The Good Life


by Badger



Season: After 4

THE GOOD LIFE

By Badger

Season: After 4    

Summary: When a rogue bear begins killing cattle, Slim and Jess must rid the range of this menace

Author’s Note: Thanks to Nan and Hired Hand, the best beta’s in the business, with a special shout out to my pal Gina

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"Friends are like pillars on your porch. Sometimes they hold you up and sometimes they lean on you." Author unknown

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PART ONE

The great beast lurked high on the hillside. Sated now, his belly full for the first time in days, he slept, content until hunger would call him again and he lumbered out of his den in search of new prey. He was old for his kind, his teeth worn down and dulled, his gait slow, making every day a fight for survival, prompting him to search for new range and a new food source.

His hunger had led him out of the mountains and down into the unfamiliar hills, into a land filled with cattle.

And men.

oOoOoOo

Fences were the bane of his existence, Jess Harper decided as he doffed his battered Stetson and wiped the sweat off his forehead with a grimy sleeve. Building fences, checking fences, fixing fences -- some days it seemed like the Sherman Ranch had a million miles of fences, all of them needing his attention in one way or another.

He slid the hat back onto his dark curls and looked around with a grin. Odd, how a man could be hot and sweaty and, all right, he was gonna admit it, if only to himself, happy. Sure, he griped about the never-ending chores and the hard work, but the truth was, for the first time in his life, Jess knew that he was living the good life.  It surely wasn’t the kind of thing most men would think of that way, figuring that a fat wallet and fancy duds and high-class accommodations were what mattered.

Money had never mattered much to Jess Harper, not as long as he had enough to eat and a few dollars in his pocket for the occasional night of poker or a bottle of good whiskey. And a fancy place to sleep wasn’t that important either, though he did enjoy such a luxury on occasion. He’d stayed once at the best hotel in Denver, and he could honestly say that it didn’t hold a candle to where he hung his hat now -- a place where he belonged, a place he actually, honest to God owned a piece of, a place where he had, not kin, but family none the less -- the good life, as Slim liked to call it.

And Slim was right.

It was good.

And it was home.

The final strand of wire tacked to the last post, Jess packed up the tools, mounted up on his good bay horse, and started the long ride back to the ranch through the bright sunshine of a beautiful late spring afternoon. He liked Wyoming at this time of year -- blue skies arching overhead dotted with the occasional cottony white cloud, warm temperatures that were neither too hot nor too cold to be comfortable, and a refreshing pine-scented breeze flowing down off the mountains. High above, a hawk called as it hunted on the afternoon thermals, its lonely cry the only sound except for the wind in the trees and the metallic click of Traveler’s shoes on the rocky trail.

Home, and supper, were an hour away.

Yeah, this life was good, incredibly good for a man who’d been a wanderer, living on the drift for years, rarely knowing where his next meal would come from or where he’d lay his head from one night to the next. Owning only what he could carry with him on his horse. Wishing he had eyes in the back of his head so he could watch his own back trail. Riding in search of something that he couldn’t name but that he knew was waiting for him somewhere up ahead. And then fate had brought Jess to this small Wyoming ranch, to a steady job and a solid friendship, to a real home and a makeshift family that was as important to him as any blood kin could be. The Sherman Ranch had been the place where the wanderer had unexpectedly found he didn’t need to wander any further.

Oh, it wasn’t all cake and roses. There had been plenty of rocky times in the past three years, times he’d been on the verge of leaving and heading back to the big open, but things had sure settled down lately. Mostly that was in the last year since Daisy had come to live at the ranch, and life had purely taken a turn for the better. No more housework, well, except he did help her with the dishes some nights -- it always paid to stay on Daisy’s good side. But no more of Slim’s cooking, or his own. Daisy sure fixed some tasty grub. Jess smiled in anticipation of the first-rate supper that would be waiting for him back at the ranch. But there wouldn’t be any pie tonight, he realized with disappointment. He’d tried his best just this morning to cajole Daisy into baking an apple pie, but she’d informed him that there wasn’t so much as one single apple left in the house.

The thought of pie suddenly made him recall the berry patch he’d seen this morning on the way out to his day’s work of checking waterholes and fence lines. If he stopped on his way back and picked a batch of blackberries to take home to Daisy, he’d for sure get pie tomorrow night.

And blackberry pie was near as good as apple.

At least, when Daisy was the cook.

Mind made up, Jess spurred Traveler into a lope and headed for the bramble-covered hillside. He pulled up near the berry patch ten minutes later, wrapped his horse’s reins around a tree branch, and waded into the thick, thorny bushes. Eating a few of the sweet, lush berries as he worked, he had his hat nearly full when he heard something moving on the hillside above him.

Jess stopped, looking around, noting that his horse, too, was staring up the slope, head up, ears pitched forward and muscles quivering.

He listened. The quiet was nearly absolute. There were a few bees buzzing around in the berry bushes, an occasional flutter of wind sighing mournfully through the nearby pines, and a squirrel chattering loudly from high in a tree halfway up the slope. Nothing seemed wrong, and yet, he sensed something ominous, as if a shadow had suddenly darkened the bright day.

He heard the noise again. It seemed closer this time -- a faint click-clicking sound and a sortt of heavy breathing or snuffling. Then the breeze shifted direction a bit, and he caught a sudden, strong whiff of animal scent, rank and nasty, like something recently dead. A shiver raced down his spine as the hairs rose on the back of his neck. Trying to look everywhere around him at once, Jess drew his Colt and began quietly retreating, moving slowly and carefully back down the hill toward his horse.

Reaching Traveler, Jess holstered his six-gun, patting the nervous animal’s neck before he untied the bay. He carefully balanced his hat full of berries in his left hand as he jumped for the stirrup, spilling some of the fruit as the nervous horse spun away from him, but Jess made it safely up into the saddle. He could see better now from the greater height of being on horseback. Looking down into the thick tangle of bushes, for a brief moment he thought he saw something big and brown moving slowly in the midst of the berry patch, not all that far from where he’d been a few moments before. It was just a quick glimpse, though, but it left him wondering.

He watched a few moments longer, tensely, fighting to hold his anxious horse still, but he saw nothing more. Finally, he reined the edgy Traveler around and jogged away from the berry patch, the horse settling down as they moved further away. Jess guided the bay across the width of the meadow, climbed over a low hill and dropped down into one of the pastures where the main Sherman Ranch beef herd grazed.

As he rode out into the open, the cowboy’s eye was drawn to half a dozen large birds circling up ahead, congregated over the far end of the pasture.

Buzzards! Jess spurred Traveler into an easy lope, still balancing his berry-laden hat in his hand as he crossed the grassy expanse. Noticing an area where the pasture was all trampled down as if the cattle had been milling around, he slowed the bay to a walk and looked the sign over carefully. It took him only a moment to work out what had happened. Clearly, the herd had been bunched up here, all right, gathered in a tightly packed group before veering off to the east at a dead run. Jess pulled his horse to a stop and looked all around, but there was no sight or sound of anything out of the ordinary now. In fact, the valley was an entirely peaceful scene with the stock calmly grazing far off at the edge of the hills.

He nudged Traveler back into motion, riding on to the far end of the meadow, frowning as he checked on what was drawing the attention of the scavengers.  As he drew closer several more of the ungainly buzzards launching themselves into the air with noisy cries, leaving behind something brown in the tall grass.

“What the blazes!” Jess exclaimed. Now he could see what the patch of brown was, the hide of a steer, or what was left of it, torn to shreds. He slid Traveler to a stop and stepped down, still carrying his berry-filled hat, set the Stetson safely down on the grass out of range of the ground-tied horse’s hooves, and walked closer to the carcass.

The wind swirled and shifted, the sickly sweet odor of death suddenly enveloping him so strongly it made him gag. Hastily he pulled his neckerchief up around the lower half of his face in a vain attempt to filter out the stench rising off the dead animal. It was impossible to tell what had happened to the steer; there wasn’t much left of its bloated body but bones and hide.  A whole passel of scavengers had obviously been working at it in addition to the buzzards -- likely a large pack of coyotes, maybe even wolves. He walked slowly all around the carcass, carefully reading the sign. The small dog-like prints were coyote tracks and the bigger ones, they were the tracks of wolves.

It was the paw print that he saw next that stopped Jess dead in his tracks like he’d just run head-on into a brick wall. The size of it was stunning, wider and longer than his hand, deeply indented into the damp earth as if the creature that left it was big and heavy. Jess swallowed, lifting his head to look uneasily around the silent pasture, the sun-filled meadow suddenly gone dark and chill with lurking menace.

The last track was that of a bear, a big, big bear, certainly a grizzly. They weren’t common down in these hills; in the three years Jess had worked on the Sherman Ranch he’d never come across one or even seen the sign of one. He knew grizzlies were common not so far away in the high country of the Rockies, the Big Horn range, and in the mountains up along the Yellowstone. He’d heard more than a few stories over the years about how big and tough and deadly the huge bears were.

Jess swallowed, looking back toward the hill he’d just left. The thing in the berry patch -- had that been the bear that had made this kill?

He went back to studying the tracks, uneasily watching for movement out of the corners of his eyes even as he was noting that one of the bear’s paw prints was oddly shaped. Bending down to examine the track more closely, he decided that the bear was missing two toes. The beast had likely at some time been caught in a trap.

Injured -- maybe that explained why the grizzly had taken to eating Sherman beef.

Finally, with nothing more that he could learn from studying the scene, Jess reclaimed his hat, mounted up carefully and rode for home.

oOoOoOo

“We’ve got trouble, Slim,” Jess announced breathlessly as an hour later he strode into the house, still balancing the hat full of berries in one hand. He set it down on the small table beneath the hat and coat rack just inside the front door before turning to find the tall rancher who was both his boss and his best friend.

Slim looked up from his seat at the roll-top desk where he did the ranch’s books, setting down the pencil he’d been using, placing it in the fold of the open page of the ranch account book. “What sort of trouble?”

“I found a dead steer over in the west pasture,” Jess reported as he unbuckled his gunbelt and hung it on one of the pegs near the door.

A look of apprehension appeared on Slim’s normally unlined face. “Sick?”

“Not that I could tell, and the rest of the herd looks fine. What I found was tracks all around the carcass, including bear.”

Slim shook his head in disbelief. “A bear?”

“A big one.”

Just then Daisy stepped out of the kitchen carrying a plate of food to the table for Jess, who had arrived too late to join the others for the evening meal. She stopped, her eyes going big and round.

“A grizzly?” Slim asked, looking alarmed.

Jess hurried over and took a seat at the table, throwing Daisy an appreciative smile as he tucked a napkin into his shirt collar. “I imagine so. Never saw a black bear track that big,” he answered, picking up his knife and fork, anxious to tuck into his supper.

“You sure?” Slim’s face wore a look of puzzlement and worry. “We’ve never had a grizzly down in these foothills.”

“Well you do now.” The hungry cowboy steered a forkful of roast beef into his mouth and began chewing.

Just then, Daisy spied Jess’ hat, clapping her hands with delight. “Jess! Where ever did you find those berries?”

“Up in the hills. Thought you might like to make a pie,” Jess told her, grinning around a mouthful of potatoes.

Slim shot to his feet and his face went tight, disbelief coloring his voice. “You were pickin’ berries around a grizzly bear kill?”

“Picked those earlier, before I knew about the bear. Although,” Jess’ look was thoughtful, “I did hear somethin’ when I was in that berry patch. Sure got my horse all worked up.”

“Dadgum it, Jess, did you ever *consider* usin’ your head for somethin’ more than a bucket to carry rocks?” Slim snapped. “What were you thinkin’? Pickin’ berries around bear sign?”

Jess finished chewing and speared another piece of roast beef with his fork. “Well, I sure wasn’t thinkin’ there’d be a bear in there.”

“Slim?” Daisy was looking at the ranch owner worriedly. “This bear, are we in danger?”

The tall rancher softened his expression as he turned to the housekeeper. “It’s probably just travelin’ through, Daisy. There’s too many people and too much activity down in this country for a grizzly to stay. You don’t need to be worryin’ about it.”

oOoOoOo

The next day, Slim and Jess rode out together to check the herd and found another kill, this one older than the one Jess had come upon the day before. There was even less left of it, but there was no shortage of sign around the carcass. It took Jess only a few minutes to find the same huge and oddly misshapen bear track he’d seen the day before.

“It’s a grizzly all right,” Slim confirmed after looking at the tracks around the remains, picked clean down to the bones. “And a big one.” He climbed back into the saddle, reining up alongside Jess’ horse. “We’ll have to keep a close watch on the stock.”

Jess’ eyes narrowed. “I thought you said he’d move on.”

“I expect he will. But let’s keep an eye out, huh, just in case?”

“Maybe we could bait him, draw him out if he’s still around here,” Jess suggested.

“Bait him with what?” the rancher asked, “There’s nothin’ left of this steer,” he added, getting himself a drink from his canteen to wash away the stench of death that clung to the carcass.

Jess grinned, answering smartly, “There’s always us.”

Slim frowned at the joke.  “Don’t be takin’ this bear so lightly, Jess.”  The tall rancher’s worry was plain to hear in his quiet tone of voice. “You ever come up against a grizzly?”

“No,” Jess answered honestly. “I’ve seen a few, north of here up along the Yellowstone, but I’ve never tangled with one.”

“And you don’t want to.” Slim’s frown deepened. “Any grizzly is dangerous and a wounded one is doubly so. Keep that in mind. Don’t let your guard down for a second.”

“I won’t.” Jess hefted the rifle he carried. “This will stop him.”

Slim nodded in agreement. “Just, you be careful, huh?”

“Am I ever anything else?” Jess asked cheerfully.

“You don’t want me to answer that question, pard,” Slim countered with a grin, his good humor returned.

oOoOoOo

The two men all but lived in the saddle during the next week, riding dawn to dusk, moving the herd away from the area of the grizzly kills; checking the cattle more often than their usual routine, and always keeping an eye out for any fresh bear sign. After the fifth day with no new evidence of the grizzly, Slim started to relax. The bear had probably moved back up into its normal range in the high country, he decided.

That night, at supper, Slim announced that they’d be going back to their regular work schedule.  “We’ve spent enough time worryin’ about that bear. I’ll bet he’s back up in the Yellowstone by now, gettin’ fat before the winter sets in.”

“So there’s no more need to worry?” Daisy asked optimistically.

Slim patted her hand. “None. We’ll probably never see another grizzly down here in my lifetime.”

Jess chuckled. “An’ I sure hope you have a very long lifetime, Slim.”

oOoOoOo

Weeks went by.  The cool days of spring passed on into the heat of summer, time filled with long days spent on the hundreds of chores required to keep the ranch and relay station running.  Slim and Jess watched diligently for any further signs of the big bear, but spotted none, and they both settled back into the routine of the ranch, worries about the grizzly fading into the background of their daily lives.

 

PART TWO

“Come on, roll out, sleepyhead,” Slim called out cheerfully as he entered the bedroom, already dressed for the day.

Jess raised his head from the pillow and looked around, rubbing sleep from his eyes. One glance at the window and he noted with surprise, “Hey, it’s still dark out!”

“Yeah, and if we’re gonna be in the saddle by sun-up, you better shake a leg.” Jess wasn’t much of a morning person, especially before he had his first cup of coffee of the day, Slim knew all too well.  “Coffee’s hot, pard.”

Jess groaned but threw back his blankets, swinging his feet to the floor and sitting up on the edge of the bunk. Yawning widely, he ran his hands through his unruly thick hair. “Why couldn’t morning come later, huh?” he groused at Slim’s disappearing back.

In a moment, Slim returned to the bedroom, brandishing a steaming cup of coffee in his hand. “You know it’s a long ride up to the north pasture. If we get going now, we could make it home by supper, if there ain’t too many strays.” Slim handed over the cup. Experience had shown him that if coffee couldn’t rouse his partner, the promise of food always could.

“There’s always too many strays,” Jess groused, standing and stretching before taking the coffee and gulping down a large mouthful. The caffeine started to clear his head as he walked over to the wash basin along the far wall. He threw cold water in his face, then found his pants and pulled them up over his underwear, slipping into his shirt and tucking it in before buttoning his jeans and fastening his belt. Sitting back down on the edge of the bed, he yawned hugely as he pulled on his socks, then stuck his feet into his boots. He retrieved his coffee cup and emptied the remainder in three big gulps before carrying it with him as he headed out the bedroom door after Slim.

The tall rancher was in the kitchen, slathering butter and some of Daisy’s strawberry jam over last night’s left-over biscuits. He handed two of them to Jess and consumed one more himself while Jess poured himself another cup of coffee to wash down the food.

“I hate a cold breakfast,” Jess grumbled, his mouth full.

“You hate gettin’ up this early, that’s what you hate,” Slim disagreed good naturedly as he buttered the last of the biscuits.

“It ain’t natural for a man to get up before the sun does.” Jess finished his first biscuit and took a bite of his second.

Slim slapped the shorter man on the shoulder, grinning cheerfully. “You’ll survive, pard. Now let’s get goin’, huh?”

Jess polished off the last of his hasty meal, licking the crumbs off his lips before snatching his jacket off the peg by the door. He slid it on, slapped his hat on his head and buckled on his gunbelt as he headed outside, trailing the tall rancher.

Quickly, they saddled their horses and mounted up, loping their mounts side by side out of the ranch yard just as the sun’s first rays appeared over the horizon to the east.

oOoOoOo

Slim and Jess had already put in long hours of hard work by the time noon rolled around, fixing two downed sections of fence and retrieving nearly a dozen strays.

“How about we take a break for lunch, huh?” Jess suggested, pulling off his hat and wiping his face with his sleeve. “I didn’t get enough breakfast to keep me alive until sundown.”

Slim shook his head, wondering as always how Jess could eat so much. He’d long ago decided the cowboy must be making up for lean pickings as a kid.  “I guess the horses could use a rest,” Slim agreed with a grin.

“The horses? How about us?” Jess peered around. “Over there. That’d make a good spot.” He spurred Traveler along the sloping hillside to a small level area. The place was dotted with boulders ranging from the size of a bushel basket to some as big as a house, rocks that had tumbled down from the hillside above in some ancient cataclysm. The spot was high enough to offer a panoramic view down into the draw and across the rows of rolling, pine-dotted hills that stretched clear to the horizon.

There were a few thin, struggling pines clinging to the rocky ground amid the boulders, and Jess dismounted near a clump of them, looking for the sturdiest tree to use as a hitching post for Traveler. Slim had reined up twenty yards away, doing the same for Alamo, then pulled from his saddlebags a paper-wrapped parcel that contained their lunch -- the last of the biscuits filled with thick slices of ham and topped with cheese. He carried the food over to a spot next to one of the biggest rocks, a monstrous boulder nearly the size of the barn. Sliding down the edge of the rock to sit with his long legs stretched out in front of him, he shared the food with Jess who’d flopped down on the ground beside him, their shoulders almost touching.

Jess bit into the biscuit filled with slices of ham and cheese, chewing a bit and savoring the meal before wiping his mouth and asking. “How’d we ever survive before Daisy showed up and made food like this, uh?”

“I don’t hardly remember,” Slim admitted thoughtfully, then gave way to a grin. “Then again, we spent less time paintin’ barns and whitewashin’ fences.”

“But more time cookin’ and cleanin’,” Jess reminded around another mouthful of biscuit sandwich.

“True. But we made up for it with less time eatin’.”

Jess chuckled. “Now that’s for sure.”

They ate the rest of the food without talking, washing down the meal with water from their canteens, and enjoying the view that stretched out across the rolling range of hills toward the Laramie Mountains just a few miles to the east.

“Ya know, Jess, this is good country up here,” Slim remarked thoughtfully, his eyes scanning the horizon. He was always planning and thinking ahead on ways to improve the ranch. “We could probably run a few more cattle up in these hills.” He drank from his canteen, then his eyes sparkled as he fought to keep a serious look on his face. “Course, we’d have to fence that whole north section to do it.”

Jess frowned as he wiped crumbs from his mouth. “That whole north section? Dadgum it, Slim, you can’t be serious. That gap must be ten miles wide. Why, it’d take all summer to fence that, without leavin’ time out for hayin’ or cuttin’ wood or the round-up.”

“And I know how much you love fencin’,” Slim hid his grin by devouring the last bite of his second ham-and-cheese-filled biscuit.

Jess crumpled up the empty brown paper wrapper from their lunch and playfully threw it at his friend, hitting him in the chest. “You wanna build that fence, pard, you’ll have to build it yourself.”

Slim laughed. “C’mon, hotshot, let’s finish roundin’ up those strays and git for home, huh?”

oOoOoOo

High up on the hillside, a tantalizing scent tickled the great carnivore’s sensitive nose, drawing him from his sleep. He stood, head held high as he tested the breeze, searching for more of the enticing smell before lumbering out of his hiding place, following the scent of food down the hillside and through the jumble of fallen rocks.

 

PART THREE

Finished eating, Slim climbed to his feet, wiping crumbs off his shirt before picking up the discarded paper along with his canteen. “Reckon we’d better get back at it if we’re gonna be home before the moon rises. We’ve got to check that last stretch of fence on the way back.”

Jess stood, dusting off his pants with a sweep of his hat. “I’ll ride the west side of the stream,” he volunteered as he headed back to his horse. He hung his canteen over the saddle horn, tightened Traveler’s cinch, and untied the bay’s reins, holding them loosely in his hand. “How about -- ”

The unexpected commotion behind him caused him to stop midsentence. He heard Slim’s sorrel snort and then the tall rancher’s wild shout of “Whoa!” as he spun around in time to see Alamo rear and pull back, head high and eyes rolling in terror.

Slim was fighting to control the panicking animal, the terrified horse dragging the rancher backward over the rough ground like he’d just gone loco. “Whoa! Whoa!”

Wondering what could have caused Slim’s horse to blow up that way, Jess’ attention was torn away from the scene when out of the blue his own horse spooked just as violently, Traveler spinning and jerking back hard. “What in the blue bla … ?” The rest of Jess’ words were cut off as a fierce growl erupted out of the rocks behind Slim, followed by a roar that sounded like the devil himself. Jess twisted around to look over at his partner whose hoarse shout of surprise and pain was cut off in mid-yell as something big and brown and fast bowled him over and Alamo bolted.

Jess grabbed his rifle from its scabbard in the split-second before a lunging Traveler ripped the reins out of his hand and tore off after Alamo at a dead gallop.

He snapped the Winchester up to his shoulder, sighting in on his target the second he caught a glimpse of the shaggy brown beast rocketing out of the boulders. But he couldn’t pull the trigger -- the raging bear was nearly on top of Slim, and he couldn’t be sure his bullet wouldn’t hit his pard.

Knowing he was racing headlong into danger but having no thought of anything but helping his friend, Jess pulled his gun down and ran toward Slim. He dodged through the scattered rocks, stumbling once and sliding to his knees, the few seconds it took him to reach Slim seeming like hours, and then he was there amid the boulders, so close he could smell the rank scent of the giant, snarling carnivore.

The tall man was on the ground, curled into a ball against a large rock, trying to protect himself from the beast’s swatting paws, blood smeared on his back and head.

“Hey, bear!” Jess shouted as he drew close. “Bear! Hey! Bear!”

For Jess, the next few moments all seemed to happen in slow motion.

The grizzly spun with an earsplitting roar, and with shocking speed for a creature of its bulk, charged straight at Jess.

He had only a split-second to swing the carbine up to his shoulder and no time at all to take aim, just the opportunity to point the weapon toward the on-rushing beast. With the grizzly bearing down on him, Jess squeezed the trigger, feeling the familiar kick as the gun discharged. He thought he saw the bear shudder as he pumped another round into the chamber, the thunderously loud shot echoing round and round in the confined space amid the rocks, but it was already too late. That fast, the grizzly was on him. One huge paw swatted the rifle from his hand with a blow that momentarily numbed his arm from fingertips to shoulder and tossed him in the air to land jarringly on the rough ground. The numbness didn’t last long as the bright red of blood spilled from the torn flesh of his upper arm, splattering the shredded sleeve of his jacket and setting a thousand nerve endings on fire as bone grated on bone.

Jess had no time to contemplate his broken arm because the bear was on him again that fast. He hollered, a hoarse cry of surprise and pain as the creature’s teeth clamped down on his left foot. The sound of bone crunching was surprisingly loud as the grizzly’s teeth sank effortlessly through the thick leather of his boots and cut deep into his flesh.

Frantically he clawed for his Colt, but the numbed fingers of his right hand failed to find a grip as the bear dragged him across the rough ground. Jess kicked desperately at the grizzly with his free foot, raking the spur across the creature’s face again and again, jabbing wildly at the grizzly’s eyes. That got a reaction -- the vise-like grip on his foot eased, but he wasn’t completely released. The bear shook him and then tossed the cowboy like a ragdoll, his six-gun spilling out of its holster.

Jess hit the ground with bone-jarring force, rolling over and over in the dust to land stunned amid the pines. Shaking his head, spitting dirt from between his teeth, he looked up to see the bear turn away, growling as it stalked back toward Slim, who was sitting up now, blood running down his face as he looked around in confusion.

Jess glanced frantically from side to side, searching for his gun. His rifle was nowhere in sight, but there was his pistol, lying in the dirt only a few feet away. He crawled toward it, desperately reaching out with his left hand and managing to curl his fingers around the butt of his Colt.

There was only one way a .45 slug could slow down a grizzly, Jess knew, and that was with a point blank shot in a vital spot. He didn’t know how he did it, but somehow, right arm dangling uselessly, left hand curled tightly around the walnut grip of his handgun, he forced himself to his feet and staggered toward the creature that was once again lumbering toward Slim, snarling.

“Hey! Here! Over here, bear! Over here!” Jess’ shout sounded more like a weak croak to his own ears, but it was enough to get the grizzly’s attention. Turning away from the still-down Slim, the bear growled, standing up on its hind feet to its full ten-foot height for a split second as if searching for this interloper who had interrupted his hunt. The creature sniffed the air, dropped back down to all fours, and snarling, charged once again.

Jess stood his ground and watched the devil, and maybe death, run right at him. He stared the animal in its cold, dark eyes, and pointed his Colt where he was looking, praying his left-handed aim was on-target. The beast was only feet away when he pulled the trigger once, twice, three times, and a final fourth time split seconds before the grizzly barreled into him, smashing him down to the ground with a glancing blow from its giant body. Jess tumbled, rolling over and over, crashing into a boulder with bruising force that left him seeing stars, but the bear didn’t follow.

Oddly, it didn’t stop to savage him this time, either. The grizzly roared past, staggering, slowly turning back toward him but stumbling like a cowboy who’d blown a month’s wages in one night at the saloon. Jess watched in disbelief as the great creature stopped suddenly, shaking its massive head, its huge shoulders swaying from side to side, and then without warning crashed to its side with a thud that shook the ground. Gasping, its bloody mouth opened and closed as its huge paws twitched, its claws tearing up the ground, and then the beast’s whole body suddenly convulsed in its death throes and it lay still.

Jess pushed himself off the ground once more, standing with wobbly legs braced wide as the adrenaline pumped through him, and he sucked in a great lung full of air. He watched until he was confident that the huge bear really was dead, and then, weaving drunkenly on his feet, he turned and stumbled toward Slim.

Halfway there, the pain abruptly hit him in earnest, his body suddenly ablaze with breathtaking agony. Jess shuddered and stumbled, but he didn’t stop moving until he got to Slim’s side, falling to his knees beside his friend.

“Slim. Pard.” The left shoulder of Slim’s jacket was sliced to ribbons, and there was blood clotted thickly in the light-colored hair and trailing down the side of his face. The spot he was sitting in, however, wedged between a couple of boulders the size of a half-grown steer, seemed to have protected him somewhat from the bear’s wrath. Jess reached out a hand, touching the tall man’s face. Slim moaned and his eyes fluttered open, confusion registering there momentarily before suddenly fixing on Jess’ face.

“You look like you ended up on the wrong end of a fight,” Slim muttered woozily, his eyes glazed.

Jess reached up with his left hand, his only working one, to wipe some of the blood from his friend’s face. “We’re on the right end, pard; we’re alive.” He waved his arm at the bulk of the dead animal lying a dozen yards away. “I think….” A wave of dizziness and soaring pain roared through him as the last of the adrenaline rush suddenly ebbed away, and Jess sank down to sit next to Slim in the dirt, panting. “I think… we got the…the better end of it.” He tried to smile and failed, the expression morphing into a grimace.

The rancher was more alert now, taking stock of his own injuries and squinting as he looked more closely at Jess. The last thing he remembered was his friend facing down the grizzly with nothing more than a Colt in his hand. Now Jess sat on the ground, using his left hand to cradle his right arm which hung bloody and limp. His left boot was torn and gouged and leaking a considerable amount of blood. Most worrisome, his face was nearly as white as the puffy clouds that floated lazily in the sky overhead. “You ain’t lookin’ so good, Jess.”

“I ain’t feelin’ so good, neither,” the cowboy sighed. “I think my arm’s busted.” He looked up. “How ‘bout you?” With his good arm he waved at Slim’s bloody head.

“I musta hit that rock when he knocked me down,” Slim raised a hand to gingerly touch his scalp and wasn’t surprised when it came away wet with blood. “Looks worse than it is, I reckon. My head’s hard.”

Jess chuckled. “Why d’ya think I call ya Hard Rock?”

Slim was growing more alert with each passing second, looking around with growing concern. “You’re sure that bear’s dead?”

Jess managed a thin smile. “Yeah, it’s dead.”

“Good,” Slim was pondering their next move, despite the pounding headache that was making it hard to think. “What about our horses?”

“Long gone. Way they were runnin’, they’re probably all the way to Laramie by now.”

Slim sighed. “Then somebody ought to come lookin’ for us.”

“It’ll be like findin’ a needle in a haystack.”

“Someone could track ‘em back this way.”

“That’d take a good tracker.”

“There’s mighty few a’them in town.” Slim observed, realizing the best one he knew was sitting beside him, more bloody than he was.

“We could build us a signal fire,” Jess suggested.

“Yeah, maybe later. We’ve got to get some water first, Jess.” Slim sat up a bit straighter, wincing as the torn skin of his back protested the move. His shoulder hurt, but thankfully, unlike Jess, nothing felt broken. “We crossed a stream on the way up here; it can’t be too far back. Think you can walk on that foot?”

Jess looked down at his boot, taking his first good look at the damage and not liking what he saw. The leather was shredded and torn, bright red blood soaking his formerly white sock, and from the feel of it, something inside was definitely in more pieces than it was supposed to be. “Don’t reckon I’ve got much choice, do I?”

Slim looked Jess over carefully, worried about the battering his friend had taken. “It’ll be easier for ya’ ta’ move if we steady that arm a bit first,” he said, reaching over and carefully lifting the broken limb with both hands.

“Aggh, that hurts!” Jess protested.

“Sorry, pard,” Slim apologized but kept a firm hold on Jess’ arm, carefully tucking Jess’ right hand inside the gap between the buttons of his light blue shirt. “How’s that?”

“M-much better,” Jess snapped. “Don’t hurt at all now.”

Slim ignored the sarcasm. “Good then. I won’t have ta’ listen to you complainin’.” The tall rancher braced one hand on the boulder he was sitting against and levered himself up slowly to his full height. His head spun sickeningly as he stood, and his knees threatened to buckle and pitch him back to the ground, but he was upright and with a determined effort of will managed to stay that way. Once he felt steady enough, he reached a hand down to take hold of Jess’ left arm, helping the shorter cowboy to his feet. Jess reeled, his face blanching a disturbing shade of grey. Slim caught at him, ignoring the pull on his own slashed shoulder. “You gonna make it?”

Jess didn’t answer, just took a half dozen deep, hard breaths before he nodded. “Let’s go before any of his friends show up. If grizzly bears have friends.”

“I don’t think so,” said Slim.

Jess sighed. “I really hope you’re right.”

Slim gathered up their guns, Jess using the battered carbine like a crutch, and together they stumbled slowly past the beast’s bloody carcass.

oOoOoOo

Side by side, supporting each other, a very dizzy Slim helping a badly limping Jess, they staggered down the steep hillside like a pair of cowboys on a bender, somehow managing to keep their feet.

At the bottom of the slope, they stumbled together across the tiny meadow and over to the banks of the small stream that meandered along the bottom of the draw. In spring, the creek was likely a wide and raging torrent, but now, in the midst of summer, it was a rivulet fed only by the last of the snowmelt. There was a thin though steady stream of cold, flowing water and scattered deeper pools, thankfully more than enough to slake their thirst. Slim eased Jess to the ground beside the creek and then folded up to sit beside him. Both of them scooped water out of the rivulet with their hands, sucking it down until Jess stopped and fell back with a muffled groan.

Worried, Slim removed his kerchief, dipped it in the ice cold mountain water and wiped the blood off his own face before tying the bandana around his head. Able to see better now, he leaned over and took Jess’ neckerchief and dunked it in the stream, using it to wipe the dirt, blood, and sweat from Jess’ face. “I better take a look at that foot,” he suggested.

“Uh, huh.” Jess answered without sitting up, his eyes closed.

“I think maybe we should take your boot off.”

“No,” Jess answered firmly. “We shouldn’t.”

“I could clean it up better that way.”

Jess opened his eyes to look over at his friend. “Yeah, except I’ll need that boot to walk out of here, Slim, and if you take it off, it ain’t never gonna go back on.”

Slim realized Jess was right. Even if there were no broken bones, and from the look of it, likely there were, Jess’ foot was already badly swollen and getting more so with every passing minute. “Okay, then slide over here, let’s get your foot in the water.” He reached over and took Jess’ left hand, pulling the Texan up into a sitting position. Jess looked wobbly, his face once again that worrisome grayish hue, but he stayed sitting, bracing himself with his left hand. After gathering himself for a moment, he scooted over closer to the water until he could slide his foot into the clear liquid.

“Dang that’s cold,” Jess hissed as he dipped his foot, boot and all, into the water.

“Cold’s good,” Slim encouraged, watching with concern as an alarming amount of red swirled away into the flow of the stream. “It’ll help stop the bleeding and slow the swelling.”

“And prob’ly give me frostbite,” Jess complained.

Slim ignored Jess’ grousing and dipped the kerchief into the water again, this time rinsing the blood from Jess’ right arm. He was pleased to see that, while the arm was raked with claw marks, they weren’t nearly as deep nor as many as he’d feared. “I think your jacket protected your arm some.”

“Not near enough,” Jess contradicted, pain flashing across his face as Slim poured more water over the damaged limb.

“Looks better than I’d expected though,” Slim said as he carefully tied the kerchief around the deepest cuts in Jess’ upper arm. Tearing the tail off his shirt, he used the long strips to bind Jess’ broken arm tightly against his body. Slim tried his best to be gentle, but Jess flinched each time his arm was touched, groaning, his face turning an even whiter shade beneath his tan. “I’m sorry, I’m tryin’ to be careful, Jess,” Slim apologized.

“Just hurry up and get done, would ya?” Jess hissed through clenched teeth.

“There, that’s it.” Slim tied off the last cloth strip and leaned back to view his handiwork. “Fixed as it’s gonna get for now.”

“I’m gonna need a new jacket,” Jess mumbled, looking at the shredded sleeve. He tilted his chin at Slim’s equally torn coat. “You, too.”

“I’ll buy us both new ones. Call ‘em early Christmas presents.”

“I’m gonna hold you to that, pard.”

“You do that.” Slim was looking into the water, noting that there was now almost no blood staining the clear flowing water. “How’s your foot?”
“Cold. Sorta numb.”

“We should go then. We’ll stay close to the stream, make a few more miles before dark.”

It was an overly optimistic goal Slim realized in the first ten minutes. Jess started out strong but it took only a dozen strides before the young man’s face went pale beneath his tan and his breathing roughened.

“Put your arm over my shoulder, pard,” Slim suggested.

“You’re too dang tall,” Jess protested, but tried anyway. Throwing an arm over the tall rancher’s shoulder, he used Slim like a crutch, putting as little weight as he could on his injured foot. It was a slow and awkward way to travel but they stumbled on.

Even with leaning heavily on Slim, who was pretty wobbly himself, Jess was struggling. And after traveling what Slim figured was less than a mile, Jess’ foot was bleeding again, bright red drops accenting their boot prints in the sandy soil.

Slim wanted to stop, to let Jess rest, but he knew they had to travel as far as they could while the light lasted.

For over an hour they stumbled on before Slim finally called a halt. “Let’s rest a few minutes,” he suggested.

“I can keep goin’,” Jess offered gamely.

Slim didn’t think so. Jess looked done in, but he didn’t say it. “Well, I need a rest.” It wasn’t a lie, not really, he could barely breathe, and his head was pounding like someone was inside it playing one of those big drums they used in marching bands. He was miserable, but it was Jess he was worried about, pale and sweating and looking like he’d keel over at the tiniest gust of wind. “Just stop for a few minutes.” Slim maneuvered the two of them back to the edge of the stream, lowering Jess to the ground so that the cowboy could sit down and put his foot in the water again.

This time when he checked, Jess’ foot looked swollen tight against the sides of his boot, Slim noted worriedly.

Jess rested, eyes closed, shoulders slumped wearily, propping himself up with his left hand, unmoving. “How far’d we get?” he asked hopefully.

Slim looked back, surprised at how little ground they’d covered at such an effort. “About a mile, I suppose.”

Jess laughed humorlessly. “Good, then, we’ll be home in what, two, three weeks?”

oOoOoOo

After what Slim guessed was a half hour’s rest, they started again, staggering along for another mile as the sun began to sink toward the horizon. It would get dark quickly down in the bottom of the draw beside the stream, and Slim began searching in earnest for a spot that would offer them some kind of shelter for the night.

The light was nearly gone by the time he finally found a place he figured would do as the night’s camp, though it wouldn’t be much of a camp with no food, no coffee, and no blankets. “This’ll be a good spot to spend the night,” Slim told Jess as he helped the cowboy to sit down beside a deadfall lying near the stream. It was a big old blown-down cottonwood tree that looked like it had been carried there by the creek in spring flood. The thick trunk would make a good backrest and shelter from the chill of the wind, and the dry branches he could break off it would light easily and burn brightly.

Jess sat back, eyes closed, resting, while Slim gathered sticks and small branches as best he could, starting a fire with a match he dug from his pocket, then piling the excess wood close to the fire for use through the night.

Done, weary and aching, he sat down beside his friend, shoulder to shoulder, leaning his back against the tree trunk, and staring into the flickering flames. Bad hurt as they were, he still reckoned they were incredibly lucky just to be alive at all after an encounter with a bear, and they’d need even more luck to stay that way. He marveled at what Jess had done -- standing his ground against a charging grizzly with nothing but a pistol. More guts than brains, but a better friend, no man had ever had.

Slim shifted, trying to find a more comfortable position against the tree trunk, easing his aching shoulder. The question now was, how long would it be before someone came looking for them? That would most likely depend on how far the horses had run. Their mounts would probably show up on someone’s doorstep, but where, and when? And would whoever found them have a clue where to start looking? Maybe Slim and Jess themselves would get lucky and find the horses nearby, but he figured that was a mighty thin hope. The spooked animals could have run all the way back to the ranch, but to be honest, that was another big if -- there was a whole lot of empty country between here and home.

Slim had no illusions about the amount of trouble they were in, especially Jess. His partner was hurt bad, barely able to put any weight on his likely broken foot, his arm definitely broken, and he’d lost a lot of blood. His own skull ached steadily, dizzy spells coming and going, while his shoulder and back had been raked by the bear’s razor sharp claws. His wounds were nowhere near as severe as Jess’, but the accumulated damage was more than enough to make him long for a week in his bed.

Worst of all, Slim knew that all of their injuries, whether made by the bear’s teeth or claws, were likely to get infected.  

As he contemplated the sorry state of their situation, he was surprised to hear Jess’ chuckle sound unexpectedly from the darkness beside him.

“What’s so funny, pard?” Slim asked.

“We’re a real pair. You’ve got a busted head and a messed-up shoulder. I’ve got one workin’ arm an’ one workin’ foot. Between us, we don’t make one healthy hu…” Jess stopped abruptly, closing his eyes and sucking in a breath. “One healthy human.”

“How you doin’?” Slim asked.

Jess’ voice sounded raw. “I’m alive. You?”

“The same.” The tall man paused, then continued with a mixture of affection, amusement and awe in his voice. “That was the most dadgummed fool thing I ever saw anyone do, Jess, standin’ up to that bear with only a Colt.”

“What’d you expect me to do, stab it with my boot knife?” Jess retorted.

Slim shook his head, figuring that was exactly what Jess would have done if he’d had nothing else to hand. One thing the tall rancher knew about his pard was that the man was brave to a fault, and loyal beyond fault. “Any man with a brain would have run the other way.” The harsh words were laced with humor.

“Well, you’re always saying I ain’t got much but rock in my head. Guess today I just proved you right.”

“There’s a lot more than rock in that skull of yours, Jess,” Slim disagreed softly, putting his hand on Jess’ shoulder. “I owe you my life.”

“You don’t owe me nothin’,” Jess tried to smile. “Leastways, not ‘til payday.”

They were quiet for a bit then, listening to the crackling fire, each thinking his own thoughts until Slim felt Jess shudder. “You cold?”

“Some,” the answer was sleepy.

The tall man tossed another branch onto the flames, watching sparks rise into the night.

After a few minutes, Slim felt Jess slump against him, the dark-haired head falling against his shoulder as the young man relaxed toward sleep.

Slim eased slowly out of his battered jacket, then wrapped it carefully around Jess before letting his friend slump against him once more.

The movement, careful as it was, was enough to wake Jess. “What ‘cha doin’?” he asked sleepily.

“Nothin’. Go back to sleep.”

Jess stirred, tired blue eyes opening enough to see the extra coat wrapped around him. “You need this yourself.”

“I’m plenty warm,” Slim fibbed.

“And you’re the one always says a man shouldn’t never lie,” Jess answered, eyes dropping shut once again.

The tall man sighed. “I know.”

It was quiet for a moment before the silence was broken by Jess’ voice, husky and soft as the night. “Slim?”

“Yeah, pard.”

“Thanks.”

“That ol’ ripped up coat ain’t gonna make much difference,” Slim downplayed his gesture.

“I ain’t talkin’ about the coat.”

“What, then? I’m the one owin’ you.”

The words were so low that Slim had to strain to hear them. “Thanks for being the best friend I ever had.”

Slim’s smile was thin but genuine as he drew the tattered coat more tightly around Jess. “I think we’re more than even on that score, pard, more than even.”

Slim didn’t sleep much that night. He fed the fire, doing his best to be sure Jess was warm enough. His shoulder went numb where Jess was slumped against him, dozing restlessly, tossing and mumbling in his sleep. Even asleep, the pain lines were etched deep into Jess’ face, and when he moaned, his face contorting, Slim pulled him in closer, tucking the damaged jacket even more tightly around the injured man, and praying for the night to end.

 

PART FOUR

When the first faint light of morning finally arrived, both men were stiff and sore and nearly as exhausted as they’d been before resting. It was hard getting started, but somehow, helping each other, they climbed to their feet, Jess leaning heavily on Slim, and side by side they staggered on towards home.

A few hours later, purely by blind luck, they crossed the tracks of their horses.

Slim was faced with a dilemma. Should they go after the animals in hopes that they were nearby? And if they did come up on the horses, could they count on them not to be so spooked that the men would be able to walk up and catch them? Or should the two of them continue on the way they were traveling, along the creek and its steady water supply and the shortest route toward home?

“What do you think?” Slim asked.

“I think I’d rather ride than walk,” Jess answered, his face far too pale and his eyes far too bright for Slim’s liking.

“I could leave you here, go after ‘em by myself,” the rancher offered.

“Why?” Jess asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Cause you’re hurt.”

Jess straightened. “No worse’n you.”

Slim doubted the veracity of that reply, but said nothing. “Okay, hotshot. We’re horse huntin’ then.”  Slim turned, leading them along the horses’ trail. It meandered across a meadow, bunches of cropped grass showing where the animals had paused to snatch a mouthful to eat. That was a good sign, Slim assured himself hopefully; they weren’t so panicked that they’d kept running but had stopped to graze.

They struggled on, Slim keeping one arm firmly wrapped around the smaller man’s waist. Jess draped one arm over Slim’s shoulder, limping heavily, barely touching his left foot to the ground, his mouth set in a grim, stubborn line. The ground was more level here, and they could move a bit faster, though it was hard walking without getting their feet tangled in the taller patches of grass.

They followed the tracks over the next hill and just when Slim thought the horse-hunt had been a fool’s errand, he looked up into a narrow draw and spotted their mounts grazing in a small patch of lush grass.

Slim was pretty sure he’d never been so glad to see a horse in his whole life.

They worked their way carefully down the hill to the edge of the trees and looked out at the animals.

“Hey, boys,” Slim called out. At the sound of his voice both of the mounts spun around, raising their heads in alarm, ears pricked at the unexpected sound. They obviously hadn’t gotten completely over their fright of the day before.

Slim cautiously moved out into the open, Jess still leaning against him.

Alamo snorted and spooked, running half a dozen strides, head tilted to the side so he wouldn’t step on his trailing reins. Traveler followed close on his heels, but a little slower and slightly less wary, turning to look back at the men curiously.

“Let me try,” Jess offered, stepping awkwardly away from Slim. “Whoa, Traveler, whoa, fellah, easy there,” Jess called out in a soothing voice. “You know me, boy.”

Traveler stopped, head high, still looking around suspiciously, but ears pricked toward his owner, listening to the familiar voice.

“Think they’re still spooked from that bear?” Slim asked in a whisper, worried.

Jess was studying the horses, and he kept his voice low and even. “Could be; they got a real bad fright yesterday. Could be the smell of blood, and maybe even bear, on us.” The high-spirited Alamo was still dancing around uncertainly, drifting further and further away, but Jess’ steadier bay had dropped his head back down to snatch at another mouthful of grass. “Just stay put, Slim; I think I can get Traveler,” he offered, turning his full attention back to his horse.

“Hey, fella, easy boy,” Jess talked as he took an ungainly, limping step toward his horse. At the odd, out-of-sync movement, Traveler’s head shot up and the bay shuffled his feet nervously, but he held his ground, watching Jess with his huge chocolate brown eyes. “Whoa boy, whoa now boy, that’s it, listen to my voice, you know me,” Jess tried to make his steps more even, flinching each time his left foot touched the ground. “It’s just me, boy, be easy son, whoa now, be easy now.” He kept his voice light and even, the tone friendly, hoping the horse would respond to the soothing sound of his words.

Jess was close to Traveler now, very close, but he could see the bay’s nostrils flare wide as if the horse was catching a scent he wasn’t sure he liked. “Easy, son, easy, whoa now, easy, that’s it, easy, easy, you’re a good boy, easy,” he continuously muttered low and comforting sounds as he took another step, left hand outstretched.

He was close now, oh so close, slowly extending his hand further toward the dangling reins, his fingers only inches from the leather, and then he took a bad step. The ground was uneven, and his foot twisted as he put it down, pain shooting up his leg and clear to the top of his head, his knee buckling, and Jess started to fall.

Traveler’s welcoming nicker turned into a sudden fearful snort, and the bay tensed, poised to spin away on his haunches.

In desperation, Jess threw himself forward, the fingers of his left hand brushing across the reins as the horse skittered away, the leather pulling through his grip. He tightened his hold somehow, fingers burning, but he had the reins firmly in his grasp as his momentum carried him to the ground. He hit hard, landing on his belly on top of his broken arm, bone grating against bone, white-hot agony exploding up his arm and spots dancing before his eyes. Jess hung on to the reins with a death-grip, teeth gritted, figuring his life might very well depend on holding on as Traveler jumped back. The startled horse dragged Jess several feet across the rough ground before stopping, snorting and blowing, feet dancing restlessly, but staying in place.

Fighting for air, Jess lay prone in the grass and then Slim was suddenly there beside him, taking a firm hold of the reins with one hand, helping Jess to sit up with the other.

“Jess? You all right?”

“Just… wonderful,” Jess wheezed, his face contorted as he bent forward to cradle his arm. “I thought… I’d just try… breakin’ my arm again, cuz once,” he could breathe better now and straightened his shoulders, causing new pain to flare up and down the limb, “cuz once just ain’t near enough.”

Slim smiled. If Jess was complaining, he was okay, or relatively okay at least, under the circumstances. The tall rancher helped the shorter man to take a seat, then wrapped Traveler’s reins securely around his hand and walked slowly out into the meadow. Alamo was watching warily, nostrils flaring every time Slim got close, spooked by the scent of blood and bear. He was a feisty horse, Slim knew, a lot less trusting than Jess’ mount, and after wasting ten minutes and still not getting within ten feet of the sorrel, the rancher gave up.

Traveler would get them home; having a second mount wouldn’t make any real difference. They were going to have to travel slow, and besides, with the way Jess’ energy was steadily flagging, Slim was sure he wouldn’t be able to stay in the saddle without help, not as far as they had to ride to get back to the ranch.

Leaving Alamo to follow on his own, Slim turned back to where Jess waited. “I’m not going to waste anymore time on that knothead. Let’s go home, eh?”

Jess ducked his head and nodded.

Slim stepped close and took hold of Jess’ good shoulder, all but lifting him to his feet. He kept holding tightly to Jess’ arm as the cowboy swayed. “Steady there, pard. You ready?” Slim asked uncertainly.

Jess took a careful breath then let it out slow. “I’m fine. Let’s go, huh,” he answered, the strained look on his face contradicting his words.

Boosting Jess aboard Traveler, Slim awkwardly climbed up to ride double behind the injured man. They rode that way for a while, then Slim slid down and walked, giving the horse a break from the heavy load of carrying the two of them. Alamo followed along behind them, reluctant to leave the companionship of the other horse and the humans but always staying frustratingly just out of Slim’s reach.

The going was slow. Slim had hoped they would reach the road in time to intercept the afternoon stage, but noon found them still miles from the Laramie road.

The sun began sinking in the west but they kept moving, Slim alternating riding and walking, keeping one hand on the saddle to steady himself and Jess as they traveled.

The sun set, painting the sky with brilliant sweeps of orange and deep blue, and the temperature began to slide slowly downward. Slim, riding again, felt Jess shiver. “Hold on pard, we’re almost there,” he promised.

Jess mumbled something in answer, his voice so low Slim couldn’t make out the words.

 

PART FIVE

It had been a long and worry-filled day for Daisy Cooper. Slim and Jess should have been back 24 hours before. While it wasn’t all that unusual for their work to keep them away from home longer than expected, usually one of them would return to take care of the ranch’s daily chores, especially changing the relay teams. Mike helped out a lot, but he was just a small boy, and the heavier tasks were too much for him to handle alone.

Mose had changed the teams on the morning stage both days, and the afternoon driver had done the same, but the situation was worrying. Daisy had made Mose promise to send the sheriff out, but Mort was over in Cheyenne and not expected back for another day.

Much as she wanted to, she couldn’t ask the lawman to drop his work and search for a couple of late returning cowboys, even though they were his friends.

The last light of the second stressful day was fading when Daisy heard a noise in the yard. Though she’d been assured it was long gone, she couldn’t help thinking of the bear and grabbed the shotgun from the rack before opening the door and stepping cautiously out onto the porch.

“Who’s there?” she called out into the darkness, arms straining as she lifted the heavy gun.

“Daisy!” a familiar voice called out from the shadows beyond the barn.

She lowered the gun and stepped off the porch onto the hard-packed dirt of the yard, giving her eyes a chance to adjust to the darkness, straining to see better in the dim light. A single horse was approaching, a rider sitting slumped in the saddle, another walking alongside, his shambling steps shouting his weariness.

“Daisy, it’s us!”

She barely recognized the voice, low and weary as it was. “Slim? Is that you?”

“It’s me. And Jess.”

“Slim, what happ…Oh my!” Daisy drew her hand up to her mouth, a small cry escaping her lips. They were close enough now that, by the light coming from the house window, she could see the damage they’d sustained. Both her boys were bloodied, and their clothes ripped and tattered. Slim was limping along grimly, a bloody rag tied around his head, and Jess, one armed wrapped tight to his chest, looked ready to fall out of the saddle.

“Slim! Jess! What happened?” she leaned the shotgun against the side of the house and hurried towards them, stopping to stand in front of the tall rancher.

“We found that bear,” Jess forced a grin as he looked down at her, his face gray with pain and exhaustion where it wasn’t streaked with blood.

“Actually, it found us,” Slim corrected lightly.

“Oh! You said it was gone!” Daisy caught herself looking around, out into the rapidly encroaching darkness. There *was* something moving out there.

“Don’t worry, Daisy, the bear’s dead. Jess killed him.”

“Then what’s that?” she asked, frightened.

“Alamo, he’s followed us all the way home,” Slim answered, staggering a bit, before stepping beside Traveler. “Come on, Jess, get down.”

Daisy stood by, able to do nothing but watch as Jess swung his leg over the saddle and slid awkwardly toward the ground. Slim caught him, and the two of them stood for a moment, neither moving, supporting each other, and then Jess threw an arm over the taller man’s shoulder. Slim flinched, then helped Jess, who was walking unsteadily and avoiding touching his left foot to the ground. Daisy hurried around to Jess’ right side, eager to help, but there was nowhere she could see that wasn’t battered or bloody. Forcing herself to take a deep, calming breath, she hurried ahead and opened the door for them.

Daisy looked them over closely as they entered the house. Slim helped Jess through the main room and on to his own bunk in the bedroom before flopping bonelessly down onto his own nearby bed, his weariness showing plainly in every line of his body.  

“You’re both….” Daisy was looking from one to the other, unsure of which obviously wounded man needed tending to first.

“A mess,” Slim answered, then pointed at Jess, solving her dilemma. “Jess took the worst of it. Help him first, Daisy. His foot….”

Daisy took her first good look then at Jess’ mangled boot, and her heart leaped into her throat. “Lie back,” she told him gently, and he sank down with a soft sigh. “I’ll be right back.”

Mike was already in bed. She contemplated waking him to help her, but he was only a boy, a boy who didn’t need to see Slim and Jess in the condition they were in.

She hurried into her bedroom and pulled out her satchel and the basket of medical supplies, bandages, scissors, scalpel, needles and thread, and whiskey as both sedative and disinfectant. Hurrying back to Jess, she found she couldn’t cut the tough leather of his boot with the scissors. She was looking around for another tool when Slim reached over and handed her his knife. As gently as she could, she pushed the knife down inside the boot, swollen tight against his calf, then began carefully slicing the leather.

Jess stifled a groan. “Those‘re my favorite boots.”

“I’m sorry, Jess,” Daisy said.

“Ain’t your fault, Daisy,” Jess muttered with a resigned sigh.

Daisy sliced the boot open from his calf as far down his leg as she could. With a quick worried glance at Slim, she turned back to Jess and laid a hand on his arm. “That boot’s got to come off. This is going to hurt,” she warned.

He nodded and closed his eyes, trusting her to do what had to be done. “Go on.”

She pulled, but not hard enough to remove the leather from his badly swollen foot.

Jess yelled, twisting on the bed, and gasped, “Daisy, if you don’t get done right now, I’m gonna say somethin’ I shouldn’t.”

She yanked again, as hard as she could this time, the boot sliding off in her hand as she staggered backward, Jess’ anguished “Agghhh!” bringing tears to her eyes.

“That’s done, Jess,” she told him, dropping the ruined boot. Working quickly she began cutting away his blood-soaked sock, quickly peeling it back from the deep punctures in his instep and ankle. Dried blood covered flesh already black and blue and puffy with swelling while the skin around each wound was red and angry looking. She looked over at Slim, silently sharing her worry.

Daisy cleaned Jess’ foot gently, using the alcohol to disinfect it, working as quickly as she could and trying to ignore the way the tears of pain were forming in the corners of his eyes. Done, she bandaged it, and then cleaned and wrapped his arm before turning to Slim. The cut on the tall man’s scalp had stopped bleeding, and his shoulder and back were raked with claw marks, though fortunately none of them seemed too deep. “You were very lucky, Slim,” Daisy muttered quietly, cleaning and bandaging his injuries.

“Only because of Jess. That bear was standing over me, and Jess distracted him, ran right at him with nothin’ more than his .45. Darn craziest thing I’ve ever seen a man do. And the bravest.” Slim was shaking his head.

“You’re both crazy,” Daisy muttered, looking from one to the other with maternal disapproval combined with worry. “Now I don’t want to hear another word out of either one of you. Rest, both of you,” she ordered them sternly.

After Daisy left, the room was quiet for a moment. “Remind me never to go grizzly huntin’ with you again, pard,” Jess muttered, his voice slurred with exhaustion.

“Remind me never to go bear huntin’ period,” Slim added softly.

“Not without a bigger gun. A really big gun. Like a cannon,” Jess mumbled as he drifted off to sleep. “More like a whole battery of cannons.”

“And half an army,” Slim’s voice, too, was getting more and more sleepy.

“A whole army,” Jess amended.

“Two armies,” Slim agreed, and looked over to see that Jess’ eyes were closed in sleep.

 

PART SIX

“You’ve sure done a very good job treating these injuries, Mrs. Cooper,” Doctor Willis told her the next morning after he’d finished examining both patients. He was waiting at the table while she brought him a cup of coffee. “You didn’t leave me much to do.”

“So they’ll both be all right?” Daisy asked hopefully.

The doctor’s cheery tone retreated into uncertainty as he sipped the strong liquid. “Slim’s got a concussion, many superficial cuts, and a few deep ones on his back and shoulder, but as long as we keep them clean, I’m confident he will heal in a few days. Jess, on the other hand,” the medical man paused and frowned. “His arm’s broken, but I’ve set it, and the cuts on it are fortunately only minor. They should heal fine. There’s a broken bone in his foot as well, but what worries me most are those deep puncture wounds -- animal bites all too often become infected. Soak them in that disinfecting  solution, and I’ve left you some salve to put on the punctures as well. He needs to stay off that foot and keep it elevated. And at the first sign of fever, you let me know.”

“Oh, I will do that, doctor. I will,” she promised. “I’ll see to it that he follows your recommendations to the letter.”

“You’ve got a lot to handle here, Mrs. Cooper, taking care of two injured men, and that young boy, and then there’s all the ranch work and chores,” the doctor noted with concern.

“Oh, don’t worry doctor. Ben Bates is coming over to do the chores and change the teams. He helps out whenever Slim and Jess are away. And Mike will be staying with Sam and Alma Moore and their toddler for a few days, so that Slim and Jess can rest.”

“That’s good, Mrs. Cooper, real good.” The doctor picked up his bag and set his hat on his head. “I’ll be back to check on them tomorrow.”

oOoOoOo

Just hours after the doctor left, Slim had had enough of lying abed and proceeded to get up and get dressed. He moved slowly and silently, careful not to wake Jess who was still sound asleep in the next bunk, snoring softly.

Looking down at his slumbering friend, Slim shook his head. Jess had the capacity to sleep any time, day or night. He worked hard, sure, but he could also play the layabout. Today though, Slim conceded, the man had the right to sleep in, or sleep all day, if that was what he needed.

Boots in hand, Slim ambled out into the main room of the house, yawning hugely, only to be confronted by a stern-faced Daisy.

“Slim Sherman, what are you doing?”

He kept his voice low. “Shhh, Daisy, you don’t want to wake Jess.”

Daisy nodded and lowered her voice. “And just what do you think are you doing out of bed, young man?” she demanded.

“I was awake and feeling better, Daisy, so I figured I might as well get up and get some chores done.” He sat down on one of the kitchen chairs, bending carefully to pull on his boots.

She frowned at him. “Do you ever relax?”

Slim chuckled. “No more than you.”

Daisy smiled. “At least I’m glad to see you’re feeling better. Though you mustn’t overdo. Remember, the doctor said you should take it easy for a few days.”

“Sleepin’ til noon *is* takin’ it easy, Daisy. I’m not like Jess. I couldn’t sleep all day on a bet.”

Daisy laughed conspiratorially. “Jess could be a world champion at sleeping in, couldn’t he?”

The tall man grinned. “Yes, he could. Without even trying.”

oOoOoOo

Daisy woke Jess for lunch, let him doze away through the heat of the afternoon and insisted that Slim do the same, which he surprised her and did, and then, mindful of the doctor’s orders, she again woke the dark-haired cowboy before evening.

“Jess, I need to change the bandages and clean that foot.”

“Awww, Daisy….”

She glared at him, or tried to, trying hard to maintain her authority. It was always a challenge getting Jess to cooperate. He was worse than Mike when it came to complaining about doing things he didn’t want to do. “Doctor’s orders,” she insisted.

He glared at her, but with him sitting up on the bed she went to work, gently unwrapping the stained bandages covering his foot. What she had to do before replacing them with fresh clean ones, however, was the part she was not looking forward to, for Jess’ sake, and her own.

Always believing that cleanliness was next to godliness, a belief reinforced by what she’d learned while nursing during the war, Daisy set to her task. She placed a clean towel under Jess’ foot and taking soap and warm water, she cleaned it as gently as she could. She didn’t look at his face as she worked, but she could hear his sharply indrawn breaths each time the soapy water touched the raw wounds. Next, she picked up the bottle the doctor had left, and poured some into the basin sitting on the floor, mixing it with water.

“This will hurt,” she warned him unnecessarily, a frown of concern on her kind face. She knew this would be unpleasant, but it had to be done.

He knew it, too, but that didn’t make it any easier for either one of them.

He tensed, sitting forward and cradling his right arm with his left, and swung around to sit on the bed with his feet hanging off the side. Carefully, he stuck a toe in the water and when nothing bad happened, bit by bit, he lowered the rest of his foot into the basin. At first touch the water felt cool and then the harsh liquid hit the first of the deep punctures and he jerked back. “Oww! Dang it, Daisy. That hurts! What did you put in there? Acid?”

“Just what the doctor ordered,” she looked at him with concern, then changed her tactics to goading his manly pride. “Well, if that’s more than you can handle, I suppose I could dilute it down to what’s recommended as children’s strength.”

He threw her a disgusted look, acknowledging her manipulation, and this time, in one quick move, he plunged his whole foot into the liquid. He sucked in a breath, his face contorting and blanching so white she thought for a moment that he was going to pass out. Sweat popped out on his forehead and he was breathing in hard, fast gasps, his good hand grabbing a fistful of pillow and squeezing so hard she expected feathers to come flying out.

Daisy wordlessly laid her hand on his shoulder and patted it gently.

“How long,” he rasped out the words, “do I have to do this?”

“Just a little bit longer. I’m sorry.”

He sighed, his eyes tight shut, biting his lip. “Ain’t your fault, Daisy. It’s that doc whose gonna be sorry.”

Daisy patted his shoulder, knowing his threat was an idle one, nothing more than venting his hurt on an easy target.  “Okay, that’s it.”

With a relieved sigh he pulled his foot out of the basin and back up onto the bed, twisting around to sink back on the sheets as she wrapped his foot in the towel she’d put down. She patted his foot dry, then neatly wrapped it in fresh clean bandages. He didn’t move or complain, just lay still with his left arm thrown over his face, pale and troublingly quiet.

“Is that better?” she asked when she was finished.

“Yeah, thanks, Daisy, it’s fine,” he answered gruffly, finally opening his eyes. “I didn’t mean to be, you know….”

“I know,” she answered gently. She knew that Jess could be rough edged and difficult, but he had a good heart. “Rest and I’ll bring you some supper in a little while.”

Half an hour later when she did take him his supper, he was sound asleep. She thought about waking him but he seemed so peaceful, his face relaxed in slumber, that she didn’t have the heart to disturb him. He needed rest as much as he needed food. Carefully, so she didn’t wake him, she took the tray back into the kitchen, setting it aside for later.

oOoOoOo

Slim’s nasty but less serious injuries quickly began to heal. Even the punctures on Jess’ foot started to look better and close up, and the Doc on both his second and third visits left with a pleased smile. “They’re both doing well, Mrs. Cooper. Keep up what you’re doing.”

By the fourth day, Jess, never one to stay down for long, was complaining of boredom, even hobbling out to the living room to eat with the others, leaning on Slim’s good shoulder and stepping carefully on his injured foot. If he put his heel down first, it seemed to keep the pressure off the broken bone and punctures and made it possible to limp along, he’d quickly figured out. It didn’t make walking easy, or comfortable, but it did give him a bit of mobility with the help of an old cane Slim brought down from the attic for him.

He’d probably be out to the barn if he could get his boots on, Daisy thought with a smile, watching him fondly.

Daisy continued to clean his injuries twice daily and while the swelling subsided, he still had pain and heat around the puncture wounds.

Thank goodness for Mike, returned from his stay with the neighbors, who proved to be very good at keeping Jess occupied. The boy’s constant requests for stories about Jess’ days as a drover in Texas or hunting up in Montana helped the restless patient pass the time. Mike practiced his reading, and they played checkers, and cards -- though Daisy was careful to be sure it was children’s card games and not poker. She’d heard the story about Jess, on his first day at the ranch, teaching Andy how to cheat at poker, and she was not about to let that happen while she was there to keep an eye on the proper upbringing of this young boy.

Supper was finishing on the stove as Daisy set the table and put the food out, steak and mashed potatoes, snap beans picked from the garden that afternoon, and freshly baked bread.

Later, though she knew it would in truth have made no difference, she blamed herself for not noticing Jess’ lack of appetite that night. He’d been eating well since he’d been hurt; she should have noticed the difference, but Slim had been to town that day and brought news from Mort. There’d been a bank robbery over in Rock Springs, and Mike had peppered the tall rancher with questions all during the meal. The table had been noisy and busy.

Jess went to bed early, as he’d been doing. Fast as he seemed to be recuperating, he was still far from having his usual energy.

Slim helped Jess into the bedroom, then headed to the kitchen for an extra cup of coffee and carried it to the table. He straddled the chair and let out a weary sigh.

Daisy paused beside him, dropping her hand on his shoulder. “He’s doing well.”

“Yes, he is.”

“So are you,” she didn’t want to take Slim’s injuries lightly. She shuddered. “You both could have been killed.”

Slim swallowed his coffee and set down his cup, his brow furrowed as he recalled their wild encounter with the grizzly. “It’s a sight I’ll never forget, Daisy, him running right at that bear. I’ve seen Jess do some brave, and foolhardy, things over the years, but that tops ‘em all. I’d have been a goner if he hadn’t.”

She cut off his recollections, not wanting to think about what might have happened. “I’m just glad you’re both on the mend.” Daisy squeezed the rancher’s shoulder. “We need to count our blessings -- even the doctor agrees Jess’ recovery is going well beyond his expectations.”

Slim grinned and patted her hand. “Oh, I count Jess among my blessings every day. And some days among my curses,” he added with a full-blown smile, and Daisy smiled with him. She loved these young men as much as if they were her own sons and seeing them on the mend did her heart good.

That day, though, neither one of them knew how wrong they were.

 

 PART SEVEN

Slim didn’t normally sleep that deeply, sounds in the night or someone’s restless sleep usually intruded, but he was still recuperating himself.

That was no excuse for not noticing the change, though, he berated himself afterwards.

Asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow, Slim was oblivious to Jess’ unusually restless movements during the night.

Jess’ back was to the room’s other bunk when Slim quietly slipped out to start the morning chores.

Daisy was already bustling around the kitchen when he emerged from his room, yawning and wincing as he stretched carefully, still buttoning his shirt.

“How are you feeling?” she asked.

“Still stiff and sore, but I’ll live,” he smiled.

“And Jess?” she asked.

“Still asleep. Want me to wake him?”

“No, not until breakfast is ready. He needs his rest,” Daisy answered with a smile. “Half an hour until we eat?”

“Hmm, yeah.” It took him every minute of that to do the chores; he was still moving more slowly and carefully than usual. Though the headaches were thankfully gone, his shoulder was stiff, and the healing cuts there and on his back were itching unmercifully.

When he finally got back to the house, Daisy had the table set, the rich scent of coffee filling the air, and he could hear bacon sizzling in the frying pan.

Mike was up now, too, seated on the rug in front of the fireplace, playing with Buttons.

“Everything’s ready,” Daisy called out cheerfully from the kitchen. “Would one of you wake Jess?”

“I’ll get him!” Mike volunteered.

“Gently,” Daisy reminded.

Mike bounced into the bedroom, his cheery voice carrying to the kitchen. “Jess! Wake up! Breakfast is ready.” There was a pause, and then the adults heard Mike’s tone change, all the lightness suddenly gone from it. “Jess? Wake up! Jess!”

In a moment the boy was back in the doorway, his smile vanished, replaced by a look of puzzled concern. “Jess won’t wake up.”

Slim was already seated at the table, scooping eggs onto his plate. He jumped to his feet, tipping over his chair in his haste, his breakfast forgotten as he ran for the bedroom, Daisy hurrying right behind him.  As she reached the doorway, she grabbed hold of Mike’s shoulders, holding the boy tightly as Slim reached Jess’ bedside.

It was obvious that something was seriously wrong. The bedding was twisted around Jess’ waist, his blankets half on the floor. His lean face was flushed, his dark curls wet, the underwear he slept in clinging to him damply, his chest caked with sweat. Putting his hand on Jess’ forehead confirmed Slim’s worst fears: the skin was slick with sweat and felt as hot as if he’d put his hand next to the stove.

At the touch, Jess’ eyes flickered and opened lazily, drifting around without focus.

“Hey, sleepyhead, how ya’ feelin’?” Slim asked gently, fighting to keep the fear out of his voice.

The dark-haired head turned toward the sound of the rancher’s voice, the blue eyes wavering before finally fixing on Slim, but heavy lidded and sleepy as if keeping them open was a chore. Jess licked his lips and muttered, “It’s hot in here.”

Slim fought to keep the rising panic out of his voice. “Reckon it seems that way, pard.”

Daisy shooed Mike out of the room, sending him toward the kitchen with orders to pull the frying pan off the stove before the bacon burned to a crisp. Her face was full of alarm as she stepped close to Jess’ bed, noting for herself all the things Slim had seen as she placed her own hand on Jess’ forehead. “He’s burning up,” she muttered. Stepping toward the end of the bunk, she pulled the blankets up and gently began unwrapping the bandages from Jess’ foot. They were no longer a pristine white but were spotted with a set of ugly yellow-green stains directly above the angry-red punctures in his instep.  She raised her eyes to meet Slim’s and her anxious expression told him all that he needed to know.

“I’ll ride for the Doc,” Slim offered.

Daisy nodded, her kind face contorted by fear. “Hurry, Slim.”

 

PART EIGHT

As soon as Slim was out the door, Daisy rushed to the kitchen and returned with a pitcher of water, pouring some into a glass and offering it to Jess. He roused enough to guzzle down two glassfuls before slumping back on the bed. Pouring the remaining water into the basin that sat on the nightstand, she dipped a clean cloth into it, wringing out the excess water before wiping the sweat from his face and neck. She repeated the task over and over again while she waited for the doctor to arrive, having Mike carry in a bucket of fresh cool water from the pump outside.

“Daisy?” Jess’ voice was trembling, his eyes far too bright, and his face flushed beneath the sweat-dampened hair.

“Yes, Jess. I’m here.” She wiped his face again.

“Why’s it so hot?” he asked.

“It’s just a summer hot spell,” she answered, keeping her voice calm and soothing when she felt neither. “It’ll be cooler soon.”

She was relieved when he appeared to accept her answer, closing his eyes and dropping back into a restless doze.

oOoOoOo

It seemed to take forever before Daisy finally heard the sound of hoof beats in the yard, then men’s voices. In a moment there was the sound of the front door opening, footsteps crossing to the bedroom doorway, and then Slim entered the room, followed by the doctor with his black bag in hand.

“Daisy, take Mike out of here, would you please?” Slim asked.

She looked down at Jess, reluctant to leave, torn between the needs of one of her boys and another of them.

“Mike’s scared and worried,” Slim reminded her gently. “He needs some reassurance.”

Daisy nodded, looking anxiously up at the men. “If there’s anything I can do,” she offered, wringing her hands as she stood in the doorway.

“I’ll call if I need your help, Mrs. Cooper,” the doctor told her kindly, ushering her out of the room.

oOoOoOo

Daisy sat at the table with Mike, distractedly helping him with his schoolwork. With half an ear she listened to the boy reading, carefully sounding out each word in his reading lesson.  Her real attention, however, was focused in the next room but with the door closed, she couldn’t make out the doctor’s words, just faint murmurings of conversation.

When Jess hollered, she jumped.

Mike leaped to his feet, his young face contorted by concern, his eyes huge as they heard Jess holler again. “What’s the doctor doin’ to Jess, Aunt Daisy?” the boy turned to the housekeeper, his eyes wide with fright.

She weighed how much she could, or should, reveal to the youngster, but he needed to be told enough to understand. “Jess has an infection in his foot. The doctor needs to clean it.”

“Like he cleaned my arm when I got shot by those bank robbers?”

“Yes. Very much like that, Mike.”

“That stung. A lot.” The boy frowned at the remembered pain.

“Yes, it does. But that tells you the treatment is working.”

“Why can’t he just clean it with water? Or something that doesn’t hurt so bad?”

“When there’s an infection, Mike, plain water isn’t enough to clean it, or regular soap, either.”

“The doctor’s gonna fix Jess’ foot, right? He won’t have to cut it off, like what happened to Mr. Tolleffer when that horse stomped on his foot, and he got that gang-a-green stuff.”

Mike was looking to her for reassurance, reassurance she wasn’t sure she could provide. Daisy could only hope that her own fears weren’t apparent to the boy. “That’s why the doctor is working on Jess now, to prevent that,” Daisy explained patiently. Even as she said the words, she knew the limited abilities of doctors, no matter how skilled or well trained. She remembered far too well the suffering of so many of the men she’d cared for during the war, so many who had died of lingering fevers and terrible infections. She’d been helpless to stop it, or to help them, and that helpless feeling consumed her now.

They heard another deep groan from the bedroom, Daisy wincing at the pain-filled sound and Mike covering his ears.

“I hate that doctor!” Mike proclaimed.

Impulsively, Daisy pulled the boy to her, hugging him close. “He doesn’t mean to hurt Jess; he’s trying his best to help him. And sometimes that’s painful, and it’s hard for us to know someone we care about is in pain.” Daisy could feel the sting of tears pricking at the back of her eyes, but she wasn’t going to let them fall -- she couldn’t, not now, not in front of Mike. She stood, squaring her shoulders and pasting a smile on her face for the sake of the worried boy. “Let’s go out to the garden, Mike,” she suggested. “We need to water and weed it.”

Taking her wide-brimmed sunhat from the peg by the door, Daisy hurried outside. Mike followed slowly, stopping in the doorway to look back, a tight frown marring his young face.

“Come on, Mike,” she urged, holding out her hand. With one final worried look back, he reached out and took it, following her reluctantly.

They kept busy in the garden for nearly an hour before Daisy saw Slim step out onto the porch. Mike was bringing another bucket of water from the creek to water the snap beans, so Daisy pulled off her gloves and hurried up to the porch. Slim looked shaken, the expression on his wide face grim and somber, tight lines around his pale eyes revealing his worry.

“Slim?” she asked, stopping beside him and putting her hand on his arm, careful of his own still healing injuries.

“It’s bad, Daisy.”

Her heart leaped into her throat. “I heard him,” she stopped, struggling to compose herself. “Jess seemed to be in so much pain.”

“I know. It took the doc a long time to open up the wound; the infection, it was down deep, by the bone.” Slim put his hand over hers, and she could feel it shaking. “He’s done now. Jess passed out about halfway through, thank goodness, but the doc’s gonna stay. He’ll probably have to do it again.”

“And if this doesn’t help?” Daisy voiced the fear that both of them shared.

Slim’s voice was harsh, matching his grim expression. “We aren’t going to think about that, Daisy.”

oOoOoOo

The night seemed endless.

Jess tossed and turned restlessly, feverish, sleeping only while the dose of laudanum lasted, then fighting his way back to consciousness. Daisy talked to him, bathing his face with cool water, helping him drink, soothing him until he settled down again and would take another spoonful of the painkilling drug.

They took turns throughout the day and the next night, one of them -- Daisy, Slim, or the doctor -- always with the injured man.

And then, on the morning of the third day, they got their miracle. Jess’ fever broke, and he dropped into a deep, quiet sleep, waking weak and achy and exhausted, but with skin that was blessedly cool to the touch. He ate the broth Daisy fed him and promptly fell back to sleep, but it was real sleep now, restful and healing, not the uneasy tossing filled with fever-stoked dreams.

With the strength of youth, he bounced back quickly. Jess was up and out of bed two days later, pale and shaky, but with Slim’s help hobbling out of the bedroom to sit in the rocking chair before the fire for short stretches, or joining them for meals at the table. His appetite quickly recovered, and the color rapidly returned to his pale cheeks.

The tension in the house eased.

Jess was on the mend.

Clouds gathered over the hills to the west that night, Slim and Daisy and even Mike watching the storm roll in. Jess’ improvement, it was an omen, Daisy told herself hopefully, a harbinger of good luck, she thought, as she listened to the distant rumble of thunder, carried on gusts of wind. The clouds grew, darker and darker, towering over the hills, fractured by streaks of lightning and carrying the promising scent of rain on the breeze. Midsummer rains were a rare godsend; they would green up the pastures and provide lush grazing for the stock.

But it didn’t rain.

“Heat lightning,” Slim muttered disgustedly when he finally came in from the front porch and turned in for the night.

It had been a day, it turned out, filled with many false hopes.

oOoOoOo

Another day passed. Jess was sitting in the rocking chair on the front porch, dozing as he soaked up the healing warmth of the summer sun. In the kitchen, Daisy hummed happily as she finished making lunch, then went outside to get her patient. He was sleeping soundly with his foot propped up on the little table that usually sat inside the front door, looking so peaceful that she almost hated to wake him. Regular good meals, however, were as high on her list of nursing priorities as rest and cleanliness, so she wiped her hands on her apron and bent down to tap his shoulder. “Jess.”

He mumbled something, but his eyes stayed closed.

“Jess. Lunch is ready.” He was a good eater; she never had to invite him to the table twice. “Jess. Lunch.” She shook his shoulder.

“Mmm.”

Her heart hammered as worry spiked suddenly, sending a cold spear of dread down her spine. “Jess?” She reached out her hand, placing it against his forehead. It was warm to the touch, far too warm even for a man sitting in the sun. “Oh, Jess,” she bent down and placed her hands on his face. “Jess, talk to me.”

He fought to open his eyes, looking blearily up at her.

Immediately she saw that his eyes were much too bright, and the color she’d thought the sun had put in his cheeks was instead just another sign of the return of his fever. A cold chill passed through her as she fought back panic.  “Let’s get you back in the house. Maybe a little nap before lunch?”

“Sure,” he mumbled.

She helped him to his feet and slid his arm over her shoulder. Daisy staggered as he leaned heavily on her as she helped him back into the house and to his bunk, going there without so much as a word of complaint which alarmed her as much as anything. Once he was lying down on the bed, eyes already closed, she threw a blanket over him and quickly left the room, hurrying out to the barn to find Slim.

“Bring the doctor,” was all she said but one look at her devastated face told him all he needed to know. He strode over to his saddled horse, mounted up and rode for town, spurring Alamo to a gallop, his worry soaring with every passing mile.

 

PART NINE

By the time Slim returned with the physician, Jess was mumbling and moaning in the throes of a raging, soaring fever, the heat of it rolling off him in palpable waves. He tossed restlessly as Daisy helped the doctor remove the bandages from his foot, her eyes flying wide open in alarm at the sight of the grossly swollen limb, the skin an angry red from toes to ankle, with deeper red streaks running up his calf. The doctor’s expression was as grim as her own. He simply looked up at her and shook his head negatively before going to work, lancing the wounds and allowing an ugly yellow-green fluid to drain out freely.

That seemed to ease Jess a bit, lowering his temperature for a few hours before the fever gripped him again. It built quickly, then dropped away to leave him shaking with chills, starting a pattern that continued through the long night as his temperature rose and fell like the tides. Sometimes he tried to throw off his covers; at others he fought them as he tried to climb from the bed, and still others he fell back limply, lying so still that only the labored rise and fall of his chest revealed that he was still breathing. He sweat rivulets that soaked his bedclothes and the sheets between bouts of shivering that shook the bed.

Daisy had nursed many a sick patient, and she refused to let herself be anything but optimistic. She knew Jess was strong and stubborn, that he would fight for his life with every ounce of strength he had. She kept looking for signs of hope, for any little improvement, but the hours dragged on and there were none. Jess wasn’t quitting; he was battling on, but she could see that the relentless pain and fever were taking their toll.

By the end of the next day even Daisy had to admit that Jess had lost ground.

He was weakening.

She greeted the doctor’s return with trepidation, not wanting to hear her fears put into words. Jess was quiet as the doctor examined him, the physician’s face growing grim as he checked over his patient, and his silence filled her with a terrible dread. Done, he stood and looked over the bed at her, his quiet words confirming the worst of her worries. “The infection has grown much worse.”

Daisy nodded, her heart in her throat, fearing the words she knew would come next.

“I haven’t wanted to consider the possibility before now,” he said solemnly, “but I think it’s time we must look to the inevitable, Mrs. Cooper.  There’s only one way left that I know of that might save his life.” His next three words were like hammer blows, no less awful because she had anticipated them.

“We must amputate.”

oOoOoOo

Daisy staggered out of the bedroom and all but fell into one of the chairs beside the table. Her face was white, her hands trembling as they clutched her apron, tears forming at the corners of her eyes and trailing slowly down her cheeks. She wiped them away furiously, but as soon as she did, fresh ones replaced them, and finally she conceded. Putting her elbows on the table, Daisy buried her face in her hands.

Slim was adding wood to the fire but paused to look over at her.  One glimpse of her face and his barely suppressed fears soared to new heights. Feet rooted to the spot with dread, he asked, afraid of the answer, “Daisy? What’s happened?”

She raised her head and looked across the room at him, her mouth moving, but no words coming out as with shaking hands she dabbed at the tears on her cheeks.

Dread consumed him. He looked from her to the closed bedroom door and back to her again, her kindly face so devastated that he feared the worst. “Daisy!”

“Jess,” she inhaled sharply, fighting to regain a semblance of her usual control and failing. She started again. “Jess.... Slim, the infection. It’s much worse.”

Slim paled, not wanting to hear the awful news he was sure was coming next.

“The doctor,” the elderly woman’s voice shook. She couldn’t say the words; it was as if by doing so she was going to make it true.

He hurried across the room to her, kneeling beside her chair and putting his hands on her arms insistently, his eyes fixed on her face. “Daisy! Tell me! What did the doctor say?”

She took a deep breath, and another, steadying herself with an effort of will. “He, the doctor, he believes Jess has only one chance.”

“What chance?” Slim demanded, not wanting to know at the same time he needed to know.  If there was a chance, why was Daisy looking the way she did, as if the world was about to end? “Daisy, tell me what he said! Now!”

She said the words finally, quickly, emotionlessly. “The doctor wants to amputate.”

Slim’s heart skipped a beat, the blood draining from his face. “Amputate his foot?”

Daisy shook her head. “He thinks that wouldn’t be enough to be sure. He wants to take Jess’ leg, all the way to the knee.”

Slim stood, pacing quickly around the room. Fighting to keep his voice calm, he asked, “Would amp...” but he couldn’t say the word, it caught in his throat, choking him, so he started again, “would the operation save him?”

Her voice was shaking, her eyes haunted. “Maybe. Maybe not. Amputation surgery, it’s,” she started to say brutal, but seeing the look of horror on Slim’s face, she changed her words, “it’s very difficult. Many men don’t survive the operation itself, and all too often, infection kills them after. In the war, I saw it so many, many times. So many brave young men, dying....” She stopped, inhaling a shuddering breath, remembering the suffering, fighting to keep her mind from conjuring up images of Jess enduring the kind of agony she’d seen. “And many of them, when they realized they were…  when they realized what had been done, they gave up, and died.” She looked up at him, her eyes showing him her fears. “Jess….”

“Jess doesn’t quit. He wouldn’t, never,” Slim insisted harshly.

“Losing a limb, it’s traumatic, not just physically, but in other ways, too. I saw some very strong men die,” Daisy answered honestly. “There are some who can’t face being less than whole.” Her expression told Slim that she feared Jess was one of them.

Slim shuddered, recalling the terrible wounds he, too, had seen men receive in the war. But he knew men who were amputees who lived good lives, men who had families, men who were successful in business. But they weren’t cowboys, his inner voice reminded him. They didn’t make their living riding, fencing, working cattle. And that was Jess’ life, the life Jess loved, the freedom Jess needed to be the man he was. Slim simply couldn’t picture his friend living any other way.

“We have to make a decision now, before the infection spreads even further and even this won’t save him,” Daisy added in a leaden voice.

“What does Jess say?”

“He doesn’t know yet.”

”I’ll talk to him,” Slim offered.

“No,” Daisy stood, resolute, wiping the last vestiges of tears from her face. “I think I should. I can better answer any questions he may have.”

Slim stepped forward and hugged her tightly, feeling her tremble. “We’ll get through this somehow, Daisy,” he promised. “We’ll find a way, as long as he makes it. We’ll see he has everything he needs.”

She nodded, pausing to take a deep breath and put on her most hopeful expression before stepping back into the sick room. Walking over to the bed, she took a seat on the chair the doctor vacated for her, and waved him out of the room. Jess was dozing though not peacefully, his normally expressive mouth a tight line, his forehead creased with deep furrows that seemed to age him ten years. He seemed small and shrunken on the bed, lacking the vibrant sense of life and energy he normally projected. His good hand moved restlessly and his head tossed weakly from side to side on the pillow. Sweat slicked his skin, plastered his hair to his forehead in tight curls, and dampened the sheets -- they were going to need changing again soon, she thought.

Stop delaying, Daisy, she told herself sternly. Reaching down, she took hold of his large, rough hand, squeezing it tightly. “Jess.”

He didn’t respond.

She said his name a second time, more loudly, and was rewarded by his eyes opening lazily, impossibly bright blue against the paleness of his face, drifting around aimlessly for a long moment before finally settling on her face.

She tried to smile and knew she failed dismally. “Jess.”

“Daisy.” His voice was low and thin, so unlike his normal strong, rich tones. “I’m not feelin’ so good,” he admitted, trying to smile for her.

“I know, Jess. That’s why we’re going to help you.” She took a deep breath, brushing the damp curls back off his forehead. “The doctor wants to do surgery.” She paused, the ugly words sticking in her throat. “To save your life, he,” she had to pause to regain her composure, using every ounce of willpower to say what needed to be said. “To save your life, he needs to amputate....”

He might have been less than fully awake but at that word Jess’ eyes flared wide, his head lifting off the pillow. “No!”

Knowing he needed her to be strong for him, somehow she forced her voice to keep a normal, rational tone, hoping it would soothe him. “Jess, dear, listen to me.”

His hand closed tightly over hers with surprising strength. “No.”

“Jess, please, you don’t have to decide right now. Think about it. Think about saving your life. Please.”

He closed his eyes, and for a moment she feared he had passed out, but then slowly he reopened them, looking up at her. “Daisy.” His voice was shaking.

“Yes, Jess,” she leaned forward, stroking his arm soothingly.
”Let me … think … alone.”

She didn’t want to leave him, but she couldn’t deny him his request. “For just a few minutes, Jess. Then I’ll be back to check on you.”

He shook his head. “I want …,” he swallowed, then forced out the words, “ I want to … talk … to Slim.”

“Okay. A few minutes, and then I’ll send him in.” She gave his hand a final reassuring pat and left the room, pausing at the door for one last look back but he’d already turned away, facing the room’s far wall.

She closed the door softly behind her before lifting her face to look up at Slim. He was standing by the fireplace, staring into the flames before turning slowly to look at her, his expression grim, his eyes haunted. “Give him a few minutes and then he wants to talk to you.” Daisy sighed heavily, “And I’ll get some water started boiling on the stove,” she added resolutely.

oOoOoOo

The tall rancher paced around the room for a few minutes, then pasted what he hoped was a confident expression on his face. Knocking softly on the bedroom door, he went inside, walking over to sit down on the chair beside Jess’ bunk. He fought to keep his voice light at the sight of his partner, normally so strong and vibrant but now lying weak and feverish, his life hanging by a slender, already frayed thread. “Hey pard, you wanted to see me?” He took hold of Jess’ left hand, gripping it tightly, the answering squeeze so slight Slim wasn’t sure if he felt it at all or had only imagined it.

Jess’ eyes opened slowly, fixing brightly on him, the voice low and strained so that the tall rancher had to bend close to hear. “Slim … will you … do me … a favor?”

He tried to lighten the moment, smiling and answering lightly. “Okay, pard, I’ll do your chores again tonight. But only this once.”

Jess’ lips twitched weakly, a small shadow of the impish smile that normally marked the ranch hand’s good humor. “This … this is ... more … more important … than chores.”

Slim gripped Jess’ hand more tightly, the palm slick with sweat, his voice intense. “I know. Anything you need, pard, I’ll take care of it. You know that. Just say it.”

“Promise … promise … you’ll do this … for me.”

Slim nodded. “Of course, Jess. Whatever you need, I’ll do it.”

“Hate … to ask.”

“You saved my life, Jess, facing down that bear. I owe you. Ask me anything.” As soon as those words passed his lips, Jess smiled, and Slim got a terrible feeling, a sudden dread-filled premonition that they would come back to haunt him.

Jess’ head tossed negatively. “Jus’ … one … thing.”

“You know I’ll get you whatever you need.”

The cowboy swallowed and nodded. “Then … you promise … you won’t g-go … go behind my back.”

Slim’s heart sank. “Go behind your back? Jess, what are you talking about?”

“Promise.”

“I … ”

The words that followed were urgent, desperate and demanding, and Slim might have considered them frightened if this was anyone other than Jess he was talking to. “If you’ve ever been my friend, Slim ....”

He gripped Jess’ hand tighter. “You know I am, pard. Always.”

“Then you’ll give ... give me your word …  you’ll … do … what I ask.”

“Jess.” He knew this was bad, knew it but he was trapped.

“Promise me.”

Against his better judgment, knowing he shouldn’t yet totally choiceless, the rancher nodded. “I will, Jess, I give you my word.”

Jess sighed, his head nodded slightly, his eyes closing as he swallowed hard and seemed to sink deeper into the bed. “Don’t let … the doc … cut … cut me up. Don’t.”

It took Slim a moment to realize what his friend was saying, what he was being asked to do, and then his reaction was immediate and horrified. “Jess, no! You can’t! This is the only chance there is to save your life.”

The cowboy opened his eyes again and shook his head weakly. “It wouldn’t be my life.”

“Jess, we both know men who go on to lead good lives….”

“Not me. Couldn’t live … like that.”

“Jess, you have a home here, people who care about you and that won’t change, ever. You know that.  We’ll do everything we can to help you,” Slim swallowed, “after ....”

“Won’t … be no … after …  won’t let ‘im … cut off my leg.”

Slim jumped to his feet, pacing across the small room. “Listen to me, you stubborn rock-headed fool! We can save your life!” Taking a deep breath to calm himself, he returned to the bedside and sat back down in the chair, forcing a calmness he didn’t feel into his voice. “Jess, please, I can understand how you feel now, but it’s your life we’re talkin’ about here.”

The weary smile was back on Jess’ face, the words slow and measured, as if uttered at great cost. “But it is my life, pard. I’d … I’d rather be dead … than … crippled.”

“That’s a fool thing to say!”

“I mean it.” Jess paused, frowning, his voice a hoarse whisper. “You gave … gave me your word, pard …  An’ I’m gonna … gonna … hold you to it.”

Slim wanted to shout, to shake Jess, to force him to see reason, but he knew this man too well, knew how stubborn and determined he could be; knew how you couldn’t change his mind once it was set, not unless he wanted you to change it. “You can’t hold me to anything if you’re dead!” he shouted.

“Your word.” Jess’ answer was deadly calm and filled with certainty.

“You tricked me into giving it!”

“Don’t matter.” Jess dredged up all the energy he could muster. It was a feeble amount, but enough for him to say what he needed to say, the words coming out in a breathless rush. “Don’t let him do it, Slim. Don’t … don’t make me beg. You can’t go back on your word. I’d never forgive you for that.” He sank back down on the bed, that small effort having exhausted him, but he found the strength to glare up at the friend he thought of as a brother. “I swear … I’ll never forgive ya.”

Slim felt wetness on his cheeks and angrily wiped it away. He knew Jess meant what he said. They could ignore his refusal, write it off as a man too sick and feverish to make a rational decision, let the doc operate and save Jess’ life, but at what cost? Jess had always been so strong, so physical, taking that away from him was unthinkable. And yet, they had no other choice, because losing him was even more unimaginable. “Jess, please,” he begged.

“There are times … a man’s better off to … to let what’s gonna happen, happen,” Jess whispered, struggling to get the words out. “Let me go as I am, Slim.”

The weariness, the desperate ache in Jess’ voice left Slim’s heart shattered. “Jess, you are a better friend than I’ve ever had in my life,” he confessed, pleading. “This place needs you. We need you.” He paused, and then went on, earnestly. “Back when you first came here, I was barely holding on to this place, livin’ hand to mouth, but together, you and me, we made this ranch a success. That wouldn’t have happened without you. And Mike and Daisy, they both love you. Whatever happens, none of that will change.” Slim paused, searching desperately for the right words, words that would get through to his friend. “A long time ago, I told you that this place wouldn’t be the same without you and your troubles. Do you remember that, Jess?”

Jess nodded ever so slightly, a shadow of a smile momentarily twisting his lips, as if it were a good memory.

“I meant it then, and I mean it now, pard. We’ll find a way. Together we’ll get past this.”

“No.”

It was only one word, but it broke his heart, the hardness of it, the finality of it. Slim bowed his head, unable to look at his friend.

Somehow, Jess found the strength to raise the heavy weight of his hand and place it on Slim’s head. “I feel the same … ‘bout all of you. I just ... I can’t be less … less than I am.”

“You don’t know that,” Slim whispered desperately.

“I do … an’ you … you do, too.” Jess’ hand fell back onto the bed.

Slim raised his eyes and looked at Jess, at his fever-bright eyes and his pale, sweat-streaked face, ill and exhausted but wearing the stubborn expression the rancher knew all too well, revealing the ornery streak Slim had both blessed and cursed over the years. He scrubbed his hands over his face and back through his hair.  Nothing else had worked, and now he played his hole card. Knowing it was risky, bordering even on cruel, still he hoped to jolt Jess into seeing reason by allowing his frustration to express itself in bitter, angry words.  Slim stood to his full height, towering over the injured man on the bed, his voice harsh as he issued the challenge. “I never thought I’d hear Jess Harper give up, just call it quits, say there was somethin’ he wasn’t man enough to do. You’re telling me you’re not tough enough to see this through?”

“No, I’m not,” Jess answered softly.

Slim sagged, dropping down into the chair beside the bed once more, knowing he’d played his last, best card and lost, but unable to give up the fight. “That’s only weakness and fever talkin’, Jess,” he said urgently, pleading. “When you’re feelin’ better, you won’t be thinkin’ that way, pard. You’ll see it different.”

“I … won’t … change.”

He heard the finality in Jess’ words, and Slim knew that he had lost. With a heavy heart, defeated, he stood and trudged out of the room.

 

PART TEN

Slim emerged slowly from the bedroom, feet dragging, his face haggard and all the light gone from his eyes.

At the sight of him, Doctor Willis quickly stepped forward. “I’d like to prepare now for the amputation surgery,” he said. “It’s best done soon before he….”

“There won’t be any surgery,” Slim answered grimly, his eyes locking onto Daisy’s face, watching the look of horror appear there.

“What?” Daisy returned his stare, stunned. “What do you mean?”

The tall rancher looked forlornly over at the housekeeper, apology in his expression. “Jess said no, and that’s his right. There will be no operation, no amputation.”

“Slim, what are you saying?” Daisy cried, aghast.

The tall rancher stepped toward her, his face drawn, his shoulders slumped. ”I gave him my word that we’d do what he wanted, Daisy, and I can’t go back on that.” Her stunned expression wounded him nearly as deeply as Jess’ broken yet determined one had.

She stood up to her full height and glared up at him. “You’d let him die over manly pride?” she demanded angrily.

Slim’s gaze was still fixed on Daisy’s stricken face, his voice dull and defeated. “He knows what he wants, and I gave him my word we’d abide by his decision. No amputation.”

“He can’t refuse! You can’t let him! It could save him!”

He walked over to her, gently taking her small hands in his large ones and solemnly meeting her gaze. “Daisy, it’s his decision, and even though I don’t agree with it, I have to respect it. He has a right to live his life as he sees fit. We can’t take that away from him, no matter how wrong we think he is.” He shifted his gaze to look over at Willis. “There’ll be no amputation.”

Daisy shook her head, refusing to accept his answer, desperation in her voice. “Slim, please, we can’t let this happen! Once it’s over, once he’s getting better, he’ll forgive you.”

“He won’t, Daisy, you know that. I gave him my word. I can’t give the doctor permission to operate. I want to but I can’t, no matter how wrong I think he is.” Gently, he took hold of her hand. “Don’t you see, if I take this decision away from him, I’ve already made him less than he is? And there’d be no forgivin’ that. I know Jess too well. His life is his.”

She took a step back, pulling her hands out of his grasp. “It’s ours, too,” she cried.

He shook his head, moving up to once again stand before her, his voice sad and gentle. “No, Daisy. It’s not. No matter how much he means to us, no matter how far he’s let us in, Jess is his own man. Always.”

“No. Slim, no,” Daisy sank back down into the chair in despair.

Now the doctor spoke up for the first time, pleading as he walked back across the room to confront the tall man. “Mister Sherman, please, we still have a chance to save him. You must allow me to operate. He’s feverish and ill, certainly not in his right mind to make such an important decision. We must go ahead …. ”

“No,” Slim answered harshly.

“No!” Daisy cried out, flooded with despair. Seeing the look on Slim’s face, knowing he wouldn’t change his mind, she brushed past him, fleeing to her bedroom, tears streaming down her face, needing to be alone with her grief.

Slim stared silently after her.

“Mister Sherman ….” Willis began again.

“NO!” he thundered, spinning back toward the doctor, his voice dropping back to a deadly quiet tone. “The answer is no.”

The physician glared. “You’re killing him.”

Slim shook his head, a look of heartsick devastation on his broad face. “And you’d be killing him, too, only more slowly. If he has to die, it should be on his own terms.”

“He doesn’t have to die!” the doctor insisted.

Slim shook his head. “I gave him my word that I wouldn’t let you operate.”

The doctor glared at the rancher, but acquiesced. “Then there’s nothing I can do for him but try to make his last hours more comfortable.”

“Don’t sell Jess short. There’s no need to be shovelin’ the dirt over his coffin before he’s stopped breathin’,” Slim insisted.

The doctor shook his head, his face exuding a combination of anger and pity. “Deny it all you want, Mr. Sherman, but you and Mrs. Cooper had best be prepared.”

oOoOoOo

Daisy, having retreated to her room, lay down on her bed, exhausted. She wanted to sleep, but she’d always found it difficult if not impossible to nod off in the middle of the day. Instead, her over-tired mind was racing around in circles, searching desperately for something that might yet save Jess.

Somewhere in the recesses of her exhausted brain, there was an idea lurking, a bit of memory floating right on the edge of awareness, information she was fighting desperately to recall. There was something she’d read once, a long time ago, about new ways of treating infections but when? Where? Was it even something that could possibly apply to Jess’ situation? Her mind went round and round, frantically seeking the vague something she recalled. After sleepless days and nights filled with fear for the young man who was like a son to her, try as she might she just couldn’t remember. She kept digging for the memory, and in the midst of her futile search, finally dozed off.

Over an hour later Daisy woke with a start, the memory she’d been seeking suddenly clear and vivid. She climbed off the bed, straightened her clothes and began rummaging through the dresser drawer where she kept the correspondence from her many old friends back east, digging frantically for one letter among the many. Finally, she found the envelope she was looking for, bearing the return address of her dear old friend Veronica Donaldson. She opened the folded and yellowed paper with trembling hands and began to read, her eyes skimming quickly across the page in search of the part she had recalled.

Her hands began to shake, her heart to race.

She had remembered right!

There was hope!

Clutching the letter in her hand, Daisy hurried out into the main room of the house.

“Daisy! You should be resting!” Slim chastised her, rising from where he’d been sitting in the rocking chair and staring hopelessly into the fire.

His face looked as desperate as she knew her own must, but Daisy raised the paper triumphantly in her hand. “Slim, I couldn’t sleep, and then I remembered Veronica’s letter.”

“Veronica? What letter?”

“I’ll explain in a moment, once the doctor joins us.” She turned away from him, going into the bedroom where the doctor was sitting with a sleeping Jess. Waving the physician to join them in the other room, Daisy waited impatiently until he arrived.

“Doctor Willis,” she started primly.

“Mrs. Cooper?” he was baffled as to what could have brought this sudden change to her demeanor, the unmistakable excitement, and hope visible on her face.

“I have an idea to help Jess, if you’re willing to try.”

Willis looked at her skeptically.

“I was a nurse during the late war…”

“I know that, ma’am. Your skills are obvious.”

She nodded, and hurried on. “Back then I remember hearing about a Doctor Lister and his theory on disinfecting wounds. Not too long ago an old friend of mine, Veronica Donaldson, who is a nurse at a very fine, very progressive hospital in Philadelphia, sent me an article she’d read, about Dr. Lister’s latest findings.” Daisy waved the letter in front of him.

The doctor frowned. “Oh, I’ve heard of him. Lister’s a crackpot. His ideas are nonsense, pure nonsense.”

Daisy was undeterred. “Dr. Lister has had wonderful results at the hospital where he works, saving the lives of patients with infected compound fractures, and they’ve used it with equally good results at Veronica’s hospital as well.” Daisy stepped forward, pleading with the doctor, her hand clasped. “If we tried his technique ….”

“I will not experiment on a patient,” Willis declared.

“It couldn’t hurt to try, doctor. You believe Jess is going to die anyway.” It hurt her to say those words but she said what she had to, hoping to convince the physician to try.

“No.”

“But you could help him.” Daisy lowered her voice. “You’d be giving him a chance, a better chance than amputating,” she pleaded.

“Amputation works,” the physician insisted.

“Sometimes, but at devastating cost. A higher cost than that young man is willing to pay,” Daisy reminded him.

Willis was glaring at her in disapproval. “Mrs. Cooper, you sound like that crazy man over in Cheyenne.”

“Cheyenne?” Slim asked, stepping suddenly forward.

Dr. Willis waved a dismissing hand. “There’s some new doctor there, Gunderson, no, Gustafson, a young whippersnapper filled with high-falutin’ new ideas he learned at some fancy eastern hospital.”

Slim spun to Daisy, hope lifting his heart. “I can wire him from Laramie. If he’ll come, he could get here on tomorrow’s stage.”

Her eyes lit up with sudden optimism. “Oh, Slim! Yes!”

He leaped for the door, grabbing his hat, pausing in the open doorway. “Tell Jess, tell him….”

“I’ll tell him there’s hope,” Daisy promised. “Now hurry.”

oOoOoOo

At risk of foundering his horse, he might have set a new record reaching Laramie. Alamo was lathered up and breathing hard as Slim raced down Main Street and pulled up in front of the telegraph office. He swung down from the saddle, tossed the reins over the hitching rail without tying them, and in two long strides was up the steps, across the boardwalk, and pushing open the door.

“This is urgent, Sy,” he explained as he hastily scribbled words on the paper and handed the sheet to the telegrapher. He stood staring anxiously over Sy’s shoulder as the man began sending the wire, tapping out the series of dots and dashes. “Be sure to tell them it’s an emergency, and to deliver it immediately, no matter what it costs,” Slim reminded, and then he began to pace. 

Mort arrived just minutes later as Slim waited impatiently for an answer, a worried frown on the sheriff’s face as he saw the grim set to the rancher’s expression. “Slim? What’s up? I saw you come racin’ in here like your horse’s tail was on fire.”

“Jess has taken a turn for the worse. We’re hoping to get the new young doc from Cheyenne, Gustafson,” the tall rancher answered tersely.

“Cheyenne? What about Doc Willis?” Mort asked in surprise.

“Willis wanted to amputate,” Slim said, despairingly.

Mort’s ruddy face paled. “I take it Jess said no.”

Slim nodded. “He made us promise we wouldn’t let ‘im, even if it costs him his life.”

“He is stubborn,” the lawman conceded.

“Don’t I know it. I tried to change his mind, but,” he shrugged helplessly. “Then Daisy remembered some eastern doctor who has some new way of doin’ things, supposed to clean out deep infections without killin’ the patient. Willis wouldn’t try it, but he thought this new doc might,” Slim explained. “If he’ll even come.”

“He’ll come,” Mort offered optimistically.

Just then, the key began to clatter.

Slim wasn’t aware that he was holding his breath as he watched Sy’s pencil move quickly across the paper.

The telegrapher tapped the key in acknowledgement, then turned to the rancher. “It’s for you. The doc says he’ll be here on the morning stage tomorrow.”

“Yes!” Slim exclaimed.

“Told you, young man,” Mort smiled, slapping the tall rancher on the back. “Now you better get on back to the ranch and let Daisy know that he’s coming.” The tall man spun for the door, but Mort grabbed his arm, worried about Slim as well as Jess. “Just take it a mite easier on the way home, though, would ya? I could ride along,” he offered.

“Thanks but no, Mort. I’m fine,” there was hope in his expression.  “We’ll all be fine, so long as this works.”

The lawman followed him to the door, searching for something to say because Jess was his friend, too. “Tell Jess, well, just tell him that I look forward to seein’ his ugly mug back here in town real soon, huh?”

Slim managed a tight smile. “I will.” He untied his weary horse and walked the animal down to the livery stable where he asked the hostler to give the sorrel all the best care he could. He borrowed a fresh horse and, minding Mort’s cautionary words, rode back to the ranch at a saner but still fast pace.

Arriving home, he pulled up in front of the house, but before he could dismount Daisy was peering out of the doorway, staring out at him with a hopeful look.

“The Doc’s coming. He’ll be here tomorrow.”

Her shoulders lifted with renewed hope. “We just have to help Jess hold on that long.”

 

PART ELEVEN

It was another long night in what now seemed like an endless battle, their hopes rising and falling in counterpoint to Jess’ fluctuating fever. When the sun finally rose on another day all of them were exhausted but Jess, and their hopes, were still alive.

oOoOoOo

 

Slim’s fast trip to town wasn’t the only record set that week. Somehow that next day Mose brought the stage in nearly a whole hour early.

As soon as the coach pulled to a stop, before the dust had even settled, a young man stepped quickly out. Daisy thought he looked much too youthful to be a physician, but he was carrying the familiar small black satchel. He was short and slender with a baby face, a thin mustache trying to fill in above his lip, and he peered out at the world through a pair of thick, round spectacles. He had long, thin, soft hands and a quiet, soothing voice. “Mrs. Cooper?”

She smiled tiredly. “Dr. Gustafson. Thank you for coming.”

The tall rancher stepped up beside her. “I’m Slim Sherman. We appreciate your coming all the way out here on such short notice,” he added, reaching out to shake the physician’s hand. “Anything you can do to help Jess, we’re grateful.”

The young doctor nodded, thinking the woman looked on the verge of exhaustion, the tall man standing beside her not much better. “I’ll do my best. I only hope I can help.”
”I’m sure you can,” she encouraged, leading him into the house.

He set right to work, removing his coat and rolling up his sleeves to thoroughly wash his hands with strong smelling carbolic soap.

Once in the injured man’s room, the young doctor was all business. He started by listening to Jess’ heart and breathing, checked his temperature, and then pulled back the covers to look at the injured leg. He unwound the bandages, stained dark with drainage leaking from the angry-looking wounds. The limb was terribly swollen all the way up past the ankle, the skin bright red and shiny. The patient moaned and flinched when he touched the limb. “You say this started with a bear bite?” the doctor asked.

“Yes. A week ago,” Slim explained.

The doctor nodded, replaced the covers, then motioned for the others to follow him out of the room, speaking in low tones. “I will be blunt with you. The infection has weakened him considerably, and that makes him a poor surgical risk.”

“We know,” Daisy answered, one hand holding tightly to Slim’s arm. “But you’ll give him a chance?” There was pleading in her voice.

The young doctor pushed his glasses up on his nose and nodded. “I can try to clean out the infection.”

“Doc Willis already did that,” Slim interjected, disappointed.

“He drained the wound, Mister Sherman, opening it to allow the products of the infection to simply flow out,” Gustafson explained. “That does work, in some cases. But what I propose to do is, in fact, quite radically different. I intend to cut away the damaged and infected tissue, paring down to find healthy tissue beneath. I will then treat the incision with Dr. Lister’s carbolic acid spray ….”

“Acid?” Slim questioned, grimacing at the thought.

“Yes. The acid will kill the germs, the tiny infective agents that can get into the bone or the blood and cause gangrene and other deadly complications. The carbolic acid does burn the skin to some extent, I am aware of that, but that is an issue we can deal with. I must warn you, however, that the surgery will leave a large wound that will of itself take considerable time and strength on his part to heal. I can only hope that it’s not already too late for this treatment to be effective. If the infection is too deeply seated,” the doctor paused, “amputation may still be called for in a final attempt to save his life.”

Slim exchanged a look with Daisy, then spoke up. “He’s already said no to that, and we respect his request.”

The young doctor nodded. “If we have his consent for the operation, I can go ahead immediately then.”

“I’ll talk to him,” Daisy promised.

“Fine, then, Mrs. Cooper, I’ll begin my preparations.”

oOoOoOo

Daisy took a deep breath, opened the door to the bedroom, and walked up to stand beside Jess’ bed. He was dozing restlessly, his eyes closed, his dark hair clinging damply to his forehead. She sat on the edge of his bunk and reached out to gently touch his forearm. “Jess, can you hear me?”

His eyes opened slowly and drifted up to focus on her face. “Yeah, Daisy.”

The flush of fever was the only thing that gave his face any color; his normally bright blue eyes were glassy. Jess was so obviously, terrifyingly weak that Daisy had to fight back her despair, reminding herself that where there was life, there was hope. “Jess, I’ve been talking to the doctor, the new doctor who’s come from Cheyenne to do the surgery on your foot.”

His answer was soft and low. “No. Slim promised. No.”

Gently, she brushed the hair back off his forehead. “Shhh. Shhh. Listen to me, Jess. The doctor wants to try something new that we believe will help you.”

“No.”

“There’s an eastern doctor who has developed a new procedure, a method to cut away the infected tissue …. ”

“No!”

“It’s not an amputation, Jess,” she reassured him. “We know you don’t want that. This is a new way to clean out an infected wound, without removing the limb.”

He nodded weakly, a slight jerk of his head, hard to distinguish from the disjointed fevered movements. “Clean it. That’s all?”

“Yes, that’s all.”

His eyes fixed on her face, searching it. “You promise?”

“I promise, Jess, I promise.” She stroked his hair and forced an indulgent smile. “Let him try to help you. Please.”

Blurry though his vision was, hard as it was to think through the fever, he looked up into her face, fighting to focus. She looked worn by exhaustion and worry, and it hurt him to know that he’d done that to her. “Slim promised,” he muttered in a hoarse whisper.

“Slim will keep his word, and so will I. We won’t let him amputate, no matter what the doctor finds. You have our word on that. But you need to know, even if this works, you’ll still have a fight on your hands, a long road to recovery,” she warned him honestly. “But I know you can do it. This can work; it can save your leg and your life. Will you let the doctor try, Jess, please? Will you trust us?”

“I’ll … trust … you … you n’ Slim …  to take … take care … a’ me,” he said softly, closing his eyes and squeezing her hand once more.

oOoOoOo

The doctor completed his preparations quickly, exchanging only the few terse words that the work required, Slim and Daisy both lost in their own fears.

Once Gustafson was ready to begin, Daisy administered the chloroform, letting each drop fall slowly onto the cloth that covered Jess’ nose and mouth. In a few moments, he began to breathe deeply and evenly, his whole body slowly relaxing. She nodded at the doctor.

He quickly washed the wounds, then began to cut, his scalpel slicing through flesh all the way down to bone.

Between the strong smell of the carbolic soap and the rank odor of infection rising from the wound, Daisy’s eyes watered as she watched the doctor work. That was the reason her cheeks were wet, she told herself as the doctor labored intently, scraping away damaged flesh, digging ever deeper in search of the buried pockets of infection around the bear bites.

While Daisy watched, the doctor worked quickly, and finally, after what seemed like a terribly long time, he was done, leaving two incisions open while loosely bandaging the foot.

The surgery was over.

Jess was still alive.

Only time would tell if they had done enough.

oOoOoOo

“It wasn’t as bad as I’d feared,” the physician told them as he wearily washed his hands over an hour later. “There was a deep pocket of infection, but it was confined to a fairly small area. The broken bone fragments weren’t displaced at all, so there should be no risk of infection in the bone itself. I believe they will heal without complications.”

Slim smiled hopefully. “He’ll make it then?”

“His odds are good,” Gustafson agreed. “But it will be a fight, another day, maybe two, before we know for sure. Once his fever breaks and he begins to show improvement, we can be more confident of his survival.”

Daisy’s hands were wrapped in her apron. “Your incisions were deep, doctor. His foot will be normal? He will be able to walk on it?”

“Yes, Mrs. Cooper. There will be significant scarring; his foot won’t look pretty, but it should have normal function.”

Both Slim and Daisy sighed with relief.

oOoOoOo

Daisy had been sitting with Jess for the last several hours. He’d been terrifyingly pale and completely still, remaining under the lingering effects of the anesthetic. She couldn’t decide which was worse -- this unnatural stillness or the constant aimless fevered movements of the past few days.

Finally, he began to stir, the fingers on his left hand twitched, and then his head moved ever so slightly.

Daisy took hold of his hand, squeezing it gently. “You’re doing fine, Jess, just fine,” she soothed in her most quiet, reassuring tone.

His head moved again, he licked his lips, and then his head began tossing restlessly on the pillow, the fingers on his good hand squeezing hers. He moved his legs, raising his knees, and moaned, grimacing sharply.

Daisy rose, hurrying to the door, “He’s waking up,” she announced, then rushed back to the bedside. She took hold of Jess’ hand again, talking gently but firmly to him. “Jess, can you hear me? It’s Daisy.”

His lips moved as if to form words, but the only sound he made was a small, painful moan.

The doctor nodded at Daisy. “Keep talking to him, Mrs. Cooper.”

She squeezed his hand and called his name again.

His eyes opened slowly as, frowning, he looked at her in confusion.

Daisy smiled. “Wake up, Jess.”

“Am I … late for chores?” he mumbled, looking around the room, peering intently at Slim who was standing over Daisy. He groaned again, raising his hand to his forehead. “Never … had a … hangover … like this. Real bad.”

“It’s not a hangover, Jess,” Slim replied with a grin. “Your head’s all fuzzy from the anesthetic. The doctor just operated on you.”

“Op …?” For a second, Jess looked puzzled. He tried to lift his head to look down at his body, but the moment he tried, the room spun dizzily, and he dropped it back on the pillow.

“The operation on your foot, it’s all done,” Daisy reassured him.

Her words had the opposite effect to her intentions. He remembered now. This time, Jess’ eyes flew open and he once again struggled, trying to sit up, somehow managing to get his elbow propped on the bed and pushing himself upward. “No! No!”

“Whoa, whoa there, pard, not so fast!” Slim reached over to hold him down.

 “You didn’t! Slim, you promised! You didn’t!” Jess cried out, hoarsely.

“We didn’t,” Daisy soothed as, exhausted, Jess slumped back onto the bed, all the fight gone out of him. “The doctor only cleaned out the infection, remember? I explained what he was going to do. He didn’t amputate. Your foot’s still there.”

Slim reached down and touched Jess’ toes where the bandaged foot extended out from the blankets. “Feel that?”

“Ow. Yeah,” Jess was blinking in confusion. “My head — I’m d-dizzy.”

“That’s probably from the anesthetic, young man,” the young doctor spoke up for the first time from the back of the room. “Your head should clear in a little while.”

“Who’re you?” Jess asked, puzzled.

It was Daisy who answered, smiling. “That’s Doctor Gustafson, from Cheyenne. He operated on you, using a brand new surgical technique to clean out the infection.”

The young physician nodded in agreement. “You had a very deep-seated infection, Mr. Harper, but I was able to clean it out, and I believe your foot will heal with adequate rest, good food, and careful nursing.”

“I’ll see to it he gets all of that,” Daisy promised, but Jess didn’t hear her. He was already asleep, her hand clutched tightly in his. She looked up at the men and smiled confidently. “He’ll be fine.

oOoOoOo oOoOoOo oOoOoOo oOoOoOo

Epilogue

Daisy hummed as she worked in the kitchen, finishing supper preparations. Slim and Jess should be back any minute. The men had spent the day out on the range, moving cattle in preparation for the fall round-up. It seemed hard to believe that October had already arrived -- the summer had vanished far too quickly.

Just then she heard the sound of hoof beats in the front yard followed quickly by men’s voices raised in good-natured talk. She hurried around the corner of the fireplace just in time to see them enter, Slim’s tall and arrow-straight form followed by Jess’ shorter, compact one. They were wearing their new jackets, the short suede leather ones she thought made them look even more handsome than usual.

“Hi, Daisy,” they both greeted her.

She smiled as she watched, even all these weeks later her eyes going first to Jess as if to reassure herself that he was fine. She watched as he hung up his hat, shrugged out of his coat, and started across the room toward the table. There was still a hint of unevenness to his stride, but the color was back in his face, and the laughter resounded in his deep voice.

“What’s for supper?” he asked, peering past her toward the kitchen. “Something sure smells good, and I’m hungry enough to eat a whole cow all by myself.”

She laughed. “Are you ever not hungry?”

“Not when you’re cookin’, Daisy,” Jess teased her, smiling.

Daisy smiled back and suddenly found herself wiping a tear from the corner of her eye. It was so good to see Jess like this -- strong and healthy, vibrant and full of life. She tried not to dwell on the ordeal he had been through but sometimes, in moments like this one, she couldn’t stop her mind from recalling the long days and longer nights when they had struggled to save his life. Together they had won the battle to save him, and while they all carried the scars of those horrible days, they were at long last, finally, back to life as usual.

Jess, seeing her pensive look, hurried across the room, limping slightly but arriving quickly at her side, throwing his arm around her affectionately, his smile bright and full of life. “Hey, Daisy, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing, Jess,” she smiled, looking from him to Slim and back to him again. “Nothing at all. Everything’s as good as it could be.”

He caught the look in her eye and he understood then. Giving her a knowing smile, he squeezed her shoulder and gave her an affectionate kiss on the forehead. “Yes, it is good, Daisy.”

Jess looked around the room, at her and at Slim, his heart full of thanks for all that he had found here, for the good life that was his.

 

----The End----





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