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A town called Hope

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The visit to talk to Harry Dodson is a huge anti-climax.  He’s not there.

They’re greeted instead by Harry’s father - Joe Dodson, owner of the Horseshoe Ranch.  He  tells them Harry’s out on the western pasture bringing in the cattle.  He won’t be back for at least a week.  Danny asks a couple more questions but it’s clear that Joe is barely tolerating their presence. 

The rest of the conversation does not go well.

“I thought Danny was going to punch him,” Steve explains to John several hours later as he puts Doris’s tack away in the barn. “Joe Dodson didn’t even pretend to care what’s happened.  It was like waving a red rag at a bull.”

John sighs.  “Is it bad that I wish Danny had punched him?”

Steve shrugs.  He understands the sentiment: he’d been on the verge of punching Joe Dodson too.  Then he’d remembered that Danny had a family at home, waiting for him.  Without asking, he’d hustled Danny out of there.

Steve slumps down on a hay bale.  Rocking forward, he rests his head in his hands.  “You know everything that happens around here.  Are they moving the cattle up at the Horseshoe Ranch?.”

The bale shifts as John sits down beside him.   “Probably. That’s what our boys would be doing right now if the barn hadn’t caught alight.”

“That’s what I said to Danny on the way back.”

“Ah.  How did he take that?”

Steve sighs.  He’s exhausted.  “I don’t know. He hasn’t spoken to me since we left Dodson’s.”

“You did the right thing, getting him out of there.”

Steve lowers his hands.  They dangle between his knees. “He doesn’t agree.”

“Danny thinks someone is threatening his family.  He’ll do anything to protect them.”  John’s voice drops.    “Sometimes that means we make bad decisions.”

Steve eyes John, sideways.  John’s not big on talking.  Steve doubts they’ll ever talk about their lives or their history.  Words aren’t always needed though to build an understanding.  Sometimes you can see the truth in a person’s eyes.

Steve clears his throat.  “Dodson wasn’t happy to see us.  I don’t think he was lying though.  Either he’s a good actor or he doesn’t know what Harry’s doing.”

“Or maybe Harry didn’t do anything.”  John shrugs apologetically.  “What if Grace didn’t see anything?”

Steve sighs, swipes his hand across his face slowly.  He can’t deny it, those thoughts have crossed his mind too.  This man hunt – and he’s pretty sure that’s what Danny sees it as – is based on the evidence of a sleepy five-year old. 

Beyond the open barn door he can see the front of the house.  Jersey’s tied to the veranda.  A ranch hand is taking off his saddle.  Danny’s expression had been murderous as he’d gone to find his Pa.  

Steve raises an eyebrow.  “You wanna go tell Danny that?”

H50H50H50H50

The cattle start dying.

At first its just one or two.  That’s not unusual.  Then one day a ranch hand comes galloping in from the furthest pasture.  They’ve found six dead cattle and several more who won’t see out the day.

Pa sends for Danny.

Danny’s been visiting the ranch every few days.  Each time he rides back in he looks more worn, his face drawn and pinched.  Even Jersey’s head is hanging low, his ears flicking with irritation.  It’s obvious Danny’s not sleeping.  Each time he leaves, Ma watches him from the veranda, worry written across her face.

Steve’s had no opportunity to talk to him.  He’s been helping John and the lads get the cattle in from the far pastures, ready to move them on for sale.  They’ve started rebuilding the livery barn as well. 

Being busy has allowed him to push the issue with Dodson to the back of his mind. Now it’s been brought back into sharp focus.  They don’t have any hard evidence of foul play.  But his gut feeling is that something’s wrong.

Very wrong.

This time he speaks to John first, explains what he’s got in mind.  By the time Danny rides in,  Steve’s got Doris saddled up.  His saddlebags are filled with enough supplies to last a few days: the dead cattle were found a day out from the ranch house.  He’s got a bed roll for himself and one ready for Danny. 

Steve watches from the doorway of the grain barn as Danny pulls up at the ranch house.  Jersey skips nervously as he jumps to the ground.  Danny strokes his neck to calm him, then nods to the ranch hand who’s come to look after his horse.

Danny nods his thanks before going into the house.  Steve knows the first thing Danny will do is go find Grace; that gives them a few minutes more. 

Steve waves at the ranch hand but he’s already moving, bringing Jersey over to the barn.  The horse perks up as they get closer to the corral: another horse whinnies a welcome in return.

“Sorry, buddy,” Steve murmurs as he takes Jersey from the ranch hand.  “Not today.”

He’s got water and feed ready for Jersey.  Tying him up, he gives him both.  As Jersey buries his nose in his feed trough, Steve takes off his saddle and starts to rub him down.  They’re got a long ride ahead of them and Jersey’s already galloped from the township.  Even horses need to refuel.

Danny finally appears as Steve’s putting Jersey’s saddle back on.  He loiters in the doorway, his body outlined against the sun.  His hat is tipped forward but it doesn’t hide his frown.  His gaze travels from Jersey to Doris, who’s tied in a corner waiting patiently.

“Don’t tell me,” Danny says, evenly.  “We’re going somewhere?”

Steve retrieves the second set of saddlebags he’s packed.  Slinging them over Jersey’s back, he winces.  They’re heavier than they look.  “Your Ma’s given us enough food to feed a small army.”

Danny advances several more paces, so they’re almost toe to toe.  “It doesn’t take that long to get to Dodson’s ranch.”

Steve turns.  He meets Danny’s gaze.  “We’re not going to Dodson’s.  We need to find out why those cattle died.”

Danny shakes his head.  The shadows under his eyes are dark pits of exhaustion.  “What’s the point?  You don’t think he did it.”

Steve reaches out.  He stops himself.  His hand hovers over Danny’s arm.  “I don’t know…maybe…”  Biting his lip, he starts again.  Danny will only accept the truth.  “I wasn’t sure, okay? I wanted to believe Grace but… “  

“Accidents happen, right?”

Steve nods, his confidence growing.  “The cattle dying, that’s not an accident.  We need to prove it though.”

Danny’s jaw drops.  “We need to prove it?  What…you want him to burn down this barn as well?”

Steve tells himself to breathe deeply.  “You know I’m right.”

“He’s threatening my family, Steve.  Grace was in the house.  If she’d walked out while they were—"

“I know.”

“It was Grace, Steve.  You don’t know what it feels like to—”

This time Steve does grab Danny’s arm.  ”I do.”

Danny winces.  Steve looks down, snatches away his hand.  He’s left white finger marks on Danny’s tanned skin.  They stare at each other, their chests heaving as they drag in air.

Danny takes a step back.  Taking off his hat, he drags his hand over his hair.  “He’s doing this because of me.”

Steve crosses his arms. “So, we stop him.”

Danny shakes his head.  He jams his hat back on.  “Me.  Not you.”

“Fine.”  Steve uncrosses his arms.  Walking over to Doris, he unties her reins.  “I’ll go on my own.”

Danny’s hands shoot skywards.  “Where?”

“To where the dead cattle were found.”

“You don’t know where that is.”

Steve pulls a piece of paper out of his pocket.  “John drew me a map.” He turns it one way, then the other. “At least that’s what I think it is.”

Danny snatches it.  His mouth turns downwards as he brings it closer to his face.  “You’ll never find them using this.”

Steve takes a steadying breath.  “That’s why I need you to come with me.”

Understanding dawns on Danny’s face. His lips clamp together in a line.  “I can’t.  I’m going to the Dodson ranch.”

Steve turns his back on Danny.  He can’t hide the disappointment he feels. Tugging on Doris’s reins, he leads her out of the barn.

Steve—”

“He’s going to kill you, Danny.”  Dragging one foot in front of the other, Steve carries on walking.  “I’m not going to stay here to watch that.”

He brings Doris to a halt, a few yards from the barn.  With a grunt he swings his bad leg over the saddle.  Bending down, he makes sure his foot is secure in the leather stirrup.  Don’t look back, he thinks but he does anyway. 

Danny’s standing in the barn doorway, watching him.  His chin bobs up, a sharp movement, fuelled by barely contained anger.  “I won’t let him kill me.”

Steve closes his eyes, exhaling slowly.  “You can’t promise that.”  He understands why Danny’s angry.  But he’s angry too and his anger has been festering in his heart for years.  He opens his eyes again. “I know how this ends, Danny.  If Harry Dodson kills you do you think your Pa will just walk away?  Do you think Grace will just forget about you, about what the Dodson family did?  If the tables are turned do you think the Dodson’s will just walk away?”

Doris skits sideways as Danny strides towards them, his hands cutting through the air.  “That’s why we need to speak to Joe Dodson.”

“For crying out loud, why are you so stubborn?”

Danny gestures between them.  “I’m stubborn?”

“Would you please stop talking and get on your horse.”

“We’re not going to find anything, your know that, right?”

“We’ll find something.  But if we don’t you’ll have a whole day of riding to tell me how right you were.  Happy?”

“Ecstatic.”

“So you’re getting on your horse?”

“If we don’t find something I’m riding to Dodson’s anyway.  You understand?”

Danny.”

“Did you just growl at me?”

“I have a gun and I’m not afraid to use it.”

“I think this might be a good time to remind you I’m the Sheriff.”

“Congratulations.  Let me introduce myself - I’m your very angry Deputy.  Now move.”

H50H50H50H50

They’ve been riding half a day when the find the first of the dead cattle.  They’re easy to spot from a distance: they’ve become a feast for every carnivore within a few miles.  Not even the threat of humans on horses is enough to distract them.  It takes a shot from Danny’s gun to make them scatter.

Danny dismounts.  Beside him, Steve does the same.  The horses snort – the smell of rotting flesh is unsettling them – but they reluctantly go where they’re led.

There’s not much left of the nearest carcass.  Danny kneels down beside it anyway, looking for signs of how it died.  Breathing through his nose, he struggles not to gag.  A few feet away, Steve is doing the same next to another dead steer.

Slowly, Danny gets to his feet.  There’s another carcass, just a few feet away.  And that in itself is strange.  Cattle have accidents, they die of illness.  But usually they die one at a time.  From the little he can see of the dead cattle they’d been in good condition.  And it doesn’t look like they’ve been attacked by predators; animal or human. 

So why did they all die here, together?

Steve’s turned away from the dead bodies.  Brow scrunched in thought, he’s staring off into the distance, across the grasslands.  Danny goes to join him, pulling Jersey along behind.

“What do you think?”

Steve turns to face him.  He still looks lost in thought.  They haven’t spoken much during the ride out here.  They haven’t needed to.  Something’s changed since their angry outburst back at the ranch.  It feels like they’ve reached an unspoken agreement: they’re determined to see this out together.  No matter how it ends.

Steve tugs at the rim of his hat.  “I think we should go find those other cattle John told us about.  Then we need to check out the river.”

Danny nods.  Cattle are hardy creatures, they only need water and food to survive.  Out here there’s plenty of both.  But you take one of those away and cattle will start dying – real fast. 

Danny retrieves the scrap of paper from his pocket.  John’s drawing looks more like a squashed insect than an accurate map of Pa’s land.  Trying to decipher it gives him a welcome distraction.  Deep down he’d been hoping he’d been wrong about Harry Dodson, that Grace and his family weren’t under threat.  Every new discovery is chipping away at that hope.

“We need to keep moving.”

Steve’s already gathering up Doris’s reins, getting ready to mount.  The anger of earlier, back at the ranch, has been replaced by grim determination.  The anger’s still there though.  Danny can see that now.  The loss of his parents, of his family, is something Steve carries with him every day. 

Danny stuffs the map back in his pocket.  Getting back on Jersey, he leads them toward where the other dead cattle were found.

Thoughts of family always bring him back to Rachel.  She’s at the front of his mind as they urge the horses into a canter.  What she’d think about the current situation is something he’s been wondering about – a lot.  Should he really be out here, pursuing his own personal crusade?  Or should he leave that to someone else and stay with Gracie?

Don’t be silly, Daniel.

Rachel’s voice is crystal clear in his head.  Rachel was…feisty.  If she was still alive she’d be on the horse beside him, scaring the hell out of everyone who got in her way.  From the first day they met they’d always watched each other’s backs.

Over to his right, Steve’s riding beside him.  Steve’s given Doris her head: neck stretched, ears back, she’s easily keeping pace with Jersey.  Rachel would have liked Steve, Danny thinks, a smile breaking out at the knowledge.  She would have liked him a lot.

H50H50H50H50

The second group of dead cattle doesn’t reveal anything either.

A few hours on, they find a steer dead in the river.

Danny does gag this time.  The carcass is older, more decomposed.  It’s jammed between two rocks, in a shallow pool at one of the narrowest points in the river. 

“The water’s tainted.”

Danny looks up.  He squints against the sunlight: it’s early evening, the sun’s low in the sky.  He can just make out Steve standing on the other side of the river with the horses.  “I think you’re right.” 

Danny knows he sound disappointed.  Inwardly he’s shaking his head at himself.  One moment he’s hoping they won’t find anything that incriminates Harry Dodson.  The next he’s annoyed when they don’t.  Sighing, he gets to his feet.

“We need to get it out of here,” he says, wading back across the river.  They’re lucky more cattle haven’t died.  In a few days the whole herd will be drinking from this water, further down river.  It would have been a catastrophe.

Removing the rotting carcass isn’t easy, despite the fact that much has already been claimed by scavengers.  Tying strips of cloth across their faces to dull the stench, they use ropes and the horses to pull it out of the water. 

“Danny.  Look at this.”

Danny’s untying the ropes from the horses.  The urgency in Steve’s voice grabs his attention.  Steve’s kneeling by the carcass.  He’s using a branch to poke at the remains.

“What you got?” Danny asks, hunkering down beside him.  When Steve pokes at the flesh around the cow’s head, his mouth goes dry.

There are two bullets lodged inside the skull.  Someone killed and dumped the animal here – and Danny’s got a good idea who.

Pacing away, he tears his hat off.  The horses snort, spooked.  “That lying son of a bitch.  I’m gonna find Harry Dodson and then I’m…” 

It’s like someone’s opened a box in his head and let loose years of anger and rage.  Words are spewing out of his mouth unbidden.  His vision’s reduced to a thin tunnel of light.  Fists clenched, he wants to punch something, anything.  It feels like he’s burning from the inside out.

When he comes to again, he’s kneeling on the ground, his fists buried in the dirt.  There’s a hand resting between his shoulder blades.

“We’ll get him, Danny.”

Danny’s heart is thudding against his ribs.  Breathing heavily, there’s a buzzing noise in his ears.  Steve’s voice is barely audible over the noise in his head.

The hand disappears.  Steve grunts as he struggles to his feet.  Danny’s vaguely aware of the horses moving, of Steve speaking to them, urging them on.  Then the hand is back, gripping his shoulder.

“Can you stand up?”

Danny does as he’s told.  He can’t feel his legs.  He wobbles dangerously.  Steve’s arm around him keeps him upright.  Rubbing the back of his hand across his eyes just makes his vision more blurry.  His hand comes away wet.

“I’ve set up camp,” Steve’s saying.  “We’ll need more water for the horses tomorrow but we’ve got enough for tonight.”

Danny blinks: finally he can see.  Time’s passed.  It’s almost dark.  He’s got his feet back under him by the time they get to the camp.  It’s basic, just their bed rolls laid out, a small fire with a pot of water already heating up.  Doris and Jersey huff a welcome before returning their attention to grazing, their heads side by side.

Danny hangs back for a moment, something’s niggling at him.  Something urgent.  “Dodson,” he hisses between gritted teeth.  “The ranch.  What if he goes back to the ranch?  Grace is there—”

“It’s almost dark.  It’s too dangerous for the horses.”  Steve’s tone is sympathetic but adamant too.

“I’m going—”

Steve grabs him by the elbow.  “It’s okay,” he says.  “They’ll be someone on guard every hour of the day.”

Danny jerks his arm free.  “What?”

“We’ve arranged it.  John and me.”

Danny scowls.  “Pa never said anything—”

Steve looks guilty.  “He doesn’t…he didn’t know.  John was going to tell him after we’d left.”

“You lied to Pa.”

“Well…not really…”

Danny grabs Steve in a bear hug before he can finish his thought.  “Thank you,” he mutters, overwhelming relief making his voice sound weak.  “Thank you.”

Steve’s body goes rigid.  Danny pulls him in harder.  Steve gradually relaxes into his grip.  When he pulls away his cheeks are tinted pink.

“There’s ham and bread and coffee,” Steve says, his expression verging on bashful as he meets Danny’s gaze.

Danny nods.  He’d prefer to be moving, he can’t deny it.  But Steve’s right, travelling in the dark is just too dangerous for the horses.  Knowing Grace is being protected though…he’s more grateful than words can express.

Sitting on his bedroll, he rests his arms on his bent knees.  He takes the coffee mug Steve offers, along with the thick slices of ham and bread.  He chews slowly, expecting it to stick in his throat.  Now he’s calmed down and the adrenaline’s burned off he feels like he’s been through his Ma’s laundry wringer.  To his surprise, the food tastes really good.

Steve’s stretched out on his bedroll on the other side of the fire.  His revolvers are on the ground, next to his hand.  Every now and then he shuffles, stretching his twisted leg out. 

Danny lowers his mug.  “You got whiskey with you?”

“I’m good.”

The saddlebags are on the ground between them, next to the fire.  Danny pulls his over, flipping open the pockets.  Ma’s packed his saddlebags before; rooting around inside he’s not disappointed.

Pulling out a small glass bottle, he pulls out the stopper and sniffs.  Eyebrows raised, he takes a quick gulp.  “It’s the good stuff,” he confirms, offering the bottle to Steve. 

Steve eyes the bottle balefully.  “I’m gonna keep watch.”

Danny pauses for a moment then he gets to his feet.  Walking around the fire he puts the whiskey bottle down next to Steve.  Walking back to his bedroll, he sits down.  Pulling out his revolver, he rests it in his lap.  Crossing his arms, he locks his gaze with Steve’s.

Silence falls, broken only by the sound of the fire crackling and the horses huffing.

The staring contest doesn’t last look.  Cursing, Steve grabs the bottle.  He takes a long gulp.

Danny turns his attention to the darkness around them. 

When he turns back a while later Steve’s stretched out on his bedroll.  The bottle is half-empty.  His body looks much more relaxed.  When he realises he’s being watched he offers the bottle back.

Danny shakes his head.  “You keep it.”  He’s too keyed up to sleep much.  It makes sense for him to keep watch. 

Steve studies him.  Worry crosses his face.  Stuffing the stopper back in the bottle, he puts it down, just out of arms reach.  “Two hours,” he warns, lying back down.  “You wake me in two hours.”

Danny nods.  Steve doesn’t look convinced but he pulls his hat down over his face anyway.

Danny settles down, his gun still resting in his lap.  Staring into the darkness, he can feel his demons stir.  After Rachel died he’d sat in the dark, alone, a lot.  Grief and whiskey weren’t a good combination.  Tonight he’s not drunk on whiskey but his thoughts are just as bleak.

If Harry Dodson did burn the barn and kill the cattle – and who else would it be? – then the two families are on the verge of a war.  Steve was right: if they don’t stop this the anger and retribution could carry on for years. 

That doesn’t stop him wanting to kill Harry Dodson however.  Now the floodgates have opened, the anger he’s feeling is overwhelming.

“It won’t help.”  Steve’s watching him from the other side of the fire, his hat resting on his chest.

“What won’t—”

“Killing Dodson.  It won’t bring back your wife.  Grace won’t be safe.”

“I wasn’t thinking about kill—”

“Yes you were.”

Danny tries to study Steve’s face through the flames.  There’s something he’s not saying.  He runs the conversation back through his head.  Chewing at his bottom lip, he delivers his next words carefully; “The men who killed your parents.  They ever catch them?”

Steve puts his hat back over his face.  “I thought you were keeping watch.”

“Steve.”

Steve lifts his hat off his face.   He exhales, loudly and reluctantly.  “Ten years ago.  I was working at a bar in Denver.  This guy comes in.  It takes me a while but then I recognise him.”

Danny’s breath catches in his chest.  “He was one of the men who killed your parents?”

“Yeah.”

Yeah?

Steve sits up, his movements jerky.  “He recognised me too.”  Reaching out, he grabs the whiskey bottle.  “Want some?”

Danny nods, automatically.

“He rounded up some friends and ambushed me.”  Steve swears as his fingers fumble with the stopper.  Cursing again, he pulls it free.  Tipping his head back, he takes a long gulp.  “I thought they were going to kill me.“

“They didn’t.”  Danny nods as he takes the bottle.

“No.  They did not.”  It’s Steve’s turn to stare out into the darkness.  “He went for his revolver…I didn’t…”  He swallows, tries again.  “I grabbed it and…it went off.”

Dread pools in Danny’s stomach.  There’s a note of despair in Steve’s voice.  “You killed him.”

“It was an accident,  Danny.  I swear it.”  Steve’s eyes are huge pools of darkness, begging to be believed.

“No one could blame you.”

Steve snorts.  Danny’s feeling of dread grows.  “They locked me up, Danny.  Three weeks.”  He snorts again, shaking his head.  “Mary was so angry with me.”

“Mary…”  Danny stops talking as understanding dawns.  “You were working at the same bar.”

Steve swipes his hand across his face.  “I wasn’t sorry he was dead.  Mary…if he’d found her…”  He swipes back the other way.  His voice drops to just above a whisper.  “I thought they were going to hang me.”

“They wouldn’t have—”

“They would.” Steve’s face is wracked with anger.  He’s sitting bolt upright.  “You know how it worked back then.”  He takes a shuddering breath.  “I was lucky.  Witnesses from the bar, they talked to the Sheriff.”

Damn.  Danny looks down; he’s still holding the bottle.  He swallows a mouthful of whiskey.  It burns, all the way down.  He runs his finger tip down the neck of the bottle.  “That won’t happen again.”

Steve curses loudly.  “Were you not listening to anything I said?”

Danny puts the bottle down.  “I heard you.  I just don’t think—”

“It doesn’t make any difference, Danny.  It won’t make you feel any better.  It doesn’t make the pain go away—”

Danny bristles: anger is simmering under his skin.  “I don’t want the pain to go away.”

Steve stares down at his hands.  “Yes, you do.”

Yes I do.  I want everything to be like it used to be.  Danny slumps, unable to stay upright as a wave of grief hits him again.  His shoulders start shaking.  He’s not aware that Steve’s moved until he sits next to him, nudging him to move up on the bedroll.

Danny shuffles. A shiver wracks his body.  Folding in on himself, he tucks his hands in his armpits.  “I can’t…I need to do something.”

Steve leans in.  His body feels warm.  “Your Pa made you the Sheriff for a reason, Danny.  You use your brain.  Other men, they’d be using their fists and guns to keep the peace.”

“I don’t see how—”

Steve hums him to silence.  “The steer in the river.  You think Dodson could do that on his own?” 

Danny thinks that over: it would have taken at least two or three men.  Catching the animal would be easy.  Restraining it, not too hard.  Shooting it, placing it in the river; that took planning, intent and men.

“Exactly.”

Danny blinks back to the present.  Steve’s peering at him.  He’s waiting.  Finally, Danny’s brain catches up.  “We need to figure out who helped him.”

Steve nods around a huge yawn.  “So how are we going to do that?” he asks, nudging Danny with his shoulder.  “Stop thinking about killing Harry Dodson.  Start thinking about that instead.”

TBC