A Laramie fic
Episode: Men of Defiance
Summary: As a wounded Jess returns home, his friends care for him, and worry
Sometimes, a man sets out on a journey and ends up somewhere he never expected. When the Bannister gang robbed that bank in Cheyenne, and I joined a U.S. marshal on the hunt for those killers, neither one of us expected to end up all the way down in New Mexico. And neither one of us expected those outlaws would turn and ambush us, leaving us a’foot in hostile territory and needing a rescue from the men of Fort Defiance.
< ---------- >
Fort Defiance ain’t ever gonna be on my list of favorite places I’ve ever been. Course, a man ain’t likely to form much of a good opinion of a place when he walks, well, staggers, in, carrying a slug in his shoulder. That’s what I’d done that day Trim Stuart and I got chased into Fort Defiance by the Bannister gang. Those outlaws came way too close to putting an end to the last of the Harpers. But with some covering fire from men on the walls, the two of us made it inside, and the folks at the fort fed us and gave us a place to bed down, while the Doc, cantankerous as he was, dug that bullet outta me and patched me up.
Even hurt as I was, though, I wasn’t ready to give up on the job I’d traveled there to finish, not after waiting more than ten years. When Frank Bannister wiped out near all of my family, I’d vowed to get him and his men, and I didn’t aim to fall short. So after a bit of medical attention, a meal, and some sleep, Trim and me were ready to go back out. We were gonna go rescue that man they called Reb, since he’d got caught up in this mess helping us, and then finish off what we’d been after for these weeks on the trail — put an end to Bannister and the rest of his murderous gang. We’d have done it, too, if only that ornery Clint Gentry fellah who ran the place would have let us. Or at least let me. Yeah, I know he figured I wasn’t up to the job, but that’s only because he don’t know me. If he did, he’d know that I don’t quit, bullet or no bullet.
And I should never have gone back to see that Doc. I didn’t have much choice though, because while Trim and me were getting ready to finish the fight, I’d suddenly gone all dizzy and wobbly and kind of light-headed, on account of my wound had broken open and was leaking blood again. All I really needed from the Doc was a fresh bandage, but instead, I got a lecture, and then a dose of something more than just coffee in my coffee.
I’m warning ya, don’t ever trust a doc. I’d hardly taken a sip when I felt myself caving in, everything fading out and going grey like dusk giving way to night, and the smile on that old coot’s face looked smug as that cat that swallowed the canary.
And he was one ugly old cat.
After that dose of laudanum, I don’t know how long I was out. A fusillade of gunfire sounding like a full-scale battle erupting somewhere nearby yanked me right on up out of that sleep that was far too sudden and far too deep to have been natural. I promised myself I’d be settling up with the Doc on that account later; right then, I had to get out of that bed and find out what in blue blazes was happening outside. Because unless we’d been attacked by Indians or Yankees, even half awake as I was, I reckoned a rescue attempt, the rescue attempt I should’a been a part of, was taking place, and without me.
I swung my feet off the bunk and to the floor, and the whole room spun around like a bronc with a tumbleweed caught in his tail. I latched onto the bed post to steady myself, snapping my eyes closed real quick. After a second I opened them slow and easy and the room seemed to steady up a bit so I stuffed my feet into my boots and picked up my gun belt. Stumbling out the door still only half awake, I headed toward the sound of shooting.
The early morning sunlight was blindingly bright after the dimness of the bunkhouse, but the continuing rattle of gunfire drew me across the compound and out to the walls of the fort. The ladder leading up to the walkway was a bit of a challenge with me having only one useful arm, but by concentrating, I managed to climb it.
Joining the men peering over the stockade wall, I could only look on from a distance as the marshal and Gentry rescued a man I reckoned was Gentry’s missing compadre named Reb and finished off the Bannister gang, including Frank Bannister himself.
Disappointed, I stood by and watched as they ended the outlaw’s long bloody run. Now don’t get me wrong -- I’m glad Bannister’s gone. I’m glad he ain’t ever gonna kill anyone else. Justice was done that day, but I’m never gonna get over the fact that I wasn’t part of that outlaw’s end, but only just another onlooker. After what Bannister had done to us Harpers, after the promises I’d made to see him pay, after all the time I’d spent searching for him, it wasn’t enough payback for what had happened to my family. It was just wrong that someone else finished my job while all I could do was stand by and watch.
Finally, with all the shooting and rescuing done, I climbed back down off the walkway and stood waiting by the gate as the outlaws’ bodies were hauled in. I had to see for myself that it really was Bannister, that his killing days were really done. The gate opened and the wagon rattled in, and my skin went cold as I looked down at his corpse, staring right down into his sightless eyes. All those years on the run, in jail, and living as a cold-blooded killer had been hard time -- the face looked a lifetime older than it had in my nightmares, but I’d never mistake it for any other. Never. It brought back memories of that night I was never gonna forget, the helpless feeling while I could do nothing but watch my kin die a horrible death. That will haunt me to my dying day. But I do know that what happened that long-ago night did a lot toward making me who I am today; made me hate his kind, men who take what ain’t theirs to take and don’t care how many innocent folks get hurt along the way.
I stared down into that killer’s face, searching for some sign of the evil that had lived inside him, but there was nothing remarkable there. Bannister didn’t look like anyone special. He didn’t seem to be different from any other man; he didn’t look out of the ordinary. What made a man so cold and dark that he’d do what Bannister had done to my family, I wondered. What made him kill an ordinary ranch hand, an innocent woman and her children? The Harpers had never done him wrong, and we didn’t have anything worth stealing, except our lives, and those he took without so much as a backward glance.
I hoped he’d suffer in hell for a very long time. I know that ain’t a charitable thought, but then, I’m hardly a charitable man, even on my best days.
And never to the murdering likes of Frank Bannister.
My only regret was that it wasn’t my bullet that had killed him; that I hadn’t had the chance to look him in the eye and remind him of that long-ago day and of what he’d taken from me. I’m sure he didn’t remember the Harpers, but just maybe looking him in the eye as he died would have done something to erase that ugly picture out of my head.
I don’t think so, though.
I don’t think anything will ever make those memories go away.
And now Bannister was dead, and I suddenly felt empty -- that hate for him that I’d carried around inside me for so long was gone. Hate’s a purely powerful feeling — drives men to do things they wouldn’t do, become what they’d never wanted to be, act in ways that went against what they knew was right or good or decent.
I felt cheated — Frank Bannister’s death had been mine.
I wiped a hand across my face, leaning against the wagon wheel and closing my eyes against the harsh glare of the sun. As I stood there, lost in my thoughts, out of nowhere a hand clamped down on my right shoulder. It was U.S. Marshal Trim Stuart, looking worried. “Jess, you shouldn’t be out here. You can hardly keep on your feet.”
“No thanks to that sneaky Doc and his laudanum,” I told the lawman bitterly. “I *owe* him for that.”
That’s when Clint Gentry stepped between me and Stuart. “Actually, you owe *me* for that, Harper. I was the one who suggested to Doc that he drug you. I could see there was no other way to stop you, and I wasn’t about to let a wounded man go out there after Bannister.”
“I would have managed,” I declared, standing up straighter and glaring at him.
“Maybe, maybe not,” Gentry answered calmly, “but Reb’s life was at stake. I couldn’t take the chance that you weren’t up to it.”
I was just fixing to tell him how wrong he was, when Trim jumped in and changed the subject. “Jess, Bannister’s dead. Isn’t that what you wanted?”
“Yeah,” I admitted.
“So be satisfied that it’s done.” He squeezed my shoulder. “C’mon, Jess, let’s get you back to the Doc’s. You look like a feather could knock you over.”
“It’s the laudanum,” I insisted.
“Sure, Jess, whatever you say,” Trim agreed, steering me toward the dispensary.
Doc, old fussbudget that he was, scolded me for getting out of bed and risking opening up my wound again, but it hadn’t happened. And though he was talking plenty, I did notice he didn’t say anything at all about slipping me that laudanum without my consent. Still, having learned my lesson, I was real careful not to drink anything he gave me, not even what he said was just water -- I ain’t fool enough to get snookered twice.
I knew all I needed was sleep to get that drug out of my system, so I snuck on out and back to the barracks, found me an empty bunk, and took myself a nap before turning in early, so I’d be ready to ride out in the morning.
MARSHAL TRIM STUART
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about Jess Harper in the last few weeks, it’s that he’s one stubborn hombre. There we were, the day after finishing off the Bannister gang, back in the Doc’s office, having just finished breakfast. I was planning on riding out before noon, and Jess was insisting he was going with me. He was wearing his bullheaded look, the one that clearly said no one was changing his mind, no way, not one bit, not with logic, not with threats, not with a gun, probably not even with dynamite.
He’s really good at that look. Last night, he’d used that look on me, insisting he was ready to join me on the trail back to Wyoming. Today, he was facing off with Defiance’s grumpy old doctor.
“I’ve tried to talk him into staying, but he won’t listen,” I warned the Doc. After dinner last night, I’d told Jess that since the Bannister gang was history, I’d be heading home the next day. Then I’d spent the best part of the next hour trying to talk that hard-headed fool into delaying his own trip back to Laramie. He hadn’t listened to a single word I’d said.
Doc Collier shook his head at Jess, scowling as he finished putting a fresh bandage on the young man’s shoulder. “You shouldn’t be riding for another couple days at least, Harper. You need to give this wound enough time to heal.”
“I’m fine, Doc,” Jess insisted, despite the fact that even a blind man could see he wasn’t.
“You have a bullet hole in your shoulder, Mr. Harper, you are not ‘fine’,” the doctor countered in his raspy voice, irritated. “Especially since this wound keeps breaking open and causing you to lose a lot of blood. You try to ride out of here, you’re liable to fall right off that horse and be dead a’for you hit the ground.”
Jess was being his usual determined, some might say tetchy and ornery, self. “I’ll take my chances, Doc,” he declared, awkwardly buttoning up his shirt one-handed.
The medical man snorted and looked over at me for help. “Marshal Stuart, are you gonna tell this young fool… ”
I threw my hands up in the air and took a step back. “Jess is a grown man. He makes his own decisions.”
“Bad decisions,” Doc snapped.
“I can ride,” Jess insisted. “Besides, if I wait, I’ll be making the trip all by myself. Trim’s got to get back to Wyoming.”
The Doc turned to focus his glare at me. “You could wait, Marshal, then this crazy man would wait, too,” he suggested hopefully.
“I’d really love to stay on here in this lovely place, Doc,” I answered him sarcastically, “but I’ve got to get back home. I’m paid to keep the peace in Wyoming, assigned to the Cheyenne office, and trailing off this far after the Bannister gang’s taken me way too far out of my territory.” I was going to have some explaining to do when I got back, I knew, accounting for my decision. “I’ve been gone weeks already. The whole territory could be gone to Hades in a hand basket by now.” Who knew what was going on back home? I’d been gone far too long.
Jess was nodding in agreement. He’d lived in Wyoming long enough to know life there was no ladies’ tea party. “And I’ve got a ranch job to get back to,” and then he added under his breath, a muttered, “at least I hope I still got a job.”
The Doc turned back to Jess, trying once more to change his patient’s mind. “You’re traveling the first couple days with one of the outbound wagon trains, right? You could at least ride in one of those wagons.”
Jess snorted. “Bouncing around in one of them prairie schooners? That’d be a dozen times worse than going horseback.” He got up and glared first at the Doc, and then at me. “I’m riding out today, and that’s that.”
< ---- >
Two hours later, Jess and I were saddled up and headed out of Fort Defiance, trailing along with half a dozen immigrant wagons headed up the Santa Fe trail. As we left the fort behind, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Jess looked fit, but he had some color in his face and he was sitting straight in his saddle.
We rode hard for the next three days, but sharing grub and a campfire with the wagon train eased the journey a whole bunch -- some of the women on that train could cook a right tasty meal. I chowed down good, I think I even gained back some of the weight I’d lost while chasing after Bannister. Jess didn’t seem to have much appetite, but then, he’d been living on little but coffee and hate since we’d left Laramie. Sometimes, it can take a while for a man to get back on his feed after a spell like that. Maybe it was going to take getting home for him to get his appetite back and his temper tamped down.
On the fourth day out, me and Jess split away from the wagons and rode straight north.
I set a steady pace and Jess was holding up pretty good. He was quiet and by the end of each day his face looked pinched and pale beneath his tan, and he moved pretty stiff like a man who was hurting but determined not to show it. Of course, I wasn’t moving so spry at the end of each day myself — we’d covered a lot of ground in the past couple weeks, and all those miles on the trail do wear on a man, even a healthy one. Besides, I know what it feels like to stop a bullet, and it does take you a while to get over it, no matter how tough you are, and even when you do let yourself rest, which Jess didn’t.
Jess, though, he’s one stubborn cuss, and if he was regretting his decision to hit the trail so soon after getting shot, he never let on about it. Of course, I never expected he would.
We replenished our supplies at a trading post along the trail a few days later, but we didn’t stop even one night at any of the towns along the way — both of us were eager to get home.
Days of hard riding got us back to the Wyoming border, and thankfully it’s not so far from there to Cheyenne. I was almighty glad when at last we reached the final stretch of road toward town, thinking of home and the luxury of sleeping in my own bed. After a month on the trail, a set of clean clothes, a real shave with hot water, and a bath sounded downright heavenly. Not to mention the pure joy of a whole day without sitting my butt in a saddle.
As I looked over at him, I noticed that Jess looked trail-weary and worn down — I hoped I looked better than he did.
“It was good ridin’ with ya’, Jess,” I told him when we reached the spot where the Laramie road turned off to the west, and I meant what I said. He’s a bit rough around the edges, but Jess Harper is a good man, long as he keeps that mile-wide wild streak reined in.
“We got the job done, didn’t we?” he answered grimly, and his weary smile didn’t reach anywhere near his eyes.
“Yeah, we did. The Bannisters are done for good.” I tipped my hat to him. “Be seein’ ya’ around, Jess. Take care of yourself.”
“Same here, marshal,” he nodded to me and turned his horse, riding west toward the Sherman Ranch.
It was a long ride back to Laramie, but sittin’ at that fort and waiting wouldn’t have made the trail so much as a mile or a minute shorter, so I’d rode out with Trim, anxious to get home.
It sure did feel good to get moving again. Yeah, my shoulder was still aching plenty. Bullet wounds will do that for a while, but in my experience, lying around in a bed won’t make a man better. This wasn’t the first time I’d taken a slug, and I’d survived each one, so I reckon I’ve got one of them hardy constitutions some people talk about.
And I was plenty happy to have my own horse back. One of Gentry’s patrols had found Traveler, and Trim’s mount, too, not far from the river, none the worse for wear.
So there wasn’t any reason for us to hang around any longer in New Mexico territory.
The marshal and I, we covered a good bit of ground each day, especially after we left the wagons behind. I admit I was plenty tuckered out by the time we made camp every night. It had been a long and hard trail, would have been even without taking a bullet. Maybe I had been a little hasty in leaving Defiance so soon after getting shot, but I’d been away from the ranch a long time, so long that I was even beginning to miss Jonesy’s cooking.
And that’s way too long.
We were pushing on hard toward Wyoming and had been near a week out on the trail for home. I picked at my breakfast, not feeling hungry, and ended up tossing most of it into the fire. Guess I was getting sick of trail grub, too — or maybe it was just eating my own cooking, which wasn’t any better than Trim’s.
As much as I was anxious to get home, I felt slow and tired, like I could crawl back into my bedroll and sleep all through the day. Even a second cup of coffee didn’t seem to wake me up. Trim was all saddled up, throwing me dirty looks and plainly anxious to get riding, so I dragged myself into motion. When I tossed my saddle up onto Traveler’s back, my shoulder complained something fierce, igniting an ache that rode with me all day.
There was a deep chill in the morning air, so much so that I could see my breath, but the minute I hit the saddle it seemed like the sun was already beating down and heating up like a furnace.
< ---- >
Leaving Colorado behind and finally crossing into Wyoming, I sure was eager to get back to the ranch, though it seemed like living so long in one place had made me soft. I couldn’t hardly sleep the last few nights out on the trail -- I was sure there were at least a dozen rocks beneath my bedroll every night. Maybe that lack of sleep was why I had one of those nagging headaches gnawing away at the back of my skull, one that seemed to be getting worse every day. I was counting on being home soon to get me feeling back like my own self, eating some real meals and finally getting me a good night’s sleep in a real bed.
On the morning when Trim and I finally parted, where the trail split off toward Laramie, I said farewell to the marshal and gave Traveler his head, letting my bay take us on home. I held Traveler to an easy jog — that seemed to jar my shoulder less than a lope. We were both just trail weary, I told myself -- a couple days off and we’d be good as new, raring to go again.
We’d get us a good rest at home.
Home. Strange word, that. Since I was 15 and Bannister’s gang killed nearly all of my family, I hadn’t ever had a home, not until that day when I rode into the Sherman Ranch where I met a feisty kid who needed a friend and a stubborn rancher who insisted that I could be something more than a loner on the drift.
Funny how life leads you places you never expect to go. Sometimes, among all the bad in the world, a man really does find himself a bit of luck.
I sure had.
And every time I left home, I realized it again, how much the people and the place had come to mean to me.
As Traveler took me along the last stretch of road before the ranch, I was anxious to be done with this trip, as stiff and sore as I could remember being for a long while. Course, I hadn’t spent so many days on the trail since I’d quit drifting and started working for Slim, either.
Slim — I’d gone off and left without asking — he was probably still sore about that. He was sure to have let a ton of work pile up for me. Well, I was gonna have to take a day or two to rest up before I tackled any ranch work. I was plumb wore out, all the way down to the center of my bones.
The sun was high in the sky and surprisingly hot for a day so early in the spring. Thirsty, and having already drained my canteen, I stopped along the stream to get a drink. It was the same spot where Slim and I had had that first set-to, back on the day when I’d ridden onto the Sherman Ranch for the first time. That seemed like a real, real long time ago now. It felt almost like I’d been someone else back then, and in a lot of ways, I reckon I had been. I had Slim to thank for those changes, because he’d taken a throw of the dice on me. And while I figured there were times he might be regretting that gamble, I think most days he figured he hadn’t made too big of a mistake. Or at least I hoped so. And I sure hoped this last side trip I’d taken hadn’t made him change his mind about me working for him. I was gonna need to put my nose to the grindstone and do some real work for the next bit, sort of make up for all the extra chores he’d had to do while I was gone.
I climbed carefully down off my horse and took a drink from the stream, one-handedly splashing my face with the cool water. It felt almighty good against my warm skin, so I splashed some more on my sweat-dampened shirt. It was purely tempting to sit back and take myself a nice rest right there in the shade beside the stream, but home was so close now, I could almost hear it calling my name.
Those last few miles seemed to pass by awful slow. Even Traveler was tired, I reckoned, his trot way slower’n usual, but he picked up his pace as we climbed the last hill -- he knows where he’ll find his oats. Finally at the top of the ridge above the ranch, I pulled him up to look down into the yard spread out below me. The place was purely a sight for sore eyes, that was for sure. I could see somebody standing over by the corral, and a couple more people working by a wagon near the house. It surprised me how all of a sudden I felt all choked up at the sight of them and the place, and how good it was to see them.
“We’re nearly home, boy,” I told Traveler, reaching forward to stroke his neck. I was glad I didn’t have to ride any further; I was so done in that it was all I could do to stay in the saddle that last few hundred yards as the bay carried me down the hill and into the ranch yard.
“Jonesy, Slim, look who’s coming in. It’s Jess!” Andy hollered suddenly from over by the corral, voice raised in excitement as he raced across the yard to where I was working, greasing the axle on the buckboard. I stood up and turned around to look at the horse and rider coming down the hill.
Jonesy was staring intently at the approaching cowboy. “Yeh, he looks mighty tired, too.”
“Maybe he’ll be happy to stick around home for a while,” I suggested. A month ago Jess had hightailed it out after that outlaw without hardly a word to us, leaving the ranch short-handed.
“Hey, he’s got his arm in a sling,” Andy observed.
“Why, he has at that,” Jonesy agreed.
Great. Now he’d be missing more work. “Why, he’ll get more than his arm in a sling if he goes tailing off like that again,” I groused.
“Work sure did stack up around here while he was gone,” Jonesy remarked. “Couldn’t see over the top of it from one day to the next.”
“Yeah, he sure slickered out of it all right,” I agreed. “You know, I never have met a man who could beat him when it comes to dodging work.”
“You haven’t done so bad yourself,” Jonesy pointed out. “It was Andy and me who did most of the work around here.”
“Yeah,” griped Andy.
“Or maybe you’ve forgotten about lyin’ in bed with a sore foot, practically all the time that Jess was gone,” Jonesy reminded me.
As if I needed reminding. One of the relay team wheelers had stomped on my foot, and I hadn’t been able to get my boot on for days. It was Jonesy himself who’d ordered me to stay off of it and keep it propped up to ease the swelling. “Yeah, but you’re not going to tell him, are you, Jonesy? Or I’d have nothin’ to complain about at all.”
He caught my drift and looked away, smiling as he watched Jess ride in. “Hi, Jess,” he called out.
Andy had already run out to greet our returning wanderer. The boy had done a powerful lot of worrying about Jess these last couple weeks. I’d worried some, too, to be honest. Chasing outlaws, especially outlaws as honed-down mean as the Bannisters, was dangerous business. Jess, in one of his I’m-going-and-there-ain’t-nothing-gonna-stop-me moods, had joined the marshal hot on the trail of those bad men. All right, I’ll admit, much as I didn’t want him to go, I did understand and sympathize with his reasons. From things he’d told me about his family, I knew Jess had a personal stake in catching up with Bannister, an old, bone-deep grudge to settle, which meant he wasn’t coming back unless and until they’d gotten the job done.
Hopefully, that was all over now, and things could get back to normal around the ranch. Jonesy hadn’t been kidding when he’d said how the work had stacked up. We’d be lucky to catch up by the end of summer.
I watched closely as Jess pulled his horse down to a weary walk and approached the house, with Andy hurrying along side and peppering him with rapid-fire questions. “How’d you hurt your arm? You got Bannister, didn’t you, Jess? How far did you have to go? Gosh, I’m sure glad you’re back! You and Traveler look mighty wore out. Are you glad to be home? Did the marshal get back, too? Is your arm hurt bad?”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa, slow down there, partner, one question at a time, Andy,” Jess reined the bay to a stop in front of me.
It was obvious at first glance that the past couple weeks had been rough ones. It wasn’t just the two weeks growth of scruffy beard, the sling supporting his left arm, or the dust coating both him and his horse. Jess was sort of slumped in the saddle, like he was so bone-deep weary that he could barely stay aboard the bay. Beneath the tan and the dirt, his face was as thin and pale as I’d ever seen it.
He dropped the reins onto his horse’s neck and Traveler just stood there, head hanging low and looking near as tired as his rider. Jess rested his right hand on the saddle horn and slumped even deeper into the saddle, nodding over at me. “Slim. Jonesy.”
“About time you got yourself back here, boy,” Jonesy chided.
“I had a job to do.” Even his voice sounded done in.
“And you did it?” Jonesy asked.
“Yeah. We caught up with Bannister down in New Mexico.”
Andy whistled. “New Mexico? That sure was a long ride.”
“A real long ride.” Jess’ lip twitched, like he was trying to smile at the boy and the effort was too much, but he raised his head to look at me. There was a deadly chill in his voice as he added, “Frank Bannister won’t be hurtin’ any more innocent folks.”
I nodded, understanding.
The silence lasted a long moment before Andy, frowning with worry, asked, “What happened to your arm, Jess?”
“Just a scratch,” he answered slowly, his voice low and rough as if talking was an effort. “Got shot by one a’them outlaws, more ‘n’ a week ago. Should be about healed by now.” He flexed the fingers of the hand in the sling, his grimace contradicting the words he’d just said.
“Then you’re back here to stay.” Andy’s smile was back.
“I reckon, if I’m still welcome.” His glance shifted over to me, worry showing for just for a moment before his glance veered away.
“Welcome? Of course you are!” Andy answered enthusiastically, looking over at me, and his smile dimmed just a bit.
I was still peeved over Jess disappearing for weeks with all the work we had to do, but I gave up my disapproving frown and nodded up at him.
Andy’s smile was back. “I bet you’re hungry, Jess. C’mon in, we’ll rustle you up something to eat. I think there might even be a piece of pie left.”
Jess nodded but he made no move to dismount. Actually, I thought he looked like he didn’t have the energy to get down off his horse, and that’s not at all like him. It must have been a harder ride than even I’d thought it had been. “So you gonna sit up there all day or give that poor horse a’ yours a break?” I asked lightly.
Jess shot me a look and then, with what seemed like an awful lot of effort for a man who usually moved effortlessly, he braced himself with his right hand on the saddle horn. He pulled his right boot from the stirrup and slowly swung his leg up and over the bay’s back, barely clearing the gear tied behind his saddle. It seemed like he had trouble finding the ground with his boots, but finally he was standing firmly on both feet. I couldn’t see Jess’ face; he was still leaning into the horse as if letting the critter prop him up. He stayed like that for a beat too long before slowly turning toward us, and then he seemed to stumble and his whole body sagged. His knees buckled and he staggered and then his legs just folded up beneath him.
“Jess!” Andy shouted.
I jumped, reaching out to catch him a split second before he hit the ground.
“Guess I was more tired than I thought,” Jess mumbled, trying to paste an apologetic smile on his pale face and not succeeding.
“Get him inside!” Jonesy ordered.
I picked him up like I sometimes still carried my little brother to bed. Andy held the door and I took Jess all the way into his room and put him down on his bunk. The fact that he wasn’t grumbling about the indignity of being carried was worrying me. His eyes were only about half open and he seemed dazed.
I touched my hand to his forehead, and it was as hot as Andy’s had been back last winter when we’d nearly lost him to the fever.
“Slim? What jus’ happened?” Jess asked softly.
“You just kinda folded up, buddy,” I told him, moving aside as Jonesy elbowed his way past me, a worried frown on his face. I watched as the old man opened Jess’ shirt, revealing a swath of bandages circling his upper chest, then cut them away. They weren’t stained -- I thought that was a good sign until I saw the skin beneath. The nickel-sized neat round circle where the bullet had entered low and toward the outside of his shoulder was scabbed over but surrounded by a patch of tightly swollen skin the size of my hand, so red it looked like a bad sunburn.
Jonesy touched the wound, and Jess, groggy as he was, jumped.
The old man turned and threw me a worried look. “This isn’t good; he’s burning up,” Jonesy muttered, shaking his head. “This wound’s infected, Slim, bad infected, way more than I can deal with. He needs the doc, and sooner rather than later.”
“I’ll get him.” I was out of the room and out the front door almost before Jonesy was done talking.
I threw a glance over at Jess’ horse — taking him would save me time getting started — but Jess and Traveler had been on the road for weeks and the bay was obviously played out. Instead, I headed straight for my lariat which was hanging on the corral fence. I grabbed it and stepped between the bars of the enclosure, quickly building a loop as I walked into the midst of the milling string of horses. My rope settled over Alamo’s head on the first throw, and I hurried him out of the gate and into the barn. It took me only a minute to toss my gear up on his back, cinch up the saddle, slip his bridle over his ears, and climb aboard. Setting my spurs to the sorrel’s flanks, we galloped out of the yard toward town.
< ---- >
It was twelve very long miles to Laramie.
Alamo earned his oats that day, flying down the road with long, ground-eating strides, but it wasn’t fast enough for me.
Heads turned as I raced down Main Street. Reaching the Doc’s place, I pulled my horse to a sliding stop, stepped out of the stirrup, and was up on the porch, fist pounding on the door before the dust had even begun to settle. “Doc! Doc Porter!”
The door opened slowly and the doctor’s wife, a sweet portly woman with a kind face, peered out at me. “Mr. Sherman? What’s wrong? How can I help you?”
I pulled off my hat and asked, “Ma’am, where’s the doctor? Jess needs him bad. Is he here?”
She shook her head and her expression turned grim. “I’m sorry, Mr. Sherman, but he’s gone out to the Meyers’ place since the day before yesterday -- ”
I didn’t even let her finish. “Thanks,” I shouted, already heading back to my horse as I slapped my Stetson back on my head. I heard her call out something to me but by then I was already back in the saddle and urging Alamo to a gallop, heading north out of town.
It was another four miles to the Meyers’ place, and my horse was lathered up by the time we arrived at the neat homesteader’s cabin tucked into a little valley at the foot of the hills. The sorrel’s feet clattered on the hard-packed dirt as we crossed the yard, and I reined him toward the front of the house.
Just as I pulled up the slender form of the doctor stepped out of the cabin door, waving his arms. “Stop!” he shouted. “Stop there!”
“Don’t come any closer, Slim.”
“What’s wrong?” He looked tired and worn, as if he hadn’t slept for days, and what he told me next confirmed my worst fears.
“It’s the fever, Slim. An immigrant wagon stopped here for water just over a week ago, and three days later a couple of the kids got sick. And now Missus Meyers has it, too.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. But Doc, I need you at my place. Jess is in a bad way.”
“He was shot nearly a week ago, and then he rode all the way home from New Mexico. Just got back home today and passed out soon as he stepped down off his horse. He’s running a high fever -- Jonesy says his shoulder’s bad infected.”
Doctor Porter nodded, looking thoughtful. “What does the area around the wound look like?”
“The wound’s all closed up like it’s been healin’, but the skin around it’s all red and swollen.”
“Hot to the touch, and tender?”
“Yes. Jonesy says there’s an abscess.”
The medical man looked grim. “He’s likely right. The infection’s formed a pocket under the skin. The wound needs to be opened and drained.”
I sighed with relief. “You’ll come then.”
He was shaking his head no. “I can’t, Slim. Even if I could leave Misses Meyers and the children, I can’t risk bringing the fever to you folks.”
“We’ll take that chance,” I offered.
With a sinking heart I knew he was right. Sickness on top of the infection he already had would kill Jess for sure, I could see that. “What do we do then?”
“You’ll have to drain the infection,” the doc instructed. “Jonesy knows all this, but I’ll remind you anyway. Be sure to use a good, clean, knife. Boil it first, then open the wound and clean it out good. Disinfect it with alcohol. The important thing here, Slim, is that you’ll need to keep the wound open so it can drain. Pack it with alcohol-soaked cloth. You must change that packing several times a day until the wound is no longer draining. Meanwhile, try to get water and broth into him, and do whatever you can to keep his fever down and keep him comfortable.” The doc looked down at the ground, then back up at me. “I won’t lie to you, Slim. Without seeing him, I don’t know his chances for sure. But it sounds bad. I wish I could help but I’m needed here,” he turned to look back into the cabin.
“I understand, Doc. We’ll do our best.”
“I know you will. Good luck.”
I heard Slim go clatterin’ out of the yard as I tried to get Jess comfortable. Heat was just rising off him in waves, like warmth off a stoked-up stove. I offered him some water, but he wasn’t really awake enough to be cooperating with me. When I held the cup to his lips he swallowed some but most of the water spilled down his chin and neck, soaking the sheets.
Andy arrived just then, bringing me a bucket of cool water fresh from the well, and I used that to wash Jess’ face and chest. He seemed to like that and settled down a mite, as if that gave him some comfort. “You just rest until Slim gets back here with the Doctor, you hear?” I told him.
He mumbled something I couldn’t quite make out, but I think he agreed because he stayed quiet.
Andy was standing beside me as I worked, all big-eyed and looking scared, and I figured the best thing for him was to give him plenty to do to keep him from worrying too much. “Andy, go get a clean sheet. We’ll need some fresh bandages once the Doc gets here.”
The boy was gone only a minute. Soon as he was back we set to work and tore up that old sheet and rolled up bandages, all the while watching Jess lying quiet on his bed.
Every few minutes I wiped Jess’ face with the damp cloth but after that, there was nothing we could do but settle in to wait until Slim and the Doc showed up.
Waiting’s hard, even for an old man like me, but it was worse on the boy. “Andy, why don’t you go out and take care of Jess’ horse?” I suggested softly. “Traveler was rode hard. He could use a good rubdown and some feed. Not too much, mind, or you’ll founder him.”
Andy looked down at Jess and shook his head. “I’d rather stay here.”
“I know, son, but there’s nothing you can do to help right now. Jess is almighty fond of that horse, though. He’ll appreciate what you’re doin’. Now go.” I waved him toward the door and reluctantly, he went.
As soon as he’d left the room, I pulled out my watch to check the time. Slim had been gone less than an hour. We had a long while to wait yet.
In a minute I heard the front door close, and Andy’s voice from outside, talking to Traveler. The boy was gone quite some time then before finally coming back into the house with Jess’ bedroll. I had no news to tell him, Jess was still lyin’ quiet, so I sent the youngster back outside to start the evening chores. No matter what’s happening in the house, good or bad, the stock always needs tending.
The house was quiet; the minutes were crawling by slower’n a snail crossing the garden. Slim had been gone a long while, plenty long enough to get to town and be back by now.
Where was he?
When I got outside, I found that Traveler had wandered over to the water trough by the corral and gotten himself a drink. He was standing hipshot in the shade of the barn, looking nearly asleep but he pricked up his ears when I talked to him. “Hey boy,” I stroked Traveler’s nose and picked up his reins. Jess is powerful proud of his horse, and he is a good one. They’d covered a lot of miles together, seen a lot of country, and Jess always takes good care of Traveler, even before he takes care of himself.
The bay followed me into the barn, shuffling along like he was too tired to lift his feet, and he probably was. They’d been all the way down to New Mexico -- a place so far away I’d only heard stories about it. Maybe someday I’d get there, if I had a horse as good as Traveler. And once Jess was feeling better, I was gonna get him to tell me all about the places he’d been and the things he’d seen. He was sure to have some good stories about his trip, I reckoned.
I led Traveler into a stall, taking off his bridle and replacing it with a halter before forking some hay into the manger. He stuck his nose right in and got to eating like he’d been on starvation rations for weeks.
While the horse ate, I pulled off his saddle and tossed it over the stall partition. I could see that it was going to need a good cleaning — there was dust and grime caked all over it. Then I untied Jess’ bedroll and carried it up to the house.
As I walked inside, I noticed that the door to Jess’ room stood open and I could see Jonesy sitting on a chair by the bed.
“How’s he doing?” I asked. Jonesy must have washed Jess’ face — the dust and dirt were gone, but I could see Jess looked like he hadn’t been eating so well. He hadn’t shaved in a quite a while either — Jess sure looked strange with a beard, almost fearsome.
“There’s no change,” Jonesy answered. “You done with that horse?”
“No. I brought Jess’ bedroll in. I’ll go back out and finish takin’ care of Traveler.”
“And don’t forget to feed the stock in the corral, too.”
Back at the barn, I brushed Traveler and gave him a good rubdown, head to tail, just the way I’d watched Jess do after a long hard ride. I finished by checking the horse’s feet -- his shoes were so worn down, he was going to need a whole new set just as soon as Jess was up to doing some blacksmithing.
Done taking care of Traveler, I carried hay to the coach horses out in the corral and brought in the cows. I’d just started feeding the chickens when I heard hoof beats approach. Hoping it was Slim and the doctor, I dropped the feed bucket and ran outside into the yard, spotting a horse and rider coming fast down the hill. For a moment, I thought the doctor was on his way, but then I realized there was only one rider, traveling alone, and it was Slim, riding fast.
Why had he come home without the doctor?
I ran toward the house, but Slim was already off his horse and inside before I arrived breathless at the door.
Jonesy was waiting for me just inside the house. He was peering around me, looking anxiously out toward the yard. “Slim, where’s the doc? Is he coming along behind you?”
Before I could answer, I heard Andy come running in behind me. I’d be delivering the bad news to both of them, then. I sighed. “Doc Porter’s not coming.”
The old man looked shocked and I heard Andy gasp. “Not coming? He’s a doctor, how can he not… ”
“He’s out at the Meyers’ place. The missus and three of the kids are down with the fever. He can’t leave them.”
“What are we going to do, Slim?” Andy asked fearfully.
I set my hand on my brother’s shoulder, hoping the gesture would reassure him. “Doc told me what we have to do,” I told them. “Andy, I need you to get some wood for the stove; we’ve got to get some water boilin’.”
“We’ve already got bandages made up,” Jonesy reported.
“Good. We’re gonna need em’.” I stomped the dust off my boots, hung my hat on the rack and shrugged out of my vest. “How’s Jess doing?” I asked as I stoked the stove and set a pot of water on top.
“Bout the same,” Jonesy replied. “He’s resting.”
Quickly then, as I washed my hands with soap and water, I told the old man what the Doc had explained to me.
He looked over toward the closed bedroom door and nodded grimly. “Won’t be pretty, but we can manage that.”
I put a hand on his shoulder and forced myself to grin at him with more confidence than I felt. “I know we can,” I said, as much to bolster myself as him. Jonesy’s a good man when it comes to tendin’ everyday aches and pains; I only hoped this time he, and the rest of us, were up to doing more.
Once the water was starting to boil, I went in to Jess. He was looking uncomfortable, dozing restlessly, his face pale with bright spots of color dotting his cheekbones. “Hey, partner.”
He opened his eyes and looked around but they seemed sort of unfocused, like he wasn’t sure of where he was or maybe even who I was. “Slim?” he asked uncertainly.
“Yeah, it’s me. How you feelin’?”
“Been better,” he admitted.
“I know.” I sat down on the edge of the bed, choosing my words carefully. “Jess, the Doc couldn’t come. He’s takin’ care of the Meyers family; they’re down with the fever. So we’re gonna have to go to work on that shoulder ourselves.”
“It might hurt a bit.”
Jess nodded and swallowed. “Figures.”
I held up the whiskey bottle I’d carried in, the one we keep around the place strictly for medicinal purposes. “You want some of this?”
He nodded again, so I helped lift him up a bit and held the bottle for him. He drank a couple of swallows and then stopped with a cough.
“More?” I encouraged.
“You should.” I lifted the bottle back to his lips, and he obligingly took another swallow and quit.
Gently, I eased him back down just as Jonesy came in from the kitchen carrying the knife with the hilt wrapped in cloth -- too hot to touch, since we’d boiled it, like Doc had told me. The old man took a seat on the other side of the bed from me and held the knife over Jess’ wound. Grimly, he nodded to me.
Jess didn’t look at Jonesy. Instead he fixed those deep blue eyes on me, and then, knowing full well what we were about to do, he closed his eyes with total trust.
I took a deep, steadying breath. I’d rather be sticking a knife in my own chest than be part of what we were going to do next.
I held Jess’ shoulders, and Andy held his feet.
I tried not to watch, but I couldn’t look away. Jonesy laid the tip of the hot knife against the round mark made by the bullet and deep red beads of blood popped out on the skin as the thin, razor sharp blade bit into flesh.
Jess bucked. Weak as he was, I could hardly hold him.
“Keep him still!” Jonesy ordered harshly and cut deeper.
Jess hollered, arched his back, and suddenly went limp.
Jonesy used his sleeve to wipe the sweat from his forehead and then went back to cutting, going deeper until suddenly the flowing red blood was mixed with an ugly yellow fluid.
“That’s it,” he said, sounding relieved. He wiped away the flow and waited.
The wound was still oozing the nasty red and yellow mixture. “Shouldn’t we be stopping that?” I asked, sure that losing so much blood couldn’t be a good thing.
“We’ve got to let all the poison out. In a minute, we’ll flush out the wound and pack it.” I helped him roll Jess onto his side and watched as even more of the infection seeped out. Finally, when the blood was once more looking pure red, we put Jess on his back again. Jonesy opened the whiskey bottle and poured it straight into the open wound.
Jess wasn’t as far out of it as I’d hoped he was. He lunged upward, thrashing. “Gawd!”
“Easy, Jess, easy. That’s the worst of it, boy,” Jonesy told him.
Jess was gasping for breath, drenched in sweat and pale as the sheets he was lying on. The fingers of his right hand were all knotted into a fist, clutching at his blankets.
Next, Jonesy picked up another clean cloth that he’d had soaking in a bowl filled with more of the alcohol. He set it down over the wound and, using the tip of the knife, began to push it into the hole in Jess’ shoulder.
Jess gasped, his eyes rolled up in his head, and he passed out again.
I think we were all relieved.
Jonesy worked quickly then, packing the alcohol-soaked cloth into the wound, leaving just a bit sticking out of the fresh incision. Done, he sat back on his chair, looking drained. “We’ll need to change this real often. Keep the wound from closing up on the outside until it’s healin’ on the inside.”
“So Jess’ll be all right now, won’t he?” Andy asked hopefully. His face was looking near as pale as Jess’ was. What he’d just witnessed wasn’t the kind of thing a youngster ought to have to watch.
Jonesy put his hand on the boy’s shoulder and squeezed. “It will be a while before we know if this worked, Andy.”
“But… ” Andy looked at Jonesy, then up at me, pleading in his eyes. “But the doctor said, didn’t he say this would work?”
“He said this would give Jess a chance,” I corrected softly.
“Jess is strong,” Jonesy added. “He’s a fighter, and he’ll pull through if anyone can. Meantime, we’ll be here to do everything we can to help ‘im. Now we need to let him rest.”
< ---- >
None of us felt much like eating that night, but making ourselves sick worrying wasn’t going to help Jess any. I heated up yesterday’s stew and cut some fresh bread off the loaf. Jonesy was still sitting by Jess’ bed so I made up a plate and took it in to him. Andy and I sat at the table, both of us mostly just pushing our food around on our plates and not saying anything. “Got all your chores done?” I asked finally, just to end the deafening silence.
“I fed the horses and the chickens. Brought in more firewood, too. And I took care of Jess’ horse.”
“Thanks, Andy. I appreciate it.” I put a hand on his shoulder and left it there for a long moment. Sometimes, I think I don’t say enough to my little brother, don’t tell him how much I do appreciate him. We’re so far apart in age, seems like we don’t share much. But tonight, we’d be sharing our worry over Jess, who was best friend to both of us.
Jonesy had been sitting up with Jess when I went to bed, but sometime after that, he and Slim had swapped places. I discovered that when I woke up in the middle of the night, real late by the set of the moon. Going to the kitchen for a drink, I sneaked a peek into Jess’ room and saw it was Slim sitting by Jess’ bedside. My brother had a book in his lap and it seemed like he was reading, but the whole time I watched, he wasn’t turning any pages, just staring off into space.
The look on Slim’s face was worrisome, even more so than the awful way Jess looked and the fact that he was still out. My brother always tries hard to act like things will be fine, but I’ve learned to read him better than he thinks I can. He doesn’t fool me so easy as he used to when I was just a kid, which I’m not anymore.
Slim was worried, bad worried.
And that scared me.
Jess and Slim, they’re best friends, almost like brothers. Jess has been as good for Slim as Slim’s been for Jess. Sure they fight and they argue and some days they don’t even talk to each other, but just like me and Slim have our disagreements, underneath it all, we’re still brothers, always, even when we’re so mad at each other we could just spit.
I don’t know how we ever got on around here before Jess rode in, and he’s saved all of our lives more than once. Of course, we’ve saved his, too, so we’re more than even I think, not that we keep score, or he would either. Friends don’t need to do that.
I’d been standing there a while before Slim finally noticed me staring in at him. “Andy, what are you doin’ up at this time of night?” he asked me softly.
“I just wanted to see how Jess was doin’.”
“There’s no change. Don’t expect any ‘til morning.” Slim tiredly rubbed a hand over his eyes and scrubbed it through his hair. “You get on back to bed and get some sleep.”
I nodded and went back to my bunk, but I didn’t sleep much the rest of that night.
I tried to read but my mind wouldn’t stay focused on the words. Instead, I kept thinking about Jess, and about how he’d ended up here with us, and what a bundle of contradictions my best friend is.
He’s as good with a gun as most any man I’ve ever seen. Not just lightning fast, which he surely is, but also sure and steady, the kind of man you always want on your side in a fight. I’d rather have one Jess Harper backing me up than half a dozen other guntoters, because I know he’ll do what he says he’ll do; he’ll never go back on his word; and he has nerves of steel. He’s as brave as the best of ‘em, too. But he’s much more than just a fast gun. He can do almost any chore that needs doing on the ranch — from shoeing horses to breaking colts to driving a four up, even forge work and fixing fences, when he puts his mind to it. Despite all the joshing that I do, Jess *is* a hard worker. Most times. Even though he is prone to taking an afternoon off to go fishing or hunting or just taking a nap.
And the man is stubborn to a fault. Once he gets an idea in his head, he’s worse than any mule I’ve ever met -- there’s just no changing his thinking whatsoever. Sometimes, that’s a good thing. Usually, it’s not. It’s the kind of attitude that got him into the shape he’s in right now. He could have let the law take care of Bannister. And even if he couldn’t pass up the chance to have a personal hand in stopping that outlaw, once they’d taken that murderer down, he should have rested up before starting the long ride back home. It had been a foolish stunt and one he was paying dearly for now.
I know a little about what happened to Jess’ family, how Bannister killed almost all of them, and how that set him on this path for revenge. A lot of men like Jess, young men fast with a gun, with no home and no place in the world, they end up on the wrong side of the law -- men who lose their family, and then lose their way. It’s easy to step across the line when you’re hungry or hurt; when you see folks with so much and you’ve got nothing and no one. But Jess had somehow found the strength to resist taking the easy way, though I suspect he wandered pretty close to the edge of the straight and narrow on more than one occasion. Oh I’m not saying he’s some kind of saint, because he’s not; far from it. I know he’s had some run-ins with the law. But he’s got a good heart. Somewhere along the line, there was someone who gave him a decent foundation and enough wherewithal to resist using that gun on the wrong side of the law.
Jess is a good man.
A good friend.
We’re not much alike, him and me, but he’d do anything for me, and I’d do anything for him.
I just wished there was something I could do for him right then.
All those days I’d worried about Jess, and wished for him to get home, and now he was home and I was even more worried than I’d been before.
It just didn’t seem right.
< ---- >
Jonesy stayed with Jess all the next day. I helped Slim with the chores, even the cooking, though none of us ate much. Slim hardly ate a thing. I know my cooking don’t taste that bad; I guess they were as worried as I was about Jess.
When the stage rolled in towards noon, I hurried out to help Slim change the teams.
“How’s Jess?” Mose asked first thing as he climbed down off the box.
Slim was already unhooking the traces. “You heard?” he asked.
“Sure,” Mose answered. “Marshal Stuart told me Jess took a bullet in a shoulder when they were down New Mexico way, and then folks saw you stoppin’ at the Doc’s yesterday. So how is he?”
Slim threw a worried look back at the house. “We’re not sure yet. The wound’s infected.”
Mose shook his head. “That darn fool, riding all that way with a bum wing.” He shook his head again. “Hope he gets better soon.”
“Thanks, Mose,” Slim said, putting his hand on my shoulder. “Ill let Jess know you asked after him.”
We got the teams changed, Mose helping us, and in just a few minutes the stage lumbered out of the yard, building speed to climb the hill and disappearing in a swirl of dust.
< ---- >
After lunch, Jonesy called Slim and me back into Jess’ room. He needed our help because he had to change Jess’ bandages.
I didn’t realize what all he meant at first.
Jess opened his eyes a couple of times while Jonesy soaked the bandages free, then cut away the old cloth wrapped around his chest. He seemed distracted and didn’t answer any of Jonesy’s questions. “Hold him now,” Jonesy ordered me and Slim. Like before, I held Jess’ feet and Slim his shoulders.
Jonesy reached down and took hold of the cloth that he’d packed into Jess’ wound last night, and I saw him raise his eyes like he was giving a moment of silent prayer. “Sorry, Jess, there’s no nice way to do this. Quick is best,” he said, and yanked.
The material pulled free, the white cloth stained all red and yellow and smelling of infection.
Jess hollered. I think he’d have jumped right off the bed if Slim hadn’t been doing such a good job of holding him down.
Jonesy right away started packing a new alcohol-soaked cloth into the wound but I looked away because I couldn’t bear to watch. Jess’ face was all scrunched up in pain, and I could hear him breathing hard, like he’d just run a mile. I could see that he was fighting not to yell out more, making low sounds that were worse than if he’d hollered out loud again.
When Jonesy was done re-packing the wound, Slim took Jess by the shoulders and held him sitting up so that Jonesy could wrap a new set of clean bandages all the way around Jess’ chest. Jess didn’t object; he seemed pretty much out of it.
Finally, Slim eased Jess back down on the bed.
< ---- >
Slim and I worked outside the rest of the afternoon. Ranch chores always need to be done, even when you’d rather be somewhere else, doing something else. Even when you’re worried about your best friend and wish you could do something to help him.
At suppertime we washed up and went back in the house.
“Andy, how about you sit with Jess for a while?” Slim suggested. “I’m sure Jonesy could use a break. And we all know his cookin’ is better than mine.”
“Sure Slim.” I slipped into Jess’ room and told Jonesy, “Slim says I should stay with Jess while you make supper.”
Jonesy nodded. “Sounds good. I’m beginnin’ to feel like my butt’s glued to this chair. All this sittin’ is way too hard on my poor old sacroiliac.” He got up, stretching the stiffness out of his back like a cat getting up from a nap, and I took the seat he’d just left. “There’s water there,” Jonesy pointed to the little table beside Jess’ bed. “If he asks for it, you help him drink. It’s important he drink as much as we can get him to take. If he does anything else but sleep, you holler, understand?”
Jonesy squeezed my shoulder and left, and soon after I could hear him talking to Slim out by the stove.
Jess was sleeping, but he didn’t look peaceful like a man ought to when he’s resting. There were little lines in the middle of his forehead, and sometimes his head would move or his hands -- short, sharp little movements that seemed all out of place. I pulled the blankets up over his chest, but he didn’t seem to take notice.
Please get better, Jess, please, I pleaded silently.
Pretty soon I could smell dinner cooking. I was just figuring that any minute someone was going to bring me my food when all of a sudden Jess started moving around. It wasn’t like he was really aware of what he was doing, but making movements that were all sort of restless like, like he was trying to get up but he didn’t quite know how.
And then he said something.
I couldn’t make out his words, so I leaned closer over the bed. “Jess, do you want some water?”
He mumbled something that I couldn’t understand, so I asked again. “Jess, do you want some water?”
He opened his eyes and looked up at me, and for a moment, I thought that was a good sign. I felt my face break into a smile. “Hey, Jess, you’re awake!”
He was still looking at me, but his eyes were all funny, unfocused and way too bright, and it seemed like he was looking right on past me.
That was a puzzling thing for him to say. “There’s no Johnny here, Jess.”
“Johnny?” he called out weakly.
“Jess, it’s me. Andy.”
“Where’s Johnny?” Jess tried to sit up. He was so weak he could barely lift his shoulders off the bed, but he tried, peering around frantically. “What’d you do to Johnny? Where’s he gone?” He reached up a hand and grabbed onto my arm. His grip wasn’t strong and sure like it usually is but weak and desperate, his fingers shaking. “Johnny?” He sounded worried and maybe even scared. “Johnny!”
His strange talk was scaring me. “Slim! Jonesy! Come in here!”
They were in the room beside me, quick as could be, our suppers forgotten.
“Andy? What’s wrong?” Slim asked.
I didn’t have to say anything. I just pointed down at the bed.
Jess was mumbling. Every now and again, I could make out the name Johnny and little else, none of his words making any sense.
“Who’s Johnny?” I asked.
“I don’t know, Andy,” Slim answered.
“I don’t know if he knows,” said Jonesy, his face looking grave and worried as he laid his hand on Jess’ forehead. “His fever’s spiked. He’s delirious.”
< ---- >
Jess all out of his head with fever was a hundred times worse than Jess lying too quiet. Nothing he said made much sense at all. He kept talking to people who weren’t there and asking for other folks none of us knew. Once I even thought I heard him ask for his Ma, and I know she died when he wasn’t much older than I am now.
His hair was all wet with sweat and his face was slick, too, and his clothes and bedding all damp. Jonesy kept trying to get him to drink more water, but I don’t think Jess took hardly a single swallow.
Sometimes he tried climbing out of the bed.
“Why’s he doing that, acting like that?” I asked Slim.
“Fever makes a man do strange things, Andy. It affects your thinkin’, gets you believin’ you’re someplace else.”
“Is that why he’s asking after his Ma?”
“And all those other people?”
He nodded again. “Only name I recognize is Francie. I know that was his sister’s name.” Slim sighed. “Come on now, let’s get some supper. Jonesy’s gonna stay with him.”
“Can’t we do somethin’ to help?”
Slim shook his head. “There’s nothin’ we can do but watch, Andy. This is all up to Jess.”
Jess was in a bad way, and I could see Andy was really worrying about him. It was hard for him to see Jess like this. Not that Jess hadn’t been hurt before, but he’d never been so sick as that and us not being able to do hardly a thing to help him.
Jess and Andy, they’re as much like brothers as Andy and I are in reality. Jess is here because of Andy -- my brother was the one who got under Jess’ skin, convinced him to stay, convinced me to let him. Sometimes I worry that the boy has a bit too much hero worship for Jess. I want Andy to grow up better than I did, not have to use his fists or a gun to get along in the world. I reckoned this was a harsh dose of reality for my kid brother.
I ate my supper, forking it into my mouth and chewing it but not really tasting it. Afterwards, I couldn’t have told you what it was that I’d just eaten -- it was only fuel to keep my body going. Once I’d finished eating, I went to trade places with Jonesy. “Go on to bed, Jonesy. I’ll stay with him.”
The old man stood, straightening slowly to ease his back, then bent over to lay a hand on Jess’ forehead, hsaking his head as he turned to look at me. “Wake me in a couple of hours,” Jonesy ordered.
“You need more sleep than that.”
“And so do you,” he countered.
“And you’ve been doing all the ranch work all day, too. A man’s got to rest.”
“Andy’s been helping.”
“And a good helper he is but that’s no substitute for sleep,” said Jonesy.
“I’ll get by. I’ve been tired before. Go on.” The old man glared at me, but finally he went, mumbling under his breath as he headed to his bed.
< ---- >
Hours passed. Jess had quieted some. Once in a while he mumbled and moved around a bit, but not as much as he’d done before. I laid my hand on his forehead, but it still felt like holding your hand above a roaring fire. There was a water-filled basin Jonesy had left on the little table beside the bed, so I dipped the rag into the liquid, wrung it out and wiped the sweat off Jess’ face. I’d never been much good as a nurse, but I knew how soothing such a simple little thing could feel.
During the night Jess’ fever rose and fell. Sometimes he was quiet, and then he’d hit a spell where he was mumbling and moving around like he was trying to climb out of his bed. Once in a while I could make out a word or two he was saying — a lot of it had to do with Bannister and Jess’ family. Reckon trailing after that outlaw had brought back some pretty ugly memories.
It was a long night, and I managed no more than a bit of dozing before Jonesy tapped me on the shoulder and sent me off to bed somewhere around 2 a.m.
Exhausted, I slept heavily and woke feeling still un-rested, troubled by the half-remembered bits and pieces of a bad dream. I couldn’t recall the details of it, just an all pervading sense of dread. I dressed in a daze; not even the splash of cold water in my face as I washed up helped.
When I looked in on him, Jess’ condition didn’t seem to have changed any; Jonesy just looked morosely at me and shook his head.
Feeling even gloomier, I headed out to the kitchen in search of coffee. There was only the bitter dregs left; Jonesy must have been working on that pot all night. Still, I drank it down with a grimace, then started a fresh pot just as a sleepy Andy arrived to start breakfast.
“How’s Jess?” he asked hopefully as he rummaged around in the cupboard for the frying pan.
I tried to sound positive. “About the same.”
“That’s good, right?” my little brother questioned hopefully, and not knowing what else to do, I nodded in agreement, then hurried out to do the chores before the boy could read the worry on my face.
< ---- >
Breakfast was another glum meal, all of us tired and worried and not wanting to admit it. We hardly ate a thing, even though the food was fine; Andy can cook better than me. Or Jess.
Soon as we finished breakfast, Jonesy asked for our help once more. “We need to change the bandages again,” he told me.
“You changed ‘em last night,” Andy objected.
“It needs to be done again, boy. There’s more infection built up in there,” Jonesy explained.
“But that hurts him!” Andy protested, standing rigidly with his hands balled into fists. “How can you keep hurting him like that? He’s our friend. He’s your friend.”
I put my hands on my bother’s shoulders and looked him square in the eye. “Yes, it does hurt him, now,” I explained. “But sometimes that’s what has to be done to help someone, or even yourself. You do something that’s hard now, maybe even seems awful or hurtful, but it needs doin’, and later you’ll see it’s the right thing.”
Andy shook his head. “It’s not right, hurting him to help him.”
“It doesn’t seem that way, I know,” I told him gently, wishing life didn’t keep throwing so many hard lessons his way. “But it’s all we can do right now to help save his life.”
“I wish the doc would come.”
So did I. “You know he can’t, Andy.”
“I know, but…,” the boy scuffed his boot on the floor.
I didn’t want to do this any more than he did, but I understood the necessity. “C’mon. Let’s get this done.”
So once more we held Jess down as Jonesy pulled the packing from the wound. I thought there seemed to be less infection, but maybe it was just wishful thinking on my part.
Jess was mostly quiet the rest of the day and on into that evening. His forehead seemed a little less warm — maybe he really was on the mend at last.
Andy spent a big part of that day out in the barn with Traveler. He told me the horse needed a little extra care, being as he’d spent so many days on the trail. I let the boy be — if spending time with Jess’ horse gave him some comfort, well, so be it. We could all use a bit of cheering up.
For the second straight night, I tried to read that Mr. Samuel Clemens’s book, the one that he’d sent Andy, and for the second night, I failed to get past the first page.
I woke up with a raging thirst.
My eyes felt awful heavy but I finally managed to get them open. The house was quiet. A lantern shed dim light across the room, revealing Slim sitting in the chair by my bed, sleeping. He looked really wore out.
I tried to talk but my throat was so raw and dry all that came out was sort of a croaking sound, but on the second try I got my voice working. “Slim?”
His eyes popped open and he dropped the book he was holding; it hit the floor with a loud thump. “Jess?” he looked surprised. “Jess!” He jumped up and then just sort of stood there, staring down at me.
I cleared my throat and rasped, “Has the well gone dry?”
“No, no it hasn’t,” he looked puzzled and then he realized what I was asking for and reached for the cup that was sitting on the little table by the wall.
I tried to sit up but discovered I was as weak and wobbly as a newborn colt. Then Slim’s hand was behind my head, helping me to raise it as he lifted the cup in front of my lips. I gulped the liquid gratefully, savoring the cool feel of it flowing down my throat. It felt like I’d had nothing to drink for days.
“Not too much all at once now. I wouldn’t want to drown ya’,” Slim was wearing a huge, goofy smile and I wondered why. I’d only been napping since I got home from New Mexico, right?
I shifted a little on the bed and realized my shoulder hurt worse than it had since the day I’d been shot. Looking at it, I could see it was covered with a whole new wad of bright white bandages. “What’d I do?”
“You don’t remember being shot?”
I let my heavy eyelids fall closed. “A’ course I do. One of Bannister’s men shot me, but that was days ago.”
“Many days,” he agreed.
A wound that old shouldn’t still be hurtin’ so much, aching like a tooth gone bad, but about a hundred times worse. I didn’t remember anything unusual happening, so I asked, “What happened?”
He sat back down on the chair, running a hand through his hair before saying softly, “You’ve given us some sleepless nights, Jess.”
“Me?” I was just as confused as when this conversation had started. I opened my tired eyes to look up at Slim. “Yeah, I know I was gone a long time, a lot longer than I figured, but… .”
“I’m not talkin’ about while you were gone, Jess. I’m talkin’ about since you got back.”
“Since I got back? You mean today?”
“You’ve been back for three days, Jess.”
“I slept for three days? That ain’t possible.” I knew I’d been plumb wore out, but even I couldn’t sleep that long.
“Well, you were unconscious most of the time.”
He nodded. “Plumb out of your head with fever most of the time. You rode in here with a nasty infection in that shoulder.”
“Yeah. You don’t remember the last couple days?”
I closed my eyes and thought back, finding only vague memories of being in my bed, and Slim and Jonesy hovering over me, but nothing substantial. “No, nothin’.”
“Oh, good then. Good.”
That sounded like relief in his voice. Some day, when I was more awake, I’d have to ask him why.
“You know, you about scared Andy to death.”
I looked over at Slim and saw how tired and grim he looked, and figured Andy wasn’t the only one I’d been a worry to. “Sorry ‘bout that.”
“Well, yeah, you’d better be sorry. By the time you’re fit to work, there’ll be another week’s worth of chores waiting on ya’. And that’s not including all the work Jonesy’s got lined up for you to do, and then there’s the… .”
I drifted off to sleep to the sound of Slim’s complaining at me. It was a good sound — it meant life was on the way back to normal at the Sherman Ranch.
< ----- > THE END < ---- >