(Part Nine of the Ranch Days series)
By Maz McCoy
Jed shoved the pitchfork, harder than was necessary, into the soiled hay and tossed it out of the stall. In the next stall Heyes was doing the same only instead of keeping his mouth shut and getting on with the job he was talking. He’d been talking non stop for a while now and it was driving Jed crazy. Not that he minded Heyes talking; it was what he was talking about. It was about him, Jed and how he was holding Heyes back.
“You have no ambition do you?” Heyes asked, rhetorically. He didn’t know why but in the past few days Jed had been getting on his nerves. If he didn’t know better he’d have thought his friend was doing it deliberately. Leaning on his pitchfork Heyes looked through the wooden bars. “I mean are you really happy with this life? Is this all you want?”
“We get paid and they feed us, what more do you want?”
“To be my own boss; to be in charge instead of taking orders.”
“You can have that someday. We’ve only just started out.” Jed tossed another forkful of hay out of the stall.
“And just when do you think someday will be?”
“I don’t know, but you can’t expect everything to happen at once. We hafta work for it.”
“My Pa was right. The Currys have no ambition.” Heyes turned away and shoved the fork into the hay. Jed stood perfectly still, fuming. He walked out of the stall and into the next one.
“What did you say?”
Heyes looked up. Jed was angry.
“Take it back.”
“No. It’s true.” Heyes put down his fork and pushed past Jed. The blond boy followed him, catching hold of his arm, spinning his friend around.
“Take it back.”
“No. If you weren’t here I could go somewhere else; be whatever I want! Instead I gotta babysit you all the time.”
“So you think I’m holding you back?”
“Yes, I do!”
“You don’t hafta stay here. Go…Go wherever it is you want. I don’t need you to look after me. I never did!”
“Ha! You couldn’t survive without me. Just like your Pa. If we hadn’t helped your family, you’d have never got through the winter!”
“That’s a damn lie!”
“No it isn’t! Your Pa had no ambition and no idea!”
Jed shoved Heyes hard and he stumbled backwards.
“TAKE IT BACK!”
“IT’S THE TRUTH!”
Jed punched Heyes, catching him square on the jaw. Anger filled brown eyes and Heyes struck back, his own punch landing hard on Jed’s cheekbone. The boy went down. Before Heyes could think about what he’d done Jed was on his feet, barrelling into him and they both went crashing into the dirt, fists flying.
When he heard the commotion Marty came running from the tack room and stopped dead in his tracks. Heyes and Jed rolled on the ground lashing out with punches, grabbing at each other’s shirts, as they cussed and fought. Jed took a punch on the chin and fell back. Heyes took the opportunity to stagger to his feet, his nose bloody. He wiped it with the back of his hand as he looked down at his best friend, then Jed kicked out, catching Heyes’ ankle hard and he dropped to his knees. Jed was on him again, before hands grabbed them pulling the friends apart.
“STOP IT! BOTH OF YOU, STOP!” Marty pulled Heyes backwards as Bill Napier hauled Jed away.
Jed’s angry eyes met Heyes’ stare, as each boy struggled to break free of the man holding him.
“Calm down, Heyes!”
“Stop fighting, Jed.”
But focussed as they were on each other, neither young man seemed to hear. Blood ran from Heyes’ nose and a cut above his eye. Red streaks were smeared across Jed’s face and a purple bruise was already forming on his left cheek bone as he continued to struggle.
“What the heck’s wrong with you two?” Bill asked but neither boy responded, they just continued the glaring contest. After a few moments Jed stopped fighting. “You finished?”
Jed nodded and Bill let him go. The blond boy stared at Heyes, who was still held by Marty.
“My Pa was a good man and you’re a damn liar!”
Jed turned and ran towards the corral. Seeing Bill’s horse, Winifred, saddled and tied to the fence, he leapt onto the back of the horse, kicked hard and rode off.
“JED! GET BACK HERE!” Bill’s cries fell on deaf ears. He could only stand and watch as the boy rode away.
“What the heck was that all about?” Marty asked when he let Heyes go, but Heyes couldn’t meet his eyes. “Well?”
“So you were trying to kill each other for no reason what so ever?”
Heyes remained silent.
“What’s going on?” Jeff Collins asked as he strode towards them from the bunkhouse. Several other ranch hands stood watching from the porch.
“The boys were fighting,” Bill explained. “And Jed just rode off on my horse.”
Collins scanned the horizon spotting a horse disappearing into the distance. He looked around.
“Nathan, Marty, go after him.” The men nodded and headed to the barn to saddle their horses. Collins turned his attention to Heyes. “A word. Now!”
Heyes’ shoulders drooped.
Jed didn’t know where he was riding to; he just wanted to get away from Heyes and from the ranch. Heyes thought he was a sheep; following him around and holding him back. He thought his father was a failure too. If he didn’t have Jed to look after, Heyes would have taken that job in San Francisco he saw in the newspaper last month; if he didn’t have Jed to think about he would have joined the railroad gang heading north before they took the ranch job; if he didn’t have Jed… Those words cut deep and the worst thing was, Jed knew it was true. Heyes had given up a lot to look after him. He brushed at the moisture running from his eyes. He didn’t care what Heyes’ said. He wasn’t crying, nope, he wasn’t. He flinched when his hand touched his cheek. Heyes’ punch had hurt. He was supposed to be his best friend. He wasn’t supposed to say the things he had. Jed was proud of his father, proud of his family. Heyes had been wrong to say those things. No, he wasn’t going to cry!
Collins strode back from the bunkhouse. He’d been called away before he could have his talk with Heyes. Bill approached the Boss. Collins didn’t look pleased.
“He’s around the back of the barn.” Bill shook his head. “Those boys have been at each other’s throat for the past few days. I don’t know why.”
“Okay, thanks, Bill.”
Heyes sat with his back against the building. Hearing someone approach he rubbed his red eyes with the palm of his hand and tried his best to look unaffected by the fight.
“Boss.” The young man didn’t look up.
The foreman studied Heyes’ bloody face.
“That nose broken?”
Heyes wiped his nose with the back of his hand and flinched.
“Are you going to tell me what that was all about?”
“It was nothing.”
“Wrong. I’ve got two ranch hands bleeding, one’s not working ‘cos he’s hiding behind the barn and the other’s stolen a horse and ridden off.”
Heyes looked up, his eyes wide.
“Jed didn’t steal the horse!”
“He took it without permission didn’t he? What do you call that?”
“He’ll bring it back. You know he will.”
“If he don’t he’s looking at a hanging offence.”
Heyes stood up and faced the man.
“You can’t hang him! He didn’t steal it!”
“And I thought you didn’t care about him anymore.”
“Your poker face is slipping, Heyes.”
The young mean leaned back against the barn and kicked at a stone.
“I already figured that out.”
“I said some things…” Collins waited. “Some things I shouldn’t have. I told him he was holding me back. That I could do other things if it wasn’t for him.”
“There’s some truth in that.”
Heyes cast a glance at Collins.
“I’ve had to look after him for years.”
“Chose to, I guess.”
“Exactly. It was your choice.”
“No one else would have done it. I’m all the family he has.”
“And he’s all the family, you have.”
Heyes looked at his boots.
“I insulted his Pa. I shouldn’t have done that. Mister Curry was a good man.”
“Seems to me you’re going to have a lot to apologise for.”
“He said things too.”
“I imagine he did. Heck, so would I. When we get him back are you two gonna keep fighting?”
“I don’t know.” Heyes realised how much his face hurt. Jed sure could punch hard. “I said a lot of things that hurt him. Maybe we’d be better off apart.”
“You planning on leaving?”
“I don’t know that either.”
“Well, while we’re paying you, there’s still work for you to do. Let’s get Henry to patch up that cut, then you can finish off in the barn and figure out what you’re gonna do.”
Reluctantly, Heyes followed him back to the bunkhouse.
Jed slid from the saddle and sat down under a tree, leaning back against the trunk. He pulled his legs in close to his body and rested his head on his knees. What was he going to do? Heyes didn’t want him around. He’d held his friend back for years and now Heyes had had enough. He was going to leave, he knew it. Heyes would probably be gone by the time he got back. He was the only real friend he had and he was going to leave him. Jed’s eyes clouded with tears. He hadn’t felt this lonely since… Jed rested his head on his knees.
“OW! That stings!” Heyes protested as Henry held a cloth soaked in iodine against the cut above his eye.
“Serves you right. I hear you said some pretty rotten things to Jed.”
“He said some back, so don’t go taking his side.” Heyes sat on his bunk, the cook sat opposite him.
“You’re older. You should know better.”
“Why do people always say that? Besides, I’m not that much older.”
Henry pressed the cloth against the cut again.
“OW!” Henry waited for Heyes to say something else. Heyes’ shoulders drooped. “I shouldn’t have said some of the things I did. I’ll apologise when he gets back.”
“You’d better.” Henry looked at Heyes’ face, checking that the cuts had been treated. Jed might be smaller but he’d left a few good bruises on his friend’s face. “You wouldn’t want to make an enemy of the cook, would ya?”
Heyes watched him walk away. Terrific! Now Henry hated him too.
A roll of thunder rumbled in the distance and Jed looked at the dark clouds heading towards him. Just what he needed. A terrifying flash of lightning ripped through the air followed by a deafening crack! Bill’s horse reared up. Jed leapt to his feet but before he could grab hold of the reins the animal took off.
“Winifred, come back here girl!” Jed gave chase. “WINIFRED! WINIFRED!”
Forlornly he watched the horse galloping into the distance. Just when he thought things couldn’t get any worse. There was nothing else for him to do. He began to walk back to the ranch, hoping to meet someone on the way.
“It’s raining,” Bill stated as he leaned against the barn door. Heyes looked up from where he worked, forking soiled hay from the stall. Outside the sky had darkened and a sudden flash of lightning illuminated the ranch. “I sure hope Jed finds some shelter. I’d hate for that boy to be stuck out there in this.”
Bill looked at Heyes, gauging his reaction. Heyes looked into the distance at the threatening clouds.
“Winifred always gets spooked by lightning. I hope Jed hangs on tight.”
Heyes looked back at Bill but there was nothing he could say.
Nathan and Marty scanned the ground picking up Jed’s trail. It was easy to follow as their quarry wasn’t trying to hide. They reached the tree Jed had sat beneath, as the light was beginning to fade. Hoof prints covered the ground along with small boot prints.
“Over here!” Marty crouched down, studying the ground.
“What you got?”
“Jed-sized boot prints, heading off that way.” Marty pointed into the distance.
“You think he’s heading out on foot?”
“Looks like it.”
“What about the horse?”
“No sign of it over here.”
“Winifred’s always been skittish in a storm. D’you think she threw him?
“If she did then where the heck is he?”
As Jed walked, thunder rumbled, lightning cut through the sky and then the rain began. Light drops peppered his shirt with dark dots as Jed trudged on. The wind blew the rain directly at him. The light rain turned to a heavy downpour and the temperature dropped. Without a jacket, Jed was soon soaked to the skin and cold. He shivered. The sky grew even darker and hailstones began to fall, hitting his body like tiny needles. Soon large balls of ice were hitting him so hard he was convinced they’d leave bruises. He needed to find shelter and fast but there was none as far as the eye could see; no rocks, no trees. With no other option, Jed walked on.
“Bill’s horse is back.” At his announcement all eyes turned to Gerard, who stood in the open bunkhouse doorway.
Sitting with his legs hanging over the edge of his top bunk, Heyes’ head shot up, hopeful.
“Jed?” Henry asked.
Heyes pushed himself off the bunk.
“No sign of him?”
“Sorry Heyes, nothing. Just Bill’s horse.”
Heyes sat down heavily on the bunk beneath his, Jed’s bunk. What had happened to his friend? If something had… Outside the thunder continued to rumble. It was all his fault.
Jed couldn’t remember the last time, if ever, he had felt so wet, so cold and so alone. Maybe that winter in the home when the windows blew in during the storm but even then they had blankets. He was hungry and his face hurt. His hair was plastered to his face and his clothes were sodden. Holding his arms close to his chest he walked on hoping he was heading in the right direction. Even his boots made a squelching sound. He knew, he’d never make it back to the ranch before night. Jed looked around for somewhere to sleep; for any kind of shelter. Still there was nothing.
The night sky was a blanket of dark cloud. A solitary star broke through every now and then but otherwise there was only the angry darkness and occasional distant flash of lightning. Heyes leaned against the bunkhouse porch post. Jed was out there somewhere alone with no horse, no coat, no food or water; well maybe a lot of water, just not in the right place. If he could take back what he’d said he would. If he…
The sound of approaching horses caught his ear and he scanned the night as the riders approached. It was Nathan and Marty. Heyes’ hopes rose. If anyone could find Jed it was them. He ran to the corral as the men pulled their horses to a halt and slowly dismounted. Jed was not with them.
“What happened? Why didn’t you find him?”
“We lost him. Can’t track him in the dark, Heyes,” Marty pointed out.
“But you can’t just leave him out there!”
“We’ll start back out at first light.” Nathan loosened the cinch on his saddle.
“But he’ll be out there all night, alone. He’s gotta be soaked to the skin by now.”
“Well maybe you shoulda thought about that before you scared him off!” Nathan’s words cut deep and Heyes took a step back. Nathan gave a heavy sigh. “I’m worried about Jed too.” Heyes stood and watched as they turned and led their horses into the barn. Even though his broken leg had healed Nathan still limped. Knowing Nathan was probably in pain didn’t make Heyes feel any better. He walked slowly back to the bunkhouse.
“Nathan and Marty are back,” Heyes announced as he closed the door.
Collins looked up from the game of poker he was playing.
“He’s not with them. They lost him. Said they’ll head out again at first light.”
Dejected, Heyes sat down on Jed’s bunk.
“We’ll all go.” Collins stated. “We’ll find him.”
Nausea overwhelmed Heyes. He’d never meant for this to happen; never meant for it to be so serious. If anything happened to Jed he’d never forgive himself.
The bunkhouse door opened and Nathan and Marty walked in. They were tired and soaked through. Heyes couldn’t meet their gaze.
Jed stumbled, crashing to the ground and catching his left knee on a sharp rock. He swore. The rain had finally stopped but he had no idea where he was. He could have been walking in circles for all he knew, except that he hadn’t seen anything he recognised so that seemed unlikely. He was colder than he had ever been and couldn’t stop shivering. A dark shape ahead materialised into a rock formation and his first hope of shelter. Snakes, spiders, scorpions; who knew what lurked in the crevices but Jed didn’t care. The rocks provided respite from the chilly wind and a place to rest.
Finding a suitable spot, he lay down against the rocks, curled his knees up to his chin trying to keep warm and closed his eyes. Sleep evaded him. He was too cold to sleep. He couldn’t control the shivering and now his teeth had started to chatter. Jed tried to think of comforting thoughts but ended up with images of Henry’s cooking in his head and that started his stomach rumbling. He closed his eyes and hoped morning would come soon.
Heyes didn’t think he’d slept at all although by the rumpled blanket on his bunk and the fact that he’d just woken up, he must have dozed off at some point. There were dark circles under his eyes and his nose and jaw ached but he felt the deepest pain inside.
Breakfast was a hasty affair as the men grabbed a cup of coffee and biscuit before heading to their horses.
“We split up and scan a sector each,” Collins told them as he placed his cup on the table. “Nathan and Marty you continue from where you left off yesterday. Bill and Gerard take the north ridge.” He looked up at Heyes. “You. You come with me.”
The young man nodded.
“Any sign?” Collins called as Bill rode up to him.
“Nothin’!” Bill cast a glance at Heyes. “Wasn’t there any place he liked to go?”
“I already told you, no!”
“Don’t snap at me boy! You know you should be…”
Napier nodded to Collins and turned his horse away, riding back to where Gerard waited for him.
“I know this is my fault.” Heyes looked at Collins.
“Jed should never have ridden out. He’s as much to blame. I plan to let him know that in no uncertain terms when I get my hands on him.”
Nathan’s eyes narrowed. There was a small shape at the foot of a rocky outcrop ahead of them. He urged his horse closer. The shape took on a familiar outline. Jed! The boy was curled in a ball against the rocks.
“Marty! Over here!” Nathan drew his gun and fired two shots into the air, then jumped from the saddle and ran as fast as his bad leg would let him. He eased himself to his knees when he reached Jed’s side.
“Jed.” There was no answer. The boy was pale; his body worryingly still. “Jed?” Nathan placed a hand on his shoulder and shook him. No response. He touched Jed’s cheek. He was cold; so cold. Marty rode up beside them.
“How is he?”
“Freezin’. Throw me a blanket.”
Marty did just that and Nathan wrapped it around the boy.
“Jed? Come on kid, speak to me.”
Jed’s eyes opened part way but he couldn’t focus on anybody.
“Yeah, it’s me. Marty’s here too. We’re taking you back. Stay with us son, okay?”
The boy closed his eyes. Sliding a hand under Jed’s knees and shoulders, Nathan picked him up and then handed him up to Marty. The older man sat him across the saddle in front of him. The boy sagged against his chest and Marty wrapped the blanket tighter.
Once Nathan was back in the saddle they started back to the Bar T.
At the sound of gunshots, Heyes looked up. They’d found him. They’d found Jed. After hours of searching he had almost given up hope. His elation was overshadowed by the fear that his friend was hurt or…worse. He swallowed and shot a glance at Collins. The man seemed to read his mind.
“Won’t know ‘till we see him. Come on!”
Heyes kicked his horse and followed the Boss in the direction of the gunshots.
Henry put down the coffee pot and headed out the bunkhouse door. The men not involved in the search stood watching the approaching riders. Marty carried something in front of him on his saddle. Heyes rode beside him and gave the cook a triumphant wave when he saw him standing on the porch. Henry sighed, they’d found the boy.
End of Part Nine