Reflections from a Sick Bed (by Patty W.)

Summary:  A short ‘Slim’ story for 332 Jude.
Category:  Laramie
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG  (Some strong language)
Word Count:  9235


 

Definition of to reflect upon: To think deeply or carefully about. Think about, give thought to, consider, give consideration to, review, mull over, contemplate, study, cogitate about/on, meditate on, muse on, deliberate about/on, ruminate about/on/over, dwell on, brood on/over, agonize over, worry about, chew over, puzzle over, speculate about, weigh up, revolve, and turn over in one’s mind.

*****

Slim Sherman lay in bed listening to the sounds coming through from the living room next door. He heard the scrape of a chair going back and then the sound of Mike Williams, the ranchers’ young ward, bang into his bedroom next door.

Then a moment later, Mike banged out again, doubtless now lugging his school books. Then he heard Daisy, their sprightly housekeeper, chide the youngster about something, and more door slamming finally heralded Mike’s exit for the stagecoach which would take him off to school. Slim smiled to himself; Mike had probably forgotten his spelling book and Daisy must have sent him back to fetch it.

Slim lay there straining to hear his partner, Jess Harper, returning to the house from the yard after changing the team on the stage. He knew his friend would doubtless have another coffee and then hopefully start work. But there again, would he without Slim to chivvy him on?

Yes, there it was; the door opened and closed and then he heard the scrape of a chair being pulled out, the clink of spoon on cup and then the low murmur of conversation as Jess and Daisy sat over another cup of the strong brew Jess insisted on before being able to function of a morning.

After ten minutes had lapsed and he heard spoon on cup again as Jess added sugar to his refilled coffee cup, Slim finally called out. “Jess…Jess,” he rasped in a weak, husky voice, “you still in there?”

After a few minutes, there was the sound of a cup being banged down on the table and then a moment later the bedroom door opened and Jess’s lean, handsome face peered in. “You want some breakfast now Slim?”

Slim shook his head. “Nope. So are you going to do a little work today then, Jess, or are you planning on spending it drinking coffee?” he asked plaintively.

The dark-haired cowboy entered the room, and came and sat down on the end of his buddy’s bed. Ignoring the irritable comment, he said pleasantly, “So how are you feelin’?”

“Awful,” Slim replied, turning blood shot eyes on his pard and sniffing loudly.

“Umm, well you just sit tight,” Jess replied, before turning away and coughing long and loud.

“Still got your cough, I see.”

“Huh? Oh yeah, comes and goes.”

“You should have stayed in bed until you were completely better, Jess. That’s just so dang typical of you. You bring the darned flu home, give it to all and sundry and can’t even be bothered to stay abed until you’re better. You do know you kept me awake best part of last night with that cough of yours. Sounds like a darned dog barking!”

“Slim, have you finished with your moanin’? At least you’re tucked in all nice and warm. It’s me as has to go out in a cold yard and do all the chores and then ride fence for the rest of the day — and it’s gonna rain…or snow,” Jess said, morosely casting a glance towards the window.

“Well, you’d better get to it then,” said Slim unfeelingly, “and don’t forget to cut extra wood for Daisy. It’s her baking day.”

“Yeah, OK,” Jess said, getting up reluctantly.

“And double check that barn door; I thought I heard it banging in the night. The lock’s rusted up some.”

“Will do.”

“Oh, and Jess, will you be real sure to check that fencing out on the home pasture? Don’t want any of the critter’s breaking through with the creek rising.”

Jess sighed deeply. Anything else? Like me to go build a new henhouse or paint the dang barn while I’m at it!”

“There’s no need to get smart, Jess. I’m only saying, is all.”

“Yeah, an’ I’m only tellin’ you! Now just stop your frettin’, will you, Slim. Garldarn it, you could worry for Texas. I’ll see you later,” Jess marched off.

Slim heard the front door slamming loudly a little later and relaxed back on his pillows for a nap.

When he awoke, Daisy was smiling down at him.

“Why, Slim, it’s nearly noon. I’ve been in more than once to give you a nice hot drink, but you’ve been fast asleep.”

Slim pulled himself up in the bed, blinking a little and accepting the hot lemonade from Daisy with thanks. “It’s that cough of Jess’s. Kept me awake most of the night, and what with this headache and sore throat, well, I just can’t settle.”

“Umm. It’s a really nasty bug, Slim; you need to rest. And as for Jess, well, I despair of him. First he gets up from his sick bed way before he was ready, and now he’s off out in the yard without a scarf,” Daisy said, shaking her old head sadly. “That boy would try the patience of a saint.”

Slim grinned at her, knowing the asperity was down to worry rather than real irritation.

“Well you know, Daisy, I figure he went back to work once he saw I was coming down with it. We couldn’t both be laying around in bed off sick, so I guess we shouldn’t be too hard on him.”

Daisy smiled at that. “Well, that isn’t what you said this morning. According to Jess, you were ‘being dang well unreasonable’,” she quoted in a good facsimile of Jess’s gruff tones.

“Aw, I just said that to get him to get a wiggle on, or he’d still be out there supping coffee,” Slim said with a chuckle. Then he looked up into Daisy’s kindly old face. “At least you and Mike haven’t succumbed to it,” he said thankfully.

“Oh, I had it last year if you remember, dear. I’ll be fine. I’m not too sure about young Mike, though. I suppose we must just keep our fingers crossed.”

Then they heard the stage come rattling into the yard and some cheery banter exchanged between Jess and old Mose Shell, the driver. About ten minutes later, the front door banged and they heard footsteps advancing.

“Oh lord, there’s Jess in for his dinner and me all behind.” Daisy bustled off at speed, only pausing at the door to smile cheerfully at her patient. “Some nice beef broth for you, dear.”

“Gee, thanks,” muttered Slim under his breath as she closed the door softly, and then he heard her and Jess laughing about something and he drifted off to sleep again.

He was dreaming he was going hunting with his Pa. Ma, with baby Andy in her arms, was standing in the ranch doorway, waving them off, his Ma telling them to be careful. “Matt, look after the youngster, you hear me!”

His Pa had nodded good-naturedly and ruffled his hair. “He’s not a baby anymore, Mary,” he said firmly. “He’s a young man now…and a real good hunting buddy.” The two had ridden off, Slim feeling as proud as punch.

They’d ridden over to a far-flung part of the property, nicknamed Paradise, and picked off a couple of wild turkeys as it was nearly Thanksgiving. Snow was on the ground and the air was frosty and clear. Then they rode home singing loudly and laughing together, the bond between father and son strong and true. Slim really began to feel what his father had said earlier — they were more than just father and son; they were buddies too.

When he dismounted and walked his mount towards the barn, Slim realized his boots were leaking, the slushy snow turning his feet to ice

“Slim, Slim dear…”

His eyes flickered open and he peered around the room feeling disorientated, the recent dream having been so vivid.

Then he looked up at the kindly soul smiling down at him, and for a fleeting moment he was a boy again and his Ma had come to tend him as he was obviously sick in bed.

 Then his head cleared and he returned the smile. “Daisy… Sorry, I was dreaming.”

“I’ve just brought you a hot bottle,” she said, cuddling the stone bottle. “It’s turned really chilly.” She placed it carefully at the bottom of the bed under the covers.

“Why, Slim, your feet are freezing!” She bustled off to fetch an extra blanket, and when she returned, tucked it around him carefully. “Better?”

“Much thanks, Daisy. What time is it?” Slim asked, peering out of the window where the sky had darkened and fat flakes of snow were just beginning to fall.

“Just after four; it will be dark in an hour or so.”

“So what’s Jess doing?”

“I don’t know, dear. He rode out after lunch; said he was worried there was some fencing down on the south pasture, but he promised  he’d be back to change the team on  the stage and it’s due anytime now.”

Slim looked anxious. “Heck, Daisy, I hope the stock hasn’t gotten out.”

“I don’t know, dear. It was Bill Johnson that rode by and told Jess, and he went off straight away, but that was hours ago.”

“At least all the beasts are down for the winter,” Slim said, throwing the now increasingly bad weather a jaundiced look. “Jess would have had his work cut out, trying to bring ‘em in all alone.”

“Yes, well, you just concentrate on getting better; Jess can take care of himself,” Daisy said, sounding more positive than she felt. “I’ll fetch you that broth now.” She bustled off.

Much later, Slim lay back listening to the sounds of the house.

Daisy was banging about in the kitchen preparing the evening meal, helped by Mike, his young voice carrying as he filled her in on the exciting happenings of the school day.

He was a good kid, Slim mused, and he’d missed him these last few days, having been banned from the sickroom by Daisy for fear that he would catch the flu bug too.

The stage had come and gone without any sign of Jess. Mose and Mike had changed the team themselves, the old timer huffing and puffing and making heavy weather of it all, he heard Mike relate to Daisy later, his treble tones carrying clearly.

“He said a real rude word when he saw Jess wasn’t around Aunt Daisy. Guess it was yard talk, so I can’t repeat it in front of a lady.”

Slim had chuckled at that.

However, now it was pitch dark outside the window — just a faint glow from the lying snow in the yard and more falling.

Where in tarnation was he, Slim thought for the hundredth time.

The South Pasture ran adjacent to the home pasture behind the ranch and abutted with Bill Johnson’s land, so if stock had strayed, then hopefully their neighbor would have helped Jess recover them. Maybe he was sitting in Bill’s warm kitchen being fed pie and coffee by his pretty wife Jane, Slim mused. Or maybe he’d had a fall and was lying unconscious in the freezing snow…

Then he thought back to that hunting trip Jess had insisted on going on, one early spring a few years back and how he’d been caught in a blizzard and nearly perished.(see the story “Springtime”).

Maybe he should go and search for him, but once he tried to lift his head from the pillow, it was obvious he was as weak as a kitten and going nowhere.

Jess was strong and resourceful; he’d be OK, Slim thought to himself, but when supper time came and went and there was still no sign of Jess, he really began to worry.

Slim lay there thinking of his pard and best friend. Gee, he was a good man, like a brother to him –a slightly younger wayward brother — but kin in all but birth none the less.

He remembered their first meeting — Jess lying, napping against that old fallen tree down by the lake. By jingo, he’d had attitude back then, and Slim smiled at the memory as Jess had offered to pay for the sips of water Traveler had taken from the lake when Slim had driven the young drifter off, saying he was trespassing. Then quick as lightening, Jess had turned the tables on him, disarming him, before riding off with a cheeky grin and mischievous warning to beware the jack rabbits back in the woods.

Then once he’d gone a few yards, Jess had thrown down Slim’s expensive rifle and handgun. Slim remembered thinking that the young drifter wasn’t so bad after all.

However, he’d had to review his opinion when he’d returned home and found Jess teaching the twelve-year-old Andy how to deal from the bottom of the pack.

Even now, he sometimes scratched his head and wondered why Jess had stayed, and why Andy was so desperate for him to do so.

His Ma and Pa had both passed on by then, and it had been down to Slim and old Jonsey, a family friend, to bring up the boy and maybe — just maybe, Slim admitted now — he’d been too strict with the kid. But hell, it wasn’t easy being both Ma and Pa to him and  keeping the business going, so it was no surprise there wasn’t much room for amusement in  their lives.

And then Jess came along, full of fun and excitement with one helluva lot of history –most of it far from good stuff.

Wild, edgy, but with that wicked sense of fun, Jess had been irresistible to a young impressionable boy. Slim had really had his nose put out of joint, he admitted to himself now, as Andy idolized his new hero, wanting to emulate him in every way, from a thirst for traveling the big open to learning to fast draw.

Slim lay there remembering that time so long ago, and suddenly a thought struck him for the first time. He remembered that dream and the feeling of elation when his Pa had called him  a young man and  said he was a great hunting buddy, how the relationship had subtly shifted as he felt accepted as a man by his Pa — ‘an equal hunting buddy’ — and that was what he’d never had with Andy. He had always felt the need to play the heavy father figure, whereas Jess had that kind of rapport with young Andy almost from day one.

Slim smiled to himself, remembering one of the early rare occurrences when Jess had opened up to him  and said how he’d never really had a childhood — although the sad truth behind that statement hadn’t really come to light until much later in their friendship. But anyway, Jess was making up for lost time, and loved larking about; he could be as big a kid as Andy at times. He also accepted the youngster as an equal and would treat him as such, and that was where the deep bond of friendship was born, Slim reflected now.

It had taken Slim longer to accept him, partly because of his initial jealously of his friendship with Andy, he saw clearly now. Funny how being laid up in bed gave you the time and space to think things through.

It had been the conflict with Bud Carlin and the way Jess had stood by Slim that started the shift in his opinion of the young drifter. Then as the weeks turned to months and the months to years, gradually their friendship had been forged — through shared adversity, blood, sweat and even occasional tears. Now Slim knew Jess was the best friend he would ever have.

And the most garldarn infuriating one, he thought as he stared out at the cold winter scene beyond the window. It was late evening now. Where in hell was he?

It was a much later that Slim finally heard the front door bang, a draft of cold air penetrating his room as his door was ajar. Then he could hear the deep voice of his pard joshing with Mike and then  being more subdued as Daisy was doubtless bringing him to task for worrying them all half to death.

Then the bedroom door opened hesitantly and Jess peered around it. “You awake? “

“What do you damn well think, Jess? I’ve been laying here fretting. So where in hell have you been?”

Jess came in and sank down on his own bed, and Slim could see at once that his buddy was absolutely exhausted That was borne out by the fact that Jess didn’t even start to retaliate to Slim’s less than friendly welcome.

Heck, they both knew he didn’t mean it anyway, Slim thought. His stern manner was merely reflecting his deep concern.

“Sorry, pard. We had some trouble rounding up the strays, the south pasture fence was down, and me and Bill took off after the stock. But…”

“But what, Jess?” Slim said more gently.

Jess sighed deeply, running a hand across his exhausted features. “You were right; the creek’s in spate and a couple of our prime beasts got in.”

Slim looked shocked. “Oh no,” he muttered. “We sure can’t afford to lose them.”

“I know. That’s why I went in after them.”

“You did what! Are you crazy, Jess?”

“Look, quit fussin’; it was OK. I was roped up and Bill was watchin’ my back. I got a rope on them and he helped haul ‘em out. They got kinda chilly but I guess they’ll live to tell the tale,” Jess said with a chuckle. “Anyway, we fixed the fence and I was kinda chilly too, after my dip, so I went over to Bill’s place and used his hot tub. We really need to get one sometime, Slim; sure beats that ol’ tin bath in front of the fire,” he said enthusiastically.

Slim looked furious. “So let me get this straight. While me and Daisy were worrying ourselves sick, you were enjoying yourself soaking in Bill’s hot tub!”

Jess thought back to a few hours ago and how he’s been so bitterly cold he could barely move, as he shivered, his teeth chattering and muscles crying in agony after the prolonged dip in the icy water. Bill’s place had been nearer and he had serious doubts if he’d have made it home, the state he was in, if he was honest.

“Yeah, that’s about the size of it,” Jess said, feeling just too beat to explain properly.

Slim spent the next half hour lambasting him for everything from his selfish ways to his ranching skills. “Why was the dang fence down anyway? Thought you’d mended that stretch…” until Jess threw his exhausted frame on his bed and fell into a deep sleep.

*****

It was mid morning the following day when Slim awoke from a doze to the sound of an unfamiliar deep voice in the living room, and after a moment there was a tap on the door and Daisy peered around.

“Bill Johnson is here, dear. Do you feel up to visitors?”

Slim nodded and welcomed his neighbor. “Thanks for helping Jess out yesterday,” he said at once. “I really appreciate it.”

“Oh, think nothing of it. That’s why I’m here, though, to see how Jess is. He was in such a bad way yesterday; me and Jane were real worried about him.”

“Huh, no, he was fine, just full of your new hot tub…says we should get one too,” Slim laughed.

“I guess it saved his life,” Bill said seriously. “The poor guy was way too cold once he finally got out of that ol’ river — couldn’t speak, hardly walk. Heck, he wouldn’t have made it home in one piece, that’s for sure. I got him in the tub, then afterwards he got his head down for a couple of hours. Jane wanted him to stay, but he said as how you’d be frettin’, so he rode back. To be honest, Slim I’m surprised he’s working today.”

Slim’s expression had turned from one of laughter to surprise and finally deep concern. “I’d no idea,” he said softly. “He never said anything; just seemed kinda beat.”

Bill grinned at that. “Oh well, that’s Jess, ain’t it.” He stood to go. “As long as he’s Ok… Oh and Slim, give him my apologies again, will you. It wasn’t your fence was down; it was mine. The critters had tried to get through yours and it was impossible. That’s when they got through our divide fence, but it was my section. Just off to check the rest.” With a hasty farewell, he was gone, leaving Slim to ruminate.

Jess was out all day visiting town for timber to mend another fence brought down in the gales — this time in the east pasture — and then had spent all day in the icy wind repairing it.

Slim was asleep when Jess finally came to bed, but awoke as his buddy entered the room.

“Sorry, Slim; didn’t mean to wake you.”

Slim pulled himself up in bed and adjusted the bedside lamp so he could see his pard better. “Jess, so why didn’t you say something?”

“Huh?”

“Yesterday, when I was bawling you out. I never realized you’d had such a bad time, pard. Bill came over earlier to see how you were.”

“Oh that. Well, it seemed kinda a shame to shut you up when you were goin’ full steam ahead,” Jess said with a chuckle. Then more seriously, he added, “I guess I was too dang beat to argue anyway.”

“So are you OK now?”

“Sure, sure I am.” Jess started to strip off for bed and washed up, before he wandered over and sat down on the edge of his bed. “So how are you feeling, Slim?”

“Pretty bad,” Slim said huskily.

“Can I get you something…some of Daisy’s lemonade?”

“No. No, I don’t mean it that way, Jess. I mean, I’m feeling pretty bad for laying into you that way and fussing too. I figure you don’t need me reading you the riot act when you’ve gotten your work cut out keeping the place running.”

Jess looked over and grinned. “Is that you apologizin’ and saying you fuss an’ worry way too much?”

Slim smiled at that. “Well, I wouldn’t say way too much, but yes, I am sorry, Jess. I shouldn’t have yelled at you. I’d no idea you were so bad until Bill explained.”

Jess just rolled his eyes. “Weren’t that bad,” he said dismissively, and was soon stretched out snoring gently, none the worse for his recent exploits Slim was relieved to see.

Slim lay there, playing back their recent conversation, unable to sleep, and asking himself honestly was he too much of a fusser and worrier. Did his pard have a valid point?

He cast his mind back over the years. When had he changed from a happy-go-lucky kid into a person whose glass tended to be half empty and who could always see the worst possible scenario when things went wrong.

Then he hid a smile. Well, since he’d made a friend of Jess, the worst possible scenario was usually what happened to his pard, that he had to admit, so no wonder he worried. But before then?

He cast his mind back to his childhood. When had he started fretting that the worst would always happen?

Then he recalled it — something that happened when he was just eight years of age. His Ma had lost the baby. It all came flooding back to him. His Pa realizing something was wrong and riding for the doctor, leaving young Mathew junior to look after his Ma.

Those were some of the most harrowing hours of his young life as his dear Ma at first tried to make light of the pain she was in and then eventually giving in to it, leaving Slim feeling absolutely helpless as he wiped her brow and tried to comfort her as best he could. He had never been so pleased to see anyone when his Pa finally landed back with old Doc Jones and Slim was ushered out to the barn on the pretext that he was needed to bed the horses down.

However, even at that young age, he knew he was being excluded because something bad was going on in the house, but it wasn’t until much later that his Pa finally came outside to find him and broke the terrible news that his little sister had been stillborn.

They had both broken down in tears. For young Slim, seeing his big strong Pa that way was almost as shocking as the revelation of the death of his baby sister.

And then the guilt had set in. Had it someway been his fault? It was winter time and his Ma had come out into the yard to help him make a snowman and had slipped on the ice. If she hadn’t done that, little Annie would have lived, Slim was convinced. Even after his Pa had told him no — it was just God’s will and they would be blessed with more children when the time was right — Slim always had the feeling in the back of his mind that he could — no, should — have done more to prevent the terrible tragedy. Maybe he should have helped more around the house, not made a fuss when his Ma was too tired to play with him or read a bedtime story. The list was endless.

Now Slim lay in bed watching the snow drifting down again outside the window and listened to the night time sounds of the house as the old timbers creaked a little. The distant sound of a lone wolf calling and the wind howling down the chimney in the next room made him shiver a little and pull the blanket more tightly around him.

As he lay there, Slim realized he hadn’t thought about little Annie for years. Andy had been born several years later and the family was complete. So why had that feeling of worry stayed to haunt him all through his life?

Then the thought came to him in an instant — because of that very thing. He had never addressed the problem, never thought back to that terrible time. It was as though it had been hidden so deep that he just couldn’t — or wouldn’t — face that terrifying incident.

That he had done so now was down to Jess, he realized. That ‘you apologizing’ for frettin’ and worryin’ way too much’ his pard had said just before they turned in that night.

Slim smiled into the darkness. It was funny how they’d helped each other over the years, but this throwaway comment of Jess’s might have been one of the most important ways he had ever helped Slim.

Sure, he didn’t enjoy frettin’ about things, but it was just the way he was, wasn’t it? But now armed with this new insight, he finally realized where his habit of worrying, often unnecessarily, came from.

He realized now with the perception of an adult that the young Matthew junior had played no part in the sad loss of his sister and all the worrying in the world would not have brought her back.

Worry itself, he saw now, with a blinding flash of awareness, was a complete waste of time and energy. It could never change things, and so there was really no point in it. So from that point on, he pledged to try and be more fatalistic and phlegmatic the way Jess was when faced with a problem and to worry less.

He knew in his heart he could never change overnight and there would still be times when he lay awake worrying incessantly over some dilemma or other, perceived or real. But he decided there and then to make a concerted effort not to worry as much, and certainly not over the small stuff.

As to fussing, that was another kettle of fish, he figured, and if he didn’t fuss and fret and generally nag his pard on a regular basis, well, things just wouldn’t get done. At least, not at the pace Slim wanted them to be done anyway, he chuckled.

Then he rolled over and fell into a dreamless and refreshing sleep.

*****

Slim awoke the following morning feeling rested and much better.

He heard the usual breakfast time banter coming from the living room, and then a little later, Jess marched in carrying a cup of coffee.

“Daisy’s just makin’ you some breakfast,” Jess said passing the drink over.

“I’m feeling a lot better; thought I might get up later,” Slim said.

Jess smiled at that. “So you think you’re gonna get past Daisy, do you?”

“Well, you got under the net,” said Slim with a grin.

“Umm…’cept I’m practiced,” Jess said chuckling. “You ain’t got no chance, pard; she’ll have you abed at least another week.”

Later when Daisy came to collect his dirty dishes, Slim suggested maybe he should get up for a while.

“Oh, I don’t think so, dear. After all, you have been very sick and you don’t want to end up with a lingering cough like Jess, do you?” she said firmly.

“No ma’am, I guess not,” Slim replied, looking so hang-dog that Daisy took pity on him.

“Why don’t I bring my mending in here and keep you company?” she suggested.

Slim was glad of her calm, relaxing presence and they sat in companionable silence, Slim  enjoying watching her nimble fingers patching Mike’s pants before moving on to a rip in one  of Jess’s blue work shirts.

“Do you ever regret coming here, Daisy?” Slim asked after a while.

Her head shot up and she threw him a puzzled look. “Why no, of course not, dear. Whatever made you think that?”

Slim shrugged. “I don’t know. You having to play Ma to young Mike; he can be quite a handful. Then old Jess there ripping up his clothes the way he does and getting beat up, shot or worse, needing your nursing skills more often than not.

“There’s me always bending your ear worrying about everything, asking your advice,” Slim said with a sheepish glance.

“All three of us are forever traipsing in mud and dirt on your clean floors. Not to mention wanting feeding every five minutes, Daisy. That sure is one heck of a job. Seems like you’re the heart of this family, and I don’t know how we’d manage without you, that’s for sure, but I just wondered if sometimes it was all a bit too much?” Slim finished, throwing her a warm look.

“Why Slim Sherman, that was quite a speech. So what’s brought all this on?”

He shrugged, “I don’t know, really. I guess I’ve just had time to think things through while I’ve been laying here. Got to thinking how much I appreciate all you do for me…and the others. They think the same, you know.”

She looked surprised at that. “Well of course I know, Slim. Why ever wouldn’t I?”

Slim shrugged. “Men don’t always tend to remember to say that kind of thing, I suppose, and kids neither. It’s not that we don’t feel it. Just never get around to saying it, I guess,” he said, looking a little sheepish again.

Daisy shook her head. “Do you really think I don’t know how much you all care about me? Why, it’s obvious, dear. It doesn’t have to be the big grand gestures, just in the little everyday things.”

Slim put his head to one side, listening intently.

“Hundreds of little things, like the way Jess swears like a trooper in the yard, but would never think of cussing in front of me. How he is always the first to notice if I’m tired or upset and just squeezes my hand and goes off and makes me a coffee, or lends a hand with the supper.” She giggled at that. “Ah, see, you’ve never noticed, have you?

“Then there are the things you do. How you always remember when it’s my women’s group day and have the buggy harnessed and ready for me and a blanket tucked up on the seat if the weather’s cold. Remembering to cut extra logs for my baking day. And even when you were sick this week, I heard you reminding Jess. Thoughtfulness, Slim; that’s how you and Jess show you care.

“Then there is young Mike. Yes he can be a handful and tiring, but he has such a wonderful cheerful sprit that keeps me young. Out of the three of you, he is the most demonstrative. He always has a kiss and a hug for me.”

 Her old eyes smiled and turned misty. “Mothers never stop longing for a young child’s arms around their neck and that lovely warm kiss goodnight. Especially me, with my son grown up and now….no longer in this realm, as you know. So no grandchildren for me, but I have Mike and his love and that’s enough,” she said softly.

Then sniffing and pulling herself together, Daisy said, “And one day if I can get you two married off, I’ll have a whole tribe of little ones to love.”

Slim reached over and took her hand, squeezing it gently. “You know, you never cease to amaze me, Daisy.”

She smiled at that. “How so, dear?”

“Just that you always see the good in us…and never complain about all the things we get wrong.”

“Well, maybe that’s because I know you’re all human, just like me. None of us is a paragon of virtue and very boring it would be if we were. And I’ll let you into a little secret — I quite like to hear Jess sounding off in the yard. It must be so liberating being able to cuss that way. And he’s so inventive too –never repeats himself, have you noticed?”

“Daisy, I’m surprised at you and shocked!” Slim gasped and they both burst out laughing.

“That’s better, dear. You’re looking much more yourself now. I think maybe you’ll be ready to get up for a little while in a day or so.”

*****

In view of the fact that Daisy thought him to be nearly recovered, the ban on Mike visiting was lifted and the youngster charged in after school and bounded straight up onto the bed.

“Gee Slim, I’ve missed you so much. Are you better, huh? Huh, are you, Slim?”

“Hey Tiger, take it easy,” Slim said, easing Mike’s weight off his chest a little as the youngster had him in a bear hug.

Mike sat back and scrutinized his hero for a full minute. “Nope, I can’t see it.”

“What’s that, Mike? “

“Jess said the other day, when you’d been cussing him, that you’d gotten an ornery streak a mile wide running through you right now, but you look just ordinary to me.”

“He did, did he,” asked Slim, laughing in spite of himself. “Well, I guess I did give him kind of a hard time when he was late home the other night.”

“Aw, I guess that was just because you were worried about him,” the child said sagely.

Slim just stared for a moment. “Heck Mike, when did you get to be so wise?”

Mike laughed at that. “I just picked it up, I guess. Like that time Jess bawled me out for tryin’ to ride that old mustang round at Billy’s house. You remember; I fell off and hurt my head.”

“Yeah, sure I do; it was a real bad fall.”

“Umm. Well, Jess explained afterwards that he only yelled because he’d been real worried. So I guess that’s the way you were the other night”.

Slim agreed. “So how about you, Mike. School OK?”

“Umm, I guess.”

“Mike?”

The child looked secretive. “Can’t really tell you, Slim.”

“Oh come on, Tiger, if you’re in trouble, I guess I need to know.”

“I’m not in any trouble, Slim, honest I’m not.”

Slim looked closely at the youngster and remembered a few years back when he was being bullied and Jess had sorted it all out. (see the story “Reprisal”) “So is someone being mean to you then?”

“Heck no,” Mike laughed.

Slim raised an enquiring eyebrow.

“Oh alright, I’ll tell you, but you’ve gotta promise not to tell the others. Cross your heart and hope to die?”

Slim solemnly crossed his heart and added the promise.

“See, we’ve been making Christmas presents in our craft classes, and  seeing  as it’s nearly Thanksgiving, already teacher let us work on  our projects all afternoon. It was swell!”

“So can you tell me what you’re working on then?” asked Slim eagerly.

Mike thought back to the beautifully decorated blotter he had already finished which he knew would take pride of place on Slim’s desk that Christmas.

“All but yours, OK? That has to be a secret,” Mike said seriously.

“Oh, yeah, sure of course,” Slim agreed with equal gravity.

“Well I’ve made this little clay pot for Jess to keep Traveler’s sugar lumps in over in the barn, so he doesn’t keep leaving aunt Daisy’s sugar jar out there.”

Slim grinned at that. “Well, I guess Jess will love that.” Miss Daisy too, he thought secretly.

“I sure hope so. I’ve made aunt Daisy a new pan holder; her last one got kinda burnt when you and Jess were dishing up supper that time.”

Slim gave him a rueful look. “Yeah, I’d forgotten about that.”

The youngster relaxed back beside Slim, a big grin on his face. “I’m sure looking forward to Christmas. It’ll be swell, won’t it, Slim?”

Slim put an arm around him and gave him a little hug. Sure will be. And we’ve got Thanksgiving first, don’t forget. Guess we’ll go off on a turkey shoot in a week or so — you, me and Jess huh?”

The child bounced up looking ecstatic at that. “Gee, that will be just great Slim. I’m just so lucky, ain’t I!”

Before Slim could answer, they heard Daisy calling Mike to wash up for supper.

The child jumped down at once. “Gotta go, Slim; see you later.” He was gone, banging out through the door, a little whirlwind of happiness and energy.

Slim shook his head in wonderment. This was the same kid who they had taken in after his parents and everyone else on the wagon train had been killed and scalped by hostiles, leaving the youngster a homeless orphan with nothing but the clothes he stood up in.

Slim lay back on the pillows and puzzled over how it could be that the child was able to recover from such a trauma and lead a happy, fulfilling life. He pondered on the indomitable spirit of mankind and particularly of this youngster, who they were all privileged to have in their lives.

Sure Mike would occasionally have nightmares or suffer some upset relating to his past, but those incidents were getting fewer and fewer as time went on. Slim now rejoiced in that fact that young Mike was so happy and settled. That was partly down to all of them, he realized as he really considered the situation properly for the first time.

It was he who had given the youngster the stability that he had so missed with the passing of his Pa, and he had even remarked once that Slim’s blond hair and upright figure put him in mind of his Pa. It was Slim who helped him with his schooling too and liaised with the teacher if there were any problems.

Daisy was a favorite auntie, Ma and occasional nurse all rolled into one, and saw to the child’s every need, both physical and spiritual — from making sure he  washed behind his ears to remembering to say his prayers.

However, it was always Jess the youngster wanted if he was sick or troubled, and Slim realized the two had a very strong bond, possibly as they had both had a difficult start in life, with Jess losing his kin in an equally traumatic way.

Mike hero-worshiped his pard, he knew that, and just adored helping out around the ranch, following Jess around like an eager little puppy at his heels. Jess took the youngster seriously, though, and over the last few years had spent time teaching him the rudiments of ranching. Now the boy was a real big help around the place.

A good job too, Slim thought as he began to doze off again. What with him laid up for so long, Jess had really appreciated the young‘un’s help around the place, he knew that. Then yawning, he finally drifted off to sleep.

*****

When he awoke, Slim saw Jess stripped down to a pair of pristine white undershorts and in the process of donning an equally snowy white shirt and adding his black string tie.

Slim stretched, yawned and then grinned over at his buddy. “Got a hot date?”

Jess winked. “Sure have; I’m seeing Millie. Takin’ her to supper at the hotel and then out dancing.”

“Umm…so what’s the occasion then, Jess?”

Jess looked a mite uncomfortable as he pulled on his best pants and then hunted around in his draw for his fashionable silver and black brocade vest before turning back to Slim. “Figure I needed to make amends. Stood her up last week when you were taken sick and I had to finish moving those steers, so we missed the dance and she weren’t any too impressed.”

““Gee Jess, I’m really sorry. Did you blame me?”

Jess chuckled at that. “Why, sure I did. Said you were laid up real sick and she understood, sends her best. Anyway, it could work out pretty good for you, pard.”

Slim blew his nose and sniffed. “So how do you make that out?”

Jess reached for his smart dark frock coat and shrugged into it before turning back to his buddy. “Lily overheard and she was real upset about it; said as to how she sent her love and you were to call in and see her once you’re better. Reckon you’re on a promise there, Slim.”

“What… really?” Slim said, looking overjoyed. Then his face dropped a little. “So when did she say this?”

Jess looked a little sheepish as he picked up his Sunday boots and mooched over to his bed. “Er, last week?”

“Jess, you might have told me sooner!”

“Well I’ve been too dang busy, ain’t I? What with fishin’ beasts outer the creek and mending every goddamn fence on the spread, hell, I can’t do everythin’, you know, Slim!”

“OK, OK simmer down, I’m sorry. But just give her my love and tell her…well, tell her I can’t wait to see her. Should be fine by next Saturday. Tell her that, huh?”

Jess plonked himself down on the edge of his bed and proceeded to polish his boots. “Yep, I’ll tell her,” he said, his good humor intact once more at the prospect of an evening with his best girl. He pulled on his now shiny boots and plucked his Sunday best Stetson from the hook and put it on, pulling it down firmly, before making for the door. “Don’t wait up! “

Slim chuckled at that and waved a dismissive hand at his pard. “Get outta here!”

Once Jess had gone, the room seemed strangely quiet and Slim settled down to his thoughts.

His pard sure cut a dash when he was all duded up for a night on the town, he thought smiling. He was really popular with the ladies too, although he’d reined in the flirting, Slim had noticed, since Jess had a ‘sort of understanding’, as he called it, with Millie.

The young couple had been best friends since their childhood back on the panhandle and had hooked up every now and again over the years, but it wasn’t until she had come to work at the Laramie saloon that they saw each other more often, going around together if neither was dating. Then just last Thanksgiving, they had finally ‘got it together’, as Daisy had said, and had seen what everyone else had known for years — they were ideal for each other. Now they were dating exclusively and were exceedingly happy, Slim knew.

And so was he, but he hadn’t realized just how much Millie’s friend and co worker Lily meant to him, until Jess relayed that message from her tonight. Maybe it was true, he thought with a little smile, maybe absence did make the heart grow fonder. Then he felt terrible as he had been sadly neglecting Lily over the last few weeks. They’d been going together on and off for a while, but when he was needed to bring the stock down early for the winter, he had had to break a couple of dates, and then he’d got sick. Yes, he must take a leaf out of Jess’s book and spoil her something rotten once he was well enough to get back into town.

Then he cast his mind back to those early days when Jess had first arrived and remembered how staid, and yes, sort of boring his life had been back then. Everything seemed to be about work — struggling to make ends meet and then worrying about bringing up Andy as his Ma and Pa would have wished. There just never seemed to be any time for what Jess called R and R, as they had referred to it in the Army, or more specifically, drinkin’, playin’ poker and romancin’ the ladies.

Well, in those first few months, Slim got a crash course in all three pursuits — how to drink Red Eye until you ‘spewed your guts up’, how to play to win and perfect a real good ‘poker face’, and most important of the three, how to romance the ladies.

Sure, Slim had had his moments during the war when he and his fellow troopers had enjoyed the pleasures of ladies in certain  establishments. But as to romancing a particular girl and going on dates — kissing and all that romantic sweet talk — well, he’d not had too much experience of that,  being quite young for his age before the war and too dang busy with the ranch on his return.

However, the advent of Jess was to change all that.

“What, you’ve never dated any of those gorgeous women around here?” Jess had asked in amazement, and when it became obvious Slim was somewhat out of his depth, Jess was happy to talk him all through the process. He had a wealth of experience going back years, and Slim was more than a little impressed, especially when he saw how the Harper charm seemed to work on every female in the radius of Laramie from the age of about 12 to eighty!

“I just don’t get it. How do you do it pard?” Slim had asked, mystified.

Some years ago, they had ridden in off the trail with three days growth of beard, filthy and rank, and as they entered the saloon, every saloon girl in the place had turned and started making eyes at Jess.

Jess had just shrugged and grinned at him before ordering them both a glass of red eye and a steak a piece.

However, after Jess had managed to find his way into the arms and heart of the most beautiful girl in the place, Slim had repeated his question at breakfast the next day.

“Well I’ll tell you, Slim. See it’s all in the kissin’,” and Jess had finally relented and told his new friend everything he knew about romancing the ladies.

Slim learned the lessons well and was soon putting theory to practice, enjoying a much more interesting social life than hitherto.

Now, however, he was content with Lily’s company alone, and he eventually drifted off to a deep and peaceful sleep dreaming of his love.

*****

When Slim awoke, the sunlight was streaming in through the window and he figured it was mid-morning. He lay there listening to the silence. Where was everybody he wondered?

The a few minutes later, the front door banged and then the bedroom door flew open and Jess breezed in looking rather whacked but chipper enough.

 “Did you have a good night then, pard? “

Jess’ handsome features relaxed into a big grin. “Sure did.”

Slim knew better than to ask for details of Jess’s romantic interludes but just returned the smile. “Good; I’m glad she forgave you. “

Jess just winked and then went about the task of stripping off all his finery before washing and dressing for work.

“So where is everybody? asked Slim.

“Huh? Oh, I passed Daisy and Mike on the trail; they’ve taken the buckboard and gone visiting old Ma Jenson. Apparently she’s been kinda poorly with this flu; Daisy’s taken her some beef tea and stuff,” Jess said vaguely.

“Oh, right.”

“She’s left us some cold cuts for dinner, back for supper, and I’ll make us a coffee in a minute,” Jess finished as he stood stripped to the waist washing up.

Slim studied his naked back bearing so many scars from past skirmishes and figured his pard must have just about used up his nine lives by now.

Jess suddenly became aware of his scrutiny, and spinning round, raised a questioning quirky eyebrow. “What?”

“Just thinking of your past,” Slim said with a faint smile. “All those scars you carry, pard — some history — and I was just thinking you must be running out of those nine lives you always reckon you’ve got.”

Jess grinned at that. “I thought you told me you were going to try and stop worrying so dang much?”

“Well, I am sure. Going to try anyway. Figure I’ve seen the light laying here and thinking on things. Yep, I’m definitely going to try to give up worrying,” Slim replied sincerely.

“Umm, well, dwellin’ on my past probably ain’t a good place to start,” Jess said with a chuckle.

Slim laughed too. “No arguments there.” Then he sobered. “You’ve changed over the years, though, Jess. You aren’t the same drifter with trouble in both pockets and a greased holster that first landed here, that’s for sure.”

Jess nodded in agreement. “I guess not.”

“In fact, I reckon you’re pretty near domesticated now,” Slim continued with a chuckle. “Courting real serious and a partner in a thriving business… Yes, a changed character.”

Jess looked slightly perturbed by that. “Well, hardly thriving; we just about make ends meet, to be fair, pard.”

Slim conceded that. “Yep, but the potential’s there.”

“Oh yeah,” Jess agreed, “Sure got potential.” Then he frowned. “And courtin’… Well, that’s kinda formal, ain’t it, Slim I mean, me and Millie are keepin’ company, sure, and I’ll be makin’ an honest woman of her one day too, but heck, you can’t rush into these things, you know, pard.”

Slim nodded, again knowing how jealously Jess guarded his free spirit and thirst for adventure. Even if he rarely got the chance to take off, righting wrongs and fighting a friend’s corner anymore, he still liked to think he could if the need arose and Slim understood that. “Well sure, Jess, I know that.”

There again his partner was full of surprises, and just when Slim thought he was really settling down and all domesticated…well, that’s when Jess would take himself off on another adventure, getting up to his neck in trouble. Nope, maybe his pard hadn’t changed all that much, he had to agree.

But Slim had, and in just the last few short days during his confinement in bed.

Shoot, he couldn’t remember the last time he’s been laid low this way, and it sure gave a man time to ruminate on life, he thought. And that’s exactly what he’d done with some amazing revelations.

Remembering all those years ago, the loss of his little sister and realizing for the very first time the impact that had, had on his life. Making him rethink his attitude towards worrying about every ‘dang thing’, as Jess put it so poetically, he thought with a chuckle.

Then that vivid dream when he felt again that wonderful bond he’d had with his Pa, how special it felt to belong and to be accepted as a young man in his own right, and how that had made him realize where he had gone wrong in raising young Andy. With hindsight, it was obvious now to him, but at the time, well… He remembered both Jess and old Jonsey telling him not to be so hard on the boy, to cut him some slack, but he just wouldn’t listen.

Oh he’d made it up to the boy since, and now Andy was all grown up and away at college. The two brothers enjoyed each other’s company as equals on his occasional visits home.

It might be too late to change the past, Slim mused, but not the future, and the way he was parenting Mike was vastly different.

He remembered with pleasure the excitement the child had shown at the proposed turkey shoot. The boy needed responsibility and loved working on the ranch and being included in hunting and fishing trips, so Slim and Jess allowed him the freedom to help out and be ‘one of the boys’. And the youngster thrived on it.

Then he looked back on his conversation with Daisy and was amazed at the way she saw her life on the ranch — how the little things that he and Jess did, without a second thought, were so significant to her. Sure, he’d always unconsciously thought of her as a Ma figure to them all, but after their talk, that was really confirmed. Heck, she even envisaged being around to care for his and Jess’s offspring too, and the thought made him feel truly humbled and even more appreciative of their much loved housekeeper.

If things went to plan with Lily, then who knows, he thought, turning misty eyed at the idea.

Yep he’d really made a few interesting discoveries about life while he’d been recuperating, that was for sure, he thought to himself.

“Slim…Slim!”

“Huh?”

“I said what with Daisy bein’ out an’ all, why don’t you get up and sit by the fire a while. I’ll make us some coffee and add a drop of ‘purely medicinal spirit’ too, if you’d like.”

Slim grinned at that. “Sounds real good, pard.”

“I guess it’s about time you got up, anyway. Lyin’ around in bed all day doin’ nuthin’ could drive a man crazy,” Jess said, giving his friend a gentle punch on the arm.

“Doing nothing?” asked Slim.

“Sure, you ain’t done nuthin’ — just been layin’ around, ain’t you?”

Slim hid a small smile. “Yep, that’s it, Jess; I’ve just been layin’ around doing nothing at all.”

“Well that’s what I said, ain’t it,” Jess sighed rolling his eyes. “I’ll go put the coffee on.”

***End***

Thank you for reading!

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