Slayer of Dragons
"There ought to be a Princess. Terror-stricken and chained to a rock and all that sort of thing." ~ (Kenneth Grahame)
The morning stage from Cheyenne came rolling into the yard, and the driver skillfully brought the horses to a stop a scant foot away from the man who stood waiting, feet planted and hands on hips.
"Missed me again, Mose!" he jeered. "You're gettin' old."
"One o' these days, Jess, I'm goin' to do your boss a favor an' run right over you."
"That'll be the day. Welcome to the Sherman Ranch, folks. Coffee's inside." Jess yanked the door open.
A diminutive woman in a prim bonnet and thick veil was seated next to the window. "I see you are still tempting Providence, Harper."
"Miz' Isabella!" Jess ignored the other passengers and lifted her down, a grin lighting up his face. "You ain't s'posed to be here until next week!"
"I grew weary of New York and came out ahead of schedule. I hope you are well?"
"I'm just fine, ma'am." Jess gave her a searching look. "Appears you could use a little fattenin' up, though. Slim! Andy! Guess who's here!"
Supper was noisy, with Andy asking questions about London and New York, and Jonesy and Slim filling their guest in on territory news. Jess bided his time and spoke up during a lull in the conversation.
"You look a mite peaky, Miz' Isabella. You been sick?"
"I have been quite fit, Harper."
"You don't look it," he said bluntly. Slim nudged him under the table.
"I am fine."
"No, you ain't. You got shadows under your eyes and you ain't been smilin'. What's wrong?"
Her voice was frosty. "Nothing is wrong."
"You've gotten awful skinny, too - Ow!" He turned a perplexed face to Slim. "Why'd you kick me for?"
Miss Isabella put her hand on Slim's arm. "It's all right, Mr. Sherman. It has been a…a trying year, and I am perhaps a bit fatigued. But there's no cause for alarm."
Jess kept his mouth shut but Slim could see he was unconvinced.
"Lots of fresh air and good food will take care of that," he said with false heartiness. "We're very glad to have you back with us, Miss Isabella."
After dinner was over and the dishes cleared away, Slim brought out his maps. Jess pounced.
"Here's the one you drew that time you went up the Lolo trail! That's an idea - Miz' Isabella, we can leave from the Yellowstone and I'll take you up the Lolo, show you some of the country up there. It's sure worth seein'. We could be back by September, easy."
"I will be leaving in August," she said, quietly but firmly.
"Can't you stay longer? I been workin' on a way to get you into the Yellowstone after the snow falls. Nothin' prettier than the Yellowstone in winter."
"You're welcome to make this your home as long as you want," Slim added. She looked as though she wanted to object and he assured her, "It's the least we can do for you, Miss Isabella."
She smiled, a little wistfully. "I wish I could, Mr. Sherman. But I must be back in England before autumn."
"Are you writin' another book? Slim read us parts o' the last one, it was pretty good even if you left a lot out," Andy piped up.
"I'm to be married in November." She threw the statement down like a gauntlet.
"Congratulations! We're very pleased for you, ma'am," Slim said, hastily.
It was plain that Jess was not pleased at all.
"Just who are you goin' to marry?" he demanded.
"His name is Dr. Bishop. He is a friend of my sister's."
Jess' left eyebrow went up and Miss Isabella added stiffly, "He lives in Edinburgh and he's a very fine man."
"I'll bet." He said under his breath. Slim was about to kick him again and thought better of it. If Jess and Miss Isabella were going to quarrel, everyone else would be smart to stay well clear of the fracas.
The conversation after that was a little strained. Finally Jonesy showed Miss Isabella to the room he'd given up for her use and the rest of the household turned in.
Slim was on the point of falling asleep when Jess spoke up. "I don't think she loves that hombre, pard."
"What gave you that idea?
"Well, she don't seem real excited about gettin' married. An' she ain't bein' all sweet and lovey-dovey about him."
Slim sighed and rolled over onto his stomach, propping himself up on his elbows. "She's English, Jess. English ladies don't wear their hearts on their sleeves."
"I think her family is puttin' her up to it."
"Ease off! Miss Isabella's a grown woman. If she doesn't want to do something, she doesn't have to."
"She's such a bitty little thing - I'll bet that sister of hers has been bullyraggin' her."
"She was big enough to keep you in line, last time she was here."
"The trouble is, she's a woman," he said musingly, after a moment.
"How long did it take you to figure that one out?"
"You know what I mean." Jess' voice was exasperated. "It's different for men, we can do what we want, mostly. An' if we don't like where we're at, we can move on. But womenfolks pretty much have to have someone or someplace to tie to. They can't be independent, nohow."
"You sound like one of those suffragists," Slim grumbled into his pillow. A thrown boot caught him in the back of the neck but he ignored it and after a few minutes was rewarded by the sound of his partner softly snoring.
Jess took it up again next morning while Slim was working on the woodpile. He wandered out of the kitchen, sleepy-eyed and clutching his first cup of coffee to his chest.
"Slim, I been thinkin'."
"Careful you don't damage something."
Jess ignored him and leaned his back against the sun-warmed wall. "You know Miz' Isabella came out here for a reason."
"Yeah - to go to the Yellowstone with you. Something I think she's going to regret before too long."
"There's more to it than that. She's puttin' this wedding off as long as she can. I'll bet you next month's pay she don't really want to get married."
"When did you become such an expert on women?" Slim balanced a log on the chopping block and raised the axe.
"I ain't spent the last five years bein' a good example to a kid brother."
The rancher stopped in mid-swing. "Just what the hell do you mean by that?"
Jess grinned wickedly. "You take it any way you like, pard. But the fact is I do know something about females. And I'm tellin' you that Miz' Isabella is real unsettled about this engagement. She's just too shy to talk about it."
"She's old enough to know her own mind. And she's no shrinking violet. This is her decision, Jess, not yours, so stay out of it." He brought the axe down sharply, splitting the log into two neat halves.
"I can't look the other way an' let her make a mistake like this - "
"In the first place you don't know that she's making a mistake."
"I'll even bet you she got engaged to make her sister happy. That Henrietta'd try anythin' to keep Miz' Isabella over there in England an' she prob'ly figures that marryin' her off will do the trick."
"Jess!" Slim slammed the axe into the block and the other man jumped. "I'm this close to shaking you 'til your teeth rattle. You're talking about her like she was still a kid."
"I got to do something," Jess insisted.
"This is the woman who dragged your worthless carcass halfway across the territory in a howling blizzard all by herself, remember? She doesn't need you to protect her, she can take care of herself." Slim reached for another log.
"If she marries that doc, she'll be sorry for the rest of her life."
"You're the one who's going to be sorry, if you go sticking your nose in where it doesn't belong. Miss Isabella will skin you alive."
"She's my friend. And a man's got to stand by his friends," said Jess, nobly, and stalked away.
Slim sighed. It was going to be a long summer.
He welcomed the diversion when Tom Hendershott came over that afternoon and brought his boy with him. Hendershott was new to the West, but hard working and sensible, and Slim thought he had the makings of a successful rancher.
Hendershott and Miss Isabella hit it off immediately. It didn't hurt that he was a college man, an Oberlin graduate, no less. The Hendershotts stayed for supper and as Jonesy remarked later, the amount of high-toned palaver tossed back and forth in the Sherman kitchen that night would have given an encyclopedia the staggers. Slim leaned back in his chair, enjoying his coffee and the sight of his houseguest, her eyes gleaming with amusement as she capped Hendershott's quotations. It was a pleasant novelty, to sit listening to soft laughter and good conversation, and Miss Isabella, he thought, was a fine looking, intelligent woman and a welcome presence at any man's table.
Then he noticed the speculative expression on his partner's face, and a sense of unease stole over him. He suddenly remembered that Tom Hendershott was a widower.
Jess wouldn't, he said to himself. Oh yes, he would, a little voice answered.
It was just as well for his peace of mind that Slim was not witness to the conversation between his ranch hand and his brother out on the porch the next day.
"Andy," Jess began. "Don't you think it would be a good thing if Miz' Isabella stayed here? I mean, for keeps?"
"At the ranch?"
"Here in Wyoming. I was noticin' how your friend Davey Hendershott and his pa took to her. I could tell she likes them, too," Jess said craftily.
"Davey thinks she's real nice."
"Nice enough for his pa to marry?"
"Miz' Isabella's goin' to marry that doctor back home," Andy objected.
"England's a long ways off," Jess told him. "And we got 'til August to get her to change her mind. You goin' to help me?"
"Sure. I guess so. What does Slim think?
"What Slim don't know, won't hurt him." Jess draped one arm over Andy's shoulders and led him away from the house. "First thing we got to do is talk to Davey Hendershott about it…"
Davey was willing, if only because he'd been there while Miss Isabella was making pancakes, a dish far beyond Tom Hendershott's limited culinary abilities. As far as Davey was concerned, he was all in favor of getting his father married off to someone - anyone - who could cook. And Miss Isabella liked dogs and could talk about interesting things like Indian arrowheads, and was in general a lot less silly than the other grown-up ladies his father knew. She had never even once asked Davey if he was being a good boy, and that alone gave her a leg up on any competition.
But matchmaking, they soon learned, wasn't that simple, particularly when the intended victims didn't appear the least bit interested. In spite of all their efforts, the elder Hendershott stopped by the ranch about as often as before. And as near as Jess could tell, Miss Isabella treated the man no differently than she did, say, Slim.
"What d'you suppose we're doin' wrong?" Andy wondered, after a week had passed and the happy couple still showed no signs of falling into each other's arms.
"Maybe we can try to make Pa jealous?" Davey suggested. "I read it in a book, once. This fella wouldn't look at the girl until he thought she had another beau. Then he got all mad an' fought for her."
"Yeah, but who can we talk into courtin' Miz Isabella? Not Slim, we'd have to tell him about it," Jess said gloomily.
There was a silence, and he looked up to see his co-conspirators staring fixedly at him.
"Now, wait a minute - "
"C'mon, Jess! You could do it!" Andy urged.
"I ain't the kind of man'd have any look-in with a lady like her! And besides, she'd take my head off at the shoulders."
"You could accost her, like it happened in the book. An' she'd yell for help an' we'd fix it so my Pa heard an' came ridin' up to save her."
"You know. Kiss her or cuddle her or somethin'."
Jess thought of the probable consequences of him cuddling Miss Isabella, and balked. He'd rather find a nice, safe little range war.
"Please, Jess. There ain't nobody else!" Davey's eyes were pleading, and he allowed himself to be persuaded although something warned him they were venturing forth onto dangerous ground.
The three plotters got their opportunity soon enough, a few days later when Slim was checking cattle in the south meadow, Jonesy was in town, and Davey had extracted from his father a promise to call at the Sherman Ranch before supper. All Jess had to do was lure Miss Isabella out to the barn and strike when the time was right.
His quarry was at the kitchen table writing letters, a steaming teapot at her elbow. She looked up with a friendly smile that somehow made the knot in his stomach even worse.
"Miz' Isabella? Can you come out to the barn, ma'am?
"Is something wrong?
"No. I mean yes. I mean…I think Birdie's fetlock's hurtin' her and I wanted to show it to you, ma'am."
She immediately rose. "Oh, dear! Did she injure herself again?"
He held the door and let her go first, not trusting himself to keep the lie from showing on his face. This is a terrible idea, he thought. Me and my big mouth. Why did I tell Andy and Davey I'd do this?
Birdie was in a stall but the two boys were nowhere in sight when they arrived. Miss Isabella immediately knelt down next to her and began running her fingers gently over the little mare's leg.
"There doesn't appear to be any swelling," she commented.
"Don't you think she's a little warm?" he asked desperately, playing for time.
His hands twitched and his palms were sweaty. He hadn't felt like this since the last time he was in a gunfight. Someone was riding up the road and he hoped it was Tom Hendershott because if it wasn't, he was going to look like a damned fool. If he didn't already.
"Mmm?" She was still looking at Birdie's fetlock.
Taking a deep breath he pulled her into his arms. She gave a squeak like an outraged mouse but he ignored it and plowed ahead.
Andy had one eye glued to a crack in the barn wall.
"Your pa better get here quick," he hissed at Davey. "Jess is goin' to get tired of kissin' her in a minute."
Jess, meanwhile, was making a couple of discoveries. One, Miz' Isabella wasn't as skinny as she looked and two, she smelled awful nice.
"I'll be dad-gummed," he muttered when he came up for air. Then the toe of a small boot connected with his shin and two hard little fists began beating a tattoo on his head and shoulders. He let go and stepped hastily back out of range.
"I'm sorry, ma'am. I didn't mean to," he stammered. And boldly decided to tell the truth. "Ah heck. Yes I did."
"An' I ain't sorry."
"An' if you didn't have that pitchfork in your hands I'd do it again."
It was beginning to dawn on Andy that Davey's pa wasn't going to arrive any time soon, and that Miss Isabella was, as Davey put it, mad as a cut snake.
"We better get out of here before Slim shows up," he whispered and the two of them shamelessly abandoned Jess to his fate.
The man in question had just tied his horse up to the corral fence when he heard a voice coming from the barn. It was female, clipped, and very English, and it was denouncing someone's morals and manners in no uncertain terms and with a fine grasp of imagery. He picked out the words idiotic, reprehensible and juvenile from the flow of invective.
"Oh, Jess," Slim groaned to himself. "What have you done now?"
The monologue halted abruptly and Miss Isabella came storming out looking uncharacteristically rumpled and with her back hair coming down. Slim put out a hand to stop her.
"Ma'am, are you all right?"
"What happened to you?"
"I suggest you ask your friend Harper."
"Miss Isabella! Please - tell me what he did."
"Not nearly as much as he intended," she said through clenched teeth, and swept past.
Slim debated for a moment the advisability of getting back on his horse and leaving the territory for a few weeks but his conscience got the better of him.
"Jess!" he bellowed.
The guilty party emerged, wearing a sheepish expression. "Oh, hi, Slim. Didn't know you was out here. Did you see Miss Isabella?"
"I reckon she looked a tad riled up?"
"She looked like a Cheyenne war party, out for hair. What the Sam Hill did you do?"
"I…well, I…ah…kissed her."
Slim stared at him, blankly.
"Something must be wrong with my ears. I could swear I just heard you say that you kissed Miss Isabella."
"What if I did? Like you told me yourself, she's a grown woman," Jess said defensively.
"Jess Harper, if you had any more brains, you'd be a half-wit!" Slim exploded. "Miss Isabella is here at my invitation. Under my roof. And a member of my household forgets what is due her, as a lady and as my guest, and decides he can treat her like a two-bit saloon floozy!"
"Aw, Slim - "
"Don't you 'aw, Slim' me! The only reason I haven't hit you yet is because I couldn't do it hard enough. I hope she slapped you a good one."
"I'm pretty sure she wanted to." A reminiscent little smile stole over Jess' features. "Damn, Slim, you should've been here. She read the book over me, all right, chapter and verse - I wish I could remember everything she said."
"I heard part of it, and she didn't say nearly enough. I'm going to go see if she's still speaking to any of us - and before you come in the house I suggest you wipe that grin off your face." Suppressing the urge to throttle his partner, Slim headed inside to try to mend fences.
His guest was on the settee by the front window. The late afternoon light was starting to fade, but he could tell that her eyes were very bright and there two little flags of color in her cheeks. He stopped, not sure if she was angry, crying, or possibly both.
"Yes?" It was amazing, how much menace she managed to inject into one syllable.
"Please don't take it so hard, what Jess did. He cares about you a lot, and he thinks you're unhappy."
"If he goes about embracing people who need cheering up, I'm surprised he hasn't yet been committed to an insane asylum. Westerners are far more tolerant than I suspected." She spoke sardonically, but there was the faintest tremble in her voice.
His partner was right, Slim realized. For all her calm demeanor, Miss Isabella was scared to death. He knew nothing about her husband-to-be, but even if that Scottish doctor was the best of men, domesticity was going to be a wrenching change from the independence and freedom of life as a lady explorer. And Jess, that well-intentioned, chivalrous chowderhead, was making things worse.
"I'd like to apologize for him, ma'am. Sometimes Jess doesn't think, he just bulls ahead."
"I hadn't realized," she said dryly. "Tell me, has he ever in his life had even a nodding acquaintance with prudence?"
Slim chuckled. "Believe it or not, he used to be worse."
He sat down on the settee beside her.
"Do you know what a bolter is, Miss Isabella?"
She gave him a curious look. "I think so. It's what horsemen call a mount who tries to run away whenever it's startled or frightened."
"That's right. Except that I've run across a few human bolters, as well. Jess was one of them."
"That's hardly kind, Mr. Sherman."
"Maybe not, but it's true. When he first got here it seemed like it was always two steps forward and one back with him. Things would be going along easy and smooth and then something would happen and he'd hit the trail."
"What on earth for? I thought he considered the Sherman Ranch his home."
"Because he didn't trust us, or maybe he didn't trust himself." Slim got up and began to pace, choosing his words carefully.
"Except for the war and a few months after I left the Army, I've spent my entire life on this ranch. I always knew, once I had my fill of wandering, that it would be waiting for me to come back to. Jess never had anything like that, not even when he was a kid. And he was awful leery of it, for a long time. Some of it was the war, some of it…other things. He was on the drift for five years, and part of that time - " he stopped, not sure how much of his friend's past he wanted to reveal.
"Part of that time was spent in the wrong places. I know, he told me."
"Then you understand that it wasn't an easy decision for him, stopping here. He's had to choose between the old life he was used to, and a new life he wasn't sure of."
"And you say he's changed?" Her voice was very quiet in the dim room.
"In the ways he needed to. But he's still Jess - reckless, pig-headed, a bit of a heller - begging your pardon, ma'am! There's a part of him deep down inside that will always stay the same."
"For one so young, you're terribly wise, Mr. Sherman," she said, finally.
"I'm not that young, Miss Isabella, and you aren't that old." He smiled down at her. "I hope you will allow me to wish you joy."
After a moment she nodded. "I accept those good wishes and…I thank you."
"You're welcome." He held out his hand and she shook it. "Now if I can just get Jess to stop trying to rescue you."
"Is that what he's doing? St. George as a Texan!" she laughed. "He is a very determined young man, isn't he?"
"Well," Slim said ruefully, "He may not hold the record for stubborn but he sure sets a mark for others to try for."
After supper he made an excuse to get Jess out to the barn. They wasted five minutes talking about harnesses before the younger man shot him a hard glare.
"All right, let's have it."
Slim tried to look innocent.
"You drug me out here for a reason. Are you fixin' to tear another strip off me about Miz' Isabella?" His partner's voice was truculent.
"No, I think you've lost enough hide over that already," Slim said. Talking this stubborn cuss out of something he was hell-bent on doing was going to be like stopping a runaway four-up, and he hesitated, not sure how to begin.
"Jess - you need to ease off on her engagement."
"You don't know what you're askin', Slim. I owe that lady my life and dammit, I hate to see her hurtin'."
Slim tried another tack. "Comes a time when a person needs to leave the high places and settle down. You should know that better than anybody. D'you ever miss the big open?
"And you've tried to run back to it, a few times.
Jess nodded warily. "Maybe. Once or twice."
Slim put his hand on the other man's shoulder. "And you still get restless. Does that mean you're unhappy here, pard?"
"Ever think that some part of Miss Isabella wants to settle down, too? She's a lot older than you and she's knocked around a lot more of the world than you have. Could be she's ready for a home of her own and someone to care for her."
Jess scowled. "We care for her."
"It's not the same, Jess."
"He'll tie her down."
"Yes, he will," Slim agreed. "Families tend to do that. And I know that there's going to be times she'll regret not being able to pull up stakes and trot off to Timbuctoo or somewhere at the drop of a hat. But that's the way things are, Jess - you have to give up something, to get something. And she's figured that out, she's a smart lady."
"Smarter'n me, you mean."
"Oh hell, yes." Slim sighed. And ducked in time to avoid the bucket Jess swung at him.
They left for the Yellowstone the next Monday- Jess, Miss Isabella, and Andy, who was so deliriously happy at the thought of the trip that it never occurred to him that Slim had sent him along as a buffer. The weather stayed favorable and three weeks later saw them camped just above the valley of the hot springs.
That evening Miss Isabella left Jess and Andy squabbling amicably over the dinner dishes and strolled slowly uphill to a sandstone outcropping. The sun had disappeared over the horizon and feathery bars of rose, vermilion and deep blue stretched across the lighter blue of the evening sky, reflected hazily by the geyser pools in great ragged patches of color. It was like having a cathedral window at one's feet, she thought, dizzy with the grandeur. She sat down abruptly.
"Seems a shame," Jess said quietly, coming up to stand beside her. "There's talk of a railroad spur next year - and somebody wants to build a hotel so lots of folks can come here."
"I can't bear to think of it," she gasped. "It will be utterly destroyed."
"That's why I wanted you to see this," he told her. "Now, before it's gone."
She began to weep, softly.
"Call it a weddin' present," he said, greatly daring. After a moment he heard a sniff and a watery chuckle.
"It is certainly far more to my taste than any silver tea-service," she told him. "Thank you, Jess."
He lowered himself to the grass beside her. "I can't think of anybody who deserves it more'n you do. You got a feel for the wild places, Miz' Isabella. Please don't ever lose that."
"I won't." She promised.
"An' you'll come back some day, won't you?"
"Things…well, things change. I don't know if that will be possible."
"Yes it will," he said confidently. "I'll be watchin' for you, every spring. An' we'll make it up the Lolo, some day."
He unknotted his bandanna and offered it to her. She hesitated.
"It's clean, ma'am," he assured her. "Mostly. Go on, take it."
She wiped her eyes. "You know, it baffles me how a man of your persuasive charm has remained unwed all these years."
"Well, now, I'll tell you. I'm shy."
She uttered an unladylike crack of laughter. "Harper, you are as shy as a regiment of dragoons at full gallop."
She tucked her hand under his arm and they sat in companionable silence, watching as the moon came up over the Yellowstone.
x – x x – x x – x x – x x – x x
Intrepid Englishwoman Isabella Lucy Bird explored Asia, North America, the Pacific Rim and the Middle East, on her own, at a time when respectable unmarried women did not leave home unchaperoned. Although tiny – she was less than five feet tall – and physically frail, she continued to travel to remote and dangerous parts of the world until she was in her seventies. She became the first female member of the Royal Geographical Society in 1890.
Her family, not to mention society, strongly disapproved, and she struggled throughout her life to find a balance between the conventions of her proper Victorian upbringing and the freedom she yearned for.
In the early 1870's Miss Bird spent several months in California, Colorado and Wyoming and wrote about it in her best-selling book "A Lady's Life In The Rocky Mountains." Unfortunately it does not contain any record of her visit to the Sherman Ranch.