The Gift                      

A Laramie fic by Badger

Summary: It’s a Christmas Jess will never forget (and answers one of those great unanswered questions of the show) (Dec. 2009)

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Part One

It was me, Jess Harper, handling the lines the day the Holman boys tried to hold up the westbound stage.

 

It ain’t often that I ride the box on regular runs. Slim and me, we’ve got more’n enough work just running the ranch, and the Overland company hires its own drivers, and good ones they are. But that morning, Hank took sick and Charlie was set to take the afternoon run and Mose, he was already driving east to Cheyenne. And while Ernie ain’t bad as a shotgun, he had no driving experience whatsoever.  So on such short notice, there wasn’t no one else but me. Besides, it was only a short run up to Medicine Bow where I’d turn the rig over to someone else to take it on to Rawlins and then on up to Rock Springs. I'd catch me the next morning's coach back to Laramie.

 

I didn't grouse none about taking the run – in fact, I sorta welcomed the chance. I like a break in the ranch routine, guess that goes back to my days on the drift when I saw new territory pretty near every day. I still get a hankering to look at fresh scenery on regular occasions, wanderlust is what Slim likes to call it. You can call it whatever you want, but I do need to set my eyes on new country every now and again.

 

So yeah, I pretty much jumped at the chance to climb up to the box and take the lines. Now don’t get me wrong. I ain’t claiming to be nowhere near the driver Mose is. Honestly I don’t know anyone who is, but, not bragging or anything, I am a fair enough hand with the lines. And, though I wouldn’t want to do it every day, I sort’a do like driving. Slim would probably say that’s because I’ll take about any excuse to get out of real work around the ranch, but driving a four-up *is* real work — anyone who's ever done it can tell you that. A man’s gotta have strong arms, strong hands and a strong back, a lot of practice teamstering to get that feel for the road and your load, and know his horses. And the team I had that day, like all the Overland teams, it was a good one. My leaders were Bill and Dan and the wheelers were Scotch and Spot.  Bill and Dan like to run, and you've got to keep them well in hand or they’re like to run off with you, but Scotch and Spot are good, solid working stock, honest critters who’ll take good care of you so long as you don’t make too many mistakes.

 

It's a balancing act, letting the horses gallop at a pace that won't wear ‘em out too soon and yet cover enough ground to keep to the schedule, all the while being mindful of the fact that you could be in sudden need of some extra speed in case of a run-in with Indians or outlaws or the like.

 

I reckon stage driving is sort of like a controlled stampede, and that’s why I like it.

 

We had three passengers that day, a rail-thin, bewhiskered whiskey drummer, a quiet lady on her way to San Francisco who might have been pretty if she didn’t look so tired, and a prosperous rancher, or so he seemed from the cut of his clothes.  We also carried the mail pouch and a strongbox with $500 in it. That’s not big money, nowhere near the amount of some of the big payrolls and such that we haul, but it ain’t chicken feed, neither, and I had Ernie Whitlock riding shotgun on the trip.

 

It was near the middle of November and the day was cool with enough of a chill in the wind to remind me that winter was just around the corner.

 

Thinkin’ back , I suppose those owlhoots were in need of some cash to get themselves through the winter, but picking on my run was a seriously bad mistake on their part.

 

Still, those Holman boys had robbed stages before, and it showed in how they picked their spot.

 

I’d just crossed the big flat along the river, letting the horses have their heads and get up a good gallop before we reached the bottom of the first of a long string of hills that would take us up and over the pass. I eased the team down a notch to climb that first grade and just over the crest of it, in a spot where the trees come down close to the road on both sides, the road was blocked by the bulk of a big fallen pine.

 

I hauled back on the reins and shouted “Whoa!” because there was no where to go around it and sure as sunrise no going over it, not if I wanted to keep the stage, and the passengers, in one piece. Bill and Dan fought the sudden change, but Scotch and ol’ Spot, good boys that they were, heeded the reins, pulling right up and saving us from what I reckon would have been a horrific  crash.

 

All my attention was by necessity on getting the horses in hand and I missed the men that came racing out of the trees. Ernie let out a holler but it was already too late — one of the outlaws, a man wearing a brown shirt with a bandanna covering the lower half of his face, had just that quick moved into place at the head of the leaders, taking hold of Bill’s bridle. The other two bandits, faces also covered, were aiming their guns at us. Ernie had his Winchester up and pointed right back at them, but we were outnumbered and outgunned, and we all knew it.

 

Under my breath I muttered a few words that Daisy would have disapproved of.

 

The three hold-up men were rough looking owlhoots in long duster coats with their hats pulled low and bandannas covering their faces.

 

“Easy boys,” the one wearing a pair of pistols and a grey Stetson ordered, waving his gun at Ernie and me. “You, throw down the gun and no one gets hurt.”

 

Ernie looked over at me and I nodded in agreement, giving him the go-ahead to follow the order. Though neither one of us was happy about what was happening, this wasn’t the time to make a fight of it. Unhappily, he tossed down the rifle, glaring at the outlaws.

 

“Your handguns, too. Both of you. Real easy like.”

 

Scowling, I eased my iron out of the holster using just two fingers and tossed it into the dirt at the feet of grey hat’s horse. The critter jumped a bit, but he reined the animal around.  Smiling, he waved his Colt at Ernie and issued another order. “Now toss down that box.”

 

“Ain’t much in it,” I informed him.

 

Grey hat’s glance shifted to me and right on by, dismissing me. “We’ll see, driver. Just toss it down anyway.”

 

Ernie pulled the box out from under the seat and dropped it to the ground.

 

“And now the mailbag,” the outlaw ordered.

 

Still looking ready to spit nails, Ernie tossed it to the ground, too.

 

“Now you two get down.”  He waved his gun at us again so I set the brake and wrapped the lines tight around it before following Ernie down to the ground, careful to keep my hands good and high. The passengers were already out of the coach, lined up with their hands raised as the third man, wearing a red neckerchief up over the lower half of his face, kept his pistol pointed at them.

 

Once we were down, grey hat stepped off his horse, picked up the rifle and the Colts and tossed them into the brush. He strolled on over to the strongbox and shot at the lock, the slug busting the clasp and whining angrily off into the rocks. Dan, one of the leaders and always the jumpy one, reared up and I thought he was going to bolt and take the rest of the team with him. Brown shirt, though, had a real firm hand on Bill’s bridle and somehow he kept the team from running off, but it was surely a struggle.

 

Course, I couldn’t blame that horse, I jumped a bit myself when he fired that shot.

 

Grey hat dug the money out of the box, rifling through it quick, and I thought that he looked a mite disappointed. Well, I’d warned him there was lean pickings.

 

Apparently planning to make up for the lack of loot in another way, he turned to the passengers and ordered them to give up their wallets.

 

That’s when, thanks to one stubborn fool, it all came apart and the lead started flying.

 

The lady looked about ready to faint and the drummer was handing over his money meek as you please, but I noticed the other passenger, the cattleman from Cheyenne, got this sudden stubborn look on his face that just shouted trouble. He was reaching into his pocket for what we all thought was his wallet when his hand emerged instead with a gun, a little double-barreled derringer, small but deadly, and it was aimed right at grey hat’s heart.

 

Outlaw number two, the one wearing the red neckerchief, shot the cattleman.

 

That took grey hat, who was standing sort of in front of me, by surprise and he spun sideways and shot the unarmed Ernie, who was making a move toward where our guns lay just off to the side of the road.

 

Grey hat’s mistake, though, was to disregard the driver, not knowing, of course, that I was no regular driver but a man who’s more than ordinarily skilled with a gun.

 

In that instant when his attention was on Ernie, his second pistol, still in its holster, was only inches from my hand.

 

I snatched it, and in one quick move ducked to my left and shot grey hat, who was turning his gun toward me. Red neckerchief’s iron spit lead at me and I felt the slug burn across my right shoulder just as I fired back at him. My bullet didn’t miss and he hit the ground hard, slumping like a sack of potatoes.

 

Gunsmoke drifted away on the breeze, and in the sudden quiet, I heard hoofbeats rattling away down the road at a flat-out gallop. Brown shirt was hightailing it out of the country.

 

I took grey hat’s gun from his hand and tossed it away, then walked over and kicked red  neckerchief’s Colt away from his fingers. They were both unconscious, but still alive.

 

Ernie was awake, mostly, and moaning a bit, a slug in his shoulder, but I reckoned he’d live. The rancher hadn’t been so lucky — he’d been plugged dead center, and while he was still breathing, it was plain it wouldn’t be for long. The other two passengers were the only undamaged ones among us, though you wouldn’t hardly know it. The drummer was sitting down on the ground, shaking like a leaf, and the lady was also sitting in the dirt in a heap and, despite the cool air, fanning herself as she breathed in ragged gulps, looking like she might keel over in a dead faint at any second.

 

Blood was trickling down my arm, warm and wet, dripping from where the bullet had cut a furrow across the top of my shoulder. Though it stung a lot and was gonna add another scar to my collection, I quickly decided it wasn’t gonna kill me. I wrapped my neckerchief ‘round my arm and turned back to the coach.

 

Neither the drummer nor the lady, shape they were in, were showing any signs of being any real help, so I got to work. I gathered up all the guns and stuffed them under the seat, then got Ernie propped up against the wheel of the coach. The lady was revived some now and tending him, but by then the rancher had already breathed his last. I dragged the drummer to his feet and between the two of us we hoisted the wounded outlaws into the coach and put the rancher’s body on the floor.

 

Once we got Ernie and the lady into the coach with the still shaky drummer, crowded now with the wounded and the dead, I clambered back up to the box and slowly eased the stage off the road, carefully winding around between a scattering of trees, and then back onto the trail.

 

We were more than two hours late getting in to the Medicine Bow depot, and a miserable few hours it was. My shoulder had stiffened up and was paining me something fierce. Handling the lines on the stage is a wearing job with two good hands and arms — with one aching like the devil, it was a wonder I didn’t wreck us on the way in, even keeping the horses to nothing more than a trot.

 

We finally pulled into town and got all the passengers unloaded, the living and the dead. I spent a goodly amount of time talking to the sheriff, explaining everything that had happened, and then finally I got to go see the doc myself. By then he had the outlaws and Ernie all tended to, the lady had some color back in her face, the rancher was being taken care of down at the undertaker’s, and the whiskey drummer was over to the saloon drinking up his own wares.

 

Me, I was ready to find a bed and sleep for a week.

 

It didn’t take long at the Doc’s — he just cleaned my shoulder and wrapped a bandage round it, warning me to keep it covered for a spell. Then, all but staggering with weariness, I found my way to the hotel, signed in for a room, and once inside, flopped on the lumpy bed and was asleep as soon as my head hit the equally lumpy pillow.

< ---------- >< ---------- >>

 

I was finishing my second cup of coffee at breakfast the next morning when the sheriff walked into the café, looked around, spied me and hurried on over.

 

“We identified your outlaws, Harper,” he reported.

 

They weren’t exactly ‘my’ outlaws, so I figured, but I was glad they wouldn’t be robbing any stages again, not anytime soon.

 

“They’re the Holman brothers, from down Denver way.”

 

I’d heard of them. Trouble makers from the get-go, and wanted for a bunch of robberies. “And the other one? The one that skedaddled?” I asked, draining my cup and waving the waitress over for a refill.

 

“No sign of him. I sent my deputy and a scout to follow his trail but I don’t reckon we’ll catch up to him. I don’t think he’ll show up back in this country for quite a while – my figurin’, he’s probably half way to Mexico by now.” The sheriff was eying me. “So you’re Jess Harper. I kept thinking your name sounded mighty familiar, and then I remembered talkin’ to Mort Cory. You do some deputyin’ for him down in Laramie, don’t ya?”

 

“Yeah. On occasion.”

 

He smiled, as if pleased that he’d recollected me right. “I’ve heard you’re good with your gun, Mr. Harper.”

 

“Good enough to keep me alive.”

 

He nodded. “Reckon so. Those Holmen boys each had posters out on ‘em, and the bank in Overton and the Wells Fargo company each had rewards out on those two. Comes to $350 a piece. I’ll have them wire the money to Laramie, if that’s okay with you.”

 

I shrugged. It’s not that I don’t appreciate money, because I do, but I’d never shoot a man for the reward, and taking that kind of money, bounty money, always has bothered me. Well, maybe I’d find some good use for it. “That’ll be fine, sheriff.”

< ---------- >

 

I rode the stage home that afternoon, relieved to let someone else do the driving, and even more relieved that we didn’t see any more outlaws.

 

Back at the ranch, Daisy fussed over me like a hen with fresh-hatched chicks, and I sort of laid the dodge on ol’ Slim and foisted most all of the chores off on him because of my wound, but it wasn’t nothin’ serious, and we all knew it. It quit hurtin’ after a couple of days, I got back to my regular work, and soon enough things settled back to normal. The reward money arrived and I put it in my bank account along with the money I’d been saving from my wages, and really didn’t give it much more thought.

 

Part Two

 

It was a couple of weeks later when, one night right after supper, Slim asked to talk to me. I had just taken a seat in my favorite chair in front of the fire. Daisy was tucking Mike into bed; I could hear her reading him a bedtime story. Slim was sitting at the desk, the ranch books open in front of him. He’d been working diligently on them most of the day, tallying up the year-end profit and loss totals, he’d explained.

 

“Sure, Slim. What’s up?” His face was so somber and serious and sort of uncomfortable looking, that I couldn’t resist adding lightly, “What did I do this time, pard? Forget to close the corral gate and the horses got out?”

 

“No.” His mood didn’t lighten and he looked down and away, not meeting my eyes. “It’s nothin’ you did, Jess. It’s just, well, you know the cattle we sold on the drive this fall didn’t bring what I was expectin’.”

 

“Yeah, the bottom sure dropped out of the beef market.”

 

He nodded glumly. “And Allen Harris, up at the Harley Creek mine, he only contracted for half the stock he bought last year.”

 

“I know. I sure wasn’t expectin’ that.”

 

“And I’m not too sure that Mr. Woodson at the railroad’s gonna buy that hundred head he was askin’ about, either.”

 

“Never trust the railroad,” I agreed, shaking my head in commiseration.

 

“And Andy’s schoolin’ costs more each year.”

 

I knew about all the bad news, and I wasn’t surprised. Seems like ranching is like that, one year up, the next year down. “We’ll get by,” I suggested optimistically.

 

“Well,” he looked away and then back at me, but his eyes wouldn’t meet mine. “Well, Jess, I was sort’a wonderin’, did you ever spend that reward money you got for those stage robbers, the Holmans?”

 

It was an odd question coming from him, but I answered anyway because I don’t have any secrets from Slim. “Nope. It’s all in the bank, every penny of it.” Slim was always encouraging me to save my money, saying that someday I’d need it and be sorry that I’d wasted what I’d worked so hard to earn, but I’d never been much concerned about it.

 

He still wasn’t looking me in the eye, which began to really worry me, and then his next words caught me totally by surprise. “Jess, would you be willing to loan a thousand dollars to me? If you have that much.”

 

“Loan you a thousand dollars?” I did have it, what with the reward money and the other cash I’d put away, and I would lend it to him – heck, I’d give Slim anything I owned, everything I owned as a matter of fact, if he needed it. But Slim’s asking had my attention for sure. It was just real shocking of him to be asking me for money. I knew the ranching business was going through a rough patch but I didn’t think times were no where near that bad.

 

Slim was sounding kind of embarrassed to be asking. “Yeah, just to tide us over ‘til the ranch finances straighten around. You know how it is this time of year. Money goin’ out and none comin’ in.”

 

“Sure, Slim, whatever you need.” I wouldn’t have that money in the bank, nor a place to call home, without him and what he’d done for me, and I know it.

 

“You’re sure?” he asked.

 

“Of course I’m sure.” Slim’s the most trustworthy man I know, yet, right then, there was something in his voice, something wrong and off that bothered me, and I couldn’t put a finger on it. But in the end, it didn’t matter. Slim had asked, and I was gonna help him out and neither the why nor the wherefore mattered. Besides, it was only money.

 

The next day we rode in to town and I withdrew the cash and gave it to him. Solemnly, he wrote me out a receipt for it. “Received from Jess Harper, Dec. 3, 1873, cash of $1,000” and signed his name with a flourish before handing the paper to me.

 

I didn’t take it, pushing it back at him. “I don’t need no receipt. Your word’s more than good enough for me.”

 

All serious, he insisted I take the note, holding it out to me again, and when I didn’t grab hold of it he stuck that sheet of paper into my vest pocket. “You hold on to that, Jess.”

 

When we got home, I tucked the paper into the top drawer of my dresser under my spare socks and over the next few days plumb forgot about it.

 

Part Three

 

It was more’n a week later, the second week of December when I got the bad news telegram. The sheriff in Medicine Bow needed me to come up there for the trial of those stage coach robbers. They’d waited so long because one of the outlaws had near died from his wound, and the judge had declared there’d be no trial until the jasper was strong enough to appear in court, so I later learned.

 

I didn’t want to go be part of a trial, but I was the only witness against those bandits. The drummer was no one knew where, the lady had travelled on to San Francisco, and Ernie had quit the stage line and gone back to Nebraska, or maybe it was Kansas. Somewhere safer, he’d said.

 

I had to go, and right before Christmas, and I was none too happy about it. Though Jonesy’s back was bothering him and he wasn’t going to be making the long trip from St. Louis, Andy would be coming home and I’d be gone for days, missing near his whole visit. I didn’t have much choice, though. That sheriff threatened to send a deputy to come get me and drag me back up there in irons if that was what it took, and Slim, law abiding man that he is, told me to go. I suppose he didn’t want those stage robbers getting turned loose for lack of evidence, and maybe come after the stage again, and on that, I had to agree with him.

 

So off I went, packing light and hoping the trial would go quick, but those outlaws had hired themselves a fancy talky lawyer who stretched the proceedings out for days, and then it was the weekend, so I was gone way too long.

 

They got found guilty in the end but by then, I’d been away from home for six long days.

 

I got back only the day before Christmas, and missed out on a lot of the fun, like going up into the hills to cut down the tree, and taste testing Daisy’s fruit cake. Slim, reckoning I’d been lounging in a hotel and eating good at city expense, had saved up a whole stack of chores for me, and was pretty well monopolizing Andy’s time.

 

I hardly got to say hello to the kid, who ain’t much of a kid no more, and everyone seemed so dadgummed busy I hardly got a ‘welcome home’ from anyone, not even Mike, who was happily trailing along after Andy and Slim like a puppydog wanting to join the pack.

 

I was feeling left out, like I’d missed something important, and that was even before things started feeling strange. And strained.

 

It was late on Christmas Eve afternoon and I‘d just finished up an hour’s hard work chopping wood for the cookstove. “Boy, it’s cold out there!” I exclaimed as I carried an armload of wood into the kitchen through the back door, dumping it into the woodbox next to the stove and starting into the main room of the house. “Why it’s cold enough to freeze--” I stopped in mid-sentence. Slim and Andy were seated at the big rolltop desk, a bunch of papers lying in front of them, and both were staring up at me with guilty expressions as if I’d interrupted something important.

 

And private.

 

The brothers exchanged an awkward glance and then Slim looked my way. “Sorry, Jess, we’re discussing ranch business. Finances,” he added, a strange look on his face as he looked over again at Andy.

 

The younger man’s face, I thought worriedly, wore a closed look that seemed downright conspiratorial.

 

I nodded, keeping my uncertain thoughts to myself. “Fine. Sorry to interrupt. I’ll get at the evening chores. You two just keep at whatever important business you’re doin’.” I turned and left the house, my face burning. I’d overheard some of the conversation, just a few words, but they were worrying ones.

 

I mulled over that snippet of conversation as I headed back out to the barn and got to work, feeding the stock and cleaning stalls. My mind kept turning the words over and over, examining them from every angle, but I couldn’t change the fact that I’d clearly heard the phrase, ‘selling him the ranch.’

 

It was especially worrying since I knew that Slim, right before I’d left for the trial, had ridden into Laramie one day to talk to that lawyer fellah, Joshua Kittleson. And I’d seen a big envelope with the lawyer’s name on it sitting on Slim’s desk that very morning, delivered by the Laramie stage.

 

Something odd was going on. Something unbelievable, really.

 

Slim thinking of selling the ranch — I couldn’t wrap my mind around such an idea. I couldn’t imagine him selling out. It was his home, it had been his parent’s home and the only home Andy had ever known, not to mention that it was home to Daisy and Mike and, well, me, too. Slim talked all the time about how important it was for a man to sink his roots down deep. He for sure was rooted here, and he’d spent the last three plus years encouraging me to do the same.  My mind worried at the problem like a dog with a new bone, but I got nowhere. Was I about to lose another home, one I’d worked so hard for? One that meant so much to me?

 

If Slim was even considering selling, it was a mighty big secret he was keeping from me, and Slim ain’t usually that way.

 

Unless things were real bad.

 

And real bad they’d have to be for him to sell the place.

 

Were there money troubles I didn’t know anything about? Slim had never been secretive about the finances of the ranch before — there’d been plenty of dark times in the past. There’d even been times when I’d foregone my own wages just to help keep the place running, to pay the mortgage or buy supplies; times when meals were nothing but beans and bacon and whatever game we could shoot, and none of us had so much as a penny to spend in town.

 

But that all seemed to be in the past.

 

Or so I’d thought.

 

I wracked my brain, but I couldn’t recall Slim seeming worried about anything in particular lately, unlike a bunch of past occasions I could think of when there’d been bills he couldn’t pay. He just didn’t keep such things from me. I’d been here, been part of this ranch, been his friend even more than his hired hand, for too long now for that to be true.

 

Of course, come to think on it, Slim had never borrowed money from me before, neither, I suddenly realized with a rising knot of worry growing in my belly. Not that I regretted the loan I’d made  to him — I’d gladly give Slim whatever I had, down to the shirt on my back, though if it came to that, it wouldn’t fit him.  Besides, money just was never very important to me, I’ve got a cowboy’s easy come, easy go attitude toward cash. It runs through my hands like water, and truthfully, I don’t much worry about it. I don’t need much; so long as I’ve got enough to live on, to buy a drink on a Saturday night or ante up for an occasional game of cards, I’m good.

 

This whole situation, Slim and Andy talking so serious-like, and hiding it, well that was making me awful uneasy.

 

And Slim *had* borrowed that money from me, sure, but I knew a thousand dollars could keep the ranch running for a long time.

 

Maybe it was just the awkwardness of me being gone and then Andy arriving back home, spending so much time with Slim and throwing the balance of the whole place off kilter, that had me imagining things that just couldn’t be so. I shouldn’t be worried. It was natural Slim and Andy would talk ranch business, it was their family business after all. Now that Andy was growing up, he sure had the right to a say in the business dealings.

 

And me, as just a ranch hand, purely didn’t.

 

But I was more than just a ranch hand, wasn’t I? Slim had said as much a couple of times in the last few years. And we weren’t just boss and ranch hand, we were best friends.

 

If they were contemplating such a momentous change as selling the place, didn’t Slim owe it to me as a friend, and to Daisy, too, to give us a bit of warning? And what about Mike, what was gonna happen to him? Not to mention the fact that you just didn’t spring such a nasty surprise on your friends.

 

Slim just wasn’t that kind. Or so I had always thought.

 

I thought about confronting him then and there, but it was Christmas and I didn’t want to make a scene in front of Mike or Andy or Daisy. My questions would have to wait for a chance to talk to him alone.

 

Still pondering over what might be going on, I finished the evening chores: feeding the horses and cleaning the stalls, milking the cow, and gathering up the eggs.

 

When I finally got back into the house, Slim and Andy were still deep in conversation, peering at the ranch account books. Seeing me, they looked at each other, picked up the books, and retreated to the bedroom, closing the door.

 

Well, if that wasn’t a kick in the teeth.

 

Feeling even more left out than before, I went back to the kitchen.  Daisy was there, her hair mussed and her face all bright red from working over the heat of the stove, but she was smiling as she happily cooked up a huge holiday meal for the houseful of men.

 

I have to tell you, I do adore Daisy. It ain’t just her cooking, although that’s second to none; nor her housekeeping, which means I don’t have to wash nor mend my own clothes and such, which I purely do appreciate; but Daisy is, well, she’s special. Mike calls her Aunt Daisy, and she’s that and more to all of us. I don’t know how we ever got along without her. Now sometimes she does get a mite too motherly, and a bit possessive of us and the place, and she can be darn bossy, too, but she’s a good, kind, and brave woman and we’d be lost without her, and she knows it. Or at least I hope she does.

 

One glance at my downcast features, however, and her bright smile faded and her expression turned serious. “Jess? What’s wrong?” she asked softly.

 

“Nothin’, Daisy.”

 

She walked right up to me, staring boldly up into my face. “Jess Harper, don’t you lie to me. I can see that’s just not true,” she scolded.

 

I never could fool her and my expression softened. Picking up the stack of plates and carrying them over to set on the table, I walked back to where she stood beside the stove. Quietly, I asked, “Have you heard Slim say anything about selling the ranch?”

 

There was a moment in which she just stood there, looking at me, and then a shocked look appeared on her face. “Selling the ranch? Jess! Where ever would you get such a preposterous idea? Why, oh my goodness, no. Slim wouldn’t do any such thing, he wouldn’t even consider it, you know that,” she answered emphatically and, I thought, much too quickly. “This place is his home. He loves it.”

 

Though her words were comforting, there was something odd in her expression, too, I mused, now even more worried than I’d been just a few minutes before. She was hiding something, and that was definitely not like Daisy! She knew something was going on, so why wouldn’t she tell me? “Daisy, I really …”

 

Just then, the door to the bedroom opened and Slim and Andy, both smiling widely, stepped back into the room.

 

Which just made me worry even more about their conversation earlier that day.

 

I didn’t get a chance to ask any more questions that evening, and I didn’t want to put a damper on the day’s celebration. We all gathered together to set up the fragrant green tree the others had cut on the mountain, lighting it with candles on the branches and decorating it with pretty ribbons and colorful geegaws that Daisy provided.

 

She smiled and clapped her hands when we were done, her eyes shining bright with delight like she was a little girl. “I think that’s the most beautiful Christmas tree I’ve ever seen!” she proclaimed, her smile genuine as she hugged each one of us.

 

After all the excitement was over, I tried to pin Slim down to talk, but it seemed like he was avoiding me. I finally caught up with him in the kitchen. “You got somethin’ you want to be tellin’ me, Slim?”

 

“Tell you what?” He looked at me all wide-eyed and innocent, and I could see it was all an act and that sent my heart to hammering.

 

“About what’s goin’ on around here, about the ranch and all.”

 

“Nothin’s goin’ on around here except a Christmas celebration.”

 

“Slim, I can see that ain’t true.”

 

“Look, Jess, it’s Christmas. No talkin’ business. We’ll discuss this after tomorrow, all right? I promise, I’ll answer any question you’ve got.” And with that he spun on his heel and was gone back to the other room, and my chance for getting any answers was gone.

 

I crawled into my bunk that night, but I sure didn’t sleep much, my brain still pondering over what I’d overheard and what I was speculating.

 

I was figuring this was looking more and more like the worst Christmas I’d ever had.

 

Part Three

 

The next morning, after chores, we all gathered to open the gifts that were piled high all around the base of the tree.

 

Daisy smiled in delight when she opened the package from me, the bolt of deep green satin cloth I’d seen her admiring in the store on a recent trip to town. “Oh, Jess, this is so beautiful! But you shouldn’t have.” She knew how expensive it was, that was why she hadn’t bought it for herself, but to me it didn’t matter. She was worth every penny.

 

“Nothing but the best for my best girl,” I joked, smiling and giving her a kiss on the cheek.

 

The leather belt I’d hand tooled for Andy was a hit, too, as was the new one for a growing Mike, and the new set of reins I’d made for Slim drew what seemed to be genuine delight.

 

As the stack of presents that had ringed the tree was quickly whittled down, everybody had a stack of things, some store bought, some home made.

 

The area around the tree was almost bare and, while I’d gotten something from Mike, I hadn’t received a thing from Slim or Andy or even Daisy. They wouldn’t have left me out, would they? Forgotten me because I’d been gone for a few days? Okay, Slim might be pre-occupied, and Andy too, but Daisy? Never.

 

The last box under the tree was another one for Slim, a new book by that Mark Twain fellow who’d stopped here a few years back. Andy had brought it for Slim from St. Louis.

 

All the packages were opened now and Slim got up and took a spot in the middle of the room, smiling wide and glancing around at all of us gathered together. “This has been a wonderful Christmas, having all of us here together, more folks, more family, than this house has held for a long time. I thank all of you for being here, for being part of this day and this family.” He took a deep breath and let it out real slow. “And now, I have something important to announce. Very important.”

 

My heart clenched at his words. Was this the moment I had dreaded? Was this the last Christmas at the Sherman Ranch?

 

Slim looked over at me, and I was dang sure I wasn’t keeping the glum look off my face.

 

He still had his poker face on, though, revealing nothing. “I’ve put a lot of thought into this decision, me and Andy together of course, since this ranch is half his. It’s not the kind of thing to be done lightly, but sometimes, a man has to do the right thing and make a choice and take a chance.” The smile left his face and his tone of voice turned serious. “Actually, this is something I’ve been thinking about for a while now. Running this place is a big job for one man, seems like we’ve got more and more to do, more cattle and horses to take care of, and all the stage line work of course. So it’s time.”

 

My heart hit my boot tops. This couldn’t be happening, and on Christmas, no less!

 

He looked up, and for the first time in days he finally looked me in the eye. “Andy and I have decided we need to take on a new partner in the ranch, someone who will be a one-third owner.”

 

Who could that be, I wondered? There wasn’t anyone new hanging around that I could think of who might be buying in to the operation. And would this new partner mean the ranch didn’t need a hired hand?

 

Suddenly, Slim couldn’t hold back any more and a huge smile busted through his stern expression. “That is, if Jess wants to be a part-owner.”

 

Andy jumped up to stand beside his brother, grinning from ear to ear. “What do you say, Jess?” he asked eagerly. “You’ll say yes, won’t you?”

 

I was still trying to believe my ears. “Me? Part-owner?”

 

Slim stepped close and slapped me on the back. “Well, of course, you, who else did you think I meant?”

 

“You can’t just give me a share in this place, Slim,” I stammered.

 

Slim’s look turned solemn. “No one’s giving it to you, Jess. There’s that money I ‘borrowed’ from you, that’ll serve as your buy in, if you want. And of course, there’s the hard work, the sweat and the blood you’ve put into the place, more than any hired hand ever owed his boss.”

 

“You’re more than just a boss, you’re the best friend I ever had,” I defended.

 

Slim’s expression stayed serious as he squeezed my shoulder. “Now I want you to think about this carefully, Jess. There’s the money, and of course, the issue of wages. As an owner, you won’t get paid regular wages, you’ll share in the profits. And some months, honestly, there are none. But you’ll also share in what we’re building for the future here, pard. You’ve more than earned this, and it’s about time we made it right.”

 

“So what do you say?” Andy demanded.

 

I was still more than a mite shell-shocked as I looked around at all of them. “This ain’t no joke?”

 

“No joke, Jess,” Slim answered. “We wouldn’t offer up somethin’ like this without a lot of careful thought. You’ve been a partner in this operation for a long time, in everything but name, and it’s only right that you should be a real partner.”

 

“And I agreed,” Andy chimed in earnestly. “Please say yes.”

 

I was staring at the floor, still trying to take it all in, shocked by the offer and what it meant to a man who’d drifted in, alone, and now was being offered not just a place, but ownership in the ranch. It was something I’d never dreamed of, being a ranch owner.  My pa had never owned land, had spent his whole life working for other men, and I’d always figured that would be my fate, too.

 

Daisy walked over to stand beside me, putting a hand on my shoulder, her smile bright and wide and knowing. “I’m so pleased for you, Jess.”

 

“You were in on this too?”

 

“Of course,” she laughed. “We all were.”

 

I shook my head. “I don’t know what to say,” I said, looking around at all of them.

 

“A simple yes will do,” Slim grinned, laughter in his voice.

 

“I don’t know. It sounds like a big responsibility,” I answered uncertainly, my voice gone all husky around the big lump that had formed in my throat.

 

“Nothing you haven’t been handling for the past three years,” Slim reminded me.

 

“But ownin’ a place, that’s pretty permanent.”

 

“Yes, it is,” Slim chuckled.

 

“Ties a man down.”

 

“Gives him roots, Jess,” Slim corrected. “A home. A foundation. Drives the stake in deep, sets it permanent.”

 

I took a deep breath and looked around the room at these people I cared about, and I knew they cared about me, too, God only knows why. They were as much my family as if they were blood kin, maybe more.

 

Making up my mind, my face lit up with a grin, and I took the plunge, jumping in with both feet. “Okay, partners, I’m in!” I stuck out a hand, shaking Slim’s offered one, and then Andy’s, ruffling Mike’s hair and hugging Daisy.

 

“I’ve got the paperwork right here,” Slim pulled the sheets from his pocket. Clearing a space on the table, they all watched as I signed my name and became a partner in the Sherman Ranch.

Part Four

 

That day we shared a huge Christmas dinner, all gathered round the table talking and laughing and enjoying each others’ company. Daisy had outdone herself with all the food – I swear there was enough we could have fed a whole cavalry regiment. Once we were all done, everyone helped clean up and then the boys were in the kitchen with Daisy, squabbling like brothers as they washed the dishes while Slim supervised.

 

The house was full to overflowing with their talk and laughter and suddenly, it was overwhelming, being there, being part of that place and that family.

 

After all that had happened, after the way my life had just changed, I needed to be alone to think about it all.

 

I grabbed my coat and hat from the pegs near the door and quiet as a cat, slipped outside.

 

It was cold and I buttoned up my jacket and pulled the collar up around my neck, taking a deep breath of the cold, crisp air. There was a dusting of snow on the ground and gray clouds hanging low overhead that threatened more, or so Slim had said when we were doing chores this morning.

 

Pulling on my gloves as I hurried across the yard, I ducked through the rails of the pasture fence and started up the hill, climbing all the way to the top, heading toward the spot where I’d gotten my first glimpse of the Sherman Ranch, near four years ago now.

 

There’s a big rock that sits up there, Andy used to like to call it his lookout because it was high enough that he could climb up on it and see way out across the countryside, near all the way to Laramie. That morning, though, it was me climbing up on that rock, tucking my hands into my pockets for warmth.

 

I sat up there and looked all around, my gaze sweeping across the ranch yard and out over the pasture and the rolling hills that stretched clear to the horizon in one direction and all the way to the snow-capped mountains in the other.  I’d ridden pretty near every inch of this land these last couple years and I knew it like the back of my hand.  It sure was different from the panhandle country where I’d been raised.

 

And now a part of it was mine, and that was a wonder.

 

I hadn’t been sitting up there more than a couple of minutes when I saw the ranch house door open and a tall figure step out onto the porch. He shaded his eyes with his hand, looking all around and then, spotting me, started climbing the hill toward me. I watched him work his way up to where I sat, those long legs making the climb easier for him than it had been for me, and waited while he clambered up and took a seat on the rock beside me.

 

He hunched his shoulders against the wind and after a minute said, “It’s cold up here.”

 

“Yeah,” I agreed.

 

We sat shoulder to shoulder, silent for a bit more, both of us admiring the view.

 

“Somethin’ wrong, Jess?” Slim finally asked without looking at me.

 

“Nope.”

 

“Then what are you doin’ sittin’ up here in this cold?”

 

“Just lookin’.”

 

“At?”

 

I looked away, out across the landscape, and I was surprised at the tremble in my voice when I answered him, though I reckon the return of that big lump in my throat was the cause. “I’m lookin’ at my ranch.” Even as I said the words I couldn’t believe them, not really.

 

Slim chuckled, that indulgent big brother chuckle I’ve come to know real well. “Well, it ain’t *all* your ranch, pard.”

 

“I know.” I smiled and looked down into the yard where a half dozen horses stood in the corral, eating hay. “But that horse, the bay with three socks, I guess he’s mine, huh?”

 

Slim nodded.

 

“And those two cows right there?” I pointed at the herd of young stock grazing on the far side of the pasture, some twenty head of prime yearlings.

 

“Sure.”

 

“And that tree and that hill over there and maybe even this rock we’re sitting on.”

 

“Might be, if you want.”

 

My heart was so full it felt like bursting. “I never owned anything before, Slim.” I could hear the wonder in my own voice.

 

He looked over at me out of the corner of his eye and raised a questioning eyebrow.

 

“Oh, I had my horse and my guns and my gear, but I never had anything more’n that, nothin’ permanent, and I knew I never would. Figured I’d be just like my Pa, he worked a big ranch but never owned so much as an inch of land.” Except for a plot in a Texas graveyard, I thought sadly, but even that memory couldn’t cloud this perfect day.  I turned and looked over at Slim. “Ownin’ a piece of this place, it’s more than I ever expected.”

 

Slim’s big smile returned and he put a hand on my shoulder. “Feels good, don’t it, pard?”

 

“Feels more than that. It feels…” I didn’t know how to describe what I felt, I couldn’t find words grand enough or wondrous enough to even begin to explain. I looked out at the land again. “It feels like today the whole world is mine.”

 

“This ranch ain’t that big,” Slim said with an amused shake of his head.

 

“Yeah, yeah, but it seems that way to me.” I looked down at the ground, my voice all choked up again and then I raised my head and looked him in the eye and vowed, “You know I’ll do my best to live up to the responsibility.”

 

He squeezed my shoulder. “Jess, all I expect of you is that you keep on doin’ what you’ve been doin’ the last three years.” His tone turned lighter. “Though you could roll out of your bunk in the morning a little less grumpy.”

 

“Slim…”

 

“And you could skip some of those afternoon naps.”

 

“Slim!”

 

He laughed and slapped me on the back in that brotherly way he has, the one that makes me feel like we really are kin; like we’ve known each other all our lives, not just the last three years.

 

“I really will do my best,” I promised solemnly.

 

“I know you will, Jess, or we’d never have asked you to be a partner in the ranch.” The tone of his voice turned light.  “And being a ranch owner ain’t all that hard, you know.  Just work from dawn to dusk, seven days a week, plow all the profits, when there are any, right back into the place, and regularly chew out the ranch hands.”

 

“Now that I can do.”

 

His smile vanished and all the kidding gone out of his voice with it. “Seriously, pard, I told you a long time ago that you were as much a part of this place as I am.”

 

Oh, yeah, I remembered that day. I’d been thinking on other things then, consumed by bitter memories and an old, smoldering rage that was hard to die, but I’d carried his words with me and been warmed by them at some pretty dark moments.

 

“I’ve realized for a long time that you deserved a piece of this ranch and I’ve been thinkin’ ‘bout how I could make it so.”

 

“You’re just tryin’ to pin me down, pard.”

 

Slim nodded. “There is that. Keepin’ you around here ain’t been easy.”

 

“No, I reckon it ain’t,” I admitted. There’d been old debts, old friends, old ways and unfinished business that had tugged at me real often, especially at first.

 

“And thinkin’ on the future, what with Andy takin’ so seriously to school, I knew I was goin’ to need a partner to help run the place, someone I could depend on to do his fair share, and more important, someone I could trust. You know I couldn’t run this place without you.”

 

I took a deep breath and let it out slow. “I ain’t done all that much, Slim.”

 

“But you have, Jess. Time and time again, you made my troubles your troubles.”

 

“As if you didn’t do the same, twice over.”

 

“I s’pose so,“ he acknowledged with a chuckle, then went on more seriously. “Lord knows you ain’t perfect, Jess, but you’re as good a partner as a man could want.  And it’s a load off my mind, knowin’ that if somethin’ happened to me, you’d be here to take care of the place, take care of Mike and Daisy and watch out for Andy, too.”

 

“They’re my family.”

 

“They’re *our* family, Jess,” he corrected.

 

I shook my head, once again looking out over the land and recollecting a time when I hadn’t known how good life could be. “Back on that day when I rode in here, alone and on the drift, I never imagined I’d stick so long.” I didn’t say the rest, that I didn’t think anyone would want me staying around, not with my rough ways, not with the demons that rode on my shoulders and the shadowy past that dogged my heels.

 

Slim laughed. “To be honest, I figured you’d drift on out before the first winter snow, you didn’t seem the type to settle in. You surprised me.”

 

“Surprised myself.” I hadn’t realized how lonely and empty my life had been, hadn’t let myself see that part of it, or how important it was to have someone sidin’ you, a real friend who wouldn’t turn his back on a man. Sure, I’d made a lot of friends over the years, but Slim had shown me that there were friends, and then there were real friends, the kind who didn’t quit when the going got tough.

 

“You changed a lot, Jess.”

 

“So did you,” I countered.

 

He nodded in agreement. “I’ll admit, there were times I questioned what I’d done hirin’ you on, but you took things to heart, figured out a few things about yourself, grew into the job.”

 

“I had help pointin’ me in the right direction,” I admitted, and grinned. “Besides, I didn’t want to disappoint that crazy fellah who’d thrown the dice on me.” I took a deep breath, squaring my shoulders. “And now I’m a rancher. A man of substance. Thanks to you.”

 

Slim’s face wore an aw-shucks grin. “I meant it when I said you earned this, Jess. And,” he slapped my shoulder, chuckling low, “you do look more substantial already. Course, maybe it’s just all that dinner you ate.”

 

I laughed. “Substantial, yup, that’s me.” I slid down from the rock and started toward the house. hooking my thumbs in my belt and straightening my shoulders, walking with a swagger. “A *substantial* man, a ranch owner.”

 

“Well, if you don’t get back into that house pretty soon, you’re gonna freeze to death and then all you’ll own is six feet of this ranch.” Slim put a brotherly hand on my shoulder and gave a pull as we walked back to the house together, side by side to the front door.

 

I stopped and let Slim go in first and then stood a moment more in the doorway, putting my hand on the doorjamb, the feel of the wood solid and substantial under my hand, and then I followed him in to the warmth of the house.

 

My house.

 

My home.

 

< ---------- The End ----------

 



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