Think L.Q. Jones as the bounty hunter, Dave Hollister…
A Breath of Winter
Near sundown, March 12th
Snow hissed and spat at the windows and a banshee wind howled down the chimney, stirred the fire blazing in the hearth and created a chill in the room despite the warmth.
Daisy and I glanced expectantly toward the door, but Mike stared at it, then sighed and slumped over his plate again. “I thought you said Jess would be back by now,” he muttered and returned to poking at his food.
I raised the fork with the baby-portion of mashed potatoes and gravy poised at the end, let it hover a moment in front of my mouth before I put it down again. “It’s really bad out, Mike. This snow storm came up so unexpectedly, the afternoon stage isn’t even running. Jess could have decided to spend an extra couple of days in Medicine Bow instead of starting back the day before yesterday. He was meeting that friend of his who was supposed to be passing through, so maybe his friend was late… Or,” I shrugged, “he started home and stayed in Rock River to do some fishing. Or Traveler could have even thrown a shoe...” I lifted my shoulders again, cocked my head and thought about any number of things that could have delayed him. “Mike, you’ve got to remember it is a hundred miles or better to Medicine Bow and over some pretty impressive territory. He could have seen the storm coming over the mountains long before it hit and hurried into Bosler before it caught him. Besides, with the sun hidden behind all those clouds, it got dark pretty early. I’m sure Jess wouldn’t be traveling in this,” and I quickly bent over my own plate, hoping I’d sounded more convincing to them than I had to myself.
Mike, though, wasn’t willing to give up the subject that easily. “Yeah, but… Wouldn’t he have sent word? I mean, Aunt Daisy told him she’d fix all his favorites for his ‘welcome home’ supper tonight and he sure seemed happy about that. And . . . and it’s been real nice weather for the past couple of weeks . . . and even this morning…”
“So he found shelter at some ranch along the way and is holed up for the night…” I interrupted more curtly than I’d intended and ducked my head as Daisy glanced at me with hurt eyes. But she didn’t say anything, just went back to nibbling at her own food.
I scooped up the piece of fried chicken gone cold on the plate and took a hefty bite to fill my mouth rather than say another unkind word. But, dang-it-all, I was just as worried…
If Jess had left Medicine Bow three days ago as he planned, returned as quickly as he generally tried to and promised he would, he should have been home before the storm got so darned vicious!
Daisy cleared her throat apologetically and said in a quiet voice, “I just hope Joanna Ross’s baby didn’t come today. Poor Doctor Masters…” and let whatever else she was going to say dangle as she went back to herding her meal and nibbling at the bits she found on her fork.
Mike picked up his untouched chicken leg, turned it around as if looking for a likely place to sink his teeth, then set it back down with another noisy exhale. “Guess I ain’t very hungry, Aunt Daisy.”
“You ‘aren’t’ very hungry, Mike,” I corrected without thinking.
Mike sighed dispiritedly, muttered, “That’s what I meant,” and tossed his napkin beside his plate. “May I be excused, please?”
I looked at the boy, grunted and added a sad smile. “Sure. Just put your plate in the kitchen. You might find your appetite later tonight and it’d be a shame to waste all Daisy’s fine cooking on Buttons.”
Mike’s dog, hearing his name, raised his head from the warm floor in front of the hearth and whined with hopeful expectation.
At any other time we all would have laughed. But Mike just said, “Yes, sir,” in that same discouraged voice, pushed his chair back and got up to take his plate…
Buttons rose up all at once and made a sound deep in his throat. A moment later the wind paused and, in that brief respite, we all heard the horse thundering into the yard!
Buttons ran to the door and started barking in earnest as Mike’s plate was dropped on the table again and both us grownups let our forks go and shoved ourselves from the table. It was a race to see who got to the door first, but nimble Mike sprinted around me and nudged Buttons away, managed to grab the latch before I could reach him.
The wind yanked the door away from the boy’s grasp and swept the snow into the house.
I snagged the dog before he could bolt out into all that swirling white as the snow-covered horse slid to a halt and slathered the side of the house with the sticky cold stuff.
Buttons barked louder and more insistently.
“It’s Traveler!” the boy fairly screamed and tried to dart outside as well.
I managed to grab Mike with a free arm before the boy pelted out into the storm too, yanked him back into the house and shut the door using my foot and shoulder. “Not without your coat!” I warned and added, “And you take care of your dog first,” and shoved the mutt at Mike to handle.
I snatched my hat from the rack, slapped it on and grabbed my own winter coat from the hook. I wrenched the door open again . . . and the wind tried to rip my hat from my head. I managed to shut the door and was off the porch before I began shrugging into the coat, shivering as the snow hammered at me before I got it buttoned and the collar pulled up.
I reached for the trembling, blowing horse, but Traveler backed away, eyes white rimmed and frightened. Buttons barking like mad inside didn’t help any.
“Whoa, son,” I intoned, approaching more sedately, my ungloved (and freezing) right hand held out, my left hand trying to keep my hat from flying to Nebraska. “Come on, Traveler; come on, boy…”
Traveler snorted, his warm breath puffing from his nostrils like steam from a locomotive in the gruesome cold only to be whipped away by the gusting wind. All at once he shed a portion of his white covering by violently shaking himself.
I quickly covered my half frozen face, then reached out and grabbed the bridle before Traveler had stopped ridding his hindquarters of snow.
The reins had been tied and were looped over the horse’s head.
Jess didn’t tie his reins; he rode with them loose. But Traveler was ground-halter trained and if Jess had wanted his mount to get home…
I pulled my hat down over my ears and patted the trembling horse’s neck and shoulder, spoke quiet nonsense words just to keep him calm as I moved my hand slowly along the reins to the lopsided knot.
There were dark smears on the reins and all over that awkwardly tangled leather . . . and there were more black splatters and splashes on the saddle, revealed after Traveler shook the snow off. A few dark streaks had run all the way down and spattered on the left stirrup.
And Traveler was hurt; it looked like a bullet crease angling downward across his left flank. It had bled some, but it didn’t appear to be too serious and certainly hadn’t impeded his running.
I found myself shivering, and knew it had nothing to do with the cold.
Traveler snorted and tried to back away all at once, but I held on tight and glanced around, found Mike coming up from behind and so wrapped up he looked more like a bandit with his warm scarf covering his head and face so only his eyes showed.
“What happened, Slim?” the boy shouted, sounding as muffled as he looked as he held up my forgotten winter gloves and scarf. “Aunt Daisy asked me to bring these…”
“Thanks,” I shouted over the wind, glad I didn’t have to answer the first question. “Put them in my pocket for now?” I turned a reproving look back to the porch where Daisy stood, an equally bundled-up specimen with her hands tucked under the arms of her short winter coat while her skirt and petticoats billowed around her legs and feet as the returned at near gale-force, pelting her with snow.
Daisy,” I shouted, “you’d best get back inside; it’s too cold out here!”
She nodded and had to fight the wind for possession of the door…
Button’s muffled barking got louder before she shut it again.
“Where’s your dog, Mike?”
“I put him in our bedroom…” he said as if he expected to be reprimanded.
I just nodded. “Well… Come on, then, we have to get Traveler into the warm barn and take care of that cut on his flank.”
I lifted Traveler’s reins over his head and led the limping, if eager horse through the snow toward the barn.
Mike beat me to the big door, kicked away the drift that had accumulated against it and managed to get the left side open enough to let me and the horse inside, but when Mike followed us in and let the door go...
The heavy door slammed with a bang that shook the whole structure; the horses inside jumped and began milling nervously in their stalls. Alamo settled quickly and nickered a greeting to his horse and human friends as I fumbled forward in the near total darkness.
Mike groped around and found the lamp and the matches, struck the lamp alight. He hung in on the nail provided and unwrapped his head and face…
…just as Traveler shed some more watery snow with a deep, satisfying groan…
“Hey!” Mike cried as the melting residue spattered him. He swiped at the cold drops on his face, muttered, “Least you could have done was wait ‘til I was out of the way…”
After considering what Mike would think if he saw those dark streaks on the saddle, I said, “Maybe it’s best if you ‘got out of the way’ all the way back in the house, Mike.” I dropped Traveler’s knotted reins, lifted the stirrup over the seat and started to work the saddle’s cold, wet latigo from its loop before I could unbuckle the girth, making sure my body was hiding the stains.
“Please, Slim,” Mike whined, “can’t I help? I lit the lamp and I could take care of Traveler’s scratched rump…”
“It may be warmer in here, but it’s still chilly, Mike,” I answered over my shoulder. “Thank you for lighting the lamp, but I don’t want you to catch a cold or worse being out here too long. Please, just do as I say… And,” I added as Mike turned away, “tell Aunt Daisy to . . . put together something for the road, all right?”
Mike turned with rekindled enthusiasm. “Then can I come help you find Jess? Please?”
“No! I’m sorry, Mike, it’s just too cold. Please, go back into the house and tell Aunt Daisy.”
“But…” Mike said, “Jess could be hurt, Slim! He’d never send Traveler back if he wasn’t.”
I turned, gave him a sad smile because I could hear unshed tears in his voice. “Yes; he might be hurt, but you couldn’t help me lift him into the buckboard…”
“You’re taking the buckboard?” Mike interrupted with passion and stepped closer. “Well… Well . . . I could drive, Slim! I mean, if you wanted to stay in the back with…”
“No, Mike! Now get into the house like I told you.”
A tear, struck gold in the lamplight, traveled down his cheek. “I wanna help…” he said and openly began to cry.
I left the recalcitrant leather and stepped to the boy, turned him away from Traveler and that blood-spattered saddle, put my arms around him. His hair was warm against my cold cheek. “I know, I know. And you are helping a great deal, by staying here. You can really help me and Jess by getting everything ready for him. If he’s hurt…” I had to stop and swallow the lump in my throat, careful how I answered. “If he’s been injured and has a broken leg, he’ll need to find a nice, warm house and everything – and everyone – ready to help him when I bring him home. I can’t be looking after both you and Jess, which is exactly what I’d be doing if I let you come. I have to concentrate on getting Jess back. Do you understand?
“Besides, someone has to take care of Aunt Daisy, Buttons and Traveler…”
Mike nodded into my coat before he pulled back far enough to look up into my face. “I guess so. I just wish I was older, though; then you’d let me come with you…”
I had to smile about that. “Time enough to grow old, Mike,” I tousled his already messy hair. “Be satisfied with your childhood for now because it won’t last.
“Now, you get your behind back in the house and help Aunt Daisy get everything prepared, all right?”
I let Mike go and helped him wrap the scarf around his head and neck again, watched him to the door and nodded when he paused there a second. But when the boy tried to push the door open, the wind had picked up once more and Mike’s slight weight just wasn’t enough to push it open and keep it from slamming into him, so I rushed over to help. The moment Mike was running toward the porch, I shut the door and hurried back to that stubborn latigo, finally managed to loosen it.
I removed the saddle – the dark blood ran again as water trickled down from the seat – and set the saddle on a sawhorse, draped the bridle over the wood, too, knowing I’d have to clean off the blood as best I could. No sense in Mike coming out here and seeing that.
But I had to deal with Traveler first, wishing I had more time to take better care of him, but there were other things – other “people” – to consider. I wiped him down first, then cleaned the ice from the bottom of his hooves and made sure his limping was only from that and not a more serious bruising of the frog. I used the brush sparingly and doctored the crease with some homemade salve before I covered Traveler with a large horse blanket to keep him warm. Then I got down to business of cleaning the saddle and bridle . . . and getting the buckboard and team ready…
All wrapped up again with my hat secured by the wool the scarf, I led the unhappy horses out of the barn, hitched them to the small wagon parked under the barn’s overhang and brought it to the house. I snubbed the team tight to the hitch-rail in front, happy that the wind appeared to be dying down just a little. The swiftly moving clouds had small breaks in them with a promise of moon-glow when the sun, only a bright spot behind all that shifting, dark cover, went down in less than an hour.
Neither Daisy nor Mike was in the main room when I stepped into the house, but I heard someone moving around in Jess’, Mike’s and my shared room. And they hadn’t been lazy while I’d been out either. Somehow the two of them had managed to man-handle that heavy couch into the center of the room and position it far enough from the now roaring fire they’d built not to blister either the leather or anyone who might be put on it.
The blankets and sheets had already been spread and there was another heap of folded blankets and quilts, our entire supply it seemed, stacked on a chair near the fire (as if they hoped I would discover Jess close to home and the heavy quilts would hold their heat ‘til I had him snug). I also found two canteens, one obviously filled with hot coffee for the heat that radiated through the leather cover, the other just water, and a small burlap sack of food that could be easily eaten on the road (biscuits and sliced ham and beef jerky) sitting at the end of the table, all ready for me.
Daisy came out of the bedroom with some more sheets under her arm, gasped, “Oh… My goodness,” performed a little startled dance and laid her free hand against her bosom when she noticed me standing in the center of the room holding the canteens and sack.
“I’m sorry, Daisy,” I smiled as Mike and Buttons came out to see what was going on, too. “You both have been really busy. Thank you.”
I started for the door, but Mike jumped in front of me, asked, “Could I help?”
I glanced at all those blankets by the fire. “As a matter of fact… You could bring two of those blankets and a quilt out for me. I put some fresh straw in the bottom of the buckboard and covered it with some sacks from the barn, but you could help me spread the blankets before everything gets blown away.”
Mike made a bee-line to his coat, gloves and scarf while I went out to set the canteens and sack under the seat, away from the wind, and covered them with another grain sack. When I stepped back onto the porch, Mike was already on his way out the door with his arms full.
“I still wish I could go, too, Slim,” Mike mumbled through his scarf as he stood in the back of the buckboard helping me lay out the first blanket that a sudden gust of wind wanted to rip out of our grasp before the breeze settled again.
“I know you do, but Daisy needs to have someone here to help her, too. Are you going to let her bring in the wood for the fireplace and the stove all by herself?”
“Well . . . no.”
“I put a blanket over Traveler for the night, but he’s got a slight cough… It isn’t bad yet, maybe only a bit of congestion from running in the cold, but I want you to make sure he stays on his feet until I can get back. Think you could go out to check him every once in awhile? I’d sure hate to bring Jess back already squawking about his having to ride in the back of a buckboard only to tell him his best horse had come down sick.”
Mike announced, “I’ll go out every thirty minutes to make sure, Slim. I promise.”
“And, if you do find him down, you come back and get Aunt Daisy to try to help you get him up. Don’t try that alone, you hear?”
“But, if you think he might go down, you just snub his halter rope up short. He might get his hindquarters on the ground, but if he’s on a short rope, he can’t go down all the way.”
“Sure; I know what to do, Slim. I’ll rub him with some liniment, too, that might help his cough. The stuff sure makes me gag.”
“Good thinking,” I grinned behind my scarf – I would have asked him to do that if Mike hadn’t thought of it himself. “That’s exactly why I’m putting you in charge of the ranch while I’m gone.”
Mike’s eyes squinted, indicating he smiled.
He helped me tuck the heavy quilt in and I gave him a hand down from the back, then stepped over the bench seat, brushed the light sprinkling of snow that had accumulated on it and sat down. “Can you untie the hitch-rein for me, please, Mike?” The boy leaped to it and retied the leather to the left horse’s collar as I gathered the reins. “Thanks. Now you’d better go back inside and get warm again.”
But instead of rushing to the door, Mike stepped to the side of the buckboard and reached up a gloved hand. “You stay safe, too, Slim; please?”
I leaned over, took Mike’s hand and squeezed it affectionately. “I will,” and motioned him away, then reined the snow-sprinkled team around and got them going with a slap of the leathers.
The wheels threw globs of snow backwards, the horses’ hooves flinging more as I went out of the yard and up the hill at a good trot. At the top, just before I swung around the hill, I glanced back at the house. There were three silhouettes at the windows, woman, boy and dog. I raised a now warmly gloved hand to them and slapped the team into a faster pace.
Traveler’s tracks had disappeared in the new snow that was beginning to turn to hard crust in places. Thank goodness the wind was subsiding at last, but even without it, it was getting colder as the sun had set over the mountains. It was slow going with only the winking three-quarter moon and the lantern I’d rigged on a pole to show the way…
It was also treacherous in places, patches of ice or slippery mud hidden by the frosting of snow where the wind had shifted most of it away and places where an obstruction had piled the snow into drifts that must, of necessity, be driven through with caution. Still I pushed the horses as fast as I could get away with, especially when the moon’s bright face became a fairly steady light showing the way. I stopped every so often to check their hooves, knowing that a lame horse wouldn’t get us back to the ranch at all.
It took close to two hours before the buckboard rounded a corner and the team balked and shied as they came to a particularly heavy and thick section of snow in the road at the bottom of a low hill. The road cut through some great boulders in this stretch and the lump hidden under the moon-sparkled white could have been a fallen rock…
I knew it wasn’t.
I pulled the team up, set the brake and leaped out to hitch the weight to the left horse’s bridle before I plowed though the crusted snow to kneel beside this “bump” in the road.
My throat, raw from the cold, went bone-dry: the lump vaguely resembled a man-form on its side, knees pulled up… And there was a bit of a black hat peeking out of the white. I hammered a fist through the hardened top layer and about half an inch beneath the ice uncovered the left shoulder of a sheepskin coat. I brushed the slush away… The light-colored coat was dark with obvious blood. Then I was flinging chunks of ice and hard packed snow away, trying to uncover Jess’ head and praying he hadn’t suffocated!
Jess lay on his right side with his head on the incline. He’d secured his hat with his scarf and had tucked his knees up and his arms into his chest, his gloved fists held close to his lowered face. This posture and his hat had created a larger and relatively clear space in which to trap air. Also, the front brim and crest of his hat poking through the crust had left a tiny opening… Jess was still frosted with a layer of wet snow, and he was probably soaked clean to the bone, but he was breathing!
I sat back on my heels, thankful for that single miracle, and hurriedly uncovered the rest of him. Jess began to shudder as he was exposed to the gentle breeze and the outside temperature.
I rocked him to make sure he wasn’t frozen to the ground and that’s when I noticed Jess’ pistol was still in his holster, the thong over the hammer…
Ambushed! There’d be no other way for Jess to be shot up like this and him not drawn to defend himself. But why? He shouldn’t have been carrying much money and, as far as I could tell, his clothes hadn’t been disturbed like someone had robbed him. Still, Jess had bullet holes in his coat, two that I hoped were minor wounds high in his left shoulder and low and farther left in his lower back. The third was beneath his right shoulder blade. Seeing that one made me groan aloud – it was a mournful sound even in my ears – but there was nothing I could do about it out in the frigid night. I had to get him home for Daisy to look at.
Jess was stiff, locked into his folded posture despite his little paroxysms. It took some effort to pick him up and it seemed like it took me forever to get him into the buckboard and situated with one wool blanket beneath and the other blanket and heavy quilt tucked around him, but I suppose, in reality, it didn’t take that long before I had my inflexible partner in the buckboard and ready to travel.
I whispered a prayer as I hastily checked the team’s hooves again, then leaped onto the seat and turned them for home. I pushed them hard…
All I could think about was, why had someone tried to kill Jess?
The moon blinked through a tattered remnant of slowly moving cloud and lit my way into a yard now gone to rock-hard mud and patches of ice. I pulled the exhausted team up close to the house and left them blowing white mist, leaped out of the buckboard and called out. I could have saved my breath, Daisy and Mike, in coats, were already opening the door and hurrying out into the night.
I pulled the bundled form to the back of the wagon, got a grip on all the blankets (and a good portion of sacks and straw) and hauled Jess into my arms.
“Mike, take care of the team, please,” I asked, struggling with my over large burden.
Mike ran to take the horses…
“Daisy, get some hot water ready…”
“Already done,” she answered, trying to lift the quilt and blankets from the ground so I wouldn’t trip myself going up the steps. She preceded me through the door, walking backwards until I had Jess inside, then helped me position my load, straw and all, onto the couch before she went back to close the door.
Despite the door having been open, the room was almost excessively warm to me before I got my coat off. I just tossed it at the wall where the couch had sat, along with the gloves, hat and scarf, and began helping Daisy peel away the layers of blankets…
Jess was still in a fetal position, but his shaking had become more animated and violent.
Daisy shed her coat, scarf and gloves with equal abandon, began to help me straighten him out from the other side of the couch, not an easy task when Jess wasn’t being cooperative.
“We have to get these wet clothes off,” she said in her professional nurse tone, raising Jess’ head enough to uncoil the soaked scarf from his neck and slip it and his hat from his head. She just tossed that away before she tried to pry his arms, still locked against his chest, down so she could open his left hand and tug off his glove. I had to do that for her; wounded or not, Jess’ “stubborn” side was still active.
“You’ll have to help me with his coat, shirt and top,” she added, “and then I want you to take off his boots and socks. Try to remove his britches and undergarments as well. If they won’t come off easily, use the scissors,” and she cocked her head, indicating where the scissors lay on the table.
I got a good look at her serious side as I lifted Jess’ trembling shoulders (his head lolled back against my arm), but I knew she was right and worked that glove off before easing the coat from his shaking right arm. Still, if she could just find something to smile about in this somber situation…
“Jess won’t be too happy to find he isn’t dressed and we cut off his clothes,” I said impulsively.
Only Daisy didn’t take the hint, just shook her head and gave a little gasp as she slipped the coat from his wounded left shoulder. “It can’t be helped. He needs to be dry and warm, Slim. I’ll use my own money to buy him new clothes.”
I started to tell her that wouldn’t be necessary, but clamped my lips together instead. She was not in the mood to smile. Instead I pulled the coat’s tail from under Jess’ sagging weight and tossed the soaked-heavy garment to the side, unbuckled his gun belt, untied it from Jess’ leg, pulled it from under him and set it aside.
“As soon as you’re finished there,” she dipped her head to indicate his feet, “go get some coffee and something to eat.”
“I’m not really hungry…”
She looked up, frowned. “But you’ll need it, Slim. You must ride to the Ross’ ranch; you have to see if Doctor Masters is still there… Or ride into town to get him if he isn’t. This,” she pointed to the bloody shirt, “may be more than I can handle. I don’t have everything needed to take care of such injuries.”
I nodded, knowing she was right about this too, and started to unbutton the shirt one-handed before Daisy took over and opened his faded long-john top as well. Together we carefully slipped Jess’ arms out of the sleeves…
It became quite evident where my partner had been hit: left shoulder, the bullet having passed through, far left side of his lower back – that was also a through-and-through – and beneath his right shoulder blade. There was no exit wound for that one…
I looked at Daisy and she returned just as serious a look. This was definitely more than she and I could handle.
Daisy put a towel on the bottom blanket to keep as much blood off it as possible, another towel over his chest before we laid him back and covered him. “You can take off his boots and everything else, now.”
So I went to remove his spurs, boots and socks, unbuckled his belt and managed to wrestle his denims off as well as his long-john bottoms without the scissors as Daisy went into the kitchen for a pan of lukewarm water and a rag. But then I had to hold Jess a sitting position as Daisy began bathing his back first, then chest, using another towel to dry him off.
Jess began to shiver more violently, raised a feeble right arm and mumbled something incoherent. It was all I could do to hold him up as he thrashed a bit harder whenever Daisy’s rag came near one of the neat round holes in his back, the torn exit wounds in his shoulder and his side.
She finished as quickly as possible and gathered the already prepared bandages she’d made – not knowing the extent of his injuries, she’s ripped up an entire sheet – and covered his wounds before she went in to discard the bloodied water and fill the basin again to bath his lower half.
“As soon as I’m finished, we’ll need to lift him to get rid of the extra blankets and brush the hay off,” she said.
Mike stomped slush off on the porch, announcing himself before he came back in just as Daisy and I finished putting a now totally undressed and bandaged Jess back into his cleaned bed. The boy stood there in the open doorway, his eyes growing wide above the scarf…
“Close the door, Mike,” I advised and pulled the covers over Jess as Daisy did a more thorough examination of Jess’ legs and feet by touch as well as sight. “Jess doesn’t need a chill now.”
Mike shut the door and stood with his back against it, watching a moment before he began removing his scarf, gloves and coat.
“Slim, shouldn’t you be doing that?” he asked, shocked by what he saw.
“I’m a nurse, dear,” Daisy answered brightly. “Jess was out in the cold for quite awhile. I have to make sure he hasn’t suffered any frostbite.”
“Yeah, but…” Mike started, then shut his mouth and stepped cautiously forward. He cringed away when he saw Jess’ face and heard his wheezing breaths. “He looks . . . gray,” he whispered. “Will he be all right?”
“I’m going to bring the doctor as soon as I’ve helped Aunt Daisy,” I told him.
She looked up, pointed her chin toward the kitchen. “You go eat something now so you can get Doctor Masters here as quickly as you can.”
“I could go!” Mike piped up as if eager to get away.
“No, you can’t,” Daisy answered. “It’s dark, for one thing…”
“The moon’s up,” he argued.
“It’s still cold and the road will be dangerous and icy,” I added. “It’ll be hazardous for me and Alamo to travel tonight, but we don’t have any choice now. And I have a better chance than you would on your pony.”
“Besides,” Daisy added, “I’ll need someone to help me here. Don’t you want to help me with Jess, Mike?”
Mike thought about it a second, answered in a meek, rather undecided voice, “Yeah…?”
Daisy and I shared a look of concern and trust before I went to the kitchen to do as I’d been told. I still wasn’t hungry, but forced a bit of chicken and half a biscuit into my mouth, chewed and washed it down with plenty of hot coffee. That I would need. Then I put on my relatively dry coat and gloves, gave my now warmly covered partner one hopeful look – and said a silent prayer that the next time I saw him, he wouldn’t have that sheet over his face – and went out into the frosty, if now near windless moon-lit night once more.
I startled Alamo and Traveler awake – Jess’ horse smelled of fresh liniment and was still blanketed, but appeared to be a lot better and wasn’t coughing while I saddled my horse. Alamo, however, was not happy to get away from the warm barn, but he’s a good mount and didn’t give me too much trouble . . . as least after we left the yard and got on the moon-silvered road.
It wasn’t far to the Ross’ little ranch, a bit under three miles, but it took time due to the road’s condition – there was wide patches of ice in the ruts. Still, I pushed Alamo as fast as I could get away with and reached the place about an hour later.
There was still light streaming out onto the Ross’ yard from the windows, even this late at night, but there was no buggy at the hitching rail. Doctor Masters might have already left – unlikely with the way the weather had gotten – or, more probable, his horse and buggy was stashed in the barn. Or maybe the man simply hadn’t gotten there. I hoped the second suggestion was correct, otherwise I’d have another two or more hours getting to Laramie to drag the poor man from his warm bed. And by the time I could bring the doctor back… Well, I didn’t want to think about that or what might happen in that time.
I dismounted carefully and tied Alamo’s reins, then stomped my boots on the long porch so my knock might not be so startling this late in the evening. A shadow moved across the window curtain before I rapped on the door.
“Who’s there?” came from the other side.
“It’s Slim Sherman, Steve.”
I heard a slight thump as if Steve Ross was setting his shotgun aside, then the rattling of the lock before the door opened just a crack. “Slim? What in the world are you doing out on a night like this?”
“I’m looking for Doctor Masters. Has he been here?”
The rancher-neighbor pulled the door farther open. “Come in-come in! Yeah, the doctor’s here. He just delivered my son!” he said proudly.
I stepped in, glad for the welcome warmth as much as for all the good news and pulled off my scarf and hat. “Congratulations, Steve!” and quickly stripped off a glove to shake the man’s hand.
“What do you need the Doctor for, Slim? Little Mike didn’t get hurt again, did he?” Steve asked, securing the door and locking it.
My hands were nervously busy worrying my hat’s brim, so I stopped myself. “It’s Jess. He was . . . shot. He’d been out in that storm for who knows how long…”
Steve’s young face turned apprehensive. “You don’t say… Well… How bad is he?” he asked, his attitude a bit unsympathetic considering.
“He’s . . . hurt badly, Steve,” I answered meekly – though I felt compelled to punch him in the face for his insensitivity instead!
Doctor Masters chose that very moment to step out of the room on the other side and closed that door. “Did I hear Jess has been shot and left out there in that storm?”
I stepped forward eagerly. “Yes,” and added as afterthought, “Is Misses Ross all right?”
Doc Master’s face crinkled in a smile. “Both mother and son are doing just fine, Slim.”
“Good enough to drag you back to my place?”
“Here, now…” Steve protested, reaching out to grab my coat sleeve.
Right then, Mrs. Ross’ called, “Steven? Could you come in for a moment, please?”
Steve glanced at the doctor, received his nod, and hurried into the room.
Doctor Masters turned back to me. “What happened?” he asked as he rolled down his white shirt sleeves.
I took a deep breath before answering, “He was ambushed coming home from Medicine Bow,” and had to clear the lump in my throat.
“Ambushed? Where? How badly was he wounded?”
“He was shot three times in the back, doctor. Two bullets went through, but the third is beneath his right shoulder blade.”
Doctor Masters plucked his jacket from the back of a chair and shrugged into it. “And when did this happen? Or do you know?”
I shook my head. “He was less than five miles from the house, but we didn’t even know anything was wrong until his horse came running into the yard. He could have been out there for an hour or even three hours before Traveler came home. I took the buckboard out just before the storm wound down and found him buried almost completely under a hard crust of snow. He could breathe, but he was soaking wet…”
“Well,” Doctor Masters said, straightening his jacket collar, “I’ve heard that snow is a good insulator – can help keep the body from freezing – but his being wet, now…” He shook his head. “However, the cold would have slowed blood circulation… How much blood do you suppose he lost?”
I lifted my shoulders, feeling helpless all at once. “There was blood on the saddle and the reins, but I didn’t see any more except what had soaked through his clothes. The snow covered any on the ground. I brought him back as soon as I could and Daisy and I got his clothes off, including his undergarments. She bathed him with water, dried him and checked him for frostbite before I left.”
Just then Steve came out of the door carrying the doctor’s black bag, halting the interrogation. He had a hang-dog look on his face as he handed the medical case to the doctor. “Joanna insisted you go on,” he said and lifted his hands before glancing awkwardly in my direction. “Guess I’m still a little bit . . . over protective. Sorry, Slim.
“I’ll get your horse all hitched and ready, Doctor,” he added as he hurried to get his coat. He was out the door before he had it on.
“Nice young man,” Doctor Masters stated, straightening his jacket cuffs.
“A good neighbor, too,” I added as a nice, warm feeling stole over me as I led the doctor to the door. “He and Joanna have done a lot with this place, as run-down as it was before he bought it.”
Doctor Masters nodded, grabbed his hat and his long winter wool coat from the rack, his gloves and scarf stuffed in a pocket.
It took us a good hour and a half to return, the doctor’s mare was skittish and kept shying at every patch of ice that reflected the moon. Getting impatient, I finally slipped the rope from the saddle and, with the doctor’s permission, led the horse most of the way and into the ranch yard.
Mike, looking a lot relieved and very animated despite his lack of sleep, met us at the door and I asked him if he wouldn’t mind helping me put the horses in the barn. The boy rushed to get his coat, scarf and gloves once more (he was getting pretty good at dressing fast by that time), but he seemed more in a hurry to get away, as if he didn’t want to be there when the doctor examined Jess.
I couldn’t blame him.
But Mike seemed reluctant to say much – though I knew he’d have said something if Jess had worsened – so I didn’t push him about what had happened while I was gone for two hours. We took our time making sure Alamo and the doctor’s horse was secure, checked on Traveler, who was almost as frisky as a colt by then (I decided to keep the blanket over him anyway and put another blanket over Alamo as well), made sure the buckboard team was comfy and finally went back to the house.
Doctor Masters was drying his hands as Mike and I came back in to hang up our coats and get some warmth from the fire.
“I’m afraid I’ll have to put him out and operate, Slim,” Dr. Masters said and “tisked” as he shook his head. “It’d be a lot better for him if I could wait a bit, but I don’t know how deep the bullet under his shoulder blade penetrated or what damage might have been done, especially to his lung.” He shook his head once more and handed the towel to Daisy.
Daisy smiled encouragingly at Mike, but let her eyes – filled with worry – linger on me a moment before she laid the towel over the back of one of the chairs. That brief look only worsened my anxiety and turned me cold inside.
Doctor Masters leaned over the couch and lifted one of Jess’ eyelids, shook his head again. “He’s very weak and may have caught pneumonia already, but he surely will get worse if that lead is allowed to remain to poison and weaken his body even more. But what I’m most worried for is blood loss…”
“Won’t . . . operating cause more blood loss?” I asked.
The doctor sighed, nodded. “It depends on what I think should be done, and I won’t know that until I can have a good look to determine if I require just a probe or a scalpel. And, since I can’t afford to have my patient jerking around when I go searching in that area, he’ll have to be rendered completely unconscious.
“I also need to have a better look at his other injuries; there may be foreign material, such as dirt or cloth, imbedded in them that would cause infection. I would have to remove it and suture those wounds as well.” Doctor Masters lifted his hands.
Jess coughed explosively, startling all of us, moaned and thrashed his head against the sheet. Dr. Masters immediately repositioned the ear-pieces of his stethoscope and leaned down to shift the covers aside, moved the bell around Jess’ chest. “Fluid collecting on his lungs…” he mumbled to no one in particular. “We should begin immediately, Misses Cooper.”
Daisy blinked at him before she returned to thinking like a “nurse” and nodded. She motioned for me and Mike, who was still holding onto the front door’s knob and looked ready to bolt out again at any second. “We’ll have to move the table away from the wall. I’ve already washed it, but another sheet should be placed over it and secured.”
I strode to the table (and absently wondered just how many “sheets” we had left in the house, or how many beds had been stripped), but Mike seemed to be nailed to the floor and glued to that door knob. Only after Daisy began to struggle with her end of the heavy wood did the boy rush to help her.
There was a faint odor of carbolic on the table…
“Misses Cooper, are you familiar with the use of ether?” Dr. Masters asked and turned from his doctor’s bag with a brown bottle in one hand, what looked like a small sieve with cotton all around on the inside in his other.
Daisy turned a thoughtful frown. “I was working in a hospital at the end of the war where ether was used and I assisted in a few operations, but the doctor had brought his own trained nurse.”
“Well, then, you will need some instruction,” he said, walked over and set the bottle and the sieve on the end of the table, adding, “Especially seeing our patient will be on his stomach most of the time.”
I noticed Daisy’s eyes widen – as if she recalled all too vividly her work at that hospital with those broken and torn men who had lain on that operating table. But she looked up from those fascinating objects, swallowed and dipped her head.
Dr. Masters turned to Mike and me, smiled encouragingly. “I’m sorry, but it might be best if you, Slim . . . and Mike . . . found something else to do somewhere else. We’ll have to bring the temperature down in the house because we’ll need to have air circulating while I operate, otherwise both my nurse,” he held a hand out to indicate Daisy, “and I will also be affected by the ether. And what we must do might be a bit . . . distressing for Mike to watch.”
Mike, still standing next to Daisy at the other end of the table, gave me a painful, pleading look that indicated he was very willing to be as far away as possible when whatever was going to happen took place. I didn’t blame him for that either.
“We can take another look at the horses and hang around in the barn. With all the animals in there now, it’s gotten pretty warm,” I said.
“And I suggest you take your dog with you, Mike,” Dr. Masters added with a grin and crinkled his nose comically. “I don’t think he would appreciate the smell, either.”
He turned his “professional smile” back on me. “You’d better grab a couple of those blankets and maybe a pillow or two as well,” and indicated the discarded, straw-stuck pile near the door. “This may take more than an hour, possibly up to three, and it’s already…” he paused to drag his watch from a pocket and flick it open, “…closing on ten,” shut the watch case and smiled again as he put it back in his vest pocket.
I felt numb inside and I certainly didn’t know what to say to that announcement, so I just responded to the previous suggestion. “We’ll go to the barn, Doctor.
“Mike, put your coat back on, get your pillow and grab Buttons. I’ll meet you out there in just a moment, all right?”
Mike looked at Daisy. She smiled and nodded, said, “Everything will be all right, Mike. Don’t you worry.”
Mike swallowed, blinked sleep-deprived, reddened eyes and sprinted for this coat again. He was bundled up in a moment and raced back to our shared bedroom for his dog and his pillow. I held the front door open as the boy, holding Button by the scruff of the neck, his pillow tucked under the other arm, raced out of the bedroom and all but shot out the door and off the porch. “Hey! Slow down!” I cautioned. “Remember there’s ice out there.”
I watched him cross the yard – how he managed not to slip I’ll never know – and open the barn’s door. He let Buttons in first.
I closed the door and turned back to the room. “I thought maybe you could use my help to move Jess onto the table.”
“I was going to ask,” Dr. Masters said, taking the objects from the table and setting them and his medical case on a chair within easy reach. “We need to place a sheet over the table first, maybe a folded blanket underneath it so Jess won’t get so chilled and will be more comfortable when he comes around. I’ll apologize for ruining your bedclothes in advance; I’m sure none of the stains can be washed out.”
“Don’t worry about that,” Daisy answered. “Slim, could I have one of those blankets?”
I grabbed the top one, stepped outside in the cold again to snap the clinging straw from it and hurried back in. I handed one end to Daisy and helped her fold it lengthwise, put it on the table. The last sheet she took from another chair and spread it over the blanket and the rest of the table, went to her sewing box and brought out some pins to secure the sheet firmly around the table legs.
Dr. Masters nodded.
I stood over Jess, just watching and listening to him breathe until Daisy had the “operating table” prepared. I took a deep breath, pulled the sheet and blanket off, bent and scooped my partner up into my arms again.
He seemed to weigh no more than Mike…
Jess moaned and gnashed his teeth, even though he wasn’t conscious. The doctor and Daisy positioned themselves on the other side of the table and helped me turn Jess onto his stomach. Dr. Masters repositioned his head so Jess’ face would be turned to the wall and then had me fetch the sheet, fold it and cover Jess’ lower body.
“Thank you, Slim,” Daisy said. “I think we can deal with the rest.”
“I could open a window or two…” I said, though I was nearly as anxious to get out as Mike had been.
“That would be nice, dear. I think the one in the kitchen and . . . the window in here would do. An inch, or maybe two, would be enough. If not, we can prop the door open a little,” she said, looking for Dr. Masters’ approval.
“I think that will be sufficient air circulation,” the doctor nodded. “Oh… I suppose you could put a bit more wood on the fire and in the stove as well,” he added. “When we start, we won’t be able to stop and cold fingers can get very stiff and unresponsive.”
“I can come back through the back door,” I offered, “in . . . say an hour to make sure it stays warm for you as well as see there’s enough air moving through?”
“Just don’t let Mike come with you,” Daisy advised.
I quirked a thin smile. “I don’t think he’d come if I asked. Anyway, I expect he’ll be asleep already.”
As I passed by the table after building up the fires and opening windows, Doctor Masters was giving his “nurse” her instructions. It didn’t sound particularly easy and maybe a little dangerous and, after I grabbed a quilt and a blanket, I was out of the house. I didn’t think I could have stayed to watch any more than Mike could. Daisy hadn’t been the only one to “visit” hospital tents during the War and that memory made me a little queasy.
Just as I figured, the boy was already curled up on two convenient bales of hay with his head nestled in his pillow and Buttons snuggled up next to him.
Buttons raised his head and gave a low whine as I slipped inside to cover both Mike and his dog with the quilt.
But I felt no urge to seek any “bed” for myself. Instead, I inspected Traveler and Alamo, the buckboard team I’d all but worn out getting Jess back and the doctor’s little bay mare. Then I spent the next twenty minutes sitting on another bale, praying and ticked off the crawling seconds until I had to go back into the house to make sure the fires still burned.
I wasn’t at all enthusiastic about walking in on that particular “operation” or seeing my friend and partner lying so helpless beneath the doctor’s “knife”…
March 13th – early morning
Mike moaned and shook his head, muttered something and clutched Buttons even tighter. He’d been dreaming and mumbling and denying something in his sleep all night, but at least he was able to sleep.
I couldn’t sleep, so I sat and prayed or stalked through the barn, rechecked the horses or just stared into space, incapable of even closing my sandy, tortured eyes. Of course, having to return to the house every hour or so didn’t help. I had been back three times already – gagging with the smell of carbolic and what must be ether mixed with blood – so Doctor Masters’ “three hour” prediction had been an understatement. I didn’t relish going back for this chore again.
But at least Jess was still alive. And, though I’d seen and heard enough already to understand things might not be going as planned, no one had yet come out to tell me any bad news...
…so when the barn door squeaked open and Doctor Masters, all wrapped up in his coat and scarf, stepped inside with a lantern in his hand, I was on my feet in an instant, my heart hammering against my breastbone and a cold, empty feeling gathering in the pit of my stomach.
The doctor shut the door quickly, set his lantern on the floor and blinked in the modest light. He said, “You may both return to the house, now, if you wish, Slim,” and stepped closer.
“Jess isn’t…” I swallowed, tried to pull another breath. “How is Jess?”
Dr. Masters smiled and nodded, “He’s doing well and resting in his own bed.”
I felt light-headed, staggered back against the bale and fell on it, finally able to breathe. I put my head in my hands. “Thank God…”
I didn’t hear him walk closer, so when he spoke, “Are you all right?” it startled me.
I looked up into his concerned face. “Yes. Now I am, thanks. It’s just a relief…”
“Well, I’m sorry you and Mike had to stay out here in the barn, or you were forced to lose so much sleep to help us. It just couldn’t be helped.
“Oh! I almost forgot,” he said and pulled something from his coat pocket. “I took this from beneath his shoulder-blade.”
A bullet rested on his gloved palm and I plucked it from him, stood up and brought it to the light of the barn’s lantern to examine it.
“A forty-five,” I muttered and turned back to the doctor. “He was shot with a pistol.”
“So it would appear,” the doctor answered. “At least it wasn’t as deep as I first feared; his heavy coat probably slowed the lead down some. Distance may have been a factor as well.
“He lost more blood, but both my nurse – a very good nurse I might add – and I believe he should make a complete recovery. Barring complications, that is,” he amended.
“There is still a chance he might get pneumonia, he does seem to have some fluid in his lungs.”
I went back to my hay bale and sat down – my legs had gone weak again.
“However, I shouldn’t worry too much,” the doctor continued. “I’ll leave you some . . . special medicine that will help bring down any fever he’s bound to have. It should also help him cough up any obstruction to his breathing and will definitely put him to sleep, which is the best therapy I can think of to help the body mend. Just don’t tell anyone I got the recipe from an Iroquois Indian shaman I once heard give a lecture . . . and my less understanding colleagues shouted out of the lecture hall,” he said, grinned and laid a finger to the side of his nose. “I have to order it from an herbalist in Quebec, Canada, and my contemporaries would be outraged if they knew I employed such ‘ancient tonics.’ Nevertheless, it does seem to perform like a miracle on the few serious cases I’ve had the chance to use it.”
“Doctor, I promise I’ll tell no one,” I answered. “And thank you.”
“It was my pleasure to be of service, Slim. Do you need help bringing Mike back in?”
I glanced at the still sleeping boy – he didn’t appear restless now as he had been most of the night, his features relaxed and not all contorted with whatever nightmare had been behind his eyes.
“You go on, Doctor. I’ll bring Mike to the house in a moment.”
Dr. Masters nodded, turned, picked up his lantern and left.
I bent over my knees to say another prayer, this one of thanks, then rose, jiggling the slug in my hand before I put it in my coat pocket. I buttoned the coat, put on my gloves and wrapped the scarf around my neck, but had to nudge Buttons off his bed before I could scoop the sleeping child, blanket and all, into my arms. I blew out the lamp and left the barn.
I was kind of surprised to see everything was back in order in the warm, if “fragrant” front room, but no one about. So startled in fact, I almost dropped Mike.
Daisy rushed out of her room with her finger pressed to her lips. She closed the front door for me, glanced fondly at the boy in my arms and leaned in to whisper, “When Jess came out of the anesthesia, he was very groggy and didn’t know what happened, barely knew where he was. Yet he still insisted he could walk to his own bed – with our assistance, of course. But he made the journey under his own power, then fell asleep the moment his head hit his pillow. Doctor Masters is with him now, making sure his new bandages are secure and he isn’t running a fever. And, you know what, Slim? Jess was so dazed he didn’t realize he hadn’t a stitch of clothing on…” she said with a bit of a relieved chuckle in her sleep-deprived, gravelly voice, though tears glittered in he tired, red eyes. She let out an exhausted, “Oh, my. This has been a night I’ll not soon forget. I have never been so frightened, so afraid I’d do something wrong.”
“But you didn’t do anything wrong, Daisy,” I answered her whisper and smiled at her.
“Where should I put Mike? He might bother Jess if he gets up early… And I’m not sure Buttons” – the dog sitting by my right leg looked up – “will leave him now.”
Daisy had to stifle a huge yawn behind her hand, tried to speak around it, “Just put him on the couch, then. It’s nice and warm now and he looks like he wouldn’t mind. You’ll probably hear him if he gets up early and tries to come into your bedroom.”
I carried Mike to the well-used couch, again positioned under the window alongside the wall, then had to decide how best to put the boy on it in the right direction because Mike’s head was on my left shoulder and the couch’s raised headboard was on the right. Daisy helped get the boy straightened out – Mike didn’t even twitch – and he nestled into the leather with a grateful moan. Neither of us had the heart, or the energy, to wake him to take off his coat or his shoes, so we tucked the blanket around him. Buttons, of course, found his post right under our feet, impeding our movement as he set up his guard with his chin on his paws to protect his master and friend.
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