Jess Harper lay on his back in the shade of an aspen on a high mountain meadow. The sun was gentle on his boyishly handsome face and the soft wind carried with it the faint scent of pine and young fern. Wild flowers nodded and bowed in the breeze while in a nearby creek a large trout slapped the water. Jess had just awoken from a little nap and had been dreaming. It had been a nice dream but he couldn’t for the life of him remember what it was about. In fact he was having a very difficult time remembering a lot of things. Like how he happened to be here by himself when just moments (hours? days?) ago he and Slim and been moving cattle to lower range. It had been late fall then – snow already blanketing the higher pastures.
For a moment he thought he heard the soft murmur of familiar voices, anxious and strained but he must have been mistaken. Rolling his head to the right he could see his horse grazing by the creek. Squinting slightly, he realized that this was not his familiar big bay, Traveler and yet he would have recognized the profile anywhere. It was a smaller more compact black with a white left hind sock – why it was old Jack himself! But wait a minute – he clearly recalled Jack being shot out from under him at Shiloh. But dad gum if that wasn’t him and not more than forty feet away. As if hearing his thoughts, the gelding raised his head and pricked his ears towards Jess, a peaceful light glowing in his kind intelligent eyes. He nickered gently and then resumed his grazing. And then he was gone. The sun quickly turned an angry shade of red, the heat of it searing Jess’ skin. He tried to take a breath but all it brought was a fiery agony to his chest. He was suffocating, drowning and burning up all at the same time. He tried to call out but could get no sound past his parched lips. He tried to push himself away from the terrible heat but his body wouldn’t obey his commands.
Slim Sherman clenched his fists in frustration and looked on helplessly as his friend and partner, deathly pale and drenched in sweat struggled to breathe. This would not be the first time he and Jess had faced the imminent death of one or the other but in all the other instances the source of danger had had a face and a name. Together they had dealt with these dangers and fought them down all the while accepting that when their time came they would ultimately meet their deaths with grace and with courage. But this was different. This killer couldn’t be silenced with bullet or knife. It couldn’t be reasoned with and it wreaked its deadly damage right in the victim’s very own bed while those who loved him the most surrounded him.
In the years he had known Jess, they had indulged in many long conversations often while rocking companionably on the front porch in the cool of the evening or by a late night campfire on the trail. There was little they hadn’t discussed and occasionally the subject had been that of their own mortality. While both had agreed that the odds didn’t favor either of them living to old age, they also had agreed their lives were just too darned good not to fight for. Jess was certainly putting up the fight of his life right now while he watched but if this was to be the end, it was an end that neither of them had foreseen.
It had all started out so innocently. A bare forty-eight hours ago he and Jess had set out to move a small herd of prime steers to lower range. The October snows had come early and more were threatening. Jess was riding a four-year-old colt that he had been working with all summer. It was the first offspring of their promising quarter horse stallion upon whose broad and muscular back was pinned their hopes for many generations of fine working ranch horses. The colt’s name was Ranger and both he and Jess had been in high spirits that morning. Slim had marveled at how similar the two of them were – both lean, athletic and full of themselves. Jess had held the powerful chestnut in check until they reached the highest meadow and then he had let him go. The early morning sun had glinted off the colt’s gleaming copper flanks as horse and rider had flown as one across the hillside. After a time, Jess had reluctantly reined him in and he and Slim and begun the day’s business of moving the cattle to lower ground. The job was accomplished by noon. As Slim headed back towards the ranch, Jess proposed that he take one more sweep to make sure they hadn’t missed any stragglers. It was a perfectly good idea and although Slim had felt a strange reluctance to let Jess go on without him, he could see no valid reason to disagree.
Shortly after his return to the ranch the wind picked up sharply and the temperature plunged. By midafternoon as Slim was just wondering what in heck was keeping Jess, Ranger had come galloping riderless into the yard. Still not overly concerned, he had saddled up Jess’ faithful Traveler and trailing him behind had retraced Ranger’s tracks. He had met up with Jess just before dusk, chilled through to the bone and sporting a painful lump on the back of his head. Seems the inexperienced Ranger had spooked at a family of quail and unceremoniously dumped Jess onto a rocky outcropping before high tailing it back to the security of the ranch. This was a typical all-in-a-days-work sort of episode for Jess, and he and Slim joked about it on the ride back.
They had continued to laugh about it over dinner although Daisy had insisted upon Jess soaking his feet in a pan of hot water while he ate. Jess had retired somewhat earlier than usual but all else had seemed normal. Then in the small hours of morning Slim had been awakened by Jess coughing in the next bed. Not a normal sniffling cold cough but a deep guttural ominous sounding cough. Jess apologized for waking Slim up and offered to spend the rest of the night on the couch in the living room. Slim had insisted that he stay put and both had eventually drifted off to sleep. In the morning Jess was a bit paler than normal but otherwise his usual irrepressible self.
They had spent the morning resetting the shoes of a number of the relay string. At lunchtime Jess had casually mentioned that he wasn’t particularly hungry and that if Slim had no objection he might just lie down for a few minutes. When Slim went to check on him an hour later, he found Jess asleep, but restless. When he shook his shoulder gently, Jess roused a bit and struggled to sit up. His face was flushed, his eyes unnaturally bright. Slim had called to Daisy and together they had done their best to make Jess comfortable, and for a short while it seemed they were successful. But over the next few hours the fever took hold and his breathing became more labored. By evening he was unconscious. It all happened as quickly as that.
The red sun continued to beat down on Jess. He was vaguely aware of a bitter liquid being forced down this throat. As the liquid spread through his body, his breathing became less painful. The sun turned a slightly more benevolent shade of yellow and Jack was once again nibbling grass nearby. The voices returned as well. Louder this time and even more anxious. He felt himself suddenly being pulled forward and someone pounding him between his shoulder blades. Then he was coughing, retching and gagging, the pain in his chest pure agony. He turned his head, looking for Jack but saw only a dull red haze. Then blessed nothingness.
When next he came to himself he realized he was naked and that gentle hands were bathing him. Normally he would have been embarrassed but this felt so darned nice he just relaxed and drifted off.
Daisy rubbed her eyes, momentarily overcome by bone numbing fatigue and heart wrenching worry. She had just about exhausted all the potions and cures she had at her disposal. The new doctor from town had come and gone a few hours ago. He was the best Laramie had had up until now but she could tell by his eyes that he held out little hope for Jess. He had promised to stop by again early the next morning. She had nothing left in her arsenal but prayer, and this she now used with a vengeance.
Slim had followed the doctor out to his buggy. The doctor was far younger than his predecessors had been – Slim judged him to be in his late twenties and he felt that under different circumstances, he and Jess would have enjoyed his company. This doctor had certainly been thorough both in his examination of Jess and his treatment.
Slim didn’t have to ask what the prognosis was – the expression on the young doctor’s face said it all. He solemnly shook has hand and sadly watched as he clucked to his horse and trotted down the drive. He was suddenly aware of a small figure standing alone on the porch. He went up to Mike, knelt down and slowly drew him to him in a strong embrace. Tears, so long held back, now coursed down their cheeks. How could he ever explain to Mike, who had lost so much already, that Jess could very well die? He guessed he probably didn’t need to. Mike’s worry and concern exactly mirrored his own. After a bit they both went to the barn to finish the evening chores and later sat silently by the fire in the living room as Daisy kept her vigil over Jess. No one even gave supper a thought.
Daisy allowed her eyes to stray over Jess’ ravaged countenance. When did he become so precious to her – when had he actually become the child of her heart? True she adored Slim and respected him as well. And Mike – well she now considered him to be her youngest child. But Jess – how to explain the overwhelming maternal tenderness she felt whenever those fathomless blue eyes twinkled at her. Yes, he was special and although she would never say so out loud, he was her favorite. She had thought she had lost everything when first her husband and then her natural son were taken from her but she found that as one door closes another truly opens.
Somewhere in the stillness of that cold and starry Wyoming night, the desperate prayers were heard. A courageous young man so close to death, rallied and drew upon scant reserves of strength. Jess waged the fiercest battle of his life – and won.
Jess found himself walking through the high spring meadow. Jack ambled up to him and Jess gently stroked his nose. The great trout in the creek sounded again just begging for line and lure. The scented breeze ruffled his hair and a low musical keening echoed up from the valley below. He gazed at the ethereal scene one last time and then reluctantly closed his eyes – his time would come but that time was not now.
When he awoke, he was propped up in his own bed against freshly fluffed pillows. The sheets were starched and smelled of lavender. A thick quilt was wrapped snuggly around him and by his feet was curled a very large and purring orange tomcat. On the next bed, clad in stripped pajamas and sound asleep was a small boy. From the kitchen came the intoxicating aromas of brewing coffee and freshly baked corn bread. Outside the bedroom door the voices were hushed but happy. A tall figure came in and sat on the side of the bed. As Jess rolled over on his side and went back to sleep, a large gentle hand rubbed his back and a devoted heart breathed a huge sigh of relief.
As sleep overtook him Jess whispered in a low raspy voice, “Slim?”
Surprised Slim stopped rubbing circles, “Yeah?”
“Am I gonna die?”
Slim smiled and started rubbing circles again, “Nope…not today.”