WHAT MATTERS MOST

 

A Laramie Thanksgiving collaboration by Betty and Gail

 

 

It was cold.  Jess huddled over the wagon seat and grumbled again 'how come he was the one that had to make the twelve mile, COLD, drive into Laramie?  Couldn’t Jonsey have waited for his supplies until this storm worked it self out?'

 

That morning Slim and Jonesy had been talking about Thanksgiving, whatever that was.  Jonesy wanted to ask some of the stage drivers and shotgun riders that didn’t have any family to dinner.  Jess had heard of people talk about Thanksgiving but he really didn’t know what they meant.  Seems he and Slim were going to have to go turkey hunting.  Jonesy was worried that even with the venison they had hanging in the spring house, and the special ham he'd ordered, that they wouldn't have enough.  For sure they couldn’t cook any of Andy’s pets!  Sometimes Jess wondered how they managed to have any meat for dinner the way Andy made a pet of everything with fur or feathers.

 

The list in Jess’ pocket was a lot longer than usual and Jonesy was afraid the store would be out of stock if they waited for the weather to turn.  Slim had to work on the stage line books for the monthly reports, Andy had school and the long trip by buckboard wouldn’t do Jonesy’s back any good so Jess was elected so matter how uncomfortable it would be.  Oh well, he could always cadge a cup of coffee at the sheriff’s office while he waited for the order to be filled.  Mort always had a pot on the stove.

 

Jess pulled the team up in front of the general store.  The Laramie street was quiet, the cold keeping people inside by their fires unless they had a need to be outdoors. 

 

“Morning Mister Stocker, got a good long list for you today,” Jess spoke to the storekeeper as he swung his arms around his body to warm himself.  “Glad you’ve got a good fire goin’, gettin’ pretty cold out there.”

 

“Howdy, Jess, hear you all are going to have quite a crowd for the holiday,” the storekeeper greeted Jess cheerfully.  “Always glad for the business.”  Bert Stocker was a large man with an open, friendly face, always helpful when it came to loading the heavy bags and boxes, especially for women.  He’d always been friendly to Jess even when he first came to town.

 

“Uh, yeah, guess so.”  Jess muttered.  What the heck holiday was the man rambling on about?

 

“It’ll take me a while to put this all together, Jess.  Why don’t you come back in about an hour and I’ll have it all ready for you.”

 

“Thanks Mister Stocker.  I’ll head over to the sheriff’s and warm up with some of his coffee.”

 

“Maybe he’ll have a little something to warm you up a little more,” the storekeeper chuckled.

 

****

The Sheriff's office was warm enough to make Jess take a deep breath and let his hunched-up shoulders relax.  He kicked the door closed behind him, eyes on the pot-bellied stove with the coffee pot warming on top. 

 

  “Well, c'mon in.”  Mort's amusement showed in his voice, “You're lookin' at the coffee pot like a starved wolf lookin' at an elk haunch.  Pour yourself a cup and set a spell.”

 

  “Thanks, Mort.”  Jess took his gloves off, rubbing his hands together, found himself a tin cup and poured the hot, black coffee, thick and strong enough to stand a spoon up in.

 

  “So what brings you to town in this weather?”  Mort leaned back in his chair, stretching his legs out toward the stove.

 

  “Supplies.”  Jess took a swallow of coffee, closing his eyes as the heat bit into his throat.  “Jonesy had a list 'bout three times as long as normal and bound and determined it get filled today.”

 

  “Yeah, well, the holiday's tomorrow.  Reckon that old man'll be cooking all night.”

 

  “Dang it, Mort, what's this holiday everybody's goin' on about?  First Stocker and now you...”

 

  Mort sat up, the front legs of his chair banging down on the floor.  “Why, it's Thanksgiving, Jess.  You never celebrated Thanksgiving?”

 

  “If I did would I be askin'?”  Jess felt his exasperation rising, and took another swallow of coffee to keep his tongue under control.

 

  Mort looked like he was studying on what to say next.  He pulled open the bottom drawer of his desk, pulled out a bottle and gestured at Jess with it. 

 

  “Don't mind if I do, Mort.”  Jess held out his cup for Mort to splash some whiskey in, hooked his foot around a chair and pulled it closer to the stove, settling into it while Mort added coffee and whiskey to his own cup. 

 

  “Back in '63, President Lincoln made it a national holiday,” he started slowly.  “Meant it to be a day to say thanks for all the good things in life, put it at harvest time as part of that.  Reckon a good harvest, a surety that you'll have food for the winter is worth bein' thankful for.  But it's more'n that...”

 

  Jess feel an odd twist in his chest, like a feeling of missing something he'd never had.  “Yeah, well, I'm from Texas, Mort.  Seems like we didn't have a lot t'be thankful for back in '63.  Or after the war, come t'that.”

 

“Well', it's more than just a harvest, or money in your pocket.  It's about the people y'got in your life.  Your family, your friends, your neighbors.”

 

  Jess stared down into his coffee, his thoughts skittering away from the big hole inside, the one he felt whenever he thought on his family, and the way they were, and the way they coulda been.  Somehow it was knowing that what coulda been was gone, that was almost worse than remembering the reality, and what happened to them all.  Dead meant no more chances t'make anything right...and he'd learned a long time ago not to set store in people, in countin' on 'em t'stay around.  If you didn't expect something like that, like a family, to last, you didn't get let down, didn't risk that big hole inside getting' any bigger.  He felt the silence in the office suddenly, thought that maybe some time had passed, and glanced up to see Mort looking at him oddly.  “Yeah,” he said hoarsely, “well a drifter like me ain't got many people t'worry about.”

 

  Mort poured another splash into Jess' cup.  “Y'got Slim an' Andy Jess, far as I know.  An' Jonesy.  Family's more'n blood.  Family's who ya take care of, who y'can count on when y'need someone t'back you.  Family, that's who won't turn you away, no matter what you bring to 'em.”

 

  Jess sipped at his coffee, trying to wrap his head around what Mort had said.  Maybe for folks like Mort, that was true.  He couldn't quite see his way to it ever bein' true as far as he was concerned.  He let the time spin out while he finished his cup.  Mort stayed quiet, not pushing him for anything.  Jess stood up finally, setting his cup down on the desk.  “I thank you for the coffee an' whiskey, Mort.  I best be getting' on my way.”

 

  Mort glanced out the window, the heavy gray clouds hiding the mountains, wind kicking dust up in the street.  “Why don't you stay the night, Jess.  Drive back t'morrow.  Bad weather's settin' in, it won't hurt anything if Jonesy has t'wait 'til daylight for his store goods.”

 

  Jess grinned, picturing Jonesy waiting for his store order.  Patience wouldn't be Jonesy's first thought.  “Naw, reckon I best be movin'.  Jonesy'll tear my head off ‘n hand it to me on a platter if I don't get his goods to him tonight.”

 

  “Jonesy's not goin' t'be happy if somethin' happens to you tryin' t'get them to him.  Stay in town, Jess.  You can bunk at my house.”

 

  “Thanks, Mort.”  Jess said, touched.  ”That's mighty kind.  But I best be movin'.”  He touched his hat brim to show his gratitude.  “I sure wish you have a nice holiday tomorrow.”  He turned up his coat collar against the wind, and stepped out into the cold.

 

  Mort watched him cross the street toward the general store.  Sure seemed like that young man had no clue what he was talking about when he mentioned friends and what they meant.  Sure seemed like “family” was maybe something he'd never had, or something he'd lost so long ago he couldn't remember what it was to be part of one.  Well, if he stayed around the Shermans long enough, he'd learn.  He turned back to the stove, opened the door and stirred the fire up to burn hotter.  He found himself hoping that Jess would stay around long enough to learn.

 

*****

 

Slim rode into the ranch yard in the worsening storm.  He looked for the buckboard and team but there was no sign of them.  “Maybe Jess decided to stay in town until this blows itself out, sure hope so.  No time to be out if you don’t have to.”

 

After settling his horse he went into the house.  Hanging his coat on the rack near the door he stood warming himself in front of the fire.  “No sign of Jess yet, Jonesy.”

 

“Ah you know that boy, he’s prob’ly in a poker game or just jawing with Mort in the sheriff’s office.  He’ll be along, that was a big order, woulda taken Bert some time to fill it.”

 

“Well, I hope he’s smart enough to wait out this storm for a bit.  Sure don’t want to go looking for him in this weather.  Where’s Andy?”

 

“He’s in his room doin’ his homework.  Told him jus ‘cause school’s closed tomorrow is no reason not to keep up with his studies.  That boy’s gonna ‘mount to something if it kills us both,” Jonesy chuckled.

 

*****

 

Jess walked out of Mort’s office with a thoughtful look on his face.  Mort had said some things he’d never really thought about.  Hard to imagine anyone wanting to ask a drifter like him to be part of a family.  That was long gone from his life.  The Sherman family had made him feel at home in a way he sure wasn’t used to but it probably wouldn’t last too long.  Never did.

 

“Boy, sure is turning cold.  Ain’t much like Texas up here in the north country” he commented to Bert as he stomped his feet just inside the general store.

 

“Got your supplies all loaded Jess.  Figured you’d want to get on the road quick as possible while you can still get through.”

 

“Well thanks Mr. Stocker.  Sure didn’t expect you to load all that by yourself.  Put it on Slim’s bill?”

 

“Sure thing Jess.  Happy Thanksgiving.  Tell Slim, Jonesy and Andy I said hello.”

 

Jess hurried to the team, untied them and climbed onto the wagon seat wishing he had Traveler.  It’d be a lot faster trip back on horseback.  Well, nothing for it but to get on the road.  He buttoned the old sheepskin tight around his neck and wrapped the scarf up under his hat.  The coat was an old one of Slim’s, too big, but still warm enough.  Jess’ meager belongings didn’t include a Wyoming coat and he hadn’t earned enough wages yet to buy his own.  He’d felt funny accepting Slim’s charity but right now he was mighty grateful.  He clucked to the team and set off on the twelve miles trip back to the ranch.  No stages running this afternoon so the road should be pretty quiet.  He shook the reins up a bit asking for some more speed from the team.  They responded eagerly.  “They probably want to get home to the warm barn and a good feed too” Jess thought to himself.

 

The snow was getting heavier, the clouds hanging in low and with the sun hidden it was getting dark pretty darned fast.  Wind was coming up too.  There was a stretch of road that looped through a grove of oak trees.  They groaned and squeaked as the branches rubbed back and forth in the ever increasing wind gusts.  The team was getting spooky and hard to hold when suddenly there was a sharp crack as a large oak branch came crashing down next to the road.  Both horses bolted like they’d been shot at!  Jess tried desperately to get a hold of them but they had enough and only had one thought, get home as fast as they could!

 

Jess was managing to keep them on the road, what he could see of it, when there was a sharp turn to the right.  The horses made the turn but the right wheels hit the bank and there was a sharp crack as a wheel broke and the wagon tilted alarmingly.  By sheer strength and determination Jess hung on and managed to stop the team in a few hundred feet.  Looking back he could see some of the supplies littering the road but the majority of the load was still intact.  Leaping from the wagon seat he hurried to the team and settled them until they could stand quietly.  Tying them to a nearby tree he attempted to survey the damage in the swirling snow.

 

“Well, you’ve done it this time Harper” he swore quietly.  “This is just another fix you’re gonna have to get yourself out of.  Sure would be nice just once to have some back-up you could count on.”

 

He walked around the wagon trying to figure out some way he could rig a repair that would let him make it back to the ranch with the supplies and team intact.  Never crossed his mind to hop bareback on the team, go on to the ranch and come back the next day for the grocery order.  Jonesy would sure have his head if he came in empty handed and Slim would probably figure 'he wasn’t meeting his responsibilities!'

 

Maybe he could lash a branch to the hub, axle didn’t look broke, and make a kind of skid.  He figured it was about five miles back to the ranch.  If he took it slow maybe the repair would hold.  There was no shortage of downed wood so he started scouting around for the right size branch.  Fortunately Slim always keep some rope and a few tools in the wagon bed just for emergencies.  This sure qualified as a humdinger of an emergency!

The work went slowly, Jess had to stop often to rub his cold hands together and put them inside his coat to warm up.  At last he had the sturdy limb lashed in place.

 

By the time the skid was rigged it was getting mighty dark but the snow was deeper and Jess figured that would make it easier to drag the wagon along.  After checking that the team was secure he walked back along the snowy road picking up the dropped supplies and lugging them back to the wagon. 

 

Untying the team he tugged them along the road looking back anxiously at his jury rigged skid.  “Guess I’ll jus’ have to walk this out, can’t take a chance on you boys getting’ spooked again.  Five miles don’t seem too far with a good horse under you, but on foot…”  He shrugged and told himself “git to it Harper, only way you’re gettin’ this stuff back to the ranch is by yourself!” 

 

*****

Meanwhile back at the ranch (couldn’t resistJ) Jonesy was banging the pots and pans and muttering about some people that couldn’t be bothered showing up in time for dinner.  Andy came out of his room, “homework's all done.  Don’t see why I had to hurry up and finish when there’s no school tomorrow,” he grumbled.

 

“Just look at it this way, Andy, now you won’t have do to anything tomorrow ‘cepting your chores” Jonesy hollered from the kitchen.

 

“Yeah, and Slim’ll just find more!”  Andy griped at he tried to peer out the window into the darkness.  “Sure wish Jess’d get back, I’m getting’ hungry.  You don’t suppose something happened to him do you Slim?”

 

“Of course not Andy, he’s smart enough to stay in town if the snow gets too deep “ Slim answered as he and Jonesy exchanged worried looks behind Andy’s back.  “Dinner’ll hold for a little while won’t it Jonesy?  We’ll wait a bit just in case he decided to make it back tonight”.

 

“You’ll see Andy.  You know the way Jess likes to eat, he won’t miss gettin’ back for dinner.  Snow probably just slowed him down a bit” Jonesy added.

 

An hour later there was still no sign of Jess.  Slim decided he’d better saddle up and go towards Laramie to see if he could find him.  “He’s probably holed up in town, Slim.  You’ll just be wasting your time and getting awful cold.”  Jonesy told Slim.

 

“I’m going with you!” Andy declared.  “He’s my friend too and if he’s in trouble you just might need some help.”

 

“No, Andy, it’s too dangerous for you to be out in a snow storm after dark.”

 

“I’m goin’!  That’s just why you might need my help.  Two people can search better than one and if the wagons’ broke down you’ll need help, ‘specially if Jess is hurt.”

 

“Let him go Slim.  He’s right, two can see better’n one.  You’ll just be on the Laramie road so it should be safe enough.  Andy’s big enough to be some help if there is an accident.  If not you two can just stay overnight in the hotel.  Stage won’t be runnin’ tomorrow and I can feed the stock in the morning.”

 

“Well I guess he would be a help.  All right Andy, but you dress warm, you hear me?  I’ll go out and get the horses ready.  And Jonesy, you be sure to keep the fire going and the coffee hot.”

 

****

  The sky was low and gray, the wind fingering his jacket collar and hat, looking for gaps to blow chill and cold through.  Sundown should be around half past four, by Slim's reckoning, but the heavy dark skies were stealing the daylight early so he and Andy rode through a dusk of swirling wind and threatened snow.  Andy was uncomplaining, his little horse steady and calm in Alamo's shadow, and Slim was proud of him.  It wasn't an easy ride in the cold and wind, and he had to admire his little brother's loyalty and compassion.

 

  They came on the wagon unexpectedly, the growing darkness making it one more shadow on the road until they were almost on top of it.  Slim reined up sharply, because he couldn't see Jess, and he felt a momentary grip of fear in his stomach.  If it was bad, he didn't want Andy to see it...and then a darker shadow near the rear wheel moved, and he could make out his stubborn, hard-headed ranch hand hunkered on his heels.  Looked like Jess was working away at a makeshift skid.  Slim let out his relief in a big sigh.  “Jess!” 

 

  Jess looked up from the wheel, lifting one hand in greeting.  Slim walked Alamo forward the last ten feet, dismounting lightly to spare his cold feet the impact with the ground.  The wagon team was tethered in the scrub just off the road, trying to convince themselves that the dried, half-frozen grass was worth pulling at.  Andy scrambled off his horse, his own relief clear in his haste.  “Jess!  Jess!  You okay?”  He hurled himself bodily at Jess, who stood up just in time to avoid being knocked over.

 

  “Just fine, partner, just fine.”  He rubbed Andy's back awkwardly, his hands obviously cold in his tight leather gloves.  He raised his eyes to Slim's, a little unease in his face.  “Sorry about the wagon.  Team spooked.  Been tryin' t'limp home on a skid ever since..”

 

  “I see.”  Slim dropped his reins, stepping forward to eye the skid.  “Y' know, this'll work fine if you've got about a week to get home in.  I'm thinking it's a little too cold to spend that much time at it.  Grab one of the team t'ride, and we'll load up the other with what he can carry and ride home.”

 

  'Don't like t'leave the wagon,” Jess said stubbornly.  “And that hundred pound sack of flour ain't gonna make it back on horseback.  Don't like t'leave it on the road.  Jonesy'll purely have my hide if he don't get all his fixin's.”

 

  “Jonesy'll be glad to see you alive,” Slim said mildly.  “He's fretting.  'Course, y'have to know Jonesy t'know it, but you can take my word for it.  Let's get on the road, pard.  We're losing the light.”

 

  “You and Andy go ahead.  Take some of the supplies, and I'll bring the wagon on.”

 

  “For cryin' out loud..”  Slim stopped himself.  “Jess.  I'm not worried about the wagon.  I'm not worried about the supplies.  I'm worried about you freezin' your stubborn Texas behind off.  This is gonna be a lot easier if I don't have to tie you to one of the team.”

 

  “Jess...”  Andy tugged at Jess' jacket.  “Come on.  If you don't come we'll all have to stay, and I'm cold.  And hungry.  And Jonesy'll have dinner waiting, and he'll really have your hide if it gets cold waiting on us.”

 

  Jess met Slim's eyes again, his own face uncertain.  “You sure?  I hate you to lose any money on this..”

 

  “I'm sure.  Let's get going.  Too dang cold to hang around out here.”

 

  They sorted through the provisions, picking what could be carried on horseback, and trying to make sure they had the things that Jonesy thought essential.  Both of them regretted leaving the flour behind; Jonesy was focused on baking for the holiday, and the flour was needed.  There was no way to carry it on horseback though; just too bulky and too heavy to pack on a horse without a pack saddle.  Slim made sure the tarp was well anchored to protect it; they'd be able to pick it up in the morning, Jess' fear that it would somehow vanish overnight not withstanding.

 

  It was full dark by the time the rode into the ranch yard, and Jess was shivering with cold.  Slim stepped down and started piling supplies on the porch, one eye on Jess.


“Go on in and get warm.”  He told him.  “Take the supplies.  Andy and I'll stable the horses.”

 

  Jess gave him a rueful look.  “Leavin' it to me t'tell Jonesy his flour's on the road somewheres?  I'd almost rather you'd left me out there.” 

 

  Slim grinned at him.  “Get in there, pard.  It's not going to be as bad as you think.”  He tossed the cured ham to Jess, watched him stagger back a step as the weight hit his chest.  “This'll pacify Jonesy..”

 

  He led Alamo and a team horse toward the barn, Andy following with the other two horses.  “Slim?  Why you think Jess is so worried about Jonesy?”

 

  Slim thought for a minute, hands busy with Alamo's tack.  “You know, I don't think Jess is used to the idea that people might worry about him, might think more of him than a few dollars worth of provisions and a wagon.”

 

  Andy looked at him with his mouth open, and then said quietly.  “That's kinda sad.”

 

  “It is.  We're going to have to teach him better.”

 

   Jess opened the door one handed, balancing the ham and the canned peaches in the other.  It swung open on the warmth of the ranch house, a fire in the hearth and Jonesy in his shirt sleeves and apron, posed in front of it with both hands on his hips.

 

  “Jonesy...”

 

   “Don't you 'Jonesy' me Mr. Jess Harper.  Not 'til I've had my say.  Where do you get off scaring the rest of this family half to death with your shenanigans?  Why, we've been fretting about you since two this afternoon and here you come, after nightfall, trailing in here with my ham in your hands and thinking you can talk your way out of it with 'Jonesy..'  I'll Jonesy you.  What's your explanation?

   “Lost a wheel, “Jess started, wishing there was some dust he could scuff his boot toe in.  He hadn't felt this sheepish since he was nine years old and the school marm had called him out on dirty hands in front of the whole class.  “I was tryin' t'get the wagon here on a skid but it was slow goin'”

 

  “And it never occurred to you to unhitch the team and ride home?  You had to wait for Slim and Andy to ride out in a near blizzard and find you?”

 

  “Didn't like t'leave the wagon on the road like that, and your provisions.”   And it wasn't a near blizzard, he added silently.  “And it didn't occur t'me that Slim would come looking.  Or bring Andy, come to that.”

 

  “Like any of us could keep Andy home with you missing?  Like Slim wouldn't come as soon as it threatened dark?  You ever think of that?'

 

  “What I was thinking was you tearing a strip off me if I showed up without your flour.”  Jess said defensively.  “And how much money the wagon and provisions was worth, and how short money is around here these days, and how it was my responsibility..”  he stopped to catch his breath.  Jonesy was studying him like he'd never seen the like, and it stopped the rest of his words.

 

  “Jess, it's just things.”  Jonesy's voice was quiet and patient.  “Every member of this family is worth a hundred times more than things.  That includes you.  Now you ever scare us like that again, through deciding any of us worries more about a sack of flour and a wagon than you, and I won't take a piece of your hide, I'll use my skillet to tan your Texas backside for you, cause you're obviously in need of a tanning.  None of us, not Slim, not Andy, not me, have ever given you cause to think so little of us.”

 

  Jess' jaw dropped.  “I don't think little of you...” he started.  And Jonesy lifted a hand.  “Or think that little of yourself.  Where you get the notion that you're worth less than a five dollar sack of flour?  Or a fifty dollar wagon?” 

 

  Jess dropped his head, feeling shamed and bewildered.  “We brought the ham and the peaches.”  He muttered,   “sorry Jonesy, didn't mean to insult you.  It's just, well, there was plenty a'times in my family we heard somethin' like that..”

 

  Jonesy sighed, and reached out to take the ham.  “Reckon there was a passel of you, from what you've told me before.”  The old man's voice was gentle.  “Reckon havin' a lot of mouths to feed might've wore on your daddy some.  But what a man says when he's worried about his youngun's bellies ain't necessarily what he really believes.  And what was said a long time ago don't hold true for what Slim thinks, or what I think.  There's hot coffee on the stove.  Pour yourself some and sit.”

 

  The door banged open, Slim and Andy stepping through it with snow swirling behind them.  “Cold.”  Slim said laconically.  “Jonesy, you got something ready to eat?”

 

  “Mulligatawney on the stove and biscuits in the oven.”  Jonesy was equally sparing of words.  “Used the last of the flour on the biscuits, so y'all better enjoy 'em.” 

 

  Jess winced.  “Sorry Jonesy.”

 

  “For what?”  Jonesy and Slim spoke together.  “Hush,” Jonesy continued.  If I can't make you peach pudding, I can sure make you steamed peaches, and that's as tasty as anything you've ever had.  Meantime, y'all get yourselves to the table.”  The old man headed for the kitchen, muttering.  Jess barely heard some of the words..”goldarn Texans...family in one place finally.  Got the important stuff home, and that's them..”

 

   Slim grinned at him.  “Well, I reckon we best sit down.  It's Thanksgiving eve, and the most important thing is that we're all together.“

 

****

 

“All right Hardrock, get your lazy self outta that bunk”.  The bedroom door banged open as Jess charged in.

 

Slim rolled over, opened one eye.  “Jess, it’s not even light yet.”

 

“Yeah it is, you just ain’t got your eyes open yet.  I’ve got a spare wheel loaded on the other wagon.  If we get a move on we can fix the buckboard and get them supplies back in time for Jonesy to get to his bakin’.  Ya know he wants to make this a real holiday for the drivers.  Stocks all fed and Andy cut a stack o’ firewood without even bein’ asked.”

 

 Slim rolled out of bed with a bemused look on his face.  This was a real turn around from the man that yesterday didn’t even know what the holiday was.

 

 The snow had stopped early last night and was already melting some on the road so they made good time getting back to the broken down buckboard.  Jess looked relieved when he saw the load was undisturbed.  “Snow musta kept the wildlife in their dens so they didn’t come huntin’ our food,” he mumbled.

 

“Slim told you it’d be all right, Jess.  You didn’t have to worry” Andy told him.

 

 With six hands the Sherman crew made short work of untying the makeshift skid and installing the new wheel.  After checking the wagon over and pronouncing it sound they hitched up the extra team and with Andy proudly handling the lines they drove back to the ranch house.

 

 “Well, hurry up and get those supplies in here.  Mose and the rest of the men’ll be here in a few hours expecting a real good feed.” Jonesy hurried out on the porch.  “Lucky I ordered a ham last week from Bert.  You two sure didn’t have any time for turkey huntin' .”   He hurried back to the kitchen, delicious smells already coming from inside.  “I’m gonna need more firewood in here too, Andy.”

 

With a smile Slim started handing supplies to Jess.  “Go on and get the wood Andy.  Me ‘n Jess can handle this then we’ll put the wagons and the teams away.  You do what you can to help Jonesy in the kitchen.”

 

 Slim and Jess headed for the barn to take care of the stock and put the wagons under cover.  It was sunny but the weather was brisk and getting colder.  They busied themselves with barn chores for a few hours.  Andy kept running in and out reporting on the progress of the Thanksgiving dinner.

 

 At the sound of hoof beats both men went outside to greet Mort and several of the stage company employees.  “Mose is hung up on a run down from Cheyenne but him, Jake ‘n Lou’ll be along”

 

“Light down and come inside ‘n get yourselves warm” Slim smiled a welcome.

 

  Jess volunteered to take care of the horses while Slim escorted everyone into the warmth of the house filled with the wonderful smell of ham, peach pudding and all the Thanksgiving fixings.  Jonesy allowed a bit of “medicinal” whiskey was called for on such an occasion. 

 

  Finally Mose, Jake and Lou came driving up in a rig from town.  “Howdy, Jess.  You keeping dinner warm?”

 

“You bet, Mose, can’t start without you” Jess grinned.  “Get on inside, Slim’s got refreshments while you wait for dinner.  I’ll take care of the horses for ya.”

 

*****

 

Jess finished with the horses, topped off water for some of the stock and puttered around doing a few more, unnecessary small chores.  Finally he stood in the late afternoon winter twilight looking toward the ranch house.  Sound of laughter came to his ears and the scents of good food cooking.  A wistful expression was on his face as he watched and listened.  “Guess I’ll go start a fire in the bunkhouse and warm it up some.  Those men’ll be staying the night, might as well see they’re comfortable.”  He turned away from the festivities, picked up an armload of wood and let himself into the empty bunkhouse beside the barn

 

*****

 

 Inside with the warmth of the fires and insides warmed with a few drinks the party was lively with everyone sharing jokes and stories of past holidays.  Andy and Slim kept an eye out for Jess but he remained outside.

 

 “Well, where is that boy?”  Jonesy asked.  “Dinner is waiting and we’re not setting down without the whole family!”

 

 “He’s probably fooling with the horses, Jonesy.  I’ll get him.”  Slim shrugged into his coat and headed out into the cold.

 

“Jess, where are you?  Everybody’s waiting dinner for you.”  Slim called into the barn.  No sign of Jess.  “Jess”. 

 

Finally he heard the bunkhouse door closing. “Jess, dinners waiting for you.  Jonesy won’t let us sit down until the whole family is there, get a move on.”

 

Looking kind of embarrassed Jess answered, “sure Slim, sorry, sorta lost track of time.”

 

Slim smiled gently, placed his arm over his pard’s shoulder and they crossed the yard towards the house together, Slim’s arm resting comfortably on the slim cowboy’s shoulders.

 

“Well, it’s about time, the dinner’s ‘bout ruined and we’re all starving.  Get over here boy!” Jonesy complained.

 

Jess and Slim hung up their coats and joined the rest of the extended family at the table.

 

Jonesy bowed his head and spoke softly, “Lord we thank You for Your blessings and the time to spend with our family and friends on this special day.  Some of us haven’t always remembered how lucky we are and haven’t always had someone to share with You but we know You’re always lookin’ out for us and we thank You.”

 

“Amen” everyone joined in enthusiastically and started passing the platters and bowls.  Jess sat quietly, a suspicious glistening in his blue eyes and thought about the last two days. 'Maybe,' he thought, there really is something to this family, Thanksgiving thing.'

 

The End

 

Notes

 

 

 

 

President Lincoln did declare the last Thursday in November as a National Day of Thanksgiving in 1863

 

 

We included a ham as Jonesy's luxury meat, thinking that domestic turkeys wouldn't have been that common in Wyoming at that time, and that it would be something special for men used to eating game, beef, and chicken.   Wild turkeys are plentiful in Wyoming, but Jess' accident prevented the turkey hunt.   Peach pudding was actually a traditional Thanksgiving dessert by the late nineteenth century, and was made with flour.  Steamed peaches were made dutch oven style  in a simple syrup of sugar and water and would've made a very satisfying dessert for men with a sweet tooth, and not much access to fruit.

 

 



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