Special thanks to Gail for giving me the courage to give this a try and her invaluable advice

Many thanks to Gail and Coop for their help and encouragement in my first attempt at writing fiction as well as beta reading the story over and over and over!  Of course any mistakes or inaccuracies are mine alone.

 

THE STRAY

Betty

 

Jess and Traveler were ambling along one nice afternoon with just a touch of fall in the air when Trav pricked his ears and stopped abruptly.  Jess straightened in the saddle and put his hand on his gun while he listened and looked to see what had startled his horse. 

 

Nothing moved; no noise;… nothing.

 

He nudged the horse forward but the animal stopped again after only a few steps and continued to look intently towards a group of bushes.  Then Jess heard the faint whimper of an animal in pain.  With his hand still on his gun he dismounted and moved carefully towards the brush.  Lying in a small hollow was a black canine with very large teeth.  At first Jess thought he was a wolf but a second look revealed a rough looking large dog.  The dog’s coat was matted and he was crouched as far back into the hollow as he could get but he was still snarling.  As Jess approached the dog tried to get up and Jess saw that his foreleg was broken.  Jess immediately knelt down and stopped moving toward the dog.  Holding out his hand he spoke softly, “Hey boy, looks like ya got yourself in a real bad spot.  Want a little help?” 

 

The dog stopped snarling but kept staring nervously at Jess.  After a moment the man rose, went to his horse and took a tin cup out of the saddle bag.  Filling it with water from his canteen he slowly approached the dog.  He knelt down and carefully set the cup as close to the dog as he dared then backed away. 

 

After watching Jess’ movements suspiciously for several long minutes, the dog finally lowered his head and thirstily lapped the life saving water.  When the cup was empty he raised his head and looked quietly at Jess.

 

“Guess we’d better set up a camp and spend the night here fella.” Jess spoke softly.  “You could use something to eat I’ll bet and I need to figure out how to get ya to let me splint that leg.  I’ll get a fire goin’ and try to snare a rabbit or two; there should be some close by in the brush.” 

 

Jess knew that Slim expected him home by dinner but both knew that things came up and they couldn’t always make it back to the ranch.  Slim wouldn’t worry too much unless Jess didn’t show up by noon the next day.

 

Jess set some snares in the brush, tended to his horse and unrolled his bedroll as close to the dog as he dared.  He made a fire in the open area and settled down for a while,  just talking quietly to the dog while he whittled a couple of splints with his knife.  With these and some rawhide strings from his saddlebags he thought he could set the dog’s leg.  His luck was good and in a short while two rabbits were cooking on a makeshift spit over the fire as the dog watched anxiously.   

 

When the meat was cooked and cooled down Jess tossed some to the dog who devoured it quickly.  After the first few bites of meat Jess held some in his hand and moved as close as the dog would allow before his lip curled into the now familiar snarl.  The soft-speaking man kept tossing small bits of meat to the dog as he moved ever nearer.  Finally he was able to deftly slip his neckerchief around the dog’s head and tie a makeshift muzzle.  The dog snarled and struggled but Jess held him firmly.

 

“Ain’t gonna hurt ya boy, just gotta get a look at the leg and see if we can set it so it can heal up.”  He spoke very gently as his hands explored the dog’s body and examined the broken leg.  “Don’t look too bad, looks like a clean break and the skin ain’t broken.”

 

Further examination showed the dog to be quite thin and dirty but otherwise he seemed to be in pretty good shape.  Jess had no idea how a dog came to be out here in the middle of nowhere.  Working as quickly and gently as he could Jess tied the splints in place and immobilized the leg.  Horrible snarling accompanied the whole operation.  When he was finished he offered the dog more meat after removing the muzzle to allow him to eat

 

“Dog, you’re gonna have to learn to trust me for a while until that leg heals and ya can make it on your own.  Guess ya need to have a name huh?  How about Dog?  Maybe that’ll help ya believe me.  Hey Dog, want some more meat?”  Jess kept his voice low and soft while he cut up more rabbit and fixed himself a plate of food.  Dog eyed him suspiciously but finally reached out for the meat Jess had placed in front of him.

 

Jess offered more meat and water during the nightDog didn’t wag his tail and still lifted his lip but there was less snarling, as if Dog was beginning to think that Jess just might be trusted. 

 

In the morning Jess saddled Traveler and slipped the neckerchief muzzle onto Dog.  There was more snarling but not as much as the night before.  “Maybe you’re beginning to believe I’m tryin’ to help ya, huh?”

 

Jess picked up Dog but as he tried to put the big dog over the saddle Traveler rolled his eyes and let Jess know what he thought of that idea!  Jess was wore  out and sweating when he finally managed to get the wiggling, snarling dog over the saddle of his skittish and very annoyed horse.  By the time he was mounted he was threatening to leave them both out in the wilderness!

 

& & & &

 

“Where have you been?”  Slim hollered when Jess rode into the ranch yard.  “You were due back last night.”

 

“Yeah, I know Slim.”  Jess answered, “But I got kinda held up.”

 

“What is that?”

 

“A dog, he’s hurt.”

 

“I can see that, but what are you doing bringing a dog home?  What’d you do, spend the night with him?”  Slim was obviously annoyed with Jess.  He wouldn’t admit he was worried, but every time Jess was late he was always afraid that something was taking him away from the ranch again.  Sometimes it was hard for Slim to forget Jess’ past.  “Why didn’t you just put him out of his misery?”

 

Jess was shocked, “Slim, I couldn’t shoot a dog!”

 

Slim walked over to Jess, still sitting on Traveler.  Dog immediately began snarling at Slim and showing his teeth in spite of the muzzle Jess had left in place during the ride.  Slim jumped back startled.  “Whoa, what’s wrong with him?”

 

“He’s just scared and hurt’n’, Slim.  He ain’t near as bad as he was yesterday.”  Jess said, petting Dog gently.  “Help me get him down and into the barn.”

 

“I’m not getting near that beast.  What are you going to do with him, Jess?”

 

“Well, I thought I’d maybe keep him, Slim.  He’ll make a great dog when he heals up and gets some meat on his bones.”  Jess managed to get on the ground and lift Dog off the saddle without help from Slim.  Traveler rolled his eyes and sidestepped away before Jess could change his mind and try to put that dog back up on his saddle.

 

“Yeah, if he don’t eat somebody!  We can’t keep a vicious dog around with the stage passengers coming and going, Jess.  You know that.”

 

“I’ll keep him in the barn in that back stall, Slim.  Nobody’ll even know he’s here.”

 

“What do you want with a dog, Jess?  Isn’t there enough to do around here for you?” said Slim, sounding somewhat exasperated.

 

“Well, I never exactly had a dog afore.  My pa didn’t hold with pets, Slim.  I’ll keep him out of the way; he won’t be any bother, Slim, promise.  ‘Sides he sorta needs me.”  Jess dropped his chin and looked up through his dark eyelashes with a tentative half smile. 

 

Slim raised his eyebrows, shook his head and walked away with a “yeah, you can keep him,” thinking to himself, ‘he looks just like Andy when he brought home one of his critters.  I never could say “No” to him either.’

 

& & & &

 

Chapter 2

 

Jess gently carried the black dog into the barn and settled him on the straw in the back stall where it was warm and quiet.  After giving him a pan of water and checking the splints he removed the muzzle.  Dog lifted his lip a bit but didn’t snarl or try to get away.

 

“You just rest easy now.”  Jess spoke softly.  “I’ll be back directly with some dinner for ya.”

 

Slim walked in and peered over the side of the stall but stepped back as Dog bared his teeth and snarled loudly.

 

“Jess, you sure about this?”  Slim asked.  “He sure don’t look too friendly to me.”

 

“I told ya Slim, he’s afraid and he’s hurt’n’.  Reckon he don’t have much reason to trust nobody.  You just watch, I’ll handle him like I do the horses and he’ll come around in no time, ‘specially when he gets to feelin’ better.”

 

Slim wasn’t too sure but he kept it to himself.  Jess didn’t ask for much and if having this wild dog pleased him then Slim would let it ride for a while.

 

“Just be sure you keep him locked up when there’s any passengers around.” 

 

& & & &

 

A few days later Jess and Slim were sitting down to breakfast and Slim was peering at Jess.

 

 “Whatcha lookin’ at?”  Jess wasn’t at his best in the morning.

 

“Just wondering when you were going to start eating hay?  You’ve spent so much time in the barn I thought maybe you wanted to eat with the horses.” 

 

Jess rolled his eyes and replied, “You know Dog needs a lot of care and time to understand I’m not gonna hurt him.  He almost wagged his tail this morning and even lets me pet him.  Think I’ll try brushing him today, he sure needs it.”

 

“Yeah, well he sure isn’t warm’n’ up to me.  It sounds like there’s a wolf loose in the barn whenever I’m in there.”

 

Jess mentioned he had talked to the vet the day before.  “Doc said I should leave that splint on for at least three more weeks then he’ll come out and check the leg.”

 

“Well, I hope you put that muzzle on good and tight, the Doc’ll need it.  That visit comes out of your wages too, Pard.” 

 

& & & &

 

The relationship between Jess and Dog continued to improve.  With good food and regular brushing Dog’s coat became soft and shiny and he put on weight.  He really seemed to enjoy the time he and Jess spent together. 

 

Finally the day came when the splint came off.  Dog’s pastern dropped to the floor and the leg looked like limp spaghetti.  “Don’t worry, boy.  Give it a few days and it’ll be good as new,” Jess whispered to Dog and gave him a hug.

 

Sure enough in a few days Dog was walking with only a slight limp.  However his opinion of Slim did not improve.  He never actually snapped at him but whenever Slim was around Dog’s lip was curled in a permanent snarl.  He never bothered the passengers or stage personnel and started following Jess whenever he could.

 

Whenever Slim and Jess rode off together Dog stayed at the ranch, keeping an eye on things.  Dog never snarled at visitors to the ranch, just stayed out of their way.  He and Jess were inseparable whenever Jess worked around the house and barn.  Dog even accompanied him short distances on horseback.  He rode in the buckboard to town for supplies and amazingly, got along well with the local kids, especially young Tommy Collins.

 

His relationship with Slim improved only slightly.  Dog seldom snarled or bared his teeth but usually curled his lip whenever Slim was around.  If Slim tried to touch the dog he just slithered out of reach.

 

Neither Jess nor Slim understood Dog’s dislike for Slim.  He usually got along well with animals and he was trying his best to be patient with Dog for Jess’ sake.

 

“Mebbe ya remind him of somebody that was mean to him?” suggested Jess.

 

“I don’t know, Jess.  But if he doesn’t come around you’ll have to think about finding him another home.”  Jess grimaced but didn’t respond.

 

 

& & & &

 

Chapter 3

 

Jess and Slim changed teams on the morning stage one day several weeks after the dog’s arrival at the ranch.  Dog watched from the barn door without snarling or barking at the passengers or driver.  Jess headed back into the barn giving Dog a pat on the head as he went by.  Dog remained in the doorway but kept a watchful eye on Slim as he came carefully past to saddle Alamo.

“Jess, why don’t you hitch up the horses and go into Laramie to pick up those supplies and the feed the stage office ordered for the teams?  I’ll ride on over to the lake and check the cattle over there in the north pasture.  We should both be back in time for the afternoon stage.”

 

“Sure Slim.  Dog’d like the ride and Tommy Collins’ll like to see how he’s comin’ along.”

 

“You mean you let a kid near that beast?”

 

“Aw, come on Slim.  You know he’s really doin’ good.  He almost never snarls at you ‘cept when you come up on him too quiet!”

 

& & & &

 

Jess and Dog enjoyed the twelve mile trip into Laramie.  Jess stopped in at the sheriff’s for a quick cup of coffee.  As he came out Tommy Collins came along the street pulling a small wagon loaded with groceries.  Tommy delivered goods to the women in town to help out his Ma after his Pa was killed in a stampede. 

 

“You got a name for this fine dog yet Jess?” Tommy asked.

 

“Naw, just been callin’ him Dog.”  Dog jumped down from the wagon to greet Tommy and man and boy knelt down to pet and play with him.

 

“Well, Jess, he really needs a proper name.  He’s gettin’ real pretty with his fur all black and shiny.  You should call him Midnight.”

 

“That’s a good idea, Tommy.  Think I’ll just do that.  You know ya need a dog pullin’ that wagon for ya, save a lotta work.  I could make up a harness an’ we could teach him to pull it.”

 

“That’d be really neat but I don’t know if Ma would let me have a dog.  You know we ain’t got much money, Jess.”

 

“Yeah, I know Tommy.  Let’s talk about later.”  He ruffled Tommy’s hair affectionately as the boy gently petted Midnight.  “Well, I gotta go pick up these supplies so I can get back afore the afternoon stage.  Slim’ll have my hide if I don’t.  See ya Tommy.”

 

When Jess walked into the general store with his list Mrs. Collins came up to wait on him.  He was surprised to see her and she told him Mr. McGruder had hired her to help out on busy days.  It would be a big help for her and Tommy. 

 

“Well, ma’am that’s great.”  Jess sort of shuffled his feet and cleared his throat.  “I was just tellin’ Tommy he needed a dog to pull that grocery cart and help him with his deliveries.  He sorta likes this Dog of mine, I mean ‘Midnight’, and, well, Midnight likes him too; a lot better’n he likes Slim.  I could make him a harness and help teach him to pull if ya’ll ‘d like to have him.”

 

 “Why Jess, what a wonderful thing to do!  Tommy really loves that dog; he talks about him all the time.  Do you really think you could teach him to pull the wagon?”

 

“Why sure.  Just like break’n’ a horse.”

 

Jess and Mrs. Collins agreed that he would leave Midnight at her house on his way out of town and Tommy would have the surprise of finding him when he got home from his deliveries.

 

When Jess put Midnight into Tommy’s yard he knelt down, putting the dog’s head in his hands; “I hate to leave ya fella, but ya don’t like Slim for some reason and ya do like Tommy.  A kid like that really should have a dog.  Take care now.”

 

& & & &

 

When Jess drove into the ranch yard Slim was just harnessing the new stage team and looking put out that Jess wasn’t back yet.  “Where the heck have you been?”

 

Jess just pulled the team to a stop near the barn.  “Jes’ let me put this team in the corral and I’ll give ya a hand.  Stage ain’t in yet.  I’ll unload these supplies after it goes out.”

 

“Where’s the dog?  He bite somebody and Mort shoot him?”

 

“Slim!  That ain’t funny!”  Jess growled at his partner.  “You remember young Tommy Collins?  He really likes that dog and a kid, ‘specially one that’s lost his Pa, needs a dog to pal around with.  I give him to Tommy and told him I’d teach him to pull that wagon he delivers his groceries with.  He named him Midnight.”

 

Slim looked puzzled and somewhat surprised.  “You gave your dog away?  I thought you two were getting to be real good friends?”

 

“Yeah, but Tommy needs him more than I do .…’sides, … I still got you Slim,” said Jess as he sidled away and took off running towards the barn.

 

Slim straightened up in surprise, blinked his eyes, and then took off in hot pursuit!  “Now wait a minute!”

 

 

The End

 

Betty, Sept.2010

 

 



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