The Mort Cory Gang Rides Again
Laramie Sheriff Mort Cory saw the telegram on his desk as soon as he walked in the door of his office. He didn't reach for it right away, since he was always getting one notification or another on a regular basis that didn't always require urgency so he figured the current news item could wait. Besides, it likely was just a message for the temporary sheriff that had been on duty while he was recovering as Mort had only been back on the job for two days.
Mort walked to stand in front of the mirror on the wall, slowly unbuttoned his shirt and looked at the reflection of the mending gunshot wound. There was still bruising, some redness, but mostly, it was the slightly raised scar where the bullet had pierced that drew the most of his attention. He hadn't told the doctor a few days earlier that it still hurt, making the physician declare that he was cleared to go back to work. He needed to be on the job again whether he was physically sound or not.
Life the last two weeks had gone by too slowly and he could sit idle no longer. Even if the only activity would be breaking up a saloon brawl such as the one he had done the night before or just helping the Widow Withers with her overabundance of packages she always seemed to have in hand when she exited the store on a weekly basis. It felt good to wear the badge, to sit at his desk, to be in the position of authority, not in a haughty way, but to feel strong and respected as he upheld the law. He needed this, because he'd almost lost it all, when he'd almost lost his life.
Mort buttoned his shirt and then sat down at his desk, the telegram ready to be picked up. There were other items of interest on his desk, like a stack of wanted posters that he'd need to go through, sending some to the trash while others would get pinned up on the bulletin board. He knew there were some reports he needed to file and new notes that needed to be taken. Work, there was plenty of it right in front of him, maybe he'd get it done before the noon meal if nothing went out of control. The telegram seemed to be a good place to start even though it was probably nothing important, or, as he began to read, as important as life or death.
Bosley Bates has escaped.
There was more, but it was those four words that turned Mort's already paled complexion from his wound recovery turn a shade even whiter. The rest of the message gave few details, a deputy was injured, an unknown accomplice helped in the escape, and that all local lawmen would be on high alert. That would be true especially for him, because Mort was the man who shot Bosley Bates, leading up to his being arrested for murder. The man, known to all in his realm as Boss, had escaped his sentence of death.
Mort had feared something like this might have happened. Even though he hadn't been needed at Bates' trial, he'd kept a sharp eye on the proceedings in Casper, or really, the lack thereof. From what he'd read in the newspaper or overheard from someone in the saloon that was supposedly in the know, Bates' court date had been delayed more than once. First, it was because the man claimed he was in poor health due to the gunshot wound that Mort himself had put in his shoulder. Then, after the local doctor convinced him he was more than sound, the mother of the youngest gang member complained the lawyer assigned to the case wasn't a good fit, so she somehow got the trial delayed until a later date until she could hire a family lawyer. Every day that prolonged that trial was one more day for Bates to plan, and unfortunately, he must have made one that succeeded.
Mort reread the telegram, noticing that the date was marked that morning, but considering Bates' hanging date was a few days past, the message he held in hand probably had been delayed somewhere along the line due to severe storms that had raged all across Wyoming Territory. He sighed deeply and then let the paper fall into the wastebasket. If only the knowledge of the news could have been discarded just as easily, but it would have been an impossibility. Bates was free. He could have traveled to a lot of places in those two days, storms and all.
Mort opened the bottom drawer of his desk and pulled out a folded newspaper. He hadn't intended on keeping one of the copies that he'd found discarded in the back of the saloon while he was recovering, but at the same moment, he couldn't just throw it away. Nostalgia, or something similar in his emotions was how he'd described his actions when he'd placed the newspaper inside his desk. After all, fabricated stories weren't made up about everyone, but they were for him, at least, for the Mort Cory gang.
Mort glanced through the article, shaking his head sadly as he read. It would take a long time for the words to strike any chord other than sorrow. Maybe years from now he could laugh over it, but for now, the only part in the article to bring a smile was how the reporter had changed both Slim and Jess' names to suit his own amusement. Dim Sherman and Jest Harmer. They both still got touchy if someone mentioned the made up mess of their names, especially Jess. He even put his fist into the nose of a particular funnyman that rode the stage not long after their return home. Jess had never intended that side story would reach Mort's ears, but he'd heard every word from Mose who'd witnessed it all.
"Well, how would you feel if it was your name that was changed?" Jess asked when Mort had brought up the punching incident later that night when the boys had come to visit.
"Probably just as irritable as you," Mort had heartily agreed.
"Especially if your name was changed to something like," Jess had paused to think of a good, albeit silly, fit. "Wort Worey," Jess said with a grin.
"The proper term is worry wart," Slim had corrected.
Mort chuckled anew as he thought of Jess and the expression on his face when Slim had corrected him. But maybe Jess wasn't too far off on his embellished name, for now that Boss Bates was loose, a deep worry line formed over his brow and something akin to anxiety settled in Mort's chest. A feeling of great dread began to wash over him as he thought of Slim and Jess. They needed to know Bates was free, for there was a great chance the villain was coming after them. He'd want him most, that Mort was positive, but he definitely could be targeting Slim and Jess.
It didn't take long for Mort to saddle Badge, his faithful companion, and ride towards the Sherman ranch. He wasn't sure how Slim and Jess would react to this news, either they'd become just as wary as he, or they'd act like it was nothing to be concerned over.
He feared Jess would choose the latter thought. He could be careless at times and prone to get into trouble. Yet, Mort had seen all that Jess Harper could be while they rode together under the pretense of the Mort Cory gang, and even though he was still a hothead, seeing everything that Jess displayed during that time proved he was a far better man than most would ever know or understand. And even though they worked well as a team, he knew in times of trouble, Jess often would go it alone. It was that reason that made Mort even more anxious as he rode down the hill towards the house and saw Slim standing alone.
"Where's Jess?" Mort asked before he even dismounted.
"He's rounding up some strays out by Bartlett Canyon that were set off during those storms," Slim answered, concerned by the serious expression on Mort's face. "What's wrong?"
"Plenty," Mort scanned the area with his eyes wishing he could see through every rock, tree, hill and building in case Boss Bates was somewhere hiding behind one of them. "I'd feel better if Jess were here, though."
"He should be in by dark," Slim followed Mort's wandering gaze. "What is it Mort? What's happened?"
"Boss Bates has escaped," Mort said through clenched teeth. Now that the admission had come from his lips, the reality seemed even more significant.
"He was supposed to have been hung a couple of days ago," Slim said in disbelief. "How did he get away?"
"It seems Bates has a lot of friends in all kinds of places," Mort answered with the little bit of information he'd already learned. "Someone sprang him loose along with the youngest member of his gang, Ernie Monroe, seriously injuring the deputy that was standing guard. No one knows where they're headed, but I have a strong suspicion Bates is coming here."
"You think he's coming after us?"
"I most certainly do," Mort continued to search the surrounding land with his eyes. "I know Boss Bates too well. He's evil and conniving and he sets a lot of stock on revenge. You better believe he'll be coming after all of us. He'll want me the most, but he's going to have his sights set on you two as well. He could even be out there now. That's why I wish Jess wasn't out there alone."
"Jess would tell you in his usual manner that he can take care of himself," Slim said with a frown. "If he knew the situation, he'd still be out doing what he's doing now."
"That might be true, but it doesn't make my mind any more at ease," Mort shook his head.
"Then I guess it wouldn't hurt to go check on him," Slim suggested, "as long as you don't mind going after a bunch of wanderlust cattle."
"Shouldn't be too much different than looking for some wanted criminals," Mort said as he mounted Badge. "Besides, I haven't always worn this star. There was a time in my youth where I did some wrangling. You just might find me a regular cowpoke."
"All right then," Slim led Alamo from the barn. "Let's go."
They covered the few miles quickly, riding at an urgent pace, only slowing when Jess came into their sights. They exchanged glances, Slim's face showing only relief, and while Mort's face showed a moment of the same elation, it was quickly replaced with the taut look of tension as the knowledge that Bates was still on the loose, perhaps ready to spring into action now that they were all together in one place.
Jess had turned to see them coming as soon as the sound of their approach reached his ears. His hand had rapidly flicked towards his gun as it was prone to do when confronted while he was out alone, but he soon relaxed when he saw the friendly mounts and familiar strides come into focus.
"You two don't exactly look like you're out on a leisurely afternoon ride," Jess smiled up at both Mort and Slim, noting that their expressions didn't match his own. "Don't tell me you rode out here to arrest me. I ain't done anything unlawful, not today at least."
"Now's no time for jokes, Jess," Mort said in a serious tone as he and Slim dismounted. "Have you seen anyone or anything that doesn't belong out here?"
"Not until you both rode up, I ain't seen anybody," Jess answered, the smile already gone from his face. "What's this all about?"
"Boss Bates has escaped," Mort said flatly.
"Why does it seem that all the lowlife's in this country somehow find a way to escape the noose that waits them?" Jess asked and then watched as Slim shrugged and Mort just shook his head. "What do you think he's gonna do now that he's free?"
"Run, hide," Mort said slowly, "or take revenge."
"On us?" Jess wondered.
"I firmly believe he'll be coming after the Mort Cory gang," Mort said.
"I was sure hoping I'd never have to hear that title again," Jess said, sounding annoyed.
"What?" Slim couldn't help but crack a joke, "I thought you liked being called Jest Harmer."
"Oh," Jess tried not to grin as he moved his arm as if he was ready to punch Slim. "You really are Dim Sherman to bring that up. You wanna fight?"
"You better not try it," Slim poked Jess in the chest with his finger. "I'm the fighter of this bunch, remember?"
"That can change, real quick," Jess gave Slim a gentle shove.
"Quit fooling around, boys," Mort forced the smile off his lips that had grown as he watched Slim and Jess' antics, and then he turned to look all around them. Other than the three of them and a few cattle wandering close by, they still appeared to be alone. But at that moment, Bates could have been anywhere, even hiding right behind them.
"So what do we do now, Mort?" Slim asked. "We know Bates is on the loose, perhaps coming after us. But we can't stop doing our daily routine because of it."
"I know," Mort nodded, "but you have to remain watchful, whatever you're doing. No taking chances. It's not just my job as your sheriff to see to it that you both stay safe, but it's also my job as your friend. And I'm going to make sure that you do."
"You know, Mort, you're the one who put a bullet in Bates' shoulder," Jess pointed out, "maybe we should be watching out for you instead of you watching out for us."
"I agree, Mort," Slim nodded as he voiced his idea. "To do that, we can take turns every other day being your deputy. What do you say to that, Jess?"
"I think you should ask my opinion first," Mort shook his head slightly then put his hand on Slim's shoulder. "As much as I appreciate the offer, and believe me, I do, that isn't going to work. While one of you is wearing a star while sitting at my desk with your feet propped up on top counting sheep, the other will still be alone here at the ranch. The reason I came out here today was to warn you about Boss Bates so that you two can stick together. And together is how you're going to stay."
"But Mort," Jess interjected.
"No objections, Jess," Mort looked sternly into Jess' eyes to show the man he meant every word that he'd said. "Besides, if something happens to me first, I want to know that you two will be around to rescue me again."
"I see your point, Mort," Slim nodded, "and don't worry, if anything happens, you can count on us."
"I know," Mort said softly, trying hard to not let the moisture that blurred his eyes start spilling. He owed his life to Slim and Jess for what they did for him after he was shot while on the run from a false murder charge. It was during those days of hiding as he lay injured that he knew just how far these boys in front of him would go to help him. He knew without a doubt they'd do it again.
"As long as you're both out here," Jess pointed towards the scattered cows that roamed a short distance from their location. "Why don't you help me round up those walking steaks and make it a quick trip back to the house?"
"Seems to me Mort and I mentioned something about that before riding out here," Slim smiled widely at Jess then turned towards Mort. "Come on, Cowboy Mort! Show us what you can do!"
"Will I get wages?" Mort asked with a glint in his eye, glad that the humor of the moment could mask his previous choked up emotions.
"Only if you do it right," Slim teased.
"Then be ready to give top dollar!" Mort mounted Badge and pushed his horse to head right for the leading steer, pointing the whole group of animals towards their destination.
Once the cattle were back where they belonged, Mort, Slim and Jess arrived back at the ranch house. Darkness wasn't upon them yet, but it would be settling over the land in a few hours time, calling an end to the day's ever present chores. Slim knew that Mort would be heading back to Laramie, but because of the day's turn of events, he was hoping their friend would stay a little longer.
"You could at least stay for dinner, Mort," Slim offered, as Jess added his nod of approval.
"And eat your cooking?" Mort laughed, "I think I'd do much better at the diner. But thanks anyway. Don't forget what I told you about sticking together."
"We won't," Slim put his hand on Jess' back to indicate that they planned to do just that.
"Good," Mort waved his hand as he motioned Badge to head towards Laramie. "I'll check in with you in a few days."
"We should've rode with Mort into town," Jess said as Mort disappeared from their view.
"Maybe," Slim answered. "But he probably would have objected since we wouldn't have returned home before dark."
"You reckon he's being a little too cautious?" Jess asked. "Bates could be on his way to Canada and never have a single thought about us."
"I don't know, Jess," Slim shook his head. "But I guess it won't be long until we find out."
The following morning started in the usual routine. The fire was started, two faces were washed and shaved, coffee was made, breakfast was heartily eaten, the house was given its usual five minute cleaning, and the horses were watered and well fed for their morning run. Everything started the same, until Jess walked outside.
"Hey, Slim," Jess stood just outside of the house looking towards the top of the hill where a stage had just rolled into sight. "Ain't the stage supposed to be here at nine?"
"Yeah," Slim stepped out onto the porch with a cup of coffee in hand.
"Then why's it coming in now? It ain't even eight."
"There's something not right about that stage," Slim walked to where Jess stood and watched as the stage drew closer. "It's being driven like someone doesn't know what they're doing."
"Lucky's supposed to be on the west bound this morning isn't he?" Jess glanced at Slim to see his nod. "He's almost as experienced as Mose. He wouldn't be bringing the stage in like that."
"That's not Lucky," Slim squinted slightly in the sunlight to see if he could make out the driver. "He looks familiar, though. I know I've seen him somewhere recently. Maybe he's a new hire."
"No shotgun rider," Jess observed, even though he knew the stage line didn't always use one, especially if there wasn't anything of value on board.
"I don't know what to think," Slim shook his head.
Jess stepped closer into the path of the incoming stage to get a better view as the stage rounded the final corner. The recognition came nearly too late as the memory of the face registered into his brain. He looked quickly at Slim and noted that he hadn't yet put his gun belt on, disappointed that he was the only one wearing an iron, for he knew they were about to have the need for them. Jess was ready to pull his weapon from its holster when the horses on the stage suddenly started barreling right towards him.
"Jess!" Slim hollered as he lunged forward to grab Jess, knocking him to the ground and rolling him away from the thundering hooves that stamped only inches from their bodies.
"Thanks Slim," Jess took a few deep breaths as they stood to their feet and watched as the stage turned a full circle then came to a stop near the front of the house. "I know who the driver is. It's Ernie Monroe. He was with…"
"Boss Bates," Slim said the name with a sharp edge to his voice.
"One and the same," the stage door burst open to reveal the sinister outlaw filling the doorway with a wicked grin on his face. He held a rifle in his hands and it was pointed at the level of each man's chest. "I'm glad you remembered me."
"I'd planned on forgetting right after you were hung," Jess said, his hand moving dangerously close to his gun as every fiber in his body wanted to pull the weapon and fire.
"Better keep your gun holstered," Bates said as he moved his rifle to be entirely pointed at Jess. "You'll be more apt to stay alive that way."
"What do you want?" Slim asked after he was satisfied that Jess' hand was in a safer position.
"Oh," Bates chuckled lightly, "you know what I want. The real question and answer is all about how I'm going to get it done. And that starts right now. Ernie, get down and take care of Harmer's sidearm."
Ernie did as he was told, tossing both the holster and gun into the water trough. Jess scowled as it splashed, knowing there wouldn't be any quick opportunity to grab the weapon where it landed, besides, submerged in the water wasn't exactly a prime location to store his prized possession for long at all.
"So now that you're both without guns," Bates stepped out of the stage without lowering his rifle, "let's have ourselves a nice little chat."
"We ain't got anything to say to the likes of you," Jess snapped his words.
"That's all right," Bates snorted. "You can stay quiet and I'll do all the talking, how's about that?"
"You want me to change the horses, Boss?" Ernie asked, motioning towards the team. "They're pretty tired since we went around the last relay station."
"That'd be a wise thing to do, because we'll be back on the road shortly."
"What do you mean by that?" Slim wondered.
"I'm glad you asked," Bates rubbed his jaw in a moment of thought. "Sherman, isn't it? Yes. You see Sherman, during the days I was locked in jail in Casper, first awaiting my trial, and then waiting for the gallows to be built, I got a plan working in my mind. A real good one that's probably the best I ever created up here in my head. And now it's time to put it all together. I want Mort Cory and the way I'm going to get Mort Cory is through you two. He'll come running when he discovers I've nabbed his two gang partners."
"You ain't got us yet," Jess took a step forward but Slim's hand clamped roughly on Jess' shoulder to stop his advancement towards Bates.
"You know," Bates jabbed the barrel of his rifle in Jess' chest, "I don't really have to use the both of you. I could leave one of you here, but I wouldn't be leaving you here alive. Tempt me again and I'll pull the trigger."
"If you do you'll have to kill me too," Slim glared at Bates. "If you shoot down Jess I'll go down right beside him trying to put an end to your sorry excuse for a hide!"
"Don't get so touchy, Sherman," Bates rolled his eyes. "I was only bluffing. I know I need the both of you to keep the other in line. You two are worse than brothers in how you stick up for one another. Now here's what's going to happen. Sherman, you're going to be up top with Ernie driving the stage while your pal is going to be inside the stage with me."
"You want me driving the stage?" Slim questioned.
"Yeah," Bates stretched his back, rolled his neck back and forth and groaned. "Ernie doesn't exactly drive like a professional. Besides, it'll look better with two men on top like there was when we stopped this stage in the first place up the road a ways and extracted it of both driver and shotgun man. Glad there wasn't any passengers. I wouldn't have wanted to deal with screaming women or hostile heroes. The shotgun man was bad enough to handle after I dropped the driver. He tried every way possible to put a fatal bullet in us, but someone should have taught him to not fire at your opponent until you get a clear shot. I guess it don't matter to him now."
Slim and Jess exchanged somber looks. They had wondered what had become of Lucky and whoever was holding the shotgun on the morning run, and now they both were gone at the hands of this murdering scoundrel. Since they'd skipped the last stage stop up the line, the coach would probably be presumed crashed someplace between there and Cheyenne, with not much investigating as far as the Sherman station. They both felt the ire rise in their chests, but at the moment there was nothing they could do about it except comply, no matter how much they hated to do so.
"Looks like Ernie's done with the team," Bates said, pointing at Slim. "All right, Sherman, on top, and just so you know, Ernie's not your biggest threat, even though he's going to be holding the rifle next to you. I've got your buddy inside the coach with me, and I'll never lose hold of my weapon, if you know what I mean."
"You've made your point," Slim said firmly as he climbed on top of the stage with Ernie next to him. "I won't do anything out of line as long as you don't."
"I have a chore for you before you take your seat inside the stage," Bates tapped Jess with the rifle, pushing him towards the barn. "I need your horse and Sherman's horse saddled and tied to the back of the stage. You'll eventually be in need of them farther down the line."
"What for?" Jess asked, moving slowly towards the barn hoping for an opportunity to arise where he could turn on Bates while Ernie was busy with Slim at the stage.
"You don't need to ask questions. Just do as I say," Bates answered tersely as he followed Jess into the barn. His trained outlaw eye was able to spot a couple of rifles partially hidden in a corner, so he took his position there to watch the two horses be prepared to not give the temperamental cowboy any chances.
Watching Bates out of the corner of his eye, Jess readied Traveler and Alamo, his mind constantly at work looking for an escape attempt. He had one thought that might succeed and as he was exiting the barn with the two horses, he took a quick look to make sure Ernie wasn't looking his way. Confident he could work his plan in mere seconds, Jess faked a stumble, released Traveler's reins to make the horse stop still, then dove under his horse's belly and grabbed Bates by the boots, knocking the man onto the ground. Jess kicked the rifle from Bates' hands and lunged for the weapon, but before he wrapped his hands around the barrel, a shot rang out spewing dust at his feet. Ernie was a lot more skilled with a rifle than he'd expected. Jess stood still in his defeat as he watched Bates' regain his rifle, the look on the man's face saying he wished he could kill him right then and there.
"Finish your job," Bates growled as he waited for Jess to tie their horses on the back of the stage.
Slim had watched the scene between Jess and Bates, hoping that he could keep Ernie preoccupied with questions on how he managed to keep the stage on the road on their trip to his ranch, but from the high seat atop the stage, it wasn't easy to keep his eyes focused on only him. Once he saw Jess dive under the horse, the idle chatter ended and he trained his rifle and fired. At least he hit what he'd aimed at, and hadn't inadvertently shot Jess in mistake.
"Get in the stage," Bates commanded, giving Jess a stout shove.
Jess looked up at Slim, letting the emotion that passed through their eyes do all the talking that they couldn't do out loud. They knew in that one glance that whatever happened, the promise was made that they would do anything to protect and help the other, no matter what was going to happen next.
Jess entered the stage and was forced to the floor where Bates painfully gripped his wrists, tying them behind his back. After what Jess had attempted, he figured the outlaw needed him bound as to not try anything else. He glanced up towards the roof of the coach when Bates rapped the top with his rifle to signal to Ernie that they were ready to go. With a command from Slim to the horses, the stage began to roll. Jess took a deep breath and slowly released it. This was only the beginning of what was to come, and what would happen when it neared its end, he wasn't sure he even wanted to know.
Less than an hour after the stage departed, the aging hired hand that Slim employed arrived at the Sherman ranch for work. Ben went into the house right away to see if a cup of coffee was still hot and fresh for him, but after taking only a sip of the tepid brew, he returned to the outdoors to complain to his boss about the less than appealing drink.
"Slim!" Ben called, but when he heard no answer, he switched the name to his other "boss". Jess might not have been the man alone at the top like Slim was, but Jess was still mighty close in command. "Jess! Ain't anybody here?"
Ben glanced at the watch he kept hidden safely in his pocket and read the time as to be what he'd already judged by the advancing sun. It was close to eight forty-five, only fifteen minutes until the stage came, unless it had already arrived and they both had taken off somewhere to work. But what he'd been told before was that they were planning on sticking close to the house, although they'd never given a reason why.
"Slim! Jess!" Ben hollered a few more times as he walked around the front of the house but was disgusted that he saw no one in sight.
It was then he saw the tracks of a stage but didn't contemplate long enough the odd marks the wheels seemed to have made to realize something might have been amiss. There were on rare occasions when the stage came in slightly out of control due to a finicky horse or a weather related incidence or just plain fun and games between driver and relay station owner so there wasn't enough evidence in Ben's eyes to worry over. It just appeared the stage came early as he'd already contemplated, but that still didn't answer where Slim and Jess were.
"Those two better not have decided to just up and leave on another holiday again," Ben muttered as he continued to search going from the barn to the corral and back towards the house. "Seems like all they need is a little suggestion for something exciting and they take off for a good ol' time while leaving me here to keep things going for them. I'd likely get a good ear burning if I took off on vacation without any explanation. All this looking's making me thirsty."
Ben pumped fresh water into his hands over the trough and drank what collected in his palm. When he finished his drink he caught a glimpse of something at the bottom of the trough. Peering closer, his eyes opened wide in surprise.
"Well I'll be jiggered," Ben reached into the water and pulled out Jess' gun belt. "Doesn't he know this thing will get ruined in there? I guess he'll be glad to see it's all right when he comes back. But, comes back from where?"
"Where are we heading?" Jess asked Bates as he tried to find a more comfortable position on the floor of the stage. With his hands and feet tied, it was nearly impossible to tell by the scenery where they traveled. The only thing he'd known was that the direction they had taken after leaving the ranch was that they'd taken the road that headed north, but many miles had slipped away since then, leaving Jess with a strange disoriented feeling. Fortunately with Slim up in the driver's seat at least he knew the ground they were treading, but he had no way to inquire to Slim for the information he was seeking.
"You'll see when we get there," Bates said, sounding annoyed.
"Weren't there three of you?" Jess asked after several minutes of silence, giving him time to contemplate that the original gang that Bates headed up had two other members, not just Ernie.
"You must be remembering Webb," Bates shook his head back and forth longer than necessary. "Sad end for him. He tried to escape during the trial, as all the counts for murder kept piling up on him made him a little antsy, but a deputy shot him down before he had the chance to catch a good horse. If he'd just waited for my plan to get put together, he'd be right here helping. Let that be a lesson for you, always wait for the right time to escape, otherwise, somebody will shoot you down. In this case, it'd be me."
"I don't need to take any lessons from you," Jess said with a half smile. "Besides, I already know most of the tricks in an outlaw's book of life. Written some of them myself."
"You know, Harmer," Bates began before Jess interrupted.
"Whatever," Bates rolled his eyes, "anyway, you know, you're not so deeply grounded into a life of good citizenry that you couldn't just take that step backwards and be an outlaw again. You have the makings of a good one. One that I wouldn't mind being on my side, if you get my drift."
"I'd rather partner up with a rattlesnake than team up with you," Jess said his words with grit.
"Suit yourself," Bates shrugged. "Don't say I never gave you an invite."
"Don't you say I didn't turn you down faster than I could shoot you down!"
"You definitely are the hothead of the bunch," Bates said. "It surprises me that Mort Cory would bring someone like you into his gang."
"We're not a gang," Jess glared at Bates.
"Oh, really," Bates chuckled. "You ride, fight, and even hide out someplace together. You stick up for each other and cause all kinds of chaos if one or the other is in danger. That sounds like a description of a gang to me. What do you call it?"
"Friendship," Jess said truthfully then looked up to where on the outside of the stage Slim would be sitting. But, he didn't add out loud to Bates, who had just sat there with a dumbfounded expression on his face at Jess' reply, they were all even more so. Family. Friends. Partners. Brothers. If they could describe it all, it couldn't be defined in one word. And since all of their lives were on the line, that friendship would be even more important now than ever before.
Jess lost track of time as they proceeded further into the afternoon. Once in a while he could hear Slim give a command to the horses as he encouraged them to climb a hill or slow them at a sharp curve and he continued to speculate and wonder where they were headed. With the bumpy terrain and his uncomfortable seat on the floor of the stage feeling every jolt that rattled the stage, Jess became more alarmed with each new mile they tread that they were getting farther and farther from any main roads.
After what seemed like hours had passed, Bates started looking out the window more frequently which told Jess they were nearing a destination and hopefully would be stopping soon, which he figured would be a good idea since he knew by the way the team of horses had been traveling they were far past being pushed to their limits and needed to stop. Traveler and Alamo would be worn out from following as well and Jess wished he could catch a glimpse of his faithful mount to make sure he hadn't gotten lame in this wild run.
"Whoa," Slim pulled the team to a complete halt when Bates shouted out the window to stop. He had seen two saddled horses tied to a tree a short distance ahead and figured they had come to the end of their stage travel.
"Get down, Sherman," Bates ordered from inside of the stage, and then proceeded to cut the ties that bound Jess' hands and feet. After Jess was freed, he poked Jess in the shoulder with his rifle to make him step from the stage just ahead of the outlaw.
"Ernie, take their two mounts and put them alongside ours," Bates called as Ernie climbed down from the stage top. "They'll need to rest a bit before we get going, so it's a good thing I have more work to do here yet."
Both Jess and Slim watched their horse's strides carefully as Ernie led them away and were glad to see that they appeared to have successfully maneuvered over the rough conditions throughout the day. They couldn't help but wonder what Bates meant about more work that needed doing, but at the moment, both were just glad to be standing again and that their horses were not tied to a bouncing stagecoach anymore. Ernie seemed to handle them with care, and soon had them watered and tied next to the other horses that waited.
"All right, Ernie, now that you finished that chore, it's time to let the team go," Bates leaned against a boulder, smiling slightly as he enjoyed calling out the orders and watching them being obeyed. "Give him a hand, boys, I can't let you two stand around doing nothing."
Slim and Jess complied and helped Ernie unhitch the team. The overused animals were tired and thirsty, but when Ernie slapped the lead horse on the rump, they all trotted downhill at a quick pace and then went out of sight.
"Now, this next job is going to take teamwork, fellows, so I expect you to do your part. You see, the stage is going to go over that cliff here." Bates smirked as Slim and Jess exchanged puzzled glances. "Don't look so baffled, surely you know I can't leave any evidence as large as that sitting in the road someplace. This is the end of the line so to speak. Now push it over!"
Slim didn't budge as he sent a scathing look in Bates' direction. He had always treated the company's stages with as much care as if he owned each coach personally. There had been many times he and Jess had worked long hours fixing parts, including on this particular one. Now at the command of a sinister outlaw they were supposed to destroy it, just to hide evidence although the likelihood of anyone traversing the roads they'd traveled to see such a sight would be next to none.
"Do I have to put some bullets near your feet to get you to do as I say?" Bates shouted his threat to get the boys in motion.
Slim reached up to release the break and glanced at Jess who was taking position by the left rear wheel. Bates got into place across from Jess while Ernie came near the front, opposite Slim. Taking a deep breath into their lungs, both Slim and Jess planted their feet firmly to the ground and they all began to push on the stage. At first their efforts produced little movement until Slim moved even closer to the front of the stage. With a grunt in their chests and every muscle in their arms bulged to their maximum span, the wheels began to turn on the stage. As soon as the stage began to move more freely, Bates jumped off to the side as Ernie did the same, although he continued his hollered command of "heave-ho" for Slim and Jess to keep shoving.
Where Jess stood, the ground was solid as a rock and he was able to keep his feet solidly placed, but closer towards Slim's position, loose gravel began to kick underneath his boots from the turning wheel as the stage began to roll downward. From Jess' position he could see Slim start to slide before Slim even knew what was happening, but as the stage began to roll faster without the aid of their muscle mass pushing it as gravity began to take over, Slim stumbled. Slim tried to right himself, but the only thing to grab onto was the moving stage and as he reached out to grab hold, the momentum of the stage going down brought his body completely underneath the rolling coach, sending both downward together.
"Slim!" Jess hollered, reliving the moment when he'd been the one falling into the dark hole in the earth a few weeks earlier when he, Slim and Mort were on the run. He knew right there at that moment how Slim had felt when he thought he'd just witnessed his friend plunging to his death.
The stage continued its downward spiral, the noise of it crashing and splintering into pieces as it bounced into the ravine below would be heard in Jess' mind repeatedly even after the sound ended when it stopped in its final resting place pinned between two large boulders near the bottom of the cliff. Jess ran to the edge of the cliff, dangerously peering over to see any sign of Slim, but the only sights he could see were parts of the stage littering the path it took all the way down.
"Slim!" Jess hollered, fear clutching his chest as tightly as he'd ever felt. If he'd gone all the way down with the stage, he could be now underneath it and there would be no survival. "Answer me, Slim!"
"Is he a goner?" Bates had come alongside Jess and cautiously looked over the edge, but frowned when he didn't see any sign of the rancher. "I don't see him."
"If he's dead, Bates, so help me I'll make that your burial ground too!" Jess breathed hard as he spoke loudly. The only thing preventing Jess from doing just as he promised was the rifle that was held in Bates' hands. But if the fear of Slim's death became a reality, not even shotgun bullets could stop Jess from getting the man who'd been responsible.
From not too far below where Jess stood, Slim groaned as he touched his head with his hand. He could hear Jess' voice, but couldn't see him as he'd been rolled underneath a rocky ledge when he'd fallen. He listened to Jess as he continued to threaten Bates giving Slim the instant conclusion that they assumed he'd gone all the way to the bottom of the ravine. At almost the same moment, he began to get an idea that if Bates thought he was dead, he could use it to their advantage, but for it to work, he had to let Jess know he was all right, otherwise Jess would be a powder keg ready to ignite, which could make Bates pull the trigger no matter what he said about using them for bait to get Mort.
"You gotta let me know if he's still alive!" Jess stretched as far as he dared over the cliff, still seeing no sign of Slim. "Let me go down there!"
"I don't see how anyone could have lived going all the way down like that," Bates looked over, although not at the far length that Jess was peering. "But I admit, I need to know if he's alive, too. I can't let him be playing possum somewhere, ready to sneak up on me while I'm snoring tonight."
"Get me a rope," Jess commanded when Bates stepped away from the edge, but all the outlaw did was rub his jaw as he contemplated what he would really do. Jess frowned at the man and then stretched out over the edge of the cliff again, but this time, there was a glove where the ground had been vacant only a moment before. Slim brought his hand out quickly and grabbed the glove, hoping Jess would see the movement and when he did, a smile that would have lit up a room if they'd been in one quickly grew on Jess' face.
Jess quickly stole a glance at Bates who wasn't looking at him at the moment then sent three little pebbles over the edge to land where the glove had been to signal to Slim he'd seen it. Slim heard the stones hit and he carefully moved his head out from under the security of the ledge to see Jess dangerously hanging over the top of the cliff. He gestured that he was all right, put a finger over his mouth to request Jess' silence and then tapped his temple to show his partner that he had an idea. Jess nodded, guessing immediately what Slim had in mind as he watched Slim crawl back underneath the ledge that hid him.
"You don't need a rope," Bates came close to stand beside Jess, who instantly realized the man had put down his rifle and had pulled his handgun instead. "You see, I can't let you go down there. You just might find a way to escape."
"Then how are you going to know about Sherman, Boss?" Ernie asked, uncertain what his uncle had in mind.
"He might be dead, or he might be alive," Bates gave Jess a quizzical look making Jess concerned that he somehow knew what Slim was up to as he hid a short drop below. "But I've got a quick way to find out."
Slim was close enough to hear the words that Bates said, but since he couldn't see the man standing close to Jess, he couldn't figure what the man had in mind. He stayed hidden, knowing that his freedom could keep them all alive. That is, if Bates wouldn't harm Jess. Slim flinched when he heard a gun being cocked.
Jess stared coldly at Bates as he cocked his pistol and pointed it at his head. His first thought was that Bates was only bluffing, and as Jess had been in several poker games in his life to be able to see what a bluffer's face really looked like, he began to scrutinize the face in front of him, but what he saw was pure evil. This was no gambler, but a killer. The face didn't convey what he wanted it to show.
"Sherman!" Bates shouted, the echo bouncing back across the rocks as he spoke. "If you can hear me, you better answer, or else I'll put a bullet in this buddy of yours. And you better believe it's going to be a fatal one."
Jess kept his breathing steady, not showing any sign of panic even though his heart raced within his chest. He urgently pleaded in his head to Slim that his partner wouldn't fall for Bates' bluff. And yet at the same time, Jess couldn't help but wonder. What if Bates wasn't resorting to trickery and would shoot him? Killing him or not, Slim was somewhere safe and if he stayed quiet, at least they both wouldn't have to die, and he could go back to Laramie and save Mort from whatever this madman had in store for him.
"What do you say, Sherman?"
Slim released a long held breath as he debated what he should do. Surely Bates was only lying and that he wouldn't shoot Jess at all. If Bates really believed there was a chance Slim was at the bottom of the cliff either dead or in very bad shape, he still would need Jess to lure Mort. And yet, he couldn't shake the other possibility, that Bates meant every word he said. He would easily kill Jess if that's what he had in mind.
"You holler or I'll shoot him now!"
Don't do it, Slim, Jess thought the words rapidly in his head. I'll die for your freedom, just don't give yourself up. Save yourself, save Mort, but don't save me. Please, Slim, please, don't do it.
"Times up!" Bates shouted almost cheerfully and then pulled the trigger.
Jess blinked when the gun was fired, but that was about as much of him that moved as he still stood, no wound on his body as Bates went the whole length of his bluff by moving his gun to point it at blank space just before firing. But Slim could see none of this, only hearing the gunshot still echoing on the rocks around him. He felt as if his heart had been ripped from his chest and he couldn't contain his emotions that ran through his veins faster than his blood pumped.
Slim jumped from the security of the ledge and pulled himself up over the top of the cliff at a speed that a seasoned rock climber couldn't have accomplished. There on top, ready to kill the man with his own hands if need be, Slim was thunderstruck to see Jess standing, alive and completely uninjured, with Bates chuckling beside him.
"Gotcha!" Bates laughed loudly, bending over at the waist with his overly exaggerated amusement.
Slim stood motionless for only a moment as he inhaled deep breaths to try to contain his anger, but watching Bates laugh made something inside him snap and he suddenly lunged at Bates. Ernie was instantly beside Jess with his rifle in Jess' ribs, making Slim take on the attack on his own. In a normal situation, Slim would have been a far better fighter than Bates, but despite telling Jess he wasn't hurt when he'd fallen, he couldn't swing his arm with full force, and it wasn't long into the battle that Bates brought the butt of the gun down hard over the back of his head. Slim dropped to the ground in darkness.
"Slim," Jess ignored the rifle jabbing him and went to his knees beside Slim. "You didn't have to do that," Jess growled his words at Bates, "you didn't have to do any of this!"
"I know," Bates shrugged his shoulders, "but it was sure fun."
Jess stood and took a step closer to their enemy making him nearly toe to toe with Bates. He didn't say a word out loud, but the message his body emitted, through his stance and the intense stare that despite their normal gleam of blue took on a dark, almost menacing hue, was received. Jess didn't miss the odd expression that appeared briefly on Bates' face that clearly showed he was intimidated, or even afraid. It wouldn't be the first time that with just one look he could strike fear into someone, and knowing that it had worked with Bates, gave Jess an advantage he might need somewhere down the line.
"We've dillydallied here long enough," Bates suddenly said, moving away from Jess' cold stare. "Ernie, bring our mounts over here. It's time to get going."
Slim started to regain consciousness, his hand going to the growing welt on the back of his head to rub the throbbing wound. He looked up at Jess through slightly blurred vision, closed his eyes to give them a good rub, not just to try to chase the blur away, but to make sure he truly was seeing Jess alive and well. When he opened his eyes back up, he breathed a gentle sigh of relief to a clearer view of Jess, free of injury in far better shape than he was.
"You all right, Slim?" Jess asked as he helped his friend to stand.
"I guess I hurt my shoulder in the fall," Slim gestured to the sore shoulder then brought his hand to his head. "This feels worse, though."
"Can you ride?" Jess glanced at Ernie bringing Traveler and Alamo towards them.
"I'll try," Slim nodded, although he was unsure if that was the truth.
"Well if you can't and you fall to the ground," Jess suppressed a smile, "I'll haul your carcass back into the saddle."
"Thanks," Slim reached for Alamo's reins and unsteadily climbed onto his back then watched as Jess hopped onto Traveler with ease.
"Let's go!" Bates bellowed.
"Where are we headed now?" Slim asked, keeping the pain he felt out of his voice.
"One of my favorite hideouts," Bates answered. "But we won't get there until tomorrow. For now, we'll travel until dark, then head out first light. Ernie, lead the way. You two, no tricks. I know how to ride with one hand and hold a gun with the other and you best know I will be doing so."
There were no tricks they could have thought of anyway, so they just did as they were instructed and followed Ernie over some rough terrain. Jess kept his eye more on Slim than their surroundings, but he did mentally note most of the hills and rock formations that they passed to help guide themselves to safety if the opportunity presented itself. However, he watched Slim sway in the saddle far too many times for Jess to even think about any attempt at escape that night, for he knew his partner would need the rest.
Nearing complete darkness, Bates finally called a halt to their traveling. Ignoring Bates' balk at him for jumping off his horse without being told he could do so, Jess hurried to Alamo's side to help ease Slim out of the saddle. The last few miles he'd barely been able to keep his head up and Jess wanted him safely on the ground before he ended up planting his face smack into the ground.
Jess helped walk Slim to a weathered stump that had long ago lost its life. After making sure he was comfortably seated, Jess returned to the horses and started preparing the animals for their well deserved rest. He took both Slim's saddle and his own to the place where they'd bed down while Ernie did the same with his and Bates' mounts.
Bates wasn't generous when they sat down to eat and with very little food and water given to each, Jess offered his share to Slim. He knew Slim needed to keep his strength up far more than Jess needed it, for he had proven many times that he could go onward in perilous situations with sheer willpower alone. Hopefully Bates would toss some biscuits their way in the morning and he'd down one then, but for now he would ignore any protest his stomach made.
It wasn't long after the paltry meal was given that Ernie came with ropes to tie their hands and feet that signaled the fact that the two outlaws would be bedding down soon. Ernie circled camp for a few minutes after Bates laid down and then when the young outlaw crawled on his bedroll, Slim and Jess turned towards each other.
"Do you know where we are?" Slim asked quietly. "I was feeling too groggy to be able to keep up with our location."
"We ain't far from Cedar Bend," Jess whispered his reply. "We've been taking some back trails the last several miles to get here, but I'm sure the town's about seven or eight miles to the east."
"Cedar Bend," Slim barely nodded his head. "That makes sense, considering we met up with him in the caves up in the high rocks."
"I sure hope he ain't taking us up there," Jess cringed at the thought of the high climb.
"Probably not," Slim reasoned after a lengthy yawn. "It takes too long to climb and I think Bates doesn't like to exert himself."
"You're right about that," Jess said, watching Slim feign off another yawn. "Better get some sleep, Pard. We don't know what he's got in store for us tomorrow. Might get rough."
"Right," Slim tried to find a more comfortable position as he leaned farther back into his saddle. "You try to get some sleep, too."
Jess nodded in agreement, but he knew he wouldn't drift too heavily. He felt it was his duty to stay as alert as possible for Slim's sake. He settled into a tolerable position, watching Slim's breathing until he knew by the steady rhythm that he'd fallen asleep.
Glad that Slim was getting the rest he desperately needed, Jess looked up at the stars, all alone in the vast sky without a moon to brighten the earth and he thought of Mort, for he in a sense, was alone too. Did he know they were gone? Unless Ben had reported their absence, he might not know until he fulfilled his promise of checking on them in a few days and find them missing. Which might be tomorrow, or the next, but when he did, Mort would know who to blame.
Jess then looked over at Bates who snored loudly in his corner of camp. He hadn't yet said what he had planned for Mort, but Jess knew he was intending to kill him. No outlaw went to the extremes he was going through without putting an end to someone's life. Somehow, someway, Bates had to be stopped before the outlaw had a chance to kill again, but if there was a solution, Jess knew it wouldn't come easy.
Slim's soft groaning at dawn brought Jess' eyes open wide. He hadn't been deep enough into slumber to actually call it sleep and his ears had quickly caught the abnormal noise coming through Slim's lips. Jess cast a glance over at Bates and Ernie who still slept, then turned his full attention to Slim.
"Morning, Pard," Jess said quietly, hoping their captors would stay asleep awhile longer. "How do you feel?"
"Like I was clubbed over the head yesterday," Slim grimaced as he raised his head. "Was I?"
"You better be teasing me," Jess frowned, "otherwise you might be sicker than I first thought."
"I remember everything," Slim assured with a smile. "I just thought I'd let you know I still had most of my faculties in working condition."
"That's debatable," Jess quipped, causing Slim to chuckle.
Turning serious, Slim's eyes flicked to Bates who started to stir next to the smoldering campfire. "What do you suppose Bates has in store for us today?"
"I reckon we'll soon find out," Jess shrugged as he too, watched Bates awaken, and then kick Ernie out of his sleep.
"Glad you're already awake, boys," Bates strode in their direction. "That hurt my toe a bit."
"Didn't do his ribs any good, either," Slim motioned with his tied hands towards Ernie who stood rubbing his side.
"Don't you worry about Ernie," Bates pulled a knife from a sheath on his belt then knelt in front of Slim, circling the knife in the air close to Slim's face. "Just worry about yourselves and how easily one of you could find a bigger wound than you've already got if you do anything wrong today."
"Why don't you try waving that blade in my face instead?" Jess' voice was deep and gravelly as he spoke. "I reckon you won't do it because you know, tied and all, that I'll make you eat it!"
Bates slipped the knife through the knots around Slim's wrists and with a yank the binds fell to the ground. He quickly did the same to his feet, and then slowly moved in front of Jess, the knife blade glinting in the morning sun as it dangerously came close to his chest.
"You were saying?" Bates said, watching his victim's breathing become more rapid.
Jess almost smiled, but kept his mouth in a tight line. He had the scoundrel right where he'd wanted him. His bound wrists suddenly became hardened fists that came up in one swift motion that struck Bates' arm that instantly released the knife in his palm, and on upward until his fists met the bottom of Bates' jaw that sent him reeling backwards.
Slim was on him in a flash giving the outlaw no time to react as his hands grabbed Bates and held his arms tight behind his back. Jess' wrists were still bound, but he scrambled to grab the knife that had slid to the ground beside him. He had it securely in his fingers, ready to free himself first at the feet and then to his wrists when Bates started kicking Slim in the leg with his heel. Slim was losing ground faster than Jess could cut, but as the ropes fell free, Jess suddenly was in front of Bates, the knife blade resting close to a vein in Bates' neck.
It would have been over, if there hadn't been Ernie. His gunshot spewed dust near their feet, bringing Jess to pull the knife slightly away from Bates' neck. He turned to face Ernie, wishing there was a gun on his hip and not just a knife in his hand.
"Ernie," Slim pleaded, refusing to let go of Bates' arms. "You don't have to do this. We saw the way Bates treated you, kicking you awake this morning. This is your chance to break free. Put the gun down. Let this be over."
"I can't, Sherman," Ernie shook his head, moving closer as he pointed the gun at Jess, since Bates' body mostly covered Slim's.
"Why?" Slim continued. "This isn't your fight. You don't have to be a part of any of this."
"That's where you're wrong," Ernie said, trying to sound as tough as Bates. "It is my fight, this right here, is my fight. I do it for Boss, because he's my uncle. Now drop the knife, and let him go!"
"That would have been important information to know," Slim said in disgust as he released Bates at the same moment that Jess let the knife drop to the ground. It made more sense now, how the young outlaw seemed to be so devoted to the older, giving him no chance to talk him into surrendering.
"Good job, Ernie," Bates said, wrapping his arm around his nephew. "You've made me very proud to see you so faithful to your dear, old uncle, proving that shared blood is an important role in an outlaw gang."
"Thanks, Boss," Ernie smiled, finally feeling important. Webb was always second in command, but now that Webb was dead and their outlaw days continuing on, this acknowledgement from his uncle was the first time he felt like he played a big role in his uncle's sordid gang.
"Ernie," Bates pulled an envelope from his pocket. "Since you've just proven your devotion in fine style, I'm going to alter my plan a little bit. You ride ahead to Cedar Bend and mail this letter to Mort Cory that I wrote last night, but do it carefully, there's going to be people looking for us and a good description might be out on you now. And then come on over to the hideout. It'll be good for Cory to receive this note perhaps a day earlier than originally planned, providing the mail carrier doesn't dawdle along the way."
Ernie took the letter and started towards Cedar Bend and as soon as he was out of sight, Bates ordered Slim and Jess on their mounts and pointed them northward. A few hours onto the trail that wound up into some secluded hills, a small, rundown cabin nearly hidden in a thick stand of trees came into view.
"Welcome home," Bates held his arm out wide as if he was showcasing the front of the cabin, "at least to my home anyway. It'll be yours for a little while until Mort shows up."
"What makes you so sure Mort is going to follow what that letter says and come here?" Slim asked. "He's too smart to fall for whatever you told him."
"Smart doesn't play any role in this," Bates said motioning for them to dismount. "You saw the way Ernie didn't turn on me this morning. It'll be the same devotion for Mort. He'll come, because I have you two."
Slim and Jess looked at each other silently for a full minute, each deep in the same thoughts. Bates was right, even if it was the only time he wasn't wrong, but they knew that what he said would be true. Mort would come when he knew Boss Bates had them. Mort was more faithful than Ernie was to his uncle as the shared blood wasn't a necessity with them. He'd possibly give up everything just for their safety, just as they had done for him, and would do again if the chance would arise.
After the horses were tended to, Bates waved a gun at Slim and Jess to get them inside the cabin. They couldn't help but look at the cobwebs and layers of dust that settled over the meager furnishings as they entered. Only two chairs were in the room and a large stove with a dented coffee pot sat in a back corner.
"Doesn't look like you spend too much time at home," Slim wiped a spider web from his hat that had attached to its brim when he walked through the door.
"I don't come here to keep house," Bates replied. "Just to…"
"Just to hide out from the law," Jess interrupted.
"Yes," Bates answered, glaring at Jess. "You should know yourself it's a perfect place for someone like me, that's why I took it upon myself to make it mine a few years back when I saw it."
"I'm sure the original owner was real obliging," Jess said coolly.
"He didn't seem to have any objections," Bates smiled, giving Slim and Jess the clear indication that whoever once owned this secluded cabin, outlaw or innocent man, was probably long ago dead.
Bates ordered Slim and Jess to sit on the floor and tied their hands and feet. There wasn't much comfort in their positions, but at least they were seated and could find time to rest, which had been hard to find so far on their journey. Time would drag by slowly for them for the next few days, for all they could do was wait for Mort.
Mort entered his office with a stack of mail in his hand which he promptly dropped onto his desk. He was intending to go through the pile later, as he figured there wouldn't be anything that couldn't wait, but as the papers slid slightly from their mound, an envelope caught his eye. It looked like any other letter that might be delivered, but there was something significant written on its front that seemed to jump off the page and slap Mort in the face. There, penned in bold fashion above the location of Laramie, said: The Mort Cory Gang.
He knew who it was from before he even slid open the seal and even more so, he had the feeling he knew what it was about. He hadn't been out to check on Slim and Jess in a few days like he'd promised as too many things had come up. There had been the report of a missing stage out of Cheyenne, but just as he was going to check into the matter with Slim and Jess, a Territorial Marshal wired that he was taking over the investigation. Then Mort planned on going to the Sherman ranch the next day, but due to an attempted robbery at the hotel that led to an outlaw getting killed, he hadn't been able to make the trip. Sinking into his chair, he pulled the letter out and began to read.
I address this to the leader of the Mort Cory gang, of course you know it's you, Mort. If you want to see your sidekicks alive again, then hit the trail to Cedar Bend. If you don't come alone, don't expect to find your pals in too good of shape. The tall one already has had his share of problems, and the other one, he's been so unruly, he's just asking for a bullet, so if you do anything to provoke me, he'll be the first to get it. One more thing, lose the badge. It never looked good on you in the first place. Boss Bates
Mort rubbed his hand over his face, down his neck then settled on the gunshot wound on his chest. The bullet hadn't been put in his chest by Bates himself, but the repercussions of the renegade's actions in placing the blame for another man's murder on Mort's shoulders was almost the same as Bates pulling the trigger that sent the bullet in a near fatal location. As Mort touched the still tender skin and let the words Bates wrote sink into his chest, he found the current pain was even more intensified marking Bates as the one and only cause.
Mort stood, took a long, hard look around his office, picked up the note from Bates, folded it and slipped it into his pocket. With a deep sigh he stepped towards the door to exit the building for perhaps the final time. Before he stepped through the door, just as the words that ended the letter had said he had one more thing. Mort removed the badge from his vest and in doing so the sound of the sharp prongs pricking from the leather seemed loud in the tense silence. He rubbed the engraved word of "Sheriff" with his thumb before tossing the star onto his desk, where it promptly slid to a halt next to the disarray of papers that were discarded there. Without another glance at the room, Mort walked out the door, retrieved Badge from his leisurely wait at the hitching post then with a slight wince the man mounted and began the tedious ride to Cedar Bend.
Before leaving Laramie, Mort had one last job to do as its sheriff. His loyalty to Slim and Jess was far greater than most even knew, although somehow an outlaw like Boss Bates had figured it out, otherwise he wouldn't have gone to such extremes to get his revenge, but Mort also had a great devotion to Laramie. It was his town, yet it went even deeper than that. He wouldn't leave it alone. Fortunately, there was a man that had served his duty wearing a star before, and he could be trusted to care for Laramie in his absence, whether temporary or permanent. Although Mort would not tell a single detail of his departure, he stopped by Mr. Munson's and let him know he was in charge. The timetable of his tenure, no one could know.
Mort knew it would take him a full day or even longer to reach the instructed destination, and what would happen when he got there, he didn't know, but he took the trail, mile after mile in firm determination that whatever Bates had in mind for him he would face head on. He still had the law on his side, even though the badge wasn't on his chest anymore, and he would fight with the rights of the law to save Slim and Jess, even if it meant the end of his life. They would do it for him, and he had no hesitation to do the same in return.
"Bates must figure Mort should be coming any time now," Slim said quietly to Jess, who turned his head to scrutinize the man staring out the dusty window. "He's sent Ernie out several times to keep watch."
"Yeah, and the last time he went out, Ernie hasn't come back," Jess agreed, keeping his voice low. "I reckon he must've gone to Cedar Bend to direct Mort here somehow."
"Quit your jabbering," Bates turned away from the window to bark at them. "I know I don't have the best hearing anymore, but I still know when you're whispering."
"If our conversation makes your ears burn you can always leave," Slim quickly commented and then turned to Jess with a slight smile when Bates did as Slim suggested and left the room with a slam of the door that sent every spider web in the room shuddering.
"Glad he's gone," Slim sighed, "even if it's only momentarily."
"Hey Slim," Jess said. "Did you know you have a nasty looking spider crawling up your back?"
"What?" Slim craned his head to try to see over his shoulder, but couldn't see the offensive intruder, although he was certain he could feel it tickling him. "Can you get it off? Jess, get it off me!"
Slim turned his back to be closer to Jess and with his bound hands, Jess was able to get a finger on the spider. As soon as Jess began to laugh, Slim knew Jess had been teasing him. Jess held up the tiny spider that tried to escape his grasp by letting a web stream down to the ground, and then once it was no longer stuck to Jess, with a frantic run the spider was gone.
"I didn't know you were scared of spiders, Pard," Jess continued to laugh, "especially by such a teensy-weensy one."
"I'm glad you were so amused," Slim said wryly. "Of course you're not scared of spiders at all, any size, any variety, right?"
"Of course not."
"Well, then," Slim started to smile, "I guess you won't mind the big, hairy creature making a nest in your hat."
"I ain't got any spiders," Jess frowned, unable to believe what Slim said. "You're just joshing me."
"I'm not lying," Slim shrugged, "but that might not be a bad idea carrying that ugly thing around like that as it would definitely scare off the ladies with nothing but marriage on their minds."
"Now I know you're just teasing me," Jess said, inadvertently reaching his hand up to his hat to feel the wisps of web sticking to his fingers and he was certain he felt something quickly move. With a yelp he grabbed his hat and tossed it clear across the room.
"Not scared of spiders, huh?" Slim laughed.
"Well," Jess shuddered slightly, using his bound hands to brush at any unseen spiders from his hair, over his face and down the front of his shirt, "I won't mention your reaction to spiders if you don't mention mine."
They fell into silence for nearly an hour until Bates returned to the cabin to be followed by Ernie a short time later. The young man merely nodded at Bates, and then they both exited the cabin together. There was only one reason that Slim and Jess could conclude to what was going on, being that they knew Mort must be getting closer, perhaps nearing the cabin at any moment.
"I wish there was something we could do," Slim wriggled his wrists for the hundredth time, trying to pry the ropes loose.
"My hands have been bound for so long I'm afraid I couldn't even hold a pistol if I had one," Jess said, grimacing at the pain his hands felt as he also moved his wrists back and forth.
"Well, you don't, so there's no point thinking about a gun right now."
"We're not gagged," Jess suddenly had an idea. "Maybe we should start shouting for Mort to turn back. You know by the way they're acting that he must be real close."
"Do you think Mort would do that?" Slim asked, already knowing the answer.
"No," Jess shook his head, "I reckon we could shout from now until Christmas and he'd still come on in."
"He's a good man," Slim sighed, feeling his worry turn to sorrow at the thought that Mort might not live to see the next Christmas, since Bates probably had planned a quick death for their friend.
"Yeah," Jess nodded, "I reckon next to you, he's the finest man I've ever known."
"I'll do whatever I can to help him," Slim vowed, even though at that moment, he didn't know what he could possibly do.
"Me too," Jess agreed.
"I suppose Bates will go all the way to let Mort see us before he fulfills his plan," Slim pondered. "Maybe there'll be a moment then, that we could attempt something."
"Shhh," Jess dropped his voice back low as his sharp hearing caught noise coming from outside, "they're coming."
Both Bates and Ernie strode through the door of the cabin, Bates' grin was enough to tell them that Mort was indeed coming. Slim and Jess exchanged worried glances as they knew what Bates had been planning for Mort was finally about to be shown. It had been their greatest fear since they had been tied up in that dilapidated cabin that they would be forced to watch Mort's death and not be able to do anything to stop it, and now that time had come.
"You might as well know," Bates stepped close to stand near Slim's toes. "Mort Cory is just a couple hundred yards away right now. He'll soon see how well I took care of his little gang members." He ignored Slim's attempt to kick him then turned to call to Ernie. "Let me know as soon as you see him round the last corner."
"You won't get away with this," Slim said angrily. "You'll have U.S. Marshal's, sheriff's, deputies and dozens if not more upstanding citizens that will hunt you down for killing Mort."
"Who's going to know?" Bates shrugged.
Indeed. Slim and Jess exchanged glances at the same moment. Who would know? Bates wasn't likely to let either of them live much longer after he took down Mort. Of course Slim and Jess knew this would have been part of Bates' plan all along, but until that moment, it didn't seem as important to dwell on that Bates would have the same fate for them as for Mort.
"He's here, Boss," Ernie said.
"Mort!" Jess suddenly shouted, wanting to do anything to help their friend. "Go back!"
"You want a bullet in your teeth?" Bates shoved his gun close to Jess' face. "Shut up!"
Mort rode slowly towards the cabin, playing what might be his final moments over and over in his mind as he envisioned facing Bates. When he heard Jess shout, his first reaction was to pull his horse to a stop as his whole inner being jumped for joy to hear that gravelly voice reach his ears. But the sheriff, the friend, the mentor, and yes, the father figure that he was to those boys would not let him turn back, so he motioned Badge to keep going.
Just outside of the cabin, Mort dismounted, tried to inconspicuously look inside the window, but with the grime that clouded the pane it was too difficult to see anything inside so he just took a deep breath and headed for the door. He paused with his hand on the knob, not quite knowing what to expect upon entering. He bit the bottom of his lip and then opened the door with his eyes immediately drawn to Slim and Jess, both watching him anxiously from their positions on the floor.
"Welcome!" Boss Bates stood not far from Slim and Jess with his arms open wide as if he was welcoming a long lost relative into his home. His hands were not empty however, as his gun hand was clamped onto his weapon which pointed rather dangerously towards Slim's head.
"I didn't ride all this way to go to a tea party," Mort said sarcastically.
"I'd thought for sure you'd like the invitation I sent," Bates responded with just as much sarcasm.
"Now that I'm here," Mort took one step closer to where Slim and Jess watched the scene, "what happens next."
"You'll find out soon enough," Bates answered, coming close to Mort to remove the iron from his gun belt. "Now that you're disarmed, I feel a little better."
"Oh, were you feeling sick?" Mort's mouth twitched slightly, but Bates didn't miss the smirk.
"Laugh all you want," Bates shook his finger at Mort like he was scolding an unruly child, "but I'll be the one with the final laugh when this is all over. If you don't believe me, just ask Sherman. I'm sure he knows exactly what I mean."
Slim looked up at Mort, but didn't say out loud what Bates meant. He still felt the twinges of anger when he thought of how Bates had intentionally made him think that he had shot Jess. The menacing laughter that resulted from Slim's outburst taunted him still, and he knew it would carry him to the end of his life, which might be coming a lot sooner than he'd ever imagined.
"Look at you, Mort, standing there, your mind is literally grinding. I figure I know what you're thinking. I bet you wished you would've killed me when you had a chance a couple of weeks ago," Bates said, his mouth curling into a smile.
"I said it when I put a bullet in you, and I'll say it again now," Mort said, keeping his voice steady, "I am not a killer. Yes, there are times that a lawman will end a life in a fight, but I don't intend to shoot down every outlaw I come across, including you. There's a big difference between law and outlaw."
"But you aren't wearing your star anymore," Bates walked up to Mort, patting the spot on his vest where the badge should have been. "Which side does that put you on now?"
"I'll always be on the side of the law," Mort answered with assurance and then took a deep breath before he said his next words. "You have me, Bates, so let Slim and Jess go. You don't need them."
"That's where you're wrong," Bates said slowly as Mort's eyebrow rose in alarm. "I do need them. In fact, I need all of you together."
"Why prolong this by playing games that only you understand? You want me dead," Mort kept his eyes riveted to Bates, "I can see it in your eyes that you do."
"Because there's something I need you to do first," Bates paused for what seemed like a lengthy time to build up his own anticipation. "The Mort Cory gang is going to rob a train."
"What?" Slim and Jess shouted in unison.
"You're going to make us do what?" Mort looked at Bates as if the man was loco.
"You heard me," Bates said, his annoyance evident. "In case you were unaware, I am a desperately wanted criminal. There aren't many places I can wander without being discovered, but, the Mort Cory gang can. Right now my pockets are threadbare, and I don't like the feeling. I need money, clothes, and maybe a little whiskey to get me to Canada. The train that's coming can provide that, with some assistance from you. The train stops down in the valley not far from here to take on water from the tower before it heads over to Medicine Bow. While it's stopped, you're going to hold it up."
"I won't do it," Mort crossed his arms over his chest.
"Neither will I," Slim added his words quickly after Mort's.
"Oh, I think you will," Bates cocked his gun and held it towards Slim's chest. "Mort will do it for you." Bates moved the gun to Mort's chest, but kept his eyes on Slim. "You'll do it for him." Then he settled the gun on Jess. "And you both will do it for him. You see, fellows, all I have to do is threaten one of you, and the other will jump. Your gang is so predictable."
"You're going to make us wanted criminals again," Mort said and then clenched his jaw so tight that it hurt.
"It's not such a bad life, as long as you keep certain lawmen under your thumb. Now on the floor, Mort." Bates commanded and then before he tied Mort's hands and feet, he unbuckled Mort's gun belt and tossed it into a corner. "You three have a nice chat together because I'm going to head out to get some fresh air. This place is a bit dusty."
"Just a bit," Jess rolled his eyes as both Bates and Ernie exited the cabin.
"This isn't exactly what I thought was going to happen," Mort squirmed in his position next to Jess, trying to relieve some pressure that was put on his chest wound from being bent in an awkward pose.
"Well, at least this gives us some time," Slim said, trying to help Mort sit up better.
"Time to do what?" Jess asked, his voice showing his edge of aggravation.
"Plan, think, hope, pray," Slim said slowly, "anything."
"Plan," Jess said thoughtfully. Bates liked to use the word plan, that fact Jess knew really well, but he wasn't the only one with a cunning outlaw's mind. Jess began to let his mind wander through his experiences of life on the dark side to carefully construct what he might do to overrule the plans that had already been made.
Throughout the night while everyone else slept, Jess kept his mind going. With the dawn of the new day, he had what he hoped was enough of a plan to see them through to the end of their run with Bates and come out on top. Knowing what the outlaws had in mind, it wasn't a surprise when they both went outside early to prepare the horses for a journey to the train stop.
"I'm going to rob a train," Mort said with disbelief as soon as Bates and Ernie left the cabin. "I'd hate to think what my Pa would say right about now."
"Probably wouldn't say a word," Jess answered quickly, "just put a load of buckshot in the seat of your pants."
"You're right there," Mort shook his head, envisioning his Pa coming after him.
"I don't know anything about robbing a train, or robbing anything for that matter," Slim inadvertently looked at Jess, and then after realizing what he'd done in suspecting that Jess did know, he quickly turned his head towards the window.
"I caught that, Slim," Jess frowned. "But that thought aside, you might not have to."
"What do you mean, Jess?" Mort asked, leaning closer to Jess. "Do you have a plan formulating?"
"I have a plan, yes," Jess nodded, "but I ain't sure about the formulating stuff."
"He meant do you have a plan hatching up here," Slim pointed at Jess' head.
"Oh," Jess gave both Slim and Mort an irritated look, "yes, but there's no guarantee it'll work."
"Well we don't have anything else," Mort said eagerly, "so let's hear it."
"You know that Bates likes games," Jess dropped his voice low, even though they were still the only ones in the room. "So, I kinda have a game that I think we all can play."
It was a quiet ride to the water stop as each man, good and bad, was silent in their own thoughts about what was to come. The water tower was in a secluded section of the railway and as the looming structure came into sight, with nothing else around except the tracks, trees and a shed, the reality of the planned event became even more troubling. They stopped in a thick stand of trees to tie the horses secure before they walked in a slow, straight line to hide behind the shack.
"Put your handkerchiefs on, gang," Boss commanded as he turned towards the tracks, watching the train barely coming into view as it rumbled along the line.
"Wait," Jess put his hand up, insisting that everyone pause. "How much do you reckon we're going to get from this hold up?"
"Plenty," Bates eyed Jess with scrutiny. "Why?"
"I'm feeling the desire to switch sides," Jess changed his tone so quickly from angry captive to conniving villain that both Slim and Mort's eyes widened in surprise. "Were you serious the other day when you offered to take me into your gang?"
"Yeah," Bates said slowly, the scrutiny line on his forehead getting deeper. "But you said that you'd rather team up with a rattlesnake than me."
"That's true," Jess half smiled, "but that was when I had plenty of time on my side to break away. Now that time's running out."
"So you figure you can just change gangs, just like that," Bates snapped his fingers.
"You said it yourself, remember?" Jess narrowed his eyes at Bates. "It's not a big step backwards for me to take."
"I don't know," Bates turned his head to look at the train, getting closer with every second.
"I reckon you won't let us live much longer after this is over," Jess spoke the words sharply. "I reckon I have two choices. Switch or die."
"No," Bates suddenly shook his head, "it won't work. You're too loyal to these two."
Jess searched Slim's eyes and hoped what he saw in them was understanding, agreement, willingness or whatever emotion that was needed for it was time to up the ante. "What about this to seal the deal? After the robbery is over, I'll kill Slim. Won't that prove the depth of my loyalty, that is, to myself?"
"I like it," Bates clapped his hands together. "Except for one thing. Kill Sherman now. You and Mort should be able to handle the train by yourselves, so you might as well prove you're as despicable as me right now."
Jess wanted to scream and grab Bates by the neck, but he kept his body firmly planted to not show his fury towards Bates. He'd wondered if the man would throw that demand at him as soon as he'd made the vow, but once he said the words, he couldn't take them back and now he couldn't back down.
"All right, but hurry about it, the train's slowing down," Bates took Ernie's gun and emptied the shells onto the ground except for one, and then handed the gun to Jess. "You have one bullet. Make it count."
"Jess, don't do this," Slim shook his head, half believing the words that had come from Jess' mouth. If it wasn't for the eyes that bore into him that didn't show the ugly man he was portraying, he'd be quaking in his boots for Jess was mighty convincing.
"I have to, Slim," Jess motioned for Slim to walk away. "But I won't shoot you point blank, so get back."
Once Jess was satisfied with the distance, just as the train wheels started to screech as it began to break, Jess cocked the gun. This would have to be the most perfect shot he'd ever make in his life. If his aim was anywhere other than almost precisely on Slim, Bates would be able to tell his position was off, but it had to miss him completely, otherwise, he would be guilty of turning against his best friend and shooting him down cold.
Jess took his left hand and touched the left pocket of his shirt, indicating to Slim where the bullet would go. He was aiming for the heart, to claim Slim's death instantaneously, but the true aim was for the small space between Slim's left arm and side. Any miss to the left would put the bullet in a rib, or worse. Any miss to the right, would put a bullet in his arm. Either way, a miss would be a clear indication to Bates that the whole thing was a fake. He had to put the bullet through air, or he might as well go ahead and kill Slim, because that's what Bates would do if he aimed wrong.
Only seconds passed between Slim turning to face him and when Jess touched the hammer of his gun, but the time slowed down so much it seemed as if minutes ticked by instead. Slim watched Jess touch his pocket and didn't even dare nod to let him know he understood, but stood as motionless as possible. He knew if he flinched at all, it could mean the end of his life. He trusted Jess' perfect aim, but even more so, he trusted Jess. He had watched Jess several times in gun battle and knew the precise movement he made when he would pull the trigger. When it came, he didn't even have time to take a breath as the report exploded and the bullet tore its path.
Slim grabbed his chest, whirled around and landed in a deathly heap, flat on his face, the breath in his lungs completely gone. It appeared as if his life had left him before he even hit the ground. Ernie stepped up beside him, nudged him with his foot then turned to Bates.
"Dead." The word was quiet and cold.
Jess dropped the empty gun and looked at Mort and wondered if the shocked, ashen face that Mort wore matched his own. Even though his accuracy was usually spot-on, and seemingly more so when set in such a critical situation, Jess still wasn't sure the bullet went where he'd precisely aimed it to go. Slim's lifeless form on the ground could just as well have meant that he'd shot him or missed him entirely. Ernie was convinced he was dead, was he?
"I'm impressed," Bates slapped Jess heartily on the back. "I didn't think you had it in you, and now that I know where you stand, robbing the train should be a whole lot easier. Once you're finished, the blame will fall on the Mort Cory gang, which you'll no longer be a part of. Come to think of it, with Sherman dead and gone, the blame will fall right onto Mort Cory's head. It'll seem kind of sad that he won't get to revel in his popularity for long."
Jess half ignored the words Bates spoke as he couldn't take his eyes off of Slim, looking for any sign of life. He was down flat on his belly, his face so close to the dirt he couldn't see any of his features to see if he breathed. He felt different emotions course through his veins in a matter of seconds that he desperately tried to bury deep within him, lest they rage forth and consume him.
"What are you waiting for?" Bates nudged Jess and Mort and then handed them two empty revolvers. "The train is stopped, but it won't be there forever, so get on with it!"
"Let's go, Jess," Mort's voice was quiet and reserved as he pulled his neckerchief over his nose and mouth.
The original plan had been that after Jess had switched gangs, he would stay with Bates and Ernie while Slim and Mort boarded the train, with the guise that they were just on the train for an inspection. When all was over, Jess was intending to retrieve only Alamo, Traveler and Badge to attempt their escape. Now, everything was drastically different, and neither man that was set to board the rear of the train knew exactly how to alter their plan.
"Do you really think Slim's…" Mort couldn't finish his thought.
"I ain't sure of anything right now," Jess dropped his eyes to the ground in a feeling of defeat as they took the steps up to the back end of the train. There they both paused, not wanting to take that next step at all.
"Look," Mort whispered, glad that his kerchief blocked the smile from his face.
Jess followed Mort's gaze to see Slim carefully crawling along the ground to where the horses were stashed. He breathed a deep sigh of relief, knowing that Slim had done just as convincing of a job playing dead as he himself had done to persuade Bates that he was a traitor to the Mort Cory gang.
"All right, Mort," Jess said quietly, but unable to contain the excitement from his voice. "The plan goes on just as before. Only difference is that it's you and me here and not you and Slim."
As soon as Mort and Jess entered the train, they pulled their handkerchiefs off their faces. There were several gasps, especially from the women on the train as they barged into the car, but fortunately, no one started screaming.
"Don't be alarmed, folks," Mort spoke with a smile. "I'm the sheriff from Laramie and this is my deputy, we're just walking through the train on a routine inspection. As soon as we're through, the train will be on its way."
"If you're a sheriff," a male passenger asked with alarm in his voice, "then where is your star?"
"Lost it in a fall I took this morning," Mort answered with a chuckle. "Tripped hard over a fallen log and when I stood up, the old tin piece was missing."
"What about him?" The same passenger queried as he pointed at Jess. "Did he fall down too?"
"We're clumsy, for sure," Mort said, glad that they'd come to the end of the car.
"Do you think they're buying it?" Jess whispered as they stepped out of the first car.
"Boss Bates or the passengers?" Mort asked with eyebrow raised.
"Both, I reckon."
"Well, we didn't get shot," Mort smiled and then pointed towards the brush. "There's Slim with the horses."
"This is where we get off, Mort," Jess dropped to the ground on the opposite side of the train from where Bates and Ernie waited and Mort quickly followed.
Running the full length of the train, they paused beside the engine, knowing that to get to where Slim was waiting, they'd have to be in Bates' sight. For at least ten seconds, they would be wide open for Bates to fire upon them. Glancing at each other with a furtive nod, they ran towards Slim.
It wasn't until they'd crossed the tracks in front of the engine that Bates knew he'd been deceived. Turning sharply, he saw the empty space where Sherman had fallen and then grabbed his gun from his holster and started firing, aimlessly in his fury at first before taking his best aim.
Jess was the swiftest to land on top of his horse and put Traveler in motion as soon as his bottom hit the saddle. Mort bit back the pain his rushed sprint caused and nearly skipped over two of Bates' bullets that bounced off the ground before mounting Badge. They all turned their horses towards the north just as Bates set his sights on the fleeing men.
A bullet tore through the air and took Mort's hat clean off of his head, making him instinctively drop his body low over Badge's neck. The pain from his chest wound intensified, but Mort felt lucky that was the only place on his body that screamed an offensive retort. He knew Badge would keep the pace of Alamo and Traveler, so Mort kept his body lowered, but fixed his eyes on Slim and Jess to make sure neither fell until the onslaught of Bates and Ernie's bullets ended as they pulled out of their sights.
"You all right, Mort?" Slim called over his shoulder as Mort straightened in the saddle.
"Just got a little hair cut is all," Mort patted the top of his head. "Probably will just bring a couple of more gray ones to grow, but I can live with that."
"Good," Slim answered with a smile, naturally falling behind Jess and Traveler to let his partner take the lead. "Where are we headed?"
"Anywhere," Jess answered as he barely looked back, glad to see that Bates and Ernie were nowhere in sight.
"They'll be a bit," Slim smiled, knowing what Jess was looking for. "Before I grabbed our mounts, I let loose their two and gave them a little slap of encouragement to get them running."
"You're starting to act more like an outlaw every day, Pard," Jess grinned as he felt his body relax.
"I'll thank you for now, but probably will get a wisecrack in about that remark another day," Slim's comment sent all three men laughing, if only briefly, just enjoying their newfound freedom.
They rode quietly and steadily for an hour before Jess stopped alongside a small waterfall that filled a deep pool of cold, clear water. The horses quickly stuck their noses in and Jess dismounted to do the same. When he stood up he turned to see Slim, standing with his arms crossed and a stern look on his face.
"What?" Jess asked innocently, although he knew very well what Slim had on his mind. The fact that he'd nearly shot Slim hadn't much left his thoughts either.
"You came mighty close, Pard," Slim put a lot of emphasis on the descriptive word.
"I knew I missed you," Jess shrugged, trying to avoid the entire truth that he was never sure until the moment he saw that Slim was alive.
"Not by much," Slim put his finger on the tear to his shirt that hugged his left side. The bullet had taken the fabric only and had never touched his flesh, but the hole was unmistakably visible.
"That's exactly where I aimed it to go," Jess said, walking up to Slim to put his own finger on the mark.
"You did a good job playing dead, Slim," Mort said as he also examined where the bullet creased. "How did Ernie think you were a goner?"
"When I spun and fell, I landed hard on my chest and it knocked the wind clear out of me. I guess I wasn't breathing for a few seconds when he touched me with his foot. Once I heard him declare me dead, I figured I better keep playing the part. Once you two started robbing the train, wait a minute, did you?"
"Of course not," Mort said, shaking his head, "told the passengers I was just inspecting."
"Good," Slim smiled, "anyway, Bates and Ernie didn't look at me again, so I started moving towards the horses."
"And that brings us here," Mort surveyed their surroundings, glad for a secluded place to rest.
"I can't believe we're on the run again," Slim groaned.
"It's different this time," Jess said, counting off the reasons with his gloved fingers. "We ain't running from the law, only Bates and Ernie. We have no bullets for our weapons. We ain't on a wanted poster. There ain't bounty hunters after us. We ain't…"
"I get it," Slim interrupted with a smile. "But what isn't different is that we're still together."
"And we're going to need each other to get out of this," Mort added.
"I hear something," Jess suddenly said, his body turning towards the sound. "Someone's coming."
"Couldn't be Bates and Ernie," Mort shook his head. "They'd be coming from the south."
"What do we do?" Slim asked, ready to mount Alamo in case they were going to run.
"Act normal," Jess said calmly. "Remember, we ain't the wanted ones this time."
Despite what Jess said, he fingered the empty gun as if it were loaded, ready to intimidate whoever was approaching. He heard Mort make a low sound in his throat when the rider came into view and realized why only a second later. A bounty hunter, more notorious than most, Wiley Skeen, often dubbed "Skunk" headed right towards them.
"Skeen," Mort nodded, stepping forward. "What brings you out this way?"
"Same reason you are I'd imagine," Skeen slowly scrutinized each man in front of him and then pulled a wanted poster from his pocket. "Young Farnsworth reissued the reward money on Boss Bates. I'm hoping to be the one that collects."
"Should be the law that takes him in," Mort said after glancing at the poster before handing it back.
"Law?" Skeen raised both eyebrows. "If you're referring to yourself, I'm not sure it fits."
"Why do you say that?" Mort asked, a puzzled frown forming not only on his mouth but over his brow. Surely Skeen was aware that all the charges against him had been dropped and that he was an innocent man, unless he had some knowledge about their train robbery attempt, but that couldn't have been possible.
"There's been some rumors flying around since you up and left Laramie that you and your gang are back in business, and not in the law abiding business, I might add."
"We've never been in business, or whatever that's supposed to mean," Jess snapped.
"That's not what the papers say," Skeen pulled from his saddlebag a folded newspaper and dropped it on the ground in front of Mort. "Nevertheless, I only care if your names are printed on a current wanted poster. Until then, I'm wasting time in my pursuit of Bates. Maybe I'll see you around."
The three men stood side by side as they watched Skeen ride away. Once he was beyond their sight, Mort bent down to pick up the newspaper that Skeen had left. He slowly unfolded it, not sure he wanted to see what it said. The headline said enough to make him outwardly cringe and seeing the author's name was the same that muddied the last report on them was even worse. Not wanting to read any further, he handed the paper to Slim.
"You want me to read it?" Slim asked, remembering practically every word from the previous papers that had been written about them.
"No!" Jess shouted, and then thinking in silence for a moment he added, "at least not out loud."
Mort and Jess watched the expressions change on Slim's face as he read through the article. There were mostly the deep frown lines etched in place, but for brief moments they saw glimpses of humor, intrigue and bewilderment.
"That bad, is it?" Mort asked when Slim refolded the paper and tucked it under his arm.
"Not as bad as the first one," Slim nodded, "but, yeah, pretty bad."
"What did it say about me?" Jess couldn't help but ask.
"I'll tell you sometime when we're not trying to stay several steps ahead of Boss Bates. Otherwise, your shouting might get us all into trouble."
"Well boys," Mort sighed gently as he took Badge's reins in his hand, "I don't think we should stay here much longer. We don't need any more visitors like Skeen."
"Anyone have a plan?" Slim asked, but when Jess opened his mouth to speak, Slim quickly added, "anyone other than one of Jess' cockamamie schemes?"
"I do," Mort nodded. "If we're going to keep running from Bates, and right now that's what we have to do, we're going to need ammunition. I know where we can get some. My gun belt is back at Bates' cabin. I think we should head there. After that, you two can go on back to Laramie, but I'll be pursuing Bates."
"We'll go along with the part about going to the cabin to get ammunition," Slim put his arm over Mort's shoulder as he spoke, "but when we return to Laramie, it will be all of us together."
"We're sticking with you, Mort, all the way," Jess promised.
"Well, then," Mort smiled as he mounted Badge. "I guess I won't argue with that. Let's go."
Late in the day they arrived at the desolate cabin. Mort found his gun belt where it had been discarded inside and quickly put it on, glad to feel the reassurance that it gave. He placed a handful of bullets in both Slim and Jess' hands before loading his own gun.
"I'm glad Bates gave us these empty guns to rob the train with," Jess said as he loaded the gun. "Otherwise you'd be the only one with a sidearm, Mort. There, that feels much better with some weight to it."
"You want to get going right away, Mort?" Slim asked as he tucked his newly loaded gun at his waist.
"Yeah," Mort nodded. "It won't be hard to backtrack, even when the sun goes down. If Bates is still on our trail, he should be easy to find."
"Easier than you think," Jess said, looking out the window. "Here he comes now."
Mort took a deep breath. This was the moment he knew would happen as soon as he read Bates' threatening letter. Now it had come, although the journey to that moment had taken a lot of different twists and turns right from the start, he was still ready for it. He fingered the gun in its holster that he knew was fully loaded and just as ready as he. Now, all he had to do was face him.
"Let me do it, Mort," Jess grabbed Mort's gun arm, halting him before he exited the cabin.
"Not this time, Jess," Mort gently pried Jess' fingers loose on his arm. "Bates is mine. But if he wins and takes me down, I expect you then and only then, to do what you have to do."
"I guess I took my plan a bit too far," Bates growled his words as Mort stepped in front of him. "I should have put an end to you when you first stepped into this place."
"Delays in action of the outlaw are often the advantages of the lawman," Mort replied calmly.
"Where's Ernie?" Jess barked out his question as he and Slim exited the cabin. He'd been thwarted twice before by the young outlaw, he wasn't about to have it happen again. Even if Mort instructed to let this battle his, he could take on Ernie if necessary.
"Bounty hunter snagged him several miles back," Bates said after spitting on the ground. "It was that fowl Skunk that did it."
If they hadn't seen the man named Skunk themselves, they would have figured Bates was just playing with another lie, but the land around them being so strangely quiet was indication enough that the bounty hunter had made good on at least half of what the reward might bring. It truly was down to Mort and Bates.
"You're under arrest, Bates," Mort said, the authority resonating from his voice. "Put your gun on the ground and surrender. It's your only smart choice."
"No," Bates shook his head, his hand inching closer to his gun. "I won't go to jail to be hung. Whatever my fate is it begins or ends right now."
"So be it," Mort spread his stance and watched as Bates did the same.
Mort steadied his hand, watching for the movement from the one across from him. His mind, although focused on what was in front of him, couldn't help but be drawn back to the last gunfight he was in, where a bullet had nearly cost him his life. Even though his own aim had claimed a life, he hadn't been fast enough. Now, he needed to be even faster if he would stay standing when the smoke settled.
Mort watched the narrowing of the eyes and knew it was seconds away. The twitch of Bates' hand came swift and in a blink of an eye the guns were drawn. Mort pulled the trigger a mere breath before Bates touched his. The shots were so close together, that unless the ears that heard were as skilled as Jess and Slim's, it would have been reported that they were one and the same. For three terrifying seconds, both men stood still until one slowly went down to his knees, finally falling over onto his side. The blood spread fast over the man's chest and the hand released the gun as his life drained quickly away.
Being the one left standing should have felt victorious, but killing a man, any man, never made him feel anything but remorse. Mort slowly walked to where Boss Bates fell, touched his chest to feel his lifeless form, turned to look at Slim and Jess and said quietly, "He's dead."
They took the body to Cedar Bend, causing quite the commotion from townspeople and bounty hunters alike. Too exhausted to hit the trail homeward, they spent two days relaxing in the small town before returning to the trail.
The ride home didn't seem as long as they remembered, and soon the land became more and more familiar with each mile that they traversed, but instead of feeling excited to see their surroundings, Mort found his worry lines again.
"What's wrong, Mort?" Slim asked, noticing the facial expression on Mort's face change and wondered about his chest wound. "Are you in pain?"
"No," Mort shook his head, "just thinking about home."
"Ain't we all," Jess said cheerfully, grateful to see so many familiar landmarks.
"You know, I left town rather abruptly," Mort sighed before continuing, "so it just might be that the town of Laramie might not want me back. If that's the case, I really don't know what I'd do."
"I'll give the town some heavy persuading if they don't, Mort," Jess vowed.
"Don't do that, Jess," Mort shook his head, knowing exactly how Jess would do his convincing. "I don't need any more trouble."
"Right before all this started, you were showing off some of your cattleman skills," Slim said with encouragement in his voice. "You'd be more than welcome to work on the Sherman spread."
"Thanks, Slim, I appreciate that offer, more than you can know," Mort rubbed his jaw for a moment. "You see, I suppose I shouldn't have, but I read some of that newspaper article that Skeen left us. It said me walking out of Laramie without explanation was just as good as me resigning, and only to go into a life of crime. There are people that might believe that, so I really don't know what to expect when I return home."
"Newspaper," Slim slapped his thigh as he suddenly remembered something. He twisted in the saddle and pulled a more recent paper from his pack. "I forgot. I picked this up in Cedar Bend. The sheriff there said I should read it."
Slim waited until Jess halted Traveler and turned to face him alongside Badge and began to read. This time, instead of keeping the article quiet as he read, Slim's face spread into a grin and read a few sentences. "Mort Cory is being hailed as a hero for quietly retreating from his post in Laramie to pursue the escaped criminal, Bosley Bates. On a trail fraught with hazards around every bend, the famed lawman found the slithering snake that had evaded every other lawman in the Territory. It was his integrity that won the battle as the bullet from his own gun took down Bates once and for all. The town of Laramie can boast for years that its sheriff is named Mort Cory."
"That's quite the story," Mort couldn't help but smile, even though he knew the words had been heavily embellished. It still felt good to know that his name wasn't being sullied by the same newspaperman anymore. His townspeople would probably be more than welcoming to put the badge back on his vest.
"Does it say anything about us, Slim?" Jess asked, leaning towards Slim to catch a glimpse of the paper. "We were there, too."
"Let me see," Slim scanned the remainder of the article with his eyes but Jess couldn't tell by his expression whether the report on them was good or bad so he reached out and snatched the paper from Slim's hands.
Jess quickly read through the words Slim had already read aloud and when he came to a new paragraph he picked up where Slim had left off. "Along with Sheriff Cory were his former gang mates who were stated as playing a large role in helping the lawman in thwarting the fugitive." Jess paused to look at Slim and Mort, "this is sounding good," but then Jess suddenly saw what Slim had not wanted him to see and a scowl replaced his smile. "When are those lousy newspapermen ever gonna get my name right?"
"I don't know, Pard," Slim started to laugh. "It's got a catchy ring to it, though."
Jess groaned and then tossed the newspaper over his shoulder where it landed in a fresh pile of manure. "It's just a bunch of hogwash anyway."
"Come on, boys," Mort smiled putting Badge into motion, suddenly eager to get back to where he belonged and wear his star again. "Let's get on home."
By the route they were traveling, the Sherman ranch was closer than town, so they took a shortcut through the hills towards the ranch. No sooner than the horses were pulled to a halt outside of the house, Jess jumped from Traveler and walked towards the water trough, expecting to see his ruined gun and belt at the bottom, but the only thing he saw was the puzzled frown on the reflection of his face.
"Looking for this?" Ben stepped up behind Jess, holding Jess' gun belt high in his hand.
"Thanks Ben!" Jess strode towards Ben, took his gun belt and buckled it onto his hips. "Now I feel normal."
"If you really want to feel normal," Ben wagged his finger at Jess and then at Slim, "there's plenty of work to do. There's fence down in the north pasture, the stage manager was by the other day with an order for two more teams of horses, there's a stack of harnesses that needs mending, the milk cow keeps wandering off, we're near out of chicken feed and there's plenty of hay yet to be brought in before it rains again."
"That's quite the list, Ben," Slim said, widening his eyes. "Anything else?"
"Just this," Ben said as he started walking away, "I'm going on vacation!"
"Are you sure you don't want to stay on as our new hand, Mort?" Slim asked as he watched Ben storm off.
"Nope," Mort chuckled, shaking his head. "I think being a sheriff sounds like a much easier job."
"I reckon this means the Mort Cory gang is broken up," Jess looked up at Mort and saw him wink.
"Only if we learn to stay out of trouble," Slim laughed.
"That ain't gonna happen," Jess answered in return.
"Well, let's just say the title is being retired," Mort said, his voice sounding emotional, "but our friendship will go on and on, because that's something I intend to keep for a long, long time."