Just One More Thing
Thanksgiving Challenge, 2013
Mary B., Trailboss 11/17/13
Slim Sherman woke with the dawn - the November sun barely shining through the shutters of the ranch house bedroom. He stretched, gently pulling the covers over his bare shoulders, and in a rare opportunity of self -indulgence, he closed his eyes, hoping to grab a few more moments of sleep. Today, was Thanksgiving - a day he'd been looking forward to for weeks - a day when he and Jess would do a minimum of ranch work. A day they'd spend relaxing and enjoying Daisy's amazing cooking - a day to count his many blessings - a day to share with his extended family. He was looking forward to the quiet of this very special day.
Memories of his childhood danced across his mind, encouraged by the warming spices of the day - cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves - apple pie and pumpkin pie. - all mixing together, wafting their way through the house and into his mind, encouraging memories of his mother and Jonesy cooking a holiday meal. He smiled and drifted deeper into the comfort of his childhood.
A sudden crash from the kitchen brought his morning reverie to a screaming halt. He jumped, sitting straight up in bed, his heart pounding. Automatically he surveyed the room. The bed across the room was empty - made up, waiting an occupant. He wondered when or if his brother and old Jonesy would return to the ranch. He missed them both - the chaos of Andy, the wisdom of old Jonesy. The bunk next to him was occupied by his best friend and partner Jess Harper.
Jess stirred, his eyes flashing open. "What the heck . . ."
"Daisy," Slim reassured. "Just Daisy, Pard. It's OK!"
"What's she doing?" he asked blurry eyed.
"Cooking for Thanksgiving."
"Ugggh, that's right." He paused, trying to clear the cobwebs from his mind. "We gotta work today, Slim?"
"Just gotta feed the stock - other than that we're gonna take today off - just relax and enjoy the day."
Jess, propped his head up, supported by a crooked arm. "Really? You serious, Pard?"
"Yup. Dead serious. We have one stage today - should be in late this morning. Other than that . . . ." He let his voice trail off.
Jess flopped his head back on the pillow, his eyes studying the ceiling. "A day off - just to relax."
Slim heard scrabbling from Jess’s side of the room. Surprised, he opened his eyes to see his usually late-sleeping partner sitting in his long johns, idly scratching his ribs with one hand and reaching for his socks with the other.
“Figured you would pull the covers over your head and sleep while you can,” Slim told Jess, tucking his own arms under his head and not making any effort to match Jess’s actions.
“Nah, I’m awake now. I’ll get Mike to gather the eggs and feed and water the chickens. I’ll milk and then clean out the stalls.”
Slim dug his finger in his ear and wiggled it around, “Did I hear right? You’re offering to muck out the barn? You okay, Pard? Maybe I better get Daisy to check if you’ve got a fever!”
“Very funny! You’re just a laugh a minute, Sherman! From the rattlin’ sounds comin’ outta the kitchen, Daisy will be wantin’ us to fetch and carry real soon, and I aim to do full justice to that meal she’s been plannin’ for the last week. She ain’t likely to be interested in fixin’ us any decent sized breakfast and I’m a growin’ boy.” Jess favored Slim with one of his rare toothy grins, white teeth flashing against his tanned skin. “Gotta keep up my strength, ya know! So the quicker I get my chores done, the quicker we chow down on that turkey you shot. My mouth is already waterin’ at the thought of it!”
He quickly scraped the dark whiskers from his chin and patting his face dry, threw the towel beside the wash basin. Jess sauntered out of the bedroom, tucking in his shirt tail before pulling the door closed behind him, “When you do decide to get up, all you’ll have left is fetchin’ a fresh team for the mornin’ stage. Just one more thing to be thankful for, Pard!”
Slim settled down to go back to sleep; it was a rare occasion when he allowed himself the luxury of sleeping in past dawn, but the murmur of voices and occasional clank of pans and skillets kept intruding on his intentions. Finally he threw back the covers and swung his legs over the side of the bunk. After running his hands back and forth through his sun-bleached hair and cracking his jaw with a huge yawn, he reached for the jeans at the end of the bed and muttered, ‘Old habits die hard, might as well get up! If all I have to do is bring up the horses, I can laze away the rest of the day. Maybe a nap after lunch. . . .’
True to his word, Jess had the milk bucket sitting on the outside bench, covered with a clean dish towel, waiting for the cream to rise. Whipped cream was definitely on his agenda to provide the finishing touch for that line of pumpkin pies cooling on the kitchen table. Mike had taken care of the chickens and a basket of fresh eggs already sat beside the milk. Slim headed out the kitchen door, munching a piece of buttered toast slathered with raspberry jam, his cup of coffee steaming in the chilly sunshine.
Slim couldn’t resist teasing, “Think ya missed some apples over there, Quickdraw. Better order you some specs next time you’re in town. I don’t want to have to stand here waitin’ to inspect every corner just ‘cause your eyesight is failin’.”
“Sure, and if you don’t get on out to the pasture and leave me in peace, I’ll see if I can’t get Daisy to make your Thanksgiving pie outta them kind o’ apples!” Jess swiftly hurled his insult back, as Slim walked over and handed him the empty coffee cup.
“Take that on into the house for me, will ya? I’ve got more important things to do.” Slim laughed and quickly scooted out of the barn while Jess threatened him with the pitchfork he still held.
Whistling tunelessly, Slim lifted the wire that held the pasture gate shut, and walked through, building a loop in his lariat as he went. The relay horses were used to this routine and would readily follow for the treats Jess or Mike, or Slim, always had to entice them back to the home corral. He surveyed the surrounding pastureland; good graze even though frost had turned the lush grass from green to brown. It crackled under his boots as he climbed toward the shadows of the horses working their way slowly down from behind the trees scattered across the hill. Slim stopped and gazed from left to right, his eyes sweeping across the familiar land, ‘Yes sir! The finest cattle country in Wyoming!’ he sighed with satisfaction before adding, ‘Horses, too! Somethin’ else to be thankful for!’
He picked up his pace, anticipating a big, delicious meal with a long nap afterwards to digest all that extra food. The outline of the covered wagon sitting at the top of the slope slowly penetrated Slim’s good mood and caused him to peer closely at the figures he could see moving around. He counted out loud, “Two, three, four, five, six children and a man. Wonder what they’re doin’ up there, road’s off to the east. There’s no water for their animals, but looks like they’d come on down here and ask if they needed somethin’.”
Shrugging, he decided to keep an eye on the wagon and continued up the hill to collect a matched team to replace the winded horses that would even now be pulling the heavy Overland Mail coach from Laramie. Slim began to hear shrill voices and at first thought the sounds were coming from the wagon, but then he swiveled around to see a small figure running straight toward him, legs pumping furiously, arms clutched around a basket held close to his body. Strung out behind the lad were Mike Williams and Jess Harper, both yelling at the top of their lungs.
“Stop him, Slim! Stop him! Don’t let him get away!” Slim sorted out Mike’s demands over Jess’s baritone, “Little thief! Grab him, Slim!”
Slim lunged with both hands, catching the back of the child’s jacket and jerking him off his feet. The basket went tumbling down the hillside toward Mike, knocking him head over heels and tossing him into Jess. Jess grabbed Mike and held him tightly as they both rolled over in a tangle of arms and legs and flying hats. One of the hats belonged to the little boy Slim was holding at arm’s length as he flailed away with fists and feet trying to make the tall cowboy release him.
The three gawked as the youngster crumpled to the ground. He leaned back on his hands and stared defiantly at the trio. “Bet’cha done gone and ruined all them eggs, now nobody will get any use of ‘em ‘cept the ants and turkey buzzards,” he declared disgustedly in a high-pitched nasal whine.
The Relay Station hands were gazing in amazement at the apparition that had seemingly dropped from the sky. To Mike and Jess, the child had magically appeared out of nowhere; neither of them had yet seen the wagon perched beside the Cheyenne road.
“Floyd Percival O’Malley, Jr.! Young man, get yerself up here this minute! And I don’t mean maybe! You was told to keep an eye on yore sisters and not move a foot beyond the shadow of that there wagon!” The bellow came from the man descending toward the little tableau frozen in shock at the events unfolding around them. The boy scuttled sideways and scrambled up the steep incline on his hands and knees, making sure to keep beyond the reach of the gaunt scarecrow of a man glowering down at him.
“Misters. . . boy, I sincerely apologize for the actions of that rapscallion son o’ ourn. He has indeed been better taught than he acts most days. Purely a trial to his Ma and me, most days. . . most days!” The tall cadaverous man sorrowfully shook his head, holding a tattered hat in his hands, twisting it nervously. “Ya see, his Ma has done took sick,” The man leaned conspiratorially toward Slim before continuing, “She’s in the family way, but I don’t hold with recitin’ that detail in front o’ youngsters, ya understand! Just ain’t fittin’. . . ain’t fittin’!”
Slim was the first to recover his voice, “Ahh, Mister. . .I. . .I’m Slim Sherman, this is Jess Harper and the boy is Mike Williams. This is the Sherman Ranch you’re on, and I’m not sure just what your boy has done, but maybe we can get it sorted out real quick. There doesn’t seem to be any great harm done. Is there, Jess?” Slim was furiously signaling his partner with his eyes, at a loss as to why both Mike and Jess continued to glare after the youngster who had stopped above them to listen.
Jess took his eyes off the boy to glance at Slim. He shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot, wiped his hand across his mouth and then seeming to come to a decision, hooked his thumbs through the gunbelt slung low around his trim hips. He replied to Slim’s questions, both spoken and unspoken. “In the overall picture, I guess what he did don’t amount to much, but I sure don’t take kindly to being stole from, be it man or boy!”
Emphasizing each word, Slim asked pointedly, “What exactly did he do?”
Mike burst out, “He stole our milk and the eggs I gathered this mornin’ and when I saw him, I tried to stop him and he threw the whole bucketful of milk that Jess had coolin’ at the kitchen door at me! And he took off runnin’ up the hill with the basket of eggs and now I’m covered with milk and eggs and I bet sure as sunrise Aunt Daisy makes me take another bath before I can come to the table to eat!” All of this was uttered without Mike taking a breath, in outraged tones, the purest of the venom directed at the thought of having to endure a second bath when he had gotten one just the night before.
Slim was staring at the men and boys gathered near him on the hillside, debating exactly what he should say or do, when an ear-piercing scream came from the vicinity of the covered wagon. They all swung to look upwards, as a second shriek sounded, “Floydddd, I need youuuuu!”
Floyd bobbed his head and jammed on his battered hat, “’Scuse me fellahs, Sarah Dory is callin’. . .is callin’. I jest knowed her time was near. . .was near! Pickle, you come on with me. We’ll sort this all out after the birthin’, Mister Sherman!” He gathered up his son and took off in a shambling run toward the wagon as another wail began. Other voices took up the cry as all the children gathered around the tailgate.
Slim looked from the wagon to Jess and Mike and back again. His lazy day seemed to be hurtling away at twice the speed of the fastest horse they owned. Pushing his Stetson back with his thumb framed his face in a halo fashioned from the brim of his hat. “Mike, let’s. . . .” The rest of Slim’s sentence was drowned in the fusillade of shots echoing from the surrounding hills.
The first to react was Jess; he swiftly drew his revolver, flung himself on top of Mike and hunkered down in the tall grass, hissing behind him, “Slim, ya big galoot, flatten out before somebody does it for ya’!”
Their attention was diverted yet again by the sound of the dinner triangle being struck repeatedly by Daisy, peering anxiously around the barnyard looking for her boys. Her cry, “Help! Jess! Slim! Help! Mike! I need youuuuu!” resounded as loudly as the continuing gunfire.
Mike was pinned under Jess but there was no way he was going to miss all the excitement. Heck, Slim, Jess or Aunt Daisy were always, but always, sending him off to his room or to do some kind of chores or to go to bed just when things started to get interesting, but not this time! He was stuck in the middle of the field with his guardians, but they were stuck with no cover to hide behind and sure no way to send him off to safety. And, by golly, he was gonna see what was going on!
Mike pulled himself forward until he could part the tall grass in front of him, but still couldn’t see. He pushed at the stiff and soggy mess that was his hair until he got his eyes free enough to stare down into the little valley. He saw Buttons run out of the open kitchen door toward the barn; at almost the same time Aunt Daisy picked up her skirts in both hands and rushed inside through that same kitchen door, slamming it behind her. Puzzled, Mike wondered what Buttons had in his mouth, he had a hard time carrying whatever it was and was almost running sideways as he darted through the half open barn door.
Movement in front of the cabin caught his attention and Mike squinted his eyes to make out the figure crouched in the shadows beside the porch, a horse tied up at the front hitch rail.
“Ain’t Mort. . .” Mike started to say.
“Isn’t, Mike,” interrupted Slim, automatically correcting his ward’s command of the English language.
Slim had slithered on his belly until he was beside Jess, his gun cocked and ready for any target that presented itself, but gunfire was all he heard. He found himself watching the horses for their reactions. They had stopped their descent of the hill, but had not run away. They milled around nervously, ears pricked toward the valley below, but not exactly looking at the road.
Jess was dividing his time watching over his shoulder at the row of little heads tucked under the Conestoga, keeping Mike securely under him and peering down the Laramie road. The house and trees blocked his view from this angle and he could not see further than the bend at the edge of the pasture fence.
After several seconds, Jess realized Slim had not finished his sentence, so he risked a quick glance and asked, “Isn’t Mike what?”
Slim didn’t answer, just continued to stare at the horses and down toward the highway.
“Slim, did you hear me?”
“Huh? Don’t guess I did. What’dya say?”
“Isn’t Mike what?”
It was Slim’s turn to risk a glance toward his partner, “Jess, what does that mean? That don’t make sense!”
“You said ‘isn’t Mike’. I asked ya ‘what’?”
Distracted by the horses turning to run back up the hill, Slim repeated, “Isn’t Mike what?”
“That’s what I said! I asked ya what ya meant!” Jess was getting annoyed at his friend’s lack of attention. If Slim had something to say about Mike, he needed to spit it out so they could both concentrate on the danger that was threatening them. Shots had become more sporadic, but Jess could feel the ground trembling under him, so something big was approaching the Sherman spread rapidly and loudly.
“Slim! Jess! Ain’t Mort. . . Sheriff Cory. . . down there in front of the house. I’m almost sure that’s Blackjack tied up at the rail!” Mike tugged at Slim’s shirtsleeve and pointed down the hill.
Thanksgiving Day is moving right along at the Sherman Ranch and Relay Station. . . must be nigh on nine o'clock in the morning by now! Wonder what time Daisy has planned to serve lunch?
Both Slim and Jess stared hard at the figure shrouded in the thick shadows cast by the oak tree beside the front porch. Was it Mort Cory? His gun would sure be welcome to defend Daisy since they were trapped high in the meadow; but if it wasn’t, one of them needed to get down there on the double to protect their housekeeper. As if sensing their eyes on him, the man stood up and waved, then lifted his hat in a salute and the Sherman hands breathed a collective sigh of relief that it was indeed the Laramie sheriff. Jess waved and flattened himself back down.
The ranchers returned to their vigil, glad to have support from another position as the rumbling grew louder and the ground vibrated under them. Slim lifted himself out of the tall grass. “Jess, there’s a boy ridin’ flat out headin’ into the yard! Can you see him?”
“No, too many tree limbs in the way! Anybody chasin’ him? Do we need to lay down some coverin’ fire?”
There was no time for an answer. The slight figure was crouched low over his mount’s neck, and lost his hat as the horse reared when pulled to a sliding stop at the pasture gate. Long dark hair tumbled down whipping in the breeze as the rider flung himself, or maybe herself, at the gate and pushed it wide open. She stepped back, keeping the gate in front of her as the rumbling sound multiplied.
Horses. Black, brown, buckskin, sorrel, grey, bay and roan, Appaloosa and paint all came thundering around the corner of the ranch house and surged through the pasture gate, encouraged by the waving arms and loud whoops of the slender girl standing beside the opening. The cayuses were urged along, too, by the gunfire still sounding occasionally from the cowboys following them.
“Well, I’ll be dad-gummed! Slim, is that who I think it is?” Jess slowly rose to his feet, and pulled Mike up with him. He reached down to slip his hand under Slim’s elbow, helping him to stand as well, and then punched his partner on the shoulder. Hard.
“Ouch! What was that for?” Slim demanded, rubbing his arm, “I don’t know any more about all this than you do!”
“I think it’s the Belden brothers and that’s Ellen who came ridin’ in like her britches were on fire! They’ve brought the horses we were supposed to pick up for the Army next month. Now, why in the Sam Hill they’d come in shootin’ is beyond me, but I’m mighty thankful it’s not outlaws or Indians.”
A huge smile lit up Slim’s face, “Jess, I think you’re right, that’s Joe, and Luke is over there shakin’ hands with Mort! Come on, let’s get down there and find out what’s goin’ on!”
Lifting Mike off his feet, Slim slung him over his shoulder as they rushed down the hill. The few mustangs between them and the pasture fence scattered when Jess swept off his hat and waved it in their faces.
“They took off like Beelzebub himself was after them!” Joe Belden was explaining to Sheriff Cory when Slim and Jess got within hearing distance. “Why, if it hadn’t been for these two young fellers comin' along, that string of broomtails would be halfway to Cheyenne by now!”
“Boys, you don’t know how we appreciate you pitchin’ in to help turn that herd of ponies. My name is Joe Belden and this is my brother Luke.” He reached up to shake hands with each of the young men still sitting astride their mounts. “I mean no insult by callin’ ya ‘boys’, you both did a man-sized job just now, and I’m sure Luke more than agrees with me! Right, Luke?”
“Amen, Brother! We thought to save Slim Sherman and Jess Harper, here, several days on the trail, but we sure got more than we bargained for when that cougar dropped down on our lead mare. She screamed, we pulled iron and when the rest of the string heard the shots, they all took off for th’ hills!” Luke reached up to shake hands with the cowboys, asking, “What’s your names, boys? I feel like I know ya well even on such brief acquaintance.”
Slowly, the young man on the stocky roan replied, “Muh name’s John Sanford, Mr. Belden. Ah‘m glad Ah could help ya’all out. ‘Specially since Ah was headin’ here to the Relay Station anyways.” He grinned, “Just made the trip a mite faster than Ah thought to!”
He tipped his hat toward the group gathered around his horse, “Howdy, Slim, Jess, Mike. . .you too, Sheriff! Ah decided to take Miss Daisy up on her invitation for Thanksgiving dinner, but Ah didn’t mean ta git here s’early! Hope ya don’t mind!”
Jess and Slim glanced at each other; this was the first either of them had heard of Daisy inviting a guest for Thanksgiving.
Slim offered John his hand and pumped it vigorously, “John, you know you’re welcome any time! And especially since you and your friend here seem to have saved our bacon-or horses, in this case. Step down, and let Mike take your horse over to the trough and water him.”
“Thank ya kindly, Slim, but this fella what helped turn the horses ain’t a friend o’mine, at least not yet he ain’t. Ah haven’t made his acquaintance either,” John replied laconically.
Stepping forward, Jess also shook hands with John Sanford, “I wouldn’t a’ knowed ya, John, you’re dressed like a regular cowpuncher!” and then looked up at the man relaxing with his hands crossed on the horn of his saddle.
“Bud! What on earth are you doin’ in our neck of the woods,” he exclaimed. Jess turned to Slim and made the introductions. “This is Bud Willoughby. I told you about 'im. He’s a deputy over in Granite City. I met ‘im when the Matt Dyer Gang holed up at Ma Tolliver’s, you remember?”
“I sure do! Welcome to the Sherman Ranch, Bud! We appreciate the help you gave the Beldens steerin’ those broomtails here!” Slim caught hold of Willoughby’s bridle and motioned for him to join them, “Let Mike water your mount, too.”
Suddenly remembering the girl who had come riding in hell-bent-for-leather, Slim searched the area and saw her standing shyly between Luke and Joe. “Ellen!” he exclaimed. “You scared me out of ten year’s growth! You were ridin’ like you were glued to that saddle! I didn’t know you could gallop a pony like that!”
“I couldn’t, Slim. But when you live with two mustangers like these, you have to learn fast!” she replied with a laugh.
The brothers beamed. “She’s a corker, Slim! Makes these two old bachelors toe the line, I can tell ya that!” answered Joe.
“Well, it seems to agree with you. . .all three of you!” Slim said admiringly, striking Jess in the arm, hard, “Don’t you think so, Jess?”
Jess grunted and rubbed the spot where Slim had punched him, his eyes holding a promise to get even with his partner at the earliest opportunity. “Miss Ellen, I have never seen you look lovelier, but would you like to step in the house and freshen up, maybe get a cup of coffee, or a glass of water?” He pushed Slim to one side and gallantly offered his arm to the blushing young woman.
But before Jess could escort Ellen into the house, they all heard the sound of an approaching team, the steady clip–clop of horses at a trot. There was not enough noise for it to be the Overland stage; cautiously both Jess and Slim slipped toward the pasture fence so they could see down the Laramie road.
Bud Willoughby called out, “It’s alright, Jess, Mr. Sherman. That should be Sue and Ma Tolliver. We were on our way here when the horses stampeded. I had my saddle horse tied on behind the buckboard, so I gave the reins to Sue and took out after the herd.”
Standing close together at the edge of the board fence, any rough-housing forgotten for the moment, Jess whispered, “They were on their way here? Did you know anything about ‘em comin’, Slim?”
Slim’s eyebrows had climbed upward; lines puckered his forehead. He softly replied, “I’ve not heard a word about it! Who else is gonna show up? Maybe one of us better go find out what’s goin’ on with Daisy. I’d a thought she’d be out here by this time.”
Slim had turned to face east while he talked, and now his expression reflected such surprise that Jess whipped around, drawing his sidearm. “Dad-gu. . . .” Jess’s voice trailed off. Two pairs of blue eyes met and then were drawn back to the procession descending the steep curve of the hill leading down to the Sherman ranch.
Note: The "guests" reference The Dispossessed and Deadly is the Night.
Mountain Men introduces John Sanford. Alex Cord played the role!
A ragged canvas covered the hoop frame of the Conestoga wagon that lumbered slowly down toward the flat, pulled by two oxen, the heavy wooden yoke seeming to weigh down their necks. The team was guided by a teenage girl with flaming auburn hair and she chirped to them as they plodded patiently onward.
Behind the prairie schooner walked an assortment of youngsters. A boy of about twelve pulled at the rope around the neck of a reluctant yellow dog; a gangly youth towed a black and white spotted hog with a blue ribbon around its neck and a sea grass string attached to the ring in the end of its nose. Two girl-children, the patches on their short skirts apparent even at this distance, each led a gaunt Jersey cow, ribs sticking out and backbones sharply defined. The remaining children followed in their wake, the older ones clutching the hands of the younger. The little boy who had raised such ire in Mike brought up the rear, leading another pair of oxen.
“All that’s missing is a tall Shanghai rooster!” muttered Jess under his breath.
Startled into a short bark of laughter, Slim covered his mouth to keep his amusement under wraps and kicked at Jess with the side of his foot. “I bet that rooster ended up in the stew pot long ago. Now, mind your manners, Harper! Looks like more ‘guests’ for Thanksgiving!”
“Yeah, how big is that turkey hen you bagged, Sherman? We weren’t countin’ on feedin’ an army! Bet that big yella cur and Buttons won’t even git to fight over the bones!”
“Well, come on, Partner, let’s go find out what they need! Mr. O’Malley must be inside the wagon tendin’ to his wife. I don’t hear a baby cryin’. Wonder if it’s here yet?” Slim grimaced and then strode quickly across the barn lot, Jess’s shorter legs leaving him trailing a couple of steps behind.
“Hey, slow down, Boss. You got them long legs and when they git to scissorin’, you just don’t know your own speed!” Jess complained peevishly.
“I can’t help it your leg bones got turned down into feet. Step it up! I never saw a hired hand with such a talent for malingerin’!” The friends kept up their banter, letting it relieve some of the stress they were under. At least until they got close enough the O’Malleys might overhear.
The girl with the flowing chestnut hair had climbed down to stand beside her team. “Mister, Pa said for us to come down here and inquire if’n it would be alright to water our stock. Our water barrel is dry, and there’s no crick or spring up on the ridge.”
She stood calmly surveying the two young men, her eyes the color of pine resin or honey or amber. Slim’s mind was busy trying to decide which one best described their lovely color, so pure and clear it was as if he could see through to her soul. He was at a loss to define the shade of her hair; he always had been partial to red-heads. Her hair seemed to have a life of its own, the curls so crisp and tousled they appeared to lift without benefit of any wayward breeze.
Realizing his boss had been struck dumb by the beautiful young woman before them, Jess sidled up and kicked at the back of Slim’s knee, making him lurch to the side, “Close your mouth, Pard, you’re not catchin’ flies!” he said quietly.
To the girl, he said, “Miss, you’re welcome to water your animals. Do you need any help? I can prime the pump and have the trough full in just a minute. Do you have a shallow pan for the hog? The sides are too tall for him, I reckon.”
By now, Slim had recovered his equilibrium, in more ways than one, and quickly moved to work the pump handle, letting water gush in a stream until it was splashing over the sides of the long trough.
“Thank you kindly, Mister. It’s much appreciated that you would offer to share your bounty with us.”
Slim stammered, “No problem. . .no problem at all, there’s plenty of water for everybody. . .uhh. . .everything. . .uhh. . .take as much as you need.” He lifted his arms in an expansive gesture, seeming to indicate she could take any or all of the ranch if she so desired.
Shaking his head and letting a smile twitch in the corners of his lips and eyes, Jess tried again, “My name is Harper, ma’am, Jess Harper, and this tall drink of water is the owner of the Sherman Ranch we’re standin’ on, Mr. Slim Sherman. We’re both at your service, ma’am. Anythin’ you need, just let one of us know and we’ll see if we can provide it for ya.”
He tipped his hat to her and then stiffened, startled as something touched his left hand. Jess started to jerk away, but quickly looked down into a pair of grass-green eyes, fringed with long black lashes, turned up to gaze at him with the utmost trust. Captivated, he crouched down and gravely shook hands with the tiny girl who had so bravely tucked her small fingers inside his black gloved hand.
“And what might your name be, missy?” he asked gently. She didn’t reply, just continued to hold tight to his thumb, her hand lost inside his work-hardened one.
The slip of a girl who had so rattled Slim, came forward, “I’m forgettin’ my manners, Mr. Harper. Let me introduce all my brothers and sisters at once, it will be easier than tryin’ to keep ‘em straight one at a time.”
She raised her voice and called, “O’Malley clan, ya all come here, please. I need to introduce you to our benefactors, so step lively now, ya hear!”
There was a concerted rush as all the children lined up beside the wagon. They shuffled around so they were in descending order, almost like stair steps, but that line wavered in the case of some of the older boys. The little girl who had attached herself to Jess remained at his side, swaying slowly back and forth.
The chestnut haired beauty began, in a lilting, almost musical cadence, to identify each of her siblings, the two men rapidly understanding it was an exercise she had repeated many times.
“I will dispense with middle names and we all proudly carry the surname O’Malley, so only given names or nicknames, will I be listin’, if ya please, sirs.”
She stepped close to the tallest boy and laid her hand on his shoulder, “This is my eldest brother, Brown. He’s twenty, had a birthday only last week. Next is Catherine.”
“You can call me ‘Cat’, everybody else does,” the willowy teenager replied.
“Desiree is next oldest, she’s fourteen. Oh, I forgot, Cat is seventeen.” Catherine stuck her tongue out and crossed her eyes behind her sister’s back.
“I never answer to Des-i-ree. Ma let me change to plain, ole Ray when I was about eight years old and that’s who I’ve been ever since!”
“Ephraim is thirteen.” The boy in question looked daggers at his older sister until she relented and informed them, “Oh, alright, thirteen and a half. He’ll be fourteen in the spring.”
The freckle-faced youngster stuck out his hand, “Pa and Ma let me pick my name, too. The little ones started it, but ever’body calls me Ram. Pleased ta meet ya!”
The next child in line was the boy who had made off with their eggs. He stood blushing furiously as his sister gave his name. “This is Floyd. He’s named after Pa and he’s eleven, almost twelve, but he’s always been small for his age. He was born too early our Ma says, and just has some more growin’ to do to catch up!” She patted his shoulder tenderly and squeezed it tightly before moving down the line to stand between two dark-haired girls.
The pint-sized Dresden doll at Jess’s side pulled at his hand. He knelt down and encircled her with his arms, “What do ya need, sweetheart?”
“Nobody calls my brudder Floyd. Floyd is my Pa’s name. I named my brudder, we all call ‘im Pickle,” she stated emphatically.
The children tittered behind their hands, and Floyd blushed a brighter shade of scarlet if that was possible. The angelic child in Jess’s embrace went on, “When I was liddle, I couldn’t say Pers . . . Persss. . . .” She stamped her foot and looked to her big sister for help.
“Floyd’s full name is Floyd Percival O’Malley, Junior, and Helena couldn’t say ‘Percival’. She still can’t, so she took to callin’ him Pickle, that bein’ the closest she could come, and the name stuck.” Curls bouncing, Helena nodded to show her agreement as her sister recited how Pickle got his name. Jess stood up, holding Helena in his arms.
Slim was still entranced with the older girl’s beauty and poise and hung on her every word.
She continued, “The twins are Gertrude, named after our great-aunt on Pa’s side, and Gracie, the namesake of our sainted grandmother on my Ma’s side. They’re eight years old.”
She glanced at the line of children and then laughed as she realized Helena was missing, “Lainie is five and little Ichabod is three,” Stooping, she picked up the smallest and cuddled him close to her, smothering his ruddy face with kisses until he giggled helplessly.
“Pickle says he left Josie. . . Josephine. . . the youngest of us, at your kitchen door when he run off with th’ eggs,” she finished matter-of-factly.
“Whew! Well!” Jess pushed his hat back and glanced at Slim. “Guess we know what Daisy’s doin’, Pard!”
“Reckon so, Jess!” Slim wasn’t usually this slow, and Jess read him well enough to know a question was burning a hole right through his manners. “Uhh, Miss O’Malley, you didn’t tell us your given name or how old you are,” he shamelessly probed.
“Why, you’ve just named it, Mr. Sherman. My name is Miss O’Malley! And why would you be askin’ a lady her age, sir?”
The crestfallen look on said Mr. Sherman’s face brought a peal of laughter. She yielded and told him, “My given name is Zoe, Mr. Sherman, I’m the eldest and a spinster at twenty-three!”
“Zoe?” spluttered Slim, “But all your brothers and sisters are in order of the alphabet. I figured your name would be somethin’ that starts with an ‘A’!
“Ya would be thinkin’ so, wouldn’t ya, Mr. Sherman? Well, that was the intention, and Ma and Pa meant to name me ‘Alexander’ if I was a boy, ‘Alexandra’ if a girl. But after Ma first set eyes on my face, she said to Pa, ‘This baby is not an Alexandra, Floyd, simply not an Alexandra!’”
This comment, too, had the feel of an oft-repeated legend, and everyone hung on Zoe’s next words, Slim and Jess included.
“Sooooo, Pa said, ‘Ma, we’ll just start at the other end of the alphabet and see how that works out. Maybe our next bundle of joy will want to have a name that begins with ‘B’!”
The kids all clapped and shouted with the comfort of knowing the rest of them had their names constructed in the proper order and that each had looked the way their parents anticipated even before they were born!
Scattered applause and laughter sounded behind them and both Slim and Jess swung around to see delighted smiles on the faces of their “guests”, congregated in the yard at their backs. Jess’s eyes settled on John Sanford whose face wore the same dazed air as his best friend. John gazed in unabashed adoration at the “spinster” still holding her baby brother and nuzzling his sweet chubby cheeks. Stifling a chuckle, Jess thought to himself, ‘Uh, Oh! This may be Thanksgiving, but the fireworks are likely gonna be more like the Fourth of July!’
A wail came from within the covered wagon and broke the spell that held them all in thrall. Everyone began talking and moving at once, the men leading the animals to water, the women headed toward the children.
Sue and Ma Tolliver walked toward Jess, Ma with her arms outstretched to receive Lainie. Jess handed her off and leaned down to kiss Ma lightly on the cheek. He turned to give Sue a hug, but she had other ideas.
Shaking her head, Sue said, “You’re not gettin’ off that easy, Mister!” She wrapped her arms around Jess and lifted her lips to his, kissing him so thoroughly his Stetson flew off the back of his head to lie forgotten in the dust. “Mmm, mmm! Jess Harper, you are a good kisser,” Sue told him with satisfaction, grinning wickedly when Jess blushed to the roots of his hair.
“Ma, when are you gonna do somethin’ about this granddaughter of yours? You need to take this girl in hand!”
“Now, Jess, you know well as I do, that whatever Sue wants to do, she pretty much does. No matter what me or Bud says! And she sure don’t care what anybody thinks either,” Ma told him with a laugh.
Slim was watching closely, especially enjoying the slight flush that still stained the face of his usually unflappable hired hand. After Jess introduced them, Slim nodded, “Ma’am, Miss Sue. It’s a pleasure to finally meet you. I’ve heard a lot about you both, but I have a sneakin’ suspicion that Mr. Harper hasn’t told me everythin’!” Slim stored away the memory of Sue kissing his partner, positive he was going to get a lot of mileage out of it in the future; sure Jess would take the bait for months whenever he chose to tease him about it!
Jess dropped his head, much to the amusement of the other three. Slim’s smile grew wider, the big, open, every-day smile that made his face light up and brought such a twinkle to his summery eyes. His dimples deepened and Sue looked on appreciatively, “I’ll tell you what, Mr. Sherman, anytime you’d like a lesson like Jess just got, you let me know. I’ll be happy to teach you a thing or two about kissin’, too!”
Slim was saved from his own blushing embarrassment by the sound of the kitchen door opening and Daisy calling loudly, “Slim, could you come over here, please? I need you!”
ps—Sweet Betsy from Pike: For your listening pleasure: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tL3jeyVDBeM
Motioning to Jess that he was going to let Daisy know what was going on, Slim hurried across the yard and stepped up into the kitchen.
Daisy greeted him with, “Slim, bring the bath tub in first and then get that varmint out of my house!” Her voice was quivering, but whether with fright or indignation he couldn’t tell.
“I expected you to be surprised, Daisy! Not often we get a baby left on the doorstep!” Slim heard noises coming from the front room, and walked forward chuckling, “You must’ve thought the stork lost his way for sure . . . but I’ve never heard you refer to a baby as a varmint before,” he blurted, stepping around the corner expecting to see a small child on the floor or sitting at the table.
The sight that greeted him left him staring from wall to wall and ceiling to floor, amazed!
Ledgers, receipts and bills blanketed the floor like an early snowfall; every picture was aslant, books from the wall shelf cascaded over the couch and onto the floor, the contents of the wood box was strewn about the hearth, rugs were pushed into accordions; curtains were half off both window and door, and chairs were overturned. The broom was positioned atop a large lump covered by the lap robe usually folded at the foot of the couch.
A large lump that moved jerkily even while Slim stared dumbfounded at the devastation.
Recovering somewhat from his shock, Slim exclaimed, “You’re gonna smother the tyke, Daisy!” He knelt on a knee and moved the broom to one side, preparing to lift the coverlet.
“Tyke, my foot! Don’t you dare let that creature loose after all I’ve gone through cornering it, Slim Sherman!” Daisy commanded.
Shaken by her emphatic demand, Slim reconsidered. “Miss Daisy . . . exactly what do you have trapped under the robe?”
“A black bird, a pesky crow! What did you think I was talking about?” she demanded.
Slowly, he moved the broom back to where it had been and stood up. “Miss Daisy, have you seen a baby girl this mornin’? She’s somewhere between one and two years old. While we were up in the pasture? While all the firin’ was goin’ on? ”
“Have you taken leave of your senses, Slim? A baby girl?”
Daisy Cooper’s hands intertwined; her eyes widened and her mouth formed an ‘Oh’. Slim watched as comprehension of his questions and their implication dawned.
“Oh, no! Slim, I haven’t seen a baby, only those children who were following the wagon! Was there supposed to be a baby here?” She wrung her hands, caught hold of his arms and then continued in a strangled voice, “We’ve got to find her. I’ll never forgive myself if something has happened to a little one!”
“Hold on, Miss Daisy, let me get Jess in here! There’s more we need to let you know before we spread the alarm and get everyone upset!” He turned one of the chairs upright and sat Daisy down in it. Already planning search patterns, Slim crossed the kitchen in two long strides and called for Jess. Picking up on his partner’s body language, Jess came on the run.
“What’s up, Pard?” Jess asked as he entered the house. Catching sight of Daisy’s face and then taking in the destruction beyond, he exclaimed, “Jumpin’ Jehosephat! This room looks like a cyclone hit it! What’s goin’ on?”
Quickly, Slim told Jess about the crow trapped under the coverlet and that Daisy had not seen Josie O’Malley.
Jess soothed their distraught housekeeper, gently rubbing her back, “Miss Daisy, we’ll find her, she can’t have gotten far, we’ll track her down in three shakes of a lamb’s tail, you’ll see! Pretty soon we’ll all be laughin’ about it, tellin’ tall tales about this Thanksgiving Day. It sure will be one to go down in the books, won’t it?”
But his countenance told another story as he and Slim considered all the dangers that existed for a toddler alone; alone at the end of November in chilly southern Wyoming. Alone on a ranch with wide open fields and streams and horses and cattle, and varmints much more dangerous than a pesky blackbird!
“Slim, we ought to get Mrs. O’Malley and her new baby inside the house. She don’t need to hear us calling for Josie. It’ll just upset her and I don’t think that‘ll be good for her or the new arrival,” Jess ran his hand across his face, thinking about all they needed to do and how quickly they needed to do it!
Daisy turned inquiringly toward her surrogate sons, “Do you mean to tell me there is a new baby inside that Conestoga wagon?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Slim replied. “We heard its first cry after they pulled up in the barn lot!”
“Oh, good heavens! Help me get the mother and baby inside. I’ll turn back the bed in my room and she can rest there. Don’t say a word about the older one being missing. What about the father? Is he here, too?”
Having something to do was bringing Daisy out of her stupor, “You two take care of the search for the little girl, I’ll look after the parents and the new little one. Hopefully, we will have much more to be thankful for before this day is over!”
She made shooing motions with her hands, pushing Slim and Jess toward the door.
They made short work of carrying Sarah O’Malley inside the cabin; Floyd Senior trailing with the baby.
Daisy introduced herself and took command, steering them to the bedroom before gathering up some of the papers scattered over the floor. She told Mr. O’Malley she had a clean nightgown laid out on the bed for Mrs. O’Malley and would shortly be bringing warm water for him to help his wife get cleaned up.
“I’ll be happy to bathe the little one if you like, or I have some old sheets and soft flannel that will make wonderful blankets to wrap the mite after you do it, Mr. O’Malley!” “General” Cooper kept up a steady torrent of chatter hoping to drown out any voices that might be overheard calling for Josie.
Slim gathered the adults around himself and Jess. Used to living on the frontier, always attuned to danger, they had already picked up that something was wrong. Quickly he filled them in on the fact that Daisy had not seen Josie at all. Zoe said nothing, but her quick intake of breath let them know how frightened she was, and Brown put his arm around her for comfort.
“I think we need to load the children in the wagon to keep any more tracks from bein’ destroyed. Jess and John are our best trackers, so let’s give ‘em a chance to examine the area around the kitchen door. That’s where Pickle said he left her, so that’s the logical place to start our search,” Slim decided, “Depending on what they find, we’ll decide where to go from there.”
Zoe, Sue, Ma Tolliver, and Ellen helped Luke and Joe Belden, Bud Willoughby and Sheriff Cory round up the youngsters, including Mike, and set them inside or on the tailgate of the Conestoga. The older girls and boys were clamoring to know what was happening.
Brown told them, “When ya all get quiet, I’ll tell ya what’s goin’ on. With everybody talkin’ at once, you cain’t hear me or make sense of anythin’ I say!”
They began demanding that each hush, but seeing their brother’s serious expression and the tears slowly trickling down Zoe’s face, they quieted and turned expectantly toward Brown.
“Pickle said he left Josie beside the Sherman’s open kitchen door, but the lady who lives here hasn’t seen her. Two of those men are really good trackers so they’re gonna try to pick up her trail. That’s why we put everybody in the wagon. To keep any more of Josie’s footprints from bein’ stomped over!”
All the children turned to gaze at Pickle, whose eyes had grown enormous in his ashen face, “But, Brown, I did! I swear I did! I left Josie right beside the door! I thought for certain sure she would walk or crawl inside that house and I would come back and get her after I carried the milk and eggs up the hill! But then the guns started goin’ off and we all hid under the wagon and Ma started hollerin’ for Pa and the horses run in the big field and . . . .”
The little boy’s face contorted and he began to sob uncontrollably. Luke Belden gathered him into his arms and held him close, awkwardly patting his skinny shoulders and whispering softly in his ear.
Ray and Cat reached for the twins, Gracie and Gertrude, pulling them onto their laps. Ma Tolliver comforted Lainie and Sue jostled Ichabod on her hip, trying to keep him quiet.
Mike Williams sat gazing around at the crying children, trying to think of something he could do to help find the little girl. He was squeezed in between the boy nicknamed Ram, and Ray, the girl with the boy’s name. Ram tucked something under his shirt, and then whispered to Mike, “Help me get out the side of the wagon, will ya?”
“Slim told us to stay here,” Mike whispered back, “He’ll be awful mad if we mess up any tracks they find!”
“But I know how to find Josie. They won’t have to track her down if you’ll help me!” Ram urged. There was such a note of promise in his voice that Mike reluctantly agreed. The two of them lifted the edge of the canvas cover and slipped over the side.
“I’ll follow your lead, John. You’re used to followin’ a trail and trappin’ all the time, and I’m a little rusty since I don’t do it every day!” Jess deferred to the younger man and stood back to watch as the mountain man eased his way toward the side of the house.
John Sanford cast his eyes from side to side, intently searching for any clues a toddler might have left to show her passage. He stopped just beyond the edge of the cabin, stooping down to run his fingers lightly over an impression on the dusty ground. Bending over at the waist, John followed a tipsy pathway of little footprints toward the pens where first Andy and now Mike kept his small critters. One clear imprint was enshrined in a muddy puddle where Mike had spilled water as he tended his menagerie.
Looping around on itself, the path led John from edge to edge of the enclosed area between bunkhouse and cabin, but when the tiny footprints led back out toward the barn lot, they were lost in the confusion of boot heels and shod hooves that had churned over top of them.
Dismayed, John raised his head to stare into the reddened eyes of Zoe O’Malley, sitting on the raised wagon seat, waiting for some word of hope from the man tracking her baby sister. He tore his eyes away from her sad ones and looked across to Jess. Shrugging his shoulders and lifting his hands palms upward, John let Harper know he had lost the trail.
Jess grimaced and shook his head from side to side; he too had been scouring the ground, hoping against all odds to discover more small footprints to let them follow the path the tiny girl had taken.
Watching behind them, the two boys scurried to the corral where Ram untied the big yellow slick-haired dog he had been leading as they came down the hill to the relay station. Hidden by the wagon, none of the adults could see them. Ram softly told Mike that Finn had a better nose than any blood hound ever born and if Josie could be tracked, Finn was just the dog who could find her!
“I’ve got Josie’s doll hidden under my shirt, and when I tell Finn to seek, he’ll start along her trail, but he always bays as he follows a scent, and the grown-ups might not let us keep goin’ when they hear him,” Ram informed Mike.
“We’ve gotta tell Jess or Slim before your dog starts makin’ all that racket, else we’re gonna be in a peck a trouble! I bet Jess and Slim will listen to ya but we’ve just gotta tell ‘em first! I sure don’t want a trip to the woodshed, do you?”
“No, my Pa will tan my hide if’n he thinks it’s the right thing to do, but we don’t have time to waste waitin’ on them men to track Josie!” Ram kept glancing over his shoulder, worried they were going to be caught before his plan could be carried out.
“Well, Jess is busy helpin’ John Sanford, so you wait here and I’ll go get Slim. You tell him and he’ll make it right with your Pa. Nobody else will say anything if Slim thinks it’s a good idea!” And with that, Mike took off in a loping run to grab Slim’s hand and pull him back to the corral.
Talking a mile a minute, Mike had told Slim the bare outline of his story by the time they got to the corral fence. Slim could see apprehension on the face of the teenager crouched in the dust beside his dog.
“Well, son, we’ve not been able to follow Josie’s tracks, so let’s see what your dog can do!” Slim smiled at him and Ram let go the breath he had been holding, returning a small grin.
“What’s his name?” Slim inquired.
“Finn McCool, sir!” Ram replied.
“Finn McCool, huh? Alright, let me tell the others, and you get Finn ready! Mike tells me he bays as he follows a scent?” Slim asked.
“Then we’ll warn everybody to cover their ears! A dog that big must have a powerful voice,” Slim chuckled as he motioned for the two youngsters to follow him.
“Yes, sir, he does! But it’s awful pretty to hear late at night when he’s follering after a ‘coon or a coyote!” Ram answered with pride.
“We’ll be hopin’ its awful pretty to hear right now!” Slim replied with feeling.
Slim Sherman’s words of explanation still hung in the air when Ram shook the rag doll under the yellow dog’s nose and commanded “Seek! Find Josie . . . find Josie, Finn!”
Ram and all the others gathered in the barn lot expected the big dog to follow the trail John and Jess had found, but Finn lifted his nose into the air and howled long and loud before turning around and running toward the Cheyenne road. He dodged under the bed of the Conestoga wagon and leaned to the right, the cord around his neck snaking through the fingers of the boy who flopped full length on the ground, struggling to grab the trailing end of the rope.
The link is to the legends of Finn McCool (English spelling), Irish hero, for whom the dog is named.
Finn’s paws gained traction and his voice rang out, baying with each breath, gathering speed and sound as he disappeared through the open barn door.
A fearful snarling, growling and barking issued from inside the barn. Mike screamed, “Buttons!” and took off running. Ram stumbled in his wake yelling, “Finn! Come, boy, come here . . . come, Finn!”
Jess and Slim were galvanized into action as well, scrambling to the barn door and sliding inside, ready to rescue Mike, Ram, Buttons or Finn as the situation warranted.
Buttons stood splay-legged, hackles raised, lips drawn back in a snarl, daring the huge tawny dog to try to get past him.
Buttons who hid behind Jess’s legs or Daisy’s skirts at the least sign of danger.
Buttons who dived under Mike’s bed when thunder rolled and lightning flashed.
Buttons who now held his ground defending the little girl curled up in an empty stall on a pile of straw.
The toddler sat up, rubbed her eyes and began to cry. Jess vaulted the side rails of the stall and scooped Josie up, handing her over the barrier to Slim.
Ram clutched Finn McCool around the neck and hugged him, heaping praise on the dog and telling him what a good boy he was.
Mike picked Buttons up and carried him out to the yard, receiving sloppy doggy kisses all the way. Mike was so proud of Buttons he thought he would bust.
You could hear a pin drop as Slim came around the wagon carrying the toddler.
But when they caught sight of the child, everybody began talking at once! There were shouts of “Hallelujah” and “Praise God”; Zoe cried “Thank the Lord!” and tears fell down more than one face unheeded.
Daisy Cooper hurried from the house and Slim wrapped her in a hug with his free arm. The other arm was holding Josephine O’Malley tightly while she surveyed the crowd around her. Straw stuck to her hair and clothes, tears glistened in her eyes and dirty tracks coursed down her cheeks, but she was grinning around the thumb wedged firmly in her mouth.
Zoe reached for Josie, and Slim grudgingly handed her over. Those clear amber eyes met Slim Sherman’s blue ones and he was lost all over again.
Jess watched from where he leaned against the side of the Conestoga, a big smile on his rugged face. He ruefully shook his head, “Yessir, ya got it bad, Pard! And this day ain’t over by the half of it!”
Ma Tolliver and Daisy Cooper were the first to recover and get on with the business at hand. Both of them had raised families and had long ago recognized that it wasn’t only an army who moved on its stomach: Children did as well! They knew everyone would be hungry; the children fretful if not fed soon.
They introduced themselves and set about getting dinner on the table. Ellen and Zoe along with the Belden brothers and Sheriff Cory were left to entertain the children outside.
Jess asked Bud to help him get the blackbird out of the house. Slim rescued his ledgers and the Overland receipts from the floor. Brown and Cat straightened the furniture and replaced books and logs to their rightful places, then re-hung the curtains and leveled pictures on the walls.
Ma and Sue had brought provisions in the back of their buckboard and they enlisted the men to trundle them into the house. It was unthinkable to show up without bringing some sort of offering to add to the meal when they had been so graciously invited to share Thanksgiving dinner, and the Tolliver women had outdone themselves! There were Mason jars filled with thick soup, vegetables roasted, boiled and raw, crisp fried chicken, four loaves of sourdough bread, cornbread fried into “hoecakes”, pickles, chutney, and desserts! Jess’s eyes lit up at the sight of the pies and cakes being carried inside. Sue smacked his hand when he reached to pinch a piece off a dried apple fried pie.
Jess and the Beldens tended to the O’Malley’s weary, foot-sore livestock. They knew a few days rest and decent grazing, helped along by some grain and hot mash would go a long ways toward getting the oxen and pig healthy and the cows in good enough shape to start giving milk again.
Slim lugged the bathtub into the bunkhouse and brought hot water and a protesting Mike inside to soak the sticky milk and egg mixture out of his hair while he got another bath.
Slim then got John Sanford to help him carry sawhorses, boards and bales of hay inside the house to make tables and benches for them all to have places to sit while they ate. He reasoned John had just been standing around. Zoe didn’t need him for anything. There were others to look after the little ones, and he wasn’t a bit jealous of his young neighbor.
‘Nope, not a bit! John is just the logical one to ask, that’s all!’ Slim ignored Jess’s knowing grin from across the yard.
After the makeshift tables were set up, covered with tablecloths or bedsheets, John walked to the edge of the kitchen, hesitant to enter the steamy domain where the women were working – and talking – organizing a spread for the hungry, excited families they each considered their personal responsibility.
He cleared his throat and when Daisy looked his direction, quickly doffed his hat and told her, “Miss Daisy, Ah brung along some vittles to help out with dinner if’n ya want ‘em. Ah’ve got a smoked elk haunch and a venison roast, smoked trout, apples gathered before the first killin’ frost, some turnips and turnip tops, mustard greens, and persimmons; since the frost they’re good ‘n sweet. And Ah robbed a bee tree late this summer, Ah’ve got the honey stoppered in one of Pa’s old whiskey jugs.”
Daisy thanked him profusely and John asked Slim to help him carry the heavy gunny sacks and saddlebags into the house.
Jess appeared out of nowhere, a smirk on his face and his Texas drawl exaggerated, as it often was when he was up to some mischief, “Now ain’t you ashamed a yoreself, Pard? For thinkin’ such uncharitable thoughts of our good neighbor?”
Slim heard him, but didn’t bother denying the accusation. He was too busy staring at Zoe O’Malley.
Ma Tolliver decided it would be best to get the youngsters to wash up before they all came indoors so Sue carried a tea kettle of hot water outside to mix with the icy water from the yard pump. The older children helped their younger brothers and sisters make quick work of that chore for all could smell the aromas drifting up along with the chimney smoke and by this time little bellies were growling.
There had been a quick headcount and conference to determine if there were enough plates, cups, and silverware. But even with the extra tinware and mugs the relay station stocked for passengers, they would fall short. Slim quickly offered to ask Zoe to bring the O’Malley family dishes from the wagon and disappeared outside while Daisy exchanged an indulgent smile with Ma and Sue.
When the food was ready, Daisy stepped outside to the triangle beside the kitchen door. She made it ring and soon all eyes were on her. “If each of the grown-ups will help one of the children,” she announced, “We should have room at the table for all. The young ladies and gentlemen can help pass the bowls around and there will be plenty of food for seconds and thirds.”
With laughter and good-natured teasing, they all trooped into the house, and began to sort themselves out, finding a chair or hay bale to sit on. The rough-mannered but good-natured ranchers were gentle and considerate of their young dinner partners.
In the middle of finding seats for everyone, the Overland stage came around the corner of the house, with all its attendant noise. Slim groaned aloud as he realized that in the excitement of the morning’s activities, he had not brought up a fresh team for the next leg of the Cheyenne run. He had been about to slide into the seat beside Miss Zoe, but realized that was not to be! Slim quickly looked around, but from the smug look on his best friend’s face, he realized he could expect no help from that quarter.
Resigned, he relinquished his spot to John Sanford, and made his way toward the door, forcefully gathering Jess up as he walked past the table. Daisy joined them as a knock sounded.
Slim opened the front door to see the man they knew as The Parson polishing the toe of his dusty boot against the back of his pants leg. He was all elbows and knees, his Adam’s apple bobbing nervously as he swallowed twice before whipping off his disreputable black hat and slicking back his thin, oiled-down hair. Razor nicks dotted his face and his scrawny neck was a criss-cross of reddened, abraded skin.
“Miz Cooper, I apologize if I’m late, but the stage was the only transportation I could find, and I must of necessity abide by their schedule, not my own,” he stated grandly, using his best orator’s voice, before ducking under the front door.
“Oh, do come in, Parson! You’re not late at all. We were just about to sit down to eat, so as a matter of fact, you are right on time,” greeted Daisy, guiding him to the head of the table. “Let’s wait for Mose to wash up and we’ll be ready to begin. Slim, will you please make the introductions?”
“Uh . . . sure, Miss Daisy,” replied Slim, trying not to let everyone see how rattled he was. He went down the line of guests, introducing each by name, even the children, and at the end, “Most of you already know Mose, he’s one of Overland’s best drivers!” He then turned to say, “And this is . . . The Parson!”
Slim and Jess cornered Daisy before she could walk away, their expressions demanding an explanation. She looked up at them sweetly, a luminous smile on her face, her eyes twinkling, and placed a hand on each young man’s arm.
“Well, we needed someone to say grace, didn’t we?”
Note: The Parson, played by wonderful character actor Jack Elam, was introduced in “Gun Duel” as were Johnny and Carol Hartley, Mort Cory’s nephew and his wife.
Mort Cory, Sr., played by Eddie Baker, appeared in “The Killer Legend”.
The young ladies insisted Daisy and Ma Tolliver join the others at the table. Zoe, Ellen and Sue, Cat and Ray made sure bowls of food and glasses were kept filled. They all were honored to “wait on the table” and sat down to their own meal when conversations picked up and the clink of silverware slowed down.
Daisy found herself seated next to Mort Cory who was holding Gracie on his knee, making sure she got plenty to eat.
“Mort, I thought you were going to bring Mort, Sr. along,” Daisy said.
“Well, Miss Daisy, I was, but he just couldn’t fit us into his busy schedule,” chuckled Mort ruefully, “He isn’t goin’ to make it to eat with Johnny and Carol either. Seems Widow Carter and the Misses Stanfield had already asked him ahead of time, and Miz Borders is insisting he come at least partake of leftovers tomorrow.”
Mr. and Mrs. O’Malley joined them with their brand new bundle of joy. Jess asked if they had decided on a name, and then realized he didn’t even know if the baby was a boy or a girl!
Sarah O’Malley pulled back the blanket for everybody to see, her children crowding close to her knee, Ohhing and Ahhing over the squirming infant.
Grinning, Slim inquired if this baby looked like the name they had picked out in advance.
Floyd O’Malley replied in the affirmative, and added, “Let me introduce you to Master Kelly Johnathon Harman O’Malley!”
Everyone sat long at the table, reluctant for the day to end. Ma Tolliver and Daisy had taken to one another like ducks to water and were busily comparing notes on receipts (recipes), what they could do to help the O’Malley family, granddaughters, surrogate sons and potential in-laws!
Zoe and her sisters tucked the little ones down for a nap in the bunk room. They settled on one of the bunks to talk with Ellen and Sue, answering questions about each other’s background, but eventually the subject was sure to get around to boys!
Mrs. O’Malley returned to Daisy’s room to rest and her husband went along to look after the baby.
Mose had made arrangements to bring the stage into Cheyenne the next day since he had no passengers along and no mail bag. He and Bud Willoughby, Luke and Joe Belden, Mort, Slim and Jess were joined by Brown O’Malley, John Sanford and The Parson in front of the fireplace, relaxing with one tale after the other, letting the late afternoon sun streaming through the cabin’s windows warm their backs and sooth their hearts.
The Beldens were tough men, hides and hands roughened and thickened by the work they did daily, the lives they dared to carve out in a wild, raw new land. But their hearts, their souls were unsullied, still tender, still open to offer a home and safe refuge to a girl torn from her family when she was little older than Helena. Joe pulled Slim aside to tell him he and Luke and Ellen, who had taken up residence in the home and hearts of the “two old moss-backed bachelors”, planned to take the O’Malleys into Laramie the next day. They wanted to make sure the children all had new shoes, warm coats and a few “fripperies” before they left.
Right before dusk, Jess nudged Slim and they slipped on their jackets to go tend to the afternoon chores and take care of the stock. Jess pointed with his chin toward the pasture gate and they ambled over to take a look at the horses the Beldens had delivered so loudly that morning.
“Some good-lookin’ horseflesh, Pard!” We’ll get a good price for ‘em from the Army!” Jess observed.
“Yeah, they’ll sure help tide us over till spring. This year seems to be ending on a high note, Jess. There truly is a lot to be thankful for!” Slim replied.
Sue Tolliver with Bud Willoughby following behind, strode up from the Laramie road. Sue’s face was flushed and Bud’s was pale, a determined set to his jaw. Sue walked up close to Slim and put her arms around his neck, “I think it’s time for that lesson I promised you, Mr. Sherman!”
Automatically, Slim raised his arms to encircle her waist while Bud and Jess looked on. Sue tilted her head back, placed her hands on either side of Slim’s face and leaned forward to place a kiss on his lips. Startled, he stiffened, but then relaxed and drew her closer, kissing her as thoroughly as she had kissed Jess earlier.
“Mmm, Miss Tolliver, with practice you might make a really good kisser!”
When he released her, both of them a little breathless, Slim asked with a smirk, “Ready for another lesson?”
“No, she isn’t,” Bud reached between them, pulling Sue to his side, “Miss Tolliver is spoken for! From now on she’ll only be kissing her husband-to-be!”
Bud steered Sue in the direction of the ranch house, but not before she turned around to wink and mouth, “Thank you!”
Laughing, the friends headed for the barn and quickly took care of their evening chores, then latched the double doors for the night. Slim paused at the sound of boyish voices and extended a hand to stop Jess.
It was Ram, Mike and Pickle, perched on the buckboard under the barn overhang.
“Girls!” Pickle said in disgust.
“You said it!” echoed Mike.
“Who needs ‘em anyway?” asked Ram.
“Yeah!” Pickle added, “Ray bit my head off when I asked if she wanted to throw some dirt clods in the horse trough. She’s always been willin’ to join in the fun with Ram and me, lots a times she comes up with the best ideas, too, even if she is a girl! And, guess what? She says we cain’t call her ‘Ray’ anymore; her name is ‘Des-a-ray’ and me and Ram better not ferget it! Cat wants to be called ‘Cath-er-ine’, too!” Pickle repeated his sisters’ names in a sing-song high-pitched voice.
“Yeah,” Ram agreed, “All she and Cat want to do is sit around and listen to Mr. Sanford recitin’ verses to Zoe!”
Slim’s head came up at that revelation and he glared at Jess before turning in a circle searching for John and Zoe, Cath-er-ine and Des-a-ray. He spied John sitting on the front porch rail, Zoe in the chair where Jess usually sat. The two younger O’Malley girls thought they were hidden from view, around the corner, sitting on overturned buckets, obviously eavesdropping on the young couple.
“If John’s to the point of spoutin’ poetry, I’d say your goose . . . or turkey . . . is cooked,” Jess chortled, “But look on the bright side, Slim! All we’ll have left in a day or two is Mike. Pickle will be leavin’ with the O’Malleys! Just one more thing to be thankful for, Boss!”
~~~ Finis ~~~