The next few minutes pass in a blur. John herds Pa back into the jailhouse. Danny grabs Steve. Hauling him inside he slams the door closed behind them. Breathing hard, he slides the bolts home. Resting his palms against the wood, he wills his body to stop trembling.
“That shooting I hear out there?”
Danny turns, slowly.
Doc’s standing in the doorway between the office and the cells. The piece of fabric he’s wiping his hands on is stained with blood. “Anyone out there need my help?”
Steve’s slumped on the cot, resting his head in his hands. His gun is resting in his lap. Not looking up, he shakes his head.
Doc raises his eyebrows. He turns his attention to the other men in the jailhouse office. Pa is sitting on the chair, John’s perched on the table next to him. Their shocked expressions speak volumes.
Danny knows he should say something. But he’s still unable to believe what just happened. How the hell had everything gone so wrong, so fast?
His legs feel like rubber when he walks over to the cot. He falls into it, his shoulder banging into Steve’s. Rubbing his hands over his face he realises Doc is still waiting for an answer. “Harry Dodson, he tried to kill me,” he says, his voice muffled. “Steve killed him first.”
Doc rubs the side of his nose with his forefinger. “Good.”
Steve raises his head. “No. It’s not good.”
“You saved his life, son,” Pa says, quietly. “He would have killed Danny if you hadn’t taken the shot.”
Steve drops his head again. “Joe Dodson isn’t gonna see it that way.”
Danny’s stomach twists painfully at the despair in Steve’s voice. It reminds him Steve’s been here before. “That’s not going to happen,” he promises, nudging Steve’s shoulder with his own. “Lots of people saw what happened. They’ll tell the Marshall.”
Steve snorts. There’s no humour in the sound at all.
Danny nudges Steve, harder this time. His heartbeat quickens, responding to the panic he’s starting to feel. He needs Steve to understand. They had a plan. “We’ll get the Marshall to speak to those men,” he says, gesturing towards the cells “and they’ll tell him about the barn. The Marshall will arrest Joe Dodson and—”
Steve laughs out loud.
Danny grabs his arm. “We’ve got evidence—”
Steve snatches it away. “We’ve got nothing,” he snaps, struggling to his feet. “Those men in there, they were afraid of Harry Dodson. They were only talking to us because we could keep them safe. Now Harry’s dead, they’re off the hook. We failed, Danny.”
Outside, the voices have grown louder. One of them has a heavy Scottish lilt. Danny recognises it instantly. It’s the undertaker, come to collect Harry Dodson’s body. Over the top of all of them he can hear Joe Dodson yelling, anguish threaded through every word.
Steve’s listening too. He groans. “I gotta get out of here—”
Danny’s the one who’s yelled but Pa’s on his feet too. Raising his hands for calm, he meets Steve’s gaze. “It’s gonna be okay, son.”
Steve puts his gun in its holster. His eyes briefly settles on Danny, before returning to Pa. “I appreciate it, Sir,” he says, sadly. “I really do. But Joe’s not gonna let this go. I don’t think a Marshall will either.” He exhales, the air catching in his throat. “I shot a man. It doesn’t matter if I was wearing a badge or not. I killed his son. Joe’s gonna be out for my blood.”
“I know.” Pa’s voice is calm, even. Determined. “We’ll get a lawyer and fix this. We’ll make sure everyone knows what Joe and Harry have been doing. Joe’s the one who’s gonna be locked up not—"
John’s words cut through the charged atmosphere. Everyone in the room turns to look at him. His expression is apologetic as he looks at Steve. “Joe Dodson knows all the local Marshalls. He’s been paying them off for years.”
Danny waves him away. “So we get a lawyer—”
Pa nods. “I know someone over in Denver who can help us—”
“No.” Steve’s straightening his shoulders like he’s squaring up for a fight. “John’s right—”
“Neither of you are right.” Danny plants his fists on his hips. He knows if he doesn’t he’s going to hit something. “We have time to figure this out. A Marshall won’t be here for at least a day.”
John’s expression is sympathetic but it’s clear he doesn’t agree. He tilts his head, gesturing outside.
Danny listens. The feeling of dread grows. Joe Dodson’s not out there now. He’s probably gone to the undertaker’s with his son’s body. There’re still plenty of angry voices though. Harry Dodson wasn’t liked but his death has angered at least some of his father’s men.
John sighs, getting to his feet. He looks incredibly tired. “It’s payday tomorrow,” he reminds them, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Steve can’t be here when the rest of Dodson’s men come into town.”
Danny swears loudly and with feeling. He’d been so obsessed with Harry Dodson he’d lost track of the days. “He’ll be safe at the ranch, at least for a few days.”
Even as he’s making the suggestion, Danny knows it’s futile. Steve tries for a grateful smile but he looks wretched.
”You know I can’t do that. Grace and your Ma are there.”
“But you didn’t do anything wrong.” Anger flares. The pain of his fist hitting the stone wall is welcome. It’s better than the overwhelming feeling of helplessness.
A hand wraps around Danny’s wrist, pulling his arm away before he can strike the wall again. He’s turned around, against his will.
“I killed a man,” Steve says, tightening his grip on Danny’s wrist as he opens his mouth to argue. “That’s wrong.”
“You saved someone’s life.”
It’s Pa who’s spoken. Danny feels a spark of hope. It’s instantly extinguished when he looks at his Pa’s face. It’s heavy with sorrow.
“I’m sorry, son. They’re right. We need to get Steve out of here.”
Danny shakes his head. Everything’s moving too fast. There must be another way. “He can’t go out there.”
The door to the cells creaks open. It draws everyone’s attention. Doc steps through, closing it behind him. “I was listening,” he confesses, raising a hand in apology. “I got my wagon out back. I’ll take him.”
John nods, chewing on his bottom lip. “That might work,” he agrees, raising his eyebrows as he looks over at Steve. “You lay in the back. We can cover you over. No one will look.”
Steve bristles. He pulls himself up to his full height. “I’m not leaving Doris.”
“We can tie her to the back.”
Danny dismisses Doc’s idea with a wave of his hand. “They’ll recognise her.”
Doc pulls a face. “I don’t think so. They’re used to seeing me heading out of town. I doubt they’ll notice me go. And if they do…” He shrugs. “The Army didn’t just teach me how to fix broken bones.”
No. No, Steve’s not leaving. “Doc—”
“That’ll work,” Pa cuts in before Danny can voice his protest. “We’ve got supplies out at the livery barn. Ma packed our saddlebags. Tell Pete I sent you,” he says, pointing at Doc. He gestures over at Steve. “Make sure this boy’s got food.”
Doc’s already moving, heading for the back door. Danny looks at Steve, willing him to stop this. Steve doesn’t make eye contact. His dejected body language says it all. He’s resigned to his fate.
“He’s gonna need ammunition. A shotgun too.”
Danny blinks. Pa’s talking to him.
Steve stirs. “I’ll get them.” Wincing, he heads for the gun cabinet.
Danny reaches out to stop him. How the hell can he be going along with this?
Pa appears in front of him, blocking his view. He puts a hand on his shoulder. “You got paper?” he asks, quietly.
The question catches Danny off-balance. He answers automatically; “Top drawer.”
Like a man caught in a waking nightmare, Danny watches his Pa sit at the desk. Pulling out two sheets of paper, ink and a pen he starts writing. A few feet away from him, John’s helping Steve with the guns and ammunition.
The noise outside has died down. It’s been replaced by the clink of metal against metal as John counts out bullets and packs them into Steve’s saddlebag, retrieved from underneath the desk. Behind him Steve’s got the gun cabinet open. Thumb rubbing at his temple, he’s checking out the shotguns.
Pa stops writing. Sliding the sheets so they’re side-by-side, he reads them again. One he folds into four. The other he folds in half.
“Your pay,” he announces, offering it to Steve. “Take it to the bank in the next township. They know me. They’ll honour it.”
Steve puts down the shotgun he’s holding. Taking the paper, he unfolds it. His eyes widen in shock. “This is two month’s pay. I can’t take this, Sir. I’ve only been working for you for one—”
“This is a letter of introduction,” Pa pushes on, handing over the other letter. “James McGill. He owns the Second Circle ranch, three days from here. I’ve explained what’s happened. Show this to him. He’ll find you work.”
Steve’s looking at the piece of paper like it’s about to explode on him. “I appreciate it but—”
Pa pushes back the chair, getting to his feet. “Ask Doc. He’ll give you directions.” He pauses, looks away. “I’m sorry it’s got to be this way, Steve. I really am.”
Pa sticks out his hand. When Steve takes it, he pulls him in. “It’s not. Don’t ever think that.” With a sigh he lets him go. “This is a poor way to thank the man who saved my son’s life – twice.”
Danny catches his Pa’s eye. The emotion he sees there takes his breath away. Pa waves him away when he steps forward.
“We’ve got work to do,” Pa announces with feigned enthusiasm, gesturing at John. “You saw Joe’s face, Danny. He knew exactly what Harry was doing. We need to tell the town what really happened. It’s time they knew what a bastard Joe Dodson is.”
Danny’s heartrate shoots skywards again. “Now? I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
The corners of Pa’s lips quirk upwards. It’s a ghost of his usual smile. Walking over to Danny, he grips his shoulder. “We won’t do anything stupid.” He taps the side of his head. “Brains, Danny. They’ll beat the gun every time. That’s how we’ll bring Dodson down.”
Danny stuffs his hands in his pockets. A month ago he would have agreed. Now the words leave a sour taste in his mouth. Using their brains is what got them here. It’s not a place he wants to be.
Across the office, John’s shaking Steve’s hand. Steve’s clutching Pa’s letters against his chest.
John’s saying something but Danny doesn’t hear. His brain’s still racing through the ‘what-ifs’. Desperation is making it hard to think straight. Lost in thought he doesn’t notice Pa and John have left. When he looks up its just him and Steve.
Steve tucks the papers into his saddle bag. Carefully he buckles it up. He stares at it for a moment. Finally he turns. “I…um…” He jerks his thumb at the back door. “I…I gotta go.”
Danny throws his hands in the air. “This isn’t right.” Steve answering shrug enrages him even more. “How can you be so calm about this?”
Steve sticks out his hand. It’s trembling.
A wave of desolation hits Danny front and centre. He takes a step forward. “I’m coming with you.”
Steve turns his back. His spine is rigid under his jacket. He slings the saddlebags over his shoulder. “That won’t work,” he says, turning back. “Dodson’s men will spot you straight away.”
Danny stutters. Blinding anger is robbing him of the ability to speak. “I’m the Sheriff. I can’t just let them run you out of town.”
Steve grabs him by the biceps. He’s trying for a smile. His eyes are dark pools of misery. “I’m not running,” he says, softly. “I’m leaving of my own free will.”
“They need you, here, Danny. Your family, this town. More than ever, you need to be here.”
“We had a plan.”
“We did. It worked. We saved your home. Grace’s home.”
Danny shakes his head. Their plan, it hadn’t worked at all. “It’s not fair.”
Steve snorts. “Life isn’t fair. You know that…babe.”
Danny smiles despite himself. “Babe?”
“Yeah.” Steve manages a wonky smile of his own. “Apparently it’s a Jersey thing.” Looking down he sighs. Slowly he unpins his Deputy’s badge. “Thanks for letting me wear this,” he says, turning it over in his hand.
Danny swallows hard. “If I remember right, you took it.” He takes a step back. “It’s yours. Keep it.”
Steve stares at it, his expression wistful. Then, with slow deliberation, he places it on the desk.
Danny opens his mouth to protest but suddenly the air’s being squeezed out of his lungs. Steve’s wrapping him in a bear hug. Danny holds on, squeezing back.
He’s always hated goodbyes. He can remember clearly the last time he held Rachel in his arms. There’s always this moment at the end where your arms are empty, when your chest feels hollow and you can’t breathe.
The feeling is almost as bad as he remembers. Steve pulls away, not meeting Danny’s eyes. Grabbing his hat and the shotgun he limps heavily to the back door. Then he’s gone, the door slamming shut behind him.
Danny concentrates on his breathing. He’s finding it so hard to get air in. His vision’s blurred. The office feels oppressive again, like it’s slowly sucking the life out of him. For a while back there he’d actually started thinking about the future, in a way he hadn’t since Rachel died. Now he feels like he’s back at square one.
He hears the front door opening. He can’t bring himself to care. When Lottie appears his breath hitches in his lungs.
Her face clouds over with worry as she comes in, closing the door behind her. Her gaze come to rest on the Deputy’s badge on the desk. “No, don’t tell me,” she whispers brokenly, as he goes to do just that. “That way I won’t have to lie if anyone asks.”
She stretches out her arms to him. Danny walks into them, gratefully.
Outside he can hear more raised voices. The two men in the cells need checking on. So do his Pa and John. Tomorrow the ranch hands will be coming into town to spend their money. There’s so much he should be worrying about. But all he can think about is Steve, hiding in the back of Doc’s wagon. He starts praying they’ll make it out of town.
Steve bites back a groan of pain as Doc’s wagon jolts sharply. Lying on his side, his knees are nearly touching his chin. Doc’s covered him over with sack cloth. It stinks of horse feed.
His body is heavy with exhaustion. All he wants to do is sleep. His mind though is like a terrified animal, running around in scared circles inside his head.
He’s not sure how long they’ve been travelling. It feels like forever. His muscles are tense, waiting for the sound of galloping hooves and angry voices, for the moment when he’ll have to fight for his life.
Suddenly the wagon stops.
Steve holds his breath. A few feet away he can hear Doris huffing. He reaches out further with his hearing, straining to pick up any other sounds. Doc’s talking to his horses. Then the wagon rocks as he jumps down.
The sack cloth is pulled back. Steve jerks in reaction. His bad leg cramps at the sudden movement. Every muscle in his body screams in protest.
Doc’s face appears over the side of the wagon. Eyes narrowed, he purses his lips. “Let’s get you out of there, son,” he says, already offering a hand.
Getting out hurts like hell. He’s puffing by the time Doc’s got him on his feet. Holding onto the back of the wagon, he waits for the pain to die down. Looking around him he finds a welcome distraction.
They’ve come to a halt next to a stream. On the far side there’s a small collection of small wooden huts. Most of them are derelict, just a stack of logs.
“Where are we?”
Doc’s up front, checking his horses. “Back in the day, the early settlers thought there was gold here,” he explains, running his hand down one of the horse’s legs.
Steve raises his eyebrows in surprise. “Did they find any?”
“Nope,” Doc replies dryly, moving round to check another leg. “That’s why they left.”
Steve lets go of the wagon. The pain’s back down to a manageable level. He still feels like he could sleep for a week. There’s no way that’s gonna happen. He and Doris need to get out of here. Dragging his saddlebags out of the wagon, he slings them onto Doris’s back.
“Hang on, there.”
Steve smiles his thanks as Doc walks towards him. “I gotta go before—”
Doc shakes his head at him. “Got something to show you.”
Steve looks over his shoulder, back the way they’ve come. Every instinct is telling him to keep moving. Those same instincts are telling him he can trust Doc.
He shrugs. Doc gestures at him to follow. They cross the stream, weaving their way around the huts. Doc stops at one that’s not in bad shape. It’s sheltered by a row of trees. From the other side of the stream, it’s hard to spot.
Doc pushes the door open. Inside, spread out on the dirt floor, there’s food, blankets and cooking utensils.
“I sleep here sometimes,” Doc says, before Steve can ask him. “Demons,” he adds, tapping the side of his head. “Sometimes it’s best to be out here on my own, with the ghosts.”
Steve frowns but doesn’t ask what that means. He’s pretty sure he knows.
“You can rest here until tomorrow.”
Steve blinks. “No. No, I can’t. They can’t be far behind—”
Doc places a hand on his shoulder, cutting him off. “They would have caught up with us by now,” he says softly. “That means no one saw us leave. Danny and his Pa won’t let them in the jailhouse. Lottie neither, come to that. Tomorrow, when Danny has to start locking up drunk ranch hands, that’s when they’re gonna notice you’ve gone.”
Shit. “Danny. I left him on his own to handle—”
“Danny’ll be fine,” Doc says, giving his shoulder a tap. “There’s a lot of us in town who like the way he does things. He’s not as alone as he thinks.”
Steve wants to believe him. He really does. It’s the adrenaline still coursing through his veins that is making him doubt.
“You need to rest, son. You’ve got some hard riding ahead of you. Tomorrow you can ride into the next township. It’ll be full of ranch hands, just like Hope. No one’ll notice one more man collecting his pay.”
“Let’s move the horses and wagon behind the huts,” Doc replies, already walking out, heading for the stream. “I’ll keep watch for a couple of hours while you get some sleep. People are used to seeing me here. They ain’t gonna think it’s strange.”
Steve’s body makes the decision for him. He’s too tired, in too much pain, to even walk back over the stream. He watches as Doc brings the horses and wagon over then limps behind, one hand on Doris’s neck.
Back in the hut there’s water and dried beef. Stretched out on his bedroll, Steve accepts both gratefully. He considers opening the whiskey but there doesn’t seem much point. He knows it won’t help, not when things are this bad.
“Here you go. Try this.”
Doc’s kneeling down beside him. He’s got a small round tin in his hand. Inside it are green bundles. They look like leaves, rolled tightly together.
“An old Indian fella taught me how to make them,” Doc explains, picking one up between his finger and thumb. “You suck the juices out. Don’t chew. Don’t swallow ‘em.” He taps the side of his head. “They make things…better.”
Steve hesitates. He used them, a long time ago. They don’t remove pain, just make you forget it for a while. Sometimes they even help you sleep.
“It’s not opium, son—”
“I know but—”
Doc sticks the tin under his nose. “Take one. Tomorrow, you gotta ride.”
Unfortunately there’s no arguing with that logic. Steve takes one, pops it in his mouth. They taste as horrible as he remembers. It’s not long before he starts feeling the effects. Sighing with relief, he stretches out on his bedroll.
He’s vaguely aware of Doc moving around outside, talking to the horses. A while later, Doc reappears. Sitting down in the doorway, he lights a pipe. As Steve’s brain finally slows down, Doc starts puffing. Thick smoke drifts in the air.
When Steve comes fully awake again it’s much later. The light through the doorway is grey. There’s no sign of Doc. Behind the hut, there’s the sound of horse hooves crunching over the dirt. There’s the sound of boots too.
Steve’s grabbing for his shotgun when a shadow falls over the doorway. He cocks it, bringing it up to his shoulder. His finger’s hovering over the trigger when the shadow materialises into Doc. He’s bringing Doris in behind him.
“Rain coming,” Doc says as if he hasn’t got the barrel of a shotgun pointing at his face. “I gotta head back into town.”
“Okay,” Steve stutters, words failing him. He lowers the gun. He’s not sure what he’s supposed to say. His brain feels like it’s crawling through mud.
“Take whatever you need,” Doc’s saying as he ties Doris to a hook in the wall. He gestures at the meagre belongings on the floor. “I know it ain’t much but it might help you.”
“I can’t do that—”
Doc shrugs. “It’s just…stuff. No matter to me.”
Steve nods, as Doc turns to leave. “Thank you.” The words sound shallow to his ears.
Before he can say anything else though, Doc’s gone. A moment later he hears the sound of wagon wheels and hooves splashing through the stream. Gradually they fade into the distance.
He’s on his own, again.
Not quite, he reminds himself. Struggling to his feet, he checks on Doris. She nuzzles his hand in welcome but she doesn’t seem hungry. Something else to thank Doc for, he thinks.
A rumble of thunder sounds, off in the distance. Through the door he can see a bank of dark clouds, heavy with rain. Doc’s got away just in time. It looks like the bad weather is settling in.
Closing the door, he wedges it shut from the inside using a rock. He’s plunged into near darkness. The hut doesn’t have a window. There’s a lamp but if he lights it he risks discovery. He can’t light the wood burner either. On the other hand, the bad weather will stop people travelling. And the tracks from Doc’s wagon will be washed away in the rain.
As the first drops hit the roof Doris whinnies softly. She’s still wearing her saddle and bridle. Patting her on the neck, Steve considers his options. With a sigh, he takes the saddle off, leaving just the bridle. It’s a risk. But Doris needs her rest too.
Limping over to his bedroll, he stretches out. The temperature’s already starting to drop. Grabbing Doc’s blankets, he tucks them around himself. Placing the shotgun beside him, he pulls out his revolver and rests it on his chest.
Closing his eyes, he tries to relax.
His brain doesn’t want to co-operate. In his mind’s eye he imagines he’s sitting on the veranda at the Double L ranch. He can hear Danny and his Pa talking in the office, laughing over a glass of east coast rye. Danny’s Ma is moving around inside the house, the smell of cooking wafting from the kitchen. Occasionally there’s a high pitched giggle from Grace, the sound of small feet running over the floorboards.
In front of him he can see the newly built livery barn. Horses whinny softly to each other inside. Across the way is the bunkhouse with the ranch hands. Raucous laughter floats out. He imagines he’s lying on his bunk, listing to the men talking. He’d enjoyed being in their company, the way they’d looked out for each other despite not always getting on
It feels so real he wants to reach out and touch it. He wants to taste Ma’s cooking, he wants to smell the east coast rye. He wants to be in the livery barn, grooming the horses, talking to them softly as he works. Most of all he wants to talk to Danny, to be galloping across the prairie beside him, without a care in the world.
Tears leak from beneath his eyelids. Running his palm over his face, he wipes them away.
He’s used to being lonely. That’s not why he’s upset. It’s the crushing feeling of homesickness. He has no idea how to deal with that.