All’s Well

By Badgergater

Tag/Missing scene to the episode General Must Die: Slim assesses the events of a long and bad day (And yes, don’t worry, Jess shows up. I would never leave him out.)

Characters: Jess, Slim, Andy, Jonesy

Author's Note: Thanks as always to my beta, Hired Hand, who makes every story better.                   

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It was the first chance Slim Sherman had to take a load off his feet in hours. He flopped down in the chair on the ranch house’s front porch, grateful for a quiet moment to try to sort through all that had happened during what had been a very, very long day.

And an ugly one, too, and he still had the headache to prove it. He wasn’t sure if the dull throbbing in his skull was self-inflicted, the last remnants of his hangover from the night before; if it was the whack on the head he’d gotten from one of the outlaws during the mortal struggle that had taken place a few  hours ago; or if it was just the result of the strain of everything that had gone on.

Probably some of all three, he decided.

The tall man let out a tired sigh, ran his hand through his hair and stretched out his long legs before crossing his booted feet at the ankles. No matter how bad things had been, he reassured himself, they had in the end turned out all right. All the residents of the Sherman Ranch were still alive, though that had been a near thing; General Sherman was safely on his way to his destination; and the stage company’s reputation for maintaining the security of important passengers was intact. Sure, Jess was hurt, and a nasty wound it was, but the Doc had said he’d heal up just fine. The stage, and the general riding in it, had come and gone, none the wiser for the near disaster. The outlaws, those who weren’t dead, were now safely in the custody of Laramie’s Sheriff Zach McCord. Law and order and peace and quiet were all restored.

All’s well that ends well-- he’d heard that said enough times. So why did he feel so torn up inside? So disappointed with himself?

It didn’t take Slim Sherman much soul searching to find answers to those questions.

Nothing upsets the digestion quite like fearing that the people you care most about in the world are about to get killed, Slim thought, or coming way too close to dying yourself.

And killing an old friend, no matter what he’d become, didn’t improve the spirits any, either.

Then again, those weren’t the only reasons he had to feel out of sorts.

It had started with that night of drinking himself blind with Whit, making a complete fool of himself in front of Andy, and Jonesy, too. He'd broken all his own rules about how a respectable rancher and businessman, and a responsible big brother, ought to act. Sure, at the time he hadn’t known that Whit had laid an ambush for him with that bottle, but he still shouldn’t have fallen so easily into that trap.

He should have known better.

Slim sighed.

And the fishing trip…he couldn’t forget Andy’s eager anticipation when he’d thought the two of them were actually going to get away from the ranch for a bit, spend some time together relaxing and having fun like brothers ought to do. Andy was just a kid, and he needed stuff like that, Slim reminded himself. The boy needed to see his big brother as something other than his boss. Slim vowed he would somehow make time to do that very thing, no matter how much work they had to do. Of course, that wasn’t going to be anytime soon now, not with Jess laid up for he didn’t know how long.

Jess. He’d thought the man was dead; they all had. Andy had been in tears, even Jonesy had been storming around and muttering to himself, a sure sign of his distress. And himself? He'd been unable to let his own grief show; couldn’t, under the circumstances, reveal his emotions. But thinking that his best friend was lying dead out there in the hills, cold-bloodedly murdered by a man he’d also thought of as a friend, had nearly torn him in two.

A sudden realization hit Slim— he’d just thought of his hired hand as his best friend, hadn’t he? He wasn’t sure when that turnabout had happened, when he’d stopped thinking of Jess Harper as Andy’s pal and started thinking of the cowboy as his own friend. It was more than a bit of a surprise. Lord knew Jess could be stubborn, annoying, and downright infuriating, but somewhere in these last couple of months, somewhere at work or out on the trail, Slim had stopped being just boss and become friend.

He hadn’t allowed himself much time for friends, not since he’d come home from the war, Slim realized. There was just too much work staring him in the face every day, too many responsibilities riding his shoulders, what with the ranch and the relay station and the raising of his little brother. Life was a constant battle to keep his head above water, provide for his “family”, and not just hang on to but build on the legacy his father had left him.

And there was no one to share the burden with.

Sure, Jonesy was a font of wisdom, even if sometimes you had to puzzle your way through his utterances, but much more uncle than friend. The old man’s ties to his father put a certain unavoidable distance in their relationship. And Andy, well, he was just a boy, far too young to be told all that was going on, to share in all the worries and dangers of trying to hold on to the ranch. There were just too many things Slim wasn’t going to let the youngster be troubled about, things Andy needed to be shielded from until he was older.

Even though Slim was ranch owner, manager and boss, Jess was, in a lot of ways, an equal, the tall man realized with surprise. He carried his share of the work load; heck, there were more than a few things Jess could do better than he himself could. And the two of them discussed things Slim never would or could tell Jonesy or Andy. They shared a history, too; both had grown up during the hard times of the  war. Though they’d been on opposite sides, soldiers were soldiers. Mostly, Slim corrected himself. There were some soldiers who were different; men like Branton, and Whit, men who were warped by the conflict they’d taken part in. Or maybe they’d always been bad and Slim just hadn’t seen it in Whit; had overlooked the bad for the sake of the jovial, good-natured man he’d known… or had thought he’d known.

The war had made for strange companions, that was for sure. It had thrown together men who would never have been friends under normal circumstances. The war, and all the hard lessons it had taught, had been disastrous for so many; still was, even now, five years after the cessation of hostilities.

And nearly deadly today for the residents of the Sherman Ranch.

Slim thought back over the years, sifting through his memories of Whit in search of a giveaway, of some indication or sign that should have shown him that dark side of Whit Malone, the cold-blooded murderer side, but there was nothing the rancher could recall.

What he would remember, though, for a very very long time, was Whit looking at him without an ounce of remorse; his callous willingness to kill them all, even an innocent boy. There was something important missing from the soul of a man who could do that.

Slim shuddered, though the night wasn’t cold.

He thanked the good Lord that he wasn’t like Whit; that though today he’d killed a man, killed a murderer in defense of his family and his home, he was still capable of feeling regret at taking a life, even in self-defense. He wasn’t like Whit, and never could be.

The tall man thought back to the frantic activity that had gone on immediately after that deadly fight. Getting the outlaws’ bodies out of sight and the surviving outlaws squared away in the barn under Jess’ watchful eyes had been the first necessity. Readying the relay team in what was surely record time came next. Then, as soon as the teams were changed and the stage was gone, he’d sent Andy off to the Fenton place for the doctor.

Thank goodness the boy had talked to Doc Webb that morning and remembered the physician explaining that he was out on the road so early to make calls at the homesteaders’ farms along the edge of the foothills, then planning to spend the night at the Fenton ranch before returning to Laramie. Finally, there’d been the arrival of the puzzled sheriff and the need to explain the day’s events to Zach McCord before sending the prisoners and the bodies back to Laramie while the doc tended to Jess.

And once all the excitement was over, there had still been the ever-present evening chores to do—horses needed hay, grain and water, cows had to be milked, stalls required cleaning, and the chickens fed and eggs hunted.

No wonder he was worn out.

But it was over now and….

Slim’s moment of peace was interrupted by the door opening behind him and the sound of quiet footsteps, followed by Jonesy’s familiar drawl. “What you doin’ out here in the dark, boy?”

“Just getting a few minutes rest.”

“It has been a long day.” The weariness in the old man’s voice was unmistakable.

“Sure has,” the rancher agreed.

“Well, you better eat something then.” Jonesy handed Slim the plate he’d brought.

“I didn’t have time for supper.”

“Well, ya’ got time now,” the old man insisted.

Slim took the plate, the savory smell rising from the stew making his mouth water and sparking his appetite. He dug into the food, surprised to find he was hungry, starving actually. He’d eaten nothing all day except for that cracker he’d snatched off the table in mid-afternoon. His stomach queasily reminding him of his overindulgence of the night before, he’d been unable to eat any breakfast, and he’d had no appetite for lunch, his stomach tied in knots for an entirely different reason. He’d spent the day desperately, and silently, trying to figure out a way to get them out of this mess alive.

This mess he’d gotten them into.

The people who mattered most to him, Andy, Jonesy and Jess, all had nearly died because of him. He’d be a long time forgiving himself for that.

“At least it appears that you’ve got your appetite back,” Jonesy muttered sagely.

Slim nodded and, between mouthfuls, changed the subject. “How’s Jess?”

“Sleepin’, last I checked.”

Jonesy was a good man. He’d used his head and come up with that clever ploy when Jess rode in that afternoon; sent the ranch hand off toward town because in the middle of the whole mess, he’d kept right on thinking. “You did good today, Jonesy.”

The old man harrumphed his disagreement. “Right. Good… good for nothin' more like. Near got Jess kilt.”

“That wasn’t your fault.”

“No more than the rest of this was yours.”

Slim threw him a look. He wouldn’t soon be forgetting the gut-wrenching feeling when he’d been told that Jess was dead. How helpless he’d felt; how hard he’d had to work to keep that unconcerned mask in place, as if Jess meant nothing to them, because he’d needed to keep focused on saving those he could save. Mourning had to wait for later.

If there was a later.

Jonesy saw the look of guilt flash across the tall man’s face. “Now boy, don’t you go blamin’ yourself for what those killers were up to. They were out to get the general, and if it hadn’t’a been here, they’d have tried somewheres else. And likely succeeded.”

“Whit was my friend, Jonesy,” or so I thought, he berated himself. “And I should have seen through him and his pushing to get me to leave. Maybe I would have, if I’d left that bottle alone.”

“I’ve told you before that stuff is for medicinal purposes only,” Jonesy reminded, then softened his tone. “But I understand a young man’s got to kick up his heels now and again.”

“Not when I’ve got folks dependin’ on me.”

“You’re gonna grow up to be an old stick-in-the-mud, if’n you don’t watch yourself, Slim Sherman,” Jonesy groused.

“Long as we all live long enough to find out what I’m like as an old man, I don’t much care,” Slim answered wearily.

“Nonsense. Silliness and nonsense.” Jonesy turned to go back into the house, then, with the door still open, stopped and turned back. “Well, now that this ruckus is over, you are goin’ to take that boy fishin’, aren’t ya?”

Slim sighed. “I’ll try.”

“Bah. Try. What kind’a answer is that? I don’t want to hear it and neither does Andy. Take some time off. Ya’ got Jess here now. He can handle things.”

“Not with that hole in his shoulder he can’t.” Seeing the old man was about to issue an angry retort, Slim conceded. “All right, in a couple of weeks when Jess has healed up some, I’ll take Andy fishin’, Jonesy. I promise.”

“I’ll hold you to that,” the old man vowed. “I ain’t lettin’ you disappoint that boy again. He’s had a right upsettin’ day, thinkin’ Jess was dead.”

“I know.” There had been no chance for him to console his brother. Harsh as it seemed, there had been no time to let grief, either Andy’s or his own, cloud his thinking, not when he had lives to save. Jess understood that. Andy would have to be grown up enough to understand it, too.

Slim sighed, giving up his hope for a few quiet moments, climbed wearily to his feet, and went in search of his brother. It wasn’t a difficult task -- the boy was seated at the table, a book open in front of him, but the youngster didn’t appear to be reading. He looked tired, Slim thought. He walked over, ruffled Andy’s hair and threw a leg over a chair to take a seat beside his brother. “That book any good?”

“I guess.” The answer was listless.

“Not much in the mood for readin’ tonight, huh?”

“I guess not.”

“I really am sorry about that fishing trip, Andy. We’ll take one sometime soon.”

The youngster was too tired to try to hide his disappointment. “That’s what you always say, Slim, and then we don’t.”

“Andy, you know how much work there is around the ranch.”

The boy sounded resigned. “I know.”

“Look, as soon as Jess is up to handlin’ things, I promise, we’ll go fishing, just the two of us. It won’t be all the way up to Montana, but there are some good fishin’ holes up in the mountains not all that far from here.”

Andy looked up, eyeing his brother suspiciously, his voice dull with fatigue. “You really promise this time? Really?”

That Andy had to ask cut Slim to the quick, and he vowed to keep his promise this time, no matter what stood in the way. “I do. Now, why don’t you go off to bed. It’s late.”

Andy nodded. “All right. I’ll just look in on Jess first.”

The boy had been really worried about his friend. Slim would never forget the look on the youngster’s face when Whit had announced that Jess was dead. He was going to be haunted for a very long time by that glimpse of his brother’s heartbroken expression and tear-streaked face. “I’m turning in myself, Andy. I’ll check on him. You go get some sleep. It’s been a long day.”

“You can say that again,” piped up Jonesy, already heading for his bunk.

With the others now on the way to their beds, Slim banked the fire and blew out the lantern, carrying only a candle with him as he quietly opened the door to the bedroom. He was surprised to see Jess stir, open his eyes, and struggle to sit up, one hand holding his injured shoulder. “Slim?”

“Go back to sleep, Jess. I’m just turning in.”

“Everything all right?”

“It’s fine. You need something?”

“I’m thirsty.”

Slim walked around the beds, found the full pitcher of cool well water Jonesy had left on a small table there, and filled a cup, handing it to Jess and watching him drink. Jess had had a rotten, miserable day, that was for sure. Ambushed, then making that long walk all the way back to the ranch with a slug in his shoulder, and after the fight was over, the long wait for the doc to arrive and tend to him. Sure, Jonesy had done what he could, and the old man was darn good at patching up scrapes and bruises and such, but Jess had been hurting bad. Likely still was.

Slim leaned forward and placed a hand on Jess’ forehead, which felt warm to the touch but not overly so. He thought Jess’ eyes looked a little glassy, too, though he couldn’t tell if it was pain or exhaustion and reckoned it was probably some of both.

They would have to keep watching him for fever over the next day or two. The doctor had said the slug nicked the bone, bruising but thankfully not breaking it, and the shoulder was clearly painful, evidenced by the way Jess sat even now with his left shoulder drooped lower than his right.

“How’s that shoulder feel?” Slim asked.

“How do you think? Hurts.”

Though it was exactly the kind of answer he expected Jess to give, there was none of the usual bite to the cowboy’s words, no snap to the comeback, which spoke volumes of just how worn down the man really was. Handing the cup back to the tall rancher, the cowboy eased himself back down on the bed with the careful movements of a man in pain. Slim watched as Jess shifted restlessly, trying to find a comfortable position.

Finally, satisfied that Jess was settled, Slim quickly shucked out of his boots, belt, trousers and shirt then pinched out the candle’s flame and fell into his bunk. He lay staring up at the ceiling; now that he was in his bed he found that sleep didn’t come easily. He rolled over to lie on his side, but that didn’t help either, so he turned onto his back once more.

“Somethin’ botherin’ you?” Jess’ voice drifted quietly out of the darkness.

“No.” Slim hesitated, then admitted, “Just thinkin’ about today.”

“It’s ugly when a friend turns on you.” The sad tone of Jess’ voice said plainly that he knew exactly how it felt.

Slim nodded, then realized that in the now dark room, Jess couldn’t see the motion. “It is.”

“The war did things to some men,” Jess said softly, ”twisted ‘em up inside, grabbed hold and wouldn’t let go. Even some a’ the good ones never get over it.”

“I don’t think Whit was ever one of the good ones,” Slim answered sadly. “Oh, he was right enough on the outside, enough to get by if you didn’t scratch too deep. I considered him a friend, but I reckon I just never knew the man as well as I thought I did.”

“Most times, we don’t.” Again there was the bitter ring of truth to Jess’ words.

“That’s true.” The affable Whit he remembered had been a façade, hiding a craven killer underneath. Slim sighed. “We were durn lucky today, Jess.”

“It wasn’t luck. We just kept workin’, kept lookin’ for our chance, and you latched onto it when it came.”

“Almost waited too late.” Slim was still blaming himself.

“Nah, you timed it just right.”

The rancher still wasn’t convinced; he was going to have to spend more time thinking it through before he decided for himself, but for the moment he was content to let it slide. “And you did some good shootin’.”

“I ain’t lost my touch.” Slim could hear the satisfaction in Jess’ weary tone.

“Good thing you were here today. I don’t know what would have happened otherwise.”

 “As much trouble as you get into, it’s a dang good thing I’m here every day,” Jess’ voice sounded tired.

“Me? Get into trouble?”

“You. Andy told me about your old buddy Whit and that bottle and those war stories. Reckon you’re not always so accordin’ to Hoyle as I figured.”

“Guess a man can’t have any secrets around here,” the tall man groused.

“Nope, none, none a’t’all.”

Slim remembered the joy of that moment when he’d seen that Jess was still alive. Right then he’d realized how important this ranch-hand-grown-into-friend had become, not just to his family, but to him, too. “You should go to sleep, Jess.”

“You, too.”

Slim rolled onto his side once again. “We’re a real pair a’fools, aren’t we?”

 “Reckon that’s why we get along so well,” Jess added, sounding amused and very sleepy.

“Probably.” Slim turned back over. “Jess…” but he could see, now that his eyes had adjusted to the dim moonlight filtering in through the window, that Jess’ eyes were closed and his breathing evened out in the slow and steady rhythm of sleep. Guess he’d have to wait for another time to say the rest.

Slim sighed and decided to focus, not on what had almost happened, but on that old cliché … all IS well that ends well.

And in seconds, sleep claimed him.

< ---------- >  The End  < ---------- >


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