(Part Seventeen of the Ranch Days series)
By Maz McCoy
"And that's when her brother's showed up," Gerrard said and reached for the coffee pot. The fire cast an orange glow over the ranch hands as they sat on logs, boulders and tree stumps, chewing tobacco, drinking coffee and telling stories they'd rather their mamas didn't hear. In the background the cattle made lowing sounds as they settled for the night. Gerrard took a sip of coffee and continued. "So I stood there in just my long-johns, as three men, tall as trees and just as wide walked towards me. They weren't smiling, I can tell you that."
Covered in dust and as tired as he'd ever been, Jed Curry could hear the muffled voices around the fire as he dragged his saddle and his feet towards his bedroll. It was exactly where Heyes had told him he'd laid it out, when they'd passed each other on horseback earlier. Jed dropped his saddle on the ground, walked over to his blanket and lay down. He was asleep before he even thought to cover himself.
As the tale-telling continued Bill and Nathan got to their feet. Bill picked up a blanket and shook it open. Jed didn't stir as Nathan pulled off the boy's boots. When he moved away, Bill covered Jed with the blanket and then both men returned to the fire.
When the last story had been told, the men drifted away from the blaze curled up under their own blankets and the camp was soon filled with snores, groans, muttering and the other sounds men make as they settle down to sleep.
Jeff Collins sat on a tree stump beside the fire. Reaching into his vest pocket he pulled out his watch and opened it. He ran his thumb lovingly over the picture of his wife. He was still lost in thought when Bill Napier stepped over a log and reached for the coffee pot. Collins snapped the watch shut but Bill could see the watch chain dangling from the foreman's clenched fist.
"You don't hafta hide her from me. Ain't no shame in a man loving his wife." Bill sat on the log. Collins kept his gaze on the flames. "Not gonna tell me it's none of my business?"
"You know it ain't."
"True, but that never stopped you snapping off my head before." He took a drink of coffee.
Both men studied the burning wood.
"It's her birthday."
Bill nodded. Wood snapped. Cattle moaned in the darkness. Men snored.
"You should get married again."
Collins finally looked at Bill.
"I know it's her birthday an' all but...Well…You're the marrying kind, Jeff."
"And just what is the marrying kind?"
"You're good for a woman. Treat 'em right. Take care of 'em. I reckon you need a woman in your life. Someone to go home to."
"D'you have one in mind? I mean seems to me you and the boys have claimed most of the women in town."
Bill smiled, pleased to see the Boss smiling too.
"I'm not talking about the working girls. You need to find a proper lady."
"Like Nathan's widow?"
"Well, she is a fine looking woman."
"Yep. That's her name and he says it all dreamy like."
"You think he's in love?"
"Well, he's been calling on her a while now."
"I think it could be. So what about you?"
Collins looked at his friend.
"You think I need to find a widow?"
"Don't mind who as long as she's single."
"Not a lot of those in town."
"You could always send away for one."
"D'you see me doing that?"
"Can't say I do, no. Still it worked for Stevenson. And his mail order bride was kinda pretty too."
They fell silent but the camp was anything but. Crackle. Snap. Snore.
"The men did well today." Collins glanced across at Jed. "The boys too."
Bill nodded. Time to change the subject.
"Yeah, they did."
"It's gonna be hard to tell 'em. I don't see how we can keep them all on next year."
"Things getting that bad?"
"Yeah. Mister Culver sent Mark back east to try and borrow some money from the rest of the family. Not sure he's that hopeful. He'll get no more from the banks."
"When do you have to make the decision?"
"We've got a while yet."
Bill threw the rest of his coffee on the ground, suddenly having lost the taste for it. He stood up and stretched his shoulders.
"I'm gonna get some sleep. Wake me when it's my watch."
"Think about what I said."
The sun had only just risen over the horizon, creating a dagger of orange in the sky, when Bill called out, "All right boys, time to get up! Time to get movin'!" Henry helpfully bashed a cooking pot with a metal spoon as Bill kicked the feet of a figure hidden beneath a blanket. He received a cuss in reply. Ignoring the slur on his parentage he proceeded to the next man, kicked his feet and moved on. "Come on Heyes, get up!" Bill poked a boot gently into Heyes' side.
Heyes groaned and turned away from the man, hugging the blanket tightly to his chest.
"Come on, boy. Wake up!"
"Go away! I only just got to sleep."
Bill smiled and gave Heyes' back side a sharp kick. Heyes turned over quickly, glaring at the man.
"Get up and getcha grub or ride without it."
Bill moved across to where the smallest figure lay. He tapped Jed's feet with his boot.
"Come on, kid, get up!"
There was no movement. Bill shook his head. What was it with these youngsters? Why when he was their age…He gave Jed's socked foot a hard kick. Still there was no response. Kids! He bent down, placed a hand on Jed's shoulder and shook him.
"Time to hit the trail, boy!" Jed groaned but when the kid still didn't move alarm bells began to ring in Bill's head. He pulled back the blanket. "Jed?" The boy's eyes flickered open but he didn't speak.
"Something's wrong with the kid!" Bill announced as he turned towards the cook. "Henry, get over here!"
Heyes' head shot up at the urgency in Bill's shout. Heyes reached them as Henry knelt beside the boy.
"Let me see."
Bill stood to one side as Henry placed a hand on the boy's moist forehead.
"Hurts," Jed managed to say before closing his eyes once more. Henry scanned Jed's body but he saw no obvious injury.
"Where does it hurt, Jed?"
"Arm hurts." Jed's eyes shot open and he looked desperately at Heyes for help.
"You fall off your horse yesterday?" the cook asked.
Henry pulled the blanket completely off Jed.
"This one." Jed's left hand moved. Henry reached out, lifted his arm and noticed a small mark on the boy's exposed wrist.
"What is it?" Heyes' watched Henry's face as he examined his friend's arm.
Heyes eyes opened wide with horror.
"He was stung?"
"Yeah." Henry turned to Bill. "We hafta get him to a doctor as soon as possible. You'd best get the Boss." He lifted Jed's arm, placing it on his chest. "Keep your arm there, boy. Keep it by your heart."
Heyes couldn't take his eyes off the tiny mark on Jed's arm. A scorpion had stung him. Heyes followed Henry as he headed to the chuck wagon.
"Will he die?" His voice was more than a whisper.
"Not if I've got anything to do with it."
Heyes wracked his brain trying to remember something he'd read years ago. He knew something about scorpion bites, or to be more accurate, stings. It was in a book in the library at the home. There was a section about surviving in the wilderness and treating different wounds and bites…Something about…GOT IT!
"I know a treatment for scorpion stings," Heyes informed Henry. "I read it in a book."
"Oh yeah, what was it?" Henry asked, with little interest.
Heyes eyes narrowed as he tried to remember the precise method.
"You hafta get some chicken's brains and dissolve them in vinegar with five ants."
Henry looked up. Was the boy serious? Yep, seems he was.
"Five ants or fire ants?"
"I'm not too sure. There was a smudge on the page. Will it matter?"
"I doubt it. Go on."
"Then the patient had to eat it. I mean Jed will hafta eat it. Oh and they had to eat the scorpion too. Roasted. It was definitely roasted."
Henry rested his hands on his hips and put on his patient face.
"You got a chicken?"
"D'you see one around here?"
"Know where we can find some fire ants? Five of 'em?"
"Do you see the scorpion still wandering about?"
"All right. So let's stick with my method, shall we?" He walked back to Jed before Heyes could reply.
"My fingers feel - odd." Jed sat up, leaning back against a rock. A fine sheen of sweat covered his face as he wiggled the fingers of his left hand, watching them move.
"Didn't you feel it sting you?" Heyes asked as he sat beside his friend.
"No. I was asss…Asss…Asleep."
"Even then I'd have thought you'd have felt something." He looked up at Jed. "Does it still hurt?"
"Bill's taking you to the doctor." Heyes studied his friend's face. "Not sure if he's taking the wagon or not."
"I can…Can ride."
"I know but…"
"I'm all right."
"Sure you are."
Jed looked as worried as he felt. Neither of them had been bitten by anything before. Not a snake, a spider or a scorpion, which considering the life they'd lived on the farms in Kansas, was something of a miracle; especially for two young, inquisitive boys. Heyes looked over his shoulder to see Bill talking in hushed tones with Collins.
"I heard the Boss talking last night when I got back from my watch. Sounds like the Bar T is in some kind of trouble."
"What trouble?" Blue eyes met Heyes'.
"I don't know but keep your ears open."
Jed nodded as he closed his eyes. His face was pale.
"Hey, you okay?"
"Be glad to get to…The doctor."
Jed closed his eyes, his head dropped forward.
"Jed? Jed? Henry!"
Heyes could only stand and watch as Jeff Collins lifted Jed into the back of the wagon. With the blanket wrapped around him, Jed's face was hidden from view. Henry placed a hand on Heyes' shoulder. The rest of the men were out with the herd. Heyes should have been with them but Collins had chosen to over look that.
"Make sure he keeps that hand over his heart," Henry reminded Bill as he climbed onto the wagon and picked up the reins. "Get him to hold it higher if you can."
Bill looked at Heyes, then with a nod of his head he shook the reins and the wagon headed towards town with Jed huddled in the back.
"Bill will look after him." Collins stood beside Heyes. "I'm sure he'll be fine."
"I hope so." He looked at the Boss. "What about the ranch?"
"What about it?"
"I heard you talking with Bill last night. Is the Bar T in trouble?"
"Ranches are always in trouble."
"I know but…"
"Don't let it bother you, Heyes. Right now you should be thinking about your friend and the wound he's gonna be boasting about once he gets back."
"I am thinking about him."
"Good. Now, I've got a herd to move, so got getcha horse saddled." Collins walked away but that didn't stop Heyes wondering.
Heyes' head snapped up at the sound of the returning wagon. Bill pulled the horses to a halt and jumped down. He looked tired as he walked towards the men gathered around the chuck wagon. They waited for him to speak. Heyes stepped forward, his eyes met Bill's.
"Jed's gonna be okay. The doctor's got him at his place for a couple of days, so he can keep an eye on him," Bill informed them. There were nods of approval at the decision and mutterings about how lucky the boy was. When the men drifted back to their jobs, Heyes was left alone beside the wagon.
"Is he really gonna be okay?"
"That's what the doc said."
"They don't always get it right."
"I know, but I reckon the doc knows what he's doing and Jed was looking a lot better by the time I left."
"You're not just saying that to make me feel better?"
Bill looked up, meeting the young man's worried eyes.
"When d'you get so cynical, Heyes?"
"When folk started lying to us."
"Well, I'm not lying to you. He was looking better and asking for something to eat."
Finally Heyes smiled.
"I guess he was feeling better."
Bill returned the smile.
"Yeah. And the doc's got his pretty young niece staying with him. I saw the kid's eyes fall on her the minute she entered the room. I don't think he's too upset about having to stay in town after all."
"Thanks for taking him."
"I'd do the same for anyone, you know that."
"Bill…" The older man waited as Heyes decided what to say. "Are we gonna lose our jobs?"
"What makes you ask that?"
"I heard you and the Boss talking."
"And just what did you hear?"
"Enough to know the ranch is in trouble."
"You got work to do, Heyes. Get to it."
"You heard me."
Reluctantly, Heyes headed to his horse. Bill turned away. How much longer could they keep pretending everything was all right?
"Don't think you'll have a scar," Heyes observed as he sat on the end of Jed's bunk, studying his friend's arm.
Jed had just returned from town. The scorpion's sting had left a mark on his arm but apart from that he felt fine. However, Henry insisted Collins let him rest for the remainder of the day, something Jed wasn't complaining about as he sat on his bunk with a mug of coffee in one hand and a cookie in the other.
"Doc said I won't."
Heyes smiled unable to hide his relief at seeing Jed safe and well.
"I heard the doctor's niece is in town."
"So is she pretty?" Jed continued to study the mark on his arm. "Is she?"
"The doctor's niece."
"Can't say I noticed."
"You noticed. You're blushing. "
"I am not!" Jed blushed.
"So she is pretty? How old is she?" Brown eyes sparkled with interest.
"Your age, I guess."
"She's a nice girl."
"What does she look like?"
"Brown hair. Brown eyes."
"She talks a lot and giggles too."
"They all do that. I think you need to introduce me to her when we're in town next."
"What about Susanna?"
"I'm not sure she'll want to meet her."
"You know what I meant."
"I only want to meet her, Jed."
"That's what you say now. Wait until you see her."
"You interested in her?"
"I told you she's nice. I like her. She was real easy to talk to."
"You are interested."
"What's her name?"
End of Part 17