A Substantial Gift
Sequel to my Christmas fic, The Gift, but it stands alone
For Christmas, 2013-- Jess has an unexpected encounter, and faces a dilemma
I don’t think being a ranch owner has changed me, not all that much anyways. I still fix fence and chase strays and break horses and chop wood and fill in potholes and mend harness and all the thousand and one other jobs I done before, yup, even the dirty and the ugly and the not-the-least-bit-of-fun ones. Most of the real change in my life had already come along long before Slim and Andy made me a partner in the Sherman Ranch, going all the way back to that day I’d first ridden onto the place and found people who were willing to call me friend and a place I would learn to call home.
Andy went back to St. Louis a few days after that memorable Christmas when I all unexpected became a partner in the ranch. The rest of us all made it through that winter, even though it was a long, hard one with a nasty cold snap that made January a misery. By spring, the ranch’s fortunes were beginning to turn around from the hard times of the year before. We even made an unexpected big cattle sale real early on, the Army needing more beef to feed troops up at Fort Laramie. It meant a real nice payday we hadn’t seen coming. So I threw out an idea I’d had rattlin’ around inside my head for a while, and Slim liked it, even said it showed a good bit of smart ranch owner-type thinkin’. That’s why, come April, soon as the snow was mostly melted, I was ridin’ south to buy us a horse.
This wasn’t going to be just any horse, mind you, but one of them quarter-milers they raise down Texas way. A feller I’d worked for once, back in my days on the drift, he’d been raisin’ stock out of some good cowhorse bloodlines, the prettiest, and fastest, big-hipped all-muscle horses I’d ever seen, and I’d always yearned to own me one. I knew getting a stallion from John Bredeson would improve the quality of the Sherman ranch stock and make our horses something special-- not just for our own use but for sellin’, too, and Slim agreed. So we’d wired my old boss and arranged for me to ride on down to his place in southern Colorado, near all the way to the Texas border, and pick out a colt to breed to our ranch mares.
The trip down was uneventful, and Big John greeted me with a hearty handshake and a big smile when I rode into the JB Ranch yard. I’d always gotten along real good with him back when I worked for him—he was a good man and a square dealer. He was near as tall as Slim, but I reckon he weighed half again as much. He was a solid, gruff, hard-working man whose hair had gone gray in the years since I’d last seen him, but that seemed about the only change I could see. “Good to see you, Mr. Bredeson. You sure ain’t changed any,” I told him, shaking his hand, his strong grip near crushing my hand.
He couldn’t say the same about me. “So, Jess, what’s this I understand? You’ve settled down and own a ranch now.” He was shakin’ his head as I followed him inside the house for coffee.
“Partners in one,” I corrected him as he led me into the kitchen and pointed me toward a chair beside the polished oak table.
Big John was still smilin’ and shaking his head at the same time. “Well, I sure never thought anyone could tie you down.”
“I ain’t tied down, not exactly. Connected, though,” I admitted as I set my hat down on the table and took a seat.
He shook his head again, still disbelievin’, as he got the pot from the stove and poured me a cup of coffee. “Honestly, when you left here, Jess, I figured you’d be livin’ by that gun I see you’re still wearin’. And there ain’t many last long in that life. Even ones fast as you.”
“I did have to use it a time or two after I pulled out a’here, I drifted around a bit more til I got to Laramie, which is a real nice town but ain’t exactly civilized yet. A man still needs his guns there.” I paused and drank deep of the strong, hot brew—another thing that hadn’t changed on the JB. The coffee there had always been near strong enough to melt a horseshoe.
“Ranchin’ suits you then?” Big John had taken a seat across the table from me and was working on draining his own mug of Arbuckles.
“Yeah, I reckon it does,” I admitted.
He nodded, his big hands cupping the chipped coffee mug. “You always were a good hand, Jess. You could have stayed here, you know.”
“I know. But I wasn’t ready to be puttin’ down roots then.”
The old rancher nodded, and we finished our coffee in friendly silence. When the mugs were empty, the two of us went outside to get down to business.
Big John had a whole corral full of handsome two-year old colts ready for me to look at, sleek-coated and bright-eyed young stallions, mostly sorrels and chestnuts and a couple of bays, any one of which would have been worth his price. I looked each one over real close, considering conformation and assessing temperament. Finally, I settled on two that I wanted a closer look at, so I roped one and then he called a hand out of the barn to rope the other. A kid walked out, head down and feet shufflin’ in the dust, spurs jinglin’, swingin’ a loop as he headed toward the corral gate.
I was busy with the colt I’d roped, who was no outlaw but full of energy, fractious enough to be a handful. He was making it difficult for me to get a halter on him when out of the blue he reared up and danced sideways. I dodged a flying hoof which set me off balance, and the rope began pulling through my hands. Suddenly, the kid leapt into motion, taking hold of the rope and talking calmly to the horse in a soft voice and reaching out to stroke the young stallion’s neck. The colt settled right back down on all four feet, pretty as you please, like a lady’s pet. Now I’m a fair hand with a horse, but I was impressed with how quick he quieted that young stallion.
The kid stroked the colt’s neck once more and then slipped the halter on while the animal stood meek as Mike’s gentle ol’ Buttercup. Done, the young ranchhand turned to me and handed over the lead rope. “He ain’t got a bad bone in his body, mister; he just don’t know ya,” he said. He raised his face and looked me in the eye for the first time, and when he did, a real odd thing happened.
He stopped dead in his tracks, and it was like he’d just seen a ghost-- his eyes went all wide and the color drained out of his face and he gulped, his Adam’s apple bobbin’. He stood froze in place for a second, and then he spun on his heel and hurried toward the corral like he couldn’t get away from me fast enough. “I’ll catch that other colt for ya,” he said without lookin’ back at me, and I thought I could hear a tremble in his voice.
What in blue blazes was that all about?
I’ve got a fair eye for recognizin’ faces, but I couldn’t recall ever seeing him before, though there was some little bit of memory ticklin’ at the back of my brain, like he was familiar from somewhere, but I couldn’t quite get a handle on it.
Just then, Big John interrupted my train of thought, tellin’ me all about the colt I was lookin’ at. I tried gettin’ another look at the kid, but he had his back to me, seemed sort of purposeful like, as he roped the other two year old and tied him to the fence rail.
“That kid’s got a nice way with horses,” I said, still tryin’ to figure out how I knew him, or more importantly, how he knew me. “He worked for you long?”
“Lew? No, he rode in here all alone just before last Christmas lookin’ for a job.” Big John looked over at me and grinned. “He sort of reminded me of another wanderin’ cowboy I gave a job to once. That feller had a way with horses, too.” He laughed and slapped me on the back. “Now, let’s see which one of these colts you want, eh.”
John and I spent the rest of the afternoon dickerin’, while I contemplated which colt I liked better, but my thoughts kept driftin’ back to that kid’s strange reaction to comin’ face to face with me. He’d acted like he was scared to death. Now I know I ain’t exactly pretty to look at, and I can be downright scary at times, but I don’t usually provoke a fearsome reaction like that one, neither.
By the time Big John and I had finished supper, I’d made a deal to buy the first colt, the sorrel that the kid had quieted down, and I was planning to start for home with the horse first thing in the morning.
It seemed strange to spend the evenin’ in the house, treated like an equal by a man I’d once worked for, at a place where I’d eaten and bedded down in the bunk house as just another hand. But I was a rancher now, and respectable, and that was still a whole new thing I was feelin’ my way through like a scout ridin' a new trail, so I reckoned some of my uneasiness was due to that. Big John provided me with a nice room in the house with a comfortable, soft bed, and despite all the restless thoughts rollin’ through my head like tumbleweeds ridin’ the wind, I fell asleep quick.
In the middle of the night, I woke up, popped wide awake, suddenly knowin’ exactly who Lew really was.
Oh, I hadn’t gotten much of a look at him back on that day half a year ago, the day three masked men held up the stage I’d been driving on that cold November day. But I did remember that one of them, the one who got away, had done a man’s job holdin’ the horses. And I had spent near a whole week lookin’ at his brothers’ faces for hours on end in that Medicine Bow courtroom. Too bad for him, he did resemble his kin a whole bunch—his kin who’d been caught and tried and sentenced to a long, long time in a Wyoming jail.
I stayed awake a long time that night, wrestlin’ with what I ought to do with what I‘d just figured out. Of course, I knew exactly what Slim would have done, but that’s him and his way and not me and my way. See, while a lot of him and his law-abidin’ ways have rubbed off on me, I don’t think the same way he does and, partners or not, I never will-– I just can’t bring myself to trust the law that far. And to be honest, I always figured that there’s what the law says, and then there’s what the law means, and the two ain’t always the same thing. The letter of the law don’t always leave room for real justice, or so I reckon. Sometimes, a man has to figure out for himself just how it ought to be that the law, and justice, fit together.
It’s a lot to think about.
My sleep, what little I got of it that night, wasn’t very restful, but come dawn, I’d settled on just what it was I was gonna do.
Knowin’ the routine at the Bredeson ranch, I rousted out early, dressed quick in the chill mornin’ air, and went looking for the kid. The pitch black sky was barely softenin’ to grey in the east, and the rooster hadn’t even crowed yet, but I could see lights and motion down in the bunkhouse. I put on my jacket and sauntered out in search of a cup of coffee. And a ranch hand named Lew.
I didn’t recognize any of the other faces in Big John’s crew-- none of them were men who’d worked there back when I rode for the JB brand, but that had been seven, no, eight years ago now, not long after the war. Bredeson had kept a rough bunch of hands in those days because there’d been trouble comin’ at him from all sides-- rustlers and landgrabbers, troublemakers and outlaws and Indians. Trouble serious enough, I recalled, that he’d appreciated a kid who was quick with a gun as well as good with a horse.
Soon as Lew saw me walk in, he got up, grabbed his hat and ducked out the back door, tryin’ to look casual about it. I waited while the cook poured me a cup of coffee, thanked him, and then I took it out to the porch, sippin’ it slow while I glanced around. The sun was up a bit more by then, the sky turnin’ a rosy pink in the east, and already the light was gettin’ stronger, enough so that I could see the kid was over by the corral, groomin’ the sorrel colt I’d bought. I strolled over to the fence, draped one arm over the top rail and hooked a boot on the bottom rail and waited. He knew I was there, but he didn’t look at me, just kept his back turned and his hands busy with the brush. Finally, I said, “Nice mornin’. I think it’s gonna be a mite warm today, though.”
He nodded, not lookin’ my way. “Likely.”
I took another drink of my coffee and said, real soft, “I know who you are.”
His shoulders tightened and his whole body stiffened and his hands stopped movin’, the fingers clutchin‘ the brush goin’ white. “I’m Lew Walthrop,” he said, though he didn’t sound very convincin’.
“That might be your name now, but I know it ain’t the one you an’ your brothers were born with. The brothers tried and convicted of holdin’ up an Overland stage near to Laramie, Wyoming, ‘bout six months ago. I was drivin’ that stage. An’ I spent a few days at their trial, sittin’ there an’ lookin’ at the two of them.” I sipped my coffee. “You favor them more than a bit.”
His shoulders slumped, and he leaned over the colt’s back, his head hangin’ low, the picture of misery.
I kept my voice level and friendly, like we were having nothin’ more than a nice mornin’ talk about the weather. “You know they’re in jail for a real long time. Lucky they didn’t hang. That rancher died, in case you didn’t know.”
“I know. I read the papers.” There was a bit of a tremble in his voice, and a real noticeable sag to his shoulders.
“Why’d you ride with ‘em?”
He turned around to look at me before lettin’ his eyes drop to study the dust at his feet. It was my first good look at him, and I was surprised to see how young he really was, a bunch younger than I’d thought, near the same age I’d been when I’d taken off on my own, I reckoned. And that was mighty young.
“Why? Just dumb I guess. I spent my whole life on the farm, workin’ with my pa. But he died of a fever last summer. I tried keepin’ the place runnin’ on my own, but even when there was the two of us, there was more work than we could handle. My brothers, they’re a lot older’n me. They’d left home years before, and I hadn’t seen ‘em since ‘cuz Pa, he always run ‘em off, didn’t want me hangin’ around with ‘em. But I guess they heard Pa died and come home.” The shakiness was back in his voice. “I knew I was gonna lose the farm, and I was broke and alone, so I went with them. They said they was gonna help me along. I know that ain’t no excuse for goin’ with ‘em, Mister Harper. I knew they were wanted men and all, but they were all the kin I had.”
And to a young kid fresh off the farm who didn’t know any better, their lives as desperados might seem all bright and shiny, I was thinkin’.
“I should’a knowed they didn’t care if they dragged me along with ‘em on the outlaw trail.” He looked up at me, meetin’ my eyes for the first time. “Mister Harper, that day, that was the first time, the one and only time, I ever rode with my brothers, I swear. I just wanted a stake to get out of the country and make a fresh start.”
“There’s nothin’ fresh about startin’ with stolen money.”
“Gawd, I know that now. I thought it would be easy, and no one would get hurt, but I was so scared the whole time, and then, when the shootin’ started, I-I…I didn’t know what to do. So I ran.” He looked scared now, too.
“You didn’t draw your gun.” If he’d have started shootin’ that day in the midst of that holdup, it was all but sure that more than just one man would have died, myself likely included.
“I couldn’t ever shoot nobody, Mister Harper. Honest. I’ve never shot anybody. Not ever. I was just there to hold the horses. Nobody was supposed to get killed.”
Intended or not, a man had died that day, and that was somethin’ hard to overlook. I drained the last of my coffee, all the while lookin’ at him over the rim of my cup, and the words that came spillin’ out of my mouth surprised me. “You know, there was another fellah once, young and dumb like you, who didn’t always latch onto the best folks to ride with, either. He walked the fine line of the law for a time, maybe even crossed it once or twice and got away with it. All it would’a took was a little nudge to send him over onto the wrong side of it permanent. But he was lucky. He walked away from the wrong friends and found himself a right one. Found himself a job, a good job, and he stayed there, and he put down roots, and now he’s a…” I grinned, remembering how warm I’d felt that cold Christmas Day when I’d become a partner in the Sherman outfit, and puffed my chest out a bit. “Now he’s a substantial man.” I looked the kid in the eye and fixed him with a steady glare. “And he’s a man who’s willin’ to give another man a second chance.”
I saw his eyes go wide as he took in what I was sayin’, a look of hope replacin’ the fear I’d seen on his young face. “You sayin’ you ain’t gonna turn me in?”
I sighed. “Not if you give me your word you’re gonna toe the straight and narrow. Work an honest job like this one. Stay outta trouble.”
“I will. I promise. I like it here,” he answered eagerly.
“John Bredeson is a good man. He’ll treat you fair.”
I looked him in the eye and fixed a glare on him that I hoped would scare him more than the sight of me had scared him the day before. “Keep your word, then, and that’s good enough for me.”
He nodded, and then he took a step toward me, and stopped. “I don’t know how to thank you.”
I waved a hand at him. “Just consider it a gift, Lew.”
“A Christmas gift, one that I’m passin’ on to you.”
He looked puzzled. “Ain’t nowheres near Christmas, Mister Harper.”
I grinned. “I know, kid, I know. But sometimes, you get the best gifts when things are lookin’ the darkest, an’ you least expect ‘em. Remember that.”
I made the long ride back to Laramie with that colt, and he turned out to be every bit as important to the ranch’s success as I’d hoped. He sired a whole string of good horses for us, horses that could work cattle and carry a rider, horses that made us a tidy profit and helped keep the ranch in business. To this day, his blood runs in the stock that grazes in our pastures.
As for that kid, I never saw him after that mornin’, but over the years I heard good things about him from John Bredeson. Lew stayed on at the JB, became a top hand, and eventually worked his way up to bein’ foreman.
Lew turned out to be a substantial man.
x----------x The End x----------x