(Part Seven of the Ranch Days series)
By Maz McCoy
“Sure is nice to get away from the ranch for a while.” Heyes sat next to Marty on the wagon as they headed into Claremont.
“You sure you don’t mean from Jed?” The man cast a sideways glance at Heyes and then flicked the reins.
“Seems he’s been a mite prickly since Emily left.”
“Yeah, he sure is. I never expected him to lose his heart to a girl. At least not so soon. He’s been all doe-eyed holding that ribbon she gave him. Sheesh. Sometimes, I forget he’s growing up.”
“You’ve done a good job looking after him.”
“Thanks, Marty, but we’ve looked after each other.”
“Well, it can’t have been easy playing the big brother all these years.”
“He’s not been too much trouble.”
“You still sore I helped him get a gun?”
Heyes let out a heavy sigh and considered his words carefully.
“No. I’m used to it now. It’s just…We’ve seen enough men draw and get killed for stupid reasons. I’m worried about someone goading him into a gunfight. Sometimes he acts before he thinks.” Heyes turned to Marty. “You understand don’t you?”
“I do.” Marty spat a gloop of tobacco into a bush as they rode by. “I also know he’s got an amazing eye. He’s faster than I was at his age and he holds a gun with reverence. Knows what it can do and respects that.”
“Yeah, he’s good with it. I saw him practicing.” Heyes smiled. He’d been amazed at Jed’s speed and accuracy.
“He wants to be able to protect you both. Start doing his part. Like you said he’s growing up. Better he learns how to use a gun right.”
“I appreciate you teaching him respect for a weapon but…”
“You still don’t like it.”
“No, I don’t. His Ma’d tan my hide if she knew I let him buy a gun.”
“What about you? Never gonna carry one?”
“I suppose I will. I know how to use one. My Pa taught me before…Well he taught me. I just wish Jed didn’t have to.”
“He’s growing up and as a man, hopefully, he’ll do the right thing.”
“I hope so. We were raised by good people. I’d want them to be proud of us.”
“Well, unless you’re planning on robbing the bank when we hit town, I can’t see why they wouldn’t be.”
Heyes smiled and thought about collecting the supplies from the store, grabbing a meal and then maybe a little something else at the saloon. He smiled when he thought of Susanna. Marty didn’t miss it. He knew that smile.
“Shoot boy, even your folks did that.”
The saloon was quiet with only a couple of men seated at a table in the far corner. Marty and Heyes walked towards the bar and ordered a drink. Heyes eyed the pies for sale and ordered one. The men found a table.
“Heyes? That you?” a female voice cooed. He turned to see a smiling saloon girl heading towards him.
“Susanna, I knew this day was gonna get better.”
“Why you sure do have a silver tongue.” She slid into the vacant seat beside him and leaned closer. “And I should know all about that. You in town for long?”
Heyes shot a look at Marty. The man smiled, having heard every word, and shook his head. Heyes sighed.
“Oh, sweetie, I thought we could have some fun.” She ran her hand through his hair and cast a glance at Marty. “Don’t you have some place to be? Something that’d keep you occupied for a while?”
“Not for the five minutes he’d need; no.” He smiled back and took a swallow of his beer. Susanna’s look shot daggers at him. Heyes tried to think of something smart to say but failed. “Eat up Heyes, we hafta get going.”
“Sorry,” Heyes smiled, apologetically at Susanna and took a bite of his pie.
“Heyes, you all right?” Marty urged the horses up an incline and the cargo in the back, jostled and bumped.
“I’m fine,” Heyes lied as his stomach flipped again.
“You look kinda pale, son.”
“How many beers did you have?”
“I’m not drunk!”
Marty gazed at him out of the corner of his eye. Heyes looked as if he was going to be sick at any moment. When they reached the top of the hill, Marty pulled the wagon to a halt. Heyes turned to look at him.
“Why’ve we stopped?”
“So you can get down and throw up.”
“I’m not gonna throw up.”
“Trust me kid, I know the signs. Too much beer or too many pies, it’s all the same to a man’s stomach.”
“I just need some water.”
Heyes reached beneath the seat for his canteen and took a long drink. Marty watched him.
“I’m okay. Really, come on let’s go. I wanna make sure Jed’s not getting into trouble again.”
“All right,” Marty relented. “But the minute you feel like taking another look at those pies you kept shoving down, you let me know. I don’t want you throwing up all over the wagon or the horses, or worse still, me!”
Heyes didn’t reply. Instead he sat as still as he could, willing the contents of his stomach to do the same.
“They’re back!” one of the hands called into the shadows as the wagon rolled to a halt in front of the barn. Collins strode into the sunlight and surveyed the loaded wagon.
“Get everything on the list?” he asked, as Marty jumped down.
“Got it all, Boss.”
The foreman ordered the wagon to be unloaded, except for the supplies to go out to the line shacks. Two ranch hands set about doing just that. Collins joined Marty who was looking up at Heyes. The young man hadn’t moved.
“D’you stop by the saloon?” Collins asked, his eyes on Heyes.
“He have a beer?”
“He get up to anything else?”
“There wasn’t time for Oh Susanna.”
“Why’s he looking so pale?”
“Not sure. I swear I kept an eye on him.”
“I can speak for myself,” Heyes groaned.
“I did wonder.” Collins raised an eyebrow and the young man eased himself to his feet before jumping down from the wagon. He landed with a thud and promptly sank to his knees. Sweat stained his face, his breathing rapid, as a wave of sickness swam over him. Doubling up, he held his stomach. What the heck was going on? He felt hot, too hot.
“Heyes?” Collins stood beside him.
Heyes couldn’t talk; his breath was coming too rapidly for that. He fixed the foreman with a confused look and then threw up. Collins cussed and leapt back out of the firing line, as Heyes retched again and again. When he was sure there was nothing left in his stomach Heyes rested his hands on his knees, panting.
“Could have been those pies he ate,” Marty mused.
“Get a couple of the men to take him up to the bunkhouse.”
“Will do, boss.”
“Heyes?” Collins crouched down. Two tired eyes met his. “Let’s get you outta here.” Hands pulled him to his feet and he was helped away.
Grasping Heyes’ arm tighter, Marty led the way to the bunkhouse.
“What happened?” Jed asked, anxiously, when he entered the bunkhouse to see his friend lying on the bottom bunk, a cloth resting over his forehead.
“Looks like he ate something bad.” Henry headed towards the stove with fresh coffee.
Jed eased closer to the bunk. Heyes was sweating, his eyes flickered open and closed and every now and then he gave a shiver. Jed sat down beside him.
His friend tried to focus on him and speak, but instead of any word, all Jed got as a reply was another shiver.
“Is he gonna be all right?”
“I should think so. Got himself a bad bellyache right now, but once it’s passed…” Henry left the rest unsaid.
Jed didn’t look convinced. Heyes was never sick, well rarely. It scared him to see his friend this way.
Two brown eyes met Jed’s. The younger boy smiled, encouragingly.
“How you doing?”
“F…Feel b…bad. Real…b…bad.”
He reached out a hand and Jed caught hold of his friend’s sweaty palm.
“Hurts…too.” Heyes squeezed and Jed held on tight.
“It’ll pass soon, Han. You know belly aches; they don’t last long.”
“I…h…hope you’re r…right. Feels l…like my…s…st…stomach’s gonna explode.”
Neither saw the worried expression on Henry’s face.
The foreman was leaning on the corral fence, one foot on the bottom rail, studying a horse that had gone lame. Bill Napier reached down to check the animal’s hoof. Collins looked up as Jed approached him.
“Han’s really sick.”
“I know. I saw.”
“No, I mean really sick. I ain’t seen him like this before. He needs the doctor.” Jed struggled with what to say. “I know I’ve caused some trouble at times and…erm…I don’t know how much we got saved but…” He looked at the ground. This wasn’t coming out right. He took a deep breath. Here goes. “I don’t know if we can afford the doctor but I want you to send for him anyway. If I have to work extra hours or something I will.”
Collins studied the boy.
“You’re that concerned?”
“I don’t know if I told you when you hired on but the Bar T looks after its own. If someone gets sick in our employ, we pay for the doctor.”
Jed looked up.
“Did it for you, didn’t we?”
“Well, yeah, but I thought that was because of Emily.”
“Well, maybe.” He placed a hand on Jed’s shoulder. “Come on, let’s go take a look at your friend.”
It was soon clear to Jeff Collins that Heyes wasn’t suffering from just an ordinary stomach ache. The young man was running a fever, and mumbling incoherently. He looked across at Henry, who shrugged.
“He’s real sick isn’t he?” Jed asked.
“Yes, son, he is.” Collins didn’t see any point in pretending. He placed a fresh cool cloth on Heyes’ forehead and the young man gave a weak moan.
“Do you think he’s gonna die?” Jed didn’t take his gaze from his friend.
The foreman didn’t answer, just rested his hand on Jed’s shoulder.
“Sit with him awhile. He’d like you here.” With a nod of his head he asked Henry to follow him. Jed’s shoulders slumped as the men stepped outside onto the porch.
“What do you think?” Collins asked, his eyes automatically scanning the corral and yard as he spoke.
“He’s sick with somethin’ all right and not just from a bad pie. The question is, is it catchin’?”
“Yeah.” Collins had had the same thought. “I’ll send for the doctor. Keep people away from him until we know what it is. You keep away too. I don’t want you passing it on to the whole ranch in your stew.”
“You sayin’ something about my cooking?”
“Not if I want to eat, I’m not.” With a nod of understanding, brought on by many years working together, the men parted, Collins heading in search of someone to send to town, Henry to keep a distant eye on the boys.
Henry looked up at the sound of a horse ridden hard. He stepped outside the bunkhouse onto the porch to see Gerard returning from town. Collins strode from the barn towards the rider. The horse was pulled to a halt, hooves scuffing up clouds of dust.
“Where’s the doc?” Collins asked.
“He ain’t comin’.”
“Seems Heyes, ain’t the only one sick. Doc’s got at least another ten cases in town to deal with. Says it’s food poisoning. Reckon’s the pies in the saloon were to blame. He said he’d be out as soon as he could, but he don’t know when. Suggested we take Heyes into town if he could travel.”
“Okay, thanks Gerard.” As the man rode the horse over to the corral, Collins walked up onto the porch towards Henry. “What do you think?”
“I don’t think Heyes’d thank you for a wagon ride.”
“I guess not.” He looked at his old friend. “What do we do?”
“He’s a tough, healthy kid. I’d say if anyone can fight it off he can.”
“I hope you’re right.” He opened the door and stepped inside the bunkhouse.
“How’s he doing?” Collins asked as he sat down on the bunk beside Jed. The boy looked up at the foreman.
“The doctor can’t get out here just yet.” The boy just listened. “Seems there are more cases in town. It’s food poisoning all right. Seems Heyes ate a bad pie at the saloon.”
“Will he get better?”
“He’s young and strong. He has as good a chance as anyone.”
“But you don’t know for sure.” It was a statement not a question.
“I don’t imagine anyone does, Jed.” He looked from one young man to the other. “Why don’t you get back out to the barn, while he’s sleeping? Help Marty with the horses.”
“Okay.” Jed stood up but did not move.
“Go on boy, I’ll keep an eye in him.”
Jed headed for the door. When he had gone, Collins raised himself slowly to his feet.
“Call me if there’s any change.”
“Will do, Boss.”
Sweat covered Heyes’ face as he shivered again. His lips moved as he mumbled incoherently. Jed sat on the bunk beside him.
“So…sor…sorry…Could…couldn’t help you.”
“Could…couldn’t…St…stop them, Ma.”
Jed swallowed. He knew what Heyes was talking about. His head dropped and he looked at the wooden floorboards.
“Blood…blood everywhere…Blood everywhere. They’re dead, Pa, they’re dead, Pa.”
“Han, wake up.” Jed didn’t want to hear this again. He placed a hand on the sick boy’s shoulder and shook. “Han.”
“HAN!” Jed shook harder. “DAMMIT WAKE UP!”
“Whoa, easy boy.” Henry approached the bunk, wiping his hands on the apron tied around his considerable waist.
“They’re gone…All gone.”
Jed shook Heyes again.
“STOP IT! SHUT UP, HAN! WAKE UP!”
Henry grabbed Jed’s arm, pulling him away.
“Let him be, Jed.”
Jed sagged, the fight suddenly gone out of him. Henry was startled when tears began to roll down the youngster’s face as his shoulders shook.
“He can’t die too, he can’t.”
“Come outside, son, come on.” Henry led the way out onto the bunkhouse porch. Jed followed obediently and sat down on the bench. Henry lowered himself next to the boy, letting Jed compose himself. After several sniffs and sharp intakes of breath. Jed coughed and wiped his nose with the back of his hand.
“Nothing to be sorry about. A man hasta let his emotions out now and then. Kinda like a kettle letting off steam when the pressure builds up.”
“D’you think he’s gonna die?”
Henry found it hard not to look away from the moist blue eyes looking at him.
“I don’t know, Jed. I sure hope not ‘cos he peels a mean potato.”
“He was…He was remembering when our folks were killed.”
“We saw…We weren’t there but we saw what they did. It was erm…It was…”
“You don’t hafta tell me, Jed.” Henry placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder and they sat in silence for a while.
At the sound of a pitiful moan Jed dropped, in the darkness, from the top bunk to the space between the beds. He leaned close to his friend.
“Jed?” Heyes’ eyes opened.
“How you feeling?” Jed kept his voice low so as not to wake the others.
“My stomach aches.” He grimaced. “It sure feels sore.”
“You’ve had food poisoning. You’ve been pretty much out of it for a couple of days.”
Heyes looked confused.
“What time is it?”
“I don’t know; the middle of the night, I guess.”
“It’s 2 a.m and if you two don’t stop yakkin’ and go back to sleep I’ll see to it that you both spend the rest of the night in the barn,” Marty called from beneath the covers, two bunks away.
“Han’s feeling better,” Jed informed him in a loud whisper.
“Oh, terrific, now shut up and let me sleep!”
“You gonna be okay?”
“See you in the mornin’.”
Jed climbed back to the top bunk. He lay back on the pillow, staring at the ceiling. He grinned and closed his eyes.
Heyes sat on the bunkhouse porch watching Jed running back and forth on errands for Bill and Marty as they tended a horse in the corral. Jed spotted his friend and waved. Heyes waved back. It was good to be out in the fresh air. It was taking longer than he expected to regain his strength. The food poisoning had taken it out of him in more ways than the most obvious. A walk down to the corral earlier had left him pale and his legs shaking. However, no one complained that he was sitting there doing nothing. The men of the Bar T had become friends. They looked out for each other and cared about the men they spent most of their days with and sometimes trusted their lives to and it felt…He dare not say the words but inside he whispered quietly to himself that it was comfortable and that it felt like home.
End of Part Seven