The Blond on the Pond (aka What the Puck?)
A stand-alone Ranch Days story
By Maz McCoy
“We’re gonna lose,” Nathan said, clearly resigned to their fate.
“Not necessarily,” Jeff Collins added optimistically, his breath clouding the air in front of him.
Sitting on the porch bench, outside the bunkhouse door, wrapped in his warm winter coat, Nathan cast a sideways glance at the Bar T’s foreman. “We always lose.”
“Jeff, face it, we’re gonna lose. Again.”
Collins turned to his friend. “Maybe not this time.” He smiled at Nathan’s expression. “I think we have a chance.”
“Gonna share where this miracle is coming from?”
Collins turned towards the corral and pointed. “There.”
Nathan’s eyes narrowed on the hands attending to the horses. Steam rose from the animal’s backs and the mouths of the men. He followed the direction of Jeff’s finger. “Marty? You’re kiddin’ right?”
More eye-narrowing. “Heyes? He’s never gonna…”
Nathan shielded his eyes with his hand. “The Kid?”
Jeff smiled. “The Kid.”
“Jeff, I don’t think that boy’s ever been on a pair of skates, let alone…”
“We’ll ask him and if you’re right, we’ll teach him.”
“In two days?” Nathan stood up and placed a hand on the foreman’s shoulder. “Old man, I think you’ve been in the sun too long.”
It was Jeff’s turn to narrow his eyes.
Nathan smiled. “Okay, you’re not that old, but still, the Kid? He’s from Kansas right?”
“Do they have snow in Kansas?”
“I don’t know but wouldn’t it be better to ask if they have ice?” Jeff put two fingers in his mouth and let out a shrill whistle. All heads turned in his direction. “JED! GET UP HERE!”
Jed Curry put down the rope he held, climbed through the bars on the corral fence and headed, at a jog, towards the bunkhouse. “What is it, Boss?”
“You ever been on a pair of ice skates, Kid?”
Jed looked confused. “Ice skates?” He seemed reluctant to acknowledge the fact one way or another.
“Yeah, ice skates.”
“Well, then it’s about time you did.” Collins descended the steps onto the compacted snow and placed a reassuring hand on Jed’s shoulder. “There’s really nothing to it once you learn how.”
“But why do I need to learn how to skate?” Jed looked from Collins to Nathan. He wasn’t sure he liked the way they were smiling at him.
“Because you, Jed Curry, are about to become the Bar T’s secret weapon in the game against Fort Elliot on Saturday,” Jeff informed him.
“What game?” Neither man spoke, instead they were steering him towards the frozen pond. “What game?”
Jeff stopped and looked down at the youngster. Suspicion was written all over Jed’s face. “Ice hockey. We have been challenged to an ice hockey match by the soldiers of Fort Elliot.”
“But I don’t know how to play ice…”
“Bright young fella like you, you’ll pick it up in no time,” Nathan assured him.
“And with that quick draw of yours,” Jeff added, his eyes practically sparkling with the thought of winning. “I reckon you’ll be sending that puck into the goal so fast the goalie won’t even see it coming.”
“But I don’t know how to play ice…”
“Yep,” Jeff continued, seemingly oblivious to Jed’s protestations, “I think this year we may actually have a sporting chance.”
Jed stepped away facing both men and shouted, “BUT I DON’T KNOW HOW TO PLAY ICE HOCKEY!” He blushed, somewhat embarrassed by the volume he’d used. The Boss would surely reprimand him for that. “Sorry.”
Jeff Collins took a deep breath. “We are gonna teach you, Nathan and me.” He held up one hand to silence any more of Jed’s objections.
Nathan stepped closer. “Emily will be at the game; the whole Culver family will be there.” He watched as this sank in.
“Yep. And William Brody will be Captain of Fort Elliot’s team.”
Jeff stood beside Nathan. They waited. Cogs whirled and wheels turned inside Jed Curry’s blond head.
“So I could help us win the game? Against the soldiers?”
“With Miss Emily watching,” Nathan reminded him.
Jed bit his lip. “When’s my first lesson?”
“Sheesh, does that hurt?” Heyes asked looking at the large purple bruise on Jed’s left side as he pulled his shirt off over his head.
“A little,” the blond boy admitted, wincing as he rolled the shirt into a ball and threw it on top of his bunk.
“I got hit by a stick.” Jed sat on the lower bunk and pulled off his boots. “Ice hockey’s tougher than I thought. I mean sure there’s a lot of sliding around and falling over but I didn’t realise everyone out there was gonna try an’ kill me.”
Heyes chuckled. “And they’re on your side. Imagine what the other team’ll do.”
Jed groaned. “I don’t want to think about that.” He stood up and looked up at the top bunk as if it was a mountain to climb.
Heyes took pity on him. “Take mine tonight, you look done in.”
“Thanks.” Jed dropped onto the bunk and pulled the blanket up. He was exhausted. It had better be worth it. He thought of Emily and William Brody – her soldier. If they could beat the Cavalry team; yes, it would be worth it.
“We’re gonna lose,” Nathan said, still clearly resigned to their fate.
“Not necessarily,” Jeff Collins added, still optimistic, his breath once more clouding the evening air.
Sitting on the porch bench, outside the bunkhouse door, wrapped in their warm winter coats, Nathan and Jeff cast a sideways glance at each other.
“He’s getting better,” Jeff stated.
“He couldn’t get any worse.”
“He’s staying upright on the skates.”
“He can hold a stick,” Nathan admitted.
“He moved the puck around on the ice.”
“Yeah, then got squished by his own team.”
Jeff shot a look at Nathan. “It’s early days.”
“No, it’s the day before the day before the game. I call that late days.”
“I thought you were an optimist?”
“Nope. I’m a realist. We’re gonna lose.”
“Nathan, you and I can skate pretty good. Our team’s good, we just need that extra something the soldiers won’t expect.”
“A kid sliding about all over the place’ll do it.”
“A kid we can pass the puck to, a kid with lightning reflexes, a kid…”
“Who’s snoring his head off ‘cos you’ve exhausted him.”
They turned to see Marty exit the bunkhouse.
“You think I’m wrong?” Jeff asked.
Marty didn’t answer at first. Instead he walked over to the porch post and leaned against it, taking his time to light a cigarette. He took a long drag them let out a stream of smoke before speaking. “I think you’re so all fired up about winning, Jeff, you lost sight of the point of this.” Collins stayed silent. “It’s supposed to be a friendly game between the ranch and the Fort. You’re turning it into something personal.”
Jeff shook his head. “It is personal, Marty. Dammit, we’ve lost every time we’ve played ‘em! I wanna win and I’m not ashamed to admit it.”
“Don’t hurt the boy trying.”
“I’m not gonna hurt him or let anyone else for that matter…”
“He’s already covered in bruises. That your way of protecting him, Jeff?”
“Now you listen…” Collins stood up suddenly angry at Marty’s comments. He took a step towards the man then saw Nathan ease to his feet just in case…In case what? He took a swing at their friend? Sheesh, what was he doing? Marty was right, he was taking this whole thing far too personally. Jeff let out a long breath then met Marty’s gaze. “So what do I do?”
“The game’s in two days,” Nathan reminded him. “Jed has a lot more to learn.”
“And he’ll do it,” the older man stated. “But he won’t if you pressure him too much. Teach him the skills he needs and leave playing the game to him. Tomorrow, concentrate on his skating, passing and puck handling. Don’t make him play a match until the real one.”
“He needs to know the rules,” Nathan reminded him.
“So tell him what they are. He’s a smart kid, he’ll remember.”
“He needs to learn how to check,” Jeff pointed out.
“He’s a kid, he’s tough but right now he’s sporting bruises his own team gave him. D’you want to kill him before the game?”
Jeff met Marty’s gaze then shook his head. “No. No, we don’t.” He stretched the kinks out of his neck then looked at Marty. “Guess what you’re doing tomorrow, Coach.”
“Can you see her?” Jed asked as he bent down to tie a knot in the laces of his ice skates.
Heyes looked through the bleachers that had been set up around the edge of the frozen pond on the outskirts of Claremont. He scanned the crowd as they took their seats, then turned back to Jed and shook his head. “Nope, but William’s here so she’s bound to be watching.”
“Thanks for reminding me,” Jed muttered.
“Nothin’.” Jed stood up, steadying himself on the skates with his hockey stick. “So how do I look?”
Heyes studied him. “Like a ranch hand on ice skates.”
“You nervous?” Marty asked, looking down at Jed as he stood at the edge of the frozen pond. The kid still wobbled a bit but he’d learned fast and was pretty good once out on the ice.
“Some,” the boy admitted, scanning the faces of the crowd.
“She’s over there.” Marty tipped his chin, pointing it towards the furthest set of bleachers, where the Culver family sat, wrapped in warm clothes, with other members of the Bar T contingent.
Jed found Emily and hoped she’d look his way. She didn’t. He tried hard to suppress his disappointment and a hand landed heavily on his left shoulder.
“Guess who they put in goal?” Nathan asked with a grin as he leaned casually on his hockey stick.
“I don’t know,” Jed informed him, not really interested but then a thought struck and he groaned. “Not Sergeant Springer?” The man was six foot tall and had to be the same distance wide. Nothing would get past him.
“Nope.” Nathan smiled at Marty then turned back to Jed. “Brody.”
“Brody?” Jed’s eyes opened wide. “William?”
“Yep.” Nathan’s smile turned almost wicked. “Imagine the satisfaction of putting a shot past him, Jed.”
Jed smiled. Oh yeah, he could definitely imagine that.
A hush fell over the crowd as Jeff Collins placed his hockey stick on the ice. He looked up into the eyes of Corporal Zeke Eisenhower. The cavalryman lowered his stick; the puck now lay between them.
“You boys ready?” the referee asked. He was from Willow Falls and had ridden in the day before to act as the impartial official.
The men nodded in answer to his question. Behind Jeff, the Bar T team were poised. Their warm breath misted the air; their hockey sticks held ready, they fixed their eyes on the opposing team.
For their part the soldiers of Fort Elliot were impressive. Unlike their opponents, who wore layers of their everyday clothes, the Fort Elliot hockey team had a uniform. Their long sleeved sweater was soldier-blue with two yellow stripes across the body and each sleeve. Each man had a large yellow number sewn on his back. If the game was to be decided on appearance these young men, in their fancy uniforms, were already the winners.
The referee placed his whistle between his teeth. The players readied themselves.
Heyes watched as Jeff beat Eisenhower to the puck and passed it skilfully to Nathan who was already heading towards the Fort Elliot goal. Bill shot past him and Nathan sent the puck ahead of him for Bill to pick up. Their speed had caught the soldiers by surprise and before the defence got themselves organised Nathan was back in possession of the puck. He raced towards William Brody who stood arms outstretched doing his best to cover the goal. Suddenly Nathan passed the puck to Jeff, slid across the goal, picked up the puck again and…sent it into the back of the net!
The Bar T supporters were on their feet cheering. Jeff slapped Nathan on the back, Jed grinned from ear to ear and Bill tapped the boy affectionately on the head.
Bar T 1 Fort Elliot 0
As the first period continued it was clear that despite the Bar T’s early goal, the teams were well matched. The soldiers displayed a well-practiced, well-disciplined approach to the game. Sergeant Skinner shouted orders as he sped by and the younger recruits did everything but salute in response.
The ranchers were equally used to working as a team. Men who knew how to corral a herd, rope and brand cattle were equally at ease with each other on the ice. When Jeff passed the puck to Nathan, Bill was always right beside him just as he was at branding time.
When the first period ended it was still 1-0 to the Bar T.
“You’re doing real well,” Jeff said as he walked off the ice. He prodded Jed in the stomach, good-naturedly, with his hockey stick.
Jed smiled and spotted Heyes in the crowd waving frantically at him. Jed waved back and Heyes gave him a thumbs-up. Jed’s eyes drifted along the bleachers, over the Bar T supporters to find Emily. There she was, her bonnet pushed back, the sun on her hair, smiling as she chatted excitedly to…William Brody.
Bill nudged Nathan with his elbow and he looked up from where he sat on the bleachers catching his breath. Sweat ran down his reddened face.
Bill jerked a thumb at the kid then both men followed the direction of the boy’s gaze. He was looking at Emily. Emily, who was talking to Brody. Damn. They’d both been there and knew what that felt like. Knew what it was like to watch the girl you’d set your heart on give hers to another man.
“Hey, Kid!” Nathan called and Jed turned to face him.
“Come over here.”
Jed turned away from Emily and walked over to the team. Bill placed a hand on Jed’s shoulder. “In this next period they’ll have the sun in their eyes. Time for you to do a little fancy skating.”
“Time for a plan,” Nathan said with a smile.
Jed lowered his stick to the ice and waited for the referee to blow the whistle. Nathan’s plan hadn’t been more than let’s-score-more-goals-than-they-do, which seemed pretty obvious to Jed. He looked at the deep concentration on the faces of the opposing team. They were quite a sight in their matching uniforms. They even had brand new hockey sticks. Jed turned his attention back to the game. The referee put the whistle to his lips and…
PEEP. The second period began.
The Fort Elliott team started the second period far more organised than they had the first. They passed the puck effortlessly and were within a hair’s breadth of scoring within the first minute. Fortunately the shot went wide of the goal and the Bar T players could breathe again.
At the moment the play was pretty even with each team having won and lost chances to score a goal.
In the crowd, Heyes chewed his lip as he followed the action. William Brody, no longer playing in goal, was skating like a professional player. Jed was doing well but Brody was better and Heyes had seen how Emily watched the soldier. He hoped Jed hadn’t set his heart on getting her back because in his fancy uniform, Brody was winning hands down.
At that moment one of the soldiers broke away from the pack, he raced down the ice, across the centre line and into Bar T territory. He flicked his stick and…
Bar T 1 Fort Elliot 1
The whistle sounded to end the second period.
There was a distinct chill in the air at the start of the third and final period. The whistle sounded, the puck hit the ice, sticks battled for possession and the game was back on. Jeff Collins won the puck. Blades cut the ice, and the puck slid from stick to stick as the Bar T team raced towards their opponent’s goal. Bill passed to Jeff who shot it back to Nathan who passed to Bill who drew back his stick and…The black disc flew through the air…and hit the back of the net!
Bar T 2 Fort Elliot 1
And it was only two minutes into the third period.
The puck was returned to centre ice; the captains faced each other, waiting for the referee. He dropped the puck, sticks clashed, and the puck shot back towards the soldier’s team. The ranch hands chased the soldiers towards their goal but they were not fast enough. The puck was launched at the goal, a gloved hand reached for it but…It hit the back of the net.
Bar T 2 Fort Elliot 2
The shoulders of the ranch hands visibly slumped. They had lost the advantage.
“Come on fellas, we can do this!” Jeff shouted encouragement to each man as he skated back to his position.
Jed spotted Heyes in the crowd and his friend gave him two thumbs up but it was hard not to feel discouraged. He slid into place and waited for the game to restart.
“Take it, Kid!” Nathan yelled as he passed the puck to Jed. The boy caught it with his stick and skated as if his life depended on it into their opponents’ zone. Out of the corner of his eye he saw William Brody heading his way.
Controlling the puck with his stick Jed moved left, then right. Brody skated across his path but Jed kept going. He feigned left, Brody fell for the move and Jed slid past him. The goal came into view; the goalie was ready, knees together, arms held wide blocking the boy’s view of the net. Jed sought a way through, swung his stick and the puck shot through the air, the goalie lost sight of it…and…and…the crowd cheered. Jed had scored! He’d scored!! They were ahead again!
Bar T 3 Fort Elliot 2
The broad grin on his face was swiftly wiped off when he was hit from behind and his legs went out from under him. Jed went down hard and BAM! His head hit the ice.
The Claremont crowd were still cheering as Nathan skated towards Jed. He turned quickly and beckoned Jeff over. Cries of “Bar T, Bar T,” rang out but slowly faded as they became aware that something was wrong. A hush descended. Jed Curry didn’t move. The players gathered round him.
“Jed?” Jeff didn’t bother to hide the concern on his voice.
“Son, can you hear me?” The referee knelt beside the young boy but there was no response.
Heyes pushed his way to the front of the bleachers. He climbed over the board and walked as fast as he could on the slippery surface towards the huddle. “Jed? What’s going on? Is he okay?”
The men moved to let him through and his gaze fell on Nathan and Jeff kneeling beside his friend.
“Is he all right?” Heyes asked.
“Looks like he banged his head pretty bad,” Collins informed him. “He’s out cold.”
Doctor Ellis Hale stepped gingerly into view. “Let me see him.” He knelt beside Jed, took hold of his wrist and looked at his pocket watch as he took the boy’s pulse. When he’d finished he gently turned Jed’s head so that he could look at the extent of his head wound. “Let’s get him into the warm. Can you help carry him?”
Jed was picked up by Nathan and Bill and carried off the ice. An ominous trail of blood drops was left in his wake.
Outside the refreshment tent the hockey crowd cheered.
“Sounds like someone scored,” Doctor Hale said as he searched through his bag.
“Yeah, the Fort did,” Heyes informed him as he entered the tent. Jed was still unconscious, his head bleeding as he lay on a bunk. The ladies making coffee and preparing plates of cake had fussed about them setting up the bunk for the poor injured boy. They had provided the doctor with a bowl of hot water a clean cloth and cooed endlessly over the wee blond lad.
“How’s he doing?”
The doctor noted Heyes’ look of concern. “Head wounds bleed a lot, you know that.”
“You could help by removing those darn skates.”
Heyes untied the laces on Jed’s left boot watching as Ellis Hale lifted one of Jed’s eyelids and studied his pupil. He repeated the process with Jed’s other eye but said nothing.
Heyes remained grim faced as he pulled off the skate and the distant crowd cheered again.
“Did we win?” Jed asked. He sat up on the bunk, a rug over his knees, a mug of hot coffee in one hand and a plate covered in cake crumbs rested on his lap. The ladies of Claremont knew just how to take care of an injured young hockey player; especially a blond blue-eyed one.
The Bar T men gathered around him and exchanged looks. No one spoke.
“Did we lose?” Jed couldn’t hide his disappointment.
“Well, after you put us ahead 3-2 they got more determined,” Nathan informed him.
“Yeah, and rougher too.” Bill sported a black eye as evidence of that.
“Then they scored,” Jeff reported. “They evened the game. 3-3.”
“So it was a draw?”
“No, Jed.” Mark met the boy’s gaze.
Jed’s shoulders drooped. “We lost?”
“No.” Mark smiled. “We won. Bill scored the winner. We beat ‘em 4-3!”
“Brody didn’t look too pleased,” Nathan reported.
But Jed Curry did!