Bond of Brothers

Part 26 of the Ranch Days Series

By Maz McCoy

Sitting at the table in the bunkhouse, Jed Curry opened the chamber of his gun and looked at the five bullets nestled inside. He closed the chamber and slowly slid the gun into the worn leather holster that lay on the table. He stared at the handle of the weapon, lost in thought.

"Everything all right, kid?" Marty asked as he poured himself a cup of coffee.

"Sure." Jed didn't look up.

"You cleaned that gun lately?"

"Yeah."

"After you fired it?"

Jed's head shot up. "Of course!"

"Good, 'cos if you're gonna be shootin' that thing you'd best take care of it."

"I'm not plannin' on using it again."

"Ever?" Marty took a sip of coffee and watched the boy over the rim of the cup.

"No! I mean of course I'll use it again, it's just…"

"Just what?"

Jed looked away. "Nothin'." He stood up and strapped on the gun belt. Marty watched him as he tied the string around his right thigh.

"Not too tight, you don't want to…"

"I know!"

Marty smiled. "I know you do, Jed. Just like I know you'll only use that gun when it's necessary."

The blond boy looked at his friend. "How do you know that? How do I know when it's right to draw?"

"You'll know. You knew." Marty put down his cup, picked his hat off the peg by the door and settled it on his head. "Henry said he could use your help in the store room. When you've finished up here come down to the barn. I got some shovelling for ya."

"I can hardly wait."

Marty chuckled. "Just as well 'cos there's plenty."

When the door closed behind his friend, Jed rested his hand on the handle of his gun.

Bobby Cavender rested his arms on the fence and watched the bull pace backwards and forwards. Hooves scuffed the ground as the animal snorted and sniffed the air sensing the cows nearby. He was a magnificent beast. Broad back, solid shoulders, horns that could rip you apart if you got him riled. He was packed full of muscle; why he'd probably buck like crazy if you put him in a chute. Bobby settled his chin on his arms and sighed.

"Don't even think about it."

Bobby didn't need to turn round to know who was there. "I wasn't."

"Liar." Jeff Collins stopped beside him and studied the bull. "Don't tell me you weren't thinking about getting up on him."

"I wasn't." He turned to look at his brother. Jeff looked back and waited. "All right, I was. Heck, I gotta do it sometime. I mean it's what I do."

"Doesn't hafta be."

"Yes, it does."

"Why?"

"Cos it's all I know. It's all I'm good for. Eight seconds."

Jeff laughed. "Don't tell the ladies that."

"Ha. Ha. Like I haven't heard that one before. You know what I mean."

"You sure it's worth it?" Bobby didn't answer. "You didn't look too pretty when that bull had finished with you."

"You worried about me, big brother?"

"You know I am."

Bobby kicked the ground with the toe of his boot. "What'll I do if I give it up?"

"You could work here."

Bobby looked up. "I thought you said you weren't hiring?"

"We're not. I didn't say I'd pay you."

"Oh great, you want me to work for free."

"Consider it on-the-job training."

"More like slave labour."

"Better than getting your head kicked in by a bull. Three squares a day and a bed to sleep in, what more could a man want?"

Bobby's eyes narrowed. Was his brother serious? Before Jeff could answer the arrival of a buggy drew their attention. Bobby groaned. It was Doctor Ellis Hale.

"Don't start grumblin'," his brother chided. "He could be here to see me. Or Nathan."

They watched as the buggy pulled to a halt in front of the bunkhouse and a pretty young girl jumped down. Jeff smiled and nudged his brother's elbow.

"This could be interesting. That's his niece, Clementine."

"Isn't she a little young for you?"

"Not me." He pointed to the side of the bunkhouse where Jed Curry was slapping his hat against his leg and brushing the dust off his shirt. Jeff pointed next to the barn where Heyes was busy wiping the toes of his boots on the legs of his pants. "I give you, young men in lust."

Bobby smiled. "Kinda reminds me of…"

"Rebecca Sealey," they chorused.

"She was a pretty gal," Jeff acknowledged.

"Yeah, a pity her father was the sheriff. I always figured if he caught me with her he'd make it a hanging offence."

"He DID catch me with her!"

"I know. Was it only one night he kept you in jail?"

"Two. And with Pa's blessing."

Bobby chuckled. "She was worth it."

Jeff sighed at the memory. "Yeah, she sure was."

Heyes and Kid headed towards Miss Clementine Hale and from the way the young woman was preening it looked like she had those boys right where she wanted them.

"Come on." Jeff placed a hand on his brother's shoulder. "Let's go see what the doc wants."

Jeff made sure Heyes and the kid saw him as he approached the bunkhouse. He made it clear they'd better hurry up and conclude their business. The boys nodded their understanding and went back to hanging on Clementine's every word.

"Jeff. Bobby. It's good to see you boys," Doc Hale said as the men approached. "I was out this way so thought I'd stop by and see how you were. I need to look at Nathan's leg too. Where is he?"

The door to the bunkhouse opened.

"I'm here," Nathan said as he limped towards them. Jeff could see the effort it took his friend to cover the short distance to the porch steps. The doc saw it too and moved quickly to meet him.

"Let's sit a spell." He indicated the porch bench. Nathan didn't argue and sat down. "I could use something to drink if you have it," he informed Jeff as he settled himself beside Nathan. Collins sent his brother inside the bunkhouse to fetch a cup of coffee before turning his attention to the two love-struck young men.

"Heyes. Jed. You boys have work to do. Say your goodbyes to Miss Hale."

Reluctantly they did as asked although each cast a longing look back at the pretty young woman. Clementine blew each boy a kiss which made them both blush. Sheesh, to be so young.

"How are you feeling?" Ellis Hale asked.

"I'm fine," Nathan stated.

Doctor Hale caught Jeff's gaze. Leave me alone with him, he mouthed. Jeff nodded and headed back to the corral. The medic turned his attention back to Nathan.

"You know I work better when my patients don't lie to me."

"Doc, I'm not…"

The medic raised a hand, silencing him. "Let's cut the horse doo-doo, Nathan. You look pale. You didn't argue when I suggested we sit down and I reckon if I asked you to walk down to the corral with me you might break sweat." Nathan looked at his boots. "You're not fine and we both know it."

"I guess it's just taking longer than I thought to get my strength back."

"What wound did ever heal but by degrees?"

"Huh?"

"Othello. Act two, scene three."

"I don't…"

"It's a line. From a play." Nathan looked none the wiser. The doctor smiled. "I have to admit I expected you to be feeling much better by now. I think I'd better examine you. See if we can figure out why you're not recovering as well as I hoped."

Two worried blue eyes met the doctor's. "D'you think there's something else wrong with me?"

"I don't know. Let's do that exam first okay?"

"I told Annabelle we'd get married in…"

Another raised hand silenced him. "Don't go making promises to that young lady you might not be able to keep. She wants you better. Not riding down the aisle on a stretcher just 'cos you promised her a wedding on a certain day. And that's exactly what she told me to tell you."

"You saw her?"

"Yes. When she knew I might be out this way she cornered me in the general store and made me memorise those exact words. You are gonna have your hands full when you make her your wife."

Nathan smiled. "I can't wait."

"Well, you're gonna have to." He stood up. "Come on inside and let me check you over." He turned to Clementine. "Will you be all right for a while? Want to visit with Mrs Culver?"

"I'll be fine. I'll wander down and take a look at the horses." She waved him off.

Nathan got to his feet and the world spun. He put a hand on the wall to steady himself.

"What did she say to you before I got there?" Jed asked as he tossed a final forkful of hay into the open stall.

"I think that's between me and Clementine, don't you?" Heyes picked up the wheelbarrow and moved on to the next stall.

"I didn't realise it was a secret." Jed followed his friend and shoved the fork into the hay piled up in the barrow.

"If you must know, I'm taking her out next time I'm in town."

"You're WHAT?" The fork hit the ground and Heyes turned round to see two ice blue eyes glaring at him.

"I'm taking Clementine out."

"I heard ya!"

"So why'd you…?" Before Heyes could finish his sentence Jed was standing not a foot from him.

"I thought we had an agreement?"

"Agreement?"

"I know it's hard for ya, Heyes, but try not to act dumb!"

"I'm gonna forget you just said that."

"No need, I meant what I said."

"Okay. I'm taking Clementine out."

"We agreed to let her choose. We agreed to…"

"I did let her choose. She chose me." Heyes turned away but a hand on his shoulder soon spun him back towards the blond boy.

"Not when I was there!" Jed leaned closer. "What did you do, Heyes, trick her before I could talk to her?"

Heyes brushed away Jed's hand. "No. I told her we'd both be asking her to go on a picnic. She said she'd go with me."

"I'd like to hear Clem say that."

"Well, you won't get the chance now, 'cos I'm the one she's going with. She and I have been a lot closer since I was injured saving Jeff."

"You didn't save Jeff, I did!"

"I was the one who got hurt."

"You probably just fell into that wall."

"I pulled a man off of him."

"Says you!"

"You don't believe me? Well, we've only got your word for it that you scared them off with your fast gun!"

"You callin' me a liar?" Jed's fists clenched and he took another step closer to Heyes.

"BACK OFF, KID!" Bill Napier strode towards them as the young men glared at each other. "I said. Back. Off!" Still Jed didn't move. "Move Kid. You too, Heyes." Eventually they both took a couple of steps backwards. Bill stopped between them his disappointment obvious. "Please tell me I didn't hear you two fighting over a woman."

"Just as I thought," Doctor Hale stated, packing away his stethoscope as Nathan pulled his shirt back on.

"Is it serious?" his patient asked from where he sat on his bunk.

"It can be, but I've treated this before."

"Successfully?"

The doctor's eyes narrowed. "You doubting my abilities?"

"No, Doc."

"Glad to hear it."

"So what's wrong with me?"

"Well, considering the amount of blood you lost it's not surprising to suffer weakness, pallor of the skin and general lethargy. Happens to some women after childbirth or at certain times of the month."

"You saying I got a woman's disease?" Nathan stopped buttoning his shirt and stared at the doctor.

"No!"

"Well, then what the heck are you saying?"

"I'm saying you've suffered heavy blood loss. Sometimes your body makes up for it. Yours doesn't seem to have done that. We need to have Henry cook you some liver."

"Liver?"

"Yes. As much as you can stomach. Seems to be the best remedy. I learnt that from an old Indian fella. A diet of red meat, especially liver, seems to help patients recover their strength."

"And then I'll be back to normal?"

"I think so." Nathan visibly relaxed. The doctor placed a hand on his shoulder. "Don't fret, son. Your leg has healed fine. We'll have you walking down that aisle soon enough." Nathan nodded. "Now I'd best find Henry and give him some instructions on what to cook for you."

"Oh, he'll just love that."

"So he'll be all right?" Jeff asked as he watched the doctor examine his brother's head.

"Yes, I think so," the doctor confirmed as he looked up from the healing wound.

"You know I'd feel a darn sight happier if you were talking about me," Bobby muttered from his seat on the bench outside the bunkhouse.

"I'm worried about Nathan," Jeff informed him. He stood, arms crossed, leaning back against the porch rail.

"I noticed. How 'bout you worry about your little brother too?"

"You haven't been little since you were five."

"Gentlemen, please. I'm trying to examine my patient," the doctor chided and stared at them both over the top of his glasses.

"Sorry, Doc." Jeff pointed to Bobby. "So how's my little brother doing? Find a brain in there or is it all empty space like I suspected?"

"The wound has healed well." He looked Bobby in the eye. "No more dizzy spells?"

"No."

"Nausea?"

"Nope."

"What about your ribs?"

Bobby pointed to Jeff. "That was him."

"That was you too." Ellis Hale stood up. "But it gets difficult keeping tally of all the bruises and bumps you get out here. You're becoming my most profitable source of income." He picked up his bag and looked at the ranch foreman. "Speaking of which…"

"Come into my office and I'll give you what we owe you, okay?" Jeff said.

"Fine by me." He turned to Bobby. "I don't suppose you could round up my niece for me. I have no idea where that young lady has wandered off to."

Bobby and Jeff exchanged a glance. "I reckon I have an idea." He stood up and headed towards the barn.

"They were fighting over me?" Clementine Hale tried her best to look shocked.

"Yes, Miss Hale they were." Bill informed her and threw a disapproving look from one embarrassed young man to the other. "It seems you agreed to go on a picnic with Mister Heyes?"

"Why yes, Mister Napier, I did." Clementine met Heyes brown eyes and smiled sweetly. He smiled back.

"And that's upset Mister Curry," Bill added.

Clementine's eyes fell on the blond boy. "Oh, Jed, I didn't mean to hurt your feelings." She gave him a sweet smile too. Jed did his best not to look pleased by her attention.

It seemed to Bill that young Miss Hale knew exactly what she was doing to these two numbskulls. Dumb as a sack of oats the pair of them. "We need to sort this out. If you've chosen Heyes then Jed will just have to get used to it. Right?" His gaze focussed on the blond boy.

"Yes, sir," Jed agreed.

"Oh, but I haven't!" Clementine exclaimed.

"You haven't?" Jed looked hopeful.

"You haven't?" Heyes looked annoyed.

Bill looked mystified. Women! "You haven't?" he asked, reluctantly.

"No. I did agree to go on a picnic with Heyes, but that doesn't mean I don't want to do things with Jed too."

"It don't?" Jed asked, holding back a smile.

"No. Jed, you're my friend too." She turned to Heyes. "You understand, don't you?"

No. "Sure, I do."

"Good. That's good. All settled," Bill stated, determinedly. "You boys best get back to your work." He turned to Clementine. "Miss Hale I think…"

"Thought I'd find you in here." Bobby smiled at Clementine as he entered the barn.

Clementine's eyes ran appreciatively over the handsome cowboy and she smiled back. "Have we met?"

Bobby swept off his hat and gave a dramatic bow. "Bobby Cavender, at your service, ma'am."

Clementine's smile widened and she giggled. Heyes and Jed glared at Bobby.

"Your uncle is about ready to head back to town, Miss Hale. He asked me to find you."

"And what will you do with me, now you've found me?"

Bobby met Bill's gaze over her head. Bill rolled his eyes and Bobby smiled. "Well, I hope you'll allow me to escort you back to your Uncle." He looked from Jed to Heyes ignoring the hostility on their faces. "Assuming your business here is finished?"

"Oh, I've finished."

Bobby rested his right hand on his hip and offered his elbow. "Ma'am."

"I'd like it if you called me Clementine." She linked her arm in his.

"Well now isn't that a coincidence."

"Why?"

"Because Clementine happens to be my favourite name."

"It is?"

"It sure is, Miss Clementine."

"You wouldn't be trying to sweet talk me would you?"

"Would you blame me if I was? A beautiful woman like you must get that all the time."

Without a backwards glance Clementine walked with Bobby out of the barn. Bill turned to Jed and Heyes. The expressions on their faces were priceless. He shook his head and smiled. Yep, dumb as a sack of oats.

End of Part 26

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