The Journey (by Patty W.)

Summary:  A Laramie story as told by Slim Sherman
Category:  Laramie
Genre:  Western
Rated:  MA  (Some violence, strong language and distressing scenes)
Word Count:  24,420


 

Jess told me much later that he was dang glad that it was me that suggested that hunting trip up the mountain in the fall of ’76 and not him, and after everything that happened back then, I guess I can’t blame him for that.

It had been a long hot summer and we’d had a tough time finding grazing for all the beasts. Plus Jess had been down to Texas on a cattle drive, bringing home some Texas Longhorns and Aberdeen Angus that we’d bought, and he sure had one heck of a rough time. He said he’d been to hell and back, and when he told me all about it, I agreed that it really sounded like he had.   *See: “To Hell & Back”

Then come early fall, we had a spell of real bad weather — fierce storms doing more than a little damage to the buildings of the Ranch and Relay, where we we’re both partners — and so that took some fixing up. In fact, we had one of those old twisters come real near the ranch and were darned lucky we didn’t have more damage than we did.

Anyway, we got our young ward — ten-year-old Mike Williams — to give us a hand fixing the place up again. He’s a really good kid and a lot of help now he’s growing up. We got all the structural stuff done, mended the fences across the spread and brought all the beasts down for the winter, and by then, we were both fair tuckered out.

It was when Mrs. Daisy Cooper, our wonderful, enduring housekeeper and surrogate Ma to us all, started making noises about how it would be nice to see the house painted before the winter set in that Jess got his stubborn look on.

“Heck Slim, it ain’t that long since we painted the whole darn place! Well, the barn and outbuildings anyway, and this ol’ house looks fine, don’t it?”

I stood back and surveyed our small but comfortable house in the late afternoon sunshine of yet another perfect Indian summer’s day and said, “I can see as how she’s got a point,  Jess;  it does look kinda shabby now compared with the rest of the place.”

“See… see,” Jess said, his eyes glittering with the light of battle, “I told you it would only make more work if we caved in and painted that ol’ barn.”

“Uh, I guess you’re right,” I said sadly. “But what can a man do? You know Daisy.”

“Yeah, I guess,” he replied, looking defeated.

“You know what I’d really like to do?”

He threw me a questioning look.

“Go hunting. There’s been talk of some moose passing by up on the mountain. Now wouldn’t I just love a crack at one of them.”

Jess shot me an amazed look. “What, mister ‘must do my duty’? Mister ‘work always comes first’? Heck, are you feelin’ OK, pard?”

“Sure I am,” I grinned back. Just…,what is it Lon said the other day? Ah, yes. I’m just staying loose!”

“Oh, right. Well, you sure have changed your tune. Gee, the Slim Sherman I first met when I landed here hardly put his nose inside of a saloon, never sweet talked the ladies or drank spirits and couldn’t even find his way around a poker table, never mind talkin’ of goin’ off huntin’ when there was some painting in the offing!”

“Um…maybe I have changed,” I said, grinning at my buddy now.

“Hell, I’ll say you have. You’re dating the lovely Lily, can’t keep you out of the saloon come Saturday night, and you drink your fair share of Red Rye, not to mention holding down a pretty fair poker game,” Jess said, beaming at me now.

“Yep, you sure educated me up real good, Jess.”

“So, if you want to go hunting, how are we gonna do it? And apart from  Daisy, what about all the other objections you usually make, like who’s gonna run the place, not to mention the good old Wyoming weather. Heck Slim, you hardly like to go to town after October in case  we’re snowed in.”

I cast my gaze up to the mountain. ”You needn’t worry on that score. This Indian summer will last another week or so and that’s all we need. I figure the Harrington boys will come over and see to the stock and change the teams on the stage. They’re always up for a bit of extra cash and it’ll be Thanksgiving next month.”

“Uh, fair enough, but what about Daisy?”

“You leave Daisy to me. Now tonight, you say you want an early night, say you’re dead beat, act  it up a bit, huh.”

“Uh…well, there won’t be much acting involved ‘cos I am dead beat,” Jess said gruffly, before wondering off to put his tools away after a day mending the lean to roof.

Later that night, Daisy offered us another coffee as we sat around the fire. She was mending one of Jess’s ripped shirts; I was reading and ol’ Jess was carving a little animal for young Mike, who was already abed.

I threw Jess a meaningful look, and after a moment, he stretched. After putting his work aside, Jess said, “Not for me, thanks, Daisy. I’m dead beat; think I’ll turn in.” Then he got up very slowly, as though every move was agony.

Daisy, always one to notice if one of her ‘boys’, as she calls us, was out of sorts picked up on this at once. “Are you alright, dear?”

He gave a dramatic sigh, and I began to think he was hamming it up way too much, but no, the look in Daisy’s eye seemed to be one of genuine concern.

“I’m OK, Daisy. Just…I dunno. In need of a change, I guess; need to relax some. All this hard work we’ve been doing lately kinda takes it out of a man.” With that, Jess turned to walk slowly to our shared room.

Then Daisy tried her trump card. “There’s some pie left. if you’d like some. dear?”

Jess stopped in his tracks, and even from his back view, I could see he was weighing it up. Keep in character of the poor exhausted ranch hand, desperate for a break…or pie?

I could see that it was a pretty close run thing, but after a moment, he continued meandering off to bed with a weak, “No thanks, Daisy; figure I’m too tired to eat anything.”

As soon as the door closed, Daisy turned to me. “That’s not like Jess. Is he alright?”

I gave a noncommittal grunt.

“I do hope he’s not coming down with anything.”

“Oh no, I don’t think so; just tired, like he says. Heck Daisy, he’s hardly been off the ranch these last few weeks. All the extra work we’ve had after the storms last month has kept us real busy, you know,” I said with a small exhausted sigh. It wasn’t just my buddy that could go on the stage.

She looked thoughtful at that. “Um, maybe he should take off for a few days — go fishing or something,” she said vaguely. “Well, both of you. You’re looking a mite peaky too, Slim.”

I brightened a little at that. “Well, funny you should say that, Daisy, because I’ve heard tell there are some moose up on our mountain. I reckon we could take off hunting for a few days — if you think that would be a good idea — and I guess the Harrington lads could fix everything up here for a week or so,” I suggested as though the thought had just occurred to me.

She beamed across at me at that. “Well, that’s just perfect, dear. You two boys take off tomorrow and I’ll go and fix you up a gunny sack of supplies.” She bustled cheerfully away to the kitchen.

A while later, I entered the bedroom, to see Jess sitting up leaning on his pillows and reading a mail order catalogue.

“Doin’ your Christmas shopping?” I asked with a grin.

“Hey, don’t you knock it. This is a shed load cheaper than the general store. Anyway, what did she say?”

I beamed at him. “Said she thought you needed a break and a hunting trip would fit the bill just fine; off packing us a gunny sack as we speak.”

Jess let out a little cheer, his deep blue eyes sparkling with mischief. “And I guess it will be way too late to start paintin’ when we come back. Snow will be due shortly, won’t it?”

“Yep, that’s right, And Jess…”

“Yeah?”

“Remind me next time that travelling troupe of actors hits town for you to go and audition, pard; you’re a natural! “

Meanwhile, back in the kitchen, Daisy smiled to herself. Silly boys. If they wanted to take off hunting, they only had to say. There will be plenty of time to paint the house on their return, she thought, humming happily to herself as she packed their rations for the week.

*****

We rode out just after we’d put young Mike on the early morning stage for school, and boy, he sure didn’t want to go. He was all for coming moose hunting with us, until Jess had a quiet word with him that is.

Gee, Jess sure is good with the boy. No matter what the problem, if he’s troubled or sick, it’s always Jess he calls for first. And old Jess there, well heck, he certainly isn’t renowned for his patience. In fact, I’ve heard folk say that his temper is a mite faster than his draw — and that is sure saying something. But as far as Mike is concerned, well, he has patience in spades and then some. So when the kid was complaining — he really wanted to come hunting with us instead of school — Jess had a good answer for him and took time to explain.

“You see it’s this way, Tiger; me and Slim really need a man about the house, not just to do the usual chores, although that’s real important. But it’s not the most important,” Jess said, fixing the youngster with his intense gaze.

“It’s not? “

“Nope; it’s about lookin’ after Miss Daisy and all the critters we’ve got about the place, like Buttons,” Jess said, referring to the child’s dog. “And Jasper too.”

“But Jess, you hate old Jasper,” said the child, talking about the ranch cat that Jess had once referred to as the ‘cat from Hell.’

“Well sure I did,” Jess said earnestly, “but heck, we’re practically best buddies now. And then there is all the stuff you do that’s real important, like milking the house cow and collecting the eggs.”

“Um, I guess so,” the child said reluctantly.

“Plus I don’t want you to miss any school,” I said. “It will be winter soon and the snow will come down. Lord knows you’ll miss enough then.”

Jess cast me a skeptical look. “Oh yeah, I suppose there is that too,” he said, as an afterthought.

Anyway, in the end, we both managed to convince Mike that he had to stay home and look after the spread. He went off to school happily enough, as long as we bagged a real big moose and he inherited the antlers.

*****

And so it was we finally set of on our journey towards the foothills of the distant mountain range and our quarry of a big old bull moose.

We made good time and were in the lower foothills by early evening.

The mountain range with the peaks now snow covered, majestic pines all around us and the late evening sun shining down on the glint of a river in the valley below made for a perfect view.

Beside us ran a small fast flowing stream on its way down to the river below. Tomorrow we would ford the river before pulling on up the next mountain towards the old Sherman line cabin, which we would use as our base for the hunting trip.

As we set up camp, I cast a concerned glance in Jess’s direction, but he seemed to be happy enough, pottering around setting up the camp, collecting firewood and tending to the mounts while I broke out the supplies and collected some water before settling down to cooking the evening meal.

Later, once we had eaten, we relaxed with a cup of coffee apiece, lying back on our bedrolls, saddles for pillows. Looking out at the now moonlit vista of pine-clad mountains that laid before us, we finally relaxed and admired the distant view, thinking our own private thoughts.

Jess wasn’t aware of it, but my uncharacteristic urge to take off hunting, instead of attending to business as usual, had been instigated by him.

You see, ol’ Jess there is a bit of a wild child. Got the Big Open in his blood and had been running loose since he was just fifteen. Heck, he was on the drift for nigh on five years and just wandered off where the spirit took him. And although he’s called the Sherman Ranch and Relay his home for a good few years now, well, he still gets the yearning for the Big Open every now and then. Especially when he’s been sorely tried, and boy, had he been really sorely tried earlier that year!

He’d been bringing a herd of steers back down from Texas on a cattle drive and he had a real bad time. Everything as could go wrong did, I guess, from having to ride with a no good ex-friend and  outlaw who tried to kill him — without success, thank goodness — to a prairie fire that nearly did succeed where the outlaw failed. *See “To Hell & Back”

Yep, all in all, it really had been a journey to hell and back, and I figured my buddy was still suffering some from it, but Jess being Jess wouldn’t say anything. Nope. He’d been a bit quiet and withdrawn since his return and had suffered from the terrible nightmares that he always had done since I first knew him. But of late, the nightmares seemed to have been far worse, and I knew he was embarrassed about waking us all up as he cried out in terror at the horrendous visions he was seeing — and re-living — in his sleep.

And there was something else, something he wasn’t telling me, and I just knew that he had to talk about it all, get it out of his system, before he could really heal and move on. That is partly why I’d suggested the hunting trip, so that we could maybe talk it out. And OK yeah, there was a bit of me — well, quite a big bit of me, to be honest — that really wanted to go after that ol’ moose, truth be told.

Anyway, to get back to Jess, he gets this kinda faraway look in his eyes every so often, always has done. He looks out to the hills like he’s sort of craving something, and then he needs to take off. Time was, he’d go haring off helping out a buddy, getting into all sorts of trouble, and I used to really worry for him. Nut then he’d come rolling home sooner or later and life would get back on track.

I hadn’t seen him looking that way for quite a while — until he landed home from Texas — and then just the last few weeks, I’d caught him  looking out to the mountains, that sadness in his eyes. I just kind of knew he needed to take off, and maybe I did too, after the real hard times we’d had of late.

Now I studied him as he lay propped up on his elbow, laying on his bedroll, looking off to the distant mountain range.

He’s real slender and a head shorter than me, but looks can be deceptive because he’s as tough and strong as any I’ve met and sure can land a punch. I’ve been on the wrong end of that fist once or twice, and believe me, I’d rather be fighting with him than against. Same with his lightening fast draw. Jeez, first time I saw that, it fair took my breath away. I just never even saw him go for his gun; it was all of a sudden in his hand and discharged, and the man who had drawn on him was lying in the dirt with a bullet in his chest. Fast and accurate to boot. Yep, I’d sure want him on my side in a gun fight too.

Then there’s the other side of him.

With that black wavy hair of his, slender face and those quirky eyebrows that can speak volumes, he’s a real ladies man. He’s got these deep blue eyes that can twinkle like sun on the waves, or become dark and cold as granite when he’s angry. But he sure is a handsome bastard; at least, the women folk seem to think so.

I’m real tall and blond and reasonably good looking, I guess — at least, my girl Lily reckons I am. But old Jess there and the ladies… Well, it beats me as to how he does it. I’ve seen him walk into some bar in the middle of nowhere — filthy dirty, covered in trail dirt and sweat — and every saloon girl in the place would glance over and have that special look in her eye, which seems to be reserved for my buddy alone. Yep, he’s sure gotten something going for him, but I’m not sure as to quite what it is.

Jess must have felt me staring as he suddenly turned his deep blue eyes on me. ”What? You look like you’re thinkin’ of writin’ a book on me,” he said with a laugh.

“I was just thinking. It’s a while since we’ve done this, just taken off into the big open.”

He nodded at that. “Yep, I guess I need it right now, Slim.”

“I figured you did,” I said softly, but he just gave me a weary smile and said he was turning in, and I knew it would be a while yet before he talked it out.

*****

The following morning, we were up at first light and on our way just as the sun was breaking through the early morning haze. The valley and river were still swathed in a curling mist, making for an ethereal, almost ghostly scene. I nearly said something, touched as I was by the sheer beauty, but thought better of it, knowing my comment would be met by a raised quizzical eyebrow. It’s not that Jess doesn’t appreciate the wonder and beauty of nature in the raw — I’m sure he does — but he just isn’t the sort of man to voice his thoughts and feelings.

So we rode on down the trail towards the river in companionable silence until we reached the river bank, where we reined in and surveyed the fast flowing water. It was fuller than normal after the fierce storms we had endured over the previous few weeks, and we decided to mosey on downstream a way to find a more suitable spot to ford.

We finally made it across and then started climbing the steep mountain trail up to the old line cabin that would be our home for the next few days.

As we rode along, I glanced across at Jess’ mount Traveler. “Is he OK now?” I asked as his beloved mount had been real sick a couple of weeks back when he took a nasty chill after getting a thorough soaking.

Jess patted his horse’s neck lovingly before he grinned across at me. “He sure is. Had a struggle holdin’ him back when we set off and he saw the big open in front of us; just wanted his head and a good old gallop, didn’t you, fellah.”

“I’m glad,” I said, knowing how upset he had been when his old horse was taken sick. Heck, I’ve  known Jess tend to his mount before himself every time. Even with a shoulder full of lead, he’ll still insist his horse gets a good rubdown  and supper before anything else.

This time we had been caught in a fierce thunderstorm as we had been bringing the last of the steers down for the winter, and even though Jess had rubbed him down, fed him and blanketed him, poor ol’ Trav got real sick. It was touch and go there for a while. Like I say, my buddy isn’t one for emotional outpourings, but he slept with that old horse of his for a week until the animal was on the road to recovery again.

We finally made it up the track that led to the old line shack by late afternoon, and we were both ready for a rest. Jess opted to put the horses up while I went and sorted things in the cabin, but I noticed before he went to tend the mounts, he disappeared off around the back of the cabin to check on a very special place. After a moment, I went to join him.

Jess was standing beneath a large pine, looking down at the last resting place of Daisy’s beautiful young goddaughter one Flora McDonald, who had died of consumption at the tender age of just twenty-one.

She had come to spend her last months of life with us at the ranch, and she and Jess had struck up a good friendship. So when she asked to spend her final days on earth up the snow-capped mountain, it was Jess who agreed to take her and help to make those last precious days the happiest of her life… and he had done just that. *See “Daisy’s Dilemma”.

I remembered how he said that on the evening of the last day of her life, it had begun to snow on the mountain; she was absolutely enchanted and had danced and laughed in the falling snow with her last once of energy. Then she had retired for the night, her last words to Jess being, “Tomorrow we’ll build a snowman.”

But the following morning he had awoken to find her lying cold as marble in his arms, the light of life finally extinguished. He had finally laid her to rest at this spot behind the cabin, looking out on the vast plain below.

I watched him as he knelt beside the grave in silent prayer and then he stood up, just looking down at the intricate cross he had carved at the head of the grave.

after a moment I went over and stood beside him. “Are you OK, pard?” I asked quietly.

Jess’ head shot up as I had startled him; such was his deep contemplation, I guess he hadn’t heard my approach.

“Yeah, sure. Hell, she was a great kid, wasn’t she, Slim?”

I nodded. “That she was.”

“It ain’t fair, is it…the way the good ones like Flora die young. It don’t make no sense,” he whispered.

I leaned over and squeezed his shoulder. “Go and bed down the horses, Jess; it’s getting chilly. I’ll put the coffee on, huh?”

He looked over at me with unseeing eyes, but after a moment he pulled himself together. “Yeah…sure.” He went off to do as he was bid.

As I entered the cabin, I paused in the doorway, surveying the comfortable space within.

I had always enjoyed my trips to the cabin, had been coming up for years. At first, as a young boy soon after Pa built it, and then later, hunting or mustanging with Jess. It had always been a rough and ready man’s place, with the very basics of furniture. However, now it was a real little home from home, thanks in part to Jess. You see, he was up here alone a few years back, a fierce storm blowing outside, when there was a banging on the door and he opened it to a half-drowned, very pregnant young lady.

Well, the reality was that she was in labor, and by the time her husband turned up with the doctor an hour or two later, Jess had already delivered the baby girl safely. Gee, I sure didn’t envy him that. I remember when Ma gave birth to my baby brother Andy. The yelling and carrying on near terrified me, and the thought of getting up close and personal and actually having to deliver a baby scared me half to death. But there again, I reckon ol’ Jess didn’t have any choice.

I asked later what it had been like.

“I reckoned I’d delivered enough calves and been at the birthing of loads of foals; figured it couldn’t be so much different,” he’d said.

“And was it?”

He rolled his eyes at that and said, “Yep, it was different alright,” but he refused to elaborate, and I guess some things are better left to the imagination.

Well, the upshot was that the couple were so appreciative of all Jess had done that when they decided to pick up sticks and move out west with the wagon train, they let us have all the furniture they were unable to take.

Now I surveyed the room with the huge open fire place on the opposite wall, the wooden table and chairs in the window that even had pretty green drapes, and the big old leather couch in front of the fireplace. To the left of the fireplace was a sink and cook stove, and against the left hand wall, a huge old double bed with a pretty patchwork quilt covering it. Alongside were the couple of old cots that we had always used when staying there.

Yep, the whole place looked comfortable and welcoming. I marched across the room, chucking the gunny sacks in the kitchen area before finding some dry kindling in the box by the fire and set to lighting it as the afternoon had grown chilly.

As Jess banged in through the door, I turned and saw him cast a glance over to the big bed, a flicker of pain flashing across his countenance, and I imagined he was remembering Flora’s sad demise. But then, when he turned to regard me, the look had vanished and he surveyed me with his usual friendly gaze. “So you want me to go and scare up some rabbits for supper then, Hardrock?”

I nodded. “Yeah, that’d sure beat bacon and beans again; thanks, pard.”

Well, ol’ Jess came up with the goods, as I knew he would. He returned a half  hour or so later with a brace of rabbits, which he butchered and threw in the pot for me  to cook. So we dined well and then turned in, ready to set off before first light.

We’d pulled the cots up close to the fire; the old cabin was striking kinda cold, and neither of us fancied the big bed, comfortable though it was, with the history of its last occupant. Well, truth is, we usually toss for it, but like I say, neither of us had the heart for laying where poor Flora had breathed her last.

Anyway, we were snoring away happily after a splash of Red Eye in our final coffee, when we were abruptly awoken in the small hours by the most God-awful sound I have ever heard. It was like a ghostly, long, almost strangled kinda howl — real menacing, like an anguished spirit out there in the woods.

We both sat bolt upright, Jess’s gun in his hand in a split second, and we stared at each other across the gloom of the cabin, dimly lit as it was by the glowing embers of the fire.

“What in hell is that?” I gasped.

Jess cocked his head and listened intently as the weird sound came again, but slightly further away this time, and then his face relaxed and he grinned over at me. “Well, Slim, I kinda thought you’d like to hear that. It’s a moose.”

“What?” I exploded. “But they make a kind of grunting noise. Never heard that before.”

Then his blue eyes twinkled. “Well, I guess you’ve never heard old daddy moose goin’ a courtin’ before, have you?” Jess chuckled.

“What, really?”

“Yep, really,” Jess said, putting his gun away and settling back down. “Kinda good  to know that he’s enjoin’ himself on his last night on earth,” he said sleepily, “before you bag him tomorrow.”

“Me bag him?” I asked in surprise.

“Sure, it’s your call. You wanted to come huntin’, and it was you as sorted Miss Daisy out. It’s only fair you get first shot. You miss and I’ll have him.”

“I won’t miss,” I said lying back down. “‘Night, pard.” But he was already asleep.

*****

As planned, we were out on the trail before first light, heading down the other side of the mountain towards a small lake at the bottom where we reckoned the moose would be heading for an early morning drink Sure enough, as the first rays of the rising sun lit our way, Jess soon picked up moose tracks.

“How many?” I whispered, gazing down from Alamo, my mount, to where Jess was hunkered down looking at the tracks.

“Just one,” he replied softly. “A big bull, by the looks of things. Figure he did all his courtin’ last night and sent the little lady on her way, and now he’s off to get a drink and rest up some, after all that action an’ all,” Jess said, casting a glance at me, his eyes twinkling with mischief.

“Yeah, well I guess you’d know all about that Jess,” I said dryly, remembering the few times he’d entertained lady friends up at the cabin.

“Uh, yeah, well…” He jumped back up on Traveler, deciding not to enter into the murky depths of his complicated love life.

Actually, to be fair to the guy, he had lost his ‘love ‘em and leave ‘em’ attitude a while back, and now he was in a real good place with his long term girlfriend, the beautiful Millie from the Laramie saloon. Heck, Jess and Millie went way back to their childhood down on the Texas panhandle, where they we best buddies growing up.

Jess had left the area after losing all his family in a horrendous fire set by the notorious Bannister Gang, and although he was only a fifteen-year-old kid, he had still taken off after them, looking for retribution. He and Millie lost touch for a while.

They meet up over the years when Jess was still continuing his relentless search for the men who killed his kin, and then later, when he was a boy soldier in the Confederacy. But it was once he landed in Laramie and Millie turned up a while later working in the saloon that they became even closer. So if she occasionally shared her bed with Jess, that was nobody’s business but theirs, he often told me and anyone else who poked their nose in. Yep, ol’ Jess there was a real private man, particularly where the ladies were concerned; he sure wasn’t the sort to kiss and tell.

Sure he dated other women…lots of other women, some serious and some not so. But Millie was always there, and he told me once that she was his very best female friend, and if neither of them were seeing anyone else, then they’d usually be found in each other’s company.

Then, just last year, something happened and the couple woke up to what everyone else had known for years — they were perfect for each other. Now they finally had, ‘a sorta understanding’, as Jess vaguely put it, but I for one had no doubt that he would eventually settle down with Millie. I was real happy for him because she was a great kid, and really loved ol’ Jess — even a blind man could see that.

Then thinking on Millie, I got to thinking about my Lily. Gee, she sure was a pretty little thing, with those blond curls and deep sorta violet colored eyes. Well, she sure got my pulses racing.

It had been Jess as introduced us as she was a real good friend of Millie’s, working alongside her at the saloon, and  before too long we were double dating and now… Well, me and Lily were getting on good, real good…

“Slim.”

“Slim!”

“Huh,” I dragged my thoughts away from my girl. “Sorry. What, Jess?”

“I said, are you gonna wake up in time to shoot this ol’ moose I’ve been trackin’ for you  for the last hour, or do you want me to do that for you too?” he asked, grinning across at me.

“Sorry, Jess. miles away. Kind of got to thinking on Lily, you know? “

He rolled his eyes and kneed Traveler on ahead.

We pushed on in the early morning light down the steep mountainside towards the small lake sparkling below in the sunlight of another perfect Indian summer’s day.

As with most things in life, it wasn’t as straight forwards as we’d anticipated, though. Oh, Jess had trailed him OK, but  by the time we neared the lake, it was pretty obvious the area was completely empty; no sign of the moose or any other wildlife either, which was kinda surprising as the lowlands below the mountain and surrounding woodlands should have been teaming with game.

We ambled down to the lakeside and dismounted, allowing our mounts to drink of the icy cold water. Then Jess saw something in the far distance and he shook my arm to alert me. He pointed way over the other side of the lake to where the mountain range rose above us, continuing for mile after mile of snow-capped peaks.

There, making their way in single file on foot, up the treacherous mountainside and leading their ponies, was a small band of renegade Shoshone braves. Slung between them on a pole was the carcass of a moose.

“There’s your answer,” whispered Jess, pointing to where the braves were fast disappearing around the bend of the mountain trail. “I figure they just beat us to the post. Must have been out huntin’ the area before dawn; spooked all the wildlife and taken their pick of the spoils before takin’ off.”

“Well, I’m dang glad they have taken off,” I said with feeling. “I reckon they can have my moose as long as they leave us in peace. Those young Shoshone have been causing a whole mess of trouble kicking off lately, according to Mort,” I said referring to our good friend Mort Corey, Sheriff of Laramie.

“Uh, so I hear, and I guess we don’t want to tangle with that many of them,” Jess whispered, still watching the dozen or so braves wind their way up the mountain and finally disappearing from our line of vision.

“Funny we didn’t hear any shots earlier.”

“Using arrows and blow pipes, I reckon. A lot of the braves still prefer the old ways for huntin’ game, I guess.”

I was feeling real disappointed at the loss of ‘my’ moose, but then Jess started looking around and  gave me a cheerful grin. “You know what, Slim? I don’t think they took the moose with your name on it.”

“Really,” I said, brightening. “How so?”

He hunkered down, looking at the tracks. “See, this is where your big fellah came down  to drink, like we thought, and then he took off at speed up there to the right and back into the woods.”

Then Jess wandered down the lakeside in the opposite direction for several hundred yards. We saw more moose tracks, only smaller than the first, heading for the woodland; there were the unmistakable marks of many bare feet and also some blood on the ground.

“See this is where they shot and butchered the other moose — dragged it off into the scrub over there. I reckon we’ll find the remains of a camp there too.” After a few minutes, Jess turned triumphant eyes on me. “Yep, here see? Remains of a fire. The ponies were tethered and trampled down the grasses over here. Say, this is a swell place for a camp,” he said turning sparkling eyes on me. “How about it? “

“Huh?”

“Well, we could make camp here for the night, spend  the day fishin’ and then tomorrow mornin’, when everything’s settled down again, I reckon that old moose will visit the water hole again. You can get your shot in from the luxury of your own bedroll.”

I chuckled at that. “Yeah, I reckon we can spare one more day,” I agreed, casting my eyes to the benign blue of the heavens. “I just hope this weather will hold a mite longer.”

“You worry too much,” laughed Jess. “Sure it’ll last. You can get your moose and I can fish all day. What could be better than that? Perfect or what?”

And it was too.

We spent an idyllic day just relaxing by the lake. We caught a whole mess of fish and then cooked them up for supper before turning in, so we’d be up before dawn, ready for the daddy bull moose as Jess had tagged him.

Jess seemed much more relaxed than he had  been weeks, and there had been no repeat of the terrible nightmares he’d been suffering recently, since the trail drive. I really hoped he’d put that stressful episode and all that happened on the trail behind him for good.

The following day everything went to plan — to start with, that is.

We awoke at first light and were ready for our prey; to be honest, for the first time in my life I felt kinda bad about finishing him. We needed the meat back at the ranch, that is for sure — it wasn’t just about the sport — but I have to admit I wanted that too. What hunter doesn’t? However, it all just seemed so dang easy in the end; he didn’t really stand a sporting chance.

I could have almost got him from my bedroll like Jess said, although we’d rolled out a good hour before he arrived down at the lake and then we both had him in our sights. Like Jess had promised, I had first shot at him and felled him easily — a good clean shot, so at least he didn’t suffer. Then Jess went about butchering him so we could transport the meat, as he was huge. Jess jointed him, cleaning up the best cuts and wrapped them in the muslin we’d brought before placing them carefully in the four large gunny sacks which would hang across our horse’s necks. Then he finally removed the huge antlers and attached them behind his saddle for Mike and said we were ready to roll.

We decided to take our time returning up to the cabin as it was a tough old ride back up the mountain and then down a steep bank carrying our heavy cargo. I guess that’s why we decided to spend another night back at the cabin before pulling out to head off for home at first light.

 I reckon I was kind of worried, though, as I’d noticed that, although it was still bright and sunny, the temperature had dropped by several degrees. A sure sign that snow was on the way and we really needed to get back down the mountain and home to the ranch before the big snows started.

Well, I guess I got it wrong, because less than an hour later, the thunderheads came storming over and we suffered an incredible deluge of rain, not snow. One minute, it was bright sunshine, and the next, the clouds darkened the sky. We jumped down from our mounts and were fumbling about for our rain slickers as the first heavy drops were falling.

So we got on our way, just wanting to get back to that old cabin and a warm fire to dry off by, and that’s when it suddenly went badly wrong.

Jess was riding a little in front of me as we started down the real steep bank leading down to the cabin. I guess he must have felt kinda unsafe, because after a few minutes, I saw him slip down from the saddle and start leading Traveler down the stony slope.

At first I thought he was just being sorta over protective of his horse after the animal’s recent sickness, and then I saw the wisdom of what he was doing as the storm increased and the shale and small rocks beneath my horses feet began to shift and slide.

I was suddenly aware that Alamo had lost his grip and was being carried down the mountain as the force of the rain caused a flash flood, bringing more stones and debris sliding beneath his hooves. Then before I could dismount or even try and pull him back and help him regain his grip, he went down, taking me with him.

Alamo went to his knees and fell on his side, and I managed to bail and fall away from him, rolling over and over down the steep bank, coming to a standstill at the bottom. I crashed into a huge rocky outcrop, hitting my head before finally came to a standstill, every inch of me crying out in pain, before I blessedly passed out.

When I came to, I was lying in the big comfortable bed in the cabin, a fire blazing away in the hearth and Jess sitting on the edge of the bed looking down at me, his deep blue eyes full of concern.

“Hell pard, are you OK?” Jess asked as soon as he saw I was awake again.

I sort of groaned and thought I’d chuck, but then thought better of it and put a hand up to my bandaged head and groaned again.

Jess gently took my hand and removed it from the bandaging. “Don’t touch,” he said kindly. “Just take it easy, Slim.”

After a moment, he produced a cup and helped me drink some icy cold water, and boy, did it taste good — like nectar. I relished every drop before I fell asleep again.

When I awoke later, it was dark save for the light coming from the fire and a small oil lamp hanging from the beam, but Jess was still sitting close by. He came over and sat on the bed again as soon as I stirred. “How are you feelin’, Hardrock?”

“Terrible. What happened?”

“You took a tumble off of Alamo. He lost his footin’ in that storm; whole damn bank was movin’. He didn’t stand a chance.”

I sat bolt upright at that and stared into my buddy’s eyes. “He’s ok though?”

Jess couldn’t return my gaze. “Well, he’s kinda beat up, Slim.”

“But he will be OK, nothing broken?”

“Nope, nothing broken,” Jess said, giving me a tired look. “I’ve been tendin’ him all night. Got real bad bruising to the offside foreleg, but it ain’t broke, Slim. He should be OK, I reckon, as long as I keep on the wrappings. Been applying cold compresses every hour or so to get the swelling down. He should be OK, don’t worry. “

I looked up into his weary face — those expressive blue eyes closing with exhaustion — and not for the first time realized what a real good friend I had in Jess. “Thanks, pard; I owe you,” I whispered before I finally drifted off again.

It was mid-morning when I awoke again and the cabin was empty, but there was evidence that Jess had been around recently as the fire was crackling away brightly and there was a coffee pot steaming away on the hearth, so I knew he wasn’t far. Probably tending the horses, I thought vaguely.

I cast a glance about the cabin again; something was subtly different. Then I realized what it was — the whitewashed and beamed ceiling had a strange light glow about it. I looked over to the window and the same pellucid light was shining in, and I realized what it was: snow.

A few minutes later, the door banged and Jess entered carrying a load of logs, his hat and shoulders white with snow and his cheeks a rosy red from the chill wind that I heard blowing as the door opened.

“Hell, Jess, is it snowing?” I called anxiously.

Jess went and threw the logs down in the basket beside the fire, and then removing his hat, he turned and shook the snow off it. “Well, I guess I can’t lie about that, pard,” he  said with an ironic smile. “More than just snowin’. It’s a goddamn blizzard.”

I sat up at that and strained to see through the window. He was right; the snow was being  blown almost horizontal, and even as we watched, the wind got up and we could hear the unearthly howling as of a thousand banshees out there on the mountain.

I made to get up. “We’ve got to get out of here, Jess, pronto, before were snowed in for the whole darned winter.”

Jess strode over and gently pushed me back onto the bed. “Are you crazy?” he said harshly. “You ain’t going anywhere.”

“Sure I am. We can’t stay here, Jess, and you know it.”

He turned his stubborn look on me then. “I know you’ve got severe concussion, several busted ribs and a twisted knee. You wouldn’t last five minutes out there, plus ol’ Alamo is in  no state to be ridden, so you’re going nowhere, pard, except back to bed.”

At that, I looked down at myself and suddenly realized the truth of his words. He’d stripped me down  to my undershirt and shorts and  I could feel the strong  bindings he’d put around my chest. Glancing down, I saw the bandages swathing my knee. Then the pain kicked in and I gasped and lay back, feeling sick to my stomach.

Jess was immediately concerned and helped me lay back down, covering me over with the rough blanket. “I’ll get you a coffee.” He returned a few minutes later and pulled over an old rocker, passed me my drink and then collapsed in the chair sipping his own.

After a minute he regarded me over the rim of his cup. “Just simmer down, Slim. It may just be a storm and will pass over, and we’ll still make it down in a few days”.

“Uh, and maybe it’s set in for the winter. How deep is it, Jess?”

“Dunno. Just two maybe three inches, not too bad.”

“Well, you go,” I said quickly. “You’ll make it down on Traveler. Go on, Jess. Go now while you still can.”

He put his cup down and just stared at me for a full minute, and when he replied, his voice was choked with emotion. “Do you think I’d do that, Slim? Do you really think I’d leave you?”

I dipped my head, feeling kind of bad now. “I guess not.”

“Um… well ,let’s not have any more of that rubbish. We’ll get down just as soon as you and that ol’ horse of yours are fit to travel and not before.” With that, Jess picked up his cup, swilled down the last of his coffee and rose to leave. “I’m gonna go and check on him. You rest up, ok?”

“Ok. And Jess?”

He turned from the door and raised a questioning eyebrow. “Yeah?”

“Thanks, pard.”

He gave me his shy smile and waved a dismissive hand before pulling his hat down and stepping out into the white wilderness that was now the world outside the cabin.

*****

And that was the start of our self-imposed incarceration in the cabin, a time we would never forget.

I can’t pretend I wasn’t worried — worried sick, in fact. Hell, the number of times my Pa had drummed it into me that it would be a death sentence if we were ever stranded up there in the snow.

I tried to explain my fears to Jess later. “You do realize how serious this is?” I said as we were sitting drinking yet another coffee after supper, the wind still howling outside and the snow still falling.

“Sure I do,” Jess said carelessly, his expression far from serious.

I lost my temper then. “Hell Jess, have you forgotten the Donner Pass incident?”

I was referring to a terrible tragedy that took place back in 1846, when a wagon train of emigrants heading for California were stranded in the Sierra Nevada when the pass was blocked by heavy snow. They’d had to make camp there throughout the winter. And although  there had been many valiant attempts to leave and fetch help for the woman and  children, still many perished in probably the worst tragedy ever in the history of the wagon train, with even rumors of cannibalism as the poor people slowly starved to death.

“No I ain’t forgotten Donner Pass,” Jess said irritably, “but have you forgotten we’ve got us over a thousand pounds of moose hanging in the stable.”

“That’s as maybe but…”

“Slim, will you simmer down and stop your frettin’? Look, if we run out of moose, I promise not to eat you, OK? “

“Jess, that’s a terrible thing to say,” I cried, but then I couldn’t resist a small smile, knowing how Jess’s black sense of humor had seen us through many a tough day.

He winked at me then. “I’ll go and check the horses before I turn in,” he said. “Oh yeah and the moose too. Guess we’ll be able to write a cook book at the end of this — 1,000 ways to cook up moose.” Chuckling to himself, he went off to the stable, leaving me looking after him and shaking my head. How come he always seemed to laugh in the face of adversity, I wondered not for the first time.

When he returned, however, Jess was ashen and visibly shaking.

“Hell Jess, what’s the matter?” I asked sitting up in bed. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost?”

He just stared at me and then whispered, “It’s gone, Slim.”

“What…what’s gone?” I asked staring at him, my mind in turmoil.

“The goddamn moose. Someone’s stolen it…well, most of it. “Left the antlers and a couple of joints.”

“But what…? Who…?”

He shrugged. “Indians. Saw their tracks all over the place. I just thank God they left the horses.”

“What, those Shoshone we saw earlier?” I asked.

“Nope, at least I don’t think so. If it had been them, they’d have taken all the meat, horses too and probably our scalps as well, the way those young renegades have been acting up lately.”

“So who then?”

“Dunno. Arapahoe maybe. Late goin’ to their winter camp and got short of fresh meat. They left these in payment,” he said throwing a couple of leather pouches, richly decorated with beads, onto the bed, where I was still laid up.

One contained some herbal medicines and the other half a dozen small gold nuggets.

“Well, I guess you can’t call ‘em mean,” said Jess, gesturing towards the gold. “That more than pays for a moose carcass.”

“That’s not the point though is it,” I said bitterly. “We can’t eat gold, Jess!”

“Look, will you stop your frettin’?” he said gently. “It ain’t good for you when you’re sick. We’ve enough meat to last a few days, and by then, the wind will have dropped and there’ll be plenty of wildlife afoot. I’ll just go catch us some vittles. Now you get to sleep and stop worryin’, OK!”

I knew he was trying to make light of it for my sake, but I’d seen the state of him when he’d entered with the news just a few minutes earlier and knew he was just as rattled as I was, just better at hiding it.

I gave him a weak smile at that. “It’s kind of hard to change the habit of a lifetime, you know.”

He nodded at that, knowing what I’m like. “I guess not. It can’t have been easy for you havin’ all that responsibility so young.”

He was alluding to the fact that my father and mother had both died within a few weeks of each other, leaving me to bring up Andy, my kid brother — who was just ten years old at the time — and run the business too. Well, that was a huge responsibility for a young man and if it hadn’t been for old Jonsey, a family friend, moving in and holding it all together, I don’t know how I’d have coped. Jonsey took on Ma’s role, I guess, pretty much the way Daisy did now, doing all the domestics and fixing us up when we were hurt or sick, usually with a foul smelling potion of some sort.

A smile must have flickered across my face because Jess said,” what?”

“Just thinking on old Jonsey and that evil rub he used to use on anything from a bad back to chickenpox.”

Jess chuckled at that. “Wasn’t it goddamn awful? Jeez, you just had to get well quick before the stench did for you!” Then he sobered a bit and asked, “So was it real hard trying to be Ma and Pa to young Andy?”

“You bet it was. I guess he grew to hate me at one stage — always hollering at him to do his chores and his homework, get up, go to bed. He said I treated him like I was a sergeant major,” I said with a rueful smile. “Then you landed. No wonder he wanted to jump ship and go off on the drift with you.”

Jess’s face sobered at that. ”I would never have taken him, you know that, dontcha, Slim?”

I looked into his blue concerned eyes and knew the truth of it. ” Yeah, I know that,” I said softly, “but it was the fact that he wanted to go that hurt so much.”

Jess sighed at that. “I’m sorry; I never meant to come between you, honest. He was just a great kid and we kinda hit it off, I guess,” he said vaguely.

“Sure you did. It was like having another kid under the roof, so Jonsey said,” I laughed. “Always larking about with him, playing jokes on us ’grown-ups’, playing hooky and going off fishing or swimming. Gee, no wonder the kid worshipped you,” I finished, grinning over at him and was surprised to see how troubled he looked.

“Hey, what’s up? I got over being mad about all that stuff long ago, you know that,” I said gently.

“You’re right, though; I guess I was a kinda bad influence on him,” Jess said thoughtfully.

“Bad influence,” I laughed, trying to lighten the atmosphere, “Hell, I saw the writing on the wall when I landed home and found you with your feet under the table teaching the boy how to deal from the bottom of the pack.”

“I explained about that; I was showin’ him how to spot a cheat,” Jess said hotly. Then saw the twinkle in my eyes and relaxed. “Anyways I didn’t mean about that. But I should have acted more responsible around him. It’s just…”

“What, Jess?” I asked kindly.

His blue eyes clouded and he muttered, “See, I didn’t get much of a childhood. Wasn’t ever able to throw off the traces that way — have a laugh, play practical jokes and the like. Pa would just have floored me. You know the way he was.”

“Some, I guess, but you never told me everything. Just that he beat you and the other kids and liked the drink a bit too much.”

“Yeah, well, that just about covers it,” Jess said dryly, steering away from the topic of his old Pa as he usually did. “Then, after everyone died, after the Bannisters fired the house, I guess I had to grow up real quick,” he continued. “So I never got the chance to be a kid, you know?” he asked earnestly, obviously feeling real emotional.

Then Jess took a deep breath, and pulling himself together, changed the subject. “So your Ma and Pa would be real pleased about the way Andy’s turned out, despite me tryin’ to sabotage your parenting,” he said with a small smile. “Him bein’ all educated up at college back east, learning about doctoring and all.”

I nodded. “And thank goodness he’s got Jonsey riding shotgun. I guess it’s down to him to keep Andy at his books now,” I said with a sad smile.

“Miss him?” asked Jess.

“I guess, but young Mike kinda fills the gap some, doesn’t he?”

My buddy’s eyes lit up at the thought of our young ward. “Sure he does. He’s a great kid.”

“And you’re a great Pa figure to him. He really hero-worships you, you know, Jess. But you’re strict with him when you have to be, completely different than how you were with Andy,” I said.

He smiled at that. ”I guess I got all my messing about and playing the big kid out of my system with young Andy and then I grew up.”

I laughed at that. “Yep, I guess you did at that.” Then I thought back to what he’d said earlier. “Yeah, I guess Ma and Pa would be real proud of him if they could look down from heaven and see young Andy,” I said dreamily.

“You too,” said Jess.

“Huh?”

“I guess they’d be real proud of you too — way you’ve brought up Andy and moved the business on, bought up more land and got the Overland franchise too. Yep, your old daddy would be real proud of you.”

“Thanks, Jess; it means a lot that you said that,” I replied quietly, really meaning it.

“So what was he like, your old man?”

“Oh he was a great guy, Jess,” I said, my face lighting up at the memory of him. “Taller than me and broader too — a real giant of a man — but peaceable. Didn’t like any trouble. But he’d have killed with his bare hands to protect me and Ma — and young Andy, when he came along.”

“I often wondered about that. There’s a real big gap between you two.”

“Yeah, well, Ma lost a couple of babies in between, and I guess that made for a real strong bond between me and Pa. Was a time they figured I would be the only one.”

“Now wouldn’t that have been a novelty,” said Jess, grinning across at me.

I knew he was the middle child of five. There would have been more, he said once, but a few other babies had died too, as was a sad fact of life back in those days. Anyway, old Jess there lived in abject poverty — never had new clothes, always his older brother’s hand-me-downs. I remembered he once said the first pair of new boots he owned were army issue when he joined the Confederacy, so I figured it would be kind of a nice thought to be an only one, as far as he was concerned. “Uh, maybe kind of lonely, though.”

“Maybe. So you and your Pa, you did stuff together then, Slim?”

“Oh hell yeah, all the time. He taught me everything there was to know about ranching, and we’d take off hunting, fishing, mustanging. Stayed up here together often,” I said, smiling at the memory. “Ma schooled me at home, real good too; she was a teacher, you see. She’d got so many books, gave me a real thirst for knowledge. It might have been good to go to college like Andy, but well… After he came along, that was down to him. I guess eldest son always took over the business, you see.”

“You’d have been good at college. Maybe you could have been a teacher too. You sure showed me how to cipher and spell, and write a decent letter real good too,” Jess said honestly.

“Well, you were a really quick learner. It’s a crying shame your Pa kept you home from school working the land so much. You could have done anything, you know that, Jess; you’re real bright.”

He just shrugged at that. “Guess we just have to play the hand we’re dealt as best we can in this old life.”

I nodded, amazed yet again, at his good-natured acceptance of his lot.

“Anyway, time you turned in pard,” Jess said firmly. “And don’t you go frettin’. Everything will be just fine, you’ll see.”

*****

For all Jess’s bravado and comforting words, he was obviously equally worried because he suffered one of his dreadful nightmares that night, his terrified yells waking me in the small hours.

I sat bolt upright and called out to him, “Hey Jess, you OK, pard?” A few minutes later, he ambled over and slumped down on the edge of my bed.

“Sorry, Slim, did I wake you?”

I threw him a look of askance at that. “Well, yeah.”

“Uh, of course…sorry,” he said, scratching his head and yawning widely.

“You want to tell me about it?”

He sat for another minute before flicking a glance over at me. “You wanna coffee?”

“Sure, if that’ll help you tell me.”

Jess just nodded at that and went to put on the pot.

It was some time later before he opened up.

“Remember when I landed home after the cattle drive from hell?” Jess started.

“Yep, of course I do. “

“Well, I told you most of it…but not all of it. “

“OK, I’m listening.”

He gave a deep sigh and dipped his head before continuing. “See, it was this way. Remember when I told you about meeting up with old Cookie, him being the…the cook, on the trail drive?”

“Sure I do. “

“It turns out he was an old family, friend of my Pa’s. I used to call him Uncle Titus.”

I nodded at that, taking it on board. “So if he was an old friend. Why didn’t you recognize him?”

“Because he’d changed so much. Hell Slim, I was seven, maybe eight, last time I cast eyes on the man and then he only visited occasionally to drop my Pa off from the saloon. Like I say, he’d really changed — aged when I saw him again. Gone grey, grown a beard, wearing spectacles. He didn’t resemble the man I remembered in any way. Except his eyes. As soon as I met him, I thought there was something familiar, but just couldn’t place it. Then he never let on, until we were on our way home.”

“So why then?”

“I dunno,” said Jess looking puzzled. “I guess maybe he really didn’t wanna embarrass me, like he said. If I’d recognized him as an old family friend, well, I guess maybe it would have been kinda hard to boss him.”

“So go on.”

Jess, who had been sitting in the old rocker beside the bed where I was still residing, looked down and studied the floor for a good minute before he finally looked me in the eye and replied. “See, it was this way, Slim. Old Cookie or Uncle Titus, gave me the lowdown on my Pa, and I guess I’ve found it kinda hard to accept. Couldn’t really believe what he was sayin’.”

“Go on,” I repeated.

“That’s what the nightmare was about — my Pa. Must have been the chat we had before we turned in about your Pa and everything. I guess it got me thinking about how me and my Pa were.”

“And how were you?”

He sighed and then started talking to me like he never had done before. “My Pa was the biggest goddamn bastard you’re ever likely to meet…or so I’ve always thought. Right from me being in diapers, he was hardly ever there, or so it seemed. He was either out in the field or in the saloon. Only time I saw him was when he came home drunk and started layin’ into my Ma. Knocking her about or wantin’ her favors. Either way, us kids realized that it was the smart option to just lay low.” He laughed bitterly at that. “Number of times I fell asleep under my bed, hidin’ from him…” He shook his head at the memory.

“Then after a while, I grew up a little and couldn’t bear him attacking Ma and the other kids, so I’d stand up to him, and he sure didn’t like that. He’d whop me real good, but at least Ma was spared.”

Jess sighed and looked down before continuing. “Ever wonder where I got my ornery streak from and my temper?” he asked casting me a bitter smile. “Well, I guess my Pa beat it into me. Life seemed so dang hard, so unfair, and so I got real tough, real ornery to kinda compensate, I guess. Never dared show my Pa any weakness see? “

I just nodded, unable to speak, almost moved to tears by these latest revelations. Suddenly, the way Jess was, the way he could be real hard to live with sometimes, well, it all made sense.

“So anyway, I grew up and got me the reputation of bein’ a bit of a rebel, and I hated my Pa something fierce. Wanted to kill him, Slim, and that’s a fact.”

I felt really shocked at that, but tried to hide it, just nodding in encouragement that he should continue.

“Then things went from bad to worse when I was just nine years old. I’d done something real bad — well, in his eyes. I asked my sister to lock the fowl up for me because I was stopping with a friend and couldn’t get back to do it. Anyway, she forgot, and the next morning all the hens were scattered around the yard; fox had got ‘em.”

I sucked in a breath, taking in every twist and turn of this unfolding drama which was my buddy’s life. “What’d he do?” I whispered.

“Well, he went out in the yard and saw ‘em and came back in and he roared with anger. Jeez, Slim, I hadn’t ever seen him that mad. He started layin’ into me somethin’ fierce. I guess he’d have killed me if Ma hadn’t pulled him off.”

Jess’ face contorted in pain at the memory and I had a terrible feeling he was about to reveal something even more devastating. And I wasn’t wrong.

“Well, Ma tried to haul him off and he pushed her real hard, flung her away from him. She fell, real badly. She was eight months pregnant, Slim.”

I just gasped and my face must have looked deeply shocked, but he didn’t even look at me, just stared off into the distance remembering every horrific detail as he continued telling the tale, almost matter-of-factly now.

“So anyway, that brought Pa to his senses and I ran for the doc. He was there most of the day. Francie, my sister, took the little ones off out, and my big brother, well, he’d already lit out at the first sign of trouble,” Jess said bitterly.

“I just sat on the back step, listening to my Ma screaming and screaming in agony as she lost my baby sister. And Pa sat at the kitchen table workin’ his way down a bottle of Red Eye.” Jess shrugged at that. “Guess I can’t blame him for that; maybe I’d have done the same.” he said honestly.

“Anyway, suddenly the place went deathly quiet, almost worse than the yellin’ and frettin’. Then the doc came out of the bedroom with this little bundle in his arms Slim — my little sister. She was so dang beautiful — just perfect. This tiny face and lots of black curls… She’d have been a real stunner.” He gave a shaky sigh. “The doc took her over and showed her to Pa. Said, ‘your wife survived, Mr. Harper, but I’m sorry, your daughter died.

“And you know what Pa said?”

I just shook my head.

“He looked from the baby to me and said, ‘This is all your fault. This is down to you!’”

“What!” I cried, sitting upright and feeling outraged. “He said that? “

“Yep. He reckoned it was my fault he’d got so mad he lashed out at Ma, causin’ the still birth. All made perfect sense to him.”

“Jess no…”

He just nodded. “And that’s when things went from bad to worse between us, I guess. It was because of that I got me a gun and taught myself to draw and aim. I was gonna kill my Pa, see, Slim, first chance I got, for what he’d done to Ma that day.”

I must have looked even more shocked, because he grimaced and said, “Just tellin’ you how it was back then.”

“I understand, and I’m not judging you, Jess. Maybe I’d have felt the same in your place.”

“Maybe,” Jess said softly, but he didn’t look convinced.

“Anyway, I found an old rusty gun in the barn, cleaned it up real good, stole ammo from my Pa — he was drunk half the time, never noticed. Then I’d practice aiming and firing into an old clay bank. Started at age nine, ten, maybe eleven. By twelve, I was a real good shot,  accurate and fast, and the more I practiced, the better I got. No one knew; my little secret,” Jess said, casting me an ironic  smile. “Save for my old Uncle, Pa’s brother, that is. He encouraged me, bought me ammo sometimes. I figure he weren’t any fonder of Pa than I was.”

“So, did you take him on…your Pa? “

Jess shook his head. “Nope. See, it had to be a fair fight. I’d have had to call him out, but it just wouldn’t have been fair, not the way he was by then, hardly ever sober after the baby died — guilt, I guess. So no, I didn’t,” he said softly.

“So anyway, Ma had a real strong influence on my childhood; kinda made up for Pa not givin’ a toss, I suppose. Taught me right from wrong; was a great one for fire and brimstone was my Ma. Quoted great tracts out of the Bible, made us kids memorize them. I can still quote  a fair few word for word,” Jess said, grinning  at me now.

“All the good things too — the important stuff. Like about loyalty, being fair, right and wrong, bein’ true to yourself and what you believe in — all that kinda stuff,” he finished quietly.

“Well she sure did a good job on you,” I said smiling at him. “Good manners, too. Was that down to your  Ma?”

He nodded. “Yep, always gets me in good with the ladies, me bein’ real polite and all.”

I smiled at that, always having wondered how someone so rough and ready in many ways, who could cuss with the best of them, then could transform himself into this polite well-mannered personable young man in the blink of an eye, if the situation called for it. Yes, I  was getting to know my best buddy really well for the first time that night, finding out what made him tick, that was for sure.

“So anyway, like I say, it wouldn’t have been a fair fight even at twelve or thirteen. I could have outdrawn him easy, and as I grew up, the day wasn’t too far away when I’d be able to beat him in a fair fist fight too — and he knew it.

“Well that’s how it was back then — how I felt, how I’ve always felt, until old Cookie, also known as Uncle Titus, landed and turned my whole world upside down.”

“How so?” I asked, hardly daring to breathe lest he suddenly decided to clam up.

But no. Uncharacteristically, he seemed to want to bare his soul, open up and tell me everything for once.

“Well, he painted this real different picture of my Pa,” Jess explained. “He knew him from years back, see. Said he was a good guy. He said Pa was just like me — had real strong ethics as to right and wrong, always fighting for the underdog, believed in justice and the power of good over evil… All that kinda stuff.”

“Um, sounds a lot like you. So where did it all go wrong?”

“Titus reckons it started to go bad when he lost his spread through drought, illness — none of it his fault. He and Ma lost everything. Had to move out, take up share farming and that was a real hard life, you know, Slim. He saw it age my Ma before her time, workin’ the land and bearing him all us kids. Well, he just couldn’t take it, according to Titus. He just went downhill, kinda gave up on life, couldn’t deal with the hand he’d been dealt, I guess.”

“So what then?”

“Well, he started drinkin’ to ease the pain and guilt, I reckon, and that’s when I started standing up to him. He used to get so dang mad with me. Titus reckons that Pa was reminded of himself as a young man when he looked at me, and that made the guilt even worse — remembering what he used to be like — so he took it out on me…most of the time. “

“Most of the time?”

“Yeah, but there were a few times when he tried to pull himself out of this…well, this kinda sickness, I guess. He’d give up the drink and promise me on his honor it was all behind him and then…”

I could see that Jess was suddenly struggling with his emotions, so I just waited patiently for him to get control again and he finally continued.

“Then he was like a real Pa to me. Called me his top hand; he said he couldn’t run the place without me — really relied on me. Then we’d take off fishin’ or huntin’ together, just like a regular father and son. That would last about a week or so and then…this drunken stranger would come back from the saloon, stare at me like I was nuthin. Then he’d lash out, tell me to go to hell and start layin’ into Ma…and it would all kick off again, just like normal.”

I could have wept for him as he sat there looking back at his life, the words practically wrenched out of him, like he almost didn’t want to tell me what a real bad lot his Pa was. But somehow needing to come to terms with it all.

“You see, that nightmare I had before, it was about Pa dyin’ in the fire. I never cared before, you know, Slim. I hate to admit it, but a little bit of me was kinda glad I’d never see him again. I mourned for Ma and the kids afterwards, cried something fierce — still do sometimes,” he said very softly. “But not Pa… not until now.”

“Why now?”

“Because of what Titus told me. How he said Pa wasn’t a bad man, just that he’d kinda lost his way. Couldn’t deal with life no more. He may have been weak, but I guess he wasn’t darn right evil, not the way I thought he was all these years, anyway.”

“I reckon that’s real forgiving of you, Jess, after everything you’ve told me.”

He just shrugged. “You know what really worries me?”

I shook my head. “Go on”.

“Well, if it could happen to him, if he could act that way, then maybe I’ll go the same one day. If I lost everything and went back on the drift, maybe got too fond of the drink… Hell, Slim, maybe I’d end up the same?”

I stared at him in astonishment. “That’s crazy talk and you know it.”

Jess shook his head sadly. “Look at that time Mike was abducted, and we thought he was dead. I turned to the drink then, didn’t I.”

“Yeah, and you dang well learned your lesson too. You stopped drinking of your own accord — before he was found too. You’d have survived that and moved on even if we hadn’t found him.”

“I guess,” Jess said quietly, “but thank God it didn’t come to that.”

I nodded. “Amen to that.”

Then Jess’ head shot up. “Hell Slim, Mike and Daisy are gonna be so dang worried, ain’t they?”

I nodded sadly. “Are sure you don’t want to try and get through, Jess?”

Then he got that stubborn look in his eyes that I knew so well. “Said not, didn’t I. Hell Slim, you can’t even walk right now and you really wouldn’t survive up here without me. Nope, sorry,  pard, but you’re stuck with me…and my nightmares,” Jess said, with the hint of a twinkle in his eyes as he went off to turn in again, leaving me mulling over everything he’d said.

I don’t know what it was about being stuck up in that cabin together, but we sure confided in each other in a way we never had done before, and I guess we really got to know each other during that time. So I guess it wasn’t all bad.

*****

However, I guess I didn’t think that when I woke up the next morning as I felt sick — real sick, the worst I could remember for a good while anyway. Looking back on it now, I realize I had a real bad infection, but then…well, I just felt bad and sure in need of some of Daisy’s tender lovin’ care.

Anyway, what I got was Jess’s looking out for me, which was the next best thing, I guess.

I seem to remember him pulling off the bandages binding my ribs, and he cussed some and then told me to hold on. The next thing I knew he was dousing my chest with neat whiskey and, boy, did it sting some. Turns out that I’d got some dirt in where my chest had been scraped in the fall as I rolled down the bank, causing the wound to get infected.

Well, I could see he was having a real bad time cleaning me up. Gee, he was sweating and cussing real softly, and kept apologizing.

“Hell Jess, you’ve got to do this; I understand,” I said, but it made very little difference. He was still feeling real bad I could see.

Anyway, finally it was over and I was feeling a mite better. He made us a coffee laced with the Red Eye, and I guess we were both in need of it.

I kind of drifted off after that, and when I woke up an hour or so later, I was sweating something fierce. I felt real sick too, and ol’ Jess there was sitting on the edge of the bed swabbing me down with cool water and looking really concerned.

“Hey, Hardrock, you’re burning up,” Jess said. “I’m real sorry. I guess I didn’t fix you up too well after that fall.”

“Heck Jess, this isn’t your fault. Just bad luck is all. I’ll be OK; just now…got to…sleep…” and I drifted off again.

 But every time I woke up, he was there looking out for me, and it was kind of strange as it was usually me patching him up.

I was out of it for the rest of the day. Sure don’t remember it anyway, and it was the following morning before I woke up.

Jess was there saying breakfast was ready and helping me sit up, and boy, was I ready for it. I was real hungry, which got me thinking about the rations.

As if he’d read my mind, Jess gestured to our empty plates. “That was the last of the biscuits and bacon. I figure I’ll go out later, see what I can rustle up,” he said softly.

I cast a glance towards the window and was relieved to see the wind had dropped, but the snow was still drifting gently down. “Shouldn’t you wait until it stops?”

He shook his head. “No telling how long it’s gonna take me to find anything. Sooner I start lookin’, the better, I guess.”

I nodded at the sense of that. “Where are you heading then?”

“Thought I’d try down by the lake. Critters still have to drink no matter what.”

“What, you’re going to take Traveler out?”

He shook his head. “Hell no, it’s way too treacherous under foot. Don’t want him fallin’ and breaking a leg. Besides, it’s too darn cold anyway; don’t want him fetchin’ another chill either.”

I shook my head, thinking fondly how my buddy loved that old horse of his, then what he’d said suddenly hit home. “Hell Jess, you can’t go all that way on foot. It’s miles.”

“Sooner I get started sooner, I’ll be back then,” he said, jumping up and taking my plate. “I cooked up one of those joints yesterday,” Jess added. “You can have the rest of that for dinner, and the coffee pot’s on the hearth.” With that, he shrugged his jacket on and checked his hunting rifle.

All the time I’d  been just staring at him, not wanting him to go, but knowing he had to. Now as he turned to leave, I suddenly found my voice. “You take care, you hear, pard?”

He nodded. “Sure.” Pulling his hat down hard, he let himself out through the door, a draft of icy air rushing in as he left and then I was alone with my thoughts.

I guess that was one of the longest days I can remember. The total silence was almost eerie after the howling wind had dropped. I could still see the odd snow flurry through the window though, and watched as eventually it eased off, and a brilliant sun came out, transforming the view  into a winter wonderland. I rejoiced in the fact that at least the snowstorm had abated and the going would be a little easier for my buddy.

Lying there, unable to walk because my darn knee was still hurting real bad, I thought about so many things. Being a kid and growing up with a loving Pa, the contrast with Jess’s upbringing so stark after the revelations of the night before. How would I have fared in similar circumstances, I wondered; I really didn’t know. Then the life he had lived since then, after the Bannister Gang fired the family home, searching for them with vengeance in his young heart, then the war.

Hell, the war. I really didn’t like to dwell on that time — too long, that was for sure. I supposed compared with some, I’d had what was called a ‘good’ war, if any part of war can be termed good. I made it up through the ranks, wasn’t captured like Jess was, but still had a hellish time seeing things and doing deeds that no young man should ever have to be party to. It was one hell of a time no matter which side you fought on — the Union like me or Confederacy like Jess. Good men died on both sides and that was a fact.

I guess it was something I was real glad about — that neither of us bore any malice towards the other regarding the war. It was just a fact of life. We fought, albeit on opposing sides, and then…well, it was over and life went on. Jess had it tougher than me as he was a prisoner of war and was whipped and beaten to within an inch of his life, and sure he had a deep resentment towards the man who had tortured him — hell, who wouldn’t? — but that was all. He bore no grudge against the Union, nor I for the Confederacy. It was over and finished, done.

Then I stopped thinking about the past and focused on the here and now. The light was fading and where was Jess? I knew he‘d taken on a really tough journey. Even in good weather, it was a formidable trek, but in these conditions, well…

The light slowly faded to dusk; I managed to stagger up and I lit the lamps. Then limping over to the door, I hauled it open and looked out at a serene landscape. The snow drifted and sparkling in the light from the rising moon, but absolutely no sign of Jess.

Using the stick, Jess had cut for me the previous day, I managed to get myself over to the stable and feed the horses and bring some wood back in. However, there was still no sign of my buddy, and as the moon rose higher in the sky, I was sorely troubled, knowing that he would never survive if he tried to sleep out in the bitterly cold conditions.

I used the last of the meat to make some hot broth, but couldn’t eat my share and kept it hot by the fire, waiting for — no, by this time, praying — for my pard’s safe return.

It was way past midnight. After hour after hour of limping to the window and back, peering out at the moonlit snow, I had finally collapsed into an uneasy doze by the fire. Suddenly, there was a crash as the door flew open; an icy blast filled the room as Jess finally staggered in and threw a large sack down by the door, a triumphant grin on his exhausted face.

I leapt up and limped over to him, feeling almost dizzy with relief, and stopped in my tracks as I took in the welcome sight of my best buddy.

By all accounts he looked fine, at first glance. His cheeks flushed with wind burn and his eyes sparkling, but then on closer inspection I saw that he was looking bone weary and frozen to the marrow.

He just stood there shaking, and after a moment, he gasped through chattering teeth, “It’s darn c…c…cold out there, Hardrock.”

He tried to unbutton his sheepskin jacket but couldn’t get his fingers to work. I guessed they were completely numb with cold as he abandoned the task and stuck his hands under his armpits in an endeavor to warm them.

I could see at once that I needed to take charge, and as much as Jess hated to be fussed, I figured that this was one occasion when he’d just have to put up with it.

I led him over to the blazing fire. “Come and get warm, Jess,” I said, and then gently peeled off his icy gloves, revealing hands white with cold. I thought for one terrible moment that he’d suffered frostbite. When he started trying to rub some feeling back into them, his face contorted in pain as the blood started circulating again, but thankfully there didn’t seem to be any permanent damage.

I then unbuttoned his jacket that was waterlogged and frozen solid, his shirt and denims equally cold and wet. And that’s when I saw it. A dark patch on his jacket that had soaked through to his shirt — a bright red stain covering the whole of the front of his pale blue shirt. “Jess, are you hurt? “

He shook his head and said quietly, “Ain’t my blood.”

I must have looked puzzled because he gave me a faint grin and said, “I got jumped by a bobcat just down the trail some; he was after the deer.”

“Huh… deer?”

“Yep, bagged one. Kinda scrawny, but should see us right for a week or so. Got a couple of jack rabbits too.”

I beamed at him. “Hey pard, that’s good, real good. So what about this old bobcat then?”

“I guess he thought his need was greater than ours.” Jess chuckled. “Jumped me from behind, got me on the ground. He was real big for a bobcat.” Then he sobered. “Just lucky it wasn’t a cougar or a wolf; I wouldn’t have stood a chance. I was real beat by then.” He sighed and then continued.

“Anyway, he bought me down. Surprised me, I guess, and we rolled around in the snow some, him trying to gnaw away at my arm. Then I finally got my hunting knife out of my boot and slit his throat. Kind of a shame, really; he was a feisty little thing.”

“Surprised you didn’t bring him back for the pot,” I said, just relieved that my buddy hadn’t been badly hurt.

“Uh, well, I did consider it but….” Jess had sunk down on the couch now and was looking real beat.

“But what?”

“Well I had this kinda feeling that I was being watched, followed. I couldn’t see or hear anything, but I had this sort of feelin’, you know?”

I nodded, having experienced the same feeling occasionally when hunting alone — that some evil predator was out there just waiting to pounce. And nine times out of ten, that sixth sense had been proven right.

“Well anyway, I left the carcass out there; figured it might keep whoever was after me happy long enough for me to get back.”

“What do you think it was?”

He shook his head. “Dunno; wolf probably. I heard some howling way off in the distance. Could have got my scent, I guess, and the blood of the deer.”

“Well, let’s hope they haven’t followed you home,” I said with a weak smile.

He looked alert at that. “You checked the horses?”

“Yeah, not long since and they’re absolutely fine, Jess. The stable is battened down real good; nothing can get in there, I promise you.”

He acknowledged that and we exchanged a small smile, both of us remembering that time a few years back when Jess had nearly died out there.

There was again snow on the ground, and we had young Mike with us on our way back to the ranch when a freak snowstorm had caught us out and we’d holed up at the line cabin.

That was when the wolves had attacked and got in with the horses, and although we killed them all before they could attack our mounts, Jess had insisted on sleeping out in the stable as the wolves had smashed a window and damaged the door. He was concerned for the safety of Traveler and Alamo. I had needed to stay in the cabin to look out for Mike as again we were concerned there were more of the beasts about.

Anyway, early the following morning, I had gone in to wake Jess, only to see the makeshift curtain he had put across the window blown down, the stable freezing. On trying to waken my buddy, I thought he had frozen to death.

I could see him now, white as a sheet save for a blue tinge around his lips, his whole body stiff and apparently completely lifeless. I remembered that terrible despair and feeling of loss. And then just as I was about to cover the corpse with a blanket, I saw it — a tiny speck of blood on his shirt, gradually getting larger before my eyes. It was from a wound he had received earlier, and I remembered what the doc had told me once — the dead don’t bleed. It had been that tiny red stain that had saved my buddy’s life. I’d brought him in, warmed him up and eventually he bounced back again, thank the Lord.

Now looking down at where he was sprawled back on the couch, I saw him begin to shiver and quickly fetched a blanket and threw it around his shoulders before pouring some broth into a cup and passing it over. “Here, drink this; it’ll warm you up some.”

“Thanks, pard,” Jess said softly.

I’d turned away to go and fetch him some clean clothes out of his saddlebags, and when I came back, his head had rolled back and his fingers gripping the cup had loosened. I was just in time to take it from him before the remaining contents spilled.

He was deeply asleep, so I pulled off his boots and gently stripped off his soaking clothes, but he never stirred. Then taking his shoulders. I pushed him down so he was lying stretched out on the couch. Covering him with a blanket, I left him to sleep before returning to my own bed where I relaxed for the first time that day and fell into a deep sleep myself, within minutes.

When I awoke, bright sunlight was streaming  in through the window. I staggered up and made my way over to the fire  and after throwing  some more logs on, brewed some strong coffee before turning to wake Jess.

I shook him gently. “Roll out, Jess; coffee’s on.”

He groaned and then finally opened his deep blue eyes and stared at me.

Well, I expected the usual mild cussing Jess was prone to when woken up in the mornings, but I didn’t expect the reaction I got.

His eyes opened wide and then he closed them quickly and started rubbing them and cussing loudly.

“Jess. Jess, what is it pard?”

He opened his eyes to a slit and squinted up at me. “It’s my darned eyes. Feel like they’re on fire, like they’ve had sand chucked in them.” Then he sucked in a deep breath. “Jeez!”

“Steady Jess,” I said, squeezing his shoulder gently.

He opened them again and glanced towards the bright light shining in through the window and  swore again. “It’s the darned light,” he said, and started rubbing his eyes as if desperately trying to remove the cause of the irritation.

Then I suddenly knew what it was. I had seen my Pa come in once, long ago, after spending a morning riding fence on a very bright snowy day, and by suppertime, he couldn’t see. I was terrified, but Ma knew how to deal with the problem as she always did.

“It’s snow blindness,” she said calmly to Pa. “Don’t fret, Mathew; I know just what to do.”

And now I knew exactly what to do as well.

“Jess, stop rubbing your eyes; you’ll make it worse,” I said quickly.

“Huh?”

“Don’t rub ’em; just lay back and I’ll get a cool rag to put over them.” I went and soaked a clean bandage in icy cold water before gently laying it over his eyes.

He lay there surrendering to my ministrations, quite meekly, for Jess, and I figured he was in so much pain he’d try anything.

After a moment, he muttered, “So what is it?”

“Snow blindness.”

At that he sat bolt upright, pulling the dressing away and stared at me in horror. “Blindness! I’m going blind?” Jess yelled in anguish.

“Hey, take it easy, pard. It’s just a name. The dazzle off the snow yesterday has damaged the back of your eyes some. Kinda irritated them. But it’s not permanent as long as you keep them closed and real cool for a day or so. You should be fine. They just need a rest from the strong light to recover.”

He sighed with relief. “You sure?”

“Sure I’m sure. Now you just lay back and do as you’re told for once, will you?”

“I guess,” he said weakly, and to my surprise, he did just that.

“So you never heard of snow blindness then, Jess?” I asked later that day after he’d eaten a rather hit and miss meal, refusing point blank for me to feed him.

“Nope. Well, we don’t have a whole lotta snow down in Texas, you know, Slim, so how would I?” he replied, his voice laden with sarcasm.

I smiled to myself at that. Jess’s ornery side was showing again, a sure fire sign he was on the mend.

Then I saw him wipe a tear away and felt terrible, all this acting tough was just a smoke screen and inwardly he was really frightened.

“It’s OK, pard,” I said gently. “You really will be alright in a day or so.”

“Yeah, I know that,” he said gruffly.

“Well, there’s nothing to be embarrassed about if you’re feeling kind of upset,” I said trying to make him feel better, as he wiped his sleeve across his face, the tears streaming down now. He gave a loud sniff, and then…he chuckled.

“Jess?”

“Did you think I was a weepin’?” he asked, now pulling the dressing away and squinting at me through red painful eyes brimming with tears.

I just stared, not really knowing what to say, not wanting to upset him any further.

Then it was obvious he couldn’t conceal his mirth. “Hell Slim, I ain’t cryin’. It’s these darned eyes of mine. They’re waterin’. Part of this here snow blindness, I guess.”

Then I remembered my poor Pa, the tears rolling down his face as a side effect from the irritation, and I grinned across at my buddy. “Sure I knew that,” I said and was rewarded by him rolling his eyes and replacing the dressing as he relaxed back in front of the fire and dropped off to sleep again.

*****

The following few days while we were still incarcerated, waiting for the weather to change, and for my injuries to heal, we talked and talked like we never had done before.

There seemed to be something about the tranquility of the place. The deep snow surrounding us almost formed a sort of cocoon — sounds softened and the pellucid light streaming in through the windows giving the place a peaceful, tranquil atmosphere. Now the pressure was off as to where our next meal was coming from, we were both able to relax some.

Jess really opened up and told me a lot more about growing up on the Texas panhandle and not just the terribly sad and distressing bits either, but the rough and  tumble fun he had, being part of a large family, and the friendships he had forged too, especially with Millie.

“Gee, she was a great kid,” he said as we chatted a couple days after his hunting trip, his eyes fully restored now and twinkling in merriment. “Game for anything, you know? Bareback riding half broke broncs, playin’ hooky and goin’ off fishin’, not to mention skinny dipping in the water hole,” he laughed.

I raised a censorious eyebrow at that, just half kidding him, but he picked up on it at once.

“Heck, we were little kids then, just larkin’ about the way youngsters do. No, it was much later when we first…” But then Jess stopped, never being a man to brag about his conquests, believing that sort of thing should be kept private. He looked down and flushed a little. “Anyway, that was all a long time ago.”

“So what else did you get up to?” I asked, intrigued to hear about this lifestyle so different to my own childhood.

“Oh well, when Pa wasn’t about or was too dang drunk to notice,” Jess muttered bitterly, “I used to take off with Millie and Tad, her kid brother, huntin’. For the pot, mostly. Ol’ Mill, she was dang good with the sling shot, you know, Slim; better than most of us boys. Could bring down rabbits, even wild turkey. She had a knack for it — a real little tomboy she was back then. Wanted to beat me at everything — huntin’, fishin’, ridin’, you name it!”

“And did she?”

“Huh?”

“Did she always beat you? “

He grinned at that. “Only when I let her, to keep her sweet, you know?”

It occurred to me that Jess had mastered the skill of dealing with the female of the species real early in life.

It’s funny, but for all of the schooling I got at my Ma’s knee — gee, I even learned some French and Latin, unheard of in these parts — and even though I had the academic advantage, I couldn’t help think that Jess’s ragamuffin existence had prepared him for all that life could throw at a man better than mine.

His father might have been harsh — even brutal for goodness sake — but I reckon it taught young Jess survival skills and stoicism. I guessed that was where his stubborn streak was born too. Jess wouldn’t back down, and I figure that toughness had held him in good stead over the years, considering the things he’d had to deal with.

What good was it being able to congregate a French verb when you had a band of hostiles on your tail or were trying to school an ornery mustang? Not to mention outdrawing an outlaw, or keeping your nerve in really dangerous situations, like the one Jess had just faced going out on a limb risking his neck to bring us food back for the pot.

Sure, my book learning was real useful when it came to running the financial side of the Ranch and Relay. It was my business acumen that had kept us afloat more than once when things had been going badly. Jess’s tenacity and refusal to give up in the face of adversity helped too. Yep, I guess we were a good team, I thought; sort of complimented each other…in business and in friendship.

Then Pa had taken over where Ma left off, teaching me all he knew about ranching. With my experience in the cavalry, learning to think on my feet and lead my men, well, that helped to round off my education, I guess. Then, of course, there was Jess’s input to my education too. Helping me to learn how to romance the ladies and gamble and drink with the best of them. Yep, an all-round full education, that’s what I’d had in the end!

So that time spent up in the cabin was sure an eye opener for me. For the first time I had the luxury of sitting back and really thinking about my life — how far I’d come and where I was going. And it sure was good getting to understand Jess a little better too.

Oh, he was one heck of a private man, though, and getting to know him was like peeling off layers. I’d no sooner get to know one aspect of his character than there would be another person underneath. He sure was deep and complex, but I guess with the life he’s led, well, that was understandable.

At least now we had talked some, but don’t get me wrong — Jess had hardly bared his soul, except maybe for the things he told me about his Pa. But the odd things he had said made me understand why he was the way he was. And I realized my exasperating, difficult, loyal, witty and occasionally darn right maddening buddy was that way because of everything that had gone before.

We’d been holed up at the cabin for four days now, since his return, and  I think we both knew we had to try and make it home, but I guess neither of us wanted to face the arduous –no, darn right almost suicidal — journey.

The snow was deep. Jess said some of the drifts down the other side of the mountain coming as high as his waist. I knew it would be really hard getting the horses down in one piece but figured it was a risk we had to take — for Daisy and Mike as much as ourselves. Sure, the Harrington boys were minding the fort, but we couldn’t expect them to carry on indefinitely. Once the deep snow came, they’d be needed at home and how would an elderly lady and a young boy fare alone through the worst of a Wyoming winter?

It was Jess who broached the subject on the evening of the fourth day. He’d been out to tend the horses, and I saw him wandering about, checking the lay of the land, before he came back in, rubbing his hands and moving over to warm himself by the fire. “So how’s your knee now, Slim, and the ribs?”

“OK. I guess I won’t be doing any running for a week or so, but I can walk now…and ride, I guess.”

Jess nodded. “We have to try, don’t we, pard? Even if we don’t make it, we have to try for Daisy and the boy. If it’s this bad back home, well…they won’t cope, not all winter long. “

“I know. You’re right — of course, you are. We’ll set off at first light, yeah?”

Our gaze locked, knowing what that would mean. Walking most of the way down the mountain in freezing temperatures, the odds were stacked against us making it. We both knew that, but we really didn’t have any choice.

Then Jess wandered over to his saddlebag and rummaged around for a minute before returning with a bottle of Red Eye and held it up, one expressive eyebrow raised, and I nodded.

“Might as well make it a good night,” he said with a grin. ‘As it might well be our last’ was left unsaid, but hanging in the air between us.

Surprisingly, it was a good night, real good. Jess may be an ornery, difficult man at times — well, he can be hell to live with sometimes, if I’m honest — but he’s also clever, funny , kind and generous and that night he was at his best. We laughed until we cried, remembering things we’d gotten up to, scrapes we’d got into and the fun times we’d had with our girls too.

It was the mention of the girls that kind of broke the mood some, for a while at least.

We’d been laughing about a recent date we’d been on with Lily and Millie and how the girls had been teasing Jess something fierce. We were at a dance in town, and when the ladies’ “Excuse Me” came around, it seemed like every girl in the place wanted to dance with Jess. Well, I have to say that’s not real unusual, as he normally gets lots of interest from the ladies, but well, this was kinda over the top, even for Jess. No sooner would one girl start dancing with him than another would tap her shoulder and muscle in there. Well, ol’ Jess took it in good part, but after a while, even he’d had enough; he kept casting his eyes over to where Millie was watching him, an icy expression in  her lovely brown  eyes.

Finally, the dance was over and he advanced on what he thought was an irate girlfriend. Lily and I stood nearby, really enjoying the scene as we were in on Millie’s little joke. You see, she’d asked all her girlfriends to hassle Jess for a dance, and if I’m honest, they really didn’t need too much persuading. But ol’ Millie there just wanted to see how many girls would be too many for Jess, and I think she got her answer. Well, Millie is a sweet kid, like Jess says, and she hasn’t got a jealous bone in her body, but she sure put on a real good act as the ‘woman scorned’ and had Jess there squirming and trying to say it really wasn’t his fault.

It was as we were walking down Main Street, heading for the saloon where Jess and I were staying over, that Millie finally came clean and  said she’d put her friends up to it, giggling irrepressibly, before running off.

Well ol’ Jess there took off down the street chasing her and caught up in seconds. Picking her up, he swung her around and then nearly tickled her to death, the couple laughing until they were collapsing in tears.

Then Jess had stopped his larking about and took her in his arms, kissing her passionately. After a moment, I suggested he put his woman down and save it for behind closed doors, and we all went off back to the saloon in high spirits.

*****

We were sitting by the fire drinking our whiskey, chuckling at the memory when Jess’s eyes suddenly turned incredibly sad. I guess he was remembering what happened in her room later, how much he loved and missed her,

“You will see her again, you know, pard. We will make it through,” I said.

Jess dragged his eyes away from the fire and his introspection and looked at me, before giving his shy smile. “Yeah sure, sure we will.”

Then the twinkle returned to his deep blue eyes. “We’ve got to anyway, ain’t we? We’ve still got that paintin’ to do for Daisy.”

*****

The following morning we were up at first light, hoping to make it down the mountain by the end of the day and find a sheltered spot to spend the night before pushing on for home, hopefully making it without having to spend a second night out in the freezing temperatures.

Actually, as we set off, I was pleased to note that it seemed a tad milder. Sure, the snow was still real deep, drifting up to our waists in places, but the wind had dropped and the sun was shining out of a clear blue sky. I noticed Jess pulled his hat down real low and tried not to look directly at the dazzling snow,  but it was difficult not to, as I found out for myself.

From the start, it was real hard going, especially for me as my knee was still kind of tender. Although it bore my weight OK, it wasn’t too comfortable and I caught Jess casting anxious glances in my direction once or twice, but there was really nothing he could do. The going was way too difficult to even think of riding and our progress was incredibly slow as we had to be careful to lead our mounts carefully down the treacherously steep, slippery mountain trail.

Jess was finding it hard going too, and I saw him slip a couple of times as he tried to take Traveler’s weight when the plucky horse lost his footing and stumbled before righting himself again. I knew my buddy was scared sick his beloved horse would fall and break a leg.

Then the worst thing happened — the sun drifted behind a cloud and a chilly little wind got up. The next time I glanced skywards, it was to see huge storm clouds amassing. Shortly afterwards, the snow started falling again. At first it was gentle, like soft cotton wool floating down, almost flirting with us, but then the wind got up and howled amongst the huge pines, sending the snow surging down and  stinging our faces as it flew against us, driven almost horizontal by the ever increasing wind.

Within a few minutes, it was a raging blizzard, a complete white out; we could barely see our hands in front of our faces. The previously difficult trail was now deadly as we just couldn’t see our way down. Jess, who was leading the way, stopped and came round in the lee of his horse and shouted against the now screaming gale force wind.

“It ain’t no good, Slim; we’re gonna have to stop for a while, wait for the wind to drop. Just can’t see where I’m goin’.”

I nodded and we peered around us through the dim light, trying to see somewhere to lie low for the duration of the storm, but there was nowhere — just the mountain face to our right and then a steep drop to our left. So we were forced to walk on for another half mile or so until the track widened and there were some huge fallen pines making a shelter of sorts.

Jess brought Traveler around with his rump to the weather and I did the same with Alamo, the fallen trees and a rocky outcrop affording the animals some shelter. Then we hunkered down in the lee of the trees, at last out of the relentless icy wind.

A fire was out of the question, but at least we were able to rest. As I looked across at my buddy, I saw how much the journey had taken out of him. He pulled his hat down with grim determination, his mouth set in a firm line, and I could tell he was fighting against the rising panic I think we were both feeling.

Was it all going to end here? Were we going to perish on this inhospitable mountainside, in the cruel Wyoming weather?

No, pull yourself together, Sherman, I said to myself. Just calm down; you’re not done for yet.

Jess looked across at me and gave the ghost of a smile. ”Well, this sure beats sittin’ around that ol’ cabin, don’t it?” he said, his voice loaded with irony.

“Oh yeah, much more exciting,” I agreed.

Jess ran a sleeve across his soaking face and glanced up at the sky. “Looks like this is set in,” he said, almost to himself. Then turning to me, he said quietly, “Well, if you’ve got any influence with the Man Upstairs, I guess now would be a good time to use it.” He closed his eyes tightly, and after a moment, I saw his lips moving in silent prayer.

That was when I knew the chips were really down; we just weren’t going to make it. All I could think about were Daisy and Mike. Oh hell, and Lily…

We lay there huddled under our rain slickers and I guess I must have nodded off, because the next thing I knew Jess was shaking me violently.

“Don’t you dare,” he yelled at me. “Don’t you dare fall asleep, Slim. You’ve gotta stay awake!”

I just shook my head. “I’m real tired, pard.”

“I don’t care!” he spat. “Wake up, goddamn you!” He shook me roughly again.

I just stared at him, wondering why he was being so dang aggressive, but then he did something even odder — he started singing ‘ten green bottles,’ and then insisted I join in. Eventually it seemed easier just to agree with my crazy buddy and he didn’t let up until we were at about sixty green bottles hanging on the wall.

Then a miracle happened. It stopped snowing.

The wind was still blowing the loose snow about,  but the blizzard conditions abated and we were finally able to go on  our way at last. Slowly but surely, we made our way down  the trail until we reached firmer ground at the base of the mountain.

Here was a densely forested area and it was much darker as we entered the pine forest, but at least it was warmer as the wind finally dropped as dusk approached.

I glance across at Jess, still tramping along leading Traveler, but I could see he was nearly all in, and I felt pretty much the same way.

Then we were finally in the heart of the forest and at the half-way point, but it was nearly dark by now and we knew we would have to camp out and press on in the light of day.

Luckily, the woodland was so dense that there was plenty of dry foliage and branches beneath the trees for kindling. We found a relatively dry area beneath several huge pines, and after some trial and error, finally managed to get a good blaze going. I’d never been so pleased to see a camp fire in my life.

 I think Jess and I both knew that it was the only thing standing between us and death. We were too exhausted to eat or indeed to bother cooking, but Jess made some coffee and we drank that down, liberally laced with the remains of the Red Eye from the previous night.

We had unsaddled the horses, rubbed them down well and blanketed them. They were tethered near the fire, both looking reasonably well after their ordeal, which is more than could be said for me and Jess.

I ached all over, and when I glanced at my buddy, I saw his handsome face was contorted in  pain. I figured he was feeling equally bad, and I guess all we really wanted to do was to try and sleep and blot everything out.

Jess obviously thought it through, though, and had second thoughts. “Slim, I think we should take it in turns to sleep. We’ve got to be sure this fire stays burning or were done for. We’ve got to keep warm.”

I nodded. “Sure. And Jess…thanks.”

He raised a quizzical eyebrow. “Huh? “

“For back there on the trail, for keeping me awake.”

He just nodded, then gave me his cheeky grin. “I guess I get first nap then, eh? “

I rolled my eyes, but then grinned at him. “OK, I’ll wake you in a couple of hours.”

Jess lay down, almost asleep before his head hit his saddle pillow.

*****

It must have been about an hour or so later when I heard it.

The chilling sound of a lone wolf howling echoed through the night. The cry sent shivers down my spine as I sat there in the dark, the campfire casting flickering shadows around us.

After a while I heard it again, closer this time and joined by several other wolves giving tongue. My initial apprehension suddenly turned to real fear.

The horses started pawing the ground and uttering the odd anxious nickers. As soon as Traveler whinnied, Jess was immediately awake and up on one knee, his gun in his hand as if by magic, so fast was his draw.

“It’s OK,” I reassured him. “Just some wolves spooked them, but I figure they’re some way off.”

Just then there was another chorus of cries from the wolf pack — this time much closer — and Jess flicked a glance in my direction. “Not dadgum far enough away,” he said softly, holstering his gun and reaching over for his rifle.

I got up and threw some more logs on the already blazing fire, while Jess went over and reassured the horses before returning to the fire, all the time casting wary glances around him.

I gestured to the fire. “That should keep them at bay,” I said hopefully, but Jess just shook his head.

“Not necessarily; not if they’re real hungry it won’t.” Jess cocked his head on one side and listened as the almost constant baying came closer and closer. “And I guess they’re real hungry,” he said, casting an anxious glance in my direction.

Bowing to Jess’s superior knowledge of the ‘big open’, I licked my lips anxiously. “You think they’ll attack then?”

He nodded his head. “Yep.”

Then Jess turned back towards the horses. “Let’s get ‘em closer in,” he said. “Back ‘em up to that big pine just behind us and then you get the other side of it. Protect their backs and I’ll keep ‘em off at the front; it’ll be the horse flesh they go for first.”

We got ourselves in place and everything went real quiet, I was just beginning to think Jess was kinda fussing about nothing when I heard a low growl, followed by a snarl. Peering out into the forest, I saw at least two pairs of slitty eyes glinting back at me. I immediately discharged my rifle, sending a warning shot above their heads, and they ran off into the night, the brush tails just glimpsed as they disappeared into the dense woodland.

Then I heard a loud snarling  coming from  behind me and  heard Jess fire his rifle, followed by total silence. I figured he’d shot to kill and the bullet had found its mark.

Then it all seemed to kick off at once.

There were maybe a dozen wolves circling us, growling and snarling. At first, they slunk in and out of the trees gradually, coming closer and closer and getting bolder too. To begin with, they would disappear into the woods as we shot at them, but then they would quickly regroup and stealthily creep even closer to the camp.

That was when we realized that they wouldn’t be scared off and we had to shoot to kill, making every shot count.

As they got closer, their baying increased, almost like an  intimidating war cry as they yapped and yelped, one of them howling in agony as it was shot, the others seeming to gain a greater lust for blood as they charged at us, leaping over the bodies of their dead brothers.

Then they finally infiltrated the camp. I had shot one, but there was another right on his tail, and before I could get another shot off,  he hurled himself at me, throwing me to the ground, winding me. Before he could do more damage, though, a shot rang out and I felt his dead weight slump down on me as Jess shot him between the eyes.

Jess ran around and hauled the weighty critter from me, and then pulled me up. But before I could even thank him, another of the beasts was in the camp, this time on Jess’s side and he was only just in time to dispatch it as the big creature leapt at Alamo who reared up in panic.

Both horses were crying out in terror now and pulling on their ropes, desperate to escape, but we both knew a running prey would be brought down by the pack in no time and their safest option was to remain tethered in the campsite.

Well, I guess the attack on the horses really made Jess see red. If he was mad before, he was positively livid now and he shot three animals in quick succession and even ran out of the camp chasing them as they high-tailed it to safety firing more shots as they retreated.

He turned and ran back over to the horses, talking softly, trying to calm them. Then, as I advanced, he said quickly, “You OK, Slim?”

“Yeah, thanks, Jess. Gee, he was a big one — like a ton weight lying on me.”

He grinned at that. “Guess he’d make us a good few meals at that.”

“Uh, well, I had more in mind chicken and dumplings and Miss Daisy’s apple pie, rather than wolf steak,” I said wistfully.

Then the wolves re launched their attack and all thoughts of home cooking were banished from our minds as we just concentrated on staying alive.

There were only about five of them left standing now, but gee, they were persistent. We fired shot after shot at them. However, now they were getting real cunning, crouching and snarling, one running up straight at us while another would sidle in at an angle and that was the way Jess got caught.

He shot one wolf almost at point blank range as it bounded towards him, so he explained to me later. Then another seemed to come from nowhere, knocking him flying on his side and grabbing his upper arm in its vice like jaws, worrying him like he was a piece of dead meat. All the time he was struggling to push the critter away. He had one hand around its throat, desperately trying to extricate his arm from its jaws.

All the time this was going on, I was dispatching another two who were again attacking the horses. Jess must have been mauled for a good couple of minutes before I was able to get a shot off and dispatch the big grey beast, the growls and  snarls it was emitting all the while truly horrendous.

Then finally it laid dead, Jess sprawled beneath its weight, looking deathly pale and lifeless as I dragged the wolf away.

It was finally over, the last critter dead.

“Jess, pard!” I cried, pulling him up and supporting him in my arms and looking at the bloody mangled sleeve of his thick jacket.

Then after a moment, his deep blue eyes flew open; he glared intently at me and cussed long and loud. Mainly about the unmarried state of the offending wolf’s parents and then cast a variety of other aspersions on its character in general. I hid a smile, knowing that at least he still had some fight left in him.

After a while, Jess calmed down and gave a deep shuddering sigh. I felt real sorry for the guy as, by the look of his sleeve, that old wolf had mangled him pretty good.

“You done cussing?” I asked kindly.

He just threw me a look that would curdle the milk and muttered, “I guess so.” Then after a minute, Jess gave me the ghost of a smile and said, “Thanks, Slim…and for savin’ my horse too. “

“Yeah, well, I’d have dispatched this fellah sooner, but Trav and Alamo were getting a mite upset,” I said, imitating Jess’s usual understated reply and gesturing to the dead wolf that had so recently nearly killed him.

Those poor old horses had been nigh on hysterical, with the wolves throwing themselves at them, trying for all the world to tear their throats out. Even now they were stamping and blowing, the whites of their eyes much in evidence.

“Help me up, will you?” Jess said.

I did as he asked, and he stood there swaying for a moment before he slowly made his way over to his mount and started talking softly to him. Then he offered sugar lumps from his shirt pocket, all the time caressing his ears gently until the tough little bay finally calmed down. Then he did the same for Alamo, while I started pulling the wolf carcasses from the camp; their smell was spooking the horses really badly.

When I’d finished that gory task, I went over to face yet another one — patching up Jess’s arm. “Come on, Jess; come and sit by the fire a spell while I look at that arm.”

“It’s OK,” he said quickly, but one fierce look from me had him sighing and rolling his eyes, but he still did as he had been bid.

I very carefully helped him off with his jacket, and his already pale face turned ashen as I cut away the sleeve of his shirt to get at the wound. I thought he might throw up, or at least pass out, but he took a couple of deep breaths and the moment passed.

I examined the deep wound by the light of the fire and it looked terrible. There were several puncture marks and also a jagged tear, some of the flesh hanging off.

I shuddered. “Jeez, this is a mess pard,” I whispered.

He was lying on his back, just looking up at the stars and said quite casually, “It’ll be fine; just bandage it up, Slim. We’ll be home tomorrow and Daisy can patch it up.”

I nearly said “Are you kidding? Have you seen this?”, but bit back the words in time, thinking, on second thought, that he really didn’t want to see it.

I washed it out as well as I could, ruing the fact that we’d finished off the last of the whiskey so had nothing to disinfect it with. But I boiled up some water over the fire and used it as hot as he could stand, just hoping I got all the dirt out before bandaging it tightly with a clean rag from my saddlebag.

It was now just a few hours before dawn, and as we’d dispatched all the wolves, we figured it would be safe enough to get some shuteye, neither of us having the stomach for keeping watch as we were totally exhausted after the long night.

So we threw enough wood on the fire to keep in blazing away for a few hours and turned in.

However, even though I was dog tired, sleep eluded me as I lay there worrying as only I can. As I’d said to Jess just a few days earlier, it’s real hard to change the habit of a lifetime, and right now I was worried about my partner. That wolf bite was nasty — really deep — and I figured he must be in a lot of pain and had lost a fair bit of blood too. So when it came to walking the fifty or so miles back to the ranch, through waist high snow drifts… Well, I really didn’t think he’d make it.

I glanced over to where he was laying on the other side of the fire, his face white and tense, with a dark stubble of beard clearly illuminated by the firelight. As I watched, he turned in his sleep and gave a low moan and I figured he was feeling really bad. Then  I noticed he’d kicked off his blanket and the rain slicker I’d covered him with, in case it started snowing again. I got up and covered him over, looking down into the familiar face, looking  so young in repose, and shook my head dreading the trials ahead of us.

Then I made my way back to my bedroll, and dragging my rain slicker over me, finally fell into a restless sleep.

*****

When I awoke, it was to a strange rhythmic drumming sound. I opened my eyes and looked around in surprise and then I gave a deep sigh of relief.

A miracle had happened, it was raining — pouring — and the sound was the rain beating down on my slicker.

Thank God, I thought, and on sitting up and looking around, I could see the snow beginning to melt already. I thought by the time we were ready to break camp, it should have melted sufficiently for us to be able to ride and we would make it back to the ranch by late afternoon easily.

I glanced over to Jess, surprised the heavy rain hadn’t woken him, but then  I saw him lying deathly still, the rain running down his motionless face and the alarm bells started ringing.

I jumped up and dashed around the now sulky, fire and threw myself down beside my buddy, grabbing his shoulders and shaking him. “Jess, Jess, wake up. It’s raining, pal.”

He finally groaned and threw himself on his side and I gave a massive sigh of relief.

“Hey Jess, wake up, pard. You need to put your slicker on; it’s raining something fierce.”

“Leave me alone; I’m asleep,” he muttered gruffly, throwing his good arm across his face.

I almost laughed at that. This wasn’t a real sick, at-death’s-door Jess; this was just the usual ornery, ‘I ain’t gettin’ out of bed’ Jess, thank goodness. I breathed another sigh of relief. He was in a bad way, sure he was, but I guessed there was life in the old dog yet.

I finally managed to pull him up into a sitting position and got his slicker on so at least he couldn’t add being soaked to the skin to his list of woes.

“Aw, Slim, with you leave me alone. I just wanna sleep.”

“Well, you can’t. We’ve got to get you home and get that arm fixed up,” I insisted. After a while, I got a coffee down him and he finally began to function.

When we set of an hour or so later, the rain had reduced to a thin drizzle and the temperature had risen. The snow was melting as we watched, leaving a thick muddy slush that was heavy going for the horses, so we needed to take it real slow. But at least we were finally mounted again, and to be honest, I don’t think Jess would have lasted five minutes in the snow of the previous days if he’d had to walk any distance. That wolf bite was really slowing him down some.

I guess we were about halfway home when I saw him begin to sag in the saddle and I rode up beside him. “Are you OK, Jess?” I asked, casting him a concerned look. He suddenly jerked awake and I realized he’d been sleeping in the saddle, a skill he’d perfected over the years, and that good old horse of his just kept plodding on regardless.

Jess stared at me with bleary eyes. “Wah?”

“You were asleep. You want to stop awhile?”

“Nope, I’m fine and I wasn’t; just restin’ my eyes some.”

“Sure you were,” I said, grinning across at him. Yep, his stubborn streak was alive and well alright.

It was late afternoon when we finally heaved to just above the ranch and looked down at that oh-so-familiar sight of home. Gee, it was good to be back.

I cast a glance across to my buddy and saw he was looking real rough, but he too had the light of joy in his eyes as he beheld the view. I figured there was a time during our trip that we really thought we wouldn’t see the old place again.

We urged our mounts slowly down the track and into the yard, stopping at the hitching rail by the house. After a minute, Mike, followed by Daisy, came running out with joyful cries of welcome.

“You’re back!” yelled Mike jubilantly. “I just knew you’d be back soon! Aunt Daisy said if you’d got any sense, you’d stay up the mountain until all the snow was gone, but I said that you hadn’t and you’d be home real soon, no matter what!”

I jumped down from the saddle and grinned at the youngster, ruffling his hair and then exchanged a look with Daisy, us both finding his backhanded compliment amusing. Then I hugged them both close before turning to glance up at Jess.

He was staring down at us with a sort of faraway look in his deep blue eyes, and he finally gave Mike and Daisy a heartbreakingly loving smile before he slid gracefully down from the saddle. I ran forward and caught him as he fell in a dead faint.

I scooped him up and carried him into the house. I laid him gently on the old leather couch near the blazing fire, with Mike looking alarmed and Daisy clucking in distress.

“What ever happened to him, dear? He looks terrible,” she asked in a worried voice.

“We had a run in with a pack of wolves, Daisy, and Jess got up a bit too close and personal.”

“He’ll be alright?” asked Mike, looking pale and scared as he viewed Jess’s ashen face and the bloody shredded arm of his jacket.

“Sure he will, Tiger,” I said softly, squeezing his shoulder gently. “Don’t fret.” Then I turned to Daisy. “I think we need Doc Sam out, though. It’s deep, Daisy; down to the bone, I think.”

She just nodded, her professional persona, of a retired nurse having kicked in now. She was over the initial shock of seeing her ‘boy’ in such a sorry state.

Daisy ran a gentle hand over his forehead, sweeping back his unruly black locks and checking for fever at the same time before casting me a concerned glance. “I think you are right, dear. The stage hasn’t been through yet; Mose can take a message to Doc Baker.” Then turning to Mike, she said, “Go and fetch my medical basket, dear, and a bowl of cool water, please.”

Daisy looked to me. “At least I can clean him up a little while we wait for Sam.”

At Daisy ministrations, Jess finally came around, cussing lightly under his breath until he opened his eyes and saw where he was, and then he moderated his language some. “Er…Daisy, sorry, Ma’am,” he said softly. “Just hurtin’ some, I guess.”

Daisy, who had removed my bandage and viewed the wound with unconcealed shock when Jess was still out of it, knew that must be a vast understatement. “I’m sure you are, dear,” she said softly, “but Doc Sam is on his way and he’ll have you fixed up in no time.”

He just nodded, and then reaching out his good hand, he grabbed her diminutive one and squeezed it gently. “Good to be home, Daisy,” he whispered before falling asleep.

*****

Unfortunately, Daisy’s prediction of our good friend, Doc Sam Baker, fixing up Jess in  ‘no time’ was a rather over optimistic view as it was nigh on a week before he was up and about again. Even then, he still had to wear a sling on  his left arm for a while longer.

Sam had breezed in later that evening, asking what that boy had been up to now in his usual cheery manner, but when he saw the wound, he sobered some.

It looked truly dreadful, the deep puncture wounds now an angry red as infection had set in, the ripped skin looking horrific. The whole arm had swollen and turned a terrible black and dark blue from the bruising.

Sam admitted later that at first glance, on seeing the color of the limb, he thought gangrene had set in and he would have to remove the arm, and his heart stood still.

I had watched the look of fear flicker across the good doctor’s face as I helped him tend Jess and whispered, “He will be OK, won’t he, Sam? “

Sam and Jess were real good buddies and  spent many hours down  at  the creek or lake together as they shared a passion for fishing. So I guess it was doubly hard for the doc having to treat a buddy. I could tell he was making an effort to put the friendship to the back of his mind, though, and act professionally.

“I thought it was worse than it is,” Sam said after a moment. “The discoloration…” Then he sighed with relief and gave me a small smile. “Yes, he should be OK. We need to clean the wounds out very carefully and stitch him up. But the prognosis is good, yes.”

We had both assumed Jess was completely out of it, but after a moment, his eyes flickered and opened. “Wha…prog…what…huh?” he whispered, looking dazed.

Sam and I exchanged an amused glance.

“Good prognosis Jess,” Sam said, smiling down at my buddy, “means you’ll live to fight off another pack of wolves…if you so desire,” he finished with a note of irony.

Jess nodded at that, seeming satisfied with the explanation. “Well, go on then, Sam; get to it. We ain’t got all night, you know,” he said with a faint twinkle in his blue eyes.

“Hey whoa, there, boy. It’s not as simple as that. Got to put you out first and then…”

“Aw, Sam, no. You ain’t givin’ me that goddamn chloroform again, are you? You know it makes me chuck for a week.”

Sam and I exchanged a grin at that, knowing the truth of it, but Jess’s response being so typical to be funny.

“Sorry Jess, but I need you sedated. Can’t do delicate stitching like this needs on a moving target,” explained Sam.

Jess opened his mouth to object again but Daisy came over and fixed him with a steely look. “You just calm down and behave, young man; Sam’s only trying to help you,” she ordered.

Jess sighed deeply and rolled his eyes. “Yes Ma’am,” and he gave himself up to his fate.

As he’d predicted, my buddy did puke up for the next couple of days, but thankfully the wound started to heal well and he was soon back to his usual ornery self. It was a good week before he was back to light duties, however, and still had his arm in a sling, although I was beginning to think he was milking it a bit, especially when the thorny topic of the house painting came up again.

We had just seen the noon stage off and Daisy, who had come out for a word with Mose, turned back towards the house as the stagecoach left, a speculative look in her eye as she scanned the slightly shabby appearance of the house.

Jess and I exchanged a glance, both of us searching for a good excuse to get out of the dreaded painting, when she turned to smile at us.

“You know I’ve been thinking. Maybe we should leave the house painting until the spring,” Daisy suggested.

We couldn’t believe our luck and Jess visibly brightened. “Well, if you think so, Daisy,” he said.

Feeling quite light-hearted at this new turn of events, I said jovially, “So what made you change your mind then, Daisy? Thought you had your heart set on getting it done for Thanksgiving? “

She turned candid eyes on me then. “Well, I did, dear, but you see I was in the mercantile last week and ran into this lovely man, a representative for a paint company.”

“Oh yeah?” said Jess cautiously.

“Um, yes, dear, and he gave me some color samples to choose from. But this new-fangled colored paint won’t be in the shop until the spring, so I thought we might wait. Give us a chance to choose a nice color.”

“Color?” I said, taking my hat off and scratching my head. “Well, if you want that, Daisy…”

“Oh I do, dear, and I think I’ve chosen the ideal color for us too.”

“You have?” asked Jess even more warily.

“Yes dear,” she said, beaming at him and then encompassing me with her cheery smile. “Rose Pink! It would be ideal. So pretty don’t you think?” she said, clasping her hands together in ecstasy, before marching back towards the house and calling out that coffee was ready over her shoulder.

Jess and I exchanged a horror stricken look, and said in unison. “Pink? “

Then Jess turned to me. “Look, pard, you  go to town first thing and get a couple of cans of whitewash. I reckon this old arm of mine is up to a little painting now. Let’s just get the darn thing done,” he finished, heading for the house, muttering “pink?” under his breath.

In the kitchen, Daisy was pouring the coffee out, a benign smile on her face. She had the feeling that the house would look perfect by Thanksgiving, just as she had planned!

*****

Epilogue

Well, everything finally went back to normal at the Ranch and Relay.

Mike was delighted with the moose antlers that Jess had insisted on dragging through a blizzard all the way home for the boy. Well, tied on behind his saddle, so I guess Traveler did most of the dragging. Jess said it was sure worth it when he saw the look on the youngster’s face when Mike clapped eyes on them.

Jess and I painted the house the very next day after our discussion with Daisy, and surprisingly, she seemed real pleased with the whitewash and never mentioned the Rose Pink paint again.

Jess’s arm recovered completely, and although he spent most of his time up the ladder cussing and moaning about the house painting, I could tell he didn’t really mean it and he was just glad to be home in one piece.

We got to town the weekend after we’d painted the house, and it sure was good to see our girls again. I could tell by the way Jess looked at Millie he was definitely thinking on making their ‘understanding,’ a mite more formal, and the way she was a looking back I figure she’d be real happy to oblige. It kind of got me thinking about me and Lily too!

It was a week or two after we landed home that me and Jess were sitting have a nightcap when the subject of the hunting trip came up again.

He took a sip of his whiskey and stretched his legs out in front of the fire before regarding me over the rim of his glass. Then smiling, he said, “Well, I’m sure glad that trip was your idea, Slim, ’cos if it had been mine, I guess we’d never have heard the end of it — takin’ off up the mountain at this time of year. A bit risky, weren’t it?”

I nodded sagely. “Yep, I guess so, but hell, Jess, a man’s got to take the occasional risk, you know and I figure it was worth it…all told.”

His head shot up at that. ”Well, you’ve sure changed your tune. So what happened to the steady, cautious Mr. Sherman then?”

I chuckled at that. “Well, maybe I took a long look at him and thought maybe a bit of a change was in order.”

“Really, how so? “

“Oh, I dunno. I guess it was the way we got talking when we were stuck up in the cabin helped me to see things a bit clearer. The old ‘me’ would have really fretted about the way things panned out on that journey home, but now…well, like I say, taking the odd risk is part of life, I guess. And it turned out OK in the end, that’s the main thing.”

Jess nodded. “Amen to that,” he said softly.

“Talking things out with you really helped me see that, Jess. Life’s a kind of journey and you have to maybe take a risk or two along the way to make the most of it.“

He stared into the fire and I could see he was thinking real hard on that and then he gave me his shy smile. “Yeah, I guess I know what you mean. And Slim…”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah, about talkin’ things out, that is. It really helped me too, you know, talking about all that stuff — my Pa and all. Kinda helped me see things different,” Jess said, shifting in his chair and looking a mite embarrassed at admitting that.

I nodded, but didn’t say much, not wanting to make him feel any more uncomfortable, and just topped up his glass. “Good; I’m glad, pard,” I said softly and we relaxed into a companionable silence.

 I would always remember that trip up the mountain.

That was the time I got to know my best friend so much better and to understand why he acted the way he did sometimes. And myself too, I guess. Yep, it was a real journey of discovery in more ways than one, that’s for sure.

***End***

Thank you for reading!

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