Synopsis: Missing Scene from the episode “The Stranger”
Word Count: 3,185
A week had dragged by since the awful fever vented its all-consuming fury on Jess. Trapped in a nightmarish web of delirium, he hovered on the threshold of life and death for three days and nights; then, on the evening of the fourth day, the fever finally relented, and the entire Sherman household breathed a collective sigh of relief.
Since then, the almost constant pain in his leg had dwindled to only an occasional twinge, but the soreness persisted, making any and all body movements extremely uncomfortable. Jess’ appetite was back, boosted by the return of his senses of smell and taste, and his sarcastic streak had been restored completely intact.
Only his energy levels lagged behind. A pervading weakness held on, stubbornly frustrating his efforts to walk or stand or even sit for any length of time without tiring. He made headway, improving day-by-day, but his progress, while practically miraculous to Slim, Daisy, and the Victors, seemed unsatisfactory in his own eyes.
He sulked over his one major accomplishment for the day: hobbling on crutches all the way to the outhouse on his own. The fact that he hadn’t managed to make it all the way back alone dug deeply into his self-esteem. Daisy had rescued him, escorting him back to bed where, totally drained, he collapsed and napped the rest of the morning and on into early afternoon.
When Slim arrived, hungry, cold and tired from his daily outdoor chores, Jess was in a sullen mood.
“So,” the blond man said, yanking off his work gloves and blowing on his cold fingers. “How are you feeling this evening?”
“How would you feel if you couldn’t even walk to and from the outhouse on your own?”
Slim tugged the crew-necked wool pullover over his head, folded it, and placed it in the upper drawer of the chiffonier. “I’ve been there once or twice myself, Pard. I know how you feel,” he soothed. He sank heavily onto his bed and had begun to pull his left boot off when there was a faint knock at the door.
“Slim? Jess? It’s Lorena. May I come in?”
“It’s open,” Jess said, frowning as the tall, brunette woman entered. “I suppose you’re here to torture me again.”
Slim rolled his eyes. “Don’t mind him, Mrs. Victor. He’s just getting back to his normal, halcyon personality.”
Jess snarled, “Whaddya mean by that?” was ignored.
“No, I’m not here to change your bandages, Jess,” Lorena said with a sympathetic glance. “I don’t blame you for being impatient. It’s no fun being sick for so long. We all just thank God you’re on the mend.”
The dark-haired man furrowed his expressive brows. “I wasn’t sick, Mrs. Victor,” he said in a voice as soft as velvet. “I fell off a cliff tryin’ to save your husband’s hide and tore a gash in my thigh about a foot…”
“Jess, you’re being rude!” Slim interjected. “Mrs. Victor and her husband have done everything in their power to help all of us while you’ve been bedridden.” He walked over and stood beside Emil Victor’s wife. “He didn’t mean it the way it sounded, Lorena.”
“I know he didn’t,” she said patiently. “I’m afraid my family has brought nothing but trouble to yours,” she said, tearing up. Impulsively, she leaned forward and brushed her lips against Slim’s cheek. “But, thank you for caring about my feelings anyway.”
Jess watched as Slim pulled back a little too abruptly from Lorena’s harmless peck. But she appeared not to notice and merely patted the blond rancher affectionately on his broad shoulder, then turned a wan smile on Jess.
“I came in here to let you both know dinner’s nearly ready. Emil took the children and Mike to our cabin so the house would be quiet for you and Daisy. After this week, she really needed a rest, so she’s in her room, asleep already. Try to relax, Jess,” she said, leaning down and planting a motherly kiss on his forehead. “It’ll do wonders for your attitude. I’ll be back in a little while with your dinner. If you need anything before then, just yell.”
“That he can still do quite well,” Slim grinned, trying to lighten the suddenly gloomy mood in the room.
“I will,” the younger man said gratefully, “…and, Mrs. Victor …thank you for understanding.”
She beamed. “It’s Lorena,” she said, then turned to the tall, blond cowboy. “And you get some rest too, Mr. Sherman,” she ordered teasingly. “If I’m not mistaken, it’s been well over a week since you actually got a full night’s sleep too.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Slim said in an amused voice.
Winking at Jess, Lorena headed out the door. He stared after her for a long, silent moment, then struggled to pull his sore body into an upright position. Failing in mid-try, he settled for propping himself up on one elbow. “Well, I guess that makes me an ass.”
Slim sat back down and continued to undress. “With the first name of Jack. And you won’t hear me argue with you about it. I know you’re sick! And I know you’re in pain! I even know that right now, you barely have the strength to hold your own body up. But there was no call for you to take it out on her. They already feel guilty enough as it is.”
Jess sighed wearily and let his arm relax. He sank weakly back into the softness of the mattress, groaning as the movement caused fresh agony in his thigh. “I was only telling the truth, Slim. You know, that truth, trust, and honor crap you’ve been spoon-feeding me ever since I rode into this damned ramshackle ranch of yours? So, I tell the truth, and you call me a jackass for it. Well, I’m sorry, Slim … but I guess I ain’t never gonna be good enough for you, for Mike, for Daisy or even for this ranch! Yeah, I know you’ve been thinking about taking me on as a full partner here, but I don’t think I could ever measure up to your perfect standards. In fact, I think it’s time I was moving on to some other job, somethin’ I’m good at. ‘Course, it’ll have to wait a couple more days until I can sit a horse. That is, if it’s okay with you.”
Although he was used to Jess’ occasional temper tantrums, the stress and worry of the past week combined to form an increasing resentment, and Slim found himself wincing inwardly at the hurtful words. Outwardly, he forced himself to maintain an unruffled tolerance of his friend’s ridicule and accusations. “As I recall, Jess, you were the first to mention the word ‘ass’ – I merely supplied the given name,” he said quietly.
Jess closed his eyes. “Come on, Slim, you know it ain’t gonna work anymore. I’m guessing this leg’s gonna go bad on me. Hell, you’ve already had to take on a temporary hand because I can’t keep myself outta trouble.”
A wisp of a smile played at the blond man’s lips. “What was it you said about coming here with a greased holster and trouble in both pockets? If you don’t really believe we’ll ever make a success of this ranch and our partnership, Jess, then you’re welcome to leave anytime you’re well enough. Nobody here’s gonna hold you back. But, before you go, tell me something – you’ve had plenty of chances to leave, plenty of times you’ve gone off for weeks, sometimes even months. If you really didn’t care for this ranch, Mike or Daisy, then why’d you keep coming back?”
Jess pondered for a moment. “I don’t know really… I suppose it’s because deep down inside of me, there’s this little bitty shred of hope that maybe, just maybe, you might be able to pull it off. You might be able to turn me into some kinda civilized human being. It’s kinda like when I was nine years old, and my pa told me I’d never amount to nothin’. I’d already known for years there wasn’t one chance in hell of me ever making a success of myself. Then I met you… and I guess I thought… mebbe this’ll work. But it’s never gonna happen. Can’t you see that? I mean, look how I hurt Mrs. Victor. I don’t hold her or Emil to blame, but it just come out, like I had no control over what I was sayin’.”
“I know, Jess. I understand a lot more than you know.”
The younger man’s left brow arched, and he looked up at Slim from beneath thick black lashes. “You don’t know a damned thing about me, Slim. Never have…never will. How can someone as perfect as you understand someone as tainted as me!”
Slim began to pace the length of the room, his stone-faced appearance evidence of a growing inner turmoil. Sherman was an easygoing, slow-to-anger man, and Jess knew the ominous signs of impending rage. He ignored them.
“Look, Slim, we’re not ever gonna be on equal ground.” Jess’ voice rose in volume. “Mebbe you enjoy that, knowing how dumb I am, how unrefined, how ignorant. I’m a bad influence on Mike, and I think Daisy just feels sorry for me. As for you, you probably get some kinda satisfaction of knowing you can read better, cipher better, and hold your own in the civilized parts of this world.” Pain shot through his body, lending a cruel inflection to his voice. “What happened when I rode in here three years ago was a quirk of fate, but it just ain’t gonna work. Now, let’s both of us just get on with our separate lives!”
The look of consummate pain cemented on Slim’s face forced Jess to look away. Instantly contrite and ashamed, he opened his mouth to blurt out an apology, but when he turned back to face the blond rancher, he was paralyzed, shocked at his own outburst.
“I … I think I’ll run out to the barn and finish feeding the stock,” Slim said in a stunned, emotionless voice. He pulled open the chiffonier drawer, grabbed his pullover and shrugged into it again.
“Slim…I…” Jess finally found his voice, but his friend was already heading out the door.
“Call Lorena if you need anything, Jess. I’ll be out in the barn.” Slim threw the words over his shoulder haphazardly, and then he was gone.
The sudden deafening silence only made Jess more acutely aware of the stark void left by his friend’s departure, and he chastised himself for the unnecessary tantrum. Since his terrifying fall and the unexpected fever and near-fatal infection that followed, Jess found himself growing increasingly more and more out of control. He was aware that the underlying cause of his explosions of temper centered on his own feelings of inadequacy, helplessness and suppressed anger, but he also knew there was no excuse for taking these frustrations out on his best friend. Shame and guilt combined to bring the threat of tears to his eyes.
Determined to make amends and using sheer willpower alone, the young gunfighter forced his body into a sitting position and edged his legs over the side of the bed. The severe pain and enormous effort brought the threatening tears to fruition, and he felt one slowly trickle down his cheek. Indignant, he swiped at it, then searched fervently for his shirt and boots. None were in plain sight, so he reached for the homemade crutches, hand-whittled and so proudly presented to him only the day before by the man he had just pierced with his sharp words. Again, remorse spurred him on, giving him the strength and incentive to stand on his unsteady, painful legs. Ten minutes later, clothed in an unbuttoned flannel shirt, worn boots, and covered in sweat and self-satisfaction, Jess quietly made his unobtrusive, torturous way out the door.
The sky was overcast, making the late October evening feel cold and biting. He immediately regretted that he hadn’t taken the time to put on his warm corduroy jacket. Shivering, he limped his way across the yard, taking great care to avoid any likelihood of being caught by Lorena Victor. Arriving at the double doors of the barn, he rested for a moment against the newly whitewashed wood, then lifted the latch and fell through the door.
“Jess?” Startled, Slim looked up from his task, his voice filled with alarm and concern.
Panting with exertion and suddenly overcome with a bone-weary weakness, Jess collapsed heavily onto the first available bale of hay.
“What are you trying to do? Kill yourself?” Aghast, Slim hurried to his friend’s side.
Jess swiped at the film of cold, sticky sweat covering his forehead and, when words wouldn’t get past his deep gasps for breath, he closed his eyes tiredly and mutely shook his head.
Slim pulled off his own crew-neck sweater and tugged it over Jess’ perspiration-soaked hair. “Just look at your leg! It’s bleeding again. I swear I don’t know what I’m going to do with you. Sometimes you’re just like a little kid. You never think things through, just go barreling headlong into trouble …” He shook his head in futility as he finished fitting Jess’ lifeless arms through the sleeves of the sweater.
“… haven’t … you heard … besides Jackass, Trouble’s another of my aliases.” Jess tried to smile, but getting a full breath took priority. When he could speak again, he continued. “Besides, I also have a problem with saying the wrong things … at the wrong time … to the best friend anyone could ever have.” Jess finally got the words out. He suddenly shivered as the howling wind blew its icy breath through the drafty, old barn. “I’m so sorry, Slim. I said some very hurtful things, and I honestly didn’t mean them.”
“I know you didn’t,” the tall blond said. “And I shouldn’t have gotten upset and left you alone. You’re still weak and sick, and so much has happened in so little time…Jonesy leaving…Andy off to school…Mike and Daisy coming to stay…then your injury…we’re both having problems dealing with it all.”
“I know,” Jess sniffed and wiped his dripping nose on the back of his sleeve.
Slim reached into his pocket, retrieved a handkerchief, and handed it to Jess. “Here, use this,” he said, then added, “… and that’s not a lesson in etiquette. It’s just cleaner. Besides, that’s my sweater,” he finished with a grin.
The dark-haired man took it, blew his nose, and then held it out. Slim shook his head. “Nah, you keep it, Pard. I’ll get another one when we get back in.”
Jess nodded and let his trembling arm fall back into his lap. “Slim?” was almost a whisper.
Sherman collected the lantern and turned to his friend. “Yeah?”
“You know I didn’t mean what I said. I was just spoutin’ off ‘cuz …”
“’Cause you’re scared.”
The lush lashes lowered, and Jess cast his gaze downward on the hay-strewn floor. “What if I can’t pull my weight around here anymore? I don’t wanna be a burden on Daisy and Mike…or on you, Slim.”
“Now what makes you think you’re going to be a burden to us?”
“My leg…what if it doesn’t heal right? The doc kept warning me not to walk on it, but you know me. I couldn’t…”
“…follow orders, no matter the consequences,” Slim finished with a smile that made his blue eyes sparkle in the lamp-light. “Come on, Pard.” He held out an arm, and Jess latched on. It took several moments for him to stand, another few to balance on the proffered crutches.
“So…” Jess said, already panting with exertion. “What if I can’t do ranch work anymore?”
Slim stayed close, watching for any sign of impending calamity. “Well, then I guess we’ll have to let you help Daisy.”
Jess stopped and hung between the crutches, his eyes flashing anger. “You mean, do women’s work?!”
Turning his face away quickly so his friend couldn’t see the teasing smirk that he barely managed to bite back, Slim continued. “You think you’re too good to do ‘women’s work?”
The anger turned to thoughtfulness. “Nooo…I’ve done it before. But only when I had to! And you know yourself I can’t cook worth beans.” He put his weight on both hands and used the crutches to take a step forward.
“Actually, Pard, beans were pretty much your specialty. You burned everything else.”
“And I suppose you think your cooking was any better. Jonesy’s mulligan was tastier than anything you ever made, and, thick as it was, he coulda used it to patch holes in the barn.”
Slim turned around, his face drawn and serious. “Well, if you can’t be a ranch hand or a cook, then you’re about as worthless to me as a three-legged colt. I guess I’ll just have to shoot you.” He pulled his gun, thumbed the hammer, and pointed it at Jess’ middle.
“Whaaaa….” Stunned, Jess froze in place for a split second, then both crutches slammed to the ground as he sidled catlike to the left, automatically reaching for his weapon.
“It ain’t in your long johns, Jess,” Slim said, easing back the hammer and returning the gun to his holster. “But, even with that hurt leg, you still managed to react. Look at yourself. Those are two good legs you’re standing on. One of them just needs a bit more time to heal, and it’ll be as good as new.”
Still in shock, the younger man eased himself back into a standing position. Rubbing his burning thigh, he watched as Slim bent down to retrieve the crutches, but Jess shook his head. “I don’t think I need ‘em anymore, Pard,” he said.
“You sure, Jess?”
“Yep,” he said with a self-satisfied grin.
Mirroring his partner’s self-confidence with a matching grin, Slim picked up the crutches and tossed them purposefully into an empty stall. He reached out, took Jess’ right arm and placed it across his shoulders, then put his own arm around his friend’s slim waist.
Together, they took a tentative step forward … then another. A third brought them to the barn door.
“Doing okay, Jess?” Slim asked.
“Just fine,” was the weak reply.
“I take it you’ve concluded that two heads are better than one? Still partners?”
“Do you always have to be right?”
“Yep. And that’ll be in the contract you sign when we make it a legal 50/50 partnership in the ranch.” He loosened his grip on Jess just long enough to push the barn door open, quickly reestablishing his hold as he felt the man start to wilt. “I’ve gotcha, Pard,” he said. “Just lean on me.”
“Y’know, Slim,” Jess began, “I’m pretty sure I can make it on my own, but it’s kinda nice not to have to.”
“It’s what partnership is all about, Jess,” Slim said softly as together, they made their way slowly and cautiously across the yard to their ranch house.