Summary: This story also references incidents from the story “Loved, Lost, Survived”.
Rated: PG (some adult themes)
Word Count: 10,627
By the time Spring rolled around that year, I guess all of us at the Sherman Ranch and Relay Station were beginning to get a nasty dose of cabin fever. It had been a long hard winter, with the snow clouds rolling in over the mountains almost before Fall had had a chance.
My best buddy and partner in the ranch, Slim, and I had had a hard time of it, bringing all the stock down to the low pastureland before the deep snows set in; we had to work every hour from dawn to dusk to get things all fixed and ready for the difficult time to come.
During the long bitterly cold days when the wind howled and groaned and the snowflakes either skittered around the yard like playful leaves or formed a dense white wall of blizzard, we still had to perform all the usual chores, tend to the stock and generally get our butts nearly froze off on a regular daily basis.
Apart from the cold, harsh working conditions, we also had to cope with the boredom and occasional spats of temper and frustration that being confined to a small ranch house caused.
Daisy, our wonderful motherly housekeeper, was probably the most even-tempered of us and was used to being confined to the house doing her daily chores of cooking, cleaning, washing and mending the clothes we men folk seemed to be able to rip up on a regular basis. But as the weeks progressed with no end to the relentlessly icy conditions, even Daisy was getting fed up of having us underfoot for most of the day.
As for Mike, the little boy Slim and I had adopted a few years back after he was found on the trail some miles away, his parents murdered by hostile Indians, well, he thought staying home from school was wonderful…for the first few weeks. But as his enforced imprisonment between the four walls continued, he too became listless and started whining that he was so bored and what could he do now.
Slim and I tried to keep him amused by playing chess or checkers, and Slim even found some old books from his childhood up in the attic, which helped a lot. The boy needed fresh air and exercise too, so I took to encouraging him to come out and about on the ranch with me, checking the stock and doing all the necessary chores along with the odd snowball fight and snowman-building contest.
Slim probably coped with being cooped up inside better than I did and spent time on the ranch accounts; he could lose himself in a book for hours.
But me, well, I just longed to get outside and off the ranch for a while. Being caged in for any length of time has always been troubling to me after the spell I had in prison, not to mention the prisoner of war camp. Of course, being stuck in with my adopted family was nothing like that, but still I yearned to get out, and so one morning when the snow had stopped and the wind dropped a little, I suggested I go and see what game I could spook up out of the woods a few of miles away.
Slim, ever the worrier, didn’t want me to go, saying it was too risky in these weather conditions, but when he saw the stubborn look in my eye, I figured that he thought the argument wasn’t worth it.
Both of us were feeling kinda ashamed of our recent behavior when a simple argument over whose turn it was to chop extra fire wood had nearly come to blows. Since then, we had trod carefully around each other, not wanting to have another flare up and suffer the sad looks Daisy kept throwing in our direction.
So it was with my warm sheepskin jacket buttoned up and my hat firmly pulled down over my eyes and my best huntin’ rifle in my hand I went off to saddle up Traveler. With a wave of farewell and promise to be back before nightfall, I made my escape into the beautiful, sunny winter landscape beyond the ranch yard.
The goin’ wasn’t easy for old Trav and we took it slowly, edging our way along the snow-covered and deeply rutted road before cutting off through open countryside, heading for a small copse in the distance where I had high hopes of scaring up a wild turkey as a welcome change from our recent predictable diet of dried meat and beans.
The further I travelled, the further the standing trees seemed to be and it was later in the day than I had anticipated when we arrived. Dismounting, I continued on foot, walking softly so as not to scare off any game afoot. Hitching Traveler to a handy tree, I removed my hunting rifle from its scabbard and continued stealthily through the now quite dense brush.
I must have been walking for goin’ on ten minutes when I saw them, as scraggy a lookin’ bunch of turkeys as I’d ever seen, but turkeys they were and destined for Miss Daisy’s pot.
Takin’ careful aim, I managed to dispatch the two largest to their Maker as the rest beat a hasty retreat into the dense foliage .Grabbing them and putting them in the gunny sack, I turned and re-traced my steps, headin’ for where I knew ol’ Traveler would be, champin’ at the bit ready for home and a warm stable. Chucking the bag over the saddle horn, I hopped up and turned for home.
I guess we had been riding slowly for about an hour or so when the wind started howling again. The snow, at first blowing painfully in small clusters against my face, started to come down in earnest as a full blown blizzard erupted from nowhere. The gentle sunny Spring-like day had suddenly turned back into a raging winter’s one.
Well now, I may be a Texas boy, born and bred, but I’d sure learned over the last few years not to mess with a Wyoming winter. I knew from experience that it could be as lethal as having a colt.45 aimed at your head and have an equally dire outcome.
I turned old Trav with his rump to the prevailing wind and sat and thought out my options. I figured that, although the copse would provide us with much needed protection from the storm, I was actually nearer to the ranch, so decided to press on as best I could. The white-out was so bad now that I could barely see my hand in front of my face and relied on ol’ Trav’s homing instinct to set us on the right track.
We were crossing open country and both getting the brunt of the weather, Traveler quickly turning from a bay to a fancy gray as the snow covered him. I began to shiver as the cold wind and snow eventually penetrated my now sodden jacket, soaking through to my shirt, under shirt and eventually running in rivulets down my back and chest. My denims too were soaking and hung heavy and waterlogged.
So it was with a sigh of relief that I realized we were approaching the Laramie Road. Here, fearful of my horse stumbling on the rutted surface, I dismounted and slowly led him towards home.
I could gradually feel myself becoming weaker and the desire to just curl up in the snow and give in to sleep was almost overwhelming. I guess I must have been about a mile from home when I collapsed exhausted into the snow, I struggled to get up again and then suddenly it just didn’t seem worth it, and I lay there and relaxed into blessed oblivion.
I don’t know how long I was out, but I felt Traveler nudging me with his head and then attempting to chew gently at my hair, having lost my hat in the fall.
Lying there more dead than alive, I suddenly heard my partner’s voice from far away and I was transported back to the Laramie Saloon one day last summer.
I had been takin’ a lot of teasing and banter from around the bar due to the state of me. I sported a black eye, big blue, black bruise across my cheek and a bandage supporting a badly sprained wrist.
Slim and I had spent the day breaking mustangs. At least I had; Slim and Mike had just mostly hung on the corral fence, hurling advice and insults in equal proportions. I had had an interesting argument with this particular brute, named ‘Devil’s Boy’ by a very astute Mike, and I had definitely come off worst.
Through all the easy joshing in the bar, Slim turned to Mort Cory, our good friend and town Sheriff, and I heard him say quietly, a note of pride in his voice, “Tell you what Mort, Jess sure ain’t no quitter. Guess it’s his stubborn streak; the boy just won’t back down. Gets himself back up in the saddle time after time. Guess he’ll have that ol’ ‘Devil’s Boy’ beat sooner or later,” he laughed.
I heard the words again plain as day as if he was stood right next to me.
Slowly and painfully, I pulled myself up to my knees and then managed to grab hold of Traveler’s stirrup and eventually the saddle. Pausing, I shook my head, gathered my wits, and after several minutes of deep breathing and talking sternly to myself, I reached down, picked up my hat and pulled it firmly down over my eyes. Holding onto the reins as if for support, I trudged on, leading Traveler in the direction of home, family and blessed warmth.
Night had fallen and I guessed that it was long past everyone’s bed time by the time I finally staggered into the yard. To be honest, I was kinda glad, as the last thing I was in the mood for was Daisy’s fussin,’ Mike’s endless questions and most of all Slim’s angry, “I told you so” speech.
Glancing at the ranch house as I made my way to the barn, I saw the curtain twitch and an anxious face peering out. Sure enough, a few minutes later in the barn, where I was now unsaddling Trav, the door creaked open and my partner strolled in.
Bracing myself for the lecture I knew was coming, I turned only to see Slim’s eyes open wide in amusement as he proceeded to roar with laughter.
“What’s so dadgum funny?” I said, peering through the gloom at my friend and partner who appeared to be almost crying with mirth now.
“Sorry, Jess,” Slim gasped, “it’s just the state of you. You look like one of Mike’s snowmen.”
“Ha, ha,” I mumbled humorlessly and then I staggered forwards, grabbing onto Trav for support.
Immediately Slim rushed forward and said contritely, “Gee, I’m sorry, buddy. Are you OK?”
In my usual Harper fashion, I replied yes, I was fine, and then as my ornery side took over, I added, “Well, don’t just stand there, you great galoot. Help me get this poor ol’ horse rubbed down and fed and blanketed before he catches his death!”
It was sometime later, when we entered the house, that Slim was able to see the full extent of the state I was in. He became aware of my soaking clothes, chattering teeth and my body now wracked with shivers. He quickly took charge, and producing hot water, helped me strip off and bathe my freezing body by the warm fire. I didn’t know if Daisy had retired for the night, but I sure as hell hoped she had as I sat there luxuriating in the warmth of the tub.
Once warm and dry, Slim produced a couple of mugs of steaming coffee with more than a splash of whiskey, and we sat by the fireside while I filled him in on the day’s events.
He’d already found the turkeys and put them in the cold store, calling them kinda puny for the amount of trouble they’d caused with an evil twinkle in his eye.
Me, well, I was just glad to be back under a warm roof and, ignoring the comment, staggered off to bed, taking Mike’s dog Buttons with me as extra warmth. I stretched out under the blanket, dog an’ all, and was asleep within seconds.
The next day I was allowed to sleep in and Daisy even offered me breakfast in bed!
Strangely enough, though, I wasn’t too hungry, and after getting up, just opted for a coffee. I went out and checked on old Trav, who seemed no worse for wear after his adventures, and helped Slim with the chores. But by lunchtime, I felt real shaky and tired and took myself off for a nap rather than having lunch.
Next thing I knew, I awoke and the room was dark save for the lamp on the night stand and Daisy was sitting on the edge of the bed wiping my face with a damp rag. I felt kinda hot and sick and guessed I’d picked up a chill after yesterday’s exploits in the snow.
Daisy smiled down. “How are you feeling, dear? You’ve been asleep for hours.”
I tried to answer, but was suddenly wracked with a coughing fit that left me feeling weak and nauseous.
Gently lifting my head, she put a cup of water to my lips and I drank greedily, before another coughing fit started again. Slim came in when he heard the racket I was making and stood with his hand on Daisy’s shoulder, frowning down at me concern in his eyes
After a little while, Daisy left us to go and tend to Mike, and Slim sat down on the bed. He looked stricken and finally said, “Gee, Jess, I’m sorry. I should have come lookin’ for you when you were so late back, but I was so darn annoyed with your goin’ off , well, hell, I just reckoned, as stubborn as you are, you’d be back in your own time,” he finished looking sorrowfully at me.
“Nothin’ to be sorry for,” I whispered. “An’ I’m fine. Really, Slim,” I lied. “Anyways, you did bring me back, in a way,” I said smiling and went on to tell him how I’d heard his voice when I was lying on the road and how it had spurred me on to get myself up an’ movin’ again.
That was the last rational conversation we had for maybe a week or more. Apparently I had a real bad chest infection borderin’ on lung fever, according to the Doc when he finally managed to get through several days later.
Daisy, Slim and Mike were real worried and spent all day and night, in turn, at my bedside, with the thankless task of trying to get some medicine, food and water into me. I just coughed almost continuously and brought straight back up whatever water or broth had been painstakingly spooned into me.
Me…. I just tossed and turned in some sort of nightmare world where I seemed to be either too hot or too cold. Daisy seemed to be forever stripping me off and bathing me in ice cold water and I remember trying to resist her strong nurse’s hands as she removed my undergarments to help relieve the fever.
To my mind, the only female that should see a person buck naked is his Ma, if he’s under 5, and then maybe his best girl, and then only under certain circumstances.
Anyways, in the end, Slim took over that side of things, and although he called me an ornery son of a ……, I guess he could see my point of view.
It was nearly two weeks later before I was allowed up and my ‘cabin fever’ had reached new heights. But try as I might, I was confined to the ranch house and yard for another couple of weeks until Spring was definitely with us and everyone started to feel a bit more cheerful. Little did we know that the cabin fever was shortly to be replaced with Spring Fever for us all!
It was sure good to have some warmer Spring weather, the endless snow and slush replaced by rain and the occasional wonderfully sunny day. The meadows looked real pretty with all the wildflowers and the stock were startin’ to produce young ‘uns, so it was sure a busy time for Slim and me.
I guess we all reacted to the Spring in our own different ways. Daisy, for instance, had a Spring Fever of Spring cleaning and it took her real bad! She cleaned, scrubbed and tidied everything within an inch of its life, and that included Mike, Slim an’ me too. Our rooms almost ransacked and our mess tidied and cupboards turned out. It was when she got to muttering about white washin’ the inside of the house and the outside too that Slim and me headed for the hills. A man can only take so much, and we figured if we stayed away long enough, she’d forget all about it, although we knew really there was little hope.
As for Mike, he seemed to grow a couple of inches a week and adopted every orphaned critter in a ten mile ride. We had everything from a ‘coon to rabbits and even a couple of fledgling birds of some sort. Slim and I wondered just how orphaned they all really were, but figured the nurturing of the little creatures was kind of good for him, learning to put their needs before his own. But we decided between us if he brought a bear cub home, that would be the end of it!
Slim had been acting kinda strange over those first warm days of Spring, and it didn’t take me long to figure there was a young lady involved. Now Slim, unlike yours truly, tends to get real involved and falls head long in love, with all the trouble that can bring a man, whereas I’m more your love ‘em an’ leave sort.
Anyways, right now, I had a kinda thing going with Millie over at the saloon. She was of the same mind as me; we’re real good friends, and well if she shares her bed with me occasionally, then that works really well for both of us — no ties, just fun. Sure, I care about her and her me, but that’s as far as it goes right now and that fine by us.
Slim, though, he gets real serious, and at the moment, he was real serious about Mike’s new teacher, Miss J. Partington. We hadn’t figured what the J stood for yet an’ she sure as hell didn’t look like she was about to give up the information anytime soon. She was from back East, and whether or not she felt a cut above or what, she was sure hard to get to know. That didn’t stop Slim from trying, and even though she had knocked him back several times when he asked her out, he still kept coming back for more. Boy, he had the ol’ Spring Fever real bad and seemed to spend most of his time in some sort of daze, looking into space with a soft look on his face, which was really driving me crazy.
What with Daisy’s cleanin’ and hintin’ at getting’ the old paint brushes out, Mike’s critters getting underfoot and Slim’s dozy lovelorn ways, well, I felt the need for some space and the Big Open was sure callin’ me.
It was only a few days later when my prayers — as to how to get off of the ranch for a while — were answered, but not particularly in the way I would have wanted.
Slim and I were out checking fences over on the southern pasture when we saw buzzards off in the distance, circling something on the ground. It was too far away for us to make out, so we spurred Traveler and Alamo on and were soon looking at the remains of one of our best steers. Dismounting, I checked the area for clues, and it only took me a few minutes to pick up the tracks of a cougar, and boy, was he a big one.
I was all for ridin’ out there and then trackin’ him, but Slim reckoned it was just a one off and he said it was real unusual for a big cat to come down from the mountains. He figured it would be pretty much a wild goose chase in any case, as there wasn’t too much of the steer left so the killin’ had to be a while back and our cat would be long gone. I felt different and was real angry, lookin’ at the state of our beast, but guessed Slim had more experience and I should listen to him for once.
It was a couple of weeks later, when I was havin’ a drink in the Laramie saloon with Millie and pondering if maybe she’d be interested in more than just a drink, that old Jack Davies from a neighboring spread came over for a chin wag. Can’t say I was particularly pleased to see him as he kinda put a stop to me romancin’’ Millie for a while, but I changed my mind when I heard what he had to say. Apparently he’d lost some stock to a big cat too, just a few weeks before we had.
” So it looks like Slim isn’t always as right about things as he thinks,” I said to Jack with a wry grin.
“Sure looks like he was wrong this time,” agreed Jack. “But it certainly is rare to see one of ‘em big cats down in the pasture area. Guess he’s had one real bad winter and decided to come where the pickin’s easy,” he finished.
“Yeah, well, he’d better not push his luck,” I said grimly.
When I got back to the ranch later that night, Slim was banging about in the yard, obviously takin’ revenge on the woodpile, sending splinters flying in all directions as he chopped a mess of firewood.
I guessed he had been knocked back again by our less than friendly neighborhood schoolmarm, and figured he’d be much better off with a nice accomodatin’ girl like my Millie.
Trying to hide the happy glow of wellbeing I was feelin’ after a very enjoyable evening spent in Millie’s room, I re-arranged my face into one of interested concern and asked kindly, “Everythin’ OK, Pard?”
“Goddamn it no, it’s not, Jess!” Slim replied angrily. “That goddamn cats been back and slaughtered another steer less than a mile from the house. Could’ve been Mike out there or Daisy,” he finished looking anxious.
First thing the following morning, Daisy fixed me up with supplies to last a week or so. Saddling up Traveler and Alamo, Slim and I rode out to where he had found the steer the previous afternoon. On arrival, it became obvious to me at once that this was the same big cat; the tracks were easy to follow in the damp earth after the recent rain we had had.
“Wish I could ride with you,” said Slim, “but I guess someone’s gotta stay and keep an eye on the fort.”
“Not to mention keepin’ an eye on Miss J. Partington,” I said mischievously.
“Yeah, well that too,” admitted Slim with a sheepish grin.
To be honest, there are times when a man wants to be alone under the stars and ride through the Big Open with just the wind for company. I guess this was one of those times, so I was kinda glad Slim had other commitments.
I sure as hell wasn’t gonna let him off lightly, though, so with a huge sigh, I muttered,
“Guess I’ll mange, Pard, an’ if I don’t make it back in a week, then you’ll know the big guy’s had me for breakfast,” I finished sadly.
“Oh yeah, like you’re gonna let any old pussy cat get the better of you,” said Slim grinning. Then more seriously, he added, “Take care, buddy; watch your back.”
I grinned. “See you in a week or so,” I said, and pulling my hat down hard, I spurred Trav on towards the distant mountain range.
I had no problem following the tracks and I thanked God for the time I had spent with my Indian friends and how they had taught me to track. I guessed I was pretty much as good as any redskin when it came to animal tracking, and I figured our furry friend was about a day’s ride ahead of me.
As night began to fall, I found a good place to camp near a little stream running down from the mountain range, which was just a few hours ride away now. I saw to Trav’s needs and then settled down by my fire to enjoy cold chicken and apple pie provide by Daisy, washed down with plenty of strong hot coffee.
Having eaten my fill, I relaxed back, using my saddle as a pillow, wrapped my bedroll around me and luxuriated in the wonderful wild nighttime sounds.
There were times, back at the ranch, when the need for the Big Open became almost too much for me to bear and I had to get away on one pretext or another. Slim had gotten pretty understanding about this. He’d see me scanning the horizon, a certain look in my eye, and he figured I’d be wanting to go off again. The need was much less often now; I’d adapted to working at the ranch and having a family to call my own once again. Hell, Slim said I was plum near domesticated. But not quite — no, not quite. I smiled to myself as I fell asleep under the stars, the nighttime critters singing my lullaby.
The next day, I was up and trackin’ as soon as it was light enough to see the trail. As I rode out, my mind ranged free and I got to thinking about why the Big Open was so important to me.
I’d left home at 15, after the Banister gang had burned my family out and killed my parents and all of my siblings bar two. With a heart filled with pain and anger, I spent many long months on the trail of the gang. I smiled grimly to myself, remembering the kid I was and what would have happened to me, green as I was then, if I’d actually had the chance to call them out.
During that time, the Big Open became my friend and the only place I felt truly at peace, after the hell of being trapped in a burning house and hearing the screams of my family who I was unable to save.
Later I spent time as a boy soldier during the Civil War and lived through things and saw stuff no young man should ever have to see or be party to.
After being badly wounded and spending time in a hellish prisoner of war camp, I was released, and I again headed for the open countryside, the peace and distant horizons a comfort to my broken spirit. I spent years drifting, moving ever West from my home land of Texas.
I learned to live by my fast gun and got into more than a little trouble over those hard years, even spending some time in prison.
It had only been the chance meeting with ol’ Slim when I was trespassing on the Sherman Ranch and Relay Station that turned around my life forever and I put up my gunslinger iron for good.
I smiled now, thinking back to that first meeting, when Slim had ordered me off his property at rifle point, and of our meeting again later that same day when he got home to the ranch and found me with my feet under the table, teaching his kid brother Andy how to deal from the bottom of the deck! Somehow or other, he ended up offering me a job and the rest is history.
That had been over five years ago, and although our relationship had not been easy at first as we are such different characters, gradually we started to appreciate the differences. I guess I learned some of Slim’s sensible ways and patience, although God knows I still have a temper almost as quick as my gun at times .And Slim, well, I helped him relax and have a bit more fun. He’d had it bad too when he was younger; having lost both his folks, he’d had to take responsibility for bringing up young Andy and running the ranch single-handed, and this hadn’t left much time for anything else.
I guess when I landed, he wondered what had hit him as Andy and I ganged up, teasing and playing childish pranks on him. I also got him off the ranch and into the saloon for the odd hand of poker and drink with the mighty pretty saloon girls they had in Laramie and kinda broadened his mind as to the fairer sex.
But I guess it was the troubles we’d been through together that has made him the best friend I had ever had, and I know he feels the same about me. When you’ve been to Hell and back with a buddy, then that kinda seals your friendship for life. We watch each other’s backs, and I would trust Slim with my life; in fact I have done more than once, and him me.
But hell, he still drives me crazy at times, and thinking about him now, I hoped to God that Miss J. Partington would fall for his charms sooner rather than later, before I was forced to shoot him!
I had been so deep in thought I hadn’t realized that I had reached the foothills of the mountain range until Traveler snorted impatiently, waiting to be told which trail to follow. Now as the terrain was getting rockier, it was getting difficult to track the cat, so I dismounted and started walking up the steep trail, stopping every so often to verify the tracks.
This was where my Indian training really came to the fore and marks almost impossible to see for most folk jumped out at me clear as a sign post. However, these ‘sign posts’ were getting fewer and further apart, so I decided to re-mount Trav and just keep in the general direction I thought the cat would take.
It must have been about mid-afternoon, and I was riding through a narrow pass between huge boulders when Traveler stopped short, his ears laid back, and gave a sudden snort of fear. At that moment, I felt an almighty thump on my back followed by searing pain as the big cat jumped me, his claws tracking down my back, shredding my shirt and the skin beneath. At exactly the same moment, Traveler shimmied sideways, so that the cat was unable to get a grip with his jaws around my neck, the favored way for a cougar to kill. I fell from the saddle with the full 100 pound weight of a mature cougar upon me and managed to twist away onto my back, so the cat now pounced onto my chest, tearing its lethal claws deep into the flesh again.
Somehow I found the energy to bring my feet up and I lunged forwards, kicking the beast hard in the stomach, causing him to reel back in pain. That gave me the split second I needed to reach down into the top of my boot for my knife. Then he was on top of me again and had my left arm in his mouth; biting down deeply he started to throw me around by my arm like a dog worrying a rat.
Quickly I thrust the knife upwards hard and slit the animal’s throat wide open, the warm blood spilling out and mingling with my own, which was now soaking my shirt front.
For what seemed like an eternity, the animal kept biting and growling until slowly I saw the life force leave his eyes and he slumped down across my chest, dead.
I lay there shaking with shock from head to foot and tried to push the now dead weight from my chest, but it took me several minutes before I could release myself. Staggering to my feet my first thought was of Traveler and I was relieved to see him standing just a few yards away, shaking almost as much as I was, but thankfully unhurt.
Once I knew my buddy was safe, the energy that had kept me fighting suddenly left me and finally I gave in; blackness overcame me as I fell to the ground in a dead faint.
When I came to, I was looking down the barrel of a twelve bore and behind it stood the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. She was dressed in close-fitting denims, topped by a man’s large check shirt; a black wide-brimmed Stetson covered her long blond hair and she gazed down at me with the most incredible violet eyes. The pain suddenly overwhelmed me as I tried to sit up, and I thought I would throw up. Swallowing hard, I closed my eyes, concentrating on beating the wave of nausea.
After a minute, I opened them again and said, “I guess you can put that gun down, ma’am; I ain’t about to do you no harm, way I’m fixed right now.”
Smiling at me, she said with a southern drawl, “Well, I hope you wouldn’t be doin’ me any harm, no matter how you were fixed, honey”
“Well, yes ma’am, I mean, no ma’am,” I stuttered, grinning foolishly up at her.
Leaning the shotgun against a rock, she turned and offered me a hand to haul me to me feet and I stood shaking and staggering slightly. I looked at her quizzically from beneath my lashes. Something about her was familiar; maybe it was just the Texan drawl, I thought to myself as she started speaking to me again.
“My, you all are in a real bad way. Guess you’d better come over to my cabin for me to fix you up some,” she said in her husky voice, looking up at me with concern now showing in her eyes.
She helped me to walk over to Trav, and somehow I managed to pull myself up on to the saddle. The effort caused me to break out in a sweat and another wave of nausea threatened to overwhelm me.
The woman grabbed the reins and led Traveler; I held onto the saddle horn for dear life and prayed the cabin wasn’t far. I guess I was semi-conscious for most of the way and was glad of the fact that I’d perfected the art of sleepin’ in the saddle. Traveler walked real careful, and when we arrived, the woman helped me down and half carried me through the door, across a large main room and into a bedroom, where I fell onto a huge comfortable bed and passed out again.
I don’t know how long I was out for, but when I came to, the light coming through the window beside me had shifted and I guessed it was early evening. Looking down at my chest, I saw I was swathed in clean white bandages, as was my left arm. On looking around, there was no sign of the remains of my shirt, but my denims and gun belt and hat hung over a nearby chair. Lifting the covers, I looked down to see at least I still had on my knee length long johns to preserve some modesty, and I gave a sigh of relief.
Without my noticing, the woman had entered the room, and with an amused smile on her face, said, “Lost something, honey?”
I quickly pulled the covers up to my neck and, blushing deeply, muttered, “Just my dignity, I guess.” Again I had a feeling of familiarity, “Say have we met, Ma’am?” I asked
“I don’t know, cowboy. Have we?” she replied, arching an eye brow suggestively at me.
Ignoring the innuendo, I said, “My names Harper, Ma’am, Jess Harper, an’ I come from around the panhandle originally. Guess you’re from around there too maybe?”
Her eyes suddenly opened wide in amazement. “Harper…little Jessie Harper! Why I don’t believe it. Where’s the snotty nose and ripped britches?” She laughed, and then, added.
“Hell, you sure have grown up, boy!”
Suddenly it clicked. “Abigail, Abby Jackson, is that you?” I breathed.
“Sure is, Honey,” she drawled. “Well, half right. I’m Mrs. Mason now, Mrs. Pete Mason.”
I sat up in the bed, the sudden movement making my head spin. “No!” I yelled. You didn’t, you couldn’t, marry that no good scum Pete Mason.”
“Whoa, there, Jess,” she said. “Things change, I’m not that pretty little fifteen-year-old you had a crush on when you were what, nine, or ten years old? You certainly shouldn’t be jealous now. That was all a long time ago, and anyway,” she continued, “Pete’s changed. He’s goin’ straight now.”
I gave a burst of hollow laughter. “Probably, about as straight as a side-winding rattler,” I spat.
She gave me a hard look and marched from the room, leaving me with my thoughts.
Abigail Jackson. Now that had been a case of real Spring Fever if ever there was one. For the first awakening of feelings for the opposite sex, I had to choose Abby Jackson to fall in love with, when probably every red-blooded male in the town was in love with Abby too, and didn’t she know it.
She was a tease of the worst kind, leading a man on and then knocking him back. She had a way of lookin’ deep into your eyes, as if she knew everything about you. The eyes were always leading you on to make an even bigger fool of yourself. She would give a few words of kindness and then next thing look like she was laughing at you.
Boy, I sure did suffer lovin’ Abby! When her Ma and Pa decided to sell up and move to Denver, well, it near broke my heart. Here she was now, married to that low-life Pete Mason. I shook my head in sad disbelief and, rolling over fell into a deep, troubled sleep.
I was dreaming that the cougar was on my chest, and although I had stabbed him repeatedly, he wouldn’t die. The growls were low and menacing, and I started to yell out for Slim, shouting louder and louder until suddenly I burst into consciousness, sitting bolt upright, staring around the unfamiliar room, illuminated by a dim light on the night stand.
Almost immediately Abby entered the room, wearing a thin nightgown, a shawl hastily thrown round her shoulders. Coming quickly over, she sat on my bed, reaching out a cool hand to brush the hair back off my forehead. “Honey, you’re burning up,” she said gently, and after leaving, she returned with a bowl of cool water and a rag and started to wipe my face and chest with the soothing water.
Her movements were gentle, almost sensual, and I swallowed hard and tried not to think of her closeness and the thin nightgown, the only thing separating our bodies; as she leaned over me, her soft perfume made me feel light headed.
Looking up at her, I felt she deserved an apology for my previous behavior, and in a low whisper, I said, “Sorry, Abby, ‘bout what I said about Pete. You’re right; it was all a long time ago, and anyway, I guess it’s none of my business.”
She smiled down at me and said quietly, “I guess I owe you an apology too. Jess. As I remember, I wasn’t too kind to you back then, was I? God knows you had a hell of a life — all you kids, your Pa on a subsistence wage, your poor Ma made old before her time and you always black an’ blue from your Pa’s beatings. Guess I could have been a bit nicer.”
Smiling, I said, “Well, hell, I was just a kid; you were practically a grown woman. With everyone lookin’ to take you out dancin’ and on dates, why should you pay any heed to a youngster with, as you say, a snotty nose an’ ripped britches!”
“Because he was a lovely, kind, caring kid, as I remember,” she said quietly. “One who brought me wildflowers in a coffee jar,” she said smiling to herself. “You know, you were really cute, Jess.” And then looking at me from under her lashes, she added, “Guess you still are.”
She trailed her finger down my face and across my lips, her eyes suddenly dark violet pools, looking deeply into mine, and as she stared at my lips, she moved slowly down towards me. I felt myself begin to react and knew if she kissed me, I would be lost and my control gone. As it was, I had to use all my will power to put the brakes on.
Looking her in the eye, I said lightly, “Are you trying to seduce me, MRS. Mason?”
Hell, I’m as happy as any red-blooded male to take what’s on offer, but not with a married woman, no thank you Ma’am. I’d been down that route once or twice before and vowed never again. The odds were stacked way too much against a happy outcome I figured.
Catching my light tone, she pulled back quickly and said laughing, “In your dreams, cowboy”.
Pulling the shawl more closely around her and conscious of our closeness and the undoubted effect she was having on me, she stood up and, backing away, said, “Goodnight, Jess; just call if you want me” and left me feeling frustrated and confused.
Had she really been coming on to me, I wondered, or was this just the same teasing Abby wanting to get a reaction from me. Either way, I guess she’d succeeded, I thought, and with a wry smile, I rolled over on my side and tried to get back to sleep. But thinkin’ about her lying in the next room, it sure wasn’t easy.
.Early the following morning, she waltzed into my room with a tray laden with breakfast and acted like last night had never happened.
Me, well, I was feelin’ kinda tired and grouchy after a sleepless night, but a good slug of coffee helped some and I figured it would be best if I forgot all about the night before too.
Chatting happily away as we ate together, she asked about how life had treated me since she saw me last. I kinda skirted around the worst bits, but was surprised that she seemed to know quite a bit already. She knew about the Banisters burning us out and all about my subsequent career as a fast gun, but it was when I told her about my life now that she seemed really interested, especially when I told her I was a partner in the Relay Station.
“So anyway,” I said, “what are you doin’ tucked away in a remote spot like this and where is Pete right now?”
“Huntin’,” she said. “He went huntin’; expecting him back any day now. ‘Spect you’ll be wantin’ to catch up,” she said, smiling mischievously.
“Shouldn’t think so,” I said briefly. “Guess I’ll be long gone by the time he gets back.”
She suddenly looked quite shocked, “No!” she said loudly and then more calmly, “I mean, you’re not ready yet, Jess. That cat mauled you up pretty bad, and by the looks of you, you’re still runnin’ a fever.”
To be honest, I wasn’t feelin’ too good, but I sure as hell wasn’t about to let on and I thought it would probably be best for all concerned if I high-tailed it out of there as soon as I was able.
I’d done a lot of hard thinkin’ the night before, and I figured if I had to spend another night under the same roof, then maybe my resolve would kinda leave me and I’d end up doin’ something’ I’d regret. We’d both regret.
So as soon as she left with the tray to do the washing up, I pulled myself up and sat on the edge of the bed. As I moved, the room spun and a fierce wave of nausea hit me, making me think I was about to lose my breakfast. I took several deep breaths and my stomach calmed a little.
Dragging myself off the bed, I pulled on my denims and buckled on my gun belt. Lookin’ in a cupboard, I found an old work shirt of Pete’s, and figuring he’d think it worth the loss to get rid of me, I put it on. After buttoning it up, I made silently for the door.
On opening it, I could hear Abby clattering about in the kitchen, so, fast as I could, I crossed the main room and let myself out by the front door
By this time, I was sweating so much it was running into my eyes and down my back. I ran my sleeve across my eyes to clear my vision before looking around the yard and heading for the lean-to where I guessed Traveler was stayin’.
Walkin’ in, it was sure good to see my old buddy, and obviously he’d been well taken care of. I went up and scratched his nose and sweet-talked him for a few minutes before lookin’ for my tack. I saw the saddle and lifted it up, but as I placed it on his back, I doubled up in pain as the wound in my chest opened and blood started pouring out again, seeping through the bandage and onto Pete’s pale blue shirt. I cursed inwardly and shook my head to try and clear the blackness which was threatening again.
Suddenly I felt the barrel of a gun in my back and heard a firm voice in that familiar husky southern drawl. “I sure don’t want to use this on you, Jess, but so help me if it’s the only way for you to see sense, then I will.”
Turning slowly I saw Abby standing with the 12 bore now leveled at my stomach and a determined look in her eye. What could I do? Turning, I walked back to the cabin and into the bedroom, sitting down hard on the edge of the bed.
Following me in, she said, “Get back into bed, Jess.”
She reached down to unbuckle my gun belt and started to unbutton my denims, but one hard look from me sent her back. Blushing slightly, she said, “Sorry, Jess. Guess I’ll go fetch fresh bandages if you want to get back to bed.”
I lay back in the bed, and shortly she returned and started to gently remove the soiled bandages and clean the wounds out again.
It was obvious to us both that the wounds on my chest and arm were showing signs of infection. Abby knew she had to wash them out with some whiskey for me to have any hope of beating it.
We both knew it would be a painful business but essential, and so steeling herself to the task, she poured the burning liquid onto the open wounds. I tried not to flinch too much, although it was hellish painful, but I knew it was as bad for her having to do this to me. Eventually the ordeal was over and we heaved a sigh of relief.
“Thank you,” I whispered.
She smiled weakly at me and then said, “Oh, Jess,” before jumping up and running from the room, a sob escaping as she left.
I wasn’t sure what was up, but then again, I felt so done in I guessed finding out would have to wait. I fell into an exhausted and troubled sleep.
I was pretty much out of it for the next couple of days, in and out of consciousness with a ragin’ fever. All I could remember was Abby there every time I awoke, gently wiping me down with cool water or trying to make me drink some. It was the evening of the second day when I really came round properly, and after she’d fed me some broth, I felt well enough to talk to her a little.
“What was wrong the other day?” I asked. “You ran off cryin’,” I reminded her.
She looked thoughtfully at me. “I don’t know,” she said. “I guess it was the way you looked when I was tending your wounds. It must have hurt like hell, but you had that stubborn look on your face, sort of standin’ up to it. And just for a minute, you looked just like you did when you were a little boy and had a walloping from your Pa, refusing to cry and having that stubborn look come on your face.” She smiled down at me. “Made me feel…”
“What? Sorry for me?” I cut in, with a flash of anger. ”I don’t want your pity, Abby”
“No,” she said quickly. “Not pity. Sort of admiration, I suppose,” she said, looking off into the distance.
After a while, she looked down at me again and said, “What do you want from me, Jess?”
“Nothing,” I replied.
“I thought you loved me once,” she said, reaching out and gently brushing my hair from my forehead. She caressed my face with a finger, looking deep into my eyes.
My stomach flipped and I felt rising desire at her touch. Trying hard to ignore the effect she was having on me, I replied, “Like we said, that was a long time ago, and anyways, you’re a married woman now, Abby. That makes a difference.”
“You do love Pete, don’t you?” I continued, looking puzzled.
“Oh course,” she said quickly, looking down.
“So you love him, but that still doesn’t stop you wanting me, does it?” I said angrily.
She turned on me, equally angrily. “Can you honestly say you don’t want it too, Jess?” she said.
“That’s not the point!” I shouted. “It’s wrong and you know it”.
She seemed to calm herself and after a few minutes, she looked at me again. “Have you ever really loved anyone, Jess? I don’t mean that crush you had on me as a kid. I mean really loved a woman, more than life itself?” she whispered, her eyes looking searchingly into mine.
My stomach flipped and I felt a stab of pain in my heart as I thought of Maria.
“Yes. Got engaged last year,” I answered gruffly.
“What happened? Did she walk out on you?” she asked.
I took a deep breath and looking into her eyes, “No, she died on me,” I whispered.
As the pain hit me, I turned on my side away from her and said, “Abby. I’m kind of tired. Do you mind…”
A few minutes later, I heard her leave the room and quietly close the door behind her.
I closed my eyes tight to try and stop the tears I knew were coming. I thought I was so much better, able to remember the happy times we’d had together before that bastard Marcus O’ Leary put an end to it for good by shooting her. But it was times like this when I was caught off guard that the pain of losing her rocked my soul again. I lay there in the darkness and let the pain and despair wash over me, knowing it would fade again in time if I just rode out the feelings.
It was a long night, and as I lay there, I remembered the precious time I’d spent with Maria and the consequences of our relationship. When Slim had asked me after all the anguish I’d been through since her death, would I still have done things the same if I’d have known the outcome, I’d replied, “Hell, yes, because she was worth it!”
Lying here now in the lonely bed, I still felt the same and I knew I always would. I also knew deep down that there would never be anyone else for me like her. Sure, I’d have other women, maybe even learn to love again, but to have what Maria and I had together, well, no that just wasn’t gonna happen.
Lying there, my thoughts turned to Abby. What exactly did she want from me, I wondered. Whatever it was, I was pretty sure I couldn’t give it to her, not the way I was feelin’ right now anyway.
The following morning, I felt well enough to get up and have a walk around the cabin and small parcel of adjacent land. Abby and I kinda trod easy around each other after our talk last night. Apart from me catching her lookin’ at me in a sad sort of way, she didn’t mention anything about Maria. I was sure glad, as I’m a very private person, and well, me and Maria was real private. I wasn’t about to share anything about our life together or her death with Abby, no matter how curious she was.
As it happened, I didn’t have to worry as she seemed in a good mood and suggested a picnic lunch down by the stream a short walk from the cabin. It was a glorious Spring morning and we set off in high spirits, chatting about our past memories of living’ out on the old panhandle.
Then I asked her about Pete and said I was surprised he hadn’t landed back home yet. She looked a bit uncomfortable and I could see she was worried.
“What’s up, Abby?” I asked gently
“Nothin’ really,” she replied. “Just a sorta bad feelin’.”
“How so?” I asked, raising a quizzical eyebrow. “Are you worried he’s got hurt, run into a big cat too?” I asked, a bitter irony spiking my words.
“Oh no,” she replied, ignoring my tone. “He had friends with him; they’d watch his back.”
“Yeah, never seen ‘em before, but they just called out of the blue. Wanted him to go huntin’ and off he went,” she replied, smiling at me.
She changed the subject then as we’d arrived at the stream and we set about spreading a blanket and putting the food out. She’d made a good meal of fried chicken and biscuits, washed down with some mighty fine homemade cider. Lying down on the rug together by the stream, it was sure companionable and we relaxed after the meal, feelin’ kinda drowsy in the warm sunshine.
I must have dropped off to sleep for a few minutes; I was awakened by Abby tickling my face with a piece of grass. She was lying next to me, and as I looked over, she leaned up on her elbow and looked down at me, her violet eyes looking into mine with deep longing.
“Jess, honey, please,” she whispered in her husky voice.
Looking into that beautiful face and seeing the desire there, I felt my resolve fading, Hell, did this woman never give up, I thought. As she leaned down to gently brush my lips with hers, I returned the kiss, at first gently and then more passionately and I knew there was no going back.
Things were just getting’ real interesting when I heard a colt. 45 being cocked and felt the cold metal against my temple.
“Get the hell off her, Harper,” came the unmistakable snarl of Pete Mason.
He was bigger and meaner lookin’ than I remembered — greasy blond hair brushed back from his pock-marked face, a good week’s worth of stubble making him look even more evil.
But hell you couldn’t blame the man; I’d just been caught in a very embarrassing situation with his wife. Jumping up and adjusting my jeans, I started to apologize, but brushing my attempt away with a wave of his gun, he spat, “Well, I reckon you’re welcome to the whore.”
Turning to Abby, Pete said, “You think I don’t know what you get up to when I’m away?” Leaning forwards, he gave her a vicious back hander across her face.
Well, if there’s one thing that really riles me, it’s a man hittin’ a woman, no matter what she’s done.
Throwing myself at him, I wrestled the gun from his hand and landed a sharp right to his jaw, followed by a left which sent him reeling. I followed through by dragging him up by his shirt and laying another haymaker on him, which sent him flying into the swiftly flowing stream.
Following him in, we continued to fight; he suddenly got the upper hand and forced me below the water, my lungs gasping for air. Just as I began to feel blackness overcoming me and thought that my lungs would burst, I managed to twist around and kicked his legs from under him, making him lose his grip on me. Bursting up above the surface, I felt the blessed air suck into my lungs before I dived under again to drag a now semi conscious Pete out and onto the bank where we both collapsed in a soaking heaving, bloody mass. Looking around, I was glad to see there was no sign of Abby.
We lay there panting until finally Pete turned to me and said, “Guess we’re pretty evenly matched. Enough?”
“Enough,” I agreed.
After awhile, he spoke again in a low growl. “She came on to you, didn’t she?” I started to deny it but he turned on me. “Come on, Jess, you always were a bad liar. How many times before you gave in to her — two, three?” he asked angrily.
I nodded my head, looking down, not wanting to see the look in his eyes.
“You did well to back off for that long,” he said dryly, “knowing’ how you used to feel about her.”
“I don’t make a habit of hittin’ on another man’s wife,” I said. “I’m real sorry, Pete.”
He looked at me, considering my words, and then said, “Yeah, I know. She’s kinda hard to resist, though, ain’t she.”
I nodded again sadly.
After a while I turned to him. “Pete, you won’t, you know, beat her for this, will you? I couldn’t leave her here if I thought…”
Pete cut in quickly. “Hell no,” he said. “See, Jess, I love her, no matter what. God help me, I still love her. Yeah, I know I slapped her before, but that was just reaction, seein’ the two of you that way. Well, I just saw red, I guess,” he finished sadly. “But she’s the way she is an’ I guess I ain’t going to change her.”
Then Pete went on, looking thoughtfully at me. “Do you remember the Benson brothers, Chuck and Lenny, back in Texas?” he asked.
“Sure,” I replied. “Chuck killed Lenny in a shoot-out, didn’t he? Never knew why, though. Those two were as close as brothers could be.”
“It was over Abby,” Pete said quietly. “She was seein’ them both. When Chuck found out, he went crazy and shot Lenny through the heart, and pretty soon after that, Abby’s Pa moved the family out to Denver. She was just 15, Jess, and playin’ with fire, and she’s been just the same ever since. Why do you think we live way up here away from everyone?” he asked with a wry smile.
“I’m sorry,” I said quietly.
“Yeah, well,” he said, “when I rode into Denver and saw her again, I knew I wanted her, no matter what the price. Guess her old man was glad to see the back of her, trouble she brought him, and I’ve looked out for her ever since.”
“Even managing to go straight,” Pete continued, giving me a sideways look. “Those ‘friends’ of mine were really members of the gang I used to ride with, wantin’ me to do a job. Considered it, but changed my mind. I’ve been on a drinkin’ bender over in Laramie these last few days instead. Mort Corey just let me outta jail yesterday,” he finished, grinning at me.
At the mention of Laramie, I suddenly had a longing to be back home. Struggling to my feet, I said, “Guess I’d better be goin’, Pete. Leave you two to sort things out, you know…”
We walked back to the cabin and he went to fetch Abby while I went and saddled old Trav, hopped up and rode him over to where Pete and Abby were now standing by the door.
I nodded to Pete, who threw me a grin back, and then touched my hat in salute to Abby,
“If ever you’re in these parts again…”she started.
“I’ll just keep on riding,” I cut in. Giving her a cheeky wink, I spurred Traveler on down the mountain, heading for home.
I sat with Slim in my rocking chair out on the porch, enjoying the Spring nighttime sounds as we had a last cup of coffee before turning in. I’d had a wonderful homecoming, with all the family pleased to see me. Daisy was worried about the wounds the cougar had inflicted on me, but after careful inspection, she deemed them to be healing well and that the’ old lady’ in the mountain cabin had done a good job at nursing me. I figured the ‘old lady’ white lie to be easier than the truth as far as the family were concerned.
Daisy proclaimed I was fit for duty, and tomorrow I could help Slim finish off whitewashing the barn!
Mike had come running to meet me on my return and had chatted non-stop all evening about a new little girl in his class called Amy, who was just about the smartest, prettiest and friendliest girl he had ever met.
Turning to Slim as we sipped our coffee, I said, “Remind me how old is Mike now?”
“Nine and a half,” said Slim. “Ten next birthday. Why do you ask?”
“Oh, no reason,” I said, smiling to myself.
“So how’s it goin’ with Miss J. Partington?” I asked conversationally.
Slim gave me a black look. “Turns out she’s engaged to a man back East,” he said. “Getting married at the end of term.”
“Women!” I responded with feeling. “Sure do give us men folk a hard time.”
Later, as I was stripping off for bed, Slim let out a low whistle as he saw my raw scars for the first time. “That cat sure had a good go at you,” he said, sounding shocked. Then leaning over to inspect me more closely, he said in an amused voice, “Looks like you’ve got another bite on your neck there, Jess, and it don’t look like it was made by a big cat either. Care to tell me a bit more about this ‘old lady’ that fixed you up?” he asked, a wicked grin spreading across his face.
I climbed slowly into my bed, and leaning back on the pillows and lacing my hands behind my head, I looked over at Slim. “Well, it’s like this. Partner. It started, when I was about Mike’s age. There was this girl…”
Thank you for reading.