Word Count: 13,400
Slim Sherman slowly opened his eyes and realized that once again he had awakened before dawn. He lay in his bed for a few moments to enjoy the peace and quiet before beginning another hard day of work. Then he yawned, stretched and swung his long legs over the edge of his bed. He lit the lamp on the table between his bed and the one that belonged to his partner, Jess Harper. That bed was still occupied.
Slim washed, shaved, combed his hair and got dressed. He was always amazed how Jess could sleep right through all of his morning activities without stirring. Yet, when out on the trail, a snapped twig or an animal sound had Jess bolt upright with, more often than not, his gun drawn.
As Slim was getting dressed, he thought he heard Daisy — that is Daisy Cooper, housekeep and so much more to the ranch boys — starting breakfast. Slim was hungry and Daisy was a great cook. He was about to go out and see how long breakfast would be when he realized he had one more chore to do.
WHOMP!! The pillow hit Jess right in the face!
“What the…?” Jess growled. He was NOT a morning person.
Up and at ‘em! This ranch don’t run itself.”
“Dadgumit, Slim!! It ain’t even light out yet!! You woulda thought I was sleeping till noon.”
“Well, if I didn’t wake you, you probably would. Now come on…I can smell breakfast and I want to get to it. And I know Daisy won’t let me have any until you get there, too.”
“Okay! Give me a minute to wake up, will you?” Jess said as he rolled over and snuggled down.
“Alright…alright. I’m comin’!!!…. I’m comin’.”
Daisy Cooper had come to live at the Sherman Ranch and Relay Station the year before. She had come to keep house and help with young Mike Williams who Slim and Jess had adopted. But now, she was so much more. Daisy had found a house with two men and a boy and turned it into a home and a family. She had lost a husband and a son and needed someone to look after. Slim, Jess, and Mike fit the bill perfectly. Daisy had grown to love her ‘boys‘ and they her.
Slim and Jess had spent many years without their own mothers and gratefully accepted Daisy’s offer to be a replacement. Mike was still a young boy, also without a mother, and he needed her care and guidance. Though at times it seemed as if Daisy’s ‘mothering’ was a little ‘too mothering’, none of them complained. They wouldn’t hurt her feelings for all the money in the world. Besides, if they complained, there might be a long dry spell between apple pies and no one wanted that. Best keep Daisy happy.
As Slim and a droopy-eyed Jess finally walked toward the kitchen, Daisy greeted each one with a hug and a cup of coffee. “Morning, Slim. Morning, Jess. Did you boys sleep well?”
“Just fine, Daisy. How about you?” said Slim as he took the offered cup of coffee.
Jess first took a long drink from his cup before answering. He just wasn’t good for anything before he had his coffee. “Yeah. Just wish I didn’t have to get up in the middle of the night,” he groused.
Daisy gave Slim a knowing smile and began to fill their plates. She would let Mike sleep awhile longer then give him breakfast before he went off to school. She was in her element.
While Slim and Jess ate, they began to discuss what was to be done that day. After barn chores and the changing of the morning stage, they decided there were two jobs that needed tending. One was mending a stretch of fence — not too bad — and the other was a dammed up stream that needed to be cleared — now, that was one nasty job. Then, it would be back to the house to meet the noon stage. They decided they would figure out the afternoon chores while they ate lunch.
“Okay, Jess. What’s it going to be? Fence or stream?”
“You mean I got a choice?”
“Yeah, I know you’re moving sorta slow this morning so I’m gonna take it easy on you and let you decide which job you want.”
“Movin’ slow, take it easy on me — what the …. (side glance to Daisy)…er…what are you talkin’ about? I can work circles around you any day! I’ll bet you I have that stream cleared out AND have the team ready for the noon stage before you get that itty bitty hole fixed in the fence. Why, I might even have time to take a little nap before lunch.”
Slim just said, “Okay, it’s a bet!” He gave Daisy a wink. (Got him!) Jess never could pass up a challenge.
Daisy looked at Jess and just shook her head. Poor boy. Slim just knew how to play him so well.
Finished with breakfast and the chores, Slim watched as the morning stage drove off. He loaded up the needed supplies for mending the fence and was set to ride out when Jess said, “You sure you don’t need no help with that fence. We could let Mike stay home from school…” His grin was a mile wide.
“That’s okay. I think I can manage.”
“See you at lunch,” waved Jess as he started out to tackle the stream. Jess was not riding Traveler today. He was riding Mike’s horse. She was a beautiful buckskin mare named Ginger. Slim and Jess had bought her for Mike for his birthday. She was young and green and they had both told Mike she needed a lot of work before she was steady enough for him to ride by himself. Mike fed and watered her and kept her coat as shiny as glass. He rode her if Slim or Jess was with him. But he was very anxious to take her out on his own. So, Jess was riding her as much as possible, to get her just right for Mike.
When Jess arrived back at the ranch from his chosen job, the noon stage had come and gone. Slim was sitting on the porch drinking a cool glass of lemonade, his feet propped up on the railing. He just looked at Jess and said, “Sure wanna thank you for having those horses ready for the stage when it got here. Made changing them a lot easier…since… I had to do it ALL BY MYSELF.”
Jess was hot, tired and muddy from his boots to his hair. He was sore and not in the best of moods at losing his bet. He just gave Slim a cold look and thought, okay Sherman, you won this round.
Jess tried to clean up as best he could without having to actually undress — it was the middle of the day, for pete’s sake! He managed to get clean enough to be allowed in the house for lunch but Daisy told him he needed to leave his boots outside until he could clean them properly. She had just mopped the floor. Women! But of course, the boots stayed outside.
As Slim and Jess ate their lunch, they discussed what was to be handled next. Daisy said she needed some things from town and put a long list on the table between Jess and Slim. Whoever went to town would have plenty of time to get the supplies and pick up Mike from school because the afternoon stage had been cancelled due to it not having any passengers. And that ‘whoever’ would probably have enough time to have a couple of beers while waiting for school to let out. Of course, ‘whoever’ went would need to be CLEAN. Can’t go around town with mud “dripping off you,” said ‘someone’.
Soooooo…Jess got to round up three head of cattle and deliver them to the Thompson farm. The Thompsons had ten children and often bought a few head of cattle from Slim to feed their brood. Seven of the ten children were boys and they could eat!
Slim had a leisurely ride into town, a couple of cool beers, a nice little visit with Mort the sheriff, picked up Mike and had the same easy trip home.
Jess got the “…dad-burn ornery critters” delivered, even though one had gotten his foot caught on some tree roots and it had taken both Jess and his horse to get him out. Sweat had poured off of both of them from the effort.
Daisy had taken one look at the remaining mud, the sweat stains and just plain grim, and insisted Jess take a bath before he came to the dinner table…and it wasn’t even Saturday! So, he took a cold shower outside next to the bunkhouse. He thought it would help to cool his temper along with his body. It did. But did nothing to improve his mood.
As they ate dinner, Slim was telling everyone about his trip to town and all that he had seen and done. For Jess’ benefit, he told of what ‘the boys’ at the saloon had said and that Mort had told him to tell everyone hello. He also told Jess how pretty Sue Ellen (Jess had danced with her all night at last Saturday’s social) had looked as he walked her home from the dressmaker’s. This was said with a sly smile on his face.
Daisy could see how Jess’ features were getting darker and darker. It’s not that Jess was a sore loser; it was that Slim seemed to be laying it on a bit thick and Jess couldn’t think of any sharp reply. Daisy gave Slim a look of “that’s enough”. He knew just what she was meaning and backed off. He could see that he had gone at Jess pretty hard. “So Mike, how was school today?” he said, changing the subject.
When supper was finished, Slim went to the porch as usual to sit and relax before bed. He and Jess had made a nightly habit of this when the weather allowed. Tonight, in spite of the heat of the day, the nip of fall was showing. Slim waited until he heard the door open and smelled the fresh brewed coffee. “’Bout time you got here. I was beginning to think…” Slim turned to face Daisy.
“It’s me, Slim. Jess has gone to bed,” she said as she sat in Jess’ chair. She handed Slim a fresh cup of coffee to ward off the chill of the night.
“Oh… guess I overdid it, huh?”
“A little… Oh, Slim, Jess knows you don’t really mean anything by your teasing; he can give as good as he gets. It’s just sometimes his pride won’t let him…well, you know Jess. Don’t let it worry you,” Daisy said as she patted Slim’s arm. “He probably won’t even remember it in the morning.”
“Thanks, Daisy. I’m sure it’ll be fine.”
“Well, morning comes pretty early so I think I’ll go to bed. You coming, Slim?”
“Yeah, in a while…think I’ll just sit here for a minute or two longer. Then, I’ll turn in. Night, Daisy. Sleep well.”
“Good night, dear” said Daisy as she gave Slim a light kiss on the cheek. She knew he wanted Jess to be asleep when he went to their room. He didn’t want to make him feel any more uncomfortable than he already had.
When Slim finally did go to bed, the lamp in their room had been turned low but was still burning. Jess was asleep on his stomach with his arm hanging almost to the floor and one foot sticking out from under his blanket. Slim looked at his sleeping ‘pard’ and couldn’t help but grin. Right now he looked like an innocent little boy…and yet he was one of the fiercest fighters — fist or gun — that Slim had ever known. No doubt about it…Jess Harper was one complicated hombre.*
As usual, Daisy was right. The next morning all was well at the Sherman Ranch. Jess was his usual jovial self and Slim was glad to see it. At breakfast, ‘the boys’ discussed the plans for the day, just like always. They decided it was time to ride out to the northern most section of the ranch and begin marking some trees to cut for winter firewood. Fall was coming fast and they did not want to get caught by an early snow without enough wood for the house. It would also be a good time to inspect the fences out that way since they did not often travel to that part of the property. They asked Daisy to fix them some sandwiches as they didn’t think they would be back before late afternoon.
They got the teams ready for the day’s stage runs and left them in the corral. The drivers would change their own teams if Slim or Jess wasn’t around. It didn’t happen often and most of the drivers didn’t mind. They would always be offered Daisy’s coffee and pie and that made up for a lot!
Slim and Jess rode in companionable silence for a long way and then Slim said, “Jess…”
“Forget it, Slim; I acted like a kid yesterday. It’s my own fault. I walked into your trap with my eyes wide open and didn’t see a thing.” Then he added, “I’da done the same thing if I’da thought of it first.” Jess’ blue eyes were shinning from under his hat. He was grinning.
“So, everything’s okay?”
When Slim and Jess reached the stand of trees they were looking for, they marked several of the older ones with plans to come back and chop them down, They would then haul them to the house for wood for the winter. They inspected the fences, tightened a few loose planks and they were ready for lunch. There was a large pond on Slim’s property and it was a good place for lunch. Jess suggested they eat there and try and catch a few fish for supper. “It might be a long time before we can have fresh fish again, what with winter comin’ soon,” Jess was thinking out loud.
“Sounds good to me. We haven’t had any of Daisy’s fried fish in a long time. Let’s go! Bet you a quarter I catch the biggest one!” Slim said as he urged his horse to a gallop.
They ate Daisy’s sandwiches and found she had also included a couple of apples for dessert. While they ate, they had their fishing lines in the water waiting for bites. Slim was crunching on his apple when Jess heard Ginger whinny. “You know what she wants,” said Jess, taking a bite of his apple. “Watch my line,” he said as he stood and walked over and gave the young horse the rest of his apple.
“You and Mike spoil that horse, you know that.”
“Yeah, I know, but I hope someday she becomes Mike‘s best friend the way Traveler is mine…er… used to be my best friend.” Then added with a mischievous smile, “Before I met another ‘ol’ horse’. ‘Sides, I’m full anyway.”
Slim just grinned. Jess spoiled all the horses at the ranch…but none like Traveler. Now it looked like Ginger was coming in as a close second. For all the years Jess had been on the drift Traveler had been the only companion he had that he trusted. Jess was loyal to all his friends…human or equine.
Just then Slim felt a hard tug on his line. “I got one!! And it’s a big one, too!” Slim hauled in what had to be the biggest fish of the day. He held it up for Jess to see with a big grin on his face. Jess had caught four fish and Slim had caught only two, but his last was definitely the biggest.
Jess willingly paid his quarter, gathered up his fish and mounted up. “Let’s go home, Pard. I can taste these beauties already. Won’t Daisy be surprised?”
“Right with you!” It had been a very pleasant afternoon and all thought of yesterday’s teasing was forgotten.
When they were about a mile from the ranch house, Jess called out, “Race you!” He gave Ginger a couple of light taps and yelled, “LET’S GO!” and they were off like a shot.
Slim gave his horse, Alamo, some quick nudges and they were right behind Jess and Ginger.
As Slim and Jess started down the hill that was right outside the corral by the house, they were side by side. Jess thought, “Not this time, Sherman! This is one time I’m gonna win!” He gave Ginger a couple more nudges… with his spurs. Jess could feel her muscles tighten and he felt her gathering extra speed. They began to pull ahead of Slim and Alamo. Jess was ecstatic and Ginger seemed to catch the mood. She was young, strong and wanted to please.
Maybe that is why neither one of them saw the hole.
As Ginger’s foot went into the hole, the rest of her body pitched forward sending Jess flying over her head. Jess landed on his stomach with his leg bent under him. Ginger’s head hit him in the side as she rolled on top of him and then landed a few feet away from Jess’ prone form.
No one ever knew which scream was the loudest — Jess’ as he went flying, Slim’s as he shouted, “Jessssss!!!!”, or Daisy’s as she saw the whole thing from where she was hanging clothes in the yard.
Slim paced and paced as the doctor and Daisy worked on the unconscious Jess. Mort, who had ridden out with the doctor, said “It’s gonna be fine, Slim.” He could see the concern on Slim’s face. He knew how close Slim and Jess were; brothers couldn’t be any closer. He figured Slim would need someone to talk to as he waited for news on Jess’ condition.
“It’s bad, Mort. Real bad. You should have seen how hard he hit the ground. And I could almost hear the bones crack as Ginger hit him. I thought Daisy would be hysterical but somehow she stayed cool and calm…guess it’s her nurses’ training. She was all business.”
“It must be really hard to treat someone you care so much about,” thought Mort out loud.
“I tell you, Mort, she really loves Jess.”
“She loves you, too, Slim”
“Yeah, but she has special feelings for Jess that she doesn’t have for me…and maybe not even for Mike. Oh, I don’t mind. Jess has had a much harder life than I have — he needs her more than I do — but don’t you ever tell him I said so.”
The bedroom door opened and Daisy came out with a bowl of red water.
“Not now, Slim. The doctor needs more hot water and I have to get back right away.” She poured out the bloody water, washed the pan and filled it once again with hot water. On her way back to the bedroom, she told Slim if he wanted to do something to help that she and the doctor would probably need some coffee when they were finished.
Slim immediately set about to prepare the coffee. He had never even thought to offer Mort any. He wasn’t thinking of anything but Jess.
After what seemed like forever, the doctor and Daisy both came out of Jess’ room, exhaustion written all over their faces.
“Well?” Slim didn’t even let them sit down.
“He’s stable and sleeping right now. I’ve given him a good dose of morphine. He should sleep through the night.” The doctor looked over towards the chairs. “Can I sit down now?”
“Oh, sorry, Doc.”
Mort spoke up. “So how bad is it?”
As the doctor fell into one of the chairs, he said, “Well, the most serious injury is a punctured lung. He has several broken ribs — I’m assuming where the horse rolled on him — one stuck his lung and it collapsed. I’ve operated and gotten it inflated but we will have to keep a close watch on it. Then, there’s his left leg. It was broken in two places. Mrs. Cooper and I have set it and put on a splint. When the swelling has gone down some, I will put on a proper cast. There are several cuts and bruises but nothing as serious as his chest. He is very lucky. I don’t know how he wasn‘t killed.”
Daisy looked as if she were about to collapse. She was wiping her face to keep the tears from rolling down. Slim walked up behind her and placed his hands on her shoulders, giving them a gentle squeeze and escorted her to a chair.
The doctor looked at her and said, “Mrs. Cooper, I can’t tell you how invaluable your help has been. You are a most capable nurse. But, now I have a prescription for you. I want you to go to bed and get a good night’s sleep….and before you start to argue, let me say this. Mr. Harper will sleep through the night. I’ve seen to that. He will need you more tomorrow. Besides, Mr. Sherman sleeps in the same room and should the need arise, he will be there to handle things.” With that said, the doctor opened his bag and took out a small pill. He dropped it in Daisy’s hand and told her, “Swallow.”
Whether Daisy realized the truth of what the doctor said or she was so exhausted she couldn’t fight any more, she took her pill and drank her coffee as instructed. Daisy Cooper had never gone to bed before dark in her life, but after what she had just gone through with Jess, she would this night. A few minutes later she was in bed and sound asleep.
The doctor told Slim that he would be back tomorrow to check on Jess but if there was anything Daisy couldn’t handle to send for him immediately. And with that, he left.
Mort and Slim walked into the bedroom and looked at Jess’ sleeping form. He was very pale under all the bruises and there seemed to be bandages everywhere. His breathing was shallow, but wasn’t causing him much trouble; there didn’t seem to be anything he needed at the moment.
While Slim was staring at Jess, Mort put a hand on his shoulder and said, “He’s going to be fine, Slim. You know how tough he is. He’ll be up and arguing with you in no time. You’ll see.”
“I surely hope so, Mort. I don’t know what we would do without him. I’ve lost one brother…I don’t think I could stand to lose another.”
Mort told Slim he would spend the night on the couch…just in case Slim needed him. And Slim didn’t argue, either. He was glad not to have the responsibility of Jess all by himself. He told Mort goodnight and then stretched out on his bed, fully clothed, and listened to Jess breathe. He was very glad they had sent Mike to the neighbors. He didn’t think he could handle Mike’s questions right now and Daisy would be much too busy to look after him. Before long, the entire Sherman household was asleep.
The doctor was back the next morning, just as Daisy, Slim and Mort were finishing up breakfast. Jess had not stirred all night.
The doctor listened to Jess’s chest and felt for his pulse in his wrist and broken leg. He didn’t seem to be running any fever and all seemed as it had been the night before. Everyone took this as a good sign.
Daisy asked the doctor if he would like some breakfast. He said no thank you but that he would not refuse some coffee. He and Daisy were discussing a recovery plan for Jess when they heard him begin to move around and moan. All four rushed to his bedside.
Jess must have been in terrible pain because he was thrashing around in the bed and pulling at his bandages.
The doctor spoke to Slim and Mort, “Hold him down! If he punctures his lung again, I don’t know if I will be able to inflate it this time.”
As Slim and Mort held on to his shoulders and his one good leg Daisy took hold of his hands and spoke soothingly to him, “Shhh, Jess…it’s alright…it’s alright…we’re all here to help you. Rest easy. Shhh…shhh.”
The doctor got a spoon and administered a dose of laudanum. He also gave Jess a couple of spoonfuls of water. After several minutes, he seemed to settle back into the drug-induced sleep.
“Well, it looks like it was a good thing I was here. I’m not sure less than four people would have been able to handle our patient. I think it would be for the best to keep him sedated for the next couple of days. At least until we are sure his moving around will no longer be a threat to his lung. So, here is the plan. He is to get one tablespoon of laudanum every four hours. Every time you give him the medication, you will need to get him to drink some water. You might also try a little broth. It will be slow going but if you put just a little liquid at a time in his mouth, his natural swallowing reflex should be able to handle it. If not, we’ll have to think of something else. But, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. He will need around the clock care. However, since he will be sedated most of the time, he should be pretty easy to handle.”
Mort spoke up and said, “I’m going to take some time off, Doc. I’ll stay here and help. Jess has helped me out lots of times and it’s the least I can do. That is, if Miss Daisy and Slim can put up with me for a few days. I ain’t much of a nurse but I’m sure there’s lots of other stuff I can help with.”
“Oh, Mort. How very kind of you. Of course, we’ll be very glad and very grateful to have you. You’re a dear.” Daisy’s eyes were moist and she gave Mort a big hug. She was grateful to anyone who would help ‘her boys’.
Mort asked the doctor to deliver a message to his deputy that he was staying on at the ranch for a few days and to take care of everything in town.
For the next few days, Jess had little knowledge of what was going on around him. He was slowly fed sips of water and broth with every dose of laudanum. He was bathed and kept clean. He was held down if need be (which was not often). He was talked to and told how much he was loved and how much his family missed him. And he was visited daily by the doctor.
It had been a few days since the accident and the doctor felt that Jess’ ribs were stable enough not to cause farther damage to his lung. He told Daisy and Slim to start giving him less of the drug. He thought it would be safe to let him regain consciousness for short periods of time. If it proved to be too painful for him, they could go back to the original schedule for his medicine.
Mort told Slim that since Jess was doing so well he thought it was about time that he got back to town. Slim told him how much he appreciated all his help. “Don’t know what we would have done without you, Mort. Your help with the station and changing the teams and every other thing you’ve done for the past few days…I just can’t thank you enough.”
“Aww, that’s okay, Slim. We’ve been friends for a long time and ‘sides I’d do just about anything for Miss Daisy….AND that bum in the other room, too. Been well paid. Don’t know how I’m gonna manage to survive without Daisy’s cookin’.”
The next morning — before sun up — as Slim was taking his turn to sit with his Pard, he heard some faint little grunts and moans coming from Jess’ bed. He looked to see a pair of familiar blue eyes, fringed with ebony lashes, searching for some recognition.
“Well, hey there! Look who’s come back to rejoin the living. Hold on a minute, Pard. Let me get you some water.” Slim raised Jess’ head slightly and held a glass to his lips. “Now very slowly, you hear. Not too much.” And Jess drank. Slim took the glass away and a very weak “more” came from between Jess’ parched lips. “Okay…in just a minute…let’s let this go down first. Then I’ll give you some more.”
“Wa…wa…what…happened?” Jess asked in barely a whisper.
“You don’t remember what happened to you?”
Jess just shook his head, slightly…no.
Slim didn’t know how much information Jess could handle at this point. He simply said, “You had an accident. You broke some ribs and your leg. Are you in pain now?”
Again a slight nod of the head — this time, yes.
“Okay, Jess. Hold on. I’m going to give you a little more water and then your medicine. We can talk more when you wake up again.” Slim let Jess drink more from the glass before he held out the spoonful of laudanum for Jess to swallow.
Slim realized just how much pain Jess must be in if he was honest enough to say he was hurting and willingly take the medication. There was none of the usual “I’m fine and I don’t need that.” Slim wished he could take a dose of the laudanum himself to ease the pain in his heart. He felt for anything or anyone that was suffering but to watch Jess suffer was tearing him apart.
“Slim, did I hear you talking to Jess?” Daisy was standing behind him and he had not even heard her come into the room.
“Yeah, Daisy. He woke up for a minute. But, he was in terrible pain so I gave him some more medicine.”
“Did you get him to drink anything?” Worry was written all over her face as she stared down at Jess.
As Jess began to heal, he began to stay awake for longer periods of time and the day Slim had been dreading finally came.
He had just finished eating some scrambled eggs Daisy had fixed for him and was settling back down in bed. He asked Slim for the hundredth time what had happened to him.
“I know you told me before what happened but with all that stuff you been pouring down me I can’t seem to keep things straight. Tell me again, Slim. What happened?”
“Well…umm…we were coming home from marking the trees, like I told you. And…ummm….Ginger stumbled…umm…and she threw you.”
“Slim, I know I’ve been out of it for a while but my head is not THAT messed up. I’ve been thrown before and not been this bad off. What’s the rest of it?”
Slim knew this was it and he just hoped Jess was up for it. “You see, Jess…Ginger rolled over on you….she threw you when she stepped in a hole….and then she fell, too…you were right under her. That’s how you got so busted up.”
“But she’s okay, ain’t she?”
Slim gave Jess a look that answered his question. “No, Jess, I’m so sorry…her leg was broken and I had to put her down.”
Slim had expected there to be screamin’….yellin’…anger…rage. He was expecting anything but what he got…nothing. Jess just stared at him…stunned. It was as if he had been hit in the chest with a sledge hammer.
For a moment it looked as if he wasn’t breathing. Then he said, “Is it time for my medicine yet, Slim? I’m hurtin’.”
A short time later, Slim was relating to Daisy what had just happened when she said, “Jess? Asking for medicine? Oh, Slim, that’s not good, not good at all.” If possible, Daisy’s level of worry went up a couple of notches. “Oh my…oh my… Slim, what are we going to do?”
“I don’t know, Daisy. Maybe he just needs some time to get used to the idea of Ginger being…gone.”
“Does he know the rest?”
“No, I didn’t think he could handle any more than what I told him.”
“You’re probably right. Maybe he won’t ask….or remember. Oh, my poor, poor boy. He’s suffered so much. It’s just not fair!!! Why him, Slim? Why him?” For the first time since the accident, Daisy broke down and sobbed. Slim took her in his arms and let her release her tension against his chest. By the time she was more composed, his shirt was damp.
When Slim went out to get the horses ready for the noon stage, he couldn’t help but go to Ginger’s old stall and look around. Even though she had only been at the ranch for a year, he had grown very fond of her. She had been a good horse and Slim always appreciated a good horse. It just was going to be very strange not seeing her in her stall.
A few days later Slim watched as Daisy came out of Jess’ room carrying his lunch tray. From the look on her face, Slim knew that he had eaten very little. Ever since Jess heard the news of Ginger being put down, he had stopped eating…really, stopped everything. He didn’t complain about having to stay in bed…he asked for medicine…only drank when it was offered…and slept as much as he could. However, neither Slim nor Daisy knew how much he lay awake at night…in the dark…in his own troubled world.
The doctor had been out and put a proper cast on Jess’ leg. He told Jess he should start getting out of bed and sitting up for an hour at a time and gradually build up to longer periods. Slim had fashioned Jess a crutch and either he or Daisy walked beside him for support. However, unlike the old Jess, he would stay up for about twenty minutes or so and then say he was tired and wanted to go back to bed.
Even Mike tried to help. He asked Jess to play checkers with him but Jess lost each game so badly that Mike knew he wasn’t paying attention. “Aunt Daisy, is Jess ever going to come back?”
“Why, whatever do you mean, Mike? Jess is right there in his room.”
“Yeah, I know Jess is in there but the REAL Jess…well…he ain’t inside him.”
Out of the mouth of babes. Daisy gave Mike a hug and said, “Welllll, Jess is hurt. It’s not just his leg or his ribs…he’s hurt in his heart. He feels very bad about what happened to Ginger. It’s hard to lose someone you care about. You know how that is, Mike.”
“Yes, ma’am. I do. I miss Ginger but I miss Jess more.”
Daisy had been amazed at how Mike had handled the death of Ginger. While he was terribly sad and had cried for quite a while, he did not blame Jess. She didn’t know if it was maturity or his hero worship of Jess but whatever it was, she was grateful.
After supper, Daisy told Slim about her conversation with Mike. She had taken to sitting with Slim on the porch at night. She knew she was no replacement for Jess but she also knew Slim needed her now, too. “I don’t know what we are going to do, Slim, but we have got to do something. Jess is not getting any better. As a matter of fact, I think he has begun to get worse. Have you noticed how much weight he has lost? He is hardly able to stand, let alone walk with that crutch you made. If he gets any weaker, I won’t be able to help him walk to his chair in the living room. I can barely support him as it is. I am so very, very worried.”
“Yeah, Daisy, I noticed all them things. I just didn’t know Mike had. You think I should have a talk with Jess? Think it would help?”
“I don’t know…but it certainly can’t make things worse…I don’t think anything could.”
But there was something that could make it worse…
As Slim went into the bedroom to talk to Jess, he found him shivering and clenching his teeth to keep them from chattering.
“Daisy!! Daisy!! Come quick!” Slim shouted. He was standing at Jess’ bed with his hand resting on his forehead.
“What is it, Slim…” said Daisy as she made her way into the room. She saw him and rushed to put her hand on Jess’ flaming cheek. “Oh! My Lord! He’s got a fever!! Jess! Jess! Can you hear me? When did this start? Jess! Jess!” Jess opened his eyes but Daisy was not sure he actually heard her.
“Quick, Slim, draw some cool water from the well. We have to try and get this fever down. He never said a word to me about feeling ill today…if he had just said something before now” Daisy was mostly talking to herself as she began gathering the things she would need. Daisy lowered the blankets and began wiping Jess’ face and chest with the cool water Slim had drawn from the well. Both Daisy and Slim tried to get some of the water INTO Jess but his mouth was closed so tightly that most of it spilled down his face.
“I wish we had some ice…that would help.”
“Do you want me to ride over to the Thompsons’ place? They have an ice house. I’m sure they would be glad to sell me some.”
“Oh, yes, Slim, please…do you think they will still be up at this time of night?”
“I don’t know but I know Mr. Thompson wouldn’t mind this one time. After all, it’s for Jess.”
Slim was saddled and off as quickly as he could. When he reached the Thompson farm, there were no lights coming from the house. Farmers got an early start just like ranchers. That did not stop Slim from knocking on the door…hard.
“Who is it in the middle of the night?” Mr. Thompson shouted.
“It’s me! Slim Sherman, Mr. Thompson…I need your help!!”
Rand Thompson and his two oldest boys opened the door…guns in hand, but now lowered when they heard who is was. “Slim! What’s the trouble?”
“Sorry to bother you in the middle of the night but it’s Jess. He’s got a high fever and Daisy sent me to ask if we could buy some ice. You’re a lot closer than town and we need it bad.”
“No, Slim you can’t BUY any ice. But I’ll be glad to GIVE you all you need. Buster…Billy…go out to the ice house and cut Slim a good size block of ice — and while you’re at it, hitch up the buckboard. Slim’ll need it to carry the ice home. Come on in Slim.”
Mrs. Thompson was up also and putting on a pot of coffee… “I heard about Jess’ fall, Slim. But I thought he was doing better. What brought on this fever?” She had heard Slim talking to her husband.
“We don’t really know. Just went in the bedroom and found him. Daisy is sitting up with him until I get back; she’s trying to cool him off as much as she can.”
“Poor dear…I’ll make a big pot of stew and send it over tomorrow. With Daisy tending Jess, I am sure she will be glad not to have to cook.”
“Thank you kindly, Mrs. Thompson, but I don’t want to put you to no trouble.”
“Nonsense. ‘Sides, if it was me nursing’ one of my kids — or this old horse over here –Daisy would be offerin’ all sorts of help. Anyway, it’s for Jess. I’ll have one of the boys bring it over when he returns your horse. By the way, do you want one of them to go along with you? With Jess laid up, I know you’re short-handed. And, well, we got a couple of kids we can spare…” She gave her husband a knowing look. “Right, Pa?”
“Sure ‘nough. Slim, do you need one of the boys to help you? I got a bunch of ‘em…”
“Thanks, Rand. But the drivers have been helping change the teams. They know about Jess, too. Everyone is being very kind.”
“Well, you let us know… Glad to do whatever we kin. Here’s the boys now…”
Slim rode out with the ice in the Thompson’s buckboard and he pushed the team harder than he normally would…these were not normal times.
Daisy was still at Jess’ bedside when he returned. “Any change?” Slim asked.
“I’m afraid not, Slim. Get that ice chopped up as soon as you can and wrapped in some cloths; we’ll need to put it all around him.”
Slim quickly chopped the ice and wrapped the pieces in cloth. Daisy placed them all along Jess’ body. She also wet a cloth in ice water and laid it on his chest. She covered him lightly with a sheet and sat back….and prayed.
“Daisy, do you want me to go and get the doctor?” Slim tried to keep the panic out of his voice.
“No, Slim. I don’t think he would do anything more than we’re doing, and it’s so late. Why don’t you try and get some rest. I’ll stay with him for now.”
“Okay…but I’m gonna rest right here. You need me, you wake me. I’ll catch a few hours of sleep and then spell you.” Slim, once again stretched out — fully dressed — on his bed and closed his eyes.
Daisy turned down the lamp to help Slim get to sleep.
Daisy Cooper looked from one ‘son’ to the other. These were two of the most important people in her life. If love could cure, neither would have another sick day in their lives. It truly amazed her how one moment in time could tear so many worlds apart. Jess — so very sick; Slim — so very worried; Mike — missing his brother/father. Her ‘boys’…her life…please, Lord.
Daisy must have dozed off because the next thing she knew there was a gentle hand on her shoulder.
“It’s almost dawn, Daisy. Why don’t you go and lie down? I’ve got some new ice packs ready for Jess and I’m all rested up now,” Slim said.
Daisy helped Slim change out Jess’ ice packs and then went to hang the cloths to dry in the kitchen. She wanted them ready, in case they needed them again.
Slim only left Jess’ side to go and help Mose with the morning stage.
“How’s he doin’, Slim?” asked Mose.
“Not good, Mose. He started a fever last night and Daisy and I have started taking turns again sitting with him. Ever since I had to tell him about Ginger…” Slim’s voice trailed off.
“Welllllll, you tell that boy I said to hurry up and git well. I sorta miss him raggin’ on me. Aw, heck…just tell him I said to git well.” Even Mose couldn’t keep the worry out of his voice.
For the next three days, Jess’ fever kept up the assault on his body. Either Slim or Daisy was by his bed, doing everything they could think of to keep him cool. He was often delirious and thrashing about, moaning. Jess Harper was not an easy person to tend to when sick or injured, and the extra work and worry was beginning to show on Daisy and Slim. However, neither wanted anyone else to tend him; he was their family.
Buster Thompson had ridden over with Slim’s horse and delivered a large pot of beef stew. He said his Ma made real good stew…especially with the good beef they had gotten from Slim. He said his Pa told him to ask if there was anything else he could help Slim with. Slim told him he appreciated the offer but he couldn‘t think of anything right now. Buster said, “Mr., Sherman, me and my brothers surely think highly of Jess. If there is anything we can do for you, just holler…” With a tip of his hat to Daisy, he rode off in his Pa’s buckboard.
“Such a nice family…” said Daisy as she watched Buster ride off. “Slim, would you like me to warm some of the stew for you? We haven’t had a proper meal in a while.”
As Slim and Daisy walked back in the house, he said, “No, thanks. I’m not very hungry.” Slim was looking toward the bedroom door.
“I know what you mean, but tonight you and I are going to eat some stew — for Jess’ sake. We have to keep up our strength.”
Slim and Daisy once more began their vigils.
Finally, the fever seem to have abated somewhat. Jess began sweating and trying to throw off the cooling cloths that were placed on him. This time it was Daisy that saw the opening of those blue eyes she cared for so deeply. She was reading in a chair when she heard him begin to move and looked up to see him staring at her. “Oh, Jess, how are you feeling, dear? We’ve been so worried about you.”
“Sorry… to worry… you…Daisy. How long’s it been?” Jess’ voice was so soft Daisy could hardly make it out.
“About three days. Now I want you to drink some water; you must be terribly thirsty…”
“Yeah, a bit…” Jess drank what Daisy gave him. As she took the glass away from Jess’ lips, she couldn’t help but run her hands through his hair and try and brush some of the sweat soaked strands away from his face. The fever blush had left his cheeks and his color was returning to a more normal state.
Jess turned and looked at Daisy, “I truly am sorry for causing you any pain, Daisy. You know I wouldn’t hurt you for the world. It’s just that…” His face said so much more than his words ever could.
“Oh, my dear boy, it’s not your fault…”
“Yes, it is… It’s all my fault. It was my idea to race and I …sp…spurred Ginger. I’ve NEVER done that in my life. I k…k…killed her. I will never forgive myself for that. I was so caught up in beating Slim at SOMETHING…ANYTHING…. I was stupid…stupid…Oh, Daisy, what have I done?” Daisy had never seen Jess so distraught before.
“You remember? You know everything that happened that day?”
“Yeah. It all came back right before the fever hit.”
Ah! thought Daisy. So that was it.
Jess closed his eyes to the pain and reached out for Daisy’s hand. She quickly took it and drew it to her cheek. She moved to sit on the side of the bed by Jess, hoping her closeness would give him some comfort. “Jess, I think of you as a son, you know that. You know when I say something it’s the truth. It was an accident…a tragic accident. You have ridden down that hill a thousand times and it could have happened any one of those times. You did nothing wrong.” Daisy continued to hold on to Jess and placed her hand gently on his cheek.
“Yes, I did. I mistreated a friend — a friend who would do…and did do anything I asked of her. If we hadn’t been going so fast, maybe one or both of us would have seen the hole. Maybe we could have gone around it…or something.”
“Jess…” Daisy began. “I know the loss of Ginger has been very hard on you, plus being hurt and sick, it’s been a very difficult time. But, it truly was an accident. You have got to believe that. No one blames you…not even Mike. He told me so himself. You have got to try and get better –for all our sakes. Mike misses you so very much, as do Slim and I. Our family is just not complete without you. We need you, Jess. We need you to come back to us…please.”
There was such pain and worry in Daisy’s voice Jess could hardly look at her. ‘Okay, Daisy, I’ll try — for you and Mike….and Slim.”
Jess began to eat. He did not eat with enjoyment, but he ate, to gather strength. He tried to stay out of bed for longer periods of time. He tried to really concentrate when he played checkers with Mike. He did all he was supposed to do…for them. And his body began to heal. Now, if his mind would only follow.
After six weeks, the doctor was out to remove the cast from Jess’ leg. “Now, Jess, you realize this leg is still weak. You need to take it easy for a bit longer. No riding.” Then he remembered. “Uhhh…I mean…er…just remember… take it easy.”
And so it went for the next few months. Jess did all he was supposed to do in the way he was supposed to do it. For them. As he gathered strength, he began to work again…harder and harder. He drove himself to exhaustion and then fell into bed each night. Slim had tried to get him to go into town and have a few beers, to relax. But Jess always said he was too tired.
Finally, one night, as they sat on the porch after supper Jess said, “Slim, I’ve been thinking. Maybe…maybe it would be better if I went away for a while…just to sort things out…a month or so….”
“WHAT!! Of course it would NOT be better if you went away. It would worry Daisy to death. And what about Mike? And….me. What put this crazy notion in your head?”
“It’s not crazy, Slim. I did something reckless and foolish and a friend paid for it. What if it had been Mike or Daisy…or you? I would never be able to forgive myself. I wouldn’t make it. I’m thinking about all of you…”
“Jess, listen, it was an accident! We’ve told you that over and over. We’re a family. And families stick together. We’ve been through tough times before; we’ll get through this…”
“But, this time, I CAUSED the tough times — me and my…pride. Well, don’t worry. I ain’t got no pride left.” It had been many years since Jess felt the pain of loss as he did now.
Slim knew if he did not take another tactic with Jess that he would be gone in the morning. He had to think of something — and quick. After a long pause, Slim said, “Okay, go if you want. Just not right now. Spring is almost here and this is the busiest season we have. There’s repairs from winter, cattle to move, more people traveling so more stages, horses to get ready for the army contract. I don’t think I could handle this all by myself. Can’t you just stay until summer? Don’t leave me short-handed, Jess. I need you.”
Jess just looked at Slim and thought, “I know what you’re doing…” But what he said was, “I’ll think it over. Night, Slim (not Pard).” And he went to bed.
When Slim woke up the next morning, he was afraid to look at Jess’ bed. He half expected to find it empty and his gear gone. But when he got up the courage to turn his head, he found Jess, still asleep. A wave of relief rushed over him as he quickly rose and dressed. He wanted to talk to Daisy alone.
In a hushed voice, Slim told Daisy of his conversation with Jess the night before.
“Oh, Slim…Jess wants to leave to protect us? We have to do something. We can’t let him go!” Daisy declared.
“I know, I know…but what? You know how stubborn he is when he gets his mind made up.”
Daisy and Slim each tried to think of anything they could to show Jess how much they all needed him. They both felt a little guilty for going behind Jess’ back but his stubbornness left them few options. It was decided it was best to leave Mike out of their “scheming” and just encourage him to stay as close to Jess as time allowed.
And so began the “Keep Jess Harper At Home” plan. Daisy made his favorite dishes and lots of apple pies. Slim made sure he was included in all ranch decisions and Mike crawled up in his lap whenever he could and just sat while Jess rocked. That boy could melt a heart of stone and his affection was not lost on Jess. Time went by and it seemed as if a bit of the old Jess was returning….slowly.
Jess had finally begun to go into town again. Mort was always glad to see him and told him so. Slim had confided in Mort about his and Daisy’s plan to convince Jess to stay. Mort told Slim he wished he could think of a good reason to leave town for a while. Jess was always glad to fill in as deputy. But Mort knew if he made something up, Jess would see right through it.
However, when you least expect it…
Jess and Slim had ridden into town to pick up supplies and have a couple of beers. They were in the saloon when the shouting and gunfire began. Both were quick to rush out into the street to see what was happening. Samuel Denkins from the barber shop was running down the street yelling for Mort.
“Sheriff! Sheriff! Come quick!”
Slim and Jess got to Samuel about the same time as Mort. He had also heard the gunfire and was out and running up the street. “What is it, Samuel?? What’s going on?”
“It’s the bank, Mort!! They’re robbing the bank!! Hurry! Hurry!” Samuel was so out of breath he could hardly speak.
As soon as the words were out of Samuel’s mouth, Slim and Jess were running right alongside Mort towards the bank. As they turned the corner, they saw three men, guns drawn, coming out of the bank. Mort was running full speed, with his gun out, shouting, “Stop! Drop your guns!”
The men turned as one and began firing. When Jess did his drop, roll and fire routine, one of the robbers fell to the ground…dead. Mort was running for the safety of a wagon parked on the street when a bullet hit him in the leg. He went down but kept on firing. A second thief fell, holding his chest and moaning.
The third robber was still firing as he threw his saddle bags across his horse. He mounted in a flash and spurred his horse to action.
As soon as the shooting was over, Jess looked for Slim. He saw him on the ground. Jess ran and knelt by Slim, helping him to sit up. Slim was holding his shoulder and moaning. “Slim! Slim! How bad is it?” Jess was trying desperately to get a look at Slim’ wound.
Slim looked up at Jess’ worried face and said, “It ain’t too bad. Go get him, Jess. Don’t let him get away with this.”
“You sure you’re gonna be okay?” Jess was more concerned about Slim than any amount of money in the bank.
By this time Mort had hobbled over to the two friends and said, “Don’t worry, Jess. I see he get taken care of. Go! I deputize you now. Go get him, boy. The whole town is counting on you.”
Town’s people began rushing over to help. Someone shouted, “Alright, men…let’s get these two over to the doc’s!” And Slim and Mort were carried to the doctor’s office by the citizens of Laramie. Others went to see to the two robbers. The second one had joined his partner in death and both were taken to the undertakers.
Jess took one more look as his pard was carried off to the doctor’s and then he mounted the first horse he came to. If he could bring back the town’s money, he didn’t think the owner would mind.
The doctor operated on Slim’s shoulder and removed the bullet. Slim was lucky; a hair to the left…well, Slim was lucky. Mort’s leg wound was not as serious. The bullet had gone all the way through without hitting a major artery. Nevertheless, it required many stitches and Mort would be off his feet for a while. With no one to lead them, it didn’t look like anyone would be forming a posse to help Jess. It was a good thing Slim was still unconscious from his surgery or he would have probably tried to ride out himself.
The next morning several of the merchants and town’s leading citizens went to see Mort and Slim as they recovered at the doctor’s. (Neither has been allowed to go home.) “Just what do you intend to do about our money, Sheriff? If that bank money is not returned, most of us are done for. We won’t even be able to pay your salary!!”
“I have already wired the marshal in Cheyenne. He’s due here in a couple of days.”
“A COUPLE OF DAYS!!! That outlaw will be long gone by then!”
“Just what would you have me do? Ride out and bleed to death? That’ll get your money back, won’t it? ‘Sides, Jess Harper rode out after him.”
“That’s only one man! We need more than that!!”
“Then you go!!” Mort’s leg was hurting and he was not in the best of moods since being awakened from his nap.
“You know we aren’t gunmen. We wouldn’t even begin to know how to track a man. Especially one that didn’t want to be found.”
“Gentlemen,” Slim, who was in the bed next to Mort, spoke up. “If there is one man that can do the job of ten when it comes to gunmen, it’s Jess Harper. If he comes back empty-handed, I will be very surprised.”
“But, he didn’t even stop for supplies…”
“Well, if it makes you feel better, neither did the robber.”
Everyone realized there was no use in arguing anymore. They wished Mort and Slim a speedy recovery and left, to wait — for either the marshal or Jess…who ever got in first.
Daisy and Mike had ridden into town to see Slim. Mose had delivered the news about the robbery and everything else. As they entered Slim and Mort’s room, Mike ran to Slim’s bed and almost jumped on him. “Careful, Mike!” Daisy grabbed his arm just in time. “Slim’s hurt and we need to be careful of his arm. How are you feeling, dear?” She had barely gotten Jess well and now Slim… Men! Then she quickly added, “And you as well, Mort?”
Answering in unison they both said, “Fine.” Standard issue response around her house.
“Well, I am very grateful that neither one of you were hurt worse. Have you heard from Jess?”
“No, Daisy,” said Slim and then looked her in the eyes and added, “but I’m sure he’s fine.”
Daisy smoothed out her unwrinkled skirt, put her arm around Mike and said, “I’m sure you’re right. Now, what can I do to make you two boys feel better? I’m here to help.”
Mort was quick with a reply, “Daisy, do you think the doc would let YOU make some coffee. He’s great with the knife and bandages but his wife is out of town and his coffee stinks!”
Daisy smiled at Mort and said, “I’ll see what I can do. Mike, you stay here and visit with Slim and Mort. But be careful.” She left the room.
Slim moved over slightly and patted his bed. “Up here, pal…but slowly.”
Mike crawled in with Slim. “Tell me about the holdup, Sheriff.” It was good to be so close to Slim.
Within a few minutes, Daisy was back with the coffee. As Mort and Slim drank, Mort said, “Now that’s the medicine we needed. Eh, Slim?”
“Daisy, you are a doll!”
Daisy and Mike visited for the rest of the afternoon and then went to the hotel to get a room. They would wait until the doctor let Slim go and they would all go home together. Hopefully, Jess would be back to go with them.
The next morning, after checking over his work, the doctor told Slim and Mort they could both go home — and he gave each a list of things NOT to do.
They used Slim’s buckboard to get Mort to his house. “I surely wish I had enough room for you to stay with me but truth is I hardly spend any time here — usually sleep at the jail –so it’s not the best place for a lady,” admitted Mort.
“That’s okay, Mort. We’ll be fine at the hotel. We’re only going to stay one more night, just to see if Je…well, just one more night.”
Slim, Daisy and Mike spent the night in the Laramie Hotel and most of the next day at Mort’s house. Daisy wanted Slim to rest more before they started for home. By that afternoon, Daisy and Slim had decided that it was time to go. They had hoped to have some word of Jess before they left town but that had not happened. Daisy had gotten some hay from the livery and some blankets from Mort and was making a bed for Slim in the buckboard. “Daisy, this is not necessary…. I’m fine…really.” Slim was trying to sound as convincing as possible. This was one of those ‘too much mothering’ times. Daisy just continued to fix the back of the buckboard.
As they were preparing for the trip home, a stranger rode up to the buckboard and tipped his hat to Daisy. “Ma’am.” Then he asked Slim, “Could you tell me where I might find Sheriff Cory? I’m Marshal Trask and I need to find him. He’s not over at the jail…already been there.”
Slim informed the marshal that he was standing in front of the sheriff’s house and he was inside recuperating from a gunshot wound. He then told Daisy, “Why don’t you and Mike go over to the café and have a lemonade? I want to talk to the marshal with Mort and find out what’s going on.” They agreed that someone would come and tell Daisy when Slim was ready to go home.
Mort gave the marshal an account of the bank robbery and described the robbers as best as he could. The marshal said, “Sounds to me like the Wills gang. They are all kin in some way — cousins or something. But there’s more than three of ‘em. If one got away, he’s probably headed for wherever the rest are hold up. They’re a mean bunch…don’t care who they hurt. You say only one man went after the last robber?”
Mort explained how he and Slim had been wounded. That his deputy was out of town delivering a prisoner and that there was no one to lead a posse. He hoped that now that the marshal was here, he would lead it. Mort knew he could get together some good men; they just needed a leader.
“Just who is this fella that went after the robber alone? Does he know what he’s doing?” The marshal sounded concerned.
“It’s my partner, Jess Harper. He’s a good tracker and knows how to handle himself in a fight.” Slim said with a tad of pride in his voice.
“Harper….Harper…seems I’ve heard that name before. Didn’t I see it once on a wanted poster? He’s a gun for hire, ain‘t he?”
This time it was Mort who spoke up for Jess. “No! That was a long time ago. Jess has found himself a home here in Laramie…at Slim’s ranch. He’s been my deputy — on occasion — and done a dang good job of it, too. He’s well respected around town.”
“Okay! Okay! Don’t get all lathered up! I was only going on what I know. How do you want to handle this posse? We need to get started. They have a two-day head start on us.” The marshal seemed anxious to get after his man.
In spite of being unable to ride, Mort was able to gather men for the marshal. He introduced him to the group and told them to follow Trask‘s orders. They all left to gather supplies and agreed to meet in an hour.
Jess thought he would be able to catch up to the robber quickly as he left not far behind him. What he didn’t know was the horse he had chosen was not up to Jess’ standards. He was older and not as fast as the robber’s. “Good choice, Harper,” Jess said to himself as he noticed his horse becoming winded. He would have to slow down or ride the horse to death and be left afoot. The latter being a poor choice at the moment, Jess slowed his horse’s pace. But he continued to track. The robber’s horse had a distinctive notch in his left hind shoe and it was easy to follow.
Jess followed his man until it became too dark to see. He had no food, only a canteen he found tied to the saddle horn. It was half full so Jess figured he would have to ration himself until he came to some place to fill it. He removed his horse’s saddle and bridle, hobbled him to allow him to rest and feed. He poured some water into his hand and offered it to the horse. “There you go, old fella. You worked hard today and I appreciate it.” The horse drank and then nuzzled against Jess’ shoulder; he seemed grateful for the attention. A few scratches and pats and he let the horse graze.
Jess settled down on the ground to try and get a few hours rest. He hoped the robber was doing the same.
The next morning at sun-up, after he and the horse had a few more sips of water, Jess was back on the trail. By now they were deep in the forest and the going was slower. But Jess’ determination never wavered. He had seen both Slim and Mort fall and was set — dead set — on getting the man who did it. The tracks finally lead Jess to a small stream and he and his horse drank their fill. Jess let his horse rest a bit and graze. He noticed a patch of berries and ate as many as he could. Not much, but better than nothing. Then it was back to the trail.
About an hour later, the trail led Jess to a small cabin. The horse Jess had been following was tied up outside…..along with two others. “Damn! Now there‘s two more to deal with,” thought Jess. He tied his horse a way back from the cabin and began to crawl forward to check things out. He saw a door in front, and windows on either side of the cabin.
Jess made his way around to the side of the cabin, using the woods as cover. He silently crept up to one of the windows and tried to hear what was going on inside.
“You done good, real good, Hank. Must be close to $30,000 here. Split three ways…nice, real nice. Too bad about your brother and Jimmy.” There didn’t seem to be much sorrow in the man’s voice.
“The way I figure is that Jimmy, Al and me done all the work, took all the chances and they paid for it, too. I don’t figure on givin’ you and Harv an equal share. I’ll take $20,000 and you two can split the rest any way you want…and I think that is being considerable generous. The only reason you git any is because we’re family.” This must have been Hank.
“Well, Cuz…me and Harv don’t exactly see it that way, do we?” came the unknown voice.
“Naw….don’t see it that way at all.” This had to be Harv. “We done shared with you on other jobs and seems only right to keep it that way.”
“Yeah, but on other jobs I done my share. You two were too drunk to help any with this job. If we hadn’t hit that bank when we did, most of the money woulda been gone. It was payroll time; you know that.”
“Well, we wuz in on the planning and we’re gonna be in on the sharing.” Again, Mr. No Name.
“Oh, yeah…how you figure?” Hank again.
“Welllllllllllll, Little Cuz….you know us…money is thicker than blood.”
“Nice guy,” thought Jess as he heard a chair scrape across the floor.
“What’s your plan? Shoot me?” Hank sounded a bit nervous.
“It don’t have to come to that. Just turn over our share and we’ll all ride out and go have us a little fun.”
“I’ll ride out alright…with $20,000 in my bags. You and Harv can do what you want. I gittin’ out of the robbing’ business. This is gonna set me up…get a little place…”
Hank never got to finish his sentence; shots rang out and a body hit the floor. Jess didn’t know who had been shot but he figured it must have been Hank. It had been two against one.
“Sorry, Cuz…I tried to warn you.” Mr. No Name again. “Okay Harv, what say you and me git outta here and go have us some fun. I’m right tired of this place.”
The next voice had to be Harv. “Uh, it’s not that I don’t trust you, cuz….but how ‘bout we split the money before we leave.”
Mr. No Name gave a small snicker and said, “Sure thing. Anything you say.”
Jess thought it would take a few minutes to count out the money and get their gear ready. That should give him enough time to get back to the horse and get the rifle that had come with it.
No Name and Harv came out of the cabin and were about to step down the stairs when Jess called out from the shadows, “Hold it right there! Drop your guns and you won’t die.”
The two outlaws stopped right where they were. They both looked around but could see nothing. Whoever it was was well hidden.
“There’s a rifle aimed right at your heart! Drop the guns!”
No Name spoke up. “Well, friend, there’s two of us; you can only aim at one.”
“Take your chances…” came Jess’ growl.
“Look here.” This time it was Harv. “There’s plenty here. No need to get greedy.”
“Seems like greed was what got you fellas in this spot. And thanks — three of you would have been a mite harder to handle.”
No Name and Harv looked at each other with a knowing look and then back to where they thought Jess’ voice was coming from. At the same time they both drew their guns and dropped. Jess was expecting this and got one of the men before he hit the ground. The other, seeing the flash of the rifle, fired directly at Jess’ position. The bullet whizzed so close to Jess’ head he felt a breeze. He ducked down and opened up on the second man.
The robber rolled again and was using the horses as cover. He shouted, “Listen, friend…I ain’t as greedy as old Harv there.”
Ah, so it was Mr. No Name remaining.
“No use us killin’ off each other; there’s plenty to go around. What say? Partners?”
“I say as soon as I show myself, I’m a dead man. ‘Sides, that money ain’t mine and it sure ain’t yours. Tell you what…give up and I’ll try my best to see they don’t hang you.”
“Aw, friend…now that’s no way to be. I’m offerin’ you money and you’re offerin’ me life in prison. That don’t sound like a good bargain to me.”
“It’s better than being dead.” Jess was getting tired of this. He knew No Name was just stalling and he didn’t want to give him time to figure a way out.
“Best get on with it,” thought Jess as he crouched low and ran in the direction No Name had rolled. Just at that moment one of the horses shifted position and exposed No Name. Jess dropped to one knee and fired several shots. He never knew which one found the mark but No Name lay unmoving. Jess never took the aim of his rifle off the body of the outlaw as he walked over and checked on his condition.
One of Jess’ shots had creased his skull and he was unconscious. Jess took off No Name’s bandana and wrapped it around his head to stop the bleeding. That would do until they got back to town.
Jess walked back to the woods and retrieved his friend; he fed and watered him with supplies left by the outlaws. “I wish I had a brush to brush you with, pal, but this will have to do for now.” The horse one again nuzzled Jess’ shoulder and was given more scratches and pats.
Jess dragged No Name into the cabin and bound his hands and feet with rope from one of the saddles outside. He took the bodies of Harv and Hank and laid them out on the porch of the cabin. He would load them up in the morning and return them to town.
Jess found some leftover supplies in the cabin and had a big bowl of beans and several cups of coffee. He found a bed with a couple of old blankets. This would do. It surely was better than last night’s bed. The last thing he did was get the saddle bags with the money and put them at the foot of the bed. He intended to sleep with his feet on them…just in case. And sleep he did.
The next morning, Jess thought the only thing that would have made him feel better was some of Daisy’s breakfast and some of her coffee. As he rode back to town with No Name tied to his saddle, the money safe on Jess’ horse and the other two members of the gang draped over their horses, he began to think of Slim and Daisy and Mike….and the life he had with them. He was wondering how he could ever have thought of leaving his ‘home and family’.
As he rode along, more of the old Jess began to return and he rode a little straighter in the saddle. Though he took no pride in killing a man, he knew he had had no choice. He felt good about being able to return the town’s money and keeping a gang from ever robbing again. But he vowed never to let his pride get the better of him again. That was one lesson he had learned the hard way and nothing he ever wanted to repeat.
As Marshal Trask and his posse began to saddle up, someone in the crowd gathered around shouted, “Marshal!! Look! It’s Harper! And look what he’s got with him!!” All heads turned and watched as Jess rode into town leading his little band.
As soon as Slim saw that Jess was alright, he slapped Mort on the shoulder and gave him a big grin. “I knew he would do it!”
Daisy, who had been with Slim, just closed her eyes and gave a silent prayer of thank you. Her ‘boy’ was home and safe.
Mike was standing in the back of the buckboard across the street. He began yelling, “Jess! Jess!”
Jess rode over to Mike and lifted him up to ride with him. “Hey, Tiger! How you doin’?”
Jess thought Mike was about to cry, “Oh, Jess, I’m so glad you’re home. We sure did miss you.”
“Me, too, Tiger. Me, too.”
The townspeople had begun to gather around Jess and walk him over to the sheriff’s office. Someone reached for the lead line to No Name and the others’ horses and took them from Jess’ hand. He was glad to be rid of them.
Jess pulled his horse up to the railing and dismounted. Mike stayed in the saddle. With relief written all over his face, Slim slapped Jess on the back and said, “Hey, Pard! How you doin’?”
“Fine, fine… You know is surely is good to see you standin’ upright. How’s the shoulder?” nodding to the sling around Slim’s neck. Jess was as relieved as Slim to see his pard looking so well.
“I’m fine. Good to have you back.” Slim’s smiled covered his whole face.
“Jess! Jess! Oh, my dear…we were so very worried about you,” Daisy said as she grabbed his arm. As with most mothers, she just had to touch her ‘son’.
Jess gave Daisy a big hug. “I’m fine, Daisy. And I’m back…for good.” The last part was said softly in Daisy’s ear. The smile she gave him made his heart leap.
Mort cleared his throat and said, “Er….Jess this is Marshal Trask and he was just riding out with a posse to…er…help you. But we can see that wasn’t necessary.” Mort was grinning just like everyone else in the crowd.
Jess extended his hand to the marshal and said, “Nice to meet you.”
“Likewise,” said Trask. “Heard a lot about you, Harper. You sure saved me a lot of work.”
As though embarrassed to ask, the president of the bank said, “Ahh, I hate to ask, but the money….?”
“Right, here….every cent.”
As one, the crowd released a sigh of relief.
The marshal had been looking over the dead men and No Name; he said, “Harper, there’s a nice reward on these fellas and I’ll see you get it. Can’t do anything about the two killed in town ‘cause we can’t prove whose bullet got ‘em.”
“That’s fine, marshal.” As he hugged Daisy, Jess said, “I got all the reward I need.”
The marshal took No Name to Cheyenne for trial. Jess never even asked his name; he wasn’t interested. And good to his word, the marshal made sure the reward money came in for Jess. Part of it went to buy Mike a new horse. This time Slim and Jess took him to the horse auction and helped him pick out one. Jess bought Daisy a new dress and hat, even though she said she didn’t need them. He gave Slim some to make an extra payment on the ranch. And finally, he took some of the money and bought the horse he had ridden when he chased the outlaws. They had sorta gotten to be friends.
“What do you want with that horse?” Slim asked. “He’s old and not good for much.”
“I wasn’t good for much, one time, but ‘someone’ didn’t throw me out.”
“Good to have you home, Pard.”
“Very good to be here, Pard.”