The Land Grabbers by Patricia, Laramiekid_2000
(This story takes place a few months after Jess Harper's arrival at the
From a distance the Sherman Relay Station looked peaceful. A picture of serenity. But inside the cabin, a storm was brewing.
Jonesy slowly sat down at the table. He had been cooking all morning for the anticipated stage passengers. He never knew how many passengers would be on the stage so daily he always prepared enough food to eat for both lunch and supper. For years Jonesy had suffered with a bad back and right now it felt as if someone was walking over him with spurs.
Yet despite his pain, the promise of a few minutes with nothing to do but drink coffee brought a smile to the old man's face. Jonesy lifted the coffee pot with great anticipation. His smile disappeared as he uttered one word, "Jess." Though he had finally found comfort in
sitting, Jonesy pushed himself out of the chair and headed back towards the kitchen.. "First Andy, not picking berries like I asked him to do," he mumbled, slamming the coffee pot on top of the iron cast stove, "Now Jess. Those two are as thick as thieves and twice as ornery." Within minutes Joney had another pot of coffee brewing. He returned to the table in the living room area, walking as if every joint in his body was stiff. He knew he moved slowly; and steadily he was moving slower with each step. He sighed with relief as he finally sat in the chair. He opened his pocket watch. It wouldn't be long until the stage arrived and he would once more have to be back on his feet.
As the door to the cabin opened, Jonesy squinted as the sun light blast through the doorway. Slim Sherman entered the cabin in a rush. Jonesy started to tell Slim every complaint he had but stopped himself short when Slim held up a handful of money.
"So Andrews finally bought that mare?" Jonesy took a huge sip of coffee.
Slim's grin filled his entire face as his lips curved into a smile and his eyes crinkled with delight. "And he paid what I asked. He tried to bargain but I held steady. You know what this money means? Where's Andy?"
Jonesy's face puckered into a look of disapproval. "Where do you think he is? Where's he been every moment of the day?"
"With Jess." Slim sighed.
"I still have doubts about you hiring Jess. If your Pa knew you hired a gunslinger as a ranch hand-."
"That gunslinger saved my life!" Slim snapped. "You forgetting Bud Carlin? If it wasn't for Jess I'd be buried six feet under right now from one of Carlin's bullets. Jess didn't have to join that fight but he did. If it weren't for Jess-"
Jonesy fired back, "He's trouble, Slim. And Andy hero worships him. He follows him around like a puppy. Hangs on his every word."
"I know Jess can be kind of rough around the edges."
"Rough?" Jonesy mocked. "Rough don't begin to describe him. Ain't much that boy hasn't done."
Slim argued, "At least Andy's not talking about leaving any more. Seems satisfied being here on the ranch now."
Jonesy grunted his anger. He took another sip of coffee then said, "Well you might change your mind about that drifter when I tell you what I heard. Jess told Andy this morning that he's been in jail. I couldn't hear everything but what I did hear didn't sound too good."
Slim glanced away as his blue eyes dodged Joney's brown ones. "Jess already told me, when he signed on. He thought I should know."
The coffee cup hit the table so hard that Slim was sure it had chipped.
"Why didn't you tell me?" Jonesy demanded.
"Because I know how you can be."
Jonesy's eyes squinted so hard that they looked closed. "Meaning?"
"You ain't yet cotton to Jess."
"Slim," Jonesy's voice turned gentle, "it's just that I'm worried about Andy. He's at that age when he has to decide what kind of man he's going be. I don't want him to be like that drifter. Maybe if you spent more time with him. You know it wouldn't hurt to take Andy to Laramie with you instead of Jess."
Slim ran his hand through his blonde hair. "I wish I could. But I'm going to be carrying a lot of money on me. I'd feel a whole lot better if Jess was by my side."
The cup of coffee stopped halfway to Jonesy's lips. "You expecting trouble?"
Jonesy put the coffee cup down on the table. He said slowly, "Slim, ever since Chet Stevens paid you a visit, you've been acting cautious. Too cautious."
Slim chewed on his lip.
"Come on, boy. What's got a burr under your saddle?" Jonesy prodded.
Slim held up his hands as if surrendering. "All right." He sat down at the table next Jonesy, straddling the chair. "I have been worried. Chet Stevens ain't like his Pa. Ever since Chet inherited the Double S, he's been moving more and more cattle on it. His range can't hold much more yet I've heard he's got another herd heading here."
"With our ranches bordering you figuring on trouble?"
Slim replied, "I always got along with his old man. He stayed off my range and I stayed off his. But Chet was never like his Pa. Stevens spoiled Chet. And now Chet is use to getting his way. He's not real good at taking no for something he wants. And he wants my range."
"Maybe it's good that you got Jess Harper working for you."
"I don't want a range war."
"No one does, son. But if one happens, a man like Harper is a good one to have on your side."
Slim started to reply but his younger brother Andy ran into the cabin. He raced to Slim and Jonesy. At fourteen he was full of energy. As he stood there he rocked on his heels unable to stand totally still. "Slim, you should have seen Jess ride that horse. Jonesy, it was some ride.
Slim remember the last time Tornado threw you, you swore up and down that no one could ride that horse. But Jess did!"
Jess entered the cabin as if he didn't have a care in the world.
"I thought you were putting up fences," Slim greeted in an angry voice. "That's what I told you to do."
Jess stopped and eyed Slim with curiosity. "I did."
"Andy just told me that you rode Tornado."
Jess grinned. "Andy dared me to."
"You always take dares?"
Jess's grin faded. "Didn't you want that horse broke?"
Slim clamped his lips shut.
"It was sight," Andy said proudly. "I reckon Jess is the best rider there is."
A grin relit Jess's face.
"Jess, we're riding into Laramie," Slim ordered then left the cabin to get his horse saddled.
"Jess, I swear sometimes I just don't understand Slim," Andy confessed. "Here you done Slim a favor by riding Tornado. He's been trying for weeks. Always getting thrown, so many times I lost count. Then you come along and ride him. And Slim never even said thank you. Instead he acts like he's angry."
As Jess poured himself a cup of coffee, he asked Jonesy, "What's got into Slim?"
Jonesy eyed Jess as if he didn't trust him. "This is fourth pot of coffee I've made today. Before you signed on, never made more than two pots a day, even when the stage was loaded with passengers. Seems to me a lot of things have changed since you've signed on." Jonesy grabbed the coffee pot and headed for the kitchen.
Jess glanced from the kitchen to the closed cabin door. "Maybe it's not my riding but me being here that's got Slim in an uproar."
"Why Slim asked you to sign on didn't he?" Andy argued. "No, I figure Slim's just cranky. Not like you and me. We enjoy life, right?"
"Well I'd enjoy it a lot more if I didn't have all them fences to put up. Say why is Slim so all set on putting up fences on that range that borders your neighbor's property?"
Andy shrugged. "We've always gotten along with the Stevens. Never needed any fences. Slim just up and made that decision. He don't tell me nothing. He says we're partners. But he never tells me nothing. Not even when I ask. Ever since Pa died, why you'd think I was some little kid wet behind the ears instead of his partner. Always bossing me. I ain't never seen the like. He treats me like I'm too dumb to know anything. He don't talk to me like you do, Jess. Slim best start realizing that I ain't no youngin'."
Jess clearly saw the hurt on Andy's face. Jess said, "Tell you what, Slim's got me doing fences tomorrow. What about you helping me and along mid morning you and me sneaking off and going for a swim? I seen a pond on that range that looked mighty tempting today when I was putting them fences up."
Andy laughed. "Sounds good, Jess. I could use a swim. Been awful hot outside."
The door of the cabin slammed open. Slim's cheeks were red. From the sun or anger, Jess couldn't tell. "Say, are you coming or not?" Slim didn't wait for an answer but turned and left.
Jess drank his coffee in one gulp. "See you later, Andy."
"Wish I was riding into Laramie," Andy replied.
"You want me to ask Slim if you can come along?"
"I already did." Andy hung his head as if the hurt was too much to bear. "Say Jess, how about you and me going into Laramie one day?" Andy said the words as if he was fearful of the answer.
"Sure thing. One day real soon."
Andy's face broke out into a smile. "You mean it?"
Jess nodded. "Wouldn't say it if I didn't."
Andy's smile told of the joy the young boy felt.
Jess said, "Now I best get going or your brother's liable to leave me behind. Now don't you fret. We'll just have to get that brother of yours to act a little less serious while taking you more serious."
Andy nodded, his smile still on his face.
Saturday night when the cowboys from neighboring ranches came to town, Laramie was a lively place. Fights and gun shots occurred throughout the night, sometimes lasting until dawn. But when the church bells peeled Sunday morning then Laramie became a respectful town. And it wasn't unusual for Laramie to be remain quiet during the weekdays. But today
the quiet was eerie. There was no one walking the boardwalk. Even the general store seemed deserted. There were several horses and two buggies tied to the hitching post but for a town that usually had people scurrying here and there, even on quiet days, today no one was walking along the boardwalks. As Jess and Slim tied their quarter horses to the hitching post, they surveyed the town as if they had never seen it. The town appeared deserted except for one man who stood in front of the saloon. Slim and Jess eyed this stranger.
This stranger was a tall, slender cowboy. His Stetson was pushed back on his head revealing brown curly hair and a clean shaven face. Leaning against the saloon, this stranger appeared relaxed as he sucked on a toothpick. But his right hand never left the butt of his gun.
"I ain't seen him before," Slim said.
"I'd bet my last dollar that's Charlie Parker," Jess mumbled.
"Parker!" Slim eyed the man. "You sure?"
"I saw him once in Dodge. See that silver dollar he wears in his hat. There's no mistaking him."
Mort Corey walked out of the sheriff's office. No matter what the weather or what the temperature, Mort always dressed in a white shirt and jeans. His shirt sleeves always long and buttoned. "Slim...Jess..." he greeted warmly but his eyes were on Parker. "Was going to ride out to see you boys. Got a minute?"
"Sure, Mort," Slim answered. Jess's eyes lingered on the man across the street for a long moment before following Slim and Mort to the sheriff's office. Even as they entered the lawman's office, Jess glanced over his shoulder for one last look at Charlie Parker.
"Nat...Bart...Jim," Slim greeted the three men who stood near the pot belly stove.
"Howdy Slim," each greeted back. But there were no smiles on their faces.
Jess gave a quick nod with a 'Howdy' but none of the men returned his greeting.
"I'll come right to the point," Mort said. "Slim, have you been approached to sell your ranch?"
Slim nodded. "A week ago. Chet Stevens came by. But I turned him down."
"Chet Stevens," Jim said as if he was cussing.
"Chet Stevens wanted to buy each of our spreads too," Nat explained. "We all turned him down. And today I found ten dead cows, poisoned."
Jim added, "I found twenty of my steers yesterday. And Sanders here found fifteen three days ago."
Bart nodded. "Mine were shot. Slaughtered but no hides or meat were taken."
"We haven't had any trouble," Slim stated.
"Of course you won't," Jim argued, "'cause you've got a gun man working for you."
Slim said quickly, "Jess!" as Jess started forward towards Jim. Jess stopped moving but his eyes stayed glued on Jim.
"Look," Slim said, his face slightly flushed with anger, "I'm not sure what's going on. But if someone is poisoning your cattle, you best let Mort handle it."
"I was telling these boys the same thing," Mort stated. "I'll look into this and-"
"And while we wait," Jim interrupted, "our cattle are dying. I don't know about the rest of you but I can't stand to lose a lot of cattle. I had a bad year last year. I'm just barely holding on."
"All of us had a bad year last year," Nat agreed with a bob of his head. "None of us can afford losing cattle."
"Sheriff," Jim neared Mort, "you go ahead and look into our cattle being killed but if we get any more dead cows, we'll take care of Chet Stevens ourselves."
"Don't make threats like that," Mort tried to sound patient but his anger showed through, "because I don't want to have to arrest you."
Slim said quickly, "Why don't we have a meeting over my place tonight? We'll ask the other ranchers to join us. Chet can't fight all of us. When he sees us organized maybe if it is him, he'll back off."
The three men exchanged doubtful looks .
"Come on," Slim urged. "It's worth a try. And none of us want gun play if we can avoid it."
Finally one of the men nodded, "All right, Slim. I'll get the word out. Your place tonight."
The three men left the office the same way they had entered, with anger in each step they took.
Mort sighed. "Thanks, Slim. Chet's over in the saloon now. It was all I could do to stop them boys from heading over there."
"Mort, what's going on?" Slim demanded.
"It looks like a range war might be starting," Mort said his forehead creased with worry. "Ever since old Stevens died, Chet has been hell bent on making his spread the biggest in this state."
Jess stated, "And a man like Chet ain't going worry how he gets that land."
The few times Mort had been around Jess, this boy had been quiet. Too quiet Mort had always thought. So Jess speaking up had surprised Mort. Mort studied this cowboy. By all appearances Jess was a ranch hand. But Mort knew Jess Harper much more than just a ranch hand, no matter what Slim said.
Yet Jess wasn't like most gun men Mort had met. Jess had always been polite and from what he had seen while visiting Slim, Jess was a hard worker, who could ride and work cattle with the best of them. So Jess had become a puzzlement to Mort.
At first Mort had his suspicions about Jess. He had even checked the wanted posters. But Jess's face wasn't on any of them. Yet Jess always acted cautious around Mort. Mort had known Slim practically Slim's entire life. He had known Slim's parents and had counted them as his good friends. He had seen Slim grow from a boy to a man. He respected Slim and enjoyed his company. And for the life of him, he couldn't figure Slim Sherman and Jess Harper being friends. They were as different as night and day. Slim was slow to anger; while Jess had a hair trigger temper. He had seen that temper only once. And once had been enough. Oh Slim made an excuse for the boy but Mort was still leery around him. But now with this trouble starting, Mort was more concerned about Slim. He knew Slim always went by the book but Jess- Mort figured this man would win no matter how he did it. And if a range war started he didn't want Slim to be caught unaware of how Jess was fighting. Yet
Mort could tell Slim trusted Jess.
Mort wanted to like Jess too. But getting to know Jess had proved to be difficult. Mort had tried talking to him. But the boy wouldn't open up to him. Mort sat on the edge of his desk as he asked Jess, "You saw who's outside?"
Jess gave a short nod.
"Is he as fast as they say?'
Jess gave another brisk nod.
Slim questioned, "You seen him draw?"
Jess replied, "Saw him go against Bret Miller in Dodge. Fastest I've seen."
Slim was thoughtful as he weighed Jess's words. Then he asked Mort, "How long has Parker been in town?"
"Parker rode in this morning with Chet. Chet's been in the saloon all morning. And Parker ain't the only gun man Chet's got with him. He's got another one keeping him company inside the saloon. Don't recognize that gun he's hired. But he's a gunslinger. You can tell by the way he wears his gun." Mort's eyes traveled to Jess's holster. Jess wore his peacemaker low on his hips. Mort would wager his last bit of money that Jess had the hammer filed down for faster shooting. "Been checking the wanted posters to see if I can place him."
Jess glanced down at Mort's desk, which was covered with wanted posters. A few faces Jess recognized and some faces on the posters he even knew personally. His worried eyes traveled back up to Mort's glare.
"Ain't seen no one I recognize," Mort stated, his stare locked on Jess's face. A small smile tugged at Mort's lips as he added, "Don't expect I will find anyone I know."
Jess's tense body relaxed as his stare on Mort soften.
Slim offered, "Mort, you need help?"
"I can't do anything unless Chet does something. Those gunslingers he hired are not breaking the law by just sitting over there in the saloon or standing on the boardwalk. Besides I don't think Chet will start trouble in town unless those hot head ranchers confront him."
"Which might be exactly what Chet wants," Jess observed. "Why else would he sitting in there holding court?"
"My thoughts exactly," Mort agreed.
"Mort, you think Chet did kill them boys's cattle?" Slim questioned.
Mort pushed his hat back on his head. His hair was a mixture of gray and white. "I don't know. But if I was a betting man. I'd probably bet on Chet. He always did have a mean streak in him. But without proof, my hands are tied. All I can do is try to keep a lid on this."
"Well let us know if we can help. We're heading over to the bank. I pay off the mortgage today."
"Congratulations!" Mort slapped Slim on the back.
"It's been a long time coming," Slim said with a grin. "A long time."
"I guess operating the relay station paid off."
"And having good cheap help," Slim informed, as he threw a smile at
Slim's smile was even bigger as Jess and Slim stood outside the bank. Slim touched the pay off receipt as if he held the key to paradise.
"It was a lot of hard work but Jess, the ranch is now legally mine and Andy's."
"Let's go get a beer and celebrate," Jess suggested as his tongue slid across his dry lips.
Slim glanced at the saloon. Charlie Parker was still standing outside the saloon.
"Maybe we should just head back home."
Jess's temper rose. "'Cause of him?" He jerked his thumb in the direction of Parker.
"I don't want no trouble, Jess."
"How's taking one drink going start trouble?" Jess turned to walk to the saloon but Slim's words stopped him, forcing him to turn towards Slim.
"I think we should head back."
Jess eyed Slim as if sizing him up. "Slim, if Stevens outfit knows you're scared of them-"
"Jess, it ain't no need stirring a fire if we don't need to. I figure Chet's hoping we do walk in that saloon."
"Well then let's not disappoint him." Jess took a step towards the saloon, but Slim didn't move. Again Jess turned back. He said the words if they were hard for him to say, "Slim, you ain't scared are you?"
"A man would have to be a fool to want to tangle with Charlie Parker," Slim shot back.
Jess's eyes darkened with rage. "Well I ain't no fool; but I ain't scared either."
"Didn't think you were. And just so you know if trouble happens, I won't be scared to stand up to Parker. Reputation and all." Slim leaned against the hitching post. "Awhile back some men tried to take my Pa's land. He died, got bushwhacked. I'd much rather face Parker straight on in the street than wait for him to hide behind some trees." Slim glanced over his shoulder, staring at Parker long and hard before saying, "I got to think of Andy. Without me, he couldn't survive. He's just a kid."
Jess bit back his words.
"If Chet pushes me, I'll push back. I reckon I should ask you how you feel about this?"
Jess tilted his head. "Done told you that I ain't a coward."
Slim laughed. "Boy, don't I know that! No I mean, I hired you on as a ranch hand. Telling you that you could put your gun aside. And now it looks like I might have a range war on my hands. Wouldn't blame you if you rode out."
Jess glanced at Parker. "Slim, I ride for the brand. You hired me. I stay true. I've been in worse scrapes."
"Well I'm hoping it won't go that far. I'm hoping Chet won't want to take on every rancher in the territory. Because after tonight, the ranchers will be organized. I'm glad you're staying on, Jess."
Jess grinned. "You'd think I'd ride off? Jonesy makes the best coffee I ever tasted."
Slim burst out laughing. "Well let's you and me get home and have some of that coffee. 'Sides we got us a fire to build! And I want a big hot one."
Jess took his hat off and wiped his arm across his forehead. The sun was high in the sky and beating down unmercifully on them. It was spring and already Laramie's temperature had risen to the high eighties. "You lost your mind! In this heat! You want a fire?"
Slim grinned broaden. "We got a mortgage to burn, boy."
Jess's eyes crinkled with laughter. "All right, Slim. But next time we're in town. I aim to get a beer. Charlie Parker or no Charlie Parker."
"And I tell you what, I'm buying. The first one's on me. For I aim to be right there by your side drinking a beer with you."
As they rode out of town, Jess was aware that Parker was watching them ride away.
Though the night was peaceful with only an occasional wolf howl, inside the cabin angry shouts were heard as tempers flared. Every rancher in the territory was at the meeting with the exception of Chet Stevens. The entire cabin was smokey from cigars burning. Liquor passed freely from man to man. Some men sat; others paced; but everyone took part in the
proceedings stating their opinion. Everyone except one cowboy. Jess Harper quietly sat in a corner of the room, straddling a chair. He had not spoken once since the meeting started.
"I figured you'd be sitting near the coffee pot," Jonesy said as he sat next to Jess. "What do you think?"
"Been my experience that anger just causes more trouble. Those men are angry."
"What do you expect them to do?"
"Let the sheriff handle it."
Surprise registered on Jonesy's face. "I never thought you'd be for the law."
Jess grinned. "I'm a law abiding man, Jonesy."
Jonesy said with sarcasm dripping in his voice, "Who just so happens to carry a gun whose hammer is filed down."
Slim pounded on the table. "This is getting us no where. Now we're all agreed that no one here wants to sell."
Ayes sounded loudly from the group.
"Then I propose that we form a cattlemen's association. Further we put a reward out on anyone poisoning or killing cattle."
More ayes sounded.
"And if that doesn't help. We form a patrol. Each ranch takes turns sending men out to keep watch on others herds. At the same time, we bring our own herds closer to our ranches."
"But some of us can't bring our cattle in not if we want them to have good grass to fatten on," one rancher protested.
"Then we make sure the patrol watches all ranges closely," Slim hollered back at the man.
The man waved his agreement.
"Maybe we should hire our own gun men?" another man suggested.
"Oh no, here it comes, The start of a range war," Jess mumbled to Jonesy.
"Slim won't let that happen," Jonesy countered. "You just watch him."
Slim pounded on the table until the room was quiet. "None of us want a range war."
"None of us want our land taken away either. And if it comes down between fighting and selling, I'm fighting!" a man screamed out and others applauded his words.
"My Pa died from land grabbers. He didn't let them take his land away and I'm not going to either. Like the rest of you, I've sweated on this land. I've worked when the temperature wasn't fit for a man to be out in it. I've worked when I felt it was surely hell I was in instead of
Wyoming. And I've froze just like all of you have when the snow was so deep even my horse couldn't walk through it. But I survived. So I'm not about to turn tail now and give up. I'm not going to let anyone take what I own. But I don't need to hire gunslingers to do that."
"You already got one hired, Sherman."
Jess's eyes quickly roamed the crowd of men but he couldn't figure out who had yelled that comment. He started to leave but Jonesy's hand snaked out grabbing his arm, forcing him to sit back down. "Easy boy," Jonesy mumbled.
Slim's voice rose with anger as he spoke, "Jess Harper works as my ranch hand. He works the same as you and me. He doesn't use his gun. He uses his hands. His strength. Are you forgetting when Bud Carlin came through here? It was Jess who saved my life and helped capture him so Carlin wasn't terrorizing your spreads. Jess is one of us now. And you best not forget it."
Several of the men said, 'Here! Here!'
"Now, let's offer the reward," Slim suggested. "See if that works."
"What about the money?" one asked.
"We'll get the money. Why we might even ask Chet Stevens to contribute, after all he's got cattle too," Slim said with a grin. "What do you say, boys?"
"Would serve the bastard right," was the reply.
"What did I tell you?" Jonesy said with pride.
"Slim stopped these ranchers from having a range war," Jess agreed. "But can he stop Chet Stevens from starting one?"
For the next few days branding took the place over worrying. Instead of finding dead cows, Jess and Slim started finding new born calves. Calves half grown were caught and etched with the SR brand. Long days became common as Slim and Jess left early in the morning and returned home only in time to grab a bite of supper before grabbing a few hours of sleep.
"Potatoes and steak again?" Andy complained as he sat down at the table.
Slim couldn't hide a cringe as he saw what was being served. He sat down across the table from Andy. Jess sat down next to Slim but he never issued a complaint.
"You know, Jonesy," Slim said carefully, "a fellow could get sick eating the same food over and over again."
"Any time someone else wants to do the cooking-" Jonesy began.
"Steak and potatoes are starting to look real good, huh Andy?" Slim said with a chuckle.
Andy nodded with a laugh.
"I don't hear you saying any complaints," Jonesy said to Jess.
"If it's one thing I've learned, never get the cook mad at you," Jess replied.
"Seems to me some others might follow that advice." Jonesy poured a thick brown gravy over his mash potatoes. "And seems to me there might be a reason we're eating the same food each meal. Slim, I'm almost out of supplies. You going to Laramie or you want me to go?"
Slim chewed a bite of steak, swallowed, then replied, "Jess and I'll ride in. Been meaning to talk to Mort to see if the reward has helped quieted things. It's been a couple of weeks now since the ranchers' met." Slim added more gravy to his mash potatoes. "We can go tomorrow.
Make a list."
Andy asked excitedly, "Slim, how about me going too?"
Slim ate a fork full of mash potatoes then washed it down with a huge sip of coffee. "Nope. You got chores that need to be done. Not to mention, I ain't seen you crack open a book in a spell."
"I'm not going to argue with you, Andy!" Slim said in a harsher voice than he meant to use.
"You ain't my Pa! You're only my brother! So you got no right to tell me-"
"I got every right!" Slim argued back. "Now it's settled. Jess and me are riding into Laramie and and you're staying here with Jonesy."
Jonesy cut in, "Andy, I'm going need help while Slim and Jess are gone. I plan on making my salve tomorrow."
"Jonesy, that's going stink up the whole house," Andy complained.
"If we have trouble come around here, you're going be glad I got ointment."
"Jonesy!" Slim whispered a warning.
Andy's eyes sparked with interest. "Trouble? What kind of trouble?"
Slim chew on his bite of steak for a long time.
"Slim? First you put up fences on our land, then you and the ranchers offer a reward on anyone killing cattle. And now Jonesy is saying we might have trouble."
Jonesy said quickly, "Oh, Andy, don't listen to an old man. I just meant-"
"I know what you meant, Jonesy," Andy accused. "Slim, what kind of trouble are we expecting?"
Slim didn't say a word. He just ate, chewing hard on his steak as if it was tough rubber.
"Slim, I got a right to know. I'm your partner."
Slim stopped eating. "I don't know for sure we'll have any trouble."
"But you're worried we might." Andy waited but still Slim didn't explain. "Is this anything to do with the ranchers organizing? What's got everyone so riled? It's more than some steers dying ain't it?"
Slim sipped his coffee.
"Slim, answer me!"
"Andy," Slim replied, "it's about time the ranchers around these parts got organized."
"But everyone was fired up about not selling their ranches."
"That's cause Wyoming is a growing state. This is the place to be!"
"You sound like Pa." Andy's face suddenly paled.
Jess's fork stopped halfway to his mouth. "Andy?" he asked with concern. "You all right, boy?"
Andy's hands were trembling. "It's not finished is it?" Andy's eyes bore into Slim's tan face.
Slim's eyebrows puckered into a line of confusion. "What isn't finished?"
Andy almost screamed, "Slim, you got to tell me! Dead cattle...not wanting to sell...It's just like what happen right before Pa got bushwhacked. Someone's still trying to take our land! That's it, isn't it?"
"Now you hold on," Slim said, his fork waving in the air as if he were a teacher pointing a ruler at a unruly child. "Just 'cause Chet Stevens offered to buy our ranch doesn't mean we're being threaten." Slim took another sip of coffee.
"Slim, you reckon Chet was the one that killed Pa?"
Slim almost gagged on his coffee. "Where'd you get a fool idea like that?"
"You said he wanted to buy our place-"
"Andy, Chet wouldn't have the backbone to-" Jonesy stopped. "The boy might have something, Slim."
Slim angrily threw his fork down on the table. "First Andy, now you! Andy's just a child-"
"-but you, Jonesy! I expect better sense from an old man."
"Old!" Jonesy fired back with anger. "Why I ought to tan your hide-"
"It's punishment enough eating your food," Slim cut in. But mischief was now shining in his eyes.
Jonesy head tilted angrily. "It might just serve you right to eat your own cooking. Then when you get sick, sees who tends to you. Why you'd be pleading for me to take care of you."
"Pleading? Not me! You would just give me that medicine you brew up which is worst than being sick!" Slim laughed until he glanced at Andy. Suddenly Slim's laughter died on his lips.
Andy's looked defeated as his head was bent and his shoulders sagged.
"Andy?" Slim said with worry.
Andy's eyes were teary as he looked up at Slim. "I don't want no more trouble, Slim. If something happen to you or Jonesy or Jess, I don't know what I'd do. I can't take that kind of hurt again. I can't take one of you being killed like Pa was."
Slim saw clearly pain on his brother's young face. "Andy, you're getting all worked up over nothing. Now we ain't had no cattle killed or stolen have we?"
Andy shook his head no.
"And you've known Chet all your life. Our family never had any trouble with him or his Pa."
"That's true," Andy said, his face brightening.
"The old man kept Chet reined in," Jonesy mumbled.
Andy glanced quickly at Jonesy then at Slim.
Slim's face darken with anger.
"Slim?" Andy questioned with a look.
Slim lost all his anger as he saw concern on Andy's face.
"It's going be all right, boy," Slim said. "I promise you that."
A slow smile spread across Andy's face. "All right, Slim. If you say so, then it must be so."
The next day by mid morning, Jess and Slim rode their horses down the main street of Laramie. The town still seemed deserted, so Slim and Jess rode with one hand resting on a gun. They entered Mort's office and found the lawman asleep in one of the cells.
Slim laughed as he slammed the door causing Mort to jump up with his gun in his hand. "Dang it, Slim. That's dangerous to do right now."
"Long night, Mort?" Slim asked, pouring a cup of coffee from the pot that was always brewing on the pot belly stove. He handed the cup of steaming coffee to Mort.
Mort ran his hand through his graying peppered hair then took a long sip of coffee. "Yeah, trouble last night. One of the ranchers came into town. His boys tangled with Chet's boys. No gun play thanks to my shotgun here. But Chet's men spent the night in jail. I wanted to keep an eye on them. Chet bailed them out this morning. They left around sunrise. Chet had two more guns arrive yesterday. Counting Charlie Parker that makes four gunslingers on Chet's payroll."
"Any more cattle killed?" Jess asked.
"None that I know of. But the fight was over dead cattle. Seems Chet's ranch hands, if you call them killers that, took offense of the
rancher's boys saying the Stevens spread might be responsible. This is the first trouble I've had from Chet since he found out that the new
cattleman's association had posted a large reward offered on any rustling or killing of cattle. Seems though Chet didn't know who the president of the cattlemen's association was?"
"You tell him?" Slim asked.
"He'd have found out sooner or later," Mort defended. "Chet seemed awful concerned with the cattlemen's association. I guess he doesn't want to take on every rancher in the territory. That was a good idea, Slim."
"Let's just hope it's keeps Chet rein in."
Jess said bluntly, "I know men like Chet Stevens. It might stop them for awhile. A short while just until he can figure another plan."
Mort agreed, "Jess is right. What Chet wants; he gets. Any trouble out your way?"
Slim shook his head. "Been quiet."
"Almost too quiet," Jess announced.
"Mort, I've been thinking..." Slim frowned.
As Mort sipped his coffee, staring over the rim at Slim, he waited patiently for Slim to say what was on his mind.
Slim suddenly said, "Do you think Chet Stevens had anything to do with my Pa being killed?"
"Chet!" Surprise flashed across Mort's face. "Why Chet?"
"Pa got bushwhacked around the same time that Chet came home to care for his Pa."
"Well, I'm not saying Chet isn't mean enough to back shoot someone. He sure don't have the backbone to face a man. He's more likely to hire a gun likes he's doing now. He didn't have a gun on the payroll then. So Slim, I don't figure it was Chet."
Slim gave a quick nod.
Mort attempted to lighten the mood by asking with a smile, "So you boys got business in town?"
Jess glanced at Slim as he replied, "I'm going get a beer before I go to the store to pick up supplies. How about you, Slim? You thirsty?"
Slim answered, "I feel like I've just walked across the desert. I'm buying."
"Now don't you boys start anything. I sure would hate to lock you two up. I need some sleep. So keep it quiet over there." Mort laid back down on the cot in the jail cell.
The saloon was almost deserted except for Chet Stevens and one of his men. Jess and Slim laughed as they entered the saloon but quickly their laughter died. Jess's eyes locked with the gun man who sat with Chet Stevens.
Jess and Slim walked to the bar and both ordered beer. They each looked as if they were carefree but in reality they were tense, with their hands ready to go for their guns.
"Two beers," Slim ordered as he tossed money on the counter.
Slim drank a long sip of his beer but Jess just nursed his.
"Sherman, I heard about your meeting," Chet greeted. "I was wondering why I wasn't invited to attend."
Slim took several sips before he answered, "Not too late to join."
"I'd like to do that."
Slim and Jess turned and faced Chet and his gun man. Jess leaned against the bar but Slim stood tall.
"Good!" Slim replied, "You can write a check out to me for dues. And while you're at it, each rancher is contributing money for a reward to catch the dirty low down polecats who killed the cattle."
"Any idea who those yellow belly polecats could be?" Jess asked looking right at Chet Stevens.
"Slim, my outfit has already tangled with one ranch. Call off your man. I don't want trouble. I'll be glad to pay dues and contribute to the reward. I hope you catch whoever's responsible. Harper, you hired on just before all the trouble began didn't you?"
Jess's hand dropped to his gun. "Speak plainly Stevens."
Chet's gun man stood up quickly. His hand rested on his gun. Stevens glanced at this man before replying, "I thought I was."
"Jess, let it go," Slim said under his breath. "I'll be glad to take your money, Chet. We're also starting a fund to give to men whose cattle has been killed."
"Now Slim you can't expect me to help a rancher stay in business?"
"If you're planning on joining the cattleman's association, you'll need to give to that fund too," Slim stated.
Chet chewed on his lip. Finally he pulled out a checkbook from his leather jacket. He wrote quickly. He tore off the check as if he was angry. He handed it to his gun man who dutifully took it to Slim. Jess noted the amusement in this gunslinger's eyes, though the cowboy never
said a word.
"Will that be enough money?" Chet asked.
"More than enough," Slim said with a grin, "to help any rancher who cattle was killed. I'll let you know when we have the next meeting."
"I heard you were having one tonight."
"Oh that's for the executive committee, which you're not a part of". Slim finished his drink.
"Let's go pard," Slim said to Jess before heading out of the saloon.
Outside the saloon, Jess burst out laughing. "You skinned him! You skinned him good!"
"I sure did. You see the look on that skunk's face?"
"That was a good idea about starting that fund."
"I'm sure the executive committee will agree. Chet having to pay for cattle he poisoned. Seems right to me."
Jess lost his smile. "Stevens ain't going like you making a fool of him."
"Reckon not. But I'd do it again," Slim said his voice still filled with laughter. "Well let's get this check over to the bank and cashed before Chet changes his mind about joining."
Inside the saloon Chet was simmering with anger. He threw a glass against the wall, then followed it by throwing a bottle of whiskey. "Slim Sherman will pay. One day, I swear I'll get even with him. Where are they going?"
The gun man stared out the window. "Looks like the bank."
"To cash my check no doubt."
"Now what?" The gun man turned and crossed his hands over his chest. "We go after Sherman?"
"I get rid of Sherman, then I'll have no problem convincing the others to sell. You know when his old man died, I thought Slim would never last on that ranch. I underestimated him. I won't make that mistake again."
"What about Harper?" the gun man asked. "He has a reputation as being fast with a gun."
"Would you be scared to face him?"
The gun man grinned. "I don't scare."
"I don't think Harper will be a problem. He's only a hired hand. Just some drifter that Sherman hired a few months ago. Get rid of Sherman, Harper won't stay around these parts."
Charlie Parker and two other gun men entered the saloon. Chet held up a bottle of whiskey. "You gentlemen are just in time." The three men sat down at the table. "We were just discussing Slim Sherman and Jess Harper?"
"Harper? Jess Harper?" one of the gun men asked.
"You know him."
"I hear he's fast," Chet remarked.
"Well looks like Slim Sherman might be harder than I thought to get rid of."
"He's working for Sherman?" this gun man asked. "As his gun?"
"Sherman says as his hired hand."
"Well...well...well...a reformed gun man. Now that's something. That's something I'd like to see," the gun man remarked.
Inside the Sherman cabin, the fire in the hearth was slowly dying. Its bright embers turning to darken ashes. Jonesy had retired to bed hours ago. But Jess and Slim were seated in front of the fire, still laughing over beating Chet at his own game. Andy was at the table bent over a
book, pretending to read, but in reality he was trying to listen to the men's whispered laughing comments. Trouble is they were talking so softly that Andy could only make out one or two words.
Suddenly the door of the cabin burst opened. The visitor hadn't even knocked. He stood in the doorway filling the frame. His gun belt rode low on his hips. His legs were spread apart as his hand was hanging over his gun.
Slim rose from the table, his hand on his own gun.
"Jess Harper, I come looking for you."
Jess slowly stood. His hand dropped to his side, close to his gun. "Did you now?"
"Andy, get over there, out of the way," Slim ordered quickly.
Andy moved quickly to the wall closest to the kitchen. But his eyes never left the stranger.
"What do you want?" Slim demanded.
The man's eyes moved from Jess's face to Slim's face, then back to Jess. "You know why I'm here," the man said, his voice low.
"Indeed I do." Jess suddenly bolted for the man, his hand outstretched. "Luke, what are you doing in Laramie?"
Luke threw his head back and laughed loudly. "It's been a long time, Jess."
"You two are friends?" Slim asked angrily, his hand still touching the butt of his gun..
"I reckon this is the best trail partner I ever had," Luke answered, shaking Jess's hand then slapping him on the back.
"Last I seen you was in Colorado." Jess said with humor in his voice.
"We had us some times there, didn't we?" Luke replied with a wink.
Jonesy appeared in his bedroom doorway, a shotgun in his hand. "What's all the ruckus?"
"Jonesy," Jess said with a smile. "A friend of mine dropped by."
"At this hour? Don't he knock?"
Luke had the good manners to look slightly embarrassed. "Me and Jess was always sneaking up on the other. Why one time Jess sneaked up on me while I was in the bed of a-"
Jess elbowed Luke right in the ribs. "Luke, want you to meet, Jonesy."
Luke grinned but Jonesy showed no friendliness as he kept the shotgun nestled in his arms.
Jess continued, "This is my boss, Slim Sherman."
Slim held out his hand. Luke shook it. "Heard of you, Mr. Sherman."
"And this here is Andy Sherman. He owns half of this spread."
Andy's chest jutted out with pride. "Howdy!" Andy said with a huge grin. "Any friend of Jess is a friend of mine. How about some coffee? "
"Don't mind if I do."
"Don't know if any's left from tonight," Jonesy mumbled.
"Well can't you make some?" Andy questioned. "Come on, Jonesy, we've got a guest."
Luke, Jess and Andy eagerly moved to the table. Jonesy exchanged a look with Slim before Slim slowly followed them to the table while Jonesy moved even slower into the kitchen.
'So, Luke, how do you know Jess?" Andy asked.
"Oh him and me traveled together for awhile," Luke said evasively.
"Jess and I talked about doing that," Andy said.
Slim's eyebrow raised with a warning.
"Uh, that was before I signed on here," Jess said quickly. "Wouldn't want to go no where now."
"Don't sound like the Jess Harper, I know," Luke observed as his eyes roamed across Jess's face. "You were always ready to move on to the next town. Of course you usually had a sheriff convincing you it was time to leave town." Luke chuckled.
Jonesy poured coffee for everyone except Andy who glanced at Jonesy as if he expected some too.
"Luke, have you traveled to places like Jess has?" Andy asked. "Dodge City? Abilene?
"I've seen my share of sights, I reckon," Luke replied. "Most of them with Jess here."
Andy sighed with disappointment. "Most I've seen is Laramie. And then I don't get there much," Andy said as he threw a look at Slim. "But I mean to do me some traveling some day."
"I hope that's after you finish college," Slim said, his face looking stern.
"I might not go to college," Andy answered back.
"Oh you're going!"
"You never did."
"That's 'cause Pa died and someone needed to work this ranch."
"I do my share, Slim."
Jess slapped Andy on the back. "You sure do, tiger. Why you were a big help to me today."
"See Slim," Andy mumbled.
Everyone saw Slim's anger directed at Jess.
Luke glanced from Slim to Jess. Luke's eyes shone with amusement. "So Jess, how long you been working here?" Luke asked in between sipping the coffee.
"Not long," Jess replied.
"Sure never thought you'd settle down." Luke eyed Jess as if seeing a stranger. "Never figured you get domesticated."
"I like it here, if that's what you're asking."
"Sure never thought I'd see you tamed. You and me had us some times."
"Sure did, Luke."
"Say, Jess did you ever get back to Denver?"
A smile flickered across Jess's face.
"Was that saloon gal still there? You know the one I mean. I don't know yet what went on in her room but when you came down those stairs, the look on her face. I'd say she was one happy filly."
Jonesy slammed the coffee pot down hard on the table. "Andy it's your bed time."
"But I want to stay up with-"
Slim cut in, "Jonesy is right. Now off with you."
Slim pressed his lips tightly together as he set his cup down hard on the table.
Jess said quickly, "Andy, you best get some sleep. You promised you'd help me with the fences tomorrow." Jess winked.
"Oh yea...well goodnight." Andy practically ran to his bedroom.
Jonesy frowned. He stared suspiciously at Jess as he said, "That was easy. Too easy."
Luke glanced at Jess. His eyes held mischief. "Say, now that the boy's gone, you wouldn't have some whiskey around would you?'
Jonesy's frown grew bigger. "Only for medical purposes. And you don't look sick to me. Would you like some more coffee? Jess ain't drank it all yet."
Luke declined but Jess held out his cup. Jonesy ignored Jess's cup and said, "I think I'll go to bed. It's late. Very late." Then he was gone.
"If I didn't know better I'd say he didn't like me," Luke stated.
"Oh Jonesy just gets cranky sometimes Has a bad back," Slim excused. "And he's been up since early this morning."
"Guess I did come visiting late," Luke apologized. "But when I heard Jess was living out here. Slim, this boy here is probably the best friend I ever had," Luke explained. "He saved me a time or two from a neck tie party. Remember that posse in Colorado? I was sure they were
going hang me."
Slim's frown grew larger and larger as he listened to story after story. Jess tried to cut in and interrupt each time Luke told one. But there was no mistaking that Jess had been in and out of trouble and had used his gun for profit.
"Well I best go."
"You just passing through?" Jess asked. "You never did say what you're doing in Laramie."
"I got me a job."
Jess's asked, "Who hired you?"
"Chet Stevens. Know him?"
Jess quickly looked at Slim, who was now frowning so hard that there was no mistaking Slim was unhappy. Jess explained, "His ranch borders this one."
Luke slapped Jess good naturedly on his back. "Walk me out, Jess. Want to show you my horse. I remember how you had an eye for horse flesh. This one's a beaut."
Jess followed Luke to the hitching post. The full moon made everything in the yard easy to see. It was a nice horse but Jess knew that wasn't the reason to bring him outside.
Luke leaned against the hitching post. "You like it here, Jess?"
"Chet Stevens is looking for some good men. We could work together again."
Jess patted the horse's neck. "Why did you come here tonight?"
"Like I said to see you."
"All them stories you told. Didn't put me in too good a light," Jess accused.
"I can't help you lived wild, boy."
"Maybe you thought on getting me fired?"
"If Sherman don't like your past, I told you there's a job for you at the Stevens' ranch."
"I like working for Slim," Jess said bluntly.
"There might be trouble between the spreads. I would hate to think we were on opposite sides."
Jess nodded. "You know I ride for the brand."
"And you know I do too."
Jess petted the horse. "Good horseflesh. Where'd you steal it?"
Luke laughed. "I finally bought one. Chet pays well. How much you making at this small outfit?"
"It's more than the money."
"Yeah, I saw the kid. The way he admires you. You always did have a soft heart when it came to children. But Jess, you don't want to be on the losing side."
"Who says I am?"
"You seen Parker?"
Jess gave a slow nod.
"Come on, boy. You don't want to face him."
"Something going to happen? Is that why you're here?"
"Let's just say be careful when you're on the range alone."
Jess's hand dropped to his gun. His hand rubbed the butt of his peacemaker as if reassuring himself that he had this weapon. "I appreciate the warning."
"It'll be the last. After tonight-" Luke's words died.
But Jess knew the meaning. He had gotten his friend's message loud and clear.
Luke smiled. "See you, pard." He mounted his Appaloosa.
"Take care," Jess said then watched Luke ride away. He stayed on the porch a long time, just staring at the night.
Slim opened the door. "You staying out here all night?"
Jess turned slowly. "I think you should know that Luke has a job but it's not as a ranch hand."
"I figured as much."
"He came here tonight to give me a warning."
Though he suspected Andy and Jonesy were asleep, Slim still closed the door. The night air felt warm from the day's heat. Slim quietly moved forward until he stood next to Jess. His forehead puckered with concern. "What did he say?"
"We should be careful when out on the range."
Slim said softly, "So Chet ain't backed off. I don't want Andy to know. He'd worry."
"Slim, if Andy don't know then he might not be careful. Don't you think it's time you treated him like a man?"
"He's still a boy, Jess. And I want him to stay a boy for as long as possible."
"I was on my own when I was younger than Andy."
"And where did it get you? You were a drifter who's been on the wrong side of the law before you came here."
Jess looked as if Slim had struck him. He turned his back on the tall man and leaned against the porch rail.
"Jess, I had no call to say those words. I'm sorry."
"No need to apologize for telling the truth. And what you said is true," Jess mumbled. "I ain't much. Just some drifter."
"I figured when you signed on here that your drifting days would be over."
Jess said nothing. He only stared at the night.
Slim added, "You got a home here as long as you want. I want you to stay and be a part of this outfit. I know we ain't much. An old man, a young boy, and cowboy who often says the wrong things. What I should have said was you haven't been here long but I swear it wouldn't seem the same without you. I don't know how you did it but you've become a part of our family."
Jess faced Slim with fury. "If you're just saying them words because I can use a gun and you're fixing to face Chet Steven's hired guns."
Slim's face darkened with so much rage that Jess took a fighting stance, sure that Slim was going to strike him. "Now you listen here. I say what I mean. I want you to stay. Not because you're a gun man. But because you're my friend. Reckon I ain't never had a better one. And you're Andy's friend. And reckon he ain't had a better one than you. And in time you'll be Jonesy's friend. But it's up to you whether you stay or not. I've given you the invite."
Slim started to turn away in a huff but Jess's words stopped him. "I like having a home. Didn't have one for a long time. I want to stay on."
Slim laughed. "I don't know what we're fighting about then.. Come on, let's call it a night. And tomorrow we'll start riding double. "
It had been days since Luke's visit. Each morning had brought Jess and Slim more on edge as they waited for something to happen. The better things went on the ranch, the more cautious Jess and Slim behaved. Seldom did they work alone on the range. And always they kept both a gun and rifle at their side.
Twice Jess had drawn on Andy when the boy had unexpectedly come up behind him. Once he had drawn on Jonesy who has given him the tongue lashing of his life, swearing Jess had scared years off his life and his life didn't have that many years left.
Slim, though, had remained calm. Almost too calm. Until tonight. Tonight Slim was pacing. Day had turned into night. And now the only light was the moon's glow.
"What do you think is keeping Jess?" Andy asked.
Slim went to the window and stared out at the blackness. "Horse probably threw a shoe or-"
It was the 'or' that had Slim worried. He was angry at himself for allowing Jess to ride to the south pasture to check on some new born calves. He berated himself for not insisting that they stay together. But Slim's horse had gone lame. Jess didn't want to take the time to ride back to the ranch to get a fresh mount. Slim knew that Jess was like Andy in that he had a soft spot for animals. So Jess had ridden off towards the south pasture. That had been hours ago. "I think I'll ride out and meet Jess. Maybe hurry him along so we can eat supper."
"I'll ride with you," Andy offered.
A fight might have occurred had the sound of horses's hooves not been heard. Andy rushed to the window. "Jess is back," Andy shouted.
Minutes later, Jess opened the door. His appearance was in sharp contrast to Slim. Slim's clothes were dusty. But Jess's jeans were beyond dusty. His clothes were filthy. His lower legs were covered with mud. A thick coat of dust covered his black Stetson. Stains of mud and
perspiration married his shirt. Jess's tan face was streaked with dirt.
"Where have you been?" Slim greeted. "You look like you've been dragged through the mud."
.Jess fell exhausted into the chair by the fire. "Was on my way home when I came across one of our cows stuck in a mud bog. Took me a long time getting her out."
"How did it get in there?" Slim asked.
"Someone cut down your fence. Oh don't worry, I put it back up. Took me another hour. But I done it."
"None of the ranchers have had trouble in awhile," Slim said. "You see any thing else amiss?"
"Slim, that cow don't have a brand on it. I'm figuring with all the trouble, we might best be sure the cattle are all branded."
"I've been meaning to start back up on the branding but ain't had no time with getting all them fences up. Guess I'll find time with this."
"I put the cow in the barn."
Slim's eyebrow lifted in surprise. "You playing nursemaid?"
"Cow's got an awful cut on her side and underneath. Weren't sure she'd last if I let her go. She's been brawling her head off. Looks like she gave birth not long ago. Didn't see no sign of a calf though. I looked. Reckon wolves got it. Hated her to leave her out like that. I'll doctor
her before I eat."
Andy almost raced to Jess. "I'm going with you to help." He shot a glance at Slim. "Unless you
got some objections on me leaving this house?"
"Come on, tiger, I can use your help. As tired as I am, you might just be doing most of the work," Jess said.
After they left the house, Slim said with worry, "I don't know where Andy gets his-"
Stubborness? Bull headedness?" Jonesy said.
"I was going to say orneriness," Slim replied. "You think Andy would realize that I'm looking out for him. I'm his brother for crying out loud."
"I keep telling you as long as you got a man like Jess Harper under your roof, you're going have trouble."
Slim didn't answer. He just stood at the window staring into the dark night.
Though it was daylight, the inside of the barn was dark. Enough light seeped through the holes between the boards and the front entrance to allow Andy to see the cow. Andy heard the click of the gun before he saw the gun man. He turned quickly. His first impression of Charlie Parker was one of surprise. This tall man, who looked so fierce, had a calf tied to a rope. Silently he let the calf loose. The calf ran to the cow and began suckling her. The man scratched his chin with his drawn gun.
"I'd say that calf found its Mama, wouldn't you, boy?"
Andy nodded. "I'd say that."
Charlie Parker moved the gun up and down as he surveyed the place. "You all alone here?"
Andy started to speak but at the last minute just nodded.
"Boy, where's Slim Sherman?"
Andy replied, his voice shaking, "He's not here."
"I asked you where he is."
"Now you might think because you're just a boy that I won't take offense at your silence. But I do." Charlie Parker pointed the gun straight at Andy. "So I'm asking you one last time."
Andy said quickly, "He and Jess are on the range. I don't know where."
Charlie Parker pushed his hat back. He was thoughtful for a long time. "If you're lying to me-"
Charlie Parker smiled. "I reckon you ain't. You're too scared to."
Andy's eyes dropped to the gun. It was still pointed at him. The hammer was still pulled back.
"You all alone?"
"Now why would they leave a boy all alone here?"
"I ain't no boy! I can handle the stage when it comes in."
Charlie Parker tilted his head back and roared with laughter. "For a youngin' you got spunk, boy."
"What do you want with Slim?" Andy questioned.
"Well I'll tell you now, it's about that calf and cow. Where'd you get that cow?"
"This cow was found on our property."
The man smiled. "Oh it was?"
"Don't you think you should return it to the rightful owners?"
Andy frowned. "We are the rightful owners."
"Your brand Double S?"
Andy glanced at the cow. Right on its side was the double s brand. "That brand wasn't on there last night. I know we doctored this cow."
"I'm saying the brand was there. Now you ain't calling me a liar are you?"
Andy's hands balled into a fist. "I tell you Jess and me doctored this cow. See the wound. Just under where that brand is. I would have seen it."
"Hold it right!"
Andy's smiled seeing Jonesy with the shotgun. Jonesy's arm trembled but he kept the gun pointed at Parker.
"Lower that gun, Mister. Right now."
Parker looked more amused than scared. "And what do you aim to do with that, old man?"
"What needs to be doing," Jonesy replied.
"You think you can take me?"
"I think if you pull that trigger, then you won't be around for supper. Now go on, put that gun up."
Charlie Parker surprised Jonesy by laughing as he carefully uncocked the gun's hammer then put his weapon in his holster. "My fight isn't with an old man and a boy. My fight is with Slim Sherman."
"And what would this fight be about?" Jonesy asked.
"Boy here says this cow is his brother's. I saw it's mine. Brought the calf along as proof."
"You take the cow, mister. You can have her and her calf," Jonesy offered.
"Ain't good enough old man! I don't take kindly to rustlers. And I say Slim Sherman is a rustler!"
"He's not!" Andy cried out with so much anger that his face burned red with anger.
"Andy!" Jonesy warned. "We found that cow on our property last night."
"It has the Double S brand on it. Plain as anything. And it has your brand over ours."
"How do you know that? You didn't even get close to see-"
"Let me handle this, Andy." Jonesy moved to the cow. "Both brands look fresh to me. Can still see the hair burnt on this animal."
"That ain't the way I'm reading it."
"Then you go get the sheriff. Mort Corley will settle this."
"I settle my own fights. This is between me and Sherman. I'm thinking that Sherman been stealing cows. Then he killed some so he could blame the Double S. He probably needs the money to keep this place going."
"You're a liar!"
"Andy!" Jonesy warned.
"Call off the pup, old man. Or the boy won't live."
"Keep quiet, Andy! Mister, you take your complaint to the sheriff."
Charlie Parker smiled but there was no joy in his expression. "I aim to settle this myself."
"If you're riding for the Double S, what does Chet Stevens say about going gunning for a man? I'll ride over and talk to Chet-"
"Old man, it won't do you any good," Charlie Parker said with a grin. "I'm his new foreman and Chet gave me free rein on how to handle any rustlers we might find. Besides the cattleman's association made a rule that anyone rustling or killing cattle could be dealt with on the range. Ain't Slim Sherman the president of that association?"
"Slim didn't abide by that rule." Jonesy suddenly grew thoughtful. "Say, didn't Chet Stevens propose that rule? He showed up at the executive committee, uninvited, I might add. Slim didn't hold by that rule."
"Probably 'cause he knew he'd be caught."
"Jonesy-" Andy said with anger.
"Easy Andy," Jonesy said. "Now I'm asking you real politely to ride off. When Slim comes home I'll have him ride into Laramie and talk to the sheriff."
Charlie Parker laughed again, long and loud. "You do that, old man. But before he rides to Laramie you give him a message from me. Charlie Parker."
Andy's face paled and the shotgun Jonesy held wavered. Both had heard this name. Jonesy's hands tighten on the shotgun.
Charlie Parker smile grew. "And I want you to deliver it word for word just the way I tell you."
Jess galloped his horse into the yard. It was near the noon hour. Usually Jess and Slim ate on the range but today they found themselves working only miles from the cabin and decided they each needed a good meal instead of beans warmed over a campfire.
"Jess, am I glad to see you!" Andy cried out, running to Jess's horse. "Where's Slim?"
Jess dismounted in one graceful leap. He could see that the boy was trembling. He touched both of Andy's arms to steady the boy. "What's wrong?"
"We had a visitor today. Charlie Parker."
Jess's fingers dug into Andy's arms as his eyes traveled the length of him. "Are you all right? He didn't harm you did he?"
"No, I'm fine."
"How about Jonesy?"
Jonesy appeared with his shotgun. Seeing the cowboy, he sighed and lowered his gun. "Jess, you're home! Did Andy tell you about Parker?"
"You all right, Jonesy?"
Jonesy nodded. "Don't fret none about me, boy. But Parker left a message for Slim. Jess, I'm worried. Very worried."
"What was the message?"
"That he would be waiting for Slim in Laramie. And if Slim wasn't there by evening then he'd be back out here."
"Don't tell Slim." Jess mounted his horse.
"Jess!" Jonesy grabbed the horse's reins causing the animal to slightly shy. "Boy, what do you plan to do?"
"Jonesy, Slim is no match for Charlie Parker."
"If he's as fast as I've heard. You might not be either."
For a moment raw fear ran across Jess's face then his face turned into a determined look. "Don't fret about me. Just don't tell Slim."
"Slim wouldn't expect you to fight his battles," Jonesy stated.
"I've got a better chance than Slim. We both know that," Jess answered.
"Jess, you listen to me." Jonesy held tighter to the horses's reins. You tell the sheriff. You let Mort handle this."
"You know the sheriff can't do nothing unless Parker does something. 'Sides the Sheriff is at the Calers place. He had some cattle killed last night. We ran into Mort on Baxter's bluff. No telling when he'll get back to Laramie."
"Don't you see! Parker probably did that to keep Mort out of town. Don't you ride into Laramie-."
"Jonesy, you just keep Slim out of town. And don't you go worrying Slim. You promise me you won't tell him."
"Boy, I can't promise-"
"If you want him to live, you will promise, Jonesy. Now let me handle this in the way I know best."
But Jess was gone, galloping his horse towards Laramie, spurring his horse as if the devil was catching him..
Jonesy watched him ride away. Even after he was out of sight, Jonesy kept staring.
"Jonesy?" Andy said several times before Jonesy finally acknowledged his presence. "Jonesy, what are we going to do? Jess might not be no match against a man like Charlie Parker."
"Andy, I need you to hitch up the buckboard."
"We going to Laramie?"
"I might be old but I can still shoot."
"I can shoot too, Jonesy."
"You're staying here!"
"No! Jess is my friend. And right now he might need my help. Either I go or I don't hitch up-"
"Damn it, Andy! This is no time to argue."
"I'm going!" Andy struck a pose that showed he was ready to argue as long as it took.
"All right," Jonesy agreed. "I don't have time to argue. But Slim is going to have my hide for sure for bringing you along. Well get a going, boy. We need to get in town."
Andy turned and raced towards the corral.
Andy had just finished hitching the horses to the buckboard when Slim rode into the yard. He looked tired. Perspiration rings were on his shirt. But still he smiled a greeting as he dismounted. "Is lunch ready? I'm starved." He stopped as he saw the buckboard hitched. "Where are you two going?"
Andy faced him. Tears welled up in his eyes. "Slim-":
Jonesy interrupted with one word, "Andy."
Slim didn't miss the warning in Jonesy's voice. "Something wrong? Jonesy, what's going on? What has Andy so bothered?"
Emotions fought on Jonesy's face. "Slim...I promise not to tell you but..."
Slim fixed his stare on Jonesy. "I want to know what's going on."
"It's Jess. But if he knew I told..." Jonesy's shook his head.
"I'm still running this outfit. Jess isn't. Now I want you to tell me what's going on."
"Jess has ridden into Laramie. I think he plans to have a shootout with Charlie Parker."
Slim's face paled. "Why-"
"Parker came here looking for you."
"Me? What's he want with me?"
"He says that cow Jess found last night was stolen. Says it belongs to the Double S. That cow is branded with two brands. The Double S and yours on top. Parker claims you've been rustling cattle. And killing cows to hide your rustling and to blame the Double S. He left a message.
To meet him in Laramie. Or he'd come back here to get you."
Slim started running to his horse. "How long ago did Jess leave?"
"Just a few minutes. But the way he was riding-"
"I've got to get to town. Jess could be in trouble. I don't know if he's fast enough to beat Parker."
Slim's spurred his horse as he galloped down the road leading to Laramie.
Jess galloped into town. He reined in his horse in front of the saloon. Dismounting, Jess didn't tie his horse but slapped his rump. The horse ran away, heading back towards the ranch.
Jess stood in the middle of the street. He faced the saloon. He yelled as loud as he could, "Parker! Charlie Parker!"
"It's Harper," Charlie Parker said as he looked out the saloon window.
Chet sighed with disappointment. "I want Sherman. I don't care about Harper."
"Parker!" Jess called out again.
Charlie Parker walked through the saloon doors, out onto the boardwalk. Inside the saloon, Chet finished his glass of whiskey. Then he followed Parker outside, with Luke walking behind him.
"What do you want, Harper?" Parker asked.
"You," Jess replied.
Parker smiled. "What's wrong? Sherman too yellow to come into town himself? You go tell your boss, I'm waiting for him. I have no fight with you, Harper. It's his brand on that cow's, not yours," Parker said as he started to return to the saloon.
"You yellow coward!" Jess replied.
Parker stopped. He turned angrily. "Boy, I'm doing you a favor."
"You yellow polecat," Jess repeated.
Chet grabbed Parker's arm but Parker jerked away.
"No one says that to me," Parker mumbled as he walked into the street.
Jess's legs slightly parted. His hand dropped until it was almost touching his gun.
Parker smiled as he stood facing Jess. "Boy, in a few minutes you are going meet your maker."
Chet's hand dropped to his gun. He started to pull his weapon out of his holster but stopped as he felt a gun pressed to his side. Luke whispered, "This fight's going be fair, Mr. Stevens. I'll still fight for you. I'm still true to the brand. But this walkabout's going be between Jess and Parker only." Chet let go of his gun.
A smile was on Charlie Parker's face as he stood in the street.
Jess tensed then forced himself to relax. Jess's eyes latched onto Parker's hand. Jess watched and waited. It had been a long time since Jess had faced someone in a shootout. He took a deep breath to steady his nerves. Beads of sweat broke out on Jess's forehead. He wanted to
draw his gun just to get this fight over with but he waited. He saw Parker's hand open and close then Parker went for his gun. Jess was a half second faster. As Jess's gun cleared leather, Jess fired three bullets. The first one killed Parker. The second and third hit Parker as
he fell dead to the ground.
"Damn," Chet said under his breath.
Slim raced his horse down the street, arriving in time to see Parker fall. "Jess, look out!"
A bullet struck next to Jess. Jess leaped for the dirt, rolling. Then he was back on his feet. He ran as more bullets sprayed the ground where he had just stood. Slim drew his gun as he dismounted. He slapped his horse on the rear. The horse ran down the street as Slim ran for cover. He hid behind the water trough. "Jess? You all right?"
"Sure am," Jess called from the alley way.
The sound of glass breaking was heard. A shotgun barrel appeared from the broken window in the sheriff's office. "Slim...Jess..."
"Mort?" Slim asked, his voice filled with relief.
"I rode in just as Parker drew. I think Chet has three men. At least that's how many has been hanging around town. I saw one run into the saloon with Chet. One is by the general store. Not sure where the other one went."
"Cover me, Slim," Jess called out.
But Slim's warning was too late. Jess was running. Bullets just barely missed him as he raced across the street. Mort joined in the fight as the butt of his rifle broke another window so he could get a better aim. He then began firing rapidly trying to cover Jess as he dodged bullets.
Slim and Mort fired a round of bullets before reloading. Jess made it to the alley way across the street. Jess signaled to Slim across the street. Slim's eyes quickly traveled the length of the street. Suddenly Slim pointed his gun and fired. The man on top of the hotel roof fell to the ground. Slim had hit his mark. This gun man lay dead with blood soaking his shirt a deep red. More bullets rang out.
"Chet's got some of his hands in town," Mort yelled. Mort killed the next man, firing two shots. The second had hit the man in the chest, knocking him backwards.
The town grew silent.
"You think we got them all?" Mort yelled out.
"Except Chet and the one in the saloon," Slim answered.
"Slim!" Jess called out. Slim nodded. Jess ran through the alley way heading for the back of the saloon. Slim silently counted to five then raced across the street and hit the saloons doors hard with his body. He dropped to the floor as men fired their weapons. But just a second after he entered, Jess entered from the back, crashing through the back door. Chet and his gun man were caught in a cross fire as Slim used a table for cover and Jess fired from behind.
Suddenly there was silence.
"Give it up," Slim ordered.
Chet slowly stood with his hands raised. His shirt was covered with blood. "I guess I picked the wrong Sherman. I should have killed you instead of your Pa."
Slim's hand tighten on his gun.
Jess faced the sole gun man, who still held a gun. "Give it up, Luke. The fight's over."
Luke offered a grin then put his gun in his holster.
Jess didn't return the smile. He just watched as Luke walked to the bar and grabbed a whiskey bottle. He pulled the cork out with his mouth. He spit the cork onto the floor then poured him a drink of whiskey. "Jess, you told me that I was working for the wrong side. I should have listened. Hated going against you, Jess. You're the best friend I ever had."
Luke poured him another drink, filling the glass to the brim. He swallowed it in one gulp then wiped his lips with his jacket's sleeve. "You remember when you and I worked on Brinson's ranch in the pan handle. We use to see who could draw the fastest. Shooting at bottles." He filled one more glass. He held it up staring at it. Quickly he drank the entire glassful of liquor, then dropped the glass to the floor. The glass broke spattering on the floor. "We rode a lot of trails together. I saved your bacon and you saved mine. That's why I'm asking you to play fair. Give me a chance."
"If you give yourself up-"
"I'm wanted in this state. Hanging offense. Guess I should have gone back to Texas but Stevens was offering so much money. Seemed easy enough. A big ranch against a small one. Who'd have thought Sheman would have beaten Stevens? What do you say, Jess? For old times's sake. I'd rather face a bullet than a noose any day."
Jess slowly put up his gun.
"Keep out of this, Slim," Jess ordered.
Luke moved slowly away from the bar. "Tonight I reckon one of us is going be dining in hell. You've been a good friend and a good trail partner. I'll miss you, Jess," Luke said before he drew his gun.
Jess waited until Luke's gun had cleared leather. For a moment Slim thought Jess wasn't going to draw but he did. Lighting quick. Luke fell dead on the ground.
Chet glanced from Jess to Slim. Slim began walking towards Jess, who was staring down at his dead friend. For a moment, Slim turned his back on Chet. It was what Chet had been waiting for. It was what Chet had been hoping for. Chet grabbed for a fallen gun.
"Don't!" Slim yelled.
But Chet paid no atteniton. He drew the gun up, firing. Jess and Slim fired at the same time. Chet's bullet went wild but their bullets hit their mark. Chet fell forward, dying on the floor, his blood making a stain that even years later the saloon would not be able to get rid of.
As Slim and Jess left the saloon, horses pulling a buckboard galloped down the street. Jonesy pulled hard on the reins and the horses slid to a stop. "Are you boys all right?"
Jess leaned against the buckboard. His shirt was damp with perspiration. There was a cut on his cheek. "We're fine." Andy jumped into Slim's arms, hugging him, almost knocking him down with the weight of his body.
Slim said with a laugh, "Hey, be careful. You're not a kid you know."
Andy hugged him as if he was a child seeking comfort, then attacked Jess with a bear hug.
"Let's go home," Slim said.
"I thought we might first get a cup of coffee at the restaurant," Jonesy invited. "It must have been an hour since you're had a cup, Jess."
Jess burst out laughing. Slim and Andy joined in the merriment.
"I'd say you're part of this outfit now," Slim said slapping Jess on the back. "Let's go home."
"Yeah, let's go home," Jess agreed.
"And when we get there I'm going brew you up a pot of coffee," Jonesy promised.
Mort knocked on the door of the Sherman cabin.
"Mort, come in," Slim greeted. "How's the leg?"
"Darnest thing. Didn't get shot during that fight with Chet. But got a piece of glass which crippled me for awhile. I think I'd rather had the bullet." He nodded at Jess, who sat drinking coffee. "You mind if I talk to Jess alone?"
Slim glanced at Jess with uncertainty. "No." Slim quietly left the room.
Mort sat down in the rocker. "My old bones," he mumbled, "can't take riding like I use to."
Jess waited. His hand held the cup tightly.
"You can relax, boy," Mort said. "I thought you'd like to know that wanted poster on you is no longer good."
Jess couldn't form the words to speak.
"I talked to Judge Wilson. He remembers you from your fight with Bud Carlin. I told him I didn't think Laramie could afford to lose a good citizen like yourself. He agreed. After all he's in your debt from when you fought against Carlin. And even more so now that you helped stop a range war."
"I ain't wanted no more?"
"Wasn't much of a charge. Stealing a horse."
"I had paid the man. But later he denied-"
"Judge figured as much. He and I both had heard of Bob Thomas. But before I give you these papers I wanted to make a deal with you."
"A deal? But you said I wasn't wanted no more."
"That's right. But I want you to quit wearing that gun."
Jess shook his head no. "I ain't going without a gun."
"I didn't say that, boy. I'm saying that gun. The one whose hammer is filed down. The one whose holster is so slick with oil, your gun slides out easily. I want you to get rid of a gunslinger's gun."
Jess's hand dropped and touched the gun as if touching an old friend.
"Jess, you ain't no longer a gunslinger," Mort added.
Jess slowly stood. He unbuckled his gun holster. He started to hand it to Mort.
"You keep it. As a reminder of what not to become."
"Why are you doing this, sheriff?"
"Slim's Pa was one of my best friends. He help me get the job of sheriff. We had ridden together before he met Slim's Ma and settled down. Me and Jonesy were his best men at his wedding. In some ways Slim and Andy are like my own sons. Slim needs you, boy. He needs your help to keep this ranch going. I seen him struggle. I figure if I can get you to stay on, Slim and Andy might just be able to keep this place going. Slim needs your help but more importantly he needs having a good friend here to work beside him."
Jess studied the lawman. "I figured you thought I was nothing but a no account drifter."
"Nope. I just thought you didn't say much."
Jess grinned. "Slim!" he yelled out.
Slim had been close by. If he had heard their conversation, Jess wasn't sure.
"Slim, you have some place I can keep this gun so it's out of Andy's reach."
"You putting your gun up?" Slim asked with much curiosity.
"Just this one. I don't need it. After all I'm a ranch hand now, right sheriff?"
"It's Mort," the lawman answered.
Slim took hold of the gun and the holster. He noticed there were some notches on the gun. How many, he didn't count. "I got a good place. It's where I kept my mortgage money." Slim removed several bricks from the fireplace, revealing a hole. It was a good hiding place for heat would not touch any items in this hole and yet it looked part of the fireplace. Slim placed the gun in the hole then covered it up. "It's there when you need it."
"Don't reckon I will," Jess said, "now that I'm a law abiding citizen."
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