The Runaway (by Patty W.)

Summary:
Category:  Laramie
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  25,400


 

It was a warm Sunday afternoon in early fall at the Sherman Ranch and Relay Station and Slim Sherman, the tall, blond owner, was relaxing in the living room with a good book while Mrs. Daisy Cooper, his motherly housekeeper, was busy baking pies in the kitchen just off the main room.

And, unusually, Mike Williams, the cute blond-haired youngster Slim and his best friend and partner had adopted after his kin were killed in an Indian raid some years ago, was playing quietly in his room and peace reigned.

Suddenly the front door flew open and was slammed shut again as Jess Harper, the young dark-haired partner in the ranch, marched in, his face like thunder and his dark blue eyes flashing dangerously. “Women!” he exploded.

Slim looked up from his book, a faint smile on his face. “Well, you’re back kind of early, Jess,” he said. “Thought you had a hot date with Suzy Morgan this afternoon.”

“So did I,” Jess growled. “Seems like she had other ideas. When I got there, her Pa said she’d taken off with Pete Jackson for a ride in his new buggy. Said she wouldn’t be long and I should wait. Well, hell, Slim, there is only so much a man can take to hear about pipes.”

“Pipes?”

“Yeah, sure. Old man Morgan collects these ancient carved smokin’ pipes — got hundreds of ‘em — and I had to hear about every dadgum one,” Jess spat.

“So did she turn up?”

“Dunno. After an hour or so, I’d had enough, came home,” Jess finished lamely.

“Well, guess it’s a sign she likes you, buddy,” said Slim, grinning at his partner.

“How do you figure that?” asked Jess looking puzzled.

“Well, she’s trying to make you jealous; sure sign a woman fancies a man.”

“Slim, were talkin’ about Suzy Morgan here. She’s the biggest tease in Wyoming and been out with half the men in it too. None of them gets to do more than hold her hand, and she don’t care whose feelings she stomps on in the process,” Jess finished angrily.

“So why have you been dating her on and off for the last 6 months?” asked Slim in exasperation.

Jess gave Slim an astonished look. “‘Cos she’s kinda cute of course,” he said before going into their shared room to wash up, leaving Slim shaking his head in amusement.

Two minutes later, Jess charged out of the bedroom with a loudly protesting raccoon under his arm and yelled for Mike.

The boy popped his head out of his room. “You want me, Jess? “

Jess thrust the offending animal into the boy’s arms and yelled, “Will you keep this darned critter out of my bed, Mike! How many times do I have to tell you?”

“Sorry, Jess,” said the boy with down cast eyes. “Guess he just likes your room”.

“Yeah, well, if I find him in here again, there will be a raccoon-shaped hole in the yard with him in it,” growled Jess.

The young lad looked up into Jess’s face. “You wouldn’t …bury him alive, Jess,” he whispered.

“No, not alive,” confirmed Jess before turning on heel and entering his room again slamming the door behind him.

Mike turned to Slim. “He wouldn’t do that, would he, Slim?”

“Heck no, you know he wouldn’t. He loves that little ‘coon as much as you do, you know that. He’s just mad.”

“How so?” asked the youngster, his little blond head on one side and an enquiring look in his eyes.

“Oh, just women trouble, Mike,” Slim said with a grin.

Having lived with a couple of bachelors for several years now, Mike was quite familiar with the problem and said, “Oh, is that all,” and went off to play again.

Daisy, who was far more than just a housekeeper to her beloved ‘boys’, put her head around the door, and smiling across at Slim, said, “That boy is growing up fast. It won’t be long before he has girl friend troubles of his own”.

Then, nodding to Jess’s closed door, she said, “Is he alright? He was a bit harsh with Mike. That’s not like him; he is absolutely devoted to the boy.”

“It’s Ok, Daisy,” Slim replied. “Mike realizes Jess is just in a temper because Suzy has been playing games with him again.”

“Um,” Daisy said. “It’s more than that, though. He’s been on a short fuse for a few weeks now, even for Jess.”

The Harper temper was legendary; when he first arrived and Slim gave him a job as a ranch hand several years ago, Jess came with the reputation of a fast gun and even faster temper. But with the hard life Jess had experienced in his youth — losing his family in a horrendous fire, going on the drift and getting the reputation of a gunslinger, then falling foul of the law — it was hardly surprising that he was sometimes short tempered. But he also came with a wonderful sense of humor, a twinkle in those deep blue eyes and had proved to be the most loyal and best buddy Slim had ever had. And yes, if he was a bit hard to live with occasionally, well, then he was worth it.

“I guess he’s just pretty tired,” Slim responded. “Figure we both are. It’s tough work bringing all the steers down to the low pastures for the winter, you know, Daisy. Plus, I don’t think he’s still recovered completely from that fall he had from that ornery mustang he was breaking back in the summer.”

Jess was responsible for all the horse breaking, and a few weeks back, he had experienced a horrific accident when a stallion had thrown him and then come back and stomped on him, crushing several ribs. The wounds had taken a long time to heal.

“Oh dear,” Daisy said, “I’d no idea he was still hurting from that.”

“Well you know Jess; he’d have to be half-dead before he’d complain. Don’t say anything, Daisy; you know him he’d just work his butt off to prove us wrong, stubborn ass he is,” Slim finished fondly. ”No, I’ll just try and do a bit more of the work without him noticing, but I’ll sure be glad when we get all those no-good steers down and we can relax for a while,” he added giving his housekeeper and good friend a weary smile.

Looking serious, Daisy said, “I’ve been meaning to tell you, Slim; I had a long chat with Mike the other night. He was saying how he really wanted to pull his weight around here; he’s asked you and Jess, and you both said no. I think he’s really upset about it.”

Slim gave a deep sigh. “I know, Daisy, and it will be great when he can be more of a help in a few years, but he is still a little boy of 10 years old. Jess and I can’t risk him doing the jobs he wants to, like mustang breaking and bringing the steers down. Heck, that’s man’s work, Daisy, and he just isn’t ready for it yet.” Seeing the worried look on her sweet old face, he said, “Don’t fret. I’ll have a word with the boy, explain, and maybe we can find him some easier work around the ranch.”

Little did Slim realize that Mike’s door was ajar and the youngster’s ears had pricked up at the mention of his name. He did what he had been told not to do; he listened at the door and was less than happy with what he heard.

Turning back into his room and closing the door softly, Mike’s mouth set in a determined line. He walked to the window and looked out to the corral. “I’ll show ‘em,” he whispered.” I ain’t just a little boy. I can do a man’s work.” With that, he fed the raccoon and told him all about the plan he was hatching.

A few minutes later, Jess came out of his room, and having changed from his Sunday courting clothes into his work a day blue shirt and denims, tapped at Mike’s door and entered, closing it quietly behind him. “Hey, Tiger,” he said, looking over at his young charge who was still tending to the raccoon.

The boy gave him a small smile. “Hi Jess. You OK?”

“Sure and I’m sorry the way I sounded off at you, Mike. I didn’t mean it and you know I would never hurt old Bandit there, don’t you?”

“Sure,” said the boy, beaming at his friend and coming to plop himself down beside Jess, who was sitting on the boy’s bed. “Jess,” he started in a small voice, “can I ask you something?”

“Sure, anything you like, Tiger.”

“Well, when I said I wanted to help with the mustangs and go on the round up bringing the steers down, you just said, ‘No, Mike, you’re too young’. You didn’t explain as to why not.” Then looking up beseechingly into Jess’s face, he said, “Well, I ain’t too young Jess, honest; I can do it.”

Jess smiled down at the boy. “Well, I guess we didn’t explain properly and I’m sorry about that. See its like this, Mike. With the mustang breaking, it’s real dangerous. You saw how badly hurt I was last month, and me and Slim an’ Aunt Daisy don’t want to see you hurt that way too. But I figure by next spring, when we bring the next batch of mustangs in, well, you could help me school ‘em once they’re green-broke. What do you say to that? “

“Oh yes, please, Jess; I could do that, I’m sure.”

“As to the round-up, well, it’s real hard work, Mike. You’ve seen how beat up me and Slim are when we get back every night, not to mention our poor old mounts, Traveler and Alamo are pretty much done in most days — feel real sorry for them. We have to drive them so darn hard. You see, Mike, you need a real strong fast mount for rounding up those ornery steers, and truth is your little pony Patch, well, he ain’t up to it, boy. Too old and too slow.”

“He ain’t slow,” the boy protested, defending his beloved mount.

“Well, maybe not for everyday riding, Mike, but it takes a real special horse for drovin’. Anyways, Slim and I thought we’d get you a working horse in another couple of years, when you’ve grown a bit, got the strength to handle him. Maybe a quarter horse cross, and then you’ll be a real help around here,” Jess finished, smiling down at the boy.

“Thanks, Jess,” the boy said quietly, “but I sure wish I could be a help now”.

“Well, you are. All the chores you do, like feeding the chickens and chopping the wood, that’s a real big help. And know what else you’re good at, buddy? “

Mike shook his head.

“Why fishing, of course, and I’ve a mind to wander down to the creek for an hour or so before supper and see how they’re biting. Like to come?”

“Sure would,” said the boy excitedly, all thought of work dismissed from his mind.

Jess picked him up, and carrying Mike under his arm , banged back into the living room. Addressing his partner, he said,” Me and Mike are goin’ down the creek. Wanna come?”

“Sure would,” said Slim, grinning across at them. Putting his book to one side, he called ,”Hey Daisy, we’re going fishing, back for supper.” The happy trio marched off, leaving Daisy smiling after them. One thing about Jess’ temper spats was they never lasted long, she thought, smiling to herself as she went back to her baking.

Once they were all sitting on the bank of the creek with their fishing lines in the water, Slim opened the subject of Mike working on the cattle drive again.

“It’s OK, Slim,” the young lad said. “Jess has explained all about it to me and I understand now.” Then quickly changing the subject, Mike said, “Would it be OK if I went over to Jamie’s place for the day tomorrow? we thought we might have a breakfast cook-out.

“Well, sure,” said Slim. “I guess, if it’s OK with your Aunt Daisy and Jamie’s Pa. You can ride Patch over there — it’s only a mile or so — but you have to be back by supper time, OK?” he said, giving the boy a firm look.

“Oh yeah, I’ll be back by supper,” the boy promised. Then suddenly Jess had a bite, and all their attention turned to that; soon after, they returned home for a fish supper in high spirits.

***** 

Sure, I’ll be home long before supper, thought Mike as he saddled up his pony and rode out at first light. The night before, the adults had agreed to let him ride over in time for an early breakfast with his best friend and he assured them that Jamie’s Pa knew all about it.

Mike relished the day ahead of him all the more because he should really have been in school. The term would have started over two weeks ago if it hadn’t been for the fact that the new schoolmaster had met with a nasty accident during the holidays and was laid up with a broken leg. All the children had rejoiced when the School Board had confirmed they couldn’t find a replacement in time for the new school year, but the pupils and their teacher were due to return the following week and Mike aimed to make the most of this bonus time.

Jumping up on his pony, Mike kicked him on to a brisk trot and headed West, in the opposite direction to Jamie’s home. He rode his mount towards the distant foothills, where he knew the remaining steers were waiting to be driven down to the lower pastures. That’s exactly what he aimed to do.

He figured he could make it up there long before Jess and Slim, as they needed to be at the Relay Station for the early morning Stage, and he figured that would give him enough of a head start to be able to round up the steers and be driving them back down by the time his guardians arrived on the scene

I’ll show ‘em, he thought. He was generally a very truthful child and it went against the grain having to lie to those he loved, but heck, he had to do something to convince them he wasn’t a little baby anymore.

Anyway, Mike thought, they’ll be that pleased when they see me with the rest of the stock, guess they’ll forget to be sore at me. Grinning to himself, he pushed his mount on to greater speed.

By the time they got as far as the lake, the little pony was puffing, so Mike decided to stop and water him and have a rest and drink himself.

They were just approaching the lake when disaster struck in the form of a rattler.

 One minute the boy was sitting on his pony looking out towards the lake, and the next Patch reared up, panic-stricken, and tipped the boy unceremoniously off and bolted. The coiled rattler that had spooked the horse slunk off into the undergrowth and the boy lay there in the early morning sunshine motionless.

It was several hours later when a strange-looking man dressed in buckskin, with a long straggly beard and fur hat, leaned over the boy. Gently picking him up, the man carried him up the bank, back to the road and his covered wagon where his wife was sitting.

Flinging down the canteens he had gone to fill at the lakeside, he put the child down on the ground as his wife jumped down from the wagon, her hand up to her mouth as she gave a little cry of shock.

“Oh Tobias, whatever do you have there?” she asked.

“Not so much a what as a who, Rebecca,” he said, turning to grin at her. “Young boy; guess he’s taken a tumble off his pony and got a nasty crack on the head for his trouble too.”

“Oh, the poor child,” the woman said at once. “Here, give me that canteen and I’ll bathe his head; bandages in the wagon, Tobias. Quickly now, fetch the bandages.”

Tobias did as he was bid, and Rebecca tended to the boy. Once she wiped his forehead with the cool water, he started to stir; opening his big blue eyes, Mike stared at the strangely dressed pair in horror, screaming, “Ma… Pa! Where are my Ma and Pa? What have you done with them?” before bursting into tears.

“Hey boy, take it easy,” said Rebecca softly. “Ain’t no Ma and Pa around. Just you and the tracks of a pony. Seems to have dumped you off and left you. So where do you live, boy? We’ll take you home?” she finished with a kindly smile.

After a while, Mike sat up and looked around him before replying. “I don’t live anywhere, Ma’am. That is, we are on the wagon train heading West, so my home is a wagon…but I don’t see it and Ma and Pa. They wouldn’t have gone without me.”

Rebecca and Tobias exchanged a look, before Tobias answered him saying gently, “Well, that can’t be so, boy, because there ain’t been no wagon train down this trail in over four years. Last one ended in an Indian massacre and they changed the route.”

“No, no, that can’t be true,” shouted the boy hysterically. “They are here! Let me see them.” Looking wildly from one to the other, Mike broke down in tears again.

Rebecca looked desperately at Tobias. “What shall we do? Take him to the law, let them sort it out?”

“Are you crazy, woman? Go to the law with 20 flagons of bootleg whisky on board, not to mention a certain amount of goods that have passed to our hands not necessarily legally? Hell no, we’ll leave him here; someone will be along, take pity on the kid.”

“Why, Tobias Finnegan, we may not be the most law-abiding of citizens but I would like to think we still had some good Christian charity in our bones. No, we’ll just take the boy with us, back to the mountains. He’s a mite puny now, but give him a couple of summers and some good mountain cooking, and he’ll grow up pretty good. You’re always saying all the hunting and skinning of the beasts is getting too much for you. Well, guess you’ve got yourself a ready-made hand here, and all for free.”

Tobias looked down at the boy. Well, I don’t know. Maybe someone’s looking for him. Nice looking boy. “

“Nah,” she replied. “Guess as he’s a bit simple, saying he’s on the wagon train. Probably glad to see the back of him iffen he’s a little crazy.”

Tobias thought long and hard, knowing what having the little chap around would mean to his wife and then he finally made a decision. What the hell!

“Ok, you win,” he said. Lifting an angry and loudly-protesting Mike up, he put the boy in the back of the wagon and took off at a pace, heading for the distant mountain range and home.

Just so as the boy didn’t try and jump out of the moving wagon and hurt himself, Tobias had bound his hands and feet until they were well away from the road and were headed towards the mountains. As dusk fell, they made camp, untied him and took him to sit with them by the fire.

Mike sat by the campfire huddled in a blanket and looked into the flames in abject misery. His head ached something fierce and he just wanted his Ma. Where were they? he wondered. He had been on the wagon, he was sure, and then Pa had said he could ride old Jody, their spare horse, and go and fetch some firewood. But he hadn’t gone far, had he? And what had Tobias said about a pony? He didn’t own a pony, although Pa had promised him one when they hit California. But where were his Ma and Pa? The question just kept going round and round in his brain until he finally fell into a fitful sleep.

*****

Slim and Jess rode into the yard at supper time feeling exhausted but triumphant. They had brought the last of the cattle down and now they decided to relax for a week or so before starting the many preparations necessary to get the stock and ranch ready for the coming winter.

“How about we get Josh and Dave Harrington in to do the Relay teams and feed the stock?” Slim said, referring to neighbor’s sons always happy to help out for a small wage. “Then we could take off camping with Mike for a few days,” he finished, as they were rubbing down their mounts prior to going in to supper.

“Sounds like a good idea to me,” said Jess grinning across at his friend.

”Guess Daisy would like a break from us too,” he laughed.

As they entered the ranch house, Daisy popped her head out of the kitchen from where a delicious smell was emanating and said, “Is Mike with you?”

“No. Why? Isn’t he back yet?” asked Slim, casting an anxious glance at Jess.

“No, and I’m getting a little worried,” Daisy replied. “He promised to be back by supper time and its way beyond that now.”

“Yeah, sorry,” said Jess, “guess we are a bit late. Just needed to get the last lot of steers down”. Then turning to Slim, he said, “Guess I’ll saddle up again and go and meet him”.

“OK,” said Slim, “Thanks, buddy. We’ll wait supper for you.”

With that, Jess disappeared, and in a few minutes they heard Traveler leaving the yard at a gallop.

Jess was back remarkably quickly, and as soon as he entered the ranch, Slim and Daisy knew there was something seriously wrong. He was white as a sheet and banged in through the door looking, around the room as if searching for something. “He’s not back?” Jess asked , his troubled eyes moving form Daisy to Slim.

“No,” they said in unison.

Slim moved forwards and saw his partner looked physically shaken. “What’s up, buddy?” he asked quietly.

Sinking down on  a chair as though his legs would no longer hold him, Jess looked up into his friend’s worried eyes and said, “Billy Jefferson hasn’t cast eyes on him all day. In fact, Jamie is sick, had the chicken pox for over a week. There were certainly no plans for Mike to visit, that’s for sure”.

Daisy whimpered, her hand shooting to her mouth. “Oh my,” she said, “where can he be?”

“Good question,” said Jess, “but I’m sure gonna tan his hide when we catch up with him. Come on, Slim, let’s see if I can track him before it gets too dark”

Slim walked across to Daisy and kissed her cheek gently. ” It’s OK,” he said softly, “we’ll find him,” before following Jess out of the door and across to the barn to fetch Alamo. After a minute, Daisy heard them leaving the yard at a gallop.

It didn’t take Jess long to pick up Patch’s hoof prints in the soft dust of the road and they followed them until they branched off heading for the lake and they exchanged a look of consternation. “Hell, he knows better than to go off swimming on his own,” said Jess, his voice harsh with anxiety.

Spurring their mounts on, they stopped once the lake was in view, scanning the empty countryside before continuing on more slowly. Jess dismounted as they came near to the shore, and then stopped and bent down, looking intently at the tracks.

Jess had been taught to track by a good Indian friend many years ago and Slim always said he could track a light footed angel. He didn’t disappoint today. Looking up at Slim still seated on Alamo, Jess said, “Looks like something spooked, Patch — see how the grounds trampled — and then he took off that a way,” he said, nodding his head away from the lake.

Jess stayed squatting, looking around at the ground, then suddenly put a finger out and touched a rock and gave a sharp intake of breath.

“What is it, buddy?” asked Slim, looking at his partner’s shocked face.

Jess shook his head gently. “It’s blood, Slim; looks like Mike’s been hurt.” With that, he turned and jumped up on Traveler in one smooth movement and followed the little pony’s tracks.

It didn’t take them long to spot the animal contentedly grazing on a patch of lush grass.

Slim checked him over and he seemed fine; the saddle was still in place, but there was no sign of Mike.

Dusk was falling by now, and they quartered the area calling and calling, then stopping and straining their ears for a reply, but all they heard was a deep silence.

“I just don’t get it,” said Jess, who was standing at the edge of the lake staring across to the horizon. “He can’t have wandered far, especially if he’s hurt, unless…”

“Unless what, Jess?” asked Slim, coming over and standing by his friend.

“Unless he came to the lake edge to get some water to tend his wound and fell in. My God, Slim, he could have drowned!” he finished, turning anguished eyes on his buddy.

“No, don’t say that. He’s a strong swimmer, and besides, it’s shallow here at the edge,” replied Slim.

Jess looked at the muddy bank, but there were a variety of tracks there — old and new — where folk had come down to water their horses and he couldn’t make out Mike’s footprints.

Jess just shook his head sadly and continued to look across the lake.

After a minute Slim said, “Look, it will be dark soon. We’d better head back and then ride to Laramie at first light get Mort to organize a proper search party.”

Jess turned on his partner. “No!” he yelled. “I ain’t leaving. I’ll light a fire; he may have fallen asleep somewhere and wake up and see it.” Then more quietly, he added, “I can’t leave him, Slim, not here all alone in the dark.”

Slim reached across and squeezed his shoulder. “I know how you feel, buddy; I feel the same, but well, we can’t leave Daisy there alone all night, not knowing either way. I have to go back and then I’ll ride to town tomorrow. Mort Corey is a damn good Sheriff as well as our friend; he’ll get a good bunch of men together and we’ll find him, I promise”

After he had left, Jess made a large fire and lay down beside it, using his saddle as a pillow, but he didn’t sleep and was up and searching again at dawn.

When Slim rode in, he had over 20 men with him — some friends, others parents of Mike’s school friends, but the majority just regular citizens who were touched by the disappearance of the little boy from the Sherman Ranch. Slim was well-known and respected in the town and Jess too was highly regarded by the good town’s people, often deputizing for Mort and helping to keep the town safe. All this was reflected in the large size of the search party.

While Mort organized them into smaller groups so they could cover every square inch of the surrounding countryside, Slim walked over to Jess, who was huddled in front the camp fire, and on closer inspection, he saw Jess was shivering and his hair was soaking wet. He sucked in a shocked breath. “Hey Jess, you been in?” he asked, gesturing towards the icy cold waters of the lake.

Jess just nodded, looking into the fire and then looked up at his friend with tired eyes. “Had to check it, Slim; had to find out.”

“And….?”

“I don’t know. I swam a good mile either way, but it’s so deep, Slim, so dang dark, I just couldn’t tell. I tried feeling around on the bottom and nothing,” Then turning his eyes to the far horizon, Jess stated, “I just don’t know, but I don’t feel he’s dead, Slim. I’d know it if he were.”

They continued searching until it was almost dark and then Mort had to call a halt. Jess exploded. “You can’t stop, Mort, please,” he yelled. “We’ve gotta carry on.”

Mort took him to one side and exchanged an anxious look with Slim.

“Jess,” Mort said gently, “we’ve turned over the whole area, not once but twice, and we’ve searched further than the boy could possibly have walked. He’s just not here. You have to be reasonable.”

“Well, maybe I’m not feelin’ too reasonable,” growled Jess in reply.

Mort turned away, shaking his head sorrowfully, then turned back and tried again. ” Look Jess, you’ve got to face facts. If he isn’t here, then well…” He looked out across the lake.

“He ain’t dead,” said Jess furiously. “He ain’t, I tell you. I’d know if he were; I’d just know.”

“There is one other possibility,” Mort said suddenly, the light of hope shining in his eyes. “Maybe somebody came down to water their horse and found the boy, and took him off to look after him.”

Jess’s head shot up. “Yeah, I suppose, but if they’d gone to Laramie, we’d have heard. Someone would have ridden out; the whole town’s probably talkin’ about it.”

“Yes,” Mort replied, “but they could have been going the other way, heading for Rawlins, or the mountains, could have been travelling folk…anyone, really. As soon as I get back to town, I’ll wire the Sheriff at Rawlins and get some missing posters printed. Someone may have seen something,” he finished. “Try not to fret too much, Jess.” With that, he mounted up and headed the search party back towards town.

***** 

Mort Corey’s words rattled around in Jess’ head over the following weeks as time went on and there was still no sign of Mike. He wasn’t so much fretting as grieving, and it was taking its toll on him.

The first few days after Mike went missing, Jess insisted on returning to the lake every day, until Slim lost patience with him and said, “Jess, will you just face it. He ain’t there.”

 Jess turned on him and said, “We decided to take a week off, have a holiday, take the boy camping, remember? Well I guess I can spend my holiday how I want.” He marched off to saddle his horse and set off again, returning after dark, disheartened and morose.

A couple of days after Mike had disappeared, Slim found Jess in front of the fire, on his favorite rocker, with his head in his hands. He put a hand on his friend’ shoulder and said gently, “You OK, buddy?”

Jess shook his head slightly and then looking up at Slim, his eyes full of pain, and said, “I’ve just remembered how I laid into him about that wretched ‘coon being in my bed. You don’t think that was it, do you, Slim? Why he ran away?”

“Hell, no; he knew you didn’t mean it,” replied Slim softly.

Suddenly Jess leapt up and ran into Mike’s room, followed by a mystified Slim.

Jess was kneeling by the raccoon’s cage, and opening the door, put a tentative hand out to the prone body. With all the worry about the boy, nobody had remembered to feed or water the critter.

“Dead?” asked Slim.

Jess nodded, raising saddened eyes to Slim. “He loved old Bandit,” he said, his voice choked with emotion. He picked up the limp little body,  meaning to go and bury him, when he felt the slightest of movements.

” Hang on,” Jess said. “I don’t think he’s done for yet.” Running into the kitchen with the animal in his arms, he proceeded to spoon some water into the tiny mouth. After a little while, the raccoon opened its eyes and looked around in a dazed manner. From then on, Jess nurtured the little creature day and night, until it was back to full health.

Late one night, Daisy couldn’t sleep, which had become a regular occurrence since the loss of Mike, and on entering the main room, she saw Jess administering some water to the small animal, and then sit stroking it gently. After a minute, she said, “Why are you up so late, Jess? I know you love animals, even this little minx, but he’s on the mend now you know.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” Jess said quietly. Then looking deep into her kind old eyes, he said, “Just need to be sure he’s well for when Mike comes home, see”

His simple faith brought tears to her eyes. “Oh, Jess,” Daisy said, leaning over she kissed him gently on the forehead before retiring to bed.

*****

Each member of the family dealt with the trauma in their own way. Daisy couldn’t eat but still made huge meals for her two ‘boys’, neither of whom were hungry either. She lost weight and had black shadows under her eyes, and for the first time since she had moved to the ranch, she looked her age.

She desperately tried to nurture and care for Slim and Jess, compensating for not having Mike to fuss over, and they knew in their hearts it was her way of coping. They tried to be gentle with her and not complain when she was over fussy.

She was constantly reminding Jess to take care and wrap up warm, until one day she pushed him too far and he turned on her a shouted, “For God’s sake, I’m not a child, Daisy.”

The minute it was out of his mouth, Jess regretted it. He had never once lost his temper with Daisy since she moved to the ranch, and now when she needed him most, he had abused her; he felt totally devastated.

He ran across to her, throwing his arms around her and held her tight, “I’m so, so sorry; I didn’t mean it.” Pushing her gently away so that he could see into her eyes, he felt a stab of pain as he saw the tears there.

But even as the tears ran down her papery cheeks, Daisy said, “It’s alright, dear. I know you didn’t mean it — none of us are quite ourselves just now.”

Daisy also was constantly washing and mending the boy’s clothes, and one day Slim could stand it no longer. On entering the ranch to see her once more bent over a pair of the Mike’s jeans applying a patch, he stormed out. Jess, who had been sitting by the fire with Daisy, exchanged a look with her and went out to where Slim was sitting moodily out on the porch.

“What is it?” asked Jess, slumping down in the chair next to him.

Slim turned an anguished face towards his friend. “Why is she doing that, Jess? He’s either at the bottom of the lake, or someone’s taken him. Either way, he isn’t coming back to wear those jeans.”

“You don’t know that for sure,” said Jess stubbornly. “We could still hear something, get a reply to one of the posters.”

Slim looked out to the horizon before turning back to his partner. “Do you think it was all our fault?” he asked. “He ran away because we didn’t let him help bring the cattle down?”

“Could be, but hell, Slim we were just doing what we thought was best for him, being good parents. He could have got hurt easy; same with the mustang breaking.”

“Yeah, guess you’re right,” replied Slim, giving his buddy a sad smile.

“Anyways,” continued Jess, “I wanted him to have a proper childhood, doing stuff like cook-outs with his buddies. Then more quietly, he said, “I didn’t get a childhood, you know that, Slim. Pa had us kids working out in the fields pretty near as soon as we could walk, Hell, and if we didn’t pull our weight, we got a good beating.” Turning his sad gaze on Slim, he said, “I sure didn’t want that kind of life for the boy. I just wanted for him to be happy,” he finished quietly

So as Slim spent the days and weeks after Mike’s disappearance worrying about why he went, worrying about where he was, what he was doing and worrying about the family he had left.

Jess just tried to blot the whole sorry business out. He started disappearing off to town once or twice a week and coming home much the worse for wear after spending the afternoon and most of the night in the saloon, his only company a bottle of red-eye.

If friends approached and tried to offer their condolences on Jess’ sad loss, they soon wished they hadn’t, and after a while most folk gave him a wide berth. Old Tom, the bar owner and friend, tried to persuade Jess to take it a bit easy but could have saved his breath after the surly response he received, that being the request for another bottle.

Then one night as Jess stood at the bar downing his fifth drink, he overheard a conversation at the table behind him. Charlie Jones, a wastrel and gossip, was none too fond of Slim and Jess after they had refused to give him a job a few years back. Now Charlie, who hadn’t noticed Jess at the bar, said in a loud voice to his companion, “Looks like Sherman and Harper will have to go down the children’s home and fetch back some more, cheap, labor, seeing as how the last kid upped and drowned on them.”

Quick as a flash, Jess turned and grabbing Charlie by the shirt front, dragged him out of his chair, and laid a right to the chin, which sent him flying way across the bar. Jess strode after him, and dragging him up, again smashed his fist into his face and watched in distain as blood gushed from the man’s nose. Then Charlie’s companion  pitched in, but Jess merely tossed him across the bar and then laid a haymaker on the man, which sent  him flying into another drinker; then all hell was let loose and a free for all ensued.

Suddenly, a shot was fired and Mort Corey stood there with his deputy. After assessing the situation, he grabbed hold of a very unsteady Charlie and giving Jess a hard look, told Jess to step across the road to his office, where Mort threw him in a cell to cool off. At Jess’s protests, Mort merely said they would discuss it in the morning when his friend was sober. Clanging the cell door shut, Mort left, turning off the lamp.

The following morning, Jess sat pale and shaking  opposite Mort, a cup of coffee in his hand which he put unsteadily to his lips before drinking deeply.

“Well,” said Mort, “what have you got to say for yourself?”

Jess looked across at Mort; he was bowed but not beaten and his stubborn streak came to the fore as usual. “It weren’t my fault Mort,” he growled. “I was provoked.”

“Oh?” said Mort, casting a skeptical eye on his friend.

After Jess repeated exactly what Charlie had said, Mort gave a low whistle. “Guess I can see your point,” he said, “but even so, I can’t have you coming in and ripping the town apart this way, Jess. Hell, with your temper,  you might have called him out and we’d be looking at a murder charge, not just drunk and disorderly.”

Bowing his head, Jess decided discretion was the better part of valor and said, “I guess you’re right, Mort, and I’m sorry.”

“Yeah, until the next time,” said his friend, smiling fondly at Jess. ” Hell, I know how much you’re hurting, Jess; I was there the day he was lost. I miss the little fellah too, but you’re going to have to get it together, boy, you understand?”

Jess nodded and looked up into Mort’s kindly eyes. “Yeah,” he said, “I understand.”

That had been over a week ago, and although Jess had returned to town, his behavior had been exemplary and he just sat quietly getting drunk before staggering up onto Traveler and heading for home.

Slim was just about at his wit’s end with his best friend’s behavior. He had laid into him verbally when he arrived home beat up the previous week.

As Jess had staggered into the ranch the following morning after his stay in the cell, Daisy and Slim had still been sitting at the table, having their morning coffee. Daisy leapt up and gave him a shocked look. “Oh, Jess, whatever happened to you? Your poor face.” She set about tending him.

After his previous outburst when she had been fussing him, Jess had kept his mouth tight shut and accepted her ministrations patiently.

After she had finished bathing his face and fussing, he finally escaped to the yard and was leaning on the corral fence, feeling nauseous after the drinking session, when Slim came and stood behind him.

Instead of the sympathy he expected, Slim had turned on Jess angrily, saying, “I know all about the fight you got yourself into last night. Mose was here earlier and filled me in, and that you spent the night in Mort’s cell. I guess if you got yourself into a mess, it’s because of the amount of liquor you’re putting away, Jess, and that’s down to you. What I won’t have is you coming back here all beat up and worrying Daisy sick. Don’t you think she’s got enough to worry about right now without your crazy antics?” he finished.

Jess gave him a hurt look and then muttered, “Guess so,” before wandering off to the barn to start his chores.

Slim marched after him, and grabbing Jess by the shoulder, swung him around roughly to face him. “Is that all you’ve got to say?” he yelled furiously.

“Hell, what do you want me to say, Slim?” Jess replied. “I’m sorry, OK?” With that, he walked off, leaving Slim looking after him, shaking his head sadly.

The following week when Jess came home worse for wear, Slim was waiting for him by the barn. As Jess dismounted and staggered a bit, he said, ”Hey Partner, what is this a reception committee?” before entering the barn and starting to tend his horse.

 Following him in to the barn, Slim watched Jess working on his horse for a few minutes before saying grimly, “You’re drunk…..again.”

Jess turned from where he was rubbing down Traveler, his eyes blazing. “Who are you, my Ma?” he yelled.

“Seems to me if your Ma and Pa had talked some sense into you when you were younger, you wouldn’t be looking for the answers to life at the bottom of a whiskey bottle,” Slim yelled.

The minute the words were out, Slim regretted them; he knew the hellish life Jess had had growing up on the panhandle, knowing poverty and violence from a young age — his father too fond of the bottle and beating his offspring, his mother old and defeated before her time.

Jess turned to look at him, and for a moment, he looked so angry that Slim thought he was going to punch him. Then Slim saw the look change to deep hurt. Turning back to his horse, Jess muttered, “Guess you’re right there, buddy; I was a bit short on  loving care growing up.”

“Jess, I’m sorry; I didn’t mean that,” said Slim. “But just tell me, why…why are you doing this to yourself? You’re not a drinker, Jess; can’t take that red-eye whiskey. Hell, you chuck it back up all night, you look like death the next day. What in hell is it all about? “

Jess turned back and gave his friend a sad look. “It’s about trying to forget this whole sorry mess,” he said quietly. “There comes a time about halfway down a bottle, when the pain goes and you can forget…just for a little while. That’s why, Slim.” With that, he turned back to his horse.

“Jess, please you must see…”

Jess turned again and broke in. “Yeah I see alright, Slim, I see I ain’t coping too well. Now will you please just leave it for tonight? I’m kinda tired.”

Slim opened his mouth to say something more, but Jess had turned his back on him again. Slim could tell he was wasting his time, so reluctantly he retired to bed.

The following morning when he awoke, Jess’s bed hadn’t been slept in and Slim was just wondering if he had passed out in the barn when the door opened quietly and Jess came in.

Slim sat up in bed and said,” Hell, you’re a mess. buddy.”

 Jess looked filthy; he hadn’t shaved for a week or more and his shirt looked like he’d spilled a glass or two of whiskey down the front. “And you stink like a still,” Slim finished.

Jess threw him a sheepish look, and pulling his shirt off, chucked it in the direction of the wash basket before turning to start washing.

“You sleep in the barn?” asked Slim

Jess nodded and the simple movement seemed incredibly painful; Slim saw him close his eyes and flinch.

“Yeah, figured I was nearer the outhouse in the barn, so I bunked in with Trav,”  Jess replied.

“Sick all night again?” asked Slim sympathetically.

“Yeah, and got a head like a mule has stomped on it too,” Jess whispered gruffly. “And no one but myself to blame, I know,” he finished.

Then Jess started lathering his face ready for shaving. As Jess picked up the razor, Slim noticed how much his friend’s hands were shaking. “Need a hand, buddy?” he said, afraid Jess would cut himself.

“Nah, I can manage,” Jess replied. “Anyways, the mood you’re in with me right now, you might be tempted to cut my throat,” he said, glancing over at Slim with a cheeky little grin and a twinkle in his deep blue eyes.

Slim retuned the smile and thought, thank God, at least he hasn’t completely lost his sense of humor.

After a while Jess finished shaving with minimal damage and after he had completed washing, he turned to Slim and said softly, “It’s over, Slim; I won’t be touching a drop of liquor until Christmas Day.”

“Well, thank God for that,” replied Slim earnestly.

Suddenly Jess’s grin froze on his face. “Oh no,” he said quietly, “Christmas…..without Mike.”

Slim looked back at him and shook his head sadly. “It won’t seem right,” he said softly.

Jess had an expression of despair on his face. “Christmas, his Birthday, and Thanksgiving…..will it never end, Slim? This missing and hoping will it never end?”

Slim looked across at Jess and knew he was remembering that first Christmas with Mike,  and he thought at what Jess had just said. Would this pain never end? would the loss stay with them forever?

If only we knew, thought Slim sadly, one way or the other; if only we knew what has happened to our boy.

*****

At about the same time that Slim and Jess were having their conversation, an elderly rancher, Jed Porter, was driving his buckboard into the town of Rawlins to stock up on supplies for the coming winter. Jed got into town very rarely now, and so he enjoyed a good mooch around, a drink in the saloon and was happy to chew the fat with anyone who had the time.

Thus it was that after visiting the mercantile, he strode across the street to look at the wanted posters in the Sheriff’s office window. Then something caught his eye. It was a tatty old poster bleached from the sunlight, but it was the image that caught the old man’s eye, that of a young blond boy with large eyes and a friendly smile. The artist who had produced the poster was the father of one of Mike’s school friends and knew the boy well; the likeness was uncanny.

After staring at it for a few minutes, Jed pushed the office door open and entered.

The Sheriff was new in town and eager to oblige. “Good morning, sir,” he said with a welcoming smile. “Can I help you?”

“No,” replied Jed, “but I think I may be able to help you.” Taking the seat that was offered him, he started to recount his tale. “My name is Jed Porter,” he said, “and I own a spread about 10 miles south of town, just by the tail that leads up to the mountain range.”

The Sheriff nodded in acknowledgement. “Yes, I know the area.”

“Well then,” continued Jed, “it must be about two months back, I had a visit from Tobias and Rebecca Finnegan — mountain folk, he’s a trapper. Last of a breed,” he said smiling nostalgically. “Time was, there were about thirty mountain families up there; now it’s down to two or three. Anyways, he’s married to a lovely lady, half-Arapaho, half-American, and they are a devoted couple, but never had any children, sadly.”

The sheriff’s eyes were beginning to glaze slightly. “Yes sir?” he asked enquiringly.

“So,” continued old Jed, “I thought it kinda funny when they called around to do a bit of trading and they had this young boy with them.”

“A young boy?”

“Yeah. I’m sure the very same as on your poster out there,” he said briskly. “That’s what I’m trying to tell you. They’ve got that Mike Williams in the poster living up the mountain with them”

“Are you sure?” the sheriff asked.

“Well I’m positive. See, she tried to pass him off as her younger brother’s child, said he’d been orphaned and they’d taken him on. Well, the child looked kinda sad, and when I asked him about it, he did say his Ma and Pa were gone, had left him. Well, that didn’t sound right and then Tobias told the boy to watch his tongue. ‘Hush up, Michael,’ he said. Well, the poster said the lad was from Laramie and that is just where the couple had been to trade their furs. I’m a telling you, mister; it’s the same boy.”

The Sheriff quickly wired Mort Corey and suggested the boy’s family make their way out to visit with the mountain people, and if they could verify that the child was indeed theirs, then the Sheriff would be happy to step in and return the boy to his rightful family.

Meanwhile back up the mountain, Mike had settled into his new life and found Aunt Rebecca, as he called, her kind and caring, where as Tobias could be very strict and not as fun loving as his Pa had been, but he too was fair and mostly kind.

The boy sorely missed his parents and cried himself to sleep most nights at first, as he wracked his brain as to why his parents had left him alone and hurt.

His last memory of them was his Pa saying he was old enough now to go and fetch the firewood for the night’s fire. He had taken old Jody, riding him out with a big pannier on his back for the wood, and the next thing he remembered was Aunt Rebecca and Uncle Tobias leaning over him.

When he slept, he had strange dreams about people he didn’t know, particularly a tall blond man who seemed to smile at him and then a younger dark haired man with deep blue eyes. Mike felt calm and happy in his presence and would awaken from the dream crying now for the blue-eyed man and not his Ma and Pa, although he didn’t even know his name.

As time went on, Tobias took him about the mountain with him and showed him how to set the beaver traps and the best place to shoot dear; Mike gradually began to accept his role as Tobias’s helper.

One day, he was talking to Aunt Rebecca when he mentioned the fact that she wore moccasins. “Well, of course, dear,” she said casually, “I am half Arapaho. You see, my mother wore them when she was a girl.”

For some reason, Mike was unsure of, Rebecca’s native American ancestry made him feel uncomfortable, although he liked hearing the stories she told about the birds and animals of the mountains, passed down to her by her Indian mother.

One day, thinking the boy would find it interesting, she showed him her own bow and arrow that she had been taught to shoot as a girl and she offered to show Mike how to shoot at a target for fun. To her surprise, the boy drew back in fear when she showed him the beautifully carved bow and sharp tipped arrows with their pretty flights made from bird’s feathers. He backed away from her looking terrified.

“Why, whatever is the matter, Mike?” she asked, looking shocked. “I’m not going to hurt you; I just thought you would like to learn how to use it.”

The boy just shook his head, unable to say why he was so fearful, and so in the end Rebecca hid the offending item away in the cupboard by the front door, and peace was restored.

As the days turned to weeks and the weeks to months, Rebecca became more and more fond of the boy. He seemed to her like the son she had never been granted and Tobias too saw him as a son rather than just an extra pair of hands around the place.

As for Mike, he  became accustomed to his lot, and apart from the dreadful feeling of loss he still had for his parents and the haunting dreams about the two men who seemed so full of life and laughter, he came to terms with everything and settled down to the new routine.

In the evenings, they would sit together in front of a blazing fire and Rebecca would recount her old Indian stories while Tobias read or just sat smoking his pipe, enjoying the stories alongside Mike.

One night, though, Tobias took out a piece of wood and a knife and started witling the wood into a small horse as a gift for Mike.

As the boy sat and watched Tobias go about his task, a look of intense concentration on his face, Mike suddenly remembered a night in front of another fire, and the man with the dark hair and blue eyes was doing exactly the same thing — witling away, making a wooden animal for him — the same look of rapt concentration on his face. Then he’d looked up and given Mike that loving smile that he remembered so well, and the pain of loss almost made him cry out. Who was he? Mike wondered as he looked sadly into the fire.

***** 

The weeks after Jess had made his pledge to stay away from the strong liquor dragged on by and he kept his promise, but started working from dawn to dusk, trying desperately to blot out the thoughts about Mike’s disappearance that constantly haunted him. He would get back to the ranch weary to the bone and crash out into a troubled sleep almost as soon as supper was over.

Slim missed Jess’ company sitting out on the porch in the evening. He knew that, some days, Jess was late back because he had spent hours searching the area around the lake again, after his work was done. But Jess got so angry if Slim said he was wasting his time, so Slim kept silent and let him continue if that’s what he felt he must do.

Slim tried to spend more time with Daisy, knowing how devastated at the loss of her surrogate youngest ‘son’ she was. One evening they were sitting alone by the fire with Jess having long since retired when she broached a subject that had been troubling her for some time.

Looking across at Slim, who was using his own method of escaping from the harsh realities of the situation by getting engrossed in a book, Daisy said quietly, “Can we talk, Slim?”

Slim put the book down at once, and giving her an encouraging smile, said,

”Of course, Daisy. What’s on your mind?”

She took a deep breath, and then taking her courage in both hands, said, “Slim, when I first came here, you employed me as a housekeeper to care for Mike. I know that was what the judge recommended, said the boy needed a motherly presence.”

Slim gave her a puzzled look. “Well, that’s right Daisy, and you were…I mean are…a fantastic, caring surrogate mother to him,” he finished, smiling warmly at her.

“Yes , but Slim dear, I hate to even think this, but maybe…just maybe…he won’t return to us. Have you considered that? “

Slim nodded sadly and said, “I guess.”

Daisy looked into the embers of the fire and gave a huge sigh before turning and saying, “Then, Slim, I think maybe I should leave. You employed me to care for Mike, and if I can no longer do that, well, I feel I’m taking advantage of your good nature.”

Slim’s head shot up like he’d been hit and he looked at her in amazement. “Daisy, you’re kidding,” he said eventually. “Jess and me……well, I guess we just couldn’t manage without you, and I don’t mean all the cleaning and washing and cooking you do for us either. It’s everything else — the way you always know when we are troubled and try and help with your wise advice; how you look after us, nurse us with the loving care of a Ma. Hell, I know for sure Jess wouldn’t be around if you hadn’t cared for him day and night that time he had the lung fever so bad; even Doc Sam said that.”

Then looking across, his eyes unnaturally bright, Slim said very softly, “Surely you know ol’ Jess and me look on you as a Ma. You must know that, Daisy?”

After a few minutes, a single tear ran down her cheek. “Yes I do; of course, I do,” she said softly. “I just think this whole business with Mike has made us all feel very vulnerable and act out of character. Don’t listen to the silly ramblings of an old woman. Of course I’ll stay.” With that, she gave Slim a watery smile as he reached over and gave her hand a squeeze.

The following day, breakfast was the usual quiet event that it had been ever since Mike had gone. Before, the ranch house would echo with laughter and lively discussion at the start of the day. Now more often than not Jess was heavy-eyed after all the extra hours he was putting in, and Slim and Daisy just didn’t feel up to making the effort to talk much.

After the meal was finished, Jess excused himself and went and stood on the porch, looking out across the surrounding hills to the distant horizon. A few minutes later, Slim came out, and joining him, saw his serious expression and said, “What’s up, Jess?”

His friend turned and said, “Thought I might go out as far as the foothills beyond the lake this afternoon, have another look around.”

Suddenly Slim lost his composure, and with uncharacteristic anger, turned on Jess and said, “Goddamn it, Jess will you quit lookin’ for him? He ain’t out there. If he was, we’d have found him by now. Just accept…”

“Accept what?” growled Jess. “That he’s dead? Can’t do that, Slim, and I can’t just sit around here waiting for him to turn up. I’ve gotta try and find him.” Then more gently, he added, “Can’t you see that?”

Slim just shook his head sadly, but said nothing.

After a few minutes, Jess walked away and stood leaning against the corral fence, looking out to the distant horizon again, and whispered, “God if you’re listening, will you please help us out here some and bring him home?”

Jess was so deep in thought that it was a few minutes before he was aware a rider was coming down the trail at a gallop. Looking up, he saw Mort Cory ride into the yard at a fair lick. Mort rode over to where Jess was standing, and jumping down, tethered his mount to the corral fence before turning and giving Jess a grin.

 Slim strode over and said, “What brings you out here so early, Mort?” Turning and patting the Sheriff’s mount, Slim added, “And riding this poor old fellah into the ground and all.”

Mort gave him a sheepish grin and said, “Yeah, guess I did push him some, but figured you’d want to hear my news as soon as possible.”

Both men looked at him intently. “What it is, Mort?” asked Jess very quietly, hardly daring to think it might be good news at last.

Turning to Jess, Mort said, “Figure we should go inside. Think Miss Daisy will need to hear this too.”

Once they were seated around the ranch table, all eyes were upon Mort and he started to speak very carefully. Looking at each of them in turn, he said,” Now I don’t want to get your hopes up too much, but, well…I’ve had a wire from the Sheriff over at Rawlins this morning, and he reckons that an old man by the name of Jed Porter spotted Mike travelling with some mountain folk a couple of months back.”

 Jess leapt up immediately and exploded. “A couple of months back? Then why the Hell didn’t he say somethin’?”

“Now calm yourself,” said Mort easily. “The man’s only just seen the Missing poster, told the Sheriff right away. Seems Mike is holed up with these folk up on the mountain just south of Rawlins….that’s if it is Mike,” he said firmly. “We only have this old man’s say so from that poster”.

“Well, that’s good enough for me,” said Slim. “Come on, Jess.” Turning to Daisy, he said, “Can you fix us food for a couple of days? Figure we could make it in that time, huh< Jess?”

Jess’s eyes were sparkling in anticipation. “Figure I could do it in a day,” he said, “but guess we’ll need the horses in reasonable shape to bring us all back. So yeah, two days should do it.”

Mort looked over to his good friends. “Just don’t get your hopes up too high,” he said softly. “I sure don’t want to make things any worse than they are, but I guess there’s an outside chance it could be Mike…guess you have to check it out anyways. I just wish I could come with you, but well, Lon, the deputy, is due to go out to visit his sick Pa tomorrow and so I can’t leave town right now.” Then turning to give Jess a firm look, Mort said, “And I don’t want to hear from the Rawlins Sheriff that there have been any repercussions to this business, Jess. Seems like these are good, God-fearing folk, and probably took the boy in as a kindness.”

“Like Hell!” yelled Jess. “Mike wouldn’t have gone off with them willingly.

Looks like they abducted him, and I reckon that’s an answerable crime, Mort.”

“Well that’s as may be , but just get the facts first, Jess, before you go wading in the way you do — fists first and brain second.”

“Oh yes,” said Daisy softly, “don’t start fighting, Jess. Just get him home.”

Jess looked at her worried old face and said kindly, “Don’t fret, Daisy; I won’t do anything” before turning away and saying under his breath for Slim’s ears only, “unless they’ve harmed him in some way and then I guess it’ll be more than  just my fists this mountain man will be having to worry about.”

Once they were all packed up and ready to go, Daisy and Mort came out onto the porch to see them off. Slim gave Daisy a big hug and said quietly, “You OK?”

She smiled up into his handsome, troubled face, and with a brave smile, nodded and said, “Yes dear. And Slim, whatever the outcome, I’ll be here waiting for you all.”

Slim nodded, and with a small smile, turned and mounted Alamo. Then Jess came and joined them on the porch.

“Just been checking on Bandit. You OK to care for him until we get back Daisy?” The little raccoon was fully recovered now and quite a handful.

She nodded her assurance, and on looking at her more closely, Jess saw her bottom lip tremble and tears well up. Leaning forward, he kissed her gently on the forehead, but said nothing. Pulling back, Jess looked at Mort, slightly tipped his head towards the ranch and raised an eyebrow. Mort gave a tiny nod back, and then turning to Daisy, said in a hearty voice, “I guess ol’ Lon can hold the fort a mite longer, Miss Daisy, and if there is any of that coffee and pie left, well, I’d be most obliged.”

Daisy had seen the little gesture Jess had made. She was heart-warmed that he should notice her distress at their leaving and muster Mort to stay and comfort her after they had ridden away. “Off you go then, you two,” she said bravely. “Sooner you are gone, sooner you’ll be home.” With that, she took Mort’s offered arm and disappeared into the ranch house.

Before they set off on the road to Rawlins, Slim and Jess stopped at the Harrington place and again asked the sons Dave and Josh to cover the Relay Station work and tend the stock while they were away. The boys were happy to earn some extra cash to spend over the Thanksgiving holiday at the end of the month.

It was now late fall, with winter threatening, and although they had been enjoying the benefits of an Indian Summer, there was a chill wind in the air  and the threat of bad weather to come, as the pair set off on their long journey West towards the mountains.

They made good time and were over halfway to their destination by dusk;  Slim reined Alamo in as they crested a steep bank and looked out at the miles of flat open countryside beyond reaching to the distant mountain foothills. Just below them, a small stream meandered and there was some cover from a few scrub bushes and windblown trees. Jess drew Traveler in beside him, and following his partners gaze, said, “Thinking of callin’ it a day?”

Slim nodded. “Guess we’ve pushed pretty hard today, Jess. Figure if we bunk down now, we can head off at first light.”

He waited for Jess to argue, knowing if he could, Jess would have just ridden on through the night. But to his surprise, his friend simply nodded and kicked Traveler on towards the meandering stream below.

Later, they lay on their bedrolls close up to the fire as the wind had got up and it had turned cold and the air damp. Jess was lying on his back looking up at the stars; he turned to Slim and said quietly, “Daisy was real upset when we left, you know. Figure she is worried about what we’re gonna find…or not find,” he finished reflectively.

Slim looked across from where he was propped up against his saddle, finishing the last of his coffee. “Yeah, I know”. Then quietly he added, “She said she was thinking of leaving if we didn’t find Mike.”

“What!” said Jess, sitting up and peering through the dark at his friend. “Why…she can’t do that. Did you tell her, Slim, she can’t up and go. Hell, I’d miss her something fierce. What is she thinkin’?” he finished, sounding upset.

“It’s OK,” said Slim quickly. “I told her that, said how important she is to us all, and then she saw sense. Said she wasn’t thinking straight, said she’d stay whatever…well, whatever the outcome”

Jess gave a sigh of relief, lay back down again and resumed looking up at the stars. After a few minutes, he  said, “Guess none of us have been thinking too straight since Mike went, especially me.” Then very quietly,  he said, “I’m sorry, Slim, about all the times I’ve gone and left you with the chores while I’ve been off on a wild goose chase. Just couldn’t do nothin’……you know?”

“Sure, I understand, buddy, and hell, I admire you. You never gave up hope, did you, Jess? Always believed he was alive out there somewhere.”

“Guess I was afraid to give up,” said Jess softly. “Afraid to face the alternative.”

“Well, let’s hope it won’t ever come to that and we’ll find him safe and sound tomorrow,” Slim replied.

“Sure hope so,” said Jess sleepily. After a while, they drifted off to sleep, under the stars as the cold wind blew and the fire crackled; somewhere far off, a lone wolf called.

The following morning they were up and on their way at first light. They made good time and hit Jed Porter’s place by late morning. He wasted no time in telling the two cowboys the way to the Finnegan’s place. “Up the trail a couple of miles, then turn off to your right just past the big pine; their cabin is half a mile or so along there,” he said.

“Much obliged,” said Slim, tipping his hat to the old timer.

Jess reined Traveler in beside where the man was standing out on his porch and said, “And thank you for telling the Sheriff about it, Mister. I guess we’re real indebted to you”.

The old man gave him a toothless grin. “Well that’s OK, boy,” he said.

”Guess this young Mike means a lot to you both. Legal guardians, you say?”

“Yes, a hell of a lot,” said Jess with feeling. “Sure we’re his legal guardians,” and patting his jacket pocket, said, ”and got the paperwork to prove it.”

“Hum,” said the old man a twinkle in his eye. “Guess you’ll be needing something a mite more persuasive than a bit of paper to git the boy back from Rebecca and Tobias. They’ve got fond of the boy, right fond of him. Guess they see him as the son Rebecca always wanted and couldn’t have.”

Then leaning back on his stick and looking the two friends up and down, Porter said finally, “Well, I wish you luck boys, that’s for sure, but watch your backs, ‘cos that Tobias is mighty free with his ol’ huntin’ rifle. Don’t care whether the prey has got four legs or two if he’s riled some, if you get my meaning.”

“Oh yeah,” said Jess, nodding and giving him an assessing look. “Guess we know what you mean, but figure we’re kinda riled ourselves right now.”

“I guess I can see that, son. Well, take care.” With that, Porter headed inside and Slim and Jess rode off in the direction of the mountain man’s cabin, Jess looking every bit as though he was ready for a fight.

A little while later, Slim reined in Alamo and Jess stopped beside him,

“What’s up?” Jess asked.

“You,” said Slim, giving him a cool look. “Listen, Jess, I know how upset you are about all this business, but well, if these folks are fond of Mike, I guess we need to take things easy, try not to upset them too much, you know?”

“What!” exploded Jess. “After they’ve taken Mike and kept him all this time and the living hell we’ve been through, not knowing if he was alive or dead and you want me to take things easy with them …are you crazy?.”

“Jess, just hear me out, will you. If this Tobias is as trigger-happy as the old man said, well, the last thing we want is him opening fire and Mike getting caught up in it.”

Jess was quiet for a few minutes and the grudgingly said, “Yeah, I guess that makes sense.”

 “So just let me do the talking, OK?” said Slim.

“Suppose, but if the boy is hurt…”

“Let’s just take it one step at a time, huh, Jess.” With that, Slim kicked Alamo on up the mountainside. 

****** 

It was early afternoon when the cabin finally came into view. It was a small shabby place set in a clearing amongst some large old pine trees and there was a lean-to barn with a small corral next to it and a couple of sad looking horses grazing on the meager grass.

The sun had come out again and the two friends were hot and weary as they rode up.

As promised, Jess held back a little. As Slim approached within  a few yards of the homestead,  a tall, bearded  man of about 40, clothed head to toe in buckskin, came out of the door and leveling an old hunting rifle at Slim’s belly, said,  “Hold it right there, Mister.”

Slim reined his mount in and said, “No need for that; we don’t mean you any harm”.

“Well you ain’t gonna get the chance to do me any,” replied the man gruffly, “‘cos you ain’t staying. Now turn that there horse of yours around and head off back down the trail pronto”.

“Now just a minute,” yelled Jess,

Slim turned on him and said, “Jess!”

Jess just pulled his hat down more firmly and shifted in the saddle, but said nothing.

The door opened again and a terrified woman stood there glancing from her husband to the cowboys, a look of fear etched on her face.

 Looking over at the woman, Slim tried again, “Look, Mrs. Finnegan, we have reason to belief you have found our ward Mike Williams, who disappeared from the  Laramie area over two months ago — little chap about so high,” he said gesturing with his hand, “blond hair and blue eyes.”

 Before she could reply, her husband answered for her. “Nope,” said the man stubbornly, “ain’t seen him.”

“Well, that’s not what your neighbor, Mr. Porter, is saying,” said Jess harshly. “He’s saying there is a boy meets that description up here and I want to see him  right now,” he roared.

“There ain’t nobody here, but my dead brother-in-law’s boy,” the mountain man said. “Now I’m goin’ to be a tellin’ you for the last time, do you get off of my land or do I blow your heads off?”

Just then there was the patter of feet running and Mike appeared around the side of the cabin. Being unaware of what was happening, he ran towards Tobias and said, “I’ve stacked all the logs now, Uncle. can I…” But  then he stopped in his tracks as he saw Tobias  pointing his gun, and turning, surveyed the two strangers.

Slim let out a gasp as he saw the boy. He had changed so much; he seemed to be a good head taller and had lost weight. His hair was long and unkempt and he too, was dressed in buckskin.

Jess let out a strangled cry, “Mike,” and leapt from his horse; he ran forwards and would have taken the boy in his arms if Tobias hadn’t thrust the rifle at him.

“Hold it right there, Mister, unless you want the boy to see your brains splattered all around,” Tobias said viciously.

As Jess and Slim stared at Mike, he stared back, but there was no surprised joy in his eyes as he looked at them. In fact, there was no recognition in his eyes at all.

“Mike,” said Jess very quietly, “it’s Jess and Slim, come to fetch you home. “

Mike looked from Jess to Slim and back and then over to Tobias a puzzled look on his face.

“Well,” said Tobias,” do you know these men, son?”

Mike turned back and looked closely at them again. The sun was behind them, making their faces difficult to see and they both had their hats on so he couldn’t make out their hair color. He peered at them again before shaking his head. “No, I guess not,” he said.

“Well, I think you have your answer, folks,” said Tobias with a wolfish grin. “Now I think it’s time you were leaving.”

Jess squatted down a few feet from Mike and tipped his hat back; looking deeply into the boys eyes, he said softly, “It’s OK. Tiger; you’re not in trouble. We just want you home where you belong.”

Mike looked into the man’s deep blue eyes and saw the black hair where his hat was tipped back, and something in the way he looked, that loving smile, what was it… Mike struggled to remember and then it came to him, he was the man in the dream…but who was he?

“Come here,” said Jess very gently reaching out a hand to the boy.

Just then there was a whistling noise, and suddenly Jess collapsed backwards with a harsh cry of agony as an arrow penetrated his chest.

Mike looked on in horror, and then time seemed to stand still for him. He was suddenly remembering something in the past. He was hiding in a thicket; he heard that whistling sound time after time and the dull thud as arrow after arrow found its target and his parents and all the members of the wagon train were slaughtered.

Then he was lying in a wagon and there were the Japanese performers who had found him lost and weary on the trail days later.

Next thing he was at the Sherman Ranch and the blond-haired rancher was smiling down at him. “Hi, I’m Slim Sherman and this is Jess Harper,” he said , and the dark-haired rancher with the concerned dark blue eyes looked down at him and gave him that lovely smile.

Suddenly Mike sprang into action and hurled himself at Jess’s recumbent, bleeding body, and kneeling beside him screamed, “Jess! Jess” Then turning to give Rebecca an agonized look, he said, “You’ve killed my best friend! You’ve killed Jess”.

Rebecca stood there, the bow still in her hands a look of shocked horror on her face. “I never meant….” she whispered. “I never meant that; I just wanted to scare him off…..”

Slim had leapt off Alamo and knelt by his partner, cradling him in his arms, looking fearfully into the white face, eyes squeezed shut, his mouth a tight line of pain.

 After a second, Jess opened his eyes and looked directly at Mike.” It’s OK, Tiger,” he whispered, “it’s OK.”

Tobias had thrown his rifle down, and coming over to the injured man, helped Slim carry him into the house, apologizing profusely, suddenly all his anger gone.

They lay the now unconscious Jess on a couch in front of the fire, and Rebecca fetched a bowl of cool water and a cloth, and tenderly wiped his face, before glancing over at her husband. “Can you get it out,” she whispered, referring to the arrow that was still embedded in  Jess’s chest.

Slim shook his head. “Can’t be done. Only way is to push it straight through,” Then quietly he added, “Don’t think he’d survive that.”

Rebecca looked over at him from where she was tending his friend. “No,” she said, “you don’t understand. It is only a target practice arrow; there is no arrow head. It is just sharpened wood.”

Slim gave a sigh of relief, and turning to Tobias, said, “You done this before?”

Tobias nodded grimly. “It’s not the removal of these arrows that is the problem, it’s the damage they’ve done and the bleeding after,” he stated.

Jess was already bleeding badly; he had come to again and was obviously in considerable pain. He reached up to Slim and whispered, “For God’s sake, will you get the damn thing out”.

Slim looked over to Tobias again. Tobias came across, pushed Rebecca gently out of the way, and sat beside Jess. Looking down, he said, “This is gonna hurt, boy, but I’ll be as quick as I can.”

Then gesturing to Slim to hold his partner down, Tobias grabbed hold of the arrow, and after a few minutes managed to pull it cleanly out.

Jess yelled and Mike ran forwards, but Slim turned and caught him. “It’s Ok, Mike. Tobias is helping; the arrow had to come out.” Then turning back to Jess, he saw that, mercifully, Jess had finally passed out again.

Rebecca returned to her place beside Jess and staunched the flow of blood with the cloth, but it quickly soaked through and she called to Tobias to hold it in place while she went for more bandages.

 Slim and Mike looked on in alarm as the blood continued to seep out.

Tobias applied more pressure, but the bleeding continued. Then Jess woke up again and looked down in consternation at the fast growing stain covering the cloth.

Rebecca returned and looked worried. Turning to Tobias, she said, “I could try some Staghorn; that is very good medicine for bleeding, I think.”

Tobias nodded sagely in agreement, but Slim looked worried. “Now hang on,” Slim said. “What is this stuff, a stag’s horn. Dadgum, it how’s that supposed to help?”

Jess gave a weak smile. “It’s Ok, Slim,” he said quietly. “The Indians call it Staghorn; we call it Club Moss. It’s just an herbal cure, like a powder; usually works pretty good.

Rebecca smiled uncertainly down at him. ”You know about our Indian medicines?” she asked

“Sure,” replied Jess softly. “I lived with the Arapaho Indians way back and they were real good friends to me. I stayed with them for six months or more and learnt so much — trackin’, horse whisperin’, the medicines……” He drifted off again.

Rebecca hurried away and then returned with the herbal powders; she deftly administered them before bandaging Jess’s chest tightly.

Sitting back, she looked across at Slim and said softly, “That should work; we’ll just have to wait.” Then she added, “I am so, so sorry. I never meant to hurt him. I just panicked when I thought he were going to grab the boy.”

Slim just nodded, looked down at his best friend, and said softly, “You OK, buddy?”

But Jess was asleep, and so after one final sad look at him, Rebecca went to make the others some food, while Slim took her place sitting beside Jess with Mike.

A little while later, she called them to supper but Mike refused to leave Jess, so they left him perched at the bottom of the couch, with strict instructions to call over if Jess woke up.

Once the meal was nearly over, Tobias looked at Slim and said,” I guess we need to talk.” Then he sighed. “We were wrong bringing the boy here, I know that now, and I’m…well, I’m truly sorry. We found him out near a lake on the Laramie road, with a nasty bang on the head. Pony tipped him off, I guess. Anyways, we asked him where he lived and he said he was with his Ma and Pa on the wagon train. Didn’t make any sense,” he said looking at Slim.

Slim gave a low whistle and explained all about the Indian attack and how Mike had subsequently come to be adopted by himself and Jess.

Rebecca broke in. “That explains why he was so terrified of my bow and arrows,” she said. “Oh the poor boy.” With that, she began to cry quietly. “It’s a wonder he wasn’t frightened of me too, after what happened,” she finished.

“Ain’t the way he’s been brought up,” said Slim quietly. “You heard what Jess said about living with the Arapaho. We have a lot of respect for the Indian people; can’t judge everyone by what others have done in the past.”

Then he continued, “Like me and Jess fought on different sides in the War, but guess he’s as close as a brother to me now.” He cast an anxious look to the other side of the room where Jess was still sleeping.

“It’s all my fault,” Rebecca said. “It was I who suggested we bring him home with us. I always wanted a son and I supposed I just saw the opportunity and took it, without considering the consequences.”

Then she suddenly looked at Slim, her eyes open wide in shock,  and her hand shot to her mouth. “When I think what I have put you both through… It must have been terrible losing him like that; I am so sorry.”

“Well its sure not been easy,” Slim agreed, momentarily glad Jess was out of it, knowing the colorful language he would have used to describe the last few months. “I can understand why you did it, though,” he said, “especially when he said he was with the wagon train. You must have thought he was crazy. Beats me as to why he should say a strange thing like that; he’s been with us nigh on four years.”

Tobias looked thoughtful, then said, “I’ve heard of this before. Happened to  friend of mine. Got a real bad bang on the head — fell off a mustang he was bustin’ — and forgot every darn thing, even his name. Then dang me, he was at a visiting rodeo and a man was up on a palomino, exactly the same as Bill was thrown from, and, well I guess something just clicked and he remembered everything again. Darnedest thing I ever saw.”

“Guess it could have been the same with Mike,” pondered Slim. “The blow to the head blotted out the last few years and he could only remember living with his folks, and then when Jess was shot it, brought it all back in a flash.”

“Seems that way,” said Tobias, “but I should take it real easy when you mention it to him, Slim. If I remember right, Bill got real distressed for a while until he got used to  his life again.”

“Yeah,” said Slim, “I will be careful.” He looked back at Mike, who had now cuddled down on the couch next to Jess, and in his sleep, Jess had flung an arm around him and held the boy close.

Rebecca followed Slim’s gaze and said quietly, “He loves you both very much, I can see that, and you him,” she finished looking back at Slim.

Slim just nodded and said softly, “Well, we’re a family, Rebecca; guess we look out for each other.” With that, he excused himself from the table and went and sat over by Jess and Mike, looking down at his friend with worry etched on his face.

 A while later Rebecca and Tobias retired to bed in the only other room, and as Mike seemed so comfortable cuddled down with Jess, Slim took Mike’s bed in an alcove near the fireplace and was asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow.

When Jess awoke the next morning, it took him a minute or two to remember where he was. Then he felt Mike’s warm little body cuddled up to him and gave a sigh of relief as he remembered the events of the previous day.

Mike had been tearful and refused to let Slim or Jess out of his sight since his memory had returned, but he had hardly spoken. Now as Jess looked down at him, Mike suddenly awoke; his big blue eyes looked into Jess’.

“Hey, you OK, Tiger?” asked Jess softly.

The boy nodded yes.

“Been kinda quiet since we found you,” went on Jess.

The boy looked away and then back at Jess, and finally said, “I feel so bad, Jess.”

“Why, buddy?” Jess replied softly. “We ain’t mad at you for takin’ off. We sure were, but guess we’ve forgiven you now”.

“No not that,” said the boy, “although I am real sorry about that too. No it’s…”

“What, Tiger?”

“Well I forgot you, Jess, you and Slim and Aunt Daisy. How could I do that, how could I forget you?” A tear ran down the boy’s cheek and then he started sobbing in earnest.

The sound awoke Slim and he leapt out of bed and ran to the couch. At first he thought Jess was sicker, or even dead, but then when he saw his partner sitting up, holding the boy who was crying miserably, he said, “Guess we can leave telling him off for running away until another time, huh, Jess?”

Jess looked hurt. “I ain’t been tellin’ him off,” he said. Boy’s upset because he forgot us.”

“Is that all?” smiled Slim, and taking Mike gently on his knee, told him all about Tobias’s friend and the bump on the head.

“Guess it was the same with you, Mike,” Slim said, “When ol’ Patch tipped you off, that bang on the head made you forget everything after you left the wagon train to collect the wood. Then the shock of seeing Jess shot, the same way as your Ma and Pa were, well, that brought your memory back.”

The little boy frowned and thought about it for a minute and then said, “Yeah, I think you are right. It was the noise that did it.”

“What noise was that, Mike?” asked Jess softly.

“The arrow,” Mike replied. “That sort of whistle they make. I heard that and then it sort of thudded into your chest…just like it did to my Pa.” Then he broke down, crying hysterically and, Slim held him tightly, stroking his hair, until he finally calmed down and fell asleep again.

Slim carried him over to his own bed and tucked him in before coming over to check on Jess, and was not surprised to see him blinking back tears too. “Poor little fellah,” Jess said softly. “Guess we forget everything he’s been through sometimes”.

“Yeah, I know,” said Slim. “He’s just so resilient and cheerful usually; guess all this has really upset him.”

“Yeah,” said Jess angrily. “When I think what that couple are responsible for…” he growled, sitting up his fists clenched.

“Easy,” said Slim. “I know you’re mad, but well, I think Rebecca was driven to it. She was desperate for a child and so when the opportunity came….”

“That ain’t no excuse,” said Jess angrily. “We all want thing we can’t have; doesn’t mean we just go and take ‘em……not a little kid like that, Slim. That ain’t right,” he finished sadly.

“I guess you’re right,” his friend agreed, “but Rebecca and Tobias, well, they really love the boy. You can see it in their eyes. Guess taking him away will be a big enough punishment for them, without involving the law.”

Jess thought about it for a few minutes before reluctantly agreeing.

”Guess they’ve looked after him well,” he said, “and me too, so yeah, let’s just take the boy and get off home.”

“Whoa,” said Slim, “you aren’t going anywhere until I’m sure you’re not going to bleed to death on me on the trail.”

“Aw, Slim….”

“Never mind ‘aw Slim’. You could have died yesterday, Jess, and I’m not taking any risks.” Then sitting down on a chair pulled up by the couch, he looked at his partner properly. Jess’ eyes looked very bright and he was flushed with a slick of sweat on his face.

Reaching over, Slim pushed Jess’s unruly black hair back and felt his forehead. “You’re a mite warm, Jess,” he said with a worried frown. “How are you feeling?”

Jess rested back on the cushion he was using as a pillow and looked up at the ceiling. “Felt better,” he muttered.

“Um, thought so,” said Slim, who had been surprised at the lack of fuss his friend had made about taking retribution on the Rebecca and Tobias, and figured he was feeling pretty bad.

Just then Rebecca came in, and with a shy smile came over. After looking at Jess, she exchanged a worried glance with Slim before hurrying away towards the kitchen. She returned a while later with a cup in her hands and asked Slim to help Jess to sit up before offering him the drink.

“Here,” she said softly. “You have a fever, Jess. and this will help.”

Jess took it from her and sniffed it suspiciously. Then he looked up at Mike, who had woken up at the sound of the adults talking, got up and wandered over to Jess and sat down at the end of the sofa, surveying the scene. After a moment he turned to Rebecca and said, “Have you made him some Snake Grass tea, Aunt Rebecca?”

“What?” asked a shocked Slim.

“It’s alright,” said Rebecca smiling across at him. “The white man’s name for it is Yarrow, and I make an infusion — a tea — and it helps with a fever.” Then turning back to Jess, she said, “Please try it; I only want to help you”.

Jess took a sip and pulled a face, which made Mike laugh.

“Go on, Jess,” Mike encouraged. “It tastes real bad, I know, but it sure works. When I had a fever Aunt Rebecca gave it me and I was fine in no time.”

Slim and Jess both cast her a worried look and Slim said, “The boy was sick?”

“Yes,” acknowledged Rebecca, “just a chill, but I nursed him and he was fine again in a few days.”

Jess couldn’t bear the thought of the little boy being sick and him not there to care for him, but tried to push the thought away, and with a determined look, drained the cup and returned it to Rebecca, saying thank you.

Mike and Slim exchanged a smile knowing what a dreadful patient Jess usually was, but said nothing.

Before long, Jess fell asleep and that set the pattern for the next couple of days. But by the third day, he awoke looking bright-eyed and healthy and got up and washed without help.

Jess ventured outside that evening, and on sniffing the air, said to Slim, “There is snow a coming, Slim, and we have to take off for home, whether I’m ready or not; else we’ll be here all winter.”

Slim gave him an anxious look and said, “Are you sure you’re OK to ride, buddy?”

“Sure I…..”

But their conversation was suddenly interrupted as a rider came down the trail. Reining his mount in, he pushed his hat back and, with a broad grin, said, “Well howdy, folks. Guess you must be Harper and Sherman?”

Slim nodded, and noticing the badge on the man’s vest, said, “And you are the Rawlins Sheriff.”

“The very same,” said the man, jumping down and offering his hand to both men. “Red Smith at your service, Smitty to my friends.”

“Well, please to meet you,” said Jess. “And we sure appreciate you wiring us with the details of how to find the boy.”

“You’re very welcome,” the sheriff replied warmly. “So it was the right child then?”

“Oh sure,” said Slim, handing the Sheriff the adoption papers.

Just then Mike ran out of the cabin and hurled himself at Jess. Throwing his arms around his waist and grinning up, he said, “Aunt Rebecca says supper is nearly ready, Jess.”

The Sheriff handed the papers back to Slim after a cursory glance. “Guess there is no denying he’s your boy,” he said grinning across at Jess and Mike. Then looking more serious, he said, “So tell me, gentlemen, how do you want to deal with this matter? Seems Tobias and Rebecca abducted the boy; that is, they made no reasonable effort to find his folk, and so I guess that’s a felony. It could mean a jail sentence if you aim to prosecute.”

Slim and Jess exchanged looks, and then Slim responded, “Well as far as I’m concerned, I guess we’ve got the boy back safely and no real harm done.” Turning to his partner, he said, “Jess?”

Jess looked back and then down at Mike and then moved away a little, looking out down the trail. After a few minutes, he turned back and said gruffly, “No, I guess I won’t press charges.”

The Sheriff nodded and said, “Well, if you are both sure… It’s getting late. I’ll drop by again and read them the riot act, and you can be certain they won’t ever do anything like this again.”

“That’s good enough for me,” responded Slim, but Jess just nodded.

“Well, safe journey home,” said the Sheriff, and promising to wire Laramie with the good news, he remounted. “Shouldn’t leave it too long either; snow is on the way.” With a cherry wave, he rode off back down the trail.

Jess turned to Slim with a faint smile. “See? Even the locals say it’s gonna snow. Guess we’re out of here at first light partner,” he said before turning to go in for supper.

**********

 

The following morning, all three were up early and packed ready to go by the time Rebecca served breakfast. Mike could hardly contain his excitement about going home and talked none stop about seeing all his animals again and, of course, his beloved Aunt Daisy.

Slim saw Rebecca’s eyes fill with tears at this, and making the excuse of checking their gear, took Mike outside to help him saddle the horses.

Rebecca’s distress had not been missed by Jess either, and he gently took her hand as it rested on the table near him. Giving it a kindly squeeze,  he said softly, “I guess you’ve got kinda attached to the little fellah?” Then looking deeply into her eyes, he said, “I’m finding it real hard to forgive you folks for taking him.” Turning to include Tobias, he continued, “But you’ve looked after him well and I thank you for that. I guess the way you feel about him now, you can imagine the hell we’ve all been through these months, searching and searching for him. It was…well, it was real bad,” he finished, his voice gruff with emotion.

Jess took a deep breath and then said, “So when we ride out with him today, I guess  the way you’ll be hurting, well, that will be enough punishment, so we’ve told Sheriff Smith there will be no charges made.”

At that, Tobias drew a deep breath, “Well, thank God for that,” he sighed. “And yes, we will both miss Mike something fierce”, he continued. “Thank you for being so understanding about this business, Jess; much appreciated,” he finished humbly.

At that Rebecca gave a sob, and excusing herself, she ran from the room.

Tobias looked over at Jess. “She’s taking all this bad, real bad. Only thing she’s ever wanted is a young ‘un, but guess it’s not to be,” he finished sadly.

 Jess looked down and then said softly, “I guess I could have been a bit more understanding. Mind if I talk to her? “

Tobias gestured with his hand to go ahead, and so Jess left the table and went to find Rebecca in the kitchen.

She was at the sink washing up when he entered. Spinning round to face him, she pinned  a cheerful smile on her face and said, “You off now?”

“In a minute”, Jess said. “Rebecca, I’m sorry. I…well, I just want you to know I understand how hard this is for you, and I’ve been thinking, well if it’s OK with the others, how would you like to come and stay at the ranch for a few days next year when you come over to Laramie on your trading trip?”

She looked up at him, astonished. “Are you sure, Jess? What you said before about finding it hard to forgive…well, I would understand if you never wanted to see us again.”

Jess shook his head and said, “I can see you love the boy, and it’s OK. I guess I can forgive you; just give me some time”.

With that, she threw herself into his arms. “Thank you, oh thank you,” she whispered before reaching up and kissing him on the cheek. “We’d love to visit if it is alright with everyone.”

Rebecca and Jess joined the others outside. With the horses saddled and ready to go, Slim was surprised to see Jess had a friendly arm around Rebecca’s shoulders and a grin on his face. When he explained about the invitation, Slim gave him a grateful smile, knowing how difficult it would have been for his partner to do this kindness.

Mike ran up and hugged Rebecca and Tobias, and said how great it would be for them to visit him, before giving his little ‘thank you for having me’ speech, which had been part of Daisy’s input on good manners. Considering the circumstances, both Slim and Jess found it rather inappropriate, and exchanged a look but said nothing.

As Jess mounted, he gave a small gasp of pain and clutched his chest before immediately regaining his composure. But Slim had not missed his partner’s obvious discomfort and turning to him said softly, “Jess, I….”

But Jess cut in quickly, in a low voice. “I’m OK, Slim. We’ve got to go, you know that; just leave it.”

Rebecca had returned to the house, and now she came running out again with a small parcel and handed it to Slim. She said quietly for his ears only, “A selection of my herbs, with instructions as to their use.” And then more quietly still, she added, “Look after him, Slim; he really isn’t well enough to travel.” She gave a small smile. “But guess I’ve seen enough of his stubborn side to know there will be no arguing with him. Anyway, please take these; they may be of some use.” With that, she went and stood with Tobias to wave them off.

Mike ran and gave them a final hug before Slim pulled him up in front of him in the saddle, and with a last smile he spurred on Alamo towards the mountain trail.

Jess reined Traveler in beside the couple and looked down at them. “I’ll get Daisy to write you, tell you what he gets up to…. if you’d like?” he said softly.

Rebecca was too moved to speak, and just nodded her head enthusiastically as a tear escaped and rolled down her cheek. “Thank you,” she finally managed.

Jess nodded back, and giving her a faint smile, he touched his hat and  said,” Be seein’ you.” With that, he turned Traveler and spurred him on to catch up with Slim and Mike.

*****

The going was slow; Slim could see Jess was in obvious pain and so he kept the pace to a walk, giving the reason as the extra weight Alamo was having to carry with Mike on board. So by early evening, they had only travelled about a third of the journey instead of the halfway mark which they had achieved on their way out.

As Jess slid from the saddle, Slim could see he was weary; Jess stood there for a moment, holding onto Traveler for support. Slim jumped down and, walking over to his friend, took him by the arm, led him to a large boulder and sat him down. “Stay here,” he said, “while Mike and I deal with the horses, and then I’ll come back and start a fire”.

Jess opened his mouth as if to protest, but Slim got there first. “Don’t argue with me, Jess,” he said sharply. Jess sat back down, exhausted, and kept his mouth shut.

It had turned bitterly cold and there was a chill wind blowing, so Mike and Slim built a large fire that was soon warming them and cooking a hot meal. Slim had put water to boil and now he passed a tin cup over to Jess, who was lying against his saddle looking completely done in. Jess took it, expecting coffee, and nearly choked as the acrid liquid hit the back of his throat. “What in hell!” he exploded.

“Get  it down you,” said Slim firmly. “It’s one of Miss Rebecca’s herbal potions, and I reckon you’re in need of it; so just  drink it down and you can have some coffee.”

“Aw, Slim…” started Jess and then Mike piped up,

“You always say I have to take my medicine like a man when I’m sick, Jess. Figure you should too,” Mike said with a cheeky grin.

“Why you…..” barked Jess, leaning over to give him a clip, which Mike dodged easily, still grinning.

Jess gave a big sigh and downed the liquid; after shuddering, he passed the cup back to Slim to be refilled with the promised coffee.

Later that night after Mike was asleep and Jess and Slim lay having a last coffee, Jess looked over at his friend. “You’re not fooling me, you know,” he said quietly.

“What are you on about?” asked Slim, arching his eyebrows and looking innocent.

“The pace we’ve been goin’ today,” Jess replied. “Ain’t nothin’ to do with Alamo carrying two. It’s ‘cos you think I can’t go any faster, isn’t it, Slim?”

His friend didn’t reply and so Jess took it as an affirmative. “Look,” he said, “why don’t you take the boy and ride off tomorrow and I’ll follow you. Take my time and…. “

“No,” broke in Slim harshly. “I’m not leaving you, Jess.”

“But…”

“No, that’s final. You’re still pretty sick, buddy, and I’m not abandoning you out here. Hell, Jess you couldn’t even lift your saddle the way you are right now, so leave it.” Then more softly, he added, “It will be OK. Now get some sleep and we’ll set off at first light”.

Jess nodded and lay down quietly before looking back across at his friend and saying softly, “Thanks, partner.”

The following day as they set out, the first white flakes started flying through the air like soft white feathers until the wind caught them sending them whipping painfully against the rider’s faces.

They stopped to put on their rain slickers, Slim draping his around Mike to keep him as dry as possible, and they continued their journey, upping the pace a little at Jess’s insistence.

By the time they stopped at lunchtime in the shelter of some scrubby trees, the storm had increased to almost blizzard conditions and the snow was beginning to lie deeply in places where it had drifted, making the going difficult. They didn’t think it worth trying to start a fire and just took a short break before setting off again into the unrelenting wind and snow.

They continued riding until by mid afternoon. It was almost dark and the deep gray storm clouds kept rolling in; the snow fell thicker and thicker until it was almost impossible to see in front of them.

Slim reined in Alamo and waited for Jess to catch up with him. Shouting across the noise of the wind, Slim said, “I guess we’re going to have to stop for the night here. Just can’t see the way to go anymore.”

Jess pulled his hat down more firmly and nodded in agreement. They were now out on a stretch of open plain and they knew there would be no decent shelter for at least another 30 miles, but they managed to find a rocky outcrop and a few more stunted trees and made camp there, keeping their horses in close as they stood looking miserable with their rumps to the weather.

Jess went over to Traveler and found him a sugar lump and stroked his muzzle fondly. “Poor ol’ fellah,” he said softly. “Guess you’re not enjoying this anymore than the rest of us.” Then he sadly turned back to the fire where Slim was desperately trying to heat up some beans over the sulky guttering flames.

 The snow was still falling, and water dripped from their hats, making everything wet and cold.

 They decided to bunk down as soon as they had eaten to try and keep warm. Jess took Mike into his bedroll and covered him  almost completely with his rain slicker in an attempt to keep him dry, and held the boy close to keep him as warm as possible.

 Mike lay there quietly, his eyes heavy, and then said, “This is some adventure, huh, Jess?”

“Sure is,” said his friend sleepily

Then “I guess Aunt Daisy will love hearing all about it,” Mike said yawning.

Jess cast a look over at Slim and they both smiled. “Yeah, that she will,” said Jess softly, just imagining the older lady’s horror-struck expression at them being stuck out in the middle of a blizzard with no shelter, but the boy was already asleep.

Mike wasn’t quite as enthusiastic when he woke up the following morning feeling cold and hungry, but the two ranchers rallied around. They had managed to keep a fire going with some wood they had stored undercover the night before, and with coffee and bacon under their belts, they felt better able to face the coming day.

The snow had stopped as they rode out, and they set a course for the distant hills and Laramie. They made pretty good time, even though the going was hard where the snow lay with the wind constantly blowing it into deep drifts. However later in the day, it started snowing in earnest again, and it was impossible to see their way ahead.

Jess reined in and gave Slim a worried look as he stopped beside him. “I don’t like it Slim,” he said. “I can’t see us making it back to the ranch tonight.” Then glancing down at Mike, who was still riding in front of Slim, he said, “Think we should head for the old line cabin on Solomon’s Ridge and hole up there until morning.”

 Slim got his drift, and glancing down at Mike, who was looking pale and tired, said, “We don’t want to spend another night in the open, that’s for sure. Think you can find your way?”

“I reckon,” Jess said, and with that, spurred Traveler off the trail and made for a distant rocky outcrop.

 As they stopped for a short break halfway there, they suddenly heard the lonely sound of a howling wolf. Then the call was taken up by one, two, and then maybe a dozen other animals.

 Jess gave Slim an anxious look; for the wolves to be down from the mountains meant they were hungry and looking for food, and a pack of fully grown hungry wolves could be a pretty dangerous thing to behold, as Slim and Jess both knew.

Mike looked really frightened. “They won’t…they won’t find us, will they, Slim?” he stuttered.

“Heck no,” said Slim, more cheerfully than he felt. “But guess we’ll move on now and get to that ol’ line cabin. Reckon there is plenty of wood stored there from our last hunting trip, and we’ll be warm as toast before you know it, Tiger.” With that, he threw Mike back up on Alamo, and jumping up behind him, they took off again, the distant call of the wolves slowly getting louder as they came closer and closer.

They rode on towards the line cabin and it was in sight when the wolves’ calls became much louder. On turning, Slim saw a pack of about ten or fifteen animals chasing after them. He spurred Alamo on to catch up with Jess, and the two of them reined in and looked back.

“ I don’t like the look of ‘em,” yelled Jess above the moaning wind. “Take off for the cabin, Slim. get the boy inside. I’ll sort them out.” With only a second’s hesitation, Slim took off at speed.

Jess turned towards the wolves, and taking his rifle out, fired above their heads. The animals faltered and then stopped. Jess fired again and they turned and ran into some bushes before gradually turning back towards the riders, walking slowly, their hackles up and teeth bared.

This time Jess took careful aim and shot the nearest wolf; it fell instantly. The others turned tail and disappeared into the fast-falling snow. With one last look, Jess turned Traveler towards the swiftly retreating back of Alamo and the distant cabin.

They arrived within a few minutes, and while Slim put the horses in the lean-to barn, Jess took Mike inside and set a fire and lit the lamps. It was growing dark even though it was only  afternoon, the rolling storm clouds making it seem like dusk.

By the time Slim returned, the fire was crackling in the old stone fireplace and the coffee pot was in place. He glanced at Jess, who was squatting be the fire, putting more logs on. Jess looked up and gave Slim a welcoming smile.

Slim saw how bone-weary Jess looked. “You OK, buddy?” he asked quietly.

Jess just nodded and said nothing.

Mike was very quiet too, and after a few minutes, Slim pulled one of the old cots in front of the fire and gestured for Mike to get on it. Then he fetched a blanket from a chest by the door and wrapped it around the boy, who was shivering in spite of the blazing fire. “Hot meal and then bed, Mike,” Slim said firmly.

 Sometime later, Slim fixed some beans which he insisted Mike eat, even though the boy could hardly keep his eyes open. As soon as he was done, Mike lay down on the cot pulled near the fire, and was asleep in a few minutes.

“Poor little fellah,” said Jess softly. “Guess he’s pretty much done in.”

Slim nodded. “We could sure do with getting him home as soon as we can.” Then, after pausing, he looked over at his friend. “You too, Jess; you’re still hurting some from that arrow puncture, aren’t you.”

Jess nodded slightly. “Some, I guess,” he said softly.

Just then, they heard the wolves begin to howl again and Slim went to the window. He looked out anxiously, and turning back into the room, he asked, “How many were there, Jess?”

“Too many — twelve, maybe fifteen, fully grown and hungry, Slim. I shot over their heads, but it didn’t stop ‘em too much. Shot one dead and they thought about it, but decided to keep on following us, I guess.” After a minute, Jess stood up and shrugged on his jacket.

“Where are you going?” asked Slim, looking worried.

“Just out to the barn, check the horses are OK,” Jess replied.

As Jess pushed open the barn door. there was a soft whinny from Traveler, who blew down his nose in greeting. Jess went over and scratched him behind the ear and offered him a sugar lump before entering the neighboring stall and doing the same to Alamo, talking softly all the while to the two horses.

He saw Traveler’s ears flicking at the sound of the nearby wolves, and the horse stamped impatiently a couple of times. Jess returned to his stall to reassure him. “Steady, fellah. You’re not afraid of those ol’ puppy dogs, are you?” he whispered and the horse settled again.

Before he returned to the cabin, Jess checked the wooden shutters that acted like a window in the barn wall, which opened in high summer allowing a cooling draft through. They were firmly shut, and after looking around one last time to be sure all was secure, he left and started to make his way back to the welcoming fire. Although the snow had stopped, the wind had got up and was howling in competition with the wolves. Shuddering, Jess opened the cabin door and closed it firmly behind him.

“All OK?” asked Slim

“Sure,” Jess said quietly. “I’m none too happy about those ol’ wolves, though; got Trav spooked some.”

“Well, I guess we are all locked up pretty good. Let’s turn in and make an early start tomorrow,” said Slim, yawning. Pulling the other two cots near the fire, they settled down as best they could.

It must have been a couple of hours later when they were awoken by shrill neighing coming from the barn. Jess was up and at the door in a moment. Turning, he called back to Slim, “Stay with Mike.” With that, he ran out of the cabin to the barn, and on pulling the door open, his heart stood still at what he saw.

The wolves had broken in through the old wooden shutters and tried to attack the horses. As Jess watched, Traveler rose up, rearing and then came down hard, his hooves trampling on the prone body of one of the wolves. Even as he watched, another jumped in through the window space and made for Alamo, but Jess drew his gun and shot him between the eyes; the wolf fell dead at his feet.

He had left the barn door flapping open behind him in the wind, and suddenly something hit him from behind with such force he fell flat on his face. Then he heard a sinister growling as the wolf that had downed him started to bite into the back of his jacket.

Rolling over quickly, Jess started wrestling with the animal and then managed to get both feet up and kick it hard in its belly; It was thrown across the barn. He had just drawn his gun again when a shot rang out and Slim stood by the barn door, the rifle in his hands.

Then all hell was let lose as, one after another, the wolves kept returning, circling around the cabin, wailing and barking in frenzy. Slim ran back to the cabin and made sure Mike was safe while Jess stayed in the barn. Within an hour, most of the pack lay dead and the others had disappeared into the dark night as the two ranchers were forced to protect themselves and the horses.

Once the wolves had retreated,  Jess ran to the cabin, and as soon as he was sure Mike was safe, he returned to the barn and  checked the horses carefully for any damage. But apart from being obviously very nervous, they had not been hurt at all.

Jess and Slim removed the dead beasts from the barn as their smell was making the horses restless, and then Jess insisted he would stay with the horses overnight to keep them safe in case of any return visits from the remaining wolves.

“Are you sure, buddy? It’s freezing in here,” said Slim.

“I’ll be OK,” said Jess. Getting an old blanket, he hung it across the broken window, and then fetching his bedroll from the cabin, set it down in the hay near the horses, and below the broken window so he would get a good shot if the wolves returned .With his rifle beside him, he bedded down after bidding Slim goodnight, and fell into an uneasy doze almost at once as he was so exhausted.

Slim returned reluctantly to the cabin, but knew it was not worth arguing with Jess’s stubborn streak. He also knew there was no way Jess would leave Traveler and Alamo alone again after the vicious attack by the wolves.

Mike seemed to have taken this latest adventure in his stride, and Slim hoped that this would not be another of the tales he would be relating to Daisy on their return home. With that final thought, Slim drifted off to sleep.

Slim awoke at first light, and after stoking up the fire and putting the coffee pot on, left Mike sleeping and went out to the barn to wake Jess.

The wind was still raging and blowing the snow around, making deep drifts and it took Slim a little while to pull the barn door open against the drifted snow.

The first thing Slim noticed when he entered was the bitter cold, and he saw the horses’ breath as they snorted in welcome. Then he noticed how light it seemed, and looking up, saw the blanket had blown down in the night and the cold wind was blowing in through the broken shutters. He walked across to where Jess was laying just below the window, and looking down at him, Slim took a sharp intake of breath.

 His partner was lying very still and was white as a sheet. Slim squatted down beside him and said quietly, “Jess, wake up, buddy, coffee’s on. “

He didn’t’ stir and suddenly Slim had a very bad feeling; Jess was just too still.

Hesitantly putting his hand out, he touched Jess’s face and recoiled in horror at the icy cold skin. Looking more closely he could see a faint blue tinge around his mouth, and leaning further forward, he could see no sign of breathing, and after sliding  a hand inside his shirt, could feel no heart beat either.

Grabbing hold of Jess by his shoulders, Slim shook him, at first gently, then more roughly, yelling his name, but Jess remained completely still.

Slim suddenly let go and sat back on his heels, surveying his best friends lifeless form. “Oh no,” he whispered shaking his head. “Please, God, no…….”

Slim stood up, backing away from Jess, and turning, went and stared out of the window at the freezing countryside beyond, his heart feeling like a stone, the tears freely rolling down his cheeks. “I never thought it would be like this,” he said softly. “Gunned down in a shoot out, or fallin’ off a mustang, but not like this, to freeze to death.” He turned back with angry eyes and yelled at his friend, “Why you goddamn stupid fool, why?”

But Slim knew the reason, knew that Jess would never have left Traveler while the threat of the wolves lingered.

Slim returned to his best friend, sank to his knees beside him and bowed his head. Then another thought struck him — Mike. Oh no, he had to break it to Mike.

What had Mike said when Rebecca had shot Jess? “You’ve killed Jess. You’ve killed my best friend,” Then Slim remembered how the boy had refused to leave Jess all that night. The thought of having to tell him this terrible news was just too much to bear and he buried his head into his hands.

The horses stamping their feet, impatient for their feed, brought him back to his senses and sadly he began to pull Jess’s blanket over him to cover the body.

Then, as he did so, something made him stop as he looked down at Jess’s chest. There was a very small patch of red on Jess’ blue shirt and as he watched the tiny patch became slightly larger, Slim leaned forward. After ripping open his buddy’s shirt, Slim saw the dressing covering the arrow wound was wet with blood and it continued to ooze, sluggishly.

Slim held his breath and suddenly remembered being in this situation with Jess once before. He’d thought he was dead after he had been badly injured, and Doc Sam, their friend and physician, was there; he had said, smiling triumphantly at Slim, “the dead don’t bleed.”

No, “the dead don’t bleed,” Slim repeated in a whisper.

He was maybe a whisker away from death, but not yet…no, not quite yet.

Slim somehow managed to pick his partner up, and staggering under his weight made it back to the cabin, and placed him gently on one of the cots beside the fire. As he came in, Mike woke up and stared wide-eyed at Jess.

“What’s wrong?” Mike said looking terrified. “Is he sick, Slim?”

Slim turned to the boy and knew he had to be honest. Kneeling down beside him, Slim said  softly, “Yes he is, Mike, real sick. He’s gotten himself  way too cold out in that barn, and you and me have got to warm him up again, OK, buddy?”

“OK,” said the boy quietly, obviously overwhelmed by this new train of events.

Slim put some water to boil on the fire, and after setting Mike to tearing up a sheet into bandages, he started to remove Jess’s clothes. After stripping him off, Slim proceeded to cover Jess’ chilled body with the cloths soaked in the hot water. He continued for what seemed like hours, and once Jess felt a little warmer to the touch, he covered him with as many blankets as he could find and stoked up the fire so that it was blazing and the small cabin was really warm.

Slim kept feeling for a pulse and was eventually rewarded by a very weak one, but Jess’ breathing was still shallow and irregular. Gradually, as he started to warm up a little, Jess began shivering and shaking uncontrollably and was very restless tossing, turning and trying to throw the blankets off.

Slim sat patiently beside him, covering Jess up and stoking the fire; after a while, Jess finally opened his eyes and looked wildly around him.

“Hey, buddy, you gave us a turn there,” Slim said gently, but as Jess looked up at him, Slim could see no recognition in his eyes. He pulled away and continued to look fearfully around the cabin. “Jess, it’s me, Slim,” he said softly.

Jess looked back into his eyes again, but as Slim tried to tend him, Jess pushed him roughly away. “Get off,” Jess yelled, looking terrified.

Jess tried to get up, but Slim pushed him gently down, and seeing how weak he was, felt even more concerned; he was shocked at how fragile his partner seemed to be. “Just lay still will you, Jess?” he said in exasperation.

Finally, after some time, there was the light of recognition in Jess’ eyes. “Ssslim?” he slurred.

“Yeah, buddy. You got yourself real cold out in the barn. Just been tryin’ to warm you up some, that’s all,” replied Slim.”

Jess half sat up, but he was still shaking and then started coughing badly, struggling to catch his breath

“Take it easy,” said Slim. “It’s OK, just rest.”

“Trav?” asked Jess in a whisper.

“He’s fine. It’s morning, Jess; the wolves are all long gone. Now will you rest? You need to lay down, buddy, come on.” With that, he gently pushed Jess back down on the cot.

Jess was still shivering, and Mike, who had just woken up from a nap, came and sat beside him, looking anxiously at his friend. “He’s awful cold Slim,” he said quietly. “Will he be OK?”

“Sure,” said Slim more cheerfully than he felt. “He just needs some time, Tiger,  and he’ll be fine.”

Slim looked down at his partner and felt rocked to the core by what had occurred over the last few hours. Feeling exhausted, he sat down on the edge of the cot and raked his hand through his blond hair.

Jess lay still, but then seemed to suddenly become more aware of the situation, and with a weak grin, said, “Sorry, Slim. Guess you were right; it was a mite chilly in the barn.”

Slim looked wearily at his friend and then couldn’t help smiling. “You can say that again, partner,” he said quietly.

It wasn’t until much later that the full truth about the night’s events was finally revealed to Jess.

It took most of the day to finally warm him up completely, and as he rested, Mike and Slim took the opportunity of tidying up the corpses of the dead wolves and collecting more firewood.

Slim had also hoped to get something for the pot as their food supplies were dwindling fast, but after an hour or so of hunting in the bitter cold, they were forced to admit defeat and return to the cabin empty handed.

After a scratch meal of dried meat and beans, Slim tucked an exhausted Mike into bed and then sat by the fire with Jess to enjoy a last coffee before retiring for the night.

 “Guess we’d better get moving tomorrow,” Jess said, looking over at his partner. “Unless you’re gonna cook up wolf stew for supper.”

Slim nodded. “I guess so, but are you sure you are fit enough?”

The wolf attack had opened up the arrow wound, and it was still bleeding a little, even though Slim had dressed and bandaged it tightly.

“I’m fine. Will you stop your fussin’,” said Jess, grinning across at his friend.

Suddenly Slim lost his temper; he was exhausted and emotionally bruised after all the events of the previous day. Turning on Jess, he said, angrily,

 “You just don’t get it, do you? Hell, Jess you were dead…couldn’t find a pulse or a heartbeat. I really thought you were dead.” He paused before continuing as Jess looked at him, his eyes open wide in shock. “I was just about to cover you over with the blanket, leave you out there in the cold, come back  in, break it to the boy, and then later load you on Traveler, take you home and ride in with you like that — and tell Daisy.”

Slim swallowed deeply before continuing. “I could see it all — her face, the way she’d have  taken it…so damn bad, Jess, then burying you up on the hill with my folks,” he whispered.

“If it hadn’t been for that tiny little blood stain on your shirt, telling me that maybe –just maybe — I could pull you back…. If it hadn’t been for that well, you’d be dead now, Jess; it was that damn close. So don’t you go telling me to stop fussing, because I figure right now, I’ve got every right,” Slim concluded. Closing his eyes tightly, he took a deep shuddering breath before looking over at Jess, anger mingled with fear in his gaze.

Jess just stared back, looking shocked to the core. Finally he whispered, “I’m sorry Slim; I didn’t realize…” Then he gave a soft whistle. “Thanks, pard,” he said. “Guess I owe you an apology.”

******

The following morning, they were up early and on the trail soon after sun rise. But they were all pretty quiet and subdued because of the events of the previous hours. It was a calm, bright morning after the storm of the day before, and so they made good time and hoped to reach home before nightfall.

It wasn’t until they were within a few hours ride of home that Slim reined in his horse and said to Jess, “Think we might have a problem, buddy.”

Jess looked over to where Slim had glanced down at Mike riding in front of him and he understood at once.

The boy looked heavy-eyed and was decidedly flushed and sick-looking.

“What do you want to do?” asked Jess at once.

“Not sure,” said Slim. “But I guess the Morgan place is a damn sight nearer than the ranch. Figure we  could head for there, hole up for  a while until he’s feeling better?”

“OK, guess that makes sense,” replied Jess reluctantly, and with that, they made for their neighbor’s ranch, slowing their pace in deference to Mike’s obvious discomfort.

Jess himself was feeling pretty uncomfortable too, but not in the same way as Mike. He was embarrassed at the thought of meeting Mr. Morgan after their last encounter.

It had been shortly after Mike’s disappearance and Jess had been standing at the bar in the saloon, well on the way to oblivion, when old man Morgan had come and stood beside him and offered his sympathy over the loss of the boy. Jess was in no mood for company or indeed sympathy, and had turned the full force of the Harper temper on his sometime girlfriend’s father, who had retired, obviously hurt, to the far end of the bar and left Jess in peace.

As he thought back, Jess blushed at the remembrance of his rudeness and also the way he had neglected Suzy. As their destination came into view, he shuddered in anticipation of the reception he knew would await him.

However, it was Mike’s health that was important now, and looking across at the boy, he was shocked to see just how much his condition had worsened during the ride to their neighbor’s ranch. Slim now seemed to be holding him tightly, and Mike’s head lolled back against Slim’s shoulder, his eyes closed and his face flushed and damp with sweat. Jess’s heart lurched at the sight of the boy, and he exchanged a worried look with his partner as they rode into the ranch yard.

As they arrived and gently lifted the boy down, the front door opened and Mrs. Morgan stood there, her eyes opening wide in shock at the appearance of the trio. She quickly pulled herself together and said, “Oh the poor wee laddie, bring him away inside Slim; come in, dear. Jess, come along in.”

Her friendly greeting warmed Jess’s heart, and he remembered what a lovely lady Mrs. Morgan was, with the  wonderful Scottish accent she had never lost even after thirty years of living in the new world. Her kind, loving nature was only matched by her fastidiousness, however, and once Mike was deposited on a large couch by the fire, the two cowboys had to backtrack and remove their boots and guns.

They exchanged a small smile but said nothing, and before long, the conversation they were expecting was played out. After looking at the pair more in sorrow than in anger, Mrs. Morgan suggested kindly that they might like to make use of ‘the facilities’, before joining her and Mike in the sitting room.

By that, she meant that they should use the hot tub she ha, had installed out back and which was the envy of all her neighbors. Mrs. Morgan had come to the country with her parents, and shortly after her arrival, met Mr. Morgan and the rest was history. She did, however, come with very high standards from her upbringing in a smart Edinburgh home and insisted on the latest plumbing from back East before she had agreed to the marriage.

The blood stains on Jess’s shirt hadn’t escaped her beady eye either, and as he turned to wash up as requested, she said, “Oh and Jess, as soon as you have cleaned yourself up, dear, I’ll be tending to that nasty wound on your chest”.

“I’m fine, really,” stammered Jess, having been ministered to by Mrs. Morgan once before and not keen to repeat the experience.

“I’m sure you are, dear,” she replied kindly, “but I’ll take a look anyway. You know Miss Daisy would never forgive me if I didn’t look after you boys properly.” With that, she dismissed them as she went to tend to Mike.

“Aw, Slim,” whispered Jess as they made their way from the room, “I’d rather tackle those dang wolves again than be’ looked at’ by Ma Morgan; she practically finished me off last time. I tell you, having her treat you, well, it makes you appreciate Daisy, that’s for sure,” he concluded with feeling.

Once they were cleaned up, they returned to the sitting room and Mrs. Morgan re-dressed Jess’s wound as promised, and insisted in cleaning it with iodine, which he confided to Slim later stung like blazes. However, both friends were more concerned with Mike’s condition and were relieved to hear that Doc Sam was due to visit shortly.

“Suzy has been ill,” said Mrs. Morgan, “and Sam was coming to check her over, so luckily he can look at this young man too, although I think it is just a severe chill.”

At the mention of Suzy being ill, Jess’s head had shot up and he said,” I’m sorry to hear that, Mrs. Morgan. Nothing serious, I hope?”

She gave him a speculative look, but just said, “A severe dose of the flu. She has been extremely ill, but is on the mend now, thank you, dear.” Then more gently, she added, “She missed your visits, Jess. Maybe you will pop up and see her while you are staying with us?”

“Sure,” said Jess quickly, “and thank you for putting us up. Guess we just couldn’t travel any further with this little fellah being so sick.”

Just then there was a knock at the door, and Doc Sam Baker breezed in, stopping in his tracks when he saw Jess and Slim. “Well, this is a sight for sore eyes,” he said grinning at the pair. “I heard tell from Mort Corey that you’d found Mike, but we’d expected you back sooner.” Then looking around, he asked, “So, where is that little parcel of trouble?”

Slim gestured to the couch, and Sam sucked in a deep breath as he looked down at the flushed face

 Quickly kneeling beside the boy, the doctor examined him thoroughly, and after a while, stood up and looked over at the friends, a warm smile on his face. “He’s OK,” Sam said. “No sign of lung fever. Just got himself a nasty chill. Keep him warm, lots of fluids, and I guess he’ll be wanting to go out snowballing in a day or two.”

“Thank God for that,” whispered Jess, and Slim came across and pumped Sam’s hand. “Thanks, buddy,” Slim said warmly. With a friendly smile, Sam went off to see his other patient.

It was some time later, after Sam had left, promising to deliver the news of their impending arrival to Daisy, that Mr. Morgan returned to the ranch at the end of the working day.

This was the moment Jess had been dreading, and so he was immensely grateful when Mr. Morgan greeted him warmly. He was obviously delighted to hear that Mike had returned safely and went and sat with the boy for some time, up in a little room next to Suzy’s.

It wasn’t until after supper, when Mrs. Morgan had retired and Slim was sitting with Mike, that Jess had the opportunity for a quiet word with Mr. Morgan.

They were sitting in front of the fire enjoying a last cup of coffee when Jess said, “I guess I owe you an apology, Mr. Morgan.”

“It’s alright, boy,” the old rancher said quickly, taking a puff on his pipe.

“No it ain’t,” returned Jess quickly. “I was damn rude to you that day in the saloon and I’m truly sorry.”

“It’s OK, Jess,” Morgan said. “Guess it was the drink talking.”

Jess flushed and hung his head in shame before looking his neighbor in the eye and saying quietly, “Guess I was auditioning for the role of town drunk there for a while.”

“You decided not to take the part though, boy; that’s the main thing,” Morgan replied.

Jess nodded. “Not touched a drop these last couple of months,” he agreed, “but I feel real ashamed for the way I was. Just couldn’t cope, I guess,” he finished softly.

Mr. Morgan looked over at him as if wondering whether to disclose something or not, and then said, “A man has to find his own road out of Hell, Jess. I understand, boy…more than you know.” There was a long pause and then he continued, “We lost a boy, about the same age as young Mike there when we lived back East. He fell from his pony, hit his head… and well, that was it”.

Jess looked across, shock etched on his face.

Morgan continued, “Did the same as you for a while — hit the bottle, near lost everything. It had the hell of an effect on the family. My wife…well she was in bits as you can imagine. And as for Suzy, well…”

“She took it badly?” asked Jess softly.

“Yeah, real bad. He was a couple of years older than her; she worshipped him. I sometimes think that’s why she is the way she is, with all these boyfriends, you know, Jess,” he said, looking thoughtfully across at his young friend.

Jess must have looked surprised, because Mr. Morgan continued, “Oh yes, I know what she’s like, Jess; one boy after another, always searching… Guess she’s searching for someone that matches up to her big brother and that’s why she seems so fickle. I know the reputation she’s getting as a tease, leads a man on and then drops him like a stone, and I’m not happy about it…not happy at all.”

Then looking intently at Jess, Mr. Morgan said, “The only one out of the bunch that knows how to handle her is you Jess. You won’t stand for any of her nonsense and I kinda like that in a man.”

 Jess looked surprised again, and then recovering, said, “I’m fond of your daughter, real fond of her, but I guess I’m not the settling down type, sir. “

Morgan grinned across at Jess. “Hell, I’m not asking you to marry her, Jess, just knock a bit of sense into that pretty little head of hers, make her see she can’t go around stomping on these boys feelings, because pretty soon one of them is gonna stomp right back. I’m worried about her, Jess, real worried.”

“What are you asking?” said Jess, a frown on his face.

“Well, what I’m hoping for is that she’ll settle down to going out with you for a while. She has strong feelings for you, Jess. I know that; she’s confided in her Ma. That’s what all that Tomfoolery about going off with Jackson was all about; she was just trying to make you jealous.”

“I figured as much,” said Jess quietly.

“So,” went on Morgan, “I thought if she got attached to you, real attached, then maybe she would see what a proper relationship should be about and stop playing these childish games.”

Jess thought about it for a while and then said, “I like spending time with your daughter and I guess we could be real good together, but I won’t string her along. As I said, I ain’t in the market for a wife right now, and I’ll make that clear to her, and…well, if she is OK with that, then yeah, I’ll date her some.”

“Thank you, Jess,” the older man said. “I just want to see her stop playing around all the time, quiet down a little, that’s all.” Secretly he thought to himself, ‘and once our Suzy uses her charms on him, then just maybe he’ll change his mind about settling down. Yes, young Jess Harper would make a pretty good son-in-law,’ thought the old man sagely, ‘pretty damn good.’

The following morning, Mike had bounced back as Sam had predicted, but Mrs. Morgan insisted he stay in the warm for another day before attempting the journey home.

After breakfast, Jess asked to visit Suzy. Mrs. Morgan took him up to her bedroom, and after taking him in, left them together, leaving the door wide open as a matter of propriety.

Suzy was sitting up supported by huge white fluffy pillows, her beautiful face pale and drawn.

Jess sat down gently on the edge of the bed and said softly, “Hey, sweetheart, I’m real sorry to hear you’ve been so ill.”

She smiled across at him. “I hear tell from Mike you haven’t been too good yourself,” she replied, casting him a worried look. “Said you nearly froze to death staying out in the barn all night. What were you thinking of Jess?” she said, fear making her voice harsher than she meant.

“Thinking of my horse,” he said quietly. “You know me and ol’ Traveler.

Couldn’t leave him out there  all alone for wolf bait now, could I?” he asked, his blue eyes twinkling a look of innocence playing across his handsome features.

“Oh you,” she said chuckling.

Then more seriously, she said, “Anyway, Jess Harper, I have a bone to pick with you. You haven’t been near me in months”.

“Well ,you know about Mike missing, I was kinda busy with all that,” he replied vaguely

“I could have helped,” she said softly. “That’s what friends are for, isn’t it?”

“Are we?” asked Jess quietly.

“Are we what? “

“Are we friends?” he replied.

“Well, I sure thought we were.”

“Seems to me you were more interested in checking out Jackson’s new buggy, than seeing me,” Jess said with a frown.

She looked down blushing deeply, “Yes, well, I was just being silly, playing games,” she said softly.

Jess gave her a serious look and then said firmly, “I don’t do that, Suzy, and you know it. If you want to go out for a while, properly, and see how we get on, well, that’s fine by me. But I won’t be a party to your games and I don’t want you seeing every other guy in Laramie either. Is that clear?”

Suzy raised innocent eyes to Jess and nodded her head. “I understand,” she said softly. Then she opened her innocent eyes wide and said, “And so, Jess, how many babies do you want?”

Jess’s head shot up and he looked at her in horror, “What!” he exploded. “You’re kidding!”

“Yes I am,” she said, trying to stifle her giggles. “Sure got you worried, though, didn’t I!”

“Suzy Morgan, you just watch your step. Sick or not, I figure another joke like that and you’ll end up over my knee.”

“Oh, I do like a masterful man,” she said, rolling her eyes and making no attempt to hide her laughter now., Jess finally joined in and that’s how Mike found them a few minutes later, with tears streaming down their faces from laughing.

” Grown- ups,” Mike said in bewilderment shaking his head. “They sure act strange sometimes.”

*****

Epilogue

 

It was late summer, and Slim and Jess were sitting out on the porch with a cup of coffee a piece, eagerly waiting for their visitors to arrive. Rebecca and Tobias were passing through on their trading trip to Laramie and then would stop and stay at the ranch for a few days on their return journey.

Slim looked off to the horizon, scanning it for the tell tale sign of a dust cloud that would herald the arrival of their wagon, and thought back to the day the three of them had  finally returned  to the ranch after Mike’s adventures.

The day after Jess had made a commitment to see more of Suzy, Mike was well enough to travel and they had returned home, arriving just before dusk. As they rode in, they could see lights in the windows and smoke issuing from the chimney, and it sure felt good to be home.

As they reined in their mounts, Daisy came running out and threw her arms open wide as Mike jumped down from Alamo and fell into them. She held him close, tears streaming down her cheeks. Then Jess and Slim dismounted and came over and hugged and kissed her; they finally entered the house and never had any of them felt to glad to be home.

Mike regaled Daisy with tales of sleeping out in blizzards, to wolf attacks and Jess’s near demise, and she seemed to take it all in her stride. After a while, though, Jess could see the strain was beginning to tell and he took Mike off to bed before retiring himself.

As he passed through the living room, he leaned over Daisy, where she was sitting by the fire with Slim, and kissed her gently on the forehead , saying, ”Sure is good to be home, Daisy.”

“It’s good to have you back, dear,” she said softly, a tear in her eye, and he went off to bed exhausted.

After he had gone, she turned to Slim. “Are you alright, dear?” she asked softly.

He nodded his head and then said quietly, “But I sure as hell never want to go through that again, Daisy.” She knew instinctively which bit of the horrific adventure he was referring to at once.

“Did you really think he was dead?” she said gently.

He nodded, unable to speak for a moment, and then, “Yeah, I couldn’t find a pulse or a heartbeat. It was only that little drop of blood on his shirt…..” Then giving Daisy an agonized look, he said, “If I hadn’t seen that and remembered what Sam had told me…well, we’d be digging a grave now Daisy”.

She took a shocked breath and looking across at her beloved older ‘son’, said, “But you did see it and he’s here and well, thank God, so try and put it behind you now, Slim. I think we all need to move on,” she finished, squeezing his hand affectionately

He gave a deep sigh. “I’ll try,” he said, “but I guess this whole business will always be with us, and  I know we all appreciate each other even more than we did before, so that has to be a good thing.”

 And Daisy nodded in agreement.

All this had been months ago, and everything had finally returned to normal at the Sherman Ranch and Relay Station. But the feelings of deep kindred love and caring persisted, and they all looked out for each other just that little more than before.

Suddenly Slim saw the covered wagon in the distance; he and Jess leapt up and called to Daisy and Mike, who both came running out of the house as the wagon pulled up.

Daisy beamed in welcome as she felt she knew Rebecca well after exchanging correspondence with her over the months.

Tobias smiled at their welcome, and leaping down, pumped everyone by the hand before turning to help Rebecca down. As he did so, there was a sharp intake of breath from the amassed company as it was obvious that she was heavily pregnant.

Jess was the first to speak and said, “Hey, how did that happen?” He then blushed deeply at Tobias’s laughing reply, “Well, in the usual way.”

“No, I mean…” Jess stuttered, looking for the right words. “I mean, I thought you couldn’t have children?” he said, looking at Rebecca in wonder.

Her face was alight with joy. “So did I,” she said, coming and taking his hand, “but I guess the Good Lord finally heard our prayers.”

Jess leaned over and kissed her gently on the cheek. “I’m so glad,” he whispered.

Then everyone surrounded the happy pair, congratulating them. Daisy ushered them into the house for a good long visit.

It was a month later when Mose delivered a letter from the couple, addressed to all at the Sherman Ranch. As the others gathered around, Slim tore the envelope open and his face relaxed into an excited grin.

“Well, what is it?” asked Jess, unable to stand the suspense.

“It’s from Tobias,” said Slim happily, “and they’ve had a boy, a beautiful big healthy boy.” They all gave a huge cheer.

Later that evening, Jess and Slim were sitting out, enjoying a last coffee before retiring for the night, and Slim gave Jess a speculative look. “You sure seemed pleased about Rebecca’s baby,” he said.

“Well, sure,” said Jess grinning back. “It’s all they ever wanted; sure I’m pleased for them. Why wouldn’t I be? “

“Oh, no reason. Just didn’t realize you were so into babies, that’s all,” Slim said casually.

Jess gave him a puzzled look. “Well, I’m not, generally,” he agreed.

“Funny that,” said Slim, with a smirk. “Not what I’ve heard. I heard tell that you can’t wait to start a family.”

“What!” erupted Jess, turning scarlet.

Slim looked over at him, a huge grin suddenly forming. “Yeah, saw  Suzy in town today and she said to tease you.” He was rewarded by a none too light clip around the ear from his buddy.

”Wait ‘til I see that girl,”  Jess said as he went off to bed, muttering darkly,” babies!” and shaking his head in mock horror.

 

***End***

Thank you for reading!

Return to Patty W.’s home page

One thought on “The Runaway (by Patty W.)

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