Word Count: 18,400
Jess Harper sat at his usual table in the back of the saloon with a leave-me-the-hell-alone look on his face. He had a bottle and a glass and that was all the company he wanted.
He had just had one of the most miserable afternoons of his life and all he wanted was to forget it. For that he needed help…the bottle. He sat alone, his mood dark, until the bottle was almost empty. Then he stood, not too steadily, and started for the door. Guess it’s time to head home. HOME! Ha! What home? Hadn’t he just had a knock-down, literally, fight with his boss, Slim Sherman? Jess had only worked for Slim for a few months and he had had enough jobs to know when you punch out the boss it’s time to get gone.
Jess wandered out into the street and up to his horse. He put his forehead to Traveler’s neck and steadied himself for a minute. It took more effort than usual to get in the saddle but he made it. He looked around the darkened streets of Laramie and sighed. He had really begun to like this town. He was beginning to think it might be the first place he wanted to call home in a long, long time. Well, you blew it this time, Harper. Nice goin’, he thought to himself. One more look and he turned his horse south. Away from the ranch.
Slim Sherman, Andy and Jonesy, sat quietly at dinner. They all looked at the empty chair at the table.
“Slim, where’s Jess?” asked Andy.
“I don’t rightly know, Andy. He didn’t say where he was goin’…when he…left.” Slim gave Jonesy a look.
Jonesy spoke up and said, “Guess he just took himself a night in town, is all. I’m sure he’ll be back by morning.” But he wasn’t sure.
After Andy had gone to bed, Slim and Jonesy sat on the porch and drank their coffee. “Do think he’ll come back, Jonesy?” Slim wondered. After his father’s death, Slim had come to depend on Jonesy for lots of things. One of those things being the wisdom of his years.
“Walllll, I don’ know. I was just beginning to think he might stay permanent…but, I guess with that boy, you jist never know. He’s use to pullin’ up stakes and movin’ on whenever the mode hits and I’m not sure a few months here has changed that.” Then he added, “What did you fight about?”
Slim turned to Jonesy, “How did you know?”
Jonesy looked at the tall rancher and said, “Well, Jess ain’t here and you didn’t get that bruise on your chin from no doorknob.”
Slim rubbed his face and smiled, “That boy packs a wallop, you know that? It was this afternoon, we were working on the fences in the south section and he said it was time to quit….”
“And you said it wasn’t?”
“Yeah,” Slim sighed, “we had some words…and then…well, I guess you can figure out the rest.”
“Guess I kin.”
“Why is it, Jonesy, that he can make me so mad and yet he leaves a big hole when he’s not around. I thought he liked it here.”
“Slim, you and that boy have traveled down two very different roads. Each of them roads have made you who you are. You two are like the two ends of a broom. One is the guiding, steady end and the other is the moving, stirin’ up dust end. You fit together…tight. And together, you git the job done.”
Slim thought for a long moment and then he said, “It sure is gonna be hard on Andy if he doesn’t come back.”
Jonesy gave a little smirk and said, “Yeah, hard on….Andy. Well, guess it’s about that time…morning comes early. You comin’, Slim?”
“Uh, you go on ahead…I’ll be in… in a while. Night, Jonesy.”
Jess used a trick he had learned from years on the drift. He slept in the saddle. Traveler picked his way along in the night and when the sun was raising its orange head over the horizon he pulled up to a familiar corral and stopped. Now, it was his turn to rest.
Jess felt a gentle touch on his leg. It took great effort but he finally got his eyes opened. “What? Where am…? Oh, Slim… Sorry. I didn’t know Trav brought me here.”
He had a pain in his neck from letting his head hang down too long and a raging headache from the previous night’s libations. He eased himself off his horse and went to the water trough where he completely submerged his head. When he came up, he tried to shake off the excess water and found that was a bad idea. So, he wiped his face with his sleeve and let the rest of the water drip down his back.
“Sorry, Slim…didn’t mean to bother you.”
Slim looked at Jess and said, “You look awful…want a cup of coffee?”
“Naw, thanks anyway. Guess I better get goin’.”
“Where you goin’?”
Jess gave Slim a where-do-you-think-I’m-goin’ look and said, “Down the road. Look for a job.”
“What’s the matter with the job you have here? You gonna leave me short-handed?”
“Well, I thought, after yesterday…uh, usually when you slug the boss you’re not so welcome any more.”
“Look, Jess.” Slim started, “I don’t know if you are aware of this or not but I consider you a friend…a pretty good friend. I didn’t just offer you a job. I offered you a home and a family…my family. I know that we don’t always agree and that’s fine. But, you don’t have to pull up stakes every time we have a little…disagreement. You’re wanted and….needed here. So the job and the home…and the family… are still yours…if you want them.”
Jess was overwhelmed. He had never been offered so much in all his life. It took a minute for it to register what he was being given and then his face lit up and with blue eyes sparkling he said, “Heck yeah! I want ‘em!”
Slim put both his hands on Jess’ shoulders and said, “Good! Glad to hear it!” And then he shoved Jess backward into the water trough. When Jess came up sputtering, Slim pointed his finger at Jess and said, “THAT’S for sluggin’ me!” Then he grinned and walked towards the house.
THREE YEARS LATER….
Daisy Cooper was up before light, as usual. She poured two cups of steaming coffee and went to her “boys’” room. She tapped lightly on the door and said, “Slllllim, Jesssss, coffee!” When she got no response she opened the door, just a bit. She fully expected to see lights on and her boys getting ready to start the day. All she saw was darkness. She opened the door a bit wider and saw blond hair on a pillow. Slim’s arm was thrown across his face and the covers were pulled up to his chin. In the other bed, she saw dark hair on that pillow. Long-john covered legs and bare arms were sticking out from the bed. One blanket was barely covering a backside. The rest of the bedclothes were in a pile on the floor. A big smile crossed Daisy’s face. Her boys…so different, yet as close as two people could be and so very close to her heart.
Daisy quietly closed the door and decided she would let them sleep. Breakfast could wait. She knew her youngest boy, Mike, would sleep until someone woke him up. It would be nice to have a little time to herself.
Daisy was sitting by the fire, doing some mending, when Slim emerged from the bedroom. “Why didn’t you wake us up, Daisy? We should have been up a long time ago.”
“What for, dear?” and then she added. “It’s raining, it’s Sunday and you and Jess needed to rest. She looked around Slim, “Where is Jess?”
Just then, shirt hanging loose and unbuttoned, boots in hand, and yawning, Jess entered the room. “Mornin’, Daisy. Why did you let us sleep so long?”
Daisy rose and gave Jess a pat on the cheek. “Looks like you could have used a little more, Jess.”
“Yeah, I could. But Mr. Up-And-At-‘Em would never allow that!”
Daisy went to the kitchen and returned with two cups of steaming coffee. “Here you go, dears.” Then she said, “I was thinking that the two of you could spend some time with Mike today. It’s already pouring and it’s Sunday and you two have been so busy lately he has hardly even seen you.”
Slim looked at Jess yawning again and nodded. “Yeah, I guess we have sort of been neglecting him lately. I’m sure we can find something to do with him today…what say, Pard?”
Jess looked up through lashes so long his sleepy blue eyes were hardly visible. “Fine with me. I’ll be glad to take a nap with him.” And he gave Daisy and Slim a wily grin.
It was decided to let Mike sleep as long as he wanted and then let him choose what they would all do.
As they sat at breakfast, Slim and Jess noted that the weather was really becoming fierce. There were lightning flashes and thunder booms that rattled all the windows of the house. As Jess was finishing up his coffee, Slim was looking out the window into the yard. “It really is kicking up out there. It won’t be long and we can take Mike swimming in the front yard.”
Jess put down his coffee cup and said, “The horses must be having fits with this weather. I better go check on ‘em.” He went to get his slicker.
“Oh, Jess, do you really have to go out in this weather? Can’t you wait until it lets up some?” Daisy knew he was going to get soaked.
“Can’t, Daisy. One of those fool horses might hurt himself fussin’ around in his stall.”
“Need some help?” Slim offered.
“Nope, no use both of us getting pneumonia.” And he was out the door before Daisy could say “Jessssss, don’t talk like that!”
Jess ran full force to the barn but slicker or no slicker he still got wet. Just as he opened the barn door, there was more lightning and thunder. He tried to close the door as quickly as possible but the fiercely blowing wind made it a muscle-wrenching job.
As he entered the barn, he was met by wild eyes, stamping hooves and shrill whinnies. “Okay, boys. Take it easy. It’s just a little noise.”
Jess walked over to the horses and began to gently pat their flanks and talk softly to them. He put out some fresh water and grain, thinking breakfast might help to take their minds off the weather. Traveler and Alamo, Jess’ and Slim’s horses, were soothed by the familiar voice and the affectionate touches. But, stabled in between the two was a large, piebald gelding Slim had taken in trade for some beef. He was green-broke and Jess had put him in between Traveler and Alamo hoping the steady stable mates would have a good effect on him. However, he was young and new to his surroundings. The weather was playing havoc with his nervous system and he was stamping and kicking at the sides of his stall. Jess took him by the halter and led him to the center of the barn, talking softly to him and rubbing his muzzle. Jess began leading him to one of the barn’s support beams to tie him to it. He thought a full rub down might help to sooth him even more.
Just then, Slim opened the door to the barn and said, “Hey, Jess…you need any hel…”
But he never got to finish his sentence. At that moment, there was a brilliant flash of lightening, the tumultuous wind ripped the door from Slim’s hand and it slammed against the side of the barn…hard. This was followed by the loudest thunder yet!
That was all it took to send the newcomer completely over the edge. With strength of youth and rage of a beast, the horse reared and pulled Jess completely off his feet. He swung around and slammed Jess against the barn’s support beam. As Jess’ limp form hit the floor, the terrified youngster made straight for the open door. Slim barely had time to jump into an empty stall before the horse roared by to freedom. There would be no stopping him.
As soon as the horse was out of the barn, Slim was up and running to Jess. The back of his head had a long gash and was bleeding profusely. Slim threw his pard over his shoulder and ran for the house.
A sodden and distraught Slim burst into the kitchen and shouted, “Daisy! Daisy! Come quick! Jess has been hurt!”
When Daisy saw the blood flowing from Jess’ head she gasped and said, “Oh, my God! Slim, what happened?” She took the towel she was using to dry the breakfast dishes and pressed it against Jess’ wound.
“That fool horse slammed him against a beam in the barn,” Slim said as he carried Jess to his bed.
“Slim, get him out of those wet things before he gets a fever,” Daisy ordered. “I’ll get my bag.”
While Slim was stripping Jess, Daisy set about to collect her medical supplies and fresh bandages (a staple around Sherman household). Since coming to live at the ranch she had used her medical training on all the boys…one certain one more than the other two.
Slim was just pulling the blankets over Jess when Daisy entered the bedroom. “Turn him over, Slim. I need to get to the back of his head.”
While Slim was turning his pard over, Daisy instructed him to get out of his own wet clothes while she tended to Jess. “I’m fine, Daisy,” Slim said as he adjusted Jess’ head to make it easier on her.
“Slim Sherman, I’m going to need you to help with Jess and how will you be able to help me if you have a cold or a fever or worse from wearing wet clothes? And what if you give it to Jess and he has to battle both a head wound and respiratory problems just because you were too stubborn to listen to me and…”
“Okay…okay, Daisy…I’ll change. I’ll be right back.”
Slim knew Daisy was not really scolding him; she was just worried about Jess. He grabbed some dry clothes and went to change.
“Slim…” Daisy said in a much softer voice, “I’ve put some water to boil. When you’ve finished changing, would you please see if it is ready and bring it in here?” Daisy had already decided the only way to get Jess’ head to stop bleeding was to stitch it closed. She knew Jess wouldn’t like it but she was going to have to shave a patch of his hair — it was so thick — before she could begin to stitch.
Daisy had been a nurse during the war and she had stitched many wounds that the too few doctors deemed so minor their attention was not warranted. She was quite accomplished at this task.
She got a razor from the boys’ wash area and searched her bag until she found a surgical needle and some thread.
Slim returned, dry, and with the hot water. Daisy cleaned her instruments and then set about to shave, clean and stitch Jess’ head. She was thankful he was not conscious. She didn’t know how she would have managed if she knew he could feel every stick of the needle. She then put a large pad on the wound and wrapped another bandage around Jess’ head to hold the other in place. She and Slim turned Jess over to his back and Daisy placed her hand on his chest to check that his heart was beating normally. She took a cloth and gently washed the dirt from the barn off his face. She smoothed the bedclothes and arranged them neatly. When she was finally finished, she let out a long sigh. Slim put his hands on her shoulders and said, “Nice job, Daisy. When his hair grows back, the waves all the girls are so crazy about will cover any scar.”
“Thank you, dear,” said Daisy. She gave his hand a gentle squeeze. She could always count on Slim to say something to make her feel better.
He gave her a small smile and said, “Let me make you some fresh coffee and you can sit for a while until Mike comes bounding in and we have to tell him about Jess.”
Jess had been unconscious for almost an hour. Slim and Daisy had put cool cloths to his head, talked to him, massaged his arms, anything they could think of to bring him around. But they had gotten no response. Slim was sitting in a chair by his bed when, finally, foggy blue eyes opened…
“Hey, Pard! How you feelin’? Boy! That was some knock you took. Sure am glad to see you awake.” Slim was smiling ear to ear.
Jess gave a slight moan and tried to bring things into focus. “Hmmmm…thir…sty…” was all he could manage.
“Sure thing…here you go…” Slim helped Jess raise his head to sip the offered water. As soon as his head was raised, a wave of dizziness hit and his head began to swim.
Slim grabbed the wash bowl by the bed and held it for Jess. Once he had deposited all his breakfast in the bowl, Jess lay back on the bed with a low moan. He seemed to drift away almost immediately.
Slim quietly left the room to go and tell Daisy the news.
Though fraught with concern, Daisy made the effort to sound as professional as possible. “Well, with a head wound like that, I’m not surprised he was sick. But it is a good sign that he woke up. We’ll just have to keep a close eye on him. Did he say anything?”
“Not much. He asked for some water, and as soon as he drank it, he was sick.” With worry lines invading the young rancher’s fine features, he added, “You think he’s okay?”
“I don’t know…let’s give him a little more time, and if he doesn’t come around fully, we can have the doctor out. I’m not sure he can do anything more than we’ve already done. I’ll make some broth for when he wakes up again.”
Slim was very confident of Daisy’s nursing skills and he trusted her judgment but he would have felt a whole lot better if Jess had talked to him for a little bit.
Mike was up and had to be told about Jess’ accident. “Is he gonna be okay?” Apprehension filled his small face.
“Sure, Tiger, he’s gonna be fine. Might have a headache for a while, so we need to sorta be quiet, but he’ll be okay in a few days.”
As Slim went to sit by Jess’ bed again, Mike followed along. When Slim sat down in the chair by the bed, Mike crawled into his lap and rested his head on Slim’s shoulder. “He don‘t look so good. You sure he’s gonna be okay?? Really sure?” He wanted to know as he stared at Jess’ still form.
“Well, Daisy says he is. That‘s good enough for me.” Slim tried to sound more reassuring than he felt.
Jess roused a couple more times during the day. Each time he took a little water and each time the dizziness and nausea grabbed hold of him. He didn’t seem to be able to keep anything down so all he was offered was water.
After supper, it didn’t take much for Slim to convince Daisy and Mike to turn in early. They were both exhausted. Daisy knew that, just like many times before when Jess was sick or hurt, Slim would only remove his boots and then stretch out on his bed. At the slightest sound, he would be up and tending to Jess’ needs. She had seen him go for days on just a couple of hours sleep, but he never complained. When caring for a member of his family, he was untiring.
The next morning, when Jess woke up, Daisy was sitting by his bed. “Oh, Jess, it is so good to see you awake. You have had us very worried. Want to try and take a little water?” Daisy helped him sit up slightly so he could drink.
After the water, Jess looked at Daisy with dazed blue eyes and, in barely above a whisper, said, “Thank you… ma’am.” This time the water stayed down.
Daisy just chuckled and said, “Well, aren’t we the gentleman today.” She helped him settle back and began to straighten the covers on his bed.
Daisy heard the kitchen door close quietly and looked to see a small face peeping around the bedroom door. “Oh, Mike. Look who‘s awake! Come in, dear. I’m sure Jess will be glad to see you.”
Mike went to Jess’ bedside and started babbling, “Boy, Jess, I sure am glad to see you awake. I sure was worried about you. I didn’t think you would ever wake up.”
Daisy could see a pained look on Jess’ face and said, “Now, Mike, settle down. I’m not sure Jess is ready for that much talk. Why don’t you sit quietly with him and I’ll go heat some broth.” She gave Mike a gentle pat and sat him in her chair.
But Mike was not satisfied being in the chair. He had to be closer to his hero. So, gently, he moved to sit on the bed next to Jess and put his small hand on top of Jess’ larger one.
Jess looked down at the slight hand resting on his and then looked into Mike’s eyes. He tried to say something but his voice was still not working properly. He closed his eyes for a moment, took a few deep breaths and whispered one word, “Sssss…lim?”
Mike was up in a flash, “Sure, Jess. I’ll get him for you!” And he was running out the front door and into the yard yelling, “Slim! Slim! Jess is awake! He wants you! Slim!”
Slim was in the yard taking care of the relay team he had removed from the morning stage. “Take it easy, Mike. I’m right here.” He grabbed the boy up in his arms and gave him a big hug. “Ain’t it great, Mike? He’s been awake several times. But, he’s still not feeling too good, so we need to keep it a little quieter…okay?” Then he and Mike walked back to the house.
When the tall rancher and the small boy reached the bedroom, they found Daisy feeding Jess some broth. “Boy, Pard, it sure is good to see you eating.” Jess took a couple more mouthfuls and then, with great effort, said, “Talk…SSSlim…a…lone.”
Daisy gave Slim a knowing look and then said, “Come on, Mike. I need some help in the kitchen.”
“Aw, Aunt Daisy, I want to stay. Jess just woke up and…”
“Now, Mike, Jess needs Slim’s help and we need to give them some privacy.” She put her hands on Mike’s shoulders and led him from the room. On the way out, she closed the door.
“Okay, Pard….I guess you need to…uh, I’ll get the…”
“No,” was all Jess could get out.
“You hurtin’?” Slim was trying to figure out what Jess could possibly want.
Again, Jess mouthed, “No.”
Slim sat in the chair by Jess‘ bed and said, “I’ll wait, Jess…take your time. Here, have a sip of water and then tell me what you need.”
Jess sipped the water, waited a moment and then asked, “Who…are…” Deep breath, talking was taking all the strength he had. “Who are…those…people? Jonesy? And…y?”
For a moment Slim stared at Jess too confused to speak. “What do you mean…Jonesy and Andy??? Don’t you remember where they are? You know Daisy and Mike.” Slim realized he was beginning to babble like Mike.
In another whisper, Jess answered, “No.”
Slim moved to sit on the edge of Jess’ bed and cleared his throat, giving himself time to think. As he gently rubbed Jess’ shoulder, he said, “Uh, look Jess. You’ve had quite a blow to the head. You’ve been unconscious and sick. It’s only natural that things are a little fuzzy.”
Slim didn’t know if it was confusion, pain, or exhaustion but Jess closed his eyes and began to rub his head. “Ah, tell you what, Jess. I think we’ve talked enough for now. Why don’t you rest and when you wake up again we’ll talk more.
Jess just whispered, “Sure,” and closed his eyes. He didn’t have the strength to argue.
Slim stood a few minutes and watched Jess sleep. He stood, stunned, frozen to the floor. How could Jess not remember Daisy and Mike? Jess had recognized Slim right off. This was going to upset Daisy to no end. She was so excited about Jess coming around and now this. Well, he couldn’t stay in the room forever. He had to go out and give Daisy the news. But how? How was he going to tell this kind, sweet, loving lady that the “son” she loved so dearly didn’t know who she was? Slim would have given just about anything he owned for someone to do this job for him. But there wasn’t anyone. He took a moment to gather himself and then opened the door.
Daisy and Mike came from the kitchen and, wiping her hands, Daisy asked, “Did you get everything taken care of, Slim?”
“Uh, yeah, Daisy…it’s fine. He’s back asleep. Say Mike, do me a favor will you? Go play in your room for a while. I need to talk to Daisy.”
“Aw, Slim, why do I always gotta go to my room when the grown-ups talk? I wanna know what’s going on, too.”
“I know you do, Tiger. But, please, do me this favor right now. I’ll tell you all about it later…promise.”
As Mike went off to his room, Daisy looked at Slim anxiously. “What is it, Slim?”
“Let’s get a cup of coffee and sit down for a minute” He began to pour a cup for each of them.
Now Daisy was really getting concerned. “Tell me, Slim. What is it?”
When Slim had told her about his conversation with Jess, Daisy sat and stared just as he had. Though elated just moments before, Daisy now sat completely devastated. “I don’t know what to say, Slim. How…why…I…I just don’t know what to say.”
“Daisy, what are we going to do?”
As always, Daisy reached down and drew upon her vast inner courage. “There is only one thing to do — give him time. I’m sure his memory will come back in a little while. But… maybe we should have the doctor out.”
“I’ll go first thing in the morning.”
The next day Slim was up and back with the doctor before Daisy had finished making breakfast. Daisy thought Slim must have pulled the doctor out of his bed to get him there so early.
She was helping Jess drink some water when the doctor walked in.
Doctor Webb was around the same age as Slim and Jess. Though young, he was very accomplished at handling even the most difficult patient. “Morning, Jess. Glad to see that you’re awake. How are you feeling this morning?” Slim had filled the doctor in on what was going on so he was prepared for any reception he got.
Jess just stared blankly at the doctor. Then he noticed the bag. “Uh, better. Where’s…Doc Martin?”
The doctor gave Slim and Daisy a look. He had been in Laramie for well over a year and had been to the Sherman ranch many times. “Well, he’s not here right now. I’m filling in for him. Let’s have a look at you.” The doctor began his examination. He removed the bandage from Jess’ head and said, “Looks good. No new bleeding and there doesn’t seem to be any infection. A few more days and the stitches can come out.” Then he felt for Jess’ pulse and listened to his heart. They were both normal. He then reached into his bag and pulled out a short glass tube. “Open your mouth, Jess.” When he did as asked, the doctor stuck the glass tube in and pushed Jess’ chin up so his mouth was closed. “Now hold still for a while.” For once, Jess was cooperating without much fuss.
Daisy looked at Jess with the tube sticking from his mouth and asked, “What is that, Doctor?”
“It’s something new to medicine…invented by an English doctor. It’s called a thermometer. It will tell us if Jess has a fever or not. Much better than the hand to the forehead.” The doctor seemed pleased to be knowledgeable of this new invention. After a few minutes the doctor removed the tube and turned it on its side. “No fever, Jess. That’s good. Does your head hurt much?”
“Yeah, hurts like a sonofa…” He looked at Daisy. “It hurts some.”
“I can leave you some powders for the pain. And, I want you to stay in bed for a few more days. Eat. And drink as much as you can. But, no coffee…not yet. And, above all, rest. I’ll be out in a couple of days to check on you and remove the stitches. Say, Jess, do you remember how you got hurt?”
“I sure do…Slim pushed me in the horse trough.” He gave Slim a slight grin…the first in a long time.
“That’s a pretty bad gash from being pushed in a water trough. You sure that’s how it happened?”
“Guess ol’ Hardrock there don’t know his strength.”
Slim looked confused. “Jess, I never pushed you.”
“Geez, Slim, I’m the one with the bum head. Don’t you remember? We had a fight…I…slugged you…and then I got dru…er…had a few drinks…and you…pushed me in the horse trough.” Jess closed his eyes. This was the most he had said since the accident and he was beginning to tire. He began rubbing his head.
The doctor spoke up. “That’s enough for now. I’m going to give you a powder for the pain and I want you to try and sleep.”
Jess started to argue and say he didn’t need any medicine but Daisy was quick with the water. The doctor mixed the powder in the glass of water and Daisy held it out to Jess. She had a look on her face that said there was little point to arguing. “All of it, please.”
Jess drank it all. But he got out, “Ug…nasty.” just to let everyone know how displeased he was. He could have saved what little breath he had. No one cared if he thought it tasted bad; it was good for him and that was all that mattered.
Slim, Daisy and the doctor quietly left the room and closed the door behind them. The doctor led them to the kitchen where they could talk without Jess hearing them.
The first thing the doctor wanted to know was, “Slim, what is this about you pushing Jess? I thought a horse caused the accident.”
“It did! Doc, all that stuff Jess just said is true — it all happened — but it happened THREE YEARS ago! Not too long after he got here. What’s the matter with him?”
The doctor thought for a moment, then he said, “Well…the brain is a funny thing. I know there’s been some swelling. It must be going down and that’s why he’s now awake. However, it seems to have caused a loss of memory. Usually, it is the entire memory that is wiped out by an injury such as Jess’, but I have heard of partial memory loss.
“What can we do, Doc?”
“Not much, I’m afraid. We will just have to give him some time. But don’t push him. His memory needs to return on its own. The harder you push, the longer it may take.”
“What do we say when he begins to ask questions? He already wants to know about Daisy and Mike.” Slim knew he would be the one to answer his questions and he wanted to get it right.
“As always, I’m sure the truth is best. But keep it simple. Don’t embellish. Tell him what he wants to know and no more. Like I said, I’ll be back in a couple of days. If you need me…well, you know.”
Daisy and Slim both thanked the doctor and Slim walked him to his buggy. Away from Daisy’s ears, Slim asked, “You sure he’ going to be okay, Doc?”
The doctor saw the worry and confusion on the young rancher’s face and he did not like what he had to say. “I wish I could say that I was sure…but I can’t. The wound looks good and I don’t foresee any problem there. However, the memory loss is another matter all together. I just don’t know. I’m hopeful he will regain his full memory, but…it will be a wait and see process. I’m so sorry, Slim. I truly do wish I could tell you more.”
“I know you do, Doc. Thanks. I‘m sure he‘ll be fine.” But Slim’s face belied his words.
Later, when Slim brought Jess his lunch, he sat with him as he ate. When Jess had all he wanted he said, “Slim, I need some answers.”
“I know, Jess, but why don’t we let your lunch settle and you rest a little. The doc said for you to take one of these powders after you ate.”
“Not this time, Pard. THIS time you’re gonna do as you’re told.” Slim mixed the powder and water as the doctor had instructed and gave Jess a look that said he meant what he said. Jess took the glass and drank. He made a grimace, but Slim just smiled. Let him try to work this, he thought…it won’t do any good. It wasn’t long before Jess was sleeping restfully. If he noticed the familiar “Pard” Slim had let slip out, he said nothing.
When Slim returned the dishes to Daisy, she asked, “How is he?”
“Well, he did eat the broth. He wanted to ask some questions but I put him off…at least for a while. I gave him the medicine and he‘s asleep.”
“Slim, I’m sure all Jess needs is some time. Some time to come to himself, some good food and rest…and some prayer.” (A great deal of prayer, thought Daisy.) “And I intend to see that he gets just that.” Then she set about to fix lunch for the rest of her family.
Jess slept all afternoon. When he awoke, he found Daisy sitting by his bed. “Hello, Jess, how are you feeling, de…? Um, do you think if I made you an egg you could eat it?? You really need to try and start taking solid food.”
Jess looked at her with confusion. Though she was very kind, it made him uneasy to wake up to a strange lady sitting by his bed. “Okay, I’ll try,” was all he could get out.
A few minutes later Daisy returned with a tray. She had scrambled Jess an egg, made a piece of toast and brought him a glass of milk.
Daisy put down the tray and helped Jess into a sitting position. She placed a napkin across his chest and the tray on his lap. Then she sat in the chair by his bed.
Since it seemed as though she was going to sit with him while he ate, Jess said, “Thank you, ma’am. But you didn’t have to serve me. I could have come to the table.”
“The doctor said to stay in bed for a few more days and you are going to do just that. I haven’t spent time nursing you for you to overdo it now.”
“Oh, so you’re a nurse.”
“Yes, I was a nurse in the war. And I still keep my hand in…when needed. Now, this is your first solid food in a while so eat slowly.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Jess ate without any more talking.
When he was finished, he said, “Thank you, ma’am.”
Daisy looked at the untouched glass of milk and then at Jess. “It will do you good,” was all she said. From the look on her face, Jess knew he had no choice. Once the milk was gone, he said again, “That was real good, ma’am.”
Though not one unkind word was spoken, Daisy felt such deep emptiness. All the love and caring that she and Jess shared was hidden from him. Hidden in a place he could not find. All the wonderful times they had had together were lost to him. She felt helpless. She knew how to treat wounds of the body, but how do you treat wounds of the mind? Time and prayer were still all she could think of…and she was willing to give him plenty of both.
“But why, Slim? How come Jess don’t know me? Don’t he love us anymore?”
It had been decided that Slim would tell Mike about Jess’ memory loss. After supper, Slim asked Mike to sit with him on the porch. He said he wanted to have a man-to-man talk with him.
“Of course Jess still loves us, Mike. He just doesn’t…know he does. He’s had a hard hit to his head and he’s been sick. And we have to give him time to heal. Remember when you broke your arm? Even when the doctor took off the cast, your arm was still not like before. It took you a while to get it back to normal. Well, we have to give Jess time for him to get his head back to normal.”
“How long is it gonna take? I miss him, Slim. He don’t…he don’t call me ‘Tiger’ no more.” Mike crawled into Slim’s lap and buried his face in Slim’s shoulder. Slim could feel the young boy shaking and he could hear sniffling.
“I know just what you mean,” Slim said as he rubbed Mike’s back. It had been a while since he heard the word, ‘Pard’ and he missed it as much as Mike missed ‘Tiger’.
Slim held Mike for a few minutes and let him release his emotions. Then he said, “Look, Tiger. Daisy and I are going to really need your help. Can you be a brave boy and be patient with Jess? We need to try and act like everything is okay…for Jess’ sake. The doctor said we can’t push him into remembering. We just have to wait and let him remember on his own. Think you can do that?”
Mike sat back from Slim’s shoulder and wiped his face with his sleeve. “I’ll do the best I can, Slim. Promise. I’ll be real good!”
“I knew we could count on you, Tiger. Now, I think it’s someone’s bedtime.” Slim gave Mike another big hug, ruffled his hair and sent him off to bed. He sat outside for a few more minutes and then went in and told Daisy he was going to check on Jess.
Slim opened the bedroom door and stuck his head in. At the sound of the door opening, Jess turned his head and said, “Come in, Slim. I’m not sleeping. Just thinking.”
“How’s your head?”
Slim knew that for Jess to say even that much he must be in a lot of pain. “How about some more of the powder medicine?”
“In a minute…but first you got to answer me some questions.”
“I know, Jess.” Lord, please help me say the right things. “Go ahead…ask.”
“Where are Andy and Jonesy?”
“Andy is at school back east and Jonesy went with him. Now Daisy and Mike live here…with you and me.”
A strange look came over Jess’ face and he asked, “You didn’t push me, did you?
Slim hoped Jess could take what he was about to say. He took a deep breath and then… “Yes, Jess, I did push you and all those other things really happened, too. It’s just…just…”
“It’s just what? Slim, tell me.”
“It’s just, all that happened…over three years ago.”
Slim didn’t know if Jess was wincing from pain or shock but he watched him shut his eyes and began to rub his head.
“Three years ago?” Jess said. “Where have I been for three years?”
“Right here, Jess, you been right here. You just don’t remember, is all. The doc said with a slam to the head like you had, this is not unusual. It happens.” Don’t embellish, Sherman, keep it simple, he told himself.
“But…how can a man just lose three years of his life?”
“You’re still not well, Jess. The doctor said you have to give it time. Your memory should come back…after a while.”
“How long ‘a while’?”
Trying to sound hopeful, Slim said, “The doctor didn’t say. He doesn’t really know. We just have to be patient and wait.”
The whole time Slim had been talking, Jess had been staring at him. Staring at his face but making a hole in his heart. Slim had never seen him look so forlorn.
“I ain’t never been a very patient man, Slim. You know that.” Finally, Jess said, “My heads hurtin’ something fierce. I’ll take one of them powders now.”
As soon as Slim came from the bedroom, Daisy was asking, “How did it go?”
“You should have seen him, Daisy. He looked so pitiful and hurt. And I don’t mean the physical pain in his head. It was a real shock to him. I don’t know what this news is going to do to him. I just don’t know…” Slim didn’t think he could contain his emotions any longer and he did not want to upset Daisy any more than she already was. So, he said he was going to check on the horses and was out the door. Daisy, of course, knew he had already checked the stock for the evening.
The next day the doctor came out, checked Jess over and removed the stitches. Though not the most pleasant of experiences, Jess never made a sound. The doctor told Jess that it was time to start getting up. He could stay up for a few hours at a time and then he wanted him to rest. Another few days or so and he could start doing light chores around the house. No ranch work and definitely no riding. Any time his head began to hurt or he felt tired or dizzy, he was to stop and rest. “Don’t push yourself.”
Slim and Daisy were listening to the doctor give Jess instructions. Don’t push? Didn’t he know who he was talking to?
“Jess, are you listening to me? Did you hear what I said about continuing to take it easy for a while?”
“Huh? Yeah…yeah, Doc. I heard you. Take it easy.”
Jess may have heard the doctor but doing what he said was another matter. In spite of Daisy’s and Slim’s fussing, he did ‘overdo’. He walked around the house and barn looking and touching things like he was seeing them for the first time. He walked around the yard and the corral. While he searched the physical surroundings, his mind was searching for something….anything… that would open the door to the last three years of his life. But he couldn’t find a key.
Then, he began doing chores. He did things he knew he should not be doing…until Daisy or Slim discovered him and made him stop. He pushed and pushed himself until he was ready to collapse and yet he could not rest. When everyone else was asleep, he was staring into the dark in his own private hell. He ate little or nothing. Dark circles began to form under his eyes. The blue pools that had once danced when he laughed or blazed when he was angry now took on a dull glaze that spoke only of distress and pain. The twitching of the thumbs that signaled him being on edge was almost constant. Jess was enveloped in a dark fog and nothing seemed to be able to reach him.
Slim, Daisy and Mike, each in their own way, tried to cheer him up or at least ease his suffering. But nothing they did or said had much effect. All they could do was stand back and give him room.
Finally, a day Slim had been dreading came. “Slim, where’s my rig? I sorta feel naked without it.”
Slim went and got Jess’ gun and gunbelt and gave it to him.
“What’s this? This ain’t my gun.”
“Yes, it is, Jess. It’s the one you’ve been carrying.”
“Look, Slim, I know my own gun and this ain’t it!”
Slim knew he wanted his old, altered gun — the gunfighter’s gun, the one he had put away so long ago. He didn’t know what else to do, so he went to the hiding place in the chimney and got it for him.
“Now, that’s more like it,” Jess said as he admired the weapon. He wrapped the gun belt around his hips and slipped the gun in the holster. He checked to see if the pistol was loaded. It wasn’t. So he gave a few practice pulls. “All it needs now is a good cleaning.” And he set about to do just that. Daisy had never seen Jess wear this gun and her eyes questioned Slim. She had learned a little of Jess’ past but there was a lot she didn’t know. He had made very sure about that. She would have to ask Slim about it later…when Jess wasn’t around.
The gun, however comforting it was to Jess, gave no clue to his new life. For most of the time at the Sherman Ranch, the gun had rested in a hiding hole. A signal that Jess had begun a new life. A life he no longer recognized.
His depression grew deeper and deeper. Worse yet, beyond the terse answers and quick to anger moods, Slim saw something he had not seen for a very, very long time. He saw a restlessness in Jess, the same restlessness he had arrived with all those years ago. With time, Slim had learned to read Jess and his many moods. He had learned ways to reason with him and talk him out of going off and doing the…unreasonable. He hoped he could do the same now. But, he wasn’t as confident as usual.
One day, Slim rode into the yard, hoping Daisy had something really good for lunch. For the first time in quite a while, he was really hungry. He washed up in the basin by the kitchen door, all the while looking around for Jess. As he entered the house, he called for Daisy. “Daisy! Daisy! I’m home… and starving!!”
“Oh, hello, dear,” she greeted him warmly. “Lunch will be ready very soon.”
“Where’s Jess? I didn’t see him outside?”
“Last I saw of him, he was heading for the barn. You know, he really doesn’t tell me…where he’s going.” Daisy tried to hide the sadness in her voice but was not successful.
“I know, Daisy. He doesn’t tell me either. Think I’ll go see if he needs any help.”
“Okay, but don’t be too long. Lunch will be ready in just a few minutes.”
Slim gave her his best smile and a shoulder squeeze and said, “We’ll be right in.”
As Slim entered the barn and his “Hey Jess! What you up to, Pard?” went unanswered, he knew in a second he was alone. Traveler and Jess’ saddle were gone. “Damn! Damn! Damn!” And he went to tell Daisy.
Slim found Daisy setting the table for lunch. As she turned to look at Slim, and saw he was alone, her face fell. “Jess, isn’t eating lunch?” she asked.
“He’s gone,” was all Slim would say.
“Gone? Gone where? He didn’t say…” She stopped.
“He probably went to town. At least, that’s where I’m gonna look…first.” Slim grabbed his hat and gun belt and was out the door.
Just as Slim was leaving the ranch, Jess was pulling Traveler to a halt in front of the saloon. He looked around the town and it seemed like he remembered it. It was just bigger. More buildings. He dismounted, stepped up on the boardwalk and stood for a minute. Several people passed by and spoke to Jess. He guessed they knew him, but he surely didn’t know them. He hated that people seemed to know more about him than he did himself.
Just as Jess was about to go into the saloon, he heard someone call his name. He looked down the boardwalk to see a man with a badge coming towards him. His hand went instinctively to his gun. “Jess! Jess! Hey, boy, how you doin’?”
Jess did not know this man and he did not like being called ‘boy’. He stood with his hand resting on the handle of his gun and said, “You talkin’ to me, sheriff?” He knew he had only been in town a few minutes, not long enough to get into trouble. Maybe there was ‘old’ trouble.
“Of course I’m talkin’ to you! How you feelin’?” asked Mort.
“Uh, fine, Sheriff.”
“Glad to hear it. You’re not going into the saloon, are you?”
“Yeah,” Jess said cautiously, “any law against that?”
“Well, no, of course not. I just thought maybe your head wasn’t ready for liquor yet.”
“Well, it’s my head, ain’t it? Why do you care?” Jess was beginning to get visibly tense.
“Boy, that blow to the head sure didn’t do anything to improve your disposition. I’ll see you later when you’re in a better mood.” With that said, Mort stormed off
Mort continued to make his rounds of the town and later, as he was approaching his office, he heard a familiar voice. “Mort! Mort!” It was Slim and he was just tying Alamo to the rail outside of Mort’s office.
“Hey, Slim!” Mort acknowledged the young man. “Good to see you!”
“Have you seen Jess, Mort? I’m trying to find him.”
“Yeah, I saw him and I wish I HADN’T! What’s the matter with that boy? He liked to bit my head off just ‘cause I asked how he was doin’.” Mort was trying to get his anger under control.
“Let’s go in your office for a minute. I need to tell you about it.”
Slim and Mort both headed for the coffee pot as soon as they got in Mort’s office. “Great minds…eh, Slim?” As they sat to drink their coffee, Mort asked, “Now, what’s this about that hothead you call your partner?”
Slim began to tell Mort the story of Jess and his memory loss. As Mort sat, open-mouthed and disbelieving, Slim said, “And that’s probably why he was so short with you. He doesn’t know who you are, Mort. Before you and Jess got to be friends you know how he felt about lawmen in general.”
“But, Slim, I was here when Jess came to town. How come he doesn’t remember me???”
“Jess only remembers the first couple of months here. Remember, you had gone to visit your pa and bring him back here with you? You were gone longer than two months.”
“Well, I’ll be, you’re right.” Mort shoved his hat to the back of his head and scratched at his hairline, “THAT is some story, Slim. All I had heard was that he was up and around and feeling better. Nobody told me he couldn’t remember things.”
“Well, you know Jess. He’s a pretty private person and he really didn’t want this to get around town. But I don’t think he would mind me telling you.”
“It’s no wonder he blew up at me. He probably thought I had some old poster on him or something.” Mort’s anger had dissipated now that he knew the reason behind Jess’ reaction.
“And that’s not all. He’s carryin’ his old gun…the one he put up from his driftin’ days. He wouldn’t believe me when I told him he didn’t use it anymore.”
When he heard this, Mort’s face flashed over with concern. “Whoa! He was headed for the saloon when I saw him. We’d better get over there. No telling what he’s up to now.”
Slim and Mort rushed out the door and down to the saloon. They both hoped they would find Jess having a quiet drink or something just as unobtrusive. But it was not to be.
As they entered the batwing doors Slim saw Jess in a rigid stance with his right hand hovering over the butt of his gun. “JESS!” Slim yelled, hoping to stop whatever was about to happen.
“Stay out of this, Slim. It’s got nothing to do with you! This is between me and him!” Jess pointed his left hand towards a range-worn cowboy standing in the same position as he was.
Now it was Mort’s turn to speak up. “Now you hold on! I don’t want any trouble! Jess, you back off!”
“Me? What about him? He’s the one that called me out!”
The cowboy never took his eyes off Jess when he said, “He was cheating! He was dealing off the bottom of the deck!”
“If you think I was cheating…do something about it!”
Slim could see that Jess was coiled and ready to strike. “Come on, Jess,” he said soothingly, “you don’t want to do this. He’s not worth it, Pard. Let’s just go home.”
Jess did not relax one muscle. With eyes blazing, and his jaw working, he said in a low growl, “I… wasn’t… cheating.”
Slim began to ease his way over to Jess, keeping his hand clearly away from his gun, and all the while talking calmly to him. “I know you don’t cheat, Jess. You don’t have to. Let it go.” As he reached Jess’ side, Slim put his hand on Jess’ shoulder and gave it a slight squeeze. Then he said, “We need to be getting back to the ranch. We don’t want to be late for supper, you know.” He gave Jess’ shoulder a little tug and began to ease him over to the doors of the saloon.
Even though Mort had his gun on the cowboy, Jess’ eyes never left his former target. He didn’t know how fast this man was and he was not taking any chances.
Once the two men were gone, Mort turned to the cowboy still standing and said, “Mister, I don’t know who you are, but you just came mighty close to getting dead. I want you to get your gear and go back to wherever you came from and don’t ever come back to my town.” The look on Mort’s face said that he meant business.
“I’ll go…but I ain’t finished with that gunslick yet!!” He turned and walked out of the saloon.
As soon as he was outside, Jess mounted his horse and began to ride out of town. He did not even wait for Slim to collect Alamo from in front of Mort’s office.
It took Slim a few minutes to catch up with Jess, and when he did, he began to ride along side of him without talking. When he finally did try to start a conversation, Jess just nudged his horse a little ahead. Slim tried a second time with the same results. He finally grabbed Traveler’s reins and pulled him to a stop. “Jess, we have to talk. We’ve been tiptoeing around this long enough. Let’s stop a minute.” Slim led his horse over to a shady spot and dismounted.
When Jess made no move to join him, Slim just put his hands on his hips and stared at him. Jess pulled his horse up to a tree and tied him off. He stood, adjusting his saddle, like it was the most important thing in the world, and said, “You wanted to talk…so talk.” There was a long silence, and when Slim knew Jess wasn’t going to turn around, he finally said, “Look, Jess. I know how you feel….”
In a split second, Jess whirled on him, eyes flashing and shouted, “NO!! NO YOU DON’T!!” Then he sucked in a huge breath, and trembling with emotion, began a tirade unlike Slim could ever remember. “That’s just it, Slim! You don’t know how I feel! When you see a man comin’ down the street towards you, you know if he’s your friend or not…I don’t! When I see a man comin’ towards me I don’t know whether to extend my hand or draw iron. And…and I see the way Miss Daisy looks at me; I can tell how much she cares about me and I KNOW I should care the same…but I don’t FEEL it! She’s a nice lady and I like her, but I can tell there used to be more, a lot more. The same for little Mike! He wants something from me but I don’t know what or how to give it to him! And YOU, Slim, I know you…but I can tell there’s a lot I DON’T KNOW! I see you watching me and I see the look in your eyes. I can feel you waiting — waiting for me to be your Pard — and I don’t even know what that means! And it makes my head hurt trying to figure it all out. I keep reaching into darkness and I can’t seem to grab ahold of anything. It’s there…I know it is. It’s just….I can‘t find it. I feel like I’m walking around carrying a ton on my shoulders, tryin’ to be what everybody wants me to be. It’s grinding me down…way down. I don’t like hurtin’ all the time and I don’t like hurtin’ other people. I can fight a lot of things…but…I just don’t know…how… to …fight… this.” He pointed to his head.
Jess had been holding in a mountain of feelings, and when he started to let go, the mountain began to crumble; it was an avalanche of emotion he could not stop. Now, he was spent. He turned away from Slim, shoulders sagging. Jess tried to hide the tear that was rolling down his face but he wasn’t quick enough.
Slim had seen Jess tremble with fever and with rage. He had seen him shake with laughter and he had seen him stunned into silence. He had seen him yell and moan and cuss with broken bones, bullet holes and bruises. He had seen Jess downcast and worried. He had seen a faraway look in his eyes when he talked about his family and the war…and his past. But Slim had never seen him cry. This was a Jess Slim had never seen before. He wanted very badly to say something to comfort his friend who was hurting so deeply, but the only words he could find were, “I’m so sorry, Jess. I guess I…we…just didn’t know how really bad you felt…and I‘m not talking about the cut and the headaches. I just want…to help, that’s all.”
“I know. You‘ve really tried, Slim, but you can’t. Nobody can.”
“I can be there for you; you don’t have to go through this alone. Daisy and Mike…they’ll help. I mean…they want to be there for you, too.” Slim felt at such a loss to help his best friend and it was tearing him up inside.
“It’s no good, Slim…I’m a stranger here now.”
“You were a stranger here once before…and it turned out pretty good. We can do it again. I’m willing to…”
“NO! You don’t understand. I’m a stranger to…ME! Not just to you and Daisy and Mike and the people in Laramie. I’m a stranger to myself. And don’t even try to understand. You can’t…not unless you’ve been there….and you ain’t. I don‘t even understand it completely myself.”
Jess sat on an old rotting log and hung his head. He began to rub his temples as Slim had seen him do a hundred times in the past weeks. Slim didn’t know if he was trying to ease the hurt in his head or in his heart. Whichever it was, Slim wanted to take that hurt away from Jess and carry it for him — for just a little while — so he could get some relief. But he didn’t know how. There was a word for what he and Jess were going through: heartache. He surely didn’t like it but he hated it for Jess.
“Look, Jess. I’m gonna ask a favor of you. I know it’ll be hard, but, please, for me, if not for yourself.”
Jess sat silently for a long while. He knew what Slim was going to ask. What he didn’t know was if he could do it or not. Still holding his head and not looking up, Jess answered in just above a whisper, “What?”
“Can you give it a little more time? That is before you make…any decisions. If you will hold on for just a little while longer, I promise to go along with whatever you decide to do.”
Jess stood up and gave Slim a little smirky grin. “See, I told you; you know more about what I’m thinking than I do.”
When Slim looked shocked at the truth of Jess’ words, Jess added, “I’ll try…but…”
And Slim couldn’t help himself. “Yeah, I know, we‘ll play a few hands and see how it turns out.”
Jess raised his eyebrow and turned and mounted Traveler. This time, however, he waited for Slim to do the same. The ride home was quiet, but less tense. Slim hoped this was a sign of better times to come.
For a while, after Slim and Jess had their “talk”, things seemed to be going better. But then Slim began to see the old signs. He knew one day he would wake up and Jess would be gone. No good-byes, no I’ll-be-back, just gone. Truth be told, Slim did agree this was the easiest way for them. He didn’t know how he would have reacted watching Jess ride out of the yard, knowing he wasn’t coming back. He was glad not to have to find out. But, for Daisy and Mike, it would be different. Before, when they had watched Jess ride off somewhere, they knew he would move heaven and earth to get back to them. Not this time.
One morning, when he awoke, Slim knew what he would find in the other bed before he even rolled over. He could feel the emptiness. Jess was gone. Now Slim had to go and do one of the hardest jobs he had ever had to do. He had to break Daisy’s heart. He knew her heart would break…his had.
Jess rode…no…drifted for a couple of weeks. He was comforted by big open sky and the beauty of the land. He came upon a herd of wild horses and watched the stallion corral his mares and stand guard over them as they grazed. He saw buzzards circling and heard crows cawing. He smelled the verdant grass and found some sweet berries to eat. Traveler led him to a stream with fresh water down from the not too distant mountains. The water was cold and refreshing. He and Traveler drank their fill; Jess took a freezing bath and then they both took a nap.
Most of the time, he stayed out of towns and lived off the land. He went fishing, and hunting and sometimes, did nothing. He would lie on his blanket at night and stare at the multitude stars. He did what he wanted and tried not to think about anything. Yesterday was gone and he didn’t know or care about tomorrow.
He didn’t know if it was being out in the Big Open or not worrying about trying to be someone his didn’t remember but his head stopped hurting. Little by little he was starting to return to himself…or at least what he remembered as himself.
He did realize that, sooner or later, he was going to need money. He had a little but it wouldn’t last long. He thought he might pick up a cattle drive on the Goodnight-Loving Trail. Jess knew the trail started in Texas and ran through Fort Sumner, New Mexico and up through Colorado and ended in Cheyenne. He had just finished working that trail and was wandering through Wyoming when he had his run-in with his old pal Pete Morgan and ended up at the Sherman Ranch. ‘Put that out of your mind!’ he told himself.
He worked his way over to the trail, and it wasn’t too long before he spotted a cloud of dust so wide that it could only come from one thing. He headed in that direction and later he was looking down on one of the largest cattle herds he had seen in a long time. He knew he would get the most information at the chuck wagon. He spotted it and nudged Traveler forward. The cook was just setting up to start supper when Jess rode up.
Without getting off his horse, Jess said, “Howdy. Name’s Harper. Think your trail boss could use another hand?”
The cook was a scraggly-bearded little guy with a cap for a hat. He looked Jess up and down and said, “Don’t rightly know. You’ll have to ask him. I do the cookin’, not the hirin’.”
“And do you know where I might find this boss of yours?”
“You’re in luck…here he comes now.” And the cook pointed to a drover riding right up to the wagon. “Hey! Boss! This fella wants to see you!”
The cowboy dismounted and walked over to Jess, who was now standing next to the cook. His weather-beaten face said he was a man used to living hard. But his eyes spoke honesty and fairness. He was tall and lanky and easy in his skin. “What can I do for you?” said a voice used to giving orders.
Jess answered, “I’m lookin’ for a job. Thought maybe I could sign on with you. Looks like you’re following the Goodnight Trail and I’ve been on it before. I’ve worked cattle and horses and I know how to handle both.”
The trail boss looked Jess up and down and then said, “Looks like you know how to handle a gun, too.”
Cobalt blue matched the emerald green stare, and Jess said, “I can. But I never start nothing. I’m not looking for trouble…just work.”
“What did you say your name was?”
“Harper, Jess Harper.”
“Well, it just so happens we are short a couple of men right now. We’ll give you a try and see how it goes. First sign of trouble and you’re outta here. My name’s Harry Matthews; most just call me Matt or Boss…don’t much care which. Cookie will get you signed on and give you some supper. You get a couple of hours sleep. See the wrangler about a horse from the remuda — looks like yours could use a rest — and you can take the second night shift. Someone will wake you; fella you’ll relieve is named Jasper. Got all that?
“Supper, sleep, remuda, nightrider, Jasper…got it.”
“Good. Breakfast is at sunup and then we move out. You’ll ride drag for a while ’til we see how you work out.” The trail boss mounted back up and rode off.
Jess turned to Cookie and said, “Okay…looks like I’m hired. What’s for supper?”
“Never you mind…you’ll eat it or go hungry. Go take care of your horse and supper will be ready in a little while.”
After getting Traveler settled with the rest of the remuda and getting a fresh horse, Jess sat down and promptly ate two heaping plates of the stew from the cook.
“Boy, do you eat like that all the time? I’m either gonna have to take on extra supplies or ration you. Never saw anyone so thin eat so much.” But, Cookie was smiling the whole time he was talking.
Jess just gave a little chuckle and said, “I’ve been eating my own cooking for a while and it sure is good not to have to. That was good.”
“No thanks; if I eat anymore, I’ll bust. But, thanks for the offer. Guess I’ll try and get a little sleep before my shift.” He got up and got his saddle and blanket, and tried to find a spot on the ground without too many rocks.
Jess felt like he had just laid down when he felt a boot nudge his leg. “Your shift. And I surely am glad it’s you and not me.” Then the drover made his way over to his own saddle and blanket.
Jess mounted up and went to find Jasper. When a whistling cowboy slowly approached Jess, he said, “You Jasper?”
He was older than most drovers Jess had ever worked with but he sat easy in the saddle, one leg cocked over the pummel. He wore his hat back off his face and it looked like he didn’t know what a razor was for. He put his foot back in the stirrup, leaned over to pat his horse’s neck and he gave Jess the once over — looking him up and down just like Boss and Cookie. “And who might you be?” he asked.
“I’m here to relieve you. Name’s Jess.”
“Don’t remember seeing you before,” Jasper said cautiously.
“Just signed on a little while ago. Cookie fed me and Boss told me to relieve you…that’s all I know.”
Jasper gave him another look over and then said, “Well, at least you’re on time. Tell the other nightrider Jasper said you was okay, ifn’ he stops you.” Then he rode off.
While making his first circle around the herd, Jess did run into the other drover and he was stopped. He told the man what Jasper had said and the cowboy rode on.
For the next week, Jess breathed in dust, chased steers, slept when he could and ate what was offered. It was job that made a man weary down to his bones but it offered Jess comfort in the routine. Jess had done this type of work before. He knew what was expected…and he did it. He got to be friendly with Cookie, who always put a little extra on Jess’ plate; anybody who ate his cooking like Jess did was welcome to it. Often, when Jess had the night shift, Cookie would pack him some food to take with him. “Just you make sure nobody sees you eatin’ this or I’ll have to do it for some that don’t deserve it…and your share will get to be mighty puny.”
Cookie reminded Jess of Jonesy in his gruff, caring ways. And Jess reminded Cookie of his younger brother, the one that never got to be as old as Jess. Cookie told Jess about his brother and how much he thought Jess looked — and acted –like him. But Jess didn’t tell Cookie about Jonesy; he wasn’t ready. Maybe, if the job looked like it might last…but not yet.
One night, when Jess was eating his supper, Jasper came over and asked if he could sit with him while they both ate. Jess had no objections so Jasper sat down. “Boss told me to tell you to ride flank tomorrow behind me.” Jasper was a swingman. His job was to help keep the cattle aligned and headed where the point-men wanted them to go.
“Well, it’s a step up from drag. Guess the Boss thinks I know what I am doing.”
Jasper said, “He’s a fair man. You do your job and you’ll get treated right.” Then he looked at Jess and asked, “Where you from?”
“Texas,” Jess answered between bites.
“Well, I’ll be darn; me too. Where ‘bouts?”
“The Panhandle. How about you?”
“From a place a mite south of you — Laredo. Ever been there?”
Jess answered, “Nope, I left Texas right before the war. I was just a kid and hadn’t been more than fifty miles from home. I joined the Confederacy. Since the war’s been over, I just move from job to job.” That was as much information about himself as Jess wanted to give out right now. “How did you get from Laredo to here?”
Jasper looked off into the distance and gave a long sigh. “I had me a small spread right on the Rio Grande. For that area, it had plenty of water and enough grass. I had a family and a few head of cattle. We weren’t rich but we did okay. Then I bought me some cattle from Mexico — it’s right there, you know. They had hoof and mouth disease; wiped out my whole herd. I got a job at another ranch but it didn’t pay much. One day I came home, my wife was gone and she took my son with her. Haven’t seen or heard from them in twelve years. Wasn’t no reason to stick around Laredo any more so I left, and like you, joined the Army. When the war was over, I joined up with Matthews and been with him for a spell. It ain’t pretty but that’s my story.”
Jess and Jasper sat a talked for a while longer. Jess decided he liked Jasper better than most of the men he had met on the drive — except for Cookie — but that was different. When you’re a drover, you best be nice to the cook; not only does he feed you, he takes care of all your “medical needs” too. However, Jess found it very easy to be nice to Cookie; he genuinely liked the man.
Now, it seemed he had found someone else to his liking. He had not gone looking for companionship but was glad he knew at least one of the other drovers well enough to call him a good…acquaintance. Jess didn’t think he would ever use the word “friend” again. So, when Jasper and Jess were off at the same time, they ate together and talked of things in the past. If Cookie had fed all the men, he would join them. Cookie liked the amiable young cowboy more and more, and he had a lot of respect for Jasper. No one else made an attempt to join the little group…and that was fine with them.
Pushing cows was mostly a lonely life. When not on watch, drovers had two things on their minds — eating and sleeping. There was little time for getting to know the man you worked next to and that suited them just fine. They hadn’t signed on to a social club. Jess had been around for a while and there were still men whose names he didn’t know. Maybe that’s why, one night…
Jess was just finishing his meal and returning his plate to Cookie’s wash tub when he turned around and bumped into a drover filling his cup from the coffee pot. “Oh, sorry…didn’t mean…” Jess’ sentence was cut off.
“YOU! You lousy, cheatin’ gunslick…” The cowboy’s hand hovered over his gun butt.
“Whoa! Hold on a minute!” Jess said as he raised his hands. “I didn’t mean anything; I don’t even know you!” Jess couldn’t believe the man had become so enraged over a simple little accident.
“What’s the matter? Don’t you have your nursemaid with you this time?”
“Nursemaid? I don’t know what…” Then it dawned on Jess; this was the cowboy he had the run-in within the saloon back in Laramie. Suddenly, Jess became rigid and his hand hovered over HIS gun. “I told you then and I’m telling you now — I wasn’t cheating. But if you insist that I was, make your play.”
“Now wait a minute you two…” Cookie stepped in between them. “We don’t need any trouble. Boss’ll be here any minute; let him settle this.”
The drover spat out, “This ain’t got nothing to do with Boss. This is between me and gunslick, here.”
“ANYTHING that happens on this drive IS my business!” came the booming voice of the trail boss. “You two better tell me what’s going on here or ELSE!”
The drover spoke up. “A couple of days before I signed on I was playing cards in Laramie and this fella was cheating. I called him on it and they run me outta town! He took my money and now he’s gonna pay!”
Boss looked at Jess and said, “Harper, what’s your story?”
“Same story I told in Laramie — I wasn‘t cheating.” Jess’ voice was a throaty growl laced with ice.
“Benson, I told Harper the same thing I told you — trouble, and you’re gone. Now, the both of you: back off or pack up. If I wasn’t short-handed, I’d make the decision for you!”
“There’ll be another time, Harper.”
“If it’s before this drive is over, I’ll shoot the both of you myself. NOW, BACK OFF!!!” Then the boss added, “Benson, you take the first night shift.” He figured that was as far apart as he could get the two men. Now he was going to have to remember who was on watch and where, so these two were never together. He’d tell the ramrod about it and they could each take a man to watch. Damn! Just one more thing to worry about.
Jess walked off to get his bedroll. He needed some sleep. But sleep was not to be. There were dreams — dreams of previous gunfights and the war and men who died. They ran through Jess’ mind like a flooding river. He awoke, and sat up bolt straight. He was trembling and in a cold sweat. He was just grateful he had not called out as he had done so many times before. Slim had always been so understanding when Jess had awakened him in the middle of the night with his dream-induced ranting. Sometimes he was able to go right back to sleep but sometimes he and Slim would lay in the dark and talk until his demons went away.
Slim… Though unintentional, Jess lay awake and thought of Slim and the home he had had. Then his chest became constricted and his breathing became shallow. What‘s wrong with me? Trembling, sweating, chest constriction, shallow breathing…what the…??? Was this what you call “loneliness”? The only people he had ever missed before were his family. Was that what he was doing? Missing? Who? His ‘family?’
Years before, on the drift, he had managed to make himself get used to being alone. Was he going to have to do it all over again? Now, for the first time since he left the ranch, his head began to hurt. He wished he had one of the headache powders Slim and Daisy used to give him. Daisy.
He had shoved all these thoughts way down deep and now they were rising to the top again. They were like the bile from a sick stomach but he couldn’t vomit them away. So he got up and went to find Traveler — the only one he could think of that he wanted to talk to.
As Jess brushed Traveler, he could not keep his thoughts from Slim and the ranch and all that went with it. First the confrontation with Benson, then the dreams, then the headache, then the uncontrollable thoughts…and just when things seemed to be going pretty good. Now it seemed like he was right back where he was when he first left. There was that tightness in his chest again; he knew what he was feeling — miserable.
A few days later, Jess came in for an early supper and some sleep…night shift again. While he was eating, Jasper and Cookie came over to him. As they took up positions on either side of Jess, he looked from one to the other. “You boys got something on your minds?”
Jasper looked at Cookie and gave a slight nod to his head. “Go ahead, Cookie, tell ’im.”
Cookie looked Jess straight in the eye. “Look, boy, we’re telling you this for your own good — stay away from Benson. Never did like that man since he signed on. Don’t trust him as far as I can throw him. Don’t think Boss woulda’ kept him around ifn’ he wasn’t shorthanded right now. Benson’s a mean, cold hearted sonofabuck. I heard him talking to one of the other men and he said he was going to get you — one way or the other.”
Jess chewed on his beans as well as Cookie’s words. He gave a smirk and said, “Thanks for your concern but I think I can handle Benson.”
This time Jasper spoke up, “We know you could — if he came at you straight on. But what if he comes at you from behind? And that is just his style. He’d just as soon shoot you in the back as not. Look, Jess…we’re just trying to help you out here. Just be careful, okay? Watch your back.”
Jess was touched by their concern but he really didn’t think Benson would try anything. He was all talk. Jess looked at the older men and said, “Yes, Aunt Minny…Yes, Aunt Minerva…”
Cookie punched him in the arm. “Watch your mouth, you young whippersnapper! Or I’ll have to teach you to respect your elders!”
“Yes, sir!” Jess said, giving the men one of his endearing grins and went back to eating.
As Jess continued with his supper, he saw Cookie wince and grab his shoulder. “What’s the matter with your shoulder?” Jess asked, glad to be able to change the subject.
“Fell off a horse and broke it in two places about fifteen years ago. It still gives me fits when there’s a storm comin’.”
Jess looked up and said, “Well, it shouldn’t be hurtin’; there’s not a cloud in the sky.”
Cookie gave a hurrump sound and said, “I don’t care what the sky looks like. It’s gonna rain…and a lot, too.”
Jess looked down, grinned, and said to himself, “Must be getting old.”
“What was that??!??”
“I said supper’s getting COLD.” Jess didn’t want to make Cookie mad and he didn’t want to hurt his feelings, either.
When Jess was nudged awake for his shift, he looked up and noticed there were no stars in the night sky. He could see clouds rolling past the moon and hiding its glow. ‘Maybe there is something to Cookie’s shoulder,’ thought Jess as he prepared for his shift.
The night was much darker than most…and the cattle edgier. There were low moans and the clacking of horns as the cattle milled around. They were restless and not to be soothed. A couple of extra men had been added to the night shift and they were certainly needed.
As it began to lighten, Jess got a good look at the thunderheads that had built up in the west. Now, he knew for sure that Cookie’s shoulder had been right. No sun, no blue, no wispy white clouds — just gray and black. Boss knew how dangerous the herd could become in foul weather so he had everyone up extra early and in position. Cold biscuits and jerky for breakfast.
As the day wore on, the gray turned darker and so did the mood of the men. They were as edgy as the cattle. They knew at any moment the ornery bovines could take off in a power rush that might leave a man a grimy stain in the dirt. Far off thunder rumblings only added to already jittery nerves as they began to roll in closer and closer.
For some reason, one he could not put his finger on, the thunder rumblings were making Jess nervous, too. A couple of times he even jumped when one would boom unexpectedly. ‘What’s the matter with you, Harper? Afraid of a little noise?’ Jess thought to himself. Nevertheless, he remained on edge.
As dusk turned to night, the occasional large raindrop fell as if to the herald the arrival of the vast army that would soon be coming. The drovers coming in for supper and rest got fresh mounts from the remuda and left them saddled — just in case they were needed during the night. Everyone would be sleeping with one eye open tonight.
Jess was getting a quick cup of coffee and a mouthful of beans — supper –when the rain started in earnest. He just looked up and then pulled his hat lower on his face. He turned up the collar of his jacket and buttoned it all the way up.
As he watched him, Cookie said, “No slicker?”
Jess gave him a crooked grin and said, “Guess traveling light has disadvantages.”
Cookie went around to the back of the chuck wagon and reappeared with a well-worn slicker. He handed it to Jess and said, “It’s old but it ain’t got no holes in it.”
Jess, though grateful, said, “Don’t you need it?”
“Naw, this belonged to a waddy that left us…sudden like. Figured it might come in handy someday. You take it.”
As Jess looked down at the rain gear in his hands, he got a sudden feeling of lightheadedness. He stood for a moment just staring at the garment. He looked as if he didn’t understand what he was supposed to do with it.
“Somethin’ wrong?” Cookie asked.
Jess’ head snapped up. “Uh…no, thanks Cookie.” He donned the slicker and gave Cookie a slap on the shoulder. Then he mounted his horse and was back on the job.
Try as they might to bed them down, the herd remained in constant motion. The Boss was shouting orders to keep the herd milled tight. The weary drovers were doing all in their power to ward off an all out stampede. They would see in the next few minutes it had all been for nothing.
Suddenly, a bolt of lightning struck an oak tree that stood at least twenty feet tall. The lightning split the tree in half and set the branches on fire. The flash, the ear splitting boom and the fire were more than the skittish herd could tolerate, and an all-out stampede ensued.
The terrified beasts took off in a rush of frantic moans, hooves and mud. Every man on the crew made for their horses. They didn’t need to be told what was happening. The shaking of the earth and the sound of the pounding hooves was enough to spur them all into action. Riding at top speed, the waddies knew they had to keep pace with the herd or the beasts would scatter so far and wide as to never be seen again.
It was so dark the riders could barely make out the cattle; they could only hope their horses would not come upon a gopher hole or deep depression and stumble and fall. It meant certain death for both horse and rider.
Jess felt grateful he was on Traveler. There was neither a horse that was more surefooted nor one that he trusted more. Horse and rider both felt the rumbling of the earth as the stampeding herd pressed on. Jess gave Traveler some signals with his legs; Traveler pulled closer to the cattle and tried to keep them together. He also picked up speed. He did not like being so close to the rushing herd but he trusted his master and would do anything asked of him.
Up ahead, Jess could see Jasper trying to hold in the ranks of the herd. As two of the frantic cows tried to separate themselves from the rest, they cut directly in front of Jasper’s horse. The animal, already skittish, reared up, dumped Jasper, and bolted away. Jess knew Jasper would soon be trampled to death if he did not get help. He gave Traveler a firm nudge and headed straight for him. “JASPERRRRR!!” Jess screamed, as he leaned over in his saddle and extended his hand. Only slowing down a little, Jess reached for the stranded man, and when Jasper grabbed his arm, Jess pulled with all his might and swung Jasper up behind him. Traveler, now under the weight of two men, began to slow down of his own accord. Jess guided him away from the herd, and when he felt a safe distance away from the deadly pounding, he brought Traveler to a halt.
Traveler was winded, and Jess and Jasper were both out of breath as well. They sat for a minute trying to get their bearings. Jasper was leaning over Jess’ shoulder, shouting his thanks, when Jess felt Jasper slump against him. He felt Jasper begin to slide from behind him and he grabbed the man’s jacket so his fall would not be too traumatic. Jess broke most of Jasper’s fall; when he dismounted and knelt beside the drover, he found him barely conscious.
“Jasper! Jasper! What’s wrong?” It was too dark to see clearly so Jess used his teeth to quickly tug off his glove. He felt around Jasper’s upper body but could find nothing wrong. He felt around his head and found nothing again. Finally, he reached behind Jasper and ran his hand over his back and sides. This time it came away sticky. “Jasper! Can you hear me? You’re bleeding! Take it easy! Take it easy. I’m going to get you to help.”
Jasper let out a yell as Jess pushed him back up on Traveler and then hopped on behind him. The rumbling and the shaking of the ground was beginning to subside. Jess thought the point-men must have turned the herd and they were beginning to get them to mill. Good, he thought, that will make the trip back less dangerous. He nudged Traveler and they were off to find Cookie.
Though it seemed like the herd had run for miles and miles; in reality, it was a much shorter distance. Jess came upon the chuck wagon — and Cookie — in a short time.
“Cookie! Cookie! Jasper’s been hurt!!” Jess was shouting to the top of his lungs.
Cookie ran up to meet Jess and helped lower Jasper. They got him down and he was on the ground leaning against Jess’ chest. “Hold him there for a minute. I’m gonna go get a blanket to lay him on.” Cookie was already walking away as he was talking. He was back in a flash with several blankets. He spread one out and told Jess to carry Jasper over to it.
As Jess picked up Jasper, Cookie couldn’t help but marvel at the young cowboy’s strength. He picked up Jasper in his arms as if he was a small boy. Jess carried him over to Cookie’s blanket and gently laid him down and then turned him on his stomach.
“Jess! He’s been shot in the back!”
Jess looked at the bloody, round hole in Jasper’s jacket. “Only one person woulda’ done that.”
Cookie and Jess looked at each other and Jess spat out a name, “Benson.”
“Well, there’s time for that later. I need you to get my big pot outta the wagon and fill it with water — and get me a big fire goin’.”
As Jess was going about his orders, he noticed one or two of the drovers were starting to come in. They must have the herd under control, he thought. Most made their way over and asked what was wrong with Jasper. A few, when told, asked if there was anything they could do. Cookie gave a few orders and soon Jasper was up off the ground and on a table that had been set up for Cookie to work on him. All the jostling must have stirred something in him because Jasper started to moan and move around.
“Hold still, Jasper. You’re gonna fall off this table,” Cookie ordered.
“Wha…what happened?” Jasper was confused as to why he was lying on his stomach on a table.
Jess was by Jasper’s side and said, “You been shot. You just hold steady. Cookie is going to fix you up fine.” He looked to Cookie for confirmation. Cookie gave Jess a look that said, ‘It doesn’t look good.’
Cookie had put his medical “equipment” in the big pot with the hot water. He walked over to Jasper and bent down to be eye level with him. “You know what’s got to be done. That bullet is still in there and it’s got to come out.”
Jasper opened his eyes and looked at his friend. “I know. Ain’t the first time I been shot. Do what you gotta do and…I’m sorry about the names I’ll be callin’ you.” In spite of all the pain, he gave Cookie a little grin.
Cookie got Jasper out of his jacket and shirt and then he gave Jasper a couple of sips of whiskey. He called Jess and some of other drovers over. “I’m gonna need you boys to hold him down while I work.”
Jess took his position at Jasper’s head; he would hold his shoulders. Two drovers each took a leg and two more held lanterns so Cookie could see. Cookie washed away all the dirt and grime from Jasper’s back. He put a wadded up piece of cloth between Jasper’s teeth and said, “Hold on, Jasper. Here we go.” He took the whiskey bottle and poured some over Jasper’s wound.
Jasper let out a howl and tried to jerk away from the fire attacking his back. He was not a big man but years of hard work had made his muscles rock hard. It was all Jess and the others could do to hold him steady. Then Cookie took his knife and began to slice Japer’s wound to try and reach the bullet. Jasper moaned and growled and cursed until he had all he could bear and mercifully he passed out. Cookie wiped his sleeve across his brow and said, “Thank goodness.” Jasper was his friend, and necessary or not, what he was doing was taking a toll on him. He told the others to stay where they were in case Jasper woke up.
As Jess watched Cookie slice Jasper’s body and as he listened to Jasper’s suffering, his rage at the injustice of it began to mount. That bullet was meant for him! Thoughts of the Bannister Gang and his family jumped in his mind. It was not until the Bannisters had been tracked down outside Fort Defiance — and dealt with — that Jess could let go of that injustice. Now, someone who took an interest in him and befriended him was lying where he was supposed to be. He would see to that injustice as soon as he knew Jasper was okay.
Benson was a back-shooter. In Jess’ opinion, the lowest of the low and a true coward. Well, he was going to pay this time. Neither Boss nor Cookie was going to talk him out of it.
Jess was lost in his anger and thoughts when he heard Cookie say, “Got it!” The cook proudly held up the bullet he had removed from Jasper. He poured more of the whiskey into the hole he had made in Jasper’s back. From somewhere deep in his dark hole, Jasper let out a low moan.
“Take it easy, fella. A couple of stitches and we’ll be all done.” Cookie was as anxious for this to be over as Jasper.
Jess looked at Cookie with worry lines across his face but his eyes blazed vengeance. “Is he going to be okay, Cookie?”
Cookie looked at Jess and saw how stressed he was. He tried to be gentle, “Don’t know for sure, yet. But I think he has a pretty good chance. He’s a tough sonofagun… You know that.” Cookie began to stitch and bandage Jasper’s wound.
Just about then Boss rode up. He had been out seeing to the herd and didn’t know anything about what had happened. “What’s going on here?” he said as he pushed his way through the drovers standing around the chuck wagon.
Jess whirled around and said, “Benson shot Jasper in the back! And now he’s gonna pay!” He started to storm off.
Boss caught Jess by the arm and said, “Hold on, there. Let’s talk about this. How do you know it was Benson? Did you see ‘im?”
“Naw, I didn’t see him. But do you know of anyone else on this drive that would shoot a man in the back?”
“But what did Benson have against Jasper?”
“NOTHING!” shouted Jess. “He was aimin’ at me! Jasper’s horse threw him and I picked him up. Guess that idiot didn’t notice Jasper and thought it was me!” Jess’ face became flushed as his anger rose with each word.
As he was unleashing his anger on Boss, Jess saw a familiar figure ride into camp. In a guttural whisper Jess said, “Benson.” As he started towards the man, Boss put his hand on his arm. Jess looked at the hand and then up to Boss’ stern face.
The look on the young cowboy’s face told Boss all he needed to know. The blue eyes blazed, the jaw was set so tightly Boss thought it might crack and the lips were pressed so tightly together they were almost nonexistent. Jess’ determination matched that of the stampeding cattle. But, Boss thought, the cattle were easier to turn.
Jess looked at Boss’ hand once more and he let go. Boss respected Jasper, liked him, and trusted him. He had also come to trust Jess; Boss knew he was a hard worker and was a man of his word. He had seen Jess draw down and shoot a rattler on the trail. There was no doubt of the outcome of the fight between the two men. Boss thought Benson deserved whatever he got.
From across the camp Jess hollered, “Benson!!”
“That’s right, you stinkin’ coward; you missed! You shot Jasper in the back…not me!”
“I didn’t shoot anybody!” Benson lied. “You’re crazy!” He looked around the camp at the drovers standing around, searching for some support. “You know I wouldn’t shoot a man in the back, right fellas?” Benson was beginning to visibly sweat — on a cool night.
But even in a group of rough and sometime not so legally-minded drovers, back shooters would not be tolerated. As Benson sought support, he was rejected at every turn.
“Alright, Benson, drop your gun. I’m turnin’ you over to the sheriff at the next town we come to.”
“Says who? You ain’t a lawman?”
“Don’t need to be. You shot Jasper and I’m gonna see that you pay. Now drop that gun!”
From somewhere deep inside, Benson found some courage to say, “Awright…gunslick. You want to pull against me, go right…” Benson reached for his gun.
Jess let Benson get his gun almost all the way out of his holster before he pulled his. In a motion so fluid and fast it was hardly visible, Jess pull his gun, fanned the hammer back and shot Benson in the chest. For a moment, Benson just stared at Jess as a red stain began to fill his shirt. He put his hand over his chest and pulled it away to look at the blood. He looked back at Jess and said, “Well, I’ll be…” Then he fell to the ground. Dead.
Jess returned his gun to his holster. He stood for a moment and looked at the man on the ground. Killing a man, no matter the reason, shook Jess to the core. He took a deep breath and felt a nudge on his arm. Cookie was standing next to him with a bottle of whiskey in his hand. “Take a slug of this, boy. It’ll help.”
Jess took the offered bottle and drank. He wiped his face with his sleeve and handed the bottle back to Cookie. “Thanks,” was all he said.
Cookie noticed that though Jess’ face was blanched, his hands were cold steady. ‘Rock solid nerves,’ thought Cookie.
Jess turned to Boss and said, “I’ll be getting my things as soon as I look in on Jasper.”
“Jess…” Boss’ voice almost had a lilt of softness to it… “wait. I know what I told you before, but…well, Jasper is my friend, too. I don’t rightly see how you had any choice. Benson had to be dealt with. We all saw you try to take him in peacefully. I’d be pleased to have you stay on. Besides, just lost two men; hate to make it three.”
Cookie came over to Jess and put his arm around his shoulder. “Come on, boy. I need to check on Jasper. If’n he’s awake, I know he’ll be glad to see you.”
Boss made the decision to let the herd rest for a day. They had run hard and needed to rest. They needed to be in top shape when they reached Cheyenne. Also, the men — especially Jasper — needed to rest, too. No one had gotten any sleep and Japer needed time before he was bounced around in the back of the chuck wagon.
Jess said he would stay with the drive until Cheyenne. Then he would see. On his off time, he and Cookie sat with Jasper like they used to before he was shot. Jess had even opened up about Slim and Daisy and Mike. He told them a little of what had happened and why he was drifting when he joined the drive. They never pressured him to tell more than he was willing. It was good to say as much as you wanted and not feel like you had to say more. Jess found he didn’t mind talking about what had happened as much as he thought he would. And Jasper and Cookie were very good listeners. They only offered advice or opinions when they were asked.
Jess was sitting with Jasper one night. Jasper was thanking Jess, for about the hundredth time, for helping him when he needed it. As Jasper was talking, Jess got a faraway look on his face. “What is it, Jess? You look like you seen a ghost?”
“I donno,” said Jess, “I sorta got a funny feeling when you were talking about me helping you. I can’t put my finger on it but it’s like the thunder and lightnin’ the night of the stampede. And the slicker Cookie gave me. It’s like they are all tied together….somehow. I feel sorta strange.”
“Well, you did tell me it was raining when you got hurt?” Jasper offered.
“That’s what they told me. I didn’t remember. I thought something else had happened.” Jess gave a sigh and said, “Guess I’ll turn in…Okay?”
“Sure, Jess, sure.” Jasper didn’t want to push Jess for more.
Jess left to find his bedroll.
That night dreams flooded Jess’ sleep. Slim! Thunder! A screaming horse! Lightning! Daisy! Thundering hooves! Pain! Mike! It all ran together in one mind-boggling jumble of a nightmare. In the middle of this hellacious mental storm, Jess felt something shaking him.
“Jess. Jess…what is it, boy?”
Jess bolted into a sitting position and grabbed whatever it was that was shaking him. He drew back his arm and made a fist.
“Jess. It’s me…Cookie. Open your eyes, boy, you’re dreamin’.”
Jess opened his eyes and saw that he was about to strike Cookie. “Wha…??” He looked at Cookie and consciousness came upon him. “Gosh, Cookie, I’m sorry…I didn’t mean…. What’s wrong?”
Cookie sat down beside Jess and said, “That’s what I’d like to know. I was just coming back from taking care of some business in the bushes and I heard you moanin’ and groanin’ and tossin’ all around. You musta been havin’ a whale of a dream. You okay???”
Jess rubbed his head as he had done so often back at the ranch and said, “Yeah, I think so.”
Cookie looked at Jess with concern, “You wanna talk about it? How ‘bout some coffee? I’ll make you some.”
‘Jonesy in a cap instead of a derby’, thought Jess. “Thanks, but no. I think I’ll be okay now.” Jess gave him a smile.
He looked so young and innocent with his sweat drenched hair clinging to his forehead that Cookie had to remind himself Jess was a grown man. “Okay…see you in the morning.” He got up, gave Jess a pat on the shoulder, and headed back to the chuck wagon.
As the cook was walking away, Jess called to him. “Cookie?
The older man stopped and gave Jess a little grin of his own. “Don’t worry, kid, I ain’t gonna tell nobody.”
Another sheepish grin and Jess said, “Thanks.”
When Cookie got back to the chuck wagon, he gave Jess one last look and saw that he had untangled himself from his blanket and seemed to be drifting off again. He wished there was something he could do for the young cowboy but….
Jasper was now well enough for Cookie to let him out of bed. He had begun to ride on the seat of the chuck wagon with Cookie. Being out in the fresh air and sunshine helped with the healing process a good deal. It would be a while before he could sit a horse again but he did manage to help Cookie with meals. Some of the drovers, and especially Jess, would tease Cookie and beg him NOT to let Jasper near the food.
After another week on the trail, the herd finally arrived in Cheyenne. They were delivered and paid for. Then it was time to pay the men. Some were old hands of Boss’. They hit the bathhouse and then the saloon. Some were new or, like Jess, picked up along the way. They were anxious to get home and left town as soon as they were paid. Some, Boss was glad to see leave.
Jess had gone to the bathhouse with several of the men and then met up with Jasper and Cookie at the saloon. The three of them were sitting having a few beers when Boss walked over to the table. “Mind if I sit down, fellas?
Jess pulled out the empty chair next to him and said, “Sit down, Boss. Buy you a beer?”
“No thanks. I gotta get to the bank before it closes.” Then he turned to Jess and said, “Just wanted to let you know that I think you make a fine drover, and if you’d like to come back to Texas with us, I’d be glad to hire you on for the next drive.”
Jess looked at the three men — his “friends” — and said, “I appreciate the offer.” Then he looked at Cookie and Jasper and wondered how he would have fared the last few weeks without them. They were good men and he liked and respected them. “But, I think I’m going home.”
Boss said, “I thought Texas was your home.”
“Once, it was. But there’s really nothing there for me now. My home is the Sherman Ranch and Relay Station, in Laramie. I never thought I would say this about any place, but I feel it tuggin’ at me to come back.”
Boss rose to leave and he stuck out his hand. “If you ever need a job again, you know where to find us. Good luck.”
Jess shook his hand and genuinely meant it when he said, “First place I’ll look.”
It wasn’t easy saying good-bye to Jasper and Cookie. Jess had never liked that word. They slapped him on the back and told him to stay out of trouble. But there was sadness in their tones. They were going to miss their young friend and he them. However, he knew now where he belonged and he was anxious to get there.
A week later, Slim and Jess sat on the porch after supper. Slim had both feet propped on the porch railing and he had his hands behind his head. He was whistling. Jess had one foot propped up on the porch railing and one hanging down. He was leaning back in his chair, rocking. Mike sat in Jess’ lap, leaning back against his chest. Jess still did not have his full memory back but he had bits and pieces and he was collecting more every day. It was all starting to come together.
Daisy stood quietly at the door, looking out and admiring her boys. Such fine young men! Like Jess, this is where her heart was now. And it was whole once again. What a fine evening it was!
I want to thank Gail Gerstenlauer for all of her help. Her suggestions and encouragement are a big part of this story. My appreciation is immeasurable.