Summary: In the days before Daisy Cooper arrives at their ranch, Jess Harper and Slim Sherman work hard to raise a young boy by the name of Mike Williams. His presence brings them to the realization that they both want to make a home for the boy. When Mike confuses the meaning of two words, the bond of family love is tested.
Word Count: 8,128
Chapter 1 – The Nightmare
“Is he asleep?”
Jess Harper ran a hand through his hair and nodded to his friend. “Yeah, but I gotta tell ya, something is bothering him.” He handed his friend/brother Slim Sherman a cup of coffee.
Slim sat up straighter on his chair. He curled his long legs out from under the hitching rail, his senses on alert. He had felt that of all people Jess would be able to figure out what was happening with the young boy. They had taken him into their home and to be honest, their hearts, two months ago.
“He didn’t say anything at all?”
“Nope, “ Jess replied after sinking into his rocker. He stared across the yard onto the Laramie road and to the hills beyond. “The Big Open,” as he used to call the land and adventures beyond the boundary of the Sherman-Harper Ranch, used to call him when trouble threatened but he was tethered to Slim’s side and had deep roots sunk into the land they owned. “He was fine this morning, wasn’t he?” he turned towards Slim.
“Yeah. “ The frown on Slim’s handsome face deepened.” Do you suppose it’s a reminder of his parents?”
“If I remember right, the birthdays of his parents were in the winter.” When Jess had gone to bury Mike’s parents, he had found the family Bible and they had it displayed in the living room for Mike to see.
“He did his homework?“
Slim shrugged. ”Yeah, checked it this morning.”
They were both silent after that, each lost in their own heads, each trying to figure out what was wrong. The trouble was of course, that they didn’t know much about Mike, at least only what he’d told them. They thought the settling time was going well. Maybe they were wrong.
“Maybe it’s us.” Slim’s normally calm voice sounded deeper than usual.
“How so?” Jess was puzzled. ‘They were doing everything right, weren’t they?’ he wondered.
“Maybe we’re trying too hard or not enough. I almost lost Andy to the Big Open and would have if you hadn’t shown up, you know.” Slim shot a side wise glance at his best friend.
“You gotta give yourself a break when it comes to Andy, Pard. You had to be his father, mother and brother all in one and run a ranch too.“
Slim’s shoulders relaxed under Jess’ pointed look. “All I did was share stories and give him other things to think about. I never took your place with him. You were always his big brother, his guardian. Oh, he might have resented it sometimes but the love you share now – it was worth all the heartache.“
“When did you get so wise?”
“Hey, I’m just copying you!” The banter of encouraging words went back and forth for a few more moments.
“Now that the two of us are so wise, do you think we’ll figure out—”
Slim’s voice was cut off when they heard Mike screaming from inside the house. Both men were inside the bedroom of their soon to be adopted son in seconds. It was clear from the rumpled bedsheets and the sweaty body of the eight-year-old boy that he was having a nightmare. Jess gently picked up the squirming boy and murmuring words of comfort sat down on his rocker near the fire. Slim went to heat up some milk and came back moments later to find Mike clinging to Jess, tears rolling down his cheeks.
“We’re right here, Mike. We won’t let anybody take you.” He looked up at Slim and their eyes locked. “Mike was afraid he was being taken from us,” he spoke softly, running his hand over the young boy’s back.
Slim bit his lip in consternation. ‘What if’ he started to wonder when Mike began to wail.
“If I’m given to you, you could give me away too.”
“Huh?” The joined question hung in the tense room.
“Tiger,” Jess spoke softly, using the nickname he’d given Mike on that first day, “if we’re allowed to keep you, we ain’t never gonna give you up.”
Slim looked on helplessly. Finally, he walked into the kitchen, wet a clean rag and wrung it out. Holding it securely so it wouldn’t drip, he handed it over to Jess.
“Here Tiger, this’ll help.”
Mike wiped his face and then settled down on Jess’ chest. He hiccupped, wiped his eyes with the back of his long john sleeve and looked up at Slim. “You promise?”
Both men nodded. “What’s this all about, Mike? Did someone say something to you this morning?“ Slim asked him.
“We have a new classmate. Her name is Carolyn. She was abd, abduc, “ he stumbled over the word.
“Abducted?” Slim guessed.
Mike nodded. “ A mountain man took her from her home when she was a baby. Then when she got older, he sold her or traded her to Indians. The Indians gave her to a white family who adop, adopt,”
“Adopted her?” Another guess on the part of Slim Sherman.
Mike nodded. “The Indians took my parents from me,” he said, his voice trembled. “ Then the Japanese entertainers gave me to you, so you could give me away too!”
“Oh Mike,” Slim reached for Mike and Jess gladly handed him up to his friend. Mike reached up and placed his hands around Slim’s neck and held on tight. Slim sank down onto the sofa by the window. His grip tightened and he slid a big hand over the boy’s back, anchoring him in place.
“Like Jess said, Mike, we aren’t ever going to give you up. You’ll be part of the family we’re making.”
Chapter 2 – Questions
“Jess,” Slim whispered. They had finally made it into their beds. Mike was asleep, exhausted from his nightmare.
“Yeah,” whispered Jess as he turned over and looked at Slim.
“I think we ought to keep Mike home from school tomorrow.”
“Probably would be a good idea.”
“I still can’t figure out what happened, “ Slim groused, as he looked up at the ceiling. He clasped his hands behind his blond head. He knew he wasn’t going to get much sleep tonight.
“Something happened either at school or someone said something to him,” Jess’ familiar drawl deepened.
“Then you or I will have to talk to the teacher, Miss Mason, is it?”
“Yeah, and it oughta be you.” Jess replied.
The next day dawned way too early for the ranchers. They decided to let Mike sleep in and Slim left for town. As he rode the familiar trail, he rehearsed what he thought would be best to tell Miss Mason. He didn’t have much experience with teachers as he had been home-schooled. He found the school yard empty and was just about to knock when the door opened to reveal a rather pleasant looking young woman. He introduced himself and Miss Mason insisted on his coming in and joining her for coffee.
“What can I do for you, Mr. Sherman?”
Slim looked across at her and decided to tell her about Mike’s life, as they knew it. “So, you see, he’s had it rough and all we’re trying to do is give him a home and a family,” he sighed.
“Oh, I understand completely, Mr. Sherman,” her lilting voice calmed him. “ He’s quite an endearing child, so needy for love and safety. I think that’s why he was so upset with Carolyn’s story. I told the children the difference between abduction and adoption and made sure they understood. But now that you’re telling me that Mike is confused, makes me wonder if I need to go over it again. “
“Maybe it’s just Mike who doesn’t understand, after all he’s the only student who has a past similar to this young girl,” Slim paused as another thought struck him.” Do you think it’s possible that one of his classmates confused him?”
Miss Mason took a sip of coffee and carefully set the cup down. “It’s possible; children can be downright cruel sometimes. Tell you what, tomorrow when he comes to school, we’ll talk about it again. Now, if you’ll excuse me, the students will be coming soon.”
As Slim was about to mount Alamo for the trip home, he decided to check in with the local sheriff. Mort Cory had just left his office when the two friends met on the sidewalk in front of the jail.
“Slim! You’re here early. Everything alright?“ Mort’s rapid-fire questions might have put others on alert, but Slim who had known the lawman for a long time just smiled and raised his hands.
“Whoa, Mort!” he grinned. “Everything is fine. Jess sends his best.” Slim responded in kind.
“I was just about to get some breakfast, want to join me?”
“Not today, Mort. I’ve got to get back. But I did want to ask if you had any results from those telegrams about Mike? “
“Sorry no,“ Mort replied. “You know, he might not have any kin.” Mort ran a hand behind his neck. He was very fond of Slim and Jess and knew that they wanted to adopt young Mike in the worst way. Any fool could see that they were making a family with that young boy. Although he knew he had a duty to perform, he sincerely wished that he didn’t find any relatives to claim young Mike Williams.
“We know you’re doing your best, Mort.” Slim paused and then leaned in and said softly, ”we hope you don’t find any kin for him. He’s kinda growing on us.”
While Slim was in town, Jess had been busy. He let Mike sleep in. He milked Molly and gathered the eggs. He was just about to make flapjacks when a sleepy tow head walked into the kitchen.
“I’m sorry, I overslept,“ Mike started to say.
“Aw no Tiger,” Jess rejoined. “We decided to let you sleep some more. And don’t worry, I did your chores. Now how about some breakfast? We have a full day ahead of us, ya know. “
“Uh?” Mike gazed at Jess in confusion.
“After breakfast, we have to get the horses ready for the midmorning run and then we are going fishing!”
For the first time since he woke, Mike looked around. “Where’s Slim?” he asked perplexed.
“Oh, he had an errand in town,” Jess said as nonchalantly as possible. “Sides, we are gonna surprise him with a fish supper, right?” He couldn’t resist and he tousled Mike’s hair. “You go on then and get dressed and we’ll eat and get ready for the stage and our fun day.”
Breakfast was a fun affair. Jess had added blueberries to the batter and they played a traveling game with the rest of the berries. Mike made his bed and put on his new boots and found his rod. It was a piece of a tree limb that Jess had cut to the right size for Mike. After leaving a note for Slim, as was their custom, they rode toward the lake. Mike was happy to spend time with Jess and Jess was hoping to discover what was bothering Mike.
Chapter 3 – Mike’s POV
My Pa once told me that it wasn’t polite to listen in on other people’s conversations, but when I heard Jess and Slim talking on the porch and they mentioned my name, well I just had to listen! Seems they are just as confused as I am. I really don’t know what to do. I wish my Ma was still with me. She would tell me stories so I would understand things.
I think that Jess and Slim are nice, real nice men. They have been real good to me anyway. They got me new clothes and taught me things. Whenever they go to town, they always bring me back candy sticks. I only have to do a few chores like make my bed, come to the table dressed, do my chores that sort of thing. And they’re always teaching me things like how to ride fence, and track. Slim gives me the best hugs. But I can’t understand why they want to give me away. I mean, why be nice to me if it’s only for a short time. Johnny Baker told me that his parents only took in Carolyn for a short time and someone else is gonna take her away again. I feel sorry for her. She seems to like the Bakers very much.
One thing is for certain, I can’t stay here much longer. I mean, the longer I stay, the more I’ll like it here and then when I get taken away, it’ll hurt a lot. I wonder who will take me. Johnny says it will probably be someone who needs help on their ranch or a farm. I don’t know who to ask.
Sheriff Mort is a nice man too but he’s a lawman. My Pa said that law men were all alike – They lock you up then ask questions. I don’t think I would like jail. I would be lonely.
It seems like a long time ago when we were traveling on that wagon train. It sure did break down a lot. My Pa owned a dry goods store so he wasn’t a regular traveler but his family had come west on a wagon train so maybe he knew something about wagons. Sometimes I forget how their voices sounded and they only come to me in a dream.
If I go away, I don’t know where I would go. I will have to learn how to saddle and un-saddle Browny. And get food and more clothes. I should make a list. Once I get to where I’m going, I could send money back to Slim for all the food I’ll take. Maybe I can get Jess to teach me about saddling Browny. I could say that I would need to know if they were hurt bad and needed a doctor. I mean it could happen.
I could go to town and hide there for a few days. I could say that I rode in with Slim and he’s over visiting the sheriff while I’m to wait for him or I could say I was waiting for Jess and to put the cost of that grain on Slim’s bill. It would only work for a couple of times though.
I have two blankets and I can get a pair of bed sheets from the closet. I’ll need two canteens, one for me and one for Browny and some grain for him. I have my clothes and boots. Oh, and one pistol. Jess says it’s for emergency only, well, I guess running away from home is liken to an emergency. I’m gonna have to get that rain slicker from the barn, the really big one. I could use it as a tent at night. Then there’s food. I reckon I can take some cans of peaches and cookies. Maybe I should pretend to eat and hide the food in my bureau, wrapped up good so no mice can get at it. Oh, and a book or two so I’ll have something to do at night which reminds me, I’ll need matches. Golly, it’s a lot of things. I hope it all fits in my sack.
Wish I could stop crying. I will miss this bed. It’s nice and warm and Jess always tucks me in saying “goodnight little young’un.” Who’s gonna say that to me next?
Chapter 4 – Missing
“Looks like it’s gonna rain all night!” Jess slammed his coffee cup on the table so hard that the liquid splashed onto the table. He stormed to the window and back again.
“Jess, I know you’re upset but wearing out our only carpet is not going to help,” Slim rose from his chair by the desk. He caught up to Jess mid stride and walked him over to his rocker. “Millie isn’t going anywhere, you know.“
Jess squirmed under Slim’s watchful eye.” I was really looking forward to seeing her,” he mumbled.
“Well, let’s see what tomorrow is like,” Slim’s voice of reason broke through the clouds of gloom that had taken up residence in Jess’ mind. “There’s good news though, no stage tomorrow. Seems the run was cancelled so we get to sleep later, which reminds me, have you noticed that Mike has taken to staying in his room more?”
“Yeah, I was gonna ask him about that but it seemed he fell asleep before I could ask him.”
“Well let’s sleep on it. Things will look better in the morning.”
The next morning it was still raining. They decided to let Mike sleep in and did his chores for him. Jess was in a better mood but still agitated that it was raining. Next to Wyoming winters, he hated the rainy season more as mud was everywhere and clung to his boots making them almost impossible to clean.
“Hey, have you seen Mike?” Slim poked his head into Traveler’s stall a while later.
“No, but maybe he’s at the outhouse,“ answered Jess.
A quick trip up the hill revealed nothing. “Where did you look, Slim?”
“In his bedroom, under the beds, in the pantry, in the attic, and now the outhouse. I’ve called his name a dozen times. “
Jess walked over to Browny’s stall. It was empty. “Slim,” he stammered, “he’s gone.”
“What!” Slim almost ran over Jess in his haste to see for himself. “Oh my God! “
Jess stared at his best friend. Slim hardly ever swore. The enormous weight of the situation bore down on them. “Why?”
Slim shook his head. “I haven’t got the faintest idea, Jess. I thought everything was going well. This clinches it though. I think someone scared our boy into thinking we were giving him away. We gotta find him!”
“Yeah, well, good luck tracking him in this weather. We have no idea what direction he went or when he left.“ Jess shivered and shoved his fists into his jeans pockets. Pard,” he glanced at his distraught brother/friend,” let’s go to the house and see what he took. Maybe he left a clue. “
The two men walked side by side across the yard scarcely aware of the pelting rain. Jess slipped an arm around Slim’s shoulders. His Pard was grieving, his shoulders tense and the waterfall of tears gave way as soon as they entered the warm room. They both felt the emptiness and the silence. ‘I can’t stand this’ Jess felt the despair start creeping inside him. He had known loneliness before he met Slim. His search for a second family had led him to the Sherman Ranch and to the brothers he now considered his own. He had so hoped that the young boy would fill the Andy-sized hole in his chest, but maybe it was not to be. All at once, he felt the mixed emotions of his Pard. Slim was staring into the fire, the tears forming in his eyes were tracking down his face and he wasn’t brushing them away. In the past, Jess had often ridden away from these strong emotions but now, faced with the joint struggle, he walked over to Slim and sat down next to him.
“Slim, I’m gonna check his bedroom,“ he swallowed hard, “maybe he left a note.”
Slim just nodded, too numb to reply. Jess, it seemed, was taking charge. But he couldn’t let him carry this burden alone. He struggled to his feet, swaying a bit. He discovered the missing Bible right away. “He took his Bible,“ he called out to Jess.
“Yeah, and almost all his clothes,” Jess shouted.
“An extra blanket and sheet,” Slim continued as he began his search in the main room. “Two cans of peaches and some cookies,” he continued. Something caught his eyes and he saw, for the first time, the hand- written note. “Jess, he left a note!”
Jess hurried into the room and peered over Slim’s shoulder.
Dear Slim and Jess,
I decided to leave because I don’t want to be given away again. I really liked my stay with you. You were real nice to me buying my new clothes and candy sticks and teaching me all the time. I will remember your liking me and the fishing trips. I took some peaches and some things from the root cellar. When I get to my new home, and get a job, I will send money back to you. Mike Williams.
“Dadgum! “ Jess flung himself down onto the sofa. “Now what!”
Slim shook his head slowly, “well, you were right earlier. We can’t track him now. We’ll have to wait until the rain lets up. Where would he go? Jess, he only knows how to get to the lake.”
“Don’t forget, he knows how to go to Andy’s Creek where he used to fish. He knows the Laramie Road into town, and he knows how to get to the Line Cabin.”
“Do you think he’d go to town?”
Jess shrugged. “Maybe.” He wrinkled his forehead. “He could always ride into town and pretend one of us was with him but visiting Mort. He could as always say you or I told him to wait for us there.”
“So, Benson’s, the Livery, Maud’s any other place? “
Jess shook his head. “He could only use that excuse once ‘cause someone from town would check. Do you think he’d ride toward Cheyenne?“
“That’s a long way and don’t forget it’s raining.“
“Yeah, right,” Jess grimaced. “He might get sick.” He turned and looked at Slim and saw the shared anxiety reflected in his blue eyes. “We gotta find him!”
Chapter 5 – Doubts
The last stage had come and gone and they were alone again. ‘If Misery loves company, there’s a whole lot here’ thought Slim as he made another pot of coffee. Neither of them wanted to eat so they drank coffee by the fire, each man lost in their memories of the blue-eyed tow head that had captured their hearts. Jess, who normally couldn’t sit still, rocked back and forth to the rhythm of his aching heart. Slim, on the other hand, racked his brain for answers to the biggest question of the day Why?
“Pard, maybe he wasn’t as settled as we thought. He’s been through so much. His parents were killed right in front of him. He saw all they owned burn up. He lay under the scorched wagon on the cold ground getting sick. He woke up in a wagon to strange people who didn’t speak English well, then he woke up to us. He had a warm bed, good food, chores, fishing, living on a ranch with no other young children, no mother maybe,” Slim paused and wiped his eyes, “ maybe it was all too much for him.”
“Or maybe we were too much for him.”
Angered, Slim rose from his chair. He whirled around and stomped over to Jess. “What are you saying?” he snapped.
“Whoa!” Jess glared at Slim, willing his tongue to settle down. “ What I mean is, maybe we were missing Andy so much that we thought Mike could take his place.”
“No, Pard.” Slim sat back down. “ We miss Andy that’s for sure. But Mike is different. For one thing, he’s younger and very needy. He’s mischievous and gets dirty all the time and he asks a million questions but he’s not Andy.”
“He’s all boy, that’s for sure.” Jess grinned.
“I think he was born with a question in his mouth,” Slim mused.
“Then, what happened? What did we do wrong?”
Slim sighed. He had no answer for Jess or himself. “I think we need some medicinal whiskey,” he got up and went to the cupboard where Jonesy kept the bottle known to cure all Sherman Harper ills. He poured a decent amount of whiskey in each glass and as they clicked their glasses, each man felt their bond strengthen.
“Jess, nobody is born with directions, like this boy is going to draw pictures and be famous so give him the best slates or that girl will be beautiful that sort of thing.” He looked over at Jess to see if he understood. Sometimes, Jess would nod in understanding but his eyes would glaze over. Tonight though, they were clear. “I think we knew that very first day that he needed lots of care. Even though he explained what happened to him very clearly, we both felt him tremble. I still think someone scared him. Whether it was a classmate or a mean-spirited person, doesn’t matter. What matters is that we find him. He can’t have gone far. “
They sat side by side neither noticing that the fire was going out. Suddenly Slim rose and leaned against the fireplace mantle. He rubbed a hand across his forehead and sighed. ‘This was going to be a long night.’ He turned slowly and glanced at Jess. His Pard’s legs were stretched toward the fire, the perfect picture of contentment. He was fingering one of Mike’s carved horses, rolling it over and over again, his face a mask of worry. ‘On such a night as this’ Slim thought and then suddenly, like a bolt of lightning, a long-ago memory sprung forth.
“He’ll be back!”
“Jess, he’ll be back!” Slim shouted.
“And you know this how?” Jess looked up and the twin blues met. Jess saw excitement in Slim’s eyes.
“Did I ever tell you about Andy and the baby fox?”
“I don’t recollect that yarn,” Jess spoke quietly.
“Oh, no yarn, Pard, it really happened. Several months before I met you, Andy found a baby fox that had been injured. Now you know how he always had a gentle touch with injured animals and once he named them, getting him to let them go, was almost impossible. Anyway, I was fixing fences and one night came home tired, hungry and in no mood for nonsense. Jonesy told me that Andy had a new pet. Now, I’m sure he told me it was a fox, but for some reason, either I was too tired or worried, I didn’t hear him. Well, two or three days later, I come home to find a fox sitting on the front porch with a rope around his neck. He was tied to the hitching rail. I blew up. I told Andy, in no uncertain terms, that he had to take it back to where he found it. That if it got loose, we’d have no chickens. It wasn’t pleasant. My throat was hoarse when I was through yelling. “
“What was Andy doing while you were yelling? “ Jess asked, intrigued.
“Oh, he was yelling too. Things like I never listened to him; he had no friends; the fox wasn’t loose, things like that. Anyway, neither of us was listening to the other.”
“Did Jonesy say anything? “ Jess could just imagine Jonesy’s advice.
“Nope, he wisely stayed out of it. Anyway, I finally had enough and asked Andy if he knew how much chickens cost. When he said no, I told him that it cost $10 to buy the chickens we would need to buy to make up for the ones Joey ate.”
Slim smiled. “The name of the fox,” he explained.
“So, what happened? Did he take the fox back?”
Oh yeah, he took the fox and a bed roll and his egg money and ran away!”
Stunned, Jess gasped, “he ran away?“
Slim nodded, “yup, he was gone for almost two days.”
“You must have been worried sick,” Jess commiserated.
“I was, but Jonesy told me he’d be back. He had nowhere else to go. And most importantly, he had taken no food with him!”
“So did you go out hunting for him or did he ride in?”
“I hunted for him by the creek and up and down the Laramie road but I didn’t see him. Finally, one day he rode in. The stage had just left and I was in the yard and he rode down the hill. He sat on his horse for a while and we just stared at each other. I was so relieved; I can’t tell you. Anyway, I asked him if he was planning on stepping down and when he did so, I just reached out and grabbed him and he started to cry. We walked to the barn and settled things. When you and I met, he was going through another bout of wanting to explore. I thank my lucky stars that he stayed put.”
“So, Mike’s gonna come back?”
Slim nodded, “he only has two cans of peaches. Knowing the way he eats; they won’t last long!”
Chapter 6 – Dreams and Fears
Slim spent the majority of the night listening to the grandfather clock chime the lonesome hours. He tossed and turned and finally dozed fitfully, blankets up to his neck. He woke suddenly. It was dark in their shared bedroom. The sky was pitch black and it had stopped raining. He listened with his whole body on alert but there was no sound of creaking doors, no animals, wild or otherwise begging for attention. He shivered in the morning air and wondered why he had woken up. He was just about to turn over when he heard Jess moan out his name. He froze and was just about ready to answer when he heard Jess turn over and start to snore. Shaking his head, he punched his pillow into shape and lay down again, hoping for at least another hour of slumber. But it wasn’t going to happen.
It was too dark to see beyond his nose, but he could hear the restless stirring and the murmurs of the agitated man. Slim turned over once again towards Jess. As he listened, he remembered the fitful nightmares Jess would get. It was strange that he was the only one affected. Andy slept peacefully through every one of them. Jonesy woke only during the fever dreams, but he, himself, had heard everything about his new friend’s hardships and pain-filled childhood through the moans and mutterings.
Jess sometimes woke on his own, apologizing profusely and offering to sleep in the bunk house. Slim remembered someone telling him to let Jess ride them out and he had reluctantly agreed. It was the early days of their relationship but then things changed between them and to let his friend suffer, even if it was only in his head, became unthinkable.
He lay on his side listening to the groans and murmurs and then he heard Jess yell ” Slim! Help me! We gotta save him!”
Slim didn’t need to hear anything else. He swung his long legs over the side of his bed and was at Jess’ side in seconds. Although he couldn’t see his face that clearly, he could envision the matted hair and sweat covered face. Hesitantly, he clasped Jess’s shaking shoulders and murmured “I’m here, Jess. It’s only a dream. Come on, Jess. You need to wake up now.”
Jess continued to thrash about the bed, his head tossing back and forth, lost in the dreadful world of trying to save Mike. All at once, he began to buck. “ Lemme go, I can swim over there. Mike hold on!”
Shuddering with fright and still not sure what to do, Slim just tightened his grip and continued to murmur words of comfort. Jess struggled for a bit and then as suddenly as it began the dream ended. “Slim? What’s going on?”
Slim let out a long breath of relief. His heart had been beating so loud he was sure that the noise woke up his Pard. “You were dreaming, Jess,” he spoke softly, not relinquishing his hold on his shoulders.
“Must have been a bad one,” Jess mused. “I’m sorry I woke you up.”
Slim smiled. “No problem, Jess. You want to lie down or sit up?”
“Reckon, I’ll sit up,” Jess replied as he rubbed the sweat from his face.
“Want some coffee?“
Jess nodded and Slim went to the kitchen. Jess was frowning when he returned to the room. The sky wasn’t as dark. It would be dawn soon.
“You want to talk about it?”
“We were searching for Mike at the lake. We found his hat and boots and we got real worried that he had fallen in. And then somehow, he was in the water, holding onto a log and I was trying to save him and you kept telling me that I couldn’t reach him and you didn’t want to lose me too!” Jess looked miserably up at Slim through blurry eyelashes.
“Good thing that was a dream,” Slim swallowed hard. He ran a hand through his blond hair and looked down at Jess. “You know that was a dream, right?”
Jess’ blue eyes burned with intensity. “That dream, or whatever it was, was so real. Mike was clinging to a dead tree and he was so far away from shore. I don’t know how, but I had been shot so I only had the use of one arm and you kept holding me down.”
Slim shook his head. ”You know, if that was real, we both would have gone swimming. “
‘I’m sorry, Slim. “Jess looked so miserable and upset that Slim just hauled Jess up and smacked him against his shoulder in sympathy. Though stunned by the uncharacteristic emotion driven gesture, Jess felt more brotherly love at that moment than any other time in his life. They clung together, joined by their shared worry and grief for a few moments before Slim slowly and gently lay Jess back down on his bed.
“It’ll be dawn soon. You want to get up?”
“Might as well, get an early start. Thanks, Pard.”
After dressing and gathering supplies, they saddled up their mounts and set out for Andy’s Creek, the first stop on their hunt. Each man was buoyed by their mutual love and respect and the knowledge that working together they would find their boy. They soon discovered that no one had been at the creek. Several hours later they had reached the lake, the place of Jess’ dream.
Chapter 7 – The Line Cabin
The puffy clouds had done a great job in hiding the sun and the once sunny day had become dark and gloomy again. The wind had picked up too and both men were glad they had on their heavy jackets. ‘ I hope Mike is wearing his,’ thought Jess as he peered down from Traveler’s sturdy back looking for any sign that Browny had been there. ‘ He would have gladly traded everything to see that boy again,’ he pursed his lips and straightened his shoulders. They were facing a fork in the road. Go left towards Laramie, go right towards the Sherman Line Cabin.
“What are you thinking Pard?” Slim’s voice broke into his thoughts with the force of a rambunctious puppy dog.
“I don’t rightly know. If we go left, we take a chance we run into Mort or go right and delay another day.”
“Maybe Mike’s at the cabin.” Slim was still hopeful.
“I doubt it. There’s no way he can get in. About the only sheltering place is the lean to we built for the horses.”
The twin blue orbs met and held. This search was harder than they had anticipated. The longer Mike was missing, the more area they would need to search. The world was conspiring against them. It would fast become a matter of finding the missing boy and potentially losing the guardianship they deeply wanted. They both felt the drops of rain at the same time and after giving their Stetsons an added pull, turned their horses towards the cabin.
“Horses or grub?” Jess’ infamous double eagle lay in the black gloved hand.
“Your coin!” Slim laughed. “Not by a long shot! I’ll make coffee.”
Jess just shrugged and led both horses towards the lean to. It was a ploy alright and they both knew it but it always elicited a grin from Slim and right now they both needed something to distract them from the very real dilemma they all were in. Wood smoke and coffee greeted Jess when he stepped into the roughhewn logged cabin set on the far side of their ranch. It was nestled in a grove of trees and if you didn’t know it was there, you’d ride right past it.
“Go sit by the fire.” Slim’s order was spoken in a voice lined with concern. “ You’re half froze. Raining hard again?”
“Nope, just misting.” Jess tugged off his boots and slid down onto the warm blanket that Slim had so thoughtfully placed near the fireplace. In short order, bacon and beans were consumed.
“Not bad, Mr. Sherman,” Jess grinned. “ Where’d you learn to cook like that?”
“Jonesy taught me.” Slim’s subdued answer floated around them.
“Dadgummit, where is he!” Jess exploded, beyond worry, beyond anger and almost beyond Slim’s voice of reason. He slammed his fists into the homemade table, causing Slim’s plate to slide and teeter on the edge. He was fast losing his self-control. The remnants of his nightmare came back in force. He was drowning.
“Jess, Pard, look at me.” He felt Slim’s hand on his back. He was once again awash in Slim’s compassionate gaze. “We’ll find him,” he spoke so confidently that Jess almost believed him. “I know it seems impossible but I really think he’ll be home soon. We can’t have been that bad to him. I really think he’s just confused. What I don’t understand is why he couldn’t just trust us.”
Shaking his head, Jess bit his lip. “He hasn’t had much experience with trust, ya know. Don’t you remember how I was when I first came to live at the ranch. I was like a skittish colt. Finally, I settled down when I realized that you had my back no matter what. You never gave up on me.”
“Hot Shot, you needed a friend who wouldn’t give up on you and I needed a brother who would always be by my side. We both made out alright.”
Both men settled down and after consuming some more coffee, fell asleep under the watchful eyes of a young boy hidden in the eaves of the cabin too afraid to make his presence known.
Chapter 8 – Truth and Consequences
Curled up into a ball of misery, Mike Williams watched as his future fathers slept. He thought he had found the perfect hiding place. He never dreamed they would come to the cabin. He was at first relieved that they had searched for him but now he was afraid. Jess was so upset and Slim, oh Slim! He longed for their hugs but was afraid. Maybe now they really would give him away.
When he first set out on his own, he had only one thought in his head – get as far away from the ranch as possible. He had brought everything he needed save one thing. He didn’t know how to deal with loneliness. He missed his warm bed when he slept under the wet canopy of trees the first night. He had missed Jess’ hug goodnight and he missed Slim’s stories. He began to doubt Johnny ‘s reasoning. Why would Slim and Jess be so caring if they were going to give him away? Why get a judge involved at all? When he heard them coming to the cabin, he hid, his heart beating so loudly that he was sure they heard it. When he heard the worry and anger in Jess’ voice, he almost lost it and when he heard the despair in Slim, he knew. He had been told a lie.
He waited as they packed up and rode away the next morning. He climbed out of his hiding place and tumbled onto the dirt packed floor. His feet had fallen asleep in the cramped position they had been in all night. He was starved but the worst part of all was his voice. It was sore from unshed tears .He had been totally selfish. He hadn’t thought about how his family would feel without him. ‘ Wait! His family. That’s what Slim and Jess are – they’re my family!’ He knew, without a shadow of doubt now that he was just as much a member of the family as Jess was. He had to go back and soon. He didn’t want them to risk everything if they went to town.
They were long gone by the time he fed and watered Browny. He pulled the cinch as tight as he could and then went back into the cabin for his sack. He gave a final look over and then climbed through the opening once more. He picked up the reins. He would have to follow them but at a distance to get home. He figured that they would be traveling at a faster pace than before so they wouldn’t see him. Along the way he began to rehearse his apology.
Meanwhile, Jess and Slim were practicing a speech too. Theirs was one of supplication to Mort.
“I was just telling him that everything was fine,“ Slim remarked to Jess as they rode down the Laramie Road. “I wonder what he’ll do.”
Shrugging, Jess ran a hand over his face. “He probably will get a posse together.”
“Well, let’s get home, do some chores and take a shower. We’re dusty and sweaty. It’ll go better if we look like we’re in control. “
“Pard, I don’t think that the way we’re dressed will have any effect on Mort. You know yourself, he’s a lawman first.”
They were quiet for a while until Jess pulled up short. “Got a question, “ he said.
Slim pulled on the reins too and waited for Jess to corral his thoughts.
“When Andy came home, without Joey, what was his punishment?”
“He had to stock the wood box for a week.”
“That’s all?” he asked incredulous at such behavior.
“Well, I figured that he had learned his lesson. I did remind him that part of the ranch was his responsibility so he had to also forgo his egg money for a month so we would have some money to replace some chickens if we needed too. He never attempted to run away again, that is until you came to visit.”
“So, what’s a good punishment for Mike then?” He asked thoughtfully.
“Slim blew out a breath. “To tell you the truth, I haven’t thought about it.”
They reached home and did the morning chores. There was a brief squabble as to who would shower first but they were dressed by the time Mike rode in. They heard him first and almost tumbled into each other trying to reach the front door. Mike sat silently watching them warily. After a while he gave up trying to gauge their reaction to seeing him. His throat closed up and his well-rehearsed speech blew away in the storm of mixed emotions. Jess made a move first. With the ease of a mountain lion stalking his prey, Jess walked slowly towards Mike. Shame faced, Mike grabbed his waning pride and tried in vain to muster his courage. He almost lost it as Jess asked, “Need some help, Mike?”
He shook his head and nudged Browny towards the barn. ‘They hadn’t moved the stool!’ He sighed in relief. He slid off Browny. His feet felt like mush but he stubbornly refused to acknowledge the sensation and set about taking care of his horse. The familiar movements calmed him as he felt Slim’s eyes bore into his back. Neither man had said a word and when he finally turned around, he was struck with the wave of emotion that nearly drowned him. He couldn’t stand it any longer and his eight-year-old pride disappeared as he flung himself into Slim, “I’m so sorry!” he cried.
Chapter 9 – A Family
“Do you understand now?” Slim asked Mike who nodded once more as he felt Jess’ warm hand rub small circles on his back. He had been wrapped up in Slim’s arms for what seemed like forever, not wanting to let go. Although he knew he was safe in the love and protection, he knew some type of punishment was coming. He sat up slowly on his future father’s lap.
“Tiger, you gotta know, we both love you and want to keep you safe. There’s always gonna be someone or something that will threaten us but we will always do our very best to protect you. We talked a lot about you when we were searching for you.”
Jess paused, not sure how to tell the next part but plunging ahead anyway. “ You know that we raised up Andy, so we’ve got some, what’s that word?” he questioned Slim who shrugged,
“Experience, Jess.” He smiled lightly tapping his arm.
“Okay, we have some experience in raising up boys, “ Jess continued, “ but we don’t have all the answers. We might make a few mistakes now and again, so you gotta help us out by telling us what’s going on with you.”
“You haven’t known us very long but you have to know that we will always listen to you. Jess told me once, in the very beginning of his living here, that ‘he trusted people who had a piece of his heart.’ We gave you a piece of our hearts a long time ago, you’re part of us now, part of the ranch. The only reason that Judge is coming is to make sure that our family is permanent. “
Mike looked up at them, smiling happily through blue eyes that spoke volumes. “Why do you think Johnny lied to me?”
Jess scratched his head. “Tiger, we might never know,” he glanced at Slim who simply rolled his eyes.
“Maybe he was jealous of his adopted sister. She probably got a lot of attention and he felt hurt. Maybe he wanted someone to hurt too instead of just himself.”
“I still don’t understand,“ Mike groaned in frustration.
“Tiger,” Jess tried again, “ The important thing to remember is not what Johnny said it’s how you feel being part of our family. You know, we’re a lot alike.”
Mike’s eyebrows rose in surprise and Slim laughed.
“You looked like Jess just now! He’s growing on you!”
Mike looked back and forth between them. ‘Were they just joshing him?’ he wondered.
“We’re both strays,” Jess playfully punched his friend/brother. “Our last names aren’t Sherman. But our hearts have pieces of each other. Here, let me show you.”
Jess walked over to Slim’s desk and grabbed three fresh, new pieces of paper and a pencil. Slim helped Mike slide down onto the floor so he could watch Jess, as he drew a lopsided heart on each page. He then drew five squiggly lines, all attached at the top of the hearts. “This is a picture of our hearts,” Jess announced in show man’s fashion. He held up the paper so Slim could see it. “Now this space is Andy, this is me, this is you, this is the ranch, this is Mort.” He handed the paper to Slim to view.
He then drew one heart for himself and finally one for Mike which included both of them. “Here, Tiger,” he spoke softly. “This one is for you to put in a safe place; for anytime you got questions and you don’t know the answers. The people on this heart are your family. They’ll listen to you and give you their love all the time. We’re a family of the heart, Mike. That’s the biggest difference and the only thing that matters.”
“Is he asleep? “ Slim was stretched out on his chair by the fire. The crackling of firewood was lulling him to sleep.
“Finally,” Jess gulped the last dredges of his coffee. “Pard,” he sighed, ”do you think he finally understands the meaning of those two words? They sure did a number on this family!”
Slim agreed and sat up slowly. “Pard, I think your drawings cinched it for him. He’s only a boy but I think he’s, in a way, wiser than most. I know ONE thing, if that Judge finds a long distance relative of Mike’s he’s going to have a humdinger of a fight on his hands!”
They both rose and as Slim walked to the kitchen to put their empty cups in the sink, Jess remarked,
“Don’t forget, Pard, there’s one last thing we gotta do.”
“We gotta find a housekeeper!“