Rated: PG (Some adult themes and strong language)
Word Count: 11,600
It was early Fall at the Sherman Ranch and Relay Station near Laramie in Wyoming. The tall blond ranch owner, Slim Sherman, removed his hat and wiped his sleeve across his perspiring brow and adjusted his position in the saddle, turning slightly to see what had become of his partner in the business, Jess Harper.
After a few minutes, Slim heard a piercing whistle and a loud cussing as his friend drove a wayward steer forward, and a moment later, he saw the lean figure of the dark-haired cowboy come into view as Jess kicked his mount on to chivvy up the recalcitrant beast before him.
Slim grinned to himself and went to open the gate into the pasture land as Jess ushered the steer in.
“Garl darn ornery critter,” Jess muttered as the animal ran off to join the other steers in the field.
“Well that’s the last stray caught, so just the final batch of beasts to bring down for the winter now,” said Slim cheerfully.
“Yeah, but not today, huh, Slim. It’s almost supper time, and thanks to him and his buddies taking off for the big open, we ain’t had no dinner and I’m fair starvin’.”
“You and your stomach,” said Slim, not unkindly. “OK, you win, but early start, yeah? I aim to get all the rest down tomorrow, and that’ll give us the rest of the week to hunt down any strays”.
“So what’s your rush? Hell, Slim it’s only September now. Please tell me you ain’t expecting snow yet a while!” Jess originally hailed from Texas, and even now, after all his years in Wyoming, he still hated the long cold, damp winters.
“Nope, not snow, at least I hope not, but the winds getting up and we could be in for some real bad storms. Do you remember that twister last fall? That was at this time of year.”
“Slim, remember it; I darn near got myself blown to kingdom come by it. I was riding shotgun on the stage, if you recall, and Mose reckoned he could out run the damn thing.”
“Uh, good job it turned then,” laughed Slim.
“Hey it ain’t any laughing matter, pard. You ever been up close and personal to one of those things?”
“No I haven’t, Jess; I’ve got more sense. That’s why we’ve got a root cellar and that’s exactly where I aim to be if we get another, not half way up the mountain chasing strays. That’s why I want to get to it first thing — savvy?”
“Sure, sure, quit your frettin’; it’ll get done.” With that, Jess turned Traveler for home and his supper.
As he rode along, Jess’ thoughts turned to Millie, his best girl, and he wondered when he’d be able to ride into town and visit her at the saloon where she worked. Jeez, it seemed a long time since he’d seen her and he was missing her something fierce. Just as soon as all the beeves were down and settled into their winter pastures, he’d take himself off to town, he pledged.
“What’s up, pard?” asked Slim, riding up beside him. “You’re looking kinda thoughtful.”
Jess threw him a shy smile. “Just thinkin’ on my girl,” he said softly. “Been missin’ her something fierce, Slim; need to see her as soon as we’ve got all these ornery steers bedded down for the winter.”
“Sure, sure, we’ll have a good night in town, and I’ve got kinda a hankering to see Lily too,” smiled Slim referring to his current girlfriend. “We’ll really let rip, pard, just as soon as we’ve got all the stock in.” With that pleasant thought, they spurred their mounts on for home.
They opted for an early night as they were going off at first light, and Mrs. Daisy Cooper, their housekeeper and surrogate Ma to all, had promised to be up at first light too, to make sure they had a good breakfast in them before they lit out.
“You don’t have to, really, Daisy,” said Slim giving her his kind open smile. “We’ll manage”.
“That you won’t, and I doubt you’re speaking for Jess anyway, dear. I know how he likes his breakfast and good hot coffee before a day’s work.”
Jess grinned across at her from where he was sitting by the fireside, his deep blue eyes twinkling. “Sure do, Daisy; ain’t just an army as marches on its stomach, you know.”
She beamed back at him. “I swear you and young Mike could really be related,” she said, referring to the young blond orphan who was their ward, the ranchers having adopted him some years ago.
“He loves his meals too, you’d think he was eating for two the amount of food that child puts away and not an ounce of spare flesh on either of you,” she chuckled, reaching over and ruffling the young cowboy’s hair affectionately.
Jess grinned at that. “So where is he anyway? Ain’t it past his bedtime?” he asked, glancing at the time piece on the mantle.
“He says he’s saying goodnight to his horse, but I don’t know; there was something very secretive about him when he went out,” said Daisy thoughtfully, knowing what a little mischief-maker Mike could be.
Jess went over to the front door and yelled for him, and after a while the youngster ran over from behind the barn.
“So what are you up to?” asked Jess as the child ran into the house.
“Uh. Well, go and do nuthin’ in your room. Time for lights out, buddy.”
“Aw, Jess, must I?”
“Yes you must, and it’s down to you to do the chores tomorrow too, as me and Slim are off first thing. Think you can handle that Tiger?”
The boy looked pleased at the responsibility of feeding the hens and milking the house cow before tending the stock. “Sure thing, Jess. ‘Night.” He went off happily enough.
It was in the wee small hours of the morning that they were all rudely awakened by the sound of a ruckus coming from the yard as the chickens started squawking in agitation.
Both men were up and outside, rifles in hands, within minutes, just stopping to pull on their pants and restrain Daisy and Mike from coming out to see what was happening.
“Mike, stay with Daisy,” Slim said firmly. “We don’t know what’s out there yet.”
The boy did as he was told, and Slim ran outside to find Jess standing in the middle of the yard with the very dead bodies of Rufus their cockerel in one hand and one of the chickens in the other.
Slim gave a low whistle. “Anymore?”
Jess nodded grimly and gestured to the yard near the henhouse where several more partially mauled carcasses could be clearly seen in the bright moonlight. “What a darn waste,” he said angrily. “Looks like whatever did this was out on a killin’ spree as much as for food.”
“Uh,” said Slim, looking sadly at the dead chickens. “So what do you think did this, Jess?”
“Dunno; could be a cougar or coyote even, but it’s a bit early in the year for them, ain’t it, Slim? There ain’t even any snow down yet.”
Slim nodded. “No, I reckon you’re right. It could be a swift fox, though. I haven’t seen any in these parts for a while, but they kill this way.”
“Yeah, a fox kills for the fun of it, don’t he,” Jess agreed. Then his eyes narrowed as he looked over to where the chicken shed door was hanging open. “More to the point, how did the chicks get out, Slim? Unless Mister Fox upped and slipped the bolt, I reckon someone forgot to lock ‘em up.” Both men turned to where Mike was standing on the porch looking pale and shaken.
Slim was shocked at the way his buddy laid into the boy.
Jess marched over and read Mike the riot act as soon as the child admitted that he had forgotten to lock the stock up after he’d fed them.
Jess ranted on for several minutes before cussing and sending the child to bed. “We’ll talk about this tomorrow, and I figure you’ll be havin’ a trip to the woodshed,” he threatened.
Slim’s head shot up at that and he watched in sympathy as the youngster ran off crying.
“I thought you said you’d never beat the boy after the upbringing you had,” said Slim quietly.
Jess just turned angrily away. “Look at this,” he said gesturing to the dead birds. “I just hate to see waste, you know — and the kid has to learn.”
Slim could tell it went way deeper than that, but decided then was probably not the right time to broach it.
Jess turned in after reassuring Daisy that there was no danger to them, but Slim went into Mike’s room and sat down gently on the edge of the bed, surveying the weeping child. After a moment he reached over and patted Mike’s shoulder. “Come on, Mike, don’t take on so. We lost some hens, but we’ve got enough left to see us through the winter, and once we get a couple broody hens in the spring, then we can replace the lost ones. “
The child just sniffed sadly.
“So how come you forgot to lock them up then, Mike? That isn’t like you? “
Mike took a deep breath and then said sorrowfully, “Well, I fed ‘em as usual, and then just as I was goin’ to lock ‘em up, I remembered I hadn’t got some food for Brer Fox and so I…”
“Whoa, hold on. So who’s Brer Fox?”
“You know, like in my Uncle Remus Story Book — Brer Fox.”
“Yes Mike, I know who Brer Fox is. Er, I just didn’t know we’d got one.”
“Sure we have,” said the youngster smiling now. “He lives in a den at the back of the barn and I’ve been feeding him. Anyway, I went and got me some scraps from the kitchen, and then aunt Daisy said supper was ready, and then after supper I went and fed Brer Fox. I was gonna slip the lock and then Jess hollered me and I clean forgot.”
Slim shook his head and tried to hide an ironic smile. “Mike, do you know what foxes like to eat?”
“Sure I do — bacon rinds and left-over stew and…”
“And chickens,” broke in Slim.
“Ch… chickens? Foxes eat chickens? Oh yeah, I remember now. Brer Fox in the story hunted chickens. But my pet fox wouldn’t, would he, Slim?” asked the youngster, his eyes huge.
“Would and did. Evidence is in the yard, Mike.”
Slim finally calmed him down after there were more tears and the child promised to stop feeding the fox and to make sure he always locked up the chickens securely in the future, but he still looked upset.
“Come on now, Mike; it’s OK. Just settle down. What’s up now, buddy?”
“It’s Jess. He’s real mad at me, ain’t he, Slim. Will he really smack me like he said?”
Slim shook his head. “I dunno, Mike. I guess not, once he’s calmed down some. Just stay out of his way for a day or so, huh?”
Slim made his way back into the room he shared with Jess, who was lying down but was still awake. “Well, I think I’ve found our culprit.”
“Brer fox, Mike’s latest pet. He’s been feeding the critter and…”
“And he ups and kills all our darn chickens!” exploded Jess angrily. “As if it ain’t bad enough he forgets to lock the critters up, he starts playin’ open house to a damn fox,” he spat furiously.
“I suppose you’ve got to see the funny side, though,” said Slim, grinning at his buddy, but Jess wasn’t to be appeased and just muttered “woodshed” before turning over and falling asleep instantly as only he could do.
As it happened, Jess had little time to discuss the trip to the woodshed — or anything else — with Mike as his work was cut out getting the stock safely down the mountain due to the inclement weather conditions.
The wind that had been blowing idly for the last day or two suddenly got much stronger, and it escalated into a full-scale dust storm. By the end of the week, it was hard for the men to see their hands in front of their faces, let alone strays, but they persevered, working their way down the mountain and into gullies and box canyons, looking for any beasts who had sought shelter there.
There were just two still missing when Slim suggested they should call it a day, but Jess and his stubborn streak wanted to carry on a little longer.
“Come on, Slim, there’s still a couple of hours of daylight left.”
Slim looked up at the sky, noticing that the dust storm had finally abated, but he didn’t like the looks of what he saw there, as there were distant thunderheads gathering on the horizon. “I don’t like it, Jess. I figure we’re in for that big storm everyone’s been predicting; I think we should head back.”
“OK,” said Jess, “you go on back and I’ll head off to the east pasture. Just check out they’re not hiding in that copse of cotton woods and then I’ll come straight back, alright?”
Slim sighed, knowing argument was useless. “OK, pard, but get yourself home before dark, huh?”
“Sure I will; be seein’ you.” Jess spurred Traveler off before Slim could change his mind.
That was the last Slim was to see of his best buddy for quite some time.
As Jess rode off toward the east pasture, he heard the ominous rumble of thunder in the distance and felt Traveler tense beneath him. “It’s OK, old boy,” he said softly, patting the horse’s neck. “I’m not too fond of thunderstorms, either. Guess we’ll take a quick peek for those doggone steers and then hot-foot it home, huh?”
He was on the far side of the east pasture when he thought he saw a sign of one of the steers just disappearing over the hill. He took off at speed, really wanting to get the job done and ride for home as the storm came closer and closer, the thunder now rumbling more menacingly and flashes of lightening slashing through the ever darkening sky.
As he crested the hill and looked down, Jess stopped. The darned animal seemed to have gone to ground and he couldn’t for the life of him see it.
Then there was an almighty crash of thunder almost overhead and the deluge began, soaking Jess in a matter of minutes as he bemoaned the fact that he’d forgotten his rain slicker.
The wind got up again and lashed the cold rain against him, the force of it making him pull his hat down hard as the rain hit him sharply and painfully in the face.
“Goddamn strays,” Jess muttered under his breath as he kicked Traveler forward into the storm, following the path where the young steer had last been seen.
The steep hill he was riding down suddenly became slippery as the rain rushed down it in a flash flood, carrying shale and small pebbles in its wake. Jess quickly dismounted to lead Traveler down the unstable ground toward the valley below where he hoped to catch up with the steers.
Afterwards, he was thankful that he wasn’t riding his beloved horse as the animal would have undoubtedly been injured badly in the accident.
As it was, it was just Jess who was hurt.
They had just about reached the bottom of the hill and were passing close to some large cotton wood trees when there was yet another flash of lightening, but this time it struck the nearest tree, splitting it in two and setting it on fire. Before Jess could get out of the way, one of the large branches came crashing down on top of him, all in the space of a few seconds.
As the lightning struck, Traveler bolted, pulling his reins out of Jess’ hands, but the young cowboy stopped in his tracks for a split second too long and the branch fell, throwing him to the ground and knocking him unconscious.
When he finally came round several minutes later, he groaned and lay there for another few minutes before he finally found the strength to pull himself out from under the branch and shakily get to his feet, peering around him through the driving rain for his mount.
That was when he heard it: above the raging storm, the sad lament of a lost child, calling and calling.
“Help! Please help me!”
Jess shook his head and then regretted it as the pain seared through him from the blow he had received to the back of his skull, and he momentary felt dizzy and sick. Then he moved slowly forwards to where the sound seemed to be coming from.
“Please, Jess, help me!”
“Mike? Mike, that you?”
Jess suddenly felt a stab of anguish as he remembered how he had castigated the child over the chicken episode and now the boy was in danger. Was it all his fault, he wondered. Had the boy come out to try and help him find the steer to make amends?
But surely Daisy and Slim wouldn’t have allowed it — unless the kid had just taken off of his own accord.
Mike was usually a very good, sensible child, but Jess knew how much the youngster thought of him. Hell, he hero-worshipped him, and so if he felt he was in Jess’s bad books, Mike would he have broken all the rules to come out here and try to redeem himself. Possible, Jess thought, very possible.
Then he saw Traveler just a few yards before him, remarkably cropping the grass as the storm crashed about above him. “Good ol’ horse,” he whispered to himself as he staggered forward and picked up the reins again.
At his arrival, Traveler tossed his head up and blew though his nostrils in welcome before standing steady while Jess re-mounted.
The storm was still raging around them, and now there seemed an even greater fear. As Jess looked up, he saw the black, hugely chilling specter of a massive twister advancing upon him.
Not only was he having to cope with the storm, but also his head injury that was making him feel increasingly sick and dizzy. After a while, he dismounted and fell to his knees and was violently ill, his head aching something fierce. He felt shaky and dizzy, knowing he had the classic signs of a severe concussion and just needing to lie down, but where? Besides, he had to find Mike. With that one thought spurring him on, he dragged himself back up into the saddle, concentrating hard on trying not to up chuck again.
The whirling dark clouds were spinning and racing towards him, the noise of the accompanying wind was truly terrifying and Jess looked desperately around for Mike, thinking he would never survive if he was left afoot in the storm.
Then he heard him crying out again in the distance and he spurred Traveler on towards the sound.
Now the elemental fury of the storm was all around him, the great tornado still advancing and getting lager by the minute, a truly awe inspiring specter that Jess watched in dreadful fascination.
It was Traveler that broke the moment and started moving forward towards a rocky outcrop and Jess let him have his head, thinking that below the overhanging rocks was as good a place as any to try and shelter from the fast advancing twister. All the time, his eyes were searching for signs of young Mike, although the fearful racket of the wind and advancing tornado made it impossible to hear the child’s cries. Jess just hoped that he had sought shelter in the rocks too.
It was when he was up close to the outcrop that he suddenly saw it: the entrance to a small cave. Slipping down from the saddle, he went over to investigate, thanking providence and his horse for finding this timely sanctuary.
As soon as he approached, it became obvious that, although the entrance was quite small, the cave opened out into a large space with plenty of room for a man and his horse, so Jess led Traveler inside, away from the howling wind into the relative calm of the cave. Then he stopped in astonishment at what he saw.
The large cave was illuminated by a cheerfully crackling fire and a storm lantern. Sitting in front of the fire was a small girl, her knees drawn up and her head resting on them as she peered over at Jess, her face suddenly wreathed in smiles.
“Jess, at last. You made it OK,” she said happily.
Jess’s mouth was agape as he stared at the child in total shock.
“Amy? Amy Scott? Is that you?” he whispered after a full minute, his blue eyes staring in amazed disbelief.
“Sure. Come and sit a spell, get dry. You’re soaking, Jess, you know that?” she asked with a little giggle.
“Was that you a callin’ before?” he asked suddenly hopeful that this vision — hallucination or whatever it was — was the source of the calling for help and not young Mike.
“Yep, that was me. Got kinda upset,” she said ruefully. “Didn’t think you could hear me.”
Jess, gave a sigh of relief. At least Mike was safe. Then he shook his head as if to clear it of this strange image he was seeing, regretting it immediately and groaning. He shot his hand up to try and ward off the agonizing stab of pain.
“Aw Jess, you’re hurt,” said the diminutive child, jumping up and running over, looking full of concern. “Come and sit while I tend your head.” Then more lightly, she added, “Same old Jess — always getting in trouble.”
Jess allowed himself to be led over to the fire, and he sat patiently while the child tended to his head, gently cleaning the wound with cool water from a canteen as Jess tried to make sense of what was happening to him.
He had last seen little Amy Scott on the panhandle in Texas in the small town where they had both grown up; she was ten and he was nine. And now, all these years later, he was a grown man and Amy was…what? He looked closely at her. Yep, as he had thought, she was still ten.
“So, I’m seein’ things…right?” he muttered. “Guess that bang on the head’s done scrambled my brains some, huh?”
“Oh, you do say the funniest things, Jess,” laughed the child.
“Yeah well…” muttered Jess to himself as he went and tended to Traveler, removing the saddle and making him as comfortable as he could in the confined space, before peering out at the still-raging storm, the twister coming closer and closer. “I sure hope they’re all OK back at the ranch,” he said to himself before carrying his saddle back to the fireside along with his bed roll.
He stood swaying for a minute, looking down at the pretty child.
She had long dark braids held in place by two jaunty yellow ribbons; her clothes were clean but threadbare and she surveyed Jess with wide, innocent brown eyes.
“Why don’t you get your head down,” she said kindly. “You’ll feel better for a sleep and I’ll watch out for your horse for you.”
“Thanks,” said Jess, collapsing down onto his bedroll and wondering fleetingly why he was talking to an apparition.
Then a thought struck him. Maybe this was Amy’s daughter and the real Amy, the one that was in her twenties, would suddenly appear seeking her lost child.
He hesitantly suggested this idea to the girl.
“Nope, it’s me alright, Jess — bossy old Amy Scott, come a visiting,” she giggled.
Jess felt his head was about to explode. Sure, the kid looked real enough and he knew her oh so well.
Jess, Amy, Millie and Millie’s little brother Tad had all gone around together in a gang. Millie had been his best friend even in those days he reflected now.
Yeah, Millie was the cute one, Amy the bossy one, Tad the easily led one and Jess… What had Jess’s tag been, he wondered. Trouble probably; even in those days, he was always getting into scraps of some sort, usually sticking up for the underdog. He grinned at the memory.
He lay down on his bedroll, using his saddle for a pillow, and prepared to try and sleep out the storm. Hopefully this vision would have disappeared when he woke up, he thought to himself as he closed his eyes and willed sleep and an end to the nauseating pain in his head.
Slim had ridden into the yard about half an hour after reluctantly leaving Jess, but he knew he’d made the right decision when the winds had increased to storm force and the possibility of the predicted twister became even more likely.
He dismounted and walked Alamo over to the barn, and a few minutes later he was joined by a breathless Mike, who had run through the storm, his rain slicker showing evidence of the teaming rainfall that had just commenced.
“Where’s Jess?” Mike asked at once.
Slim’s eyes twinkled with mischief. “Still worrying about that hiding then, Mike?”
“Nope, I guess he’d have done it by now if he’d had a mind to. I’m just kinda worried; it’s real bad out there, Slim,” Mike said, gesturing to the now raging storm beyond the barn door.
Slim leaned over and ruffled the boys damp hair. “Don’t worry, Mike; he’ll be along shortly”.
The boy still looked troubled though. “You know, I kinda wish he’d just given me that smacking and got it over with,” he said now, staring miserably at the barn floor.
Slim’s head shot up. “Well, why is that?” he asked gently.
“Well, I guess he could have forgiven me afterwards and it would be alright between us again, but right now, I think he’s still real mad at me.”
Slim started to contradict the child, but there was a grain of truth in what he said, and it sure wasn’t like his buddy to be this way with Mike. Hell, Jess loved the boy like he was his own, spoilt him sometimes, truth be told. So why was he being so dang hard on him over this business with the chickens.
Slim looked down at the innocent child and his heart went out to him. “Don’t worry, buddy, he’ll come around. I figure he’s been kind of preoccupied these last few days, worrying about getting all the stock safely in. Reckon he’ll calm down some once we’ve got that finished. OK?”
“Is that where he is now?” asked the child anxiously. “Chasing strays?”
“Yep; gone across the east pasture boundary. Had a notion they might be holed up in that cotton wood copse.”
“But that’s miles away, Slim,” cried the child in distress.
“Hey, simmer down, Tiger; ol’ Jess can look after himself, you know that. And if the storm gets worse, I guess he’ll just hunker down some place and ride it out. Now come on, let’s go check out Aunt Daisy; I guess she’ll be fretting too,” Slim said with a friendly grin, although in all truth he was equally worried about Jess. Nobody wanted to be out and about when a twister struck, that was for sure.
Daisy looked up as Mike and Slim burst into the house, shaking off their rain slickers and soon spreading a small pool of water where they stood divesting themselves of their outer garments. “Is Jess not with you?”
“Nope, he decided he wanted one last look for the strays,” said Slim with a concerned glance at his housekeeper.
“Oh Slim, did he have to go? Everyone says this is going to be the worst storm of the year and he’s out in it.”
Slim just shook his head. “Sorry, Daisy, but you know how dang stubborn he can be. I figure he thought those young steers wouldn’t survive out there if the big storm does hit.”
Their eyes locked at that and the unsaid words hung in the air between them: ‘neither would Jess.’
“He will be OK, won’t he?” piped up Mike and both adults reassured him, yes, Jess would be just fine and was probably on his way home as they spoke.
However, as the day wore on and the storm became more and more violent, it was obvious that Jess was not going to be home in the allotted time he had promised.
Slim went and forced the front door open against the howling wind to peer out into the murky windswept yard to see if there was any sign, but nothing.
And then he saw it — off in the far distance was the unmistakable, wide, black spiraling clouds of a Twister. “Oh God no,” Slim whispered.
Daisy who had come up behind him saw the advancing storm cloud too and sucked in a shocked breath. “Oh my Slim, what do you do out here? I’ve never experienced this sort of thing out in the country. Wh… what do we do?” she asked her, voice shaking and far from her usual calm, no-nonsense self.
Slim turned and took her hand squeezing it gently. “It’s OK, Daisy,” he said kindly. “Don’t go fretting. I guess the first thing is not to panic; no point in upsetting the boy.”
Daisy took another deep breath and pulled herself up to her full five foot, swallowed hard and then more firmly said, “Of course, dear; forgive me. Just a shock, you know, but I’m fine now.”
Slim grinned down at her. “That’s my girl,” he said softly. “Now you prepare some foodstuff and fresh water in the spare canteens to take down into the root cellar. I guess we don’t know how long we’ll be down there. And I’ll go loose out the horses.
At this, Mike, who had come up behind them gave a cry of fear. “Loose the horses in the storm, Slim? But why? They’ll be hurt. And not my horse, not Sunny, please!” he said, referring to the palomino pony Jess had given him for his birthday the previous year.
Slim hunkered down so that he was on eye level with the child and tried to explain. “Look, Mike, it’s like this. If that ol’ twister comes this way, well…it’ll take everything in its path, including the barn and house. All that’ll be left is match wood. So you see, the horses are safer out loose; they’ll find shelter and they won’t stray too far because of the boundary fences. They’ll be back for their oats just as soon as the storm passes over, you’ll see. “
The child still had reservations.
“Come on now, Mike, I need you to be real grown up for me about this. You’re nine now, buddy, nearly ten, and you have to act real sensible for me.”
“Is that what Jess would do? Would he loose out Traveler?”
“Sure he would. Snow Bird too,” said Slim, referring to Jess’s prize quarter horse.
The child looked thoughtfully down for a minute. “OK then, Slim,” he said finally, “but I wanna loose out Sunny myself, explain to her as to how she’s to keep safe and come on home as soon as she can.”
“Sure, sure Mike, come on,” The two went off about the upsetting task while Daisy prepared for their enforced imprisonment in the root cellar.
When the time came, once the stock had been freed and everything battened down as well as they were able, it took all their strength to cross the yard to the door to the root cellar, as the wind was now at gale force, buffeting them and impeding their progress.
They finally made it, however, and Daisy and Mike went on down the steep steps to the comparative safety below, while Slim stayed out a moment longer, the screaming wind tearing at his blond hair as he surveyed the house and barn and wondered if it would be the last time he saw them. By the looks of the great black cloud now advancing at speed, it looked like it was bang on course for the ranch, he thought. After casting one last beseeching glance to the track for a sight of his buddy returning, he lowered his eyes sadly and made his way down into the cellar.
Back in the cave, Jess was suddenly awakened by his horse whinnying in fear as the approaching twister crashed about outside, now pulling up trees and scattering them in its path as it moved relentlessly closer and closer.
Jess leapt up from his bedroll and staggered slightly as the agonizing pain in his head hit him; he cussed softly before making his way more slowly over to where Traveler was pacing anxiously, showing the whites of his eyes and stamping a hoof in distress.
“Hey, easy there, big fellah. It’s only a bit of wind,” said Jess soothingly.
Then his gaze flicked over to where Amy had wandered over and was now stroking the horse’s nose.
“I thought you said you’d look out for him,” Jess said accusingly, and then shook his head. “What in hell am I doin’ talkin’ to a spook?” he said to himself.
“Hey, watch what you’re calling me, Jess Harper,” said an affronted Amy. “And go and sit back down before you fall. Your horse is fine now. Just that clap of thunder that frightened him, is all; he’ll settle now.”
Jess smiled at that. “I guess it really is you; just as bossy as ever, ain’t you?” he said, shaking his head and deciding he’d just go with the flow. Hell, if that bang to his head had caused him to see visions, well, he’d just accept it until he was feeling more himself again.
He flung himself back down on his bedroll, resting back on his saddle, and after a moment Amy came and sat down beside him.
“So who did you think it was calling out in the storm? I guess you weren’t expecting to find me.” she asked, throwing him an enquiring glance.
Jess looked sadly into the fire for a minute before replying. “Mike, my young ward. I thought it was Mike calling.”
“Oh, so what would a kid be doing out in a storm like this then?” she asked.
“Well, you were,” returned Jess quickly.
“Uh, but we’re not talking about me. Now just answer the question.”
Jess hid a smile. Yep, just the same old Amy. Then he sobered. “We’d had words. I was real mad at him, and I guess he knew it. Well, I thought he’d come out to help me chase up some strays, kinda get himself back in my good books.”
She considered this for a moment and then said, “So what had the kid done to make you so mad?”
“Forgot to lock up the chickens. Fox got ‘em,” Jess said bitterly.
“Well, that ain’t no hanging offence. So why are you so dang upset about it?” asked the child.
Jess just stared at her; he’d forgotten how this sweet looking little girl could swear like a trooper, then he addressed himself to her question. “I dunno; just don’t like to see the waste, I guess. All those chucks dead just to give that ol’ fox five minutes fun.”
“Uh-uh. Nope, wrong answer,” she said firmly.
“Wrong answer, Jess. I know exactly why you were so mad at the poor kid — and so do you, if you just think on it.”
“Don’t know what you mean,” said Jess aggressively.
“Sure you do. Think back, Jess, that day that Tad nearly drowned…remember?”
Jess’s head shot up at that. “I don’t wanna talk about that,” he said gruffly.
“Well I think you have to — need to — Jess. Got to get it out in the open and do some forgiving; deal with it, or it will just eat you up. Keep coming back to haunt you like this anger you have towards that poor kid. Hell, he forgot to lock up the fowl, Jess Tell him off some and forget it. But you can’t, can you — because of what happened that day.”
“Shut up!” yelled Jess loudly, leaping up and walking over to the mouth of the cave, his hands thrust deeply into the pockets of his denims as he surveyed the raging storm and remembered back to that fateful day when he was just nine years old and Amy ten.
It was a Saturday afternoon and Jess was supposed to be working the land as he did most days, but his Pa had gone off to the saloon as he did every Saturday afternoon and most evenings too. Jess figured if he played his cards right, he could go fishing with his friends and he’d be home long before Pa landed back. And anyway, he’d probably be too dang drunk to notice any of his five kids, so Jess took the chance.
His elder brother was off up to no-good somewhere, his big sister Francie was helping his heavily pregnant Ma with the chores, and his little brother and sister were playing quietly together when he lit out for the fishing hole.
He met up with Millie and Tad on the way, and then the last member of the gang, Amy, arrived and she organized them all, saying who should sit where and the best way to bait your hook and various other stuff in her usual bossy way. But it was like water of a duck’s back to Jess, and he just ignored her and relaxed, enjoying the freedom away from work and his violent father.
They had enjoyed a good afternoon and were just about to set off for home with a goodly catch when Tad insisted he was going to cast his line one more time.
The others were too busy packing up to pay much heed. and so it was a shock when they suddenly heard a huge splash and then cries for help as young Tad floundered about in the deep water.
The girls started screaming hysterically, but Jess threw off his boots and dived into the icy depths after the youngster who was screaming, almost as loudly as the girls, in terror.
Jess never knew how he managed to pull the struggling child to safety as he couldn’t swim himself, but at just six years old, Tad was very small and light and so Jess was finally able to drag him out of the cold water, both of them panting and crying with fear as they collapsed on the bank.
Amy was the first to recover and went about organizing them all in her usual forthright manner. “Millie, you take Tad and Jess home with you and get Jess dried off or his Pa will kill him if he goes home looking like a drowned rat.”
“Can’t,” said Jess quickly. “Gotta lock up the chicks before sundown or that ol’ fox’ll get ‘em and then Pa really will kill me.”
“Oh, stop your frettin’,” Amy said quickly. “Your old man will be in the saloon for a little while longer. I’ll go find Francie and get her to do the chicks for you — and your other chores — then once Millie’s Ma has got you cleaned up, you can sneak in the back door and up to bed and your Pa need never know.”
And so that was the way it was. Millie’s Ma, Mrs. Johnson, was mad at her son and then couldn’t stop hugging him — and then Jess too when Millie told her how Jess had saved the day. She wasted no time in making sure Jess’ clothes were dried and he had a hot drink to warm him up some. “I should really take you home,” she said later. “Explain to your folks.”
Jess looked horrified at that. “Please no, Ma’am; Pa’ll skin me alive if he finds out I’ve been skivin’ off fishin’ instead of working the land.”
“Um, well, I can see your point, dear. Alright, but please just stay away from that water hole — and you too, son,” she said, turning distressed eyes on her youngest.
So Jess had got home and sneaked off to bed without anyone seeing him and was totally unaware of the drama that had been played out during his absence.
He was to learn later that Amy had indeed kept her promise to tell Francie to complete all Jess’s chores, including bedding down the chickens. However, Francie was just about to do his jobs when her Ma had cried out in pain.
Francie had run to her side, thinking the baby was coming early, only to find out a few hours later that it was a false alarm. But unfortunately that had completely put her promise to do Jess’ chores out of her mind. So she went off to bed exhausted, leaving the hens loose and the stock hungry and thirsty.
Surprisingly, they heard nothing of the ensuing slaughter until the following morning when Jess’ little brother came running in, in tears saying the chickens were all dead and layin’ around the yard.
Jess’ Pa, who was sitting peering into a coffee at the breakfast table and nursing a monumental hangover, staggered up from his chair and went to investigate while Jess stared across at a white, shaking Francie.
“You forgot?” he whispered.
She just nodded and then they heard their Pa returning; Jess said quickly, “Say nuthin’, Francie; this is all my fault, I guess. I should never have gone fishin’,”
However, before he could say more, his father entered and roared at his middle son, cussing furiously before lashing out at him with a vicious backhander to the face, sending the youngster sprawling.
“I’m sorry,” Jess whispered. “Really, I am, Pa. I…”
But before he could say more, his father strode across, and hauling Jess up, started raining blows to the child’s face and body. The youngster collapsed in agony and rolled into a ball to try an protect himself.
All the time Francie and her Ma were screaming at him to stop, but he seemed not to hear, such was his anger.
Then as he started laying into the boy again, Francie ran between them. “Stop it! For God’s sake, Pa, stop it!” she screamed. “You’ll kill him.”
“Get out of my way,” Jess’s Pa yelled, roughly pushing her aside.
However Francie was possessed of the same tenacious spirit as her brother, and grabbing hold of her father’s arm, she tried to drag him away.
That’s when it happened. Her Pa turned and threw a vicious backhander to her face and Francie staggered backwards, hitting her head hard on the edge of the table and she sank to the floor unconscious.
That was all it took to sober Mr. Harper. Looking over at his pale motionless daughter and Jess bleeding and terrified, he shook his head in shock. “What have I done?” he gasped. He quickly helped his wife pick up Francie, supported her off to bed while Jess ran for the doctor.
When Jess landed on the doctor’s doorstep, the kindly old man looked down with compassion. “Jess, my boy, what on earth has happened to you? Come along in and let me tend to you.”
Jess just shook his head, his eyes open wide with horror. “It’s Francie. Come now, please, doc; she’s bad — real bad.” He ran off home again before the doctor could remonstrate with him.
The following few hours were the worst of Jess’ young life as he heard Francie crying out in pain and distress. And then suddenly everything went deathly silent and that was almost worse.
It was late afternoon when the exhausted-looking doctor emerged from the bedroom and saw Mr. Harper was sitting at the table nursing a glass of whiskey, the half-empty bottle beside him, and Jess huddled on the doorstep looking petrified.
The doctor threw him a compassionate look. “I’m sorry, Mister Harper, but your daughter is very, very sick.”
Jess edged into the room, his eyes wide in horror as he crept over and looked up at the doctor. “She will be OK, doc?”
“Time will tell, son; time will tell,” the doctor said kindly, his heart aching for the skinny, terrified looking little urchin.
“This is all your fault,” his Pa slurred before marching off to see his wife and daughter in the bedroom.
Jess turned back from the cave entrance and went and sat back down by the fire; he looked over to where Amy still sat, gazing at him.
“So I guess you do remember,” she said softly, looking at his stricken expression.
“Why,” he asked gruffly, his voice breaking with emotion. “Why bring it all back? “
“Because it is haunting you — always has done — and you need to look at it again and see your Pa was wrong. You were just the scapegoat, Jess. It was all you’re Pa’s fault; he was the one that hit your sis.”
He just shook his head. No, I shouldn’t have taken off fishing…”
“And Tad should have been more careful, and Francie should have put the chickens up like she promised and your Pa shouldn’t have been down the saloon, or laid into you that way, near killing you so Francie intervened. Can’t you see, Jess? It was just a chain of events and nothing could have changed what happened. It wasn’t your fault; you have to accept that.”
He just shook his head sadly and looked into the fire.
“How many times did your Pa beat you?” she asked then changing tack.
“All the time, you know that.”
“So even if you’d stayed and done your chores, he’d have found some reason to lay into you when he got back from the saloon, wouldn’t he?”
Jess thought about that. “Maybe…yeah, I guess.”
“So it could have happened anyway, if you’d skived off or not. You know Francie always stuck up for you — had got between you and your Pa before. She was just unlucky that time.”
Jess just shrugged.
“Francie, she always came to your defense didn’t she?” she insisted.
Jess looked bewildered. “Yeah, I guess she did.”
And then he remembered back to just the week before how his Pa had come back from the saloon more than a little drunk and had lashed out at Jess for no real reason. His Ma and sister had again come between them, but on that occasion, Jess had been able to run off and hide, thereby stopping any further confrontation.
“So you’re saying that I wasn’t to blame? It was just one of those things?”
Jess finally heaved a great sigh of relief. “You know, maybe you’re right,” he whispered.
“So when wasn’t I?” came the smart reply.
Then his head came up and he listened carefully. The constant screaming of the wind had suddenly stopped and all was calm.
“Guess we’re in the eye of the storm,” he said glancing across at Amy. “Once it passes over, I can ride home, make it up to Mike,” he said. “And thanks. I dunno if you’re real or just somethin’ in my head, but thanks anyway,” he said grinning at her.
She grinned back. “You’re welcome. And Jess…”
“Millie. For God’s sake, just up and marry the girl, will you?”
He smiled at that. “I guess I will, Amy, when the time’s right.” Then he got up to go and check out the storm again.
It was definitely the eye of the storm, he thought as he surveyed the view from the cave mouth. Everything looking deceptively calm and peaceful, and then a second later the wind got up again and it was soon howling and slamming its way across the pasture, smashing everything within its path.
Jess turned back into the cave. “Guess it’ll be a while before it blows over,” he said and then stopped in his tracks. The cave was empty, save for himself and Traveler.
Back at the ranch Daisy, Slim and Mike had spent an uncomfortable night camped down in the root cellar, and although Daisy had used her usual talent of making anywhere a home from home, it was still cramped and unpleasant as they heard the storm raging above them.
They had all long since given up hope of Jess riding in, but just hoped and prayed that he had found a safe resting place for the night as the alternative was unthinkable.
Slim alternated between feeling angry at his buddy yet again risking life and limb for the ranch and then grateful that he had made the sacrifice to try and save the steers. ‘Just as long as you’re safe, pard,’ he whispered to himself as he too looked out as the storm finally started moving away, thankfully having missed the ranch and outbuildings.
Later that morning, when it was obvious the storm had moved off, they emerged from their hiding place, stretching their weary limbs and welcoming the new day.
Then as Mike ran out into the yard, he gave a whoop of delight as his pony, followed by several other horses including Jess’ Snow Bird and Slim’s Alamo, clattered into the yard.
“See?” said Slim beaming across at the child. “I said they’d be home when they were hungry.”
The child ran to his mount and hugged her before turning to gaze up at the tall rancher. “Life would be perfect now if Jess would just come home. He will, won’t he, Slim? He will be OK?”
Slim found it hard to meet the youngster’s eager gaze. “Yeah, I sure hope so,” he said softly. Then he added more confidently, “Come on, Mike, let’s get these critters fed and watered. Jess would sure want us to look out for Snowy, wouldn’t he?”
The child nodded and gave a little smile. “Don’t worry, Slim; he’ll be home soon. I just know it,” he said as he went off to care for his pony and Snowy.
So like Jess needing to keep busy in times of stress, Slim thought as he watched the youngster head off.
It was actually near the end of that day when Jess finally stopped his horse on the rise above the Ranch and Relay Station and saw everything in place just as normal, and gave a huge sigh of relief at the oh-so-familiar and well-loved sight.
Then he had a sudden flashback to the first time he had seen this view and then what it had come to mean to him. He shivered at the thought he might have lost them all in the storm. Hell, this was his whole life now; his family was here and they all meant so much to him.
Then he kneed Traveler on to a brisk trot, down the track to home.
It was much later that evening before the two friends had managed to have a good chat together.
Jess had ridden in just before supper time, and everyone had been overjoyed — Daisy and Mike in tears and Slim pretty close to it as the dark haired cowboy had casually ridden into the yard and hitched Traveler up before breezing into the ranch house and asking if the coffee was on.
Both Daisy and Mike threw themselves at the young cowboy, and Slim pumped his hand, welcoming him home. “So I figure you didn’t find those strays,” Slim said laughing, “not with the storm and all.”
“Well that’s where you’re wrong then, Mister Sherman,” said Jess with glee. “Because when I came out of that cave where I’d been sheltering, I found them right in the lee of the rocks, lookin’ real perky. Put ‘em down in the home pasture with the other critters.”
They were finally alone sitting in front of a crackling fire before Slim turned to his best buddy and said, “So are you going to tell me the full story? Because I’ve got the feeling you’re holding something back, Jess.”
Jess looked really uncomfortable and then said softly, “I guess I owe Mike an apology about the chickens and all –and maybe you too, pard.”
“Go on,” said Slim softly.
And so Jess relayed everything to him — the storm, the accident when he was badly concussed and then all about what had happened all those years ago when Tad had nearly drowned and what his father had done and the outcome. And even about the specter of Amy in the cave making him confront it all again.
Slim was understanding, realizing at once that this was a very difficult thing for Jess to tell. “So Francie, she did get well. I know that from that time she visited. Was she sick for long?”
Jess nodded. “Yeah, really sick; it was weeks before she could get up and about again, and even then she had these memory lapses for months afterwards. I felt so dang bad, Slim. And Pa — I guess he never really got over it. The drinkin’ just got worse, but he always blamed me.”
“And so that was why you were so hard on Mike. Those chickens dying reminded you of it all? “
“I guess, yeah.”
“And so why now then, buddy? This has been gnawing away at you for years. So why confront it now?”
“I don’t know,” Jess said honestly. “I guess it was the sight of all those dead chickens brought it back, and then that blow to my head… Well. maybe it turned me a bit crazy, seeing Amy that way. They do say a concussion can do real strange things to a man.”
“Uh,” said Slim thoughtfully, “unless she was really there. You know, like a ghost or something?”
Jess grinned at that. “Hell, Slim it’s me as had the bang on the head, not you. You go talkin’ that way and the doc will be certifyin’ you! And anyway, she ain’t dead, so I figure even bossy old Amy couldn’t go a haunting if she’s still alive. Nah, it was all in my head, pard. And if you tell a living soul…” he finished, throwing his friend a challenging look.
Slim raised his hands in surrender. “I won’t tell, promise,” he grinned. “Now, let’s turn in. Saturday tomorrow and we’ve got hot dates in town. Now you’ve found the last of the stock, I reckon we can cut ourselves some slack and go do a little drinking and romancing,” he laughed.
It was the following morning when Jess finally made his peace with young Mike.
Jess sought him out as the boy was grooming his pony in the barn. Jess went over and watched him for a while before sinking down on a straw bale and gesturing for the child to join him. “Come here, Tiger; we need to talk.”
The child wandered over and sat, his eyes huge as he studied his hero. “You’re still mad at me, aren’t you, Jess, over the chickens?”
Jess threw a reassuring arm around the child. “Nope, I ain’t, but that’s what I wanna talk about. I’m sorry, Mike, way I laid into you, way I’ve been since. I guess I overreacted.”
“No you didn’t, Jess. I was wrong; I know that and I sure won’t do it again, or feed the fox…I promise.”
“Well, that’s just fine. So we’ll forget it, huh? Friends again?”
“Sure,” said the child, beaming and throwing his arms around the young cowboy in a warm bear hug.
“So, me an’ Slim are goin’ to town tonight. What do you want me to bring you back — candy or a comic book?” Jess asked, grinning down at the youngster.
“I don’t mind, Jess; you choose. I’m just glad everything is alright between us now.” Mike went off happily to finish tending his mount, but Jess decided to get both for the kid. Hell, a little spoiling now and then never hurt anyone, he thought as he went off about his chores whistling cheerfully.
Later that evening found Jess and Slim entering the Laramie Saloon dressed in their Sunday best — Stetsons, smart black frock coats, sparkling white shirts with black string ties and brocade waistcoats, both looking very handsome.
Old Tom, the barkeep, grinned up at them when they walked into the almost deserted bar. “Come a courting then, boys?” he said.
“Sure have,” said Jess cheerfully. “They ready then?”
“Nope. Been fussin’ and titivating all darn afternoon. Just a good job I’m quiet with everyone off at this dance,” he finished, the twinkle in his old eyes belying his brusque words.
Then there was the sound of girlish laughter, the rustle of skirts and a delightful smell of scent as the two friends made their entrance down the stairs, looking delectable — Lily in a pale mauve dress, complementing her violet eyes and blond curls, and Millie in her favored striking red dress, showing off her hourglass figure and glossy black hair to a tee.
Jess marched over and pulled Millie into a warm embrace before leaning back and admiring her and then Lily. “Well, don’t you two scrub up well,” he chuckled.
“Uh, you don’t look too dusty yourself,” laughed Millie in return.
Then Slim had smiled shyly at Lily. “Sure is good to see you.”
“And you,” she whispered equally bashfully, their relationship still quite new and fragile.
They had a couple of drinks and then made off for the crowded dance hall where they were hailed by friends and threw themselves into the lively proceedings.
Slim was always amazed at how light on his feet Jess was. A really wonderful dancer, and as he watched Jess cavorting about the dance floor with Millie in his arms, he had a slight stab of envy as he turned to see Lily watching the couple admiringly too. “So you want to risk it, with my two left feet?” he asked throwing her a rueful smile.
“I thought you’d never ask,” Lily said, beaming at him and offering her hand so that he could lead her off to the small dance floor.
It was towards the end of the evening and the place was now very hot and boisterous when Jess suddenly said he needed some fresh air.
Millie hid a smile at this euphemism, which was used when a boy and girl wanted a bit of privacy outside for some kissing and canoodling. She took his hand and left by the door leading onto the back alley, and they wandered off out into the cool of the night.
Jess stood there, one hand on the wall taking in deep gasps of air, and he suddenly looking very pale and Millie realized that he actually really did want some fresh air.
“Hey Hon, are you OK?” she asked, putting a gentle hand on his arm, as he looked decidedly queasy by now.
He swallowed hard and shook his head. “Yeah, I’ll be OK in a minute. Just feelin’ kinda sick an’ dizzy.”
She looked worried at that, and so he finally told her about the serious bout of concussion he’d suffered after the accident in the storm.
“Oh you poor love,” she said softly. “I’m surprised Daisy let you out.”
“Yeah, well, she probably wouldn’t if she knew about it,” he said with a sly wink.
“Why Jess Harper!” she said in mock indignation. “You shouldn’t have come if you were feeling sick. I’d have been disappointed, but I’d have understood you know.”
He smiled at that and then pulled her into his embrace before leaning in and kissing her very tenderly.
Then he drew back and looked deeply into her eyes. “Couldn’t do that, see. I wanted — hell no, I needed to see you. Think I’d have gone crazy if I’d gone another week without you,” he said honestly.
“Oh you old flatterer,” she said lightly, then looking more serious. “So shall we go back now then, Jess? Call it a night, huh?”
“Oh yes,” she said reaching up and gently brushing his lips with her own. “Very sure.”
He gave her his cheeky wink at that. “OK, I’ll just tell Slim.”
Jess put his head around the door and managed to catch Slim’s eye and gestured he was going. Slim grinned and gave him a thumbs up before turning back to his girl.
Outside, Jess took Millie’s hand and they walked slowly back towards the saloon. “So, do you reckon Slim’s on a promise tonight?” he asked with his cheeky grin.
She laughed at that. “Yep, I reckon so. Lily’s real stuck on him. it’s all I’ve heard all week — Slim this and Slim that,” she said rolling her eyes heavenwards.
They made their way back via the livery so Jess could check on Traveler and pick up his saddlebags, and when he got up to Millie’s warm cozy room above the saloon, he tossed them down on the bench by the door before removing his gun belt, jacket and boots, as per Millie’s house rules.
She had been watching him fondly and now she walked over and smiled up at him. “You feeling better now?”
He nodded and reached in his saddle bag and brought out a small bottle of her favorite perfume.
“Oh Jess, thank you,” she enthused and then she saw the bag of candy and a couple of comic books. “For Mike?”
He just nodded.
“You spoil that child,” she said laughing.
“Yeah, well, you’re long time grown up,” he said. “And anyway…”
She stopped laughing, surprised that he should take her teasing seriously. “Anyway…what?”
“Well, we had a bit of a fall out; that’s kinda to say sorry.” He went on to explain all about the chickens being killed by the fox and how he’d really laid into the boy, frightening him with his show of temper.
They were sitting on Millie’s big comfy couch in front of a crackling fire now and she cast him a sad look. “Oh that’s too bad. Do you remember the time you…” And then she caught her breath, a hand shooting up to her mouth as though to stop the words issuing forth as she remembered too late that Jess hated to talk of that incident when he had left the chickens out and the awful consequences.
However, to her surprise, he looked fine and just said, “Yeah, I was thinking back to that time when I was holed up in that old cave,” having told her the story of where he had sat out the storm, but little else. “I was remembering all about that day when Tad near drowned and… everything that happened later,” he said softly.
She just took his hand and squeezed it sympathetically, knowing full well to what he was alluding.
Then he gave her a sad smile. “We were a good gang, weren’t we — you an’ me best friends, little Tad always tagging along and… and old bossy boots Amy.”
She smiled sadly. “Yes, she was a bit bossy, wasn’t she, but a good friend. I always remember her when we have one of those dreadful twisters.”
Jess looked puzzled at that but said nothing, just looked off into the fire. “So what happened to her? Did you ever hear?” he asked after a while. “She moved to Florida with her folks, didn’t she, not long after that incident? Do you ever hear from her?”
She stared at Jess in disbelief at that. “Well, no. Don’t you know? She’s dead, Jess.”
“I thought you knew. It happened not long after they’d moved to Florida. There was a massive tornado, like we’ve just had and…”
“Go on,” he said urgently.
“Well, they were living in a stone house, so her Pa thought they’d be safe — battened everything down, and it sure hit them — but the house withstood it, the full force of a twister. Anyway, she had a baby brother by then, and her Ma and Pa were fussing over the kid because it was really scared cryin’ and frettin’, so they didn’t notice when Amy opened the door and ran out.”
“She did what!”
“She called out to her Ma that the storm was over and she was going to the barn to check on her pony. But it was the eye of the storm, Jess. Everything was calm and still, and then it suddenly took off again. That old wind drove through like a railroad car, taking Amy and the barn with it.”
He looked pale and shook his head. “She died…in the storm?”
“Yeah, her Pa ran out, but he was too late. The barn roof came down and she was killed outright, at just ten years old,” she said tearfully.
“Oh my God,” whispered Jess almost to himself. “I did…I saw a darn ghost.”
“Nuthin, nuthin’, sweetheart.”
“Are you OK, Jess? You’re awful pale. You feeling sick again?”
“No… er, I’m fine, really.” He gently stroked her face. “Let’s turn in, Millie; I really need to hold you right now.”
Jess had debated whether or not to confide in Millie about the vision he’d seen in the cave, but right then he had more pressing business on his mind, and after their sweet lovemaking was over and he’d slept, well then, it didn’t seem quite so important.
Why burden Millie with his imaginings? She’d surely have been upset by his tale, having been close to Amy, and anyway what did he have to say? He’d either seen some sort of apparition, or his poor battered brain had been playing tricks on him. Either way, the end result was the same. He finally had peace of mind, and that terrible guilt over his sister’s dreadful illness, which had haunted him all these years, was finally laid to rest. He was able to acknowledge what Amy had said — it had just been a dreadful accident due to a variety of circumstances.
Then he was suddenly aware that his girl was scrutinizing him in the early dawn light.
He smiled at where she lay propped up on an elbow, her eyes shining lovingly down on him. “So are you feeling better now?” she asked softly, knowing there had been something deeply troubling him earlier, something about the storm and his time in the cave maybe, she thought.
He considered the question for a moment and then gave her his broad grin. “Oh yeah, I figure I’m feelin’ real good now…real good.” He reached up and pulled her down into a passionate embrace.
It was late on the Sunday morning when the two cowboys finally met up for the ride back to the ranch.
“So you and Lily…er, had breakfast right?” asked Jess with a broad wink.
Slim flushed up, but returned the grin. “Yep, sure did. She really is something else, you know Jess. She…” And he went on for the next three miles, singing the praises of his wonderful girl.
After a while Jess had gotten bored and switched off, but then something in his buddy’s tone made him tune in again. “Huh, what say?”
“I said, so did you tell Millie all about your little ghost?” Slim said with a grin, and was surprised when Jess looked quite serious.
“Well, it’s kinda funny you should say that,” Jess replied after a few minutes. “Because it turns out she is dead after all — died at just ten years of age, and in the eye of a storm too, Slim. And that’s exactly when she left me. We’d been chattin’ and then the storm went real quiet and I went out to look. When I came back, she’d just disappeared.”
Slim gave a low whistle. “That sure is spooky.”
“You’re tellin’ me. But I figure whatever it was, Slim — a real ghost or just my imaginings — well, I’m feelin’ a lot better about things and I guess that’s what’s important.”
“Uh, guess you’re right, pard.”
And the two rode on in a contemplative silence.
So life went on as ever at the Sherman Ranch and Relay Station.
Mike reported that Mr. Brer Fox had moved on.
“Well, I guess he put his nose out of his den and heard that ol’ twister blowing up and decided to find someplace a mite quieter,” laughed Jess when the youngster told him.
Daisy sorely missed the early morning wakeup call the cockerel had always provided, and so she bought another from their neighbor and Mike dubbed him Rufus the Second. His ‘cock a doodle doo’ was even more ear splitting than his predecessor and caused many a fraught moment for the two young cowboys nursing a hang over after the odd night on ratified whisky.
A few days after the events of the storm, Jess’s head was completely cured and the events in the cave just seemed like a distant dream.
But whenever a really bad storm blew up or they experienced another twister, Jess would reflect back on that time and was forever grateful that a little girl from his past visited and finally brought him peace of mind.
Thank you for reading!