Home Fires

by Mary

My name is Daisy Cooper and contrary to anything you may have heard, I am in charge of the Sherman Ranch and Relay Station. It’s my solemn duty, life’s work and joy to be responsible for the spiritual and physical well-being of all who reside there. Oh, sometimes they protest a bit, but I always prevail in the end.

Although none of us here now are related by blood, I like to think that we are all joined firmly at the heart. Slim (he’s my oldest) inherited the place from his late father, Matt Sherman. Now, I never met the elder Mr. Sherman but from all accounts he was a fine man and Slim is very much like him. I think he would be very proud.

Slim is so tall that he towers over the rest of us. He’s blond and extremely handsome. He’s about thirty now and I can tell he’s one of those men who will just get better and better looking as he gets older. He’s probably the most sensible of my brood – honest, hardworking and stubborn as a Kentucky mule. He has a nice sense of humor though when his stiff-necked sense of responsibility lets it through.

Jess (my beloved middle child) is Slim’s business partner and best friend. He’s a few years younger than Slim, dark haired and blue eyed. He’s a favorite with all the gals in town – both schoolteacher and saloon girl alike and he treats them all with equal kindness and respect. Like Slim, he’s a hard worker but he knows how to play hard as well.

I understand, that when he first came here four years ago, he had been a drifter with a very troubled past. Slim tells me that for the first year or so that Jess was here, they had no idea if he’d leave or if he’d stay. Nowadays folks in town are always remarking at how he’s settled down and how fond they all are of him.

Then there’s Mike, my littlest one. He’s only ten and I was originally hired to come and care for him. His parents are dead and we are his family now. He can be a handful some times but he’s also very sweet and dear. I fear we all spoil him just a bit.

Finally I should mention Slim’s younger brother, Andy. Andy no longer lives here and has been away at school for the past few years. While we all eagerly look forward to his frequent letters, we rarely see him in person. I know it had been Slim and Andy’s father’s dream that the two brothers would work the ranch together. While I believe Andy has some wonderful and special things ahead for him down the road, I also believe ranching won’t be a part of it. Ranching only works out for those that have a special inborn yearning for it. Slim and Jess and I suspect Mike have it – Andy doesn’t.

Our ranch is located twelve miles from Laramie in the Wyoming Territories. Life out here in the 1870’s is full of danger. Those of us who settled here – those of us who have stayed, that is, feel the beauty and opportunities of this land far outweigh that danger. At least that’s how I feel most of the time. Every time Slim and Jess ride out, I send along a prayer for their safety tucked in snuggly along side their canteens and sandwiches. I know each one would lay his life down for the other without a second thought – in fact that’s one of the things I worry about. Their devotion to each other – and to Mike and I – is fierce and strong. So much so that I fear they give little thought to their own welfare.

Finding a blood soaked bandanna – or much worse in the laundry is a common occurrence. When questioned it, the response is most often, “it ain’t nothing, just a scratch.” Fortunately, most of the time it’s just that but both Slim and Jess and once even Mike have had their share of serious injuries that were a direct result of the danger and violence that is a part of our daily lives out here. I don’t like this situation one bit but I accept it as part of the price we have to pay to settle this country. I believe that because of our bravery, future generations will live here in peace. This makes me very proud. All of this made the events of last October all the more unsettling. You see, we came within a heartbeat of losing Jess and no living thing had anything to do with the causing of it. As a family we can stand together and fight off the lawless, the renegade Indian, the wild animal – we can face down the fiercest of storms but we were powerless against the invisible killer that came after our Jess and so very nearly took him.

The day had started out innocently enough. The weather was crystal clear with a hint of frost in it. Slim and Jess had eaten huge breakfasts. Jess was in great humor, joking with Slim and Mike and all excited at the prospect of working his young horse, Ranger on some cattle.

I had marveled as I watched them at what handsome strapping boys all three of them were. Jess and Slim lean and fit as a result of all the hard work on the ranch – Mike having just had yet another growth spurt. It wouldn’t be long before he’d be joining them working out on the range.

As they went out the door I told Jess he had better take his warmer jacket in case it got colder – he told me not to worry – that he wouldn’t need it, as they’d be back before lunch. Then they were off – still joking and laughing. Later in the morning as I was just putting a pie in the oven, I happened to glance out the window and saw Slim returning alone. Throwing my shawl over my shoulders, I hustled out into the yard and demanded to know where Jess was. Slim laughed and called me a worry wart – told me Jess would be along in an hour or so – that he was just going to make sure they hadn’t missed any steers when they moved them to the lower pasture. Still, I was sure I could sense some worry in Slim and I didn’t like the way he kept looking over his shoulder like he expected Jess to be right there. Also the weather had gotten much colder and the wind was picking up.

I went back in the house and tried to go about my business but I kept having these nagging little thoughts that something might have happened to Jess. I think Slim was feeling the same way because every time I looked out at him he was looking up towards the hills where Jess would be coming from.

Finally I knew I wasn’t imagining things – Jess was definitely well over due. We should have set down to lunch an hour earlier. Just as I was about to go out and put my foot down and insist Slim go and look for Jess, Ranger came galloping in riderless like the very devil was on his tail.

I saw Slim check him over carefully although he didn’t act as worried as I thought he should. I later found out that he had seen me watching from the window and was determined to not upset me further by acting the way he truly felt. He calmly took Ranger in the barn and came back out a bit later leading Jess’ old horse, Traveler. Then mounting his own horse and leading Traveler, he set out in the direction he had come from earlier, carefully following Ranger’s tracks.

The dusk was starting to gather when Slim finally returned with Jess. I was so relieved; I thought I was going to cry. I didn’t though. I called to Mike and set about putting dinner on the table.

Slim and Jess came in a while later after taking care of the horses. Slim was needling Jess about needing to put some glue on his seat. It seems while he wasn’t paying attention, young Ranger had spooked at something and the next thing Jess knew, he was lying flat on his back on a pile of rocks with Ranger no where to be seen. Here’s a man who can stay on the wildest of mustangs but gets tossed by a good-natured ranch raised quarter horse. Jess took Slim’s ribbing all in stride as he almost always does. I asked him if he had been hurt and he replied that he just had a bump on his head – nothing to worry about. Of course, I immediately examined him and just as he had said, it was pretty much of a garden-variety lump. As I ran my hands through his hair, I noticed he was shivering. I asked him if he was cold and he said he had frozen his backside walking back to the ranch before Slim caught up with him and still hadn’t thawed out yet. Well right then and there I had him take his boots and socks off and I brought him a pan of hot water to soak his feet in. I don’t know why but that always seems to ward off a chill. He sighed as though I’d asked him to paint the barn or something but was a good boy and did what he was told – in the end they always do.

All through supper, Slim and Jess regaled Mike with stories of falling off horses and off cliffs and the like– the sorts of things a lady like myself – not to mention a ten year old boy - really doesn’t need to hear. When the dishes were cleared the three of them settled in their chairs in the living room – I noticed Slim made sure that Jess had the chair closest to the fire and had casually tossed him the blanket that had been folded on the couch. I also noticed that Jess didn’t hesitate to wrap himself up with it even though the room was quite warm.

By the time I had the dishes washed and put away, I noticed that Jess was nodding off. This was very early for him – usually he and I stay up chatting long after Slim and Mike have gone to bed. Well I just bustled right in there and grabbed Jess by the arm, pointed him towards the bedroom and told him I didn’t want to see him again until morning. He gave me a drowsy little smile and shuffled off dragging the blanket behind him. When he was out of sight, I told Slim he’d better go in and make sure Jess actually got undressed and into bed – not just collapsed fully clothed on top of it as he’s been known to do in the past. Amazingly, Slim agreed that was a good idea and said he guessed he’d turn in as well.

That left just Mike – who was wide-awake – and myself. We played three or four games of checkers and he showed me some new card tricks Jess had taught him. Finally I was able to get him off to bed and after checking the fire and the locks on the doors, I headed for my own room. I usually like to stay up a while reading and I had a wonderful new book that Andy had sent me for my birthday.

I read for a long time and just as I was about to turn off my lamp, I heard the ominous sounds of someone coughing. This was a deep rattling cough and who ever was doing it was having some difficulty catching his breath. I threw on my robe and hurried out into the living room. It became evident that it was coming from Slim and Jess’ room. I didn’t want to appear nosy but I was quite alarmed. Then I heard Slim talking to Jess asking him if he was alright. Suddenly the bedroom door burst open and Slim came hurrying out and nearly bumped right into me. “Slim, what’s wrong?” I implored.

“It’s Jess,” he replied looking worried. He poured a large glass of water from the pump in the kitchen and headed back toward the bedroom. I paused only long enough to grab a bottle of syrup from the kitchen shelf and a spoon and then I followed right behind him.

Jess was curled tightly in a ball, holding his sides and trying not to cough. Slim helped him sit up and handed him the glass of water which he drank down gratefully. Before he could lie back down, I quick held out the spoonful of syrup to him. To my amazement, he took it without protest and then burrowed back down under the covers. Slim sat on the side of his bed with his hand on his shoulder. The coughing spell seemed to be over for the time being. I patted Slim on the head and told him to come get me if he needed to for any reason. He nodded and I left the room closing the door quietly behind me. The next morning as I was pouring Slim his coffee, I asked him where Jess was. Slim said Jess was moving kind of slow and would be along shortly and sure enough – just as Slim said that, Jess came, limping slightly, out of the bedroom.

I should mention that a year or so before Jess came to Laramie he broke his right leg – another fall off a horse – and didn’t make it to a doctor to get it set for nearly a week after it had happened. In spite of all that, it healed well and rarely troubles him except for when he is either very tired or not feeling well. Then he tends to favor it and although he tries hard to hide it, Slim and I never miss it.

I also noticed he was a bit pale and had dark smudges under his eyes. He was also coughing some though not nearly as bad as he had been in the night. Still he seemed perky enough and if he didn’t eat his usual huge breakfast, I figured he’d make up for it at lunch.

The two of them spent the morning shoeing horses. Mike helped by handing them tools and putting things away when they were finished. Looking out the window I noticed Jess was still coughing every so often and had taken several highly uncharacteristic opportunities to sit down and rest.

When they came in for lunch, Jess’ limp was much more pronounced and I could see that Slim was watching him closely. As they came through the door, Jess turned to Slim and said, “I ain’t very hungry - if it’s all the same to you, I think I’ll lie down while you guys eat – just give a holler when you’re ready to go back out.”

Slim gave him a little slap on the arm and said, “that’ll be all the more for Mike and me – don’t worry, we’ll come and get ya.”

While Mike tucked into his chicken pie, Slim took my elbow and guided me into the kitchen out of earshot. “Daisy, I’m worried about Jess. When that boy stops eating, you just know there’s somethin’ wrong.”

I laid my hand on Slim’s arm. “I know, Slim.” I said. “Let’s hope he just needs to rest. Why don’t we just let him sleep and if he’s not feeling better by morning we can send for that nice new doctor in town.”

Slim nodded in agreement and then joined Mike at the table. Just before the two of them went back out, Slim started toward the bedroom to check on Jess. “Slim,” I said, keeping my voice low so Mike wouldn’t hear. “It’s okay. I’ll keep an eye on him. Don’t worry.”

Slim gave me a tense little nod and tossing Mike up over his shoulder, headed outside.

Shortly after Slim left, I heard Jess coughing again and this time it was nearly as bad as it had been the night before. I grabbed the bottle of syrup and a spoon and hurried to him. I found him sitting up in his bed, bent over and hacking away painfully. I sat beside him, put my arm around him and held him tightly until the episode at last subsided somewhat.

When at last he could draw a breath, I gave him another dose of the cough medicine and a drink of water. He looked at me with red-rimmed eyes and gave me an embarrassed little smile. I felt his forehead and it was warm but not dangerously so.

While he was up, I helped him off with his boots, jeans and shirt. Then I eased him back onto the pillow and pulled the quilt up to his chin. He was fast asleep before I left the room.

I checked on him several times over the next hour or so and he remained sleeping soundly.

Slim and Mike came in around three. I gave Mike some milk and cookies at the kitchen table and then joined Slim in the living room. “How is he?” Slim asked anxiously.

I told him that as of an hour ago he was sleeping peacefully. We then went to the bedroom door and looked in. Jess was still asleep on his back but was far from peaceful. He was stirring restlessly and his face was bathed in sweat. A lock of wet hair hung down over his forehead. When Slim gave his shoulder a gentle shake, he opened his eyes and stared about wildly as though he didn’t recognize us.

After a moment, though, he seemed to get focused. “Slim, I’m sorry. I just don’t seem to be of much use today.”

“Don’t you worry about it.” Slim replied. “We’re saving you plenty for when you’re better.”

Just then there was the sound of a rig coming into the yard. I went out and was just in time to see Mike letting in Seth Andrews from town. Seth is the new doctor in Laramie - his age is somewhere between Slim and Jess. I had met him several times in town and liked him. I think this was the first time he had been out to the ranch.

“Seth.” I said warmly. “If this is a social call, your timing couldn’t have been better.”

“Mrs. Cooper, while it’s always a pleasure to see you,” he said. “I passed the afternoon stage on my way back from the Hawkins place and Mort mentioned that Jess was ill. I figured this would be right on my way.” Winking, he added, “however, if you’ve got some coffee and some of that apple pie I keep hearing about, I sure wouldn’t mind.”

I led him straightaway to Jess’ room. Just as we entered, Jess began to cough again. Slim handed him a handkerchief and he coughed up what appeared to be a dark brown fluid into it. He looked up at us sheepishly. I couldn’t help but notice how pale he was except for spots of high color on his cheeks. I quickly made the necessary introductions. Seth didn’t waste any time on formalities but got right down to business.

I excused myself to put the coffee on. Slim stepped back to give the doctor room but made it clear that he wasn’t going to leave his friend.

Just as I was putting the pie in the oven to warm, Seth came out and asked if I could get him some hot water and then come in and give him a hand. I looked at him searchingly and didn’t like what I saw.

“Seth, this is more than just a cold isn’t it?” I asked.

“I’m afraid so, Daisy,” he replied. “His chest sounds aren’t good and his temperature is climbing. It appears to be the early stages of lung fever, although that’s not something we usually find in healthy young men like Jess.” I told the doctor of Jess’ accident the previous day and he agreed that was most likely the cause.

“Since his pulse is strong and his constitution appears good, I’m going to draw about a cup of blood from his arm.” he told me. “That often provides some relief. I’m also going to give him quinine for the fever and opium for the pain. I’ll leave you more to give him every few hours as needed. I wish there was more we could do for him but these things mostly need to run their course.” Sadly, I had to agree. During the war I saw all too many cases of this and so many times the outcomes had been tragic. I hated feeling so helpless and I could tell Seth felt the same way.

After Seth completed the treatment, I couldn’t tell who was paler, Jess or Slim. It hadn’t been pleasant but Jess had born it all stoically. He was exhausted and the opium quickly took effect.

Afterwards we all sat down while Seth had his pie and coffee. We didn’t want to alarm Mike, so the conversation had mainly been about mundane town matters. Since arriving, Seth’s practice had grown steadily and he was now thinking of taking on a partner. I told him how grateful we were to have him and he gave me a tired smile before heading out. He promised to be back the next day. Slim and I took turns throughout the night checking both on Jess and on Mike who had grown very quiet. For most of the night, Jess slept and I almost allowed myself to think we had won the battle before it really got started. I was so very wrong.

Along towards dawn, his fever began to rage. The doses of quinine had no effect. His breathing became more and more labored until finally he simply lay gasping for breath, his lips beginning to take on a bluish cast. We pulled him upright and Slim pounded him between his shoulder blades. He coughed and retched up great quantities of dark bloody mucus and finally sank back on the pillows too weak to even open his eyes.

I was able to give him some opium and when he seemed a bit more comfortable, we stripped off his sodden underwear and bathed him with cool water to try to bring his temperature down. I lay wet towels on his chest to help break up the congestion. All this time we made sure that one of us periodically spent a few moments with Mike, reassuring him and making sure he was eating and sleeping. By the time Seth returned in the early afternoon, Slim and I had done everything we could think of. Jess continued to slip farther and farther away from us. He was no longer responsive to either our voices or our touch. Seth spent the rest of the afternoon here and gave him several injections of digitalis in a futile effort to strengthen his heart, but there was no apparent change.

Slim, Seth and I stood in the living room carefully out of Mike’s hearing. Seth appeared haggard with defeat. He looked at Slim and I and sighed deeply. “I can’t begin to tell you how badly I wish there was something more I could do for him,” he said wearily. “He’s not in any pain now at least. I have to head over to the Weaver place but I’ll be back in the morning.” Slim walked him out and later returned with Mike to sit by the fire and wait. I returned to Jess’ side.

Suddenly and without warning, all my fear and tiredness turned to rage. I was not ready to let him just go – it wasn’t his time and by God I wasn’t going to sit by and let him die. I prayed. I prayed with every fiber of my being. I prayed and I prayed and then I prayed some more. Throughout that long and dreadful night I sat by this child of my heart and I prayed. I prayed because I had nothing else.

I heard the clock in the living room strike three and realized I must have dozed off at last. Jumping up I went to check on Jess, hoping for the best yet fearing the worst.

The first thing I noticed was the steady rise and fall of his chest. Reaching out to feel his forehead, I found it almost cool to the touch. I laid my hand over his heart and felt it beating strong and regular. I knew then that the God, who listens to the prayers of desperate old ladies, had heard and answered mine.

Out by the dying fire, I found Slim asleep with Mike firmly embraced in his long arms. I walked up behind his chair and wrapped my arms around him, kissing him on the top of the head. He stirred and turned to look up at me. Seeing my tearstained smile, he leaped up practically dumping the forgotten Mike in the process.

The last sleepless nights were quickly forgotten. We straightened up the bedroom, changed Jess’ sheets – even shaved him so that he’d feel better when he woke up. Slim tucked Mike into the other bed and admonished him to be sure and let us know if Jess so much as stirred.

By the time Seth arrived, I had fresh coffee and a good fancy Sunday breakfast waiting for him. He could hardly believe his eyes. We were all as giddy as school children. We had just fought a fearsome enemy – one whose face we would never see – and we had won.

Jess’ recovery was slow but steady. I must confess I loved having him around during the day. When he was strong enough, Slim would help him into the living room by the fireplace each morning and wrap a blanket over his shoulders. As I went about my housework, I’d take frequent breaks to sit and talk with him. He told me how, during his illness, he dreamt that he was up in the high pasture by the lake with an old favorite horse of his and that there was a trout in the lake just begging to be caught.

I told him that was probably heaven. He replied that he had thought so at first but realized that without us there it never would be heaven for him. He thought he’d be better off taking his chances here on earth.

So on it went. By Christmas he was pretty much his old self though still thinner than I would have liked. He had joined Slim back working outside everyday and true to his word; Slim had left him plenty to do.

Everything is back to normal now – at least what passes for normal here but we are all changed. Changed in the best of ways. It’s spring now and the boys still work as hard as always but they now take time to fish with Mike or to head up to the old line shack to check for the strays that usually aren’t there. We all had a real good hard look at how precious life is and it will be a long time before we ever again take it for granted.



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