Summary: Jess answers to the name Slim Sherman.
Word Count: 2404
Jess looked around the strange parade ground anxiously as he searched for a sign of his boss Slim Sherman; he should have been here by now and the young Texan was worried as to where in the world he must have got to. He had thought them mad to have volunteered to help the army make up numbers to push the Arapaho back on to the reservation. They had enough problems with the Sioux back over in Laramie without getting involved with the troubles so far to the north of them. Jess looked around at the other men. He knew none of them, but that was to be expected as he had not been on the ranch that long. He had bonded with his new boss and liked him, but had not met any of the others from so far north.
At last a young shave-tail lieutenant strolled over and asked them to gather round.
“Well men, we ride out at first light. I will expect you to have got your gear and ammunition organized. There will be a roll call at first light, and I expect that you know that from now and until we are through, you are in the Army and under Army regulations. Any disobedience or such like will be punished — you will not enjoy a month in an army guard house — just in case you change your mind and slip away in the night.”
Well, thought Jess, that’s a great start, getting threatened before we’ve even been fed. He turned and followed the others in to the canteen for supper.
That night Jess slept little. As he tossed and turned, he was worrying himself sick; he could not believe that Slim had not turned to. He must be held up; it was easy out here. A simple accident could cost hours and then the best of horses — and Alamo was one of the best — were not as reliable as men often thought they were. He did not know what to do; he felt, in fact that he should try and slide out to go hunt for his boss. He could be lying out there, injured and helpless. Then again, if he did that and Slim turned up, he could end galloping hell for leather with the Army after him. The army had a long memory, and being a Southerner — even if he was a Texan — it would make them all the more keen to catch him. It took everything he had to try and sleep and wait to see what the dawn would bring.
A watery grey light brought no news of Slim, and at last they were called to order to answer the roll call. The names were slowly called out, and for some reason which Jess could not understand, he did not answer when his name was sounded around the parade ground. He felt cold inside when he answered to Slim’s name. He could not let his boss be hounded by the Army. He had a young brother, a stage line and a ranch to run. Jess had nothing to lose but his freedom for a month and they would have to catch him first. That would not be easy as they had no idea what he looked like and he smiled ruefully to himself.
At last they mounted and followed the troop out of the fort, in a military fashion, in twos. Jess was seething as he went over the comments that the others had made amongst themselves when they had found out that the man named Harper had not turned up as he had promised. One or two of them had heard of him, and of his reputation as a gun for hire. Another knew that he had served a stretch in prison, and another knew that he worked for Slim Sherman and that was going to be a problem. He did not know enough about his boss’ life that he could even pretend to be him. He also forgot that he probably had a Texas accent which would no doubt be recognized and would raise doubts in their minds as to who he was. So Jess kept silent and simply communicated with the odd grunt or nod.
Finally they made contact with the Arapaho and the usual running engagement found Jess exchanging rifle shots with the fierce tribesmen. Slowly the Indians pulled back and Jess and two of the others followed them into a dry gulch. Jess was a bit wary but felt he had to back up the others who seemed to be pushing the tribesmen too fast. Then it happened. Jess suddenly realized that they had been outflanked, as shots were coming from behind them now as well as from the steep walled side and the front. He watched in horror as the blond young drover who was over on his right was shot in his side and was catapulted to the bottom of the gulch. Jess quickly moved to cover him and tried to make every shot count. He was relieved when he saw some of the soldiers, who had heard the gunfire, had inched forward to give them cover and try to rescue them.
At last he thought that the tide was turning in their favor and he quickly ran out from cover to protect the youngster who was moving feebly and trying to find some shelter from the shots that were still threatening to kill him. He had not seen a brave who had been moving under the cover of the rocks and brush to try to take a scalp. The Arapaho was a young blood who was out to prove himself amongst the other warriors by lifting a white eye’s scalp, and he let out a scream of savage intent as he charged forward with his large knife that was honed to cut through the toughest of hide and sinew. His knife was raised and he was about to plunge it into Jess’ back when Jess felt, rather than saw, the brave. He whipped around and managed to grab the raised wrist at the top of its arc. He grabbed the warriors’ wrist with both of his hands and forced the arm back. He jammed his leg behind one of the braves and pushed and snapped him backwards with all of his strength. The Indian fell, with Jess now on top of him, still holding on to the wrist as the Indian now used his free hand to punch and gouge at Jess’ face and neck. Jess could feel his face being pounded and the blood from a gouge on his forehead blinded him. He wanted to let go of the brave’s wrist so that he could reach his own knife that was on the inside of his boot, but he could not take the chance; this warrior was too strong and Jess was hardly holding on to him.
Suddenly the brave arched his back and Jess was thrown upwards, still holding on to the knife-wielding wrist. The big man rolled on to his side and Jess did not know how it happened, but he felt a hard strong ripping as the knife was shoved into his side. He felt no pain at first as he saw the Indian slowly stand up and begin to turn away towards the injured youngster. Jess felt a wave of weakness wash over him and he felt as if the world was tilting away from him. He was at the very edge of his life as all feeling seemed to be ebbing away in the gripping and gnawing in the slashed ripped gash in his side. He did not think; he could not think. He just acted on pure instinct as he fumbled and then felt the cold hard handle of his colt. He slowly dragged it out of his holster; he could not remember if he had used it in the gun fight. It did not matter. He tried to lift the gun which now felt as heavy as the earth. He managed to raise it, so slowly that it felt as if hours were passing. He lined it up on the warriors’ broad back, and for some reason he called out to him. He could not shoot him down, not in the back; it was not his way. The warrior turned, and Jess saw the feral snarling painted face full of venomous hate cry out at defiant salute as Jess shot him. Then his world suddenly plunged into a smothering, choking darkness, as the warrior fell across Jess and choked the life out of him.
Slim Sherman finally arrived at the fort to find that he was already too late; the troop with the civilian volunteers had been for gone hours. The Captain who was the senior officer had been amazed to find out that he was Slim Sherman, and had not believed him until Slim had produced a bill of sale and several other documents proving his identity.
“I don’t know what he was thinking, Captain; have never heard of such a thing before,” Slim remarked to the soldier.
“Guess it is something to do with friendship and maybe loyalty; he must be an old friend;” The captain replied.
“No, not at all. He works for me and our relationship has not been easy. Jess is his own man, I don’t really know him; he is difficult to get to know. I am so surprised he would do this. I wonder why?”
“Perhaps it had something to do with the threat I had my young‘un deliver. I warned the volunteers with a month in the guard room if they tried to slink home. It often happens; they say and they promise to ride with us until it comes to riding out and then they used to drift off. So I was doing my damnedest to keep them from sloping off. He was obviously trying to protect you.”
“When are you expecting them back?”
“That I cannot say. You are welcome to wait here, Mr. Sherman, but do not even think of going out looking for them. A man on his own will not last a day; we have no idea what is still out there.”
“Thanks Captain, I will take your advice, I won’t throw my life away after Jess has taken such a risk for mine.”
So Slim stayed. He spent much of his time on the top of the wooden walled barricade, staring out for hours willing the expedition to return. At last he saw the dust rising on the far windblown prairie, which looked like waves rolling towards him. He knew that something was out there. It did not necessarily mean the Army; it could be a herd of some kind, maybe even some Indians. Slim used all his might to will the dust devils towards the fort. At last Slim could make out the first horses which were moving steadily towards their base. Slim scanned them as they got closer; he saw no sign of Jess, but he did see the blanket covered bodies slung over and tied to their mounts. Please God, no, Slim prayed. He still could not come to terms with the sacrifice of this young gunman, who he had nearly told on more than one occasion to draw his pay and go. He quickly moved down to greet the column as it rode wearily, ochre-colored with dust, into the safety of the fort. He looked into the faces of the returning soldiers. They were bone-weary, their eyes almost blinded with the yellow sandy earth. All expression was wiped and told of blood and a final emptiness, that ugly gut-wrenching fear that witnessing death brings. He asked for Harper, and then he quickly remembered and called for Sherman; there were no replies to his questions, just a numbed silence of remembered horror.
Slim staggered towards the huge heavy gates of the fort — they had not begun to close them yet — and he leaned against an upright, looking out towards the sun-burnt hazy horizon. His eyes were blinded with unshed tears for a man he did not really know, who it seemed held him with such regard and respect that he had allowed his own name to be spat upon, and risked his life to protect him. He was a man who had chosen to give up his way of life and was trying to hold down the job and home that Slim had offered him. He was a man loyal to a fault, a man of honor who it seemed had chosen Slim as a friend. Now it seemed that he had gone, like so many; he had given his life to try and pacify this brutal frontier that held so much hope for so many. Slim began to turn away, already wondering what he would tell his young brother who had quickly come to love Jess, as young ones do; they seem to have a gift of finding good in all and completely giving their trust and love unconditionally.
He looked one final time and saw some men and horses; they were pulling a travois. He felt his heart begin to hammer in his chest and his stomach begin to knot. Before he had time to think, he was running and staggering through the buffalo grass towards the little group. He felt as if his lungs were bursting as he finally came up to them. “Sherman?” he managed to call out.
A young man with blond hair and a wounded, bandaged side nodded.
Slim went to the travois. The body lay motionless, and the face was covered. He gingerly drew the blanket from the face that lay beneath. There was the unruly, now blood-matted, hair, the thin face which was also smeared with blood, and the long black lashes like those of a boy. Slowly the eyes opened. They were the brilliant violets blue which were always so full of life buy now dark as the young ranch hand fought the pain. Slowly Jess disentangled his arm from the swaddling blankets and held his hand out. Slim grasped it. It felt cold and lifeless, but the grip was strong and Slim knew that Jess was going to live.