1 Learning Curve

Learning Curve
(Part one of The Ranch Days)

By Maz McCoy

“Hi,” said the brown-haired girl as she leaned on the fence, watching the blond boy filling up the water trough.

Jed Curry looked up as he worked the pump. The girl was about his age, fourteen, and wore her hair tied back in a long pigtail. She had long eyelashes, which she fluttered to effect.

“Hi,” he replied and tried not to think how pretty she looked; the blue dress matched her eyes.

“What’s your name?” she asked, resting her chin on the fence.

“Jed.” He focussed on the water and kept cranking the handle.

“I’m Emily.”

Jed nodded.

“Where you from, Jed?”

“Kansas.”

“What you doing here?” Emily stepped through the fence to stand beside him.

“Working.”

She laughed.

“I know that, silly.”

She smelled of flowers and soap and stood just a little closer than was comfortable. He swallowed and worked the pump harder.

“I mean, why’re you here and not in Kansas?”

“Nothing there for me.” Jed finished filling the trough. He glanced towards the barn, expecting Collins, the foreman, to step out and yell at him. “I gotta get back to work.”

“Can’t it wait?”

“Mr. Collins don’t like me wasting time.”

“You’re not, you’re talking to me.”

“I know, it’s just…”

“Don’t you like talking to me?”

“Well, sure I do it’s just…”

“Can you ride?”

“Of course I can ride!” He looked at her as if she was crazy to even ask.

“D’you want to go riding with me this afternoon?”

“I hafta work.”

“I could ask my Pa to tell Jeff to let you come with me. You’d be keeping an eye on me, in case I fell off.”

He eyed her curiously.

“You likely to fall off?”

“No.”

“Don’t they know that?”

“Yes.”

“So why would they think you needed me there?”

Her eyes narrowed as she looked at him. Surely he couldn’t be that dense?

“D’you want to go riding with me or not?”

“JED!” They looked up to see Jeff Collins, the ranch foreman, exit the barn. He was a tall, good looking man, with broad shoulders, brown hair and a square jaw. He frowned when he saw Jed talking to the boss’s daughter. “You got work to do, Jed!”

“Be right there Mr. Collins!” Jed turned to Emily.

“Hi, Jeff!” Emily called, giving him a wave.

“Emily,” Collins nodded an acknowledgement.

“He’s a sweetheart.”

Kid stared at her, astonished at this revelation.

“Mr. Collins?”

“Yes. I think he has a soft spot for me.”

“Well, I gotta go.” She looked at him, waiting for him to say something else. “Maybe we could…er…”

“What?”

He looked back at Collins.

“I gotta go.”

Emily sighed.

“Okay, I’ll see you around, Jed.”

“Sure.” He ran towards the barn, thinking about Emily as he did so. Han had told him to stay out of trouble and she was pretty enough to be trouble. If he’d learned one thing in the last few months it was to stay away from the boss’s daughter but she sure had a pretty smile.

Unfortunately the boss’s daughter had no intention of staying away from him.

***

Hannibal Heyes looked at his cards. Not a bad hand. He studied the other players. The man next to him was smoking a cigar and fidgeting with the edges of his cards. He had a poor hand. The next man chewed a wad of tobacco and smiled when he didn’t think anyone was watching. He wasn’t smiling this time. So his hand wasn’t a problem for Heyes. The other two men in the game kept a straight face and waited patiently for the youngster to make his move. Heyes tossed some coins into the pot and the other players watched his face, searching his expression for anything that would give away his thoughts. They saw nothing to help them decide if he was bluffing or not. When Heyes finally laid his cards on the table and smiled, there was more than one cry of indignation.

“How the heck did you learn to play so well at your age, boy?” Henry, the cook, asked, spitting out the tobacco into the cuspidor.

Heyes smiled as he pulled the pot towards him.

“Practice, fellas, just practice.”

“You ain’t old enough to have had that much practice.”

“Then I guess I’m just naturally gifted.”

“Hmph!”

The door to the bunkhouse opened and Jed walked in. The boy looked beat. His clothes and hair were covered with straw and dust and his shoulders drooped, as he headed towards his bed. He slumped down on the bottom bunk and tugged off his boots, dropping them to the floor with a thud before he fell back on the pillow.

“Collins has been pushing him hard,” one of the men told Heyes.

“Maybe a little too hard,” Henry suggested. “He’s just a kid.”

“Jed’s a hard worker,” Heyes said.

“I know but he can’t do the same work as us, however hard he tries.” Henry reminded him.

Heyes pushed back his chair and walked over to the bunk. Jed was fast asleep. One of his arms hung over the edge of the bed and Heyes placed it across his chest. His hands were no longer blistered and bleeding as they had been on their first day of work. When Mark Culver, the boss’s son, had seen Jed’s hands he’d given the boy a pair of gloves he’d grown out of. Heyes pulled the blanket over his friend and pushed his boots under the bunk. Jed had been trying so hard to please Collins and not get him angry.

Finding a job at the ranch had literally been a lifesaver. They had run out of food a few days before and had eaten only when they could steal something, a fact neither of them was proud of. Heyes was worried Jed might not be able to do the work, but his friend had a stubborn streak and he tackled every task the foreman had given him.

The door opened and Jed’s nemesis walked in. He took off his hat and hung it on the rack by the door.

“Any coffee left?” he asked, heading to the stove.

“Just made a pot,” Henry told him. “You been working that boy too hard again, Jeff?”

Collins looked at Henry, then across to the bunk where the blond lad slept.

“I ain’t killed him yet.”

“Just make sure you don’t,” the cook told him.

Collins looked back at the bunk and found two brown eyes fixed on his. “You got something to say?” he asked Heyes.

“No, sir. I just don’t like seeing my friend so tired.”

“Honest work ain’t gonna kill him.”

“Just remember he’s still a kid, Jeff,” Henry told him as he handed him a steaming cup of coffee.

“When I was his age I’d driven a herd of cattle across the desert and….”

“Not everyone’s as tough as you Jeff!” Jethro scoffed from where he lay on his bunk. The man was at least 100 years old according to Henry and had been working on the ranch for most of that time. Although Heyes knew the cook was joking about his age, Jethro was a wise old man and the foreman let him get away with a lot out of respect for all he had done for the ranch and the owners over the years. Jethro was also the most amazing man Heyes had seen when it came to dealing with horses.

“Well I had to learn to be tough when I started out,” Collins was saying, “…and so will that boy. We’ll put a bit of muscle on him too.”

“If you don’t kill him first,” Heyes muttered, walking towards the stove.

“He’ll grow up fast here, Heyes. You both will.”

“We already had to do that,” Heyes told him, flatly, and walked outside.

***

Just after breakfast the following morning, the door of the bunkhouse opened and Bill Napier stuck his head in.

“Mount up boys we’re moving the herd.”

Chairs were pushed back, hats and jackets grabbed and the men headed out to saddle their horses. Jed looked at Heyes who shrugged. He didn’t know if Jed was expected to go too.

“Bill…” Jed stepped forward and the foreman’s right hand man looked at him.

“What is it kid?”

“What about me?”

“What about you?” Bill looked the skinny kid up and down.

“What should I do?”

Bill looked around the room; the eyes of the men still there were on him, waiting. Bill rubbed a hand across his moustache, thinking.

“Well kid, I think you should go out to the barn with the rest of the men and get yourself up on whatever horse Harley chooses for ya.”

Jed’s face lit up as he smiled. He turned to Heyes who was beaming too.

“C’mon, Heyes,” Kid said and headed out the door.

Bill placed a hand on Heyes’ arm halting him before he could follow his friend.

“Keep an eye on him. I don’t want him falling off and gettin’ trampled on his first round up.”

The other men smiled.

“I’ll take good care of him, Bill,” Heyes assured the man.

“Yeah, but who’s takin’ care of you?” Jethro asked as he walked passed him.

As he mounted his horse Heyes turned to see Jed was already in the saddle. He smiled at the small blond boy on the large roan.

“Did you hafta give him the biggest horse you got, Harley?” Collins asked as he rode passed the boy. For his part, Jed was just pleased to be considered one of the men. When the foreman ordered, they rode out to find the herd.

***

Dust, stirred up by thousands of hooves filled the air and their lungs. Heyes pulled the bandana up over his mouth and nose. He squinted through the cloud searching for Jed. A small shape on the back of a horse came into view and Jed rode over to his friend, his own bandana covering the bottom half of his face.

“YOU OKAY?” Heyes shouted above the mooing and hoof beats.

“YEAH! YOU?”

Heyes nodded and pointed towards the head of the herd. Jed leaned in closer so that he could hear his friend without him having to shout.

“Bill said for us to make our way to the front of the herd.”

“Okay, I’m right behind you.”

The friends eased their way alongside the cattle, waving their hands above their heads to urge the animals on. A sudden change in the wind seemed to disturb the cows and they grew restless, moving faster and away from the direction they were supposed to go. As they approached a stand of trees, Jed and Heyes tried to keep them out in the open, whooping and hollering as they’d been told, but the animals grew more spooked, when a dust devil whirled by. They began to run. Looking up Heyes saw Gerard and Nathan, two of the hands, riding fast towards them. Collins was not far behind them.

“GET OUTTA THERE BOYS!” Nathan called and the youngsters turned their horses away from the cattle, and headed towards the trees. A sudden cry caught Jed’s ears and he turned to see Heyes’ horse go down, taking his friend with him.

“HEYES!” Jed pulled on the reins and urged his horse back to his friend, but the animal was having none of it.

Standing in a cloud of dust, caught between a spooked horse and a frightened herd, Heyes didn’t know quite which way to turn. He wouldn’t admit it, to anyone but Jed, but he was scared. And then a hand reached out and grabbed the back of his shirt, hauling him into the air. Collins pulled Heyes onto his saddle and rode to safety.

“You all right boy?” he asked, as he set Heyes down, next to Jed’s horse.

Heyes nodded, still shaken.

“Han? You okay?” Jed asked.

“Yeah, I’m fine.”

Hoof beats signalled the arrival of Nathan leading Heyes’ horse. He handed the reins to Heyes, then leaned towards him.

“Here.” He placed Heyes’ hat back on his head, securing it with a hard tap. “Try not to fall off again, kid, we can’t afford the time to break in any more of you.” He smiled at Collins and, turning his horse, rode off.

“Let’s get moving boys,” Collins ordered. Embarrassed by what had happened, Heyes brushed the dust from his clothes and climbed back onto his horse.

Jed smiled at him.

“C’mon Han, we’re burning daylight.”

***

At the end of a long day the men rode slowly back to the ranch. Tired bodies eased themselves down from their horses. Dust rose when hats were whacked against chap covered thighs. Gloves were pulled off, horses led into the barn and then unsaddled. A slow string of men made their weary way towards the bunkhouse, to be greeted by Henry, carrying a coffee pot and cups. He handed them out and poured the steaming brew for each man. They sat on chairs on the porch or on the steps leading up to the bunkhouse, each lost in his thoughts and too tired to do much else.

Jed and Heyes took their places alongside the men. They exchanged a glance and smiled. They fit in at last.

“Your girl’s heading this way,” Bill said, giving Jed a friendly nudge in the back. Jed looked up to see Emily riding over to the bunkhouse.

“She ain’t my girl,” he muttered as he looked into his coffee cup and tried not to blush.

“Hi Emily,” Bill said when the girl pulled her horse to a halt.

“Hi Bill. Did you move the herd?”

“Yeah, they should be well fed for a while.”

She looked at the men outside the bunkhouse and found a pair of brown eyes staring back.

“Hi, Heyes.”

“Emily.”

The girl turned her gaze to the blond boy sitting beside him.

“Hi, Jed.”

“Hi, Emily.” He could feel the eyes of every man on his back, watching with amusement.

“Can I talk to you?”

“Sure.” Jed didn’t move and she sighed.

“In private?” She rode further away, then looked back. Jed stood up coffee cup still in hand, feigning casual indifference and practicing the swagger he’d seen the men do, he sauntered slowly towards her. He knew they were all grinning at him.

“What is it?” he asked, looking up at the girl.

“D’you want to come riding with me?”

“I only just got back.”

“Well, we don’t have to go far. We could go to the lake.”

“The lake?” Jed met her gaze.

“Sure. You look like you could do with a wash.”

Self consciously he brushed at his shirt and pants, raising a small cloud of dust.

“Maybe we could go another time?” He saw her disappointment. “I mean I wanna go with you it’s just…well…we men only just got back and…”

She latched onto the fact that he hadn’t said no. That had to be a positive thing.

“How about tomorrow?”

“Okay. If I can get time off.” He cast a glance over his shoulder, aware of all eyes on them. “I gotta get back.”

Jed turned and headed back to the bunkhouse. Trying to appear unaffected by her visit, he took a swig of coffee.

“Hey, maybe we could go skinny dipping!” she called loudly.

A mouthful of coffee flew into Jed’s lungs and then shot back out of his mouth and nose. Heyes rushed to pound his friend on the back as the sounds of guffaws and laughter filled the air. Jed didn’t have time to worry about the men laughing at him, he couldn’t breathe. He coughed and wheezed as Emily, seemingly oblivious, or maybe completely aware of what she had done, rode away. She passed her brother as he headed towards the bunkhouse. He shook his head in disbelief, what was she doing to the poor kid?

Jed spluttered between gasps for air and Heyes’ pounding.

“Oh Jed!” one man sighed, dramatically. “You have such blue eyes, Jed!”

“We could go skinny dippin’,” another mimicked.

Jed’s face grew beetroot red.

“If you even think about doin’ that with my sister, I’ll string you up myself, let alone wait for my Pa to catch you,” Mark Culver warned as he walked passed him. At twenty he towered over the young boy.

“I wasn’t gonna,” Jed assured him, standing up to face the boss’s son, when he finally got his breath back. He looked at the faces staring at him, whilst some tried to contain their amusement, others obviously found it hilarious. It didn’t look as if any of the men believed him. “I wasn’t, honest!” He looked to Heyes for support. His friend rolled his eyes.

“Come on Romeo, let’s get cleaned up.”

“Sure you don’t want to do that at the lake? With Emily?” another of the hands called out and Jed entered the bunkhouse to the sound of more laughter.

***

As the sun cast long afternoon shadows, Jed Curry walked from the barn and headed towards the bunkhouse. It must be dinner time soon, he was famished. Honest work certainly helped him build up an appetite, not that he’d ever had any problems finding room for food. Finding food hadn’t always been easy but eating it was never a problem. One of the hands stood outside the bunkhouse. Jed watched as the man twirled his gun and then dropped it neatly into his holster. He drew it quickly and twirled it once more. Jed stepped closer to Marty. The man looked up from where he leaned against the hitching rail. He smiled at the young blond boy. Marty had worked on the ranch for a long time. He tackled any job that was asked of him without question, being equally at home roping cattle or breaking horses. His skin was leathered from years of living outdoors and his hat had seen too many ‘better days’.

“Could you teach me to do that?” Jed asked.

Marty’s eyes narrowed.

“Twirl a gun or use one?”

“Both, I guess.”

“Why d’you want to use a gun?”

“To protect me and Han.”

“You expecting trouble?”

“It seems to find us.”

Marty smiled.

“Trouble’s like that, boy.” He held out the gun. “Here, hold it.”

Jed’s small hand curled around the butt of the gun. It was heavier than he expected and the trigger seemed too far away for his finger to pull on. The gun slipped in his hand.

“Here, I’ll show you.” Marty put his hands over Jed’s and showed him how to hold the gun, how to aim it and when to pull the trigger. It had been years since Jed had held a gun. His Pa had taught him how to use one when he was much younger but in the intervening years he had no way to practice the few things he’d learned. By the time Henry came out of the bunkhouse to bang a pan signally ‘grub’s up’, Kid felt confident holding the Colt.

“Could we…I mean do you think you’d let me…” Marty waited as Jed tried to spit out what he wanted to say. “Will you teach me to use it?”

“I will, but more importantly, I’ll teach you when not to use it.” He placed his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Come on kid, let’s go eat.”

***

Midmorning the next day, Hannibal Heyes sat on the top bunk, legs swinging over the edge as he flicked through the pages of a book someone had left behind on a shelf. As he read snippets of the story, trying to decide if he was interested enough to read the whole thing, Jeff Collins entered the bunkhouse. From his expression it was easy to tell he wasn’t happy.

“Where’s Gerard?” he demanded of Henry. The cook looked up at him from where he lay on his bunk, hoping to take a nap before lunchtime, now that Heyes had helped him with the preparation.

“Problem?”

“He was supposed to fix the fence on the west slope. Nathan tells me it’s still down.”

Henry sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bunk. Before he could say anything, the door opened and Gerard and another hand walked in laughing. They froze when they saw the look on Collins’ face.

“Something wrong boss?” Gerard asked.

The foreman turned his attention to the tall, lanky man with a scar running along his left jaw line.

“I sent you out this morning to fix the fences.”

“Yeah, boss.”

“Nathan tells me the one on the west slope is still down.”

“Well I was gonna get to it but…”

“But what?”

“Well, I thought…” He stopped when he saw the look on Collins’ face. “I mean I figured…”

“Did you figure you’d still get paid if we lost any cattle through that fence? Did you figure you’d still have a job?”

“I’ll get back out there now.”

“That’s a good idea.” He watched Gerard as he turned and swiftly left the bunkhouse. Satisfied things were going to be quiet again, Henry lay back on the bunk. Collins looked up to see Heyes looking at him.

“You okay, boy?”

“I’m fine.”

“Good, ‘cos there’s work waiting for you, once you’ve helped Henry.” The foreman turned towards the door.

“Why didn’t you fire Gerard?”

Collins stopped and looked back at Heyes.

“Wasn’t any need to. He knows he was wrong and he’ll get the job done.”

“But can you trust him to do what you ask?”

“I sure hope so, or we could lose an awful lot of cows by mornin’ and I’ll be sending you to round ‘em up.” With a smile, he left the bunkhouse, leaving Heyes to ponder on the way the foreman managed the men of the Bar T.

***

“Jed?”

“Up here!” Jed looked down from the hay loft to see Marty standing there.

“Come on down. I got something for ya.” Jed climbed down the ladder and Marty held out a battered gun holster towards Jed. “Put it on.”

Jed smiled and wrapped it around his waist, fastening it in one of the extra holes Marty had punched in the leather. Even then it felt ready to slip down his hips. He tied the string around his thigh, then stood up straight and smiled.

“What do you think?”

“I think we should see what you can do with a gun.”

Jed beamed.

***

A mile or so away from the ranch, a man set up six cans on a boulder, then walked casually away from them and then lowered himself to the ground in the shade of a tree, settling back against the trunk. After a moment of silence the sound of metal on rock rang through the air followed by a curse.

“Don’t rush it,” the man advised, and then bit into an apple. The boy straightened his shoulders ready to try again. Assuming the position, he faced the boulder and the cans arranged on top. He drew the gun from the holster slung low on his hips, aimed and fired. PING! Metal hit metal.

“I DID IT!” Jed cried, and turning to Marty, he received a look of approval.

“Yeah, but can you do it a second time? Or even a third?”

Seeing the challenge for what it was, Jed smiled, returned the gun to his holster and drew again. PING! And again. PING! Marty nodded. Yep the boy was good. He had a good eye and a fast hand. Maybe he could be a lot faster, if he practiced.

“Go set ‘em up again,” he instructed and as the blond boy ran towards the boulder, Marty took another bite of his apple.

***

“How’d he do?” Collins asked as he entered the barn to find Marty and Jed unsaddling the horses. Jed looked at his friend, wondering what he’d say. Did Collins approve of him teaching Jed to shoot? Marty smiled.

“Well, he can hit what he aims at.”

Jed positively glowed with pride.

Collins patted Jed on the shoulder.

“We can always use another gun around the place. Now I know who to call on if things get rough.” He exchanged a knowing smile with Marty and then headed outside.

Marty looked at Jed, but the boy was too busy wallowing in his self-appointed role of Bar T gun-hand to notice. Marty shook his head and led his horse into the nearest stall.

***

“How much did you win this time?” Jeff Collins asked as he entered the bunkhouse to see Heyes pulling a sizeable pot towards him.

“Too much,” Nathan informed him. “I reckon you hired a card sharp, boss.”

Collins looked up from a map he was studying; his eyes fixed on Heyes.

“You’re playing fair I hope?”

“I don’t need to cheat, if that’s what you’re suggesting.”

The room fell silent. Accusing a man of cheating at cards was a serious allegation, even if that man happened to be just sixteen years old.

“Make sure you keep it that way,” the foreman told him and turned back to the map he was looking at. An ominous quiet hung in the air until Henry asked, “Who’s for another game?”

***

Jed forked a pile of soiled hay and tossed it out of the stall. He couldn’t stop thinking about Emily. He didn’t know why, after all the darn girl had made him look like an idiot in front of the other hands. He’d only just won their approval for the work he did when moving the herd. Collins had even slapped him on the back and told him what a good job he’d done. Then she’d…Sheesh, did she hafta go and say that in front of everyone? He stabbed the fork into another pile. I mean skinny dippin’…Sheesh. Not that he wouldn’t have minded a swim. He needed a bath. He was sure he was still covered in trail dust and now he was knee deep in…well he didn’t smell so good that’s for sure. Skinny dippin’ with a girl. He felt his face getting warmer. She sure was pretty, though. Just imagine if they’d gone skinny dipping. Then he’d have seen…

“Did I embarrass you?”

Jed spun quickly around to see Emily peering at him over the stall.

“No!” he lied, gruffly, as his face burned red.

“Liar.” Sheesh, could she read his mind? “I waited in the corral for you, but I guess I knew you were chicken.”

“I ain’t chicken!”

“Well you didn’t show up.”

“I had work to do. It’s what we men do!” He drew his chest up and tried his best to look…manly. The effect wasn’t wasted on Emily.

“Your eyes sure are blue.”

The statement threw him. Did she say everything that was on her mind?

“What?”

“I said…”

“I know what you said, I just…” He found himself staring into her eyes. Eyelashes fluttered. Emily smiled and Jed smiled back.

“I’m sorry if I embarrassed you. I was trying to shock my brother too. He’d have a fit if we did go skinny dipping together.”

“I know, he warned me off.”

“He did?”

“Yeah. Said your Pa’d string me up too.”

“Well that’s the truth.”

Emily sat down on a bale of hay and watched as Jed finished clearing out the stall and then replaced the bedding with fresh hay. A loud snort and thud came from a stall near the barn doors. Emily saw the direction of Kid’s gaze as the ranch’s new prize stallion, Black Thunder snorted again.

“Are you afraid of him?”

“Your Pa?”

“No, Thunder.”

“No.”

“Liar!”

“I’m not!”

“Then go clean out his stall.”

“No.”

“Thought you weren’t afraid of him,” she taunted and getting up walked towards the horse.

“I’m not,” he said, with less force.

“So why won’t you clean out his stall?”

“I was told to stay out of there.”

“And do you do everything you’re told?”

“Around here I try to.”

“Well that’s just dull.”

“Not if I want to keep my job.”

She walked towards the stall and slid open the bolt.

“What are you doing?”

“Going inside.”

“Emily you can’t. We shouldn’t.”

“He’s my Pa’s horse. I can do what I want. Besides, no one will know.”

“I mean, it’s not safe.”

“So you are scared of him.”

She stepped into the stall.

“Hi Thunder. Easy boy.” The girl reached out her hand but the horse backed away. From outside the stall Jed watched, worried for her safety.

“Emily…”

“It’s all right. You won’t hurt me will you, Thunder?” She eased alongside him, moving further into the stall. The horse threw back his head and snorted, a wild look in his eyes. Emily stepped back and found herself pressed against the wooden wall as the horse strutted and blew, its attention focussed on her.

“Emily!”

The girl didn’t want to admit to herself that she was afraid. Thunder’s big black eyes fixed on hers and she felt the heat as a blast of air flew from his nostrils. She cowered in a corner of the stall.

“Emily, come out.”

“I don’t think I can. I don’t think he’ll let me.”

“Move slowly along the wall,” Jed advised. Emily tried to do as he suggested and Thunder threw his head back and almost bellowed before swinging his head round to face the girl. Jed crept into the stall. Sensing another intruder in his domain, Thunder reared up on his hind legs. Emily cried out.

“Emily, keep real quiet and give me your hand.”

She looked up to see Jed ease closer. He held out his hand towards her.

“I’m scared, Jed.”

“Just take my hand.” Emily reached out but Thunder blocked the gap between them and she moved away from Jed. “Emily, come on.”

The girl tried to move but something held her back.

“My dress is caught,” she wailed.

Jed moved closer, placing himself between the girl and the horse as Thunder reared once more, his hooves perilously close to their heads, his focus now on the blond boy. Jed saw where Emily’s dress was caught on a nail and pulled at the sleeve. It wouldn’t move.

“Pull harder!” she told him. He did and…RIP!

“Sorry.”

“It doesn’t matter; let’s just get out of here, please.” Keeping his body between Emily and Thunder, Jed led the way back towards the door of the stall, keeping an eye on the horse all the time. Thunder seemed almost reluctant to let them go now and pranced and snorted to block their way. Two menacing black eyes fixed the youngsters with their gaze.

“He’s not going to let us out.” Emily couldn’t hide the fear in her voice. Jed stepped away from her.

“Hey, over here you idiot!” Jed called as he raised his hands. As the horse turned to face the small blond irritant, Jed pushed Emily from the stall.

“Jed!” Emily cried as the horse started kicking and thrashing in the confined space. “Jed! Get out of there.”

He was trying to but there was an awful lot of angry horse between him and the door; a lot of thrashing hooves too. Suddenly there was a sickening thud and Black Thunder burst from the stall. Emily jumped to one side as the horse galloped passed her and out of the barn.

“Jed?” Emily approached the stall with trepidation.

***

Jeff Collins rested one foot on the bottom rail of the paddock fence as he gave his instructions to the hands. “Bill you take Heyes and Nathan with you when you ride out and I’ll get send Gerard out to the line shacks to make sure they’re re-stocked. We need to get the…What the..?” Collins exclaimed as Black Thunder came charging out of the barn and flew passed them.

Men stopped what they were doing to watch the prize stallion disappear into the distance.

“Someone get after that horse!” Collins yelled as he headed towards the barn with Heyes and Bill in tow. It took a moment for their eyes to adjust to the shadows in the barn. They could hear someone crying and then Emily appeared before them, her dress torn at the shoulder. Collins grabbed her, placing his hands firmly on her arms.

“Emily? What happened? Are you all right? Are you hurt?”

She could do no more than point at Thunder’s stall.

“He was…I didn’t…I’m sorry,” she spluttered. “I’m so sorry.” All three men looked confused. Collins peered into Thunder’s stall and swore. Heyes bumped into him as the man came to a halt.

“Jed?” Collins crouched beside the unconscious boy. There was a nasty gash on Jed’s temple. Collins rested a hand gently on the youngster’s blood soaked hair. “Jed? Can you hear me, son?”

There was no reply.

Heyes stood at the entrance to the stall, his eyes fixed on blond hair soaked in blood. His heart seemed to have stopped beating. Jed. Jed covered in blood. Memories he’d tried so hard to bury came flooding back. Two small bodies lay side by side, their blonde hair stained red with their own blood. A shoe, lost in the panic. The smell of smoke and burning wood, a dog barking, the pop and crack as the timbers of the house collapsed and a crumpled doll lying in the dirt. And the blood. So much blood.

Collins looked up at Heyes and was about to say something when he saw the fear in the young man’s eyes.

“Heyes?” he said gently. “Heyes? HEYES!”

Heyes finally snapped out of his trance.

“Huh?”

“You all right, son?”

Heyes looked down at Jed’s lifeless body. He nodded, dumbly.

“Your friend’s alive, but he’s taken quite a blow.” Heyes did not respond. “Heyes? You gonna be okay?”

“Yeah.”

He didn’t convince Collins.

“Go tell Nathan to get the doctor.” Heyes nodded blindly. “Now, boy!” Two brown eyes focussed on the foreman and finally Heyes ran from the barn in search of Nathan.

“How bad is it?” Bill asked as he knelt beside the foreman and looked at Jed.

“I don’t know. Dammit! I told him to stay outta here!” Controlling his frustration, Collins gently picked Jed up. The boy’s head fell against the man’s chest as he carried him out of the stall. Mark Culver returned from a ride and rode passed them as they exited the barn.

“What the heck happened?” he demanded as he jumped from the saddle.

“Looks like Thunder kicked him in the head.”

“He alive?”

“Just about. I’ll take him to the bunkhouse.”

“No. Take him up to the house. My Ma will know what to do.”

Collins nodded and carried the unconscious boy across the yard towards the main house. Having delivered his message and seen Nathan on his way to fetch the doctor, Heyes ran to join them. Other hands stopped what they were doing to stare at the solemn procession and mutter a silent prayer. Heyes followed, watching the blood from Jed’s head wound drip into the dirt.

***

Following Mary Culver’s instructions, Collins laid Jed gently on the couch in the front parlour. Mary, a tall dark-haired woman in her early forties, sent Judith, the housekeeper, for water and bandages as she bent down to examine the young boy’s wound. She brushed stray strands of hair from Jed’s eyes and looked up at Jed’s friend. She’d swear the boy was in shock. He certainly looked terrified.

Judith entered the room carrying a basin of water and bandages. As the women set about tending to Jed’s wounds they heard the front door open. Willard Culver, owner of the Bar T, had returned home.

“The bank might as well hold a gun on me and rob me. At least it would be a more honest way to steal my money instead of using the interest rates they charge,” he grumbled as he entered the parlour. Seeing the crowd around the couch he stopped in his tracks. “What’s happened?”

“Looks like Black Thunder kicked the boy in the head,” Collins explained.

“He’s lucky it was just a glancing blow or we’d be sending for the undertaker,” Mary remarked. Heyes swallowed at the thought. He stood at the end of the couch watching in silence.

“What the heck was he doing with Thunder?”

“I don’t know but Emily was there so maybe she can tell us.”

“Emily?” Willard looked around. “Where is my daughter?”

“She ran off crying. She looked pretty scared,” Collins informed him.

A sudden groan drew their attention and Jed opened his eyes, trying hard to focus.

“Take it easy son, you’ve had a bad knock,” Mary soothed.

“Can you remember what happened, Jed?” Collins asked.

Concentration on his face, Jed tried to remember but all he could think was how much his head hurt as a world of colours and sounds swirled around him. His eyes were only half open and when he began to speak it was as if from a dream.

“She…wanted to…She…but I said we…we shouldn’t.”

All eyes fell on Jed at this odd revelation. It wasn’t quite what they expected to hear.

“She said…no one…no one would know.”

Collins looked at Heyes, who looked in turn at Jed.

“What did she want, Jed?” Collins asked. “What shouldn’t you do?”

“I said… said it wasn’t…safe…but she…I grabbed….her dress ripped.”

“What the heck has he been doing with my daughter?” Culver demanded as his anger grew. “If this skinny little runt has touched her I’ll…”

“Willard, we don’t know what happened yet,” Mary reminded him.

“I’m not sure I want to hear any more of this boy’s confession!”

“He’s not done anything wrong, sir,” Heyes stated.

“Who are you?”

“This is Heyes,” Collins explained. “Jed’s best friend.”

“Well then I’d expect you to stick up for him. What did he do to rip her dress? If this boy has laid a finger on Emily, I’ll have the sheriff lock him up, that’s if I don’t thrash him within an inch of his life first!”

“Willard, don’t jump to conclusions, dear,” Mary soothed, as she finished tying the bandage around Jed’s head.

There was another pitiful groan.

“Jed?” Heyes watched his friend struggle to keep conscious.

“She…Cried out.”

Culver took a step closer to the couch. Decision made.

“That’s all I need to hear. Bill, go find my daughter! And get this boy out of my house!”

“Willard, he shouldn’t be moved,” his wife protested.

“I won’t have him here if he’s assaulted my daughter.”

“I think you’re jumping to…”

“Obey me, woman!”

His wife glared at him and her husband glared back. Mary stepped away from Jed. Culver turned his attention to the ranch foreman.

“Get him out of here.”

“Please be careful with him, Jeff,” Mary added.

Without a word Collins bent down and, placing an arm under Jed’s head and another under his knees, picked him up and carried him out of the house. Heyes followed, wondering how they had gone from Jed being kicked by a horse, to a charge of assault, in such a short space of time.

“He wouldn’t have touched her,” Heyes informed Collins as they walked away from the house. The foreman’s jaw was clenched tight. “He wouldn’t.”

***

The men who’d watched as Jed Curry was carried up to the main house looked on in consternation as the boy was carried to the bunkhouse. Once inside Collins placed Jed carefully on his bunk, then with a glance at Heyes headed for the stove and a much needed cup of coffee. In truth he could have done with something a lot stronger but he knew he’d need to keep a clear head. If the boss was going to accuse one of the hands of attacking his daughter, he’d need to be prepared for the repercussions.

“I heard he got kicked by Thunder,” Henry said as he stood beside the foreman.

“Yeah.”

The cook knew Collins well enough to know there was more he wasn’t telling.

“The doc on his way?”

“Should be. I sent Nathan.”

“Anything you want me to do?”

Collins looked across at the bunk where Heyes sat beside his injured friend and then down at his blood stained shirt.

“I need to get a clean shirt. Keep an eye on them.”

“I have been, since the day they arrived.”

“I know and I appreciate it.” The foreman put down his cup and headed out the door, hoping someone had found the boss’s daughter by now, so they could straighten this mess out.

***

“The doc’s here,” Henry announced as a grey-haired man in his early fifties strode across the room.

“I hear you took a knock on the head,” he said when he saw the boy, pale faced and clearly in shock sitting on the bottom bunk.

“Not him doc, the one lying down,” Bill informed him.

Heyes moved to one side and the doctor saw the unconscious blond boy with a blood stained bandage around his head. Without another word he placed his bag on a nearby bunk and sat down next to his patient. He looked back at Heyes.

“I’ll get to you later.”

Heyes didn’t reply and watched the doctor as he peeled the bandage from Jed’s head and examined the wound. He lifted Jed’s eyelids and studied the response of his pupils.

“What exactly happened?” he asked, not taking his eyes from the young boy.

“We reckon he was kicked in the head by a pretty angry stallion,” Bill explained.

“Then I’d say he’s lucky to be alive. Looks like just a glancing blow, nothing too deep.” He continued his examination as the men watched in silence. Eventually the doctor sat back. “I can’t see a reason why he won’t wake up anytime soon. Once he does, send someone to fetch me and I’ll come out and check on him again.” He secured a fresh bandage about Jed’s head and then packed away his instruments in an old leather bag. Standing up, the doctor looked at Heyes.

“And how are you young man?”

“I’m fine.”

“Hmmm.”

“I wasn’t there.”

“But you’re frightened for him?” Heyes just nodded and the doctor placed a hand on his arm. “He needs time to recover, time for his body to heal. You being here will help him. Just make sure you look after yourself too.”

“Thank you.”

The doctor patted his arm and handed him a small packet.

“Dissolve a spoonful in water. He’ll have one heck of a headache when he wakes. No more than four times in a day though. Understood?”

“I got it.”

“Good.”

With that the doctor headed to the door.

***

“Emily?” Collins walked down the steps as the girl approached the bunkhouse. She’d been crying. “What’s wrong?”

“I told them what happened. Pa’s really angry.”

“What did happen?”

“It was my fault. I was teasing Jed; called him chicken for not going into the stall with Thunder.”

“I see.” Collins leaned back against the hitching rail.

“So I went in but I got scared. He came in to get me out. He could have been killed. I could have got him killed.” She looked hopefully at Collins. “Can I see him?”

The foreman smiled, gently.

“Sure why not. Let me just check it’s okay to go in there.” He walked up the steps and opened the door to the bunkhouse. “Fellas, Emily’s here to see Jed. Put those things away, okay? And Gerard, put some pants on will ya!”

He turned to Emily and held out his hand to her.

“Come on.”

He led the way inside and the men sat quietly as she made her way towards the bunk. Heyes stared at her, anger in his eyes. She looked away but kept walking towards Jed. She sat down beside him on the bunk. He looked so pale; the bandage around his head made her realise just how seriously he’d been hurt. Reaching out, she took his hand in hers.

“I’m sorry, Jed. This was all my fault. I’m so sorry. Please get better. Please.” She squeezed his hand but he showed no sign of knowing she was there. Emily let go and stood up. She looked at Heyes. “Thank you for letting me see him. I didn’t mean for him to get hurt.”

Heyes gave a heavy sigh.

“I know.”

As her tears began to fall she headed to the door and ran outside. Collins followed her.

“Emily!” he called as she ran down the steps. She stopped, turned and ran back to him. Throwing her arms around him she sobbed against his shirt.

“I coulda killed him! I coulda got him killed!” she wailed.

“Aww darlin’.” Collins held her as she cried. “Let’s get you back to your Ma.” With his arm around her shoulders he led Emily back to the house.

***

“How is he?” Marty asked, the following morning as he lowered himself onto the bunk next to Jed’s.

“I don’t know,” Heyes told him, his eyes haunted with memories and fear. He sat on the bunk at Jed’s feet, leaning against the bed post for support. “The doctor left some powders for if…When…I mean when he wakes up.”

“He’s a tough kid. He’ll wake when he’s ready.”

“I know.”

“D’you want anything? Coffee? Something to eat?”

“I’m not hungry.”

“Gotta keep your strength up, son.”’ He headed for the stove and poured two cups of coffee. Returning with them he handed one to Heyes. “Here. Drink it.”

Heyes took a sip.

“Where you boys from anyway?”

“Kansas.”

“Your folks still there?”

“Yes.”

“They know you’re out here?”

“No.” Marty looked at Heyes. “They’re dead.”

“I’m sorry. You got any other kin?”

“Only Jed.”

Marty studied the haunted look in Heyes’ dark eyes.

“We’d best make sure he gets better then.”

Heyes could only nod his agreement.

***

A groan woke Jethro. He turned in his bunk and heard another groan.

“Jed? You awake boy?”

“Ahhh.”

Jethro swung his legs out of bed and struck a match. Two blue eyes stared back at him from a young face contorted in pain. Jethro stood up and went to find a lamp. Lighting it he returned to the bunks and placed it on the floor between them.

“Jed?” He kept his voice low so as not to disturb the other sleeping men.

“My head hurts.”

“I imagine it does, son.” Jethro looked at Jed. “D’you want a drink?”

“Please.”

The old man went to the water jug and having poured a glass returned and held it out to Jed. The boy tried to sit up but groaned as pain screamed through his head.

“Here, let me help you.” Jethro placed a hand behind Jed’s shoulders to support him as he took a long drink.

“What’s wrong?” Heyes peered over the edge of the top bunk.

“Nothin’. He’s awake.”

A blanket was thrown back and Heyes, clad only in Henley and long johns, landed on his bare feet on the floor between the bunks.

“Jed?” Tired blue eyes met his. “You okay?”

“Head hurts so much.”

“The doctor gave me some powders. I’ll get you some.” He grabbed the packet the doctor had given him from beneath his pillow. He spooned some into a cup and poured water over them, then stirred the mixture. Returning to his friend’s side he knelt beside the bunk. “Here.” As Jethro had done, he supported his friend’s head as he drank. Jed grimaced at the taste.

“S’orrible.”

Heyes smiled.

“Shut up and drink it. It’ll help your head.”

Jed closed his eyes and tears ran down his cheeks.

“I never hurt like this before.”

“I’m just glad you’re alive. You gave us quite a scare.” Heyes sat down on the bunk beside Jed. His friend screwed up his eyes against the pain.

“Try to sleep, Jed,” Jethro urged. “You’re doin’ fine boy. We’re just glad you’re still with us.”

“I thought I’d lost you for a while there,” Heyes admitted.

“Ain’t getting’ rid of me that easily.”

“How’s he doin’?” a voice asked from a few bunks away.

“He’s fine, Nathan.”

“Good. Now tell him to shut up so we can all get some sleep.” Nathan pulled the blanket up to his chin and turned on his side.

Heyes and Jethro exchanged a smile. Tears stilled flowed from Jed’s eyes.

“Say, did I ever tell you about the time I was arrested down in Santa Marta?” the old man asked.

“No.”

“Well, I was minding my own business when this big fella walks into the cantina. Now when I say he was big, I ain’t exaggeratin’. He musta been seven foot tall, at least. So this fella walks over to me and…” Jethro continued his story, his voice little more than a whisper. Before he reached the end, Jed was asleep.

“Thank you,” Heyes said as he climbed back up to his bunk.

“I used to tell my sons bedtime stories every night, never did get to the end of most.”

“I didn’t know you had sons.”

“I don’t anymore. The war took ‘em. Took a lot of good people.”

Heyes lay back on the bunk, his head resting on his hands as he looked up at the ceiling.

“Yes. It did.”

***

Two days later, Heyes watched as the doctor held up one finger in front of Jed’s face.

“How many fingers can you see?” he asked the blond boy, perched on the edge of the bunk.

“One.”

“And now?” The doctor held up three fingers.

“Three.”

“Good. Keep your eyes on my finger; watch where I move it.” The doctor moved his finger back and forth in front of Jed and dutifully the boy followed it with his eyes.

“You checking he can focus on things?” Heyes asked. He sat on the top bunk, his legs swinging over the side as he watched the doctor work.

“That’s right. I need to check his responses.”

“How’s he doing?”

The doctor smiled at Jed.

“I think Jed’s almost back to normal.”

“He was never normal!” Heyes scoffed and Jed punched his leg.

“OW!”

“Yep, they’re getting back to normal,” Henry muttered as he headed to the stove. The doctor stood up.

“Take it easy, Jed. No running around just yet. And you young man…” he said, turning his gaze to Heyes, “…are to let him rest. Understood?”

“Don’t worry, Doc. I’ll look after him.”

“I can look after myself!”

“Of course you can, Jed, but Heyes will help make sure you do.” The doctor picked up his bag and headed for the door. “Rest, remember?” He said as he stood by the door.

“Yes, sir, I will.”

***

“Heyes?”

The dark-haired young man looked up from where he sat on the bunk next to Jed. They were playing cards. Heyes had won every game so far. Jed didn’t see how being thrashed was supposed to make him feel better, but Heyes just muttered something about needing to treat him like normal.

“Bill?” Heyes looked over to the man standing in the doorway.

“Get over to the corral; we need every man we got to help with the branding.”

Heyes stood up and looked down at Jed.

“Go on boy, I’ll keep an eye on him,” Henry told him. Heyes picked up his hat and ran outside to join the others. When the door closed, he turned to Jed. “How about I make a batch of biscuits and you can help me sample them?”

“Sounds good to me,” Jed said with a smile.

***

“Hold him down!”

“Get outta my way, you ornery son of …!”

“Hot brand comin’ through!”

“Gerard get your backside over here!”

“Hold him still boy! Hold him!”

Heyes held down the calf as the brand was applied to its hide. There was a hiss as steam rose and the smell of burning flesh filled his nostrils. The calf gave a plaintive cry and then he was free to return to where the others waited, huddled together in the far corner of the corral. Heyes was surrounded by cattle lowing, men roping calves, shouts and cries, calls and cussing. A hand slapped him on the back and he moved to hold down the next calf that was thrust before him.

Willard Culver had bought up the cattle of a local rancher who had recently gone bankrupt. There but for the grace of God go I, he thought as he watched Daniel McQueen and his one remaining ranch hand ride out of the Bar T having delivered the cattle. Too many good men were going under these days. Now Culver’s men were applying the Bar T brand to the cows and calves.

Jeff Collins barked orders from his seat on top of the fence.

“Bill, let the next ones in! Nathan get that calf outta there! Heyes! Heyes! Watch your back, boy!”

Heyes ducked just in time to avoid a swift kick in the ribs from a frightened calf. He fell on his butt and heard the men laughing at him. Before he could summon the strength to feel embarrassed a hand was thrust before him and he grabbed hold and was hauled to his feet. He was one of them. One of the hands on the Bar T and for the first time in many years, Heyes felt he belonged.

***

Jed walked out of the bunkhouse onto the porch and squinted as the sun hit his eyes. He placed a hand on the wall to steady himself. He could see the men working in the corral. Heyes was in there somewhere amongst the dust and cattle.

“Sit down, son,” Henry said behind him and Jed lowered himself onto the bench. Spotting the boy outside, Jeff Collins turned from the corral and headed towards him.

“Jed, how you doing?” he asked.

“Better, sir. I’ll be able to work real soon, I promise.”

“Take your time, there’s no rush.”

“I gotta earn money though.”

Collins looked up at the boy.

“You’re still being paid.”

“But I ain’t working.”

“You would be if you hadn’t played knight in shining armour and saved the boss’s daughter.” Collins saw Henry standing in the doorway. The older man smiled. “You don’t think Mr. Culver stopped your wages do you, Jed? Heck he’d double them if I’d let him.”

“He would?”

“Yep.”

“But…”

“I talked him out of it, told him you were making up for it in the amount of food you ate.”

“Comes with having growing boys around,” Henry commented. “Especially one with a sweet tooth.”

Jed smiled and saw Heyes heading towards them. He looked worn out, covered as he was in dust, blood running down his right arm from a cut he couldn’t even remember getting.

“You okay?” Jed asked.

“Yeah, just helping with the branding.”

“How about you?”

“Emily’s knight in shining armour’s doing just fine,” Collins told him as he started a slow walk back to the corral.

“Knight in shining armour?” Heyes looked at Jed but before he could reply, Marty appeared beside him. He held out something to Jed.

“I figured it was time you had one of your own.”

Jed looked at the gun belt. It was brand new, the leather still stiff, the waistband smaller than the ones he’d worn before.

“It should fit,” Marty added. Jed stood up and, taking it from him, fixed it about his waist, then stooped to tie the string around his thigh. Marty saw Heyes scowl. “You don’t approve?” he asked, lowering his voice so Jed would not hear.

“I know what bullets do. I’ve seen it.”

“Out here you gotta be able to protect you and your own.”

“I know.”

“But you don’t want him learning to shoot?”

“I don’t know.”

“He’s got a real skill with a gun. If he practices he’ll be able to take care of those he cares about.”

“What if he gets killed trying to do just that?”

“Then I guess that’s what your skill is; to keep him out of trouble.” They turned to look at Jed, standing proudly in his new gun belt.

“Now all I need is a gun and no one’ll hurt us again, Han.”

“I hope you’re right, Jed. I really do.”

“Looks like you’ve got a visitor, Jed,” Collins called as Emily approached the bunkhouse. “C’mon boys let’s get back to work.” Marty followed the foreman but Heyes hesitated, looking at his friend and the gun belt about his waist. “HEYES!”

Heyes turned and ran to catch up.

***

“Hi, Jed,” Emily said when she stood at the bottom of the steps.

“Hi.”

“Can I sit with you?”

“Sure.”

She stepped onto the porch and sat on the bench next to Jed.

“Does your head still hurt?”

“A bit.”

“I’m sorry.”

“What for?”

“Getting you hurt.”

“It wasn’t your fault.”

She placed her hand on his and he didn’t move his away.

“Do you forgive me?”

“Nothing to forgive, Emily.” He smiled at her and laced his fingers between hers.

“I told them you were my knight in shining armour.”

Jed laughed.

“I know. Han’ll never let me hear the last of it.”

“You were, you know?”

“What?”

“You came to my rescue.”

He turned to look at her and their eyes met. Jed swallowed.

“Not much of a rescue was it?”

“I thought you were wonderful.”

Jed thought for a moment.

“Emily.”

“What?”

“When I’m feeling better, maybe we could go for a ride out to the lake?”

“I’d like that, Jed.”

Smiling, he squeezed her hand and they sat back to watch the men working in the corral.

To be continued….

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