Wanted Man

By Badgergater           

Episode: Lawless Seven, Season 3                                                        

Missing scenes: Tying up a bunch of loose ends. Jess Harper is on the run — back home, how are his friends handling it?  (A big thanks to Hired Hand for the awesome beta.)

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

 

It was a quiet morning in Laramie.

Sheriff Mort Cory leaned back in his chair, making a mental note to himself to fix the squeak in it, and sipped at the steaming liquid of his third cup of coffee.  On the desk in front of him was a stack of letters along with one large bulging packet, all of which had arrived aboard this morning’s Overland Stage.  He sorted through and read the letters first and then, using his pocket knife, the lawman slit open the half- inch thick large brown envelope stuffed full with a new batch of quarter-folded wanted posters.

Robbers, murderers, highwaymen, swindlers, and con men — seemed like the west was full of more crooks, thieves, and outlaws every day, Mort thought with a weary sigh.

Methodically, he unfolded each poster, reading the few printed words and looking over the sketches that accompanied many of them. He considered every one carefully, studying the details to figure out if he knew any of the men (only very rarely was there ever a woman included). Thinking back over the past few days or weeks, he considered whether he might have seen any of them pass through Laramie, and, finally, decided whether anything about them might relate to a crime committed in his jurisdiction. Then, having assessed each poster, Mort put it into one of several neat piles to be filed away for future reference.

He was about halfway through the stack when he got the shock of his life. Mort sat up straight in his chair, slammed his coffee cup down with a loud thump that slopped hot liquid onto his desk, and stared at the sheet of paper in his hands with utter dismay. “Oh, no,” he muttered, “you young fool, what have you gone and done this time?”

The sheriff read the words again, and then once more, but that didn’t change them.

“Wanted for the murder of rancher Frank Gorman,” he read aloud, “in Gunsight, Colorado Territory, Jess Harper. 5’11’, 175 pounds, blue eyes, dark hair.”

Jess Harper wanted for murder?

The physical description fit. And certainly, Jess was no choir boy, Mort had known that since the day he’d first laid eyes on the former gunslinger. And yes, Jess had troublesome old friends who kept showing up and threatening to lead him astray. And true, Jess did have a penchant for getting himself into trouble. And sure, Jess was almighty fast with his gun, the kind of fast that drew people’s notice and could get a man in hot water easier than falling off a log.

But Jess was no cold-blooded murderer, Mort would bet his life on that; had bet his life on that more than once. Heck, he designated Jess as his deputy as often as he could because he knew that his town, the good citizens of Laramie and their homes and businesses, were as safe in Jess’ hands as in his own. Not just because Jess was good with his guns, but because he was a rarity, a truly good and honorable man, and honest as the day was long.

That didn’t make Jess perfect, of course, the sheriff well knew that. Jess had a temper as hair-trigger as a gunfighter’s Colt; he was intense and it never took much to get his back up; sometimes he didn’t think things through like he ought to and jumped in where he shouldn’t; but despite that, in a tight spot, when lives, including his own, were on the line, Mort Cory had long ago concluded that there was no better man to have at his back than Jess Harper.

If Jess wasn’t so attached to the Sherman Ranch, Mort would have gladly lured him away to be his permanent deputy. The veteran lawman could give the young cowboy no higher recommendation than that — that he would trust his career, his life, his town, to the man.

On top of that, he considered Jess a friend, as good a friend as he had anywhere in the world.

Mort looked down at the wanted poster once again and sighed because he knew one other damning bit of information that led him to believe the words he was reading. Jess wasn’t out at the Sherman place, or anywhere else around Laramie. More than a week ago, he’d ridden south to Gorman’s Colorado ranch to complete the purchase of a string of horses. Slim Sherman had told him that a few days back.

So, Jess was where the crime was committed, and had gone to visit the murdered man.

But Mort didn’t need anyone to tell him that no way would Jess commit murder over a horse deal, or anything else.

Something had certainly gone terribly, terribly wrong.

And now Jess was a wanted man.

Mort ran a hand over his face and sighed, knowing what he had to do. He hated to be the bearer of bad news, but he had to be— Slim and Daisy needed to know and hearing it from him would be a lot better than finding it out some other way.

Folding up the poster, the lawman tucked it carefully into his shirt pocket. Grabbing his hat off the peg near the door, he shouted at his deputy, “Ben, I’m going down to the telegraph office. Got some wires to send. And then I’ll be riding out to the Sherman place.” Without waiting for an acknowledgement, Mort was out the door and on his horse.

<~~~~~~~~~~~~~>

It was dinner time at the Sherman Ranch Relay Station, and Slim, Daisy and Mike had gathered around the table for the noon meal.

“When’s Jess gonna be home?” Mike asked around a mouthful of potatoes.

“It’s not polite to speak with your mouth full, young man,” Daisy gently chastised the boy. “Finish chewing your food, then ask your question.”

Mike nodded, swallowed his potatoes, and asked again, “Slim, when’s Jess gonna get home? He’s sure been gone a long time.”

Slim exchanged a worried glance with Daisy as he slowly set his coffee cup down on its saucer. “Soon, Mike.” Truth was, that wasn’t an entirely honest answer. Slim had expected Jess back several days ago and now every passing hour increased his worry. Jess was supposed to be riding back from Colorado trailing a string of replacement horses for the stage line. With the high price of good stock these days, anything could have happened. Not that Jess couldn’t handle himself, because he purely could, but a man alone on the trail was always at risk. For the tenth time that day, Slim wished he hadn’t let Jess go on this trip alone. He should have insisted otherwise.

“Soon, that’s what you said yesterday,” Mike complained.

“I know, Tiger. Seems like Jess is taking his time getting back here. He probably stopped for some fishing,” Slim answered lightly, evading the boy’s question and avoiding the worried look Daisy was throwing at him.

“I hope he gets home soon. I sure do miss him.”

“We all do, Mike,” Daisy agreed.

Slim abruptly pushed his plate toward the center of the table, unable to finish his meal. The knot of worry that had been growing in his belly all morning had suddenly grown bigger.

“Something wrong with the food, Slim?” Daisy inquired gently.

“Nothing, Daisy, it’s wonderful as always. I guess I’m just not very hungry today,” the tall rancher answered, climbing to his feet and striding toward the door. “I need to get the team ready for the afternoon stage.”

He hurried out to the barn and set to work, the routine task engaging his hands but not his head, leaving him to contemplate the nagging worry he couldn’t banish from his mind.

Jess should have been home by now.

Slim had finished putting the harnesses on the wheelers and was just starting on the lead team when Daisy entered the barn. It wasn’t often she ventured there and the fact that she had indicated her concern even more than the worried expression she wore, or the way her hands were knotted in her apron.

“Slim.”

“Daisy,” he answered noncommittally, slinging the harness over a horse’s back.

“I didn’t want to say anything in front of Mike, but I’m really worried about Jess,” she confessed.

“I know. Me, too,” he admitted. The tall man kept working, buckling up the girth and adjusting the traces, avoiding looking at her because he didn’t want to see his own worry reflected on her face. “You know there’s a hundred things that could have gone wrong, Daisy, little things that would delay him a day or two. Why, he could come ridin’ in here any minute, and he’ll be mad as a wet hen at us for thinkin’ he can’t take care of himself.” But his words didn’t sound very convincing, not even to himself, and the smile he hoped would reassure her was a weak one.

“I hope you’re right, Slim,” Daisy answered as she turned and walked slowly back to the house.

<~~~~~>

Jess didn’t show up that afternoon. The stage came and went and when in mid-afternoon a lone rider did start down the hill, Daisy noted the way Slim hurried from the barn to look, and then saw his shoulders slump when he realized, as she did, that it wasn’t Jess.

Recognizing the approaching rider as Laramie’s sheriff, Slim walked over to the house and waited anxiously by the front porch. Mort Corey riding in wasn’t anything to be concerned about, he told himself. More than likely the sheriff’s visit had nothing at all to do with his missing ranch hand and friend. Mort stopped through often while out on business or just for a cup of coffee or a piece of Daisy’s pie.

He sure did seem to be riding in slow, though, Slim noted with rising concern, shading his eyes with one hand. And when the lawman finally did approach, the rancher’s stomach did a sudden flip-flop when he saw the grim expression on the sheriff’s face.

As he watched Mort ride the last few yards, Slim heard the door open behind him. From the corner of his eye he glimpsed Daisy stepping out onto the porch. She walked forward to stand beside him, taking hold of his arm, a gesture he wasn’t sure was meant to comfort herself or him.

He was glad she was there, though, as he watched Mort pull his horse to a stop and step down slowly, looking older than Slim had ever seen him look.

The rancher’s worry soared to new heights and his mouth was dry as dust as he greeted the lawman, forcing out the words. “Hi, Mort. Nice day for a ride.”

“Afternoon, Slim.” The sheriff tipped his hat. “Miss Daisy.”

“Hello, Sheriff. What brings you out here today?” she asked, her usual cheerfulness replaced by apprehension.

He didn’t answer her question, but replied with a query of his own. “Is Jess home yet?”

“No,” Slim answered, a worried frown crossing his features. “I’ve been expectin’ him for the last couple of days.”

The lawman nodded grimly, removed his hat and ran his hand through his thinning hair before peering around the yard. “Mike around?”

“He’s out back, playin’ with that fawn Jess brought home for him last month,” Slim answered, wondering why the sheriff had asked such an odd question.

“Good, that’s good.” Mort was still holding his hat, his face stern and his eyes sad. “I don’t want him to hear this.”

Slim’s heart skipped a beat.

“Hear what?” Daisy asked, her voice shaking. Slim could feel her hand tremble where it rested on his arm. “It’s about Jess, isn’t it?”

“Yes, I’m afraid it is,” Mort nodded, digging into his shirt pocket, pulling out a sheet of paper and holding it out toward Slim. “This arrived in the mail today.”

The tall rancher took the paper with shaking hands, unfolding it and holding it so that both he and Daisy could see the words. Even as he read them, he couldn’t believe them.

“Oh, no,” she gasped, putting her hand up to cover her mouth. “That can’t be!”

“What happened?” Slim demanded, looking over at Mort.

“He’s on the run, Slim. I wired the sheriff in Gunsight this morning, and his answer, well, I suppose we could call it good news, in a way.”

“What could possibly be good about this?” Slim insisted, shaking the wanted poster.

“They know now that Jess didn’t kill Gorman, but I’m afraid there’s more to this mess.”

“More than this?” Slim asked incredulously, holding up the poster.

 Mort nodded. “It’s a long story.”

“Then you’d best come inside and have some coffee while you tell us everything,” Slim replied with a weary sigh.

<~~~~~>

Once they were in the house, Daisy got the coffee pot from the kitchen, filling a cup for each of them as all three pulled up chairs and took seats around the table. Mort quickly explained everything he’d learned from the Gunsight lawman about the murder of Gorman and Jess’ capture by the posse. “On the way back to town, Jess made a break. He got away, but they’re sure they wounded him.”

Daisy gasped again and Slim laid a comforting hand on her arm.

“They found blood on the saddle when they recovered the horse he took. It wasn’t much, and there was no blood trail,” Mort hoped that bit of news would reassure them at least at little, “but they couldn’t find him. The posse carried out a pretty thorough search of the area, but he’s just disappeared, afoot, in rough country.”

“Jess is good in the back country,” Slim commented. His long fingers were tracing the outline of the rim of his coffee cup, its contents untouched. “If he’s intent on hiding out, you know he won’t be easy to find.”

“I know,” Mort sipped his coffee, then cleared his throat and told the rest. “But folks, this is only the start. The fellow Jess claimed was his alibi eventually did show up back in Gunsight at the end of last week. He’d read a story in the local newspaper and rode back to clear Jess. He verified Jess’ story, that Jess couldn’t have killed Gorman because he was camped out on the trail with this cowboy, tending to his lame horse. Course by the time the cowboy got back to Gunsight and straightened out the situation, the posters had already been sent out.”

“Everything will be all right then,” Daisy concluded, heaving a sigh of relief. “It was all just a simple misunderstanding and Jess has been cleared of the charges.”

Mort shook his head, his face still grim. “I wish that were true, Daisy, but unfortunately, more has happened since his escape.”

“More? What did the dang fool do now?” Slim’s voice was tight with anger.

“Apparently, he’s taken up with an outlaw gang.”

“What?” Slim asked in disbelief.

“ You know the Medicine Bow stage was robbed yesterday?”

“I heard,” the rancher nodded. “Lucky they weren’t carrying a strong box, but a couple of cattle buyers lost their very fat wallets.” Slim’s eyes narrowed and he peered closely at the lawman who was nodding his agreement. “Mort, what does that have to do with Jess?” he asked suspiciously.

The sheriff sighed. “Jess was one of the robbers.”

“No!” Daisy was aghast.

Slim leaped to his feet and began to pace around the room. “I don’t believe it, Mort, I won’t believe it. Jess wouldn’t do that, no matter how desperate he was.” He stopped, looking earnestly at the lawman. “You know him nearly as well as I do. Sure, he might get himself into trouble.  And facing a murder charge, an unjust one, he might run from the law, but hold up a stage? He wouldn’t.”

“I don’t want to believe it either, Slim, but I checked out that story, too, wired the marshal over in Medicine Bow,” Mort went on. “Jess was clearly identified; there’s no mistaking that it was him. One of the other hold-up men even called him by name. The driver and the shotgun both confirm that, and the description they gave, it was him all right, there’s no doubt about it.”

Daisy slumped in her chair, looking like she was about to cry. “I can’t believe Jess would turn outlaw. I won’t believe it, sheriff, I simply won’t.”

“I agree, Daisy, this can’t be true,” Slim insisted, patting her shoulder before flopping back into his chair. “There has to be some mistake.”

“I’d like to think so, Slim, but those men were certain.” Mort’s expression softened. He knew what a blow this was to Slim and to Daisy. “If Jess believes he’s been pegged as a killer, well, desperate men do desperate things.”

“Jess getting himself into trouble, that’s no surprise; it’s happened before,” Slim admitted. “I won’t deny that over the years he’s done some mighty fancy footwork walkin’ along the edge of the straight and narrow. But takin’ up with outlaws and robbin’ people? Robbin’ a stage? Within just a couple of days? Without tryin’ to clear himself? That doesn’t make sense, Mort, just no sense at all.” He thumped his fist down on the table so hard that the coffee cups rattled.

“I want to agree with you, Slim, but I can’t deny the facts. These are reliable witnesses, people who have no reason to lie,” the lawman reasoned.

A glum silence settled over the room.

“You said one of the other robbers called Jess by name. What about the other men in the stage robbery?” Slim suddenly asked. “Who were they?”

“We don’t know. There were four of them. There’s been a gang carrying out holdups along the Colorado-Wyoming border for the past couple of years. They’re good -- they do a job, then melt away into the hills and no amount of searching can find them. The Gunsight marshal thinks that’s who the men were, a gang with a good hideout in the rough country, and Jess somehow managed to join up with them.”

Neither Slim nor Daisy knew what to say. Mort finished his coffee and the sound of the cup being set back on the saucer was loud in the quiet room.

Slim suddenly looked over at the lawman, his eyes alight with an idea, and he leaned forward across the table. “Mort, wait a minute. You said the driver and guard gave a description of Jess.”

Mort nodded. “Yes. They said they saw him clear as day.”

“How?”

Mort looked puzzled. “How?”

“How were they able to give such a good description, Mort? Outlaws usually cover their faces,” Slim reminded.

“Jess didn’t.” A thoughtful look crossed Mort’s face.

“And the others? What did they look like?” the rancher questioned.

“Don’t know. The witnesses said the others had bandannas pulled up over their faces.”

Slim was instantly on his feet again. “See, that just doesn’t make any sense. If Jess turned outlaw, and I don’t believe that for a minute, he wouldn’t be that careless. He’d know better than to show his face, especially that close to home. It’s almost as if he wanted to be identified. There’s something that doesn’t ring true here, Mort.” Slim’s face lit with sudden hope. “He isn’t doing some secret job for you, is he?”

The lawman shook his head. “I wish he was, Slim, but no.” The sheriff, however, was considering Slim’s logic, and his heart lifted. Maybe there was something else going on here. Maybe there was a chance they could help Jess. Of course, first, they had to find him, then somehow keep him out of further trouble, and, finally, with this poster now circulating, keep him alive -- none of which was going to be easy.

Mort Cory rode back into town in a better mood than the one he’d left in, promising to keep in touch with the lawmen in Gunsight and Medicine Bow and let Slim and Daisy know the minute he learned anything new.

 

PART TWO

That night, after Mike was asleep, Daisy sat alone before the fire, cup in hand, but her coffee went untouched. Finally, she walked out to the front porch where Slim sat quietly gazing out into the darkness. She didn’t say anything to him, just stood beside him and dropped her hand down on his shoulder.

“I hope he’s okay,” she said, quietly.

“I hope he shows up back here so I can kick his backside,” Slim muttered.

“You’re very angry with him.”

“Oh, I’m not angry, Daisy, I’m disappointed. Because he’s thrown it all away, all that he’s worked for here, all that he’s stood for over the past three years.”

“You’re disappointed because you think he’s turned out not to be the man you think he is,” she suggested astutely.

Slim sighed. “I suppose.”

“Well, you’re wrong, you know.” She squeezed his shoulder. “I haven’t known Jess nearly as long as you have, but that young man is no outlaw.”

“That’s what I’ve been tryin’ to tell myself all day today. But when I think about it, the evidence against him is so strong, much as I want to, I just can’t see a way around it.” Slim ran a hand through his hair. “Daisy, I just don’t know what to believe.”

“Believe in Jess.”

He reached up and put his hand over hers where it still rested on his shoulder. “I wish I had your certainty, Daisy. I know I should have, but I can’t forget what Mort told us. I guess maybe a part of me has always worried that this might happen.”

“Jess turning outlaw? You are wrong, Slim. Don’t forget that idea you had earlier, about something being fishy with the whole story, about Jess robbing that stage without so much as a bandanna to hide his face.”

“You are right again, Daisy.” Slim seized on the idea as something positive he could focus on. He stood and turned to face her. “Tomorrow, I’ll get Ben to come over and take care of changing the teams. I’m going to Medicine Bow and talk to those witnesses myself.”

“That’s the spirit, Slim,” Daisy encouraged.

But later that night, as she lay in her bed unable to sleep, Daisy’s own confidence that this horrible turn of events would somehow work out all right suddenly deserted her. The thought of Jess out there somewhere, on the run, hurt and alone, cut off from those he loved and those who loved him, made her want to cry.

The thought that she might never see him again was like losing her own son for a second time. She’d grown to love the young man as she loved all her boys at the Sherman Ranch, but he held a special spot in her heart. Sometimes she felt disloyal for feeling that way, especially since Mike was only a small and motherless boy and Slim was such a good and generous man. But something about Jess touched her heart in a special way — in the gentleness he kept hidden beneath the rough exterior, in the sweet and respectful way he treated her, almost as if she was his mother. She had seen the hurt hidden deep in his eyes, put there by a life that had rarely treated him kindly, one where people had let him down and left him behind far too often, as if he’d come to expect that sort of disappointment. He was needy in a way that Slim wasn’t, nor even Mike, young as he was. Something about Jess had quite simply deeply touched her motherly heart.

She felt the first tear trickle down her cheek, and she turned her face into her pillow to muffle the sob that she couldn’t hold back.

Jess would be back, she told herself firmly. Somehow, someway, they’d find a way to bring him home where he belonged.

<~~~~~~~~~~~~~>

Slim was gone two days and he returned as grim-faced as he’d been when he left.

“I didn’t learn anything helpful, Daisy, nothin’ at all,” he told her as he unsaddled a weary Alamo. “The driver and guard, they’re absolutely unshakeable in identifyin’ Jess. It was him.” Slim finally turned to face her, his expression as forlorn as she’d ever seen it. “I don’t want to believe it, but I can’t find anything to prove otherwise.”

“Maybe Sheriff Cory’s learned something,” Daisy offered hopefully, trying to keep his spirits up along with her own.

Slim shook his head as he reached for a brush and began grooming his horse. “I stopped in town. Mort hasn’t heard a thing.”

<~~~~~~~~~~~~~>

The next morning, early, Mort rode into the Sherman Ranch yard, once again the unhappy bearer of a mix of good but mostly bad news. “I got a telegram this morning. Jess is in jail over in Cheyenne.”

“He’s all right?” Daisy asked, frightened.

“He was shot,” answered Mort.

Daisy looked stricken. “Oh, no.”

“The sheriff assured me he’s going to be just fine, Daisy,” Mort took a deep breath, “but he was caught red-handed robbing the bank. Well, sort of.”

A part of Slim was relieved that at least they knew Jess was still alive. But another part of him was unbelievably angry. “Caught robbing the bank?” Slim burst out loudly, then lowered his voice. “How can you be ‘sort of’ robbing a bank, Mort?”

“He helped stop the robbery actually,” the sheriff explained. “That’s how he got shot, by one of the outlaws as he was preventing the robber from killing a clerk.”

“How badly is he hurt?” Daisy asked fearfully.

“He was wounded in the leg, above the knee, missed the bone fortunately. The doctor said he’ll be fine. And last week, when he ran from the posse, he was hit in the arm. Both will heal with time,” he reassured her.

“I guess he’ll have plenty of time to heal in jail,” Slim noted grimly.

“There’s a chance he won’t. Go to jail, that is,” Mort announced optimistically. “With a good word from me, and the Cheyenne sheriff who knows him, plus the testimony of that bank clerk whose life he saved, we just might be able to convince that judge that Jess isn’t really an outlaw.”

Daisy’s face took on a newly hopeful expression as she looked up at Slim.

He nodded at her. “You better fill us in on all the details, Mort,” Slim suggested grimly, leading them inside the house once again.

Seated once more at the table, coffee in hand, the sheriff told Slim and Daisy what he’d learned from Cheyenne’s Sheriff Aikens. “Jess told the sheriff that when he was running from that posse down in Colorado, he stumbled across those outlaws’ hideout. They weren’t sure of him but finally gave him a choice — join them, or be killed. So he joined them, reluctantly. In fact, that first stage robbery, they were so distrustful of him that they wouldn’t even let him have any cartridges in his gun.”

“So why didn’t he just leave?” Slim asked.

“They never left him alone. And at night, he was chained to his bunk.”

Daisy’s face paled at the thought.

“And there was something about a blind girl, the gang leader’s daughter, that Jess was worried about what might happen to her.”

“Figures,” Slim snapped. Jess and girls, always a pocketful of trouble.

“The gang was trying to make one big score,” Mort continued. “They picked the Cheyenne bank, though there was some disagreement among them about it, between the gang’s leader, Calvin Hawkes, and the other men.”

Slim recognized the name. “Calvin Hawkes? Wasn’t he a marshal a few years back?”

“Used to be a good one, once. Over in Ellsworth, but that’s been four, no five, years ago now.” Mort recalled. “Jess tried to get out of bein’ part of the robbery, but they didn’t give him a choice, though they actually gave him some shells for his Colt this time. While they were in the bank, Jess stalled as long as he could, and then when one of the outlaws, a hard case named Walt Cade, was about to kill the clerk, Jess stopped him and took a bullet for it.”

Daisy’s face was still pale with worry. “You’re sure he wasn’t seriously hurt?”

“Yes, Daisy,” Mort assured her, “that’s what the sheriff said. He was shot in the leg, a flesh wound, nasty but it will heal.”

“Slim, we need to go over there,” Daisy suggested.

The tall rancher nodded in agreement. “I’ll get Ben back out here to handle the chores, and we’ll go to Cheyenne first thing in the morning.”

<~~~~~>

By the time Slim and Daisy arrived in Cheyenne and found the sheriff’s office there, Jess was no longer in jail.

“The good thing is, folks, it looks like he’s pretty much been cleared of any and all charges,” Sheriff Aikens told them cheerfully.

Daisy nearly fainted with relief. “But Sheriff, why didn’t we meet him on the road then, on his way home?”

“Because he wasn’t going back to Laramie, ma’am. He’s gone after the last of the Hawkes gang,” Aikens  answered.

“And you didn’t go with him?” Slim demanded.

 “He figured he could ride into their hideout unchallenged,” the sheriff explained.

“You mean you let him go to face them all alone?” Slim asked incredulously.

“Wounded and alone?” Daisy echoed.

“That’s what he wanted,” the Cheyenne lawman reported. “Insisted on it, actually. And there aren’t many of the gang left. Two at most, and one of them’s likely bad wounded.”

“He’s wounded himself,” Slim reminded.

“Twice,” Daisy added, knowing that Jess would go, even if he was hurting badly, because that was Jess, stubbornly determined to finish any job he started.

“That’s all I can tell you, folks,” the sheriff added. “I expect he’ll be back soon.”

<~~~~~>

Slim and Daisy waited impatiently around town all that day, anxious for Jess to return. Neither was able to eat much supper, just pushed the food around on their plates until it was cold and totally inedible. Well past dark, yet unable to sleep, the two of them sat silently together on the hotel veranda, looking out across Main Street.  Slim hoped her thoughts weren’t as dark and worried as his were, but from the faraway look in the housekeeper’s eyes, he doubted that was true.

“He’ll come through, Daisy, Jess always does.” Slim reached out and patted her hand, trying to reassure her with a smile, though he knew it was a poor one. “Jess is better than anyone I know of at gettin’ into, and out of, trouble.”

“I hope you’re right, Slim,” she answered, worried.

“It’s late. Maybe we should turn in,” he suggested gently. “It’s likely he won’t be back until tomorrow.”

Daisy shook her head. “Let’s wait a little longer, please.”

Slim nodded. Daisy worried about all of them, it was part of her nature, but he knew she had an especially soft spot for his roguish partner.  “A bit longer, then,” he agreed, and let the silence return.

Slim was just about to insist that they call it a night when he heard the soft shuffle of hoof beats and the jingling of harness and trace chains, and then a wagon appeared at the end of the quiet street. There were two figures on the wagon’s seat and a man on horseback riding alongside.

Even in the dark, Slim recognized the rider’s outline as Jess. “It’s him, Daisy. It’s Jess,” he smiled and quickly hugged her, then trotted down the steps, lending her a helping hand as she hurried along beside him and out into the street.

Jess pulled his horse to a stop in front of his friends who were now standing in the middle of the street, staring down at them in disbelief. “Slim? Daisy? What are you doing here?”

He was unshaven, riding slumped in the saddle, his voice sounding raspy and tired, a bandage tied around his right thigh and a faded stain on the left sleeve of his light blue shirt. Despite it all, Daisy was sure that she had never seen a more glorious sight.

“What do you think we’re doing here?” Daisy answered with a relieved smile.

Jess ducked his head, a shadow of a grin crossing his tired features. “I figured you two would’a given up on me by now.”

“We’d never give up on you,” Daisy answered for both of them.

“Yeah. Never believed that outlaw nonsense for a minute,” Slim answered. “Knew you were up to something.”

Jess noted the look that passed between Slim and Daisy, and the way she affectionately elbowed him in the ribs. “Oh, we were all just worried about you, dear, that’s all,” she added, eyes twinkling and smiling sweetly.

He was, he realized suddenly, entirely forgetting his manners. “Daisy, Slim, this is Mrs. Hawkes, and her daughter, Jenny,” he introduced the two women seated in the wagon. “Mrs. Hawkes, Jenny, this is my boss, Slim Sherman, and Mrs. Cooper, our housekeeper.”

Slim tipped his hat to the solemn, exhausted-looking ladies.

 “How do you do?” Daisy greeted them.

They murmured a greeting in return. “We’ll go on over to the sheriff’s office, Jess,” the older woman told him and clucked to the team, shaking out the reins.

Jess stared down at Slim and Daisy for a long moment, then wearily climbed down from the saddle. His injured leg was stiff and sore from the long ride, causing him to stagger as he stepped off his horse. Quickly, he caught his balance, just before Daisy stepped up and hugged him tightly.

He was surprised at how good that embrace felt. A lump rose in his throat, threatening to choke him on the spot and preventing him from saying a word. He hugged her back and looked over her head at Slim, who just nodded, equally wordlessly, before reaching over to squeeze Jess’ shoulder.

Daisy didn’t want to let him go, but finally she did, reaching up to touch his face, reassuring herself that it was really Jess and he was really okay. He looked tired, with little pain lines around his mouth that reminded her that they were standing in the middle of the street, and he had an injured leg that must be hurting him. “You’re sure you’re all right?”

“Yes, Daisy, the doc here took good care of me.”

“Well, I’ll just check that out later.”

He smiled, a weary smile but a genuine one. After all he’d been through the past few days, the world seemed so much a better place standing here with Slim and Daisy and the genuine prospect of going home a free man. “I better get on over to the sheriff’s office, tell him what happened out there.” He looked up at Slim, his face grim. “The rest of the outlaws are dead. Hawkes died of his wounds not long after I got there, and Walt, he was fool enough to draw on me.”

Jess didn’t have to say any more. Slim knew that very few men had ever faced Jess Harper’s gun and walked away unscathed.

<~~~~~>

It took less than an hour to finalize things at the sheriff’s office. Jess designated the reward money go to the two women. The lawman agreed Jess could go with Slim back to the hotel rather than spending another night in jail, though he had to promise that he would appear in court the following day.

With the Hawkes gang all dead or locked up and the bank’s money recovered, the trials would be held right away the next day.

 

PART THREE

In the Cheyenne courthouse the following day, the two surviving members of the Hawkes gang, Elliot and Purdy, were quickly given long prison sentences, their fates sealed by Jess’ testimony. The only dark spot in the morning was Elliot’s ranting about what he would do to Jess if he ever got out of jail.

Judge Petrie recessed court for dinner, with Jess’ trial slated for the afternoon.

<~~~~~~~~~~>

As they waited out the dinner break, Jess paced restlessly, ignoring the ache that flared in his right leg with every step.

He’d almost forgotten that Daisy was there until she spoke his name. “Jess.”

He jumped at the sound, stopping to look over at her.

“Are you all right?”

His fingers were flexing in a way she’d come to recognize as a sure sign of nervousness. “Sure, Daisy. I’m fine.”

“You’re limping,” she said worriedly. “Is your leg hurting you?”

He reached down and massaged his thigh, feeling the barely-healed scar where Walt’s bullet had torn through him. “Nothing much, Daisy. It’s just habit I guess.” He resumed pacing, making an effort to walk normally and nearly succeeding.

“You should sit down,” she suggested.

He shook his head. “Sorry, Daisy, I can’t,” he admitted, pacing once again, feeling the tension racing through every muscle in his body. If he sat still, he was sure he’d explode.

“You’re worried.”

He couldn’t look her in the eye. “Naw,” he answered, looking down.

“Jess.” Her voice was soft and gentle and filled with affection. It reminded him of his mother when she spoke his name that way, he realized. She stepped closer and put her hand on his arm. “It’s perfectly normal to be frightened, anyone would be.”

He shook his head, unable to admit the way he felt. Having his fate resting in the hands of others made him feel so blamed helpless — he clenched and unclenched his hands, wishing for an enemy he could fight with his fists or his guns. That was something he understood, not this fighting with words over his future. Sure, he’d talked to Judge Petrie and the man had seemed decent enough; after all, he’d helped clear up that bogus murder charge from down in Colorado. But these robberies –- everyone knew he had been there. The judge could give him any sentence he saw fit, and stage and bank robbers were routinely issued harsh sentences. And, unlike Slim, no matter how hard he tried, Jess just couldn’t bring himself to trust the law and the men who enforced and interpreted it.

He could be facing years in jail, if the judge so ordered.

Daisy stepped close and kept her voice low so no one else would hear her words. Over the past few months, she’d come to know Jess well. She understood that underneath all the bravado was a young man who felt the same emotions as anyone else, the same hopes and fears, he just covered them with a blithe bravado that only those who knew him well saw through. “I know you’re worried, Jess, but everything will work out, I just know it will. You’ve got so many people on your side, Slim and Mort, the Cheyenne sheriff and the banker, and that grateful bank teller whose life you saved.”

Jess’ blue eyes were still downcast and shrouded with worry. “I know, Daisy. But those robberies, there’s no denyin’ I was there.”

“It’s plain to anyone with the slightest bit of sense that you were forced to do what you did,” she answered firmly, defending him. “You had no choice.”

He sighed, and looked down. “A man always has a choice, Daisy.”

“Now that’s just not true, Jess, and you know it. Those outlaws, they would have killed you if you hadn’t gone along with their plan. Why, even the Cheyenne sheriff and the judge heard those men threatening to kill you, just this morning in this very courtroom. You stopped that gang, and got the money back to these people. They ought to be grateful to you,” she declared.

He ducked his head and chanced a quick look at her face. He appreciated her support more than he could say. “I wish *you* were the judge,” he managed a slight smile for her.

She smiled brightly back at him and squeezed his arm. “Have confidence, Jess.”

It was funny. He had all the confidence in the world when it came to fistfights and even gunfights — those were battles he understood, and he knew he was good at them. This battle, though, frightened him clear down to the toes of his dusty boots.

<~~~~~>

And then, despite all the worry, court was over quickly. Having heard the angry threats by the two remaining outlaws combined with the Cheyenne sheriff’s good reports, the testimony of the bank clerk Jess had saved, more testimony from Mrs. Hawkes, Slim, the grateful bank owner, and the letter from Mort Cory, the judge adjourned to his quarters to deliberate for only a few minutes before returning.

“I must tell you, this is one of the most unusual cases I have ever presided over,” Judge Petrie intoned solemnly as he looked out over the people gathered in the courtroom.  “Please stand, Mister Harper, while I render my decision.”

Jess cast a worried look over at Slim and Daisy, took a deep breath, and stood, slightly lopsidedly, keeping most of his weight on his good left leg. He tried to read his fate in the judge’s face, but the man would, he figured, make an excellent poker player as he looked Jess in the eye and sternly delivered his verdict.

“Robbery is a very serious offense, young man, and I do not take this action lightly.  I have no qualms about handing down long sentences for such crimes against our community, as you witnessed in the trials this morning. Considering the many unique circumstances of your case, Mister Harper, and after hearing all of the testimony, I can only come to one conclusion.”

Jess’ heart hammered, and he had to remind himself to breathe.

“The facts clearly show that you were forced to assist the outlaws in their thievery. Your actions before, and since, make that quite clear, especially risking your own life to save the bank clerk, and your assistance in bringing to justice the last members of this outlaw gang while returning the stolen funds. Sheriff Cory’s statement, and that from our own Sheriff Aikens, carried a great deal of weight as well.” The judge’s gaze was fixed sternly on Jess’ face. “I cannot do anything but set you free.”

Jess felt all the pent-up tension leave his body, his knees suddenly going wobbly, and from the corner of his eye he glimpsed Daisy’s face lighting up with a smile, and Slim’s, too.

 “However, a word of caution, Mister Harper. You seem to have a dangerous penchant for putting yourself into doubtful situations, flirting with the dark side of the law, and I would caution you to be very careful in the future,” the judge intoned solemnly.

“Oh, I will your honor,” Jess promised sincerely.

“Then I release you into the custody of Mister Sherman, and the supervision of Sheriff Cory. All charges against you are hereby dropped, providing you do not break the law within the next six months.”

Jess inhaled deeply and his answer was genuine and heartfelt. “Thank you, your honor.”

“Don’t disappoint me, young man,” Petrie said solemnly, but Jess detected a hint of a smile on the jurist’s face.

“I won’t, Sir.”

“I should hope not, young man,” the judged added. “And Mister Harper, we do owe you our thanks for breaking up that gang of thieves.” With that, the judge banged his gavel on the desk. “Case dismissed. Court adjourned.”

Jess slumped back down into his chair, too drained to do anything but sit. In a moment, Slim was slapping him on the back and Daisy was bending down to give him a warm hug.

“Slim, let’s get him home,” she ordered, and they were all too happy to oblige.

<~~~~~~~~~~~~~>

EPILOGUE

It was his first morning back at the ranch. Jess woke to the early morning sound of the rooster crowing and climbed out of bed just after sun-up, so happy to be home that for once he was eager to get out to the barn and start chores. A nice, normal, yes, dull, day on the ranch was something he was actually going to enjoy.

It was going to be hard getting back to work, though, because someone important was missing. He’d have to talk to Slim about getting a new horse. Replacing Traveler wasn’t going to be easy -- he and the bay had ridden a lot of miles together.

Only half awake at the early hour, Jess dressed, tossed some cold water on his face, finger combed his unruly hair, and started for the barn. He was still limping a little, his leg reminding him of his recent injury with every step, but it was getting better every day. He was confident he’d be good as new by the end of the week.

As he stepped into the barn, he saw Slim milking the old Jersey cow, a look of surprise appearing on the rancher’s wide face.

“Well, you’re up bright and early, owlhoot. Didn’t expect to see you rollin’ out until Daisy had breakfast on the table,” Slim grinned.

Jess shrugged. “Figured I’d get an early start today. I got caught up on a lot of sleep when I was in jail.”

The tall rancher pointed toward a stall in the barn’s dimly lit back corner. “You might want to start in that last stall. There’s a poor old broken-down horse back there needs some attention.” Jess turned toward the spot where Slim was pointing, in doing so missing the huge grin that suddenly appeared on the tall rancher’s face.

Limping slightly, Jess walked the length of the barn and peered over the gate into the stall. “Traveler!” he shouted, his voice disbelieving as his face lit up in a big smile. The horse moved up to him, nickering and placing his dark muzzle on Jess’ hand as Slim, grinning from ear to ear, strode over to stand beside him. “I can’t believe it. Slim, where’d you ever find him? I figured he was gone for good.” Jess stroked the bay’s muzzle happily.

“Oh, Mort helped arrange it. He contacted that sheriff down in Gunsight. Seems once the man got all the facts, he felt sort of bad about not listenin’ to your story in the first place and reinin’ in that posse. Turned out to be real helpful in finding your horse.”

Jess was still smiling as he opened the door and entered the stall, bending down to run his hands along the bay’s near front leg. “His leg’s all right?”

“Good as new. Just waitin’ for you to get home and give him some exercise.”

Jess stood, slapping the bay on the shoulder before turning back to Slim, the wide grin on his face betraying his delight. “Thanks, pard. For everything.”

“You’re welcome, Jess. And welcome home.”

 

~~~~~ The End ~~~~~



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