Summary: This is my very first story…fanfic or otherwise…I hope it brings a smile to at least some of you…
Word Count: 10,650
“….and with this money from the horses, I was planning on gettin’ a good seed bull to help boost our stock line. Accordin’ to my friend, Matt….you know, the one I told you about, that lives in Carson Wells… he said there was some real good breeding stock in the area. I got a telegraph from him before we left and he said he would be on the look-out for one for me and would have some news by the time we got there. I figure, without anything coming up, we should make Carson Wells sometime tomorrow afternoon…and, you know, if we get a good price on the bull there may even be enough left over for an extra mortgage payment and….”
“What do you see?”
“The sky…a lot of stars…why?”
“Well, I’ve been laying here looking up at them stars and trying to enjoy ‘em and the whole time you’ve been yappin’ about cows n’ horses ‘n bulls n’ ranchin’ and it’s really hard to enjoy their beauty with all that NOISE goin’ on… Don’t you think it’s beautiful out here in the wide open? So peaceful like…”
“Sorry, Jess. Guess I have been rattlin’ on for a while, huh? It’s just that things are going sorta good at the ranch right now and I just want to keep it that way. You thinkin’ about the ‘old days’ and being on the drift?”
“Yeah, I guess. It is just…it’s such a nice night and nights like this were one of the few good things about being on the drift. You know I don’t want to ever go back to that life…too many bad times…but sometimes I like to…well, you know…just be out like this… in the wide open…”
Slim Sherman and Jess Harper…best friends, partners…brothers, in mind if not in blood…were headed back to the Sherman Ranch and Relay Station that Slim owned. Jess had been a drifter and fast gun when he crossed paths with Slim. He had been offered a job, a place to live…a family, and though he made no promises to stay, he had.
That had been over two years ago and Jess was still around. For the first time since he was a young homeless teenager, he had found a place he wanted to call “home”. And a man he wanted to call “friend”.
Being like night and day in coloring and in temperament, there had been some rough goings at first. Jess was dark, hot-headed, quick-tempered, playful, and often acted… then thought. He chalked this up to spending so much time alone with only himself to please. Slim was blond, level-headed, even-tempered, reasonable. But then he had to be …he had responsibilities. However, once riled…well….
Now they were as close as blood brothers. That’s not to say that they agreed on everything but they understood each other and were easy with the other’s …differences. They lived and worked on Slim’s ranch along with Daisy, their surrogate mother/ housekeeper and Mike, their ward. It was a lively, happy household full of family love. It was a good life.
Slim and Jess had just delivered a large string of horses to the army at Fort Laramie and were now headed back to the ranch. They had made a good profit on the horses and Slim was busy spending the money a thousand different ways in his head. Jess was just trying to be “unbusy”.
“Now, Slim, you know there ain’t no one I would rather share a campfire with than you….”
“Well, we’ve been ridin’ for almost two weeks and we’re due home in a few days. We rounded up them horses, broke ‘em, sold ‘em, and delivered ‘em. I just thought we might just have earned us a rest, is all. And yeah, I wouldn’t mind havin’ a few days of roamin’ to myself. ‘Sides you don’t really need me to go look at them bulls with you. I’m sure you and Matt’ll do a fine job of pickin’ out one.”
“What did you have in mind?”
“Welllllllll, why don’t you go on to Carson Wells, look at them bulls Matt has found for you, take a couple of days rest and visit with your friend and I will meet you there….oh, say, in about five days.”
“Jess, we really need to be gettin’ back.”
“Three??? Aw…come on, Slim. Why do you always have to be talked into havin‘ fun? A little relaxin’ ain‘t going to kill you.”
“OK, ok. I guess we do deserve a little time off. But THREE DAYS, you hear! You try to stretch this out longer and I’ll have your hide!”
“Now you’re talking!! Well, ‘night, Pard. I got to get me some sleep. I want to be up early. Don’t want to waste any of my loooooooooong ‘vacation’.”
“I got it! I got it!”
“‘Night, Pard,” Slim said as he gave Jess a slight smirk. But the smirk went unnoticed as Jess had already pulled his hat down over his eyes and was working on getting to sleep.
Early the next morning, after breaking camp, Slim headed out for Carson Wells and Jess just headed…out.
“Yeah, yeah…You done reminded me a thousand times…I know… THREE DAYS!!” Then under his breath, “or maybe four.”
For the first few hours, Jess just let his horse pick the way. Traveler had been his only friend and companion for a lot of years and Jess trusted him almost as much as Slim. But, then Jess spotted a lush green tree line up passed some rocky hills and decided that it might be a good hunting or fishing spot. Might as well check it out. After all, that’s what he came for.
So Jess turned Traveler’s head toward the hills, and with a few gentle nudges, they were off. They came upon a trail that looked like it hadn’t been used in years; nevertheless, it was a trail so it must lead somewhere. For about an hour or so, Traveler carefully picked his way along the now overgrown trail, climbing higher and higher until coming upon an out cropping of boulders right below the tree line. There must have been a land slide sometime or another because the trail was blocked with some of those same boulders. Jess thought he would climb up and see if he could spot a way around the boulders. And just maybe he could spot where the trail led. But first he was ready for some lunch…and Trav needed a rest. After all it was his “vacation”, too.
Jess made a quick camp, and while he was waiting for his coffee to boil, he took off Traveler’s bridle and let him graze on whatever he wanted. Jess knew he wouldn’t go far.
Once lunch was taken care of, Jess decided it was time to see what was beyond those rocks. It was pretty rough going but there were old tree branches and wide ledges he could use to hoist himself up. Several times, though, he had to stop and catch his breath; it was a steep climb. When he finally got to the top, he was rewarded for all of his effort. There was a rich, green glade with a beautiful mountain waterfall and a resulting lake that looked good enough to swim in. There HAD to be fish in it and they surely would make a good supper! For a while, Jess sat on the top boulder and enjoyed the serenity of it all. Nature was at its finest and he wanted to take advantage of it. However, if he was going to make the lake in time to catch his supper, he thought he should start his climb down. He had to break camp and find a way to get Traveler up to the lake so he could enjoy it, too. For the first time in the past couple of weeks, Traveler could drink his fill and so could Jess. This little “vacation” was turning out alllllllright!
As Jess began his climb down, he was thinking of all the different things that he was going to do when he made his camp. A little fishing…a little swimming…a little napping…a lot of star watching. He now almost wished that Slim was here to enjoy it with him…if he would just quit jawing about the ranch for two minutes. Well, he wasn’t there, so Jess would just have to enjoy it for him. He would tell Slim all about it when he saw him. Jess thought he could make Slim real jealous.
Maybe it was all these thoughts that were going through his mind that took it off of what he was doing. Whatever it was, he soon found out that he should have been paying more attention to the climbing and less to the thinking. What was that old saying? Don’t count your chickens….
As Jess was about half way down his climb, he put his foot on one of the many tree limbs that were sticking out between the boulders. He should have tested the strength of the branch before he put his full weight on it. However, he was NOT paying attention — he was thinking — and when he stepped on the branch and reached for a handhold, it broke in two and Jess’ boot slipped off, causing him to lose his one remaining handhold. Not only did the branch break into pieces, it broke at an angle that left a spear shaped piece sticking out from the boulder. As he began his downward plummet, the branch ripped a long gash from Jess’ thigh to his hip. His scream of pain could be heard throughout the hills. “Arghhhhhhhhhhh!!!” But who was there to hear it?
As Jess hit the ground with a mind-numbing thump, all of the air was knocked from his body. As if the gash and fall were not enough, there was the slamming of his head against that small rock that lay so innocently right where he landed.
For a second or two, Jess lay there trying to suck air into his tortured lungs. His efforts were painful and not very successful. He never knew if it was lack of air or the shock of the pain in his leg or the knock on the head but Jess was quickly and efficiently sucked into a deep black void.
Just about the time Jess was making his downward spiral into oblivion, Slim was arriving in Carson Wells. It had been a long, dusty trail and the first thing he wanted was to rid his throat of all that dust. So he headed for the first saloon he spotted. It was straight ahead and that is where Slim pointed his horse. A couple of cool ones, a bath, a shave, some non-trail food and a nice bed, and he would feel like a new man. And Jess said he didn’t know how to enjoy himself. He would show him… When Jess rode in all dusty and “ripe” and hungry, Slim would regale him with all the comforts he had partaken of while Jess was “vacationing” on the trail. A smile drifted across Slim’s face as he thought how he might just have to rub in it…a bit.
As Slim was working on his second beer, Matt Jennings walked into the saloon. From his table in the corner, Slim called out. “Matt!!!”
“Hey! Slim!! You long legged son-of-a… How are you? When did you get in? Is your friend with you? Let me buy you a beer!! How long has it been?”
As Slim grabbed Matt’s offered hand and began to vigorously shake it, he said, “Geez, Matt, when did you become such a gabber? And do I need to answer your questions in order or what?”
“Ha! Sorry about that, ol’ buddy. I’m just so glad to see you! So tell me, how did you make out with the army?”
“Another question, Matt? Don’t you ever stop?” teased Slim with a grin on his face.
“Oops. Sorry, Slim! Tell you what,” Matt said while he ordered two more beers, “I’ll drink and YOU talk!”
“Good enough! Well, Jess — that’s my partner — and I delivered a real nice string of horses to Fort Laramie. We got a good price for ‘em, too! Anyway, last night I let Jess talk me into a little ‘vacation’. He took off for wherever and I came here to see you and — I hope — some bulls. He’s supposed to meet me here in three days. Then we’ll head on back to the ranch. Know anywhere I can get a good meal and a hot bath and a clean bed?”
“Sure do, Slim….my place! I told Molly you would be comin’ in and she’s been cookin’ for days!! There is a bathhouse right around the corner, nice and clean, too. Why don’t we have another beer and then you can get cleaned up and we’ll head on out to my place. I got a couple of things to do and that will give you time to get yourself all purty. Should get home right about suppertime.”
“That’s mighty nice of you, Matt, but I don’t think you could have THAT many things to do.” said Slim. “Besides, I don’t want to put you out.”
“No arguments now, Slim. Molly would have my head if you stayed anywhere else. She already has the extra room ready for you…clean sheets and all.”
“Sounds like a deal too good to pass up. I’ll meet you back here in about an hour, okay?”
“See you then.”
As Slim soaked in the wonderfully warm water, he thought to himself how much he had learned from that so-called “irresponsible” partner of his. Before he met Jess, he would have never thought to take a few days off to enjoy himself; he would have thought of it as being, well, irresponsible. He knew there was work to be done at the ranch and he would have felt guilty not getting straight to it. But now he thought Jess was right. A man did owe it to himself to relax and have some fun….sometimes. The work would always be there when he got home.
So Slim enjoyed his bath and shave and the best meal he had had since leaving the ranch. He also enjoyed the company of two longtime friends and the best night’s sleep in weeks. When Jess was right, he was right!
From somewhere down in the deep dark well that Jess had fallen into, he thought he was beginning to see some light. Someone was pounding on the walls of that well and it was making his head hurt something fierce! He wished they would stop the pounding long enough for him to get his thoughts straight. Then, maybe he could figure out what had happened and where he was. The pounding kept up and Jess slowly began to see more light as he worked to open his eyes.
One of the first things he noticed was that he was not in a well after all. Damn that pounding! As his eyes took in more light and his thoughts got just a bit clearer, he also noticed that he was not on hard ground out in the open. He was in a soft bed, with walls surrounding him. The pounding! The pounding! He could not help but emit a loud moan and shut his eyes again. “Let’s try this again, Harper, a little slower,” he thought.
“Well, I was wondering if you were ever going to wake up,” said a soft, melodic voice from not too far away.
Jess slowly opened his eyes and tried to focus on the origin of the voice. It came closer and asked, “How are you feeling? Would you like some water?”
Jess just shook his head, yes. Big mistake. So that’s where the pounding was coming from… He warned himself not to do that again anytime soon.
As “the voice” brought over the water, Jess was better able to see where it came from. She was one of the most beautiful women Jess had ever seen. Her hair was long and brown and she had little curls framing her face. Her eyes were brown also, like two chocolate pools. Long lashes framed the pools. She was not really fair but not dark either. And there was something of an aura about her; she, well, she glowed. Her smile was enticing enough to get lost in. She gently lifted Jess’ head a little and held a cup of cool water to his lips so that he might drink. It was so cool and good that he started to gulp the water down.
“Easy,” she said. “Not too much at a time — just little sips — you don’t want to make yourself sick.”
After he finished drinking, Jess said, “Thank you, ma’am. That… was… mighty good.” And then he added, “Uh…who…are you… and… where… am I?” Being awake and holding a conversation were two different things. He might be able to do the first but the second was much harder.
Looking at him with a face full of kindness, she said, “My name is Sarah Haverty and you are in my home. You’ve been hurt and I brought you here to tend to your injuries. Now why don’t you just close your eyes and rest. I have some soup heating up, and after you eat, we can talk some more.”
Since he thought he had done about all the talking he could for the moment, Jess decided that it might be a good idea to do as she suggested. Besides, he
didn’t feel like putting up any sort of argument with someone who was being so nice to him. So he closed his eyes and tried to gather enough strength to eat some soup. In spite of the pounding in his head, he was hungry.
Sarah brought over the soup and placed it on a small table by the bed. She told him not to sit up. He might disturb his bandages, and with the knot he had on his head, he might make himself too dizzy to eat. She then gently raised Jess’ head slightly and placed an extra pillow under it. She thought it best if she feed him. She placed a cloth across his chest and held a spoon full of soup out to him. He didn’t usually like being babied but somehow Sarah made it feel different…like this was the way an injured man was supposed to act. Jess allowed himself to be fed without any complaining.
While Jess ate his soup, Sarah explained that she and her husband had built this cabin a few years ago. He was away right now but she managed to take care of herself just fine. She said she had been out picking berries in the woods by the lake when she heard the rocks begin tumbling and Jess’ scream. It took her a while to get down to him. But she finally had reached him and found him unconscious. His horse was standing over him as if standing guard. Somehow, she had managed to get him across his saddle and brought him and the horse to her cabin. She told him what a fine horse he had and that she could never had gotten Jess to the cabin without him. Sarah never explained how she had gotten Jess on his horse. She didn’t look strong enough to lift him. Well, he would study on that when the pounding lessened. Right now it took too much effort.
Sarah also told Jess not to worry. His horse had been watered and fed and that he was in a lean-to she used for storage. The lean-to had no front gate so he was free to come and go. But he seemed content to stay where he was.
When Jess had eaten as much of the soup as he could, he let her know he was finished. As she gently cleaned his face of some dripped soup, she asked Jess who he was and what was he doing here. She said it was an out-of-the-way place and she didn’t have many visitors.
He told her his name and about why he was in the area and about the “vacation” he had talked Slim into. Jess felt that he wanted to talk to her. Her smile and her eyes just produced such a feeling of tranquility it seem to permeate the entire room.
He was beginning to feel better but was still very tired and a bit sleepy. But, he had to know one more thing. “How long have I been out of it?” he asked, almost afraid of the answer.
“I found you yesterday afternoon, so that would make it about a day and a half. Now that’s enough talking! You need to rest.”
“Okay, then,” thought Jess, “not too bad.” A little more resting and he would be able to meet Slim and not be too late. But, as he tried to snuggle down in the bed to rest, he felt a stabbing pain in his thigh and let out another teeth- gritting moan.
“Oh, be careful of your leg. You’ve got quite a nasty gash there. I have a poultice on it right now to stop any infection. I need to leave that on for a while longer and then I will be able to properly bandage it. Try to stay off of your left side. I don’t want the poultice to come loose.”
Jess put his hand down on his thigh and felt for the poultice. It was warm and didn’t smell any too sweet. The bottom part was tied to the bottom of his thigh and the top part was held in place by a bandage tied around his hips. As Jess was exploring his wound and bandages, he came to an eye-popping discovery. He had known he didn’t have on a shirt but now he realized he was naked under the covers!!! Why hadn’t he noticed this before? How??? “Ooooh, Lord…….”
In spite of the realization of his situation, eating and talking had worn him out and he slept. When he awoke, he found it was darker so he assumed it was night. The food, water and rest had done him good and he was feeling better. The only thing that wasn’t feeling better was his embarrassment. When Sarah heard him begin to stir, she was quickly by his side offering him more water and soup. As she sat on the side of the bed by him, she once more raised his head and helped him to drink, then fed him more of the soup and then more water. She still did not allow him to sit up.
As he drank, he gazed into those incredible brown eyes. Those two pools of chocolate seemed to be pulling him into them and he felt like he was drowning. What was it about her? thought Jess. He didn’t know why, but each time he looked at her, the strangest feeling came over him. “What’s the matter with you, Harper? Haven’t you ever seen a pretty woman before?”
“You need to drink as much as you can. It will help to restore some of the blood you lost. Your leg was bleeding badly when I found you. You have a good size knot on your head but at least the skin isn’t broken, so that was a good thing. I’ve prepared some bandages for your leg, so if you will turn over on your right side, I’ll remove the poultice and put on a proper bandage.” With that, Sarah put her hand on the quilt covering Jess so that she could attend to his leg.
Jess’ jaw dropped open; he grabbed the quilt with both hands and just stared at her.
“Oh, for goodness sake, don’t tell me you’re embarrassed. I am a married woman, you know, and I have seen a man in his…well, his natural state before.”
“Yeah…well, it ain’t been me!” Jess said, a little too harshly.
“Oh yes it has!! Just who do you think got you undressed and in bed and tended your leg in the first place? Your horse? Besides, you were quite filthy and gave off a rather strong…well, anyway. When I was cleaning your wound, I went ahead and cleaned you, too. After all, I do have to share this cabin with you and it is not that big! So you see, there is nothing that I haven’t already seen.”
“Yeah well, you don’t need to see it…again. I’ll take care of my own leg!”
“Now that is about the most foolish thing I have ever heard. You can’t even see where to place the bandage IF you could reach it! Now you need to decide which is worse…being embarrassed or losing your leg to infection because it was not properly tended. You pick!”
This time Jess’ groan was not from pain as he slowly rolled over onto his right side with his back to her. Sarah lifted the quilt to expose his thigh and his…well… She deftly removed the poultice by untying the bandages from his thigh and hips. “The wound looks very good and there doesn’t seem to be any infection. You had quite a bit of debris in it but I think I got all of it out. It wasn’t an easy job, I’ll tell you. I was grateful that you were not awake. I’m sure it would have been quite painful. Now, I don’t see any new bleeding, so that’s good,” Sarah chatted on and on as she dropped the old bandages to the floor. She acted like it was the most normal thing in the world for her to be this close to a man…in his natural state. Jess just closed his eyes and gritted his teeth.
Before she began with the new bandages, she reached for a bottle and began applying something to the wound and surrounding area. Jess jumped at her first touch but soon found that it felt very good to be rubbed with whatever it was she had. “What’s that?”
“It’s an old family remedy. It will take some of the soreness out so that you can bend your hip without too much difficulty. It will make walking and sitting easier,” Sarah said as she began applying the new bandages. She worked quickly and efficiently. Though she smiled at Jess’ embarrassment, she saw no reason to draw it out any longer than necessary. When she finished, much to Jess’ relief, she returned the quilt to its former place and told Jess he could once more lie on his back. When he was again settled comfortably, he noticed that the dull ache in his leg was beginning to lessen.
“Sarah, why are you doing this? Don’t get me wrong, I’m beholdin’ to you. But how do you know I am not some outlaw and out to do you harm?”
“You told me who you were.”
“How do you know I wasn’t lyin’?”
“Oh, I have a sense of these things. I know a good man when I see one. Even if he is a stranger. Besides, you needed help and I wouldn’t let an animal suffer without trying to help…much less a man.”
“Still, with your husband away, you should be more careful who you take into your home. By the way, when’s your husband due back?
“I’m not really sure…”
“Well, how long ago did he leave?”
“Two years ago…”
“TWO YEARS!! And you’ve stayed here all that time by yourself? Why, in God’s name, would you do that?”
“It’s my home. Stuart built this house for me…for us… and I intend to be here when he returns. However long that may be.”
“But what if he doesn’t ever come back?”
“He will. It’s late Jess and I’m tired. Do you mind if we talk in the morning?” Sarah was good at changing the subject when she wanted to.
Jess watched as Sarah made herself a pallet by the fireplace. He wanted to sleep on the floor and told her so. He was used to hard surfaces and felt bad taking her bed from her.
She told him not to worry. In summer, she often slept outside, under the stars. So she was not a stranger to hard surfaces either. Besides, he was injured and she wasn’t. He needed the bed more than she did. There was no talking her out of it. Score another round for her.
Jess lay awake for a long time. He had never met anyone like Sarah before. There was something about her that he just couldn’t put his finger on. She was beautiful that was for sure…but it wasn’t just that. He had met lots of pretty women in his time but none of them had had this effect on him. He had only known her for a short while — most of which he had been out of it — but yet he felt like he had known her much longer. He tried to tell himself to settle down, not to get ahead of himself. But he couldn’t help it; she was like a magnet and she was drawing him nearer and nearer to her. What was it about this woman?
Slim Sherman and his friend Matt visited a couple of the local breeders in the area and settled on a particularly large, though young, bull. They both felt like he would greatly add to Slim’s herd and would produce many calves over the coming years — and, the price was right. Slim was very pleased and told the breeder he and his partner would pick up the bull on the way out of town. Now, Slim felt he was really able to relax and enjoy himself before Jess got to town — in ONE more day. Why, Slim thought, he might even take another bath. And he wanted to take Matt and Molly out to dinner to say thanks for all the meals and help they had given him. Things were really going good!
That is, until TWO days had gone by …
Slim was livid!! Matt watched as he paced up and down in the living room of his house. “I TOLD him not to try and stretch this out any longer than what we had agreed to!! Damn that dadburn ornery hide of his!! Sometimes he can be so maddening AND irresponsible AND lazy AND selfish AND thoughtless AND….”
“Then why do you put up with him as your partner?” Matt wanted to know.
“Aww…because he is also loyal, trustworthy, honest, hardworking…and fun to be around. AND, there’s no one better to be by your side when trouble comes around. I tell you, Matt, I would be hard put to find a better partner….present company excluded, of course.” Slim’s voice seemed to drop an octave or two.
“Sounds like a real decent fella,” Matt said with a grin. “I’m sure I would like him.”
“I know you would. Just don’t get to liking him too much because when he gets here, I’m gonna KILL ‘im!!”
Slim fumed and fussed and ranted for another day, but by the time Jess was three days overdue, his anger turned to anxiety. Jess was liable to try and stretch things for one day but never for three. He would know that Slim would worry and even Jess was not that thoughtless. Irritate him, yes…but truly worry him, no. That was definitely not his Pard.
“I would go out to look for him if I had any idea where to go,” said Slim.
“Did you see which direction he headed in?” asked Matt. He could see the worry in his friend’s face and he felt for him.
“The way he started out is not necessarily the way he kept going. I’m just afraid that he has gotten himself in trouble. You just don’t know how trouble follows that boy around.”
Slim knew, even if he wasn’t sure which way Jess had gone, he was going looking for him. He just couldn’t wait around any longer….that just was not in him. He just had to figure out where to go looking.
Slim told Matt he figured that Jess would never have gone past Carson Wells so that ruled out heading east. He was pretty sure he wouldn’t have gone backwards, so that ruled out west. South was a lot of wide open nothing, so that seemed likely to be out, too. “So I guess the surest bet would be to the north.”
“The day is over half gone now,” said Matt. “Why don’t we wait and see if he rides in tonight, and if not, in the morning I’ll head north with you to look for him.”
“Thanks, Matt. I surely would be glad to have your help.”
“Don’t know why we are goin’ to all this trouble for somebody you’re just gonna… kill,” said Matt with a sheepish grin on his face.
Slim couldn’t do anything else but grin himself. He felt a little better now knowing there was a plan in place.
Jess awoke to the smell of something delicious cooking on the stove. He opened his eyes and found that there was no more pounding in his head. He thought he might try sitting up again. Sarah didn’t seem to be in the cabin so she couldn’t tell him not to do it. He used his elbows to ease himself up slightly…so far so good. Then, putting the palms of his hands on the bed, he pushed himself all the way up and against the wall by the bed. He felt some tugging on his thigh and hip but it wasn’t anything too bad. Whatever that stuff was that Sarah had put on his wound surely did seem to do some good. The room did not spin and he didn’t feel dizzy. Good. Good.
Jess was enjoying being upright after being prone for so long when Sarah came in from fetching water. “Well, look who’s up! How do you feel? Does your leg or hip hurt in that position? You’re not putting too much pressure on it are you?”
“Don’t you ever stop being a mother hen? I’m feeling just fine and I surely am ready to have some of whatever it is you have on the stove. No more soup for me –I’m starving!!”
“Okay, you must be feeling better. We will eat in a few minutes. I just want to have a look at that leg and change the bandage again.”
“Oh…I don’t think you need to do that. I’m sure it is just fine.” Jess did not want to go through the whole bandage changing embarrassment again.
“No, it definitely has to be changed again. It is doing so well I would hate for it to start getting worse.”
All Jess got in reply was a cold hard stare. What was it about this woman that she could have so much control over him??? No one had ever made him respond to directions the way she did. Well, maybe Daisy — sometimes — but that was different.
So grumbling all the while, Jess lowered himself to the bed, turned on his side and offered up his hip and leg…and other parts…for close inspection.
Sarah was just as quick and efficient as the last time, and the new bandage was in place in no time. She was pleased with what she had….seen.
“Do you think if I returned your clothes you might want to get dressed?”
“You bet I would!” Jess answered a might too quickly.
“I can help you if you like,” Sarah said, trying not to smile too much.
“No, I think I can manage this by myself. Why don’t you see if breakfast is done? I really am hungry.”
Sarah smiled knowingly and brought over Jess’ clothes. They were clean and the rip in his pants had been neatly mended. With as few grunts and groans as possible, he dressed himself as quickly as he could. He didn’t want Sarah to think that he needed help. Yep, no doubt about it, he was feeling much better…dressed.
Jess managed to limp over to the table unassisted and eased himself in a chair. Not bad, not bad at all.
As they ate the eggs and sausage and cornbread that Sarah had prepared, Jess asked her how she managed to make such a wonderful breakfast out in the wilderness. The only thing that was missing was coffee, but then you couldn’t have everything.
She told him she had a garden with corn and other vegetables. She had collected some duck eggs from around the lake. She could hunt. There were several varieties of berries around and she often found bee’s nests with honey for a treat every now and then. Her husband had left her a rifle and lots of ammunition and she was careful with it. “I don’t miss when I hunt. There’s plenty of good water right behind the cabin. I have everything I need.”
Jess looked at her in disbelief. “But don’t you ever want someone to talk to? Don’t you ever get lonely?”
“Well, yes, it would be nice to have someone else around sometimes, but I do have the occasional guest, you know.” She raised those liquid eyes towards him and gave him a dazzling smile. He was falling again — and even though it wasn’t down a mountain this time, he knew the landing was going to be just a rough.
He couldn’t believe he what he was about to say. “Why don’t you come with me when I leave? Sarah, I surely don’t want to upset you…but…’umm…I think…what I mean is…well, I think that if your husband COULD come back, he would have by now. No man in his right mind would go off and leave you for two years if he could help it. I don’t know, Sarah. I know we’ve only known each other for a few days but never in my life have I felt the way I feel for you. Please, Sarah, come with me.” Jess’ blue eyes were pleading more than his voice.
She looked at him in a way that made his heart flutter and his pulse race. Those big brown eyes…he just wanted to get lost in them. He WAS lost in them and he didn’t know how to find his way out.
Slowly she rose from the table and walked over to him. She put her hands on either side of his face and gave him the kiss of a lifetime. It seemed to last a lifetime for he could see their future in it. It passed in a flash yet it lingered on his lips for much longer. What was it about this woman?
“I know what you’re feeling, Jess; I’m feeling it, too. I really do wish I could go with you…maybe more than you know. But, I’m sorry. It’s just not possible. I have to stay here.”
“NO YOU DON’T!! There is no reason why you can’t ride out with me!! I don’t know how I know this but I know we could have a good life together!! I have never felt this way about another woman in my life! I won’t leave you here by yourself!! I just can‘t!!” Jess saw the startled look on Sarah’s face and realized he had been shouting. “I…I’m sorry…I didn’t mean…I would never want….”
“I know, Jess” she interrupted, “but you have to believe me. I MUST stay here. I don’t….have a choice.”
“Sarah, everyone has choices!”
“Jess, please. Don’t make this any harder than it is for me. You won’t be able to ride for another day or so. We could have that time together. It could be nice. Let’s don’t ruin it by arguing.”
He melted. He just couldn’t do one thing to make her sad. He would never forgive himself. Besides, this would mean he would have two days to convince her to go with him. He could be convincing when he needed to be. And right now he needed to be really convincing.
So for the next two days, they had each other. Taking short walks to loosen up Jess’ leg, sitting out under the stars (a favorite past time of hers), brushing and taking care of Traveler and holding on to each other. Simple things. Wonderful things. Jess had never gotten so much from so little before.
She slept in the bed with Jess — just sleeping, nothing else; she was married. But it was enough for him; it had to be. Her closeness seemed to rebuild the strength inside him. They held each other and slept the sleep of two as one. Jess never wanted to get out of bed again. To get up would mean that he would have to let go. And right now he was holding on for dear life.
Finally, after one last inspection of his wound, she told him he was fit to ride — not for long and not fast. Jess wondered about the poultice and the “family remedy”. He didn’t think he had ever healed from a wound so quickly before. If it were not for worrying Slim, he would have faked being hurt longer just to stay with her. Though he seriously doubted he could have fooled her.
“Look. I have to go and meet Slim in Carson Wells. I have to let him know that I’m okay. I’ll just ride over and talk to him and then I’ll come back. If you won’t leave, then I’ll stay with you.” Jess couldn’t believe he was actually offering to live his life in this place. What about Slim? Daisy? Mike? It just didn’t seem to matter; they could figure that out later. She had some sort of hold on him like no one ever had before. What was it about this woman?
The sorrow in Sarah’s eyes cut Jess to the quick. “Oh, Jess…it’s a wonderful offer.” She had never had a better one. “But it just can’t be. I am so very sorry. I’m married and my place is… with my husband. He will be back. I know it. And when he returns, you MUST not be here. You must go. But I do want you to know that you will ALWAYS be here in my heart. I won’t ever forget you, and the memories of these past few days will last me…forever.”
As with all the other directions she had given him, he had to obey. There was nothing else he could do. Somehow she had taken all the fight out of him. That part of Jess that was always ready to argue and fight for what he thought was best was pushed so far down inside himself he couldn‘t reach it. He felt as if she had put a spell on him: love me, leave me and don’t argue about it.
There was no more putting it off. If he was going, best get to it. She told him of a shorter way down to Carson Wells and told him to ride carefully and take care of himself. “Remember, not too long and not too fast,” she said. He did not want to look back but he couldn’t help himself. She stood outside the cabin and watched him ride away, and then he saw her open her door and go inside. God, this was hard. How was he going to get through it?
As he urged Traveler towards Carson Wells, his head began to hurt again and he started to feel weary. It seemed just leaving her presence had set him back in his recovery. She had made him feel soooooo good! Now, besides his head, he had this crushing pain in his chest. Once again, the wind was sucked from his lungs. He felt battered and bruised…in mind and in body.
It must have been the riding because his leg began to hurt, also, and he thought he felt new bleeding. What was going on? His had thought his leg had been almost completely healed. He took his knife and cut his pants to check his wound. He did not want to dismount; he might not be able to get back in the saddle again. As he exposed the bandages, he noticed they were almost completely soaked through. It WAS bleeding again. He took off the bandages and then reached behind himself and got out his extra shirt from his saddlebags. He ripped it into new bandages and tied them on as best as he could. Sarah had been right again, he thought; he wasn’t very good at tending to his own leg. This would just have to do until he got to town. IF he got to town. He felt so bad that he was not even sure he cared if he made it or not.
Slim was up before dawn and preparing to out searching for Jess. Matt heard him get up and got up as well. He knew Slim was worried and he wanted to help his friend. He also knew that, if he was not ready, Slim would leave without him. So after some coffee and biscuits from Molly, they set off. After riding for several hours, Slim and Matt decided it was time to rest the horses. They made a cold camp and had water and some of the sandwiches Molly had made for them. As they ate and rested, they discussed whether or not they should continue as they were going. “I don’t know, Slim,” said Matt. “There are so many places Jess could have gone. And we are not even sure he went north.”
“I am not giving up! Jess is out here somewhere and I intend to find him!”
“Easy there, Slim. I’m not saying we should stop looking. I’m just wonderin’ if there was a better way to go about it.”
Slim felt guilty for yelling at Matt. He had helped Slim so much lately. It’s just, when it came to Jess… “Sorry, Matt. Didn’t mean to jump at you. I’m just worried is all. I know Jess and he would have been here by now if everything was all right. You have any ideas? I’m open for any suggestions.”
“Well, I don’t know anything for sure, but I was thinking it might be better for us to split up.”
“Maybe. I could stay headed the way we’re going and you could check out…which way?”
“From your description of your last camp, I think I might know of an area to search. It is sort of out of the way. I mean, it’s not close to any of the main roads or trails. Might be worth a look…” Matt began to gaze off in the distance as if deep in thought.
“What are you thinking, Matt?”
“No, look over there, Slim. I thought I saw something shining…reflecting, sorta.”
Slim stood and looked off in the direction Matt pointed out. There did seem to be some movement…. out in the middle of nowhere, it seemed.
“You stay here and rest a little more, and I’ll go and take a closer look,” Slim was saying as he was already up on his horse.
As Slim got closer to “the movement”, he thought he saw a man on a horse. It almost looked like the man had no head. But there was something familiar about that horse. Could it be Traveler? Yes, it was! And it was Jess, too! He just had his head hanging so low it was resting on his chest.
Slim set off at the gallop of his life. “Jess! Jess! Are you okay, Pard?”
As Slim reigned in his horse next to Traveler, he could see that Jess’ leg was bleeding and he seemed to be almost unconscious. He reached out and put a hand on Jess’ arm. “Hey, Pard….wake up! What happened? Are you okay?”
Jess managed to rouse enough to mumble something but Slim could not make out what it was. “Don’t worry, Jess. I’m here now and I’ll take care of everything.”
Slim got Jess back to the waiting Matt. He noticed Matt had already started a fire and had water on to boil. Between the two of them, they got Jess down off his horse and onto a bedroll that Matt had also laid out.
“What’s that, Jess? Hold on, Pard; we’ll get you something to drink.” Slim quickly got his canteen and lifted Jess’ head so he could drink.
“This leg needs a doctor to stitch it, Slim,” Matt said as he began to inspect the open wound. “I don’t know how he managed to get these bandages on but they probably stopped him from bleeding to death.”
“Yeah, and he’s got a nasty bump on his head, too. I felt it when he was drinkin’. I’m gonna put new bandages on this leg — Molly had thought of everything when she packed our saddlebags — and try and stop this bleedin’ and then he can ride with me. I don’t think he can stay in the saddle by himself anymore and I would hate to think what he would do to that leg if he fell off.”
Matt and Slim quickly set about bandaging Jess’ leg. They let him rest for a bit and then loaded him up on Slim’s horse and headed for Carson Wells.
When they got to Matt’s house, they put Jess in the room Slim had used and Matt rode into town for the doctor and to send Daisy a telegram telling her they were fine but had been delayed. When Doc Redding arrived, he quickly set to work stitching Jess’ leg. He said he was surprised that the gash was as clean as it was. He would have thought there would have been more debris in it. Jess was lucky, he said, because he could have had a bad infection by now. Doc said the cut looked to be a couple of days old. There wasn’t much to do for the bump on the head but wait for it to go down by itself.
The doctor told Slim to have Jess drink as much water as possible and to rest for several days. He would need to remove the stitches in about a week, so they could stop by his office on their way out of town. If they needed him before then, send for him, he added. Otherwise, Jess should be fine in a few days.
Jess slept for the rest of the afternoon and until almost dawn. Slim made a mat on the floor for himself so he would be near Jess if he needed something during the night.
Because they shared a room back at Slim’s ranch, he was used to Jess’ “night noises”. He often talked in his sleep. Slim was not surprised when Jess began moving around in the bed and calling out. What did surprise him, however, was WHO he was calling for. He had known Jess a long time and had never heard him call for “Sarah” before.
The next morning Slim was up early. The floor was not his favorite place to sleep and he had been bothered by Jess’ nighttime mutterings. He and Matt and Molly were having their morning coffee when they heard Jess begin to come around.
“Mornin’, Pard. How you feelin’?” asked Slim as he entered the bedroom.
Jess tried to answer but his mouth was so dry he could only get out a couple of squeaks. “Here,” said Slim. “Get a little water down before you try and talk.” He helped Jess to raise his head so he could drink some water. “Better?”
“Thanks. Where are we, Slim?” asked Jess. Boy, he sure was tired of waking up in strange places. He was going to have to see about putting a stop to that.
“We’re at Matt’s place. He and I rode out yesterday to see if we could hunt you down. We found you in the early afternoon — in pretty bad shape — and brought you here. The Doc was by and saw to your leg. He said you were real lucky it wasn’t infected. What happened, Jess? You had me real worried — that is, when I didn’t want to kill you. You’re late!” There was no real anger in Slim’ voice and he had a slight smile on his face.
Jess just stared at Slim with a dazed look. “Sorry ‘bout that.”
“Is that ALL you have to say? Sorry. Don’t you think you owe me a little more explanation than that?” Slim insisted with a little more firmness.
“Slim Sherman!! Now don’t you go hounding this poor man before he has even had a chance to have some coffee and a decent breakfast. What sort of friend are you?” It was Molly and she was in full nurse mode.
“Better be careful, Slim. Get her riled and you might be the one needin’ the doctor. And that’s… er…speaking from experience,” Matt said. He had a big smile on his face.
“Okay, I waited for three days. I guess a few more minutes won’t hurt.”
Molly quickly returned with a tray with coffee and eggs and buttered bread. After Slim helped Jess to sit up, he put some pillows behind his friend to prop him up, and another one under Jess’ leg so as not to put too much pressure on his stitches.
“Thanks, ma’am. But I’ll just take the coffee. I’m not really hungry.”
“Now see here. You need to eat to gain your strength back. I won’t take no for an answer.” There was kindness behind the scolding.
Jess looked back at his tray. Had it been Sarah instructing him to eat, he would not have been able to refuse. But now he just pushed the food around on the plate and took a couple of small bites. The coffee he drank and asked if he could have more.
When Slim knew it was no use, that Jess wasn’t going to eat any more, he took the tray and returned it to Molly. He gave her a “guess that’s it” look. She looked disappointed but didn’t say anything.
“Okay, are you going to tell us what happened?” Both Slim and Matt were anxious to hear his story.
In a voice devoid of all emotion he simply said, “I fell down a cliff.”
“That’s it? That’s your whole story?”
Jess looked at Slim with the saddest expression Slim had ever seen. He knew a lot about Jess’ past and knew of the hard times and the suffering he had gone through. But when Jess talked of those times, he had never looked like this. He looked absolutely defeated.
“No. There’s more.”
Slim looked from Jess to Matt and back. “Well?”
With a heavy sigh Jess said, “I know I worried you. And I’m sorry. And you know I’m going to tell you what happened. I…just…can’t…right now.” When Slim thought he saw tears in Jess’ eyes he backed off. He knew Jess was in agony — and not just from his injuries, not the physical ones, anyway. He knew his Pard. If he was asking for time, he would get it. “You know, the doc wanted you to drink plenty of water and rest. Why don’t you drink this glass of water and take a nap? Maybe you will feel more like talking later.” With that, he handed Jess a glass of water.
Jess obediently drank and handed the glass back to Slim without a word. After Slim removed the pillows, save for one, Jess lay down and put his arm across his face. Maybe he would feel better if he talked about it….maybe. But before he could say more, he slowly drifted off into a restless sleep.
Over the next several days, Jess rested, ate enough to keep up appearances, and spoke when spoken to. But he continued to stare at nothing and had no interest in anything. Slim had even gone to the breeder and collected his bull. Nothing. Maybe when they saw the doctor, he would have some idea about how to bring Jess out of this darkness he kept himself wrapped in. Slim wished Daisy was here. He felt sure she would know what to do.
When the doctor stopped by unexpectedly towards the end of the week, Slim got a chance to talk to him before he saw Jess. He explained about Jess’ sullen mood and how he had been acting. “Well, you know, he did have a pretty nasty bump on his head and sometimes this can leave a person feeling depressed. I’ll see if I can get anything out of him.” As they entered the room where Jess was resting, the doctor asked, “So, how are we doing, young man? Any pains I should know about? Fever? Anything you want to tell me?”
“I’m fine, doc.”
With a knowing glance toward Slim, the doctor said, “Well, let’s just take a look at this leg and see if that’s true.” Silently, Jess lowered his jeans and underwear and rolled to his side. He no longer cared who saw what. The doctor began to remove the bandages from Jess’ leg and found it to be healing nicely. “Looks good, looks real good. I do nice work, if I do say so myself. I think it’s time for those stitches to come out.”
Slim watched as the doctor remove the stitches. He knew it was a painful procedure but Jess never uttered a sound. It was as if he didn’t feel a thing. This was not good. Jess had never been a model patient and for him not to put up a fuss now was definitely not JESS.
After the doctor removed the stitches and put on a fresh bandage, he said, “You are now fit to ride…just take it easy. Not too long and not too fast.”
Jess turned with a jerk. He had heard those same words before. “Oh, God! Would this nightmare ever end?”
As he walked the doctor out, Slim asked, “What do you think?”
“Physically, he is almost good as new. The melancholy… just may take a little time. He needs some understanding and patience. I’m sure he’ll come around.” The doctor patted Slim kindly on the shoulder. “Now have a safe trip home, son. And take it easy on him, okay?”
“Thanks, doc, I hope you’re right.” Slim didn’t know what he was going to do if he wasn’t.
Slim, Jess and Matt were sitting on Matt’s porch after supper drinking coffee and taking in the night air. “Well, Matt, I guess Jess and I will be leavin’ in the morning.”
“You, Jess… and the bull!” Matt corrected. “I’ll be sorry to see you go, Slim.”
“Yeah, the three of us. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate all you’ve done for Jess and me these past few days. We couldn’t have made it without your help. Right, Jess?”
“THAT DOES IT!!” Slim yelled as he shot out of his chair. “We’ve put up with your hang-dog looks and moping around for days. And we’ve let you get by with it. But I WILL NOT let you be rude to someone who has done so much for us! IS IT TOO MUCH TO SAY THANK YOU? JUST WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU?? OUT WITH IT AND RIGHT NOW!!!”
This seemed to be the push Jess needed. He stood and walked to the edge of the porch to get a better look at the stars. Was SHE out looking at them tonight, too? He heaved a long sigh and turned to look at Slim and Matt.
“You’re right. I owe both of you my life….and an explanation. So… You remember I told you I fell off a cliff? Well, I did….” And Jess told his tale.
Slim and Matt just sat and stared in virtual disbelief. For a few minutes, they were both speechless. Neither one had expected to hear a story such as the one Jess told.
“Whewwww, that’s some story, Jess. I had no idea it was anything like that. But when we found you your clothes were all dirty and your pants were still ripped….I don’t understand.” Slim was unsure how to take Jess’ story. He knew he wouldn’t lie, but still things just didn’t add up.
“Well, I had been riding for several hours — I think. That would account for the dirt. And I cut the pants with my knife because I thought my leg was bleeding and I wanted to check on it. I’m telling you, Slim. That’s what happened. You believe me, don’t you, Matt?”
“Uh…hummmmm…Sit down, Jess. Now, I have a story to tell you. It‘s one my Pa told me as a kid.” Matt thought of how to go about telling his story and then he began. “There is a tale around these parts about a couple that came out this way and built a cabin up in those hills, like you said. And it seems, as I recall, they say the husband did leave on some business or such and the wife stayed on. She waited and waited but he never came back. Then finally, one day, her husband did come home and he found her with another man. They say before he shot himself, he shot both of them.” Matt took a long pause and then said, “But Jess, that was a long, long time ago. And that lake you say you found? Because of landslides, it dried up…OVER 60 YEARS AGO.”
Jess and Slim (and the bull) returned to the Sherman Ranch and Relay Station and were warmly greeted by Daisy and Mike. It was good to be home. Maybe now things could finally start to get back to normal. The doc had been right; Jess just needed time and understanding. And Slim made sure that he got plenty of both.
A few weeks later, after supper, Slim and Jess sat on the porch, as they did every night. Jess turned to Slim and said, “Tell me something, Pard. Do you think any of them things I told you happened to me REALLY did happen? Or was I just out of my head?”
Slim thought for a long moment and then said, “I think when a fella is bad hurt, his mind will do just about anything to help him deal with the pain.”
Jess looked out at the night stars, gave a long sigh and then said, “There’s just one thing though, Slim…”
“I ain’t never heard tell about that couple or the cabin or anything else about that place until Matt told us that story. How did I know about it all?”