

 

“Guess we just gotta wait,” said Joel to Jess with a nervous twist of his mouth.  

 

“Yeah guess we do, Joel,” agreed Jess with him.  

 

Turning to Blewie who had her back to him, facing the barn, he asked her, “What did you want to tell me, Blewie?”

 

She turned away from watching the fire consuming the barn to look at him.   When he saw her face and the misery washing over it as she looked at him, he instinctively stepped in closer to her, to keep their talk between the two of them. 

 

Swallowing hard, Beckah said, “If it wasn’t for me, or Neil coming here, he wouldn’t have been shot, he wouldn’t be dead now.”

 

“You can’t blame yourself for shooting Mason Blewie, he gave you no choice,” offered Jess wondering if she had  been in love with the older man.  But he could see something rising within her eyes, and he reached out a hand to rest it on her arm in efforts to sooth her.  “I didn’t know you and Mason were…”

 

 “It’s not him,” she interrupted him, “it’s not.” 

 

Jess took her by the shoulders when he could see her eyes beginning to fill, and  she rested her hands against his chest.  Standing with him, she finally told him,   “It’s Slim, he’s dead.”

 

“Blewie,” said Jess in surprise to her, “Slim’s not dead.”

 

“You don’t know,” she told him pulling her head from his shoulder to look at him, “Neil said he shot him, he said he was, dead.”

                            

“It was Bortell, not Mason who shot him Blewie,” said Jess. ”Slim’s in town at the doc’s office.” 

                                      

With her hands on his chest, and her blue green eyes going so dark their gold flecks seeming to glow as brightly as the barn’s fire, he watched her trying to determine if he was telling her the truth.  Mason had been lying to her, and he could see her turning the words over in her mind until relief began flooding into her face, but it was followed by something else.  When she could focus on him again, Blewie shoved her hands against his chest and turned to run away from him.

 

Without thinking, Jess Harper did the only thing he could; he quickly drew his gun from its holster.

 

 

 

 

Chapter 40

 

 

“I said drop it Joel!” ordered Jess to Joel Turner who stood with his revolver aimed at Blewie’s back.  She was riding at a full gallop up the long drive, escaping on Slim’s horse.  It was a dangerous bluff for Jess, as he hadn’t reloaded the spent shells in his six shooter, his last shot taken to kill Simon Bortell.  But Blewie needed the time to get out of range of Joel’s colt 45, and the bluff seemed to be doing the trick. 

 

Glancing to his right, Jess saw  Nate Harwell still sprawled on the ground, Allie kneeling down to touch his face where it was bleeding from a cut caused by the butt end of Joel’s colt.   

 

Things had erupted into chaos when Blewie had unexpectedly sprinted to snatch the reins to Slim’s horse from the ground.  It was Blewie’s run at the horse that had Nate leaping towards Joel Turner from behind, to keep him from shooting her.  But in the scuffle, Nate had taken a blow to his face to be knocked backwards onto the ground.  All of it had given Blewie room to get into the saddle on Slim’s horse.

 

And now Jess was threatening Joel with an empty gun, hoping the man wouldn’t be foolish enough to shoot at Blewie, or him.  “I said drop it Joel,” demanded Jess again, moving towards the hesitating man.   He held his breath until the colt fell to the ground.  “Now get those hands of yours up and outta trouble.”  

 

When Joel reached upwards, Jess came up to kick the colt towards Nate.  “Allie,” ordered Jess, “get that to him.   Nate, you guard Joel until I get back here, and if you have to shoot him, do us all a favor, and do it in the foot.”

 

‘Where’re you going, Mister Harper?” asked Allie in surprise as Nate aimed the loaded gun at Joel Turner’s feet. 

 

“After that crazy sister of yours what else, before she gets herself killed running into any stragglers to that posse.  Now both of you wait here for me.”   

 

Holding his empty gun on Turner, Jess edged his way over to Bortell’s horse remaining tied to the hitching post; his own was too far away to quickly retrieve.  Shoving his gun back into its holster, he untied the reins and stepped up to settle into the saddle, all the while Joes Turner was glowering at him. 

 

Jess backed Bortell’s horse up to speak to him, “It’s this way Joel,” he told him.  “See, Blewie’s in my custody here according to Sheriff Cory, and I’m taking her into town,  its just I need to do a little catching up to her.” 

 

With that he turned Bortell’s horse around and slapping reins, set off for town at a gallop.

 

*****

           

When Jess approached the north end of town, he hadn’t seen a trace of Blewie; no dust settling behind a fast rider, and slowing Bortell’s horse to a walk he began to worry.  After the slow curve in the road, Doc Collier’s place came into view, with its several wood steps leading up from the street to its small porch with the swinging sign above it.  He was relieved to see sitting on the top step was Blewie, her arms wrapped around her knees and her head down and her hat hanging back on its stampede strings to rest on her reddish dark hair. 

 

After tying Bortell’s horse up to the post, next to Slim’s horse, Jess slowly walked up to where Blewie sat. Removing his hat, he dusted it off on his leg and sat down on the step next to her and waited.  While he did, he glanced up the street, taking in its late afternoon shadows, and the town’s Sunday afternoon’s lack of activity.

 

“There are a lot of things I want to ask that are none of my business,” said Jess to her, his tone indicating he thought differently.

 

With a half smile she concluded, “But you’re gonna ask them anyway.”

 

He shot her an expectant look back, and waited.   Her eyes glanced upwards in thought before she offered, “I suppose you want to know why I’m sitting out here, outside the doc’s office.” 

 

“I figure I know the answer to that one,” he said in an offhand agreement.  

 

She stared back at him until he finally gave her his answer.

 

“Fear.” 

 

Her face showed neither agreement, nor disagreement with him, and he continued, “You’re so afraid you’re gonna lose him, you’re not even gonna tell him what’s been going on with you, afraid of what he’ll think.”

 

He paused briefly to allow her to consider his words, and said, “Slim has a right to know Blewie; to decide how he feels about you.  Right now, you’re not giving him the chance. And I think maybe you’re sitting out her trying to decide if the worst fear is someday wishing you had told him, taken the risk your past won’t matter to him.”

 

Looking down at his hat, he fingered its dusty brim, and when she still offered no response, he said, “You gotta give him a chance Blewie; you walk away now, you’re just gonna keep on walking away from ever being happy.”

 

“Harper,” she gave a long sigh, “you think a woman’s lot in life is about being happy.  If that were so, then I was married to a man who thought his wife would be happy making money for him by laying down for every two bit drover in a rail head town.”  Her voice went uneven, lowering to a whisper, “What kind of man peddles his wife for profit?

 

“Oh when Brad was murdered, maybe I should have been happy, being freed of him.  A lot of women are you know, when their husbands die.  Only I didn’t have the sense to be happy what he left me.”

 

“And Mason?” he asked quietly, ‘what about him?” 

 

“In the end another version of Brad,” she told him crossing her arms and resting them on the tops of her knees.   “At first I thought he wanted to rescue me, and strange as it seems now, there might have been some happiness in that, but as it turned out he wanted the same thing Brad wanted, business as usual, only under new management.”

 

“You know he killed my husband.”   Seeing the astonishment registering on his face, she said, “I wasn’t really sure until last night. To be honest, I don’t know if I would have left Denver even knowing that about him.  In the end, it was Allie I had to consider; I didn’t want her growing up to become what I…”  She went quiet, wondering why she was telling him about what life had forced her to become, and how it would force her to remain the same.  His knowing wasn’t going to change that, and he was right, she thought, it was none of his business.   Yet she couldn’t deny her feelings of relief at no longer trying to hide it from him.  In an inexplicable way she had come to feel some trust in Harper, nearly as much as his sister, and it stirred something in her, something long forgotten.    

 

“Was Allie,” he started to ask her, and she stopped him, “No she wasn’t, but she scared me into leaving when I caught her trying to.  It’s why I came here, so she wouldn’t end up someday killing herself, either fast on drugs, or slow on liquor.  It happens to most of us.”

 

Jess looked sharply at her and she took note of his expression.  “Jess I was sixteen when my parents had me married off to Brad Mezzlee.  He was a businessman and he had the money they needed to survive.  My parents lost two sons, one in the war, and after the war Aubrey Lang took off driving cattle up north, never to return. The ranch was failing badly by then, and when my father died, the place was sold to pay his debts to Brad, my so called husband.”

 

“You could have left him then,” commented Jess.

 

There was a bitter rise to her voice as she responded, “And have my husband tell my mother, what I was? How I earned the money sent to support Allie and her? He threatened me with that every day.  You know it would have killed her, knowing that.

 

“Then last spring the influenza took her, and when I returned from New Orleans after the funeral with Allie, I told him I was leaving him, he had no hold over me.   I tried it on my own, but it was ugly for the two of us until the marshal showed up one morning to tell me Brad had been robbed and murdered. 

 

“I can’t say there wasn’t relief, and I can’t say there wasn’t Neil Mason either; helpful Neil, offering to take the money I had set aside to buy the ranch in Laramie for me. So very helpful making the arrangements, only he neglected to tell me until today, he put title to the place in both our names in order to mortgage it to the hilt so he could build a new gambling house in Denver.   He must have hired Simon Bortell at the time to continue wrecking my place.  He even managed to cut my arrangement with a former acquaintance who was helping me with the breeding stock, telling him I was returning to work again in Denver.”

 

“Your silent partner?” he asked and she nodded.

                                                                                                                       

“I guess Neil figured when I ran out of money, I’d have to come back to him.”

 

“Would you have?” Jess bluntly asked her.

 

Beckah considered his question for a long time before answering, “Not after last night, it scared me to think he could have killed Slim.” Shrugging her shoulders, she said,   “Now I don’t know what I’m going to do, just that Allie and I can’t stay here.”

 

“And you’re too proud to be helped?”   

 

“I’m from Texas,” she chided him, “you know we’re raised that way.”       

                                 

“Yeah I guess we are,” he agreed with her and turned away to look down the street.  Sliding into a thoughtful mood, he said, “Blewie, sometimes that Texas pride gets in the way of what’s best for us.  It nearly did for me when I rode through here near two years ago.  I’d been on the drift for a long time and Laramie was just another place like the last.   But Slim took a chance, and I accepted his help.  I owe him a lot for what he did for me, the trouble he took on, and kept taking on until I understood I had a home here.   ‘Cause if he hadn’t, long about now the only place I’d be calling home is under a tombstone in some town’s boot hill.”

 

“What I mean is,” said Jess turning back to her, “A man gets a need inside him; one that only a woman can fill.  And if he’s lucky enough, he’ll find that woman who fits it.  Way I look at it, Slim has that kinda need and if there’s any chance for him with you, I’d be making sure he got it.”  

 

Jess Harper didn’t have to tell Beckah Blewe, she saw it in his eyes and heard it in the tone his voice had taken.  The bond between him and Slim Sherman was stronger than the willingness to risk death for a saddle buddy; it was a bond willing to risk the loneliness that came with the loss of their close friendship if Slim wanted to start a family of his own.  

 

“How did you ever get so mushy inside, Harper?” awkwardly said Beckah.  Then she punched him in a strangely affectionate jest on the arm.  When she did, she took notice of the bullet hole torn in his jacket, and realized she had not noticed it earlier.  ‘You’ve been shot!” 

 

Jess looked down at her hand where she held his arm for him to see the hole.  He looked back up at her, “I guess it’s just a hazard of hanging around you.”  Shaking his head, he pulled his arm away and sticking two of his fingers into the hole in his jacket, he check for her sake before announcing.  “Barely a scratch.  Say!” he said with narrowing eyes at her, “you gonna tell me whatever happened to that dead bounty hunter of yours, Tilkey Joe?”

 

She rolled her eyes at him, and when she realized he was seriously waiting for her to tell him, she sheepishly said, “After we repainted his wagon, I sent the girls with Nate to Rock Springs where someone who could take care of them was waiting, and Allie helped me load Tilkey Joe up on a horse.  I rode him down to Needle Eye Pass;  kept the Winchester, shame to let it go to waste, and found a fitting spot with a view for him.  Guess that’s the practical side of being from Texas, prideful, but practical.” 

 

She tilted  her head at him and said, “I guess you’d be wanting me to make a report down at the sheriff’s office about that.” 

 

His raised eyebrows came up with a thoughtful nod, “It would be better Mort thinks I’m only half loco.”   She gave him a long, agreeing nod back.

 

“Blewie,” said Jess in a low voice as he continued to sit next to her on the steps, “when you gotta a hill to climb, waiting ain’t gonna make it any smaller; you need to go in to see Slim, talk to him if he’s awake.  If he’s not, wait until he is, he wanted to make sure you were safe.”

 

“Safe?” she questioned him, her voice tinged with irony, “after what I had to say to him last night to get him to leave me alone and stay out of Neil’s way.”  Jess heard the self recrimination in her voice, and before he could tell her Slim would understand, she stood up and said, “I’m not staying here Harper, people will talk and there will eventually be trouble, not just for me but for Allie, and you and Slim.” 

 

Both surprised and disappointed to hear her decision, Jess moved quickly to his feet to stand next to her on the wooden step. 

 

“Blewie,” he said softening his voice, and slipping his hands into his back pockets, prepared himself to take the plunge, to tell how he had felt about her since the day she had been so upset to learn about his sister’s death. “Blewie you and Francie were close, and I reckon having you around is a little like having a part of her nearby.  And I know I can’t ever make it all up for running out on Francie back when I was a kid.  It’s just that I feel I’d like to do right by you.”  

 

He drew in a deep breath and added, “That is if you’ll let me.” 

 

“Harper,” she went stormy eyed with him, “I don’t need a man. I can take care of Allie, and myself if I have to without some.”  He interrupted her, bringing his hands around and to her shoulders to hold her from pulling away from him.

 

“You’re right, Blewie,” he firmly agreed with her, “you don’t need a man; what you need is someone to love you, and that’s what you’re afraid of, why you were standing out here.”

 

His blue eyes held her blue green ones until she was blinking back the truth of his words.  Still grasping her shoulders, his nervous gloved hands gently rubbing her arms as he said to her, “It will be all right; Slim and I can help straighten things out, I want you to stay here, give it a chance, that’s all I’m asking.” 

 

“You really mean that Harper?” she spoke the question in a whisper to him, her eyes searching his for what she desperately needed. 

                                            

“Yeah I really do,” he answered, his face spreading wide with a warm smile for her. He waited for the slight tilt of her head, and the corners of her mouth to begin turning upwards in response to his declaration.     

 

When she leaned her head into his shoulder in acceptance and he could feel her holding onto him, he repeated, “I want you to stay,” and he hugged her tighter to him in efforts to give meaningful weight to his words.  

 

 

                                                              

Chapter 41          

 

 

“Can you give me a hand with this doc?” requested Slim, his left arm held close to his chest in a white cloth sling and his other arm holding his gun belt out.  He was leaning against the wall near a doorway in Doc Collier’s examination room, his hat set on his bandaged wrapped head, and waiting.

 

“If you think I’m helping a patient of mine escape, you can think again Slim Sherman,” warned the physician staring at him, “you got a head injury maybe even a concussion; its rest you need right now.”

 

“I told you I’m not waiting any longer, not while Jess is out there gunning for Simon Bortell on accounta what happened to me.  Now are you going to help me get this on or not Doc?”

 

“Slim you’re in no shape to get on a horse right now, you’re likely to take a fall and with that head of yours, it could be your last.”  Doc Collier moved toward him to snatch the gun belt away from his patient’s offering hand, but Slim slipped it down to the crook of his right arm when he realized the man’s intent.  Giving the physician a wary look, Slim turned to move through the doorway into the next room. 

 

As he took measured steps across the doc’s waiting room to leave, Slim knew he wasn’t just going out to find Jess, but Beckah Blewe.   Nothing had gone right since Jess persuaded him to stay at the ranch, allowing him to ride off to talk to Beckah, and bring her in to see Mort Cory.  Now he needed to find his horse and get to her ranch to make sure she was all right for himself. 

 

However, Slim wasn’t exactly sure if his horse was still down at Mort’s office, likely due to everything being a little hazy about riding into town after being shot.  He remembered waking up in one of Mort’s jail cells and talking to Jess who told him Beckah wasn’t there, and that he was going after Bortell; then a little later he woke up again, sprawled out on one of Doc Collier’s examination tables, his head and arm bandaged.  At least the throbbing in his head had calmed somewhat and he wasn’t as groggy, so he judged he’d make it, just the going would be a lot slower.   

 

Opening the door, he stepped out onto the porch and stopped.  Standing a step down from the porch, holding each other in a tight embrace, was Jess, and Beckah Blewe.    

 

*****

 

When Beckah looked up to see Slim standing outside the front door to Doc Collier’s office she felt the overwhelming rush of relief to see him on his feet.  Even with the large bandage wrapped around his head and his arm in a sling she knew he was all right.  Flooded with the need to wrap her arms around him, to comfort him for what he had endured because of her, her lips parted to call to him.  Only her breath had left her as she watched Slim’s face roll from a stunned hurt,  into a sour bitterness as he looked at her and then to Jess.   

 

In the sharp silence surrounding them, Jess took in Slim standing only a few feet from them, and immediately moved from Blewie, letting his hands drop to his side before taking the last step up onto the wood porch and offering explanation, “It’s not what you’re thinking Slim.”  But Slim stopped him, raising his hand, “I think it’s exactly what I see here.”  

 

Beckah stood motionless, unable to think, her thoughts suffocating the breath from her as she watched Jess shoot out a hand to grab Slim’s good arm before he could turn back to the open doorway.   “What is it Jess,” angrily asked Slim glaring at him, “you want my blessing?”  

 

“Dad-gumit Slim, you’re all wet here.”

 

 “Am I? asked Slim tightly, “I should have seen it, the smoke signals and the war drums but I charged in anyway, and it was my mistake; don’t worry I won’t stand in your way.”

 

C’mon,  Slim you got it all wrong,” uttered Jess in exasperation.   Slim pulled his arm away and said, “No I have just been slow on figuring it out.”

 

As he continued to the doorway, Jess snapped in frustration at him, “You know I’d haul off and hit you and knock some sense into you, but the shape you’re in I’d probably kill you.”

 

Slim turned around to face him, a hand now resting on the door frame for support, and eyes narrowed in antagonism, “Why not it never stopped you before.” 

 

“Slim dad-gummit Slim,” yelled Jess at him trying to stop him, then dropping his voice to a low plead he said, “Don’t do this Pard!”   But Slim still turned away from him. 

 

 Jess looked from Slim to Blewie where she stood on the step, watching her disbelieving eyes following Slim as he slowly moved over the threshold and closed the door behind him.

 

Jess took the step to her to reach for her arm and pull her quickly up onto the porch next to him, his blue eyes flashing at her, “You need to go to him now Blewie.” 

 

“I don’t know if I can,” she whispered to herself, her eyes still on the closed door, “what could I say to him?”

 

Jess grabbed her by the shoulders roughly and waited until she turned her head to face him,     “Gawdalmighty Blewie, can’t you think without a gun in your hand?”

 

And when she failed to rise to his taunt,  he further growled to her, “He ain’t thinking straight in that stoved in head of his, and he’s not gonna listen to me right now, you have to get in there and set him right about what’s going on with you and now.”

 

Beckah Blewe tried sorting through her feelings as she listened to Jess urging her forward, but there was the look on Slim’s face, still burning through her mind, when he saw Jess with his arms around her.   And if a drifter came through Laramie one day to recognize her for what she had been, would he act like Neil Mason and try to kill the man?  Maybe Jess was right she needed to tell Slim about her past, but she needed to tell it as ugly as it was, in order to draw his rejection, to give her reason to leave. 

 

She had come between two men again, only this time it was to break a friendship.  What woman was foolish enough to try filling the gap when a bond such as this was broken?  It would never be forgotten, always there, guilt and resentment.  And why try she thought, the result would be the same, she would still go away.     

 

Jess scrutinized her face, still pale and her eyes gone dark and glancing from him to the closed door and then away, and he realized she wasn’t going.   Muttering under his breath,  he gave her a shove towards the door, “You two are about as stubborn as a pair of mules in winter! Now get in there or I’ll drag you in there myself,” he ordered her.  “I’m going back out to help Allie.”

 

For the first time Jess’s yelling at her, failed to set off her temper, and she found herself dumbly nodding to him and slowly reaching out for the doorknob.  She turned it and entered the doc’s office.

 

 

 

 

Chapter 42

 

 

Beckah stood in the waiting room to see Slim where he sat on the leather settee just inside the doorway, leaning over, cradling his head in his right hand.   On the other side of the room, Doc Collier stepped through the open doorway to see who had entered his office. Giving a look at her he said, “Well young lady I hope you can talk some sense into this patient of mine, maybe then I can finish treating him.”

 

“Don’t start again with me, Doc, I’m fine,” grumbled Slim still holding his head; it was throbbing again, but still less painful compared to what really hurt inside him.

 

“You need to let me be the judge of that,” said the doc looking from Slim to the red haired woman.  But the look on her face interrupted his medical opinion.  So quickly realizing the better prescription for Slim Sherman might be privacy, he reconsidered.  “Well,” he offered, “if you need me, I’ll be in here rolling bandages, guess I’ll need them, sooner or later.”  With that he closed the door behind him, leaving the two of them in his waiting room.

 

With the door at her back, Beckah silently took in the room.  The afternoon sun was already slipping away, dimming the room with a fading glow, now cast over a large roll top desk, above which hung a regulator clock, its pendulum swinging loudly to mark time.  To her right, near a low table were placed a pair of dark leather chairs next to the settee, on which Slim Sherman sat, still leaning forward, his bandaged head in his hand. 

 

She needed to wrap her arms around her midsection, to keep herself from grasping the door’s handle and leaving before she could reveal the truth about herself to Slim Sherman, to tell him why he had nearly been killed because of her.   Standing there, as she tried reaching for the words, barely able to hold back her fears, she heard him give a long sigh, and then draw in a deep breath.  She turned to look at him; his head still down, and waited for him to speak. 

 

“A man has hope, when he thinks one thing is possible,” he gloomily said, “and it causes him to believe all kinds of other things are possible as well.”

 

Beckah considered his words and thinking of herself, lowly added, “I guess in arriving at that, we run the danger of believing our own lies.”  

 

“Out here, people come and go, on the drift, looking for something,” he spoke quietly as if he were lost in his own thoughts.  “Few find it unless they have a mind to stay in one place, and not give into the habit of running from the hardships they’ll face when they have to stand up and fight for what’s right.  It’s that kind of belief in themselves that hold them.”

 

When he was silent for several more moments, she ventured to offer to him, “Any man who can get a Harper to settle down on the right side of the law, well,” she paused before saying, “I told myself, that’s a strong friend, a strong man.  Jess shouldn’t lose that, not now. He’s not the drifter type anymore.”

 

Slowly Slim drew himself to a sitting position, bringing his head up and allowing his hand to rest on his knee.  And still not looking at her, where she stood next to the settee, he said, “I always thought, when you want to bring somebody into your life, you need to step into theirs. Especially when there’s trouble.  Jess stayed and we got through it, by being honest, but this is something I don’t know if I can get through.”

 

“I’m not asking you to,” Beckah said stepping away to stand near the desk, setting a hand on it’s top as she offered, “No one could be expected to understand, much less accept what I’ve been.”

 

Slim’s eyes glanced up to see her, standing in front of the desk with her back to him.  With his voice gone sullen, he told her, “You know  I thought I would just reel you in like a big rainbow trout, all for myself.  Only all the time, you had Jess on your line, using me as bait to hook him.”  

 

Slim stood up as Beckah Blewe turned around to stare at him in disbelief, “Is that what you think?” 

 

With a pained expression he told her, “I couldn’t see it, blinded by what I wanted; what I thought you wanted.  All the while I was fooling myself, it just made it easier for you to get to him, and now you want me to accept it, as if there were nothing between us.  Don’t ask me for that, Beckah.”  

 

She stepped closer to him, and he could see something rising in her, darkening her blue-green eyes until the flecks flashed with the fading glow of sunlight in the room.  Looking down at her, he bitingly asked, “Is that why you moved here, setting your sights on Jess Harper, old family friend?”

 

Without warning, or even her own awareness of it, Beckah Blewe’s hand came up to slap him, only Slim’s good arm caught her by the wrist to hold it away from his face.  “I’m not falling for that again,” he snapped at her in anger.  “Save it for the other men you toy with, like Neil Mason.”

 

“Ooh Jess was right,” she glowered up at him, “you’re head really is stove in good!  If it weren’t for Jess I would of walked away from something I thought I had no right to.  He stopped me and because of him, I’m standing here, trying to tell you how wrong you are about me, and what I am.”

 

He glared at her, his face deep in anger waiting for her to continue, and he let her jerk her arm from his grip.  Taking a step back from him and rubbing her wrist, she shook her head, ‘what’s the use, you might as well know; you can’t think any worse about me.”

 

Looking back up to him, she saw he was prepared to disbelieve anything she could possibly say to him.  Strangely, she felt in telling him, the hurt her past held for her might somehow diminish, no longer needing to be so closely guarded.  

 

“I left Denver City because I had to take Allie from a brothel, where we were living,” her voice faltered but she continued. “Where I was working.”

                               

She watched as her words were considered, turned over and reconsidered and then realized.  His face shifted into a strange look.  “And Jess knows,” he asked.

 

“Jess knows,” she nodded and glancing away she thought about what had happened since she had arrived in Laramie.

 

 “He rescued those three girls from being taken back to what I had left in Denver City.  It was my mistake trying to keep my past from him; I didn’t think he would understand, even if he knew why they were there.  I think he knew about me, but he waited, kept trying to help.”  Her face softened as she added, “He’s really changed, and because of you he’s settled down, become respectable, almost.”

 

“And you love him?” asked Slim uncertain why he was asking her.

 

“Like a brother,” she quickly answered, and then realizing something, she added.

 

“Not as a lover.”

 

“You mean,” Slim started to ask her, but she turned back to him in an abrupt manner.  “You have to know,” her voice went rough as she cautioned him, “If I hadn’t left the life to raise Allie, I’d still be there.”

 

“And now?” he darkly asked.

 

Stepping to him, she said, “I knew the day I rescued you from that cougar, I felt that I had found something closed off to me a long time ago, and now I can’t stop wanting it.”   Looking closely into his face, she weighed her words and then spoke them, “You were the one thing I thought possible, and now I know,  I was the fool, not you. I’m sorry Slim, I should have told you before the dance last night, but I couldn’t and when Neil showed up, I was scared when I realized what he could do.” 

 

In his silence, her heart seemed to stop until he spoke. “And you thought it would make a difference to me?” he asked her.

 

“It would to any decent man to know that about a woman,” she stated the truth flatly.

 

“Not if he loved her,” he told her.  Leaning in closer to her, he said, “I was so jealous, shoving my boot, spurs and all, deep into my mouth ever since last night when I saw Mason with you.”  

 

He watched her face register surprise to hear his confession.    “Just now, I put my other boot in, when I saw you with Jess and thought you and he were.”   “No competition whatsoever,” she murmured to him.

                               

“And what about Mason?”

 

“Neil?”  she asked, the hazy image outside the barn rolling into her thoughts.

 

“Yeah Mason.”

 

“Well, I reckon he’s no competition, if that’s what you mean.”  When he stared uncomprehendingly at her, she added, “he’s a mite dead right now.”

 

“Don’t tell me,” he gave an assuming tilt to his head.

 

“Then don’t ask,” she said to him. 

 

Looking deeply into his blue eyes and then down to his lips, inviting them to kiss her own, he felt her gently slipping her arms around him.  And when his lips met hers, he could feel her body pressing into his, yielding in that soft way only a woman can, when she seriously wants a man. 

 

He deepened the kiss, and upon hearing her soft whimper of surrender, he pulled back to look down at her, eyes heavy lidded and cheeks flushed above her still parted lips.  She looked up at him with her blue green eyes, and he felt floating inside him a familiar calm and peaceful stillness, one he could only describe as the feeling of being at home.  It was the same feeling he experienced standing next to Beckah Blewe Harris that day in her barn, admiring a new colt, and he knew what he needed to do.

                                       

“I’m willing to hang up those spurs of mine,” he started to propose, but her hand came up to place a finger on his lips to silence him as she warned, “I’m not hanging up my guns for any man Slim Sherman, at least not for awhile.”

 

He frowned down at her, and she smiled back, “But if you’re willing to come around inviting me to every dance for the next fifty years, I just might have a place for you to hang up those spurs of yours; whenever you want.”

 

He gave her a stern look. “That could lead to some serious trouble.”

 

“Well now Mister Sherman,” her eyes flashed at him, the gold flecks dancing, “I understand you’ve gotten pretty good, at handling trouble.”    

 

 

 

- The End -

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



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