A Stranger Comes Home
Posted on Thu Jun 1st, 2017 @ 8:02pm by Jess Harper
Edited on on Thu Jun 1st, 2017 @ 8:20pm
Shadows of the Past
Location: Sherman Ranch and Relay Station, Laramie, Wyoming
Timeline: Spring 1870
Jess clung to the saddle as if his very life depended on it. Which, he thought grimly, it probably did. He had lost track of how long it'd been since he'd been shot. The miles passed beneath his bay gelding's hooves alternating between pain and near oblivion. Each jolt of the horse's movement sent flames of agony up and down his back and through his left shoulder.
Suddenly, Brimstone threw his head up and whinnied loudly, answering the neighs of other horses and the distant rattling of a feed bucket. Jess, once again barely conscious, wrapped the fingers of his right hand, his gun hand, through the reins and around the saddle horn, holding on grimly as Brimstone's gait changed to a trot. Horses were herd animals, and Brimstone smelled his kind nearby.
John Sherman came out of the barn carrying two buckets filled with grain for the horses in the corral. It was the end of the day and time to get the evening chores done so they could settle in for dinner and a quiet evening. He emptied the buckets into the trough, sparing a brief glance to where his eldest son, Andrew, forked hay out of the loft and down into the corral for the horses. His younger son, Michael, was inside helping his mother with dinner. He was about to go back to the grain bin for another load when Andrew shouted, "Pa, look!" John looked up to see that his son was pointing toward the gate into the yard.
He turned to see what the boy was yelling about, startled to see a big blood bay horse entering at a jolting trot, a nearly unconscious man clinging to its saddle. "Marianne!" John shouted for his wife as he headed toward the horse, waving his arms, hoping to slow it down. "Andrew, get inside. Watch your brother."
Andrew dropped his pitchfork, ran to the loft's ladder and shimmied down it. He passed his mother coming out of the house as he headed inside, knowing better than to argue with his father when he gave orders in that tone of voice. Marianne raised her eyebrows and Andrew pointed to where John was now trying to get the man off the horse, "Stranger. Looks like he might be injured or sick."
Marianne nodded. By now she was assessing the situation as well, "Get some water on to boil, just in case. Stir the stew. Keep Mikey inside." Andrew hurried to do his ma's bidding, and Marianne crossed to where the bay had come to a stop. "John?" She made a question of her husband's name as she took hold of the bridle.
"I think he's been shot, Mar. Steady the horse while I try to get him to the ground." John's voice was quiet and calming. While Marianne calmed the big gelding, John gently tried unwinding the man's fingers from the reins and tried to cajole him into releasing his grip on the saddle horn. It didn't occur to him to turn his back on the stranger, to worry about why he was hurt, and to send him away. "C'mon, mister, I've got ya, you can let go now."
Something in the voice got through to Jess. It was deep and kind, the tone both cajoling and firm. He flexed stiff fingers, dropping the reins and made a valiant effort to swing his leg over the cantle of the saddle so he could dismount. The effort proved too much, and he pitched from the saddle, barely saved from hitting the hard-packed earth. The man started to pull Jess's left arm over his shoulder causing him to whimper in agony. There was the sound of a breath being sucked in, "Oh God! I'm sorry, sorry. Easy."
John deftly shifted the smaller man's weight so that he was supporting him beneath his right arm instead of his left. Marianne tugged the reins, calling over her shoulder as she urged the horse to a trot, "I'll send Andy out to take care of the horse. Let's get him inside." She looped the reins over the fence and turned back to do what she could to help her husband. Neither of them saw the two horsemen on the ridge.
What little meaning there remained to the passing of time was lost on Jess. Someone roused him to sip water, sometimes a thin hot gruel. Occasionally, he surfaced enough to know that someone was wiping his face with a cool cloth. Any thought of surfacing to full consciousness fled when strong hands shifted him to change bandages. He knew there was something urgent that he needed to tell the people he sensed around him, someplace he was supposed to be, but it was beyond what he could endure to wake up and articulate it. As some people would say, it was more than his life was worth.
Eventually, Jess awakened free of the debilitating fever, and with a dull ache in the back of his left shoulder. Movement next to the bed made his hand reach for his right hip where his six-gun normally rode. His fingers encountered nothing but bare skin. Startled, he couldn't help his blue eyes opening wide as he realized not only was his gunbelt gone, so were his pants. A soft laugh pulled his attention upward to see a tall, wide-shouldered man with thick blond hair sitting in a chair pulled close to the bed. "I'm John Sherman," he said, the voice tugging at a buried memory in Jess's mind. "You're in my house, just outside of Laramie."
"Jess Harper," Jess croaked out his name, aghast that it was raspier than normal.
"I know," John Sherman said with an easy smile. "Sorry, we went through your things trying to find out who you were and if there was someone to contact. We found your papers, so I sent word to Mr. Frasier via the stage. He said to assure you that your job would be waiting when you're back on your feet."
Jess watched the man's handsome features, looking for a lie in his expression. He saw nothing other than concern and kindness in his blue eyes. He started to try and sit up, then remembered his state of undress. Had he been able, he'd have blushed. Sherman seemed to read his mind because he chuckled. "Doc Wheeler and I undressed you. Your clothes were sodden with blood. My wife, Marianne, washed and mended them. Washed your spares too. My sons have been tendin' your bay."
"I was shot." Jess rasped out, then stopped as a spate of coughing took him. John got up, grabbed some extra pillows and gently eased Jess to a sitting position, tucking the bedclothes securely around him. He then picked up a cup of cold water and helped Jess hold it before settling back in the chair.
"Yes. Back of left shoulder. Must've happened a day or two out from here 'cause quite a bit of infection had set in," John told him. "Best we can figure, a couple of bounty hunters planned on takin' you back to Brownsville more dead than alive. We found everything in your saddle bags...wanted posters, acquittal papers, letters of employment."
Sherman gestured toward a tall walnut dresser on the far side of the room. "Everything is there. The bounty hunters tried to take you. The sheriff put a stop to that real quick." John refilled the cup and held it for Jess again, "Not too fast. Think you're up to a little bread and broth?"
Jess managed to nod which set up a cacophony of pain in his shoulder, but he made himself stay awake long enough to eat. It hadn't been easy. He knew, though, that he had to eat to heal and regain his strength. Despite John Sherman's assurances, Jess couldn't quite trust that the bounty hunters had given up and gone away. They weren't known for giving up.
Over the next few days, Jess mostly slept, only awakening briefly to sip water and eat. When he did awaken, it was always to see John, his pretty wife, Marianne, or one of their two sons sitting by the bed. If it were Andy or Mike, they would go get one of their parents. Jess learned that the Sherman ranch was about twelve miles outside Laramie and served the Grand Central Stage Line as its last relay station before hitting the town. It was the same stagecoach company that had hired Jess as a guard. In fact, Jeb Frasier, the man who'd interviewed him in Cheyenne, had stopped by, once again assuring Jess that his job was safe. A few more days passed, and Jess was promoted to sitting in the rocking chair on the front porch, then to a little bit of walking and a few light chores. John, Marianne, and their sons seemed to take it for granted that he would be staying with them indefinitely.
More days passed and Jess was able to dress himself, walk unaided, draw his gun and help with grooming the horses. Handling the changing of the stagecoach teams was still more than he could manage, but he felt he was earning his keep by helping to mend harness, feed the chickens and gather eggs. He finally reached the point where his strength was returning in significant increments each day. It would soon be time to leave. Jess didn't understand why that bothered him as much as it did. He'd lived on the drift for the better part of the last seven years. Besides, it wasn't as if he was moving to Canada. Laramie was twelve miles away, not twelve-hundred. Jess answered his own silent concerns. It was rare that he'd found people he instinctively trusted and liked. Even more rare to find those that felt the same toward him.
Shadows swept over the yard, and Jess found himself peering toward the road, the harness he was mending lay forgotten across his lap. John sat in a rocking chair next to his, its gentle creak as he pushed it back and forth sounding a counterpoint to the call of a nightbird of some kind. A horse whinnied from the corral and Jess sighed. He really couldn't put it off any longer. It was time to tell John that he was leaving the next day.
John lay the ledger aside that he'd been updating. It was getting too dark to read anyway and lighting a lantern would bring in the insects. Besides, it had become a normal routine, sitting on the porch with Jess as night fell. Usually, they'd talk about the day's business at the relay station. Sometimes Marianne would come outside and join in. Often, Mike and Andy would sit with their mother in the swing, asking Jess about his travels. Always, though, there was the sense that Jess felt the pull to leave. John had caught him practicing with his gun earlier in the day, watching just short of amazed at the younger man's lightning fast draw and even more amazed when he hit his targets without missing a single one. On some level, it troubled the tall rancher, on another, it actually made him feel safe to see how good Jess was. He and Marianne agreed though. Having Jess around was more positive than negative.
Sherman's eyes, a lighter blue, more the color of the sky than the deeper cobalt of Jess's followed where the other man's gaze was centered. He idly pushed his rocking chair with one foot propped on the porch rail. "You think they're coming back, don't you?"
Jess didn't ask what they John was asking about. He knew. "Yeah, they'll be back."
"I don't think so, Jess," Sherman said quietly. "The sheriff made it clear they'd go to jail. You were cleared of all charges. He even showed them the recalls on the wanted posters. So, what aren't you telling us?"
Eyes the deep blue of polished river stones flashed a look in John's direction. It wasn't lost on the older man that there was a degree of calculation in the now wary gaze. As if coming to a decision, Jess also propped his foot on the rail. A gentle push had his chair rocking in time to John's. Neither man noticed Marianne lay her sewing aside, her attention on the two men. Jess huffed out a breath, not quite a sigh, more like a sound of exasperation. "They don't want to take me back to Brownsville, Sherm. They want me dead."
For some reason, Sherman was not surprised, "Why?"
"There used to be three of them. They caught up with me near Fort Lincoln, Kansas, not long after I was acquitted." A quiet chuckle from the shadows reached John's ears. "I objected to being taken in. They set me up in a crossfire. The funny thing is, I didn't kill their brother, one of them did."
"Who are they?" John prompted Jess to continue.
"Val and Carter Bundy. Their older brother was Todd, known as Grease. It suited him," Jess answered, his deep, gravelly voice oddly soothing.
"I've heard of the Bundys," Marianne's voice floated from where she sat in the swing. "Heard they tend to ambush their quarry. You were lucky."
John was quiet. Jess's story checked out almost word for word with the information that Sheriff Fenner had reported. He'd also said it would be a good thing to get Jess on his feet and off the ranch. The sheriff agreed that the Brothers Bundy would make another try for Jess. John had replied in his languid, easy-going manner that it'd be best if Jess had help when that happened.
Marianne let out an exasperated snort, "What John is working around to saying is that we want you to stay on here. We could use the help, and Mr. Frasier doesn't care where you get on the stage for your guard work...here or Laramie doesn't matter to him."
"I'll be riding..." Jess's words had overlapped with Marianne's. He stopped, almost sounding annoyed, "Wait! What...? Stay...here?"
John let out a war whoop of laughter while Marianne giggled. From inside the house, Jess could hear Mike and Andy echoing their parents' laughter. "Yes...stay...here. Work the ranch with me when your other duties allow. Forty a month, room and board. You've got a way with the horses. We'd be idiots not to ask."
Jess's breath left him in a rush. He could think of hundreds of reasons to leave and not one good one to stay. None. "I reckon that'd work, but only if Marianne fixes more of that apple pie," Jess heard himself saying.