Part Twenty Two of the Ranch Days series
By Maz McCoy
Gerrard jumped down from the seat as Nathan pulled the wagon to a halt in front of the barn and applied the brake. Gerrard stretched his back and groaned.
“I must be getting’ old cos that seemed like the longest ride back from town ever.”
“I know what you mean.” Nathan placed a foot on the wagon wheel before lowering himself to the ground. He rolled his head from side to side. “My neck, sure aches. And my back!”
“Hark at you two old women!” Bill chuckled as he walked towards them. “Want me to have Jeff put a cushion on the seat for ya next time?”
“You know that’s not a bad idea.”
“Go right ahead and ask him, Nathan, only make sure I’m there when you do.” Bill gave each wagon horse a pat as he ran an expert eye over the animals.
“Maybe he’ll let us put a mattress in the back too. Then I can have a nap on the way home.” Gerrard suggested as he grabbed their bags from the wagon bed.
“Who’s plannin’ on nappin’?” a familiar voice asked and they turned to see the ranch foreman, Jeff Collins, leaning on the corral fence, watching them.
“Just wishful thinkin’, Boss,” Gerrard informed him, amiably.
“Glad to hear it, cos I got another job for you two.” Jeff tipped his hat back and smiled.
“Nathan, I told you we should have stayed in town a few hours longer!” Gerrard complained.
“What do you mean, you didn’t ask her?”
Nathan let out a heavy sigh and looked up at Collins, who stood hands on hips, behind his desk.
“Yeah, and correct me if I’m wrong but wasn’t the whole idea of you ridin’ into town so you COULD ask her?”
“I don’t know why you’re getting so all fired up, anyone would think you wanted to marry her.” Nathan shot a quick look at the foreman. “You don’t, do ya?”
“I’m gonna pretend you didn’t ask me that.” Jeff sat down in his old leather chair. “Sit down, Nathan.”
Nathan pulled over a chair and sat.
“So tell me why you didn’t ask her.”
“Didn’t get the chance.”
“You were in town for two days waiting for that shipment. Don’t tell me you didn’t see her?” Collins’ eyes narrowed and he waited. Nathan turned his hat in his hands.
“I saw her.”
Collins sat back in his chair. The clock on the wall ticked. And tocked. The hat turned. Tick. Collins’ chair creaked. Tock. Nathan sighed. Tick. Tock.
“I just got to thinking…” He looked up and met Jeff’s gaze. The foreman remained silent. “What have I got to offer her? What possible reason could she have for saying yes?”
“She might love you; as crazy as that sounds.”
“But is it enough?”
“It is for you, Why not for her?”
“Because women – need things. Where would we live for a start?”
“She has a house.”
“But that’s in town. I can’t give up my job. I don’t want to give up my job. She can’t move out here so. We’d never see each other.”
“Is that all?”
“All? I think it’s a pretty big problem, don’t you? I thought the whole point of being married was to be together?”
Jeff leaned forward resting his elbows on the desk.
“We could speak to Mr Culver. See about building another cabin.”
“With the ranch in trouble do you seriously think…?”
“Who told you the ranch was in trouble?”
“Jeff, we can read between the lines. Well except Gerrard. I’m not sure he can read at all. We hear stuff.”
“Just stuff. You and Bill talking in hushed tones. Mister Culver looking worried. You scowling at everyone after you’ve spoken to him. Stuff.”
“No one’s mentioned this in town have they?”
“Not that I know of but some of the men are worried. I guess that’s another reason not to get married. Maybe I won’t have a job soon?”
“You’ll have a job, Nathan. The Bar T is fine. We’re going through tough times but the ranch is – fine.”
“If you say so.”
“I do say so and I’ll have words with anyone who says otherwise, is that clear?”
“Sure thing – Boss.” He pushed the chair back and stood up. “Okay if I go back to work now, Mister Collins?”
“Nathan, I didn’t mean…” He looked up at his friend. “Sit down.”
“Think I’d prefer to stand.”
Jeff took a deep breath.
“Times are hard for everyone. You know Mark went back East to secure more funds for the ranch?” Nathan nodded. “Then you know we’re doing all we can. Make sure the boys know that, all right?”
“All right.” Nathan met Jeff’s gaze. “Can I stand up now?”
Collins nodded and Nathan stood and turned to go.
“When you see her next, make sure you ask her!”
Nathan smiled and nodded.
“I lost the darn key years ago.” Henry shook the box listening to the rattle inside.
“What’s in it?” Jed asked before he bit into an apple. Jed and Heyes stood in the cook’s store room. They were helping move boxes and sacks to clear the way for the supplies Nathan and Gerrard had brought back from town.
“Darned if I can remember.” Henry replaced the box on a shelf.
“So it could contain money? A fortune maybe?” Heyes’ eyes widened with excitement at the idea of long forgotten treasure. He put down the sack he was carrying.
“Money, maybe. A fortune, I doubt. Reckon I’d remember if I had anything that could be called a fortune,” Henry chuckled.
Heyes picked up the box and studied it. It was about eight inches long, four wide and maybe three inches deep. The top was decorated with a carved flower; maybe a rose. It didn’t look expensive but the lock, the small lock no one else could open, fascinated him.
“I bet I can open it.”
“So could I if I hit it with a hammer,” the cook informed him as he indicated where Jed could put the next box. “But I want the contents intact.”
“Hmm.” Heyes put down the box. “I’ll work on it.”
“You do that, son, you do that. In the meantime get that sack over there.”
Nathan was tired. Bone-weary. Dog-tired. Worn-out. Exhausted. Shattered and downright beat. He was covered in trail dust, every muscle in his body ached and his head hurt. For a man practically born in the saddle he felt like a novice after his first trail ride. He shivered, then closed his eyes and rested his head against his horse’s warm neck. In truth he hadn’t been feeling his best since he returned from town the day before and boy, did he have a headache! It felt as if someone had his head in a vice and wouldn’t stop squeezing. His horse nudged him and he looked up.
“Sorry, girl. Best get you settled down for the night, huh?” He undid the cinch on the saddle, letting it drop from his hands. Nathan took hold of the saddle horn, pulled the saddle from the animal’s back and promptly dropped it in the hay. “What the…?” He looked at his hands as the stall began to spin. No, he was NOT going to throw up here! His knees were as weak as…Oh no!
“What?” Bill Napier looked up from the gelding’s hoof he was examining, to see Jeff Collins, heading towards the bunkhouse, carrying someone over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes. He narrowed his eyes in the afternoon light and realised it was – Gerrard. “What the…?”
“He passed out in the corral. Get Henry will ya?”
“Sure.” Bill headed, at a run, towards the cookhouse.
“What in blazes happened?” Henry asked as Jeff laid Gerrard down on his bunk.
“He passed out. One minute he was standing up moaning about the job I’d given him, the next he face planted in the dirt.” Jeff stood back next to Bill and looked down at the ranch hand. Gerrard began to shiver. Henry leaned forward and placed a palm on the younger man’s forehead.
“He’s running a fever but from the way he’s shivering you’d think he was cold.”
“D’you want me to get the doc?” Bill offered.
The foreman looked at the cook.
“What do you think?”
“Give it a few hours, see if the fever breaks.”
“All right. Keep an eye on him.”
With a worried glance back at Gerrard, Bill and Jeff left the bunkhouse.
“I tell you I’ll open it,” Hannibal Heyes assured his friend as he and Jed entered the barn.
“I’m working on it.” Heyes peered into the first stall. It was clean. Good, less work for him.
“Without a key?” Jed leaned against the door.
“Yes.” Heyes headed to the next stall.
“When Henry has already tried?”
“Yes.” The stall’s occupant put her head over the door and nuzzled Heyes. He gave her neck a pat then moved on. “You don’t believe I can do it, do ya?”
“Heyes, if you say you can…”
“Then I guess you can.”
“I was right, you don’t believe me!”
“I just said…”
“I figured it out last night.”
Not listening to Heyes, Jed stroked the nose of his favourite horse.
“I figured out how the lock must work. If I can find a piece of metal to move the workings inside the lock, Henry won’t need the key to open it.”
Jed looked around the barn and Heyes frowned.
“Were you listening to a word I said?”
“I thought so.”
“My genius is wasted on you!”
“Does that mean you’ll stop telling me about it?”
Heyes’ eyes narrowed at the hopefully tone in his friend’s voice.
Jed’s shoulders dropped.
“So what are we looking for?”
“A small piece of metal. I’ll know it when I see it.” Heyes lifted a tarpaulin but dismissed whatever was under it.
“So how can I help if I don’t know what to look for?”
“Do you always hafta ask so many questions?”
“Only when I’m given a dumb assignment.”
Heyes turned to face him.
“Ass- sign –ment? Big word day, huh? You won’t say it’s dumb when I open the box.”
“IF you open the box.”
“So try the tack room. I’m sure Marty has something you could use.”
“I was going to.”
Jed mumbled something that Heyes couldn’t hear then noticed one of the stalls was open. As he headed towards it he realised it was Nathan’s horse inside. He swung open the door and… “HEYES!”
The dark haired young man spun on his heels in time to see Jed disappear from view. When Heyes reached the stall, Jed was kneeling in the hay beside Nathan’s still form. Their friend lay face down, a hand resting on the saddle beside him.
“Nathan?” Jed shook his shoulders. “Nathan?”
“Is he breathing?” Heyes asked and he crouched beside him.
“I think so.” Jed placed his hand on their friend’s back and felt the faint rise and fall of his ribs. “He’s breathing but he sure looks pale.”
“I’ll get help.” Heyes got to his feet and headed out of the barn.
“It’s gonna be okay, Nathan. Heyes’ gone to get help.”
“The doc should be here soon,” Collins announced as he stood at the foot of Nathan’s bunk. The younger man nodded weakly; a sheen of sweat covered his face.
“Don’t know what…” He broke off as a bout of coughing racked his body. The congestion on his lungs was there for all to hear. When the coughing passed he looked at Jeff. “What this is.”
“Best leave the diagnosis to the doctor.”
“Best keep folk – away in case – case it’s…” Cough. Cough. Cough. “ Case it’s conta…Gerrard has it so…”
“We thought of that. The men are real pleased to be sleeping in the barn.”
“Bet they are.” His voice was now barely more than a whisper. Nathan attempted a smile and ended up coughing again.
Henry entered the room carrying a bowl of water and a couple of cloths. He set the bowl on the floor beside Gerrard’s bunk, dipped the cloth into the water, wrung it out and laid it across the man’s forehead.
“How is he?” Nathan asked, his voice gravelly.
“Fading in and out of consciousness. I don’t like the sound of his breathing,” Henry informed him as he picked up the bowl and rounded the bunk. He perched beside Nathan and repeated the task with cloth and water. “That help?” he asked as he placed the cloth on Nathan’s forehead.
“Yeah. Feels good. Just so tired.”
Nathan closed his eyes. It wasn’t long before he was sound asleep.
Bedrolls were laid out on the floor of the barn and shaving kits were stashed as the men of the Bar T made themselves comfortable in their new accommodation. Jed sat leaning back against the stall where they had found Nathan and darned a sock. At least that’s what he was attempting to do. The once small hole now had layers of darning thread pulling it tightly together into an uncomfortable looking lump. Beside him Heyes tried to get the hay beneath his bedroll as flat as possible. He lay down. Sat up. Shifted some of the hay. Lay down again. Sat up. Nope, still not right. He shifted more hay.
“Will you just sit still?” Jed snapped.
“What’s the matter with you?”
“Nothing. What’s the matter with you? You must have that hay flattened by now.”
“Well, I haven’t and you’ll wish you’d done the same if you find a lump you can’t get rid of.”
“Already got one of those!”
“I heard that.”
“Leave him alone, Heyes, he’s worried about Nathan.”
Heyes looked up at Marty, then cast a glance at his friend. The expression on Jed’s face told him it was true.
“We all are. We’re worried about both of them.”
“Here.” Marty held something out to him and Heyes took it. It was an old door lock and a screwdriver.
“I thought you could open it, have a look inside, see how it works. Might help you figure out Henry’s lock.”
“Thanks, Marty.” He shot a look at Jed. “It’s good to know someone has faith in my abilities.
“Marty don’t have faith, Heyes,” Bill informed him as he walked passed. “He’s just hoping to shut you up about that darn box.”
Jed snorted and received another glare.
Jeff Collins sat on the bunkhouse steps and waited. He wasn’t good at waiting, especially when it was for the prognosis of a doctor. He turned when the door finally opened and the doctor stepped outside.
“It’s influenza,” the doctor announced. He descended the steps as Jeff got quickly to his feet.
Collins rested his hands on his hips and stared at the ground. The medic rested a hand on his shoulder.
“You should prepare them for the worst, Jeff. You may lose one of them. Maybe both. I’m not being pessimistic but Gerrard’s lungs are badly congested. I don’t like him losing consciousness.”
The doctor looked toward the corral where several of the hands were gathered, ostensibly working but clearly with one eye on the bunkhouse, awaiting news.
“This is a nasty disease. We’ve had several cases in town. Little Gloria Hepworth passed last night. She was only six years old. Maggie’s only girl too.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.” He followed the doctor to his carriage and waited as the man climbed on board.
“Your men are strong and fit. They’ll fight it but I have no guarantees for you.”
“It’ll be a few days until it passes or…”
“Yeah, I got it.”
“Keep them isolated. Give them lots of fluids; as often as possible. Broth when they can take it. I’ve left some powders with Henry that might help.” He picked up the reins. “I’ll be back when I can. If things turn bad send for me.”
Jeff stood beside the horses lost in thought.
“What is it?”
“Nathan’s been seeing Mrs Eldon.”
“So I heard.”
“D’you think I should…?”
“Let her come and see him? Just in case?”
“Might not be a bad idea. If she wants to. She has to be told the risks to her own health.”
“I’ll see to it.”
He stood back to allow the horses room as the doctor rode away.
Gerrard’s throat seemed to squeak as he breathed then another bout of coughing beset his body. Through red, watery eyes he looked at Henry as the cook placed another cloth on the sick man’s forehead.
“You’re welcome, son.”
“Never felt – felt – this bad – before.” Cough. Cough. COUGH! He held his stomach as the coughing took its toll.
“Let’s sit you up a bit.” Henry grabbed a pillow for the neighbouring bunk and placed it behind Gerrard’s head, raising him into a more comfortable position.
“Good. Should help you breathe easier.”
Over by the bunkhouse door Jeff lowered his voice as he spoke to Bill Napier.
“If I knew where his brother was I’d get in touch with him.”
“You think it’s that bad?”
A look from his boss gave Bill his answer.
“I’m sure he said Tucker was in Abilene, last he knew, but he could be anywhere by now.”
“Well, it’s a place to start. I’ll have one of the boys ride into town and send a telegram.”
“Bill says the boys are settled in the barn,” Henry stated as he set a bowl of steaming soup on the table in front of the foreman. He placed a bread roll beside it then pointed to the food. “Eat!”
“Yes, you are. Having you pass out from hunger ain’t gonna help them none.”
Jeff looked at the cook.
“Well, I’m right ain’t I?”
Jeff didn’t reply.
“Okay! I’ll eat.” He picked up the spoon, took a scoopful and shoved it in his mouth and immediately realised just how hungry he was. Henry smiled when he saw Jeff’s expression.
“Since when have you been so damn smart?” Collins muttered through a mouthful.
“Always have been you just ain’t noticed.” Jeff smiled as he shoved the spoon back into his mouth and Henry sat down opposite him, nursing a cup of coffee. “Bill send for Mrs Eldon?”
“Yeah. Marty went into town with strict instructions to go straight to her house and then ride back with her if that’s what she wanted.”
“D’you think she’ll come?”
Jeff looked over at Nathan, lying wheezing on his bunk.
“You sure you cleaned the stalls out?” Marty asked as he settled beneath his blanket for what he considered to be a well-deserved nap.
“Yes,” Jed assured him as he hefted a bale of hay into a stall.
“Sure don’t smell like it.”
“Maybe that ain’t horses you’re smellin’ Marty,” Bill suggested as he walked by.
“Yeah, that Kid could sure use a bath!” one of the new hands called from somewhere near the barn door.
“A bath? I don’t think he knows what that is,” Heyes added before inserting a piece of metal into the lock of Henry’s box.
“Very funny!” Jed retorted then leaning his head lower on his chest he sniffed. Nah! He was good for another day or two.
A soft hand rested on his forehead. A feminine hip moved next to his and the smell of rosewater filled his nostrils. Nathan knew he must be dreaming so he didn’t open his eyes. He liked this dream. Imagining Annabelle close to him was nice; comforting and something he wanted more of. Her sweet voice whispered his name and he smiled.
“Nathan, I know you can hear me, you’re smiling. Open your eyes.”
He did as she asked and two beautiful eyes looked back at him.
“Hello,” he rasped sleepily.
“Why would I do that?”
“S’what dreams – do.”
“I’m not a dream.”
“You are to me.”
She brushed a strand of hair away from his damp forehead and he frowned.
“For real?” Cough.
“What are you – doing here?” Cough. COUGH! COUGH!
“Here.” She held out a glass of water and helped him take a drink.
“Go home. You shouldn’t – be here.”
“You need nursing.”
“No. Go home. I don’t – want you to…” COUGH! COUGH! COUGH! Nathan fought to get his breath and Annabelle cast a worried glance at Henry. The cook walked over to the bunk.
“Don’t forget to breathe, son,” he advised, helpfully.
“Get her – outta here.”
“Remember your manners, Nathan. Mrs Eldon came all the way out here to help you. Least you could do is show some gratitude.”
“GET. HER. OUTTA. HERE!” COUGH. COUGH. Deep intake of breath. Nathan doubled over as the coughing got the better of him.
“Maybe you should step outside for a moment,” Henry suggested to Annabelle. “Get a breath of fresh air.”
“Don’t come back.” Nathan rasped, harshly. He didn’t see the hurt look on her face as she exited the bunkhouse.
“He just doesn’t want you catching it.” Jeff leaned against the porch post, his arms folded across his chest.
Annabelle sat on a chair, her hands resting in her lap.
“I know but I’m not going back to town.” She looked up at him. “He’ll just have to lump it!”
Jeff smiled kindly.
“He won’t like it.”
“I know.” She smiled. “Who knows, maybe the fight will help him beat this.”
The sun was beginning to sink towards the horizon when Jeff stepped out of the bunkhouse onto the porch. Some of the men were in the corral, others he could see riding out to where the herd was. The sound of a hammer rang out from the barn and in the open doorway Heyes was showing something to Jed. The blond boy didn’t seem all that interested but even as the youngster walked away, Heyes followed him. Life on the ranch continued as normal, as if nothing had happened, but it had. Collins’ shoulders dropped and he lowered himself wearily onto the top step and sat down. Through unfocussed eyes he stared at the dirt at the bottom of the steps.
Bill Napier took a step closer.
“Jeff? You all right?”
The foreman looked up.
“I asked if you were all right. You look a little dazed.”
Jeff didn’t respond and Bill waited. Clearly something was troubling his friend.
“Bill, I…Er…” Jeff looked up to meet the other man’s gaze. “Gerrard’s…He died.”
The silence in the barn was palpable. Even the horses seemed to sense that something was wrong and remained uncharacteristically quiet in their stalls. The Bar T ranch hands were lost in their thoughts after Bill had delivered the news of Gerrard’s death. Marty sat on a bale of hay staring at the ground. Bill leaned against a barn door watching the men. Heyes turned the door lock, now opened to reveal its workings, although it had suddenly lost its appeal. Jed looked at the saddle he’d cleaned the day before, for a man who would never ride again, and swallowed the lump in his throat.
Jeff Collins coughed as he reached the top of the steps that led into the bunkhouse and realised he was sweating. He was out of breath which was ridiculous because he’d only walked down from the Big House after informing the Culvers of Gerrard’s passing. Mrs Culver had immediately volunteered to arrange the funeral and to see to it that his kin were informed, somehow. Jeff was grateful for their assistance and until he climbed the steps to the bunkhouse hadn’t realised just how tired he was. He’d hardly slept in the past few days, so it wasn’t surprising. He put a hand on the wall beside the door to support himself and just then the door opened and Annabelle Eldon stepped out carrying a lantern. He was too slow to hide his fatigue from her and noted the concerned look she gave him as he pushed off the wall and stood up straight.
“You told the Culvers?” she asked.
“Yeah. Mrs Culver’s gonna organise things. The funeral and such.”
“That’s good. One less thing for you to worry about.”
He nodded vaguely and Annabelle reached out, placing a hand on his forehead. Jeff pulled away, taking a step back, but Annabelle was a determined woman and when she followed him and replaced her hand he didn’t argue. She frowned.
“You have a fever, Jeff.”
“No, I’m just hot from the walk back.”
“You have a fever.”
“I can’t be sick.”
“I don’t think you have a choice about that.” She rested her hand on his arm. “Come inside and sit down. I’ll fix us some tea.”
“Mrs Eldon, I…”
“It’s Annabelle and yes, you can take a minute for yourself. Come in. Sit down. Have something to drink. Maybe you are just tired or maybe you have it too.”
“The ranch won’t fall apart if you take a day or two to fight this.”
Jeff took a moment to look at her.
“You shouldn’t be here, Nathan’s right. It’s dangerous for you.”
“Don’t you think I knew that? I want to be with Nathan. I told you I won’t leave him. I want to help him. And I want to help you too.”
His eyes were rimmed with redness when he looked at her.
“If I’ve got it, I need to see Bill.”
Jeff cast a glance towards the barn but Annabelle, pulled on his arm.
“Come and sit down. I can always take a message to him.”
“Nathan’s gonna have his hands full with you as his wife.”
“I said, he’s…Oh. He didn’t ask you, did he?”
“Ask me what?” She had a pretty good idea and it set off a swarm of tiny butterflies in her stomach.
Jeff shook his head.
“I shouldn’ta said anything. Guess my brain’s muddled too.”
“Not so much you can’t tell me what you two talked about.”
“Mrs…” He saw the look she gave him. “Annabelle. I think it’s best if Nathan asks you…Tells you. I mean best if he tells you, what we talked about.” Without another word he walked passed her into the bunkhouse. Behind him Annabelle Eldon bit her lip and smiled.
Mid-morning the next day, Annabelle looked up at the sound of a knock on the bunkhouse door. Henry was busy in the back room so she walked over, opened it and was surprised to see a boy standing on the porch. He whipped off his hat when he saw her.
“Ma’am,” he said politely and she recognised him.
“It’s Ned, isn’t it?”
“I’m sorry, yes, Jed.” She smiled. “What can I do for you? Did you need Henry? Mr Collins is…”
“Who is it?” Henry asked before Jed could answer. He appeared beside Annabelle. “Jed? What d’you want, son?”
“I…Er…It’s just that…Er.” He looked down at the hat he held. Henry stepped passed Mrs Eldon and onto the porch.
“Let’s have a word out here.” Placing a hand on Jed’s shoulder he steered him away from the door. Annabelle closed it behind him. “All right, let’s hear it.”
“Whatever it is you came for.”
“I came to see Nathan.”
“So can I? See him?”
“The boss said to keep you all away.”
“I know but you let Mrs Eldon in.”
“She happens to be in love with Nathan. What’s your excuse?”
The youngster looked away.
Henry sat on a wooden bench that ran beneath the bunkhouse window and waited. Give the kid long enough and he’d spit it out. Sure enough only a couple of minutes passed before Jed turned to face him.
“I didn’t get to say goodbye.”
Henry’s brow furrowed.
“Who to?” He thought about it. “Gerrard?”
“NO! I mean…Well yeah, sort of but that’s not what I mean.”
“Maybe you should just explain.”
Jed let out a heavy sigh and leaned back against the porch rail. He stabbed at the wooden boards with the toe of his boot.
“I didn’t get to say goodbye to my folks. I wasn’t there when they died. I never got to tell them…” He looked up at Henry. “You know?”
“If Nathan…I’d just like to see him…In case.”
“I understand. Reckon you’re being a mite pessimistic about his chances but I do understand.”
“So can I see him?”
Henry stood up and walked back over to the door.
“We don’t want you catching it, Jed.”
“Seeing as I was the one who found him when he was sick, don’t you think I’da caught it by now?”
Henry smiled and shook his head.
“I thought you’re always telling me Heyes is the smart one.”
“I like to let him think that.” Jed grinned. “So, can I see him?”
“Nathan?” Jed stepped closer to the bed, clearly concerned by the pallor of his friend’s complexion and the rasp of each breath. “Nathan?”
Two eyes opened.
“Hey, kid.” The man attempted a smile but clearly that took too much effort.
“Hi. How you doin’?”
“Not so good.” His voice was little more than a whisper. He worked hard to focus on Jed’s face. “You behay – behaving – yourself?”
“Sure.” Jed lowered himself onto the neighbouring bunk. “They got us all bunked in the barn.”
“Heyes – complainin’?”
“Of course. Although he’s got a lock he’s working on trying to open so that keeps him quiet most of the time.”
“It’s a long story. I’ll tell you when you’re better.” Jed looked at his feet then back at his friend. “I know you’re gonna get better.”
“Sure am.” A sudden bout of coughing gripped him and Jed watched with concern as his friend fought for enough air to breathe. Cough. Cough. COUGH! COUGH! Wheeze. GASP. GASP. Nathan closed his eyes, exhausted by the sheer effort of breathing.
Jed stood up.
“I’ll let you get some rest.” Nathan merely nodded. “You take care, Nathan.” Jed headed for the door, stopped when he reached it to take one last look back at his friend before leaving the bunkhouse.
“Jeff, d’you want me to…?” Henry stopped in the doorway of Jeff Collin’s office. The ranch foreman was not at his desk. “Jeff?” Still there was no reply so Henry entered the room and headed for the door leading to the bedroom. It sat ajar so he knocked and pushed it open as he did so.
“Jeff, you in there?” What he saw made him cuss. “S#%$!” He hurried to his friend’s side. Collins lay on his side on his bed shivering as sweat covered his forehead. “Jeff, you hear me, son?”
The foreman’s eyes opened.
“It’s okay, Jeff. It’s okay. Let’s getcha more comfortable.” Grabbing hold of Collins’ legs he swung him around until he was lying on his back, head resting on the pillow. Henry picked up a blanket and covered him.
“I’ll be all right in a – minute.”
“Sure, you will,” Henry agreed. He watched the sick man for a moment then headed to the kitchen. It seemed more cloths and broth were gonna be needed.
Heyes found Jed in one of the rear stalls talking quietly to the horse inside. Something made him pause by the open door and listen.
“Later I’ll bring you an apple. You’d like that wouldn’t ya?” Jed tugged the horse’s ear and got nuzzled back in response. “Gotta keep you fit for when you go out again.” He rested his head against the animal’s neck. “You know he’s gonna be fine don’tcha? Don’t you worry about him, okay? I saw him and he’s…Well, he’s gonna be fine.”
“You went to see Nathan?”
Jed jumped at the sound of Heyes’ voice as his friend entered the stall.
“Sheesh! Don’t sneak up on people!”
“You went to see Nathan?”
“You shouldn’t listen to folks’ conversations!”
“You were talking to a horse! She’s hardly likely to answer back.”
Jed turned back to the horse and stroked her neck.
“All the same you shouldn’t.”
“You talk to Nathan?”
Jed’s shoulders dropped.
“Well? Did ya?”
Jed turned to face Heyes.
“He don’t look good. He…He’s real sick, Heyes. I’m not sure if he…” Jed blinked a couple of times as his eyes misted over. He swiped at his nose with the back of his hand. He turned back and stroked the horse’s neck.
“He’s tough, he’ll be fine.” Heyes was trying to convince himself as much as Jed.
“I hope you’re right.”
Heyes laid a hand on his friend’s shoulder and smiled.
“When am I not?”
Jed gave him a look.
Jeff Collins felt the cool cloth on his forehead but didn’t have the strength to open his eyes.
“Th – Thanks,” he managed.
“You’re welcome,” replied a familiar feminine voice.
It couldn’t be. Jeff’s eyes opened and he came face to face with…
“Rosa? You’re here?”
“Of course. Why should Annabelle get all the fun nursing her man, when I can nurse mine?”
Her man? Had she just called him her man? He smiled.
“I love you. I love you.”
The cloth was placed on his forehead again and he heard a chuckle. Jeff opened his eyes to see Henry perched on a chair beside his bed. Henry smiled.
“I hope you’re not expectin’ me to say it back.”
Henry pushed the chair back and stood up. Jeff looked around. Where was Rosalind? Henry saw his boss’ puzzled expression.
“She ain’t here, son. You were dreamin’. Least ways I hope you were.” He picked up the bowl of water and chuckled again as he left the room.
For Henry and for Annabelle Eldon the hours became a routine of cooling cloths, bowls of hot broth and listening to the sound of two strong, fit men gasping for every life’s breath they took. The sound of their painful coughing was audible outside the bunkhouse too. As the ranch hands went about their chores they’d stop every now and then and give a thoughtful glance towards the bunkhouse. Annabelle held the hand of the man she knew she loved and prayed that he would not die. Henry stood watch over men he’d come to call his friends and who were as close to him as any family he had ever known. The clock ticked and everyone waited for the killer to run its course. Bill organised the moving Gerrard’s body. But how many graves would they need to dig?
The ground was so hard the ranch hands took turns digging the grave. It was backbreaking work but not a single complaint was heard as they did that one last thing for their friend. The funeral was held at the ranch and Gerrard Dodson was laid to rest in the small plot at the top of the hill overlooking the ranch house. The hands stood around the grave, hats in their hands, heads bowed in solemn silence, as the preacher and then Jeff Collins stepped forward and said a few words. Jeff’s eulogy was broken by a bout of coughing but he continued all the same. Nathan’s dark-ringed eyes met Collins’ for a moment of shared understanding before the foreman continued. Each man then took it in turns to throw a shovel full of soil on top of the coffin.
Mrs Culver had arranged a small buffet for the mourners which unfortunately did not include Gerrard’s brother, Tucker. Despite numerous telegrams no one had been able to locate him. The men headed down the hill, replacing their hats as they walked away.
“Jeff said there was something you wanted to ask me,” Mrs Eldon said casually as she walked with Nathan down the hill.
“He say what?”
“No. Said he’d leave that to you.”
“Oh, good, that’s good.”
Annabelle smiled at the relief she heard in his voice. He wasn’t getting off that easily.
“So what was it?”
“What did you want to ask me?”
“I don’t rightly remember.”
“Nope. Whatever it was it’s gone.”
“It couldn’t have been anything important then?” Did he detect the slight bristle in her voice?
She stopped walking and turned to glare at him.
“Nathan! You are the…”
“What? What’d I do?”
“It’s what you didn’t do! I sat up all night nursing you, mopping your darn fevered brow and you can’t even find the courage to…Ahhh! Men!” She turned and walked away.
“Annabelle? ANNABELLE! What’d I do?”
“You said some nice things about him.” Rosalind Tanner touched Jeff’s arm as he planted his hat firmly on his head.
“Least I could do.” His eyes never left the coffin.
“You’re not blaming yourself are you?”
“No.” He turned to her and gave a weak smile. “Not this time.” He was still very pale and weaker than he’d admit. “Even I couldn’t protect the men from something you can’t see.” His eyes met hers. “Rosalind…”
“I promised I’d help with the sandwiches,” she interrupted.
He looked confused.
“They’re already made aren’t they?”
“Yes, but someone has to hand them round and see that Heyes and Jed don’t eat them all.”
“They’re growing boys, it’s what they do, ask Henry.”
“Not when I’m around they don’t.” She looked towards the house. “Shall we?”
Jeff held out his arm and she linked hers with his.
“So, what were you going to say just then? Before I interrupted you?”
The bunkhouse was relatively quiet. The men were lost in their thoughts. Bill had a game of solitaire laid out on the table and Henry stood looking over his shoulder offering occasional suggestions on where to move a card. Heyes sat nearby tinkering with the mysterious locked box. Nathan sat on his bunk, back to the wall brooding. Annabelle had ridden back to town with Rosalind Tanner and he still hadn’t asked her to marry him. He’d meant to but when she asked him about it his brain musta seized up. He had no idea when he’d get another opportunity.
“Ta dah!” Heyes proclaimed as he opened the box. The men around the table leaned forward all eager to see what was inside. “What the..?” Heyes lifted out a battered harmonica. He turned to Henry waiting for an explanation but saw only sadness in the man’s eyes. In fact the room had gone uncomfortably quiet. “What is it? Henry, is this yours?”
“No, it’s not.” Nathan stood up and walked towards the table. He took the musical instrument from Heyes’ hand.
“So whose is it?” Jed asked, watching as Nathan turned the harmonica thoughtfully in his hand. No one answered. He looked at the cook. “Henry?”
“It was Gerrard’s.” The older man shook his head. “I can’t believe I forgot it was in there.”
“I didn’t know he could play the harmonica.”
Nathan smiled at Heyes remark.
“He couldn’t. That’s why we took it from him and hid it.”
Bill chuckled at the memory.
“I remember when he first arrived here. He was pretty scrawny then.”
“Yeah,” Henry added. “It took me a while to feed him up.”
“And he was always blowing on this darn harmonica.” Nathan turned it in his hand.
“Sounded like someone strangling a cat,” Bill remembered and those who’d known Gerrard back then laughed. “So one night Nathan took the harmonica and gave it to Henry to hide. He wouldn’t tell us where he’d hidden it in case we took pity on Gerrard and told him.”
“He threatened to take up the fiddle if we didn’t give it back,” Marty reminded them.
“Could you imagine that?”
“He couldn’t sing either.”
“Never knew a man so off key!”
“And what about the time he sweet talked that girl who turned out to be a twin.”
“And the sister he hadn’t met yet slapped his face for what he said to her!”
“The look on Gerrard’s face was priceless.”
“Wasn’t their Pa a preacher?”
“You know I think he was.”
Heyes and Jed listened as the men shared fond memories of their friend.
“So whatcha gonna do with the harmonica?” Jed asked sometime later.
Nathan held it up so all could see it.
“I reckon it’s time we let Gerrard have it back.” He stood up and headed for the door.
End of Part 22