I want to thank my beta reader, Carol Kellum, for her patience in helping me revise this story and make it a much easier read. The story is revised but essentially the same as the original. The format has been corrected for easier reading, and a little more description and action has been added to the narrative. I hope you approve of the revisions, should you choose to reread the story.
The Best Medicine For Daisy
by Pat Storm
Dr. Keefe came through the door from Daisy's bedroom with his eyes downcast, closing the door slowly and quietly behind him. Slim and Jess sat at the table and looked up, each with a cup of coffee in hand. Slim stood up as the doctor took his hand off the bedroom door handle.
"How is she?" Slim asked solemnly, taking a step toward the older man.
"I'm not sure, Slim. Right now it could go either way. She’s one very sick lady,” was Doctor Keefe's reply. "Pneumonia is a tricky thing. Any weakness and it could take her right quick, but Mrs. Cooper appears to be a fighter. Her age is the only thing that worries me at the moment."
Jess fingered his cup nervously and asked, "Is there anything we can do?"
"Pray if you have a mind to. Give her anything she wants. Knowing she’s loved can go a long way,” Dr Keefe replied. "I suggest one of you sit with her as much as you can. If she has difficulty breathing or a coughing spell you might need to help her set up some or lie her down more until she can catch her breath. Keeping her lungs from filling up with fluids is my main concern. You’ll also want to try and keep her fever down. I know you boys know how to go about that.” Both ranchers nodded their heads in agreement.
"Coffee, Doc?” Slim offered.
"No, thanks, Slim. I have another stop to make before I can get back to town. I want to get back before dinner. The little woman is making my favorite meal tonight. It is our fifteenth anniversary," he proudly smiled.
"Well, congratulations, Doc," Slim said trying to smile for the doctor's good news, but the furrows on his forehead remained as he was unable to hide his worry over the lady lying in the bed in the next room.
"That's a long time with one woman, Doc," Jess said with an attempt at a smile, also unable to hide his concern. "Not sure if I could get tied down that long in one place, especially with one woman."
"You don't know till you try, Jess." the doctor replied, his own smile genuine as he winked at the younger man.
Slim shook hands with the doctor and Jess stood up to shake his hand as well. "Are you sure you don't want some coffee? Fresh pot. Made it myself.” Jess reoffered Slim’s proposal.
"Now I know I have to go. I've heard about your coffee, Jess," the doctor said chuckling. Jess just gave a quick startled look in Slim's direction, but let the comment rest.
The taller man showed the doctor to the door and walked out onto the porch, thanking him again. "I’ll drop by daily to check on Mrs. Cooper. If you need me, Slim, you know where to find me. If I'm not there, they’ll know where I am. You can send word with the stage to let me know if there are any changes I should know about or if I need to come out for any reason," Dr Keefe said as he stepped down from the porch. Slim nodded and waved goodbye as he watched the good doctor climb into his carriage.
Slim slowly turned, going back into the house and sat down at the table to finish his coffee. Jess came out from the kitchen with the coffee pot and refilled both of their cups. "I had no idea she was that sick," he said as he set the pot on the table and sat down to take a sip from his cup.
"Yeah, me too. I don't think she wanted us to know. Just a cold she kept saying. I should have been more suspicious when I caught her sitting and napping in a chair when I came in from the barn. Said she just had a bad night and needed to catch a nap. Even Mike seemed to know more was going on than I did.” Slim admitted, agonizing that he hadn’t recognized how sick Daisy really was.
"Aw, Slim, don't go blamin' yourself. We've been so busy movin' stock around n’ mendin’ fences; we just weren't around enough to notice how weak she was gettin'. If Mike didn’t tell us about her nappin' so much we wouldn't have known. She was always up n’ about when I came in. That cough, though, I reckon I should’ve taken more notice. But shucks, why didn't she tell us? Maybe she wouldn't be so sick."
"Well," Slim said, standing up, "we can keep blaming ourselves but that isn't doing Daisy any good. I'll take the first shift to sit with her. You go grab some shuteye. I think we’ll be putting off a lot of work for a while. Daisy will come first. This might be the hardest job we come up against for a long time."
"You're probably right there, Slim," Jess replied as he walked to their shared bedroom door and opened it. Before he entered the room he turned to Slim. "If you start feelin' tired, come get me. If I’m awake before you come get me, I'll put on some coffee n’ relieve ya, okay?"
"Thanks, Jess. Sleep well.” Slim fixed Jess with tormented blue eyes as he continued, "Oh, Jess?"
"Say a prayer for her before you drop off to sleep."
"You know I will, Pard," Jess replied, his gravely voice soft with emotion.
Jess went into the shared bedroom and closed the door behind him. Slim walked to Daisy's bedroom door. Taking hold of the handle he looked up, "Dear Lord, I don't ask for much but this is real important. Daisy needs your help real bad. I’m not just asking for her but for all of us. We all need her here. I know that’s a little selfish, but I know her work here isn’t finished. There’s so many more lives she can touch. She’s a good woman and has so much more to offer to so many. Please, let us keep her a little longer? Please? Thanks, Lord."
The tall blond opened the door and walked to stand, looking down on the pale, sleeping woman he’d come to love as a mother. He straightened her blanket then sat down for his vigil. Daisy opened her eyes and gave him a weak smile, acknowledging his presence, then peacefully drifted back off to sleep.
All was quiet for several hours when the clatter of the late afternoon stage arriving woke Jess with a start. It took him a moment to think why he was in bed sleeping during the day with all his clothes on. When the fog cleared, he whispered, "Say, Lord, remember what I asked you about earlier? I hope you heard me. Just in case you didn't, I'll ask again. Please take care of Miss Daisy. She’s a fine woman. Just look at what she's done for me. She might’ve come a long way in makin' me a good God-fearin' man, but she still has some work to do on me. Don't take her away from us yet, okay? Please?"
Jess rolled off the bed and headed for the front door to meet Mike running toward the house. He’d bounced out of the stagecoach almost before it stopped after a day at school. "Hey, Jess, how's Aunt Daisy?"
The dark haired cowboy stopped the youngster before he reached the porch. Stooping down to talk to him, Jess put his hand on the boy’s arm and said, "Well, the Doc days she's pretty sick, so we have to be real quiet, okay?"
"Sure, Jess," Mike said, looking down toward the ground, his eyes full of sadness.
Slim walked through the door and headed toward the stage to help with the team and called to Mike.
"Yeah, Slim?” Mike asked, the anxiety heavy in his voice.
"I think you should go stay with the Millers for a few days until Daisy is feeling better. Meals are going to be pretty scattered and Daisy needs it quiet and not worry about taking care of any of us. You know how she is."
"I can be quiet, I promise. Slim. I can help out a lot," Mike begged, determined to not leave the ranch.
"Mike, please, do this for me, Jess, and especially Daisy. Jess and me, well, we are going to be extra busy and, well, I want to make sure that you’re getting proper care." Slim put his hand on the boy’s shoulder and started walking him toward the barn. "Now get your horse saddled while we change the team. We'll talk a little more before you leave."
"Okay,” Mike said, as he hung his head and walked slowly toward the barn. He was forced to jump aside as Jess led a team of horses out of the barn.
Seeing Slim, Jess called out, "How's Daisy?"
"She's sleeping, the tall rancher responded as he went to meet Jess and help him with the horses. “ Only a couple of coughing spells and her fever seems to be down some. I think we can trade off after we change the team and grab something to eat. You take the next shift sitting with her."
"Sure," Jess replied as he started to unhitch the hot, sweaty, tired team.
Mose, the team driver, walked to where Slim was working on the other side of the team and asked, "What's up with Daisy?"
"She's real sick, Mose. Doc says pneumonia."
"Now that's a real shame, Slim. I knowed she was coughin' pretty hard the last time I stopped an’ she offered me some coffee an’ a piece of that good pie she makes."
"Oh, Mose. I'm so sorry. Did you want some coffee? I can put some on real quick. I guess my head’s lost in all the worry about Daisy."
"No, Slim, I wasn't tossin' no hints. I 'spect ya got your hands full ‘nough without worryin' yourself over an ol' geezer like me," Mose laughed, then turned solemn. "Tell Miss Daisy I’ll be prayin' for her. Anything else I can do for ya, Slim?"
"Jess and I will be taking turns sitting with her around the clock. If you could give a hand with the team so only one of us needs to help, that would be a great."
"Well, then, what are ya doin' out here? Get back in there an’ take care of our Miss Daisy. I'll be lookin' forward to a good cup of coffee when she’s better. If you or Jess are makin' it right now," he chucked as he ran his hand over the stubble on his chin, "I best be passin' on it, anyhow."
"Hey, Mose, I heard that.” Jess shouted from the other side of the team. "What's all this problem with my coffee? I make dang good coffee. I drink it myself, all the time."
Slim and Mose just laughed in response, Slim shaking his head. They completed the change of the team and Mose climbed up on the box, "Tell Miss Daisy she has all my best, Slim."
"I will, Mose. Thanks."
The old stage driver slapped the reins on the team horses, causing them to lurch forward as they started to move out. Jess and Slim waved as Mose drove the coach out of the yard. Mike walked to where the ranchers stood leading his horse.
"What's this?” Jess asked, motioning toward Mike and the horse.
"I am sending Mike to stay with the Miller's for a few days. Until Daisy is feeling better," Slim responded.
"Oh. Great idea,” Jess replied to Slim before he turned to lean down to speak to Mike, "Hey, Tiger, you can go fishin' everyday down there," he said with enthusiasm, trying to take the edge off the somberness of the situation.
Mike smiled weakly and nodded his head. Looking up at the tall blond man, the boy asked, "Slim, can I see Aunt Daisy before I go?"
"Sure,” Slim said, smiling sadly at the youngster, “But we need to be real quiet if she’s sleeping." Slim put his hand on the boy's shoulder and lead him up the porch steps and into the house to Daisy's closed bedroom door. Opening the door softly, they both entered the room. Daisy was peacefully sleeping and Mike was disappointed that he wouldn’t be able to speak to her or say goodbye.
After looking at her for a short time, Mike turned to Slim, “Can I kiss her on the cheek before I go?" he whispered.
"I don't think that’ll disturb her, Mike," Slim whispered. "Go ahead, I think she’d like that."
Mike leaned over the sleeping woman, placed a kiss on her cheek, and whispered, "Goodbye, Aunt Daisy". Slim put his hand on the boy’s shoulder and directed him toward the door. They passed through the doorway together, and Slim closed the door silently behind him. The 'goodbye' had sounded so final to the tall rancher. It grabbed at his heart making it hard for him to speak to Mike for a few moments.
Mike wiped at a tear that escaped down his cheek, "I know she’s real sick, Slim. I promise, I kin be real good and real quiet if you let me stay. It's just," Mike paused as he wiped away another tear, "I'm scared, Slim."
"Scared? Scared about what?" Slim questioned as he stooped down to look the boy straight in the eye, knowing, already, what Mike would say.
"Scared that Aunt Daisy might not be here when I come back home," Mike answered as more tears streamed down his face. Knowing about the loss that Mike had in his past, losing his family, Slim’s heart went out to the boy, but the tall man still had trouble controlling his own mixed emotions.
"Mike, don't think like that," Slim said a little more harshly than he’d meant it to be. "Jess and I are here and we’re going to take good care of her," he said as he turned the boy’s downward turned chin up so he could peer into Mike’s tear-filled eyes. "I promise."
Standing back up and leading Mike to the door, he continued, "The doctor is going to come by everyday to look in on her. Jess and I won't be eating or sleeping regular. Knowing that you’re taken care of while this is going on will help us all. Do you understand? We can take better care of Daisy if we only need to worry about her till she’s better."
"I know,” Mike agreed. "Okay, I'll be good and go stay with the Miller's. When Dr. Keefe goes back to Laramie from here, can he stop by the Miller's an’ let me know how Aunt Daisy is doing?"
"I can ask him, and if he is passing by their place, I’m sure he’ll stop and let you know. You know he doesn't always head straight back to Laramie. There are other sick folks out here that he needs to see. Now get on that horse and ride. Tell Mr. Miller to stop by and I’ll tell him what is going on and send some clean clothes for you to wear while you’re there. Now don't worry, okay?"
They walked out on the porch and Slim stooped down to give the towheaded boy a hug. Mike showed his reluctance to leave by not wanting to let go of Slim. Once they unlocked from the embrace, Slim helped Mike mount up on his horse. "Remember, don't worry. And Mike?"
"Prayers are mighty powerful," the blond man said as he put his hand on the boy’s knee.
"I know. I been sayin' some all day."
"Off with you, Tiger," Slim said as he patted the horse on the rump.
Mike turned his horse then rode up the hill in a slow trot, turning to look back and wave a few times. Slim waved back hoping he’d made the right decision to send the boy away. It was for Daisy’s sake, he reasoned to himself. She has to get better, he thought. He’d promised Mike, and he was determined to keep his promise.
Jess came out from the barn, "Team's settled." Slim acknowledged his partner with a nod of his head. "I think that was a wise idea to send Mike to the Miller's. I was kinda wonderin' how we were gonna deal with him if things got worse."
"Jess!” Slim almost shouted. "Don't say that. Don't even think it. Daisy is going be fine. I just know it."
"I hope so, Pard. I hope so."
The two ranchers re-entered the house. Slim went to check on Daisy while Jess headed for the kitchen. Sitting down, Slim watched the sleeping, pale woman. He was so happy that she was resting peacefully and that the dreadful cough had eased up. Placing a fresh, cool cloth on her forehead, Slim bent to kiss Daisy lightly on the cheek. Jess peeked in and whispered, "How's she doin'?"
"Sleeping, shhh," Slim replied softly, closing the door quietly behind them as they left the room, moving toward the table where Jess had already placed food and drink for them.
"I rustled up some chow n’ coffee. Let's eat n’ I'll take my turn to sit with her," the dark haired cowboy said. They sat down to the table in silence. Jess picked up the coffee pot and poured a hot cup of coffee for each of them. Slim nodded his head in thanks, unable to hide his trepidation. Jess looked up to say something to his partner, but after reading the distress on Slim’s face he thought it best not to say anything and went back to sipping his coffee.
They both picked at their stew. Slim finally pushed his bowl aside only half eaten. "Why do these things happen, Jess? I just don't understand it. A good person like Daisy should never be this sick and have to suffer so."
Jess nodded in agreement. "Why don't ya go get some sleep? I'll go sit with her for now. I should be good for a few hours. No more stages tonight. Sleep till mornin', if ya can. I'll help ya with the first stage n’ then I'll get some shuteye."
"Yeah, I reckon we need to find some kind of schedule. Mose said he’d help with the stage if one of us is sleeping or if Daisy needs us. He doesn't want any of our coffee," Slim smiled wanly, "so we don't need to worry about having any ready for him. I think we have things covered for now. If there’s any change in Daisy, come get me, okay?"
"You know I will, Slim. Just get some sleep. Daisy will need ya fresh in the mornin'."
"If I can sleep. Night, Jess.” Slim stood and moved toward Daisy's bedroom door.
"Night, Slim," Jess responded clearing the table as Slim took a final look in on Daisy then headed off to bed.
When he lifted the coffee pot Jess noticed it wasn't quite empty yet. "Can't let this go to waste," he mumbled to himself and poured the last of it into his cup, taking it with him to Daisy's door. Putting his hand on the door handle, the young man looked down into his cup as if he was searching for something. Not finding the answer he was seeking, Jess opened the door, walked to the bed, and looked down at the sleeping form. He pondered how tiny she looked in her bed, tucked in under the blankets. Sitting down Jess took a drink from his cup, never taking his eyes off his beloved Daisy.
After a long while of watching her soft breathing he realized how late it was getting. From her window he could see the sun setting, as the room grew ever darker.
Getting up and putting the cup down on the night table, Jess walked to the window to take in the view. It was a beautiful sunset. All the colors of the west were reflected in the wide sky. A lone coyote yipped in the distance. The crickets were chirping slowly as the temperature dropped with the setting sun. The whole world appeared to be so still and peaceful. Even the horses in the barn and corral were quiet.
Looking at the sunset again, Jess noticed that to the left of the cresting sun was a cloud formation. He swore that it looked like an angel. 'Just like the one Slim puts on top of the Christmas tree,’ he reflected. 'Oh, Angel, I hope you’re a good sign that Daisy will be alright,' the young man silently prayed.
Looking back at Daisy, Jess went back to the chair to sit down next the bed. In the darkened room, he accidentally bumped the chair making a small sound as it scraped along the floor. He cursed himself under his breath; he’d been trying so hard to be quiet and careful to not disturb the sleeping woman. Reaching for the oil lamp on the night table, Jess lit it and turned the wick down. The room was still in shadows, but now, as he seated himself, he could study the face of the woman he’d grown to consider his surrogate mother.
She stirred a little and Jess leaned toward her to whisper, "I'm here. Everything will be alright." Daisy opened her eyes and stared deeply into Jess' dark blue eyes. Giving him a weak smile, she reached out her hand to him. He gently took her hand in his, giving it a little squeeze, then kissed the back of her hand. They held hands, looking into each other’s eyes for several moments. Jess finally whispered, "How ya feelin', Daisy?"
The elderly woman smiled as she answered, “Better now that I know you’re here, Jess." She started to cough and Jess became a little panicky, but tried not to show it and upset Daisy with his feeling of ineptness. "Shhhh, don't try to talk. It only makes ya cough. Do ya need to sit up any?" he asked anxiously, half standing and leaning toward her. She shook her head, no, weakly. "Anything I can get ya?" Jess asked, finding it hard to not want to go run and hide. It was painful for him to see Daisy in such a severe state.
She shook her head yes and whispered, "Water?"
"Oh, yeah, I'm sorry. I should’ve asked. I was just surprised to see ya awake. I wasn't thinkin' straight. Here ya go." Jess grabbed the glass of water off the night table then gently lifted her head and shoulders and held her steady as he put the water glass to her lips for her to sip. She nodded to let him know that she’d had enough and he gently laid her head back on the pillow and put the glass of water on the table next to his now nearly empty cold cup of coffee. "Anything else ya need?" She shook her head no while stifling a cough then clearing her throat. "Anything ya want or somethin' I can do for ya?" She started to shake her head no, but a weak smile spread across her lips as she indicated yes instead.
"Well, anything, you name it, Daisy. It's yours," Jess said eagerly. He leaned forward to listen to her wish so she needn’t make much effort to speak.
"Jess, you know I love you and Slim and Mike," she whispered. Jess dipped his head in the affirmative awaiting her request. "Well, I know so much about Slim, and Mike, but you, you’re such a mystery to me." She started to cough but was able to get it under control. Wheezing, she tried to speak again.
Jess leaned in close to listen, "What is it Daisy?"
"Jess? Could you tell me more about yourself? I feel I want to know you so much better and I fear I might not be around long enough to solve the mystery of Jess Harper," she wheezed but didn’t break into a cough this time. "A little more water, please?" she requested.
Jess helped her take a few sips and laid her back down against the pillows. Her eyes were showing some of their old sparkle, he thought or maybe it was hope. How could he refuse her request? "Daisy, ya know I ain't one to talk about myself," he said, showing his discomfort at her request.
"I know, Jess, but please? Start with your first memory," Daisy pleaded. "I love to hear your voice, and I’m sure you have so much to tell."
Jess leaned back in his chair; a slight frown furrowed his brow as he gave her request some thought. Looking at Daisy and her pleading eyes he finally said, "Okay, Daisy, I'll tell ya some, but ya gotta promise, this is between me n’ you. Not even Slim knows much about me. If he did he'd probably hand me my hat n’ my horse n’ set me back on the drift again."
"I promise, Jess" Daisy whispered as her face lit up with
“My first memory?” Jess said as he sat and thought for a minute. “I reckon it was the panic of my folks gatherin' us kids up to run for the storm cellar. There was a big ol' Texas twister bearin' down on us. I could see it but I had no idea what I was lookin' at. I had no idea why Ma was cryin' n’ Pa, well he was always angry about somethin', but he seemed almost crazy like, if I even knew what that was back then. I reckon I was only around 3 or 4 at the time.
“Ma was carryin' my little brother under her arm, runnin' for the cellar. Pa was chasin' the horses from the lean-to n’ grabbin' us older kids n’ pushin' us along to follow Ma into the cellar. I can still remember the sound of that twister as it passed near the small sharecropper's house we lived in. My Ma was holdin’ my little brother, rockin' him n’ cryin'. I was too young to know what was goin' on. It had to be bad with Ma cryin' n’ all, but to me it was pretty excitin'. My big brother kept tellin' me everything would be all right n’ held my hand but I wasn't scared.
“The family was safe n’ all together in that damp cellar. I can still smell the way that hole in the ground smelled, all earthy n’ it was real dark till Pa lit the lantern. It was my first recollection of ever being in that cellar n’ it wouldn't be my last.
“When the twister passed we came out to find that the lean-to had some damage, but all in all, we survived n’ we were all in one piece n’ still had a home. The horses all survived n’ with a little patchin' the lean-to was just fine.
“Twisters were a part of life there in the panhandle. It got so that by the time I was twelve,” the young man smiled to himself, “I knew every root that was comin' through the wall of that old cellar n’ how to keep from bumpin' into them in the dark. Sure, Pa would chop at ‘em to keep ‘em cut back, but they always seemed to grow back by the next storm.
“There are other early memories that I don't rightly recollect,” he said, cocking his head as he thought for a minute. “I reckon I was too young to remember ‘em on my own, but Ma n’ Francie, my big sister, they’d tell me stories about some of my more memorable adventures. I reckon I wasn't a shy kid. I made my share of trouble n’ Pa was always quick, sometimes too quick to take to punishin’ us when he thought any of us stepped over the line. It seems like his line n’ our line were never the same. Yeah, Pa was fast with a belt. I could show you more than one place that I still wear a scar from that belt buckle, but it wouldn’t be somethin' to show in polite company, Jess chuckled and shook his head as the unpleasant memories started to flood his mind.
“Eventually there was seven of us in the family. Pa made sure we kept out of trouble by workin' us from sunup to sundown.
“When they opened the school in town, Ma insisted that all the kids should learn to read n’ write. Pa argued that we didn't need to learn nothin'. He couldn’t read or write n’ he was makin' do. We didn't need no fancy book learnin' as far as he was concerned. But Ma took on so that Pa finally gave in. We still had our chores to do before goin' off to school n’ plenty more to do after we got home till it was time to go to bed.
“I was seven when I first started school. Four of us rode to school, double on two horses,” Jess said, his eyes twinkled at the memory. It was apparent that he’d enjoyed his years in school. Daisy knew that Jess was intelligent, only poorly educated. Now she understood why.
“Pa made us boys quit school when I was about ten. With Ma ailin' n’ Hawkins always pushin’ for more tribute, he needed us to work the farm more.
“I don't recollect when I learned to ride a horse, but it was somethin' that came real natural. I loved the horses n’ took it on myself to make their care my own special chore. We seemed to connect somehow. I could talk to them n’ not worry about what I said or told them, Iess said as he smiled to himself and the more pleasant memories of his childhood. “They were probably my only friends, other than Francie. I think it pleased Pa that I took such interest the horses. It was one less thing he had to worry about. He knew that I would take good care of ‘em. The best thing I ever heard him say about me was that I took better care of those horses than he ever did. He never said it to me, but I heard him tellin' a neighbor about me. He almost sounded proud. I reckon I was,” Jess said, swimming again in a good memory that brought a smile to his suntanned face.
“The work horses sure lived up to their name. Pa sometimes overworked ‘em. I got many a beatin’ for backtalk when I’d tell Pa he worked the horses too hard. He said he knew what was best for his horses n’ that it was none of my business. I felt it was my business. I needed them as much as they needed me. I could tell how tired those horses were at the end of the day. I’d give ‘em some extra care, a good rub down n’ even sneak out after dark to make sure they were comfortable for the night. If I had it I’d give ‘em a treat. If Pa ever knew I was wastin' our food on those horses, I know I would’ve got a whippin' for sure. I knew we all would be back up early in the mornin' n’ workin' hard n’ wanted to make life for the horses a little better. Makin' things better for them made things better for me. We were friends n’ I needed them as much as they needed me.” Jess reflected for a few moments before he shifted his weight in the chair and began to speak again.
“After Ma had the last baby, she was in poor health. She tried to keep up with all the work n’ tried to keep Pa from gettin' mad at her for not keepin' up. Ma was almost always feelin' poorly, but she wouldn’t let on to anyone. Francie n’ I both knew she wasn't feelin' well. We’d help her when Pa wasn't lookin'. When he caught us Ma would get a good tongue lashin' or maybe a hard slap across her face. Pa wouldn’t abide any laziness. We had our chores to do n’ Ma had hers n’ he expected everyone to do their share,” a frown crossed Jess’ face as the harder side of life crowded out the good memories he’d felt remembering his time caring for the family horses.
“Pa took sick one winter. He couldn't even get out of bed. As sick as Ma was, she took good care of him n’ it wasn't long before he was back to bein' his old self n’ makin' life hard for the rest of us. Of course, none of us kept our chores up to his standards. We could never please Pa no matter how hard we tried. I reckon Pa was the way he was ‘cause the farm wasn’t his own. It seemed like everything we worked for was taken away in exchange for us livin' in that old shack. Food was often scarce n’ I know Pa would go off n’ rustle a steer so we could eat. We all knew it happened n’ that it was wrong but if he hadn't done it we woulda starved or ended up eatin' the horses. Pa knew we couldn't eat the horses. We needed those horses to live. They kept the farm goin' n’ were mighty useful for rustlin’ cattle.
“When I was around eight, Pa taught me to shoot his rifle n’ huntin' became one of my chores.” Again memories brought forth a smile to the young man’s lips. “Shootin' seemed to come as easy to me as ridin' a horse. At first I’d miss a shot for just bein' so danged excited that I was gonna bring dinner home. I remember my first kill,” Jess reminisced, his eyes showing his pleasure as a smile spread across his lips. “A big ol' Texas jack rabbit. I was so excited that I shot him n’ proud that I was gonna provide the meat for one of Ma's stews. I went to collect my prize; that was when I realized I’d killed another living creature. Up till then, Pa had always done the killin' n’ butcherin'. I knew it was a part of life, but this poor critter died at my hand. I cried to myself in bed that night. The stew was eaten but was a lot harder to swallow than anything I ever recall eatin'. With time I learned to accept that the family had to eat n’ the animals were there to provide for us. To this day, I still give thanks to the animal that I haveta kill for my own survival. It doesn't matter, steer or rabbit. It's probably more than what a mountain lion or bear would do for me if I became his dinner, I reckon,” Jess smiled. “Sadly life depends on life to live. As I grew older I found that life depended on how fast you were with a gun. It was called survivin’.
“Around ten, Pa gave me my own rifle. Actually he bought himself a new rifle n’ gave me his old one. Because of the sharecropping, huntin' was becomin' more important to us to keep the family fed. Pa would take me or my brother with him on the hunt for meat. It was all right with me that my brother used my rifle. We all had to share almost everything we had. I don't recollect havin' anything that was my own. All our clothes were hand-me downs. Patched n’ repatched over the patches. Dang, we didn't even own our own selves. Pa had the say about everything we did.” Daisy could see the pain in the young man’s eyes as he continued his story while gazing at the blank wall, visualizing his past as if it were playing on the wall before him.
“By the time I was twelve, I’d learned how to rustle cattle. Pa, my brother n’ me would ride out n’ cut one out of the herd n’ bring it home n’ butcher it. We always hoped that the ranchers never missed the steer. It's a good thing the smoke house never gave us away. Pa was real careful n’ never greedy. He only took cattle when we were runnin' outta food. We always had plenty of dried beef on hand. Nothin' was ever wasted, but fresh beef was always welcome on our table.
“Our farm was on the land that belonged to a rancher by the name of Hawkins. He was the one Pa had to pay tribute to n’ since our family was eatin' pretty good, Hawkins reckoned he wasn't takin' enough. One day he came ridin' in on that fancy paint horse of his. I was out waterin' the horses n’ saw him dismount n’ walk over to Pa. They were close enough for me to hear ‘em. He told Pa that since the family was growin' we should be producin' more n’ be able to provide him with more crops. Pa argued that we needed more of the crops because us kids were eatin' a lot. If we couldn't eat, we couldn't grow the crops he wanted so bad. Hawkins just laughed n’ said that we could just move on if we couldn't keep up with the rent. Hawkins got up on his fancy horse, spat on the ground at Pa's feet then spun the horse around, almost tramplin' Pa, n’ rode off. That didn't leave Pa in a good mood. He headed for the house to get his rifle n’ go after Hawkins. When he told Ma what happened n’ what he was fixin' to do, she pleaded with him to not do it. What would become of her n’ the kids if they hanged him for killin’ Hawkins? Hawkins was a big man in the territory n’ Pa woulda been hanged for sure if he’d followed after Hawkins n’ killed him.
“I overheard their argument n’ knew Pa would want one of the horses to go after Hawkins, so I just kinda let them out to pasture a little early. Pa wasn’t happy when he came out n’ told me to bring him a horse n’ I told him that I’d already let them loose for the night to graze. The look in his eyes made me think that he might shoot me right then n’ there. Instead, he walked over n’ hit me in the belly with the butt of his rifle. I collapsed to the ground,” the pain of the memory showed on Jess’ face as he continued. “I’d never been winded before. I thought I was gonna die. I couldn't breathe. It was the worst feelin' I ever had up until then.” Once again a flicker of pain passed across Jess’ face with the reflection as he continued on.
“Pa went to the barn n’ Francie came runnin' out to see if I was all right. She helped me into the house n’ into bed. Pa came back in the house n’ he n’ Ma had more words. He was so angry that none of the horses would let him near them n’ he wasn’t able to catch any of them. I heard Ma cry out, so I reckon he must have hit her. He started shoutin' about gettin' even with Hawkins. He said he’d let him have all the crops he wanted. We’d be sittin’ down to more beef on the table from here on out. All Hawkins beef. Rustlin' was about to become a bigger part of our life. After Pa cooled down a little, he did go on to more rustlin' than usual but I think he feared gettin' caught,” Jess said, looking down at his lap as he sadly shook his head.
“I’d just turned 15 when I woke up one night to the horses makin' a lot of noise out in the lean-to. I ran to the window to see the sky was lit up. I felt my knees buckle but had to pull myself together to save the horses. I started yellin' to Pa n’ Ma that the barn was on fire. When I ran out from my room I saw the house was on fire, too,” the young man paused in his story as he vividly saw those flames in his mind once again and felt the horror that was about to play out before him. Staring at the wall, once again, he proceeded to share the night he lost his family.
“Through the window I saw the face of the man who put our house to fire. I'll never forget his face. I later found out his name was Banister. Banister n’ his gang were raiding all the ranches in the territory tryin' to drive the ranchers out. He wanted to take over all the land in the area. Sharecroppers that he thought were in his way were part of his raid. Too bad our farm was so close to the main house. We might’ve been one of the lucky ones to not get burned out. But then, Banister probably heard about Pa's temper n’ reckoned he best get him out of the way.” Jess stared at the wall above Daisy’s bed, a far away look in his eyes at the memory of the loss of his family. After taking a deep breath, he continued. Daisy was shaken to learn the details of Jess’ loss, but held her tongue, knowing that the purge was good for him.
“Chokin' on smoke I was able to make it to Francie's room n’ woke her up. We both tried to get to the rest of the family, but could only get to my one brother n’ pull him out of the burnin' house. He was coughin' so hard, we thought he’d die on us, but he came around once we got him away from the smoke. I can still feel the heat, the smell of the burnin' house, n’ my burnin' family.
“The light from beyond the hill toward the Hawkins' ranch told us they’d been burnt out, too.
“On top of the hill I saw several riders lookin’ down at the fires,” a frown came to the cowboy’s face at the recollection. “It was the men who killed my family. After watchin' for a while they turned their horses n’ rode off. They were shoutin' n’ laughin' n’ firin' their guns in the air. It was like they were havin' a celebration.
“I wished I had my rifle,” Jess said, his voice becoming gruff and even more gravely than usual. “I would’ve jumped on one of the horses n’ gone after them myself.
“The last three Harpers stood holding ourselves close together. We were all we had left. What were we gonna do? No Ma. No Pa. No home. Just three young Harpers with nothin' n’ no place to go,” he said, as a shutter passed through his body.
Daisy reached out her hand to touch Jess’ hand, her eyes filled with pity, but Jess didn’t notice. He was reliving the nightmare of his childhood, lost in the memories that had so haunted him for so many years.
“One of the other sharecroppers from nearby woke to see the fire n’ came to help, but he was too late. He was related to Ma n’ one of the lucky ones to still have a home. We met him a few times n’ I think Ma told us that he was her father's cousin, or some such thing. He was worried to see the fire n’ what might have happened to all of us. Luckily the horses made it out of the lean-to. If it had been a real barn, we would have lost them, too. The farmer offered to take my sister, brother n’ me in. With no place to go, we had to go home with him. Mr. Brady n’ his wife were kind enough to us, but I was wantin' revenge. I saw the man who destroyed my family, for what it was. They were the only kin I had n’ most of us were gone now.” Jess finally realized that Daisy was holding his hand. He smiled, but sadness clouded his eyes as he squeezed her hand before continuing on with his story.
“The Brady's had three sons. None of them lived at the farm any longer. One son, Joe had gone back east n’ was doin' well for himself. The second son, Gil, they hadn't heard from in a year or so. He’d gone north to seek his fortune. They didn't know if he was alive or dead. Their third son, Jim, they never spoke of him at all. I reckoned he was dead or something. Since they were all alone now, they welcomed the help of what was left of my family to work their small piece of land.
“One day a stranger rode on to the farm. It was Jim, their third son, the one they didn't speak of. It turns out that Jim had to lay low; he n’ his gang were in trouble so he returned home to his Ma n’ Pa to hide out. I remember the day he rode into the farm n’ I can't say he got a warm welcome from his Pa, but he came to stay for a while.
“Jim n’ I got along great,” the thought bringing a smile to Jess’ mouth. “I was fascinated watchin' him practice his fast draw n’ practicin’ shootin’ with his handgun. Later I found out that Jim was involved with a gang of bank robbers. So far they’d been successful n’ had gotten away every time n’ no one knew who any of them were, but they were nearly caught in their last robbery. A posse had been close on their tail, but they got away from them n’ decided to lay low for a while. I showed enough interest in what Jim was doin', that he decided to teach me how to handle a handgun.
“Mr. Brady caught us practicin' one day n’ almost made Jim leave, but I fessed up that it was my idea n’ argued that I was 15 n’ old enough to learn how to use a gun for my own protection. Jim backed me up n’ we both stayed on, but things were never the same with Mr. Brady. He started treatin’ me like he did Jim.
“It wasn't long before I was pretty good with Jim’s gun. I sold one of Pa's workhorses n’ bought myself a used gun belt rig n’ six-shooter of my own. I finally felt I was growin' up n’ becomin' a man, n’ Jim encouraged me the whole way. I sure wish I’d known what I was gettin' myself into. But I was young n’ this was all so excitin'. I practiced n’ practiced but couldn’t measure up to Jim. He was so fast. If we weren't just playin' I would have been dead many times over. He was like lightnin'. I really envied him n’ wanted to be just like him.
“I reckon it was around that time that I started wonderin' if there was more to the world than growin' crops n’ givin' ‘em away for a place to live. Jim was tellin' me stories of his adventures n’ about his partners. He was becomin' my hero, I reckon. I wanted to go places n’ do things, too. I wanted to live by the gun, just like Jim.
“At first the stories were adventures, later the truth came out about the robberies n’ the people that he’d killed. When I found out about that, I wasn't so sure if I really wanted to be just like Jim, but it was easy to overlook the bad side of things if it meant I’d get away from becomin' a sodbuster with nothin' of my own for the rest of my life.
“A few months before my sixteenth birthday, some friends of Jim's rode in to the farm. He was so happy to see his friends, but he seemed to forget all about me. I stuck close to listen to their stories n’ wished I could be part of their adventures.
“Mr. Brady could see how much I regarded Jim n’ took me aside n’ tried to talk to me, but I brushed him off. I was almost sixteen. I could do as I pleased n’ it pleased me to follow in Jim's footsteps. Mr. Brady then talked to Francie n’ told her all about Jim n’ his past n’ was worried about me followin’ after him. That was enough for Francie to come n’ plead with me to stay away from Jim n’ his friends. As much as I loved Francie, she couldn't get through to me. I wouldn’t listen; I knew I wasn’t meant to be a sharecropper. I wanted something, something more, something different, but I didn't know what that was. I’d already made up my mind, I was gonna leave the farm the first chance I got. I knew the life Jim was leadin’ wasn’t right, but it seemed better than sharecroppin' n’ never havin' anything. Maybe the money wasn't honest, but there was money to be had. The stories they told about the fancy ladies they met up with n’ all the things they did with ‘em. Even a bandit had a better life, as long as ya didn't get caught. I intended to never get caught,” Jess’ head dipped as he felt a little shame for his behavior and what the near future held for him. He thought for a moment before he continued, not sure if he wanted to share everything with Daisy, but she’d promised to not tell Slim. Jess knew she was honorable and would keep things to herself, and as forgiving as she was, he decided to not hold back on telling her more about he became the man, Jess Harper.
“One day Jim n’ his friends were out target shootin'. I watched for a while then went n’ strapped on my gun belt n’ joined ‘em. Jim's friends looked a little surprised when I walked over to them wearin’ my gun. They joked with Jim about me, askin’ if he was groomin' me to be their replacements. Jim just smiled n’ said, show ’em Jess.
“With all the practicin' I’d been doin', I was gettin' pretty good. I don't think I surprised Jim much; he’d been helpin' me build on my new skill. But I sure shocked his two friends at how fast I was n’ that I hit every tin can. I reckon I mighta surprised myself, too. I think that was the first time I hadn’t missed a single target. I was feelin’ proud. I felt like I belonged. I was as much a man as any of ‘em.
“It was Tom who suggested that I grease my holster to help me draw like lightnin'. I found out that that was their secret to how fast they all were. Jim said he didn't want me to know about that, but now that I did he was gonna show me how to do it right. He also did some work on my trigger guard, trigger n’ hammer. He said it would help me fire faster after my draw. It didn't take much practice to get the hang of it n’ Jim n’ his partners were really impressed. They were so impressed that when Jim n’ his buddies were fixin' to leave they asked me to come ride with ‘em. They sure didn't haveta ask twice. This was my chance at what I thought was gonna be a better life.
“I told Francie the night before that we were leaving. I told her I was takin' one of Pa's horses n’ a saddle. The other horses n’ equipment were hers. I was gonna leave n’ most likely never come back. She pleaded with me not to go. She feared I’d be killed n’ warned me, again, that Jim n’ his gang were no good, but I wouldn't listen. This was my chance to get out n’ leave farmin' to the sodbusters. I was about to become a man who lived by the gun. I shoulda listened to Francie, I reckon things woulda been a lot different if I had. I couldn't say things woulda been better or not, but it was somethin' I couldn't see.
“The next mornin, after breakfast, we saddled n’ packed up to leave. I was already on my horse when Francie came out to beg me not to go, again. I told her this was my chance n’ I was gonna take it. We said our goodbyes. Francie cried. That made me feel real bad, but my mind was made up. I rode over to Mr. Brady n’ thanked him for everything he’d done for me n’ my family. He tried to talk me out of leavin', that it was breakin' my sister's heart. I looked at Francie, but she turned n’ ran into the house. That was the last time I saw my sister,” again, Jess lowered his head with shame and remorse, pausing momentarily before continuing on.
“I told Mr. Brady to not worry about me, I’d be fine. I wonder if Francie hadn’t gone into the house n’ begged me a little more, if I might’ve changed my mind, but I don't think it would have made much difference.
“Jim, Tom, Vern n’ I took off to meet up with the rest of the gang. We met at the Colorado territory border. Colorado was new pickin's for the gang. No one there had heard of any of their exploits. They were startin' out fresh n’ new. No law on their heels in that new territory.
“We rode into a small minin' town. Tom rode to the bank to check things out. The rest of us came into town a few at a time so we wouldn’t draw attention to a gang ridin' in. It really wouldn't have mattered. There wasn’t anyone in that town to be seen, maybe they were all out workin’ the mines. As the day wore on, we all drifted toward the town saloon. There were only a few customers at the bar or sittin' at tables playin’ cards. I was lookin' for some of those fancy ladies I’d heard about,” Jess smiled to himself, shyly, “but didn’t see any women at all. Jim told me that it was too early for the ladies to be out n’ about. He said that I’d get my chance to meet up with some of ‘em a little later.
“We gathered into small groups at tables near each other n’ tried to act like we were all strangers. Tom played the part of the big spender, buyin' a round for the house.” Jess smiled again as the memory caused him some amusement, “This was my first taste of whiskey.
“I know Pa use to keep a jug in the barn. Ma wouldn't allow it in the house. I reckon I wasn't curious enough to ever try it. I knew where he kept it hid, but if he'd a caught me tryin' any, he’da beat me good for touchin' it. He made that very clear to all us youngin’s.
“The bartender took a bottle n’ some glasses to Tom's table n’ glasses were passed around to everyone. The bottle then was passed around n’ everyone poured their own. It came to me n’ I had mixed feelin's if I really wanted to try any of it. But then, Pa wasn't around any more n’ my partners encouraged me to take a swallow. Whew,” Jess once again grinned, “I wished someone told me how to drink that stuff. It burned goin' down n’ made me cough, n’ tears came to my eyes. I wondered how they drank that stuff? The boys got a good laugh outta that, but they left me alone. I reckon they were more concerned about gettin’ their share outta the bottle,” Jess ruminated.
“That bottle continued makin' the rounds n’ I found that whiskey easier to take the more I drank. Before long I was feelin' real good. Feelin' that good, I reckoned, a little more should make me feel even more good. But I was wrong,” Jess said with a smile, but shaking his head. “All of a sudden I started feelin' real bad, feelin' real sick n’ hadda go outside. I bumped into chairs n’ tables before I found the door. My feet just didn’t wanna go where I tried to put ‘em. When I found the door, I bumped into the wall next to it, if I recollect.
“The boys had a real good laugh out of it, I reckon, n’ they’d never let me forget about it. I reckon I missed those fancy ladies comin' to the saloon bein' sick out in the alley. I reckon a fancy lady couldn’t have made me feel any better, anyway, probably worse. I reckon I passed out in the alley. I don't rightly recollect.
“The next mornin' I woke with a bangin' head n’ sick stomach. I slept on the floor at the stable where the boys left me overnight. Jim woke me up n’ asked how I was feelin' n’ I told him I thought I might die. He laughed n’ told me I learned a good lesson about whiskey. I reckon I did. He said my next lesson would be about those fancy women. I reckon I was lookin' forward to that lesson. It had to be a mite better than the lesson I learned about whiskey.
“He said that the boys were meetin' at the café for breakfast. I told him I didn't think I was up to eatin’ much of anything, but he said that I’d feel better after a little coffee n’ some food in my stomach. I didn't really believe him, but I went with him anyway. We went to the cafe n’ met up with Tom n’ Vern on the way. They sure had a great time funnin' with me about the night before. When we walked into the cafe the smells were real interestin', but my stomach didn’t wanna settle down to eat. Just the thought of food was makin' my stomach hurt again n’ the bangin' in my head was gettin' worse, too. Everyone ordered coffee n’ bacon n’ eggs. I figured I better follow their lead, so ordered the same, hopin' I wouldn’t shame myself in front of my friends.
“When they served the coffee, it smelled heavenly. I never had coffee before. We were too poor. We didn't even own a milk cow most of the time. I was thirsty so I grabbed the cup ready to take a good long drink. Surprised again,” Jess smiled, again, at a fond moment, “it was bitter n’ nothin' like it smelled. I wasn't sure if I wanted more or not, but as I sipped it, I started to feel better. By the time breakfast hit the table I was feelin’ hungry n’ ready to eat.
“After eatin’ we all sat around for a few more cups of coffee. I found I was beginnin' to like the taste if I added a little sugar, like Jim told me to try. Coffee would become one of my favorites in the years to come n’ I always had some in my saddlebags when I was on the drift. Besides my horse, I could always count on a good cup of coffee to get me by.
“When breakfast was done we all rode off in small groups, like we came into town, n’ met about three miles outside town. Tom had drawn up a map of the lay out of the bank. We were plannin' my first bank robbery. I was about to find out what it was like to be an outlaw. Rustlin' cattle didn't count. We did that to keep from starvin'. This was different. I guess I was young enough to not really realize what kinda trouble I was getting’ myself into, more thinkin’ about the excitement n’ adventure. I know now, I sure wasn’t thinkin’ clearly. I sure wish I coulda known then...” Jess’ voice trailed off, the regret in his heart filled his eyes before he went on.
“Everyone was assigned a place to be n’ a job to do. They chose me n’ Jack to hold the horses together for the getaway. I was a mite disappointed that I wouldn’t be goin’ into the bank, n’ a little nervous. Okay, a lot nervous. It was probably a real good job for me stayin' with the horses, bein' my first time.
“We all rode into town together this time. We rode straight to the bank. Like yesterday, the town looked deserted. Jim pointed out where the sheriff's office was n’ told me that part of my job was to keep the sheriff in his office with gunfire if they weren't out of the bank before the sheriff might show himself.
“They all dismounted n’ pulled their bandana's up on their faces n’ handed me the reins to their horses. Jack n’ me held all the reins in one hand; our other hand was on the butt of our handguns. We were ready if trouble came at us from the sheriff’s office.
“Jim n’ Tom came runnin' out first carryin' bags of money. Vern n’ two others were still in the bank n’ I heard gunfire. Tom n’ Jim were already mounted when the others came runnin' out of the bank for their horses.
“We were all mounted when the sheriff n’ his deputy came runnin' out of their office. Lead was flyin' back n’ forth. The deputy went down n’ Jim fell from his horse. Vern was hit. I was stunned, but Tom grabbed my horse's bridle as he rode by n’ we all headed out of town ridin' hard.
“I couldn't believe that we’d done it n’ that we left Jim behind. Jim was my friend. We should go back for him. I argued with Tom that we had to go back for Jim n’ that we needed a doctor for Vern. I got no answer from him. They all took off, n’ I followed, on a long hard ride. We split up in two groups, knowin' that a posse would be out lookin' for us by now.
“Vern was startin’ to have trouble stayin' in the saddle after about an hour of hard ridin'. He told us to leave him. He said he had friends nearby n’ he’d ride to their place n’ tell ‘em he was bushwhacked. I never saw Vern after that. I don't know if he made it to his friend's house or if he died out there where we left him. I didn’t know his last name so I didn’t have anyway to find out anything about him.
“Jim was wounded pretty bad n’ I heard he died before they could have a trial. Since most of us didn't know anyone by their last name there was no way he could tell who was in his gang, ‘cept he knew my name. I don’t reckon he’d tell, anyway. Jim was pretty tough. Once again the rest got away without the law catchin' up with ‘em, includin' me.
“The money? I never saw any of it. I never made contact with any of ‘em after we split up n’ I wasn't with the group that had the money. As far as I know, they never got caught from that job. Later I read in the paper that the deputy died n’ that one of the boys shot a pregnant woman in the bank, who’d started screamin'. She lost the baby then died a few days after,” remorse and heartache were overpowering the young man. With a small catch in his voice, Jess continued.
“It wasn’t what I thought it would be. It wasn’t the kind of life I wanted to lead, all the senseless killin'. It wasn't right. Shootin' a defenseless woman, with child was wrong n’ uncalled for. Just bein' part of that whole thing, I was as responsible as the one who pulled the trigger. I don't think I can ever forgive myself for what happened to that poor woman n’ her baby,” the dark haired cowboy pinched his eyes closed with his fingers as they welled up with tears that he didn’t want to escape. It was obvious to Daisy how emotional and sorry Jess was over what had happened. She never realized how tragic the young man’s life had been, at such a young and tender age.
“I never saw any more of the gang n’ was glad for it. That’s when my life on the drift began. I practiced my fast draw n’ shootin’ on my own. A good thing too, since it got me out of a lot of bad scrapes.
I had to learn how to use my fists, too. There were a lot of bullies out there just waitin’ for a kid to come along n’ they could show ‘em who was the boss. I took a lot of sucker punches, loosened a tooth or two, split lip, black eyes, but I learned to fight. I had to. I learned when to duck, when to block n’ how to put everything I had into a punch. I wasn’t gonna be kicked around or be anyone’s punchin’ bag.
“I learned how hard on my hands fist fightin' could be. Gloves! I needed a good pair of gloves. I needed somethin' that wouldn’t affect my fast draw but keep my knuckles from being scraped up in a scrap. My hands were important to me. I hadda keep up my fast draw. It could mean my life. When I found that perfect pair they became a part of me like a second skin. They even helped to softened the hold on the reins on a long ride. They kept my hands from gettin' sore with a lot of the jobs I had to take, too. I drifted for a while bein’ a cowhand, did stable work, anything that came along. I learned more about blacksmithin’, mendin’ fences, to do leather work, build homes n’ barns, n’ I sold my gun. Not proud of it none, but I always felt I was on the right side of the fight n’ I always gave the other man the first move. Right or wrong, I walked away the lucky one. I sent a lot of souls on to their maker. I didn’t have no choice when the cards were on the table.
“My greased holster was the advantage that kept me alive. Shootin' from the hip became one of my skills. I was startin' to get a name for myself. Maybe there was some pride with it, but more often than not, I wished my life hadn't drifted the way it had. I knew someday I’d meet someone faster than me, or someone who didn't care if I drew at all; someone just wantin' to be known as the man who shot Jess Harper, fair fight or not. I reckon I'm real lucky to still be alive n’ able to tell ya about it. I look back n’ think about how things coulda been different but there is no way to change the past. I reckon I knew from the time I put on my first gun belt that I’d live to regret it. But if I stayed on the farm, I woulda killed myself just workin' myself to death. Maybe takin' up the gun kept me alive. I reckon I’ll never know.”
For a moment, Jess thought before he restarted his history, his brow once again furrowed in his thoughts about his past. “Then the cry went up that we were at war. I found that I had to choose up sides n’ decided to follow Robert E. Lee. I don't think I had much of a commitment either way, but bein' from Texas I felt a loyalty to the south.”
Daisy closed her eyes as Jess was speaking. He finished his thought and leaned close to her and whispered, "Daisy? You asleep?"
She turned her head slightly to face him and her eyes popped open. "No, Jess. I’m listening. I never thought that your life was so full of tragedy. I feel so close to you, knowing what you’ve gone through. If I close my eyes I can picture everything you are telling me,” she said with a hint of a wheeze.
"I must be tirin' ya out with all this chatter," Jess expressed his concern. "How about some water?"
She nodded her head yes and as before Jess helped her sip at the glass of water. When he laid her back on her pillows she gazed into his eyes and gave him a sweet smile and gently touched his face. "You sleep now, okay?" Jess said as he placed the water glass back on the night table. He grabbed a cool, damp cloth and wiped her brow.
"No," she said. "More?”
"More water?” Jess asked as he jumped up to reach for the glass he’d put on the table.
"No, tell me more," Daisy whispered.
Jess put down the glass and sat down with a sigh. He leaned his head back with his eyes closed for a moment, then sat up to continued on with his story. “Umm, where was I.”
“You were going off to war,” Daisy prompted.
“The war,” Jess stated in return. The painful memories came flooding back but he continued, as promised. “Not a good memory. It lasted too long n’ too many good people died or had their lives changed forever n’ not in a good way. At first I didn't see much action since most of the heavy fightin' was goin' on back east. ‘Cause I was from Texas they reckoned I’d make a good scout. Sure, I was good at trackin' from my huntin' days ‘n I was willin'. If a trail ain't covered, anyone can follow it. Through the more experienced scouts I learned how to cover a trail n’ how to read one that was covered.
“When not out scoutin' I’d be in camp. In camp I did anything n’ everything I was ordered to do. It was almost like bein' back on the farm. Ya had no choice to what you could or would do. You were told when to eat, when to sleep n’ even when you were allowed to take care of...” Jess’ voice trailed off as he nervously glanced at Daisy, but she didn’t stir as a slight smile crossed to her lips.
“As the months went by I was ordered farther n’ farther east n’ called into more action. We knew we were losin' the war, but the leaders wouldn’t admit defeat, so we kept fightin'. The few friends I made in those years ended up missin' a limb, an eye or worse. It was a bloody war that didn’t do anybody any good. Brother killin' brother, father killin' son, son killin’ father. I watched a way of life comin' to an end.
“I faired out pretty lucky until I reached Tennessee n’ Georgia. In Tennessee I was assigned to General Johnston's company. It was shortly after the Battle of Chattanooga, around May of 64 if I remember rightly. I saw a lot of action once we reached Georgia. Why did I ever hope to see any action? N’ fightin' under Johnston we were destined to lose.
“General Sherman was in charge of the western Union armies. General Johnston n’ our company was called up to go against Sherman n’ defend Atlanta. We were outnumbered two to one n’ Johnston had to call for reinforcements. They were sent so it helped even things up, some.
“Johnston was known for withdrawin' before makin' serious contact. He’d been successful in other battles usin' his retreat tactic. In Georgia, though, he was facin' Sherman n’ Sherman was known to be very aggressive. We were forced to hold a strong defense. Sherman knew it would be suicide to attempt a frontal attack so he tended to flank us every chance he got. Our left flank was always under fire. Johnston would always have us retreat n’ prepare at a new position.
“We met Sherman in many of our battles as we tried to hold our supply line. We’d stand n’ retreat, stand n’ retreat over n’ over again. We were gettin' whooped. Sherman might’ve stopped us then n’ there but he decided to send a force across the river at Lay's Ferry n’ try taking our supply line. We couldn't hold him n’ had to retreat southward again. We tried to take a stand just south of Calhoun but had to retreat a little farther, close to Adairsville. At Adairsville we held Sherman into the night but, again, we had to withdraw.
“We moved on to Allatoona Pass n’ fought Sherman for two days. Sherman tried to flank us to the left, but Johnston had a hunch that Sherman might try that again so we moved position n’ we were ready for him. We fought hard, but lost a lot of men. Men, shucks most of us were boys. There were so many bodies on both sides. I saw friends I’d made die. If not directly from battle, from just plain exhaustion combined with a need for more n’ better food n’ fresh water. Most of our meat by this time was either rancid or crawlin' with maggots. Fresh water was scarce; what little we had wasn't fit to drink.
“Sherman was tryin' to get around our line to reach the railhead at Allatoona Pass so we were forced to follow n’ protect what little was left of our supplies. At Picketts Mill, Sherman pushed to attack our exposed right flank, but we were ready for them, n’ this time he had heavy casualties. Sherman retreated n’ we moved onward to Marietta.
“Johnston moved us to Kennesaw Mountain n’ Sherman tried to attack the supply line, but we held our position. As Sherman brought in more armies they were able to gain some ground n’ we had to retreat again, this time south of Peachtree Creek, about three miles north of Atlanta.
“Sherman split his troops n’ sent Thomas's Army of the Cumberland movin' north. Johnston was reviewin' plans to attack Thomas when word came that President Davis relieved Johnston of his command n’ appointed General Hood to take his place. Hood attacked Thomas as they were crossin' Peachtree Creek. We held for a long time n’ almost over run the Yankees, but eventually they brought in reinforcements n’ we were forced to retreat again. Leadership was something we were sorely lackin’.
“In this retreat my luck had run out. I was hit in my side, tore up pretty bad, n’ I went down. Several of the men helped me up n’ moved me along with the retreat. We were headed right for Atlanta. We were supposed to protect Atlanta n’ now we’d been driven right into the heart of what we were there to defend n’ had little left to defend with,” the hopelessness of the situation was evident in Jess’ voice.
“My side was on fire. Every step was agony. I might’ve passed out; much of the march is real fuzzy. I remember passin' though some heavy tree coverage, but then there was a city in front of me n’ no trees anywhere near us.
“I don't recollect the walk between the forest n’ walkin' down the dirt road into the city. Daylight had turned to dusk somewhere along the way. The hospital was near the edge of the city from where we were comin’. The wounded were taken to the hospital, includin' me. The hospital was already full of wounded soldiers. I had to sit holdin' a bandage to my side until someone could look at my wound. It took hours, though I was in n’ out of consciousness. I don’t really know how long I sat there, leanin’ against the wall.
“We were sittin' in the halls since all the beds were filled. I reckon I finally passed out. I don't recollect when someone came to put me on a stretcher, but I woke with someone diggin' in my side searchin' for the lead that was deep in my side. There were several men holdin' me down so I couldn't move. I felt as weak as a kitten, but it sure is amazin' how pain can give ya new strength. It took eight of ‘em to keep me from movin' so the doctor could take out the ball. There was no more chloroform left in the city. It was only to be used for the amputees. By then the amputees didn't have any chloroform to spare for bein' operated on. With infection n’ gangrene so rife, I reckon I was lucky. Even if I got an infection, I couldn't’ have been saved by amputation. I don't think I could have handled losin' an arm or leg.
“The screams of pain where all around me. I became aware that some of that screamin' was comin' outta me. The pain was so bad, I wished they’d let me die; just left me lay where I fell. Whiskey was the best they could do for me, but I passed out long before the whiskey did me any good.” Jess sat back, stiff in the chair as he recalled the pain of his injuries.
“I don't know how long I was laid up. I was unconscious much of the time from fever and infection. When I woke up, I had quite a beard, so I know considerable time had passed. I tried to get someone to pay attention to me n’ tell me what was goin' on with the war n’ how long I’d been out. I felt feverish n’ reckon I mighta been outta my head with fever for some time. My side hurt terrible. I was bandaged, but it looked like I’d bled through the bandage n’ it hadn't been changed for days. I also discovered a bandage around my head. I don't recollect a head wound. I wondered how much of the walk to Atlanta
I was really aware of. Had I been shot again? I didn’t know n’ no one there could tell me what happened.
“I don't know why or how, but it seems like it wasn't my time. Somehow I survived n’ found myself gettin' a little stronger every day. Laudanum made the pain less n’ I spent a lot of my time sleepin'. While I was in the hospital, I became friends with a fella from Missouri by the name of Will Tibbs. He was on the cot next to me, n’ we got to swappin' stories when both of us were awake. Will had his leg shattered by a near fatal hit of a cannon ball, but the doctors figured since there was no infection n’ the bone was still mendable, he could keep his leg. He suffered mostly muscle damage.
“Neither of us was able to get up n’ about. We could hear the battles goin' on all around us. I reckon we were lucky to be where we were. We were still alive n’ our wounds didn't appear to be life-threatenin' any more.
“It wasn’t long before laudanum was gettin' real scarce n’ what was left was used for only those sufferin' the most pain. Apparently they reckoned I wasn't in much need of it anymore so I became aware of more n’ more of my surroundin’s.
“Those who didn't die of their wounds in battle were dyin' of their wounds from infections. There were no real bandages to be found. Women from all over the city were tearing up sheets, petticoats, any kind of cloth that could serve as a bandage was torn into strips. I must say those Atlanta ladies were a sturdy bunch to be at the hospital helpin' with the wounded. There was far too many of us for the doctors to look after. Those ladies were haulin' buckets around like farm hands. No matter how bad the wound or how dirty the man was, those women were angels. We were crawlin' with all sorts of vermin. So many were sick if they weren't wounded n’ those ladies cared for everyone as if each of us was a brother.
“By the end of August, both Will n’ I were up n’ about, but we weren’t allowed back on the battlefield. Will had a terrible limp n’ needed a crutch, but he was able to get about enough to help out with the wounded. We were put to work in the hospital. There were wounded brought in daily n’ we helped with most of the minor injuries. Then there were the times we were called on to help hold down a man or boy to have a ball removed or a limb amputated. I can't say if it was harder bein’ the one on the table or the one tryin' to hold down the patient. Both Will n’ me knew what they were goin' through. Me n’ Will were gradually gettin' our strength back n’ I knew it wouldn't be long before we’d be forced back into battle.
“The word was that Hood was fightin' two Union corps just west of Jonesborough. That night Hood withdrew one of his corps n’ sent them to evacuate Atlanta. They were going to burn Atlanta so the Yankees couldn’t reach the military supplies n’ installations. We were called on to help evacuate the hospital. Anyone who could walk was helped to march out of town, one leanin' on another. They couldn't stand on their own, but holdin' each other up, they were able to slowly move out of the town before it was to be destroyed. Wagons were brought in from the farms n’ plantations. We helped load those who couldn't walk. We wondered if some of the men would survive bein' moved. I often wonder if we were doin' the right thing movin' some of ‘em. We might’ve killed some movin' ‘em; they might’ve been better left behind. It was horrible.
"The war must have been terrible for you, Jess” Daisy whispered with a trace of tears in her eyes. “So young.”
"Yeah, Daisy. We never thought it could get worse, but it did. How about a sip of water?" Jess asked, already reaching for the glass. It was near empty, so he picked up the pitcher and refilled it then helped Daisy to sit up and put the glass to her lips.
This time she reached for the glass with one hand. Their hands touched as she sipped at the water. "Thank you, Jess", she said as Jess helped put her head back on the soft pillows. "Go on, please? How could it get any worse?"
Jess put the glass down and grabbed at a cloth resting in the washbowl. He wrung it out and wiped Daisy's brow. She smiled and appeared to have a little more color to her cheeks, he observed. Jess wondered if this meant she was feeling better or was the fever returning. He was hoping for the former.
Once he sat back down, Daisy raised her hand to him. Jess gently took her hand in his. They held hands as Jess continued with his story.
“Before we finished movin' the injured out we could hear the explosions startin' down at the railroad. It wasn't long before we could smell the smoke n’ then see the fire spreadin’ through the town. It was time for those of us left to make our retreat. Will n’ I made a pact that we’d leave there together n’ decide our future once we were out of the city n’ had a chance to think n' decide if we had had enough war. Lookin’ for Will, I found him bandagin' a young boy with a wound in his arm. When he finished with the boy we sent him on his way n’ slipped out the door.
“We headed north leavin' town. We tried to stay clear of everyone. I sure wished I had a horse n’ a rifle; n’ I wished I was anywhere but there. But we were there, gunless n’ horseless n’ on our own. No one to do our thinkin' for us. After all the years of bein' told what to do, it was hard to start thinkin' for ourselves again. We needed to find a company to join up with, but needed to avoid runnin' into any Yankees.
“Once we were far away from the city we looked for a place to hole up. We didn't dare look to go to any houses. If we were caught by the Yankees they might shoot us on sight or send us to a prison camp. We found a stand of trees that had collapsed on themselves. After we examined the strange sight, we saw that it had been somethin’ someone had done purposely. For what reason, we had no idea, but it gave us shelter for the night. We checked it all over to make sure it wouldn't collapse on us n’ when we were satisfied that it would hold up, at least over night, we crawled into the small sheltering area. We were both still recoverin’ from our wounds, Will with his bad limp, n’ me still in some pain if I lifted somethin’ heavy or bent over too far. We sure didn't feel safe bein' alone with no way to defend ourselves.
“In the mornin' we set out to try find some food n’ weapons. Most of the farms n’ plantations were burnt to the ground. Those that were still standin' were burnt on the inside. No food or weapons to be found anywhere. Our clothes were rags n’ the nights were cold. We needed some warm clothes. We’d been out on the road for three days n’ would’ve wore a warm dress if we could’ve found one. Findin' a gun was more than we could hope for.”
Daisy rolled to her side and started to cough from the movement. Jess fussed over her, helping her to find a comfortable position that gave her relief from the coughing spell. Once she was settled, he had to sit for a moment to remember where he’d left off his tale.
“We found a milk cow in need of milkin', so we had milk for our meal, one night. Fruits, vegetables, n’ almost anything edible was now part of our diet. With no gun or knife, meat wasn’t part of our meal, though we really craved some meat. We tried to stay away from any open areas to avoid bein' seen. On the fourth day we had a choice to try n’ cross a large open field or walk miles to a forest to avoid bein' in the open. Since we were so tired we went for the shortest route. It turned out to be a big mistake n’ turned out to be far from the shortest route. We were in midfield when we heard a lot of horses coming in our direction. We fell down on our bellies in the tall grass to hide n’ tried to see who was comin' up on us. It was a company of Union soldiers. We lay still n/ could smell the horses n’ leather as they passed by us. Once they passed us we ran for cover into the closest woods. We wouldn’t make that mistake again.
“Eventually we came upon a small unit headin' north to join up with Lee in Virginia. But we never made it to Virginia. We marched with the unit for about four days when we were raided by a Union battalion. We tried to fight, but were outnumbered n’ our exhausted unit was captured n’ put into a Yankee prison run by a General Paul Halleck. Life there was far worse than anything I ever experienced. I don't like to even think about those days. I saw starvation, sickness n’ I lost a lot of men, boys, who’d become my friends.
“Me n’ Will befriended a young boy by the name of Newt Duncan. His brother, Johnny, n’ he’d been captured before us n’ they were plannin' an escape. Somehow the Yankees caught wind of it n’ were waitin' for us. Those who got out first were shot on sight. As I look back, they might’ve been the lucky ones. The rest of us were severely punished n’ Newt was badly beaten by Halleck’s men. All of us suffered some form of punishment, but none of us was beaten as bad as young Newt. If we thought conditions were bad before, the worst was about to begin.
“The smell of death was all over the camp. Bodies often laid for days before being buried. All the men were weak from starvation. Diggin' graves took more energy than anyone had. Often those diggin' the graves ended up occupyin' the grave they dug themselves. I’m amazed any of us made it out alive. Some of us made a pact that we’d get revenge for those who died in the camp. Will didn’t want to go along with it. He said that he’d had enough of killin' n’ seein' death. He just wanted to get out n’ back home.
“Then the war ended, just like that. They opened the gates and we were free to go. Go? Go where? Most of us had nowhere to go. Many knew their homes were gone, families dead of disease or from the war. The whole world had changed. My first thoughts were of home. I knew home was no longer there, but what about Francie? Maybe she was still living with the Brady's or they might know where I could find her.”
“Me n’ Will worked our way west. We took any job we could find. With the money we earned we looked for some good horses. Travelin' by foot was takin' too long. That’s when I met up with Traveler n’ bought him. We’d spent a lot of good n’ bad years together, n’ I'd be real lost without him. Before I bought him I took him out for a ride n’ found that he was a right quick n’ smart. His gait was like a rockin' chair n’ he didn’t have any bad habits that I could find. He was sound n’ real willin’. I liked him right away,” Jess said, as he unconsciously glanced in the direction of the barn. “When I looked him over for any flaws, before I spent the money I worked so hard for, I noticed he was wearin' a well-known Texas brand, known for their quality horses n’ hard to find. I sure hoped he wasn’t stolen I felt an instant kinship to him, from Texas n’ all. I had to have him. It was like findin' a long lost brother when I saw that brand n’ he’s never disappointed me. He became my best friend, too often my only one. I could always depend on him bein’ there when I needed him most,” Jess said, a pleasurable smile spread across his lips as his dark blue eyes sparkled in the dim light of the room.
“After saving up some more money, I finally bought myself a new gun rig n’ hand iron. What a difference a fitted belt was over a used belt. The army issue was difficult, as far as I was concerned. With the new rig I felt comfortable n’ safe with a gun on my hip again. I practiced a lot n’ got my fast draw back. My aim was still good; I had plenty of practice in the army. I remembered the tricks Tom n’ Jim taught me about makin’ for a smoother, faster draw n’ got me some grease n’ worked it into the leather of my holster. I made my own adjustments to my iron this time, n’ got a real feel for my new gun n’ holster. Will didn’t approve of my actions n’ let me know it, but I was determined so he didn't push it. We pushed on west toward his home n’ on horseback, we’d be there a lot sooner.
"Daisy, are ya sure ya don't wanna get some rest now?' Jess asked softly, with great concern.
"No, Jess. I find your voice so soothing," Daisy responded with a cough, not as raspy as it had been previously.
"How about some more water?” Jess queried, seeking to ease the cough for her.
"Thanks, dear." she said as Jess helped her to more water. "I really am feeling much better. I may want some broth come morning."
"That's great, Daisy! Ya want me to go make some up for ya now?” Jess suggested, already arising from his chair.
"No. Just talk to me, Jess. I’m enjoying this time with you so much."
"Okay.” Jess conceded, “Here, let me wipe your face for ya. You don't feel as warm as you did,” the young man remarked as he felt her forehead before applying the cloth. “I sure hope your fever is breakin’”, Jess said as he put the cloth back in the bowl, after wiping her forehead and cheeks, then took her hand as he sat back down on the chair. "Let's see, where was I. Oh yeah ---"
“When we got to Missouri n’ not far from Will’s folks' home, night was overtakin' us. We stopped by an ol' gentleman’s house along the way. It turned out to be Jim Bridger. I heard about him when I was a kid. They named a fort after him, not far from here. He was in poor health with arthritis, rheumatis', n’ a few other ailments, but he still welcomed our company since he was living all alone. He’d been widowed three times n’ had five kids, he told us, all of ‘em back east gettin' educated. Jim laughed at how smart they’d all be, seein' as he couldn't read, or write. As anxious as Will was to get home, we were enjoyin' the company of ole Jim so much that we ended up stayin' there a couple of days. The horses really needed a rest n’ the company was welcomed by all of us, especially Jim.
“Now that was a man who could spin a yarn or two,” a smile came to Jess’ lips as he remembered the old explorer, Indian-fighter, and trailblazer. “He told us about all kinds of fantastic things he saw over the years. Told us about fightin' the Indians n’ later livin' with ‘em. He married a Flathead woman n’ had three children with her. When she passed away he married a Shoshone chief's daughter, but she died shortly after in childbirth. Then he married another Shoshone n’ had two more kids with her. He said the Indian people were so impressed with him that he’d been made chief by five different tribes. Listenin’ to his experiences with the Indians, I reckon I have a new way of lookin' at what the Indians had to do to try n’ survive since the white man came to their land. I understand so much more, now. I sure wish things coulda been different. Too much damage already done to think to repair it, I reckon. I see how unfairly the Indians’d been treated. No wonder they hate us so much.
“My favorite story was about Jim bein' followed by a hundred Indians n’ found himself cornered in a boxed canyon. I guess we were pretty eager when we asked him what happened n’ to our surprise he said "they kilt me" n’ he laughed n’ laughed. Then we knew he was funnin' with us. After that we didn't know which of his stories to believe anymore.
“A short time after leavin' Jim's place we reached Will's folk's home. His folks were so happy to see him. They wanted me to stay on, too, n’ after meetin' Will's sister, Emma, I was almost tempted. She was real pretty n’ right smart, but I needed to find what was left of my family. I stayed a few days to rest my horse n’ get some good eatin'. That was the hard part of leavin'. Will's Ma was a real good cook,” Jess smiled.
“Then it was time to set out to find Francie and hopin' she was still in Texas. It was a long, lonely ride without Will to keep me company. Traveler was my only friend,” the young man said, and once again sadness crossed his face. “I took any job I could find n’ found my skill with a gun was somethin’ I could sell. There were so many range wars goin' on n’ they were always lookin' for a fast gun with a sure shot who could wrangle cattle. I tried to stay out of those battles, but it’s pretty hard not to take sides with the boss you’re workin' for n’ ‘specially if ya think he’s right. I reckon a lot of right n’ wrong back then just depended on who you were workin' for.
“I never stayed in one place for long. I wanted to get back to Texas n’ see Francie. With all the hard ridin’ n’ workin' fences n’ wranglin' my hands were turnin' either raw with sores or getting’ callous. I remembered my gloves; the ones they made me throw away when I joined up with the army. I remembered how much easier my life was with them. It was like they cut a part of my soul from me when they made me throw them away. In some ways it was good, I reckon. My hands toughened up again over all the years without them, but I missed the feel my hands had without the rough calluses. I searched for a perfect pair n’ finally found a pair just east of the Texas border. A little
practice n’ limberin' of the leather n’ I got my soul back,” satisfaction spread across the young man’s face as he looked down at his hands, now resting in his lap.
“When I got back to the panhandle I looked for the Brady farm. I also had the Banister brothers on my mind. Somehow, even after all the years between, comin’ back home brought the memories of the fire n’ all the pain. It was all fresh in my mind again. I had some settlin' up to do with them. But Francie was at the top of my mind. I missed her so much. She was really the only kin I had left worth keepin', n’ I was determined to find her.
“I found the Brady farm, but the Brady's weren’t livin’ there any more. A young couple were tendin' the farm, now. They were kind n’ allowed me to bunk there before settin’ off in the morning to try n’ find Francie.
“As I laid in my bunk I started to work out how I was gonna get Banister. In the mornin’ I said my goodbyes to the Harris'. I thanked them, again, n’ left disappointed that I hadn’t found Francie.
“Banister haunted my thoughts n’ the need for revenge burned inside of me again, it became my obsession, I reckon,” Jess’ eyes had a distant look in them that pulled at Daisy’s heart.
“I rode to town n’ asked questions about Francie n’ if anyone knew where she might be. No one seemed to know anything. I also asked about Banister n’ found out he’d been raidin’ during n’ after the war n’ was on the run from the law. That was gonna make it hard to track him down. He’d be tryin’ real hard to cover his tracks, but I went lookin’ for him, just the same. I heard about some possible sightin’s. It appeared he was headin’ north, rather than south to Mexico. It puzzled me, but I was willin’ to travel to the ends of the earth to find him. He was gonna pay for what he did to me, n’ my family,” the bitterness in the young man’s voice almost terrified the older woman. She’d never see so much hate expressed by the young man sitting beside her.
“I reckon I’d been askin' too many questions or somethin'. Someone musta been feelin' uneasy n’ wanted me gone. The next thing I knew there is a wanted poster out on me for a robbery. After all this time, it couldn't be the bank holdup with Jim n’ his gang before the war. There hadda be a mistake. I knew I better make myself real scarce n’ real fast out of Texas, so I started headin' north hopin' to find Banister's trail.
“I reckon I wasn't movin' fast enough. A small posse caught up with me. I didn't fight back when they rode down on me. I knew there was a big mistake n’ I figured I’d get it fixed so I gave myself up. One of the men in the posse shouted to the others that he recognized me from a wanted dead or alive poster, too. He was sure I was the bandito who killed the sheriff down El Paso way. He convinced the others that I wasn't worth takin' to town. He got ‘em all riled up that I was a murderer n’ what if I got away n’ murder all their families. He said that if I was wanted dead or alive, why should they have to take any more chances n’ let me get away.
“All of a sudden they weren't in the mood for a trial, just a hangin'. Next thing I knew my hands were tied behind my back n’ there I was on my horse with a noose around my neck. Someone shot off a gun n’ my horse spooked out from under me. I felt a sharp tug n’ I wasn’t able to breathe, but I was aware I was still alive. Things were startin’ to go black when I felt myself hit the ground n’ someone was loosenin' the rope from around my neck. I was able to breathe again n’ air never tasted so sweet. I tried to thank the man who was removin' the rope, but couldn't talk. My throat felt like it was collapsed. It was raw n’ dry on the inside n’ burnin’ on the outside. I reckon I was lucky that the posse didn't have much experience in hangin' folks. If the noose had been placed right it would’ve broken my neck n’ the stranger would’ve been too late to save me. Again, I reckon, it wasn't my time to die. Another close call but I was still here. Been better, but been worse, too,” Jess uttered as he slowly shook his head at the memory.
“The stranger stood over me arguing with the posse when another posse rode up. The stranger told the new bunch what had happened n’ was tryin' to talk the others into takin' me to town for real justice. Luckily the town sheriff was with the new posse n’ he agreed with the stranger. If that man hadn't come along n’ cut me down when he did, I wouldn't be here to tell ya any of this. I never got a good look at him. I was a bit out of my head n’ I never learned his name. The sheriff n’ his men put me back on my horse n’ took me to town n’ the stranger rode off without anyone noticin’. I never got to thank him.
“They took me back to town n’ put me in a small cell at the jail. The sheriff was kind enough to get the town doc to check me over. The doc reckoned I'd live to see my trial n’ that I’d be able to talk by the time the judge came to town.
“It took over three weeks for the circuit judge to come to town n’ I learned I sure don't care much for spendin' any time in jail. Three weeks with nothin' to do can drive a man crazy. When my throat healed enough that I could talk, there wasn’t no one to talk to except the deputy, n’ he wasn't around much. N’ when he was, he didn't cotton to talkin' to no prisoners. Then there was the occasional drunk, who usually didn't have much to say, just there to spend the night n’ sleep it off before bein' released in the mornin'. If they got sick in their cell, it laid there till mornin'. It took a strong stomach to sleep in those conditions, much less think about eatin' anything.
“When the day of my trial came, they’d caught up with the gang that did the robbery n’ they cleared me of all charges n’ I was free to go. I got out of that town as fast as I could, before they changed their minds. My neck still wasn't completely healed from the rope burn; I sure didn't want to give ‘em another chance. That old man who swore I was wanted dead or alive in El Paso might be out lookin' for me if he thought he could kill me for a bounty. The sheriff went through his drawer of posters but never found anything else on me except the robbery one that proved to be a mistake, so he had to let me go.
“I set out headin' north, again. I wanted to lay as much land between me n’ that town before someone else thought the wanted poster was worth collectin' on. It sure is amazin' how long those things hang around to haunt ya. I've hadda explain myself more than once over the years. Good thing I had a letter proven' my innocence for that robbery. I hade show it a number of times to get me outta trouble. Anyway, I reckon it was some kind of justice spendin' time in jail for a robbery I didn't do, seein' as I never got caught for the one I was involved in with Jim n’ his gang.”
“I signed on to a cattle drive goin' to Missouri. I was glad to be workin' n’ movin' in the direction I wanted to be goin'. I had pocket money, food n’ coffee always right on time, n’ the best part, a well-behaved herd of cattle to drive. We made good time n’ had good weather the whole drive n‘ it wasn't long before we were in Missouri.
“We settled the herd just south of Will's place. I took my pay n’ headed straight out to see Will. I rode to his folk’s farm but it was real late when I got there. I put Traveler up in the barn n’ bedded myself down in an empty stall for the night. It didn't feel right to wake them up so late. They were up real early n’ Will's Pa found me sleepin' in the barn. He was surprised to see me but he let me sleep while he did his mornin' chores before breakfast. He woke me up when he was called for breakfast.
“Mrs. Tibbs n’ Will's sister, Emma, were surprised n’ happy to see me. Mrs. Tibbs made more bacon n’ eggs for me to join the family for a most welcome meal. Trail food just don't measure up to good home cookin' n’ Will's Ma was a real good cook
“I missed Will n’ asked where he was. His Pa told me that Will had found himself a wife n’ got himself a homestead in Colorado. I couldn't believe that so much had happened since I’d left to go to Texas n’ come back. Mr. Tibbs said he was seriously thinkin' about movin' to Colorado too. He said he was tired of puttin' up with all the twisters there in Missouri. I reckon I didn’t blame ‘em one bit.
“After breakfast I helped out with some of the chores. Emma was gonna do some laundry, so I helped carry water buckets for her. I never forgot how pretty she was, but I swear she was more beautiful than when I left. I told her a little about my trip to n’ from Texas, but left out a lot about what I figured I shouldn't tell any of ‘em about. I did tell her that I never found my sister n’ had no leads to finding her.
“I’d hoped comin' back to the farm that Will's offer to be a partner was still open. She smiled n’ said that she thought he’d love to have me helpin' him with the farm in Colorado. She said she missed him terribly. He’d just come home from the war n’ was gone again, but at least, under happier circumstances this time. She said she hoped her Pa was serious about movin' out to Colorado. She told me that Will’d written how beautiful the mountains were n’ that it was good, unspoiled land. She really wanted to see the family all together again.
“Mr. Tibbs asked me if I wanted to ride to town with him for supplies or if I'd rather stay n’ help with the laundry. I said no n’ hurried to the buckboard to ride with him so we could talk. He told me all about the homestead that Will had n’ the home he’d built n’ about some land close by that he wanted to see his folks come settle on. I told Mr. Tibbs that I really wanted to see Will n’ asked if he could give me directions. He said when we got back to the house he’d draw me up a simple map.
“I stayed a few more days before settin’ out to find Will. It figured into my plans since I’d heard word of the Banister brothers bein' seen in Colorado. Maybe my luck was gonna change.
“We all said our goodbyes n’ Emma gave me a hug to take to Will. Mrs. Tibbs brought out a full sack to take with me. I rode out with enough food to keep me goin' for days, so I didn’t need to spend much time lookin' for work before gettin' to Colorado. Oh, I spent a day here n’ there to earn some food n’ a bed for the night by helpin' with brandin’ calves, or wranglin' some steers. I even learned how to shear sheep,” Jess smiled, leaning in closer to Daisy to whisper, “but I wouldn't admit that to anyone but you.
“On one of the ranches I found a pair of chaps would keep me warm on colder days n’ keep the thorny brush from leavin' my legs bloody from deep scratches. Wished I had ‘em sooner, them mesquite bushes down south were always tearin’ at m legs. They became an important part of my gear. With movin' north and weather gettin' colder, they were a real good investment.
“Once in Colorado I wasted no time findin' Will's farm. His Pa gave me good directions, never got lost, not even once, n’ the country was as beautiful as Emma said it was in Will's letter. I thought about her seein’ all this for the first time n’ I wished I could be the one to show it to her.
“I rode into Will's yard n’ a pretty lady was out in the garden pickin' vegetables. When she turned to see who was ridin' in, I could see Will wasn't wastin' any time in startin' that family he wanted. She waved as she came walkin' over to where I stopped my horse.
“I introduced myself n’ she said she was so pleased to meet me. She said Will talked about me all the time. She told me her name was Ann. I asked where Will was n’ she said he was in town pickin' up some supplies n’ lumber but he’d be back shortly. She asked if I wanted some coffee, n’ well, you know me, I never turn down a cup of coffee, so I said, sure. I helped her carry her vegetables into the house n’ she put on the coffee pot then took the vegetables from me n’ put them in a bowl. She set out two cups n’ told me to sit down that the coffee’d be done in no time. We had a long talk over a few cups of coffee. She told me about some trouble one of the land barons, Blake Wilkey was givin' Will n’ all the other small farmers in the area. He wanted all the land left open range. He hated the fences that the farmers were buildin', it was ruinin' his plans. If he couldn't own all the land, he wanted full use of it as open range. The farmers were gettin' in his way n’ he was lettin' ‘em know it.
“I was anxious to see Will n’ asked how he’d be comin' back to the farm. She said there was only one road to town n’ he’d be comin' back on it. I decided to ride out n’ meet him. I wanted to talk to him more about the problems he was havin' with this Wilkey, but I wanted to talk to him alone. I thanked Ann for the coffee n’ told her I’d be back with Will.
“I mounted Traveler n’ headed toward town. I was only out about fifteen minutes when I saw a wagon comin' in my direction. It was Will. I rode into some cover n’ hid from the comin' wagon. When it reached me I rode out as the wagon passed me n’ said howdy to Will. He pulled back hard on the reins n’ jumped off the wagon almost before the horses came to a full stop. He recognized my voice n’ was so happy to see me n’ had so many questions. I tied my horse to the back of the wagon n’ we rode back to the farm together. I told Will about everything that happened in Texas. He laughed and shook his head n’ said how if I'm not lookin' for trouble, trouble sure comes lookin' for me. I laughed n’ told him, yeah, sometimes I even run with scissors, n’ he reminded me how dangerous that can be n’ that I should stick to just playin' with my gun.
“I noticed Will was wearin' a gun now. I wondered if it had anything to do with Wilkey. As we came up on the farm he started to tell me about Wilkey n’ some of the trouble he’d been creatin' for the small farmers in the area. I told him that maybe it was a good thing I decided to stop by since I’d been involved in a few of the range wars, already. I think, now, Will was glad that I could handle a gun, but he said that he wanted everything settled peacefully, if possible. I told him most people do, but sometimes things just don't happen that way. He had to agree with me, but said it could be a bigger problem than just Wilkey. Blake Wilkey pretty much owned the town, includin' the law. Yeah, that could complicate things.
“I helped Will unload the wagon n’ Ann made us more coffee while she prepared supper. We all sat down to drink our coffee n’ talked a little longer till dinner was done. Durin' supper, Will told me about his dream of turnin' his farm into a ranch someday.
“Ann asked how long I could stay n’ I told her I wasn’t goin' anywhere in a hurry, though, if I heard anything about the Banisters, I couldn’t promise ‘em I woulda stayed. I didn’t tell them that, though. Ann said good, then you can stay with us. I thanked her n’ said I didn't want to impose, but Will insisted. They had plenty of room since they built the house plannin' to have a large family.
“While Will n’ I went out to do the evenin' chores, Ann set up one of the bedrooms for me to stay in. Will told me about all his plans, again n’ how he could still use a partner if I was interested. He said I could stay at the house until I found where I might wanna build my house to start my own family. I laughed at the thought of me havin' a family. How hard had I fought tryin' not to be a sodbuster n’ here I was seriously thinkin' about settlin' down to do some farmin'. Of course, ownin' your own farm is a lot different than sharecroppin'.
“Will asked if I remembered Emma. I said yeah, that I found it hard to forget her. I told him I stopped at his folks place first n’ it was his Pa who told me that he’d moved n’ how to find him. Will said he’d told Emma all about me n’ what a good friend I was after the war n’ comin’ back home. He said he thought it sure would be fine if I became his brother-in-law. That kinda startled me, but it also gave me a warm feelin'. Maybe I finally found somethin’ to settle my restless, driftin' ways. We talked a little more about Emma n’ Will hinted that she seemed a little sweet on me. I reckon I blushed or somethin' cause Will asked me if I was okay. I told him to rein it all in. All this was comin' too fast at me. I wasn't sure whether I was ready to make all these commitments. But I have to admit it all sounded pretty temptin',” Jess said, a faraway look was in his eye as he recalled what may have been a turning point in his life.
“Will told me about his folk's plans to sell out n’ move to Willow n’ that Emma would be comin' with ‘em. He’d found ‘em a good stake n’ it was just a matter of time n’ they’d all be back together again. I told Will that his Pa had told me all about it n’ how anxious he was to get away from the twisters. I was quite taken with the idea of havin' Emma close by n’ givin’ more thought to Will's matchmakin'. I could do a lot worse.
“The next mornin' I woke to the sound of horses ridin' into the farmyard. I grabbed my gun expectin' trouble after everythin’ Will’d told me. I got dressed n’ came out of the bedroom to see Ann had set out a huge breakfast. The riders were neighbors who’d ridden in to help with a barn raisin'. Will apologized for not tellin' me about the barn raisin' but he was so surprised to see me it slipped his mind. The wood I’d helped him unload the day before was for buildin' that barn. When Ann reminded him about the neighbors comin' in the mornin' I’d already gone to bed n’ Will hoped I’d be up before they all arrived n’ he didn't want to wake me just to tell me about the barn raisin'. But they arrived earlier than he expected.
“We went out to meet with the men. Ann brought out cups n’ served coffee to everyone. One of the men introduced himself n’ asked how I was n’ if I planned to stay awhile. I told him that I wasn't real sure but givin' it some thought. Will introduced me around as we finished our coffee. On the road we heard more horses comin', it was the women folk n’ children comin' in buckboards n’ wagons bringin' prepared food.
The men were ready to work all day on raisin' the barn n’ the women folk were set to keep us fed all day n’ in plenty of coffee. We had a wonderful lunch at noon then continued on with the barn buildin’ until the sun was gettin' low in the sky. Food was set out again n we all had a fine evenin'. I got to know so many fine people, all the more to think on for about settlin' down.
“I started givin' thought to what Will said about bein' his brother-in-law. The idea thrilled me but it scared me to death, too. Who knew what could happen if I settled in n’ Wills family moved nearby.
“The ladies cleared things up while the men passed around a jug. Many of the kids that chased chickens n’ each other all day were tuckered out n’ sound asleep in the back of wagons already. At dusk the women said their goodbyes, all huggin' each other n’ then headed for home. Ann passed around more coffee n’ it was dark when the men folk finally left. Some said that they’d be back in the mornin' to help with finishin' off the barn. It was almost all up. A couple more hours n’ the heavy work would be done.
“When we went into the house, Will asked me again if I thought about bein’ his partner in his farm n’ future ranch. I wouldn't need to put any money into the place; I could work my way into the partnership. I thanked him again, and told him that I was givin' it serious thought, but I needed a little more thinkin' time.
“The next mornin' we were up n’ fed before the men rode in. We spent till noon workin' on the barn n’ it was almost finished on the outside. Me n’ Will could finish the inside ourselves. Ann fed us all a fine meal n’ said how nice the barn looked. After we finished eatin' we could tell the neighbor men weren’t in any hurry to go back home n’ fall back into the routine of doin' their daily chores. We thanked them for all their help n’ offered to be at there for them if they needed our help.
“Will n’ me worked on the inside of the barn for the rest of the day, wantin’ to get the animals out of the lean-to n’ into somethin’ more solid. Then we had some work to do on the lean-to to sturdy it up for shelter for when the stock was out in the pasture.
“The days passed quickly n’ there was plenty of work to do. There were fences to build n’ crops to plant. We went to some of the farms n’ bought a few more head of cattle. Will was serious about buildin' into a ranch someday, and it sure looked like it would be sooner than later.”
Leaning over, Jess put his hand on Daisy’s forehead and smiled, pleased to find that she felt cool to his touch. Reaching for the cloth in the washbowl, he wrung it out and wiped her face before continuing his narrative.
“It was a little over a month when I was workin' in the barn that a stranger rode in,” Jess said, as he replaced the washcloth back in the basin. “Will n’ Ann were in town n’ I was all alone. I came out of the barn to greet the stranger n’ didn't know it, but found myself face to face with Blake Wilkey. He asked who I was n’ I told him n’ that's when he told me his name. I felt a little uneasy from everythin’ I’d heard about him. I wasn't wearin' my gun, a mistake I wouldn't make again, if I survived this encounter. I could see it in his eyes; he was a dangerous man. I’d seen that look many times n’ none of those times ever ended up without someone gettin' hurt or dead.
“I didn't like the way he was lookin' over the barn n’ the cattle ‘n horses grazin' out in the pasture. His eyes were empty like there was no soul behind ‘em. I saw evil in his grin as he looked over the house n’ the rest of the spread.
“He asked if I was stayin' n’ I told him, maybe. I think that was when I made up my mind I was stayin'. I feared for Will n’ his family. I met too many men like Wilkey before n’ I knew he was big trouble. With no one to stand up to him he’d have his way with these gentle people n’ I wasn't gonna let that happen. To get what he wanted, he wouldn’t give a second thought to killin' someone. If ya got in his way, ya didn't stand a chance. He said to tell Will that he stopped by to see if Will was willin’ to take his offer. Offer? I didn't know anything about any offer, but I told Wilkey that I didn't think Will was interested. As he turned to ride away he said, if I were you, Mister, I’d move on. You don't want to get into any of this. I asked him into what? He wheeled his horse around n’ said that I could be bitin’ off more than I could chew. I told him that he had no idea who he was dealin' with n’ that my teeth were sharp n’ my chewin’ was good. He laughed n’ said, ‘Sodbuster, do ya really think ya can stand up to me?’ I told him yeah n’ all by myself. He told me I’d been warned n’ he rode out.
“When Will n’ Ann got back, I helped them unload the wagon. I didn't want to upset Ann so I told Will I had to show him somethin’ in the barn n’ needed his advise in how to fix it. He followed me to the barn n’ I told him about Wilkey's visit. I asked about the offer. Will said it was just an offer Wilkey made n’ that it didn't mean nothin'. Just Wilkey's way, Will said.
“He asked if the visit from Wilkey was why I was wearin' my gun. I told him, yeah; n’ that I was expectin' trouble n’ didn't want to be caught empty handed, again. Will begged me to not be the one to start any trouble. He said Wilkey had a lot of guns on his side n’ the farmers had families n’ couldn't afford to take a stand against him. I promised I wouldn't be the one to make the first move, but I was gonna be ready when trouble started.
“I asked Will if the offer to be his partner was still open. He was a little hesitant but finally took my hand n’ shook on it sayin' welcome partner. He reminded me that I was a sodbuster now, not a gunfighter. I agreed with him but knew in my heart, I wasn't ready to lay down my gun, not yet.
“We went in the house to eat n’ Will told Ann that I was officially his partner n’ that I was stayin' on. Ann was so happy that she hugged Will then hugged me.
“The next time we went to town, Will had a letter waitin' for him n’ there was one for me, too. Will's letter was from his Pa tellin' him that they’d sold their farm n’ were packin' up to move out to Willow. My letter was from Emma. I was a bit embarrassed but also pleased that she thought enough to send me a letter to tell me how excited she was about the move n’ seein' her brother n’ sister-in-law n’ me. She said she hoped that she’d be there in time for the baby's arrival.
“Another month or so went by n’ while we were out buildin' a new pasture fence we saw a covered wagon headin' down the road in our direction. We stopped to watch as they got closer n’ we waved as it was the custom with travelin' settlers, but this wagon turned n’ came toward us n’ up the lane to the farm. Will dropped his tools n’ ran toward the wagon whoopin' n’ hollerin'. It was his folks. They finally made the trip n’ were here. I couldn't wait to see Emma. Me n’ Will jumped on our horses n’ rode to meet them n’ lead them to Will's house. Ann came runnin' out the door, all excited to see her in-laws. Her pregnancy was really showin' n’ Mrs. Tibbs couldn't wait to touch that baby bulge, her first grandchild.
“Hugs n’ well wishes were shared n’ the stories of their journey were swapped over coffee. Mr. Tibbs was anxious to see the parcel of land that Will had told him about n’ couldn't wait till mornin' so Will n’ his Pa rode out to see the homestead. I stayed back with the women folk, not knowing' when to expect Wilkey n’ I didn't want them left by themselves. Emma n’ I let the married ladies to talk while I took her for a walk to show her around the farm and future ranch.
“I couldn't take my eyes off her. Her bright green eyes n’ soft auburn hair thrilled me. Her smell excited me. I’d never felt quite this way before. I got to thinking' that Will mighta made a match, after all. Time would tell. We really needed to get to know each other better. I felt that it was only fair that she’d know about my past, things her brother didn't even know about me, before she thought anythin’ serious about me. I didn't want to be a disappointment to her. But there was time later for that kinda talk. I sure didn't want to scare her off before she got to know me.
“It was almost dark when Will n’ his Pa got back. Emma n’ me were sittin' on the porch talkin' about all of Will's plans for the future ranch. I offered to take care of the horses for ‘em so they could get back to their family. Both were mighty appreciative n’ they handed me the reins n’ I walked the horses to the barn to unsaddle ‘em n’ give ‘em a good rub down before feedin' ‘em. As usual, I was talkin' to the horses as I worked on ‘em. I heard a giggle behind me; it was Emma. She’d followed me into the barn n’ asked me if I always talked to the horses. I told her yeah, n’ told her that they talked back to me, too. I told her that ya just hadda listen. I told her that I’ve always been more comfortable around horses than around most folks. Horses always let you know where you stood. People were good at pretendin' to be somethin’ else n’ treat ya like they liked ya, then turn n’ shoot ya in the back when ya weren't lookin'.
“When I finished with the horses Emma n’ I went inside n’ joined the family. Will gave me a wink. I tried hard not to notice, but I know it brought a smile to my face. He was pretty proud of himself for playin' matchmaker.
“We all had some coffee n’ freshly baked cake. Since it was late we all decided that it was time to turn in. There weren't enough beds to go around, so I offered my bed to Emma, alone of course. I was gonna bed down in the barn. Will's folks said no, that the wagon was good enough for one more night. In the mornin' they’d get a room in town while they started to work on buildin' their house, once the land grant was issued.
“In the mornin' we put the covered wagon in the barn, n’ Will took his folks to town in the buckboard to settle ‘em into the hotel.
“It didn't take long before the parcel was theirs. It was about two miles away from where Will built his house, but was on adjoinin' land. This would help when we were ready to go from sodbustin' to ranchin', havin’ a larger parcel of land to work with. We’d all be partners when the two farms became a ranch.
“Things moved pretty fast over the next few months. We helped build the Tibbs’ house n’ put up a few fences for some livestock. We built a small lean-to for shelter for the animals n’ a barn would be somethin’ to look to in the future.
“The next week Ann went into labor. I rode for the midwife while Will tended to her needs. I stopped by the hotel to tell the Tibbs' about the baby comin'. They were out the door before I left to ride on to find the midwife. The midwife n’ I got back to the farm in plenty of time n’ Ann presented Will with a fine baby boy. He had his mother's bright red hair n’ his father’s good husky bones. He’d grow up to be quite a man, someday. Mrs. Tibbs was so proud of her new grandson, I didn't think she’d ever give him up to anyone else to hold,” Jess smiled with pleasure at the sweet memory.
“The midwife musta spread the word in town about the baby bein' born. One afternoon Wilkey came ridin' in. I sure didn't like the looks of him n’ his men. His smile wasn’t real when he congratulated Will on becomin' a father n’ how proud he was of his own sons. He hoped Will would be as lucky as he’d been to raise up a son to be proud of. I heard the threat in his words. Wilkey then asked Will if he’d thought about his offer. Will said he had, n’ no he was gonna stay on his land. The smile came off Wilkey's face n’ he looked Will in the eye n’ told him that now that he had a family he better look out for what was best for them.
“I stood ready with my gun. Wilkey eyed me n’ said he was surprised to see me after the advice he’d given me. I told him I liked it here n’ aimed to stay. Wilkey turned back to look at Will n’ said that he heard Will had a new neighbor. Will didn't respond. Wilkey then said, ‘I hear their name is the same as yours, Tibbs.’ Will took a step forward n’ told Wilkey to leave ‘em alone. None of this land was his n’ it wasn’t any of his business who was livin' on it.
“I saw one of Wilkey's men moved\ his hand to the butt of his iron. So did I. Wilkey didn’t seem to notice n’ said he’d see in his own time who belonged where, n’ he turned his horse purposely bumpin' into Will. The other men turned to follow Wilkey n’ the one who I’d been watchin' turned n’ tipped his hat to me. I reckon he was watchin' me, too.
“Will took it pretty bad. Not only was he bein' threatened by Wilkey but now his whole family was. He was feelin' bad about puttin' his folks into the battle, too. If they’d stayed in Missouri they woulda been safe.
“That night I took Will aside in the barn. I told him that we’d better be ready for trouble. Those men that were with Wilkey weren’t ordinary cowpunchers. They were gunmen n’ the kind who worked for the one who could pay the most money. I knew their kind; I rode with some like ‘em in the past. We needed to get all the neighborin' farmers together n’ put together a plan how to handle what we were up against with Wilkey.
“Wilkey was determined to have open range no matter what it took n’ I saw that things could get real ugly. Innocent people, women n’ even children could be killed. We had to do somethin’.
“We decided to call a meetin’ of all the farmers in about a thirty mile area. The church hall in town said we could meet there, so we sent out word about a seven o'clock meetin' the next night. After the meetin' we could have a few drinks at the saloon before headin' home.
“The night of the meetin' came n’ Will n’ me stood at the church hall door to greet the farmers as they arrived. Mrs. Tibbs was inside servin' coffee as the gentlemen found their seats. Everyone was in good spirits n’ things looked promisin'. The meetin' was called to order n’ Will stood up n’ told everyone why the meetin' was called n’ that he knew they’d all been havin' to deal with threats from WIlkey. We needed to unite in some kind of organization to stand up against Wilkey so a peaceful life could be lived by us all.
“We discussed the problems, the threats, the actual things that had been done to the farmers, most likely by Wilkey or one of his men.
In most cases, it was just tearin’ down of fencin’ or burnin’ newly planted crops. There were threats made against family members, but they were made to sound more like friendly concern, but they were definite threats.
“We all agreed to meet in two weeks after we had time to think about what we could do as an organization to protect our farms n’ families.
“Most of us wandered over to the saloon once the meetin' broke up. Naturally some of the talk about the meetin' spilled over to the saloon n’ with a few drinks some people got loud n’ some got kinda cocky. Some of Wilkey's men were there, I'm sure, cause it didn't take long ‘fore Wilkey heard about what was goin' on. It was pretty clear that Will was the ringleader of the group, so we expected most of Wilkey's wrath would fall on Will's shoulders. I expected trouble, but a week went by n’ things were just too quiet.
“Will's folks were nearly finished buildin' their house. Will n’ me spent a lot of time helpin' with the buildin' only takin' care of chores at home that were really necessary. When the weather was good Ann would bring young Will with us to visit with his grandparents n’ Aunt Emma.
“Emma doted on young Will. I could see she’d be a wonderful mother someday. Emma n’ me spent a lot of time together while we were building her home. She often drifted over to help me with what I was workin' on. When she wasn't around, I missed her,” the young cowboy shyly smiled, remembering the time he’d spent with Emma.
“Finally the day came when the house was sound enough for the family to move in. Men n’ Will brought the covered wagon out of the barn n’ headed to the Tibbs' farm to help them move their belongin’s in that they’d brought with ‘em from Missouri. They were so happy to not haveta return to their small room back in town n’ have a place to let Mrs. Tibbs get back to her own good cookin'. They finally felt that they were home.
“Young Will had had a bad night, so Ann stayed home to care for him n’ do some of the chores there n’ sent us men to help get Will’s family settled into their new house.
“Mrs. Tibbs n’ Emma prepared a wonderful meal to celebrate their first meal in their new home. Will's Pa wanted us to stay n’ pass around the jug, but Will wanted to get home to his wife n’ son. I was pretty tired, myself, so I was glad to be headed home n’ gettin’ to bed early.
“When we got back to the farm I took care of the horses, while Will checked on the other stock. I could tell he was as tired as me n’ I was sure happy to hear him say let's call it a day. Ann made coffee n’ had some hot cherry pie waitin' for us. We talked about the next meetin' in town that was comin' up n’ how puzzled we were that Wilkey was bein' so quiet. We were hopin' that he saw the farmers in the area were willin' to take a stand n’ maybe he was gonna back off. Somehow, I knew that couldn’t be. Wilkey wasn’t the kind to back off, but I sure was hopin’.
“I spent a lot of evenin’s with Emma since they’d settled into their new home. She was a fine lady n’ I really thought this might be what I’d been lookin' for. We went for walks together n’ rode to visit with neighbors n’ in time people started to talk about us as bein' a perfect couple. She coulda done better, but I know I was doin' more than better.
“Since the barn was done, we settled into catchin' up with our own chores n’ not spendin' as much time at Will's folks place, durin' the day. Some nights I was just too tired to ride over to see Emma. I hoped she understood.
“Will n’ me rode to town for the next meetin' a few days later. We met with a whole different crowd. These men were all riled up, almost all of ‘em had been visited n’ harassed by Wilkey or his men. No wonder things were so quiet for us, Wilkey was workin' on the others to try n’ break up the organization. One of the men stood up n’ started to blame Will for all of their troubles. He pointed out how Will had taken in a hired gun to fight Wilkey n’ now they were all drawn into the fight. They said that they couldn't afford to hire more men to fight Wilkey n’ Wilkey had a lot of men who knew how to use a gun. I don’t know how any of ‘em knew anything about me, maybe one of WIlkey’s men recognized me n’ was spreadin’ rumors. I don’t know, but I saw that we had trouble brewin’ in our midst.
“Will tried to calm the crowd n’ tell ‘em that I wasn’t a hired gun. I was just his partner in the farm n’ we had no intentions of startin' a war. He admitted that I’d had a past, but that was behind me. He also assured them that I was a good man to have on their side if Wilkey took a more aggressive stand against us.
“So, now the town folk n’ small farmers knew about me. Wilkey must have done his job well in findin' out about me n’ spreadin' the word. I’d hoped to leave my past behind me, but there it was again to slap me in the face. The stories that went around that I heard about, some were true, some just plain lies’ n’ some of the stories a bit of the truth but made out to make me into a dangerous man to have around. I reckon that most of the men workin' for Wilkey mighta known about me by reputation. I didn’t recognize any of them. I was goin' to be his new weapon to turn the farmers against Will n’ his farm organization. I was hired by Will to start a war against Wilkey; that’s what Wilkey’s men were spreadin'.
“The stories kept buildin' n’ I saw people who’d been friendly with me, welcomed me to Willow, were now avoidin' me or actin' very cold when they ran into me. I reckon most of my life I’d had this type of reaction. I’d hoped things would be different in Willow, but there was my past, back again to haunt me n’ people not knowin' what to believe n’ what tales about me were true, found it easier to believe them all n’ stay clear of me.
“The neighbors had promised to help the new Tibbs family raise a barn once they were settled in their house. At least they kept their promise. We rode out for the barn raisin' pretty much the same as the one they had for Will, but things were very different. Will was the only one willin' to work with me. I told Will that maybe it was time for me to move on, it appeared that I was creatin' him more trouble than bein' any help. Will insisted that they’d get over it. If we kept things peaceful like they’d see the stories about me were wrong n’ they’d come around. I sure wanted to believe him.
“At noon we gathered for lunch n’ I was left by myself. The men had gathered into various groups but only Will n’ his family would have anything to do with me. Emma asked me if we could go for a walk. I was pleased that she wasn't listenin' to all those horrible stories about me. We walked far away from the crowd n’ she stopped n’ turned n’ asked if the stories she heard about me were true. I put my hand on her arm n’ she pulled away. I was a bit shocked n’ my heart sank. I needed to know what things she’d heard. Yeah, we had to talk. The men had all gone back to work, but right now I felt it was more important to get things straight with Emma. We walked down to the river n’ sat down along the bank.
I asked her about what stories she heard. I listened then I told her the truth. Some of them were true, some were total lies n’ some of ‘em were twisted to make me look like I was a bad person. I could see she was havin' a bad time thinkin' it. She wasn't sure what to believe. I tried to tell her I’d changed but I couldn't change my past. She stood up n’ said she hoped I changed but said she also knew that old habits were hard to break. She started to walk back toward the barn buildin'. I caught up with her but she wouldn't let me touch her. I knew my past had just ruined my chance of winnin' her over n’ ever think of havin' her as my wife. Even if we got over this bump, I think just knowin' about my past n’ not knowin’ what to believe would never leave her memory. It would always stand between us.
“I went back to workin' on the barn. We worked until it was time for supper n’ finished up for the day. Most of us decided to come back in the mornin' to finish up. I had a cup of coffee n’ wandered over to saddle up my horse. Will followed me n’ wanted to know where I was goin'. I told him I didn't want to spoil the party so I was gonna get back to the farm and take care of the chores. I told him to stay as late as he wanted, that I’d have all the stock taken care of. All he’d have to do when he got back was to tend to his horse n’ get to bed for a good sleep n’ be ready for more barn buildin' in the mornin'.
“I got on my horse n’ rode out headin' for home n’ takin’ some time for hard thinkin'.
“After breakfast the next mornin’, Will n’ me headed out to his folk's farm to help with the barn raisin'. Ann decided the baby could use some fresh air n’ since we wouldn't be gone all day, she wanted to come, too. Will unsaddled his horse n’ hitched up the buckboard. I rode my horse along side them. Not knowin' how welcome I might be, I wanted to be sure I could leave when I wanted, or needed to.
“Most of the men that were there the day before were there again. Some were already workin' since we were a little late because bringin' the buckboard slowed us down some.
“We helped Ann n’ young Will down from the wagon n’ Ann took the baby into the house, welcomed at the door by the glowin' grandmother. Will n’ me went right to work. It mighta been warm out this mornin' but I wished I’d had on my winter jacket. The chill in the air could be cut with a knife. I reckon I was the topic of conversation at the dinner last night after the work was done n’ I’d left.
“Noon came n’ Ann n’ Will's Ma set out some food n’ called us all up to the house to get somethin’ to eat. We hardly got started eatin' when several riders came into the yard. It was Wilkey n’ eight gunfighters. This time I recognized some of 'em, I’d worked with ‘em. I knew we had trouble.
“Wilkey was wearin’ his phony smile n’ was lookin' around the farm. He tipped his hat to the ladies then looked directly at Will. He said that things were lookin' down right nice for his folks. It sure would be a shame if lightnin' or somethin' should happen to destroy that nice new barn or house. I’d had enough n’ stepped forward next to Will. I asked Wilkey what that was supposed to mean. Who did he think he was? God? Could he call down thunder n’ lightnin' at his command?
“I saw two of his gunmen make a move toward their guns. I drew n’ pointed mine directly at Wilkey. Wilkey laughed n’ looked around him n’ asked me how I was gonna take them all out. I told him I was only worried about taken' out one, him, so he’d better call off his dogs if he wanted to ride out upright in his saddle. Wilkey turned to his men n’ told ‘em to relax then turned back to me n’ told me to holster my gun. He said he didn't want no trouble. He wanted me to know, though, that I better walk softly n’ better watch my back. He said he thought that I should go to town n’ order my coffin since I was gonna need it soon.
“Will stepped closer to me. He told Wilkey that he knew enough about the law that he could have Wilkey arrested for trespass if he continued to lean on the farmers. He wasn’t welcome on any of their land. Wilkey said, ‘there is a bit of a discrepancy on who owns this land. I believe it is you who are the trespassers.’
“Wilkey told Will to do what he had to do, but he didn’t think that Harper was anywhere near enough to go up against him n’ his men. I said that I was a start n’ that I’d be real particular when I picked my target n’ that I saw a big bull’s-eye painted on his chest. He said I’d better watch my step n’ told Will to keep a tight rein on me or the whole range could become a battlefield n’ Harper wasn’t enough to put a stop to it. He nodded to his men n’ they turned their horses away to leave. Wilkey tipped his hat to the ladies again n’ nodded at Will n’ me then turned his horse away to follow his men. When they were past the gate I holstered my gun n’ I knew that I’d just confirmed all the stories goin' around about me, both the true ones as well as the lies. My actions didn't surprise any of ‘em. I did exactly what was expected. I drew on a man who wasn’t holdin' a gun.
“We finished eatin' n’ most of the men left n’ didn't even say goodbye to Will or any of his family. There I was, pullin' Will n’ his family into my past,” Jess sadly examined his hands, and then wiped the dampness that had formed on them on to his jeans.
“It seemed like it was time to leave, but I couldn't leave now that the lines had been drawn. I felt so alone. Wilkey wanted to see me dead n’ those that I wanted to protect didn't want me there to protect them. They probably felt they’d be better off if I were dead.
“Mr. Tibbs asked Will n’ me to stay n’ talk for a while. We talked over coffee about tryin' to keep things peaceful n’ use the law to stop the whole thing from becomin' a range war, before folks get hurt or killed. Will looked at me n’ asked if I understood. I told him I did n’ besides I didn't like the odds for a range war. I was way over my head n’ out numbered by Wilkey's men. He showed us eight gunmen. I woulda bet he had at least twice that if not more that we didn't know about yet.
“I saw that I ‘d lost Emma. When we were gettin' ready to leave she didn't even say goodbye, she just went into the house. It was unusual for her not to hug Will, Ann n’ me n’ to gush over the baby. I think she believed all the stories she’d heard about me. She’d seen my temper n’ saw me draw my gun. I couldn't just let Wilkey scare these people. As usual, I reckon I over-reacted. I’d try to do things Will's way. Besides, Will’s way, I had a better chance of stayin' alive, even if it was without Emma.
“We headed back to the farm n’ the mood was a little lighter. I knew I hadn't lost Will's friendship n’ Ann didn't seem to feel any differently about me. We all talked openly on the ride back to the farm. I agreed n’ promised, again, to try n’ do things Will's way.
“We figured the farm organization probably wasn’t gonna work. If another meetin' was called we figured no one would show up but us. It looked like Wilkey was successful at breakin' up any unity we were able to build. He had them all runnin' scared.
“When we got back to the farm, the place was in shambles. The fences were all downed n’ the cattle were gone. The workhorses were far out beyond the pasture n’ the vegetable garden had been trampled by horses.
“Someone had been in the house n’ smashed furniture n’ broke all the dishes. A small fire had been set but it went out before it caught so little was destroyed by the blaze. It had been set in the baby's bed n’ the bed was destroyed with all the beddin’. Who ever it was to start that fire was a very sick person. We knew who’d been there n’ left the message, there was no doubt in our minds. After promisin’ Will that I wouldn’t go after Wilkey, I got on my horse n’ rode to town to bring back the sheriff. Will stayed behind to calm Ann n’ help clean things up a little; we’d worry about the stock in the mornin'.
“When I got to town the deputy was on duty n’ I told him I needed to talk to the sheriff. The deputy told me that he was on duty now n’ tell him what I wanted. I had no choice so I told him about the events of the day with Wilkey n’ what we found when we got home.
“He asked if I was Harper. I said, yeah. He told me that a complaint had already been filed with him against me for threatenin' the life of Blake Wilkey. I told him about the odds in which that threat was made, but as he put it, a threat was a threat. I was invited to spend the night in jail till the sheriff came back in the mornin' to sort things out.
“When I didn't make it home overnight, Will was in town in the mornin’ n’ at the jail before the sheriff came in. He went over all the same stuff with the deputy that I’d told him the night before n’ he got the same answer, we had to wait for the sheriff to get there to sort things out.
“Will went across the street to the cafe n’ got me some breakfast n’ some coffee for all of us. I was done eatin' by the time the sheriff showed up. We went over what had happened again with the sheriff n’ his response was only about the complaint against me. Will then asked about filin' a complaint against Wilkey for trespassin' n’ messin’ up his house. The sheriff said sure he could take a complaint, but when the time came he wanted to know what proof we had that Wilkey was the one who vandalized the farm. He said Wilkey had plenty of witnesses on his complaint against me. The sheriff said by rights he could hold me, but had no grounds to arrest Wilkey. Since both were just complaints n’ no one was harmed he was gonna let me go back home with just a warnin'. He warned Will to keep me handy in case things changed about the complaint. Will asked if he was gonna come out n’ look at the damage. The sheriff said no, just fill out the report n’ list everything that happened.
“I asked if I could see the complaint that Wilkey filed against me. The sheriff let me read it. I haveta say, it was pretty accurate, but I hoped that if it went to trial at any point that the circumstances would account for my actions.
Me n’ Will went to the cafe to grab an early lunch n’ talk over how we were gonna handle our newest problems. By the time we finished eatin' the saloon was opened n’ we thought a couple of drinks before headin' home would sit just about right. We walked in n’ up to the bar. Will greeted some of the neighbors, but no one responded. Those at the bar moved to tables leavin' me n’ Will alone at the bar. We could see that lines were bein' drawn n’ we weren’t on the right side of any of ‘em.
“Ridin' back to the farm, I told Will that it might be best if I left. I figured he might be able to get the farmers
back on his side to back him in usin' the
law to fight Wilkey. He didn't say anything. I reckon he was givin' it some thought.
"Jess", Daisy said. "Could I have a little more water please?"
"Sure, Daisy. Anything you want. Sleepy yet?” Jess brought his wandering thoughts back from memories he’d thought he had so deeply buried.
"No, I can't wait to hear what brought you to the ranch. I bet it wasn't to open a store in Sherman", she smiled as she sipped at the water.
Jess noticed that her eyes had more sparkle in them. He hoped it was a good sign. The few coughs she’d had while he was telling his tale were minor n’ productive. He said a silent prayer for her as she sipped more water.
When she pushed the glass away, Jess put it back on the table and sat back in the chair, "Oh, we are gettin' real close to me ridin’ into Laramie that first day. Do ya want me to go right to it, or do ya wanna hear more about the farm?"
"Oh, no, don't leave anything out, Jess. I’ve never felt so close to you. I wish my son and I could have had this kind of talk. Please, go on."
Jess sat back in the chair again thinking about those last days at the farm and continued, “We rode in silence for a while, then Will turned his horse off the road toward the lake. He got off his horse n’ started skippin' stones across the water. I sat on my horse n’ watched for a few minutes. I dismounted n’ walked over to Will. I told him that I needed to know what he was thinkin’. I didn't wanna be the reason for him losin' his farm or his dream. He told me, no, it wasn't me or me bein' his partner. He was worried about his wife n’ son n’ that he was confused about what to do. He surely didn't want me to leave but he also wanted to be sure his family was safe n’ happy. He reckoned if things could be peacefully settled, the folks would get to know me as well as he did n’ I’d be welcome once again. We agreed to give it a little more time.
“We rode toward the farm discussing' how we’d take care of things by lettin' the law settle it. We knew we were in the right, but we also knew about Wilkey's standin' in the town as well as with the other big ranchers. They all wanted the range to be kept open. No fences n’ no sodbusters. It was us small farmers that were standin' in their way. We could see some of the farmers were already defeated n’ would rather move on than take a stand against Wilkey.
“When we got back to the farm I took the horses to the barn while Will went in the house to talk to Ann. When I finished beddin' down the horses I went to the house n’ wasn't sure if I really wanted to go in. I felt like I was causing' Will’s family so much trouble due to the friendship they showed for me. I opened the door slowly n’ Ann was just comin' out of the kitchen puttin' food on the table. She asked if I was all right. I reckon she could tell I was havin' difficulty dealin' with everythin’ goin' on. Durin' our meal we talked about how we were gonna go up against Wilkey. We decided to let him make the next move, then we’d take what legal action we could against him.
“Earlier, while we were gone, Ann got the house back in order. Furniture was sparse before, but even more so now. I could see we’d need to do some furniture buildin', startin' with a new crib for young Will.
“We were gonna have to be vigilant n’ aware of everything goin' on n’ watch for anyone comin' near the farm. We had to be ready for anything.
“In the mornin' Will n’ me went out lookin' for the missin' cattle. We found them. They’d joined a herd of range cattle, all wearin' Wilkey's brand. If we tried to cut out our cattle n’ were caught, Wilkey would be sure to try n’ press charges on us for cattle rustlin’. It was best if we’d try to get the sheriff to come out n’ help us reclaim our cattle.
“Will rode to town to get the sheriff to come out n’ help us. I stayed back at the farm, mostly to be there to protect Ann n’ the baby, but to also repair some of the fences for when the cattle came back home.
“Will came back with a couple of deputies n’ we all rode out to where the cattle were grazin'. A lot of good those deputies did us. How were we gonna prove they were our cattle? They were branded but Will didn’t have his own brand yet. The brands they were wearin' were from their previous owners. We needed more proof. Those cows n’ steers were out there with WIlkey's cattle n’ Wilkey could say he just bought ‘em n’ hadn't put his brand on ‘em yet. With the right threats, the farmers that sold us the cattle would say whatever WIlkey told them to say.
“Later Will went back to town with all his bills of sale to swear out a complaint n’ identify his cattle, but as we’d already guessed, those cattle were lost to us. Wilkey had bills of sale from those same people. Will wasn't gonna let it go there so he swore out a complaint n’ insisted on an arrest. Those cattle were driven from our farm to join up with Wilkey's cattle. He rode home n’ told me what had happened.
“It was hard for me to remember my promise to Will. I wanted to make Wilkey tell the sheriff the truth, even if I had to beat it out of him. But I took a deep breath or two, n’ agreed with Will that we needed to start takin' action against Wilkey to show him we weren’t gonna back down.
“Wilkey was arrested n’ spent the night in jail. I reckon that didn’t sit well with him. He was released the next day on bail, n’ was told to not leave the area. We were surprised to find out he was out of jail already n’ even more surprised he didn't pay us a visit. We waited up real late that night, but things were quiet n’ we decided to turn in n’ get some sleep. We had a lot more work to catch up on after the vandalism.
“We weren't asleep long when I woke up to a loud noise. I grabbed my gun n’ looked out the window. I couldn't see anything from my window, but it was a lot brighter out there than it should’ve been. I rushed out from my room after pullin' on my jeans n’ boots n’ yelled for Will.
“From the kitchen window we could see the barn was on fire. Luckily there was no stock in it, but there was a lot of important tools n’ equipment in that barn.
“We ran out grabbin buckets n’ dippin' ‘em in the water trough n’ throwin' it on the fire. It was all too familiar, too many memories of a fire long ago. Three men came ridin' by n’ were firin' on us. I fired back n’ wounded two of ‘em n’ they fell from their horses. The third one got away. When we checked on the wounded men we recognized them as two of the men who were with Wilkey when he threatened Will n’ his neighbors. It looked like we had the proof we needed to use against Wilkey. We wondered if the third man was Wilkey. We wish we knew n’ of course, the two men we held for the sheriff wouldn't talk. What made things worse was, they were on a first name basis with the sheriff when he came to take them away. I could see more trouble growin'.
“By the time it went to trial, Wilkey was claimin' we were the trespassers n’ that he n’ he alone had the rights to the range. He claimed all the farmers were buildin' n’ trespassin' on his land. None of the other big ranchers were there to dispute his claims. They were gonna let Wilkey do all the work for ‘em in drivin’ out the farmers.
“We’d been told that Wilkey owned the town n’ the law n’ then we could believe it. The whole trial was a travesty. The jury was only out for an hour n’ came back. They agreed that the land belonged to Wilkey n’ all the farmers were trespassin'. The only way they could stay was to pay rent to Wilkey n’ abide by his rules. If they weren't willin' they were given two weeks to get off Wilkey's land. That was what the law had determined. Judge n’ jury were bought n’ paid for n’ probably paid well by Wilkey. So much for obeyin’ n’ countin’ on the law for justice.
“We were run off the homestead unless we wanted to bow to Wilkey. I knew I couldn't do that n’ if I stuck around I’d find myself way over my head in trouble. My pockets were almost full of trouble already. I sure didn’t need any more. Will n’ his family n’ folks decided to go back to Missouri. It was hard to say goodbye to Will n’ to his dreams. I reckon they’d become my dreams, too. But they were all gone. Shattered like glass. I couldn't go back with him; I felt I’d made things difficult enough for him n’ his family. N’ I could tell, Emma hated me now. It was best for me to set out on the drift again.
“At least Will n’ I parted friends.
“Nothin' is permanent,” Jess sighed. “I resolved to never let myself get involved in anything or havin' dreams of bein' any more than a drifter. A drifter with an obsession to find the Banister brothers n’ settle up what I owed them. That was all I had left.
“Ya know, Daisy, pain comes from carin' n’ I'd already had too much pain in my life. Brushes with the law n’ that experience with the law in Willow taught me that you couldn't even count on the law bein’ fair or just. The only one I could count on was myself. I was gonna stand for me n’ what I thought was right. I seen enough wrong n’ injustice in the world.
“A war that never should’ve happened. So many people had to die, n’ for what? N’ later good people were run off land that was rightly theirs. Trust would be hard for me to ever find again. If ya can't trust in the law, that sure leaves ya very little left to trust in. N’ Emma,” he sighed again, “I just reckon I ain't the kind of man any woman would want once they find out about my past. N’ lyin' about it sure wouldn't work. Those ghosts just keep poppin' up to show the world who I am or was.
“I set out for Denver to see if I could find out anything about Banister. Almost everything I found was old n’ not new enough to try n’ trail after him. He was seen goin' north, he was seen goin' south. They heard he went to California. No one knew anything worth followin' up on. I decided to wait until I heard somethin’ that sounded real.
“Denver was quite the city. I decided to stay around for a while n’ play some poker. I hadn’t played for a long time, since the war, mostly, n’ I was doin' pretty good n’ didn't need to go out wranglin' or beggin' for any kind of job. I was able to pay my way just with the winnin's' from playin' the game.
“I met a fella, Pete Morgan. He was pretty good at handlin' cards n’ showed me what to watch for if someone was tryin' to cheat ya. He taught me some pretty neat card tricks, too. We started playin' cards real regular n’ I reckon I let my guard down, right after I resolved not to put any trust in anyone ever again. We found if we shared a room we could save on half our bill. So for a week or so we shared a room together. We only needed it for sleepin', the rest of the time we were at the saloon playin' cards n’ drinkin' up some of our winnin’s'.
“One night I won over a hundred dollars. That was the biggest pot either of us won, yet. We had money to spend on more than our room n’ meals n’ stake our next game. We got us a bottle n’ had a night of drinkin' to our success.
“I woke the next mornin’ with a terrible headache. I knew it was more than just a hangover. When I felt my head, the back was covered with dried blood. Morgan was gone n’ so was my money. I made it to the door n’ called for help. Someone sent for the doctor to check me out. I’d been clubbed while sleepin' n’ I had a fractured skull.
“Once I was able to ride again, I set out to find Morgan n’ get my money back. I hoped I might even cross Banister's trail in my search for Morgan.
“The barkeep said he saw Morgan headin' north when he rode out of town, so that was the direction I set out in. I stopped from town to town n’ finally got a lead that he had been seen in Laramie so I headed for Laramie.
“When I rode into Laramie, it looked deserted. All of a sudden lead was flyin' in my direction. It wasn't a warm welcome, so I high-tailed it out that town. Had I known then that they already had Morgan in the jail I might’ve tried to stop n’ talk, but I didn't, n’ that lead was comin' too close for comfort, so I wasn’t gonna stick around. They gave me the impression I wasn’t welcome.
“I rode hard for quite a distance n’ finally came upon a nice stream. I was sure I wasn't followed from town, so I decided what I really needed was a nap. I lead Traveler to get himself a good drink then tied him to a handy sign that said, Sherman Ranch, No Trespassin’. I went back to the stream n’ got myself a drink n’ washed off some of the trail dust then settled down to take a nap in the peace n’ quiet. I found a comfy log to lay back against; it was gonna be a nice rest. I probably should’ve tied my horse somewhere else so I could lie to the fact that I never saw the sign, but who expected anyone to come along in the short time I planned on bein' there.
“That was when I met Slim Sherman. Again, not a warm welcome. This Wyomin' territory seemed real unfriendly. I hoped that it wasn't in the water I’d just drank. I sure didn't cotton to havin' a gun pointed at me. I was already in a bad mood n’ things kinda went downhill from there. The big gal lute took my gun from me n’ told me to get on my horse n’ get out. Well, I wasn't about to leave without my gun, so I mounted my horse n’ then grabbed the rifle from Sherman n/ kindly asked for my gun back n’ then for his gun. I rode to where his horse was standin' n’ dropped his weapons for him n’ went on my way.
“From there, I reckon you know the rest. I found a family, my family, n’ a home. I reckon I found that Wyomin' was a pretty decent place to settle down, at least for a while. Bein' part of a family was missin' from my life for so long, I reckon that I never really missed it, but I found it’s one of the most important things in life.
"And Daisy, I’m so glad you’re part of my family. You just better plan on stayin' around n’ keep on takin' care of us all. Ya know how much we all love ya, don't ya?”
Daisy smiled and squeezed his hand. "Yes, Jess, I think I do, and I love you all, too. Thank you, Jess. Now I feel I know all of my sons," Daisy said with a wide smile and a twinkle shining in her both of her eyes.
"That's quite a story, Jess," Slim said from behind him, leaning against the doorframe, the expression on his face was unreadable.
Startled, Jess turned to look at Slim and went flush. He was left speechless. When he found his tongue he said, "Slim, how long have ya been standin' there?"
"Oh, from about the time you greased your holster. I couldn't sleep so I thought I’d look in on Daisy. How ya feelin' Daisy?"
Daisy smiled and whispered, "Much better, thanks, Slim."
"Ummmm, how about some coffee, huh, Slim?" Jess quickly tried to change the subject.
"Yeah, Jess, we gotta talk," Slim said with his arms folded across his chest and wearing a frown, trying real hard not to crack a smile
Jess gave Slim a hanged-dog look not knowing what to expect. Slim could no longer hold his frown and broke out in a broad smile, "I always heard that still waters run deep, but you, you Pard, you are bottomless. How on earth did you fit all that into your short life?" the taller man asked as he clasped his big hand on the shorter man’s shoulder.
"Reckon I didn't sleep, much.” Jess responded with a shrug and a smile. “I think Daisy could use some sleep now. I reckon I kept her awake long enough.” Jess said as he leaned down and gave her a kiss on the cheek and she gave him a brilliant smile in return. Slim, then, leaned down and gave Daisy a kiss on the forehead, "Hmmm," Slim remarked, "seems kinda cool. I hope that means that the fever broke."
"Slim, did you make coffee? I don't smell any," Jess said as they left Daisy's room, closing the door gently behind them.
"Nope, I kinda got caught up in quite a story," Slim said as he slapped the Texan on the back. Jess walked to the kitchen to prepare his beloved coffee and Slim followed along after him, "Hey, Jess?"
Jess turned to face Slim, "Yeah, Pard?"
Slim presented his hand to Jess to shake hands. "My name is Slim Sherman. Happy to finally get know you, Mr. Harper."
"Thanks, Slim." They laughed while shaking hands. "I reckon I can spin a pretty good yarn," Jess said with a big grin. Jess turned and reached for the now heated coffee pot and walked with it to the table. “Maybe I should tell you the real story sometime," he quipped as he passed the taller man.
Slim was left in the kitchen area with a puzzled look on his face. He turned to follow Jess to the table with his index finger raised in the air, the bewildered look remaining on his face. Jess poured them each a cup of coffee as they sat down. "What's the matter, Slim?” Jess asked with a smile.
"Never mind, I don't want to know," Slim said as he picked up his cup of coffee and took a sip while he continued to stare skeptically at Jess, trying hard to hide the questioning look on his face.
‘What?” Jess asked with a grin that spread to his blue eyes, as he took a sip from his own cup.