The Twin Wranglers 

Chapter 1

Down the long dry-grass hill they rode.  By calendar, fall had arrived though hesitant.  In fact, summer really wasn’t about to release its tight grip upon the land, and as the sun reached high-center the two men felt as if the fat and powerful sun was sucking away the last bit of moisture the earth owned.  

Their clothing had become powdered by the local color as they worked that morning and now yellowish grey dust clouds kicked up by the horses trailed behind them as they returned to the ranch buildings for noon break. 

In the distance, the ranch house shimmered in heat waves as they aimed their horses for it at a leisure jog.  It would feel good to get out of the sun, but in truth they weren’t real eager to set foot in the empty house.  

Mike and Daisy had been spending a short week in Cheyenne in preparation of the approaching school term, which would soon start now that ranches in the outlying area had completed the fall roundup and branding. 

At first the men had looked forward to a few days by themselves, but by the fourth sunrise without a hot breakfast awaiting them after early morning chores, they were more than ready to hand the reins to the household back to Daisy.  

As the two men closed in on the ranch buildings they good-naturedly bickered over whose turn it was to tackle which of the household chores for their last night of “batching” it.   

“I’ll do the cooking tonight,” insisted Slim.  “I feel like one of those empty post holes we’ve been digging all morning.”  His hand trailed across his belly, “I had to tighten my belt another notch after supping on that roast you killed last night.”  

A twitch of his lips revealed the pleasure he took in ribbing Jess.  “It was so dang tough I thought you must’ve forgotten to remove the hide.  I even had to sharpen my knife to cut the gravy.”  

“Very funny,” growled Jess.  It wouldn’t hurt you none to tighten your belt another notch or two anyway.”  The muscles in his jaw squirmed to stop a smile from spreading across his face.  “If you hadn’t been so late comin’ in for supper my roast would’ve survived.  In fact,” Jess jabbed a finger at Slim and stood in the stirrups adding weight to his words, “it was still bellerin’ when suppertime rolled ‘round and had you shown up when I expected you to, you would’ve had to rope and tie the dad blamed thing an’ cut a piece off the rump yourself before you ever picked up your dadgum fork.” 

As Slim chewed on that, Jess suddenly drew rein dropping his horse to a walk and nodded his head toward the house.  “What do you make of that?” he asked as Slim slowed his mount to match Traveler’s gait and swung his gaze on the same course.  

Down in the yard an array of carpetbags, trunks and bundles lay in a jumbled arrangement.  In the shade of the porch stood a woman in a dove gray cape and a feathered hat that looked as if it was about to take wing. 

“Looks like we’ve got us a visitor, Jess.” 

“Visitor! ‘pears to me like she’s plannin’ on stayin’ for a spell.  How do you reckon she got out here?” 

Slim scanned the barnyard and corrals.  “Doesn’t seem to be a buggy about and the stage isn’t due in for at least another three hours.” 

“She’d have needed a wagon to haul all those trappings,” said Jess squinting across the closing distance trying to identify the woman.  “You recognize her?”  

“Don’t believe so.  She doesn’t look a bit fam…iliar,” Slim trailed off as the woman moved out of the shadows and waddled to the edge of the porch and having spotted them, gestured them in. 

“Danged if she ain’t wearin’ the bustle wrong,” Jess exclaimed when he saw the load she was carrying.  

He glimpsed the probing look Slim gave him and sharply reined the gelding in.  Slim did likewise and they eyed each other warily. 

“Hey!  Don’t look at me, Pard,” Jess said as he leaned on the saddle horn.  “I’ve never laid eyes on her in my life.”  

Slim frowned.  “Wonder when the baby’s due?” 

“I’d wager it was yesterday,” Jess answered with an impish grin that faded when he recalled that it was just the two of them to care for the needs of the stage-line passengers as well as other travelers who stopped by on their journey.   

They sat their horses for a long moment, both wishing Daisy wasn’t absent from the ranch just now and yearning to turn their mounts and ride in the opposite direction.  The horses shifted restlessly beneath their riders, wanting to get back to the haymow to pad their bellies. 

“Reckon we best get on down there,” Slim said hesitantly.  Jess nodded in agreement, but neither man gave his horse rein.  “Well, come on,” he prodded, and with that the two men urged their mounts down off the hill at a stiff walk. 

Chapter 2

Slim and Jess rode to the corral and swung from their saddles as the squat woman wound her way through her belongings, scattered and stacked helter-skelter in the yard.  They could barely keep their composure as she toddled toward them like a duck treading dry land and Jess wiped a grin from his face before it had time to settle. 

“Howdy ma’am,” greeted Jess with a slight nod touching a finger to his hat brim.  Slim followed suit as he stepped to meet the woman’s approach.  She was diminutive in stature and seemed to be as wide as she was tall.  The hair that poked out from under the preposterous hat still showed signs of a dark brown the color of rich soil, but had been mostly overtaken by grey.  Despite the grey hair and hard-worked face she looked to be in her mid to late thirties. 

“Everwhich one of you calls hisself Jess Harper?”  She demanded with a hint of don’t-mess-with-me-buster as she rested one hand on her hip the other on the small of her back.   

Dread gripped Jess, but he bravely stepped forward.  “That would be me, ma’am.  A peculiar feeling ran down his spine and out the heel of his boots, but he held his ground and added, “What can I do for you?”  

She gestured in Slim’s direction with her chin.  “He your partner?” 

The men gave each other questioning looks.  “Yeah, I reckon he is,” Jess answered. 

“Then I can talk without coyotin’ around the rim?” 

A cautious smile touched his lips.  “I won’t kick if you want to jump right in.”  

“I want to hire your gun,” she said reaching in a small handbag and handing him a wad of money.  A scowl deepened the lines at the bridge of her nose and her lips tightened across her teeth as she added, “I need a man put on the coolin’ board.” 

Jess stared at the money in his hand, not believing his ears.  It was more the tone in her voice that shook him than the words.  “What?  You…are you sayin’ what I think you’re sayin’?”  He looked at her and then at the money again.  “I’m not in that line of work, ma’am,” he said thrusting the money toward her.  

Flinging her arms wildly in the air, eyes raised to the heavens, she turned and stalked off a couple of paces then whirled around and stalked back garbling words that made little sense.  She carried on squawking and flapping in this manner for what seemed a fair stretch before finally landing again in front of Jess seemingly perplexed.  “I heard tell you were a fast gun.  If it’s the money—if it ain’t enough—,” she stalled, withdrawing to some inner region of her mind. 

As if his brain had gone lame, Jess could only gape in fascination at the rattled woman and would have found her outburst rather humorous if it had not alarmed him so. 

Slim stepped forward to flank Jess, peering over his shoulder at the money that Jess had totally forgotten but was still holding out as if determinedly handing it back to her.  “Ma’am…Ma’am now calm down.  What you’re asking Jess to do is commit murder, plain and simple.”  Slim gave Jess a stout clap on the shoulder breaking the spell the woman’s tirade had put him under.  

“Ma’am, you’ve got your saddle on the wrong horse,” Jess said as he fought to maintain the pretense of politeness. 

“What you may have heard about Jess is wrong,” said Slim.  “It’s true he’s fast with a gun, but he’s no hired killer.”  Spreading his arms out as if hazing a stray calf into the corral he added, “Why don’t we get out of this sun?  It’s hot enough out here to addle your think box.”    


In the cool of the house, the two men and their guest sat around the table sipping coffee.  Talk was guarded with a few stilted pleasantries mostly restricted to the unusual weather.  Eventually the conversation dried up all together and a minute whispered by with only the sound of shuffling feet under the table.  As the dry spell grew, the three became more reluctant to disturb it.  Finally Slim stood and retrieved the coffee pot refilling his own cup while bringing the pot back to the table.  “Would you like me to freshen your coffee ma’am?”  

With tears close to the surface, she looked at Slim and then at Jess but not a sob spilled from her.  Slim stood in speechless disquiet with coffee pot poised to pour had she only answered yes, thank you.

Jess fidgeted in the chair across the table and hooked a finger in his shirt collar to pull it away from his throat, trying to relieve the choke that was building there.  He started to speak but swallowed the words and reached for his coffee instead.  He couldn’t help wishing that Daisy was already home, but wishing such was like hitting the nail square on the thumb since she wouldn’t be back until the stage rolled in from Cheyenne tomorrow.  

He wanted to prod for answers, but wasn’t sure how to go about it.  The pregnant silence preyed on his nerves and as Jess reached across the table to take her hand he cleared his throat.  His thumb twiddled absently across the back of her fingers then finding his voice he asked gently as possible, “Ma’am, if you don’t mind, whose—lamp is it you plan to blow out?”  

She drooped like an un-watered flower then looked up into his eyes, “Please can’t you help me?  I can’t do this any longer.”  Pulling her hand from his, she embraced her protruding belly for a fleeting moment.  “The man—,” she said, making a false start then pulling herself together.  “The man I want you to put under is Tobias Tibbles, the man who did this to me—my man.”  

Her words nearly blew Jess out of his chair while Slim stood as if shot and waiting to fall.  The sound of a stifled sob freed the two men from shocked stupor and they exchanged questioning glances. 

They were still for a fraction of a moment longer before Jess prompted for more.  “I don’t understand ma’am.  Did your husband—did he force—?”  He stumbled verbally, hunting for the right words while searching her face for clues. 

“Yes—Well, no—,” she took a measured breath.  “I’m sweet on the man.  Really I am.  I raised him the family he wanted…, that we wanted.  But I’m plum tuckered out.  He’s stubborn as a mule and just doesn’t know when it’s time to quit makin’ chillern.  And he’s the most do-less man I know when it comes to helpin’ with ‘em.”  She pulled a handkerchief from a pocket and twisted her nose with it.  

“I tried to tell him how it was the last time I was too big for my clothes, but he musta been standin’ behind the door when brains were passed out ‘cause here I am agin.” 

The dry crunch of gravel and the chink of harness signaled the approach of a team and wagon.  “We’ve got company,” Slim said as he headed for the door.  A flash of panic crossed the woman’s face but was replaced by a faraway look when Slim confirmed his suspicions that it was a teamster from the Morning Star Mine stopping to see about a horse that had gone lame in route to the mine a couple days earlier.  

Feeling there was more he aught to do or say but uncertain just what, Jess skirted the table and offered his hand as the woman struggled to her feet.  “You understand I can’t do what you’re askin’ me to do?” he said, as he took the roll of greenbacks she had handed him in the barnyard and placed it in her palm closing her fingers around the wad. 

“Yes,” came the wistful reply as she fixed her eyes on the money, “I don’t guess you’re the kind of man I thought you were.  When I heard tell you were a fast gun I took it you would be prepared to use your gun for a price.  I’m sorry I bothered you.  I’ll ask the teamster that just drove in if he wouldn’t mind givin’ me a ride on into Laramie.” 

“There’s a Laramie stage due in shortly from Rock River if you’d like to wait ma’am.  It would be more comfortable for you than the freight wagon.  There’s usually not much room for extra baggage, but you can take your personal effects with you and we’d be happy to haul the rest of your belongings to town in the wagon later.” 

“No, no I think it would be better that I’m on my way now,” she said firmly. 

Chapter 3  

The late afternoon shadows were starting to lean as the stage driver reined his team into the Sherman swing station.  The dust cloud kicked up by the rumbling hooves and iron-rimmed wheels of the coach served as paint as it drifted across the yard coating everything in its path.  

“Coach is in,” Jess hollered toward the house as he tied the fresh span of wheelers he had just dressed in harness to the corral fence next to the lead team.  To Mose he said, “Your team’s ready,” as he steadied the four-in-hand while the shotgun messenger climbed down from the coach to help unhitch the tired team. 

Slim hurried out the kitchen door pealing a floured apron from his waist, throwing it back through the open doorway.  Jess nimble-footed it to the coach a hair before Slim, but not before the door latch was released from inside.  

A tall skinny man, who looked like he would have had to stand twice to cast a shadow, began to disembark staring lethargically around the barnyard, his eyes blinking from behind wire-framed spectacles that saddled a large beak of a nose. 

“Howdy!” welcomed Slim.  “Step on down and get the kinks out.” 

“There’s a wash basin over by the door there and water to wet your whistle,” Jess added.  “Stage pulls out in about fifteen minutes for Laramie.”  

“Thanky kindly.  A cool drink of water would sure pleasure me.  It’s been so dry of late you have to prime yo’self to spit,” croaked the rawboned stork of a man with a tired grin as he stepped down.  “By the feel of it,” he added removing his flat-brimmed hat and wiping his brow, “hell ain’t a mile away and the fences ‘er all down.” 

Slim and Jess were captivated as they watched the plainly dressed man stretch his spindly arms into one knot after another.  “It sure is mighty good to get a little elbow room.”  

Strange, Slim thought as the three men exchanged names.  He hadn’t noticed any other passengers as he came out to greet the coach.  Puzzled, Slim turned back to the stage as a young girl of about fourteen stepped to the door with a toddler held protectively in front of her, its bare feet padding the tops of her worn soft ankle-boots.  Behind her he could make out at least four other youngsters rising sleepily from their bench seats, pushing and shoving as they lined-up to trail her out the door. 

The man spoke around a yawn.  “These here are my young ‘uns.  Travelin’ with the chillern has been the hardest days’ work I’ve ever been put to.” He watched his youngsters that had gone from heavy-eyed to lively in a matter of moments, pour from the coach.  As each child spilled onto the ground he attempted unsuccessfully to line it out for the washbasin.  

Jess took a shot at counting the spirited group as they flooded the yard but found they were harder to tally than calves at branding season.  He swung his gaze in one direction and then another trying to follow the flow of children.  “These all yours, Mr. Tibbles?” he asked as he jiggled a finger in his ear.  “What’s the head count?”  He looked back toward Mr. Tibbles but found the young girl with the toddler straddling her hip, not a step away eyeing him like a panther stalking its prey. 

Flustered by her adolescent interest Jess smiled and took a nervous step back only to land on the barefoot toes of a younger lass gawking up at him from the rear.  The child howled and hopped around in a circle on one foot as Jess apologized profusely, his face a deepening hue of embarrassment.  

Tobias Tibbles picked the youngster up and brushing dirt off the injured foot, examined it.  “Yeah, they’s mine.  Ever fetchin’ one of ‘em,” he answered with tired eyes that carried a hint of pride.  “Got me 6 she stuff and 4 boys makin’ the last count I get to be 10 but my woman’s gettin’ ready to fetch another child right soon.”  He set the girl down and took his glasses off to scrub the bridge of his nose.  “Gawd I hope it’s another boy!”   

“This one here is Prudence and my eldest there, holdin’ the little one is Faith,” Tibbles said as he looped the glasses back over his ears.  “She’s a real help to her ma now an’ goin’ to make some lucky gent a darn good breadbeater.  Good with the chillern too, but a little young for midwifin’ she is.   

“Our grannie woman in Rock River past on last year and my woman says there’s someth’n different about this pup so she thought ‘twould be best if she took care of the child-fetchin’ in Laramie where she can see the doc when it comes time.  We-all on our way to join her in Laramie till the birthin’.” 

He shook his head in wonderment, “I talked myself blue trying to get her to ride the stage with me and the chillern, but she claimed ‘twould be more to her comfort to ride in on this ol’ lumber wagon that was headin’ for Fort Laramie this mornin’ at day bust.  What with all the young ’uns she’s likely right.  Twasn’t much room left. 

“I don’t know what the devil and Tom Walker’s gotten into her lately.  Reckon what with packin’ t’other baby around and workin’ from can see to can’t see she’s about give-out out and gone fritter-minded.  She nearly filled the wagon with needments she ain’t likely to use, and dare I say anythin’ about it.”   

His eyes glinted with pleasure as he began to collect girls that came within arms reach as they fluttered by like butterflies lured to a flower, taking quick curious glances at the lean dark-haired man with dazzling blue eyes talking to their papa.  “One thin’s for certain sure, I’d hate to aggravate the woman right now.”  Slim and Jess gave each other a knowing look as the loose-jointed man went about gathering the children, not without much difficulty, around the washbasin. 

For Jess, the shirttail young’uns loping about either barefooted or in worn brogans, their clothes of homespun hand-me-downs with patches on patches, stirred up memories that hurt like sharp stones.  He recalled the loving care his own mother gave to her five children and her devoted husband who worked for shares on the large cattle ranch, but his thoughts also took him back to when he became aware of the hardships and how difficult it was for his mother to raise her family in the harsh winters and grueling summers of the Texas panhandle with very little to show for it, and he began to understand why Mrs. Tibbles was so troubled. 

“Aaaall aboard!” cried Mose as he clambered onto the driver’s seat threading his fingers through the ribbons.  “Next stop Laramie.”  Jess shook loose the remembrance of his past and held the door as the passel of kids and their pa boarded the coach.  All except for Faith who hung back face flushed and staring adoringly at him.  

“Hey Jess!  Stop fueling the fire and help the little lady aboard,” Mose shouted with a conspiratorial smile aimed at Slim. 


Slim wrestled with pots and pans in the kitchen, while Jess worked over his revolver with cleaning solvents and oil at the table.  The smell of gun oil mixed with the aroma of salt-pork from the brine barrel and sourdough biscuits and beans, and as the men went about their work they took pleasure in discussing the unusual day’s events. 

“Danged if that wasn’t the oddest day we’ve had here for quite a spell,” said Slim, heaping two plates with beans and salt pork.  Opening the oven door with a dishrag, he took out the piping hot biscuits and flung a couple onto each plate.  “Sure looked like the Tibbles were bound and determined to rope you into a proposal of one type or another. 

“Now those Tibbles girls…they’re all pretty little gals don’t you think?  It won’t be long before some of them gals are husband-high and looking to throw a loop over some unsuspecting fellow.  Of course, if a man is quick on his boot heels…,” Slim paused throwing Jess a teasing grin. 

“You’re real funny, Pard,” Jess winced.  “Have to admit though, between those gals and their ma it sure did look like there was hair in the butter for a spell.”  Jess ran a cleaning rag over his revolver before re-holstering the gun and hanging the outfit by the door.  “One thing’s for sure, trouble never travels lonesome.” 

Slim set the steaming plates of food on the table.  “Ride over that trail again?” 

“Sometimes the only thing worse than not gettin’ what you yearn for, is gettin’ it—and if she still wants the job done,” Jess answered with a sinking feeling in his chest, “she’ll find someone to do it.”  He sighed and returned to the table.  “I have a feelin’ there’s more trouble comin’.” 

“You could be right,” Slim said, his face turning serious.  “Maybe we better take a ride into town first thing in the morning and talk to Mort.  But first—,” A glint of pleasure returned to his eyes as he jabbed a fork into the pork and beans and gestured with the burdened utensil.  “Why don’t you pick up that reloading outfit of yours and line your flue with my secret recipe for sow bosom and beans.”  He shoved the load in his mouth and negotiating around the food said, “Give me your honest opinion now—and don’t laugh.”  

Jess’s eyebrows twisted as he cocked his head, “Make up your mind.”  Then giving Slim a lopsided grin, he added, “I don’t reckon you’re gonna keep that secret bean recipe of yours private for too all fired long.  ‘Spect they’ll be talkin’ behind your back ‘afore the day is out.   

In mock offense, Slim flung a napkin at Jess then dove with relish, back to his plate of beans. 

Chapter 4

The sky was a dry-country blue as Slim and Jess rode down the dusty street.  A few clouds moved in a small herd towing their shadows across the parched hills, but they made no promises one way or the other.  The men aimed their mounts for the hitching rail in front of the Sheriff’s Office and swung down.  

Loose-tying the animals at the rail and after tugging some slack into the cinches to give their horses back’s some air, Jess ducked under the rail and stepped onto the boardwalk.  “Thought I’d go check over at Willa’s boardin’ house,” he said beating the dust from his shirt and chaps.  “You want to ask after the Tibbles at the hotel?” 

“You’re just eager for a piece of Willa’s apple pie,” Slim teased as he waved the dust away that Jess had stirred up.  “I’ll check at the hotel, but just in case Mrs. Tibbles hasn’t had second thoughts, Mort aught to be told what’s going on.”  Slim spoke over his shoulder as he opened the door to the Sheriff’s office.  “I’ll meet you at the saloon in about an hour.” 

While Jess angled across the broad main street towards the boarding house, Slim entered the jailhouse and greeted their friend and sheriff, Mort Cory.  As Slim filled him in on the events of the day before, Mort reared back in his chair his fingers laced pillowing the back of his head.  His face took on a grave look as Slim finished. 

“That’s bad news Slim.”  Leaning forward he opened the top desk drawer and removed a stack of wanted posters, which he quickly thumbed through.  Finding the one he wanted he handed it to Slim and stuffed the rest back into the drawer.  

“You know who rode into town two days ago?” he asked.  Without waiting he answered it himself, “Wesley Denton.  That flyer you have there is on a shooting that took place outside of Fort Collins, Colorado two weeks ago.  It doesn’t finger Wes by name but he sure fits the description and if your Mrs. Tibbles is looking for someone to do the sort of job you’re talking about, he certainly wouldn’t balk at any kind of offer she might make him.  He packs his gun loose and he’s just plain mean.” 

Slim scowled.  “Sounds like a man that’s got no feeling in his trigger finger.  Aren’t there any charges we can pick him up on?” 

“Sure he’s been implicated in a lot of shootings but we’ve never been able to actually pin one on him, at least until now.  We may have a witness that can identify the shooter this time though, and if I can find a legal reason to hold him here long enough for the witness to identify him, we just may be able to put him behind bars for good.” 

Mort pushed his chair back from the desk and stood up.  “I hear tell Wes is a real hand for booze and I expect we can find him in the saloon.  I was just about to head over there and have a little chat with him when you came in,” he said as he checked his side arm.  

“Where’s Jess anyway?  I’d hate to have him run into Denton.  Wes is a hard customer by himself, but he’s not been known to play a lone hand so he’s liable to have two or three guns riding with him.”  


While Slim was bringing Mort up to speed, Jess made his way toward Willa’s boarding house.  The ringing of his spurs pursued him across the street and up toward the boarding house, which sat on a small rise above the street. 

Immediately after Jess had hit the boardwalk on the far side of the street, Mrs. Tibbles came out the side door of the large two-story home.  She rushed as quickly as she could, under the circumstances, down the low hill towards him.  “Mr. Harper,” she puffed breathlessly as she drew near.  “I’m awful glad to see you.  I really need your help.” 

“Ma’am,” Jess said tipping his hat.  “I thought I was clear where I stood yesterday.” 

“No,” she said glancing about wildly.  “It’s not that.  I need help stoppin’ what I started.”  Gripping Jess’ shirtsleeve she pulled him into the ally that stood between two shops.  “I was pointed to a man after I got into town yesterday and he agreed to my uh—proposition,” she said in a secretive voice.  

With a despairing look she patted her bosom reverently and added, “I don’t know what I was thinkin’, but this morning I had a change of heart and tried to put a stop to it.  That spittin’ snake of a man—,” she paused, her eyes blinking with incredulity.  “—why he won’t allow me call it off!” 

“Who’s this man and where can I find him?”  Jess asked, his face hardening. 

“He didn’t give me his name, but I saw him go into the saloon not an hour ago.” 

Jess escorted her back to the boardwalk and turned toward the saloon down the street.  In after thought, he stopped and asked over his shoulder, “Where’s your husband now?”  

“I was afeared for him, so I sent him out after a fresh cow.  Told him I wouldn’t feed my chillern any of that canned cow they got on the shelves at the mercantile. 

“Believe he took the north road.  That mulish man is apt to stop at every homestead he comes ‘cross huntin’ a stool-and-bucket cow that he can bring along before he’ll return empty handed.”  

Jess digested this a moment then stepped off toward the watering hole, his boot heels hammering with purpose on the plank walkway.  

Chapter 5

Jess left the hot street behind as he stepped into the cool dark of the saloon.  He stood for a brief moment in the doorway to give his eyes time to adjust and read the room. 

Small knots of men were bellied up to the bar or seated at tables around the room.  Two men who Jess knew well were wearing calluses on their elbows downing pickled eggs while nursing a bottle of whiskey between them.  A small group of men, some Jess was familiar with and others he was not, played poker at one of the tables. 

At a table near the back wall sat two strangers he immediately recognized for what they were.  He knew the kind; men who hunted trouble.  Jess could see the whiskey working in their faces and as a barmaid walked by their table the loud apple-cheeked man, who was not much more than a youth, captured her around the waist and laughing at his own suggestive humor, pulled her onto his lap.  

The older of the two men clumsily snatched at the all but empty bottle of whiskey in the center of the table.  His reach only succeeded in knocking it over and what little liquor had been left in the bottle spilled onto the table and a deck of scattered playing cards.  He cursed, capturing the bottle from where it lay and took a long disappointing draw on it.  

Jess skirted the tables and made his way to the bar.  At the far end of the bar, a lithe muscular man downed one whiskey and quickly followed it with a second.  From the back, Jess didn’t recognize him immediately but there was a familiarity about him.  It was the fancy rigging on the man’s hip and the way he abrasively demanded another “pair of overalls” that jogged recognition.  

The barkeep approached with rag in hand.  “What’ll you have, Jess?”  

Slapping hard money on the bar he named his drink, then without looking at the man at the far end of the bar, Jess said, “I hear you’re lookin’ for someone, Wes.”  Picking up the glass of whiskey Cal set in front of him he added, “Trouble is—”  He threw back the drink and let the fire burn out in his throat before he went on.  “Your services are no longer required.”  Jess set the shot glass down and turned to face the other man.  “It’s time to roll your blankets and ride.” 

The two men never did cotton much to one another in spite of riding for the same outfit at one time.  Jess had always tried to avoid gun trouble.  That’s not to say he ran his boot heels over sidestepping trouble.  When trouble came he met it head-on, drawing his gun only when necessity demanded.  

Wes, on the other hand, rode into a conflict with an itchy trigger finger, often drawing wages on both sides before the fight was over.  One thing was certain.  He left the undertaker riding high on a wave of prosperity when he rode out.   

Wes turned around and leaned back on the bar with his elbows, his thumbs hooked in his gun belt.  He flashed his teeth at the two men at the table then with a nod in Jess’s direction he said, “Harper and I rode together during a little Winchester quarantine on the Diamond Tail down in Colorado a few years back.”  He turned his head and rested an amused eye on Jess.  “That was one hell of a fight wasn’t it, Jess?” 

The reaction to his name was clear on the faces of the men at the table.  The younger of the two men took on a look of eager recklessness while the burly older man’s face went gray and he gave his companion a keep-your-mouth-shut scowl. 

Tension began creeping along Jess’ muscles and a wave of irritation crossed his face.  He wiped it away with his hand.  “The past is another country, Wes.  I rode some different trails there.” 

“I don’t know, Jess, ‘pears to me you’re ridin’ some of the same trails now.  As I recall you gave me orders to quit the country then too and you wasn’t even the top screw.  Sure I moved on then, but only because the fight was nearly over and it didn’t pay to stick around any longer.”  Wes gave Jess a look that should have been in a scabbard.  “It sure as hell wasn’t on your say and it won’t be this time either.” 

The brassy youth boosted the struggling barmaid from his lap as he lurched to his feet, and pushed her toward the bar ahead of him with such force that the silks and satins she wore swished like a high wind in tall grass.  His face twisted with savage glee.  “Damn painted cat is about as warm as an icicle.”  A few feet short of the bar he swaggered to a stop and gave the woman one last brutal shove.  “Make yourself useful and get my friend ‘nother bottle,” he snorted as she careened toward the bar. 

Jess bridled at the young man’s rude remarks and the woman’s ill treatment and stepped into her path as she was about to plow into the bar.  He caught her in his arms and steadied her, then holding and supporting her by the elbows he looked down into her fearful eyes.  “Are you all right, Maggie?”  

She nodded, then gasped, “Yes, yes I’m fine,” as she pulled from his comforting hands and hurried behind the bar to fetch a bottle of whiskey. 

Chapter 6

Jess’ eyes narrowed and he gave the young man a once over.  It wasn’t just raw reckless whiskey courage that gave the youth his bravado and he knew it.  The young man’s athletic build, sinewy arms as well as the calloused thumb on his right hand hadn’t gone unnoticed.  Throwing his words over his shoulder Jess said, “Wes, you better get this gunsel out of here.  He’s got a bad case of big behavior and a leaky mouth.  And he’s about to find out the sun don’t come up just to hear him crow.”  

“Sometimes he’s a bit flannel mouthed,” Wes admitted with a manipulative grin, “but I wouldn’t fret about Garret, Jess.  He’s a real hand with his fists as well as that side iron he wears.  One day he’ll have quite a reputation.” 

“If he don’t end up in the bone orchard first,” Jess shot back, his ears heating up with anger.   

Garret’s face grew hot and pinched with resentment.  “Don’t you worry none about me, Harper.  I’m a man-eater and I’m gonna have you for supper,” he glanced around at the other men in the bar, giving them a smug grin, “and that goes for anyone else who gets in my way.” 

“You might think you’re a man-eater, but you’ll find I’m a tough piece of gristle to chew.”  His right knee pumped absently and the muscles in his jaw tightened.  “I just came in for a little polite conversation, but if this is the way you want it, you can have it.” 

Garret came in suddenly.  Jess ducked the first punch and caught a second on the cheek that knocked him out from under his hat, staggering him back against the bar.  Garret was fast—surprisingly fast.  Before Jess could recover Garret pounded him in the ribs with both hands then went for his face. 

A punch went wild and Jess ducked under.  Before Garret could get set again Jess jabbed him in the mouth splitting his lip.  With a whining cry of fury Garret hurled himself at Jess, butting him in the chest with his head, knocking him to the floor.  Garret went down with him and both men scrambled to their feet. 

They closed again and Jess mashed him in the face with both fists and then landed a solid one to the ribs.  Garret blocked the next punch then drove Jess back with an attack to the head.  Breaking free Jess caught Garret with a left to the bloody mouth then threw a right cross that split the man’s pulpy red cheek. 

Feigning with the left, Garret followed it with a right hook, landing a wicked blow to Jess’s left ear that left him dazed.  He staggered into an over hand left to the chin that put him flat on his back. 

Garret landed on top of him with a sneer and wound up for a furious punch to the face.  Blocking the punch Jess rapped Garret on the ears with both hands then bloodied his nose before rolling out from underneath. 

Both men staggered to their feet and sparred briefly, exchanging blow for blow.  For the second time, Garret boxed Jess on the ear then tore into the ribcage driving Jess back against the bar again.  Jess blocked two punches then caught Garret on the chin.  Garret gave ground and Jess stepped in quickly, slamming a right into the man’s lean belly that doubled him over.  A hard uppercut to the chin straightened Garret up before dropping him like an empty sack. 

Exhausted, Jess stood wavering over the young man’s crumpled body as he gulped air.  A sound from behind alerted him too late and as he turned he caught a ham-sized fist to the mouth that sent him crashing into a table that skated out from under him and he tumbled to the floor. 

Jess heard pleasure in the burly man’s growl as he put boots to him, nailing him in the ribs twice.  A kick to the head grazed his left eyebrow.  When the big man’s over-sized foot shot out again, Jess seized the heel of the viciously flying boot and with a twist jerked the clumsy but powerful man off his feet. 

Jess tried to stand but fell against the table, his head buzzing from the blows.  Kneeling, he seized the edge of the table in a desperate struggle to gain his feet first just as the pocked faced man clambered to his own, and threw a left that might have ended the fight right there had it landed.  But Jess went under it and came up splitting the man’s face with his elbow. 

The big man circled trying to figure out just what to do next.  Thinking wasn’t his strong point so he made a wild charge.  Jess met him, pitching him to the floor with a rolling hip-lock.  Stumbling with fatigue, Jess nearly fell on top of the big man but steadied himself with bent knees and as the big man got his feet under him Jess pounded him in the face, knocking him to the floor again.  Grabbing the front of the man’s shirt Jess lifted the big man’s head from the floor to meet his fist and followed it with two more blows.  

Leaving the man groaning on the floor, Jess backpedaled a couple of faltering steps.  He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, tasting blood as he turned unsteadily to face Wes. 

Raising his hands, Wes gave Jess a smile with nothing behind it but teeth.  “You know me better than that, Jess.  I won’t have a hand in a barroom brawl.”  He imitated the hand gesture of firing a gun.  “Can’t take a chance on hurting my hands you know.” 

“Get them out of here, Wes,” he said, his voice coming in short ragged bursts.  “Saddle up and ride out.” 

Jess weaved and stumbled as he stooped to pick up first his hat and then those of the other men, throwing them in their faces as they each made efforts to stand. 

Ushering his companions out the back door, Wes turned, his eyes steady and dangerous and with an acid voice said, “This isn’t the end of it, Harper.  The next time we meet you’ll be taking the big jump.” 

The room began to swim, and exhausted, Jess took a couple faltering steps toward the bar before falling to his knees.  His breath came raw in his throat and his head pounded.  He tried to rise but the effort only made him queasy.  A flash of light from the street accompanied someone through the door then everything went black. 

Chapter 7

Awareness came in stages.  The nearly unbearable hammering pain in his skull surfaced first.  He stirred and his tender ribs disapproved, then aches and pains exploded all over his body.  Moaning, Jess opened his eyes to a small room that swam in and out of focus.  A sour taste rose in his throat and he closed his eyes fighting it back.  

Distant voices hummed in his head.  He tried to listen but couldn’t make out the words and wasn’t sure if the voices were real or part of the white noise that pulsated through his skull.  He raised a hand to his throbbing head, fingering the bandage someone had wrapped around it and waited for the wave of nausea to recede before forcing his eyelids open a crack.  That’s when he realized where he was; on a bunk behind bars. 

This wasn’t the first time he’d woken to find himself in the hoosegow.  His brain was in a tangle and he tried to sort out of it what kind of trouble he had gotten himself into that would have put him behind bars, but unknotting his mind was too hard, so he quit. 

Very carefully he managed to get his feet over the side and onto the floor.  He hung on to the edge of the cot to keep from falling off of the world, closing his eyes for a moment when the room flip-flopped.  It was only after he opened his eyes again that he realized the cell door was ajar, which meant he hadn’t gotten himself into too much trouble. 

Each of his bruised and raw knuckles had a migraine and he worked his fingers as he waited for the torture in his head to give ground a little before attempting his “jail break.”  With some relief the galloping in his skull began to rein-in and his brain managed to recapture the encounter in the saloon. 

A hungering thirst drove him to his feet and he cautiously made his way from the open cell to the outer sheriff’s office.  The room was empty despite having thought he heard hushed voices when he first came around.  With unsure steps he reached the small table along the back wall where a pitcher of water and a washbasin waited.  Tin coffee mugs hung on wall pegs between the table and the pot bellied stove and he retrieved one from its place and filled it with water from the pitcher. 

The cool water delighted his parched throat and he drank greedily, spilling a portion of the refreshing liquid down the front of his shirt.  Then filling the basin with water he splatted cupped handfuls against his feverish face and neck. 

Drip-drying Jess reclaimed his hat and six-gun from the wall peg by the door and sloshed on his hat, wincing when it slapped the dressed laceration on his brow.  With care, Jess slouched his hat at an angle above the disapproving wound, and stepped out onto the board walkway as he buckled on the gun belt. 

Without really thinking about it, he pulled his six-gun and checked to make sure there were five rounds in the cylinder then eased the hammer down on the empty chamber and dropped it back in its leather.  

Jess looked out over the sun-baked hills rising above the town and ruminated on the direction the day had taken.  So far, his day had been as hard to rein in the direction he wanted to take it as a buggy horse with its tail over the lines. 

As his thoughts wandered off and left him, he turned to ease into a chair that crouched in the shade against the building when he stopped short, too paralyzed to move. 

From down the street Mrs. Tibbles chugged towards him and in her wake darted her entire brood, like ducklings stumbling over one another trying to keep up with mama.  

Shopkeepers with brooms sweeping out their establishments from the morning’s dusty traffic and ladies with armloads of packages abandoned the walkway as the raft of Tibbles flowed by.  Some even seemed to be caught in the undercurrent and they fell in line for a few paces before breaking free to go on their own way. 

“Mr. Harper, you look awful,” she puffed, as the Tibbles parade piled to a stop in front of the jailhouse. 

Yes, ma’am.”  Though his greeting lacked the customary tip of the hat Jess favored her with a polite but guarded smile. 

“You’re hurt,” she moaned as she took in the cut lip, his tousled appearance and the bandage that peeked out from under his hat.  She wrung her hands and her face darkened with shame as the children pressed in.  “I do hope it wasn’t on my account.”  Her voice rose a little on the last word, making her statement a polite half-question. 

“Don’t worry yourself, ma’am,” Jess said as he assumed a posture of fitness, steeling himself from his aching body.  “I’m fine.  I just ran into an old acquaintance of mine, and a couple of his friends.  We had–” He looked for the right words.  “—a heated discussion.” 

She challenged his answer with her eyes.  “I see.  Maybe I should speak to Sheriff Cory about this instead.  I believe I’ve caused you too much trouble already.”    

Jess’ eyes slid to the door of the sheriff’s office and back.  “He’s not in.”  His mouth twitched slightly at one corner as he thought, “What now?” but he didn’t ask.  Instead he let his stare ask the question. 

She looked at him with wide, almost alarmed eyes as she drew a child close.  “Faith just told me some men came by the boarding house a while ago looking for her pa.”  Her eyes took on a pleading I-hate-to-ask-this-of-you look, as she added, “She told ‘em he was out of town.  A short while later she saw the same men ride out.  They took the north road and,” her voice wavered, “as you know that’s the direction Tobias rode.”   

As Mrs. Tibbles kept her eyes imploringly on his face, she pulled two of the youngest children under her protective wing.  The older children flocked around her, worrying their lower lips with their teeth.   

Jess slipped under the hitching rail between the two horses waiting at the rail.  “I’ll find Tobias,” he said as he tightened the cinch with a tug.  “Try the café.  Mort usually has dinner there about this time.  Slim’s likely with him.  Give ‘em a message for me too, will you?  Tell ‘em Wes Denton is in town and he’s lookin’ for someone.  They’ll get my meaning.”  

He stepped into the saddle and turned the horse as he spoke.  “Do you reckon those men just happened to ride out in the same direction or were they trailin’ Tobias?”   

The question made Faith study the ground, her features almost grief-stricken.  “I might have mentioned that pa had taken the north road,” she murmured.  

The guilt she felt touched something inside him and he gave her a sympathetic smile.  Pumping optimism into his voice he said, “Don’t worry.  I’ll make sure you’re pa gets home safe and sound.”  

His attempt to ease her mind earned him a feeble smile.   

To Chapter 8

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