A Laramie Tale for Halloween
Beta Reader - Elaine Kane
They had stayed just a little longer than intended and who could blame them. After all the hard work of preparing the ranch for the cold winter months ahead there had been no objections raised when Daisy had suggested they could all do with a break. Jess thought back over the past twenty-four hours, trying to rationalize how they found themselves in such a predicament.
The weather had done a sudden about turn. After it had steadily declined to colder, wetter days, with a bite to the wind that was a sure sign of a bad winter ahead, summer suddenly returned and warmed them with a bright sun in clear skies. On the third day of working under the heat of this Indian summer, everyone was feeling tired and irritable and Daisy had decided a rescue mission was in order.
As Slim had settled onto the couch the previous evening after helping Jess and Mike devour the large meal Daisy had served up, he began to name off a list of chores to Jess that needed doing before the rains really set in.
The elderly housekeeper come surrogate mother to the Sherman household had noted that Slim was looking tired and drawn. Though he was usually the more somber of the two men who owned and ran the relay station and ranch, he usually had a free and winning smile to hand out. Daisy had observed that smile cross the tall blonde’s features less and less during the past weeks of frantic winter preparation.
Even Jess, whose sense of adventure and stubbornness was often the cause for disruption in the household, had been subdued and quiet, worn down by the long hours and heavy work. The sparkle had gone from his blue eyes and Daisy was missing his usually joking banter with Slim and his cheery ‘Hello, Tiger’ greeting when Mike, the youngest of her adopted brood returned from school.
Winter preparations were always hard, as everyone tried to complete repairs, harvesting and all the other jobs that went on at this time of year on a working ranch. Unfortunately, this year, things had been delayed. First by Slim’s trip to Cheyenne to renew the stage line franchise, and then by Jess’ very necessary time in town as acting Deputy while the sheriff recovered from a broken arm incurred by a fall from the jail house roof that he was trying to repair. It was no wonder the two men had had to work flat out to catch up, and now they were exhausted.
Even as Slim spoke, the astute housekeeper had noticed Jess struggling to stay awake as he sat in the rocking chair by the fire. His eyelids had slowly closed, as if his thick lashes were dragging them down. Then suddenly he would jerk upright as a sudden change in Slims voice snapped him awake briefly, only find his physical tiredness was too much and he succumbed again to the delights of sleep.
“Jess, are you paying attention to anything I’m saying” There was a hint of annoyance in Slim’s voice as he spoke, He too had noticed Jess’ battle to stay awake.
“Huh?” Jess’ dark head snapped up again and he brushed angrily at the heavy locks of hair that had fallen across his eyes “Yeah, you, uh, you were saying we needed to get the barn door painted,” Jess said hoping he was remembering correctly.
“Yes, I was saying that. About five minutes ago.” The irritated edge was easily heard as Slims own tiredness ate away at his usual tolerance and understanding. “I need you with me on this, Pard”
“I’m sorry, Slim. You go right ahead, you got my attention now.” Jess forced his blurry eyes to focus on his blonde partner, as he tried to look alert. Unfortunately his body betrayed him, as once again, under the influence of the fires warmth and Slim’s tired monotone, his head dropped down onto his chest.
“JESS!!” Slim rapped out angrily.
This time Jess snapped upright so suddenly he tipped the rocking chair backward and had to struggle frantically to stop himself from tipping back. He failed miserably and hit the floor with a resounding crash. His head hit the stone hearth and for a moment Jess’ saw stars.
“Are you all right, dear?” Daisy asked anxiously, as Slim helped a still groggy Jess back onto his feet.
“Here, you’d best sit on something a little less liable to buck you off,” Slim admonished as he guided Jess over to the couch.
Daisy was quickly by his side admiring the egg-sized lump on the side of Jess’ head
“Thanks, Slim. I’m fine, Daisy, really I am. It’s nothing that a good nights sleep wouldn’t fix.” Jess made light of the fall, even though he felt dizzy and his eyes couldn’t seem to focus. There was still work to do and he was needed. They couldn’t afford to slack this close to the end of October.
“We’ve still got a lot of work to do, and I can’t afford to have you laid up. Just go to bed, Jess. We’ll sort out the work load in the morning, when maybe you’ll be more inclined to listen.” Slims voice was more harsh than intended, but he was worn down himself, and now this potentially serious accident rubbed at his raw nerves. Driven by genuine concern for Jess’ health, he let his concern turn to a babbling frustration. His logical mind knew that things had just stacked up against them recently, but still the next words were out of his mouth before he could stop them, “ Goldarn it, Jess, We’d have been well ahead of schedule if you hadn’t gone off at the drop of a hat to play sheriff!”
That did it. Jess Harper, fun loving, kind and generous, disappeared and the quick temper that he was rumored to have came to the surface.
“Dad burn it, Slim, you’re the one that volunteered me for that, remember, Pard.” The emphasis on the familiar name was defiantly not friendly this time. “And it sure weren’t no picnic, I was hot footin’ it around town trying to keep those rowdy’s from the Bar C from tearin’ the place up, while you was off havin’ yerself a fine old time in Cheyenne!” Fueled by a righteous anger, Jess had stood to face down Slim, and despite the room that was swinging alarmingly in his vision; he was managing to keep on his feet.
Whether from a need to be ready to catch his unsteady best friend, or whether from anger, Slim stepped in closer to Jess, his height giving him an advantage in that he stared down at Jess. “You know I offered for you to go to those stage line meetings, and you all but jumped at the chance of deputy to avoid it. What was it you said? As I recall, it was something about stuffed shirts and pompous officials.”
“Now just a gosh damn minute, you never----” Jess’ angry, retaliatory remark got no further.
Daisy had seen the escalating situation and decided it was time to calm things down. She had been thinking of a little treat for everyone, and round about now seemed to be a good time to plant the idea firmly in front of the two men as they squared of against each other.
“Jess, I won’t have you swearing, and you know it. Watch your language please. Mike is in the other room doing his homework.” She turned from a suitable subdued and penitent Jess to face Slim. The blonde had a smirk on his face, as he watched Jess’ discomfiture, but it didn’t stay there for long. “And you can wipe that smile of your face, Slim Sherman. You are not exactly behaving in a seemly and gentlemanly like manner. Sit down the two of you. I have something I want to talk to you about and I would like to do it in a civilized manner.”
The two men looked at each other, and saw the embarrassment written on each other’s faces.
“All right, Daisy, I reckon I was a little out of line,” Jess’ face broke into a warm smile as he looked at the woman he had come to think of like a mother.
Slim looked sheepishly at Daisy as he to apologized. “Sorry, Daisy.” Then he turned to Jess, just in time to grab him as he swayed dangerously on his feet. “Whoa, there, Jess. You must have hit your head a little harder than you thought.” He helped Jess to lower himself back onto the couch. “I guess I was being a mite hard on you. You’ve more than pulled your share of the work around here since you came back from Laramie.”
Settling himself next to Jess, Slim again spoke to Daisy. “ All right, Daisy, what is it you want to say?”
Lowering herself into the now vacated rocking chair, Daisy smiled at her two eldest boys. “That’s better,” she smiled at them both, pleased that her ploy had worked. “Now you boys and Mike, for that matter, have been working really hard these past weeks, and it shows, in more ways than just the results of the work you have been doing.” The wise housekeeper paused, waiting to see that the two penitent young men before her had understood just what she was alluding to. When they glanced askance at each other she knew they had taken her meaning to heart. “I do not know if you have noticed but the weather has been unseasonable warm the last few days.”
“Oh we noticed, alright” Jess couldn’t help but comment. “It ain’t easy mendin’ fences under that hot sun.”
“Yes, Daisy we noticed, but what has that got to do with anything?” Slim pushed her for an explanation.
“Just this, dear,” Daisy responded in her best school ma’am voice. “The sun isn’t the only thing that has been heating up over the last few days.”
Slim, dipped his eyes and again looked guiltily at Jess. His dark haired partner had the good grace to blush under Daisy’s keen scrutiny. They both knew they had not exactly been easy to live with over the past few weeks as the hard work wore away at their normally pleasant natures.
Giving a small nod of acknowledgement that they had understood, Daisy continued. “Most of the work is done now, isn’t it?” When neither man spoke up to deny it, she continued. “Well I think we could all do with a break, and make the most of this weather. Tomorrow is Saturday, so Mike doesn’t have school. Why don’t we take the day off tomorrow and go on a picnic?”
Slim’s face lit up with a broad grin. “Daisy, you are an angel. That’s exactly what we need. One day off won’t harm, and afterwards, we will probably work twice as hard. What do you think, Jess?”
Jess’ mind was already off in the woods, near his favorite fishing hole. His warm smile said it all as he replied. “Yeah, reckon we could do some fishing too, Pard?”
“Good idea, Jess. I’d better go tell Mike the good news” Slim stood as he spoke but was literally knocked down by a whirlwind that went under the name of Mike as he flung himself into his arms.
Laughing, Slim staggered backward under Mike’s onslaught. The young boy had been listening at the door since the angry raised voices had distracted him from his studies. “Can we really go fishing, Aunt Daisy, can we?”
“Yes, Mike, as you very well know, since you where listening at the door.” Daisy didn’t admonish him further as she was feeling too pleased with her success in getting the two men to accept her idea.
However, Jess didn’t let it go so easily. “You know, Mike, you’ll have to watch how you behave. I reckon that old traveling preacher that was here last week would say that sort of behavior would see you in the hands of those devils and demons he was so busy spouting off about.”
“Aww, Jess. You all said he was just talking silly, to impress the town,” Mike smiled as he said it, but his eyes had widened nervously as he recalled the dreadful spectres the ‘Fire and Brimstone’ preacher had threatened all the sinners in Laramie with.
In actuality, the man had offered to hold a service for the good folks in Laramie, as their own preacher had left a few months previously and as yet there had not been a replacement. Daisy had insisted that they had all been without a little religious guidance long enough and she had cajoled, teased and persuaded her odd little family to attend the Sunday service. After being on the receiving end of an hour-long sermon on the horrors that awaited them, sinners one and all, in Hell, even Daisy had cause to regret her decision.
Jess laughed, “It’s all right, Tiger. I don’t think he had you in mind when he was preaching up a storm. Its likely I’ll be the one that’ll be drawing down on those old devils and demons he was talking about.”
“Now, Jess. Don’t go encouraging him,” Daisy chastised, but the amusement was clear in her eyes.
“You know, Daisy, I think the devils would likely refuse to take old Jess here on. He’s so stubborn and ornery he’d as likely prove more trouble than he’s worth,” Slim stated and then sat back and waited for Jess’ reaction as his words sunk in.
The return of the easygoing camaraderie between the two best friends filled Daisy with a warm feeling as she watched Jess’ face change as enlightenment dawned on him. Slim noticed to, and stood to move slowly away from him.
“Hey, are you saying even the devil himself is gonna turn me down! Why you, I’ll show you stubborn and ornery!” Jess stood up quickly, intending to persue his older comrade, but before he could move more than a few steps, the room spun around and he grabbed at the table to steady himself.
All teasing forgotten, Slim was instantly there, offering his support. “Easy there, Jess. I reckon you hit your head a little harder than we thought.”
“Aw, it ain’t nothin’,Slim. A few good hours of sleep and I’ll be good as new. There ain’t nothin’ gonna keep me from a day of fishing and one of Daisy’s special picnics,” Jess re-assured them all.
“All right, Jess. I think it is bed for you, and then hopefully you will be set to go in the morning. Mind you, Jess, if you’re not fully recovered we will not be going anywhere, and I won’t take any arguments from you about that.” Though Daisy softened her warning with a smile, both men knew better than to defy her when she was in full mothering mode.
“Guess I’ll turn in too, Daisy. I want to be bright and fresh in the morning so I can enjoy watching Jess’ face when I catch all those big trout.” Slim expected a smart retaliation from Jess and was mildly worried when he got none. ‘He must really be exhausted or that hit on the head is more serious than he’s letting on’ he thought, and made a mental note to watch Jess’ carefully in the morning. Slim knew from experience that Jess tended to make light of his health, dismissing any inquiries with a simple ‘I’m fine’.
A loud yawn from Mike drew everyone’s attention to him. “Sorry, he mumbled, as he tried to stifle another yawn behind his hand.
“I think it’s your bedtime too, Mike. Off with you now” Daisy swatted him lightly on his backside and gave him a gentle push in the direction of his bedroom.
Mike protested with a loud “Aww, gee,” but he went anyway, wishing them all a goodnight around a third gigantic yawn.
Slim watched Jess as he moved gingerly toward their bedroom. He could tell by the way he supported himself on the furniture that he was still a little dizzy. As Jess disappeared into the bedroom he shared with the blonde, Slim turned to Daisy and read the concern in her eyes. “Don’t worry; I’ll keep a close eye on him. If he’s not alright by tomorrow I will make him stay home, even if I have to hogtie him to his bunk.”
It never ceased to amaze her how Slim seemed to be able to read her mind, especially where Jess was concerned. The dark haired drifter with a troubled past had somehow worked his way into both their hearts, and while Daisy loved each and every member of her surrogate family, she had a soft spot for the handsome ex-gunslinger who just seemed to attract trouble. “Poor Jess. He won’t be happy at all if we cancel the trip,” she said, almost to herself.
But Slim heard her and replied. “Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that, Daisy. Say now, what about you. Aren’t you going to bed?”
“Don’t worry, I will be soon. I just want to get a few things together ready for the picnic. If Jess is alright, I am sure we will all want to get an early start.” Daisy smiled as Slim bent forward to kiss her on her cheek. “Goodnight, Slim, dear.” Then she turned and headed into the kitchen, leaving Slim to his own devices.
It wasn’t long after that the ranch house resounded to the soft snores and deeper breathing that signified everyone was getting some much-needed rest.
“Hey, Jess, wake up. Come on, sleepy head” the commanding voice broke through the fog and fuzzy pre awakening thoughts that rattled round his brain. His head felt muzzy, a dull headache throbbing at his temples, as he finally focused on Slim’s voice.
“Have you forgotten we’re going fishing today?” Slim tried to encourage his still drowsy friend to wake up.
The word fishing caught Jess’ attention and he forced his eyes open to focus on Slim. “Huh? Wh-what?” he questioned.
Noticing that Jess was proving even more difficult to wake up than usual, Slim had a moment of hesitation. “Well, that is if you’re up to it?” he enquired as he remembered the previous night.
Jess’ head finally cleared and the promised day off materialised in his thoughts. He knew he was still a little woozy and the dull throb over his eyes was most likely the result of his tussle with the rocking chair, but he also recalled Slim’s threat to call the whole thing off if he wasn’t up to it. There was no way he was going to miss a chance for a day of fishing. “I’m fine. Can’t a man wake up in peace around here?” He glared at Slim as he spoke.
Giving him a friendly pat on the shoulder, Slim laughed “Not if he wants to get out to that fishing hole before it’s time to turn tail and head back.”
“All right, give me a minute to shave and freshen up, then I’ll help get the wagon hitched.” Jess spoke as he pushed himself up on his elbows, and hoped Slim didn’t notice the way he narrowed his eyes against the bright light from the window. Light’ he thought, suddenly aware that it was full morning outside and he had overslept. “Say, just what time is it anyway?” he asked.
“Just about the perfect time for us to be leaving on a fishing trip, if a certain lazy person would get up and join the rest of us.” Slim admonished.
Swinging his legs out of the bed, Jess sat glaring at his best friend. “What you go and let me sleep so late for? Now we’ll never get a full day in, by the time we get everything ready,” he complained.
“We thought an extra hour in bed might help that hard head of yours,” His blue eyes radiating mirth, Slim continued. “Calm down, Pard. Everything is ready. It’s just you we are waiting on.”
“Well, why didn’t you say so?” Jess stood and headed for the wash stand as Slim went off to help Daisy load the picnic basket that she had been busy filling with goodies. For a brief moment, when Jess had first roused, Slim had thought they would have to call the trip off, as Jess didn’t look too good. But he seemed fine now, and Slim was looking forward to the day’s outing. He enjoyed a good break as much as the next man, and a day fishing, dozing and generally being boys, topped of with a basket full of Daisy’s good cooking, looked to be as good as they came.
Suddenly, Jess remembered the most important thing as far as he was concerned. “Hey, Slim, you mind asking Mike to load up that new fishing pole of mine. It wouldn’t be the great day we’ve planned if’n I forgot that. Using that is gonna ensure I land a bigger catch than you.”
Slim had still been a little worried about Jess, but that parting remark re-assured him that there was little wrong, which was exactly what Jess had intended it to do. “Already done, Jess. Mikes about as excited over seeing you use that thing, as you are to use it. Won’t make no dang difference though. It’s the skill of the man doing the fishing, not some fancy gewgaw bought off a travelling salesman from back east.” Slim laughed and ducked as Jess’ towel flew by him. “Better hurry up, Pard. Those fish won’t wait forever.” Then he was gone, to join the others outside.
Despite the residual headache, Jess took mere minutes to get ready and join the others outside. Mike was sitting on the back of the wagon, his kite at the ready. He was fairly bouncing in anticipation of a day spent in the company of the two ranchers he regarded as older brothers.
“Gee, Jess. What took you so long? Seems like we’ve been waiting here forever,” the young boy greeted his hero.
Jess cast a withering glance at Slim, then smiled at Mike. “Well, I’m here now, Tiger, and I can’t wait to get to those fish.” He headed round the wagon to his horse, that Slim had ready for him. As he passed Daisy, the astute housekeeper peered closely at him, aware he was shading his eyes with his hat. Slim had assured her Jess seemed fine, but she knew her stubborn middle son well, and was not easily fooled. “Are you sure you are all right, Jess?” she enquired.
Well aware that Daisy could read him like a book, and would see the lie in his eyes, Jess mounted keeping his eyes facing ahead as he replied. “I’m about as fine as a man can be, I reckon. Thanks for asking, Daisy. Now let’s get going. I’m eager to eat some of that good food you’ve packed.”
Daisy’s hand flew to her mouth. “Oh my!” she exclaimed. “You haven’t had your breakfast, Jess”
Truth be told, Jess’ stomach felt a little odd, probably something to do with the way the scenery kept swinging around him, but Jess was not about to let his family know that.”
“I’m fine, Daisy. I’m keeping my appetite for that fried chicken I smelled cooking. Besides,” he lied “I grabbed a biscuit while I was dressing.” Then Jess urged his horse forward, encouraging the others to follow.
Daisy didn’t recall there being any biscuits left in the kitchen, but she decided not to argue. She glanced at Slim, who just shrugged and followed after Jess. Daisy urged the team forward and accompanied by Mike’s shouts of delight as his kite took to the sky, they headed off to the boys’ favourite fishing pool.
It was an idyllic spot to have a picnic. The small, fast flowing stream had been dammed by a partial rock fall, and the water had slowed in its mad rush to the sea. Here it idled and pooled, forming a deep water haven for fish to laze in. Trees that had, as yet, not given in to the siren call of autumn and shed their leaves, surrounded the pool protectively and were rewarded for their efforts by seeing their own beauty reflected back to them from the mirror like surface of the still waters.
They had set up their small camp on the small area of soft grass that ran down to the placid pool. Here the trees had not encroached, and the grass had remained crisp and green, nourished by the undiluted sun and a plentiful supply of water. Daisy had settled herself on the blanket Jess had spread for her while Slim unpacked the picnic supplies. Both men had been rewarded by the warm smile that had settled on Daisy’s tired features as she had watched delightedly as the bright spots of reflected sunlight played chase with each other between the leaves and danced across the water.
The day had been every bit as good as Jess had anticipated. Though the headache had remained with him it had been relegated to the far recesses of his mind, surfacing only occasionally if the bright sun caught him unawares or he ran too hard after a laughing Mike during one of the many rough and tumble games they indulged in.
Fortunately for Jess, no one appeared to notice the odd times when he narrowed his eyes or took some welcome support from a nearby tree as he suffered a momentary spell of dizziness. His stomach appeared to have settled enough that he could enjoy some of the fried chicken and apple pie that Daisy had prepared for them all. If Daisy had noticed that he didn’t have his usually veracious appetite, she hadn’t commented.
As Slim had predicted, Jess’ fancy new fishing pole proved to be less efficient than the rough wooden stick and string used by Mike. Much to Daisy’s amusement, the friendly bantering and teasing had predictably ended with a tussle that saw all three of the would be fishermen joining the local fish population in the pool. After much splashing, pushing and shoving, three wet, but happy participants had clambered out amidst howls of laughter.
Since it was still early afternoon, and the sun remained warm, they had settled back comfortably by the small fire they had lit earlier, to allow themselves to dry out. Daisy had pulled out a small piece of embroidery she was working on, and Mike started to practice the whittling strokes Jess had been teaching him. As was his fashion, when he had the time, Slim had taken an old battered book from his saddlebags and started to read.
Jess’ headache had returned to a noticeable level, so he had lain back, placing his hands behind his head, and pulled his hat over his eyes, hoping to gain some respite from the bright sunlight.
Just quiet at what point he had drifted off to sleep, Jess couldn’t say, but sleep he had. Just as, apparently, had the others. Lulled by the sun and the soft whispers of the wind in the grass, they had given way to the heavy feeling that had seeped through their bodies as they finally allowed themselves to totally relax after the preceding weeks of backbreaking work.
The next thing Jess became aware of was being shook awake by an anxious Slim, who was urging him to hurry up and help them break camp and get saddled up before darkness left them stranded. They had overslept, and misled by the unseasonably warm day, they had forgotten how quickly darkness fell this late into October.
Jess had done his best to help out, but he had been hindered by the headache and dizziness that seemed to have been intensified by the deep sleep he had fallen into. Still, he had done his share, and, fortunately, no one seemed to notice the odd staggering steps he took as the dizziness caught him unaware.
Working quickly they were soon ready to move out. Slim had looked anxiously at the sinking sun, but had decided that if they set a reasonable pace, they should make it home before full dark. Casting an appraising look at Jess, Slim wondered if the pace would be too much for the obviously still ailing man. He and Daisy had both noticed Jess’ ongoing problems throughout the day, but had wisely said nothing, hoping that the sleep they had let him drift into would resolve a lot of them. Unfortunately, as Slim observed ruefully to himself, it had seemed to have the opposite effect.
Shrugging to relieve some of the tension that had crept into his shoulders, Slim recognised that there was nothing he could do about it now. “All right, lets get going. Jess, you stay close to the wagon. Make sure it stays on the track in this weak light.” His real intention was to make sure Daisy could keep her eye on Jess, as Slim took the lead for the small party, as they headed out, racing the twilight.
The wind had picked up not long after they set out, and soon its was whipping the branches in the woodland. Jess looked upward and was alarmed to see the gathering storm clouds. He urged his horse forward alongside Slim, and shouted across at him, hoping to be heard above the wind that now whined and moaned around them joining in an ever increasing cacophony of sound as the trees creaked and cracked under the force.
“Slim!” When Slim appeared not to have heard him, Jess pulled his horse closer and tried again. “Hey, Slim!”
This time his best friend responded to the urgency in his voice. Slim was well aware of the approaching storm and the threat it posed. “Yeah, I know, Jess. We’ve got to keep going though. There’s nowhere around here to shelter.”
“Think we’ll make it back to the ranch before it hits?” Jess already knew the answer but asked anyway.
“We’ve got to try. It won’t be pleasant caught out in this, but the closer to the ranch we are when it hits, the better. Try and get Daisy to pick up the pace without worrying her too much,” Slim urged the younger man. “ I’ll take the lead and make sure the road ahead is clear.”
Slim didn’t need to elaborate; both men where aware that branches, broken by the wind and thrown across the track, could prove a real hazard. Jess dropped back alongside Daisy, but before he could say anything Daisy spoke up. “ Do you mind if we went a little faster, Jess. I really don’t want to get my Sunday best dress wet.” She glanced briefly back at Mike and nodded. Jess smiled at her, grateful for her astuteness. Daisy was well accustomed to the ways of the west and it’s hidden dangers. Her concern was for the young boy who sat in the back of the wagon, preparing to lose his kite to the winds as soon as they where free of the trees. “Mike, dear, I think it would be better if you didn’t fly your kite. The wind is a little too strong for it.”
The young boy was about to protest but he saw the worry on Jess’ face and thought better of it. They all thought he was too young to be told some things, but he was far more aware of the world around him than the others gave him credit for. He settled himself further back in the wagon bed, ready for the bumpy ride ahead as Daisy urged the team on with Jess keeping pace alongside.
The first spattering of rain fell before they cleared the trees, and not long after they came into the more open scrubland, it was falling so hard and fast it was like a grey curtain surrounding them in every direction they looked, Within a few brief minutes the small party was soaked to the bone and chilled by the wind that cut through them like a knife. Still they pushed forward, their only hope of respite being the shelter of home that was still several long, wet miles away.
They had stayed longer than they should have was the last thought before Jess brought his wandering mind back to the uncomfortable present as a loud crack of thunder sounded in the distance. He had thought their predicament caused by the later than planned return home couldn’t get much worse, but it looked like he was about to be proven wrong. They had definitely overstayed their welcome.
The dry ground, thirsty after the long summer, had at first soaked up the delayed autumn rains. Now, however, its thirst quenched, the deluge lay in puddles, and the rutted track was turning into a treacherous river of mud and hidden dangers. The light was leaving them as the storm clouds covered the sinking sun and blanketed the weak light of the emerging stars and moon.
Despite the urgency to get to shelter, Jess decided it was more prudent to slow down.
He raised his voice, hoping to be heard above the now howling wind. “Slim, Daisy! We need to slow down. The track is becoming too dangerous.”
When neither Daisy nor Slim seemed to hear him, he dug his heels into his horse’s flank, aiming to grab the lead horses reins and pull it to a halt before catching up to Slim. He had just drawn level with the team when the harsh sound of snapping wood and a simultaneous cry from Daisy drove all other thoughts from his head. The team moved forward a few more steps and came to an abrupt halt, forced to stop by the unmoving weight of the wagon they had been pulling.
Jess pulled his horse around, and swore at the sight before him. He jumped from his horse, yelling for Slim as he did so. “Slim!!! Get over here, fast!!” He didn’t turn to see if his partner had heard him, he was too intent on reaching the two figures lying unmoving in the mud near the toppled wagon.
His blonde friend had heard both the initial cry of shock from Daisy and his partner’s commanding shout for help. Slim twisted in his saddle, his eyes widening as he took in the destruction behind him. He jumped from his horse and hit the ground running, coming to a stop next to the prone figures just as Jess knelt down and reached forward to help Daisy who was now trying to struggle to sit upright.
Jess had lost his mother when still in his early teens and for many years the space in his heart that she had occupied had been an empty gaping hole in his soul that nothing seemed to fill. That is until a concentrated dose of motherhood in the form of Daisy Cooper had slipped inside and spread her wisdom and love throughout that painful emptiness.
Now the woman that had come to be his surrogate mother had been hurt and he felt guilty. After all he was supposed to have been keeping an eye on the wagon’s progress.
“Be careful, Daisy. Lets check you over before you move around too much,” Jess urged her as he reached to hold her shoulders in a supporting gesture.
Despite the mud that caked her face and clothes, and her hair that now hung in wet strands over her face, Daisy’s smile warmed his heart and reassured him. “Jess, dear, I am just fine. I really am. Don’t fuss so.” She pushed his hands away gently, and then her eyes flared with concern. “Mike, where’s Mike?” she exclaimed.
“He’s right here, Daisy,” came Slim’s reassuring voice. Seeing that Jess was checking on Daisy he had turned his attention to Mike. A few seconds before the young boy had found himself suddenly tipped out of the wagon as it had suddenly lurched and tipped sideways.
“Is he all right?” Jess now switched his concern to the young orphan boy that had filled another hole in his troubled soul. Mike had become the younger brother that Jess had lost to the same fire that had claimed his parents and the majority of his siblings.
“ Apart from a little more dirt he’s none the worse for wear.” Slim peered hard at his younger friend. He was just as worried about Daisy and Mike as Jess, but it was the edge of guilt in his best friend’s voice that concerned him now.
The sight of a grinning Mike sitting up and laughing did little to ease Jess’ fear and concern. He wouldn’t be satisfied till he heard it from Mike himself.
“Tiger,” Jess used his familiar nickname for the boy, “How are you feeling?”
“Gee willikins, Jess, that was the best mud bath I’ve had in a long time,” he laughed. Then the young boy relented as he saw the concerned faces around him. “I’m fine, honestly. The mud made a nice soft landing for me. Are you all right, Aunt Daisy?”
“Nothing that a good hot bath wouldn’t fix. And that goes for you to, young man, as soon as we get home.” Standing, Daisy looked around her. “Well, I guess we had better get going. Is the wagon salvageable?” she asked hopefully.
Shaking his head, Slim allowed himself a brief smile of relief and then turned to Jess. “Guess we’d better go check it out, Pard.” He tilted his head in the direction of the wagon, indicating Jess should follow him.
Reaching the wagon, the two men made a show of inspecting it and then moving around to the other side. Once he thought they where out of Daisy and Mike’s immediate line of vision, Slim spoke in a low voice. “ We got us a heap of trouble, Jess,” Slim stated unnecessarily.
“I reckon,” Jess responded, swiping at his wet hair as it hung over his eyes. “We’ve got to get them out of this storm, Slim.”
Slim let his worry for them show as he kicked the wagon wheel embedded in the mud. “I know that, Jess, but there isn’t any shelter for miles around here. Nearest place is our own ranch as far as I recall.”
Slim turned his attention to the wagon again, searching for any damage that would prevent it from being brought back onto four wheels again. He really didn’t like the idea of having the older housekeeper and young boy riding back to the ranch. It had been hard enough keeping the sturdy wagon safe on the muddy river that had once been a road. It would be impossible to ensure the horses stayed sure-footed in such conditions.
As if reading his mind, Jess spoke again. “Then we’d best get this thing ready to roll again, Pard. I’ll check the harnesses.” He moved away, his head down and shoulders hunched against the bite of the wind driven rain. Trying not to make it too obvious, he cast a quick look in the direction of Mike and Daisy and was relieved to see the pair had moved back to stand under a small scrub tree. It offered scant protection but it was better than nothing at all.
A few minutes later he stood upright, stretching his aching back, as he finished his inspection of the horses and their tack. “I reckon we just got lucky. It looks like nothing’s broken. Slim, give me a hand to unhitch the team,” he instructed.
Scant seconds later Slim joined him as he struggled to unhitch the team of frightened animals. The recent thunder had them spooked and they pulled back and danced away from the two men as they strove to free the horses from their traces. Even with their gloves, the cold had been biting. Their numb fingers struggled with the rain-slicked leather and chains but finally they were able to move the horses away from the wagon. “Slim, if you take them over by the others and check them out, I’ll get a rope around the wheels on this side of the wagon. If we hitch em’ all to the rope by the harnesses we should be able to use em’ to pull the rig upright.” Now that they had a plan, Jess’ spirits had risen and he sounded a lot more positive than he had a few minutes ago.
“Think it may need our horses to, Jess. Those wheels look to be sunk in there fairly deep.” Slim led the horses over to the tree where their own mounts where tethered. After a quick inspection showed that the horses, though frightened, had suffered no physical damage, Slim released them. Grabbing their reins, he led them back toward the wagon again.
A very wet, muddy and unhappy Jess had volunteered himself the dirty end of the job. It had proven difficult to get a rope around and behind the mud trapped wheels and he had ended up on his stomach, wriggling in the mud to get further under the wagon and throw the rope around to the other side of the wheels. He rolled over onto his back, and wished he hadn’t as a wave of dizziness swept over him. Taking a deep steadying breath, Jess started to pull himself out from under the wagon, silently cursing the weather, his aching head and anything else he could blame for their current predicament. He was just thinking things couldn’t get any worse when they abruptly did.
The loud crack split the air and a blinding flash of light caused Jess to screw his eyes up in protection, but none the less it was a second or so before his light blinded eyes cold focus. Frightened screams, animal and human rent the air, and jess could smell the acrid smell of burning. Blinking rapidly and scrambling to his feet, Jess at last was able to focus on the scene before him.
The horses where rearing up, their eyes rolling in fear, as Slim fought to control them Directly beside them was a tree. Sheared in two by the earth bound lightening bolt, it was now burning fiercely, despite the rain. It dawned on Jess that it was Daisy’s cry he had heard mixed with the horses’ screams of fear, he tried to turn to see if she and Mike were all right, but his attention was drawn back to Slim by a sharp shout from his older friend. “Jess, I can’t hold them,” he appealed.
Driven by the urgency in Slims voice, Jess lunged towards him, hindered by the slippery surface beneath his feet. He was to late. Unable to prevent the disaster, he watched as the drama in front of him unfolded, almost in slow motion. Slim stepped back, seeking to avoid the steel edged death that the horse’s hooves could deal out. He fell backwards over the fallen branch behind him and his startled cry was lost in the sharp crack of thunder from the storm now directly overhead. The horses pulled frantically away from him, the whites of their eyes showing eerily in the light from the burning tree. The reins slipped from Slim’s wet grip and, finding themselves freed from the human who sought to keep them close to the life threatening fire, they turned and ran.
Shocked by this further downturn in their fortunes, and unable to do anything but gape after the disappearing horses, Jess once again mentally berated himself. As far as he was concerned this whole sorry mess was his fault. If he hadn’t over slept earlier that afternoon they would all have been safe and sound back at the ranch right now.
A groan of pain drew Jess’ attention back to Slim, he was struggling to stand and the groan had escaped Slims lips as he had put weight on his right ankle. Daisy and Jess reached his side together.
“Slim, are you hurt, dear?” Daisy enquired anxiously.
Jess’ attention was diverted from his best friend momentarily by the creaking of the lightening seared tree directly behind Slim. The rain had finally dampened the fire, but the badly damaged tree was leaning dangerously.
Stepping quickly to Slim’s side Jess spoke abruptly. “It ain’t safe here, best move back behind the wagon.” He looked across at Daisy, “You too, Daisy. Where’s Mike?” Jess’ fear for the young boy he loved like a younger brother was evident in his voice.
The young boy answered for himself. “I’m here, Jess.”
Jess anxiously peered through the dark in the direction of the voice and rewarded by the comforting sight of Mike stepping from behind the wagon where Daisy had instructed him to stay.
Slim stepped forward and groaned as again the sharp pain stabbed through his ankle. Jess peered at his friends face in the dim light of the smouldering tree and was alarmed by his pale, pain lined features.
Before Jess could ask the inevitable question, Slim told him what he needed to know. “My ankle hurts like blazes when I stand on it. I think I sprained it when I fell.”
Swearing under his breath, and hoping that was indeed all Slim had done, Jess offered his shoulder to Slim to lean on. “Here, Pard, lets get out of the way of this thing and then we can check it out.
Offering Jess a weak smile of thanks, Slim took the offered support gratefully and the two men hobbled way from the imminent threat of the smouldering tree, closely followed by Daisy, who was hovering anxiously on Slim’s other side.
They rounded the side of the wagon and Jess lowered Slim to the ground where Daisy immediately put her nursing skills into action checking on the injured limb.
Peering through the gloom at the devastation around him, Jess couldn’t see how things could get any worse. The horses were long gone and they where on foot out in the middle of nowhere. Maybe the two men, uninjured, would have a chance of getting to shelter within the next few hours, but they had Daisy and Mike with them and now, what with Slim’s injured ankle….. Jess shook his head in frustration, his rain soaked dark locks showering water in all directions. “Goldurn it all,” he muttered in frustration, then more loudly “Slim, you sure there ain’t no place around here that’s a mite nearer than home. Even an old line shack…..?” he prompted, already knowing the answer but having to ask anyway.
Slim glanced up from watching Daisy as she examined his ankle. He shook his head dejectedly. “Sorry, Jess. No one’s settled out here for many years. When I was a child there was a ruined house on an abandoned ranch but we all avoided it. It was a dangerous ruin then. OUCH!” Slim complained.
“Sorry, dear. I’m almost finished” Daisy consoled. “ Nothings broken but you have sprained it badly. I’ll just bind it up with a strip from my petticoat.”
As Daisy busied herself tearing a strip from her undergarments and wrapping Slim’s now rapidly swelling ankle, Slim continued his explanation. “ My father , as I recall, told us that once there had been a very expansive ranch house out here. The house was supposed to be a really grand place, finer than a lot of houses back east, but not many people had gotten to see it. The owner, a Mister Jameson I think, was a recluse, as was his family, and discouraged visitors. The ranch failed and the owners disappeared, went back east, or something, no one ever really knew. Us kids used to avoid it. It looked creepy and dangerous,” Slim laughed at his revelation of a childhood fear. “ My father used to dismiss the tales and rumours that where spread about the place, but he told me to avoid it as the ruin was dangerous. And, no, Jess, before you ask it, I doubt there is even a stone left standing now, it was in ruins when I was Mike’s age.”
“That should help, Slim” Daisy interrupted any further information Slim may have given. “Try standing on it,” she further instructed.
Standing upright, Slim gingerly put is weight on his bandaged ankle. It was still painful, but considerably more comfortable than before. “Its much better, Thanks, Daisy,” he lied.
Looking around him, Slim quickly took in the devastation. His glance took in the wrecked wagon, and the drenched, muddy exhausted appearance of his three companions. Daisy was, under normal circumstances, perhaps the least able of them to tackle the journey that lay ahead. Mike, although full of energy, was still only a young boy, and ahead were several miles still to be travelled, hampered by the wind and rain. Now however, his sprained ankle made him the greater liability, and Jess wasn’t that much better off. Slim knew Jess was suffering the symptoms of a minor concussion from his accident the previous night, despite Jess’ attempts to hide those symptoms.
Jess had gone rummaging around the wagon while Slim was testing his ankle and he now appeared next to Slim. “Here,” he said, as he handed Slim a stout branch. “This may help.”
“Thanks, Pard” Slim took the branch and leaned some of his weight on it. It did help somewhat. Squaring his shoulders, Slim straightened and looked at the sodden group. “ Well, we’d best get going. There’s a long way to go, and it isn’t going to get any shorter, the longer we stand here.”
“Need any help?” Jess offered his shoulder to Slim again.
Shaking his head, Slim declined.” I’ll be fine with this,” he nodded at the branch Jess had given him. “You’d best stay close to Daisy and Mike, Pard, in case they need help.” To himself he added “Or in case they need to help you.”
Heads down against the wind driven rain, the bedraggled family set out in the general direction of the Sherman ranch.
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