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A town called Hope

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Getting the two men back to Hope turns out to be a lot more difficult than either of them thought.

Danny scowls at the sick man in the bed.  “He’s not going to be able to ride.”  He switches his gaze to Steve, standing in the doorway behind him.  “What are we going to do?”

Steve scratches at his chin.  His beard is growing back in.  “We could tie him on his horse but I doubt he’ll stay there.  Only way to do it is make a stretcher.”  He sighs, pushes himself off the doorframe.  “I’ll see what I can find out back.”

He disappears without waiting for an answer.  Danny lets him go.  They’ve only got three hours to sunrise.  It’ll take that long to get to Hope.  They can’t afford to be caught out here, where Dodson’s men can outnumber them with no witnesses.

They’ve stumbled onto something serious here.  They need to get out fast.

He hasn’t discussed it with Steve but he knows he feels the same.  It’s not long before Steve’s back, asking for help to move the stretcher he’s rigged up. 

The first horse they tie it to isn’t happy.  Not even Steve’s gentle touch can persuade it to co-operate.  In the end Jersey ends up towing it. Even he eyeballs Steve angrily.

Carrying the sick man outside isn’t easy either.  For someone who’s barely clinging onto life he’s still got a lot of fight in him.

Danny’s cursing as he secures the last tie across the man’s chest, securing him to the stretcher.  It’s lucky all the excitement seems to have drained the fight out of him because Danny’s pretty sure he’s all out of fight too. 

Across the way, Steve’s sitting on the backstep of the house.  Leaning his head against the doorframe, he smiles weakly.  “One down, one to go.”

Danny groans as he gets to his feet.  They’re both tired and running on empty.  Offering his hand, he pulls Steve up.  “It’ll be light soon.”

Steve nods, pushing himself up with his other hand.  Together they advance on Jimmy, still tied up in the hallway.

Danny’s had another conversation with Harry Dodson’s man.  He’s made it clear he’ll protect Jimmy from his boss in exchange for information about the barn and the dead cattle.  They all know it’s a promise Danny can’t keep.  Jimmy though, he obviously thinks it’s the best offer on the table, because he’s quiet as they tie him to his horse.

They tie Jimmy’s horse to Doris.  Danny holds Doris’s reins as Steve mounts.  It takes two attempts for him to swing his bad leg over the saddle.  Grimacing, he settles in.

Danny studies him in the moonlight.  Steve huffs impatiently.  Danny takes the hint, swallowing his words of concern and getting on Jersey instead.

Cautiously, they start the journey back to Hope.  They’ve taken the two lamps from the homestead to light their way.  Along with the moonlight it means they can just make out what’s in front of them.  The horses aren’t happy though, spooked by every shadow. 

Danny knows just how they feel.

By the time Hope township appears in the distance they’re both shivering with cold and tiredness.  Danny strains to hear any noise behind them.  Beside him, he can tell Steve is doing the same.  Any moment they’re expecting to hear galloping hooves. 

Slowly, the sun starts to rise.

By the time they reach Hope darkness has been replaced by light.  Danny’s fights back his disappointment.  He’d hoped they be back in the jailhouse before it got light.  On the other hand, Dodson’s men won’t ambush them in broad daylight.  Hopefully.

Steve urges Doris on, speeding up.  Danny kicks Jersey, keeping up alongside.  The sick man calls out as the stretcher bumps over the dirt.  Jimmy is still quiet.

It might be early but there are still people around.  Riding up the main street, they draw stares. There’s a woman waiting outside the jailhouse.  Danny squints.  There’s a moment when he doesn’t recognise her.  He’s never seen Lottie without her makeup.  The simple grey wool dress and white shawl are new too.

“Where have you been?” she asks as they pull up the horses beside her. 

Danny’s too tired for questions.  He waves his hand behind him instead.

Lottie peers behind him.  Her eyes widen.  “Aren’t those Joe Dodson’s men?”  Biting her lip, she looks again.  Pulling her shawl around her, she meets Danny’s gaze.  “You better hurry and get them inside.”

Danny yawns.  “I know.  One of Dodson’s men got away.  We need to be inside before Dodson sends men after us.  I reckon we’ve got another hour before—”

“No,” she jumps in before he can finish.  “You don’t understand.  The Mayor, he’s called an urgent meeting of the town council.  It’s at 9am this morning.  They sent out messengers to everyone last night.”

Even Danny’s exhausted brain doesn’t need that explaining.  Joe Dodson’s on the town council.  He’s gonna be here any time now.  Danny jumps down from Jersey’s back.  He lands awkwardly, his feet numb from the cold.  “Why?” he asks, untying the knots that are holding the stretcher.  “What’s the meeting about?”

“I don’t know.”  Lottie’s running round, to Doris’s side.  Reaching out she grabs Steve as his good foot hits the ground.  Her judgement is sound; his bad leg folds under him when he tugs his foot out of the stirrup.

“Gimme a minute,” he mutters, reaching out to grab the pommel of his saddle.  Doris waits patiently.

Lottie lets go of him, her expression doubtful.   She unknots the rope securing Jimmy’s horse while they wait, leading it over to the jailhouse and tying it to the hitching post.

Danny lowers the stretcher to the ground.  The sick man cries out as it hits the ground.  At least he’s still alive, a voice in Danny’s head reminds him as he frowns worriedly. 

The challenge of getting the sick man into the jailhouse is the one that nearly finishes them.  It takes all three of them to drag him inside, and through to the cells. 

Steve looks grey under his beard by the time they’ve finished.  Lottie’s got dried blood on her dress.  Danny feels like he could sleep for a week.  You haven’t got a week, the little voice reminds him, handing out yet more unwanted advice.  You’ve got an hour at best.

“I’ll go find Doc,” Lottie offers, already heading for the door.  “Don’t forget the other man outside.”

“Damn.”  Danny follows her out.  Jimmy’s still sitting the in the saddle.  Eyes closed, he’s rocking as the horse paws the ground at their approach.  “Sorry,” he says, patting the horse’s neck. 

Getting Jimmy inside is marginally easier.   Slinging Jimmy’s arm over his shoulder, Danny drags him inside.  Steering him through the office he takes him through to one of the cells.

Steve’s sat on the floor in the next cell, with the sick man.

“You okay?”

“Better than him,” Steve snorts, gesturing at his cell-mate. 

Danny squeezes his shoulder.  “I need to take the horses to the livery yard.  You gonna be alright here?”

“I’ll be fine,” Steve replies, tapping the revolver on his right hip.

Danny squeezes his shoulder again as he gets up.  He looks like hell, his face pinched with pain.

Danny leads the horses to the livery yard, all four at once.  It’s not ideal but he’s pretty sure if he has to do the run twice he’s going to collapse from exhaustion in the middle of the street. 

Pete Bailey, the owner, is already there, mucking out horses.  Luckily he’s not a morning person.  If he spots the Dodson ranch brand on the horses then apparently he’s not feeling sociable enough to ask about it.  All he does is nod at Danny as he ties up the horses.  Then he goes back to shovelling muck.

Danny gets out of there as fast as his tired legs will carry him.  Back in the jailhouse, he locks the door behind him.  The sound of the bolts sliding home has him sagging with relief. 

Steve looks up as he enters the cells.  His lips are pursed in a tight, white line.  While Danny’s been gone he’s got a bowl of water and a rag,  He’s using it to wash down the sick man.  “I don’t know if he’s gonna make it, Danny. He’s burning up real bad.”

Danny curses silently.  Steve’s probably right.  The smell of putrid flesh is getting stronger.  There’s no known medicine that can save a man from that.  Without this man’s evidence though all their work will go to waste.  Worse though – much worse – Joe and Harry Dodson will be free to carry on attacking his family.

That’s not going to happen.  It’s not.

Striding back to his office he retrieves a sheet of paper, ink and a pen.  Using a bench in one of the empty cells as a desk he starts writing. 

He’s half way down the page when there’s a knock at the back door.  Instantly he’s on his feet, his gun drawn.  In the next cell over, Steve’s shuffling across the floor to get a better view of the door.  Drawing his gun, he nods at Danny.

Creeping closer to the back door, Danny hunches down.  “Who’s there?”

Silence.  It seems to go on forever. Then there’s a shuffling noise, followed up with a dry cough.  “It’s Doc.”

The air in Danny’s lungs escapes with a loud huff.  He’d hadn’t realised he’d been holding his breath.  Steve slumps, his gun still gripped in his hand.

Danny slings the bolts back quickly.  Opening the door, he ushers Doc in.  A quick glance outside tells him it’s still quiet out there.  Not much longer, the voice in his head warns.  By the time he’s locked the door again, Doc’s kneeling down by the sick man, his bag open beside him.

“Those are burns,” Doc says, turning over the man’s hands.  The man groans, rolling away from the painful contact.  Doc meets Danny’s gaze.  “There’s only been one big fire round these parts lately.”

“Yeah.”

Doc looks down at the sick man, then over to Jimmy, who’s watching them from the other cell.  “They’re Joe Dodson’s boys.”

“They said they’re working for Harry.  They’re after Pa’s land.”

Understanding dawns on Doc’s face.  He looks thoughtful as sorts through his bag, looking for something.  “Ain’t nothing that Harry does that Joe don’t know about,” he says as he pulls out a small glass bottle.

“I don’t know,” Danny muses.  He’s rubs a hand across his face.  Damn, he’s tired.  “We’ll get a Marshall from Denver.  Pretty sure what Dodson’s been doing is illegal under Federal law.”

Doc huffs.  He twists the stopper on the bottle.  It comes out with a wet pop.  “I don’t know nothing about the law,” he says, lifting the sick man’s head so he can drink from the bottle.  “But I do know your boy here isn’t going to last much longer.”

“What did you just give him?”

It’s Steve who’s spoken.  His eyebrows are drawn into a sharp V of concern.

“Opium,” Doc replies, as he carefully lowers the sick man down again.  “It kills quicker than it cures.  But he’s dying anyway.  No need to make it any harder than it is.”

Steve shuffles, trying to get his bad leg under him.  Cursing, he sticks his hand out.  Danny takes it without asking.  Hooking his arm under Steve’s, he helps him up.  They stand locked together for a moment.  Then Steve shrugs him off.  Using the wall for support, he limps heavily back into the office.

“I’d offer him some,” Doc says into the silence that follows, “but I’m guessing he’s had it before.  Hallucinations,” he explains as Danny looks over.  “Nightmares.”

Silence falls again.  The opium’s working on the sick man; he’s finally stilled, his face relaxed in sleep.  His breathing’s shallow, his ribs barely moving.  The Doc’s right, Danny thinks, it won’t be much longer.

Yawning, Danny checks back in the office.  Steve’s stretched out on the cot, eyes closed, the revolver still in his hand.  Perhaps sensing he’s being watched, he opens one eye.  Closing it again, he awkwardly rolls over, so he’s facing the front door.

Danny takes the hint.  It’s been a long night for both of them - and it’s not over yet.  Sighing, he heads back to the cells.  Doc’s sitting by the sick man, waiting.  Jimmy’s watching everything.  Danny ignores him, retrieving the piece of paper from the other cell instead.  Writing several more lines on it he goes over to Jimmy’s cell.  Leaning on the bars, he shows him the piece of paper.

“This is a record of everything you said to me about the barn and poisoning the water.”

Jimmy stares at it.

“If you sign it, it means you agree with what is says.”

Jimmy shakes his head.  “I can’t read or write, Sheriff.”

“You don’t need to.  I’m going to read it to you.”

Jimmy frowns as Danny starts reading.  Danny’s not surprised.  Writing down evidence isn’t used much out West, there’s no point when a lot of people can’t read.  But he’s heard of Marshalls accepting letters as evidence.  Joe Dodson isn’t going to go quietly.  They need all the help they can get.

Danny finishes.  He shows Jimmy the page again.  “Do you agree with what it says?”

Jimmy scrubs at his forehead with his hand.  “I don’t know…” His eyes flit around, wildly, as if looking for a way out.  “Harry’s gonna kill me when he finds out I talked.”

Danny quashes his growing sense of frustration.  They haven’t got time for this.  “I told you, I’ll do everything I can to keep you safe from Harry—”

“That ain’t gonna help when he comes in here with guns—”

Danny cuts him off with a stab of his hand.  He doesn’t need Jimmy voicing his worse fears. 

“Son.  Listen to him.  He’s trying to help you.”

Jimmy looks over at Doc. His face twists with anger as he gestures at the sick man.  “Buck’s hands didn’t go bad until we killed that steer.  We sent a message to Harry, told him we needed you, Doc.”  His expression morphs into bitter disappointment.  “You didn’t come.”

Doc looks down at the sick man.  Buck.  His face is weighed down with sorrow.  “I’m sorry,” he says, meeting Jimmy’s eyes.  “Harry never asked me to come find you.  If he had I might have been able to help your friend.”

Jimmy stares, uncertainty written across his face.  “Harry, he wouldn’t do that…” He trails off, wiping his nose with the back of his hand.  He sniffs, looking away.  “I don’t see how a piece of paper’s gonna help—”

“You did what you did,” Doc explains, evenly.  “There ain’t no way of getting away from that.  But that piece of paper, it proves someone asked you to do those things.  Maybe the Judge will go easy on you when he reads it.”

Jimmy considers it.  “Really?”

Doc nods.  “Really.”

“Okay.”  He waves vaguely at Danny and the paper he’s holding.

Danny glances over at Buck.  Shame makes him look away.  He’d been so obsessed with finding answers, he hadn’t bothered to find out a dying man’s name.  Angry with himself he shoves the paper and pen through the bars to Jimmy.  He mimics writing a giant ‘X’.  Taking it back, he heads to the office.  Steve’s sitting up in the cot, his revolver resting in his lap.

“Do you think they’ll come?” Steve asks, his tiredness clear in his voice.

Danny doesn’t need to ask who he’s talking about.  “I’ll be surprised if they don’t.”

“Better be prepared then,” he sighs, getting slowly to his feet.  Wincing, he limps over to the gun cabinet, pulls out a shotgun and starts checking it.

“Danny!  You in there?”

Danny almost drops the piece of paper.  Steve looks equally surprised. The shouting voice isn’t the one he’s been dreading.  It’s his Pa and he’s on the other side of the front door.  They both stare at the door, nonplussed.

Danny’s brain catches up.  “Pa’s a member of the town council,” he explains, as he lets him in.

As his Pa walks in, John close behind him, Danny thinks he’s never been so happy to see someone in his life.  Some of what he’s thinking must be showing on his face.  Pa wraps an arm around his shoulder and pulls him in.

“We saw Lottie,” Pa says as he lets Danny go.  “You boys okay?”

Danny snorts.  “We’re fine.”

“Looks like it,” John says, studying Danny and Steve in turn.

Danny shrugs off his concern.  He’s got more important things on his mind.  Letting his head drop, he mentally works out what he needs to say.  Gradually, he gets his thoughts together.  Taking a deep breath, he explains where they’ve been during the night.

By the time he’s finished, Pa’s pacing the length of the office.  His face is red with anger.  John’s watching him, his face like thunder.  Steve’s sitting by the desk, his bad leg stretched out in front of him.

“I’m going to talk to Joe,” Pa’s saying, “he’s not gonna get away with this, Danny.  I’m going to make sure that—”

Danny raises both hands.  “Listen to me, Pa.  I’m handling it—”

“I know but Joe’s not going to listen—”

“Which is why I’m going to wire for a Marshall—”

“I don’t agree with—”

They never find out what Pa doesn’t agree with.  There’s the sound of boots thudding outside.  It’s accompanied by voices shouting.  Danny’s blood runs cold. 

Joe Dodson’s arrived.  And he’s not alone.

Damn. 

“We can’t let them in here,” Steve says quietly, breaking the tense silence that’s fallen over the jailhouse.  “If things turn bad we’ll need witnesses.”

Danny pulls out his revolver.  He nods as Steve does the same.  “Pa, you and John need to lock the door behind us.  Whatever happens, don’t come out until—"

“No.” Pa shakes his head, vehemently. “It’s my land too, son. My family.”   John steps up behind him.  His meaning is clear.

“Sheriff!  Open this door!  I know you’ve got my men in there!”

“He don’t sound too happy,” Steve mutters.

Danny half-smiles at the dry sarcasm.  “I wonder why that is?”

Steve raises one eyebrow.  “Maybe we should go find out.”

“Maybe we should.”  Puffing out his cheeks, Danny exhales slowly.  He can hear his heart beating in his ears.  “We’re coming out,” he yells as he pulls back the first bolt.  The last thing he wants to do is surprise Joe Dodson and his men.

He goes out first.  Putting out his hand, he stops Pa following next.  Steve steps up beside him, a reassuring shadow at his back.  Pa and John follow close behind.

Joe’s standing outside on the walkway.  His right hand is resting on handle of his gun.  He’s got a handful of men with him, some armed with shotguns.  Standing on his right, grinning widely, is Harry.

Danny quashes the urge to punch him.  He’s vaguely aware that Steve’s still moving, placing himself a few steps away.  It means that between them they can see all of Dodson’s men.  It won’t help them in a firefight – they’re still hugely outnumbered.  But it might be enough to dissuade them from drawing their guns in the first place.

The last time he’d seen Joe Dodson had been when he and Steve visited his ranch.  He’s still exuding arrogance.  Danny tells himself not to rise to the bait.  “Can I help you?”

Joe tilts his head.  His free hand comes to rest on his hip.  “You’ve got my men, Sheriff.  I want them back.”

“I’ve arrested them, Joe.”  He glances over at Harry and back again.  “I think you know why.”

“No, I can’t say I do.”

Danny sticks out his bottom lip as the considers that.  Joe’s a darn good actor but this time his eyes have given him away.  He knows Harry has been up to something.  The question is, does he know exactly what Harry’s done?

Danny enlightens him.

Neither Joe or Harry react, not until Pa angrily throws in his own thoughts at the end.  Danny almost misses the flicker of triumph in Harry’s eyes.  It’s clear Joe’s son is enjoying this.  He already thinks he’s won.

“I’ve got evidence,” Danny tells them through gritted teeth, “evidence I’m gonna show to a Marshall.  Maybe even a Judge.  You’re going to prison, Harry.  I’m gonna make that happen if it’s the last thing I ever do.”

Harry takes a step forward.  His hand drifts down to his gun.  “You’ve got nothing, Sheriff.”

Danny stares coldly at him.  There’s panic in Harry’s voice.  “Your boys talked,” he tells him.  “They told us everything.”

Harry throws a terrified glance at his father.  Finding no help there he appeals to Danny instead.  “You can’t do this.”

Danny smiles.  “I already have.”

Joe tilts his head the other way.  His lips turn down.  The hand on his gun doesn’t move.

Danny tells himself to breathe, just breathe for crying out loud.

“We’re done here.  For now.”

Danny blinks.  Joe’s turning to go.  This isn’t the reaction he was expecting.  Risking a glance at Steve, he can tell he’s equally surprised.  Their surprise though is nothing compared to Harry’s.

“What? No.”

“We’ll be back,” Joe growls, already walking away.

“Pa.  You can’t let him—”  Harry breaks off, desperately looking around for help.  “They’ll arrest me.”

Most of Joe’s men have followed him.  A couple have hung back.  Steve’s watching them from his vantage point, eyes narrowed.  His stance screams ‘back off’.  One by one, they take the hint.

Harry is alone.

Behind him, Danny can hear John whispering to his Pa, telling him to go back into the jailhouse.  It’s a good idea.  They’re done here – at least for the moment.  They need to regroup, decide what to do next.

Danny meets Harry’s eyes, nods at him.  Taking a step back, he turns to go.

Adrenaline’s the only thing keeping him upright.  Now the excitement’s over exhaustion is muscling its way back in.  He stumbles as his foot catches on the edge of a wood board.   Twisting, he catches movement out of the corner of his eye.  Harry Dodson’s face is warped with blind fury.  He’s got his hand on his revolver and he’s about to draw.

There’s a yell of warning off to his right.  Danny grabs his own gun, yanking it out of its holster.  He’s already too late and he knows it. Bracing himself for the pain that he knows is coming, his last thought is of Grace and Rachel.  His little lady is going to grow up without her Ma or Pa.

A gun goes off, the sound echoing off the buildings.  Another shot goes off, the sound mirroring the first.

Danny falls to his knees. 

Pain shoots through his legs as he hits the wooden boards.  His palms hit the ground with a thud that vibrates all the way to his shoulders.  But there’s no pain anywhere else and that’s confusing.  Still on all fours, he looks round.

Harry Dodson’s sprawled on the ground behind him, laying on his back.  In one hand he’s got his revolver.  The other is pressed against his chest.  Underneath his splayed fingers is a rapidly growing blood stain.

Steve’s still standing where Danny last saw him.  He’s staring at Harry, his eyes wide with horror.  His own gun is hanging limply at his side, wisps of smoke floating from the barrel.  The smell of cordite is strong in the air.

“No!”

Joe’s running back up the main street, his men close behind.  There’s a scream from someone watching on the other side of the street.   Danny flinches as a hand lands on his shoulder.  Looking up, he realises it’s his Pa.

“Get up,” his Pa’s saying.  “Get up now.” Danny doesn’t need telling again.  Scrabbling to his feet, he lets his Pa take his weight for a moment.  He feels like he’s about to empty the contents of his stomach on his boots.

He’s just in time.  Joe Dodson throws himself down beside his son.  Slipping one hand under Harry’s head, he presses the other over the blood stain.  Joe’s talking to him, telling him to hold on.  They can all see it’s too late though.  Harry’s body is limp, his eyes glassy. 

A few minutes later, Harry’s gone.

Joe carefully lays his youngest son back down.  He rests his hands on his chest for a few moments longer.  Then slowly he gets to his feet.  Behind him his men are getting restless, their angry voices rising in volume.  Joe looks Danny in the eye.  Then he moves on, Pa first, then John.  Finally he settles on Steve.

“Send a message to the Marshall in Denver,” he shouts to the crowd that’s rapidly growing around them. “This man murdered my son.”

TBC