Four Days on the Prairie
From an incident mentioned by Jess in Glory Road, something that happened several years before; here’s how it just might have taken place
Note: Special thanks to my beta, Hired Hand
There are days a man just shouldn’t get up out of his bedroll of a mornin’, when he ought to just lie abed, pull his blankets over his head, and do nothin’ at all.
But I didn’t stay in bed that day, and that’s how I nearly died.
Three days before, I’d finished off a trail drive out of Texas, one of 20 men who’d pushed over a thousand head of beeves up the trail to Abilene. My hangover was gone, along with most of my wages, but I had managed to hang onto enough of a stake to refill my cartridge belt and stock up on grub and set out on the drift again.
I’d had enough of punchin’ cows, at least for a while. I wasn’t exactly sure where I was goin’ but I’d heard some stories about Colorado bein’ mighty nice country and I was pretty sure I could pick up work there.
So I saddled up my horse, a rawboned and boneheaded gray gelding, and rode west out of Kansas City, across the prairie. It was open country, a wide land with a far horizon and a big sky, the kind of place that made a man feel small and unimportant and totally free.
It was an ordinary morning, the air cool with the first hint of fall. After leftover biscuits and bacon for breakfast, I packed up my gear and mounted up on the gray.
There was no real trail across that prairie, just a scatterin’ of old rutted wagon tracks and cattle trails heading west, so I followed along at an easy pace. Far off to my right, I could see a ragged line of cottonwood trees markin’ the meanderin’ path of a stream bed. The only other thing to see, stretching out in all directions, was a sea of fall brown grass coverin’ the low rollin’ plain and ripplin’ in the breeze like waves on the ocean.
From a distance, the land looked unbroken, but ridin’ across it, I found that it was laced with deep, dry washes that cut across my path.
I was just riding alon’ all peaceable-like when my pleasant day came all undone.
I had just sent the gray down into one of them gullies when I heard a rattle. It must have been a big granddaddy of a snake, and right underfoot, because he surely rattled long and loud and angry.
Problem was, my horse heard him too.
And that horse never did cotton much to snakes.
Ol’ gray came apart.
He dived right and commenced to pitchin’, crowhoppin’ and sunfishin’ like the very devil was after him, even as he slid down the bank into the wash. That horse could throw a fit three ways from Sunday, and he was showing me how, but I had a good seat in the middle of him until he got to the bottom of that gulley and stumbled.
We hit the ground in a tangle of horse and rider and a billowin’ cloud of chokin’ dust. Ol’ gray skidded and went down on his knees and then he rolled right on over, and me with, and under, him.
In all that ruckus, I swore I heard my leg bone snap. Funny, it didn’t hurt all that much, not right then, anyway, but maybe that was because all my attention was on that durn fool bronc. He was scramblin’ around tryin’ to get back up, and I ducked a flyin’ hoof that nearly parted my hair, and then he found his feet and took off runnin’, still buckin’ and kickin’ as he went.
My first instinct was to get right back up on my feet and go after that knotheaded broomtail, and I swear I tried. I knew I was hurt some, but it wasn’t until I made the effort to take a step on that leg that I found out how bad it was. There was a white hot flash of sickenin’ pain and the world churned, going all dim and hazy, and I think probably I even hollered, I don’t remember, but likely I did, as much as that hurt. What I do remember was that it felt like someone had just knocked me all the way back to Texas with a sledgehammer to the shinbone.
I laid there in the dirt for a minute, trying to puzzle out what had just happened, breathin’ hard and tryin’ not to throw up and tellin’ myself that this wasn’t happenin’ and that I’d be just fine in a minute once I caught my breath and anyways, it was way, way too soon to even think about panickin’.
I looked down at my leg, and it didn’t look like there was anything bad wrong with it. There wasn’t any blood showin’ nor any bones stickin’ out. That was good, I told myself, trying to see some way, any way, that this wasn’t a disaster.
I laid on the ground for a bit, and once I’d got firmly past the point where I knew I wasn’t goin’ to either puke or pass out, I started thinkin’. First thing, I had to get me up out of that gulley. I couldn’t see a thing from down in the bottom of that wash, and no one was about to see me down there, either. Besides, I didn’t want to meet up with that big rattler nor any of his kin who might be callin’ that gully home.
With two good arms and one good leg, I commenced crawlin’.
There’s no other way to say it but plain out -- it hurt. Every time my leg so much as bumped against even a little clod of dirt or my boot caught on a grass clump or an uneven bit of ground, it was like someone was back swingin’ that sledgehammer all over again. I could feel the bits of bone gratin’ and shiftin’ in ways a man’s bones shouldn’t, and then I’d stop and wait for the pain to ease up enough to go on.
After a while, even keepin; still didn’t make the hurtin’ stop.
It took a long time to get to the top of that gulley, and I was drenched in sweat from both the heat and the hurtin’ by the time I got there. The good news was that I didn’t meet that snake. The bad news was, once I got back up top, I couldn’t see nothin’ nor no one, including my horse.
I was all alone on the prairie, with no horse, no food, and no water, and in a sure enough giant-sized heap of trouble.
Once I’d accomplished that first goal of climbing up out of that gully, I needed to move right on to the next challenge if I was gonna find a way to outlive this predicament.
Water was what I needed first and foremost — a man won’t last long on the prairie without it.
Even though I was back on high ground, so to speak, I still couldn’t see a thing, and with all that had happened, I wasn’t sure anymore where those cottonwoods were. I had to get my bearin’s.
The only way to see was to get taller. And the only way to get taller was to stand up. And even then, it wasn’t a sure thing I’d be able to see that line of trees.
But I had to try.
Right then, I’d have traded everythin’ I owned, well, not my gun, but everything else, includin’ that boneheaded gray, for a rock or a tree or somethin’ that I could have used to help me get upright. But since there was nothin’ of the sort anywhere around my current vicinity, I’d have to make do without.
I pushed myself up onto my hands and knees—that wasn’t too bad, but figurin’ how to get from that point to upright wasn’t so simple. Finally, I got up on my knees and managed to pull my good left leg out in front of me. Pushin’ with my hands, I levered myself up to stand on my one uninjured leg, and it was like all the blood plumb disappeared out of my head like water swirlin’ down a drain. Things got dim and started swoopin’ around, but I bit my lip and stood, wobblin’ on that one good leg like a saplin’ swayin’ in a stiff breeze. I squinted my eyes and looked around, and there, off to my right, was a smudge of rich green that had to be those trees. I didn’t get much chance to make certain, though, because right about then I lost my balance. My right foot hit the ground, but the leg wouldn’t hold me; it buckled and I toppled over.
If you’ve been fortunate enough never to find out for yourself, let me tell you, a broken leg hurts.
I know for sure that I hollered when I hit the ground that time.
Right before I passed out.
I came to lyin’ face down in the dirt, and not at all sure what the blazes was goin’ on but my leg throbbin’ quick enough reminded me of what had happened. I was thirsty, my mouth as dry as the dusty ground I was layin’ on and my throat raw, but there wasn’t a thing I could do about that, not until I got to those trees.
And there was only one way to get there.
I started crawlin’.
I gritted my teeth and slithered maybe 20 feet, draggin’ my right leg, before I had to drop my head down onto my hands and take a rest. Who’d ever think movin’ so slow was so much work? Of course, all that pain makin’ me dizzy and wantin’ to throw up wasn’t helpin’ none, either.
The dust made my dry throat drier and my nose itch, and all I could see was the dry brown of clumps of late-summer grass. Once I thought I heard a snake slidin’ through the grass, but he wasn’t close enough for me to see. Too bad, I had my gun, and rattlesnake ain’t a bad lunch— of course, that’s assumin’ he’s your lunch and you’re not his.
I kept crawlin’ — I really didn’t have any other choice. The sun floated higher in the cloudless sky and the day got hotter and my leg just kept hurtin’ worse and worse. I wanted a drink so bad, but all I had in my mouth was dust.
I cursed fate and Kansas and that no-good, durn-fool horse, but, as you might have guessed, that didn’t get me any closer to that water.
Only hard work was gonna make that happen.
Crawl and rest.
Crawl and rest.
Crawl and rest.
Night fell, and when it did, it got cold. The sweat soakin’ my clothes dried and pretty soon I was shiverin’ and my teeth chatterin’. I dozed but between the cold and the pain I couldn’t really sleep, so every time I woke up I’d crawl a bit more until I just didn’t have the strength to go any further. Movin’ brought both good and bad -- it warmed me up some, true, but it also re-ignited the fire in that broken bone.
I did say that broken bones hurt, didn’t I?
Crawl and rest.
Crawl and rest.
Crawl and rest.
For a bit, I was moving downhill, and that was some easier. But then I reached the bottom of that slope and had to start climbin’ the next one. Now, this being Kansas, it really wasn’t much of a hill, but right then, it seemed to me that it couldn’t have been higher if I was scalin’ the Rocky Mountains.
Crawl and rest.
Crawl and rest.
Crawl and rest.
Crawlin’s not a good way to travel, especially on a rock-strewn hillside. It didn’t take long before my hands were scraped raw and bloody and my jeans were torn and near worn through at the left knee, and I was pretty near done in but just too dang stubborn to admit it.
Crawl and rest.
Crawl and rest.
Crawl and rest.
The crawls got shorter and the rests got longer, but I kept movin’, because to quit was to die. I’d survived the war, gunfights, outlaws, stampedes, and wild river crossin’s and I figured I was just too blame cussed ornery to meet my maker over something’ as stupid as a knotheaded broomtail afraid of snakes.
Crawl and rest.
Crawl and rest.
Crawl and rest.
Finally, late in the night and about half way up another endless hill, durin’ one of those rest breaks, I passed out or fell asleep, I’m not sure which.
I came around as the sun was risin’, groggy and half awake, my eyes all crusted and gritty, my mouth so dry I thought I’d likely never spit again.
I lifted my head to look around.
Immediately, there was the loudest rattlin’ sound I’d ever heard in my life.
I froze, the blood in my veins turning to ice.
Oh, I’ve heard a lot of rattlers in my day. Texas has a passel of them. And for sure they’ve never been my favorite critters, even before this current fiasco, but in general, you learn to live with rattlesnakes as just another, though not at all fun, part of life.
But this --- Oh, I had a bad, bad feeling about this.
Very, very slowly and very, very carefully, I turned my head tiny bit by tiny bit by tiny bit, until I could see that snake out of the corner of my eye.
The rattler was lyin’ curled up against the warmth of my hip right above my knee, so close I could have counted his whiskers, if snakes had whiskers. He was looking right at me, his eyes cold and ugly as he shook his tail, one tiny little rattle this time like a single stone in a hollow gourd.
I reckon he didn’t like bein’ looked in the eye.
Maybe it was the same snake that had spooked my horse, maybe not, but right then, he sure had me spooked. I’d have crowhopped and sunfished myself, if I could have.
I wasn’t sleepy anymore. My heart was racin’, I was breathin’ fast, and my throat, already as dry as a drought-stricken prairie, was threatenin’ to close up and choke me on the spot.
Under normal conditions I couldn’t have jumped up and gotten out of his way faster than he could strike. Maybe I could draw faster. Maybe. I’ll never know. But there was no doubt that in the shape I was in, I didn’t have a prayer of doin’ either without getting’ bit.
That didn’t stop me from wantin’ to try, though.
But I didn’t.
With more willpower than I ever reckoned I had, I forced myself to lie still, prayin’ for the sun to hurry up and get high in the sky, to warm things up so that I was no longer the best source of heat for a cold snake.
I can tell you that was the slowest sunrise of my life. The sun seemed stuck on the horizon, and I could have sworn it didn’t move for hours, maybe even days.
I kept still while my muscles started to cramp and the urge to move was all but irresistible. A lot of crazy ideas ran through my head but nothin’ that seemed remotely likely to succeed, or I swear I would have been desperate enough to try.
I started to sweat, moisture soakin’ through my shirt and runnin’ down my face and stingin’ my eyes, but somehow I kept still.
And then, after what must have been a hundred years, I felt ol’ mister snake move and heard the tiny scraping sound of scales slidin’ against the rough cloth of my jeans. I risked another slow look and saw that he was uncoiling, his little forked tongue flicking in and out of his mouth lightnin’ fast, and then he was crawlin’ away until his tail finally, slowly, oh so very slowly, disappeared into the tall brown bunchgrass down past my feet.
I let out a breath I didn’t know I’d been holdin’. I would have thrown up if there’d been anything in my stomach, and then, as weak and shaky as I was, I took off crawlin’ in the other direction, as fast as I could move. Yeah, it wasn’t all that fast, but it was putting some distance between me and that critter.
When my arm muscles got to shakin’ so bad with weariness that I couldn’t go no further, maybe a hundred yards, I rolled over onto my back and laid there, laughin’ like a mad man.
Facin’ down a man with a gun was never gonna be scary again, not after that, not when I’d looked a rattler in the eye and lived to tell about it.
Well, that was *if* I lived to tell about it, because I was still a danged long ways from bein’ saved.
The sun beat down on the prairie, the heat risin’ from the ground in shimmerin’ waves, but blind stubborn, I kept on crawlin’ and restin’ and crawlin’. My tongue was swollen, my lips cracked, dust clogged my throat, but I wasn’t quittin’ because I knew that if I gave up, I’d end up just another pile of bones bleachin’ on the prairie.
It was past mid-day when I finally found the top of that endless hill and looked down at the prettiest thing I’d seen this side of those saloon girls back in Abilene, the green of that meanderin’ line of cottonwoods, growin’ in the gully. I couldn’t see the water, but the trees were like a giant flag signalin’ that there was moisture there.
I found a new surge of energy and crawled downhill toward that creek.
It took me another hour to get down there to the streambed. I licked cracked lips and could almost taste that pure, sweet water as I crawled to the edge of the gully, looked in, and felt my heart drop like a rock.
There were the trees, and there was the streambed, but there was no water, only rocks and dust and heat-cracked earth where water had once been.
I think I might have cried if I’d had the moisture in my body to make tears. All that work, all that pure out agony, only to find nothin’ but a dry waterway. I should have suspected as much. It was fall, and the last few weeks had been rainless, leavin’ the prairie grass all dried out and brown. Same thing happened in the Panhandle country — I’d seen it time and again — creeks went dry this time of year.
But I’d also seen something else, that a man could dig down into that dry waterway, and more times than not, find a pocket of moisture.
I had to get down there and that wasn’t going to be easy, either. The stream had cut a deep channel through the middle of that gully, three feet deep and more. A fit man could have stepped down with ease, but me, I only had one way down. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, not lettin’ myself think about what this was gonna feel like, because I had no choice, and then I pulled myself over the edge of that bank. The soft soil gave way, and I slid down in a shower of dirt and dust and little stones. My busted leg hit somethin’, I didn’t know what, a rock or a tree root maybe, and I didn’t rightly care, and I let out a yell because the pain sent my head to spinnin’ like a hoop on a wheel. Then everythin’ went black, which really wasn’t such a bad thing, because I didn’t hurt.
At least not ‘til I woke up.
And then, cause I’m cussed stubborn, I crawled down into the middle of that dry steambed and started diggin’. I ignored my bloody hands and torn nails and used my pocket knife until the blade was dull, but I kept on diggin’. I was down nearly a foot before I felt the first bit of moisture in the soil. I dug and dug until my fingers cramped and my arms ached, and then I laid back and waited.
That was a hard thing to do, waitin’, but I knew I had to. Moisture would accumulate in the hole I’d dug, and it did, ever so slowly.
And Lord, it was slow.
Finally, there was enough liquid puddled up in the bottom of that hole that I could finally scoop some out. The water was muddy and stale and barely fit to drink, but I didn’t care at all, not one bit. It was wet and that was all that mattered.
It saved my life.
At least for the moment.
A day passed. I had water, though it was mighty poor water, but, then, I couldn’t afford to be choosy. It was wet and it would keep me from dying of thirst. But with no shelter and no food, if someone didn’t find me soon, despite all my hard work, I was gonna die anyway.
On the third day, late in the afternoon, the weather changed.
I watched the thunderclouds buildin’ to the west, rollin’ up big and dark and ominous, lightnin’ splittin’ the sky and the thunder rumbling like artillery far in the distance. I reveled in the coolness of the fresh breeze that cut the heat.
The rain started with a few big, wet, soft drops, and then, with a mighty crack of thunder that shook the ground, the heavens let loose, water pourin’ down in a solid sheet, soakin’ into the thirsty soil. It was gonna fill my water hole, maybe even re-fill the creek.
At first, the rain felt good, bringin’ a welcome relief from the heat, washin’ the dust and the sweat off my skin. It tasted sweet, too, as I cupped my hands and caught it on my palms, licking it off my skin.
But then dusk fell and still the rain didn’t stop.
Pretty soon, I was wet clear through. And cold.
I began to shiver.
Oh, I wanted a fire, a warm and cheery and bright fire. A man never truly feels alone by a fire.
But I didn’t have one.
That was a miserable night, sitting huddled along the edge of that gully, listening to the water fill the stream, soaked and shaking with the cold.
I kept remindin’ myself of the good news, that I wouldn’t be dyin’ of thirst and I wouldn’t be dyin’ of snakebite, but I couldn’t forget the bad news, that I’d probably be dyin’ of pneumonia instead.
And whatever the reason, dead is dead.
I sure do have all the luck.
By sunrise, the clouds cleared but long before then I was chilled clean to the bone, and it sure took a long time for the sun to get high enough in the sky to warm and even start to dry me.
Four days on the prairie, and it was surely lookin’ like the end of Jess Harper when fate intervened.
I was lying in the shade of a big old cottonwood, feelin’ mighty poorly between the pain in my leg and the hunger crampin’ my empty belly, when I heard what sounded for all the world like someone talkin’.
For a moment, I thought maybe I was delirious and hearin’ things and then I heard the voice again, a man’s voice.
I pushed myself up on my elbows and hollered, “Hey, mister! Hey! Help! Over here! Hey!”
There was silence, and for an awful moment I thought I’d imagined the voice, and then I heard the welcome sound of hoofbeats on grass followed by the unmistakable and unwelcome sound of the hammer of a .45 being drawn back.
“Don’t shoot!” I hollered.
I still couldn’t see anyone, but I heard the creak of saddle leather — the man was dismountin’, I reckoned, and then I saw a hat bobbin’ along over the rim of the creek bed and then a man’s face, and finally, his gun pointed down at me.
I had my own gun out, not pointed at him directly, but there, and visible but hopefully not too threatenin’. I was smilin’, tryin’ to look my friendliest and most harmless. “Mister, am I ever glad to see you!” I said sincerely.
He was an ordinary looking man, dressed in cowboy garb, but he was peerin’ around, all suspicious. I didn’t blame him none — it had to be a surprise, findin’ a man lying alone out here in this godforsaken country.
“You by yourself, mister?” he finally asked.
It was a risk to tell the truth. He could kill me for my gun and the twenty dollars in my pocket. A lot of men have been killed for a lot less, but I had to take the chance because I was dead for sure without this stranger’s help. “Yeah. My horse spooked at a snake and threw me,” I pointed down at my swollen, useless limb. “Busted my leg, a couple of days ago.”
“A couple days?” he asked incredulously. “You been lyin’ here alone all that time?”
He walked around a little bit, eyin’ me skeptically. “How’d you get yourself down here, mister?”
I pointed up the hill I’d crawled down. “Dragged myself down from over on the other side a’ that hill. Came down here for water.”
He nodded and seemingly satisfied, holstered his gun.
I took a deep breath and relaxed a bit, holstering my own weapon.
“I didn’t see any sign of your horse.”
I shook my head. “He could be back to Texas by now for all I know. I’ve been here four days.”
The man smiled, a big bright and cheerful smile. “Lucky for you that I came along then.”
“Yeah, durn lucky. Thanks, mister.”
He came over and knelt down next to me and stuck out his hand. “I’m Roanie Bishop.”
I took it and shook it gratefully. “Jess Harper. I owe you my life, Mr. Bishop.”
“Roanie’ll do.” His face lit up in this big, bright smile, his eyes all wide and shiny. “Now let’s get some grub a’cooking and we’ll see what we can do about getting’ you out of here.”
Roanie was as good as his word. He started a fire and fried up some bacon and shared a couple of hard biscuits, but makeshift as that food was, it was better than the fanciest dinner a man could buy in the best restaurant in Abilene or Kansas City or even St. Louis.
In the mornin’, Roanie packed up his gear, saddled his horse, and led the animal down by me. He put his arms around my chest and lifted me up.
“Whoa!” Everythin’ started spinnin’ again, and I’d have crashed back down to the dirt if Roanie hadn’t held onto me. After a minute, things stopped whirlin’ round so much, and I was able to open my eyes without the ground and the sky swappin’ places.
“You ready?” Roanie asked.
I nodded and wrapped my hands around the saddle horn while Roanie helped me get a foot in the stirrup. I had to lift my broken leg up over the horse’s back, and I groaned and bit my lip because that hurt worse than you could imagine, but I got up in the saddle, my leg throbbin’ like someone was windin’ it up in a vise.
Roanie walked and I rode, and it was the most miserable ride of my young life. Every step that horse took was like someone smackin’ my leg with a hammer. I wrapped my hands round the saddle horn and gritted my teeth and concentrated on not passing out and somehow I didn’t. though it sure weren’t easy.
We made slow progress and I was feeling bad about poor Roanie having to walk when all of a sudden he stopped and pointed up ahead of us. “Hey Jess, look at that!” Roanie smiled his big, happy, life-is-all- sunshine smile.
I raised my head and looked, and sure enough, a few hundred yards up the creek bed, right by a spot where there was still some green grass in a little meadow next to the stream, stood a familiar-lookin’ gray horse.
“Well, I’ll be. That’s my horse.” It wasn’t so much that I was happy to find that hammer-headed critter, but he was carryin’ durn near everythin’ I owned, well everything other than the clothes I was wearin’, my Colt, and twenty-one dollars in crumpled up bills stuffed in my pocket. My saddle, bedroll, rifle, the gear in my saddlebags, even my chaps hooked over the saddlehorn, all of it was still there, and the sight of it lifted my spirits mightily. I’d gone from being a poor broken-legged cowboy to one that was, well, not quite so poor.
It wasn’t even hard to catch the gray. He pretty much just walked right up to Roanie’s horse, glad of the company I reckon.
His reins were busted. I imagine he’d stepped on them a time or two in the past couple days, but on the whole he wasn’t in too bad shape, considerin’ he’d been roaming free on the prairie for so long.
“If’n you don’t mind, I’ll ride him,” Roanie offered.
“Just watch out. He’s afraid of snakes.”
Roanie laughed. “That’s funny, Jess,” he said, and laughed and laughed as if that was the funniest thing he’d ever heard. “Afraid of snakes,” he muttered and then looked over at me and laughed some more. There was somethin’ real odd about that laugh, something’ that left me with a strange feeling, a shiver down my backbone, but I shook it off. The man had saved my life, and for that, he could laugh about anythin’ he wanted to, far as I was concerned.
Finally, still chucklin’, Roanie climbed aboard my horse and we rode on.
We made a lot better time after that.
Around mid-day, Roanie pulled up my horse and dismounted. “We’ll stop here.”
Oh, I wanted to take a break, I truly did. I was hurtin’ so bad, my leg felt like someone had spent the morning poundin’ it with a hammer, relentlessly, over and over again, but I really didn’t want to face getting’ off that horse and then climbing’ back on. “Let’s keep goin’, huh, Roanie? If we push on, I bet we can make it to town tonight.” I’ll admit, the idea of a doctor and a soft bed and the painkillin’ possibilities of a bottle of whiskey were lookin’ better and better with every passing mile.
Roanie frowned. “No, we’re takin’ a break, Jess, and eatin’ some lunch right here. Now, let’s get you on down off that horse.”
“Roanie, look, really, I don’t -- ”
His smile disappeared and he frowned at me, his voice takin’ on a sudden, cold and angry edge. “Jess, are you disagreein’ with me?”
The odd look to his eyes, wild and accusing-like, sent a sudden shiver up my spine, and I softened my own response. “No, Roanie, I just, it’s just hard, my leg and all, getting’ down.”
“You sayin’ you don’t want to?” His tone was accusin’ and his eyes were dartin’ wildly around lookin’ everywhere but at me. Even his face was gettin’ red, like he was mad, real mad.
“I just … Roanie, I’m hurtin’.” I tried to soothe him. “Can’t we just keep ridin’, get to town and that doctor?”
“I said we’re stoppin’. And we are!” he shouted. He walked away, stompin’ through the grass, pacin’ like a penned-up mustang his first time locked in a stall, and then after a minute or two he walked back over to me. “We’re stoppin’.”
The way he was lookin’ at me, I figured he was about to drag me down off that horse. “Okay, okay, a lunch stop.”
He nodded, and all the anger just melted away, though his eyes still had a weird light that was more than a bit unnervin’. “A bit a’ rest will do you good, Jess. You’ll see. Come on.”
His smile had returned as suddenly as it had disappeared, like the sun poppin’ out from behind a cloud, which left me feelin’ uneasy in a way I couldn’t name. There was no arguin’ with him; after all, he was the man who’d saved my bacon. I bit my lip and swung my leg over the saddle with a groan. I kicked my left foot out of the stirrup and jumped down to land on it, Roanie’s steadyin’ hand keepin’ me from fallin’ once I got my good foot on the ground. He helped me over a few steps to sit down on a grassy spot, and I huddled there, pain washin’ up my leg in sickenin’ waves until I thought I was goin’ to throw up.
Roanie meanwhile took his time lightin’ a fire and putting coffee on, hummin’ while he worked, like we were on a picnic or somethin’. “A good lunch will have you feeling better, Jess, you’ll see.” He was fussin’ around, all cheerful, sort of too cheerful, just like a few minutes ago he’d been too mad.
I laid back on the ground and closed my eyes, wore out and hurtin’ bad. “Don’t bother makin’ anythin’ for me, Roanie. I just ain’t hungry.”
Just like that, the chill was back in his voice. “What, you sayin’ you don’t like my cookin’, Jess?”
I opened my eyes to find him loomin’ over me, that wild expression back on his face. “Your cookin’s fine, Roanie--”
“Then why don’t you want any food?” he demanded, standin’ in front of me with his feet spread wide, his hands all balled up into fists like a prizefighter lookin’ for somebody to knock down, and his voice tight and angry. “Why? Tell me why!”
“I just don’t think I can eat anythin’ right now,” I answered honestly.
He was glarin’ at me as if he didn’t believe me. “You’ve got to eat,” he insisted, “to keep up your strength.”
If I ate anythin’, way I felt right then, I’d never have kept it down. “Can’t, Roanie.”
“Of course you can, Jess. You just gotta try. You’ll see.”
No matter how much I protested, Roanie wouldn’t take no for an answer. He fixed me a plate and set it on my lap, and then he insisted I eat it and wouldn’t hear of us movin’ on until I did.
I tried. I ate what I could force down, which wasn’t much, but I desperately wanted to get back on the trail, so I took a bite and chewed and swallowed, and all the while Roanie was watchin’ me like a hawk on the hunt. After half a dozen bites, my stomach was coilin’ up in knots and I couldn’t eat any more, so I gave up and set down my plate. “That’s the best I can do, Roanie.”
“Jess, you sayin’ you don’t like my cookin’? That it’s no good?” His voice rose and he got that odd look on his face again, the one that was beginning to make me uneasy clear down to the toes of my dusty boots.
I tried to calm him. “No, Roanie, that’s not what I’m sayin’. Your cookin’ is fine. I’m sayin’ I’m just not hungry.”
“Well, that just can’t be true,” he insisted, glarin’ at me like I’d just insulted his mother. “You had nothin’ to eat for four whole days. Now you gotta eat.”
“I can’t, Roanie. I’m sorry, but I can’t. My stomach’s all messed up, probably from just that, from all that time not eatin’.”
“Well, then eatin’ ought to fix it then.”
I shook my head. “Roanie, I —“
“Jess, are you sayin’ you’re not grateful?” That strange, scary look was back on his face, the weird glazed look to his eyes, remindin’ me of a loco bronc about to come all unglued and try to stomp anyone unfortunate enough to be within his reach.
I was frustrated, and my leg was painin’ me somethin’ fierce, and even at my best, which I wasn’t that day, I’m not the most tactful man. “That’s not at all what I’m sayin’, Roanie. I owe you my life and I know it and I’m truly grateful for you helping me. I just ain’t up to eatin’ anything more right now. Let’s just ride, huh?”
“Well, if you’re too sick to eat, then you’re too sick to ride. We’ll just stay right here tonight.”
There was no talkin’ him out of it, no matter what I said, no matter how hard I tried to explain. He just got mad and I got frustrated, and so we stayed put through another long and miserable night.
When we got ready to leave the next mornin’, Roanie’s dark mood had vanished once again, replaced by one all bright as sunshine, but his odd turns of temper were makin’ me more and more uneasy.
It was strange. I wanted to be on that horse and on my way as much as I’d ever wanted anything. At the same time, I knew what it was gonna feel like, and I didn’t want to go through another day of misery like the last one had been. But I had no choice -- help lay at the end of that ride, and no nearer. So I let Roanie help me up on his horse, and he mounted up on mine and we rode on.
In early afternoon we finally reached town. We rode slowly down the dusty main street until we found a little house with the sign, Dr. Clayton Ingham, M.D. Roanie went up to the door and knocked until a man came and opened it. Roanie explained things while I sat there on my horse, feelin’ weary and wishin’ they’d hurry up. Finally, the two of them helped me down off the horse and, with an arm thrown over the shoulder of each one of them, I made it up to the door and inside.
Dr. Ingham was a small, bespectacled baldin’ man dressed in a none-too-new and very rumpled suit. There was a stain on the front of his white shirt, the rolled-up sleeves were threadbare and worn, and he smelled like old cigars. None of that mattered, though, as long as I could lay down and rest, and he could do somethin’ about fixin’ my leg. I didn’t care that the bed was hard and the sheets were dingy more than white. What he did have was a bottle of laudanum and one teaspoon of it and I was blissfully unaware of all the tuggin’ and pullin’ he did on my busted bones while he splinted ‘em.
The next day that doc arranged for me to get a room over at the boardin’ house. A really nice little old lady ran the place, providin’ me with a tidy little room on the ground floor so that I wouldn’t have to maneuver the stairs and could sort of get around a bit. I already knew my butt was gonna get mighty tired of sittin’ in a chair long before my leg was healed enough for me to move on. I really ain’t good at sitting still and I doubt I ever will be.
I’d been there a week when all unexpected, Roanie showed up late one night, knockin’ at my door, bargin’ in, talkin’ a mile a minute, all the while smilin’ that too bright and cheerful smile. “So how you doin, Jess? You doin’ good? You look good. Your leg gonna be okay?”
“Doc says the leg will heal okay. I shouldn’t have a limp or nothin’.” I knew I was dang lucky.
“That’s good, real good.” He was nervously twistin’ his hat in his hands, his eyes dartin’ here and there all wild like, avoidin’ mine. “Well, I just wanted to say goodbye to ya’. I got me that job, that real good job, back in Wichita. But it sure is nice to know that I got a friend like you, Jess, a real friend I can call on anytime, for anythin’.”
“I know.” I stuck out my hand to shake his. “If you ever need anythin’, Roanie, you just ask,” I told him.
He smiled that too-sunny smile and somethin’ inside me coiled up in a tight knot of worry I couldn’t rightly name. “I will, Jess, someday I will. I know I’ll be seein’ ya’ again one day. You just wait an’ see.”
I had the sudden feelin’ that he would, some day, and I just as quick got an ugly feelin’ that it was a promise I was going to regret.
His visit left me uneasy, but it wasn’t until the next mornin’ that I heard the story about a fight in the saloon that night, between Roanie and some cowboy. No one seemed to know exactly what had happened, or who had started it, only that there’d been some hot words exchanged. There was no doubt, though, that in the fight, the man who had saved my life had nearly taken that of that cowboy. There was rumors that Roanie had used more than just his bare fists, owin’ to the way that cowboy was all busted up. But there weren’t enough facts for the sheriff to arrest him, so the lawman had just ordered him out of town.
I ain’t usually much for deep thinkin’, but I had a lot of time on my hands durin’ those next few weeks while I was laid up, and more than once my thoughts turned to that strange man who had rescued me. I knew men like Roanie in the war, men who weren’t right inside, damaged by somethin’ that had happened to them. They’re mighty dangerous, maybe more dangerous than the worst outlaws and killers I’ve ever met. A man who’s bad clear through, well, he’s always gonna act one way. But a man like Roanie, you never know which side of him you’re gonna be seein’.
Uncertainty like that can get a man killed.
I owe Roanie my life, I know that, and I ain’t never goin’ to forget it, but as grateful as I am, there’s somethin’ about him that makes me plumb uneasy.
I surely do hope I never run into him again.
The west is a mighty big place, so I reckon I needn’t waste time worryin’ about somethin’ that just ain’t ever gonna happen.
xxxxx TheEnd xxxxx