I found that my favorite western from my early high school years had a listing in the television section. When I went to see what was in there, it was empty! That was soo not right. Finally decided to write one myself. I'm older than everyone, so the characters may not mean anything to you, but hope you'll give it a chance. I love these guys and they're close as brothers, so they might resonate with some. And now, there's a fic in the LARAMIE section. That makes me happy.
Thanks to Merisha who who went so far as to download and episode to see what it was all about, for the beta.
Here you go. Let me know what you think.
Mose whipped the reins encouraging the horses up the little rise in the road. "Not much further now; you can rest soon." The crusty stagecoach driver was tired and hoped for a respite at the Sherman ranch. If they had the fresh horses they usually did, though, he'd go on and drive the stage into Laramie. Safer in town. He hoped this faithful team would make it that far — they'd stop for a few minutes if they had to, but he prayed it wouldn't be necessary.
It had been a tough trip this time; one of the passengers had gotten sick and had to be left behind in the last town. The worst part was that the last few hours the stage had been followed by a pack of wolves. The driver just wanted some rest. These horses had worked very hard. The last relay station hadn't had any horses at all; something that never happened on this line. Of course, the fact that no one had been alive at the station was the most terrifying part of that whole situation. Get Slim and Jess to come along, too.
The unmistakable sound of the wolf pack that Mose had heard before was suddenly very close. He'd thought it was too close before when he'd left the relay station, but it seemed even closer now. The stagecoach had to stick to the road; but the pack could cut across country, saving them a lot of time. The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end and a chill ran down his spine causing an overwhelming desire to look behind him. Resisting the urge, he instead shouted to the horses, "Come on, you sorry excuses for horseflesh! Let's get a move on or I'll have Slim make you into stew!"
It was an empty threat and he was pretty sure the horses knew it as well as he did. Nonetheless, it seemed like the poor things really did put out a little more effort, most likely picking up on the urgency in the driver's voice. The crusty driver drew comfort from that belief, but he was still relieved to see the outline of the Sherman Ranch appear ahead. There was a glow of lamplight from a couple of the windows in the house making Mose nearly sag as the weight of the situation lifted somewhat and he steered the team onto the short lane to the ranch.
Slim Sherman opened the door to peek out at the stage pulling into his dooryard. Seeing the obvious fatigue of the horses, he stepped on out to take care of the animals. Jess Harper followed on his heels carrying a lantern held high.
"Sherman Ranch! Five minutes! Howdy, Slim. Jess." Mose pushed the brake on the stage, wrapping the reins around the handle. "Got some fresh horses for me? We need to get going on into town." He hesitated slightly and then added, "You boys need to come into town with us. It ain't safe out here right now."
The two men stopped in their efforts to get the horses unhitched. Slim turned to face the driver. "What are you talking about, Mose? Why are these horses so tired? They look about ready to fall down." He took a cautious step toward the driver. "You look pretty done in yourself. What's the trouble?"
Jess, for his part, mirrored his employer's worry and confusion. Mose never came to the ranch with horses in this condition.
Off in the distance a wolf howled setting off a chorus of cries that hid the number of animals in the pack. Slim and Jess paid no attention to it.
"That's what I'm talking about − that wolf pack," The driver motioned toward the sound. "You wonder why my horses are so tired? It's because the last relay station had no horses alive. No people either. Everything and everybody was dead!" The older man took his handkerchief from his back pocket to wipe his face. "Now, come on and let's get moving. I want to get into town where it'll be safer!"
"If what you say is true, you'll never make it to town." Jess stepped up beside his dusty friend and placed a hand on the older man's shoulder. "You need to unload your passengers and spend the night here. We'll take care of the horses; they'll be safe in the barn. They'll be a lot safer in there than running on the road. You sure don't want to get stranded out there with a pack of wolves on the hunt."
"Jess is right, Mose. You can't go any further. Sounds like you're lucky to have made it here." Slim moved back to finish unhitching the team. "Get the passengers inside. There's coffee on the stove and there's stew left from dinner. Jess and I will be in after the horses are bedded down. Do you need a hand with the bags?"
"Nah, there's only one passenger. I can get the bag. Thanks, Slim." The driver's relief at no longer having to shoulder the responsibility alone was palpable. He trusted these two men implicitly.
Jess looked up from the hitch he was undoing. "Go on, Mose. Get the passenger inside. You're beat and I'll bet the passenger is, too."
Knowing when a plan was good, the older man took the one bag down from the luggage rack and tossed it to the ground. He climbed down from the seat and stretched his aching bones as he reached for the door of the coach. He really was glad about stopping for the night; he was exhausted and looked forward to the rest.
The single passenger stepped down from the coach, looking around curiously. "Are we spending the night here, Driver?"
"Yes, sir, Mr. Benson. This here's the Sherman Ranch and they have accommodations for us when we need them. It ain't the Ritz, but these boys are mighty hospitable and will do for us fine. Just go right on into the house there and we'll be in as soon as we tend to the horses." Mose handed the man his bag as he motioned toward the front door. He watched the passenger go inside then turned to help Slim and Jess.
With the horses unhitched and in the barn in quick time, attention was turned to feed and a rubdown for the exhausted animals. That job completed, Slim headed inside while Mose and Jess brought the other horses into the safety of the barn from the coral.
Smiling, Slim held his hand out to the man sitting at the table with a cup of coffee. "Slim Sherman. Welcome. I see you found the coffee okay."
The other man took the proffered hand in a firm grip. "Terrence Benson. Yes, I did. Hope that wasn't too presumptuous of me. Um, the driver said we're spending the night here?"
"That's right. You can have that room right there. Would you like some supper? We have some stew. Jess and I aren't the best cooks, but stew's pretty simple."
"Thanks, Mr. Sherman. I'd love some."
"Slim. Please. We don't stand too much on ceremony out here."
"Slim, then. It's been a long day and not a very pleasant one. I believe we were supposed to eat at the last relay station, but we couldn't stay there. It was too awful."
"What did you see, Mr. Benson — at the last relay station?"
"Terry. Lots of blood. I've never seen anything like it before. The horses were all dead and some were partially eaten. There was a man and woman dead, too. Very gruesome. Ever since we left there, we've been hearing wolves."
"Yeah. I've lived in the west for many years and I know a wolf when I hear one. The driver said that's what they were, too. They seemed to be keeping pace with us; sometimes they even appeared to be a little ahead of us. I know that doesn't sound possible or even likely, but that's what it seemed like. They've been with us the whole way since the last station. We stopped a while back to give the horses a little rest, but we didn't wait long — the wolves were too close." Benson rubbed his face with his hands. "I tell you, Slim. I've never experienced a day like today before."
Slim got up to make a fresh pot of coffee. "You're safe here for the night, Terry. We've got the horses in the barn and we'll all stay in the house overnight. There won't be any dying here tonight."
"I can't tell you how relieved I am to be here, Slim."
The door opened and Mose and Jess came in.
"Mose was just telling me about the day they've had, Slim. You wouldn't believe it!"
"Yes, I would. Mr. Benson, here, Terry, was just telling me about it. I've never heard anything like it before, have you?"
"Nope; never. I think we should keep a watch tonight, though. We could hear them out there when we were putting the rest of the horses into the barn."
"Agreed. The stew's ready and I'm making another pot of coffee, so I think we should have supper and work out the details a little later. Can you eat, Mose?"
"I can always eat; you know that — especially since Mr. Benson and I lost what was left of our breakfast at the last station. I'd like a cup of that good coffee first, though."
"It'll be ready in a minute and you can have all you want. Looks like we'll all need it."
Jess moved to get some bowls and spoons, but stopped dead at the sound of wolves crying in the distance. The four men looked toward the front of the house then at each other. After a moment, they went on with what they were doing. No one commented; they were all thinking the same thing.
Jess turned the lamp down after everyone had gone to bed. He was taking the first watch and would wake Slim in four hours. The air was heavy with humidity, the sound of thunder in the distance promising eventual relief in the form of rain. Taking the Winchester from the rack and checking the load, the former gunslinger peeked through the window one more time to satisfy himself all was peaceful before settling down with the rifle across his lap.
Boots on while on watch, he felt a little guilty propping his feet up on the other chair — not guilty enough to prevent him from doing just that however. He justified the action to himself with a shrug. No one's going to know. Slim would do the same thing. He did glance over his shoulder to make sure Slim wasn't checking up on him though. For a couple of bachelors, they really were kind of fussy about the house.
A howl broke into Jess' reverie followed by a dim flash; several seconds later followed by distant thunder. Yep. Gonna be a storm. Maybe it'll keep those wolves away from the ranch. He knew that thought was hopeful at best.
Jess wished he read books. He could read just fine, but didn't find them interesting. He rather envied Slim's ability to sit with a book and read for long periods of time. He'd like to have one right now. He briefly considered getting up to get one of the few books on the bookshelf, but the idea was cut short by the sound of the wind picking up. His attention was suddenly drawn in the opposite direction at the opening of the door to the guest room. Terry Benson looked sheepish as he quietly shut the door behind him. Jess couldn't help a small grin that formed at the sight of the traveler in his nightgown. "Can't sleep?"
"No. The storm's coming up and they always keep me awake. It's not that I'm afraid of them — at least I don't think so; I just like to be in the living room by the fire when it's going on outside." Benson gave a little shrug. "It makes me feel good to know I'm safe and warm inside, while Mother Nature is wreaking havoc outside. Does that make any sense?"
"Huh. I reckon it does. Come on over and have a seat. Plenty of room. Nice dress, by the way." The cowboy couldn't help but smile at the other man.
"Uh, yeah. Thanks." Benson blushed. "Sorry. I only have so many clothes and this saves them for the daytime. Hardly takes up any room in the bag, too."
"It's a good idea for travelling, I reckon. I wear work clothes all the time so no one can tell if I've slept in them or not." Jess laughed good naturedly, not feeling a need to mention that he slept in long johns.
After a bit of shifting and with both men comfortable once again, Jess glanced away from the fire toward Benson. "What line of work are you in, Mr. Benson . . . uh, Terry?"
"Well, I try not to look the part, but I'm a gambler. I discovered an affinity for cards a few years ago and decided to take it up as a profession. I do okay. I play honestly, so sometimes I lose. I know; pretty unheard of, huh?" Benson chuckled at Jess's reaction to his 'honesty' statement. "I don't need to cheat and wouldn't be any good at it if I did. Won't ever get rich, though."
"No, you sure won't!" Jess chuckled. "So where're you headed?"
Benson shrugged as he waved a hand. "The next town — whatever it might be. No destination in particular."
"In this case, 'the next town' happens to be Laramie. It's a good town with good people; a man who plays an honest game would be welcome there. Card sharks don't last very long in Laramie. We have a good sheriff who likes to keep his town clean."
Both men jumped as a very bright flash was immediately followed by a sharp crack of thunder that sounded like something had been struck right in the door yard. They scrambled to the windows to see what, if any damage had been done. A loud bang to the right caught their attention; the next flash of lightning showed the barn door was open and banging in the wind.
"Damn." The curse was a sigh. "I've got to go out there to close and latch that door. The horses will be skittish enough with the storm; we don't need them listening to a banging door all night. They'll need to be fresh in the morning. When the storm begins to let up, the wolves will probably be trying to get in there, too."
"Do you really need to go out in this now? Can't you wait a bit? That's got to be the worst of the storm; it should be letting up pretty soon."
"Maybe, but I don't want to take a chance. Those horses are our lifeline out here, Terry. I've got to make sure they're okay. It won't take long." Jess smiled, the expression lighting up his face. "I'll run between the drops and won't even get wet."
"I think you're a fool, Jess Harper," Benson chuckled. "You also seem like the kind of man that will do what he has to, no matter what. I'm interested to see this 'running between the drops' technique you have."
Laughing quietly, Jess leaned the Winchester against the wall, grabbing a lantern as he opened the door and got ready to run. "Close this for me, okay?" At the other man's nod, Jess took off at full speed, water splashing up as he ran toward the barn.
Benson closed the door just as another door opened behind him. He turned to see Slim Sherman standing there in his long Johns rubbing an eye heavy with sleep. "What's going on? I heard the thunder and then some banging."
Benson explained to the ranch owner about the barn door and Jess going out to take care of the situation.
All thoughts of sleep forgotten, Slim glanced around the room, noticing with shock Jess's favorite rifle leaning against the wall. "He didn't take his rifle?"
"No, he didn't think it necessary, I guess." The other man shrugged.
The blond rancher stepped back into his bedroom and pulled on his pants. Coming back out of the room with boots in hand, he joined the gambler at the window. "That idiot!"
"He seems like a very valuable employee. He was quite concerned about the horses."
Slim glanced at the other man and grinned as his eyes returned to the barn, which could only be seen when there was a flash of lightning. "He is an employee, but he's a lot more than that too. He's been here a few years and cares about the ranch as much as I do. He's come to be more like a brother than a simple employee. I can tell you exactly what he's doing out there; he's making sure each one of the horses is still in its stall, then he'll go from one to the other to settle the nervous ones — check their feed and water, check for any injuries they might have given themselves by being too restless. He won't come back in until he's sure they're okay."
The other man nodded. "Understood. A good friend like that comes along once in a lifetime."
"That's for sure. Don't know how I'd run this place without him. The rain and the wind are beginning to let up quite a bit. I hope he gets back in here before those wolves decide to brave the weather and come sniffing around." Without taking his eyes off the dooryard, Slim's hand went to the gun rack and his own rifle. As his friend had before, he checked the load then went back to watching out the window. "You might want to put some pants on, Mr. Benson. Hopefully, we can all go back to bed, but you never know." The rancher's eyes didn't waver from the window, but the corners of his mouth turned up just a little.
"Uh, yeah, I guess I'd better do that."
The shake of Slim's shoulders was hardly noticeable as the other man hurried off to the room he was sharing with the driver.
After latching the door closed and hanging the lantern on a hook, Jess turned toward the horses in their stalls. Some of them were a little wild-eyed and a little restless while others were apparently about ready to bolt. All of them rolled there eyes at him as he walked down the middle between the rows talking softly. The horses that belonged to the ranch, including his own mount, nickered in greeting even as they stamped their feet.
Jess walked up to his horse and gently put his hand on the soft nose. "How're you doing, fella? This storm got you all upset? I know, I don't like it, either. You're safe in here, though. I've got to settle these other guys down so they don't hurt themselves. I'll be back, okay?"
Moving to the horse in the next stall, one of the stage line horses who was upset, Jess spoke in quiet tones as he leaned against the post. He wanted to settle the horse as much as possible before attempting to touch it. The big bay stamped his feet as he rolled an eye at Jess.
"Whoa, it's okay. You're safe in here. How about an apple, huh?" Jess went to the bucket of apples by the door and picked out several. As he walked down the row of stalls, speaking quietly to each horse, he offered one up to every one. Those that were already settled were happy to crunch on the treat, while those that were uneasy began to quiet at the gentle speech and comfort of the familiar man offering them the fruit. Soon, all the horses were quiet but Jess stayed a few minutes longer to assure them that everything was all right.
The storm seemed to be letting up a bit and the former gunslinger was grateful that he wouldn't have to run to get back to the house. Satisfied that the horses would be all right, he checked the latch on the door to assure himself that it would be sturdy enough to hold; it looked just fine. He glanced back one more time then opened the door to find the wind had died down to a breeze and the rain was now falling gently. He was chilled and still soaked to the skin, but it would all be better when he got to the house and the warm fire. Just thinking about it warmed him a bit.
Jess took the lantern from its place on the wall and stepped out into the night, turning to latch the door securely as he did so. A smile spread across his face as he headed back toward the house, thoughts of dry clothes and a hot cup of coffee making him feel like all was right with the world. Not bothering to run this time, he even took a moment to check on the barn windows, humming to himself.
Suddenly, from seemingly nowhere and everywhere, wolf cries split the darkness. Jess abandoned the barn windows and ran for the house. He didn't make it. From behind him, a big grey wolf ran at him, knocking him off his feet; his own forward motion contributing to the fall. The lantern went flying, shattering as it fell and was soon extinguished by the rain. Two more wolves appeared and joined the first one in its efforts to maul the fallen man.
Slim looked on in horror as the first wolf attacked Jess. By the time he'd pulled the door open, two more wolves had joined the fray and were all trying to get a bite of his friend. He hesitated only a split second before raising the rifle to his shoulder and snapping off several shots. His first shot hit one of the wolves which went down hard, but the other shots missed. The desired effect of the animals running away was achieved, however, and Slim ran to his friend's side, still wary of a repeat of the attack.
"I'm here, Slim. I've got Jess's rifle!"
The rancher glanced up to see the gambler in the doorway; pants mostly on and nightshirt awry. If the situation hadn't been so dire, Slim might have laughed. As it was, he was grateful for the other man having his back while he checked on Jess. His friend was unconscious; curled in on himself with his hands covering his head. His chest was rising and falling at the speed of a pant, alerting Slim that even though he was unconscious, Jess was in a lot of pain from the effects of the attack.
Carefully, the rancher leaned down to pull his friend up onto his shoulders. "Hold on, Jess. I'm going to get you into the house. You'll be fine; don't worry."
Slim kept up the soothing chatter as he carried Jess to the house, steps heavy and quick to get inside before he dropped his burden. Terry held the door open for the hurrying rancher and the wounded man, allowing Slim to slip inside. Mose, awakened by the gunfire and the frantic noises, helped Slim lay Jess on the sofa.
"Glory, Slim, what happened?"
"Wolves." That word was all that was necessary to send chills down the driver's spine.
"Oh, no! I'm so sorry I brought them here. They followed us and this is all my fault."
"No, it's not, Mose! Get some warm water and a towel, please. I've got to clean out these bites." Slim didn't have time to comfort his old friend, but giving him something to do was the next best thing. "Benson, help me with his shirt. I'll hold him up so you can pull it off."
The gambler did as instructed then tossed the damaged garment to the side. The blood and gashes on Jess's torso were not a pretty sight and caused the gambler to gulp rather loudly.
Ignoring everything but his friend, Slim spoke quietly, "Jess, can you wake up for me? We're safe in the house and I need you to wake up. Jess? Come on, buddy." Gentle pats to the wounded man's cheek elicited a groan that brought a smile to Slim's face. "That's it. Wake up for me, Jess."
Working together for as long as they had caused both men to be attuned to the other's voice; in the ranching world, there were many dangers. Slim's voice broke through to Jess and his eyelids began to flutter, finally making a brave attempt to stay open if a little unfocused.
Mose appeared at the rancher's side with the requested towels and water. Slim acknowledged them with a glance and set to work cleaning the bites and tears on Jess' skin. Noticing his friend's eyes open, he smiled as he worked.
"About time. I was beginning to think you were going to sleep the night away and miss all the fun. You're in the house and safe, Jess. We just need to get these gashes cleaned up and patched. You'll be fine."
A flash of confusion crossed the injured man's eyes as he tried to take in his surroundings and remember what had happened. Eye's clearing a little, he focused on the fact that he was lying on the sofa and Slim looked worried. Oh, and the pain. Why did he hurt so much?
"What hap…?" He caught his breath as a particularly painful wound was cleaned.
"You went out to the barn to check on the horses and the wolves attacked you on the way back in. You got yourself gnawed on pretty good, but we're fixing you up. You'll be fine. Does your head hurt?"
"Head? Uh, no, my head's okay, I think. Do I need stitches?" Jess tried to see the bloody tears in his skin, but Slim pushed him back down.
"Just lie still there. I don't think you'll need stitches from what we've seen so far, but we'll see; haven't checked your back yet."
Trying to ignore the pain that was rearing its ugly head, Jess closed his eyes once more and took a deep breath. He let it out in a slow sigh that allowed him to concentrate and get control of the unwelcome feeling.
"Did you kill any of them?"
Slim looked up from his ministrations.
"What? Oh, yeah. We got one of them I think; but the rest ran. I'm sure they'll be back when they're done gathering their courage, though. No telling when that will be."
Jess snorted and gasped, rocking his head to the side as a particularly tender wound was ministered to.
"I'm sure they will. They have to be true to their nature. Dammit, Slim, stop!"
Shocked, the other man did as instructed; waiting for his injured friend to get hold of himself.
The three men glanced at each other until Jess's raspy voice was heard.
"Can I have some water?"
Benson and Mose both jumped to provide the water nearly tripping over the legs of the sofa and colliding with each other. The tension had been great and the sight caused both the ranchers to chuckle, Jess screwing up his face in pain from the movement. Benson recovered first and soon returned with a glass of water; holding it for Jess and helping him sip it.
The injured man relaxed a bit. "Thanks. Okay, Slim."
Slim hesitated for a second then began his ministrations anew. Mose produced a soothing salve to slather on the wounds and soon enough all punctures and tears were treated and covered.
"You're going to be fine. Don't think this is going to get you out of chores, either." The glint in the blond man's eyes took any sting from the statement.
"Great. Slave driver!" came the exhausted reply.
Slim patted his friend's shoulder and stood, stretching out the kinks from his awkward position. Looking at the other men, he sighed.
"I think we can go back to bed for the night. I'll stay out here on watch. No point in everyone staying up. If anything happens, I'll let you all know." He looked down at his friend, extending a hand. "Let's get you out of those wet things and into bed. No arguments."
Jess winced as he accepted the offered help, "Won't hear any from me
Slim opened his eyes with a frown; something had awakened him. He was sitting in the big chair in front of the fireplace; the sofa still being wet from Jess's clothes. Not wanting to move until he heard the sound that woke him again, he continued to sit quietly.
He got up and crept to Jess's room, quietly opening the door to check. The injured man was lying on his stomach snoring softly; the only indication of any discomfort being the occasional hitch in his breathing. The rancher stood there for a few seconds to make sure; but when nothing untoward could be found, he gently closed the door and turned to go to the window to check outside.
He was almost across the room when he heard a quiet sound at the door that stopped him in his tracks.
He went on to the window to see if what he feared was true. It was. It was still dark, but the sky had cleared and the moonlight showed the dooryard very clearly. There were four wolves prancing around in the mud and two more lying at the edge of the corral. As he moved to see closer to the house, two more wolves came into view as they moved around, excitedly.
Eight of them!
They showed no signs of going away and the six that were moving around seemed to be getting more excited. Suddenly, the two that were lying by the corral got up and joined the others in their restlessness. The snuffling at the front door was replaced by whining and pawing sounds.
As the rancher watched, one of the wolves that had been prancing ran toward the house and threw himself at the door, making a loud thump and causing Slim to jump in spite of himself. Almost immediately, a second wolf did the same. The two that had joined the others in their agitation disappeared from sight, but Slim began to hear noises at the kitchen door, too. He ran into the kitchen, taking a chair with him and pushing it up under the door handle to create more resistance.
Running back into the front room, the rancher grabbed the heavy chair he'd been using and pushed it in front of the door. Behind him, there was a crash of breaking glass as a wolf came through the window. Grabbing his rifle off the chair, he spun and fired in one motion, killing the wolf instantly.
The guest room door slammed open, Mose and Benson running into the living room; Mose had his pistol in his hand. Both men were wild-eyed as they stared at the dead animal on the floor.
"There're a couple of boards in the wood box, Mose. I'm going to board up the windows if I can before another one tries the same thing."
As the older man moved to get the wood and Slim was getting a hammer and nails, they were interrupted by the sound of breaking glass in the kitchen; a wolf had broken through the window in the door. Slim turned to see Benson with a rifle in his hands just as the gambler shot the animal as it tried to come into the living room. Scrambling noises could be heard in the kitchen indicating another one trying to come through the broken window. Benson increased his forward motion toward the kitchen and fired another shot, which was followed by a yelp.
"I'll guard the kitchen window, Slim. You do what you need to do and don't worry about me. I've got it."
Soon, another shot rang out in the kitchen as Slim glanced out the window. The shot missed its intended target, but it caused all the wolves to back off for a few moments. They stood by the corral staring at the house, their long tongues hanging out as they panted. One of them lay down and began to lick his side; a splash of blood could be seen where Benson's shot hit it.
"Mose, would you watch the window? I'm going to start with the window in the door." As the older man moved to do as he was asked, Slim turned toward the door stopping when a movement caught his eye.
Jess was leaning in the doorway of his room, a pistol barely held in his hand and eyes at half mast. Slim ran to his friend to catch him and take the pistol as the injured man started to sag toward the floor.
"What are you doing out of bed, Jess?"
"Yeah. Two of the wolves broke in and we killed them." He led his friend to the table and helped him sit down. "Stay here, okay? I have to board up some windows. Can you do that for me, Jess?"
Jess nodded and put his arms on the table for support.
"Good. When I'm done, I'll make some coffee."
Jess nodded again and groaned as he lowered his head to rest on his arms. Slim bit his lip as he laid his hand gently on his friend's head.
"Hang on, Buddy."
A few moments later, the living room door was boarded up and the rancher moved to the kitchen to do the same for the window above the sink. Benson nodded in acknowledgement when he entered then returned to watching the wolves; Slim went on with the business of covering the sink window. Turning to speak to Benson, he was stopped by an eerie sound from outside. The gambler stood up straighter, bringing his rifle up with the barrel pointing slightly out the window.
A single wolf howl was soon joined by another and another until all the wolves were sitting with noses pointed toward the sky crying to the moon. The sound sent chills down the men's spines. As the sound began to die off, the wolves seemed to have made some decisions amongst themselves; they began moving toward the barn.
"We can't let them get to the horses; start shooting!"
Slim dropped his tools and picked up his rifle to join Benson at the window. As they fired, they could hear the report of Mose's rifle in the front room as well. It was comforting to know that the stagecoach driver was thinking along the same lines as the other two. Another wolf dropped, even though their milling around was making it difficult to aim properly. The one that had been wounded earlier was down — motionless, and the others scattered.
Now there were five.
Benson turned to the rancher. "This isn't going to get better, is it?"
Slim shook his head sadly. "I don't think so. I think they'll be back again. This pack seems organized and determined. We need to be prepared to do what we have to do when they show up again. I don't like wholesale slaughter, but this is our lives. A normal pack would have moved on before all of this." He waved his weapon in the general direction of the outside.
"That's what I thought. I'm not the best shot in the world, but I'll do my part."
"That's all any of us can do."
Moving to the living room, Slim saw that a pale and trembling Jess was half off the chair he was sitting in and moved to keep him from falling the rest of the way.
"Come on, Jess. You can't do this. It's going to be a while before there's any more action. Why don't you lie down again?"
"I suppose I'm not much good to you this way, huh?" Jess's squinting eyes tried to focus on his friend.
Slim's chuckle hid the worry he had for Jess's condition. "Hey, there's no one I'd rather have at my back, no matter what shape you're in. If you're going to be in this, though, you need to rest. Let's get you situated, okay?"
"Yep. Here you go. You might need it."
Satisfied, Jess accepted the offer of help and the two men managed to get him back into bed.
The stage coach driver had been watching from his post and was ready when the rancher came out and quietly closed the bedroom door.
"He really gonna be okay, Slim?"
"He will if we can keep him in bed for a while — give his body a chance to recuperate."
The snort from the older man caused him to smile. "I know. We'll do what we can and he's strong. He'll be fine."
The two men stood in comfortable silence, looking out the window for any sign of a wolf.
"I'm really sorry I brought this problem down on you boys. I'd meant for you two to come with us to town where we'd all be safe."
Slim gently placed a hand on the stage driver's shoulder and gave a gentle squeeze. "Don't worry, Mose. Like I said before, I'm glad you came here. We'd both be sick if we learned that something had happened to you out there. You did the right thing."
"Yeah, but Jess . . ."
"Stop right there. You did the right thing. Okay? I know Jess feels the same way about it." Slim's blue eyes captured the older man's hazel eyes to make sure he was understood.
After a moment, Mose relaxed, nodding his head and turning back to the window. "Okay. Thanks."
"We're going to need to just start shooting to kill if those wolves come back again. Are you ready for that?"
"I sure am! I'd guess I'm kind of looking forward to it."
The rancher glanced around the room. "Good. To be honest, I think I am too. I'd like to get those two bodies out of here, but don't think that would be very wise at this point."
The older man snorted, "Nope. Me neither. We can take care of them when this is all over."
"Agreed," Slim nodded. "Stay alert. I'll be back in a little while." Squeezing the older man's shoulder one more time, the rancher busied himself with his rifle and making sure there were extra boxes of cartridges for the other two men.
The clock on the mantel chimed softly; all eyes turned toward the sound. Each man knew the other was counting the chimes to see if they matched the number on the clock, even though the light was so dim the hands were barely visible. Five. Five AM.
Without speaking the three men in the ranch house shook themselves from whatever reverie they'd been in and became more alert. Slim had taken Benson's place at the kitchen door allowing the man to get some rest. The rancher had known that he, himself would not be getting any sleep until the ordeal was over. The coming dawn meant that the wolves would most likely be making their final attempt fairly soon. Mostly nocturnal, the animals liked to catch their prey and hole up with it during the daylight hours.
Benson walked up behind the rancher. "I can take over again, Slim. I got some rest, but there's not going to be much more, I'm sure."
Slim shook his head. "No, you're right about that. They should be coming back pretty soon. We need to get this ended. I'll let you stay here while I go check on Jess, okay? Did you hear anything from his room?"
"No, I didn't. You go. I'll be fine." The gambler alertly took up his original position as the rancher headed through the living room to check on his best friend.
"You okay out here, Mose?" Slim stepped up behind the driver.
"I'm good, Slim; don't worry about me none. None of those critters'll get past me. You going to check on Jess?"
"I am. Benson said it was quiet from his room. Just want to make sure everything's fine."
Mose chuckled. "He'll be fine; he's a pretty tough hombre."
"That he is!"
Jess didn't bother to run as he left the barn. He took the time to make sure the windows were secure until he heard the sound of a wolf howl. He gave up worrying about the windows as he began running for the safety of the house. He literally ran for his life, but his feet seemed to not want to move. His legs weighed a ton. The frustration and fear of not getting away was terrifying. Suddenly, he was hit hard from behind and went face first into the mud. The animal that had knocked him down growled and bit as Jess curled into a ball for protection. Two other wolves joined the fray causing his breathing to hitch as his fear level increased.
As Slim stepped to the bedroom door, he stopped to listen a bit before opening it. Satisfied at the quiet, he carefully opened it. The darkness in the room was nearly complete as the moon had moved to the other side of the house. The window in the room faced east and always got the morning sun, so it would lighten fairly soon. Leaving the door open just a little, Slim moved into the room to the figure on the bed. Soft, irregular breathing and moans caused the rancher some worry, but he didn't want to disturb Jess if it wasn't necessary. He reached out his hand and laid gently on Jess' forehead; there didn't seem to be any fever, so Jess was having a dream. "It's okay, Pard. Everything's fine."
As suddenly as the attack started, it stopped. Slim was there and everything was going to be all right.
The terrified man relaxed into a deeper sleep.
Satisfied, Slim was about to step back out into the living room when a shot rang out followed by a shout and a crash. He turned and stepped through the door into chaos. Mose was on the floor with a dead wolf lying across his body and Benson was firing out the window at his station in the kitchen.
"Get this damn thing off of me, Slim; they're going to be coming in here in a minute!"
Slim tossed the body of the wolf aside then helped the older man to his feet, grabbing his own rifle as he did so.
"Benson! You okay in there?"
"I'm good. I got another one of them! Yahoo! "
The other two men chuckled as they turned to face their own group out the window; there were still three of them out there.
A crash from the direction of the barn startled the three men. All eyes turned toward the barn as the remaining wolves ran toward it. Slim growled as he noticed one of the windows had been broken through apparently allowing one of the wolves access. The horses were already screaming as a second wolf leaped through the window.
Without thought or hesitation, Slim leaped for the door and was running toward the barn. He fired a couple of shots at the last wolf but missed as he ran, causing the wolf to run off in another direction. The rancher was happy not to have all of them in an enclosed space to deal with. The growling, snarling, and horse screams were intensifying as he wrenched open the barn door and fired into the air; he wanted to scare the wolves and not take a chance on hitting any of the horses. He could see one horse was down and bleeding, but still alive; the others were bumping or kicking at their stalls. Slim fired at one of the wolves that was mauling the downed horse, killing it instantly; but the other managed to break out of the barn to get away.
The rancher examined the downed animal then reluctantly did what had to be done for the poor horse to put it out of his misery. Even as he did so, he mourned the loss of the beautiful animal. The loss of even one horse in this country was a tragedy; human life depended on the horse. Shaking off the emotion, Slim turned to settling the other teams even as he heard gunfire from the house. He couldn't be distracted at the moment and his faith in the driver was complete; Benson had also showed himself to be quite competent.
The smell of blood had the other horses nearly wild — eyes rolling in their sockets and bumping from side to side in their stalls. The rancher began the task of settling the horses, but the bang of the barn door startled him. Turning with rifle in hand, the appearance of Mose and Benson was quite a surprise. He lowered the rifle as he grinned in relief at the two men.
"You two almost got yourselves shot! You're here; you might as well make yourselves useful."
Slim turned back to the horses and Mose showed the gambler where the curry brushes were and gave instruction on their use. Soon all three men were engrossed in their task; the welfare of the horses first on their minds at this moment.
Jess heard the gunfire along with the screams of the horses and was making a real effort to bring himself awake. Pain almost everywhere on his body also made him reluctant to fully waken, causing an inner war in the former gunslinger. His worry for his friend and employer finally won out over the pain allowing him to open his eyes to orient himself. Faint gray at the window indicated dawn's approach, also giving the ranch hand a bit of light to see his clothes.
Determination and stubbornness finally allowed Jess to come fully awake, really needing to get out into the house and see how things were going. He also wanted some coffee. That gambler, Benson, seemed a good person and Mose was out there with Slim but Jess needed to be there, too. Besides, he might be able to get one of the wolves and that would feel mighty good.
A sudden crash from the window accompanied by a snarl kicked Jess' instincts into automatic as he reach for his six-gun and fired at the wolf. It went down hard without a sound or a twitch. Blinking at the sight before him, Jess brought himself under control and managed to stand without falling. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
Okay, this is not good! I need to get out there.
Using the night table for support, he reached for the door just barely able to keep his balance. The room was spinning a little bit but nothing he couldn't handle. It was too quiet in the other part of the house and that spurred him on to get through the door and be a part of whatever had gone on out there.
Getting into the living room was no small feat for the injured man, but something that had to be done and was going to get done. As he lurched through the door, he came to a complete halt at the sight before him. There were two wolf bodies on the floor; but what was more disturbing was that none of the other men were in the house.
"Slim! Mose? Benson!" Each name was called louder than the others. Jess's concern was ratcheting higher as he continued to be unanswered. Moving further into the room but not letting go his support from the wall, Jess was nearly undone at the sound of another gunshot coming from the direction of the barn. He got himself balanced once more to head toward the door, six gun in hand, to see what was going on outside in the barn. His progress was quite slow; but determination and, let's face it, fear kept him motivated. Finally, he was at the door.
The carnage in the dooryard was incredible; there were bodies of wolves all over — some were close to the house and some were further away. The mud and blood was almost enough to make the former gunslinger lose anything that might still be in his stomach. The cool night air was enough to prevent that from happening as he took deep breaths to control the rising bile. The night was deceptively peaceful; if it weren't for the visual evidence, Jess could be convinced that nothing had happened. The slight breeze was enough to remove the smell from the immediate area and the injured man allowed himself to relax ever so slightly.
His peaceful moment was interrupted by the creek of an opening door to his right. Glancing toward the sound, he was delighted to see Slim coming out of the barn and turning to speak to someone inside and then make sure the door was closed behind him. Jess made the assumption that Mose and Benson were in there helping with the horses.
Movement caught out of the corner of his eye made him glance away from his friend only to see a wolf running at the unsuspecting man.
"Sliiiii…!" He tried to call the warning to the unsuspecting man, but the word stuck in his throat as his bump into the doorjamb took his breath and spreading pain throughout his body.
The wolf, totally focused on the rancher, launched itself to land on his back, taking them both to the ground. Slim cried out in shock as he felt the weight of the animal hit him, causing him to lose hold on his rifle. Man and beast rolled in the mud in the midst of human cries and wolf snarls. As the duo rolled to the side, the wolf yelped and went limp — a gunshot belatedly registering on the human's consciousness and the sound of the barn door opening came to his ears. It took a few moments for Slim to realize that the wolf had been killed and that Mose and Benson were coming to help him. His eyes moved to the direction of the gunshot to see Jess slumped in the doorway of the house.
The rancher got himself up with the help of the other two men and then managed a shambling run toward the house and the downed man, covering the distance in a few steps and falling on his knees in front of his friend. "Hey! Are you all right, Jess. What are you doing out here?"
Droopy blue eyes looked up at him from his slouched position. "Guess I was saving your life, pardner."
Slim lowered his head as he shook it in amused frustration with the former gunslinger. Reaching toward his friend, one hand landed on Jess's shoulder to squeeze it while the other one gently took the six-gun from the exhausted fingers.
"You did that, my friend — beautiful shot. How about we get you back inside? I think there's still one wolf out here."
"I killed one in the bedroom. Came through the window. I think I'd just like to rest a bit, if that's okay."
Mose gathered the guns while the other two men helped get Jess inside.
The sun shone brightly on the Sherman Ranch; Jess turned his face toward it to soak up the warmth. Slim had moved a kitchen chair outside for him a while ago; he'd been tired of the nagging Jess was putting out and figured outside was a good place for his friend. Secretly, Slim had been pleased that Jess had wanted to get out; it meant that he was feeling better.
The bodies of the wolves had been taken out of the house and, along with the ones from the dooryard, were placed away from the barn and corral to avoid upsetting the horses. Slim and Mose had gone to the barn after things had calmed down to finish settling the horses and deal with the one body. No other injuries were found, so the men counted themselves lucky in that regard.
Terry Benson turned out to be a good nursemaid so had been designated to stay with Jess, helping Slim redress his friends wounds. That job turned out to be the easiest as the injured man had fallen back to sleep, exhausted from the burst of activity.
Jess startled as Slim came up behind him and placed a hand on his shoulder. "Hey, Slim. It's a really beautiful day."
The rancher glanced at the clear sky then back to his friend. "You about ready to get back inside?"
The former gunslinger shook his head. "It's nice out here. I'll stay out here until the stage leaves and rest after that."
Slim nodded and the two waited in comfortable silence for Mose and Benson to be ready to go. The team had been hooked up a little while ago and seemed anxious to get going. The team that had pulled the stage in the previous day were in the corral peacefully munching and enjoying the rest.
"Slim, I think that's the most interesting stage layover I've ever experienced in my travels!" Benson's voice shook the two men from their reverie.
Slim stuck his hand out to the gambler. "You're a good man in a pinch, Benson. You ever get tired of gambling for a living, you come by here and I can make a place for you."
The gambler chuckled, "I doubt that's going to happen. Playing cards is really more my speed. But I do thank you for the offer."
Jess took his turn shaking the man's hand. "Thanks for your help, Terry. I understand you were a godsend during the festivities last night. I appreciate it."
"No problem, Jess. Glad to be able to help. You take care, now."
"I will. Watch out for the other players." Jess's smile lit up his face.
Mose was already standing by the coach and reached out to take the gamblers bag as the younger man got into the stage. Tossing the bag up to the top, the driver climbed up to his seat and gathered the reins in his hands. Smiling at his friends on the ground, he raised one hand. "You fellas take it easy today. I'll stop by and tell the doc what happened and he may decide to come out and check on Jess."
Simultaneously the friends spoke:
"Don't bother, Mose, I'm fine."
The older man laughed at the response and snapped the reins to get the horses moving. "See you in a few days!"
The rancher and the former gunslinger waved in acknowledgement as the stage pulled away.
"I think I'm ready for that rest now, Slim."
"That definitely makes two of us, Jess." he grinned in reply.
Slim Sherman helped his best friend up from the chair and carefully supported him as they headed slowly into the house.
If you've gotten this far, I thank you. Please let me know what you think of my efforts. Reviews are greatly appreciated! Nana