Part 37 of the Ranch Days series
By Maz McCoy
Two brown eyes looked up at Jed Curry, expectantly.
“What do you want?”
Jed reached into his vest pocket and studied the contents now in his hand. He held it out. “This is all I’ve got.”
Brown eyes studied the offering and dismissed them. Jed shrugged and returned to the task of helping Marty load the wagon. Boxes were strategically placed between sacks of flour, feedstuff and tins of beans. In the midday sun it didn’t take Jed long to build up a sweat and he could feel his shirt sticking to his back.
“He’s still waiting,” Marty commented a few minutes later when the wagon was finally loaded.
Jed tipped back his hat and cast a glance over his shoulder. Sure enough he was still sitting outside the Claremont general store. Jed jumped down from the wagon raising a small puff of dust as he landed in the street. He strode up the steps to the boardwalk and crouched down so that he was eye to eye with the small black dog. Reaching out he ruffled the shaggy fur on top of its head and two big brown eyes gazed up at him. “I don’t have any food for ya.”
The dog leaned into his hand and then licked Jed’s face. The boy laughed and batted him away. Jed looked up at Marty. “We gotta leave right away?”
“Why, watcha wanna do?”
“Get this fella something to eat.”
“Kid, you can’t pick up every stray ya meet.”
“I won’t, just wanna see this one has a meal inside him.”
Marty shook his head, “Go on, we got time.”
Jed smiled and stood up. “I’ll just be a few minutes,” he informed the dog, then entered the store.
He was scanning the shelves when Mister Hannerby asked, “Can I help you?”
“You got any food for a dog?”
“We usually feed ours scraps from the table. Maybe a bone now and then.” He came out from behind the counter. “I didn’t know you had a dog, Jed.”
“I don’t but there’s a little black dog outside that…”
“Bounty’s out there?”
“You know him?”
“I might.” He followed the boy outside and the dog was still sitting there. “Hello, Bounty, how ya doin’ fella?” The dog stood up and wagged his tail as Richard Hannerby bent down and patted him on the head then gave his ears a ruffle.
“Who does he belong to?” Jed asked.
“He used to be Mike Eckersley’s but when he died Bounty sort of took to the street. Haven’t seen him around for a while, thought he might have found himself a new owner. As he spoke he continued to fuss the dog. Jed bent down on one knee and Bounty turned his attention to the boy. He placed a paw on Jed’s knee and the store owner smiled. “I reckon he likes you.”
“I like him.” The boy looked over at the wagon where Marty was pretending not to listen. Jed stood up. “Marty do you think..?”
“You don’t know what I’m gonna ask.”
“Yes, I do and I reckon Jeff’s answer would be, no.”
“But having another dog at the ranch would be good. He can keep an eye on things and…”
“You don’t have time to look after a dog, son, nor the money to pay for its grub.”
“He can share mine.”
“No, he can’t.”
“But he doesn’t have anyone. He needs a home.”
Marty looked from the big blue eyes staring up at him, hopefully, to the equally wide and soulful brown ones. Sheesh, a boy and a dog, someone wasn’t playing fair.
“He’s the town stray,” Hannerby informed Marty.
“The Bar T doesn’t take in strays.”
“You took Heyes and me in,” Jed stated as the dog moved to stand beside him. Jed reached down and patted Bounty on the head.
“Although it’s not always obvious, you and Heyes actually earn your keep.”
“Bounty will too.”
“How? The rats’ll look at him and laugh.”
“He’s bigger than a rat!”
“A coyote’d eat him for lunch.”
“I bet he’s tougher than he looks.”
“He’d hafta be.”
“Aw, come on Marty, please?”
“It ain’t my decision, it’s down to Jeff.”
“When he sees him I know he’ll say he can stay.”
“IF we take him with us.” Jed smiled, reached down and picked up Bounty and placed him carefully in the back of the wagon. “I said, if.”
Jed climbed up onto the seat beside him. “I know. I figured that meant, yes.”
“Son, you’d best not say that to a lady.”
“Never mind.” Marty picked up the reins. He looked over at the store owner. “This is all your fault, Richard.”
Hannerby laughed. “Kids and dogs, Marty, a powerful combination.”
“Don’t I know it?” He flicked the reins and the wagon jerked on its way. “That dog’d better behave back there.”
“He will,” Jed assured him.
“If he eats anything…”
“You’ll hafta exercise him proper.”
“He’s gonna need training.”
“I can do it.”
“And keep him away from the other dogs.”
“Don’t let him anywhere near Henry’s kitchen or he’ll end up in the stew.”
“Don’t be so sure. Why one time…”
The store owner watched them heading off down the street and smiled. Ol’ Bounty had found himself a new owner at last.
“Will you get that mutt outta my way?” Henry yelled as he carried a barrel towards the wagon outside the bunkhouse.
Jed Curry whistled and the small black dog ran obediently towards him. Bounty wagged his tail and danced around Jed’s legs as the boy walked over to the cook. “Sorry, Henry.”
“Sorry won’t cut it if I spill any of this.” Henry placed the barrel in the wagon and returned to his store room.
“Can I help?”
“Sure. Get that dog outta here.”
Jed sighed and beckoned to Bounty. The dog moved quickly to the boy’s heel and followed him across the yard.
Marty was winding a lariat around his arm when Jed reached the barn.
“Got anything you need me to do?”
Marty smiled. “Henry send you off with a flea in your ear?”
“He doesn’t like Bounty.”
“Don’t take it personally, he don’t like any dog.” The man reached down and ruffled Bounty’s head. A long pink tongue flopped out of the dog’s mouth and a large strand of drool fell slowly to the ground. “You’re a good fella, ain’t ya?”
Bounty’s eyes closed as Marty scratched behind his ears.
“Sheesh, is that dog still here?” Heyes asked as he led a horse into the barn.
“He’s got nowhere else to go.” Jed stood beside the dog, defensively.
“That’s ‘cos nobody wants him, Kid.” Heyes opened the stall and led the horse inside.
Marty watched Jed bristle but kept his own mouth closed. This was something they had to settle between themselves. Jed stood at the entrance to the stall.
“You’ve been calling me that a lot lately.”
“It kinda suits you. Beside everyone else calls you that.”
“That’s ‘cos they’re older than me.”
“So am I.”
“Not that much.”
“Enough to call you, Kid, Kid.” Bounty appeared at the blond boy’s side and Heyes shook his head in disgust.
“Why don’t you like him?” Jed crouched and fussed the dog.
“I got no use for a dog.”
“That’s not what I asked.”
Heyes stopped what he was doing and turned to his friend. “All right, I’ll tell you. He’s a mutt. He’s not a ranch dog. He’s gonna take your food and your time. The Boss will catch you playing with him when you should be working. That dog is gonna lose you money. And one day you’ll turn around and it’ll be gone. Just like that.” Heyes snapped his fingers for emphasis. “Then what you gonna do? You gonna pine over it? Like everything else, it’ll leave you in the end.” Heyes turned back to the horse.
Jed stared at his friend. “When d’you get so cynical, Heyes?”
“I’m just being realistic.”
“No, you’re being nasty.” Jed turned, called Bounty to him and left the barn. Heyes watched him leave, then caught Marty looking at him.
“You got something to say?”
“Nope. I reckon, you two said it all.” He went back to coiling the ropes.
Henry spooned a scoop of mashed potatoes onto Louisiana’s plate then moved around the table. Another scoop hit Jeff’s plate. Henry did the same for each man until all the potato was gone. As he disappeared into the kitchen hands reached for the pile of biscuits in the middle of the table. Gravy was poured, mouths were wiped with the backs of hands and hands were wiped on the front of shirts. Henry returned with a pot of stew and began spooning it onto each plate in turn. Biscuits dipped into the gravy and the room fell silent but for the sound of men eating, swallowing and burping.
Jed slid his hand below the table and a warm tongue wrapped around the piece of beef he held and gobbled it up.
“You wouldn’t be feedin’ that mutt would you?” Henry turned a steely gaze on Jed.
“No, sir.” Innocently, Jed showed two empty hands.
“Good.” Henry returned his attention to his own meal. “’Cos I ain’t cookin’ for a dog.”
“I know that.”
“Mind ya do.”
Louisiana slid a hand beneath the table and a cold wet nose brushed against his wrist. The chunk of biscuit disappeared into the dog’s mouth. Louisiana looked up and met Jed’s eyes. Louisiana winked and the boy hid a smile.
“Damn fine meal, tonight, Henry,” Marty stated.
“What you after, old man?”
“Nothin’. Can’t a man appreciate good food without folks gettin’ suspicious?”
“Not when it’s you doin’ the appreciatin’.”
“Well, I might be hopin’ you made enough for a second helpin’.”
“I did.” He stood and headed to the kitchen to fetch the pot.
A hand slid below the table and a small furry head butted it, taking the meat from between Jeff’s fingers. When the foremen looked up Jed and Louisiana were looking back. Collins smiled.
Heyes stood beside the bunk. Jed lay on his side, asleep, one arm curled around the small black dog who slept nestled against his body.
“A boy and a dog. Powerful combination,” Marty observed as he sat down on the neighbouring bunk.
“He’s gonna get hurt.”
“The dog or the kid?”
“You can’t protect him from everything.”
“Gotta let him find his own way. He’s old enough.”
“I know that too.” Heyes turned away. Marty watched the young man settle himself in a chair at the table then pick up the cards Louisiana dealt him.
Seth Harland, a recent arrival at the ranch, picked up his cards and studied them. He wasn’t a particularly popular man but he did his job and that was all that was asked of him. He spread the cards in his hand, smiled and glanced across at the dark-haired boy. This was going to be easy money.
Henry threw in two cards and Louisiana dealt him two more. Coins were thrown into the pot and the play moved around the table. Poor hands were cast aside until only Harland and Heyes were left. Heyes chewed his lip as he studied his cards.
Harland suppressed a smile. “Whatcha got, boy?”
Heyes met his gaze. “It’ll cost you to find out.”
“Sounds like you think you got the winning hand.”
“I might just have that.”
“I doubt it. You can’t have more than two pair.”
Heyes shrugged. “Maybe I do, but it’ll still cost you to see.”
Harland counted out a few coins on the table in front of him and tossed them in the pot. “Let’s see what you got.”
Heyes placed his cards face up on the table and with a flourish spread them in one move. “Three of a kind.”
“Dammit!” Harland tossed his cards on the table and Heyes reached for the pot. “You got some luck, boy!”
“It’s not luck.” Heyes stacked the bills he’d just won. Harland didn’t reply, instead he got up and wandered over to his bunk.
“What the f…?” he exclaimed. The men turned to see Harland holding up a dripping boot. “That damn dog peed in my boots!”
He glared as the men at the table burst out laughing.
“Get outta the way you damn, mutt!” Harland yelled at Bounty as he entered the barn. Harland dumped a saddle on a bale of hay. “Marty!”
“What?” asked a voice from the back room.
“Collins said to have you take a look at this saddle.”
“Be out in a minute.”
Bounty approached Harland, staring up at him with soulful brown eyes as his tailed wagged enthusiastically.
The dog put his head on one side.
“He just wants you to pet him,” Jed told him and Harland looked up at the kid as he descended the ladder from the hay loft.
“Well, that ain’t gonna happen, so keep him away from me.”
“Don’t you like dogs?”
“No.” Harland looked down at Bounty. “And not one as stupid as this.”
“He’s not stupid.”
“He peed in my boots! He’s good for nothin’ an’ you know it.”
Jed reached the ground and beckoned Bounty to his side. The dog trotted over and Jed ruffled the fur on his head. “Good boy, Bounty.”
“Good boy, Bounty,” Harland mimicked then turned as Marty appeared from the tack room.
“Whatcha got for me?” the older man asked.
Harland pointed to the saddle and Jed went back to his chores. He could hear the men talking as he folded a pile of horse blankets, then went to check the water buckets in each stall. He was closing the door of the first stall when he heard Harland yell.
“Get outta my way!” There was a sickening thud followed by a yelp. Jed spun around to see Bounty lying on the ground whimpering. “Stupid mutt.”
Jed dropped to his knees beside Bounty. The dog whimpered when he touched its side. Anger boiled in Jed and he rose to face Harland. “You didn’t hafta hurt him.”
“I told ya to keep him away from me.”
Jed stood in front of Harland blocking his way. “How’d you like it if someone kicked you just cos you got in their way?”
“I’d like to see ‘em try.” Jed moved closer and Harland laughed. “You gotta be kiddin’ me? You? Get outta my way, boy.” He shoved the boy aside but Jed stepped immediately back in front of him. “Move.”
“Make me.” Jed’s hand hung close to his gun. “Come on, you did it to my dog. Why don’t you kick me too?”
Harland’s eyes dropped to the Colt at Jed’s side. “I ain’t carrying a gun so getcha hand away from yours.”
“Scared a kid’ll shoot ya?”
“No, scared he’ll blow his own stupid foot off.”
“I hit what I aim at.”
“Big talk from a little runt.” As they faced off Marty appeared behind Harland.
“What the hell is going on?”
“He hurt Bounty.” Jed informed him.
“That true?” Marty looked at the dog lying on the ground then back at the man.
“Dogs hafta learn who the master is. So do little boys.” Jed glared at him. “I told ya to move!” Harland pushed Jed, Jed shoved him back. Harland retaliated with a harder shove, sending Jed stumbling backwards onto the ground. There was a blur of black fur and Bounty flew, growling, at Harland’s ankles. The man shook his leg then landed a vicious kick, Bounty yelped. Jed sprang to his feet, and landed a punch on Harland’s jaw. The man took a step back barely troubled by the blow. He gave Jed a knowing smile then landed a punch of his own. The boy fell backwards stunned by the force of the blow but got swiftly to his feet, mouth bleeding as he stood swaying.
The man turned to find the boy pointing his gun at Harland’s face.
“JED!” Marty’s voice was full of concern. “Put the gun away.”
Ice blue eyes fixed on Harland. No one dared breathe. The gun didn’t waver and Harland felt the first stirrings of fear. Marty stepped closer.
“Jed. Son. Lower the gun.”
His expression grim, the boy didn’t reply. His finger was coiled around the trigger, his eyes fixed on Harland. “Nobody hurts someone I care about.”
“You ain’t man enough to shoot me,” Harland goaded.
Marty moved slowly in front of Harland, placing himself between the man and the weapon. “Jed. Lower the gun. Lower it. Or you plannin’ on shootin’ me now?”
Finally the inner rage subsided and Jed realised he was aiming his gun at Marty. He met his friend’s gaze, took a deep breath and holstered the Colt.
Harland took a step forward and landed a second punch square to Jed’s jaw. The boy dropped to the ground and Harland walked away.
“Curry, get over here!” Heads looked up at Jeff’s use of Jed’s surname. The boy was in deep trouble. Jed handed the rope to Marty and headed towards the barn, where Jeff stood in conversation with Louisiana. As the boy approached Louisiana made himself scarce. Steely blue eyes met Jeff’s annoyed gaze. The kid was growing up, that was all too obvious. Over Jed’s shoulder Jeff caught the other hands watching them. “Don’t you have work to do?” They returned to their chores.
Jeff folded him arms across his chest and studied the boy. There was a darkening bruise along his jawline and his bottom lip was swollen. Jed looked him straight in the eye.
“Harland’s packing up his stuff. I fired him. Now tell me why I shouldn’t do the same to you?”
Jed swallowed; some of the arrogance went out of his stance. “I didn’t do anything wrong.”
“You drew on an unarmed man.”
“He kicked my dog!”
“Harland was unarmed! You don’t draw on an unarmed man.”
“I wouldn’ta shot him.”
“Then don’t draw,” Jeff scoffed. “You pull that gun you’re telling everyone around you, you intend to use it.”
“I was just angry…”
“And ready to kill a man.”
“No, I…” Jed’s gaze dropped to the dirt, he didn’t know what else to say.
Jeff gave a heavy sigh as he rested his hands on his hips. “What the hell has got into you, Jed?”
“He shouldn’ta kicked Bounty. He had no reason to hurt him.” Jeff didn’t say a word, just studied the boy. Finally Jed dropped his gaze. His voice was softer when he spoke. “I wouldn’ta shot him.”
Jeff gave a heavy sigh. “While you work for me you don’t wear that gun unless I say so, is that understood?” Jed looked up, ready to argue. “It’s not up for discussion. Take off that gun or get off this ranch. You choose.”
Jed stood by his bunk when Heyes entered the bunk house. He looked down at the small black animal curled up at the foot of Jed’s bed and covered with a blanket. Marty reckoned Bounty’s ribs were bruised not broken but there could be other internal injuries. The dog was in a lot of pain and not eating. It was a matter of wait and hope for the best.
“Kid, I just heard. What did Jeff say?”
Jed looked at his friend. “He told me to take off my gun or leave the Bar T.”
Heyes’ expression reflected his own shock when he heard what Jeff said. He looked at the gun belt around his friend’s waist. “Why you still wearing it?”
“Trying to decide what to do.”
“Take it off, that’s what you do!”
“Because we have a job, a place to sleep, food in our bellies.”
“Maybe I don’t want to take it off. You said yourself we can’t stay here forever. You were the one who wanted to leave.”
“I didn’t mean we should leave right now. Or over something as stupid as this.”
“Defending my dog’s not stupid!”
“No, but leaving that thing on is!”
Jed sat down on his bunk. “I’m not sure if I can leave it off.”
Heyes sighed and sank down on the bed opposite him. “Why not?”
“Because of men like Harland.”
“What about them?”
“I’m gonna be ready for them.”
“Ready for them to do what?”
“What they do! Hurt people, kick dogs, kill folks.”
Heyes’ eyes met Jed’s. “Kid, you can’t…”
“I can’t leave this gun off just ‘cos somebody told me I can’t wear it!”
“Well, you’re gonna have to.”
“I wanna be able to protect us, Heyes. If our folks had been ready maybe…”
“NO! You do NOT go there!” Heyes sprang to his feet. “This has NOTHING to do with them! If you wanna wear that thing and lose your job, wear it, but don’t you DARE blame them for that!” Before Jed could answer, Heyes stormed out of the bunkhouse.
“You seem to upsettin’ just about everyone today,” Henry observed from the kitchen doorway.
Jed looked down at Bounty and gently stroked his head. The dog whimpered in reply.
Jed Curry patted the mound of earth before getting to his feet. He rested his hands on his hips. He wore no gun belt. Carrying the shovel he turned back toward the bunkhouse. Heyes was waiting by the door as he approached.
“You okay?” he asked as Jed climbed the steps.
Jeff Collins stepped out onto the porch. “Kid. Let me take that from you.” He held out his hand for the shovel.
“I’ll put it back.”
“I’m on my way to the barn, I can do it.”
“I used it, I should put it back.”
Their gazes met and Jed handed the foreman the tool and Jeff headed across the yard towards the tool shed.
“Jed…” The eyes that looked up at Heyes were no longer those of a boy. The hardness he saw there caught Heyes by surprise.
“I got nothing to say.” Jed went into the bunkhouse and closed the door behind him.
End of Part 37