Summary: He had recommended her, defended her, fell in love with her, courted her, but two weeks before their wedding, she disappeared. Her tangled web of secrets and lies lay in chalk dust and threatened to consume him. Now he was suffering with grief and loss and he had a loaded gun. It all started with an invitation.
Word Count: 24,350
There were two mantras tumbling head over tail in my mind as I urged my faithful horse, Traveler, down the unfamiliar trail. One was obvious yet so illusive “save Slim.” It was ironic, really, in that it was usually Slim riding in to save my sorry ass from whatever trouble I’d fetched up in. But now it was my turn. Oh, I knew I wasn’t going to find him in a caved-in mine shaft or a burning barn, although I had rescued him from both those dilemmas. Nope this time, if I was lucky, I would be saving him from the biggest rock slide of his life.
I tortured myself for getting him involved in the first place and then when I was sure that something was wrong, I never said anything. In a way, the fix he was in right now was my fault, but as Daisy had gently reminded me the day I rode out, most of the trouble began when M.B. Collins had lied. Slim had recommended her for the job as Laramie’s school teacher. He had defended her and then had fallen in love with her. I was glad really. I wanted him to be happy. But something wasn’t right about her story. I couldn’t put a finger on it and I didn’t want to make Slim upset but all that had changed the week I was away. Now she was gone. Two weeks before their wedding, and all she left behind were confusing letters to her students, their parents, the school council, Daisy, and Slim. I had no idea what she had written him. I only knew he was gone.
All the books and pencils and chalk she had bought for her “children” were still in the school. Her personal belongings were gone. The worst thing was the ring Slim had given her at Christmas had been wrapped up in the letter that Slim had folded and tucked into his shirt the afternoon he rode away.
“You have to find him,“ our adopted son, Mike had implored me upon my return. I had been helping out a friend of Mort’s in Red Buttes. He had needed a deputy while he recovered from a nasty fall and Mort had recommended me for the part time job. Heck, I didn’t really mind. The money was always needed and some of it was for Slim’s wedding present. When I rode into Laramie upon my return, I never expected the reaction of my first and only lawman friend. I probably shouldn’t say that out loud, I admonished myself as I rode home later that night. Branch McGarry and Reb had saved me from Death’s door some time back, but Mort was like a father to me and had an usually willing ear where I was concerned.
“There’s trouble at home,” he had said. His eyes were kind, but his whole expression spoke of some deep sadness. After he explained that Slim’s fiancé was gone to points unknown, I had asked him the proverable question “why?”
“Slim had no idea,” Mort had said as he handed me a cup of welcome home coffee. “As far as he knew it wasn’t a lover’s fight. He also did not know where she had gone.“
“What did you recommend he do?” My heart was beginning to ache with compassion for my best friend.
“I knew she had friends in Cheyenne. I suggested he send a telegram to Becky, her best friend.”
“Did he wait for an answer?”
Mort nodded. “Becky thought she might have gone home to Denver. She didn’t even offer an explanation as to her friend’s strange behavior.” He shook his head in frustration.
“Then it looks like I’m headed to Denver, Mort.”
“Go home, first.” Mort put a hand on my shoulder. “Daisy and Mike are hurting just as you are.”
I nodded and rode home. Questions and unknown answers swirled in my tired head as I let Traveler find his way. Daisy had lost a friend; Mike had lost a great teacher and potential second mother; and I was missing my best friend. The embraces were warm and for a brief moment I thought about staying home. After all, we were talking about my friend’s girl and maybe I was all wrong.
As it often happened, I was resting in my rocker by the fire after eating one of Daisy’s famous “we’re glad you’re home“ dinners and was half way between dozing and complete sleep when, what I call a vision, woke me. I “saw” Slim sitting on a bed, tears sliding down his cheeks. He was staring, unseeing out at an unfamiliar street and cocking a pistol over and over again. A feeling of desperate fear gripped my belly and I automatically reached for my left wrist. As I slid my anxious thumb over the fading brotherhood scar we both shared, I yelled as loudly as I could without making a sound. “I’m coming Slim! Hold on! I’m coming! “
I wasn’t sure if Daisy had heard my abrupt rise from my chair but I turned my head when she called my name.
“You’ll probably want to leave first thing in the morning, right?”
Her question hung in the air and then settled like floating feathers on my shoulders. I nodded and she smiled. “You need rest. I’ll put some things you’ll need here on the table. Don’t worry, I will wake you at the proper time so you can have a proper breakfast. You’ll want some time with Mike too.”
I couldn’t think of what to say just then, so I just hugged her tight and murmured how much I loved her, and went into our room and closed the door.
Miles away from home, I finally reined in Traveler for the night. After bedding down my trusty steed, I ate my dinner, lovingly prepared by Daisy, and drank some coffee. I tried not to think of what I might find in Denver, but memories kept me company as I lay below the starry sky. I owed every good thing that had happened to me since my unusual stop over in Laramie all those years ago. Slim had saved me so many times. My temper, that had almost always got the better of me, had tempered over the years due to the tall, lanky blond haired man I called brother- friend. Now, with so much at stake, I had to remember what he always said. “You have to walk in their footsteps to understand a man. They may be suffering and trying to hide it. You can’t just hit first and then talk.” My problem was not with Slim, it was with Marybeth Collins. The thought took my breath away. She was the cause of all this misery and I didn’t have a clue as to why. It had all started because of an invitation.
One Year Earlier
“All I’m saying is, is that you are the perfect man for the job, Slim,” I said trying to convince my best friend and partner. “You read more than all of them and you’re smarter.”
Slim smirked and shook his head. “And what does that prove?”
“You can make sound decisions! “
“Whoa!” He exclaimed. “You’re beginning to sound like me.”
“Well, I outta, “I shouted back, feeling more than irritated. “I’ve lived with you long enough! “
“Boys,” Daisy’s calm voice broke into our shouting match. “Take your argument outside this instant! And then shake hands and come in for supper.”
Daisy always had a way about her that booked no argument. I looked sheepishly up at the stubborn man in front of me. “You are the best man for the job, Slim. “ I continued as we walked to the barn. “You can tell if someone is lying.” Little did I know, those words were to come back and haunt me. Turns out, if someone is really good at hiding something you seldom see it and the outcome can be devastating.
The invitation was plainly spelled out. Slim was offered a seat in the newly appointed School Council. We really needed one. After the last teacher, Mr. Johnson’s harsh treatment of his students, the Council met to hire a new teacher. The 5 men wanted a sixth to round out the group and a level headed one at that. Slim was perfect for the one, maybe two meeting job. All they had to do was read through the letters of intent (our friend and lawyer’s term) and pick the right candidate. Someone who could teach the young ones and corral the older ones. A man who would show the young people in our town the beauty all around them. Someone who could convince them that reading and writing was important. How knowing arithmetic would help them know if they were being cheated by a peddler. Things like that. Oh, and they had to be nice, Mike had told me.
In the end, Slim was persuaded and came home one night with five letters to look over. He had already made a decision but wanted our input as well. Mike, who would ultimately benefit from said chosen teacher, wanted to view the choices too. We viewed the letters after dinner the next night. I liked one man from Sheridan and Daisy and Mike liked a M.B. Collins from Denver.
“What kind of man uses his brand instead of his name?” I asked perplexed.
“Maybe he has an unusual first name, Jess,“ Daisy giggled.
“Yeah Pard,” Slim grinned at me, “oh and it’s initials not brand.”
“Well, initials then,” I grumbled, “what name could he have that he’s shy of using it?”
Daisy clasped her hands together and said sweetly, “maybe it’s Murdoch or Malachi or Myron.”
Mike started laughing and Slim shot him a look. “That’s not nice, Mike. We don’t make fun of people you know.” But he tousled our son’s hair and smiled just the same. He held out the letter to me.
“What do you think? Should we hire M.B. Collins?”
“Do we have time to learn more about him and where he has taught?”
Slim frowned at me. “Do you think something is wrong?”
I did get a strange feelin when I read the letter. This teacher had taught in the same school in Cheyenne for 10 years. Maybe they liked the area or had a girl but something was wrong. In the end though, the board settled on M.B. Collins and we all settled down to wait.
Before the weather could do its worst, the Council hired some men to fix up the school and teacher’s house which was right next door. They fixed the leaky wood stove, painted the walls and the women folk sewed curtains. Slim insisted that part of our profits would go to Mike’s education so once school began he would have enough money saved to buy new pencils, a slate and a reader.
Finally, two weeks before the new school year was to begin, the council received a telegram from the new teacher, “coming in on noon stage on Saturday the 4th” it read. Slim got all decked out but I just polished my boots. We rode into town, neither of us speaking much. The little knot of men formed a tight circle in front of the stage office that afternoon. No one said much. The hopes for a successful school year were so strong. Presently the stage rolled in and Charlie pulled the reins of the horses to a stop.
“Howdy, everyone,” he shouted down to all of us. “There’s plenty of cargo for all of you!” He started hauling down boxes of all shapes, sizes and weights. Slim stood still for awhile then we hear what sounded like a definitely feminine voice call out from inside the coach, “can someone help me out?”
As one, we both moved forward, but Slim got to the door first. The vision of loveliness was lifted out by Slim’s long arms. She had a silkiest brown hair and the kindest brown eyes I had ever seen.
“Ma’am, welcome to Laramie.”
“Why thank you,” she said sweetly. “I’m looking for Mr. Slim Sherman.”
Slim nodded at her. “That would be me, “ he said politely.
She held out her hand. “I’m M.B.Collins, Mr. Sherman. Laramie’s new teacher. You can call me Mary Beth.”
My mama, if she’d lived to meet my Pard, would have said that he was a right fine gentleman. He always spoke well to the ladies, and he never was one to be mean to the “gentle ladies” however, that afternoon, he came really close to the end of the line. After depositing M. B. Collins on the sidewalk, he let go of her suddenly as though she burned him. His hands found their way across his chest and he stared at her for a long tense moment. “You can’t be the new teacher, you’re not a man!” he sputtered.
M.B. Collins gazed upwards at him and said smartly, “of course not, I’m a lady!” She twirled around, her blue plaid traveling skirt rustling the dusty air and then fumbled in her velvet purse for the signed contract. “This does not say that the applicant had to be a man,” she challenged him.
Slim was at a loss for words and so apparently was the rest of the school council but all of a sudden, they all began to shout at her. Seeing that she might not be safe, I went over to her, offered my arm and escorted her inside the office. I put as many of her boxes between her and the door and told her she’d be quite safe if she just sat there. I then went back outside, just in time to hear Mr. Botkin, Laramie’s banker, start whaling away at the group of fine upstanding citizens and blaming Slim and the others who recommended the “Collins Woman” as he called her. Slim, for his part, besides being embarrassed and shocked, found his voice and was trying to get control of the mob. “Someone go find Seth!” he yelled to Caleb. I began to feel as though I was as welcome as a rattle snake at a square dance, and decided to mosey out for a drink and then head home. I yelled out to Slim and he just acknowledged with a shrug.
“I’ll be home later,” he shouted back at me.
Our preferred saloon, Stockman’s was nearby but I figured that the council would head there for a meeting to discuss this pressing matter so I decided that the beer at Windy’s was just as cold and turned in that direction. On the way, I decided to let Mort Cory, our sheriff, know what had happened. He was just as shocked as the rest of us and asked if there was trouble brewing. I nodded and he decided he would rather be safe than sorry and bid me good afternoon. I had one beer, although I really wanted more, and rode home.
To tell the truth, I was at a loss as to what to tell Daisy and Mike. I was sure that they would have a lot of questions but unfortunately, I had no real answers. When I did eventually talk to them, they both, though shocked, were surprisingly calm about it. Mike’s comment was priceless. I started by saying that I had found out what the initial “M” was for, and no, it was not Myron or Murdoch it was Marybeth.
“But that’s a lady’s name, Jess! You mean my new teacher is a lady?“
Slim didn’t get home until the next afternoon. He seemed awfully happy about something. “I’ll tell you all about her after I take care of Alamo,” he promised.
Our family gathered in our main room with cups of ice-cold lemonade and freshly made cookies. For some reason, Mike was unnaturally clingy and Slim sensed it. “I know you’re a big boy now Mike. But I’ve been gone so how about this one time we forget you’re 11 okay?” He motioned for Mike to sit on his lap and Mike immediately put an arm around his neck. I wasn’t sure about this strange behavior but the fact that he was so openly loving about it made my heart clench. We were so blessed as Daisy often said.
“Marybeth Collins is from Denver, “ Slim began, “ she has two older brothers. One brother is married and the other works the ranch with their father. Her mother died when she was young. After getting her certificate to teach, she moved to Cheyenne where her best friend and another friend teach. She loves to read and brought some of her own books to share with the children. She is looking forward to meeting you, Tiger.”
Mike frowned. “Did you tell her about me?” he asked in a small voice. Although school had been over for a while now, he still had dreams of Johnson’s harsh treatment in front of all his classmates.
“I told her that you were very smart and liked to read. That you could do arithmetic and knew how to write. I also told her about our family and that we all cared about each other. Oh, and I told her that you didn’t like being yelled at.”
Mike snuggled into Slim’s shirt. “Don’t worry Mike,“ he murmured, rubbing his back. “She doesn’t believe in punishment like that.”
“How did you learn all that?” I asked curiously.
“Well, after I got her settled at the hotel, I went to the meeting. Everyone finally understood that the contract did not state that the teacher had to be a man. We all just assumed it. We decided to watch and wait and if she was good with the children, we’d let her come back for another year. Anyway, after the meeting, I took her to dinner and then because it was too dark to ride home, got a room for the night and here I am.”
“What is she like, Slim?” Daisy asked.
“Well, she’s got brown hair and light brown eyes and she’s probably about your height, Jess.” He nodded to me.“ She’s educated and talks very fast when she gets excited. She wanted to teach in a town like ours not a city as grand as Denver. She liked the curtains, by the way.”
“Did she live on a ranch too in Denver, Slim?” Mike asked finally getting braver.
“Not sure, Mike. She didn’t give me a lot of information about her hometown. “
I was beginning to get a picture of our new teacher and something about her story didn’t ring true. But I figured that maybe when Daisy met her, she would be able to find out more because Daisy’s sister lived in Denver too.
“Oh, I almost forgot! “ Slim exclaimed. “ I invited her over for dinner as soon as she gets settled.
Oh yeah, I thought. This is going to get interesting.
The first day of school dawned bright and sunny. Mike was nervous and very quiet that morning. He did manage to eat most of his breakfast and didn’t play with his eggs which he often did. Slim nodded to me towards the end of our meal. We had decided to treat Mike to a buckboard ride into town that morning. Usually, he rode the stage but being that he was facing a lady teacher for the first time we figured that a bit of male bonding was in order.
“Say Mike,” I said casually, “how would you like to have a buckboard ride into town with Slim and me this morning?”
“Really?” His smile lit up his whole face and he hugged us both. He raced into his room to get his new slate and books.
Daisy smiled at us. “So that’s what you two were talking about last night!” She exclaimed.
“It doesn’t hurt to show how much we love him and support him,” Slim smiled at her.
As we drove into town, we talked about how he had landed at the ranch so many years ago in a rainstorm. I told him that morning that when I carried him into our home that morning, he became part of us and we were beside him all the way. Slim had some candy sticks for him for a snack.
“You bought me some that first time we went town, Slim” he murmured. “I never forgot that. I knew then that I was safe and you both truly cared about me.”
“And we always will,” we spoke in unison.
We dropped him off with the admonishment to be careful while he waited for the stage in the afternoon and after picking up some packages at Benson’s drove home. We had a wagon wheel to repair and a shutter was loose near the kitchen so our chores weren’t too hard and we each had time to think about Mike and hope he was doing okay.
“He’ll be fine Slim,” I reassured my Pard when I saw him staring up the road.
“Yeah, I know Jess. I just wish we had Miss Collins for dinner like I promised. If he had met her…” his voice trailed off.
“He’s probably charmed her already,“ I told him. Our blue-eyed, blond tow-head had a way with lots of women in town especially those who knew his history. They all wanted to mother him but he somehow managed to let them know that he was part of our outfit without insulting them. Slim sometimes told me in private that our son took after me in that way. I just didn’t see it.
When he arrived back that afternoon, he was fairly bouncing with excitement. He excitedly told us how he could read all “the big words” in a reader she gave him and how he knew the arithmetic too. He told us that they were going to learn about the Revolutionary War, sometimes have classes outside and visit part of Laramie too. Our young’in then flung himself into the house looking for his Aunt Daisy. Much to our amusement, he came barreling out a few minutes later and skidded to a halt in front of Slim. “Miss Collins wants to see you first thing, before school tomorrow,“ he announced.
“Me? Why me?” Slim asked our excited son.
“She said that she needs your permission for me to help with the younger children and read Robin Hood to the class after recess.”
“Tell her ‘yes.’ I can’t come in early tomorrow,” Slim sounded upset but I noticed that he looked mighty pleased at the same time.
“Tiger, Slim has to meet with Mr. Peters when he comes in on the stage. There’s stage line business to attend to.” Mr. Peters, our boss, was a stern man who expected all of the stage hands and relay owners to be at his beck and call every time he wanted them.
“I can go and speak for both of us,” I nodded to Slim.
“Yeah Mike, Jess and you can go together tomorrow.”
Mike seemed a bit put off but said nothing about the subject and we passed a pleasant night. The next morning, we both went into town. Mike was quiet and a bit nervous. I decided to find out why.
“You know Mike, both Slim and I are your guardians and can speak for you. So, if Miss Collins wants Slim to talk about something that concerns you, you know he’s gonna tell me about it, right?”
“I guess,” he spoke reluctantly.
I reached out and pulled him close to me. “Mike, whatever it is that she wants to talk to Slim about, she will have to understand that she’ll get me too. Short of the Council business, we don’t hide anything from each other.”
He nodded and we pulled in front of the school with time to spare. Miss Collins was outside. She seemed disappointed that I was in the buckboard and not Slim.
“Where is Mr. Sherman?” she asked me. Mike shot me a look that plainly said “I told you so,” and then scampered inside the school.
“My partner is meeting with the stage line boss this mornin’, Ma’am. I can speak for him.”
“Well, Mr. Harper, isn’t it?” I nodded, “I want to know if Mike can help with the younger children who have difficulty with spelling and read his favorite book to the class after recess.” She spoke rather stiffly.
I gave her a hard look. It seemed to me, that teaching the younger students spelling and reading a book to the students was her job. Again, that niggin’ feeling came over me. ‘What is going on here?’ I wondered.
“We don’t have any problem with him helping the other students or reading Robin Hood after lunch but we don’t want him to fall behind in his own studies.” I added for emphasis.
Life went on as usual for the next few weeks until Slim began to go into town more often. Usually, one of us would flip a coin and go alone or take Mike with us on a Saturday to pick up supplies. Sometimes Daisy would go alone. But within a few days of Miss Collins’s arrival, he started taking the buckboard into town and not come home until after supper or more lately coming back the next day. He hardly ever saw Mike anymore and chores were getting very difficult for me. At first, Mike actually thought that Slim was avoiding him because he was mad at him but I reassured him that was not the case.
Then Mike began to act strangely too. He no longer looked forward to school. He was tired all the time and his marks were slipping. He kept telling me that everything was fine, but that was my phrase when I didn’t want to deal with life and told Mike that I was not as dumb as a box of rocks and knew something was up and he had better tell me right quick. Well, you could have knocked me over with a feather! He was not only teaching the young ones spelling but had started them on one of the basic McGuffey readers. He was also teaching them basic arithmetic! Then to top it all off, he never got to enjoy recess, because he needed to catch up on his studies and then learn new things after lunch with his class.
I was madder than a wet hen! I decided to confront Slim the next time he deigned to show up, which happened the next day. He drove into the yard earlier than I expected. He took one look at me and sat on the bench not even bothering to get down.
“We have to talk!” I growled and stalked into the barn. To this day, I am not sure if he saw the smoke coming outta my ears but he had the good sense to follow me. I slammed the door shut.
“What’s up, Pard?” he asked, all innocently like.
“I don’t know what game you’re playing at, but it better stop right now!” I threatened him, my fists were balled into fists. I was ready to knock him into next Sunday if I didn’t get a good answer.
“Jess, I…” he began but I stopped him dead in his tracks.
“You are never home anymore. Mike thinks you don’t care about him. You come and go without a word to anyone. I am left with all the chores. I can’t break in those mustangs we caught, ‘cause it’s a two-person job. Daisy never knows if you’re coming home for supper or breakfast and now, instead of throwing away food, she just doesn’t prepare any for you. What makes you think that you can act like that?” I ran out of breath, but my fists were aching to shake him.
He gave me a hard look and then I saw it – the break in his gaze. He suddenly understood. One of the things I admire about my best friend is that if someone calls him out and he is at fault, he acknowledges it right away, accepts his part in whatever it is and tries to make amends. He sat wearily down on a bale of hay. And wiping his forehead with his sleeve, he sighed deeply.
“I’m sorry, Jess. I was helping out Miss Collins and forgot the time. She asked me to escort her to all the families who have children in the school. She wanted to get to know them and what they did for a living, where they were from. Since I am unofficially the head of the council and have lived in Laramie the longest, well she thought I was the logical choice. Half the time the parents offered us a meal so you can’t say no. If it got too late to drive home, I just took a room at the hotel.”
“And I suppose all those parents think she’s wonderful, right?”
“Jess, sarcasm doesn’t look good on you.”
I was still fuming and not ready to stop now that I was on a roll and besides, we needed to talk about Mike.
“Are you aware that your wonderful Miss Collins has Mike teaching reading, spelling and arithmetic to the young students in the school and he hasn’t been able to play with his friends at recess because he has to catch up on what he’s missed and then learn subjects after lunch with the rest of his class? And since you probably haven’t talked about Mike on those long trips, you probably aren’t aware that his marks are slipping and he hates school, all because he’s doing her job!”
Slim looked at me. Horror written all over his face. “I had no idea..”
“Well, it’s happening every day. I wanted to confront her but I never could find her after school and now I guess I know why. She was with you.”
“Jess, is it possible that Mike volunteered to do the teaching?”
I shook my head. He got up suddenly and yanked the door open.
“Mike!” He hollered.
I expected to see our son’s face peek out of the door but it was the diminutive figure of Daisy Cooper standing in the yard.
“Slim Sherman,” she began, her voice icy. “In this family, if we need each other, we go to them. We do not yell at them. Now, if you want Mike, go in the house and talk to him in a civilized manner.”
I wasn’t sure what a ‘civilized manner’ was, but in a short time, Mike was standing in front of Slim on the front porch.
“Mike, you’re not in trouble,” he hastened to say. “There’s just something that Jess said that I need to hear you say it.”
Mike shot me a look of absolute terror and I pulled him onto my lap. “Tiger, Slim needs to know about your teaching the other students. “
Mike sighed and related all that I had to Slim.
“So, you never volunteered to do this? You didn’t do it to get good marks?”
Mike shook his head. “She didn’t give me a choice, Slim. She told me that she got headaches in the afternoon and that it would be helping her out if I did it for a little while.” He snuggled into my chest. It was early evening but he was exhausted.
Slim shook his head. “It isn’t your job to teach Mike. Your job is to learn. I will speak to Miss Collins tomorrow. Your teaching days are over as of right now!
Mike beamed his gratitude and after hugs all around, we sent him into the house to finish his homework and get ready for bed.
“I’ve been a fool, Jess.” Slim’s voice was so low I almost missed it. “My responsibility is to you, Mike, Daisy and the ranch. I let her charm me into helping her. “ He stood and held out his hand. “Friends?”
I stood also and accepted his hand in mine. I could never be angry with him for very long. I never knew what he told Miss Collins but he stopped traveling all around Laramie the next week and our son went back to being a boy who loved playing and learning in equal measure.
“I need to ask you something,” Slim stammered. We were in the barn, preparing to ride into town for a much needed break from chores. We were planning on a visit to Windy’s and maybe a poker game. Slim had made a reservation for us at the hotel for the night, in case one of us, probably me, got too drunk to ride home. If one of us had too much liquor or beer, we always went home together. We had split up once or twice before and the results weren’t pretty. He was currently being shunned by the high and mighty school council because he refused to escort Miss Collins to Cheyenne, pleading too much work at the ranch. I guess the proper gentlemen didn’t want to drive all that way themselves but figured that since Slim had driven all over Laramie he wouldn’t mind. But, my Pard had seen “the light” and thankfully stayed home.
“What do you need, Pard?” I curiously asked.
“The Harvest Dance is in two weeks, remember? “
I nodded. “So?”
“I’m planning on asking Marybeth and, well, you know all the men in town will want to dance with her…” he stopped mid-sentence.
I looked up and over at him. He was acting too casual at this point. ‘Two weeks ago, it was Miss Collins, now it was Marybeth.’ I wondered about it and decided to think on it later. “What do you want me to do?”
“Well, “ he began sheepishly, “I was wondering if you’d step in every now and again and rescue her for me.”
“You mean cut in don’t you?” I was beginning to see where this was going.
“You’re gonna owe me big time, you know,” I let a smile sneak into my voice.
The morning of the dance dawned bright and clear with a slight chill in the air. I checked out the sky, when I went into the barn to check on the horses. It didn’t look like snow so hopefully it would be a good night. The Harvest Festival was a yearly event and could get quite lively. The festival committee usually set up the tables behind the church. The women would bake for days before and set up the food an hour before the couples arrived. Eventually, R.J. Hansen would make his famous punch and bring it to town in a big pot. Yup, it would be a great time tonight for everyone except me. I had the worst stomach ache of my life. But I had promised Slim that I would help him out and a promise is a promise.
After lunch, we flipped for the shower/tub and he went first. I told Daisy I wasn’t hungry so I just nibbled at my sandwich while I waited for my Pard. For whatever reason he was unusually nervous, so much so that I had to tie his string tie for him.
“It’s just a dance Pard,” I couldn’t resist teasing him.
He shook his head and glared at me. Suddenly I realized that he had fallen for her. Oh boy, I thought. I didn’t like Miss Collins at all. There was something about her that didn’t ring true but darn it all, I couldn’t figure it out. Dadgumit, if he upped and married her, she would be in my life forever!
Riding into town, with my dark thoughts and churning belly I kept my own counsel. Fortunately, Slim was so wrapped up in the thoughts of the lovely Marybeth in his arms that he never even asked if I was alright. We reined in near the hotel and parted. Slim walked away from me towards the school house and I walked slowly to the back yard of the church hoping that no one needed my help setting anything up. As I was watching the fiddlers tune their fine instruments, Slim walked in with Miss Collins on his arm. She was hardly recognizable as the school marm. Her auburn hair was done up in some kinda braid atop her head. She wore a green and yellow plaid dress with a soft velvet sash around her tiny waist. The frilly blouse had puff sleeves and she wore a pearl necklace at her throat. She held her white knitted shawl in one hand and her other was draped around my partner’s arm. I swear every man’s eyes traced her every step and I grinned when I saw several women slap their husband’s arms.
I sought out a chair near the trees out of my Pard’s sight and stretched out my legs. The cramps had gotten better after I sat down. But I was beginning to feel hot and sweaty. Aw heck. I mused silently. The music started up and soon the dance floor was full of couples. Slim was dancing with Miss Collins and no one challenged him. I sighed with relief. Then out of the corner of my eye, one of the school council members approached Slim and tapped his shoulder. Time’s up, I thought wearily and rose none to steady to my feet. I made my way to the swaying couple and politely tapped his shoulder.
“What do you want?” he glared at me. I was right proud of myself. I stood straight and tall and asked to cut in. He glared at me again and reluctantly let go of the charming teacher. I swirled her in a circle towards Slim. “Thank you, Mr. Harper,” she murmured. I nodded and dipped her shoulder to find Slim. As I danced towards him, I was aware of her lavender perfume which floated all around me. I was getting dizzy now and not just from her feminine gestures.
Slim tapped me and I very willingly let Miss Collins go. They danced away into a two step and I wavered towards my chair. I put my head down to clear it. When I next looked up, another man had claimed Miss Collins. She sure was becoming a favorite dance partner tonight, I mused. But just then, Slim caught my eye. Aw Dadgumit, I thought glumly. I got up again, using the chair to brace myself. I made my way through the weaving couples to rescue the damsel in distress, feeling like one of Mike’s favorite book characters and saw Slim smile gratefully. Just as I reached the couple and had my hand out, another fellow swooped in and Miss Collins was whisked away from both Slim and I. I sighed deeply. I started going after the pair but met Slim instead.
“When you finally lasso her, why don’t you sit out the next dance or two and have some punch, Pard,” I suggested.
He nodded and went after her with all the determination of a cowboy roping a steer. I woulda cheered except that my headache was back. He steered her in my direction and motioned to her to sit down next to me. I plastered a polite smile on my face. ‘I have to get out of here while I am still in one piece,’ I promised myself. Soon he was back. Reckoning time had arrived. I stood up and tipped the brim of my hat at Miss Collins. “Sorry about this, but I have to leave. I’m not feeling well,” I hoped I spoke clearly.
Slim looked annoyed. At that point I hardly cared. If I didn’t leave right now, I was afraid I was going to get sick in front of them.
“What’s the matter?” he challenged me.
“Leave it,” I spoke as quietly as I could, trying not to call attention to myself. “I don’t feel good. I need to lie down.”
I walked away from his puzzled expression. The ground beneath me was swaying again. Suddenly, Slim was in front of me. I looked up into his stormy expression. I slowly shook my head. “I gotta go to the room, Pard. I have really bad pains and my head is pounding louder than the music.“
He raised his arm, as if to swat a fly, but his hand landed on my forehead. He gasped. ”Jess, you’re running a fever!”
“Yeah,” I swayed for real this time and his strong arms caught me.
“Let me help you. We’re going to get you to Sam’s.”
I shook my head. The last thing I needed was good ‘ole Sam poking me just now, I thought. “Go back to your girl, Slim. Let me be.” I squirmed out of his brotherly embrace and tried for a straight line direct to the hotel.
“Jess,” he began.
“I just need to lie down. Go back to the dance. I’ll be fine,” I sputtered as a fresh new cramp hit my belly. My play acting would be for naught if I collapsed on the street.
“I’ll try not to wake you when I come in,” he called to me. I waved a feeble hand in a backwards salute. Minutes later I collapsed on my bed boots and all.
I feel really helpless. Jess Harper is the most stubborn of men yet I wouldn’t have him any other way. He was clearly ill and I wonder how long he’s been so. He wasn’t sick this afternoon, was he? No, I would have noticed. Although, he wasn’t as excited as usual to go to the dance. Maybe because he wasn’t going with anyone. But still, why didn’t he say something? I scratched my head and then I knew the answer. He didn’t want to disappoint me. He went to the dance out of loyalty to me.
Marybeth was waiting for me in the same chair I’d last seen her in. I told her that Jess was sick and we would make it an early night but she pouted and cajoled me until I reluctantly agreed to stay for awhile longer. It rather annoyed me that she did not seem to be worried about my Pard. I know he doesn’t like her, it’s a plain fact. He has never said anything out loud to me about her. I still can’t figure out why. Now I wonder, is it mutual?
This is the last dance of the evening. Although I am worried about Jess, this feeling of holding Marybeth in my arms is the best I’ve felt in a long time. Her head is against my chest and her hands are wrapped in mine. At this point, all I want to do is protect her. All thoughts of Jess are diminishing as she sways against me. “Would you like to come in for coffee?” she asked me when we reached her home next to the school.
It was probably a bad idea but I felt compelled to do so. I watched, mesmerized, as she slipped out of her shoes and hung up her shawl. When she turned towards me and we were so impossibly close all I could think about were her soft lips and how they would taste. I leaded down to kiss her and forgot all about my Pard.
I wasn’t sure how much time had passed. We paused to breathe and all I wanted to do at that point in my life was make sweet love to her. But it was much too soon. We weren’t even courting yet! I needed to think about something else and calm down and suddenly I knew exactly what I needed to do. I bade her “good night” and hastened to the hotel.
Jess was lying face down on the bed. Even from the distance I was, I could see the fine sheen of sweat on his face. We needed Sam. I raced out the door, down the stairs and out into the night.
Of course, Sam wanted to know what was wrong and all I could tell him was what Jess had told me at the dance. “We’ll need to get him stripped so I can examine him.”
This was not going to be fun. Convincing Jess to part with his clothes is almost as bad as trying to get him to lay down his iron. “Come on, Pard,“ I spoke gently, “give me a hand here. I’ve got to get your boots off.”
“Lemme go!” He half shouted, his head was muffled in the pillow.
“Jess,” I tried again. “We’ve gotta get your boots and pants off so Sam can help you. “
“No help needed,” he insisted.
This was getting me no where. Finally, I gestured to Sam to grab Jess’s feet and on the count of three, we turned him onto his back.
“Gonna be sick!” He moaned and I shoved the bowl under his chin just in time. Not much came up. “Slim,” he moaned to me.
“Yeah, Pard. I’m right here,” I assured him.
“I feel awful.”
Oh, boy. Jess hardly ever admits how he feels. He pulled his body into a tight ball, holding onto his belly.
“We have to take off your boots and your pants, Jess. Just let me do the work.” I worked his working boots off his feet and then undid the belt buckle of his rig. I thought I could relax but his grimy, sweaty hand grabbed mine. “Whatcha doin?”
“I’m taking off your gun belt, Jess. You can’t sleep with it on, you know.” Hoping my words of wisdom were sinking in, I continued to pull the belt off my reluctant friend. Now, I realized that his belt buckle was pressing into his stomach. “Jess, we have to get your other belt off.”
He never acknowledged me. I quickly looked down. He was unconscious. I looked quickly at Sam.”Work as fast as you can,” he said. He palpitated Jess’s stomach, listed to his heart and took his pulse. “We have to wait until he wakes up before I go any farther.” He motioned to me to sit down. But I couldn’t just sit and watch my best friend move restlessly across the bed, so I wet a cloth in cool water and laid it on his forehead.
He came to shortly afterwards. His eyes were glassy and he was still shivering. “Slim?” he moaned.
“Still here, Jess. Can you tell Sam and me what hurts?”
Apparently everything hurt – his head, his belly, his legs. Sam looked perplexed.
“Jess have you eaten anything or drunk something that you’ve never had before? “
A slight shake of the head.
“Have you shared a canteen or a forkful of food with anyone? “
There was silence and then he said, “a young guy came by the fence I was fixing’ and needed water. His canteen was empty so I shared mine.”
Sam gasped. “Jess, have you noticed blood when you’ve gone to the outhouse?”
Again silence and then a small shake of the head.
“I’ll be right back” Sam spoke. “If I’m right, he’ll be on his feet by the end of next week. “
Sam came back awhile later with a bowl of beef broth, and a large pot. I must have looked askance cause he smiled indulgently. “You can’t share water from your canteen boys. You never know where its been. Jess caught a disease from the cowboy he tried to help. But don’t worry, it will pass. There will be some discomfort and pain but he’ll be better soon.” Now, Slim, prop him up so I can get this treatment started.” He spooned some broth onto the spoon and Jess reluctantly sipped it. This went on for several minutes and then we laid Jess down. “You are too weak to go to the necessary room on your own, so you will need to use the pot under the bed.”
Jess and I both flinched at that news but I could see the wisdom of his words and besides me being so close to him, bathing him and digging out barb wire from his manly areas, it really didn’t bother me much.
“I wouldn’t do this with anyone else!” Jess exclaimed the first time it happened.
I just smiled. Sam, however, took the pot away and then returned it later. This went on through the night and into the better part of the next day until suddenly Sam pronounced Jess cured and gave him some laudanum to sleep.
I had to know what had ailed Jess so I followed Sam into the hall. “What was wrong with him?” I asked.
“Jess got a disease from sharing the canteen. Now the water was fine but the cowboy was sick. What I’m about to tell you, you probably don’t want to share with Jess. He had a worm in his intestine That was causing the fever, the nausea and the stomach cramps. It had to be flushed out of his system. The only way to do it is to get enough liquid into him to make him use the outhouse. I was examining the waste and when it came out, Jess was okay.”
“He’ll be alright? “ I asked.
Sam smiled reassuringly. “Tell him or not, but don’t share your food or water again. If you want to share water, pour it into their canteen or cup.”
I nodded and after covering up my sleepy Pard, I fell into a dreamless sleep.
Two weeks had passed since the fateful Harvest Dance and I was finally on my feet again. I sure learnt my lesson about sharing food and water with people I don’t know. Good ‘ole Slim didn’t even tease me about it. I was grateful but still I wondered if he was feelin’ guilty about how slow he was coming to my aid. Dadgumit, I didn’t even know about it as I was plum outta my head what with the pains in my belly and my head aching.
Life went on as usual except that Mike was practicing his lines for the school pageant practically day and night which was driving me and Slim crazy. We were right proud of him but Dadgumit, we didn’t need to hear his speech over and over again. Then disaster struck in the way of a mud puddle, no less! One night after riding home from town Slim dismounted in the yard, stepped into a hole and twisted his ankle. Daisy wrapped it and I found some old crutches in the barn and Slim hobbled around the house like a grouchy bear for a few days.
One day in early November, Mort stopped by to check on Slim and ask a favor. “I guess you can’t help, Slim but you can, Jess,” he nodded to me.
I shook my head. There was no way I was going to get volunteered to help Miss Collins do anything. “I can’t help her Mort,” I spoke more gruffly than I meant to. Besides, she wanted Slim not me.
“Slim can’t help and she needs someone to build the wood platform for Mike and the other actors. It won’t take long, maybe a day or two at the most.” He glanced at Slim. “Can you convince him?”
“Jess, Mort is right. I can’t do anything what with this ankle. But you can. You’re so good with wood and I’ll bet the job would only take a day if you do it.” He silently pleaded and I gave in. Besides, it would give me a chance to get to know her better, I thought. Maybe I was all wrong about her.
The next day I drove the buckboard into town with wood, and hammers and lots of nails.
“Where’s Slim?” Miss Collins asked clearly upset.
“He hurt his foot a few days ago and can’t walk without a pair of crutches,” I said as I began unloading the supplies.
“I want to wait for him.” She sure was a stubborn woman.
“Ma’am, you can wait for Slim. But if you do, than that pageant won’t be on stage until spring.”
She relented and spoke softly, clearly embarrassed. “I just want my future husband to share my work,” she murmured.
“What?!” I sputtered. “Slim never said he asked you to marry him!” Dadgumit, if he really did ask her and was courting her, we was gonna have words.
“Oh no, he hasn’t asked me yet, Mr. Harper,” she had the good grace to look embarrassed. “But he will.”
I wasn’t gonna debate the issue with her, so I gestured to the yard and asked where the pageant was gonna be held. She showed me and then left me to myself. It was strange that she never asked how he was and if she could ride back with me to see him. If she was so in love with him, why didn’t she care enough to visit him?
I stopped working about half way through and knocked on the schoolhouse door. Being Saturday, there were no children playing in the yard. She opened the door. “Finished already?“ she asked.
“No, Ma’am. I was just wondering if you could spare some water or coffee?“
“Won’t you come in Mr. Harper?”
I nodded and dusted the dust off my hat and shuffled my boots on the mat outside. She had put up the curtains the town ladies had made and had some quilts out on the rocking chair by the fireplace. There were a lot of books on tables and shelves and she had a desk to the side of the fireplace that was covered with papers. I could just about make out the bedroom with a pretty quilt on top of the bed and had a nasty thought that I was the second man to see it in my family. Presently she brought out the coffee in two porcelain cups. “Do you like sugar in your coffee, Jess?” she asked me.
“Yes, thank you,” I remembered to be polite.
She sat down opposite me. “You don’t like me, do you?“ Boy, she comes right to the point.
“I hardly know you,” I spoke quickly. Hell, if Slim was really gonna propose, I’d better keep my feelings to myself.
“We should change that, don’t you think?” Her voice took on a breathy tone to it and I blinked. She put out her hand to me. “Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Marybeth Collins.” She had the prettiest smile.
I shook her hand. “I’m Jess Harper, Ma’am. I’m Slim Sherman’s best friend and partner. Oh, and we have an adopted son too. His name is Mike Williams. He’ll be in your class.”
We smiled at each other. ‘I decided to get some information from her, seeing as she was acting all nice and all.
“Why did you decide to be a teacher?”
“A wise teacher I had once told me that “education is improving the lives of others and for making your community a better place to live.” I wanted to do that and so I became a teacher.” She paused and took a sip of her coffee. “I love the look in children’s eyes when they finally understand something I’ve been trying to teach them.”
I had to know more. “How long have you been teaching?” I asked.
“After graduation I taught for a few years in my hometown but then a job opened up in Cheyenne where my friends are and so I went there.”
“That list of rules that’s posted on the schoolhouse wall are they real or are they suggestions? “ I had seen the rules for a few years now. They were the same rules Johnson had on his wall.
“Oh, they are real alright. A teacher could get fired if they failed to abide by them.”
“It seems to me that after teaching all day, you might want to get out and walk or go for rides or eat dinner out rather than be forced to read the Bible,” I said slowly remembering one of the rules.
She smiled ruefully. “ I spend some time composing my next lessons and writing up reports on each student, Mr. Harper. I save Bible reading for Sundays. “
And for seeing Slim, I added silently.
“What would happen if, say, you were to marry? Would you have to stop teaching?“
She shook her head silently. “Yes, I would. I could go back to teaching after the children were of age, though.“
“That doesn’t make any sense,” I argued. “A male teacher can court and marry but a woman can’t. And what if she doesn’t have children when she marries?“
“The rules have been around for a long time, Mr. Harper.” She stared out the window and seemed to be lost in her own world for a bit. “I was once engaged to be married but I wanted to teach more, so I left my boy friend at the altar. As for children, I can’t have any.” She suddenly got up and her whole attitude changed. “If you’re done, Mr. Harper, it’s time you got back to work!” She became a different person right in front of me.
Dadgumit, Slim sure had a bleak future in front of him. I wondered if he knew that the only child he would ever have was Mike. Should I tell him? Would he believe me? I finished the job and left with the sobering questions chasing after each other in my troubled mind.
It was no secret that Jess Harper hated winter. His whole family knew it too. He hated the cold, biting wind that sucked his breath away; he hated ice that crunched beneath his boots when he walked between the house and the barn; and he hated snow. The morning of the Laramie School Pageant dawned bright and clear with a hint of the wretched stuff. He couldn’t stand the idea of insisting Mike stay home. The problem was that Mike was the narrator and would be exposed to the cold air all during the pageant. He couldn’t understand why Miss Collins wanted the pageant to be presented outside. Yes, there were sheep but the actors were children who might get sick and their younger brothers, sisters and parents. They could have moved the platform into the church. He had shared his thoughts with Slim but he said it was not something he could change. It was with these thoughts that he slowly and carefully walked back into the house. He opened the door and stepped inside. He never expected a welcoming committee.
“Little cold out there, Cowboy?” Slim inquired. Jess could hear the tease in his warm voice and only grunted through his scarf.
“Come on, Mike” Slim motioned to their son. “Let’s help Jess out those wet clothes. “He proceeded to grasp one end of the heavy scarf and un-wound it off Jess’s neck. Mike started tugging the rest off. Then Slim unbuttoned the heavy winter jacket.
“Hey,” Jess protested, “I can do this ya know!”
“Yeah, we know, but you lost the bet and we feel bad, don’t we Mike?” Mike just grinned. He loved helping his fathers. In short order, Jess was sitting in his rocker with a warm blanket around him and a steaming cup of coffee in his hands. “Have you given any more thought to what we talked about last night?” He asked Slim. Slim turned from the window.
“At first I didn’t want to upset the apple crate but watching you struggle just now, well I have to admit you’ve got a point. Do you want the honors?”
Jess gave him a sharp nod and beckoned for Mike to come sit on his lap. “Tiger, Slim and I had a talk about the pageant last night. You are the only one of your classmates that is going to be outside almost all the time. Your classmates will go into the church and then come out only when it’s time for them to speak and then go back into the warm church. But you, as the narrator, have to continue to read your lines. So, we want you to be as warm as possible too. We found an old horse blanket in the barn last week and we want to cut a hole in the center of it. We will help you put it on over your head and you can wear it like a slicker. It will keep you warm while you read your lines.”
“Won’t Miss Collins get mad?” Mike asked, hesitant to change his costume
“We want you to be warm and not get sick, Mike.” Slim interrupted. “Besides, if she takes the role away from you, which I don’t think she will, who can she pick to replace you?”
Mike contemplated his father’s idea. He had been wondering about keeping warm while outside. He remembered the illness he had the year before. He certainly did not want a repeat performance. “Thanks,” he smiled happily and hugged first Jess then Slim.
You could cut through the excitement with a knife, Slim thought, as he maneuvered the horses down Laramie’s main street. All sorts of buckboards, buggy’s, and horses were lined up and down the hitching rails. Mort’s light was on inside the jail house as a reminder that this was a law and order town. Mike clung to Slim’s hand as they walked to the church. His very long narrative was tucked inside a big bag inside the warm slicker he would wear later. His head swiveled back and forth between his fathers. The night was magical and he had a part in it. Daisy had gone on ahead to pick out their seats and put her pies in the church for the spread afterwards. Slim and Jess dropped him off with his classmates and after whispers of “good luck “ and “we know you’ll do your best” walked out of the church into the night. There was thunderous applause when the cast bowed their heads at the end of the pageant. For a small moment, Mike was sorry it was over. He had such a good time and was proud of all of his classmates. No one forgot their lines and the sheep didn’t even run away, as Miss Collins thought they would. He joined the rest if his family for the goodies and hot chocolate and then went to the hotel to sleep in a real high bed. Staying at the hotel was an expensive treat for the family but Slim and Jess said they deserved it.Jess got everything ready while Slim said he had to go see Miss Collins about something and told Jess to leave the light on for him. Even though he was so excited and happy, he fell asleep almost at once and only woke once when he heard a sleepy Jess open the door for Slim. The next day, as the family drove home, Slim told them that he had written Mr. Collins for permission to court his daughter. Everyone was shocked, none more than Jess. Mike got very quiet.
”What are you thinking?“ Slim asked him.
“What will happen to me?”
What do you mean, Mike?”
“Well,” Mike began,” both of you are my guardians. I live with both of you. If you move to Denver, do I move too? Would I live part of my life with Jess and part of my life with you?” The thoughts tumbled in his mind and even though he was trying to be brave, he sniffed, a lone tear slipped down his cheek at the thought of losing one of them. Slim had never even considered Mike in the world he was building with his sweetheart. He had no idea how to answer him. He looked at Jess for help.
“This is all on you, Pard. I just wish you had come to me before you wrote that letter!”
This time, as they neared home, Slim felt his world tilt and give way to anything but excitement.
The time between Thanksgiving and Christmas was always a special time at the ranch. I never really thought to much about the holidays when I was skirting towns and living on my own those years before I found Slim and his family. Everything changed that first Christmas. First, Slim and Andy convinced me that cutting down a perfectly good tree was a good idea. Which, as it turned out, was right. It did look mighty pretty with all them candles and our homemade ornaments hanging on it.Then Slim read the story about the first Christmas from their family Bible. Jonesy cooked a right fine meal and we all enjoyed our shared gifts. After Andy and Jonesy left for ST Louis, we continued the traditions started by Slim’s Ma and passed on the celebration to Mike and Daisy. So when Slim stated acting strange and not interested in any preparation for our annual celebrations, well we all wondered what was wrong. Daisy thought he was sick; Mike thought he missed Andy; and I thought it had something to do with his sweetheart. Turned out I was sorta right. One day I noticed that my Pard was looking at Mike all kind of sad like. He began to stay out later and later and one day he actually didn’t come home until really late the next day. I had enough. I was fit to be tied. It was gonna be a blow up and I didn’t care. He dismounted in the yard and almost tore the barn door off its hinges. He stormed inside. I strode across the yard and followed him.“Alright Mister,” I snarled, “what is going on? You have forgotten about Daisy and Mike and you stalk around this ranch like a hungry bear. You’ve forgotten about Christmas; you never talk to us. About the only thing you don’t do is get drunk!” He whipped around and looked angry and defeated at the same time.
“Jess,” he began, “ I think I need to go away for awhile.” I just stared at him. That was my line, I thought.
“I suppose you want an explanation,” he began hesitantly. I nodded and he hung his head. Then the bravest man I knew, the man I trusted with my heart and my life, the man who stood by me, no matter what, began to cry. I forgot my anger and frustration and reached up to grasp my friend’s neck and pull him down to me.We sat like that until I felt his breath even out and he pushed himself away from me.“Talk to me,” I begged him. “Leaving ain’t the answer, didn’t you always tell me that?” He swallowed hard and stared at the floor.
“I really love Marybeth,” he began,” but I’m afraid I’m about to make the worst mistake of my life!” It was my turn to stare at him.
I ran my tongue over my dry lips and asked “do you have to marry her? I mean, are you gonna have a family? “ It was none of my business and I risked a fist in my gut but Slim just shook his head.
“Nothing like that,” he assured me.” So much for my assumption that he’d visited her bedroom, I thought.
“So, if it’s not that, what is it?” I persisted.
“When I told her that I wanted to write her father to ask permission to court her, she said she understood and then when I gave her the letter, she said she was going to add something to it and she would mail it. Well, I should have received an answer already from her father even if he didn’t approve. I don’t think she mailed the letter.”
“What makes you think that?” I asked
“Both Marcie and Jed don’t remember getting a letter from her to mail.”
“When I didn’t get an answer, yes.” He rubbed the back of his neck, a tell of his made when he was frustrated.
“There could be other reasons. Maybe a storm or he’s away from his ranch.”
“Maybe,” but Slim was not convinced. “Then, she keeps changing the date. First, she wants us to get married the end of June, then she wants to wait a year, because she wants to teach for another year.”
I shook my head. No wonder he was getting upset. “She would have to stop teaching if she marries,” I spoke softly.
“Yeah,” he answered me. He hesitated. “There’s more.” I felt a chill go down my spine. I had a feeling that I wasn’t going to like what he said next. “I asked her if she would consider setting a date for next May. I told her that we needed to know when to start the house. We had to buy glass for the windows and save money for furniture. I reminded her that it took money to run a ranch and I would be responsible for two, well one and a half,” I nodded in understanding but he took a breath and our eyes met. He had tears in his eyes. “She said that it shouldn’t bother me because you wouldn’t be there much longer. You would ride off and take the boy with you.”
I couldn’t help it. I exploded. When I finale stopped yelling, he put his hands gently on my shoulders and looked me in the eyes. “I told her, in no uncertain terms, that you were not just my partner that you were my best friend. The ranch was your home and you owned 1/3 of it. Mike was our adopted son. His legal home was the ranch and we were both responsible for him. There was no way that I would take Mike away from you or that you would take him from me. We had a bitter fight and then she said that,“ he gasped, “she said, that I better get used to the idea of only raising Mike because it was the closest I was going to get to raising my own child because she couldn’t have children! “Tears streamed down both our faces and our shared grief was overwhelming.
We talked for a long while. When I finally stood up, I discovered that my foot had fallen asleep. It was kinda funny, me hobbling around, stomping my foot on the ground and Slim just laughing at me. Boy, the sound of his laughter was music in my ears. We decided that since he wouldn’t see Marybeth until the end of March, when school would start again, that he would write her a letter and explain his thoughts about choosing a date for their wedding. Even though I still felt uneasy about her, I knew that Slim was still in love with her and I wanted him to be happy. I suggested that maybe she had become ill or too tired from teaching and that she really didn’t mean the things she said in the middle of their fight. As we left the barn that night, Slim promised me that he would never ride away from his life. My straight as a rail, honest as the day is long, loyal to a fault, best friend and brother I will ever have, meant every word. His word was his bond and he would keep it. There had to be a way to convince Marybeth, and he was determined to find it but not at the expense of his family.
We celebrated the holidays in true Sherman – Harper style and even managed to join in the carol singing at the church. To look at Slim, you would never know he was struggling. Mike somehow knew that he was upset and turned into a clingy boy overnight. After a few days of having Slim all to himself, he settled down and became the young boy we both loved.
Unbeknownst to me, my Pard had written three letters to his fiance. I had no idea what he had written but when he came home one Saturday with a letter from her I was excited for him. Turned out, the letter, the first one he had received from her created more distrust than ever.
“Read this!” He demanded. We were sitting on the porch taking a break from fixing a wheel. The envelope was addressed to him.
“You’re asking me to read your mail?” I croaked. Some things in a man’s life are private and we had never crossed the invisible boundary, well, hardly ever. Dadgumit, we were closer than brothers and I already knew his secrets and his fears but a letter from his soon to be wife is private. Least ways I always thought that way. I turned the envelope over and over, trying to think of a way not to read it.
“Please, just read it. I need your thoughts.”
I sighed. No use in delaying the inevitable. Whatever was written was truly troubling my best friend.
I read the words but they made no sense to me. She wrote that she had been tired and the pageant along with a woman issue had taken a toll on her health. She was recovering with her friends in Cheyenne and would be happy to consider a date before school started. She wanted to teach another year and if that was acceptable, would start building up her dowry for her life as a frontier teacher.
“Slim,” I began, “this doesn’t make any sense. Does she mean a date this year or next?”
“Yeah, I caught that too. Does it seem to you that she’s rambling all over the page?”
“Maybe she’s still not well,” I started to say, but I so doubted it. The whole letter felt like an attempt to get out of the engagement.
“What are your thoughts, Pard?”
“I am going to write another letter. I am going to write her father. I need answers and I’m not getting any!”
“Why don’t you hold off on her father’s letter until you get another letter from her. I know you want to go to her but the weather is still too risky for that.” I was at a loss for words and afraid that I might say the wrong thing.
“I think the letter is a lie. There’s something really wrong and she’s too afraid to tell me.”
I handed him back her letter. There were secrets hidden in that letter that my best friend might never know. “Her secrets lie in chalk dust,” I said as I looked up. Our eyes met and held in understanding and brotherly love.
The serene stillness of the February day was broken by the shrill shouting of the distraught woman. Her two friends rushed into her bedroom to calm and soothe her. She was moaning now, her brown hair askew, her eyes shut against memories the letter had produced and her body was contorted.
“Quick! Get me the laudanum!” One of her friends shouted to the other. “We’ve got to calm her down.”
The woman wailed again and flung the pages of the letter from her bed. “Why does he keep writing me? Why can’t he stop?”
Her questions went unanswered as one friend tried to calm her as the other tried to sedate her.
Marybeth Collins finally settled into a mind numbing sleep.
“I don’t understand what is happening,” Becky Thompson said as she picked up the pages of the letter. “I thought she wrote him.”
“She did,” Sarah Johnson replied.
“Well, obviously he didn’t understand what she wrote. Maybe we should write her father.”
“She never sent his letter, you know.” Sarah sighed. “He seems like such a fine man with a family to boot.”
“Something has to be done and soon,” the two friends left the confines of the small room, shaking their heads and wondering what to do about Slim Sherman in Laramie, Wyoming.
Her dream was to become a teacher, just like her mother. Before she knew of the deadly illness that took the lives of her grandmother and her mother, her childhood dreams were filled with classrooms filled with children who had eager minds open to her teaching and more importantly a real man who would love her and take care of her. She fulfilled one dream when she graduated from teachers college and came home to Colorado. Her family met her at the train and the realization of her mother’s death the year before became real. She met a nice man in town one day and they became lovers. She was determined to get married and have babies but then the headaches started and her doctor suspected that she too had inherited her mother’s illness. Reluctantly, she left her fiance at the altar and fled to Cheyenne. Becky and Sarah had been teaching in the large town for a few years and a spot opened up for her too. She knew her time was limited yet she needed to fulfill one last wish. She wanted to teach in a frontier town. She wanted to teach in Laramie, Wyoming.
She wrote her initials on the contract and set out for her dream job. She was full of determination to beat the illness. She hoped that it would pass her by, and she knew down deep in her heart that she would never have babies of her own. It was too much of a risk. Her brothers were married with children of their own. She had a niece and so far, at age 10, Martha or Mattie, as she was called , had not suffered any ill effects of the brain mass that might effect her. It seemed to the doctor that the illness only affected the women on her mother’s side of the family. She would not risk a daughter of her own to suffer and die the same way as her mother.
A week latter, armed with a new pencil and lavender scented paper, Marybeth and Sarah sat down to write a letter that both women knew was going to hurt a young rancher.
“Tell me what to write,” Sarah told her friend gently, and while Marybeth dictated and Sarah wrote the words to Slim, Becky made tea and cringed as she heard the words that would shatter a young man’s heart.
She had never meant to fall in love.
The fire had long since gone out and the air in the small room was colder than a bear’s nose. When I left the ranch a week ago, the ground was dry. The sky was now gray as flannel and I just knew in my bones that snow was on its way. I had delivered the horses to the fort and had been persuaded to stay for supper by the delicious aroma of beef stew and biscuits and decided to stay the night. I started for home after a hearty breakfast.
The sight of the ranch house always filled my heart with joy. I love my life. Slim is a great friend and brother; we are raising a young boy and we have a wonderful second Ma. Yup, life is good. I never knew whether it had been fate or luck that had brought me to the ranch that I have considered home for so many years now but I thank my lucky stars every day.
Slim was in the yard when I rode in. Our greeting was warm as usual but I noticed the slight tremor in my Pard’s large frame.
“What’s up?” I inquired as I lifted the saddle from Traveler’s back and heaved it over the fence. Dadgumit, it was sure good to be home.
“I got another letter, Jess.” Slim paused “this time, someone else wrote it.”
“What do you mean?” I asked carefully.
Slim thrust the letter into my hands. “Read it for yourself. You’ll see what I mean.”
For the second time I began reading Marybeth’s letter to Slim. The unfamiliar writing along with the way the letter was written was startling. “It doesn’t even sound like her,” I began as I turned the first page over. Slim nodded. “Hey,” I paused, “this here part sounds like you were to blame for your fight.”
“Yeah,” Slim agreed.
I ran a finger over the written words. “Words were spoken on both sides that should never have been said in the middle of a fight. Slim, she doesn’t even say she’s sorry.”
I removed my hat and scratched my head. Then I slammed my hat back on. “Dadgumit, Slim, this part says ‘it will be a shame that I will miss your wedding but you knew I was riding away with Mike anyway! Am I going somewhere I don’t know about? “
“I certainly wouldn’t send you away, you know that.” His sigh sounded like it started in his boots and traveled up to his mouth. “I just don’t know about this! “
‘That made two of us!’ I thought. Neither of us could wrap our heads around the letter. “Well she’s due back in a couple of weeks maybe we’ll get answers then.” Slim turned then and ambled towards the house. I was still holding the letter and when I gripped it to prevent it from flying across the yard, I saw the words behind the page “all is not what it seems.”
The stage brought a telegram stating that the schoolmarm was returning to fulfill the contract on the last Saturday in March. It was reassuring to know that she was coming back and I hoped that Slim would finally find the answers he needed. Life had gone on, like it usually does, after he received the strange letter. I knew he was upset because he wasn’t sleeping. When you share a bedroom for any length of time, you get to know if the fella you’re sharing it with is sick or hurting in some way. Whenever I am worried about something, I have night dreams. Least ways, according to Slim they can be quite violent with lots of yelling and blankets on the floor. When he’s worried about something, he takes his blankets and sits in front of a dying fire. I an not sure he solves his problems, I only know he complains about a stiff neck. He comes back to bed and lies on his back staring at the ceiling for the rest of the night. I remember one night I asked him if the answers were on the ceiling and all I got for my concern was a pillow thrown at me!
The last Saturday in March was a cold dreary day. It was foggy as all get out. Slim was gonna ride in alone, but I told him that there was no way he was gonna go into town to face Marybeth alone. Oh, I wouldn’t stay for their confrontation, how’s that for big words (Mike read it in a newspaper last week, I just like the way it sounds!) but I didn’t want him to get lost in his own head before he got to the stage office.
This time, when Slim helped her out of the stage coach, I tried not to gasp. She had lost a lot of weight and her skin was kinda pale and she wore glasses. Her hands trembled when she took Slim’s arm. I tipped my hat to Marybeth and bid my goodbye to my Pard. I had no idea what was gonna happen but I was determined to help him any way I could. I rode slowly home, hoping against hope that everything would turn out alright. I still didn’t trust Marybeth.
“It’s all settled Jess!” Slim was jubilant. “We talked for hours. She’d been sick and very weak and had her best friend write the letters. We’re going to get married the end of June and we’ll live in the ranch house until we build our own home.” He was practically dancing on the porch. I had done the night chores already when he finally came home. We took out coffee to the porch for awhile.
“Where do you want me and Mike and Daisy to go?” I figured that the prim and proper lady would want her man all to herself.
“Well, Daisy can stay in her own room and you and Mike can use the bunk house at night unless it gets really cold.”
I really wasn’t happy about this change of events but I promised myself I would support him and besides a house doesn’t take all that much time if we started tomorrow. “Did you settle on where you want to build the house?” I asked.
“We’ll be so close I’ll still be able to come over for our porch talks, “ he assured me.
“So, she knows I’m not riding away with Mike?”
Slim nodded. “She said she was sorry she had said that.”
‘That was a relief,’ I thought to myself.
“Oh and she said she was going to a new doctor to see about children, so there’s hope on that score.”
“Well, “ I spoke in what I hoped was a relieved voice, “looks like we got a wedding to prepare for!”
When I left Red Buttes for home I sure didn’t know that I was in for the ride of my life. Usually, after riding a long distance, I put up Traveler for a well deserved rest, but little did I know, both of us were gonna be on the trail again after only one night at home. It was the vision that did it. That night as I lay in my bed in the quiet room, I remembered what Slim had done for me. He had sat by my side for many nights coaxing me to eat and drink. He had sacrificed his own health. He held me when I cried and grieved my Maria and I finally found the strength to stand up and walk back into my life. Although my Maria had died in my arms, Marybeth had shattered Slim in the worst possible way. She had played with his heart and I had to find him and help him the way he had helped me.
I rode into town first to tell Mort that I was going after Slim and asked that he look in on Daisy and Mike. He knew I was in a hurry and he offered one piece of advice. “Son, none of us know why she left and there’s bound to be a lot of questions. When you get back, there’s going to be a lot of comments. Daisy, Mike, Andy, and me, if you choose, should be the only ones who need to know the truth. The town gossips will wag their tongues but they don’t matter. Be sure Slim knows that.” I nodded and bade him goodbye. I had no idea how long I was gonna be gone. I had promised Mike that I wouldn’t return without Slim. I always keep my promises to Mike.
I had no idea which way Slim went. He coulda ridden to Cheyenne. Marybeth’s friends might provide more answers but I knew that Slim wouldn’t want to stable Alamo in a strange livery and besides, he was probably too mad about the whole situation. He had already found out that they thought she had gone home to Denver so that was where he headed. There was a train in Cheyenne. He coulda hopped the train and ridden in comfort straight to Denver but my Pard thinks better in the saddle so I would follow his lead.
Slim had a head start on me. I had never ridden to Denver so I had no idea what the trail was like. I heard tell that it would take a week or more to get there and that was in good weather. Provided I didn’t get lost or Traveler throw a shoe or someone taking a shot at me, I reckoned a little over a week of traveling. Dadgumit, a lot can happen in a week! Fortunately, the spring weather gave me no problems. The air was alive with new flowers and the streams were filling up with water from the hills. I spent most nights under the stars wondering and, if truth be told, worrying about my best friend.
If I knew Slim, like I thought I did, he was probably trying to sort out the how’s and why’s of Marybeth. Why had she come back at all, only to leave again? Yeah, she had some personal things but she left most of the books to the school. Why had she accepted Slim’s proposal and then left him a few days before the wedding? Didn’t she realize how much work we both did to build a house for her? There were more ‘why’ questions to shake a stick at and no answers. While I am sure Slim had questions, I had a few of my own. Why did she let the older children teach the younger ones? Daisy told me it was a common practice, but still she never should have chosen Mike! I wondered if she did so, thinking that Slim wouldn’t say anything since they were courting – which reminded me, did her father ever get Slim’s letter? What about the days she sent the children home early? Why did she get so many headaches?
I finally rode into the tree-lined bustling town of Denver 7 days later. I felt a little guilty as I had pushed Traveler a bit harder than usual. Time was flying by me and I felt our brotherly connection swaying. Slim needed me more than ever and I still didn’t know where he was.
I felt and probably looked like I had been rode hard and put up wet. I was dusty from head to toe and I hadn’t shaved in more than a week. I needed a hot bath and a shave and a beer. Although not in that order! I decided to stop in at the sheriff’s office first. Although I was a stranger to the town, I was sure the sheriff would remember if a tall, lanky blond haired man had ridden in recently. Sheriff Tom McLaughlin was a tall man with graying hair and deep blue eyes. He looked me over and when I mentioned Marybeth, his steely stare went from “I dare you to dust up my town” to “we need to talk” in as many minutes.
“Would you like some coffee?”
I nodded gratefully and took the cup in my hands.
“Your friend was here, Mr. Harper. He inquired about Miss Collins too. I directed him to the Collins’ ranch but haven’t seen him since. Although, I was away for a few days and he could still be here.”
I asked about the bath and shave and was directed to the Bath House down the street.
“Before you leave, Mr. Harper, you should know how sorry all of us are about Miss Collins. She was a nice woman and we will miss her.”
‘Uh?’ I wasn’t sure I heard right. “Why, what happened to her?” I asked.
“I thought you knew, she died. Her burial was held two days before your friend arrived in Denver.
A sudden chill swept through my body. There was a roaring in my ears and Sheriff McLaughlin’s voice echoed and faded like I was in a cave. I felt an overwhelming feeling of dread. Slim was lost and alone suffering with grief and loss and yeah, probably some anger and he had a loaded gun. I leapt from my chair. Suddenly I realized that my body was swaying and the sheriff’s arms were around me.
“You alright, son?”
His voice sounded far and away at the same time. I couldn’t figure out what was going on. I never really liked or trusted Marybeth. Why was I so upset?
“Can you tell me how she died?”
Surprised, he took his hand and supported me as I sank back into the chair. “I thought you knew,” he spoke softly, “she had the same illness as her mother.”
Suddenly I felt like a stranger in my life. ‘What the heck?’
“You’ll probably want to speak to Mr. Collins.”
“Do he think he will talk to me? I mean, he just buried his daughter.”
“I think you’ll find him eager to talk about his daughter. He only wanted the best for her. I remember he didn’t want her to go to Laramie. Her headaches were getting worse. But she was one stubborn woman!”
I stood up then and decided to discover everything I could about Marybeth before I found Slim. I thanked Sheriff McLaughlin and found the Bath House. I needed that bath and shave.
I was told that the Collins’ ranch house was five miles from town. The large and imposing white house with blue shutters was at the end of a tree-lined drive. Our ranch house would have fit inside it with room to spare. My palms were getting wet inside my gloves. You’re doin’ this for Slim, I repeated to myself. I dismounted and tied off the reins on the hitching rail and walked to the front door.
The man who answered the door smiled at me. “You must be Mr. Harper,” he said as he extended his hand in welcome.
“How do you know who I am?” I croaked.
“Marybeth told me about you. She said if a young man should show up who was shorter than Slim and had wavy brown hair and blue eyes and spoke like a Texan than he had to be Jess Harper.” He seemed pretty proud of himself for recognizing me.
I gulped as I shook his hand.
“Come in, Mr. Harper. You look like you need a cup of coffee. “
I began to wonder who this man was and why he was being so nice.
“Excuse me Sir, “ I hoped I wasn’t gonna upset him. “But who are you?”
“Oh,” he apologized, “I’m John Collins.”
Now it was my turn to apologize. “Mr. Collins, I am sorry about your daughter. “
He turned around and said, “I expect you want to know all about her. I don’t mind, really. It keeps her alive somehow.“ He ushered me into his main room. Now, I’ve been in rich men’s houses before but I never longed so much for our home as I did then. It wasn’t that I felt uncomfortable surrounded by the things a rich man has – the fireplace that stretched almost to the ceiling or the fur lined chairs or even the walls decorated with animal heads. Nope, I longed for my comfortable rocker with the quilt Daisy made for me one Christmas. I wanted to rest my feet on the worn cloth weaved rug that Andy now Mike played on. I kept seeing the bench under the window in my mind’s eye. Yup, I was definitely suffering from homesickness.
Mr. Collins returned with the coffee pot and two cups. I had been lost in my memories of home and didn’t even know he’d left the room. He motioned me to a chair by the fire.
“I was born and raised in St. Louis, Mr. Harper. My father had a, I guess you’d call it, roving eye, and we were bound for Colorado when I was a young man. I met my future wife in the general store one day and I was determined to marry her and raise our family in Denver. The problem was I needed a job. When gold was discovered I set off to dig up my future and I guess,“ he paused and stretched his arms as if he was hugging his room,” you’d say I found my pocket. I built our home, room by room, and we raised our two sons. Life was good.” He stopped then for a sip of coffee. “We believed that we would never have any other children so when we discovered that we were expecting a third child, well I have to admit we were pretty excited. But then tragedy struck. My wife and baby died in childbirth.“
“I am surely sorry,” I said. I was beginning to like this man.
He smiled sadly at me. “It was a long time ago. Anyway,” he continued, “several years passed and one day I happened to step into the bank to pay my note and a young lady with brown hair was sitting behind the counter. Do you believe in love at first sight Mr. Harper? “
“Yes,” I said remembering Maria. “And it’s Jess, sir,” I added.
“Well one thing led to another and I married Elizabeth the next spring. She had a young daughter and my boys and I now had a complete family. Little did I know, but my beautiful Elizabeth had a illness she inherited from her mother’s side of the family. When the headaches started and the doctor could only prescribe laudanum, I sought other renowned doctors in St. Louis, New York, California but no one could help her. The doctor in town said that she had a tumor in her head that he could not remove. She would suffer from headaches, might loose her sight and have difficulty walking. There was nothing he could do. I’ll never forget the day he told us that it was likely that our daughter Marybeth might suffer the same disease. It was devastating, Jess, as you can imagine. The symptoms got worse and worse and my beautiful wife spent her days in bed. Meanwhile, our sons had grown up and were married. Marybeth was studying to become a teacher. She wanted to teach in Denver so that she could take care of her mother and she was able to for a short while. When she went back to school for more learning, Elizabeth got worse and died.” He was lost in his memories and I guess I was pretty stunned too to learn about Marybeth. The pieces of the puzzle were beginning to slot into place.
“I was determined to give Marybeth a safe and happy life. My boys, now young men started having children and Marybeth was a wonderful second Ma for them. It was sad really, in that she knew she would never be able to have children of her own. When she told me that she wanted to marry a young man she had met at a dance several years before, I consented although I did order her to tell her young man about the illness. He needed to know that if he married my daughter there was a possibility that they would never have children. We started planning a grand wedding but on the day I was to walk her down the aisle of our local church, she ran away. Seems she never told her young man about her illness and he had found out by accident.”
“Mr. Collins,” I wasn’t sure that I should ask this but suddenly I blurted, “did you get Slim’s letter asking for permission to court your daughter?”
He looked at me for a short while and I became uncomfortable in his presence. “You must have a very special friendship with Slim Sherman,” he said with admiration in his voice.
“I do. He’s my best friend. “
“You are a lucky man, Jess. And the answer is no, I did not receive the letter. I found it after my daughter died.”
All my breath seemed to leave my body. She had lied to Slim. She had held her terrible secret close to herself and never said a word. The tumor in her head explained the headaches, the days she sent the children home early, the reason she wanted the letter to add to it – was any of their courtship real?
And now, I thought bitterly Slim would never get to ask her. He never got the chance to say goodbye.
It was now late afternoon. I was numb. I felt as if one of those grand brick town buildings fell on me. What was real? Did she even love Slim? Mr. Collins was softly crying and I felt as comfortable as a treed bear. He must have heard my sigh as he suddenly looked up.
“Where are my manners!” He exclaimed. “You must be tired and hungry. Why don’t we have supper and you can spend the night.”
“Oh, no sir,” I really couldn’t do this. I didn’t even know him.
“Nonsense, young man. You need a hearty supper and rest from your journey. We’ll talk about horses or ranching and I will share a bottle of brandy with you. If we’re lucky, one or both of my sons will stop by and you can meet them.” My host was getting excited and for the life of me, I could not understand why. This family was sure strange.
We dined on steaks and roasted potatoes and corn. Mr. Collins told me that some of the women in town had been supplying him with pies and such and I enjoyed an apple pie that rivaled Daisy’s. After dinner we had a brandy or two and I began to relax. I wanted to get one last thing off my chest and inwardly debated how to convey it to the kind man.
“Slim is a very unusual man,” my host began. “He is very serious.“
“Well ‘ole Slim can worry the size of Texas, that’s for sure,” I said. “But, he’s loyal and brave and a good man. He’s stood by me, helped me, defended me, come after me so many times I’ve lost count. He would have married your daughter despite her illness, you know.“ I added.
“He said much the same thing to me,” Mr. Collins agreed. “It’s really too bad that she didn’t share her secrets with him.“
I spent the night in his eldest son’s bedroom and in the morning, ate a good ham and egg breakfast.
“Mr. Collins, do you know what direction Slim rode when he left?”
“He had asked where the cemetery was and I told him. I have no idea where he went after that.”
I shook his hand, thanked him for his hospitality and again expressed my sorrow for the loss of his daughter. I still had to find Slim and I had no idea where to look.
My first thought was to see if he had stabled Alamo.
As I walked down the main street in Denver I felt like there was a target nailed to my back. Every now and again, I caught the eye of a local and they stared at me. I began to wonder if I was wearing the wrong hat! When I found the livery, I sighed in relief. A man, younger than me, came out holding a pitch fork.
“Can I help you?” He asked suspiciously.
Oh good, I thought. Another trusting person.
I explained how I was looking for my friend’s horse, cause I wasn’t sure if he was still in town. Turns out they keep track of horses by their brands and after checking his account book affirmed that Alamo was indeed stabled there. While I was tying up Traveler, he started neighing and swishing his tail and there was a return neigh and Dadgumit, we found Alamo. I asked the boy how long he was paid up for and it turned out that he’d been paid up for a week. I paid the boy for the rest of the week and after taking up my saddle and rifle, walked down the street towards the hotel. The clerk eyed me much like the livery boy but I paid him no never mind and asked if Slim was a guest. Turned out, my Pard was in room 24!
“Funny thing though,“ the clerk looked me in the eye, “he hasn’t come out not once.”
I debated whether or not to explain why that was probably the case and then decided to tell the truth. I had no idea how I was gonna get into Slim’s room and how to get him out so I might need help. “Did you know the schoolmarm Miss Collins?”
He nodded and I shifted my saddle to my other arm. “My friend was gonna marry up with her.”
“Oh,” he seemed genuinely sorry. “What are your plans?”
“Well, I’m gonna knock on the door and wait for him to let me in. Don’t worry, I won’t break it down. Then I’ll try and get him out and we’ll head for home. Might take awhile though.“
He motioned upwards with his hand and I walked up the stairs. Room 24 was at the end of the hall. I knocked. There was no response. “Slim, it’s me. Open up!”
Again, no response. “Slim, come on, I’ve come all this way. Least you can do is open the door.” This time I heard the bed creak but again, no response.
“Well, I’ll be right here next to your door,” I grumbled. I made a great show of dropping my saddle onto the carpeted floor and after leaning my rifle against the door, settled into wait for my stubborn partner to open the door. It was close to 6:00 by my pocket watch and I again knocked on the door. “Gonna get some grub; you comin’?”
I should have expected it, but I was so hopeful that he would open the door, that when he didn’t, I felt lonely and bereft all at once. I picked up my saddle bags and rifle and went downstairs to find the clerk. “Where’s a good place to eat?” I asked him.
“Big Bob’s has the best beef steaks. I gather your friend hasn’t come out yet?”
I shook my head, “nope, but it should be soon.” I didn’t add, ‘I hope,’ cause I had no idea what to do next.
I ate my lonely supper and went back to the hotel. The clerk had two blankets and a newspaper for me which was right kind of him. At least I’d be warm tonight, I thought.
I woke the next morning and stretched my aching muscles. After getting no response again, I went down to the diner for breakfast. I decided that if Slim didn’t open the door by lunchtime, I was going to open it for him with the help of the clerk and the sheriff. I didn’t want to embarrass my Pard, but enough was enough! Turns out, I didn’t need to take drastic action after all.
Around noon, I was rereading the newspaper when, at last, I heard a tapping behind me and then Slim’s voice joined in. “Jess, you still there?”
“Yup,” I acknowledged.
“Are you still leaning against the door?”
Dadgumit, where did he think I was? I fumed silently.
“You might want to move away from it cause I’m going to open the door.“
At last! I pushed my saddle away from the door and reached for my rifle. The door swung open revealing a disheveled Slim. His skin was pale and his clothes were rumpled like he had slept in them. He hadn’t shaved in a week and his beard was scruffy. But it was the look in his blood shot eyes that grabbed my attention. Usually they were a welcoming hue but now they had the look of a hollow man and it scared me.
I watched Slim shuffle away from me and sit down on the bed. He had his hands on his lap and he stared out the curtained window. I pulled my saddle and saddle bags through the narrow doorway and shut the door with my foot. As I turned to lock the door, I gazed about the room. It was impossibly small with only a bed, wash stand, chair and one small table. Slim took no notice of me.
I noticed that he had his saddle placed near the head board, his rifle was balanced on top. At least he had thought of his safety. I walked around him, apologizing as I did so, and sank down beside him. We were so close I could hear him breathing. We sat like that for several minutes and then he asked me, in a voice that was gruff with tears “Why?”
At first, I wasn’t sure what he was asking but then I suddenly knew. “I saw a vision dream of you sitting on a bed in an unfamiliar room. You were weeping and cocking a gun over and over again. I yelled to you that I was coming, did you hear me?” Our brotherly bond, which had forged between us fairly quickly, held us fast though many difficulties in the past. I knew when he had been pushed off a cliff and he knew when I almost drowned. It was an invisible thread that I never took for granted. Long ago, someone challenged me in a gun duel. They taunted me, saying that Slim wasn’t my kin so he should not matter. I was so mad that I slit both of our wrists and we became blood brothers. I hoped that the grief he was going through would not wash our bond away.
He looked up at me. His eyes were filling with tears. “She lied about everything!“
I gulped. I knew she had lied about the letter because her father had told me, but everything?
Although, I hadn’t said anything, Slim rubbed the back of his neck with his left hand. “Do you remember when we had to choose one of five teachers and you asked why someone would use their initials instead of their name?”
I nodded. I remembered, alright. Again, a wave of guilt washed over me. If only I hadn’t suggested he becomes a member of the school council.
“She used her initials because she knew we were looking for a man and she wanted the job so she lied, writing on that letter that her name was M.B. Collins. She told me that she figured that with school starting so soon, we would just let her stay.”
I gasped, now I knew why I had been suspicious.
“There’s more,” he said bitterly, “remember when she had Mike teaching?”
“I was so mad at her!” I exclaimed.
“When I confronted her, she said it was done all the time. I was so mad Jess. I have never hit a woman but I almost did then. I told her that it was her job to teach and Mike’s job was to learn and play with his friends at recess. I also told her about Daisy being a teacher before she became a nurse. I told her, in no uncertain terms, that if she tried it again we’d be pulling him out of the school and telling her superintendent why.”
“That’s why she apologized,“ I murmured.
“Jess, I need to apologize to you too.”
“Uh?” I looked hard at him.
“The night of the dance, you left early cause you were sick. She practically begged me to stay until the end of the dance and then when I walked her home, she invited me in for coffee. We, well I almost took her to bed.”
“What stopped you?” I was genuinely surprised at this confession. I had been so sick at the time. I didn’t know any of it.
“We weren’t even courting yet! Although, I got the feeling that she didn’t care. I told her that I needed to get back to you. When she mocked me, saying that you were a man and could go to the doctor yourself, all I could think about how I had left you. I knew you needed me. I felt it.”
“She probably wasn’t too pleased that you left,” I spoke softly. I was relieved. Our bond was still strong.
He shook his head, as if to clear it. “Do you know why she wanted the pageant outside? “
“Something about the sheep, I think?” I scratched my head.
“She told me that all the noise of parents and children and animals would trigger a headache!“
I felt my temper rising. “Of all the blamed things to do!“ I thundered. “She was willing to let Mike and all his school mates get sick because of her headache!” I rose then and realizing that I wasn’t able to pace sat back again. This wasn’t about me, anyway. My Pard looked miserable. He hated when someone lied to him and now he felt betrayed too.
“She lied to me, to the town and especially to the children. And I was about to marry her!“
I couldn’t stand this much longer, I thought. But then, I again realized that my best friend had so much more to tell me. I remembered what it was like for me when I lost Maria. Slim was drowning under the weight of her lies and secrets. I needed to corral my temper.
“She always had a reason for everything,” Slim mumbled.
“What do you mean, Pard?”
He shook his head. “I’ve never lied to you and I’m not gonna start now, Jess.” He spoke so earnestly. I felt a chill go through me.
“She would tell me that her headaches happened when she had her monthly then when they happened at other times, she said she was tired from the day. She was perfectly happy cuddling in front of the fire or under a tree, when we went on picnics, but if my hand roamed further than her breast she’d pull away.” He looked embarrassed.
“Slim, it was perfectly natural to want to go exploring,” I said. Heck, I did that very thing all the time but I too wouldn’t want to share that information with anyone.
His shoulders dropped a little more and I sideways glanced at him. He was crying again. I handed him my bandana. I knew there was more to hear but this was getting way more personal than reading a letter.
“I really like being Mike’s second Pa, ya know. I know I made mistakes with Andy and I have tried my best to be better with Mike. You have so helped me.”
“Thanks, Pard. But you gotta remember, that you were Andy’s Pa, Ma and big brother after your Ma died. Don’t be too hard on yourself.“ I had seen first hand how much he wanted for Andy and I knew that now, as Andy had grown up some, the brotherly feelings of love and respect were equally shared.
“As much as I love Mike, I wanted children of my own, ya know?“ I nodded.
“She said she couldn’t have children, the truth of it was she was afraid to make love because she was afraid of having a daughter that would get the same disease she had.”
I sucked in my breath. He must have heard me because he just shook his head. “Yeah, I had fallen in love with a woman who lied to me about practically everything, who wanted to teach in a frontier town but wasn’t willing to learn what she needed to be a frontier woman, who had headaches all the time and probably wouldn’t let me into bed! I must be some kind of fool.”
His shoulders were now visibly shaking and his tears were falling freely. He was clearly exhausted.
“When was the last time you ate anything?” I asked him.
He shook his head. “Don’t rightly know, maybe last night? “
Well I knew that was wrong. I made up my mind. He was drowning in his feelings. He wasn’t thinking clearly.
“Slim, I want you to strip down to your long johns and get into that bed. You need to sleep. When you wake up, we’ll go get something to eat. There’s a Bath House in town where you can get a bath and a shave. Then when you think you can ride, we’re gonna go home. Mike and Daisy need you.”
For a moment he looked embarrassed but did as he was told. He fumbled with his buttons but managed to get everything off before he let me cover him over. As his head hit the pillow he spoke so low I almost missed it. “Thanks, Pard.”
I musta have fallen asleep cause the next thing I knew I was awake and in a really uncomfortable position. I was stretched over the chair in the room and the only light in the pitch darkness was from the window. My eyes found Slim who was still sprawled under the covers. Dadgumit, I was hungry and needed anything wet from the saloon down the street. But, upon thinking on it, I probably should stick to water, as unappealing as it sounded. A level headed person was needed here. I tried not to make a sound as I unwound myself from the chair but suddenly Slim turned over and looked at me.
“You’re still here,“ he murmured still half asleep.
Dadgumit, where did he think I was? I certainly wasn’t gonna sleep on my saddle in the hall again. “Where did you think I went?” I grumbled.
He struggled to sit up and ran a hand through his hair. “How long did I sleep? “ he asked me, ignoring my reaction.
“Several hours I reckon,” I informed him. “Are you hungry?”
He didn’t answer, at least not right away. When he did, he looked at the window. “I must look a sight.”
“Well, you look like a cowboy who’s been out on the range for a bit,” I agreed with him. I wondered if he was afraid of going outside. I walked to the table and lit the lamp. The glow swept over the small room making it more comfortable. I opened my pocket watch. It was way past dinnertime. No wonder I was hungry.
I walked to the window to see if the diner was still open. As I peered through the darkness I saw a couple walk in. That settled it. I was gonna have dinner. I turned back to my Pard.
“The diner has some good food, wanna go?”
To my surprise, he shook his head. ”Oh come on, “ I exclaimed, “you gotta be hungry! “
I was getting frustrated. Then I remembered I was dealing with a man who felt empty. He wasn’t thinking straight. I walked over to the bed and sat down by Slim’s side.
“Pard, you gotta eat something, “ I cajoled him. “How about I bring you back some beef soup. That way you don’t have to leave the room until you shave.” The notion seemed perfectly reasonable to me. But my stubborn friend shook his head.
“Well, I’m gonna get some dinner. I won’t be long. I will bring you back something to eat, and if you don’t eat it, we’ll just be wastin’ money.” I knew that remark would strike him. He hated wastin’ money almost as much as he hated painting the barn. I found my boots, slipped them on and slapped on my gun belt.
“Don’t go anywhere without me,” I said. He smiled for the first time.
I had planned on enjoying my meal, but so felt guilty leaving Slim alone. I had the waiter put the soup in a canteen and my left over dinner in a sack with a fork and spoon and after paying left for the hotel.
Slim was still in bed when I walked into the room. “Here,” I said, “drink this!”
He balked but seein’ I was being as stubborn as he was, drank the soup. For awhile neither of us said a word. I had no idea what to say next nor what Slim was feelin’ but I was soon to find out.
“Jess, I’m going away. I think I’ll go to Montana. I’ve never been there.”
“Ok, when do you wanna go?” He was in no shape to go anywhere and I think he knew that.
“Next day or two. “
“We’re gonna have to get supplies for that and wire Daisy and…” I hoped he would pick up my ramblings.
“You’re not going with me.” I almost forgot to breathe. There was no way he was going with out me.
“Why not?” I asked him, carefully.
He shook his head. “You have to go back to the ranch. Daisy and especially Mike need you”
“They need us both,” I reminded him. “Mike is our son. Just cause you’re hurting, doesn’t change that.”
“I’m no good to him like this.” He sounded like a dead man.
I took several breaths. This was crazy talk. My arm started throbbing.
“Slim, look at me.” I sat down next to him and as gently as I could explained how the family we had left behind needed him, his steady hand, his love.
“The ranch won’t be home without you,” I said looking at him with tears in my eyes.” Don’t you see Pard, Daisy and Mike don’t care about what the town gossips say, they only care about you, how hurt you must feel and how much they love and want to help you. Mike may only be 11, but we’ve both felt how much his arms feel around us when we’re hurting. We both have a powerful reason to stay together but I can’t make you go home. But you should know that if you do go, you’ll be missed by Daisy, Mike, Mort and especially me.” I stopped and wiped my eyes with my sleeve.
He frowned and shook his head. “I can’t think beyond what happened, Jess. How am I supposed to run a ranch like this!”
I looked at him. He looked wounded and lost and he was trembling. All I wanted to do was put my arms around him. “You put one step in front of the other and you hold onto me.” I grabbed him gently and drew him close and he began to cry.
We were both exhausted again. I thought about trying to get Slim to lie down again but he began to talk in broken sentences about how he had thought he could help Marybeth, how he’d been willing to wait another year, how there were surgeons in St. Louis and maybe they could help her. He rambled on and on as if she was away and not dead until the wore himself out. He slumped against my shoulder.
“How did I get so lucky to have you in my life?” He asked me.
I smiled gratefully. “I’m the lucky one,” I said as I rubbed comforting circles on his back. “Time and again, you’ve stood by me whenever I’m in trouble; you always give me good advice, and you always show how much you care about me, respect my opinions, stand beside me even when you don’t agree with me. We’re both lucky, Pard. We have each other and our family and our ranch. You’ll get through this. I’ve got you.”
I was dancing with Becky Sue at Laramie’s Social and her head was on my shoulder, her hand entwined in mine. We were in our own little bubble until someone tapped me on the shoulder. I shook him off. I did not want to be parted from my beautiful companion for a single second. He tapped me again, this time calling me by name. I was getting irritated and shook him off again. Suddenly, he grabbed my shoulder rather rudely, I thought, and said firmly, “Jess, you have to wake up!”
And just like that my dream disappeared in a cloud of dust and when I managed to focus my eyes, they beheld my Pard who was fully dressed and smiling at me. “Well, I’ll have you know, I was in the middle of a dance with Becky Sue which you have now interrupted,“ I grumbled.
“Sorry Pard,“ he smiled again, “but I had time to think last night and you’re right, it’s time we went home. “
You could have knocked me over with a feather! Last night he was all weepy and now he wanted to go home. I wondered if he had sneaked out to the saloon while I was sleeping. I decided to follow his lead.
“So, what’s the plan, then?” I asked as I dutifully swung my legs out of bed and looked for my pants.
“How about we find that Bath House and then go get breakfast. Then we’ll need to stock up on some provisions for the trip home.”
It was plain that he had been thinking about what to do. I got dressed rather hurriedly, afraid he was gonna change his mind. Then we did find the Bath House and the diner. Over breakfast, I told him about the train. “It goes from here straight to Cheyenne, Pard,“ I spoke excitedly. I really felt that he’d latch onto the idea. It was the newest way to travel. You could board your horse and then sit in relatively ease reading the paper or, in Slim’s case, a book and cut the travel time in half or there about. No stopping to rest under the stars, no potential rattlesnakes or outlaws. Just peace and quiet. But Slim surprised me again.
“If you don’t mind, Jess, I’d like to ride home.”
I looked up at him sharply. Had I heard him right? “Let me get this straight, you wanna ride home? It’s gonna take at least a week to get there.”
He nodded, and buttered his biscuit. “I’ve been lying down for the better part of a week. I need to get out in the Big Open with nothing around me except the wind at my back, the sun in my face and you by my side. I’ve got a lot to sort out and I think better in the saddle.”
“You sure?” I asked.
He nodded firmly and so we set the plan in place. We swung towards the general store, which the locals called the Mercantile, and stocked up on vittles along with some candy sticks for Mike and a new hat pin for Daisy. We went back to the room, rolled up our bed rolls and carrying our grub, went downstairs. I paid the clerk and we strode towards the livery where we retrieved our beloved mounts. We finally were on our way. We decided not to wire Daisy until we reached Cheyenne, cause if we were delayed anywhere on our journey, she would worry.
That first night, we found a great spot with water nearby and a few clumps of trees for cover. We laid our bed rolls close to each other. We were tired and didn’t speak much. That was the pattern for much of the following 3 or 4 days. On the evening of the fifth day, Slim asked me a question that has had me thinking on to this day. I wasn’t sure at first how to answer him, but I must have done good, cause he didn’t haul off and slug me.
We had eaten and were resting side by side when Slim turned to me and seriously asked, “Jess, did you ever wonder why we became friends?“
We had never talked about it. It had just happened, least wise that’s how it seemed to me. One day we were arguing and the next he was defending me against Jack Slade, who wanted me fired. We had discovered that we thought more alike than anyone else we’d ever known. I respected him for standing up for his beliefs and for being both Pa and big brother to Andy.
I looked into his eyes. They had taken on a deep blue hue and he was very serious. I sucked in my breath and hoped to God that I said the right thing. He’d been pretty quiet all day and I knew he was still having a hard time with Marybeth’s secrets and lies.
“Well, I think we realized, in the very beginning, that protecting Andy was most important to you. I thought you were beating up on him but I found out, real quick, that you never laid a hand on him, you just threatened to. Andy took me aside after Carlin and told me.”
Slim nodded. “He was becoming harder to control. Always wanting to go off and down right disobeying me or ignoring me. I didn’t know what to do about it. That is, until you showed me how to let loose the reins and have fun.”
“I never lied to you, well there’s that one time with Roany Bishop.” I wanted to keep them safe from that crazy, unpredictable man who had once saved my life and held that fact over my head like a club saying I owed him. “Anyway, I never lied again after that time.”
“I forgave you that a long time ago, “ Slim spoke softly as his eyes sought mine. “You were afraid of what he might do to us. Jonesy told us. He said that he had to promise that he’d keep us both from town until Roany left.”
“Yeah, well he left alright.” I sighed. Shooting Roaney had been necessary but real hard.
“I hadn’t planned on staying, you know. I dropped off the piano and figured that I had plenty of time to leave before you got home but then you were there and Andy just flew at me and I just about lost it. Then when Jonesy started playing and singing that crazy song; you just put your hand on my shoulder and I felt forgiven and understood and cared about all at once. I never wanted to leave again.“
Slim chuckled. “Well we both know you left a lot in those early days, Jess.”
“Lots of folks needed my help, Pard, “ I defended myself.
“Relax, Jess. We both know you always came back.”
That’s the thing, though,” I continued as I thought about his question, “the two if us are loyal to our friends.”
“What else?“ He probed.
“We trust each other with our hearts and lives. We can predict what each of us will do to save each other and even if we’re mad as heck at each other, if one of us is in trouble, we forget it and come to each other’s aid.”
“We’re more family than any other family I know. I think it’s because we chose to be brothers, don’t you think?” I asked him.
“Yup.” He sighed then and I thought that was the end of the conversation. “We make a good team, Pard. That’s why we’re so good for Mike. “
It was my turn to sigh. I missed that tow head something awful.
“You know something, Jess? My marriage would never have worked.“
Uh? Where was he going with this? I wondered if he was getting sleepy.
“Despite the fact that I loved her, she never loved me enough to tell me the truth. She didn’t trust me with her illness. She lied all the time. She used me.“ He shook his head. “I think she was just thinking about herself so much that she couldn’t or wouldn’t love me. Do you know when I suggested she go see Dr. Sam she refused because he was a man? I think he would have told her there was nothing wrong with her and that she could probably have all the babies we wanted. She wouldn’t tell him about her illness either. Then when she couldn’t stop me from asking questions like when was her father coming, she couldn’t be honest and ran away. Did you know she had done that once before?“
I sat quietly through his tirade and put a hand out onto his arm. I hoped what I was to ask next would not offend him. “Slim, do you regret meeting and falling in love with Marybeth?”
He sat very still and then spoke quietly. “I learned a lot about life and teaching and what not to do and that when you get suspicious I should pay more attention! It was an experience but I am glad that I realized it would never work. I think I fell out of love with her when she lied to me, didn’t trust me, said all those awful things about my family and was not even loyal to me.”
“Even though you were suspicious, you were still willing to marry her, Pard.”
“Well,” I thought about that too. I didn’t feel right about leaving her at the altar, you know.”
“Well,” I said softly, “no disrespect, but it’s lucky for us that you never had to promise to love and honor someone who wouldn’t or couldn’t do the same for you.”
He smiled sadly. “It is no good to think ill of the dead, but I am glad that I realized in time what I was doing. I only came after her for answers. I was going to break it off anyway. “ He yawned then and I got up and built up the fire. He had definitely been thinking a lot and seemed more level thinking than before.
“Think I’ll turn in. Thanks for listening, Pard.”
“Anytime, Pard.” Somehow, I felt he was healing his heart and was forever grateful for the brotherhood we shared.
By the time we reached the rise above our home four days later, we were hot, dusty, and exhausted. All we wanted was a hot bath, some good food and our beds. Slim had been lost in his head for the better part of the day and I wasn’t sure if he realized that we were home. I dismounted in front of the barn and walked around to his side.
“Hey Pard,” I tried to keep my voice gentle so as not to spook him, “we’re home. Time to step down.”
He just nodded and dismounted also. For a moment he leaned against Alamo but then righted himself and followed me into the barn. I found a hay stack near the stalls and motioned to him to sit down. He wasn’t too pleased with me but I didn’t care.
“You don’t look all that steady, Pard.” I still spoke gentle like. “You don’t want Daisy worrying about you.” As much as we loved and respected Daisy, we surely didn’t need a Mother Hen just then.
He agreed and sat down. I made sure both horses had water and grain, un-saddled them and motioned to Slim that I’d rub them down after my bath. We started walking towards the house and suddenly a whirlwind flew out the door and leapt into my arms. “I’m so glad you’re home, Jess!” The tow-headed storm exclaimed.
“Hey,” Slim spoke up, “don’t I get one of those hugs?”
Mike let go of me and ran to Slim, wrapping his arms around him. Slim was overcome and buried his tear-filled face into Mike’s hair. The healing of his heart had begun.
Our second Ma, Daisy, must have heard us come in, cause she had coffee ready and water heating for our baths, when we came into the house. She smiled when she saw us. “You’re home, both if you. We missed you.”
Life went on then, as it as always does and I “saw” my Pard take one step after another sometimes leaning on Daisy, sometimes leaning on me and always accepting hugs from Mike. It was slow goin’ for awhile. He suffered from night dreams then periods when he’d yell at me for no reason. He always apologized but I kept telling him that it was all right, that he was just healing. I remembered how hard it was for me. Sometimes I hadn’t wanted to go to town but Slim always went with me. The pain of losing someone you loved and were loved by them was hard but here was my best friend who was trying to make sense of his feelings that had not been shared and he couldn’t even confront her.
September arrived and it was time again for school to begin. The school council hired a woman by the name of Miss Mason. She came in on the stage just like Marybeth the year before but unlike the former teacher who had volunteered Slim to drive her around Laramie, Miss Mason held a “Meet the Teacher” meeting after church the next Sunday. Slim and I discussed the matter of which one would go and I suggested that he might want to stay home. But he would have none of it.
“We’re both Mike’s parents, Jess. Besides, what kind of example would I send him that I would not give Miss Mason a chance. We all suffer loss but we have to keep going. You’re helping me do that.” In the end, we both stayed behind after Church.
The children were all assigned a seat and she asked their names and ages and a little about themselves. Then they could ask her questions. When they were done, they could play in the school yard. Then the parent(s) could come in and do the same thing. One of the parents told her that the previous teacher had the older children teach the younger and wanted to know if she would do the same. I was relieved when she told us that even though it was common practice, she believed that it was the teacher’s job to teach and the children’s job was to learn. I liked her already. She asked about the events in town and I stood up and told her about the dance. One other parent told her about the pageant and one of the women told her about the quilting society. She said that while she had a sacred duty to be the best teacher she could be for the children of Laramie, that it was a duty to know the rest of our community and participate in our activities. It was sure going to be an interesting year.
I kept watch for Slim to suffer a night dream but he slept soundly. Perhaps I had been worrying for nothing, I thought to myself. But my peaceful life was to be disrupted again when we set out to stock the line cabins for the winter. We always start at the farther one. Although hardly ever used by either of us, we couldn’t take a chance with our lives, so we checked the cans of peaches and the wood pile. We spent the nights in each cabin to make sure if it rained, there were no leaks and finally we reached the cabin we be using so much.
It was slow goin’. It’s a good thing we have a forest for a home, cause we needed a lot of wood to stockpile. Thinking back on what could have been my death, is a sobering experience. One minute I was sawing off some twigs and the next a limb that Slim was sawing rolled towards me.
“Jess, get out of the way!” His scream shattered the calm forest sounds around me.I looked up just in time to jump in the opposite direction
After I caught my breath, I choked out “What the heck happened?’”
He had the grace to look embarrassed.“ I wasn’t paying attention. “
I was sorry as I could be afterwards but at the time, I lost it. “That’s it! I can’t work around you anymore. I am leaving!” I was so angry and so scared that I might have died or been seriously hurt just because my best friend couldn’t get his head on straight. I knew I shouldn’t hit him, but the urge was to strong. I stalked over to him, grabbed his shoulders and shook him. Suddenly, in the midst of my outburst, he started to laugh. I was stunned.
“We’ve done this before,“ his large frame shook with laughter.
“Just like that, my anger left me. We had done this before. Jonesy stopped us from tearing each other apart the first time, our ability to see how each other felt saved us the second time, and now, years later we were again facing off.
“Jess, are you alright? “ Slim looked at me, misery seeping out of every bone in his body.
“I’ll live,” I replied. There had to be a way to help Slim. Later that night while we warmed out feet by our fire it came to me. I forgot what it was called but the outcome would work. I got up, walked over to my saddle bags and drew out some paper and the pencil I always carried.
I had to tap him a couple of times with the pencil for him to acknowledge me. When finally he lifted his head, all I could see was sadness, regret, and defeat marring his features.
“Slim,” I began “do you know what a cleansing ritual is?”
“It’s an Indian custom, isn’t it?”
I nodded. “Yup, it’s part of a vision quest or it can be done when the brave wants to know what direction to go in. But sometimes, it’s used to dispel evil spirits that control the body.”
Slim slowly raised himself until he was sitting cross legged in front of me. “And your telling me this because…”
I took a deep breath Either he would go along or laugh at me. It was now or never.
“I know you hate yourself when you get angry with me or Mike for no reason. I know you don’t mean to ignore me or not do your chores properly. You’re stuck and don’t know what to do. So, I think this will help.“ I had his attention now.
“So what do I do about it?”
“Well, you can pretend that Marybeth is right in front of you and write down on this paper all the things you wished you could have said to her. All the anger, all the times she hurt you. Things you wished she had said. Dreams you had that she broke.” I was running out of ideas.
He nodded and grabbed the paper from me. I believed he got the idea. “I have more paper, if you need it. Oh, and when you’re done, let me know. I’ll be outside.“
I had no idea how long I sat outside. I had a nice, small fire going not far from the cabin. Finally, he called my name.
He nodded solemnly.
“Ok then, bring that paper and come out to me.” When he reached my side I directed him to stand where he was facing the fire. I stood on the side opposite him.
“Slim,” I directed, “ look up into the sky and say goodbye to Marybeth, to trust broken, dreams you couldn’t make come true; everything.” His lips moved but no words came out.
“When you’re ready, throw the paper in the fire.”
He looked across at me, understanding lightening his eyes. “Why..” he started to say.
“There’s no other man on this earth that I would share my heart with except you. You can do this and let go off everything that has poisoned you over the last year.”
He dropped the paper in the fire. We watched the fire consume it bit by bit and felt release sweep over our minds. I watched Slim carefully. Slowly a genuine smile of old creeped into his eyes. The beacon that I always counted on to lead me home had appeared.
Daisy saw the change in Slim when we returned home several days later. She wisely held her council until she was bursting with questions. Then the floodgates opened and I answered every question she had. When she asked how we managed to get Marybeth out of Slim’s head, I told her that it was an Indian magic recipe. Mike was immediately intrigued and asked all sorts of questions. Slim, for his part, kept his mouth shut and let me be the center of attention.
Finally, Daisy spoke “Well, if we could bottle it, your secret recipe could fetch a million dollars to cure men of all sorts of things. “
“A million dollars! “ Mike exclaimed. “Boy, what could we do with a million dollars!”
“A whole lot, Tiger,” I said as I envisioned a larger barn, more horses.
“Slim,” Mike began and then stopped.
“What Mike?” Slim asked as Mike, climbed onto his lap.
“A million dollars is a lot of money, isn’t it?”
“It couldn’t come close..”
“What couldn’t come close?” I asked him.
“Our family, what we have, each other, our love, no amount of money could come close to what we are worth to each other.”
“We’re all so worth it,” Daisy smiled at us.
Author’s Note: The disease Jess was afflicted with during the dance was common in the1800s due to poor sanitation.