3 The Fourth of July

The Fourth of July
(Part Three of The Ranch Days series)

By Maz McCoy

The men drew the attention of the townsfolk as they rode into Claremont. Eight cowboys, their clothes dusty from the trail, their thirsts great and their spirits high, pulled their horses to a halt in front of the saloon. They dismounted and looked around. One man slapped his hand on the back of a blond boy before walking up the steps and into the saloon. Squeals of delight emanated from the working girls as the men strode up to the bar.

“Hi fellas!”

“Hey gorgeous, you come back to see me?”

“Long time no see Nathan! Where you been hiding yourself?”

The men ordered drinks as the girls slipped into their arms.

“Hannibal Heyes is that you?”

Heyes turned to face the young woman and smiled. Her dark-brown hair was piled on top of her head, secured with a comb and topped with a feather; her body squeezed into a figure hugging red dress and her face plastered in make up.

“Hello, Susanna.” He gave her a dimpled smile and slid his arm around her waist pulling her closer. She nuzzled his chest.

“I’m glad you came back. You boys staying long this time?”

“Just a couple of days, for the celebrations.”

“You planning on doing any of that celebrating with me?”

“I sure am, Susie. If you’ll have me?”

“You don’t have to ask, Heyes.”

She smiled and kissed him full on the lips. She pulled away and looked passed Heyes to the blond boy standing beside him.

“This a friend of yours?”

“This is Jed.”

“Well hello, sweetie,” she smiled and Jed’s eyes grew wider as she leaned towards him, revealing soft, round flesh. Jed couldn’t take his eyes away from the voluptuous woman’s attributes as they peeked out of her dress. “Jed?”

“Jed!” Heyes thumped his friend on the shoulder.

“Huh?” Jed blushed and looked up at her face. Susanna smiled, knowing precisely what he’d been looking at.

“You’re kinda cute ain’t ya.”

“Hmph,” Heyes scoffed.

“He here to learn?” Susanna asked.

“No!”

“Pity. I wouldn’t mind teaching him a thing or two.”

“Not yet, Susie.”

“It’s gonna happen some time, Heyes, you know he’d be safe with me.”

“Just keep the girls away from him all right?”

“I can speak for myself,” Jed reminded them.

“Of course you can sweetie.” Susanna leaned towards him and gave him a kiss on the cheek, leaving a red lip print when she pulled away. Jed smiled at her, clearly smitten.

“Here boys.” Bill passed two beers along the bar towards them. Heyes handed one to Jed.

“Don’t rush it.”

“I know!” Sheesh, Heyes was treating him like a baby and Susanna had shown him he wasn’t one. He could still feel the imprint of her kiss on his cheek. He wanted to touch where she’d kissed him but he thought better of it in case Heyes made fun of him. Susanna winked at him and darn it he was blushing again!

Jed took a long swallow of beer and looked at his friend daring him to comment. Heyes rolled his eyes. If Jed got sick he’d have only himself to blame. Jed looked around, watching the men at the poker tables, the piano player pounding out a tune he didn’t know and the girls…The girls were everywhere; all smiling curves and long, long legs. One led Nathan towards the stairs. Je blushed. He was old enough to know where they were going and why but sheesh!

“Heyes.”

“Hmm?” Heyes asked as he nuzzled into Susanna’s hair.

“I’m gonna be outside.”

Heyes looked at him.

“You okay?”

“Yeah.” He put down his half empty glass and wiped his hand across his mouth. “I’ll see you later.” He didn’t wait for Heyes’ reply as he headed for the door.

Heyes looked over Susanna’s shoulder, watching Jed leave, wondering where he was off to and why.

“Don’t worry about him honey.” Susanna linked her arm in his. “How about we make up for all the time you’ve been away?”

“Lead the way, darlin’.”

***

Jed stood in front of the general store and looked in the window at bars of soap, brooms, tools, and seed packets. He looked along the street searching for Marty. Finally, his friend appeared in the doorway of the saloon. Spotting Jed, he walked slowly across the street, moving aside for a wagon before stepping onto the board walk.

“You sure about this?” Mary asked.

“Yeah.”

“What about Heyes?”

“What about him?”

“He won’t be pleased.”

“This isn’t about him.”

“You carrying a gun will affect him.”

“I want to protect us.”

“You know what wearing a gun means?”

“Yes. You’ve told me enough times.”

“You were never this close to buying one before.”

“Won’t get one either if you don’t stop talking.” Marty eyed him. The boy was sincere and nervous. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be rude.”

“No offence taken. All right son. Let’s go.”

Marty opened the door and they entered the store. Herbert Taylor looked up when they entered his emporium. Marty’s eyes scanned the counter and shelves.

“Howdy fellas, what can I do for you?” Herb asked, cheerfully.

“I want a gun.”

Herb looked a little startled by the boy’s announcement.

“A gun? I see. Do you know how to use one?”

“Yes. Do you ask everybody who want to buy one that?”

“No, only those too short to see over the counter.”

“I can see just fine.”

Herb looked at Marty who simply raised his eyebrows.

“Well let’s see what we’ve got.” He reached beneath the counter and pulled out a locked box. Opening it he laid a six gun on the counter. Marty picked it up. The gun had seen better days, several years’ worth of better days. It hadn’t been cleaned for…well, forever, from what he could tell. Marty opened the chamber, held the gun at arms length and aimed it. He glanced at Herb without comment and laid it back on the counter.

“Does it come with bullets?”

“I’d throw in a box, sure.”

Marty turned to Jed.

“What do you think?”

“I’m not buying that.”

“Nothing wrong with this gun, son,” Herb assured him. Jed looked at Marty. Did his friend really expect him to buy that thing?

“Nothing ‘cept I doubt it even shoots straight.” Jed looked Herb square in the eye. A smile crept across Marty’s face. Jed picked the gun up. “No idea when it was last cleaned. Sheesh, look at all this stuff in the chamber. Does the trigger even move? And this barrel is all bent. I doubt you’d even hit a barn door with it.”

“The boy knows about guns, Herb.”

The men exchanged a glance.

“So I see. All right.” Herb pulled out another gun. Marty took it from him and handed it to Jed.

“What do you think?”

The boy held it, feeling the weight, the balance, the grip. He liked the carving on the butt. He held it at arms length and looked down the barrel, then he flipped open the chamber as Marty had shown him and examined it.

“Well it’s cleaner that’s for sure.” Marty suppressed a smile as Jed studied the weapon like a professional. Eventually, Jed looked at the small price tag attached to the butt. He gave nothing away. “Does this one come with bullets too?”

“One box.”

“What d’you think?” Jed asked Marty.

“What do you think?”

“I think it’s got good balance. Feels comfortable in my hand and it looks well maintained.”

“So?”

“So, I reckon I’ll buy it.”

“I take it you have enough money?” Herb looked between Marty and the boy.

“Yes, sir I do. I’ve been saving.” He reached into his pocket and laid his money on the counter. Herb took the coins and placed a box of bullets in front of Jed. The boy slid the gun in his holster and headed for the door.

“Ain’t you gonna load it?” Herb asked.

“No reason to. I don’t intend to shoot anyone today.” With a smile he left the store.

“Who is that kid?” Herb looked at Marty.

“Just a boy wanting to protect his own.”

When Marty stepped outside he found Jed waiting for him on the boardwalk.

“Something wrong?”

“D’you think I should load it?”

“If you intend to wear it you should load it. Anyone who sees it will assume it is.”

“So maybe I should leave it off for now?”

“If you’re still planning on dancing with Miss Emily, I’d leave your gun and holster in your room.”

Jed nodded and they headed to the Hotel.

***

As was traditional Willard Culver had rented rooms for his ranch hands at the Claremont Hotel. The men had to double up, Heyes and Jed were sharing with Marty and Nathan, but no one complained when the boss was paying for their time in town. Jed Curry sat on the edge of the bed he shared with Heyes and looked at the gun. His first Colt 45. His gun. He placed it in the holster Marty had made for him and looked around the room. Where to put it? In a drawer? That didn’t seem right. On the top of the dresser? No. Finally he made up his mind and hung it over the bed post next to his pillow. He wondered what the time was. The dancing would start at 2pm. A flutter of nerves filled his stomach. What if she said no?

The door opened and Heyes walked in, a silly grin and a lot of rouge on his face. His hat was at an odd angle.

“Hey, Jed!” he said with a little too much enthusiasm.

“You drunk?”

“No! Sheesh, no!” Heyes sat down heavily in the chair. He smiled. “I’m just…exuberant!”

“Ex-what?”

“Exuberant.”

“What’s it mean?”

“It means…well it means…it means I’m not drunk, just happy.”

“You going to the dancing?”

Heyes turned his eyes on his friend.

“I wouldn’t miss it for the world. And I want you to know I’ll be right behind you when you ask Emily to dance. Behind you, but well out of the range of Mr. Culver’s shotgun.”

“Thanks, that’s real encouraging.”

Heyes smiled, then his eyes fell on the holster hanging on the bed post.

“What’s that?”

Jed didn’t have to look round to know what his friend was pointing to.

“A gun.”

“I know what it is!”

“So why d’you ask?”

“Don’t get smart now!” Heyes leapt to his feet. “You shoulda been smart enough not to buy the thing!”

Jed stood up to face him.

“I told you what I was gonna do. I didn’t say I needed your permission!”

“You’ll get yourself shot if you carry that thing!”

“We could get shot if I don’t!”

“DAMMIT, JED! HAVEN’T YOU SEEN ENOUGH BLOOD AND DEATH?”

“YES I HAVE AND I SAW WHAT BEING UNARMED DID AND SO DID YOU! I SAW WHAT MEN DO IF YOU NOT PREPARED TO DO THE SAME TO THEM! I WON’T LOSE ANYONE ELSE I CARE ABOUT! I WON’T BURY ANYMORE OF MY OWN!”

Heyes was stunned into silence and could only watch as Jed stormed out of the room.

***

Jed Curry sat on the steps at the side of the hotel. He was annoyed. Annoyed at Han for questioning his need to have a gun; annoyed that no one seemed to consider him old enough to know what he was doing; annoyed at himself for reacting the way he did and angry, SO…VERY…ANGRY, at the men who had killed their families and changed their lives forever. He kicked a stone with the toe of his boot. What if he was this angry when he was carrying his gun? Could he control his temper long enough to do the right thing? Would he draw on someone when he shouldn’t? Would he shoot someone by mistake? Maybe Han was right? But Marty had been teaching him well and…He heard someone approaching; the sound of boots on the boardwalk. He prepared to get out of their way, when a man eased himself down beside him. It was Jeff Collins, the Bar T’s foreman.

“You all right, Jed?”

“Yes, sir.”

Collins looked at the boy, noting the anger he was trying hard to suppress.

“You wouldn’t be lying to me, would you?”

“Not intentionally, sir.” Jed gritted his teeth.

“Heyes rattled your cage?”

Jed gave a heavy sigh.

“We just…argued.”

“Anything I should know about?”

“No. Just…old stuff.”

“Still a sore point though?”

“Yeah. He don’t agree with me buying…Well, he don’t agree with me.”

“This about that gun I saw you with?”

Jed looked at the foreman.

“I saw you returning to the hotel and Marty told me what you’d bought.”

“You don’t approve?”

“Out here men carry guns. I had one when I was younger than you are now. It’s only my concern if you get into trouble using it or you pull it on one of my men.”

“It’s still in my room. I won’t wear it in town.” Jed kicked another stone and Collins watched it roll away. “I just want to protect us. Is that so bad?”

“No, just as long as you carrying it doesn’t call trouble to ya.”

“Seems I can’t win either way.”

Collins smiled.

“That’s life, Jed.” He placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Come on. If you’re going to ask Emily to dance you’d best get ready.” Collins stood up but Jed remained frozen to the spot. “What’s wrong?”

“You know? About the dance?”

“I know there’s going to be dancing later.”

“Oh, okay.” Jed stood up.

“And I know Nathan’s been giving you dancing lessons.” Jed’s mouth fell open. “And you’re planning on asking Emily to dance.” Jed’s mouth stayed open. Collins smiled. “You might want to close your mouth or you’ll swallow a fly.”

“How long have you known?”

“A couple of weeks. There’s not much goes on around the ranch I don’t get to hear about eventually.”

Jed suddenly felt sick.

“Does her Pa know?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Are you gonna to tell him?”

Collins did his best not to smile at the anguish on the boy’s face. He sure was suffering over this. Far be it for him to make it any easier for him.

“I reckon he’ll find out soon enough. I take it you haven’t got something more on your mind?”

“Just dancing.”

“That all?”

“Yes, sir.”

“You didn’t have any ideas about what might happen once you got her in your arms?”

“No! I mean I…I just wanted to…We…” Exasperated, Jed gave up. He looked up when he heard his boss laughing.

“Don’t worry, Jed. I know you have only honourable intentions. And as hard as it might be to believe, I was your age once and I fell for the prettiest girl in town. Her brothers knocked me unconscious when they caught us together but then we were doing more than kissing.” He smiled at the memory, the very pleasant memory.

“I don’t plan to do anything but dance and talk to her.”

“Then I don’t see how anyone can object.”

Jed looked relieved.

“Now, why don’t you go make things right with Heyes?”

“I reckon I’d rather face Emily’s Pa,” Jed muttered as he disappeared inside.

***

The area set aside for dancing was at the edge of town, not far from the church. Red, white and blue bunting hung fro the roof tops and between the buildings. Trestle tables covered in white linen were laden with food and punch bowls. The ladies of the town had outdone themselves this year. Several women, dressed in their finest, chatted excitedly as they served pieces of pie and glasses of fruit punch. The celebrations had drawn people from all over, including ranch hands from the Bar T and Circle Y. Single ladies giggled and cast furtive glances in the direction of the freshly scrubbed and combed cowboys.

When the formalities were over and the Mayor had said his piece, the band started to play and couples took to the dance floor. Jed eyed the crowd searching for one particular girl. He wore his best shirt which felt scratchy at the collar and his cleanest pants. He’d brushed as much dirt off his boots as he could and combed his hair flat. He looked as respectable as a churchgoer and hoped Mr. Culver would approve. Jed’s face lit up when he spotted Emily talking with a friend. She wore a blue dress, her hair pulled back and tied with a single blue ribbon. Jed still had the matching one beneath his pillow at the ranch. At that moment Emily looked his way, spotting him and their eyes met. She smiled.

“You gonna ask her to dance or just stare at her?” Nathan asked as he stood next to Jed, a glass of punch in his hand.

“In a minute.”

“You wait too long, someone else will snap her up.”

“Yeah, or her Pa’ll get here.” Jed looked at Marty. The man took a drag on a fat cigar. “Go on boy, I’m anxious to see what Nathan’s been teaching you all these weeks.”

“You ain’t gonna watch?”

“Wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

“Oh, sheesh.”

Jed looked at the couples. The men swung the girls around as the fiddle player set the rhythm. Mark Culver held Louisa Sutcliffe closer than he should but Louisa made no sign of protesting. Jed wasn’t going to be that blatant.

“I thought you’d be dancing by now.”

Jed turned at the sound of Heyes’ voice. They hadn’t exactly made up, more like agreed to disagree over the gun. Jed studied his friend’s face, was he making fun of him?

“Go on. She’s waiting for you to ask, anyone can see that.” Heyes smiled and gave his friend a gentle shove towards the dance floor.

Jed’s feet felt like someone had put lead weights in his boots and the fact that most of the hands from the Bar T were watching him didn’t help. He made his way to where Emily stood with her friends. They giggled and nudged each other as he approached and for one moment he contemplated turning and running but then he steeled himself. He wasn’t chicken. Shoulders back, he marched towards her. Emily smiled.

“Hello, Jed.”

“Hello, Emily.”

She waited; her friends giggled and watched them.

“Would you like to dance?”

There, he’d said it.

“I’d like that.”

Jed smiled with relief and held out his arm. Emily linked her arm in his and he escorted her onto the dance floor. The caller was getting the dancers organised and they took their places opposite each other. Jed tried to remember what the dance was and what the steps were, but once it started he soon got the hang of it. Emily giggled when he missed his steps and nearly tripped. She caught hold of him, pulling him back into line. They smiled and laughed as their hands met and he grasped her tightly as he swung her around. Under the caller’s instructions the dancers formed circles and lines, swapped partners and promenaded. All the time Jed kept Emily in sight, relieved when the sequence brought her back to him. He couldn’t remember smiling so much in a long time. When the dance ended, he found himself facing her, holding her hands in his.

“Thank you, Jed.” He couldn’t take his eyes off hers. She was the prettiest girl he’d ever seen. “Jed?”

“Huh?”

“I think we’d better get off the dance floor, everyone is watching.”

He looked around and she was right. Blushing, a deep shade of red, he ignored the smiles and cat calls from the men of the Bar T as he led her towards the punch table; his hand not letting go of hers.

“D’you want some punch?” he asked.

“Yes, please.”

“Can I dance with you again?”

“Of course you can, Jed.” She squeezed his hand. “It took you long enough to ask me.”

“I wasn’t sure your Pa would let me, but when I saw he wasn’t…I don’t mean I was afraid of him…I just…”

“It’s all right. I’m glad he wasn’t here, but he will be anytime soon.” She looked around, her eyes fell on Mark. Her brother was standing close to Louisa as he whispered in her ear. “What about Mark? Weren’t you worried about him?”

“I ain’t afraid of your brother. Besides he’s kinda busy right now.” She looked at Jed out of the corner of her eye. “Anyway, we were only dancing.”

“For now.”

Jed stopped in his tracks.

“What?”

Emily looked shyly at him.

“Some friends and I were going to take a walk by the creek later. If you were to take a walk there too, we might just happen to meet.”

“I guess.”

“It sure is pretty by the creek.”

“Is it?”

“Uh huh.”

“Guess I should take a look then.”

“And if no one could see us, I might let you kiss me again.”

“What about your friends?”

“They might happen to walk on ahead of me.”

Jed beamed.

“I think I like your friends.”

“Have you still got the ribbon I gave you?”

“Yes.”

She smiled.

He gave her hand a squeeze and turned to the lady behind the trestle serving punch. This was the best day, ever.

“What can I get you, young man?” the lady asked.

“Two glasses of punch, please.”

Jed watched as she picked up the ladle. Maybe later, when he met Emily at the creek they could…

“How’s my favourite girl?” A man asked and Emily squealed.

“WILLIAM!”

Jed turned in time to see Emily leap into the arms of a man she was obviously very pleased to see. As Emily hugged him tight, Jed studied the intruder. He was six foot tall, blond hair cut short, blue eyes dazzling every woman he looked at. And if that wasn’t bad enough he wore a smart cavalry uniform. The soldier swung Emily around before depositing, the clearly besotted girl, gently back on the ground.

“WILLIAM!” Another girl cried and Louisa Sutcliffe ran towards him. She received the same treatment as Emily. William, picked her up and swung her around. When he set her back down there were gasps and sighs as he took her hand his and kissed it.

“Have you girls missed me as much as I’ve missed you?” he asked.

“Oh William, of course we have,” Emily cooed.

“Nothing’s been the same without you,” Louisa informed him.

Emily sighed once more and Louisa looked as if she’d marry the man there and then, if he asked. He hugged the girls close.

“William Brody? Is that you, boy?” Jed, a glass of punch in each hand, found himself pushed out of the way as Willard Culver stepped forward.

“Yes, sir, Mr. Culver, it’s me.” The soldier smiled and it made Jed sick to hear the sighs of the ladies around him. Sure, he was a handsome fella but, sheesh did they have to make such a fuss?

“You’ve grown into a fine man, William, a fine man.” Culver reached out and shook his hand.

“How long are you here for, William?” another man asked.

“I have two weeks leave before I head over to Fort Elliot. Have you seen my folks? I thought they’d be here by now?”

“They don’t know you’re back, yet?”

“I wanted to surprise them.”

“Well you’ll do that all right. They should be here any time now.” Culver slapped William on the back and the band struck up again. William looked at Emily and Louisa.

“Would you pretty ladies do me the honour of dancing with me?”

“Both of us?” Louisa asked,

“I got two hands don’t I?”

Without a look back the girls linked arms with him and headed towards the dance floor. As folks drifted away, chatting about the return of one of the town’s finest sons, Jed found himself standing with his back to the punch table.

“Damn!” Jed turned to see who had uttered the word and found himself looking at Mark Culver. Emily’s brother let out a long sigh. “I don’t reckon either one of us stands a chance now he’s back.”

“Who is he?”

“William Brody, Claremont’s very own hero.”

“Hero?”

“Yeah, he’s been away at West Point winning medals and making us all proud.” Mark didn’t take his eyes off the dance floor where his girl was having way too much fun. Brody wrapped his arms around the giggling females and Mark uttered a curse. He looked at Jed. “You really are sweet on my sister ain’t ya?”

“I guess.”

“Well you can forget that now. Like every other single woman in town she fell for William the first time he came home in his uniform. Darn it, what is it about a uniform that turns a woman’s head? I think I should go out and get me one.”

Jed didn’t know what to say. He could still see Emily smiling at him at the end of the dance; still feel her hands in his. He watched as William swung her around and she laughed.

“Ain’t you gonna go get Louisa?”

“And have her mad at me for taking her away from him? No, way. I’ll bide my time. He won’t be here forever.”

“Two weeks.”

“What?”

“He said he was here for two weeks before going to Fort Elliot.”

“Oh terrific, so even when he’s gone he’ll be less than a day’s ride away.” Mark looked at Jed. “Can I buy you a drink?”

The boy looked away from the dancers and down at the glasses he held.

“I’ve got punch.”

“No, Jed. I mean a drink. A man’s drink. Time’s like this call for men to drink whiskey and lots of it.”

Jed cast another glance at the dance floor.

“Okay.”

***

“Have you seen Jed?” Heyes asked, Nathan as he leaned against the church wall.

“Nope, not since the dancing.” The man looked at Heyes. “You worried about him?”

“You saw what happened?”

“I saw Mr. Cavalryman swoop in and steal his girl, if that’s what you mean?”

“Yeah, it is. I can’t find him anywhere.”

“Gone off to lick his wounds, I reckon.”

“That’s what worries me.”

“Want me to help you look for him?”

“I’d appreciate it.”

***

“You sure are pretty.” The blond boy smiled sideways at Susanna as he rested his head on the table.

“Thank you, Jed.”

“Heyesssss…” Jed giggled, then hiccupped and burped. “Pardon me.”

Susanna smiled at him and pulled the whiskey glass away from him.
“Hey, thas mine.” Jed pulled the glass back and Mark poured more whiskey into the glass, onto the table and then the floor.

“Oops,” Culver said with a smile before tilting the bottle to his lips and taking a long swallow. “To men without a uniform!” He raised the bottle in a salute and drank again.

“Heyz thinks you’re real nice. Su…Suzz..Ss..Sssus.”

“Susanna,” she finished for him and Jed gave her a lopsided grin. “Jed, I think you’ve had enough.”

“No!” Jed looked wounded and clung to his glass in case she tried to take it away from him again. He laid his head back on the table. “The room looks different this way.” Susanna turned her attention to the rancher’s son.

“Mark. Stop this please. Jed’s had enough. He’ll get sick.”

Culver looked at his new friend and drinking buddy.

“You had enuff, Jef…Ned…kid?”

“No.”

“See, he ain’t had enuff.”

Susanna lost patience with them and waved another of the girls over. Miranda came quickly to her friend’s side and between them they prized the glass from Jed’s hand and the bottle from Mark. The two young men were in no state to put up more than a half hearted protest. Susanna was about to pull Jed to his feet when the bat wing doors swung open and Heyes and Nathan walked in.

“Am I glad to see you two,” Susanna told them as they approached the table. “Can you take care of these heartbroken Romeos?”

“Leave ‘em with us,” Nathan told her.

“Come back and see me later,” Susanna said to Heyes, planting a kiss on his cheek before walking away. Nathan looked astonished at Heyes.

“I have no idea what that woman sees in you.”

Heyes smiled.

“You’ve either got a way with women or you ain’t, Nathan.”

“Too full of yourself by half, boy.” He turned his attention to their drunken friends. “Let’s get these two out of here.”

Heyes grabbed Jed under the arms and pulled him to his feet. The blond boy smiled at his friend.

“Heyzzzzzz. I’ve had whispy. I mean wiksey…Whis-key.” He studied his friend through narrowed eyes. “How come there’s two of you? You ain’t twins.” His face clouded over as being vertical took its toll. Colour drained from Jed’s face. “Oh…I feel sick.”

“Let’s get you outside.” Heyes supported Jed as he marched him to the door. When the late afternoon sun and fresh air hit him, Jed heaved. Heyes managed to get him down the steps into the street before Jed began to retch. Jed’s stomach was well and truly empty by the time he was on his knees, hanging onto the water trough for dear life, convinced it was the only thing in town not moving. He groaned.

“You’ve only got yourself to blame,” Heyes admonished.

“I wanna die,” the blond boy wailed.

“Want me to go get that gun of yours and put you out of your misery?”

“Would ya?”

“NO! What if Collins finds you like this? Or Emily sees you?”

“She don’t care. She’s got a soldier.”

“Is that what this is about?”

“Did you see him? Her?”

“I saw.”

“I can’t compete with that. He’s got a uniform. How can I get a uniform?”

Heyes smiled as he lowered himself to sit on the boardwalk.

“You don’t need a uniform.”

“And white gloves. I ain’t never owned anything that stayed that white.” Jed was clearly happy to wallow in self pity for a while longer. “We were gonna go for a walk down to the creek. She said I could kiss her. Then he shows up; in a uniform!”

Heyes sighed and stood up. He grabbed Jed by the arms and pulled him to his feet, supporting him when Jed swayed.

“Come on.” He all but dragged his friend back to the hotel, shoved him up the stairs to their room and finally let go when there was nowhere but the bed for Jed to fall on. The blond boy was asleep before Heyes tugged his boots off. He covered him with a blanket and stood back, looking at his friend. Jed was going to have one heck of a headache come morning.

***

“Where you goin’ in such a rush, boy?”

Heyes stopped walking quickly and looked up at the man leaning against the wall of the general store.

“I’m sorry were you talking to me?”

“You know damn well I was.” The man pushed off the wall and strode towards Heyes.

“Do you own the store?”

“No, I don’t and you still ain’t answered me.” The man looked mean; that was the only way Heyes could think to describe him. Big and mean and blocking his way.

“Not that it’s really any of your business, sir, but I’m headed to the doctor’s. Good day to you.” Heyes tried to get passed.

“You tryin’ to insult me?”

“Oh no, I’m not trying.” Heyes gave the man an innocent smile.

“This pup troubling you Harry?” Heyes let out a sigh as another man strode along the boardwalk towards them.

“Hey, ain’t he one of those from the Bar T?” Another man, taller than the others walked over to join them. Heyes knew things were getting out of hand. He was out numbered and unlike all three of them, didn’t wear a gun. Not that he expected to need one but alcohol had been flowing freely, there were more men than women in town and that mixture made for bad tempered men, a lot of frustrated bad tempered men.

“If, you’ll excuse me gentlemen, I have an errand to run.” He walked backwards and then turned and came face to face with two other men. This was ridiculous. All he wanted to do as get to the doctor to see if he had anything for the mother of all headaches Jed had woken up with. Now he found himself surrounded by men who seemed intent on doing him harm. He was going to need all his charm to get out of this. Smiling at them, he held up his hands in resignation. “Fellas, I admit it, I work for the Bar T. You’re Circle Y guys right?”

“Right.”

“And I’m guessing you’re none too keen on the Bar T.”

“You’re not as dumb as you look, kid.” The first man stepped towards him.

“Well, I’ll tell you. The Bar T guys are all like me, chicken.” He saw their dismayed looks. “Yep, we’re a sad bunch, running from trouble all the time. In fact I’m on my way right now to get the doctor for the rest of the men. They just can’t hold their whiskey. It’s a terrible sight to see. So if you’ll just let me get on my way.”

A large hand was held up in front of him.

“You telling us, all the hands from the Bar T are sick?”

“Drunk, sir, let’s not be shy to admit it. I’m the only one left able to string a coherent sentence together.”

“A what?”

“It’s not important. But I know my boss would appreciate it if…”

“These boys troubling you, Heyes?”

Heyes closed his eyes and his shoulders dropped. Just when he’d about talked his way out of it… He turned his head to see Nathan, Bill Napier and several other hands walking across the street. If he had hoped to avoid trouble, it was walking towards him.

“They don’t look too bad to me. I think you’ve been lying to us, boy.”

***

Jeff Collins looked from Bill Napier, his right hand man to Nathan and Heyes. He cast a glance back at the rest of the men as they rode out of town. He’d already given them a piece of his mind when he found them bloodied and bruised in the saloon after word of the fight reached him. Each ranch blamed the other for starting it. Collins suspected Heyes had more to tell and he’d do his best to find out exactly what had happened when they got back to the ranch. Only Mark and Jed were unscathed, having been sleeping off their hangovers while fists flew in the street. However both young men looked ready to throw a few punches of their own when William Brody, resplendent in his uniform, had wished them all ‘good day’ as they rode by.

Collins shook his head. Just a typical Fourth of July in Claremont.

To be continued…

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