Life shouldn’t be this good. Jess Harper’s daddy always said a man has to work hard to get ahead. He has to work from dawn till dark and then maybe, if he’s a good man, and maybe if he stays away from liquor and other vices, he might die with a few dollars in his pocket. And maybe, if he’s really good and even more lucky, he might die with the love of a good woman.
Well, Jess figured he didn’t have either one of those things. He had a total of eighty-seven dollars in the bank, twelve dollars in his pocket, and zero prospects for a good woman. Thinking about his daddy usually made him sad. Jess’ dad died too young. Murdered, along with most of the rest of his family by the Bannisters when his father was only thirty-five years old. But today, not even that horrible memory could diminish his good spirits.
Jess rode the trail along the northernmost edge of the Sherman ranch, an area seldom traversed and even less frequently used. The terrain was steep and rocky and the pastureland was sparse. Once a year, just before winter set in for good, Slim and Jess rode up, stayed for a few days in the line shack and routed out all the stragglers. The steers that stubbornly refused to join their brothers down in the lower pastures and the warmer, more hospitable climes. Those that didn’t come down on this last trek of the year were most likely doomed to a winter of hard snows and little food. Few if any would survive.
This year, however, things were different. Slim wasn’t able to come. He had to stay at the ranch to meet with the superintendent of the stage line. The meeting couldn’t be postponed and Slim had no choice although he would much rather be up in the hills, riding the range with Jess. They had always enjoyed this trip. It got them away from the routine of the ranch for a few days, and out in the wide open. No Indians in this area, no other people at all, usually.
The other thing that was different this year was the absence of Jess’ favorite horse, Traveler. He had pulled up lame yesterday and needed to rest that leg. So, Jess had chosen another horse from the remuda. A good little cutting horse with short, fast legs and lots of power. Jess wasn’t much for naming all the horses, but Mike called this one Bob.
Slim had taken these as bad omens. Best to put off the trip for a few days until he could go, and maybe Traveler could go. They argued about it last night and Jess finally won. If they waited any longer, the snows could come and they’d have to just turn around and come back and kiss those cattle goodbye. Rather than risk that, Jess’ plan was to get up there early, get done in a day, stay overnight and head back the next day. With a fast horse, and no distractions, he should be able to finish and be home by nightfall tomorrow.
Jess wasn’t usually an introspective man. He generally let life come as it will. He didn’t dwell too much in the past, and rarely thought about the future. He had labored many years to overcome and put behind him the tragic story of his family. He had avenged them, and had moved on, not dwelling in that dark place. He had parts of his past that he’d soon as forget too, if others would let him. Overall, the last few years working side by side with Slim on the ranch had made him stronger, more content and certainly more appreciative of what life had to offer. Even that had taken awhile.
When he first came to Laramie, Jess was a drifter with a less than reputable past and a non-existent future. With his cavalier disregard for responsibility and his stubborn avoidance of attachments, he was most likely destined to be alone always. His lightning fast draw and penchant for confrontations made an early grave a distinct possibility.
Oh, he could defend himself all right. He was a skilled gunfighter when necessary and an artful pugilist when the need arose. Being confident in those skills made him wade into battles that were not necessarily his own, whether for money, or for principle. He rarely backed down from a fight, and as such, a certain reputation came to dog him.
Jess normally found himself on the side of the underdog. The small rancher against the vast landowner, or the small village of pioneers against marauding bandits. He didn’t seek out that type of trouble, but he seemed drawn to it nevertheless. That’s probably why he was always broke when, by rights, he should’ve been able to earn a good living with his gun alone. That aspect of the drifter’s life never appealed to him and that at least was something he could be proud of.
He couldn’t say he’d never done anything to be ashamed of, but he could say he’d always tried to do the right thing and for that, he knew his daddy would be proud.
Today, Jess had woken up in a great mood. The day was clear and crisp. The sky was robin’s egg blue with high wispy white clouds. The air was cold, but not uncomfortably so. Jess had on his thick leather gloves, chaps and his heavy coat with his hat pulled down tight and his collar standing up. He left the house before dawn this morning, even before breakfast, to get an early start up to the high country. Daisy had left him a big sack of grub and had packed him a breakfast to eat on the trail. The house was dark and quiet and everyone still asleep when he left. He had said his farewells last night and had ridden out in the dark before the cold dawn.
It was late afternoon and he had already rounded up fourteen steers and herded them into the small corral by the line shack. He wasn’t expecting to find more than a dozen, so was pleased with his work for the day. He’d found two more stragglers and was pushing them back to the shack, taking his time. He was in no hurry. This was his last trip out and he would be leaving early in the morning after making one last sweep after sun up.
Jess’ sense of well-being wasn’t foreign to him; he was generally a content soul. He had a good life here and was happy to be able to count Slim, Mike and Daisy as his family. Sure, there had been bad times, but knowing that he had folks who cared if he lived or died was a feeling that Jess had lacked for a long time, and now that he had it, he never took it for granted.
Last night he had sat up late with Mike, helping with his homework. Jess had some schooling and could write and add and subtract, and he was always pleased when he was able to help Mike out. It kept him up on his letters and numbers as well. Slim was always trying to get him to read books, but he was never much of one for just sitting. He read the newspapers because he could do it in one sitting, but he always got a sense of accomplishment when he helped Mike, and he suspected Daisy and Slim put Mike up to asking.
Yesterday had been an anniversary of sorts. It wasn’t one that anyone else observed. No one else probably even knew. Slim would be the only one who might remember, but it wasn’t in his nature to think of such. It was five years ago yesterday that Jess had first ridden into Laramie. What an eventful day that had been, but by the end of it, Jess was at the beginning of a new life. There had been a lot of bumps in the road, but five years later, he was still here, and still glad he was. Last year, Slim had made him a full partner in the ranch, sealing his ties to this land and to their life here.
That must be the source of his extraordinary good mood today. Jess stopped his horse and threw a leg over the saddle horn. He reached for his canteen and took a few swallows and hung it back on the horn. He then took off his hat and ran a hand through his dark, curly hair while he gazed up at the winter sky. The sun was low and the temperature was dropping, but it had sure been a beautiful day.
He settled his hat firmly back on his head, tugged his collar up a bit higher, and urged his horse on, slowly herding the two steers toward the setting sun, and the little line shack where he would spend the night.
If there had been a warning, he had missed it. Later he cursed himself for not being more observant, but at that moment, his thoughts were on getting out of the wind and getting his supper on the fire. With no more than the sound of a thud to alert him, Jess found himself holding on to his saddle and the reins as the little horse reared and twisted in a panic. Jess caught a glimpse of a large brown animal on the back of one of the steers about ten feet ahead, but all he could do right now was try to stay on his horse.
The horse, in its panic, bucked and ran right into the second steer that was itself running away from the mountain lion that had claimed its companion. As the two animals collided, Jess was thrown off the horse’s back, landing hard on the rocky ground. With the horse and the steer tangled up directly over him, he rolled, trying to get out of the way of flailing hooves.
The horse stopped rearing and bolted off in one direction, while the steer darted in another. One large cloven hoof hit its mark directly in the center of Jess’ lower leg. The sickening sound of bone breaking could be heard over the agonizing screams of the steer being killed by the lion. A sharp, crushing pain pierced Jess’ body like the slash of a giant sword, knocking the breath out of him, and forcing him to freeze and concentrate all of his energy on remaining conscious.
Acutely aware of the proximity of the mountain lion, Jess forced his eyes open to locate it. He could see it had chased down the steer about fifty yards away and was on top of its prone, presumably dead body. He looked around for his horse, but couldn’t see it, nor the steer that it had tangled with.
Looking behind him, he could see that he was about ten yards from a small outcropping of rock, the only shelter in the area. There was a tree line about two hundred yards east, but that was out of the question. Keeping his eye on the lion, he slowly, and painfully dragged himself back toward the rocks. Feeling for his holster, he was relieved to find that his gun was still strapped in it. At least he had that if the lion decided it wanted more than beef for its dinner. His rifle was probably still strapped in its scabbard on his saddle, which could be five miles away by now.
Not daring to take his eyes off the lion, he made slow, halting progress. The ground was rocky and uneven, and every bump, every dip sent excruciating pain through his leg. He tried to keep his mind occupied by reciting everything he knew about mountain lions. He knew they were normally shy, reclusive creatures. They lived high in the hills, preferring rocky bluffs and remote areas. They killed large game, but rarely attacked humans unless starving and the human was vulnerable. Man-eaters were extremely rare despite the dime novels claims.
Jess was not a hunter unless the need for food arose, and he had never shot a mountain lion. He wasn’t even sure if a .45 revolver could kill one, certainly not from this distance. He hoped he didn’t have to find out. He hoped the steer would keep it occupied and it would be sated and then wander off to wherever it had come from.
Jess felt the hard, cold rock against his back. There were two large boulders that were sitting together, forming a very small alcove where they met. He scooted over to that, hoping to wedge himself in and become, if not invisible, at least unobtrusive. He could easily defend himself if the cat approached from the front, but if it came from the rocky ledges above, it could be on top of him before he had time to react.
The prospect of a long, dark and cold night was upon him, and he had little choice but to dig in and wait it out. Keeping one eye on the cat, still eating its kill, Jess tried to examine his leg. It was definitely broken, but there was no blood. The bone had not punctured through the skin. He dared not try to remove his boot, but he pulled his pants leg up a little ways. The entire area just above his boot was swelling and already a deep purple. It was bleeding under the skin. Jess removed his bandana and, laying it as flat across his lower leg as he could, he tightened it around the area to provide a small amount of pressure to hopefully slow down the internal bleeding. The pain was too bad to stand much pressure, but he held it for awhile and then released it. He realized that he had squeezed his eyes shut and tears were escaping down his cheeks. Checking the leg again, it didn’t look to have swollen any further, so he decided to leave the bandana tied as tight as he could stand it, which wasn’t very tight at all.
He couldn’t risk passing out, so setting the bone was out of the question, even if he had something to brace his leg with. No, his only course right now was to survive the night, and then tomorrow, hope for help to come.
Jess thought of Bob. He was a good horse, Jess had ridden him before, had even taken him to Cheyenne once. The best chance he had right now was Bob and his attachment to Mike and his stall at home. Bob was a homebody and he loved that boy, probably because Mike was forever feeding him apples. Daisy had to threaten Mike with an apple pie shortage if her apples didn’t stop disappearing.
If Bob did what Jess expected, he could easily be home by eleven or twelve o’clock tonight. If he went straight home and if he ran most of the way, and if he made enough noise so Slim would hear him, then maybe… Slim wouldn’t be able to leave before daylight, no matter how much he would want to, and that would put him here around midday at the earliest. The prospect of a night and half a day sitting on the cold hard ground with no food or water was not a pleasant one, but even that was his best chance. His worst chance didn’t bear thinking about.
Jess continued to watch the mountain lion as it devoured a portion of the steer. In less than an hour, it would be too dark to see anything, and then Jess would have to rely on his hearing. He braced himself for the long night ahead.