Jess's body jerked when the slug hit Slim in the gut, almost like he'd been shot himself. Slim spun to the side and was brought to his knees. Jess raced toward him, but Slim looked up before he'd taken more than two steps.
"Stay back, Jess!"
"Slim, I'm not gonna-"
"STAY BACK!" Slim winced, the shout probably making the wound hurt more. "I've got a bill to collect," he said, more quietly.
Jess' hands clenched tight, but he forced himself to back away, back up to the dusty sidewalk. It took every last bit of willpower he had not to rush to Slim's side and help him to his feet. But there were things a man had to do alone, and Jess knew that well. But it made his heart sick to think that this was one of those things - to stand up and let an angry old man shoot straight at you with some antique pistol for no damn reason at all.
Slim struggled slowly to his feet, turned and faced Parkison. He stood up straight and tall, in spite of the hole in his stomach, and the blood starting to trail down it. And Parkison waited for him. The man had trapped Jess and wrapped a noose around his neck - a feeling that Jess hated almost worse than anything on the whole earth - to force a fight, and he stood just as bold and brave and foolish, knowing that Slim had five bullets left in his gun, and hardly any distance at all between them. Jess would have admired him, if he could have admired a man who'd called Slim a liar and a coward and a murderer right to his face, and every last word unjust and unfounded.
He felt like he could have busted with pride when Slim refused to shoot. He thought he'd be pleased to see the old man go down, after being forced to watch Slim take shot after shot, but what Slim did was worse than any bullet to Parkison. He could hardly stand to owe a Sherman the time of day, much less his very life. And Slim had made the Parkison boy swear there would be no more violence. No more grudge to crop up and haunt Andy or his children one day when all this mess should have been dried up and forgotten just like Parkison Town itself.
That little swell of pride and vindication was wiped away in a split second when Slim fell back into the dirt, and the antique gun slipped from his limp fingers. Jess forgot about the Parkisons and rushed to Slim's side, getting there a second before the doctor. Slim looked bad. His skin was pale and clammy to the touch, and he was breathing ragged and shallow. The gut wound seemed bad to Jess, but he tried to hold onto hope. "What do you think, Doc?" he asked.
"I don't know, Jess. I just don't know." Something must have shown on Jess' face, because the doctor quickly added, "But a man this tough - it'll be mighty hard to kill him."
Jess nodded, grateful for the words, even if they were just there to make him feel better. He finally turned his eyes toward where Parkison and his son were slowly making their way out of the dusty old town. "I'll say this, Doc," he said quietly. "I didn't make no promises about endin' feuds today. And if Slim dies... the Parkison's are gonna have a new name to hate."
Andy's bright smile faltered the second his eyes shifted from Jess to the tiny carriage where Slim leaned heavily against the doctor. "What happened?"
Jess dropped quickly off his horse, and held the reins out to the boy. "Slim's hurt, Andy," Jess said. "Tie off my horse, then get us some hot water and some clean linens, okay?"
With a worried glance at the small carriage, Andy nodded and set off with Jess' mare. Jess carried Slim into the house, hefting his dead weight with relative ease, fueled by his worry and his anger. He laid Slim out on the dining table, and pulled his shirt off as best he could, while the doctor got his tools together.
Before long, Andy came into the house, and got the water and towels. He brought them to the table. "Is Slim gonna be alright?" he asked the doctor.
"He'll be just fine, Andy," the doctor said. "Just fine. Why don't you put some more water on to boil, and bring me some blankets."
"Yes, sir," he said.
"Can I help?" Jess asked.
The doctor nodded. "You be ready to hold him, Jess. We're going to have to keep him steady while I get the bullet out, and tie things up in here."
Jess nodded in turn and stood by to help. The sight of blood rarely bothered Jess, but today, having to stand by and hold Slim steady while the doctor cut into him and tried to dig out that slug without hurting too much else... It was a rough time for him, and it got rougher when Slim started to come to a little, and started fighting them. Jess called to Andy to bring the tonic that Jonesy had left behind, and they'd forced Slim to drink it down. They'd chased it with a little liquor from the stash under Slim's bed, and he'd settled down a little after a few minutes. Still, his moving around hadn't helped the doc any, and Jess found himself worrying at every little frown, or shake of the head, or grunt the doctor made.
Finally, the doctor sewed Slim's stomach closed, and bandaged him up. He stitched Slim's arm and bandaged that wound up as well. He nodded at Jess, and again at Andy. "I've done all I can do for him, boys," he said.
"Is he gonna be okay?" Andy asked, beating Jess to the question.
The doctor gave Andy a smile, but Jess didn't like the answer. "It's up to him now, son," he said. "He's gonna need a lot of rest and quiet. Get him to bed and keep an eye on him. He's liable to get a little feverish, but if it gets bad, send for me. I'll be back soon as I can to check on him."
"Thank you, doc," Jess said. He started to shake hands, but both their hands were stained with blood. Andy hurried over and filled a basin with clean water, then brought it back to them. "Thanks, Andy," Jess said softly, washing his hands with the doctor, then shaking the older man's hand. "Much obliged," he said.
"I was glad to help, Jess," the doctor said. "Wish it hadn't happened at all, though, and that's the truth."
"No argument there," Jess replied.
The doctor sighed, and gathered his things. "Get him into bed and keep him covered up. Try to keep him still, too, those stitches need time to heal up."
"We will," Jess said. He saw the doctor to the door and waited until he got his carriage on its way. When he turned back, Andy was already back at Slim's side, staring down at him. Jess walked over to him and put a hand on his shoulder. He jumped a little, then looked up at Jess apologetically. "Help me get him to bed," Jess said softly. "Grab his legs?"
The two of them carefully moved Slim into the bedroom, and Jess covered him up. He sat down beside him, and Andy stood near the bed. Then suddenly, Andy frowned, sighed heavily, and hurried out of the room. With a quick glance at Slim, Jess got up and followed the boy. When he got into the living room, Andy was by the dining table, staring down at it, arms folded tightly across his chest.
"Yeah," he said, keeping his back to Jess.
"You alright, Tiger?" Andy let out another heavy sigh. "Slim's gonna be just fine," Jess said. "The doc did a good job, and Slim's just too tough to die on us."
Andy's head bowed further. "It... it's not that. He..." Andy stopped, and Jess took a step toward him.
"Well, what is it?" he asked.
Andy spun to face him, his face angry, instead of sad like Jess had expected. "Did you know he was going up there to Parkison Town?"
Jess sighed and looked down for a moment, still ashamed of having been caught in a trap. "I didn't have no choice but to know, Andy," he said.
"What do you mean?" Jess told him how he'd been tricked by Parkison and held hostage, so Slim would be forced to fight. Andy was shocked, but his anger didn't let up at all. "That means it's twice he lied to me last night," he said.
"What'd he say?"
"He told me you left a note you were staying in town last night, and he told me he had to go down to trade on some cattle this mornin'."
Jess glanced toward the bedroom, then back to the angry child. "Andy, he-"
"He shouldn'ta lied to me, Jess! He's always tellin' me not to lie, and then-"
"It ain't right! And suppose... suppose he'd died up there? Suppose both of you had, and me down here thinking everything's just fine?" Tears had started to well up in Andy's eyes, and he brushed them away roughly with his sleeve. "He shoulda told me the truth. I'm not a little kid. I had a right to know!"
"Maybe you did, Andy," Jess said, speaking quickly, so Andy wouldn't have a chance to interrupt. "Maybe you did have a right to know. But Slim did what he thought was right for you, Tiger," he said. "Slim's the closest thing you have to a father, but... well, he's not your pa, and from what I hear, he got shoved into taking charge of things when he was pretty young himself, didn't he?"
Andy looked down, and shrugged a little. "Yeah. But..."
"Well, that means maybe he's not going to get everything right straight off, doesn't it? And maybe that means he's gonna take a little longer to get used to seeing you as a young man, instead of as a kid brother. And there's no guarantee your dad wouldn't have had the same trouble lettin' you grow up, either."
Andy just sighed and shrugged. "Listen to me, son," Jess said. Andy looked up at him, brushing at his tears again. "Just supposing Slim had told you last night. Told you I was being held by that old man, and maybe gonna be hanged the next morning. Told you that he was going up there to maybe get shot dead to keep me from getting strung up, and that maybe neither one of us was coming back home. You know how you felt when you saw Slim in that carriage, looking half dead. And you know how you felt while we had to watch the doctor workin', not knowin' if Slim was gonna pull through. Now just you imagine feelin' like that all night long and half the morning." Andy shivered. "And add worryin' about me on top of it, and bein' here in the house alone." Jess waited a second, while his words sunk in. "Now, Slim don't like lyin' to you, or anybody else, you know that. But when you care about somebody like Slim cares about you, you just don't want 'em feelin' poorly like that any longer than they have to. Can you understand that, Andy?"
Andy nodded slowly, and his eyes teared up again. Suddenly, he rushed to Jess and hugged him tight. Jess wrapped his arms around the boy and let him cry. "What'll I do if he doesn't make it, Jess? What'll I do if-"
"There's no use wonderin' about something that's just not gonna happen," Jess said firmly. "But..." He squeezed the boy tightly to him. "If something ever did happen to Slim, I want you to know I'd never leave you alone, Andy. I'll stick right here with you and help you run the ranch like I've been doin'. That help you feel a little better?"
Andy nodded into his chest, and squeezed him even harder. Jess held him and let him cry a little longer. Then he patted his back and pulled away, letting Andy see the shine that had come to his own eyes, before blinking it away. "Alright now, Tiger," he said, speaking gently. "Dry those eyes. We got work to do, and the stage'll be comin' in before we know it. Don't want the passengers thinkin' we've been cuttin' too many onions around this place, do we?"
Andy chuckled, despite the tears, and shook his head. "Guess not."
"Right," Jess said, ruffling Andy's hair. "Let's get to it."
"Sure, Jess," he said, and headed for the door. He paused before stepping out, and turned back to look at Jess. "I..." He paused, and looked down for a second. "Thanks, Jess," he said.
Jess gave him a smile and waved him on. Then he cleaned up the remains of the "surgical" area, and got the place ready for stage line customers again.
Slim got feverish toward the end of the day. It didn't worry Jess much at first – the doc had said it would happen, after all. But when the sun started to go down, and the fever only seemed to be getting worse, Jess started to worry. He knew he'd have to stay up all night to keep an eye on Slim, and he was afraid he'd drop off out of sheer exhaustion. The last time he'd slept had been a the few fitful minutes he'd gotten off and on, while he'd been tied up in a dusty, abandoned shed in Parkison town. But that just didn't matter. He wasn't going to let that old man get his way, just from being tired.
He filled a basin, and gathered a few clean strips of cloth to keep handy near the bed. He pulled a chair over to the bed and sat down, rubbing his eyes tiredly. When he looked up again, Andy was approaching with a cup of coffee. "I can stay up with him first if you want."
Jess looked up and shook his head. "You need your rest," he said.
Andy frowned. "Don't you?"
"I slept all night last night, and I'll bet you didn't." Jess was going to protest again, but Andy's frown deepened. "Don't you trust me, Jess? He's my brother, after all. I won't fall asleep."
Jess looked down for a second and shook his head. "You're right," he said. "And yeah, I trust you. Listen, wake me up in two hours, okay? Or if he takes a turn for the worst."
"I will," Andy said with a smile. Andy took the seat the moment Jess vacated it, and took a sip of the hot coffee. Jess kicked off his boots but kept his jeans on. He planned to sleep light as possible, and keep an ear out for Slim just in case, but by the time he'd laid down on his bed, he was dead to the world.
He awoke some time later to Andy's voice, filled with worry. "Jess! Wake up, Jess, Slim's got worse!"
Jess jumped out of the bed, but even though he'd been startled awake by Andy's words, he still had to take a second to clear his head. Andy tugged urgently at his sleeve, and Jess focused on him. Jess was alarmed again, just by the sight of him. Andy was scared – his eyes were wide and filled with tears, and any sense that he cared about looking like a kid was gone. He was a terrified child, faced with the real possibility that his brother might not make it.
Jess took hold of Andy's shoulders, trying to steady him. "What's wrong?" he asked.
"He's burning up to touch, but he's shiverin' so hard I'm afraid the stitches'll come loose," Andy said, the fear sharp in his voice. "And he keeps throwing the covers off him, and now he started talkin' strange. Callin' for Ma and Pa, and-"
Andy was too upset to say more. Jess squeezed his arms briefly, then hurried to Slim's side. Jess felt his breath catch when he saw him. Slim was drenched with sweat, shaking hard, and shifting fitfully in the bed. Jess could see a few strips of wet cloth on the floor, apparently tossed there by Slim in his agitation. He moaned, and Jess tried to pull the covers back over him.
"Pa," Slim whispered. "Pa, where are you?"
"See?" Andy hissed quietly.
Jess nodded, worried more by the weak, almost plaintive sound of Slim's voice than the words themselves. He didn't like the way Slim was shifting around, either. He pulled the chair up and sat down, gripping Slim's arm. "Slim, I'm here for you," he said. "Me and Andy are right here."
Slim moaned again, and his eyes fluttered open. "Pa?"
"No," Jess said sadly. "It's Jess, Slim."
"Jess?" Slim reached clumsily for him, and Jess took his hand. Slim grabbed him, surprising Jess by how tight the grip was – almost desperate. "Jess! Thank... thank God."
"It's okay, Slim," Jess said steadily. "Settle down, okay, you'll ruin the stitches."
"I'm right he-"
"Don't leave Andy, Jess," he said urgently. "Promise me you'll... stay with Andy when-"
"Slim, stop!" Jess snapped, suddenly feeling frantic. He turned to Andy, who stood near, looking just as horrified as Jess felt. "Saddle my horse, quick!"
Andy ran from the room, and Jess turned back to Slim. "I ain't promising you a damn thing!" he hissed angrily. Slim looked surprised, and Jess tightened his grip on Slim's too-warm hand. "You're not getting away that easily, Mister. I ain't makin' no promise that's gonna make it easy for you to slip away, so you just forget it!"
"Jess," Slim said weakly. "Jess you have to. Promise. Promise me-"
"You hang on, you hear me? Andy needs you. I need you, dammit."
Slim stared at him, but his eyes were clouded with confusion. His head turned away from Jess, and then back to him again. "Jess?"
Jess felt his heart sink at the genuine confusion in Slim's eyes. "Yeah, Slim. It's me, I'm right here."
"Jess, you... you stay with Andy if I don't..." He shook his head, his breaths shaky. "Don't leave him, okay? Please, Jess, I want you to stay, please! Don't let him go to any foster place, Jess, I-"
Jess squeezed Slim's hand and stroked his hair gently with his other hand, trying to quell the man's increasing urgency. "Shhh. Don't worry about that, Slim," he said, his words a choked whisper. "I'd never leave Andy, you know that. I promise, I'll stay with him. But only if you promise to hang on, you hear? I'm going for the doctor, but you hang on until I get back, or so help me I'll follow you and whip you right there in front of them Pearly Gates. You understand me?"
Slim nodded, smiling. Then his eyes lost focus, and he frowned and started muttering words Jess couldn't understand. Jess struggled not to panic. He took his hand off Slim's head, looking toward the door for Andy, before looking back at the sweat-soaked young man. In the next second, there were hurried footsteps, then Andy was at his side. "She's saddled up, Jess, right outside the door," he said breathlessly. "Is he..."
"He's in and out," Jess said honestly. He looked at Andy's worried face, noting that even though he was still scared, he was calmer than he'd been when he first woke Jess. He considered sending Andy for the doctor, rather than making him stay alone with Slim. But he was young, and he was no fighter. Jess couldn't let him ride out alone at night. "You stay right with him, Andy," he said. "And try not to mind if he starts talking strange. Just keep telling him to be still and to hold on, okay?"
Andy nodded. "Okay, Jess."
Jess turned back to Slim and squeezed his hand once more. "I'll be right back, Slim," he said.
"Jess." He paused, feeling the pressure of Slim's hand, and seeing him struggle to focus. "Jess, I... I love you."
Jess felt himself tense involuntarily, but he forced a smile, and squeezed Slim's hand. "I love you, too, Slim. Now wait for me. Andy'll be right here all the time."
Slim nodded, and Jess let go of his hand. He was almost afraid to turn, but he did it, and looked down at Andy. There was no judgment or suspicion on the boy's face, though he did look surprised. Jess gave him a slight twitch of a smile, then quickly put on his boots. "You be alright?" Jess asked.
"Good boy." When he'd fastened on his gun belt, he put a hand on Andy's shoulder and squeezed him. "You hold on, too," he said. "I'll be back quick as I can." Andy nodded, and Jess raced for the door. His mare, Sunset, was right in front of the house as Andy'd said. Jess hopped on the porch rail, braced himself on the top of the porch, and jumped lightly into the saddle. His hands were on the reigns in the next instant, and he guided Sunset out to the road and took off, fast and hard, toward the doctor's place.
The doctor shook his head, and Jess held his breath. Andy gripped Jess' sleeve. "The regular cooling measures aren't working," the doctor said. "His fever's out of control, we've got to get it down, or..." The doctor didn't finish his sentence. He didn't have to.
"What can we do?" Jess asked, trying to keep a tremor out of his voice.
"Where's your bath tub, maybe we can-"
"Andy-" But the boy was already running out to the barn.
"We've got to be careful of the wound, Jess," the doctor said. "It won't do him any good if we get the fever down, and the wound gets infected."
Jess nodded. "What'll we do? Wrap it tighter? I can rip up some sheets."
"That might do for a start. We’ll probably have to disinfect it once we're done, just the same."
Jess nodded, and hurried to locate some more clean sheets. He started to rip into one when he heard Andy struggling with the tub outside. Jess went out to help him, and together they brought the large tub over to the pump. "I'll take care of this, Andy," Jess said. "Go in and help the doc get Slim undressed."
Andy went inside, and Jess worked the pump with all the strength and speed that his fear could muster. Within only a few minutes, the large wooden tub was full to the brim. He hurried back into the house, and helped Andy and the doctor strip Slim down to his underpants. The bandage was still in place over his middle, but Jess could see blood had seeped through the white cloth.
"Don't worry about that now, Jess," the doctor said, noticing the concerned look on his face. "We've got to get this fever down. Andy, get some of those linens and fold them together tight as you can. Then you press it down on the wound when we dip him. Hard, y'hear? Don't worry about hurting him."
"You take his legs, Doc," Jess said. Together, Jess and Doc Sweeney carried Slim outside and maneuvered him into the tub, while Andy pressed the extra bandages over the wound with all his might. Jess used his hands to get water on Slim's face and arms (being careful of his other wound). Then he waited pensively, while the doctor watched Slim, checking his watch every few minutes.
Slowly, Slim's shaking seemed to slow down a little, and the doctor tested his temperature. He looked up at Jess and nodded. "It's going down," he said.
Jess let out a heavy sigh. "That's a relief."
"We'll let him cool down a little longer, then get him inside."
Jess kept an eye on Slim, occasionally spreading the water over his arms, and his face, while Andy continued to press the clean cloths into his wound, switching hands when one got tired. Sweeney checked Slim's temperature again, and finally seemed satisfied. "Okay, let's get him dried off and see to this wound."
It was a bit of a task, hefting Slim back out of the water, and getting him dried off, but the three of them managed it. While Andy took away the old dressing and went to get fresh cloth, the doctor examined the wound. "Been thrashing around, you say?" he asked.
"A little," Jess said. "He wasn't so bad when I saw him, but Andy said he was worried about the stitches."
Sweeney nodded. "They've pulled a little bit here," he said, pointing to one end of the cut. "I'll check him just to be sure, but I don't think he's done too much damage."
Thankfully, Slim had lost consciousness before they got him in the tub, so the doctor was able to work in peace. He carefully removed the stitches from the wound, and checked what he'd left inside. He had to work on one of the internal wounds, but it wasn’t as bad as Jess feared. Before long, Slim was closed up again, and the doc dabbed alcohol on the wound. Slim moaned and shifted, but he didn't wake up fully, and they were able to bandage the wound again without any trouble. Jess and the doctor put him back into bed on fresh sheets (the old ones were soaked with sweat), and covered him up with a new blanket.
"I sure want to thank you for coming out so late," Jess told the doctor. "Can I see you home, or..."
"No, no, I'll be alright. He's through the worst of it now. Just make sure he gets rest tonight, and I'll come back tomorrow."
"Much obliged, Doc."
"Thank you, sir," Andy said.
When the doctor had seen his way back to the carriage, Andy and Jess sighed in unison, then smiled at each other. "Quite a night, eh Tiger?"
Jess mussed his hair a little, feeling relieved and happy now that the doctor had assured them Slim would be okay. "What say you get some rest now?"
Andy nodded, and Jess knew right away that he must be completely exhausted. Andy never went to bed without protesting at least once. Jess poured himself a cup of coffee while Andy got himself ready for bed. He wasn't usually one for tucking in, but Jess thought he might need the extra company tonight, so he went to the room to see that everything was ok. Andy seemed pleased, and he smiled at Jess before getting into bed.
"You doing okay?" Jess asked.
Andy nodded. "Now," he said. "It was pretty scary before, but I feel fine now."
"Jess?" Andy pulled up the covers and looked thoughtfully (if sleepily) at Jess. "When... before you left to get the Doc Sweeney, Slim said..." Andy looked down for a moment, then back at Jess. "He said he loved you." Jess tried to keep his face calm, but he felt instantly on edge. "He doesn’t usually... talk like that," he said.
Jess nodded. "I know, partner," he said. "It may be that the fever was getting to him. Might have felt he wasn't gonna make it."
"But..." Andy frowned and stopped speaking. "I'm glad he's gonna be alright," he said at last.
"Me, too," Jess said. He put a hand on Andy's head and patted him. "Get some sleep, Tiger."
He waited for Andy to close his eyes, then left the room and closed the door behind him. He entered his and Slim's room, sat in the chair beside Slim's bed and kept vigil.
Jess sat up quickly at the sound of Slim's hoarse whisper. He'd been dozing a little, but Slim's voice had brought him wide awake. It was almost dawn, and the house was quiet. Slim's eyes were closed, and he was frowning, turning his head from side to side. Jess quickly ladled some water into a cup. He supported Slim's head with one arm and held the cup to his lips. Slim drank greedily, and Jess pulled the cup away to keep him from choking.
"Take your time, sweetheart," he said softly. Slim reached up for the cup, and held onto it with a shaking hand. "Okay," Jess said, speaking quietly and holding him steady. "Okay, take it easy." He tried not to worry about how weak Slim's grip was, and focused on the fact that he was awake and strong enough to reach for anything at all. He let Slim drink his fill, then set the cup down. "How you feelin'?" he asked.
Slim leaned heavily against Jess' arm and looked up into his face, blinking slowly. "Glad to see you," he said, his voice sounding weak and breathless. "Feel like... like I've been kicked by... a mustang."
Jess smiled. "You gave us a scare last night," he said.
Slim let out a sigh, and his eyes drifted closed. "Sorry, Jess."
"Don't apologize," he said. "I got you into it, remember?"
Slim frowned and sat up, then winced and fell back down against Jess's arm, breathing hard. "Don't... say that... you-"
"Okay, okay, settle down," Jess said, squeezing his shoulders. "I know what you're sayin', Slim," he said. "Just calm down. You just rest and get better, that's all, don't worry about anything else."
Slim nodded, his eyes fluttering closed. He agreed so quickly, Jess knew he was still exhausted and sick. "How's Andy?" Slim whispered.
"He's fine, just fine. Wasn't too happy about things when he found out what happened, but he's alright now." There was another slow nod. "Just rest, Slim, don't worry about anything, okay?"
Slim nodded again, too tired to speak. Jess held onto him for a while longer, only laying him gently back on the bed when he could tell Slim had gone back to sleep. He sat with him for a little longer, until he heard Andy rustling in the other room. Then, Jess got up and started the fire in the stove, and got some coffee on.
Before long, Andy came out and joined him in the kitchen. "Mornin', Jess. How is he?"
"He's fine, Tiger," Jess answered. "He woke up for a little while, asked if you were okay." Andy smiled. "He's back asleep now. Want to sit with him, and I'll get breakfast started?"
Andy shook his head. "I'd better get breakfast, Jess," he said.
Jess put his hands on his hips, and scowled at him. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Nothin'," Andy said, eyes full of wide innocence. "Just thought you had such a hard time last night, maybe you'd want something you could eat for breakfast this mornin'." He grinned, then skipped away when Jess made a grab for him.
Jess gave chase, and caught him pretty quickly, grabbing him in a headlock and tickling him. Andy struggled and laughed happily, trying in vain to tickle Jess back or squirm away. Finally, Jess let him go and they laughed for a few seconds more. "Wait'll I get that cinnamon bread recipe from Mrs. Dean," he said. "You'll be sorry then."
"Aw, c'mon, Jess, I never said you didn't know how to bake," Andy said. "You just can't cook."
Jess made a grab for him again, and Andy hopped out of the way with a laugh. "Just you get to work," Jess said. Andy headed back to the kitchen, still laughing, and Jess looked in on Slim. He was still fast asleep, as if he hadn't heard the commotion at all. Jess watched him sleep for a few minutes, but the inactivity started to get to him. He went out to feed the chickens, and take care of a few other chores around the house – making sure to stay in earshot for when Andy called that breakfast was ready.
Once breakfast was done, Jess and Andy ate together, and the mood was subdued. They'd been okay earlier, but sitting at the table without Slim, knowing he was in another room too sick to eat real food, put a damper on the morning. "It's kinda strange eating without him," Andy said softly.
Jess nodded. "He'll be healed up soon, and we'll have our hands full keeping him from getting third helpings every meal," he said.
Andy smiled, but they were mostly silent for the rest of the meal. When the breakfast dishes were cleared away, Jess patted Andy's shoulder. "I'm going to check on the horses, and do a quick check of the fences, too. The doctor'll be here later, and I'll be back in time for lunch. Can you handle the place for a few hours?"
"Sure, Jess, I'll be fine."
Jess got himself ready, and went out to handle the day's work. He waved back at Andy, and the boy smiled, but Jess didn't envy his position. Having to sit in the house and worry over Slim most of the day would drive Jess insane. He was worried, still, but at least he had the distraction of his long day of chores to keep him occupied. With Slim down, Andy had to focus on making sure the stage was taken care of, but it wouldn't be rolling in until well after lunch today.
Jess shook himself and focused on his work, trying to turn his thoughts away from everything else.
Jess reigned in Sunset, and pulled up alongside the small carriage headed away from the ranch. "Afternoon, Jess!"
Jess smiled at the doctor's cheerful tone. "Afternoon, Doc. How's Slim?"
"Much better, Jess," Sweeney said. "He was sitting up, talking when I left." Jess' smile glowed and the doctor laughed. "Figured you'd be glad to hear that. I won't hold you up, now. I'll be back again in three days. Gave all the instructions to Andy."
"Much obliged, Doc," Jess said, already urging Sunset into a trot. "Much obliged!" The doc waved, and Jess spurred Sunset on into a gallop. When he got to the ranch, he tied her off, and patted her neck and promised to give her a good rub down the moment he'd had a chance to talk to Slim. He could smell something like lunch coming from the kitchen, so he was surprised when he came into the house, and the main area was empty. Andy wasn't in the kitchen, or anywhere to be seen.
Jess pulled the bubbling pot of beans and bacon off the flame to keep it from burning. He could hear voices coming from the bedroom, and he moved toward the door. The voices stopped, and then he heard Slim call, "That you, Jess?"
"Give us a minute, will you?"
"Sure," he said, trying not to feel hurt. He shuffled back to the kitchen area with a short sigh, but he was curious. What in the world could they be talking about? And why the secrecy? Of course, didn't a man have a right to have a private conversation with his brother? But why now? Was he thinking about a will? Could he be feeling worse than the doctor thought?
The curiosity gnawed at him, and he forced himself to go outside and do something with himself. But, though he planned to pump some water, or give Sunset that rubdown, what he found himself doing was edging toward the bedroom window. The window was cracked open, and Jess could hear their voices clearly. He stood beside the window and listened.
"... worried about... about... going to..." Andy's nervous voice trailed off.
"I used to worry about it," Slim answered, his voice still not as strong as Jess was used to. "Sometimes, when I start feeling worried about other things, worrying about Hell tries to add itself to the pile." Jess frowned slightly. Maybe Slim was talking about death. "But you remember that song you were taught in Sunday school when you were a little boy?" Slim asked. "All things bright and beautiful? All creatures, great and small?" There was silence, but Jess assumed Andy must have nodded. "Well, that song is true, Andy. God made every single thing on the earth. And that includes me and Jess."
Jess' frown deepened. What in the world? "Right," Andy said thoughtfully.
"And God doesn't make mistakes, does he?" There was silence from Andy – a shake of the head, Jess assumed. "Right. So I figure, God made me and Jess the way we are for a reason." Jess felt his face flushing. "And if it turns out that we're wrong, then we'll take what comes. But meanwhile, we do our best to be good men. We try to help people when we see they need help. We're honest in our business. We've neither one of us ever shot a man in the back, and when we've wronged someone, we try to make amends as best we can. We try to live right, just like I try to teach you to live. And, the way I figure it, that's all God can ask of any man living on this earth. Does that make sense to you, Andy?"
There was a brief silence, and then Andy said, "Yes, Slim, I suppose it does."
"Good. Now, even though we understand that, it doesn't mean other people will."
"I know, Slim. I won't tell anybody."
"I know it's a big secret to keep, Andy," Slim said. "But I know you're mature enough to handle it. That's why I decided to tell you. And I'll try not to keep important things from you again. Does that sound good?"
Jess moved slowly away from the window, then hurried to the pump. His hands were shaking, and he could feel that his face was still red. He pumped water down into the basin, and almost splashed water onto his face without taking his gloves off first. He snatched the gloves off, shoved them into his pocket, and splashed his face again and again until he felt the tremors in his hands and arms cease.
"Jess?" Jess felt his insides tense at the sound of Andy's voice calling from inside the house. Even though Andy had seemed alright, Jess was so scared that Andy would look at him differently that his stomach hurt. He filled the nearby bucket with water, not really sure what he planned to do with it. The pitchers in the house would all have been completely filled by now.
The next moment, Andy poked his head out the front door. "There you are," he said cheerfully. Jess took a deep breath and turned to face Andy. The boy's bright smile faltered a little when Jess faced him, and he felt his chest tighten. "What's the matter, Jess? You okay?"
Jess smiled. "Just fine, Tiger," he said. "Just fine. I just got a little warm after the ride."
Andy smiled at him, and there was nothing in his eyes but warm affection. "Lunch is ready," he said. "Slim said we could eat in the bedroom today if we want to keep him company."
"That sounds just fine," Jess said.
They stepped inside, and Jess started toward the kitchen. "Jess?" Andy held his arm, and Jess stopped, feeling his short-lived relief start to evaporate.
"I just... Slim told me..." Andy blushed, and looked down for a second. When he looked up again, his face was still red, but he was smiling. "Guess I'm just trying to say... it's good to have a man like you... I mean... it's good that now I have two people that're like fathers to me," he said softly.
Jess gasped, so shocked he felt like all the wind had been shoved out of him. He tried to come up with something to say, but nothing seemed fitting enough to follow what Andy had told him. He felt his eyes start to water, and he grabbed Andy and pulled him into a tight hug, clutching him as if he were Jess' own long-lost son. "I... I'll do my very best for you, Andy," he said, the tears obvious in his voice.
Andy squeezed him tightly. "I know, Jess," he said into Jess' chest. "You already do."
Jess pressed the boy to himself even harder, before letting him go. He looked down at the wavering image of Andy, and brushed the tears out of his eyes. Then, he ruffled Andy's hair and smiled at him. "Let's get some food into that brother of yours, before he starts living up to his name again."
"You're up early."
Jess looked up from the recipe card and smiled. Slim had been able to walk around for the first time the day before (four days after he'd been shot), and it still gave Jess a thrill to see him up and walking, even if he did have to use a cane. "Morning," he said. "I was trying to surprise you two, but today's not the day for that I see."
"What do you mean?" Slim asked. He looked around. "Where's Andy? Up already?"
"He was up and dressed when I got up, and that was a little before dawn. He's gone out looking for that wolf cub."
Slim frowned. "Now? It's been days, that cub's long gone by now."
"You know how he is about strays," Jess said with a shrug.
Slim chuckled. "Yeah, he certainly took to you, didn't he?"
Jess picked up the nearest object, his pencil, and threw it at Slim. Slim just laughed again as it bounced harmlessly off his chest. He reached down to pick it up, then winced. Jess was on his feet in less than a second. "Leave it, Slim, leave it," he said, touching his arm.
"Serves me right, I guess," he said. "Pour you a cup of coffee?"
Jess sat back at the table and finished re-copying the recipe in as neat a hand as he could. "So what are we having?" Slim asked, setting the blue and white cup in front of Jess.
Jess thought about it. "You know, I think I will surprise you," he said. Slim shook his head, but didn't try to peek at the card. They sat quietly together, while Jess copied his recipe, and Slim read his latest book. Later, Jess fixed them a small breakfast, and started his surprise dish. Then, they talked for a while before it was time to start chores.
Slim stayed inside and did what he could in the house, while Jess fed the chickens, collected eggs, checked the horses, and started on his least favorite task – laundry. He was guaranteed to miss Jonesy more than ever when it was laundry day. Still, he'd barely gotten started when he saw Andy tearing down the road on his feisty Palomino.
Jess was alarmed at first – why was he galloping down the road as if the hounds were after him? But when he got close enough, Jess could see that he was smiling. He waved at Jess. "I found it! I found it!"
"Found what?" Jess asked, noting that there was no wolf cub anywhere to be seen.
Andy hopped off the horse, and tied him off. "Proof!" he cried. He grinned at Jess then ran into the house, calling for Slim.
Jess ran to the house after him, and saw him talking excitedly to Slim. "... and there it was, right there in the water!"
Slim glowed. "That's great, Andy," he said. He looked up at Jess, eyes bright. "Andy found the Parkison boy's rifle."
"Nope," Andy said proudly. "I knew Slim'd never do what that old man said he did, and I knew nobody in town'd believe it either. But I still didn't like Parkison thinking Slim would shoot a man in the back. Now he'll have to admit he was wrong."
Slim touched Andy's hair, and Andy smiled up at him. "You didn't really go looking for that wolf cub this morning, did you?" he asked.
Andy looked down, and shrugged, though he was still smiling. "Maybe not only for him. But if I didn't find it, I didn't want..." He shrugged again.
"I know what you mean," Slim said. "Listen. The stage'll be along soon. I'm going to send a message to Parkison to meet me up there where you found it. I'm going to show him what you found so he can see with his own eyes."
"Alone?" Jess asked sharply.
"No, not alone, Jess. Parkison insulted our family in front of all of us. We'll all be there to show him what Andy found." He looked down at Andy. "Go on, see to that crazy horse of yours while we wait for the stage."
Andy trotted back out of the house. The moment the door closed behind him, Jess grabbed Slim, and kissed him hard and long, gripping his hair with one hand, and caressing his face and neck with the other. When Jess finally broke the kiss, Slim stared at him, eyes wide, breathless, with a sort of a stunned smile on his face. "What was that for?" he asked.
Jess smiled, still holding Slim's face. "You said 'our' family."
Jess pushed Sunset to her absolute limit, and like the excellent mare she was, she delivered. She pounded the dust in a furious gallop, running as if her very life depended on it. She got them back to the house in record time. He hopped off the saddle before she'd fully stopped, and ran full speed into the house, terrified he'd smell smoke. He raced to the oven, and yanked open the door.
Jess let out a deep sigh of relief. "Hallelujah!" He grabbed the pot holders, and pulled out the perfect, brown, sweet smelling loaf. Moments later, he heard Slim and Andy pull up, and they came running into the house.
"Now, what in tarnation was the all-fired-"
"What's that?" Andy asked excitedly.
"It's that surprise I was talkin' about," Jess said with a smile. "I forgot all about it when we went up to the crick, I was afraid it'd burned."
Slim sighed and rolled his eyes, but there was a smile on his face. "Worse than any woman," he muttered.
Jess scowled. "What did you say??"
Andy laughed. "Did it burn, Jess?" he asked.
"It's just fine," Jess said, still glaring at Slim.
"All right, all right, don't get sore," Slim said. "Let's have some of this surprise bread."
Jess wanted to stay mad, but the bread smelled so fine, and it came out so perfectly even though he'd forgotten about it, and Parkison had been seen off almost on friendly terms with Slim after Andy'd shown him where he'd found the rifle. All in all, he was just too happy to stay mad.
"Pour some coffee, Slim," Jess said, smiling. "Andy, you get the butter. I think you two are gonna like this."
"What kinda bread is it?" Slim asked.
"Cinnamon bread. Mrs. Dean's recipe," Jess said. Andy grinned and rubbed his hands together, then hurried to get the butter. Within minutes, the three of them were seated together at the table, steaming hot coffee beside their plates, and large, sweet smelling slices of cinnamon bread on each plate, with a pat of butter on each one.
Jess waited while the other two tasted the bread, and he beamed at the looks on their faces. "You sure outdid yourself, Jess," Slim said.
"I'll say," Andy said, his mouth still full of his first big bite of bread.
"Glad you like it," he said, feeling about ten feet tall. Finally, he took a bite himself, and was glad to know that they weren't just saying it was good to please him. It was damn good.
Jess smiled to himself, and took a sip of his coffee. Slim and Andy were chatting away about the Parkisons, the wolf cub, the little lizard or whatever it was that Andy had brought back, and anything and everything, just as if the tension of the past few days had never been. Jess watched, joining in when he felt like talking, but mostly sitting, eating his cinnamon bread, and watching the two best friends he'd ever had; realizing with a sense of gratitude and a little wonder, that he wasn't an outsider here anymore. He wasn't the drifter that had come to stay, and become a close friend of the family, either. He was their family, and they were his. They knew who (and what) he was, and they accepted him just that way, and it felt damn good.