Steve startles awake. Eyes wide, he takes in his surroundings. He’s in a cell, he realises, his heart rate shooting up.
He recognises the smell, can make out the bars in the grey light of early morning. But that’s all that is familiar. Normally the door to the cell isn’t left open. And prisoners aren’t usually given a straw mattress to sleep on.
Pushing himself up on his elbows he blinks away the last traces of sleep. His leg is aching but that’s normal. His mouth tastes of stale whiskey: that’s normal too. He smells clean though. His bushy beard has been reduced to uneven stubble. His skin’s not itching from being in the saddle for a week. And he feels rested.
Pushing himself into a seated position, he groans. Swinging his legs to the floor, he rests his head in his hands. Teeth gritted, he waits for the cramp in his twisted leg to pass. As it gradually eases, his mind wakes up. With it memories of the day before return.
Danny Williams. Sheriff of Hope.
Idiot or hero? Steve shakes his head, still unsure. Why the hell would somebody put themselves in the firing line like that? Living out west is hard enough without painting a target on your chest.
Pushing himself to his feet, Steve shakes his head again. The Sheriff is a mean card player though. Real competitive with a sneaky streak. They’d played into the night. Just for once he was glad he didn’t have any money: Danny had won all the matchsticks on the table by the time they’d finished.
His saddlebags, Stetson and gun belt are on the floor next to the bed. So is his spare shirt, spread out on the floor. Steve picks it up, sniffs it, pulls a face. He’d washed it the night before, scrubbing it clean under the water pump out back. It’s still wet and it stinks of the cells. But at least it’s not crawling with little critters any more.
He puts his weight on his twisted leg. Cautiously he takes a step. Satisfied this is going to be a good day he leaves the cell and pushes open the door through to the main office. Light spews through to the cells.
The office is empty. The blanket and pillow on the cot are stacked neatly. The cards and matchsticks are on the desk where they left them. The plates and mugs he’d washed the night before are still next to the hotplate. The wood burner underneath is glowing red. It’s been freshly stacked with wood.
Despite the burner the room feels colder than the night before. He sighs. It’s been a long time since he’s had company at night, other than Doris. He’d forgotten what it felt like.
Noise outside draws him out of his thoughts. Limping over to the window, he looks out. The sun’s still low in the sky so it must be early morning. But there are a lot more people outside. Most of them are men, ranch hands. And they’re loud. Very loud.
For a second his sleep-doped mind flashes back to another time and place. They’d been loud, angry voices then, men with hate in their eyes. His heart rate responses to the sudden spike in adrenaline. His body’s going on the defensive, ready to fight, when the front door opens. He’s reaching for his gun before he realises he’s not wearing his gun belt.
“You’re still here.” Danny closes the door behind him. He grins, apparently oblivious to his state of panic. He holds up a cloth sack. “I got breakfast.”
Steve takes a deep breath, then another one. Danny’s not waiting for an answer. Eggs and thick chunks of bacon are being unwrapped and placed on the hotplate.
Steve clears his throat. He gestures out back. “I’m just gonna…”
Danny hums his assent, his attention on the eggs. Steve walks as fast as his leg will allow him, through the cells and outside to the wash house. It’s a fragile, wooden structure leaning against the back wall of the jailhouse: it wobbles as he slams the door shut behind him.
Dropping his chin to his chest, he closes his eyes and breathes. Outside he can still hear raucous voices but his gradually his panic subsides. Once he’s sure he’s got himself under control again he opens his eyes. He uses the piss pot, then washes it out. The night before he’d left the tin bath tub out to dry. He hangs it back up on a nail in the wall, straightening it up carefully.
Taking another breath, he goes back into the jailhouse.
His stomach rumbles with hunger. The bacon smells so good. Regret washes over him as he goes back into the cell to put on his gun belt. Retrieving the wet shirt he ties it to his saddlebag: that way it can dry as he rides. Slinging the saddlebags over his shoulder he steps back into the office.
Danny turns. His face falls.
Steve swallows down his own disappointment. This is how it’s got to be. “Thanks for the bed,” he says, struggling to keep his voice even. “Best night’s sleep I’ve had in a cell.”
Danny looks from Steve, to the hotplate, and back again. There’s enough food on there to feed a small army.
Steve looks at his feet, unable to meet Danny’s eyes. “I can’t…” I can’t keep taking things. That’s not how life works.
“It’s just breakfast.”
It’s a simple statement. A simple request to share food. But there’s a note of desperation in Danny’s voice that makes Steve look up. Before he can say anything there’s shouting outside. A gunshot rings out.
“They got paid today.” Danny raises a hand for calm as Steve reaches for his holster. “It’s early still. That’ll just be a couple of idiots proving they know which way up to hold a gun.” He turns his attention back to the hotplate. He flips the bacon. It sizzles loudly. “Tonight, that’s when they’ll try and kill each other.”
Damn. Everyone who lives in a township knows to stay inside on pay day. It’s only the Sheriff and his deputies who venture outside. Steve slides the saddlebags off his shoulder and drapes them over the back of the chair. “It is a lot of food.”
Danny shrugs. He eyes the discarded saddlebags. “It’s the only meal I’ll get today.”
Steve chews at his bottom lip. This is probably the only meal he’ll have for the next few days. His chances of finding work as soon as he gets to the next township are slim. It doesn’t matter that he’s good with animals. Cripples aren’t in high demand.
There’s an empty cooking pot next to the hotplate. Stepping around Danny, Steve grabs it and heads back out to the water pump. They’re gonna need coffee. Lots of coffee. And whiskey, he thinks, as his leg gives a sharp twinge.
It’s not until he’s putting the filled pot on the hotplate that he realises what’s he’s doing: he’s come to a decision. It’s probably the most stupid decision he’s ever made. But he’s nearly broke and he’s tired of always being hungry. And this guy, Danny, he seems like a good guy just trying to do what’s right. He’s the kind of man his Pa would have been proud to call a friend.
It crosses Steve’s mind that Danny might think it’s a stupid idea too. Ranch owners aren’t the only ones who don’t employ people cripples like him. That’s why he limps over to the desk and starts rooting through the drawers before Danny can say anything. He doesn’t find what he’s looking for until the third drawer. The Deputy’s badge is right at the back. It’s clear it hasn’t been used for a long time.
Steve weighs it in his hand for a moment. The six points of the tin star catch the morning light. For something that could get him killed it feels too light. Scrubbing it against the front of his shirt to get the dust off, he pins it on. Suddenly it feels very heavy. He wonders if it was a good idea to pin it over his heart.
The smell of burning bacon makes his look up. Danny’s staring at him, his mouth frozen in an ‘O’.
Steve reminds himself to breathe. “Let’s eat,” he suggests, all other words failing him. “It’s gonna be a long day.”
Danny eats his bacon. The flavour barely registers in his brain. It’s too busy trying to process the knowledge he’s got a Deputy. A Deputy he’s known for barely a day.
Part of him – the part that’s been counting down the days to pay day with a growing sense of dread – is relieved he’s got help, even if he’s not quite sure what that help is. The other part of him – the part which is deeply suspicious, that’s learnt nothing comes without cost – thinks this is too good to be true.
“Why?” he asks as he collects their empty plates.
Steve gets to his feet. He hitches his gun belt so it rests on his hip. “Why not?” he throws back over his shoulder, drawing a revolver to check it’s loaded. “I got no place else to be.”
It’s there in his voice again: grief. It strikes Danny that he knows nothing about this man who’s about to help him. The same man who probably saved his life the day before. His Ma’s dead but he hasn’t mentioned any other family members. Maybe he really doesn’t have anywhere to be.
Danny’s mulling that over when the front door bursts open to reveal the butcher’s young son. A fight has broken out in the saloon he reports breathlessly, his eyes alight with excitement.
“We’re coming,” Danny tells him, thanking him with a small nod. The boy loiters, seemingly disappointed that neither of them are running out to help. Danny places a hand on his shoulder, gently guiding him out of the door. Closing it behind him, he heads for the desk to get his revolver out of the drawer. “You ready?” he asks, all his concentration on making sure the gun is loaded and he has enough spare bullets.
“As ready as I’ll ever be.”
Steve’s standing, waiting. He’s wearing a Colt on each hip. His Stetson’s tipped slightly downwards, shadowing his face. It makes his cheeks and jawbone more pronounced. His eyes are heavy-lidded, giving him a foreboding look.
Danny considers taking the Remington. It’s not much use in close quarters but the loud bang it makes can be useful. He dismisses the idea; it’s just another thing to carry. And he knows from experience he’s going to have his hands full.
He’s rethinking his decision a few minutes later as they walk down the main street, side by side. It’s always rowdy on pay day but today the air’s electric, crackling with pent up energy. He can feel it creeping across his skin. Or maybe it’s just Harry Dodson getting to you, his inner voice suggests.
They draw enquiring stares, even from the drunk ranch hands weaving their way along the street. Danny straightens his spine, lets his hand rest on his revolver. It’s strange taking this walk with someone else. Matching his stride with Steve’s rolling, limping gait, means he’s moving slower than he normally does.
Looking sideways, he discovers he’s being watched. Steve nods, the corners of his mouth twitching up.
Shaking his head, Danny finds himself smiling too.
As they reach the saloon the doors swing open and a man flies out, backwards. He’s quickly followed by another. They both hit the dirt hard enough to break bones. Apparently the alcohol has deadened their pain receptors – they both scrabble to their feet. Worse, one of them has drawn his gun.
Danny grabs his own revolver. Steve’s there before him: his right fist connects with side of the man’s head. With his other hand he grabs his gun. Danny’s heart stops when Steve loses his balance, the man’s weight pushing him onto his twisted leg. Instantly he rights himself – and punches the man again, knocking him out cold.
The world stops. Or at least that’s what it feels like to Danny. The second man’s staring at him, his eyes huge. Steve’s standing over the unconscious man, a dangerous glint in his eye. Danny’s suddenly reminded of the gossip in the saloon when he first met Steve: the stranger’s a paid killer.
Everything starts moving again.
The other man bolts, tripping over his own feet in his haste to get away. Steve’s kneeling down, turning the unconscious man over. He pats him down for weapons, then rocking back on his heels, he wipes his hands on his pants.
“What the hell was that?”
Steve looks up, clearly confused. “We’re stopping them killing each other, right?”
Danny nods. Then he shakes his head. “You’ve got two revolvers. How about using one of them?”
Steve glares at him. Reaching out, he uses the hitching post to pull himself upright. “I’m starting to understand why you don’t have a Deputy,” he mutters, stretching his leg out. “They can’t pay anyone enough to put up with you.”
The words hit Danny like a sledgehammer. He’s about to open his mouth, to let loose all the grief and frustration he’s been carrying around for years when he looks at Steve’s face.
Steve’s laughing at him. He’s damn well laughing. His new Deputy is insane.
“You think this is funny?” Danny waves at the unconscious man. “You’re having fun?”
Steve shrugs, starts walking towards the saloon. “Maybe? You know, just a little bit?”
Danny falls in beside him. “Is there something wrong with your brain?”
Steve rolls his eyes. “Oh come on. Don’t tell me you don’t enjoy punching these idiots?”
All the god damn time. “There are rules, McGarrett. The Sheriff can’t just do what he wants—”
Steve halts. He turns. All humour’s gone. “There’s one rule, Sheriff. Stay alive. Every day, you do whatever you need to stay alive.” His chin comes up, daring Danny to disagree.
Danny opens his mouth but he’s pinned to the spot by the strength of Steve’s stare. There are thoughts piling up in his mind, so many thoughts, but they going to have to stay there. Even as they’ve been talking to the noise from the saloon has grown.
“Later,” he promises, checking his gun is in his holster one more time. “We’re gonna talk about this later.” He waits while Steve checks his own weapons then in unspoken agreement they push through the doors to the saloon.
On the other side they’re faced with chaos. Fists are flying. Tables are overturned. The smell of whiskey and beer is strong in the air. The bar staff are cowering behind the bar, ducking occasionally as a glass or a body flies past. There’s no sign of Lottie or her girls but Danny hadn’t expected to see them: they’ll be safe in Lottie’s rooms out back.
Danny surveys the room, identifying the worst offenders. Beside him, Steve cracks his knuckles, one hand then the other. Danny raises his eyebrows: it seems only fair to give his new deputy one last chance to back out. His new deputy grins back at him. Taking a deep breath, they both wade in.
Danny yawns, then stretches, reaching for the ceiling with his fingertips. His office chair isn’t designed for comfort. Every bruise on his body – and he’s got a few – are making themselves known.
It’s dark outside. He guesses it’s gone midnight. He’d lit the lamps several hours earlier. The cells are filled to bursting but the drunken singing has finally stopped. It’s been replaced by the sound of snoring: it’s almost deafening. The worst thing – like it is every pay day – is the smell of sweat and urine. It lingers for days.
Steve’s asleep. Stretched out on the cot, he’s got one of the spare Remington’s beside him. Sleeping in bunkhouses has apparently conditioned him to ignore the men around him; he fell asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow.
Danny gets up, careful not to push the chair back. The wood burner under the hot plate is glowing red. He prods it with the poker anyway, causing sparks. Pouring himself a coffee, he sits back down. Sipping it, he runs back through the events of the day. It had gone surprisingly well. Sure, he’s got cells full of prisoners. But he’d only used four bullets and all of those he’d shot into the air.
Steve had continuously surprised him. What he lacks in mobility he more than makes up for in sheer upper body strength. He’s fast, much faster than any of the drunken ranch hands. Probably most of the sober ones too. Several of them had tried their luck anyway. They were easy to spot: their faces were squished in the ground.
It hadn’t taken them long to get into a rhythm. Steve subdued them. Danny marched them back to the jail. They’d run out of space much earlier than normal. But by then the more sober ranch hands had taken the hint and rode out of town.
He should be happy – or at least relieved. But something’s still niggling at him, making the hairs on his neck stand on end. Harry Dodson and his men hadn’t come back into town. Sure, he’d been humiliated the day before. Most men would have kept low for a few days, licked their wounds. Not Harry: anger and stupidity would make sure of that.
Danny’s catapulted out of his reverie by the sound of footsteps outside. He lunges for his gun. His chair scrapes loudly across the wooden floor. Steve comes to with a surprised grunt. In a blink he’s sitting up, the Remington cradled in his arms. Danny lifts a finger to his lips before Steve can say anything. Pointing at the door he treads lightly, and puts his ear against the wood.
“Danny. It’s Lottie.”
With a huff of relief Danny pulls back the bolts, top and bottom. Opening the door just enough to let Lottie in, he quickly peers outside before ducking back in.
“Are you alright?” Lottie asks as he locks the door again.
“Better for seeing you, babe.”
Danny grins to himself as Lottie blushes. Underneath her confident exterior she’s vulnerable, constantly looking for acceptance and affection in a world that’s determined to deny her both. He doesn’t know much about her life before she came to Hope. But Lottie’s told him her current situation is much better than the one she grew up in. He wishes he had the words to tell her what a special person she is.
Proving just how special she is, she shows him the basket she’s carrying. The smell of freshly baked bread fills the air. Along with two freshly baked rolls there’s ham and cheese, along with two bottles of beer. Putting the basket on the table, she spreads out a napkin and lays the food out. To Danny – after the day he’s had – it looks like a feast fit for a king. Judging by Steve’s expression, he feels the same.
Lottie smiles shyly at each of them in turn. “Thank you,” she says, quietly, “for keeping us safe today.”
“It was our pleasure, ma’am.”
Steve’s spoken so quietly it’s almost impossible to hear him. Lottie’s heard though. As Steve stands up she goes over and hugs him. Danny stifles a laugh at his shocked face.
“Steve, no one ever calls me ma’am. It’s Lottie.”
The anger that flashes across Steve’s face is fleeting but Danny knows he didn’t imagine it. It’s the same anger that had been in his eyes when he’d help rescue Jennie Mae from Harry Dodson and his men. Danny files it away with all the other questions he has for his Deputy. It’s rapidly become a long list.
“Food,” Lottie reminds them, cutting through the suddenly tense atmosphere.
Steve still looks angry. There’s a muscle twitching in his cheek. But his expression softens as Lottie takes his elbow, tugging his towards the desk. She waits for Steve to sit down, for Danny to perch on the edge of the desk. Then she sits on the cot, carefully folding her long skirts under her. Gesturing with her hands, she encourages them to eat.
Danny consumes his quickly; he hadn’t realised how hungry he is. To his surprise Steve eats his slowly, lost in thought. Danny blows Lottie a kiss in appreciation when he finishes. Steve sits back in his seat, sighing with satisfaction.
He dips his chin at Lottie. The ends of his mouth flick up. “Thank you.”
Lottie smiles. It’s one of her rare genuine smiles, Danny thinks. It lights up her face.
“Danny and I have an arrangement,” Lottie explains as she carefully folds the napkin and puts it back in the basket. “He looks after the people of this town. I make sure he looks after himself.”
Danny ducks his head. He swallows hard. She’s right; that is the deal they’ve made with each other. They’ve just never admitted it out loud. “I got the better deal. She’s a great cook.”
Another emotion crosses Steve’s face. Danny frowns, trying to decipher it. It’s not anger. Regret maybe? Sadness, definitely. He shakes his head, warning himself off. A man’s entitled to his secrets. He’s got a few of his own.
“I gotta go.” Lottie leans in, pecks a kiss on his cheek. If Steve looked shocked when he got a hug, he looks even more shocked when Lottie gives him a kiss too.
Danny lets himself laugh this time. It comes out slightly hysterical. He really is tired. Opening the door he gives Lottie one last hug before he lets her go. He waits until she disappears out of sight then shuts and locks the door.
Steve’s staring at the desktop, a deep crease between his eyebrows.
“Okay?” Danny asks.
Steve blinks, then focuses on Danny. “Yeah.” He seems to consider his answer. “Yeah,” he repeats, more loudly. Looking around him, he appears to come to a decision.
Danny finds out what is a moment later when Steve pulls the playing cards out of the desk drawer. He shuffles them, splits the pack, shuffles again. “Get some sleep,” he suggests, not looking up as he starts dealing them out on the desk.
It crosses Danny’s mind to protest. He yawns widely instead. Steve huffs but carries on dealing. Danny gives in and stretches out on the cot. Tucking the Remington up against his body he stares at the ceiling. It’s pay day – he usually doesn’t sleep. Closing his eyes he wills his body to rest. Out back he can still hear the sound of the prisoners snoring. Closer by, he can hear Steve tapping the corner of a playing card on the desktop as he figures out his next move.
Within minutes he’s fast asleep.
Steve tightens his grip on Doris’s reins and pulls her to a halt. She snorts impatiently. She’d been enjoying not being cooped up in a stall. She rolls an eye back to glare at him balefully then drops her head to snuffle at the grass.
Danny’s beside him, sitting on his horse, Jersey. Eyes closed, hat pushed to the back of his head, his face is tilted to capture the early morning sun. As Steve watches, his face gradually relaxes. It makes him look younger despite the shadows under his eyes.
They’d let the last of the prisoners out a few hours earlier. Hung over, they’d been grumpy but docile. Washing out the cells hadn’t been pleasant but he’s done much worse jobs. He’d been prepared to saddle up and move on to the next township, like he’d been planning to for days. But Danny had derailed his plans. Again.
Steve wraps the reins around his left hand, settles back in the saddle and waits. The prairie land around them stretches as far as the eye can see. The sky’s a pale, powdery blue, the sun not quite high enough to burn though the lingering cloud. A light breeze whispers through the grass, like fingers stroking hair.
He closes his eyes and takes a deep breath.
“My younger brother Matt, he lives in New York.” Danny’s talking just loud enough for Steve to hear. “He wants me to go join him, me and—” He trails off, starts again. “Sometimes I think about it, you know? But then I come out here and—”
“It’s beautiful.” Steve opens eyes again. Danny’s watching him, head tilted to one side. “What?”
It’s obviously a lie. Steve considers calling him on it. But this friendship – and that is what it feels like, a friendship – is still new and delicate. Danny’s good opinion matters to him, he realises. His breath catches in his chest. Damn.
Danny’s talking to Jersey, oblivious to Steve’s silent revelation. Steve pulls in the reins, bringing up Doris’s head. A light dig with his heels gets her moving again. There’s a pause then Danny does the same.
Steve tugs the front of his Stetson down over his eyes, blocking the sun. Good things never last for long; life has taught him this again and again. He’s torn between making a run for the next township, stopping this before it even starts. Another part of him just wants to enjoy it.
Licking his suddenly dry lips, he makes a choice.
“You sure your folks won’t mind me coming over?” he asks, desperately trying to keep his voice even.
Danny raises his eyebrows. “I told you, I always—”
“—you always go to your folks after pay day. Nothing’s gonna happen in town. They’ve spent all their money. I get that.” Steve twists round in his saddle, so he can see Danny properly. “They don’t know me, Danny.”
“So?” Danny gives a casual shrug.
“So maybe I shouldn’t be coming without an invitation.”
Danny’s answering laugh is full of warmth. “You haven’t met Ma.”
His protest is cut off as Danny trots up beside him, reaching for Doris’s bridle and bringing her to a halt. His lips are pressed together, his eyebrows joined together in a frown. There’s a pause as he looks away, out across the prairie.
Steve’s heart sinks. He’s done the thing he promised himself he wouldn’t: he’s pushed too hard.
“Okay.” Danny’s eyes meet his. “You’re right. They don’t know you. I don’t know you. Well, not much. But…” He stops, look away and back again. “I figured that maybe you’d enjoy Ma’s cooking. There’s a real bed for the night too. I know it’s not much of a thank you but you know…” He trails off, shrugging again.
Steve shakes his head before he even realises he’s doing it. He doesn’t feel comfortable. Working for his keep is okay. This sounds like charity. He hasn’t accepted charity since he was sixteen years old.
He explains this to Danny.
Danny lets go of Doris’s bridle. His hands go up in the air. “Would you just shut up?” he replies, his voice creeping up a couple of octaves. “Please? Can you do that for me?“
“It’s not charity, you stubborn idiot.” His eyes slide down to Steve’s injured leg. “I get why this is difficult for you,” he continues more softly. “I’ve seen the way people look at you.”
Steve jerks Doris’s head round. This is getting too personal, too raw. “I don’t need your pity.”
“Pity?” Danny sounds disgusted. He grabs at Doris’s bridle, pulling her in. Jersey skips nervously, the tension between the two of them transmitting to the horses. “Is that what you think this is? Is that…is that how you think I treated you?”
“No!” Steve drags in a breath: his heart beat is speeding up. Guilt assaults him as he registers Danny’s hurt tone. “No, Danny. It’s not.”
Danny huffs out a breath. “And you said I was difficult.” Letting go of Doris’s bridle, he strokes Jersey’s neck. It’s not clear who is calming who. “Do you want dinner or not?” he asks after a pause.
Steve lets out a breath too, reaching for calm. “Yes. Please,” he adds, when Danny raises an eyebrow.
Danny relaxes in the saddle. Jersey tries to pull away, eager to be moving. Doris does the same. Taking the hint, Danny curls the reins around his hand. “He knows we’re heading for Pa’s,” he explains, patting Jersey again. “Good feed and a corral full of horses to run with. How fast is she?”
The question is directed at Doris. But Steve doesn’t miss the way Danny’s gaze slides down to his injured leg. He understands the unspoken question: are you gonna be okay if we do this, if we gallop the rest of the way?
Steve doesn’t answer. Tugging down rim of his hat, he gives Doris a sharp kick with his good leg. Instantly her ears prick up with excitement. They’re moving before Danny can respond.
Leaning over the pommel of the saddle, he tightens his grip with his thighs. Doris breaks out of a canter and into a full gallop, her whole body stretching out. Her long legs are made for eating up the ground. They haven’t done this for the longest time - Doris is the most valuable thing he owns, he treats her with care - so it takes them a few minutes to get into the familiar rhythm. When they do though it’s like they’re flying. His blood is thrumming with excitement. He imagines Doris’s is too.
Grinning madly, he relaxes his grip on the reins slightly. It’s enough to give Doris her head. Needing no encouragement she stretches out even further. Who needs two good legs, Steve thinks, when you can have four instead?
A whooping noise makes him look over his shoulder. Laughter bubbles up from deep in his belly. Danny and Jersey are just behind them and gaining. Danny’s wearing a face-splitting grin that promises trouble. Jersey’s looking as determined as his rider, ears back, nostrils flared wide.
Steve’s competitive streak perks up with interest. With regret he tampers it down. Doris is nearly galloping at full speed. As if reading his mind she flicks her ears at him: he know that signal, it means ‘let’s go’.
Jersey’s pulling up beside them, his mane and tail whipping in the wind. Danny’s hunched over his neck. Pulling ahead, he looks back over his shoulder and whoops; it’s the sound of pure joy.
Laughing, Steve urges Doris on.