THIS HEART BE STILL
April 4; 5PM; outlaw’s camp
day was waning and Daisy was considerably tired, absolutely sore and totally
lost when her horse was pulled through the narrow opening of a canyon that
sprouted a forest of jumbled rocks.
This was their obvious destination and she sighed with relief as her
Rash was quick out of the saddle and would have been the first to her
side to help her dismount had Darrell – pardon, “Clay!” – not rushed to
held up his arms as if to catch her . . . and nearly had to when her left knee
went out and would have spilled her to the ground had Clay not reached up to
steady her and aided her more decorous descent.
smiled and said in a voice that cracked with fatigue, “Thank you, dear,”
though she didn’t feel very genial toward him at all.
kept hold of her arm until she had gained her equilibrium, quirked a half-smile
and tipped the brim of his hat. “My pleasure, Miss Daisy.”
watched him stride away, spurs a’jingle.
rushed to her side after Rash helped him dismount, the boy’s bloodshot eyes
darting about and trying to watch everything and everyone.
Daisy folded an arm around his shoulders, being gentle as she cuddled his
left, leaned down to whisper, “It’s all right, Mike.
I don’t think they intend to hurt us.”
raised those fearful eyes to her.
“Are you sure, Aunt Daisy?
‘Cause I think that one,” he lifted his right hand, pointed back to
the “big man” built like a bear, “is real mean and kept grinning at me
like he was gonna eat me or something.”
if to confirm that observation, the man in question glanced out from under his
hat and smirked at the both of them as he marched by with two horses in tow.
raised her head and, lips tight, stared the man down.
snorted, shook his head and went on.
hugged Mike a little closer, leaned down to say, “You just stay close to me,
be all right.”
Aunt Daisy,” the boy answered quietly.
“But I sure wish Slim . . . or Jess was here.”
you worry. Someone
will come to take us home soon.”
only hoped that were true, then said another silent prayer, out of many silent
prayers, that Slim would be all right.
ambled over, scratching at his neck, stopped and touched the brim of his hat.
“Miss Daisy; Mike.
I’ll take you to into camp where you can sit a spell and get somethin’
to drink . . . besides dust,” he grinned and turned to lead the way.
you, young man,” she said kindly.
“They call you ‘Rash’ don’t they?” Daisy asked as she began
limping after him, following a path through the rocky forest and sagebrush, Mike
held close to her side.
guide turned his head, smiled. “Yes, Ma’am,” and scratched his cheek.
there is a certain wild flower growing in this area, perhaps I could make you
some ointment to help stop that itching.
I’ve already noticed a bush and the tree for the other ingredients
slowed and let them come abreast so he could walk beside her.
He turned wide, hopeful eyes.
You really think so, Ma’am?”
cocked her head and smiled up at him.
“If I can find the proper plant, yes, I believe I can.”
I’ve had this . . . stuff for a long while, Ma’am,” Rash answered with a
weren’t no doctor that could help.
How come you think you could, Miss Daisy?”
put on her best smile.
“Most doctors don’t believe in Indian cures, but I have learned a lot
since coming to this territory.
I once had the opportunity to . . . consult with a Cheyenne medicine
pondered that a moment while scratching his left arm.
walked through some boulders and into an oblong clearing, one side of the wall
the canyon’s side, the rest enclosed by great rocks.
It had a campfire in the center and only one entrance/exit. Daisy was
immediately overcome with awe because this campsite was so neat and clean.
The fire-pit was ringed with stone and the area about was tidy, almost as
if it had been swept.
There was not a bone or a tin can or any of the usual litter that
accompanied such a place, even though it was obvious these men had been here
quite some time.
Even the cooking utensils and foodstuffs were stacked neatly against the
rocks, everyone’s “outfit” arranged.
Daisy said. “I
Clay’s rule that we gotta keep this place real clean,” Rash’s smile was
very pleased. “He
don’t like clutter and he sure don’t like no bugs around camp,” and
‘specially don’t like ants.”
have their place in God’s plan,” Daisy answered, looking around for some
place to sit that wasn’t already being occupied by an outlaw’s neat
tipped his hat and turned away…
Daisy called softly, halting the man.
“Could you stay with us, please?” and she dipped her head at the big
man who walked into the campsite and parked his bulk on a nearby rock to leer at
Ma’am, but I gotta tend to my horses, another thing Clay don’t let no one
get away from,” Rash answered, glanced at the big man and added.
“Don’t worry ‘bout Todd, he won’t hurt you none.
He looks mean – and he is mean – but Clay’s give us all orders we
ain’t to touch neither of you…
‘Less, of course, you try to get away,” he added a lopsided grin,
touched the brim of his hat again and walked back to wherever the horses were
Daisy, I’m scared,” Mike confessed in a soft, trembling voice.
indeed, she could feel him shaking.
She pulled him closer to her, patted his back.
“We’ll be just fine, Mike, don’t you worry. You
just keep your head and your spirits up and we’ll be out of here in no time.
aches a little,” he confessed, “but not too much.
It was hurting worse . . . before…”
patted him again, understanding his reluctance to recall what had happened
just healing, that’s all.
on, let’s find us a place to sit down,” and she purposefully started walking
straight toward Todd and his meant-to-intimidate smirk.
immediately resisted, so she leaned down and whispered, “Just think of this .
. . Todd as a big . . . fat . . . toad…”
Mike let out a strangled laugh, the “toad” lost the snide grin and replaced
it with a stupefied gape . . . which only made Mike laugh for real because that
expression really did make him look like a frog ready to unleash a long tongue
to catch a fly.
turned aside and walked to another rock the second the red-faced “toad”
jumped to his feet…
within earshot stopped what they were doing.
Todd jerked around.
“Yeah, Clay?” he asked, raising his arms in an exaggerated shrug and
acting totally innocent.
stood with a fist on his hip and his shoulders hunched.
“Did you take care of those two horses you had charge of?”
Yeah…” Todd shrugged . . . and ducked as Clay tossed a horse brush at
retrieved the brush from the dirt, heaved a heavy sigh and stalked out of the
campsite muttering like a scolded child.
caught Darrell/Clay’s eye, smiled sweetly and dipped a little curtsey in a
thank you before moving to the little niche in the rocks she’d chosen, Mike
(he was having a hard time holding back giggles now) by her side.
she said with a bright smile, “I told you we’d be all right.”
On Their Way
4; late afternoon, south of Laramie
Mort Cory and Deputy Larry Milford rode ahead of the ten-man posse which
included Buford’s Sheriff’s Deputy Jacob Shuler.
Now they were heading back to Laramie, the dust of their passage
lingering on the darkening road.
They’d just exchanged their second set of worn out horses for fresh
mounts, but there’d be no others available between that ranch they’d
“borrowed” them from and their destination, so they couldn’t afford to
push these remounts too hard the rest of the way back to town.
just hoped and prayed Laramie was still there.
before, he and Larry had just climbed back into the stage after their brief stop
at the first relay station after Buford, the town where they’d spent the
night, ready, but not eager for the last leg of their all day journey to
Cheyenne and that court appearance the next afternoon.
But a Buford man on a lathered horse had intercepted them before the
driver could get the coach moving.
This breathless messenger then delivered a rather long telegram sent from
the Marshal all the way in Cheyenne.
sure didn’t expect this:
Gang members seen Fort Collins area three weeks ago.
Suspect Gang in Laramie area now to intercept Cheyenne special payroll
due afternoon today, held overnight in Laramie bank.
Have no confirmation of arrival as Laramie cut off, telegraph lines down
Hingel postponed trial.
Advise you deputize posse for return.
care, Mort; Clay Ryder has killed his share of lawmen and one of his gang is a
Frank B. Shepherd.”
had every intention of “taking care” and his small group would swell
appropriately when he reached Laramie.
he knew of one man he could certainly count on, if he was still alive: Jess
4; early evening, Laramie
knew he should take off as soon as his mules were loaded, but he couldn’t just
leave without knowing…
he knocked on the Doctor’s door this time, a very prim and proper Mrs.
Friedman let him in with a sociable smile and bade him follow her down the hall
to one of the rooms they reserved for “convalescing” patients.
in hand, Jess quietly opened the door and stepped into a small, semi-dark room
that made his nose wrinkle with the smell of alcohol – the disinfectant kind,
not the drinking kind – ether and carbolic and the more subtle scents of clean
shades were pulled and there was only one candle lit; it made a puddle of
brightness near the head of the bed where the doctor was standing, someone’s
limp wrist in one hand and a watch in the other.
halted, his breath caught in his throat.
The figure in that bed seemed to blend all too well into the starched
whiteness of those sheets, the distinctive golden hair on the pillow the only
recognizable feature that marked those sunken features as Slim’s.
Friedman glanced up, smiled, and gently placed Slim’s arm beneath the covers
and straightening them before walking quietly forward.
“He is responding very well,” the doctor whispered when he was close,
held out his hand in a gesture that indicated Jess should precede him back out
I . . . sit with him a spell?
I won’t stay but minute or two…” Jess said quietly, crumpling his
Friedman shook his head.
Even though he has been lightly sedated, he requires this peace and quiet
now,” and indicated the door again.
considered telling the doctor he might not ever get the chance to see his friend
and partner again and, whether Slim could hear him or not, there were some
things he just needed to say to him.
Instead, he clamped his lips tight, nodded and went back out into the
hall, the doctor silently shutting the door behind them.
badly was he hit?” Jess stopped to ask when they were away from the door.
Friedman put a hand on Jess’ back and slowly “ushered” him toward the
parlor where a bright fire blazed.
“Mister Sherman is one very, very fortunate man.
And I must simply speculate what could have taken place that spared him
I shall assume the bullet came from extreme long range?”
Jess corrected, “the driver said he heard the shot come from the house.
Slim was in the house with the gunman.”
Friedman hummed to himself and frowned thoughtfully. “Then I must assume the
weapon was of small caliber – a derringer perhaps?
Or it may have been a misfire?
The slug was deflected by a rib and the bullet’s path was rather
shallow, internal damage almost minor, if one does not regard such loss of blood
of his intestines was gouged, but was not totally breached, and his stomach
merely grazed before the projectile exited over half-way up upon the right side
of his abdomen.
Had that intestine, or his stomach, been punctured, however, we would
have had considerable worry for septicemia…
Or even gangrene.”
stopped and spun around, eyes wide.
Dr. Friedman assured.
“That is the least likely possibility now, but he has lost the absolute
maximum amount of blood that any man could have.”
mean he almost bled to death?” Jess asked.
was of considerable concern and an alarming possibility I believe, yes,” the
doctor nodded as he gently “moved” Jess closer to the doorway.
He will be all right, won’t he Doc?” Jess asked, stepping into
the cozy living area.
Friedman patted him on the back and nodded, then pointed him toward a chair near
the fire. “Unless
some unforeseen complication arises, he should recover very well.
Abdominal wounds typically heal by themselves, but he will be . . .
‘laid up’ for at least four, possibly six weeks.
He will have a rather interesting scar,” and smiled again.
grabbed a relieved breath, but all at once the room – Jess’ world! –
tilted, went out of focus and turned gray at the edges. “I…
next thing he knew, he was sitting in that chair by the fire with the doctor
pressing down on the back of his neck, holding his head down.
The moment he resisted that hand, the pressure was released and he sat
up, blinking and wondering what happened.
doctor squatted in front of him, a concerned scowl on his face.
“When was the last time you slept or ate, Deputy?”
shook his head, not necessarily to give an answer – though he couldn’t quite
recall his last meal or what a bed felt like.
“Doesn’t matter,” he started.
it does,” Dr. Friedman answered and stood, his fists on his hips.
“Anna, please convey the sandwiches you have prepared,” he said
tried to stand up, but found the doctor’s hand on his shoulder holding him
Friedman wasn’t a very strong looking man, but he was keeping Jess pinned
nonetheless . . . until the anger took over!
whipped his left arm up and around, knocking the doctor’s arm away.
He thrust himself up and glowered down into the man’s upturned face.
“I haven’t got the time to sit and eat anything!
Haven’t you heard what’s going on?”
Friedman, at least three inches shorter than Jess, but just as determined, stood
toe to toe with him and said in a strained whisper, “Keep your voice, and your
temper, under control!
Or must I assume you care nothing as regards that man in the bed down the
blinked at him, realized what he’d done and lowered his eyes like a cowed
little boy. He
shook his head.
“Sorry; wasn’t thinkin’…”
you were not, which is yet another reason to keep your body and mind functioning
properly with proper rest as well as food for strength and energy,” the doctor
“And though I realize you have little time for a long rest within clean
sheets, you shall sit down and eat…
Or must I bind you to this chair and have my wife force-feed you?”
vision made Jess turn his head and smile.
understand what has occurred, Deputy,” Dr. Friedman continued in less intense
tone as he moved away, “and we both realize, and comprehend your concern and
need to take these funds you have accumulated as quickly as possible to ransom
Misses Cooper and young Mike Williams.
Yet I also know you will do them no good if you cannot think or stay upon
your feet. Therefore…”
Friedman walked into the room carrying a plate with six neatly halved sandwiches
. . . and a stern and determined expression on her face.
sat back down and accepted one of the halves, whether he wanted it or not, while
Mrs. Friedman set the plate on the small table at his elbow.
He didn’t feel like eating anything, didn’t know if it would even
stay down if he tried, but he took a bite just to placate them…
was just about the best chicken sandwich he’d ever tasted; it just melted in
his mouth. He
wolfed the first, then the other half, started working on the second sandwich
before the doctor’s wife brought some coffee to help wash it down.
all the while he sat there stuffing his face like the starving man he realized
he actually was, the doctor and his wife sat together on the settee, holding
hands and smiling at him.
Right then, he didn’t care if the rest of the town came in to look over
their shoulders to see him make a pig of himself.
finished the fifth half and started to reach for the rest of that sandwich, then
pulled his hand back as the clock on the mantle chimed softly.
A glance out the window only confirmed it was full dark now.
leaped to his feet.
appreciate…” and waved his hand at everything, “but I’ve got to go,”
and started for the door.
Friedman stood and held up a hand.
“Allow me to prepare a sack so you may take the sandwiches with you.”
shook his head, “Thanks, Ma’am, but you’ll have to excuse me.
I just can’t wait any longer,” and stepped around her.
shall tell Mister Sherman you visited,” the doctor said as he held out Jess’
took his hat, nodded thanks again and started out the door . . . only to pause
in the hallway, nervously turning the brim in his hands.
turned, Jess bowed his head and answered, “Doc?
Just tell him I’ll bring Miss Daisy and Mike home as soon as I can . .
. if he asks about anything, all right?”
didn’t wait for a reply; he just marched to the door and let himself out, took
the four steps in one jump and went out the gate.
He untied his horse and one of the two sturdy, fully loaded mules he’d
linked together and swung into the saddle.
knew the Doctor and his wife was watching him from the porch, so, before he rode
away, he glanced back and lifted a hand.
were back-lit by the open door.
He couldn’t see their faces, but he knew they smiled as they returned
his farewell wave.
They might be different and talk strange, but right then he couldn’t
think of any better “friends” to have watching over his Pard.
was a nice warm, full feeling in his stomach that was also making him just a bit
drowsy as he started up the street.
He shook his head to clear it; he couldn’t afford to sleep in the
the moment he entered Main Street, he wished he’d taken some back alleys
just hadn’t expected a send-off and it kind of took him by surprise to find at
least a quarter of the population standing along the boardwalks or looking out
Some waved, some called “good luck,” a few muttered not so flattering
comments, but no one tried to stop him as he led his mules out of town and up
the north road.
figured he’d be followed the moment he left the lights behind.
He never figured he’d be ghosted by someone so clumsy…
Or was this man just making it clear that Jess understood the situation?
again, it could be some drunken yahoo from town.
He didn’t have to worry about any outlaws, but he might have some
trouble with some liquored-up cowboy tempted to take what he was carrying.
But whoever it was, he was keeping his distance steady, never lagging
back or moving closer, just close enough for Jess to hear another horse
least they – and that “itchy feeling” between his shoulder blades – was
keeping him awake now!
might not know the true Darrell who called himself “Clay,” but he did figure
he understood how the outlaw thought.
And Darrell/Clay wasn’t about to let anyone shoot him in the back, not
here and not now.
When he got to the rendezvous point though, that might be another story.
He just had to hope it’d be Darrell who’d want to do the shooting
himself in a face-to-face showdown.
He didn’t know how fast Darrell had become, but he sure as hell knew
how quick he could get his own Colt into his hand.
is, when he was rested and could think straight.
He figured if Miss Daisy decided to draw on him tonight, she’d probably
beat him by a mile if it took her less than a minute to clear leather.
air had turned chilly by the time he reached the old west fork road and he
considered untying his light-weight jacket from behind the cantle.
But the cold would help keep him awake and alert, something he needed to
be on this little used road.
He had to follow it for almost ten miles and it was only a lighter gray
ribbon in all that blackness, notorious for its rain-runoff ruts and rock slides
that could bring his heavy burdened mules down in full daylight.
When the three-quarter moon rose in a couple of hours, he might be able
to make better time without risking any broken legs or worse, but not now.
They had to last the whole trip and, no matter how much he wanted to
hurry to Daisy’s and Mike’s rescue, he couldn’t afford losing a mule, or
his horse, in the dark.
horseman followed him onto the road.
didn’t make any wishes that this one’s horse wouldn’t break a leg.
4; near midnight, Laramie
Cory and his posse of tired men trotted into Laramie just as the moon rose over
the hills. He’d
expected to find lamp-lit street corners and darkened thoroughfares with
everyone abed, so it was a total surprise when there were horses at several of
the hitching rails and quite a few citizens still walking about or standing in
small groups. Several
establishments, including the bank, which should have closed long before
sundown, were lit up and the saloon was enjoying quite a brisk
goin’ on, Sheriff?” one of his possemen asked.
don’t know,” Mort answered and pulled his horse up in the street.
“Let’s find out,” and turned his horse toward a hitching rail near
the saloon – there wasn’t any more room in front of the Palace.
dismounted with a tired groan and arched his back, hearing vertebra realign with
pops and crackles all along his spine.
“Larry, you, Steve and Mason ask questions in the saloon.
Talk to Sam, Larry, he’ll know what’s going on if no one else does.
Deputy Schuler, you and the rest take these horses to the stables, then
get yourselves to the hotel.
That is, if they have any rooms left with this . . . convention.
I’ll head back to the bank and find out why Mister Piper still has his
lights on and his doors open before I find Jess.
he augmented as his Deputy started to stride away with a happy smile on his
face, “just ask questions, Larry.
If you’re at all thirsty, have a beer, all right?
We all may have to get up really early tomorrow.”
Sheriff Jacob Schuler suppressed a yawn and shook his head. “It’s already
almost tomorrow, Sheriff.”
Mort answered around his own yawn and forced his feet to move toward the bank.
bank’s manager was hunched over his desk, shaking his head and muttering over
some paper he’d been writing on when Mort opened the unexpectedly unlocked
door stepped over the threshold.
man glanced up and his reddened eyes widened.
He gasped, dropped the pen and fairly leaped out of his chair, stumbled
backwards with his hands held out in front of him.
“You’ve already taken…” he began in a quivering voice before he
realized the badge that flashed in the lamplight belonged to someone else.
“Sheriff?” he blinked.
“Oh, god… Am I glad to see you, Mort!” he cried and advanced on
Cory like he intended to hug him.
stepped back and held up a hand to stop him.
“What’s going on, Chester?”
Piper looked ready to scream or cry, instead he said, “I was robbed!
Everything’s gone, Sheriff.
And your ‘Deputy’ is the one responsible!”
took Mort a couple of seconds to mull that over.
“You mean Jess robbed the bank?”
He waltzed right in here and demanded – at gun-point! – that I
hand over every cent I had in that vault.
I want him tracked down and arrested…
And that money returned!
Immediately!” Mr. Piper accented with a fist against his palm and a dip
of his head.
stepped to one of the cashier’s stations and leaned on it – this “news”
just about knocked his feet right out from under him.
He shook his head like he couldn’t believe it, which he didn’t.
“Why would Jess rob the bank?”
furious, determined expression on Piper’s face turned reflective.
I suppose he did have a fairly good reason,” he stammered.
“At least it seemed like a good enough reason at the time, but,
after thinking about it, I’m just not sure…”
pushed away from his leaning-post, hooked his thumbs in his gun belt and sighed.
“Why don’t you tell me exactly what happened; no sense going off
half-cocked and issuing a warrant when there might not be any need…”
that’s just it, Sheriff,” Piper interrupted, his voice an unsure whine.
“None of us really knows if it’s true or if . . . Jess Harper is in
cahoots with that outlaw.”
stiffened, his hands balling into fists and brows a thunderhead over his
Ryder!” Piper threw out his arms as if it was obvious.
tipped his hat to the back of his head and ran a hand over his face (as if he
could wash away his tiredness).
“All right, let’s have the whole story…”
5; 3AM to 6AM
was partially dozing in the saddle despite his determination not to when
something jerked him awake and immediately alert.
He started to pull Traveler up, but his horse had already stopped and his
hand darted to his revolver.
He looked around, unable to discover the cause or reason his horse
wasn’t anyone or anything blocking the road ahead – he could see that quite
clearly now that the moon had risen behind him.
When he turned in the saddle, the mules looked just fine despite their
did pick out a shadow that didn’t belong (his “ghost rider” probably), but
nothing that should cause Traveler to halt…
Off to Jess’ right was the very trail he was supposed to take.
heaved a breath and relaxed, leaned over and patted his bay’s shoulder.
“Thanks, boy; just about missed it,” he said, wondering just how his
horse should know that was where he was supposed to go.
A more likely explanation was the man following had called out or
whistled and, though the sound hardly registered on Jess’ ears, his horse had
clearly heard and stopped.
turned off the road and dragged his mule-train onto the north trail back into
moment he moved, the rider behind nudged his mount forward as well and Jess
turned his head just in time to see a brief, blue flash: moon-glow on a rifle
itch between his shoulders got a little more insistent…
note said there’d be a big sycamore just over a creek about a mile down the
other side of the ridge.
He was to take the deer path on the other side of the tree, going west
again, but he’d have to light a torch and lead his horse and pack animals up
this path as it was kind of steep in places, faint and twisted around some rocks
and brush. Just
before reaching the top of the next ridge, he’d see a clump of boulders off to
his right. He’d
be met there within those rocks…
idea of walking a bit kind of appealed to him at the moment.
He’d been in the saddle, with only brief “relief stops” for himself
and longer pauses to rest the mules along the way, for at least four hours,
And he hadn’t really slept any the night before, so his eyes were
gritty and dry and hard to focus.
When he came to the stream, he dismounted, let Traveler and mules quench
their thirst down stream as he drank from the chill water and tried to wash some
of that tiredness away.
He felt better after, but it wouldn’t last long…
Jess knew he wasn’t in any condition to make a fight of it, that his mind and
reflexes were slow.
Seemed his old friend had gotten too damned smart and clever at his
only hoped his own “plan” would work…
mounted again to cross the stream – walking in wet boots was not something
he’d appreciate – then dismounted again beside the large sycamore, made sure
the lead mule’s rope was secured to his saddle before he fetched the torch,
struck a match and lit it.
yellow fire made a circle of brightness around him and chased the shadows away
while creating other ghostly, shifting shapes as the slight breeze tugged at the
eyes glowed red as he turned his head to look back at his master; the horse
shook his head, bridle chain chiming, and snorted reproachfully.
ran his gloved hand beneath his mane and rubbed his neck.
“We’ll stop soon; I promise,” patted him and turned…
heard the man walk his horse closer and now could clearly see his “ghost”
sitting on the dark bay slaking its thirst on the other side of the narrow
man’s rifle butt rested on his right thigh and, thought his hat’s brim
caught the majority of the light, keeping most of his face in shadow, he seemed
“boy” dipped his head, perhaps just his acknowledgment of being seen,
possibly an indication that he was pleased with the way things were going.
Or maybe he was just anxious for Jess to get on with it as he must be
about as tired as Jess was.
took Traveler’s rein in his left hand and led him and the mules up the deer
path, his shadow following a moment later.
wasn’t a long journey, but it was a bit demanding in a couple of places.
The last mule had difficulty with one steep climb, then set its hind legs
and jumped the last two feet – thank goodness the lead ropes were long.
Still, mules, Traveler and Jess were breathing hard when they came
abreast of the rocks near the top.
turned toward them, watching where he put his feet…
can take it from here.”
almost lost his footing as he looked up too quickly.
His first instinct was to reach for his pistol, but his right hand was
already occupied with the torch and if he tossed that into the dry grass…
managed to gather enough spit to swallow and make his throat work.
Darrell . . . old . . . friend.”
the cold, Jess would have been dozing in the saddle again . . . if it had been
they’d tied his hands behind his back and blindfolded him.
After awhile his hands got numb, his shoulders and back began to ache and
his temples throbbed because the bandana was too tight.
His thighs trembled with the constant need to keep the saddle under him
and not fall head-first over the side because someone had made sure he’d be
off balance with the stirrups set too long.
He wasn’t sure who it was leading this horse they’d put him on, but
whoever it was, he wasn’t picking the easiest trails.
To make things even worse, his mount tended to stumble a lot.
split lip throbbed, a stark reminder of his lack of common sense.
He still tasted blood, though it had stopped bleeding some time ago.
course the doctor had been right when he said he wasn’t thinking straight and
lack of sleep hadn’t sharpened his judgment any.
If he had been thinking at all, he’d have kept his mouth shut when Todd
Matthews’ hulking form came out of the shadows and the big man slipped on a
loose rock as he came down to take the torch from him.
Jess just couldn’t keep the smirk from his face or the remark, “Still
light on your feet I see, Toddy,” from his tongue.
Todd yanked the torch from his hand and slammed a meaty right fist smack
against his mouth.
would have launched himself from the ground in an immediate counter attack had
Darrell not grabbed iron and called a halt to it – of course, the sound of a
Winchester’s action being cocked somewhere behind him helped cool his anger a
bit too, he’d all but forgotten his “ghost.”
So he had to get up, stand there and let sneering Todd take his gun and
belt, rip the badge right off his shirt – taking a piece of material with it
– and even take his hat.
Another man he recognized from the wanted poster as buck-toothed “Bob
Shaftner” took up Traveler’s reins and led his horse and the mules up to
more level ground.
was prodded and shoved all the rest of way up to the rocks, finally found out
the name of his “ghost” when Darrell praised the kid.
Then “Sandy” had to get all puffed up and bigheaded about what he’d
done to the town.
just added another name to the list of “those most likely to swing.”
knew he was being led around in circles so he couldn’t find his way to their
camp, it just didn’t make sense that Darrell and Todd would spend half the
night waiting in the cold rocks.
But it seemed that Jess wouldn’t be given the pleasure of a bed ‘til
the sun came up and he was thoroughly exhausted.
little ride did give him some hope Darrell would keep his word and might even
let him take Miss Daisy and Mike home.
Why go to all this trouble when it would have been easier to just put a
bullet in his head and leave his body in those rocks?
Only, Jess couldn’t trust the Matthews’ brothers wouldn’t defy
Darrell’s order and take such matters into their own hands.
still puzzled him why they’d join the man, or why Darrell wanted those men in
his gang when, as a kid, they’d used him as a punching bag.
Then, he never could understand the pure “outlaw breed,” though
he’d come close to treading that path himself once.
thoughts went round and round – not much else he could do except try not to
fall off. But
it really didn’t matter how they tried to confuse him, the “mules”
and their burdens would be taken directly to the camp, no matter where that was.
when Jess thought he couldn’t take much more of this torture, he caught a
whiff of smoke and horses.
One of those horses nickered; he knew it was Traveler and a relieved sigh
escaped his lips.
tangle-foot horse stumbled to a halt and rough hands grabbed him, literally
yanked him off the saddle.
He hit the ground on his left shoulder, hard enough to knock the breath
out of him.
enough!” he heard Darrell call before the jingling of his spurs told Jess his
“old friend” was marching toward him.
“Back off, Chris, or I swear…”
ain’t hurt none,” the other answered like a petulant child.
Chris,” Jess croaked and managed to sit up.
struck him a glancing blow to the jaw and laid him out in the dirt again, the
salty taste of blood coating his tongue once more.
said that’s enough, goddamnit Chris!” Darrell said right over him, heard
what sounded like a brief scuffle, then a slap from a gloved hand and someone
Then Darrell said, real quiet like, “Try it, Chris.
You just go ahead and pull that hog-leg.”
wanted to sit up or roll out of the way, but he just didn’t know which way to
move, it sounded like Darrell was standing right over him.
stiffened and turned his head.
“Daisy?” came out a weak grunt.
take Miss Daisy back to camp,” he heard Darrel bark.
“This ain’t no place for her.”
rose up on his shoulder, spit out the blood before he swallowed.
“Daisy, please stay out of this.
I’m all right.”
heard her moan, a man’s quiet voice, then steps retreating.
He relaxed a little.
a moment, Darrell asked, “Well, Chris?
What’s it to be?
If y’re waitin’ for your brother to back this play, you’ll be
waitin’ a long time.
I’ll lay odds he’s already passed-out drunk by the fire, ain’t he,
. . . it’s just you and me.”
shuffling in the dirt...
Sorry, Clay, just want some pay-back’s all,” Chris whimpered,
slurring his words.
“Ain’t about to draw on you.”
told Todd not to open that whisky I found.
Should a’ just tossed that box in the rocks.
But you all just had t’ open that now, didn’t yah.
An’ now you’re all gonna be feelin’ like hell all the rest of the
you can thank Jess, here, for that, too.”
felt the boot heel come down on his right shoulder and set his teeth in
expectation of excruciating pain if Darrell put his weight behind that boot!
Instead, Jess was only pushed down onto his back again, which was painful
enough with his hands still tied.
on back t’ camp, Chris,” Darrell ordered.
heard Chris’ boots thudding off in the awkward way of a drunk, then the sing
of a metal blade being drawn from a leather sheath.
hunkered down next to him, put a gloved hand on his jaw and turned Jess’ head,
probably looking to see if he’d been damaged.
“Ain’t you learned a smart mouth don’t get you nothin’ but
trouble?” he “tsked” and rolled Jess over onto this stomach.
In a second his numb hands and arms were cut free, then the blindfold was
untied and slipped from his eyes.
couldn’t see at first, sure couldn’t get his hands to work right or move his
arms for a moment.
Darrell helped him sit up and Jess blinked into the morning’s first
light and tried to get things in focus.
“Thanks,” he managed, working to get his circulation back and setting
his teeth as needles of pain shot up and down his back and shoulders, down his
legs, arms and through his cold, dead-feeling fingers.
quirked a half smile.
you didn’t do yourself no favors by loadin’ that Jim Beam in with the
loot,” he said and stood, offering his hand to help Jess rise from the dirt,
much as Jess had done for him the week before.
how much Sam appreciated your business at the Palace, he thought he’d just
treat y’all real special,” Jess answered without mirth and tried to get a
finally had to grab both his wrists and haul him up (Jess drew breath between
his teeth), then steady him on barely functional legs.
and now my neat little camp’s got empty bottles all over the place and smells
like a cat house on the Fourth of July.
Most of ‘em can’t walk, let alone ride today.
And some of ‘em can get purty mean when they’re drunk…” Darrell
answered as he put his left arm around Jess’ shoulders to walk him toward some
rocks near the base of a steep hill.
jerked his head around and gave him a mean scowl.
“They didn’t hurt…”
and the boy is jest fine,” Darrel said.
“Rash and Shorty, and even old Charley’s kind’a been lookin’
after ‘em when I ain’t around.
you look plum tuckered out, boy; cain’t even stand on your feet without
try ridin’ all night with your hands tied…”
but now you ain’t in no condition to give me no trouble, now are yah?”
argue with that,” came out a weary hiss as Jess blinked swollen eyes and tried
to keep the scenery from tipping over.
He managed to shuffle through the opening in the rocks and step around
some snoring men – heard a bottle skitter across the ground when Darrell
kicked it away…
and there was Daisy and Mike.
snagged his left arm to help while Mike, big-eyed and grinning, tried to walk
backwards in front of him as if the boy didn’t want to let Jess out of his
sight again. Jess
reckoned it was about the best greeting he’d ever received and tried to smile
without splitting open his lip again, but everything kind of got gray around the
got harder to move his feet . . . just before it all went black…
did you do to him?” Daisy demanded as Clay lowered the limp body onto a
blanket she’d prepared.
totally exhausted,” Daisy amended and gave the man a stern frown,
“not to mention having been beaten.”
She gently removed Jess’ right glove and gasped, “Oh, dear lord…
His wrists are raw!
Did you have to torture him like this?
Why didn’t you just bring him in an hour ago?”
She took off his left glove, grabbed the piece of relatively clean cloth
Rash had provided and ripped two smaller pieces from it.
She wet the bandages with water from the canteen she’d been given, so
she and Mike didn’t have to go to the water barrel set up by the entrance, and
wrapped the cool rags around Jess’ raw and swollen wrists.
The larger remnant she wet and gently bathed the now peaceful face of one
of her “boys.”
is there any of that jerky left?
I should make some broth for him when he wakes; I’m certain he’ll
need some kind of nourishment.”
Mike could move, Rash rose up from his pallet a couple of yards away, grinned
and tossed a small bag at the boy.
“Got some right here, Miss Daisy,” he answered brightly – pretty
obvious he hadn’t had much, or anything at all to drink.
sent him a kind smile and a, “Thank you, dear.”
you,” she turned an angry glower at Clay now squatting with his hands
dangling over his knees and watching her, “can please bring me a clean pot and
some water,” and dipped her head in stern demand.
raised his brows, stood up.
“Yes, Ma’am,” he answered and walked off.
watched Clay as he sauntered toward the neat stack of food stuff and cooking
utensils, presumably to look for that pot, then turned to smile at the hovering,
“Jess will be just fine, dear.”
hit him,” Mike observed in a weak, small voice as he pointed out Jess’
swollen split lip, the bruising around his mouth and the scrape on his left
they do that?” he asked, on the verge of tears.
laid the rag down and took Mike’s small, cold hand, pulled him closer to her.
“Mike, he’s not too badly hurt and he will get better very soon.
He’s come home looking much worse.
Don’t you remember when he was breaking that horse last year and was
thrown face first into the dirt?
Oh, my, he was a frightful sight, then, wasn’t he?”
sniffed, nodded, his lips pressed tight together.
I thought he was dead, he was so . . . bloody,” he answered with a
gave his hand a gentle squeeze and brushed the hair from his forehead.
“It looked bad, but he healed just fine, didn’t he?”
nodded and his mouth bowed in a brief, but beautiful smile.
will heal just as quickly,” Daisy squeezed his fingers once more and let his
hand go. She
gathered up the wet rag again, “You’ll see…” she added brightly and
continued washing the dirt and dried blood from Jess’ face.
had Jess pretty well cleaned, his wrists salved with some of her “home
remedy” she’d managed to pack and now had his wounds properly bandaged with
more cotton cloth the very tall man everyone called “Shorty” had ripped up
for her – so she didn’t have to tear up her petticoat he’d shyly stated
– by the time Clay finally returned.
He carried a pot already filled with water obviously taken from the
spring, wherever that was.
She attempted to stand to greet him, but she’d been kneeling too
set the pot down and helped her to her feet.
turned with a smile and squeezed his arm. “Thank you, dear.
I couldn’t have gotten up without your kind help.”
quirked a half-smile, cocked his head.
“I know what you’re up to, Miss Daisy.”
“Whatever do you mean, Darrell?” she asked sweetly, then added a
concerned, “Or would you rather I call you ‘Clay’ instead, dear?”
lowered his brows and shook his head.
“Sweet-talkin’ me ain’t gonna get you out a’ here any quicker,
gasped a happy, “Oh!
Then you are keeping your word and will let Mike, Jess and me go?”
today I won’t,” he answered, frowning at the camp littered with snoring
bodies and empty bottles.
“Jess made sure of that.
But you don’t know where you’re at and Jess sure as . . . all get
out,” he said, obviously amending what he’d intended to say, “will want to
get you back home in a hurry. By the time a posse can get on the right trail,
we’ll be so long gone out a’ this territory no one’ll ever find us,” and
he dipped his head.
reached out and squeezed his arm again.
“Thank you, Darrell.
I knew you were a good man…”
almost genial expression went south in a hurry, his eyes narrowing and mouth
going tight, his lips drawn over his teeth.
He pulled his arm away and growled, “And don’t you try to mother
me, either, Daisy, y’ hear?” spun on his heal and, stiff-backed, marched
just stood with her mouth open.
When Mike took her hand, she jumped.
happened, Aunt Daisy?”
turned a smile, patted his hand.
“Just a little misunderstanding, Mike; nothing to worry about.
is Jess? Has
he stirred yet?”
was early afternoon before Jess roused enough to eat that broth Daisy had made
him and kept warm by the fire.
He let her spoon a couple of sips into his mouth, cringing every time the
salt bit into his split lip.
He finally insisted he could do for himself and put his back against a
rock – with accompanying gasps and grimaces to indicate he was going to be
sore for a week – to finish the rest of the broth in short order by just
upending the pan and drinking it down.
Then he asked if there was anything more “rib-sticking” around,
something he could actually sink his teeth (loose or not) into and Daisy brought
what remained of the bacon and hard biscuits Shorty had made earlier.
Jess was pleased to see many of the gang had been too hung over to
appreciate Shorty’s cooking skills, however primitive they seemed.
She also brought a cup of coffee.
noted Daisy’s eager face, knew exactly what she wanted to ask the moment
he’d opened his eyes.
be fine, Daisy,” he mumbled around a mouthful of bacon and biscuit, swallowed
the bite with the aid of some hot coffee, added, “Doc Friedman said it
wasn’t too bad.
What most had him worried was how much blood Slim lost.”
sat back, placed a hand against her breast and heaved a grateful sigh.
“Oh, thank the Lord…
I was so worried.”
was I,” Mike added, his face all crinkled up with his version of
just knew I hadn’t gotten that bandage secured tight enough,” she continued
as if speaking to herself while tears gathered at the corner of her eyes.
“They just wouldn’t give me enough time…”
set his plate aside and reached over to take Daisy’s hand, gently pulled it
from where she was strangling her dress.
“You did just fine, Daisy,” Jess consoled.
“Doc said your bandages helped keep him alive.”
sniffed, gave him a trembling smile, then all at once leaned over and embraced
him in a quick hug.
“Thank you, Jess.
Did Doctor Friedman let you see him before you left?”
smile became taut.
“Only a second or two; Slim was still unconscious and the Doc didn’t
want me to . . . disturb him,” he said and heard his voice crack with
Was he . . . in surgery long?”
let her go, leaned back against the rock and took up what remained of the
hard-tack biscuit he’d been gnawing on.
He didn’t look up as he answered, “A couple of hours I guess.
Doc said he’d have a scar…” and filled his mouth.
came over to sit beside him and rested a hand on Jess’ left knee.
“Did he look all right, Jess?”
gave him a forced grin, dipped his head and said around the bread, “He looked
just fine, sleepin’ like a baby,” and tried to let go of the vision of that
pale, sunken-eyed face almost lost within the white of the sheets.
squirmed around, glanced about the camp before he looked up into Jess’ face
and leaned close. “Think they’ll really let us go soon?” he whispered
reached over and tousled the boy’s already untidy hair.
“Yeah, Tiger; I brought ‘em everything Darrell asked for.
He said we could leave pretty soon.”
Mike wheezed, “But when’s ‘soon,’ Jess?
I want to go now.
Can’t we go now, please?”
raised his left arm, let Mike scoot closer and reposition his hurt arm before he
nestled against Jess’ side.
Jess put his arm around the boy.
“It’ll all be over soon, Tiger,” Jess consoled and gave him a
gentle squeeze before he looked at Daisy.
sat there, hands clasped together and pressed to her bosom – as if she were
praying – her head cocked to the side and a poignant, loving smile trembling
on her lips. She
sniffed, cleared her throat and used a convenient rock to help her stand.
“Well,” she sighed, brushing the front of her rather rumpled dress,
“now might be the time to start making that apple pie.
I thought I saw a Dutch oven with the pots and pans…”
pie?” Jess asked, frowning.
He carefully untangled his arm from Mike and staggered up, stepped close
for a more private conversation.
“You’re gonna make them an apple pie?
hearing voices, raised up on his elbow from his bedroll again…
made “shushing” signs and glanced around the circle before she stepped
we already have at least three allies in this camp and could certainly use more.
Besides, Darrell brought the ingredients and I promised…”
gravel-voiced whisper, “You promised him?” was full of venom.
grabbed his shoulder, longing in her look.
“Whatever it takes to get us all back home, Jess, I am more than
willing to do.
I know Rash,” she moved her eyes toward the man – Jess had more sense
than to turn his head and look – “is one of those men who want to keep us
also understand I remind him of his mother…”
eyes went wide and he grabbed Daisy’s hand resting on his shoulder.
“Please don’t tell me Darrell thinks the same of you, Daisy.
He . . . hates his mother…”
eyes expanded as she gasped.
dropped his hand, shook his head.
“Not here and not now.
Just . . . don’t try to ‘mother’ him, all right?”
hand rose to her mouth, but she took a deep breath and nodded.
“I’ll try to remember that,” turned and walked casually toward the
supplies and cooking gear.
man in a faded blue shirt – the man Daisy had inferred with her eyes – got
up and followed her.
Jess tensed, but “Rash” only came to help her find what she was
looking for, so he relaxed his fists, turned and sat back down to let Mike
snuggle up against him again.
was fast asleep three minutes later, now feeling safe at last against his side.
5; 5 AM, North Road outside Laramie
Cory and his posse, now expanded to over thirty (in which he reluctantly
included Sean and Michael Ferguson, brothers of slain Gabe) rode out just before
the sun broke over the ridge.
The moment they left the last house behind, old Johnny Blue, the tracker,
took the lead, his watery brown eyes searching the ground, the wolf pelt with
the head still attached over his sloped shoulders moving rhythmically with the
movement of his paint Indian pony.
Almost immediately he turned his head and smiled, showing Mort his
tobacco-stained and broken teeth.
“Thar’s yer sign, Sheriff, an’ clear as day they is, too.”
shook his head and grinned.
“Jess is clever, I’ll give him that,” he answered.
“And unless these outlaws are real smart or real lucky, they won’t
realize just how clever Jess was putting those new, notched shoes on those
might even have the whole gang behind bars this evening, boys!”
posse members whooped and called, pumped their fists into the chill early
morning air, the sudden reverie causing mounts to snort and mill about, raising
settled them down before someone had an accident and old Blue called out again,
“Harper was follered.
One man, hangin’ back a bit; his hosses’ shoes stepped on the
mules’ sign some.”
that be a problem?” Mort asked.
shook his head.
‘Less Harper can fly them mules over the ground, I can track ‘em even
over rocks, Sheriff.
T’ain’t no problem a’tal; jest statin’ a fact.”
it would be logical to have one of the outlaws following the money – and
Mort smiled at that, another “clever trick” to slow them down some
and give the posse time to find and surround their camp.
tracker picked up the pace, turned onto the little used old west road.
The ground here was somewhat harder and broken by ruts and rocks that had
come down with the last rain, but even Mort could identify the mules’ tracks
made good time even over that rough road and, just before they stopped for their
noon break, Blue turned off onto another path, more a deer trail than a road,
and led them down to the stream.
They camped there and let the horses drink and crop the green grass
around the creek while they dragged out whatever they’d brought to eat.
Blue splashed over the narrow brook and announced Jess had dismounted and had
walked his horse and mules up the deer path on the other side of the tree.
Then he took out his jerky and hardtack, laid down under the low branches
of the sycamore.
The rest of the posse took his cue and rested as well, finding shade
beneath the smaller trees on their side.
It was, of necessity, a short nap however…
tracker was up and tossing stones across the gurgling stream, rousing everyone
to grumbling awareness.
“Cain’t sleep the day away,” Johnny announced, cinched his saddle
tight and swung aboard as the rest of the posse scrambled to do the same.
leaned on his saddle horn as he waited for Mort’s horse to splash through the
water and clatter up the other side.
far you think they are?” Mort asked as he pulled up.
old trapper-scout grinned, dipped his head.
“I ‘spect I know ‘xactly where they’s headed anyhow, know the
country round them hills an’ canyons perty dang well.
‘Course, I don’t know how they’d ever find this place I’s thinkin’
‘bout, canyon’s hard as hell to stumble on even if you know’d it was
there, but it’s got plenty of water, good grass and a heck of lot a’ cover.
Even spent some nights there m’self,” and he pointed up the ridge,
indicating a place over and beyond.
“’Bout six, seven mile yonder there be a little canyon, ‘bout as
wide as it be long, the Injuns call ‘Spirit-dog Rocks’.
It’s a hell of a place to defend; real tight at the ends with a lot
a’ big rocks, brush and some trees fer cover… ‘Less, a’course you got
yourself some a good sharpshooter or two up top the ridge,” he grinned harder
and patted his Arapaho-decorated and fringed rifle-case that held his old Sharps
.45-70 buffalo gun beneath his right leg.
“Only thing is, you gonna have’ta split your posse up t’cover them
two exits. I
know of four m’self, but I’ll lay odds your outlaws on’y found them easy
two at the east and west…” and he grinned hard enough to show just about
every tooth he had left in his head.
case you hadn’t noticed,” Mort joked, “there’s quite a bunch of men
We’ll have plenty to cover any exit.
if there’s two more, we can use them to get a smaller party inside the
perimeter,” Mort nodded as several more men joined them on the other side of
the stream. “If
the gang is holed up there,” he augmented.
they sure seem t’ be headin’ that way, but we’ll foller them mules a bit
more just to make sure.
There be a lot a’ canyons out this a’ ways, they could be jest
‘bout anywheres,” Johnny said and waved to the remainder of Mort’s posse
to hurry up and join them or get left behind.
“But if they is in the Spirit Dog, we don’t need but cover the south
side and both ends; t’other north exit’s harder t’ fig’er out from the
campsite’s on the south side anyhow…
you best get them other fellers movin’, Sheriff, ‘cause we ain’t got all
day,” Johnny scowled at the men still getting themselves together on the other
side of the creek.
of these men came from Buford,” Mort answered, “and they’ve been riding
since yesterday with only a few hours of rest.”
no excuse,” he said and, not waiting for the rest, turned his paint’s head
to follow the mules’ tracks up the hill.
To Chapter 9
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