Unfinished


by Arren





Chapter One

This couldn’t be happening. It was too soon. There’s still so much for him to do that he hasn’t had a chance at. In the complete darkness, with nothing to look at, and no sound filtering through from the outside, his thoughts naturally turned inward. He tried not to think about it, but the intrusive blackness seemed to cover his soul as it had already covered his eyes.

 

*****

Slim rode slowly, eyes on the ground, sweeping back and forth, looking for anything, any sign of disturbance, any hint that someone had passed this way recently. In the back of his mind, he knew that Mort was doing the same thing about a mile to the east, but he couldn’t let his focus shift. He couldn’t afford to miss even the smallest sign.

 

Jess had been missing for over a day. The three of them were the only members of a posse searching for Dunk Logan. Dunk wasn’t worth much more than a three-man posse. The only reason Slim and Jess were conscripted was because they owed Mort a favor. No one else would sign up.

 

Now, though, the search for Dunk had turned into a race against time with Jess’ life hanging in the balance.

 

They had split up. That was probably mistake number one. Dunk was a big, overgrown thug with a brain that was probably pickled from too much liquor over the years. He was a petty thief and not a very good one at that. The last thing he had stolen before he left town, was a fast horse from the livery. The posse had planned to split up and box him in. He had headed straight for the northern plateau where there were canyons and caves and mines, probably figuring he could hide and wait them out. Mort figured they stood a better chance of catching him if they circled him and forced him into a canyon.

 

Somewhere the plan had gone awry. Turned out, Dunk had a friend waiting for him and the two outlaws had decided to make a stand. After a brief gun battle, they made a run for freedom, prompting gunfire on both sides. The friend, they never did learn his name, was killed instantly. Dunk died slower.

 

When the shooting was over, Slim saw Mort approaching from the south as he hurried to disarm Dunk. He didn’t see Jess, but wasn’t concerned. Jess had gone into the canyon to flush them out. He should be riding up anytime now.

 

Dunk lay in a spreading pool of his own blood gazing up at the clouds. Slim kicked his gun away and then stooped down beside him. Dunk was smiling. Laughing really. Not looking at Slim, but looking at something a long way away.

 

Mort rode up, swung down off his horse and rushed over to where Dunk’s friend lay. Slim saw Mort bend down and pick up his gun, but it was obvious the man was dead.

 

Slim leaned in and spoke to Dunk. “Dunk. Who’s your friend over there?”

 

Dunk smiled even bigger and began to laugh out loud. “You killed my friend, I killed yor’n.”

 

Slim felt a knot of terror grip his stomach, pushing the breath out of him for a moment. “My friend?” he finally managed.

 

Dunk continued to laugh, and then began coughing. Each cough brought up a gush of bright red frothy blood.

 

Slim knew he was loosing him fast. He spoke louder and shook Dunk’s shoulder. “Dunk! Where’s Jess? What did you do?”

 

Dunk’s laughter and the coughing ceased and his breathing became labored. After a few moments, his eyes fixed and the horrible gurgling stopped.

 

Slim lunged to his feet and ran for his horse. Mort was standing behind him and had to leap out of the way. “Where’re you goin’?”

 

“Jess is in there!” Slim swung up onto this horse without even touching the stirrup, and then spurred him. The horse, startled, shot forward, and Slim disappeared into the heavy brush.

 

*****

There were times when Jess couldn’t tell if he was awake or asleep. He had no light, no sound except his own breathing, and no way to tell what time of day or night it was. He hadn’t been able to move either one of his legs for hours, or was it days now? He could feel them, he could even wiggle his toes inside his boots, but he couldn’t move them an inch one way or the other. They were cold, and the cold went bone deep.

 

Initially he had lain on a pile of rubble, not very deep, but still very uncomfortable. Over time, he had been able to remove most of the rocks that were under him and he was able to lay flat on the ground. It was cold and hard, but at least sharp rocks weren’t stabbing him in the back anymore.

 

Jess had found Dunk. After crisscrossing the entire canyon for hours, he had gone off to where he hadn’t been before, or even thought was a likely track. It was there, in an arroyo, that he rather unexpectedly caught a glimpse of Dunk running for an old mine shaft. The boards that covered the opening had been pushed aside. Dunk must be using it as a hideout.

Since he knew exactly where Dunk was, he didn’t have to hurry and he didn’t have any doubt he could get him out, or wait him out, whichever it took. Jess swung down from his mount and sent the horse off into the brush, out of harm’s way. He drew his gun and quietly moved toward the mine. There was a light inside. Dunk had built a fire. Jess peered in and could see Dunk moving around. He quietly slipped inside the opening and surprised Dunk. Dunk didn’t even have a gun on him. He looked surprised, but not scared. He looked at Jess and started to laugh. Dunk was always a laugher, no matter what the situation.

 

“Well, I guess you got me there, Jess. Shore glad it was you and not that tin star.” Dunk’s gaze flickered to somewhere behind Jess, and he began laughing even more.

 

Keeping his gun trained on Dunk, Jess glanced around, seeing only a board coming at his head, and then blackness. After that, he didn’t know anything. He didn’t know if he was out for minutes, or hours, but when he came to, he was buried under rubble, he had a bloody mess on the side of his head and he had a headache the size of Wyoming itself.

 

How long ago had that been? Jess couldn’t even begin to guess. He knew he was uncomfortable. He had a raging headache and was very hungry, but even more thirsty. He had spent the first little while after he came to calling for help. He yelled until his voice became hoarse and then he had to stop. He felt around on the ground, all around him and underneath him, looking for his gun. Either the cave-in had buried it where he couldn’t reach it, or Dunk had taken if off him before he left him here.

 

The air smelled stale, but every once in awhile, he felt a slight draft. It was cold, but it also told him that fresh air was coming in from somewhere. At least he wouldn’t die of suffocation. Hunger or thirst maybe, but not suffocation.

 

*****

Slim and Mort had spent the night in the rocky dry canyons. They made camp only when the light became so poor that they were afraid their horses would stumble. Mort was scared, not just for Jess, but for Slim as well. Those boys were closer than any brothers he’d ever seen, and one without the other was, well, it was just unthinkable.

 

Mort had looked over at Slim on the other side of the campfire. It was a cinch he wouldn’t be sleeping much tonight. Slim stared into the fire. He had eaten a little bit of jerky and was now drinking coffee.

 

“You want to talk, Slim?”

 

Slim pulled his gaze away from the fire and sought out Mort on the other side. “What’s on your mind, Mort?”

 

“Just you and Jess. I’m worried that you’re keepin’ a lot bottled up. You want to talk about it?”

 

“Nothin’ to say really. I’ve got to find him, Mort.”

 

“And we will. I’m sure of it.” Mort tried to sound as upbeat as he could. After a moment of dead silence, he added, “Tell me about you an’ Jess, Slim. Where did you two meet?”

 

Slim’s gaze returned to the fire and a smile spread across his face. “Didn’t I ever tell you that, Mort?”

 

“Not as I recall.” Mort settled back against his saddle to listen, hoping to keep Slim engaged and relaxed until hopefully, he could get some sleep.

 

Slims smiled turned to a chuckle. “He was trespassing. I rode up and found him laying out by the pond against a log with his hat pulled over his eyes. He was a cocky trespasser, too. Real smart alecky…” Slim grinned showing his deep dimples.

 

Slim told Mort the story about those first rocky weeks, about Bud Carlin and Roney Bishop and Jess leaving whenever he took a notion. Things had smoothed out and Slim allowed that Jess had become the best friend he’d ever had. Nothing was going to prevent him from finding him.

 

Then Slim had said something that surprised Mort. He had said, “He’s not dead.” Just flat out, just like that. “He’s not dead.”

 

Mort glanced up and saw Slims face was set like stone. “I hope you’re right, boy.”

 

“I’d know if he was.”

 

Mort was interested. “How would you know?”

 

Slims eyes were fixed on the fire and Mort could see its reflection in them. Finally, Slim’s eyes flickered and he shifted his gaze back to Mort.

 

“I dunno, Mort. I just think I’d know somehow.” He smiled and his face relaxed a bit. “Don’t mind me, Mort. I’m just tired. I’m gonna try and get some shut-eye.”

 

Slim slid down on his back and pulled his hat over his eyes and laced his fingers across his chest. Mort watched for a few minutes. Although Slim pretended to be relaxing, he was still stiff as a board and was not resting. Mort shook his head and pulled his own hat over his eyes and gave sleeping a real try.

 

As he was not sleeping, he’d remembered the time that Greevy fella had shot Slim and left him for dead out in the big open. Jess was a wild man, doing everything, including clubbing his old friend the sheriff, to make the scum tell him where Slim was. He’d gone so far as to break the man out of jail. That had all turned out all right. Jess found Slim late that night. It was freezing as Mort recalled, but Slim had recovered.

 

It was cold here too, but this was different. Jess had been gone since late yesterday. They had scoured these canyons, together and separately. Slim was silent for the most part. His jaw muscles working overtime, his gaze fixed to nothing. To everything. They had shouted, they had fired shots in the air. There was no sign.

 

Another way that this time was different was that Slim didn’t have anybody to hit. They had buried Dunk and his friend yesterday. No one else in the world could’ve told them what they’d done with Jess. Slim didn’t have anyone to make a deal with, no one to shake until their teeth rattled. His rage was on the inside, and Mort was sure it had to come out sometime.

 

By morning, Mort was tireder than he was when he’d laid down. He wasn’t sure if he’d slept at all, and looking over at Slim, he was pretty sure that he hadn’t. Slim was already up and saddling his horse. His shoulders were slumped, his movements slow, but purposeful. Mort stood and stretched the kinks out. His back cracked and he shivered with the cold. A fleeting thought crossed his mind, a thought of Jess laying out there somewhere. He’d be cold, too.

 

They had skipped breakfast, having only coffee and the two of them silently mounted and continued with the search that had begun, but not yet finished.

 

*******

 

The sun was well over the top, heading down the other side. It would be dark again in a few hours. Mort pulled up and took his hat off, running a hand through his graying hair. “Hold up a minute, Slim,” he called.

 

Slim pulled up and turned his horse around to face Mort.

 

“I think one of us should go back to town and get some more help. Get some supplies too.

 

“You go, Mort. I’m stayin’ out here.” With that, he turned and his horse slowly walked on.

 

It would take Mort at least four hours to get back to town. He’d start right away rounding up volunteers and supplies, and be ready to leave by first light. He pulled his horse up along side Slim’s. “You know I’d rather stay, but we need help, Slim.”

 

Slim stared straight ahead. “I know, Mort. I think you should go.” After a moment Slim pulled up his horse again and turned to Mort. He tried a smile. “I mean it, Mort. You go get help. I appreciate it.”

 

Mort hitched his hat back, “I’ll be back in the morning. We’ll leave first light. I’ll fire three shots when we get in the area.” He unhooked his canteen from his saddle and handed it over to Slim. “You’ll need this more than I will.”

 

Slim nodded and blindly reached for the canteen.

 

Mort turned and rode south, stopping once to look back at Slim. Slim was still sitting in the same spot, looking out over the endless brush and rocks. Mort sent up a silent prayer for his two friends, that they would both survive this.

 

*****

Jess thought he heard the call of a bird. A hawk or a falcon. He strained to listen, wanting to hear it again. If he could hear it, maybe he wasn’t as far inside the mine as he thought he was. Maybe there wasn’t as much rubble as he thought. He just wanted to hear something that was alive.

 

He tried calling out again. It had been a long time since he’d yelled any. His voice was back, at least for a few minutes, then he had to stop again. His throat was dry and no more sound would come out. His lips were dry and cracked and he thought he tasted blood.

 

He reached up and touched the lump on his head. The blood had dried and his hair was stiff with it. It still hurt, but now it didn’t matter that his head hurt, because everything else hurt too.

 

Jess thought of Slim and wondered where he was, what he was thinking. He knew Slim would be looking for him. The certainty of that kept him hoping that this wasn’t the end after all. His life was unfinished, there was too much more he had to do.

 

He and Slim had been in an unusually introspective mood one evening a week or so back, and had sat in the dark on the front porch talking about life and the future. Mostly they discussed the future of the ranch, their plans and hopes for it. Jess came to realize that his future and the future of the ranch were inextricably tied to one another. He couldn’t picture one without the other.

 

Sure, they had talked about marrying some day. Slim had come close twice, Jess had never really come that close, but it was on his mind from time to time. Not that he was anxious, but a man thinks about leaving something behind, and that might include a son. Or a daughter. Jess smiled. He wouldn’t object to a little girl. In fact, he might even prefer a daughter, or maybe one of each.

 

He and Slim had laughed about the marriage talk, dismissing it as something for the distant future. They had too much work to do, they had to raise Mike and see that Daisy had a secure home. If wives came into the picture, well, they’d build another house or two and carry on. There was plenty of land for that. Jess and Slim would still be partners in the ranch. That would never change. They’d laughed about the kind of woman it would take, being married to both her husband and his partner and their ranch. She might be out there somewhere, but Jess was too busy living to go out and search.

 

*****

Slim didn’t know where to go next. He felt like he’d been over all of this ground before. In this area, the brush was high and the trees plentiful. He wondered if he could just get on some high ground and see for a distance, maybe he could spot something. Jess’ horse must be somewhere. Traveler was a one-man horse. He wasn’t one to wander off. Once he’d run home when Jess got shot off his back, but he was only a mile or two from home then. He’s almost fifty miles away from home here. No, if Slim knew Traveler, he’d still be around here, if he could be.

 

He gave Alamo a nudge, and they plodded off again, Slim scanning the ground with tired eyes. He hadn’t slept much last night. Mort had stayed with him, but they hadn’t talked a whole lot. Mort tried to tell him they’d find Jess and everything would be okay, but it rang hollow, and Mort knew it as well as he did. No one could know, they could only hope.

 

Slim entered yet another canyon, which looked just like the one before it. This one was smaller than most, and it had steep rocky walls. Slim decided to hug the walls and make the circuit before he crisscrossed the center. After about fifteen minutes, Slim pulled up with a start. On the ground he saw what looked like tracks. He swung down and dropped his reins on the ground.

 

Tracks! They were horse tracks. He didn’t know whose, but they were the first he’d seen since he’d backtracked Dunk’s tracks day before yesterday and they’d petered out in some rocks. Picking up the reins again, Slim walked carefully, following the tracks, Alamo following along behind. There was a rough trail of sorts along the canyon wall. In places, it looked like it might have once been a primitive road. Mines. Slim remembered there were mines around here. Deserted long ago, but one of them would sure make a good hide out if someone wanted to get lost. He reckoned Dunk and his friend had found one and made it their hide out.

 

He continued along for a few hundred feet and came to a place in the canyon wall that had collapsed. The rim was low here and he could climb up and maybe get a look out from one of the big rocks. He left Alamo and scrambled up a dozen or more feet, reaching a relatively flat rock where he could stop. He turned and looked out over the canyon. It looked like it was scrub brush from one side to the other. He was about to climb back down when he spotted movement out of the corner of his eye. It was fleeting and he couldn’t catch a glimpse of it again. Could’ve been a low-flying bird. Just then he heard it screech. It was a hawk, probably hunting some mouse on the ground.

 

Slim carefully let himself back down to ground level and took up the reins again, continuing to walk along the canyon wall. After awhile he looked up and saw the hawk again. It was diving at something on the ground and making a racket doing it. Slims heart skipped a beat, but then he realized that hawks aren’t scavengers. They’re predators. They’ll go after live game, small rodents, snakes and the like. Still, he headed off following the same rough trail.

 

*****

It had been hours since Jess had heard anything. He had fallen asleep and had dreamed about the little farm where he grew up in Texas. He hadn’t thought about that place in years. Until it had been burned, it had been a fairly happy place for a boy to grow up. He had brothers and sisters and his parents worked hard. It was just a hardscrabble, sharecropper’s farm, but he figured they were about as happy as any.

 

In his dream he saw the inside of the house. The rough wooden walls that his mother had tried to make pretty with pictures. There was the plank floor. He saw that huge old stove that he’d always loved, and the big table that they had all sat around at dinner. The table was set for dinner and there was a big tureen of soup in the middle of it. That tureen was his mother’s pride and joy. It was her one and only wedding present. Whenever they had moved from one house to another, she always wrapped it in a quilt and carried it in her lap the whole way.

 

He saw the house, but didn’t see any people. It was as if he were the only one left. He knew that the house wasn’t standing anymore. He knew it even as he walked through it.

 

Something woke him up. Perhaps it was the cold. His hands were numb and he couldn’t feel his feet anymore. A cold hunger gnawed at him. He tried to push away the thoughts of the soup in that tureen. Hot soup. Jess was never one to cry, but he must’ve been crying in his sleep. He hadn’t cried since he was a kid. He remembered he had a dog that he loved a lot, and it had died. He was little then. When he was older, the only time he had cried was after the fire. He was a stoic kid, he took it all in, but his emotions were under control at first.

 

The local townsfolk had all come out for the spectacle. Some kind folks were helping to clean up. The doctor and some other men had removed the bodies and when all that was left was burnt, smoldering rubble, Jess had wandered in, dazed. But he didn’t cry…until he found the soup tureen. It was turned upside down and the white porcelain had been blackened. It was still intact though. Not even a crack in it. He found the lid nearby. Jess remembered he picked it up and turned it over and set it reverently on the ground. Then he placed the lid gently on top of it. It was then that he cried. The floodgates opened and Jess figured he must’ve sat there for an hour or more, just letting it all out. Finally Francie had come and taken him into town with her. He never really remembered much about the next few days, until the day he left.

 

The tears came now, though. Unbidden, unwanted, but there nevertheless. A dark blanket of despair settled over him. He was never afraid of dying, hell, he’d come close a couple of times. It made him angry, it made him sad for the ones he’d leave behind, but he was never afraid.

 

It was the same this time. Fear was not the problem. He reckoned that of all the ways he could die, this was probably one of the more painless. Sure, he wasn’t having any fun, and he wasn’t comfortable, but he wasn’t in agony either. The only thing he could wish for, was that it could be faster.

 

Oh, he could wish for more than that. He could wish for a chance to see Mike and Daisy again. He hated that he couldn’t hug them and say goodbye.

 

Most of all, he wished he could tell Slim. Not to say goodbye, but to say thank you. To thank him for being a friend when he needed one more than anything in the world. He hadn’t been an easy friend to have, but Slim saw something in him worthwhile.

 

Jess had made it hard on Slim at first. In fact, they had butted heads and bickered like an old married couple at times, but there wasn’t anyone in the world that Jess trusted more. It had taken time, but he had come to know, deeper than he had ever known anything in his life, that the one person he could always count on, was Slim. Now Slim would never know.

 

Jess brushed away the dampness on his face with his shirtsleeve. His chest hurt and he coughed in the dank, dusty air. It hurt. Every cough racked his sore chest and ribs, but he knew it was better to cough than to let that dust settle in his lungs. After a painful bout of hard coughing, he finally fell into an exhausted sleep. This time, there were no dreams. There was no light, and no sound.

 

*****

Slim looked up at the sky. The sun was going down. It was already below the high horizon of the upper rim of the canyon. It would be too dark to continue inside an hour. Slim fleetingly thought of another night on the hard ground. He hadn’t bothered to hunt anything to eat, so he’d have another meal of hardtack and water if he even bothered to eat at all.

 

His appetite was non-existent. He could keep riding all night, if only his horse could and if only he could see. He felt like every minute counted and it made his gut ache to think of stopping.

 

Slim hadn’t allowed himself to think that Jess might be dead. Of course it had occurred to him, but he had such a strong doubt, that he began to trust himself, to believe that he was right and that he’d find Jess. It wasn’t something that Slim thought often about. He was a more introspective man than Jess was usually, but he never dwelled on dying. It wasn’t in his nature to give in to it. There was too much to do, too much work, too much fun. They had a good life here, and every day, even the routine workdays, could be an adventure. Sometimes good, sometimes bad. Like today.

 

Slim didn’t doubt he’d find Jess. He didn’t dare show his face at home without him. Slim knew that Jess held a bigger chunk of Daisy’s heart than he did. He didn’t mind in the least. Jess needed Daisy more than he did and he had always admired their friendship. Jess had a place in his heart for Daisy and Mike that no one else occupied. No, he could not disappoint them by coming home without Jess.

 

After hour upon hour of riding, walking, and searching, when Slim finally spotted Jess’ horse, he was so tired, it took him a minute to register what he was seeing. On the far side of an arroyo, Jess’ big bay, Traveler was grazing on the sparse brushy grass that grew alongside the dried-up creek bed. It occurred to him later that he hadn’t actually found Traveler, Alamo had.

 

As he was riding along, deep in his thoughts and watching the ground for signs, Alamo had pricked up his ears and craned his neck off in a slightly different direction than they were heading. Slim, not really paying attention, had allowed Alamo his head, and the horse had followed his nose. When Slim looked up, Traveler was in sight.

 

Slim’s tired face broke into a mile-wide smile. He patted Alamo’s neck firmly and urged him quickly over to where Traveler was now standing, his ears pricked up and watching them.

 

Slim swung down and walked quietly up to Traveler. He was never a spooky horse, and allowed Slim to approach, and even met him part way. Slim ran his hands quickly over him. He was dry and dusty. He didn’t see any injuries, or blood. He removed the saddle that must have been on him for two days, and took the saddle blanket off as well. He gave his back a quick rubdown with his gloved hand since he didn’t have a brush.

 

Looking around the area, he couldn’t see anything unusual. He picked up Alamo’s reins and walked off down the arroyo, leaving Traveler to follow, or stay where he was. Traveler followed.

 

About a hundred yards back toward the west end of the canyon, Slim spotted an unnatural pile of rocks. These weren’t just random rocks that lay on the ground. They were rubble where something had caused a landslide. Or a cave in.

 

Slim dropped the reins and ran. Mixed in among the pile of rubble were planks of wood, some with nails. This was a mine. Had to be.

 

“Jess!” Slim called as loudly as he could, cupping his hands around his mouth and shouting directly at the rubble. He stood quiet for a moment and listened. No answer.

 

He began frantically pulling away rocks and stones as big as his head, some bigger. He carefully moved the wood and threw it in a pile over to one side. His leather gloves served him well and he kept up the momentum until he was panting and sweat was dripping into his eyes.

 

He stopped and sat down with his back up against the wall of the canyon. He tried calling again. “Jess!” Still nothing. He pulled out his gun, and fired a shot into the air and then listened. He heard the shot’s echo, and then he heard the hawk squawk a protest, but then silence.

 

It was getting dark, but Slim did not stop except to rest for a few minutes when he couldn’t go on anymore. As the sun set, Slim stopped and set fire to the large pile of wood he had accumulated. He needed light, because he intended to keep digging. If help could find him at all, they wouldn’t be here for at least another twelve hours. He couldn’t wait that long. Jess couldn’t wait that long.

 

It had been several hours of repeated cycles of digging and resting. Slim had made headway into the immense pile of rubble. It was late night, but luckily, a full moon made it light enough, along with his fire, to see what he was doing. He was exhausted. Despite the cold night air, he was sweating. He had taken a few swallows of water, shared a little with the horses, but tried to conserve it as much as he could.

 

A few times, the unwanted fleeting thought that he was on a fool’s errand flitted through his over-tired mind. He could be in the wrong place, he could be too late. When the despair threatened to overwhelm him, he renewed his energetic throwing of rocks. Mind and body-numbing fatigue had set in, but he continued, ignoring everything except for his goal.

 

It was sometime just before dawn that Slim felt a brief stirring of a draft. It was barely noticeable. He smelled it more than felt it. It was a damp, cold, musty smell like a cave that had been closed up. Slim stopped his work and listened. Then he tried calling out again. “Jess!” No sound came from within.

 

Slim continued pulling away debris with renewed energy. At last he had cleared an opening large enough for him to slip through. The sun was almost up, but he still needed more light, so he went to his smoldering pile of wood and pulled out a long shaft. He beat out the embers, then he took off his bandana and wrapped it around the end of the shaft. It wouldn’t burn for long, but he shouldn’t need it for too long. He lit it in the dying fire, watching it flame up into a passable torch. Then he ran for the mine opening.

 

He climbed the pile of rubble that had formed when he pulled rocks from the opening, and squeezed his long body in through the opening he had created. Inside was damp, the earthy smell was stronger. It was also about twenty degrees colder inside than outside. His poor torch only lit up a few feet around him, but he didn’t have to go far to find what he was looking for.

 

Slim’s heart skipped several beats and his stomach was in his throat when he spotted a body, unrecognizable and covered with gray dust, laying on the ground to one side of the opening. He could only see the torso. It was laying on its back and the lower half of the body was hidden under still more rubble.

 

“Jess!” Slim scrambled over debris and knelt at the side of his friend. He knew it was Jess, even in the poor light. Jess’ face, his hair, everything about him was covered with dust. He was still and quiet. Slim leaned over and laid his ear to Jess’ chest. The relief was so great that he went limp, his head sinking to Jess’ chest and resting there for a moment. The heartbeat that he heard was strong. The breathing was shallow.

 

After a moment he sat up and touched Jess’ face. He gently tapped his cheek with his gloved hand. “Jess? Can you hear me?” He removed his gloves and felt the side of Jess’ head where his hair was stiff. Blood. He felt a lump, but there was no fresh blood, only old, dried blood caked with dirt.

 

Jess was still, not moving and barely breathing. Slim turned and hurried back outside to where he’d left his canteen. Coming back in, he untied the bandana from around Jess’ neck and soaked it with the cold water. He began carefully wiping the dust and dirt off of Jess’ face and neck. He hoped the cold water would revive him. He got his face clean and then began working on the dried blood. The torch was burning out, but a shaft of sunlight was making its way into the mine. As Slim worked on the dried matted blood, Jess groaned and began pulling away.

 

Slim stopped. “Jess? Can you hear me?”

 

Jess groaned again and his eyes fluttered. Opening them just a slit, he quickly squeezed them shut again.

 

“What’s the matter, Jess?”

 

Jess’ voice was barely a rumbling whisper. “The light.”

 

Slim had to bend down close to hear him, but he understood. The light from outside was hurting his eyes. He’d been in darkness for so long.

 

“Just keep your eyes closed, it’ll get better. Just take it slow. You want some water?”

 

Jess nodded and Slim held the canteen to his parched and cracked lips. Jess took a few sips and began coughing, so Slim pulled back. A minute later they tried again. Slowly, Jess was able to take a few swallows.

 

“That’s it,” Slim said setting the canteen aside. “I’m gonna see what’s got you pinned in here.” Slim moved away, down to where Jess’ legs disappeared under the rubble. “I’m still here, I’m just looking at where your legs are,” he said.

 

Jess nodded his head, but didn’t speak.

 

Slim could see that several large beams had Jess wedged in. He didn’t see any heavy weight on his legs, but they were completely immobile. They weren’t crushed. The relief was palpable. Slim reached in and pulled out some of the bigger rocks. Jess groaned a little.

 

“Jess, can you feel your legs?”

 

Keeping his eyes closed, he nodded and then whispered, “Cold.”

 

That concerned Slim. He wondered if they were cold because the circulation was cut off, which would be very bad, or just cold because he’d been laying on the cold ground for two days. Slim reached as far back into the opening he’d created as he could and felt Jess’ lower leg. He put his fingers around his knee and squeezed. Jess grimaced and moaned slightly. This was good.

 

“Okay, Jess I’ll be back in just a minute.” He stood and climbed his way back outside. The sun was up now and it was beginning to warm up a bit. He went over to Alamo and pulled his bedroll and saddle bags off his back. Taking them back inside, he unrolled the bedroll and took one layer and laid it over Jess, tucking in the edges as best he could and pushing as much of it down to cover his legs as he could manage. Then he took the other layer of blanket and tried to get it underneath Jess, to give him some relief from the cold ground.

 

He tipped Jess up on his side slightly and shoved the edge of the blanket up under him. Then he went to the other side and pulled it under him, spreading out the wrinkles as best he could.

 

“There ya go. That oughta feel better.” Jess didn’t answer. He was lying still with his eyes closed. Slim reached out and felt his forehead. No fever that he could tell. He was cold and dry.

 

Slim continued to clean out as much debris as he could, but he was not able to move the wedged planks. They were too big and heavy. He couldn’t just drag them either as that would’ve caused Jess a lot of pain. They needed to be lifted off and then Jess pulled out from under. For that, he’d need the help of a few men and maybe some horses. Mort would be coming back sometime this morning. Somehow he had to figure out how to get Mort here.

 

After working at it for almost an hour, Slim decided there was nothing else he could do, but wait. It was too early yet to expect Mort. He sat down next to Jess and laid a hand on his chest. He felt the reassuring rise and fall, although Jess did not stir.

 

“Jess?”

 

Jess opened his eyes a slit, looking around unfocused. Finally, his usually deep resonant voice rasped, “What took you so long?”

 

Slim couldn’t help but laugh, and he looked down at Jess who grinned. It was a happy, but pain-filled grin.

 

“Hey!” he retorted, “you coulda written.”

 

Jess laughed, and then grabbed his chest and coughed. “Don’t make me laugh.”

 

“You started it,” he replied. “Hey, you think you could eat a little something?”

 

Jess closed his eyes and shook his head silently.

 

“Well, I think you need to try. You need some more water, too.” Slim had an idea and said, “Wait here, I’ll be right back.” He got up and headed back for the mine opening. He turned quickly and said, “Don’t go anywhere.” Jess started coughing again.

 

Outside, Slim took Alamo’s saddle off of him and carried it back with him through the opening. Inside, he knelt beside Jess and reached under his shoulders. “I’m gonna lift you here. Hold on.” Jess reached up and took hold of Slim’s shoulder and tried to help raise himself. Slim turned the saddle over and slid it under Jess, laying him back down on the soft, warm fleece that lined the underside of the saddle. Slim reached behind him and grabbed his saddlebags, taking out a sack of jerky and then closing them up again.

 

“C’mon, Jess. Drink some for me here.” He held the canteen up to Jess’ lips, and Jess took a little bit more water. Slim thought he’d be so thirsty that he’d really go for it, but Jess was too weak. He may be disoriented as well. He had heard that going without water would kill a person faster than going without food. Even before Jess was trapped here, there’s no telling how long since he’d had any water.

 

Slim managed to get a few more sips into him and then stopped. He’d try again later. Now if he could just get him to eat some. He tore off a small piece of jerky and offered it to Jess.

 

“Jess, here, take this. It’s just a little jerky.”

 

Jess opened his eyes and one of his hands snaked out from under the blanket and reached for it. He held it in his hand for a minute and then slowly chewed off a piece. He swallowed that piece, but didn’t make an attempt at any more.

 

“Don’t you want some more?”

 

Jess shook his head and let his hand drop back down on his chest.

 

“Okay, I’ll make a deal with you. You drink a little more water for me, and I’ll leave you alone for awhile.”

 

Jess nodded weakly and took a few more sips of water before falling asleep again, his head resting against the side of the saddle curve.

 

Slim was satisfied with that and set the canteen down next to Jess where he could reach for it if he wanted. He took Jess’ hand and put it back under the blanket and pulled it up to his chin. Then he sat back to think.

 

Mort wasn’t due back for at least another couple of hours. He didn’t get very far along in the thinking process before the exhaustion crept up on him, and he fell asleep sitting straight up against the rock wall.

 

*****

Mort had been up since sometime the morning before. When he had returned to Laramie, it had been an almost non-stop flurry of activity. He had spent a good portion of the night rounding up a few men. He stayed away from the saloons, which, this time of night on a weeknight usually held only drifters and drunks. He went door to door and was able to round up five good men who were willing to ride out with him at sunup. All of them knew Jess and were very willing to join the search.

 

He went to the doctor’s office, but was met by the doctor’s wife who said he was in Cheyenne until the weekend. They’d just have to hope his services wouldn’t be needed.

 

The rest of the evening was spent gathering supplies and a wagon. Mort wanted to be ready for anything, so he loaded ropes and shovels, picks and extra water and blankets. Anything he could think of that might come in handy if they had to stay out there for a few days.

 

He managed to grab about an hour or two of shuteye in a cell before he met his men at sunup in front of the office. They rode out on horseback, with Cal Baskin driving the wagon and pulling up the rear. It would be at least a four or five our trek out to where Mort had left Slim yesterday, slowed down by the heavy wagon.

 

It was close to noon before Mort saw signs of the familiar landscape. He saw no signs of Slim, though. Mort had his men fan out and begin searching with instructions to come if they heard three shots. He would get to high ground himself and fire two shots to try and locate Slim. If Slim answered, he would fire three to summon the troops.

 

Slim was in a deep, dreamless sleep when something woke him. Waking suddenly, he found himself sitting on the hard ground and slumped against the cold stone walls of the mine’s interior. He looked around, momentarily forgetting where he was. He spotted Jess sleeping about two feet away and it all came rushing back. He still didn’t know what had awakened him. Then he heard it. A gunshot.

 

Slim scrambled to his feet and hurried to the opening of the mine. The sun was high and bright. His hand flew to his eyes, squeezing them shut until the pain passed. He had slept a lot longer than he had intended to.

 

After a moment waiting for his eyes to adjust, he strode out to some open ground and then raised his gun in the air and fired a shot. He listened for a moment, and then heard three shots in answer. Mort was back and hopefully he brought some men with him.

 

Slim stayed out in the open and waited for any more signs. Mort would probably signal him again when he got closer. It was about twenty minutes later when Slim heard another shot, this time it did sound closer. He gave an answering shot and then sat down to wait some more.

 

It took a full hour, maybe a little more, for Mort and the others to find him. As he was riding in, Mort hollered, “Well, you certainly found a place off the beaten track.”

 

Slim walked up to Mort’s horse and looked up at his friend. “That’s not all I found. I sure am glad to see you, Mort.”

 

“You found him?”

 

“Yup, he’s inside.”

 

Mort swung down and tied his horse to a fallen tree. The others were also swinging down and the wagon was just pulling in.

 

Slim looked around at the men who had come. He knew them one and all. Baskin and he had been at odds before, but it was nice to see that he had come anyway. The others were men from town that he or Jess knew, usually from their businesses or as poker playing buddies.

 

Mort was already heading for the mine. Slim acknowledged the others and then followed Mort inside. Mort was stooping down next to Jess with his hand on Jess’ head when Slim came up behind him.

 

Mort turned around. “Has he been awake at all?”

 

“Yeah, some, but not for long at a time.”

 

Mort lifted an eyelid and then the other. He turned Jess’ head toward him and also looked at and felt the gash and the lump on the side of Jess’ head. “Those bastards,” Mort murmured under his breath. Then he turned to Slim, “I think he has a concussion.”

 

“Yeah, and I figure he’s dehydrated too. I got him to drink some, but he’s so weak…”

 

Mort turned his attention to the pile of debris that was holding Jess to the ground.

 

“I moved a lot of it last night, but the beams are too heavy. I figure we’d need a pulley and some horses.”

 

“Mmm,” Mort rubbed his chin. “I didn’t bring a pulley,” he said, mentally kicking himself. “We’ll have to make do.” He turned and made his way through the men who had come in behind them and were gathered around. “C’mon men, lets get this opening cleared out.”

 

They turned as one except for Arnie Solter who was still looking down at Jess. The others went to work clearing out the rest of the debris that had fallen into the entrance. Arnie looked at Jess, and then looked up at Slim who was about a foot taller than him. “Is he gonna be okay, Slim?”

 

Slim smiled. Arnie was a kind soul, a little slow, but always very kind. He was the one that went to help when a barn burned, or a child was missing. Slim never knew what Arnie did for a living, but he always seemed to be available and willing. He always liked to hang around him and Jess when they were in town. He didn’t ask for anything, just liked to be around them. They never minded or questioned it.

 

“Yeah, I think so, Arnie. We just need to get him out of here.”

 

Arnie smiled up at him. “We sure will, Slim.” He turned and happily began removing all the rubble he could get his hands on.

 

While the men worked on that, Mort and Slim worked on a way to rig the ropes around the beams so they could lift them and not have them come crashing back down. They tied what seemed like hundreds of feet of rope around the two largest beams, and used another heavy beam as a substitute for a pulley. They also figured they’d need to use some of the rocks as fulcrums to remove some of the smaller beams, before they could move the two big ones.

 

Mort and Slim began working on that. Together, the two of them managed to shift three beams of wood out of the area, to further clear it. Then they were ready to try to move the two big ones.

 

After an hour or so, the men had cleared the opening and Cal led in his big dappled horse that he had ridden out. It was the biggest and strongest of the bunch they had brought. They rigged him to one of the harnesses from the team that pulled the wagon, and then rigged the ends of the ropes to that. Both of the beams would have to be lifted together. If not, one would have to be suspended, and then the other lifted separately. There was no room to swing one out of the way.

 

Mort reckoned they would only have to be lifted a few inches, and then they should be able to pull Jess out. When they were ready, they positioned the biggest men on the ropes, to guide them and be sure things went where they were supposed to. Cal was at the head of the horse to guide him. Slim asked Arnie to get ahold of Jess and pull when they told him too.

 

Arnie went and stooped right above Jess’ head. He reached under Jess’ shoulders, pulled the saddle out and lifted him up to his lap, and then readied himself to pull with all his might when the time came. Jess moaned and his eyes opened a slit. He looked around and his eyes came to rest on Slim.

 

“It’s okay, Jess. We’re getting you out of here. Just relax.”

 

Jess nodded wordlessly and closed his eyes. It was as if the effort of keeping them open were too great.

 

When they were all ready, Mort gave the word and the horse pulled forward, Cal urging him on with baby talk and pulls on his bridle. Bob Levy slapped the horse’s rump a few times and they all pulled on the ropes as well.

 

Slowly, inch by inch, the two beams rose, swaying slightly, but going steadily upward.

 

“Now, Arnie!” Slim yelled.

 

Arnie heaved, rolling backwards and dragging Jess with him. Slim watched carefully and the minute Jess’ legs cleared, he told the others to stop. They released the ropes, and Cal stopped pulling the horse. The beams settled back into place sending up a cloud of dust.

 

Slim rushed over to Jess whose face was squeezed in a grimace of pain. Arnie lay panting on the ground with Jess on top of him. Slim stooped and put his hands on Jess’ legs, feeling for broken bones. Jess groaned.

 

“Can you feel them, Jess?”

 

Jess nodded, and slowly opened his eyes. He was shivering and his face was pale, his eyes watery and unfocused.

 

Mort came over and laid a hand on Jess’ face. “We need to get him out of here fast. He’s too cold.” He turned to Cal and the others. “Cal, go out and clear a place in the back of the wagon. Spread out some blankets.”

 

Cal nodded without a word and left, leading his horse and followed by some of the others. Slim and Mort got on either side of Jess and lifted him off of Arnie. Slim wrapped his arms around Jess’ chest, his head resting against Slim’s chest. Mort took his legs, grabbing him just under the knees. As soon as his legs left the ground and dangled, a painful moan escaped from Jess.

 

Slim hadn’t felt anything was broken, but he reckoned they were bound to hurt a lot, being frozen and immobile for two days. They carefully picked their way out of the mine and into the sunshine.

 

It was a cool day, but not cold in the sun. The warmth felt good to Slim and he looked down at Jess, hoping he could feel it too. They carried Jess over to the wagon where the men had just finished emptying it and Arnie was inside unfolding blankets in the bed of the wagon. Slim handed Jess over to Cal and then jumped up to the wagon bed and Cal transferred him up to Slim.

 

Once they settled Jess on a thick layer of blankets, Arnie pulled out several more and covered him with them. Mort had planned well. He had expected them all to have to spend the night and he’d brought enough for everyone.

 

“I’ll sit back here with him, Arnie, do you mind driving?”

 

Arnie tipped his hat back and smiled, “No, sir, I sure don’t. I’ll be real easy, too.”

 

The men put some of the supplies across their own saddles, some up on the seat with Arnie, and the rest they left behind. Cal tied Traveler and Alamo to the back of the wagon, and George Poke ran back to the mine and gathered Slim’s belongings, his saddle, saddlebags and such. The little group pulled out just a few minutes later. Slim looked back at the cold, black hole in the earth that had almost been their undoing.

 

It was a slow, arduous trip home. They had decided to go straight to the ranch instead of to town. Not only was it closer, but the doctor was not in town anyway. Slim also knew that Jess would be more comfortable at home and besides, Daisy would kill him if they went anywhere else.

 

Arnie, true to his word, took it slow, avoiding as many bumps as he could. As they approached the turn off to the ranch, they stopped their little caravan. Mort told the men to head on back to Laramie and both he and Slim thanked them for all their help. Arnie would drive on to the ranch with them, and Mort would go too. Slim asked Cal to find the doctor as soon as he came into town and send him out to the ranch.

 

Jess had been in and out throughout the trip. Slim was worried that he was either sleeping or unconscious so much. He was still very pale and hadn’t spoken a word the entire trip. When they arrived home, Arnie pulled up as close to the front door as he could. Daisy came rushing out and, seeing Jess, flew into action.

 

“Bring him into the front bedroom, I’ll go get it ready,” and she hurried back inside. Just inside the front door, she met Mike coming out. “Mike, I need you to help me. Jess has been hurt.” Mike’s eyes were as wide as saucers. He went to the door and looked out at the men lifting Jess out of the back of a wagon.

 

Daisy stood behind him and put her arm around him, patting his chest. “C’mon, Mike, he’ll be fine, but I need you to help me take care of him.” Mike looked up at her and nodded. “Good boy. Now you go in the kitchen and start warming up a big pot of water for me. I’ll turn down the bed.” She took Mike’s shoulders and turned him toward the kitchen, and he went without a word. She then turned and went into the front bedroom that Jess and Slim, and sometimes Andy shared.

 

She pulled the quilt and sheet down on the first bed, and then took an extra blanket out of the wooden chest in the corner. She laid it over the foot of the bed for an extra cover if they needed it. Her mind was racing a mile a minute. She hadn’t asked what happened. She didn’t know if Jess had been shot, or what. She looked up and Mort and Slim were carrying Jess in. They laid him down on the bed, and Slim lifted Jess’ head and pulled the pillow up under him.

 

Jess looked pale. He was covered with a whitish dust, but even underneath that, he looked pale. After Mort and Slim finished, they stepped back and Daisy sat on the edge of the bed. She turned Jess’ face toward her and saw the encrusted blood on the side of his head. She didn’t see any other wounds. She looked up at Slim standing tall over her. “What happened?”

 

We found him under some rubble in an old mine. His legs were trapped.” He pointed toward the head wound. “That happened a couple of days ago.”

 

“A couple of days?”

 

“It took us that long to find him and dig him out.”

 

Daisy turned her attention to Jess’ legs. She ran her hands up and down them, squeezing and palpating them. Jess reacted, but didn’t wake up. Daisy stood up and went to the foot of the bed. Lifting one of Jess’ feet, she bent his leg at the knee and pushed it up towards his chest. He moaned, but still didn’t wake up. She did the same with the other.

 

“Well, his legs don’t seem to be broken. We need to get these boots and clothes off though so I can see his toes.” She returned to her former place at the head of the bed. “I’m more concerned about this head wound.” She lifted Jess’ eyelids. “I’m sure he has a concussion, and a pretty bad one too.”

 

“What can we do?” Mort asked.

 

“Nothing, about that anyway. We just have to wait. Time is the only thing for a head injury.” Daisy stood and faced Slim. “Slim, I’d like for Doctor Barnes to look at him.”

 

Mort spoke up. “I went there last night, Daisy, he’s out of town until Saturday afternoon.”

 

Daisy sighed and pushed a lock of her blond hair out of her face. “Well, then, I guess it’s up to us. And Jess, of course.”

 

Mort had to get back to town, but promised he’d be out the next day to check on Jess. Daisy and Slim had managed to get Jess out of his filthy clothes and she had cleaned him up as best as she could. His legs were bruised, and there were some cuts and scrapes, but she was relieved to see that his toes were pink.

 

Through it all, Jess moaned, but never fully woke up. That concerned her, but Slim had said he had been awake and lucid earlier. They had dressed him in clean under drawers and an undershirt and changed the linen where the dirt had sifted down.

 

It had taken several hours, but Daisy was satisfied that they had done all they could for him. The rest was up to him. Mike had stayed out of the way. The few times Daisy had glanced over at him, he’d looked scared and had been very quiet. Now she could turn her attention to him.

 

Daisy had made Slim lie down and he’d fallen asleep immediately. He refused to leave the room, but at least he could rest now. Daisy went over to Mike and put an arm around his small shoulders.

 

“It’s late Mike, I think you should be going to bed, but first, how about you and me get some supper? I think we forgot all about it in all the excitement.”

 

Mike looked up at her and nodded, and she led him out to the dining table where he sat in silence. As Daisy heated up the leftover stew from the larder, she looked over at Mike.

 

“Mike? Do you think that you would like to sleep in Jess’ room tonight?”

 

Mike didn’t react, in fact, she wondered if he’d even heard her. After a few moments, he said, “Aunt Daisy? Is Jess gonna die?”

 

“Why, whatever would make you think that, Mike?”

 

“I dunno. He’s just so still.” Mike stared down at the tabletop.

 

“No, Mike, Jess isn’t going to die. He’s hurt, but after he rests for a few days, he’ll be good as new.” The confidence she portrayed convinced even herself.

 

Mike’s lip stuck out as he thought about that. Daisy set a steaming bowl of stew in front of him and put a spoon firmly in his hand. “Okay,” he muttered.

 

Daisy nodded. She didn’t know if he was saying okay to sleeping in Jess’ room, okay that she said Jess would be all right, or okay that she had made it clear she expected him to eat. It didn’t matter. Everything would be okay.

 

*****

 

Jess watched Andy take a diploma from the hand of an older white-haired gentleman with one hand as he shook hands with the other. Jess felt himself smile as he looked around at the people gathered around him, as they all sat in folding wooden chairs.

 

He saw his father and mother sitting in front of him and at the end of a row that included his brothers and sisters. Francie and Ben were beside him, Francie beamed and clapped as her wispy hair floated around her face. Slim was on his other side and in his hand he held Daisy’s hand who sat on Slim’s other side dabbing her eyes with her lacy handkerchief.

 

Jess leaned forward and looked around Daisy and saw Mike doing likewise, looking back at him and grinning.

 

Jess turned to his left and behind him he saw Mose, Mort and Mister Albee in the row behind him. None of them seemed to notice that he had turned to stare.

 

Someone was missing. He turned the other way and looked over his right shoulder. He recognized Ma Poole and Arnie, and a few people from Laramie. Still, he had a heavy feeling in his chest. Someone was missing. Someone he needed to see.

 

He looked back to where Andy was still shaking hands with the older man. Then a movement behind Andy caught Jess’ eye. Just then Andy turned and saw it too. Jess stood, rising slowly from his seat as he watched Andy run to Jonesy and wrap both of his arms around the old man.

 

“Jonesy.”

 

*****

 

Slim was in that twilight area between deep sleep and just awakening. He was aware of the chill in the room and the warmth of his bed, but had not yet mustered the desire to open his eyes.

 

Something had awakened him though. Something had caught his attention and with his eyes closed, he didn’t move, but listened closely. Then he heard it again.

 

“Jonesy.” It was barely a whisper. It could easily have been mistaken for the wind had he been outside.

 

Before any conscious thought took over, his eyes were open and he was flinging the blanket off of himself. When his bare feet hit the cold floor, he remembered exactly where he was. Jess was in the next bed muttering, his head turning away from Slim.

 

Slim moved to Jess’ bed and sat on the edge. He put his hand on Jess’ shoulder and tapped him lightly. “Jess, you awake?”

 

Jess turned to him, eyes open, awareness there. Jess was back. “Yeah.”

“Were you calling for Jonesy?”

 

Jess blinked slowly and licked his lips. “Why would I do that? He ain’t here is he?”

 

“No,” Slim smiled. “No he ain’t, but Daisy is and she’ll be mighty glad you’re awake.” He glanced over at the bunk beds where Mike still slept soundly.

 

“We home?”

 

Slim looked around the familiar room. Maybe Jess wasn’t as back as he first thought. “Yeah, we’re here. Remember, I found you in the mine?”

 

Jess nodded. “Oh yeah”

 

Slim got up stiffly, his back telling him all about what he’d put it through yesterday. “I’ll go get Daisy.”

 

“Slim.” Jess reached up and pulled him back down.

 

“Yeah, pard?”

 

“Thanks for finding me,” he gulped and swallowed hard, still dry and full of dust. “I wasn’t finished yet.”

 

Slim watched, puzzled, as Jess closed his eyes and rolled over.

 

After a moment he got up and made his way around the bed to the door. “Later, pard. You can tell me all about it later.”

 

The end.







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