(Part Ten of the Ranch Days series)
By Maz McCoy
“My hat?” Tucker Dodson asked and the dark-haired young man smiled, revealing dimples in his cheeks.
“If you want to see these cards you have to pay for the privilege.”
“This is a brand new hat. I’ve had it what, four days?”
“I thought you were confident about what I had in this hand.”
“If you mean do I think you’re bluffing, then yeah, kid, I do.”
“So you willing to bet your hat or not?”
The eyes of the ranch hands were on Tucker and he knew it. As the newest arrival at the Bar T, and Gerrard’s brother, he had something to prove. Losing face in front of an over confident kid wasn’t gonna help. Slowly he removed his hat and placed it on top of the money in the middle of the table.
“Okay kid, show us what you got.”
Breaths were held; eyes focused on the cards in Heyes’ hand as he placed them, one-by-one, face up on the table. Tucker looked at the cards then up at Heyes. The young man smiled as he reached forward, picked up the black hat and placed it on his head.
“Least you head’s big enough for it,” Tucker muttered as he threw his cards down in disgust.
“Hi, Nathan. The calves all right?” Heyes asked as he entered the barn the following morning.
Nathan turned as he groomed his horse.
“They’re all fine. You ready to take your turn out there?”
“Sure.” He placed his hat on his head and Nathan smiled.
“So it’s true. You won Tucker’s hat.”
“It’s kinda tough taking a man’s hat.”
“If he didn’t want to lose it he shouldn’ta bet it.”
Heyes leaned against the stall and smiled.
“You know, Heyes, there’s a hard streak running through you.”
“You think I should just give it back?”
“Heck, no, but you don’t hafta rub his nose in it by wearing it.”
“My hat was worn out. I needed a new one.”
Nathan walked out of the stall.
“Yeah, kid, I know, but most men go buy themselves one.”
“I’m not most men.”
“You sure ain’t.” Nathan grabbed the hat from Heyes’ head and ran out of the barn.
“HEY!” Heyes yelled as he gave chase.
“So what do you think about Heyes winning Tucker’s hat?” Henry asked as Jed walked by him carrying a sack into the storeroom. The boy didn’t reply. “D’you hear me?”
“So what d’you think?”
“I don’t care.”
Henry’s eyes narrowed. He watched the lad head back to the wagon. Jed was filling out at last. His biceps showed through his shirt sleeves as he hefted a box from the back of the wagon. The boy was growing up, if only in some ways.
“You and Heyes still not talking?”
“Got nothing to say to him.”
“Now why don’t I believe that?”
Jed spun quickly to face the cook.
“You calling me a liar?”
“Woah there! Back up boy!” Henry held his hands up, palms facing Jed in surrender. “I ain’t the one you’re angry at.”
Jed let out a heavy sigh.
He carried the box into the storeroom.
“You told anyone what’s between you two?”
“D’you want to?”
“Ain’t nobody’s business but ours.”
“True, but then I’m an old man and a busy body at that, so you gonna tell me or do I have to starve it out of you?”
Despite his anger, Jed smiled.
“I know where you keep the biscuits.”
“Yeah, but not where I keep the key.”
“You think that would stop me?”
Jed smiled again.
“Heyes and I just don’t see things the same way anymore.”
“Pull up a barrel son and I’ll get us a coffee. Then you can tell an old man all about it.”
“Where’s Jed?” Bill Napier asked when he entered the bunkhouse.
“Helping Henry unload the supplies,” one of the men sitting at the table told him. Bill looked around, spotting Heyes on his bunk, reading.
“Heyes, go tell Jed I want to see you both in the barn in ten minutes.” Bill turned back to the door.
Heyes looked up.
“Could you send someone else?”
Bill stopped and turned back to face the young man.
“I could.” Heyes relaxed. “But I’m not going to. So get off your butt and go tell him.”
“Bill, I’d rather you…”
“I don’t care what you’d rather!” Bill stated. “I gave you an order and I expect you to carry it out. Do I make myself clear?”
“Yes sir, but…”
“No buts! I don’t care what’s between you two. I don’t care if you haven’t said a word to each other in the past week. But I do care when it interferes with the running of this ranch. Now, I told you to do something and I expect it to get done. Got that?”
“Good. Now go tell Jed.”
Heyes looked around the room hoping someone would volunteer to go in his place but everyone suddenly found something else that required their full attention. Heyes picked up his hat and headed out the door. Bill let out the breath he was holding.
“Anyone found out what’s between them yet?”
Heyes heard Henry’s laughter as he turned the corner to the storeroom. Entering, he saw Jed sitting on a barrel, coffee cup in hand, laughing too. It was a moment before they realised he was there.
“Heyes, we were just talking about you.” Henry put down his cup and stood up as two brown eyes shot a murderous glare at his friend. “So what can we do for you?”
“I got a message from Bill.”
“Spit it out, boy.”
“It’s not for you.”
“So who…?” Henry realised who. Heyes was looking everywhere but at his friend. “Well best deliver your message.”
“Henry will you tell Jed, that Bill wants to see him in the barn in ten minutes?”
“Nope, I can’t do that.” Heyes’ eyes fixed on the cook’s, pleading. “You want to give Jed a message, you do it yourself. I reckon it’s about time this nonsense stopped.”
“I mean it, Heyes.”
“I’d be mighty grateful if…”
“Save your breath, Henry.” Jed pushed off the barrel and turned to look Heyes square in the eye. “You don’t hafta say it again. I heard ya!” Heyes didn’t move as Jed brushed past him and headed for the barn.
“Dumb foolishness is what it is,” Henry told Bill as he handed him a sack of supplies. “First we got Jed ridin’ off in that storm ‘cos of something Heyes said and now we got ‘em fighting over a woman, and one you pay for at that.”
“Well, I reckon a couple of days together out watching the herd will force them to talk to each other.”
“If they don’t kill each other first.”
“You think it’s that bad?”
“I don’t know, but there’s a lot of anger inside those boys and it’s starting to come out. Guess they’re of an age. I’m not sure what they’ll do.”
“I want it sorted before Jeff gets back. They’re as close as brothers, you’d think…”
“Yeah, well look where that got Cain and Abel.”
“Maybe I should send Marty out there with them.”
“Maybe you should. Jed listens to him; Heyes too when he’s a mind.”
Gunshots drew their attention.
“Speaking of brothers…” Their eyes drifted to the corral.
Tucker drew and fired hitting all of the cans that sat on the fence. He whooped in triumph as he reloaded.
“That’s another dollar you owe me, Gerrard.”
“When d’you learn to shoot like that?”
“While you were knee deep in cow sh…”
“All right boys time to get back to work,” Bill ordered as he strode towards them. Ignoring him, Tucker set the cans back on the fence.
“What do you reckon? Worth another bet?” Gerrard cast a glance at Napier as he disappeared into the barn. “You ain’t worried about him are ya?”
“Nope, but I reckon I’ve lost enough for today, big brother.”
“Maybe, but I sure ain’t fool enough to bet my hat.”
“I’ll win it back.”
“How? Challenge, Heyes to a shooting contest?”
“You know that might not be a bad idea.”
“He won’t take that bet. In the meantime, Marty reckons there’s an old brown one in the barn that’d fit you just fine.”
“Reckon I’ll challenge that old man and win his hat instead.”
“Marty’d beat you with his eyes shut.”
“I doubt it.” Tucker turned and fired at the first can.
It flew into the air before hitting the dirt.
It skidded across the corral.
It flew towards the barn.
It flew up in the air.
Tucker stared in horror as Jed Curry dropped to his knees. “S**#!” Tucker ran towards the corral.
Hearing Tucker curse, Gerrard turned.
“Oh no! BILL! BILL!” Gerrard followed his brother climbing over the fence.
“Jed? Oh kid, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I didn’t see you there. What the heck were you doing out here?” Tucker dropped to his knees beside the boy. In shock, Jed stared wide-eyed at him as blood soaked the left side of his shirt.
“Let me see.” Bill pushed Tucker out of the way as he knelt next to Jed. The boy’s face was pale and he was breathing rapidly; his eyes fixed on Bill’s as the man pulled his shirt free of his pants. Jed flinched. “Easy, son.”
Opening Jed’s shirt revealed where the bullet had carved across his body at the base of his ribs.
“Hurts,” Jed croaked.
“I imagine it does, kid.” Damn! He turned to Tucker. “Go tell Henry what’s happened then get outta my sight.”
Tucker dragged himself to his feet, turning to look down at Jed.
“I’m sorry, kid.”
Pulling off his bandana, Bill folded it into a dressing and placed it over the bleeding wound. Kid cried out.
Feet pounded on the porch and the bunkhouse door flew open.
“Quit your shoutin’, Tucker, I heard ya the first time.” The cook sat up on his bunk. “Can’t a man take a nap around here without…?”
“We need your help. Jed’s been shot!”
“I shot him. I shot, Jed.”
Packing his saddlebags, Hannibal Heyes froze. He could hear nothing but the words Tucker had just uttered repeating in his head.
“I shot, Jed.”
Heyes burst from the bunkhouse and down the steps, stopping short when he came face to face with Jed walking slowly towards him, leaning against Bill for support, his right hand holding his side.
“Jed?” The blond boy raised his head, meeting Heyes’ eyes. “You okay?”
He looked anything but.
“Let’s get him inside.” Bill ignored the desperate look on Heyes’ face.
“He’s gonna be fine, I’m sure, he’s gonna be fine. C’mon, kid.”
Heyes stomach flipped as relief rolled over him. He watched as Bill helped Jed up the steps and they entered the bunkhouse.
Inside, Jed sat down on his bunk, still holding a hand protective across his body. Henry was quickly at his side with a steaming bowl of water, cloths and other accessories. Jed’s shirt was pulled over his head, he was made to lie down and the bloody bandana pulled away. Jed cried out when Henry cleaned the wound. The cook picked up a bottle and soaked a cloth in iodine.
“This is gonna bite, kid,” he warned. Jed’s fists clenched tight around the blankets he lay on, his eyes squeezed shut as the iodine seeped into the wound. Tears flowed down his cheeks but, teeth gritted, he fought hard not to cry out anymore. “It’s a pretty deep graze. I’m gonna hafta stitch it up.”
Two frightened blue eyes fixed on the cook.
“It’s for the best, Jed,” a familiar voice said.
Jed turned to look Heyes in the eye.
“You talking to me now?”
“Yes. That wound needs stitching.”
“And if I hadn’t been shot?”
The boy turned his head away.
“Do it, Henry.”
The cook turned to Bill and Gerrard who stood behind him.
“Best hold him boys, this needle’s gonna hurt worse than that iodine.”
“D’you want something to bite down on?” Heyes asked.
“Yeah, how ‘bout your arm?” Jed suggested. “Or maybe your foot. You stick that in your mouth enough.”
Stunned by Jed’s outburst, Heyes stepped back and sat down on the next bunk. Henry prepared the needle, threaded it, then leaned forward. Holding Jed’s flesh still he looked the boy in the eye.
Jaw clenched shut, Jed gave a nod.
The needle pierced his skin and Heyes looked at his boots, not wanting to see Jed suffer. He tried to ignore Jed’s whimpers, to ignore the way his body tensed each time the needle moved. Eventually, Henry sat back, his hands covered in blood.
“All done.” Jed couldn’t speak. After cleaning his hands in the bowl of water, Henry enlisted Bills’ help to bandage the wound. Finally they moved away from the bunk, leaving Jed to rest. His face was pale and he looked exhausted. Heyes sat beside his friend, not speaking as Jed drifted off to sleep.
Heyes didn’t look around when he heard the bunkhouse door open. He sat on the top porch step kicking dirt into the cracks between the wooden planks.
“Want a cup of coffee?”
Heyes turned and Nathan held out a steaming cup. Heyes took it.
“Mind if I join you?” Nathan sat down before Heyes could reply. He nursed the coffee cup in his hands. “Jed was lucky, huh?”
“I don’t call being shot lucky.”
“A couple of inches the other way and…I’d say he was lucky.”
Heyes pondered this.
“I guess you’re right.”
“So you gonna talk to him, now?”
“That’s it? One try and you give up? I didn’t have you down as a quitter, Heyes.”
“Then try again.”
“What if he doesn’t want me to?”
“This is Jed, we’re talking about. Your best friend. Of course he wants to talk to you. You just have to be man enough to make it happen.”
“’Cos I’m the oldest?”
“Yeah, ‘cos you’re the oldest and because he’s lying there with a bullet wound and because if you let this thing between you fester away you might never talk to each other again. Believe me I know all about that.”
Heyes studied his friend.
“There’s someone you don’t talk to?”
Nathan’s thoughtful gaze turned to the corral.
“I lost touch with my younger brother, Roy, a few years ago. I loved that kid but he went and…Well, he chose a different path to me and we fought. Fists flew, the works. Last time I saw him he rode off, bleeding from a fight we’d just had. There isn’t a day goes by when I don’t wish I could tell him I’m sorry or see him again.”
“Where is he now?”
“I have no idea.”
“Yeah, me too. Don’t make the same mistake. Talk to Jed. No matter how stubborn he is or how angry you are, do it.”
Heyes’ met his gaze.
“Han…Han! Heyes! Hey…” a voice called in the darkness. “HAN!”
Heyes jumped from his bunk, his bare feet hitting the cold wooden floor. He knelt beside the bottom bunk. Jed was mumbling in his sleep. His hand gripped his side, his face contorted in pain as he called again. “Han!”
“Sshh! I’m here, Jed.”
Blue eyes opened.
“Hurts. It hurts somethin’ bad.”
“I’ll get you something for the pain. I’ll just be a minute okay? Try not to wake the others.”
“How’s he doin’?” Bill asked.
“Says it hurts.” Heyes whispered as he fumbled for a match.
“Good job I sent Tucker out to the line shacks with his brother or he’d be hurtin’ too.”
“He didn’t mean it.”
“I know. Can you see what you’re doing, boy?”
“Light a darn match, Heyes, we’re all awake anyhow,” Nathan muttered from beneath a blanket.
Heyes struck a match and used its light to find the powders Henry had kept from the doctor’s last visit. Heyes mixed some with water and returned to Jed’s side.
“Here.” He supported Jed’s head so that he could drink. The boy grimaced.
“That means it’ll do you good.” Heyes studied his friend’s face. “I’m sorry, Jed. Sorry we ain’t been talking. It was my fault.”
“S’okay. I’m sorry too.”
“How’s he doin’?” Henry stepped forward and placed a hand in Jed’s forehead. “Hmm. A little warm. Let him rest. You can tell him how sorry you are and what a fool you’ve been in the morning.”
Heyes didn’t move.
“Get back to bed, Heyes. Jed’s fine.”
“See you in the morning, okay?”
Jed looked up through sleepy eyes.
“Can we get to sleep now?” Nathan pleaded.
“How you feeling?” Marty asked as he sat on the bunk next to Jed’s.
“What does that tell you about bullets?”
“That getting shot hurts.”
“Yeah. What else did it teach you?”
“That I don’t want to get shot again.”
“That I don’t want to make others feel this way either, if I don’t hafta.”
“You catch on good, boy.” Marty stood up. “Don’t mean you can’t use that gun to protect you and yours. Just means you know how serious shootin’ it is.”
“I do, Marty.”
Marty reached forward and ruffled Jed’s hair with his hand.
“Rest up, son.” He turned and Jed watched him leave the bunkhouse.
Footsteps approached his bunk and Jed opened his eyes. Heyes stood beside him trying to decide what to say.
“Never known you tongue-tied before,” Jed stated as he pulled himself up, to lean back on the pillows. Heyes sat on the next bunk.
“We did all that.”
“I know, but I am. I don’t want us falling out.”
Neither spoke for a moment. It was an awkward silence.
“It still doesn’t settle it though,” Jed stated.
“I know.” Heyes looked at his boots. “I keep forgetting you’re growing up, that you’re gonna want to…”
“It’s gonna happen sometimes, Heyes. I was only saying that when the time is right I outghta be able to…”
“…Did you call me Heyes?”
“It’s what you want isn’t it? No more Han or Hannibal? No more childhood names?”
“We’ll always be Han and Jed, but I think those boys have grown up now. I know I lost my innocence long ago.”
“You mean Susanna wasn’t…?”
“NO! Not that!” Sheesh!” Jed smiled. Heyes was actually blushing. “Will you stop grinning like that?”
“So, you won’t mind when my turn comes?”
“Do we have to have this conversation now?” Heyes shifted uncomfortably.
“I thought I might visit Susanna one day.”
“Oh no you don’t.”
“I don’t like the idea of us sharing a woman.”
“Think she’d compare us?” Jed smiled again.
“No, I just… Sheesh will you just talk about something else? Your Ma’d skin me alive if she knew you were thinking about this stuff so young.”
“I ain’t that young. Men my age have…”
“I know! I know! I just wish you’d wait a while longer. There’s no rush you know? And besides Emily’ll be back soon for the wedding and…” Heyes caught the look on Jed’s face. “Oh no. Don’t even think about that!”
End of Part Ten