Steve drifts between sleep and consciousness. He’s aware he’s in the bunkhouse at the Double L ranch. In the two weeks he’s been working there he’s got used to the place.
His bunk is down in the far corner. It’s quiet, away from the younger men. It means he can keep an eye on them without intruding on their fun. It’s not that they’re really rowdy – John makes sure of that – but they like to stay up late playing cards. It’s his job to make sure it doesn’t affect their work.
John’s given him the job of getting the ranch hands moving in the morning. It gives John an extra thirty minutes in bed in the morning. Steve’s an early riser so it suits him just fine.
Steve’s internal clock is telling him it’s not long until dawn. Gradually he’s surfacing from sleep. Something’s not right though, not the same as it has been all the other mornings. His mind sends out feelers, questing.
Burning. He can smell burning.
A horse screams into the night.
His body explodes into action. Heart thudding in his chest, he throws himself out of bed. He catches himself as his twisted leg gives way. Cursing, he grabs the bunk to stay upright. Using his other hand he retrieves his pants and shirt from the end of his bunk. Awkwardly he pulls them on.
Now he’s awake he can smell smoke. The bitter taste is on the tip of his tongue. For a moment he’s hanging between two moments in time; he imagines he can hear his Pa’s voice yelling at him to run. Then he’s back in the present and he realises it’s John’s voice; he’s outside, yelling at everyone to come help.
Stuffing his feet in his boots he starts moving. On the way he shakes every bunk. Gradually the other ranch hands start waking, their eyes opening wide as they hear the commotion.
Steve ignores them, pushing his way to the door. Through the gaps in the logs that the bunkhouse is made of he can see slivers of orange light. For a second he hopes its just the sun coming up. That hope ends when he opens the door.
The livery barn is alight.
Straw bales are stacked against the outside of the barn, tongues of flames are licking the side. Inside the horses are screaming; the night before they’d moved all the horses from the corral.
Pulling his shirt over his face he starts running. He can see John silhouetted against the outline of the barn. Across the way lights are coming on in the ranch house. His leg cramps, sending a bolt of pain from toe to hip. Stumbling, he rights himself. Then he carries on running.
Doris. He’d put Doris in there the night before. His brain blanks out in panic. Then he remembers he’d left her in the furthest stall from the entrance.
John’s yelling at the other ranch hands, telling them to douse the straw bales with water. Steve looks behind him and realises he’s not alone. Grabbing a couple of the other men he waves them towards the water pump and buckets, gesturing for them to form into a human chain. If the livery barn goes up, it’s not just the horses that will be threatened. Next to it is the grain barn: they’ll lose the feed and wagons too.
Luckily they understand his hand signals. He couldn’t talk if he wanted to. Already smoke’s starting to clog his lungs. Pulling his shirt tighter across his face he advances further into the barn. Vaguely he can remember there’s an axe by the door: he’d been using it the day before for chopping wood. He grabs it.
Every hair on his body stands on end; the horses are screaming with fear. Swinging the door of the first stall open, he dodges flying hooves. Swinging the axe he prays he doesn’t hit the horse. His aim is true, the rope tethering the horse comes free, whiplashing back in his face.
Ducking, he pins himself back against the edge of the stall. Eyes rolling, the horse bolts for the open doorway, its hooves scrabbling in the dirt as it gallops out of the barn.
Steve pushes himself upright. He’s gasping for breath. Getting a better grip on the axe, he moves to the next stall. Then he moves on to the next, and the next, and the next.
Doris is only two stalls away. He can see her head over the stall – barely – though the dust and smoke. Breathing is becoming difficult. It’s taking all his energy just to move.
There’s a rumbling sound; it’s like the earth’s shaking. The flames have reached the roof. A supporting beam plummets to the ground in a shower of sparks. Steve throws himself to the ground, shielding the back of his head with his arm.
Mouth full of dirt, he risks looking up, Through the roof he can now see daylight, The rest of it is well alight. Looking down he catches sight of Doris: head over her stall, eyes rolling, she looks terrified.
Doris throws her head back and screams, her hooves hitting her stall in panic. It’s enough to spur him on. Half crawling, half staggering, he grabs the axe from where he’s dropped it. Eyes stinging from the smoke, lungs heaving, he releases the next horse from its stall.
The horse nearly tramples him in its panic. Scrabbling crab-like across the dirt he avoids it. Using the axe as an anchor in the dirt he pulls himself to the next stall. Barely able to see he swings the axe again.
Now he’s only got Doris to worry about. Perhaps sensing his proximity she screams again. Crawling on his knees he gets the stall open. She tugs at her rope: it snaps free. Exhausted, his arms and legs feel like jelly.
In the confusion he doesn’t realise at first that Doris isn’t moving. It’s the frayed rope, hanging from her neck, that draws his attention. Grabbing it, he pulls himself up, hand over hand.
Twisting it around his hand, he tugs her forward. In the smoke he can barely see. The tension on the rope disappears, suggesting Doris is following him. It’s confirmed a moment later when her shoulder collides with his, shoring him up. Stumbling, they head for the pin pick of light in the distance. Steve’s not sure, but he’s hoping it’s the entrance to the barn.
Time slows down. The light doesn’t seem to be getting any closer. Then hands are grabbing him, propelling him forwards. He goes with it, tightening his grip on Doris’ rope.
When they reach the light, it doesn’t seem real at first. Then his lungs contract, desperate for clean air. He falls to his knees, gasping. The rope slides out of his hands.
“She’s alright, Steve. They’ve got her.”
It’s John, kneeling beside him. Danny’s Pa is kneeling on the other side.
Relief washes over him, punching out what little air he has left in his lungs. The world spins. He’s suddenly reminded he’s only got one good leg as his body lurches sideways. Hitting the dirt, the last thing he remembers for a while is Grace standing on the veranda, a knitted toy clutched in her hand.
Danny sees the cloud of smoke long before he crosses onto the Double L’s land. It’s a dark blot against the mid-morning sky. Feeling sick to the pit of his stomach, he urges Jersey on.
When one of Pa’s ranch hands had burst into the jail house that morning he’d hoped he’d been exaggerating how bad it was. Now he’s not so sure.
Behind him, he can hear another horse and cart wheels rolling over the uneven ground. It’s the Doc. Pa asked for him as well. He’s slow though – too slow. Gritting his teeth, Danny kicks Jersey again, letting the Doc fall behind.
Jersey’s going at full stretch but it still seems to take forever to reach the ranch house. Danny pulls Jersey up hard when they finally arrive: his hooves send up a cloud of dust. Danny jumps down, flinging the reins over the hitching post without looking. Reaching the veranda, he takes the two steps in one stride.
What he sees does nothing to reassure him. Many of the ranch hands are sitting down on the veranda. Faces blackened with soot, they’re coughing hard. Some of them are holding their hands out, their palms are red and blistered.
Panic growing, he checks over everyone again. The faces he’s looking for aren’t there though.
The front door opens. Danny turns light-headed with relief. Ma’s there, with Grace close behind her. Ma’s carrying a bowl of water and strips of old cloth. Grace is still wearing her nightdress.
Falling to his knees he opens his arms as Grace runs towards him. She protests as he pulls her in tight. Apologising, he plants a kiss on her cheek and lets her go. Getting to his feet, he pulls his Ma into a hug as well.
Pulling back, he can see fear in her eyes. Dread turns his mouth sandpaper dry. “Where’s Pa?”
She smiles, but it’s wobbly at best. “He’s around the back of the—”
A shot rings out before she can finish. Danny spins round on his heel. Now that he knows Grace is safe he suddenly registers the smouldering wreckage of the livery barn. The far wall is still standing but everything else has gone.
The tears he can see in his Ma’s eyes speak volumes. Pausing long enough to kiss Grace on the top of her head he heads for the grain barn – and the direction of the shot.
What he sees when he gets there makes his knees almost buckle. His Pa and Steve are standing over his Pa’s favorite horse. Steve’s holding a rifle. The horse is dead, lying on its side.
“Broken leg,” his Pa mumbles, looking over.
Danny nods, swallowing hard. There was nothing else to be done. “I brought Doc.”
“Good.” Pa sighs, a deep shuddering sound. “That’s good.”
Before Danny can say anything else Pa’s walking away. It’s just him and Steve left.
“You should let Doc look at that,” he says, his eyes widening as he takes in Steve’s face. He’s got a cut over his left eye. It’s bleeding badly. The back of his hands are painfully red as well.
Steve blinks at him stupidly. Exhaustion is written over his face. Taking a step forward, he weaves.
Danny grabs him by the elbow before he goes over. Reaching out, he retrieves the rifle. “Give me that thing before you shoot off your good leg.”
Steve snorts as Danny loops his arm over his shoulder. “I thought you didn’t know any cripple jokes?”
“Shut up,” Danny tells him roughly, his throat tight with emotion. He’s got a vivid imagination. He knows how much worse this could have been.
They shuffle and limp their way back over to the ranch house. Danny’s relieved to see the Doc has arrived and is helping the men on the veranda. He’s not really a Doctor but he learnt a few skills during the war; he shares them in exchange for a few coins and whiskey. The bowl of water Ma was carrying is now beside his feet, along with an open jar of thick, white salve.
“Here you go Doc,” Danny announces as they get closer. He tightens his grip on Steve. “I’ve got another one for you.”
Steve glares but stays silent as Danny helps him to the floor. Head falling back against the wall, Steve’s eyes slide closed.
Pa opens his bottle of whiskey. He pulls out two glasses. A dash goes into each one. “Drink it,” he orders, passing one to Danny. Taking his own glass, he slumps into his office chair.
Danny takes a chair across from him. The first sip of whiskey acts like a jolt to his system. He needs it. Exhaustion is weighing him down.
He’s not the only one. Pa’s face is grey with tiredness. His shirt and pants are torn in places, stained with water and soot. The room smells of burnt wood and smoke.
Outside it’s finally quiet. Doc had gone back to Hope a few hours earlier. Luckily he’d had nothing worse to treat than burns, bruises and one broken finger. The ranch hands are in the cookhouse, eating their evening meal. It’s beans and beef: Danny knows, the family had the same. Now Ma’s busy getting Grace ready for bed.
They sit in silence, both lost in their own thoughts. It’s impossible not to replay the events of the day. Things could have been so much worse.
The sound of footsteps breaks them out of their introversion. There’s a quick knock but no introduction. It’s John, reporting in to Pa like he does every evening. This time though he’s got Steve with him.
Danny redefines his own understanding of exhaustion. John and Steve look much worse.
Pa rouses, waves them in. “You eaten?” John nods. So does Steve. “Good. That means you can join us for a drink.” Not waiting for an answer, he fills two more glasses.
John looks grateful, he pulls out a chair. Steve hesitates, still standing on the threshold. Pa pulls out another chair, pushes it towards Steve. “You’ve earned it, son.”
Danny resists the urge to roll his eyes when Steve still hesitates. He raises an eyebrow instead. Steve’s long-suffering look as he finally sits lightens the mood in the office for a moment. But they all quickly sober again.
Pa raises his glass. He acknowledges John and Steve with a dip of his chin. “Thank you.”
Danny raises his own glass, repeats the toast. It doesn’t seem sufficient. Without the barns, the feed and the horses, the ranch would have struggled. Everything his family has worked for – Grace’s future – would have been at risk.
The cost of saving the barns is obvious though. The skin on John and Steve’s face and hands is flecked with angry-looking, red patches. It must hurt like hell.
Danny takes a sip of whiskey, rolling it around his tongue before swallowing. “How did it start?”
“I don’t know,” John says, rubbing his face with his hand. “I got up…like I always do…”
“Did you hear anything?” Danny’s not sure if he’s asking as Danny Williams or as the Sheriff of Hope. All he knows is he wants answers, so this doesn’t happen again.
John shakes his head. So does Steve.
“The first I realised was when I heard John shouting,” Steve confirms, moving his head side to side, stretching his neck out. “I saw the flames but before that…” He trails off, his face scrunched in thought. “I don’t think anything was different.”
“Everyone knows not to go in there with a naked flame.” It’s Pa who’s spoken but they all know this anyway. “I checked the barn last night.”
Danny nods, considering the options. Even an extinguished flame leaves heat, it can smoulder for hours then reignite. He finds it hard to believe his Pa would miss that though. The ranch hands wouldn’t lie about it either: they’d never work again.
“Accidents happen—” Pa starts but he’s interrupted by a knock on the door.
Ma appears. She’s gently steering Grace in front of her. Grace is dressed in a clean nightdress.
Danny half-rises from his chair. Ma looks more serious than he can remember for a long time. Grace looks scared.
“It’s okay,” Ma says, looking down at Grace. But she raises her eyes, meeting Danny’s.
Grace hesitates as her Grandpa gestures her over. She looks nervously at everyone in the room.
Her Grandma gives her a nudge. “It’s okay, sweetheart, you’re not in trouble.”
Danny pulls Grace into his lap. “In trouble for what?” Danny knows he sounds impatient. It’s been a long day for all the adults, let alone his baby girl.
“She went outside,” his Ma explains, raising one eyebrow in Grace’s direction. “On her own. This morning. Before anyone else was awake.”
“Grace!” Danny pulls her round so she can see his face. She may only be young but she knows not to go outside without an adult. It’s not safe.
His anger flares and is extinguished in a second: Grace looks so miserable.
“I’m sorry,” she whispers, her face pressed into his shirt. “I thought I heard something. I thought it was Grandpa.”
“Tell them what you told me.”
Ma’s voice is soft, encouraging. Grace looks at the men, shyly. She tucks her head further into Danny’s chest. “There were two men. They were running away.”
Danny already knows the answer to his next question. He asks anyway. “Running away from where, Gracie?”
“Did you recognise them?” Steve’s leaning forward, so Grace can see his face. She manages a tiny smile for him as she shakes her head.
Danny’s barely aware Grace is slipping off his lap. Absently he kisses her, promises he’ll be there in a minute to tuck her in. No one speaks as Ma shepherds Grace back out of the office. The door shuts behind them with a loud click.
Danny curses, under his breath to start with, louder as his anger grows. This isn’t a coincidence, he’s sure of it. Pa and John are looking at him strangely. Steve though…Steve knows exactly what he’s thinking about. He can see it in his face.
“Danny, you don’t know it was him.”
Pa’s clearly confused. “Who?”
“Harry Dodson,” Danny growls, ignoring Steve’s warning. “Who else would it be?”
John looks doubtful. “Are you sure?” he asks, rubbing his hand across his chin. “The man’s an idiot for sure but destroying—”
Danny gets up, takes a few paces, turns. His knuckles turn white as he grips the back of his chair. “He did it.” He did it while his family was here, while Grace was here.
The other three men in the room stare back at him. He can see the doubt in their eyes. His anger ramps up even further, fuelled by disappointment. It’s normally the residents of Hope who look like this: he’d expected better from his family.
“So what do we do about it?”
It’s Steve who’s spoken, his eyebrows drawn together in thought. But Pa and John are nodding too.
Pa puts his whiskey glass down. “We don’t do anything. Not tonight,” he adds, raising a finger in warning at Danny.
“We can’t just let—”
“We don’t know it was him.”
“Who else would—"
“Not tonight, Daniel.” Pa doesn’t wait for Danny’s answer. Getting to his feet, he leaves, slamming the door behind him.
John sighs into the silence that follows. His chair creaks as he leans over to pat Danny on the shoulder, sympathy written across his face. “You know how much this place means to him. He’s angry too.” Groaning, he gets to his feet. Meeting Danny’s gaze, his expression turns serious. “Just promise me you won’t do anything stupid. It’d kill him if something happened to you.”
He shouldn’t have made me the Sheriff of Hope then. “I promise. I won’t go over there tonight.”
John heads for the door, shaking his head. “That doesn’t make me feel any better. But I’m too tired to care.”
Steve watches the door close behind him. “He’s right.”
Danny slumps back into his chair. Leaning back, he kneads his eyes with his fingertips. “About not feeling any better? Or being too tired?”
Steve huffs. “Both.” There’s a pause. “You’re not going tonight, are you?”
Danny drops his hands. There’s the normal note of challenge in Steve’s voice but now it’s got a sharper edge. Danny’s simmering anger responds. “You going to stop me?”
Steve stares back.
Danny’s on the verge of arguing. He’s so angry he’ll yell at anything – or anyone. He’s the Sheriff; that’s what everyone keeps reminding him. Harry Dodson is threatening his family.
Then he’s remembers that Grace is asleep down the corridor. So are his Ma and Pa. This man sitting in front of him has risked his life for this family. So has John and the men out in the bunkhouse.
The Sheriff of Hope is needed here tonight.
Exhaling loudly, he stands up. “I don’t know about you, babe, but I could do with some sleep.” Steve’s eyes widen comically at the term of endearment. Danny grins. “It’s a Jersey thing,” he explains, hovering as Steve struggles to his feet. “I’ll explain it to you,” he promises, standing to one side to let Steve weave his way out of the office.
“Tomorrow,” Steve replies around a huge yawn.
“Tomorrow,” Danny promises. Taking a deep breath, he tells himself to let the anger go – for now. Chewing at his bottom lip he follows Steve out of the house and over to the bunk house.
Steve stops when they get there. A smile is playing on his lips. “Thanks for the escort. I think I’m safe now.”
Danny lets out a surprised laugh. He hadn’t actually realised that’s what he was doing. “Sorry.” He waves a hand tiredly, “I don’t know what I’m—”
Steve plants his hands on Danny’s shoulders before he can finish. Tightening his grip, he turns him around. Giving him a gentle nudge between the shoulder blades, he sets Danny off back in the direction of the house. “Go to sleep, Daniel.”
Danny spins back around: only his Pa gets to call him that. Instantly he regrets it. Steve’s grinning widely. He’s been laughed at again.
Danny waves him off with a gesture usually only seen at the saloon in town. The sound of Steve’s laughter follows him as he heads back to the house.
Pausing for a moment before going inside, he sweeps his gaze across all the buildings one more time. This ranch isn’t where he was born. But it is where he calls home. There’s no way he’s going to let someone like Harry Dodson take this away from him.
Tomorrow he’s going to sort this out.
Steve swings Doris’s saddle up onto her back. She huffs her dissatisfaction as he reaches underneath and buckles up the girth strap. He sympathises with her: the sun is only just coming over the horizon, it’s early, even for them.
“I was wondering if you’d go with him.”
Steve’s heart sinks. Stupidly he’d been hoping John wouldn’t notice he wasn’t carrying out his normal chores. Slipping his fingers under the girth strap, he checks its tight enough. Satisfied, he turns. He’d laid awake until the early hours practicing what he’d say. Now nothing works. It feels like he’s betraying the trust that’s growing between him and John.
John’s watching him, hands resting on his hips. Eyes narrowed, he’s studying Steve. “It’s okay,” he announces a moment later, his expression easing. “You’re his Deputy. It makes sense he’d ask you to go.”
Oh. Steve opens his mouth to explain that only half of that statement is true when the front door of the house opens. Danny comes out, hat on, his Sheriff’s badge pinned on his jacket. Head down, it takes him a second to realise he’s being watched. When he does, his expressions darkens.
“You asked if you could go with him, right?” John asks, eyebrows raised. As they watch Danny speeds up; he’s stomping. John guffaws. “I guess not.”
“I was going to,” Steve points out. It feels like he should defend himself.
John looks at him like he’s an idiot. “Good luck.”
Steve doesn’t notice John’s walked off to the grain store. All his attention is on the angry whirlwind who has just come to a halt in front of him.
Danny eyes Doris suspiciously. Doris eyeballs him back. “Where you going?”
Steve checks the saddle again. Danny’s angry glare is unnerving. “Where do you think?”
“You’re not coming with me.” Danny’s mouth clamps into a mulish line.
It occurs to Steve that he could just wait and follow Danny. But Danny’s looking for a fight, a way to vent his anger. That’s something he understands. So instead he says: “You gonna stop me?”
There’s a moment where he thinks Danny’s going to take the bait. Danny’s eyes flash with anger. He braces himself, waiting for the punch to land. Then Danny throws his hands in the air, cursing. He paces away, his eyes on the burnt ruin of the livery barn.
Steve strokes Doris’s muzzle. She huffs warm air into his hand. Patting her one more time he walks over to join Danny. Little wisps of smoke are still rising from the burnt ruins.
“I’m your Deputy,” he points out, quietly.
Danny stirs but he doesn’t look at him. “Who says I’m going to visit Harry Dodson as the Sheriff?”
Steve leans forward to look at the tin badge Danny’s wearing.
Danny looks down, following his gaze. His shoulders drop as he exhales heavily. “I’m hoping it’ll stop me doing anything stupid.”
Steve nudges him. “That’s what I’ll be there for.”