Part fifteen of the Ranch Days series
(The men of the Bar T discover that the heart is a fragile thing)
By Maz McCoy
One month away from his fifteenth birthday, Jed Curry sat on a bale of hay in the barn, twirling his Colt .45 in his right hand. He spun, caught and aimed the gun at a knot hole in the wall. He repeated the act. Spin, catch, aim. He nodded his approval; he was getting faster. Spin, catch, aim. Better still. On the fourth spin of the gun he found himself pointing the barrel at Marty, who stood in the doorway carrying a saddle and bridle.
“I hope that’s not loaded.” Marty put the saddle on a trestle and slung the bridle over his shoulder. He looked across at the blond boy when he received no reply. “Kid? Is it?”
“Heyes back yet?”
“Answer the question.”
Jed sighed and rubbed a hand over the invisible stubble on his chin.
“Just a couple of bullets.”
The bridle hit the ground hard.
“Dammit, boy! What the heck have I told you?”
“No point carrying a gun if it ain’t loaded.”
“That is NOT what I said.”
“Yes, it is. You told me…”
“Dammit! You know that was about carrying the thing.”
“But it’s true.”
“Sitting there now, you ain’t carrying it; you’re…You’re playing with it!”
Jed stood up and turned slowly to face the man.
“But, I won’t be shootin’ it.”
“Then why the heck is it loaded? D’you want to blow your foot off? Or maybe hit someone who happens to startle ya?”
“Can you guarantee that?”
They stood facing each other, man and boy. Slowly, Marty shook his head, his disappointment clear.
“Don’t look at me like that!” Jed snapped. “You’re not my father!” The comparison surprised Marty.
“And what would he have said?” Jed glared at his friend, his jaw clenched tight.
“How would I know? He’s dead!”
After what seemed like an eternity, Jed’s shoulders dropped, some of the fight leaving him.
“I won’t hurt anyone. I’m just practicing.”
Marty shook his head, picked up the bridle and headed to the tack room.
“What’s made you so moody?” Heyes asked as he handed a sack of flour to Jed.
“I’m not.” The boy headed into the store, returning moments later to take another sack from Heyes who stood in the back of the wagon as they unloaded it.
“Let me rephrase that. What’s up?”
Heyes watched Jed disappear into the building again.
“Nothing, huh?” he asked when Jed reappeared.
“That’s what I said.” Jed waited for his friend to hand him a box. Heyes rested it on the edge of the wagon.
“So there’s nothing bothering you?”
“Nothing on your mind?”
“Nothing you want to talk to me about?”
“Sheesh, Heyes! Will you shut up?”
His friend smiled in triumph.
“I knew there was something.”
“Yeah, it’s you!”
Heyes handed the box to Jed.
“We can talk about it later.”
“We’ll sit down and you can tell me all about it. Then I can give you the benefit of my vast experience.” Jed gave him a look and Heyes made shooing motions with his hand. “Go on, take the box.”
Shaking his head in disbelief, Jed headed inside. Some days he’d like to flatten Heyes.
“That’s it?” Heyes asked, his disappointment clear.
“Yeah.” Jed sat down on the top step of the porch outside the bunkhouse. He rested his coffee on his knee as he shoved a biscuit into his mouth.
“He caught you practising and that upset you?” Heyes sat down beside his friend, taking care not to spill his own coffee. He looked at Jed, there was clearly more to it. “What else?”
“My gun was loaded.”
“He said it shouldn’ta been.”
“He told you that?”
“In no uncertain terms.”
“So you got told off and now you’re sulking.” Heyes smiled and bit into his biscuit.
“I’m not sulking.”
“Yes, you are and don’t snap at me, ‘cos that would only prove me right.”
Heyes received an ice-blue glare. They sat quietly for a while. Coffee was drunk, biscuits devoured. Heyes gave Jed the occasional glance.
“What else is it?” Heyes finally asked.
“Just something I said. It got me thinking.”
“And we know how dangerous that is.” Blue eyes fixed on Heyes. “Go on.”
“D’you think our folks would…? D’you think they’d approve of what we’re doing?”
So that was it.
“I reckon they’d be proud of us. We’ve got proper jobs, maybe a little hard on the back but they’re honest.”
“Yeah. What about my…?” Jed stopped. Heyes followed the direction of his friend’s gaze. Marty released his horse into the corral then headed to the barn. “I just want to protect us, Han.”
“I know, Jed, I know.”
The following morning, Jed worked in the barn, pulling soiled hay towards him with a rake. In the next stall, Bill’s horse Winifred gave a snort and put her head over the partition.
“I’ll get to you next,” Jed informed her as he continued to rake. A soft nose nuzzled his back and Winifred gave the stall a kick. “Sheesh, are all women as impatient as you?”
“Only about some things,” Marty stated as he walked by the open stall.
“SHEESH MARTY! You scared the heck outta me.”
“Good job you weren’t wearing your gun.”
“I thought we’d settled that.”
“Nope, not in my view.” Winifred gave a snort. “Not in hers either.”
Chuckling to himself, Marty headed to the tack room.
“I’m not wearing it today.”
Marty stopped and turned to face the boy, noticing the bloody nicks on his face from his attempts at shaving; attempts supervised by Heyes.
“Maybe you got some sense in that head of yours after all.”
Jed watched Marty walk away and then went back to raking hay. He could hear Marty in the back room whistling a tune he didn’t recognise. For some reason his cheerfulness annoyed Jed and he raked the hay with more effort than it needed.
Rake, rake, rake.
He was fed up with people telling him what to do.
Rake, rake, rake.
Heyes had kept on and on at him when he was trying to shave that morning.
Rake, rake, rake.
Do it like this, Jed, don’t scrape it like that, watch me, see how I do it…Ain’t I the best there ever was at shaving? Well, maybe he didn’t say the last bit, but he knew that was what his friend was thinking.
Rake, rake, rake.
Now Marty was on at him again about his gun. It was the one thing he could do better than his friend and he wasn’t about to… Marty abruptly stopped whistling. Jed listened. After a moment there was a crash, the sound of things falling and then…Silence.
Jed stopped raking.
“Marty?” There was no reply. “You okay?” Again, nothing. Resting the rake against the stall he walked to the tack room. “Marty?”
At first Jed saw nothing out of the ordinary and then…The man lay on his side on the floor, clutching his chest, pain etched on his face. Breathing heavily, Marty met Jed’s horrified stare.
“What can I do?” Jed dropped to his knees beside his friend. Marty gave no reply. “I’ll get help.”
Jed scrambled to his feet and ran.
“A leader, huh?” Nathan mused as he sat on his bunk, socked feet crossed at the ankles, his hat covering his face.
“Yep. A natural born leader,” Heyes repeated.
“And what do you plan to do with these amazing leadership qualities of yours?” Jeff Collins asked before taking a sip of coffee. He exchanged an amused glance with Bill Napier who sat opposite him at the table. Bill shook his head at the young man’s arrogance and smiled.
“I reckon I could be a ranch foreman.”
“You do, huh?”
“Yep. I mean that’s all about giving orders and…” Heyes saw Collins watching him. “And taking on lots of responsibility and stuff. Which you sure are good at.”
“Go on,” Jeff told him, unimpressed by Heyes’ attempt to dig himself out of a hole.
“You could join the army,” Bill suggested. “Need a lot of leaders there.”
“No. Not that. Not ever.”
“Well, you’re good with numbers. How about working in a bank? Running one. You know as a manager?” Nathan offered. “’Cept you’d have to give out money instead of taking it from folks all the time.”
“No. I don’t want anything to do with banks.”
“So what the heck are you gonna use these amazing leadership skills for?” Bill asked, exasperated.
“I reckon I…”
The door to the bunkhouse flew open, hitting the wall with a crash. Jed stood in the doorway, breathing heavily as all eyes turned to look at him.
“It’s Marty! He’s…” Jed pointed. “He’s sick; real sick.”
Chairs flew backwards, coffee cups tipped over as Bill and Collins headed for the door. Nathan hopped around tugging on his boots.
“He’s in the tack room,” Jed called as he ran to catch up with them.
“Marty?” Collins jumped over a bale of hay and burst into the tack room. The man lay on the floor where Jed had left him. Collins dropped to his knees at the older man’s side as Nathan and Bill skidded to a halt. “What’s wrong?”
“Chest pain…Like a clamp…On my heart…Darn pain shooting…Down my arm too.” Marty’s eyes scanned their faces. His eyes fell on Jed. The boy looked about as scared as he felt. “Get the kid outta here will ya?”
“I’m not leaving you,” Jed stated defiantly.
“Please, Jed. I’m embarrassed enough…Lying here.” He grimaced.
“Marty, I…” Jed looked at the men. Collins nodded and reluctantly Jed stood up. The men were quiet as he left.
“He gone?” Marty asked, his words catching in his throat as he fought the pain.
“Yeah,” Bill assured him.
“Reckon my heart’s…Givin’ out. Don’t know there’s…Much you can do. Just don’t let the boy see me die, all right?”
“Will you stop talking long enough for us to help you?” Marty fixed Jeff with a stare.
“I could still whip your…” He took a sharp intake of air.
“Yeah, sure you could. We’re getting you outta here. Bill you got his shoulders? Nathan can you get his legs?”
“I got him.”
“Okay boys, on three, we lift him. One…Two…Three!”
They carried Marty out of the tack room, across the barn and up to the bunkhouse. By the time they were inside, Marty was pale and struggling to stay conscious. Having laid him gently on his bed, they stepped back allowing Henry to check on their friend as the sound of a horse heading to town echoed outside.
In the corner of the bunkhouse, Jed sat on a chair, keeping out of the way, his eyes never leaving Marty’s bunk.
Jed stepped out of the bunkhouse, saw Heyes down at the corral and headed towards him.
“How is he?” Heyes asked when Jed reached him. The look on his friend’s face told him it wasn’t good news. “Is he..?”
“No. He’s alive. Doc says it’s his heart.”
“Is he gonna be okay?”
Jed didn’t reply. Instead he sat on the edge of the horse trough, staring at the ground.
“I don’t know.” The boy fought hard to stop his bottom lip wobbling. “I don’t know.” He sniffed and wiped his nose with the back of his hand. Heyes sat beside his friend. “He was just lying there. One minute he’s whistling and the next…I mean how could it happen so fast?”
“What exactly did the doc say?”
“I only know what Nathan told me. He said Marty’s heart is weak and making him ill. Said he’s lucky to be alive and he was gonna need a lot of rest. Said he’d have to take things real easy, even when he was better.”
“Well that’s good ain’t it?”
Jed looked incredulously at his friend.
“Good? He almost died!”
“But he didn’t. And if the doc is talking about him resting up and needing to take things slow, then he obviously expects him to get better.”
Jed considered this, deciding he liked Heyes’ way of thinking. He wiped his nose again.
“I guess that is good.”
Heyes stood up.
“I don’t imagine Marty will enjoy lying there doing nothing. So, why not help me with my chores and then we’ll go visit the patient?”
Moist eyed, Jed nodded.
“What’s that?” Marty asked when Jed placed a small brown bag on his bunk.
“My bullets. I figure you could look after them for me. That way you wouldn’t worry about what I might be doing. I’ll only ask for them if I’m gonna practice or somethin’.”
“Jed, you don’t need to…”
“The doc said you shouldn’t be worrying about stuff. He said it wasn’t good for your heart. So I figured…” He waved his hand at the package.
Reaching forward, Marty picked up the bag. He took a breath before answering. Damn, he wished he didn’t feel so weak. He met the boy’s gaze.
“I’ll keep ‘em safe. You just ask anytime you need them.”
“Thanks.” Jed sat at the end of Marty’s bunk. “So does it hurt now? Your heart?”
“My chest aches. It’s not so easy to breathe but…It’s better than it was. I’m glad you found me when you did.”
“I’m gonna be laid up for a while so I reckon you’ll hafta keep an eye on the horses and tack for me.”
“I can do that.”
“Don’t take no nonsense from ‘em, especially Winifred.”
“There’s a few things I want to teach you about your gun too.”
“Yeah. If you leave it with me, I’ll take a look at the balance and we can…” He took a deep breath, his jaw tightening.
“Guess I should rest up a bit.”
“I’ll leave you alone.”
Jed stood up and headed towards the door.
“Don’t forget to let me see your gun later.”
Marty looked smaller than Jed had ever seen him look before.
“And one other thing, Jed; something I’ve been worried about.”
“What is it?” Jed rested his hand on the door handle.
“Have Nathan talk to you about shaving. You keep doing it the way Heyes’ says and you’re gonna slit your throat.”
Jed smiled and ran a hand self consciously down his cheek.
“He ain’t much of a teacher.”
“So I see. Get Nathan to help you. You’re growing up, son. I’d like to see you reach your next birthday.”
“Yeah, me too.”
End of part 15