Summary: Sometimes all a man has to see him through is grit.
Category: The Virginian
Word Count: 8790
The cold sleet beat down on the black felt hat brim, stinging the Virginian’s face like needles sticking into his skin. The black slicker barely provided basic protection as it flapped and crackled in the wind. His numb fingers clenched the reins as he tried to keep the skittish chestnut gelding under control. It wasn’t the first time that day that he’d wished he’d rode Joe D that morning when he’d gone out looking for strays, but he’d reasoned himself out of it. He’d figured that the sooner the chestnut was worked, the better. His wet lips pressed into a grim line, and he looked through narrowed eyes at the trail ahead of him.
Lightning lit up the sky for a brief second, followed closely by a rumble of thunder. The gelding reared slightly, its eyes rolling, and the Virginian leaned forward in the saddle, forcing it down on all four feet. “Easy, boy. Easy!” Another streak of lightning cut across the sky, closer this time.
It was more than the horse could take. Despite all his gentle coaxing, the flighty gelding reared and hopped, his hooves scrambling for a foothold on the muddy surface. “If he doesn’t stop, we’re going down,” grumbled the grim, matter of fact voice in the Virginian’s head. The thought just made him more resolved to stay in that saddle. But his cold hands refused to work. His legs, exposed to the sleet thanks to the waving slicker, pressed stiff and unmoving against the saddle.
With the wind howling in his ears, his body barely registered the blur of movement caused by the horse as the chestnut reared high into the air, its head whipping around. He scrambled to hold onto the reins, jamming his feet further into the stirrups.
The gelding slammed its front feet down, shaking its head before it took off. “Jump off! Get off!” he thought urgently as he leaned back in the saddle, the wind clawing at his hat, the biting rain chafing at his face. “Whoa, boy! Whoa!” he shouted, but his voice was drowned out in the storm.
Suddenly, his foot lost its grip in the stirrup and became ensnared. His heart drummed in his ears, and for the first time, he felt cold fear cut through him, sharper than the stinging sleet.
The gelding barreled down the trail, then it took a sharp turn. Grunting, the Virginian felt himself being airborne…before he crashed down onto the ground.
Pine needles and rocks burned his back as the gelding dragged him over the ground, its hooves barely missing his body. He curled up, grabbing helplessly at his leg. His body bumped and flopped like a rag doll. Blackness inched towards him, and he knew it would only be a matter of seconds before he’d be unconscious. His hat was long gone, and his head was now exposed, bumping and banging on the ground.
A wave of sound roared in his ears. Everything began to blur together.
Then…there was a snap. He sucked in sharply as pain rushed through his ankle, and he was suddenly rolling down a steep incline, without the horse.
Pine needles and dirt flew into his eyes. Bones cracked and finally, with a dull thunk, he crumpled into a tall boulder as he sank into welcome darkness.
“Whoowee, that is some storm!” Quickly nudging the bunkhouse door shut with his foot, Trampas shook himself like a wet dog and smacked his hat against his knee. The warmth radiating in the bunkhouse made his cold body tingle from head to toe, making it almost worth it to be caught in the storm.
“Rainin’ cats and dogs out there,” Hank, one of the hands, commented from the card table where he and another hand were playing checkers.
“Yeah, she’s a bad one.”
Trampas glanced at Steve sitting on his bunk and pulled his slicker off. “Where’s Bossman?” he asked, hanging the slicker and striding over to the stove. Steaming boots lined the front, and with a wince of disgust, he gingerly nudged them out of the way and pulled down a mug.
“He was up in the hills last I heard. Probably gonna hole up there.”
“Well, now, I feel right sorry for him, ‘cause at this moment, any line shack he might find, or any other place is gonna be downright miserable,” Trampas shook his head and poured himself some hot coffee. “Yes, sir, I feel right sorry for Bossman,” He grinned widely, gulped down the hot coffee, and strode over to the table to watch the game. Settling himself down in a chair, he tipped it back on its hind legs and gingerly gulped the steaming black liquid.
Surprisingly, pain wasn’t the first thing that registered when he started to slip back into consciousness – it was cold. A soft, chill breeze crawled over his damp skin, sending a violent shiver up his burning back.
Convulsively, his hands curled into fists, and he rolled his head from side to side. That small, almost insignificant action, reminded him of all he’d gone through. Sheer agony shot through him, and flashes of light blinded him for a second. A low groan gurgled in his throat, and he slumped against the hard ground.
His breathing came in choked, harsh gasps. Each lungful of air was barely worth the pain that shot through his chest. Broken ribs… His lips moved as he began to assess his injuries through a foggy mind. A small movement of his legs confirmed what he’d figured. Broken.
He stopped every movement and focused on getting air into his burning lungs. Even that seemed to drain everything out of him.
“Stay out here, and you’re liable to freeze to death, and if those breaks are bad enough, bleed to death. You…you have to move. Can’t…wait around here.”
He was already freezing as far as he knew, and just thinking about trying to move made his lips tighten in a thin, pained grimace. “Come on…Move!”
Slowly, he drew a long, deep, shuddering breath, and started to push himself up on his hands. His arms shook violently. He groaned, his face contorting as he forced his weakened arms to hold him up. “Aaah!” He cried out, and with one desperate push, rolled himself into a sitting position, his back to the rock. The cold, rough surface dug into his exposed back, and he sucked in sharply, nausea hitting his stomach. More lights flashed like small explosions in his head, and he squeezed his eyes shut and bit down hard on his lower lip.
He had to think…plan. How far had the horse dragged him? How far had he fallen….? Inch by inch, he opened his eyes and stared at the steep slope that rose above him. The sight of the jagged boulders and rocks made him close his eyes again, and he lifted a shaking hand and massaged his aching forehead.
He would have to pull himself back up that slope and onto the game trail, and if he was lucky, Trampas or one of the hands would find him…soon.
“And just how do you expect to get up there? You can barely breathe and not pass out.”
His eyelids fluttered, and he looked back up the slope. He lowered his eyes to his legs. A swollen lump had formed through his boot, and the other lay at a crooked angle. Carefully, he wiped away the sweat that beaded on his forehead and top lip.
“Strange…I feel like a chunk of ice…My legs…I need to…to…”
Sighing deeply, he rested his head back against the rock. For a long time, he didn’t move a muscle. The only signs of life were the occasional rise and fall of his chest, the slight twitch of his eyelids.
Again, his chest rose and fell in a deep sigh, then, with a low, quiet groan, he pushed himself forward. Bone ground against bone in his chest, and bile filled his mouth as the pain threatened to black him out. Swallowing, he gave a hard twist, rolling his body. His hands had barely enough time to catch his weight.
Heart pounding, he steadied himself, his head hanging low between his arms. “You have to do it…”
A bead of sweat trickled down the side of his face, and, gathering every last thread of strength and determination he had, he pulled himself around, faced the slope, and started the long, agonizing climb up, his work hardened palms grasping at any hold they could, his arms shaking from weariness.
There was no question that Shiloh was a piece of beauty after a storm. Trampas’ blue eyes gazed tenderly out at the land stretched out before him as he and Steve jogged across the range, looking for anything that needed repairing. Despite the patches of miry mud, it still looked beautiful. Yes, sir.
“You know, I don’t know which is worse — having to drag cows outta puddles, or fixing miles upon miles of downed fence.” Steve broke Trampas’ admiring, and the top hand glanced at his riding partner.
“Dragging cows, most definitely.” Trampas pursed his lips and nodded assuredly. “Fixing fences, you only work up a sweat and maybe get some slivers and blisters, but draggin’ out cows, you get the sweat, mud, and goodness knows what all else,” Firmly shaking his head, he grinned and pushed his hat back. “Bet you two bits that we’ll meet up with a cold, tired, cranky foreman any minute now,” he chuckled, changing the subject.
“If we do, we’ll probably wind up fixing fences and pulling out cows,” Steve grunted sourly.
Trampas’ chuckle evaporated, and he frowned. “Hadn’t thought of that…Well, knowing Bossman’s sense of humor, he’ll probably come lopin’ up to us and comment on how well he slept since he didn’t have to listen to us snorin’.” Rolling his eyes, he put some more slack on the reins and chirruped to his buckskin. “Come on, Buck. We got fences to mend.”
He was a mere two yards from the top, but those two yards stretched out like miles before him as he stared with glassy eyes at the remaining stretch of slope. His chest puffed like a bellows with each wheezing breath he took. He couldn’t go any farther. His legs were numb, something he didn’t know if he should be grateful or scared about, but his head still ached, and he felt cold…too cold.
Licking his lips, he gently eased himself down, his fingers splaying out as they slid through the thick blanket of pine needles. He wished he hadn’t thrown off the remains of his slicker, and he wished for a good strong cup of black coffee.
“You won’t get it just lying here. You want that coffee, you’ll have to work for it.”
Ludicrous as it seemed…he laughed. A weak, soft chuckle that slipped past his dry lips with almost no sound at all. Coffee seemed a poor reason to keep going, and right now, the ease of just giving up was tempting…
The Virginian closed his eyes. His body gradually relaxed. His breathing slowed. He lay there beneath the tall trees, his body prostrate on the ground, half of his face buried in the pine needles.
There was something inside him that just couldn’t give up though. A strong, stubborn urge and desire to live was buried too deeply for him to just let go and quit trying.
He continued to lie perfectly still, then his hands moved. Inch by inch, breath by breath, he pulled himself up the remaining two yards, now not caring what damage was done. His only thought…his only worry…was that he did not quit. Not until he either dragged himself back to the bunkhouse, was found…or died getting there.
“I tell you I don’t like it. The Virginian should’ve been back by now, if not to get a fresh horse, at least to make a report or somethin’.” Glancing around the ranch yard, Trampas shifted in his saddle, making it creak beneath him. His employer, Judge Garth, nodded, his hands slipping into his trouser pocket, a worried frown creasing his forehead.
“Want me to round up some of the men and go look for him?” Trampas finally asked, straightening and looking down at the Judge.
“I don’t know. I suppose I still believe that if he were any trouble, someone would have found him or his horse.” The Judge scratched the back of his neck before he returned his hand back to his pocket. “Why don’t you and Steve go? You can check the gorges there while you’re at it.”
Relieved, Trampas nodded and gathered his reins. “Yes sir.” Nudging Buck to a trot, he headed over to where Steve was beginning to unsaddle his horse. “Yo! Don’t bother unsaddlin’, Steve. Judge wants us to check the gorges up mountain way and see if we can find the Virginian,” he called over his shoulder as swung his horse around and started loping towards the entry to the ranch yard.
“Just one more step…that’s all it takes, just one more step…”
It was a lie, of course. It wasn’t just one more step, but the words ran around and around in his fevered mind like a grain of hope. His head swung limp between his arms as he dragged himself forward. His arms pulled him forward in steady, instinctive rhythm. Swing, pause, drag… Swing…pause…drag…Swing…
On he went…never stopping…unconscious to everything. The pain…the cold…the sweat…
All he felt was that ever persistent will that kept him moving…and fighting.
“Well, that’s the last gorge and no cattle and no Virginian,” Steve leaned on his saddle horn and looked expectantly at Trampas, who let out a deep breath and pushed his hat back.
“Guess I’m just antsy after that storm.” He shrugged, narrowing his eyes and looking along the ridges. “We’ll probably get back to the ranch and find him eating a steak while we’ve been out lookin’ for him,” he added sarcastically.
“Yep, and that’s when I’ll hang you with your own rope,” Steve smiled grimly and straightened. “Come on, let’s go.”
Trampas gave the area one more stare, and saw movement in the sky. “Wait a minute. Look there.” He sat bolt upright and pointed quickly at a handful of vultures circling in the distance. “There’re few things that scare me, and one of them is circling vultures. Come on.” Without waiting for a reply, he spurred Buck into a ground eating gallop and headed for the birds, Steve following close behind.
They galloped out of the gorge and started up a hill that rolled along the base of the Snowies. It wasn’t long before they found what the vultures had discovered. A dead chestnut gelding, still saddled and bridled. Wordlessly, they reined in their horses, and Trampas swung down, keeping a tight hold on his reins. His jaw clenching, he hurried over to the horse. One glance told him what he needed to know. “It’s that gelding the Virginian rode yesterday,” he called, drawing closer to the dead animal. The proud head was positioned at a grotesque angle, and a glance at the game trail leading up the Snowies showed where the horse had slid. “Neck’s broken,” He mumbled when Steve walked up and stood beside him. Neither of them spoke for a long time.
“We better keep looking,” Steve finally muttered, turning on his heels. Trampas nodded, his throat tight as he stared at the dead animal. He leaned down and unsaddled and unbridled it. After he cached the saddle and bridle, he hurried to Buck, swung up, and loped after Steve who was already riding up the trail.
With a grunt, he collapsed. He rolled his head from side to side, his hands convulsing. “Keep them going, Trampas…not much…farther now…keep them moving, men…” The slurred, croaked words were garbled into the dirt. “It’s just…over this hill, boys…come on…don’t give up…” He slowly raised his head and stared down the trail. “Just…just…a little…” His arms quivered as he forced himself back onto his hand. Every muscle strained and rebelled. “One…more…,” He pulled himself forward. One more…two more…, “Just…keep…” His hand caught on a rock. The next thing he knew, he was tumbling down a small drop in the trail, head over heels. By the time he stopped, he was fading into darkness again.
Just before he blacked out, he faintly heard someone calling in the distance. “Bossman! Yo! Bossman! Where’s that sorry hide of yours?”
It was the last thing he heard.
“There. Up ahead. See?” Steve’s gelding reared up slightly when he jerked automatically on the reins. Trampas halted Buck, his eyes focusing on the thing Steve was pointing to — an object that showed red in the fading sunlight filtering through the trees.
“Heyah,” Trampas urged his horse up the rest of the trail, and brought him to a sliding halt in front of the Virginian’s still body. Quickly, he knelt beside him, hissing through his teeth as he took in the sight of the foreman’s raw, bloodstained back.
“What in the world happened to him?” Steve murmured, kneeling across from Trampas.
“I dunno, but…,” Trampas trailed off and shook his head in amazement. “Here, let’s turn him over.” Carefully, he and Steve rolled the Virginian over and both their eyes widened when they saw the foreman’s bruised and bloody face. Trampas brushed away the pine needles sticking to his cheek and shook his head. “He’s burning up. We need to get him back to Shiloh,” he said, running his hands down the man’s sides. Ribs moved in unnatural ways and he winced. “Broke his ribs too.”
“His leg’s broken. Think he might’ve broken the ankle on the other,” Steve raised his head from where he’d been examining the foreman’s leg, his face sober.
“Man, what did you do to yourself, Bossman?” Trampas muttered under his breath as he stood and hurried over to Buck to get his canteen. He unhooked the strap from around his saddle horn and walked back in two strides. “We’re gonna have to stabilize that leg, and his ribs,” He unscrewed the cap and slipped his hand beneath the foreman’s neck. The clean water dribbled into the corner of the dry mouth. Trampas pulled the canteen away when the Virginian started sputtering and showing signs of life. “That’s it. There we go.”
The Virginian’s eyes slowly opened. They were glassy and sick looking as they rolled from Trampas to Steve then back again. “Tr… Trampas…what…doing here…,” He shook his head and struggled to get up. “We…h-have to keep going…,” Groaning, he collapsed back.
“We’re going all right. To Shiloh. Just hang in there, Bossman. Just hang in there,” Trampas gently patted the foreman’s shoulder and looked at Steve. “Think you can make me some splints?”
“Sure thing.” Steve jumped to his feet and hurried to do as he was asked.
Screwing the lid back on the cap, Trampas put the canteen aside and started undoing the foreman’s shirt buttons, his lips pressed into a thin, tight line. As he pulled back the shirt, he flinched at the mottled patchwork of bruises coloring the broad chest. After he removed the black vest, he gently slid the Virginian’s arms out of the sleeves and tugged the shredded shirt out from under him. “Betsy is sure gonna love you when she sees this shirt,” He muttered, turning it over in his hands. “Or what’s left of it,” Shaking his head, he began tearing it into strips. “You know, Bossman, I think you are probably gonna have the prettiest bandages I’ve ever seen,” He said sarcastically. Even if the foreman couldn’t hear him, talking still made him feel better.
By the time Steve got back with the splints, Trampas had the Virginian’s chest wrapped in the red strips. The top hand raised his eyes as he finished tying the makeshift bandages. He saw the dry smile that flickered on Steve’s face and frowned. “You can tease him about it after he gets fixed up, and not before.”
“I didn’t say anything,” Steve answered soberly and handed Trampas the splints.
“Yeah, well, you were thinking it,” Trampas scooted sideways on his heels and held out his hand. “Let me see your knife.” The knife was dutifully given to him, and he stuck the blade in the cloth ran it up the black pant leg, stopping just below the knee. “Whoowee…,” He whistled softly. “That is some break,” He gently prodded the leg, emitting a pained groan from the unconscious foreman. The leg had been twisted slightly in an unnatural way, and looking at it made Trampas’ leg ache.
“What about his ankle? Think the boot’ll support it enough?”
Trampas nodded and motioned for Steve to hold the splints in place. “I don’t know about you, but I don’t wanna be the one who has to take the blame for ruining his boots.” He deftly tied the splints in place with the last pieces of the red shirt. “There. That should hold him till we get back to the ranch house. Hand me your jacket. Might not go around him all the way, but it’ll help some.”
“How’re we going to get him back?” Steven asked, handing him the jacket. It was a question Trampas had been wondering about himself. He pulled the jacket snuggly around the foreman and looked at him.
“It’d take too long to get a wagon. He needs a doctor bad. One of us’ll have to double up with him. I want you to get to the house as fast as that horse of yours can get you and tell the Judge what’s happened and then get into town and get the doc. But first, help me get him into the saddle.” With that, Trampas slipped the Virginian’s arm over his head.
“Anything else, Foreman?”
Startled, Trampas looked at Steve. His friend smiled at him as he took the Virginian’s other arm. Rolling his eyes, Trampas waited until Steve had a good hold on the Virginian before he started lifting him. “Oof, come on, Bossman. Time to go home.”
It was a long, slow ride back to the house, and it was made longer by the incoherent, delirious mumblings the Virginian made. Trampas couldn’t remember a time when the house looked so good, and the doctor’s buggy just made it better.
Judge Garth, Betsy, Steve, and the doctor all rushed out of the house as Trampas rode up the drive. They swarmed him as soon as he brought Buck to a standstill.
“How is he?” Betsy asked, her lip quivering while the Judge and the doctor helped get the foreman out of the saddle. Trampas slid down and started to tell her but the doctor cut him off.
“Get him inside the house, quickly!”
Without another word, Trampas and Steve each cradled one of the Virginian’s legs and helped the Judge and the doctor carry the foreman inside. “Up the stairs. We have a bedroom ready for him. Betsy, check that hot water,” the doctor called over his shoulder. They carefully carried the injured man up the stairs and down the hall into one of the spare bedrooms. “All right, easy now. Put him down nice and slow.”
“What happened? Where did you find him?” asked Judge Garth.
Trampas put up his hands, cutting off Judge Garth’s volley of questions. “I don’t know what happened, but we found him on the game trail we usually take to get up into the Snowies, and his horse dead at the bottom.”
“He’s developed quite the fever. Severe abrasions…possible concussion. Broken ribs…”
“And a broken leg and ankle on top of the fact that the skin on his back has been close to rubbed off,” Trampas interrupted the doctor. He rested his hand on a head post, his expression somber. His boss had gotten into plenty of scrapes. Shot dozens of times, in dozens of places; dragged, thrown, beaten; broke bones in almost every part of his body — the list was endless — but this was the worse scrape Trampas had seen him in. Clearing his throat, he looked away from the pale, battered face and looked at the doctor. “Well? Did I miss anything?”
Finishing his examination, the doctor straightened and slowly shook his head. “No… Thankfully, that’s all he has. There are no internal injuries that I can perceive. He is a man of great endurance, that’s all I can say to explain why he’s still alive.” Trampas didn’t answer. “We’ll need to set these breaks, bind his chest, make sure he’s comfortable. Then…well, then we can only wait.”
“As you said, Doc, he’s a tough man. He’ll pull through.” Trampas winked at the doctor but inwardly, he didn’t feel as much confidence.
“I’ll need some assistance setting his legs. Judge Garth, perhaps it would be wise if Betsy was sent outside. I wouldn’t want any…yelling to upset her.” The doctor looked meaningfully at the Judge, who nodded. “Trampas, Steve, perhaps you two would be so kind…?”
“I’ve set breaks in my time, Doc. You want me to hold or set?” Trampas straightened, waiting for the doctor’s instructions.
“If you could hold him down while Steve holds the leg. More than likely, the pain will shock him back into unconsciousness, but I don’t want to risk him injuring himself further.”
“Will do.” Trampas flexed his arms and looked down at the foreman. His small smile faded, and his jaw clenched. “Just remember this, Bossman. This is gonna hurt me as much as it’ll hurt you.”
Betsy arrived with a pot of hot water, and as soon as she put it down, she was sent outside, and as usual, she went with vehement protest. “Daddy, please let me help! I promise I won’t faint or cry or…”
“Betsy.” Trampas caught her attention. Her teary brown eyes turned to him, and he looked into them. “The Virginian wouldn’t want you to get scared. Do it for him, all right?” he said, quietly.
One of the tears escaped and rolled down her cheek. She looked at him, then at the Judge who nodded and gently massaged her shoulder.
“We’ll take care of him, Miss Betsy, don’t you worry,” Steve added.
Slowly, Betsy nodded, wiped away the tear, and turned to leave. “All right…May I come back as soon as it’s over?”
“I’ll come and get you just as soon as he’s quieted down. I promise,” Steve crossed his heart, and Trampas nodded.
“Thank you,” With one last look at the Virginian, Betsy stepped out and quietly shut the door behind her.
“Well, we best get started,” The doctor muttered grimly, unbuckling his bag and pulling out some scissors. Trampas glanced at the Judge and Steve, steeling himself for what was about to happen.
It was sure beautiful country. Miles upon miles stretched before him. That wonderful feeling of complete and utter freedom was a heady sensation. With a whoop, he spurred his horse into a fast gallop. The wind whistled in his ears and he let loose a cowboy holler that echoed over never ending plains.
He wanted to ride, and ride, and…
Something jerked him down. He was being dragged down! He struggled to get away from whatever was holding him, but he couldn’t see what it was. There was nothing to grab on to.
A wash of burning agony suddenly shot through him, and he shouted at the top of his lungs, the pain only spurring him to fight harder. The harder he struggled, the harder he was held down. Another shot of pain. His body jerked, then he slumped and went still.
Trampas’ hand shook as he wiped away the cold sweat from his forehead. Slowly, he straightened and brushed his hands on his pants. “Don’t think I want to be doing that again anytime soon,” he mumbled.
“I thought you said you were used to setting breaks.”
He glanced at the doctor, then looked back at the Virginian. “I have — some of them were the Virginian’s breaks — but I’ve never heard him yell like that before. Scared me half to death.”
“He sure has a set of lungs on him,” Steve said, his face pale beneath his dark Wyoming tan. “I’ll go get Betsy.”
“Yes, well, any more yelling like that, and he’s liable to puncture a lung,” The doctor grumbled, tossing aside the makeshift red bandages as Steven walked out the door. He glanced at the Judge and covered the Virginian’s back with a salve before he re-bound his ribs. “From now on, the most important thing to do will be to keep him quiet. If he exerts himself, no telling what the damage will be. I’ll leave some laudanum.” He finished with the foreman’s ribs and straightened.
“You’re leaving?” The Judge asked from his place beside Trampas, his eyes darkening as the doctor picked up his bag.
The doctor nodded apologetically. “I’m afraid I must. Little Millie Moore has…has pneumonia.” His voice lowered, and Trampas felt his heart sink. He turned and walked to the window, trying to keep his face neutral.
“As I said, keep him quiet. If it looks like he won’t calm down, give him a dilute of laudanum and water. I’ll be back to check on him as soon as possible.”
Trampas turned his head a little and watched out of the corner of his eye as the doctor left. Once the door was shut, he turned around and put his hands on his hips.
“Why don’t you go to the bunkhouse, Trampas? I’ll stay with him.” The Judge walked over to his top hand, watching him closely.
Trampas started to refuse, but he stopped and dropped his chin to his chest. It would be a comfort to the hands if he were there, and now that their foreman was out…he would have to take over. “Yeah…think I will.” He glanced over to the Virginian before he slowly headed to the door.
It was a sweltering Virginia day. Sweat rolled down his face and dripped onto his shoulders. He was chopping wood. A lot of it. A strange urgency surged through him as one by one, split logs dropped from the chopping block.
“Boy, it’s time to quit.” The deep voice made him stop. Slowly, he looked over his shoulder and stared disbelievingly at the man behind him. There he was…the man who could talk to the birds…tell his age by the trees…and could tell where a mountain cat had walked across a bed of pine needles.
He shook his head and picked up another log. “No. I have to finish the job.”
Startled, he jerked his head up. That voice…it was familiar…he’d heard it before. Turning, he saw a woman beside the man. She was a small, with dark brown hair… She looked so familiar yet he couldn’t remember. Why couldn’t he remember?
“Come with us.” She held out a calloused hand, a warm, loving smile showing deep dimples in her smooth cheeks. He looked at her, then at the axe in his hand. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt…just for a little while. He started towards her when someone grabbed him and started shaking him.
“His breathing’s getting shallower.”
“Don’t do this to us, Bossman.”
“Daddy, he’s not…”
The voices faded. The man and woman disappeared, and everything went dark.
Trampas jerked awake and swung his legs over the side of the sofa that he’d spent the night on. “What? What? Is he awake?” he garbled, looking dazedly around before he looked up at Betsy. Her eyes were red and puffy, her face pale. She shook her head, and Trampas’ heart sank.
“He didn’t…” Trampas couldn’t finish the sentence. Again she shook her head, harder this time.
“No, thank goodness, but Daddy wanted me to tell you that Doctor Spaulding says his fever’s down,” She smiled a little, before she sank beside him, her face buried in her hands. “I was so afraid last night,” she whispered.
Trampas’ jaw clenched, and he nodded. Last night had been a close call. Too close. He started to say something but he was cut off by footsteps coming down the stairs. Grabbing his hat, he jumped up along with Betsy, and they hurried out of the sitting room as the Judge and the doctor made their way down the stairs.
“He’s out of danger for now, but if he should take another turn…,” The doctor shook his head, his expression somber. “He’ll need constant attention for now. If there is any change, even the slightest, send for me.”
“We’ll do that.” The Judge put a hand on Doc’s shoulder. “Thank you.” The doctor smiled faintly, then he slipped his hat on and started for the door. They all followed him out onto the porch and watched as he got into his buggy and started down the drive to the road.
Once he was out of sight, Trampas put his hat on and cleared his throat. “Guess I better get the day started. Can’t think of a nicer surprise for the Virginian to wake up to than the ranch already taken care of,” He smiled a little, but it didn’t last long. The Judge nodded, the faintest smile of agreement on his face.
“You make sure he doesn’t go anywhere while I’m gone, all right, Betsy?” Trampas looked at her, knowing she’d catch the double meaning to his words.
“I will. Don’t worry,” she said softly. He tugged his hat brim down, jogged down the porch steps, and strode over to the stairs leading down to the ranch yard, getting answers ready for the barrage of questions he’d have to answer.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in’ want of a wife’,” Betsy paused for a dramatic effect and glanced over the top of the book at her patient. No change. She swallowed and returned to her reading, “‘However, little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighborhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of someone or other of their daughters.'” Again, she stopped and looked at her patient. The Virginian remained unmoved. There was no dry repartee, no contradiction or denial. He just lay there, his face pale. Sighing, she closed Pride & Prejudice, not taking her eyes off the normally strong, energetic man who now lay quiet and weak on the bed. “Do you remember that day you, Steve, and Trampas found me riding, and I told you I was going to marry you? I think it was the day of my fifteenth birthday party.” She laughed a little and shook her head. Absently, she ran her fingers back and forth on the book binding, her mind deep in the memories.
A soft knock brought her out of it, and she looked over her shoulder at the door. “Come in.”
It swung open, and the Judge stepped in. He glanced from her to the Virginian, then he shut the door behind him. “How is he?”
“The same. He started stirring a little bit, and I thought he was going to wake up, but he didn’t.” Betsy turned her eyes back to the Virginian. She listened as the Judge walked across the floor and stood behind her, his hands resting on her shoulders.
“Still reading Miss Austen?” he asked, the gentle love and understanding in his voice almost making her cry again.
“I thought perhaps if I read something he would be sure to argue with that it might…I don’t know…bring him back. That first line especially. I can just imagine what he would say.” Betsy’s voice rose a little as she tried to hold back her tears. “
“Honey, I’m sure there’s an awful lot of truth in that, but…”
“But…it’s…u-universally known that…a single man…of…of any kind…”
Pride & Prejudice clattered to the floor as Betsy sat up straight in her chair, her face lighting up. “Oh! It did work!” The next minute, she was out of her chair and joining her father beside the Virginian’s bed side.
A dry smile flittered on the foreman’s lips, and his eyes rolled open. “Sure is…warm…in here…” he mumbled, his eyelids fluttering back down. Betsy reached over and felt his forehead and cheek.
“That’s because you have been burning with a fever for the past five days. I think that’s the coolest you’ve felt!” she exclaimed, reaching around the Judge and picking up the wet cloth draped over the edge of the basin. “Maybe this will help.” She sat on the edge of the bed and gently wiped his face. “You sure gave us a scare, Mr. Virginian. Not to mention you ruined one of your good shirts!” She was starting to babble. She could hear it as she tried to hide her relief at seeing him awake.
“We’re certainly glad to see you awake again,” the Judge nodded, his eyes twinkling as he looked down at the foreman.
“Five…days?” The Virginian repeated, his forehead furrowing.
Betsy nodded. “Trampas found you Tuesday morning. It’s Saturday. The boys were so upset that they didn’t even go into town!”
“Speaking of which, I better give them the good news.” the Judge smiled, then disappeared, a small spring in his step. Betsy watched him leave before she turned her gaze back to the foreman.
“Now, what were you saying about a single man?”
She raised her eyebrows, a teasing smile twitching on her lips as she dipped the cloth into the basin. He gave her a tired smile in return, closed his eyes, and didn’t answer.
When the news went around that ramrod was awake and talking, a holler rang out so loud that the bunkhouse walls shook. Some hands began doing jigs while others smacked each other on the back. Loudest of them all were Trampas and Steve. They hooted, shouted, and pummeled each other on the back.
“Now things’ll be back to normal around here!” Steve cheered, his face lit up in a wide grin.
“Yeah, no more havin’ to take orders from Trampas!” The speaking hand punched Trampas good-naturedly, and Trampas scowled, his arms crossed.
“Well, you can’t deny that I made a pretty good foreman,” he said, his lips twitching as he tried to keep an injured look. “Guess that just figures, though. I try to pick up the slack around here and no one appreciates it.”
“You’re also the touchiest foreman we’ve had,” another hand called from the table, and everyone burst into another round of hoots and laughs.
“Huh, well, you all can just….”
The bunkhouse door swung open and a smiling Betsy walked in, her cheeks pink, her eyes sparkling. Every hand straightened and slicked their hair down as they asked after their boss.
“He’s asleep again, but Daddy wanted me to tell you that there will be a celebration dinner for you all up at the house, if you all promise to be quiet, since you missed out on your Saturday night,” she said, looking as chipper as always now that things were back to rights again. There were more loud cheers then Trampas got them all quiet before he bowed a little to Betsy with a mock dignity.
“Miss Betsy, we happily accept you and your father’s invitation.” He managed to get his speech out before he whooped, twirled her around, and then motioned for the boys to follow him. “Come on, boys! Let’s go have the quietest Saturday night we’ve ever had!”
He didn’t have to tell them twice.
The next time the Virginian woke up, the first thing he saw was Trampas’ grinning face. The top hand leaned forward in his seat and nodded his head to him. “Mornin’!”
The Virginian adjusted his head around on the pillows so that he could see better, returning his friend’s with a small smile of his own. “Think…I liked the other view I woke up to better,” he mumbled.
“Yeah, Betsy told me you’d woke up full of your old grit and orneriness.” Trampas’ grin disappeared, and he took a serious turn. “How’re you feeling?”
“Like…” The Virginian shifted into a more comfortable position and peered at his legs propped up on pillows, “…like I got dragged by a spooked horse and rained on,” he muttered, his small position adjustment reminding him of just that.
“Ah, well, that would explain why you have, oh, a handful of busted ribs, two broken legs, bruises the size of flapjacks, and a back rubbed so raw it’s hardly recognizable.” Trampas shook his head and sat back in his chair.
“Is that all?” The Virginian chuckled, grimaced, and rested his hand on his side. “Feels like more.”
“From what you’ve told me, you’re lucky that’s all.”
Slowly, The Virginian sank back into the pillows and nodded a little. The night came back to him in a wild rush. The storm. His horse. “That…chestnut gelding… Did he come home?” He narrowed his eyes and watched Trampas’ expression carefully. The slight way the smile froze, the regret in Trampas’ eyes, told him all he needed to know.
“We found him. Dead. Probably slipped.” Trampas met his gaze. “We got your gear back. With a little bit of fixing, it’ll be good as new.”
Good as new…The Virginian sank back in the pillows and closed his eyes. There was a long silence then he heard the chair creak.
“Yo…Bossman? You going back to sleep on me?”
“How much longer do I have to stay in bed?” He opened his eyes and looked at Trampas.
His friend scratched the back of his neck thoughtfully. “Think the doc said about another two or three weeks, if I remember correctly. Then you’re to stay off your legs for two more after that.”
“Huh.” The idea gave him just the spurt of energy and determination he needed. Taking a deep breath, he pushed aside the covers and started to pull his leg over.
“And just what do you think you are doing!”
The Virginian barely registered Betsy before she was swooping down on him and pushing his leg back under the covers. “Doctor Spaulding said you are to stay in bed for two more weeks and that you are not to get out a day sooner!”
The Judge appeared in the doorway. He took one look at the Virginian and a dark scowl clouded his face. “Did he just try to get out of bed?” he demanded, striding over to the bed side and looking at Trampas.
The Virginian started to protest but Trampas cut him off. “Yes sir, he sure did. I think the doc needs to take a look at his head.”
“Now look here, I…”
“Not another word, young man! Not another word! You stay right in this bed and don’t you move until exactly two weeks, do you understand me?”
The sight of Betsy’s snapping brown eyes deterred him, but only for a second. He scowled and started to pull the blankets aside again. “I’ve been in bed for almost a week now,” he muttered when Betsy and the Judge forced him back down and tucked the blankets back around him.
“And as Betsy said you’ll be in bed longer unless the doctor says otherwise,” the Judge said firmly.
“And after that you’ll…”
“Stay off it for another two,” The Virginian finished for Betsy and gritted his teeth together.
“Absolutely. Two weeks. Doc’s orders, Bossman.”
He gave Trampas a glare that could have split rocks.
His friend just grinned at him and stood. “Well, think I best get back to work. Some of us have better things to do than lay around in bed,” The top hand sauntered towards the door.
“Why you…” The Virginian jerked around, grabbed a pillow, gasped and started coughing all at once, the sudden words too much for his dry throat. In an instant, he was given assistance.
“Now, you see? That’s why you’re to stay in bed,” Betsy chided gently as she pulled the glass away and set it on the side table. Grumbling, he lay back in the pillows and watched as Trampas smirked at him and disappeared out the door.
Realizing there was little he could do at the moment, he grunted and looked up at Betsy and the Judge. “Two weeks?” They both nodded, and he folded his arms. “Who’s going to run the ranch?”
“Trampas has been doing a fine job for now.” His boss smiled sympathetically.
The Virginian wanted to tell them that he hadn’t pushed himself through pain and cold to just lay in bed for two weeks, but he held it back. He rubbed his eyes. “Two weeks…”
“Daddy, I think we’re about to have the biggest fight yet. What are we going to do with him?” Betsy sighed and shook her head, her eyes twinkling.
The Virginian smiled half-heartedly at her teasing. “I’m going to make such a cuss out of myself that you won’t have any choice but to let me out,” he murmured, closing his eyes and settling back into his pillows.
“Hmm, well, I see that for now you are going to be sensible and take a nap. If you sit up, I’ll plump your pillows for you.”
He peered up at Betsy, his eyes narrowed. Then, he dutifully leaned forward and she plumped up the pillows. “Thanks.” He leaned back into the pillows and smiled briefly at her. She said something else but he fell asleep before he heard what she said, worn out from his own cussedness.
“She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me; I am in no humor at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men. You had better return to your partner and enjoy her smiles, for you are wasting your time with me.”
The sun’s rays gently warmed the Virginian’s face as he listened to Betsy’s attempt at sounding masculine and British at the same time. It was all he could do to keep from laughing out loud over the result. The disdain she put into it just made it even more entertaining.
“Mr. Bingley followed his advice. Mr. Darcy walked off, and… What are you smirking at?”
“Hmm?” He looked at her, the smirk melting into a look of perfect innocence.
She scowled and closed the book, indignation on her pretty face. “I don’t see anything at all funny about such an insult.” She sat back in the porch chair and arched an eyebrow at him.
“Means he likes her, that’s all.” The Virginian shrugged and reached down to rub his aching leg propped up on a stool. As he’d said, he’d gotten out of bed before the two weeks, barely, but he had. Not only that, but he’d made his way downstairs and onto the porch after he pointed out he was turning as white as a new covering of snow.
“Really?” Betsy tilted her head to the side.
He nodded quite seriously. “Why do you think boys take such trouble to dip girls’ pigtails in inkwells? Or put bugs down the back of their dresses? And then when they’re grown up, they make themselves perfect nuisances?” He shrugged as if it made perfect sense in the world and relaxed back in his chair.
Betsy sighed and put the book on her lap. “Well, I’ll have to be sure and remember that from now on.” Her eyes twinkled a little, and her lips quirked into a small smile. “Now, you soak in the sun and amuse yourself for a while. I have things to do,” She stood up, book in hand, and whisked into the house, leaving him to the sun and fresh air.
Once the door was closed, he turned his attention to the ranch yard, mainly the corrals where the hands were breaking the rest of the string they’d brought down from the hills. The contented smile softened, and he reached down to massage his leg again. Couple more days, and he’d be back to work.
It was amazing how much more a man appreciated things when something threatened to take it away from him. The simple thought of getting back to work sent a feeling through him that couldn’t be described. Perhaps he was crazy for wanting to get back to hard, back breaking ranch work, but the satisfaction it gave made every ache and pain worth it.
“Leg botherin’ you?”
Startled, he jerked his head up. Trampas stood in front of him, panting, his face streaked with dirt and sweat. Sitting back, he shrugged. “Some, but don’t worry, I’ll be ready to take over real soon,” He narrowed his eyes, his lips twitching good naturedly. His friend hmphed and pulled up the other porch chair.
“You just take your time. We’ve been managing fine with me in charge,” Trampas smirked, his blue eyes twinkling.
The Virginian arched an eyebrow and laced his fingers over his stomach. “Well, in that case, I’ll enjoy my vacation a little while longer. Maybe I can get the Judge to send me down to Tucson…Mexico…or perhaps Denver. Come to think of it, San Francisco ought to be pretty exciting this time of year.” He rubbed his chin as he contemplated the porch roof.
Mock dismay wiped away the smirk on Trampas’ face, and Trampas held up his hands. “Better stop there before I get a crazy idea in my head to get myself busted up.”
“Keep up with those broncs, and you just might,” The Virginian chuckled and looked down at the corral. “Speaking of which, why are you up here instead of down there breaking those horses?”
“Oh, the boys said you looked so pitiful up here all by yourself that we decided we’d take turns keeping you company until Betsy comes back out.” Trampas leaned back in his chair and crossed his ankles, thoughtfully studying his boots.
“Hmph, some foreman,” The Virginian shook his head and watched as a hand was launched into the air by a gray. Neither of them spoke for a while, before he quietly asked. “Did I say anything crazy this time around?” Most people wouldn’t understand, but he knew it wouldn’t take Trampas long to figure it out.
“No… No crazier than usual.” Trampas gave him a quick smile, then he diverted his eyes and brushed off some dust from his chaps. Clearing his throat, he quickly shrugged and forced a cheery grin. “It’s done and over with now. I wouldn’t let it bother you.”
It did bother him, but he didn’t press for further information. Frankly, he was afraid of what he might have said. Afraid of what raw emotions might have been pulled out while he’d been down. The dream of his father and… the woman…That opened doors to memories he didn’t care to share. Memories of old struggles better left buried in his own mind.
But…it was over now. He’d fought this new tussle, and he’d made it. Another to be buried and left, it’s only remainder being a few aches and pains when he was old.
He blinked and looked at Trampas. Concern etched his friend’s forehead, and he was watching him carefully, waiting.
“You looked a million miles away. Or was it just a few hundred over in San Francisco?”
The jab was half-hearted, but the Virginian chuckled and shook his head anyway. “No, just thinking,” He cleared his throat and scooted himself forward onto the edge of his chair. “I’d sure like to stretch my legs some more.”
“No you don’t. No. You. Don’t. Miss Betsy’d skin me and use my hide for a rawhide rope,” Trampas got out of his chair and shook his head firmly.
“Crutches are by the door,” The Virginian motioned to them, completely ignoring the warning. The top hand grumbled, jerkily grabbed the crutches, and handed them to him.
“Couple days, huh? You’re back in business already,” Trampas snorted, looking at everything but the foreman like that would keep him from looking guilty. The Virginian just smirked, adjusted his weight on his crutches, and gently hopped across the porch, Trampas close behind.