(Part Thirteen of the Ranch Days series)
By Maz McCoy
“Hold him tight, son!”
“I got him,” Heyes assured Bill as he gripped the rope tying the mustang to the corral fence. On the other side of the fence, Bill Napier crouched beside shuffling hooves to hobble the horse.
“All right, that’s got him, you can let go now.” Heyes did and grinned at Bill. Napier climbed through the fence and checked the rope making sure the horse wasn’t about to pull away. “Good work, Heyes.”
“I want to try breaking one, Bill.”
“No way.” He turned away.
“Bill, I can do it. I’ve seen what the others do. I can ride anything you put me on, you know that.”
Bill stopped in his tracks and Heyes had to sidestep to avoid bumping into him. Slowly Napier turned to face him.
“No, Heyes, you can’t ride anything I put you on. If I stick you up on one of those mustangs, I might just as well ask the doctor to be standing by ‘cos they will try to kill you.”
“Well how am I gonna learn to ride one if you don’t give me the chance?”
“That’s not my concern. This ain’t school and I sure as heck ain’t your teacher when it comes to breaking horses. Now if you’ve got a problem with that, go talk to the boss. You ain’t a horse breaker, Heyes.”
Heyes fumed as Bill walked away. He was still bristling when Jimmy Landen and his Pa wandered over to the corral. The Landen family, Jimmy, his Pa, Martin and Jimmy’s older brother Charlie had been brought in to help break the twenty mustangs, the ranch hands had caught in the hills and driven into the Bar T the previous week. The Landens were well known horse breakers and paying them to get up on a wild bronc was better than having half your ranch hands in their beds with broken limbs. Heyes watched as Jimmy slipped through the fence into the corral.
“Heyes!” Jimmy called as he ran a hand through his hair. He was a couple of months older than Heyes, but a good six inches taller. “You planning to stand there gawping or you gonna get a saddle for me?”
“I don’t work for you, Jimmy.”
“Maybe not, but we been hired to break these horses to save you trying, so you’d better help me out.”
“You want a saddle, get it yourself.” Heyes turned his back and walked towards the bunkhouse.
Nathan’s head snapped up from his pillow when the bunkhouse door slammed shut. He’d been out all night chasing rustlers and was none too pleased to be woken.
“What the heck’s got into you?” He fixed Heyes with a glare.
“Well, could ya sulk about nothin’ without waking me up?” Nathan turned on his side and pulled the blanket up to his neck.
“I’m not sulking.” Heyes pulled himself up onto his top bunk and sat there, legs swinging as he tried to calm down. Everyone still treated him as a child. He could do anything Jimmy Landen did if only they would give him a chance.
“All right, what is it?” Nathan asked as he turned over to face Heyes.
“I didn’t say anything.”
“I know, but I can hear you brooding.”
Heyes jumped down and sat on the bunk next to Nathan’s.
“Do you think I could try breaking in a horse?”
Nathan rubbed his eyes.
“I take it Bill said, no?”
“Then there’s your answer.”
“Just ‘cos he won’t let me doesn’t mean I’m not capable of doing it.”
“Heyes, if Bill says no it’s for a reason. Breaking horses is a skilled job and it’s dangerous. He’s not saying no to spite you.”
“He thinks I’m too young.”
“Did he say that?”
“Heyes, you ain’t breaking in a mustang. Forget it. Now, go annoy the kid will ya? I’m beat.” Pulling his blanket back to his chin, Nathan yawned and closed his eyes.
Heyes stood up, looked down at the sleeping man and crept quietly from the bunkhouse.
Five shots echoed off the ranch buildings, two dented cans lay on the ground beyond the boulder they’d sat on and one disgruntled boy holstered his gun. Jed walked over to the boulder.
“You rushed it,” Marty stated, helpfully before spitting a gloop of tobacco juice on the ground. Without a word, Jed picked up the two cans and replaced them on the boulder. “Best take your time, boy or you’re gonna run outta bullets before you hit them all.”
Jed shot Marty a glare and the older man grinned.
“Glaring at me ain’t gonna help you hit ‘em.”
“Makes me feel better though.”
“Well that’s another thing you hafta control, your temper. If a man sees he can rile you, he knows you won’t be concentrating and that’s a sure fire way to get yourself dead.”
Jed stood, feet apart as Marty had shown him, hand hanging beside his right hip and his Colt. He focused on the cans, he calmed his breathing; he could do this.
“Of course then there’s folk that like to put you off.”
“Sheesh, Marty will ya shut up!”
The man’s laughter was not helping.
“All right, I’ll shut up. Now shoot them will ya so we can go get something to eat.”
Jed drew, fired, and smiled as five cans flew through the air and landed some way behind the boulder. He gave Marty a triumphant grin as his friend approached him. Marty laid a hand on Jed’s shoulder.
“You’re good, kid, and you’re getting better.” Jed grinned. “But if I hear you’ve threatened Mike Raven with this gun, I’ll tan your hide with it.”
Jed’s shoulders stiffened.
“I know what you been thinking, but Mike served his time in jail and that’s where it ends.” Jed didn’t reply, just gritted his teeth and stared angrily at the ground. “D’you hear what I said?”
“I thought you were hungry?”
“I heard you, Marty.”
“And what you gonna do about it?”
“Well seeing as Mike’s in town and I’m out here, there’s not a lot I can do, so you can quit worrying.” Jed turned to go but Marty caught hold of his arm. He received an ice-blue glare.
“And when you do meet?”
“That’s up to him.”
“No, it’s up to you.”
“I’m not gonna draw on him.”
“Damn right you’re not.”
“Marty, can we drop this, please?”
“Not until you tell me you don’t plan to go after Mike wearing your gun.”
“I can’t tell you that.”
Marty swore under his breath as Jed walked away.
“Why would you want to get on a mustang?” Jed asked incredulously as he sat next to Heyes on the fence early the next morning, watching the wild horses move in agitated formation around the corral. “Don’t you remember what happened to Nathan? D’you want a broken leg, or worse?”
“I won’t break my leg.”
“Oh, so you’re some sort of si…mist…?”
“The word you want is psychic. Someone who can see into the future.” Heyes watched the horses with fascination, picking out the one he was sure he could break.
“So are you?”
“No, but I know I can do this.” Heyes shifted on the fence to face his friend. “When you practice shooting aren’t there times when you just know you’re gonna hit all the cans or whatever it is you’re aiming at?”
“Well this is just like that. I know I can break one of these horses.”
“Yeah, and I just bet they know they can break one of your legs.”
Heyes thumped Jed on the arm, hard but the younger boy wasn’t about to admit it hurt.
“HEYES! KID!” They turned at Jeff’s call. “Get those stalls cleaned out!”
“Yes, Boss!” Jed yelled, jumping down from the fence. He looked up at Heyes. “You comin’?”
“Yeah.” Heyes gave the horses a final glance and then followed his friend into the barn.
“WELL, IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE THAT WAY!” The sound of Jeff Collins shouting, at someone out of sight, drew the attention of all the hands working in the yard. Heads looked up and watched as Collins strode angrily down the slope from the main house and up to the bunkhouse. The wooden door shuddered on his hinges as he slammed it shut.
“Something’s got the Boss riled,” Gerard stated, unnecessarily as he coiled up a rope in the barn entrance.
“He went up to see Mister Culver,” Nathan informed him.
“D’you think he was shouting at him?”
“I hope not, or he won’t be foreman around here for long.”
“All right boys knock it off. Get back to work.” Bill ordered, his own eyes focussed on the bunkhouse.
“D’you know what it’s all about?”
“If I did, Nathan, I wouldn’t tell you now, would I?”
“Bill, it’s not the first time Jeff and the Big Man have had a shouting match. We’ve all heard them.”
“Yeah,” Gerard added. “And it’s been getting worse lately. So what’s going on?”
“I honestly don’t know.” Bill studied the bunkhouse. “But maybe it’s time I found out.”
Three sharp taps on the door. Collins sighed. He knew someone would seek him out and he bet he knew who it was.
“Come in, Bill.”
The door opened and Bill stepped inside the foreman’s room. Jeff sat at his desk, papers scattered in front of him alongside a column of figures roughly scribbled on a pad.
“What can I do for you?”
“Just came to see if everything was all right.”
“Why shouldn’t it be?”
“We’ve got eyes, Jeff and ears. I don’t think anyone missed you shouting just then.” Collins gave a heavy sigh and put his head in his hands, leaning his elbows on his desk. “How bad is it?”
“Bad. Mister Culver was talking about selling off some land.”
“The same reason any man does it. To raise funds.”
“I know a lot of ranches are struggling, but the Bar T..?”
Collins met Bill’s gaze.
“Yeah, the Bar T.”
“’Course you can do it,” Jimmy encouraged. “I’ll hold him still for you and when you’re ready, you give me a shout.”
“Okay, but I don’t want anyone knowing.”
“Right now it’s just you and me, Heyes. My Pa and Charlie won’t be back from town for another hour at the least and everyone else’s stuffing their mouths up at the bunkhouse; which is where I’ll be if you don’t make your mind up soon.”
“Okay, bring him over.”
Jimmy tugged on a rope secured around the neck of a feisty mustang upon which he’d finally fixed a saddle. He tied the rope to the fence and pulled, bringing the animal closer to Heyes.
“Get in the saddle, then give me a shout when you want me to let go. You’ve seen how we do this. Bend your knees when you jump off and if he throws you relax and try to roll when you land.”
“I got it.”
“I never had you down as a bronc buster, Heyes.”
“Guess you don’t know everything about me, do you Jimmy?”
“Guess I don’t. You ready?”
Heyes nodded and climbed into the saddle, tightening his grip on the reins as the horse shifted beneath him. Its hooves danced in the dirt and it threw its head back, trying to shift the unwelcome weight on its back.
“You sure you’re ready?”
Heyes grip tightened on the ropes. He tried desperately to remember all Jimmy had told him. He nodded.
“Let him go.”
The minute the horse was free it bucked. Heyes held on tight as the horse landed, then jumped again. It twisted to the left, to the right but still Heyes clung on, trying to anticipate the animal’s next move as he bent his own body to match each move. He could do this. He WAS doing this! The horse gave another frantic kick of its hind legs and Heyes felt his grasp slipping. He shifted his weight trying to maintain his balance as the horse kicked again and again. When the bronc gave a sudden twist as it bucked, Heyes couldn’t hold on any longer. His fingers slipped from the rope and he was airborne and heading for the fence. His head collided with the corral post, Heyes saw an explosion of colour and then the world went black.
“HEYES!” Jimmy kept one eye on the retreating mustang as he dropped to his knees. “Heyes?” There was no response.
The scraping of plates, men laughing and talking masked the sound of running footsteps, but all heads looked up when the door flew open.
“It’s Heyes!” Jimmy gasped as he pointed outside. Without a word, chairs flew backwards and the men of the Bar T ran towards the corral. Jeff could see the still figure lying at the base of a fence post. He uttered a curse and a silent prayer as he vaulted the fence and raced to the boy’s side.
“Heyes?” His voice was gentle as he knelt beside him, noting the pool of blood staining the dirt beneath Heyes’ head. Jeff gently touched Heyes’ bloody forehead, moving aside his hair so he could see the wound. Heyes’ breathing was laboured and he didn’t like the sound he was making. Nathan and Bill were soon at his side and he heard the frantic sound of Jed shoving his way through the group. “GET HIM OUTTA HERE!”
Nathan stood up and caught Jed’s arm.
“Let’s wait over here, Jed.” He pulled him away from Heyes.
“Let me go, Nathan, I wanna help.”
“Jeff and Bill know what they’re doing.”
“But I…” Jed’s face lost colour and he looked up at Nathan with dread. “Is he dead?”
“Heyes, can you hear me?” There was no response from the crumpled body. Jeff removed his bandana and placed it carefully over the bleeding gash on Heyes’ forehead. “Heyes?”
There was a faint groan. Jeff and Bill exchanged a glance.
“Can you hear me, son?”
“Do you know where you are?”
Still his eyes had not opened.
“What’s your name, boy?”
“Where do you hurt, Heyes?” Bill asked.
“Anywhere else?” No reply. “Heyes? Anywhere else?”
Still there was no reply. Collins, tried.
“Do your legs hurt?”
“Can you move them?” They watched as Heyes boots twitched.
“Your arms, hurt?”
On cue, Heyes fingers moved.
“What about your neck? Does your neck or back hurt, Heyes?” No answer. “Heyes?”
“We’re gonna turn you onto your back. Just let us move you okay?”
Heyes remained silent.
“Heyes?” Bill also received no reply. “He’s out again.”
“We’ll get him to the bunkhouse.” Collins looked around. “Gerard!”
“On my way!” Gerard headed to the barn to saddle his horse and head to town for the doctor.
“Nathan, you gotta let me see him!” Jed pleaded.
“Nathan! We need your help,” Collins called.
Nathan looked to Marty.
“I got him,” the older man said grabbing a handful of Jed’s shirt as Nathan went to see what the Boss wanted him to do.
“Let me go, Marty.”
“Marty, he’s my friend, I want to help him.”
“I know, kid.” Marty gave the boy a sympathetic look. “But Jeff knows what he’s doing. Have you ever doctored a man that’s been thrown from a wild horse?”
“Jeff and Bill have. You can’t run a ranch without seeing your share of broken bones. If anyone can help him now it’s them. Let the Boss do his job. He won’t move Heyes until he knows he’s okay.”
Jed gazed helplessly at the crowd gathered around his friend.
Heyes was carried carefully to the bunkhouse and laid on Jed’s lower bunk. Henry arrived with a bowl of hot water, clean cloths and their meagre first aid kit. He knelt beside the unconscious young man. Worried looks were exchanged between Collins and the cook.
“He was conscious for a while,” Jeff informed him. “Said it was only his head that hurt.”
“What the heck was he doing on that horse?” Henry demanded.
“Don’t scowl at me old man; I didn’t put him on it.” Collins shot a look around the room but Jimmy was nowhere to be seen.
Henry soaked a cloth in the steaming water and dabbed gently at the bleeding wound. Jed eased his way between Bill and Nathan to stand at the foot of the bunk. He stared at his unconscious friend. He didn’t bother to ask if they thought Heyes would be okay.
The doctor had been and gone. He’d stitched the gash and bandaged Heyes’ head. He pronounced that no bones were broken and he didn’t believe there was any internal bleeding. He expected Heyes to regain consciousness at anytime and advised on his care once he did. Jed sat beside his friend on the next bunk, listening to the raised voices coming from the porch.
“WHAT THE HECK WAS HE DOING ON A MUSTANG?” Martin Landen asked.
“He wanted to ride one,” Jimmy informed his father.
“SO YOU JUS’ LET HIM?”
“YOU COULDA COST US THIS JOB AND MORE THAN THAT YOU COULDA COST THAT BOY HIS LIFE!”
“Pa…” Jimmy’s comment was cut off by the sound of a fist colliding with his jaw.
Collins was out of his chair and over to the door with Bill and Nathan hot on his trail. Jed heard the sound of a scuffle.
“GET OFF HIM, MARTIN!”
As the situation outside was sorted out, Jed cast his eyes back to his friend.
“Heyes?” he whispered. “You know when you wake up I’m gonna flatten ya! What were you thinkin’? Getting up on a mustang to prove something! Sometimes I don’t know you anymore.” Jed rested his elbows on his knees and closed his eyes.
“How’s he doing?” Marty asked as he leaned against the bunk the following afternoon.
“The same.” Jed got up and walked over to the stove, pouring himself a cup of coffee. “I’ve been thinking about what you said.”
“What was that?” Marty turned to face him.
“I won’t go after him. After all he was only jealous ‘cos I was dancing with his girl. I mighta done the same thing.”
“If it was Emily?”
Jed’s head snapped up.
“I didn’t say that!” He blushed and Marty laughed.
“Nope, but you might as well have.” Marty eyed him seriously. “I’m glad you made that choice, son.”
“Well, I reckon people get hurt enough just by going through life. He don’t need me to add to it.”
“You’re quite the philosopher, Jed Curry.”
There was a groan from the bunk followed by the sound of someone throwing up and liquid hitting the floor. Marty looked at Jed.
“I’ll get a mop and bucket; you go listen to him moan.”
Jed smiled and looked over to see Heyes raised up on his elbows, looking around in confusion.
“I don’t feel so good,” he exclaimed, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.
“The Landens headed out earlier this morning. Jimmy said he was sorry about what happened but you were still pretty much out of it.” Jed sat on the bottom of the bunk watching Heyes stuff another of Henry’s homemade bread rolls into his mouth.
“I kinda mawayd im dowit.” Heyes words were muffled by his mouthful of dough.
“He still shouldn’ta let you.” Jed was an expert at deciphering Heyes’ replies.
“Jeff still mad at me?”
“He still gonna cut my pay?”
“So he says. For every day you’re laid up here.”
“It’s your money.”
“It’s our money.”
“How come it’s always our money when we don’t have any, but your money when you win at poker?”
“This is good bread,” Heyes stated, swiftly changing the subject.
“Don’t do anything stupid again, Han. I thought you were dead.”
“There’s been a few times lately when I thought that’s what you wanted.” Heyes moved the crumbs around on his plate.
“You know that ain’t true.”
“I know but we’ve been fighting a lot.”
“Henry says that’s ‘cos we’re growing up. Finding our place in the world.”
“If I go after a job in San Francisco…”
“You’re leaving?” Jed’s mouth dropped open.
“I saw something in the newspaper Gerard brought back from town.”
“I like it here.” Jed’s mind was a whirl of emotions.
“You don’t hafta come with me.”
“You’d split us up?”
“Gonna happen sometime.”
Jed couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He stood up and stared in disbelief at his friend.
“You’d split us up?”
End of Part 13