I'm Already There


by Arren



Daisy? Mike? What’s the matter, aren’t you glad to see me?” Jess stood by the tumbleweed wagon, not sure whether to move or not. Not sure whether he was going to be welcomed with open arms or severe reprimands. He had, after all, been gone almost ten days with no word. Of course, he hadn’t been in any shape to send word home and he distinctly remembered telling Patches, no begging him, not to let Branch send a telegram to Laramie. Not knowing if he was going to live or die, he didn’t want to burden his family with the uncertainty.

 

Jess’ question was answered a second later when, as one, Slim, Daisy and Mike rushed him, Daisy leading the way. She saw that his arm was in a sling and hugged him gently but firmly, rubbing his back and sniffling quietly. Slim stood beside him, his arm around Jess’ shoulders and Mike had both arms wrapped around one leg. Patches’ dog, excited and protective, danced around and barked.

 

“Boy, we sure are glad to see you, Jess!” Mike exclaimed while he proceeded to squeeze Jess’ leg some more.

 

“Well, I sure am glad to see all of you, too, Tiger.” He gave Daisy one more one-armed hug and then released her. Slim patted him on the shoulder and then put an arm around Daisy.

 

Reb and Patches came up behind Jess and Patches placed a steadying hand on his back as Jess slowly made his way toward the house, Mike still holding on to him somewhere down below, and Patches’ dog following along behind. Patches fixed a hard stare on the dog and said, “Shut up, you. We don’t need any help from you.”

 

Branch was already at the porch, but turned and stepped aside as Jess moved to step up. “You need a hand there, Jess?”

 

“Naw, thanks, Branch, I think I got it.” Jess took a hold of the porch support and used it to help pull himself up the one small step. Mike had let go and was rushing ahead to open the door for Jess.

 

“Well, I reckon Reb and Patches an’ me’ll be sayin’ our goodbyes then. Best of luck to you Jess.”

 

Confused, Jess froze and looked over at Branch, but it was Daisy who spoke first. “Oh no you don’t, Marshal. You and your men are coming inside and having supper with us and I won’t take no for an answer!” To prove her point, Daisy slipped past Jess and disappeared inside the house. She didn’t mean for anyone to see, but she used her apron to wipe the tears from her eyes as she went.

 

Slim turned to McGary and fixed him with steely blue eyes. “She’s right, Marshal. We owe you three too much for you to just take off now. We’d like you to be our guests.”

 

Branch turned and looked at his two friends. Both Reb and Patches nodded. Branch turned back to Slim, “Well, I guess that settles it. We’d be pleased to stay for supper.”

 

Slim's handsome face broke into a wide smile and he turned back to help Jess get inside. Jess was smiling, but he was beginning to sag a bit against the porch support. Slim slid in beside him and put an arm around his back and under his good arm. “C’mon, Pard, you look like you could use a sittin’ down place.”

 

After settling Jess in the rocker, Slim found chairs for their three guests while Daisy busied herself in the kitchen. Mike sat on the floor pressed up against Jess’ chair as if he were afraid to get too far away, and the dog laid himself out right next to the boy. Slim smiled. It’s funny how dogs always migrated to the nearest boy whenever one was available.

 

Slim stepped over to Jess started unbuttoning Jess’ jacket that was buttoned up around his arm in the sling. Jess seemed too weary to protest as Slim pulled the jacket off and tossed it onto the couch under the window. “How long you all been on the road?” Slim asked no one in particular.

 

Branch stood behind him, too wired up to sit down just yet. “We left Ironwood day before yesterday. Had to take it real slow…,” he looked meaningfully at Jess. Jess met his gaze with a sheepish smile.

 

“Yeah, it may have been slow, but I swear Patches found every pothole in the road between here and the crossin’,” Jess joked.

 

Patches stiffened, “I’ll have you know, young man, that I took special care to find only the deepest ones,” his English accent never more evident than when he was being sarcastic.

 

Daisy fluttered in from the kitchen wiping her hands on her apron. “Alright gentlemen, time to wash up, supper will be ready in ten minutes.” She walked over to where Jess sat and bent over him, placing a hand on his forehead. “Jess, do you feel like coming to the table?” She pushed the dark hair off his forehead.

 

“Sure Daisy, I been dreaming about your cookin’, I wouldn’t miss it.” Just then a realization hit Jess like a smack in the face, “Heyyyy.” He looked around the room. All eyes were on him. “None of you has asked what happened to me!”

 

Daisy patted him on the arm and said, “Don’t be silly, Jess. We already know all that.” With that, and a wink, she turned and trotted back to the kitchen.

 

Jess cast his glare directly at Branch, who held up both hands in surrender. “Okay, okay, I admit it. I telegraphed Laramie a few days ago.” He covered the distance between himself and Jess in two strides and stooped in front of Jess’ chair, both hands on the arms of the rocker. “Jess, I know how you felt, but as soon as the Doc told us you were gonna live, I just had to let Laramie know. I didn’t know about these folks, but I knew Mort Corey would be wonderin’ where you got to. He sent you to us after all.”

 

Jess grinned, “It’s okay, Branch. I woulda done the same.”

 

Slim stood behind Branch and interrupted, “C’mon, Marshal, I’ll show you where you can wash up.”

 

Branch gave Jess a last look and his knee a friendly slap before he stood and followed Slim into the front bedroom, and Reb and Patches followed.

 

Mike scooted over to where Jess sat, “Jess, why didn’t you want the marshal to tell us where you were?”

 

Jess looked down into Mike’s big, curiosity-filled brown eyes and smiled. He felt his own eyes filling up. How do you explain to a child what it feels like to be dying. How do you tell him about the overwhelming sadness of time wasted, of things not said. “I just didn’t want anyone worrying, Tiger. Go on and go wash up for dinner, huh?”

 

Mike lowered his eyes and thought for a moment, “Oh, alright.” He stood and dusted the seat of his pants off. “I woulda come and got you, Jess.”

 

“I know you would, pal. Now go on.” Jess gave him a friendly swat, which Mike dodged as he headed off toward his room.

 

At dinner, they all squeezed in around the table and dug into the spread that Daisy had prepared. Slim had a fleeting thought. Where did Daisy produce all this food from? She hadn’t known the tumbleweed wagon would roll in when it did and produce four extra mouths to feed. As a question from Reb interrupted his thoughts, he filed it away in his ‘to be asked’ later file.

 

“I’m sorry, what did you say?”

 

Reb finished chewing and then repeated his question, “How many head you run here?”

 

“Oh, right now about three hundred. We’re expecting a good crop of calves in the spring, though.”

 

Reb bobbed his head and continued eating.

 

Slim glanced over at Jess. He was eating slowly, but at least he was eating. Slim noticed he was slumped in his chair and seemed a lot paler than usual. Not surprising with the kind of wound Branch had described. He made a mental note to talk to Branch about what happened later. He didn’t want to start a discussion about such things at the dinner table and with Mike present. He shifted his gaze to the boy in question. Mike was stuck to Jess like glue. Not only was he sitting next to him, but his chair was close enough to cause Jess to pull in his elbows. Neither one of them seemed to mind.

 

Daisy broke into Slim’s thoughts this time. “Mike! Stop feeding that dog from the table! I’ll make him up a nice plate after dinner.”

 

Mike dropped his chin and stabbed a potato, “Yes, ma’am.”

 

Daisy turned her attention to Marshal McGary, “I certainly hope that you and your men will stay with us tonight. We have plenty of room.”

 

Branch wiped his mouth with his napkin and then tossed it on his empty plate, “No, ma’am. We’ll be moving on, I reckon. Like to make Laramie before dark.” His big smile was engaging and Daisy found herself staring.

 

Slim cleared his throat, “Um, I think it’s already too late for that, Marshal.” With a grin, he nodded toward the window.

 

Branch turned around in his chair. It was dusk outside, darker now than it was inside. “Oh. I see. “ He looked over at his two companions who both nodded in agreement. “In that case, Miss Daisy, we’d be honored to take you up on your hospitality.”

 

Slim tossed down his napkin too, and stood up. “Good, then it’s settled. Reb, Patches, if you’re finished, I’ll show you where we can bed down your horses and park your wagon.”

 

Daisy rose and began removing dishes from the table. “Well good. Mike, I need you to help me, please. We need to put out fresh linens in the bunkhouse.”

 

Mike shoveled one last bite of corn into his mouth and got up to follow Daisy to the kitchen as the men were heading for the front door. The dog at Mike’s side looked from one group to the other, and then, making his decision, he followed Mike.

 

Jess was left at the table with Branch, sipping their coffee. Branch pushed his chair away from the table and stuck his thumbs in his belt. “How ya doin’, Jess?”

 

“Not too bad, Branch. Mighty glad to be back home.”

 

“Well, it looks to me like they’re mighty glad to have you back.” He took another swallow of coffee. “They’re a fine buncha folks, Jess. You’re a lucky man.”

 

Jess set down his cup. “Yeah. It’s nice to have something to come home to.”

 

“When I first met up with you, you didn’t have any of that. As I recall, you didn’t even have a home.”

 

“Things do change, don’t they? “ Jess sighed.

 

“Well, you sure have. You were a wild one back then. Hell, that was only, what, six, seven years ago? I wouldn’ta given a plug nickel that you’d live to see twenty five.”

 

Jess laughed, grabbing his arm to keep from shaking too much. He winced as even that little bit of movement sent pain stabbing through his upper chest and shoulder. He knew that leaving Ironwood wasn’t the wisest thing, but he’d convinced the doctor that he was ready and that he would take every precaution.

Against his better judgement, the doctor had allowed it on the condition that Jess ride in the back of the wagon, on the bed. He instructed that Jess wasn’t to get on a horse for a month and that he was to stay off his feet as much as possible for another week. Unfortunately, both Branch and Patches were in the room at the time, and they held him to the letter of his promise to the doctor.

 

The ride back had been very uncomfortable. The narrow bunk in the back of the tumbleweed wagon had a mattress about as soft as a plank, and just about as thick. He hadn’t dared complain that he’d rather sit up top with Patches, for fear that Branch would turn right around and head back to Ironwood. Jess wanted to go home, and he would endure whatever it took to get there. He had also had to endure Reb’s and Patches’ hovering. If one wasn’t climbing in the back of the wagon to check on him, the other was.

 

Once he had awoken from a bad dream to find all three of his companions hanging over him like gargoyles on one of those big fancy buildings. They joked that he was making a racket and spooking the horses. That was just yesterday, and after that, either Reb or Patches rode in the back with him the whole rest of the way. Patches said, “I shan’t be surprised if you were to roll right off that bunk and undo all the good work the good doctor and myself have done in the last week.” Jess nodded and smiled and accepted their concern with equanimity.

 

Jess appreciated their concern, he really did, but he was glad to be home. He knew he’d now be enduring Daisy’s hovering, but he would, and without complaint, so happy was he to see her sweet face again. There was a time, not very long ago at all, when he didn’t think he’d see her face, or any of their faces again. A trial like that makes a man appreciate what he has.

 

Speaking of whom, that same sweet face darted out from around the kitchen wall. “Jess, if you’re finished with your supper, I want you in bed and no argument.”

 

Jess glanced at Branch. “Yes, ma’am.” He smiled and leaned forward to stand up. Branch had to help him with a hand under his elbow. Jess murmured a thanks and shuffled over to the couch by the fireplace. He lowered himself gently and then swung his feet up, relaxing into the soft leather.

 

“I don’t know if that’s exactly what Miss Daisy had in mind,” Branch ventured.

 

“I know. I’m just not ready to go to bed yet.” To himself, he admitted that he needed to be around the family for awhile yet.

 

“Well, I’m gonna go out and help with the team. You okay there?”

 

Jess waved him off, “I’m fine, Branch. Go on.”

 

Branch took his hat from the peg on the wall, placed it on his head and reached for the door. He gave Jess a parting glance and stepped out onto the porch, closing the door softly behind him. The tumbleweed wagon had been moved to the side of the barn, and the horses unhitched. He figured they must all be in the barn, so he headed that way. He saw the door to the bunkhouse was open and could see Mike and Daisy bustling around inside.

 

Inside the barn was dark, lit only by two oil lamps. He found Slim, Reb and Patches in the back stalls rubbing down the team. Slim was forking fresh hay into their stalls. The barn smelled of the things that all barns do- horses, hay, leather. It was a good, honest smell. One that Branch hadn’t realized he would miss when he took the job of territorial marshal. He had grown up on a small ranch in Texas, and had left for the war. He’d been back, but the call of law enforcement was too strong and he’d ended up in Wyoming Territory in one of the toughest and most thankless jobs in the world. Thankfully, he had put together the best team of deputies a man could ask for. Oh, he and Reb had butted heads on occasion, but he was a good, honest man and a capable gun hand. Patches wasn’t much for handling a gun, but he was indispensable to them in other ways.

 

“I say, Branch, I believe I could get used to this treatment,” Patches said.

 

Reb stopped brushing and looked over the horse’s back at Patches, “If you mean that cookin’, I’ll second that.”

 

“Well, you fellas just soak up all you can, ‘cause we’re gonna be leaving in the morning. We got an appointment in River Falls day after tomorrow, if you’ll recall.”

 

Reb resumed brushing and Patches shook his head, “No, I’m aware of our obligations. It is rather nice though, you must admit.”

 

“No argument there, Patches.” Branch turned to Slim. “Say, Slim, how far is it into Laramie?”

 

“It’s about twelve miles. With your wagon, you’ll make it in a couple of hours.”

 

“Well, that’s fine. We’ll head out in the morning. I’d like to see Mort Corey before we have to move on.”

 

As everything looked like it was under control, Branch sat on a barrel and watched the others complete their tasks. Patches and Reb joked back and forth about kidnapping Miss Daisy and taking her along. They’d fix up the tumbleweed wagon like a parlor, complete with rocking chair, just to make her happy.

 

After the horses were bedded down and the lanterns were extinguished, the four men headed back to the house. Opening the front door, the aroma of fresh-baked pie wafted out. Daisy was just setting an extra large pie on the table while Mike put desert dishes out.

 

“Oh my, now this is what I’m talkin’ about,” Patches said as he straddled a chair and shoved a napkin in his collar. Reb joined him and poured them each some coffee as Daisy was serving up the pie. Mike sat and waited patiently for his piece.

 

Slim hung his hat on the peg and looked down to see Jess stretched out on the leather couch. He appeared to be dozing, his faced turned toward the wall. Guess he held out for as long as he could. They needed to get him to bed. Slim walked over to the table and sat down, pulling the coffeepot over and pouring himself another cup.

 

Patches, with his mouth full, said, “Too bad Jess is missing out on this.” He stopped eating for a moment to reverently look up at Miss Daisy. “Miss Daisy, you are a true artist.”

 

“Why thank you Mister Patches. You are a flatterer.” She finally sat down next to Slim and began daintily eating her pie. After a moment, while the others were chattering, she leaned over and whispered to Slim, “Slim, after you finish, will you please help me put Jess to bed?”

 

Slim nodded and smiled, “I’ll do it, Daisy. He’s gonna be ornery about it. I might as well be the bad guy.”

 

Daisy nodded and smiled and went back to her guests.

 

After stuffing themselves on pie and coffee, Reb and Patches excused themselves to the bunkhouse to settle down for the night. Daisy took Mike off to bed under protest, mollified with the promise of a story. He wanted to stay up and listen some more to Branch tell his stories. Daisy knew he wouldn’t go to sleep right away, but she also knew that Slim needed a chance to talk with Branch and didn’t want little ears listening in.

 

There was an unspoken agreement among Jess and Slim and Daisy that whenever possible, Mike would be spared the unpleasant realities of life. The little guy had already been through so much in his young life, the loss of his home and parents, that they wanted to try to give him as idyllic a childhood as possible from here on out Mike had grown very attached to Jess in the time that he had lived with them, and Jess’ departure on any business was a cause of worry for Mike.

 

In this case, Mike seemed to know that this time was different. He knew Jess hadn’t gone far, and couldn’t understand why he was gone so long. When Mort rode out a few days ago and spoke in hushed tones with Slim and Daisy, he knew this time Jess’ absence was serious. Slim had reassured him that Jess would be home soon, but Mike couldn’t shake the dread that he would never see Jess again. When Jess did indeed appear, Mike was unwilling to let Jess out of his sight.

 

Slim got up from the table and took his plate and cup into the sink. As he passed through the dining room again, Branch stuck out his arm and stopped him. “Slim.” He reached into his inside pocket and pulled out a small bottle. “Give him some of this. The doc sent it to help with the pain. It’ll help him sleep.”

 

Slim took the bottle and read the label. It was Laudanum and said to take a teaspoon full every four hours as needed. “Has he been taking it much?”

 

“No, not much. He wouldn’t unless it got really bad, but I think that trip in the wagon really knocked it out of him.”

 

Slim tossed the bottle in his hands. “Okay. Thanks.” He grabbed a spoon off the table and shoved it and the bottle into his pocket.

 

Branch sat at the table and sipped his coffee while Slim went over to where Jess lay. Jess was stirring a bit, his brow furrowed. Slim sat on the side of the couch and touched Jess’ arm. Jess jumped and his eyes flew open. “Easy there, Pard. Did I hurt you?”

 

Jess looked around, startled, then focused on Slim. “No, not you. It just hurts in general.” Looking around the room, he asked, “Where’d everybody go?”

 

“Well, Reb and Patches have turned in and Daisy is in with Mike reading him a bedtime story. It’s time you went to bed too, whataya say?”

 

Jess tried to sit up, got halfway and Slim helped him the rest of the way. “Yeah, I guess.”

 

Slim put a hand on his elbow and helped him to stand, then they made their way into the bedroom. Jess stopped and looked over at Branch. “G’night, Branch. Thanks for all your help.”

 

“G’night, Jess. It’s me that should be thanking you. We woulda been goners at that river crossing if you hadn’t warned us.”

 

Jess nodded, but didn’t say anything, concentrating instead on putting one foot in front of the other. In the bedroom, Slim gently lead Jess around the end of the first bed and over to the second one. He tried not to let it show that he was really holding on, but Jess looked very unsteady. Slim pulled the covers down and Jess sat on the edge of the bed and started to pull a boot off with one hand.

 

“You can’t do that with one hand, here, let me.” Slim took Jess’ boot in both hands and pulled, then did the same with the other one. “Looks like you’re gonna need a little help for a few days.”

 

“Naw, I can do it, Slim. It’ll just take a little longer.”

 

Slim smiled and nodded, “Okay, have it your way. But whatsay just for tonight, you let me hurry things along a bit? We’ve got company and I ain’t gonna spend all evening in here being sure you don’t fall over trying to get your belt off.”

 

Jess had to grimace at that one. He allowed Slim to unbutton his shirt and pull it off, being careful to not move his arm too much. It wasn’t even his arm that was shot, but any movement of it pulled on the wound in his chest. He’d broken it open several times in the past week, but not for a few days now and he intended to keep that from happening again. If it meant doing what the doctor said, he supposed he was willing, although he was itching to get back to his life.

 

Slim gently slipped the sleeves of Jess’ shirt off, leaving his pink undershirt on. The hole where he’d been shot was still there. The undershirt had been washed, but the hole was clear evidence of the underlying wound.

 

Jess reached for his belt buckle and started unbuckling, something he’d never tried with one hand before. It wasn’t as hard as all that, but pulling it out through the loops proved a bit more so. Slim got it started, and Jess was able to pull it the rest of the way out. While Jess worked on the buttons on his pants, Slim pulled the neck of Jess’ undershirt out and looked at the dressing covering his wound. It was a large white pad held on with gauze wrapped around his chest and under his arm. It looked clean enough and could probably wait until tomorrow to be changed. “Does that hurt very much?” he asked.

 

Jess raised up so Slim could help him slip his jeans down. “Only when I move.” He sat back down, his jaw tense, “Or breathe.” His eyes were squeezed shut as he waited for the shooting pain to subside. When he opened them, Slim was holding a bottle and pouring some liquid into a spoon. Jess recognized the bottle. As much as he hated the stuff, it did help him get through the night without waking up with pain. He knew Slim was gonna make him take it anyway, and he decided that just for tonight, he’d do it without a fuss. He looked up at Slim thinking, ‘just you wait until I’m feeling better, I’ll give you a run for your money’. But tonight, it just wasn’t in him.

 

Slim held the spoon up to him and without a word, Jess took it, wincing at the bitter taste. Slim was pleased, but astounded. In the years he’d known Jess, he’d never known a more ornery patient. Jess never wanted to do what the doctor said, much less what Slim or Daisy said. He was always the one that was back on his feet a week earlier than allowed. He was the one that was out stringing barbed wire in January with a fever raging so high his eyes sparkled and he felt hot to the touch even through his clothes. That time they’d practically had to tie him to the bed to keep him down.

 

This time was different though. Slim knew it was different. In the short telegram they’d gotten from Branch, the gravity of the situation in Ironwood was telegraphed in just a few short lines. Jess had almost died this time.

 

Jess lay down on the bed and Slim helped him swing his legs up. Slim reached down and pulled the sheet and the quilt up over him. Jess lay on his right side, holding his left arm close to his body and stabilizing it with his other hand.

 

Behind Slim, Daisy had stepped into the room. She came to see that Jess was in bed where he should be, but she could see that Slim had the situation well in hand. She was turning to leave when she heard Jess’ distinctive deep voice, barely above a whisper.

 

“Slim?”

 

Slim straightened the covers and then tossed Jess’ pants and shirt onto the bed behind him. “Yeah, Pard?”

 

Jess’ eyes were already feeling heavy as the bitter liquid was seemingly traveling straight to his head. “Will you do me a favor?”

 

“Sure. What is it?”

 

“When I die, will you bury me in that little meadow up by Perkin’s Lake? You know, the one with the willow tree?”

 

Slim was taken aback, but decided to humor Jess instead of getting maudlin. “Sure, Pard. But ya know, I was thinkin’. Wouldn’t you rather be planted in town? You know, right in that alley by the saloon where all your poker buddies can pay their respects without having to ride all the way out to Perkin’s Lake?”

 

Jess’ shoulders shook with barely suppressed laughter. “Okay, I deserved that.” He shifted a little to try to get more comfortable. “I just been thinkin’ a lot about it lately. I never really thought that much about dyin’ before. I got to thinkin’ about all the things I’d miss, all the people I’d miss. “ Jess opened his eyes and looked for Slim’s eyes. His vision was blurry, but he could see Slim’s blue eyes looking down at him. “I’m not scared of dyin’, Slim.”

 

“I know,” Slim’s head nodded with certainty. “I know.”

 

“But I just ain’t ready yet. It’s too soon. I think that’s what got me through this. I was just mad. I was plain mad that I had to go and leave you and Mike and Daisy with all the work around here. And I’d never get to see Mike get big, and I’d never get to see who you finally talk into marryin’ you, and I’d never get to see Andy again.”

 

Slim smiled, tears welling up and a few escaping down his cheeks. He was grateful Jess’ eyes were closed and couldn’t see. “Well, you beat it, Pard. You’re just fine. You just need to get some rest an’ you’ll be right as rain in a few days.”

 

Jess nodded his head without opening his eyes. After a moment the pain lines on his forehead smoothed out, and his features and his breathing relaxed into sleep. Slim sat for a minute to be sure that Jess was truly asleep and then stood. He saw Daisy standing by the doorway wiping tears from her face with her kitchen apron, her small frame shaking with silent sobs. Slim quickly stepped around the bed and took her in his arms. As they stood there rocking back and forth, Slim shushed her. Finally, he said, “He’s alright, Daisy. He’s just fine.”

 

“I know, Slim. I’m just so relieved.”

 

“I know.” He continued holding her for a moment more and then she pulled away and smoothed down her apron.

 

“We still have a guest, Slim. I’ll put on another pot of coffee,” and with that she turned and went to the kitchen.

 

Slim dimmed the lamp on the table by the door and left the room, leaving the door half-open. As he passed through the living room, he said to Branch, “I’ll be back in a minute. I’m just going to check on Mike.”

 

Branch was sitting by the fire, absorbed in his pipe as he nodded. Slim went to the other bedroom door and quietly opened it and peeked in at Mike. As expected, Mike was awake, sitting up in bed petting the dog that had followed him to his room and was now in the bed with him.

 

“Looks like you’ve made a new friend.”

 

Mike looked up at Slim, his eyes overflowing with tears, trying unsuccessfully to keep his composure. “He’s a nice dog. I think he likes it here.”

 

Slim came in and sat on the bed with the two of them. “Well, what’s not to like? A boy to play with, a nice lady who feeds him beef and potatoes and apple pie. I’ll bet he’s never had it better.”

 

“Slim?”

 

“Yeah, Mike.”

 

“Is Jess going to stay home now?”

 

“Well, certainly for awhile. He’s got to get better. Then he’ll be back to work with me in no time.”

 

“I know, but I don’t want him to go away again like he did.”

 

Slim knew what Mike was afraid of. He couldn’t lie to the boy, but Mike needed to know that he and Jess and Daisy would always be there for him. “Mike.” Slim reached over tipped the boy’s chin up. “Mike, sometimes we have to go off on business. Me and Jess both sometimes have to help out Sheriff Corey, or go pick up new horses. Stuff like that. But we always have come back, haven’t we?”

 

Mike nodded his head silently.

 

“And we always will. Sure, bad things can happen, but we can’t live our lives being afraid that something bad will happen. We have go about our business and live our lives the best way we can. Then, when stuff happens, we deal with it all together.” Slim reached out and took the boy by both shoulders. “You always will have us to take care of you. Okay?”

 

Mike sniffed and looked up at Slim. “Okay.”

 

“Would you like to sleep in the other room so you can keep and eye on Jess for me?”

 

Mike rubbed his nose on his pajama sleeve and nodded his head vigorously. Slim got up. “Well, c’mon then, and bring that mangy mutt with you. “

 

Mike bounced out of the bed, Slim put an arm around his shoulder and they headed for Jess’ room with the dog trailing behind.

 

Mike stood over Jess looking down at him. “He looks okay,” he whispered.

 

“He is. He’s just sleeping. Now you come get in this bed.” Slim pulled the covers back for him and Mike climbed in, turning around so he could face Jess. The dog climbed up with him. Slim decided to let it go for tonight. “Now you just keep that dog off of Jess’ bed, okay?”

 

“Okay. Goodnight, Slim.”

 

“Goodnight, Tiger.”

 

Slim left again, this time pulling the door mostly closed, but leaving a crack so he could hear if Jess needed anything. Slim joined Branch at the fireplace, sitting and staring into the fire silently for a few minutes.

 

Finally, Branch broke the silence, “Miss Daisy went on to bed. She said to call her if you need anything.”

 

“Okay.”

 

“How’s Jess?”

“I gave him some of the Laudanum. He’s sleeping now.”

 

Branch reached out and knocked the ashes of his pipe into the fireplace, then began reloading it. “He’s a fighter, Slim. He’s gonna be just fine.”

 

“I know.” Slim turned toward Branch. “Where’d you meet Jess?”

 

Branch took a moment to re-light his pipe, then settled back, staring into the past. “It was about six or seven years ago. Jess met up with me in a little town in Colorado called Brantley. He was off the high trail and looking for trouble.” Branch smiled at the memory. “I wasn’t a marshal then, but I was the sheriff of that little town. Jess had been trailin’ one of the Bannister gang, the ones that killed his family, and he trailed this feller right to my quiet little town. Jess was sure he had the right man, and I was just as sure that I wasn’t gonna let him just out an’ out kill him on the streets of my town. We had a bit of a set to, and, well…I ended up throwing Jess in jail for his own good.”

 

Slim smiled as he was nodding. “I’ll bet he was none too pleased with you.”

 

Branch laughed, “No, he sure wasn’t. But that fella he was trailin’ was dangerous. He was more than dangerous, and Jess, although he wasn’t entirely green, he was no match for that killer. I didn’t have anything to arrest the man for and he eventually drifted out of town. I let Jess cool off for a few days and then let him out. By then I’d gotten to know him, and he me. He come to realize what I did, I did for his own good. He stayed around for awhile, and then he moved on, too. I met up with him a couple of years later in Cheyenne, and then of course here in Laramie. He’s turned into a fine man. I hear he finally got the Bannisters too.”

 

“Yup, a couple of years ago. Another marshal and him trailed them to New Mexico Territory.”

 

Branch took a long drag on his pipe. “That’s just fine. Probably lifted a big weight off his shoulders.”

 

They sat in silence for a few minutes, and then Slim asked, “Branch, what happened in Ironwood?”

 

“Awww, Slim. Jess saved me an’ Reb an’ Patches. Pure and simple.”

 

Slims gaze hardened. “Who shot him, Branch?”

 

Branch shifted in his seat, sitting up straighter. “Now, Slim, I can’t rightly say. Buckner and a bunch of his men ambushed us. It coulda been any one of them. Me an’ Jess were behind a rock. I didn’t see it happen, just when all the shooting was over, he was hit.” Branch took a deep breath and looked over at Slim. Slim’s expression told him he needed to hear more. “Patches tried to get the bullet out, but he couldn’t. We knew we needed a Doc, and fast. Laramie was too far away, so we headed to Ironwood.”

 

“Right into the lion’s den.”

 

“Yeah, but we didn’t see we had a choice. A trip to Laramie woulda killed Jess for sure. We weren’t even sure he’d make it to Ironwood.”

 

Slim’s frown deepened. Branch wondered how much he should be telling Slim. Sure, it was all over now and Jess would be fine, but tonight he had seen Slim’s role in this little family. Slim was the lynchpin. He was the comforter. At least he was tonight. Daisy and Mike and Jess were obviously extremely important to him and tonight, he was the one that had helped Jess, he was the one that had comforted Daisy and gone to Mike. Who was going to be there for Slim?

 

Branch hunched to the front of his seat and leaned toward Slim in the chair next to him. “Slim, Jess had a close call. He thought he was going to die for awhile. Hell, we all did. But he didn’t. It’ll take a little time, but he’ll bounce back, and so will you. The men responsible are either dead or in jail. It’s over now.” He said it with as much sincerity as he could muster, and he had very little trouble trying. He liked these people and he liked Jess, too.

 

“Reb and Patches and I owe Jess our lives and that’s not a debt I take lightly.”

 

“Well, you also saved his.”

 

“Naw. Naw we didn’t. We just got him to the doctor. Anyone coulda done that.” Branch left out the part about how the doctor was held hostage in return for his prisoner. Slim just didn’t need the details. Those few hours where Jess suffered horribly, in pain and dying before the doctor got to him, were the worst part about this whole thing. Patches had made Jess as comfortable as he could, but nothing they could do would save him without the skill of the surgeon. Branch chose to leave out that part. He hoped that with all that had happened, that Jess’ memory would spare him.

 

Slim smiled and his back straightened. “You’re a good man, Branch. Jess is lucky to have a friend like you.”

 

“And you too, my friend. The way I see it, he’s just a lucky man all the way around.” Branch resumed puffing on his pipe. “Ya know, I was tellin’ him earlier that I wouldn’ta given a plug nickel for him makin’ it to twenty five.”

 

Slim smiled. “How so?”

 

“Oh, he was a wild one, Slim. Had a short fuse and a fast gun. That can be a deadly combination. And I’ll be daggumed, I never did see anyone that had such a talent for falling into trouble. ‘Course, when you got his gun hand to back himself up, the odds are a bit better.”

 

“He does have that.” Slim nodded agreement. Slim swallowed his last bit of coffee and stood up. “Well, Branch, I think I’ll check on Jess and then turn in myself. You make yourself at home.”

 

“I’m gonna head on out to the bunkhouse. I’ll see ya in the mornin’, Slim.” Branch rose and let himself out the front door, closing it softly behind him.

 

Slim went and put his coffee cup in the sink and then headed for the front bedroom. Pushing the door open he waited a minute for his eyes to adjust. He reached over and turned the lamp up just a little bit. The dog raised its head, it’s big moist eyes glistening in the low light and his tail thumping on the bed. Mike was sound asleep with his head resting on the dog’s haunches down at the foot of the bed. The covers were underneath him instead of over him. Slim bent over and turned Mike around in the bed and then pulled the covers up. He reached down and patted the dog’s head and was rewarded with a sloppy lick.

 

He then moved around the bed over to where Jess lay. Jess had turned on his back, but still held his left arm close in. His face was relaxed and peaceful so he didn’t appear to be in pain. Slim reached out and felt his forehead. No sign of fever either. He was sure that rest was all he needed. They might have the doctor from town come out to check him anyway. Slim pulled the covers up from where they had slipped down and then went around and dimmed the light again.

 

Slim decided he’d sleep on the seldom-used bunk beds on the opposite wall. They had used them a long time ago when Andy lived here. Andy felt better having everyone in one room, so for a couple of years he and Andy, and later Jess, shared this room. When Mike came, they put him in the second room next door, and now Slim remembered why. Mike was a squirmer. Slim could already hear him rummaging around on the bed probably kicking covers everywhere. He hoped the dog had a lot of patience and didn’t just push out with his hind legs and dump Mike on the floor.

 

Slim remembered that Andy used to do that too, but it was always whenever he was upset. Like that time Jonesy went away with that prizefighter, and stayed away a long time. Andy was sure he wouldn’t come home. Or the time Jess took that woman down to Mexico. He promised he would be back, but at the time, Slim doubted it, and he must’ve conveyed his skepticism to Andy. Andy didn’t say a whole lot about it during the day, just the usual curious questions, but at night, all his anxieties came out in his sleep.

 

Slim ruminated on how his childhood had been so much more peaceful than Andy’s and that’s why Andy was reluctant to sleep alone. While Slim was growing up, he had both of his parents with him at home. His father made the occasional trip to Cheyenne, but mostly they were all home together and very happy. Andy on the other hand lost both parents within a year of each other when he was only about thirteen. Of course he had Jonesy and Slim and he knew they would always be there, but the unexpected loss of both parents had left a hole in the boy that no one else could fill. There was a lot of healing when Jess came into their lives though. Andy hero-worshiped him, and though Jess’ presence was a blessing, his absences were the curse of Andy’s nights.

 

Mike was different though. For one thing, he was much younger. Overall, he was a very happy boy, but underneath the surface loomed the shadow of his parents’ deaths, which he had witnessed. He and Jess, and especially Daisy had always done everything they could to distract him, to make him happy and secure, and to be sure he knew he was loved and taken care of. He worked hard, he played hard and at the end of the day, he never was one to dally around at bedtime. He had the occasional nightmare, all kids do. He was always bright eyed and bushy tailed in the mornings, but during the night, his demons came out to play.

 

Slim sat and quietly removed his boots and shirt and then lay down on top of the covers. He wasn’t really tired, but he knew he had to rest. There was just too much on his mind to really go to sleep. He lay there in the dark listening to the familiar sounds. The cicadas outside the window, the occasional rustle of Mike’s sheets, he must be finally settling down, and the rare soft snore from Jess’ direction.

 

Slim figured that if he had to bunk with someone, he’d rather it be with Jess. Mostly he was a quiet sleeper. Slim noticed that he only snored when he was extremely tired. When he hadn’t slept for two or three days, or like tonight, when he had some pharmaceutical or alcoholic concoction in him. Jess was a hard-working man. He worked hard all day and when he played, he played hard, too. Most nights, he was out like a light as soon as his head hit the pillow. He wasn’t a tosser or turner either. Here at home where he felt safest, Jess slept like a child with no worries, instead of like most men with obligations.

 

Out on the trail was a different matter though. Out there, under the open sky, Jess was like a hawk whether awake or asleep. Here he could, and had, slept through storms, hammering, barking dogs, and once when the porch roof fell in during a wind storm. Out on the trail, he would wake instantly if his horse whinnied or a twig broke. He’d be not only instantly awake, but his gun would’ve cleared its holster before Jess was sitting up all the way. He was the best trail companion Slim had ever traveled with. Between the two of them, no danger came into their camp unopposed.

 

Tonight Jess was lost in drug-induced dreams, and Slim was glad of it. If he could, he’d wipe the last ten days out of Jess’ memory for good. He knew Branch kept the worst of it from him, and that was okay. He didn’t need to know if Jess had suffered, he just needed to know now, that it was over.

 

In the wee hours of the cold morning, a small, stout figure made her way into the pitch-dark bedroom. Holding an oil lamp high and in front of her, Daisy meticulously made her way between the two twin beds. The dog lifted his large head and his tail thumped a few times, but he did not sound an alarm, and finally put his head back down, but continued to watch her curiously.

 

Daisy leaned over Mike and pulled his covers up to his chin. They had fallen, or had been kicked until they hung mostly on the floor. Then she turned to Jess. Holding the lamp high over him, she inspected him from head to foot. He was more or less on his back, his quilt down around his waist and his right arm pushed up under his pillow.

 

The night had taken on a chill that had descended so suddenly that it woke Daisy and made her immediately think of Jess. She set the lamp on the table by the bed and pulled Jess’ covers up over him until they covered his chest, then she moved over to the wooden chest in the corner and pulled out two more blankets. She unfolded both of them over him. The movement and extra weight caused Jess to stir.

 

Daisy saw two watery dark blue eyes open and seek her out. She sat on the bed and laid a gentle hand on his chest, “It’s alright, Jess, it’s only me. I brought you some extra blankets,” she whispered.

 

“Daisy?” his voice was weak and his throat dry.

 

“Mm Hmm. It’s me. Go back to sleep, Jess, it’s still the middle of the night.”

 

“What time is it?”

 

“Oh, I imagine it’s about three. Would you like some water?”

 

Jess didn’t speak again, just nodded his head.

 

“Alright, I’ll be right back.” She rose and glided smoothly out of the room and to the kitchen to fetch some water. Coming back, Jess was raised up on one elbow. He took the proffered glass and drank it down. He handed it back to her and dropped back into the bed.

 

“Thanks,” he whispered.

 

Daisy reached out and smoothed the dark curly hair off his forehead, “Now you go back to sleep. You’re going to be up and out and riding the trails and hills again before you know it.”

 

Jess closed his eyes and smiled, nodding slightly. “I’m already there,” he said quietly before dropping off to sleep again.

 

Daisy watched for a minute, a single tear making it’s way down her cheek. Not a tear of sadness, just relief and happiness. Her flock was under one roof again. Her love of this family of unrelated people knew no bounds, and this one in particular had a piece of her heart that was irreplaceable. After a few minutes, she got up and pulled extra blankets out for both Mike and Slim, and covered them before making her way back to her own bed

 

Slim must have slept because next thing he knew, the morning sun was streaming through the window. He quickly sat up, surprised that he had dozed off, much less slept until morning. Across the room, Jess was curled up on his side, buried in a mound of blankets, some of which weren’t there last night. He glanced over at Mike’s bed which was empty and very rumpled.

 

Slim threw the blankets off, which also weren’t there last night, and stood up and stretched the kinks out. He went over to the bureau and pulled out a fresh shirt and quickly pulled it on. The air had turned nippy overnight. Another glance in Jess’ direction and he was out the door, the smell of bacon and the murmur of voices beckoning him.

 

Mike, Branch, Reb and Patches were already seated at the table and chowing down on stacks of pancakes and mounds of bacon while Daisy circled the table refilling coffee cups.

 

“Come on sleepyhead, you’d better sit down before these men eat it all,” she said with a smile before sitting down to her own breakfast.

 

Slim joined them and straddled a chair while reaching for the nearest platter.

 

Speaking with his mouth full of bacon, Reb asked, “How’s Jess this morning?”

 

Slim shoveled three pancakes onto his plate and began buttering them. “He’s still sleeping like a log. Figure we’d better just let him sleep as long as he can.”

 

Branch nodded agreement, “Best thing for him,” he said as he poured his third cup of coffee that morning. “We’ll be shoving off right after breakfast. Hate to miss saying goodbye to Jess, but you can tell him for us can’t you?” He looked at Mike as he said it and nudged him with his elbow.

 

“I sure can!”

 

“Mike! Don’t talk with your mouth full!” Daisy admonished.

 

Mike looked over at Reb and pointed an accusing finger, “Well he did!”

 

Everyone laughed. Mike wasn’t sure why they were laughing, but he was so happy this morning, he just didn’t care. He shrugged and dug into his big stack of pancakes, and occasionally accidentally dropped pieces of bacon on the floor for the dog.

 

After awhile, Branch sat back and patted his full belly. “I don’ t know how you and Jess stay so slim and trim around here eating like this day in and day out.”

 

Slim smiled. “Good livin’ and hard work,” he said as he pushed a three inch high stack of pancake into his mouth.

 

Patches fastidiously wiped the corners of his mouth with his napkin and laid it aside his plate. “Well I for one am inclined to stay. Miss Daisy? Will you marry me?”

 

That got a laugh from the table and a resounding blush from Daisy.

 

After breakfast, Mike helped their three guests get the horses out and they hitched up to the tumbleweed wagon. He knew how to hitch horses, having done it a lot for the stages, but he was more interested in the big metal box on wheels. More than actually helping, he climbed all over the wagon and asked a constant stream of questions.

 

Inside, Daisy was clearing the table while Slim enjoyed his coffee.

 

“Did you sleep okay last night, Slim?”

 

“Yeah. Thanks for the blankets, Daisy.”

 

“You’re welcome. I went in around three to check on Jess and it was so cold in there. He’s looking just fine, isn’t he?”

 

“Yeah, he’s fine. I reckon we’ll be lucky if he’s up before noon. That Laudanum really knocked him out.”

 

“Yes. I’m so glad Marshal McGary brought it with them.”

 

“As soon as they leave, I’m going to ride out to the west pasture and check on the storm damage from the other night, be sure trees didn’t knock down any fences. I should be back by lunchtime. “

 

“Do me a favor, Slim? Take Mike with you?” she said.

 

Slim smiled knowingly. “Sure, Daisy. He’ll enjoy that.”

 

Daisy gave a quick nod and continued working. “I’ll have a nice lunch ready for you when you get back.”

 

Slim called to her in the kitchen. “Daisy? You doing okay with all this?”

 

Daisy stopped what she was doing and poked her head around the corner. “With all what, Slim?”

 

“You know. Jess…”

 

“Now you just stop right there, Slim Sherman. There is nothing wrong and I’m just fine. I had a little…episode…last night, but only because I was so relieved that Jess is okay and back home. God decided it wasn’t his time and who am I to question? I’m just happy with the decision and intend to make the time we’ve been given count.” She smiled, and continued. “Slim, you should know me well enough to know that I’m happiest when I have someone to take care of. I need you and Mike and Jess a whole lot more than you’ll ever need me and that’s the truth of it.”

 

Slim started to protest, but she held up a small hand and stopped him.

 

“It is true and I couldn’t be more pleased. Jess is going to know, before his time comes, or my time comes that no matter what, he has people who care about him and about what happens to him. Mike will grow up knowing the same and that’s what I live for.”

 

Slim stood up from the table and in two long strides, he gathered her in his arms and held on tight, not saying a word for fear his voice would shatter.

 

After a moment, Daisy pushed him away and patted his chest. “Now you go on out of here and let me start my work. When Jess gets up, he’ll need me. Go on out and help the marshals. Call me when they’re ready so I can come say goodbye.”

 

Slim nodded his promise to her, turned around and left through the kitchen door. Out in the yard, the team was hitched to the tumbleweed wagon and Reb and Patches were loading their gear from the bunkhouse into the back. Mike was sitting in the driver’s seat with Branch next to him. Slim smiled at the resilience of youth. It seems that all of Mike’s troubles from last night, had vanished in the light of day.

 

Branch saw Slim approach and hollered down to him. “Say Slim, you think you could spare this young ‘un? He’d make us a pretty fair driver.”

 

Patches hopped out of the back and yelled up at Branch, “Well, I guess I know where I stand. That’s alright. I’m going to stay here and marry Miss Daisy anyhow.” With his nose in the air he made another trip back into the bunkhouse.

 

“Well, I guess we’re about ready to pull out. C’mon, Mike, let’s hit the dirt.” Branch stood up and lowered Mike down to the ground, and then climbed down himself.

 

Slim grabbed Mike as he was trotting to the rear of the wagon, “Say, Mike, go inside and tell Daisy they’re ready to leave, huh?”

 

“Sure, Slim.” Mike took off running for the house.

 

Slim called after him, “And be quiet about it, Jess is still sleeping!”

 

Mike immediately slowed down and let himself quietly into the house.

 

“He’s a fine boy, Slim.”

 

“Yeah, he’ll be a fine man someday, too.”

 

Reb was already mounted and Patches was climbing up into the driver’s seat. Slim walked over to Reb and offered his hand, “Reb, it’s been a pleasure and I sure can’t thank you enough for bringing Jess home.”

 

Reb shook his head and nodded. “We’re obliged to him, too. Tell him for me, okay?”

 

“You bet.” Slim then went over to Patches and shook his hand as well. “You take care of yourself, Patches and make sure these two stay out of trouble.”

 

In his best long-suffering voice, Patches replied, “’Tis a burden, Slim, but one I bear as my solemn duty.”

 

Daisy and Mike came out of the house, both carrying large canvas bags. “I fixed you some food for the road, Marshal.”

 

Branch took the two bags and swung them both over his saddle, “Well, we’re much obliged, ma’am. You shouldn’t have gone to any trouble.”

 

“Oh it was no trouble at all.” Daisy took his hand and squeezed it tightly. “We’re all mighty grateful.”

 

Branch covered her hand with his own. “You tell Jess we said goodbye and we’ll stop by next time we’re in the area.”

 

“We’ll hold you to that, Marshal,” Daisy said with a smile.

 

Branch turned and mounted, tipping his hat and rode slowly off. The tumbleweed wagon followed. As soon as it moved, the dog that had come with the three men, came scrambling out from underneath the wagon. He walked a few paces to follow the wagon, and then turned back and looked at Mike. Mike waved goodbye, but the dog stayed where he was. Finally Mike yelled out to Patches. “Don’cha wanna take your dog with ya?”

 

Patches pulled up on the horses and turned around in the seat. “Well, he isn’t mine, he just kind of took up with us. I guess we should let him decide.” With that, he flicked the reins and the horses pulled out again. Patches turned and eyed the dog, watching to see what he would do.

 

The dog followed for a few more paces, stopped and looked back. Then he followed a few more and then without stopping, he circled around and went straight to Mike and sat down at his feet.

 

Patches called back over his shoulder, “Well, I guess he’s made his mind up.” He gave a cheery wave and continued up the drive to the main road, a cloud of dust following.

 

Mike petted the dog’s head and looked up at Slim and Daisy. “Can I keep him?”

 

Slim glanced at Daisy and she gave an imperceptible nod. “Well, looks to me like he’s made that decision for us.”

 

Mike took off with the dog in hot pursuit. They headed for the chicken yard to see what kind of trouble they could get into.

 

Slim put an arm around Daisy’s shoulder and they both watched. Slim remembered about his job this morning and called to Mike. “Say, Mike! I need you to help me in the west pasture this morning. We’ll leave in a few minutes!”

 

“Okay!”

 

After a moment, Slim and Daisy headed back to the house. The house seemed strangely quiet now that all the guests had departed. Both Slim and Daisy automatically headed toward Jess’ room, stopping short when they both reached for the doorknob at the same time. They smiled and Slim quietly opened the door and peered in. Jess was stirring around a bit, not quite up yet, but looking like he would be soon. Daisy nodded and whispered, “I’d better go get him some breakfast ready.” She ducked out under Slim’s arm and headed off to the kitchen.

 

Slim went in the room and behind the partition to finish his morning ablutions. He reached for his razor and shaving cup and poured some fresh water into the basin.

 

Jess’ soft, raspy voice came from the other side of the room. “Slim?”

 

Slim put down his razor and walked around the partition toward Jess’ bed. “Hey, Pard. How’re ya feelin’?” He sat on the edge of Jess’ bed.

 

Jess opened his eyes and blinked a few times, then cleared his throat. “Okay, I think. Just a little stiff.”

 

“I’ll bet. You’ve been sleeping for more’n fourteen hours.”

 

“Sure is good to be back in my own bed. Are Branch and the others still here?”

 

“They just left. They were sorry they couldn’t say goodbye, but we didn’t want to wake you.”

 

Jess pressed a hand to his chest over his bandage and rose slowly, swinging his legs off the bed. Surprisingly, the pain wasn’t as bad as it was even yesterday.

 

Slim helped steady him and then let go. “I hope you’re hungry. Daisy’s in there fixing you breakfast.”

 

“I could eat a horse.”

 

Slim gave him a gentle slap on the back and then rose up and went back to his shaving. “After that, she’ll probably want to change that bandage. I’m gonna take Mike with me out to the west pasture to check the fences.”

 

Jess’ automatic reflex was to say, ‘I’ll go with you’. He had to stop himself and remember the doctor’s orders and the promise he made. He wasn’t sure he could get on a horse anyway, truth be told.

 

“Did Mike sleep in here last night?” Jess asked as he ran a hand through his thick, dark hair.

 

“Yup.”

 

“I thought so. There’s no mistaking his presence in a room,” Jess said ruefully.

 

Slim chuckled, and then his tone became serious, “He missed you, Jess. He was afraid you were never coming back.”

 

“Yeah, me too,” Jess said barely above a whisper.

 

Suddenly Mike burst into the room at full speed with a large mongrel dog on his heels. “Jess! You’re awake!” Mike circled the first bed without slowing down, flung himself next to Jess on his bed and threw both arms around him. Jess encircled him with his good arm and held him close.

 

“Hey, Tiger.”

 

“Are you all better, Jess?”

 

“Well, I’m gettin’ there. Might take a few more hours though.” He grinned at Slim who stopped his shaving and shot him a glare. The dog laid his big head on Jess’ lap, his tail and his whole back end wagging vigorously. “Say, isn’t this Patches’ dog?”

 

“Not anymore! He likes it here so Patches let him stay!”

 

Jess reached out and stroked the big dog’s head. “Well, that’s fine. But don’t you think he’ll miss Patches?”

 

“Not a chance. Not with the way Daisy’s feeding him,” Slim contributed. He was finished shaving and began wiping the excess lather off his face. “Okay, Mike, I’m ready to go. Let’s go get saddled up.”

 

“Ok! Can Jess come too?” Mike ventured with a twinkle in his eye.

 

“Now you know Jess needs to rest. Now git on out there. I’ll be right there.”

 

Mike popped up off the bed and scrambled over the other bed to the door. “C’mon boy!” he called, as he bounded out. The dog turned and leapt over the bed and followed Mike out.

 

Slim shook his head as he smiled after the boy. “He certainly has bounced back.” Slim grabbed his jacket. “We’ll be back for lunch. You eat and then rest. If you don’t behave I’ll get Doc Bennett out here,” he threatened.

 

“Yes, sir,” Jess said with a grin. He just started to pull himself up when Daisy bustled into the room carrying a tray.

 

“Oh no you don’t, young man. You just stay right there in that bed. You’re not getting up until I say so, and if you don’t behave, that could be a very long time.”

 

Jess realized he was sitting there in his shorts and quickly scrambled beneath the covers, wincing as he jarred his left arm. “But, Daisy, I can come to the…”

 

“You’d better listen to her, Pard. ‘Sides, if you want to get up, you’ll have to walk around in your drawers unless you want Daisy to help you get dressed.” Slim was half way out the door, a self-satisfied grin on his face. “You two take care, I’ll see ya later.” He grabbed his hat off the peg and left by the front door.

 

Daisy set her tray on the second bed and went over to sit next to Jess. She reached up and felt his forehead. “Well, you don’t seem to have a fever,” she held his face with both hands, “but you do look so pale.”

 

Jess’ face softened, touched by the loving concern in her eyes. “I’m fine, Daisy.”

 

Daisy looked deep into Jess’ eyes for a moment, searching for the truth. And finding it. She gave him a quick kiss and said, “Yes, you certainly are.”

 

The End

 

 



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