The Goodbye


by Moira



The Goodbye

The Goodbye

A Story of Family and Friendship

 

By Moira

 

Prologue

 

“Awa... Aunt Daisy, don’t you know, Jess ain’t...”

 

“Isn’t,” Daisy cut in, as she took a deep breath and brushed the hair back from her eyes.

 

“Isn’t...afraid of anything,” Mike said. His face beamed at Jess who had just re-entered the kitchen after having ejected a rather ugly looking critter. Much to Daisy’s relief, he had thrown it outside the kitchen door with his usual quick efficiency.

 

“There ya go, Daisy, it’s gone,” Jess smiled and patted her comfortingly on the shoulder.

 

“We all have our fears, Mike dear. Mine is spiders. Horrible hairy brutes,” she said and shivered. Jess and Mike smiled at one another, suppressing the giggles that would come later and out of Daisy’s sight. “Even Jess, he just doesn’t know what it is yet. But he will, when he comes face to face with it one day.”

 

 

Chapter One

 

Those words rang in Jess’ ears. Had it been so long ago that Daisy had uttered them? He was standing in the doorway of the house with his morning coffee and watched as Mike and Chuck hitched a new team to the stage. Chuck was the driver who had taken Mose’s place when Mose retired a few years back.

It seemed like just yesterday that Mike was running around and getting into mischief, and Jess with him. Poor Daisy what a time they had given her. Now Mike was a man full-grown and doing a full day’s work on the ranch. Daisy would be so proud. Jess looked up at the hill where Slim’s Ma and Pa were buried and where they had laid their Daisy, at her request. She said she wanted to be able to see “her boys” and keep an eye on them. Jess smiled, that was just like his Daisy.

 

“Jess. Jess, you there?” Slim called from the front bedroom. As he entered, Slim was trying to prop himself up on crumpled pillows.

 

“Wait, Slim, let me help you.” Jess reached forward and took Slim’s arm and helped him to sit up. He then punched up the pillows, grabbing another from his own bunk so that Slim could sit up slightly, but lay back comfortably supported.

“How are you feeling this morning?”

 

“Could use some coffee, if you’ve left me some, that is,” Slim smiled, mischievously.

 

“Yeah, yeah, go on, give the poor nurse-maid a hard time,” chided Jess as he strode purposefully out into the kitchen.

 

“Medicine first,” taunted Jess with a rueful smile, as he came back in with a small spoon and bottle in one hand, and coffee in the other. He set the coffee on the nightstand beside Slim’s bunk.

 

Slim looked at Jess. He had never told Jess but he loved that smile, it was a special smile reserved only for those Jess cared for. It made you feel good all over, no matter how bad you were actually feeling. ‘He’s trying hard not to show it, but he looks tired,’ Slim thought to himself.

 

“Something wrong, Slim?” asked Jess, as he held out the spoonful of elixir.

 

“No,” replied Slim.

 

“Then, why you staring?”

 

“I’m not.” Slim suddenly realized that he had been, and just as suddenly felt his cheeks flush.

 

“Yes, you were,” Jess said.

 

Slim ended the awkward moment by taking the offered medicine. He then grabbed the coffee-cup and took a large mouthful and swallowed quickly, so as to expunge the ‘god awful taste’ as he had described it the first time Jess had administered it.

 

“There’s a good boy.” Jess patted Slim on the arm, still smiling.

 

Slim reached for the pillow behind his head to hit him with but suddenly, and without warning, he started to cough, and badly. Jess moved quickly behind him, and sat Slim up and pounded him gently on the back. Slim coughed and retched until at last he had coughed up several lumps of thick brown mucus into the small bowl that Jess held ready in front of him. Jess gently laid him back, placing a cloth over the basin and returning it to its place under the bed. He would empty it later.

 

“You’re hot again,” he noted, his hand gently resting on Slim’s cheek. The smile gone, replaced by concern for his friend.

 

“Nah, I’m fine, just need a minute then I’ll finish my coffee.” What he wasn’t telling Jess was that his chest felt like it had a sack of potatoes pressing down on it. He knew it wouldn’t be long now...

 

 

Chapter Two

 

Slim sipped his coffee carefully this time. Jess sat on the edge of the bunk, the worry evident on his face. Slim’s hand snaked out and touched Jess’ knee. “I’m alright,” he said, trying to put Jess’ mind at ease. He knew he hadn’t.

Mike burst into the bedroom. “Whoa, Tiger,” Jess said. “Slim just had another coughing fit and he needs to rest a while.”

 

Mike stopped in his tracks and looked at them both, concerned but obviously full of excitement. “But I got great news, Jess.”

 

“Okay,” said Slim, adjusting his position, so that he was a little more comfortable “Spit it out. We won’t get any peace until you do.”

 

“Andy is coming home and he’ll be here on the afternoon stage, TODAY.” Andy blurted our, so full of excitement that he couldn’t stand still. “Chuck just told me. Saw his name on the passenger list at the depot.”

 

“What?” Slim said. “But what about his job with the paper?”

 

Slim’s younger brother Andy, had gone to school in St. Louis, and had become a well-respected journalist for a leading St. Louis newspaper company. ‘Why would he be coming home now,’ he thought? He hadn’t asked either Jess or Mike to wire for him. It’s too soon. He wasn’t ready to face Andy, yet. He needed more time.’ Then it struck him and his gaze moved to Jess.

 

“Jess, what did you do?” Slim asked, a frown forming on his face.

 

“What I should have done weeks ago when the Doc first told us,” Jess sternly replied.

 

“You had no right to worry Andy, Jess,” Slim scolded. “I told you I would tell you when it was time to wire him. It’s far too soon for him to be coming home. You should've just left things be.” Slim was breathing hard. The outburst had taken its toll.

 

Feelings that Jess had wanted to keep buried, hidden, came bursting through to the surface. All the hurt, anger and frustration he had felt for the past weeks poured out of him.

 

“No right? No right?” he shouted, jumping to his feet. “I had no right? No right to wire Andy, tell him you’re sick and he needs to come home, cause we... cause you need him?” He walked swiftly to the window and stared out at the morning. “ I had no right, cause I’m not a real part of this family am I? Just a no account drifter, a gunslinger who drifted into your nice little organized lives and turned them all upside down with my kinda past.” With that he turned on his heels and stormed out of the room.

 

Jess was breathing hard. Suddenly and without warning, he just couldn’t hold back any longer. He shoved the breakfast dishes off the table onto the floor, turned the table and chairs over, and threw dishes at the walls and doors. Finally, the rocking chair flew through one of the front windows, landing with a resounding crash of wood and glass on the front porch. He collapsed to his knees, his head in his hands, his body shaking uncontrollably.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Three

 

The house was silent, except for the crackling of the fire in the grate.

 

“Jess.” A quiet voice called from behind him, and a familiar comforting hand gently rubbed his back, the way it had always done whether he was sick, worried or just plain mad. Jess looked up into Slim’s face that was filled with worry for his friend. Mike standing behind Slim, mirrored Slim’s expression. Tears welled up in Jess’ eyes and he started to quietly sob.

 

Slim was right there beside him like always, no matter what the trouble or hurt.

 

“C’mon, Jess,” Slim said quietly, motioning Mike to help.

 

Mike placed firm hands under Jess’ arms and helped him up. Then setting the table to rights, he placed the chairs back in front of the fire, as Slim took Jess by the arm and sat him down. Sitting himself in the other chair Slim watched as Mike rescued the rocker from the front porch.

 

Slim and Jess sat by the fire, Mike heading into the kitchen to put on a fresh pot of coffee. Whilst it was brewing, he swept up the glass from the broken window. All the while Jess just sat there, his hands covering his face. Mike poured them all fresh coffee. He handed one to Slim, but Jess made no venture to take the offered cup. Mike stood it beside him on the hearth and turned toward the door.

 

“I’ll go finish up in the barn,” he said solemnly.

 

Slim knew what Mike was doing and he smiled and touched his arm and whispered, “He’ll be alright now, Mike.” He tried to reassure the boy. Once again Slim was playing his old familiar role of father and comforter.

 

His two best friends needed to be alone, he knew that, but Mike loved them both so much, and he was finding it harder and harder each day, to watch them suffer like this. He wanted to be there for Jess, but he knew that at this moment all Jess needed was Slim. He knew that all too soon, it would be his turn, and he would be the one that Jess would need. He headed for the barn, the wetness stinging his eyes.

 

 

Chapter Four

 

Jess sat by the fire, biting his lips in an attempt to hold back the burning tears and the sobs that were catching in his throat. ‘Get ahold of yourself, Harper,’ he thought to himself. But no matter how hard he tried, it all just kept pouring out of him. Weeks of pain and frustration so long held in check. He wiped his arm across his face, cursing himself for not being stronger. He had to be strong, not only for the boys, but also for Slim. But he had done the one thing he had tried to prevent for all these years. He had let his guard down, showing how vulnerable he really could be.

 

Slim put his coffee next to Jess’ on the hearth and moved his chair so that he was facing him. He reached gently up and took Jess’ hands away from his face, exposing the tear filled eyes and tear stained cheeks.

 

“Jess,” he said quietly. “It’s okay. Everything is going to be okay. We’ll get through this, and we’ll do it like we’ve always done, together.”

 

Slim coughed slightly and Jess looked up, concern showing on his face. He quickly looked away, unable to keep eye contact.

 

“You’re a very real and important part of this family, Jess, and...

very important to me,” Slim said.

 

Jess looked at the floor avoiding Slim’s eyes. Slim continued. “I’m sorry for what I said. I didn’t mean to get so mad. I just wanted to spare Andy the waiting. It’s bad enough I have to watch you and Mike suffer. I just wanted Andy to remember me the way I was, not like I am now.” He coughed again and had to take a sip of his coffee.

 

“You should be in bed,” Jess retorted wiping his face once more, at last able to feel more in control.

 

“Not until we’ve talked about this, Jess. Not until I know you’re going to be alright.” Slim paused and smiled, “Then I’ll go back to bed.”

 

Jess picked up the coffee and took a sip and gazed into the firelight. “What’s to talk about Slim? You’re going to die and there ain’t nothing I can do to stop it.” Jess’ hands started to shake. Slim took the coffee cup from him and placed it back on the hearth. Jess wiped away the tears that had begun to form in his eyes again.

 

“Easy, Jess.” Slim said quietly as if talking to a child.

 

He had to find a way to reach Jess, he had to try and ease his pain. Slim didn’t know which hurt the worse, the knowledge that he was going to be leaving them or knowing what it was doing to the best friend he had ever had, his Pard, who meant everything to him. He was so proud of Jess, of what he had accomplished with his life. If it hadn’t been for Jess riding onto the ranch that day, just at that precise time in their lives, there wouldn’t be a successful ranch and relay station today.

 

Slim would never have been able to send Andy to school. Mike wouldn’t have had the carefree childhood and home that he and Jess had been able to give him. There would never have been the special kind of love, laughter and happiness that only Jess could bring to them all. Slim hated to think what might have happened to them all if Jess had not been a part of their lives.

 

“What’s to talk about is how you feel, Jess. You can’t keep it all bottled up like this, you gotta let it out.” A smile spread across his face as he surveyed what was left of the living room. “And not by breaking up our only pieces of furniture.” Slim tried a chuckle, but to no avail. Jess just looked at him as somber as ever.

 

“I see it in your face every minute of every day.” He paused and put a hand over his mouth, trying to suppress another cough. “You may be able to hide it from everyone else, even Mike, but you can’t hide it from me. I know you, Jess. I know you better than you know yourself.” Two pairs of blue eyes, tear filled and full of sadness met. “I’m your Pard, remember?”

 

At hearing this, Jess again started to lose control and covered his face with his hands shaking his head.

 

“You mean so much to me, Slim,” he stammered and tried to compose himself again. “You’ve always been there for me, trusting me, teaching me, getting me out of scrapes.” He was silent for a moment. “You gave me everything, a home and a family. How do I say goodbye? I can’t bear the thought of going on without you.” Then in barely a whisper, “You’ve been like a brother to me.” A quiet stillness filled the air as the two friends sat together.

 

Slim moved nearer. He put an arm around Jess’ shoulder and held him close, like a father holding his child. He turned Jess slowly to face him and drew Jess’ hands from his face and looked into those deep blue eyes that were so full of pain.

“You’ll be able to go on because you have to, because you know that’s what I’d want you to do. Andy and Mike will need you like never before. When they were growing up, you were their friend, their hero and yes, their partner in crime in many of those dreadful pranks you all played on me, Jonesy and Daisy over the years.” A meek smile glimmered on Jess’ face, as he too remembered those happy days. “Now it’s time for you to be their father, too. Be strong, Jess, for them. Give them your love and strength and you and they will get through this.”

 

Jess looked up at Slim, he didn’t know from where it came, but

he felt a mischievous grin forming.

“Howd’ya know all this? Do you have some kind of crystal ball or somethin’...?” There it was, that old familiar smile Slim knew and loved so well.

 

“No, Pard nothing like that.” Slim smiled back, happy to see his friend looking better if only for now.

 

“I just know you, that’s all.”

 

 

Chapter Five

 

At 3:12 precisely, the afternoon stage rumbled into the Sherman’s yard. Before it had even come to a halt, the stage door was flung open and Andy Sherman leapt out. Mike ran up to him and they gave each other a firm handshake and brotherly embrace. “Great to see you, Andy,” Mike said cheerily.

 

“Come on, Mike, let’s get this team changed,” Dusty yelled as he jumped down from the driver’s box.

 

“Yeah, Dusty, I’m a comin. Just wanted to say hi to my big brother,” and he began to unhitch the team.

 

Big brother, Andy mused, as he smiled at Mike, “It’s good to be home, little brother...”

 

With that, Andy climbed up and reached down his two bags. Finally, turning to face the house, he saw a tall, familiar figure standing in the open doorway.

 

“Slim!” he shouted, and raced forward.

 

Slim moved from the doorway out onto the porch. He held onto the porch railing trying hard not to show that he needed to support himself. He was feeling tired, and had been coughing quite a bit since lunch. Though, he made sure that both Jess and Mike were not in earshot. There had been enough emotion and worry for one day, he decided. So he had just been resting, as much as he could in his favorite rocker by the fire. Andy bounded up the small step and hugged his brother.

 

“Welcome home, little brother,” Slim said, holding Andy tighter than he really needed. Slim held Andy away to get a good look at him. “Let’s look at you, boy. Say you must have grown a foot or more. At least I know you’ve been eating properly.”

 

“Aww, Slim. You sound just like Jonesy,” remarked Andy.

 

“Lets get you settled. There’s some fresh coffee on.” With that they went into the house.

 

Andy looked around him. Nothing had changed. The wooden table that he used to do his homework on, and they ate their meals on. The leather couch by the window, the chairs by the fire, and the old rocker. Everything was just the same.

 

No, wait...everything wasn’t the same. Jess. Where was Jess? Andy put his bags down and turned to face Slim. A questioning look on his face, but that very quickly disappeared. Andy’s face lit up like Christmas. A figure had appeared in the doorway behind Slim.

“Jess,” and he dashed passed Slim into Jess’ waiting arms. Now he was really home.

 

“Where were you, Jess?” Andy asked.

 

“In the barn...watching,” Jess replied. Jess moved into the kitchen and poured himself some coffee.

 

“Watching...why were you watching?” Andy asked in surprise.

 

“Just wanted to give you and Slim...,” he left the sentence unfinished.

 

His eyes had moved toward Slim, who was struggling to stand. He was leaning on a chair, his head down and breathing hard. He moved passed Andy.

 

“C’mon, Slim, let’s sit you down.” He snaked an arm around Slim’s waist, and sat him in the rocker. Jess handed him the cup. “Take a sip, it’ll help.” Slim obeyed and he felt better.

 

The stage had pulled out and Mike entered the room brushing dust off his hat.

 

“Can I help with your bags, Andy?” Mike asked. “You’re going to sleep with me in my room.”

 

Yes, thanks, Mike.” Andy’s and Jess’ eyes met briefly with a flicker of understanding. Jess nodded, instinctively knowing that he and Andy would talk later.

 

Supper was a lively meal. When they had finished eating, they sat around the fire, sipping coffee and remembering old times. The clock on the mantel struck the hour. It was late.

 

Jess eyed Slim, who had been dozing peacefully. He reached forward and touched his knee. Slim opened his eyes.

 

“Sorry, boys. Must’ve dozed off,” he said trying to sound wide awake. He had been enjoying the evening, but was starting to feel the effects of such a long day.

 

“Time for bed,” Jess said firmly.

 

“Aww, Jess, just a little longer. I’m not at all tired.”

 

“Bed, Slim...now.” Jess’ voice was adamant. Slim reluctantly rose from his chair.

 

“Night then” and he started for the bedroom.

 

“I’ll check in on you in awhile,” Jess called.

 

Mike said he was turning in too, as he had an early start in the morning. In truth, Jess and he had quiet words out in the kitchen earlier. He knew that Jess wanted to talk to Andy alone.

 

The flames flickered softly, making patterns on the living room walls. Jess sipped his coffee. Andy broke the silence.

 

“How bad is he, Jess?” Andy waited. Almost holding his breath, for he knew, in his heart of hearts what was coming.

 

“Pretty bad, Andy. Doc says he has Consumption. Said that he’s probably had it for quite sometime, but hid it well.” He watched Andy’s face.

 

Andy’s life had been so hard, for one so young. He had lost both his parents, within a year of each other, when he was only thirteen. That was just before Jess had come into his and Slim’s lives. Now, he was going to lose the only other blood kin he had left. Andy had always been like a little brother to him, and his heart ached for the pain he was causing the boy, but he had to know the truth. Jess had never lied to him, and he wasn’t about to start now.

 

“How long?” Andy asked, tears now streaming from his eyes.

 

“Few weeks at most,” replied Jess. He leaned forward putting a comforting hand on the boy’s knee. Andy moved from his chair and slowly knelt on the floor in front of Jess. He put his head in Jess’ lap, just like he’d done when he was small, and wept. They sat for what seemed a long while, Jess stroking Andy’s hair, shushing him softly. It was Jess’ turn to be the comforter.

 

Their solitude was broken, when the sound of coughing came from the bedroom. “Slim needs his medicine before he can settle,” said Jess and he rose, gently lifting Andy with him. He wiped the tears from the boy’s face.

 

Andy looked at him. “I’ll be okay, Jess.”

 

“I know, Tiger.” With that he gave Andy a firm hug, and headed in the direction of the bedroom.

 

The next few weeks were as idyllic as Jess, and the boys could make them for Slim. Jess and Slim would sit on the porch, when Slim was up to it, and watch the antics of the youngsters. Remarking about what grand men they had grown into.

 

“Jonesy and Daisy would be so proud.” Slim had said one afternoon. “I know I am,” and he smiled at Jess.

 

It was on one such sunny afternoon, Jess was coming out of the barn, when for no reason he suddenly looked towards the house. He started to walk, then run towards the porch where Slim was sitting in the rocker. When he reached the porch, he could see that Slim was finding it hard to catch his breath.

 

“Hang on, Slim, I’ll get you some Laudanum.”

 

Slim stopped him. “No, Jess. It’s time.”

 

Jess knelt down beside him. “Andy! Mike!” Jess yelled, urgency in his voice.

 

Slim raised his hand to Jess. Jess took the frail fingers into his own strong grasp, and held on tight. Andy and Mike had run from the corral, and were now kneeling on the other side of the rocker. Andy placed his hand on Slim’s arm, while Mike held Slim’s other hand. Jess squeezed Slim’s hand gently, and smiled his smile while tears flowed freely down his cheeks. Slim returned the smile. He looked around at the ranch and the boys for one last time. Then turned his eyes upon Jess.

 

“Always liked that smile.” Slim had finally told him. “Take care of things for me, Pard.” He closed his eyes. Slim’s suffering was over.

 

 

 

Chapter Six

 

Nearly all of Laramie turned out for the funeral. It had been painful, but Jess and the boys had each other for comfort. They were together, and that was all that mattered. Slim would be proud.

 

Jess stood in the house doorway, coffee in hand like always. Feeling his memories, and surveying the scene before him. The day was bright and sunny, birds were singing. At the Sherman ranch another precious life had ended, but their love, and strength had seen them through those bitter days. It was good to see Andy, and Mike up to their old tricks again. What were they doing, he dreaded to think? Now he knew what Jonesy, Slim and sweet Daisy must have suffered, when he and those two were young, and making life crazy with their antics.

 

Andy had decided, that he wanted to move back home. Jess had argued the point with him, saying that Slim wouldn’t want him to give up his hopes and dreams. But Andy was adamant.

 

“Jess, all I am doing is just drifting, and I ain’t getting no where. I remember all the fun we had when I was growing up, and I truly miss the ranch. I just want to be home, working with you and Mike. Spend evenings by the fire like we used to when, Slim...”

 

“I know, Andy.” Jess remembered those days. He missed them too.

 

“Alright, if that’s what you really want.” He wasn’t going to argue. As long as Andy was happy, that was all that mattered to him. “But you know that if you ever want to...”

 

Andy jumped in “I won’t, Jess. I won’t.”

 

Of course, Jess knew the real reason. Andy wanted to be closer to him, for whatever time Jess had left to him, before he too, had to say goodbye. Joining Slim and Daisy on the hillside, overlooking their beloved home, and their boys.

 

Mike was overjoyed to learn that Andy was going to stay on. “It will be great having an older brother to fun around with.”

 

“And get into scrapes with,” laughed Jess. Mike and Andy looked at one another. Then looking back at Jess.

 

“Jess,” they said in unison. “Us. Never...” and they ran off, before he could cuff them both around the ear. Jess raised his head and searching the clear blue sky. ‘Slim these two are going to drive me crazy.’ He smiled. ‘But I wouldn’t have them any other way.’

Every evening at dusk, Jess went up the hill. He sat on the small bench under the tall poplar, that Slim’s Pa had planted, when the Sherman’s had first settled the place. There he sat, talking over the day with Slim. This was something that he and Slim, had begun many years before. When Andy or Mike were settled in bed for the night, they would sit on the porch, enjoying the quiet of the evening. They talked about their hopes, dreams, the next day’s work, anything. Slim would relax by reading, but Jess always had to have something to do with his hands. So he would usually be either making rope or whittling something. Nothing changed, Jess would sit and talk with Slim, and be either working on a piece of wood or binding some rope. Keeping this evening ritual going, somehow made Jess feel closer to Slim, and less alone for without his Pard he felt dreadfully alone. The boys were his family, yes. He loved them more than life itself, and would die for them if need be. But without Slim there, beside him, he felt incomplete.

 

 

Chapter Seven

 

There was a loud crash. Then a yell, followed by lots of scuffling, coming from...Jess wasn’t sure where it was coming from. He continued to listen, hardly daring to breathe.

 

“Mike, get that creature out of the kitchen!” It was Slim’s voice. Jess opened his eyes. He was wide-awake now and he looked around. He was in the front bedroom.

 

Slim came bustling in, looking as mad as hell, no boots and in only his underwear.

 

“That boy will be the death of me,” he grumbled as he moved behind the screen, and began pouring water into a porcelain basin.

 

Slim emerged from behind the screen, waving a bar of soap around in the air. “Would you believe it? He brought that darn raccoon in from the yard. Said it needed to take a bath. Gave Daisy a real awful fright, finding it in her sink.”

 

Jess rubbed sleep from his eyes, and stared in disbelief at his friend who was continuing, to rant and rave about Mike. Saying, that Jess was going to have words with him, about taking the animal back to the woods, where it really belonged.

 

Suddenly he stopped talking. “Jess, have you heard anything of what I just said?” Jess was still staring, he couldn’t believe his eyes.

 

“What on earth is the matter with you, boy?” Slim said staring right back at Jess.

 

“You look like you seen, a ghost or something.”

 

“Not sure if I haven’t yet,” replied Jess. Could it all have been just some horrible..?

 

“Well,” Slim began again. “Are you ever getting up? The morning is half gone, you know. We need to get those fences finished today.”

 

Jess, though still unsure, scrambled out of bed and joined Slim. He poured water into the other basin. They washed, shaved and readied themselves, for the hard day ahead. Strolling out into the kitchen, they found Daisy, still cleaning up the mess left by Mike, and the early morning bather. The aroma of bacon and coffee filled their nostrils.

 

Daisy hurriedly put away the mop and bucket. “Sit down, boys,” she said brightly. “You will need a good breakfast, before you set about those fences today.”

 

Jess sat, picking up the platter of bacon, filling his plate, then passed it to Slim, who handed Jess a plate of soft fluffy pancakes. They tucked in eagerly.

 

“Mike not having breakfast?” Jess asked.

 

“Mike is in disgrace in his room.” Daisy informed him. “I’ll have a talk with him when you’ve both gone.”

 

Slim swallowed his mouthful of pancake. “Remember, Daisy. Be firm. Let’s see, the chicken coop needs cleaning. That should keep him out of trouble.” Then he added, as an after thought, “And he needs to get down to those books of his too. Then Jess’ll talk to him tonight about taking that critter back to the woods.”

 

“Why me?” Jess asked.

 

“Maybe because, it was you, who let him bring it home in the first place.” Slim carried on eating.

 

Jess looked sheepish, but nodded. “Okay, I’ll talk with him.”

“Coffee, Jess?” Daisy’s smile was as clear and as bright as the morning.

 

“Mmm...please, Daisy.” Daisy filled Jess’ cup.

 

“Daisy, why do you always ask, Jess if he wants coffee in the morning, and never me?” Slim questioned, holding out his still empty cup.

 

“Slim, dear,” Daisy said, in her usual motherly voice, as she filled his cup for him. “You, are always up with the lark, bright eyed, and wide awake in the morning. Jess, on the other hand, needs a little more help to get started, and ‘COFFEE’ is the magic word.” She and Slim both chuckled and looked across at Jess, who glared at them across the rim of his cup.

 

Slim smiled and jumped up, eager to get on. “Come on, Jess get a move on, we haven’t got all day.” With that, he took his coffee with him and headed for the barn, and the day’s work.

 

“What’s wrong, Jess? Didn’t you sleep well? quizzed Daisy.

 

“I’m fine, Daisy.” Actually he still wasn’t too sure.

 

“You look a little pale, dear,” she said, brushing back his dark locks, feeling his forehead. “You don’t have a fever.” That was his Daisy. Always fretting for him, but knowing just when he needed her.

 

She sat down next to him, laying a small hand gently on his. She poured herself some coffee and refilled Jess’.

 

“I did want to tell you something,” Jess started, but then unsure how to continue. Had the horror of the last few hours, been just a dream, or was this? He wasn’t sure. All he was sure of was that Daisy was there, and he needed to talk to her.

 

“What is it, dear, nothing serious I hope?” There was a note of concern in her voice. Something was troubling Jess and obviously upsetting him, she thought.

 

“It concerns what you were saying...yesterday.” He thought it was yesterday anyway. “What you were saying to Mike about everyone being afraid of something, and that even I was afraid of something but didn’t know what it was.” He saw the concern slip fleetingly across her face.

 

“Go on, dear,” she encouraged. “I’m listening.”

 

“I just wanted to tell you, that I know now what it is, and I’m not afraid anymore.” He rose from the table, and kissed her on the forehead. Then he started to head for the door, grabbing his hat from the nearby peg. Daisy followed, stopping him. He put his hat on, looking into her sweet face. She stood as tall as she could. Pushing back his hat, she saw deep blue eyes, gazing down at her. She pulled his face down to hers, gently kissing him on the cheek.

 

“Have a good day, dear.” With that she turned, and went about clearing the breakfast dishes. Daisy understood him so well. He couldn’t fathom how, but it made his heart glad. Jess left through the open doorway. The ugliness of last night, started to fade.

The morning was fresh and clear. Slim was already busy, saddling the horses. They had a couple of hours ride ahead of them, up to the top forty. Where they were to finish off the repairs to the fences and Slim was eager to get going.

 

Jess pulled on his gloves as he entered the barn. “Slim?” Jess ventured as he tightened the cinch on Traveler.

 

“Yeah, Jess,” Slim replied.

 

Jess hesitated. Maybe he should just let it alone. He continued to ready his horse.

 

“Something on your mind?” Slim asked, looking over Alamo’s back to where Jess stood, his back turned to him.

 

“Had a dream last night.”

 

Slim was smiling. “Yeah, I know.”

 

“What do you mean, you know?” Jess said, turning in puzzlement to look at Slim.

 

“You were tossing around some, and talking in your sleep. It was like sleeping with Mike. Never known you, to be so restless.”

 

“Hope I didn’t disturb you too much, Slim,” Jess replied, feeling his cheeks flush.

 

“Not much,” Slim replied. “Took me a devil of a time, to settle you down though. You kept throwing off your blankets at one point. Had to rub your back for an age, to quiet you. Don’t know why, but it always seems to work. Whether you’re sick, or just fighting mad.”

 

Jess didn’t speak. Slim rubbing his back, he remembered that, least he thought he did.

 

Slim was smiling again. “Heard some pretty interesting things too, I can tell you.”

 

Jess went a whiter shade of pale. Thoughts buzzed through his head. ‘How much had Slim heard? What had Slim heard?’ He shifted his feet on the dirt floor. Suddenly feeling, uncomfortable and uneasy. In fact, he thought he’d rather be facing someone down in the street, than be standing here with Slim at this precise moment.

 

Slim came around Alamo, giving Jess that smile he knew so well. He put a hand on Jess’ shoulder, giving it an affectionate squeeze.

 

“Don’t worry, Pard,” he said, “you won’t ever lose me.”

 

Jess looked straight at Slim, trying to show no emotion. Slim had obviously heard everything.

 

“Goodbye doesn’t mean forever, Jess. We’ll wait for each other.” Slim continued, “It wouldn’t be heaven without you there beside me.” Tears were welling up in two pairs of blue eyes.

Slim squeezed Jess’ shoulder again, then playfully flicked the brim of Jess’ hat.

 

“Now can we get on with some work today?” he said wiping away the tears from his face. “Or shall we make a slight detour. Go find a nice shady spot, under a tree maybe?” There was now a broad grin on his face, and mischief in his eyes.

 

“Slim?” Jess began hesitantly.

 

“No, Jess.” Slim put up a hand, stopping him. He knew exactly what Jess was about to say, and they had a rule. They didn’t need words, to know how either of them felt, about the other.

 

“But what about the fences, Slim?”

 

“Tomorrow will do,” Slim said as he mounted.

 

Jess smiled at his friend. “Shady spot sounds perfect. But let’s make sure we steer clear of any, poisonous plants this time,” chuckling, as he mounted Traveler. He was recalling the last time they had played hooky.

 

They had been fishing up at the lake. Resulting in Slim, rolling into some poison oak. Jess couldn’t remember, who had pushed who, into the water first. He only remembered the laughter as he and Slim had dragged themselves back to the bank. It was while they were lying in the afternoon warmth to dry their clothes, that Slim must have laid on some poison oak. Daisy had definitely not believed their tale of Slim’s horse being spooked while they were rounding up strays- Slim being thrown, into the patch of poisonous leaves.

 

Jess wanted to spend a quiet day with just his Pard. Then savor each and every day they had together. Until they had to say goodbye, now knowing, that it would only be for a short while. That was what he was afraid of. Having to say goodbye to Slim. The only true friend and family, he had ever known. Slim was his rock, his foundation. As they rode out of the yard together, Daisy waved to them from the open kitchen door, blowing them both a kiss.

 

“Don’t be late now. Oh, and try to remember. Keep away from any, itchy looking plants, when you’re up there mending those fences!” There was a twinkle in her eyes.

 

They looked at each other, ‘busted’, and they hadn’t even left home yet. How did she do it?

 

“We won’t,” they shouted over their shoulders. Laughing loudly they waved back to her, carrying on out of the yard, up the steep road to the top of the hill.

 

Jess and Slim looked at one another, smiling as they rode along side by side. Together. Secure in the knowledge, that they were and always would be family. Jess, assured in the knowledge, that saying goodbye, didn’t mean forever.

 

They would wait for each other. Ride together the endless trails of the heavens. Pards forever.

 

Never again to be parted.

 

Never again to say goodbye.

 

 

 

 

 



 





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