Waiting for the Storm to Break (by Helen C)

Summary:
Category:  Laramie
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:   30,500

 

 

“Well, I’m sorry Mr. Sherman, but I have a job to do and I can’t make any special allowances. You are already overdue by three months and the next mortgage payment is due on the 30th. If it is not received by then, the bank has the right to foreclose. As representative of the bank, it is my duty to enact that right. No exceptions.”

Slim rubbed his hand through his damp hair, something he always did when he had things on his mind. It didn’t help that it was so darned hot. When was this hot spell ever going to break? It had seemed to go on forever and was certainly not doing anything to help ease what was already a tense time. It had been a lean couple of months. The drought conditions hadn’t helped with stock movement; the one water source on his land was at the lowest he had ever seen it and had gotten stagnant. A number of his steers had died from drinking it before it’d been discovered. To make matters worse, no one seemed to be buying at the moment and so the only income the ranch had received for the past three months was from the stage and it wasn’t enough. Not nearly enough.

“Look, Mr. Brady, I understand the banks position, but the Sherman’s have been customers of this bank for years. We’ve have lean times before but we’ve always come through. Ask Jim Morgan; he’ll tell you.”

Jim Morgan was the regular Laramie Bank Manager. He and Slim had been friends for years. It had never been a problem. Just his luck that Jim was currently in the hospital in Cheyenne with pneumonia. Brady was a temporary replacement sent up from Denver, an outsider who didn’t know the town or the people in it. He just knew his job and was determined to do it, no matter the consequences and the damage it would cause. It was clear the man had ambition and saw this as a way to climb the corporate career ladder. Slim regarded the man, with his tailored suit and slicked back hair. Yes, Devon Brady liked the finer things in life and he looked as out of place here in Laramie as anyone could. It was clear the man possessed no compassion.

“Well, I’m sorry Mr. Sherman; however, Jim Morgan is not here. I am. And I am sure my superiors in Denver would be interested to hear about Mr. Morgan’s corner cutting. And I intend to send a full and detailed report.”

“Now wait just a damn minute. Jim Morgan is highly respected in this town. He knows how hard people work for their land and their property and he does all he can to help them keep it, and retain them as customers of the bank. If you do that, you could do a lot of damage and you sure won’t make any friends in this town, Brady.”

“Mr. Sherman. If you think threatening me is going to help your cause any, you are greatly mistaken. Now unless the bank receives $300 from you by the 30th of this month, I will have no option other than to recommend foreclosure. With immediate effect. Good day to you.”

With that, he returned his attention to his ledger. Obviously looking for the next hapless rancher or homesteader he could threaten with eviction. Slim clenched his fists. Boy, he sometimes wished he could cut loose like Jess from time to time and let his fists do the talking, but the feeling soon passed. Despite the temporary satisfaction he would undoubtedly feel to see Brady laid out on the floor, it sure wouldn’t keep the roof over his or anyone else’s heads; Everyone was counting on him, Mike, Daisy, Jess, Andy at school in St. Louis….how on earth was he going to meet the school fees?

Everything had hinged on this meeting with Brady; he had been in tight spots before, but how could he now go back home and tell them? Mike who had called the Relay station home for the past two years since his parents were killed by Indians; Miss Daisy, widowed and conned out of her life’s savings when she was at her most vulnerable, who had found new meaning to her life in the Sherman household. And then there was Jess. This was the longest he had ever called anywhere home since he was 16 years old. To someone like Jess, a man with an incurable case of wanderlust, four years was a lifetime. Slim never knew what kept the intense and complex young man here for all this time, but he figured, well, hoped, that Jess had finally found somewhere he felt he belonged. And if so, Slim was sure glad of it. For he was the best friend Slim had ever had or ever would. There was a bond that went deeper than friendship. He figured that, to outsiders, they were as unlikely looking a family as they could be, yet that was just what they had become. Family. And Slim had sworn to take care of them. Protect them. Yeah, even Jess, whether the younger, more impulsive man liked it or not. How could he do that now? With a heavy heart, he untethered his horse, mounted and started the 12-mile ride back to The Relay station, desperately trying to figure out how he would break the news.

*****

Jess Harper was a man on a mission as he galloped back to the ranch. As he cleared the rise, he reined up his horse for a moment to survey the place that he called home. He wasn’t sure when it happened or even how it happened. After the Banisters had killed most of his family, he had sworn that he would never allow himself to get close to anyone ever again. The pain of that loss had been so intense, so deep, that he never wanted to risk feeling that way again. He figured if he never allowed himself to get close enough to anyone, he would never have to. And that meant never staying anywhere for too long. And so, for a long time, Jess Harper switched off his feelings, buried them deep inside and let the numbness take hold. The war was a perfect environment for him; he imagined every Yankee soldier he got in his sights to be a member of the Bannister gang. It made the killin’ easy. No, back then, Jess didn’t care much about life – not even his own. He volunteered for every risky mission he could, hoping that a bullet would get him. A few did, yet somehow, something kept Jess Harper alive; he didn’t know what and even cursed it back then. But not now.

After the war, with no kin or place to return to, or any real purpose in life, he had drifted from one place to another, not caring about anyone or anything. Inevitably, he had hitched up with characters who were more than happy to take advantage of a damaged young man, especially one with a quick temper and fast draw. He had often tried to recall over the past four years what exactly had brought him to Laramie. At the time, it had been a flick of a coin at the fork of the road that had made him take one way over another. Or that was what he had always believed. But maybe, just maybe, there had been other forces at play. Jess gave a wry grin to himself. Slim would laugh himself stupid if he heard him say such things out loud. Not that he ever would…… Yep, he sure had come to love this place and, despite not knowing when or how it happened, it had become home and despite himself, he had come to care very deeply for both past and present residents – for Andy, Jonesy, for Mike, Miss Daisy, yep, even that long streak of nothing Slim. They were family. His family. Jess swallowed the lump that suddenly appeared from nowhere in his throat. And now the future of that family was under threat. Well, not if he had anything to do with it. There was a glimmer of hope, just a small one. Still, it was all he had. He kicked his horse back into a gallop and headed down into the station.

*****

Daisy Cooper was hanging washing as the rider appeared on the rise. He was too far away for her to see his face clearly, but she knew from the way he held himself that it was Jess Harper, one of the three young men she had come to love as a son. No one would ever replace the son she had lost, but in Jess Harper, Slim Sherman, and Mike Williams, she had three young men that any mother could be proud of. And with none of the three having one of their own, Daisy was quite happy to accept that mantle. She had called the Sherman Relay station home for the past two years and had never felt as fulfilled nor as needed as she had taking care of these three. Oh, they could be sassy, plain ornery at times, and downright untidy, but they needed her. Especially Jess. Not that he would ever admit it, of course, but with him, it wasn’t so much what he said or did, but more what he didn’t say, what he left unspoken. Beneath that tough exterior, he had a vulnerability about him that few could see, or were allowed to see. Yet Daisy could see it. She knew the signs and she had a way with him that few ever had nor ever would. Much to his consternation. Daisy smiled. No, Jess Harper couldn’t lie to her or hide anything from her. To her, he was as transparent as a pane of glass. And right now, as he came galloping towards her, she could tell just from his stance in the saddle that he was as worried as she was.

At the sound of galloping hoofs, Mike Williams came bounding out of the house “Hey, Aunt Daisy” it’s Jess, he’s back. Maybe we can go swimmin’ like he promised after all. It sure would cool us off some.”

Daisy smiled to herself. At coming on 12 years old, Mike may have been fast outgrowing all his breaches, but he was still a boy with all the innocence and outlook of a child. She, Slim and Jess had all agreed to keep their financial worries from him. However, with them being three months overdue with the mortgage payment and nobody buying cattle at the moment, she didn’t know how much longer they could keep things hidden from him. He might have to grow up a whole lot sooner than any of them wanted him to if things didn’t change soon.

“Now Mike, you know Slim said that the watering hole has dried right up. What water there still is has gone bad. The last thing I need is you two to go diving in there and coming back sick. I have enough to do around here without having to nurse you too.”

“Aw, Aunt Daisy”

“And don’t you bother Jess when he does get here. He will have had a long ride and by the looks of him, he won’t be much in the mood to go swimming or anything else. Now if you’ve finished all your chores in the house, which I doubt, then you can help me hang these clothes. Although with all the dust around here at the moment, I really don’t know why I am bothering”

“Aw Daisy, that’s women’s work”

Jess had reined up just in time to hear this last outburst.

“Hey Tiger, you mind your manners talking to Miss Daisy like that. You’re not too big for a whippin’ and don’t think I won’t give it to ya. If you want somethin’ to do, you can take my horse and give him a good rub down and feed and water him. That should keep you busy for a spell.” He dismounted and turned towards the small boy, still rooted to the spot, big blue eyes wide and hurt filled

“But Jess, I thought….”

“I gotta tell you twice?”

“I guess not”. With shoulders hunched, the young boy took the reins, and started towards the barn. Jess followed him with his gaze, instantly regretting his harsh tone. The boy idolized him and had most probably been looking forward to him coming home, and the first thing he had done was gripe at him. It wasn’t Mike’s fault; he couldn’t expect a child to live in a man’s world. But sooner or later, unless he could do something to change the current situation, he would have to grow up pretty darned quick. He hoped it wouldn’t come to that. He was brought back to the present by a soft hand on his arm. He looked down at the little lady, who might have been small in stature but had a heart and constitution as big as the Texas panhandle, and smiled. He patted her arm in return. “Slim around?”

“No, he rode into Laramie to try one more time with the bank.” The look on Daisy’s face reflected what they all knew anyway. It wouldn’t do any good. Still, Slim had to try. Jess felt a pang for his friend. They were partners – the burden was shared as far as he was concerned – but still Slim felt personal responsibility for them all and nothing would persuade him otherwise. It was his name on the ranch. His father had built it and now he was faced with losing it. Jess would do anything to ease his friend’s burden. And now there was a glimmer of hope. He might just have found a way.

“You look as if you could use some ice cold lemonade. Wash that trail dust off and come along into the house. Then you can tell me your news.”

Nope, you never could hide a thing from Miss Daisy. Jess watched the steadfast woman as she entered the house. She was as worried as he was. Had to be. But she held it together. Held them all together. She needed some hope, though, as much as the rest of them. Heat and weariness aside, he purposefully strode over to the pump and washed up, making a mental note to go and apologize to Mike as soon as he had reported the glimmer of light at the end of a very dark tunnel to Daisy.

*****

As Slim rode in, Mike was emerging from the barn. Not the usual spring in the boys step. Blonde hair plastered to his forehead, dark circles under his eyes. Not surprising, really; not a one of them was sleeping well in this heat. And the heat wasn’t the only thing that had been keeping Slim awake lately.

“Hey Slim. Jess is back.”

“Good. He and Daisy in the house?”

“Yep, I’ve been in the barn…”

“Hey Mike, do me a favor, and give Alamo a good rub down will you? And…”

“Yeah, I know, feed and water him. Seems takin’ care of horses is the only thing I’m good for around here lately…”

Slim was no sooner out of the saddle than the boy was already leading his horse away to the barn. It wasn’t like Mike to sass anyone, let alone him, but this heat had everyone on edge. And the mounting pressure from the bank wasn’t helping anyone any, even if, thus far he had done his best to shield the boy from it. Well, no use putting it off any longer, he thought as he watched the small frame disappear into the barn; best go break the bad news. He’d have a talk to Mike later.

As he entered the house, Daisy was already waiting for him with a welcome glass of lemonade.

“Thanks Daisy, it sure is hot out there.”

“Did you see Mike when you rode in?’

“Yeah, got him to take care of Alamo. He won’t be in for a while. Where’s Jess? I need to talk to you both.”

Jess emerged from the room both men shared, bedroll in his hand “I’m here, Slim.”

“You going somewhere?”

“Well that depends on how you got on with Brady whether I am or not. But I guess from the look on your face I am. He shut the door on you huh?”

“Yeah, something like that.” Slim ran his hand through his damp hair again and flopped down onto the chair. “He’s given us to the 30th to come up with the $300. I dunno, Jess; no one’s buying beef at the moment and even if they were, moving stock in this heat when all the water holes are drying up, well, you’d lose more than you could deliver. And that’s if you can get past all the rustlers out there right now.”

“There might be a way, Slim. I reckon it could be done.”

Slim looked up into the piercing blue eyes of his friend, daring to hope, “You know someone who’s buying?”

“Yeah, on my way back from Cheyenne, I stopped off at the Mackenzie place to water my horse. He was telling me about a rancher up in Billings who’s buyin’. Mackenzie had an order with him to take 50 head of beef up there, worth $2000, but he lost half his stock to this oven we’ve all been baking in. I figured we could make up the shortfall and if Mackenzie and I can deliver, then we get half the payment; got it in writing from Mackenzie all legal and proper. All’s I gotta do is round up the stock and ride.”

“Well, Jess, that’s one helluva ride up to Billings. Especially with all the rustling that’s been going on lately. There’s a lot of desperate people out there that shoot first and ask questions later. And besides, today’s the 5th; it’s gonna take nearly a month for us to drive cattle up there and then ride back. And I have to have the money to the bank by the 30th.”

“It can be done if I ride day and night comin’ back. And who said anythin’ about us? I’ll need you to help me round up the stock, but that’s it. Someone needs to stay here and run the Relay station. Mackenzie’s already on his way; he’s gonna hire on some hands, and I’ve arranged to meet him outside of Laramie in two days.”

“Well, I guess you got it all figured haven’t you? I got no say in any of this?” Slim was now on his feet facing out his best friend, who had that steely determined glint in his eye that always signaled he was ready for trouble if it was coming. He couldn’t explain the emotions that were running through him right at that moment; that his best friend was willing to risk such a hard ride to save the ranch – his ranch. He was more grateful than Jess would ever know but, no, he couldn’t let him do it. This was his ride to make; he couldn’t ask Jess to do it. It was too much.

Daisy had picked up on the tension between the two young men and interjected. “Now Slim, I don’t like the thought of Jess making a trip like that on his own any more than you do, but it seems it’s the only chance we’ve got at the moment. And he’s right; one of you does need to stay here and run the station. Mike and I can’t do it alone.”

Slim looked at the small lady. He didn’t rightly know how old she was. That was a question you didn’t ask a lady. Especially not Daisy Cooper. She always seemed so strong, so robust, but the worry was taking its toll on her as well. The same dark circles, around her eyes and worry lines etched on her face as those he saw in the mirror when he shaved. Worry had a way of ageing a person. Despite her backing Jess, she didn’t like this any more than he did, he could tell.

“Yeah, well, it’s my name hanging on this ranch; it should be me making that ride, not Jess.” It wasn’t much of a defense, he knew that, but it was all he had right about now.

“Yeah, and its coz your name is hanging there you gotta stay, pard. And besides, I’m already sore from riding around Wyoming this past week or two; won’t hurt me none to spend a mite more time in the saddle. Mackenzie and I have already worked out a route, and he knows where all the water is and says it ain’t as dry further north as it has been around these parts, so we should make out alright.”

He should have known Jess would blow that one right out of the water. Despite all the arguments he was going to make, the frustration that it should be him riding to save the ranch, Slim knew that Jess and Daisy were right. He had to be the one to stay. None of them said it out loud, and none of them ever would, but they all knew there was more to lose by Slim getting himself killed than there was Jess. Jess knew it, Daisy knew it. He hated it, but Slim knew it too. Andy had already lost his parents and, 18 or not, he still needed his brother and they all knew it. They had all come to the same reluctant conclusion.

Slim swallowed and nodded. “Alright. I don’t have to like it, but I guess I can’t stop you. Come on, we’d better go and round up those steers. Daisy, can you get together some trail grub for Jess? Think he’ll need it.”

The little lady hesitated, looking from one to the other rather sheepishly “Well….”

He looked at her sharply. Clearly, it was a conspiracy. “Don’t tell me, it’s already done. Should have had that figured. Come on Jess, let’s go round up that beef.” Before anyone could say anything, he was already out the door striding purposefully towards the barn.

Jess knew just how much it cost his pard to concede and let him go on this make or break trip. They both knew the stakes. It didn’t need to be said between them. Slim had ridden to his rescue more times than he cared to recall. Usually as a result of his being impetuous, angry and sometimes downright irresponsible, but Slim had always been there when he needed him, no questions asked. Even when he was as wrong as he could be. Now it was time to return the favor. No matter what it cost him. You couldn’t put a price on what Slim Sherman had given him these past four years. He went to follow his friend.

“Jess?”

He turned to see the steadfast lady he had grown so very fond of, looking as frail as he had ever seen her in the two years he had known her. “Yes, Daisy?”

“Now you be extra careful, young man, I know you, don’t you take any unnecessary risks. You hear? You’re needed here.”

Much as she was trying to sound business-like, she couldn’t hide the wobble in her voice when she had said ‘needed’. Before he knew what had hit him, she had two wiry arms around him in a bear hug.

Now darn it, what did she have to do that for? The lump was back. Jess gently pushed her away and tried to make light of what was threatening to be an awkward situation for them both. “Now don’t worry about me, Daisy; you know I can take care of myself. Hell, I’m too darned ornery for anything to happen to me.”

The composure was back. “Yes, well, I know you too well, Jess Harper; if there’s a scrape to be gotten into, you’ll find it. Now off you go. It’ll probably take me the whole time you’re away to clear up the mess you’ve left in that room.”

With that, she shooed him out of the house. Jess didn’t look back. Didn’t trust himself to, partly to spare Daisy from him seeing her tears, partly to protect himself. He never had been too comfortable with the displaying of feelings, his or anybody else’s. Still, without looking back, he knew that Daisy stayed in that doorway and watched every movement he made, from saddling Traveler, rested up and ready for the journey he figured he’d have to make, to bidding a hurried apology and goodbye to the wide-eyed young boy who emerged from the barn. He knew she still watched as he rode off with Slim until they were both far beyond the sight of the naked eye. She was still there when Mike returned from the corral, her eyes streaked with the long pent up tears that could no longer be held at bay. It reminded her so much of the day her son had ridden off to war all those years before. She had the same feeling now that she had had then. And it made her sick to her stomach.

She was brought back to reality by a hand tugging at her dress.

“Aunt Daisy, are you crying because Jess has gone away? Because he told me he’ll be back. He promised. And Jess doesn’t break his promises, does he?”

Daisy looked at the wan little face. Well, not so little anymore; a recent growth spurt had him practically at eye level with her, except he was still a boy and needed to be a boy for as long as he could.

“Now Mike, don’t you mind me, just a little dust in my eye is all. And of course Jess’ll be back. This is his home. Now Slim’ll be back in a few hours in need of a good meal and I’m sure it’ll help with his digestion if this place is a little tidier than it is right now. If you help with some chores around here, maybe I’ll think about baking a nice apple pie. We got a deal?”

“You got it Aunt Daisy. Apple pie, oh boy. I’ll go start with my room.”

And with that he had grabbed a broom and had disappeared into the house, whooping and yelling like a prospector who had struck gold. Daisy turned back towards the horizon. To the place where she had last seen the silhouetted figure on horseback dissapear over the rise. The image of him in the doorway etched in her memory so similar to the one of her son the day he had ridden off. She prayed that night and every night afterwards that history was not about to repeat and that, unlike her son, Jess would fulfill his promise to Mike and walk back, some day soon, through that door.

*****

It was two hours past suppertime, dusk had fallen, yet it was still stifling hot on the porch where Daisy Cooper sat waiting in the rocking chair. She would have thought the orange sky looked pretty if the color had just been from the setting sun. Instead, the radiant glow bore the more ominous tidings of fires further south on the Colorado border. She wasn’t surprised. The whole territory had been tinder dry for as long as anyone could remember and it only took one carelessly abandoned campfire to set the land ablaze. And unless rain came soon, if the wind changed direction, the fires would spread further north. All she and anyone else could do was to watch and wait…and pray. She stifled a yawn. This heat sucked the very life out of you. But it wasn’t just that. Waiting and worrying took its toll too. Mike had practically fallen asleep at the supper table, barely able to swallow a few mouthfuls, before Daisy had packed him off to bed, protesting all the way. He had wanted to wait up for Slim, but he still wasn’t back. With Jess away these past weeks, he had been doing the work of two men: looking after the stage when it came in, mending fences, going to town for supplies. She didn’t know just what kept him going. And despite putting in a full day and then some, he had insisted on riding into Laramie. She couldn’t help being worried about him. He seemed to have aged in the past few months, especially these past few weeks, and she had never seen him wound up so tight. It was so unlike him. Of course, she knew what was behind it. He was as sick with worry as she was. About losing the ranch and about Jess. Especially Jess.

Unlike Jess, who had to be pinned down to get anything out of him, Slim had always openly talked things through with her. Whenever he was worried, whenever he needed advice, he would come to her and she never had to worry about him keeping things from her. Yet, something had changed. Ever since he had returned that first night from rounding up the cattle and setting Jess on his way, Slim had stopped talking and was so knotted up inside she felt that sooner or later he was like to explode. He hadn’t shared one meal with she and Mike since; he would grab some sour dough from the table at breakfast and then ride off, only returning to change the teams for the stage and then would disappear again for the rest of the day, usually returning long past supper time and would head straight for his room. Of course, Mike was hurt and confused. He idolized both Slim and Jess, and with Jess gone, really needed the reassurance of the man who had come to be a father figure to Jess’s uncle role. Of course, he still had her, but a boy his age didn’t need to be hanging onto her apron strings. He desperately needed a father figure and Slim, for some unknown reason that worried her no end, just couldn’t or wouldn’t fulfill that role right now.

She was awakened from her reverie by the sound she had been waiting for these past hours. Hoof beats. She hoped they wouldn’t waken Mike. Much as he wanted to see Slim, she figured he would be in no mood for an excited and needful young boy. If Slim was going to explode, she would just as soon he was well away. She could take it and would understand, but boys his age only see the action, not what lies behind it. He was still too young to understand what was eating Slim.

She rose and walked over to the corral as Slim reined up his horse and dismounted. She was shocked at how tired and gaunt he was looking.

“Any news?”

“How do you mean?”

“Well, you did ride into Laramie to telegraph Billings didn’t you? To see if there was any news on Jess?”

Despite his dark mood, Slim gave a wry smile. “Guess I’m that predictable huh?”

“Well, I figured maybe someone in Billings would be able to tell you if someone fitting his description had been there?”

“Yeah, well, I wouldn’t have had to if Jess had had some thought for you and Mike and sent a wire himself to let you know he was safe. Instead, he’s keeping us all guessing and it’s not doing anyone a bit of good. Especially you Daisy. You look clean worn out.”

This was what she meant. She knew it was the worry talking – worry about the ranch yes, but worrying more about his friend that had Slim talking like this. It wasn’t like him to get angry, though. That might be Jess’s way at times, but not Slim. Never Slim.

“Oh Slim, I’m alright really. It’s you I’m worried about. Mike and I have hardly seen you these past few weeks, and we’ve missed you. Especially Mike. He tried so hard to wait up to see you. You know how much he looks up to you and Jess.”

“Yeah, well, I wouldn’t be much good to him at the moment. Come another two days and I won’t even be able to keep a roof over his head. It’s probably better he doesn’t see me; will make it easier when you and he have to leave.”

“Oh Slim, is that what this is about? Oh please, no matter what happens, we’ll stay together, I have a little money set aside; it’s not much, but…..”

“No, Daisy, I don’t want yours or anyone else’s charity. It’s bad enough that I have to rely on Jess to come riding in on his big white charger and save the day without you trying it too. Besides, it’s just as likely he’s gone and got himself killed and there’s not a damn thing I can do about it.”

Daisy had never seen Slim this way. His gaunt face as white as she had ever seen it and he was physically shaking; it wasn’t just the obvious exhaustion he was feeling. Here was a man as on edge as he could be and she could tell it wouldn’t take much to send him over the brink. She knew she had to be careful. It was as though he read her thoughts. He turned away and more than a little roughly jerked his horse away into the barn.

“Horse needs tending.” The break in his voice was unmistakable.

Daisy thought about following him; she didn’t like to see him like this, but she had seen enough young men under extreme stress in the war to know when to go after them and when to leave them alone for a spell. Whilst she was more worried about him than she had ever been, so much so even her worry for Jess was temporarily consigned to the background for the time being, still she had faith enough in Slim’s strength of character that he would get through this, if only Jess would come back soon. Aside from her own fears of Jess not returning, she didn’t know what that kind of guilt would do to Slim if anything had happened to him.

She walked back into the house and lit the oil lamps to stave off the twilight that was now creeping in. Despite his apparent lack of appetite of late, she had saved some supper for Slim and set to warming it up on the stove. She looked out of the window to see a tall and thinner than normal silhouette approaching the house. She took a quick moment to put her head around Mike’s door. The steady breathing told her he was in a deep, untroubled sleep. Not surprising; the boy had been exhausted when she had practically manhandled him to his bed. Still, she was confident in the knowledge that if she had to get stern with Slim and voices had to be raised, well, she was sure the boy would sleep through it. Right now, he would probably sleep through a tornado. She was just closing the door when Slim came in.

“He alright?”

“Yes, sleeping soundly. He needs it; been working really hard at his chores. I don’t know what I would do without him.”

“Yeah. He’s a good kid. Well, I’m bushed; think I’ll….”

There was the avoidance again. Well, this time she wasn’t going to allow it. He’d talk to her if she had to tie him down. “Not until you’ve got some food in your stomach and we’ve had a chance to talk.”

“Daisy, I..”

“Slim Sherman, I am close to the end of my tether worrying about you boys and keeping this house together. I just don’t know how long I can go along this way telling that boy in there that things are going to be alright when I no longer believe it myself.”

It was a low blow, but it was the only way she could get through to him and besides, it wasn’t all just an act. She had always been able to rely on Slim being the voice of reason, to always provide the balance to Mike’s boisterous nature and Jess’ impetuous and sometimes volatile one. Now that natural order seemed to be breaking down and Daisy would have been a liar if she had said that didn’t scare her more than anything had over the past few years.

It had the desired effect. Slim sat down dejectedly at the table, his hand brushing the damp hair away from his forehead, distractedly.

“Daisy, I’m sorry. I guess I’ve never felt so useless or so out of control in all my life. Everything I have, everything that has ever meant anything to me is wrapped up in this ranch and the people on it. I guess I got so twisted up inside worrying about what might happen that I didn’t notice what was already happening under my nose. I guess we’re all worried about Jess, and all I’ve done is add to that by making you worry about me and make Mike think I don’t care anymore.” He shook his head. “I guess I can’t do anything right lately.”

Daisy walked over to the stove, spooned a good helping of the stew onto a plate and set it down in front of the tired young man.

“Daisy, I’m sorry, I couldn’t…”

“Now, if you want me to stop worrying about you, it’ll help me some to sleep knowing you’ve got some good food in your stomach. Now eat.”

Slim looked up and gave a tired smile. She had him there. There was no arguing with that one. “Yes, Ma’am.”

“And whilst you’re eating you can do some listening too, because, like I’ve told Mike many times, it’s rude to talk with your mouth full.”

Whoa, he had walked right into that one, hadn’t he? She was good, he had to give her that. He slowly started to shovel some of the morsels into his mouth, surprised at how good they tasted after the initial queasiness he felt when the food was shoved under his nose, and waited for the lecture to begin….

An hour later Daisy was back on the porch, air as hot and stifling as ever. She had talked and Slim had listened and it had done him good to get some perspective. When he had been able to get a word in, he had confirmed that someone fitting Jess’s description had made it to Billings and, as much as he could figure, had left there a few days before. And now Slim was safely tucked up in bed. Having put her head around the door a few moments earlier, she was satisfied he was sleeping soundly and would sleep better tonight for having talked things out than he had for the past three weeks. She hadn’t been entirely truthful when she had told him she would sleep the better for him having a good meal inside him. The truth was, she had spent the past few nights precisely where she was now. Watching and waiting and would continue to do so until Jess finally came home.

*****

Jess Harper was tired sore and not in the best of moods. Over three weeks straight in the saddle, riding as hard as he ever had, was enough to test anyone’s patience, let alone the other trials and tribulations he had been through on the way back. Still, if it meant getting that money to Slim and then the bank on time, it was all worth it. Trouble was, through no fault of his own, along the way he had lost more than a day and now it looked as if he wasn’t going to make it on time. And to add insult to injury, his watch was broken; darned thing had kept good time for five years and now it was bust and he had to rely on the sun to tell him just how late he was. That darned sun. He cursed it as it beat down on him for another day straight. Cursed it for being the position in the sky it was. The position that told him he wasn’t going to make it on time. The way he figured it he wasn’t going to make Laramie until at least sundown. And today was the 30th. Bank would be closed by the time he got there. Despite his growing fatigue and the dizziness and nausea he had done his darnedest to keep at bay, he spurred Traveler on to a gallop in a futile attempt to make up some of the precious time he had lost, thankful that he had had the good sense to stable him in Casper on the way up and hire a mount for the rest of the trip up to Billings and back. If he was going to have a hard ride home, he had wanted Traveler, his old and trusted friend, at his best to get him back in one piece.

*****

There were no two ways about it. Jess was overdue. Daisy was glad that Slim had ridden off into Laramie to see if he could meet up with him there. She didn’t think she could stand his pacing much longer. Despite the long talk they had had a few nights before, this past day or so, the tension had begun to mount again as the banks deadline had loomed. Daisy could tell Slim wanted to go into town, although was torn between that and his responsibilities here. He needed her to absolve him of those, and frankly, she was glad to do so. He wasn’t doing himself or anyone else any good around here anyway. And besides, someone might have some news on Jess, or better still, he might meet Jess there as he would most likely pass through Laramie before getting to the Relay station, 12 miles the other side.

Slim had his doubts that Brady would accept the money from anyone other than himself, even if Jess did try to go straight there so he hadn’t taken much ‘persuasion’ from Daisy and had rode off a couple of hours earlier. However, based on when Jess was said to have left Billings, he should have been back by now unless he’d hit trouble. It was past 4pm and the bank would now be closed. Either way, Slim would be back soon. With, or without, Jess. She hoped against hope that it was going to be with him.

It was dusk by the time Jess hit the outskirts of Laramie. More tired, sick and sore than he had felt in a while. He had planned to go straight to the bank if he’d made it in time, but now there seemed little point. For a minute or two he entertained the notion of tracking Brady down and making him take the money, Jess Harper style, except he didn’t trust himself not to do something he’d regret as churned up as he was feeling. It wasn’t going to help anyone, least of all him if he ended up in a jail cell. Besides, he wasn’t in much shape to do anything right now. With a heavy heart, he decided to bypass town. He didn’t much feel like seeing anyone. He just wanted to go home. He and Slim could figure out something tomorrow.

Sitting  on the porch where she’d kept watch for the past few nights, waiting for his return, Daisy Cooper continued her vigil. Waiting….Hoping…Praying. Inside the table was set for supper for two. Mike had had his earlier, and once more, had been packed off to bed, on the proviso that Daisy wake him if Jess returned. She’d made Jess’s favorite -steak and potatoes – except, when it came to it, she’d had no appetite herself. Now she knew how Slim had felt and almost regretted practically force-feeding him that night. Still, he had needed it and had seemed much better for it afterwards. Her eyes turned to the ridge watching for any signs of Slim or Jess.

Slim had taken one last desperate look up the street as he’d watched the teller flip the sign on the door, final confirmation that the deadline was passed and the ranch was gone. But that hadn’t bothered him as much as he’d thought it would. He’d been more worried about Jess. The fact that he hadn’t made it on time meant that something had happened to him; couldn’t be any other explanation. And it was his fault. He should never have let him go in the first place. It was too risky, foolhardy even. The ranch wasn’t worth him risking his life. Nothing was. He wished he’d made Jess tell him what trail he was going to take, but typically Jess had refused. Maybe to stop the very thing Slim had been considering – from coming after him if things went wrong. Slim had often rode up in the nick of time to get his partner out of trouble, except this time he hadn’t known where to look; there were any number of trails he and McKenzie could have taken, all plagued by rustlers and that didn’t mean he would take the same trail back again. No, it wasn’t going to help anyone for him to head off looking for Jess and besides, he hadn’t been equipped anyway. But he hadn’t wanted to go back and face Daisy or Mike either. He’d known what that would mean to them if he’d rode back alone and he hadn’t been ready to face that. Not right then. He’d needed to get some courage from somewhere. Uncharacteristically, he’d decided to look for it in the saloon.

*****

As he neared the top of the rise that overlooked the valley the Relay station lay nestled in, Jess reined in Traveler and reached down into his saddlebag. Despite dusk having fallen, it was still stiflingly hot and the last thing he wanted to do was get any hotter. Still, right now, he didn’t feel he had much choice. He gingerly pulled out his jacket and with a lot of grimacing pulled it on before heading up over the rise and heading down into the valley; towards home.

The sun had finally set and Daisy was about to reluctantly interrupt her vigil to turn on the oil lamps. She wanted there to be light to guide both her boys home. However, just as she rose, something caught her eye. The light was dim and her eyes weren’t what they used to be, but yes, there was something there on the horizon. She had been looking for so long she wanted to be sure she wasn’t merely seeing what she wanted to see. She rubbed her eyes and looked again. No, her eyes weren’t deceiving her. It was a rider and the way he held himself in the saddle, why she’d know that form anywhere. Her heart started racing so as she thought it would jump out of her chest.

“Mike, Mike! Come on out here. It’s Jess, he’s back. He’s come back to us.” And under her breath, “Thank you, lord.”

It was the performance of his life. As sick and tired and sore as he was, he was sure that both Daisy and Mike were entirely oblivious to it, so pleased were they to see him. Of course, Daisy did her best to act stoic and rein Mike in, but he could tell from the worry lines on her face and the gray circles under her eyes that she probably hadn’t had much sleep the past almost month he had been away. So she wasn’t as eagle-eyed and alert as she normally was. That was good. He had managed to weather the storm of a boisterous young boy jumping over him, asking him all sorts of questions about his trip. Daisy had intervened, telling the boy there was plenty of time in the morning to hear all about it once Jess had had a good nights rest. Jess was grateful to her for that. That was hurdle number one. Mike had now been packed off to his bed and much as he was pleased to see the boy, he was glad. He didn’t want to tell them too much. Not yet.

Now he was sat at the table, toying with a piece of potato on his fork. Daisy had gone to a lot of trouble to prepare his favorite meal and he really didn’t want to hurt her feelings, but he just didn’t have the stomach for it. It was as though she read his mind.

“I guess I know what it’s like for fatigue to rob you of your appetite. Why don’t you turn in, Jess? You look done in; you’ll see Slim in the morning.”

“Thanks Daisy. I guess I am too tired to eat. But I’d better wait for Slim. I owe it to him to explain why I didn’t get back on time.”

“Well, I really don’t know what’s keeping him. He rode in to meet you in case you came through town and were on time to get to the bank. The bank closed four hours ago. I just don’t know where he could be.”

“Well, I guess I’ll just go out to the pump and wash up some and wait for Slim out there. I guess I smell kinda ripe right about now; might help me cool off some too. Why don’t you turn in, Daisy? You look as if you could use the rest.”

“Well, I am tired. I guess I’ll hear Slim ride in. Good Night Jess. I’m glad you’re home.”

“Me too. Good Night.”

As sore as he was feeling, like the good horseman he was, Jess went to see to Traveler. His old buddy had been a good companion to him on the ride; it was if he had known that he needed to take extra special care of Jess since the events that took place outside of Casper. And he had certainly done that. Now it was his turn to take care of his faithful friend. To rub him down, water him, feed him and stable him for the night. Despite feeling fit to drop, it was the very least he could do. Besides, he needed something to keep him focused and alert whilst he waited for Slim.

Daisy had said she didn’t know what was keeping Slim. But Jess suspected she wasn’t being entirely truthful. He suspected that she knew as well as he did where Slim could have been after all this time –  in the saloon. And this worried Jess no end. Slim wasn’t one to take to liquor. And he certainly couldn’t hold it on the rare occasions when he did. Not like Jess could. Jess had been around a lot more than Slim had, and on the occasions that the two of them had gone into town on a Saturday night, Jess always tried to ensure he was sober enough to look out for his pard. Certainly sober enough to draw straight if he had to. He knew the pressure would really have had to have become too much for his pard to turn to a liquor bottle for answers, if that was truly the case, and he feared the consequences. Jess cursed the circumstances that had delayed his return. Except for that, he would have been back on time and the money safely in the bank.

Jess sighed, as he finished up with Traveler; he wasn’t in much state to sit a horse again right now and he certainly didn’t relish the idea, but if Slim didn’t get back soon, he’d have to ride into town and look for him. Jess gave Traveler an affectionate pat on the nose and then left the horse to rest, wearily heading to the corral to select another for the ride it looked like he’d have to make. He was halfway there when he heard the approach of hoof beats. Instinctively, before he had time to think of it, his side iron was in his hand, his keen eyes searching the twilight for the approaching rider. No, riders. Jess could hear horses.

Yet, only one of the horses came into view. Jess couldn’t see a rider in the saddle. Ever alert to danger, the hairs on the back of his neck began to rise as he scanned the surrounding area for any sign of trouble. The rustlers that had been plaguing the cattle trails in the north could have ventured further south. This was a ranch, after all, and whoever this was, they weren’t to know that he had just sold most of their stock further north. But as the horse came closer, Jess could now make out there was indeed a rider, slumped forward in the saddle. Either exhausted, hurt or even dead. Or maybe it was a trap. Jess couldn’t tell right now and he sure wasn’t about to take any chances. His keen ears picked up the sounds of the other horse and it seemed to be galloping back in the opposite direction now, back to Laramie. Sidearm gripped tightly in his hand, he slowly started to edge towards the approaching horse, ready to fire if needed.

“Jess?”

Jess was suddenly aware of Daisy, standing at the door, lantern in hand. Still fully dressed. He might have known she wouldn’t have gone to bed until both he and Slim were home.

“Stay where y’are, Daisy; there’s a rider comin’ in.”

“Is it Slim?”

“Can’t tell. Rider is slumped forward. Might be hurt or something or it could be just a ruse. Go inside and shut the door ‘til I tell you otherwise.” Jess sounded gruffer than he meant to, but Daisy knew him well enough by now to know it was nothing personal. He noted with satisfaction that she obediently went back inside and shut the door. He knew instinctively though that she was watching every move at the window.

He edged closer to the horse, which had now come to a standstill, ready for any signs of trouble. Sensing his tension, the horse whickered in greeting. It was Alamo. No doubt about it. Which meant that the rider must be..

“Slim!” Jess re-holstered his .45 and ran to his stricken pard, expecting the worst. Slim was slumped forward and, as if in response, offered up a small groan but appeared to be out for the count. In the bright moonlight, Jess got a good look at his face and it was clear from the bruising on his jaw and cheek that he had been fighting, and from the slight odor that now met his nostrils, Jess wondered if a whiskey or two had maybe fueled it. There was a note pinned to the saddle. Jess reached for it and put it in his pocket for later.

“Hey Daisy, come on out. It’s Slim. Look’s like he’s been knocked around some. Bring a lamp, will ya? Am gonna need some help with him.”

Somehow, between them, Jess and Daisy were able to manhandle the tall man off of the horse and into the house, although it took a lot out of the both of them in the still oppressive heat. Throughout it all, Slim remained blissfully unaware, which was just as well considering much of his passage into the house was by being dragged, pretty unceremoniously. Finally they had him sprawled on the bed, the smell of whiskey not over-powering, but enough to tell he had had a drink or two. Slim wasn’t one to get liquored up; they both knew that. Chances were he’d stopped off for a drink or two and ran into trouble. Or maybe it ran into him. Jess gave a wry grin. He knew what that was like.

He pulled off his pard’s boots, and then rolled him onto his side, placing a bolster behind him so he couldn’t roll onto his back. Whilst Daisy went to the parlor to fetch some water and a cloth to wash his face, Jess, pulled out the letter that had been pinned to his friend’s saddle. It read:

Dear Daisy

 Sorry I couldn’t bring him back myself. Had my hands full in town. Seems this heat has a lot of people fired up and the jail is fit to bust with a lot of them. Figured home’d be the best place for him. Sent Bill Evers to see he got back all right. Will stop by tomorrow to look in and see if there’s any news on Jess.”

 Mort Corey”

 

Good old Mort. Bill Evers was Mort’s current Deputy. That explained the other horse he’d heard. Jess gave a wry smile; Mort had been a good friend to him and Slim. If someone had told him a few years ago that one of his best friends would be a sheriff, let alone that he would have deputized him on more than one occasion, he would never have believed it. Such was the impact that this place had had on him. Never before had Jess felt such a level of acceptance. Of belonging. And now, that was under threat. He looked down at his sleeping friend, at the worry lines etched into his face. Slim had been there for him on more occasions than he could remember. Saying the right things when he needed to hear them; giving him space when he needed time to think. Heck, even knocking some sense into him when he needed it.

Jess reached into his jacket to where the $2000 still remained. Part of the money was destined elsewhere, he’d get to that. But tomorrow morning, $300 of it was going to the bank and come hell or high water, Brady was going to accept the payment. They were not going to lose the ranch. Slim, Daisy, Mike, Andy, they were none of them going to lose their home. His home. Slim might not approve of his methods but, as far as Jess was concerned, it was the end result that mattered. Jess took out the money pouch. He was brought back to the present with a start. There was blood on it. He reached under his jacket and the tell tale wetness confirmed what he had suspected. The wound had bust open as the doc had predicted it could. The exertion of lugging his pard into the house had probably done it. It hadn’t soaked through his jacket as yet, though it soon would if he didn’t attend to it soon, and that was the last thing he needed with eagle-eyed Daisy Cooper around. He was amazed she had not picked up he was still wearing his jacket in this heat. If he didn’t make his excuses soon, the cat would certainly be out of the bag. He placed the letter onto the bedside chest, wiped his bloody hand on his shirt beneath his jacket and was just heading to the door in his and Slim’s room that led to the outside of the house, when Daisy entered the room from the parlor with the water and cloth to tend to Slim.

“Where you going, Jess?”

“Alamo needs seeing to. Then I think I’ll sleep in the bunkhouse for the night. Gonna take you a while to get him cleaned up and, besides, I know how much Slim is like to snore when he’s got a whiskey or two in him. Want to get a good night’s sleep so I can get an early start.”

“You going into the bank?”

“Yeah, gonna try and get Brady to see things my way. Appeal to his better nature. Or somethin’ like that. Then I got something I need to do. Might be gone a few days.”

“Jess?”

He noted the sudden concern on her face at the news he would be leaving again so soon after his return. “Don’t worry Daisy. Everythin’ll work out. It has to.”

Jess didn’t know if she believed him, or even if he believed it himself, but it was all he had right now. Brady had to take the money. What difference could a day really make? He hoped against hope Brady had that better nature he was counting on. He turned to leave once more.

“Jess?” She persisted.

He turned to look at the little lady he had become so fond of. How could someone look so frail yet be so strong? She had held them all together for so long now; he couldn’t imagine life without her in it if the ranch was lost. Well, he was going to make sure that didn’t happen.

“If a ranch burns down, it can be rebuilt. If crops fail, you can always replant for the next harvest. What makes us endure is the people around us that we love. Most everything we lose in this world, we can replace except the people that we love. You remember that wherever it is you’re going and for whatever reason. And you make sure you come back.”

“You reckon there’ll be somewhere for me to come back to?”

“Yes, Jess. All the while we draw breath, that somewhere will be wherever Slim, Mike and I are. We couldn’t get along without you. Good night.”

There was that lump again. Jess nodded and before she had a chance to notice the watering in his eyes, turned away and headed out towards the corral.

Over the next day or so Daisy Cooper would have more than a little cause to chastise herself for failing to notice the tell tale signs that Jess Harper was hiding things from her, things that, in ordinary circumstances, she would never have missed, but at least that was one thing that did not escape her attention. She nodded with satisfaction that the message had gotten well and truly through.

*****

The pounding wasn’t easing at all. He had lain there for about ten minutes with his eyes closed since awareness had returned waiting for it to abate, but it wasn’t showing any signs of doing so. He wasn’t entirely sure where ‘here’ was or even how he had gotten here. Slim remembered going into the saloon and swigging back first one, then a second shot of whiskey. He had gone in there for some ‘Dutch courage’ before heading home but then, as the bartender had poured him a third, he had looked around at the countless others doing the same, and had suddenly become angry; angry that here was a town full of people facing the loss of their livelihoods and they were throwing away what money they did have on hard liquor. Worst still, he had gone in there to do the dang same thing. As bad as he had been feeling about Jess, he knew that it wasn’t going to help Daisy and Mike any if had arrived back at the ranch liquored up. If Jess wasn’t coming back, he had to go and face them and be strong for them while they did their grieving. While he did his own.

He had just left the saloon, disgusted with himself, and was untying Alamo when he had seen him. Devon Brady had clearly been working late at the bank and was locking up. Seeing him in his tailored suit and the arrogant way he held himself had the bile rising in Slim’s throat, and for a moment, he imagined the satisfaction of his fist connecting with that smarmy face and seeing the blood spatter from his nose soil his expensive suit. But all personal satisfaction aside, getting himself slung in jail wasn’t going to do anyone a bit of good.

He had watched as Brady strode down the street to his lodging. Shaking his head in resignation, he had been about to mount Alamo when, out of the corner of his eye, he’d seen the movement in the shadows. It was too dark to tell who, but someone had emerged from a side alley and was following him. Slim had scanned the doorways and alley’s and noted that soon the shadowy figure was joined by another crossing the street. And further up town, just outside the hotel, there were more men waiting. What had been about to unfold was plain to see. Devon Brady had caused a lot of misery in Laramie since he had arrived but he didn’t deserve what had appeared to be coming his way. Slim Sherman had always had a strong sense of justice and he didn’t care how much people hated what Devon Brady was and represented, he hadn’t been about to stand by and watch a man get jumped by an angry mob. And so he had leapt into action, yelling for Mort Corey all the way.

Slim groaned. And it wasn’t just from the terrible thumping in his head that reminded him of the night’s exertions. It was the sudden remembrance of what had misguidedly kept him in town and led him to the saloon in the first place. Jess hadn’t come back. The deadline had been missed, but that hadn’t been what had made him consider turning to drink. No, It had been the realization that because of him, the best friend he had ever had might have been lying dead somewhere. It had been more than he could take at that point and had figured, wrongly, that liquor might have helped some to try to dull the pain. But the cold light of day – well, he assumed it was now day – brought reality crashing back down again and he had to face it. The sound of a door opening forced him to risk opening his eyes. The shooting pain this brought on made him groan again.

“Good. You’re awake at last. Stage is due any time now. Teams’ll need changing. You feel up to it?”

He peered up at the source of the voice, desperately trying to clear the fog in front of his eyes. “Daisy? How’d I get…?”

“There’ll be plenty time for questions and answers once the stage has been. Here drink this.”

She thrust a steaming mug of coffee under his nose. Usually he savored that rich aroma, but right now his stomach was doing that many cartwheels he doubted if he could keep it down. He shook his head. “Sorry, Daisy, don’t think I could stomach it right now.”

“Well, maybe you should stay where you are for a spell? I could get Mike to help Mose change the teams if you’re not feeling up to it?” She was doing her best to sound businesslike, even though the sight of his bruised and battered face and the worry lines etched on his forehead, pained her more than he’d ever know. Still, she wanted to avoid the subject of Jess. Just until she was sure Slim was feeling better.

Slim shook his head. He had let them down enough lately. “I’ll be fine Daisy; it’s nothing I can’t work off. I’m sorry that…”

She interrupted him before he could continue. “Well, alright then. Your boots are there on the floor and there are some clean clothes on the chest. Now I suggest you go stand under a cold shower and get dressed and then you’ll feel a whole lot better. Stage is due in ten minutes.”

And with that she was gone again. Not a word about Jess. Well, this was Daisy in coping mode. She maybe figured with him coming back the way he did, well, that told her all she needed to know about Jess’s fate and now she didn’t want to put him through having to talk about what they would eventually have to talk about – life without Jess. He still couldn’t figure how he did get back; there was a white fog where his memory should have been. And that persistent banging. Someone must have slugged him pretty good for his head to feel this way. He swung his long legs over the bed and reached for his boots, and with a thick head and an even heavier heart went out to get himself cleaned up.

Mike was confused. He had been so excited to see Jess back. Everyone had been so on edge lately especially Slim and he had lost track of the times he had been sent to his room or sent off to do some obscure chore just so that they could get rid of him. Then Jess had gone away and Aunt Daisy and Slim had seemed to be more worried than ever. Slim would disappear for hours on end, would miss supper and then go straight to his room and then be up before anyone else and go off again. Aunt Daisy had tried to explain that Slim just had more chores to do with Jess being away, but Mike knew that wasn’t it. There was something else going on and it didn’t feel good. It felt that everything was breaking apart and it would never be the same again. And he was scared. But then Jess had come back last night and he and Aunt Daisy had been so pleased to see him, yet Jess didn’t seem that happy back. Oh sure, he was tired, Mike understood that, but there was something else, something he couldn’t quite put his finger on. It was as if he seemed kinda cut off somehow. And now Slim had come back in the night and Jess had gone again and Aunt Daisy had practically banned him from talking to Slim, sending him away outside to do all the chores usually saved up for him when he misbehaved, like polishing saddles and cleaning out the stables. Mike didn’t know what he had done, but with Slim avoiding him, Jess not even looking him in the eye and Miss Daisy giving him all the worst chores to do, it sure felt like he was being punished for something. He was darned if he could recall what it was though. The sound of hoof beats roused him and he rushed outside to see the stage pull up. At least Mose was still his friend. He figured he would get some friendly male conversation with him. He sure was craving it right now.

The long-legged, much leaner-looking Slim strode towards the now stationary stage as Mose jumped down and opened the door for the passengers; this wasn’t a long stop, as it was the east bound stage that had set out that morning from Laramie, bound for Cheyenne. Just time to change the team and pick up some paperwork from the relay station. Still, some of the passengers were disembarking, eager to take their last chance for some hot coffee and to stretch their legs for a while before heading on the long trip down to Cheyenne. They didn’t look to be that interesting a bunch. An elderly looking man in a suit and a younger couple, Mike assumed a husband and wife, but such was his case of cabin fever, and much as he loved her, Mike would have welcomed the chance to talk to anyone that wasn’t Aunt Daisy right now. He was stopped in his tracks, however, by a now naggingly familiar voice.

“Oh Mike?”

“Yes Aunt Daisy?”

“Have you finished cleaning the stable?”

“Yes, Aunt Daisy.”

“That’s good. Well, perhaps you can go and tidy the bunkhouse for me?”

“But Aunt Daisy, no one’s been in the bunkhouse for months. And I want to help Slim change the team.”

“Slim can manage just fine now run along. It shouldn’t take too long and I’ll have something nice in the kitchen for you when you’re finished.”

“Aw Aunt Daisy…” He knew it wasn’t worth arguing, but he felt so frustrated. Something was definitely going on and Mike didn’t like feeling shut out like this.

Daisy watched the young boy turn dejectedly and head in the direction of the bunkhouse. She hated excluding him like this, but she didn’t want Slim to know about Jess. Not just yet. She wanted to pick her moment. He’d only want to mount up and follow after him and she wanted to make sure Slim was in the right shape to sit a horse before that happened. He could work it off a little before she told him where Jess was. By that time Jess might even be back; maybe a few more hours. She’d just have to keep Mike busy a little longer to stop the boy blurting it out.

“Well howdy, Mrs. Cooper; got someone here who could sure use some of that fine coffee of yours. Told Doc Benton here it’s the best coffee in the whole Wyoming territory.”

Daisy smiled. “Now Mose, that’s quite a reputation to live up to. And how many times have I got to tell you, we’re acquainted enough for you to call me Daisy.”

“Well, sure thing Mrs. Coop…I mean, Miss Daisy. Come along Doc; Miss Daisy’ll brew you up some of that fine coffee I was tellin’ y’all about.”

With the younger couple choosing to remain by the stage, the distinguished-looking gentleman followed Daisy into the house whilst Slim and Mose worked on changing over the team.

Inside Daisy poured out a cup of the coffee and handed it to the gentleman who was now sat at the table.

“Why thank you kindly. I must say, it is very nice to finally meet the famous Mrs. Daisy Cooper. I have heard a lot about you.”

Daisy was taken aback. “Well, you certainly do have me at a disadvantage, sorry, I didn’t quite catch…”

“Oh, do forgive my rudeness Mrs. Cooper. My name is Benton. Dr. Thaddeus Benton.”

“Well, Dr. Benton, I don’t know what Mose has been telling you, but I can assure you, it’s bound to be an exaggeration.”

The kindly looking Doctor shook his head, smiling. “Now, Mrs. Cooper, don’t be so modest; he was certainly right about one thing, this certainly is the best coffee I have tasted in Wyoming territory.” He took a sip of his coffee before continuing.

“But it wasn’t Mose who was singing your praises. It was someone else I had cause to meet recently. A young man who told me just what a special lady you are – name of Harper – and now I have met you for myself I can see what he meant.” He regarded the lady closely; the smile that now lit up her face, confirming what he had already surmised.

“You’ve met Jess? Why, you wait until I see him; he’ll go plum red in the face when I tell him what you said.” Daisy knew how much she meant to her boys – these things didn’t need to be said between them – but to hear confirmation, especially from Jess, why, that meant more to her than anyone would ever know. Of course, she wouldn’t embarrass him with it; that was something special she was going to keep all to herself.

“Teams are all changed.” Slim was at the door and from the color of his face and the tone of his voice, he didn’t seem to be feeling that much better or be in much of a mood for small talk. Daisy suspected Mose had been interrogating him about the cuts and bruises on his face. That certainly would not have helped.

“Why, Slim, Doctor Benton here was just telling me he knows Jess.” She turned back to the Doctor.

“Where did you meet him?”

The Doctor finished the last of his coffee and explained. “Well, in Casper; that’s where I have my practice. I’m on my way to Cheyenne to visit my daughter and her husband who live there. Jess had told me he worked at the Sherman Relay Station and I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to look in on my patient on the way. I don’t like to release my patients so early after a bullet removal, but Jess insisted he had to go, and try as I might, that young man was not going to be kept anywhere he didn’t want to be any longer than he had to. I have never met so stubborn and determined a young man in all my life.”

Through this, both Slim and Daisy were becoming more and more incredulous. Slim because this was confirmation that Jess was alive, at least had been a few days ago; Daisy, because things were beginning to slot into place. Something had been nagging away at the back of her mind since Jess got back, something about the way he held himself, the stiffened way that he moved. With the benefit of hindsight, it was something more than saddle fatigue. And that jacket, of course! In the stifling heat, he had never once removed that jacket, not even after the exertion of dragging Slim from his horse and into the house. He was hiding the wound from her. From Daisy Cooper, who prided herself that that boy could never hide a thing from her.

“Oh my, I didn’t notice. I should have, but I didn’t see what was right under my nose. Oh Daisy Cooper, how could you be such a fool?” She chastised herself, wringing her hands distractedly.

“Would someone please tell me what’s going on here?” Slim was feeling more than a little confused and with the pounding in his head matching the pounding of his heart at news his pard had been wounded, but could still be alive, his patience was being sorely tested.

Daisy turned to him, guilt written all over her face. “Oh Slim, I’m sorry, I was trying to pick my moment. Jess did get back last night. About an hour before you did. He knew he missed the bank closing so decided to bypass town and came back by Baxter’s Ridge. He looked pale and a little stiff, but I just thought it was weariness from the long ride. He wanted to wait up for you to come back to explain why he was late, but the state you were in, all you were fit for was your bed. It took quite an effort for Jess and I to get you inside. He said he was going to sleep in the bunkhouse so he could get an early start and head into town to see Mr. Brady at the bank. I was going to tell you when I thought you were in a fit state to ride because I knew you’d want to go straight after him.”

What now passed across Slim’s face was a strange mix of anger, worry and relief all rolled into one. Before he had a chance to respond, however, they were interrupted by Mike bursting like a tornado through the door, his face pale and eyes as wide as saucers.

“Aunt Daisy, Slim, look what I found in the bunkhouse, it was stuffed down the back of one of the bunks like someone was trying to hide it. And one of the sheets on the bed was all ripped up.”

In his arms the boy was carrying a blood soaked shirt, complete with bullet hole in the shoulder area, as well as heavily soiled discarded bandages. Daisy confirmed what Slim had already surmised.

“It’s the one Jess was wearing yesterday when he rode in.”

“And they’re the bandages I applied to the wound. I told him it was foolhardy to embark on such a hard ride with a fresh wound, but he was in a mighty hurry to get back here for something, even at the risk of his own life. From the amount of blood he seems to be losing, I doubt he’ll get far. If he was heading into Laramie, we certainly didn’t pass him on the road.” The kindly looking Doctor now looked deadly serious.

Slim was already making preparations to leave “He’ll have gone back via Baxter’s Ridge. How much of a head start does he have, Daisy?”

Daisy was still trying to figure out how she could have missed something so obvious. “Well, about an hour I guess, but Slim, are you sure you feel up to…?”

“Daisy, this thick head of mine is partly my own doing, but Jess is out there with a bullet wound, losing blood and likely not able to defend himself if someone bushwhacks him and it’s all my fault. If I had come home when I should’ve last night, I would have seen it and I could have stopped him. Doc, you in a hurry to be in Cheyenne?”

“Well, no, I can delay for a day or two; my daughter isn’t expecting me. I was going to surprise her.”

“Good. I’ll tell Mose you’re stayin’, Doc, and he can get the stage movin’ on its way to Cheyenne. Mrs. Cooper’ll find whatever you need.” And with that, before anyone could say anything else or draw breath, he was gone.

Daisy had never felt so guilty in all her life. How could she have gotten things so wrong? Failed to notice that Jess was hurt? The signs had all been there if only she had been more attentive. And Slim? What possessed her not to tell him about Jess? She should have said something earlier….

“Aunt Daisy? Is Jess gonna die?”

Daisy turned to see the pale face, blue eyes that seemed to stand out more for the dark circles beneath them, welling up with tears. The boy was still clutching the bloody shirt tightly to him as if it was the only thing that still connected him to the intense young man he idolized. What to say to him? She had never lied to him before and she wasn’t about to start now. She, Daisy Cooper, the one who everyone looked to for answers, suddenly found herself unable to give one. She had let them, all three of her boys, down. The kindly Doctor interceded on her behalf.

“Well, son, not if I can help it. I take it kinda personal when one of my patients up and leaves me before I’m ready to let him go so I am going to take extra special care of young Mr. Harper when Mr. Sherman brings him back, but I’m going to need your help. Think you’re up to it?”

“Yes sir, I’ll do whatever I can.”

“Well, first I am going to need as much fresh water as you can carry in and set to boil for me. Then I’m going to need you to go and wait outside and let me know the minute you can see them coming back. The very moment you spot them. Can you do that for me?”

“Yes Sir. Right away. You can count on me.” Primed for such an important task, Mike turned to leave.

“Oh, young man?”

“Mike, sir, my name’s Mike.”

“Well, Mike, you can’t carry that heavy pail of water with that in your arms. Why don’t you let me take that for you?”

Mike looked down at the shirt, as if loath to part with it, before reluctantly surrendering it to the older man and heading off to perform his assigned duties. Daisy was grateful to him for that. If in the coming days Mike needed something to remember Jess by, she certainly didn’t want it to be that.

“Thank you Dr. Benton. I really didn’t know what to say to him. I can’t seem to say or do anything right lately. I just don’t know what’s happening to us.”

“Oh that’s alright, Mrs. Cooper. I understand more than you know. I know what it’s like to be so worried about someone you care about that you just can’t think straight. And it seems you have three young men you think that way about. And if the other two are as stubborn as young Mr. Harper, why, it’s a wonder you haven’t worried yourself away to nothing.”

Daisy smiled despite herself. Yes, Jess was stubborn. Sometimes when he dug his heels in over something, fists clenched to his side, jaw set in that determined way of his, she could almost imagine what he would have looked like as a small boy. Her heart ached at the thought of him lying somewhere, dying alone and the pain that Slim would feel finding him that way….and having to break the news to Mike…There she went again. What was wrong with her? She had never been so prone to dark thoughts before. If only it wasn’t so stiflingly hot….

“Mrs. Cooper?”

“Oh I’m so sorry, Doctor Benton. What were you saying?”

“Well, I was just asking which would be the coolest room in the house?”

“Well, I guess that would be Mike’s room, just through that door there.”

“Good. Well, I think that should be where young Mr. Harper resides for the next few days. Now what say you and I pass the time putting some clean linen on the bed and I can tell you the story of how Mr. Harper and I came to be acquainted? By the time I’m through, the young man in question should be putting in an appearance.”

Thaddeus Benton was an intuitive man. He knew when someone needed a distraction from thinking too far ahead and Daisy was grateful to him for that. She nodded and the two of them made their way to Mike’s room to start getting prepared.

And so the story unfolded, Thaddeus Benton relaying the events of a few days past. He described how two men happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, riding into the middle of an ambush a gang of rustlers had for the posse they knew to be following them, just south of Casper. The gang had wrongly believed Jess and his traveling companion to be part of that posse and had not realized their error until the gunfire had brought the real posse riding down on them. The gang had ultimately paid the price with their lives, although not until they had claimed the lives of a good number of the posse as well as the man who rode with Jess. Jess himself had been wounded trying to go to the aide of his fallen companion and had been brought back to Casper by the sheriff, protesting all the way that he had to be somewhere and couldn’t wait. Unfortunately for Jess, or fortunately as it turned out, Sheriff Able Johnson was just as stubborn as he was and mightily sick of all the killing that he had had to do and witness of late. If he could save just one life, he was going to make sure it happened, whether the individual in question wanted to be saved or not even if it meant bringing him in at gunpoint.

And so Jess had been brought to Dr. Thaddeus Benton. By the time he had arrived, he had lost a lot of blood and was as pale as anyone could be, but he had still been upright on his horse  – when many men would have fallen from the saddle from shock and blood loss long before. Yep, Doc Benton had known from the determined set of the young man’s jaw, the steely determination in those piercing eyes and the gruff tone of his voice that he was going to have to use all his powers of persuasion to keep that young man around long enough to get the bullet out and give the wound time to knit. That or laudanum. When the young man insisted he dig the bullet out without putting him out – “Coz, I can’t afford to lose any time sleepin’” – that had been the final straw. He didn’t care where he needed to be and how soon; his oath as a physician did not allow him to dig out a bullet from a young man’s shoulder without anesthesia, then let him sit a horse all the way back to Laramie – a five day ride at best, let alone the three days he was planning to do it in. No, it was suicide and he, as a physician, could not watch a young man throw his life away in such a pointless fashion. And he was sure those he was rushing to get back to would not wish it either.

So, he had resorted to soaking a cloth in chloroform and coming at the young man from behind. He had been amazed at how much fight the young man still had in him, but eventually he had succumbed to the combined effects of the blood loss and breathing in the powerful drug. He wasn’t proud of his methods, but he had no regrets. For that, Daisy had expressed her gratitude. It was due to the efforts of this man that Jess had made it back at all. Now she hoped he could save him once more. She dared to hope that fate had, once more, sent him to look out for Jess. Dare she hope?

It had been a relatively straightforward bullet removal. Although the bullet had passed perilously close to a major blood vessel and would take some healing, still, the boy (well, that’s what he was to Thaddeus) had been lucky. When he had removed the young mans shirt, he had noted that there were many faded scars from previous bullet wounds and the most recent looking one that looked as if it had come close to killing him plum in the middle of his chest. Something pretty powerful was keeping this young man alive and he was intrigued enough to want to find out what it was.

In his lucid moments (between doses of laudanum that he was in no position to argue about), Jess had seemed to accept his lot and began talking about where he was from. Not much at first, just snippets. About a relay station where he worked outside of Laramie; of the cattle that he had brought north to sell in Billings; of the man he traveled with whom he’d forged a partnership and the fact that he had to be back to Laramie by the 30th. The Doc had told him that that wasn’t possible, not with a wound like that, but this had only served to make him more determined. The doc had tried to change the subject, asking him about the other scars. Jess had told him that he had earned a few in the war, a few after taking the wrong path for a few years and a few since finding his way. This cryptic answer had the Doc intrigued; however, in this young man, he had sensed a softly, softly approach was needed. He asked if it was the call of a woman that had Jess pining so to get home. It had been then he had seen the Jess Harper smile for the first time. He had wondered if this intense young man had been capable of smiling and now that he had seen it hoped to see more. ‘Not in the way you think’ had been the reply. ‘She’s kind of a special lady you might say. Knows me better than I know myself, I reckon.’

“And so, that is how I came to hear about the famous Daisy Cooper, the lady who had taken on and conquered two young men and a boisterous young boy and how they’d all move heaven and earth for her and each other if they could.” The Doc smiled kindly at the little lady who had been listening intently as the story had unfolded. Daisy dabbed at her eyes with her handkerchief, a myriad of emotions coursing through her – pride that the home they had built together was one that a previously wayward young man like Jess would be so desperate to get back to; gratitude for Thaddeus Benton for making sure he had, albeit briefly; and fear that now he was out there bleeding and vulnerable and what it would do to Slim, to them all, if he was too late in finding him.

She looked at the kindly Doctor, his face a mask of understanding and compassion. Replacing her handkerchief in her apron pocket, she rose and walked over to the window and regarded the small boy maintaining his watch for the two young men he idolized to return. Whatever happened, she would need to be strong for him. Gathering herself, hands clasped in front of her she turned and addressed the kindly Doctor who had risen from his perch on the end of the freshly laundered bed, and was now watching her closely.

“Thank you, Dr. Benton. In making sure Jess got home to us, you have already done more than we could ever repay. However, I do have to ask you another favor.”

She didn’t need to elaborate. He strode over smiling kindly and placed a gentle hand on her shoulder. Neither of them feeling the gesture was either overly familiar or out of place in the circumstances despite such a short acquaintance.

“Consider it done, Mrs. Cooper. Something’s keeping that young man alive and from the little he has told me and what I have seem here for myself, I don’t think you need to look far beyond the borders of this ranch to see what that is. Now what say you and I take some more of that wonderful coffee of yours? I think we are both going to be in for a long day and night.” Daisy smiled. Yes, Thaddeus Benton was, indeed, an intuitive man.

*****

 Jess was in worse shape than he had thought. Even though the sun had only just cleared the ridge, Jess could already tell how hot it was from the shimmering haze ahead of him and the sweat beading on Travelers neck. But he was cold, so very cold. He’d had enough bullet wounds in his time to know this wasn’t a good sign. He knew it was his own doing. The Doc had warned him. Jess took his hat off to him for keeping there as long as he did. He’d managed to keep him for 36 hours before he’d managed to gather his wits enough to trick the Doc into thinking he had taken the latest dose of laudanum. He had awaited his first opportunity when the doc had left the room and grabbing his laundered, but still somewhat blood-stained shirt, complete with bullet hole, had hightailed it out the window and headed straight to the livery stable where Traveler was awaiting him and rode off.

He shivered, rudely brought back to reality by his own chattering teeth. Now he wasn’t even half way to Laramie and if he collapsed now, it might be some time before anyone found him. He had avoided the main road because of the amount of money he was carrying; these were lean times for many and no telling what desperate people might do. Still, he’d have had more chance if he had gone that way. Despite the harsh summer and all the troubles it had brought with it, still, there were a lot of good folk in Laramie and if he’d only thought it through, well, it would have been more likely he’d have been helped then attacked. Jess shivered and drew his coat more tightly around him. No matter, it was too late to turn back now. The only way was forward. The only chance to save the ranch now sat squarely on his shoulders and he didn’t want to let Daisy, Mike, Andy or Slim down. Especially Slim. Even if it meant dying himself.

Jess thought back to all the times he has been prepared to die for something he believed in: for the Confederacy back in the war; the time he went after the Bannister gang to avenge the murder of his family; for Nute Duncan and all the other prisoners who had suffered under Paul Halleck in that prison camp. In retrospect, he had been wrong every time – misguided and filled with hate. In the four years at the Sherman Ranch Slim, Miss Daisy, Jonesy, Andy, Mike, heck even Mort Corey, they’d all helped him find some perspective and give him purpose in life. Before he came to Laramie, he hadn’t really cared that much about living and had figured it was only a matter of time before he met someone that was faster on the draw then he was. But these past four years had made him realize just how good life could be and it was all due to those people back there at the ranch, counting on him. And he wasn’t going to let them down. Not even if it meant dying. Finally Jess Harper had found something that was truly worth dying for. With that grim set of the jaw, that was Jess Harper at his most stubborn, he spurred Traveler on from the ambling pace he had adopted and made one last effort to reach Laramie.

*****

Slim’s hunch had been right. Jess had taken the Baxter’s ridge trail. It hadn’t taken him long to pick up his tracks. At first Traveller had kept a steady gallop, but after three or four miles, had slowed to a walk. You ride a horse long enough and you almost become part of each other. You sense what each other is feeling, when things aren’t quite right and it seemed that Traveler had sensed that Jess was not in the best of shape and had slowed right down as if to protect his ‘precious cargo’. The tracks were pretty fresh, or as much as he could tell in the arid surrounds, so Slim figured Jess couldn’t be too far ahead. As he got closer, the churning in his stomach grew worse. But it was no longer related to the pounding in his head. That was already forgotten. No, now it was the growing fear of what he would find when he finally caught up with his partner. He had lost count of the times he had chased after his more impetuous friend and brought him back home again when many would have just let him ride off. But Slim had always had the sense that Jess needed that from him. The words had never actually been spoken; it was just a feeling Slim had had. And he had needed the friendship of the younger more fiery man. They balanced each other out. Since he had inherited the ranch and care of Andy, Slim had had to be the responsible one, taking care of things, making sure the future was secure for him and his younger brother. There just wasn’t the time for him to kick back and be the young man he had been and still was. And then Jess had come along. Rough around the edges, with an air of danger to him that Andy had instantly taken a shine to. Slim had been less sure at first, but the younger man had soon won him over and even helped him shake up his tail feathers and cut loose from time to time. And Slim had been good for him too, smoothing out some of the rough edges; helping him put down stakes.

It had taken time, though. Jess had never been one for too much talking; it had taken time and a lot of trust for Slim to get a solid picture of Jess’ past,  a past that haunted him and had kept him drifting from one town to another for years after the war. When Jess had first agreed to stay a while, he had made no promises that it would be a long-term prospect and Slim had had his doubts that he would stay more than a few weeks. But as time moved on, Jess had seemed more and more settled and, despite his initial doubts, Slim found a strong bond of friendship forming with the young man, unlike any he had previously known, or ever would.

And then one day, Jess had said it. It was almost a flippant remark that could have been brushed over if it had come from anyone other than him. Slim thought back to that day. He and Jess had been on a cattle buying trip to Nebraska and had somehow found themselves accepting the roles of town Marshals, wading straight into the middle of a range war. It had been then that Jess had said it:  “Anyone shoots me, I wanna make sure you’re around to carry me home.”

That was the first time that Slim could clearly recall Jess calling the relay station home and he had never forgotten that. From that moment on, he had made a mental promise that wherever Jess went, whatever happened to him, he would always go after him and bring him home. Slim hoped against hope that this wouldn’t be the last trip home for Jess.

*****

Traveler was at a standstill. He had felt the pressure of his master’s boots in his flanks gradually ease and so had slowed from a canter to a trot and then to a walk as his master slumped forward in the saddle, his arms hanging limply either side of the horses neck. With his master no longer urging him forward, Traveler did what instinct told him and turned to go back the way he had come, to head for home. It wasn’t long before the other rider came into view coming toward him. He knew the horse and the rider on it and whickered as if in greeting.

“Jess!” The rider had already reined up his horse, dismounted and hurried over to him, but still Traveler stood his ground. Such sudden movements usually meant danger. This was different, though; he knew his master needed help and that here was someone who would give it to him.

“Jess?” Slim was dismayed to see his partner slumped forward, face turned to the side, as pale as anyone could be. For a moment he feared the worse, but just as he was summoning up the courage to check the side of his neck for a pulse, Jess stirred slightly, his eyes flickering,

“Slim?”

It was a barely audible whisper, but he was alive. At least for now. Slim didn’t like his pallor one little bit.

“Hey pard, gonna have to get you down for a minute, take a look at you. Alright?”

Barely conscious, Jess gave the slightest of nods. As gently as he could, Slim eased his partner off the horse and laid him against a rock, out of the sun so he could assess the damage. He gently eased open Jess’s jacket and immediately saw the reason for his pards gray hue. His pale shirt was soaked in blood from the shoulder wound. His breathing was shallow and his eyes tightly shut. Slim was glad he couldn’t see the expression on his face. “Don’t look too bad. You’ve had worse.”

“Liar.”

Slim would have smiled if he hadn’t been so worried. Even in the state he was in, there was no pulling the wool over Jess’s eyes.

“Alright, you’ve looked better. Now I’m going to re-bind that wound, see if we can stop the bleeding. Gonna have to be tight, though. Might hurt some?”

This time Jess didn’t respond. The slight flicker of his eyes, however, told him his pard was using all his reserves of strength to try and stay conscious. Slim went over to his saddlebag and retrieved the bandages he had grabbed before he set out. If he could at least stem the bleeding it would buy some time to get Jess back so that Doc Benton could get to work on him.

“Cold…”

It was like a furnace out there in this heat, the sweat was running off Slim yet Jess was shivering as if he’d never be warm again. Slim pulled open Jess’s shirt and pressed hard against the wound. The younger man didn’t even flinch. That wasn’t a good sign either. Slim finished winding the bandage around the wound as hard as he could and tied it off. Then he buttoned up the shirt, pulled the jacket around his pard, and finished by wrapping his saddle blanket around him to keep him as warm as he could. Finally, he held his water bottle to Jess’ lips, hoping that this would rouse him some. It did the trick; Jess responded by gulping greedily.

“Hey, easy Jess. Can’t have you choking after I tied such a pretty bow around your shoulder.”

Jess grinned weakly. “Pretty red bow….”

Slim smiled despite his worry. That was one thing about Jess; he had a dark sense of humor and managed to find something to laugh about in the worst of situations. He lifted his pard up gently under his arms and carried him back towards Traveler who was still standing obediently where Slim had found him. He’d have to tie him on, and then tie Travelers reins to his own horses. It was the only way he could get him back. It wouldn’t be the most comfortable ride Jess had ever had, but at least the pressure of lying forward against the saddle might help stem the bleeding. He lifted Jess back on and secured his friend in place, the blanket tucked snugly around him. Checking on him one more time, he noted that Jess had finally passed out, but his breathing was steady, if not a little shallow. Slim was torn between wanting to be as gentle with Jess as possible, yet wanting to get him to the Doc sooner rather than later. He made the decision. It was going to be a rough ride, and despite wanting to keep Jess conscious as long as he could, he was glad this was one journey that Jess would have little or no memory of. If Jess was going to die, he wanted it to be where he belonged amongst the people who cared for him the most and time appeared to be running out.

“Come on pard, let’s go home.”

*****

 Slim was pacing. What in blazes was taking so long? He’d got back to the relay station over half an hour ago and had carried Jess straight into Mike’s room, guided by Daisy and the Doc. And then he’d been ushered straight out again, Daisy telling him that the Doc needed to do his job and Slim would only be in the way. The door had then shut on him and he was left to wait and he’d never been very good at that. He couldn’t just stand around and do nothing ,so he decided to go and look for Mike. At seeing Jess’s prone form slung over Slims shoulder, face as white as chalk, Mike had run off sobbing. As worried as he was, Slim couldn’t begin to imagine what the boy was going through. He had idolized Jess from the moment he had arrived at the relay station, Jess quickly labeling him with the affectionate nickname of ‘Tiger’, which had stuck. Slim had a hunch where he would be. He knew where he would have gone if it was him. He headed over to the corral where Traveler and his horse were both tied up. They both needed tending to. They’d both done a lot of hard riding lately and deserved a good rub down and some good food. He led them both into the barn and got them stabled and started on Traveler. After a few moments, his patience was rewarded; out of the corner of his eye, away up to his right, he saw a movement, a small head peering over the side of the hayloft. As he turned to look, the head darted back. His hunch had been right. Slim smiled briefly to himself. He patted the horse’s neck.

“I’ll be back in a minute, boy; there’s someone else who needs me more right now.”

He strode over to the ladder and started to slowly climb. When he reached the top he peered into the gloom and as his eyes became accustomed to the dark, could make out the small form of a boy, tear streaked eyes peering back at him. At the sight of the taller man, the boy fiercely rubbed his eyes, already man enough not to want to be seen crying.

“Hey Mike, Can I come and sit with you for a while?”

“Well, I was just…”

“Please? I was hoping you and I could have a talk. Been a while since we did that.”

The boy looked taken aback. He’d clearly been expecting to be chastised or something. Slim didn’t blame him if that was what he was thinking. He hadn’t given the boy much reason to think otherwise lately.

“Well sure Slim, come on up.”

Slim hauled himself up into the loft and sat down next to the boy. “Thanks. Been a while since I came up here. Used to spend a lot of time in a hayloft like this when I was your age.”

“Yeah, I like to come up here when I need to think about things.”

“Wanna share some of those thoughts?”

“Well, I….”

“I’m sorry, Mike. Seems like we’ve all done a lot of worrying lately and not a whole lot of talking. I guess we, Jess, Daisy and me, wanted to protect you from what was going on, but I guess all we’ve done is hurt you by keeping things from you. And I’m sorry for that.”

Mike pondered this for a moment. “I’ve been worried too, Slim.”

“About Jess?”

“Yes, but not just that; about everythin’. Everythin’s changin’ and it don’t feel good.”

Slim knew what he meant. Still, the boy needed reassurance and it was up to him to provide it. “Well, you know, Mike, things can’t always stay the same. Things do change; it’s part of life, part of growing up.”

“I know that. But this has been different. Like everything was breakin’ apart all around me and there was nothin’ I could do about it. I know you wanted to protect me but like you say, I’m growin’ up and I understand more than you think. And Aunt Daisy always taught me if you talk things through, it makes them easier to bear. But no ones been talkin’ and things have just got worse and worse and now Jess might die and….”

He couldn’t hold back anymore. The accumulation of weeks of tension that had weighed down on his slight shoulders could no longer be held at bay and he descended into wracking sobs, his wiry arms thrust around the man he had come to see as a father figure, his face buried in the broad shoulder.

Slim responded by holding the boy to him tightly, silently chastising himself for being so indulgent in his own selfish misery not to have noticed what all this had done to Mike. As the sobs subsided, he gently pushed the boy into a sit, one hand on his shoulder the other pushing away the damp hair from his forehead.

“Ok, now let’s set a few things straight.” Slim’s tone was gentle, yet firm. What Mike needed now was frankness and honesty. The boy was more grown up than any of them had given him credit for lately, so he wasn’t going to make the mistake of hiding anything from him again. Neither was he going to sugarcoat it. It was clear the boy would see straight through that.

“Truth is, Jess isn’t in good shape right now, but you and I both know he’s had worse, much worse. Right now, he’s got one of the best doctors in the territory looking after him and, without a doubt, the best nurse. And you and I both know he’s one of the most stubborn, ornery men in all the western territories stuck together. I’m not going to make any promises to you I can’t keep, Mike, but I can tell you this – what’s kept Jess alive this long is the knowledge that he’s got kin here that care for him and I can’t see him giving up on that in a hurry can you?”

Slim looked at the earnest young face in front of him. He seemed to ponder this for a moment and then gave a wan smile.

“I guess not.”

“Now I’m going to make a deal with you. Whenever I’m feeling bad about something, I promise not to clam up anymore. Daisy is right; talking things out helps, it really does; I feel better already. How about you?”

The boy nodded. “Some.”

“Good. Now seems to me, you and I need to keep busy; thinking is all well and good, ‘cept sometimes you can think too much and too far ahead. So how about you give me a hand with the horses? Seems the best way you and I can help Jess right now is to tend to Traveler, seeing as he can’t take care of him himself right now. I know he’d appreciate that.”

“Sure, Slim. I’d like that.”

“C’mon then. Maybe by the time we’re done, we’ll be able to look in on Jess.”

The boy nodded and started to clamber down the ladder. Slim hesitated a while before following. There were a lot of things he needed to put right from the past few weeks, but at least a start had been made. He hoped he’d get the chance to similarly make amends with the others he’d let down lately.

*****

Daisy had nursed many a young man in her time; during the war, dealing with boys – for that’s all many of them were – crying for their mothers, with horrific wounds, comforting them, treating them with compassion in, for many, their last moments on this earth. And whilst in Daisy Cooper, they got the tenderest ministrations, the most dignified treatment, she never allowed herself to get attached. It was self-preservation. Whilst showing compassion externally, internally she had to stay detached to get through the endless days of seeing such promising young lives destroyed. But this was different. Here lay a young man she loved dearly, whom she would never be able to detach herself from. Oh, she had tended him many times before, but never before had she been as afraid for him as she was now. She had been around enough field hospitals to know when someone had lost too much blood. Jess was tough, but was he tough enough to come through this? They had wasted no time in cutting off all his clothes. If he’d known anything about it, Jess would have been embarrassed. However, he was oblivious to his current naked state and, frankly it was just easier to keep him clean this way. There were currently other far more important things than preserving his modesty. As soon as that task had been completed, Daisy pulled the blanket up to his waist whilst the Doc set to work removing Slims makeshift bandage. He had done a good job; that and the pressure of lying forward in the saddle had been enough to stem the flow of blood. He had probably saved Jess’s life, he confirmed to Daisy, as the young man before them, tough as he undoubtedly was, couldn’t have taken much more blood loss and would otherwise have bled out before Slim had gotten him home.

The Doctor placed one of his instruments in the steaming water and asked Daisy to hold both of Jess’s arms; he needed to cauterize the wound and in his current weakened state, didn’t want to risk administering any narcotic. So this was going to hurt Jess. Daisy hated to see her boys suffer, but the wound needed to be sealed once and for all, and so she obediently did as she was asked. But Jess didn’t flinch or make any sound at all. The Doctor looked at him and then at Daisy, and she could tell this concerned him. He gave her a quick smile as he saw his own concern mirrored on her face.

“It would seem our young friend here has a very high pain threshold.” It was a thoughtful gesture, but Daisy knew better than that and he knew it too.

A few minutes later, Jess was all bandaged up and as comfortable as he could be. The Doctor looked at his charge. He was so pale his skin was almost opaque. He hadn’t seen many come back from such blood loss. Still, the boy was young and strong and he seemed to have a very strong compulsion to live. And in Daisy Cooper, Thaddeus Benton could see why. There was one thing in his favor – miraculously, the wound wasn’t infected and the young man had no fever; otherwise, he really would not have held any hope for his patient. It would take all his strength and reserves to cope with the blood loss, but there wasn’t enough to fight infection too, so they had to keep it from setting in at all costs.

He pulled the blanket up to mid-torso level, to keep him as warm as possible. Despite this being the coolest room in the house as Mrs. Cooper has assured him, the sun was beating down like a furnace outside and there was no keeping that heat out. Even in just his shirt sleeves, Thaddeus Benton was perspiring heavily. Still the young man was cold to the touch due to the shock and blood loss, so they had to keep him covered enough to try and raise his body temperature up a little, but not so warm that he developed a fever. He would need to be very closely watched for the next little while.

“Well, that’s all we can do for our young friend for now.”

He looked at the tiny lady, who just couldn’t take her worry-filled eyes off their young charge. He understood that look. The look of someone who needed to be needed and now that all that could be done had been, felt as redundant as anyone ever could. “Try not to worry. I’d say this young man has a very strong will to live, if that bullet scar on his chest is anything to go by.”

That was the first time she had really had a good look at it. Jess had previously hidden it from her and now she could see why and couldn’t hold back any more. She ran over to the spare cot on the other side of the room, sat down and started to sob; the accumulation of weeks – no months – of worry and tension since that had happened and the drought had taken hold. They had so very nearly lost him then and he had been away from home, so far away from them all.

“Here. I promise it’s clean.”

Thaddeus was holding out his handkerchief to her, an understanding twinkle in his eye. Daisy found herself liking this kindly gentleman so very much. She accepted the handkerchief gratefully and started dabbing at her eyes.

“Don’t mind me. I’m just…”

“No need to explain, Mrs. Cooper, I can see this young man on his own provides you with enough worries, let alone two more right outside.”

Again, she smiled. He was a very perceptive man.

“It was only six months ago.” She was referring to Jess’s last brush with death. “And he was so very far from home. We didn’t find out about it until a wire was sent,  and by that time he was out of danger. But the whole time he was away until that point, I had an uneasy feeling inside. At the time, I couldn’t put my finger on what it was; however, once we found out what had happened, I realized the uneasiness started the day he got shot. And I realized that, when he had left, I had been in town with Mike and hadn’t said goodbye. And we came so close then to never seeing him again. It was like history repeating itself.”

“Was it during the war that you lost your own son?”

Daisy looked at him sharply. How had he guessed that?

“Forgive me. I was a surgeon in the Union Army. Dealt with the aftermath at Shiloh. You recognize the look in someone’s eye when they have seen the same waste of life, have experienced the same loss. I saw many women like you, who had lost their own sons and wanted to do all they could to ensure there were some mothers out there who got their sons back, no matter how maimed and crippled they were. I didn’t lose a son but, to me, all those young men that I tried to save were someone’s son so I treated them as though they were my own. I suspect you were the same?”

“Yes. Thomas died at Chickamauga. He was our only son. My husband and I had him late in life   He was only nineteen. I remember waving him off at the gate, so handsome in his uniform, so excited and proud to play his part. I so wanted to hug him, send him on his way with a mothers love, but his father said he would lose face with the other boys, for that’s all they were, young boys. And so he went and within a few months, he was gone. He didn’t die straight away; he was taken to a field hospital and I don’t know if there was anyone nursing him, holding him or comforting him, and I used to lie awake at night wondering if he was calling out for me in his last hours.”

Daisy walked over to the window, the memories transporting her back to a time and place that seemed so distant now.

“My husband, Charles, was never the same after the news came. He withdrew into himself and I couldn’t really reach him anymore. And I decided I couldn’t sit around and spend the rest of my life mourning my son when I could do something to help. And so I went to work in one of the many field hospitals, nursing both Union and Confederate soldiers. It made no difference to me what side they were fighting on.” She turned back to Jess, remembering he had fought on the opposing side to her son, something that had never mattered to her. “After the war ended, I went back home to Charles,  but he was a shadow of the man he was. Losing Thomas had broken him. He said that we should try and make a fresh start, and without telling me, had sold our home and signed a deed for a mercantile store in Sherman, Wyoming. I wasn’t angry with him, though. There were just too many memories in that house and I hoped a fresh start would help him, help us both recover from losing Thomas. But it wasn’t to be. Before we could leave, he died. I found him sitting in his chair one day, holding a picture of Thomas. I guess he died of a broken heart. So I decided to come out here on my own. I think it was what he would have wanted.”

“That was a brave move for a lady all alone.”

She turned back to face the Doctor. “Oh no, I didn’t think so. There really was nothing left for me back east and I had heard so much about this beautiful land in the west. I just had to see if for myself. When I arrived here, though, looking for Sherman, Wyoming, all I found was the Sherman Relay Station and the realization that poor Charles had been duped and I had nothing.”

She smiled and looked back at Jess again “But I really couldn’t have been more wrong. Because, you see what I have found here at the Sherman Relay Station is everything to me. I have three young men who need me, Doctor Benton. Oh, I could, cheerfully strangle each and every one of them at times, but you see, I need them. They have made my twilight years complete. No one can ever replace a child when you lose them, but in Jess, Slim and Mike, I have as close to three extra sons as anyone could have. And they certainly take some mothering. It’s not right that a mother should see a child in the grave before she has gone herself, Doctor Benton, and I just don’t know what I would do if Jess….”

And it all became too much again. Inhibitions case aside, Thaddeus Benton drew Daisy towards him, as any compassionate person would offer comfort to another. He guided her over once more to the empty cot and gently eased her down, setting down beside her.

“Now Mrs. Cooper, I’m not usually a gambling man; however, I’d like you to listen to me now. When I first treated Jess in Casper, and saw that wound in the middle of his chest, I knew that I was looking at an extraordinary young man. For all my years as a physician, I have never seen anyone survive such a wound. Never. I concluded that he must have something pretty powerful to live for. I must admit, I was intrigued to find out what it was and so when Jess left my rooms against advice, well, of course professional curiosity compelled me to follow. Oh, of course, any excuse to head down to Cheyenne to see my daughter. Since my late wife passed away some years ago, I travel down as regularly as I can, but your young charge here certainly prompted me to bring forward my travel plans by some months. Jenny will certainly be very surprised to see me.”

“Well, Doctor Benton, I for one am certainly glad you came. If you hadn’t been here, I don’t know if Jess would have lasted long enough to fetch our own doctor from town.”

She walked over to Jess’s bedside once more, where he lay pale and unmoving, his eyes tightly closed. Jess was usually so animated;  she longed to see those intense blue eyes open for business again, to see him horsing around with Mike, to hear his southern drawl sassing her and that grin of his that would light up his face. She took his hand in hers, and found it icy to the touch, as if the life was being gradually sucked out of him.

“Nonsense, Mrs. Cooper; having seen you in action for myself, I am sure in you, Jess would have had a more than capable nurse to bring him through. But I am glad that I was here to help. And like I said before, I am not a gambling man, but sick as he undoubtedly is right now, I don’t think this young man is ready to give up on this world. He has far too much here to stay for. Now you still have two other young men to take care of. What say you leave me here to watch over him for a while?”

“No, Doctor Benton, you go on and freshen up and get Mike or Slim to pour you some coffee. Besides, I’m sure either one of them is wearing a hole in the rug out there from pacing. I’d like to stay with Jess for a few minutes. Then I’ll gratefully accept your offer.”

The doctor smiled and patted her on the arm and left her to it. He understood her need for a few moments alone with the young man. Daisy never did tell anyone about those next few minutes in the room alone with Jess, not even Jess himself in the weeks and months to come. She was too afraid that they would think her a foolish, sentimental old woman, as she, unjustly, came to think of herself afterwards. The truth was, though, at that moment, it had been absolutely what she had needed to do. She had told herself that if Jess was going to go away from her and never come back, then, unlike her son, she wasn’t going to send him off without a hug and telling him how much she loved him.

In the cold pitch dark depths that Jess Harper had found himself consigned to, wondering if he would ever find a way to climb out again, he suddenly felt a momentary feeling of warmth, not much and not for long, but it gave him something to reach out to. A direction to head in to escape the bone chilling cold that had enveloped him. Jess followed his instincts and allowed himself to be guided by whatever it was that was drawing him towards it.

*****

Slim and Mike were just crossing the yard past the corral, both of them feeling much better for the talk, heading towards the house, when the familiar looking rider rode in. Slim stopped to greet him. “Mort.”

“Well, you’re looking better than when I last saw you.”

“You put me on my horse and sent me home?” Slim had been wondering how he had got back to the ranch the night before, but with everything that had happened since, well, it hadn’t seemed that important any more.

“Yeah, had to Slim. Too much going on in town to bring you back myself. Sent Evers along to make sure you got back safe. Don’t ‘spose you remember?”

“Nope. Not much.” He could now vaguely remember setting out with the Deputy but the combination of the battering he had received and the strain of the past weeks had clearly caught up with him and so most of the journey back was still a blank.

“What happened to Brady?”

The Sheriff shook his head grimly. “Whole town was in uproar. Everyone seemed intent on lynching him; had to lock him in the jail for his own good.”

Slim snorted. Well, it couldn’t have happened to a nicer man. Still, Slim was a law abiding man and lynching never sat well with him. And he had the sore head to prove it. “Yeah, well, he’s created a lot of trouble in town since he arrived, threatening foreclosure on just about everyone. But no one deserves lynching. Guess he was only following orders himself.”

Mort shook his head. “Well, that’s just it. Seems he wasn’t. I wired the bank in Denver about all the trouble he was causing and seems the Territorial Head of the Bank there had no idea that Brady was taking such a heavy-handed approach. He’s on his way up to take personal responsibility and I don’t like Brady’s chance of keeping his job at the end of it. Don’t look like anyone’s going to lose their property this time.”

“That’s just fine, Mort.”

The Sheriff looked at his tall friend sharply. That hadn’t been the reaction he’d been expecting. “Well I thought you’d be happier than that?”

Slim shook his head tiredly. “It just doesn’t seem that important anymore. Jess is badly hurt.”

“He’s back?”

“Yeah, last night, only I was too out of it to notice. Seems he took a bullet in the shoulder outside of Casper. Doc there took it out, but Jess insisted on riding back before the Doc said he was ready. He wanted to meet Brady’s deadline. With the time he lost, he just missed it and all he found was me beat up and Daisy too worried to notice there was anything wrong. And you know how good Jess is at hiding things he doesn’t want you to see. Anyway, he rode out this morning to head into the bank to make Brady take the money before anyone could stop him. First thing we knew about him being hurt was the Doc who treated him in Casper riding in on the stage. By that time, he had an hour’s head start so I rode out after him, found him slumped across his horse on the way to Baxter’s ridge, and brought him back. Doc and Daisy are with him now.”

“Well Slim, Jess is tough, I’m sure he’ll be…”

Slim was suddenly aware of the small boy with them. Of course, all of this had been news to him. Since their talk, Slim had resolved he was no longer going to lie to the boy, although he still wanted to protect him from certain things before he absolutely had to face them. Mike needed hope.

“Hey Mike, go on in and see if Daisy and the Doc have finished up with Jess. I’ll be along in a minute.”

The boy didn’t need a second telling. He was obviously as keen to hear news of Jess as Slim was. Slim watched him head into the house, before turning back to his friend. “He lost an awful lot of blood before I got to him Mort.”

Mort Corey searched the grim face of the tall young man he had come to respect greatly over the years. A young man he counted as a dear friend. And he felt the same way about the young man that now lay clinging to life in the house if Slim’s face was anything to go by. “Understood. Anything I can do?”

“I think the Doc will need some supplies from town. Fresh Bandages, things like that. Could you come into the house and check what he needs and go get them for us?”

“Sure thing, Slim.” Grim faced, Mort dismounted and led his horse over to the corral to tie him up.

Slim took a deep breath and headed for the house. Whatever the news, it was time to face it. And if it was the worst, he needed to be strong for Mike and Daisy He hoped against hope it wouldn’t come to that.

*****

As dusk fell they were all pretty exhausted. Mort Corey had headed back to Laramie armed with a long list of supplies from Doc Benton, and judging by how quickly he had returned, had turned right around again without a rest. It was testament to how much he thought of Jess, for all of them, that he had taken the time to personally do this when there was so much going on in town. Mort had dismissed it saying Bill Evers was more than capable of handling things in his absence and besides, he may take his responsibilities as Sheriff seriously, but the responsibilities of friendship were just as important to him. Slim had conceded gratefully and not for the first time in the last day or so, and certainly not for the last time in the weeks and months to come; he reflected that it took the prospect of losing something you thought was important to realize what truly did matter in life. It was a hard, yet valuable, lesson to learn.

He hated to do it, but he had another favor to ask of Mort. There was the matter of McKenzie. They would have had to have buried him in Casper; couldn’t leave him lying in this heat. But his widow was entitled to have him home. And there was also the matter of his share of the $2,000. The money was sitting in a drawer in Slims desk, where it had been placed when Jess had been stripped and bedded down. As far as Slim was concerned, it was blood money; and not just because the pouch was still smeared with Jess’s own blood, but because of the lives it had cost, still could cost, getting it here. Still, for a woman now facing life alone on a ranch, the money would be invaluable. Even if she took the decision to sell up, it would set her up elsewhere. And much as he hated the sight of it right now, he knew their share of the money would keep the roof over their heads for the time being and that was what his pard would have wanted. He knew it would be a task Jess would want to handle himself; Daisy had said he had somewhere else he was intending to go after the bank which would keep him away a few days and Slim would have laid money on that being it.

The reality was, though, thinking positively for his friend, that he now wouldn’t be fit for such a journey for weeks and this couldn’t wait. He’d do it himself except he didn’t want to leave the relay station either, not right now, nor could he see himself wanting to in the weeks to come. He hated to ask, but…

Mort hadn’t even let him finish. Said he would take care of things; wire the Sheriff in Casper to arrange for the body to be transported down and once it arrived in Laramie, would personally escort it along with the money to McKenzie’s widow. Yes, Slim Sherman was certainly learning some valuable lessons about what was really important in life. You really couldn’t put any price on friendship.

Daisy had prepared a light supper for them all, but no one had much appetite. They were all too exhausted from the heat and the worry about Jess to bother. Mike had practically fallen asleep again at the table and Slim had scooped him up and put him to bed in his and Jess’ room. Mike hadn’t been allowed to see Jess yet, but as a way of feeling close to him, had asked if he could sleep in Jess’ bed. When Daisy had looked in on him a little later, the boy had been sound asleep, thin arms clutching the pillow tightly, face burrowed deeply into it as if he was trying to breathe in the scent, the very essence of Jess. It was his way of feeling close to him and what he needed.

They had been taking it in turns sitting with Jess, with the Doc doing more than his share. He had insisted that it would do Jess no good at all if either Mrs. Cooper or Slim had keeled over from exhaustion, so had insisted that they both take some time to rest up as it was likely to be a long night for them all. Reluctantly, they had both done as directed and Slim was heartened to see that Daisy looked a little better for the rest. However, when he had tried to close his eyes, he just couldn’t switch off his thoughts or feelings. Every time he tried to remember some of the good times on the ranch with Jess, kicking back, having fun, all he could see was Jess’s pale and seemingly lifeless face slumped over that horse. Try as he might, he just couldn’t get rid of that image. Realizing that sleep and peace of mind was going to continue to elude him, he had gone out to the stable to check on the horses, feeling that keeping busy would stop his mind from churning over so and had found himself in Traveler’s stall. It was as if, being close to something of Jess’, as with Mike, would help some.

But Traveler was as restless as he was, had kicked over his bucket of oats and water trough, and as tired as the horse must have been from days of riding, seemed as incapable of rest as Slim did. Slim patted his neck.

“Yeah, I know, fella. I feel the same way. Guess you won’t be able to rest ‘til you know he’s ok either? But it won’t help him any if you don’t eat your feed. You gotta be in good condition for when he’s ready to ride you again and he won’t be too happy with me if I don’t make sure you are.”

Slim had a sudden idea. Jess’s saddle and saddlebag were still slung over the side of the stall where he had left it when he had brought the horse in earlier. Opening up the saddlebag he pulled out a spare neckerchief he knew Jess kept there. He walked back over to Travelers stall and tied it onto the post.

“There you go, fella. Maybe that’ll help settle you until Jess can come tend to you himself.”

The horse whickered and instinctively nuzzled the post, the scent of his master instantly seeming to pacify him. Slim picked up the overturned bucket and replaced the spilled oats and refilled the water trough from the barrel before heading back to the house. It was time to go talk to Jess.

When he got back to the house, Doc Benton was just emerging from his patient’s room.

“How is he Doc?”

“No change.” Looking at both their disconsolate faces, Thaddeus Benton felt the need to add a disclaimer to this. “No change means he hasn’t gotten any better, granted, but it also means he hasn’t gotten any worse and you have to see that as a good sign.”

Daisy smiled wanly. Well, he couldn’t have gotten much worse. She thought it, although didn’t verbalize it. That wouldn’t help anyone right now. “Well, you look tired Doctor Benton, and it’s getting late. Why don’t you get some rest? I’d be happy for you to use my room; I‘ve had all the rest I need. I’ll sit with him now.”

She rose from her chair, but her legs made a liar of her as they threatened to give way and she was forced to put out her hand to steady herself. In two strides, Slim was at her side guiding her back into the chair before she had a chance to protest.

“Sorry. Daisy, night shifts already taken. Doc, you take my bed. I’ll call you if there’s any change. Both of you.”

Daisy made to argue; however, one look at Slim’s face made her stop. He didn’t get that look very often, but when he did, there was no point arguing. His mind was made up. And he needed to spend time with Jess as much as she did.

“All right. I’ll do that. Come. Mrs. Cooper, I’ll escort you to your room.”

Ordinarily, fiercely independent Daisy Cooper would have protested, but she was grateful for the steady hand of the likeable Doctor guiding her to her door as she no longer trusted her legs to carry her the short distance. For the second time that day, and rather harshly, she chastised herself for being old and weak.

Slim watched her disappear into her room and hoped against hope she would find some rest and that she would awake to better news in the morning. “Thanks Doc. I owe you. We all do.”

“That’s alright, Mr. Sherman. It’s meeting people like Daisy Cooper that makes my job so worthwhile. Please don’t hesitate to call me if there is any change. Any at all. I am a very light sleeper. Good Night.”

“Don’t worry, I will. G’night.” Slim extinguished the oil lamps, leaving one burning, and retired to the room with his friend to begin his long vigil.

Slim had never seen him so motionless. If it wasn’t for the slow, almost imperceptible, rise and fall of his chest, there really would be nothing to suggest he was alive. His dark stubble of several days standing out starkly against the chalky white skin, the blankets molded around him to mid-torso level as if they were part of him. Unruffled. Undisturbed. Slim had shared a room with Jess for years, and as animated and full of life as Jess was when he was awake and moving around, he was usually just as much so at night, tossing, turning and mumbling in his sleep, more often than not kicking off all his covers. It had taken a while and a few disturbed nights, but Slim had gotten used to Jess’s restlessness. He figured Jess had had a colorful life before arriving at the Sherman Ranch and there were plenty of things from his past to revisit him in his dreams. Some of it he had gradually come to know about, but he was sure there was a whole lot more the intense younger man hadn’t told him about. However, he had always trusted that Jess would tell him what he needed to know if and when he was ready. But seeing him lying there now, so still, really unnerved him and Slim couldn’t get past the thought that it was his fault. Slim didn’t know if it would help, or even if Jess could hear him, but he needed to let his pard know that his efforts these past weeks hadn’t been in vain. And from an unashamedly selfish point of view, Slim needed to vocalize what had been twisting him up inside.

“Jess? I don’t know if you’ve figured it out yet, but you’re home, back at the Relay Station. You once told me that if you ever got shot, you wanted me around to carry you home. Well, I kept that promise, pard. And there’s something else. It don’t feel that important now, but I figure it might help some to let you know that we’re not going to lose the ranch. It’s a long story and I’ll tell you more when you’re feeling better, but I’ve realized that somewhere I got a little lost along the way and lost sight of what was important. I’ve made a lot of mistakes these past few weeks and I’m not proud of how I acted or the person I started to become. I got so tied up in knots worried about what would happen if the ranch was gone that I didn’t stop to notice what was happening to us: to Daisy, to Mike and to you Jess. You were riding all around the territory on my behalf, riding yourself into the ground when you still weren’t fully recovered from what happened at Stillwater Crossing and I didn’t see what it was doing to you. Then when you rode off to Billings, I started to finally see it and I never felt so lost in all my life.

“You’re the best friend I have ever had, or ever will have. And what sent me to the saloon that night, wasn’t that I thought the ranch was gone, that I had lost what my father had spent years building; wasn’t even that all of us would be turned out without a home, although that was part of it. I thought they would be the things that would really matter, but they weren’t. It was the thought that you had sacrificed your life for a dusty bit of land and I had let you. And I couldn’t forgive myself for that. So, wherever it is you’re locked away right now, I want you to get it into that stubborn mule head of yours that you’re family and you staying healthy means more to me than any stake in the dirt ever would. That’s all. Now you rest up. Doc says you need sleep and we’re going to make sure you get all you need. And some.”

Slim swallowed. It hadn’t been easy facing and admitting to his own shortcomings, but he felt better for getting it off his chest. He had always figured that Jess’s and his friendship had been forged in actions more than words. That was the way of things and neither of them had been particularly big on talking before now – especially Jess. This was different, though. If this was to have been his only chance to let Jess know how much his friendship really meant to him, then he was glad to have taken the opportunity. Slim patted his pard’s arm. Despite the still intense heat, that refused to abate, his skin still felt icy cold to the touch. He drew the blankets up more and settled down in his chair to continue the vigil.

For the remainder of the night, Slim Sherman did more talking and a whole lot more thinking, but it was a rite of passage that he both accepted and needed. In the weeks to come, he was to joke that it was the most talking he had done at Jess without him getting up and walking away or turning around and slugging him. Jess had retorted that the only reason he had come round at all was a desperate subconscious need to get away from Slim’s preaching. Slim had countered that; either way, it had had the desired effect. Gradually Jess had come back to them.

By the next morning, Jess still had not awoken, though his color was better and, upon examination, the doctor was satisfied his breathing and pulse were stronger. He instructed that if Jess woke, they were to try and give him some soup if he would take it, but to ensure they got some water into him. It would be a gradual process, but they would need to start rebuilding his strength. Such was Doctor Benton’s confidence in Jess’s improvement that he announced his intention to head into Laramie and take the opportunity to meet the local physician, Doc Webb, and compare professional notes. These opportunities, he had said with a twinkle in his eye, very rarely presented themselves these days. Whether that was wholly the truth of it or not, Slim was grateful for the time and space the intuitive Doctor was giving them for a few hours. He soon had the buckboard hitched up for him and ready to go.

Slim had been relieved by Daisy who, he was heartened to see, looked much better for the rest. He couldn’t prove it and of course the Doc would never have admitted to it and nor would Slim have forced him into a position of having to, but he was sure the Doc had helped Daisy’s sleep along a little with something extra in her coffee that night. Again Slim was grateful. The things they had to be grateful to Thaddeus Benton for were sure mounting up. Still, when the Doc had offered him a steaming cup of coffee when he had emerged from his vigil that morning, good as the aroma smelled and as sore in need of it as he was, Slim politely declined. Morning stage was due in and he still needed to keep things running around here. No good saving the ranch just to lose the stage line business. The doc had politely conceded, knowing when he was beaten and had headed off on his way.

You’d have thought Mose had struck gold, such was his reaction to hear that Jess seemed to have turned a corner and was on the road to recovery. For the first time in weeks, even months, if he was honest, Slim found himself smiling, truly smiling, to see the old man hopping up and down. Even more amusing was the reaction of the passengers, particularly a stern looking woman who clearly was distraught to think that this elderly buffoon was charged with her safe delivery to Cheyenne. He just wished Jess could see that reaction and know just how well he was thought of around here. You couldn’t tell Jess things like that. He had to see it for himself. It was good to see Mike smile as well. He had come out with Slim to change the teams. The boy had sure been doing more than his fair share of late. Despite his tender years, he had taken on more responsibility, been more of a man than any of them had the right to expect of him. As he horsed around with the old man, Slim smiled again. It was good to see him being a boy once more and he was grateful to Mose for helping bring that out.

Waving off the stage, the fatigue that he had been doing his best to fend off suddenly seemed to envelop him. With Jess out of danger, he figured if he tried again, he might be able to get some much-needed sleep. With Mike off working on his chores, he headed back into the house. The moment he headed through the door, though, he was struck by the aromatic odor pervading through the house. Soup? This soon after breakfast? Remembering the doc’s instructions Slims heart leapt. He headed for the kitchen where the delicious aroma was emanating from and where Daisy was busy beavering away.

“Jess awake?”

“Not yet, although I don’t think it’ll be long. He’s starting to stir and I want to have something ready for him when he does wake up. Maybe this aroma’ll help him come round too?”

Slim smiled. It was good to see her doing something other than fret and worry. The relief on her face was clear to see.

“Daisy, if the smell of that soup doesn’t do the trick, then nothing will. You know how much Jess loves your cooking. Why, he’s had to buy a whole new closet worth of clothes since you came here, such has your cooking filled him out.”

Daisy smiled. “Well, he’s going to need filling out again. And he’s not the only one either. I don’t suppose you’ve looked in the mirror lately? Now here, you take this bowl in with you. I would prefer you sit down and eat some breakfast, but I don’t suppose you’re going to rest until you’ve checked on him. Off you go now.”

Slim took the steaming bowl from her and set it down on the table and before she knew what hit her, had planted a kiss on her cheek. Before she could say anything, he had picked up the bowl and set off to sit with Jess. Daisy smiled. That was the way with those boys. Why use words when actions told you all you needed to know?

Slim sat down once more in the chair that he had only vacated an hour or so before. The doc was right, there was more color in his cheeks and his skin felt warmer to the touch. And yes, there were signs of movement; Jess had dislodged his good arm from under the covers and had it flung out to his right, as he was oft to do when lying flat on his back. His eyes were also flickering, pupils darting back and forth beneath the lids, indicating he was now in a more natural state of sleep instead of the deep unconsciousness he had previously resided in. Still, it could be a while before those brilliant blue eyes opened. Slim settled down in the chair to wait and was soon overcome with drowsiness. Instead of fighting it he allowed himself to be pulled down into the welcome embrace of a deep, refreshing and much needed sleep.

Awareness returned after what seemed like only seconds, but could have been minutes, even hours, Slim wasn’t sure. Something had awoken him ,though. In the foggy existence between sleep and wakefulness, eyes still closed, Slim had to think really hard about where he was. Then the sound came again. Barely audible, yet unmistakable.

“Slim?”

Full memory returned in an instant and, Slim was wide-awake, fully alert and by his partners side. “I’m here Jess. You had us all half scared to death for a while there. But you’re going to be fine.”

He was struggling to open his eyes, the effort of that one small task sapping what little strength he had. He managed, just a fraction, but enough for Slim to see their brilliant blue intensity and for Jess to focus on the best and only true friend he had ever had. His lips struggled to form the words.

“Home….saved?”

Slim smiled. It was sure good to hear Jess say that. “Yeah, pard, you’re home for good. We all are.”

Jess gave an almost imperceptible nod and drifted off again, but the strained look of the past weeks, months, had disappeared, to be replaced with a look of serenity and calm. He could sleep now, untroubled.

Slim picked up the now stone-cold, bowl of soup. That confirmed it; he must have slept for a good while before Jess had stirred. Still, he had needed it and felt much better for it. He headed out to the parlor where Daisy was sitting, sewing up a pair of Jess’s pants.

“Did I hear voices?”

“Yeah, he woke up just a little. Enough for me to tell him he was home. Then he drifted off again. Didn’t have a chance to get any of this into him, though.”

Daisy nodded. “Well, that’s alright. Plenty of time for that. Right now, he’s doing what he needs to. And you, Slim Sherman, need to eat too. I’ll call Mike and we can do something that we haven’t seemed to have done for weeks.”

“What’s that?”

Daisy looked at him exasperated. “Why, sit down and eat a meal together. Now is that too much to ask?”

Slim smiled. “No Daisy. I don’t reckon it is.”

*****

By that evening, Jess was alert enough to take some soup and ornery enough to insist if he had to be fed like a baby, it be Daisy and not Slim, whom he insisted, somewhat unjustly, would never let him live it down. That said, he begged for Slim to help him on with some under-draws first. Having Miss Daisy in the room when he knew he had nothing to cover himself besides the blankets was more than he could take. Slim understood that and also understood how much it took for Jess to ask his assistance with such a private task. After much tugging and pulling and politely looking the other way, the job was done with Jess, as weak as he was, threatening him with a decking if he ever mentioned it again.

“No arguments there.” Slim had assured him.

The Doc, returned from his sojourn into Laramie, had declared that his patient was now well enough for him to be left in Daisy’s care, but that he had made arrangements with Doc Webb to stop by in the next day or so to ensure the recovery was progressing the way it should. Come morning, he would pick up the stage and carry on with his interrupted journey into Cheyenne. Daisy, in particular, was going to be sorry to see the kindly Doctor go. In the short time he had been with them, he had given them so much, and not just in saving Jess’s life twice over. He had given them all thinking space when they had needed it and, even when things had seemed at their darkest, had chosen his words carefully so as not to make promises he couldn’t keep,  nor leave them entirely bereft of hope. Even Jess had benefited from the wise Thaddeus Benton. And not just from the medical care administered to him. No, Thaddeus Benton left Jess Harper with the benefit of his wisdom, words that he never shared with anyone from that day, yet stayed with him for the remainder of his life. Few, aside from those he shared a roof, with could ever boast of getting through to Jess Harper in such a way as Thaddeus Benton had.

Leaving Daisy strict instructions to administer regular doses of laudanum that would keep Jess resting and allow his body to recover (especially if he didn’t behave himself), Thaddeus Benton boarded the stage and waved goodbye to his new friends and promised to look in again on his way back. He fulfilled that promise and they were to see him many more times in the years to come on his regular journeys between Casper and Cheyenne. Yes, In Thaddeus Benton, a strong friendship had been forged that would never be broken.

As Jess’s recovery progressed things began to settle again. The routine of tending to the stage as it came in twice a day, and of every day life on a working ranch. The head of the bank from Denver – a squat, unremarkable looking man, Lester Singleton, – had arrived on the stage the next day and had taken the opportunity to speak to Slim personally when the teams were changed over. In light of Brady’s heavy-handed approach and in good faith to its customers, the bank had given an extra month’s amnesty to all landowners recently threatened with foreclosure to come up with the money, and then, for those who could not come up with the entire amount, a way of paying via installments would be set up. Even better, Jim Morgan had left the hospital in Cheyenne and would soon be recovered enough to resume light duties at the bank. Slim was glad to hear it and especially glad that Mort would get his quiet town back. Singleton offered to personally take the $300 for Slim, but he declined. Nope, this was his deposit and he wanted to make it personally. He owed that much to Jess. Besides, there was $1000, enough to pay the next installment to make things easier for a while, as well as some left over for a couple of ‘extras’. And so Slim had accompanied the stage into Laramie, promising Daisy that he would come right back again as soon as he had addressed the business matters he needed to take care of.

Yet, despite things starting to come back to a semblance of normality, after such a turbulent period in their lives, every one of them had the sense that something had changed and that things would never be exactly the same again. The stifling heat still hadn’t let up. The only change was that the stillness had been replaced with the return of the ominous hot Wyoming winds, winds that threatened to bring the fires burning away down South their way. Surely after all they had been through, fate couldn’t be so cruel as to now take everything away from them by fire? No, there was still very much a feeling of fear, of threat and of things being unresolved.

*****

They were the longest six days of his life. Well, perhaps that was an exaggeration; if he thought long and hard enough, Jess had probably experienced far more challenging and pressing periods of his life, but therein lay the problem. For those six days, Jess had little else to do but think. Sure, he had done more than his fair share of sleeping, partly dictated by his recovering body and partly by Daisy who found new and inventive ways of getting the laudanum into him when he displayed even the slightest frustration at his predicament. But in his ever-increasing waking hours, he had had a lot of time to think, to reflect and to re evaluate what was important in life, Thaddeus Benton’s words laying heavy on him.

Now, though, a corner had been turned; finally Daisy had allowed him up to share supper at the table with the rest of them. She had really gone to town, decorating the table as if it was Christmas, cooking up a real spread of a mixture of all three of their favorite foods. Jess had tried to recall the last time they had all sat at the table together and had figured it had been weeks,  even months maybe. No wonder it had seemed that they had all been growing apart.

Now Jess was sat out on the porch on the rocking chair, taking in what air there was in the oppressive heat. Lying in his room the past few days, he had listened to the howling hot wind as it had whistled around the ranch. He realized that was what was missing now. The wind had died, the sound of the crickets that had been temporarily drowned out by the maelstrom, now deafening in his ears. On the horizon, the orange glow that had dominated of late wasn’t as illuminating as usual against the starry sky. And come to think of it, that was something else that was missing. There were no stars. Without them noticing as they had taken supper together, the wind had brought with it dark and menacing clouds, and now it had left them; they hung ominously overhead, waiting to unleash their fury. The door opened, and without looking, he knew that his friend had joined him. It was time. He hadn’t seen that much of him the past three or four days or so. Jess had understood why to a point; with him laid up, the ranch and relay station wasn’t going to run itself. Things had changed, though, and Jess got the feeling that, whereas previously things hadn’t really needed to be said between them, recent events had turned that around and Slim had maybe been avoiding him, gathering his thoughts into some semblance of order in the same way that Jess had these past few days. He didn’t think it an accident that Daisy and Mike remained inside on this seemingly hotter than usual evening – Daisy by design and Mike by sufferance, he suspected. They had both been putting this off, but something had to give. It seemed now was the time to clear the air. As if on cue, the clouds overhead omitted an ominous rumble.

*****

Mike was frustrated. Both Jess and Slim had gone outside and here he was, being kept inside by Daisy finding any little chore she could for him. Right now, he had his hand outstretched whilst she wound her wool up around them. It was humiliating, that’s what it was. Especially when there was man talk going on outside that he should have been a part of. It was a good thing no one else could see him right now; he would never live it down.

Daisy looked at the scowl on his face. “Oh Mike. What a face! Give me that. I’ll do it later.” She took the wool away from him and set it back in her sewing box, and took out some of the steady supply of darning provided to her by her three young charges.

“Well, I was just thinking, Aunt Daisy. Can’t I go out on the porch with Slim and Jess? Can’t you hear the thunder out there? There’s goin’ to be a storm and I don’t want to miss it.”

“Yes, there’s definitely going to be some clearing of air before the end of the night, but I think there’s plenty of time yet, Mike. Jess and Slim need some time alone and I think we should give it to them.”

The cryptic nature of Daisy’s statement went entirely over Mike’s head, as, of course, she expected it would. He would understand such things in time. Mike had gone to the window and looked outside at the sky that was now lighting up with lightning bolts. There was no rain yet, although it couldn’t be far off.

“Aunt Daisy?”

“Yes Mike, what is it?”

He turned back to look at her, as serious looking as she had ever seen him. She wondered what was coming. “Is everything going to be alright now? Will things go back to the way they were?”

She set aside her darning. The boy deserved nothing less than her undivided attention on this one. “Well I don’t think things can ever go back to the way they were before.” Mike looked crestfallen at this; “But I do think it will be better than it was because I think we have all learned something from this experience.”

Mike looked at her quizzically. “How so, Aunt Daisy?”

She smiled and patted the arm of her chair, beckoning for him to come and stand by her, placing her arm affectionately around his small waist. “Well, people can get too close to each other and sometimes you need to take a step back from time to time and look at things with fresh eyes. We all got too complacent, made too many assumptions and failed to see beyond our own noses. Sometimes it’s not easy to face these things, but when you do, you come out the other side better for it. And that’s what Slim and Jess need to do now. Clear the air a little and then things can move forward. And then when we wake up tomorrow, it’ll be a fresh new day.”

Mike looked at her for a moment, trying to take it all in. The concept, however, was a little too much for a nigh-on 12 year old. “Well of course, Aunt Daisy; it always is a new day when you wake up.”

Daisy smiled. The metaphor was beyond him. He was still a little young for such concepts after all. One day he would understand.

*****

Slim stood on the porch looking at the lightning bolts now lighting up the sky. The storm was drawing closer. In the twilight, he looked down at his partner sitting on the rocking chair, legs stretched out and feet resting on the porch rail, still a little paler than he would have liked and a lot thinner but, then again, so was he. Still, nothing a few good meals wouldn’t fix, and if tonight’s supper was anything to go by, Daisy would certainly see to that. He offered his pard the cup of coffee he had brought out for him.

“Thanks”

“Looks like the storm is gonna break pretty soon.”

“Yeah, nothing like a good storm to ease the tension. Cool things down some. Looks like it’s gonna be a wild night.”

“Jess, I….”

“No Slim. Let me start. I ain’t always good at saying what I feel, but, these past few days, I’ve had a lot of time for thinkin’ and not much else and there’s a few things I gotta get off my chest.”

“Go ahead, Jess. I’m listening.”

“You know why I went to Billings?”

“Yeah. To help save the ranch.”

“Yeah, partly, but that wasn’t all of it.”

Slim waited for Jess to elaborate. However, he seemed to be struggling to find the words. “What else could there be?”

“Plenty. Truth was, Slim, I was scared.”

Slim was taken aback. They had once had a conversation where Jess had appeared to back down from a fight and Slim had challenged him on this. He had told him he didn’t believe that he was scared and Jess had told him there was a first time for everything. Jess had been lying then, but Slim didn’t feel that was the case now. “Scared? Of what?”

Jess swallowed against the dryness in his mouth. He took a swig of the coffee, but it didn’t help much. This was difficult for him, but it had to be said. “My whole life since I was 16 years old, I’ve been scared. Not scared of facing a fight, or dyin’, but scared of getting too close to anyone or any place. I figured if I didn’t care, then nothin’ could hurt me. Then I came here and met you and Andy and Jonesy and this place kinda grew on me, even though I didn’t want it to. So many times I tried to leave.”

“Yeah, I knew that, Jess. I knew there was something that kept you from putting down roots, but I figured you just needed to find the right place. Hoped, in time, it would be here.”

“Yeah well, I never wanted to get too cozy somewhere coz somethin’ always happened to pull the rug out from under me. Things from my past catchin’ up, people gunnin’ for me, and I didn’t wanna bring that trouble down on you.”

“I told you once before, this place wouldn’t be the same without you and your troubles.”

“I know. Let me finish, would you?” Jess didn’t want Slim to make it easy for him. He needed to face this. “I dunno, I reckon I got too cozy and I started to really like this place, really wanna put down roots. Then Andy went away to school and Jonesy went along with him and that was hard enough to deal with, and I guess I had to get some space to work it through.”

Slim pondered this, thinking back to the time Andy had gone off to school. He and Jess had been close from the very start. He hadn’t realized just how much the boy going off to school had affected him. “I remember. Just after Andy left you rode off to Fort Douglas to go deliver some horses for the Army. Wasn’t too happy you went off when you did with Andy and Jonesy gone as well.”

“Yeah, I know. But it was the perfect excuse to deal with how I was feelin’, and when I came back, I had it buried deep enough, or so I thought. Then Mike and Daisy arrived, and it all started again. Gettin’ attached to people; them growin’ on you, always scared that somethin’s gonna happen to ‘em.”

Slim thought back to a year or more ago. Suddenly a lot of things were making sense. “That time Mike got shot, after the bank hold up when you rode off to Chloride after that guy Mitch?”

Jess nodded. “Yeah, coz I just couldn’t stand around and watch Mike suffer and maybe die. I just couldn’t do it. I’m not as strong as you and Daisy; couldn’t take it. So I ran away. Like I always do…”

“Now hold on, Jess. Don’t be so hard on yourself. You got the men who hurt Mike and robbed that bank. You got justice for Mike and the people of Laramie.”

“Yeah, but not for the right reasons.”

Slim wasn’t going to accept that. “No Jess, I know you better than that. It’s no shame to not want to see the ones you care about in pain, especially after what happened with your folks. That and your time during the war, in the prison camp, well, you’ve seen a lot of suffering, maybe more than your share, but you’ve come such a long way. It’s no shame to admit to being scared of losing the people you care about, but it’s a waste if you let it get in the way of livin’.” He put his hand on his pards shoulder and could feel how much he was trembling. He knew just how much this was taking out of Jess and he waited for his friend to gather himself.

For what seemed like an age, there was silence, broken only by the rumbling overhead, gathering in intensity as the bolts of lightning lit up the sky, making the shadows dance. Then Jess found the courage to continue. To finally admit what he had lived in denial with since that day in Texas when everything he had held dear had gone up in smoke. “You know, Slim, I really was prepared to die to get that money for the ranch and thought I had finally found something worth dyin’ for, but having spent so long thinkin’ about it, dyin’ would have been the easy way out; dyin’ would have been easier than facing up to how I felt about what I was gonna lose. I guess I have had to face it these past few days; face my own fears about bein’ part of somethin’ and then losin’ it. Guess it made me forget what was important. I dunno, maybe I’m not makin’ much sense?”

“Yeah, you are. In fact I’ve never heard you make more sense.”

This broke the tension, Jess grinned, the first time Slim had seen him do so in months. It suited him. Jess punched him playfully. “Guess I walked plum right into that one.”

“Yep.” Slim smiled. The tension was easing. However, there were still things that needed to be said. He guessed it was his turn. Well, if Jess could do it, so could he.

“I think we’ve been guilty of the same thing, Jess. Not facing up to how we were feeling about things, our own fears. I got so twisted up worrying about losing the ranch, about my responsibilities to Andy, Daisy, Mike and you that I forgot what was really important. Daisy has been more worried than I have ever seen her – about the both of us. I’ve been guilty of neglecting Mike – expecting him to figure out things like a man would. But I guess if I’ve learned one thing lately it’s this: we all experience loss in our lives. We all have experienced loss. It’s inevitable. But if we go through life thinking about what we could lose all the time, then we forget to live and appreciate what we have right now. I guess we have all been guilty lately of thinking too far ahead and not focusing on the here and now. If we hadn’t, we’d have taken a bit more notice of what was happening to each other. I guess it takes something like this to make you recognize what’s important.”

Jess pondered a moment and then swallowed. “Yeah, Daisy said somethin’ like that before I rode off with that hole in my shoulder. I guess I wasn’t seein’ clearly back then, but now it makes perfect sense. Guess we’ve all got plenty of making up to do to each other; -to Mike and Daisy ‘specially.”

“Yep. No arguments there. But we got time. Which reminds me….” Slim reached into his vest pocket and pulled out a small package and handed it to Jess. “Here. Think you might need this.”

Jess looked taken aback. “What is it?”

Slim was exasperated; as if this wasn’t hard enough. “Well, if you just open it you’ll find out.” He moved away from the door he had been leaning on, over to the porch rail, his back turned to Jess. He felt it was better that way.

Jess took the package and slowly began to unwrap the brown paper to reveal a small velvet box. Flipping open the lid, it revealed a silver embossed pocket watch.

“Slim I….how …?” It wasn’t often that Jess Harper was lost for words, but this was too much.

Still looking ahead, not trusting himself to look back at his friend, explained. “When I brought you back, and the Doc and Daisy stripped you, they found your old watch had stopped. When you were out of danger, I went into Laramie to see if it could be mended, but it was beyond repair. So I figured you could use a new one.” He turned back to Jess, his compusure fully restored. “And before you get carried away, I got something for Mike and Daisy too; got Mike a new saddle and Daisy that hat she’d been admiring in the Milliners.” He looked sheepish. “Gonna be a while before I can face some of the town folk after being seen in a ladies shop.”

Jess didn’t know what to say; he flipped the watch over. On the back, in ornate lettering was engraved the initials JH. “But Slim, I can’t get you…”

“You already did; you got me a ranch.”

Jess was about to argue, but looking up at his friend, his expression told him all he needed to know. Talking was done. There was no further need for words beyond that. In the years to come, Jess treasured that watch. Not for what it was, but for what it represented to him. Never before or after had he been so touched by such a gesture of friendship. In that very intense moment, Jess had been immensely grateful for the interruption of a colossal rumble of thunder as the heavens finally opened.

Inside, Mike couldn’t be held back any longer and shot out the door like a thunderbolt. “Oh boy, it’s raining. We’ll be able to go swimmin’ at last.” He jumped at Jess, in his excitement forgetting his still fragile state. Slim smiled. Rain meant so much more to them than a swimming hole filling up, yet Mike’s enthusiasm was infectious.

“Hey easy Tiger, I’m still a sick man ya know!”

“Aw, Jess…”

“Well, if you’re still sick, then you ought to be in bed. Come on now.” Daisy had followed Mike out to watch the welcome storm and, as usual, her timing was impeccable.

“Not that sick.” The thought of any more time than necessary confined to bed filled Jess with horror. They all laughed at his sheepish expression, and soon he was joining them.

In the weeks and months to come, all Daisy had to do to get Jess to slow down was the threat of bed and he was putty in her hands. It became a standing joke for quite a while, but the laughter returned to the Sherman Relay station and it was very welcome.

“Well, alright, I’ll agree with you this time. No sick man could put away a plate of steak and potatoes and two helpings of my apple pie in one sitting.”

Jess grinned and rubbed his stomach. “Yeah, well, I gotta get my strength back, ain’t I? ‘Specially with tigers like this around.” With that, all fragility set aside, Jess grabbed at Mike and slung him over his knee, tickling him and mussing his hair, much to the boy’s delight.

Daisy smiled, enjoying the laughter, enjoying the rain and enjoying the clear night air. Slim had walked to the end of the porch, his hand held out beyond the protection of the verandah, feeling the fresh cool water on his skin. He felt a small hand on his arm and looked down. Daisy was at his side, looking out at the beautiful display of color illuminating the night sky. He placed his other hand over hers and squeezed. For a few minutes, neither of them said anything, both of them taking in the sweet smell of wet earth, the rumbling of thunder and the hysterical laughter of a young boy.

It was Daisy who spoke first. “Looks like the storm has finally broken.” It might have been stating the obvious, but they both knew she was talking about more than the rain.

“Yep, surely has.”

“I’m glad. I always get such a sense of renewal after a storm. I’ve a feeling tomorrow’s going to dawn a beautiful day.”

And Slim had no doubts whatsoever that she would be right.

***The End***

 

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: Thanks to Nan Thaler for her initial advice in writing my first ever “Laramie’ story and helping me realize it takes more than 8 days to get to Billings and back! A big thanks, too, to Mary Brown for setting me on the right path with Slim.

 Beta reading can be a thankless task but it’s all about delivery and both Nan and Mary have always been honest when they have had to correct me, and their positive and encouraging approach made all the difference. That said I take full responsibility for any errors of a grammatical or contextual nature. Thanks!

Return to Helen C’s homepage

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.