Maybe one day it would be that ‘old scarey dream' but right now it was new and terrifying. Slim jumped out of bed at the sound of the boy’s anguished screams and bolted for his bedroom. The little boy lay in a tangle of blankets, pillows on the floor, thrashing and crying, trying to fight off his dream demons.
“Mike! C’mon Tiger, wake up!” Slim Sherman pleaded, distressed at the child’s undoubted terror. If only Mrs Cooper was here, she’d know what to do. But she and Jess had stayed over in Cheyenne. Mrs Cooper - Daisy - had her mind set on some shopping and Jess had to be hauled (not quite kicking and screaming, but close enough) to the dentist. And so he would have to cope by himself. “Mike, wake up, you’re dreaming again!”
Bewildered, Mike Williams lifted a tear-stained face, “Indians, Slim! They’re coming after me.”
“We told you, Tiger, they won’t come back. Jess an’ me will make sure of that.”
“But I heard ‘em creeping around out there, coming in from the kitchen. Coming for me-“
Slim spun around as the crash sounded from the kitchen. He jumped up from where he’d been perched on the edge of Mike’s bed, and something crunched under his heel as he ran.
‘Stay there, Mike!” and Mister Sherman, clad in nothing but his long underpants and his dignity, went to confront the intruders.
Mike, with his head under the blankets, still heard the banging and crashing. It sounded like half of Miss Daisy’s pots and pans were being hurled about. What if Slim was being hurt? Mike took a’hold of his courage in both hands, and put his nose around the bedroom door to see Slim, broom in hand, tussling with a whole tribe...of racoons. “It’s that blamed critter of Andy’s! We turned him loose but he keeps coming back for his grub, an’ now he’s started bringing the family.”
It took awhile to get them out and Slim felt his nerves frazzling. Mike was standing there, like a big-eyed owlet, shivering in his nightshirt, watching him make a fool of himself, trying to shoo out the lively animals. The kitchen was a real mess where the racoon family had forced an entry through the broken window and run riot among the flour supplies, and the cookies Miss Daisy had cooked as a treat just before she and Jess left for Cheyenne. Trails of sticky claw prints led from a big pool of molasses on the table. There were broken cups and plates everywhere and clearing up all this damage was a thing Slim didn’t relish, especially at three in the morning.
The last of the racoons flipped his tail in farewell and trundled out the opened door. If racoons could wear a satisfied smirk, Slim decided, that one did. “I’ll finish up here, Tiger. You get back to bed.”
“Will ya come an’ tuck me in?”
“Haven’t got time-“
”Awww, Slim!” he wheedled.
“I’m sorry, Mike. I’m a mite tetchy just now. Sure, let’s get you back into bed.” Slim straightened the mad tangle of blankets, plumped up pillows, then slid Mike back between the covers. “I told you it wasn’t Indians, Mike.”
“I was scared of ‘em, Slim,” the little boy whispered. “Them folks with the wagon-“
"They was Japanese, Tiger, the ones who found you and brought you to the ranch for safety. Oriental folks, from way over the ocean. They’re Circus performers, you remember that.”
“My Ma didn’t hold with such things,” he said wistfully. “Never seen such a thing before. Never been to a circus. Ma said such things was a sinful waste of time an’ money. But I was scared, Slim. I thought I was gonna die.”
“Like your parents?” No answer but an emphatic nod. “We all gotta die sometime, Mike.”
“Even you an' Jess?”
“Even us, when our time comes.”
“Even Miss Daisy?”
“All of us, Mike. But you mind what I tell you now. We’ll always be here for you, me an’ Jess. While you need us, we’ll be here. We’ll come home.”
Mike drew the blankets up around his chin, “But Jess an’ Miss Daisy, they ain’t home. You said they was comin’ on the noon stage. They’re late, Slim!”
“Well, maybe Jess got himself involved with a pretty girl, that’s always possible. Or maybe one of his friends back from the war.”
“Were you an' Jess in the war?”
“Sure. I served under General Sherman - no relation - and Jess fought for the Confederacy. That’s why his horse is called Traveller, for General Lee's horse.”
Mike canted his head on one side, deep in thought, “My pa lost an arm at Bull Run. He hates...he hated the Confederates something powerful. Said they was all bad, wicked men. Jess-“
”Jess isn’t bad nor wicked, Tiger, you know that. He’s wild at times. He can be unpredictable but for sure he ain’t bad. We don’t always agree on things and he drives me mad at times. But he’s been a second brother to me. Times he’s saved my hide or got me out of a scrape. But don’t you go telling him I said so, he’d get too swollen-headed.”
“Second brother? Is that your brother in the picture on your desk? All the animals, they his?”
“Yeah, that’s my kid brother, Andy. He’s away, at school in Saint Louis. He’s turning into a real smart man, I’m proud of him. Yes, the animals are his. He found Sam - that’s that varmint racoon. He came home with a wolf- cub one time.”
“He’s not here, is he still part of your family?”
“Sure he is, he’s not living here right now, but he’s my brother.”
“Part of the family...like me?”
“Just like you, c’mon you get some shut-eye now. I got to clear up the kitchen before Miss Daisy sees all the mess, an’ get it done before we can have breakfast.” Slim reached up to the oil-lamp to dim the light.
Mike’s face screwed up like he was forcing back tears, “Can’t sleep.”
“Ahh, Mike, no. C’mon Tiger- It’s past three o’clock.”
“Can’t sleep, Slim. Birdie’s broken. I just found him on the floor,” and the little boy held out a small battered carving with a smooth patina of years of loving wear. A sleepy bird with feathers fluffed up, head tucked under its wing. The other wing had been cracked clear away.“He was under the pillow, an’ then-“
Slim groaned, “So that’s what I stepped on! I’m sorry, Mike.”
“Pa made him for me. It’s lilac, Ma said, from the tree in our old home back in Ohio. He made it when I was a baby, while he still had his arm. I had Birdie in my pocket when the Indians came...I was away from the wagon, at the berry patch I’d found. Ma gave me a basket so we could have pie for supper. That’s how they didn’t find me...Can ya fix it, Slim? Can ya?”
Slim ducked his head so that Mike wouldn’t see the tears that were threatening to break out, “Some things get broke past mending, Mike.”
“Aw, Slim, you just gotta-“
“Give it here, Tiger. I’ll see what I can do, along with all the other fixing. I got to nail that window shut before Sam raids us again. I sure wish Jess’ud bag ‘em up and take ‘em all across to the other side of the mountain like he threatened last time.”
“Well, the bacon’s burned to a cinder. I ain’t such a fancy cook as Miss Daisy, that’s for sure.”
Mike yawned and scrubbed his eyes on his sleeve, “I sure like Miss Daisy, you think she really will stay with us? She’s not like Ma at all. My Ma was...angry. Angry at the rebs. She said the Lord should smite ‘em with fire an’ brimstone. Angry at Pa for comin’ home without his arm.” His head whipped up, blond hair bobbing over his face, “Hey, that’s the stage.”
“It’s early,” Slim agreed, puzzled. “Mose must be in a hurry.” He hurried out to ready the change-over team, and grinned to himself as Mike whooped out of the door.
“Miss Daisy! Jess, you’re home! Good, I thought you’d never get back!”
Daisy Cooper opened her arms and enveloped the boy in a hug. “I had that feeling myself, once or twice. But then I thought how much you’d miss us. So we dropped everything and came right on home. And it IS home,” she said, smiling at him.
Slim held out his hand to his partner, “Jess.” Then curiosity got the better of him. “That tooth must’ve had might long roots.”
“Clear down to m’boots,” Jess grinned, returning the firm handshake.
“What happened to him, get lost in some saloon?”
Daisy Cooper giggled, “As a matter of fact, we both did,” she admitted as she led the way indoors. “We had a stop over in Jubilee, didn’t we, Jess?”
“But that’s miles off the Cheyenne road!”
“So I found out,” Daisy was finding it not a little hard, not to clutch at Slim and Mike both and not to let go. “But I’m so glad to be home.”
Jess dumped his hat on the rack, and turned to help Daisy out of her travelling coat. “Hey, Tiger, you look bright-eyed an’ bushy-tailed this morning, what you been up to? An’ what’s that?”
Mike held out his hand, “This is Birdie. He was broke-“
"Broken, Mike,” Daisy corrected gently.
“Broken,” he agreed. “But Slim glued him back together. Just like he said he would.”
Daisy cast a professional eye around her kitchen. “Why Slim Sherman, you’ve cleaned my kitchen for me. But why are half the plates in the trash- can?”
“Had to,” he admitted. “While you two was gallivanting, we had us an adventure of our own.”
“We was...we were invaded by bandits.” Mike’s grin spread from ear to ear.
Jess Harper’s hand dropped to the butt of his gun, “What?”
“Yeah,” Slim said. “Ma and Pa Bandit and the whole derned tribe.Sam and family...”
“Oh, them bandits!” Jess said, to Daisy Cooper’s utter bemusement.
“Mike wanted to keep one-“
Jess whooped with laughter, “You know what this means, don’t you, Slim. He’s gonna turn out just like Andy if we’re not careful. You remember that wolf cub Andy brought home?”
“Don’t want a wolf cub,” Mike said. “Maybe one day though. But I sure like horned-toads.”