No Good Deed
"Slim, you're sticking your neck out again just like you did when you testified against those rustlers!" "I guess so. It's a bad habit of mine –and it's too late to change." ~ (Laramie, Season 1, General Delivery)
They were on their way back from a successful stock-selling trip, tired but content. Slim in particular was pleased, with cash in hand for settling up accounts in town and with the Laramie bank, and he was prepared to include any and everyone in his benevolent mood.
So when they came around a bend and saw a wagon tipped up on one side with a rear wheel off, his natural take-charge tendencies bubbled to the surface in spite of the small riot that appeared to be taking place in the immediate vicinity. As Jess said later, he should have known better.
The din was incredible.
"How many of them do you think there are?" Slim asked in a slightly awed voice.
"Hard to figger – I count eight but they keep movin' around," Jess answered cautiously. "Pard - we're outnumbered. Maybe we should just keep ridin'?"
It was an indiscriminate crowd of dogs, children, and one ginger-colored tomcat of ancient and evil appearance. The children swooped, screaming like seagulls, around two women and a half-grown girl with red hair and a pert expression.
"Look at the size of him - isn't it a wee small man!" the girl remarked. Since she spoke in sustained and operatic high notes, a ripple of giggles spread through the mass of children.
Slim thought it best to ignore the comment, and touched his hat to the women. "Afternoon, ladies! My name's Slim Sherman and this is my partner, Jess Harper. Is there a problem?"
"Pleased I am to meet you, gentlemen," the younger of the two, a matron on the windy side of forty, replied. "I'm Judy McSorley, Mrs. McSorley that is. Me mother-in-law, Mrs. McSorley, also."
The other woman, a lady of advanced years, inclined her head in acknowledgement.
"We've had a bit of an accident, as ye can see," Mrs. McSorley went on.
"It was Pegeen practicing to drive and the horse as wild as a hare, and we on the side of the cart to keep the balance, and then it was the wheel came off," one of the boys said in a single breath. He cast a derisive glance in the redhead's direction. She responded by bouncing a dirt clod off his ear from fifteen paces. There might be something lacking in her driving, but there was certainly nothing wrong with her aim.
"She's as neat as you at handling a cart. In the Ring of Ireland there's not a nicer driver!" a small girl sprang to her sister's defense.
Slim forbore from asking what it was about the Ring of Ireland that encouraged Pegeen's uninhibited style of navigation, and got down for a closer look.
A diminutive McSorley twined herself lovingly around his knees and wiped her nose on his pants leg. He pried her loose but her place was immediately taken by a pair of small boys who hunkered down beside him and stared solemnly at the wheel. When the rancher stood up, they did too, almost tripping him in the process.
His partner had not left the saddle and was watching the proceedings with a carefully expressionless face.
"I could use some help, here."
With a sigh, Jess dismounted and began shooing away McSorleys.
Now that he had someone to ride flank for him, Slim set about examining the delinquent wheel under a steady barrage of questions from the children and commentary from Mrs. McSorley. Grannie McSorley alone preserved a dignified silence, for which he was profoundly grateful.
Although Jess soon gave up trying to follow the tangled trail of Mrs. McSorley's narrative, like a conscientious sheepdog Slim succeeded in nudging it in the right direction and was eventually rewarded with the knowledge that the head of Clan McSorley and the oldest hope of the house were in Rock Springs. Mrs. McSorley, her mother-in-law, and the rest of the family planned to join them there in good time.
The first part of their journey had been by railroad (""Lovely things, trains," said Pegeen told him, hanging over his shoulder. "Mickey and Bridget were sick the whole way,") but in Cheyenne Mrs. McSorley had profited by the counsel of a countrywoman of hers and invested in the horse and the wagon for the last leg of the trip. A message had been dispatched to Rock Springs and the McSorleys were in daily expectation of casting themselves on the bosoms of their menfolk.
"Ma'am, it's almost two hundred miles to Rock Springs," Slim said dubiously. "You've got at least ten days to travel yet, and the road's not that good."
And, he added to himself, the McSorley's wagon was an old one and in a sad state of repair. The pin holding the wheel on looked as though it had been bent and then hammered back into shape a few times.
"Jess," he called to his friend. "You slide the wheel back on while I hold the wagon."
He put his hands under the wagon box and lifted it, legs braced, holding it steady while Jess put the wheel back in place and pounded in the linchpin.
"That's better," he said, pleased that it had been such a quick job. He sensed someone's eyes on him and looked up to see Pegeen watching, her mouth a little pink "O" of appreciation. Slim suddenly felt as though his collar was two sizes too small.
He felt just as uncomfortable a short time later as he tried to explain to Jess his decision to accompany the McSorleys west.
"Doggone it!" Jess objected. "Home's in the other direction. You're goin' to lose how many days tryin' to get them headed for Rock Springs, and for what?"
"It's two women and a bunch of kids, Jess. They could use some help – "
"Boss, you do this all the time - somebody gets in a fix an' you just have to try and get them out of it," his partner said in exasperation. "It's like you got some kind of disease. Ain't you learned better by now?"
As all home truths do, this one stung and Slim fired back angrily, "I'm not going to leave them out here by themselves!"
"They don't need your help, nor nobody else's neither. Folks like them just naturally fall on their feet. They're like cats." Jess broke off and glared at the ginger tom, which sneered back and began ostentatiously washing one gonfalon ear.
"You don't have to come along. Go on back to the ranch, I can handle this."
"In a pig's eye. Slim, you got no idea what you're in for." And the prophet of doom stomped off to gather firewood, trailed by assorted McSorleys.
Someone coughed discreetly behind him and Slim nearly jumped out of his skin. It was Pegeen.
"Goin' with us to Rock Springs? I thought ye might," she said, a sly smile on her face, and he was disagreeably conscious of an instinct warning him that he might live to regret his chivalry.
Dinner was an exercise in controlled pandemonium. Mrs. McSorley serenely dispensed cups of inky tea and helpings from a steaming kettle whence rose a cabbage-y miasma. Jess gulped his portion down and murmured something about seeing to the horses, slipping away into the night. Slim waited courteously on Grannie McSorley before sitting down with a plateful, and found himself at the same time trying to eat, discourage two determined McSorleys from crawling into his lap, and break up an unequal battle that started when one of the older boys began teasing the ginger tom by poking it with a stick until he was deservedly clawed.
Bedding them down proved to be less of an ordeal than Slim feared, as all of the younger ones eventually dropped in heaps like exhausted puppies and were then lugged off to the wagon by Mrs. McSorley and Pegeen. When it became clear that his assistance was not needed, the rancher gratefully sought his bedroll. He had a splitting headache.
Jess was already asleep, his blanket wrapped around his ears.
Slim had often dreamed, in a vague sort of way, of the day when he would be sharing his house with a wife and family. The early-morning cacophony of juvenile McSorleys next day gave him pause and he wondered for a moment if he should re-consider this ambition. Jess took one look at the chaos swirling around the wagon bed and vanished, neatly and silently. Slim cleared his throat.
"Is there anything I can do to help, Mrs. McSorley?" he asked.
"Dress him," was the terse command. She handed over a dingy pinafore and a naked child about the size of a large raccoon, and waded back into the melee.
Bachelors rarely possess the skills needed to overcome the invertebrate tendencies of toddlers when confronted with clothing, and Slim was no exception. After several minutes of grim struggle, however, he succeeded in inserting the correct number of limbs into the appropriate number of openings and began doing up buttons.
A female McSorley materialized at his elbow. "It's on backwards," she informed him, more in sorrow than anger.
Slim looked at the baby, who stared back at him with silent malignity. With some difficulty he extracted it from the garment and started over, eventually depositing his charge more or less clothed into the keeping of a larger sibling before making his escape.
When Jess caught up with him, the rancher was saddling his horse and addressing that unoffending animal in language that would have driven a quartermaster sergeant into the arms of the Presbyterian Church.
"Where the hell did you go?" he demanded. "Some friend you are."
"Just 'cos I'm too smart to get roped into messin' with a passel o' kids?" Jess inquired, sweetly. "I warned you, pard. Remember?"
Whatever Slim wanted to say was censored by the appearance of a squad of McSorleys.
"Can we ride on the big red horse, misther?" asked one.
"No, you may not," Slim said sternly. "Oh, for the love of - Jess, grab him!"
Jess snatched a small son of Erin from under the chestnut's hooves in the nick of time. Slim spoke briefly and feelingly on the inadvisability of crawling beneath livestock, and ordered them back to the wagon.
"The divil in the wild woods couldn't please him," one McSorley observed to the rest.
"He's as cross as a bag full of weasels," agreed another, and they faded away like dew on a July morning.
Head down and shoulders shaking, Jess placed himself on the other side of his horse and did a great deal of unnecessary fiddling with his tack. Slim glowered at him but held his tongue. There were too many potential witnesses.
The McSorleys' departure was marred by several delays. The ginger tom, with the innate malevolence of his kind, strategically vomited an appalling mixture of greasy cabbage and dead bird onto the wagon seat. Someone misplaced what was not merely a doll but the apotheosis of all doll-dom, someone else turned up bleeding, and a third child went missing along with one of the dogs. Mrs. McSorley bandaged, harangued, and on occasion walloped with a calmness and dispatch that baffled Slim. By the time everyone was more or less ready to embark his headache had returned.
With long practice in the arts of wheedling and bullying, Mrs. McSorley began packing the back of the wagon with her offspring. Even Grannie McSorley, who insisted on wearing an unwieldy bonnet of antique design that caused much difficulty with the seating arrangements, was summarily dealt with by her energetic daughter-in-law. The most enterprising of women cannot cram five pounds of mud into a three pound sack, however, and a discrepancy between the number of persons who could fit on the conveyance and the number of persons who needed to do so was soon apparent.
"Let them as is big enough walk," was Mrs. McSorley's phlegmatic rejoinder when Slim pointed this out. "T'won't be the first time."
He and Jess mulled that over. If they wanted to make any kind of time, the two of them were going to have to ride double with one of the children. The idea, for Slim, did not appeal, but there seemed to be no alternative.
With the unerring eye of an experienced drover, Jess selected an attractively passive McSorley, aged about six, and cut it out of the herd, dropping the child into the saddle in front of him where it promptly fell asleep. Slim was about to pluck another boy out of the mob when a bare-legged blur launched from the wagon and landed on his horse's rump with a thud.
It was Pegeen. She wrapped her arms around his ribcage and whooped with delight, and a chorus of McSorleys whooped with her. The big chestnut skittered sideways with Pegeen clinging to Slim like a wet shirt.
"Are ye takin' his measurements, now, Pegeen?" Called her mother.
"He'd wear a forty-two in stays, sure!" Came the quick retort.
Her kinfolk chortled at her wit. Jess, riding at a discreet distance behind his partner, watched in quiet satisfaction as the back of his neck turned dark red.
They stopped at noon to feed the children and the horses. Slim tried, and failed singularly, to annex another passenger for the afternoon. Pegeen anticipated this and was in the saddle waiting for him by the time all the children were loaded into the wagon. He spent the rest of the day sitting behind her and doing a creditable imitation of a man with a porcupine in his arms. It was probably fortunate that he could not see the girl's face.
It was enough aggravation that he could see everyone else's, including Jess.
The following morning rang in only a few variations on the first. Jess took a slightly older boy up when they started, but Slim again had Pegeen, his attempts to thwart her having been effectively spiked, and for the life of him he wasn't sure how she did it.
The day was not very far along when they crossed a meandering tributary of the North Platte. Once safely on the far side, Slim called a halt.
"I'm going to take another look at that wheel." Mrs. McSorley's driving was of the slapdash variety, and Slim had been worriedly listening to a threatening creak from the vicinity of the rear axle.
He climbed down from the saddle. His horse side-stepped and with a dainty little shriek, Pegeen tumbled accurately into Slim's arms. When he tried to detach her, she hung on like a starving anaconda and buried her head in his shoulder.
"Divil take ye!" The roar came from a man on an elderly, rack-boned dun, who seemed to have appeared out of thin air.
The little man wore a plug hat and had a blackthorn walking stick balanced over the saddle in front of him, and was trailed by a skinny boy riding a mule. These were undoubtedly the McSorleys, pere et fils; moreover, it was apparent to the meanest intellect that they were operating under a profound misapprehension.
Except for an incident or two during the war - which could reasonably be blamed on extreme youth and bad whisky - Slim had a laudably clear conscience when it came to the fair sex. Certainly he'd had his share of flirtations with nice girls. His serious dalliances, however, were restricted to women who were adept at dallying right back, and he had never, ever trifled with the affections of an innocent. The rank injustice of the situation bereft him momentarily of speech.
Which silence, unfortunately but perhaps inevitably, was immediately interpreted as an admission of guilt. McSorley advanced with blood in his eye and the blackthorn walking stick in his fist. Slim put Pegeen down with more haste than care and prepared to defend himself.
McSorley swung. Slim parried and followed up with an uppercut that sent the other man sprawling.
"Six to four on the big 'un," Jess suggested to Mrs. McSorley.
She eyed the mismatched combatants and remarked, "I'd take that. Your lad's got the reach but now there's a weight handicap."
She nodded towards a brace of lesser McSorleys, who, inspired either by a burning desire to assist their father or a native inclination to mayhem, were attempting to climb Slim like an apple tree.
McSorley bounded to his feet. He had lost neither his hat nor his stick, nor an ounce of paternal outrage. This hooligan - a complete stranger and probably an Englishman, from the looks of him - had been mauling McSorley's sweet young daughter.
That Pegeen was sitting in the dirt giggling hysterically did nothing to alleviate matters. Her father closed on her molester and Slim began carefully backing away, shaking off McSorleys as he went. It was bad enough that he'd already felled the man once - he took no pride in downing someone ten years older and ten inches shorter.
"I'd not ha' thought it of him," Mrs. McSorley said dispassionately, watching Slim retreat.
"He don't really like fightin', much." Jess explained.
"Fancy that. Takes all kinds to make a world." Such an attitude was beyond Mrs. McSorley's experience, but she was a tolerant woman.
McSorley bore in so furiously that Slim had no choice but to knock him down again. His opponent got to his feet a bit more slowly this time, and Mrs. McSorley took pity on her spouse.
"Have behavior now, Tommy McSorley!" She inserted herself between the two men.
"I wouldn't stop for the Lord Leftenant! Look at the blackguard - " But although McSorley adopted a fighting stance, he made no further forward movement.
"Pity the lad, Tommy. T'was our Pegeen began it all, the poor young man just caught her." Mrs. McSorley said soothingly. "It's fine to see you. Children! Come and embra-a-ace your father!"
A stream of McSorleys poured off the wagon and flung themselves into McSorley's waiting arms. It was a spectacle straight from an illustrated weekly but Slim was, just then, not capable of appreciating it.
With McSorley's arrival, the rancher was only too willing to make his good-byes and turn back for Laramie. But as with everything else, the McSorleys hurled themselves into leave-taking with what Slim thought was excessive zeal, and he narrowly escaped getting kissed by Pegeen.
From McSorley he got a hearty handshake. The man was not one whit abashed by his earlier actions, and his thanks left the strong impression that if only he'd been able to get to them a few days earlier, his family would not have had to suffer through Slim's cack-handed attempts at assistance.
"A word of advice - ye need to watch that left, me bhoy," McSorley added. "I nearly had ye there, once or twice. Didn't I, Judy darlin'?"
His helpmeet agreed with the promptness of a loving and loyal wife. Her lord and master helped her back up into the cart, climbed into the seat beside her, and picked up the reins.
"I'm not sure how long that wheel will hold us, but no matter. Ye did the best ye could, I'm thinkin'," he said kindly, and with a flourish, the House of McSorley continued on its westward way.
What Slim thought of the episode was heard only by Jess and by the horses, who did not count. Jess later told Jonesy that the outburst may have saved Slim's life, something akin to opening a vein on an apoplectic. They watched the McSorleys disappear over the horizon and turned back to the river crossing.
Jess had a gift, of which he was not unaware, for sending his partner into a towering rage, and he was not one to let such an opportunity slip by. He urged his gelding into the stream and remarked sympathetically, "Like the man said - you done your best, Slim."
"T'ain't your fault you don't know nothin' 'bout red-headed girl-kids. Or wagons. Or fightin'."
"You shut up."
A prudent man would have taken this advice, but Jess was just hitting his stride.
"What size was it Pegeen says you take in stays? Forty-two? - Hey!"
Slim grabbed him by the ankle and heaved. There were probably many things in life more satisfying than up-ending a smart-aleck Texan into three feet of muddy river water, he reflected. But at that moment he couldn't think of a single one.
He spurred his horse forward and headed for home.