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A town called Hope

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By the time they reach the Double L ranch the horses are flecked with sweat.  Their riders don’t look much better.  They’re both laughing though as they dismount in the livery barn.  Danny goes to the water pump to fill up two buckets.  Steve starts stripping the saddles off.

It’s not long belong before they’re letting the horses out into the corral.  As Danny predicted, Jersey gallops off to join the other horses as soon as Danny lets him go.  Doris holds back until Steve gently tugs her in.  With a backward glance back at him she trots off.

Steve wipes his hands on his pants legs.  Suddenly he feels very nervous.

Danny secures the gate to the corral.  “It’s just my folks.”

Steve tries to ignore the fact that Danny seems to be able to read his mind.  Instead he focuses on the ranch house in front of him.  It gets him nervous all over again.

The ranch house at the Double L is huge, or at least that’s how it appears to Steve.  Single storey, it’s built of wood.  The windows along the front have glass in them, something that’s still rare.  There’s a deep veranda that runs all the way along the front.  He’s worked at more ranches than he can remember.  Not many of the ranch houses look like this.  There’s money here, it’s obvious. 

So why the hell is Danny working as the Sheriff? 

The thought catches him unaware.  He’s been telling himself it doesn’t matter.  But it’s still worrying at him.  Danny’s hiding something.  It’s none of your business, his conscience reminds him – not for the first time.

He doesn’t have time to think about it.  The front door of the house opens.  An older man and woman appear.  They’re both the same height as Danny.  The man is the spitting image of Danny but with grey-hair and a sun-weathered, wrinkled face.  The woman’s face is longer, with a pointed, angular nose.  But the smile is unmistakeable.  Wiping her hands on her apron, she hurries down the steps of the veranda to greet them.

Steve automatically whips his hat off.  Looking down he cringes inwardly.  He’s a mess.  He runs his palm over his chin experimentally; he should have shaved as well.

“Would you stop already,” Danny pleads, nudging him towards the house.  “It’s just my folks.”

Before Steve can answer they’re distracted by an excited yell from the house.  The front door opens again and there’s a blur of movement.  Danny kneels down, arms spread wide in welcome.  A second later and his arms are full.  It’s a young girl with plaited pig tails and a face-splitting grin that looks strangely familiar.

Steve looks on as Danny lifts up the small girl in his arms.  Resting her on his hip, he swings her round.  She’s chatting away, her arms locked around his neck.  Danny’s listening to her, his eyes shining with pride.

Several pieces of the puzzle fall into place.

Steve looks away, fighting against a wave of emotion.  There are memories fighting to escape.  Gulping in air, he tells himself to get a grip.

Danny’s swinging back round again, so he’s facing Steve.  His grin grows even wider.  He’s glowing.  He’s still wearing his leather vest with the tin star pinned on it but he looks nothing like the Sheriff of Hope township. 

“This little lady,” Danny says, planting a sloppy kiss on her cheek, “is my beautiful daughter, Grace.”  He hitches her further up his hip, squeezing her until she giggles.  “Grace, meet my new friend, Steve.”

H50H50H50H50

Danny rocks back in the leather chair in his Pa’s office.  He takes a sip of his freshly brewed coffee.  It’s nothing like the stuff he drinks normally.  His Ma gets it ordered in special from Denver.  It’s the one thing she insists on, the thing she says makes living in the middle of nowhere bearable.

Sitting at his desk, his Pa is writing out checks.  They’re for the store owners back in Hope.  Feed for the animals, food for the family and the ranch hands.  It all costs money.  Danny takes the checks back with him.  It saves his Pa a trip.

The nib of the ink pen scrapes across the paper.  It pauses.  “I heard about Harry Dodson.”

Danny takes another sip of his coffee.  Word spreads fast around the town of Hope.  “He won’t be causing any more trouble.”

Pa puts the pen down.  Pushing his chair back, he turns to look at Danny. His forehead wrinkles in a frown. “You sure about that, son? Those Dodson boys aren’t blessed with any common sense.”

“It’s just his pride that was dented.  He’ll get over it.”

“So I heard.”  His Pa still looks worried but a smile is creeping on his face.  “I also heard Steve’s horse likes making friends.”

“Her name’s Doris.  The horse,” Danny adds, anticipating the next question.  “He named her after his Ma.  She’s passed.”

“Ah.”  Pa looks thoughtful, his expression turning distant.  “You know anything else about him?”

Danny downs the dregs of his coffee.  Getting up, he puts his empty mug on the desk.  “He’s got one hell of a right-hook.” 

“Mmm.  I heard about that too.”

Danny smiles to himself.  He’d recognised a couple of the ranch hands at the saloon the day before.  The men who work at the Double L ranch like to drink too.  But his Pa tries to employ ranch hands who are older, men who know better than to get in a fight on pay day.

The fact that their boss’s son is the town’s Sheriff probably concentrates their brains too.

“Do you trust him?”

Pa.”

“If he’s going to be your Deputy you need to be sure.  I can telegraph some people I know out towards Denver and ask—”

“He’s not staying.”

“What?”

Danny sighs at the disappointment on his Pa’s face.  He knows just how he feels.  Puffing out his cheeks, he plonks back down in the chair.  “He’s moving on tomorrow.  He’s looking for work as a ranch hand.”

“He’s got a job with you—”

Danny slaps his palms on the arms of the chair.  The noise they make as they hit the wood doesn’t represent even a fraction of the frustration he’s feeling.   “I can’t pay him.  You know that.”

“Give me some time.  I’m sure I can convince the town council—”

Danny runs a hand through his hair.  “He doesn’t have time.  As far as I can tell he doesn’t have a family.  He’s on his own.”

Pa’s expression changes from disappointed to calculating.  Danny’s seen that look before.  “No,” he warns, raising a hand.  “No, Pa.  He doesn’t like accepting charity.”

“Neither do I.” 

His Pa’s tone is nearly always easy going.  Danny can count on his fingers the number of times he’s seen him loose his temper.  So Danny’s attention has been grabbed by the fierce tone he’s just used.  It’s a sharp reminder that the land where the ranch is was once untamed.  There are two graves up on the hill behind the house, a testament to the sacrifices made to make this a home.

Danny nods.  Out here they help those more unfortunate than them.  You never know when you’re going to be the one who needs help.

As he goes to find Steve, Danny reruns the conversation with his Pa.  Getting Steve to stay, he hadn’t thought it was possible.  Now the idea’s been floated he’s not sure what to think.  If Steve doesn’t like accepting charity then he’s definitely not going to like being railroaded into becoming the town’s full-time Deputy.

Smoothing his hair down with this hands, he shakes his head.  Somehow he’s managed to make his life even more complicated.  That’s a feat, even for him.

H50H50H50H50

Finding Steve provides him with unexpected entertainment. 

Steve’s been kidnapped by the Williams’ ladies.  He’s sitting on a bench on the veranda, both hands stuck out in front of him.  Ma’s winding wool around them, making skeins she can use later for knitting.  She’s sharing all the latest town gossip.  Grace is sitting next to him, her little legs swinging off the edge of the bench.  She’s chatting too, high-pitched, something about bees and flowers and how pretty they are.

Steve looks shell-shocked. 

Danny steps on a lose wooden plank, it squeaks under his boot.  Three pairs of eyes turns towards him.  Steve’s eyes widen with relief: Danny can’t remember anyone looking so pleased to see him.  He tries to stifle a giggle. It comes out as a snort instead.

“You okay there, Danny?” his mother asks, her tone suspiciously innocent.

“Fine, Ma,” he shoots back with a glare. 

Taking a seat beside Grace, he scoops her up into his lap.  She snuggles in instantly, still talking away.  He kisses her on the forehead.  She wrinkles up her nose in disgust.  He does it again, adding a kiss on the tip of her nose for good measure.  He does it to make her giggle – and because it makes him smile.   Being away from her kills him.  Being back with her reminds him why he does it: she’s safe here, she’s happy.   She’s growing into a beautiful, confident little girl.

Look at her, Rachel.  You did good, babe.  We did good.

“I’ve been telling Steve all about you.”

Danny drags himself away from his memories.  He tightens his grip around Grace.  Ma’s smiling at him but it doesn’t reach her eyes.  Steve’s watching him too, a dint appearing between his eyebrows.  Danny knows he should say something clever.  Nothing comes to mind.

“Your Ma told me about the time you fell in the horse trough when you were five years old.” Steve pauses, meeting his gaze.  “I said I was surprised you could reach it.”

Danny’s brain takes a moment to catch up.  “Is that a short joke, McGarrett?”

Steve shrugs.  A loop of wool falls off his hands.  “I’m just saying it how I see it, Sheriff.”

“It’s Danny.  Dan-ny.”

“Is he always this grouchy?”

“Mostly.”

Ma.”

“Just saying it how I see it, sweetheart.”

“Oh, great.  Now you’re a double act.”

“Triple act.”  Ma reaches over to tickle Grace in the ribs.  “Aren’t we, Gracie?”

Gracie giggles in reply.

Ma carefully slides the wool off Steve’s hands.  Twisting it into a knot, she tucks it into the front pocket of her apron.  Using the chair arm for balance, she gets to her feet.  “Dinner will be ready soon.  You boys want to get cleaned up?”

Danny sniffs the sleeve of his shirt experimentally.  When Grace giggles he gets her to sniff as well.  The face she pulls says it all.  “I guess so.”

“Matt’s shirts are in the trunk in your room,” Ma tells him, taking Grace’s hand to help her off the bench.  “He’s around the same height as you, Steve.” She runs a critical eye over him.  “We’re gonna need to feed you up.”

Steve opens his mouth.  Danny shakes his head.  There’s no point in arguing when his Ma has an idea in her head. They watch silently as Ma and Grace disappear back in the house.  Steve stirs, wincing as he gets to his feet.

“Danny—”

Steve,” Danny parrots, using a whining tone he learnt from Grace.  “Just go with it, my friend.  It’s easier that way.”

Steve stares at the door that’s just closed behind Ma.  He huffs. “You never argue with her, huh?”

“Never.  Not if you want to eat.”

Steve huffs again.  His shoulders drop.  With a wave of his hand he indicates Danny should lead the way.

Danny lets out a sigh of relief.  He’s under no illusions: the argument’s not done.  Hopefully they can get through dinner without incident though.  Speaking of which;

“Short jokes?  You had to go there?”

Steve shrugs expansively.  “Thought I’d get in there before you start with the cripple jokes.”

Danny’s pretty sure his horror at that idea is showing on his face.  “I would never do that—” he blusters.  Then he registers Steve’s face.

Steve’s laughing at him.  Again.

“Sorry.”  Steve sobers as Danny glares. “I figured the short joke would make you…” He trails off, chewing at his bottom lip.  Sighing, he looks down at his boots. He waves his hand across his face.  “You looked…sad.”

Danny looks down at his own boots.  Grief is swirling at the edge of his vision, threatening to push him over the edge.  “I don’t know any cripple jokes.”

There’s a pause.  A hand touches his shoulder.  “That’s okay.  I’ve heard them all.”

When he looks up, Steve’s watching him.  The hand hovering over his shoulder is snatched back.  They’re both nursing the same hurts, Danny realises.  In that moment, it’s clearly written across both their faces.

Danny taps Steve on the elbow.  He holds his hand there for a beat.  “Ma will never forgive us if we’re late for dinner.  Let’s get cleaned up.”

H50H50H50H50

Steve drops down onto the bench on the veranda.  Crossing his arms, he stretches out his legs.  Over on the horizon the sun is slowly creeping to sleep.  The horses in the corral have their heads down, quietly munching.  It’s a warm night, they’ll probably be kept out to save on feed.  On the far side of the corral is the bunkhouse.  It’s similar to the ones he’s lived in before.  The sound of male voices arguing carries on the air.

In the house behind him, Danny’s putting Grace to bed.  Mrs Williams had refused any help with the dishes: she’d shoo-ed him out here.  Mr Williams had disappeared back into his office.  Inside he can hear Mrs Williams walking around the house, closing the bedroom shutters.

It keeps the critters out, his own Ma had always said.  Looking back, Steve wonders why she’d bothered.  The shutters hadn’t kept out the land-grabbing raiders that had destroyed their home.

Pushing to his feet he paces to the edge of the veranda.  His leg is aching like hell.  Drinking whiskey in front of Danny’s family feels like a betrayal of their hospitality.  The voices from the bunkhouse grow louder.  There’s plenty of whiskey in there.

Huffing out a breath, he runs a hand over his chin.  He feels like an imposter.  Tonight he’ll be sleeping in a real bed, with a bedstead and a soft mattress.  He should be over there, his feet hanging off the end of a bunk that’s too short for him, trying to ignore the snores.

Cursing under his breath he berates himself for being stupid,.  Self-pity is an indulgence he doesn’t usually allow himself. 

“There you are.”

Danny’s shouldering his way out of the front door, a bottle tucked under his arm.  He’s carrying two glasses filled with golden brown liquid.  Steve licks his lips; he’s got a good idea what that is.

“East coast rye,” Danny confirms, handing him a glass.  “It’s the good stuff.  Matt brings it back when he visits.”

Steve sniffs it.  The smell makes his nose tingle.  He licks his lips again.  It almost smells too good to drink.

Danny raises an eyebrow.

Steve takes the hint.  The first sip is roaring inferno of taste across his tongue.  Eyes widening, he takes another one.

“Good, huh?”

Steve lowers his glass.  He wants to make this last.  “It’s very good.”

“Pa said you’d like it.”  There’s admiration in Danny’s voice.  It’s clear the two men are close. 

Steve nurses his glass against his chest.  The sky’s turning orange, it’s a breath-taking sight.  Danny’s watching the sunset too, his gaze focused off in the distance.  A tiny smile is playing on his face.

Everything Steve’s seen today has convinced him that Danny wants to be here.  He can see it in Danny’s face.  His love for his daughter is blindingly obvious.  He fails dismally at hiding the guilt he feels for leaving her here.  He has parents who love him.  He has a place to stay.  Ranching isn’t an easy life for anyone but it’s safer than waiting for somebody like Harry Dodson to put a bullet in your back. 

There’s no denying it though, something’s still not right.  Mrs Williams told him about Matt, her other son.  He’s making good money in banking.  Steve believes her: the shirt he’s borrowed is better quality than he’s ever seen, even in Denver.  But in the trunk, alongside Matt’s spare shirts, were dresses.  Dresses for a woman, not Grace’s size.  The only woman who is obviously missing is Grace’s mother.  But Danny’s never mentioned her.  And neither has anyone else.

It makes no sense.

“I know what you’re thinking.”

Steve jumps.  He hadn’t realised Danny was watching him.  Not wanting to answer, he takes refuge in his whiskey glass. 

“You’re wondering why I do it.  Being the sheriff, I mean.”

Steve reluctantly lowers his drink.

Danny raises his own in salute, then downs a large swig.  “Every time I come back here, I think the same thing.  Grace…she hates me going.”

“If it was my family, I’d stay.”  Steve slams his mouth shut as soon as the words creep out.  It’s true – god, it’s true – but it hasn’t come out the way he means.  He can tell straight away Danny’s misunderstood him; lips pursed, a shadow crosses his face.

“Danny—”

Danny cuts him off with a curt shake of his head.  “Bring your drink,” he orders, stepping off the veranda.   “I’ve got something to show you.”

Steve follows, too confused to refuse.  Danny’s heading around the back of the house, past the wash house.  There’s a thin dirt track, just visible in the twilight.  Danny hesitates long enough for Steve to catch up then he’s moving again, the shadowy outline of his body starting to blend with the night.

Worried, Steve looks back over his shoulder.  Lamps have been lit in the ranch house.  Pinpricks of light are escaping through the wooden shutters.  Traversing the uneven ground with his twisted leg isn’t easy.  But at least he can see the way back.

He’s about to yell out for Danny when he sees him kneeling in the grass.  In front of him are two wooden crosses, knee-high.  Painted white, they glow in the half-light.

Danny looks up at him as he approaches.  Patting the ground next to him, he sits on the grass.

Steve considers standing.  Getting up again is going to be a bitch.  On the other hand, this look like the kind of conversation that will go better sitting.  Handing Danny his glass, he drops awkwardly to the ground.

“Who are they?” he asks a moment later.  It feels like Danny’s waiting for him to ask.

Danny hands him back his whiskey.  He indicates at the left-hand cross with his glass.  “That’s Grace.  The first Grace,” he adds, his voice rough.  “She was my younger sister.  She died when she was thirteen years old.”

“I’m sorry.”

Danny nods, puts his glass on the ground.  Rolling onto his knees, he tends the area around the second cross, sweeping the dirt with his hands.  Then he leans in, to kiss the cross. His lips linger, brushing the wood.

Steve’s heart sinks.

Danny retrieves the glass.  He empties it in one gulp.  “This is Rachel.  Rach.  My wife.  Grace’s Ma.  We lost her almost four years ago.”

Grace would have only been a baby.  Danny.

Danny’s eyes are fixed on the grave.  He scrubs at his nose with the back of his hand.  “For a while all I wanted to do was drink.  Ma and Pa…they…they took care of Grace for me.  I just couldn’t…you know?”

Steve sips his drink.  “I know.”

Danny glances at him.  His eyes are swimming with tears.  “One day Pa took the whiskey away.  Told me it was time to starting looking after Grace again.  I told him I didn’t know how.  He said it was time for me to learn.”

“She’s a good kid.”

“That’s not me, that’s Ma,” Danny answers, but Steve can hear the pride in Danny’s voice.  He takes a shuddering breath, then another.  “She’s so like Rach.  Every time I come back--”

“—you’re reminded of what you’ve lost.”

“Yeah.”  Danny places his glass carefully on the ground.  He seems lost in thought for moment.  Then he looks Steve straight in the eye.  “You know what I’m talking about.”

It’s more of a statement than a question.  Steve’s stomach roils with panic.  He finds himself nodding anyway.

It’s been years since he told anyone about his family.  Getting the words straight is surprisingly hard.  “My Pa, he was a teacher.  He and Ma brought us out west when we were not much older than Grace. ”

Danny shifts beside him.  “We?”

Steve closes his eyes.  He can see her so clearly in his mind.  “Me and my sister, Mary.  Since Ma and Pa passed she’s been living in Denver with our Aunt Deb.” 

“That’s gotta be hard.  Being split up.”

Steve opens his eyes.  “We didn’t have any choice.”  In the back of his mind memories are beginning to stir. “We were attacked by ranchers.”

Danny shakes his head: he already knows that means. Back in the early days it’d happened a lot.   “Land grabbers.  They stole your homestead.”

Steve clenches his hands together. “They been threatening Pa for months.  Ma wanted to go but he thought we should stay.” It had been the first time he’d heard his parents argue.  It would also be the last.  “They came one night and they…killed Pa.  Ma…she tried to stop them and she…”  He trails off.  Words are triggering memories.  Memories trigger guilt.

“You got away?”

“Pa gave me his revolvers and told us to hide in the wash house.” He squeezes his hands tight.  “I couldn’t run, not with Mary. So we…we waited until daybreak and headed for the next town.”

Don’t look, Mary.  Don’t look.

“How old were you?”

Steve jerks back to the present.  “Sixteen.” 

Danny shuffles until their shoulders are just inches apart.  “You couldn’t have stopped them.”

“I should have tried.”

Danny shakes his head.  “They would have killed you too.  Your sister would have been alone.”

Steve’s skin turns cold at the thought.  A woman on her own doesn’t have many choices.  His Aunt Deb knows that.  He drops his head into his hands. “My Aunt, she works as a singer in a concert saloon,” he explains, his voice muffled.  “Mary, she waits tables, runs errands for the owner.”

His confession is met with silence.  Reluctantly he raises his head.  Danny’s studying him, eyes narrowed.  He can see the thoughts running through Danny’s head: he already knows what they are.  Concert saloons have been appearing in all the cities.  Providing low-end theatre they’re notorious for the amount of liquor they sell and the serving girls they employ.  In polite society they’re known as ‘prostitutes’.

Anger flares in his chest.  “Mary, she doesn’t do any of those things people talk about.  Aunt Deb would never—”

“Hey.” Danny’s holding onto to one of his wrists.  He’s hadn’t realised he’d been waving his hands.  “I wasn’t thinking that.”

Steve first reaction is not to believe him.  Everybody thinks the women in concert saloons are whores.  Then he remembers Lottie and Jennie Mae.

Danny’s not like other people.

“We figure if we can save enough money we’ll get our own homestead,” he explains, hoping Danny can hear the apology in his voice.  His heart sinks at the knowledge of just how little he’s got saved so far.  “All I gotta do is get paid.”

But first someone has to ignore his twisted leg and employ him.  He wishes he had more whiskey, to drown that thought away.

Beside him, Danny sighs.  It’s a sound full of exhaustion.  Steve’s suddenly reminded of everything that’s happened in the last few days, the fear and heart-thumping tension.  Danny’s been living like that for years. 

“You never answered my question,” Steve says softly, giving Danny a nudge when he doesn’t respond.  “Why did you become the Sheriff of Hope?”

Danny shifts,  It’s nearly dark, Steve can barely see him.  He senses rather than sees Danny place his hand on top of Rachel’s grave.  “I missed her, Steve.  I still do.  Grace was the centre of our universe but after Rachel died…I was lost without her.  Pa knew I needed to be busy.”

“So he got you appointed as the Sheriff?”

“Yeah, I know.” Steve can hear the dry laughter in Danny’s voice.  “He was right, though.  This job, it gives me a purpose.  I keep this town safe.”  He shifts and Steve knows he’s looking at him. “I’m keeping my family safe.”

Steve drops his chin to his chest, his breathing suddenly shallow.  His heart feels like it’s going to burst out of his chest.  He understands what Danny’s saying.  That’s all he wants too.

H50H50H50H50

Danny rolls onto his side, freezing as the bedstead creeks.  He waits for it to stop moving.  Slowly he relaxes, one limb at a time.

The sun is just coming up over the horizon.  Weak rays of light are poking through the bottom of the shutters.  It gives the light in the bedroom an inky blue wash.

Grace’s bed is a few feet away.  Fast asleep, she’s lying on her back, her arms and legs are splayed out in opposing angles.  She’s kicked off her quilted blanket, it’s pooled on the floor by the bed.  Her long hair’s rolled up, secured by strips of flowery fabric.  It’s the latest fashion, his Ma had explained the night before as she’d shown him how to tie them.   Danny’s amazed they’ve stayed in, considering how much she shuffles.

Closing his eyes, he counts to 100.  At 101 he’s still awake.  Giving up, he gets out of bed, carefully.

Grace sleeps on and he’s grateful.  It means he can stand and watch.  Her little chest rises and falls under her pale yellow cotton night dress.  In her right hand she’s holding a knitted toy.  The image stabs at his heart.  Rachel made that toy when she was pregnant.  In this very room, in that corner, sitting on the rocking chair that now holds Grace’s dolls.

His vision blurs and he lets it.  Lottie used to tell him it was okay to feel sad.  He’s not sure that’s quite true.  Not nearly four years later.  Everyone has to move on in the end.

He gently strokes Grace’s cheek with his finger tip.  She’s a deep sleeper like her Ma.  Sighing softly, she shuffles further into her bed.

Danny sighs too.  Emotions are swirling too close to the surface.  He feels hollow inside.  Grabbing his clothes he heads outside, closing the door behind him.  In the corridor his parent’s bedroom door is shut.  So is the guest bedroom door where Steve is sleeping.

Out in the kitchen the wood burner has been cleaned out and relit.  Pulling a chair up he sits in front of it while he puts on his pants and boots.  Pulling his shirt on, he loops his suspenders over his shoulders.  His gun belt is in his Pa’s office.  Putting the chair back, he goes in search of it.

Danny frowns.  Pa isn’t in his office.  Slinging his belt around his waist, he goes back to the kitchen.  Snagging himself a mug of coffee, he heads outside.

Pa is sitting at the end of the veranda.  In one hand he’s holding a coffee mug.  He’s using the other hand to shade his eyes against the low sun.  As Danny gets closer he can see what his Pa is looking at: Steve’s in the corral, feeding the horses.

He takes the seat next to Pa.  “Morning.”

Pa nods. He carries on watching.  Danny sips at his coffee and waits.

“He ain’t bad,” Pa says a while a later.

Danny agrees.  They keep the best horses in the corral.  They’re well-bred, valuable but they are also highly strung.  They don’t like strangers.

Steve has got them eating out of his hand – literally.

“I told him about Rachel.”

His father lowers his mug.  He turns.  “What did he say?”

Danny looks away.  He can’t bear his Pa’s sad expression.  Rachel’s mourned by everyone. 

For a moment he considers how to answer.  Then he decides to tell the truth.  It’s not breaking Steve’s confidence, he tells himself.  He’s trying to help.

Danny explains. 

Pa tightens his grip around his coffee mug.  He raises his mug, pauses, brings it down again.  “That crippled leg of his.  That don’t slow him down none.”

Danny knows it’s not a question: there’s a hint of admiration in Pa’s voice.  He snorts anyway.  Steve certainly doesn’t let it slow him down.

Over in the corral, Steve’s checking the hooves of Pa’s favourite horse.  The last time one of the new ranch hands had tried that he’d ended up with a broken arm.

Pa shifts in his chair, his attention back on the corral.  “I’ve been thinking for a while that John could do with some help.”

John is the ranch’s foreman.  For as long as Danny can remember he’s worked for his Pa.  “He could?”

“Yup.”  Pa tips back the last of his coffee.  “Next week we need to bring the cattle down from the eastern pastures.” He gestures over the bunkhouse, where the first signs of life are starting to stir.  “The boys will take care of most of it.  But John’s not as young as he was.”

Danny doubts John would agree with him: as well as being extremely proud he’s also one of the fittest fifty-five year olds he’s ever met.  But Danny’s got an idea where this is going.  So when his Pa gets up, heading for the corral, he doesn’t say anything. 

When Steve spots Pa approaching, his expression turns uncertain.  Straightening, he carefully lets go of the horse’s leg.  His eyes narrow as Pa climbs over the corral fence, smiling.  Perhaps sensing he’s being watched, he looks over at the house.

Danny raises a hand, gives him a weak wave.  There’s no denying that part of him is panicking: Steve’s going to realise he’s been talking about him.  On the other hand, his Pa is about to offer Steve a job.  If this works it’ll be worth a few angry words.

One of the reasons the Double L ranch is so successful, Danny thinks, is because his Pa gets things done.  Steve’s mulish expression as Pa starts talking suggests he hasn’t understood this yet.  Taking a gulp of his coffee, he grins to himself.

There’s one moment though when he actually thinks it might not happen, that Steve might refuse. Arms crossed, Steve’s staring at his boots.  Everything about his body language is saying ‘keep away’.  Pa being Pa just ignores it; reaching out he rests his hand on Steve’s shoulder and keeps on talking. Gradually Steve starts to relax.

When Pa sticks out his hand and Steve takes it, Danny lets out a breath he hadn’t realised he’d been holding.  He waves and smiles when his Pa and Steve look over.  Steve raises his eyebrows  in silent question but Danny can see the smile threatening to break out.  Then Pa says something and Steve turns to reply.  The two of them start walking to the livery barn, Pa resting a hand on Steve’s shoulder as they talk.

Danny watches until the barn door closes behind them.  Dropping his smile, he turns to go back into the house.  He’s grateful to his Pa, he really is.  Steve deserves all the luck he can get. 

But as he goes to wake Grace, he still wishes he wasn’t riding back into town alone.

TBC