Synopsis: What Happened Next for the episode “Duel at Parkison Town”
Word Count: 2,360
The windowpane was startlingly cold against his too-warm cheek and, at the shocking initial contact, he immediately jerked away. The abrupt movement increased the roaring din in his ears and sent lightning bolts of pain skittering from his still-tender side, to his aching bicep, to his incessantly pulsing head. ‘Shouldn’t have missed that last laudanum dose,’ he mused, as he stepped gingerly back from the offending glass. Shivering from the brief encounter, he pulled the homemade afghan tighter around his neck and shoulders and peered outside. The overcast October skies dimmed with the onset of dusk, yet he could still make out the solitary figure of his friend and pared riding away from the ranch. An intense sadness welled up inside him … sadness and regret. ‘It’s because of me,’ he thought mournfully. ‘He still blames himself for what happened.’
Sick at heart, Slim Sherman turned his face away from the window and peered back through the shadowy dimness of the bedroom. A lone kerosene lamp lit the area surrounding his bed with a warm, inviting glow, and he felt a compelling tug in its direction. He allowed himself to be pulled forward and shuffled slowly toward its beckoning comfort. However, a tiny spark of anger ignited within him and, as he neared the bed, smoldering embers kindled into a flame that burned brighter and hotter with each successive step.
‘Just a week ago he promised to put this all behind him!’’ he thought, feeling resentment fan the already burning anger. Abruptly, he veered toward the dresser and began haphazardly pulling clothes from the drawers. He selected a cream-colored flannel shirt, tucked it beneath his right arm, then added hand-knit socks, woolen undergarments and leather gloves to his collection. With these items clutched in his hands, Slim made for the bed again, but another short detour took him to the night stand. There, lying on a linen doily and painstakingly wrapped in white tissue paper, was his birthday gift from Jess. He scooped it up in his left hand, cautiously eased himself down onto the side of the mattress, and doffed the crocheted blanket from his shoulders. Exhausted, he rested for a moment.
The only item left in his hand was the small package Jess had shyly placed on the table before heading out to the barn. “Happy early birthday, Slim,” he’d said. “Take care of yourself. Tell Andy I said … well … you’ll know what to tell him.” Then he was gone.
Slim turned the gift over, examining every fold and crease, before reaching for the twine that held the wrapping together. As he untied it, the paper blossomed, peeling away from the gift inside. Fingering the remaining tissue out of the way, he opened the small box and gazed down at the contents — a silver belt buckle, adorned with two emerald-cut turquoise gems and, in between, ornately engraved, was a single word – “Pard”.
The sight of his friend’s perceptive gift brought an involuntary constriction to his throat. He swallowed convulsively, barely managing to contain the emotions he held captive inside.
With extreme care, he deposited the box and its contents on the bed table, then, as quickly as his weakened body would allow, he dressed in the cold weather clothing. When he was finished, he forced himself upright and started for the door.
Already unsteady on his feet, Slim’s equilibrium momentarily winked out when he arrived at the threshold. Reaching for the singular, round doorknob, he was filled with a sudden confusion as it duplicated right in front of his eyes into two … then three … wavering spheres. In another time and another place, he might’ve been tempted to surrender to his frailty and crawl back to the haven of his sick bed, but now that weakness only served to fuel an inner strength and iron will. With a renewed resoluteness of purpose, his hand again sought out the doorknob, and he felt a grim satisfaction when his fingers curled around the tangible smooth surface. He rotated the knob, pulled and finally succeeded in opening the heavy oaken door. The added exertion cultivated beads of perspiration on his forehead and back. The latter slid down his spine, merging with other droplets to effectively dampen the whole of his woolen undershirt. Shaking with a sudden cold and fatigue, Slim swiped grudgingly at his forehead with the sleeve of his shirt, then strode stiffly between the door frame. Another lurch brought him to the front door. Opening it, he emerged into total darkness.
Almost immediately, a chilled wind rudely slapped his face, harshly sucking the breath from his lungs. The cold weather brought tears to his eyes, and he reacted with a short, involuntary gasp. Hunkering down against the elements, he fought his way to the barn.
Once inside, he was forced to sit and recoup his waning strength. The sound of his own heartbeat thrummed loudly in his ears, and the niggling pain in his side was no longer just a minor annoyance. He couldn’t afford to acknowledge the distraction, however, so he quickly set to work, lurching to a standing position and selecting a horse. Lifting a heavy saddle and securing it were beyond his current physical capabilities, so he stepped up on a bale of hay, mounted the nearest beast and rode off into the cold autumn night.
Slim estimated that he had ridden for more than an hour when the telltale scents of wood smoke and brewing coffee alerted his olfactory sense. Not expecting anyone to follow him, Jess hadn’t even attempted to hide his whereabouts. Slim licked dry, cracked lips and steered his horse toward the thicket. Moments later, he emerged from the tangled brush into a small clearing.
Startled by the unexpected intrusion, Jess shot to his feet. A revolver, cocked, aimed and ready to fire, materialized in his right hand before he was completely vertical. Recognition made him gasp aloud, and he quickly re-holstered the weapon. He greeted Slim with a sharp, “Are you out of your mind?”
Slim lifted his heavy head from the withers of his horse, smiled weakly as a slightly out-of-focus Jess rushed toward him. “Well, if I am … it’s something I caught from you …” he retorted, suddenly aware that he was slipping sideways. He clutched ineffectually at the reins, but his physical strength had deserted him, and the action did nothing to stop his descent. He was falling, and the resulting impact was going to hurt a great deal. He closed his eyes to the ground rushing up to meet him but, just before he hit, strong arms reached out, caught and pulled him into a shaky embrace. He looked up into Jess’ worried eyes. “Thanks, Pard,” he whispered just before awareness slipped completely away.
The tantalizing smell of coffee revived him, and he opened his eyes to see Jess piling more wood onto an already blazing fire. A quick personal assessment of his situation showed him to be in a prone position, wrapped in a blanket, with his head resting against a heavily padded saddle. He felt chilled and so physically drained that even holding his eyes open was a strain. His head pounded; his wounds ached. The one in his side felt suspiciously damp. On impulse, he reached down with a trembling hand to examine it.
“Here!” Jess appeared at his side, holding out a small metal cup of steaming brew. He put the drink in his friend’s outstretched hand, helped him maneuver it to his mouth. “No need for you to go touching that wound. You managed to tear it open all right. I got it re-bandaged, and the bleeding’s stopped. Now lie still and rest. It’s going to be a long, hard ride back to the ranch.”
Slim carefully sipped the hot coffee, shivered slightly as the warm liquid flowed downward to his stomach. “Thanks. That’s one I owe you.”
“I don’t want you to owe me for nuthin’,” Jess snapped, turning his back and his attention to the fire. “I want you to get yourself rested, get back on that horse, and go home where you belong.”
“Sorry to disappoint you, Jess,” Slim returned, “but I’m not going anywhere soon without help. I couldn’t sit a horse alone, especially one without a saddle, for several more hours. Looks like you’re stuck with me … at least until morning.”
At this, Jess whirled around. “You planned this game, didn’t you, Slim! You wagered that if you actually managed to find me, you wouldn’t be able to make it back on your own. And you bet that I wouldn’t be able to let you go.”
Slim calmly let his mouth rest on the lip of the cup again, felt the liquid warm the inside of his mouth. He swallowed and nearly sighed with pleasure. “Good coffee, Pard,” was all he said.
“I don’t like being trapped, Slim. This kinda thing’s beneath you.”
“And sneaking out without saying goodbye is above board and respectable? Not to mention making a promise and then throwing it to the wind. At least I’m not a welsher.”
“I don’t know what you’re gettin’ at,” was a growl.
“Yes you do. You promised me that you wouldn’t let what happened up in Parkison Town tear your guts out – but, Jess, I’m looking at you and what I see isn’t a very pretty sight!”
“My leaving Laramie ain’t got nothing to do with what happened last week. I just decided it was time to move on. Andy’s back from school for a while. You’ve plenty of time to hire a new hand before he goes back to Missouri. I’m just ready to be on my own again. I’ve finally realized I ain’t the kinda animal to be domesticated.”
“Now why don’t I believe you? You know what I think? I think you’re in denial! I think it’s tearing you apart inside that you were used as bait by Ben Parkison. You’re blaming yourself for what happened to me … and you’re just plain wrong.”
Jess turned his back once more. “I don’t give a damn what you think or what you believe. I’ll give you another hour to rest, and then I’m taking you back to the ranch. But when that’s done, I’m leaving again, and neither you nor Andy is going to stop me.”
“Well, if that’s what you really want…”
“It’s what I really want.”
The thick silence that ensued was almost palpable and, for a long while, only the occasional crackle and hiss from the fire disturbed it.
Finally, Slim spoke up. “Jess, if you really don’t want to stay, I won’t try to make you. But I will miss you. These past months have been … well … let’s just say that I’ve grown to think of you as family … as someone Andy and I could always count on … as … well … as another brother.”
Jess licked his lips, swallowed and stared down at the ground. “I don’t want you or anyone else to care about me, Slim. Believe me, it’s much better this way. Once I’m out of the picture, you and Andy won’t even remember I was ever there, and you can go on with…”
“Excuse me,” Slim interrupted, “but if I’m not mistaken I’ve had a close friend and partner in my life for nearly a year and a half. So whether you want me to or not, I will miss you. And whether or not you want to admit it, Jess, you will miss me.”
“You don’t understand …” was almost a moan.
“No, I guess I don’t. I thought that we all felt the same, grateful to have found each other, happy to be working and living together … almost like family. Maybe I was wrong …” Slim set the now ice cold cup of coffee on the ground beside him and struggled vainly to rise. “I think I can sit that horse now. If you’ll just help me up and onto him, I’ll do us both a favor and get the hell out of here.”
A restraining hand held him down. “You’re not going anywhere in the shape you’re in.”
“I can make it on my own. Looks like that’s how it’s going to be from now on anyway with Andy at school and Jonesy chaperoning. I might as well just get used to it.” He tried once more to get up, but again Jess’ strong arms pushed him back.
“Will you stay put, Slim! I swear, you’re the dadblamed stubbornest man I ever met.”
“Can’t be, Jess! Because you’re the dadblamed stubbornest man I’ve ever met. Now, will you please help me up and put me on that horse?”
“No.” The single syllable was firm and loaded with finality.
Slim persisted. “I’m telling you, I want to go home!”
“And I’m telling you, you’re staying put until I decide you’re okay enough to go. Face it, Slim, it may be your game, but I’m holding all the high cards.”
“Then I want a new deck …”
“Against the rules, Pard. You’ve been dealt a complete and total defeat. Now, are you gonna fold?”
“No, I’m not giving up.” Slim lifted his chin defiantly. “Are you?”
Reluctantly, Jess stared into the face of the man who was now his best friend. His expression showed pain and exhaustion from his physical wounds. But there was also something else — something intangible — yet so clear and obvious that he could almost reach out and touch the grief of impending loss reflected in Slim’s sky-blue eyes.
Finally, in a very quiet voice, he asked, “Would you really miss me that much?”
“I would,” came back immediately. “And so would Andy. He’s grown to love you like a brother and so have …”
A resigned sigh came from the younger man’s lips. “You don’t play fair, Slim, but you do play well. All right, you’ve called my bluff. I fold. You win.”
Slim’s eyes were heavy and growing moist. He finally allowed them to close as he relaxed back into the saddle pillow. “No, Pard,” he whispered tiredly. “We all win.”