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A town called Hope

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Three years later

Danny checks his Colt revolver is loaded.  The .45 Long Colt cartridges glint gold in the half-light as he snaps the chamber closed.  Shoving the revolver in his hip holster, he tightens his belt.  Satisfied the holster’s hanging at the right angle for a quick draw, he retrieves his Remington shotgun from the shelf behind his desk.  Holding it in his left hand, he takes a deep, steadying breath.

The jailhouse in Hope is a two-room building.  The front room is his office.  There’s a leather-topped desk that he inherited from his deceased predecessor.  The glass fronted bookcase behind it is inherited too.  The coal burner, hot plate and sleeping cot in one corner are his additions: he spends more time here than he does anywhere else.  There’s a cabinet with a collection of Remington and Colt rifles and guns.  Most of them have seen better days though: the township might want a lawmaker but they’re slow to pay for everything he needs.

Behind his office are the cells, reached by a grill door in the back wall.  Three large cells and one small one, each with benches along each side.  There are holes in the bottom of the back walls and long grooves in the floors that lead to the holes.  Those had been his first addition: now he can throw a bucket of water in there and everything drains outside.   The days when the jailhouse had always smelt of sweat and vomit are just a distant memory.

His Stetson is hanging by the door.  He puts it on, tugging it down at the front to shade his eyes.  Taking another deep breath he opens the front door.

Danny blinks at the sudden brightness: it’s midday and the sun is high in the sky.  Fixing a smile on his face he straightens his shoulders, hefts up the shotgun and starts to walk down the main street.  The smile works its usual magic: the people who like him think he’s being friendly, the people who hate him can’t figure out what he’s thinking at all.

The town of Hope has grown in the years he’s lived here.  Back in the day, when he’d been a teenager, it had only taken a few minutes to walk from one end of the main street to the other.  Now his regular patrol takes him quarter of an hour.  Each time it feels much longer than that.

The livery barn is behind the jailhouse.  He waves to the owner, Pete Bailey, as he passes.  Pete nods in reply.  Danny half imagines, half hears, a familiar high-pitched whinny from inside the barn.  Jersey, his horse, has been cooped up for days and he’s restless.  Danny knows the feeling: it seems like forever since they’ve ridden out together to his family’s place, the Double L ranch. 

Two days, Danny reminds himself as he carries on walking, passing the butcher’s and the dry goods store.  Tomorrow the ranch hands at the larger ranches will be paid, many of them getting a whole month’s pay in one go.  They’ll come into town looking for somewhere to spend their money.  As usual the saloon will get most of it.  Most of the ranch hands are young men, barely out of their teens.  By midnight the cells behind his office will be busting at the seams.  During the following day he’ll gradually turn everyone loose.  Tempers will still be running high for a few hours.  But after that…after that he’ll be able to head home for a couple of days.

Just two days until he gets to enjoy his Ma’s cooking.  Two days until he can relax, at least for a little while, without worrying about being shot in the back.

It’s just two days until he can see his little lady again.

Danny’s smile widens with anticipation.  His hips sway more as his strut becomes more pronounced.  He nods to people as they pass, tipping his hat at the ladies.  All this, he’s doing all this for his beautiful Gracie.  And for that reason alone he’ll do the best job he can.

His smile slips as he passes the undertakers.  A cold shiver slides down his spine.  It’s nearly four years since he stood in that store, sobbing like a baby. The passing of time hasn’t made the memory less raw.

Danny jerks away from the memory.  Resting the barrel of the Remington on his shoulder, he lengthens his stride.  There’s an itching sensation between his shoulder blades: he’s being watched.  From beneath the brim of his hat he surveys the buildings across the street, his gaze drifting up to the top floors.  There’s a light breeze today so every window is open.  Curtains are flapping in the wind.  If someone has got him in their sights he has no way of knowing. 

Raising his chin, he carries on walking.

H50H50H50H50H50

The last stop on his patrol is the saloon.  Over the years the first bar has been replaced by a three-storey building.  Downstairs are the bar and the gambling tables.  Upstairs there’re rooms for rent for people passing through Hope.  Up in the attic is where Lottie and her girls work.

It’s Lottie who welcomes Danny as he pushes through the swing doors into the bar.  Even if someone didn’t know what she did for a living, a quick glance at her would give them a good idea.  Women in Hope wear long cotton dresses, with sleeves and a neckline that covers them up.  A cotton or straw bonnet and practical leather ankle-high boots complete their look.  A few of them might wear pants, especially some of the homesteaders who can’t afford any help with the animals.  But even that raises eyebrows sometimes, particularly on a Sunday.

Lottie always raises eyebrows.  Danny suspects it’s one of her pleasures in life, to rattle the world-view of the people of Hope.  Her dresses are designed to make the most of her cleavage and tiny waist.  She adores silk and the latest fabrics from New York.  The many layers of her ankle-length skirt swish as she walks.  No one has ever seen her without her makeup.  Not a single blonde hair on her head is out of place.

The smile he gives her as she drapes her arm across his shoulders is genuine.  He’s been up to Lottie’s attic room.  But it’s not for the reason people think.  In his darkest hours he’d needed someone to talk to, someone who wouldn’t take his deepest fears and use them against him.  He trusts her.  He can count on one hand the number of people he can say that about.

“New dress?” he asks, letting one hand rest on her waist.  The fabric under his fingertips is smooth but not shiny.  Rachel would have known what it’s called.

Lottie blushes under her makeup as a smile lights up her face.  “It arrived on the mail coach yesterday.”  She pulls away to twirl on the spot.  “It’s beautiful isn’t it?”

“It is on you, babe.”

Across the other side of the bar a couple of ranch hands look over.  The word ‘babe’ isn’t in their vocabulary.  There probably aren’t many words in their vocabulary Danny thinks, smiling to himself.  They didn’t spend a couple of years in New York before heading out west. 

Lottie’s gaze follows his.  Understanding dawns in her eyes.  Before he can say anything, she winks and plants a kiss on his cheek.  “Let me get you a drink, honey,” she announces loudly enough for the whole bar to hear.

“You’re terrible,” he mutters under her breath as he lets her lead him to the bar.  “People are gonna talk.”

“Let ‘em,” she throws back over her shoulder, “it wouldn’t hurt you to live a bit.”

Danny swallows down the pang of sadness that’s clogging his throat.  His life hasn’t always been like this.

Carefully placing the Remington on the bar, he nods at the barman.  Freddie Marlow’s owned the Last Chance Saloon for as long as Danny can remember.  In his early 60s, his brown hair is shaved in close to his head, revealing a scar that runs from the top of his skull to the top of his left ear.  Freddie tells people he got it in the army.  Danny’s heard another story that involves an angry husband and a meat cleaver.  Of average height, Freddie’s large girth is hidden under a dirty white apron that’s seen better days.  The cloth he’s using to clean the bar is even dirtier.  The Last Chance Saloon isn’t the kind of place where people complain about the décor.

Décor.  Another word Danny hasn’t heard for a long time.  Inwardly he shakes his head: Rachel brainwashed him real good.

Freddie holds up a glass, revealing it’s covered in finger prints.  “Drink, Sheriff?”

Danny tells himself to smile.  He never drinks when he’s working.  Freddie knows this.  Across the room one of the ranch hand sniggers.  People who don’t drink whiskey or beer are viewed with suspicion. 

Danny leans back against the bar.  It gives him a good view of the whole room.  “Water,” he replies like always.  Every ranch hand in the room stares at him. 

Lottie rolls her eyes at him, her lips curling up in a half smile.  With another wink she turns and works her way through the room.  The fabric of her dress sways in time with her hips.  Every pair of eyes are instantly drawn away from Danny.  As one they watch Lottie slowly walk up the stairs.

Not everyone, Danny corrects, frowning.  It looks like there’s a new stranger in town.  He’s sitting on his own, at a table next to the bar.  He’s got dark, curly hair that reaches his shirt collar.  He looks in his early thirties – the same age as Danny - but his bushy beard is heavily sprinkled with grey.  His clothes are similar to those of the other ranch hands.  The Stetson on the table in front of him has seen better days.  He’s wearing two Colt Navy revolvers though, with ivory handles. 

Two revolvers, in Danny’s experience, signals trouble.  So does the way he’s staring into an empty whiskey glass, his expression shuttered against the world.

Turning back to the bar, Danny raises one eyebrow.  Freddie rests his elbows on the bar, leaning in closer.  Danny fights the urge to recoil as the smell of sweat and bad breath fills his nostrils.

“Came into town a couple of hours ago,” Freddie mock-whispers, apparently unaware that his body odour could down a mule at a hundred paces.  “Henry Bishop says he’s seen him over at the Gables Ranch, looking after the horses.“  He leans in even further, his eyes lighting up with malicious excitement.  “Ben Connor though, he says he saw him in Denver City.  You seen those guns?  He’s got to be a gunfighter.”

Freddie’s got more details but Danny blocks them out.  He studies the stranger, looking for clues.  Ben’s the foreman over at the Horseshoe Ranch.  The owner of the Horseshoe Ranch is Joe Dodson.  Dodson, as Danny’s Pa reminds him regularly, is a man with no morals; he employs people like him. Henry’s more reliable but he still likes to gossip more than Danny’s comfortable with.

Before Danny can say anything, the stranger stirs.  His head comes up, he blinks rapidly, like he’s pulling himself back from somewhere.  Scrubbing his hand across his face, he pushes himself up from his chair.  The chair’s legs scrape across the wooden floor with a loud screech that draws stares.  The stranger doesn’t seem to notice, clutching his empty glass as he heads for the bar.

Danny frowns as the stranger stands at the bar beside him.  He’s limping heavily.  The reason is obvious: his right leg is twisted slightly, he can only put weight on the edge of his foot.

“Whiskey,” the stranger says unnecessarily, the empty glass he slams down on the bar doing the talking for him.  A coin appears in his hand.  He places it on the bar.

Freddie scowls at the empty glass.  He turns the scowl on the stranger.  “You’ve had enough, mister.  It’s time for you to leave.”

Danny feels the hairs on the back of his neck prickle as the stranger straightens to his full height.  “There’s nothing wrong with my money.  You didn’t complain none when you took it earlier.”

“Now you look here—”  Freddie eyes widen, he stops mid-rant.  The stranger’s put more coins on the bar.  It’s not a small amount.

“Just give me the bottle and I’ll go.”

“Let him have it, Freddie.”

Danny doesn’t realise he’s spoken until the stranger turns his head to look at him.  His eyes are blue with long eye lashes that he’s more used to seeing on one of Lottie’s girls.  His face is masculine though, worn but strong.  ‘Reliable’ is the word that pops into Danny’s head. 

The man’s gaze is steady and open as he meets Danny’s eyes.  He seems surprisingly lucid for someone who’s been drinking gut-rot whiskey for hours.  Then his eyes drop to the Sheriff’s badge pinned on Danny’s leather vest.  His open expression shuts down in an instant.

Danny pretends he’s not disappointed.  He’s used to that reaction after all.  He lingers at the bar long enough to check that Freddie slides over the half-empty whiskey bottle.  Then, without another glance at the stranger, he picks up the Remington and heads back outside.

H50H50H50

Retracing his steps along the main street, Danny tells himself he’s not angry.   He’s got no idea who the stranger in the bar is.  He has no need for his good opinion.  Making friends is not why he’s here in the Hope township.  He’s got a job to do.

He’s still telling himself that, stomping angrily, when he realises there’s a commotion ahead.  Cursing under his breath he hurries his pace.

One of Lottie’s girl’s is standing in the middle of the main street.  Her names is Jennie Mae.  At her feet is a basket: it’s tipped on one side with parcels tossed out in the dirt.  Surrounding Jennie are five men on horseback.  Danny’s anger flares as he recognises the brand on the horses: they all belong to Joe Dodson at the Horseshoe Ranch.

“You okay there, Jennie?” he asks, keeping his voice even, as he approaches the group.  The Remington is a reassuring weight in his left hand.

The riders don’t move their horses.  In fact they don’t acknowledge him at all.  Peering around the horses’ legs he can see Jennie staring back at him.  There’s a bruise turning purple on her cheekbone.

Danny sees bright-red anger.  His right hand drifts up to join his left on the Remington.  He’s on the verge of swinging it down, of barging past the horses, when common sense kicks in again.

Anger is the quickest way to die.

Taking a shuddering breath, he brings his right hand back down again.  Taking another one, he rests his hand on the revolver on his right hip.  Careful not to touch the horses, he edges his way into the middle of the group. 

“Someone wanna tell me what’s going on?”

Standing in the centre of the circle of horses doesn’t make the situation any better.  Horses are docile – mostly – but being circled by five of them is still intimidating.  They also give their riders the higher ground.  Danny grits his teeth as the ring-leader sneers down at him.  The man’s name is Harry Dodson.  He’s Joe Dodson’s youngest son.

“Get out of here,” Harry spits, his face twisting with anger.  “This is between me and Jennie Mae.”

Danny edges towards Jennie.  She look’s terrified.  Danny doesn’t blame her: Harry’s in front of them but they’re showing their backs to the other men.  “It’ll be fine,” he reassures her.

“Well ain’t that sweet,” one of the men behind them chuckles.  There’s no warmth in the sound.

“This is a private conversation,” Harry sneers again.

Danny raises both eyebrows.  “We’re in the middle of the main street.”

A looks of confusion crosses Harry’s face.  “So?”

Danny resists the urge to sigh.  Sarcasm is as likely to get him shot as aggression.  Or at least that’s what his Pa keeps telling him.  The four other men are getting restless: their mood is being picked up by their mounts.  If he’s not careful both he and Jennie will be trampled before anyone has a chance to get off a shot. 

The hairs on his neck are standing upright.  Every nerve in his body is screaming at him to run.  Beyond Harry’s horse, outside the stores, he can see people watching.  Not much happens in Hope, every argument draws a crowd.  That doesn’t mean anyone’s gonna help him.  He’s under no illusions – he’s on his own.

“Okay,” Danny concedes, forcing himself to relax.  ”it’s a private conversation.  Mind telling me what this is about?”

Harry snorts.  His horse shakes its head, takes a step forward.  “No.”

“This whore took his money and he didn’t get nothing back.  He’s just asking for what’s due.”

It’s one of the men behind Danny who’s spoken.  Danny resists the urge to turn round. There’s a stunned silence, the man’s obviously just realised he shouldn’t have blurted that out.  But the damage has already been done.

‘Getting nothing back’ could mean literally that.  Lottie’s draws a line at what her girls will do.  Jennie Mae probably refused Harry advances, the bruise is evidence of that.  The trouble it, ranch hands use the same phrase to describe a man whose had issues performing sexually.  The rage on Harry’s face suggests it’s probably a combination of both of these.

Whether any of it’s true or not doesn’t matter.  The whole town’s going to hear about the conversation by sun-down.  Harry’s been publicly humiliated and he won’t take that well.

Jennie know that too.  She’s chanting ‘No, no, no,’ under her breath.  Danny wishes he could reassure her but he’s too busy trying to figure out how to get out of this mess.  Harry’s hand is drifting towards his revolver.  Danny’s sure he can get a shot off first.  But the next shot after that will hit him between the shoulder blades.  It might give Jennie enough time to get away. 

Harry’s hand never touches his revolver.  His horse whinnies and takes a couple of steps back.  Cursing, Harry grabs the reins with both hands. 

Danny freezes, mid-draw.  Harry’s horse isn’t the only one that’s unsettled.  The other men are also struggling as the horses step back.  Confusion stops Danny for a moment, then self-preservation kicks in.  He looks down, to grab Jennie’s hand.  If she’s quick she might make it to the safety of one of the stores. 

When he looks back up, he’s confused all over again.

There’s another horse pushing its way into the circle, next to Harry’s horse.  It’s a beautifully marked pinto, tall, with long legs.  It’s saddled but there’s no rider.  Horses are herd animals.  There’s a newcomer in their midst.  Right now they just want to get to know her.  They’ve got no interest in what their humans want.

A ripple of laughter spreads through the crowd who are watching.  It grows louder, so loud that Danny can hear it over the thumping of his heart.  It drowns the sound of Harry and his men cursing at their horses.  It drowns the sound of Jennie’s chanting which has changed to a desperate prayer for salvation.

A high-pitched whistle cuts through the noise.  The main street falls quiet.  People peer around, looking for the source of the whistle.  Danny tightens his grip on Jennie’s hand, getting ready to run.

The pinto skips sideways, bumping Harry’s horse out of the way.  As they part they reveal the stranger from the saloon standing across the street.  He’s leaning against the hitching post outside the butcher’s shop.  Arms crossed, he’s wearing a lazy smile.  The ivory handles of his twin Colt Navy revolvers glint in the sun.

“Don’t mind her,” he says, lifting his chin towards the pinto, “she’s just making friends.”

Harry reins his horse in, wrenches its head round, aiming straight at the stranger. 

The stranger’s lazy smile disappears.  Slowly he uncrosses his arms.

Whatever Harry sees, he apparently doesn’t like it.  Cursing, he pulls his horse back the other way.  He glares at the stranger before turning his attention back to Danny.  Danny’s skin breaks out in a cold sweat when their eyes meet.

“This ain’t over,” Harry hisses.  “You’re gonna get what’s coming to you.”

“Looking forward to it,” Danny spits back before he can stop himself.  Harry doesn’t hear him anyway: he’s wheeled his horse around and galloped off in a cloud of dust.  The other men are close on his tail.

Danny watches them go in a daze.  Then reality kicks back like a blow to the head.  Lowering the Remington shotgun from his shoulder it’s hard not to start shaking.  It suddenly feels twice as heavy than before.  The fingers on his right hand are cramping, frozen, curled up mid-draw.

Another whistle – lower this time – intrudes on his thoughts.  The pinto’s head comes up.  Slowly she turns and plods over to the stranger.  He retrieves her reins, looping them over the hitching post and tying her up.

“Nice town you’ve got here,” the stranger says, dryly.  Pushing himself upright, he walks towards Danny.  Outdoors, on the uneven surface of the dirt road, his limping, swaying gait is more pronounced.

Danny drags his eyes away, focusing on Jennie Mae instead.  Tears are rolling down her face.  Her lips are moving but no sound is coming out.  Danny knows exactly how she feels.  He holds her close with one arm for a moment.  She’s trembling so bad.  Before he can say anything they’re joined by the stranger who kneels down to put Jennie’s parcels back in her basket.

“Let me—” Danny starts but stranger stops him with a stare.  There’s a hint of underlying anger that’s telling Danny to back off.

He backs off.

Gently, Danny gets Jennie moving.  She’s unsteady on her feet so he’s relieved when Lottie appears, running up the street, her skirt hitched above her ankles.  Fear is written across her face: someone must have gone to the saloon and told her what was happening.

She hovers for a moment, her glance switching between Danny, Jennie, the stranger and then back again.  She’s got questions, that’s clear.  Then the practical side of her takes over – one of the things that Danny admires about her most – and she wraps her arms around Jennie, drawing her away.

Behind Danny, somebody clears their throat.  He turns.

The stranger’s watching him.  His eyebrows are drawn together in a thoughtful frown.  He’s holding Jennie’s basket.  It’s loaded back up with parcels.

Without thinking, Danny reaches out for it.  “Thanks.”  Behind the stranger, he can see they’ve still got an audience.  New people always draw suspicion.  It’s on the tip of his tongue to yell across and remind them who’s just saved his ass.  Instead he hefts the Remington back on his shoulder and nods back up the street.  “You eaten?”

The stranger stares at him.  Then he blinks, surprised.  His lips turn down, then back up again.  Finally he shrugs.  “I could eat.”

“Great.”  Danny doesn’t wait to see if he’s following.  But he can hear footsteps, quickly joined by the sounds of hooves.  Revising his plans, he heads for the livery yard first. 

“I’ll pay for the feed,” the stranger insists a while later as they reach the jailhouse, having arranged lodgings for his horse.

Danny cuts him off with a sharp shake of his head.  He’s not stupid, he knows that horse didn’t just wander in on its own to make new buddies.  Unlocking the door to the jailhouse, he leads the way in. 

“Make yourself comfortable,” he instructs as he puts the Remington back on the shelf.  He places Jennie’s basket beside it, making a mental note to return it later.  “There’s a privvy and wash house out back if you need it.”

The stranger hesitates on the threshold, taking everything in.  He’s wary and Danny gets that.  In his line of work, he’s constantly wary of people too.  Hell, he’s not even sure why he’s doing this.  This guy just saved your life, buddy, his conscience reminds him, sounding very much like his Ma.  True, he thinks as the stranger finally makes a decision and walks in, closing the door behind him.  Then it hits him that as well as saying ‘thank you’, he’s forgotten something else.

“What’s your name?”

The stranger studies him, his gaze sweeping around the room.  “McGarrett,” he answers, dropping his saddlebags and hat on the desk.  “Steve,” he adds after a beat.

Steve.  Danny absorbs the information.  It’s a name that suits the man in front of him.  It’s a strong name.  Weathered.  Nodding, he introduces himself in return.  There’s an awkward moment when it feels like they might shake hands.  Danny grabs the coffee pot before the moment can drag out too long and puts it on the hotplate. 

He’s got beans and steak that he bought earlier.  There’s just enough for two.  As he prepares the food to go into the cook pot – chopping up the beef and adding in beans and water – he keeps one eye on the strang—Steve. 

Steve’s standing in the middle of the room, not moving.  But Danny’s pretty sure he’s not missing a thing.  He limps over to the chair behind the desk.  Pulling it out, he sits down with a wince.  Stretching out his injured leg, he pulls the half-empty whiskey bottle he got at the saloon out of the saddlebag and takes a large swig.

“It aches,” Steve says when he realises Danny is frowning.  He taps his kneecap with his free hand.

Danny stirs the food, sniffing as it starts to heat up.  “We’ve got a Doc in town.  You should let him look at it.”

Steve huffs.  He takes another swig.  “Nothing to be done.  Broke it when I was eleven.  Never set right.”

Damn.  People with disabilities struggle out in the frontier country.  Surviving with all your limbs working is hard enough.  Suddenly all the whiskey makes sense.

Steve’s watching him and that wary expression’s back.  Danny conjures up a half-smile he’s really not feeling; he’s on the edge of an adrenaline crash.  Biting back a sigh he pulls out two tin plates and spoons out the stew.  It doesn’t look very appetising.  His mouth’s watering though – it smells okay.

Steve seems to agree; he scoops the stew into his mouth quickly.  It looks like he’s not even bothering to chew.  Danny tries to take it slower but he hasn’t eaten for hours either.  His stomach is happily full a few minutes later.  He gets up to pour coffee.  Steve accepts his with a nod.

“You a lawyer?” he asks, nodding towards the bookshelf, behind the desk.

Danny’s confused.  Then he realises what Steve’s looking at; on the top shelf there’s a stack of dust-covered law books.  They’ve been there so long he’s stopped seeing them.  “Not mine,” he explains, sitting down on the cot, stretching his legs out in front of him.  “They belonged to the last Sheriff.”

Steve raises one eyebrow, absently rubbing at his knee as he tilts his head to read the spines.  “He still around?”

Danny snorts.  He can’t help himself.  It’s been one hell of a day.  “He’s up in the cemetery.  Lost an argument over a bottle of whiskey three years ago.”

“Oh.”  Steve frowns, his gaze running over the room again.  Pushing himself to his feet, he winces, shaking out his twisted leg. “Where’s your Deputy?”

“Don’t have one.”  Danny looks away.  Part of him is questioning what he’s doing.  Trusting people isn’t one of his strengths.  Or maybe it is, he thinks dryly, when you’re the town’s Sheriff.  He’s too tired for introspection.  Instead, he nods in the direction of the whiskey bottle.  When Steve hands it over, he takes a huge swig.

Seconds later his eyes are watering.  It’s called gut-rot for a reason.  “How the hell can you drink this?” he asks between gasping breaths.

“It’s cheaper than opium.”

The words are delivered casually but Danny still frowns.  Opium’s a killer.  The side effects are horrific, eating people from the inside out. 

Steve’s smiling though, his teeth showing through his beard.  Clicking his fingers for the bottle, he takes another swig.  “Cheers.”

Danny watches, bemused, as Steve swallows.  His Adam’s apple bobs in his throat.  He doesn’t flinch as it goes down.  Danny shakes his head.  The man’s stomach must be lined with lead.

He shakes his head again when Steve offers him the bottle.  Steve shrugs, starts pacing around the small room, the bottle of whiskey dangling between his fingers.  “Why haven’t you got a Deputy?”

Danny blinks.  He’d forgotten they were having a conversation.  “Town council won’t pay for one,” he explains, getting up to pour himself another coffee. 

“That’s stupid.”

Danny chuckles bitterly as he sits back in the cot.  He barely knows this guy.  But already he likes him.  “You might not have noticed but there isn’t a queue of people waiting to help.”

Steve pauses, his bottom lip curling.  Then he huffs under his breath and carries on pacing, coming to a halt at the hole in the front wall that serves as a window.  Leaning his shoulder against the wall, he takes another swig.  “What’s the point?”

“Sorry?”

“What’s the point of doing this?  They don’t look like they’re worth risking your life for.”  He nods at the window, at the main street beyond.

Danny bristles, despite his dark mood.  “How long you been here?  You know nothing about this town—”

“I know plenty of towns like this.”  Steve snorts, backtracks to the seat behind the desk and drops heavily onto it.  He scrubs his hand across his face. “They’ll bleed you dry and then when you really need them they’ll throw you out, leave you to survive on your own.”

Danny lowers his coffee mug.  It’s the longest sentence he’s heard from this stranger.  But still there’s so much unsaid.  What’s making his heart speed though is the bitterness - the raw grief of loss - threaded through every word.  He knows that pain.  He carries it with him every single day.

“It’s my town.”  He raises his chin, looks Steve in the eye.  “It’s my home.” He hesitates then nods, confirming his own thoughts.  The place does hold bittersweet memories. But it’s still his home.  And Grace’s. Most importantly, it’s Grace’s.

Steve heaves himself to his feet.  Flicking open a saddlebag, he stuffs the almost empty bottle of whiskey in it.

Warning bells go off in Danny’s head.  “You leaving?”

Steve smiles but there’s no life in it, no energy.  He looks exhausted.   “Gotta keep moving.  I heard there’s work over in the next township.”  Slinging his saddlebags over his shoulder, he jams his Stetson on his head.  “Thanks for dinner, Sheriff.”  He offers his hand.  “Best meal I’ve had in long time.”

Danny takes his hand, grips a little too long.  The next town is half-day’s ride away.  Steve won’t make it before dark.  “It’s Danny,” he says, tapping his chest with his forefinger.  “And you sure that’s a good idea?  It’s not safe out there at night.”

Danny doesn’t miss the flash of doubt that crosses Steve’s face.  They both know he’s not just talking about coyotes and rattlesnakes.  There are human predators out there, predators like Harry Dodson.

Steve hikes the saddlebag further over his shoulder.  “Me and Doris, we’re good.”  He gives a half-nod.  “Don’t worry about us.”

Doris?”

“My horse.”  Steve grins again and this time it reaches his eyes.  “I named her after my mother.  She’s gentle as a foal but she’s real feisty.  Never gives up.”

Danny finds himself smiling in reply.  “You’re a brave man, Steve McGarrett.  My Ma would not be happy if I named a horse after her.”

Steve’s smile goes out.  It’s like someone’s flicked a switch off.  “She’s dead.”

“Who?”  Danny kicks himself as his brain catches up with his mouth.  He raises a hand in embarrassed apology.  “Your Ma.  I’m sorry.  I was just…I don’t get to talk to people much these days.  Ma always says I let my mouth run away with—”

“It’s okay.”  It’s clear from Steve’s face it’s anything but.  He nods, taps the rim of his hat.  “Nice meeting you, Danny,” he says with a final nod, then limping heavily, he heads out the door. 

Danny watches the door close him behind.  His feet feel like they’re stuck to the floor but his legs are twitching, desperate to be moving. None of this is any of his business.  He’s got more than enough to worry about.  Outside he can hear voices.  People passing by who don’t give a damn he’s in here.  He looks around at his office, at the dirty plates, the coffee mugs, the pushed back chair behind his desk.

He’s tired of being trapped in this prison he’s made for himself.

The sight of their Sheriff running along the main street draws a few curious stares.  Danny ignores them as he heads for the livery barn.  It’s only been minutes, there’s no way Steve can have saddled his horse and left.  His heart’s thudding though as he runs into the barn.  The first few stalls only reveal startled looking horses.  It’s not until he’s nearly at the end of the barn that he finds who he’s looking for.

Steve looks as startled as the horses to see him.  It’s lucky he’s holding a saddle otherwise Danny’s pretty sure he’d be looking down the barrel of a Colt revolver.  He throws both hands in the air anyway.  “I got four empty cells,” he blurts out between gasped breaths.

Steve’s eyebrows shoot upwards.  “You’re arresting me?

What?  No, you idiot.  I’m offering you a bed for the night.”

 

TBC