Dusk fell on the Sherman Ranch. A cold wind blew from the north. Daylight grew short. It was December. Snow blanketed the ground and there was the promise of more in the air. Slim and Jess were forced to work quickly during the ever scarcer daylight hours. Every minute was filled with the extra chores that had to be done daily if the ranch were to survive the long cold months ahead.
Cattle had been moved down to the lower pastures and even though generous amounts of feed and bedding had been laid in, they would most likely have to purchase more to take them through until spring. Felled trees were brought into the back corrals and the endless task of woodcutting had been long underway. It would take a lot of firewood to see them warm all winter long.
If they ran out, they would have the dangerous task of venturing out into the woods to fell more trees. That was one task that Slim wanted to avoid. Last year when he and Jess had gone to the woods for extra timber, a falling tree had caught him on the side resulting in several broken ribs. He had been laid up for almost three weeks before being able to do the most mundane of chores, leaving Jess with all the heavy work. He would make sure that didn’t happen again.
Nearly everything was as organized as he and Jess could make it. They hoped that they had thought of every possible thing that would be needed. Every day chores were still performed as well as the extra winter work. This made for two very tired men at the end of each day. The heart of a working ranch never stopped beating no matter what the season.
Slim was lying in his usual spot, on the leather couch by the fire. Mike, at his feet, was intent on a new game involving a small wooden horse and rider. These were cherished toys carved for him by Jess. They had just finished supper and Daisy was clearing its remains from the table. The wind was gusting up especially hard making the shingles on the roof rattle. Daisy glanced up anxiously, alarmed by the sound.
Slim looked up from his reading and over at her. ‘She’s been nervous all through supper,’ he thought. He knew it wasn’t the shingles movement that was causing it but rather something else that was causing her concern.
“Don’t worry, Daisy. Roof is good and strong. First job Jess and I tackled.” He smiled at her, trying to alleviate her anxiety.
“Oh, I’m not worried about the roof, Slim,” she replied and carried on clearing the table.
The clock on the mantel struck the hour.
“It’s just...” Her eyes moved from the mantel clock to the front door.
Slim laid his book aside, and stretched. ‘She’ll fret till he walks through that door,’ he thought.
“He’ll be okay, Daisy. He just wanted to check the stock in the lower pasture and check the waterhole. Remember, Jess and I had put in some new ditches to help with drainage. Jess just wanted to look over our new partners…” He smiled down at Mike, who was still intent on his game, and continued, “Our new partner’s warning signs that I put up the other day. Those signs are real important. It could make for a pretty bad accident if anyone were to fall into one of them ditches.”
Slim and Jess tried to involve Mike in the workings of the ranch whenever they could. He was still too young for many of the ranch chores but there was always some small contribution that he could make. This time for instance, they had asked Mike to paint some signs saying, “DANGER WATER DITCHES” so that travelers knew to avoid the deep cut channels.
“Well,” Daisy answered. “I hope he’s not too much longer. I’ve saved him some supper and I’ll try to keep it from drying out. He’ll be dog tired and hungry when he does get home.” She paused. “You know how difficult he can be when he’s tired, so I don’t want his supper completely ruined.” With that, she headed to the kitchen and set about washing the dishes.
The clock struck the half-hour when Daisy came back into the living room. Fresh coffee and cups in her hand, she poured Slim a cup and handed it to him.
“Thanks, Daisy.” He watched, as her eyes moved toward the door again. He wished he could say something, but he knew that nothing he said would stop her from fretting. Only when her boy walked through that door would she be content.
Daisy sat at the table sipping her coffee and then she opened her sewing basket. She felt like she was continually mending shirts and pants these days. Slim’s shirts always seemed to need buttons. She didn’t know what he did with them. Jess’ always looked like he’d been in a bar room brawl. For instance, one sleeve in this shirt was almost torn out and the inside seam on one of his pairs of black pants was ripped wide open.
She held up Jess’ shirt. “How does Jess manage to do such things to his clothes?” she asked to no one in particular. She threaded her needle and set to work.
“Hard work, Daisy,” Slim replied. “Just plain hard work and there’s plenty of that at the moment too what with it being winter. Anymore coffee in the pot?” he asked.
Daisy rose and filled his cup. She eyed the clock.
“Time you were off to bed, Mike.”
Big brown eyes looked up at her, pleading.
“Can’t I stay up just a little while longer - just until Jess gets back home? Please?”
“No, it’s already well past your bedtime. Now off to bed. I’ll read you a story if you’re good.” With that she went to the kitchen. She was thinking to herself about what needed to be done when Jess got home. ‘He’ll be chilled to the bone when he gets in. I’ll need to make some fresh,’ her thoughts turning to coffee and boiling some water for a bath.
She filled two large pots, placing them on the stove to boil. ‘Better be prepared for anything.’ She had only lived on the ranch for a short time but she had learned one thing: When either Slim or Jess was late, one never knew what kind of trouble they had found or in what condition they would be in when they finally came home.
As she promised Daisy went to read to Mike and settle him down for the night even though she knew he probably wouldn’t settle properly. Not until he knew that Jess was home and all his family was safe under one roof.
When she came back into the living room she found Slim hard at work on the ranch accounts. Suddenly they heard the sound of hooves emanating from the yard. They looked at one another, signs of relief showing on their faces.
“At last,” Daisy said hurrying into the kitchen. She checked everything making sure the coffee was made and the water was boiling nicely - just in time too. Accounts forgotten, Slim pulled on his thick sheepskin jacket, pulling up the collar. He lit an extra lamp and taking it with him, headed outside into the cold darkness.
He could see movement in the barn. Slim hadn’t said anything to Daisy but he had been getting worried about Jess too. In another hour, he would have gone looking for him. ‘Wonder what kept him so long?’ Slim thought as he entered the barn.
Jess was rubbing down Traveler and as he patted him on the rump and came round from behind him, Slim caught a good glimpse of him in the light from the lamp - his question now answered. Jess was covered in mud and soaked to the skin.
Jess looked up as he heard Slim enter.
“Don’t say it,” he snarled, seeing Slim’s lips part to speak.
“I’m tired, cold and in no mood for any questions, Slim.” With that, he patted Traveler and strode out of the barn heading for the house.
As he was approaching the kitchen door, it opened, and spewed its welcoming light out into the darkness. He smiled though somewhat sheepishly, as he saw Daisy silhouetted against the light.
“Jess, at last.” Then seeing his rather sorry looking state, her mothering instinct instantly took charge. “Get those wet boots off and get in here before you catch your death.”
Jess obeyed, standing his sodden boots just inside the doorway, before stepping into the inviting warmth.
“Oh, Daisy, you don’t know how good it feels to get out of that wind.” Jess shivered as he removed his gloves. He rubbed his hands together, as he tried to get the feeling back in them.
Slim followed Jess in, and shut the door behind them. “Best get some water on to boil, Daisy. This boy is going to need a hot bath.” Slim was trying hard not to laugh, but he couldn’t help it. Jess certainly was a sight. His hair, jacket and shirt were soaked thoroughly with mud that was beginning to dry. His pants were in the same sorry condition. When he had taken off his boots, he had left puddles of muddy water by the backdoor. In an effort to warm himself, Jess removed his socks. His feet were blue with the cold.
“Already on and boiled,” Daisy stated. “Now, Slim stop that sniggering. Jess needs to get out of those wet things. Go fill the tub in your room and hurry up about it. I’ll get some more water on.”
Slim, still smiling, pumped some buckets of water and filled the bathtub that was kept in his and Jess’ room. Then he carried in the boiling pots and heated up the bath. The room filled with steam.
“Jess Harper,” Daisy said in her sternest voice. “Will you stop standing, shivering in my kitchen? Get yourself in that bedroom and out of those wet things.”
Jess stripped off his jacket and gave it to Daisy. He obediently walked to the bedroom, mumbling something about it not being Saturday and that he just needed a quick wash and some hot coffee. As Jess entered the room, Slim smiled and handed him a large bar of soap. Jess glared at him, not at all impressed with the amusement Slim was getting out of all this. Slim’s smile broadened and the sniggering continued.
“Best you stay in the kitchen, Daisy, till we get this lad in the tub. Don’t want you walking in with extra hot water, and embarrassing him,” he said continuing to chuckle as he partly closed the door to give Jess some privacy.
Jess continued his glare as he unbuckled his gun belt and threw it on the bunk.
“Don’t worry, Slim, I won’t. But it’s nothing I haven’t already seen when he was sick and I nursed him a couple of months back.” Daisy said nonchalantly.
Slim couldn’t contain it; he burst with laughter. “He’s gone red,” he called out to her. Giggles were heard coming from the kitchen.
“Daisy, Slim, cut it out,” Jess pleaded, feeling a hot flush fill his cheeks. Jess peeled off the mud soaked shirt.
“Missed,” Slim laughed as he quickly ducked. The shirt whistled by his ear.
With exasperation on his face, Jess finished removing the cold, wet, sticky clothing and stepped into the steaming tub.
“Oh, that feels so good,” he said lowering himself into the water. At last he was warm again. He lathered up the soap and began the task of removing the mud from his body.
“So, Pard, I’m waiting. What happened?” Slim asked, as he sat himself down on one of the bunks.
Daisy tapped gently on the bedroom door.
“Coffee, on the table for you both, Slim. Supper will be ready in 20 minutes, Jess.”
Slim left the room briefly, bringing back two cups of hot coffee. He handed one to Jess. Jess took the cup gratefully, swallowing a large mouthful of the hot liquid. Now he felt warm from the inside out.
“I’m still waiting,” Slim said, sipping his own. “Just couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the state of you in the barn.”
“Nothing much. Traveler simply stepped into one of the new ditches and threw me.” Jess continued to drink his coffee.
“Didn’t you see the signs, Pard?” Slim asked a note of sarcasm in his voice. “After all, that’s why Mike and I put them up. To try and stop this kind of accident from happening.”
“Yeah, sure I did.” It was Jess’ turn to be sarcastic. “Think it was on my way down. Came right up and hit me in the face.” With that, he laid his cup aside and took the washcloth, and proceeded to wash the caked-on mud from his face and forehead. He looked up at Slim. “See?”
“Ouch,” Slim commented, as he saw the very nasty looking cut and lump above Jess’ right eye. It was then that Slim noticed that Jess’ eye was starting to swell shut.
Slim rose from the bunk. Going to the bedroom door, he called out to Daisy to get the first aid box out for him. He hastened to add, that it was nothing serious. Jess just had a cut that would need tending.
“We’ll see to that eye and that swelling as soon as you’ve finished.” Slim was serious now, the laughter gone. Jess was hurt and there was doctoring to be done.
Jess continued to wash off the filth while he and Slim talked about their respective days, what they needed to do the next day, and of course, their secret plans for Christmas.
“Have some nice warmed water ready if you need it,” Daisy called from the half closed door.
Slim rose and returned holding a full bucket of warm clean water. Jess had just finished lathering his hair in an attempt to rid it of the remaining mud. Slim stood behind Jess, the grin suddenly returned. Without a moment’s hesitation, he dumped the entire contents over Jess’ head. Jess came up from the onslaught coughing and spluttering. Slim dropped the empty bucket and ran for the door, a dripping Jess in hot pursuit.
“What are you two boys doing? You’ll wake Mike,” Daisy asked, as she entered the living room. She stopped abruptly, as she eyed the two of them glaring at one another in the now open bedroom doorway. One dry and grinning, the other was standing in front of Slim blocking his retreat. Jess’ very pink and wet backside turned to her, as he dripped all over the floor.
“Oh, my,” she winked at Slim who grinned over his wet companion’s shoulder. She turned quickly with a slight giggle and vanished back to the kitchen and her stove.
“Jess” Slim started, trying his best to be serious. Although he was bursting with mirth as he eyed Jess up and down and enjoyed the thought of Jess’ impending embarrassment.
“What?” Jess demanded. He felt cold again.
“You’re dripping all over the floor.” His face started to crack under the pressure.
Jess looked down at the floor, the puddles, his bare legs, and feet then realization hit.
“Blast you Slim Sherman!” he snarled in exasperation and embarrassment. “Here!” he said, and shoved the wet washcloth that was in his hand into Slim’s face. He then pulled Slim out of the doorway and slammed the door shut, as he quickly disappeared back into their room.
Jess re-appeared some minutes later. He wore a fresh blue shirt and pants. He was looking far more like his old self. Daisy was mopping up the water from where he had stood a few minutes earlier. He stopped in the open doorway, embarrassed to look at her. He could feel his freshly shaved face warming with a flush. She glanced up and saw him then put the mop aside. She stepped towards him and she looked straight into his boyish face seeking those fathomless blue eyes, which she found. Although one was partly shut she could see the awkwardness there.
“Feeling better, dear?” Her smile was warm and reassuring. “I’m sorry we made fun of you. You just look so cute when you’re wet that we just can’t help ourselves, but you’re even cuter when you’re all clean and dry.” She gave him a hug and kissed him on the cheek.
Jess hugged her in return, his eyes moving slowly from Daisy to Slim, who sat at the desk and pretended to work on the accounts. He was trying to avoid Jess’ gaze but couldn’t and looked over at him.
“I’ll get you, Slim. You just wait!” Jess declared, mischief already twinkling in his soft blue eyes. “When’s supper, Daisy? I’m starved.” He walked toward the table with his arm around her waist.
“Right now, so sit yourself down,” Daisy continued. “I saved you some cake too.”
“Is it chocolate?” Jess asked shyly as Daisy went to the kitchen.
“What else would I make you?” she replied.
Slim looked up from the desk and looked at Jess. Jess looked at Slim. Then both broke down into fits of laughter.
“You should have seen your face, Jess.”
“You should have seen mine.” Daisy said from the kitchen and joined in the laughter.
Jess flushed slightly brushing the still damp hair from his forehead.
“Ouch.” He had completely forgotten about his eye and the injury.
“Let’s get that looked after,” Slim said beckoning Jess to sit.
Slim examined the injury.
“Cut’s not deep so you won’t need to get the Doc to stitch it. We’ll just dress it and keep it clean. It should heal fine. But you’re going to have one beautiful looking eye in the morning, Pard.” With that, Slim proceeded to bathe it and cover it with a small gauze dressing.
“Thanks, Slim. It’ll be fine.” Jess said, trying not to wince as Slim cleaned the cut.
While Slim had tended to Jess, Daisy had laid fresh bread, butter, cups and cutlery on the table.
“There you go, Jess. Eat it while it’s hot now,” she said, placing a steaming bowl of thick beef stew in front of him.
Jess thanked her and dug in. He hadn’t realized until now how hungry he was. Then he remembered he hadn’t eaten since mid-morning. Slim and Daisy sat by the fire with coffee leaving Jess to enjoy his meal. Slim continued reading his book while Daisy still endeavored to repair Jess’ shirt.
“Daisy, that was great,” Jess said as he pushed back his chair and poured himself some more coffee.
She smiled at him. “Have you room for that piece of cake?”
Jess was feeling somewhat full, but he, like Slim, had a weakness for her chocolate cake. He looked over at Slim who tried to look like he was reading his book, but he had briefly looked up upon hearing the words, “chocolate cake”.
‘Slim likes chocolate just about as much as me,’ Jess thought, smiling to himself. “I’m feeling kinda full Slim. Wanna share it with me? There’s coffee left to wash it down.” Slim’s smile was all the answer Jess needed and it made him feel good inside.
Slim moved to the table as Jess poured them both more coffee. Daisy came in and placed a luxurious chocolate portion in front of them both.
“Daisy, you spoil us,” Jess said, smiling up at her. She returned his smile though weakly and checked Slim’s doctoring. Jess took her small hand from his forehead. “You okay, Daisy? You look tired.” Jess inquired looking a little concerned. The hour was late, and he knew that she was normally in bed by this time.
“I’ll wait till you’ve finished your supper, then I’ll see to the dishes and head off to bed.” Daisy was feeling rather fatigued but she knew she would never have been able to sleep until she was sure that Jess was all right and that he had eaten.
“No, Daisy.” Jess said firmly. “You get yourself off to bed. Slim and I’ll finish the clearing up. You really shouldn’t have waited up for me.” He paused and smiled warmly at her. “I’m a big boy, remember?”
Daisy smiled at him running her fingers through the dark curly locks. ‘He’s home and safe,’ she thought. Now she could rest. “I am a little tired. Now don’t you two stay up talking too late. Goodnight, boys.” With that she walked to her room and closed the door. When they had finished their dessert, Slim took their plates into the kitchen and placed them in the sink and proceeded to wash them. Jess joined him bringing with him the coffee pot and cups. Slim took them from him and tossed him a dry cloth. Jess smiled.
“This reminds me of the days before Daisy came to live with us. Remember, Slim how I had to teach you how to do dishes?” There was that note of sarcasm again! Slim eyed him and they laughed.
“Come on, let’s get this done and then we can hit the sack.” Slim said.
Jess began putting away the last plates. As he reached up to place them on the shelf his outstretched arm stopped in mid-air. He had heard something. Looking over at Slim, he could see that he had heard it to. There it was again, a soft moan and whimper. They both nodded.
“Mike!” they said together.
“He was pretty upset, when he went to bed. He wanted to stay up until you got home but, Daisy wouldn’t let him.” Slim told Jess. “You look bushed and that eye is starting to close. You hit the sack I’ll go see to Mike.” Slim started towards Mike’s room.
Jess’ hand reached out and caught Slim by the sleeve. “Let me.”
“Okay,” Slim replied. “I’ll make him some warm milk. That usually helps to settle him down.”
Slim smiled at Jess. They both loved Mike very much. When he had first come to live with them, he had been quite a handful. He had terrible nightmares, about the attack on the wagon, reliving the horror of seeing his parents killed in front of him while he was hidden from view. Sometimes, in those early days, he woke up screaming with terror. Jess, was always there first, holding him close and rocking him. Slim knew that Jess felt empathy for Mike and his demons. Jess’ own family having been murdered by the outlaw Bannister gang. The Bannisters had set fire to the family home and although Jess had tried to save them, only he and his sister Francie and younger brother Johnny survived the ordeal.
Jess padded across the living room. Quietly opening Mike’s door, he turned up the dimmed lamp that was kept on the dresser just inside and to the right of the doorway. Mike had always been afraid of the dark since he came to live with them, so they had decided that a dimmed light would be okay until he grew out of it. Mike was fine during the day and his nightmares had lessened over the past months. But he never properly settled if he knew one of the family members was not safe in the house with him when he went to bed.
Stepping into the room, Jess saw the small figure clad in a striped nightshirt, tossing and squirming around on his back. The blankets were kicked off onto the floor. ‘It’s cold in here. That’s what’s probably stirred him,’ Jess thought, but he knew that his late absence was really the cause and it hurt him. Mike meant so much to both he and Slim. They had a bond that was as strong as if they had been blood kin.
Mike whimpered again and opened his sleepy eyes. “Jess,” Mike said stretching out his arms, asking to be picked up.
Jess leaned forward to allow Mike to wrap his arms round his neck. In an instant, Jess had the small boy safe in his arms.
“I’m here, Tiger,” Jess said softly. “It’s okay, you were just dreaming.” As he spoke he was rocking Mike gently back and forth. ‘He’s so little, so precious,’ Jess thought.
Mike had lost so much, at such a young age. When Mike had come to live with them, Jess and Slim swore that they would make certain Mike grew up knowing that they would always be there to protect him, and to love him. Jess felt Mike shiver slightly. He reached down and picked up one of the blankets off the floor and quickly wrapped it around the small boy.
Slim stood in the lighted doorway.
“He okay?” he asked.
“Yes, just scared and cold. Wish he’d stop kicking off his blankets at night,” Jess replied, wrapping Mike more tightly in an effort to warm him.
“Milk’s ready. Why don’t you bring him out by the fire for a while?”
“Good idea,” Jess said rising. Mike moaned sleepily, tightening his grip on Jess.
Slim left the doorway moving to the grate where he placed another log on the fire.
“It’s okay, Mike. Let’s go warm you by the fire.” Jess carried the small swaddled boy into the warmth of the living room, seating himself with Mike in the rocker next to the hearth. Mike still swaddled in the blanket leaned closer into Jess’ chest. “Slim has made you some warm milk.”
Mike raised his head smiling at Jess through blurry eyes.
“Mmm… sounds nice,” he said. A small hand reached out of the blankets and gently touched Jess’ dressing. Jess winced slightly at the touch. Mike quickly retracted his hand back under the blanket. “Are you alright, Jess?”
“I’m fine, Mike. Just a little accident, that’s all. Slim took care of it for me.”
Slim came round the corner from the kitchen, cup in hand. Mike was reluctant to sit up at first, not wanting to leave the comfort of Jess’ warmth.
“Come on, Tiger it’ll help you sleep,” Jess said as he sat Mike up, freeing the small arms from the folds of the blanket.
Slim stooped down next to the rocker, holding out the cup to Mike.
“Gently now, Mike it’s not hot,” and he held the cup allowing the boy to sip slowly.
After only a few sips of the warm frothy liquid Mike leaned back, snuggling into Jess and closed his eyes. Jess started to rock gently, his eyes too beginning to feel heavy. Slim sat on the couch, a look of quiet contentment showed on his face as he watched Jess and Mike rocking gently. Slim looked up at the clock on the mantel as it struck the hour.
Slim leaned forward and touched Jess’ knee. Jess’ eyes opened and look up at him sleepily.
“Best we get you and Mike to bed,” Slim said as he rose and stretched.
“I suppose,” Jess replied. He was so comfortable, sitting there with Mike but he knew that bed was the best place for them both. “You fix his bed I’ll bring him along.”
Slim carefully helped Jess out of the rocker so as not to disturb Mike too much. Then he walked to Mike’s room, quickly setting about making up the bed again. Jess followed, quietly soothing Mike as he went.
Slim folded the blankets and quilt back, allowing Jess to lay Mike gently down. Mike stirred as Slim tucked the blankets and quilt around him. He felt warm and safe and wouldn’t stir again till morning. Slim dimmed the light as they left the room. He and Jess left the door slightly ajar and headed to their beds. It was around midnight when Slim and Jess finally laid down.
“Goodnight, Slim,” Jess said as his head finally hit the pillow.
“Goodnight, Jess,” Slim replied.
Jess never heard him.