Five Days in the Desert                                                                                     2-23-10

By Badger                                                                    

Missing Scenes and Epilogue from S2 Episode, Stolen Tribute

Summary: While the Shermans and Jonesy wonder where he’s gone, Jess is forced to lead outlaw Clint Wade into the Utah desert, and it’s a long road back to Laramie— Picks up from shortly after he’s left the ranch and again from the point where Tully pistol whips Jess and leaves with the horses; Told in alternating Slim first person POV and Jess first person POV.

(Thanks as always to Nan for the excellent beta)

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PART ONE -- Slim

I was almost back to the ranch when rounding the bend by Stone Creek, to my surprise I encountered the afternoon stage barreling toward me. Hank Walters was on the box and running more than a half an hour late, and that’s not at all like Hank, who’s usually prompt as sunrise. Even stranger, as I rode up he pulled the team to a halt and scowled down at me like I’d just stolen his favorite horse.

The other odd thing I noticed right away was that the horses, which this close to the ranch should have been so fresh they’d barely show a sweat, were lathered and blowing. And they weren’t any of my teams.

Before I had the chance to ponder on that, Hank started growling at me. “What in tarnation is up, Slim?”

I’d pulled Alamo to a halt alongside the box, reining him in tight. We were close to home and he knew it, skittering sideways in his eagerness to get to his oats. I needed both hands and heels to hold him steady. “What do you mean, Hank?”

He looked angry enough to eat bear. “I mean there weren’t nobody at the station, no one to change the teams, heck, there weren’t even no teams at all.”

“What?”

“Place was as empty as a church on Saturday night.”

Ernie, who was riding shotgun, nodded vigorously in agreement.

“Jess wasn’t there?” I asked, surprised. He’d stayed at the ranch this morning, working with a couple of new horses while I’d gone over to the Felton place to discuss plans for the upcoming round-up. He’d clearly known it was his responsibility to change up the teams on the eastbound. If he’d gone off fishin’, I was gonna be reading him the riot act.

“Didn’t see hide nor hair of him,” Hank answered, sounding disgusted. “All we could do was let the horses rest half an hour. And we’re gonna hafta take breathers all along the route. We’re runnin’ so late, it’ll be tomorrow morning before we get to Cheyenne.”

I knew Hank was exaggerating, but he was plainly in no mood to hear excuses, and I couldn’t blame him one bit. “Something probably came up,” I told him, baffled as to what it might have been. The stage business ain’t the only thing that keeps a roof over our heads like it’s been real often in the not so distant past, but we still need the income and Jess knows that. Peeving off the drivers is not the way to keep on the good side of the Overland company — Jess knows that, too.

Just then a head popped out of the coach window, and an angry voice bellowed. “Driver? Are we going to get moving? Or are we camping here tonight?

“We’re goin’ soon as the horses are rested,” Hank answered the disgruntled passenger, then waved a hand down toward the coach as he addressed me again. “Slim, I gotta go, I’ve got passengers about ready to mutiny.” He shook his head. “You tell Jess he owes me a beer for this.” There were more grumbling sounds from inside the coach. “Make that two beers,” Hank amended. With that, he released the brake, lifted the reins and clucked the teams into motion.

I waved, then turned Alamo toward home, letting him have his head and set off at a gallop. I spent the twenty minute ride fuming at Jess. Our friendship aside, he’s the best hand I’ve ever had on the place but sometimes he’s a mite lacking in responsibility. He’d better have a dang good reason for leaving the stage high and dry I thought as I arrived home.

Pulling up beside the corral, I stepped off Alamo and looped his reins around the fence. “Jess!” I hollered, but there was no answer. “Jess!” I noted that the new bronc he’d told me he was going to work was standing alone in the far corner of the corral, wearing a halter and dragging a lead rope, and the stage teams were, as Hank had said, still grazing out in the pasture.

“Jess!” I hollered once more, but only quiet answered me. The place was too still, it had a deserted feel that for some reason made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. Drawing my Colt, I went cautiously into the barn and looked around. The stalls weren’t cleaned, the mangers were still full with what should have been the teams’ noon feed of oats, and Jess’ Traveler was nowhere to be seen. His saddle was gone off the rack, too, so he’d ridden out somewhere. But where? And why?

Holstering my iron, I headed for the house, expecting to find a note on the table, but there was nothing. I checked around on the floor, the desk, the table, even in the kitchen, but there was no note nor any other clue as to his whereabouts. That wasn’t like Jess. A sudden dark thought flickered through my mind — had he been drawn away by some calamity? Had something happened to Andy or Jonesy? The two of them were here at the ranch for the summer but they’d gone to town today for supplies. But no, if Jess had ridden into Laramie, Hank and Ernie would have met him along the way. I relaxed a bit, no longer quite so worried about my brother and my old friend, but I could feel my anger toward Jess starting to bubble up through the worry as I headed out to the barn to complete the neglected chores.

I’ll admit, as I finished Jess’ undone work and the shadows lengthened toward dusk, my emotions wavered from worried to mad and back again, circling endlessly round and round. Had Jess found himself in some sort of trouble? Or had he gone off on a lark? I knew he was capable of either one, but regardless, that he’d disappeared without leaving a message was baffling.

I was mighty relieved when I finally heard the familiar clatter of the buckboard come rolling into the yard, followed shortly by Andy’s and Jonesy’s voices raised in laughter as they climbed down off the seat. I walked out of the barn and greeted them, hoping they had the answer to the day’s mystery.

“Howdy, Slim!” Jonesy called out cheerily.

“Hi Slim. We sure had fun in town—“ Andy started but his excited words stopped, I imagine because of the dark look that must have been plain on my face.

“Did you see Jess in town?” I asked without preamble.

“Nope, didn’t,” Jonesy answered, puzzled. “Should we have?”

“No,” I snapped.

The old man was peering at me, his eyes narrowed. He reads my moods real well. “What’s that scalawag done now?”

“He wasn’t here when the stage came in, didn’t even have the teams brought up.”

Jonesy rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “That’s not like him.”

I sighed, letting some of my anger slip away, anger that I knew was a poor cover for worry. “No, it’s not.” I looked over at my little brother, well, it’s hard to call him little these days. I swear he’s getting taller by the minute and he’s gonna be taller than me soon. “Andy, did he say anything to you about goin’ off anywhere?”

The youngster paused thoughtfully. “No,” he answered slowly.

I knew that tone and that look, part guilt, part evasion, and a whole lot of reluctance. “Andy?”

He looked down at the ground and toed the dust with his boot before answering me. “Well, he did say somethin’ about the fish bitin’ up along Hideout Creek.”

I considered that for a minute. Would Jess really duck out on a day’s work to go fishing? I contemplated the idea because I was mad and stumped and yeah, worried, but honestly, I know better than that. Sure, Jess might go off to take a nap, or even go fishing after the stage went through. But leave a driver without a change of teams? Not likely.  Jess might be one to complain about the work or grouse about being stuck at the ranch, but it’s mostly bluster. I just couldn’t see him shirking this job without a dang good reason. My stomach curled itself into an anxious knot.

“He was gonna wait and take me along.” Andy added, looking disappointed.

“I don’t think he went fishin’,” I consoled the youngster.

“Somethin’ must have come up, Slim,” Jonesy soothed, but his expression still showed that he was worried.

“I know.” I was thinking, running all kinds of possibilities through my head but coming up empty. “Did you see Mort in town?”

“Yeah. Talked to him after lunch,” Jonesy answered. “He didn’t say nothin’ about Jess.”

“How about Mose?”

“He was out on his usual run,” Andy answered.

I was looking around, wondering what could possibly have drawn Jess away. Trouble at the neighbors? Word from someone passing through that we had strayed horses or cattle? Either way, he’d have left a note, I was sure of that. And then there was the one other fact I’d discovered when I brought the stock in to be fed and watered — one of the horses was missing, and with it, one of our packsaddles and a nearly full bag of oats.

“You don’t think something bad’s happened to him, do you?” Andy frowned.

For my brother’s sake, I tried to sound confident as I put a reassuring hand on his shoulder. He and Jess have had a special bond from the day Jess drifted in; in fact, if it hadn’t been for Andy, Jess would have drifted right on through Laramie instead of becoming an important part of the ranch and our lives, and my best friend. “Naw. You know Jess. He can take care of himself.”

Andy didn’t look any more convinced than I felt as I joined him in lifting parcels out of the wagon and carrying them to the house. We were about halfway to the porch when Jonesy, who’d already taken some of the supplies inside to get started on making supper, stormed out the kitchen door, near running me over. “There’s more than just Jess missin’.”

“What?”

“A whole side of bacon’s gone and that big pan of leftover biscuits from breakfast, ain’t a one of ‘em left. And half a bag of flour, a bag of beans, and a mostly full tin of coffee, and that’s just the start,” he fumed.

I was stunned. That was a lot of supplies, not the kind of thing a man would grab up when making a hasty departure in an emergency.

And one heck of a lot of supplies for one man.

Unless he was planning on being gone for a long time.

“I think we better look around some more,” I suggested, supper forgotten.

We all started in seriously searching then, but it was Jonesy who found the first, and what turned out to be only, clue. He was looking around in the kitchen when he picked up the towel that was hanging by the wash basin. He stopped and stood very, very still for a long moment before turning toward me, silently holding the cloth out in front of him.

I walked over and took it from him. There was a dark stain on it that I recognized immediately -- blood. Not much, not much at all, but there was no doubt what it was.

“I put that out clean this morning,” he said softly, his face grim. “Weren’t like that when we left.”

“Oh no,” Andy muttered, his eyes going wide with fear.

“Tain’t much,” Jonesy tried to ease our worries. “Maybe like a cut finger or a bloody nose is all. Nothing like anyone was hurt bad.”

We all looked at each other and wordlessly renewed the search. We scoured the house and then poked into every nook and cranny of the bunkhouse and the barn. It wasn’t so much what we discovered was gone as it was what we found that was still there. Jess’ rifle was in the tack room, and his gunfighting Colt, hidden all these months in the niche of the fireplace, remained in place as well.  All of his clothes were still where they belonged, including the new boots he was so proud of, but then, I knew that Jess was one who would travel light if he wanted to.

When we finally sat down for supper that night, a meal none of us were very interested in eating, the table seemed almighty empty without Jess’ presence.

I went to bed that night all uneasy, and I didn’t sleep much. I kept waking up, imagining I heard hoof beats in the yard.

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At breakfast, I tried not to let the others see how worried I was. I think I did a pretty good job of keeping my fears from Andy, but Jonesy knows me too well to be fooled.

Soon as I was finished eating, I made up an excuse to ride out, telling them that I was going to check cattle, and I did, but mostly I went looking for sign.

I was too late, of course. Jess, wherever he had gone, whatever his intentions, whoever might have been with him, if anyone, had left nearly 24 hours before, and any tracks there might once have been had already been obscured by the passage of the stage, half a dozen riders and a couple of wagons. I checked the trails that lead away from the ranch into the high country, spots where Jess liked to go hunting or fishing, but I found no sign of him. Finally, baffled, I rode into Laramie to talk things over with Mort.

I found the lawman in his office, seated behind his desk and pouring over a stack of mail. “Seen anything of Jess in the last couple of days?” I asked hopefully.

“Jess? Ain’t seen him since that poker game over to the saloon last Saturday night,” the sheriff answered, studying me carefully. “Something wrong?”

“Oh probably nothin’.” I looked down at my boots, then back up at Mort, hooking my thumbs in my belt and trying to look casual. “Anybody new been around town, askin’ about him or lookin’ for him?”

“Not that I know of,” he answered, eyeing me keenly. He knows me and he knows Jess, and he knows about Jess’ troublesome old friends. “Something happen I should know about? He get himself in a tangle again?”

I gave up the pretense of nonchalance and threw myself down in a chair, for the first time letting myself show how truly worried I was. “He left sometime yesterday, before the afternoon stage came through. Didn’t say anything, didn’t leave a note. Took a packhorse and a whole bunch of supplies, a whole bunch. That’s all I know.”

Mort frowned. “That don’t sound like Jess.”

“I know, that’s what’s got me worried,” I admitted, looking over at the sheriff.  He’s been my friend for a long time and I know he considers Jess as a good friend, too. “You’ll ask around? See if anyone might have met him along the road?” I took a deep breath. “Or found his horse, or anything.” I couldn’t bring myself to say the word ‘body.’

“I’ll keep an eye, and an ear, open and let you know if I learn anything.” Ever unruffled, Mort’s easy manner calmed me down a whole lot. “You know you’re probably over-reacting, Slim. Most likely there’s some simple explanation for where he’s gone.”

“I hope so.” I smiled thinly as I climbed to my feet and headed for the door. “Thanks, Mort, I appreciate your help.”

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I about wore the shoes right off poor old Alamo’s feet over the next few days. I spent every day in the saddle, longer and longer hours as the week wore on and my worries swelled to mountainous proportions. When I wasn’t scared for Jess, worried he was lying out there somewhere with a busted leg or worse, I was peeved at him for putting us to all this worry and trouble when a few words on a scrap of paper would have set us all at ease. I didn’t begrudge him going off somewhere he might have felt he needed to go; I understand that’s part of his nature, a remnant of his years on the drift.  We’ve let him go and welcomed him back a bunch of times, but that’s the thing — always before, we knew at least something about what was happening.

But this time, we knew nothing at all.

I was going to throttle him when I found him.

I just hoped I’d get that chance.

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PART TWO -- Jess  (at the ‘mission’)

There’s nothing worse than waking up with a busted skull, an empty holster, and discovering you’ve been left afoot.

Still, I have to admit it’s better than not waking up at all.

I came around in pitch darkness to an eerie quiet, and all alone. My head felt like my skull was busted and my brains were about to leak out my ears, and that’s probably why it took me such a long time to realize what a mess I was in.  Once I did get my brain working, first thing I figured out was that Tully, that no good conniving old sidewinder, had lit out and taken all of the horses with him. And the supplies. And all the guns, too, dang his sneaky, lying hide.

Sure, I suppose I should have been thankful that he didn’t shoot me afore he left, but thumping me over the head and leaving me for dead out here in the middle of nowhere was only a slower, not a kinder, end.

Once I could for the most part see straight, and I admit that took a while, it was near dawn when I staggered out of the courtyard, through the old chapel and into that old outlaw’s hidey-hole. I ransacked through his stuff, but the old coot hadn’t left me much to work with. About the only useful things I found were a bunch of candles, a filthy moth-eaten old blanket, and that big ol’ bucket from the well.

Being much younger than Tully, or maybe much dumber as Slim would likely say, I never doubted what I was going to do -- set out from that old fort and walk across the desert, a trip that Tully had obviously never even thought of making. Me, I had plenty of reasons to go, and I was fueled by hate, anger and just plain ornery pissed-offedness.  After all, it hadn’t exactly been a week I’d care to live over again. I’d been forced to leave home at gunpoint, ride across the desert guiding outlaws in search of their loot, nearly dying of thirst and getting knocked around time and again by them no good thieves. It was surely enough to make any man just a bit hot under the collar.

So yeah, I was going after Tully.

Maybe the old man hadn’t tried walking out himself because he was scared of the desert, but I think he was more scared that someone would come along and find ‘his’ gold while he was gone. Some guys are money-crazy like that, and he surely was one biscuit short of a breakfast. I mean, he didn’t have to do what he did to me at all. If he’d gone along with me back to civilization, sure, he’d have lost the loot, but he would have been a free man. Instead, I now could, if I wanted to, have him hung as a horse thief.

If I could find him.

And I was for sure gonna find him.

I didn’t figure locating him was likely to be too much of a problem. I remembered the longing in his voice when he’d talked about what a long while it had been since he’d last had a drink. I’d bet my best pair of boots to last week’s newspaper that I’d find him camped in the nearest saloon next to a whiskey bottle.

Eighty-thousand in gold double eagles can buy a man a lot of whiskey.

Of course, to catch up to the old fool I had to cross a desert, a’foot, first, but in the mindset I was in, that didn’t seem to be too big of an obstacle.

Despite the throbbing headache still rolling around inside my skull, I was raring to light out after ol’ Tully, but I forced myself to sit back and think through the situation. Walking off into that desert without a plan was a first class way to get myself dead, and a dead man can’t retrieve his horse and his guns, get that money back to its rightful owners, nor put a crazy old coot in jail —and I was aiming to do every one of those things. 

I had no intention of leaving my body out there in the desert for buzzard bait, or at best, in an unmarked grave here beside a bunch of no-good outlaws. No, I have way too much living left to do to allow that to happen.

I know not many folks who know me would believe it, but I can be patient when I have to be. I made myself hang around that deserted old wreck of a place and wait out that first day. I drank my fill, and then drank some more, and then drank more after that, getting as much water into my body as I could, recuperating from the last few days and preparing for the heat of the desert. Mostly, though, I spent my time in the shade, conserving my energy and getting myself ready for what was gonna happen next. I slept the day away, which did help the headache fade some though it didn’t stop the dizzy feeling I got every time I moved too fast.

Right before sunset, just to be sure I hadn’t missed anything, I searched through the old fort one last time but I didn’t turn up anything that I hadn’t found on my first look through.

I didn’t have any food, but then again, I wasn’t much hungry, either. That happens sometimes when a man gets hit on the head hard enough — roils up the stomach so much you just ain’t interested in eating anything at all.

But I wasn’t about to let any such things as no food and no gun and no horse stop me. I’d had a rough week, and I was tired of being knocked around, treatment my jaw and my head and the whole rest of my aching body wasn’t going to let me forget anytime soon.

Yessireee, I had a bone to pick with mister Tully Casper.

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PART THREE -- Slim

I was sitting out on the front porch after supper, my jacket buttoned up tight against the early fall chill, looking up at the infinity of stars dotting the moonless sky overhead. My thoughts were every bit as dark as the night around me when I heard the door open and Jonesy stepped quietly out of the house.

Neither one of us said anything for several minutes as the old man lit his pipe, the pungent smell of tobacco smoke lingering on the night air as he puffed. Finally, he took the pipe from his mouth and broke the silence, stating the obvious. “Chilly out here tonight.”

My voice was quiet as I answered, and tinged with a deep sadness. “Yeah. Winter can’t be far away now.”

“Reckon so.” The old man was quiet for a moment, puffing on his pipe. “Where do you suppose he is?” Jonesy asked, not needing to say who he meant.

“I don’t know, Jonesy. I can’t figure it out. It doesn’t make any sense that Jess’d just go hightailin’ it out of here without a word to us,” After all these days, more than a week now, I still wavered between simmering anger, hoping that he’d ride in with some harebrained tale about an old friend or a card game, and dread that someone would find his horse, or his body, and I’d never forgive myself for not searching longer and harder.  Still, I didn’t know where else to go looking. I’d been all over the ranch and beyond, and I’d plumb run out of ideas on places to search. This is big country and a man can disappear easy, even without trying to.

 “He has done it a’fore, gone gallavantin’ off,” the old man reminded me, “most times, after some of those bad old friends of his’n.”

“But always with a reason, Jonesy. Maybe not a good reason,” I admitted, “but he always did tell us something.” I ran a hand through my hair. During the long hours I’d been out scouting for sign, I’d re-examined every conversation Jess and I’d had over the days before he disappeared. When I got home, I asked the same of Andy and Jonesy, and even quizzed Mose and Mort, but none of us could recall a single thing that seemed unusual in anything he’d said. “None of this makes sense. Like all those supplies he took, and the packhorse.” Like he was going on a really long trip, I thought sadly. 

Jonesy seemed to be wavering as much as I was on why Jess might have left. “You can’t begrudge him those things, Slim. He was owed wages.”

“I know, but that don’t excuse what he did.” I snapped, my frustration getting the better of me. Sighing, I let my voice soften. ‘You know it ain’t about the money, Jonesy.” And it wasn’t. If Jess had just left on his own, lit out without so much as a word to us, it was about a trust betrayed. If he hadn’t, it was about my own inability to find him, even though I’d searched everywhere I could think of, talked to everyone I encountered, and laid sleepless in my bunk night after night wracking my brain for some clue I could have missed or some place I hadn’t thought to check. But finding him was like looking for one very small needle in a very, very big haystack. He could have gone in any direction.  If only I had some kind of clue, anything to point me one way or another, but there was nothing, nothing at all to give me so much as a hint of where to even start looking for him. I was plumb out of ideas on what to do next.

I wanted Jess to have lit out, I wanted him to be out there somewhere on a lark because the alternative was that he’d needed my help and I’d failed him.

And I didn’t think I could live with that.

The not knowing was making us all edgy.

“I still cain’t believe he just rode out of here without leaving us a note,” Jonesy complained, frustration roughening his voice. “What’d he expect Andy would think? I figured Jess was over bein’ so irresponsible.” The old man sighed.

I knew that he knew it wasn’t just Andy who was upset. “So did I.”

Jonesy puffed on the pipe again. “Me and Andy will be needin’ to get back to St. Louis pretty soon. School’s gonna be startin’ again. Guess you’ll be lookin’ to hire you some winter help.”

“He could be back by then.”

The old man snorted, disappointment plain in his reply. “I don’t think you oughta be holdin’ your breath waitin’ for that to happen, Slim.”

“You’re givin’ up on him mighty quick,” I chided, expressing a confidence I didn’t feel.  As each day passed it was getting harder and harder to believe that Jess wouldn’t have come home, or sent word somehow, by now, if he wanted to. Or, that nagging little voice in the back of my head insisted, if he were able. I told that little voice to shut up but he ignored me.

The old man shook his head. “I’m just bein’ realistic, Slim. Seems like Jess drifted out of here the way he drifted in, beholdin’ to nobody.”

“I’m still thinkin’ that he didn’t leave voluntarily.” I didn’t have to remind him about the blood on the kitchen towel. Not much blood, true, not like someone had a serious injury, but it had been blood. I’d worried long on that discovery, but there was just no way to know what it meant, if anything.  Then there was the mystery of Jess’s gunfighting gun with the filed down sights and hair-trigger hammer, hidden for all these months behind one of the fireplace stones. It was still there. Could be that he’d left it as a sign that, even moving on, he wasn’t going back to his old ways of living by his gun. I hoped so. But if he’d left it as a sign of his intentions to return, which Andy insisted was true, then why had he just vanished?

Where had he gone?

We were left with nothing but a baffling mystery. All we knew for sure was that Jess had taken a pack horse, a very few clothes, and an awful lot of supplies. If there’d been someone else with him when he lit out, either enticing him to go or somehow forcing him to leave, we couldn’t tell. The arrival of the stage had obliterated all the tracks in the yard, and the road was a confusion of all sorts of travelers’ comings and goings. No one I’d talked to, not neighbors, stage drivers, townsfolk, or people just passing through, had seen hide nor hair of him.

Mort’s inquiries had proven equally fruitless.

Jess Harper had quite simply vanished into thin air.

Jonesy’s voice was grim and hollow as he puffed on his pipe and voiced the fear I knew we both shared. “Might be we’ll never know.”

“And maybe he’ll come ridin’ in tomorrow,” I offered hopefully.

The old man sighed. “Well, he’d better have a dang good explanation if he does!”

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PART FOUR -- Jess

At dusk I walked out of the fort, the blanket tied around my shoulders to ward off the night chill, and the full water bucket in my hand.

It wasn’t hard to follow Tully’s trail. After all, he had four horses, and a string that size leaves a trail a blind man, or a very dizzy one, could follow.

I walked all night. The desert was quiet, and my own footfalls and harsh breathing were the only sounds I heard. Above me, the stars sparkled like diamonds as they wheeled across a clear sky of deep velvet black. The moon rode low on the horizon and was very soon gone, but there was plenty enough light for me to stay on Tully’s trail.

It didn’t take long for my feet to start hurting, but I had enough mad in me not to feel it all that much. I pushed on for a couple of hours before stopping to take my first break. Sitting down on a rock, I drank from the bucket and rested. It would have been easy to push on hard that first night, but I knew I had to conserve my energy for the long haul. This trail called for a lot more turtle than jackrabbit, hard as that was for me to do.

After a bit, I climbed back to my feet. The sky and ground spun drunkenly, and I grabbed my head, closing my eyes and cursing that sneaky old man Tully Casper and that mean-eyed Clint Wade and that no-good rotten Deke Beldon.  Between the three of them, I‘d been punched, pistol whipped, beat on, and just generally knocked around so many times in the last few days, I couldn’t tell where one set of aches and pains ended and the next began. So I stood there, feet set wide and knees braced, waiting until the earth and the sky pretty much settled back where they belonged, and then I started walking again.

For the rest of the night I plodded across the desert, around rocks and brush, down into and back up out of arroyos and gullies, following the trail of hoof prints in the dust.

By the time the darkness in the east started to soften, I looked back at the old fort and then forward to the hills I could see in the distance, and figured I’d made good time, covering what looked like more than a quarter of the way across the desert.

Determined, I walked on until the sun was full up and the heat started to build. When I found a patch of sagebrush to provide a bit of shade from the blazing sun, I stopped. I hung the old blanket across a couple of bushes and crawled under its shade, making myself a bed in the sand. Allowing myself one good drink from the bucket to slake my thirst, I swirled it around in my mouth before swallowing it slowly, savoring every drop.

I pulled my boots off next, massaging my aching feet. Man just wasn’t intended to walk across country like this, I thought wearily as I put my boots back on. Finally, settling my hat down over my face, I laid my head down on my crossed arms, and fell into an exhausted sleep.

x-x-x-x-x

I slept all morning, allowed myself another drink when I woke, and rested all afternoon. Once the sun started dropping over the mountains to the west and the air began to cool a bit, I crawled out of my shelter. Soon as I stood up my head spun, but not as bad as it had the night before. I shook it off, gathered up my gear, and started walking.

After that first long night, this second one was harder work.  My feet hurt something fierce, I had to stop more often to rest, and I craved more water. It didn’t take long before the pleasant coolness of the night turned into an uncomfortable chill and then real quick dropped right on down to outright cold. I had only the thin old blanket and my smoldering anger to warm me. My coat had been wrapped up in my bedroll, which was tied on behind my saddle, which was on my favorite horse, the horse that Tully Casper had stole from me.

But a horse I was gonna get back.

I’ve got a few words for a man who’d leave another man a’foot in any country, much less with a desert to cross, and none of them words are fit to be uttered in public.

I used that thought to carry me forward.

Hour melted into hour, each one a copy of the hour before it --  put one foot in front of the other, and then the other, and then the other, and then the other. Endlessly. The hills still looked impossibly far away and the air felt colder and dryer, at least until the sun came up and the air turned hot right fast until it was like I was standing next to a roaring fire. Meanwhile, the scenery never changed, just rocks and sagebrush, sand and dust, and dull, dead brown everywhere.

My eyes ached to see something green.

By the light of false dawn, I did get a lucky break, stumbling onto a patch of prickly pear cactus bearing ripe fruit, Indian figs I’d heard some folks call them.  Ignoring the damage to my hands, which even my torn gloves didn’t prevent, I picked a bunch of the fruit, then found a small sharp rock.  I used it to break open the bright red fruit, scooping out the sweet interior with my fingers. It wasn’t much, and it wasn’t tasty, but it filled part of that hole in my belly.

With something in my stomach for the first time in days, I once again made myself a shady spot under the blanket and curled up to sleep through the day.

x-x-x-x-x

Starting out again that next night was pure misery. My feet were all swollen and blistered and my legs felt heavy and wooden, like my boots were stuffed with rock, but I was not about to give up. No way was I gonna let Tully Casper keep my horse. And my gun. Or that money that wasn’t his.

I can be an ornery cuss when I need to be. Just ask Slim.

Slim.

Andy.

Jonesy.

Home.

I thought about them while I walked, and wondered what they were doing, maybe sitting on the front porch and relaxing after a big supper, with pie for dessert.  I’m sure my mouth would have been watering at that thought, if I’d had the moisture to spare.

Were they thinking about me? Wondering where I was? Were they worried that I’d just up and disappeared? Or did they think that I’d finally given in to the pull of the big open and gone on the drift again without so much as a ‘thanks and so long’?

For a minute, I wished Slim had been the one who’d come after me that first day out on the trail, but then again, he might have been killed. I wouldn’t want that on my conscience -- it was better that I was out here, struggling along on my own, than having Andy lose the only family he had left.

I’d find my way home, somehow, someway. I’d searched for too long to find one to let the likes of Tully Casper take it away from me.

I walked on.

x-x-x-x-x

At the dawn of the third day, the hills drawing close now, I holed up beside some rocks and rested.

Getting to my feet that evening was a challenge. I had blisters on top of blisters, and my feet were swollen tight in my boots, but I stumbled upright and walked anyway.  One thing no one has ever been able to say about Jess Harper is that I lack in stubborn.

I found a few more of the Indian figs which filled my belly, but I sure would have preferred some of Jonesy’s Mulligan stew. Heck, I’d have even gladly eaten Slim’s cooking, or my own, and that’s a testament to how desperate I was.

That evening half a dozen buzzards took to circling around over me as I walked, something that was making me more than a mite uncomfortable. The only other living thing I saw that night was a rattler. I near stepped on him in the dark. I stopped and stood, listening as he buzzed his complaint at me. He slithered off, his angry rattles growing slowly more distant, and for one crazy moment I thought about going after him. I’ve eaten much worse than rattlesnake for a meal, but barehanded, I figured he was more likely to bite me than me getting a chance to bite him. So I let him go, and stumbled on.

x-x-x-x-x

Despite how careful I’d rationed it, I ran out of water somewhere in the early evening hours of the fourth night.

After that, things got hazy and I don’t have much clear memories of anything, just this vague recollection of walking and falling and climbing back to my feet and staggering on.  My whole body felt as dry as old bone. My lips were cracked, my tongue swollen in my mouth, my throat raw and dusty as an old streambed. Sometimes, I felt sort of light, as if I could float right on out of that desert and over the mountains to home, and other times, it seemed like my body weighed a thousand pounds and if I toppled over, I’d never rise again.

I trudged on through the night, thinking about how I’d let Tully Casper snooker me, take my gun and leave me to die in that deserted old fort. Sure, Tully had lived there by himself all those years, but at least he’d had a gun and a few supplies.

Me, I had nothing but my own bullheaded stubbornness.

Somewhere late in the night, on what was by then my fifth day in the desert, I fell and couldn’t get back on my feet. My body just wasn’t obeying my brain anymore — I had nothing left. I laid there in the cool sand for a long time, wondering if this was the end and my bones would lie here, bleaching in the sun until they turned to dust. My friends wouldn’t ever know where or how I died and that outlaw would be living the high life on stolen money drenched in blood that included mine.

That thought made me mad, mad enough to stagger back to my feet and hobble on into the night, because I was not about to let that crazy old outlaw kill Jess Harper. I hadn’t survived the war and trail drives and gunfights and Slim’s cooking just to be done in by the sorry likes of Tully Casper.

The sun rose about an hour later, fiercely hot. I reckoned the odds were that my string would play out before the end of this day, another day of baking sun and sweltering heat, but instead, I stumbled on salvation.

I had just crested a small hill and could see down into a sheltered little gully. Raising my head, I saw something I hadn’t seen for what seemed like a month of Sundays. I didn’t believe it, and I rubbed a hand over my sand-crusted eyes in disbelief, thinking it was a mirage, but it was still there when I looked again.

It was a patch of green, and so gosh-durned purty it about made my eyes ache.

Trees.

Grass.

And where there were trees and grass, I knew there had to be water.

From somewhere I dredged up my last ounce of strength, staggered right on into that little pocket, and fell right into the tiny stream.

It was just barely a trickle and neither sweet nor cold, but I didn’t care a lick. All that mattered was that it was wet. I drank a little, washed my face and my neck, then drank a little more. Finally I pulled off my boots and soaked my raw feet, and drank some more, and then I crawled out of the water and fell asleep right there on the bank.

When I woke up it was somewhere after mid-day I reckoned by the position of the sun. I crawled back to the water and drank my fill and thanked my lucky stars that I’d stumbled onto this lifesaving little oasis ‘cause I was pretty sure I couldn’t have gone a whole lot further.

The water was all I needed to get me going again. I set out walking with renewed energy, making good time, powered by the thought of how I was going to enjoy catching up with ol’ Tully.

Oh, I was steaming mad by the time I reached that little town, and purely ready to blow sky-high when I walked in on Tully in that saloon, all gussied up in his fine new suit, buying drinks for everyone like he’d just hit the mother lode.

It gave me some pure satisfaction to haul him on down to the sheriff’s office and see him slapped into jail.

x-x-x-x-x

Once Tully was behind bars, the sheriff and I went to the spot the old outlaw had told us about and we dug up what was left of the stolen money. After, so worn out I could barely stagger, I headed for the hotel. The law needed me to stay in town a couple of days to testify at his trial, and I figured I more than owed that crazy old coot — I was gonna make durned sure he went to jail, for a very long time.

The horses, Tully had told me, were down at the livery. I’d have five days fare to pay to retrieve them, at least for my Traveler and the packhorse I had to return to the ranch. I didn’t have so much as a penny in my pockets, but I figured I could sell the outlaws’ horses and gear for enough cash to pay my bills and some left over to get me home.

In the hotel’s bar come dining room, I wolfed down mushy potatoes covered in lumpy gravy and a steak so tough I thought I’d break my teeth chewing it. Then I went up to my room, took off my boots and my hat, and with my gun and gunbelt that I’d taken back from Tully hung on the bedpost close to hand, flopped down onto the bed.

I was asleep in about two seconds and I didn’t wake for the better part of 24 hours. I stumbled down the stairs and found the clerk, ordering myself a hot bath and devouring another tough as old boot leather piece of beef while the water was heating.

That bath was splendiforous. I pealed off my dust-caked clothes and slumped down in the hot water, letting the warmth soak the ache right out of my tired feet and battered body, and let me tell you, that took some doing. Between the punches, the pistol whipping, the fall with my horse and all that walking, I doubt there was an inch of me that wasn’t bruised, battered, bloodied, or blistered.

If I never saw Utah again, it was gonna be way too soon.

I sat right there in that tub until my skin started turning all wrinkly and white and the water got cold and dirt brown, and I stayed a bit longer even after that.

And then I went back to bed and slept nearly 16 hours more.

When the sun rose the next morning, I was finally slept out and feeling darn near human again. I got up, tugged on my clothes, decided to skip shaving my sore face, then headed downstairs where I had a breakfast of eggs and bacon and biscuits, washing them down with about a gallon of coffee. Turns out, that was the meal I should a’been eating all along -- it was a whole heap better than those gum-busting tough steaks.

My stomach full, I set about taking care of business, walking on down to the livery. Traveler stood in a corral with the outlaws’ horses, and when he saw me, he nickered and walked over to me, putting his nose in my hand. I checked him over real careful, pleased to see that, other than being a mite thin, he was none the worse for wear from this trip. The other horses were okay stock and back in Laramie they’d probably bring good money. But I didn’t want to make that long ride trailing a whole string of animals, and anyway, I needed some cash money to pay for their board, my hotel room and meals, and restock my supplies to get me back home. So I strolled back inside the barn and found the blacksmith working at his forge.

He was a mountain of a man, with arms that I swear were as big around as my waist. He pumped the bellows on the forge as I asked, “You interested in buying my extra horses? The sorrel and the chestnut,” I clarified, waving at the corral where all the horses were.

He paused in his work, stroking his chin with one meaty hand. “Ain’t much call for horses around here.”

“They’re good horses.”

“Mighty thin.”

“They were rode hard the past week, and didn’t get much feed out in the desert. A few days of good vittles, and they’ll bring you top dollar.”

He rubbed his chin again. “I don’t know, mister. I don’t really need ’em.”

“Make me an offer,” I insisted.

We dickered and I finally sold the pair and their saddles for a lot less than I knew they were worth, but I wasn’t in a position to be choosy, and that big blacksmith knew exactly that.

Done with my bargaining and with some cash in my pocket at last, I had one other task to finish. “Is there a telegraph office in this town?” I asked the blacksmith.

“Yonder,” he pointed up the street.

The small office was two buildings up the street from the sheriff’s office and jail. When I stepped inside, an eager young man said hello and pointed me to a pencil and a pad of paper.

I picked up the pencil and considered what I was going to say. Remembering that I was paying by the word with a limited supply of dollars, money that had to get me all those miles back to Laramie, I kept the message short.

I wrote simply, ‘Heading for home. Explain all then. Jess’

I handed the paper to the clerk and he counted up the words. “That’ll be two dollars.”

That sounded high, but so far, every thing in this town had been pricey, except for the sale price of horses. So I paid him the money out of what I’d gotten from the blacksmith and headed over to the general store. Most all the supplies that outlaw had forced me to take from the ranch were gone, so I stocked up on grain for the horses and then ordered coffee, bacon, beans, and biscuit makings for me plus matches and cartridges. In the end I splurged by plucking a couple tins of peaches off the shelf.

/==========\/=========\/=========\/==========\/=========\/=========\

PART FIVE -- Slim

Nobody handles a four-up like Mose I thought as I watched with undisguised admiration as he guided the team down the hill into the yard at a full gallop.  With perfect timing, just as the leaders passed the corral, ol’ Mose hauled back on the reins with a shouted, “Whoa there, boys! Whoa!” and the coach rattled to a stop amid the jangling of harness, right smack dab in front of the house. The horses stood, shaking their heads, blowing and stomping their feet.

Jonesy came out of the house and held the door for two passengers, both men dressed in slick town clothes, and neither one of them the still missing Jess Harper I noted unhappily as the travelers climbed down out of the coach. 

“Welcome to the Sherman Ranch Relay Station, folks,” he smiled at them. “C’mon in the house and have yourselves some coffee.”

As Jonesy escorted the passengers inside, I stepped up to the team and patted the hip of one of the sweated up wheelers. “Looks like you drove ‘em hard today, Mose. What’s the matter, you have a Sioux raiding party doggin’ your tail?” I teased.

The old man was grinning from ear to ear as he clambered down from the box and delightedly shared his news. “No Indians, Slim, but I do have somethin’ for you.” He leaned closer and announced. “A telegram.”

“A telegram?” I asked, surprised.

“It’s from Utah,” Mose declared proudly, as if that was the answer to an important question, his smile never wavering.

“I don’t believe I know anyone in Utah,” I answered, puzzled.

Mose dug around in his vest pocket, finally producing the folded and sealed sheet of paper and triumphantly holding it out to me.

I took it, holding it in my hand for a long moment, uncertain whether I should open it. Unexpected telegrams were, in my experience, rarely good news.

“I can tell ya, Slim, it ain’t bad news,” Mose confided, grinning past his beard.

“I thought telegrams were private,” I groused.

“They are. Only Sy knows what it says, but he sure was smilin’ when he handed it to me, tellin’ me to hurry it on out here just a’lickity-split, so’s I knowed it cain’t be nothin’ bad.”

Taking a deep breath, I tore it open, Mose unabashedly peering over my shoulder. There were only seven words on the paper, but words that lifted a heavy weight off my chest: ‘Heading for home. Explain all then. Jess’

A smile lit my face and I turned for the house, shouting, “Andy, Jonesy, he’s comin’ home! Jess is comin’ home!”

Andy came running from the house, the door slamming shut behind him in his haste, smiling from ear to ear. He leaned over to look at the paper in my hand. “He is? Woohoo! When? Where’s he at? Where’s he been?” he asked eagerly, firing questions faster than Jess can fan his Colt.

Jonesy danced a little jig, smugly declaring, “I told ya’ he’d be back, Slim. I told ya’!”

“Well, let’s not get too excited. Jess ain’t home yet. And this explanation of his,” I waved the telegraph in the air, “it better be a real humdinger.”

/==========\/=========\/=========\/==========\/=========\/=========\

PART SIX-- Jess

I’d been gone near three weeks when I finally rode down the familiar stretch of the Laramie road and approached the ranch. When we crested the hill, Traveler pricked up his ears and whinnied. Slim’s Alamo and Andy’s Cyclone both answered, along with a relay team that was with them, all lazing in the corral by the barn. The afternoon stage must have just gone through, I reckoned.

I rode down the hill and pulled up in front of the barn, stepping wearily out of the saddle and dropping the lead for the packhorse. My feet were still tender, and I limped as I led Traveler over to the water trough. He stuck his muzzle into the clear water and drank deeply, and I stroked his neck while I looked around.  I’ve seen a lot of bigger ranches in my travels, and a lot of fancier ranches, too, but this one, it was sure a sight for sore eyes because it was my home.

At least, I hoped I still had a home here.

I was just starting to feel a mite disappointed at the silence, having expected I’d get a better welcome, when the kitchen door suddenly flew open and a speeding blur raced across the yard right at me.

“Jess!” Andy hollered, sliding to a stop in front of me. “You’ve sure been gone a long time!” His face was one huge grin from ear to ear.

I smiled, putting a hand on his shoulder. “Sorry about that, partner!”

“I almost didn’t recognize you riding in, what with that beard.” Andy was peering closely at me. “Hardly looks like you.” He watched me limp around to loosen Traveler’s cinch, his smile disappearing into a look of concern. “You’re hurt.”

”Just a little footsore,” I conceded.

“Slim sure was sore when you lit out without sayin’ anything.”

I nodded as I pulled the saddle off my horse’s back and carried it into the barn, slinging it over a stall partition and setting the saddle blanket atop it. “I didn’t exactly have a chance to explain myself.”

“You didn’t? What happened? Why’d you leave? Where’d you go?” Andy was fairly bouncing with excitement.

I dropped a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “How about I tell all of you all about it, all at once, huh? It’s a long story, Andy. A really long story. And I wouldn’t mind sittin’ on somethin’ that ain’t movin’ while I’m tellin’ it.” I turned Traveler loose in the corral, unsaddled and turned out the packhorse, and followed Andy across the yard. That boy was so excited he was dancing around like a colt just turned out on fresh pasture as I limped along beside him back toward the house. We stepped up on the porch and he opened the door for me, and with a choked up feeling I stepped inside.

I stopped in the doorway, relishing the familiarity of the scene — the chairs, table, desk, fireplace, photos on the wall — all things I’d come to know so very well over the past year. The room smelled of Jonesy’s cooking, of leather and gun oil, and of woodsmoke from the blaze burning cheerily on the hearth. I hung my hat on the peg by the door and took an uncertain step into the room, wary of my welcome.

“Hi, Jess!” Jonesy stepped around the corner of the fireplace from the kitchen, smiling, coming forward and shaking my hand until it was about to fall off. “It’s good to have you home, boy.”

“It’s good to be here,” I answered him honestly.

Slim, that tall drink of water, he just stood there by the desk where he’d been working, looking over at me with an expression I couldn’t read. “Jess,” his voice sounded pleased and disgusted and mad and relieved, all blended together into that one short word.

I didn’t detect a whole lot of welcome, but then, I’d been expecting I’d have some serious  explaining to do, even though my leaving was none of my own fault. He’d had no way to know that, though.  So I looked him in the eye, and told him the truth. “Slim, it wasn’t what you think … ”

“I sure hope not,” he said as he stepped forward, looking me up and down, trying to look stern and failing, the corners of his mouth turning up. “You look like you’ve missed a few meals in the last couple of weeks.”

Boy, if that wasn’t the truth. Even near a week’s worth of steady eating hadn’t put the meat back on my bones.  I’d had to take my belt up a notch just to keep my britches on.

“And beneath all that hair, those look like old bruises.” He was waving a hand at my unshaven jaw. My face had been sore enough that, out on the trail, I’d given it a break from the razor.

I rubbed my chin. “Might be.” I looked down at the floor and then back up, looking from one to the other of these three men who were my adopted family. “It’s a long story, but I didn’t just light out of here, you know. It wasn’t exactly my choice -- ”

Jonesy looked smug. “Told you so,” he said pointedly, glaring at Slim.

Slim fired him a look that made me wonder what had been going on back here while I’d been gone. “Who told who what ain’t the question. We’re just glad you found your way back,” Slim answered, smiling at last and stepping forward to slap my shoulder.

I grinned in relief and relaxed. They were all gathered around me then, looking at me like they’d never expected to see my ugly mug again. I knew how they felt, because there’d been plenty of times in these last few weeks when I didn’t think I’d see them or this place ever again, either.

“Have some pie, Jess, and tell us the rest of the story,” Jonesy brought a plate with a piece of pie and a fork from the kitchen and set them on the table while he steered me toward one of the chairs.

Andy was already seated by the table, sitting forward in his chair, all eager beaver. “Tell us what happened!”

Slim, still smiling, disappeared into the kitchen, returning with the coffee pot and a cup and wordlessly filling it as he set it in front of me.

I sat myself down at the table and looked around at my friends and couldn’t stop smiling.

It was dadgummed good to be back.

I picked up my fork and took a bite of that apple pie, and I swear it purely tasted sweeter than any pie I’d ever ate. “Well, see, I was working that colt, and he was actin’ like a real knotheaded outlaw, when a rider came down the hill ...”

 

--------------------------------- The End ---------------------------------

 



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