Daisy’s Boys (by Patty W.)

Summary:  A Daisy story as requested: Written January 2015
Category:  Laramie
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  27,551


 

I never thought I would get over it after my only son was killed in the war. Never thought I would be happy or learn to love again, but I did and I have, and it’s all down to what I call serendipity. Destiny, fate or a lucky accident — call it what you will — but that’s what it was the day I arrived at the Sherman Ranch and Relay Station and discovered my new family.

You see, I had been led to believe that Sherman was a town in Wyoming and my husband and I had spent all our life savings on a business there. Then after I lost the dear man and was in need of a fresh start, I decided to go on my own to set up the business that we had bought from a very charming gentleman passing through our town back East.

Well, you can imagine my alarm when the stagecoach arrived at the Sherman Ranch and this tall blond, pleasant young man insisted there was no town named Sherman and I had obviously been duped.

 So there I was in the middle of nowhere and all my savings lost.

I am usually a pretty strong character, but I have to admit this, after the loss of my dear husband and the lengthy journey, this was just too much to bear. I collapsed and took to my bed for a while. Well, young Mike’s bed, that is.

What a sweet child. I took to him at once with his blond hair and huge innocent eyes. He was happy to allow me to use his room and assured me that he never slept in the daytime. In fact, it was young Mike that was the catalyst for my staying at the ranch.

You see, it seems that I arrived just in the nick of time to save the day. Slim Sherman, the young man who had brought my world crashing around my ears with his revelation that Sherman the town did not exist, was desperately in need of a housekeeper.

He needed someone to care for young Mike as he and his business partner were trying to adopt the boy after his parents had been killed. The circuit judge was due shortly and they had to prove they had a suitable home for the child, including a live-in housekeeper.

It was when I was recovering from the shock and was up again that the bedroom door burst open and young Mike ran in, trying to escape having a bath. That was when I first met Jess Harper, Slim’s partner in the ranch, and oh I so liked him. Less tall than Mr. Sherman and as dark as the other was blond, he was equally kind and respectful and with those twinkling blue eyes and deep voice I was quite bowled over.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, there were all sorts of shenanigans that day — an outlaw posing as a doctor, the wife of a bounty hunter applying for the post of housekeeper and then the judge landed amongst all the excitement.

Well, as I say, I saved the day to some extent; I convinced the judge that Slim Sherman and his business partner and best friend Jess Harper were suitable guardians. Thinking I was the housekeeper, I soon had him eating out of my hand and he was glad to endorse the guardianship.

Then, at the end of that long day, it was young Mike himself who asked me to stay. However, Jess and Slim, as I had now come to think of them, seemed equally happy for me to take the position, so that’s exactly what I did  and over the years  I have never regretted that decision, not for one single minute.

I have to say, though, that it has not all been plain sailing with one or other of the boys in some sort of trouble. From one week to another, one of them is getting shot or beaten up, often when helping out our dear friend, Sheriff Mort Corey, but my nursing experience holds me in good stead at least.

Then there is always something happening around here — mustang breaking, for example, or the boys off hunting, bringing back all sorts of creatures to test my cooking skills.

Then there is all the fun of bringing up a youngster again, caring for little Mike, so life here is never, ever boring.

Sometimes they have their troubles. Like the time Mike was being bullied at school and Jess came to the rescue. Every so often, my two older boys, as I think of them, have troubles of the heart and I have to try and help them the best I can with a little word of wisdom here and a listening ear there.

Right from the start, Slim was pretty much an open book and would tell me about his history — how he had to raise his kid brother Andy from a young age after his parents died and also run the Relay Station. He went on to tell me as how it was all quite a burden on him, even though he had the support of old Jonsey, a family friend. Then the old-timer travelled back east with Andy to “ride shotgun on the boy”, as Slim put it, as he went through college.

By that time, Jess had joined forces with him. Jess had not only lightened the burden of running the business singlehanded but had also “given Slim’s life a whole new dimension”, the tall rancher had informed me with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes, but did not elaborate.

It was much later when I overheard a conversation in the yard that all became clear. I heard Jess’s deep voice teasing his buddy one afternoon when Slim had been castigating him for some misdemeanor.

“Oh come on, Hardrock, you know I’m the best buddy you ever had. Who taught you to drink Red Eye ‘til you spilled your guts up and sweet talk the ladies, not to mention playing a mean game of poker, huh…huh?”

Then I heard Slim’s laughing reply. “OK yeah, I guess you’re right, Jess; you sure got me all educated up in the things that really matter in life.” I hid a smile as I went about my work; those two boys were so different and yet such great friends.

Slim was the born worrier, and Jess, such a contradiction — easy-going with a wonderful sense of humor but also with a fast temper and even faster to draw his gun if family or friends are threatened.

Yes, young Slim was open and honest, and I think I understood him from day one.

Jess, however, was much more difficult to get to know and tended to keep his cards pretty close to his chest. It wasn’t until I gleaned the odd bit of information here and there that I was able to understand him and to realize why he acted the untamed way he did on occasion.

The poor young man seemed to have led a very difficult early life in poverty out on the Texas panhandle. Then when he was just fifteen, tragedy struck when his home was destroyed by fire at the hands of the Bannister gang and all but two of his family perished. Having lost his parents and most of his young siblings, the boy had gone “on the drift” as he called it, desperately seeking revenge.

Then Jess had signed up as a boy soldier with the Confederacy, where he had a hard war being taken prisoner, escaped, and then was wounded and spent the last months in a hell-hole of a prisoner of war camp. Even though my son fought on the other side, as did Slim, I had a deep feeling of empathy and understanding with all those young  men, no matter which side they were on, and I was so very glad that the war had made no different to Slim and Jess’s steadfast friendship.

As Slim told me in confidence one night, it had been hard won, his friendship with Jess. They had been through many trials and tribulations before that deep and loyal bond had been truly forged. It had been young Andy that wanted the drifter to stay when Jess landed at the ranch all those years ago, but Slim reckoned he had trouble written all over him and was none too keen.

“A greased holster and trouble in both pockets,” Slim had said laughing.

It was true that Jess had been in a bundle of trouble in the past — living by the gun and being prepared to die by it — but thank the Lord he gave up his gunslinger ways when he finally settled into life at the ranch and made his home here.

Jess still had his moments, though, even after I arrived, and his quick temper and even faster draw were certainly something to behold. However, he has never been anything other than kind and polite with me, moderating the shocking language I have heard him using in the yard and even making a valiant effort to be what he calls “domesticated”.

Well, you’d hardly know it sometimes, the state of him. Filthy, ripped clothes when he’s been tipped off one of those dreadful great mustangs it is his job the break and school. Not to mention the times the Big Open calls him and he’ll be off on some errand of mercy, landing back days or weeks later, thin, maybe hurt, but usually triumphant as he had achieved his goal, no matter what sacrifice to himself. Yes, as Slim once said, you sure wanted Jess on your side if you were in a tight spot and he was loyal and honorable to the end.

So off Jess would go,  getting into trouble, usually helping out an old friend or deputizing for Sheriff Corey, before returning with that wounded puppy dog look in his eyes and an injury or hurt of some kind. Of course, I can never resist clucking around him “like a mother hen”, as he says. Yes, my nursing skills have certainly come in handy since I moved into the Sherman Ranch.

Well, I suppose I’m a little bit clucky with all my boys and watch over them carefully, instinctively knowing if they are sick or unhappy.

That’s why it was strange that I didn’t pick up on Jess’s illness earlier, but then he is rather adept at hiding things from me. Whether it is a fist fight in the saloon or spending the night with his lovely girlfriend Millie, he is quite good at pulling the wool over my eyes, or he thinks he is anyway, bless him.

But I should have noticed something sooner, I really should…

It all started with something so trivial too — a tiny little tick. Jess had been out mustanging for a few days with Slim, and they brought some wonderful creatures home with them, even to my untrained eye. About a dozen in all, and Mike was cock-a-hoop when he heard them riding in after their trip away.

The youngster ran across the yard and threw open the corral gate. Jess and Slim herded the creatures in before jumping down from their mounts and slamming the gate closed again, and then stood viewing their quarry with delighted laughter in their eyes. Jess was especially thrilled with the beasts; that boy so loves his horses and the thrill of the chase too, I imagine. Slim maybe less so, but even he looked excited and happy as he watched the majestic animals tearing around the corral.

I wandered over, drying my hands on my apron, to welcome my boys back and both gave me a warm hug and a kiss.

“Gee but we sure have missed you, Daisy,” said Jess, grinning down at me before giving me another impulsive hug.

“Umm, missed my cooking more is the like,” I said, smiling up into those twinkling blue eyes.

“Well, there is that too,” Jess said grinning, across at Slim. “I guess old Hardrock there ain’t in the same league as far as cookin’ is concerned.” Then he went off with Mike to check on the boy’s pony, one arm loving draped around the youngster’s shoulders.

I turned back to Slim. “So it was a good trip?”

Slim nodded. “Exhausting though. Jess just wouldn’t give up; you know how stubborn he can be. Saw this grey stallion and just had to have him no matter what.”

I turned back to the corral. “Well, he is a magnificent beast, but he certainly looks a lively one.”

“You can say that again. Took two of us to rope him, and even then Jess came a cropper off Traveler”.

“Oh, is he hurt?”

“No, he’s fine, just a few cuts and bruises, but I cleaned him up real well.”

“And how are you, dear? You do look tired.”

Slim shook his handsome blond head. “I am, Daisy, bushed; bed for me after supper.”

So it was that it was just me and Jess that sat by the fire enjoying a final coffee, with Slim and Mike already fast asleep.

I noticed Jess scratching at his forearm once or twice and asked him what the problem was.

“Picked up a darned tick,” Jess said, throwing me his cheeky smile. “Reckon the critter’s chewed me up some.”

“Oh, that sounds nasty. You got rid of it and you did clean up the wound properly, didn’t you, dear? They can turn very nasty, you know.”

“Sure, it’s just annoying is all.” With that, Jess started telling me all about the chase for the grey stallion and I forgot all about the tick…until much later.

Jess spent the rest of that week breaking the new input of mustangs, with Slim keeping a wary eye on him in case he fell badly and young Mike was spending all his free time out there too. Mike wouldn’t have done any homework at all if old spoilsport Aunt Daisy hadn’t insisted.

Well, a healthy interest in all things ranching is fine, as is all the outdoor exercise and fresh air, but a boy needs to study his books too, as I used to tell my son. To be fair, Mike is usually a very biddable child. But oh how he hero-worships Jess, and so, of course, he wanted to see every minute of the daredevil action going on in the yard.

As for Jess, he spent his usual amount of time down in the dust, cussing the “dang critters”, as he called them in my hearing, and doubtless a lot worse out of it. However, he didn’t seem to incur any major injuries and was fighting fit and raring to go when Saturday rolled around and he and Slim were preparing for their usual Saturday night out in town.

It was mid-summer and the boys were looking forward to attending the usual alfresco dance  held at a small dance floor set back from Main Street, just on the edge of town.

It was a magical spot, and although on the road into town, it was surrounded by tall pines where buggies were parked and the young folk could wander amongst the trees to obtain a little privacy. The dance floor itself boasted a bar, tables and chairs and a small dancing area all lit up by colored lanterns. It was a very romantic and popular place for the young men to take their girls

Slim and  Jess were certainly looking like young dandies and would give the boys  back east a run for their money, dressed as they were in their dark frock coats and britches, sparkling white shirts with black string ties, brocade vests, polished boots and Sunday best Stetsons.

I saw them off, brushing a speck of dust away here, and straightening a tie there and told them honestly that if I was a good twenty years younger, I’d be off dancing with them myself.

Both boys took this in good heart as usual; in fact, Slim offered me his arm and Jess suggested he hitch up the buckboard, bless them.

*****

The men rode into town, and after depositing their mounts at the livery. made straight for the saloon where they had arranged to meet their dates for the evening.

The bar was quite quiet, with most people already making their way down to the dance, save  for a few die-hard perennial drinkers who were propping up the bar in their customary positions.

Tom the barkeep gave the young cowboys a welcome smile and poured them a beer. “The girls won’t be long; just a titivatin’,” he said with a friendly grin.

Then a few minutes later, Millie and her friend Lily waltzed in from the back room, their skirts rustling and their perfume sweet and enticing and every head in the room turned to appreciate the two beautiful young women.

Millie and Jess had been friends since childhood back on the Texas panhandle, and he firmly proclaimed that she was his very best female friend; if they occasionally shared a bed, well, that was their business, wasn’t it? Neither of them was currently dating anyone else so they spent all their spare time together and were very happy with the arrangement.

However, Slim and Lily’s relationship was still in its early days, and both were treading carefully as they got to know, and increasingly like, each other. Slim, his usual cautious considerate self, and Lily, quite diffident and somewhat in awe of the tall blond rancher.

Now, as the girls arrived, Millie dressed in scarlet which enhanced her dark glossy hair and deep brown eyes, and Lily in a pale pink that did justice to her blond curls, the men stood up to duly admire them and offer a kiss to the cheek.

It was much later that night when they made their unsteady way back down Main Street after a wonderful evening drinking and cavorting around the small dance floor.

Jess had a familiar arm closely about his girl’s waist and she was giggling at some private joke, whilst Lily and Slim followed on in a slightly more sedate fashion, with Slim holding her hand and talking softly.

When they finally arrived back at the saloon where both girls lived and worked, they made their way up the back fire escape and then all crowded into Millie’s large comfortable bedsitting room for coffee.

The men divested themselves of guns and boots at the door, as per Millie’s house rules, and then wandered over to the crackling fire where the girls were already seated, having poured out the fresh aromatic coffee from a pot waiting on the hearth.

Slim sat down  on the huge old leather couch next to Lily, placing a tentative arm around her shoulders, and  Jess slumped down  in  the matching armchair, Millie perched on the arm and chattering away to her girlfriend.

After a while, the talk turned to the recent mustanging trip and Jess took great pleasure in recounting the chase for the grey stallion that Mike had christened The Ghost due to his light grey color and the way he seemed to appear from nowhere in the early morning mist that often shrouded the corral in high summer.

“The only ghost that’s going to be around is you, buddy,” said Slim suddenly serious. “That is one heck of an angry critter, Jess; number of times you’ve come off him this week, I’ve a mind to just loose him back into the wild.”

Millie looked worried at that and peered down at Jess from her perch on the arm of his chair. “Maybe Slim’s got a point, honey?”

Jess got his stubborn look on then. “Can’t do that, Slim; you know we’ve got that contract with the military and we can’t afford to mess up. We need the money, you know that.”

“Well, it sure isn’t worth breaking your neck for, buddy.”

Millie looked very concerned at that. “Oh Jess, please do be careful.”

Jess grinned up at her at that, and snaking his arm around her waist, pulled her down so she landed on his lap, giggling in spite of her worry for him. “I didn’t know you cared,” he said, his blue eyes twinkling mischievously.

“Oh yes you did,” Millie murmured before leaning in for a kiss.

When Millie was still in his passionate embrace several minutes later, Slim cast Lily a self-conscious look. “You ready to make tracks, Lily?” he whispered. “I’ll see you to your room.”

Lily giggled at that. “Well, it doesn’t look like we’re going to get any more sensible conversation out of those two tonight.” Then casting him a speculative look, she asked, “Maybe you’d like a nightcap?”

Slim’s eyes lit up at that. “You bet; let’s go.”

The couple stood up to go, but Jess was still kissing his girl, a hand now ardently caressing her back, completely heedless to his buddy’s scrutiny.

After a while, Slim kicked Jess’s leg gently and Jess’ head shot up. “Wha…?”

“How do you do that, Jess?”

“Huh?”

“How do you and Millie manage to kiss for so dang long without coming up for air?”

Two pairs of innocent eyes returned his stare. “Practice,” they said in unison, causing laughter all round.

“We’re off, buddy; see you tomorrow, and, Jess, early start, huh. As you said, we’ve got us a deadline to meet for the army, which means working Sunday, OK?”

“Aw Slim, you’re no fun.” Then Jess saw the stern look. “OK, I know; guess you’re right. See you tomorrow, pard.”

With that, Slim and Lily left.

*****

The following morning when Jess awoke, lying in Millie’s big comfortable bed, he stirred, and after a moment, gave a little groan and put a hand to his head.

Millie was instantly awake, and leaning up on her elbow, looked down into her lover’s pale face. “What’s up, honey? You sick?”

“No, just got me a crackin’ headache. Hey, I didn’t drink too much last night, did I?”

“I don’t think so; well, no more than usual,” she said thoughtfully.

Jess put an arm up across his face; the daylight streaming in through the window hurting his eyes.

After a moment Millie pulled the arm down and stared at it intently. “What’s that?” she asked after a moment.

Jess looked at his arm and was surprised to see a red rash with a bright red area to the center and then a paler ring around it, looking something like a bull’s-eye on a target. “What the…?” he said in bewilderment.

“Did you catch it falling off that darn horse?” she asked.

“No. Oh I remember now; I got a tick when I was mustanging. Must have left some of it in when I pulled it off and it’s caused the rash.”

“Yes, could be; those darn things hold on for dear life once they get a taste of your blood,” she said looking worried. “So how did you get rid of it?”

“Just got my knife under it and it came away — or so I thought,” Jess said, casting her a rueful look.

“Umm. My Pa used to swear by whiskey; pour a drop of whiskey over them and they just fall off and die happy too,” Millie finished with a little giggle.

“Well, your old Pappy swore by whiskey for most things, though, didn’t he?” said Jess with a cheeky grin.

Millie batted his chest for that, but had to agree. “Well, if you’re languishing there with a headache, cowboy, I’d better get up,” she said pulling the covers off.

“Hey, not so fast,” Jess said, laughing up at her. “It ain’t that bad; come here.” He enfolded her in his warm embrace again.

When Jess awoke, the first thing he noticed was that the  sun was now casting what looked like late afternoon light  on Millie’s wall, and the second was that he  was alone in the bed.

He sat bolt upright and then fell back down again clutching his head which was now ten times worse, plus he felt sick and ached all over.

This is one hell of a hangover, he thought to himself. Could someone have spiked his drink?

Then Millie was suddenly there. “Hey honey, how are you feeling?”

He ignored her question. “What time is it, Mill?”

“It’s nearly five.”

“What? Why didn’t you wake me? You know I’m supposed to be working today!”

She sank down on the bed and pushed his dark hair gently back from his forehead. “Well I tried to, Jess, but you just wouldn’t wake up. And then you kept mumbling you felt real sick, so I thought it was better to just let you sleep it off. There is no way you could have sat a horse today anyway.”

“Umm, maybe you’re right, sweetheart; sorry. But you try telling Slim that.”

“Well I would but he lit out soon after breakfast.”

Jess grinned at that. “You mean he stayed over with Lily?”

“Yep, and she says it’s love,” Millie said with a chuckle.

“Well thank goodness for that. He’s been drivin’ me crazy, goin’ on about that girl for weeks, wantin’ me to tell him how to get in good with her.”

“Well, you’d know all about that, wouldn’t you, cowboy, what with your track record with the ladies,” Millie said giggling, knowing what a Romeo he could be with the fairer sex.

He just grinned at that acknowledging the truth of it.

“So what did you tell him?” Millie asked curiously.

“Just to tell it like it is — be up front, tell her how he feels.”

“And that always works for you, does it?” she asked, laughter in her beautiful brown eyes.

“Well, it always works with you,” came the cheeky response.

“Why, Jess Harper, I’m definitely throwing you out of my bed now,” she said in mock outrage, grabbing hold of his arm and dragging him up.

“Aw, sweetheart, take it easy, will you? I’m dyin’ here,” he whispered, again holding his head.

“Well that’s too bad,” she said cheerfully. “You just get dressed and go on home for Daisy to fuss you and look out for your hangover. I’ve got to get ready for work.”

“You’re a hard woman, Miss Millie, has anyone ever told you that?” Jess groaned as he started to do as he was bid, but she had already bustled off to choose a dress for the evening and he was left muttering to himself.

When he returned to the ranch sometime later, he was met by an angry Slim marching out of the barn to meet him. “What the hell time do you call this, Jess?”

Jess slipped down from the saddle, a pained look in his eyes. “No need to shout,” he muttered.

“Well…huh? “

“OK, so I’m sorry, alright? I guess I slept in some.”

“Slept in some!” cried Slim. “Garl darn it, Jess; it’s nearly supper time!”

When Jess didn’t respond, Slim came over and said more quietly, “I guess we’d all like to spend the day in bed with our best girl but some of us have responsibilities, Jess — and that means you too.”

Jess gave him a weak grin. “I heard how you’d cracked it with Lily.”

Slim’s expression softened for a moment, but then he continued preaching. “We’re not talking about me. So why are you so darn late? “

Jess sighed. “If you must know, I ain’t feelin’ so good.”

“Oh, hung-over are we?” said Slim with less than a sympathetic glance, suddenly taking in the almost grey complexion and sunken lifeless eyes.

But before he could say anything, Jess made a dash for the outhouse and spent the next ten minutes chucking up.

When he finally returned, Jess said nothing; he simply led Traveler into the barn and started rubbing him down.

After a few minutes, Slim joined him. “I’m sorry, pard. If you’re feeling that bad, you go and turn in. I’ll finish off the chores. Go and sleep it off, huh?”

Jess nodded his thanks, now feeling absolutely dreadful. What in heck was wrong? He’d only had a few beers for goodness sake.

*****

As soon as Jess wandered into the house that afternoon, I had a feeling something was wrong. He looked dreadful, but God forgive me, I just thought, like Slim, that he had overindulged and was not too sympathetic, thinking he’d just brought the misery on himself.

“Off you go to bed, young man,” I said briskly, “and you’ll feel better in the morning.”

And I thought he would, I really did.

The next day he didn’t want breakfast, but he drank his coffee and seemed cheerful enough as he went off to face that dreadful Ghost, as Mike had called the mustang.

I didn’t know at the time but I was to be told later what happened over the next few days out in the yard and my heart bled for what I considered to be my middle — and to be honest — most beloved “son”.

It was a Monday morning and Jess was up on Ghost once more. If he was to be truthful, which he never would be with Slim or me, just knowing that we would fuss, he would have said he really wasn’t up to it. However, he also knew that there was no choice. They had a deadline with the Army and he knew they had to honor it or the Army would doubtless go someplace else.

That was what motivated Jess, the money that was needed to keep the business going and his family safe and supported, and that was why he pushed himself to the absolute limit.

He wandered over, and after gentling the big  grey horse with  sweet talking and sugar lumps, as he had done for the previous week, he then he hopped gently into the saddle, dreading what was going to happen when the big creature erupted yet again as Jess knew he would.

However, this time something was basically different. Jess felt terrible, his head was still aching and added to that he felt weary to the bone. Then something really strange happened and he never knew why it was, but the big horse suddenly seemed to have some sort of understanding or empathy with him.

We all knew Jess was experienced with horses. He had a real special bond with Traveler, who would bring him home if he was sick and unconscious in the saddle or merely asleep. He also had that special union with Snow Bird his quarter horse who would race her guts out for him.

But old Ghost, well, it really wasn’t gonna happen, Jess thought; he was the most ornery lump of horseflesh it had been his misfortune to come across in a long time and that was no lie.

But, strangely, that day when he hit the saddle, feeling pretty much that he didn’t give a damn whether he lived or died, that was when Ghost suddenly started to toe the line and behave himself.

Slim looked on from the sidelines, unable to believe his eyes either, as the big stallion trotted around the corral obeying pretty much all the commands Jess gave him.

After a while, Jess brought him to a halt, and then slipping down from the saddle, patted his neck before leading him over to Slim.

“So what did you do, talk him into submission?” the blond rancher laughed.

Jess just shook his head. “Dunno what’s gotten into him. He just seems to have given up the fight.”

Slim studied his buddy. “Maybe he feels sorry for you, picked up on the fact that you’re sick?”

Jess’s head shot up at that. “I’m OK, just kinda tired.” He marched off to get the next horse, with Slim watching his every move, worry in his light blue eyes.

That was to be the pattern for the whole week — Slim with a niggling feeling of concern for his buddy and Jess saying he was just fine and would Slim quit frettin’, they’d a job to do, hadn’t they?

Meanwhile, when he was in the house, I too began worrying about Jess. He was hardly eating, which is so unlike him, and he was sick a couple more times too. He just blamed it on the heat and pressure of the work as he seemed to be sitting one of those great angry beasts every hour of daylight we had, but I wasn’t so sure.

Then one day, Jess was quite brusque with me when I nagged him a little for not eating his supper.

“Daisy, will you stop fussin’ me? I just ain’t hungry right now!”

He was immediately contrite, however, and leapt up, throwing an arm around my shoulders and planting a light kiss on the top of my head. “Gee Daisy, I’m sorry; just feelin’ kinda beat that’s all, but I’d no call to holler at you that way.”

“It’s alright, dear; I understand. Go and get your head down, and you’ll feel better tomorrow.”

But he plainly didn’t and just requested a black coffee for his breakfast before going off to face those wretched horses again.

Then towards the end of the week, a miracle happened.

I was out in the yard pegging out the washing when that nice Major Adams rode in, along with a small party of troopers, and after saluting me, rode over to the corral where Jess was working on one of the green-broke mustangs.

Major Adams jumped down and walked over to Slim, offering his hand and beaming over at Jess. “This looks to be an excellent body of horseflesh,” he said casting a critical eye over Jess’s mount and the others in the large corral.

 Then Jess rode over. “They sure are, Major, but only got half of ‘em green broke. I thought it was the end of next month you wanted them by?”

“Well, it was, young man, but we’ve had a change of plan. We’ve got a new battalion of troops heading in next week, and so the CO seemed to think it would be quicker if we had a group of men working on the beasts rather than just you.”

Jess nodded knowing that probably made sense, but still none too happy about the possible financial implications.

Then the Major turned to Slim. “This will make no difference to our arrangement, I’ll still pay the asking price, broken or not; that was the deal and I am a man of my word.”

At that, both cowboys visibly brightened and the troopers started to rope up the mustangs while Major Adams wrote the very generous check.

As he turned to go, the Major shook hands with both men. “I’m personally sorry about this, Harper. I think you are probably the best horse breaker it has been my pleasure to work with, and maybe next time you will be able to break them all for me. This is just a one off, I assure you.”

Jess nodded, secretly relived as he really didn’t know how long he would have been able to keep going, feeling as nauseous and tired as he was. “I look forward to doin’ business with you next year then, Major.”

“Just so.” With a little salute, Major Adams rode out with the mustangs.

Jess watched sadly as they galloped off, and turning to Slim, said, “You know I’d got kinda attached to that ol’ Ghost in the end.”

“Well, pity you didn’t attach yourself to his saddle a bit sooner; saved yourself a whole mess of bumps and bruises!” said Slim, laughing and clapping his buddy on the back.

The following day was Saturday, and I expected the usual clamor from my boys for clean shirts and arguments as to who would shower first as they prepared for their Saturday night dates. However, Jess merely came in from the fence mending he’d been undertaking and went straight to his room, saying he was having a rest and didn’t want supper.

Slim and I exchanged a glance and he patted my arm gently. “I’ll see to him,” he said softly, before entering their shared room and closing the door quietly behind him.

Jess had taken his boots off and was lying on the bed fully clothed, just staring up at the ceiling.

“You want first shower then, Jess?”

“Nope.”

“No? Hey, I’m offering, pard. What’s wrong?”

“I ain’t goin’ to town is all.”

Slim sank down on his bed and just stared over at his friend. “Sure you are; Millie’s expecting you.”

Jess sighed deeply and closed his eyes before rolling his head on the pillow to look at his friend. “Well, you’ll just have to tell her then, won’t you.”

“She won’t like it. Hell Jess, what’s up with you anyway? Are you sulking because you didn’t get to finish the job on those mustangs?”

Jess didn’t even dignify that one with an answer. “Just tell her, will you, Slim? Say I’m real sorry and I’ll see her soon.”

“But why?”

Jess sighed again. ”I’m just tired. I’ve been workin’ my butt off on those damn critters all week, ain’t I? Now just leave it, Slim. Just give me some goddamn peace, will you?” He rolled over on his side away from his buddy and feigned sleep.

When Slim came back out a little later, he shook his head and looked worried. “I just don’t know what’s got into him, Daisy? He says he’s not going — reckons he’s too tired.”

“Well, he has been working incredibly hard this week, you know, dear. Well, since you got back from the mustanging trip, really. And he had some nasty falls too Maybe he doesn’t feel up to, well, you know…romancing the ladies, as you boys put it.”

Slim grinned at that. “I’ve never known Jess too tired for that before, but I guess there’s a first time for everything.” He wandered off for his shower.

When supper was ready, I went and listened at his door and heard Jess snoring softly, so thought it best to leave well alone, remembering how fractious he had been previously. So determined to give him a good breakfast, I left him to his own devices.

When the time came for Slim to go, he looked a bit sheepish before turning at the door, “I, er, may stay over, Daisy, if there is a good poker game. You’ll be OK?”

“Oh perfectly OK,” I said with a tiny smile. “And give Millie and Lily my love, won’t you, dear?”

Slim blushed at that, poor boy. I really shouldn’t tease him, but it’s hard to resist and I find it so amusing the way these boys seem to think I don’t know what they get up to on a Saturday night. Goodness, I was young once myself.

Well, I didn’t hear Slim return and so assumed the ‘poker game’ had enticed him and I was really pleased, as Lily is a lovely girl.

Anyway, the next morning, I went off to make a start on breakfast, but by the time it was ready and there was still no sign of Jess, I began to worry. He’s notoriously hard to get up and going in the mornings, but the smell of bacon and eggs and fresh coffee usually does the trick.

Well, I kept everything hot as Mike was staying over with a friend and so there really was no rush with it being a Sunday. However, after another half hour, I decided to go and investigate.

I tapped lightly on the door and called out, but when there was no answer, I opened the door and called again, then I pushed it open and looked into the dimly lit room, the sun just penetrating the half closed drapes.

I peered over to his bed and saw it was empty; my immediate thought was that he had changed his mind and ridden out to see his girl after all, leaving late the night before.

I smiled and shook my head. Too tired for the girls eh, I said to myself with a little chuckle before making my way over to pull the drapes back.

And then  I stopped in my tracks, the smile freezing on  my face as I looked down  to see the lifeless looking form of Jess lying face down on the floor.

I knelt down beside him and touched his naked back, which was icy cold, and then using all my strength managed to turn him onto his back and gave a little gasp of shock as I looked into his chalky white face; even his lips drained of color. I took his pulse which was weak but steady enough and then jumped up and got a pillow and blanket to cover him as he was just clad in the cut down undershorts he slept in.

I must have squatted down beside him for over an hour, just talking softly to him, but he appeared to be deeply unconscious as he had a nasty gash to his temple where he had caught it on the dresser as he fell. I cleaned it up as best I could and really wanted to get him to bed, but in spite of his lean frame he was actually very solid and impossible for me to move.

Then, finally I heard the front door bang, and I called out; a minute later, Slim’s face appeared around the door.

He took in me crouched down on the floor, and then Jess lying there looking more dead than alive and was across the room in two huge strides and hunkered down beside us.

“What on earth happened, Daisy?” Slim asked in a shocked voice.

“He must have awoken in the night for a drink or outhouse visit and collapsed. I never heard a thing, though, Slim; just found him like this about an hour ago. He must have been lying here for hours and he was terribly cold.”

“Let’s get him  into bed,” said Slim at once, and leaning down,  managed to pick Jess  up and carry him  over before resting him  gently down and pulling the  covers over.

Then Jess’s eyes finally flickered and opened and he looked around him in bewilderment, before giving a little groan and clasping his head.

“Jess, are you OK, pard? Daisy says you came a cropper on the bedroom floor; been there all night.”

“Wha…?”

“Jess, dear, are you feeling poorly?”

Jess sighed deeply. “I guess so, Ma’am.”

I sat down on the edge of his bed and clasped his hand gently.

“You’ve been bad all week, haven’t you?” said Slim suddenly. “Just too darn stubborn to say anything because of the mustanging contract?”

“I guess,” Jess whispered again.

“Just tell me, dear,” I said gently, “where does it hurt?”

Jess considered this for a moment and then gave me the ghost of a smile. “I kinda think it would be easier to tell you where it don’t hurt,” he said softly. “I ache all over, from my head down; figure I’ve got a dose of that flu maybe?”

I thought not. He had no coughing or sneezing or sore throat; in fact, no sign of a respiratory infection of any kind. No. I had a sudden feeling of dread; this was something more serious.

“Maybe, dear,” I said gently brushing his hair from his forehead and feeling it very hot and dry. Then I glanced up at Slim, trying to hide my anxiety. “I think a visit from Sam wouldn’t go amiss, though,” I said referred to Doc Sam Baker, our family physician and good friend of all at the Relay Station.

Sam and Jess were particularly good friends, sharing a passion for fishing, spending many happy hours together at the creek or ranch lake.

Slim’s eyes widened in shock, which he quickly tried to hide. “Sure, I’ll ride for him now.”

“I’m OK, Daisy; some of that disgusting medicine of yours should fix me up,” said Jess, casting me a hopeful look.

“We’ll see, dear,” I said softly. “You just get some sleep and I’ll go and make you a hot drink just now.” With that, we left him to doze.

Once we were in the kitchen, Slim turned to me as I busied myself putting the coffee pot on. “You’re real worried, aren’t you, Daisy. What do you think it is?”

“I’m not sure, dear, but he’s been vomiting on and off for a few days and then this terrible fatigue, much worse than just hard work, I can see that now. Then he seems to be getting a fever, plus the headaches and muscle pain. It could be anyone of several things. We really do need Sam’s advice.”

“Sure, I’m on my way. And Daisy…?”

“Yes, dear?”

“Try not to worry. You know old Hotshot; he always bounces back.”

I nodded, but something sent a shiver of fear down my spine. I turned back to the stove to hide the sudden tears that seemed to have sprung from nowhere.

It seemed no time at all before I heard the front door burst open and Slim and Doc Sam Baker where there.

“Goodness me, that was quick.”

“I met the doc on the road,” said Slim, smiling fondly at me. “He was just leaving the Patterson place where he’d been checking on the new baby. Good luck or what?”

Sam came over and kissed me gently on the cheek. “So what’s the boy been up to now, Daisy?” he asked with a kindly look.

I shook my head and told him all Jess’s symptoms and he immediately lost his lighthearted manner.

“I’d better take a look, my dear. Come with me, will you? I may need a hand.”

Sam examined a rather groggy Jess very thoroughly and then he picked up on the fading rash on his inner arm which I had failed to notice, such was my concern about the head wound.

“What happened here, Jess? You get bitten by a bug of some sort?”

“Er…yeah, a couple of weeks ago now. Picked up a tick while me an’ Slim were mustanging out on the mountain.”

Sam stared at it carefully before turning back to me. “I reckon this is our culprit, Daisy; looks like a nasty case of Tick Fever to me.”

I sucked in a sharp breath, knowing how serious that could be, then rallied and gave Jess a warm smile. “Well then, we know what we’re dealing with now, Jess, and we’ll have you better in no time.”

“You will?” he whispered. Then throwing me a rather disbelieving glance, he added, “I sure don’t feel like I’m gonna be better anytime soon.”

Sam grinned down at him at that. “Oh ye of little faith. We’ll get some of Daisy’s miracle elixir down you, buddy, and see how you feel then, huh?”

“I’ll feel sick,” said Jess mournfully. “Real sick. I always do after that darn stuff.”

Sam gave him a warm smile. “You know what they say: worse it tastes, more good it does you, buddy.” Then he leaned over and punched his arm gently. “You just take it easy, Jess, and I’ll be back to look in on you tomorrow.”

Then Sam gestured for me to follow him out and we joined Slim in the kitchen.

Slim had poured us all coffee and we sat around the table, well out of the earshot of our patient.

I sighed deeply, once Sam had given Slim the diagnosis. ”That can be really serious, can’t it, Doctor?”

Sam looked grave and just nodded. “Can be very serious, Daisy, and I have to say I think Jess has got a real bad dose of it. Was he rundown at all when he succumbed?”

Slim looked worried. “Yes, I guess so. He’s been working all the hours God sends recently as we had an  important contract with the military to fulfill; kept saying he was really tired. Didn’t even make it to his hot date with Millie last night.” Then his face clouded. “Gee Sam, I feel awful, making him work that way. I could tell there was something up, but he kept telling me not to fret. You know the way he is.”

“Surely I do,” said the good doctor kindly, “and believe me, I’m sure you didn’t make him do anything. Jess is his own man, and if he felt he had to work, well, then I guess nothing would stop him…not even wild horses,” he said with an ironic smile at the unintended pun.

“So what’s the cure?” asked Slim.

“There is none, I’m afraid. I guess one day they’ll develop an antidote for it, but right now, we can only treat the symptoms and hope and pray that…” Sam stopped, looking down into his coffee cup.

“Hope and pray what?” whispered Slim.

“That it doesn’t get any worse,” I said softly, taking his hand across the table and squeezing it gently.

“Worse?”

“Well, you see, the thing is,” said Sam, “we don’t know what kind of tick has bitten him. There are a few different kinds of tick-borne illnesses; some, well, some are worse than others.”

“Go on,” said Slim warily.

“Well, there is the kind that you get from ticks that have been in contact with rodents — rats usually — and that can be real nasty because you go through the illness and then as soon as you think your fine, well, the darn thing comes back. That’s called Relapsing Fever.”

Slim nodded. “Figures.”

“Then, if it was a deer tick, that’s nasty too, but you get a sore throat with that and he hasn’t yet, has he, Daisy?”

I shook my head. “No.”

“Then the one I guess you really don’t want is Rocky Mountain Fever. That can cause…” Sam sighed deeply. Well, it can cause blindness, seizures and ultimately coma, And in some cases…death.”

“And the symptoms?”

“Pretty much what he’s got now, except later, if it is that, he’ll get a nasty rash, pretty much all over after the fever stage.”

“For God’s sake, Sam, so when will we know what kind he’s contracted?”

“Well I’m afraid we just have to wait and let the illness take its course and nurse him as best we can to alleviate the symptoms. But I have to tell you, Slim, if you think he looks sick now, well, he’s going to get a lot worse before he gets better.”

“But he will…he will get better, Sam?”

The doctor sighed and again looked for the answer in the bottom of his coffee cup, before replying honestly. “Any tick-borne illness can result in death, Slim. I have to be honest with you; Jess isn’t in too good a shape to fight it right now. He’s pretty much exhausted. But having said that, he won’t give up easily and we have to make him believe he will get better, so no doom and gloom in the sickroom, OK?”

I nodded and squeezed Slim’s hand again, “We’ll get him through this, dear, if we both work together.”

Slim gave me a brave smile, then said, “What about Mike? He’ll be so upset.”

“Where is he right now?” asked Sam.

“At his pal Bobby Jackson’s house, Seeing as it’s school holidays, we let him sleep over,” I said.

“Maybe the boy could stay there a while. No need to go upsetting him until we know what we’re dealing with, huh?”

Slim nodded. “Good idea, Doc. I’ll ride over and take him some clothes, explain to Pete Jackson. He’ll help out, I’m sure.”

“Good. I know how attached that young whippersnapper is to Jess, and after the way his folks died in that Indian raid, well, I guess he’ll find it really hard to take if he knows just how sick Jess is right now.”

I stood up suddenly. “I must go to him.” Fetching the medicine bottle, I made to leave the room.

But not before Sam had thrown me one of his kindly smiles. “Just treat the symptoms, Daisy — that medicine for the muscle pain, some of your herbal mix to help him sleep and then just a case of cooling him down when the fever hits.” Then he turned to Slim. “And if you’re tending the fever, do anything to keep him cool — swab him with water as cold as you can get it, because there is a very real danger of heart failure if he overheats too much.”

“I understand, Sam,” said Slim very gravely. “We’ll do everything…” Then he stopped and just looked down, momentarily overcome with emotion.

“Sure you will,” said Sam cheerfully, squeezing his shoulder, knowing how my boy was hurting, and he rose to go. “Oh just one other thing: keep him really quiet and calm. No visitors at all, OK? I’ll ride by tomorrow see how he’s doing,” he said and left quickly, instinctively knowing we needed to be alone for a while to take this awful news on board.

As soon as I entered the room, Jess’s head rolled on the pillow so he could see me. I walked over and sank down on the edge of the bed and smiled down at the young man I had come to love as a son, a huge lump in my throat.

“This here Tick Fever, it’s kinda serious, ain’t it, Daisy?”

I swallowed hard pulling myself together. “Er, why do you say that, dear?”

He sighed and gave me an old fashioned look. “Because I guess Sam wouldn’t be visitin’ again so soon if it weren’t, and your hands wouldn’t be shakin’ that way,” he said glancing down to where I was clutching the medicine bottle to try and control the slight tremors I had experienced since Sam broke the news.

“Nothing much gets past you, does it?” I said briskly, giving him a business-like smile. Then taking his hand, I looked into those troubled blue eyes and just knew I couldn’t lie to him. “Yes, it is a nasty illness and I think you will be rather poorly for a while, dear, but Slim and I will get you through it, you know that, don’t you?”

Jess looked down to where I was still holding his hand and then up into my eyes. “I guess,” he said softly. Then giving me his shy smile, he said “Thanks, Daisy.”

He actually took the medicine then, without too much backchat, and fell asleep shortly afterwards.

I sat on for a while, still holding his hand and looking at that pale face, the sweep of his long lashed casting a shadow on the gentle curve of his cheek, the expressive eyebrows still for once and the very slender face etched with pain lines around his mouth and I guessed that, even in sleep, he was still hurting badly.

After a while, Slim wandered in, back from the Jackson ranch, and stood looking down at his sleeping buddy, his eyes sad. “I’ll sit with him for a while, Daisy.”

I glanced up at his anxious face and knew that was what he needed to do. “Alright, dear; I’ll go and prepare us a spot of lunch.”

He shook his head. “Heck, I couldn’t eat anything, Daisy.”

I threw him my best stern look at that. “You must try, dear. If you get sick, you’ll be of no use to Jess, will you?”

Slim gave me a faint smile. “I guess not.”

“Well then”, and I bustled off to prepare him a light meal, just being glad to have something useful to do.

After we’d eaten, it was decided that I would sit with Jess while Slim went about his usual jobs on the ranch that couldn’t be left, like dealing with the livestock and changing the teams when the afternoon stage pulled in.

As soon as I heard the stage pull away, Slim burst into the front room, and feeling something was wrong, I left Jess in an uneasy sleep and went out to check on Slim. I saw him looking ill at ease, pacing around the room.

“What’s the matter, dear?” I asked gently.

Slim threw himself down on the old leather couch and cast me a distressed look. “It’s that old fool Mose,” he said finally referring to our good friend and stage driver.

“Why, whatever has he done, dear?”

“Oh he’s just so dang nosey; kept asking where Jess was and then why the coffee wasn’t on. Well, I just didn’t have the heart to say anything, Daisy. And garl darn it, it would be all over town if I had. To be honest, I’m worried about Millie; she has to know, but I guess I don’t want to ride back into town right now, not with him the way he is,” Slim said, casting an anxious glance at the closed bedroom door.

“Why don’t we ask Sam to break it to her gently when we see him tomorrow? It will be easier if he tells her and explains that she can’t visit until he’s feeling better as well.”

“She’ll want to, though. Gee Daisy, she’ll be so darned upset.”

“Yes, I know, dear, and I can’t but help think it would be just the medicine he needs to get him  through, seeing his girl, but I suppose Sam knows best and we must do as he says,” I finished sadly.

Then there was a low cry from the bedroom, and all thoughts of Mose and Millie were gone as we both ran into the room, dreading what we would find.

Jess was lying on his side clutching his stomach, groaning more quietly now and sweating profusely. The second stage of the illness was proceeding as Sam had predicted, and all I could do was to offer some more of the painkilling medicine, although I knew it would do no more than just take the edge of the terrible stomach cramps he was now suffering.

Slim helped to sit him up whilst I administered another dose, before he gently laid Jess back down and then mopped some of the sweat from his brow.

“I’m sorry, for makin’ work for you, Daisy,” jess whispered, now beginning to shiver uncontrollably.

Slim and I exchanged a worried glance. Jess was ornery when he was ill; he cussed and moaned and was a general nightmare, but he never apologized for being a nuisance and we suddenly realized how sick he was.

We both stayed with him for a while, wrapping him warmly in blankets when he started shivering and then sponging him down when he was burning up, and all the time he was clutching his stomach, the pain making him cuss, but softly under his breath in deference to my presence, I noted, bless him.

Slim stayed with him all night and said he had improved a little, and so both my boys managed to get some sleep. Then, the following morning, I sat with him doing some mending while Slim went off to do the chores around the ranch.

His temperature was again quite high and he had fallen into a very restless sleep when he suddenly started crying out. At first I thought he was in pain, but as I watched him, it was obvious he was having one of those terrible nightmares that he suffered from time to time, reliving the horrendous house fire of his youth when his family had perished.

I had occasionally been woken in the early hours by Jess screaming in terror this way, and the first time it happened, I had tapped on the door and offered to help, but Slim said he knew what to do and would deal with his buddy and kindly waved me away.

The following morning, Slim had taken me on one side and said how Jess got sort of embarrassed about his yelling out and waking folk in the night, so it was better just to say nothing.

“He is alright, though?”

“Oh yeah. Sometimes he even completely forgets about it by morning and it doesn’t happen often, Daisy. Just if he’s upset or sick. I’m really sorry you were disturbed.”

“Goodness me, dear, there is no need to be sorry. I am your housekeeper and would like to think a friend too. All I want is for you boys to be well and happy, and at least Mike can sleep through a hurricane,” I had finished chuckling.

Then Slim had patted my hand, and smiling into my eyes, said, “Heck Miss Daisy, we sure were lucky to find you.”

All that had been several years ago, shortly after I had arrived, and now here I was experiencing the full horror of one of Jess’s nightmares at first hand.

His head rolled around on the pillow and he was muttering,” No, please God, no…”

Then he suddenly became terribly agitated screaming, “Let me go, goddamn it, let me go. I gotta get ‘em out.” He seemed to be struggling with someone, and I just sat there transfixed, not knowing what to do.

I had heard that it was bad for a person to be awakened during this sort of night terror, but then again, I couldn’t bear to see him this way, screaming and moaning.

Then he suddenly sat bolt upright in the bed, his eyes open wide in panic and he yelled “Ma…!”

I put out a tentative hand to his arm. “Jess.” I said very gently. “It’s alright; just a bad dream.”

He turned vacant eyes on me. “Ma?”

“No, dear, it’s Daisy. You just had a bad dream. It’s all over; just lie down.” I very gently pushed him back onto the pillows.

He stared up at the ceiling and then around the room, looking dazed and terrified, his breath coming in painful gasps, before focusing on me properly. He had tears in his deep blue eyes, and after a moment, he said, “Daisy? “

I patted his hand; “It’s alright, dear; all over now.”

He gave a deep shuddering sigh and wiped his hand across his eyes. “Sorry ‘bout that.”

“Jess, dear, you have nothing to be sorry for; you just a bad dream that’s all.”

Then I remembered one of my patients back in  the hospital I worked in during the war who was similarly afflicted and how one of the wise old doctors had said, “Try and get him  to talk it through, Nurse Cooper.; it sometimes helps to set these fears out, face them in the cold light of  day, you know?”

Now I brushed Jess’s hair back from his forehead sticky with sweat and said kindly, “Would it help to tell me about it, Jess?”

His head rolled on the pillow and he cast me a shocked look. “Hel…er…heck no, Daisy. I guess you wouldn’t wanna hear about that.”

“I would if you want to tell me,” I said, bracing myself for what I knew would be a terribly distressing disclosure.”

He sighed deeply and then started to speak, his deep voice full of pain. “It was just about the fire. I get this dream where I’m trapped inside and then I finally get out and I can breathe again, the air so cold and fresh. Then I smell the smoke, see the flames shootin’ out through the roof and then I hear it — the little ones screaming and screaming, ‘Jess, Jess’ and I try…”

He swallowed deeply turning desperate eyes on me. “I try so goddamn hard to get back in to them, but folk are holding me back and I struggle and then I see through the window my ma…my ma’s face and she screaming’ an’ screaming’. And then it all goes black and I wake up.”

“Oh you poor boy,” I whispered.

“But you know, Daisy…the worst thing?”

I just looked at him and give him an encouraging nod, unable to speak now because of the huge lump in my throat.

“The worst thing is it’s so goddamn real, because that is exactly the way it happened…and I’m never gonna be able to forget it,” he finished softly. “I couldn’t save ‘em, Daisy…and I should have done it. I was the big brother; it was my job to keep the young ‘uns safe.”

I held his hand for a long time, gathering my thoughts and trying to calm myself before replying.

“Jess, my dear, you were a child yourself, and nobody could have gone back into that fire and survived. You would have perished too, and that is what those good folk that restrained you knew. Don’t you think one of those adults would have gone in if it was humanly possible?”

He turned his troubled eyes on me then. “Yeah, maybe,” he admitted.

“And one other thing. All your family are now safe in the arms of the Lord. You do believe that, don’t you, Jess?”

There was a long pause and then he turned his candid gaze upon me. “Yeah, I guess I do. It’s just their passin’, Daisy; it was so hard, you know. Just little kids; they didn’t deserve to die that way. “

I nodded. There was nothing more to say. He was right, of course.

Shortly after that, he fell asleep again and I sat on, watching his chest rise and fall, thinking about what had just transpired. Another piece in the jigsaw that made up the life story of this incredibly complex boy of mine, because I did think of him as my son; in fact, all of them were now kin to me.

Slim, the oldest — wise and kind and a born worrier.

Jess, the difficult middle child, so full of contradictions, occasionally so vulnerable behind that tough ex-gunslinger exterior.

Then little Mike, the baby of the family, but old for his years after experiencing the terrible demise of his parents at the hands of some Indians. Maybe that was why he and Jess had such a strong bond, I thought fleetingly, both of them having to grow up quickly after tragedy had struck their young lives.

I knew all about the terrible poverty Jess had been born into, as he once revealed that the first time he owned a pair of boots of his own was when he had enlisted in the Army. He had just bought himself a new pair of Sunday-best boots when he told me that, as he sat by the fire place proudly polishing them.

“But what did you wear before that dear?” I had said in surprise.

“Well my big brother’s old ‘uns in the winter, bare foot in summer,” Jess said without a hint of self-pity, just accepting his lot. Then he had given me his cheeky grin when he saw the look of shock on my face. “A kid only knows what he lives, I guess; I didn’t ever know anything different so it didn’t bother me.”

As I looked down at his sleeping face, I thought, “But other things did bother you, didn’t they?” Over the years I had collected little snippets of his past, gradually putting them all together to form a picture of this precious young man’s life.

It had bothered him that his Pa drank away much of the pittance he managed to earn as a share farmer, leaving Jess and his older brother the job of scavenging to put food on the table.

 I remember Mike had been watching him gut a deer he had shot once, fascinated to hear about how Jess had learned to shoot so well.

“How old were you when you learnt to hunt?” the then eight-year-old had asked.

Jess had thought on it, and then said,” About your age, Tiger, maybe a mite younger.”

“Gee, that young?” asked the child in awe.

 Then Jess had turned to him with sad eyes and said, “Well it was kinda a necessity in our house, if we wanted to eat, and bein’ hungry sure makes you a good shot.”

 Mike had recounted that to me later, and whereas the boy thought it wonderful, I was deeply saddened.

I had also gleaned that his Pa was violent, often hitting Jess’s Ma and then Jess would intervene and get a good lathering for that too.

Then I remembered back to that time when my dear niece, in a time of deep trouble, had left her baby on our doorstep for me to care for, until she could reclaim her. At the time, we didn’t know who the baby belonged to, but Jess took to caring for her like a natural, feeding her and even changing her diapers.

When I asked him about it, he just shrugged and said, “I came from a big family, didn’t I? Had to pitch in and help my Ma with the babies now and then.”

It was when the baby was under threat of being sent to a children’s home that he really opened up to me one day, however, and told me how, when his Ma was sick, his Pa had sent him and his two sisters and baby brother to a children’s home, saying he couldn’t cope with all the children. Then, how they had been dreadfully mistreated there.

“So what did you do?” I had asked almost in tears at the tale he had told me.

“I sprung us, didn’t I,” he had said with his cheeky grin. “Got out one night and we walked the twenty miles home, me carrying my little brother most of the way, but heck, Daisy we weren’t stayin’ there. They were cruel…real cruel.”

He had only been ten years old.

 I really had cried then and he was so sorry he had inadvertently upset me. “Heck, it was a long time ago,” he had said softly. “Don’t fret.”

No wonder the poor boy was in such anguish at losing those siblings. Goodness, he had practically brought them up, and for them to die that way, and for him to witness it all, well, I just couldn’t imagine what that would do to a person, and again I was amazed by his resilience and strength of character.

*****

Meanwhile, out in the barn, Slim was grooming Traveler. He didn’t really need it; Jess kept the horse in tip-top condition, and Traveler had hardly raised a sweat these last few days since Jess had been sick, but he knew his buddy thoroughly groomed him daily. So he did the same, talking gently to the bay just as Jess always did, the gentle rhythm calming his jangled nerves a little.

What would he do if anything happened to his buddy? Hell, it seemed like the ornery cuss had always been around, with his wicked sense of humor and practical jokes. The trouble he always seemed to land in, but also bringing along his firm loyalty and friendship. Hell, Jess could be difficult, bunking off fishing or romancing the ladies, wouldn’t get up of a morning and had a temper on him  only marginally slower than his  fast draw. But he was his best friend, and Slim just couldn’t countenance a world without him.

Then Slim shook his head in bewilderment. How could something so tiny, so darned insignificant as a tick cause all the heartache and misery.

He remembered that moment just a couple of weeks ago. They had camped the night on the mountainside in an idyllic spot above the river, hoping that their quarry, the wild mustangs, would pass that way to drink, as they had done so just a little later that morning.

He’d got the coffee on, knowing the pungent aroma would wake his buddy up, and sure enough, Jess had emerged yawning and scratching from his bedroll. Jess, wandering over to the fire, had hunkered down next to him and then let out an expletive.

“What’s up, Hotshot? Got ants in your pants?”

Jess had rolled his sleeve back exposing an engorged tick on the inside of his forearm. “No, a darned tick,” he had growled, “and the damn things bleedin’ me dry.”

Slim had laughed at that and told him he was a baby.

Jess had cussed again and flipped it off with his hunting knife and then gone down to the river to wash up, saying he’d clean the little puncture wound out in the cool water.

“Hey Jess, you want to get some Red Eye on that; tick bites can turn nasty.”

Jess had just waved a hand as he walked off. “Ain’t wastin’ good whiskey on this tiny thing; it’ll be fine,” he called over his shoulder as he marched off.

“Why oh why hadn’t I insisted,” Slim said now, leaning his aching head on Traveler’s shoulder.

“Talking to yourself now are you, Slim?”

Slim spun round to see Sam smiling across at him.

“So how’s the patient?”

Slim put the brushes down and came out of the stall. “About the same, I guess; managed to sleep some in the night. Daisy’s watching him right now.”

“Yes, I’d expected him to have a few ups and downs. I reckon the crisis will come in a day or two — a real high temperature and then he may be fine after that, or it could reoccur a few times. Hard to tell.”

“And if it’s the Rocky Mountain type?”

Sam sighed deeply. ”Let’s not cross that bridge until we come to it eh?” He turned to walk to the house.

“Sam, just a minute. There is something else,” said Slim pulling him back. “Millie needs to be told before word gets around. Do you think…”

“You want me to tell her? Why sure, no problem.” Then he sighed again. “She sure will be upset, though; those two are so darn close, aren’t they?”

Slim nodded. “Beats me as to why they don’t just up and get married. Everyone can see they’re perfect together.”

Sam just nodded, “Well that’s none of our business, but I’ll certainly talk to Millie.” With that, both men entered the house.

*****

Sam tapped lightly on the door and entered. He took in my tired worried countenance and Jess’s sleeping form. “So how is our patient, Daisy?” he asked softly.

I threw him a small smile. “Too well behaved, a sign he really is feeling poorly, Sam.”

“Umm, I’d better take a look.” The doctor leaned over Jess. “Hey buddy, you going to wake up for me?”

After a moment, Jess’s lashes flickered and his deep blue eyes opened a crack “Sam, what’re you doin’ here it’s the middle of the night, for goodness sake.”

Sam turned and winked at me. “That’s a good sign; his ornery side is showing again.” Then he turned back to his friend. “Nope, it’s not, Jess; mid-morning. So how are you feeling then, buddy? Up for a fishing trip yet? “

Jess just shook his head and then clutched it in agony. “Guess not.”

“OK, so let’s take a look at you,” said Sam easily. He checked Jess’ temperature and listened to his chest, but it was when he started checking Jess’ vital organs that I worried. I saw Sam feeling around his liver and spleen and then a worried look flicker across his features, one I knew well.

Once the examination was over, Sam exchanged more banter with Jess before leaving him to rest.

Slim was looking worried, even for him, and as soon as we emerged from the bedroom he said “Well, Sam?”

Doc Sam gestured for us to go to the kitchen and then looked at us for a full minute before responding to Slim’s question.

“Well the news isn’t good; he has a swollen liver and spleen, which could indicate Mountain Fever.”

Slim gave a groan and looked stricken.

“But it could also just be a bad case of your run of the mill tick fever. He will be sick for a while — well real sick — and have recurrences of the disease for sure, but the outcome is better…usually,”

“So you still aren’t sure of the type of disease,” I said, trying to draw the doctor out as we needed the truth.

“It really is too early to say, Daisy,” the doctor said honestly. “It could go either way, but I am worried about his enlarged liver and he’s in a lot of pain with that severe headache. I think I’ll leave you some stronger pain killer, Daisy; try and keep him sedated until the worst of the symptoms ease and watch out for the crises. That’s the really disturbing part of the illness; he makes it through that, well then…”

Slim looked devastated and then said, “So what are you saying, Sam? Are we going to lose him or what?”

Just then the back door flew open and Mike dashed in. “Lose who, Slim? What’s going on?”

We all turned shocked eyes on him, but before we could answer, a very anxious looking Pete Jackson followed him in. “Gee, I’m sorry to have to bring the boy back folks,” he said looking concerned, “but you see, it’s my Jenny. Looks like the baby is coming early, doc, and we really could use your help. Figured it was no place for a young ‘un,” he finished with a rueful smile.

“Why certainly,” said Sam at once. “You get back to her, Pete, and I’ll be right behind you as soon as I’m finished here.”

Pete nodded his thanks and ruffled Mike’s hair. “The boy’s been good as gold. Must visit again sometime,” he said vaguely before rushing back to his wife.

“What’s going on?” said Mike again once his friend’s Pa had gone. “And where’s Jess?” he asked looking fearful.

Slim and Daisy exchanged a glance before Slim marched over and slung an arm around the boy. “Jess is kinda sick right now, Mike, and I need you to be real brave and help me out with his chores until he’s well enough to pitch in again. Do you think you can do that for him?”

The boy nodded. “Sure. Can I see him?”

“No, dear, he’s asleep right now,” I said kindly. “Maybe later.”

Mike just nodded at that, but I could see he was feeling very upset and frightened.

“Look Mike, can you go and finish off grooming Traveler? I’d just made a start when Doc Sam arrived,” said Slim, giving the youngster an encouraging smile.

The boy’s face suddenly lit up at that. “Sure I will, and then I can tell Jess how swell Trav looks later, when I see him.” With that, he ran off looking much happier.

Sam smiled after the boy and then shook his head sadly, “Try and keep the youngster out of the sickroom if you can, not just because Jess needs the rest, but for the boy’s sake too. I think he’ll be really upset to see Jess the way he is right now.”

However the good doctor was not acquainted with Mike’s tenacious streak.

Slim and I sat him down later that day and explained how the doctor said we were to keep Jess very quiet and he’d be doing a lot of sleeping and  the best thing he could do was help Slim out by doing some of Jess’s chores.

“But I won’t make a noise,” said the child persistently. “I just wanna see him for myself. I’ll be quiet as a mouse, really I will.”

“Maybe later, dear. Why don’t you come and help me make a pie? You know how Mose always wants some and you can peel the apples for me.”

“OK Aunt Daisy,” Mike said with a huge sigh and followed me off into the kitchen.

 Later that day, I was in  the yard pegging out  the washing, Jess sweating so profusely necessitating  a clean  set of bedding on a regular basis, and Slim was dealing with the stage.

Jess was in a deep drug induced sleep as earlier on he’d been practically crying with the pain in his head. He didn’t say much, but from the firm line of his mouth and the way his eyes were squeezed tightly shut, I knew he was pretty near the edge.

“Is it your head, dear?” I whispered.

He opened his eyes a crack. “Feels like it’s gonna explode, Daisy,” he said softly.

“Doc Sam has left some stronger painkiller,” I said and gently lifting his head had administered a good dose. He had been resting ever since.

Now seizing his moment, Mike slipped from his room where he had been playing with Bandit, his raccoon, and after giving the yard a furtive glance and seeing all the adults busy, he made for Jess’ room.

He wandered quietly in, leaving the  door open a little for a hasty getaway should the others return, and made his way over to the bedside and  peered  down at his hero.

The room was dimly lit, but enough light filtered through the thin drapes for Mike to easily see the patient and what he saw made the youngster’s blood run cold.

Jess was lying deathly still, stripped to the waist, his ribs showing clearly as he had lost a tremendous amount of weight in just a few short days, but it was the stillness of his hero that really frightened the boy.

Jess seemed not to be breathing, and his pale face was completely motionless, almost as though he was made of stone. The child had a flash back to seeing his own dead father’s face with this similar stillness, and when he had reached out and touched him, he had been cold as marble.

Mike was suddenly galvanized into action, and grabbing hold of Jess’ shoulders, he started shaking him and shouting, “Wake up, Jess, wake up!”

All the commotion brought Slim and I rushing in, and we stood in horror for a moment, watching the boy with tears streaming down his face as he finally turned and saw us and cried, “He’s dead! Jess is dead!”

I ran over and looked down at the deeply comatose patient, and on checking his pulse, turned back to my youngest boy. Pulling him close, I said, “No, he isn’t, Mike; just sleeping. I gave him some special strong medicine, that’s all.”

However, the child was not convinced and  It was Slim  who gently took the boy’s hand and led  him  over to his deeply sleeping buddy and encouraged him  to put his ear to Jess’s chest. Once he heard the heartbeat, Mike relaxed and gave us a watery smile.

“Come on now, Mike, leave him to rest and you can see him as soon as he’s feeling better, OK?” said Slim kindly.

However, that was not to be for another few days, and those days were some of the darkest I have known, having to sit and watch my boy such a bad way and yet trying desperately not to show my fears for Mike’s sake.

It was towards the end of the week when the crisis finally came.

It was in the early hours of Saturday morning when Slim knocked at my door, and on getting no response, came in and gently shook me awake.

“Daisy, Daisy… wake up. It’s Jess. Can you come!”

I was up in a trice, and throwing on my dressing gown, followed him into their room, stopping in my tracks for a moment as I saw Jess pouring in sweat and quite delirious, throwing himself around in the bed and cussing loudly.

“I’m sorry,” said Slim turning anguished eyes on me. “I’ve been trying to cool him  down  some,  but it’s like trying to work on a moving target the way he’s been thrashing about and  I figure it will need the both of us.”

“Yes, of course,” I said briskly, pulling myself together. “You go and draw some fresh water from the well, dear; that will be good and cold. I’ll try and make him more comfortable.”

Well, I never want to have to go through a night like that again, I can tell you, and I imagine Slim and Jess were feeling the same.

Jess was amazingly strong, considering his weakened muscles after lying in bed for the best part of a week and barely eating. It took all Slim’s strength to try and restrain him whilst I drenched him  with ice cold water, leaving soaking wet, clean rags on his torso and forehead before they became warm and I removed them and replaced them with fresh cold ones.

Even though Slim did his best to restrain him, Jess still managed to send the night stand flying across the room and nearly fell out of bed at one stage.

All this seemed to last for hours but later I realized it was only half an hour or so until it was over almost as quickly as it had begun, and  those deep blue eyes opened and stared at me, now looking clear and  healthy.

“Say, what are you doin’ in here, Daisy? it’s real late, ain’t it?” Then he looked down at his chest covered in soaking rags. Turning a bewildered look at his buddy, he said, “Hey Slim, I’m all wet. What are you doin’, tryin’ to make me catch my death? I’m freezin’!”

Slim and I exchanged an amused look, before I started drying him off. “Just cooling you off a little, Jess. So how are you feeling now, dear?”

“OK, kinda sleepy.” With that, he fell into a light dose.

Slim and I just looked down at him, Slim with a protective arm slung around my shoulders and then he leaned down and kissed the top of my head tenderly. “Thanks, Daisy; I couldn’t have managed without you.”

I smiled up at him, although I had tears in my eyes. “He’s back, Slim” I said softly, “I think every things going to be alright.”

It was the following morning as I was pottering around in the kitchen, lighting the cook stove, when a very concerned looking Slim wandered in.

“Why Slim dear, whatever is the matter? “

“I think you need to come and look at him, Daisy.”

I followed him in and stared in shock; Jess’s whole torso was covered in a red rash.

I gave a little gasp, my hands flying to my mouth. What had Sam said was “If it’s Rocky Mountain Fever, he’ll get a bad rash after the crisis.”

Slim and I exchanged a horrified look, and then before we could do or say anything, there was a knocking at  the front door and Slim rushed to answer it, returning a moment later  with Doc Sam.

“I was called out to the Jackson’s new baby,” Sam said, smiling across at me. Anyway the little tyke is fine and so seeing as I was about bright and early, I figured I’d beg a coffee and check on my favorite patient,” he said with his charming grin.

Then he looked down at Jess’s sleeping form and the smile froze. “Oh dear,” Sam whispered.

The doctor put his bag down and sat gently on the edge of the bed, pulling the covers back and surveying the pink rash. Then he listened to Jess’ chest and examined the vital organs of liver and spleen again, before glancing up at me and grinning.

I must have looked shocked and I whispered, “The rash… Sam, isn’t that what we feared — a rash after the crisis?”

He shook his head. “No, it’s OK, look.” As we watched, the rash started to fade.

“It’s just a heat rash. Has he been covered with a heavy blanket, Slim?”

“Why, yes. After we cooled him with the icy water, he started moaning he was cold so I covered him over before I fell asleep,” replied Slim looking puzzled.

“Well that’s it then. It was a very mild night and he’s had this thick blanket on. Just irritated his skin some. No, Daisy, he’s just fine now. Well, until the next time, that is.”

“Next time?” asked Slim looking concerned.

“Yep. I’m afraid it looks pretty much like he’s got Relapsing Tick Fever and it will reoccur again, maybe several times before he is, hopefully, completely cured.”

“Hopefully?” asked Slim, looking even more anxious.

“Well, there are odd occasions when people seem to suffer on and off for months, even years, and the liver, even the brain, can become infected. But Jess is young and healthy. I’m sure it won’t come to that,” he finished throwing us both a cheery smile. “So, how about that coffee?”

They were chatting softly in the kitchen and Sam had just accepted an invitation for breakfast when they were suddenly aware that Mike was standing watching them, his little face pale and drawn and his eyes red rimmed from crying.

“Hey Mike, what’s up?” asked Slim, looking concerned at the youngster’s appearance.

“What’s the doc doin’ here so early?” asked the child, throwing Sam an anxious look.

“Well I’ve just been checking on your friend Bobby’s new sister. son; her folks were a mite worried about her, but she’s just fine.”

Mike shook his head. “You’re lying,” he cried, fat tears suddenly running down his cheeks. “You’ve come to see Jess because he died in the night. I know he did!”

Slim stood up and strode over to the boy, hunkering down beside him and holding him close before pulling back and peering at the youngster. “Hey, that’s no way to talk to Doc Sam, Mike,” he said gently. “And what on earth makes you think that anyway?”

“I heard Aunt Daisy and Doc Sam talking the other day, and he said that Jess could die if his temperature got too high. Said it could stop his heart and how he’d have to be nursed real careful. Then last night I heard you both rushin’ around with the cold water and all, and Jess yellin’ and crashing about and then it all went real quiet and he was dead. And I was too scared to come and see. And now Doc Sam’s here and he always goes and sees folk when they die and writes a certificate out. I know ‘cos that’s what he did when Billy’s grand pappy died. Billy told me all about it,” he finally finished, having run out of breath. He started crying pitifully again.

“Mike dear, calm down,” I said softly. “Come with me. You can see Jess, but blow your nose and wipe your eyes first, dear. He won’t want to see you so upset, will he?”

The child did as I asked, and after some sniffing and, much to my chagrin, wiping his nose on his sleeve, which I let go this once, he finally accompanied me to the bedroom.

I was pleased to see Jess sitting up in bed looking alert but somewhat troubled. “Hey Tiger, what’re you creatin’ about?” he asked throwing the child an anxious look.

Mike’s face was a picture — his eyes shocked and just staring and then his whole face broke into a huge grin. “Jess! Oh Jess, you ain’t dead,” he yelled, half laughing and half crying, and then leaping up on the bed, he hurled himself into Jess’s open arms.

“Well sure I ain’t, Tiger; leastways, not last time I looked. So what’s all this about, huh?”

“I dunno. I heard you yellin’ and cussin’ in the night, and then it all went real quiet and I heard the doc telling aunt Daisy how sick you were an all…and…” Mike trailed to a standstill.

“Well I’m just fine now, Tiger.” Then turning to me, Jess said, “So any breakfast going then, Ma’am?” with his cheeky grin.

Jess ate a good breakfast with Mike still cuddled up to him  in the bed, eating one handed, the other around the child, instinctively knowing that the youngster needed that closeness to reassure him that all was well.

Then when I went back in a while later to collect the  breakfast tray, it was on the nightstand and Jess was laying down fast asleep, one arm still holding the boy protectively, his little blond head on Jess’s chest, out for the  count too, exhausted from crying half the night I thought.

I gently pulled the coverlet over them and tiptoed out. The picture of the youngster, his little blond head resting on the dark haired young cowboy’s chest, lying there so peacefully, after the traumas of the previous night, would stay with me forever. My prayers had been answered; my boy was back.

*****

I had hoped that would be an end to it all. My dear Jess was on the mend and he appeared to bounce back so quickly it seemed impossible that he could be stricken down again, even though Sam assured me that was the nature of the Tick Fever.

It was a few days later and Jess was up and about, insisting on doing a few light jobs around the yard. However Slim, ever the worrier, had made they were light duties and Jess had had to content himself with mending harness in the barn.

Sam had come over to check him out and was in the kitchen having a coffee with me whilst Mike had run off to find Jess.

“You and Slim really are going to have to keep him on a tight rein,” Sam said, smiling down at me.

I just nodded, thinking what a challenge that would be in no mistake.

“I know he probably feels fine now,  but it could strike again at any time over the next week or two, and he will be just as sick, and with all the same risks at the crisis stage. I’m sorry, Daisy, but you all have to face it.”

Just then, the door banged open and Jess strode in looking the picture of health. “Hey, have you come fishin’, buddy?” he asked, his eyes twinkling.

“Nope; come to check you out and make sure you’re not overdoing it.”

“Aw Sam, stop your fussin’; you’re worse than Daisy,” Jess said, winking at me, “I’m just fine now.”

Sam sighed and inclined his head towards the bedroom door. “Get in there, will you, Jess. I need to check you out and have some plain talking too, I reckon,” he said softly as they left.

*****

Once in the room, Sam asked Jess to remove his shirt and lay on the bed. Jess grudgingly did as he was asked, before Sam checked him out thoroughly.

It was a good five minutes later before Sam straightened up from  listening to Jess’ chest and feeling around his liver and even taking his temperature.

“So, do I pass muster?” asked Jess, throwing him an amused glance as he started buttoning up his shirt.

Sam sank down on Slim’s bed and threw his buddy a candid look. Then after a while he said, “I figure it’s kind of hard for you to get your head around this, Jess, but you could — no probably will — be really sick again and quite soon too.”

Jess’s head shot up at that. “How so?”

“Well, I reckon you were too sick to take it all in before, but you have a specific kind of Tick Fever. Called Relapsing Tick fever, which means, I’m sorry to say, buddy, that you’re going to have a relapse and be quite poorly again.”

Jess went quite pale at the thought. “Are you sure?” he said eventually.

“As sure as I can be, yes.”

“So when?”

“Difficult to say, buddy; a week, 10 days maybe.”

“And I’m gonna be just as sick? Risk heart failure and everything again?”

Sam just nodded, looking down not wanting to see the pain in his good friend’s eyes.

“And if I get through that?”

Sam sighed deeply. “Could — probably will — happen again. Could go on like this for up to half a dozen times, but hopefully it won’t come to that. Probably just two or three before you’re clear of it all.”

Jess looked down for a long time without speaking.

“Well, say something,” said Sam after a while.

Jess just shook his head. “I can’t stay here. Ain’t fair to them…any of them.”

“Jess?”

“Hear me out, Sam. Daisy, well, she’s a real swell nurse, but she’s getting on in years and I sure don’t wanna hurt her.”

“Hurt her?”

“Yep. Slim said how violent I was the other night when I was out of it with the fever. I sent the night stand flying. Hell that could have been Miss Daisy.”

Sam just shook his head, but said nothing.

“Then, as to old Slim, he don’t need this nursin’ an invalid half the night and then tryin’ to run this place single handed all day. You’ve seen him, Sam; I reckon I’m in better shape than he is and I’m the one that’s been sick.”

Sam gave him his kindly smile. “He wanted to look after you, Jess; they both did and still do. Will do until you’re completely better. That’s what friends are for.”

Jess just shook his head, that stubborn look Sam knew so well in his eyes. “And what about Mike? Don’t you think that poor kid’s been  through enough without spending all his time wonderin’ if I’m gonna make it through the night or not? Or end up six foot under like his Pa?

“Jess, please listen to me.”

“No!”

Jess got up and stared at his friend before saying, “No, I’m out of here Sam. Tell ‘em…tell ‘em I’ll be in touch.” With that, he ran out of the room, and a moment later Sam heard the front door slam. He knew when his buddy was this way, there was nothing anyone could do until he calmed down some.

*****

I was in the kitchen fixing some coffee for Sam and Jess when I heard raised voices and then the front door slam. A few minutes later, Jess took off on Traveler like the very Devil was after him.

Sam emerged from the bedroom with a rueful look on his face. “Well, that didn’t go down too well,” he said, looking harassed.

I passed him the coffee cup and he sat down by the fire and I settled on the other chair. “So what was all that about, Sam, and where has he gone?”

“Well, like I said, I explained that he’d be getting sick again really soon and he got kind of distressed.”

“Poor boy; he has suffered with this, I know,” I said softly.

“Oh it’s not that,” Sam said, throwing me an anxious look. “This is all about you and Slim and the boy.”

“Me?” I squeaked. “What do you mean?”

Sam sighed then and gave me his kindly smile. “It seems he’s got it in his head that it’s too much for you all.” Then he went on to explain exactly what Jess had said to him.

I tutted about the idea of him lashing out at me by mistake. “Goodness, Sam; I’m an experienced nurse. I’ve dealt with far worse than Jess.” But then I looked thoughtful.

It was true that Slim had taken the affair very seriously, insisting on  sitting up most nights caring for his buddy and then  doing all his work the following day. I knew that couldn’t continue indefinitely or I’d have two sick young men to care for. Also, not only was he physically wearing himself out but mentally too. He  watched Jess like a hawk, looking for any sign of the illness returning and  it was only the fact that  he knew Sam was visiting today that he had gone off to do some fence mending over on the North pasture, the first time he’d left the ranch yard since Jess’s illness.

Then, as to young Mike, I had seen such a change in him these last few weeks. He’d begun to have that pinched haunted look about him that he occasionally got in the early days after the Indian massacre that had killed his folks, and he had suffered a return of the night terrors he had been prone to in the past as well.

I explained all this to Sam. “But even so, we can all cope, Sam. We need to and want to care for him…you know that.”

I didn’t need to explain that the  charming, maddening , difficult…very special young  man was as much a son to me  as my own dear boy had been, and  Slim and Mike like brothers. So Sam knew that we all wanted the boy home so we could care for him, whatever the cost to ourselves.

He just leaned over and took my hand. “Sure I do. But maybe Jess doesn’t realize it. Anyway, I think he’s going to take some convincing.”

Just then we heard someone riding fast into the yard, and a moment later, Slim strode in beaming down at the doctor. “So how’s the patient then, Sam?”

When we explained that he’d ridden out, Slim was all for following him, but Sam restrained him. “It won’t do any good, Slim, not the way he is right now. Got it in his head you’d be better off without him and his illness, and you know how darn stubborn he can be once he gets an idea in his head.”

“Don’t I just. So where was he heading?”

“Town is my bet. He’ll hole up there until he’s fit again and can, as he says, ‘pull his weight around the place again’, I imagine.”

“That’s just crazy,” said Slim. “I’m going to bring him home.”

“Why not let me have a word with him first?” said the doctor cajolingly. Then looking from me to Slim and back, he said gently, “And you know, it might not be a bad thing if he does stay in town. I can keep an eye on him, look out for him if…well, when he succumbs again.”

“I don’t know, doc. He should be here with his family,” said Slim, looking worried.

“Look, Slim, just trust me on this one. I’ll talk to him and get a message back to you later today, huh?”

After a minute Slim cast troubled eyes on me. “What do you think Daisy? “

I just nodded. “Let’s wait and see what Sam can do.”

*****

Jess rode into Laramie later that day, and leaving Traveler at the livery, made his way down to the saloon. Pushing his way in through the batwing doors, he stood for a moment as his eyes adjusted to the dim light before marching in and ordering a beer from old Tom, the barkeep.

“Hey, good to have you back, Jess. Millie was saying you’ve been real sick; she’s been frettin’. Well, until she got your message from Doc Sam, that is, saying you were on the mend.”

Jess took a pull at his beer. “Yep, I’m fine Tom. So is Millie about?”

“Upstairs in her room. It’s her day off, but go on up if you’ve a mind to, son. Know she’ll be real pleased to see you. “

Jess grinned at his old friend, and tipping the beer down in one, called his thanks before running lightly up the stairs, and paused before knocking on Millie’s door.

When she dragged it open and saw him standing there, Millie let out a little cry of pleasure. “Oh Jess, you’ve come. I wasn’t expecting you this week. Are you sure you’re OK to ride?”

“Sure, sure, I’m fine, sweetheart. Just wanted to see you.”

“Me too, Oh Jess.” She pulled him into the room and then into her warm embrace.

After a while, Millie pulled back, looking up into his deep blue eyes and running a finger down his cheek. “You’ve lost weight and you still look kinda peaky. I’m surprised Miss Daisy let you out of her sight?” she said with a questioning smile.

“Like I said, I’m fine. Wow quit your frettin’ and come here,” Jess said, pulling her close and kissing her passionately.

*****

When Jess awoke in her big bed much later, the sun was setting, filling her room with its rosy glow.

He rolled over and glanced down at her still-sleeping form, and after a moment, awoke her with a gentle kiss.

Millie stretched and yawned and then threw him a lazy smile. “It sure is good to see you, Jess,” she whispered. “So how long can Slim spare you for?”

“Oh, I figure he can manage for a while,” he said, looking uncomfortable.

“A while? Aren’t you busy then?”

Jess smiling down at her. “Not so much, so he can spare me for a little while, I guess. See, I’m kinda convalescing; figured I’d stay at the hotel and spend some time with you too.”

Millie raised an eyebrow at that. “Shouldn’t you be doing this convalescing back at the ranch with Miss Daisy riding shotgun on you?”

“Hey, anyone would think you didn’t want me around,” Jess said, casting her hurt look and making to get up.

She leaned up at that, and grabbing his hand, pulled him back down on the bed and threw him a smoldering look. “You know that’s not true. So if you want to see me, why stay in the hotel?”

He was silent for a moment and then said, “Ol’ Tom might not be too keen. He turns a blind eye to the odd night, but a week or so… Well, I don’t wanna get you in trouble.” Jess secretly thought that if he did get sick, then he would try and hide it from Millie.

She cast him a puzzled look at that, but just nodded. “Maybe you’re right.”

“So would you like to go dancin’ tonight if it’s your day off an all?”

Her face lit up at that. “Why sure, honey. Just have to get in the hot tub and pretty myself up some. Will you be OK here?”

“Sure, sure I will. Got some business to attend to, anyways.”

With that, she went off to get ready for their date.

Once she had gone, Jess searched the room for paper, pencil and an envelope, and after writing a hasty note, strode out of the room and down to the stage office.

Mose was up on the box already and just about to pull out of town. “Hey, you’re cutting it a bit fine if you want a lift home, Jess,” he said, giving his friend a toothless grin. “Wanna ride up here with me?”

Jess just shook his head. “Not headin’ back right now, Mose. Can you give this letter to Slim for me? “

The old timer looked puzzled. “What, you’re staying in town? Thought you’d been real sick. Shouldn’t you be resting or something and what are you writing to him for? Kind of strange, ain’t it?”

Jess sighed deeply. “Just do it, will you, Mose?”

“Sure I’ll do it. Was just sayin’ is all. No need to get your britches in a ruck, boy.”

Jess smiled at that. “Thanks, Mose, and tell ‘em…”

“Yeah?”

“Oh nuthin’. See you around.” Jess wandered off towards the doc’s house.

Mose scratched his head and urged the team off at speed. “Darn youngsters,” he muttered. “Always a frettin’ about somethin’ or other.”

Jess rapped on the door, and after a minute, young Carrie, the doctor’s daughter and nurse, answered it and stared at Jess in surprise. “What are you doing here?” she asked. “I thought you were sick.”

Jess shook his head, suppressing a sigh. “Not you too.”

“Huh?”

“Oh nuthin’, sweetheart. So is your Pa in?”

“Sure, come in. Coffee?”

“Er…no thanks.”

“Are you OK, Jess?”

“Yep, sure. Just need a quiet word with your Pa, you know?”

“Oh, I see. Well, you won’t be disturbed. Go on through,” she said with a friendly grin.

Jess tapped on the door and walked into Sam’s office.

“Ah, so the Prodigal returns,” said Sam, smiling at him and gesturing to the vacant chair opposite his desk.

Jess returned the smile and tipped his hat back. “Sorry about this morning, Sam.”

“Well I reckon it’s not me you should be apologizing to; it’s those good folk back at the ranch.”

Jess dipped his head. “Yeah, well, I explained about that this morning and anyways I’ve written to ‘em.”

The doctor just nodded at that, knowing he was on a hiding to nothing trying to change his buddy’s mind. This was Jess, after all, and stubborn as an old mule. “So what can I do for you?”

“Well, I guess I shouldn’t ask but when…if I get sick again, can I stay here? I mean, I’ll pay the goin’ rate an’ all, but I can’t put Millie through it and you know my feelings about the others.”

“So does Millie know you’re going to be really sick again then?”

“Nope, I haven’t told her and I don’t aim to either.”

“And why not, Jess?”

Jess jumped up from his chair and thrust his hands into his pockets before pacing moodily about the room. “Because she don’t need to be worrin’ about it, in case it don’t happen.”

Sam shook his head at that. “She should be put in the picture, buddy, in case you collapse or something.”

“Hell Sam, I ain’t about to go collapsin’ all over the shop. Now are you gonna help me or what?”

“OK, simmer down, Jess. Of course I am. If you start feeling bad just come over, and Carrie and I will see you right, you know that.”

Jess nodded, and leaning over the desk, shook his friend’s hand. “Thanks, Sam; I appreciate it. And let’s hope it don’t come to that anyways huh?”

*****

The following day, Doc Sam went out to do a routine check on baby Jackson and afterwards decided to call in on the Sherman ranch.

Slim came out of the barn and threw the harness he was mending down when he saw who was there. Clapping Sam on the back, he invited him in for coffee.

I bustled in with the pot a few minutes later and we settled around the table.

“I just thought I’d pop in and let you know Jess is OK. Came to see me yesterday asked if I’d look out for him if he got sick again.”

I clasped her hands together. “Oh thank goodness. So you will be able to do that, Sam?”

“Oh sure, Daisy, that’s no problem. In fact, he’ll probably be in the best place, as I’ve all the medication to hand and everything, not to mention Carrie to help me nurse him.”

“So how did he look?” I asked, still feeling worried.

“Just fine, Daisy. In fact, he took Millie out to the dance at the hotel. Carrie saw them. She said Jess wasn’t dancing too much, but they were together and looked happy enough.”

“Oh I’m glad; that’s just what he needs — some time with sweet little Millie. She’s so good for him,” I said, smiling happily now.

“Oh, she’s got his number alright,” laughed Sam. “She’ll keep him in order.”

“Umm, well, I guess someone needs to,” said Slim wryly.

“Anyway, I just wanted to put you in the picture. He’s booked himself into the hotel and he’s asked the eldest Jackson boy to help you out.”

“Oh we know,” said Slim giving Sam a weary look. “He wrote us yesterday.”

“He did?”

“Yeah.” Slim took the note from his vest pocket and pushed it across the table to Sam.

 Slim, I’m real sorry I lit out that way without saying nuthin but I figure I ain’t going to let you  and Daisy have all the worry and hard work of carin for me if this dang fever comes back so I’m staying in town for a while. I’ve sent a message to young Davy Jackson to help you out some until I get back, Slim, and I won’t be drawin my wages so that should cover it. Tell Daisy and Mike I’m just fine and not to go frettin and I’ll see you all soon. Jess.

Sam grinned. “His writing doesn’t get any better, does it?”

Slim gave him the ghost of a smile. “Nope.”

After a while, Sam said his goodbyes with a promise to keep us informed and to rest assured him and Carrie would nurse Jess if he did indeed get sick again.

After he’d gone, I looked very thoughtful. “You know, Slim, maybe this is for the best. God knows I’m worried to death about the boy and I’d rather nurse him myself, but well, I think it’s better for Mike. Maybe we could just tell him a white lie; say Jess has got business in town? “

“Good idea, Daisy,” said Slim, looking weary.

“It will be better for you too, dear; you look exhausted.”

“Oh, I’m OK, Daisy, but I figure I’ll really appreciate young Davy’s help. He’s a good kid and if…”

“What, dear? “

Slim sighed deeply before continuing and casting me a sad look. “Well, if Jess is ill long term, I’m going to need help bringing the beasts down to the low pastures and fixing everything up for winter.”

“Well, let’s hope it doesn’t come to that, Slim, and he comes home soon.”

“I’ll second that,” he said, leaning over and patting my hand fondly, before getting back to work.

After Doc Sam had left, I tidied up the kitchen and went about the task of preparing a pie for supper before going out to my little kitchen garden at the back of the house. This is where I grow a small selection of vegetables and herbs and have the odd flower bed too. Mostly, I like to potter around with my thoughts at the odd times in the week when I have a little leisure time, which is usually quite rare, I might say.

Now, however, for once, I seemed to have too much time on my hands with Jess away and young Mike spending the days over at the Jackson ranch with his friend again. Young Davy Jackson, Billy’s older brother, would prove to be a real help around the place, and although I knew Slim was missing his pard badly, at least he had some welcome help with the work.

As I weeded the garden, I let my thoughts drift off to my boys.

Firstly, Jess, who was uppermost in my mind, worried as I was by the probability of him being laid low again. I knew how much he hated being sick, whether it be from a severe beating or a gunfight. However, it was illness he feared and hated most, being unable to see the cause, nor knowing what the outcome would be. Currently, I imagined he was just waiting for the ailment to strike again, as it could at any time, with dread in his heart.

I remembered back to just the previous week when he had thought I was his Ma after waking from that terrible nightmare, and I knew he thought of me as such in many ways, just as much as I viewed him as a son and had done these last few years, each one making all my boys more dear to me.

That got me to thinking about this complex young man who had come to mean so much to me. The way he was sometimes so diffident and at others almost crass, but always he was sensitive to my feelings and those of Slim and Mike.

The black humor of the boy and the odd witty comment, the deep gravelly voice teasing Slim mercilessly for his sometimes staid ways, all so familiar to me.

Then the sudden bursts of laughter and roughhousing as the two young men threw the odd punch in jest, or rolled around in the dust wrestling, banging about the place, and so reminding me of my own dear son and his friends, and the next minute all rivalry forgotten and they were best buddies again.

Then there was the other side to him, the dark side where all the terrible memories lived, thrown up only occasionally in a nightmare or spat of temper, and oh  what a formidable sight the Harper temper was — but only revealed now  when he was truly up against it. An old adversary appearing or his family and friends threatened, these were the kind of things that ignited his anger these days. But then he would be back from whatever crusade he had been on — helping a friend or the Sheriff — and all anger and angst forgotten as he resumed his place as an important part of what I thought of now, as our family at the Sherman Ranch.

I longed to have news of him and wondered if Slim would be riding into town later in the week.

Then my thoughts turned to the tall blond rancher that I thought of as my eldest son and I felt a wave of pity for him, knowing how upset he had been by the events of the last few weeks, with Jess’s illness causing him so much worry. But then I remembered him saying to me once, “Well, if you’re friends with Jess, worry is kinda part of the deal,” and I knew exactly what he meant.

Oh, Slim was so dear to me as well. So honest and caring, always casting me a glance at the end of a busy day and a soft, “Are you alright, Miss Daisy? Not too tired?”

Goodness, it had taken me so long to get him to call me plain Daisy. I swear if you cut that boy in two you would see good manners and respect written all the way through him. His Ma certainly did a good job on him — and young Andy too, I always thought on the odd occasion Andy had visited from college.

Yes, dear Slim is, in many ways, different to Jess, although I will say Jess too is very well mannered and respectful in front of me, even if it is a mite harder for him to achieve. How often has hell been turned into heck and damn into dang with a quick duck of the head and an “excuse me, Daisy”, bless him.

But Slim is every Ma’s dream of the perfect son, I imagine. As well as good manners, respect and honesty, he is also hard working and extremely caring. What more could a Ma want? I so hoped his dear Mother was looking down from Heaven and seeing what a good job she had done on her dear boy.

Then finally to little Mike, the youngest of my surrogate sons. A typical ten year old now, he is strong, healthy and, most importantly, happy. Oh yes, this latest business with Jess had set him back a little. I knew in my heart that that was one of the main reasons Jess had moved out. He really didn’t want Mike to see him that way again and be as upset as he had been when Jess was so poorly a while back, and the youngster had believed he was actually dead.

Then I was dragged out of my reverie by that young scoundrel suddenly appearing from nowhere and saying cheerfully, “Hey, Aunt Daisy, is supper nearly ready?”

But that was tempered a little later, as he tucked into his pudding, with “So what do you think Jess is having for supper tonight?”

After much conjecture, it was decided that he would most likely be enjoying a steak at Miss Molly’s café, if he had the chance, followed by apple pie and was definitely enjoying it, but also missing his family.

Then much discussion ensued as to how Jess was feeling and, most importantly as far as young Mike was concerned, when was he coming home.

Anyway, Slim did a sterling job in fielding all young Mike’s curiosity and we eventually got him off to bed, although with much regret as he had to retire yet again without one of Jess’s special stories.

After Mike was sleeping peacefully, Slim and I finally settled down by the fire with our coffee.

“So do you think he’s OK?” I asked, and we both instinctively knew I didn’t mean Mike.

Slim sighed deeply. “I hope so, Daisy. I guess he’ll be with Millie and she’ll look out for him; those two always have been that way. So I figure we’ve no cause to worry if she’s around and doc Sam and Carrie too. He’ll be just fine, don’t fret.”

“I can’t help it,” I said honestly, before giving him a motherly peck on the cheek and turning in.

However, I didn’t sleep well and it was in the small hours of the morning that I awoke feeling terribly anxious. Something was wrong with Jess…I just knew it.

At first light, I was up rattling the cook stove and Slim was up soon after and it wasn’t long before I opened my heart to him.

“Slim, I know you will think I’m crazy, but I am really worried about Jess. I just have a gut feeling that all isn’t well. Could you ride in today?”

He gave me a surprised look. “I guess so. It’s Saturday tomorrow and I was thinking on calling in on Jess when I took Miss Lily out, but I can go today, if you think I should.”

I just peered at him and knew what was in my heart. “Yes, I think you should.”

*****

At about the time the others were sitting around the supper table discussing what Jess was up to, he was slumped up against the saloon bar, sipping a glass of lemonade and feeling kinda sorry for himself.

He has awoken early that morning in Millie’s large comfortable bed as he had been persuaded to give the hotel a miss, for the moment anyway. He had finally been convinced when Tom had winked at him and taking him aside said quietly, “You stay as long as you like, son; kinda nice me to have another man about the place to chat to. I guess all these girls get a mite tryin’ at times.”

“They do?” asked Jess, looking amazed and wondering if he would ever reach the great age when a whole mess of pretty women around the place became “a mite tryin’’ and he surely hoped not.

Anyway, he had woken up in Millie’s arms after their night out dancing, and the first thing he registered was that he was in his lover’s bed and her curvaceous warm body was wrapped around him. The second thing he registered was that his head ached, he felt sick as a dog and hurt all over.

He tried to forget it, told himself he’d just overindulged a tad the night before, but a doom laden voice in  his head said, ‘this is it, Harper; you’re sick again. Get your sorry ass over the road to the doc’s place’.

When Millie awoke, she took one look at him and said, “Jess, are you OK? You look awful.”

“I’m fine, sweetheart,” he had replied, and dragging himself up, went off to make them some coffee, with Millie watching his every move and knowing instinctively that all wasn’t well. But then they had pushed the boat out some last night, drinking a tad too much maybe, and  she felt slightly fragile herself, so shrugging, she got up and went to make him some breakfast.

Later that day, Millie had been working and Jess had taken himself off to the livery to tend to Traveler. Then he gave old Bert a hand with a lively young horse he had been trying to school and the work took his mind of his bad head for an hour or two. But then later that afternoon, it got worse and he threw up and knew in his heart that the illness was back, just as Sam had predicted.

Even so, he still didn’t want to go and stay in the hospital room at Sam’s place. Just one more night with my girl, he told himself, and then I’ll go and get checked out by Sam.

So there he was, sipping lemonade in the saloon in an attempt to ward of the rising nausea he was feeling and wondering where on earth Millie had taken off to. Then Tom said, somewhat acerbically, that she should have been on the evening shift a good half hour ago and the last he saw she was off chatting to one of her girlfriends, so Jess relaxed a little.

Then his attention was taken by the Perkins. Carl and his younger brother Jake were propping up the end of the bar and looking daggers at him.

Carl and Jake had worked at the ranch for a couple of weeks last summer and were nothing but trouble. Carl turning up to work the worse for wear most days and Jake being a liability, losing tools and messing up jobs that Jess had to do all over again, nearly driving him crazy.

However, it was when Slim caught them stealing several bags of feed and his best bridle that he fired them on the spot and said he’d make sure they didn’t work around the area again. This had set up something of a vendetta between the bothers and the partners at the ranch, culminating in a fist fight in the saloon. Jess had decked the pair of them for slandering Slim and they had sworn retribution ever since.

Now they looked over at Jess and started goading him.

“I hear you’ve been sick, Harper,” said Carl conversationally. “Sure hope it weren’t nuthin’ trivial.”

Jess swallowed hard as a wave of nausea threatening to overcome him, and just ignored the comment.

Then Carl turned to his brother and said loudly, “Hey Jake, ol’ Jess there don’t look none too well. You’ve gone kinda pale. Feelin’ a mite sick, are you, Harper?”

That was when Jess had, had enough. “Guess I’ll turn in, Tom; see tomorrow.” He made his way slowly up the stairs, again ignoring the taunts coming from the Perkin brothers.

After he had gone, Carl turned to his kid brother an evil glint in his eyes. “Hey Jake, I guess this might be just the thing we’ve been lookin’ for to get us out of this dump.”

“Huh?”

“Come over here,” Carl said gesturing to a table in the corner. “Guess we’ve got us some plans to make…and quick too.”

Meanwhile, Millie was sitting on Carrie’s bed over at Doc Sam’s house, deep in conversation with her friend. It had been a chance meeting over at the haberdashers with Carrie casually asking after Jess that had provoked the meeting.

“So no sign of a relapse then?”

Millie had looked surprised. “No… at least I think not. Why should he have one? He’s over all that now isn’t he?”

Carrie’s head shot up and she looked surprised. “He hasn’t told you then?”

“Told me what?” Millie asked, looking anxious.

When Carrie just looked down and bit her lip, Millie looked even more worried. “Carrie, what is it? You’re frightening me now.”

“I’m not allowed to say. You know how strict Pa is about me discussing our patients.”

“Heck Carrie, this isn’t just some patient; this is Jess, the man we know and love. Now come on tell me!”

That is when they had decamped to the privacy of Carrie’s room. “I can’t discuss a patient,” she said again, “but if you were to say anything to me about…well anyone, I could sort of say if you should be worried or not.”

They exchanged a little smile at that.

“OK, well, he didn’t look too well this morning — pale and… oh, I don’t know, not himself, but he said he was fine so I let it go. Haven’t seen him all day. I’ve been working and he took himself off to the livery to help Bert out.”

Carrie sighed. “You see, Mill, the Tick Fever he’s had is called Relapsing Fever, and nine times out of ten that’s just what happens — the patient has a bad relapse and needs careful nursing.”

Millie’s head shot up at that. “That’s why he’s here isn’t it? To be near to Sam so he can care for him?”

Carrie just nodded, and then said, “I can’t discuss individual patients, of course.”

Millie almost giggled at that, save for her worry. “And so he will be just as sick as before?”

Carrie just nodded again.

Millie looked fearful at that. “This is bad. Can it be, well…fatal?”

“Some patients do have heart failure during the final crisis of the illness, yes.”

Millie’s head shot up and she looked horror-stricken, a hand shooting up to her mouth.

Carrie at once threw a comforting arm around her friend. “But if the patient gets careful nursing, that won’t happen.”

“I should get him over here, shouldn’t I?”

Carrie nodded. “Talk to him tonight. He should be OK for a day or so, but if you really think he’s bad, come over and I’ll send Pa round. He’ll sort him out,” she said with a friendly smile.

“Thanks, Carrie, and you didn’t tell me anything,” Millie said. She gave her friend an impulsive hug before running back to the saloon.

When Millie walked behind the bar, Tom gave her an irritated look. “About time, young lady. I’m on my own here, you know. It’s Lily’s night off and Ginny’s turned in sick.”

“Sorry, Tom.” Ten Millie scanned the bar. “So where’s Jess?”

“Huh? Oh, he said he wasn’t feeling too good, gone up for an early night and…”

“Won’t be a mo.” Millie dashed off up the stairs.

Tom rolled his eyes. “Now where’s she a goin’?”

Millie went and tapped on Lily’s door, and after a few minutes her friend pulled it open, her hair up in a toweling turban and dressed in an old dressing gown. “Hey, honey, thought you were on tonight?”

“I am. Should be, that is. Lily, I know it’s asking a lot, but can you cover for me?”

“Aw, Mill, I’ve just gotten out of the tub and going to have an early night.”

“Please, Lily, I really wouldn’t ask, but Jess is sick again and I really need to look out for him.”

Lily looked concerned. “Oh, yeah. I heard him chucking up earlier.” She looked hesitant.

“Please, Lily, I’ll lend you my new blue dress for your next date with Slim,” Millie said cajolingly.

Lily sighed and then gave her friend a weary smile. “OK, you’ve got a deal.” She went off to get changed.

Millie entered her room quietly and tiptoed over to the bed.

There was a lamp on the night stand and she could see Jess was lying in the bed, his torso naked and one arm flung across his eyes, but after a moment or two. he seemed to sense her presence and he turned to look at her. “Mill? What time is it?”

She sat down on the edge of the bed. “Still early, but I’ve got Lily to cover for me.” Then she brushed his wavy hair from his forehead, noting it was hot and his eyes looked unnaturally bright. “You’re ill again, aren’t you?” she said softly.

He flicked a glance at her than looked away, wondering whether to lie or not.

“Jess?”

“Yeah, I reckon I am. Doc said it may come back — that dang fever I had.”

“I know.”

“You know? “

“I’ve been talking to Carrie. Why didn’t you tell me sooner? “

He sighed deeply. “I dunno. I thought maybe if I ignored it, well, it would just go away.”

She shook her head. “But it won’t and I’m scared, Jess, real scared. You’ve got to see Sam tomorrow, promise me… please!”

He nodded. “Yeah, sure I will. But I just wanted…”

“What, honey?” she asked gently.

“I guess I just wanted one more night with you.” Then Jess looked embarrassed. “I guess I ain’t up too much right  now, feelin’ kinda bad, but I just wanted to hold you, be close you know?”

She took his hand and held it to her lips, kissing it, before looking down into his troubled blue eyes, “Sure,” she said softly, “I understand and that’s what I want too.” With that, she went off to get ready for bed.

It was in the small hours of the morning when Millie was awakened by someone tapping lightly on her door.

She turned to look at Jess, but he  was  deeply sleep and so she carefully got up, and turning the night light up a tad, made her way to the door, where the tapping was getting more insistent.

“Who is it?” Millie whispered.

After a moment, a harsh whisper came back. “It’s me, Millie. Slim. I was kind of worried about my pard. Let me in, will you?”

Millie immediately pulled the door back, a welcoming smile on her face, but then it froze as a rough hand shot out and grabbed her, and she felt the cold steel of a gun to her temple.

“Don’t scream and just do as I say and you won’t get your brains blown out,” said someone harshly, the smell of stale whisky making her gag. Then she was pushed back into the room and the door was closed behind her.

At the sound of the door closing, Jess was suddenly awake, and taking in the circumstances, leapt out of bed.

“Hold it right there, Harper,” said Carl Perkins aiming his colt at Jess’s head. “In case you ain’t noticed, your woman’s got a gun to her head and young Jake there spooks real easy. So if you don’t want it to go off, do just as I say.”

“Let her go, Perkins,” Jess growled, taking a step forwards.

Jake cocked the hammer. “Back off, Harper, or by God I’ll finish her.”

Jess immediately backed off.

“Good, good,” said Carl in a taunting voice. “Now you and me are goin’ for a ride, Harper, so git your pants and shirt on.”

Jess did as he was asked.

“OK, now turn around.”

Jess just stared at him. “Don’t hurt the girl.”

“I said turn around, Harper!”

Jess reluctantly did as he was told, and then Jake put a filthy gag in Millie’s mouth and she started to struggle.

Jess immediately swung around and saw her struggling with Jake and the next thing he knew he was pistil whipped and everything went black.

Once Jess was out cold, both men gagged the still struggling Millie and then  tied her arms and  legs and threw her unceremoniously on the  bed before turning their attentions to Jess.

They bound and gagged him tightly too, and then Carl advanced on the bed and pulled Millie up and stared hard into her terrified eyes. “Shame we ain’t got longer, honey, or I’d show you how a real man does it,” he said with a lecherous grin.

“Just get on with it,” snapped Jake, “or you’ll have Harper coming around, and sick or not, I sure don’t wanna have to tangle with him when he sees what we’ve done to his woman.”

“OK, stop your frettin’, kid,” Carl spat. Then turning back to Millie, he threw an envelope at her.

“That’s for Sherman, nobody else. You tell the law and your boyfriend is dead meat, you understand?”

Millie nodded furiously.

“Good, that’s real good. Now anyone asks, it was dark, you didn’t see anything, you’ve got that?”

She nodded again.

Then both men pulled Jess up, and supporting him, half-dragged and half-carried him from the room and down the fire escape, the way they had come in.

*****

Slim decided to attend to the early morning stage before riding into town to check on his buddy, and as Mose rattled into the yard scattering the chickens, Slim  sent young Davy off for the fresh  team before preparing to exchange some banter with his old friend.

However Mose seemed in no mood for their usual mental sparring and looked serious.

“Hey Mose, what’s up? Lost a month’s pay on the poker table again?”

“No I ain’t and that was just a vicious rumor anyways, started by that no good partner of yours,” Mose said, but without rancor.

Slim chuckled at that. “Ok, so who’s ruffled your feathers then, Mose?”

The old timer hopped down from the box and looked up at the tall rancher. “Well, it ain’t my feathers as have been ruffled; it’s ol’ Bert at the livery. He was mad as a wet hen this morning when I went to fetch the team.”

“Oh really?”

“Yep. Seems he’s had his old buckskin mare stolen and that’s not all. Them Perkins brothers had their horses stabled there best part of the week and  lit  out sometime late last night without payin’ their bill and takin’ that ol’ buckskin with ‘em too is my bet.”

“Um, so has Mort been told?”

“Oh yeah,  I guess so, but figure our Sheriff’s got bigger fish to fry than  chasin’ half  way across the territory  after an old flea-bitten nag.”

Slim grinned at that. “I guess she was getting on in years but Bert was mighty fond of her.”

“Yep. Anyways, if you’re all done,” Mose said, casting young Davy a grin, “I’ll be on my way.”

Slim checked the harness that Davy had just attended to and gave the boy a pat on the shoulder. “That’s swell, thanks, Davy.” Then he turned his attention back to Mose, who was now seated back on the box ready for the off.

“So, have you seen Jess recently?”

“Yeah, he was holdin’ up the bar last night. Well, from the look of him, I reckon it was the bar holdin’ him up,” Mose said, giving Slim a concerned glance. “The boy didn’t look none too well, drinking lemonade, for goodness sake. Yep, he  didn’t look himself, Slim.” With that, he urged the team out of the yard and up the rise.

As soon as Mose had gone, Slim saddled up Alamo and rode out at speed.

When he reached town, Slim tethered his mount up outside the saloon and marched into the dimly lit bar.

After a moment, Tom emerged from his bedroom at the back of the saloon calling out, “We ain’t opened yet, Mister.” However, as soon as he saw Slim, he was all smiles “Why howdy, Slim, how are you doin’?”

“Good thanks, Tom. I know it’s kind of early, but I just wondered if my partner was around?”

“Yep, he’s up with Millie.” Then throwing Slim a worried look, Tom added “And I don’t think he’s too good either, Slim; on  the lemonade last night and then  I heard him moving about in the middle of the  night, chucking up, I guess,  I hope he’s not ill again.”

“Um, me too,” said Slim softly.

“Go on up,” said Tom gesturing to the stairs, “Millie will be up by now; in fact, she’s late on duty,” he said casting the large clock over the bar a baleful look “Gone nine already.”

“Thanks, Tom.” Slim ran up the stairs two at a time and then knocked lightly on Millie’s door.

When there was no reply, Slim knocked more loudly and called out, “Hey Jess, get your ornery butt out here, pard.” When there was still no reply he started to worry and banged more loudly and this time he heard a faint groan, followed by a louder muffled noise, like someone in pain or hurt.

Slim suddenly knew that something was very wrong, and kicking the door lock hard, it burst open revealing the dimly lit room. He strode in and was met by an even louder muffled cry, and looking over  at the  bed, was horrified to see Millie lying there bound  and gagged.

Slim ran over and quickly untied her before pulling her into a sitting position a comforting arm slung around her. “Hell Millie, who did this to you?”

She just shook her head too overcome to speak.

Then Slim cast a glance around the room and it finally settled on Jess’s hat and gunbelt still hanging on the hook by the door. He turned back to Millie and touched her cheek gently so that she looked at him, her eyes brimming with tears. “Millie, honey, where is Jess?”

She just shook her head and then started crying uncontrollably. Slim just had to try and stay patient as he held her close gently, patting her back and whispering words of comfort.

After a few minutes, Millie pulled herself together and swallowing deeply explained to Slim exactly what had occurred the previous night. Then looking around the disheveled bedding, she finally found the envelope. “They left this for you, Slim, and said you mustn’t tell Mort, or anyone, or…/.or they’d kill him.”

Slim turned pale at that and ripped the letter open.

Sherman, Leave $1,000 in notes under the tall pine at Wild Horse Bluff at sunset today, and you will find out how to get your partner back. Involve Cory or anyone else and he’s dead.

Slim crumpled the note in his hands, looking at once furious and deeply shocked.

“What are you going to do? “

“What they say, of course. I’ll take the money, but I’ll have Mort as back up.”

“Slim, they’ll kill him! “

“No, no they won’t, Millie, I won’t let anything happen to him, I promise. Mort will stay way back until it’s safe. So Millie, last night how was he?”

She shook her head. “Sick, Slim. The fever had come back. We just wanted one last night together and he was going to visit the doc today.” Then she dipped her head in her hands. “Oh God, this is all my fault. I should have made him go as soon as he started feeling bad.”

“No, no, it’s not, Millie; you mustn’t blame yourself. When were either of us ever able to make Jess do something he didn’t want to? The stubborn ornery fool,” Slim whispered, but said affectionately.

The rest of the day was spent in a whirlwind of seeing the bank manager to withdraw the cash and Mort to make plans.

The Sheriff was deeply perturbed at Slim’s news, having a lot of time for the young ex gunslinger come rancher. Hell, how many times had Jess acted as deputy for him? There was no other man alive he’d rather have watching his back when he was in trouble than Jess Harper, that was for sure.

“I think we need to play this real carefully, Slim,” Mort said now, his brows knotted as he considered the problem, his careworn face troubled. “The way I figure it, one of the brothers will be holed up outside town to check you’re not bringing the law with you. So I figure I’ll take a couple of men and ride out heading  East, away from  Wild Horse Bluff, and  we’ll ride on down as far as Dead Man’s Gully. They’ll have to pass through that way if they’re heading for the Texas border, which I guess they will be, or at least the mountains to lie low for a spell. So me and the boys will pick ‘em up there.”

“Then  I’ll wait until late  afternoon,  head out to the  Bluff alone with the money and just hope and pray they keep their side of the bargain,” said Slim  bitterly.

“Put that way, it sounds kinda risky. I guess there is nothing stopping them from just gunning you down and hightailing it with the cash,” said Mort, looking deeply concerned.

“Yep, but I guess they won’t. You see, the Perkins brothers hate my guts for firing them and they’re no-good lazy scum, that’s for sure, but gunning a man down in cold blood? Nope, I don’t reckon they’d do that.”

“Um, well, let’s hope you’re right, buddy,” said the Sheriff anxiously.

*****

As the afternoon finally came to a close, Slim mounted Alamo and headed out towards Wild Horse Bluff about three miles north of the Laramie road.

He knew that Mort and a couple of posse members had already struck out for Dead Man’s Gully, in the hope of picking up the Perkins, not to mention Slim and Jess’s $1,000 sometime the following day.

As he rode out, Slim had the feeling that he was being watched, but tried to ignore it and headed off at speed, his bag of cash looped onto his saddle horn and his heart beating overtime. All he wanted was to get his pard back safe and sound, although he thought that it was becoming less likely as the hours drifted on, and he knew Jess would be getting more and more sick with the fever.

Hell, he’d been bad enough with Slim and Daisy to look after him, but stuck out in the countryside someplace and left alone? It was only a matter of time before the illness took him and that was the truth of it. Slim shook his head to try and free it of the horrific images there and kneed Alamo on to a faster gallop.

Once he made it to the bluff, Slim ground-hitched his mount and walked the last few hundred yards. When he reached the spot, he threw the money sack down — and then he spotted it: an envelope under a stone at the base of one of the huge pines.

He ripped it open and read the contents before tearing down the hill and jumping back on his mount, kicking him on to a gallop as he made his way back to town.

After ten minutes or so, he was suddenly aware of another rider, and reining in, he waited for Lon Deacon, Mort Corey’s Deputy, to catch up with him.

“Hell Lon, what are you doing here? I thought you’d ridden out with Mort?”

The presentable young man tipped his hat back and grinned over at his friend. “Well, I guess that’s what he wanted you to think, but the boss was kinda worried about you riding out here alone, so I’ve been tailing you.”

Slim looked shocked. “And what if the Perkins had spotted you? “

“Take it easy, Slim they didn’t see hide nor hair of me, just like you didn’t. I stayed way back, but watched the area with my field glasses. One of ‘em was off in the bushes just above you, waited until you rode off and then headed East with the money, just the way Mort figured it.”

Slim nodded and then said. “We’ve got to get back to town before nightfall. This note says we’re to look in Traveler’s stall to find out where Jess is.”

The two men rode off at speed.

It was almost dark by the time they arrived in town and they went directly to the livery.

Old Bert greeted them, but when Slim said there was a message in Traveler’s stall as to Jess’s whereabouts, the old timer threw them an old-fashioned look. “Well, you’re welcome to look, gentlemen, but I cleaned that stall out myself just this morning and there certainly weren’t any clues as to where young Jess had been taken to.”

Lon and Slim advanced on the stall, and after moving Traveler to another one, checked the area inch by inch. But nothing.

“Garl darn it, we’ve been duped,” spat Slim.

Lon looked around the stall one final time and then his eye alighted on Jess’s saddle lodged on a stand just adjacent to the stall. Wandering over, he picked it up and a piece of paper fluttered to the ground.

All three men gathered around as Lon passed it to Slim to read, just two words: “Lake cave.”

“They must mean the old cave above our lake,” said Slim, his eyes sparkling at the thought of getting his buddy back at last. He made to mount his horse again, but Lon stopped him.

“Hey pal, you’re not thinking of riding that trail tonight in the pitch dark, are you? The best as could happen is old Alamo there would bust a leg; worst, you’d come a cropper and break your neck. Come on, Slim; show some sense.”

Slim looked down and sighed deeply. “You’re right, of course, but at first light, huh, Lon?”

“Sure, at first light, buddy.”

*****

Meanwhile, Jess was lying in the cave above the lake, although he wasn’t aware of that right then as he was blessedly out cold again.

He had been carried unconscious out of the saloon and down to the livery, being totally unaware of what was going on. Then  he  had come to about a mile out of town and figured he was on the  back of Bert’s well-loved buckskin and his first thought was, ‘gee, ol’ Bert sure is gonna be  mad about this’.

Then his second thought was who in hell has done this and why am I gagged and lyin’ across the saddle like a sack of old potatoes? His hands and feet were tightly bound and he was tied to the saddle by more ropes. He fleetingly though it was a good job or he would have hit the dirt long since as the big horse galloped through the moonlit night.

By the time they finally arrived at the cave and he was manhandled off the horse, he was feeling well and truly mad, his eyes burning with fury as he recognized the Perkins brothers.

Jake removed the gag and started taunting Jess. “Well Harper, I reckon that’s the longest I’ve ever heard you speechless,” he chuckled.

“What in hell are you playin’ at?” spat Jess furiously.

Then Carl strode over and threw a vicious backhander, sending Jess crashing to the floor, cussing loudly as he desperately tried to free himself from the tightly restraining ropes still binding his hands and feet and only succeeding in pulling them tighter.

“Shut it, Harper. There’s a ransom on your head and I don’t particularly mind if it’s paid on you dead or alive.”

“So who do you thinks gonna pay you a ransom for me?”

“Oh plenty of people, I guess. You’re kind of popular in town, strangely, but your partner in particular. He’ll be riding off to the bank tomorrow. Then me and Jake will be living the good life down across the border before you know it.”

“The hell you will. Slim won’t fall for that crap.”

“Oh, I think he will, my friend,” said Carl throwing him anything but a friendly glare “And all you’ve got to do is sit tight and wait on him finding you. Of course, it’s a pretty big place, Wyoming. Might take him some time, and by the looks of you, I figure that’s something you don’t have a lot of.”

Jess was indeed feeling more dead than alive, with his head pounding and his whole body aching as the fever began to take hold of him yet again.

“So feelin’ kind of sick, are you, Harper?” Carl continued with an ugly smirk.

Jess said nothing, just closed his eyes tightly, swallowing against a wave of nausea.

Carl seemed to take his silence as a personal affront, and kicked him hard in the belly, making Jess cry out in pain. “I’m talkin’ to you, you no good bastard,” he spat “Don’t you dare ignore me!”

“Well, I ain’t listening,” muttered Jess darkly.

Carl went to put the boot in again, but Jake restrained him. “Just leave him, Carl. We’ve gotta get in position for when Sherman lands with the money.”

With one last bitter look, Carl backed off, and a little while later, Jess heard them ride out at speed.

Jess lay on his side, clutching his stomach, cussing bitterly until the pain finally receded and then he went about the business of freeing himself.

Luckily, his hands were tied at the front, and after a few minutes, he was able to pull his hunting knife out of his boot and start the long-drawn-out business of cutting through the thick ropes. It took him over an hour as he had to keep stopping to rest, and once it was done, he sat up rubbing the circulation back into his wrists and ankles. But when he tried to stand, he staggered and fell badly, passing out again on the cold hard ground.

The first light of dawn was just filtering into the cave when he finally came around again.

Jess was in a quandary. He was mad as hell, sure, and what he most wanted in the whole world was to go find the buckskin and take off after the Perkin brothers. But his body was having other ideas. When he came around in the cave, he was burning up with the fever and he called out weakly for Daisy, asking for water until he finally looked around him and the trauma of the last few hours came flooding back.

He could feel his heart drumming in his chest and the sweat now soaking his shirt, and knew he had to cool down some or he’d be done for. When Jess had been so dismissive of his illness, Sam had really spelled out the dangers to him and he remembered his friend’s grave expression as he spoke.

“Jess, you really have to take this thing seriously. You get too hot and that old ticker of yours will just plain give out under the strain. That’s why it’s so important someone is around to nurse you…you understand?”

“Sure, Sam. I’m just across the road with Millie and if I feel bad, I’ll come over, I promise.”

“Um, well, be sure you do, buddy. Slim and Daisy are relying on me to look out for you.”

“Yeah, I know.”

Why oh why hadn’t he gone over to see Sam as soon as he felt bad, Jess remonstrated with himself now.

Jess tried desperately hard to drag himself up into a sitting position and then finally to stand. He stood there swaying slightly, knowing he had to make it down the long steep path to the lakeside. He was so dry and he needed the water to cool down his fever too, so he took the first tentative steps out of the cave, grabbing onto its walls for support.

However, once out at the start of the track, he staggered and all but fell again, his head pounding and his whole body shaking with the effort of walking just a few feet.

“Nope, Harper, you just ain’t gonna make it,” he said to himself.

Then he remembered the shallow stream which ran down the mountainside around the back of the cave. It fell in a noisy waterfall high up the mountainside and then cascaded down to run sparkling and bubbling along behind the cave, before dropping sharply again to run down to feed the lake.

He started making his way down the side of the mountain. and as he turned back behind the cave, he could at once hear the stream bubbling along and could almost taste the sweet cold water on his tongue.

“Come on. you can do this. buddy,” he whispered.

However. the half dozen or so yards might just as easily have been miles. and after a while. he fell to his knees crawling the last few feet.

The clear sparkling stream was only about six inches deep, about three feet across, and was surrounded by lush grass and several huge pines. As he surveyed the view, Jess saw the buckskin contentedly grazing nearby and thanked God that he had not been left afoot

Then he smiled grimly. There was no way he had the energy to mount the beast, and if he did, he doubted if he would be able to sit the critter for any length of time.

That horse might be getting on in years, he thought, but he sure was lively and only seemed to have two speeds — fast and a mite faster. How he longed for Traveler’s calming presence. Hell, that ol’ horse of his would have seen him right, would have trod real easy and rocked him gently home. Then he figured that the Perkins had left Traveler deliberately so that Bert wouldn’t wonder where the cowboy had gone and start asking questions. He shook his head sadly before crawling the last few feet and then he finally fell into the icy cold water.

He drank greedily and then lay face down, letting the freezing water soak into his shirt front and denims before rolling over on his back. The icy water like balm to his soul and the last thing he thought before he passed out again was maybe, just maybe, that ol’ stream would save his life.

It was a good two hours later when Slim, accompanied by Lon and Doc Sam, finally tethered their mounts by the lake and rushed up the steep path to the cave.

They burst in and stood for a few minutes, letting their eyes get used to the dim light, but after a few minutes, it became obvious that  the cave was empty save for some kindling and firewood they always kept there for the many times they camped out while fishing the lake.

Slim turned anguished eyes on Lon. “The bastards double crossed us; they’ve taken the cash and killed my buddy anyway,” he said furiously.

“Hey, hang on,” said Sam coming forwards and gripping Slim’s arm. “We don’t know that for sure.”

Lon had been pacing about in the confined space, and then he suddenly spotted something in the far corner, where Jess had been unceremoniously dumped by the Perkins. He stooped down and picked up the severed ropes that had bound Jess’s hands and feet. He held them up to Slim like a prize, and grinning broadly, said,” I guess he ain’t too far away.”

It was Sam who first thought of going around the back of the cave to check on the stream, knowing Jess would be desperate for water and maybe unable to make it down to the lake.

All three men set off quickly, and as they rounded the mountain behind the cave, they stopped as they spied the big old buckskin. Then Slim saw what he at first thought was a bundle of old rags floating in the stream, and then his eyes focused more clearly and he saw it was Jess, lying on his back, the water rushing around his still form.

They dashed forward, and then stood for a moment transfixed by the vision of Jess lying in the water, white and deathly still.

“Oh God,” whispered Slim as he fell to his knees and then all three were  suddenly pulling his buddy out onto the fresh green grass, peering at his  motionless body.

Sam was the first to react and said quickly, “Help me strip these soaking duds off him.” Then looking up at Lon, he said, “Fetch a bedroll, will you? We need to warm him up.”

It was only a few minutes before Jess was stripped off and wrapped in a warm blanket, the sun beating down helping to warm up his icy cold body.

After what seemed a lifetime to Slim, his pard’s eyes finally flickered open and he let go with a few choice expletives.

Slim and Sam exchanged an amused glance at that and Lon chuckled. “I guess the boy ain’t done for yet then,” he said, “not if he can still cuss like a good ‘un.”

After a few minutes, Jess was finally able to speak, “Millie?” he said grabbing hold of Slim’s shirt front and half pulling himself up. “Is Millie OK?”

“Sure; she’s just fine, pard. Relax, huh.”

Jess sank back down with a sigh of relief and then squinted up at his buddy. “Please tell me you didn’t pay that ransom Slim.”

Slim peered down at his pard. “Well, sure I did. I had to save you, didn’t I? Anyway, Mort’s off getting it back as we speak, so stop your fretting.”

Jess threw him the ghost of a smile at that. “So how much did they want then?”

“A thousand dollars.”

“What? You’re kidding me? Hell, I’ve had wanted posters on me for five thousand. Garl darn it, I’m worth more than that!”

Much later, Sam reckoned that it was the icy stream that had saved Jess’s life. It had effectively cooled him down when the crisis came, and the mid-day sun warmed him up again. But he also said if they hadn’t found him when they did and pulled him out of the stream, then  he figured Jess would have just about have used up the last of his nine lives.

As it was, he was real sick and it was a few days before he was well enough to be driven back to the ranch from Sam’s place.

*****

“And don’t you let him out of bed until I visit next week,” said Sam firmly as he left.

“Oh don’t you worry,” I replied stoutly. “He won’t even breathe too deeply without checking with me first.”

“Aw, Daisy, I’m OK now, really,” came from my recalcitrant middle boy.

“Oh no you’re not, young man. Now off to bed, or I’ll fetch Slim’s shotgun on you.”

Jess gave me an uncertain look at that, wondering if the worry had unhinged me, I imagine, but after a moment, he sighed deeply and turned towards his room, with a soft, “OK Daisy, you win.”

Jess was actually completely exhausted and he was just paying lip service to his usual prevaricating; I instinctively knew that. To be honest, I really appreciated those few days we shared when he was still too worn out do too much more than chat quietly to me.

And chat he did. I don’t know what it was, but for once, he actually opened up and talked freely with me.

Oh, not just about the recent shenanigans which had gone on with those dreadful Perkins boys. Of them trying to get a ransom on him and how pleased he was Mort had apprehended them and got our money back, but about other things too.

About his relationship with Millie and how he was sure that they would really make a go of it one day. Maybe be one day not so far off either, although he wouldn’t be more forthcoming than that.

 The dear girl had visited him and Jess had been almost beside himself with worry over her, blaming himself for the whole incident. However, Millie was quick to reassure him and I thought not for the first time. What a wonderful young couple they made.

We talked about our ‘family’ a little too. About how much he appreciated having Slim as his best buddy, young Mike to care for, and also everything I did for him.

I was sitting by his bed mending one of his work shirts when he had glanced over and said, “I guess we really don’t deserve you, you know, Daisy. Well me, anyways,” Jess said, casting me his charming shy smile.

“Why you especially?” I said, smiling back.

He glanced down and then back with that candid look I knew so well “I guess it’s me as gives you the most grief. Always in trouble, beat up or worse, gettin’ all my stuff messed up too,” he replied sadly, glancing down at my mending.

“Well, I imagine that goes with the territory, as you say,” I replied, smiling.

But then he reached out, and taking my hand, squeezed it gently. “Heck, I’m sorry, Daisy, really I am,” Jess said, suddenly looking almost tearful.

“What’s brought all this on, dear?” I said softly, hating to see him upset.

He took a deep breath. “I dunno. I figure I’ve had a lot of time to think on things lately, what with this fever an’ all. To maybe realize what you do for us. And I figure I needed to tell you how it is, well, how much I appreciate it all, you  know?”

I smiled back at him. “Yes, I know.”

And then the moment was broken with Mike tearing in and asking if he and young Billy could have some milk and cookies.

But I was to remember that moment oh so often.

If I was tired after looking  after all my lively boys, anxious for them when  they were in danger or sick, or just plain overworked, trying to fit all the jobs  into a day that sometimes seemed way too short, then I would pause in my labors and remember back to that afternoon. When my boy was recuperating and felt the need to thank me… no, to ‘tell it the way it was’ — that’s what he’d said. I would remember that moment and rejoice in my three lovely young men, all so special in their own way, so different and yet all so precious to me. My boys.

***End***

Thank you for reading!

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