A Tough Break
(Part Six of the Ranch Days series)
By Maz McCoy
Jed and Heyes sat on the corral fence watching the men prepare the horse. Ropes, held tight, stopped the animal backing away. A man gripped the halter as Nathan prepared to mount the unbroken stallion. Sweat plastered their shirts to their backs as the unrelenting sun beat down. Nathan’s mouth was dry. You could almost taste the tension in the air. Nathan took hold of the reins as he placed one foot in the stirrup, hopping on his right foot as the others got ready. They waited for his command. Nathan pulled himself into the saddle, the ropes were loosened and the horse was free. The men scrambled for safety as the animal went wild. Bucking and snorting as all four feet left the ground trying to throw Nathan from its back. For his part, the man hung on, knuckles white. Men gathered around the corral watching as man and beast fought for control, for dominance. After what must have seemed like a lifetime to Nathan, the horse began to tire and slowly, it succumbed to the man’s control. He calmed the animal; rode it around the corral several times until he felt the job was done.
Nathan leapt off the horse and climbed the fence as others led the broken horse away.
“That sure was something to see,” Jed enthused.
“Nathan’s one of the best,” Bill Napier told the boy as he walked along the corral fence.
“Guess you ain’t seen that many then,” Nathan told him modestly as he sat next to the boys.
“I don’t think I’d ever be crazy enough to get up on a bronc.”
Nathan looked at Jed.
“You saying I’m crazy?”
“He’s got a point,” Bill agreed with a smile. “I ain’t dumb enough to get on an animal intent on killing me.”
“Be glad he does then,” Jeff Collins said, as he walked towards them He had a sling on his left arm as he was still recovering from a bullet wound. “If it wasn’t for Nathan and Gerard, we’d have to hire someone else to break our horses for us. Or maybe I’d ask you to do it, Bill.”
Bill Napier said something impolite and Collins laughed.
“How about you, Heyes? D’you fancy having a go?”
The dark-haired young man shook his head.
“Unless you’re ordering me to, I think I’d prefer to sit and watch a true genius at work.”
“I always knew I liked you for a reason, Heyes.”
“How many we got ready for the sale?” Collins asked.
“Six, so far.” Nathan exchanged a look with Bill.
“What?” Collins demanded.
“Just the black stallion and two mares left.”
“You worried about getting up on that stallion?”
“I’d be a bigger fool if I wasn’t.”
“It doesn’t have to be today.”
“I think I’d rather get it out of the way. That way I can wash up for supper and sleep the bruises off.” He turned and called for the men to bring out the stallion, they’d caught two days before. Heyes swallowed when the magnificent horse was brought into the corral. Its long black mane flowed, eyes wild as if possessed by the Devil. It was a wild animal and there was something sad about the need to break its spirit. The animal kicked and bucked as it was led towards Nathan. One of the hands brought over the gear and they started the difficult task of saddling up. As they worked, Nathan eyed the horse, making a note of its movements. It was an immensely powerful animal; muscles glistening with sweat, nostrils flared, hooves lashed out at every opportunity.
“You sure about this?” Jed asked.
“Never let ‘em see you’re scared, kid.”
“Kinda hard not to.”
Nathan smiled and looked at Heyes.
“Not if you got a good poker face, right Heyes?”
“Good luck,” Jed called as Nathan jumped down from the fence and walked towards the stallion.
He patted the horse on the neck and whispered something in its ear before catching hold of the horn. With a nod to the others, Nathan pulled himself into the saddle. He gripped the reins, settling himself. He said something the boys couldn’t hear and then the horse was let lose. Once again the animal began to kick and buck, doing everything it could to throw the man off. Nathan clung on, the horse turned to its left, its right, it kicked and still the stubborn man refused to be thrown. And then with one last momentous effort it kicked as it turned and Nathan went flying. He landed on the ground with a sickening thud, raising a cloud of dust, as the horse continued to kick and buck dangerously close to his head. Nathan twisted to escape the rearing hooves and the stallion caught his leg with a sharp blow before shying away and racing towards the barn; two men sped after it, trying to catch hold of the reins. On the ground, Nathan cried out in agony.
Bill vaulted the fence and ran to Nathan’s side.
“How bad?” But then Bill looked at Nathan’s left leg and he didn’t need to ask anymore.
“Jeff, we need a splint!”
“I’m on it.” He headed to the barn as Jed and Heyes exchanged a worried look. They dropped to the ground and ran to Bill’s side.
“Tell us what to do.” Heyes spoke but their eyes were on Nathan’s leg, the lower half bent where there wasn’t a joint. Nathan’s face contorted with pain, his fists clenched, teeth gritted. When Bill tried to move his leg, he writhed in agony. Collins appeared at their side carrying two long pieces of wood and strips of rawhide. He didn’t say a word when he saw Nathan’s leg, just handed the makeshift splints to Bill. The man laid them either side of Nathan’s broken leg.
“There ain’t no easy way to do this. It’s gonna hurt.”
“Can’t hurt…Anymore than…It does.” Nathan gasped.
“Hold his shoulders.”
Heyes realised Bill was talking to him and he did his best to hold Nathan still. Jed placed his hands beside Heyes’. He swallowed, knowing what happened next wasn’t going to be pleasant. Bill took hold of Nathan’s leg and the man cried out.
Obscenities they’d never heard Nathan utter before streamed from his mouth until, thankfully, he lost consciousness.
The mood in the bunkhouse was subdued that evening. Supper was eaten, cards were dealt but the usual jibes and humour was missing. Jethro sat on his bunk darning a sock, Heyes stared at the cards in his hand, Henry refilled the coffee pot and Jed sat in a chair, cleaning his gun the way Marty had showed him while casting the occasional glance at the door to Collins’ room; the room they had taken Nathan to. The doctor was still in there. It had taken an age for him to reach the ranch. Fortunately, Nathan hadn’t regained consciousness until after the man set his leg, but the men still cringed when they heard his cries.
The door opened and all heads turned towards the medical man. Collins walked behind him.
“I can’t thank you enough, Doc,” the foreman said, shaking the man’s hand with his left.
“The laudanum will do its job. It’s not going to be easy for him.” Everyone knew a broken leg would take a long time to heal. Nathan was going to have to be patient and hope the bone healed properly too.
“We’ll take care of him.”
With a nod the doctor was on his way.
“How is he?” Henry asked.
“Sleeping now. You’re gonna have me bunking in here boys.”
“Jeff?” The way Jethro said his name told Collins what every man there wanted to know.
“It was a bad break. The doctor set it, and he’s given Nathan something for the pain but…” He looked at the faces turned to him. “I don’t know, boys. I reckon he’s got a lot of healing to do.”
“Will he walk okay?” Marty asked.
“We won’t know until he’s up and about.”
“Anything we can do, just let us know.”
“I will, Marty. I’ll let you know when he’s up to having visitors.” The men nodded and returned to their tasks, still thinking about their friend.
Nathan sat on the porch, his splinted leg stuck out in front of him, rested on a chair. In front of the bunkhouse, Jed held a rope in his hand. He raised one end above his head, swung it around several times before throwing it towards a sawhorse a few feet away. On one end two cow horns had been fixed on a piece of wood to represent the head end. The lasso landed over the horns and Jed pulled tight. He turned and gave Nathan a broad grin.
“Well done, Jed.”
“Yeah, great work, kid. That’ll come in real handy when you want to catch a three foot high cow, that don’t move.” Marty smiled as he walked towards them.
“Don’t listen to him, he’s just jealous ‘cos he can’t rope to save his life,” Nathan called.
“Who says I can’t rope?”
“Marty, you never rope.”
“Just ‘cos you don’t see it, don’t mean I can’t.” Marty stepped onto the porch.
”Then why don’tcha?”
“I figure my other skills are more useful.”
“Gun twirlin’ and sharp shootin’ ain’t usually required come brandin’ time.”
Marty smiled as he leaned against the porch post. Nathan adjusted his seat and grimaced.
“You okay?” Nathan couldn’t answer for a minute. “You got any of that stuff for the pain, left?”
“Yeah. On the cabinet by the bed.”
“I’ll go get it.”
Marty headed inside. Nathan looked up to see how Jed was getting on. The boy’s attention was no longer on the sawhorse or the rope, instead he was looking towards the Culver house. Nathan saw the object of his attention. Emily stood at the end of the lawn that lay in front of the house. She raised her hand and waved. Jed waved back. Nathan looked at the expression on Jed’s face. The poor kid had it bad for that girl.
Mark Culver opened the door and stepped inside the bunkhouse. His eyes scanned the room and fell on Jed, lying on his bunk, a blue ribbon in his hand.
“Jed.” The boy quickly slid the ribbon under his pillow and sat up. He looked at Mark, expectantly. “Can I have a word? Outside.”
Heads snapped up at that. Heyes shot his friend a concerned glance. Jed pushed up from his bunk and followed Mark.
“Wonder what’s wrong now,” Henry said as he placed a fresh pot of coffee on the stove.
“I hope it ain’t trouble.” Heyes looked at the closed door.
“He ain’t been near Mark’s sister has he? We know the boy’s got it bad for her.”
“Not that I know of.” Heyes wondered what happened in the times he didn’t know about.
“What is it?” Jed asked as he followed Mark along the porch. Mark indicated with his head and Jed saw someone standing in the shadows. It was Emily.
“You got five minutes,” Mark informed him.
Jed walked passed him.
“Hi, Jed.” Emily smiled and held out her hand. Jed took it and they stepped away from the porch. He didn’t let go when they stopped walking.
“Is something wrong?”
“I’m leaving tomorrow.”
“WHAT?” His hand tightened on hers.
“My uncle from back east is visiting my aunt. The one I’ll be staying with when I go to school. So my mother wants to go and see her brother and sister and is taking me along so we can see the school as well, before I have to go there.”
“How long will you be gone?”
“I don’t know but we’ll be back for the wedding.”
“Abigail Olsen. The Mayor’s daughter.”
“I didn’t know.”
“It’s going to be the biggest wedding in Claremont this year.”
“I don’t s’pose I’d be going anyway.”
“You will if I ask my Pa.”
She smiled and Jed couldn’t help but smile back. She caught hold of his other hand and pulled him closer. There was a cough behind them.
“Time to go, Emily.” Mark stepped towards them.
“Just a minute more, Mark, please.”
Mark looked at his sister, then at her hands holding Jed’s.
“I’m gonna turn my back for a minute and look at the barn. Then we’ll head back to the house.”
Emily smiled but Jed looked bemused.
“Will you kiss me goodbye?”
Jed looked over his shoulder at Mark. True to his word, her brother was pretending to find the barn fascinating. Jed turned back to Emily.
“Okay.” He stepped forward, careful not to tread on her feet this time. Their lips met in a sweet kiss. Emily stepped closer and Jed put a hand on her arm to steady them both. Their lips pressed harder and when Jed pulled away Emily had her eyes closed. He smiled. Emily sighed and opened her eyes. She touched her lips with her fingers.
“Thank you, Jed Curry. I’ll see you soon.”
“I sure hope so, Emily. You take care.”
“Time to go, sis.” Mark stepped forward.
“Thanks, Mark.” Jed nodded and watched as brother and sister headed back to the main house.
Jed didn’t turn at the sound of Heyes’ voice. He stared into the darkness.
“I will be.”
Nathan stepped onto the porch the following morning and eased himself into the chair, grimacing as he did so. He leaned his crutches against the bunkhouse wall and raised his leg, resting it on the chair. The sun was already warming the day. In the corral he could see two unbroken horses prancing around the perimeter fence. He itched to get down there and get back on a horse. At least the fall hadn’t scared him off, just prevented him from working for a few weeks. Some people would love to sit around and do nothing. It was driving Nathan crazy. So he was glad when he saw Jed come out of the barn. The boy waved when he saw Nathan. The man waved back and Jed headed his way carrying a coil of rope.
“You ready for another lesson?” Nathan asked as the boy reached the porch steps.
“If you don’t mind?”
“What else have I got to do? Besides you’re getting pretty good at roping three foot high cows.”
Jed smiled. He put down the rope and went to get the sawhorse. Other ranch hands left the bunkhouse, exchanging friendly banter with Nathan as they headed about their jobs. When the blond kid returned Nathan had him place the sawhorse further away.
“D’you reckon you can do this?” Nathan asked.
Nathan smiled at the kid’s confidence.
“Go on then.”
Jed picked up the rope. Nathan smiled at the serious expression on Jed’s face as, eyes narrowed, he judged the distance to the sawhorse. He took a deep breath, preparing himself, then twirled the lasso above his head. They watched it fly through the air and…land in the dirt. Jed’s shoulders drooped.
“Bad luck, kid.”
Jed plodded to where the rope lay. Bending down he picked it up and wound it around his hand and elbow.
“How’s he doing?” Heyes asked as he walked out of the bunkhouse.
“He’s a natural.”
Jed shot a look at Nathan and the man winked. The boy hid a smile.
Jed’s eyes narrowed when he saw Heyes’ face. The dark-haired boy shifted uncomfortably under his friend’s gaze.
“You been trying to shave again?” Jed stared at the cuts and nicks on Heyes’ chin.
Heyes’ hand went to his face, covering the tell tale marks.
“Get back to ya ropin’!” he said, grumpily, as he walked off towards the corral.
Jed looked at Nathan for help.
“A man’s first shaves are kind of a sore point, Jed.”
“Well I know that, ‘cos you cut yourselves so much.”
“I mean, Heyes is a little embarrassed about it.”
“Why? It means he’s a man and not a boy anymore, right?”
“Right, but I don’t think Heyes likes…Not being good at something.”
Jed considered this.
“Don’t matter whether he’s any good or not; still means he’s a man.” Jed ran the rope through his hands. “What about me? I can shoot but I can’t shave. What does that make me?”
“A show off! Now throw the darn rope.”
Jed smiled then turned to face the sawhorse again. On the second attempt the rope fell closer to the target. On the third it fell over one of the horns. Jed was winding up the rope ready for his fourth attempt when something up at the main house caught his eye. A carriage stood outside. He watched as a woman stepped into it. A trunk was loaded onto the back. Then a familiar figure walked towards the carriage. Before she got in Emily turned to look towards the bunkhouse. Seeing Jed, she raised a hand and waved. The boy stood riveted to the spot. She was really leaving. Emily waved again.
Jed waved back and Emily climbed into the carriage. He watched as the carriage moved off and out of sight.
“I heard they were off to Denver.”
Jed hadn’t heard Nathan limp up behind him.
“You’re gonna miss her.”
Jed looked at the man leaning on his crutches. He saw nothing but understanding in Nathan’s eyes. He decided not to deny it.
“Yeah, I guess.”
“Buy you a drink?”
Jed screwed up his face.
“I had enough of that on the Fourth.”
“I was thinking more of a cup of Henry’s coffee.”
The boy cast one more glance up the hill.
“I reckon I could use that drink.”
“Well c’mon. Let’s mull over the hardships of being a man; shaving and women, that kinda stuff.”
Jed smiled and followed Nathan back to the bunkhouse.
End of part 6