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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
like we’ve got us a visitor, Jess.”
‘pears to me like she’s plannin’ on stayin’ for a spell.
How do you reckon she got out here?”
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
have needed a wagon to haul all those trappings,” said Jess squinting across
the closing distance trying to identify the woman. “You recognize her?”
believe so. She doesn’t look a
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.
if she ain’t wearin’ the bustle wrong,” Jess exclaimed when he saw the
load she was carrying.
glimpsed the probing look Slim gave him and sharply reined the gelding in.
Slim did likewise and they eyed each other warily.
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.”
frowned. “Wonder when the
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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?”
gestured in Slim’s direction with her chin.
“He your partner?”
men gave each other questioning looks. “Yeah,
I reckon he is,” Jess answered.
I can talk without coyotin’ around the rim?”
cautious smile touched his lips. “I
won’t kick if you want to jump right in.”
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.”
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.
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.
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
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.
you’ve got your saddle on the wrong horse,” Jess said as he fought to
maintain the pretense of politeness.
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.”
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?”
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,
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.
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?”
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.”
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.
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
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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
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 I think it would be better that I’m on my way now,” she said firmly.
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.
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.
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.
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.
welcomed Slim. “Step on down and
get the kinks out.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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’.”
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.
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.”
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
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.
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.
Jess! Stop fueling the fire and
help the little lady aboard,” Mose shouted with a conspiratorial smile aimed
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.
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.
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.
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.”
set the steaming plates of food on the table.
“Ride over that trail again?”
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’.”
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.”
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
Jess then dove with relish, back to his plate of beans.
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.
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?”
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.”
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.
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
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.”
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?”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
Jess said tipping his hat. “I
thought I was clear where I stood yesterday.”
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.
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!”
this man and where can I find him?” Jess
asked, his face hardening.
didn’t give me his name, but I saw him go into the saloon not an hour ago.”
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?”
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.
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
digested this a moment then stepped off toward the watering
hole, his boot heels hammering with purpose on the plank walkway.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
barkeep approached with rag in hand. “What’ll
you have, Jess?”
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.”
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
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.
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?”
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
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.”
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
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
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?”
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.
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.”
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.”
he don’t end up in the bone orchard first,” Jess shot back, his ears heating
up with anger.
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.”
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.”
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.”
them out of here, Wes,” he said, his voice coming in short ragged bursts.
“Saddle up and ride out.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
Harper, you look awful,” she puffed, as the Tibbles parade piled to a stop in
front of the jailhouse.
ma’am.” Though his greeting lacked the customary tip of the hat Jess
favored her with a polite but guarded smile.
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
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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
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.”
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?”
question made Faith study the ground, her features almost grief-stricken.
“I might have mentioned that pa had taken the north road,” she
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.
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