By Rachel Zander
Reader: Moira Purnell
The most dangerous enemy is always the one you don’t know exists…
knew that something wasn’t right from the moment Slim asked him to head out at
daybreak to work on the north fence. Although he had slept fairly well – all
things considered - and the coffee was especially good this morning, he felt odd
leaving without Slim. He didn’t tend to get concerned about leaving the ranch
on his own, especially when it was for something as trivial as fixing a fence
– there was nothing to it. He knew better than to fret but the last two days
had already seen their fair share of unpleasant incidents... He couldn’t help
but feel uneasy - something bad was in the air and he couldn’t put his finger
on it. Always a man who
liked to be in control of every situation, this feeling of uncertainty was
foreign to him and he found it very disconcerting.
ready to head out yet or are you plannin’ on fixing that fence from the
kitchen table?” Slim asked with a grin as Jess finished off the last of his
second cup of coffee. He was in no way a morning person and Slim always
marvelled at how that powerful brew could seemingly raise his best friend from
Slim. I’m just thinkin’.” Then, realizing what he was in for with that
answer, Jess raised a hand in defence and shook his head. “Don’t even say
it! I’m headin’ out right now.”
He was out
the door before Slim could say what he’d been thinking. Jess usually wasn’t
this quiet but Slim knew how worried he was about Mike and Daisy, and he had
hoped that getting a rise out of his Pard might
take his mind off what had happened for a while. That was the only reason he had
decided that Jess was best suited to fix that darn north fence. The cattle
weren’t going to get out since, after all the rain they’d had, most of the
herd had already been moved to the west meadow but Slim wasn’t going to spend
another day watching Jess brood in silence.
It had not
really been Jess’ fault, Slim knew that, and he hoped that Jess would
eventually come to see it that way, too.
Mike had been begging Slim to let him ride one of the horses that he and Jess
had been trying to break. From the moment that they brought that gorgeous
stallion into the corral, Mike had been dreaming of riding him. He had spent
hours watching Jess work his magic with the big horse and, much to Daisy’s
dismay, had finally managed to get Jess to promise him a ride on the horse. Slim
had even allowed Mike to name the big black beauty – Buck. Not the most
imaginative of names but it certainly fit since that is what the stallion had
spent most of his time doing for Jess.
before supper one evening, Jess had come in, soaked to the bone and covered in
mud and muck, with a victorious grin on his face. Despite Daisy’s protests, supper was all but forgotten as
he and Mike headed out for a quick trot on the massive horse. Even in the
pouring rain, they both laughed like little boys as Buck picked up speed and
offered Mike the ride of his life. Neither of them saw the badger until it was
as he remembered the startled horse, the smashed corral gate, and Jess
staggering into the house with a very limp and muddy Mike in his arms. The
doctor had insisted on taking the little boy into town and keeping him there,
‘just to keep an eye on him’. Jess had wanted to go with him but he knew
that Daisy was best suited to care for Mike. Besides, Slim needed his help on
the ranch and there was nothing that he could do for Mike in town.
That had been
two days ago….
the last of the morning dishes, Slim stepped onto the porch and watched Jess
head off on Traveler. He hoped that keeping Jess busy was the best way to help
his friend, at least for the time being. Although he always felt better talking
things over with someone, Jess was not one to talk matters over until he had
taken the time to think them through in his own head. He anticipated that Jess
would be more inclined to talk when he got back from a day of hard work. By
then, Mose would have news from Daisy when he came through on the morning stage
– Jess had made him promise to check on Mike even if that meant putting the
stage behind schedule. Slim only hoped that it would be news that he would want
to share with Jess.
spent the better part of the morning riding up and down the north fence, amazed
at how much damage a few ornery cows could inflict on wet timbers and rusty
baling wire. Barbed wire was definitely going to make the difference this time
– those cows weren’t going to try getting through the new fence he intended
to put up. He would have preferred to have company while he worked, but he had a
lot on his mind and he still didn’t feel comfortable facing Slim.
could clearly recall their conversation from only days earlier. The stallion was
finally starting to cooperate with his efforts and was turning out to be a great
horse to ride. Slim had agreed – Mike needed his own mount and not just a pony
anymore. He had already proven himself to be quite a rider and Jess loved to see
the sparkle that appeared in the young boy’s eyes at the prospect of riding
such a stunning animal. He had worked so hard to get Buck ready for Mike –
although stallions weren’t known for their gentle nature, he and Slim felt
sure that they had found the perfect gift to present to their young charge. He
had been thrilled to watch Mike’s beaming face when Slim finally agreed that
it was high time he learned to ride the tall stallion.
Even with the
steady downpour, it had been such a great day – Mike was ecstatic at the
thought of finally being able to ride Buck. Jess remembered the huge smile on
Mike’s face when Slim handed him the reins. They had teased him; telling him
that his face would burst if he didn’t stop grinning so widely, but even that
didn’t faze the excited little boy. Jess had helped him into the saddle then
jumped up behind him, giddy at the thought of sharing in the fun. A smooth trot
had quickly become a rip-roaring gallop and then all hell broke loose.
couldn’t remember flying headlong off the horse, although his bruised torso
and twisted ankle told him that it had happened. He barely remembered scooping
Mike’s limp body out of the mud as he heard the terrified horse gallop away.
Slim had been at his side almost immediately and Daisy had held his arm while
the doctor examined the small, still form lying atop Slim’s bunk. Then they
were gone and he had had to face Slim…. Slim – who trusted him so much with
horses as to believe that he could tame the wild beauty enough for Mike…. How
could he ever begin to explain to his best friend what he had allowed to happen?
Especially when he couldn’t even understand it himself…
stopped hammering when he realized that he had just completely destroyed a very
good piece of lumber. This was not going to work – he couldn’t even fix a
stupid fence without breaking it! He propped up the broken pieces as well as he
could then climbed onto Traveler’s back. He had to get back to the ranch. He
couldn’t keep hiding behind work – he wasn’t exactly doing a very good job
of it anyway. Besides, it was nearly noon and he expected that Slim would have
news from Daisy. Most important though, he needed to talk to Slim, to find out
if Slim was blaming him as much as he blamed himself.
Looking back at the mess he had made, he urged Traveler forward, anxious to get home. He did not see the glint of metal in the midday sun nor did he hear the crack of the shot….
Mose! Any passengers this morning?” Slim rushed up to the stage and checked
the weary horses then began to scrape some of the mud from the massive front
Slim. Quiet as the grave in town – no one comin’ or goin’,” Mose said as
he shook his head and stiffly jumped down from the stage. “Jess around?” he
asked, scanning the yard.
“No. I sent
him out to work on the north fence this morning. I don’t expect him back for a
few more hours.”
Mose rubbed his chin, thoughtfully.
it? Is something wrong?” Slim’s face creased with concern as he moved from
the horses and took hold of Mose’s left arm. “Have you heard from Daisy?”
Daisy’s fine, Slim. Doc says Mike ain’t doin’ too bad, either... D’you
say the north fence?” Mose asked, staring at a very scuffed spot on the tip of
his muddy right boot.
me right, Mose. Why do you want to know – something wrong?” Slim’s
frustration at the older man was starting to grow.
saw the sheriff in town, jes’ after I talked to Miss Daisy. He said he needed
to talk to Jess about somethin’. He looked kinda worried.”
Slim waited for him to continue but Mose didn’t elaborate any further.
was starting to get worried, too. Mort didn’t usually need to speak to Jess
unless something was wrong. Not that the two men weren’t friends, and goodness
only knows Mort had asked Jess to be his deputy so many times over the past few
years that the townspeople just assumed he wore the star under his vest all the
time. But Slim knew that Jess just had a way of attracting trouble and Mort had
developed a knack for tuning into that trouble and warning Jess whenever he
could. He just hoped that wasn’t why Mort wanted to see him now.
wonder what’s wrong… Did he tell you anything else, Mose?”
Jes’ said he needed to talk to ‘im. Reckon he’ll come out here today if
Mose noticed the big black stallion in the corral. “So, you got him back. Darn
critters, some jes’ ain’t meant to be rode.”
Mose. Yeah, Jess brought him back last night. Looks like he took up lame –
probably when he smashed through the fence. He’s every bit as wild as when we
first got him – wouldn’t know that Jess spent all that time working with
him…” Slim shook his head. “It was all I could do to stop Jess from
shooting him right then and there. I’ve never known him to be angry at a horse
before, but this one…” Slim let the words die on his lips. He didn’t need
to explain it to Mose. His old friend seemed to understand more about Jess than
he let on.
better get goin’ else I’m gonna be in trouble when I’m late gettin’ to
Cheyenne.” Mose grinned ruefully as he climbed up and settled himself on the
hard seat while Slim finished up with the horses. He waited for Slim to move out
of the way then he waved goodbye and took off, sending clumps of mud flying.
for the barn to water and rub down the horses. He wondered how Jess was making
out; silently wishing he knew why Mort was so eager to talk to him. He knew that
worrying about it wouldn’t do him any good so he tried to keep busy and only
returned to the house shortly after noon.
some of the leftover stew that he and Jess had been working through for the past
two days and sat down at the table. Jess had already been gone for several hours
and he was never one to miss a meal, especially when he had spent the morning
working up a storm. Slim remembered that Jess had left so quickly after
breakfast that he had forgotten to take any food with him. By one o’clock,
Slim had cleaned up most of the stew and the dishes were drying on the counter.
There was still no sign of Jess.
you’re not going to grace me with your presence, Pard,’ thought
Slim as he headed out to the corral. He decided to look at Buck’s legs to
check how serious the horse’s injuries were, knowing full well that Jess would
want him to get rid of that horse as soon as possible. Even so, he was not
planning on selling a lame horse to anyone.
want to go home. When can I go home and see Slim and Jess?” the soft voice
spoke, barely above a whisper.
poor dear,’ thought Daisy, ‘you must hate
being here as much as I do.’
Mike. You heard what the doctor said; you can’t move for a few more days then
you can go home. You don’t want to hurt yourself again, do you? Then you
won’t be able to go home as soon as you’d like.” Daisy spoke in her most
endearing voice but she knew how he felt.
boy reluctantly crossed his arms over his chest and winced. He’d had to stay
in town before, but that was usually for fun or because Slim or Jess were in
town. He hated staying in a hotel room with nothing to do all day and he
couldn’t wait to talk to Jess. He wanted to tell him that he wasn’t mad at
him and he was desperate to find out if Jess was angry with him. He looked into
fact that Mike needed his rest, she knew that he had something on his mind and
he was determined to talk to her about it. ‘Thank goodness he’s like Slim
that way,’ she thought, remembering how Jess tended to keep things bottled
up inside until he was ready to burst. She had tried to talk to Jess while the
doctor examined Mike on that terrible evening, but his eyes had been like dark
blue stones. She was as anxious as Mike to get home but the little boy needed
her right now… she would see Jess soon enough. ‘I’m so glad he has Slim
“Why do you
think that Jess hasn’t come to see us?”
had wondered that but Mose had told her that the boys were keeping very busy at
the ranch. The rain had come at the worst possible time and she knew that they
had weeks of hard work to complete before they’d be caught up. The stallion
had only been one of the many horses that had to be broken in and the buyers
would be arriving any day to pick them up. And then, her being away meant that
they now had to take care of the household chores and meals as well. She smiled
as she thought of the comments and complaints that she was going to hear when
she got back.
that he and Slim are busy working so that they will have time to spend with you
when you get home. You know Jess – he always has to keep busy and Slim will
make sure that he stays that way.” She smiled, hoping to reassure the little
boy. He did not seem convinced and she looked at him questioningly. “What’s
wrong, Mike? Are you in pain?” She leaned over, ready to get the Laudanum
should he need it.
want Jess to be mad at me…” he whispered and closed his eyes.
you! Why would he be mad at you?” Daisy was shocked that he would even think
He opened his
eyes and looked right at her. “He worked so hard with Buck…I shouldn’t
have fallen off. I don’t want to tell him that I don’t want to ride Buck
heartbroken by the softly spoken words but she was also relieved. She had hoped
that Mike would not be as stubborn as Jess usually was and want to immediately
try to ride Buck again, but she was concerned at his feelings of guilt.
“My dear, I
know that Jess worked very hard to get Buck ready for you but he will not be mad
at you. He and Slim just wanted to give you a horse of your own and you were so
excited about that big stallion. I know that Jess will be happy if you choose to
ride another one…Slim told you that you could have your choice of any
the relief on the little boy’s face as his heavy eyelids closed. He could now
rest and she was glad to have been able to reassure him so easily. She just
hoped that she would be able to do the same with Slim and Jess.
head was pounding and he couldn’t get his eyes to work properly. Hearing the
chirping of the evening frogs, he wondered why Slim had let him sleep for so
long. He tried to remember how he could have possibly drunk so much to feel so
poorly – he’d always been able to handle his liquor; well, except for that
darned “ratified whiskey” but he’d promised himself to never do that
again! Dad-gum, he was so wet and cold.
the cobwebs started to clear in his mind, he tried to open his eyes again and
found himself looking up at a cloud-covered moon. Cold raindrops were stinging
his eyes and bouncing off his cheeks. He’d really done it this time. Slim was
going to be furious with him…He couldn’t understand why Mort had just left
him out in the middle of the street like this – drunks were usually locked up
in a warm, dry jail cell overnight. Maybe Mort just thought no one would be
crazy enough to venture out and get drunk then pass out in the street on such a
cold, wet night…
to roll over and felt a stabbing pain in his side. Wincing, he fell back,
breathing hard, and tried again. It was no use, he couldn’t move. He tried to
turn his head and finally realized why he was not on a bed or in a jail cell –
he was lying in very long, very wet grass in the middle of nowhere. Gingerly, he
lifted his hand to rub his eyes. His face was wet but he couldn’t tell if it
was from the rain or worse yet, blood. He had no idea how he had gotten there.
He decided to
assess the extent of his injuries, hoping that he would eventually manage to at
least sit up. He was not going to spend the rest of the night on his back in a
freezing puddle if he could help it. After a quick inspection, he was relieved
to find that his legs were more or less fine and he could move both arms so
there was some hope; he just wished he could warm up enough to restore the blood
flow in his limbs.
His side and
head were another story. He could feel warmth coming from his side but his foggy
brain wouldn’t let him comprehend how that could be warm when he was so cold.
The throbbing in his head pulsed in time with his pounding heartbeat and he knew
that he had to try to move. If only he could remember what had happened…
Once again, he tried to sit up and was immediately wracked with pain; but he did finally succeed in partly raising himself up. His head swam and he just barely managed to roll over in time as the meagre contents of his stomach emptied out. The pain in his side was excruciating and he sat gasping, waiting for the nausea to pass. As some of the dizziness subsided, he looked around in the hopes of seeing Traveler but his trusty friend was nowhere in sight – he prayed that was a good thing. That horse had always been better than a dog, managing to get home even without its rider. Jess could only hope that Slim was waiting for him at home and would come to find him as soon as he realized his pard’s horse had lost its rider….
is getting ridiculous,’ thought Slim as he
watched the rainstorm through the small window. The last thing they needed was
more rain. It had rained more in the past two weeks than it normally did in two
months. He just hoped that Jess had found a dry place to wait it out – it had
been sunny when he’d left that morning so he hadn’t thought to bring his
raincoat with him. Jess was not at all fond of cold rain and hunger pains and
Slim grinned at the thought of Jess sitting out there somewhere, cursing the
heavens and his empty stomach. He hoped that Jess was using the time to work out
some of his guilt over what had happened. Slim had a feeling he was going to get
an earful when he finally did get home. Not for the first time did he hope that
he had made the right decision to send Jess out alone to work out his own
demons. That had worked in the past and he hoped that it would again.
Just as he
was starting to believe that Jess wouldn’t be coming home at all, he heard the
sound of a horse galloping through the muddy yard. ‘Finally! It’s about
time you got home!’ He put down his coffee cup and walked to the door,
ready to greet the full-blown tornado that he expected Jess to be.
it’s about ti--“ He stopped short as Mort Cory, not Jess, walked into the
warm house. Mort’s expression was dour as he took off his soaking hat and held
the dripping Stetson in his hands.
Is Jess here?” He looked around the small room, hoping to spot Slim’s
I haven’t seen him since he left this morning.”
belied the concern he felt and the knot of dread that was rapidly forming in his
stomach. He recalled his conversation with Mose earlier that day and he knew
that nothing good would cause the sheriff to brave the cold stormy night –
this was not going to be a social call.
down at his hat and slowly walked over to the table. He pulled out a chair next
to the fire and sat down wearily.
d’you expect him back, Slim?”
his hand on the back of his neck as he walked over to join Mort. He grasped the
back of a chair – Jess’ chair – but he didn’t sit down.
today. He was working on the north fence all day so I thought he decided to get
it over with before coming all the way back.
Then, with the rain… Well, Jess knows a lot of places to hole up in
weather like this. I was kinda hoping it was Jess who was riding up when you got
up at Slim and bit his bottom lip. He hated giving Slim bad news and he had
hoped that after four years, most of the ghosts from Jess’ chequered past had
already been dealt with. The one that he had come to tell Slim about made him
Jess ever mentioned a man named Durbin?”
about it for a moment then shook his head slowly. He looked at the silent
“What is it
that you’re not telling me, Mort? Is Jess in some kind of trouble?”
It was a
ludicrous question to which Slim already knew the answer; he’d had this
conversation with Mort before and he thought he knew what was coming.
was relieved to see the sun shining through as she pulled up the shade. It had
rained all night and she had worried about her boys – they had so much to do
and they didn’t need more rain, of all things. At least Mike had slept well
and actually looked rested this morning. He even had his rosy cheeks back. She
smiled at him.
the doctor says I can go home today?” The most hopeful little face looked up
into Daisy’s kind blue eyes.
know that the doctor said you can’t go home for another few days. Besides,
with the rain last night, the road will be muddy and full of potholes. You
don’t want to get all banged up again on your way home, do you?”
She found it
hard to be as stern as she hoped she sounded. She wanted to get home as much as
guess not…but…I’m bored!”
Well, being bored was a good sign, not only because it proved that Mike was feeling better but also because Daisy was happy to have company. She walked over to the dresser and picked up a small board and leather bag. It had been a gift from Jess when Mike had taken ill during the winter. She had watched as Jess spent hours crafting the board and carving the checker pieces. Mike had been overjoyed with the new game and he and Slim had since spent hours beating Jess at checkers. She knew that the game would keep Mike occupied while letting him feel like he had a little piece of home in this lonely hotel room. She hoped that Jess and Slim were enjoying the sunny morning.
Chapters 6 to 10
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