Leaving Home  

By Badger (MaryinMarshall@cs.com)

Between Seasons 1 and 2 --  It’s a time of change at the Sherman Ranch and not everyone is taking it well. In fact, no one is.

Thanks to Hired Hand for her always first-rate beta (and, way back, to Barb, too)

~~~~~oOoOoOoOoOo~~~~~

PART ONE 

It was a beautiful Wyoming morning, one of those rare and nearly perfect days. The rain and clouds of the day before had cleared, leaving the sky a sparkling deep blue. The early summer rains had greened-up the countryside and filled the creeks.

Slim and Jess had just finished changing the teams on the morning stage and were pulling the harnesses from the tired horses that now stood tied to the rails of the corral.

“Jess, why don’t you go and check those cows and calves up along the river?” Slim suggested. “Move them north onto fresh graze above the flats until we’re ready for roundup.”

The dark-haired cowboy paused in his work, sliding his hat back on his head as he looked over at his boss, surprised at the suggestion. “I thought you were going to do that, with me helpin’ ya’.”

“Now that the rain’s stopped, I’m figurin’ on checkin’ those horses down in the south pasture.  With all that bad weather we had, no one’s been down there to take a look at ‘em all week.”

“Rousting out those cows an’ calves, that’s no job for one man,” Jess reminded Slim as he pulled the bridle off one of the wheelers. “How about I take Andy with me?”

The tall rancher already had the harness off the horse he was working on and moved on to work on the next. “I don’t know, Jess; that’s a hard ride and a big job.”

“With his help, I can clear those breaks along the river, save us a lot of work at round-up. Andy’d be a big help.” Jess slung the harness over the fence rail. “Besides, he’s been just itchin’ to get away from the ranch for a bit.”

Slim smiled as he started unbuckling the harness fastenings on the second horse. “You wouldn’t have your mind on a long lunch break for fishin’, would you?”

Jess grinned delightedly. “Who me? Take a break from work? Not on your life, boss.”

Slim was shaking his head. “I still think Andy shouldn’t go. That’s a rough ride and a tough job. There’s some ornery old range cows in that bunch up there, longhorns I’ve been meanin’ to cull but haven’t had the time to sort through ‘em. Figured you and me could do that at fall roundup.”

“Do it now, and we won’t have t’do it then, when we’ll be busier than a skunk in a henhouse.” Jess leaned over the back of the horse he’d just unharnessed. “I know it’s a big job, Slim, but you’ve been coddling Andy like he’s made outta’ glass. Let him be a boy, would ya? Loosen up the reins a bit, let him test the wind. Trust him a little.”

“It’s you I’m not sure can be trusted,” Slim answered jokingly.

“Them’s fightin’ words, partner,” Jess retorted, still grinning, raising his fisted hands in mock preparation to do battle.

Slim waved a conciliatory hand in the air. “Okay, okay, Slingshot. Ask him. If he wants to go with you, he can.”

“No worry about that,” Jess answered, already on the way to the house to find the youngster.

“Jess!” Slim’s shout stopped the dark-haired young man, who paused and turned back to look. “You see nothin’ happens, you hear? Move those cows and get back home b’fore dark. And don’t let Andy work those breaks,” he ordered sternly.

Jess waved in reply, turning to hurry on up to the house, and a moment later, Slim heard a yell of delight from Andy.

It took only fifteen minutes for Jess and Andy, both sporting wide grins, to be in the saddle, horses loaded down with canteens, the lunch Jonesy packed for them stuffed into their saddlebags, and high spirits brimming with a sense of adventure.

Jess led the way out of the ranch yard and up the hill at an easy lope, but once they were out of sight of the ranch house, and therefore, out of Slim’s view, he looked over at Andy with a devilish grin. “Daylight’s burnin’, boy. Let’s get movin’. The sooner we get those cows taken care of, the sooner we get to those fish.” With that, he tugged his hat down tighter, set his spurs to his horse and took off at a flat-out gallop.

Andy let out a whoop and raced alongside.

oOo

The rest of the morning passed quickly. Once the two of them reached the river, they were in luck and quickly found the majority of the herd of cows with their young calves grazing together in a meadow. Andy kept them loosely bunched up and drifting north toward the flats while Jess worked the steep hills and brush-choked draws along the river, searching for any strays. Once they’d tallied up the herd and knew they had nearly the whole bunch, they moved the cattle farther along the waterway and onto fresh pasture.

With the cows and calves happily grazing in the meadow, Jess pulled off his hat and with his sleeve wiped the sweat from his forehead. “Well, that was a job, Andy. Thanks for the help.”

The boy grinned. “We’re done now, right?”

 “Not exactly. I ain’t checked those last couple of washes along the creek; there’s likely a dozen of those old longhorn cows hidin’ in the breaks. And then we need to push the cattle all the way over the ridge and onto that fresh pasture.”

“But we could break for lunch first. Do some fishin’,” the youngster pleaded.

Jess looked up at the position of the sun. “Took longer to find those strays than I figured. We ain’t got a whole lot of time.”

Andy looked crestfallen. “Awww, Jess. Couldn’t we fish just for a bit? While we eat lunch? The horses sure do need a rest.”

That was true, Jess realized. Traveler had worked up a lather combing the steep, brush-covered hills along the river.

Andy could see his friend’s resolve wavering, and he increased his pleading, adding his most beseeching look of disappointment. “Come on, Jess. We worked hard all morning, and it’s such a long ride up here.  We hardly ever get to this part of the ranch, and it’d be a shame to go home without any fish for supper. Embarrassing, too.”

“Okay.  We can fish, but just for a few minutes while we eat.”

The two of them rode along the river until they found a shady spot, tying their horses and sitting down to eat their lunch while they fished.  The food was good, but the fishing turned out to be a disappointment. After half an hour without a single bite, Andy was frustrated.

“I don’t think there are any fish around here, Jess,” Andy lamented, disgustedly tossing his fishing pole down on the stream bank.

“Could be you’re right, Andy,” Jess answered laconically, reclining comfortably against a log, his hat pulled down low over his face to block the bright afternoon sun. He didn’t appear at all upset over the lack of fish, even though he’d been hoping for a string of trout to take home for supper. With a sigh, he raised his hat, peering at the angle of the sun before looking over at the youngster. “I reckon we’d best get goin’ and finish roundin’ up these cows.”

“Already?”

“Yeah, already.” Jess was climbing to his feet, stretching the kinks out of his back. “We’ve spent more time fishin’ than we should of. I’ve got to work that whole last bunch of draws along the river, kick out those  ol’ mossyhorns likely to be skulkin’ in that brush.”

“I bet there ain’t a single critter in there,” Andy protested. “If we skip it, we’d have another hour, maybe two, for fishin. Slim’ll never know,” he suggested slyly.

Jess grinned, reaching over to slap the brim of the youngster’s hat. “Slim knows everything.” He fixed a glare at the boy. “Now you might be able to get away with that, being the boss’ little brother. Me, I’m just a hired hand, and he’s likely to send me packin’ back to Texas, I miss any strays up here.”

Andy grumbled while they went to their horses, tightened up their cinches, mounted up and got back to work. Mindful of his promise to Slim, Jess left Andy in the meadow keeping the herd bunched up while he did the rough work of combing the draws for strays. It was a hard, hot job with little reward for the effort -- he found only three cows hiding in the brush clogged arroyos, all rangy old longhorns with half-growed calves as wild as their mothers, and hardly a lick of beef on any one of them.

Taking a break to let his winded horse blow, Jess pushed the last stragglers down to join the herd they’d already gathered. He pulled off his hat and wiped the sweat from his face, casting a wary eye up at the sun. The day was fading quickly. He tugged his hat back onto his head and called the boy over. “There’s one last spot I got to check, Andy. Back in this draw there’s a fair-sized pocket full a’brush, just the kind a place where some of those smart ol’ cows like to hide -- we kicked half a dozen a’them outta there last fall at round-up. I’ll work the bottom, you stay up along the ridge, turn back anything that tries to sneak out behind me.”

“You bet.” The boy turned his horse.

“Andy!” Jess called out sharply.

“Yeah?” The youngster stopped and looked back.

“You be careful, Andy, an’ stay up there where I told ya. Some of these snorty old cows are mighty touchy, especially around their calves. Give ‘em a wide berth, you hear?” the cowboy warned.

“Yeah, Jess, I hear.”

Maybe Andy heard, but he didn’t listen.

oOo

Jess circled around the brush-choked bottom of the draw before sending Traveler into the thicket. It was hot and airless tucked down in the fold of the hills and before he’d ridden a dozen yards Jess could feel the sweat rolling down his face and trickling down his back. Immediately, he heard movement in front of him, and the bay pricked up his ears and looked ahead. Jess caught a quick glimpse of tan and white hide. “Get up, get up now!” Jess shouted, slapping his free hand against his chaps. The crackle of brush off to his left was his first clue that another animal was there. Jess heard the noise, then spotted something big and speckled black and white and moving fast. In a few seconds, a big, rawboned longhorn cow burst out of the brush, a small calf at her heels. One look and Jess recognized her. She was a wide-horned range-savvy old cow he remembered well; she’d charged him during round-up last year. “Andy, get away!”

“I’ll cut her off!”

“No!” Jess shouted. “Let her go, Andy, let her go!”

His words were either too late or unheard. Andy spun his horse to move in front of the cow, and she dodged right to go around him, making a break for the ridge. But her calf didn’t follow. Confused, it stopped and bawled its distress.

Mama cow skidded to a stop and turned back for her bleating calf. She swung her head, bellering in answer, her long sharp horns slashing through the air, deadly as knives, and charged back down the hill, uncaring of the boy and the horse between her and her offspring.

She ran for her calf, the deadly horns flashing, and Andy’s horse reared to get out of her way.

The speckled cow swept on past.

But Andy’s sorrel, on the loose, uneven ground of the steep hillside, floundered. Hooves skidding as it fought for balance, the gelding hung in the air for a long moment, then toppled, landing heavily on its side and tumbling down the slope.

A hundred yards away Jess saw it all happen as if in slow motion yet powerless to stop it, horror rippling through him as the horse fell, the boy under it. “Andy!” he shouted, spinning Traveler around and spurring the bay toward the downed youngster. “Andy!”

Reaching the boy, Jess flung himself out of the saddle, dropping to one knee beside the youngster who was lying prone. Andy raised his head as Jess approached, shaking it slowly before looking around in glassy-eyed confusion.

He was so intent on getting to the youngster that Jess almost missed it, the flash of color as the cow reclaimed her calf, and, thoroughly spooked, made one more break for freedom.

Running right at the two of them on the ground.

Jess drew his gun and fired in one unbroken motion, the bullet kicking up dust at the longhorn’s feet. The speckled cow bawled as she spun around, turning back into the thick brush, but Jess didn’t care where she went -- his eyes were glued on Andy, still struggling to sit up. Holstering his gun, the cowboy turned back to the youngster, putting a gentle hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Easy, Andy, easy. You all right?”

“Wh-what happened?” His eyes were open but glazed and unfocused. There was something odd in the boy’s voice, something shaky and uncertain. “Jess?”

“You took a little spill, partner.”

“My horse?”

Jess took the question as a good sign and spared a quick glance down the slope. The sorrel was on his feet, trembling, but standing on all fours. “He’s fine. How about you?”

“My arm hurts.”

“Keep it still,” Jess told him gently, having already noted the boy hadn’t moved it as he struggled to sit up. Jess kept one supporting hand on Andy’s back as the youngster swayed.

The boy squeezed his eyes tight shut and then opened them slowly. “And I’m kinda’ … dizzy.”

Jess’ face blanched white as he saw Andy raise a hand into the hair above his right ear. It came away smeared with red as more blood rolled slowly down the boy’s neck and soaked into the collar of his shirt.

“Jess?” Andy was looking down at the blood on his hand, and then raised his bleary gaze to look at Jess. Suddenly the boy’s eyes rolled up into his head, and he crumpled bonelessly to the ground.

“Andy!” The youngster was breathing, ragged and harsh, but breathing, as Jess ripped the bandana from around his own neck and dabbed at the blood on Andy’s head. It was bleeding a lot, which scared him clear down to his boots. With trembling fingers he felt the boy’s skull, finding a ragged tear in the scalp, several inches long. The blood flow from the wound was steady and thick, and Jess had no way to know if the bone beneath had been damaged. Working quickly, he took Andy’s bandana and folded it into a square over the wound, then tied his own neckerchief carefully around the boy’s head, wrapping it tight as he dared.

The youngster whimpered.

“Shh, partner, it’s all right,” Jess soothed, keeping his voice soft.

The boy moaned and his eyes fluttered, his face gone paper white in contrast to the bright red of the blood.

“Andy! You stay with me,” Jess urged, fighting to keep his voice level so he wouldn’t upset the youngster.

Andy’s eyes opened but remained unfocused as his hand reached up unsteadily to touch the bandage. “Jess, my head hurts,” he said, weakly.

The cowboy’s heart threatened to turn to stone in his chest. “I know, Andy,” he said, gently. “You got a cut there. Nothing we can’t fix up, though.”

“I want to go home, Jess,” he mumbled.

“I’ll get you there, Andy, I promise.”

Jess ran to his horse, leading Traveler close, then lifted an unresisting Andy into the saddle. Holding him there, he quickly leaped up behind the boy and urged the bay forward.

Jess cradled Andy’s limp form as he turned Traveler toward home, his heart filled with dread. Slow mile after slow mile, the ride was an endless nightmare. Occasionally, the boy would stir and mumble and Jess would clutch him tighter, talking soothingly until Andy settled down again. The cowboy’s  arms grew numb and his shoulders ached as he held tight to the youngster on the long ride home. The sun set and darkness descended, the evening chill arriving with it.  Jess shivered, using his own coat to cover Andy but the physical discomfort was nothing compared to the cold fear clutching at his heart.

Jess Harper wasn’t normally a praying man, but this time, he prayed as he rode, prayed as hard as he’d ever prayed for anything in his life.

Andy had to be all right, he just had to be.

oOo

Riding as fast as he dared, it was still well past dark before Jess arrived back at the ranch. He was a good fifty yards from the house when he started shouting, “Slim! Jonesy! Get out here! Andy’s hurt! Slim! Jonesy!”

Jess pulled up in front of the house but before Traveler had stopped Slim was beside him with Jonesy close behind. There was an expression Jess had never seen on Slim’s face before, a look of flat-out fear.

“Andy?” the tall rancher asked gently, a tremor in his voice.

“He’s alive,” Jess promised.

“He dang well better be,” Slim snapped, taking his brother’s limp form from his friend’s hands and swiftly carrying the boy to the house.

“Careful of his arm. I think it’s busted,” Jess advised, but Slim hurried on wordlessly, entering the house without a backward glance.

“I’ll get some water,” Jonesy called out and headed for the kitchen.

Jess followed Slim as he carried the boy into the bedroom and to his bunk, placing him there gently. As Slim peeled off the makeshift bandage, Jess thought it looked like an awful lot of blood matted in the boy’s hair and soaking the collar of his shirt.

“Andy?” Slim’s voice was unnaturally calm.

The boy’s eyes opened lazily and he looked around, confused. “Slim?”

“How ya’ doin’?”

“My head hurts.”

“I imagine so,” Slim answered softly, his fingers gently probing the now-swollen area around the head wound before checking the youngster’s arm.

Andy grimaced. “Ow.”

“Sorry, Andy.” The boy’s eyes closed again, and Slim spun around to scowl at his friend. “How’d this happen?” he demanded with a glare aimed straight at Jess.

Jess’ hands were twitching, thumbs rubbing restlessly across the sides of his first fingers, the reflexive movements he wasn’t even aware he made when troubled. “He took a tumble.”

“Off his horse?” Slim asked incredulously. He knew Andy was a good rider.

“Him and his horse together. They got tangled up with one a’ them wild cows near a draw up along the creek; one of those old longhorns with a young calf popped out of the brush; she surprised him.”

Slim’s face looked nearly as pale as his brother’s did as Jonesy hurried in, carrying water and clean cloths. Slim sat on the edge of the bed and began wiping carefully at the now crusted blood in Andy’s hair, but when he turned to the ranch hand standing in the doorway, his face was clouded and his voice dark with anger. “I warned you about them. You should have been ridin’ the rough ground.”

Jess looked down, unable to meet Slim’s angry stare. “I know.”

“It was *your* job to work the rough stock, not a half-grown boy!”

“I know, Slim,” Jess’ voice was soft and desperate. “I’m sorry, I swear, I didn’t think anything would happen.”

“That’s exactly it. You didn’t think,” Slim snapped, skewering his friend with a thunderous look before turning away to resume his careful task.

Andy moaned.

Jess was staring at the floor, unable to meet Slim’s gaze. “Slim, I….”

“Not now,” Slim’s face was as angry as Jess had ever seen it, his voice tight. “We’ll talk about it later. Right now, go get the Doc. Take my horse, yours looked done in.”

Relieved to have something useful to do, Jess dived out the door, hoping that, while he was gone, Slim would have time to cool off.

oOo

The doctor put a half a dozen stitches in Andy’s head, splinted his arm, and while the youngster was bruised nearly from head to toe, the physician declared that there’d be no permanent damage. Andy would have nothing more than a couple of scars and an exciting story to tell his friends.

It was long after midnight when Slim finally left Andy’s side. Jonesy took his place sitting with the sleeping youngster as the tall rancher went in search of his ranch hand.

Jess was standing out on the porch, chewing on a toothpick and brooding on his failures of the day as he leaned against the railing.

Slim emerged from the house, his expression still dark as thunder, skipped the preamble and went straight to the heart of the matter. “Tell me exactly what happened,” he ordered tersely.

Jess could feel the heat of anger boiling off his friend, and quickly he explained the incident, about the cow and her calf and leaving out no detail, except the fact that Andy hadn’t followed his orders to stay out of the way. He took full blame on himself because he’d been the one in charge; he’d been the one who’d asked Slim to let Andy go along, urged him to let the youngster take on the task. “It’s my fault, Slim,” he concluded, standing up to take responsibility, and whatever punishment Slim chose to hand out. “You were right about that job, about keepin’ him out of those breaks where those wild old cows like to hide. That’s no place for a youngster. I’m sorry.”

Slim was still boiling, fueled by a night of fear for the younger brother he was responsible for raising. “Sorry doesn’t quite cover it, Jess. He could have been killed.”

“I know that,” Jess answered quietly, aware this was no time to argue.

Slim slapped his hand against the porch post, the sound loud in the quiet of the night. “Damn it, Jess, this is Andy we’re talkin’ about!”

Slim didn’t swear often, and his use of profanity this time betrayed the depth of his worry, and his anger.

“You don’t have to tell me that. I know,” Jess answered, anguish in his voice. Andy’s blood was on his shirt, and though he’d spent half an hour scrubbing his hands clean, he could swear it was still on them, too. “I’m sorry,” he said again, having no other words to convey his genuine regret.

“Well sorry and a nickel will get you a cup of coffee! How could you have been that irresponsible, huh? I trusted you, Jess!”

“Slim, I said I’m sorry, and I am, and there’s nothin’ else I can say,” Jess countered vehemently, turning to face the tall man. ”You know I’d stand in front of a whole herd a’chargin’ longhorns to protect him, or even you, hardheaded as you are.”

With an audible sigh Slim sank down onto the porch chair, running his hands through his hair, and then wearily dropping his head into his hands, the anger leached out of him.  “I know that, Jess. I know that it’s not your fault. It could have happened anytime or any place out on the range. It’s part of livin’ out here and doin’ what we do. It’s just….”

“It’s just that he’s your kid brother and your responsibility,” Jess finished softly.

“He’s the future, Jess, a better future than what we’ve got now.”

PART TWO

Three days after Andy had been hurt, Slim and Jess were riding side by side across the rolling hills of the Sherman Ranch, on their way out to the north range to move cattle. Slim was unusually silent during the first hour of the long ride. Was he still sore over what had happened to Andy, Jess wondered? Though Jess had initially shouldered all the blame and said nothing about Andy’s failure to follow Jess’ orders, the boy had confessed the whole story to Slim, and that seemed to have eased most of the rancher’s anger toward his friend. They’d talked it out and Jess had been sure that they’d come to terms with the incident, but maybe he’d missed something.

Finally, the long silence having grown unbearable, Jess just had to come right out and ask. “You still sore at me?”

Slim’s answer was quick. “No.”

Jess sighed with relief. “Well, you’re sure quiet today.”

“Yeah.” Slim nodded, still looking preoccupied.

“Got somethin’ on your mind?”

Slim nodded again. “Somethin’,” he answered, distractedly.

“Somethin’ I did?”

Slim shook his head. “No.”

“Somethin’ I didn’t do, then?” Jess pressed.

“No.”

“Somethin’ you think I’m gonna do?”

“No.”

The one word answers were getting to the dark-haired cowboy. “You gonna tell me, or do I have to keep guessin’, ‘cause that’s gonna take all day,” he snapped, pushed past the limit of his always in short supply patience.

Slim glanced over at his friend and sighed. “I was in town yesterday.”

 “I recall that. I had to milk the cows, change the relay teams, and pick up that load of hay from old man Wilkins. He about talked my ear off, which is the exact opposite of you today.” Jess grinned cheerfully. “Kind of refreshin’, now that I think on it.”

Slim didn’t rise to the bait. “I was talkin’ to the schoolmarm.”

“Oh.” Jess smiled. “Sparkin’ her, were ya’?  She is sorta pretty as I recall.”

Slim scowled. “We were talkin’ about Andy.”

It was Jess’ turn to nod.

“I was there to pick up some books for him, so he’d have somethin’ to do while he’s laid up.” Slim looked thoughtful. “But she had a hard time findin’ things to send. She told me that he’s read every book in the school’s library.”

“He takes after you, then,” Jess noted with a smile. Slim liked to read in the evenings, seated before the fire while he, on the other hand, needed to keep his hands occupied with tasks like whittling, braiding tack, or playing cards.

“According to Miz Markham, Andy’s further along in his studies than I ever was. She says he’s outgrown the school here.”

Jess nodded.

“She says he needs more, that it’s time he ought to move on somewhere better.”

Jess pulled his horse to a stop as he reached out a hand and grabbed at Slim’s sleeve. “Move on? You mean, leave here?”

Slim stopped, too, a look of pride on his face. “Jess, Miz Markham says he’s the best student she’s ever taught.” He urged his horse forward again.

“That’s no surprise,” Jess beamed as if Andy was his brother as well as Slim’s, and kneed Traveler forward to keep pace with Slim’s long-legged Alamo.

The tall rancher was looking thoughtful. “He has potential, she says.”

“Potential for what?”

 “For about anything he wants to do, even law or medicine.” Pride was plain in the tall man’s voice.

Jess whistled. “Now that’s somethin’ real smart.”

“Way smarter than us.” Slim agreed with a frown. “But he can’t learn any of that out here. He’d have to go somewhere else, for more schoolin’.”

Jess’ smile vanished. “Is that what you’re thinkin’? Sendin’ him to some other town for schoolin? What did Andy say?”

“I haven’t mentioned it to him yet,” Slim admitted.

Jess was turning the idea over in his head. “Where would he have to go?”

“She mentioned a really good school she knows of, in St. Louis.”

“St. Louis? That’s a far piece, Slim.”

“I know.”

“And he’s just a boy.”

Slim’s face was thoughtful. “Well, I was thinkin’….”

“That’s usually dangerous,” Jess tried to lighten the conversation.

Slim scowled, not appreciating the flip remark. “I was thinkin’ that Jonesy has family there….”

Jess stopped his horse again, staring after his friend in stunned surprise.

“…and he could go along with Andy,” the rancher continued, his horse still walking forward. “Spend time with his daughter.”

“Slim, wait up!” Jess spurred his horse to catch up, then reined in alongside his boss. “Did I hear you right? Jonesy has a daughter?”

“Yup, in St. Louis,” Slim confirmed. “And a couple a’ grandkids, too.”

Jess pulled off his hat, then reset it on his head “Boy, the things nobody bothers to tell a man around here. How come I never heard about that?”

Slim looked over at his hired hand in surprise. “I guess it just never came up, Jess.”

“I’ll say.” Jess was still shaking his head in amazement. “I never figured Jonesy was that good at keepin’ secrets.”

“He don’t talk about her, that’s true. They haven’t seen each other for years, just an occasional letter. I think there were some problems there.”

Jess was still trying to sort out this surprising news. “And him moving to St. Louis will solve ‘em?”

Slim looked thoughtful. ”Well, they won’t get solved with him out here while she lives back there. Maybe they can’t patch things up, but at least they could try. Besides, and don’t you ever tell him I said this, he’s not a young man anymore. The way his back hurts him, a lot of the work he’s doin’ here, he shouldn’t be doin’.”

Jess nodded in agreement.  “Yeah, I’ve noticed. Some mornin’s he can’t hardly stand up straight.”

“Ranchin’s a young man’s game.”

Jess was thoughtful. “Seems like this whole plan depends on Andy, though, and I’m not so sure he’s gonna go along with this.”

“He’s always wanted to go places.”

“He did, Slim, but I haven’t heard him talkin’ about that for a while.”

“Not since you moved in. You were the fun brother he always wanted,” Slim added rather sadly.

“You mean the crazy one.” Jess laughed.

Slim shook away his worries and smiled. “I mean the lazy one, partner. C’mon, we’ve got work to do.” Slim spurred his horse into a lope, and they hurried on to the day’s chores.

oOo

The two worked together all afternoon checking cattle, then split up to ride home, Slim swinging to follow the ranch’s border on the east side, Jess riding the one to the west, both checking fence lines on their way.

Half an hour after they parted, Jess came upon a spot where something, an elk or a deer maybe, had run through the wire. He dismounted, tied Traveler to a tree and spent the next two hours fixing the downed barrier.

By the time Jess rode into the ranch, it was long after dark. He’d missed supper by more than an hour —he hoped Jonesy had kept something warm on the stove because he was hungry enough to eat a bear, maybe even two.

No one came out to greet him as he dismounted by the corral and led Traveler into the barn. He took off the bay’s bridle first, pouring a small measure of oats into the manger for the horse who’d carried him over a lot of hard miles that day. While his mount devoured the grain, Jess removed the saddle and rubbed the horse down. The bay quickly finished the last of his feed,  so Jess took him out to the corral, turned him loose, and walked up to the house.

He knew something was wrong the moment he set foot inside the door.  Everyone looked up and nodded, but no one said anything. Each was in his usual place, Jess noted, Jonesy dozing by the fire in the rocking chair, Slim close by in a chair reading by lantern light, and Andy seated at the table with a book as well. On the surface, it all seemed ordinary, but there was an unmistakable air of tension in the small room.

“Anything left to eat?” Jess asked hopefully, hanging up his coat and swatting the dust from his jeans with his hat before hanging his Stetson on one of the pegs by the door.

Jonesy pointed toward the kitchen but didn’t get up or even look up. “There’s leftovers on the stove. Help yourself.”

Jess dished himself up a plate of meat and potatoes, snatching up the last two biscuits as well. Though he joined Andy at the table, the boy didn’t say anything or even look him in the eye, and Jonesy was unusually quiet, too. The silence lengthened as Jess wolfed down his meal, washing it down with coffee so strong it could have melted horseshoes —just the way he liked it, actually.

Finishing his second cup of coffee, Jess was keenly aware that despite the fire, the room felt cold. As soon as he was done eating, he’d had enough of the icy atmosphere. He carried his dishes back into the kitchen and placed them on the dry sink before heading out to the porch, flopping down on the lone chair and propping his feet up on the railing.

After a few minutes, Slim came out and joined him, leaning against the porch’s corner post and saying nothing, an unhappy look on his face.

Jess knew what was wrong. “You told them what you were thinkin’, didn’t ya’?”

In the dark, Jess could just make out Slim’s slight nod.

“Went over well, then, I take it.”

Frustration roughened Slim’s voice as he answered. “You try to do the right thing for people and what’s the thanks you get? Jonesy accused me of wantin’ to put him out to pasture. Andy accused me of tryin’ to throw him out of his own home. So, you might as well join this roundup, too. What are you going to accuse me of?”

Jess raised his hands in front of his face, as if warding off a blow, and kept his tone light. “Nothin’, Slim. I’m just glad I was out fixin’ fence.”

“But you have an opinion,” Slim insisted.

“Well, a’course I do.”

“Spit it out then.”

“You sure you want to hear it?” Jess asked.

“I asked, didn’t I? Get it off your chest, Jess. Everyone else’s been takin’ pot shots at me tonight, no sense in leavin’ you out of the fun.”

The cowboy considered not answering, but in the end, spoke his piece. “I think you’re dead wrong.”

Slim spun around to look at his friend, and his words were harsh and full of hurt. “Oh you do, do you? Then what is it I should do, Jess? Let Andy stay here, done with school, with no choices for the future? Let him go out and work with us on the ranch, learn to use a gun and fight outlaws and Indians and do meaningful things like fix fences, herd strays, fill chuck holes? Spend his life doin’ hard labor with his hands, like I do and our pa did and his pa before that.”

“There’s nothing wrong with that.”

“For us, maybe. But Andy could do more’n that. He’s smart enough to do better.”

“That’s up to him.”

“He’s too young to make that decision.” Slim countered loudly.  “Darn it, Jess, I almost lost him.”

“But you didn’t, Slim.”

“No thanks to you.”

That stung. Jess didn’t say anything because he couldn’t.

Slim immediately regretted his words, borne of frustration, and he sighed and softened his voice. “You know I didn’t mean that, Jess. But maybe next time he won’t be so lucky.”

“Slim, that’s a chance we take every day.”

“Yeah, but one that a boy like him shouldn’t have to. Nor Jonesy, either, much as he won’t admit to it, now that he’s slowin’ down.”

“It’s up to him to decide that.”

“He’ll go with Andy if I ask.”

“Yes, he will. But what about Andy?”

“Andy will do as he’s told.” Slim snapped, and walked away, out into the darkness of the yard.

Jess watched, letting him go. This was something Slim had to work out for himself.  And something he needed to do some serious thinking on as well. Slim was good at thinking things through, at planning ahead, whereas Jess knew he was more likely to act before considering all the facts.  Much as he didn’t want to admit it, even to himself, there was sense in what Slim had said, hard as that was to swallow. Andy *was* only 12, maybe not yet man enough to do what he needed to do when it disagreed with what he wanted to do.

oOo

The summer’s work went on, Andy healed without complications, but the tension in the household remained. Slim, however, stayed resolute on his plan as he contacted the St. Louis school Miss Markham recommended and arranged to pay the tuition. He bought stage tickets for Andy and Jonesy, and set into motion a momentous change that would forever alter the lives of all four residents of the Sherman Ranch.

As the last days of summer counted down and the day of departure drew nearer, no one talked about what was going to happen. Finally, the night before Andy and Jonesy were set to leave, the four of them ate supper in cold silence. As soon as the meal was finished, Andy retreated wordlessly to his room. Slim looked after him uncertainly, but when he left the table, he headed out to the porch. Jess stared after him, and then looked over at the door to Andy’s room, and finally, with an apologetic look at Jonesy, went outside.

Slim was seated in the chair on the porch, his long legs stretched out in front of him, ankles crossed, a don’t-mess-with-me look on his face. Jess leaned against the roof post, chewing a toothpick to shreds before tossing it away. Neither said anything for a long time.

“Do you have somethin’ to say, or did you just come out here to scout for Indians?” Slim finally asked crossly.

Jess took a deep breath, then looked over at his friend. “I’ve been thinkin’.”

He had Slim’s attention now, the tall man looking up. “About?”

“About what you’re doin’.”

“Oh let’s not start in on *that* again,” Slim bristled, beginning to rise from his chair.

Jess gave him a gentle push back into his seat. “Hey, would ya’ wait to hear what I’m gonna say before ya’ get mad at me?”

Slim eased back in his chair grudgingly.

“I wanted to say that I think you’re right.”

“About?” Slim asked suspiciously.

“About sendin’ Andy to school.”

Slim considered the statement for a moment, wondering where the catch was. “What made you change your mind?”

“I realized I was thinkin’ about what I wanted, and not about what was best for Andy.” Jess paused, staring down at his boots. “I guess I don’t want things to change around here. And I’m gonna miss Andy, and Jonesy, too.”

“I know. You’ve been really close to Andy, closer’n me sometimes.”

“But you’re his brother. And I know you only want what’s best for him, no matter how hard it is for you, or me. I should’a seen that from the get-go.”

Slim sighed. “Thanks, Jess.”

“You’re welcome, pard.”

PART THREE

Jess tossed and turned on his bunk that night, unable to sleep. That’s how he heard the soft, slight sound of furtive footsteps, then the cabin door quietly opening and closing. Rising from his bunk but not bothering to light a lamp, he slipped on his jeans. Quickly adding a shirt, leaving the long tails hanging out over his Levi’s, lastly he shoved his feet into his boots and headed outside, as cat-footed as his predecessor.

The yard was bathed in the faint light of a waning quarter moon, providing just enough illumination for him to see Andy standing over by the corral. Slim’s young brother was leaning on the top fence rail, looking in at the horses, but Jess knew he wasn’t out in the night to check on the stock.

Jess walked over to stand beside the boy. “Can’t sleep?” he asked softly, reluctant to interrupt the quiet of the night.

Andy nodded.

“Figured that.” Jess rested one boot on the bottom rail, folding his arms across the top one. “Can’t say as I blame ya’. Tomorrow’s a big day.”

There was the slightest of tremors in the boy’s voice. “I don’t want to go.”

Jess paused a minute, thinking back to the day he’d arrived on the Sherman Ranch. “Now, wait a minute, Andy, back when I first rode in here, do you remember what you were so anxious to do?”

“No,” Andy denied, but both he and Jess knew that wasn’t the truth.

“You couldn’t wait to leave,” Jess reminded the boy. “You wanted to see what was out there, visit some of those places you’d heard folks talkin’ about.”

“Sure, but not St. Louis.”

“Why not?”

“It’s a city,” Andy uttered the last word with distaste.

“Nothin’ wrong with cities.”

Andy turned to look at Jess. “Have you ever been to one?”

“Sure. Dodge City. Virginia City. Denver.”

Andy looked away. “None of those are real cities, not eastern cities like St. Louis. I hate St. Louis,” he declared.

“Andy, have you ever been to St. Louis?”

“No.”

“Then how do ya’ know you’ll hate it if you ain’t never been there?”

The boy turned to look over at his friend. “Jess, would *you* like to live there?”

Jess contemplated telling something less than the truth. After all, he had come out here to ease the boy’s worries about going back East to school, but lying didn’t come easy to him. Instead, he ambled around the question and ambushed it from the other side. “Traveler wouldn’t like it, and I never go anywhere my horse wouldn’t like.”

Andy didn’t buy that answer, and glared over at the cowboy. “Jess….”

He looked down at his hands. “All right, no, I wouldn’t like livin’ in a city.”

“Well me, neither,” the boy declared hotly.

“Andy, I’ve been runnin’ free my whole life. I’m too set in my ways to change that much, to give up the big open. Settlin’ down here was hard enough.”

Andy glared at Jess. “And you and Slim expect me to like the city?” he asked peevishly.

“No one said you had to like it, or stay there forever, but you need more schoolin’.”

“I got plenty of schoolin’ in Laramie, and I can get any more schoolin’ I need right here, from Jonesy and Slim and you.”

“That’s not real schoolin’, Andy.”

“It’s enough.”

“No, it’s not.”

“It’s enough to get by,” the boy insisted.

“Gettin’ by ain’t good enough, Andy. A man ought to have a real education an’ make somethin’ of himself.”

“Slim never went to any fancy Eastern school, and look at him. He runs this ranch and the relay station. And you, I’d rather be like y--”

“Don’t you dare be saying you want to be like me,” Jess countered hotly. “You’ve got the chance to be a better man than I ever thought a’bein’.”

“That’s not true, Jess. No one’s better than you.”

“Now I *know* you need to get you some real education, boy, if you’re thinkin’ that,” Jess shook his head. “I’m just a drifter who’s quick with a gun and good with his fists and I’ll never be nothin’ more.”

“You’re a lot more than that, Jess. You’re a good friend and a good man, and don’t you try to say otherwise. And I know that’s true because I know Slim wouldn’t have kept you on here otherwise. He’s a good judge of character.”

“Then trust him on this,” Jess insisted. “He’s right about this, too, Andy. I didn’t agree with him at first, but when I thought on it, I came around to Slim’s way a’thinkin’. He’s right, and you’d agree, if you gave the idea half a chance.”

Andy momentarily retreated into stubborn silence, searching for another argument that would make Jess see his point. “You don’t let people tell you what to do.”

“And I have the scars to prove it.”

Andy was shaking his head, his voice full of pleading. “I don’t want to do this, Jess. I just *can’t*.”

“Part of growin’ up is doin’ things we don’t want to do, and at least tryin’ to do the things we think we can’t do.”

Andy shook his head stubbornly. “This is different.”

“Different, how?” Jess demanded.

Andy stayed silent for a long minute then finally he said, “Okay, I’ll admit it, a part of me does want to go, Jess, but even more of me wants to stay here.” There was a tremble in the boy’s voice. “I don’t understand how Slim can make me do this. Doesn’t he … how can he send me away when I don’t want to go?”

“You think Slim doesn’t know how you feel? You think he wants you to go? He’s goin’ to miss you something fierce.”

“Then why’s he sending me away?”

“Because it’s the right thing to do.”

“So he thinks,” the boy answered vehemently.

“Slim’s your brother, Andy, and you know he’s been tryin’ his best to raise you up right, the way your folks would have. He wants somethin’ better than this for you.”

“There’s nothin’ better than this,” Andy waved a hand at the ranch yard and the wide open sky that stretched above them, brilliant with stars.

“Oh sure — there’s just nothin’ like fighting outlaws and rustlers and Indians, workin’ dawn to dusk in all sorts of weather. Best way of life ever,” Jess added sarcastically.

“You love it.”

“Because I don’t know any better. And you won’t know neither unless you take a chance and see what else is out there.”  Jess paused, choosing his words carefully. “Andy, the west’s gonna change. It won’t always be like this, wild and free and open.  The day’s comin’ when a man’ll need more than his fists and a fast gun to get ahead.”

“But that won’t happen for a long time yet.  I don’t have to go now. I could wait….”

“Some things, you just have to bite the bullet and do ‘em, Andy. Get out and see some of that wide world you had a hankerin’ to see, and then you can be sure that this is where you want to be.”

The boy stayed quiet, listening to the soft night sounds of the horses eating their hay. A coyote howled far off in the distance, and it was quickly answered again and then again, the dueling cries echoing across the hills.

“Jess, why did you settle down here?” Andy asked in a quiet voice. “You’d worked on lots of other ranches before, bigger and fancier ones.”

“Never for more than a few months, and then I’d get the itch to move on.”

“Why didn’t that happen here?”

“Don’t reckon as I know why.”

The boy turned to look at his friend, his face earnest. “Please, Jess, tell me.”

Digging a boot toe in the dirt, Jess considered his answer for so long that Andy had decided he wasn’t going to say anything.  When the words finally came, they were slow and thoughtful, each one chosen with care.  

“You know I wasn’t much older’n you when I left home,” Jess answered. “Well, I didn’t exactly leave, I didn’t have a home anymore, or a family. So I drifted, and I did what I had to do to survive. It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t always pretty, and sometimes I did things that I ain’t exactly proud of.” He paused, thinking carefully, but went on. “I was on my own for a lot of years, searchin’ for somethin’, always thinkin’ that whatever it was I was lookin’ for, it was over the next hill, and if I rode on, I’d find it. But what a man needs he has to first find inside himself.”

Jess stopped again, looking around at the ranch he’d adopted as his home. “I finally figured out that a man needs friends to ride beside him, and a place to come home to, or nothin’ else matters. He needs to care about somethin’ bigger than himself. You and Slim showed me that, that home ain’t a place that ties you down, it’s a place you tie yourself to. An’ all the time I was denyin’ it, it was a home I was lookin’ for.”

“And you found it here.”

“I did.”

“Then why do you want me to leave?”

 “I don’t want you to leave, but there comes a time when a man’s got to leave home to find out what’s important to him,” Jess suggested.

Andy nodded. “This place is *my* home, Jess.”

 “And it always will be here waitin’ for ya’, if comin’ back is what you want.”

“But what if something happens?”

Jess’ jaw muscles twitched. “Ah, so that’s what this is all about. You’re worried. Well, nothin’s gonna happen to us.”

“You can’t promise that.”

“You know I won’t let anything happen to Slim. I give you my word on that.”

“And who’s gonna make sure nothing happens to you, Jess?”

There was a short moment of silence. Jess didn’t know how to answer, and then a new voice spoke up, “I will.”

Both man and boy spun quickly around to see Slim step out of the shadows near the porch and cross the yard to join them by the corral. “Jess and I have been watching each other’s backs ever since he got here. We’ll keep right on doin’ that, Andy. Now, it’s mighty late. We’re all gonna be sorry in the morning if we don’t get some sleep. C’mon.” He turned and headed back to the house.

Andy turned too, and Jess walked beside him, putting a hand on the boy’s shoulder. As they stepped up onto the porch, Andy stopped.

“Thanks, Jess. You’ve given me plenty to think about.”

Jess squeezed Andy’s shoulder.

PART FOUR

The morning was a quiet one. Hardly a word was spoken as the four of them did the chores and ate their breakfast.

“It’s like a funeral around here,” Slim declared, halfway through the meal that no one was eating.

“Reckon none of us knows what to say,” Jess suggested, giving up on his food and draining his coffee cup.

“We should be sayin’ what a good opportunity this is for a better life,” Slim declared.

“And you’re finally gonna get some of that adventure you’ve been cravin’,” Jess stated, hoping to lighten the mood.

“Just think of all the chores you won’t be doin’,” Slim added, looking across the table at his brother’s long face.

“Well, I’m gonna miss this place,” Jonesy declared.

 “And just think of all the bad food Slim and I will be eatin’,” Jess complained, eying the rancher.

Slim threw him a look. “Speak for your own cookin’, Jess.” The tall rancher turned to his young brother. “Now, you’d best check, make sure you’ve got everything. The stage will be here in a few minutes.”

Andy bolted for his room.

Slim stared after him, then shook his head and headed wordlessly out the door.

Jess stood, picking up plates and carrying them into the kitchen.

“I’ll do those dishes,” Jonesy offered.

“Nah, Jonesy, you better leave ‘em. Wouldn’t want ya’ to get those handsome travelin’ duds messed up,” Jess smiled at the old-timer who was already clad in his best suit. “Besides, Slim n’me are gonna need the practice.”

Jess finished stacking the dishes in the kitchen and then went outside to find Slim in the barn, harnessing the relay team.

“You okay?” Jess asked, setting the collar in place on the neck of one of the wheelers and then buckling it with practiced ease.

“Why wouldn’t I be?”

“No reason, you’re just sending away your brother, and your oldest friend today, that’s all.”

Slim spun around. “Jess, we’ve already had this conversation. It’s the right thing to do, for both of them. Jonesy’s got family back there, and he can make sure Andy keeps his nose to his books. We all talked it over, and we agreed.”

Jess shook his head, thinking back to Andy’s misgivings of the night before. “I don’t know that everyone agreed, but they gave in.”

“And who gave you a say in that?” Slim snapped, turning back to brush the horse.

Jess bristled but fought back the urge to retort, instead going quiet. He knew when to back off of Slim, and this was one of those times. Andy was Slim’s brother, and as much as Jess cared about the boy, it wasn’t his place to make decisions about Andy’s future. That choice, and the weight of it, in the end rested clearly on Slim’s shoulders, and quite clearly, uneasily so.

The tall man didn’t turn around, but the brush abruptly stopped moving, the tension left his shoulders, and his voice turned soft and regretful. “Look, Jess, I’m sorry. I….”

“It’s okay. I can understand you bein’ a bit snappish today.” Jess slipped the collar over the head of the second wheeler. “I can take care of things out here, Slim. Why don’t you go help Andy finish packing? I think he’d like that.”

Slim sighed. “I’m not sure he’s speakin’ to me.”

“He’ll get over it. Now git.”

oOoOoOo

Whatever they’d talked about in the house must have cleared the air, Jess decided. By the time the stage rolled in and Jess led the horses from the barn, Slim and Andy were standing side by side next to the porch, and while not exactly smiling, they weren’t facing off with pistols at twenty paces, either, he was pleased to see.

Jonesy looked all nervous, giving orders as the trunk and their valises were tossed up on top of the coach and secured in place.

Jess helped Mose change the teams, and when he looked up from hooking the traces, Jonesy was already in the coach. Jess reached in and shook his hand. “Have a good trip.”

“You take care of this place, and him,” Jonesy nodded at Slim who was still talking to Andy.

“You know I will.”

“Take care of yourself, too.”

Jess nodded and turned back toward the house.

Slim had disappeared and Andy was standing all alone, stock still, looking around the ranch yard, taking it all in, memorizing every detail. He was going to miss it all, even the danged chickens. He heaved a big sigh and turned to his friend.

“Andy,” Jess’ voice sounded husky, and the boy thought he could see dampness glittering in the blue eyes. Jess was the toughest man he knew, at least on the outside, but he had a heart as big as the Texas country he’d left behind.

Silently, Jess hugged Andy, neither one able to say a word.

“C’mon, Andy. We’re ready to roll,” Mose announced impatiently from his seat atop the coach. “Got to keep on schedule.”

Solemnly, Andy put out his hand, and Jess shook it, and then Andy turned away and climbed into the coach.

Mose slapped the reins and shouted to the team, “Get up, boys! Time’s a wastin’.”

Jess stood in the yard, waving, and then Slim stepped back out of the house. They stood silently side by side, watching until the stage had climbed the hill and disappeared from sight, and then Slim looked around, trying not to let Jess see him wiping his eyes.

“Seems awful quiet already,” Slim said softly, looked around the dusty yard.

“Well, I wouldn’t worry too much. Things do have a habit of livenin’ up around here.”

“That they do, Jess, that they do.”

OoOoOoO …. The End ….  OoOoOoO

(Well, actually, it’s not the end, it’s the start of Season 2.)



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