Tinder and Ash


by Nachuma



Jess Harper shook his head and stared up at the cloudless sky, trying to remember why he was lying in the dirt

TINDER AND ASH

By Nachuma

 

Buckets of thanks to Badger for her wonderful beta skills, her gracious encouragement and her (gentle) nagging.

 

CHAPTER 1

Jess Harper shook his head and stared up at the cloudless sky, trying to remember why he was lying on his back in the dirt. A sudden shout and a passing breeze brought him back to the present and he rolled as swiftly as a cat, landing in a crouch behind his partner who was waving what appeared to be a saddle blanket wildly into the air. A flame-colored shadow caught the corner of his eye and he turned, wincing at the pain in his shoulder, to see the bared teeth of the outlaw heading for him.

 

“Move!” he heard Slim shout as the two of them ran towards the corral fence behind them.

 

They had barely cleared the fence when the sorrel reared to a stop before them, ears flattened and teeth bared, to glare for a moment before pivoting on one hind foot and racing for the opposite rail.

 

“He’s gonna make a durn good cuttin’ horse,” Jess said admiringly.

 

His partner frowned at him. “Maybe I can sell him to pay for your funeral,” he said.

 

Jess chuckled and reached down to retrieve his hat through the corral fence, using it to fan the dust from the seat of his britches. “It’ll take more than that to kill me,” he said cheerfully.

 

Slim Sherman studied his friend in silence. Jess was covered in dust, shirt torn in several places, his cheek scraped and raw-looking. He was rubbing his shoulder unconsciously and favoring his right knee as he headed towards the watering trough.

 

“I don’t know about that one, Jess,” he said worriedly. “He’s a mean one.”

 

Jess hung his hat on the pump handle and dunked his head into the cold water, coming up blinking and shaking his head like a dog. His black hair, dripping water, formed ringlets framing his angular face as he swiped the water out of his eyes with one black-gloved hand. “He’ll be fine…” he started, when a whirlwind in blue jeans raced out of the house behind them.

 

“Boyohboy, Jess, I thought you were gonna fly all the way to Colorado.”

 

Jess gave a mock-glare as the boy came nearer, a small, dapper older man sauntering behind.

 

“You don’t think I can ride him?” he asked.

 

The boy watched the red horse as he raced and bucked his way around the corral, fighting the saddle and the shadows and his own thoughts.

 

“I don’t think *anyone* is gonna ride him,” he said, wide-eyed.

 

Jess chuckled again. “Well, not right now,” he said wryly. The three watched as the horse continued his solo fight. “Not until he settles down some.”

 

“That’ll be sometime in the next century,” the old man grumbled as he joined the others. He studied Jess’s dusty figure. “All right, let’s see the damage.” He leaned a gentle hand on Jess’s shoulder.

 

Jess flinched and turned, clutching his side. “Hey, warn a fella when you’re gonna do that, huh?”

 

“What, and give you time to pretend it don’t hurt?” the man said sourly. He tugged the younger man gently towards the house. “Come on, let’s give that outlaw some time to quiet down before you try to kill yourself again.”

 

“Ah, Jonesy…” Jess muttered as the old man led him firmly towards the house. The other two watched them go.

 

“Jess isn’t really hurt, is he, Slim?” the boy asked worriedly.

 

Slim smiled. “You know Jess, Andy,” he said fondly. “He’s made of India-rubber. He hits the ground and bounces.”

 

The boy climbed the bottom rung of the fence to watch the horse as he gradually slowed his circuit of the corral. “Jess’ll ride him,” he said positively.

 

Slim studied his young brother. The boy was small and wiry, built more like Jess than Slim’s solid height, and sometimes Slim felt a pang of jealousy that the boy admired Jess so much. But, he reminded himself, there were worse folks he could be copying. Jess had proven himself a good man, and a good friend.

 

He tapped the boy’s arm lightly. “C’mon,” he said. “Let’s give this fella some time to cool off and go see what Jonesy’s doin’ to Jess.”

 

The kitchen was warm and dark after the glare of the corral, and they stood in the doorway for a moment to let their eyes adjust to the change in light. Jess was sitting bare-chested, stiffly straddling the ladder-back chair at the table while Jonesy piled towels and bottles behind him.

 

Andy let out a small yip of surprise that made Jess twist in his chair, frowning.

 

“Boy, you’re gonna be sore tomorrow,” Andy chirped. Jess’s right side was a mass of shadows, with barely-formed bruises not yet ripened.

 

Slim frowned at his friend, and Jess glowered back.

 

“Don’t you start,” he warned. “Havin’ to put up with Jonesy’s liniment is bad enough.”

 

“Nothing’s broke,” Jonesy said over his shoulder to Slim, pouring a handful of a thick, evil-smelling lotion onto the bare shoulder nearest him. He turned back to Jess. “Maybe this’ll remind you to stay on top of the critter, not underneath him.”

 

Jess shrugged one-shouldered. “Not exactly my choice,” he said ruefully. He started to stand, snagging his shirt left-handed, but the old man pushed him back to his seat easily.

 

“And just where do you think you’re going?”

 

“Got to finish before I stiffen up,” Jess said.

 

“You’re not goin’ anywhere but to that there chair,” Jonesy snapped, pointing to the rocking chair in front of the fireplace. “Once that devil cools off, Slim’ll put him up. I don’t think neither of you is ready for another fight today.”

Jess opened his mouth to argue, but one look at the stubborn set to Slim’s jaw made him shut his mouth quickly.

 

“You just sit there,” Slim said firmly. “You won’t do us any good if you get yourself all busted up just before branding time.” He softened his tone and offered a small smile. “’Sides, there’s plenty of time to break that outlaw later. Maybe by tomorrow he’ll have stiffened up some, too.”

 

Jess snorted.

* * * * *

 

The afternoon went quietly. Jess had dozed off in the rocking chair after Jonesy had finished his repairs, agreeing to some binding around his ribs but fighting a sling for his sore shoulder. He had pulled a well-worn long-sleeved undershirt on over the bandages and left his torn shirt in the mending basket.

 

Jonesy moved around the small kitchen, muttering and grumbling to himself as he prepared the evening meal. Andy and Slim headed outside, silently agreeing to share Jess’s chores and let him sleep.

 

Slim leaned against the corral once more as the bright fall day cooled to a chilly evening. Clouds were gathering on the northern horizon, and the wind was starting up, soughing in the treetops and kicking up dust eddies in the yard. There was a faint grumble of thunder in the distance, felt more than heard, and the air seemed to tingle.

 

The sorrel had quieted during the afternoon, allowing Slim to remove the saddle, but now he paced the length of the far fence, watching the shadows lengthen and yearning towards the open fields.

 

Slim sighed. He knew what the horse was feeling, and, to some extent, he understood what Jess saw in the outlaw.

 

His friend was only half-tamed himself. It wasn’t that long ago that he had ridden in to the small way station, a drifter with a fast gun and no ties to anyone or anything. It was Andy, Slim acknowledged, who had touched the man’s soul, who had offered him pure, uncomplicated friendship, and a sense of belonging. It had taken a while before Slim, and then Jonesy, had followed suit—before they had trusted the young drifter—and even longer for Jess to learn to trust them.

 

Slim turned to look at the buildings behind him. This was his legacy—his father had homesteaded the land, built the house and barn and bunkhouse, started the ranch that his sons now struggled to keep up. Slim knew that without Jess and his hard work and unswerving loyalty they would have lost the ranch. Jess, who had tied two very different brothers together and formed a bridge for them to work and laugh together again after years of struggle. Jess, who had taken four disparate characters and made them into a family, just because he needed one so badly himself, even if he didn’t know it.

* * * * *

 

Dinner was normally a boisterous affair with everyone talking over the day’s events and planning for the next day, but they were all exhausted that night, in between work and worry and the threatening sky.

 

“Storm’s brewin’,” Slim said around a mouthful of food. “Stock’s getting jumpy. I put the spare teams in the barn to see if that’d quiet them some.”

 

“You get that outlaw bedded down too?” Jess asked.

 

“He needs a name,” Andy interrupted. “He’s not an outlaw.”

 

Jess raised an amused eyebrow. “You got one picked out for him?”

 

“Tinder,” Andy said quickly. “’Cause he flares up so fast.”

 

Slim laughed. “You got that right,” he said.

 

Jess leaned back in his chair, wincing slightly at the tug on his sore ribs. “All right, Tinder it is,” he smiled.

 

“I got him in the back stall,” Slim told Jess. “He was gettin’ the others more worked up, so I thought I’d keep him as far away as I could. No sense in askin’ for trouble.”

* * * * *

 

They made an early night of it, all tucked up and in bed almost as soon as the last bite was swallowed, not even Andy complaining about the early hour.

 

Stormclouds continued to build, and the wind started in earnest, breaking against the small house and rattling its boards. Slim drifted into an uneasy doze, feeling the house quiver and hearing the grumble of the distant thunder. Lightning flickered through the black clouds, and the trees bent and sighed. The house slept.

 

CHAPTER 2

It was late…or maybe early, Jess couldn’t tell which. He awoke suddenly, one minute asleep, the next at full alert, the ache in his side flaring as his muscles tensed. He forced himself to lie still, heart pounding from the loud crack of thunder that had awakened him, and listened to the sounds around him: wind howling and trees whipping into a frenzy. Lightning flickered through the room, illuminating the restless form in the next bed. Slim, roused only partway by the nearby thunderclap, grumbled wordlessly and subsided back into sleep.

 

Jess rolled to his side, catching his breath at the sudden sharp pain of his sore ribs and shoulder.

 

He was bone-dry and wide-awake, so he eased himself out of bed, tiptoeing past his sleeping partner and snagging his jeans on the way out. He closed the bedroom door behind him, hearing house-rattling snores coming from the room Jonesy and Andy shared. The fire in the stove was banked low and the room was cold enough to raise gooseflesh. Hopping on one foot, he managed to pull his pants on. Lightning flickered on and off, but there was something else…

 

Something was wrong. All senses alert, he pulled his gun from the holster where it hung by the front door and padded in stockinged feet into the kitchen.

 

The window glowed with a faint red light, and the shifting wind carried the smell of woodsmoke. Galvanized, he raced to the side door and flung it open to see…

 

…smoke rolling off the barn roof and the telltale flicker of flames from within.

 

Over the shriek of the wind he could hear the muffled screams of frightened horses from behind the closed doors. Turning a wild eye towards the bedrooms behind him, he shouted, “SLIM! JONESY! FIRE!” Snores broke off into a loud sputter as he shoved his revolver into his waistband and grabbed the coffeepot from the stove, flinging it with all his strength at the bedroom door. “SLIM! THE BARN’S ON FIRE!” he screamed as he headed out into the roaring wind.

* * * * *

Jess raced into the night, oblivious to the cold night air biting through his thin undershirt and the freezing ground on his stockinged feet. The smell of smoke, the unholy glare and the screams of terrified horses had thrust him into a nightmare he had thought long forgotten and he paused for a moment at the barn door, steeling himself to face what he knew was to come. Another shrill whinny and loud thumping of horses kicking at their stalls brought him back and without further thought he flung open the barn door.

 

A blast of smoke and overheated air hit him and he staggered briefly, reeling from the onslaught of heat and memory. The fire seemed to be contained to the loft at the moment, though he knew the stored winter hay would turn the building into an inferno in short order. He groped his way to the nearest stall, feeling his way through the smoke till he found the latch. Fists clenched tightly, he pushed the latch open and stepped aside as the frightened horse bolted past him towards the freedom of the open door.

 

The air was clearing slightly with the door drafting the smoke outwards, and he could make out shapes through the haze and his burning eyes. He went to the next stall, where a terrified mare huddled in the back, refusing to come toward the flames. Trying to ignore the sound of the fire overhead, he stepped inside and reached for her halter.

 

It was getting hotter and fiery debris was raining down from above, peppering his neck and shoulders. He shuddered the fragments aside, intent on his task. The horse reared, pulling on his injured shoulder, and he cursed and reached out a hand to soothe and stroke her sweating neck, to bring her down and get her out of danger…

 

He felt rather than saw a shape beside him, and suddenly a damp cloth was flung across the horse’s face. Blinded, she dropped her head and stood, trembling, in the stall. Slim’s lanky shape was beside Jess now, and he grabbed the mare’s halter and pulled her towards freedom, sending her outward with a slap on the rump.

 

Jess didn’t wait to see the mare leave; he had already moved on to the stalls on the far side. The latches were burning hot now, but he ignored the pain and opened door after door, making sure they were empty. He could sense Slim across the way doing the same for the stalls on the other side; out of the corner of his eye he saw his friend heft two saddles, one in each arm, and head outside.

 

Jess hesitated, blinking through the pain in his eyes. He was finding it hard to breathe, and for a moment he wished he’d taken the time to get his neckerchief; the air was thick with smoke and the back of his throat was burning. He slipped to his knees, but before he could pull himself up he felt a strong arm under his shoulder, lifting him to his feet.

 

Slim’s face was covered by a soot-encrusted bandanna, with only his blue eyes and smoke-darkened hair visible, but he looked like an angel to the exhausted man. Jess struggled to his feet and leaned against his partner for a moment as Slim moved his arm to circle his shoulders and bustled him towards the door.

 

The yard was a scene out of nightmare. The night sky was screaming with rage, trees bent almost double and branches whipping the air. The fireglow was brighter now, working its way through the roof and illuminating the hovering clouds overhead, competing with the blinding flashes of lightning that ripped through the sky. Thunder rose to a crescendo.

 

Andy was standing at the pump by the watering trough, working the handle frantically. His hair was rumpled and sticking out at odd angles, his clothing a mixture of oversize coat and longjohn bottoms tucked into too-large boots. Jonesy, face grim in the reflected light, hauled buckets of water from the trough to the house, flinging the water onto the kitchen roof, closest to the barn. The wind caught water and smoke and sent them in random directions, spraying house and men indiscriminately.

 

In the comparatively fresh air of the yard, Jess doubled over and greedily sucked air into abused lungs. Slim thumped his back briefly. “You all right?” he shouted above the roar of the storm and fire. Jess, unable to speak, waved a weak hand, and Slim, with a worried glance back at his partner, raced to the trough to continue with the bucket brigade.

 

Jess was having a hard time catching his breath. He felt the pinpricks of freezing air on fireholes in his shirt, and he coughed and retched black phlegm onto the trampled earth.

 

Still coughing, he staggered towards the trough to grab a bucketful of water and head back to the barn.

 

Slim grabbed his arm. “It’s no use. We have to save the house. If the wind shifts…” he shook his head.

 

Jess tried to take a deep breath and doubled over coughing, feeling his already-sore ribs grating inside his chest. He nodded, trying to catch his breath, feeling the cold mud seeping through his socks and the suddenly icy wind penetrating his thin shirt.

 

Unexpectedly, the wind hesitated; and in that one brief silence a terrible scream came from the barn.

 

Jess bolted upright and turned to run; Slim grabbed his arm as he started to move. “It’s no use,” he said again.

 

Jess turned to stare, seeing nothing but blackness in front of him. “Tinder,” he said hoarsely. “Where did you put him?”

 

“He’s in the last stall,” Slim said flatly. “There’s no way to reach him. I’m sorry.”

 

Jess stared at him blankly for a brief moment, then turned towards the barn. Slim held his arm tightly. “You can’t go in there.”

 

Jess ignored him, tried to pull away. Slim tightened his grip. “Jess!” he shouted, shaking the arm he held, “the house. We have to save the house!”

 

Jess stopped for a moment, his eyes dead. A chill raced up Slim’s spine at the look on his friend’s face, but he had no time to spare. “Get a bucket!” he called, turning towards the trough.

 

Jess blinked and suddenly seemed to be back in the present. He paused and looked around at the night: the two men racing back and forth with buckets, the boy pumping for all his worth, the horses wheeling and galloping into the darkness; and, behind him, the sound and smells of the fire and the doomed horse. He closed his eyes for a second, just a brief, prayerful instant, then, with a deep breath, he ran to the trough, flung himself in full-length and, before Andy could say a word, pulled himself out and ran full-tilt into the barn.

 

As he disappeared into the inferno, he thought he heard Andy scream his name.

 

The barn was fully ablaze, flames leaping overhead from rafter to rafter. His vision narrowed to the path directly in front of him; everything else seemed to disappear—the wind, the roaring and snapping of the fire and the death-throes of the building. There was a narrow pathway lit by flames on two sides, and in the back of his mind was the scream of the outlaw horse.

 

He pushed his way towards the back stall, dodging bits of flaming hay and falling boards; his socks smoked and his feet blistered but he moved on obliviously. His lungs screamed with heat and lack of air, and he felt light-headed, disembodied. He pulled his shirt up in a half-hearted attempt to cover his nose and mouth, holding it in place with one shaky hand.

 

As he reached the rear stall, a section of the roof fell in front of him, missing his head by inches. He ignored the heat slapping his face and the thousand beestings of embers landing on his arms, conscious only of the stench of singed hair and burning flesh and the screams now echoing in his mind.

 

The stall was aflame, the latch near white-hot. The sorrel was backed against the far wall, eyes so wild that only the whites could be seen, mouth open in a soundless scream, and Jess knew there was no way he could reach through the flames, no way he could soothe the terrified animal enough to lead him to safety.

 

His hand reached of its own volition to the gun tucked into his waistband; without thought, he pulled and cocked the weapon.

 

The horse was flinging himself within the stall in a paroxysm of fear; Jess stood, blocked by flames, five feet away, revolver in an astonishingly steady hand as he took a deep breath, blocked out all distractions, all fear, all pain, and focused on the broad forehead moving within the smoke-filled space. He held his breath and squeezed the trigger.

* * * * *

 

Slim had been called from the house by Andy screaming Jess’s name, and turned in time to see Jess running into the burning barn. Terrified and furious, he grabbed his bucket and ran after his partner.

 

The barn was engulfed in flame, nothing visible inside but white, yellow, blue flames. Slim blinked furiously, trying to see through the glare, looking for his friend. He threw the water into the doorway in a hopeless effort to get through and stood, staring into the fire.

 

It seemed forever that he stood there, frozen; suddenly, from inside, he heard a single shot. He jumped and his heart seemed to stop.

 

A bucket of water flew past him, and then another, and he turned to see Jonesy and Andy both running back to the trough. They formed a line, passing filled buckets to Slim as he stood at the door, peering into the interior.

 

Together they cleared a small path, Slim leading the way into the doorway, buckets coming faster and more frequently, until Slim saw a dark shape weaving through the brilliance inside. He dropped his bucket then and ran, through the heat and flame, through the light and sound of the collapsing roof, and grabbed the staggering form and pulled it out into the darkness and cold of the roaring night.

 

CHAPTER 3

Slim lay on the cold and muddy ground in front of what had been his barn and tried to slow his heart and his breathing. The wind whipped past, shifting directions on a whim, blowing smoke and debris in miniature dustdevils through the yard. He was aware that Andy was beside him, nearly sobbing, and Jonesy was kneeling on the ground on the far side of the dark shape he still held in his arms.

 

“Jonesy?” he called, voice hoarse with smoke and fear. He managed to drag himself up to a seated position and reached out a shaking hand to the filthy figure beside him. It twitched, and moved faintly…and coughed. And coughed. And coughed. Convulsing and retching and shaking and coughing, all at once. Slim closed his eyes and drew a deep breath. Behind him, with a crash and a roar, the roof of the barn caved in and flames shot skyward.

 

Jonesy sat back on his heels and watched as Jess moved weakly and batted away his hands.

 

Slim was exhausted and furious. He pulled himself to his feet and staggered back to the water trough. “Andy!” he called sharply. He watched as his brother dragged himself away from the prone figure and moved back away from the fire. “The wind is shifting. We still have a chance to save the house.” Andy looked back once more at Jess, then turned back to the pump. After a few minutes, Jonesy rose and joined Slim with the buckets.

 

It was later…maybe minutes, maybe hours…that Slim saw another figure at the pump—a slight, filthy figure in muddy jeans and a once-white shirt, working the pump handle doggedly. Andy moved between pump and house hauling buckets to the two older men.

 

The sky was lightening, the first streaks of dawn appearing on the horizon. Andy and Jonesy were staggering, barely managing to hold the buckets. Jess took a bucket to Slim, pushing Andy gently towards the trough. “Sit,” he rasped. “I can do it.”

 

Slim took the bucket from his partner without a word and handed it back, empty. The sky lightened, showing a heavy cloud-laden sky. Lightning continued to play around the treetops; no one seemed to notice. They trudged on.

 

The first raindrops were ignored, or maybe not even noticed. The men were so wrapped in their world of smoke and fire and water that it wasn’t until the few drops merged to become a drizzle and then a steady rain that the exhausted men paused and looked up.

 

The barn—what was left of it—burned desultorily, charred beams with occasional flares of brilliant flame that sizzled as the rain hit.

 

The roof of the house smoked and smoldered, hot spots steaming in the morning light. Slim shook himself and looked around.

 

Andy slumped to the ground by the water trough, face blackened with soot and eyes closed. Jonesy clung to the side of the house for support, still trailing his empty bucket. Jess stood unsteadily, face upturned to the rain which was coming faster now.

 

Slim wavered a moment, then gathered his strength and walked over to Jonesy. “Take Andy into the bunkhouse,” he said quietly. “Get him warm and dry and put him to bed. Jess and I’ll be there after we check the house.”

 

Jonesy nodded, head wobbling as if it took too much strength to hold it upright, and headed over to the boy. Slim watched him go and moved over to his partner.

 

Jess looked like a sleepwalker in the gray morning. His face was streaked with mud and soot and his shoulders were slumped, but he tried to straighten as Slim approached.

 

With the immediate danger past, Slim felt his anger overwhelm him. “What the hell did you mean, going into that barn?” he hissed, moving close.

 

Jess opened his eyes, startlingly blue in the grimy face. His voice, hoarse and raspy with smoke, was nonetheless steady. “I wouldn’t leave anything to burn to death,” he said flatly, eyes challenging the taller man.

 

Slim’s temples pounded. “And what if you’d got trapped there, too?” he yelled.

 

Jess drew himself up, trying to stand straight and tall. “I had more bullets,” he said quietly, and walked away.

 

Slim felt as if he had been sucker-punched; he stared, mouth open, at Jess’s retreating back, then turned towards the bunkhouse. Out of the corner of his eyes, he saw Andy disappearing into the building.

 

CHAPTER 4

Jess made it as far as the kitchen door before he passed out, legs slowly folding as he spiralled into a small compact heap in the mud. Slim reached him in three long strides and gathered the limp form into his arms, carrying him like a sleeping child into the cold and musty air of the bunkhouse.

 

Andy had been washed and wrapped in a blanket and was seated on the lower bunk of one of the double-decker beds lining the wall, watching Jonesy on his knees in front of the ancient pot-bellied stove. The older man was cursing quietly and trying to get the draft to work when Slim kicked open the door and deposited the muddy form onto the nearest bed. Both Jonesy and Andy were on their feet immediately, Jonesy issuing orders like a drill sergeant and Andy, exhaustion forgotten, hopping to fill them. Slim stood back, feeling oddly in the way as Jonesy shouldered him aside to put a large pot of water on the stove.

 

“Jonesy?” His voice was barely recognizable.

 

The older man didn’t spare him a look. “First I gotta see what’s under all this dirt,” he said, leaning over the bed and fingering the burn holes in Jess’s ruined shirt. “Help me turn him over.” The two eased the injured man over and laid him flat on his stomach.

 

His back was worse—stiff with mud and soot and charred fabric, with raw red patches of skin showing through. Jonesy took a deep breath and looked around. “Andy—bring me all the spare sheets and towels you can find, and then go fill all the pots and pans with water and put ‘em on the stove. We’ll need lots of water.” He looked down at the still figure on the bed and frowned. “*Lots*.”

 

Andy raced off on his errands. Jonesy watched him go and beckoned Slim over with a jerk of his head. “This ain’t gonna be pretty,” he said softly as Slim knelt beside him. “We should probably keep Andy away till I can get him cleaned up some.” He sighed deeply. “But if we’re all stuck in here, he’s bound to see and hear some things…”

 

Slim swallowed with difficulty. “He’s growing up,” he said softly.

 

“He’s gonna have to grow up pretty fast now,” Jonesy muttered.

 

Andy skidded to a stop in front of them, arms full of linens. “Just drop ‘em over here,” Jonesy nodded towards the table in front of the stove. “’N get that water going.”

 

“Right away.” Andy dropped the linens and headed for the small kitchen area, checking shelves and cabinets and gathering pots and pans.

 

Slim watched his brother for a moment, then turned back to his friend. He felt the door open and close behind him as the boy headed outside to the pump.

 

Together, he and Jonesy carefully peeled off Jess’s soaked and filthy undershirt and jeans. The cloth was stuck to his skin in places, especially on his shoulders and forearms. “Get me some warm water and a towel,” Jonesy said, not looking up. Slim stumbled over to the stove and returned, holding the items like an offering. Jonesy soaked a towel in the warm water, gently wringing it over Jess’s shoulders and back, wetting and loosening the cloth. Blood and soot ran in rivulets down his back and into the bedding.

 

Jonesy patiently teased the cloth away with infinite care. Slim inhaled sharply at the sight of the blistered skin—red and swollen, charred almost black in spots—that crisscrossed Jess’s back, forearms and shoulders. Jonesy gently turned Jess’s hands palms up and heaved a deep sigh.

 

“What?” Slim burst out.

 

“Not too bad,” Jonesy said. “He was takin’ care.” He shook his head slightly. “Burned hands are a hell of a thing. If they’re bad enough, they can end up useless. I seen it before—hands twisted into claws or scarred so bad they can’t bend.” He turned back to the basin, dipping a cloth and wringing the water onto the burns over and over, cleaning and soothing. “This is gonna take a while,” he muttered.

 

The door slammed and Andy’s voice broke in. “I filled all the buckets and pans I could find,” he said. “There’s more in the house, but…”

 

“Might be a good idea,” Jonesy said blandly, glancing up at Slim. “Why don’t you and Andy go check out the house—see if we can move back there. It’d be a sight more comfortable, and warmer, too.” The look he shot at Slim was half-warning, half-pleading, but his voice stayed calm. “At the very least, you can get us some dry clothes,” he added, “and there should be some leftover stew on the back of the stove if there ain’t too much soot in it. Bring back anything you think we might need.”

 

Slim nodded, placed the basin carefully on the floor by the bed and headed for the door, taking Andy’s arm as he went. “But I want to help Jess!” Andy resisted, looking towards Jonesy and Jess.

 

Slim took a deep breath. “You *are* helping,” he said gently. “It’ll help Jess to be warm and dry. There’s nothing we can do here but get in Jonesy’s way.”

 

“That’s right,” Jonesy nodded, dipping his cloth in the warm water again. “I can handle this. You get us a warm bed and something to eat.”

 

Andy let himself be pulled towards the door and into the raw and rainy day.

 

CHAPTER 5

The house was filled with smoke and water dripped down from innumerable pinholes burned in the roof. The soot and ash that had drifted in had turned to mud and everything was coated with a slick layer of grayish-brown. The air was thick and heavy and both Slim and Andy were coughing harshly before they got past the kitchen. Slim pulled his bandanna over his nose and mouth and headed into the back rooms, throwing the windows open to pull in the damp but somewhat-cleaner air. The acrid smell of wet ash and burned wood permeated everything.

 

Andy looked around mournfully at the smoke- and soot-encrusted furniture. “I guess we won’t be sleeping here tonight,” he said solemnly.

 

Slim emerged from his bedroom with an armful of clothing, still coughing through his bandanna. “We’re gonna have to do some housecleaning,” he said, looking around.

 

Andy looked insulted. “We?”

 

“I think Jonesy’s gonna have his hands full for a while,” Slim said shortly, then bit his lip at the distress on Andy’s face. He softened his tone. “You know what a chore it is keeping Jess in bed,” he said lightly. “Housecleaning might be easier.”

 

Andy threw Slim a small smile; Slim looked around. “Well, it looks like we’ll be camping out in the bunkhouse for a while,” he said, trying to sound cheerful. “We’d best get whatever we can to make it more comfortable.”

 

The two of them managed to amass a large pile of necessities and a few luxuries, ranging from bedding and dry clothing to food and Jonesy’s large stewpot. Slim ducked into the back room and returned with a large wooden box that he added to the pile quietly. Andy looked away quickly. He recognized Jonesy’s medicine chest and hoped that it would be all that was needed to get Jess up and about again. But he’d seen the look on his brother’s face and he was terribly, desperately afraid that this time it would take more than tonic and liniment to put things right.

 

By the time they returned to the bunkhouse, the stove was radiating heat and the room was noticeably warmer. Jess, now stripped and clean, was either sleeping or unconscious, back and shoulders swathed in bandages made of torn sheeting, with a blanket pulled up to his waist. Jonesy looked over as the two entered with their load of supplies. “Took you long enough,” he grumbled. “I take it we’re staying here for a while?”

 

“It’s a real mess,” Andy said, looking worriedly at Jess’s still figure. “Smoke and soot and everything. And there’s holes in the roof.” He put his crate down on the floor and paused. “How’s Jess?”

 

Jonesy sighed. “About as well as can be expected. He’s sleeping—like you should be.” He looked at the brothers. “Both of you. It’s been a long night.”

 

Andy frowned. “I think I’m too tired to sleep.”

 

Slim looked over from the cabinet where he was storing the supplies. “I know what you mean. But try to sleep anyway. We’ve got lots of work to do and we’ll have to be rested.” He closed the cabinet door sharply.

 

Andy frowned but headed over to the bunk where his abandoned blanket lay. He looked around the room one more time, studying the three men intently, then sighed, wrapped himself in his blanket and curled up, back to the door. His breathing evened out in seconds.

 

Slim watched him for a moment, making sure he was asleep, then turned to Jonesy. “What can I do?” he asked quietly.

 

“We’ve got to keep him warm and dry. Get him off this wet bedding and closer to the stove.”

 

Slim surveyed the room briefly. Two sets of bunkbeds were perpendicular to the wall at the right, with three single cots behind them. The stove squatted in the center of the room, and the kitchen/storage area was to the left, with its small table, chairs, storage cabinets and shelves. The bed Jess lay on was directly behind the door; a slight draft ruffled the damp curls on his forehead.

 

Slim stalked the length of the room and picked up the first cot, kicking the table out of the way and placing the bed next to the stove. He took the clean sheets and blankets he and Andy had retrieved from the house and made the bed, taking great care to smooth the sheets. That done, he gingerly lifted his partner, biting his lip as he tried to avoid the bandages and raw spots, and placed him gently on the clean bed. Jonesy followed, pulling a chair to the far side.

 

“I’ll need some more clean dressings. And keep the stove hot…we’re all chilled, and Jess is already starting a fever.” Jess coughed as if in response; Slim could hear the crackle in his lungs as he struggled to inhale. “Maybe put a pot to boil,” Jonesy added, still not looking up. “I got some herbs might help clear his chest. And fill my big broiler pan with warm water so’s I can soak his feet.”

 

Slim waited a second longer, but Jonesy seemed to have forgotten his existence as he tended the injured man, and so he wandered blindly to the stove.

 

He couldn’t bring himself to look into the fire. It was still too close, too soon; and so he fled to the porch to see what of the woodpile had survived.

 

He stayed outside longer than was necessary, staring blankly into the gray and smoky day, thinking nothing and feeling everything. By the time he returned with an armload of firewood, Jonesy was standing by the stove, pouring a handful of dried herbs into his largest stewpot. His medicine chest gaped open with bottles and bags strewn haphazardly across the table. Andy, curled into a small ball of misery, snored quietly on his bunk.

 

Slim looked down at his unconscious partner, burns and bruises now hidden but still visible in his memory. “Will he be all right?” he whispered.

 

“Now how would I know that?” Jonesy snapped. “He needs a doctor.”

 

Slim nodded, chest tight. The horses were scattered over the hills, and probably too traumatized to be easily caught. “Morning stage should be here in a couple of hours,” he said quietly. “I’ll have them send the doc back.” He closed his eyes, trying to plan. “I should probably try to see if I can get some of the stock back before then,” he said, half to himself. “It’ll be a hard trip if they have to use the same teams…”

 

“You’ll get into some dry clothes and go to sleep,” Jonesy said curtly. “No point in everyone getting sick because you’re too gol-durn stubborn to know when to rest.”

 

“And you?” Slim retorted, stung.

 

“I got some more work to do here,” Jonesy replied tiredly. “I’ll sleep when I’m done. Now don’t argue with me!” he snapped, seeing Slim’s mouth open. “I’ll wake you when the stage comes.”

 

Slim wanted to say it was his place and his responsibility, but he was suddenly so tired, so worn down, that his arguments turned into a jaw-popping yawn and his eyes drooped of their own volition. “All right,” he said softly, dropping onto the nearest bed and pulling a blanket up to his chin. “Just for a little while…” he was asleep before he finished his sentence. Jonesy watched him with a curious mixture of fondness and impatience, and turned back to the young man on the bed before him. His saturnine face lengthened even further as he checked the fever-flush starting to show on Jess’s face. “Hang on, boy,” he whispered as he pulled his chair closer to the bed. “You got to hang on, ‘cause I don’t know what’ll happen to them two if you don’t.”

 

Closing his eyes as if in prayer, he sighed deeply and drifted towards sleep.

 

The room was silent, the only sound the soft hiss of falling rain on burning embers.

 

CHAPTER 6

It was the coughing that woke him…guttural and harsh, making his own throat ache in sympathy. Slim lay still for a moment, trying to remember where he was. Weak sunlight peered through the dust-streaked windows, and the stove popped and hissed contentedly.

 

The coughing was louder now, and longer, and he sprang upright as memory returned. The room spun dizzily for a second and he clung to the side of the mattress till it righted itself, then swung his long legs over the side and onto the plank floor.

 

Jonesy was in the same position he’d been when Slim had fallen asleep, looking as if he hadn’t moved. The large stewpot was on the floor alongside the bed, and the room was fragrant with the earthy scent of herbs. Slim stood, noticing for the first time that his boots had been removed and he was now in dusty socks. He padded quietly over to the other bed and leaned over Jonesy’s shoulder to stare at his prone friend.

 

Jess didn’t look good. He lay partly on his side, propped up on a nest of pillows and bedding, his breathing laborious and noisy. His face was deathly pale, with hectic spots of fever-red painting his cheeks and deep pools of blue-purple shadows under his eyes. His hair, in matted curls, clung to his forehead as he twisted his head from side to side, trying to escape…something. He coughed again, deep and ratcheting, and lay for a second, mouth open and panting before twisting aside again.

 

Slim clenched his fists helplessly and watched as Jonesy placed a cool cloth gently on the pale forehead. Without looking up, the older man said, “coffee’s on the stove. I ain’t had time to make any breakfast, so you can cook up some bacon if you’re hungry.”

 

Slim had never been less hungry in his life. He swallowed dryly around the lump in his throat and shrugged his shoulders, trying to ease the knots that tightened his back. “Has he woke up at all?” he half-whispered, keeping one eye on his brother who was still sleeping restlessly.

 

Jonesy shrugged. “A few minutes. Not really sure if he was awake or not. I got him to drink some, then he passed out again.” He shook his head worriedly. “Burns is nasty things…even the ones that ain’t so bad hurt like hell, and things can go downhill in a hurry.” He looked up then, noting Slim’s pale and frightened face. “Not all the time, though,” he amended quickly. “And Jess has fought through worse things before and come up smiling.”

 

Slim swallowed hard and turned away. Jonesy watched him worriedly. “You ain’t really mad at him, are you?” At Slim’s puzzled look, he added, “Fer what he said just before he passed out. ‘Bout shootin’ that horse, and havin’ more bullets…” Slim stared. “Andy…kinda let it slip. He said you were yelling at Jess.”

 

Slim tried to swallow around the lump in his throat. “No…I don’t know,” he mumbled, looking away. “D’you think he meant it?”

 

There was a long silence—so long that Slim was about ready to shake the answer out of the old man when Jonesy finally said, so quietly that Slim could barely hear, “yeah, I think he did.”

 

Slim felt fury boiling in him again, mingled with fear and despair. He stalked to the door and pulled it open roughly. “I’d better see about the stock,” he said.

 

Jonesy looked over. “Might want to put your boots on first,” he said mildly.

 

Red-faced, Slim grabbed his boots from their place by the fire and stormed outside.

 

He sat on the steps and pulled on his boots, stiff with dried mud and ash, and surveyed the ruins of the yard. The barn still smoldered gently, tendrils of smoke wafting in the now-gentle breeze. The rain had stirred the ash and mud into a cement-like paste that coated everything in the yard: the abandoned buckets, trough, some charred tack and pieces of board. The acrid stench of wet and burned wood almost covered the faint, sweetish smell of burned flesh. Slim’s stomach roiled at the thought of what lay under the charred beams—and what had *almost* lain there.

 

He was angry, yes—furious that Jess would even consider taking his own life. No matter what the cause, no matter how hopeless the situation—he had always believed that Jess would fight to the end. He was shaken to the core with the thought that maybe he didn’t know his friend as well as he thought. And that doubt festered as he considered the difficult path Jess might still have to travel. What if he didn’t have the grit to survive? To fight his way back? What would that do to Andy—and to him? His smoke-reddened eyes filled and he blinked angrily, pulling himself to his feet. He’d worry about that later, he reasoned—after he’d found the horses and fetched the doctor. The doc wouldn’t put up with any nonsense from Jess, no matter what….he stopped again, that little voice in the back of his mind murmuring “what if the doc can’t do anything?” He’d heard it often enough—how little the medical profession actually knew, how much of the healing had to come from within, from the will to live. He’d always counted on Jess having one of the strongest wills he’d ever seen, but now…

 

He took a deep breath and thrust his chin forward. Now it was time to start cleaning up, and start over.

* * * * *

 

The morning stage clattered up the hill and pulled to a stop in the muddy yard where Slim was desultorily picking through charred tack and gear. Mose surveyed the scene from the box, eyebrows almost disappearing into what was left of his hairline. “Had some trouble, looks like,” he said mildly.

 

Slim shrugged hopelessly. “I got no fresh teams today,” he called. “It’ll take a while to chase the stock down.”

 

Mose nodded thoughtfully. “’Specially if you ain’t got any horses to ride out to look,” he noted.

 

Slim nodded towards the bunkhouse. “Jonesy’s got some coffee going. We’re camping out in the bunkhouse for now. Andy’s still asleep, so tread quiet.…”

 

Mose climbed off his perch and stretched sore arms. “I got no passengers this run so I can take it slow and easy into town.” He looked around. “Jess out huntin’ them horses?”

 

Slim winced perceptibly. “He’s in the bunkhouse. Got burned some.” He looked up, tried for a casual tone. “Can you send the doc out when you get into town?”

 

Mose’s eyes sharpened. If Jonesy couldn’t fix it, then Jess must be in bad shape. “Think I’ll skip the coffee, thanks. I got a long ride ahead of me with a tired team, so I’d best get a move on.” Wearily he climbed back into the driver’s box and picked up the reins. “I’ll send the doc post-haste,” he added as he slapped the reins and headed out of the yard. “Tell Jess to take care.” The stage rumbled down the road, disappearing into the trees at the bend. Slim took a deep breath and held it for a long moment, then turned back to his work.

 

CHAPTER 7

They waited through the rest of the day, dozing and jerking awake suddenly as memories warred with exhaustion. Mose sent Sheriff Corey back with word that Dr. Jenkins was out on a call but would come as soon as he could. Mort Corey, seeing the state of the ranch and the men he considered his friends, offered to stay and help, but Slim refused him curtly and turned back to the bunkhouse. Jonesy met the sheriff’s eyes and shrugged sadly, then followed the tall figure inside.

 

He watched as Slim walked stiff-legged to the bunk in the back and stretched out gingerly, as if every muscle ached. His eyes closed but his breathing hadn’t eased into the rhythms of sleep, and Jonesy studied him for a moment before turning back to the bed by the stove.

 

Blue eyes regarded him wearily, and he caught his breath, sitting with a thump in the chair alongside.

 

“Hey, you still in there somewhere?” he asked quietly.

 

The voice was without timbre, a hoarse, toneless whisper, “still here.”

 

Jonesy filled a cup with water, raising the sick man’s head slightly to help him drink. Jess took one painful swallow then turned his head away.

 

“You think you c’n swallow some broth?” Jonesy asked.

 

Jess closed his eyes and shook his head very slightly. “Not…right now…” he whispered.

 

“You sure had us all worried,” Jonesy said, trying for an ease he couldn’t quite reach. “Slim’ll be glad to see them blue eyes open.” He looked to the far bed and started to stand, but Jess’s eyes flashed.

 

“Don’t…” Jess tried for volume but coughed instead, eyes streaming.

 

Badly worried, Jonesy held the cup to the young man’s lips and half-poured the cool water into his mouth.

 

It seemed forever before the coughing stopped and Jess’s breathing eased enough for Jonesy to sit back and draw a deep breath. Jess was white-lipped and trembling, but he opened his eyes and tried a glare. Jonesy blinked. “Seein’ you awake and talkin’ would be better for Slim than a whole week’s worth of sleep.”

 

Jess shook his head closed his eyes wearily. “He seen me,” he whispered, breath rasping harshly in his throat. “When he came in. He didn’t seem to be in a talkin’ mood.”

 

Jonesy’s head snapped back to stare at Slim lying on his bed. He was still too rigid, too carefully positioned to be asleep, but he lay with his back to the room, facing the wall and away from his friend. Jonesy turned back to the young man in front of him. “Don’t be too hard on him,” he said softly. “He’s just…”

 

“…feeling mad and guilty and scared and mad again,” Jess finished quietly. “I know. But I ain’t sorry. I’d do it again. I couldn’t…” he trailed off and coughed again, eyes tight with pain. Jonesy retrieved the cooling cloth, dipped it hastily in the water and sponged Jess’s face.

 

“Just you take it easy,” he crooned, wiping away the beads of sweat on face and neck. “Slim’ll feel better when he’s had some time to sleep and chew on things, and you just rest and get better. You got Andy plumb worried to death, and even Mose and Mort Corey was ready to start mother-henning you.”

 

Jess tried a smile, which almost worked.

 

“Just you go to sleep now, Jess,” Jonesy murmured. “The doc’ll be here soon and he’ll fix you up right as rain.” He put down the cloth and grabbed the cup of water. “Just one more drink and then you can go back to sleep.”

 

Jess dozed off with the cup still touching his lip. Jonesy sighed, replaced the cup and leaned back in his chair, staring at Slim’s stiff and unrelenting back.

 

CHAPTER 8

Jess’s fever rose with the night. His coughing, interspersed with wheezing gasps, kept everyone on edge. Jonesy had finally given in to exhaustion, and Slim took his place at the bedside, placing cooling cloths on fever-hot skin. Jess was restless, twisting and mumbling unintelligible words. Andy, pale as a ghost, kept a steady supply of water for his friend.

 

Sometime during the long night Slim took to pacing restlessly through the room, unable to sit still. Andy watched him through heavy-lidded eyes till he finally fell into an exhausted sleep, still seated at the table. Slim carried the small figure over to his bunk and covered him gently, laying one light hand on his brother’s head as if in benediction. He paced once more.

 

The long night dragged on. Slim sat heavily on the wooden chair by the bed and closed his eyes for a brief moment before restlessness drove him to his feet again. Andy whimpered slightly in his sleep, answered by a loud snore from Jonesy. Jess was still for once; tense and silent. Slim reached out to replace the now-warm cloth on his forehead, and was startled to see brilliant blue eyes glittering in the lamplight.

 

“Je…Jess,” he stuttered, unsure of what to say. Jess watched him, unblinking, for a long moment. Slim fumbled with the water pitcher. “Here. Jonesy says you have to drink as much as you can…” he said, pouring a glass and holding it out like a gift. Jess’s eyes wandered towards the darkness at the uncurtained windows. “You slept all through the day,” Slim continued uncomfortably, putting the untouched glass back on the table. “Sure had us worried for a while there, pard.”

 

Jess gathered himself and tried to push himself up, managing to balance himself on his bandaged forearms before an alarmed Slim pushed him back down, not as gently as he would have liked. “Whoa, pard,” he said quietly. “Where do you think you’re going?”

 

“I’ve got to get them out,” Jess whispered, eyes wide now and looking at the door. He tried to push himself up once more. “The fire…”

 

Once more Slim held him down. “The fire’s out,” he said firmly. “Everyone’s safe. Now lie down.”

 

Jess’s breath was coming harder now and he struggled against Slim’s restraining arm. “No!” he rasped and coughed harshly.

 

Behind him, Slim heard Jonesy stir, snore choking off to a gurgle. “Lie still, Jess,” Slim urged through gritted teeth.

 

Jess struggled weakly. “Got to…” he panted.

 

Jonesy appeared at Slim’s shoulder, reaching out a comforting hand. “Just lie down,” he crooned quietly to the agitated man.

 

Jess shook off the touch and struggled with the bedclothes. “They’re in there,” he said, distress radiating in his voice and face.

 

“There’s nobody there,” Slim soothed, unsure what to do and frightened at his friend’s intensity.

 

“No!” Jess yelled, managing to jump up from the bed, clutching his blankets in one bandaged fist. A small thump and yelp from behind heralded Andy’s sudden awakening. Jess stood, weaving and wavering, eyeing the two men menacingly. “You can’t stop me,” he hissed between coughs. His eyes caught Slim’s and pleaded. “They’re calling for me. Can’t you hear?” Then, just as suddenly as he’d roused, Jess faded, sliding down towards the floor. Slim leaped forward and caught him before he hit the ground, easing his friend back onto the bed.

 

“Can’t you hear them screaming?” Jess whispered, eyes closing as he slipped back into the blackness in his mind.

* * * * * * *

 

Jonesy was the first to move, pragmatically checking Jess’s forehead before heading to the water pitcher to refill the bedside basin. He elbowed Slim gently out of the way and took over the abandoned chair. “Fever always rises at night,” he said conversationally, placing a fresh cloth on Jess’s head. “’Spect he was dreamin’.”

 

“Remembering,” Slim whispered, swallowing the bile that rose in his throat. It came back to him then, that night long ago when Jess had first opened up about his past…just a little, just enough to help Slim understand a few things about his new friend.

 

Jonesy gave him a sharp look but, seeing Andy’s puzzled face, he shrugged. “Maybe so,” he admitted. “Don’t matter none. He’s asleep again.” He turned to look at Andy’s white face, “like you should be,” he ordered. “Get some sleep now. The doc’ll likely be here first light, and we can get this taken care of.”

 

* * * * * * *

Jess was dreaming.

 

He could see flames—long tongues of pure white-yellow licking along boards, dancing across rafters. He was drifting, floating in mid-air, above and in the center and everywhere.

 

It was beautiful, and he watched the interplay of color and shadow, entranced. Light made iridescent patterns on the walls, on the ceiling, on the sky itself; and whatever it touched changed shape, twisted and shriveled and curled in on itself until it finally disappeared with a silent pop of air like a bubble bursting.

 

He could see his mother’s face, twisted and contorted into a mask of terror, mouth a gaping hole of darkness as the light played around her hair and ran down her arms. His little sister clung to her mother’s skirts as the smoke drifted to frame her ringlets, touching them with an otherworldly glow.

 

And then the sound returned—a roaring, screaming assault, battering his ears and mind so he could no longer make out any individual sounds, just one vast unending terrible noise that narrowed and focused and became one long, attenuated, high-pitched scream, “JESSSSSSSSS!!!!” that echoed into infinity. It was joined by another, and then another, wild and horrible, a chorus as primal as a wolf-pack howling at the moon, as painful as a knife blade slicing through his soul.

 

He shivered, feeling frozen inside despite the burning heat he could feel all around him. Faces surrounded him—jeering, threatening, pleading—faces he knew, faces he could barely remember, faces he could never forget. “No,” he whispered, twisting to move, to escape, to flee the reminders of his failure. “Please…..” he sought the blackness that was all around, but the flames pierced the darkness and illuminated the nightmare.

 

He couldn’t breathe. The blackness was sitting on his chest, holding him down, sucking the air out of his lungs. He gasped and struggled, vainly trying to sit up, get away, fill his lungs, but something was holding him down. “Got to…” he panted, redoubling his struggle.

 

His lungs emptied, flattened, and he couldn’t get them to fill. Couldn’t remember how to swallow the air he needed. His mouth opened, gaping and gasping like a newly-landed fish, and, in the far corner of the darkness around him, he could see the triumphant grins of his waiting enemies….

 

CHAPTER 9

Dr. Jenkins puffed a long, weary breath and studied his now-quiet patient. Slim and Andy stood alongside him, obviously shaken at the sudden explosive struggle from the seemingly unconscious man. Jonesy busied himself with the detritus of the doctor’s visit, the pans and towels and bandages strewn haphazardly around the bed, keeping his suspiciously bright eyes turned away from the others while he fought to regain his composure.

 

“Wh…what…” Slim began tremulously.

 

The doctor held up a tired hand. “The smoke caused his throat to swell and he was having trouble breathing,” he explained quietly. “I’ve given him something that should help reduce the swelling, but if it gets worse…” he shrugged, not wanting to go into details in front of the boy. “Well, we’ll face that if it happens.”

 

Slim’s hands on Andy’s shoulders tightened perceptibly, then loosened slowly as if Slim was forcing himself to relax.

 

“His chest doesn’t sound too good,” the doctor paused for a moment, trying to decide how much to tell them. “Jonesy’s herbs might help loosen some of the congestion. Keep his head and shoulders raised, and try to get him to cough out some of the stuff that’s in there.” He sighed. “Those cracked ribs aren’t helping any.”

 

Slim started. Had that fight with the outlaw horse only been yesterday…or was it last week? It felt like a lifetime ago.

 

The doctor continued, not noticing Slim’s distraction. “His fever’s up, and will probably get worse. Cool cloths, lots of fluids…you know what to do. Send for me if it gets very bad, or if the burns start to look infected.” He stood and began gathering his tools and supplies. “Jonesy’s done a good job with those burns,” he said as he replaced the items carefully in his bag. “Keep them as clean and dry as you can—light dressings, let some air around them. Once he wakes up, give him some of that laudanum I left—” he nodded towards the small brown bottle on the table, “and as much water and broth as he can swallow. If he needs something… stronger…” he trailed off, then finished, “come and get me.” He sighed. “Burns are about the most painful injuries, and the hardest to treat.” He shook himself back to the present. “But he’s young and strong, and it looks like he’s been through this before.”

 

Andy looked puzzled but said nothing. It was Jonesy who turned a questioning face to the doctor.

 

“I saw some old scarring on his hands and shoulders…I would say he’s been burned before, a long time ago. Probably when he was not much older than you, Andy,” the doctor said quietly. “He probably knows what to expect better than any of us.”

 

The doctor sighed again. “He’d be better off in his own bed,” he said. “The dust and the cold in here isn’t good for him…” he held up a warning hand to stop the angry words he could see coming. “I’m not saying anything about your housekeeping, Jonesy. I know this was an emergency, and the bunkhouse has been empty a long time. And the smoke and damp in the house would have been worse. But he needs to be kept warm and dry to keep pneumonia from setting in, especially when his lungs are already weakened and his breathing is compromised.”

 

Slim deflated. “It’s my fault,” he mumbled, shaking his head. “I’ve been too worried to do what needs to be done. I should’ve got that roof fixed by now, and the place cleaned up.” He straightened up. “I’ll get ‘er done this afternoon. Andy’ll help, won’t you?” he looked at his younger brother, who nodded sullenly.

 

The doctor snapped his bag shut and stood to leave. “I’ll stop by this evening to see how he’s doing,” he said, heading for the door. “And you know where to find me if there’s a problem.”

 

Slim followed him outside and stood in the sunlight, looking at the destruction still untouched around them. The doctor climbed into his buggy and looked around. “I know you’re worried about Jess,” he said quietly as he gathered his reins, “but the best thing you can do right now is get busy and get this place back in shape. Jonesy’ll take good care of Jess, and you can keep your mind occupied. There’s not much else we can do right now.” He sent a sad half-smile towards the younger man. “I don’t want to have another patient here when I get back!” With a wave, he flicked the reins to set his horse into motion and headed down the road.

 

Slim looked around the ranch yard at how much…or how little…had been accomplished. The barn had stopped smoking, all hot spots finally extinguished; there were two horses in the far corral, pacing restlessly—Jess’s bay and his own chestnut, who had found their own way home during the night and had been waiting patiently in the yard when he awoke. The saddles and tack he’d managed to rescue from the barn were on the house’s front porch where they had had some shelter from the downpour, but they were in sad need of a good soaping. The windows of the house were still open, and the wind had managed to clear out most of the smoke, but the bedding was still smoky and sooty, and a fine layer of ash covered every surface.

 

Time to get busy, the doctor had said. He knew it was past time. Straightening his shoulders, he strode determinedly towards the house.

 

CHAPTER 10

The next two days were filled with activity, nights with dreams of flames and screams and sudden, sweat-soaked awakenings for everyone. Andy, once the exhaustion of the first night wore off, jerked awake every few hours, sure that he’d smelled smoke or heard the screams of frightened horses. Slim barely seemed to eat or sleep, and rarely spoke to anyone.

 

Jonesy spent most of his time at Jess’s side, soothing and cajoling and encouraging the young man to sleep, to eat, to rest, to fight.

 

Jess roused off and on but said little; he managed sips of water and broth and usually drifted back to sleep before he could finish. His fever remained high, his breathing harsh and difficult, and the burns were red and angry-looking, weeping a thin yellowish fluid that seeped through every bandage. He endured the cleaning and changing of his dressings silently with clenched teeth and a distant stare.

 

Slim and Andy scrubbed and patched and washed, leaving the cabin and its furnishings cleaner than they had been since their mother had died years before. They spent most of their waking hours in the house, managing to avoid Jess during his brief periods of awareness. Slim refused to acknowledge the problem, but underneath he knew he couldn’t face his friend. Couldn’t…didn’t want to…was afraid to. He wasn’t sure what he’d see in Jess’s face, and he was afraid.

 

Jonesy did his best to cheer the injured man, telling him of all the work Slim and Andy were doing, but he caught Jess looking around at the empty room more than once, and silently damned the Shermans for abandoning their friend.

 

On the fourth day after the fire, Slim and Jonesy rigged a stretcher and transferred the sleeping Jess back to the newly-cleaned house. Slim suggested for convenience’s sake that Jonesy use his bed in the room he had shared with Jess; he would bunk with Andy for the time being. Jonesy frowned but agreed.

 

And the days continued.

* * * * * *

 

The community rallied around their neighbors, offering everything from fried chicken and fresh-baked pies to teams and wagons to help clear the remains of the barn. Bill Bates took it upon himself to bury what was left of the sorrel horse far from the house one morning when Slim was out rounding up the scattered stock. Jess slept through most of the visits, although Jonesy wasn’t completely convinced that the man wasn’t pretending to sleep in order to avoid the company.

 

He didn’t seem to want company—at least, it appeared that way. Jonesy noticed that Jess tensed when he heard Slim or Andy’s voice from the other room, as if he were waiting for them, though he wasn’t sure whether Jess would welcome or ignore them.

 

It didn’t matter. The voices always came and went through the rest of the house, and Jess was left alone, the darkness at the center of the ongoing work of the ranch, drowsing in a drugged haze of pain and fever. Jonesy watched with concern as Jess grew paler and weaker, the lingering infection in his chest and from the burns sapping his strength.

 

Slim and Andy looked nearly as bad; pale caricatures of their normal tanned and energetic selves, they worked doggedly through the long days and, after a nearly silent supper, crawled off to bed. Jonesy took it upon himself to give daily reports of Jess’s progress, but Slim and Andy both seemed distant and preoccupied, as if Jess were no longer a part of their lives.

* * * * * *

 

It was a week after the fire, and Jonesy had had enough. Jess’s fever had risen again and he’d spent a sleepless night with herbs and cooling cloths listening to his young friend’s tortured mutterings, and the sight of Slim and Andy sitting blank-eyed at the breakfast table was the last straw. Closing the bedroom door carefully behind him, he advanced on the Sherman brothers with eyes blazing.

 

“What the devil are you sittin’ there waitin’ for?” he snapped, striding past them towards the kitchen. “You just here for the room and board? You want to act like hired hands, you can go back to the bunkhouse!” He slammed the frying pan down onto the stove and brought out the bacon from the cupboard. “I’ll bring you your breakfast there, so you won’t have to pretend to be part of this family.” Keeping a rigid back to the two startled young men, he hacked angrily at the slab of bacon.

 

He heard Slim stand and approach him. “Now just you wait a minute…” Slim sounded angry, but Jonesy wasn’t about to back down. He turned a stony glare at the taller man.

 

“No, you wait. I’m sick and tired of watching you two sulk around when that boy in there needs his family. He’s sick and not just with the fever. It looks like you two just don’t give a damn, and it’s eatin’ him up inside.”

 

“You don’t know that,” Slim said desperately. “He’s the one who was gonna….” He trailed off, white-faced, and glanced over his shoulder at his brother. Andy had his head down and was playing with his fork, shoulders tense.

 

“You don’t know nothing about it,” Jonesy said quietly. “You don’t know nothing about what that boy’s been through, and is going through now, and what he still has to face. All I know is that he needs to know that someone cares. Besides me.” He turned back to the chopping block and began cutting bacon again, now slower and more deliberate.

 

Slim stared for a moment, then stalked to the kitchen door, slamming it shut behind him as he stomped out into the sunlit yard.

 

Jonesy continued his work without pausing; after a moment, he heard a quiet voice from behind. “Is Jess really sick?”

 

He sighed. “Yeah, Andy, he is. Real sick.” He turned slowly. Andy was still seated, still playing with the fork, eyes downcast and studying the patterns he was drawing on the wooden table. “Why don’t you go see him?” he asked gently. “I’ll bring your breakfast in there.”

 

Andy looked up. His eyes were bright with unshed tears, his expression torn. “I don’t know what to say,” he whispered. “I’m…”

 

“I know,” Jonesy moved over to the boy to lay a gentle hand on his shoulder, “but it don’t matter what you say. You just got to be there.”

 

Andy took a deep breath and stood up, nodding. Moving as slowly as if he were heading to his own execution, he walked to the bedroom door and paused for a moment, hand on the knob. Jonesy felt a catch in his throat as Andy stopped, straightened his shoulders and raised his head, and walked through the door.

 

Well, one stubborn Sherman down, one stubborn Sherman still to go, Jonesy thought to himself, peering through the kitchen window to see Slim stamping towards the bunkhouse.

 

CHAPTER 11

Jess was lying in bed, staring blindly at the window and yearning towards the sunlight, when he heard the door open. His head was still clouded with fever and the lingering effects of the laudanum, and he closed his eyes and waited for Jonesy to speak.

 

Silence held, but Jess could hear tense breathing from the doorway. Curious, he turned to look.

 

Andy was framed in the doorway, looking as jumpy as a fawn facing a wolf.

 

Jess blinked. “Andy?” he asked, not quite sure of what he was seeing. His voice was low and raspy with smoke and disuse, but it was definitely Jess, and Andy suddenly felt relieved.

 

“Howdy, Jess,” he said softly.

 

Jess smiled for the first time in a week. “Hey, Tiger,” he said weakly.

 

Andy moved forward in a rush and dropped into the chair next to Jess’s bed. “How are you feeling?” he asked.

 

Jess choked a half-laugh. “I’m doin’ fine,” he said. “I’ll be up and around in no time.”

 

Andy looked down at the floor, suddenly embarrassed. “I’m real sorry I haven’t been to see you before,” he said slowly, not meeting Jess’s eyes. “Slim ‘n me, we’ve been...”

 

“…Busy,” Jess finished. “There must be an awful lot to take care of now, what with the fire and me laid up…”

 

Andy looked up, relieved. “Yeah. Real busy. We got most of the horses back, but the saddles and tack were practically ruined. Why, I’ve been cleaning and mendin’ tack till my fingers are near worn…” he stopped suddenly, looking at Jess’s bandaged hands, and gulped.

 

Jess smiled. “Guess I’m lucky bein’ inside,” he said lightly. “Nothin’ I hate more than cleanin’ tack.”

 

Silence held for a moment longer.

 

“Jess…” Andy started, then fell silent.

 

Jess studied him carefully. Andy’s face was pale, his fingers twisting restlessly in his lap, and he kept his eyes down, shooting occasional glances sideways. Jess could feel the discomfort coming from him, but was unsure how to help. He sighed deeply, and Andy looked up briefly.

 

“You all right?”

 

Jess smiled sadly. “I’ll be fine, Andy. It’s you I’m worried about.”

 

Andy blinked. “Me? There’s nothing wrong with me.”

 

“You don’t look fine to me,” Jess said quietly. “You look like you got a mighty big pain inside. You want to talk about it?”

 

Andy stood and paced to the window, staring outside.

 

“It’s all right if you’re mad,” Jess said softly.

 

Andy turned and stared. “Mad?”

 

“At what happened. At the fire. At the world.” He paused. “At me.”

 

Andy opened his mouth, but nothing came out. Jess sighed again. “C’mere.” He gestured to the chair next to him. Andy moved over and sat down warily. “I got something to tell you that I never told anyone before.” He paused. “Not even Slim.”

 

Andy’s eyes grew huge. “Really?”

 

Jess nodded. He closed his eyes for a long moment, gathering himself. Truth be told, he didn’t want to do this. He was tired, he hurt abominably, and even thinking about what he had to say twisted his guts; but he could see the hurt in his young friend’s eyes, and he knew he was the only one who might help. Who *could* help.

 

He sighed again and opened his eyes, looking directly at the boy. “Andy, I was in a fire a long time ago.”

 

Andy nodded; Jess looked surprised. “The doctor said you had some old scars from a fire.”

 

Jess nodded again grimly. “I was 15 years old. My…my house burned down. My sister Francie pulled me and my brother out. The rest…” he swallowed with difficulty, “well, they were trapped.” He closed his eyes for a moment and gathered his composure. “I tried to get to them. I could hear ‘em yellin’, and I tried to get back inside, but it was too hot. There was no way in. I burned my hands pretty bad tryin’ to get through. I could hear ‘em…” he paused again, taking shaky, shallow breaths. “Well, my brother Johnny pulled me away. He kept yellin’ at me to leave, that it was no use, that I had to save myself.”

 

Andy noticed Jess’s hands, even in their protective bandages, were clenched into fists that were trembling slightly, but his voice remained calm. Andy shivered. “They…died?” he whispered.

 

Jess nodded. “And I was mad. For years, it seems. Mad at the world, mad at the way things were. Mad at myself for not…for failin’ them. And I was mad at them.” He paused, and looked puzzled. “But the thing was, as mad as I was at Johnny for stoppin’ me goin’ back in, I was even madder at Francie for pullin’ me out in the first place. And I was mad, dad-blamed furious, at them for dyin’ and leavin’ me behind.” He looked up then and smiled weakly. “It don’t make sense, I know. But you see, I know how that can happen. How you can find yourself mad at the ones who hurt you so bad, even when you know it wasn’t their choice.” He looked down. “I’m sorry I hurt you, Andy. But I made a promise to myself all those years ago. I promised I’d never let anyone or anything else die like that…not without doing my best to help.” He looked up worriedly. “You see, I couldn’t just let that horse burn to death. I couldn’t. Any more than I would have left you in that barn. Or…” he stopped suddenly.

 

“I think I understand,” Andy said slowly.

 

“I hope so,” Jess said quietly. “’Cause you got to know, that kind of mad don’t do any good at all. It just eats at you and eats at you, and after a while, you can’t remember all the good because of the bad at the end.” He looked over, eyes intense. “Promise me you won’t forget, Andy. No matter what, we had good times.”

 

Andy’s lips quivered, and his eyes filled. He blinked and swiped at his eyes unhappily. “I’m not mad at you, Jess,” he stammered. “Not really. I could never be that mad at you.” He blinked again. “You just got to get better, Jess,” he pleaded. “You *got* to! And you got to make Slim listen, so he’ll understand, too.” He took a shaky breath. “I’m scared, Jess. I’m scared you’re gonna die and leave me…leave us. And I know Slim’s scared, too.”

 

Jess leaned back and smiled—a sudden, full and very sweet smile that showed no trace of his pain, or exhaustion, or fears. “I ain’t leavin’ anyone,” he said firmly. “Remember, I been here before. It ain’t gonna be fun, and I’ll probably be cussin’ up a storm for quite a while, but I ain’t gonna die. You’re gonna have to put up with me for a long, long time.” He smiled again. “And you can tell Slim and Jonesy that, too. They’re gonna have to throw me out to get rid of me.”

 

Andy was suddenly on his knees next to the bed and hugging his friend. And Jess, despite the bandages and the burns and the sore ribs, was hugging back and smiling.

 

Outside the door, Jonesy stepped back quietly, the breakfast tray in a trembling hand, and tiptoed back to the table.

 

CHAPTER 12

Slim woke suddenly, heart racing and sweat cooling on his forehead and neck, the bedsheet stuck uncomfortably to his bare chest. He lay still, listening to the mundane sounds of crickets and nightbirds and the faint rustle as Andy turned in his sleep.

 

The night was still: no howling gale, no crackle of flames, no tortured screams, and he breathed deeply and carefully, trying to slow the pounding in his chest and head.

 

He could hear a low murmur from the room next door—a quiet, soothing, gentle monotone, which was broken by coughing…long, loud, painful. His heartbeat picked up again, and he tensed.

 

The coughing went on, longer, deeper, and the murmuring voice grew louder, faster. He heard a muffled clatter through the thin wall and jerked upright, all senses alert. In the next bed, Andy grumbled an unintelligible complaint into his pillow and then subsided, his breathing evening out once more. With a wary eye on his sleeping brother, Slim pulled himself upright and into his trousers and tiptoed out the door.

 

The two bedroom doors opened simultaneously, Slim and Jonesy meeting almost nose-to-nose between them. Jonesy was holding an empty water pitcher in one hand and looking infinitely weary, and Slim was suddenly, deeply frightened. Through the partially opened door, Slim could see dim lamplight throwing deep shadows against the far wall and picking out the outline of the man lying in the bed at the left. “Jonesy?” he whispered.

 

The old man stopped for a moment, then pushed past him stiffly. “Need some more water,” he said, heading towards the kitchen pump. More coughing came from the small room, punctuated by harsh breathing. Slim hesitated for a moment, then, taking a deep breath, he pushed open the bedroom door and stepped quietly inside.

 

The lamp was on a small table next to the bed, the wick turned low and shielded so the light wouldn’t shine in the sick man’s eyes…had they been open, had he been able to see. It took Slim a few seconds to adjust to the dim light, and he took deep breaths, absently noting the stale air permeated with the scent of sickness, the rumpled bedclothes on the empty bed, and the discarded towels and bandages piled on the table. He could hear Jonesy angrily working the pump in the kitchen and then poking the stove back to life as he stood in the doorway, unmoving, mind blank.

 

A pot scraped on the stove and slow footsteps moved around the kitchen behind him, and he stepped forward without thought until he stood alongside the bed and stared down at his friend.

 

His friend. He’d almost forgotten, lost in his anger and guilt, but now the memories were starting to come back….

 

The light created deep shadows in the angled planes of the thin face before him—too thin, too sharp, he realized. The eyes were sunken into dark pools, brows knit and mouth twisted even in sleep. Slim could hear the harsh rasp and see the ragged up-and-down motion of his chest as Jess fought for breath. His legs gave way and he sat suddenly in the chair alongside the bed. Jess twisted, coughed weakly and moaned...a small, barely-heard sound of distress that prickled the skin at the back of Slim’s neck, and without thinking, he leaned over, picked up one of the discarded cloths from the table and gently wiped his friend’s forehead. “Easy, Jess, easy,” he murmured, pushing matted black hair away from the hot forehead. “Just lie still. You’re gonna be fine.” Jess tried to twist away and Slim moved closer, leaning in intently. “Lie still,” he said, voice stronger. Jess twisted and coughed again, loud and ratcheting, his emaciated body shaking with the force. Slim moved swiftly then, kneeling at the bedside and sliding one strong arm behind the bony shoulders, angling him upwards and supporting the lolling head with his elbow. A pillow was abruptly thrust onto the bed, and he worked it behind the sick man’s shoulders and eased him back down, suddenly loathe to relinquish his hold. He arranged the pillows and carefully propped Jess up at a comfortable angle and waited till his breathing eased slightly.

 

Slim could hear Jonesy moving around the room, water being poured into the basin alongside the bed, and quiet scuffling noises as the old man gathered the sickroom debris, but he couldn’t take his eyes off his partner: Jess was so pale, so quiet, so unnaturally still. His normally mobile mouth was a tight thin line, his black hair a shocking contrast to the white face and white linens. Slim reached out blindly and grabbed the cloth he had used before, dipping it into the fresh basin of water that had appeared at the bedside and dabbing it gently at his friend’s face. Still without looking up, he spoke to the dim form behind him.

 

“You must be exhausted,” he said quietly. “Go lie down in the other room. I’ll take over here.”

 

There was a long silence which he barely noticed, then, finally, “think I will,” Jonesy said in a voice that was suddenly soft, as if some great burden had been released. “Call me if you need me.”

 

Footsteps padded away behind him, and he heard the door close gently.

* * * * * * *

 

Slim was alone with his friend in the dim light and silence of the sleeping house, and alone with his thoughts. He studied Jess’s face again, seeing past the shadowed stubble and lines of pain, and remembered the laughter, the teasing and the wild joyfulness that usually shone in his friend’s eyes. He reached out hesitantly and picked up Jess’s right hand, holding it with exquisite care. The bandages were loose, letting air circulate around the healing burns, the long fingers showing pink and healthy, and, on a sudden whim, he turned the hand palm upwards, pushing the bandages back gently. When he looked closely, he could see faint lines marking the palm and fingers, rough raised tissue that could barely be seen but could be felt by running the tips of his fingers lightly across the skin. Jess shivered and closed his hand, and Slim replaced it on the blanket guiltily.

 

He remembered the fire…remembered Jess mentioning it, but so long ago, so briefly. He’d kept his feelings hidden, had spoken of the fire that had killed most of his family in such quiet, measured tones that Slim hadn’t brought it up again, not knowing if the young man had truly accepted it or had merely put it out of his mind; but either way, Slim had kept his own silence, not wanting to bring back any painful memories. Now he found himself wondering at the hidden scars, the ones not on his friend’s hands but on his soul.

 

He closed his eyes and shivered in the warm, stuffy room.

 

CHAPTER 13

Slim was grainy-eyed when the room finally lightened enough to turn out the lamp. Jess had been increasingly restless but hadn’t roused at all, not even when Slim had sponged his face and chest with cool water. His breathing hadn’t worsened but it hadn’t improved, either, and he still coughed raspingly and breathed in short shallow pants, with a faint but audible crackle and rattle that made Slim cringe.

 

Slim stood and stretched, hearing the creak and pop of muscle and joints kept too still for too long, and, with a longing look at his empty and inviting bed, padded out to the kitchen. He could hear faint movement coming from his brother’s room, and he figured he had enough time to start coffee and warm up some biscuits before he had to face the others.

 

He heard the door opening behind him as he was filling the coffeepot and he turned, expecting to see Andy looking around with his usual sleepy morning gaze, but instead, Jonesy was leaning in the doorway, surveying the room and yawning hugely. Slim frowned. “I thought you’d still be sleeping,” he said, almost accusingly, and added more water to the pot.

 

Jonesy shook his head as if clearing away cobwebs. “Slept enough,” was all he said as he stumped towards the front bedroom. Slim turned back to the stove, knelt and poked up the fire, then headed to the woodpile.

 

When he returned, arms full of firewood, Jonesy was filling his large pot with water. Slim frowned. “Haven’t done that for a few days,” he noted, as he dropped the firewood in its bin by the stove.

 

Jonesy looked up, and Slim froze at the look in his eyes—fear, with an edge of despair. “You might want to head back to town,” Jonesy said. “Might be time to fetch the doc again.”

 

Slim swallowed hard. “I thought he…isn’t he…I thought he was doin’ better. He was pretty quiet all night. And Andy said…”

 

“He was,” Jonesy interrupted flatly. “But now he’s not. That’s the way things go sometimes.” He moved the pot back to the stove and dropped in a few handfuls of dried herbs, stirring them briefly. Slim nodded and slipped quietly into his room. When he returned a few minutes later, fully dressed and shaved, the room was already redolent with the scent of the herbs.

 

“Andy’s still asleep,” he reported, moving towards the door and snagging his holster en route. “Tell him…”

 

“I’ll take care of both of ‘em,” Jonesy cut in sharply. His tone softened at the worried look on Slim’s face. “Just…tell the doc the burns ain’t too bad but his chest don’t sound too good. He’ll know what to bring.” Slim nodded and stepped out into the bright crisp morning air.

* * * * * * *

 

Dr. Jenkins gathered his supplies with a haste that terrified Slim; it seemed obvious that this was something that the doctor had been expecting, and fearing. He bit down his own fear and forced himself to stand patiently as they waited for the doctor’s buggy to be brought from the stable.

 

“Did you have breakfast yet?”

 

He blinked and tried to process the doctor’s words. “Huh?”

 

Dr. Jenkins sighed and patted the young man’s shoulders. “Go get yourself something to eat before you fall down,” he said, propelling Slim gently towards the café across the street. “Jonesy and I can take care of Jess till you get home.” He frowned as Slim planted his feet and glowered. “Slim. Making yourself sick won’t help anything. Now I know for a fact that you haven’t been in town for a week. Supplies must be getting awfully low. Go get some food in you and pick up what you need.” The buggy arrived in front of them and the doctor climbed aboard, placing his bag carefully at his side and gathering the reins. “Go,” he said again, sharply, then slapped the reins and headed down the street at a brisk trot.

* * * * * * *

 

The doctor’s buggy was tied by the kitchen door when Slim arrived home. He’d met Mort Corey at the general store, and the sheriff, noting his friend’s unnerved appearance, decided to accompany him back to the ranch. They rode most of the way in a worried silence.

 

Mort carried the supplies into the house while Slim took care of all the horses—his, Mort’s and the doctor’s—moving slowly and dawdling over unnecessary chores, as if unwilling to join the others inside.

 

When Slim finally entered, Mort was sitting at the table and Andy was refilling his coffee cup. Jonesy and the doctor were nowhere in sight, but low voices could be heard through the closed bedroom door. Andy’s face was tight with anxiety but he sat quietly with the two men as they made small talk over their coffee.

 

The morning dragged on, and the three at the table grew increasingly restive. Slim stood and paced while Andy and Mort watched him from their seats. “These things take time,” Mort said softly. “Can’t rush ‘em.”

 

Slim snorted and turned towards the back door. “Stage’ll be here soon,” he said. “I’d best be getting the teams ready.” As he walked through the kitchen, the bedroom door opened and the doctor exited.

 

Slim stopped as suddenly as if he’d run into a wall. His eyes, wary and worried, followed the doctor as he filled a coffee cup and sat heavily next to Mort and Andy. Slim joined them in one long stride.

 

“Doc…?”

 

Dr. Jenkins faced him levelly. “Jess has developed pneumonia,” he said carefully. “It’s fairly common with all the smoke he breathed and having to lie still for so long, but I was hoping we’d managed to head it off.” He shook his head. “Well, we’ll just have to deal with it now. Jonesy’s got some medicine, and those herbs of his’ll help, but mostly it’s a question of good nursing. Keep him warm, get him to drink as much as he can and eat light but nourishing meals, and get him to cough.”

 

Slim looked started. “Cough? He’s been…”

 

“Really cough,” the doctor broke in. “He’s got to cough out all that infection in his lungs. It’ll be hard…his ribs are still pretty sore and he might have cracked another one or two with his coughing already, but it has to be done.” He sighed. “Jonesy knows what to do. I’ll be back later tonight.” He stood up and picked up his bag.

 

Andy jumped up. “You’re leaving?” he asked accusingly.

 

Mort reached out a gentle hand. “Andy…” he started, but Slim interrupted. “No, he’s right. How can you leave now?”

 

Dr. Jenkins looked from one angry face to the next. “I’ll be back,” he said quietly. “There’s nothing I can do right now. But his fever’ll probably rise at night, and then maybe I can help.” He looked around again. “It’s going to be a hard couple of days, but you have to have faith. In Jess, if not in God.”

 

At the door he turned again. “I’d suggest you rest up this afternoon,” he said. “It’ll probably be a rough night, and it’s best if we take turns watching. Jonesy’s pretty well exhausted.” He headed outside.

 

Slim shook himself back to the present. “I’d better get out there,” he mumbled, turning to the door. “Got to hitch up the doc’s horse.” Andy jumped to his feet. “I’ll do it,” he said, pushing past his brother and outside. Slim slumped back into his chair. Mort was still watching him compassionately.

 

“He’ll be all right,” Mort said suddenly. “You know that, don’t you?”

 

Slim shook his head silently, eyes averted.

 

CHAPTER 14

The night dragged on forever. True to his word, the doctor had returned shortly after sundown with a large bag of medicines and extra bandages.

 

Jonesy had finally given in to exhaustion and crawled back into his bedroom, where loud snores escaped periodically through the closed door. Andy had eventually agreed to go to bed too, though only after Slim promised to let him take a turn sitting up with the sick man later that night.

 

Slim and the doctor sat in silence in the dimly-lit bedroom and watched Jess struggle to breathe.

 

He wasn’t quiet this time…he tossed and muttered and fretted at the blankets, pushing them away with his bandaged hands and twisting away from the cooling cloths they placed on his head. Slim could make out garbled words—curses, prayers, pleas—he couldn’t tell. He caught his own name, and Andy’s, and others—some familiar, some unknown, as Jess wandered in his nightmares.

 

Dr. Jenkins leaned forward during a brief silence. “There’s no need for you to stay,” he said quietly. “I’m here. Why don’t you get some rest, too?” He nodded towards the doorway. “I’ll call you when I need some help sitting him up.”

 

Slim shook his head, eyes closed. “I’ll stay,” he whispered.

 

“Slim…” the doctor started, but Slim’s eyes flashed open.

 

“I’ve got to,” he said intensely. He looked down. “I’ve got to keep him fighting.”

 

“*Keep* him?” Dr. Jenkins said incredulously. “When have you ever known him to stop?”

 

Slim’s eyes were shadowed in fear and hurt. “I don’t know, doc,” he whispered. “I just don’t know any more if he can keep going.”

 

The doctor took a deep breath. “Look at him,” he commanded. Slim averted his eyes, shook his head. “Look at him!” he repeated sharply.

 

Slim forced himself to look over at his friend. Jess’s face was twisted and exhausted, but his hands clenched the bedding tightly and his mouth was a tight straight line.

 

“Jess Harper is one of the strongest men I’ve ever known,” the doctor stated. “He’s fighting his hardest…he wouldn’t have made it this far if he wasn’t. I don’t see him giving up now. I don’t see him *ever* giving up willingly. And if you can’t see that, well, maybe you don’t know him as well as you think you do.”

 

“That’s what I’m afraid of,” Slim muttered, looking away again.

 

Dr. Jenkins stood up and paced away in pent-up frustration. “What the devil are you talking about?” he asked.

 

“Nothing,” Slim said, not meeting his eyes.

 

The doctor stood in front of him, arms akimbo. “Slim Sherman, I don’t know what’s going through that head of yours, but stop it right now!” he snapped. “This boy needs all the friends he’s got, and you can’t have any doubts. If you don’t see how hard he’s fighting, well, remind me to check your eyes when I got time. And maybe your head, too!” He blew out an explosive breath, and turned for the door. “You sit here and watch, and think about what I said. Look at him…*really* look at him, and then tell me you don’t think he’s doing all he can to stay alive.” He stalked out into the kitchen.

 

Slim stared at the floor for a long moment, afraid to look up. He could hear the doc pulling up a chair in the living room, and Jess’s fevered mutterings, and Jonesy’s snores coming through the walls. Finally, finally, he raised his eyes and studied his friend.

 

It was not like the previous night, when Jess had been sleeping quietly. Tonight was visceral, intense, the night filled with pain and sweat and nightmares. Slim watched as Jess muttered and twisted, his body tight, clenched, muscles taut and strained. This was no quiet slipping away, no easy slide into blackness. Jess’s strength might be ebbing, but his spirit was holding on with everything he had. Slim felt his chest tighten with an odd combination of fear and pride. He was fighting! He was still Jess. He might not win, but he wouldn’t just let go.

 

Slim felt a sudden wetness on his cheeks and swiped at his eyes angrily, blinking furiously. He fought for control for several long breaths, then closed his eyes and bowed his head. “I’m sorry, Jess,” he whispered to the dark head on the pillow. “I’m sorry.”

* * * * * * * *

 

Morning dawned, cool and golden, and Jonesy tiptoed from his bed. Silence rang throughout the house, broken only by a soft snoring coming from the living room.

 

The doctor was curled into an uncomfortable-looking ball on the couch under the window, one hand dangling limply onto the floor. Jonesy crept past him and into the bedroom.

 

Slim was sprawled in the chair by the bed, sound asleep. His eyes were red-rimmed, but his face was peaceful. Jonesy padded to the table and blew out the unnecessary lamp, turning to study the pale face on the pillow.

 

Jess was still deathly pale, but the brilliant fever spots were gone, and sweat beaded his face and pasted his curls in place. Jonesy reached out a gentle hand to touch the damp forehead, and smiled at what he felt: cooler…not yet cool, but cooler than it had been. He felt Jess move beneath his hand, and pulled back slowly, reaching for the water pitcher on the table.

 

Jess twitched and his eyes opened slowly, blinking blearily at Jonesy. Jonesy rewarded him with a wide grin. “Hey, boy,” he whispered, holding out a cup of water and supporting Jess’s head to help him drink.

 

Jess swallowed obediently, then dropped back to the pillow, exhausted. His eyes made a slow circuit of the room as if trying to place where he was, and why…and stopped at the sight of his partner, sound asleep and snoring softly.

 

“Sl..slim?” The name was barely an exhalation. Jonesy turned to look at the sleeping man, and smiled at Jess. “He’s been here all night,” he said quietly. “’N last night, too. And unless the doc and I tie him down, I’d guess he’ll be here tonight, too.”

 

Jess tried to speak but couldn’t form the words. His eyes drifted shut, but a faint smile touched his mouth as he drifted off.

 

CHAPTER 15

Nothing was ever easy, Slim thought three days later as he readied the team for the afternoon stage.

 

Jess had turned the corner that night…had *seemed* to turn the corner, but it was two more nights of fever-sweat and nightmares, hugging pillows and coughing till he had to curl up, red-faced and gasping with pain, before the fever finally broke, leaving him pasty-faced and weak, but alive. Breathing easier now, coughing up the infection that Jonesy’s herbs had loosened. Sleeping twenty hours out of the day, but then lying in bed, propped up by pillows, being spoon-fed the nourishing broth and complaining…complaining! about being cooped up inside.

 

Yes, he had definitely turned the corner.

 

Andy practically glowed with happiness, racing from corral to bunkhouse to bedroom in an excess of energy. Slim envied him his uncomplicated joy. Even Jonesy seemed to have recovered, the deep shadows under his eyes fading as his mind eased and he caught up on sleep.

 

Only Slim was still caught in uncertainty. Oh, he was calmer now. He no longer felt the twist in his guts, the crippling doubts, the breathtaking guilt, but he still wasn’t sure what Jess thought…or what *he* did. There was still that strange, uncomfortable feeling that he was looking at a stranger—one with the face of his best friend—and it caught him at unexpected moments with the force of a blow. He wasn’t sure what to do about it…or if he *should* do anything about it. Jess was still fragile, and so was he. He didn’t want to do anything to break the delicate peace around them. And so he threw himself back into his work with a determination that surprised everyone, including himself.

* * * * * *

 

Jess’s recovery was slow but steady. It was another week before he was allowed up, to limp unsteadily on supporting arms into the living room, where he was ensconced in his rocking chair before the fire with great pomp and celebration. It was another week after that before he was allowed outside—briefly, well-wrapped and only in the warm sunlight.

 

It was the first time he’d been outside since the fire, at least awake, and he looked around with interest. The burned trees and brush had been cut back away from the buildings, their scorched tops the only visible reminders of the fire. A pole and brush lean-to in the corral sheltered the horses and tools; the saddles and tack in their small shed gleamed in the reflected sunlight.

 

The barn site was level and cleared of all debris, ready for the barn-raising to be held the following week. The four of them had spent countless hours at Jess’s bedside and at the kitchen table planning, designing the new space…how many stalls, where the tack should be placed, what storage they needed for tools, for supplies, for wagon parts. What work areas they would need, now and in the future.

 

The future. For the first time in his life, Jess found himself planning for the future.

 

The burns on his hands and shoulders healed quickly, leaving only fading red marks as reminders. The soles of his feet took longer, but he was able to walk now without limping, and could even wear his boots for short periods of time. The doctor had assured him that they would heal cleanly in time, and he was trying to be patient.

 

The only thing that worried him was Slim’s continued distance. Oh, he seemed cheerful, and they laughed and joked and discussed their plans; but he sensed an odd separation, an emotional withdrawal that he’d never felt from his partner before, and it worried him.

 

But his friend was an intensely private man, and Jess was afraid to intrude. They’d just gotten their balance back, and he was afraid to throw things off again. And so they both ignored their discomfort and pretended that everything was fine.

* * * * * *

 

It was the night before the barn raising, and Jess was having trouble sleeping. The healing skin on his feet was itching, and he wriggled and rubbed and stretched them, trying to ease the itch and the cramps.

 

Pretty much the whole town was due at first light, making a full day’s party of it—raise the barn, have a dance, and celebrate the fact that he, and the others here, were all alive and well and ready to get on with their lives.

 

It awed him that so many people had offered to come help; and more so, how many had sent their regards and good wishes to him. He’d known that Slim and Andy were well-liked in the community; he hadn’t realized how much he’d become a part of it himself. It was a humbling, and somewhat uncomfortable, feeling for someone who’d spent the majority of his adult life alone.

 

He grinned in the darkness, hearing the soft snores of his partner in the next bed. Alone, indeed!

 

He rubbed his aching hands and feet on the bedclothes one more time, then gave up and pulled himself upright. The trees whispered outside the window, moonlight reaching in through the thin curtains and illuminating the sleeping form in the next bed. He snagged his jeans on the way out and padded in stockinged feet into the next room. He could hear Jonesy’s bed-rattling snores through the thin door of the next bedroom as he headed towards the small kitchen. Hopping on one foot, he managed to pull on his jeans.

 

The night was quiet, only the sounds of the wind and the coyotes and the snores of his family to disturb the silence. He grabbed his coat from the peg by the door and went outside.

 

The full moon shone with a cool blue light, throwing the yard into stark relief. He could hear the comforting sounds of horses munching hay and stomping an occasional hoof onto the packed dirt of the yard. A coyote chorus sang in the distance, high-pitched and shrill, like rare and exotic birds.

 

He took a deep breath of the cold night air and smiled.

 

The quiet voice behind him was a shock, but he didn’t jump. He knew the voice, knew the man, knew there was no danger.

 

“You’ll catch a chill,” Slim said. “Why don’t you come back inside?”

 

“Not yet,” Jess replied, looking out over the moon-touched landscape. “I ain’t cold.”

 

He heard the scrape of a chair being pulled up and felt a touch on his arm.

 

“At least sit down,” Slim said easily. “I don’t want Jonesy to kill me for not watching out for you.”

 

Jess dropped into the chair and smiled. “I guess I ain’t used to having anybody watch out for me. It’s kind of a new thing for me.”

 

“Well, you’d better get used to it,” Slim grumbled, pulling up another chair and sitting alongside his friend. The two sat in silence for a moment, contemplating the night.

 

“I need to…”

“I was gonna…”

 

They both spoke in unison, and laughed slightly in embarrassment.

 

“You first.”

 

“No, you.”

 

There was another long moment of silence.

 

“You scared me, Jess.” Slim’s tone was calm, but his hands in the darkness were clenched tightly.

 

Jess looked down. “I know. And I’m sorry.”

 

“That don’t cut it,” Slim said sharply. Jess stiffened but said nothing. Slim’s tone softened. “Just…don’t do that again.”

 

“I can’t promise that.” Jess’s voice was muffled. Slim sat up straight. Jess’s voice came from the darkness, clearer now, almost cold. “I can’t. I won’t make a promise I can’t keep.”

 

“Talk to me, Jess,” Slim begged. “Tell me why you’d…what would make you be willing to…to kill yourself.”

 

Jess was silent for so long that Slim was afraid he wasn’t going to answer.

 

“You ever been burned, Slim?” The voice was soft, distant, detached. “Oh, not the hot pan or stick your hand in the fire kind of burn. I mean, on fire.”

 

“I’ve seen some that had been,” Slim replied carefully. He wasn’t sure where this was going but he knew he had to tread softly.

 

“Then you know some of it. But not all. ‘Cause the ones you saw were past it.” Slim stayed silent. After a moment, the quiet voice went on. “I been there, Slim. I saw it…smelled it…heard it. I know what burns can do, and the feeling of it…going on and on, getting worse and worse…” There was an audible gulp in the darkness. “The preachers got it right,” Jess said softly, “about hell bein’ fire and brimstone.”

 

There was another brief pause. “You heard that horse, heard him scream. But that was scared. He wasn’t burned…not yet.” He paused again. “Not yet,” he whispered. His voice grew stronger now.

 

“I made a promise, Slim. To my family, and to myself. I’d never let that happen to anyone, or any creature. Not again.”

 

Slim couldn’t breathe, couldn’t move. He felt Jess turn to face him, could see his eyes reflecting the moonlight.

 

“That’s why I can’t promise you, Slim. I know what could happen. I won’t let it…not to a horse, nor a man…or even myself.” He sighed and looked down, eyes veiled. “I ain’t lookin’ to die. This is…I been happy here. This is the first home I’ve had in…in a long time.” He looked up again. “But if you’re worried that I’ll run into another burnin’ barn some day, well, most likely I will. I sure won’t promise not to. And if you can’t accept that,” he paused for a moment as if gathering himself, “I’ll leave.”

 

“Go away?” Slim’s voice was husky in the darkness. Jess swallowed hard.

 

“If I have to. I don’t want to hurt you, or Andy or Jonesy neither. I don’t want anyone to be grieved by who I am. So if you want me to go, I will.”

 

The silence held for infinity. A cloud scudded in front of the moon, throwing the yard into sudden blackness. The horses in their shed stamped nervously.

 

“I guess…I guess you can’t help bein’ who you are,” Slim’s voice was a whisper in the darkness. “And I wouldn’t change you…even if I could.”

 

Jess released the breath he hadn’t been aware he was holding. The cloud moved away and the moonlight gilded the treetops again.

 

“Just…” Slim’s voice was hesitant.

 

Jess waited.

 

“Just…next time you go runnin’ into danger, make sure you do your damnedest to come back out.”

 

Jess laughed, sudden and joyful. “I always do.”

 

The coyotes howled again. Slim shivered in the biting wind and stood up.

 

“C’mon, partner,” he said, tapping Jess’s shoulders lightly. “Let’s get some sleep. We got a barn to build in the morning.”

 

Side by side, the two friends walked into the house.

 

August 5, 2008



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