The Good Samaritans

Part 25 in the Ranch Days series

By Maz McCoy

Nathan stood on the porch outside the bunkhouse watching the men in the corral. Their shouts carried across the short distance and he heard Bill cussing and Heyes and Jed laughing. He had a sudden feeling of déjà vu. It wasn't so long ago he'd broken his leg trying to break a horse and here he was again, leaning on crutches and feeling as useless as a milking stool in a barn full of bulls. It was taking forever to get his strength back too. The doctor had informed him, more than once, that he'd lost so much blood he was lucky to be alive. It had been a sobering thought; the fact that he could so easily not be here. But, that didn't stop him wanting to be down there with his friends, instead of sitting on the porch like an old woman.

A movement caught his eye and he watched as Jeff Collins' brother, Bobby Cavender, limped from the main house towards the bunkhouse. Now there was a man who knew what he was going through. Being thrown and kicked by a bull had to hurt too. Nathan studied him as he approached. He was good looking and he'd seen him in action around the ladies; sweet talking them and smiling just so. Was he genuinely nice or was it an act to get what he wanted? Nathan hadn't decided yet. Bobby spotted him and waved.

"How you doin'?" Nathan asked as Bobby limped up the steps.

Bobby tried to cover his grimace with a smile. "Not so bad. Guess neither of us is gonna be askin' a lady to dance for a while."

Nathan bristled. "Got anyone in mind?"

Bobby looked up, detecting the change in Nathan's tone. "Why do I get the feeling I'm about to be warned off?"

"Should you be?"

Bobby rested a hand on the porch rail. "We talkin' about my brother's lady or yours?"

"Do we need a talk about either?"

"And here I was coming over for a friendly chat but I see you have something to say. So, all right. Cards on the table time. You do have yourself a pretty little filly, I'll give you that." Nathan took a faltering step towards him and Bobby smiled. "You're too easy to rile. You wanna watch that. It'll get you into a whole pack of trouble. Oops, did I say pack? Didn't mean to remind you about wolves."

"I'm gonna marry Annabelle so we're just fine." Nathan's expression grew hard. His eyes narrowed. "Jeff's not asked Rosalind yet so you leave her alone, you hear?"

"Rosalind? Oh you mean, Rosa?" Bobby smiled. "She asked me to call her that. We're already on real friendly terms."

Nathan lunged at him but Bobby side stepped and he lost his balance and fell to his knees jarring his leg as he hit the wooden planks.

"What the heck is going on here?" Jeff climbed the steps two at a time reaching down to help Nathan up only to be brushed angrily aside by his friend. Stubbornly, Nathan used the porch rail to pull himself to his feet. He glared at Bobby.

"You wanna take it easy," the rodeo man advised. "You're hurt worse than I am."

"All right, what's going on between you two?" Jeff's gaze moved from Nathan to his brother, their animosity all too evident.

Bobby smiled, innocently. "Just getting to know your good ol' friend Nathan."

Nathan continued to glare at him.

"He doesn't seem to feel the same way, Bobby. What have you been sayin'?"

"Just testing the water about the ladies around here."

Jeff's back stiffened. "I thought we had a talk about that?"

"We did. I heard ya. Just wanted to see for myself if it was true."

"And?"

"Seems I got me a big mouth and you got a good friend." He looked at Nathan. "One that's a little too sensitive but a good friend all the same." He held out his hand to Nathan. "No offence meant."

For his part Annabelle Eldon's fiancé looked totally confused. He looked at Jeff Collins.

Jeff smiled. "Shake his hand, Nathan. My brother's stupid but he's not dangerous and he willstay away from Annabelle and Rosa because he knows I'll kill him if he don't."

Bobby grinned. "And I still have the scars to know Jeff means what he says." His eyes met Nathan's. Reluctantly, Nathan grasped Bobby's hand and they shook, briefly. Bobby stepped back and lowered himself onto the bench seat and leaned back against the bunkhouse wall. "So, what d'you fellas do all day around here?"

"Well, right now I'm heading into town with Heyes and the kid, so you two behave yourselves, you hear?"

Bobby smiled. "I'll play nice, I promise."

Jeff looked at Nathan. His eyes still showed signs of the fatigue that ailed him most days since the wolf attack but he was slowly getting back to his old self. Jeff knew how much his friend hated to be inactive.

"I got things to do," Nathan stated, vaguely, and limped down the steps before heading towards the corral.

"He's carrying a lot of anger," Bobby observed.

"Most of which is aimed at you right now."

"Probably."

"Did you have to bait him about Annabelle?"

"Wasn't Annabelle he was getting hot under the collar about."

Jeff looked confused. "It wasn't?"

"Nope. He went all big bad wolf…Oops I did it again." Bobby smiled innocently. "I mentioned Rosa and he stepped up to bat for your team. I think he's worried I'll snatch her from you."

"Bobby."

"Jeff."

Bobby's older brother sighed. "I could wring your neck sometimes, you know that?"

"Yeah, but I'm still loveable." He stood up then supported himself with a hand on the bunkhouse wall when the world shifted slightly.

"You okay?"

"Yeah, probably." He met his brother's worried eyes. "I'm fine. It just takes a while to heal. And listen, Jeff, Rosa's your lady. I would never do anything…"

"I know. I do know that. But my friends don't, so stop it all right?"

"All right." He rested his hand on his brother's shoulder. "I think I could use some help getting back to my bed."

"You boys load up the wagon. I won't be long." Jeff Collins informed them as he headed towards the bank in Claremont. He left Heyes and Jed sitting in the back of the wagon outside the general store. Jed Curry adjusted his hat against the early spring sunshine and stood up.

"It's a pity Clementine's still outta town," he mused.

"Yeah. I'd like to see her again. She obviously likes me a lot."

"She likes me too."

"She was just being polite."

"Yeah, to you. She liked me better."

"When she comes back you are going to be disappointed."

"We'll see." Jed shook his head then stretched his shoulder muscles, ready for the work ahead. "D'you reckon we could go over to the saloon before we leave town?" He jumped down from the wagon.

"Why'd you wanna do that? Got a thirst on ya?" Heyes jumped down next to him.

Kid's eyes drifted to the buildings across the street and rested on the working girls lounging on the balcony above the saloon. Working girls in lots of lace and stockings.

Heyes smiled. Was that it?

"Forget it, they only deal with men."

"I'm a man."

No denial then.

"No, Kid, you ain't."

"I'm as old as you were when…" He stopped talking when two ladies walked by. When he spoke again it was in a whisper. "When, you did, what you did, you know?"

"The fact that you can't even say it tells me you ain't ready, that and the fact that everyone calls you Kid, Kid." Heyes picked up a sack off the porch and thrust it at his friend. "Get loadin'."

"Who says I haven't?"

"Haven't what?"

"You know." He nodded towards the girls.

Heyes laughed. "I say." He picked up another sack and dragged it across the boardwalk to the wagon. Kid helped him load it.

"Well, I have."

Heyes looked at him. "When?"

"Back a spell."

"When, precisely?"

"I ain't gonna tell you the exact date!"

"That's cos it never happened."

"It did!"

"Here? In town? Or in your dreams?" Turning his back on the blond youngster Heyes walked over to the pile of supplies outside the store and picked up a box. Jed reached for the one beside it.

"Here," he muttered.

Heyes rested the box back down and looked his friend in the eye. "Who was she?"

"A gentleman doesn't tell."

"Ha!" Heyes picked up the box, walked over to the wagon and heaved it into the back. Jed did the same. Heyes looked at him. "How much did it cost you?"

"Who says I paid?"

"I do. How much?"

Jed turned away. "Just forget I said anything."

"Oh, no, you can't start something like this and then drop it. I want to know all about it. Who was the unfortunate young lady and where did this momentous event take place? Does her father know or should I be standing by in case he turns up one day with a shot gun?"

Jed's eyes narrowed. He wanted to wipe that stupid grin off Heyes' face. "Wish I'd never started this."

Heyes laughed again. "Ah, but you did and now I'm not gonna drop it until you tell me all!"

Jed's shoulders drooped.

"Heyes!" The dark haired young man turned when Ralph Hannerby, the owner of the general store, appeared in the doorway. He carried an open box. "I found all of these. Any good to ya?"

Heyes' eyes sparkled when he looked inside and saw the collection of padlocks, door locks and one or two other metallic things he didn't recognise.

"I don't have keys for any of them. You sure that's okay?"

"It's great, Mister Hannerby. Thank you." His brow furrowed. "How much do I..?"

The store owner waved him off.

"I don't want nothin' for 'em. They're no use to me if I can't open 'em."

Heyes' smile broadened.

"Thank you, sir."

"You're welcome, son, you're welcome. I just hope you can put whatever it is you learn from 'em to good use."

"Oh, I will. Reckon I might become a locksmith or somethin'."

"Good for you, boy."

Jed shook his head in disbelief.

"What do you want all that junk for?" he asked from his position atop the pile of well loaded supplies in the wagon bed.

"It's not junk. It's…research."

"What?"

"You heard."

"Yeah and I heard you tell him you might be a locksmith too. That true? That what you wanna do?"

Heyes rested the box on the wagon wheel and looked up at Jed.

"I don't know, but I wanna do something that uses my brain. I'm an intelligent man and it sure would be a shame to let all this brain power go to waste don'tcha think?"

Jed remained silent. Heyes narrowed his eyes.

"Well don'tcha?"

"Whatever you say, Heyes."

"You telling me you'd be happy to work on a ranch for the rest of your life?"

"I don't know. Not thought much about it."

"Well you should. What if the ranch really is in trouble? What if they let us go? What we gonna do then?"

Jed looked along the main street of Claremont. What would he do if they had to leave here?

Jeff Collins turned away from the bank teller and stuffed the envelope full of money into a pocket inside his sheepskin jacket. He adjusted his hat, touching the brim as a young lady walked past him, then stepped out into the sunshine. Next stop the general store to pay the Bar T's bill before heading back to the ranch. He didn't like carrying this much money on him for too long. He tried to vary the time he collected it. Tried not to make it obvious what he was doing. Sometimes he'd come into town with Bill riding shotgun. Today he collected some of the hands' pay along with the storekeeper's' money. Vary your routine and you stood less chance of being robbed.

As he exited the bank he could see Jed and Heyes sitting on top of the loaded wagon. He smiled. The boys would love it if they knew they were his bodyguards today, which was the reason he had no intention of telling them. Nothing worse than a pair of over eager youngsters, seeing villains in every shadow, to give the game away.

"Mister, can you help me, please?"

Jeff looked down at the young boy who had appeared beside him on the boardwalk. Big, blue eyes stared at him from a dirt covered face. The boy's clothes were unwashed and his tattered shoes were in need of replacing.

"What's wrong, son?"

"It's my Pa! I think he's sick." The boy pointed into an alley at the side of the bank. A figure lay slumped against a building. "He ain't movin'. No one will help us."

Jeff waved a hand and the boy lead the way towards the man. He wore a large grey coat and a battered grey hat. Collins couldn't see his face but the smell of whiskey told him more than he wanted to know. Jeff crouched down beside the slumped figure.

"Sir, can you hear me?" No reply. Jeff looked up at the boy. "What's his name?"

"Daniel. Daniel Crowther."

"Mister Crowther?" He gave the man a shake but still there was no response. "Daniel. Can you hear me?"

"Not sure about him, but I sure can," said a man behind him.

CLICK.

Collins froze as cold metal touched the back of his neck. Damn! He'd been suckered.

"Keep your hands where I can see 'em."

Jeff cursed beneath his breath and remained still as his gun was removed from its holster. He'd been gullible and stupid. Dammit!

"You can get up now, Dan."

The slumped figure stirred and a man turned to face Jeff. He wore a knowing smile on his thin face and when he grinned he revealed two missing front teeth. Dan scurried to his feet as Jeff remained crouched.

"Go fetch the horses, Matt," the man behind him said.

The boy ran off.

"What do you fellas want?" Jeff asked turning slightly hoping to catch a glimpse of his unseen assailant.

WHACK! Jeff saw stars as pain shot through the back of his head and he crumpled to his knees. Before he had time to regain his senses someone kicked him in the ribs and he heard an audible crack. Oh, that hurt! He lay on his side but managed to grab hold of the man's ankle before he could land another kick. Jeff yanked hard and the man fell to the ground beside him. Jeff saw the gun land a few feet away and lashed out with his foot catching his assailant in the stomach. He wasn't giving in without a fight. Thin faced Dan ran for the gun as Jeff scrambled to a crouch grabbing for the other man's shirt. He landed a punch to his chin knocking the wind out of him. Jeff's head was still spinning and he stumbled backwards his vision blurring as he tried to locate Dan.

"JEFF!"

The foreman caught a glimpse of someone struggling with the thin man. Heyes. Where the heck had the kid come from? What was he doing? The kid was gonna get himself killed! Heyes grabbed for the gun in Dan's hand but the man was stronger than he looked and the youngster was thrown like a sack of corn through the air, the back of his head colliding with the side of the building as he slammed into it.

"Heyes!"

The boy crumpled to the ground and Jeff staggered towards him. His arm was grabbed and he turned to see the other larger man leering at him. The skin spilt above Jeff's eye as a blow landed and he staggered backwards. From the corner of his eye he saw the young boy return, with their horses. Where was the one called Dan? Another pain screamed through his head and this time the world went black.

The big man laughed and grabbed for Jeff's jacket, rummaging inside as he searched for the money he'd seen him collect from the bank.

Jed Curry stared in horror as the boss lay unmoving on the ground, two men leaned over him. Heyes' lifeless body lay slumped beside the Bank. "HOLD IT RIGHT THERE!" he commanded.

The men looked up, saw Jed and laughed.

"Get lost, kid." The big man continued to search Jeff's clothing.

"I said, hold it right there!" Kid drew his gun, aiming it at the men. The men laughed, returning to their task of searching Jeff's clothing. Jed fired a shot and the big man's hat flew off. They froze. "I said. Hold it. Right. There!"

Dan looked at his bigger partner and then at the skinny kid.

"Put the gun down, son, before you hurt yourself." Tyler shoved the envelope full of money into his coat pocket. "Or me."

Kid aimed at the man's belly. "Put that back."

Tyler laughed and turned to leave. Kid fired, this time blowing a hole in the man's right sleeve just missing the flesh.

"What the…? Boy, if you don't…"

"The next one draws blood," Jed warned.

"I reckon he means business, Tyler." Dan stood perfectly still, seemingly unsure what to do.

"Yeah, I reckon he does." Tyler studied the boy's face and was surprised to see confidence there. The boy knew he'd hit what he aimed at. Interesting.

"Give it back." CLICK. "Now!"

Tyler stepped forward, his hands open in front of him, non-threatening. "There's no need to use that gun. We can talk about this, son."

"I'm not your son and I got nothing to talk about. Just put it back."

There was something in the boy's eyes that made Tyler pause. Slowly the man reached into his coat, fumbling around in his pocket until he retrieved the envelope. He tucked it into Jeff's jacket.

"It's back. No need to shoot, boy."

"Step back."

They did so and at that moment Collins groaned distracting Jed long enough for the men to high tail it out of the alley. Matt was waiting with the horses. Jed watched them go, he raised the gun and aimed but he wouldn't shoot anyone in the back. He fired a shot into the air and they kept riding. Jed turned to Collins.

"Jeff? You okay?"

Blood ran down Jeff's face from his nose, a cut above his left eye and a gash in his right temple. He managed a weak nod and Jed turned his attention to Heyes. He crouched beside him. Heyes didn't move.

"Heyes?"

Jeff crawled on hands and knees towards them. "How is he?"

"Unconscious."

Jeff reached out and raised Heyes' head. His face clouded over and he slowly lowered his head to the ground. Jed looked at the blood now covering Jeff's hand.

"Best go get the doctor, Kid."

"Is he goin' to be okay?" Jed asked as Doctor Ellis Hale closed the door to his examining room.

The medic looked at Jeff Collins before answering.

"He's still unconscious. The skin is split on the back of his head. Took quite a whack to do that."

"But he'll be okay?" Jed prompted.

"We have to wait and see, son."

"But he'll be all right, won't he?"

"He needs rest now." The doctor looked at Jeff. "And I have your boss to take care of."

"Can I wait in there?" Kid pointed to the examining room.

"All right, but don't disturb him."

Jed nodded and entered the room where Heyes lay.

"OW!"

"Hold still."

"I'm tryin' to." Jeff glared at the doctor as he prodded his ribs. "OW! DAMMIT!"

"Yep, it's broken."

"I coulda told you that," the foreman grumbled as he sat, stripped to the waist on a chair in the doctor's outer office.

"Ah, but now you have the official diagnosis." Ellis Hale reached for his bandages and iodine.

"I suppose you're gonna tell me to rest up for a few days."

"I am. Will you actually do it?"

"With a ranch to run?"

"That's what I thought."

The front door opened and the sheriff entered the doctor's office. Milton Treadwell removed his hat as he approached them and gave a nod to the doctor.

"Ellis." He studied Jeff's bruised face. "They sure worked you over, Jeff. I hope you got in a punch or two?"

"Not as many as I'da liked."

"Heard one of your boys got hurt too."

"Heyes," the doctor informed him. "Took a whack to the head. He's still unconscious. I have him in the back room."

The sheriff turned his attention back to Collins.

"They get anything?"

"Yeah."

The lawman waited.

"Money. Too damn much!"

"Can you give me a description of the men?"

"The boy and the one called Dan. The other one I'd be a little vague on. They called him Tyler. Jed might be able to help you there."

"I'll have a word with him."

Doctor Hale chose that moment to dab the cut above Jeff's eye with iodine.

"SHEESH! DAMMIT! DOC!"

"Stop squirming!"

"Then stop dabbin' me with that darn stuff!"

The doctor removed the iodine soaked pad, prepared another one and placed that on the cut on Jeff's head. The foreman let out a hiss but stayed tight lipped. The sheriff smiled.

"You know there's probably a law against taking pleasure in inflicting pain on your patients, Doc."

"I doubt it," Jeff muttered. "Or you'da arrested him before now."

The doctor chuckled. "I thought you were a tough rancher."

"And I thought you were a…OW! SHEESH!"

The medic smiled.

"So how much did they get?" Treadwell asked, drawing them back to the matter at hand.

"Enough to pay a lot of our bills."

"I thought he gave it back?" The three men turned at the sound of Jed's voice. He stood in the doorway. "The envelope. He gave it back. I saw him."

"Yeah, he gave the envelope back, Jed. He just took the contents."

The boy's face fell.

"It's not your fault. You did more than I could have asked. Risked your life."

"I didn't."

"Yes, you did and so did Heyes. I appreciate what you did. What you both did."

"But they still got away with the money."

"For now."

All eyes turned to the sheriff.

"Once you've given me descriptions of the men I'll send a few telegrams then ride out and see if I can pick up their trail. We'll get 'em, eventually. Once a man starts thieving, he hasta look over his shoulder for the rest of his life."

"I think I'll head over to the hotel," Jeff stated when Jed had returned to keep vigil over Heyes. "See if they've got a room. Reckon I could use a lie down. I'm feelin' tired."

"I'll walk with you," Sheriff Treadwell offered. "Just in case that desk clerk needs his arm twisted."

Ellis Hale smiled. "Barry's just over zealous, Milton, don't go waving your gun around."

"Are you trying to tell me how to do my job, Doc?"

"Wouldn't dream of it, sheriff, wouldn't dream of it."

Jeff eased himself up out of the chair and shrugged on his shirt. He failed to muffle a groan as he stretched to get his arm in a sleeve.

"You take it easy," the doctor advised and the foreman nodded.

Jeff took a few steps towards the door and stopped as a wave of nausea overcame him. He was not about to throw up in front of the doctor and the sheriff. The room began to spin so he closed his eyes.

"Jeff?"

He showed no sign of hearing the doctor so the lawman tried.

"Collins? You all right?"

Still no reply. Both men took a step towards Jeff just as his knees buckled.

"How you feeling?" the doctor asked as he placed a glass of water on the cabinet beside the bed Heyes lay in.

"Head hurts."

"It would. Heads and buildings aren't designed to collide."

Heyes looked confused.

"What do you remember?"

Heyes' eyes narrowed, searching his memory. "Jeff was fighting with someone. A man grabbed a gun on the ground. I tried to stop him…" Heyes shook his head. "Then it all goes a little blurry."

"That's probably when you and the wall met." The doctor poured some powder into the glass of water and stirred it with a spoon. "Here, drink this." He held out the glass. Heyes eyed it suspiciously.

"What is it?"

"A hideous potion that will make your head roll and prevent you from fathering children."

Heyes mouth dropped open and the medic shook his head and smiled.

"It's a painkiller, to help with your headache."

Heyes took it and looked at the contents.

"Just drink it, Mr Heyes."

Heyes did as he was told, grimacing as the powders hit his taste buds. "That's disgusting."

"Of course, the best medicines always are." He took back the glass. "I've sent your young friend off on an errand. You," he pointed at Heyes, "are staying here the night, so get some rest. Of course if my niece was here you'd have a pretty nurse fussing over you. As it is, you'll just have to put up with me."

"Will she be back soon?"

The doctor smiled. "Not soon enough for you, huh?" Heyes blushed. "You get your mind off women and concentrate on getting better, young man."

"How's Mister Collins?"

"Bruised and getting some rest. At least he'd better be. There's another man with his mind on a woman. We've got us a mini epidemic in Claremont."

"So you shot his hat off, and then caught him in the sleeve of his shirt?" Sheriff Treadwell established as he sat behind his desk, writing up his report. Across from him, on one of the hardest seats he'd ever sat on, Jed Curry shifted as he confirmed the facts.

"Yes, sir."

"Hmm. You must be a pretty good shot, Jed."

"I am, sir. I won the quick-draw contest at the rodeo."

"That was you?"

"Yes, sir."

"I heard some youngster had won it. Never put two and two together at the time. Well, good for you."

Jed beamed with pride.

"Did either of the men draw on you?"

"No, sir." Jed turned his hat in his hands. "They didn't have their guns."

"I see. Were they unarmed?"

Jed swallowed. This didn't sound good. Had he shot unarmed men?

"Well, there were guns on the ground I think and... And they were threatening Jeff, I mean Mister Collins, and Heyes was…They'd stolen…I mean… Well, they held up their hands but that was only because…" He looked at the sheriff.

"Go, on. I want to hear your side of the story."

"It's not a story. It's what happened. At least…I…It's the way I saw it."

"And that's what I want to hear, Jed. So, go on."

"Mister Collins and Heyes were hurt. I didn't know what they'd do to them. I had to stop them so I pointed my gun but they didn't listen so I shot the big man's hat off and…" He met the sheriff's interested gaze. "I coulda hit them dead centre but I didn't."

"I know. It's all right, Jed."

"Am I in trouble?"

"For protecting your friends? No." The sheriff scribbled a few lines on his notepaper and Jed took the time to look around the sheriff's office, his gaze falling on the Wanted posters pinned to the notice board.

Wanted: For robbery and assault. Jackson Billings of Trenton County. Five foot four inches, dark hair, stout of stature. A reward is offered.

Wanted Dead or Alive: For the theft of horses and cattle. Amos Angelino.

There was a rough sketch of a thin faced man with a long dark moustache.

$500 REWARD: For the capture, dead or alive, of Tom Hawkins for the murder of Lillie Hawkins.

"I guess that's about it." Jed was startled by the sheriff's sudden comment. "I think we're finished here, Jed. I've got your descriptions of the assailants and your affidavit of the events."

"My what?"

"Affidavit. It's your statement of what happened."

"Oh. Yeah, that's my after David."

The sheriff became serious. He sat back, pushed his hat off his forehead and look at the boy. "Jed, I hafta warn you. Those men were clearly dangerous. They know you've seen their faces and that you would no doubt recognise them again." Jed nodded. "If they head back this way, they could look for you."

"Are you saying I'm in danger? Like Luke Trevelyan?"

The sheriff's brow furrowed. "What?" He looked to the notice board but there was no one named Trevelyan there.

"Luke witnessed the murder of Sheriff Blakeney and the Wilderness Gang was out to get him."

"When did this happen?"

"Sometime around Easter, I think."

"Here? Near Claremont?"

"Huh?"

"I said did it happen around here?"

"No, it was outside of Reno." Jed reached into his back pocket and pulled out a dime novel. He held it up for the lawman to see. "Last Wagon from Reno." The sheriff was none the wiser. "Luke Trevelyan is the hero and…"

The sheriff raised a hand, halting the boy mid-stride. "You're talking about a dime novel?"

"Yes, sir."

Jeff Collins awoke in bed. He could feel the soft sheets and the comfortable pillow beneath his head. He didn't open his eyes; instead he took a moment to enjoy the comfort of simply lying there. He wasn't wearing a shirt although something felt tight about his ribs. He remembered the fight and someone was pounding on his head with a hammer but that didn't detract from the comfort of the moment. Soft cool sheets. He was definitely not in his bunk at the Bar T. He stretched out a leg, turning slightly as he did so and…OH! SHEESH! THAT HURT! He groaned loudly.

"Ah, you're awake at last."

A female voice. A familiar, female voice. He opened one eye and…He could only open one eye. His left was swollen shut. Terrific. He squinted at the familiar shape silhouetted against the sunlight that streamed in through the window.

"Rosalind?"

"In the flesh." She stepped closer and he did his best to bring her into focus. The expression on her face she tried quickly to hide told him all he needed to know.

"Guess I don't look so good."

"No, you don't."

He looked around as best he could. This was no hotel room.

"Where are we?"

"My house."

"WHAT?"

"You are in my house." His mind raced over the scandal she would be subjected to if he was discovered here. Rosalind guessed what was on his mind. "It's all right. There were no rooms at the hotel and believe me the sheriff tried to get you one. So the doctor asked me if I'd agree to have you stay here."

"And you said, yes?" He couldn't believe this.

"Of course I did. The alternative was a stall at the livery stables and as much as I'd like to see you suffer…"

"Rosa, I can't stay here." He sat up and… "OW! Dammit!" He held his ribs, eyes shut tight. When the pain passed he met her gaze. "Sorry, 'bout…my language."

She pulled a chair toward the bed and sat beside him. "There is nothing to worry about."

"You can't have a man here…"

"We are not alone."

"We're not?" He looked around and Rosalind smiled.

"Doctor Hale was sensible to that. His housekeeper is staying with me. In fact Melody is downstairs this very minute preparing you her chicken soup. So you see there is nothing scandalous about you being in my bed."

"THIS IS YOUR BED?" He groaned. It just got worse.

Rosalind smiled. "I knew I'd get you in it one day, although this isn't quite what I had in mind."

"Rosa!" She smiled. Was the man actually blushing? "Don't joke about this."

"Why not? There is nothing improper about offering a bed to an injured man. It's not as if I'm sleeping in there with you."

"Rosa!" he hissed again. "Keep your voice down."

"No one is going to hear and just so you don't try and get up again this is the guest room. My room is across the hall."

"You said…"

"I know. I couldn't resist seeing how you'd react."

"You are a bad woman, you know that?"

She smiled wickedly at him. "You have no idea but, play your cards right and one day, cowboy, you might find out."

His mouth dropped open but he couldn't think of any reply. Then a thought crossed his mid. "Wait a minute. You said, as much as I'd like to see you suffer. About the stables."

"That's right."

"Why'd you say that? You want me to suffer?"

"We'll talk about that when you're feeling better."

"Did I do something wrong?"

"No, Jeff. It's what you didn't do."

"Well…" His head hurt too much to figure out what she was talking about. He'd never really understood women. He was saved from hurting his brain with too much thought, by the door opening. Melody Gilchrist entered the room carrying a tray on which she balanced a bowl of steaming soup.

"Oh, you're awake at last!" She placed the tray on the cabinet beside the bed. "I've made you some soup." She handed the spoon to Rosalind and set about plumping the pillows behind Jeff's head. "Miss Tanner, will help you and I'll tuck this in here to save any drips getting on you." As she spoke she laid a napkin over his bare chest making him acutely aware of his lack of clothes. He knew he was wearing underwear but even so lying half naked so close to Rosalind was… "There. That's should do it." Melody stood back. She looked from Jeff to Rosalind and smiled. She patted the other woman's hand. "I'll leave you to nurse him."

And then they were alone again. Rosalind stood beside the bed and smiled.

"Why, Jeff Collins, I do believe you're blushing."

"See, it's easy," Heyes informed his friend as he opened the padlock.

Jed looked at the lock and the hairpin Heyes held in his other hand. "Do it again, only slower this time."

Heyes locked the padlock, inserted the hairpin into the keyhole, twisted it one way, then the other and…

"See, easy!"

His friend didn't look convinced. "So what you gonna do with 'em all?" Jed settled himself at the foot of the bed. Heyes rummaged through the box of locks the storekeeper had given him. He remained confined to bed, and under observation, due to his inability to walk straight when he stood up.

"I'm gonna work out how to open 'em."

"Why?"

"Because it's interesting."

"It is?"

Heyes looked up at his friend. "Yes, it is."

"If you say so."

"I do say so and like I told you, I might be a locksmith one day."

"So what do you think about me being hunted?" Jed asked, changing the subject.

"You're not being hunted." Heyes continued to rummage in the box as he spoke.

"The sheriff said…"

"They might come back this way." He looked up at Jed. "He didn't say they would, did he?"

"No."

"So they probably won't. Why come back to a place you're wanted?"

"Well…"

"If I was an outlaw and on the run, I'd find a hideout, somewhere no one else knew about, and hol' up there for a while. I certainly wouldn't go back to a place I'd just committed a crime. Nope. I'd move onto a new territory. Someplace I'm not known."

Jed considered this. He nodded agreement. "But they still might want to hunt me down, right?"

Heyes was about to comment when the door opened and Clementine Hale stepped into the room. Sunlight from the window fell upon her hair making it sparkle and shine. Her skin was smooth and she had the prettiest smile. Jed knew Heyes could see all this too. When her eyes fell upon Heyes in bed Clementine looked mortified.

"Oh my, goodness! Hannibal, are you badly hurt?" She rushed to his side. Heyes pushed the box of locks away and turned his full attention on Clementine.

"He's okay," Jed assured her but Clem didn't listen. She reached out and touched Heyes' forehead.

"You're a little warm."

"I do feel kinda hot," Heyes agreed.

"We can open a window," Jed suggested.

"My head still hurts." Heyes shot his friend a look.

"Lie down and let me look after you," Clementine suggested. Heyes did as she instructed whilst Clementine reached for a cloth that lay in a bowl of tepid water on the nightstand.

"He was all right a minute ago," Jed observed and Heyes' eyes narrowed on his.

Clementine squeezed water from the cloth then laid it on Heyes' forehead. "Better?"

"A little," the patient agreed, weakly. "But it's awfully noisy in here."

Clementine turned to the blond boy. "Jed, I think you should let Heyes rest now. He's had enough excitement. I'll take things from here."

"I think I'm having a relapse," Heyes groaned.

"Musta come on real quick," his friend muttered as Clementine shooed him towards the door. She turned swiftly back to the patient as the door closed but not before Jed heard her utter, "Do you think you should take your shirt off?"

Sheesh!

"Bobby's doing fine," Jeff Collins informed Rosalind as she poured him a cup of coffee. It was the following morning and he had insisted he was well enough to get out of bed. He'd proved his point by walking unaided to the kitchen where he now sat at the table as she placed the steaming cup in front of him. Melody was upstairs tidying the bed and airing the guest room.

Rosalind stood near the window clutching her own cup of coffee.

"Why don't you sit down so we can talk?" Jeff suggested.

"I have things to do." She didn't meet his gaze.

"You're avoiding me."

"No, I'm just busy."

"You're avoiding me."

"I have to help in the mill. My Uncle and Aunt need me there."

"You're avoiding me."

"Can't you say anything else?" Finally she looked at him.

"I can but I won't until you tell me what you meant yesterday."

"I don't know what you're talking about."

"Yes, you do. You wanted to see me suffer which suggests I've done something to annoy you, but as I have no idea what that is, I can't put it right." Silence. He was right. "Rosa?"

"It's nothing. I was being foolish."

"What is it?" She shook her head as she struggled with just how much to tell him. "Rosa? Just say whatever is on your mind."

"It's foolish. I'm just being silly." Her eyes met his and she felt herself melt when he gave her an encouraging smile. "I suppose I'm a little jealous."

"Of who?"

"Annabelle."

"Annabelle?"

"Yes."

"Why?"

"Because of what she has. What she will have."

He considered this. "You want to marry Nathan?" he asked incredulously.

"WHAT? Oh for heaven's sake don't be so…" He was smiling at her. No wait, he was smirking. "Are you mocking me, Jeff Collins?"

"As if I would," he said, innocently. "So why are you jealous? What does she have that you want?"

"It's what she's going to have."

Jeff was puzzled. She waited, hoping she wouldn't have to spell it out for him. Rosalind took a sip of her coffee. She could hear the clock in the hall ticking. And tocking. And ticking. Sheesh, was he that dense?

"The only thing I can think of that's she gonna get, is married to Nathan. She's gonna be a rancher's wife." He looked up at Rosalind. Jeff's eyes suddenly opened wider. Oh.

End of Part 25

25