Jess rushed into action automatically at the sound of Slim’s frightened cry. He’d barely seen the boy move, but the trigger happy side-winder was jumpier than a rattler in a room full of rocking chairs. He swung his gun arm fast, but Jess was just a sight faster. He jumped forward, springing in front of Andy. There was a bang, and a scream - maybe more than one, Jess wasn’t sure.
He was terrified that Andy’d been hit - the boy’s face was white, and there was horror in his eyes. But a second later, Jess was falling, dragging Andy down though he tried to keep his footing. Keep from falling on top of the boy. But there was a white-hot fire burning in his lower back, and he couldn’t stay up no matter how hard he tried. He crashed down, and then Andy and Slim were shouting his name. Then, there was nothing.
There were a thousand rattle-snakes. A thousand! All twining around his arms and legs, telling him that there was a crazy rocking chair on the loose. Begging him to help. Jess tried to help, though he didn’t know how. But one of the snakes got too excited, and started trying to dig a hole into his back, just a few inches left of his spine. No! Jess tried to fend him away, but the other snakes had his arms and he couldn’t do anything about the crazy rattler trying to get into his insides. Terrified, he fainted, praying that the rattlers wouldn’t eat him before he woke up.
His back hurt. That was sure, there was something wrong down there, but he couldn’t move his arms to check. He just wanted to reach back and feel what was wrong with his back. No, it wouldn’t work. Maybe his arms were tied down. That had to be it. They were tied down. Somebody murmured in his ear, telling him to lie still. Why? Who was that, anyway, telling him to lie still as if he wasn’t already tied down? He had a mind to slug them one to the chin for trying to be funny when he was a prisoner. He would have, too, if he could have opened his eyes.
As it was, he decided it might be better to just wait a while. Take the voice’s advice, and just lay still for a bit. That might make the pain stop. It didn’t, but… it was better than trying to figure out why his arms and legs didn’t work. He kept his eyes closed (pretending it was by choice), and let sleep take him.
Crying. Somebody was crying. A woman? No, maybe a child. Yes, that was it. A child was crying piteously somewhere nearby. Jess wanted to turn to the child and comfort him. He remembered crying like that when he was very small. It was a desperate, panicked kind of crying, like when you know something’s happened that will change everything for the worst, and there’s nothing you can do at all. Hearing that from somebody else was awful. Jess was a man now, and he could help - he could pick up the child and tell him that everything would be okay one day, just as (after many years) it had turned out okay for Jess. But his head wouldn’t turn, and he couldn’t see anything. His head throbbed with frustration bordering on fury, and he made a violent effort to sit up and turn to the sound of the plaintive crying. A fierce, breathtaking pain shot through him, like a hot poker driven through the middle of his body, and he collapsed, unconscious.
Jess slowly, slowly opened his eyes. He could see the night stand out of one eye, but nothing out of the other. He didn’t panic. He felt an intense sense of relief, though he couldn’t understand why. He seemed to remember feeling as if he’d gone blind. But now, even if he was blind in one eye, at least he could see out of the other. Thank God!
He tried to move his arms, and they twitched. He clenched his fists, and opened them. Great! They worked. That settled, Jess tried to make out why one eye didn’t work. He breathed in and out, which was a little bit hard to do as well, and evaluated his surroundings. There was softness under him, and something light covering him. Bed! That made sense. He turned his head slowly, and suddenly, he could see out of both eyes. He laughed at himself. Of course. He was lying on his stomach on the bed, and one eye had been against the pillow.
Now, why on earth was he still in bed? Judging by the light, it was nearly noon! Slim’d be furious. Jess tried to sit up, and gasped. Pain shot through him, sharp and overwhelming and absolutely horrible. He slumped against the bed with a whimper, and struggled to keep from crying. He wasn’t entirely successful, and he held his breath, trying to blink away the tears.
Jess heard the sound of a door opening, and booted feet hurried toward him. “Jess?” Jess looked up into the worried face of his closest friend. Slim smiled, but his face was pale and drawn, and his eyes were red, as if he hadn’t slept all night. “Thank God, you’re awake,” he said, hurrying to the side of the bed. “What’s wrong?” he asked, wiping his thumb over the tears on Jess’ cheek. “What’s the matter, Jess?”
“I…I don’t know,” Jess said, forcing the words out. His voice sounded thick and hoarse, and speaking was difficult at best. “I tried to sit up, but-”
Slim winced, and shook his head. “Just try to lie still, Jess,” he said. He put his hand on Jess’ back, right between his shoulder blades, and Jess felt his body relax completely. Slim’s hand felt like the best thing in the world just then - comforting and reassuring. He put his other hand on Jess’ head, and looked at Jess’ face like he was trying to swallow Jess up with his eyes. “Didn’t think I’d ever see those eyes again,” he said quietly.
Jess was alarmed. “Wh… what… you-”
“Don’t you remember, Jess?” Jess shook his head, and Slim’s hand pressed just a little more firmly against his back. “You were shot, Jess,” he said. “That dirty sidewinder Morgan had me tied up, and was about to do the same to you when Andy made that sudden move.” Slim smiled. “You saved his life, Jess.” Jess frowned, trying hard to remember. He did vaguely remember feeling like things were huge mess, and about to get messier. “Andy’s been sick with worry the last few days. You’ve barely moved a muscle all this time.”
Jesse was stunned. “How… how long…”
“Four days,” Slim said.
Slim nodded. “You were real bad off, Jess,” he said, his hand pressing down once again on Jess’ back. “Took all day before we could get a doctor to you. That… Morgan.” He spat out the name. “He wouldn’t let us help you, just left you there bleeding on the floor, for hours. Took almost half the day to get free and get rid of Morgan, then I raced to get the doc. You were so pale when I got back. You were cold, and I…” Slim’s eyes began to shine, and he glanced away from Jess’ intent gaze for a moment. “I thought you were already dead.”
Jess frowned, and felt his own tears starting in response to Slim’s open emotion. What he must have gone through the last four days. “It’s okay, Slim,” he said.
Slim smiled, then leaned in a kissed his forehead. “You just stay still and rest, okay partner?” Jess nodded. “Okay. You’re gonna be just fine, just fine.” Jess gave him a reassuring smile, and Slim ran his hand slowly through Jess’ hair. Jess expected him to leave the room then, but he stayed crouched beside the bed, stroking Jess in slow, soothing motions until Jess fell asleep.
Tears streamed down Andy’s cheeks, and he looked at Jess through weary, red-rimmed eyes. “I’m sorry, Jess,” he said. “I didn’t mean… I wasn’t gonna do anything, I just stumbled, and he… he just-” Andy’s sobs redoubled, and he covered his face with trembling hands.
“Hey, hey, it’s okay, Tiger,” Jess said quickly. “Come on.” Andy was inconsolable, sobbing uncontrollably. Jess was alarmed, taken aback by Andy’s raw, wild grief. He wished Slim was there, but the other man had gone to bring in some firewood, and Andy’s tears had started almost the second the door closed behind him. “Andy, it’s okay,” he said. “It’s…” No. No, Jess was not getting through. He gritted his teeth, and pulled himself slowly up. His back hurt like the devil, but he breathed through it, and kept pulling.
“Jess, don’t!” Andy said, sounding frightened.
“It’s okay,” Jess said tightly. He wasn’t actually sure if it was okay, but he hadn’t blacked out yet, so it couldn’t be that bad. He wanted to sit up fully, but he decided against pushing his luck that far. He propped himself up on his pillow, then slowly rolled over on one side (the opposite side from where the bullet had gone through his back). When he was settled and stable, he gave Andy a triumphant smile, and beckoned to him. “Come here, Tiger,” he said.
Andy stepped hesitantly toward the bed, and Jess patted the small space he’d made encouragingly. Andy sat down on the side of the bed and looked down, still weeping, at Jess’ face. Jess reached up, and smoothed Andy’s hair. He wiped away Andy’s tears, just as Slim had wiped away Jess’ tears earlier that day.
“I don’t want you to feel guilty anymore, Andy,” Jess said. “I know it’s a tall order, and maybe you won’t be able to stop right away. But what happened to me wasn’t your fault. That Morgan was crazy. He would have shot you down for tripping over the rug.” Andy’s tears started to flow again at the memory. “Now listen, son,” he said. “I’d do anything for you, y’hear? Anything. I feel about as bad as I’ve ever felt right now, but if it meant saving your life, I’d do it all over again. And even if I’d never woken up again-”
“Oh, Jess!” Andy cried, starting to sob again.
“If I’d never woken up again,” Jess said again, cradling Andy’s head in his large hand. “Then I’d still do it all over, and I’d never want you to blame yourself.” Andy continued to cry, but he didn’t sound wild and hysterical as he had a few seconds before. Jess pulled him down, and Andy lay down on the bed and curled in against Jess’ chest. Jess put an arm around the boy, and held him. “It’s okay, Tiger,” he said. “Everything’s going to be fine.”
He continued to murmur what he hoped were soothing words, until Andy’s shaking body slowly stilled. After a while, Slim came into the room, stopping short when he saw them. Andy barely moved, and Jess knew he must have fallen asleep. Jess looked up and smiled at Slim. “He’s alright now, I think,” Jess said quietly.
Slim smiled, and pulled off his boots. He stepped softly into the room in his stocking feet, around Jess’ bed. A moment later, Jess heard soft scraping sounds, and he tried to turn to see what was happening. The motion didn’t agree with his wound, and he stopped and just lay still. Moments later, there was a slight bump against the bed, and he heard the creaking sound that usually meant Slim was getting into bed. The sound was much closer than usual, and Jess realized Slim had pushed his bed flush against Jess’ own. A moment later, Slim’s large, strong arm was over Jess‘. Slim caressed his brother’s head briefly, then squeezed Jess’ shoulder, and rested his arm along Jess’ side. He edged close, pressing his body against Jess’, ever mindful of the wound.
A few nights ago, if this had happened while they were alone, it would have felt like a prelude to a deeper intimacy. But now, it just felt incredibly comfortable and warm. Safe. Jess let himself relax, and lean back into Slim’s chest. The two men sighed deeply. “Now,” Slim said, his voice low and soft. “Maybe I’ll finally get some sleep tonight.”
“Maybe,” Jess said, smiling. “I’m feeling better than I did this afternoon.”
They were quiet for a moment. Then, Jess said, “Been real busy with the stage?” There was no answer from Slim, and Jess turned his head slightly to look at the other man. Slim’s eyes were closed, and his breathing was even. A second later, he began snoring lightly, and Jess smiled. He turned back and settled himself against Slim’s broad chest. Within a very few minutes he, too, was asleep.