ACCEPTANCE

By Deborah Casey

 

~Sometimes ya just have to accept what you can't change~

 

Prelude:

It was just turning winter in Wyoming and that could mean almost anything, from a light dusting of snow to an out and out blizzard. The days were filled with winter preparations. Keeping Slim and Jess busy from sun up to sun down. Even little Mike was pressed into service and Daisy kept busy doing chores around the house. It was slow going, but the two ranchers had finally finished moving the cattle to pastures that offered better grazing and shelter from the storms that were sure to come. Only, this winter the storm looming on the horizon had nothing to do with snow and ice....this storm would threaten the very fabric of love and friendship and shake the very foundations of family. In this instance, the ties that bind really would be stretched to the limit.

 

 

                       

Acceptance -

As told by Slim Sherman

 

My name is Slim Sherman. My best friend and partner, Jess Harper and I own a ranch and relay station in Laramie, Wyoming. That's where the events you are going to read about happened.

 

Tonight I put the finishing touches on a special gift for my best friend. I have known Jess going on six years now and three years ago I made Jess my partner and we signed that partnership agreement. A year ago today, I had gotten it into my head to have a celebration to cement the partnership commitment even further. It's gonna be a real surprise. Something I know Jess would never expect and I can't wait to spring it on him. Andy and I had discussed this at length over a year ago, and it's finally ready. I even sent money back east for Andy to come home for the occasion. An air of anticipation and excitement hangs over our little house. Andy, Daisy and I are the only ones that know about it.

 

It's about ten o'clock now and everyone's gone to bed except me. I want everything to be perfect. I took one last look at our surprise before tucking safely away in my desk before heading for bed.

 

 

0o0o0o0o0o

 

 

Meals at the Sherman ranch have always been a family affair; with lively conversation, tender sharing and a lot of laughter. Daisy always puts out a good spread. She'd come to us a short four years ago as a housekeeper. At the time Jess and I were in the process of adopting young Mike Williams, whose family had been killed during an Indian attack, less than a year earlier. Our concern was that the judge might see an all male household unfit for raising a young boy. Mike came to us when he was only seven. So we'd set out to hire a housekeeper to get things in order and make the place a bit more presentable. So it was that we hired on Mrs. Daisy Cooper. She may have started off as a housekeeper, but she's become much more. Now, she too is a much beloved member of our family. She's very much like a surrogate mother to us all. And although she loves each one of us in her own way…her favorite has got be my partner. "Something about him," she once told me, "just makes me want to hold and protect him. "She smiled, then jerked her head up and added, "like a wounded puppy".

 

I guess in a way I feel the same....can't explain why though. Jess is a grown man and can certainly take care of himself. Even so I have been told I come off a little protective of my partner at times...and I guess that's true. Like the afternoon Jess got hurt (not bad) while we were out branding cattle. We had just hired a new hand. Turned out to be a rather lazy sort that didn't cotton to Jess at all. This particular day he failed to listen to my partner's instructions and had caused an accident that injured Jess. It shouldn't have happened, made me mad as heck. So, after tending to Jess, I fired the man on the spot. Jess didn't agree, but accepted it anyway. That's how Jess is; he's always for the underdog. Always ready to give someone a second chance. Even if they don't deserve it. It's one of the many qualities I admire about him. But I could see worse coming and I wasn't gonna let anything else happen.

 

Over the years I've learned a lot about this ex-gunfighter turned rancher. He's far more than a partner, Jess is very much like a brother to me. Oh, Andy's my kin and I love him with all my heart. But, in some ways Jess and I are closer; Jess being less n' two years younger n' me. Don't know when I have felt so close to someone. And I know Jess feels the same about us; it's just hard for him to express it sometimes. For years after the war and the death of our parents, I had refused to allow anyone close. Scared I guess of once again losing someone I loved. But, when Jess came along; he somehow worked himself into that secret part of me and I haven't been the same since. Just better for it. Jess doesn't share his feelings easily. But once you get to know him, like I've said, you can see it real clear. Jess may not come right out and say it, but one look into those deep blue eyes and a close listen to that husky voice and there's no mistaken how he feels about his adopted family. 

 

Jess had been on the drift fives years before he came to us. I think that's one of the things that makes our friendship all the more important and remarkable. It's a hard thing sometimes for a man like that to settle down. It warms my heart when I think of all the changes this one time drifter, gunfighter has made. I remember that summer night, just him and me sitting out on the porch. We'd had a real hard day…chasing strays, checking and mending fences. We were tired through and through and all we wanted to do was to just sit and relax. We'd sat out there about an hour when the conversation come around as to why Jess started drifting, that's when he told me about the fire that killed his family. Started drifting when he was only fifteen. Made me sad to think how he missed out on being a boy. Said he was always good with a gun and soon learned that he could earn a living using it in one way or another. And he is fast, real fast I learned early on.

 

That night after talking about the changes he'd made, I'd told him how much I wanted him to stay. And we kind of forged our friendship. I showed him where my Pa used to stash his valuables and Jess put up his gunfighter's for good. Putting that gun away was kind of a symbol of him starting a new life. That was over five years ago and he's never looked back. Shortly after that I made Jess my partner. Sure hadn't been easy for him, or any of us for that matter. Ever once and a while Jess' past will raise its ugly head and we'll find ourselves in hot water. Like the time about four years back when a bounty hunter took off after Jess. Nearly killed him, shooting him in the back. We came real close to losing him then…too close. Yes, Jess Harper has changed. He's now a fixture in Laramie and an admired and respected one at that.

 

Andy had arrived on the first stage this morning. Boy he sure has grown. I hardly recognized him at first. With that brown hair and those brown eyes he resembles Jess more n' me. But he does have that Sherman build and just lacks an inch or so being as tall as me.

 

I hadn't told Jess about Andy coming. I wanted it to be a surprise...and it was and I made sure he was the one to open the door and greet the passengers this time. He swung that door open and stopped dead in his tracks and just stared. He had a look somewhere between shock and pure joy. I stood along side Daisy and watched with delight as my not so little brother and my Pard hugged and danced around the yard like two little kids. For a few minutes it was like nothing had changed. The years just rolled back to that first day Jess and Andy met.

 

In honor of Andy's arrival Daisy had laid out a spread fit for a king. Even made one of her fruit pies for the occasion. Once Mike was tucked in and on his way to a good nights sleep Andy, Jess and I sat up till late drinking coffee and finishing off the last of Daisy's peach pie. A fruit that in these parts is hard to come by. My partner and my little brother have always been very close and I like watching them talk and enjoy each other. But pretty soon the days work and Andy's travels took their tool and we all turned in.

 

But for me sleep didn't come right away. I lay there thinking about our last 'business meeting'. No more n' just front porch talk really. Jess and I have made some of our most important decisions from just talking out on our front porch after supper. It's also where we usually have our heart to hearts when things come up. It didn't take long before Daisy took note of this and she'd often steer Mike clear. Once telling him that Jess and I were having a personal discussion and shouldn't be bothered.

 

Then after visiting of my Pa's old friends I got it into my head that we needed some changes. This friend of Pa’s owns a horse ranch, breeds and trains horses. I was sorry to have had to leave Jess behind. Knowing how much he loves horses. He'd have been real impressed with this place. But, the more I watched the way their trainer work the more I realized just how good at working with horses Jess and I are. Though this young cowboy was good, he seemed cold and did lot of yelling. Right then and there I came to the conclusion that Jess and I could do better and were wasting our talent on cattle alone. Anyway, that's what got me to thinking and so I proposed my idea about breeding horses to Jess one night after supper.

 

"We're not getting any younger,” I told him, “and the cattle business, although good is real hard work.”

 

Jess listened and after a long silence, deep in thought he agreed. Took my breath away as I recall. Wasn't sure he'd go for it at first. I remember sitting there trying to read his face. Should have known better, Jess is a very complicated man. And although I’m the only person that can actually say that I know the real Jess Harper, there are times when after all these years he fools me, and I'm reminded that I might not know him as well as I think I do. But, this time he was intrigued and wanted to hear more. We must have sat out there half the night talking and planning.

 

Well, I'm laying here getting more and more frustrated with myself. Just can't seem to get to sleep. I keep seeing myself sitting at the top of the hill that leads down into our drive way. I'd come home early one afternoon from getting supplies and had stopped to look down on our home. It was so serene and peaceful. The log cabin we all share with the new improvements didn't really look that much bigger to me. But once inside you could tell things had changed a bit. The corral with all that new fencing was much bigger, and had been built according to Jess' specifications. And the barn; well that's where you could tell we'd made some real changes...it was much bigger with a larger hay loft, separate tack room and saddle bay (something we never thought of before) and next to it two new holding pens. Yup, things had changed for sure.

 

As I surveyed our home I couldn't help but smile when I thought of all the fun we had making those changes; but there's a note of sadness there too. Those changes didn't come cheap. They came at the expense of my best friend’s health. The injuries Jess suffered will plague him for the rest of his life. Even after all this time he still suffers. It gets pretty bad sometimes. Unfortunately the effects are not all physical. Funny how you never know how much you miss something till it's gone. That wild side of Jess, the part of him I've always called his badger side, just isn't as wild anymore...oh, he still has a quick temper and can get riled up before you know it...but unless you really know Jess like I do, you'd never see what I miss. That accident has aged him in more ways than one. Made him calm down and forced him to think before he leaps as it were. For some that might seem to be good thing and I'm not saying that Jess couldn‘t use some taming. I'll be the first to admit that. I've chided him more n' once for putting his fist before his head. But, to tell you the truth, I miss that side of my Pard. Though I'd never let him know it. Chills run down my spine when I think how close we came to losing him. The place just wouldn't be the same without Jess to share it.

 

Well, sleeps got to come or I won't be fit for nothing come morning. So I slipped deeper beneath the covers, closed my eyes and listened to the night sounds. The sound of the katydid's chirping outside our window, the stiff breeze rattling the shingles signaling winters arrival, and from Jess' direction, a soft snoring. Jess is usually a very quite sleeper, only snores when he's sick, or over tired. I noticed that Jess seems to snore a lot more since the accident, and that's okay with me. Still he's very quiet for the most part...I'm just thankful he's still here. Things could have been a whole lot different.

 

Oh, I guess I should back track here and explain; getting a little ahead of myself.

 

 

 

CHAPTER TWO -

"That darned gate"

 

 

Monday morning came and once again our home was filled with the aroma of breakfast. I stretched the night's kinks out and glanced over to find my partner gone. Now, I've always been a morning  person, but, it usually takes two cups of good strong coffee to get Jess moving. That's why I was shocked to see his bed empty.

 

I quickly struggled into my jeans and staggered to the kitchen just as Daisy was sitting a plate of bacon, eggs and a hot cup of coffee at my place. As I wiped the sleep from my blurry eyes the clock on the wall struck 10:00 a.m.

 

"Good morning, how do you feel?"

 

"I feel fine Daisy. Where's Jess? How come I slept so late?"

 

"One thing at a time, dear," she smiled.

 

"Jess said you had a real rough night. Said you were tossing and turning and talking in your sleep, all kinds of things. Said he had a terrible time just trying to keep the covers on you. He was worried about you. It got awfully cold last night. It looks like it might snow," she chattered.

 

I took a deep breath and ran my hand through my hair. "I don’t remember any of that."

 

"Well, dreams are like that sometimes. Now, you sit and eat your breakfast. Jess said to tell you he and Andy went to the south pasture this morning to round up those strays; they got out again. Said it might take a while. Jess said he wanted to check the whole pasture to make sure those strays stay put this time. Said they may not be back before supper."

 

"Supper?"

 

"Hope you're as hungry as Jess and Andy were this morning. I didn't think they were going to leave you a thing," she chuckled as she poured herself a cup of coffee and took a seat next to me.

 

She needn't have worried about that. I was starved and eagerly dug into my breakfast.

 

I smiled as I ate. When has Jess not been hungry. If there's one thing that boy can do it's eat, I thought as I shoved a fork full of eggs into my mouth.

 

I smiled to myself while I scrapped a second helping onto my plate. Andy may not be a rancher, but when he's home he falls right in place doing his share. I was glad he had gone with Jess this morning. That snoring of his last night had me a bit concerned. When I mentioned it to Daisy she said she too had been noticing how Jess had been favoring that right leg. We finally came to the conclusion that he was just over tired. My Pard gets like that sometimes, when he's done too much. He'd broken that right leg several years ago and it still gives him trouble, especially when it's cold or he's just been doing too much. Not surprising with all the winter preparations we'd been doing. But I still had an odd feeling. Daisy agreed and said she too was glad he wasn't alone, “just got a feeling,” she said.

 

After a third helping I wiped my napkin across my mouth and gave out a contented sigh. "Daisy, as usual that was wonderful." Then I got up, gave her a peck on the cheek and reached for my hat. "Well, I'd best get at it," I told her.

 

"Slim, we could use some more fire wood if you don't mind? We used a lot last night. It was so cold."

 

"Sure thing Daisy, I'll get right on it," I promised and headed for the barn to get the ax.

 

There was only one stage in that day so all the chores to be done were around the house. I elicited Mike's help and we got right to it. Our little charge was turning into a real hard worker. Of course the fact that Aunt Daisy'd promised him a slice of her apple pie after dinner should he do his share had nothing to do with it.

 

By late afternoon the chores were finally done and the rest of the day was easy. I helped Mike to build another kite after I found the first one couldn't be repaired. The day wore on with the two of us working on the kite then trying to get it airborne with varying degrees of success until Daisy called us in for supper. Still no sign of Andy or Jess. I was starting to get worried.

 

It has always been our habit to sit down to a meal as a family. But later it got the hungrier Mike became and could hold off no longer. He had just finished when the sound of horses entering the yard caused him to bound to the door and announce excitedly. "Here they are."

 

"It's about time," Daisy scolded, "food's getting cold and I was abo…" from the kitchen I heard her voice stop abruptly.

 

"Oh, Jess! What happened?"

 

I knew it! I tossed the towel down that had covered the now cold biscuits and hurried to the front door covering the distance between the table and the door in four easy strides. Jess has always teased me about my long legs, but I gotta tell ya they come in handy sometimes, like now.

 

It was easy to see my partner was hurt. He was holding his right side as he moved stiffly into the room. Without a word, I took hold of an arm and carefully guided him to a chair.

At the same time I looked back over my shoulder. "You okay, Andy?" 

 

I'd been bothered all morning but just couldn't put my finger on it....then it hit me. That stretch of pasture they were working bumped up against the Douglas spread. I'd always been a little concerned that something might happen between us and the Douglas'. Brian Douglas has a tough reputation and is very possessive about his land. Jess once told me he wouldn't be surprised if the birds didn't have to get permission to fly over. That thought gave us a good laugh. But, to tell you the truth, he wasn’t far off.

 

"I'm fine, it's Jess," Andy answered, hanging their hats on the rack near the door as he moved near the table. 

 

"It ain't bad, Slim," Jess insisted and pulled his arm from my grasp.

 

"What happened?" I asked, and started helping Jess shrug off his jacket.

 

"Oh, that old gate in the holdin' pen, Slim," Jess growled and stiffened against the pain as I pulled the jacket free.

 

"We'd just put the last of the strays in," he continued in a strained voice, "and I started to close the gate. Don't know what happened then…" his breathing caught and he winched against the pain, so Andy finished the sentence for him.

 

"All of a sudden the latch snapped and the gate just started swinging. Caught Jess on the right side, just under the rib cage."

 

"Knocked the wind clean outta of me. Along with Daisy's breakfast," he grumbled.

 

"You hurt bad, Jess?" Mike asked concerned for his old brother.

 

"No Tiger, don't worry about it," Jess assured him.

 

I caught Daisy's worried look as she hurried past us into her room only to return a few minutes later, nurse's satchel in hand.

 

I pulled up a chair to sit directly in front of my partner. "C'mon Jess, let's get that shirt off."

 

"It ain't bad, Slim. Just a bruise," he complained.

 

I was worried, that old gate was heavy and could have done some real damage. I knew Jess didn't notice, but as he started to unbutton his shirt his hands shook…so I reached up and started to unbutton the shirt for him.

 

"It's okay Slim, really," he insisted. For as long as I've known Jess Harper he's hated being fussed over. 

 

"Ah huh, I've heard that before. I wanna see, Jess," I insisted equally.

 

It was only then that he realized I was unbuttoning his shirt...."Slim, what are you doin'?" He snarled and tried to push my hand away.

 

"Helpin' ya," I snarled back and raised my voice, "now hush and let me look." By now his face had gone ashen and his cheeks were more than just a bit flushed. Of course that could have just been the cold wind I reasoned; at least I hoped that's all it was.

 

Andy craned his neck and peered over from the other side of the table and looked on along with Daisy. You could clearly see the imprint of the latch in Jess' side. A long deep gouge ran from just under the rib cage clean down past his waist. Though the skin had not been broken the whole area had begun to swell and change color.

 

"Good Lord, Jess," Daisy exclaimed, staring down at the injury.

 

"You sure nothing’s broke?" I asked searching my partner's face. Too many times Jess Harper has tried to fool me into thinking all was well, only to find out later is wasn't. 

 

"Nah, just a bruise…" he grinned through the pain, then sat up a bit straighter, pulled his arm away from his chest a little and added, proudly, "ain’t it a beaut?" His weak attempt to make light of the situation and draw our attention away from what might have been a serious injury didn't work. I knew what he was doing. He was trying to ward off any doctoring that might follow.  

 

"It's lovely," I smirked as I placed both hands on either side of his rib cage and started feeling for signs of a break.

 

Jess cringed and shoved my hands away. "Awwwh, what is it with you? Somebody gets hurt, first thing you gotta do is go pokin',"  he growled and drew a breath through clenched teeth.

 

"Oh, stop your bellyachin'," I scolded. "I gotta check Jess. Now sit still."

 

"Ouch," he shouted and pushed my hands away again.

 

"Looks like you might 'a cracked a rib, Pard," I told him.

 

"Well, if I didn't have one before, I got one now. Thanks to you," he grumbled.

 

Andy had leaned up against the wall to watch and could take no more. Behind us we heard him slide down the wall his bottom hitting the floor with a thud, then holding his sides he laughed loudly. All eyes on him. "Things never change," he hissed. "Slim's still motherin' and Jess is still complainin'," he laughed. We watched as my little brother fought to gain control, then forcing himself from the floor he asked.

 

"You gonna wrap it, Slim?"

 

"No, I don't think so, Andy...Jess is probably right, just a bad bruise. But if I did, I'd have to sit on him to do it," I spat and gave my ornery partner my best annoyed look together with an affectionate punch to the arm.

 

"Ya got that right," he groaned. "Whoever heard of bindin' a bruise," he mumbled under his breath.

 

I leaned back in the chair and regarded this intense young man who'd come to be my partner three years ago. Jess Harper is family. I'd learned much about him over the years. If there was one certainty in this life, it was the fact that Jess Harper was born stubborn. Why I've seen him swear up and down he was alright when you could tell he was about to keel over. So when  my gaze hadn't lifted for a few minutes he cocked a suspicious eyebrow my way and grunted.

 

"You worry too much, you know that, Slim? You're gonna grow old afore yur time," he drawled, that Texas accent comin' real clear now.

 

"That's because you give me cause to worry," I snapped. "I'd be a whole lot younger if you'd stop getting yourself banged up," I didn't realize I sounded so gruff until everyone turned to look at me. Guess this had shook me more n’ I thought.

 

"It wasn't Jess' fault, Slim. The latch just snapped...that's all," Andy said, softly.

 

I hung my head, sorry for my tone...when I looked back at Jess he was wearing a puzzled expression.

 

"Of course it's not. I'm sorry Jess. It's just that...well, I knew that gate needed fixing a week ago...but with all that's been goin' on, I ... I forgot about it that's all… and now this," I said, and pointed at my partner's injured side.

 

"Don't think there's any repairing that thing, Slim. Best we can do is replace it," he added.

 

"Yeah, but...I should've..."

 

Jess reached out and placed a gentle hand on my shoulder and gave it a firm squeeze, ignoring the pain it must have caused him. "It was an accident Slim, pure and simple. Ain't nobody's fault," he assured me with a smile. I could tell the pain had gotten worse but in typical Harper fashion he refused to admit it.

 

I shrugged off the feeling. "Well, let's get this looked after, Pard."

 

“You can't do nothin' for a bruise Slim, you know that,” he chuckled softly.

 

"Alright you two, that's enough." Daisy had been rummaging through her bag, found what she was looking for and pulled out a small bottle of green liquid which she proceeded to shake.

 

I almost laughed. From the look on Jess' face you'd have sworn she'd pulled a rattler outta that bag.

 

"It's just a bruise, Daisy," he said meekly. "Ain't noth....nothin' you can do for a bruise," he stammered,  his tone almost a plea...his eyes fixed on the bottle.

 

I didn't laugh, but couldn't help but smile. I've often thought how much Jess reminds me of a little kid when it comes to doctoring. He hates it with a passion. It took everything in me not to laugh out loud, but I held it together for his sake. I wanted him to realize that he needed attention and like it or not our Daisy was gonna see to it that he got it. Daisy'd worked in field hospitals as a nurse during the war and has far more knowledge about doctoring than we do. We respect her talent and advice. And she often has the last word when it comes to our hurts.

 

"I know, dear," she smiled as she uncorked the bottle, spoon in hand. "I know."

 

"Then…," he screwed up his face, swallowed hard and asked. "What's that for?"

 

"It's for the pain, Jess," she explained.

 

"Daisy, I ain't got no…"

 

Oooh, no. I was gonna have none of that. I rose and planted my hands on either side of his chair and I towered over him my face close to his. Jess, was hurt and I was gonna darn well see to it that he took care of himself. So whatever his objection was I stopped it short. I have been told I can look pretty menacing when I want to...and right now I was giving it my all. Hoping to drive the point home. He'd scared me and I was gonna have none of his shenanigans.

 

"Now you listen to me Jess Harper, your gonna take that medicine, go in there, eat what you can, then lie down and let it work. And, then.…and only then IF you're feeling up to it, you can go help Mike with the chickens." I may have come off a little harsh, but I'd learned along time ago that when it comes to Jess, sometimes that's the only way.

 

Jess started to protest, his eyes wide with disbelief. "What?"

 

I leaned in close. "Jess, you and I are partners. I don't go ordering you around no more. But this time I'm not asking ya, I'm telling ya. It's that or bed, your choice," I told him and shoved my finger in his face for emphasis. In the past I'd  given in far too many times to my friend's insistence that he was 'fine' all along knowing full well that he wasn't. But not this time. This time I stood my ground. Jess had learned long ago that I could only be pushed so far when it comes to family getting sick or hurt…and that push is short.

 

We eyed each other for a bit. Me towering over him and him looking up at me. No one said a word. I wasn't about to back down and Jess knew it. Finally he broke the silence, his choice made.

 

"Chickens," he said. Resigned.

 

I nodded. "Good choice, Pard," I said, slapping him on the back while ignoring the angry glare.

 

Daisy got a spoonful of her elixir down him all right just before he sat down to supper. He took it, spittin'  n' sputtern' and complainin' as usual. She just laughed and smiled at him. She always seems to take Jess' grumbling in stride. I actually think she likes it sometimes. Gives her a chuckle I know that for sure.

 

That night we decided to take our coffee in the living room by the fire as it was far too cold to sit outside. Whatever the concoction Daisy'd forced down Jess was working better than she'd hoped. His eyes had begun to get heavy even before we left the table and had actually started nodding off.  Don't know how he kept his head out of his plate.

 

I looked over at my drowsy partner and clapped a hand on his shoulder causing his eyes to shoot open and suggested he might want to turn in while he could still walk, "less",  I told him, "you want me to carry ya," I  teased.

 

He shot me a sour look. "Don't feel like layin' down yet, Slim," he grumbled as he moved from the table and headed to the living room staggering a little. Jess eased into the rocker while I took a seat on the couch next to Andy. 

 

Andy had just turned nineteen and was about to start his second year of medical school. He was all excited, making wild gestures and smiling a lot. I was glad he was happy with his decision. I'll admit I was a little apprehensive at first. But from the way he talked and the excitement in his voice and the sparkle in those eyes, I knew he'd made the right choice. He really wasn't a rancher at heart. He loves Wyoming though and proceeded to tell us how he wanted to open a practice right here in Laramie...so he could be close to his family. That made me feel all warm inside; not sure how Seth would feel about the competition though.

 

As he spoke we'd glance over at Jess from time to time. He seemed to be having more trouble keeping his head up, than contributing to the conversation.

 

"Well, did you finish it?" Andy whispered, so as not to disturb Jess, who by now had fallen asleep, his chin resting on his chest, snoring softly.

 

I nodded that I had. Then glancing at Jess once more, I got up, went to my desk and pulled out the drawings I'd made. "Just finished last night. I got several, but the one I like best is this one," I whispered and handed him the paper and I watched anxiously as he unfolded it.

 

His eyes lit up and he smiled. "Oh, Slim, this IS good. This is REAL good," he said his voice slightly above a whisper.

 

"You got someone to forge it?" He asked, handing it back.

 

"Yup, Dirk said he'd do it as soon as I give him the word," I whispered back.

 

Andy's smile widened and his brown eyes danced.

 

"What?"

 

"I was just remembering the day you asked Jess to sign that Partnership Agreement," he shook his head and smiled, "that was a real special day. I was sorry Jess was so sick. But, the look on his face…" he chuckled. "I'll never forget it. He was so stunned."

 

"It sure was," I smiled as I recalled the shocked expression. "Very special."

 

"This will be too. Pa'd be right proud of you, Slim."  Then his gaze turned once more to the man sleeping in the chair. "I wish he and Ma had known Jess. You know Pa would have loved him like he was his own," he said reflectively.

 

I nodded. "I know," and couldn't help but grin. I'd often wondered what my Pa's impression of Jess would have been. We sat in silence for a while, each one contemplating what our parents would have thought about Jess being part of the Sherman family, then…

 

"Well, it's late, we'd best turn in," I said, as I rose to stretch my back.

 

"You want I should help you with Jess?" Andy asked.

 

I looked over at my sleeping  partner. "Might need it",  I chuckled, "he's out cold." We moved to the rocker and I shook his shoulder, took more n' a few to rouse him.

 

"Pard....Jess, wake up. Let's go to bed."

 

Jess forced his eyes open and slit and grunted. He was so groggy he could hardly lift his head let alone walk. Andy and I each took an arm, got him to his feet and started for the bedroom only to have Jess turn toward the kitchen instead.  "Jess, where ya goin’?” Andy asked.

 

"To b…bed," he slurred.

 

"In the kitchen?" Andy asked with a grin.

 

"Huh?"

 

I smiled and wrapped an arm around his shoulders. "Here, this way, Pard," I said and turned him around. He was staggering so bad we almost had to carry him, but we made it. We sat him on the edge of his bed and together we removed his boots and pants, Jess barely opened his eyes. Then he remembered and forced his eyes open to look sleepily around the room.

 

"Wher…ere's 'm coffee?" he asked.

 

"You finished that twenty minutes ago, Jess. Now, go to sleep," I chuckled as Andy pulled the quilt up to his chin. 

 

"Oh," was the last thing he said. He turned on his side mumbled something neither of us could understand and picked up snoring where he'd off.

 

"Boy, whatever Daisy has in those concoctions really knockeds him out, doesn’t  it." Andy observed with a chuckle.

 

"Always has," I yawned.

 

"He'll be sore tomorrow," Andy observed.

 

And I had to agree.

 

 

CHAPTER THREE -

The Accident 

 

 

A week later Mort Cory, our town sheriff approached Jess and I wanting one of us ride along with the stage coming from Sweetwater. There was a special gold shipment aboard and he was nervous about it. Several ranches in the area had been hit hard by last years drought and this year appeared to be no better. People were getting desperate and he wanted to make sure this shipment made it all the way to Laramie. He told us he didn't anticipate trouble, but didn't want to take any chances. Like he said, 'it’s better to be safe than sorry'.

 

Jess and I are well known for helping out Mort whenever we can. When it came to special gold shipments like this one, we'd often both go. One of us would ride in the coach while the other rode along side or sat with driver as shotgun. So this request came as no surprise. But, this time only one of us was free. Jess had made a purchase of a small herd of cattle and they were expected the next day. Someone had to be here to take care of things. The notice of delivery had to be signed and we had to make sure the herd was secured in the right pasture. All of which would take time.

 

I stepped into the barn where Jess was replacing a shoe on Alamo and asked if he'd mind helping Mort? He quickly agreed. I knew he would....he'd been getting what Jess calls the 'itch' lately. I knew he'd rather ride a horse than shoe one any day. Anything to get away and ride like the wind. Riding along with the stage might not be like riding the range, but it was close enough he said.

 

I nodded my thanks and started to leave, when I thought better of it and turned back. I'd try one last time to get my partner to handle the transfer of the new herd and let me go along with the stage instead.

 

"Slim, we've been over this...I said NO! We had a deal, remember. I bought  'em, you drive 'em," he reminded me.

 

Mort laughed. "It'll be the first stage in... Heath Jackson will be driving since Mose is still laid up with that bad leg of his. Hank Davenport's going to be riding shotgun. All I need you for Jess is backup. Like I said I don't expect any trouble. Thanks again, boys."

 

"Sure thing, Mort. See ya," Jess said, and with a wave of his hand the matter was settled.

 

So it was that my partner would accompany the stage into Laramie. I stood for a moment and watched as our Sheriff disappeared over the hill towards town and shivered. The soft  breeze had a real bite to it and looking over the mountains it looked like it just might come up a good storm before the day was out. Winter was certainly in the air. Just that morning Jess had commented that it smelled like rain. I was hoping he was right we could sure use it. It had been a long hot dry summer and although my partner dislikes being cold more n' anything, personally I'm looking forward to it. Nothing like sitting round a crackling fire on a cold night with family, sipping Daisy's special hot chocolate. Something she makes sure to have every winter.

 

Jess' bruised side was healing fine but looked terrible. Before the stage came the next morning and my partner could satisfy his 'itch' Daisy insisted that she be allowed to apply some her special liniment to it. So, like it or not.....he was stuck in the bedroom for the better part of an hour while Daisy applied her special formula. When she finally let him escape, he came out smellin’ like a cross between a ripe rat and a dead polecat. And here I thought Jonesy'd cornered the market on 'stink'.

 

I caught a whiff as he passed and nearly fell over. My eyes began to water as I held my nose for emphases and my grin widened. He leaned towards me and I raised my hand to shoo him away and started to laugh.

 

Then in a low voice just out of Daisy's hearing. "One things for sure, if somethin' happens, I won't need to draw 'm gun. All's I gotta do is lift 'm shirt a mite," he laughed.

 

"No argument there," I wrinkled my nose and laughed as I watched him make a bee line for the barn....and I knew why. He was gonna rid himself of that God awful odor before Traveler threw him.

 

A half hour later the stage rattled into the yard late and without Hank. We were told he simply didn't show. That was a disappointment. That meant Jess would be pressed into service as shotgun. Something he didn't want to do. I tried to keep my grin to myself as he lead Traveler back to the barn. He turned dejectedly and led Traveler back to the barn. I did at least promise to unsaddle his mount. I could tell by those slumped shoulders and the way he climbed aboard that he was not happy, he'd really been looking forward to that ride.

 

I watched as the coach cleared the crest of the hill and disappeared in a cloud of dust down the Laramie road. For some reason that bad feeling was back again. But, then again, when it comes to gold shipments I always have a bad feeling. Times are hard and some folks desperate to feed their families will stop at nothing to get what they need. That being said, I was a little disappointed that Davenport wasn't riding shotgun. Like Jess, Davenport's a crack shot and has good instincts. Just had a feeling. But I shook it off and kept telling myself that everything would be fine. There certainly was no indication that anything was wrong or would go wrong for that matter. But, things do have a way of changing.

 

The stage no sooner pulled out of the yard when men from the Deets ranch rounded the east hill with the new herd. And a fine looking bunch of walkin' steaks they were too. My partner has a good eye that's for sure. These were fine prime cattle. He'd even talk old man Sellers into throwing in a bull. Yes sir, he made one good deal. This herd together with the bull should hold us over just fine. I was proud of my partner.

 

Ace gave me an enthusiastic ‘howdy’ as he entered the yard. Ace Saunders is the foreman at the Deets ranch and is a wizard when it comes to knowing the mind of a steer. He seems to be able to anticipate their move even before they think of it. So it was that it took less than half an hour to settle the herd in our nearest pasture. I like Saunders; he's a nice fella and a fair man. Once the herd was settled and the paperwork done we said our goodbyes and Andy and I headed for home.

 

As we rode, I teased Andy about his ability to persuade Saunders and his men that the last of Daisy's pies wouldn't be ready in time for them to enjoy them. He told Ace that Daisy liked to let the pies sit for at least a day before serving them. Like that's gonna happen with three men and a little boy around! Don't know why, but Saunders bought it and he and his men rode off pie-less. Disappointment written all over their faces. We were still laughing about it when our home came into view and Andy suddenly pulled up.

 

"Speakin' of Daisy, Slim," he said and pointed toward the house.

 

I stood up in the saddle to get a better look.

 

"Whadda ya figures goin' on?"

 

"Don't know, Andy. But, we'd best find out."  We hurried down the hill and into the yard.

 

Daisy and Mike were scurrying around, loading the buckboard with this that and the other. Morris had stopped by just a few minutes earlier with news of the accident. Daisy told us how the stage had been found on its side...it had been discovered not more than half an hour ago and folks were already preparing to ride out to help. Daisy; suspecting Jess and others might be hurt had prepared a straw bed and together with Mike had filled the wagon with the equipment she thought we might need. A cursory inspection told me that she'd thought of just about everything. Still Andy and I ran into the barn and pulled out saws, bundles of clean rags and a block and tackle just in case. Then after telling Daisy not to worry; though I knew she would, we were off.

 

The stage was not more n’ half hour from Laramie when the accident happened. The pull pin had come loose setting the tongue free and the coach flying. The coach had left the road and had careened out of control, swinging widely from side to side finally flipping on it's side like a fell buffalo and came to rest just a hair away from a group of sycamore trees near the river bank. We learned later that the dust hadn't settled before the sound of gunfire was heard.

 

Unlike Jackson, who lay sprawled next to the coach his left leg tangled in the luggage bindings, my partner had been thrown free of the wreck and lay unconscious against an outcropping of rocks just a few feet from the road. There'd been only three passengers that morning; a husband and wife, newly married and an elderly man. The passengers had been thrown free of the coach as well and lay like rag dolls with clothing and luggage scattered everywhere. All but the young wife was hurt and bleeding.

 

Jess had come to shortly after and Seth had arrived just in time to catch him as his legs gave out and he started headlong to the ground.

 

"Seth told him to lie still.” Then turned and hurried over to the other victim. Heath appeared to be out cold. But upon closer inspection it was obvious the young man was dead. A sound from behind drew the doctors attention back to where Jess had been laying. Only now Jess was standing up and trying to mount the doc’s horse, struggling to pull himself into the saddle, his legs shaking. After covering the driver's body with a blanket he raced back to Jess, who appeared to have given up on trying to mount and appeared to be concentrating on keeping upright instead.

 

"Jess, what the hell do you think you're doing? Sit down, boy!" He had demanded.

 

Seth said Jess mumbled something about needing to borrow his horse before Seth took him by the shoulders and forced him back down. He left him for just a minute and when he looked back he said Jess was gagging and had stated to vomit and was trying to get up again. That's my partner...stubborn as the day is long!

 

"Seth I need ta..."he'd sputtered.

 

"What you need to do is to listen to me.....you're in no condition to go anywhere, NOW SIT," Seth shouted and forced him back down again.

 

 

0o0o0o0o0o0o0

 

 

By the time Andy and I arrived, the crash site looked like organized chaos with debris scattered everywhere. Two men from a neighboring ranch stood at one end of the stage, ropes in hand trying to figure out the best way to right what had once been a comfortable coach. Across from them sat a young woman, crying; a man, his arm in a sling, stood comforting her. At the other side of the road stood the other passenger, an older gentleman dressed in a dark suit, now covered with dirt from the dusty road holding a bloody rag to his arm. He looked to be in shock, and next to him was a body, covered with a blanket. With my stomach in knots, I took a deep breath, and with a shaky hand reached down to lift one corner ....when I heard a familiar voice.

 

"It's not Jess, Slim.....not yet anyways. It’s Heath," Seth announced then lowering his voice added,  "neck's broke. The stage was held up," he stated and pointed to the empty cash box a few feet away.

 

"What!" I was shocked, who would hold up a stage after a wreck?

 

He nodded. "Yeah," taking note of my stunned expression.

 

I looked around frantically. "Seth, where's Jess?"

 

 "He mumbled something I couldn't understand. Then before I knew it he got himself on Ol' Chester and took off after them," he said as he continued to exam the young lady.

 

I was shocked. "He what?"

 

"You heard right. Dang fool, could hardly stand, much less ride. Can't imagine how he mounted," Seth shook his head, "not in his condition."

 

Seth shook his head as the young lady he was treating gave out a muffled yelp of pain.

 

I turned to my little brother. "Andy, you stay here and see what you can do to help, I'm goin' after Jess, before that fool partner of mine gets himself  killed. You might as…"

 

"No need, Slim," Seth interrupted. "Jake Connors already took off after him. He'll bring him back. We need you here....it's gonna take more than two men to right that coach. Lord knows what's under it." He smiled and look into the pain filled eyes of his patient. You're going to be alright Miss. Just a few bruised ribs. Just try and breath slowly and sit still. I'm going to check on the other passengers," he told her gently and started to walk toward the older gentleman.

 

"How'd you get here so fast, Seth?" I asked before he got too far away.

 

"I was over at the Jackson's place when I saw the team running hell bent without the coach dragging the tongue behind them. Didn't take a genius to figure out what happened. So, I lit out in the opposite direction. Got here just in time to see Jess get to his feet."

 

"Go on now, Slim," he insisted, "see what you can do to help with that coach. Jake'll bring him back. He couldn't have gone far. Got a pretty good knock on the head as far as I could tell and the way he was holding his ribs I kinda figure he’s broke a few. He couldn't have gone far. Now go on," he said and jerked his head in the direction of the overturned coach.

 

I sighed, knowing Seth's request had an ulterior motive. He sensed the worry and anxiety in me and no doubt heard it in my voice as well. I knew he was right and for certain he didn't need another patient right now...he had enough to deal with as it was. I also knew Jake well, knew he liked Jess a heck of a lot and would stop at nothing to find and bring him back safe. But, Jess is like a brother to me, and finding him I felt was my responsibility and no one else's.

 

I walked slowly down to the wrecked coach hesitation in each step until I saw Andy at one end of the coach and heard the slap of ropes against the wooden side. Seth was right, they needed all the help they could get. Reluctantly I grabbed hold of one end of the rope Andy had and started to pull with the rest of them.

 

‘Go on, Slim. Conners'll bring him back.’ Kept ringing in my ears.

 

Seth had been right, we didn't have to wait long...Jake came riding back slow with Ol' Chester in tow and my unconscious partner slumped in front of him. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Seth hurry over to Jess. I wanted to run to help, but couldn't let go of the rope. I caught Andy's eye and nodded. A moment later he left me to my work and ran to help with Jess.

 

Jake hurried over to take Andy's place and soon the coach was righted. We had to cover our mouths and noses as a thick layer of dust billowed into the air as the coach rattled and squeaked as it settled. By the time I reached Jess, my partner and best friend lay limp in my brother's arms. I knelt down beside the two, my hand on Andy's shoulder. 

 

Andy looked to be almost as pale as the injured man he held. "Jess, please open your eyes, please," he begged and shook him gently. But, there was no response, his head rested heavily against Andy's chest; his breathing coming in short ragged gasps. Though he'd just finished his first year of medical school Andy's eyes were big and had begun to tear. His hero, the one person that seemed to light up his life, was in bad shape; fear was written all over my brother's face. Andy was as close to panic as I'd ever seen and I couldn't blame him.

 

Jess had an ashy look to his skin, what you could see of it through the blood that is. His head was bleeding profusely and was the first thing Seth went to work on. He grabbed a large wad of cloth, placed it over the wound and put Andy to work holding it.

 

“Even steady pressure,” he told him.

 

I looked down at my friend, blood running down the side of his face to pool around the collar of what was left of his shirt and out of nowhere I was overcome for a second with intense anger at the man I considered my adopted brother. What in he hell were you thinking, Jess Harper? Why didn't ya just stay put and let the doc look after you? I suddenly felt like Jess...I wanted to bust something. But I shook it off and tried to remain calm. This was not the time to breakdown or get mad...both he and Jess needed whatever strength and comfort I might have to offer. I guess for a brief moment I felt a little like Andy. Wanting our friend to open his eyes and assure us that he was alright. Then I was gonna lay into that mule headed fool for taking off like he did.

 

"Doc?" Andy's voice shook.

 

"It's alright, Andy. It doesn't take much for a head wound to bleed." Seth said as he lifted Jess' soiled and tattered shirt to run his hearing piece over his chest, then stopped to pry an eye open and look intently at the enlarged pupil. He sank back on his heels with a heavy sigh and shook his head.

 

"Dang fool!" Seth exclaimed. Seth doesn't get frustrated often, but for Jess he made an exception. I watched while his hands moved expertly over my friends limp form as he continued to rant. "What in the hell were you trying to do going after them like that. No telling what kinda of damage you've done... just couldn't leave well enough alone, could you," he snapped at the unconscious man. "He's lucky he didn't shove a rib into a lung. Damn it all to hell, boy," he shouted, more out of fear than anger, I knew.

 

‘Keeps me on my toes,’ Seth once said. But, now from the way Seth was carrying on it sounded like Jess might just check out permanent and it was scaring Andy and me too. Seth must have noticed because he took a deep breath and lowered his tone. "I'm sorry. It's just that, I like Jess too, and when he does something stupid like this it....well...."

 

"He was just trying to help, doc," Andy stammered, defensively.

 

"I know, Andy. It's just a little upsetting that's all," he said forcing a smile. "Well let's see what this boy's done to himself."

 

As he worked he told us how Connors had gone after Jess. "He brought back something," he said and pointed to the bag slung over Connors saddle horn. "Hope it was worth it."

 

"You can fix him up can't you, doc?" Andy asked..

 

"I'm sure gonna try, Andy. How's that bleeding?" He asked and smiled at the way Andy was cradling Jess.

 

"It's...it's slowing I think," Andy sniffed.

 

"Jess is a strong man, Andy. He's pulled through worse." I knew Seth was trying to sound confident. But I could see the worry and doubt in his eyes and that served to scared me even more. I reached out and placed a hand on my partner's arm, and suddenly I felt sick to my stomach. I looked anxiously at Seth and waited.

 

"Seth?"

 

"This is not good, Slim," he said after examining my partner's eyes for the third time almost as if he couldn't believe what he was seeing. Finally..."He's got a concussion, a bad one," he announced. "A real bad one. Maybe even be a facture; too soon to know for sure. Got a couple of cracked ribs too, don't think they're broke through though. I sure would like to know how he hit those rocks," he said,  indicating an outcropping of rocks that jutted out near the side of the road with the jerk of his head.

 

I stole a quick glance in that direction then turned back to find Seth shaking his head once more.

 

"There’s no doubt he's hurt his back. Back injuries are hard to diagnose, only time will tell how bad. I tell you one thing," he said as he took his scissors and cut away what remained of Jess' shirt, "that ride sure didn't help none." He ran an experienced hand once again over the man's rib cage. "No, don't feel any breaks, thank God. Sure got a passel of bruises though."

 

"Some of those are old," I informed.

 

"I see that. Well, he's gonna have a few more to add to his collection," he said grimly and reached over to lift the temporary bandage on his patients head. A deep ugly gash now clearly visible near Jess' right temple continued to slowly ooze.

 

"When is this boy gonna learn he's not made of steel? That he's flesh and blood like the rest of us. Don't know how he got in the saddle. He could hardly stand up much less ride. But he did it." As he spoke he kept pulling one thing or another out of his bag, until he finally pulled out a length of cloth and asked Andy and I to hold Jess in a sitting position so he could bind his chest to prevent further injury before he could be moved. "There, that should hold him. When you get him home you can take this off. Just don't want him hurting himself anymore than he already has. I'll rebind it later, when I get there and we get him cleaned up," he told us. "Now let's see to that head." As Seth worked he continued to grumble.

 

I knew Seth wasn't really mad at Jess; just scared and concerned for him. So was I. But I also understood my Pard's reasoning, even though I didn't agree with it. I also understood our doctor's frustration. When it comes to my mule-headed friend I have felt it many times myself. Jess has always been the one to put everyone's needs ahead of his own. And for that I do admire him. But it's this seemingly blatant disregard for his own health and safety that has always bothered me. And at times scared me as well. Like now. We've had many a discussion about it. But, standing there looking down at my stricken friend it's obvious that our discussions had fallen on deaf ears. .

 

"You know what Jess is like when he gets somethin' in that head of his," I defended. In my own way trying to ease things by way of conversation, as much for my sake as for anyone else’s. But it wasn't easy; my heart was in my boots....Jess looked terrible. His shirt had almost been torn in half. One pant leg was ripped from the hip clear down past his knee. As Seth examined the cut, I became aware of something else too. The sight and sour smell of vomit mixed with blood filled the air, almost making me gag. Andy didn't seem to notice or care, just held Jess close while Seth cleaned the wound and applied a quick bandage.

 

"Doc, he's awful cold. I think he's goin' into shock," Andy observed.

 

"Good observation, Andy, you're right. I hope you brought blankets. We need to keep him warm,” he said looking back at me.

 

"We did," I assured him without really knowing. But I figured from the way Daisy and Mike were tossing things in the wagon, I wouldn't have been surprised to find the kitchens sink in there. I was sure to find blankets. I looked up to see clouds of dust rising from the other side of the small hill lead by several wagons and buckboards. Soon the whole place was a furry of activity. I hurried to our buckboard. Sure enough, there were four blankets neatly folded next to the straw bed. While Andy held him I carefully wrapped a blanket around our injured friend and hefted him into my arms.

 

Then with Andy’s help we carefully eased Jess down on to the straw bed Daisy'd made and covered him with two more blankets. Andy positioned himself beside my Pard, in an effort to make sure he wasn't jostled too much. Once we received further assurance from Seth that he'd be along as soon as he got things squared away, we moved away from the wreck and started the slow and arduous trip home. It had taken less than an hour to reach the site of the accident, but with having to be so careful it took much longer to get home.

 

As I drove Andy kept me informed of how Jess was doing. At one point he asked me to stop as he needed to reposition him. I hopped in the back to help. I was so proud of my not so little brother. That medical training was showing as he explained that he needed to keep Jess on his side as much as possible so when he got sick he wouldn't choke. The shock Andy said we'd have to deal with once we got him home.

 

I'm not ashamed to admit that I was more frightened now than ever. Jess' color was bad and his skin had a clammy feel to it. His breathing had settled a bit, but was still ragged and shallow. Every once in awhile it seemed to catch and I feared it might stop altogether. I wanted to set the team to a faster pace, but knew I couldn't for fear of causing more damage. We were less than three miles from home, when out from the corner of my eye I saw Andy cover Jess with yet another blanket. Andy said Jess felt even colder and had begun to shake a little. I did my best to control my own breathing and prayed we'd make it home with my partner still alive. I couldn't help but breath a sign of relief when the house came into view. But my calm was short lived. We had no sooner pulled up to the house, when Andy gave out a yell that darn near unsettled both me and the horses.

 

"Slim! Hold up. Jess is shaking all over...he's jerking something awful." Andy's fear had reached to new heights and his voice started to climb with it, reaching a fever pitch as I pulled the team to a halt. I had no sooner jumped down before Daisy seemed to have appeared out of nowhere, her hands reaching over the side of the wagon to Jess.

 

"Seth says he has a bad concussion, Daisy. Might even be a fracture,"  I told her quickly.

 

She nodded.

 

Andy was trying to hold Jess to calm the shaking. "It's a convulsion," Andy informed, his voice still high.

 

"Don't hold him. He could break a bone," Daisy instructed. "Just let him ride it out." Though worried, her instructions were clear. "Just keep things away from him, so he doesn't flail into something and hurt himself," she said, her eyes fixed on the injured cowboy.

 

I reached past Jess and quickly pulled the box of equipment away from him. "Just let it run its course, there's nothing we can do till the doctor gets here."  It was hard for all of us to watch our friend thrash about as the jerking intensified, until finally, it slowed and Jess relaxed and lay still. My emotions were in turmoil. When I finally felt I could breathe again I looked over and spied Mike standing to one side of the wagon, his eyes wide with fear, scared into silence at the very sight of Jess' uncontrolled jerking.

 

"Mike! Mike, do me a favor son. I need you to hold the team for me while we get Jess out, please."

 

I knew giving Mike something to do right now was the best thing for him. It would keep his attention away from the limp figure lying pale and still in the wagon. I swallowed my own fear and carefully lifted Jess into my arms with Andy’s help and carried him into the house as Daisy hurried ahead of me opening doors as she went. Jess had started to sweat and I could feel the tremors start again as the violent jerking resumed and I tightened my grip for fear of losing my hold. Andy's ran ahead of us and pulled down my partner’s bed, then helped me lay him down carefully.

 

We stood watched helplessly as he continued to jerk until finally the tremors eased and he lay still again. His face drenched in sweat, looking more like he'd run alongside the buckboard instead of ridding in it.

 

Andy's temporary lapse of judgment gone, he and Daisy worked together to ease the shock. Elevating his legs and covering him with yet another warm blanket. We kept feeling his arms, face and chest till the cold clamminess subsided and we could tell that shock was no longer a serious concern; though he remained deathly pale. And he looked...well...dead.

 

I swallowed hard and looked from Daisy to Andy. "If you two can handle this, Mike and I will take care of the team?"

 

"We're fine, Slim. Go ahead," Daisy replied offering a brief smile of assurance.

 

"I'll do it," Andy suddenly spoke up and hurried past me.

 

That confused me a little, but I didn't have time to ponder and went right to work along side Daisy. Once we got his clothes off and removed Seth's bindings and started cleaning him up we could see the full extent of the damage; or so we thought. His chest had a few scratches and scrapes but nothing too serious. He seemed calmer now and although he'd gained a little color his breathing was still far too shallow. We had him laying flat and although Daisy said it would probably ease his breathing if he were propped up some, she feared that if we raised him up it might make him sick again. In the end all we could do was to wait for Seth. My hands were cold and my palms had begun to sweat. I had to keep wiping them on my pants for relief. I recall Jess teasing me about how I react when I'm really nervous. My palms get sweaty and cold and I start breathing hard. Like an old woman, Jess says. It peeves me to know no end sometimes, but right now I'd do anything just to hear that raspy voice again, complaints and all.

 

I had just rinsed out the rag when Andy stepped back into the room and Jess began to heave.

 

"Andy," I yelled, "get me a towel." I turned his head to one side, but there was little to it, his stomach was pretty much empty.

 

A short time later we heard a knock at the door and Seth Andrews was ushered into the room, much to everyone's relief. The worry that had marred our Daisy's face now relaxed a bit as she relinquished Jess' care to our family doc. Like she said, head injuries are a little beyond her skills and she was clearly worried about Jess.

 

Always the mother, Daisy took note of  Mike's wide eyes and asked if she was needed. When Seth told her no. She took Mike by the shoulders and carefully guided our youngest member out of the room.

 

"Might need some hot coffee, though, Mrs. Cooper," Seth called to her with a smile.

 

She nodded and closed the bedroom door as she went.

 

Seth has always been very thorough and this time proved no different. Seems he looked over every inch of the unconscious man, asking questions as he went. Then he rose from the bed and asked for my help. He wanted to roll Jess over to examine his back. I very carefully rolled my Pard onto his stomach. The only thing visible was a large area right in the middle of his low back; it had begun to bruise and had already turned dark. Seth took his fingers and tapped around the area then stood and shook his head. It didn't seem that bad to me, just a bruise as far as I could tell. But the look on Seth's face told me it was much more.

 

"Seth, what is it?"

 

He drew a deep breath. "I don't like the looks of this, Slim," he answered grimly.

 

"It's just a bruise isn't it?"

 

"I hope so. But Jess was having an awful hard time trying to get his legs to work. He even had to push them together to stand; like he couldn't get them to move on their own. And once he did get up, he was having a real hard time staying that way," he said looking down at his patient. Clearly worried.

 

“That bang on the head can make you awful dizzy,” I offered.

 

“Wasn’t that,” Seth told me still looking at Jess’ back.

 

My throat felt raw. "Well, what do you think it is then?" I asked, rubbing the back of my neck nervously.

 

"I can't be sure. Not right now anyway. But their definitely appears to be some damage here. Just how bad I don't know," he said and again tapped around the edges of the bruise. "I need to know how he's feeling and we'll have to wait for that. I just don't like the look of it," he repeated as much to himself as anyone else.

 

"Well, what do you THINK it is?" I stammered without meaning to sound so insistent.

 

Seth looked up at me and smiled. "Now Slim, you know me. I don't speculate and I don't make guesses. We'll just have to wait and see." He looked down at the man in the bed and chewed his lip then back up at me and smiled again. "One things for sure. He's gonna wake up with the mother of all headaches. Wish I could give him something for the pain, but that's too dangerous. Cool compresses will help for now, but he'll just have to bear it I'm afraid." We carefully rolled him back over and he took his pulse once more. "He's too cold. We need another blanket here."

 

Andy quickly pulled a quilt from the chest near the door and handed it to me. It was while I was in the middle of unfolding the quilt and covering Jess that Seth made a statement that shook me.

 

"Slim, from the looks of things I think it would be wise if I stayed awhile."

 

"Of course. I was hoping you would. He's got me scared, Seth", I admitted. Anytime Seth Andrews felt it necessary to hang around a patients' house, was cause for concern.

 

He said nothing just nodded. About that time Daisy announced that the coffee was ready. Mike, always ready to help out his older brother in any way was thrilled when Seth asked him to sit and watch Jess for him. He was told to be very quiet and to call us if Jess even moved a finger.

 

Like the rest of us Andy was glad Seth had decided to stay. Overnight even to see to his 'star patient' as he put it.

 

Normally, meals at our place are very happy and lively affairs. But not today. Fear and worry hung over our little house like a dark cloud; with everyone's thoughts centered on our injured 'brother'. And as much as I love Daisy's cooking I was just too troubled to enjoy it. Still I couldn't help but smile at Seth's attempts to steer the conversation in another direction by asking Andy how he liked medical school. That turned out to be a mistake as Andy was filled with questions about Jess. True to form, our doctor answered as best he could, without causing our family any more stress than need be.      

 

I had just asked Seth how old man Gregory was doing when our attention was drawn to Andy who had slapped his napkin down next to his plate and lowered his head.

 

"Seems, I won't make a good doctor after all," he whispered sadly.

 

Seth swallowed the last of his coffee and gave Andy a puzzled look. "And why's that?"

 

"I.... I got awful scared when Jess started to convulse and...well, I started to hold him down," Andy said his eyes downcast. "I knew what to do, but, it...it just wouldn't come…oh, I don't know," he said shook his head in frustration.

 

Seth leaned towards him; giving Andy his full attention and spoke softly. "Andy, listen to me, don't let your reaction frighten you away from being a doctor. What happened is scary enough....but add to that the fact that this was happening to someone you care about. And, well, your reaction was perfectly normal, son. Don't let that stop you," he said gently. "Believe me your training would have kicked in. And for what it's worth Andy, the first time I saw a person have a seizure… I darn near had one myself," he chuckled.

 

That little bit of humor was badly need and couldn't have come at a better time. It served to lighten the mood of us all.

 

0o0o0o0o0o0o

 

Night came without Jess stirring. He lay very still, too still for me. But his color had improved a little and Seth assured me that it wasn't unusual for him to still be out. But in my mind I kept seeing a young man very close to Jess' age who'd suffered a skull fracture during the war. That young man never woke up.

 

When I told Seth about it, he tried to ease my fears by explaining the differences. But it didn't help. Each time I looked at my Pard I keep seeing that boys face. As a result I couldn't sleep a wink and sat up supplying Seth and myself with coffee. Daisy, too was finding it hard to rest, even resorting to making a fresh batch of biscuits for us to munch on as we kept the vigil. Finally, as night turned to day Jess began to show small signs that he might be coming around.

 

Seth, who'd been sitting right next to him throughout the wee hours, gently laid a hand on his shoulder and called to him softly. At first I thought it odd that he didn't use Jess' name, but then he explained that he needed to test his patients level of awareness to see how coherent he was and to see if his memory was intact. Giving him the answers he explained would tell him nothing of how badly Jess was hurt. He needed to know the full extent of the damage. He had yet to determine if Jess had suffered a concussion or a fracture. As it turned out that brief moan and little random movements together with the rise and fall of his chest was the only indication that he was still with us. It would be several hours more before he stirred again.

 

I hadn't realized how tired I was until Daisy insisted that both Seth and I stretch out for a while. Andy would keep an eye on Jess and would wake us should he stir. We agreed. The last thing I remember was lifting my legs onto my bed. Next thing I knew I heard my name being called, and felt Daisy shaking my shoulder.

 

"Slim, dear. Jess is waking up."

 

I just stared up at her at first. She looked to me as if she'd been crying. I didn't realize just how deep I'd slept until I got up and came within a hair of running face first into the wall. Took a second or two to orient myself and clear the cobwebs out of my head.

 

"Jess?"

 

"Seth is with him. He's just started to come around," she whispered.

 

I stepped over to stand at the foot of my friend's bed. I noticed a pan of clean water along with a rag and a few towels lying on his shoulder....I didn't have to ask. It was obvious.

 

"Seth?"

 

"Slim, will you shut the door and turn the lamp up just a touch, please?"

 

"Sure. Seth, why didn't you wake me?"  It was still very early with the sun just beginning to peek over the mountains.

 

"Because you needed the rest and I don't need another friend as a patient right now," he answered never taking his eyes off of Jess. "I want you two stand out of his field of vision until I give you the word to come close," he instructed.

 

I stepped back to stand with Daisy at the other side of the room. I kept biting my lower lip; too nervous to speak. I felt a small hand push its way into mine and I looked down into Daisy's worried eyes. Andy stood next to me and just stared.

 

We watched as Jess slowly became a little more animated.

 

"Can you hear me? Try and open your eyes," Seth said softly and watched his patient closely.

 

From my vantage point it looked as if Jess was struggling, but just couldn't get them open.

 

"Come on, son. I need you to wake up a little more for me. Come on," Seth prompted.

 

Finally, with a little more prompting he opened his eyes a bit wider and tried to focus. "That's better. Can you see me?" Seth asked.

 

Jess didn't respond, just stared at the ceiling beams as if he was trying to figure out what they were or where he was.

 

"Can you tell me your name?" Seth asked. No response, just a blank stare. Seth moved his hand slowly in front Jess' face. Jess didn't even blink. Beside me Daisy threw her hand up over her mouth and stifled an 'Oh God.'  We held our breath as Seth asked once more. Still nothing. I was close to panic as Seth leaned back against the chair and regarded his patient carefully. He then looked over his shoulder at me and whispered. "Get me a cool compress, will you?" Then taking the cloth he gently wiped Jess' forehead in an attempt to rouse him. It worked; Jess moved a bit more and this time tried to focus. Though it was obvious to everyone he was having a hard time of it, but at least he was trying.

 

"Can you tell me your name?" Seth asked again. I held my breath and watched as he made a weak attempt to speak, but struggled. Finally, after what seemed ages we heard that distinctive raspy voice as he whispered, "Jess....Ha......Har.....p," he whispered as his eyes began to shut and he started to fade.

 

"Jess?"

 

"Har....Harper, Jess H....Harper. You kn...know that, Ssseth," he scowled weakly. Seth looked over his shoulder at us and grinned. We didn't move. But we were all smiles.

 

"Good, Jess....real good. Now do you know where you are?"

 

We stood silent waiting, hoping our friend would recognize the fact that he was home and safe and in his own bed. We smiled as Jess took a strong bead on our family doctor.

 

"Aw, Seth, wi...will ya stop playin' ga...mes and give me somethin to stop this stam...pede in my head afore they br...break through," he groaned and shut his eyes tight against the pain.

 

I've seen Seth Andrews smile, but I gotta tell ya, I don't know when I've seen him smile that wide. His face virtually lit up. Then, he motioned for us to step over. We stepped to one side of the bed and Jess gazed up at us and for a moment I thought he didn't recognize us. It looked to me like he was looking right through us. Then to my enormous relief I saw a weak smile flutter across his face and clarity came to those pain filled eyes…"Ssss......Slim," he slurred.

 

I couldn't help it; I sat down on my bed next to Seth and took partner's hand…"Yeah, Pard it's me."

 

Jess may have known who we were, but it took him a lot longer figure out where he was. The last thing Jess remembered was lying on the Laramie road looking at the underside of Seth's horse. We learned later that's why he was looking so hard at the ceiling. And joked that our ceiling didn't even come close.

 

So relieved and excited were we that we almost forgot about our little Mike. "Do ya think he'll know me?" Came a small voice from just outside the door all the excitement must have woke him up.

 

Seth turned and motioned for him to come over to the bed. "Let's find out."

 

Mike entered the room nightgown flapping behind him and stood for a moment at Jess' bed side. Again Jess forced his eyes open and searched the room before coming to light on Mike. It was obvious he was having a hard time getting things in focus. He'd have to look at each of us real hard before seeing clear enough to recognize us. His voice shaking, he weakly replied.…"Hey, Tiger I..." He suddenly gasped as the pain started to bear down on him now. Seth refreshed the compress and gently laid it on his forehead. He groaned weakly, shutting his eyes tight.

 

 "I'm....home?" He finally asked.

 

"Yeah, Pard. You're home," I smiled down at him and gave his shoulder a squeeze. So relieved I could have shouted.

 

"My head....hu....hurts someth....somethin' fierce," he groaned and reached up to tug at the bandage.

 

"No, Jess. You have to leave that alone. You've got a pretty bad cut near your temple. Your heads bandaged and I want it to stay that way. I don't want you pulling at it. You understand?" Seth's tone was gentle but firm.

 

"Hu...hurts," he moaned, then his eyes glazed and he retched slightly but got nothing up.

 

"I know, Jess. You've got bad concussion son. At first I thought you might even have a fracture. But I don't think so. That hard head of yours saved you again. I wish I could give you something for the pain. We'll do what we can though, but I'm afraid you're just going to have to ride it out. You're going to need a lot of rest," he said and pulled the covers up close around patient's shoulders, "just stay quite and try and sleep. That will help."

 

Jess moaned a little, closed his eyes and became very still.

 

"Good. Now I’m going to leave some instructions with Daisy and Slim. I want you to follow them to the letter, you hear? Don't be trying any of those Harper tricks."

 

Jess' only response was a slight nod. At the same time he reached up a shaky hand to try pull at that bandage again. I took his hands and pulled them away gently. "No, Pard. You've gotta leave that alone," I told him gently.

 

"Well, I think you're in good hands here," Seth chuckled. "Try and keep him as still as you can and encourage him to sleep," he told us then stood and stretched the stiffness from his back. "I'll be around tomorrow to check on him," he smiled down at his patient. "Get some sleep now," he said softly. "And leave that alone," he scolded as Jess once again started to reach for that bandage. He smiled and indicated that Daisy and I should follow him out.

 

"I don't want to cause you two any more worry than need be, but, don't be too surprised if Jess doesn't act himself for a while. As far as I can tell it looks to be a bad concussion," he eyed us both, but Daisy's the one that took his attention. She'd started to tear.

 

I put my arm around her, she was shaking.

 

"I'm alright," she smiled. "He'll be alright then?"

 

"I think so Miss Daisy, I just wanted you to be forewarned. Head injuries are complicated and can cause some disturbing side affects. You might be taking to him and all of a sudden he just goes out. He might become agitated, disoriented, might even lose recognition for a while. But that's all part of healing. Right now he knows who you are, but when he wakes up again he might not recognize you or know where he is. That may happen from time to time. Just watch him close, keep him warm and quiet, he'll be alright," he told us as he gathered his coat and hat and continued talking as he made his way to the front door. "I just don't want you to be too alarmed or surprised that's all."

 

Out on the front porch he continued with his instructions all the while regarding Daisy with concern.

 

"Don't let him set up for the next two days or so. He'll be dizzy so he'll need to be watched. But, if he follows my directions, which includes staying in that bed till I say he can get up no matter how good he's feeling or how much he complains. He should be fine.  Get some good strong broth down him as soon as you can. It may not stay down at first, so don't let that worry you," he paused as he mounted and shook his head sadly. "And, as much as he likes it, no coffee. Coffee is a stimulant and one sip and that head of his will feel like its exploding. Water or berry juice would be best, for a few days. Don't let him fool you. You know how to check a patient's eyes Daisy. I expect Andy's does too. You can tell if his head is hurting real bad or not," he smiled. He drew a bead on Daisy..."Now don't worry so, Miss Daisy, he's got a tough noggin. It's not cracked yet,” he smiled. “I'll see you all tomorrow."

 

"You don't think you'd like to stay for some dinner?" Daisy inquired, finally recovered.

 

"No, no thank you, ma'am. I've got to be getting back. Mrs. Webber's third is due any day now," he said and started to leave, thought better of it, stopped and removed the small sack hung over the saddle horn and handed it to me. I recognized it as a document bag used by businessmen to transport important papers and such. I hadn't paid much attention to it before. At the time I had more important things on my mind.

 

"Here Slim, this is what Jess was holding when Connors found him," he sighed. "I hope it was worth it," he tsked.

 

I took it and he left with our sincere thanks. Though not officially winter, the clouds gathering over the mountains looked to be threatening snow. Supper came and went without much fanfare. All of us concerned about Jess. Daisy and I had tried to get some broth down him, but what little we were able to get into him came right back up, as expected. By early evening it had turned real cold making the whole house feel like we were in the middle of Mr. Hawkinson's ice house so I added more wood to the fire and stoked it until the flames licked hungrily up and around the new logs.

 

It was then that I turned to find Daisy standing in the door way of our bedroom, watching. I stepped behind her to follow her gaze. Andy had rinsed out another compress and was putting it on Jess' forehead, all the while taking real low and soft....so soft we couldn't make out exactly what he was saying. But, I had a good idea. He'd done that before when Jess got real sick one year. Kept telling him he had to hold on because he was family and he had work to do, horses to break and fences to mend, telling him I couldn't work without him and such. Just all kinds of things in hopes of drawing our friend's attention away from his suffering. The memory and the picture it brought made me smile. I was glad that things hadn't changed between them. Heart warming to see my little brother, now almost a man, with those same tender feeling's like he was when he was just a boy.

 

"They're very close," Daisy observed with a smile.

 

"Yes, they are. I don't care how old Andy gets, seems he turns into a little boy when he's around Jess; always has." I took a deep breath and leaned up against the door frame and smiled as Jess tried once more to pull that bandage off. And chuckled as Andy gently pulled his hand away carefully placed it back under the covers, with a gentle reprimand. "No, Jess. You can't do that. You got to leave that alone, okay." We heard him say.

 

"They've been close from day one," I told her. "As a matter of fact it was Andy who befriended Jess in the first place. I feel like a dang fool now for not seeing what my little brother saw right off." I shook my head at my past mistake and watched as Andy pulled the covers up close around our friend. "I've always enjoyed watching Andy and Jess. Wasn't always like that though," I told Daisy.

 

"You never told me how you and Jess met," she said and looked up at me expectantly.

 

Surprised. "I didn't?"

 

Guess Daisy'd come to fit in so well that I just assumed she knew. I did recall telling her that Jess used to be a drifter and even a  gun slick at one time in his young life and had drifted into the ranch one day looking for someone from his past. But, I'd failed to tell her the details. Never realized it till now, funny how things like that slip your mind.

 

So, that night while Andy tended Jess I sat with Daisy and told her of those early days with Jess. Told her about that rocky first year and how unsure we were of each other. She enjoyed it and seemed to hang on every word. Told her how didn't trust him at first. How I thought he was a bad influence for Andy. Even think I was a little jealous of him. He had such a way with my little brother, I explained.

 

"Oh, Slim, I can't believe that.....you, resentful?" She gazed across at me, amusement in her eyes as we sipped our coffee and I stretched my long legs out towards the fire.

 

"Yeah, I was a real fool back then, Daisy," I smiled, remembering. "I ever tell you that I fired Jess once?"

 

"No," she chucked. "You fired Jess? I can't believe that."

 

"I sure did. Told him to git and not to come back," I took a deep breath and smiled. "Well, he packed his gear, mounted Traveler and lit out," I laughed as I poked the fire again.

 

"Then that night Andy lit into me. Don't ever remember seeing Andy so mad. And I know it was only because he didn't know which way Jess went that kept him from following him," I looked down into my now empty cup and smiled at the mental picture. "I kinda think that's what I was afraid of....losing Andy. That thought ran through my mind the first time Andy saw him." I paused for a moment and smiled at her. "Ya see Jess gave Andy something I couldn't. He could relate to Jess in a way he couldn't with me. Jess was adventurous and playful, loved to pull pranks," I smiled to myself. "He was everything I wasn't. He carried this air of danger and mystery about that was fascinating, especially to a young boy who found himself stuck in one place year after year," I smiled sadly. "Andy never got to go places much. Only adventure he ever had was going fishing or hunting with me or Jonesy...or listening the occasional passenger tell tales of their travels. So when Jess came along he took to him like a duck to water."

 

"What changed your mind? Was it Andy?"

 

"Somewhat,” I laughed. “He was so upset with me. Told me Jess was his best friend and he wished he was his brother instead of me," I sighed. "I gotta tell you that hurt, but it also got me to thinking. Wondering what would cause a grown man with a hard past, fast temper and even faster gun to act so much like a kid? I swear Daisy, there were times when Jess acted more like a kid than Andy. Then it hit me. Jess had nobody else to relate to, but Andy," I shrugged. "I didn't talk to him. Didn't try and get to know him. About the only time I said anything to him at all was to tell him what needed to be done next. Or scold him for cutting out or napping when he should have been working. I was just his boss and that was all. But, Andy....Andy was his friend."

 

Just then we heard a moan and Andy came out of the room carrying a small wash pan filled with water.

 

"Everything okay, Andy?" I asked.

 

"Jess is moving around a bit, trying to get comfortable. He got sick again. He sure is hurting."

 

"You need some help?" I asked.

 

"No. I got it. Could use some more cold water. This has gone warm."

 

"I get it," Daisy said and got up to follow Andy into the kitchen.

 

A moment later and Andy disappeared back into our room with the requested water. And Daisy once again took a seat next to me, wanting to hear the rest of the story.

 

"Is that when you started looking at Jess differently?"

 

I looked at her and smiled. "Not exactly. But that is when I realized I hadn't been fair and when I felt something I hadn't noticed before. Never gave it much thought. But it was there none the less and I couldn't explain why," I told her.

 

"What was that, Slim?"

 

"Sad. I felt sad, Daisy. Jess, was ornery and obstinate, stubborn as a mule and a thousand other things that'd drive a man mad. But hang it all…I missed him." I stopped to swallow the lump and clear my throat.

 

"So, I got up and took off after him. Figured he'd be in Laramie. And I was right. I found him in the saloon. He was sitting at a table in the back. He'd ordered a bottle and had finished about a quarter of it when I walked up and asked if I could join him. He hesitated a minute, couldn't blame him for that. Heck I'd just kicked the man off my place and now here I am in town wanting to share a drink with him. He had every right to be mad at me. But instead he motioned for the bartender to bring another glass," I laughed. "Even a little tipsy I could tell he wasn't sure about this side of me. He was nice about it though and we sat for a time with neither of us saying much, just enjoying our drinks. Me, I was trying to figure out what to say and Jess no doubt wondering why I was there in the first place," I chuckled. "To tell the truth I think his intentions were to get nice and drunk that night. But my showing up sorta put a snare into that. I was glad of it to. Cause that night I got to see a side of this young gunslinger I didn't expect. Shocked me to no end I'll tell ya that."

 

"What happened?"

 

"A man tried to kill me."

 

"Oh, Slim!"

 

"Never thought how handy Jess Harper and that fast gun of his could be till then," I admitted.

 

"See,” I stretch my back a second, “there used to be a ranch around here called the Big Ace…bout twenty miles to the south. It's foreman, a big man by the name of Dub Hagen and I never got along. He'd accused me a couple of times of cheating him out of the sale of some cattle. Course I didn't and I hadn't seen him in a long time. Then all of a sudden he shows up in the saloon spoiling for a fight. He spied me at the table with Jess and decided it was time for him to settle the score. But, what he didn't count on was one Jess Harper," I laughed. "Shoot neither did I. See, Jess had seen me draw before and he knew I was no match for Hagen. So when he called me out, Jess just stepped right in front of me. It all happened so fast. One minute I'm standing there facing Hagen and the next minute Dub is laying on the floor, dead. Jess laid his life on the line for me that night, Daisy. And took a bullet to the shoulder for his trouble. And that did it. I did something then I told myself I'd never do," I stopped and looked into the fire, reliving that moment now more n' six years past.

 

"What's that, Slim?"

 

"I started caring. Until Jess came along I'd almost forgot what it was like to care about someone else; other n’ Andy and Jonesy of course. I'd always protected that part of me. Had it locked it away safe, or so I thought. But, I was wrong. This drifter, this gun totin' hothead had somehow made his way into that secret place. Oh, I had friends. Always have had. But, no one I'd even think of calling my best friend". 

 

"Until Jess?" she smiled.

 

I nodded.

 

"He's like a brother to you, isn't he?" She asked her voice carrying the smile she wore.

 

I nodded that he was.

 

"I could tell right off, when I first laid eyes on the two of you. That's a rare thing now days, Slim," she said with a smile.

 

"Yeah," I smiled seeing Jess' face in my mind. "I started to feel something else I hadn't allowed myself to feel ...for one other n’ my own kin. I got him over to the doc's office and while I was waiting for the doc to patch him up I suddenly realized that I wasn't just grateful for his help, but I was actually worried about him. You know what I mean?"

 

She nodded.

 

"Well, the doc patched him up, I apologized and asked him to come back home with me. And, well, that's how are our friendship began," I looked into those kind eyes once more and smiled. "Like you said Daisy; Jess just kinda grows on ya." All of a sudden it seemed things were getting a little too thick and I felt my cheeks burn, I took a deep breath. "I'd better go spell Andy. Goodnight, Daisy."

 

"Goodnight, dear. If you need anything just call me.”

 

I nodded that I would and gratefully disappeared into our room.

 

 

CHAPTER FOUR -

Howard Marks

 

 

For the remainder of the night Jess was in and out. We kept up the cool compresses like Seth told us, and they did seem to ease his pain a little....or at least made it tolerable. It wasn't until early the next morning that he finally fell into an exhausted sleep. I left my Pard in the capable hands of Andy once more and pulled my tired body out of the chair and headed to the kitchen for a much needed cup of coffee. I'd almost reached the table when a knock at the door stopped me.

 

Howard Marks was a short slender man who wore his position in The Great Central Overland Mail and Stage Company like a badge of honor...seems he felt it gave him authority to express his opinions, whether deserved or not I guessed. His face was red and he was breathing hard as if he'd been riding all day even though the clock had just struck six.

 

It came as no surprise that his main concern was the gold shipment and the document bag that the strongbox carried. I tried to allay his fears by telling him that Jess had come back with as much as he could under the circumstances. I had just picked up the document bag from the table and started to hand it to him, when he made a fatal mistake. Taking the bag from me he pulled it open and peered in. Then shut it tight and gave me a hard look.

 

"Everything here?" He asked.

 

"I...I don't know," I told him honestly.

 

Marks drew a deep breath and scowled about the room like the very sight of our home was beneath him. "I'd like to speak to this Harper, Mr. Sherman," he demanded. He virtually spit the name out as if it left a bad taste in his mouth. I suddenly felt uncomfortable in my own home.

 

"That's, MR. HARPER, to you, Marks and he's not up for visitors," I snapped. "Now I believe that is what you're looking for,” I said indicating the bag he held. 

 

"And the gold?"

 

"I don't know. Mr. Harper went after the men, but they got away. He was only able to retrieve the bag you're holding."

 

He eyed me skeptically and growled. "I should advise you, Mr. Sherman that Overland will be holding Mr. Harper responsible for the safe return of all assets involved."

 

Daisy had just entered the room and was about to offer our guest coffee; when she stopped and recoiled at his gruff tone. I too bristled at his unsympathetic attitude towards my partner. I now regarded this man not as a guest in our home, but as an unwelcome intruder. It had been a worrisome and anxious two days, with each of us taking our turn tending  Jess; and this man's tone and unwarranted accusatory attitude regarding my stricken friend didn't sit well with me at all. I was tired, sick with worry and in no mood for the likes of  Howard Marks. I was gonna have no more of this man's disrespect displayed in my home.

 

I felt my face flush and I tightened my fists against my anger. It was as if Jess had already been tried and found guilty in the eyes of this man. I took a deep breath to try and calm my rage. I was about two seconds from making Howard Mark's face come in close contact with my fist when I felt Daisy's hand on my arm...in an effort to calm me and slow things down before I tore this citified half handle to bits. "And just what does that mean?" I snarled.

 

"I've heard of men like Harper. I know his type, he....."

 

Before he could utter another word I stepped up to Marks, so that we were standing as close to face to face as I could get....seeing that he was a bit shorter than Jess. I towered over this low life that had the gall to even suggest that Jess Harper would.....

 

"Slim!" Daisy's gentle voice seemed to boom into the room; and I forced myself to back down.

 

"My partner was badly hurt in that wreck, Marks. And even then he took off after the men who robbed the stage. I don't know what you've heard and I really don't care. Now you've got what you came for and it cost us dear I tell you that. As for the gold I have no idea. But, when you come in our home and insinuate that my partner had something to do with robbing that stage then you'd best be ready for a fight. Now git!"

 

I hadn't realized how loud I'd become until Daisy shushed me. Then hurried over to the door and held it open for Marks, who by this time had turned two shades of white and stumbled outside to his mount. A few seconds later we heard his timid little colt cantering away from the house.

 

I was still fuming when Andy came in and announced that Jess looked like he was waking up. I nodded, then peered out of the window to watch Marks as he disappeared over the hill back to town. Behind me I heard the rustle of Daisy's skirt.

 

"Just let it go, Slim. We've got more important things to worry about. We have a very sick family member who needs your strength. Don't waste it on the likes of that," she said and nudged her chin in Marks' direction. Her voice was warm, but stern. It took me back a step and made me smile.

 

"What?" She inquired.

 

"It just amazes me to see you actually get mad, Daisy," I told her.

 

"Well, I feel fully justified," she huffed and disappeared back into the kitchen.

 

She was right of course, but I was mad as a hornet and it took more n' a few minutes for me to calm down. The last thing Jess needed right now was to worry about me. When I finally stepped into the room I took a long hard look at my friend. Maybe it was my imagination, but he almost appeared paler now than he did when we first brought him home and when he opened his eyes, they were red rimmed and unfocused. He didn't speak, just groaned and moved his head slowly from one side to side. Then he shut his eyes tight against the pain. I sat down on my bunk directly across from him and took the cool compress Andy held in readiness and carefully applied it to his forehead.

 

"You're gonna be okay, Jess. Doc says you need to get a lot of rest though. So none of  your Harper tricks now," I smiled, and squeezed his shoulder gently. My weak attempt at levity failed as I looked into my friends glazed eyes and realized he most likely didn't understand a word I said.

 

Jess may have been awake, but he was far from lucid. He lay there for several minutes, his eyes searching the room but never coming to rest on anything or anyone. A few times he looked straight at me (but to be honest I don't think he really saw me) then he mumbled about the stage, the horses, luggage, Andy's raccoon and such. He even called out for Jonesy a few times. None of which made any sense. Seth's final conclusion was that Jess had suffered a bad concussion. It may not have been as serious as a fracture, but still with any head injury we had to move with caution. This time, like before he didn't stay awake long and drifted off while I was trying to get more water into him. I knew better than to force it for fear it might come right back up. So instead I left him to rest.

 

He'd only slept a few hours before Seth showed. He was pleased as pie to hear that his patient had woke up...even though he wasn't what you might say 'all there', at least he'd woke up on his own without having to be forced. That was something Seth said worried him. Often with a head injury the person tends to sleep a lot and has to be forced awake every so often...but not Jess. His exam over we left Andy in charge and headed to the kitchen.

 

Seth, Daisy and I had just finished our second cup of coffee and polished off a good portion of one of Daisy's apple pies when Andy came out of our room and announced that Jess was awaking up. He was a bit more aware this time, but not by much. His memory of the accident and what happened after was almost non existent. He could only recall vague flashes of things. Such as Seth's horse, the sound of gunfire and little else. But, with the memory also came the pain. And it seemed as the pain increased his awareness did just the opposite; till his mind began to wonder and he once again began to drift. I was grateful when Seth handed Daisy a small bottle of painkiller with instructions for its use. Jess could have a small amount in a half a glass of water twice a day. Just to, as he put it, 'take the edge off.'

 

We all stood and watched as Seth expertly forced a dose of the painkiller down him. Once it began to take effect and his pain eased some he became a little more aware of what was going on around him. Though still not quite sure of where he was, he was sure of one thing, that something he didn't like had a hold of his head and he wanted it off. He'd reach up and pull at that bandage, and we'd have to take his hand away and gently tell him to leave it alone. But, not being fully aware he didn't understand and at one point actually got riled enough to take a feeble swing at me.

 

I took his hands and gently forced them back under the covers with a gentle reprimand. "Pard…no, don't fight me now. You gotta leave that alone, Jess. You don't want me to have to tie ya down do you?" I threatened with a weary smile. Jess just gazed up at me, his eyes clearly unfocused and groaned. I suddenly felt uneasy and looked up to find Daisy giving me her best 'don't you dare' look even though she knew I wasn't serious.

 

I continued to hold his hands while Seth lifted his head and readjusted the bandage again...he'd got a good hold this time and almost yanked it off. I kept hold of his hands until the drug took full effect and his eyes slid shut. Asleep at last. It was then that I made the suggestion that Seth sleep over as it was getting late. He agreed and I was glad for it too. I'd never seen Jess in such a state and to be honest I was still a little unnerved. Made me wonder if Seth diagnosis about Jess not having a fracture was really correct.

 

As before the conversation around the dinner table centered for the most part on Jess and what he was going through, how we could help and what we could expect as he recovered. As usual Seth was kind enough to answer all our questions and kept reassuring us that Jess was gonna be alright. During the conversation it was clear that his attention focused as much on that bruise on his back as the bump on his head. Something that puzzled me to no end. But when I'd ask about it…he just told me that we'd have to wait and see. At the time I passed it off as his way of being thorough. If I had only known then just how serious it really was, things might be different now.

 

Things went pretty well for the rest of the night. Whatever the drug was he'd been given had put him in a deep healing sleep. That or he was just so exhausted from the pain his body couldn't take any more. Whatever it was, he slept right through supper. I recall Seth getting up a few times to check on him and managed to get a little water down him. He stirred just a bit, but never really woke up.

 

Satisfied that his patient was doing well, Seth left the next morning right after breakfast. Jess slept clean through breakfast and didn't fully awake till close to dinner time. And that was okay with me. This time when he woke he was much closer to lucid than he'd been for the past three days, though very groggy. But not so much that he couldn't complain.

 

"Don't know what hurts worse", he griped, 'm head, 'm ribs or 'm back. They seem all to be competin' with each other," he said and gritted his teeth against another wave of pain.

 

"I know, Pard. Just try and ride it out. It'll get better, I promise. Do you remember what happened, Jess?" I asked in hopes of pulling his attention away from the pain. It's always worked for me and I hoped it would work for him.

 

He took a deep breath, pushed his head back deep into the pillow and closed his eyes. When he forced them open again he looked at straight at me. "I....I remember the stage turnin’ over. Then gunfire; I think, and..." his voice trailed off as his eyes glazed for a second, but he shook it off, "everythin' kinda we...went dark after that. Except fur....," he stopped mid-sentence and gave me a shy grin.

 

"Except for what?" I asked, returning the grin.

 

"It was the dang...est thing Slim," he said, enough of the painkiller in him to cause him to slur a little. "All of a su…..sudd….I was layin' in the dir..." his eyes drooped and he began to fade.

 

"Jess?"

 

"Humm."

 

I smiled. "All of a sudden, what?" I prompted.

 

"Oh,  Dai...sy was there..." he said and slipped once again.

 

I touched his arm and his eyes popped open. Though I knew they weren't gonna stay that way for long. "Daisy was there?"

 

"Yeah, she was  re..adin'. You know, one of them bo….oks she reads t... to Mike at ni...night. Don't know wh...at what it was but…," his voiced trailed off once more and it was plan to see he was fighting the effects of the drug, just couldn't keep those eyes open.

 

"Alright, that's enough, Pard," I chuckled. "You rest now," I said. And left Mike this time to watch him…with a reminder not to allow him to touch that bandage. As I reached the door I turned back with a frown when he called out.

 

"Ya...gonn...gonna get the hor..horses, Ssslim?" he mumbled and tried to look in my direction.

 

I stood for a moment and realized the truth of what Seth had told us; Jess might be in and out of reality for a while yet. True to his word, Jess had slipped back into that in between state of reality versus dreams and not knowing which was which. Whether from the drug or the injury I didn't know.

 

Mike gave me a questioning look.

 

"Yeah, I'll get the horses. Now you just rest Jess, okay?"

 

He nodded and was asleep before I left the room.

 

That night Daisy made a big pot of chicken and dumpling's and spooned a good cup full of the rich broth out for Jess. To my surprise she told me that she'd been able to get about half of it down him before he started feeling sick and she had to stop. I sat next to him and finished my coffee. He didn't say much, just mumbled every once and awhile. We kept up the cool compresses for another day or so. That together with the medication Seth left seemed to keep him comfortable. Though that bandage still bothered him and I found myself having to remind him to leave it alone. Being more lucid now he complained that it was a sad world when I man couldn't even scratch without someone pulling his hands away and he dropped his hands down to his sides out of frustration. I told him that scratching was fine, but pulling at that bandage was not. He just looked at me and snarled; a hint of the old Jess coming back.

 

He remembered the accident now, though the details were still somewhat sketchy. I tried to help as best I could, but it was slow going. When I told him that he'd taken Seth's horse, he didn't remember that at all. He didn't recall how far he'd gone before he'd passed out either. I was in the middle of telling him how Conners had found him unconscious with the document bag in his hand, when I noticed his eyes had grown heavy and he started to nod. So I straightened  the covers over him and left him to rest. To be honest I don't even think he realized I'd left the room. All in all he was doing much better and we were all very relieved.

 

Jess progressed fairly well from that point on. But on the evening of the fourth day sitting up was a challenge. With Andy on one side and me on the other, we placed our hands under his arms and very careful raised him up....the first time didn't go well at all, as it made him dizzy and he soon lost what little broth Daisy'd been able to get down him. As we carefully laid him back down, he turned red as a beet and mumbled an, "I'm sorry, Slim," before resting his head back against the pillows. Poor Jess embarrasses so easy. Never seen a man that could light up so fast!

 

"You've nothing to be sorry for, Jess," I assured him. "Just rest now. We'll try again tomorrow." Before he drifted off he watched me putter around the room then he asked the obvious question.

 

"Slim, how'd I get home? I don't remember much..."

 

"Andy and I brought you in four days ago, Jess. You've been real sick. Seth says you've got a real bad concussion. Guess that head of yours isn't as hard as we thought. So you gotta take it real easy, Pard." I glanced over at him as I finished and could tell he was fighting to stay awake, but he soon lost the battle and fell into a calm restful sleep. This time without the aid of medicine.

 

We still had to keep a close eye on our friend as he was still suffering from some loss of memory and wasn't always lucid. Though he was hanging onto reality for longer periods of time. For myself, I figured the confusion would last only a couple of days. But, as I sat with him after supper on that fourth day....I began to notice the truth of Seth's words. Jess slept a lot, but on at least two occasions when he woke, he was very anxious and down right agitated when he thought the stage was late and the teams were standing in the yard waiting.

 

All wasn't morose though. There were those moments that put a smile on our faces and gave us a chuckle. Like the time Jess thought Mike's pets were loose or even better yet when he was certain the chickens had gotten into the house. Jess was deadly serious and we had to humor him again to calm him down. It took all we could do not to laugh. Andy even resorted to making noise in the living room and yelling back that he'd gotten 'em all out before he actually settled. We laugh about it now. And over the years we've all had some good chuckles at my friend's expense over his sick dreams.

 

Still I knew it worried Andy, and scared Mike a little, but they both seemed to hold it together. I must say, I was real impressed with little Mike. Most times when Jess or I have been sick or hurt, it's all Daisy can to do to keep him calm and reassure him that we'll recover and all will be well again. I think Andy's presence has a lot to do with keeping him calm. He seems to have taken Mike under his wing and the two have become good friends.

 

 

0o0o0o0o0o0o0

 

 

 

It wasn't until the sixth day that Mort Cory stopped by. He apologized for not coming sooner, but between the stage being wrecked and robbed not to mention a bank holdup, he'd had his hands full. It appeared for all intents and purposes that the two were somehow connected; he just didn't know how as yet. He did however, want to ask Jess some questions as soon as he was able. I told him Jess was in and out and not always in his right mind. I told him I’d send word with Mose as soon as Jess was aware enough to make sense.

 

Jess continued to drift. It wasn't until the end of fifth day that he appeared to be able to hold onto reality as well as stay awake longer. I was glad for that for many reasons. For one thing it meant that I didn't have to make up tall tales about the stage, the horses or why ducks kept getting in the house. And Andy could go about his chores without making it sound like he was fighting a chicken war in the living room.

 

 

 

CHAPTER FIVE -                

'Potada Soup'

 

 

He'd been in bed a little over six days now and givin' me and Daisy a hard time of it, insisting that he was well enough and didn't need to stay in bed any longer. Even though it was painfully obvious to both of us that he was in no condition to be on his feet. He may have felt better, but I knew if he tried to get up without help, he'd hit the floor like a sack of potatoes.

 

As a matter of fact it was while we were in the middle of another one of our arguments that our family doctor paid a visit. It was almost noon and he was on his way to a convention in Denver and was making his rounds before he left. I had to laugh. When Seth first appeared the look on my Pard's face was one of joyful anticipation. He was sure he could talk Seth  into letting him up and was half way out of bed when he heard Seth's determined stance that he remain down for at least another three days. Poor Jess! I actually felt sorry for him. He looked for all the world like a kid who'd just been denied his favorite treat. I turned away and grinned at the wall as he fell back against the pillows to pout. Course, I guess my "I told ya so," chuckle didn't help.

 

There was some good news though; Seth promised he could have something a little more substantial than broth. But, cautioned that it had to be something that'd set easy on the stomach. Something about not wanting him to strain his back by retching. Seth seemed fixated with that bruise. And again, each time it crossed my mind to ask it was pushed aside by something else. Like now, and the fact that Seth was finding my partner's complaining more entertaining than Mike's critters for once.

 

He shook his head as we left the room and laughed. "Never in my life have I seen anyone who hated staying in bed as much as that boy," Seth exclaimed. Then turned to me and added in all seriousness, "You mark my words, one of these days that boy is gonna defy doctors orders and find himself in a heap of trouble."  He shrugged and mumbled.  "Just hope I'm around to pick up the pieces when he does."

 

That afternoon Daisy took Seth's advice to heart and went to fixing something that would not only stay down, but would stick to his ribs as well. We were both glad for that. My Pard has always been a little on the thin side and Daisy was looking forward to making him something that would put some meat on those bones, she told me.

 

Around dinner time I decided to keep Jess company and was sitting with him having my own lunch and talking to him about the changes we wanted to make. All the while Jess kept eyeing my fried chicken and trying to get me to give him a taste, saying he was so hungry he could eat a bear and had no stomach for any more broth. Although he told Daisy that he'd never tasted better. She just laughed, knowing he was lying through his teeth; not wanting to hurt her feelings. He waited till she was out of the room then reached a hand out to snag a piece of my chicken.

 

I pulled it back with a firm, "No. It'll make you sick."

 

"I'll take the chance!" He countered, and reached for my chicken again. Only to have me slap his hand away and move it out of his reach. I smiled, shook my head and continued with my meal all the while keeping an eye on my mule headed friend. And my lunch.

 

"Slim, I'm starvin'," he whined, "and you sittin' there chowin' down on that fried chicken like a hound dog with a bone don't help none," he growled. "Heck the way I see it, gettin' sick's whole lot better n' starvin' to death.”

 

I leaned back out of his reach and grinned. It's hard to laugh with a mouth full of chicken, but I managed.

 

Daisy came in just in time to hear that last comment and smiled. "No need for that dear. I have your lunch right here. Slim would you help him sit up a little better?" She asked while sitting the tray on the nightstand. I stood up, took my partner under the arms and raised him up a little more then grabbed another pillow from my bed, and shoved it behind him. Daisy always places a towel on our laps when we're confined to bed for some reason…should we spill I guess.

 

All that bangin' and clankin' around in the kitchen seemed to have paid off. She'd come up with a nutritious meal, but Jess' first impression of Daisy's potato soup was far from pleasing. She'd cut up a piece of her famous homemade bread and added it to the mix; figuring it'd soften up and set easy on the stomach along with a glass of milk. Jess eyed the soup suspiciously.

 

"Daisy, what is this?" He asked, raising a quizzical eyebrow her way.

 

"It's potato soup, dear. It's more substantial than broth. It's good for you. Now here," she said handing him a spoon. "I've got chores to finish. You eat every bit of that young man. Doctor's orders. Then turning to me she ordered. "Slim, see that he does."

 

"Yes, Ma'am," I promised, with a grin.

 

"Potada soup," he muttered.

 

Though starving to death just a minute ago, he now just sat staring down at the clumpy white liquid, like it was going to reach out and grab him.

 

"Slim…," he started.

 

It was all I could do to keep from laughing.

 

"Go on, you heard her. Or do ya want me ta feed ya?" I smiled, finding it harder and harder to keep a straight face.

 

He pulled his attention away from the tray and snarled. "You just try it."

 

"Go on," I smiled.

 

He swallowed hard, sighed deeply and eyeing my fried chicken again tried to negotiate it away from me. "I'll trade ya," he said finally, his eyes hopeful.

 

I simply gave him a glare, pointed to his lunch and raised my eyebrows.

 

"Slim, just give me a bite, huh? I promise to soap all the harnesses next week," he pleaded.

 

"No! Now eat," I demanded, all the while doing my best to put on a stern face and to look and sound as annoyed possible.

 

"Awww, Slim.... Just look at it, it....it just lays there," he said, his nose wrinkled still starin' down into the bowl with no attempt at all to lift the spoon.

 

"It's not supposed to get up and dance, Jess. Now eat," I sputtered around a mouthful of chicken, becoming a little irritated at my Pard.

 

He took the spoon, dipped it into the soup and shook his head. "Who ever heard of makin' soup out of a potada? Gotta be somethin' wrong with this," he said, as he raised that one eyebrow that seems always to be pointin' north, swallowed and shook his head in disbelief.

 

"How do you mean?" I asked, all the while choking back laughter as best I could while trying not to choke on my lunch. 

 

He moved the spoon around in the bowl and made a sour face, "Looks like somethin' got sick..."

 

"Jess!" I scolded. And quickly turned away to hide my grin and muffle my laughter.

 

"Well, just look at it," he ordered with all seriousness. Then he held up a spoon full and let it drip back down into the bowl followed by a piece of soggy bread. "No self respectin' potada would be caught swimmin' around in a bowl."

 

I dropped my fork back onto my plate, and with the most exasperated tone I could muster, demanded. "EAT!"

 

Then with chicken poised in hand, I watched as he slowly dipped the spoon back into the bowl like he was lighting a stick of dynamite. I did my best; held it as long as I could, then I dropped my chicken onto my plate, gave in and busted up...next  thing I knew I was wiping a spoonful of potato soup off my face. But I just couldn't help it. He got it down though, and kept it there. Seth was right, it did set easy on the stomach. But I'll have to admit... it didn't look all that appealing to me neither.

 

0o0o0o0o0o0o0 

 

It's been almost six weeks since the accident and still no word about the men who held up the stage. Mose (now recovered) had stopped by with news that people in town were still up in arms. He reiterated that it was one of the reasons why Mort hadn't been by sooner. He couldn't get away without leaving the town wide open to fist fights, gun slicks and every other low life that felt Laramie was easy pickin's. That aside, Jess was healing as well as could be expected. Certainly faster than most. But that's not unusual for my Pard. Or at least to outsiders it may appear to be that way. But, to those closest to him, we know different. Still, he puts on a good show...always has.

 

He'd been awful banged up in that wreck, and gave us a real good scare. But, as soon as his 'bed sentence' was up, he insisted on trying his legs. At first holding onto me or Andy was his only option as he was yet too weak to go on his own. But we knew a bang on the head and a few cracked ribs wasn't gonna keep Jess Harper down for long. Pretty soon he was up walking around the house by himself; though granted a bit slower than usual. And although he'd never admit it, he found it necessary to use the furniture to steady himself every once in awhile. Still suffering the effects of that bang on the head he'd often get dizzy; and the subsequent headaches that followed would make him sick to his stomach. Afterwards he was very tired and had to rest. But, in true Harper fashion, he'd pass it off with a simple, 'I'm fine.'

 

He might be able to fool others but Daisy and I can always tell when he's outta sorts. As someone who knows him well, I could see it in his eyes. Jess has very expressive eyes and when he's ill or in pain it shows. I'd seen him more then once fight to keep from blacking out. But, each time I was about to hurry over, reach out to steady him or maybe even try and break his fall, he'd shake it off and recover. His back too had begun to give him pain, and I noticed whether he was tired or not, his legs just didn't seem to want to hold him, causing him to stagger. On at least two occasions they had just gone out; once sending him right to the floor. Jess laughed it off and made some silly excuse like he'd tripped or wasn't paying attention. But I knew better. I could just feel it. Although it worried me, I decided to hold off saying anything at first. He'd been through enough and I really didn't like the idea of arguing with him.

 

I did take Seth's advice though and tried to see to it that he didn't push himself too hard. That didn't last long. Jess knows me too well and pretty soon my 'motherin' as he calls it, caught up with me. He confronted me one afternoon about keeping too tight a rein on him and not letting him do his job proper. He was right of course; I had been playing babysitter, and I knew he didn't like it. But I'd been watching my friend and between the dizziness, the headaches and his legs being none too steady I didn't feel comfortable with him working alone. Besides, working together was more enjoyable and made the day go faster, I reminded him.

 

Chores around the house were one thing, but when it came to going after strays and mending fences, I put my foot down. I knew what he wanted. That accident had interrupted him. He didn't get a chance to satisfy that 'itch' like he'd planned. He wants to give Traveler his head and ride like the wind. But, Seth's instructions were clear. He was not to sit a horse for at least a month. And riding like ya got the devil on your tail was definitely out. Seth had also made it clear that his riding would depend on how well his back was doing. There it was again. And again I thought of asking Seth why he was so concerned about a bruise, but Jess' grumbling got in the way this time and again it was put on the back burner. Jess complained, but in the end accepted it...for the time being anyways.

 

Seth and I both knew that to give Jess too much freedom would be asking for trouble. When it comes to his health, give Jess Harper an inch and he'll take a foot, a mile, and everything in between. In that respect he kind of reminds me of a little kid. I don't know; maybe it's that kid like quality that rears it head every once in awhile that I find so appealing. Gives me laugh, except for those times when I want to take him to the woodshed. I have never liked the idea of fighting with Jess. So to keep him in line and force him to follow doctor's orders I elicited the aid of Andy and Daisy as reinforcements to keep an eye on my Pard when I couldn't. Years later, Jess laughed about not bein' able to blow his nose without one or both of  'um checkin' in on him. Glad he saw the humor in it…just wished it could have been sooner.

 

 

CHAPTER SIX -

The New Doc

 

 

It had been a fairly uneventful morning with chores and repairs being made around the house. A never ending job on a working ranch. The weather had turned colder and this morning a light blanket of snow covered everything making the barn and house stand out in sharp contrast to the beautiful white stuff. Jess had been doing real well lately with only the occasional headache and dizzy spell. Never one to be idle, he was feeling edgy, 'like the walls were closin' in around him,' he said and kept complaining that he wanted to go back to work. I didn't think he was ready. He was still off his feed and that bothered me some. But I also knew that if I didn't find somethin' for him to do, the minute I turned my back HE would. So that night after a slew of complaints I finally gave in. Kinda figured giving into his demand was better n' fighting with him.

 

Late the next morning just before dinner Jess positioned himself on one of our crates and soaped the harnesses while Andy and I mucked out the stalls and took care of a hundred and one other chores. Seems by the end of summer everything just sort of piled up on us.

 

While we worked Andy continued to tell us of some of his experiences during his first year of medical school. He also filled us in on how his fellow student Jack Hollis was doing. Hollis had started school the same time as Andy, but had become very ill and would not have passed his first semester had it not been for Andy and a few other good Samaritans. They'd bring his school work to him and sit with him while they did their own, giving needed assistance when necessary. After that Hollis had expressed interest in working along side Andy. Jess laughed and said he couldn't picture a town with two doctor's. The very idea he said made him shutter. Not surprising knowing how much he enjoys seeing the doctor.

 

"Just think of it this way, Jess. If you get away from one the other one is sure to catch ya," I told him with a smile. He returned the smile with a chuckle without looking up from his work.

 

"Well, Laramie's grown, Jess," Andy told him.

 

"I reckon," he replied and reached for the soap.

 

We'd worked for a good two hours when Mike came running in to tell us that dinner would be on the table in ten minutes. Then he turned and high tailed it out of the barn before one of us could find something for him to do. 

 

"Well, guess we'd better go wash up. Come on, Andy, Jess," I said, and started to put my shovel away. Jess had been contributing to the conversation on and off, but for the past half hour or so he'd said very little. I notice too that he seemed to be squinting a lot. We started to leave and hadn't cleared the barn before I noticed he'd begun to stagger and I hurried ahead of Andy to walk beside him. Sure glad I did too. He staggered right into me, but didn't appear to have noticed. Mildly alarmed, I took him by the arm and gently turned him to face me.

 

"You alright, Pard?" I asked. He was looking right at me, but to tell you the truth I don't think he really saw me. His face seemed slack and his eyes appeared  glazed.

 

"Yeah, things r' gettin' ....a lit...little fuzzy," he stammered weakly.

 

Not wanting to worry Andy who'd come to stand on the other side of my partner I kept hold of his arm and suggested he might want to stretch out while Daisy set the table.

 

"Reckon so...I am a li…little tired, Sssl..." he slurred. Then without warning he just folded up. It took all that Andy and I could do to keep him from hitting the ground. Though he wasn't completely out he wasn't far from it.

 

Andy tossed me a frightened look. "Slim, what happened?"

 

"It's alright, Andy. Seth warned us this might happen. Here, let's sit him down," I instructed and together we eased my woozy Pard onto one of the upturned crates near the door.

 

"Andy, grab me one of those rags and wet it for me, huh? Let’s see if we can bring him out of it."

 

I was holding him while Andy hurried for the rag when suddenly slumped against me, out cold. His sudden collapse had taken me by surprise.

 

It took more n' a few tries to bring Jess around, and when we did he was sick to his stomach and more than just a little disoriented. Once we got him to his feet we headed to the house. Jess might have been upright, but he was clearly in no condition to try and walk on his own. He was having a hard time getting things to focus and his sense of direction was way off. He kept wanting to head for the corral, thinking that was the way to the house, but Andy and I kept a firm hold and directed him in the other direction.  By the time we reached the porch Jess looked a little better. Andy opened the door, we got him inside and poured him into his rocker near the fire. Daisy saw us coming and was at Jess' side in a flash, her maternal senses heightened.

 

"Oh, Jess. Slim, what happened?"

 

"Remember how Seth warned us about blackouts? Well, he had one," I told her.

 

He was a bit more aware now and had started to complain about all our fussin.'  "I'm alright," he insisted, though his voice said different. "Stop fussin,'" he stammered. He kept insisting that nothing was wrong and we'd better things to do then to worry our heads about nothin' in the first place. He kept ramblin' on about horses and fences, the barn and stalls and such. Seems he was having a hard time putting a sentence together that made sense.

 

"Surrrrer you are, Pard," I told him, and patted his shoulder. "He'll be okay, Daisy." I told her as I righted my dizzy friend. Then stood and stretched my back. "He was lucky, we caught him before he hit the floor."

 

Andy had disappeared into the kitchen as soon as we sat Jess down and was back now with another cool compress. I smiled at my Pard's intentions to push my little brother's hand away. But being unable to get his bearings he kept striking the air instead. It was painfully obvious he wasn't as back as we thought; he appeared dazed and he kept blinking as if to get things to focus.

 

"Jess... take it easy," I admonished. "Andy's just trying to help."

 

But both Andy and I drew up short when a young man about my own age entered the living room to stand before us. So intent we were with Jess that we hadn't noticed the small rig parked out near the corral. Daisy introduced him as Dr. Martin Webb, Seth's temporary replacement, making his rounds in our doctors absence.

 

"Well", I laughed. "Dr. Webb, you're timing couldn't be better. Here's your patient right here," I chuckled and squeezed my Pard's shoulder. Though still a little pale and shaky he'd come around enough to understand what I said and now took an unsteady bead on the new arrival.

 

I could swear I saw him shrink when he heard the young man was a doctor and there to see him. I tried to ignore the look of desperation he shot me as Daisy opened our bedroom door and directed the new doctor inside. At the same time I reached down and helped a stunned Jess from his chair and started guiding him to the room. I didn't say anything. Didn't have to, Jess was staggering badly, still dizzy I imagined. I figured the new doc would find out soon enough.

 

"Slim," he whispered. That look of desperation had turned real urgent now. Like a kid heading to the woodshed or a man to the gallows, he wanted to be rescued. He knew I wouldn't and he knew why too. I wanted the best for him and we both knew the best for him was to let this doc have a look see. Still, he had to try. Got to keep up that Harper image after all. I chuckled to myself.

 

"Slim, would ya ju...just ple...please…"

 

I bent my head close to his, my lips touching his ear as we slowly made our way to the bedroom. "You passed out in the barn, Jess. Best let the doc take a look," I whispered back. Then advised. "Try and walk straight, Jess. It won't look good if I have to carry ya."

 

"You don't think.....?"

 

"Don't know, Pard. Guess it depends on what he finds out about that head of yours. Come on now," I said, still unable to wipe the grin off my face. I knew his fear…he'd do anything to keep from being a mattress prisoner again.

 

He was still pretty much disoriented, and I almost laughed when he tried to shoot me a sour glare and missed. Giving the door frame a good hard look instead. I heard and felt him growl as I tightened my grip and guided my woozy partner to my bed and sat him down. As soon as I let go I turned and high tailed it out, before he had a chance to level another objection. Then for the next thirty minutes or so he had to submit to the new doctors examinations.

 

"Slim Sherman, you seem very pleased with yourself,"  Daisy observed with a smile as I pranced back into the living room.

 

I said nothing, just nodded and grinned. But, then couldn't hold back any longer and started to laugh aloud.

 

"Hush, they'll hear you," she demanded.

 

But, I was on a roll and couldn't help it. "Did you see the look on his face when that young man said he was a doctor," I strangled back a laugh.

 

"Now you hush.... they'll he...hear you," she said, fighting back her own laughter, finally that unmistakable smile split her face and she gave in, filled her mouth with a mouthful of apron and ducked into the kitchen, her shoulders shaking.

 

When the new doc had finished he left Jess to rest and proceeded to explain to us how the head injury was affecting him. He assured us that the dizzy spells and headaches would disappear as he healed. He did warn us; as had Seth, that Jess might suffer the occasional blackout. But that we shouldn't be too alarmed unless he happened to hit his head. Seth had apparently thought of everything. Webb was also aware of the back pain and as a result he left a new medication with us, to be administered at least once a day or more as needed. He assured us that it was not in the same family as Laudanum and was not as addictive. Something that made a real impression on us all. Especially, Jess, who never liked taking medicine anyways, but had begun to worry about being given so much of an addictive narcotic as Laudanum. I knew for fact that many times, rather than take the medicine he'd suffer through the pain, finally falling asleep from sheer exhaustion. I hated to see it, but I understood his fear. This new up-start doc seemed to know what he was talking about and although he appeared genuinely concerned about my partner; I'm still partial to Seth.

 

I saw the new doc out, shook his hand and left him with an invitation to dinner the next time he came around. As I turned to go back into the house I had that uneasy feeling come over me again. I'd had a lot of that over the past two months, but as usual I dismissed it as just being overly tired and worried. How I regret that now.

 

Jess rested for another hour or so before he felt well enough to join us. When he did I was pleased to see he looked a lot better and was clear headed. This time the sour look hit its mark. And I grinned.

 

 

CHAPTER SEVEN -

The Meeting

 

 

Next morning was about as dreary as my mood with dark skies and heavy clouds. Because of a meeting between the Douglas Freight Company and myself, Jess went to work alone checking fences in one of our seldom used pastures. Something I didn't want him to do. I'd done everything in my power the night before to convince Jess to take his turn and attend to this meeting. But, he wouldn't hear of it. Saying that I was used to these 'stuffed shirts,' as he called them, and he wanted no part of  'em. "Sides, I just might lose my temper and spoil the whole thing, Pard," he reasoned. I couldn't argue with that. Jess has a short fuse anyway and never cottoned to formal business meetings and their subsequent negotiations. On those occasions when we'd gone to Cheyenne for the Cattleman's Association Meetings, I almost had to tie him down to get him to sit still. It was like being at church with Mike; you'd think his britches were on fire or somethin.' But still, I hated the idea of him being out there alone.

 

That morning Daisy had managed to get Mike off to school ahead of schedule as the stage was actually a little early for once and had started her chores right after. I watched and smile as Daisy puttered around the house humming as she went; completely content with her new home and family. It was nice to see this gentle woman who'd lost everything to a swindler so happy. Things could have been a whole lot different if we hadn't needed a housekeeper when Daisy came along. I sat at my desk and dug out the paperwork needed for the meeting, all the while wondering how Jess was doing.

 

Finally, with the kitchen back in order after breakfast, Daisy went about setting the table with cups, saucers and a platter of her special muffins. It was just past ten when the Douglas Freight representative's along with Brian Douglas himself stepped into the house. Douglas was a big hulk of a man, bigger n' me. With a reputation to match. As far as I knew he was an honest, hard working businessman. Word was he refused to take no for an answer; especially when he wanted something. Though he hadn't given us any trouble, it was said that he'd shoot anyone who dared to set foot on his land without permission. He had a large spread just ten miles outside of Laramie, and part of his northern pasture bordered our own. This particular day that part of the ranch was where Jess just happened to be working. That part of our ranch Jess and I call our 'paradise.' Even thought of naming it that once. Until Daisy spoke up and asked what we'd call the rest of the ranch. That put an end to that. I had shut my mouth and listened as Jess' snickering died in the heat of Daisy's glare.

 

I wasn't concerned so much about Douglas himself, but his youngest son and Jess didn't get along. Jacob was a rather lazy sort who fancied himself a horseman of the highest rank. But after seeing him handle a mare my partner and I had other ideas about his abilities. Jess in particular disliked the way he treated the animals. As a matter of fact it had angered my partner to the point where he finally ordered the young man not to set foot on the ranch. Jess even refused to sell or even allow him to borrow a horse. And had made that clear to me in no uncertain terms. I understood his anger. I may not have fully agreed with him, but I respected his decision and I backed my partner. Since then Jacob has had it in for Jess. Even coming close to blows with him a few times since. The young fool had even gone so far as to call him out when we left Mort's office one afternoon. Jess held his temper and Mort put a stop to it before blood was spilled. Sent Jacob Douglas back home with his tail between his legs and a stern warning never to pull such a foolish stunt again. Jess is ten times faster than Douglas and Mort told him so. That was well over a year ago and we hadn't see hide nor hair of young Douglas since.

 

A few days before the meeting Jess and I had talked at length about our proposed venture with Douglas. Like me he didn't like the idea of working with the man, but agreed that if it proved successful it would bail us out of the hole and give us a tidy sum to boot. After all we'd been talking about maybe sending Mike to school back east like we did Andy. Jess promised he'd be on his best behavior. And I knew he would. Jess doesn't give his word lightly, and when he does, he keeps it. I know and trust him. Like I said, my concern wasn't with Jess, it was with Douglas. So it was with a little trepidation that I directed the four men to the table late that morning.

 

Then for the next two hours I sat and listened as the discussion dragged on, becoming more edgy and impatient as the minutes ticked away, my mind in greener pastures with my Pard. I did my best to keep my mind on what was going on but it wasn't easy and  Douglas' long winded monotone speeches didn't help.

 

I was worried about Jess. He hadn't slept well the night before and had only picked at his food at breakfast. It might have seemed to the casual observer that he didn't care for Daisy's cooking. But nothin' could be further from the truth. Since the accident it seems he's lost that ravenous appetite of his. The fact that Jess was off his feed concerned us all. Especially Daisy, who likes to keep a close eye on her 'boys' as she calls us, and is usually the first to notice when one of us is out a sorts. That, coupled with the fact that he rode off this morning with a rather sizable headache had me concerned.

 

I understood Jess' need to get away and after a time I finally agreed that I'd be the one to attend the meeting. While Douglas continued to flap his lips I sat and smiled to myself remembering how I had done everything in my power to get Jess to wait till the meeting was over so I could go with him. Even tried to make a deal with him. "We could go to town after and have us a beer," I suggested. "I'll buy," I baited. But it was no good. I think he had the 'itch' again and nothing was gonna satisfy it but his horse, the wind in his hair and the great open. Still, I felt uneasy. I guess when it comes to Jess I'm a little over protective......alright, alright.... I know am over protective. But hang it all, I was worried. He just didn't seem himself. Like I said before, that accident changed him somehow. That wild and carefree side of him just didn't seem so wild anymore and that's definitely out of character for Jess Harper.

 

Never thought I'd say this; and I'd never allow Jess to know how I feel, but I kinda miss that wild side of him. Drives me mad sometimes and worries me more than I'd like to admit, but all in all it's a side of Jess that gives him that boyish love of life that we enjoy so much. Keeps me on my toes that's for sure. I know him well, and I could tell  something wasn't quite right when he left this morning. Daisy had sensed it too and had insisted that he take a dose of his medicine before we sat down to breakfast. "Might ease that headache some," she told him. And like it or not he obeyed. Always does where Daisy's concerned. He's like putty in her hands. With all this playing around in my head I was finding it harder and harder to keep my mind on what Douglas saying, and even harder to keep my eyes off the clock.

 

Money may have been an issue, but Jess was far more important to me. It's funny what crosses your mind when you're worried. I was afraid he might get dizzy or sick or even blackout like he'd done a few times before. Or even go dazed like he had at the table one night. Something that had scared all of us. I was talking to him and all of a sudden he had this dazed look come over him. The next thing I knew his head was almost in his plate. He didn't go completely out, but he came close. Andy and I got him up and made him lay on the couch till it passed. Now sitting here all kinds of things kept running through my troubled mind.

 

Add to that the fact that I was feeling guilty about not keeping a close eye on my Pard like I promised Seth. I sure wasn't doing a very good job of it sitting here listening to Douglas jaw while Jess was out working alone. So it was that I sat and listened without much enthusiasm as the meeting and its negotiations dragged on; my mind in greener pastures, working beside my partner. Daisy must have noticed as she floated in and refilled our cups and patted my shoulder as she left.

 

 "Sherman, are you payin' any attention at all to what I've been sayin'?" Douglas' attitude and abrupt question jerked my attention back to the present with a start.

 

I cleared my throat. "Yeah, of course I am," I lied and tried harder to concentrate.

 

"Well, I hope so boy. This could mean real money in your pocket," he reminded me.

 

Sitting there, my attention once more on the meeting and what Douglas was saying it suddenly occurred to me that money seemed to be more of an issue than anything else with him and it made me wonder if putting in with Douglas was such a good idea after all.

 

Finally as the meeting drew to a close and details of a possible contract began to take shape I mentioned that I'd run all this by Jess once he got home. Douglas seemed to bristle at the idea. He didn't like Jess one bit and had said as much during the meeting. His stance toward my partner was like a burr in my britches. I'd had to push my anger aside a few times already. But when he tried to insist that Jess' input was neither needed nor wanted I put my foot down.

 

"Now, just a minute. Jess is my partner and my friend and…"

 

"Friendship's got nothin' to do with it, Sherman," Douglas interrupted firmly, "this is business and....,"

 

"Well, I think it does," I shot back. "so, I'm afraid you'll just have to wait to see how Jess feels about all this,”  I insisted equally. After a moments hesitation he reluctantly agreed and a tentative agreement was reached to allow the Sherman ranch to supply draft animals to the Douglas Freight Company; depending on what Jess had to say of course. That settled I got up and stretched my back, but as soon as the other men had left the house Douglas pulled me aside.

 

"Look, Sherman, I didn't mean to rile you, boy. But the way I see it you've got a pretty good thing goin' for you here. Surely you're not going to let a man the likes of Harper stand in your way. I can't believe that. Why it's my understandin' he just came ridin' in here one day lookin' for a handout with nothin' but trouble on his tail. And you took him in."

 

I took a deep breath.

 

"Now don't get me wrong, Sherman, I'm the first to say that that was a kind thing to do. But, Slim, you're an intelligent man. What do you need with an uneducated saddle bum, who's spent half his life livin' by his gun stallin' what just might turn out to be a real handsome piece of change for ya," he looked down at me and gave me that condescending smile he'd tossed me from the minute he stepped into the house...until Jess' name came up that is. "Now come on boy, we can settle this right here and now," he said and started to open his document bag.

 

I was tired, worried and more than just a little fed up with the likes of Brian Douglas. I kinda felt like Mike's dog Buttons. I could feel the hackles on the back of my neck rise (seems those little hairs had been getting a real workout lately) I'd felt it before during the meeting when Jess' name came up and Douglas rolled his eyes in silent disgust, but now those little mad hairs were standing at full attention. The only thing that kept me from sending Mr. Brian Douglas through a wall was the fact that it would upset Daisy and I'd have to fix it after. Took all I could do to keep calm.

 

I countered firmly. "Well, you're wrong. For one thing Jess Harper doesn't take handouts and is just as much a business man as I am. What Jess has learned over the years may not have come from a book. But I'll tell you this; he has more intelligence and smarts than most high minded city fellas put together," I spat. I now saw Brian Douglas for what he really was. An arrogant know it all that'd do anything to get his way and stuff his pockets. "He's no saddle bum. And just because a man is fast with a gun doesn't make him a gun slick either, any more than wearing fancy duds makes a man a gentleman. I said it once and I’ll say it again; he's my partner and my best friend; so I'd thank you to watch what you say from here on in. If you're serious about that contract you're just gonna have to wait for me to talk with Jess." I realized I'd raised my voice but I just couldn't help it. At that particular moment I didn't care if I signed with Douglas or not. I just wanted him gone. Douglas and others like him didn't know it yet but, Andy and I had been planning something that would most definitely shut the mouths of high minded, fast talking gold toothed men like Brian Douglas for keeps.

 

And with that I stepped to the door and held it open for Douglas to take his leave then slammed in shut as he stepped out. I was still fuming when I felt Daisy pat my arm. Her wordless approval of my coming to the defense of my partner. As Douglas joined his men and rode off I was glad Jess wasn't there. Takes too long to order new furniture!

 

With the meeting over I busied myself with chores around the house. Daisy always seems to have a list a mile long for Jess and I to do. Though tedious and mundane her list did serve to keep my hands busy and my mind occupied. There was no reason to ride out and meet Jess now I knew he'd be coming in soon and I'd set and tell him all about Douglas and his contract. And how I wanted to kick his ass. But lunch came and went with no sign of my partner. He should have been back hours ago. Checking fences doesn't take that long...unless he decided to stop and make repairs. Something I had told him he was not to do.

 

The morning stage had come and gone without a hitch. But not so the afternoons run. Mose had split a wheel on the way in and was more than an hour late. While Daisy busied herself with calming the four disgruntled passengers Mose and I worked on the wheel. But our spare looked almost as bad as the one that split. So I was forced to take the buckboard into town for another. It was late by the time I got back and even later when we finished  replacing the wheel. Finally with the passengers placated and full of Daisy’s apple pie and coffee Mose slapped leather and roared out of the yard sending dust and chicken's flying, more n' three hours late. And still no sign of Jess. I was really worried now. I just knew something must have happened.

 

The sun would soon be heading west for the night. I hadn't realized I'd stopped working and was staring out until Daisy called. "Slim, supper will be on the table soon." So intent was I that I hadn't heard her approach till I turned to find her standing right next to me and it made me jump.

 

"Slim, watching that road isn't going to bring him home any sooner," she smiled, doing her best to hide her own concern. Then….no longer able to hold back. "Where do you suppose he can be at this hour? You don't think something’s happened do you?"

 

Well, that didn’t help, I thought. "No, I don't think so Daisy. Could be most anything. Traveler could have thrown a shoe, might have found more fences down, most anything," I said, doing my best to sound optimistic.

 

"Slim, you don't think maybe he got sick and can't get home, do ya?"  Came a small voice at my waist.

 

Surprised, both Daisy and I turned to stare down at the little boy. Leave it to Mike to bring the subject full circle. Daisy cleared her throat, took Mike by the shoulders and turned him back to the house. "Mike," she sighed, "why don't you go and wash up for supper?"

 

"But, aren't we gonna wait for Jess?"

 

"Jess'll be along, now go on," she insisted.

 

I did my best to push my feelings aside and join the family for our evening meal. But by the time the clock struck the hour I'd had enough and made up my mind to go after my Pard.

 

I had just slipped into my coat and stepped out onto the porch when I saw Jess and Traveler canter into the driveway. "Speak of the devil," I exclaimed. "And that ain't far off," I said in a low voice and gave Daisy a relieved wink.

 

"Slim!" She scolded. As Jess approached I stepped off the porch ready to give a gentle, but firm reprimand to my tardy partner for causing us undue worry even though I couldn't wipe the smile of relief off my face.

 

"Where the blazes have you been? You're late! I was just about to come lookin' for you. You run into trouble or something?" I asked still smiling. But one look at Jess told me that something was definitely wrong and my smile quickly turned to a frown when I caught the look of uncertainty flash across my partner's face. I stood and watched as Jess let the reins fall from his hands without any attempt to tie them and gingerly stepped down... as if he wasn't sure if he was suppose to be here or not. I noticed too that he kept a death grip on the saddle almost as if he were afraid to let go.

 

"Jess?"

 

When I got no response I stepped up to him. This wasn't the Jess Harper that left this morning. The man that stood before me now looked shaken and confused. He said nothing. Instead his eyes searched the yard as if looking for something or someone. "Are you alright, Pard?" I asked softly. "Jess?" Still no answer. I had a cold sick feeling come over me then. The same feeling I had when Mort and I found him standing at the edge of a cliff several years ago in nothing but his under shorts. Jess had suffered a flash back from the war then and was clean out of his head. He was confused and scared. Now standing there in the yard he had that same look to him. He'd let go of the saddle now and stood unsteadily next to his horse. I started to lay my hand on his shoulder when he suddenly swayed and I instinctively reached out to steady him. But he quickly pulled away as if fearful of what I was about to do.

 

Confused, I stood and watched as he struggled to keep his balance, all the while looking around the yard.

 

"It's okay, Jess. I just want to help you," I said softly. "You feeling sick, Pard?" I asked. Still no answer. He just kept looking around like he hadn't heard me or even seen me for that matter. I sure didn't want him to bolt like he'd done before. Though in his present condition I doubt he had the strength or presence of mind to walk much less run. He was sweating, his breathing was coming short and shallow and his legs looked too wobbly to even hold him up. His eyes kept darting back and forth around the yard.

 

"Jess, talk to me, Pard. What's wrong?" I ran a nervous hand over my mouth and took a deep calming breath. "Jess, do you know where you are?" I raised my voice a little to try and get his attention desperate to know what was wrong. All the time wondering what in the world could have happened to have put him in such a state? But he just continued to stare out into the yard.

 

He looked as if a small breeze could knock him over. Slowly I reached out and gently laid my hand on his shoulder. This time, though uncertain he allowed it. There was no intent of violence, no indication that he was getting riled...nothing at all but a disjointed look of confusion that sent chills through me. He looked frail and on the verge of panic and had begun to shake. With my hand on his shoulder he stood swaying. He’d stop looking out into the yard and now centered his attention instead on my face, looking at me as if seeing me for the first time. His eyebrows netted together in deep concentration. Then I saw a flash of recognition come over him and for a brief moment it seemed the weight of the world was lifted from his shoulders.

 

"Slim!" He said and squinted hard as if to clear his vision.

 

I reached out and grabbed an arm as he looked as if he were about to fall over. "Yeah, Jess…it's me. Easy now," I admonished. Behind me I heard the sound of the door being opened. I didn't know who it was but…with one arm holding Jess I put the other behind my back and shooed whoever it was back inside. I had no idea what was going on with Jess right now. All I knew was that he needed my help and I didn't want anything to upset him.

 

Then as if to reassure himself that I was really there he reached up and laid the open palm of his right hand against my cheek …and with a very heavy sigh he mouthed. “S...Slim...it…it is you!" He said as he ran his tongue along dry lips and a shaky hand through his hair, swallowing hard.

 

"Yeah, Jess, it's me.” He let his hand drop from my face to land hard on my shoulder as if his own hand was too heavy to hold up. Then after taking a deep breath his legs buckled and he sagged. I threw my arm around his waist and tightened my grip. We just stood there for a time; me trying to keep him upright and figure out what was going on, and Jess looking around as if the mere sight of the place was foreign to him. I kept hoping whoever it was that started to come out of the house would stay put. I would learn later that it was Daisy. But one look at Jess told her something was very wrong and she'd went back inside to make sure no one else came out. Boy was I grateful for that.

 

"I'm home?" He whispered, still uncertain.

 

I had learned that awful day at the ridge to tread carefully. "Yeah, Pard. You're home. Now, let's get you inside. It's getting cold out here, looks like it's gonna rain." He didn't move…it was like he was rooted to the ground.

 

"Naw, think…I think I… ju.....just wanna walk, Slim. Just… want …ta… walk," his voice seemed as shaky as his legs. I kept my hold, certain that if I'd let go he'd have crumple to the ground for sure.

 

"Alright then, I'll walk with you. You're looking none too steady there, Jess." He just looked at me and nodded weakly; still uncertain, then turned and staggered towards the barn. I had no idea where this was going, but I wasn't about to let him alone...even if he could walk straight.

 

We'd only walked a few yards when Jess stopped, put his hand to his head, shut his eyes tight and moaned.

 

"Your head hurting Pard?" He didn't answer. But he'd begun to shake so hard now that I had to tighten my grip just to keep hold of him. "C'mon, Jess. Easy, now. Let's get you back to the house. Looks like you could do for a rest. Maybe even take nap before supper," I suggested. Any fear I had that he might bolt was gone now as I recognized the fact that he couldn't have made it from the barn to the front porch without help. I spoke softly and very carefully turned him back towards the house.

 

Not knowing what was going on I moved slowly. I didn't want to take a chance on him becoming violent. Even though in his present condition I doubt he could have done much. Still I didn't want to do anything that might rattle him. I'd half a mind to reach over and remove his gun. But not being sure of what was going on in that head of his I decided to wait till I got him inside where I had reinforcements before I tried something like that.

 

We had just reached the porch when he spied the rocker and stopped. And with an unsteady hand reached for it. So I helped him to sit and wiped my hands on my pants again, my mind racing. All the while wondering what could have had happened to him.

 

Daisy, who'd been watching from the window now appeared with a glass of water and handed it to me discretely. Jess didn't appear to have noticed. Thank goodness. I handed it to him but his hand shook so badly that he pour most of it down the front of his shirt and I found it necessary to help him hold the glass while he drank what was left. Once the glass was empty Jess leaned back, breathed heavily; and closed his eyes. Through it all I kept my hand on his shoulder. I could feel his whole body shake, he swallowed hard and squinted several times as if trying to get his bearings or clear his sight; or both.

 

I allowed my hand to slide down his arm as I knelt in front of him. "Jess, can you tell me what's going on in that head of yours? What happened out there, huh?" I had already taken a quick inventory of my partner when he first rode up. As far as I could tell he didn't appear to have suffered any physical injury. But I couldn't be sure of that until I got him inside. He leaned forward and again placed a shaky hand to his head. Then he looked back up and his eyes searched the yard frantically as if I'd suddenly disappeared, panic stricken he started to shake even harder.

 

"Sli....Slim?" He yelled.

 

I placed my hand against his cheek and turned his head towards me. "I'm right here, Jess. I gotta a hold of ya, Pard. I just need for you to tell me what's wrong?" I whispered. "You're head hurting again?" I asked…now feeling darn close to panic myself. Jess nodded that it was and closed his eyes briefly once more, all the while breathing like Traveler had rode him instead of the other way around.

 

I took a deep breath and let it out slow. "I tell you what, why don't we get you inside so you can lay down and take that nap before supper, huh?"

 

"I....ne....need to," his breath caught and he swallowed hard, bit his lip and started to look around as if was afraid of something.

 

"What, Jess? What do you need?" I asked anxiously.

 

He suddenly struggled to his feet and staggered back from the chair. "This...thi...this... is the Sher.....Sherman Ra....Ranch, right?" He stammered, his tone uncertain and his voice shaky filled with fear.

 

"Yes, Jess.....and I'm Slim Sherman, your partner," I told him and gently took his arm again fearful that he might either try and leave or fall. Don't know what made me do it, but it just seemed the right thing to do at the time. I eased him back into the chair gently and asked.

 

"Jess, do you….ah, do you know your name?" I asked. He was still looking at me, but the question seemed to puzzle him. So I tried again. "What's your full name?" I asked, still searching his face, desperate to know what was wrong. I could tell he was thinking hard, trying to remember. And that served to scare the hell out of me. After a time, he looked into my eyes, fear sweeping across his features and he stuttered.

 

"M....m....my name?"  He looked down at the ground and squinted hard then back up at me. His eyes closed for a moment and I noticed he had to force them open to look at me.

 

"Yeah, what's your name?" I repeated softly.

 

"Ha....Har…Harper," he said in a husky voice. "Je....Jess Har...Harper. Is…is, tha…that right?"

 

That shook me even more and I found I had to force my own fear back. Oh my God! "Yeah, that's right. You're Jess Harper, my partner. Now come on, let's go inside. It's too cold out here for you," I said with a smile. Hoping a cheery demeanor would help him feel a bit more at ease.

 

As frightened as I was standing there holding on to my unsteady partner an equally worried and frightened Daisy and Andy looked on from inside. I glanced up and caught a glimpse of Daisy in the window. She looked as pale as the curtains she was hidden behind. I couldn't say I blamed her. With that last exchange I felt the color drain from my own face. Inside Daisy had sent Mike to his room on the pretext that he needed to finish his homework and allow Jess and I to check it before supper as she had something special planned. Whatever that was Daisy didn't exactly know yet. But it did serve to get him out of sight. None of us knew what to expect. Whatever had happened and whatever was going on inside my friend's head; I was just grateful that for the moment he was peaceful, placid in fact. So co-operative was he that I think I could've led him around the yard like a puppy without protest. Certainly the last thing I wanted was a confrontation with my sick friend at this stage. If the worst did happen and he turned violent I wasn't sure how I'd handle it.

 

I took him by the arms and started to help him out of the chair when he reached out and placed a shaky hand on my shoulder. His brow furrowed and looking straight at me asked in a low voice as if needing more reassurance.

 

"Slim? It really is you, ain't it?"

 

I was sacred to death for him now. He was looking at me again like he'd never seen me before, like he'd just stepped off Traveler, yet that was a good forty minutes ago and this was the second time he'd ask me that same question.  

 

"Yes, Jess, it's me," I said softly, "now come on lets get you inside?"

 

He looked around once more before allowing me to help him from the chair. I had to put real effort into it this time, as he seemed to be having trouble standing, like his own weight was too much for him to handle.

 

"C'mon' Pard." But, when I went to turn him towards the door he stopped. For a moment he just stood there, swaying and blinking as if to make sense out of where he was and what was going on. I saw panic in those eyes and that confused uneasy look came over him once again and he started to pull away and stagger backwards in fear.

 

"No…no, Jess. It's alright. I just want to help you. You got me a little worried, Pard. I want to get you inside so you can rest up some....okay? C'mon on now, it's alright. It's me, Slim. You trust me don't ya?"

 

"S…Sl...Slim," he stammered.

 

"That's right. Now come on." Finally with a spark of recognition sinking in he allowed me to slid my arm around his waist and guide him carefully to the door. He appeared and acted for all the world like he'd clean the bottom of one of Angus Nyland's bottles, but I knew he wasn't drunk. For one thing Jess never drank at home, and in all the years I'd know him I'd only seen the man drunk twice. His eyes were clear and there was no smell of alcohol or anything else about him. Add to that the fact that he wasn't slurring at all. His speech came clear and smooth, just slow, uncertain and shaky. Reacting to the tremors that ran through his body I guessed.

 

He stopped once more just before we reached the door and covered his face with both hands, shaking like a leaf. "Slim, what...wha…what's wrong with me?" He asked suddenly.

 

"I don't know, Jess. I was hoping you could tell me," I told him honestly.

 

His breath caught as he tried to answer then his voice rose in panic as he started to heave and he groaned.

 

"You gonna be sick?" I asked.

 

Our eyes met and for a moment that same confused look came over him when all of a sudden he retched and whatever lunch Daisy'd made for him now poured down the front of his shirt and onto his pants. I held tight as he heaved again and I quickly turned him toward the yard and held him till it had passed. The sour smell of sickness filled my nostrils and I almost gagged. All confusion seemed to leave him for a moment as he looked down at his soiled shirt and pants and back up at me, his eyes full of shock and panic.

 

"Slim!"

 

"It's okay, Jess. Don't worry about it," I said gently, and reached for the door knob. It seemed that that one act had brought him closer to panic than ever before and cleared his head as well… at least for a moment. "Let's just get you inside and clean you up. It'll be alright, I promise. "C'mon now."

 

As we made our way into the house I spied Daisy and Andy in the kitchen trying to stay out of sight. My unsteady partner paused and looked around, fearful of this new place. I held tight and continued to speak softly encouraging him to trust me, like I was calming a frightened animal. The same as Mort and I had done back at Baxter's Ridge.

 

Though Jess may have appeared to be a little calmer, inside I was close to panic. I hadn't the foggiest idea of what to do for him. I just wanted to get him cleaned up and in bed. I was relieved when we reached the room. But there again he balked and tried to pull away and again I had to tighten my grip.

 

"It's alright, Jess," I soothed and continued to guide him into the room. I finally got him to his bed, sat him down and started to unbutton his shirt when he laid a shaky hand on my arm.

 

"Slim, I'm really... so....sorry...," he stammered then stopped and closed his eyes for a moment as if the effort was too much.

 

"You've done nothing to be sorry for, Jess. Now let's get this shirt off, huh?"  I smiled and found I had to hold tight as he was fast becoming as limp as one of Daisy’s dish rags. The fact that I'd have to let go of him to retrieve a shirt had me a little concerned. But, I needn’t  have worried. Andy had very quietly slipped in behind us unnoticed and opening the dresser drawer removed one of Jess' night shirts. Just then Jess caught sight of him and pulled back, startled at this new comer.

 

"Who?" He stammered and started to pull away.

 

"It's okay, Jess. It's me, Andy," he said softly.

 

My unsteady partner squinted ...."An....Andy?"

 

"Yeah, Jess. You're gonna okay. But you've got to let us help you. Get you into some clean clothes, make ya comfortable, alright?" He'd been watching and now approached Jess in the same manner as I had and it worked.

 

Daisy appeared at the door with a pan of warm water and a clean rag. Andy went to the door and took it from her and she stepped back out of the doorway, concerned that any little change right now might be too much for Jess to handle. I had started to wipe his face when he retched again, but I was ready for it ... he got very little up. I wanted to get him out of those soiled cloths and into bed as soon as possible. Removing his shirt and boots didn't seem to bother him much. But when I went to unbuckle his gun belt, Jess threw an unsteady hand out in protest. Whether his reaction was involuntary or not I wasn't sure. But I stopped and put my hand on his shoulder, and squeezing it gently assured him that all I was doing was making him comfortable. "Can't be wearing your gun to bed, Pard," I told him but he still looked uncertain. "Tell you what. I'll hang it right here on the bedpost, alright?" I told him softly. That seemed to calm him and his eyes followed his rig as I hung it up.

 

He sat peaceably and allowed Andy to steady him while I took the warm rag and cleaned him up. He even allowed us to put his night clothes on without protest. He just kept looking around the room like he was trying to put two and two together. My heart was pounding out of my chest. What could have happened out there? And what was gonna happen if he didn't come out of it? Every once and awhile I'd glance over at Andy. He looked as pale and as frightened as I felt.

 

It was while we were cleaning him up that I noticed he'd become even limper and his eyes looked to be getting real heavy. Made me wonder. Together Andy and I gently eased him down. I noticed he winched abit as I lifted his legs, but at the time I didn't think much of it. I kept talking to him gentle like while I pulled the covers up around him. Kept telling him everything was gonna be alright. Though in truth I wasn't so sure. I was at a loss as to know what to do next. I'd never seen Jess in such a state. I sure wished Seth was here to deal with this, he'd know what to do. Everything I was doing was a guess and I could only hope I was right.

 

"Easy there, Pard," I soothed. "You're gonna be okay. You're looking awful sleepy. Just relax and go to sleep. I'll be right here," I told him. We stood and watched as his eyes finally shut and he lapsed into peaceful slumber. And I wondered.

 

To my great relief my suspicions had been right…Daisy had added a sleeping power to the water she'd handed me while we were on the porch. I motioned for Andy to remove his gun. Worried about my friend's mental state, I didn't want that gun anywhere near him. Andy, took it and left the room, hanging it on the peg near the front door I guessed. Out of his reach for the time being.

 

Once we were sure he was sound asleep I made the decision to let Andy sit with him, with explicit instructions to call out if Jess so much as moved a muscle. I left the room, closed the door behind me and joined a very distraught Daisy in the kitchen.

 

"Slim, what.....?" Daisy started, twisting her apron anxiously. I shook my head, and placed a finger to my lips, all the while directing her away from the now sleeping Jess, should he not be as asleep as we thought. Once in the dinning room I gave out a huge sigh  and plopped down hard at the table, suddenly my own legs felt as shaky as Jess' had been.

 

"Slim, what in the world…?"

 

"I don't know, Daisy. I've never seen anything like this,"  I stammered.  I looked up at her and our eyes met. "I need a drink," I told her my voice hoarse and dry. It may have been a half hearted request, but before I knew it Daisy had placed a glass in front of me with a shot of whiskey in it. I smiled and taking it with a shaky hand downed it in one gulp. I could almost feel my face blush as it burned its way down my throat.

 

"Thanks, Daisy. He...he's confused, like he doesn't know where he is or even if he's supposed to be here," my voice shook, "he didn't even know me at first. Kept asking me if I was Slim Sherman and if this was the Sherman ranch," I sat still and took a few deep breaths to try and calm my growing fear.

 

Daisy started to pour me a second shot, but I shook my head and placed a hand over the glass. "No, Daisy. I gotta stay clear headed... in case he's not," I told her and jerked my chin in the direction of our bedroom.

 

"Shouldn't we send for the doctor?"

 

I thought for a moment. "No, not yet. I don't want to rattle him. Let's let him sleep, give him some time. See where this leads." Then I remembered and looked up at her and smiled. "That sleeping power was a brilliant idea, Daisy."

 

"I didn't know what else to do. I was afraid he'd notice."

 

"Yeah, I know what you mean. In his state of mind I don't know what he would have done. Well, maybe things will look better in the morning. If not, I'll ask Mose to have that new doctor come out. Sure wish Seth were here."

 

"I know. But this new Dr. Webb seems competent enough."

 

"Yeah. I'm gonna send Andy to Jeb's and asked him to come over tomorrow.  I don't want to leave him alone with you and Mike till I know he's alright."

 

"Oh, Slim. You don't think he'd become violent do you?"

 

"I don't think so, Daisy. But, I'd rather be safe than sorry. Can't imagine what would happen to him if he did and hurt either you or Mike and then came to himself." I fell silent. The thought of such a thing too horrible to picture. It would destroy to him for sure.

 

That night the three of us sat down to an uneasy supper. Mike was worried and full of questions. We did our best to try to explain to him why Jess was in bed instead of at the table with us, and why Andy was sitting with him. Aside from Mike's concern, all went well. I'll have to admit, supper just isn't the same without Jess. Never realized just how much I enjoyed my Pard's presence at the table until that night.

 

As the night wore on, Daisy put Jess' supper in the oven to keep warm, should he wake in the middle of the night hungry. At the same time she set a plate out for Andy. We said our goodnights and I stepped into our room. Andy sat next to Jess, alert, watching him breathe as he slept. He said Jess hadn't moved much, just turned on his side in his sleep and was now snoring softly. I took Andy's place and sent him to his supper and to bed with instructions not to tell Mike too much as I didn't want to frighten him. I pulled a book off the shelve, prepared for a long night. 

 

0o0o0o0o0o0

 

Morning came much too soon. I hadn't realized I fallen asleep until I tried to move and stiff muscles told me I had together with the loud thud of the book as it slipped off my lap. I jumped and stole a glance at my partner. Jess was still asleep though the snoring had stopped. I knew he'd most likely be awake soon. I stood and stretched the kinks out as I breathed in the welcomed the aroma of fresh brewed coffee. As I wiped the last of the shaving soap off my face I heard a faint whisper and turned to see two watery blue eyes looking back at me. 

                                                                                                          

"Slim?" This time the voice was stable and confident.....without the shaky uncertain tone it held the day before.

 

He's back. Thank God! I don't know what I would have done had he awoke in the same state he'd been in a short eight hours earlier. I crossed the room, sat down next to him and placed an brotherly hand on his shoulder, squeezed it firmly and looked into those crystal blues. There was clarity there and recognition…and most important, no fear.

 

"Hold on Pard. I'll get your coffee," I promised and disappeared out the door only to reappear a moment later with Jess' favorite brew hot and steaming in one hand and in the other my own. Jess sat up under his own power and took the cup with a much steadier hand. I watched with relief as he swallowed a mouthful of the bitter liquid and smiled as he savored the intense flavor, feeling the warmth of the stimulant caress his very soul.

 

We sat in companionable silence for a while enjoying the morning, our brew and each others company. Now and then I'd steal a glance his way. He looked so much better. He'd slept well and was becoming more alert, thanks to his much loved coffee. Finally, he sat the cup down on the nightstand…and leaned back against the pillow before casting a shy glance in my direction. I caught the subtle look and smiled.

 

"You feeling better, Pard?" I asked.

 

Jess' chest rose and fell with heavy a breath. "Ya mean am I as crazy now as I was last night?"

 

"Now that's not what I meant at all, Jess. I wasn't even thinking such a thing." If there's one thing that really boils me it's that. He knew how I felt about him putting himself down. We've had many a late night talk about it and he knows how I hate it. He's too good a man to do such a thing.

 

Jess lowered his eyes and mumbled. "Sorry, Slim."

 

I nodded. "Well, you ought a’ be," I took another swallow. "Now, can you tell me what happened to you yesterday?"

 

Jess shook his head and shut his eyes, deep in thought. "I don't rightly know, Slim. I finished checkin' the fences…"

 

"You sure that's all you did?" I asked, eyeing him close.

 

He rolled his eyes. "Yes. I was a good boy, Pa."

 

I grinned.

 

"'M dang back started givin' me fits again, so I reached into my saddle bags, got out the medicine, took it and found the lunch Daisy made. Then I… I sat down to eat," he furrowed his brow. "Don't recollect if I finished or not," he stopped, shook his head and retrieved his cup, took another sip and sat it back down, all the while thinking hard. "By that time it was well past noon and I figured it was time I head for home,"  he stopped, his eyebrows meeting each other in intense concentration. Then he sat bolt upright, swung his legs off the bed and sat with his hands on either side of him, his back to me.

 

Startled, I snagged a chair came to sit front of him.

 

"All of a sudden I looked up and the whole world seemed like it was spinnin'."

 

"You had another one of those dizzy spells..."

 

"No. No, Slim this was different. It was like everythin' was swirlin' in front of me, made me sick to my stomach and...I..."

 

"You had vertigo...."

 

He gave me a puzzled look. "Verda...what?"

 

I smiled. "Vertigo, Jess. It's more n' just being dizzy. Everything around you seems like it's moving," I explained.

 

He nodded and I watched as he looked back down at the floor and shook his head again. When next he spoke his voice was low and trembled a little. "Slim, I….I didn't know where I was. Nothin' looked familiar no more. I knew the road was close by and I should be on it, but I… I  cou…. couldn't find it! It was the dangest thing."

 

Jess rubbed his forehead with a shaky hand.

 

"Take it easy," I admonished.

 

"Slim, I.... I didn't remember how ta get home," he said and once again I saw those blue eyes cloud. Their joyful sparkle replaced by fear and confusion once more as they met mine. I watched helplessly as he rested his elbows on his knees, balled up his right fist and clasps his left hand over it and started working that jaw. When he spoke again I could hear the panic creeping into his voice low and shaky.

 

"I couldn't find it, Slim. It was no more n' a few hundred yards away....and I…I couldn't see it. Ev…every tree, every bush, all looked the same to me. I tri.....tried ta fi......find it, bu....but, I...," his voice trailed off and he started breathing hard and I saw moisture collecting beneath those long lashes.

 

I scooted my chair closer to him and put my hands on his shoulders. He was shaking again, harder now. Not as badly as the night before, but darned close. "Easy, Jess, easy. You're getting yourself all worked up. Did you...did you fall and hit your head or something?"

 

He blinked a couple of times, started kneading that left hand over the right and working that jaw. "No, Pard, I didn't. I wish ...I wish I had," he swallowed and his breathing caught for a moment, "Then all this'd make sense." He shook his head. "I didn't get off  'm horse till I decided to eat lunch. I must 'a…must 'a got sick though, cause... my shirt was all wet and smelled ...like I'd puked all over myself. I remember that," he said and ran a shaky hand through his hair, "I think."

 

I didn't bother to tell him that he'd got sick when he came home. Kinda figured he was upset enough without me adding to it. "What else?" I asked as I dropped my hands from his shoulders to retrieve my own cup.

 

"I don't know. Just that nothin' looked right to me. Slim, I swear if it hadn't been for Traveler," his breath caught again. "I'd never made it home. I'd still be out there wanderin' around, stumblin' over bushes and rocks….lookin' like some dang loco fool."

 

"No you wouldn't Jess," I assured him, "cause I'd have come for you," I smiled and punched his arm. I needed to say something to shift his focus. He was getting upset and I needed to find something to calm him. Jess buried his head in his hands and just sat. "As a matter of fact I was just about to do that when you showed up," I told him with a smile.

 

"Slim, I'm I …do ya....do ya think…I mean.," he lowered his head and rubbed his right hand over his face. Then in a voice filled with emotion, "do ya think….am...", he paused for a moment and swallowed hard. "Am I goin' loco, Slim?"

                                                                                                                   

The question and the anguish in my partner's voice almost took my breath away.

 

"Are you go...." it took a minute for what he said to sink in. I think I must have felt a little like Daisy just then...I wanted to hold him like you'd hold and comfort a wounded puppy. But such a thing being kinda taboo for men. Instead I pushed the chair up closer, put both hands on his shoulders and shook him gently. "No, Jess…you're not going loco. You might be a lot of things, Pard. But loco's not one of  'em. You hurt more n' your back in that wreck, Jess. You darn near busted your skull, Pard," I forced a smile. "Didn't think anything could crack that hard head of yours, but it came close. I think you've just been doing too much. Pushing yourself too hard, too soon. Just tired yourself out, Jess. That's all," I told him.

 

"Ya think?"

 

"Yeah," then I took a deep breath, turned right around and put my foot in my mouth. "Might not be a bad idea to let the doc have a look see, though," I suggested, knowing full well he wouldn't go for it.

 

"Oh yeah, Slim. Just go advertisin' the fact that I'm spindle short," he snapped. A taste of the old Jess showing through.               

                                                                                                

"I'm not, Jess. I just think it'd be a good idea that's all," I said. Then I dropped the subject. We said nothing for a while. He lowered his head and I saw him working that jaw again as he fiddled with the quilt.

 

"But, you'd tell me, wouldn't ya, Slim. I mean....if...if I was."

 

"Tell you what, Jess?"  

                              

"You know…..if I was…if I was really goin' mad. You would, wouldn't ya, Slim?"  Whatever happened to my friend out there had really rattled him.

 

"Look at me, Pard." Jess raised his eyes to meet mine…his eyes full of fear and pain…and tears.

 

"You've been through a lot these past few months, Jess. The wreck, getting bad hurt, loosing a good friend. That's an awful lot for a body to take. You gotta give yourself time to heal. The mind's a funny thing sometimes, Pard, and we don't always understand it. Just takes time and rest," I searched his face and smiled. "Jess...you're not going loco. Now, you just get that foolish notion right out of your head. You hear me?"

 

I smiled and slapped his knee. Then stood and stretched my back. "A lot of this is my fault you know. I should've been watching you better."

 

"I don't need no babysitter, Slim," he said gruffly then quietly added. "Could use a little common sense maybe, as you say."

 

That weak attempt at humor was a good sign.

 

"Aw, you got more common sense than most, Pard. It's just that with you it gets a little side tracked s' all. Like going after those men by yourself. That was the laws job, Jess. Not yours."

 

He looked up at me and gave me that little crooked smile he gets when he's trying to excuse some wayward action or word. "Law wasn't there Slim, I was. And you'd 'a done the same thing, Pard. Just wish I could've caught 'em."

 

"I know, I know. You did your best. Nobody can fault you for that, Jess. To tell you the truth I'm glad you didn't catch 'em."

 

He'd just taken his cup again when he stopped before it reached his mouth and stared back at me in surprise. "How's that?"

 

"As bad hurt as you were no telling what would have happened. They'd have over powered you for sure. You know sometimes it's best just to let a rattlesnake lay," I told him with a smile. And speaking of rattlesnakes...what say you stay put today and rest up?  I'll  be within ear shot if you need me." That experience had really rattled him, by now I would have been ducking a pillow. Instead he didn't argue  and that itself was out of character for Jess. But I shrugged it off.

 

"Slim, about the fences? Don't recall if I check 'em all?"

 

"I'll take care of the fences. I got Andy to help," I croaked and tugged on my boots.

 

"Oh, and none of them Harper tricks. Daisy knows 'um all," I smiled and gave him a wink. "And stop your worrying. That won't do you any good," I admonished as I tucked my shirttail into my jeans.

 

"I can't help it, Slim. It ain't your mind gone south for the winter," he snarled. Then looked up at me and swung his legs back in bed. "Sides, you're the one who's cornered the market on worry," he said as he burrowed back under the covers and turned on his side before I had a chance to reply. I smiled at his back and left the room, closing the door quietly behind me. Sure felt good to have my Pard back, insults and all.

                                   

"How is he, Slim?" Daisy asked, anxiously.

 

"Just fine Daisy,  like it never happened. Little hung over from the sleeping powder I think. He’s tired and a little embarrassed. I just think he's been doing too much. I doubt that head is healed all the way yet. I told him to rest up and to behave himself today. Told him you'd be watching to make sure he did," I smiled. Daisy Cooper would take over now. She's far more than a housekeeper. In many ways she's mother, a nurse, caregiver, and counselor all rolled into one little petite woman. There are times when I wonder how we ever got along without her. I felt better leaving my Pard in her care. I knew without a doubt that if any one could keep Jess Harper in line it was Daisy. There are times when she knows how to handle Jess better n' me.

 

I stepped to the door and slipped into my coat. "I'll be close if you need me. See you at lunch." I gave her a little peck on the cheek before heading for the barn to join Andy with the morning chores, taking my breakfast with me.

 

"Will you be working around the house?" She asked just before I opened the door.

 

"Sure will. Andy and I will be working on your list," I told her with a smile.

 

"That's a good idea," she chuckled.

 

"Oh, and Daisy, I told him to stop worrying. That goes for you too," I told her and left.

 

At lunch Daisy told us that Jess had stayed in bed for the most part and was asleep when we came in to eat. I really think that experience took a lot out of him. I know it did me.

 

 

CHAPTER EIGHT -

Mrs. Dickerson

 

 

Next morning while Mike and Andy went about collecting eggs and feeding chickens Jess went into the barn to check on one of our colts. He said it looked as if he'd been favoring his left leg and he wanted to check on him before breakfast. As a matter of fact Daisy had just finished setting breakfast on the table and I had just placed another log on the fire when I heard a buggy enter the driveway. We don't get many fancy carriages here and this one was real nice. I opened the door to find a very distinguished looking middle aged woman, pulling up in front of the house. When I stepped out she smiled kindly and immediately asked.

 

"Would you be Mister Harper?"

 

"No, Ma'am, my name's Sherman, Slim Sherman."

 

"Oh, then I am at the right place. My name is Mrs. Elaine Dickerson, Mr. Sherman. I was told that a Mr. Jess Harper works here?"

 

"Yes, Jess is here. Would you like to come inside, Mrs. Dickerson its awful cold out? We're just sitting down to breakfast. Be happy if you'd join us."

 

"Well, I don't want to impose, Mr. Sherman," she smiled kindly as she gave me her hand. She had a charming smile. But she also had an underling coolness to her that told me that this woman was all business.

 

Daisy, having overheard my invitation assured our guest that we had plenty and had already set a place for her.

 

"Oh, Mrs. Dickerson, this is Mrs. Cooper."

 

"How do you do, Mrs. Cooper," she smiled. "My doesn't this look nice," she said, surveying the table as I pulled out a chair for her.

 

"Jess, should be in soon. He's tending a colt this morning." I was curious, but held any questions I might have for later. Once all the introductions were made and everyone seated, we waited for Jess, until finally....

 

"Andy, will you go see what's keeping him. Tell him he's got a visitor. I'm sorry, Mrs. Dickerson."

 

"That's quite alright Mister Sherman, after all I did come unannounced," she said and looked over at Mike; who was waiting impatiently swinging his legs wanting to eat.

 

"How do you know, Jess?" Daisy asked as she passed the plate of hot biscuits around.

 

"I don't Mrs. Cooper; I've never met him," she smiled. "Though I am certainly looking forward to it," she said, took a biscuit and passed the plate to me. "You see, I'm visiting from California. My sister is Janice Marsh. She's told me all about Mr. Harper. She says he's the best when it comes to gentling an animal she's ever seen." It was a matter of fact enough statement. Sort of took us by surprise though.

 

"Yes, Ma'am, my partner's the best, as far as I'm concerned. No one better," I stated proudly.

 

I was puzzled. The news seemed to take her by surprise and caused her to pause for a moment. "So, Mr. Harper... is your partner? I didn't realize. I thought Mr. Harper was simply your employee."

 

"No, Ma'am. Jess is my  partner."

 

"I see. Then he…he's hear often?"

 

I smiled nervously not knowing how to take her question and was about to answer when Mike did it for me.

 

"Course he is...Jess lives here..." he said with a little exasperation in his young voice. Anxious to dig into his breakfast.

 

"Mike, mind your manners," Daisy admonished.

 

"Oh!" She seemed genuinely surprised. But, I'd have to wait to find out what all the fuss was about. Before I had a chance to say more the front door swung open and Jess walked in, pulled off his hat and hung it on the peg while Andy pushed past him and took his place at the table, ready to eat.

 

"Jess, this is Mrs. Dickerson. Mrs. Dickerson, Jess Harper," I nodded toward my partner and smiled at my friend's bewildered expression.

 

Jess, quickly removed his glove and smiled. "How do you do, Ma'am."

 

"Mr. Harper," she said, and eagerly extended her hand to him. "It is indeed a pleasure to finally meet you, sir. Janice has told me so much about you." I swear the woman's eyes virtually sparkled.

 

Jess was as surprised and puzzled as the rest of us. He cleared his throat and smiled then asked how Janice was doing.

 

"Oh, she's fine sir, thank you for asking."

 

"Mrs. Dickerson is going to join us for breakfast, Jess," Daisy informed him.

 

"Oh?"

 

Our visitor was very kind and seemed to enjoy her meal with us. But that cold air of business hung over her and seemed to command every word. I think we were all a bit nervous. I know I was. I could only imagine how Jess must have felt. After all, she was there to see him.

 

Conversation around the table was causal, with Mrs. Dickerson asking questions and making comments about the difference between the winters in Wyoming and California. Then when the conversation stalled, she leaned back in her chair and regarded my partner for a moment before making a statement that darn near unsettle the lot of us.

 

"So, Mr. Harper, my sister tells me that you are an absolute genius when it comes to gentling a horse," she said looking over the rim of her cup at my partner.

 

Surprised, he'd just taken a sip of coffee and now coughed. I swear, I thought he was gonna choke. I even thought I was gonna have to slap him on the back to stop it. But it eased as quickly as it came, though his eyes had begun to water a little. I may not have laughed out loud, but I sat there grinning like a mouser cat. I was enjoying this and as I looked over at Daisy; so was she.

 

Jess cleared his throat and asked. "She what?"

 

And with that statement all heads turned from Mrs. Dickerson, to stare at the bewildered object of her attention. My grin had turned into a full blown smile. I just couldn't help it. The look on Jess' face was about to make me bust any minute. But for the sake of company I forced it back, though I did have to look away to do it.

 

"You have a very special way with horses. You don't break them like most, you have more of a gentle approach with them I'm told," she said, and looked admiringly at him.

 

"Ah, well, 'um... I guess," Jess said and looked at me, begging to be rescued. I picked up the silent plea and dove right in, throwing my Pard a life line. Or so I thought.

 

"Oh, yes Ma'am, Mr. Harper is real good with the horses. Like I said no one better in my opinion. Never seen one yet that he couldn't gentle up. They just seem to like him," I said, and did my best not to look at Jess. That rope I threw him was covered with axel grease! His stare darn near burned a hole right though me. It took everything in me not to laugh, but I couldn't stop my face from going red. If looks could kill, I would have had been dead and buried by now. Though I'd have gone with a smile on my face that's for sure. Try as I might I just couldn't help it. I knew he was relieved, even happy when Daisy spoke up and steered the conversation in a different direction.

 

"So, Mrs. Dickerson. Are you enjoying your visit?" Daisy asked, sensing the dilemma.

 

"Yes, very much. It's been so long since I've seen my sister. I rarely get a chance to leave home these days. There's so much work to be done on a horse ranch," she replied with a smile.

 

"Do you breed horses, Mrs. Dickerson?" I asked, still refusing to make eye contact with Jess.

 

"Indeed I do, Mr. Sherman. I've been raising race horses for the most part," she said and smiled over at Jess again. She was really taken with him.

 

Now I like Jess a whole heck of a lot too. But she gave us all the feeling that she felt Jess was very special indeed. She looked at Jess like he was better n' sliced bread and it was making him nervous. I swear don't know how he got through breakfast without choking.

 

The rest of the meal went well, with casual conversation about one thing and another. But, finally with the dishes cleared and the last of the coffee consumed our visitor asked to speak with Jess privately. He was very cordial and directed her to the living room, while I made sure to keep myself and others at a safe distance. We could still hear muffled talk, but made sure to stay clear. It didn't take long before our visitor was  thanking us for our hospitality and Jess was escorting her to the door. 

 

I stepped out onto the porch with Jess. As he gave her a hand up I heard her say in that very business like tone. "So, I can bring him by first part of next week, then?" she asked.

 

"Yes, Ma'am," Jess said and smiled, still a bit nervous.

 

"Good. I'll see you next week, Mr. Harper."

 

"I'll be here," he promised, untied her horse and handed her the reins.

 

"Mr. Sherman, a pleasure to meet you," she said kindly and was off before I had a chance to respond.

 

We had just stepped back inside when Jess turned to me a little shamefaced. "Sorry, Pard.  I didn't know what to say to her. She's bringin' this colt over next week…" he paused and looked at me, "hope that's alright?"

 

I smiled at his coy expression and shrugged my shoulders…"You're the 'genius', Jess." I chuckled and headed for the kitchen, ducking the pillow that flew past my head.

 

In reality I wanted to correct Jess' thinking. As a partner, I wanted him to know that he had just as much right to make decisions as I do. But, I held back knowing that pretty soon that point would be made in no uncertain terms. He'd have solid proof of it and so would anyone who dared to question his position.

 

That's something that's happened on occasion. With so many different people passing through if one of them wants to speak to the owner they automatically ask for me. And that's not fair to my partner. I'm hoping to set that to rights real soon.

 

 

CHAPTER NINE -

Four Legged Tornado

 

 

At breakfast everyone seemed in high spirits, even the food seemed to taste better. Though Daisy's cooking is always enjoyable, I had to agree with Jess when he said he felt cold weather and good food just seemed to go together. The only down side to breakfast was that Jess didn't eat as well as expected. It continued to worry Daisy, but I passed it off, thinking maybe our visitor a few days ago had something to do with it. She was due back with that colt today, and I think he was a little nervous. I certainly couldn't blame him.

 

"Say Jess, where you gonna do this horse training anyways? The main corral or the holding pen?" Andy asked as he snagged another helping of eggs with laughter in his eyes.

 

"A horse is a horse, Andy. Same place we've always used," he said as he shoveled a fork full of pancakes into his mouth. "Course if I'm as good as she thinks I am, I might just be able to uncover whatever it is you and old hard rock here have been tryin' to hide," he said without looking in my direction.

 

Jess has good instincts so trying to keep something under wraps around him as never been easy. I was about to take a sip of coffee and froze, my cup in mid-air. I swear I could feel the color drain from my face. Did he know about our plans? Or was this just his clever way of trying to get me to fess up? I wasn't sure, but I was glad when Daisy stepped back in to refill our cups. Right after the three of us left to start our chores.

 

A few minutes later Mrs. Dickerson's carriage entered the yard and stopped just sort of the hitching post. Andy was in the process of carrying out a load of trash to be burned when I slipped past him to greet her. As I reached up to give her a hand down I paused to admire the very beautiful black colt that Joe Hardy was ponying along side his stocky gray gelding.

 

"Morning, Ma'am." I said tipping my hat. "Howdy Joe".

 

"Got a feisty one here for ya," he interrupted with a toothless grin. And is if on cue the colt half reared causing Joe to hold tight to the lead rope and keep his seat.

 

Mrs. Dickerson ignored him and returned the smile with a cheery, "Good morning, Mr. Sherman," but her eyes searched the yard for my partner, finally coming to rest at the barn as Jess stepped out and gave her a smile. But his eyes rested on the colt admirably. He was shiny black with a white blaze and two white socks. A beautiful animal for sure; but very skittish. The colt started to get nervous and began pulling at the lead rope attached to the gelding.

 

While I stood watching. Joe waited for Jess to tell him where to put the animal. A moment later my partner pointed to the main corral as Andy raced over to open the gate. We all watched as Joe let loose the skittish animal and Andy quickly closed the gate. Then after few words with Mrs. Dickerson Joe headed back to his own place.

 

"Well, Mr. Harper," she sighed, "there he is," she said with pride. By this time I'd moved to the corral to stand beside Jess. "I do hope you can help. As I said my sister purchased him about six months ago from the Mumford ranch." It seemed to be more of a plea rather than a request. It surprised me. She didn't seem to be the type.

 

"I'll try, Mrs. Dickerson," Jess promised.

 

To be honest, I didn't like this at all. I'd seen horses like this before. This animal was dangerous. I was reminded of Nat Phillips a few years back. He and Jess had been trying to break a horse very much in temperament to this one. That had ended badly, with Nat being thrown, breaking several ribs and puncturing a lung. I'll never forget that day...thought I was gonna be eye witness to my neighbor’s death for sure. No, this animal was much too wild.....and this woman was asking my partner to gentle him up!

 

Not only did the memory of that warm summer day flood my mind, but one look at Jess and I was certain he was in no condition to be working the horses. Over the past two months I'd been watching my partner close. Though he'd never admit it, that accident had weakened him. And even though he keeps saying he's fine. I knew better. Jess didn't look good. Add to that the fact that this horse came from a ranch that had a reputation for selling the worse horse flesh this side of Pixly. Certainly didn't make me feel any better. Jess and I had already worked with several of their horse's and found them not only mistreated but in some cases in such bad shape that the only solution was a bullet.

 

Just the night before Andy and I had been talking about Jess and how unsteady he appeared to be from time to time. Andy shared my concern on that score. We had decided that (to keep from coming to blows) when it came to working the horses, Andy would step in whenever he could. So it was that Andy approached Jess about this colt. But, now knowing where this animal came from I had more reservations than ever before. I was nervous for the both of 'em. I didn't want to voice my concern and embarrass Jess in front of Mrs. Dickerson, but I felt I had to say something and was about to do just that when Daisy stepped out onto the porch and called me.

 

I hesitated, before joining her. I guess my fear was showing, cause the next thing I knew I felt a small hand on my back and turned to see Daisy smiling up at me. In a low voice, just high enough for me to hear, she cautioned. "He's fine, Slim. Don't coddle."

 

I took a deep breath. Dad gum Daisy! She plumb took the fire right outta me. Daisy in her wisdom has that effect on us sometimes. I wiped my hands on my pants.

 

"I don't like this, Daisy," I whispered. I could see disaster ahead as Daisy started to rub my back harder in an effort to ease my fear.

 

"Neither do I. But let's give him credit, Slim. He knows what he's doing," her voice may have been calm, but I could tell by the way she was rubbing my back that she was concerned despite her best efforts to hide it.

 

"So does the horse," I told her, just before Jess stepped to the porch followed by Mrs. Dickerson.

 

While we watched the colt Mrs. Dickerson  proceeded to tells us of the troubles she'd been having at her place in California. Seems she was competing against a neighboring ranch for her breeding stock and things had turned nasty. I wasn't sure how Jess took it, but I got the real impression that her admiration of my partner wasn't based solely on his ability to gentle a creature, as much as it was his skill with the gun. Sure hope I'm wrong about that.

 

We stood out in the cold a little longer as the colt continued to make nervous circles round the corral.

 

"Mr. Harper, I don't expect miracles. Some horses just can't be tamed. All I ask is that you try."

 

She then explained that she had business to attend to in Cheyenne and would be back within a month. And with that she took Jess' hand, stepped back into the carriage and was off.

 

 

CHAPTER TEN-

“Just the man I wanna see.”

 

 

It's been close to three months since the accident that so badly injured my friend. I feel heart sick, when I see how it has affected him. That accident has taken a lot out of him…and it's showing more and more everyday. His legs don't always hold him and he often wakes and or goes to bed with back pain that that new medicine doesn't seem to touch. Then there's what Daisy has started calling walking dreams or rather nightmares that scare all of us and makes Jess feel like his losing his mind. And although I've tried to convince him that he's not, that it's all part of healing, he still worries. Since that meeting with Douglas Jess has had two more of them. They may not have been as bad as the first …but they served to unsettle him all the same.

 

As upsetting as those can be the one thing I couldn't get out of my mind is seeing his legs go out on him.

 

Seth said we could expect side effects, but none of us expected anything like this...least of all Jess. I'm more than just a bit worried and hope to speak to Seth once I get into town. Mose had mentioned on his last run that Seth was back

 

That night after supper Jess and I enjoyed our coffee in the traditional manner....sitting out on the porch. It's a habit that started soon after Jess came to us. We said very little, just sat and enjoyed our coffee and each others company. I have often just sat along side my friend and contemplated how my life has changed since Jess came along. I shudder to think what life would be like without this intense young man with the fast gun and fiery temper by my side. He's very dear to me and I'd do anything for him....no matter what the cost and sitting there beside my friend it warms my heart to know that'd he'd do the same for me. He seems tense tonight and that's understandable. Over the past three months he's gone through a lot. But in true Harper fashion to tries to hide it.

 

 

0o0o0o0o0o0o

 

 

Next morning as I shrugged on my coat and headed for the barn, I kept thinking how I was gonna handle what I might face in town. A month earlier when Jess and Daisy had gone into town to pick up supplies the town was still buzzing about the stage hold up and bank robbery. Jess came back telling me that many of the town's people felt he had something to do with it. Although no one actually came right out and said so, still he felt it. Said he could see it in their stares and the snide remarks they made behind his back, the cold shoulders he got and the lack of the usual friendly greetings.

 

Now, under normal circumstances this would have set my Pard off and there'd been fireworks to deal with.....but for the past three months we hadn't been dealing with what you might call normal circumstances. There were times when Jess seemed almost resigned. And that in itself bothered me. Although that quick temper of his drives me mad and he jumps the gun more times than not....without that side of him....he just wasn't the Jess we all know and love. That and the fact just that morning his legs had failed him again. Oh, he didn't think I noticed but I did. He'd just finished shaving and had turned to empty the water when it happened. He caught himself quick enough and didn't get hurt. But it worries me to no end. I've tried several times to get him to see Seth, but each time that stubborn side of Jess raises its head and he refuses.

 

All this was going through my mind when I sat down with him after supper one night last week and went over the meeting and the tentative agreement between us and the Douglas Freight Company. Jess had some real reservations and I must say so did I. Although we could really use the money like Jess pointed out, there was just something about it that just didn't ring true. After much discussion and soul searching, not to mention half of one of Daisy's pies and a pot of coffee we decided not to accept Douglas' offer. So it was that I decided to ride into Laramie and tell Douglas in person. Money was tight and probably would be for a while yet. But we reasoned that our contract with Overland was up for renewal and for the time being we'd settle for that.

 

I knew this situation with the two consecutive robberies had Jess upset. That and the fact that he didn't catch the two men responsible, even though it wasn't his job, bothers him to no end. One thing I have always admired about Jess is his determination to finish what he starts no matter what the cost. After all, he'd been more or less accused.....though not actually charged in both; even though Jess had recovered some of what'd been taken; that document bag. It wasn't enough for my Pard. Under the circumstances it was understandable that he'd be a bit out of sorts. And although he'd snapped at me a couple of times since, I knew he really didn't mean it....he needed something or someone to strike out at. I couldn't fault him there....many's the time I've done the same to him. I'm not proud of it. And, well, I was just convenient and I'd brought up a sore subject.....his health. I think Jess knew that something was wrong all along....just didn't want to admit it. When it comes to his health.....he has always hated the idea of needing any ones help, and will do almost anything he can to avoid it. Don't think there's a more stubborn cuss in all of Wyoming on that score. Be that as it may, I was determined to speak with Seth as soon as possible. Jess had me worried and I wanted answers.

 

 

0o0o0o0o0o0o

 

 

I awoke the next morning not looking forward to what the day might bring. I took Daisy's list of supplies together with a couple of her biscuits and bacon climbed into the buckboard and headed out. My first stop was the Douglas Freight Office; I wanted to get this out of the way as soon as possible, knowing I'd most likely have an argument on my hands. But, to my surprise the office was closed. So, after leaving the wagon and Daisy's list at the general store I headed for the saloon instead, intent on treating myself to a nice cold beer. Funny how cold beer seems to be just as satisfying in the dead of winter as it is on a hot summer's day.

 

I had just started to enter the saloon when from across the street I spied Seth. There’s the man I want to see. Our family doctor had been gone for over three weeks. I was sure glad to see him back. I'd get that drink later.

 

"Hey, Seth. Bout time you got back," I said with a smile as I offered my hand.

 

"Slim, just got back night before last. What brings you to town this morning? Everything okay at home?" He asked, almost as if he was expecting me to tell him of some trouble or what not. At least that's the impression I got.

 

"Fine, just fine,"  I suddenly felt nervous...like I was about to do something wrong and be punished for it. I actually had to clear my throat before I spoke again. Then before I could say another word he glanced down at the dusty boardwalk then back up at me and gave me a quizzical smile.

 

"You look like a man that's got something on his mind. Jess doing okay? How's the back?"

 

"Funny you should ask. Just the man I want to talk to you about."

 

"Oh? Then there is something wrong." He said losing his smile.

 

"That's what I want to find out," I told him.

 

"Oh?"

 

"Aw, it's probably my over active imagination getting the better of me, but, ah... well, if you have the time, I would like to talk to you?" I asked and rubbed the back of my neck. Then after looking around at the busy street. "You mind if we talk some where’s private?"  It was gonna be awkward enough telling Seth  I overheard something I shouldn't have and I didn't want an audience to do it.

 

"Sure, Slim, sure. Let's go to my place." As we walked the short distance to his office he kept glancing at me. "Maybe I can wipe that frown off your face. Too early to look that worried," he chuckled.

 

I only half smiled as we stepped into the small parlor and hung our hats on the coat rack next to the door. Then with a wave of his hand our family doctor directed me to the desk across the room.

 

"Okay, Slim, so what's on your mind?"

 

I laughed nervously. "Well, I'm not exactly sure how to begin, Seth," I was rubbing the back of my neck again; a nervous habit.

 

Seth knows my mannerisms well, he looked at me and smiled. "My Pa always said, 'best place to start is at the beginning'. That way you don't have to back track. Now what's wrong? Is it Jess or something I said?"

 

I laughed nervously again. "As a matter of fact it's both...I just don't know...well," I paused and took a deep breath I felt myself shutter a little. "Aw heck, I guess there's only one way to say it. So, hear goes. When you were out at the house this last time to check on Jess…" I paused again and stretched my back, as if doing so would give me the courage I needed.

 

Our family friend and doctor looked at me and smiled patiently, then chucked. "Slim, I won't bite. Why I don't think I've bit a patient in well, over two weeks. Now what is it?"

 

"Alright. When you and him were talking, well I ...I didn't mean to, but," I sighed deeply, this was harder than I thought. "I overheard something you told Jess and well, its been bothering me ever since. I just can't seem to get it off my mind, Seth," I told him and wiped my hands on my pants.

 

Seth leaned back in his chair and regarded me like a schoolmaster who just caught his student sneaking a peek at the test papers. And to tell you the truth that's just how I felt.

 

"I'm really sorry, Seth. I didn't mean to hear, but the door was open and I didn't know it until....well, until I..."

 

Seth nodded. "I see. It was me that closed the door. I didn't see it open either, until Jess drew my attention to it." He took a deep breath and let it out slow. "Soooo, just what did you hear that's put that frown on your face?"

 

"You were talking to Jess about his back. Said something about it not getting any better. You told him what he needed to do. Then you said something that I can't get outta my head. You told him that he knows what's gonna happen and that there's no need for it. You said, I believe... that, there might be a chance." I swallowed hard. "Am I right?"

 

Seth nodded slowly and set a bit straighter, then putting his hands on his knees he looked up at me. "Pretty much."

 

"Seth, what did all that mean?"

 

He hesitated and sighed deeply. "I was hoping that Jess would have told you by now, Slim. I didn't want to worry you and to be honest; it really is Jess' place to tell you, not mine."

 

I leaned forward and looked him straight in the eye. "You're too late, Seth. I'm already worried. And knowing how stubborn and mule-headed Jess Harper can be, do you really think he's gonna be telling me anytime soon?"

 

He raised his eyebrows and chuckled softly at that. "Well, you got me there." I watched nervously as he took another deep breath and ran his hand through his dark red hair. "Maybe that'll be the saving grace then," he shook his head and agreed with a slight smile. "Man that boy can be stubborn."

 

"No argument there," I told him and waited. Now as long as I've known Seth Andrews he's never been much of a drinking man. But to my surprise he reached under his desk and pulled out a bottle of whisky and sat it on the desk between us.

 

"Don't you think it's a little early for that, Seth?" I asked with a smile as he set two glasses on the desk and uncorked the bottle.

 

He sat grimed faced as he filled the glasses. "You're gonna need it," he said emphatically.

 

If I hadn't been worried before, I was now. What in the world could be wrong? When I'd left that morning Jess was in high spirits (more than he'd been in several weeks in fact) he even helped Mike make a new fishing pole. But, now the way Seth was acting I wasn't sure what to think.

 

"I hope you know I risk a lot telling you this," his eyes narrowed as they met my worried blues. "There's such a thing as doctor patient confidentiality you know."

 

"Yeah, I know. But Seth, this is Jess we're talkin' about. If something’s wrong I got to know," I insisted and watched anxiously as he took another deep breath. He almost appeared to be as nervous about telling me as I was about asking.

 

"Alright. You remember the last time Jess and Daisy came to town?"

 

I nodded that I did.

 

"You remember what prompted that visit?" He asked.

 

"Sure do. It was me and Daisy. I was helping her hang curtains when Jess came in the back door with a bloody bandana to his head. It wasn't serious, just a scratch. But when I asked him about it he made some cockamamie excuse about tripping over something. Normally I'd have tease him about having two left feet. But, with the way his legs have been going out on him...I didn't believe him," I took a breath. "And while Daisy was cleaning out the cut he finally fessed up and told us his legs went out and he'd hit the floor. I told him that it just wasn't normal for a man's legs to go out like that. We had a big argument right there in the kitchen. Jess, got real upset and told me to mind my own business and stormed back out to the barn. Bout an hour later, Daisy came and told me  she'd get him over here to see you somehow, even if it meant having to drag him to do it. So, we cooked up the excuse that she needed him to help her with the supplies. Big shopping day," I smiled and shook my head.

 

I half expected Seth to laugh at that last remark. But he didn't....and that was out of character for him. I was more apprehensive than ever.

 

"I'm glad she did, Slim. It was actually Daisy who was suspicious of his condition in the first place. She's dealt with this kind of thing before and recognized it. Just wanted me to check it out and confirm it I guess."

 

"Confirm, what?" I demanded. Seth was scaring me.

 

"While Jess was over at Landers visiting and looking at the new style of tack Daisy cornered me and told me about this little scheme you two had cooked up. Said you were both worried sick. Then she told me what she thought. I went back to my office and a little while later Jess steps in, saying Daisy told him that I wanted to see him. I said I did and explained that every five years the sheriff's office required a full physical be given to anyone acting as a deputy. Told him I was way behind and I pointed to my exam room. I didn't dare look at him," Seth laughed. "I'm not used to lying to friends."

 

I couldn't help but smile. The mental picture of my stubborn partner being horns waggled into a trap laid by Seth and Daisy made me laugh in spite of the circumstances. "And he bought that?" I asked, still smiling.

 

"Well, not really, I don't think. But it did serve to get him out of his clothes and onto my exam table. Slim, I checked every inch of that boy. Checked places even his Ma'd blush at." He laughed grimly. Seth paused and looked down into his glass. "I kinda figured Jess knew something was wrong. Just took Daisy to get him over here," he said sadly.

 

"Well, if there's anyone who can get Jess Harper to do something he hates, it's Daisy. But, Seth you're holding back. What's wrong with, Jess? Whatcha find?"

 

"Slim.…" he hesitated.

 

I could tell he was having a hard time telling me. But if Seth was finding it hard....he couldn't imagine how hard it was gonna be for me to hear it. I'd soon learn it was gonna get worse before it got better. So I decided to help. I put my elbows on the table, claps my hands together and leaned into them.

 

"Jess'  back…it's more n' a bruise isn't it Seth?"

 

Seth looked down, swallowed and slowly brought his eyes up to meet mine. "I'm afraid so, Slim," he nodded, his eyes returning to his drink as he traced the rim absently with a finger. 

 

I removed my elbows from the table and leaned back in my chair. "Well, it's not broke," I blurted. "I mean he's up walking around and all," I forced a smile hoping to ease the tension. It didn't work.

 

"No, it's not broke," he said and took another deep breath then picked up his glass and downed the golden liquid in one gulp. When he was finally able to catch his breath he sighed. "Jess has what appears to be a herniated or maybe even a ruptured disk in his low back, Slim," he told me, his face set like stone.

 

"What?" I didn't fully understand what he meant, but by his manner and his tone, I knew it was bad, real bad. Still I gave him a blank stare.

 

"It's a serious injury, Slim. I believe Jess has some pinched nerves in his spine that's causing his legs to fail. And, if I'm right, and all indications are that I am; then it's only going to get worse. That's what I told him. And that's what you over heard."

 

"His spine?" I said softly. That certainly got my attention, but I was still confused. "Seth, I don't understand what is this disk you’re taking about? I mean what does that have to do with…”

 

He balled up his fists and put one on top of the other. "Try and picture my fists as vertebras. Down the middle runs the spinal cord. Bundles of nerves run along and out of our spinal column," he took a breath. "In between each vertebra is a fluid filled disk almost like a sack, it cushions the bones in our spine, keeping us pain free allowing us to take jarring and such. But, when that disk is damaged, as in Jess' case the fluid can be pushed into the spinal cord pinching the nerves. When that happens, it causes all sorts of problems."

 

I wiped the corners of my mouth with my forefinger nervously. I was sitting forward again, my elbows back on the table. "And you think this is what's going on with Jess?" I asked. "With his legs I mean?" That knot in the pit of my stomach was back again and growing.

 

"I don't think Slim. I know. Daisy suspected it. She'd seen this kinda of thing in the war many times before. You see when this happens; the brain tries to send signals down through the spine and into the nerves. Then the nerves running through our muscles react and within a split second without us even thinking it causes us to move, walk and such. But when there's a disruption like in Jess' case, it can't. When his legs go out it's an indication that the signal has failed. And if allowed to go without treatment for too long the nerves can die and....well…"

 

He didn't have to say more. It was obvious. He must have seen how shocked I was because he reached over and refilled my glass.

 

"Slim?" I heard him, but his voice sounded as if he were a mile away. I could almost feel the blood drain from my face, the horrible truth of those words hitting me hard, taking my breath away.

 

"Seth, my God!" For Jess to lose the use of his legs. I suddenly felt like I wanted to puke.

 

"Take it easy, it hasn't happened yet. When I questioned him about it, he admitted to having a little pain here and there.…"

 

"A little!" I interrupted with a shout my eyebrows almost jumping off my face. It was my second shock of the day. Jess was trying to give the impression that there was nothing to worry about. And I was fast finding out just how wrong that was. "Seth, there are times when that boy has a hard time just getting out of bed. Other times he can barely walk, doubled over like some old man. And even when we can get the pain medicine Dr. Webb left into him, it doesn't always work," I said plainly.

 

He nodded. "I figured as much. And of course this cold weather doesn't help."

 

I was speechless.

 

"You know what that's like. You've seen Jonesy suffer through it many 'a night."

 

"Yeah." There were times he was so stove up he could hardly move. I lifted my glass and downed my own whiskey.

 

"Cold causes the muscles to stiffen making the pain much worse. Jess told me he has what feels like liquid fire running down both legs at times. With that right leg taking the worst of it. When they fail he says he feels nothing at all, no indication whatsoever that it's going to happen. Told me about how he got off of Traveler one day, said the ground just kept coming and he found himself on both knees in the dirt. Said it gave you both a good chuckle."

 

I nodded that it had. But nothing was funny now. I had to move to breathe. I got up and stepped over to the window.

 

"Slim, I know this is a lot to grasp, but…"

 

A lot to grasp, was he kidding!  I was shocked. I had to know the details, even though deep inside I just wanted to close my ears and run. I had a cold empty feeling come over me and my mind suddenly flashed back to the morning after the accident. Funny how the mind works at times. I saw Marks and how he reacted to Jess not getting all of Overhand's money and all of a sudden I wanted to punch a hole in that face. Where that came from I have no idea. But I shook it off and turned back to my friend, shaking a little.

 

 I took a deep breath. "Okay Seth, so what do we do?" I asked, determination replacing shock and fear. 

 

"Well, Jess' condition is far beyond my abilities. He needs a specialist, Slim. I told him I had a doctor all lined up for him, names Alexander Larkspire. He practices out of the General Hospital in Denver; same hospital Daisy was in a few years back. He specializes in the spine. And from what I hear he's the best in the business. Now I've never met the man, but I sent out a few feelers and every time I'd get an answer his name was at the top of the list. That's what I told Jess," he said with a nod.

 

I looked deep into Seth's brown eyes. "Good. So when do we see him?" I watched as Seth took a deep breath and leaned back in his chair.....more bad news, I could feel it comin'.

 

"That's just it, Slim. We don't," he said flatly. "Jess said no."

 

"He...wha...he WHAT?" I was astonished, how could he?  "Why?"

 

"Not really sure. If anything it's the cost. He is very expensive. I guess Jess just figured that, with what's going on at the ranch right now....the changes and all.…"

 

"The chan...the hell with the changes. This is his life we're talking about. How expensive, Seth?  What's he charge?" Before I even realized it I was standing over my friend, looking down at him. I was finding it hard to accept that Jess would turn down the only chance he might have to keep walking. None of this made sense. The very idea shook me.

 

Seth Andrews has known Jess and I for many years and he knew that nothing short of a bullet would stop me from seeing that Jess got the treatment he needed. Even if I had to hog tie him to do it. Seth has often referred to us as being joined at the hip; closer than any two brother's ever dared to be. You just can't think of one of us without the other he often said. And I guess we are. It isn't easy though. Like now.

 

"He said no, Slim. He's made up his mind."

 

"What do you mean, NO? If this doc can help…" I felt like I'd been punch in the stomach. 

 

"Seth..."

 

"Slim! Stop, right there," he ordered and raised his hand in the air to silence me.

 

Seth eyed me close, as concerned for me now as for his patient. I ran my fingers through my hair, my mind racing trying to find some solution to this new dilemma. My legs suddenly felt weak and I sat back down hard and shook my head. "Dear God, Seth!"

 

"Slim…"

 

"How soon can this doctor see him?" I asked, my voice trembling as I wiped my hand over my face and sniffed.

 

Seth's eyes narrowed and gave me a hard look. "Slim, I just told you. Jess said no."

 

I felt my face flush and my fear turned to rage as I slammed my fist down on the desk top making the glasses jump. "How soon, God damit?" I demanded and jumped to my feet.

 

"Slim!"

 

"He's gonna see him, Seth. One way or another. I don't care what it costs," I told him, my head and now my hand throbbing.

 

Our family doc looked back up at me and gave me a coy smile. "And just what are you planning on doing, mortgaging the ranch?" He smirked.

 

"If I have to," I said with determination.

 

I breathed hard and watched as Seth sat back and regarded me with a combination of shock and sadness. He knew I was dead serious. Jess is family and nothing short of death was gonna stop me from getting him the help he needed. If this doc could help him, then by God he was just gonna see him. And that was the end of it. I told Seth that in no uncertain terms. Then before our family doc could level another objection I countered. "Just send the damn wire, Seth. I'll get the money somehow and I'll get Jess there if I have to sit on him to do it." I hadn't realized I'd raised my voice again, but one look into Seth's eyes caused me to lower my pitch. I felt like a caged animal...I had to move. I couldn't sit still, so I did what I always do when I am worried or upset... I started pacing.

 

"Slim, be reasonable..."

 

"Reasonable! Seth, for Pete's Sake I..." I stopped and swallowed hard. Felt like I was gonna choke. "Lord God, Seth!" My eyes filled and suddenly it was as if I ran out of steam. I cleared my throat and asked, my voice shaking.  "Does...does Jess know…does he know just how bad?"

 

"He does. I told him exactly what I am telling right you now, but he…" 

 

I ran a shaky hand through my hair and shook my head. "Seth, I can't believe this," I interrupted. "If this doc can help him…" I stopped again and then I guess all the worry and fear just spilled out. "Gal darned  stubborn fool, what in the hell is he thinking. In all the world there's never been a more stubborn mule headed jacka…"

 

"Slim!" Seth shouted. "Calm down. Getting yourself all worked up isn't going help you or Jess. The way I see it, it's better to try and reason with him…than to.…"

 

I suddenly went numb. "Reason! Seth, reason? Have you ever tried to reason with the south end of a jackass goin' north? Cause that's what is like to reason with Jess Harper sometimes!"

 

I was shouting again. I caught myself and sank back down, silent. I felt for all the world like I'd been shot clean through. Knowing how he'd feel about not being able to get around. Maybe even being tied to a wheelchair or worse yet not being able to get out of bed at all... for the rest of his life...how could he just say no. This isn’t Jess. Jess is a fighter. Always has been. Just to stop like this, to give in....no, no  I won’t accept it.  And I told Seth so.

 

"This...," I shook my head and tried to swallow the lump that felt to be as big as my fist. "Seth, this isn't Jess talking. I know he ignores his health, takes way too many risks and all, but this....this, he...he's not thinking right, Seth. Can you honestly see Jess Harper tied to a wheelchair or worse?" I could feel myself losing control, rambling on, repeating myself, but I was so shocked, it just kept pouring outta me and I couldn't stop it.

 

Seth's voice was calm and soothing. "No. No, Slim I can't. But, as bad as we'd like to beat some sense into that thick head of his....we've got to remember one thing....it's HIS  life. We can't live it for him. The ultimate decision is his to make and as much as we care about him, we got no right to try and influence him. No matter how badly we want to," he said, resigned to the fact the worst just might happen.

 

My friend reached over to refill my glass, but I covered it with my hand, stood up and stepped over to the window. I leaned against the frame, staring out into the street. All was silent for a time. Then it came to me, like a bolt of lightening and I spun around to face Seth once again.

 

"Seth, what about treatment? There's got be some kind of treatment…"

 

The shake of his headed took my breath away and shattered that last flicker of hope.

 

"No, Slim. Larkspire said the only thing that can be done is to operate and remove the damaged disk. Relieve the pressure on the nerves," he said with a deep sigh. "Back surgery is complicated and very, very dangerous.” He paused for a moment. "And... there's no guarantee that the operation will be successful. That's another reason why I think Jess said no. Slim, I understand how you fe..."

 

"You're telling me that Jess is gonna lose the use of his legs, and this doctor might be able to stop it," I stammered.

 

"That is the one thing I am certain of. Just how soon it will happen I don't rightly know. But it WILL happen and if Jess' legs are failing him like you say and like both Daisy and Jess himself confirmed.....it's not long off."

 

My head was spinning. I shook my head and tried to keep my voice from shaking but couldn't. Seth knows me too well and understood. "Alright. Now you tell me what could be worse than that?" I sputtered, as I wiped my shirt sleeve over my eyes.

 

He didn't answer at first. For a time we just both sat staring out at nothing. Each of us lost in our own thoughts; and all of those thoughts centered on a man we both called friend. I felt like my heart had been torn out of me. Like I'd been through a war and lost. I bowed my head. Resigned. "What's it gonna be like, Seth?"

 

"It'll be painful. I'll tell you that. It may happen gradually or all of a sudden. Jess has already gotten a brief taste of what he's in for with back pain and such. Just how soon, depends on how much nerve damage there is. That's why I tried to impress on him how vital it is that he not wait too long before seeing Larkspire."

 

"Seth!"  I bit my lip to choke back the tears I felt coming.

 

"Right now Larkspire says there is a chance," he stopped and looked down into his glass again, "but if Jess waits too long and those nerves die…he'll never walk again. Time’s against him. Not to mention that dad gummed stubborn streak"

 

"Then the only answer is surgery?"

 

"Afraid so. Larkspire feels there's a good chance the damage can be repaired, provided we act sooner not later. Slim, I know how you feel about Jess. Maybe you could talk to him. He'll listen to you,” he pleaded.

 

"Yeah," I reached over and took my hat and left without saying another word;  I couldn't there was nothing else to say. I walked out of that office feeling like I was in one of Jess' walking dreams; only this was no dream....this was a nightmare.

 

I felt lower than I have ever felt before. Daisy once called me the lynchpin, the protector, the comforter of our little family. The stabilizing factor she'd said. The one that could always set things right. But in less than an hour I'd had the rug pulled from under me. I didn't blame Seth. Wasn't his fault he was dealing with a man with a stubborn streak the size of Texas.

 

Still, the very thought of Jess Harper being confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life was something I could not imagine. But, if there was one certainty in this world it was this: if the worst happened and Jess did lose the use of his legs...well, it wouldn't be long before we'd be putting a new marker on Sherman hill. Even if it was by his own hand. Men like Jess run free, tie them down and the spirit dies and with it the man. That was my greatest fear.

 

I walked down the street in a daze; thinking on all Seth had told me and how I was gonna get Jess to see this specialist. It wasn't a matter of money anymore; it was matter of what had to be done. All that mattered was my partner's life.

 

I had my head down and was heading in the direction of the general store when I heard someone calling my name and looked up to see Mort waving from across the street. I stepped into the street without looking and was darn near run down by one of Zeek Taylor's delivery wagons. The driver shouted something I couldn't understand. I didn’t care. It was like my legs had a mind of their own and the rest of me was just along for the ride.

 

I didn't feel like talking. And walking down the street didn't serve to improve my mood as I got more than my share of hard looks and nasty sneers. Behind me I heard a few of the town folk bad mouthing my partner saying how he was standing behind my good reputation and all. Made me mad enough to start swinging, but I held my temper, and stepped into the sheriff's office and closed the door behind me. I hung my hat on the peg near the door, walked past Mort without saying a word, poured myself a cup of coffee and took a seat.

 

"You alright, Slim? You look paler than last night’s paper."

 

"I'm fine," I lied. "But if I hear another nasty word about Jess they won't be," I warned, gritting my teeth and jerking my thumb in the direction of the door.

 

The sheriff nodded. "Been like that all day," he told me as he poured himself a cup.

 

I said nothing, just sipped my coffee. It was hot, black and very probably too strong, but I didn't care.

 

Mort stood and stretched his back before hitching his hip on the edge of the desk.  "How is Jess?" He asked.

 

I swear I don't know what happened to me then, but all of a sudden I jerked myself up hard enough to knock the chair over and just exploded…"JESS, does everything have to be about  JESS! Why the hell can't somebody ask how I'm feelin' for a change?" I realized with a start what I was saying and was shocked. I took a calming breath, picked up the chair, sat back down and apologized. For a moment Mort just stared back at me...equally stunned. 

 

"That's alright, boy. You and the family have been under a strain with everything that's happened, it's only understandable you'd be a little raw. Now," he with a smile, "let's try it again. How's Jess doing?"

 

I blushed and ran my hand over my face. I could feel the tracks of dried tears (didn't even know they were there) and I quickly wiped them away as I struggled to return the smile. "As well as he can be under the circumstances. He's still pretty shook up."

 

"Well, he's gonna a be a bit more shook up before this is over, I'm afraid," he said in that slow deliberate tone he gets when he feels pressured.

 

I could tell he was waiting for a reaction....and I didn't disappoint him; I could feel my face flush and my anger rise. Now I'm not normally what you might call a hot head....not like Jess anyways.....but I do tend to come off a little protective when it comes to family. And sitting there with Seth's words still fresh in my mind together with the snide remarks and accusatory comments from townsfolk who should have known better, I felt like a mother bear protecting her cubs; one cub in particular. Kinda reminded myself of Daisy.

 

"And just what does that mean?" I snapped.

 

Mort put up a defensive hand. "Now, don't go getting mad at me, Slim. I'm just doing my job."

 

"Mort?" I gritted the name.

 

"Some people are saying they saw Jess with those two Morton boys a day before the bank was hit. It's just got a few people wondering that's all."

 

I nodded. "I know. Jess told me about the Morton's. Said he threw back a few drinks with 'em, and left. Went to Millers, picked up the supplies, took the deposit to the bank and came home. Said he never saw 'em again."

 

"And you believe him?"

 

That brought my anger up a notch. "What kind of a question is that? Of course I believe him," I shouted.

 

"Calm down, Slim. It's my job to ask."

 

I took a deep breath and fixed my old friend with a stern glare. "Mort, what's gotten into you? You've known Jess Harper for going on six years now, same as me. All of sudden your talking about him like you never met him before. Just because some locals got it in their heads that he had something to do with all this don't make it so," I stood up and strolled over to the window while trying to control my breathing.

 

"You're right, Slim. I didn't mean it that way. But we got people who say they saw him. And being seen with the Morton brother's a day before the bank was robbed...well....," he scratched his head.

 

"Spit it out, Mort?" I growled the demand.

 

"Jennings and Baxter say they saw Jess over at the bank. Said he made a withdrawal, then lit out in a hurry, like he knew something was going to happen. A day later, the bank was hit. And after being seen drinking with the Morton's, and, well, you know their reputation. Some feel he knew the bank was going to be robbed, that's why he made that withdrawal and lit out so fast. Some feel he wanted to get away before all hell broke loose," he said and stared straight at me.

 

I could feel my face tingle. I didn't think such a statement even deserved an answer, so I turned to go.

 

"Slim?"

 

"Jess paid for those supplies out of his own pocket; he was just replacing what he'd spent. And yeah, he was in a hurry. He was due back at the Ranch before the last stage. For Pete's sake, Mort. Just having a drink with a fella doesn't make a man a criminal, no more n' sitting and having coffee with the sheriff makes me an honest man!"

 

I was reaching the boiling point and I didn't much care what I said or how loud I said it. After what I'd just learned I was ready and willing to tear apart anyone who said another disparaging word about my partner, including our town sheriff.

 

"No, no it doesn't. But, Slim I've got a job to do you know that," he said defensively, his voice low and controlled trying to calm me down no doubt. Hoping to keep me from doing something we'd both be sorry for once I cooled off and could think straight.

 

"What else," I shot back.

 

"Some are saying that while he's going after the ones that robbed the stage, his buddies were robbing the bank. They feel it's all connected somehow. After all when Conners found Jess he had a lot of gold lying around him. That and the fact that he had that document bag held tight in his hand…well. Some feel that he'd split it with his buddies, then one of them got the drop on him and left him holding the bag...so to speak."

 

I felt like I'd been kicked. "For God's sake, Mort!"

 

"Now, now I'm not saying that's what happened, Slim. But it's my job to check things out no matter how ridicules it sounds. For some the whole thing looks just a little too suspicious ...if you get my meaning?"

 

"Oh, I get your meaning," I barked.

 

"Personally, I don't believe Jess was involved at all,  but I've got to check it out, Slim. That's my job."

 

"Let me ask you something, Mort. You tell me why you would suddenly turn on Jess and side with a bunch of yahoos against a man you once called friend....and make it good, because when I walk out that door my friendship goes with me. Jess was hurt bad in that wreck, Mort. I guess he planned that too. He could have been killed going after those two, or didn't you think of that?"

 

"I know that, Slim. Now calm down, boy," he said and held his hands in the air in an attempt to defuse what was fast becoming a volatile situation. He knew the minute he even suggested that Jess might have anything to do with what had happened there'd be an argument. In all the years that Mort had known me he'd never seen me so mad. Of that I was sure. I was defending one of my own and I was not gonna back down. I could tell by the look on his face that my reaction and temperament stunned him. He continued in a calmer voice, though strained.

 

"Dr. Andrews tells me that Jess can't recall much of what happened?"

 

"That's right. There are some things Jess can't remember at all and according to Seth may never recall. Seth says Jess darn near busted his skull, Mort. Guess he slammed himself up against those rocks, almost killing himself; just to put up a front," I was gritting my teeth and had balled up my fist in an effort to control my rage. "But, I can see you're gonna believe whatever and whoever you want," I seethed.

 

"Now see here! You need to get control of yourself, boy. Don't make me lock you up to cool you down." Mort snapped. He'd had enough of my temper and was now standing face to face with me  his own anger beginning to blaze.

 

I huffed. "Last I heard Sheriff, there's no law against getting sore," I said, my jaw still clinched tight. I spun around, jerked my hat off the peg near the door and started to leave. Then it struck me and I turned back to face him.

 

"Jess Harper's no criminal, Mort.....you know that. You starting to condemn a man because of his past? That's what this is all about isn't?"

 

"Slim…"

 

"I did that to Jess once," I interrupted. "I'll never forget or forgive myself for doing it. And I'm sorry to see you're makin' the same mistake." With that I calmed myself as best I could and opened the door. Then I thought for a minute and turned back once more.

 

"Mort, Jess is just beginning to get back on his feet. Something like this could make him backslide real easy and I'm not gonna let that happen," I warned.

 

"I understand that, Slim. But, I have a job to do. I've still got to talk to him. There are questions that need to be answered," he said calmly. "I was hired by the town of Laramie to uphold the law and that's what I aim to do. And when you calm down a mite you'll see that too.

 

I ignored him and started to leave. "I've gotta get back."

 

"I'll come with you," he said, and planted his hat firmly on his head.

 

"In your official capacity or as a friend?"  I asked.

 

"I'd like to think, both."

 

I sighed heavily. "Look Mort, I just came from Seth's office. Jess is hurt a lot worse than we first thought. I'm not sure he's up to this right now."

 

"Well, I have to try...that's my job, Slim. I'll go easy. You have my word."

 

"You'd better," I said defiantly.

 

The Sheriff paused and cocked an eyebrow. "And just what does that mean?" He asked. I could tell he was losing patience with me. But I had more important things to consider than his ability to remain calm and put up with my temper.

 

"Just this. Jess has been real sick, he's still got a lot of healing to do. If I see he's tiring I'll put an end to it; and you'll have to ask your questions later," I stated firmly. "Jess is family and as far as I'm concerned family comes first. Now if you've got a problem with that, then you'd best arrest me now."

 

Mort thought for a moment, took a deep breath and nodded. "Fair enough. The town's been in an uproar ever since this happened, Slim. They say Jess had something to do with it. It's my job to get to the bottom of it. I have to know," he said bluntly, "for Jess' sake as well as the towns."

 

"And what do you say, Mort?"

 

"I say I have to talk to Jess."

 

 

CHAPTER ELEVEN -

Mort Questions Jess

 

 

It was late afternoon by the time we got back to the ranch. As we pulled in I spied Daisy in the yard working on the laundry and Mike chasing Button's around the yard.....the little dog having stolen one of his pencils. I knew Andy had decided to sleep over at his friend's home. I was glad for that. Like me he gets real defensive when it comes to Jess.

 

I had hoped Jess would be home by now, but as I scanned the yard I saw no sign of him. I pulled the buckboard into the barn and unhitched the team as fast as I could. I wanted to make sure I was present when Mort questioned my partner. I meant what I said when I told him I would put a stop to it if necessary. I was determined to do just that. But seeing no sign of my partner had me concerned.

 

Before Mort even dismounted he noticed the beautiful animal making nervous circles in the holding pen and commented on what a fine piece of horse flesh he was.

 

"He is that," I agreed, "but he's also one of the meanest I ever seen," I told him and dropped the subject. I didn't want to get into that. I needed my full concentration to be with this interview.

 

"Why, Sheriff Cory....how are you?" Daisy chirped, peeking over the clothesline with a smile.

 

"Just fine, Mrs. Cooper," Cory responded tipping his hat.

 

"Daisy, where's Jess?" I asked as I stepped upon the porch.

 

"I'm a little worried about that, Slim. Jess finished checking the fences and came right home. But he'd no sooner got off his horse before Jeb rode up and told him he saw two of our prized calves loose and heading for the far end of the south pasture…near that small brook. Jess went after them, that was well over two hours ago."

 

"Damn," I hissed. With what had been happening to him lately, I didn't want him far from home. I sighed, shook my head and started to head for the barn to saddle up. This was the last thing I needed right now.

 

"Is there a problem?" Mort asked.

 

"That pasture joins up with the Douglas spread, Mort."

 

"Yeah, I know. You been having trouble with Douglas and his boys have you?"

 

"Haven't you heard, Sheriff? Douglas and his men have taken to shootin' first and asking question later," I bristled. "If those steers head into their pasture and Jess goes after 'em...," I never got a chance to finish the sentence before Jess appeared at the top of the hill.

 

I'd been on edge ever since my conversation with Seth and now with Mort here; well,  it was almost more than I could take. I was still a little sore and knowing Mort was there to throw questions at my partner, some of which I knew he was unable to answer only fueled my anger and my worry. If the conversation came around to those walking dreams…

 

I stepped up to him as soon as he dismounted and tied up Traveler. Lately he'd taken to getting off his horse a little slower than normal ...another indication that things were not quite right with him. "Where've you been?" I snapped.

 

"Nice to see you too, Pard," he replied cheerfully and acknowledged Mort with a wave of a gloved hand and a smile...."Hi ya, Mort."

 

Mort nodded. "Jess."

 

"Had some strays, Pard. They're home now. I need some coffee," he said flatly, gave my shoulder a light slap and stepped upon to the porch.

 

"I just made a fresh pot, Jess." Daisy called out. "It's on the stove.....if you don't mind serving yourselves, I've got to get these sheets up before the weather changes."

 

"I'll take care of it, Daisy," I answered before Jess could.

 

"There's some left over biscuits and jam too," she added.

 

I nodded, and followed Jess and Mort inside.

 

"Jess, just what do you think you're doing...roundin' up strays?" I whispered. I couldn't help it. Just couldn't let it drop. Though I know I should've. I knew my attitude must have raised red flags in Mort's mind, but he said nothing.

 

Guess I came off a little strong, cause Jess just stood staring at me for a second then recovered with a sarcastic tone..."Well, I tell ya Pard, I tried talkin' to 'em.....but they wouldn't listen. Thinkin' on drawn 'em a map, but funny thing is, they can't read neither," he chuckled.

 

"That's not funny! You know what the doc said," I bit back in a hushed tone as much as my temper would allow, while at the same time wanting to impress on Jess how serious this was. I was worried sick and just couldn't hold back. Not after what I'd learned.

 

"What crawled up your craw? I did what you asked me to do and more..."

 

"It's the MORE I'm worried about," I snapped, still keeping my voice as low as possible.

 

Jess gave me his best annoyed smile and headed for the kitchen shaking his head. While Mort took a seat at the table, I followed Jess to get the coffee and collect the cups. Once in the kitchen I pushed ahead of him.

 

"Why don't you just go sit and I'll do this." I hissed, gritting my teeth.

 

"Why?" he asked, innocently than in spite of my ill temper added. "Cups too heavy for me, Pard?" All of a sudden it was as if he'd tossed cold water on my temper. I wanted to laugh, but I bit it back; couldn't help but smile though. Still I wanted to drive my point home. Jess snickered at my poor attempt to frown so instead I shoved the cups into his stomach and jerked the coffee pot off the stove, nearly spilling it and scalding myself in the process and followed him to the table.

 

"Well, Jess I guess you know why I'm here." Mort started as we took our seats.

 

Jess' mood suddenly changed from playful to deadly serious. "Either to ask questions or arrest me. Which is it?" I could hear the irritation in my partner's voice and it did little to settle my nerves. This was not the time to act like a smart ass.

 

"Now, Jess, I'm not here to arrest anyone. I just have a few things I've got to clear up, that's all." Mort was using his fatherly tone. The kind he gets when he needs to reason with someone rather than argue.

 

"I'd like to help ya, Mort. But, all I can remember is bits and pieces. Ever since Slim brought me home I've been tryin’ to put things together. But, some things just don't fit," he said as he reached for his cup.

 

"I understand. Slim told me as much. You just tell me what you can remember and maybe between Slim and me we can put it all together for you," he suggested, and reached into his vest pocket to pull out a pad of paper and a pencil.

 

Jess simply nodded and sipped his coffee. Then he took a deep breath and let it out before he answered. "Well, I was ridin’ up top with Heath when it happened.…"

 

"I thought Hank was suppose to ride shotgun?"

 

"Hank didn't show," Jess told him.

 

"Okay, go on."

 

Mort seemed a little curt to me or maybe it was because my defenses were up. I saw still a little raw so I sat facing Mort with my arms folded across my chest. The coffee I'd been looking forward to had lost is appeal, instead all I wanted to do was focus on the conversation and keep an eye out for any signs that Jess wasn't up to this. My partner was recovering and I was gonna see that it stayed that way.

 

I knew I was making Mort nervous by the way he kept glancing at me. I returned the look but was expressionless; he caught it and cleared his throat. I didn't care. This was Jess he was firing questions at and to be frank it felt more like an interrogation than probing for information, my protective side was on high alert.

 

"We..." Jess paused to sip his coffee, "we'd just pulled out of that big bend near Ciders Point heading to Laramie and was just gettin' up good speed, when all of a sudden we heard a loud pop."

 

Mort leaned forward and stared at Jess.  "Shotgun?"

 

"No," Jess said shaking his head.

 

"You sure?"

 

Jess leaned back and regarded Mort with that annoyed look he gets when the logical side of him is being threatened....."Mort, I know the difference between a gunshot and what I heard. And what I heard was no shotgun."

 

"Alright, Jess...don't get mad at me," he said, and looked up at me. "Then what?"

 

I continued to stare.

 

"Then all hell broke loose. The team went one way and the coach went the other. Took everything Heath and I could do just to hang on," Jess stared past me, took another breath then, "we saw the embankment comin’ ..." he shrugged, "next thing I know I flew outta 'm seat and hit somethin' real hard.....didn't know what it was at first. Never did know wh...where Heath went…" he put his elbows on the table and laced his fingers together  resting his chin on them he added, his voice low and touched with sadness. "Till I found out he'd been killed."

 

The atmosphere suddenly turned heavy. Jess and Heath had been good friends. Often times Heath would stop by and ask for Jess just to chew the fat. Many's the time the two of  'em would sit on the porch and play penny poker. Heath would often accompany Jess and I to town dances and such. Jess was taking his loss hard. I knew how he felt. So did Mort. My eyes strayed from Mort to Jess and back.

 

"Yeah, I know, Jess. I'm sorry."

 

Mort stretched for a moment..."You go after them then, did you?" he prompted.

 

"What?"  Mort's question bringing him back to the present, away from the pain and sorrow of loss.

 

"That when you went after them?"

 

Jess shook his head no. "Don't know how long I was out. But, next thing I knew I heard all kinds 'a shoutin'. Couldn't tell where it was comin' from at first. Then I kinda figured it was from the side of the coach that still rested near the road."

 

"Wait a minute, Jess," I said. "We found the coach turned on its side near the river bank, down the embankment," I told him. A little confused myself.

 

"I know..., but it wasn't like that when it was robbed. It slide down after." Jess looked over at me and I saw confusion and pain cross his face. "I think," he said, a little uncertain.

 

I reached a hand out and squeezed his shoulder hoping the touch would offer some comfort. I was about to put a stop to this and hoped the look I shot Mort showed just that. It must have because he cleared his throat and didn't pursue that avenue any longer.

 

"Okay. Go ahead," Mort continued.

 

Jess, his elbows still resting on the table put his hands to his forehead and squinted for a second, thinking hard. Although concerned for my friend I too was interested now in what happened next. Jess had told me as much as he could within that first week after the accident while he was still confined to bed. But, now he was revealing details he hadn't remembered before.

 

"I tried gettin' up.....but my dang legs didn't want to work. When they finally did I tried gettin' on a horse....but, I couldn't lift 'um high enough."

 

"You mean Seth's horse?"

 

"No, no. This was before Seth showed up. There was another horse saddled, just standin' there. Don't know where it came from, or who it belonged to. Never did mount him. Just couldn't get 'm dang legs to work right. When I finally got a good hold on the saddle, I found myself flat of  'm back in the dirt." He said, clearly puzzled.

 

Mort now looked as confused as I felt. "You sure about that, Jess?" He asked.

 

"You asked me to tell ya what I remember, Mort. Well, that's what I'm doin'," he said, his voice strained. It appeared that this little meeting was beginning to wear on him and I watched him even closer.

 

"Next thing I know Seth shows up and orders me not to move," he said with a slight chuckle.

 

Mort and I exchanged glances, and again I wondered if Jess had his facts straight. But, I had to remember Jess was there and we weren't. He was telling us what he remembered. No matter how twisted or illogical it may sound to us. So I pushed my doubt back and continued to listen and watch my friend for any signs that he needed to rest.

 

As Jess continued to explain about the horse and how he couldn't mount, my mind kept going back to that first night when Daisy and I were helping him. It was late and Jess had gotten real sick. It was after, when I was wiping his chest that I noticed the bruise. Funny I hadn't noticed when we first cleaned him up. Guess we were just too scared and worried to pay too much attention to a bruise. But now, I couldn't seem to get it out of my mind. It was crescent shaped, on the left side of his chest just below the arm pit. The skin around it had begun to turn dark blue and an even larger shape outlined in red could be seen. It was directly under the odd crescent shaped one and looked something like a horseshoe, but smaller but without the curve in at the top. Ever since that night I had been trying to place what might have caused it. It looked out of place somehow.

 

While Mort continued to question Jess, I got up and pulled a pencil and paper from the desk and sat back down to draw what I remembered seeing on my friends chest that night; in hopes I could somehow identify the shape. I figured Mort might ask me what I was doing. That would have been okay with me. Maybe between the two of us we could figure out what made such an unusual bruise, Jess sure didn't know. I glanced up at Mort, but he was too busy writing down everything Jess said to take notice of what I was doing.

 

"So, you managed to get on Seth's horse and take after them?"

 

Jess nodded that he did.

 

"What'd you do when you caught up with them?" Mort asked.

 

Mort glanced in my direction, but just as quick looked back to Jess. I glared at him, knowing what he was trying to do. I took a deep breath to try and suppress my anger. I was ready to put an end to this.

 

"Caught 'em?" Jess looked puzzled, the crack of a smile slide across my partner's face and he chuckled. "I didn't. All's I remember seein' is their dust. Next thing I know I'm down on the ground lookin' at the underside of Seth horse. I must a’ looked like old Shaker on a Saturday night", he joked.

 

That slight comment added a humorous note to a very serious situation and it made me smile. Old Shaker is Laramie's town drunk; it appears every town has one.

 

"So, you didn't catch up to them at all?"

 

"No, Mort. I told ya."

 

"You sure about that, Jess?" he asked.

 

It was a straight forward question....but the tone said something altogether different and did nothing to ease my temper.

 

"Mort!" I raised my voice and gave him a long hard glare as our eyes locked. He understood, cleared his throat and dropped his eyes back to his paper.

 

I was gonna have no more of this when Jess shattered my determination.

 

"I'm sure, Mort. Why? You know somethin' I don't?" He asked innocently.

 

Ignoring Jess' question, he continued to press. "How many were there?" We both knew the answer to that question. I was well aware of that he'd already interviewed the passengers and so was Jess. I didn't like where this was going and I cleared my throat louder than normal as a last warning.

 

"Two, Mort. You know that." Jess growled and shot me a quizzical glance.

 

"Had you ever seen them before, Jess?" he asked, ignoring Jess’ tone.

 

Jess' eyebrows came together in deep thought, and then he shook his head. "Not sure. I know for a fact I never saw the older man, but the young one.....seemed kinda," he wrinkled his forehead "familiar like. I've been tryin' to put a name to that face ever since and well..." he rubbed his temple, "just can't seem to place him. I'm sorry, Mort."

 

"That's alright, son. Conners went off after you, Jess. Said when he found you, you were on the ground on your back with your left boot caught in the stirrup of Seth's saddle. Said he was afraid that if he just rode up, Seth's horse might step on you or drag you....so he got off and walked up and unhitched your boot. Said you were out cold. But, you had that document bag in your right hand and several gold coins were lying all around you."

 

Jess sucked in a breath, his brow furrowed, deep in thought.

 

"Member anything about that?" Mort asked, watching Jess close.

 

I could see that Jess was thinking hard. Mort was pushing again and I was gonna have no more of it...I released my arms, put both hands on the table and leaned into them at the same time I tried to keep my voice steady, hoping Jess wouldn't notice the fact that I was about to hit the roof. Don't know why I do that. He may not have paid much attention to the way I moved, but he couldn't ignore my tone. Jess knows me well and he could hear the irritation in my voice no matter how hard I tried to hide it. He stopped and stared at me, clearly perplexed by my mood. I ignored him and glared at the man across the table. "He was out, remember. Conners said so," I spat. He may have come as a friend, but at this point I doubt he'd leave as one.

 

"I know, Slim, I know. I still have to ask."

 

For a moment no one said a word. All that could be heard was my heavy breathing. Then Mort stood up smiled down at Jess, thanked him and offered his hand. "Well, Jess I guess that's all I need. You take care now."

 

"I will, Mort. Sorry I couldn't be of more help," Jess said sincerely.

 

"That's alright son, you did your best. But, you do know if there's a trial you'll probably  be asked to testify. You up to it?"  He asked, still probing.

 

"Reckon I'll have to be," Jess replied with a tight smile.

 

Then he turned to me and held out his hand. "Slim." I was in no mood and I hesitated before I accepted it; my mind still back at the office and how it seemed he was so quick to judge.

 

Jess noticed my slow response and the coolness between us, but said nothing. I was glad for that. I was in no mood to try and explain. As Mort mounted, he turned once more to Jess.

 

"If you recall anything else, you let me know?"

 

Jess nodded that he would.

 

I could tell by the way he looked at me he wanted to say more, perhaps question me as to my thoughts about Jess getting his facts straight. But at the same time he could tell I was in no mood. One more question would have been like setting a match to dynamite. I'd had enough.

 

0o0o0o0o0o0o

 

It was late by the time Mort left and the wagon still stood in the barn unloaded. So, I hurried out with the intention of doing just that. Preoccupied with what needed to be done and still feeling the sting of Mort's questions I didn't notice Jess had followed me out. Last I'd seen he was heading for the bedroom. He wasn't looking good and I figured for once he was gonna take care of himself, maybe stretch out and take a nap before supper. But, when I turned around to unlatch the wagon gate, we darn near collided head on.

 

Startled. "Where are you going?" I snapped.

 

"With you," he said, a little startled. "Gonna help ya unload."

 

"Why don't you just go sit?"  He'd surprised me and I guess I came off a little stronger than I meant to. He wrinkled his forehead and gave me a comical look, the one he knows cracks me up. "Stop that," I ordered.

 

"What's the matter with you? You squat on your spurs or somethin'?"

 

Dad gumit, he did it again! It took real effort to keep from laughing, but I did. I wanted to impress on him how serious his situation was and with him making me laugh, that wasn't gonna happen, so tried reasoning instead.

 

"Look, Jess, I just don't think it's a good idea for you to be heftin' and totin' things right now, that's all. You still got a lot of healing to do, Pard," I'd softened my tone a little, in hopes of getting through to him. I still had Seth's words bouncing around in my head. All the way home I kept trying to figure out a way to get him to see that specialist without having to hog tie him to do it. So far I'd come up with a big fat zero.

 

"I thought we was partner's," he shot back.

 

Surprised. "We are! What's that got to do with it?" I snarled.

 

"Well, then part of them supplies is mine. Ain't that right? "

 

Having been upset and emotionally spent as I was I'd let my guard down and walked right into that one. "Sure they are Jess, but..."

 

"Then I got a right to help," he said, and shoved past me to stand next to the wagon looking over the supplies without given me a chance to say another word.

 

Now most who don't know Jess, might have taken him seriously. But, I'd caught that subtle twinkle in his eye that told me he was up to something and I knew darned well if I didn't let him help I'd pay for it later. Still I was determined not to allow him to overdo. And in my book lifting heavy packages would do just that. I sighed heavily and relented. But I wasn't ready to admit defeat yet. I still had an ace up my sleeve.

 

I took him by the shoulders and positioned him right behind the tailgate. "Alright. You wanna help. Then you stand right here, and I'll hand 'em to ya. You hear?" I said in the sternest tone I could muster.

 

He shrugged and held his position while I climbed up and quickly searched through the supplies intending on passing him only the lightest items. But, when some time had passed and a considerable pile of lighter supplies begun building next to him; and I couldn't find anything else I considered to be light. I told him that was all (even though the wagon was still half full)  and moved to block his field of vision. It didn't work.

 

"What about the rest of it?" He asked, craning his neck to look past me.

 

"That's mine to unload," I snapped and shooed him aside like a pesky fly. "Just go on and take Daisy's supplies to her. I'll get the rest."

 

I turned back around and before I knew it Jess had climbed up into the wagon, shoved past me and had hefted one of the large flour sacks onto his shoulder. Exasperated and close to losing my temper for the umpteenth time in one day I put a hand out to stop him.

 

"Just what do you think you're doing?" I barked.

 

"Stop treatin' me like a damned invalid, Slim. Dang, I hurt my head and my back, I didn't break every bone in my body. Now move," he shouted. His anger flared and I saw those blue eyes spark.

 

But I stood my ground as Jess started to toss the sack onto the others. I stepped in front of him with the idea of catching it and continue the argument, but I failed measurably. The neck of the sack came loose and I found myself standing in the wagon taking a flour shower. I must have looked a sight. Standing there like a tall oak tree in a winters snow, covered with flour from head to toe, flour dust cascading all around me. A large mound formed a peak and sat proudly atop my head. My first instinct was to get mad at my mischievous partner, until I saw him collapse on top of the rest of the supplies holding his sides and laughing like one of them hyena's that comes around in zoo wagons ever so often. It had been long time since I'd heard that all too familiar boyish chortle. I'll have to admit, it sure sounded good; like music to my ears. When Jess really gets tickled he almost losses his breath and gets this deep breathless wheeze that precedes a hearty laugh. I've always loved it, even to the point of trying to find something to bust him up, just to hear it. How could I stay mad at that!

 

So, with a grin splitting my face so hard it hurt I gingerly stepped down from the wagon and carefully made my way out into the yard and shook myself like Mike's little dog Buttons. Jess was still laughing as he carried Daisy's supplies to her. I continued to shake and brush off as much flour as possible. I wanted to hurry up and get back to unloading before Jess did it for me. But, by the time I'd returned the wagon was empty and our supplies were carefully put away. He'd even cleaned out the buckboard and pulled it around to its place in the barn. I'd been had...again!

 

As I approached the back door, intending on giving my partner 'what for', Daisy 's small frame filled the opening as evening shadows danced around her from the lamps inside.

 

"Slim Sherman, just where do you think you're going?"

 

"Daisy, I..."

 

"To the shower young man," she demanded, towel in hand.

 

"But..."

 

"I just mopped this floor and I'll not have you messing it up. Now go on," she ordered and pointed to the shower. I had no choice, I stepped into the shower and pulled the cord....the water cold as ice! I know they must have heard me clear to Cheyenne. If they didn't a flock of black birds did, being flushed out by my yelling they took to flight causing my still giggling partner to cut lose again at my expense.

 

At supper Andy continued to tell us of some of his experiences in medical school and his dreams for the future. We all listened attentively and enjoyed the way he described the end of his first year. I was sure proud of my not so little brother. At age nineteen he'd found his calling. His eyes lit up and his voice raised a pitch or two with excitement. I tried to stay focused, but the more I listened the more my mind kept going back to my conversation with Seth and the madder I became at my stubborn partner. So that by the time supper was half over my mood had changed. I guess I must have snapped at Jess once too often because before I knew it, he'd exploded and left the table. Leaving everyone stunned and staring at his back.

 

 

CHAPTER TWELVE -

The Cat

Slim and Jess POV

 

 

The winter wind had already picked up when I stepped outside. I realized I should've put my jacket on, but at the time I was too darned mad to think. I knew better. Like Slim says, many's the time I put my mouth before my head. Slim Sherman's my best friend. Shoot he's more n' that, he's like a brother to me. He's one of them rare breeds that don't look at what a man was, but what a man is inside. The man that made me his partner; no matter my past. Now standin' out in the cold shiverin' I can remember that night like it was yesterday.

 

I had got myself banged up again; as Slim likes to call it. Got real sick after bein' stuck out in a bad winter storm. Heck, I didn't even remember comin' home. I was told later, when I could finally think straight that Slim had spent the better part of two days and nights lookin' for me. When he found me I was half froze. I don't remember much about the next four days. Jonesy'd told me I was in and out most of the time. Said Slim refused to leave my side through most of it. I sure was sick. Though my memory of that time ain't too clear, I do recall Slim hangin' on to me while I puked up my insides. It was after I came to myself and while I was still confined to bed that Slim made me his partner.

 

No matter my anger the memory of that night made me smile. That mornin' Slim brought me my breakfast tray and tucked underneath my plate was a piece of paper with some writin' on it. Slim didn't say a word. Just sat there lookin'…till I picked it up and read it. It was a legal partnership agreement between the two of us. I was so darned shocked; I didn't know what to say. But, after the shocked wore off and we'd talked, I went ahead and signed it. Next thing I knew I was up and around. I might have been as weak as a kitten, but I had that warm feelin' deep inside, (Slim says it's the feelin' of family) that ran clean through me. Yeah, he's a real special guy Slim is, and I'm darn lucky to call him my best friend. But lately, Slim was gettin' hard to live with, like tonight. The smallest thing seemed to set him off. This time I'd had enough. He made me so mad. I just couldn't figure him out. Even Andy, Daisy and little Mike were shocked by his change in mood. "I'd rather eat with the hogs, than in here with a overbearin"…I hadn't realized I'd raised my voice till I felt Daisy's hand on my arm. I shut up, picked up my plate and stormed outside, slammin' the kitchen door behind me.

 

Don't know what happened in the house once I left. I was too darned mad to care. Wasn't sure if all eyes were on me or Slim…didn't matter. All I wanted to do was get away, 'runnin'’ Slim calls it. Damn him. Almost, like he can read my mind sometimes. Drives me crazy.

 

But, now standin' out here in the cold lookin' at the mountains in the dark that didn't seem so important. Seth's words kept comin' to mind. I hadn't told Slim yet. I wanted to talk, God how I wanted to talk, to tell him what was gonna happen. But, every time I tried somethin' would come up. Don't know what I'm gonna do now. Ain't never been in a fix like this before. How do I tell my partner that sooner or later I won't be fit for nothin' but for gatherin' dust and takin' up room?

 

I'd stopped lookin' out over the rollin' hills, and focused my attention on the corral instead. We're gonna need a bigger one, I thought and smiled to myself.

 

Then my thoughts turned dark again. "How do I tell you I can't keep our agreement? How do I?" I whispered to myself. Suddenly a familiar hand touched my shoulder, bringin' me back with a start and I turned to look into the pale blue eyes of my Pard. He was wearin' a big warm smile. I've always been partial to Slim's smile. Awful hard to stay mad at a man with dimples that big.

 

"I'm sorry, Pard. I didn't mean to startle you," he chuckled softly. "You must have been real deep in thought there, Jess. Not to hear my big feet coming."

 

I looked down at the ground, I was right, it was snowin'.

 

"I reckon," I smiled briefly, still a little annoyed with the big guy. Slim nudged me and I looked to find him holdin' my jacket open.

 

"Too cold out here, Jess. Not good for you. You'll catch a chill," he said softly.

 

Without thinkin', I reached over and shoved my arms into the sleeves, as Slim pulled it up on my shoulders. ’Motherin’, that's Slims way. But I said nothin'.

 

“Whatcha doin'?”  He asked. As if nothin' had happened at supper.

 

"Had some thinkin' to do," my answer almost as cold as I was.

 

"Oh. Well, you can do that inside, Jess. Too cold out here. Why not come back inside? Sit by the fire; it's real nice," he nudged me again. "I'll put on some fresh coffee." It sounded more like a plea than a request and it surprised me a little especially after the way he'd been actin'.

 

"Naw, reckon I'll  stay out here awhile."

 

"Alright. Mind some company?"

 

"Fine," my feelin's were still a little raw, but I tried not to show it. I should have known better. Tryin' to hide somethin' from old hard rock is near on to impossible; for me anyways. We just stood there, lost in thought, not lookin' at anything in particular. I started to say somethin, when Slim spoke first.

 

"Looks like we might have to make this a mite bigger, Pard," he said, slappin' his hand against the post.

 

"Yeah." I was a little uncomfortable with the statement. Funny how feelin's are sometimes. Slim and me always enjoyed our private talks. We'd hashed out a lot of troubles talkin' 'em out on the front porch or like now standin' out at the corral; course it's Slim doin' most of the talkin' and me doin' most of the listenin'. Somehow, it seemed to bring us closer, helps ta build and make our friendship stronger somehow, can't explain why. I suppose there's somethin' about the dark that helps. This time was different though. I was the one wantin' to talk. To tell him how I was feelin'…that I hated to disappoint him and how for the first time in my life I was really...

 

Again Slim's voice broke into my thoughts.

 

"Jess," he started.

 

I turned and looked at this blond hulk of a man that and become such a large part of my life. In reality, he'd saved my life in so many ways. And now, even in the dark of night I could tell he was strugglin' with somethin.' So, I decided to keep quiet and let him speak. He sure looked like he needed to. To tell the truth I was glad for it. These past few weeks bein' around Slim wasn't easy. This giant of a man; usually so calm and gentle and level headed was like livin' with a mother bear. He seemed all twisted up inside somehow. One minute kind and gentle, even playful, the next, angry, scornful, downright mean. Why he even snapped at Daisy once. But pulled back quick, sayin' he was sorry. Not like the Slim Sherman I'd come to know and admire.

 

I could still feel the tiny hairs on the back of my neck raise…"You got somethin' to say, then say it," I growled. I really didn't mean to sound so angry, but I was.

 

Slim stopped for a minute. I could tell he bristled at my tone…but he kept his temper and turned to face me. But, as quickly as he did, I turned away and looked out at the hills past the corral. He started slow like. He didn't mince words, the statement was simple, straight forward and to the point.

 

"I know, Jess," he said calmly, almost a whisper. Then he turned away to look out over the mountains. "I know," he said again.

 

"You know what?"  The words shot out and I stiffened against them. I was like a cat waitin' to pounce. All I needed was an excuse. One wrong word out of Slim Sherman, and if it took all I had in me I was gonna flatten him right then and there. I was close to the boilin' point. Didn't matter at the time I felt like I'd been run through with a poker, my back givin' me fits again. I was mad, just plain mad!

 

He'd started to open his mouth again, but I spoke up instead and he stared at me.

 

"Yeah, you know alright. Know how to jump on a man without listin.' I did all I could do with that dad gummed gate, ain't nothin' no...."

 

"About your condition," he said softly. "I know, Jess."

 

That statement together with the fact that my tone and temper seemed to have no effect, took the wind right out of me. He was facin' me now. I knew for the past few weeks somethin' had been weighin' heavy on his mind, every once in awhile he'd get to lookin' real sad. But, tonight at supper, when it came to a head, I had no idea it was about me!

 

I just was stunned. I was sure that whatever'd crawled up his craw had somethin' to do with our plans, Andy's schoolin', those strays that'd got out earlier in the day that I couldn't catch or that damned gate. But, never me! I swallowed hard, not sure what to say next.

 

"How?" I managed.

 

"Well," he said slowly, "let's just say we have the same family doctor," his voice had a mixed tone to it; somethin' between a smile and sorrow all rolled into one.

 

Took a minute for that to sink in but once it did all the anger I was feelin’ towards Slim, now spilled out towards, Seth.

 

"What the hell," I shouted. "What ever happened to a patient's privacy…" my voice trailed off when I realized I was shakin' and I could feel my face go red. The pain runnin' down my leg was gettin' worse and I was findin' it hard to stand…I needed to sit; but I ignored it. Slim's calm voice brought me back from that dark corner that always seems to consume me when I get too mad.

 

"Now, don't go blaming Seth, Jess. It wasn't his fault. It was mine," he admitted. Then he turned away from me like he couldn't look me in the eye. Instead he looked out over the rollin' hills again. I could tell this was hard for him.

 

"Last time he was out to check on you, I… well I overheard a few things that worried me. So I asked him."

 

"Oh, and I suppose he just up and told ya, just like that, did he?" I was almost as mad now as I was when I stormed out of the house.

 

I watched as the big guy shook his head and leaned his shoulder against the fence post. "No, it took a while. It wasn't easy for him, Jess." Slim's voice was low and calm, soothin' in fact…I didn't want to acknowledge it, but I couldn't help it. Slim has that effect on me sometimes. He turned to look at me full on now.

 

"He's not just our doctor, Jess. He's a friend. He's worried about you, Pard. And so am I." He took deep breath. "Told me about that specialist he's got lined up for you. Said you told him no."

 

"That's right!" I was so mad my whole body tingled. I had been the one who wanted to confide in Slim, tell him how I was feelin' in my own way…and in my own time ...but now. I clenched my first tight against my rage. Slim knows me too well, he could tell I was about to explode.

 

"Jess… Pard, if you want to hit something beat the crap out of someone, well…then let it be me. It was me that brought it up Jess, not Seth. So, if you want to, then go ahead...I won't stop you. But, I do wish you'd listen to me first."

 

0o0o0o0o0o

Slim's POV

 

Jess was gritting his teeth and working that jaw, fighting the demon that dwells in us all when our emotions get the better of us and we get mad, too mad. Normally, after an outburst like this, Jess would stomp of some where's to either take out his frustration on something or cool off. This time, he did neither. Just turned away from me and stared out at the mountain range again. But, he was far from calm. I could tell it was all he could do to hold it together, to keep control. As long as I've known Jess Harper, he's had an explosive temper. One that's actually frightened me at times. Not so much out of a loss of control (though that did happen at times) but out of concern for his well being. Never good to get that mad. And there'd been times during the past six years that I had seen him pure white hot with rage.

 

This wasn't one of those times…but it was close, real close. I had to do something to defuse it, to pull Jess back from that dark place. So, I did what I've always done when Jess is hurt, sick or like now, just pure mad. I reached up and placed my hand on the back of his neck and squeezed gently.

 

"Jess, I'm sorry for the way things turned out," but this time Jess cut me off. His voice, always deep and resonating seemed even deeper now and it trembled as he spoke.

 

"I wanted to…to," I watched as he worked that jaw. "I…I wanted to be the one to tell ya, Slim. In my own way. But...," he stopped too filled with emotion to continue.

 

Those knotted muscles had relaxed a bit. But not by much, so I tightened my squeeze. "I know, Jess, I know. I came out here to apologize to you, Pard," I tried to keep my voice from cracking, but wasn't sure if I did or not. I was hurting for him.

 

Surprised, he turned and looked at me. "For what?"

 

I pulled my hand away and plunged it into back into my coat pocket…Phew, it's cold,  pure bitter.

 

"Aw I’ve been acting like a horse's ass lately," I admitted. "They say you always hurt the ones you love. Don't know why that is. Except maybe cause they're the only ones that'll put up with it, I suppose." I lowered my voice. "I guess... I'm just plum scared, Jess," I confessed.

 

"You're scared? Hell! I'm the one's gonna be a crip…," he suddenly stopped, as if to say the word would choke him. Unable to continue he quickly looked away. It was then I noticed he was trembling as much from emotion as from the cold I guessed. It had turned so bitter, I was worried about him. Especially after what Seth had told me. I wanted to get him outta of the cold. The only thing crippling Jess right now was his own emotions.

 

I had reached out to place a hand on his shoulder when all of a sudden all the fear and anger he must have been feeling got the better of him and he cut loose and rammed his fist into the top of the corral so hard it made me jump. I can recall thinking that,  that hands gonna need fixing. Then without looking at me he began to speak. His voice shook a bit and I could tell he was struggling. Words don't always come easy to Jess and I learned a long time ago that its best just to wait and let him work it out. Sure hoped it was soon though, before we froze solid.

 

"Slim, I can't tell you how much you and yours mean to me. You saved my life, Pard. In so many ways. And I can't thank you enough. Who'd a thought that a no account gun slick drifter, could find peace and a fam…"

 

I stopped him straight away. "Now, hold it right there." I hate it when Jess puts himself down. If there was one thing that can make me mad enough to eat nails it's that. And he knows it. I had it in mind to lay into him, when all of a sudden he raised his hand to silence me. Then I remembered something my Pa used to tell us, 'never pass up a good opportunity to shut up,' so I did.

 

He was having a hard enough time as it was, and he didn't need me making it worse. I watched as he ran his hand over his eyes... and I knew why. He rested his arms on the top of the corral, leaned into them and rubbed that right hand. I knew it must have been hurting. I waited. It took a good while, before he spoke again. And when he did his voice was low and deep and filled with emotion.

 

"Slim, I…I can't never repay you for all the good you've done me. It ain't easy bein' a friend of mine. That's a fact. You've stuck your neck out more times n' I can count. Stepped right in front of me when trouble came my way. Ya didn't back off. Got yourself in trouble, hurt, for...me of all people," he swallowed hard, then turned to face me, his shoulder resting against the fence.

 

"You wanna  know why I'm always runnin' off, Slim?  Well, I'll tell ya. I'm scared, Slim. Always have been." He paused to clear his throat. "Scared of gettin' too close to people I reckon. Never thought anyone would want to be close to me…and well that kinda unsettles me some. I ain't worth that kinda carin', Slim…I," he stopped and bit his lip the words catching in his throat.

 

There he goes again. But held myself in check and listened.

 

He took another deep breath, but this time looked away. "I care about you, Slim. You and Andy, Mike and Daisy, more n' you"ll ever know. You really are family to me," he paused. "You...you're like a father and brother all rolled into one giant galoot…and I..." he stopped again, swallowed hard and looked down at the ground.

 

I stood stone still, too stunned to speak. Never thought I'd hear Jess Harper of all people admit to that. It was another side of this complicated man I'd never seen before. I think it was then that I come to realize that no matter how long I knew him or how old we grew ...I'd still be learning things about my friend I never knew. And now as we stood out in the cold I thought how much I looked forward to doing just that. Growing old together and learning about each other. Why we even talked about that a few times. How if either of us or maybe even both got married, we'd live some where's on the ranch and still be Pard's. That was all well and good, but first I had to break through that rough exterior; and that wasn't gonna be easy. Jess never made sharing his feeling's with anyone, easy.

 

"Jess..."

 

"No, Slim," he said sharply. "I've always kept my word ta ya, and breakin' it ain't easy. It's the hardest thing I've ever done. But, it's because I care that I got to go."

 

I felt my breath catch, like I'd been sucker punched. That was the last thing I expected. Took me completely by surprise.

 

"What! Jess, now wait a minute, before you go off half cocked and do something you'll  be sorry for, listen to me," I pleaded. I might have come off a little strong, but he cleaned knocked the wind outta me. "Jess, for Pete's sake..."

 

"Slim, stop...please," his voice was shaking even more and I saw the faint whisper of tears cloud those blue eyes. "Use your head. What good's a crippled ranch hand gonna do ya, huh? Look, we've been makin' all these plans… and pretty soon... I...I won't even be able to stand much less walk....let alone do m' job." He stopped and I saw that lower lip tremble. "I ain't no good no more, Slim. I don't want to be a burden to no one. Least of all you....I...."

 

"Je...Jess...," I started, and heard my own voice shake. I swear I felt like I'd been hit with a hammer, but Jess wasn't done yet. He still had a few whacks left in him.

 

"Ya gotta think of Daisy and Mike, Slim. How'd they take livin' with a cripple, huh?" He turned away and looked back over the dark hills. "A blamed ranch hand who can't do nothin' but warm the chairs and take up space..." he stopped as his  breath caught and fight for control.

 

Then in the soft moonlight I saw tears roll down his cheeks and saw him working that jaw again. I swallowed hard, almost afraid to open my mouth. I knew that whatever I said next and how I said it could mean the difference between keeping my Pard or losing my best friend forever.

 

I wiped a nervous hand over my mouth and mustered up as much courage as I could. "Jess, you're no ranch hand. You're my partner, and a valued member of this family and this ranch. Jess, I don't know how to…"

 

The shake of his head stopped me… "Slim, please, ya gotta understand. We're standin' out here jawin' and m' back feels like its been run through," his breath caught and he had to blink the tears away. "You wanna know why it took me so long to get dressed this mornin?" He swiped angrily at the moisture rolling down his cheeks and I saw his shoulders shake. "Cause I couldn't lift this damned leg high enough to put m' breeches on," he said and hit his fist hard against his right thigh. His voice caught and he shivered..."Slim, I don't wa...wanta hurt no..." he stopped again, cleared his throat and hard, unable to continue.

 

I stood still as stone and just stared at him. I didn't know what to do or say to change his mind....but I had to do something and quick.

 

"You can't help it Jess. You ride out of here and you'll tear this family apart and hurt yourself in the process, Jess." He started to say something, but I jumped in. "No, now listen to me. Jess when I drew up that Partnership Agreement I meant it to be permanent. And no bum leg or bad back is gonna change that," I told him honestly.

 

He shut his eyes and shook his head and just stood silent too overwhelmed to continue I figured. I saw my chance and took advantage of it.

 

"That Agreement is personal Jess, between me and you. This is your home, Pard. We're your family. Oh, we may not be what you'd call the conventional sort. We may look like a bunch of mismatched strays," I chuckled a little, "but we're still a family, Jess. And there's no hurt gonna take that away." I held my breath…did I get through? I waited.

 

When next he spoke he sounded resigned in a way that scared me. Jess Harper just doesn't give up that easy. "I know, Slim. But I've laid a lot of trouble at your door. And I'd rather,” his breathing caught and I saw him shudder, “I’d rather leave while I…while I can still walk, rather n' crawl." It was all he could do to hold on and he gritted his teeth against the flow of emotion and the pain. Before I could formulate a reply he turned and leaned his back up against the corral and  looked up at me, tears streaming down his cheeks, "I don't wanna hurt you or..."

 

"Jess..."

 

He shook his head and ran his sleeve under his nose..."That ain't all, Slim. The other day Mike came out here and asked me when I was gonna teach him to shoot?"

 

I smiled at that and took a breath.  "Yeah, I know. He asked me the same thing."

 

I watched puzzled as my partner seemed to sink even lower. "No, Slim, you don't understand. He asked me when I was gonna teach him to shoot like me, to draw like me."

 

"Oh."

 

"Yeah," he nodded slowly and a look of deep sadness came over him. "I'm a gunfighter, Slim. Pure and simple. You know it and I know it. That ain't gonna change. All these years I ain't been doin' nothin' but foolin' m' self. Tryin' to forget what I was…what I am…,” he said sadly his eyes downcast.

 

I moved to him and put both hands on his shoulders and gave him a tight squeeze. "What you are is my partner and my friend. I'll admit you're fast Jess,...real fast. But, I don't think you were ever really a gun slick. From what you've told me you were forced into using your gun. It was a way for you to survive. And I'm glad you did. But you never crossed the line, Jess. I've seen the look on your face when you've been forced to take someone down. That's the difference, Jess. Bein' forced. Its never been something you wanted to do. A gun slick doesn't care, Jess. You do," I shook him gently. "Oh, I'll admit, maybe you didn't at one time, but you've changed, Pard. And there's no goin' back," I said softly and searched his face looking deep into those troubled blue eyes.

 

He forced a sad smile. "I know what you're tryin' to do Slim, and I appreciate it, more n' ya know. But, aside from that. The fact still remains that pretty soon I ain't gonna be no good for nothin' ner nobody," he sighed and looked away again.

 

I stood deadly still, almost afraid to move. A thousand and one reasons why this stubborn

Texan should stay ran through my mind. But, which one would reach him? I pulled my hands from his shoulders and I leaned close to him and spoke softly measuring every word. I had to get through to him and I didn't have much time to do it.

 

"Leaving's not the answer, Jess. Remember when I told you it was time you stopped running from the past? And you decided to put up your rig? Together we put it in that special hiding place, remember?" I held my breath waiting for his answer.

 

"Slim...I....I,” he stammered through the tears.

 

I reached out and laid a hand on his shoulder again. "You're still running, Jess. Only now you're running from the future. The Jess Harper I know isn't a quitter…but that's what you’ll be if you let this get to you. It's time you stop running, Pard," I told him and gave his shoulders a little shake. Then added, my own voice shaking a bit now. "I'm not ready to give up on you, Jess. Same as you'd never give up on me. Don't give up on yourself, Pard. We're your family Jess; let us help you, please. That's what family's do," I looked down at the frozen ground and back up at him and our eyes met. "That's what Pard's do too."

 

He had no reply, just lowered his head. In the light of the moon I could clearly see the frown lines etched deep on those boyish features, making him look much older...too old in fact. I watched as he shifted; his back really hurting now. "Look, Jess. I’m not going stand here and tell you I know how you feel, because I don't," I took a deep breath. I had one last card to play. "C'mon', Pard. There's something I wanna show you," I told him and gently turned him towards the barn.

 

As we walked I shortened my stride to walk beside him. He was really favoring that right leg, and the thought that he might fall crossed my mind. But, I said nothing. Just stayed close just in case. The barn door was heavy and the barn dark. The wind had started to blow in earnest now and the snow was coming heavier.

 

"Pull a lantern down for me, will you, Jess?" I asked, as I closed the door behind me. At least I got him out of the wind.

 

I heard the sound of the lantern, then the strike of a match and soon the barn was filled with soft light. I directed Jess to the back of the barn, to the last two stalls. We always reserved these for incidentals; tools rarely used, old leather straps, etc. While Jess held the lantern I began to remove old broken pieces of tack, rusted tools we'd planed to use but never did, together with years of built up dust and debris to reveal an old wooden chest. Behind me I heard Jess clear his throat. And he stepped closer and held the lantern higher so as to illuminate as much of the area as possible.

 

"I don't have the key," I announced, as I pulled a crowbar from the wall and stuck one end into the lock neck and began to pry the lock open…"This'll have to do," I said confidently. Sure enough the lock was old and soon it snapped open with a loud pop, causing the horses to jump and whinny. Before opening the lid, I pulled up an old crate and sat down and looked up into the curious eyes of my partner and smiled.

 

"I know my Pa would have loved to have known you, Jess. You'd have been another son to him. In case you don't know it yet, you're already brother to me," I acknowledged.

 

Jess stood silent, not knowing what to expect. But I did see him blush. And it made me smile. Ever since that meeting with Seth, I hadn't been thinking right. I'd come to realize I'd been thinking only of myself, not stopping to consider the feeling's and fears of the man standing before me now. I was ashamed and I didn't mind showing it. I also knew that what I was about to do was a stretch to say the least. But this was a desperate situation. I had to reach him no matter what it took, and I was determined to do just that.

 

"I ever tell you how Jonesy came to be a part of our lives, Jess?"

 

He shook his head. Now with my eyes accustomed to the dim light I noticed how very unsteady he really was. His legs had begun to shake, until finally, no longer able to hold him they buckled and he plopped down hard on the crate in front of me. The drop was so sudden it startled me. "Jess! Are you alright?"

 

He nodded that he was.

 

I took a deep breath, shook off my fear, reached over and continued removing things from around the chest as I spoke. "For as long as I can remember Jonesy and his family were friends of ours. Long before I was in the picture. When Jonesy lost most of his family to the fever back when I was just a sprout, my Ma and Pa took him in. Can't seem to recall how he hurt his back. But I do remember the pain he suffered."

 

I looked over at Jess. He sat silent, his eyes fixed on the wooden chest. "Well, I don't have to tell you all that. You've seen it for yourself."

 

"Yeah," his only response.

 

I reached over and lifted the lid and paused a second as a mouse ran from behind it...indignant at being disturbed no doubt. Then I reached inside and pulled out what looked to be a rather odd looking leather belt. It had long leather straps that extended from a central wide leather piece. Each strap being a belt in itself.  I shook it to untangle it and handed it to Jess.

 

"Doc put him in this contraption for several months," I told him.

 

He took it with trembling hands and examined it carefully. Puzzled he finally looked up at me. "What is it?"

 

"It's a back brace, Jess."

 

Our eyes met and for a brief moment we just stared at each other.

 

"My Pa'd put him in this thing every morning, then every evening he'd struggle to get him out of it. That went on for a long, long time. Never really knew if it helped him or not," I told him. "But, the doc said he should wear it and so my Pa saw to it that he did," I looked into my partner's eyes and waited for a reaction. There was none. Jess just stared at me; then handed it back. I sighed and put it back in the chest and closed the lid.

 

"You know why he did that, Jess?"

 

Jess, said nothing, just shook his head, swallowed and looked at me, expectantly. I saw him shift his weight again and I knew he was hurting, I wanted to get him inside out of the cold....but at the same time I needed him to hear me out.

 

I put my hands on my knees and leaned towards him. "Because he'd come to love Jonesy, Jess. He was no longer just a family friend, he had BECOME  family." I forced the lump in my throat back down. And waited to see if he understood. I wanted so badly to reach him. But  to get past that steel like stubborn exterior was a challenge. A challenge I hoped and prayed I was up to. I reached out and touched his knee.

 

"Like you, Jess," I hadn't meant for it to happen, but my voice cracked and I knew my own emotions were showing through. I knew it made him uncomfortable. Didn't matter. I figured if I had to show him how I really felt, had to cry even....I'd do it. Anything to get him to see the light and stay. Not run off and leave behind all he'd worked so hard to build for the past six years. In his condition he'd die out there for sure and I wasn't gonna let that happen.

 

Jess, lowered his head and stared at the floor. When he spoke his voice trembled. "I know that, Slim. It's just that...I....I've always been able to pull m' own weight no matter what. I....I, don't know no other way," he stopped his emotions choking him into silence.

 

I smiled. For all his pride and stubbornness I've never met anyone as unselfish as the man that sat in front of me in the barn that night. "Look whatever the future holds, we'll face it, together. You're not alone anymore, Pard. You hear me? Like Andy, you're family to me, Jess. It's time you stopped running," I swallowed and searched his face. "Jess, I'm not asking you. I'm beggin' you. Give us a chance; give me a chance; give yourself a chance. We'll face this thing together, Pard. Jess you just can't go..."

 

I stopped mid-sentence as I realized I no longer held his attention. Something else had drawn it away and he was clearly focused on it. He'd raised his head and was looking; no.... he was staring over my shoulder, past me. I started to follow his gaze, when he spoke.

 

"Slim," the voice I heard now was no longer weak and shaky, but strong, controlled and deadly cold. "When I give you the word, hit the floor to your right," he ordered.

 

I watched as he leaned to his left, his right hand covering his gun. I didn't have to ask, his face said it all. When he had that look to him you didn't ask questions. I'd learned many years ago to trust him. I prepared to follow instructions. With my eyes fixed on him. I waited and I watched as he slowly leaned back.

 

"Now!" he shouted.

 

I dove for the floor.

 

It all happened so fast. My eyes never left Jess, as I rolled onto my shoulder. His movements were like lightening. I saw him draw and fire all in one fluid motion. Mort was right; Jess was fast, scary fast! At the same time something hard and heavy hit my head, knocking my hat off. For a moment I just lay there, stunned. Then with the sound of gunfire still ringing in my ears and the acid smell of gun powder filling the air, my eyes focused on his victim. In front of me lay a young mountain lion. Jess' aim had been true. A small hole right between the eyes had ended the cats life and saved mine. Sure said a great deal for partner’s skill with a gun. I took a deep breath and looked up at him. He was holstering his gun, the barrel still smoking.

 

"Glad you're on my side, Pard," I smiled, picked up my hat and dusted it off.

 

Jess retuned the smile, reached up, took hold of the side of the stall, pulled himself up and limped stiffly towards the house. Had I gotten through to him? I could only hope. It would be some time before I knew for sure.

 

With the sound of gunfire, those in the house were alerted and came running. They passed Jess as they hurried to the barn. I explained what happened, and pointed to the dead lion lying in the middle of the floor. I spied Daisy on the porch, her hand. I caught a glimpse of her touch Jess’ arm as he disappeared inside. The cat was larger than it looked and it took Andy and me a little while to dispose of it.

 

Once inside we settled near the fire and allowed its warmth to chase away the night's chill. Shortly after we came in and just before Daisy served dessert, she got a dose of Jess' medicine down him. He didn't protest this time, either the pain or his emotions had worn him out.

 

Daisy'd  made one of her famous apple pies; our favorite. And although we all enjoyed our treat, Jess seemed quietly reserved throughout. All knew something was wrong. Daisy, of course, was well aware of the struggle between us.

 

It didn't take long before Jess said his good nights and turn in, earlier than usual. I watched with deep sadness as he made his way to the bedroom, favoring that right leg. With each unsteady step my own fear grew and I became more determined than ever that he see that specialist. Soon Mike and Andy followed, leaving Daisy and I alone.

 

She was worried about what went on in the barn. With me having been in such a foul mood and Jess exploding the way he did, I'm sure she figured there'd be split lips and black eyes to tend. She was more than just a little pleased to know that it hadn't come to that. I told her a little of what went on but didn't want to go into detail for my Pard's sake. He could tell her if and when he wanted to.

        

We talked for a long time. Sitting there alone she told me of her father and how he too had suffered with a bad back. Although he never lost the use of his legs, the pain itself had kept him from working. She also told me how without meaning to they'd made him a cripple far worse than his back ever could. That's what she meant about not coddling Jess. I knew she was right of course. It was also the reason she hadn't come to me right away with her suspicions. She didn't want to cause excess worry should she be wrong. I assured her she did the right thing.

 

It was late when I finally decided to turn in. I slowly opened the door figuring Jess was asleep and was surprised to find him still up. He was sitting on his bed, his back to me. His head in his hands. I thought for sure between the medicine and the emotional turmoil he'd be sawing logs long before now. But, then again, Daisy reminded me that the new medicine wasn't as strong or as effective as Laudanum. And Jess had flatly refused any more of the Opiate.

 

I closed the door quietly. "Jess? Thought you'd be asleep by now, Pard. You alright?" I asked as I crouched in front him my hands on his knees.

 

He didn't look up right away...just kept his head down, staring at the floor. "Slim, can I tell you somethin'?" He asked his voice low and shaky.

 

"Sure."

 

It took a few minutes. Finally, he raised his head and looked right into my eyes and with a voice filled with pain.

 

"Slim, I… I've never felt like this before." He swallowed and sniffed. "I'm scared, Slim. I'm just plan scared."

 

I got up and took a seat next to him. "I know," I told him.

 

"No. It's a different kinda fear, Slim. Slim, ever since I was a youngun I've done for myself. My family was dirt poor. Everyone had to work hard to make ends meet. I can remember cleanin' out the hen house when I wasn't much bigger than the chickens themselves," he said with a slight chuckle. "Reckon that's why when I'm sick or hurt, I find it..," he paused and stole a shy glance my direction, "you know..."

 

I smiled and put a hand on his shoulder and gave him a tight squeeze, words not necessary between us.

 

"Can't be just takin' up space, Slim. I ain't built that way. I'd rather die then ta..." his breath caught and he swallowed hard, fightin’ against the tears that threatened to start again.

 

"You could never just take up space, Jess. We'll get through this. I promise you we will."

 

"Slim if I can't do my part...I rather die than to be a burden,” he whispered, his voice cracking.

 

"You wouldn't be a burden, Jess. You could never be," I assured him. "You know somebody else said the same thing to me a while back."

 

He pulled his head up and with tears still staining his face gave me a puzzled look.

 

"Jonesy.”

 

He kneaded his eyebrows together in surprise.

 

 “Yeah, that’s right. Jonesy once felt that way. But he soon learned that such a thing was all in his head. We never saw Jonesy as burden, did we?"

 

He couldn't answer, he didn't have to, I knew how he felt about Jonesy. Like me, Jess  loved Jonesy. When Jonesy died a few years back Jess cried. Jonesy had become like a father to him, and he'd taken his death real hard.

 

"That's not gonna happen, Jess. Now you just get that notion right out of your head, Pard."

 

He gave me a sad smile and looked back down at the floor and nodded slowly. "I'm still gonna be crippled, ain't nothin' gonna change that," he said sadly.

 

I had to force the smile from my face...this was just the opening I needed.

 

"We can't change it, Pard. But that special doctor Seth told us about might. Why don't we wait and see what he has to say first, huh?" I told him and held my breath.

 

Although emotionally spent that got a reaction. He jerked his head up to looked at me. I could still see the glint of tears under those long lashes. "I ain't got the money for no special doc. You know that," he said with more force than I expected.

 

I wasn't prepared nor did I want to argue with him. So I let it lay for the time being. "Well, we'll see, Pard, we’ll see.”

 

Then I felt him shudder. It was cold in our room. "You look all in, Jess. Why don't you get some sleep?" Without a word, Jess laid down and turned on his left side. He had started to say something else, but I shushed him instead.

 

"There's no shame in crying, Jess," I whispered. Don't know if he heard me or not. Cause the next thing I knew his breathing and posture told me he'd fallen asleep. I got up and went to my bed feeling better about the man who'd become my partner, my 'brother' three years ago. I knew that together we'd lick this thing, or at least learn how to deal with it. With that thought I snuggled under my own blankets and drifted off.

 

 

CHAPTER THIRTEEN -     

Black Devil

 

 

Morning came and with a blast of sunlight shot into our room hitting me square in the face. Now I'm normally a morning person, unlike my partner who crawls out of bed like a half dead badger before his first cup of coffee. But this particular morning I just didn't want to get up. I lay there thinking about one thing or another. Until I rolled over and looked at the clump of tangled blankets that covered a still sleeping Jess and my thoughts turned dark. My mind kept going back to what Seth had told me, and to my conversation with Jess in the barn last night. I kept seeing Jess' legs go out and how he had to use the stall to pull himself up, and then limp to the house. I was more determined than ever that he see that doc. And I was more than just a little worried about how he was gonna handle that feisty colt, Mrs. Dickerson brought over.

 

The very thought of Jess breaking a horse now sent cold chills through me. Almost as bad as the icy wind that kicked up during the night. I wondered about the changes and worried that I might be pushing him too hard, pushing him into doing something that just might cost him his life. I worried more and more if this was something he really wanted to do or was he just trying to please me? That had happened before. Where I'd have some hair-brained idea and Jess went along with it, just because I wanted to try it.

 

I understood what Daisy was saying about not coddling and I agreed with her. But, Jess is an important member of our family, and I refuse to put him in harms way. Especially for money. That had happened once before too, when I had been played for a fool by Matt Grandling and his boys…almost cost me dear. Jess' leaving then almost getting killed…all because of me and my high minded ideas. That night sitting at his bedside I swore then and there I'd never allow that to happen again. I could see where this might be heading and it scared me. I was determined that nothing was gonna come between me and family again. No matter what the cost.

 

Shortly after I finished my ablutions Jess finally crawled out of bed. Although well rested, he seemed to be moving a little slow. So I took the opportunity to join Daisy in the kitchen while he shaved and got dressed. I needed her input on the situation. As usual I found her in the middle of fixing an enormous breakfast and I took the opportunity to talk to her. So while I cut up the bacon and she finished the biscuits I brought the subject up. I told her of my misgivings and my concern for Jess and asked her what she thought about the changes we'd proposed. She said she felt things were moving a little too fast and that she wished Jess would just slow down. She also mentioned that she had some real concerns about that Mrs. Dickerson; though at the time she didn't tell me why. And  was more than just a little fearful of that colt... and so was I. Well, at least we're on the same page, I thought.

 

We didn't have time to discuss it further as Jess came to the table followed by a still sleepy Mike and Andy. Once we all settled down to breakfast the conversation naturally turned from the mundane to what appeared to be on everyone's mind.....Jess' breaking that horse.

 

"I don't know about this one, Jess. Has anyone even tried to break him?" I asked as I filled my plate with bacon and eggs along with a generous helping of grits. Grits is mostly a southern dish, but about a year ago Jess had spied a sack at Millers and purchased it. I've been hooked ever since.

 

He shook his head. "Don't think so, Slim. Mrs. Dickerson said Janice has had him about six months, just hadn't gotten around to havin' someone break him I reckon," he said,  then added with a slight chuckle, “or anyone fool enough to try,” he drawled as he filled his mouth with biscuit. That slight Texas accent coming real clear this morning. My Pard gets like that sometimes, especially when he's over tired or sick, that Texas drawl can be heard real clear. Made me think he didn't get as much rest as I thought last night. I have to admit though, I like the accent. Kind of wish is was a little thicker.

 

"And she wants you to take your turn?" Daisy asked, a hint of worry in her voice.

 

"Looks like," he glanced up and gave her a warm smile before shoving half a biscuit in his mouth.

 

"Well, we know where she comes from, Jess. You know their reputation," I said, hoping to dissuade him.

 

He nodded that he had, his mouth too full of eggs to answer right away.

 

"Yeah, I know, Slim. But that don't mean she's been abused like the rest. Each ones different. You know that."

 

One look at my partner that morning told me like it or not he was going try and break that animal. The animal came from a ranch not too far from our own, the Mumford spread. The Mumford's have a bad reputation in Laramie and there a bouts for animal abuse. We've had many occasions to try and undo the harm they've caused. And it hasn't always turned out for the best I'm sorry to say. No, I didn't like this one bit.

 

"Well," Daisy sighed heavily. "I don't know what to do first, prepare the splints or tear up the bandages," she said coldly and shot a scolding look across the table at my Pard.

 

"Well, now don't plant me afore I'm stomped, Daisy." Jess laughed. But he was the only one. Whether he realized how concerned the rest of us were or not he didn't say. None of us thought Jess was up to this. Even Mike had expressed his concern to me the night before. Saying he wished Jess wouldn't try and break that animal.

 

Jess was silent for a while. Then after Daisy'd poured him another cup of coffee he leaned back in his chair and looking down into the cup, moved it around in his hands; his mind a thousand miles away...or maybe just a few hundred feet?

 

"Jess?" Daisy asked. "Are you feeling alright, dear?"

 

The question brought Jess back with a start. "What? Oh, I'm sorry, Daisy, what'd you say?"

 

Daisy moved over to him and placed her hand on his forehead....like a good mother.

 

"I asked if you are feeling, alright. You’re looking a little pale this morning," she forced a smile and rubbed his shoulder affectionately.

 

"Oh, no Daisy. I'm fine, really. Just got a lot on my mind."

 

"That's funny, having something on your mind never effected your stomach before or not often anyways. Or maybe it's the little filly that stepped out of the carriage a few days ago?" I offered with a wink.

 

"Mrs. Dickerson?" He chuckled lightly. And continued to turn his cup thoughtfully.

 

"Slim, that colt..."

 

"Is dangerous, Jess. That horse could kill a man. And that man just might be you." I interrupted shaking my head. "He's much too wild. Pure green." I said talking around a mouth full of biscuit...something I knew Daisy didn't appreciate. She'd been trying to teach Mike some manners and as often as not either Jess or I seem to run afoul of her every time. I glanced up at her, caught  the scolding look and gave her my best contrite smile. Then backed it up with an, "Sorry, Daisy," I mumbled, my cheek still bulging.

 

Jess started to laugh.

 

"Funny, that's what you said about me. Said I was pure green once and you broke me pretty good, Pard," he said, punched my shoulder and smiled. Then he chugged the last of his coffee grabbed another biscuit for later and started for the door.

 

"Where you going?"  I asked.

 

"Got work to do, Pard. Can't break that bad boy, sittin' at the table." He never looked back, just kept goin'.

 

I jumped up and almost upset the table to hurry after him.

 

"Wait a minute, Jess." Should have talked to him right away. I thought. If there is one thing Jess Harper is, it's loyal. Loyal to a friend, a duty or a job. I'd been watching  him ever since Mrs. Dickerson brought that horse over. I could almost see his mind turning, working on how to handle that animal. Don't know the extent of the conversation they'd had earlier in the week, but whatever it was it had sure lit a fire under him. By the time I reached the door, he was already standing beside the corral, watching as the colt circled nervously.

 

"I don't know about this one, Jess. You think it's possible to gentle him?" I asked as I joined him. He stood silent for a spell, cocked his head to one side and rising his eyebrows a few times pursed his lips into a smirk.

 

"Only one way to find out," he said and reached up to unlatch the gate.

 

"Whoa, wait a minute, Jess. Don't you think you're moving just a little too fast?" I said grabbing hold of his coat sleeve.

 

"Why?" Clearly puzzled.

 

I looked over at the colt; he was just standing at the far end of the corral now, looking our way; having worn himself out circling. His eyes fixed on Jess. Like he was sizing him up.

 

"Well, look at him Jess, he's…he's…" my voice trailed off. I knew what I wanted to say, to express my concern for my friend. But, Daisy's words 'don't coddle', kept getting in the way.

 

"Yeah, I'm lookin,' " he nodded, "he's scared, Slim. Wouldn't you be? No tellin' what kind of life he's had. After all we know where he came from. Can't imagine Mrs. Dickerson knowin' about it though," his voice was filled with compassion for the animal and I sensed more than just a hint of respect for its owner.

 

I stood there my mind racing trying to think of something that might stop my friend from this foolhardy attempt to break something that didn't want to be broke. I had just about made up my mind to speak my peace when he reached up to unlatch the gate again.

 

"Jess. Why not wait on this one, huh?" He stopped, turned his back to the corral and pushed his hat back with a finger.

 

"Slim, why don’t you want me to go in there?" He asked.

 

Me and my coddling had been caught red handed. I moved nervously from one foot to the other trying to decide what to say or rather what not to say.

 

I never got the chance to explain. The colt had made another circle and was now standing  just a few feet from us. Jess, determination written all over his face had reached up once more to unlatch the gate when the animal stomped the ground, then like a shot reared at us. I could see what was about to happen and grabbed Jess’ shirt, pulling him away from the pen. Sure enough within seconds deadly hooves crash down hard onto the top board, shattering the wood and leaving little protection between us and this black devil. By the time he’d finished his rampage very little of the holding pen was left standing. He’d accomplished what he wanted and what he wanted was out.

 

We just stood and watched as he raced out of the pen and across the hill directly across from the house and disappeared leaving behind a very disappointed cowboy. It would be a long time before Jess told me about his conversation with Dickerson. I’d find there was more to this then just breaking a colt.

 

Finally when the shock wore off Jess made an attempt to run for the barn and saddle up, but he never made it. He’d just about reached the door when he suddenly staggered and fell in a heap.

 

“Jess!” I screamed and ran to his side, easing him onto his back as Andy knelt down beside me. He wasn’t completely out, but he was close. His eyes appeared glazed; he was breathing hard and had begun to sweat.

 

“Here, Slim let me help let’s get him into the house. Must be one of them attacks the doctor was talking about,” Andy said as he went to lift Jess’ legs.

 

“No, I got him, Andy. Better saddle up, ride over and get Jeb to help you find that black devil.”

 

“But…”

 

“Believe me Andy, that’d do Jess a lot more good than getting into the house right about now. He’ll be worried sick about that animal. I can handle him,” I told him. Jess was able to sit up with my help now and was looking around, awareness returning.

 

While Andy took off like a shot to the barn, I eased Jess to a standing position and helped him to the house. Once inside I lowered my partner to the couch as Daisy brought over a cool cloth and a glass of water. Jess reached out a shaky hand to the glass and for a moment I thought I was gonna have to hold it for him, but he took it and downed the whole thing like he hadn’t drunk in days. Then he took the cloth Daisy held and wiped his face.

 

“Slim, I ain’t feelin’ too good,” he said weakly.

 

“You’re not looking too good either. You wanna lie down?”

 

He said nothing, just laid down. I helped him get his legs up and covered him with the afghan Daisy keeps on the back of the couch. Still breathing a little heavy he closed his eyes. A second later and they popped open.

 

“The colt, Slim we gotta get…” he stammered and started to get up, but I pushed him back down.

 

“Don’t worry, Andy and Jeb have already gone after him. They’ll bring him back. Then you and me are gonna have a long talk. You rest now, huh?”

 

A waited to see if my partner was really going to sleep before I asked Daisy to watch him and I left to join Jeb and Andy, I was worried. I didn’t get far not even past the front porch before I saw Andy and Jeb ponying a much calmer colt back into the yard.

 

I pointed to our largest corral. “Best put him here. That holding pen is a mess,” I told them.

 

“Where’d you find him?” I asked Andy as he dismounted and hurried over to me.

 

“Not too far. Over near that split in the path that leads to Baxter’s ridge. He was just standing there looking around, like nothing had happened at all. I met Jeb just over the rise. How’s Jess?”

 

“He’s inside resting. He’s alright,” I told a very relieved Andy.

 

“Jeb, thanks for the help. Couldn’t have done it without you,” I offered an a sincere agreement from Andy.

 

“Not a problem, Slim. Ya got a real stick o’dynomite in this one. Where’d he come from?”

 

When I mentioned the Mumford’s ranch, he just shook his head. “Well, you watch out for this one,” he said as he turned to leave, then paused and shot back over his shoulder…“if you need anymore help just let me know. Got a bunch of strays to round up.”

 

I promised and followed Andy into the house. We paused just inside the door to gaze down at the man on the couch. Jess had turned on his side and was snoring softly. Daisy had thankfully put on a fresh pot of coffee and we headed for it. 

 

O0o0o0o0o0o

 

 

It was close to an hour before Jess came out to survey the damage. And it was extensive. In he’s rage buckin’ and kickin’ he’d managed to destroy one whole side of the enclosure until finally busting out the other setting himself free. Andy and I together with young Mike had already removed the broken boards when Jess stepped up the corral. While Andy was in the middle of removing one of the boards the horse had gnawed I walked up to my partner just inside the corral. He was still a little pale and looked to me to be just a tad on the shaky side. “Hey, Pard. Howya feelin’?”

 

“Like a dang fool,” he spouted.

 

I chuckled, vaulted over what was left of the pen and came to stand beside him.

 

“Why’s that?”

 

“Slim, I’m really sorry about this. Thought for sure I could handle him,” the disappointment in his voice so profound it was almost palpable. “Reckon it’s like you say, I don’t think with me head…” his voice trailed off as he continued to look at the damage.

 

“Don’t blame yourself, Jess,” I wanted to say the one person to be blamed was his owner. There was just something about that woman that bothered me. Course it would take awhile yet to find out what it was. “Like you said, we know where he came from…no telling what he’s been through.”

 

“I suppose. Well, reckon I got ‘m work cut out for me today,” he said and moved toward the barn.

 

I followed close behind. “Why just you?”

 

He stopped and turned back and gave me a quizzical glare.

 

“We’re partners aren’t we? We share everything…the good and the bad,” I smiled.

“You get the nails and I’ll get the boards. And that’s all you’re gonna do,” I said firmly.

 

“What?”

 

“You heard me. You blacked out there, Pard. You’re grounded for the rest of the day mister.” I leaned close and stole a glance behind me to where young Mike was dragging a board to Andy. “Besides, this will be good experience for Mike.”

 

To my surprise Jess didn’t argue and nothing more was said. The next hour was spent repairing the damage this walking demon had caused.

 

 

 

CHAPTER FOURTEEN -

"You might not get a second chance"

POV Andy Sherman

 

 

Once repairs were made we spent a good while watching that colt and hadn't noticed how cold it turned until we started walking to the house. Once inside everyone headed to the fireplace like moths to a flame. Daisy came in after a short time carrying a tray filled with mugs of hot chocolate. Slim took a seat on the couch and I pulled up a chair next to Jess' rocker. It had become something of a tradition early on reserving the rocker for Jess.

 

Sitting sipping our drink it didn't take a genius to see how the cold was affecting our friend. Both Slim and I were worried about him. I noticed that Slim pushed the rocker closer to the fire while Jess was out of the room so as not to be accused of ‘motherin.’

 

 Jess had gone into the bedroom for something and we could hear him talking to Mike through the open door. Daisy had taken a seat and started her mending. A few minutes later Jess walked in followed by Mike, who looked none too happy. Mike had been after Jess about something, and Jess wasn't giving in. Mike was mad and plopped down at the far end of the couch to sulk. Now in most cases Slim would have taken a hand to him then and there for his lack of respect. But, today things seemed to be moving a little slow.

 

Jess took his seat, hot chocolate in hand. As we talked it didn't escape our notice that every once in awhile, Jess would change positions and wince now and again. It was obvious that he was uncomfortable.

 

"Jess, you think that colt'll come around?" Slim asked sipping his chocolate.

 

I knew my brother was skirting the issue. He wasn't sure how Jess would react if he came right out and mentioned his back or that specialist. So, he steered the conversation in a different direction, needing to feel his friend out first.

 

"Don’t know, Slim. He's plenty scared. Like somethin’s been at him," he shook his head. "Like I told Mrs. Dickerson, all I can do is try."

 

"Well," Slim yawned and stretched his long legs out to the fire. "Just don't go getting yourself hurt doing it." It was the closest Slim would come to an outright 'I'm worried about you, Pard.' Right now anyways. But I knew he was just biding his time, looking for the right opportunity to bring up the subject of that specialist.

 

Outside the wind had picked up making the shingles shake and clatter. At first Daisy seemed frightened, but Slim and Jess reminded her that they'd put on a new roof less than a year ago. The shingles would hold. Then when there was a lull in the conversation, Jess turned his attention once more to Mike; who still sat huddled at the far end of the couch.

 

"Mike, come over here Tiger," Jess called.

 

Mike stirred but didn't move. "What?" He asked. The fact that he made no effort to move together with his sharp tone caught my brother's attention.

 

"Mike," Slim said sternly, "Jess is speaking to you. You best answer young man."

 

"Yes, sir," he said, his tone cold as ice, but he still had yet to move.

 

"I think Jess asked you to come over there," Slim eyed him closely, his voice mirroring that of the youngsters. My brother's brow furrowed as he watched the young boy slip off of the couch and walk over to stand in front of Jess.

 

It wasn't often that Mike got his feathers up, so this was kind of unusual. Slim would glance up now and again while we talked and watch Mike. Jess talked to the young boy for a few minutes and all seemed well until Jess took hold of Mike's wrist and said something the young boy didn't like. We saw Jess shake his head and suddenly Mike jerked away from him hard enough to cause his chair to lurch forward, causing him to stop mid-sentence and forcing him to throw a hand out against the fireplace to keep from falling. Effectively putting an end to their conversation and our. Slim was watching, and so was I. The young man stormed out of the room, without even bothering to look back to see if Jess was okay. As he passed us he snarled. "Not gonna treat me like I was a baby," and with that he stormed outside slamming the door behind him.

 

I looked over at my brother, those baby blues turned a bit darker as he excused himself and rose from the couch, hot on Mike's heels. He waited till they were outside, out of the hearing of us in the house...or so he thought. I'm sure Slim thought he closed the door, but he didn't. "Mike, wait up son", I heard him shout.

 

Mike stopped in his tracks and slowly turned to face a very angry Slim Sherman. My brother didn't even acknowledge him, just pointed in the direction of the barn and kept walking. It was about this time that some noise or such caught Daisy's attention and she left the comfort of her chair. A moment later she called Jess into the kitchen. Something about the back door was all I heard. My attention focused mostly on what was going on in the barn. Jess smiled, put his chocolate down and left the room.

 

That's when I decided to open the front door a bit more and try and hear what my brother was saying. From the house I could hear Slim laying into young Mike. Sure glad I wasn't on the receiving end of that one...been there before and it's not pretty. Although cloudy the moon supplied enough light along with the lantern Slim lit to allow me to see into the barn. I watched as my brother pointed to one of the large crates and Mike took a seat. As I listened I almost wished Jess could have heard what Slim was saying.

 

"Alright, young man, out with it. What was that all about?"

 

I could only see the side of Mike's face, but I figured his eyes must have been the size of Daisy’s saucer plates.

 

"I'm waiting." Slim's tone was harsh and cold, like Mike's had been a few minutes earlier.

 

"I asked Jess to let me help break that horse. But, he says I'm..." his voice faded and I could only imagine why. Slim can get a look to him that could turn the bravest of men pure white. My brother stands 6'3 broad shouldered and in the light of the barn I could see that blonde hair glisten. I wasn't sure which Mike thought was worse, his actions or facing an angry Slim Sherman. But it wasn't enough to cool the boy’s anger. It showed in his voice and the rigid way he held himself.

 

"He says I'm too young. I tried to tell him I’m not but he won't listen," he complained.

 

Slim stood towering over the boy and I saw him nod in agreement with Jess, but Mike just wouldn't accept it.

 

"But, I’m not, Slim," the little boy insisted, his courage building. "I just want him to give me a chance. He’s just bein’ stubborn, like you say,” he snapped.

 

Oh Lord, that was a mistake! I fully expected my brother to tear into him, but to my surprise Slim held himself in check.

 

“Maybe he is. But, calling Jess stubborn is not your place. And gives you no call to treat him that way. Now, you listen to me. I don’t know what burr crawled up your pants young man, but don’t you ever treat Jess Harper with that kind of disrespect again. You hear me!”

 

If Mike didn’t hear him, all of Wyoming did. Slim was all but shouting he was so mad.  Then I saw Mike drop his head and Slim pulled his anger back a notch or two and for a time neither man nor boy said anything. Slim I knew was trying to calm down and Mike looked like he was trying to figure a way out of this situation while keeping his rear in one piece.

 

"Mike, Jess has already told you no. And that young man is the end of it. I'm sure you can help out once you get a little older and not before. You understand?"

 

But young Mike just couldn't seem to let go of his anger and looked straight up at Slim.

 

"I can do it, Slim. I know I can. And…well, Jess needs the help,” he half whined.

 

I may not have been able to see their faces too good but from the way Mike called a halt to his argument I knew the look on Slim's face had a lot to do with it. He'd finally come to realize just how angry Slim was. But it was too late. If he didn't know what was comin', I did.

 

"Mike, I didn't bring you out here because of what Jess told you. We're family Mike and we don't treat each other like that." I noticed Slim had pulled up the milkin’ stool and was sitting directly in front of him. This was going to take a while. Had it been me he would have already tanned me good. But I guess Mike's sad past and the fact that he knew that Mike has been as worried about Jess as the rest of us had something to do with his holding back.

 

I stepped off the porch and eased my way towards the well so I could see and hear a little better.

 

"Mike, you don't have to have the same last name to be family," Slim was saying. "Family means  loving and listening, and caring about each other. It means being there when family needs you. Means taking care of family when they're sick or hurt. It means laughing and joking, playing and working together. And it means giving each member of that family respect, Mike. Respect is showing that you feel the other person is worth caring about. That they have value. That's the way we feel about you."

 

“There’s more to this then Jess not letting you work the horse with him, isn’t it, Mike?”

 

No response.

 

“Mike?”

 

I couldn’t exactly hear what he said, but I could tell by my brother’s demeanor it had an effect.

 

“What is it, Mike?” I heard Slim ask.

 

Then I saw Mike slide off the crate and walk up to Slim. What he said next tore at my heart and I dearly wished Daisy and Jess could have heard.

 

“Well, I heard what you and Aunt Daisy were talking about… I mean about Jess not being able to walk and all…”

 

“We don’t know that’s going to happen, Mike,” Slim interrupted.

 

“I know. But, you always say that this is a working ranch. And that everyone here has to pull his own weight.”

 

“Yes, that’s true. But, I don’t see what tha…”

 

“Slim what if Jess can’t work no more. Then you’ll…I mean you’ll tell him to leave…and…”

 

“Whao, whoa, Mike. It’s that what this is all about?”

 

I saw Mike’s head drop and he mumbled something I couldn’t understand. Then Slim got up and squatted down in front of him and placing his hands on his shoulders I saw him smile.

 

“Mike, I want you to listen to me and hear me clear. This is Jess’ home, same as yours for as long as he wants it. He’s my partner Mike, and no hurt or sickness or anything else is gonna change that…”

 

“But, what if he’s…I mean what if he can’t get around no more, or has to use one of them chairs with wheels on it,” he paused to catch his breath and I saw Slim’s smile widen. “Slim, he…”

 

“Easy now, Tiger. If the worse happens and Jess can’t get around like he used to or if he has to be in a wheelchair…well, then we’ll just have to learn to deal with it and help him deal with it too. Jess holds a real special place in my heart, Mike. And whatever happens will face it as a family…together. I might need your help to do it. Are you with me on that partner?”

 

The young mans whole manner changed as a smile split his face. “You bet!”

 

“Good. Glad to hear it. Now you got some repair work to do.”

 

“I know.  I’m sorry, Slim…”

 

"I'm not the one needin' an apology, Mike. Jess is."

 

"I know. It's just that I was scared and mad at him that’s all. I still love him."

 

"I know you do, Mike and I appreciate that. But I stand behind Jess all the way. He said no, and that's the way it's gonna be. And while we're at it let's get something else straight right now young man," he said shaking a finger in the unruly boys face.

 

"If I ever hear you raise your voice to him or see you pull away from him again...boy they can't make a barn big enough to hold the leather it'd take to burn your pants,” Mike’s eyes I knew had grown again. Slim’s anger may have cooled, but Mike still needed to learn a lesson. “There’s something else, Jess has as much right to take you to the woodshed as I do. And right now I think he should. You hear? There’s never an excuse for treating family like that Mike …especially, Jess.”

 

I continued to watch as Slim opened the barn door a notch wider and he and Mike stepped out into the cold darkness. As Slim closed the door he was telling Mike something our Pa used to tell us when we’d get mad at each other.

 

"You'd best be thinkin' on what you're gonna say to Jess once we get inside. Cause before this night's out you're gonna make amends, young man…”

 

“Tonight? Can’t I tell him tomorrow?” Mike asked. I think he was little embarrassed at his behavior toward his older brother and wanted the time to build his courage.

 

 “No Mike. It has to be tonight. My Pa used to say one should always make amends before they go to bed. In case the one they're mad at dies during the night. So you'd best apologize to Jess tonight, Mike. If nothing else but for your own sake."

 

Mike stopped his eye wide. "Slim, Jess isn't gonna die? Is he?" It was the first emotion aside from anger he showed since Slim had taken him to the barn. What my brother said struck the little guy hard. Just as it was meant to.

 

"I hope not, Mike. But, people die in their sleep all the time. I'm not saying that's gonna happen to Jess. But it does happen." Slim shook his head as they slowly made their way back to the house.

 

Now thoroughly puzzled the young boy stopped and turned to my brother. "Slim, what do you mean for my sake?" He asked.

 

"Well, how would you feel if you went to bed tonight without making amends to Jess and we all woke up tomorrow morning and Jess didn’t? And the last feelings you had towards him was anger? That's something you'd have to live with for the rest of your life, Mike," Slim told him, then shook his head as they continued walking. “Now, you’re not angry anymore and that’s good. But unless you apologize tonight Jess won’t know that. Cause you might not get second chance. And make it from the heart. Jess is no fool, he'll know."

 

Mike turned back around and continued walking…but you could see he was thinking hard on what my brother said.

 

Though his tone had softened a bit he still had a firmness to his voice that meant business. "Oh, and Mike", he said as they stepped upon the porch, "you jerked away from Jess pretty hard. Almost pulled him outta that chair. You know how sick he's been. That back of his has been giving him fits. You might've hurt him, son. You keep that in mind. And another thing, if Jess decides to take you to the woodshed, you'd best go. You understand?"

 

"Yes, sir," his tone and mood decidedly different now.

 

A minute later they walked past me into the house. I had managed to race back to the house from my hiding place near the well. Slim was a lot calmer now. But, I kinda figured he just might have enough mad still left in him and I didn’t want him to turn it on me. Slim caught me eye and was just about to say something when we our attention was drawn to the kitchen and a combination of laughter and screams from Daisy filled the house, overshadowed by Jess cussing loudly.

 

"You little son &@)*+&%, get outta here."

 

The three of us hurried through the living room and peered around the corner into the kitchen. There standing on one of the kitchen chairs with her skirt hiked up showing her long underwear was Daisy. At the other end, near the kitchen door, his hair all askew and breathing hard was Jess. He had the broom in one hand and the meanest, mangiest lookin' raccoon by the tail in the other…the animal was wiggling and hissing, making a real racket. Speechless, we stood and watched as Jess opened the door with one hand and flung the pesky critter out with the other slamming the door behind him. We had no idea of how long this had been going on but the kitchen looked like a war zone. Flour all over the floor and on one side of Jess' head making him look like he'd gone half gray, from atop the counter honey dripped from the overturned jar onto the floor and broken dishes lay every where.

 

Behind me I heard Slim laugh. "Wh…what happened?"

 

Jess started to say something about Mike's pets, but one look at Mike and he decided against it. Instead he just chuckled. "Oh nothin' Pard… Just one of God's creatures payin' an unexpected visit. Daisy didn't appreciate his company. So I encouraged him to leave."

 

"So, I see," Slim commented and chuckled as he continued to look around what was once a nice neat clean kitchen. Then he looked at Jess and grinned. "Well, with that kind of encouragement I doubt he'll be back," Slim said and finally gave way to laughter.

 

"I hope not," Daisy added. “Just look at this mess," she tsked.

 

Jess just smiled. "I’ll help ya clean it up, Daisy," he promised her and reached over to take the broom in hand.

 

"Oh, no you won’t,” she said firmly and took the broom from him, “you go sit.”

 

"Daisy..." Jess started to protest.

 

"Go on!" Daisy insisted.

 

Their was no use in arguing. Jess turned on his heels, ran his fingers through his hair to add the last of the flour to the floor and headed back to the comfort and warmth of the fire, limping worse than ever. His back really hurting now. Both Slim  and I took note of how carefully he eased himself into the rocker. Of course having the devil by the tail for Lord knows how long didn't help. Made Slim's little talk with Mike a lot more important.

 

Mike turned and followed Jess back to the great room. But when I started to follow, Slim put a hand out to stop me. "I think Mike has a few things he needs to talk to Jess about in private." Daisy stopped her cleaning and came to stand beside Slim and I.

 

"Jess, can I talk to you?" We heard Mike ask. His voice was a little shaky and he appeared to be having a real hard time looking Jess in the eye.

 

"Sure, Tiger. What's on your mind?" Jess asked, putting his cup down to look at the young man standing before him. No longer the angry fired up young man, but a humbled heart sick little boy.

 

"I just wanted to…to say,  I'm sorry for what I said and how I acted a little while ago." he said. "Slim was about to beat my breeches off. Said it should be you."

 

Jess leaned back in the rocker and regarded the young boy. "Slim's right. I should've, Tiger. But, the fact is I ain't feelin' my best just now."

 

That statement elicited raised eyebrows from all three of us. Whenever Jess Harper admitted to not feeling well without prompting...that commanded our attention and was cause for concern.

 

We continued to watch discreetly as he leaned forward, the movement making the chair squeak a little and took Mike by the wrists again and started to explain about the colt once more. We couldn't hear everything that was said. But from the look on Mike's face and the way it was changing color we knew he was getting a lecture from the man who needed to give it to him. Every once in awhile we'd see Mike nod and heard him say, "Yes, sir," and that with far more respect than he'd shown earlier. The young man's changed attitude making us all smile. I glanced over and caught a glimpse of Daisy as she gave Slim's arm a little squeeze....a small gesture of her approval I imagined.

 

"When you get a little older, Mike," we heard Jess say. This time Mike's reaction was

decidedly different.

 

"Aren't you afraid of getting hurt?" We heard Mike ask.

 

My guess was Slim must have talked to Mike about how concerned he is about Jess breaking horses right now. Whatever he said had obviously made an impression on the little guy.

 

Jess smiled and rubbed the young boys shoulder...."Well, I ain't lookin' forward to it. But, ya can't go livin' your life afraid of what might happen, Mike. Else wise you'd never be livin' at all. Just sittin' around bein' scared all the time. You understand?"

 

That last statement must have taken Slim by surprise...because all of a sudden he looked down at the floor and let his breath out real slow. When he looked back up he met Daisy's eyes and they both smiled. I saw Slim blink a few times and I wondered. Some sorta secret between them I guessed. But I didn't bother to ask.

 

"Yeah, I think so," Mike replied. "Jess, I'm really sorry I jerked you like I did. Slim, said I might a' hurt ya. Did I. Did I hurt you Jess?" He asked. Mike's voice now filled with genuine concern.

 

"Don't worry about it, Mike."

 

"But, did I? Did I hurt ya, Jess?"

 

"Some, but m' back was already givin' me what for....so I can't say you did much," Jess admitted.

 

Then without warning Mike threw his arms around the man in the chair…and gave him a big hug. And with that, he was off to his room. Slim had given him a project to work on as part of his punishment. When he mentioned it to Jess, Jess just smiled and nodded towards the boy's room.

 

"You'd best get to it then. We don't want Slim waken' up the other half the county with his barkin'."

 

That news took us all back. We had no idea Jess knew what was going on in the barn that night. I almost laughed at Slim's shocked expression.

 

The rest of the evening went well with us enjoying each others company. Mike had finished with his project Slim had given him and now sat with the rest of us. Jess had taught Mike and me a new card game. Mike especially was full of questions and practiced endlessly. We all sat in the living room around the fire and watched as Mike did his best to beat me....even though Jess had told him that this particular game was a one person game. We both had a deck of cards and were trying to out do each other. I laugh when I think of how often Mike would look up at Jess when he'd get stuck, begging for his assistance; and as always Jess would cave and give it to him, much to my dismay. But, it was all in fun and we all felt the love and warmth that a close family brings. I loved times like these. It's the one thing I enjoy most about being home.

 

I didn’t realize just how bad Jess felt till I heard my brother talking to him about taking a dose of that new medicine. Finally Jess gave in and I watched as my brother poured a teaspoon of the powder in a small glass of water and handed to him.

 

"Only way we're gonna get any to sleep tonight.....with all your moanin' and groanin'," Slim said, half joking. Jess tossed him a sour look and swallowed the offered medicine without comment.

 

It wasn't long after that he said his goodnights and turned in after receiving another heart felt hug from Mike.

 

I later found out that night that Daisy had been talkin' to my brother about HIS own attitude. Slim had been on edge ever since he'd come from town. He seemed a little better after he and Jess had talked it out. But he was still a little raw and very moody. Daisy it seems had encouraged him to continue courting Mr. Bell's daughter, Emma, and he'd finally agreed. She'd even bought him a new shirt and pants and presented them to him that night before supper. Of course Jess teased him about getting all slicked up for the ladies. And that's all it was, teasing. But, as usual my brother just laughed it off. Personally, I think Daisy's idea is a good one. He needs a distraction. And Ms. Emma is a real pretty one.

 

 

 

CHAPTER FIFTEEN -

Phantom Stage

 

 

Though chores on a working on a ranch never seem to end, this particular day the work load was light and close to home. I was glad for that since it meant I didn't have to think up another excuse to keep track of Jess. Andy chopped wood and Mike helped out by carrying it to the woodshed and stacking it neatly. While Jess busied himself in the barn with the tack. He of course griped and grumbled, but did it anyway.

 

Jess' grumbling aside all in all it was turning out to be a beautiful bright winter's day. The transition from summer to winter in Wyoming can be unpredictable at best. You might wake up one morning to a bright sunny day; like today or to an out and out blizzard. You have to be prepared for anything. But, today...today was just plum nice, though the air was more than a little on the crisp side it was sure pretty.

 

At breakfast Daisy told me she'd discovered another hole in our chicken coop. Made no doubt by that danged coyote that keeps coming around. I promised to get right on it. After all, that pesky critter had already gotten two of our best layers and I was gonna see to it that he didn't make it three. I had just finished repairing the hole when I looked up and saw new plumes of smoke coming from the kitchen. I smiled when I remembered Daisy thumbing through her cookbook the night before. Ready to try out another of her recipes I guessed. I could only imagine what delicious meal we had in store for us today. I was really looking forward to whatever she was fixing. For some reason this morning's breakfast just didn't hold me and for the past half hour my stomach was telling me about it.

 

By mid-morning Andy'd finished his chores and had rode off to visit his long time friend Matthew Peterson and wouldn't be back till supper. Mike too had finished and was now running around the yard chasing and trying to keep upright the inner ring of an old buggy wheel Jess had found in the barn. I stopped for a few minutes and watched as he played. It was a good feeling to see little Mike run around happy and contented. So much had happened in his young life that could have destroyed his childhood. It had taken a lot of work to bring him to this point, where he finally felt happy and safe. Even the nightmares he used to have were gone. And now with the probationary period over, Jess and I had become his legal guardians. My watching came to a halt when Daisy called him in and I laughed as he let the ring roll away and dashed into the house.

 

I'd also been thinking about Daisy's suggestion that I should perhaps start courting Emma. Sure sounded like a good idea to me. So, that morning I took Daisy's advice to heart and changed into my new clothes right after the first stage. I had decided to ride over and ask Emma to the Sunday dance coming up two weeks from today. I have always looked forward to Laramie's square dances. The whole town it seems turns out for 'em. Our Daisy's a smart one…just the thought of the upcoming dance had lifted my spirits and put me in a better mood.

 

I told Jess my plans during breakfast. Told him I'd be leaving right after lunch and that Mose would help with the afternoon stage, should I be late getting back, I winked. And he was okay with that. Even wished me luck with Emma. He really is a kind sort my Pard, just likes to put on the tough guy act whenever he feels he can get away with it. As far as I knew Jess hadn't asked anyone yet, but I knew he would. He loves the dances and is real good at swingin' the ladies. Don't know how he does it. There isn't a girl in Laramie that hasn't fallen for him at one time or another. Dang long lashes.

 

It was right after lunch and I'd changed into my new clothes and was heading to the barn to saddle up when all of a sudden, I heard Jess yelling my name and I glanced up to see him running full out towards me as fast as he legs and that limp would carry him. I didn't have time to think, didn't have time to move. He hit me dead on; my hat went flying one way and I went the other. Next thing I knew I found myself laying on my back in the dirt. Took me a second or two before I realized what had happened. I slowly pushed myself up on to my elbows and shook my head. Felt like I'd been charged by a bull, came near to knocking the wind clean outta me. When I finally got my wits about me, I glanced over just in time to see Jess roll over onto his side. He was breathing hard and had a wild frightened look to his eyes. I was still a bit stunned when he stretched out a hand and touched my shoulder.

 

"Slim, are you alright?" He asked, breathlessly. Fear and genuine concern were written all over his face.

 

"Y..yeah," I stammered, looking around  for what could have possibly prompted my partner to knock the living daylights outta me, but I saw nothing. "What the heck was that for?" I asked. But the next words out of Jess' mouth perplexed and angered me. There was no excuse for his actions.

 

"The stage.....didn't ya see it? Ya coulda' been killed." There was a note of desperation to his voice and although I heard it I was growing too mad to care.

 

"What stage?" I shouted.

 

For a second he just stared at me, then struggled to his feet and gazed out into the empty yard. He looked down at me and his eyes followed my frame as I rose to my full 6'3" stature, jerked my Stetson from the ground and started dusting it off. He didn't answer right away. Instead he just looked past me and stared. His eyes still had that wild frightened look to them.

 

"Slim, I saw.......?" He stammered and turned to stare out at the empty yard again. Still hearing the coach in his mind as it clattered and rattled away becoming less and less clear. He watched in confused terror as the dirt kicked up by his assault dissolved from rushing stage into the dust that now danced in the bright sunlight and settled around a very mad Slim Sherman. He told me later.

 

"Saw what, Jess?" I could feel my anger climb. "So, where is it, huh?" I shouted.

 

Shocked at his own actions, he now turned and looked at me. "Bu… but.....I heard.....it was...." his voice faded as full realization came to him and he was suddenly aware that his actions were completely unwarranted.

 

Things had been going well. It had been a perfect morning until.... I looked down at my brand new pants and shirt; now smeared with dirt. There'd not be enough time to clean up and change and get back before supper.  Figuring I was gonna miss out on asking Emma to the dance because of his foolish act, my face flushed, and I exploded.

 

"Dad gumit," I  shouted. "Damn you, Jess. What the hell's the matter with you?"

 

"But, I..." he continued to stammer. His eyes still searching the yard, but that frightened wild animal look had begun to fade and I saw him swallow a few times. "Slim, I..."

 

I clinched my teeth and pointed to my own head in hopes of driving the point home. "It's all in your head, Jess!" I shouted as I continued to knock the dust from my pants my anger reaching new heights. "You've just gone plum damn crazy, Jess, that's all. Hearing things and seeing things that aren't there...need to lock you up and throw away the ke..." I suddenly realized with a start what I was saying and stopped mid-sentence to choke back the words. Now it was my turn to be shocked. I knew those words cut like knives through wounds not yet healed and I shuddered, my own words sending cold chills through me. This is my best friend, my 'brother', my Pard I'm yellin' at. Dear Lord, what have I done!

 

All anger gone, I stopped dusting my clothes and looked up to gaze at my friends back as he turned and limped slowly towards the barn. All thoughts of Emma, dances and anything else that’d had filled my head before were now replaced by shame. My full attention rested on Jess. I desperately wanted to make amends; to tell him how sorry I was. That I really didn't mean what I said. But for the moment my own actions silenced me. Finally, I gulped down my guilt, and hurried after him. But it was too late, the damage was done. I reached the barn just in time to see Jess mount Traveler. As he started to leave I reached up and grabbed Traveler's bridle; stopping him.

 

He'd gone pale and had started to shake', his hat pulled down tight to cover his eyes...I could only imagine why.  "Jess?"

 

"Let go, Slim," he said, his voice low and shaky.

 

"Jess, I'm sorry. Please, let me talk to you, huh?" I pleaded. "Jess... Pard, I didn't mean it. Honest I didn't. You just shocked me s' all," I bent down a little to try and see under the brim of his Stetson, but couldn't. "Jess, please.... let's talk?"

 

"No need for talk. Talkin's over. Now let go." It was more than a request it was an order. He was on the edge and I knew it wouldn't take much to push him over. I sure didn't want to be the last straw, and I prayed to God that I wasn't. Knowing the last thing he needed right now was a fight; I bit my lip, let my hand drop from the bridle and stepped aside. 

 

I kept telling myself to remain calm and speak softly, I took a deep breath...."Well, where you going? What should I tell Daisy? She's making a special supper tonight, Jess. Do you want me to tell her you'll be late?" It was a desperate ploy, an attempt to try and find out where he was heading and when or even IF he'd be back. He hadn't packed his gear, that was a relief. But in his state of mind....

 

I could've kicked myself from here to Sunday! As sick as he's been and with the way those walking dreams have been making him feel...and what do I go and do, but slap him right in the face with the one thing that's been weighing on his mind. I cursed my lack of sensitivity and my big mouth! I would have felt better had he just landed me one instead of riding off.

 

"Yeah," he said flatly then forcefully nudged Traveler past me, so close I felt the tip of his boot brush against my arm. I stood and watched as he put spurs to his mount and sped down the dusty Laramie road, then turned towards the hill that overlooks our cabin. It's the one place Jess would go when he was really feeling down or had some heavy thinking to do. Being there seemed to bring him peace somehow and helped him to think things through.

 

Well, at least I know where he is gone, I sighed. But I was worried and determined to keep the vigil to make sure he didn't go any further. In his mental state and with the way his back had been acting up I didn't feel it safe for him to be alone...and I wasn't gonna let him. I don't know when my own actions have made me feel so bad.

 

By the time supper rolled around there was still no sign of Jess. Worry finally got to me and had started to pace. It had been several hours since I'd seen Traveler climb that hill. Now the sun was going down and it was getting hard to see. Every sound seemed to draw my attention and I'd rush to the window only to be disappointed and I'd pace. I had it in mind to go after him, but thought better of it. I had done enough damage, caused enough hurt for one day. So, I decided to wash up and take supper with the rest of the family. And wait.

 

Andy had returned from his visit and was washing up for supper. He knew something was wrong. You could feel it in the air. When he asked me where Jess was and I told him what had happened. He laid into me full force. Hauled off and gave me a haymaker I won't soon forget. He and my Pard are very close and like me, he knows how close we came to losing him. Even Daisy, who's usually so calm gave me a few hard looks. But, as is her nature, before long I felt her pat my arm and her warm smile consoled me.

 

"He'll be back," she said softly.

 

I tried to eat, but found the more I tried to swallow the harder it became. I finally gave up and drank my coffee instead. We’d just finished up when the sound of a horse entering the yard drew our attention. Mike hurried to the window and happily announced that it was Jess. I joined Mike and watched with relief as Jess lead Traveler into the barn. I looked over my shoulder at Andy. His eyes still ablaze.

 

Shame faced I started to leave the kitchen when Mike bolted for the door. "I'll go tell Jess supper's on the table," he shouted full of excitement but Andy reached out a hand, grabbed his shirt and pulled him back.

 

"Mike, let's let Slim and Jess have some time alone, okay?" I was grateful for the swift intervention. I glanced back at Daisy and smiled sadly, words not being necessary between us. But it was Andy’s voice that caught my attention before I left.

 

"He'd better be alright," he warned and for a moment our eyes locked and I knew he meant business. I had a lot of crow to eat, and if I didn't, I knew Andy was gonna shove it down my throat. I couldn't blame him.

 

"I'll keep supper for you two in the oven," Daisy promised and gave me a gentle smile. Her strength giving me the courage I needed to face my friend.

 

"Thanks, Daisy. Might as well put on another pot of coffee too. We're gonna need it. I got a lot of repairing to do," I told her.

 

"Don't be too hard on yourself, dear. You were shocked and scared. Jess'll understand. You know he always comes around."

 

She was trying to reassure me and although I appreciated the gesture I was unsure. The shock and hurt I saw cross my friend's face still played out in my mind and my heart sank.

 

"I know, Daisy. But, he's not well and I did a lot of damage," I told her, took a deep breath and tried to smile before leaving the house. "Just hope I can make it right. I can't imagine losing him."

 

"Oh, Slim! You don't think it will come to that, do you?"

 

"I don't know. You didn't see his face when he left. Like I'd shot him clean through." I reached out and kissed her forehead then left the house, closing the door quietly behind me.

 

As I entered the barn I saw Jess at the far end near the last stall. He was rubbing down Traveler and talking real low and soft to his faithful mount. I stopped to contemplate how I should approach my partner. He was hurting and he didn't need me adding more to it than I already had.

 

It took him a while before he realized I was there. I could tell by his manner; the rigid way he held his back and the way he was brushing Traveler that he wasn't in a talking mood. But, I had to try. If he didn't want to talk I could only hope he'd let me. Crow goes down a lot easier when someone's willing to listen. I stepped over to him and started slow and gentle like.

 

"Jess? Pard, are you alright?" There was a lot riding on whatever happened in that barn that night. I was so nervous I didn't even realize I'd been holding my breath until I started to talk. I let it out slow. Now I'm not much of a praying man, but I gotta tell ya I was making up for it now. I watched and wiped my hands on my pants and stepped closer.

 

"I'm fine. Hope I didn't hurt ya none," he answered not bothering to look at me. His voice was calm and steady. That was a good sign. Meant he'd thought things through and had reached a conclusion.

 

"Nah...it'd take more n' Harper freight train to do that," I chuckled nervously. Darn I wish I could control my breathing. I never found it hard to talk to Jess before. I hadn't realized until that night, just how emotionally fragile he really was. Nor how much damage I'd caused. I had to get him to listen to me. So much would depend on what I said next and to be honest for the first time in our friendship, I was at a loss as to what to say or how to say it. I was scared for both of us; now more than ever. I took another deep breath.

 

"Jess?" I started.

 

"Slim, I've been thinking. Might be a good idea for ya to talk to Jeb 'bout bein' your partner."

 

"Wh....what!" I was stunned. Where'd that come from? He'd caught me totally off guard. I opened my mouth, but all I heard was my friend's voice.

 

"He's a good man, knows ranchin' better n' me. I can teach...."

 

"Stop it, Jess! Just stop it! I got a good man. I got you." I had planned to stay calm, but before I knew it I'd raised my voice. If that hit hadn't knocked the wind outta me, those words sure did.

 

"Look, Slim. You need help. Takes two to run this ranch proper you know that."

 

"I got help. I got you, Jess! I don't need...."

 

"No, Slim," he shook his head. "You need a partner you can trust," he said softly, "don't need ta be watchin' your back wonderin' what's gonna happen next."

 

"I don't do that," I realized my voice was still to high too be talking to a friend, especially Jess, but he'd sucker punched me and I wasn't sure what to do next. I could feel the hackles on the back of my neck rise, my irritation beginning to grow; I struggled against it. "I do trust you!" I spat.

 

Standing there in the barn that night trying to talk to Jess was like wading through quicksand and I was going down fast. I needed something, anything to grab on to. I had to think. For a moment all I could do was stare at him. I had to make him listen to me. If I didn't get through to him now, I felt I'd lose him forever and I wasn't gonna let that happen. Jess means a lot to me. He was and will always be the best friend I've ever had or will ever have for that matter. And I was bound and determined to keep it that way. No matter what I had to do.

 

Though determined, I knew I had to be careful. My palms were sweating again and I had a lump in my throat as big as my fist, I swallowed against it. Took a deep breath and let it out slow. He still had his back to me and I watched as he placed his arms across Traveler’s back and listened as he spoke. He shook his head slowly, his voice calm and controlled. Almost…almost, too calm, resigned.

 

 "Slim, I can't fight this. I can fight m' way outta almost anything and most times come out standin', but not this," he shook his head and started brushing again. "Can't fight somethin' I can't see. Somethin' in m' own head." His voice had begun to tremble and in the dim light I could see him workin' that jaw. And I realized he wasn't as calm as I thought he was.

 

"Jess...listen to me, please. Like I told you before, you're not alone in this, Pard."

 

He slowly put the brush down and turned to face me and I saw the raw emotion of the one man I'd come to love like a brother. I was holding my breath. I watched as he turned away from Traveler and place his elbows on the top of the stall and absently fiddle with the brush. He was shaking and I saw tears glisten under those lashes. I bit back my words.

 

"I'm losin' my mind, Slim. Ain't no other way to say it. I'm goin' plum loco," his voice trembled and I could tell it was all he could do to hold it together.

 

I took a deep breath and slowly approached him like I would a wounded animal. "No....no you're not, Jess," I said, softly. It was easy to see that he was right on the edge, it wouldn't take much to shatter what little stability he had left. I had to choose my words careful, real careful if I wanted to keep my friend and partner. I approached him the way I did the very first time hoping it would work again.

 

"No! Then what do you call it, Slim, huh?  Wh.....what..... do ya call a man who sees somethin' that ain't there, huh? You tell me!”

 

Then with fear and hurt over whelming him he dropped the brush and stepping away from the stalls came to stand in the middle of the barn and turned to face me. Those blue eyes sparkled with tears that rolled down his cheeks. I didn't say a word. I stood silent and watched my friends agony, my own heart breaking for him. He looked down at the floor then back up at me and with his arms down to his sides he turned his palms up towards me and shaking his arms violently his deep husky voice filled with uncontrolled emotion he screamed.

 

"LOOK AT ME! I'm a growd man and I'm standin' here cryin' like a baby and shakin' like a leaf. I'm runnin' and tacklin' my best friend, thinkin' I'm seein'," he gasped...strugglin' to get his breath, "so...somethin' that ain't there. I don't know what YOU call it Slim, but I call that CRAZY!"

 

Standing there watching what little control Jess had left slip away scared me to death. I had to do something and quick. So, I walked up and placed my hands on his shoulders and shook him gently. 

 

"Jess, you're not crazy," I said softly.

 

"How do ya know, Slim?" He said gulping in air and looked directly at me tears streaming down his cheeks. "Huh? Tell me. How do ya know, Slim?" He demanded.

 

"Because I know YOU, Pard. Jess, a man doesn't go mad like this. There's something wrong here, and we gotta find out what it is, don't you see? You're not going loco, Jess. Your sick, Pard. You understand? You're sick."

 

He shut his eyes tight and slowly shook his head. "No, no Slim, I don't," his voice trembled and when he opened his eyes he looked straight at me those crystal blues filled with tears and pain and yes, fear. "It ain't safe me bein' around no more, Slim.”

 

Dear God! Not this again! Now what do I do? What can I say to convince this stubborn fool he needs to stay put and not go off some where’s… where he....all of a sudden I just wanted to shake him? Knock some sense into that thick head. But, Jess looked to be as fragile as glass. So instead I took a deep calming breath.

 

"Now," I paused for a moment, swallowed hard and ran a shaky hand across my face. "Now, wai...wait a minute Jess...before," I took another breath, "before you go and do something...somethin' you'll be sorry for, listen to me, please," I begged.

 

"That's what I'm afraid of, Slim, don't ya see?  Doin' somethin' I'll be sorry for. Slim, when I looked out a this barn I coulda' swore I saw that stage. Heard it too. Plan as day. It was as re...real as you are ri...right now and it was bearin' down on ya," his was voice shaking so hard I had to really listen to understand him. "I was sc...scared it was gonna hit ya, I didn't have t...time ta...so I...I," his voice failed as he fought for control.

 

I gave him a gentle shake and spoke as softly as my own fear would allow, hoping my touch and my words would calm him. "So you tried to save my life. Jess, a man going mad doesn't think like that."

 

He suddenly pulled away and staggered backwards. "Slim, I don't know what's real and what ain't no more," he gasped and continued to shake and the tears just kept coming.

 

In all the years I'd known him and in all the things we've shared the good and the bad, I have never seen Jess Harper in such a state. And standing there watching him suffer I've never felt so helpless.

 

"Dear God! Slim, don't you understand. I can't tell what's real no more....am...am I talkin' to you or am I talkin' to a fence po...post? Huh, Slim...do ya see what I mean?"

 

I swallowed hard and felt my own knees go weak when I realized my friend had lost complete control now. "Slim, I...I got a gun on me, same s' you. But...the difference is you're in your ri...right mi...mind...I ain't. I might be thinkin' you or Daisy or Mi..." he stopped again and I saw his lower lip quiver he was gulping in air like a fish out of water. "I might shoot..." his emotions strangling him into silence, his head hung low, gaspin' through the tears. In true Harper style he wasn't worried about himself, just those he loved, his family.

 

I walked back up to him and squeezed his shoulders again. "That's not gonna happen, Jess."

 

Still gasping he looked up at me and swallowed. "No. How do ya know, Slim huh. Can you guarantee me that it won't?"

 

I shook my head..."Jess, the chances of something like that happening are so small...they..."

 

"Well I ain't willin' take 'um. No matter how small they are, Slim...."

 

"Jess, please listen to me. You're sick, Pard. I know it and I think you do too. There's got to be a reason for all this," I told him. At least I had his attention now and he appeared to have gained a little control. "Look, Seth's  gonna be out this way Saturday, why not let him take a look at you, huh? Please."

 

He pulled away from me then and wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. "What good's that gonna do? He ain't no head doctor."

 

"No," I chuckled, "but he might have some idea of what's going on. Could be almost anything, Pard. He's got the training. Let him use it to help you. Jess, this is your home. You've put as much blood, sweat and work into this place as I have and I'm not gonna let you throw that all away, just because of something we can't see or understand. Okay?"

 

He took a deep shaky breath and bowed his head again and in a low voice, just above a whisper..."And wh....what if he can't?" He stuttered, the tears still wet on his cheeks. "Wh...what if I'm really losin'...?"

 

"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it. All I know, is I'm not ready to give up on my 'brother.'"

 

"Alright, Slim. We'll try it your way. Just this once."

 

"Good. Now come on, Daisy's keeping supper for us, and I'm hungry," I smiled, wrapped an arm around his shoulders and nudged him gently toward the house.

 

But as we got closer he stopped again, still worried. "But if he can't find..."

 

"If he can't find out what's wrong," I interrupted, " then you and me'll ride out together..." I said with as much determination as I could muster and grinned as we started walking again, knowing if anything could get a rise out of him that would. And it did. He stopped dead in his tracks, jerked away from me and stared.

 

"You're ain't no drifter," he spat.

 

"Neither are you," I countered.

 

"Slim, you couldn't take bein' on the drift," he stated still looking as if he couldn't believe what he'd heard, "you're too much a homebody."

 

"Well, I'm sure as heck not gonna let you go alone. Your sick Jess, and you need help. I let you take off once a couple years back when you were sick. That was my fault. When I found ya I promised myself then and there that I'd never let that happen again. And that's a promise I aim to keep."

 

"But, think of the family, Slim," he pleaded.

 

"They're you're family too, Jess."

 

"Slim, Daisy and Mike; they...they can't run this place alone!"

 

"They'll get by," I said all the while doing, my best not to smile. I shook him. I could hear it in his voice and I planned to use that to my advantage. Always worked before, I figured.

 

He continued to stare. "You're plum loco," he stammered.

 

I looked at him and grinned. Then laughed as he caught it.

 

"Oh, sorry...that's me ain't it?" That’s when I saw him smile. Just what I wanted. I was so relieved. But I was on a roll and couldn't let it drop. Not yet anyways. Never could where Jess is concerned.

 

"I could learn to drift," I told him, placing my hand at the back of his neck. "I got a good teacher," I told him, shaking him gently.

 

He shook his head again. "Wouldn't work, Pard," he said and moved away from me a little edging slowly toward the house.

 

"Why not?"

 

"You're a rancher, Slim. Tryin' to learn to drift be like... like tryin' to swallow a horn toad backwards. Just can't be done," he said, throwing it back to me as his smile grew into a grin. 

 

He was almost at the kitchen door when I finally realized I'd been insulted. Took me back for sure. After seeing him just a few minutes earlier in such emotional turmoil, the change in mood had taken me completely by surprise. I started to give a retort when he turned his back and bolted for the house as fast as that limp would carry him.... with me hot on his heels. We hit the door together, laughing.

 

 

 

CHAPTER SIXTEEN -

"you ah, look a little on the naked side"

 

 

I awoke the next morning with the sun stabbing me in the face and the annoying sound of birds nesting in the tree right outside our window. I rubbed the sleep from my eyes, and looked over at my partner only to find him gone. The clock on the nightstand struck 5:00 a.m. I hustled myself out of bed, got dressed and headed for the kitchen. Daisy already had coffee waiting for me and was in the process of plating up the bacon.

 

"Mornin', Daisy," I mumbled.

 

"Good morning, dear. Did you sleep well?"

 

"Yeah, I guess. Didn't think I would though. Was worried about 'our boy' most of the night."

 

"He lost his supper last night, didn't he?" She asked sadly.

 

"Sure did." I admitted. "He was worried he might hurt your feelings if you knew," then it dawned on me. "How DID you know?"

 

"I can always tell when one of my boys is feeling poorly. It's a mother's way."

 

I nodded. "Says his stomach is all churned up. I think it's all the worrying he's been doing over those walking dreams as you call 'em." I stretched and yawned again. "Well, Seth'll be here today, maybe we'll get some answers," I yawned again. "Just wish Jess wouldn't wait so long before agreeing to see the doc. I've never seen a more stubborn, mule headed man in my whole life. Took close to an hour to get his medicine down him after we ate," I took my seat shaking my head. "Just pure ornery," I added as took a swallow of hot coffee.

 

"And you wouldn't change a thing about him," she said smiling down at me.

 

"Oh, wouldn't I?"

 

"No, you wouldn't Slim Sherman."

 

"And why not?"

 

"Because it wouldn't be our Jess. That's part of what makes him unique."

 

"Unique," I hissed, "he could use a little ordinary if you ask me."

 

"Speaking of  'our boy,' where is he?"

 

"He was up before dawn. Ate a little better this morning I'm glad to say. He's out with that horse. He said something about having an idea or such. He promised me he'd wear his coat, but....," she said and pointed to the easy chair in the living room, with Jess' jacket flung over it.

 

I shook my head. "The last thing that boy needs right now is a chill," I complained and she agreed.

 

Looking around the house Daisy told me Mike and Andy were still in bed as far as she knew but she was about to wake them for breakfast. I gulped down the last of my coffee and grabbed my own coat along with Jess' and headed for the door.

 

It had snowed on and off throughout the night, not heavy, just enough so that a light dusting covered everything. I was glad to see Mike had obeyed me and cleaned out the corral as I asked. That's where I found Jess. He was standing outside, his arms resting on the top rail, looking, studying the nervous animal as he made circles, eyeing Jess as he went.

 

"Mornin', Pard. You forgot this," I said, and handed him his coat. That's when I noticed he wasn't wearing his gun.

 

"Jess, you ah, look a little on the naked side there," I smiled and pointed to his belt.

 

Jess turned serious. "I just figure everybody'd be whole lot safer if I wasn't packin' right now, Slim."

 

"Jess…"

 

"It makes me feel better, okay, Pard?" He smiled and slipped into his coat. "You know, I don't think he's as wild as all that," he said, noticeably changing the subject.

 

"He's looks to be about as wild as you were a while back", I teased. "By the way, how you feeling this morning?"

 

"Better, thanks. Sorry, bout last night, Slim. I didn't mean to wake ya."

 

"Don't worry about it. You couldn't help getting sick, Jess. No need to feel bad about it. You'd have done the same for me. Do wish you'd told me sooner that you weren't feelin' your oats though," we looked at each other and smiled.

 

Our conversation came to an abrupt end when the colt suddenly started bucking and shaking his head. He was twisting and spinning like a top, so worked up he'd built up a good lather and was flinging it as he jerked his head around to glare at my Pard. He was too wild as far as I was concerned. This horse could kill a man…and I didn't want that man to be my partner. But, so far my arguments had fallen on deaf ears.

 

"Well, whatcha  planning on this morning?" I asked, nervously. My mind racing trying to figure out a way to keep Jess out of that pen and out of a pine box.

 

He cleared his throat and smiled. "Got to know how he feels about me first," he said. Then as he turned away I heard him say in a low voice. "Before I mount him."

 

My eyes shot wide open. "Mount him! Now wait a minute, Jess." That knot in my stomach was back again and growing.

 

He was heading for the barn, but threw me a half smile over his shoulder as he went that told me he was teasing. "That's not funny," I spat and hurried after him. "Jess, you're not serious about this, are you? That's no horse.....that...that's a demon with legs I tell ya."

 

"Well, not yet maybe," he smiled. I knew that tone. I had learned many years ago that when Jess used that tone it meant business and in most cases there was simply no way to talk him out of it. He can close that mind down like a steel trap when he wants to do something bad enough.

 

"Jess, you know what the doc said. You gotta be careful..."

 

"Yeah, I know." Then he changed the subject again. "You gonna help me, Pard?"

 

"Sure. But what about breakfast? Daisy's almost got it on the table."

 

"I won't be long. You can go ahead if you like." There it was, that twinkle again.

 

"No....no, I'm not leaving you alone with that whirlin' dervish," I told him and shoved my thumb in the colt's direction.

 

"Okay," he said and walked past me toward the holding pen. But I hurried and got ahead of him.

 

"Jess, would you just do me a favor and let me take care of this one...this time, huh?"

 

Jess stopped and turned to me with a combination of disbelief and shock. "She didn't bring this animal over for you to break, Slim. She brought him over to me. I gave my word."

 

"I know, I know you did. But, Jess I just don't think it's a good idea just yet," I stammered losing my verbal footing. "Tell you what, why don't you let me work him first...kinda warm him up for ya," I offered, but he just gave me 'the look' ,shook his head and reached up to unlatch the gate. And that was all it took. The colt suddenly went off like a cannon. He twisted, reared, bared his teeth and raced toward the two of us, twisted around and came real close to kicking us both. Did manage to knock a board loose.

 

For a moment we both just stood and stared. "That did it," I said and stepped in front of my partner. "If anyone’s going in there it's gonna be me," I snapped and gave Jess a little shove.

 

"Now wait a minute..."

 

"No arguments, Jess."

 

"But, you can't...I mean," he stumbled over the words all the while eyeing that walking demon. "Slim, wait...ya, what makes you," he paused as his attention being drawn away again by the colt's antics. "He's...ah, he's..."

 

I could see where this was going and it was about to make me laugh. This had all the ear markings of a good knock down drag out battle, maybe not with fists but certainly with words.

 

"Jess, you know if you walked the way you're talking right now, you'd never get anywhere..."

 

"Slim Sherman, now you just..."

 

Gratefully, he never got a chance to finish the sentence. Just then Seth Andrews pulled up to the hitching post and gave us a cheery wave. Thank goodness. Not only would Jess not get a chance to get in with the walking devil, but now maybe we could get some answers.

 

"This ain't over," Jess growled.

 

It was as far as I was concerned. At least for now.

 

Seth stepped down and joined the three of us. Jess was first to the door while Andy and I held back for a moment with Seth. Our family doctor just shook his head. "Looked like it was gonna be a good one," he said with a wink.

 

"It had the potential, I'll admit that. I just don't think it's safe for him to be working the horse's right now, Seth."

 

Seth said nothing, but nodded his agreement.

 

"We're just sitting down to breakfast, join us?" He did and we had a very pleasant meal. I noticed as we ate that Seth kept eyeing Jess; taking note of the fact that he didn't eat I guessed. Daisy tried to encourage him, but he said he'd just rather have coffee.

 

With breakfast over, Seth asked to see Jess alone and they headed to our bedroom while set about helping Daisy with the breakfast dishes. We’d only just got started when the bedroom door opened I was called in.

 

"Slim, Jess feels that you might want to be present for this … he says there are a few things he's not sure of and feels you might be able to fill in the gaps."

 

I nodded followed him in the room and took a seat on my own bunk next to Seth, facing Jess.

 

"Alright Jess, let's start again. You said you'd been out checking the fences, and...."

 

I watched as my friend leaned forward, hands on his knees, his brow furrowed in concentration, trying hard to recall the events of that day. 

 

I decided to help…"Out in the south pasture," then added with a slight smile…"hope that's all you did."

 

Jess looked up at me and chuckled. "I was good boy, Pa."

 

Seth started to laugh. "Okay, then what?"

 

"Well, it was gettin' kinda late and m' back was hurtin' again, so I decided I'd see what Daisy'd fixed me. I found the medicine, two beef sandwiches and an apple…I think. Then I sat down under that big old oak tree to eat. You know the one you say kinda ties everything together?"

 

I nodded and smiled, picturing the tree in my mind. It's a old oak, must be two hundred years old if it's a day. It shades a large area near the stream and is where we have our picnics in summer. And where Jess and I sneak away for a nap whenever we can. It's near the same place I first met Jess that fateful summer's day.

 

"You take the medicine?"

 

He nodded that he did.

 

"Did it help?" Seth asked.

 

"I don't know." Then he seemed to drift for a minute. But Seth brought him back

 

"Then what, Jess?"

 

"Don't recall if I finished lunch or not. I do remember gettin' on Traveler... but," he frowned.

 

Seth and I exchanged glances. Seth leaned over to my Pard and after laying a comforting hand on his shoulder, admonished. "Just tell me what you can remember, don't try and force it. It's alright. Just let it come natural."

 

"Natural?" He said nervously. He took a deep breath and let it out hard and shook his head. "Seth... I.... couldn't remember ho....how to get home. The road…the road was no more n' half a mile away, but I couldn't recall how to get to it…I", he almost looked on the verge of panic and had put his hand to his head. I noticed that his hand shook a little and I wondered if his head was hurting.

 

"Take it easy," Seth said calmly. "Try and tell me how you felt just before you got on your horse."

 

He nodded.

 

I shifted positions. This was harder than I thought. It was one thing to have seen Jess in such a state, it was quite another to hear it from my friends perspective; to hear him say how it'd made him feel sent chills through me.

 

"You'd just finished lunch and you walked over to Traveler," Seth prompted.

 

"I, ah…," he swallowed nervously. "I felt...con...confused. Like it was the first time I'd been out there…and a little, a little scared, I reckon. I couldn't get my bearin's," he sniffed and rubbed his finger under his nose. "My directions were all off," he said, his voice low as if ashamed to admit it.

 

"Well, under the circumstances, that's normal, Jess," Seth assured him. But, I could tell it didn't help. Jess looked like he wanted to run. I felt like I had to do something, so I reached over, poured a glass of water and handed it to him. He tried to smile and reached out a shaky hand to take the glass and drank most of it before handing it back.

 

"Alright, you're on Traveler and you finally found the road…"

 

"No. No, Seth, I didn't. Traveler did," he said, his voice shaking even harder.

 

"Traveler?"

 

"Yeah, I didn't know where I was supposed to go. I knew...," he paused for a moment and I saw that jaw tighten. "I needed to go somewhere, but 'where' that was what I didn’t know...., I just let Traveler lead me," he fell silent, his brow furrowed and squeezed his eyes shut as if willing for either the memory or us to go away. Seth leaned back and he gave me a looked born of puzzlement and worry.

 

"Well....what did you feel as you were coming home?" Seth asked, looking intently into his patient's eyes as if searching for a clue.

 

Jess just shook his head. "I…I don't," he caught his breath and he looked down at the floor trying hard to remember. "I don't know."

 

"Jess?"

 

"Next thing I remember was. I saw...,"

 

I watched and my heart ached for my friend. He chewed his lip.

 

"I saw this face in my head". But, I didn't know who it was. Just someone I knew…but I didn't know how I knew him, just that I needed to see him."

 

He was breathing hard now and beads of sweat had started to pop out on his forehead. The memory of that day or rather what he could remember of it was upsetting him. I would be glad when this was over.

 

"On the way back, all I could think of was I needed to see him. I couldn't think of the name, ju...just saw the face. Then when I saw Slim I realized it was him." He ran a shaky hand through his hair.

 

Seth and I looked at each other again.

 

"Did you remember his name, then?"

 

Jess shook his head. "No, not right off."

 

Seth nodded. "Alright. Then what happened?" Seth was pressing and it was getting harder and harder for me to watch this. I dearly wished this was over.

 

"It's hard to describe, Seth. My head felt all…all jumbled up inside. I...I remember Slim talkin' to me, b...but…I, coul....couldn't understand what he was sayin'. The yard, the house....," he bit his lip, "I knew somehow that I was supposed to be here, but nothin' looked right....I..." his voice trailed off.

 

"You're doing fine, Jess. Just take a deep breath and try and relax. Jess obeyed and wiped his hand over his face and sniffed.

 

I reached behind me, pulled my handkerchief out of my hip pocket and handed it to him. He took it with a shaky hand and blew his nose and set it aside.

 

"What happened then?" Seth asked, gently.

 

"I…I don't know, Seth. Next thing I know I'm wakin' up and Slim's bringin' me ‘m coffee," he shook his head again as if to clear it, "that's all."

 

I watched as our family doctor furrowed his brow and nodded, then looked at his patient and smiled. "You did just fine, Jess. Just fine."

 

I sighed with relief, glad to have this over. Then to my surprise our family doctor turned his attention to me.

 

"Slim, I want you to tell me as best you can, exactly what Jess was like when he came home."

 

At first I just sat there and stared at him. I had a gut feeling that if I explained my first impressions of my friend, it would only make things worse. Offend and upset him for sure. And as sick as he was I certainly didn't want to do that. But, Seth had me cornered.

 

"Slim?"

 

I rubbed the back of my neck. Stalling for time. "Seth, I.…"

 

Seth recognized my dilemma and smiled. "Slim, I know this isn't easy for you and certainly not for Jess. But if he can do it, so can you. I know you two boys and I know neither of you would do anything to hurt the other. So if you're holding back because you fear that what you say might make Jess uncomfortable or hurt him. Let me tell you something right now. Your silence could do more harm than good. We need to get to the bottom of this and we're gonna need your help to do it."

 

I glanced over at my Pard; and he gave me that little crocked smile he knows I like so well. Funny how little things like that can turn a situation around and make it better. So, with the unuttered go ahead from Jess; I tried to lay my fears aside.

 

"When Jess came home.…" I paused and looked at my Pard. "I didn't really notice anything different at first. Just that he was late. Before he rode up I had it in mind to take off and look for him. So when he came riding up I stepped off the porch and started to give him a good tongue lashing for making us worry.

 

"Why were you so concerned?" Seth asked to my surprise.

 

"Jess had been having some dizzy spells and even passed out a couple of times, so I.…"

 

"Okay. So you started to lay into him. Something stop you?"

 

I nodded. "Yeah. It wasn't Jess that pulled up to the hitching post. It was Traveler," I saw the look of shock and confusion cross Jess' face. And I rubbed the back of my neck again. "I mean, it was Traveler that brought Jess home. And I'm sure glad of it. But, it wasn't Jess tha..."

 

Seth suddenly stopped me. "I don't think I follow you, Slim. What do you mean it wasn't Jess?"

 

I tried again. This was a lot harder than I thought. “I could tell by the way Jess was sitting in the saddle that it was Traveler bringing him home and not Jess guiding him. Jess, looked like he'd never been here before, like he wasn't sure of things. He had this wild scared look to his eyes. He didn't  recognize me, the yard, nothing. But, then…" I paused again, trying to collect my thoughts and desperately wishing this was over. I took another deep breath and looked at my partner for reassurance.

 

Jess reached over, placed a gentle hand on my shoulder, gave me another little a smile and backed it up with. "Its okay, Pard. Just tell him. Ya can fill in the blanks for me."

 

That made me feel better, but before I could continue Seth stepped in and changed the rules.

 

"Alright, Slim, let's try it this way. Let's forget about Jess' mental state for a minute. Tell me how he appeared to you physically."

 

Oh, thank God, that's better. "To tell you the truth Seth, at first I thought he'd been drinking." Jess shot me a look of disbelief and shock all rolled into one. He's mouth fell open and he leaned forward, waiting for me to explain.

 

"You thought he was drunk?" Seth appeared to be as surprised as Jess.

 

I nodded. "In a way. You know what Jess is like when he's had a few too many. He's not what you'd expect at all," I smiled at Jess and almost chuckled when he turned a little red.

 

"I do. But what made you think he'd been drinking?"

 

"He was swaying in the saddle and sweating just like he'd really tied one on. Acted for all the world like he'd cleaned the bottom of one of Lander's bottles. I thought he had at first; I even smelled his breath to be sure", I shook my head, "nothing".

 

"Talkative?" Seth asked looking over at Jess who appeared to be more than just a bit uncomfortable…though still interested in what I had to say.

 

I shook my head. "That's the thing, Seth. Normally, he would be, but no. Not at all. I was the one doing all the talking. And when he did speak, his speech was clear, not slurred. Just real slow."

 

"Slow?" Seth looked puzzled.

 

"Yeah, like he had to...to think hard about what he was going say before he said it. He just had this confused and frightened look to him. It's hard to describe. He was pleasant enough, almost...well, almost docile in fact. I could've lead Jess around like a puppy...he was so gentle," I again glanced at my friend; his face flushed and he shifted positions nervously. Under normal circumstances that would have made me smile. But there was nothing humorous about this.

 

Seth turned his attention briefly to Jess again. "Do you remember feeling drunk, Jess?"

 

"Huh?" Jess ran his hand over his face and blinked a couple of times before answering. "No. All I know is that I was confused. I didn't know where I was. All I…all I wanted to do was to see Slim. But, I couldn't even remember his name." I could hear the emotion in his voice. Seth turned his attention back to me again.

 

"Alright, go on."

 

"That's when I asked him if he knew where he was. He didn't say one way or the other."

 

"And why did you do that?"

 

I swallowed hard and tried to avoid my friend's eyes. But I was too late. Jess caught it and once again squeezed my shoulder. "Go on, Pard," he smiled. "It's alright, I need your help."

 

"I, I thought maybe he....was… I mean... I thought he might be…" I looked to Seth for help. I just couldn't say it. Not with Jess sitting right in front of me. I'd hurt him for sure.

 

Our family doc took a deep breath. "You thought he might was having another of those flashbacks. Is that it?" Seth asked.

 

All I could do was nod.

 

"I see. Alright, with that in mind, what else happened?"

 

Things were getting awful thick and I just wanted out. In a way I think I understood how Jess feels when he wants to run. And right now I sure did.

 

"When he finally stepped down, he was swaying real bad. I reached out to steady him. I had to hold on tight cause I knew if I let go he'd have hit the dirt for sure. He was having a hard time as it was just standing up. I got him to the porch. He sat for a minute in the rocker, then I got him up to get him inside when all of a sudden he…he got real sick."

 

Seth's eyes were narrow. "He vomited?"

 

I nodded that he had. "Funny thing is he didn't realize what had happened to him at first, so I leaned him over and he finished throwing up.…"

 

"Wa....wait a minute, Slim. What do you mean you 'helped'  him?"

 

I shifted uncomfortably.

 

"Slim?"

 

"He didn't know to....to…" I didn't know how to say it. "It was like everything was new and strange to him. Seth, I don't know how else to describe it."

 

"Alright."

 

He turned once more to Jess. Who, although fighting back embarrassment, was none the less interested, sitting still and listening, trying to make sense of everything.

 

"Now what about this stage coach incident, Slim told me about?"

 

Jess hesitated for a moment. "Same thing, Seth. I could have swore I heard that coach comin.' Comin' in real fast, too fast. That's what drew my attention to it; it was so loud and.... and with Slim right in the way. Couldn't understand why though, the stage wasn't due for at least another half hour. But, Seth I saw it. I heard it. It was so real. It was as plan as day just like you are right now, and when I saw Slim, well…I," his voice failed him again and he fell silent.

 

No one said a word for a moment. Seth no doubt trying to figure out what was wrong, Jess his brow furrowed doing the same. And me, just wanting this to be over. The tension in that room was so thick you could have cut it with a knife.

 

"My Pard's got one mean tackle, Seth," I said, rubbing my elbow. My weak attempt to lighten the mood didn't. I looked over at Jess and he appeared to be shaking almost as bad as he was when it first happened.

 

"Take it easy, son. You did good, Jess. Now just relax," Seth’s voice was calm and soothing. But Jess was wound up like a three day clock… and he reached out and touched Seth's shoulder.

 

"Seth, tell me straight. Am I....," he swallowed hard, "am I losin' my mind?" He asked, his voice trembling.

 

Our family doc gave my troubled partner a sympathetic smile.

 

"Please, Seth. I gotta know," he begged.

 

"No, Jess you're not. In a lot of pain and stressed out, but by no means going insane."

 

"You sure?"

 

"Now have I ever lied to you?" Seth asked with a smile.

 

"Then what's wrong with me?"

 

"Well, right now I'm not sure. Could be that crack on the head, might even be coming from your back. Pains a strange thing sometimes, Jess. Pain; like you've been having can play on the nerves; begins to wear on you after a spell."

 

"Could that be it, Seth?" I asked. "Can pain do that?"

 

Jess ran his sleeve across his forehead to remove the sweat that threatened to run into his eyes. Then looked expectantly at our family friend.

 

"That could certainly be part of it, but not all." He scooted to the edge of the bunk and reached over to pull the skin down under one of my partner’s eyes and looked closely. "Could be you're allergic to something. Like I said it could be almost anything."

 

"Then you think that's it?" I asked.

 

"Not sure..."

 

I glanced over at Jess, his jaw set tight and I saw those eyes spark.

 

"Hang it all, Seth. I want answers...not riddles. What's goin' on with me?" Temper now replacing his fear.

 

"Jess!" I scolded.

 

"Not trying to give you riddles, Jess. It appears to be a reaction to something. What that ‘something’ is and why is what we've got to find out," he said gently.

 

Jess nodded and let his shoulders slump. "I'm sorry, Seth. I just..."

 

"That's alright. You've been under a strain lately, Jess. And that could certainly contribute to whatever's going on. Stress can cause all sorts of problems."

 

Jess nodded. Then asked, worry crowding out the anger. "Then you don't think I'm goin' loco?" He asked, unable to put it down.

 

Seth smiled and tried to drive the point home. "No, Jess… you - are - not - going - loco. You're most defiantly having a reaction to something. Question is what? That's what I've got to find out."

 

When Jess didn't move, but still wore that uncertain troubled look. Seth realized just how worried and scared Jess really was. He reached over and took my Pard by the shoulders.

 

"Jess, I want you to look at me and listen me," he said gently. "Let me explain something to you and to Slim as well what a person is like who is actually losing their mind. Jess, if you were even close to being mentally ill and especially if you were going crazy…you wouldn't allow me nor Slim or anyone else for that matter to talk to you, much less examine you. You'd be fighting mad at both of us right now and you wouldn't believe a word anyone told you. In addition to that, a person who's actually losing their mind Jess, no longer has reasoning ability. And you demonstrated you have more than your share of that."

 

"I did?"

 

"Yes, you did. When you looked up and saw Slim in the path of what you thought was danger…you reasoned that if you didn't do something quick your friend could be badly hurt maybe even killed. So you acted on that 'reason.' Jess a man going insane, can't do that. Now you listen to me…I want you to get that 'loco' notion right out of your head. You hear me?"

 

I couldn't help but smile. I could see relief wash over my friend's face and it warmed my heart to know that at least this heavy weight had been lifted from him. I knew Jess wasn't going what he called 'loco,' but I also knew that he didn't fully believe me when I tried to assure him that he wasn't. He thought I was just trying to make him feel better. As we stepped outside, Seth turned once again to my partner and placed a gentle hand on his shoulder.

 

"Jess…"

 

"But, what about that flashback, could it be comin' back?" Jess interrupted. 

 

He shook his head no. "No, Jess, this is different. Now try not to worry so much, that won't help," then he glanced my way and added, "and that goes for you too. There has to be some other explanation for this and it might take all of us putting our heads together to figure it out," he paused, "Jess, how do you feel right after this happens and you come to yourself?"

 

"Like I got a head full a cotton and like I've been drug behind the stage from here to Laramie." Jess purposely avoided my eyes, knowing he just revealed something he never told me.

 

"You're totally spent then?"

 

Jess nodded that he was.

 

"Do you sleep well after?'

 

"Depends."

 

"On what?"

 

"On how much I can remember and how bad I feel about what I done. Or how mad Slim is for it," he threw me that little crocked smile and chuckled.

 

"Well, I wouldn't worry about that. I don't think Slim here holds anything against you. You're sick Jess. We'll get to the bottom of it. You have my word."

 

"And how do we do that?" I asked.

 

"For the time being just be very observant. Jess, try and pay attention to what you ingest during the day. Seems this happen mostly during the daylight hours doesn't it?"

 

I nodded that it was and looked over at Jess who was showing signs of  wanting to be done with this.

 

"Well, I'm going to do some research on this, see what I can dig up. I'm also going to take a little of that new medicine and have it analyzed as well."

 

"Seth, you don't think I'll become violent do you ya? I'm kinda scared a' that since I don't know what I'm doin' when it happens." He asked, doubting himself again.

 

"Yes, I noticed you're not wearing your gun. Is that why?" He asked.

 

He nodded that it was. "Just don't wanna take any chances," he said softly.

 

"If it makes you feel better I see nothing wrong with that. But, no, Jess I don't think so. If that were the case that would have already happened since you've had two of these already. But that's another reason why it would be wise to stay close to home. You could find yourself in all kinds of  trouble if you're out somewhere and this happens again. Now, please like a told you...try and not worry that could actually make things worse," he assured him with a smile.

 

I didn't know it, but Seth had asked Daisy to somehow get Jess outta the way so he could speak with me in private after. So just before he stepped off the porch, Daisy called Jess inside with some excuse or other. Then Seth pulled me aside.

 

"I didn't want to say anything in front of Jess, he looks shook up enough as it is. But I think it'd be a good idea to keep a close eye him, until we find out what's going on. I'll have to admit I'm worried. Could be that whack on the head has caused more damage I thought. Makes me want to re-think my first diagnosis. Maybe he did crack his skull. I don't think there's any bleeding into the brain, though, if that were the case you'd be having a funeral by now."

 

"Dear God, Seth, Jess did blackout a few weeks ago, in the barn," I interrupted.

 

"Easy, Slim. I told you that might happen. My initial worry was that Jess might suffer a brain seizure. But, I know now that's not it. Otherwise, he'd not have had two of these attacks and come out of it. No, there's definitely something else wrong. I'd just keep him close for his own protection. Might get himself hurt bad if suffered one of those and was away from home when it happened. We'll get to the bottom of it. Now, you do exactly what I told Jess to do....stop worrying so much," he ordered, then started to step into his carriage, when he suddenly remembered something else.

 

"Oh, just before I came out here, I spoke to Mort. He's worried too, …" he paused at my cool response.

 

"Oh, he is, is he?" I spat.

 

"Look, Slim. I don't know exactly what’s happened between the two of you, but whether you believe it or not he's on Jess' side. Mort's concerned about him."

 

"Well, he's got a heck of a way of showing it."

 

"He's got a tough job, Slim. And like it or not he's the kinda of man that gets the job done; just like you. You know that...."

 

I could feel my temper flare at the mere mention of the name. "Oh, I know. And he don't much care who he stomps on to do it either. Jess had nothing to do with what’s happened and he knows it..."

 

"Seems to me you allowed a young man some time back to win your friendship with just that same attitude....if you get my meaning?" Seth interrupted.

 

I did. What could I say? He was right of course. Jess is loyal to a fault.

 

"That all?" I asked, my feathers a little ruffled.

 

"No. Mort's been thinking about what took place out at the wreck and what Jess told him. He's worried about those two men. His worried that maybe they saw Jess. And thinking he might be able to identify them, they might come looking for him," he said sincerely.

 

"Yeah, I know. I've been thinking on that myself, Seth. That's another reason why I don't want Jess too far off. With all that's been goin' on I don't think that's crossed his mind yet."

 

"Mort said to tell you to keep an eye out and let him know if any suspicious looking characters come around.

 

"Will do," I promised.

 

"Good, just wanted to make sure we were on the same page," he nodded and climbed aboard his rig and taking the reins in hand. …"I'll try and get back to you in about a week." He smiled slapped leather and with a wave of his hand he and Ol' Chester headed down the driveway.

 

 

 

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN -

Jess' Collapse

 

                       

It'd been two weeks since my partner's last episode. That little visit from Seth seemed to have done more to ease his mind than all of my talking and Daisy's put together. It appeared to have had a profound effect on his whole attitude. He even seemed to be getting his appetite back; though no where's near normal, he was at least eating better and as far as I knew, he'd kept it down. I still wanted to express my concern about our changes. So, at breakfast we talked about what we wanted to do with the ranch. I tried to keep it positive and tried not to allow my concern for my partner's safety to take over. Something I knew he appreciated, though he‘d never say so. He also had some reservations...not about his own safety, but his main concern was the breeding stock, where and how we were going to get it and such. Finally, it came down to our putting that on the back table as it were until we heard from Seth. And he was okay with that. Sure hope he's right and not saying it just to ease my worry.

 

Soon the conversation came around to chores and who was gonna do what. With breakfast over Mike jumped up and was the first one out. He'd been told the night before that once all the chores were done he and Andy could go over to the Millers. They have three sons...Lord knows what kind of trouble five boys can get into. We laughed. We were still laughing when Jess got up to leave the table. But as he rose he suddenly staggered and grabbed hold of the back of my chair to steady himself.

 

Alarmed, I half came out of my chair and asked if he was alright. It was the second time he'd come close to falling just that morning. The first happening as we were getting dressed. He'd finished shaving and had reached down to retrieve his clothes when he nearly collided with the wall. I was close enough and grabbed him. This time he made the excuse that he must still be half asleep or that the coffee hadn't been strong enough. I wasn't buying it and I told him so. He just shrugged it off and scolded me for worrying.

 

This latest little slip didn't sit well with Daisy either. She heard the alarm in my voice and started to rise from the table, never taking her eyes off Jess; who very quickly disappeared into our room before she had a chance to express her concern.

 

"Slim..."

 

I nodded. "I know, Daisy. Enough's enough," I said, threw my napkin down next to my plate and started to get up when all of a sudden we heard a loud crash and the sound of breaking glass commanded our attention. It startled everyone and we hurried to the bedroom. What we saw stopped us dead in our tracks. The bookcase lay on its side, books strewn across the floor along with broken glass from the lamp that had sat atop it. And on the floor next to it lay Jess, writhing in pain. His face contorted, gasping for breath. I quickly stepped over the books and glass and knelt beside him.

 

"Jess!"

 

He groaned and tried to push himself up without success, falling back against my arm as I supported his head. "Slim," he struggled, "they...they," he gasped, "went ou...out."

 

"Alright, Pard. You're gonna be okay. Just let me help you up." Out of the corner of my eye I saw the flurry of Daisy's pink skirt as she stepped over the mess followed by Andy.

"Watch out for the glass, Andy," I warned, as he knelt down beside us.

 

Mike had heard the commotion and blasted into the house and came up short when he saw all of us huddled around Jess and Jess on the floor. On those occasions when Jess' legs had gone out before there had been no pain. But this, this was different...Jess was in sheer agony. The pain so intense he could hardly breathe...all he could do was to shake and moan. I glanced up at Mike, his eyes big with fear.

 

"Slim, why is Jess....?" He started to ask.

 

"Ssslim…" Jess gasped, his voice shaking. "I…oh," he moaned. "I couldn't ho...hold…"

 

"Don't try to talk. Let me get you outta this glass first," I told him. Then with my left arm under his shoulders I swung my right arm under his legs and started to lift him from the floor. But when I did he let out a blood curtailing yell that filled the room. I hated to cause my friend more pain, but couldn't let him just lay there. I continued to lift then made my way to his bed and laid him down as carefully as I could. A few minutes later the pain seem to ease a little…enough for him to tell us what happened anyway. I grabbed the covers and pulled them up around him as he struggled to gain control of his breathing and tell us what happened.

 

Daisy was next to him now swabbing his brow with a cool cloth, all the while taking real soft and gentle attempting to keep him calm. "It's alright, dear." Though her voice was soft her eyes betrayed the fear she felt.

 

"Slim…I," he gasped.

 

"Don't talk, Jess. Just rest," I admonished. In truth I was so shaken myself I didn't know what to do.

 

"I....  I," he pause to allow a groan to escape. "They just we…went o…out. Oh," he moaned. "I grabbed holda the book…bookcase…" his breath caught and his face flushed.…"it didn't hoo...hold."

 

"Jess! Stop talking, that doesn't matter." I had to almost shout to get his attention, so focused was he on the pain. A sound behind me caught my attention and I turned to look over my shoulder at Andy, when all of a sudden Jess yelled out and grabbed my shirt sleeve.

 

He was shaking so bad I could hardly make out what he was saying and had a look come over him I've never seen before or will ever again I hope....intense fear.  "Slim! I can't mo...move 'em. My legs, I can't…mo…move," he groaned and yelled out again. Though in severe pain, his attention now centered on his legs and the fact that try as he might he couldn't move them at all. It was the first time since I'd come to know him that I'd seen him truly terrified. Jess wasn't the only one. The reality of those words hit me like a brick and after what Seth had told me fear closed around my heart like a vice.

 

"It's hap...pened, Slim......Oh, God.....I didn't think....it.....wo....would happen so soon," his voice trailed off, and he started to fade. To tell you the truth I was glad for it. I'd rather him be out cold than to suffer like this.

 

Jess' eyes fluttered open a slit and came to light on Andy standing right behind me. Andy reached past me and squeezed his shoulder, trying to offer some comfort. "I'm goin' for the doc, Jess. You lie still. I'll be back as soon as I can. You hear me?" Whether Jess heard or understood him or not...didn't matter. It was something Andy needed to say, he wanted Jess to know that he was there to help. Before he left he told us to make sure Jess didn't try and move. "Tie him down if you have too, Slim," he said. "Just don't let him move." Then before I had a chance to think Andy was out the door. I yelled after him to take Traveler, knowing that Jess' horse was well rested and needed the exercise the ride.

 

With Andy going for help I turned my attention back to my partner. Jess wasn't quite out, but was in that in-between stage. He kept moaning and moving his head from side to side and working his mouth a little like he was trying to say something but couldn't get it out. Daisy continued to mop is face and  his neck with the compress. He was sweating profusely and his shirt had begun to stick to his chest. I carefully unbutton it and started to remove it when Jess suddenly became more animated and cried out again. Having been jerked back to the present away from the calm blackness that had threatened to claim him he pulled at my shirt and gasped through gritted teeth. All I could do was encourage him lie still and wait for the doc. It took a bit longer this time for the pain to ease off and when it did Jess was exhausted. Finally through labored breaths he mouthed.

 

"Ssslim, it's ha...happened," he breathed his eyes wide with fear had begun to tear. "My le…legs, I can't mov....move 'em, Slim. I keep tri...tryin' but I can't…Slim!"  Now in full panic he twisted my shirt with all his might, holding on like his life depended on it. I hated to do it but I  was forced to raise my voice to try and get his attention.

 

"Jess, listen to me," I shouted. He was shaking so hard  he was causing the bed to rattle. I took one hand and laid it on his shoulder and with the other cupped his face in my hand.

 

"Pard! You've got to calm down. I know you're hurting." I shook him again, till I finally got his attention. "Jess, wh...where are you hurting?" We needed to know, but at the same time I wanted to try and pull his focus away from his legs and center his attention on something else. He'd already lost control once and I didn't want him to panic again. To tell you the truth I was afraid of what I might have to do if he did.

 

"Jess," Daisy spoke up, although she'd raised her voice like I had she still remained calm. "Jess, dear where are you hurting? Where's the pain?" She asked.

 

"Aaarrgh....'m…ba…back. M'  legs... Slim, I can't  move 'em. Sl…Slim," he stammered. "I...I can't mo...move 'em," he stammered.

 

I took a deep breath against my own fear. "I know, Pard, I know. Andy's gone for the doc. You're gonna be alright. But you've got to settle down. Stop trying to move around. Just be still," I didn't mean to sound stern, but by now I was darned near close to panic myself. The only one with a cool head it seemed was Daisy.

 

"Rest easy, dear," she kept saying, "rest easy."

 

Suddenly, Jess' face took on a shallow stricken look, his attention drawn away from the pain and fear now centered on something else and had a look of  dreaded anticipation.

 

"I gotta get outside," he gasped and struggled to rise.

 

"Whoa…no you don't. You've got to be still," I shouted and took hold of his shoulders to keep him from moving around.

 

"Jess, please lie still," Daisy exclaimed, her voice calm but authoritative. Her nursing background taking over. Like Andy had said, we needed to keep him as still as possible. Not knowing what was going on, we didn't want to risk further injury by him moving around. But it wasn't easy. Even though Jess seemed right on the edge and would fade in and out the pain was still very intense and kept coming in waves to lesser and greater degree forcing him back. When it did he'd come to himself and with the realization fresh in his mind that he couldn't move his legs he'd panic. Trying to keep him still now was near on to impossible. At one point the thought actually crossed my mind to land him one so that he'd stop moving.

 

"Slim, got to…" he belched…"I'm gonna…"

 

"You gonna be sick?" I asked, finishing the sentence for him.

 

He nodded that he was and I grabbed a towel and held it for him. And not a minute too soon.

 

His eyes now came to rest on Daisy. She'd rinsed out a cloth and proceeded to wipe his chin. Though in severe pain and filled with fear, he still had the presence of mind to be embarrassed. Daisy; always one to see through our every emotion; gently cleaned his face just smiled down at him.

 

"Now, now, none of that. Just calm down. I'm sure Andy will have Seth here before you know it. Until then, just let Slim and I help you.”

 

"Daisy," he started to say something, but Daisy put her hand on his forehead and shushed him into silence. Our surrogate mother may have appeared to be calm, but I knew better. Behind that facade I knew she was as scared and worried as I was…just had the presence of mind not to show it. Unlike me...I'd raised my voice once too often and I knew all could hear the panic I was feeling. I was grateful Jess was so out of it he didn't notice. Or at least I hope he didn't.

 

They say what can go wrong, will go wrong and at the worst possible time. We'd just gotten him to settle down a bit and he'd started to drift when I heard the morning stage enter the yard. The loud shout from the new driver announcing its arrival. As if the sound of a two tons of rattling wood and shaking steel, not to mention the pounding of a four up could go unnoticed. The noise jerked Jess back to the present and once again the pain took hold.

 

"Damn," I hissed.

 

I glanced over at Daisy…without a word she picked up my cue and continued without letting Jess know what was going on…just kept bathing his face and smiling, trying to ease him and keep him calm. As I slipped out of the bedroom and hurried out the front door I heard her talking to him; trying to distract him. Not sure what she was saying but it didn't matter, her calm voice was soothing and he started to drift again. I don't recall who the new driver was, but I was about to give him a piece of my mind, that is until I saw his passenger...I could have jumped for joy when Seth Andrews stepped out of that coach!

 

"Seth! Thank God you're here," I exclaimed and taking him by the arm I hurried him into the house before the poor man had a chance to breathe. As we entered I explained how Jess had collapsed, was in severe pain and was unable to move his legs. All thoughts of the coach, the passengers and changing teams forgotten. I found out later that Andy was riding along side the stage on the opposite side and once it stopped both he and Mike along with the new driver set to work. I was so shaken I didn't even see Mike leave the house.

 

The minute Seth entered the room Daisy visibly relaxed. I stepped over to stand at the foot of the bed and looked down at my stricken partner. Jess was no longer suffering.  He lay unconscious. Seth immediately went to work. He removed his stethoscope and the small leather case which I recognized contained his syringe.

 

"Daisy, will you please put these in some boiling water for me?" He asked and handed her the leather case. His eyes fixed on his patient.

 

"How long's he been out?" He asked before she left.

 

"Just happened, poor dear....he's been in terrible pain. I just don't think he could take any more." Daisy said and left the room. She'd held it together as long as she could but now with relief washing over her she let the tears flow.

 

"I can only imagine," Seth said and stole a glance my way. He didn't have to say it...it was written all over his face. This was what he'd been talking about. My heart sank.

 

From the kitchen I heard Daisy scolding someone in a very stern voice then we heard the front door slam shut. I was tempted to see what all the fuss was about but at the same time I didn't want to leave Jess. I watched along with Andy and a very frightened Mike as Seth unbuttoned Jess' shirt and listened to his heart.

 

Mike's eyes grew wide ...and he turned to me and stammered. "Slim, there's nothin' wrong with Jess' heart is there?"

 

I wasn't sure how to answer our little guy. I was too worried and intent on what the doc was doing to think of a reply. All I managed was a weak smile, before Seth bailed me out. Thank goodness.

 

"His heart's fine, Mike. I just have to get a feel for what's going on with him in general so I can narrow things down a bit, that's all. Now, why don't you go and see if Miss Daisy's got that water boiling?"

 

"Yes, sir," he said, and dashed off to the kitchen.

 

"Andy, will you close that door for me?" He asked. "But don't leave. I'm going to need both you and Slim to help me."

 

My legs felt weak and I found I had to lean against my bed post to keep from fallen. "It's happened, hasn't it, Seth. What you told me about?"

 

He nodded. "It sure looks that way, Slim. Only I didn't expect it to happen like this. We won't know for certain for a while yet."

 

"Seth?"

 

"Slim, Andy, help me get these covers off him. I want to examine his legs and back."

 

Dutifully we removed the covers so gingerly tucked in by Daisy and watched as Seth started to examine his patient.

 

A moment later and I was pressed into service along with Andy as Seth continued to examine our friend while we carefully cut away my Pard's clothes. For the second  time within four months. As we worked he explained why he was taking such drastic action.

 

"I don't exactly know what's going on with his back. But like I told you Slim, if he's ruptured a disk or God forbid fractured a vertebrae and it splinters....moving him around right now could cause a lot of damage. Even cost him his life. So we have to be careful how we move him," he explained. "Slim, I need you hold his shoulders. I'm going to hold him at the waist. Andy, I need you to remove his boots. Be very careful. Try not to jerk, keep his legs on the bed as you pull the boot off. I want his legs supported. Try and remove them in one fluid motion if you can," he instructed.

 

Then while Seth and I held Jess Andy stepped to the foot of the bed and carefully removed our friend’s boots. It worked. Jess hardly moved at all.

 

"Very nice, Andy. Thank you."

 

"Now can you tell me exactly what happened?"

 

I wiped my hand across my mouth. "He'd just left the table when he heard a crash. We came in here and found him on the floor. He said his legs went out again. But Seth, he's never had pain with it," I told him. "But this time...Seth, he was hurting so bad he could hardly talk."

 

It wasn't long before we heard a knock at the door and Daisy entered carrying a towel draped tray with another covering the syringe. I watched as he plunged the needle down into a small bottle and pulled back the plunger to fill the glass tube with a yellowish liquid.

 

"This should serve to ease the pain a little and make him sleepy," he explained as he shoved the needle into Jess’ arm, then pulled the covers up around his shoulders.

 

Mike had slid in behind Daisy and now stood staring down at his brother...his eyes had begun to tear. Seth rose from the bed and bent down to place his hands on Mike's shoulders. "Son, would you like to help me with Jess?"

 

"Sure," he answered, as he ran his sleeve across his eyes. Always ready to do anything for his hero.

 

"Alright. Here's what I want you to do. I want you to sit right here on Slim's bed and watch Jess real close. Don't disturb him, but I want you to come get me if he even moves a finger. You understand?"

 

"Yes, sir," he said and plopped down on my bunk.

 

"That's a good boy," he smiled, then motioned for us follow him out and let his patient rest.

 

"Doc, should you do something else?" Andy questioned.

 

"What Andy? I already know it's his back. Best thing we can do for him now is to keep him as sedated as much as possible and keep him immobile till we hear from Larkspire."

 

Andy didn't answer, just nodded, his eyes fixed on the prone figure in the bed.

 

Daisy had put a fresh pot of coffee on and soon we were all gathered round the fireplace. Seth told us Mose had seen a rider coming up fast and that he'd stuck his head out the window to see who it was. When he recognized it was Andy he yelled for Mose to stop. Andy quickly told him what had happened. He also told us he’d sent a telegram to Larkspire in Denver as I requested. And added that he was going to make arrangements to have Jess transported to the hospital as soon as he got word from the specialist.

 

I nodded in agreement. But when he brought up the subject of payment I almost hit the roof. 

 

"Seth, I told you before. I don't give a....," out of the corner of my eye I caught the look on Daisy's face and I bit my lip. "Seth, I told you before, if this is what Jess needs then this is what he's gonna have,” I told him emphatically. I may have come off a little strong, but seeing my best friend, my 'brother' on the floor writhing in pain and knowing this doc might be able to help...well, nothing short of a bullet to the head was gonna to stop me. And I told him so.

 

Seth Andrews smiled. "I know, Slim; and coming from you I would expect nothing less," he said and moved to set his cup down on the mantel. He next cleared his throat and glanced around the room catching each person’s eye as he went. "Slim, I have something to tell you. To tell all of you in fact. So I would appreciate it if you'd just bear with me, 'cause this gets a little complicated," he said. "First things first. I'm going to need to spend a couple of days here to see to Jess," he glanced around the room as if he expected an objection. He got none.

 

We all just looked at him and nodded...relieved that a doctor was here to take charge.

 

"Of course," I said. "You can take my bunk next to Jess and I'll use one of the others against the wall."

 

"That'll be fine, Slim. Thank you."

 

"Have you had breakfast yet doctor?" Daisy asked, always the concerned hostess.

 

"No, Ma'am not yet," he smiled.

 

"Well, I'll just see to it then," she said and started to leave, but Seth called her back.

 

"Miss Daisy, what I have to say includes you too."

 

Now he had our attention!

 

Daisy stopped, came back into the living room and took a seat next to me on the couch.

 

"Alright, here it is," and for the next hour or so our family doctor explained to us what he'd discovered and what had actually caused the wreck and more.

 

“It seems that Brian Douglas wasn't the honest business man we thought him to be. He was in deep financial trouble. He was facing foreclosure, and had been trying to hold the bank at bay for years,” he told us.

 

"That's why he wanted that meeting with you, Slim," Seth continued. "I guess he figured since Jess wasn't around most times when he'd see you, he didn't have to worry about him. And with Jess out of the picture...well he could go ahead with his plans for you and the ranch," he said cocking an eye toward me.”

 

I shifted uncomfortable.

 

"You see Douglas wanted Jess out of the way.  But, up until the wreck he hadn't decided how to go about it. He even got it into his head he could talk you into thinking Jess had gone back to his gun fighting ways," he gave me a little smirk…"but I guess he figured that wouldn't work after that meeting," he smiled.

 

"That's for sure," Andy agreed. "But Dr. Andrews I still don't know what the wreck had to do with getting rid of Jess?"

 

"Simple, Andy. Brian, his son and whoever was riding with them figured at first that Jess was dead. When Jess suddenly turned up alive, well that settled it as far as Douglas was concerned. He figured Jess had seen both him and Jacob and would finger them as soon as he could. Oh, he had all kinds of crazy ideas," he paused and chuckled softly.

 

I wasn't finding none of this funny. Just the mere thought that I'd almost been suckered by this low life made me sick to my stomach. The thought of what could've happened to Jess had we signed that contract sent chills through me. Seth knows me well because next thing I know, he stepped over and laid a comforting hand on my shoulder.

 

"Douglas admired you, Slim..."

 

"He what?" That shook me.

 

"That's right. He saw how you handled the station, how you dealt with the cattle and a dozen other things. You’re a respected businessman, Slim, with a good reputation. Something Douglas wasn't. He was also aware of your good reputation for breaking and selling top rate horse flesh and he wanted in on that too. That's why he arranged that meeting with you," he smiled. "He figured if he could get on your good side, gain your confidence as it were...why he could eventually take over. In addition to your spread he'd have first hand knowledge of important shipments like payrolls and gold. Only one thing he didn't figure on..."

 

"Jess," I answered. 

 

It was all beginning to fall into place now. "So that's why he was so fire up against Jess' input," I mumbled under my breath.

 

"That's right. None of this was new to the man. He'd done it before. Long before he came to Laramie."

 

"Oh my goodness," Daisy exclaimed. "He seemed so honest."

 

"Well, you know what they say Miss Cooper...'looks can be deceiving'. That certainly was the case with Douglas. He had a spread out near Cheyenne in 64. He got into trouble there too. Seems he has a problem keeping his books straight. He'd already swindled a local rancher by the name of Kimball out of his spread before he came to Laramie."

 

"But why not include Jess in his plans with Slim," Daisy asked still a little confused.

 

Seth laughed softly. "Because Douglas was afraid of Jess..."

 

"Afraid?" Daisy may have been puzzled but I was beginning to see the light and my face flushed with anger.

 

"That’s right. He figured that sooner or later Jess would get his memory back…and well he just couldn’t take that chance. So he decided to get rid of him.”

 

I felt sick to my stomach and my anger continued to grew against Douglas and his boys.

 

"He needed to sign with you because after calling in all the favors he could, it still wasn't enough to cover the bank notes. He needed more." He paused and took a sip of his coffee before he continued.

 

I leaned back and gave out a long sigh and shook my head, "So that was it," I exclaimed.

 

"That's not the half of it. All of this came to light because of one man. The so called Dr. Martin Webb." Seth shot the name out like he was spitting out a bad taste.

 

Daisy now leaned forward. "What do you mean 'so called'?" She asked.

 

"Well, I hate to tell you this, Miss Daisy, but Martin Webb is no doctor. Just a second rate chemist with a bad reputation..."

 

"That medicine..." Daisy exclaimed.

 

My throat suddenly felt dry making it hard to swallow. Almost felt like I was back in Seth's office. I couldn't go through that again. "Spit it out, Seth," I demanded, "what the hell was it?"

 

"I got the report back from Cheyenne just this morning. Took the first stage out. I'd have been here sooner if Chester hadn't thrown a shoe. It was less than 6% Laudanum and the rest was some concoction of his own making. Now I could go into it, but it's far too complicated."

 

"Dear God!" I rose from my chair, I suddenly felt like someone had kicked the air clean out of me. 

 

"Po...poison?" I stammered.

 

"Yeah, Douglas hired Webb to kill Jess. He's done this before. The two have worked together for years."

 

"Oh, my God," Daisy cried out, turned deathly pale and slumped in her chair.

 

"Daisy!"

 

Seth was by her side in an instant, "Get her some water," he ordered. "Andy go into the room and bring me the smelling salts from my bag, please."

 

"Daisy, Daisy....," I was holding her hand and tapping the back of it when Andy came back with the smelling salts.

 

It took a little while before she was fully revived and when she was she was very shaky.

 

"Dear, God....we've been killing our Jess," she stammered tears rolling down her cheeks. 

 

I was just as guilty. I felt as if I was in one of Jess' walking dreams. I felt my legs go weak and had to steady myself  by hanging onto the mantel. Seth noticed and ordered me to sit. "Andy, get a glass of water for Slim too,  will you."

 

"Seth, those.... walking... dre...dreams....?" I stuttered, stumbling over the words.

 

"Hallucinations. And Jess was right. It may have actually triggered a flashback. That would account in part for the confusion and fear he felt. It's a side effect of the drug. When enough had built up in him; Jess' system would try to rid itself of it and...."

 

"He’d get sick," I interrupted weakly and took a sip of the water Andy had brought me. Suddenly it all made sense, the walking dreams, the confusion and the retching all fell into place. But, it didn't make me feel any better knowing I'd had a hand in poisoning my best friend. I glanced over at Andy. His face had gone red and I saw myself mirrored in his expression as he opened and closed his fists against his rage. As mad as I was becoming.

 

"Now, I want you all to understand something....none of you knew what was going on. All you knew was a new doctor came over, checked Jess out and left some medicine with instructions for its use, and THAT'S ALL you knew," he'd raised his voice for emphasis as he placed his empty cup on the mantel.

 

I was stunned, I heard everything he'd said...but, all I kept seeing was me mixing this vile potion and  telling Jess to drink it. I could feel my face flush....and I heard Seth and Daisy trying to calm me. But, I was so blinded by rage it sounded as if they were at the bottom of a barrel. I couldn't understand exactly what they were saying. And to tell the truth at that moment I really didn't care. All I could see was me handing my dearest friend that glass and Jess swigging down that poison and I grew cold inside. I could feel the bile filling the back of my throat and I dashed outside to empty my stomach. As I stood struggling to get my breath I ran a shaky hand through my hair and turned to find Seth on the porch right next to me.

 

"You all right?" He asked, as he handed me a rag along with the glass of water I'd been sipping.

 

I nodded that I was. "I'm sorry, Seth. Don't know w...what go," I swallowed hard, "got...in...into me," I stammered.

 

"I do. Same thing that happened to Daisy. You went into shock there for a second," he said and took me by the arm. "Now, come on. I don't need another patient right now. Lord knows Jess Harper's patient enough."

 

"Dear God, Seth. What have I done I....."  I could feel my eyes start to burn.

 

"You haven’t done anything, Slim. Now c'ome on," he said and directed me back inside, as I wiped my sleeve across my face Daisy met me at the door.

 

"Slim, are you alright?"

 

I nodded that I was and held her for a moment.

 

"I need you all to understand something. None of this was deliberate on the part of any of you."

 

I still felt pretty shaky and so took a seat next to Daisy on the couch as she started to tremble.

 

"I....I, should have ...I, " Daisy stammered....blowing her nose. "Jess said the new medicine tasted a little sweet. No narcotic has a sweet taste....I should've known better," she said, her voice shook and she dissolved into tears again.

 

"Take it easy, Daisy," I said and held her close.

 

"There's no blame here, Miss Daisy." Seth stopped and looked around at our distraught faces....."I want that understood; you hear me. And if that doesn't sink in, think of this," he said and pointed towards our bedroom. "The last thing that boy in there needs is to see the lot of you with sad faces and tears. He's got enough on his plate as it is. He doesn't need to be worrying about his family. You understand?"

 

He was right of course but it sure didn't make me feel any better knowing I'd had a direct hand in slowly killing my best friend. I swallowed hard and took another sip of water. "What else, Seth?"

 

Before he answered he gave out a little chuckle.

 

"Well, I darn sure don't see anything funny about this," I scolded.

 

"I'm sorry, Slim, but you've, ah..... we've always chided Jess for being so gal-darn thick headed. But, I gotta tell you....that stubborn side of him saved his life this time; now I wouldn't go telling him that of course. But, the very fact that he didn't take that medicine as prescribed....well, he just didn't get enough in his system to do the job," he shrugged, then he looked down at the floor and back up at us again. "But, over a period of time, it would've. That's why as soon as I got the report I mixed up the antidote and came out here as fast as I could. And that's what I'll be giving him over the next twenty four hours."

 

"Where's this Webb, now?" I demanded. I was ready to exact vengeance and just needed to know where my target was.

 

"That's just the thing, Slim. Webb got himself arrested about two weeks ago, not just for the attempted murder of Jess, but for extortion as well. Seems he was skimming off the top of the Douglas accounts. All along warning Douglas' accountant to keep his mouth shut or... well, I won't go into that. I guess Douglas is a bit tight when it comes to paying up. But, when Webb found himself under lock and key he spilled the beans. He had some of Douglas' account books and some pretty important papers that could’ve put Douglas and his boys away for a long, long time. That's what was in the document bag Jess found. So, when Brian discovered this he and his sons took off after him. They had to get those papers back...."

 

"So the motive wasn't money, then..." I interrupted.

                                                           

"Not for Brian anyway. You see Douglas had to intercept those papers. So he goes over to the Henderson place, waits for the stage. And while every ones in having coffee and Molly's cake; he saws into the axel pin.”

 

"So that's what caused the accident!" Andy stated.

 

"That's right Andy, and that horse Jess said was standing there all saddled and ready to go....that was Brian's mount. Mort told me Jess said he recalled trying to mount, but his legs wouldn't work and he fell backwards. Truth is, he didn't fall."

 

"He was kicked?" I finished for him. "That bruise on Jess' chest. It was...."

 

Seth nodded. "Douglas' boot heel."

 

I was sitting on the edge of the couch now, my hands in a tight fist, about to explode, but didn't think anyone was aware of it but me. Until Seth warned me to relax my hands before I broke my fingers! I was squeezing so tight my knuckles had gone white.

 

"His boot heel? I...I don't understand," Daisy questioned.

 

"Remember, about a year ago, just after Jess ordered young Jacob off the ranch and Douglas came out arguing with me about it? Saying my hired hand had no right to give orders? And I told him Jess was my partner and had as much right to order someone off the place as I did." I studied her face to see if she recalled the incident. But, it was clear she needed help.

 

"When Brain walked to his mount, Jess made the comment that his walk was as crooked as he was. Then when he swung his leg over the saddle you saw something that caught the sun and you later asked about it...remember?"

 

Now full recognition came to her and she nodded, "Aw, yes, I do. It was that metal plate on the bottom of his heel," she said.

 

"Left a real good impression on Jess' chest didn't it?" I said.

 

"That's right," Seth continued. "See, when Jacob found out what Webb was doing, he told his Pa. They needed to get those papers back and fast. As we all know, once papers are placed in a document bag only an authorized person can remove them. So, Brian hatched this plan to rob the stage as a ruse to get them back. They followed the stage at a safe distance and when the axel pin broke they simply strolled up and pretended to rob it. Brian removed the envelope from the bag and handed the rest to Jacob, then took off back to his place as if nothing had happened. What Brian didn't know was that Webb and his partner Stone had already removed the pertinent documents and was planning on using them against Brian if he didn't shell out. All Douglas got for his trouble was a stack of blank papers."

 

"But, what Brian and his son didn't count on was just how stubborn and determined Jess Harper can be," he laughed. "I can only imagine what must have gone through his mind when the man they thought was dead took off after them," he paused and shook his head then turned real serious. "It scares me to think just how close Jess must have come to catching them, even in his condition. They must have seen Jess pass out and fall off  Ol' Chester. Then they backed tracked and planted the money around him to make it look like..."

 

"Like Jess was in on it," I added with disgust.

 

Seth nodded in equal disgust. "And seeing Jess laying there, young Jacob figured Jess was dead, and knowing how tight his Pa was decided to treat himself. After all, what's a dead man need with money. So Jacob lifted Jess' wallet."

 

"You see Jess wasn't the only one Douglas wanted out of the way. His own partner, Stone was fed up with all the sneaking around, fixing books and such in addition to all the other and backhanded deals his partner had been making. Seems Douglas had his dirty hands into a lot of things. I was told that Stone and Douglas had a big argument about it about three or four days before all this came about," he said shaking his head. Then out of nowhere he began to laugh.

 

"What?" I snapped.

 

"Can you imagine how mad and confused Brian must have been when he got home and found the only papers he been given were blank. He must have realized then that Stone had the originals. Those papers included everything...his dealings both past and present and his plans for you and your ranch. A lot rested on getting those back. But by that time it was too late. Stone had already sent the evidence to Sheriff Coffee over in Cheyenne, pointing the finger to not only Brian but Webb as well.  That was just a few days before he wired Mort and the whole thing blew up in Douglas' face."

 

"What happened to Mr. Stone?" Andy asked.

 

"Don't rightly know, Andy. Looks to be more of Webb's handiwork. He was found on the trail dead."

 

Mort found out that Douglas had lit out for Cheyenne a few days earlier. So he sent a wire to Sheriff Coffee to retain Brian on suspicion of robbery and murder. It was while Mort was on his way to Cheyenne that he came across Stone's body."

 

 "I don't think the idea of killing Jess was fully set until Brian discovered Jess was still alive and still an active member of your spread. Ya see about a month before the accident you were over at Saunders place, do you remember? You were talking to Saunders about that black colt he had for sale," he eyed me close to see if I could recall.

 

I nodded that I did.

 

"Saunders said you told him that Jess' Traveler was getting on and that he'd need a good mount soon and said Jess had an eye on that little black colt. Saunders said you were thinking of surprising Jess with it."

 

"Alright, but…"

 

Seth raised his hand in the air and smiled tolerantly at me. "Just hold on, Slim. There's more. About a month before that meeting between you and Douglas, I had gone over to the Saunders place to check on young Michael and that bad leg of his. Douglas was there bragging about how you and he were going into business together, saying you and Jess had had a falling out and you were looking for a new partner. But, when Saunders expressed his surprise and told him you'd been out looking at that colt. That changed things a mite. With Jess around he figured he'd discover what he was really doing. Add to that the fact the he was certain that as soon as Jess could recall details of the accident he'd point a finger at him and Jacob. He couldn't afford to take that chance, so he had to get rid of him and he hired his old friend Webb to do the job.  Sorta made that meeting all the more important as far as Douglas was concerned.

 

 "So that was it," I said. His reaction during the meeting coming real clear now. How I wished I could have one minute alone with Brian Douglas...

 

Seth nodded, "Uh huh. You know I feel a little guilty myself, Slim," he said. "I'm afraid without realizing it I opened the way for Webb to walk right in," he said sadly.

 

"What you mean?" Andy asked before I had the chance.

 

"That medical convention I attended. I sent a message to my friend Dr. Clay in Cheyenne asking for his help to look after my patients while I was away.  But, somewhere along the line Douglas intercepted my telegram and well, Webb was the result," he said shaking his head.

 

"But, why poison, Dr. Andrews?" Andy asked.

 

"Simple. It's fairly slow acting and not easily detected. In the end, Jess would simply appear to have succumbed to some unexplained illness. Not like the one he'd given poor Stone."

 

"Alright....I got it, but how did Webb get caught?" I asked, things still a little fuzzy around the edges.

 

We watched as Seth sighed. "It's funny, but none of you noticed....not even Jess," he paused and looked at us, then laughed.

 

"Noticed what?" I demanded.

 

"While Jacob was hold up waiting for things to cool down that money he stole from Jess was burning a hole in his pocket; so he decided to spend some. Only thing is.....young Miss Holston at the general store in Cheyenne recognized the wallet and Jess' initials...said she remembered the wallet because you had such a hard time choosing which one you wanted to give to Jess as a gift four years ago after we all thought Jess had gone over the falls."

 

Our good doctor suddenly stopped, walked over to his coat and fished out a small envelope from a pocket. "I almost forgot," he said, gave a sad smile and handed it to me.

 

"Mort said when they got back to town Conners came to his office and handed this to him. He said in all the turmoil and confusion and in his haste to get Jess back he simply forgot it. Conners asked Mort if he'd see that it was returned. Said he spied it lying on the ground along with some of the money as he was hoisting Jess on his horse. Jacob took the wallet and the money, but just dumped the rest out. Funny he didn't think about the initials stamped into it or didn't figured it mattered. Mort asked me to give it to Jess". 

 

I gave him a puzzled look, opened the flap and poured the contents out into my hand. Daisy threw a hand up to cover her mouth and started to tear. I'll have to admit after what we'd been told it took me back a step too. I felt myself flush for a second, knowing the history of what lay in my hand and how much meaning they held to us all, especially to Jess. I looked up as Andy came to inspect the contents: a five dollar piece (something that escaped the robbers notice no doubt) his prison release papers, a letter from his sister Francie and carefully cared for with equal love, a photograph of his family along with the letter that accompanied it. I cleared my throat, thanked him and told him I'd give Mort my thanks the next time I saw him.

 

It was Andy who brought us back and reminded Seth of where he was in the story. "Okay, I think I understand. But what's Jess' wallet go to do with all this, Doc?"

 

"Well, it seems young Miss Holston is a little sweet on Jess," he said and we watched and smiled as his eyebrows did a few pushups. "When she recognized the wallet she took off over to the Sheriff's office to report it stolen. Guess she figured that you'd have to knock Jess out or half kill him to get it away from him. Next thing young Jacob knows, he finds himself behind bars....everything happened real fast after that. Determined that he wasn't going to be the only one to be cooling his heels in jail he pointed the finger at Webb who in turn singled out Brian as the mastermind behind it all. Mort being so busy and all, just hasn’t had time to get back to you and Jess. Sure he will though. Mort arrested Brian this morning for his part. Got some might heavy charges coming his way....extortion, robbery, the murder of Heath and the attempted murder of Jess and the other passengers, not to mention destruction of property. No," he said, shaking his head, "I don’t think you’ll have to worry about the Douglas' for a very, very long time," he sighed. "Yup...like they say, there's no honor among thieves."

 

"So, what about the bank robbery?" Andy asked.

 

"Just a coincidence, Andy. The Morton brothers were caught two days ago," he looked at my little brother and smiled, "only got thirty dollars. Had nothing to do with the stage holdup at all."

 

It was gonna take a while to digest all that had been laid at our door. No one said a word. Daisy; fully recovered now, left to start the noon meal. There was simply nothing else to be said. Right now all I wanted...all I needed was to be with Jess. But as I started to leave the room Seth took my arm and turned me to face him.

 

"Slim, why don't you some rest tonight? Let Andy and I sit with Jess? Maybe, you could sleep in Andy's bed....get yourself some real rest for a change. You're gonna need it," he suggested.

 

"Seth, I..."

 

"Look, Slim, as your friend and doctor I wish you'd take my advice. What I've put you all through sent you in a real tail spin. You need a good nights sleep," he said sincerely.

 

I smiled. I did appreciate his concern, but I knew what I needed. "What I need tonight Seth is to be with my 'brother'," I smiled again and turned away. But before I reached the door Andy spoke up.

 

"Slim, why not let me take the first watch with Jess and you do what Seth says?" Andy advised. "You're lookin' awful tired."

 

"No," I told him and shook my head, “you understand, don't you?" I asked, hoping he did, and was pleased when he gave me an approving nod.

 

I  opened the door and found Mike sitting quietly beside Jess, swinging his feet in the chair and biting his lower lip. A sure sign that he was scared and worried. His big brown eyes fixed on the man in the bed.

 

"He's still asleep," he whispered then his eyes filled with tears. "He's dyin' ai...isn't he, Slim?"

 

"No, no Tiger....he just sleeping. Doc's giving him some special medicine so he'll get better. Now, why don't you let me take my turn and you go help Daisy with her apple pie?" That did it, he left the room all smiles. With our little guy apple pie works wonders.

 

It was awful hard to sit there; knowing I'd had a hand in slowly killing my dearest friend. I kept seeing myself mixing that powder in his water and handing it to him. Not knowing what is was, didn't make me feel any better. I laid a hand on his forehead then leaned back in my chair and just watched him breathe...grateful for every breath.

 

                                                0o0o0o0o0o0

 

Throughout the night Seth would wake Jess every four hours to give him an injection. He was in a lot of pain and the injections made him sick and even weaker. We'd clean his face with a cool cloth in hopes of easing the nausea....and when we couldn't we’d hold a towel for him. I so badly wanted to roll Jess on his side, knowing that's how he likes to sleep. But, Seth said it might not be safe since we didn't know the exact extent of the damage done to his back. Over the next two days Seth gave Jess as much painkiller as was safe. As a result he slept most of the time or lay in a drugged stupor.

 

Early Thursday morning  Mose brought Seth a telegram. It was from Dr. Larkspire. He agreed with Seth and wanted to see Jess right away. So with or without my Pard's consent Seth replied that we'd leave Friday morning. But, when we told Jess; even half drugged the reaction we got was less than agreeable.

 

"Jess, I don't think you have a choice, son," Seth informed him. The sick man just turned his head and sulked.

 

"Let me talk to him, Seth," I whispered.

 

I closed the door and took a seat on my bunk next to my stricken partner. "Jess, Pard, we gotta talk," I told him.

 

"Don't feel like at…talkin," he said gruffly.

 

"Alright, then...let me talk and you listen," I suggested.

 

"Long's it's not 'bout th..at doc," though his speech was slurred the tone was clear and determined and left no room for misinterpretation.

 

"Seth says you got to see him Jess. You don't have a choice now, Jess," I waited for the argument I knew was coming and he didn't disappoint me. It's amazing how sick Jess Harper can be and still put up a good fight! We must've sat in there and squabbled for the better part of an hour, until there was simply no more fight left in him. He was close to being tired out, the pain having started up again made him a bit more inclined to listen. At least I hoped. But, that stubborn streak was still showing through and even though in pain he gave it all he had.

 

He shook his head. "Damnit Ssslim, how many ti....times I gotta to tell ya, I ain't got the mu...ney to see no ssspecialist. You know that. Now just lemme lone will ya!" He said raising his voice as best he could.

 

Suddenly he went pale, the pain forcing him to push his head back against the pillows he shut his eyes tight and groaned. When it had passed it left him sweating, breathing hard and spent. Exhausted enough to shut up and listen I hoped.

 

"Will you stop worrying about the money, Jess! Let me worry about that, will you, please!"

 

He looked up at me and forced himself to speak, the pain causing his voice to tremble. "NO!" He paused, he could tell he wanted to say more, but right now the pain was in control he shut his eyes and went silent, swallowing hard against it. I hate to see Jess in pain. All I could do was squeeze his shoulder and wait for it to pass. Then I watched as he forced his eyes open again and looked right at me, and gave it one last try before he could no longer speak.

 

"The only wa....way'd be ta...," he stopped; realization coming to him like a bolt of lightening, and he stared up at me, his eyes wide with disbelief. Not more n' two years ago we'd mortgaged the ranch to see Daisy got the medical treatment she needed to save her life. It had taken over a year of hard work to repay the note and now Jess was in a similar predicament. We both knew what had to be done.

 

"Oh, Sssslim, nooo. Ya can't do that...ya ju..st can't. Not the ranch! Ya just can't, I won't let ya," he'd said and reached up to grab my shirt. "Pro..mise me ya won't do...do that, Pa...Pard, ple...please," he gasped and twisted  the material it as hard as he could before the pain forced him to let go and he fell back against the pillows gasping and struggling to breathe.

 

I put my hand to his forehead and pushed the hair back. "Easy, now Pard. I promise. Your gettin' yourself all worked up for nothing. Just settle down now."

 

He'd got himself in a real state, the fear of what I might do to get him to this doctor and his own emotions took over and he started shaking hard. He had me scared. But the stakes were just too high to give up and they stood stacked against my friend. Seth and I held the key to make a good play and I wasn't gonna let anything stop me. Not even one stubborn, hard headed Texan!

 

"Settle down now. You always told me that there was more n' one way to skin a cat. Well, I found another way. So, you just rest easy," I told him doing my best to smile and hide the fact that I was lying through my teeth to my best friend and partner. "I don't plan on touching your investment, Jess. I'd never do that to you. You know that. Now I'm gonna go get Seth. You got yourself too worked up, Jess," I said.....squeezing his shoulder again. "I'll be right back," I promised and started to leave the room.

 

"Ssslim...," he called weakly.

 

I turned and shoved a scolding finger towards him..."I'll be right back."

 

To my surprise he just nodded; no more fight left in him. A few minutes later I came back in as promised. Seth gave him a shot and left the room. I sat and watched as the drug took affect. Enough to listen without suffering; I hoped. Finally, he turned his head towards me and opening his eyes, raised a weak hand in the air as if searching for something...I took it and squeezed it gently. And we smiled.

 

"How are you feeling? Medicine beginning to work?" I asked.

 

He nodded that it was.

 

"Good. I don't like to see you hurting Pard," I said sincerely.

 

"Slim, please... pro....promise me ya wo.....won't....," his breathing caught and he was forced to stop for a second but it was long enough for me to try and go in a different direction. 

 

"Jess, if I were the one laying here, hurting and not able to move my legs and you had a way to help me, would you? Or would you just let me lay here and suffer, huh Jess?" I knew the answer, just needed him to realize it.

 

He rolled his head from one side to the other slowly, "Slim," he mumbled licking his lips. "There's no guar....antee. That's wh....what Se....Seth said," he slurred.

 

"Maybe not, but there is a chance, Jess. Now, would you give me that chance or wouldn't ya? I'm waiting, Pard."

 

"Cour....oh,.....course I wo......woould," he slurred.

 

I smiled. “Well, that's what I'm gonna do for you.” He didn't answer he couldn't the drug had taken full affect he'd closed his eyes and had started to breathe real slow and deep.

 

"Alright, I'll leave you alone and let you sleep," as I pulled the covers up around him, I looked down at him and shook my head amazed at how truly stubborn this man could be.

 

I stepped out and told Seth right away. Sure didn't take much to get him moving. He quickly snagged Andy and they raced to the barn to saddle the horses while I went to my desk and fished out the paperwork I would need. There was no time to lose. Arrangements had to be made for the long trip to Denver. At least Jess would have a chance now.

 

"Daisy, you think you and Andy," I paused and glanced over my shoulder at our youngest member and smiled, "and Mike can take care of Jess while we're gone?"

 

"Of course, but..," she said,  but stopped when she saw me stuff the ranch account book  in my pocket.

 

"Slim, what are you going to do?"

 

"Got to go with Seth. We have to make arrangements to get Jess to Denver. And I've got business at the bank," and I said as I patted my vest and pants in search of my wallet.

 

"Slim, I thought I heard you tell Jess you wouldn't mortgage the ranch....he even made you promise."

 

I didn't bother to ask how she knew that. It really didn't matter. "I know, Daisy, I know. But, Jess is so full of drugs right now, no telling what he really meant. You can't reason with a man in his condition," I was trying to lighten the mood, but fell flat of my face instead.

 

"Slim Sherman....," her voice had that teachers tone to it. The kind that makes you stand up and listen whether you want to or not. "You're going to break your word, to Jess; to your ‘brother’? You've never done that before."

 

"No, and I'm not doing it now. I promised him I wouldn't touch HIS investment. Didn't say a thing about mine,"

 

She gave me a reprimanding glare.....but deep inside I knew she agreed with me.

 

"Look Daisy, what's happened to Jess could cripple him permanent. Could even cost him his life. I can't let that happen. Not if there's a chance, and Seth seems to think there is. He puts a lot of stock in this doctor. I trust his judgment. This may be his only chance. And I intend to see that he gets it. No matter what," then as an after thought, "even if I have to fight him to do it," I said as I found my wallet and thumbed through it. I stepped to the door and suddenly had an overwhelming desire for her approval and I searched her eyes for it. Just had to have something to go right for a change. "You do understand, don't you?"

 

"Of course I do. And I agree with you....I'm just not looking forward to the argument," she said and glanced over at the bedroom door.

 

"I know Daisy, I'm not either, but every man's got a breaking point.....and Jess is not the kind of man to just sit and watch others do what he once did....it'd kill him for sure. I can't," I swallowed hard, "I won't let that happen. Not if there's something I can do about it," I said and gave her a peck on the cheek. But as I stepped to the door she stopped me and handed me a piece of paper with instructions to take it to the bank with me…and not to ask questions. I knew something was up, but I didn't have the time or the energy to argue about it. I kinda figured I'd find out soon enough.

 

We made good time and once in town Seth hurried to the telegraph office to send a wire to Larkspire and make arrangements to safely transport Jess from the ranch to the Laramie train station, while I headed to the bank.

 

A cattle drive had come through early that morning and the streets and boardwalks were filled with people going one place or another. Looked like Mort had his hands full for sure. Seems a man sitting a horse day after day for weeks on end leads to an awful powerful thirst, and most were in the saloon satisfying it. Across the street I spied Mort's young deputy, Arthur, hauling in someone from the cattle drive together with what looked to be a very drunk Jack Smith. Never ceases to amaze me how some people can get toasted so early in the day.

 

I shook my head and stepped into the Laramie bank. Now I'll have to admit I have never liked Mr. Perkin's, the Laramie Bank President. He's one of those tight fisted sorts that seems to care more about the figures in his ledger than about the people around him. He was also, I'd been told, one of the principle men who suspected my partner. He's a hard man to reason with. But I was desperate and if he couldn't or wouldn't  help I was prepared to close the ranch accounts and deal with the bank over in Pixly. I was already heated up with the picture of my Pard lying helpless in bed fresh in my mind so by the time I approached his desk I was ready for a fight.

 

But to my shock he was as kind and considerate as a groom meeting his bride’s Pa. Took me back a step I can tell you that. I was able to secure enough funds (I hoped) to cover the hospital bill as well as Larkspires fee. Anything more would have to come by wire. I had just finished when I remembered Daisy's note. I dug it out of my vest pocket and handed it to the teller. Next thing I knew she handed me an envelope with over two hundred dollars in it. I was shocked. I knew she didn't have much to begin with and this must have closed her account. But, when I asked the teller he told me there was just enough left  to keep it open. I shoved the envelope into my jacket pocket, determined to talk to Daisy later.

 

 

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN -

The Hospital

 

 

Hospitals, were clearly, are not an element of the nostalgia for the good old days, and perhaps the absence of curiosity about them suggests a general suspicion that they were, in fact, dreadful places. Many people recognizing that the hospitals of their time housed more rats then patients often opted to be treated at home, even having surgery done on the kitchen table rather then subject themselves to the horrors of the hospital. So the picture of a clean antiseptic environment with white sheets, kind nurses and private rooms in this story are purely fictional. After all, haven't our boys suffered enough.

 

 

o0o0o0o0o0o

 

The night before we'd left for town I reluctantly agreed to allow Daisy to accompany us to Denver, but by the time we reached the ranch I was having second thoughts. As much as I'd like for her to come Daisy's no spring chicken and such a trip might be a little more than she could handle I feared. The last thing I needed was someone else to worry about. Lord knows Jess was enough. It had also occurred to me what it might cost Jess should something happen to Daisy. I know my Pard well and I knew that he'd blame himself.

 

I had just about made up my mind to try and talk her out of going when I stepped into the house. One look told me she meant business and all the talking in the world was not gonna change her mind. She'd already had everything packed and ready to go. She'd even made arrangements with Mrs. Potter to stand in for her. "Got to do something", she said to see that Andy and Mike didn't starve. Jeb and the Willis brothers were pressed into service as well. It didn't take much as both the Willis boys enjoyed being around Andy and Mike. Staying at the ranch was like a vacation for them. I couldn't help but laugh in spite of the circumstances when I thought of the workout our fishing poles were gonna get no matter the weather.

 

That night after supper I pulled Daisy aside and thanked her for wanting to help with Jess. But it didn't set well with me that she wanted to use her own money. She'd lost so much already; coming out west only to find she and her husband (now past) had been swindled out of their life savings. She didn't need to go out on limb for us.

 

"I know how you feel about Jess, Daisy. But, Jess is my responsibility. He'd be fit to be tied if he knew what you did. You know that," I chided gently.

 

"I do. And that's why we're not going to tell him," she said as she continued folding the last of our long johns, a stack of clean pressed laundry sat on the table next to her. I smiled. Like Jess, she has to keep busy.

 

I shook my head. "Daisy..." my words failed me when I suddenly noticed the amount of clothes and other necessities she was packing.

 

"Dear Lord, Daisy! You think we're gonna be gone long enough to use all this?"

 

"Well, from what Dr. Andrews said, when Jess comes out of surgery he'll most likely go right into therapy and that may take a while."

 

I knew she was right of course. So I forced my attention back to the subject at hand. “Daisy I think…”

 

"Slim, what makes you think Jess is your responsibility alone?" She asked.

 

I had to think about that one for a minute. As far as I was concerned Jess is like a brother to me and that makes me responsible. No one had ever questioned that before and for a moment all I could do was stare back at her...dumbfounded.

 

"Because he's...he's my partner," I stammered.

 

"Is that all?" She asked with a shy a smile.

 

I took a deep breath and looked into those kind eyes. "Yo...you know it's not, Daisy. Jess is like a brother to me and..."

 

"I see. So, what you're saying, is that he's family. Right?"

 

"Of course."  I could see where this was going. This gentle woman had me backed into a corner. Her corner and it wasn't gonna be easy getting out.

 

"Well, Slim," she said tolerantly as she once more turned her attention back to the last of the clothes. Then she lowered the boom. "I once heard you say that I was family too."

 

"You are, Daisy, but..."

 

"No buts. Like you always say, 'family takes care of family.' And that makes Jess my responsibility as well," she without looking at me.

 

"Daisy..."

 

"I don't know how long we'll be in Denver," she said, ignoring any further attempts to reason with her. "We're going to need all the funds we have to pay that hospital bill. So I would imagine my part of the contribution should go some to cover our hotel stay. Don't you think?" She looked up at me and smiled. Then she raised her eyebrows and before I knew what was happening she'd shoved the large carpet bag in my arms with instructions to take it to the barn.

 

Exasperated, I shook my head. "Daisy Cooper, when you set your mind to something the devil himself couldn't win an argument with you. You're as stubborn as that boy laying in there," I told her with a chuckle. I'd learned a long time ago it's best not to try and argue with her. So I didn't. But I wasn't done yet. I had one more card up my sleeve and I played it with confidence.

 

"And just what to you think Jess Harper is gonna say when he wakes up and sees you on that train?"

 

She turned and gave me her most innocent gaze. "Hi, Daisy?"

 

My eyes shot open and my mouth dropped. "Hi Da..." All I could do was let out a low groan and shake my head. I turned my back to her soft laughter and headed out to the barn, carpet bag in hand. I had to admit, she'd played me like a fiddle and won.

 

When I joined up with Seth later he told me that he had no sooner stepped out of the telegraph office before the reply came. "Larkspire must have been sitting at the ready," he said. Larkspire had cleared his time to see Jess first thing Saturday morning. He'd also given directions on how to move Jess so as to prevent further injury. He also wanted Jess kept more or less sedated during the transfer from home to the train station, I was told. Something we both knew wouldn't go over well with our friend. So while Seth replied I made my way over to the livery and hired out one of the best buckboards Laramie's Livery had to offer. It was decided that I would sit in the back along with Seth while Andy drove. I hate to admit it, but my brother is a better driver than I am. Don't know why, but I tend to hit every pot hole in the road....even though I really do try and avoid them. Our last stop was the train station to purchase our tickets. It was gonna be a rough trip and Seth worried about keeping Jess down for such a long period of time, but to be honest like he said we had little choice.

 

The next morning Mrs. Potter showed up bright and early and insisted on making breakfast so Daisy could concentrate on other matters while Andy and I hitched up the buckboard for the twelve mile trip into town. Following the doctor's specifications we put extra padding in the back. Our cargo was precious, and we were going to make it as safe and comfortable as possible for Jess.

 

Daisy and I we got as much breakfast down Jess as he could stomach; before Seth dosed him once again. Our next dilemma was how to move him safely. Larkspire's idea was to move Jess mattress and all. So when it came time to go between Seth, Andy and me, we very carefully lifted a heavily drugged Jess out of our room and gently laid him in the buckboard. Then with Seth and I settled in the back with Jess and with Daisy seated next to Andy, we set out.

 

The normal hour trip to town took over two since Andy had been instructed to walk the horse's all the way. Seth kept repeating Dr. Larkspire's instructions not to hit any chuck holes and to stay away from the gutters as much as possible as both might jar Jess and cause more damage. But Seth needn't have worried. Andy saw to it that the ride was as smooth as glass. So smooth in fact was the ride that the sleepless nights almost caught up with me and I actually found myself dozing off a time or two. We even made it to the station in time to get Jess and ourselves settled for the long trip to Denver with time to spare. There would be another transfer to a second train, but we were confident all would go well. Seth had sent a wire explaining the situation to the local doctor there and he promised to assist us with whatever was needed once we arrived.

 

 

0o0o0o0o0o

 

 

It was very late in the afternoon when the train finally pulled into the Denver station. Larkspire had kept his promise and had a special carriage waiting for us. I'd never seen anything like it. I wished Jess could have seen it. But by the time we arrived the last of the drug had worn off and he was too busy concentrating on trying to remain still and control the pain along with his stomach as best he could. Larkspire had told Seth he needed to have Jess as alert as possible during his exam. So for the last three hours of the trip Seth had withheld the Laudanum. I could tell he was hurting but in true Harper fashion he refused to admit it. Though I hated to see him in pain, I was happy however to be able to converse with him, without the drug getting in the way. It was the most lucid he'd been throughout the trip. He'd have to pause every once in awhile as his breath would catch as the pain took hold. He told me his back would jerk sending shooting pains along his spine and down both legs, like bein' jabbed with a hot poker he told me. I winced at that and hoped this special doc would give him something for the pain soon.

 

We watched as Jess was very carefully lifted from the small bunk in our compartment and laid gently on a stretcher together with a mound of blankets all tucked tightly around him. The three of us followed behind looking I know like some kind of solemn procession. Sitting for so long in the nice warm train, I had not realized just how cold it was until we stepped outside. I reached down and quickly repositioned the top blanket over my sick friend as the wind grabbed one side and threatened to pull it off.

 

The short ride from the station to the hospital lasted long enough for me to think back on my argument with Jess. It seems our proposed changes had Jess more on edge than I thought. As we made our way down the cities wide streets toward the General Hospital, I wondered what this doctor would find. Whatever the treatment Jess would have to agree to it. I just hoped he'd shelve that mulish side for once and let this doctor help him. If he could. It was the 'IF' that had me worried.

 

The General Hospital was a very large two story building with more windows in it than I'd ever seen. Jess was taken to an exam room while the rest of us were ushered into a small office adjacent to the same room. I can't tell you how nervous I was, waiting for this doctor to come out and tell us what the future would hold for my best friend and ultimately the Sherman ranch as a whole. I looked over at Daisy. She was just as anxious. I reached over and took her hand before she twisted her skirt plum off. Her small hand was as cold as ice.

 

Larkspire's office was very sparsely decorated with a small desk, bookcase lined with various medical books and journals and three chairs. We took our seats and waited. No one said a word. We had yet to see Larkspire and I rubbed the back of my neck as the minutes ticked away. Finally the door opened and Dr. Larkspire emerged. He was a rather short man, very slender and around Mort's age I guessed, somewhere in his forties. He greeted us warmly and took a seat behind his desk. We waited and watched as he thumbed through a small stack of papers and signed something one of the nurses brought him. Then he turned his attention to us.

 

"Mr. Sherman, Mrs. Cooper...I trust the trip was not too stressful for you?"

 

"No, sir," we said in unison, both so nervous the slightest noise out of the ordinary would have sent us up a wall.

 

"Good. I will tell you right now, I am not one to beat around the bush as it were. I have examined Mr...ah," he paused for a moment to lift the edge of a file on his desk, "Mr. Harper, and I do agree with Dr. Andrews' findings. Mr. Harper has indeed suffered a very serious injury to the lumbar spine. I found the reflexes in both legs to be very weak. With the right leg being the worst. From my cursory exam, I can tell you it would appear that he has several pinched nerves," he took a breath. "The danger we face now is in just how compromised those nerves have become.

 

That knot in the pit of my stomach was back again and I wiped the corners of my mouth. I felt sick. I glanced over at Daisy; she had gone pale and had stopped wringing her hands and just sat staring at the doctor.

 

"Doctor, what does that mean?" I asked.

 

"It means Mr. Sherman, that Mr. Harper appears to have suffered significant nerve damage and unless nerve function is restored and quickly, Mr. Harper stands to lose the use of both legs."

 

My heart sank. It's funny how the mind works sometimes. It was one thing to hear our family doctor say it, but quite another to hear the same from a specialist. I shifted uncomfortably not knowing what to do or say next.

 

I rubbed my hand across my mouth again and swallowed hard. "Doctor, what…ah, can you help him?" I was aware that my voice shook. Daisy noticed and gave my hand a gentle squeeze.

 

"Yes, Mr. Sherman, I believe I can. It will of course require surgery to repair as much of the damage as possible. I will tell you I am not one to rush into this type of surgery, but under the circumstances, I see no alternative. Proper blood flow and nerve function must be restored as soon as possible to avoid further damage. We must do this before the nerves are so comprised that they die".

 

"Then, what will the prognosis be doctor?" Daisy asked. Though her voice trembled a little, in true Daisy fashion she held her chin high and prepared herself for whatever the doctor had to say. I admired her courage, while I felt like I was sinking to the floor. I kept taking deep breaths to control the lump that kept coming up and near choking me.

 

"Well Mrs. Cooper,  provided the surgery is done in a timely fashion and if the damage is not too extensive he should regain full use of that left leg for a certainty. However, as for the right, only time will tell. It all depends on just how much damage has been done. Like I said it looks as if that right leg has taken the worst of it."

 

Daisy looked stricken and started to choke up. "Then... there is nerve damage?"

 

"Yes, Ma'am I'm afraid so," he told us and handed her a handkerchief. "Of course we won't know the true extent until I actually see for myself."

 

"How soon will you operate, Alex?" Seth asked.

 

"Just as soon as Mr. Harper gives me permission. But, it must be soon. Every minute we delay brings him closer to losing the living nerves in his legs, especially that right one".

 

Shocked, I looked from Seth to Dr. Larkspire. "You mean he hasn't?"

 

"No, Mr. Sherman, not as yet."

 

I glanced over at Seth, he appeared to be as shocked as Daisy and I.

 

"Alex, do you think he was lucid enough to understand what you asked?" Seth asked the specialist.

 

Larkspire thought for a moment. "Yes, I believe so. It appears that something is holding him back. Could be almost anything. Fear of the procedure, lack of confidence in me. But, whatever it is, he must make a decision soon. I did try to impress upon Mr. Harper the gravity of the situation. Told him the longer we wait the less his chances. But he still seems to be reluctant.”

 

I looked around the room at the worried faces, and stood up. "Let me talk to him doctor."

 

Daisy touched my arm for a moment and our eyes met. "Slim, be gentle."

 

"I will, I promise. But he's got to have this done, Daisy," I told her and gave her a quick smile.

 

I could feel everyone's eyes on me as I left the little office and stepped into the exam room. Jess lay on a cot in the middle of the room, so pale he almost blended with the sheets. He looked so young lying there, like a sick little boy. The picture of a very ill Andy crossed my mind for a moment. He didn't acknowledge me at first, even though his eyes were open he seemed to be having a hard time keeping 'em that way. Though I knew, Seth hadn't given him anything.

 

I pulled up a chair next to the bed.  "Hey, Pard. How ya feelin'?" I whispered.

 

He blinked a few times and finally turned his head to look me, trying hard to focus. "Sslim?"

 

"Yeah."

 

I watched as he swallowed and ran his tongue over dry lips.  "Doc ga...gave me somethin' to stop the jerkin'. It's makin' me sleepy." He took a deep breath, then I saw a faint smile cross his face. "Don't think I'll ever be sober again," he slurred, and blinked again tryin' to force his eyes to stay open.

 

I laughed. "Yes, you will. You just got to get well first," I told him. "Doc tell you what you need?"

 

He nodded. "Said he ne...needs to open me up and repair some kinda disk or some...some a' like at."

 

"Yeah, that's what he told us. Said you gotta make up your mind soon, Jess. Else you might not be able to walk."

 

"Told ya bef...before I ain't got no money for.…"

 

I shook my head at that, stood up and placed my hand on my friend’s shoulder. "I told you not to worry about that. I don't know why you've got this worry of money stuck in your craw, Jess. Will ya just let me deal with that. All you have to do is get well."

 

He took deep breath and slurred. "He se...send ya in here to talk to me, d…did he?"

 

"Now, you now better than that. I'm here because you're my Pard and I care about what happens to you," I told him honestly.

 

He reached up to pat my arm drunkenly. "I... know. But, even if I....I agree, the….there's still no guar...tee," he took another deep breath, "no guarantee...th.... that it'll work. That....tha....that's what I was try...in' ta tell ya at home. Kinda like throwin' money to the hogs…ain't it?" He said and started to fade.

 

I was tired, worried and growing more irritated by the minute. Looking down at my sick friend I was more determined than ever that no amount of Harper pride or stubbornness was gonna stand in the way. Not this time. Standing next to him in that little exam room that afternoon it took everything in me not to tear into him.

 

"No, it's not. I don't consider helping  a friend throwing money away, Pard," I told him and received only a brief smile as he struggled to keep his eyes open. Jess was putting up a good fight against whatever he'd been given, but he was losing. I had to move fast before the drug took complete hold and he went out on me.

 

It had been like that for the past four days. Trying to talk to Jess had been a real challenge, at times near to impossible. Either the pain or some drug he'd been given would get in the way. I never knew if he really understood what I was saying or not. Even caught myself snapping at him a few times. Something I always regretted later. And something for which elicited a reprimand from Daisy. As well it should. I had no right to be short with Jess. None of this was his fault. Over the past few months I had eaten so much shame and swallowed so much crow I felt I'd grow feathers for sure and gained ten pounds in guilt alone. But, now here I was again, in a similar situation. Only this time the stakes were just too high. Jess had to have this done. And by George come hell or high water he was gonna. So I took a deep breath and steamed full ahead.

 

"You listen to me, Jess Harper, you've got to have this done. We've talked about this. You don't want to be stuck in a wheelchair for the rest of your life, do ya?” Or worse."  Knowing full well that could happen. I searched his face, looking deep into those crystal blues and my heart sank when I realized he could no longer focus. I could only pray he understood. But in truth I wasn't sure he understood anything I said. His eyes were clouded and almost too heavy to keep open and he'd started breathing real deep. Under my breath I cursed Larkspire.

 

"Jess? Did you hear me?" I asked, anxious to get through to that fuzzy brain and was relieved if for a moment when he gave me a sleepy answer. "I hear ya, Sl....Slim," he slurred, but kept his eyes closed.

 

All of a sudden I felt like shaken him. "Well, will ya?"

 

"That wh…what you want?" He asked, and struggled to open his eyes, but was unable.

 

"What," I breathed out hard, fighting to keep my composure. "What I want, Jess, is what's best for you," I said and slapped his cheek.

 

"Jess?"

 

I watched as Jess used every bit of his waning strength to force his eyes open a slit, but the effort didn't last long and his eyes slid shut again.

 

"I.... know," he mumbled and raised a hand again to try to pat my arm, but got the bed instead, the drug taking fast hold now. "Ssslim..."

 

Whatever he was gonna say failed as his head rolled to one side. It didn't take a knock in the head to know that if I was going to get anything out of him it had better be soon. He was slipping fast, and I had to have an answer one way or another. So, I planted my hands on either side of his face and gave him a little slap on the cheek to get his attention.

 

"Jess? Pard, listen to me," I shook his head a little and gave him a few more slaps until finally his eyes opened a little and he stared blankly into mine. "Even it if it doesn't work I still want you as healthy as you can be, you hear. Whatever else comes along Jess, we'll deal with. It means your life, Pard! You understand?" My hands were cold and I could feel myself tense, I was darn close to shouting, though in truth I felt more like screaming.

 

"Jess!" I said raising my voice. "Doc needs your okay. He needs to know if you'll let him try and help ya." I slapped his cheek again, harder this time and watched, but this time my efforts met with little or no response what so ever.

 

"Jess, for God's sake!"

 

Finally, he gave me a weak smile and nodded. "Jess? Pard, you want me to sign for you. then?"

 

I'd find out later just how loud I'd become that day. But, at the time, all I wanted to do was make him understand how serious the situation was and to let the doc do whatever he could to help him.

 

"You want me to sign for you?" I asked. "Jess?" I  shook him again. No longer able to speak he made a weak attempt to look at me then nodded that he did. Relieved I pulled the covers up and tucked them tightly around him and left the room, feeling like I'd been horse whipped. I closed the door behind me and turned to find everyone staring at me.

 

"Slim?" Daisy said, she looked as if she'd been crying but now wore an expression akin to panic.

 

"It's okay Daisy, he said yes," I told her with a weary smile. "He wants me to sign for him doc," I told Larkspire.

 

"Very good, Mr. Sherman. Then we shall schedule the surgery for seven in the morning. Mr. Harper will be given pre-operative drugs around six. You are of course are welcome to visit until we take him to the operating theatre if you like," he told us. He rose from his desk and stepped up to me, smiled and laughed softly.

 

"Dr. Andrews here has told me that Mr. Harper is your partner. That the two of you are more like brother's than friend's. I see what he means, and I admire that, to be sure. But for a moment there I thought I was going to have to step in and rescue Mr. Harper before he even had a chance to become my patient," he laughed.

 

I felt my face flush. "Sorry, Doc... but my partner can be the most stubborn cuss you've ever seen. I had to do something to get his attention. And to tell you the truth that drug you gave him didn't help," I said with a chuckle, a little embarrassed.

 

It was very late when they finally had him settled in a private room on the first floor. We didn't get to spend much time with him as visiting hours had long past. I smiled at Daisy as she brushed the hair from his forehead and told him goodnight before we took our leave. Jess was out cold.

 

I was more than grateful to find our hotel was only a few blocks from the hospital. Both Daisy and I were so tired just putting one foot ahead of the other took effort. It must have been a very nice hotel, but by the time we stepped into the lobby we were so weary it didn't matter. All we wanted was a bed and some peace and quite. I stopped at the desk, pulled out my wallet and started to reserve two rooms when the clerk handed me two keys instead and told us where to find our rooms.

 

Over tired and figuring I’d heard wrong I shook my head and gave the clerk a weary smile. "No, I think you must have made a mistake. We just got here. My name is Slim...

 

"Slim Sherman and Mrs. Daisy Cooper. Yes I know."

 

"How'd you...?"

 

"Your rooms are on the second floor, rooms 24 and 25 respectfully. I'll have someone carry your bags for you, sir." He said and snapped his fingers and like a flash a young boy grabbed both bags and at the same time ushered us to our rooms. Daisy and I stood stunned.

 

I chuckled softly..."I don't understand...we just got here, we..."

 

"The Laramie town council reserved two rooms for you for the next three weeks, Mr. Sherman. Your bill has been paid in full. Bed warmers are in place. Would you like me to have your beds turned down?" He asked politely. All Daisy and I could do was stare back at him.

 

"Ah, yes, thank you. That would be nice, young man," Daisy answered seein's how I was still at a lose for words.

 

I'd find out later the whole thing had been spearheaded by none other than our very own town sheriff...Mort Cory. I was shocked. I got a big I told you so comin' from Daisy on this one. I thought as we followed the young man down the hall. Truth be told, I did feel a more than just a little ashamed at how I had treated my old friend. My only consolation was that I knew he understood my fear and worry at the time. I'd find out later that it was the town's way of saying how sorry they were for misjudging one of their own.

 

It didn't take long before Daisy and I were directed to our rooms. The rooms were spacious (much bigger than our little hotel in Laramie) and the beds comfortable, though not as comfortable as my own. It sure felt good to stretch out for once. It's not easy for a man my size to sleep all curled up in a cramped rail car.

 

As tired, as I was you would have thought I would have gone right out. But the picture of my best friend lying in a hospital bed, waiting to be cut open come morning kept coming to mind and it took some time before I finally dropped off.

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER NINETEEN -

Surgery

 

 

In the mid to late 1800's back surgery was in it's infancy. Though their were survivors the outcome wasn't always pleasant. Some walked away, but many did not. And those that did were lift scared and crippled for life thanks to the doctors scalpel and the lack of knowledge that prevailed.

 

 

0o0o0o0o0o0o

 

 

I couldn't even tell you what breakfast was like the morning of my Pard's surgery. I don't even remember what I had. Just that both Daisy and I had finished as fast as we could and headed for the hospital to be with Jess. I was also curious to know what had happened to Seth, as the two of us were suppose to share the room. Once at the hospital we found that Seth had spent the night by Jess' side. I was glad for that. Made me feel better knowing that my partner hadn't spent the night alone.

 

We were hoping to get a chance to visit with him before the drugs took hold, but, by the time we got to the hospital he was well on his way to being out. It was only five thirty. Seth explained that Jess had had a rough night. Just before four o'clock his breathing became labored and the painkiller he'd been given was no longer effective. Larkspire was worried, and decided to start the surgery as soon as possible. I was a little put off that he hadn't sent for us. But then I realized he probably had his hands full taking care of my partner and knew we'd be along this morning anyway.

 

Looking down at Jess that morning I doubt he even realized we were there. He'd mumble something or other and we'd both draw close, though we couldn't understand what he was trying to say. He did call me a few times and I'd give his shoulder a gentle squeeze just to let him know I was there. But he never opened his eyes or indicated that he was aware at all.

 

The very thought of my best friend being cut open with his life hanging in the balance  scared me more than I'd like to admit. And even though I was with Daisy and Seth, I have never felt so alone. All I could do was to sit, watch Jess breathe and try to control my own fear. I was tense. So much rested on what this doctor could do for my friend.

 

"What's wrong, Slim?" Daisy asked.

 

I looked down at my injured friend and shook my head. "I don't think Jess will ever…" there it was, that lump again...seems it had taken up housekeeping. My voice shook looking down at that pale face and knowing what this surgery would mean for my partner. I was finding it hard to keep my emotions in check. Don't know why I was concerned. Daisy has been a part of our family long enough to have seen us through many things, emotional and otherwise. She knows us like the back of her hand.

 

"Slim?"

 

"Daisy...if something goes wrong. Jess'll ne..."

 

"Nothings going to go wrong, Slim," she interrupted. "Everyone's pulling for him. I told you before, there are a lot prayers going up for him right now."

 

"I hope you're right, Daisy. Cause if it doesn't Jess'll never know....he'll nev..," I shut up and cleared my throat before I started babbling.

 

"Slim?"

 

"I just wish Jess could understand how much he means to this family. Daisy, if something does go wrong…”

 

"That's not going to happen, Slim. Jess will pull through this. Just you wait and see."

 

Personally, I think she was putting on a show of confidence for me. I looked at her and smiled.  "Daisy Cooper, where do you get the strength?"

 

"Oh it's not that, Slim. Sometimes fear turns to strength when there's no where else to go," she said, returning the smile.

 

"There's more to it, Daisy. If  Jess ever finds out what I've done, he'll never forgive me. I had to do it. There was just no other way to get him here, he's just got…" my voice faded again and I fell silent and just stared down at the man in the bed. My emotions in turmoil.

 

"Now you know better than that. You know we're very lucky the four of us. Some people have to wait until something terrible like this happens before they realize just how much they mean to each other. And even then, such a tragedy can test the bonds of friendship and love to their very limits. I've seen it happen."

 

I pulled my attention from Jess and rested it on Daisy with a quizzical gaze.

 

"I’ve lived a long time. I have seen more than my share of pain and suffering. Something like this can either tear a family apart or bring them closer together. How we react proves just how much love we have for each other and just how strong that love is," she reached over and laid a gentle hand on my arm. Then spoke softly. "You've already proved that, by doing everything you could possibly do to bring Jess here. And you and I both know he would have done the same for you. I wouldn't worry too much about what he'll think if he finds out. What you did, you had to do. He'll understand."

 

I nodded.

 

"You too. You only had two hundred and thirty dollars in the bank, Daisy," I smiled at her innocent expression and shook my head. "Jess'll hit the roof when he finds out what you've done."

 

"Well, problem solved," she shrugged. "We just won't tell him."

 

She had me there. "Just wish I knew why Jess is so concerned with money all of a sudden. All the money in the world is not worth him not being able to walk. I just don't understand why he just can't seem to let it go."

 

I had my eyes fixed on my friend and heard Daisy take a deep breath behind me. "Slim; you remember that summer Francie came to visit?"

 

"I remember," I told her. "I always enjoy her visits. Hope she comes back soon. She and Jess resemble each other. Although Jess isn't near as pretty," I laughed to myself.

 

She'd been watching you and Jess work together. She told me how very glad she was that Jess had found a good friend. A friend like you," she looked at me and smiled.

 

"When was all this, Daisy?"

 

"Two years ago. Remember when you, Jess and Ben took off to go round up those strays that'd broke thru the fence? It was so cold...too cold to sleep. So Francie and I sat by the fire that night, waiting for the three of you to get back and she started talking. Told me a great deal about her family and Jess and how they grew up. He hasn't had an easy life, Slim."

 

"I know," I said, still looking down at my friend.

 

"She told me how worried she'd been about her brother. I think like you, she knew Jess wasn't a gun slick at heart. But, he had to survive and if using the gun helped him well… The gun together with a hair trigger temper and that morbid sense of humor of his," she laughed.

 

I nodded. Jess does have an odd sense of humor. Can see something funny in almost any situation. I watched as she paused to catch her breath.

 

"Sitting there in the dark that night, listening to the crackle of the fire she told me how your friendship has always amazed him. Said he's never done anything to deserve such loyalty or brotherly love." She looked at me and smiled, "took some doing to get that word out of him," she smiled and rubbed my arm. "Just like you," she said and chuckled softly. "That's why he finds it so hard to accept. She said Jess told her that he feels his best  when he's taking care of someone else. For him to accept it himself, well, it's hard for him. He can't help it, Slim. It's ingrained in him. It would take years of psychiatric help to rid him of it...and I doubt there's enough money in the world to do it. If it could be done at all. He feels as strongly about you as you do about him, make no mistake about it. It's just hard for him to express.”

 

While my heart went out to my friend, my anger grew hot against his family for what they'd put him through. All the same though, it did go some to explain why Jess had gotten himself into so much trouble over the years.

 

"Thank you, Daisy," I said sincerely. "He's a good man, always has been. I think he just fell in with the wrong crowd. I'd sure like to get my hands around the neck of the sorry cuss that made him feel so worthless."

 

I heard her chuckle and turned back to find her smiling at me. "I know, dear; but, you'd have to stand in line," she said and patted my arm fondly. A gentle stirring from the object of our conversation drew our attention and we went to stand next Jess' bed.

 

"Jess…Pard? Can ya hear me?" I asked, giving his shoulder a slight squeeze. He forced his eyes open just a slit but just as quickly they slid shut and he was out again. He felt warm to me, but that could have been all in my head. After all, worries can make you see and feel things that aren't real sometimes. At least I hoped that was it.

 

Daisy had just stationed herself at the other side of the bed when the door opened and a stretcher was wheeled in and two gruff looking orderlies dressed in traditional white greeted us with a smile. We were asked to step outside as they transferred my partner onto the rolling bed.

 

Once outside, Daisy leaned down and spoke to him softly. "You're going to be fine, dear. We'll be right here when you wake up. We love you," she said, her voice cracking a little, then she turned away and buried her face in my shoulder, no longer able to hold back. I reached down and gave his shoulder a quick squeeze. He was laying on his back, pillow less and with just a thin blanket over him. He looked so pale and drawn. Daisy stood next to me blinking back the tears. Sometimes I wish things were different between the sexes, and the male of the species could cry as openly and as easily as the women...sure would release a lot of tension. We watched as they wheeled him away from us down the corridor and into the operating theatre adjacent to a small waiting room.

 

Then for the next six and half hours we waited in that small room. Looking back now those were the longest six and a half hours of my life. For the most part we said very little. I hadn't even realized I'd been pacing until Daisy told me to sit down before I wore hole in the floor. I did sit or at least I tried. I'd sit for a spell, get up and pace, then sit, then pace, on and on.

 

My mind kept going  back on that first rocky year of our friendship. I had some real doubts about him back then. There were times I didn't think it was gonna work out at all. Don't know how many times I got mad enough to kick his butt off the ranch and he'd pack up and leave. Then I'd get to feeling bad ...always ended up surprising myself by going after him, asking him to come back, telling how much Andy wanted and needed him. Course at the time ( I never told Jess) it was as much for me as it was Andy. Jonesy knew, but gratefully said nothing. Jonesy did tell me once that I should fess up and tell Jess how much his friendship meant to me, 'instead of all this running here and there...just a pure waste of time if you ask me,' he growled. But, where Jonesy was concerned I knew it was all show.

 

Then there was that fella from Overland, Jack Slade, who wanted to fire Jess. I surprised

myself then too. Darn near shocked Jess right out of his boots. Sitting there thinking about it I had to smile. Told Slade he'd have to take us both out if he drew on Jess. Broke Jess’ concentration for sure. I can still see the look on Jess' face when Jonesy cocked that shotgun and told Slade he'd 'make it three'. Like Jess, Jonesy didn't always say how he felt. But, you could see it in his eyes...he cared for Jess. All that and the fact that I was willing to give up everything my little brother and I had built to keep hold of him. Every time I look at this ex-gunfighter, drifter I see something special, something that ties the two of us together. Don't know exactly what is it, but sure I don't want to lose it. Daisy could probably explain it. But I'll leave that for another time.

 

Sitting there in that little room it all seemed so long ago. Now instead of wondering if I'd made a mistake, I sat there worrying myself sick over him. Praying he'll pull through. I'd even mortgaged the ranch to see that he got the treatment he needed. I have no regrets; Jess Harper is worth far more than a piece of land.

 

Just couldn't help but think how Jess would react if the worst happened and he was unable to continue the work he loved. I sat in silence and glanced from the operating theatre to the window and back again. I was getting more edgy with each passing minute. Finally, when Daisy noticed me staring out the window again she stepped over and asked if I was alright? A question she'd asked several times over the past four hours and each time I'd lie and tell her I was. Like now, but then looking out at all the people…

 

"It's funny, Daisy. How you sit here and watch people. Everyone's going about their business without a care in the world, while the most important person in your life lies fighting for his, just a room away." I stopped and looked up at her and swallowed the lump I felt coming. "Just don't think this is a fight Jess is gonna win, Daisy." I told her and looked down at the scuff marks in the polished wooden floor and realized I wasn‘t the only pacer that'd been in that room.

 

"Why don't we stretch our legs, go for a short walk?" She suggested.

 

I agreed. This waiting was killing me.

 

As we stepped out into the street I was reminded of why I disliked big cities. The pungent smell of horse manure filled the air along with their other vital deposits. Out in the country or in a small town like Laramie it was different; there the air was fresh and clean. We'd only walked a few blocks when we realized nothing held our interests. So we turned back, our concerns sealed back at the hospital in Larkspire's surgery.

 

We had just entered the waiting room again when a nice young lady approached us with a tray of coffee and small finger sandwiches. She sat them down and smiled kindly then left us alone. Neither of us felt much like eating. I just knew if I tried I'd have choked for sure.

 

"Slim, talk to me. What's wrong? I know your worried about the surgery, but there's more. Like I always tell Jess, you'll feel better if you talk it out."

 

I nodded, knowing she was right. "Daisy, what if Jess can't walk or get around like he used to?  What will that do to him? Just confirms what I told you a while back he..."

 

"Or to you for that matter?" she countered.

 

Surprised. "Me?" I chuckle. "What do you mean me?"

 

"Yes, you. What would you do if Jess can't get around? Have you thought how you'd react and what you'd do?"

 

I looked down at the floor, shook my head and smiled. "That's all I've been thinking about, Daisy."

 

"Oh?"

 

"I suppose we'd have ourselves a built in bookkeeper,"  I looked at her again and smiled, "course we'd also have major fight on our hands for a while that's for sure," I chuckled softly. "After all you know how Jess just loves to do the books," I said with a note of sarcasm.

 

The relief that came over her both puzzled and concerned me.

 

"Daisy?"

 

"I've been so worried," she looked up at me and shook her head. "Oh never mind me. I'm just a silly old lady." She stopped and looked down at the floor and I knew what she'd been thinking.

 

"You don't have to worry, Daisy. I can assure you if the worst happens Jess will be cared for. I'll see to it," I assured her. I looked at her and chuckled. "Whether he likes it or not. Like I told Mike, Jess is family, Daisy....and I don't abandon family, no matter what."

 

"So what have been thinking?" She asked, clearing her throat. “I’ve been sitting here watching you. I can almost here those wheels turning.”

 

"Oooh, I was just kinda re-doing the house in my head," I told her.

 

"Re-doing the house. How?"

 

"Well, if Jess is confined to one of those wheelchairs, we'll have to widen the doorways, so he doesn't take the skin off his knuckles. And put a ramp from the house to the porch, and maybe from the por....,"

 

She started to laugh. "Slim, you're as bad as I am. Why don't we just wait and see what the doctor has to say before you start major construction?"

 

My face flushed and I smiled. Daisy once told me she loved my smile. Says I have dimples big enough to fall into, I smiled again, and we shared a nervous laugh.

 

All fell silent for a time then all of a sudden, out of no where all my fear and worried turned to anger and I stood and slammed my fist into my hand.

 

"Why is this happening? To Jess, of all people. He's seen more than his share of suffering, been through enough to last most folks a life time. He doesn't deserve this, Daisy. He doesn't! He's had enough trouble...people after him for his gun, after him because of his past. When will folks just let the man be?"

 

I knew I was rambling. But it was like my mind was going so fast I couldn't stop it. The very thought of my best friend, being cut open in the next room not knowing if he'd live or die. Or if he'd be able to walk all because of the greed and jealousy of one man, was just more n' I could bear. "I'd give him my legs if I could, Daisy, in a minute. I would. I wouldn't have to think about it," I said sincerely.

 

"I know, dear. But nobody was after Jess, Slim. It was just an unfortunate accident that's all," she said.

 

I shook my head and gritted my teeth. "The point is it didn't have to happen in the first place. I don't care how much time Douglas gets, it's not long enough. I'd like to get my hands around that #@*&^@! 's neck. Let him feel a little of the pain Jess is feeling right now."

 

"Slim..."

 

"Daisy, I've seen Jess through an awful lot to bad things. Sickness, lot of hurts.....was even close to death a few times. But, this,"  I shook my head again and swallowed, "this....Daisy, this has me really scared. A man can only take so much. I don't know if Jess has enough fight left in him for this."

 

I got up and moved to stand at the window. I just couldn't look at her again. So I looked out of the window instead. Behind me I heard her rise and walk over to me. I could feel myself shake. It isn't often I lose control....but hang it all this was Jess we were talking about. I just couldn't help it. "I never met anybody like Jess, before Daisy. He can be a real smart ass sometimes, gets under my skin and makes me mad as heck....but, I ...... He's as much a brother to me as Andy is."

 

"I know. Right now your scared and hurting for him. Sometimes Slim,  we just have to accept the things we can't change. And, if the worst happens, Jess will have to accept it too. And learn to deal with it the best he can, like the rest of us. As you've told him before, he isn't alone in this. He'll have to learn to cope. But so will we. As the Bible says, 'love never fails,' and we certainly have enough of that to go around," she smiled and hugged me tight.

 

It was in this position that Doctor Larkspire found us when he stepped into the room. He must have seen how anxious we were, because the first words out of his mouth brought a smile to our trouble faces.

 

"Mr. Harper is out of surgery and doing well. He's in recovery right now," he told us with a smile.

 

We both sighed heavily…"Oh, thank God, doctor," Daisy exclaimed and nearly buckled with relief.

 

"Indeed, Mrs. Cooper.....in this instance I do believe he was on our side," he smiled. "I always like to give credit where credit is due. And good news first.”

 

The 'good news FIRST' sounded ominous. "Thank you doctor," I said and sat down next to Daisy. Then for the next half hour we sat, listened and hung on every word this specialist had to say.

 

"First let me say, Mr. Harper is a very, very lucky man. He did quite well during surgery. My main concern wasn't so much the operation; though major surgery as Mr. Harper has just undergone is always a concern. My greatest fear was getting him here alive. My concern was if the vertebra had splintered any amount of jarring and jostling about could have driven a splitter into the spine, either paralyzing him or killing him out right. But, as you say Mrs. Cooper, 'thank God' that did not happen," he paused and took a deep breath.

 

"Before I begin, would you both like some coffee?"

 

"No," we replied together.

 

"Very well then. When I opened Mr. Harper up I found the disk had indeed been ruptured. Dr. Andrews told me how Mr. Harper was injured. It is my understanding that Mr. Harper was apparently thrown or jumped from the coach as it turned over and was found lying against an outcropping of rocks," he eyed me as if to confirm what he'd been told.

 

"That's right," I told him. My mouth was dry, like it was full of cotton.

 

"That would certainly be consistent with what I found. The force of that impart was hard enough so that it not only ruptured the disk but caused two vertebras to fuse together as well and displacing another. In so doing it caused several nerves to be pinched suppressing nerve impulses and inhibiting blood flow. The surgery went quite smoothly and I was able to remove the damaged disk and free up the nerves with little or no trouble. And as far as I could tell I didn't see any other pinched nerves. If that had been all I would have had Mr. Harper out of surgery and in recovery a lot sooner. However, as I started to close we ran into a small problem...." he paused as a nurse approached, handed him a piece of paper and asked for his signature.

 

Daisy and I exchanged worried glances.

 

"I'm sorry. Where was I?" He asked turning his attention back to us.

 

"The problem," we said in unison. He must have sensed our fear because he glanced up at us and smiled.

 

I quickly apologized.

 

"No need, Mr. Sherman. This has been a stressful time for both of you. I understand. One of the main dangers in this type of injury and subsequent surgery is hemorrhaging. Mainly because of the of the injury it's hard to detect. As I say I  was just about to close when both my assistant and I noticed a dark mass about a centimeter to the left of Mr. Harper's spine. So we started investigating....and there is was....a very large clot congealed and firm. Fortunately, the clot itself had stopped any further arterial hemorrhage. That's why I say Mr. Harper is a very lucky man. By the time we got to it part of it had already broken free and was not more than a breath away from entering a main artery. Had that happened Mr. Harper's heart would have been starved of proper blood flow, resulting in either a fatal heart or brain seizure," he glanced over at us, then added quickly, "let me assure you, that did not happen, we caught it in time. No doubt Dr. Andrews explained the distress Mr. Harper was in last night?"

 

We both nodded that he had.

 

"Well that clot appears to have been the cause of his depressed breathing and why it was so vital that we operate as soon as possible."

 

I know I must have gone pale as did Daisy. I reached over and took her hand. I hadn't realized just how tense she really was until I felt her relax after that bit of 'good news'. We sat through the rest of Dr. Larkspire's minute by minute account of my partner's life threatening ordeal a bit more relieved. At least I could breathe now without feeling like I was gonna lose my stomach.

 

"That having been said, being said, I am afraid all the new is not good. In the nerves that were pinched, blood flow was suppressed long enough so that some nerve damage has occurred. As a result  I am sorry to say there will be some degree of impairment and I..."

 

I don't know what happened to me then, but it was like someone had kicked me in the stomach and I needed to get up and stretch to breathe. I stood to quickly, the room spun and nearly fell over.

 

"Mr. Sherman?"

 

"Slim?"

 

"Mr. Sherman, are you alright?" I heard Larkspire ask, and before I knew it he was on his feet and had a hold of my arm.

 

All of a sudden the whole room seemed to take on an odd bright color I can't describe. Then everything seemed to close in on me and my legs felt weak. I could hear the doc, knew he was speaking to me, but danged if he didn't seem far away. Yet, I knew he was standing right in front of me; his hand on my arm, leading me back to my chair.

 

"Slim, sit down." Daisy ordered. I plopped down hard, my own legs no longer able to hold me.

 

I heard Larkspire called for a nurse. I could just make out his hand near my face, then I breathed and the whole room seemed to shatter around me and suddenly I was back, my head clearing. It didn't take more n' a minute. I felt so foolish. Here my best friend is lying in a hospital bed and I'm the one being nursed! I was more than just a little embarrassed; I felt down right ashamed. I took the offered water and started to gulp it. I was so thirsty…like I'd been out in the desert for a week. While the doctor stood next to me taking my pulse, I noticed a small bottle of smelling salts being held by a nurse. Never realized before how powerful that stuff was.

 

Daisy sat with her hand on my shoulder. "No dear, just sip it," she soothed and rubbed my arm. I paused and decided to follow instructions and sip the cool liquid instead of chugging it liked I wanted to. My stomach was already turning flip flops. Inside I smiled as I recalled giving Jess those very same instructions a while back for fear he’d lose everything he drank.

 

"Are you feeling better, Mr. Sherman?" Dr. Larkspire asked.

 

I nodded and told him how sorry I was for falling apart like that. I sure felt like a fool.

 

"No need to feel bad, Mr. Sherman. It isn't an easy thing to hear about the sufferings of someone close to you," he looked from me to Daisy and asked if he should continue or come back a little later? I told him no, we'd like it all now. Personally, I didn’t think I could go through this again.

 

"Alright," he started, but then paused and regarded me again. "If you're sure, Mr. Sherman?" I was actually a little touched, he was genuinely concerned.

 

“Yes, thank you. I’m fine now,” I assured him.

 

“Very well, as it stands the major damage appears to be confined to the right side. That's where the majority of the disk was pushed and as far as I can tell there appears to be no further damage to the nerves other than on that side.”

 

"As I was saying Mr. Harper has suffered a degree of impairment to both legs. The left leg is fairly minimal. That right leg, however, is another story. The nerves in that leg were compressed for a considerable period of time so that a significant amount of damage has occurred. As a result  I am afraid Mr. Harper’s ability to walk has been seriously compromised. To what extent, only time will tell. As it stands right now his right leg is much weaker than the left. And with the type of damage done the impairment would be significant to warrant a wheelchair..."

 

I caught my breath and glanced over Daisy... she had her hand to her mouth and had begun to tear. I must have gone a little pale myself because once again he stopped and regarded me with a look of concern.

 

“Mr. Sherman?”

 

“I…I’m alright doc. It’s just the idea of my partner being confined to a wheelchair. It…it’s just upsetting that’s all.”

 

“I understand, Mr. Sherman. If Mr. Harper’s back was not in such a delicate state I would have advised otherwise…”

 

“Jess in a wheelchair,” I whispered under my breath, though I thought no one heard Larkspire did.

 

“Mr. Sherman?”

 

“Oh, I’m sorry doctor. It’s just my partner is a very active man and the idea of being confined to a chair is not gonna set well with him.”

 

 “I understand. But, Mr. Harper will be starting therapy on Thursday. Why don’t we wait and see how that turns out. I have learned over the years never to give up hope. I have seen therapy work wonders, Mr. Sherman. So, before we have him completely tied to a chair let’s see what our therapist can do for him, shall we?” He advised.

 

He looked at us and smiled. I'm sure he must have been waiting for me to hit the floor. I’d do that later. I figured I'd embarrassed myself and Daisy enough for one day.

 

"Of course with all treatment of this nature," he continued, "a lot will depend on Mr. Harper. Dr. Andrews has told me that Mr. Harper can be a rather, ah, shall we say.... difficult patient. Not wanting to follow doctor's orders and such," he said and looked to each of us for confirmation.

 

It was more of a question than a statement and it made me smile. I nodded, and took another sip of the cold water. My mouth still dry.

 

"That being said, I will tell him exactly what I am telling you right now. If he wants to regain a degree of mobility, he must allow sufficient time to heal and must follow my instructions to the letter. If he does not, he could lose the use of the right leg all together and greatly impair the left one as well.”

 

"He'll do it, doc. You've got my word on it," I promised and hoped he heard the determination in my voice.

 

He smiled. "I of that I have no doubt, Mr. Sherman. Dr. Andrews has told me that you and Mrs. Cooper are about the only ones that can keep Mr. Harper in line....says he's a little on the stubborn side," he chuckled.

 

"A little!" I laughed. "Doc, Jess Harper could make a badger cry."

 

The doctor looked at the two of us and laughed, then cleared his throat and continued.

 

“Dr. Andrews also explained that Mr. Harper enjoys riding?”

 

My heart hit my boots with that question. Dear God if Jess can’t ride…

 

All I could do was to nod. My mouth still felt like it was filled with cotton.

 

"Well Mr. Harper appears to be his own man and a determined one at that. So once his back completely heals I don’t see why riding would be out of the question. However, as to breaking…” he paused again as if to collect his thoughts. "This is purely personal you understand, but if he were someone I cared about… I would most certainly not encourage it. Mr. Harper is missing the disk that would allow for cushioning during the jarring and jerks of breaking an animal. In addition the vertebra above and below the injury have already begun to fuse together weakening the spinal column to a degree. And the resulting throws and impacts that often occur when engaged in such activity could be devastating to say the least. Resulting in further impairment if not worse."

 

The look on my face must have spoke volumes. The good doctor leaned towards me. "I'm sorry, Mr. Sherman..."

 

"No, no doctor. You're right of course. I appreciate your being up front with us," I told him and fought to swallow that dad gummed lump again. "I'm just not looking forward to the argument, that’s all,” I told him.

 

"If you like, Mr. Sherman, I could tell Mr. Harper and perhaps...."

 

I shook my head. "No, doc. Unless you want to have a bob cat by the tail...that's my place," I smiled. He caught it and chuckled softly. I reached for the rest of the water and thought how I was gonna deliver this news to my partner. I wouldn't be easy...but I was determined that  Jess was not gonna mount another mustang if I had anything to do with it. The risk was just too great.

 

He gave us a brief nod and cleared his throat before he continued and I could tell he was tired. Must take a lot out of you to open a man up like that....having to be so careful and all. Sure glad he knew what he was doing.

 

Again, a nurse came to the room and handed him a piece of paper. He read it briefly, and gave it back to her before turning his attention to us once more.

 

Daisy turned away from us then and out of the corner of my eye, I caught the glint of tears as they rolled down her checks. Her reaction didn't escape the doctor's notice either.

 

"He’ll be fine Mrs. Cooper. He will recover I am sure. He looks to be a very strong muscular young man and certainly has a strong constitution. Not to mention people who care about him....that's important, sometimes it’s the best medicine. I wish all my patients had that kind of support."

 

"He'll need further care of course; and I've given Dr. Andrews a list of dos and don'ts. Seth, also tells me that Mr. Harper will no doubt want to go home as soon as possible. But, I am afraid that will not be possible right away. He will need to remain in my care for at least another two weeks before he's fit to travel. We will also be starting therapy to restore as much mobility as possible within the next two days. It is also important that therapy continue once he is home. That is of course something we can discuss a little later," he said with a weary smile. He took a deep breath and sat bit straighter to stretch is back.

 

"Oh, and one more thing. I have two other surgeries scheduled for this afternoon and so I have asked Dr. Andrews to deliver a message for me to Mr. Harper. If Mr. Harper doesn't want to be confined to bed for the reminder of his life....he must follow my instructions to the letter."

 

Daisy and I exchanged glances and smiled.

 

"Of course I realize that is a bit harsh, but from what I've been told..."

 

"No, no doctor, that's not harsh at all. And thank you," Daisy interrupted.

 

"When can we see him, doctor?" I asked. Right now, all I wanted to do was to sit by his side, even if it was just to watch him sleep.

 

"Well, he's not come around as yet. I'd give him another hour or so. I wish I could tell you that Mr. Harper will be awake and lucid for the next thirty-six hours, but I am afraid I can't. The very nature of the surgery requires that he not move for at least that. That is imperative. And if necessary he will be given painkillers to achieve this," he said with a smile and took a deep breath. "So, Mr. Sherman, Mrs. Cooper if there are no further questions, I'll take my leave. I'll have the nurse find you once he's back in his room."

 

The doctor smiled, stood and we thanked him. I was so grateful; a simple handshake seemed so little in comparison. This man had just saved my Pard's life!

 

"Oh, doctor, just one more thing."

 

"Yes, Mr. Sherman?"

 

"Where is Dr. Andrews?"

 

The doctor gave out a slight laugh. "With Mr. Harper. Has been all along. Even assisted me in surgery. Told me if he didn't he would have to answer to the two of you. And he pointed out that he didn't want the Sherman freight train coming after him. Referring to your size no doubt," he said with a chuckle. 

 

Then for the first time during this whole terrible ordeal, I felt I could finally relax.

 

"Dr. Andrews has told me a little about Mr. Harper's background and about your family, Mr. Sherman. I must say I am very impressed. That being said I must warn you that with all serious injuries and subsequent surgeries, depression is always an issue. But, with care and support, I should say Mr. Harper will recover and learn to accept and live with whatever limitations he may have. And from what I've seen and heard so far there certainly appears to be enough love and camaraderie to handle almost any situation that might arise. So, I shouldn't be too worried."

 

With that, the good doctor gave us a smile and left. All Daisy and I could do was hold each other and thank the Lord that Jess had pulled through...this time, in particular I had my doubts. This was an experience and a feeling I'll never forget as long as I live. The sick feeling of losing someone you care about had hung over me since the day Andy and I brought him home from that wreck. At least, now there was a light at the end of this terrible tunnel. The road ahead would have some bumps, twists and turns, but we'd learn to deal with it, as a family.

 

That one hour seemed longer than the six we'd spent waiting for Jess to come out of surgery. But finally we were admitted to his room. Again, Dr. Larkspire was thinking of our comfort. There was a small table set in-between two chairs with a pot of fresh coffee and two cups waiting for us. It was a simple room, white walls with a small oil lamp sitting on a nightstand near the bed. Aside from the little table and chairs there was little else, save for a small painting hung on the wall between the two chairs.

 

The bed was narrow, almost too narrow I thought for a grown man. Even though Jess is a bit smaller than me he filled it. I could also see what they meant about Jess not looking good. He lay very still, too still in fact. The only indication that he was alive at all was the steady rise and fall of his chest as he breathed. His hair stood out in sharp contrast against a face virtually devoid of color. Almost looked as if he was wearing one of those ladies caps the high society women wear when they go swimming.  I smiled when I thought of how Jess would react if he knew what I was thinking, should I decide to tell him.

 

I recall being told once that intense relief can make a person giddy. Now as I stood looking down at my friend and partner I understood the truth of that statement...I felt like I wanted to shout and dance around. So happy was I just to be in the same room with my partner, knowing he was gonna be alright. I laid my hand top of his, waiting to see those blue eyes. Daisy came up behind me, rested her hand on my shoulder and looked up at me with a smile.

 

My smile suddenly turned to a frown, that giddy feeling replaced once again with concern. "He's cold, Daisy," I said with some alarm. "Real cold."

 

"That's normal, dear. Don't worry, he'll warm up," she soothed.

 

We took our seats and waited. It was close to supper time before we noticed Jess' breathing had changed. We watched as Jess moved his head to one side and forced his eyes open. Clouded and unfocused, but open none the less. Daisy was the first to respond. She leaned down, smiled and gently stroked the hair from his forehead.

 

"How are you feeling, dear?" She asked softly.

 

Jess didn't respond, just gazed up at her. I stepped forward and placed a hand on his shoulder and asked the same question, but punctuated with, "you awake, Pard?" I couldn't keep the smile off my face as I looked down into those blue pools. But I got virtually the same response. Whether he knew we were there or not, we couldn't tell. I didn't care, he was alive and that's all that mattered.

 

A moment later and he closed his eyes and drifted off. I leaned up against the wall and let out a long sigh. It's amazing what one look can do. Those blue eyes filled with recognition or not had instantly put me in a better mood.

 

We continued to sit for a while longer. It was past supper time before we saw those blue eyes again. This time he rewarded us with a weak smile when we spoke. Although a little more awake I couldn't say he was totally with us.

 

Daisy stood to one side of the bed and laid a gentle hand on his forehead again.

 

"How do you feel, dear?" She whispered.

 

Jess turned to her and forcing his eyes to stay open mumbled. "I...I'm okay, D...Daisy," he said, then  made a weak attempt to look around the room. 

 

"Ssslim?" He slurred, sounding like his mouth was full of marbles.

 

"I'm right here, Pard. You hurting?”

 

His eyes roamed the room before he finally found me and although he did his best I could tell he couldn't focus as yet. "It ain't b...bad."

 

Knowing Jess the way I do I doubted that. It ain’t bad or I’m fine, has always been his pat answer.

 

"Daisy?" He called.

 

"Yes, dear?"

 

"We...ho...home?"

 

She smiled and laid a gentle hand against his cheek. "No, dear. You're in the hospital. You had surgery, remember?"

 

He swallowed "Surdgy...That's why…that's wh…why it hur…hurts?"

 

"Yes."

 

We watched as his eyes glazed over for a second and he tried to speak but couldn't. I decided to fetch the doc and came close to colliding with Seth as he entered the room, syringe in hand.

 

"Well, how's are boy?" He asked with a smile and stepped over to take Jess’ wrist. "Jess, can you hear me? I have something here to ease your pain and help you to sleep."

 

A slight nod of recognition was all he got. It didn't take much to realize the pain was hitting him hard now. I stood and shook my head, even half drugged that stubborn streak still showed itself and in true Harper fashion he drunkenly struggled to say he didn't need what Seth was about to give him. His blurry vision focusing momentarily on the syringe Seth held in readiness.

 

Seth laughed softly. "I sincerely doubt that," he said as he pulled the covers down and extracted a limp arm.

 

I reached over and rolled up the sleeve and winced as our family doctor shoved the needle deep into the muscle. I hate shots. Always have. When he'd finished he turned to us and smiled.

 

"That'll take care of the pain. He'll sleep through the night now. Maybe even longer," he told us. He smiled and  taking a closer look at the two of us he laughed again. "He's not the only one who could use some sleep. You two look dead on your feet. Why don't you go to the hotel, get something to eat and turn in?"

 

"Seth, I…"

 

"I'll be with him all night, Slim. No need for you and Daisy to fret. He'll be fine. You got my word," he assured us. "Now go on," he insisted, "before I shove one of these into your backsides," he threatened. That did it. We left Jess in the care of our family doctor and headed for comfort of our beds.

 

 

CHAPTER TWENTY -

Overlands Mistake

 

 

Sleep came easier that night and next morning when Daisy and I met for breakfast we were well rested and hungry as a pack of wolves. After breakfast we headed back to the hospital looking forward to seeing Jess again. On the way we were talking about one thing and another when we rounded the corner leading to Jess’ room and were almost run down by two men rushing past us. It was then that we heard an angry voice and recognized it as Seth. He was standing just down from Jess' room giving an orderly what for; laying down the law.

 

"No one, but no one is to see Mr. Harper except, hospital staff, myself,"  then casting an eye at us pointed,  "or Mr. Sherman and Mrs. Cooper. Is that CLEAR?"

 

The poor orderly was white as a ghost and shrinking back…but managed to mutter that he did indeed understand and added with a promise that it wouldn't happen again. We stood dumbfounded as he disappeared down the hall as fast as he could go. Leaving a seething Seth behind.

 

"Seth? What was all that about?" I asked, jerking my thumb over my shoulder in the direction of the fleeing orderly.

 

 

Before answering Seth gave Daisy a nod, and ushered her into the room. From where I stood I could see Dr. Larkspire and a nurse bending over Jess. It isn't often  you see Seth Andrews mad, but he was fuming. I looked past Seth and I tried to catch of glimpse of my friend around Larkspire, his nurse and Daisy. I couldn't see Jess, but I did see Daisy's face and I didn't like the look of it.

 

"Those two yahoos that just left," Seth seethed, pulling my attention back to him "They were from Overland," he swallowed and paused to catch his breath, "Slim they..."

 

"Overland?"

 

He nodded. “They came in here wanting Jess to sign some papers. Guess they must've been watching the room, saw Jess was alone and took advantage of it."

 

Why would Overland do such a thing? And what could be so important that'd they disturb a sick man? I wondered. Alarmed. "Is he alright?" I asked.

 

Seth took a deep breath, his eyes ablaze. "I don't know yet, Slim. But I can tell you this much; it didn't do him any good. He's not to be moved," Seth's tone was stern and his voice still shook with rage. "Alex made that clear."

 

He stopped to catch his breath again and to run a hand through his hair. "Nurse came in this morning to give Jess his medicine and caught them. She said they had Jess pulled up in a sitting position, had a book and some papers on his lap and one of them had shoved a pen in his hand and was demanding he sign something. But Jess, being so pumped full of drugs didn't understand what they wanted," he stopped and shook his head in dismay. "For God's sake, the man's not able to hold a pen much less sign his name," he took another breath. "According to the nurse they got pretty rough, shaking him trying to keep his attention. Had Jess real upset. She ordered them out, but they wouldn't go. So she had to get physical with them, stepping between them and Jess and pushing them away from the bed. Finally had to threaten to get the sheriff before they'd leave. They just took out of here minute ago. You and Miss Daisy probably passed them in the hall."

 

"Two men did pass us. Acted like their breeches were on fire."

 

It's hard to put into words the way that news affected me. I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck rise as my temper began to climb like a slow moving train just building up steam. I gritted my teeth and forced myself to hold it together long enough to check on Jess. I took a deep breath and asked if I could see him. Seth had started to usher me into the room when Daisy stepped out.

 

"Daisy?"

 

"He's going to be alright, Slim. Dr. Larkspire has given him a mild sedative; he says he'll probably sleep for the rest of the day. I don't know what they were trying to do, but forcing him up like," she paused and shook her head, "the doctor says the incision is still in tact and there's no bleeding. He doesn't feel any lasting damage was done. Just upset him and caused him a lot of pain that's all. He'll be alright," she said, taking a breath and nervously straightening her skirt.  "Now what about you?"

 

"Me? I'm alright," I told her as I craned my neck to look past her shoulder and into the room.

 

"Can't say the same for Overland though," I said, though I know I should've kept my mouth shut...it just spilled out along with my temper. 

 

Now, I'm usually a pretty calm fella, but these brutes had over stepped their bounds. They'd roughed up a sick man; and my partner no less and they were gonna know about it.

 

A moment later and a nurse came for Larkspire and he left Jess in the capable hands of our own physician. I stepped into the room, followed by a very distraught Daisy; though she tried to hide it. Jess looked bad. He was pale, beads of sweat had broke out on his forehead and his body shook as he struggled to breathe. I stepped over and took his hand; it was ice cold and as limp as a rag. I stood quite and watched as Seth examined him further then began to explain why Larkspire wanted Jess to remain immobile. Back surgery he said is tricky business especially when the nerves are involved. Any jarring around could undo all the doctor's hard work and cost Jess dearly. Could've put Jess right back in the same situation he'd been in before surgery...or worse.

 

We watched with growing concern as Seth took his pulse. But it was when he placed his hand back under the covers that I caught a glimpse of something unusual on Jess' right wrist. I gently nudged Seth aside and pulled the covers back to have a closer look. And there it was, the imprint of a mans fingers and higher up dark bruises grown on my partner's arm where they'd forced him up. I carefully tucked the arm back under the covers and straightened them. My anger blazed and I found I had to turn away before I exploded right then and there. It took everything in me to remain calm. I said nothing just left the room. I had just stepped into the hallway when Daisy reached out took hold of my arm and pulled me back. I hadn't even realized she'd followed me out.

 

"Slim?"

 

"I'm fine, Daisy…just fine," I spat, the words shooting out of my mouth as fast as Jess could fan his colt. No longer able to control my anger I tried to pull away. But she held tight.

 

"Slim," she hissed, "just what are you going to do?"

 

"Whatever do you mean, Daisy?" I asked, all the while doing my best to look as innocent as possible. Something I knew better than to try with Daisy Cooper. I was seething; I could feel the blood pounding in my ears. I didn't dare look at her.

 

"Don't give me that, Slim Sherman. I saw you. Those two men came in here and roughed up you're 'brother' and Jess as sick as he is. I know you Slim, I can see it in your eyes.....you're out for blood," her tone was stern, but then it softened. "I know you're angry, so am I. But just remember one thing before you go and do something you'll be sorry for; Jess needs you now more than ever."

 

I started to pull away again but couldn't; not without knocking her off balance so I stopped, turn to her and placed my hands on her shoulders. She was searching my face, I had no choice but to look at her. "I know he does, Daisy," I swallowed and shook my head. "And I won't be sorry," I breathed, I let go of her and started to leave. 

 

"Slim, the last thing that man in there needs is to hear that his best friend, has gotten himself in trouble with the law and can't be at his side. That would do him far more harm than what those men did...do you know what I mean?"

 

I knew very well what she meant. She was trying to throw the cold water of reason on me to put out my burning anger. Deep inside I knew she was right, but I kept hearing Seth say how dangerous it was for Jess to be moved and in my mind I saw those two bullies forcing Jess up from his sick bed and my anger reached new heights.

 

"I know...I know, Daisy. Now don't you worry.....all I'm gonna do is talk to 'em," I insisted.  I knew she didn't believe a word I said.  "I'll be back before you know it....I promise." With that I turned on my heels and left. I could feel her eyes on me as I hurried down the corridor. Once out sight I picked up the pace, those long legs Jess teases me about served me well and I was on the street in no time flat and heading for the Overland offices.

 

Overland's offices were less than three blocks from the hospital and with each step I kept seeing Jess’ face in my mind. Jess once likened me to a runaway fright train when my temper flares and I guess he's right. I was moving so fast I didn't care who got in my way, they were gonna move or I was gonna move 'em. The very thought of those mongrels pulling Jess up from his sick bed hard enough to leave bruises, spurred me on so that by the time I reached Overland I was madder than I was when I left the hospital. I could feel my face go red, my breathing coming so hard it hurt. I jerked the door open and stormed in and came up short when I was greeted by two husky men, one wearing a badge and the other holding a rifle. I had been expected.

 

"You Sherman?" The older of the two asked his badge flashing in the sunlight from the open door.

 

"That's right," I snapped.

 

"I was told you might be ‘causin’ these folks some trouble.…"

 

"I have business here, Sheriff," I growled.

 

"Well.....I'm just here to see that it stays nice and peaceful like," he smiled showing a row of tobacco stained teeth. I noticed the other man, younger and a bit taller than the sheriff, patting the butt of his rifle in a threatening manner just to drive the point home. Didn't matter. I wanted an explanation and I was gonna have it.

 

The office was ornately decorated with fancy lamps hanging from every conceivable spot it seemed. I took a deep breath and pulled my attention away from the sheriff and his deputy and focused instead on the pretty young lady seated at a desk in the very center of the room. She smiled up at me nervously. "M...may I help you, Mr. Sherman?" She asked, her voice shaking a little.

 

Had the circumstances been different I would have found her attractive and made my play, but my sick friend’s face and those growing bruises kept getting in the way. And my anger kept climbing.

 

"Yes, Ma'am, I'd like to see the two low lif....". I sucked back my rage. "I mean I'd like to speak with the company's representative's that visited Mr. Harper this morning, Ma'am," I said and smiled as best I could.

 

From behind the young lady a door opened and Overland's district manager Mr. Laddamire Blackstone filled the opening. Blackstone stood hands on hips glaring at me. I returned the glare and for a moment we said nothing. Then he raised his hand and motioned for me to follow him. I tipped my hat once more to the young lady, who by now seemed to have gained a bit more color and stepped past her and into his office. As he shut the door, I spun around to face him.

 

"Why the reinforcements?" I demanded.

 

"Thought they might be needed, the way you jerked that door open," he answered and shoved a stubby finger towards a chair, his wordless invitation for me to sit.

 

"I'll stand thank you."

 

"Suit yourself. What can I do for you, Sherman?"

 

"Two of your men paid my partner a visit awhile ago, name's Jess Harper. I wanna know why?" I demanded.

 

He smiled up at me and chuckled softly. "Well now," he started and gave me one of those, 'who the hell do you think are you' smirks. "That’d be Mr. Harper's business, now wouldn't it?"

 

"It would be. IF he were well enough to conduct it. Jess Harper is my partner and my friend, and,  THAT makes it MY business as well," I'd raised my voice loud enough for the sheriff and his assistant to hear without realizing it.

 

A voice called from behind the door confirmed I'd been heard…"Everything alright in there, Mr. Blackstone?"

 

"Everything's fine, Sheriff. Mr. Sherman and I are just having a discussion."

 

I jerked myself back and towered over this high minded low life. "Now just what is it you want signed so badly that you felt it necessary to rough up a sick man?"

Blackstone was a rather heavy set man, with beady eyes, the kind that shift when they look at you, making you wonder if he is really looking at you or something else. He drew a bead on me with those eyes and with the smell of rich leather filling the air leaned back in his chair and spoke in a deep gruff tone. "Overland wants to settle, Sherman. It means money to Harper...and to you as you say since he's your partner."

 

I watched with disgust as he bit the end off of a rather substantial cigar and spit the end in the spittoon next to his desk. Our eyes locked. "I'd say that's pretty important business, wouldn't you?" He growled.

 

I planted my hands firmly on his desk and leaned into them. I was not in the least bit intimidated by the likes of this high minded scoundrel. "I'd say Jess Harper's life is pretty important. Wouldn't you? And, as for settling goes, that's something you can get around to when and only when my partner is willing and able to do so, and not before." I told him and jerked myself back to tower over this yahoo. "In the meantime, I'd better not hear of or see anyone from Overland near Jess Harper's room again. Cause if I do it'll take the sheriff, his deputies and half the county to get my hands from around your neck. Is that clear?" I shouted.

 

His body suddenly went ridged and his face took on a reddish hue as thick cigar smoke curled around his head, giving me the perfect picture of where I'd like to send Mr. Laddmire Blackstone! I turned to leave, jerking the door open as I went.

 

"Is that a threat, Sherman?" He barked.

 

Standing in the door way I swung back around to face him once more. "No! That's a promise," I spat and slammed the door behind me, but as I did the thin glass panel shattered causing everyone in the office to jump and sending shard's of glass sliding across the highly polished wooden floor. For myself  I didn't even flinch. A cannon could've gone off right next to me and I wouldn't have noticed... I was so mad.

 

Without lifting an eyebrow, Blackstone scowled, "That'll cost you, Sherman."

 

I turned plunged my hand in my vest pocket, pulled out my wallet....grabbed a five dollar piece and threw it on his desk. "There, that should cover it....keep the change. And while you’re at it see if you can buy yourself a little compassion," I blurted and stormed out.

 

All I wanted to do now was to see Jess...and Daisy. The last time she'd seen me I looked like a raging bull out to stomp somebody. I knew I’d scared her. At my Pard's room I took a deep calming breath and quietly eased the door open. Daisy rose from her place at Jess' bedside as soon as she saw me.

 

"Oh, Slim! Are you alright?" She whispered. "I've been so worried."

 

"I'm fine, Daisy. How is he?" I asked.

 

"The painkiller the doctor gave him should have worked by now. He should be sleeping, but he's agitated. He's been asking for you. When he noticed I was the only one with him, he became alarmed and worried. He's been fighting the drug ever since. Just can't seem to relax enough to let it work."

 

"Did the doc say anymore?" I asked as I approached the bed to stare down at the prone figure.

 

"Just that he shouldn't have been moved. Caused him a lot more pain, but other than that it did little harm, thank goodness. Dr. Larkspire checked his legs. He's been able to move his toes a little," she said with a smile. "Though I'm sure he doesn't realize it. He did ask me about those men and what they wanted. I told him you would tell him all about it when you got back. I know he'll rest easy now that you're here."

 

"What did happen at Overland, Slim?" she asked.

 

"Nothing, Daisy. We just had a little talk."

 

"Thank goodness. I fully expected to have to bail you out of jail when you left," she sighed.

 

I nodded and smiled. "I'll tell you one thing, if I'd come back here and Jess had been any worse off....that's exactly what you would have had to do. One things for sure we don't have to worry about seeing them around here again," I told her and laid a hand on my friend's shoulder. He was squirming a little. Like Daisy said, fighting the drug.

 

"Jess, can you hear me?"

 

He looked as if  the weight of the world was holding his eyes shut. It took more n' a few tries before he could pry them open. Even then his eyes roamed the room searching, but never came to light on anything or anyone.

 

"Sl....Slim," he whispered, his voice hoarse and strained.

 

"I'm right here. Did those jokers hurt you, Pard?" I asked as I laid my hand on his shoulder to get his attention.

 

"Wh....wh," he groaned, "what....th...they want?" He slurred, his tongue snaking out to lick dry lips.

 

He raised a weak hand and I took it giving it a firm squeeze. "You don't worry bout that. Only thing you've got to worry about is getting well," I told him with a smile. "Doc gave you something to help you. You got to relax and let it work, Pard. You just let me worry about everything else, you hear?" Before I had a chance to say more his eyes slid shut and his hand went limp. Daisy was right. All he needed was a little reassurance. The drug took full hold and he slept.

 

When I looked up Daisy was looking at me with that gentle half smile she gets when she sees past our masculinity; to the children we are inside. I took a deep breath and whispered to my now sleeping friend. "I'm so sorry, Pard."  Then my face turned a little red and I started to laugh when realization struck me that I was still holding his hand.

 

"What?"  Daisy asked, her eyes dancing.

 

I quickly lifted the covers and place my partner's slack hand under them and cover him. "Can you imagine what Jess would've said if wake up to find me holding his hand?"

 

Daisy; her eyes sparkling, laughed. "Well, we just won't tell him, will we?"

  

"Better not. I'd have some explaining to do. And I'm not sure how I'd do it," I said with a frown.

 

We chucked and with Jess finally resting Daisy and I took our leave. We told the nurse we'd be back in a few hours. Relieved and feeling a bit more comfortable about our friend's condition our stomachs began to complain so we went in search of a good place to eat. Since bringing Jess to Denver about the only thing we'd seen was the inside of the hospital, our hotel and of course my little visit to Overland. Feeling relaxed we now examined our surroundings with a bit more interest.

 

Directly across the street from the hospital stood a general store with a small café next to it. My stomach forced me to focus on the café whereas Daisy's attention was immediately drawn to the store instead. From outside the store looked to be very small, but once inside we were shocked. It was huge with more items than I'd ever seen. From every direction and on every wall either sitting, hanging or standing was merchandise of every description. Daisy was certainly in her element. Right away she headed to their large selection of yard goods. I waited patiently. Having been with Daisy before I knew I had no choice. To be honest, I actually get a kick out of watching this gentle woman do her shopping. She's meticulous and keeps the store keepers hopping with her demands. When it comes to family she only wants the best…refusing to settle for anything less and knows that often the store keepers hide their very best items in the store room. She’s also one of best hagglers I've ever seen. It wasn't long before she had the clerk jumping, going back and forth pulling out one thing or another for her perusal. Gives me a laugh that's for sure.

 

I tired to ignore the fact that I was starving to death.  So with my stomach rumbling I decided to look around myself. In one corner stood a fine tooled leather saddle. Sure like to have that...but one look at the price and I found my old saddle didn't look so bad after all. So I strolled over to the glass display case instead. And there under the glass something caught my eye. This mercantile had one of the best selections of leather wallets I had ever seen. I was impressed and began to search through them. Jess would need a new one since his had been stolen by young Douglas. I smiled sadly to myself thinking how Jess not only couldn't remember details from the wreck but had yet to recall that his favorite wallet had gone missing.

 

Standing there pulling one wallet out after another I began to feel a little guilty. We men often chide women for not being able to make up their minds as fast as we think they should. I was surprised to find that it wasn't that easy to make up my own mind. I must have stood there for close to half an hour looking, with my stomach grumbling, trying to decide which one to get Jess. I finally settled on a nice soft black one. The young lady behind the counter then handed me a book with what appeared to be hundreds of styles of lettering. I examined it quickly choose one and waited while the craftsman stamped Jess' initials on the front flap. I have to admit my face went a little red when I turned to find that Daisy had finished before me. While the craftsman worked I also noticed several large jars of mixed hard candies on a shelf behind the counter. I ordered a small bag, paid the clerk and stepped outside. Daisy was waiting for me, her arms filled with her own treasures.

 

"Slim, why did you do that?" Daisy asked as I stepped up to her.

 

"Do what?"

 

"You know very well 'what'. You paid for everything in there. I have my own money, dear," she scolded.

 

"I know. What's wrong with me giving you a gift? Besides, Daisy Cooper there's more in that sack than material I noticed. I seem to recall the clerk stuffing at least three pairs of pants and three shirts in there. And unless you've gone to wearin' mens under drawers..." 

 

"Alright, alright," she laughed. "Just what about you, Slim Sherman? Does a wallet and candy usually come with long johns and socks?" She asked with a chuckle.

 

I blushed. She had me dead to rights. "Okay, so we're both guilty. But I thought maybe they might be needed. I know I thought we brought enough clothes, but you never can tell. After all we don't know how long he's gonna be laid up with him starting therapy tomorrow," I told her.

 

She shook her head and smiled. "And what about the candy?"

 

"You know Jess has a sweet tooth, Daisy," I said, took her packages and her arm and escorted her to the café. By now my stomach had stopped growling and was gnawing at my backbone. Figured I'd better eat soon or there'd be nothing left of me.

 

                       

                                    0o0o0o0o0o0o0o

 

 

Over the next few weeks Jess continued to improve. They'd take him down for therapy twice a day to try improve circulation and nerve function in his legs we were told; most especially that right one. During his morning sessions Daisy and I were asked to accompany him, so we could learn how to administer the required exercises once he we got him home. We'd sit and watch as the therapist worked her magic, moving his legs and instructing him when and how to push. It didn't go well at first. The pain would overwhelm him and he'd lose his stomach. Of course the inevitable red face would follow. We just smiled and I'd squeeze his shoulder....hoping to make him feel a little better. But, like anything else, he eventually got used to it and so did his stomach. These treatments wore him out though and he'd sleep for several hours after. I wished I could say this was the end of my friend's troubles. But sadly it was not.

 

Both Dr. Larkspire and Seth had warned us Jess would likely suffer bouts of depression to one degree or another and tried to prepare us for it. And even without telling him that he’d most likely be confined to a wheelchair, the depression still sat in. It got pretty bad at times, to the point where we never knew what to expect when we'd enter his room. His moods swings were extreme. He'd be happy one minute and morose the next; even came close to tears a few times. We had to be prepared for almost anything. But, nothing could have prepared me for what happened less than a week before my partner was to be released.

 

Daisy had gotten acquainted with an older woman a few rooms down from Jess and was visiting her when I stepped into the room to sit with him. He'd had his dinner and had eaten well I was told and was now sitting propped up against several pillows. The last time Daisy and I were out I stopped by that general store again and this time purchased a book I felt Jess might like. I've tried to encourage him to read before, but without success. This time, I figured with him being laid up and all he just might be inclined to look at something other n’ blank walls. The book was about rare horses, a subject I know Jess loves, and the illustrations were vivid. I felt they’d hold his interest if nothing else.

 

"Sure is good to see you sitting up, Pard. How ya feelin'?" I asked cheerfully.

 

"I'll do,” was the curt reply. He didn't even bother to look my way,  just kept staring out the only window in the room. Something he'd do most of the time.

 

"You want some company, or should I leave?" I asked, trying to hide my annoyance.

 

"I didn't say I wanted you to leave, Slim." His tone reminded me of a little boy worried he'd done something wrong.

 

That was encouraging. I pulled up a chair close. "Did you decide to look at the book?"

 

"Yeah, thanks. Got some pretty interesting horses in there. Just don't feel much like reading," he said, and turned away from me to stare out the window once more.

 

Lately, starting a conversation with Jess was like pulling teeth. Now I can usually read Jess pretty well, but sitting there watching him that afternoon I noticed a change in him, and I wasn't sure it was for the better. He was tense, real tense. His brow was furrowed; obviously very worried about something. I sat in silence and watched and waited. He'd take a few deep breathes and swallow. I'd learned a lot about my partner over the years and I could tell that although he wanted me near, he seemed to be trying real hard to hide something not wanting to make eye contact with me. Even on the worst days he'd at least look at me...but not today. And that worried me.

 

So I leaned forward and touched his arm. "What's wrong, Jess?"  He said nothin' at first, just leaned deeper against pillows and pulled the covers up. My question and manner at least drew his attention away from the window. He finally looked at me.

 

"You cold?" I asked.

 

"No."

 

"Want some water?"

 

"No."

 

These little one word conversations were beginning to wear on me. "Jess you and I have never had trouble talking before. Now, come on, please. Tell me what's bothering you."

 

He took a deep breath and let it out slow. "Ain't nothin' you can do anything about, Slim," he said coolly.

 

"Don't know till you tell me."

 

"Just been layin' here reflectin' that's all,"  his voice was low and his words measured.

 

"About what?"

 

I know Jess well and I could tell whatever was preying on his mind was eaten him up inside. I didn't move, just sat there watching him, my hand on his bed ready to offer what comfort I could. It took him a long time to answer and when he did his voice shook a little.

 

"I've been a lot a places Slim, seen a lot a things. Been hurt more 'n once, even came close to checkin' out a few times," he smiled sadly. "But, I....I just never thought," he wallowed hard and bit his lower lip and I saw it quiver. "Never thought I'd end up like this. Never figured on endin' up a cripple. You know what I mean, Slim?"

 

That statement took me back a step. He'd been doing real good with his therapy. Both Larkspire and Seth were real impressed by the progress he was making. And until that day it just didn't occur to me that Jess didn't see it.

 

He took another deep breath and turned his attention once more to the window. When he spoke this time his voice shook. "I used to wonder how my time would come. Kinda figured I'd buy it in a shootout on some dusty street, or find myself layin' out in the big open feedin' the buzzards," he chuckled softly and swallowed again then shook his head. "I ...I  never figured on this," he sounded resigned in a way that scared me. I've seen Jess down, but this...this was different.

 

I rubbed my hand across my mouth, wondering what I could say to help and hoping that whatever I said wouldn't make the situation worse. I'd been leaning forward in the chair searching my friends face or trying to. But, now I sat upright.

 

"Your time hasn't come, Jess. You're just a little down that's all. You're gonna be fine, Pard. I told you, we'll get through this," I said confidently. "You doing real good with your therapy, Jess. Doc says so. Jess?" When finally he turned back to me I was shocked to see tears rolling down his cheeks. It was always hard for Jess to show his emotions. So the fact that he was openly crying really shook me.

 

I got up and sat on the edge of his bed and placed a comforting hand on his shoulder. "Jess? You hurting? You want I should get the doc?"

 

He said nothing, just shook his head. He had me worried.

 

"Jess, please talk to me. What is it? Can I get you something?" I asked. All the while wondering what could have happened to upset him so. I'd seen Jess breakdown before…it'd happened in the barn that night. But ever since Seth explained the cause of those walking dreams he seemed truly relieved, even fighting the pain seemed easier for him. But this, this had me scared. This seemed to have come out of nowhere.

 

"Jess, come on, Pard. Talk to me, please," I begged.

 

At first he didn't answer, just turned back to the window. Then in a voice trembling with emotion he spoke softly, tears streaming down his face.

 

"I'm sorry, Slim," he said, “you w...wasted your money.”

 

"I what?" Now more confused than ever. "Jess what in the heck are you talkin' about?"

 

"Don't know where you got the money, but I gotta  pretty good idea. You went through all of this for me," he stopped took another deep breath and I saw him shake as he ran his sleeve under his nose.

        

My worry turning to exasperation. "Is THAT what's eating you? I told you, let me worry about that!" To my surprise my little outburst had little or no effect at all.

 

"I know, Pard. I've been layin' here tryin' to move ‘m dang legs. This left one moves pretty good and is gettin' stronger. But, the right," he paused, took a deep breath and moaned as he tried to force the right leg up as high as the left and couldn't. I started to stop him, but before I had the chance he spoke again.

 

"I can't e...even…" I watched heart sick as his strength gave out and he let the leg drop. He'd only lifted it half the distance as the left. Personally I thought that was pretty good considering what Larkspire had told us. But Jess didn't see it that way. The effort left him exhausted, disappointed and a little angry. He shut his eyes and stammered through the tears. "Can't even... I tried to tell ya at the ranch…be like throwin' money to the hogs. Just a p...pure waste," he sobbed.

 

I pulled my handkerchief from my pocket and handed it to him. "I don't consider helping you a waste, Jess. Any more n' you would if it was me. You've got to give yourself a chance, Pard. Let the doctors help you," I pleaded. He'd turned his head once more to the window and I reached over and place a hand on his shoulder and forced myself to speak softly; in spite of the fact that I wanted to knock some sense into him.

 

"Jess, listen to me..."

 

"You know what I want, Slim?" He interrupted. "More n' anything in this world?" he stammered, his breath caught and for a moment he shut his eyes tight and fell silent. 

 

"What Jess? All you got to do is tell me and I'll see to it," I said and squeezed his shoulder again and waited. "Just tell me Jess, and I'll do it for ya Pard, I promise.”

 

His face flushed and he laughed softly through the tears. "Ya shouldn't make promises ya can't keep, Slim," he told me his lip quivering.

 

"Jess I...."

 

"I...I wanna run," he said and looked right at me. "Yeah, can ya beat that. I'm layin' here and all I wanna do is run and…," his breath caught, "Ain't that somethin'? I wanna run and I can't even stand up. Can ya do that for me, Slim? Huh, can ya?" He choked and all of a sudden the tears flowed unabashed.

 

"Jess, if I could give you my legs. I would, Pard. I hope you know that," I whispered softly.

 

He nodded. "I know. I'm sorry, Pard. Don't know what brought that on. Didn't mean ta...I mean...I...," he stopped and just looked up at the ceiling and blinked back the tears, his face going red.

 

"You got nothing to be sorry for, Jess. Like I told ya before, there's no shame in crying.  I admire you Jess. I don't think I could take this as well as you are," I told him and I meant every word.

 

He ran a shaky hand over his face to wipe away the remaining tears. Then his mood seemed to shift again....this time for the better and I was pleased when he gave me that little crocked smile he knows I like and he chuckled, that raspy voice crackled in the quite of the room.

 

"What?"

 

"Can you just picture me with them long legs of yours?"

 

We couldn't help but laugh. Sure felt good too I can tell ya that. Nothing more was ever said about what happened. I stood up and straightened the covers as the nurse brought him his supper, a bowl of stew, cornbread and a glass of milk. The stew he said was fairly acceptable, but the milk....he had a hard time getting down. Told me Larkspire and Seth said he couldn't have coffee for another week.

 

"God, I miss that?" He whined.

 

I smiled. "Coffee's not good for a sick man, Jess. But you're getting better. Before you know it you’ll be chowin’ down on Daisy's cooking and drinking coffee out on the porch with me," I told him.

 

“Yeah. I miss that too,” he said reflectively.

 

And I smiled as he took another swallow of the white stuff and declared it to be disgusting.

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER TWENTY ONE -

Good news!               

 

 

It was closing in on six weeks now since we'd pulled into Denver and although the weather had turned real cold it had yet to snow. Not so in Laramie. I'd been sending wires to Andy to keep him abreast of Jess' progress and was very disappointed when I was informed that only two of the four telegrams I'd sent had actually reached him due to the weather. I didn't know about the others, but for me I felt like I've been away from home forever. I couldn't wait to sink my feet once more in Wyoming soil, snow, ice and all. Big cities are not for me. Didn't realize it was possible to feel homesick with your family with you, but I was.

 

After polishing off a rather large breakfast with Daisy and Seth we headed back to the hospital. Jess had been fairly talkative throughout the day and we actually had a good long conversation about the ranch and the changes we wanted to make. And I was pleased to find that he’d actually read more of the book than I thought. Even referring to it a few times and the special breeds he liked. I could tell he was still down but was putting up a good fight and for the most part winning. We still hadn’t mentioned the wheelchair. And I didn’t push the issue. That night I turned in feeling better than I had in a while about my partner's progress and our hopes for the future seemed brighter than ever. 

 

But, the next morning our joyful mood almost came to an abrupt end when one of the nurses told us Jess had not done well during the night and they actually had to get Larkspire for him. Both he and Seth were in with him when we arrived. My heart sank...now what?

 

We must have sat there a good half hour or more, worrying and wonder what could have possibly gone wrong? Jess can't take anymore. Surely the worst was over....or at least I thought it was. A few minutes later Seth and Larkspire stepped out of the room and joined us. I was so tense my own back had started to ache. I had it in mind to ask if this set back had anything to do with what Overland's men had done? But, I never got the chance.

 

To our surprise both doctors seemed oddly pleased. Took me back for sure. Why such pleasure when we'd just been told that Jess' hadn't done well. As a matter of fact Larkspire had actually found it necessary to sedate him. So, why were they looking so happy?

 

"Excuse me, but you both seem awful pleased about a man's suffering, I...."

 

Guess I was a little on edge, because Daisy calmed me with a firm, "Slim!”

 

"That's alright, Mrs. Cooper. As you know we've been giving Mr. Harper therapy daily since shortly after surgery. A few hours after this last session, he began to develop an intense burning sensation that ran down both legs. More pronounced in the right leg than the left. When I spoke to him last night he described it as feeling like pins and hot needles being pushed into his legs....finally ending with intense burning pain on the bottom of both feet most especially the right. Like both legs had gone to sleep and were trying to wake up. It’s good news…”

 

"I can't imagine how that could possibly be good, doctor," Daisy interrupted, her own temper beginning to show.

 

"Ordinarily, Mrs. Cooper, it would not. However, in Mr. Harper's case it is the best news possible," he looked from Daisy to myself and smiled.

 

"How's that?" I asked, now totally confused. "Dad gumit I'm in no mood for games now what does...?"

 

"Slim..." Seth started. But Larkspire jumped in before he finished.

 

"Relax Mr. Sherman. I assure you, it is very good news. As you know Mr. Harper had very little movement in that right leg. The nerves having been compressed for too long. But, with therapy together Mr. Harper's own dogged determination that appears to have reversed itself. Now to what extent only time will tell. But the severe pain Mr. Harper experienced last night was of the deadened nerves regaining sensation. Another words, coming back to life so to speak. It's a good sign," he said and his smile grew as he looked from Daisy to myself to see if we understood.

 

I didn't know whether to shout or hug the man. Daisy and I just stood for a moment while what we had perceived as bad news had actually turned out to be; as Larkspire had said, the best news possible.

 

"You mean he'll be able to walk, doc?" I asked anxiously, still not sure I fully understood.

 

"Most certainly. Now I don't want you to get too excited Mr. Sherman. Mr. Harper will still have some degree of impairment, anywhere from 60 to 80 percent as it stands now. But it is my professional opinion that with further treatment together with the assistance of a device such as a cane...I don't see why not. Of course if all goes well and he continues to progress as he has been I might venture to say that in time he might not even need that," he smiled up at us, then cautioned. “I have seen people who have lived with far less. But, in order for him to progress to that extent he must follow my instructions to the letter," he warned again.

 

"Oh, doctor, he will.” Daisy chirped, too excited to hold back. “How soon will we know?"

 

"I am afraid it may take a little longer to determine that Mrs. Cooper. And it will mostly certainly mean a longer hospital stay I’m afraid," he said almost as if asking our permission for the added time.

 

"That's fine, doc. You just tell us what we can do to help," I promised. Understanding finally sinking in and no longer able to hold back my own excitement. "Does he know? Does Jess know? I mean does he know he'll be able to walk....at least some?" I asked. I swear I felt like a kid with a new toy...and I know I must have acted like one. But after what we'd all gone through and after having seen Jess so upset....I just couldn't hold back. I felt like shouting to the world.

 

Seth and Larkspire looked at us and smiled. "We did tell him, Slim," Seth offered. "But he was in so much pain at the time, I really don't think he understood. So as soon as we get the pain under control, we’ll tell him again. After all he needs to know what he can and can't do. And for that matter so do you. Seeing how Jess just loves obeying doctors orders," he smiled and gave me a big bear hug then reached over and gave Daisy a hug as well. Something he'd never done before, overcome by joy himself. All I could do was to laugh.

 

True to his word, as soon as the pain was tolerable level and Jess was lucid enough to understand and with Daisy, Seth and I looking on Larkspire gave Jess the good news. I glanced around at the others and they, like me wore smiles so big they filled their faces. But Jess' reaction concerned all of us at first. He seemed in disbelief. It took some doing for both Larkspire and Seth to convince him that the pain he'd been feeling was an indication that he was actually getting well. I can still see the look on his face when it finally sunk in and he realized that although it was gonna be slow going and hard at first...he would walk again. None of us mentioned the cane. No need to put a damper on things just yet.

 

Jess' smile darn near lit up the room and we all laughed at the next words out of his mouth.

 

"When?" He asked his enthusiasm getting the better of him.

 

Larkspire laughed..."All in due time, Mr. Harper, all in due time. Let us allow those nerves to heal proper before we give them a workout, shall we?" But when he saw the shadow of disappointment come over his patience face he quickly added, "But soon. I promise, Mr. Harper, soon.”

 

The next week saw steady improvement. And Jess' mood seemed to lift with each hurdle he cleared. His legs responding better and better each time to therapy. Though more than pleased with the news, the fact that he'd have a longer hospital stay didn't set well with him. But like the rest of us, he'd endure it. And in the long run be grateful.                                                                                                                                                                                                                        

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER TWENTY TWO -

Adam Larkspire

 

 

 

It was the morning of the twenty third, clear skies and pleasant. The clouds that gathered and threatened snow the night before had long since disappeared. Jess had been in the hospital now a total of eight weeks. And each time we visited the conversation always turned to home and how much we all missed being there. Even though Larkspire had assured us that if Jess continued to improve he'd likely be able to travel within a week or so, that wasn't good enough for Jess. Personally I was surprised he'd lasted this long without having to be peeled off the walls. Then one afternoon we discovered his secret. With those four walls and homesickness getting to him he decided he'd escape his prison and visit the other patients. Though puzzled at first we soon found that one of the nurses had taken a shine to him and would take him along with her on her rounds when she could.

 

Daisy and I finished lunch early that afternoon and had just entered Jess' room only to find him gone. When we inquired of the nurse on duty she told us that Jess was in the garden. After his morning therapy the nurse had decided to allow him to sit for a spell in the garden instead of taking back to his room. That's where he met his young friend. He'd been in the garden the better part of an hour when we showed up.

 

Were we ever surprised! The garden although small was a real oasis. With thick grass, and with several trees. Though they were devoid of leaves we could easily picture them in autumn full and lush. A small brook (though man made) meandered through this lovely setting. Several well trimmed bushes led to the entrance with what looked to be a great many rose bushes, just waiting for spring to blossom. And to one side a clean veranda emptied out into the beauty of this place. A peaceful and serene setting to be sure. Just right to raise the spirits of recovering patients.

 

Daisy and I had just started to step in and surprise Jess when we saw a young man about Andy's age in a wheelchair enter the garden. To this day I don't know what made me do it, but I took Daisy by the arm and we held back, and decided to remain out of sight while the two patients visited. Were we ever glad we did. We watched as the young man rolled himself right up beside Jess, locked his chairs brakes and extended his hand to my partner.

 

"Hi, my names Adam, Adam Larkspire," he said with a smile.

 

"Well howdy, mine's Harper, Jess Harper," Jess said as he shook the young man's hand.

 

"Been here long?" The boy asked cheerfully.

 

"If you mean in the garden, about an hour. If  you mean in the hospital, longer n' I'd like," was Jess’ reply. "You?"

 

"The garden, just now," the boy laughed. "The hospital, been here most of my life. My father's one of the doctors here. Alexander Larkspire." Jess watched as the young boys eyes lit up at the very mention of his father's name.

 

"Ya don't say. He's my doctor. Your Pa, is he?"

 

"Yup," he smiled, and then leaned over the side of his chair towards Jess as if to tell him a secret and asked. "You come out here often?"

 

Jess shook his head. "No, my first time," he smiled and looked around…"sure is nice. I think if I'd had to look at them four walls another day I'd lose my mind or grow roots."

 

"I know what you mean, Jess… I mean... um…ah, Mr. Harper," he corrected, forgetting his manners.

 

Jess noticed and gave him a kind smile. "Jess is just fine."

 

"Okay," he chuckled. "Did you get sick? Or... I mean, were you born...ah," the young boy stammered and suddenly went a little red, fearing he might have overstepped his bounds. After all he was speaking to an adult and not a child.

 

Jess smiled reassuringly. "Nah, had a tangle with a stagecoach. It won and I lost," he said with a slight chuckle.

 

The young boy shook his head and laughed. "Well, you got to watch out for these things too, Jess. They'll throw you for sure if you're not careful."

 

"How do you mean?"

 

"Well, let's say you want to back up. You got to make sure you don't lean too far back when you turn the wheels, cause if you do you'll find yourself flat on the floor, just like being thrown by a bronco."

 

Jess laughed. "I know what that's like."

 

The young boy's face lit up and his eyes virtually sparkled. "You ride, Jess?"

 

Jess nodded that he did. Then added with a touch of sadness…"Used to, anyways."

 

The young boy was suddenly intrigued and even closer. "Tell me Jess. What's it like to ride a horse?"

 

The question not only surprised my partner, but Daisy and I as well.

 

"What? You....., ah, I mean you've never ridden?" Jess stumbled over the words, unsure as to how to answer the young man.

 

"No, but I'd sure like to sometime. What's it like?" The young boy watched, expectantly as the man next to him, fell silent, deep in thought. Young Larkspire was suddenly concerned. "Jess? Are you alright?"

 

"Ye, yeah, Adam I'm fine. I've just never been asked that before. Not sure I know how to answer ya," he said and scratched his head a little dumbfounded.

 

"Just tell me what it's like to run with them. My Pa sometimes takes me to the Cross Bar Ranch about fifteen miles from here. They train and sell horses there." Then with reflective eyes he smiled up at his new friend. "I sure love to watch them run. What's it like to run with them, Jess?"