Danny pulls open the top drawer of his desk. Inside are bullets for the guns he keeps in the jailhouse. Selecting enough to reload his revolver, he closes the drawer again. The bullets he puts in his jacket pocket.
He’s already wearing his gun belt. He hitches it up, checking the fit. His revolver sits snuggly against his hip. His watch is in his other pocket: he pulls out, flips it open to check the time. Puffing out his cheeks, he puts it away again.
Slowly he exhales.
The Remington shotgun is lying on the shelf. He eyes it, still torn between taking it or leaving it. Leave it, his inner voice of reason tells him. You’re a quicker draw with a gun.
He puts his hat on, and straightens his jacket. Then he opens the front door.
Instantly he’s aware of eyes watching him. It’s been three days since they discovered the dead cattle. Word has got around Hope fast. The town’s on edge anyway – it’s only a few days to payday again. If that’s not enough to worry about there’s still no sign of Harry Dodson.
Danny shivers as a feeling of dread slides down his spine.
Smiling like he always does, he starts walking. Occasionally people will nod or sometimes say hello. It’s been like this ever since the barn burned down. In his more charitable moments he likes to think they’re concerned about him. At other times – like now – he thinks they’re just after the latest gossip.
He’s half way down the street when he sees a colourful figure approaching. His heartbeat speeds up as he recognises Lottie. It’s not pleasure that’s got his heart excited. Lottie looks worried as hell.
Danny speeds up to meet her. People part to let him through. As he grabs her by the elbow he’s aware they’re being watched. Steering her to one side, he ignores everyone else.
“It’s Steve,” Lottie explains before he can ask. “He’s in the bar, Danny. And he’s drunk, real drunk.” She grabs the front of his jacket, pulling him down the street. “You’ve got to get in there,” she tells him, panic making her voice loud, “he’s in there with Harry Dodson’s men.”
Lottie is imploring him to move so he moves. They’ve drawn a crowd, all the way down the street. Pushing people out of the way he runs for the saloon. Lottie’s right behind him, the hem of her long skirt hitched out of the way.
Hand on his revolver, Danny pushes open the door to the saloon.
His heart plummets.
Steve’s sitting at a table with a couple of Harry’s men. His Deputy’s badge – the badge he’s been wearing since they came back from finding the dead cattle – is lying discarded in the middle of the table. There’s an empty bottle of whiskey next to it.
Danny ignores the stares he’s drawing. He marches over to Steve. “What the hell are you doing?”
Steve blinks up at him. Slowly, he grins. He raises his half-empty glass. “I’m drinking, Danny.”
Steve raises his hand for silence. He rocks back in his chair. “They bought me drinks. Thank you,” he adds, waving expansively at each of Dodson’s men in turn. “Thank you so much.”
Danny puts his hand on Steve’s shoulder. Steve’s slurring badly. Lottie’s right: he’s had a lot to drink. “Let’s get you out of here—”
Steve pulls his shoulder away. He glares. “I’m finishing my drink.”
“I think you’re had more than enough, buddy—”
Steve pushes his chair back. Getting to his feet, he wobbles dangerously. Swaying forwards he grabs for the table, his palms hitting it with an audible slap. The Deputy’s badge falls to the floor.
Steve giggles. “Whoops.”
The men around the table start laughing. It’s clear they’re even more drunk than Steve. Their laughter morphs to anger though when Danny reaches out for Steve again.
“You heard him, Sheriff. He’s gonna finish his drink.”
Danny resists the urge to wipe the sneer off the man’s face. “This is none of your business—”
Steve picks up his glass: it takes two attempts. He waves it under Danny’s nose. “You heard him. I’m finishing my drink.”
Danny’s eyes water from the waft of whiskey. It’s not just in the glass, it’s coming off Steve too. “You’re done,” he says, more softly, as he takes the glass from Steve. Bending down, he retrieves the Deputy’s badge from the floor and stuffs it in his pocket. “Let’s go.”
Steve blinks, owlishly. Then suddenly he pulls away, staggering backwards. He collides with his chair, throws out his hands, finds nothing but air.
Danny reaches out to grab him. It throws them both off balance, locking them in a drunken dance. Laughter breaks out around them and it seems to spur Steve on. What starts off as a drunken tussle quickly degenerates into something more serious.
Danny doesn’t see Steve’s fist coming. His teeth rattle as it connects with his jaw. He lands on his ass on the floor.
The sound of laughter grows.
Shaking his head, he rubs at his jaw. The stars in his vision slowly dissipate to reveal Steve sprawled on the floor beside him. His bad leg is folded awkwardly under his body.
Cursing, Danny pushes himself upright. “Are you alright?”
Steve rolls away. “Get off me,” he mutters, batting away Danny’s enquiring hands. He tries to gets his legs underneath him. Hissing with pain, he gives up.
“Let me help.”
Lottie kneels down between both of them. Gently, she slides her hand under Steve’s arm. With a grunt he accepts her help. He grunts again as Danny takes his other arm but he lets them get him upright.
Steve resists at first, as they lead him outside. Daylight seems to drain the last of the fight out of him: he slumps, his chin resting on his chest. Danny slings Steve’s arm over his shoulder, taking more of his weight. On the other side, Lottie tightens her grip around Steve’s waist.
They make a sorry sight, Danny thinks, as they slowly weave their way back up the street.
It’s impossible to ignore the judgement in some people’s face as they pass. Danny glares defiantly at them, daring them to say something. They don’t know Steve’s history. They have no right to judge.
He’s almost disappointed when they make it to the jailhouse unchallenged. He can still hear laughter though, behind him. He doesn’t need to look to know Harry’s men are following them.
Cursing to himself, he brings them to a halt outside the jailhouse.
Steve stirs. His head comes up. Gradually, he focuses on the scene around them. His eyes widen as he sees the jailhouse. Jerking into motion, he tries to pull away. “I’m not going in there—”
Steve shakes his head, vehemently. He tugs out of Lottie’s hold. “I want another drink.”
Danny tightens his grip. They sway dangerously. “Don’t make me lock you up. Please.”
Lottie’s already opening the door of the jailhouse. Steve’s cursing by the time Danny drags him in. Danny keeps moving through the office, momentum the only thing keeping them both upright. Lottie’s ahead of him again, pulling the door to one of the cells open. Danny drops Steve down onto the bench. Breathing hard, he carefully pulls Steve’s legs up, pushing him back, encouraging him to lie down.
Dropping to a crouch, he rests his head in his hands.
Lottie’s hand rests on his shoulder. Outside – right outside – they can hear Dodson’s men laughing. They’ve seen and heard everything. Lottie’s grip on his shoulder tightens. Eventually there are footsteps. The laughter outside fades away.
Danny lowers his hands. Steve’s sitting half-upright. He’s massaging his twisted leg. He looks surprisingly sober.
“What the hell was that?”
Steve winces as he runs his hands over his knee. “What was what?”
Danny waves at his chin. He can already feel a bruise forming.
Steve looks apologetic. Briefly. “You told me to make it look realistic.”
“Realistic?” Danny gets himself upright; his knees protest at the sudden movement. He waves at Steve, at his leg. “Realistic?”
Steve looks genuinely confused. He bends and straightens his injured leg. His smile does nothing to hide his wince. “It’s still attached, Danny.”
Danny takes off his hat, throwing it to the floor. When they’d discussed this plan to get Harry Dodson’s men talking he hadn’t appreciated how nerve wracking it would be to send Steve in there on his own.
“What is wrong with you?” he shoots back, hours of tightly-wound worry and concern tumbling out. “You were supposed to get information from them, not start a goddamn fight.”
“It’s okay.” Steve sounds like he’s soothing a spooked horse.
“No it’s not.” Danny rubs his hand over his face. “I knew I should have gone in there—”
“We talked about this—”
“They could have killed you.”
It’s not Steve who’s spoken. It’s Lottie, standing by the door to the office. Danny sighs, he’d forgotten she was there.
“Steve’s right,” she says, laying a reassuring hand on his arm. “We talked about this. You couldn’t go in there. They’d never trust you. Steve, on the other hand…” Trailing off, she looks over at him apologetically.
Steve shrugs, still massaging his leg. “People see what they want to see. They’d believe the cripple was a drunk.”
Danny quashes a flash of indignant anger. He huffs instead. “I’m not surprised,” he says sniffing his hands. “You stink of whiskey.”
Steve swings his bad leg to the ground. Gingerly he puts some weight on it. “I couldn’t drink it, could I?” he protests, catching his bottom lip between his teeth. “I tipped some down my shirt instead.”
Danny stares at him, open mouthed. Lottie laughs.
Steve grins back at them. It’s a big grin, all teeth. “So, do you want to know what they told me?”
Danny gestures at him, ‘Go on’.
Steve stands up. Puffing his cheeks, he takes a few steps. “Harry’s paying a couple of the lads to take food and water to an abandoned homestead.” Making it to the door, he leans against the wall. “He called it…Mackay’s?”
Danny frowns. “Old Henry Mackay’s? It’s out on the border between Pa’s land and Joe Dodson’s.”
Lottie nods. “It’s been empty for years.”
Steve rubs at his nose. “They have to leave the food outside. They think Harry’s got a woman in there. Harry’s threatened to kill them if they tell the other ranch hands.”
“He’s married.” Lottie faces speaks volumes of what she thinks of that. She pauses, lost in thought. “I would have heard if he had a woman out there,” she says, a determined note in her voice.
Danny doesn’t doubt it. Lottie’s survived this long because she’s made it her business to know everything. “So who’s he got out there?” he muses, staring into the mid-distance.
“I don’t know about you,” Steve says into the silence that follows, “but I could do with getting out of town for a while. How about it, Danny?”
Danny hums his assent, already thinking ahead. “It’s nearly a full moon tonight. We leave this afternoon, we should still be able to ride after dark. We can’t let Harry’s men see you though. If they do they’ll know it was a trick—”
“I’ll keep them busy,” Lottie cuts in. “I need to go anyway,” she adds, leaning in to peck at kiss on Danny’s cheek. Steve waves her away but she leans in anyway. “You won’t scare me off with a little whiskey,” she whispers, tiptoeing to kiss him as well.
They watch her leave in silence. Steve limps back into the office. Awkwardly he lowers himself down into the cot. “What do you think?” he asks, groaning as he swings his legs up.
Danny watches him, his eyebrows drawn together in a line. “I think we need to be careful,” he says, pulling the Deputy’s badge out of his pocket and handing it back to Steve. “The Dodson family already hate me. They’re gonna be mad as hell when they find out we’re digging around on their land.”
Steve flexes his bad foot, gritting his teeth as the muscles cramp. They’d made it to Mackay’s abandoned homestead a few hours earlier. They’ve been waiting a few hundred yards away, hidden in a copse of trees. Now that darkness has fallen its getting cold.
Doris and Jersey are secured to a tree behind him. They’re bored, he can tell by the way they keep shuffling. He scratches their noses, willing them to be calm. They’ve wrapped the horses’ hooves in rags so their approach couldn’t be heard but a whinny could still give them away.
An owl hoots in warning not far away. Steve tells himself not to jump as a shadow materialises out of the darkness. Gripping the horses reins, he prays they won’t spook either.
“There’s two men in there,” Danny whispers, coming up beside him. The bottom half of his face is obscured by a dark coloured scarf. Only his eyes are visible beneath his hat. The leather jacket he’s wearing is buttoned up to his neck. Black gloves cover his hands. ‘Sinister’ is the description that jumps into Steve’s mind.
Danny’s eyes glint in the moonlight. “Just the men.” Absently, he reaches out to stroke Jersey. “Whatever Harry’s got them doing, he’s not paying them enough. They’ve been arguing about moving on.”
“Let’s go introduce ourselves then,” Steve nods, pulling up his own scarf. His gloved fingers search out his Deputy’s badge, checking it’s still pinned on his jacket. Danny’s Sheriff’s badge glints back at him in the moonlight.
They creep up to the homestead, weaving to keep out of the moonlight. They’d talked about waiting for the next delivery of food, working on the assumption that someone would have to come out for it. They’ve got no idea when that will be though. And the chance of being discovered increases the longer they wait.
The homestead is a simple layout, a rickety wooden wreck that’s seen better days. There are doors at the front and the back. Behind it there’s a barn with horses in it. That means their only way in is through the front. A few minutes later, they’re crouched by the front door, their revolvers drawn. Danny lifts the catch on the door. Cautiously he pushes it open.
Inside they’re confronted with a large living space. There’s a table and chairs and two lanterns, their flickering flames throwing long shadows across the walls. On the far side of the room there’s a hallway. Steve guesses it leads to the back door. On one side of the hallway there’s a door with light creeping out from beneath it.
Steve follows Danny in. His limp means he puts more weight on one leg than the other. Walking quietly across squeaky wooden floorboards is a serious challenge. Holding his breath, he picks his way carefully across the floor.
A second later it turns out he need not have bothered. The door with the light underneath it opens. Light spills out into the hallway, illuminating him and Danny. Before they can turn and run a man appears in the doorway. Behind him is another man.
Frozen, they stare at each other.
The two men see their badges at the same time. Steve can tell by the panic that crosses their faces. They each react very differently though. The first bolts, heading for the back door. Before Steve or Danny can react the second man is on them, his face twisted in an angry snarl.
Danny goes flying, the weight of the man pushing him back. His revolver clunks as it hits the wooden floor. Steve wades in, slipping in behind the man, wrapping his forearm around his windpipe. Squeezing hard, he hangs on.
The man’s not ready to give in though. Staggering backwards, he traps Steve against the wall. Wiggling loose, Danny charges the man, hitting him in the centre of the chest, shoulder first. With a grunt the man folds over. Steve applies more pressure. To his immense relief the man finally crumples, his knees hitting the floor with a nasty crack.
Danny scrambles across the floor to grab the man. He’s got a piece of rope hanging from his gun belt. Whipping it out, he ties his hand and feet.
In unison, they slump to the floor.
Steve pulls down the scarf covering his face. Like a drowning man he drags air into his lungs. Across from him, Danny’s doing the same. The man they’ve caught is semi-conscious. Steve vaguely wonders if he should get a bucket of cold water. They need him to be conscious so they can get him back to town.
Out back, there’s the sound of galloping hooves.
Danny scrambles to his feet, cursing. Grabbing his revolver, he heads for the back door. Steve briefly considers following him. By the time he’s on his feet Danny’s coming back. His face says it all: the other man got away.
Steve weighs up this latest development. If these are Joe or Harry Dodson’s men then the man who escaped will be riding towards the Horseshoe Ranch. That’s in the opposite direction of Hope. They should be able to get back to the jail house for questioning – and relative safety – before Dodson or his men catch up with them.
Danny doesn’t look happy. He’s wearing his familiar frown.
“I know. We’ve got to get moving,” Steve says, reaching out to squeeze Danny’s shoulder. “I’ll get some water to wake this guy—”
He’s cut off by the sound of groaning. And it’s not coming from the man they’ve caught. It’s coming from the room with the light.
Guns drawn, they peer around the door.
There’s another man. This one’s not going anywhere. He’s lying on a bed, or at least that’s probably what it was at one time. Curled up on his side, he’s dressed in a dirty shirt and pants. The shirt’s sticking to his skin. He’s sweating. Shivers are wracking his body.
As they advance into the room it’s clear why. The room stinks of infection. Steve coughs as he gets closer. He wraps his scarf back over his mouth.
“Those look like burns to you?” Danny’s pointing at the man’s hands.
Steve leans in closer. He swallows down the taste of bile. “Yeah.”
Danny huffs and Steve knows it’s from frustration. They need answers. All they’ve got is more clues. Somehow they’ve got to get these two morons back to Hope. They need more time to figure this out.
Steve lets out a huff of his own. “I’ll check the horses out back.”
Danny nods but it’s clear his thoughts are elsewhere. Steve lets him have his own space. Borrowing a lantern he goes outside to the barn. He finds two horses. They’re going stir-crazy but they look well-fed. At least they’ve solved one problem, they’ve got transport for Dodson’s men.
Walking back in the house, he halts in the doorway. Danny’s kneeling down next to the first man they fought with. Only now the man’s awake and he has a cut on his cheek.
“We were talking,” Danny explains, slightly breathless. “Weren’t we, Jimmy?”
Jimmy’s not looking very comfortable. Still tied up, he’s got Danny’s knee in his back. “He’s gonna kill me if I say anything. I can’t—”
“Your friend there? Where did he get those burns?”
“Harry’s going to kill me—”
Danny leans in, his lips just inches from Jimmy’s ear. “I’m gonna kill you if you don’t.”
Steve’s blood runs cold. There’s a cold edge to Danny’s voice that sounds alien. He’s not the Sheriff right at that moment. He’s a father protecting his daughter.
Jimmy catches Steve’s eye. He looks desperate. Steve shakes his head, takes a step back.
“Okay, okay,” Jimmy blurts out, his eyes darting between them both. “Harry paid us to burn down your Pa’s barn. He said he’d pay us double if we’d figure out a way to poison the water before the cattle got there.”
Danny gets to his feet. He’s livid. “He did all of this just because I embarrassed him about one of Lottie’s girl’s?”
“You heard me—”
Steve takes a step forward. Danny’s grabbed a fistful of Jimmy’s shirt. Height-wise they’re pretty evenly matched. Anger-wise, Jimmy is seriously out-classed.
“We need him alive to talk to him,” he reminds Danny, only half-joking.
Danny nods, like he’s giving it serious thought. There’s a pause. Then he punches Jimmy, square in the stomach. “Why?” he grinds out, as Jimmy curls sideways. “Why is Harry doing this?”
“Land,” Jimmy pants, shielding his belly with his forearm. “They want your Pa’s land.”
The words collide with Steve’s brain, like a train hitting a brick wall. The memory of his family’s homestead burning bursts into his mind. Without conscious thought he’s stumbling backwards, tripping over the door frame. Getting outside, he tries to drag in cold, fresh air. His chest feels constricted, like someone’s sitting on it. Bending over, he rests his hands on his knees. In the back of his mind more bad memories are jostling for attention. Nausea threatens at the base of his throat.
The gentle pressure of a hand on his shoulder grounds him. Breathing through his nose, he forces air into his lungs.
“Don’t move,” Danny instructs, as he gets ready to do just that.
Steve shakes him off. His vision greys at the edges as he gets upright. Danny’s strong arm around his waist shores him up.
“They’re not going anywhere,” Danny says, tightening his grip as he tries to pull away again. “Take it easy. We’ve got time.”
No we don’t, Steve wants to scream but his labouring lungs won’t let him. A glance at Danny’s face tells him he knows that anyway. Danny looks as shaken as he feels.
“Why now, Danny?” he asks, a short while later. “I don’t get it. Land grabbing was outlawed years ago. Joe Dodson’s got money, right? He could buy that land from your Pa.”
Danny shakes his head. “Pa wouldn’t sell,” he says, his tone determined. “And even if he did it’s good land, better than Joe’s.”
“He wouldn’t be able to afford it.”
“No. No, he wouldn’t.” Danny’s frowns deepens as he relinquishes his grip around Steve’s waist. “We’ll take them back to town. We’re gonna need a Marshall. I’ll telegraph Denver once Doc’s had a look at the other guy.”
Steve pushes himself upright. “You’re assuming he’ll make it,” he points out as he waits for the world to stop spinning. “That infection’s got him real bad.”
“He’ll make it,” Danny promises, hovering as he follows Steve back inside. “He’s got to. He’s the best evidence we’ve got.”