Steve stares at the roof of the bunkhouse. Folding his arms behind his head he shuffles to get comfortable. The mattress is lumpy, stuffed with a mixture of straw and sawdust. He’s on the top bunk, squeezed under a sloping roof. There’s a gap in it he can fit his fist in. Some nights it lets the rain in. But in the three months he’s been living here he’s gradually got used to it.
Pa Williams had been right. His friend, James McGill, had found work for him. In reality it hadn’t been that straightforward – unsurprisingly they’d been suspicious – but it feels like they’re finally starting to trust him.
He’s still treated as the new guy though. They’re not letting him near the pedigree horses or even the cattle. He gets the menial tasks. Today that means he had to get up extra early and tonight he’ll be last to sleep. The advantage is that he gets time free during the day, which is why he’s staring at the roof of the bunkhouse when everyone else is busy outside.
The time’s dragging. He could find someone to talk to, maybe offer to help with other chores. The trouble is, he’s not feeling sociable. He’d gotten used to hanging out with an opinionated Sheriff with a ballsy attitude. Everyone else seems…boring.
Yawning, he closes his eyes. The hole in the roof is letting in sunlight. It’s stuffy inside and hot as a furnace. Grimacing he tries to block it all out.
“McGarrett. Someone here to see you.”
Steve opens one eye. There’s a ranch hand who he vaguely recognises, standing in the doorway. He hasn’t bothered to learn his name. Steve closes his eye again. “Tell ‘em to go away. I’m busy.”
“Can’t do that. He’s wearing a badge.”
Steve’s mind goes blank with panic. His heartrate accelerates. He opens his eyes.
The ranch hand has disappeared again.
Cursing, he slides off the top bunk. Grabbing hold of the mattress for balance, he forces himself to breathe slowly. Ever since he left Hope he’s been expecting this moment, always looking over his shoulder waiting for the blade to fall. There was no way Joe Dodson or the Marshalls would give up looking for him. He’s been living on borrowed time.
There’s nowhere to run to this time.
He drags in a shuddering breath. Taking another one, he picks up his saddlebags from the end of the bed. Opening them he takes out his clean shirt, underclothes, jacket, shaving kit and spare ammunition. In the bottom there’s a bundle, wrapped in an oilskin.
Carefully he pulls it out. Laying it on the mattress, he unwraps the oilcloth. Inside there’s his father’s old watch and a photograph. The watch he puts in his shirt pocket. The picture he runs his finger tips over. It’s a photo of him, Mary and Aunt Deb. It’s the only one he owns. It had been taken not long before he’d killed the man in Denver.
Mary had loved having her photograph taken. Aunt Deb had borrowed dresses for both of them. They’d spent hours dressing their hair and applying makeup. They both look so beautiful, with beaming, happy smiles. He, on the other hand, looks like an idiot. His hair has a severe parting on one side. They’d insisted on trying to stick down his curls. He’s wearing a white starched collar and a borrowed suit and waistcoat that’s much too small for him. He’d been unable to move without popping the buttons. As a consequence, he looks like he’s got a stick shoved up his ass.
Mary had laughed mercilessly the first time she saw the photograph. He can still hear her laughter in his head.
He stares at the photo for a long moment. It feels like a giant hand’s squeezing his heart. The last he’d heard they were still both okay in Denver. He’d thought maybe – just maybe – if he could keep this job he’d save enough to go back and visit.
That visit isn’t going to happen now.
A sound between a sob and a groan escapes from his throat. Grabbing the photo, he tucks it inside his shirt. He’s got no idea what’s going to happen once the Marshall arrests him but he’s pretty sure he won’t be able to take his belongings with him.
He packs the rest of his belongings back in the saddlebags then hangs them back over the end of the bed. His hat’s sitting next to it. He leaves it. Where he’s going it won’t be much use.
Squaring his shoulders, he steps outside.
The ranch house is a couple of hundred yards in front of him. The sun’s in his eyes. He can see the outline of the building if he squints. He curses as he trips and his leg wobbles under him. Gritting his teeth, he rights himself. The Marshall’s gonna be watching. There’s no way he’s falling on his face in front of him.
Off to his right is the corral. A horse whinnies. He forces himself not to look. Doris is in there. She’ll be fine, he tells himself as he carries on walking. They’re good people here. They won’t let her go hungry.
He swallows down the lump in his throat.
Getting closer to the house he can see the outline of a man and a horse, standing to one side. Briefly he considers running for it, grabbing Doris and trying his luck. Shaking his head, he laughs at that mental image. Hysteria is setting in.
Just as he gets to the house a cloud passes over the sun. Suddenly, he can see everything clearly. The man and horse are revealed.
It’s Danny, with Jersey.
Relief hits him like a tornado. Steve’s legs fold under him. He stumbles, throwing his arms out to save himself.
“Whoa. Whoa.” Danny’s there beside him, tucking his shoulder his arm. “Damn, you look like you’ve seen a ghost, babe.”
Steve lets Danny lower him to the first step on the porch. “I thought…” Words are sticking in his throat. “I thought you were a Marshall.”
Danny sits down beside him. He looks horrified. “Have you been…” He shakes his head. “All this time you’ve been waiting…”
Steve blinks. He still can’t quite believe what he’s seeing. Narrowing his eyes, he looks at Danny. “You look awful.” He’s pretty sure Danny’s lost a few pounds.
Danny snorts. “I’ve been riding for three days.” He tries for a smile but it fades. “You don’t look so good either.”
Steve shrugs. He’s got too many questions to answer Danny’s one. “Don’t get me wrong, Danny. I’m pleased to see you. Real pleased. But I figured you wouldn’t ride out here. If someone finds out where you’ve gone then—”
Danny stops him with a wave of his hand. He pauses, tucking his hands in his lap. “Things have…happened since you left. We…we agreed I should come find you.”
“Me. Ma and Pa. John.” Danny smiles at him, sideways. “Lottie found out I was going on a ‘business trip’ too. She sends her love.”
Steve looks away, an unexpected wave of emotion making him blink. Having people looking out for him, it’s an alien sensation. His cheeks are glowing with warmth.
“Joe Dodson’s dead.”
Steve’s heart stops. “Danny…”
“I didn’t kill him.” Danny meets his panicked gaze. He taps his chest. “Doc thinks it was a heart thing. Keeled over, just over a week ago. He didn’t wake up.”
Steve processes the information. He’s not sure how he feels. There’s no love lost between him and Joe Dodson. But his death could cause trouble for Danny’s family.
“Everyone’s fine,” Danny says, as if reading his mind. He looks down at his hands. “Did you hear about the railroad? It’s coming to Hope. That’s what the big town meeting was about.”
Steve sucks in a surprised breath. The railroad means money for Hope township. It’ll mean more people and prosperity. “That’s great news.”
“Yeah.” Danny looks away again. “Yeah.” He looks back. “We think that’s why Joe wanted Pa’s land.”
“I don’t see—” Steve shakes his head. Five minutes ago he’d thought his life was over. It’s a lot of information to take in.
Danny sucks in a deep breath. Sitting back on the step, he explains to Steve what he’s missed.
The Marshall had arrived the day after Steve had left. As they’d suspected, he knew Joe Dodson. Jimmy had denied ever doing the things written in his statement. Bucky had died, not long after Steve had left.
Danny pauses. He looks Steve in the eye. “I need you to listen, okay?” He takes his hat off. Carefully he places it on the porch, beside him. “Just listen until I’ve finished.”
Steve tries to smile. He fails. “Why do I think I’m not going to like th—”
Steve swallows. His mouth feels dry. “I’m listening.”
Danny runs his hands over his hair. He huffs. “Joe, he started a rumour. He said it wasn’t the first time you’d killed someone in cold blood.”
Steve feels all the blood drain from his face. “In cold blood? I didn’t…” He gulps. “How did he know about Denver, Danny? That was years ago—"
“He didn’t,” Danny jumps in, laying a hand on his. “At least, we don’t think so.”
Danny slides his hand up until it’s resting on his forearm. “We think it was just that – a rumour. Joe needed people to believe him, to take his side. So, he took a chance, he made up a story.”
“But people will have believed him, Danny. They’ll think that I—”
Danny squeezes his arm. “They won’t. Trust me, babe. They won’t.”
“You can’t know that.”
Danny squeezes again. “You’ve met my Ma and Lottie, right?”
“Can you imagine what they’re like together, if they set their minds to something?”
An image pops into Steve’s head. He smiles despite himself.
“Yeah.” Danny smiles too. Briefly. “Pa and John helped too. They went out and talked to everyone. It helped.”
Steve’s heart sinks. He feels sick. “It wasn’t enough?”
Danny removes his hand. “Joe’s still got friends,” he says, bitterly. “Money talks in Hope.”
Disappointment blooms in his chest. Sighing, he claims Danny’s arm, tugging it to get his attention. “You did your best, Danny. It’s okay—”
Danny looks away. He inhales, his breath whistling through his teeth. “We killed off the rumour. But the Marshall, he just kept coming. Everywhere you looked, he was there.”
Steve frowns. “Was there?”
Danny nods. He meets Steve’s eyes. “Pa got a lawyer in from Denver. He tried to get enough witnesses to prove you were defending me, you were doing your job. But Joe, he kept paying people off. The Marshall…he just did what Joe told him to do.”
Danny waves him to silence. “Listen, okay? Just listen.” He takes another deep breath. “I gotta admit, we were running out of ideas. Then this lawyer, he asks why aren’t we playing by Joe’s rules?”
“Joe’s rules? I don’t get—”
“Joe’s rules. Playing dirty.” Danny smiles. It’s sharp, all teeth. “It’s possible that the Marshalls’ Office in Denver received a wire tipping them off about Joe paying bribes to their men.”
“Really?” Steve considers the information. He’s not sure it was a good idea. “Won’t they be able to find out who sent it? What if one of the people Joe’s paid off sees it? They’re gonna want to protect themselves.”
Danny sticks out his bottom lip. “Maybe,” he says, his tone deceptively casual, “but there’s a lot of people out West who are called ‘Doc’. It might take them a while to figure it out. In the meantime, they’ve been recalled.”
Steve’s heart skips a beat. “They’ve recalled them? The Marshalls who Joe paid off?”
“Yeah.” Danny nods, slowly. “All of them. Including the Marshall who came to Hope. It turns out that it wasn’t just Joe he’d been taking money from. Things are finally changing out here,” he adds thoughtfully. “Back in the day, no one in Denver would have cared about the bribes.”
“That’s good, right?” Steve leans forward. It sounds good. With Joe dead and the Marshall’s integrity in ruins there’s no one left to pursue him. But Danny still doesn’t look happy.
“I’m sorry, babe,” Danny voice is heavy with regret. He meets Steve’s eyes. “We couldn’t clear your name. We’ve been trying but Joe’s still got influence in town, even from the grave. We talked about asking for another Marshall but we don’t know who to trust—"
Steve raises a hand to stop him. It’s shaking from relief. “It’s enough, Danny.” Dear God, it’s enough. “It means I can move on from here.” It means I’ll see Mary and Aunt Deb again.
Danny’s expression makes it clear he doesn’t agree. He huffs, his whole body rising and falling. “There’s more. The lawyer did some more digging. We found out that Joe knew about the railroad, before the meeting.”
Steve squints. His mind’s still reeling from what he’s already learnt. “I don’t see why that helps him—”
Danny shuffles up beside him. Their shoulders touch. “With the railroad in town everyone will be able to get cattle to Denver quicker,” he explains, his hands weaving through the air, moving to the beat of each word. “If you get your cattle there first you get the best prices. More land means more cattle. More cattle means more money.”
“So that was why he was after your Pa’s land. He wanted to get more land before anyone else. Damn.”
Steve chews over the new information. Joe had so nearly got away with it. “This was never about Harry seeking revenge on you?”
Danny rubs his over hand over his face. It comes away streaked with dirt. “No. Not really, although I’m guessing it helped Harry justify it to himself.” He sighs. “Joe’s eldest son has inherited the ranch.” He raises an eyebrow at Steve. “He works out east.”
Steve raises an eyebrow too. “Who’s running the place?”
Danny eyes him, sideways. His expression is thoughtful. “Joe’s foreman. They’re selling some of the land.” He looks Steve in the eye. “Pa’s buying it.”
Steve grins. They’re securing Grace’s future. “More cattle. That’s great.” His grin slips as he registers Danny’s expression. He’s nervous. There’s something Danny’s not telling him.
“More horses. Pedigree ones. With the railroad in town we can export them out east.”
Steve whistles under his breath. Pedigree horses make a lot of money. And Pa’s horses are beautiful creatures, some of the best lines he’s ever seen.
Danny still looks anxious though. He’s picking at the skin around his fingernails.
Steve nudges his shoulder. “What’s wrong?”
Danny shrugs. “Nothing.” He sighs when Steve nudges him again. “Okay. Okay. Pa, he’s got a…proposition for you.”
“A proposition?” Steve rolls the unfamiliar word around his mouth.
“He’s going to need someone to help with the horses.” The half-smile Danny flashes him is full of warmth. “He wondered if you knew anyone?”
Steve imagines he resembles a stunned fish. Going back to Hope, he’s been telling himself it would never be possible. “What about the Dodson family? They’re still not gonna be happy to see me.”
Danny’s smile disappears. “I’m not saying it’ll be easy.” He exhales slowly. “We thought you wouldn’t let that stop you.”
“There’s something else,” Danny says, rushing on before Steve can reply. “The land Pa’s buying includes old Mackay’s place. You remember it? Where we found Dodson’s men. It’s yours if you want it.”
Steve feels like he’s been punched between his shoulder blades. “What?”
“I know it’s not much. You’d need to work on it, find time between working at the ranch. Pa says you can have wood from the…”
Steve doesn’t hear the rest of the words. There’s a loud buzzing in his ears. He feels clammy. He can feel his heart beating at the pulse points in his wrists. For years he’s dreamed of having a home, somewhere he can live with Aunt Deb and Mary. They could have chickens in the backyard and somewhere to grow vegetables. The place isn’t huge and they wouldn’t have any land to raise cattle but it’d be enough for the three of them.
“I’ll find the time.”
Steve doesn’t realise he’s spoken until everything goes unnaturally quiet. Rubbing at his face, his hand comes away wet. “Damn it, Danny,” he stutters. “Of course I’ll find the time.”
“Good.” Danny dips his head down. “Good.” He lets out a shaky breath. “Does that mean you’re saying yes?”
Steve snorts. ‘Yes’ doesn’t even begin to explain what he’s feeling. He wonders if he’s dreaming.
Danny, however, still looks worried. Sure, his face looks happy. But his eyes, his eyes are telling a different story.
“There’s something you’re not telling me,” Steve prompts, softly. He raises both eyebrows when Danny clamps his lips together. “Is Grace okay?”
“Grace?” Danny looks surprised then grateful in equal measure. “No. I mean yes, she’s good.” He huffs. “It’s…the town council, they’ve agreed to pay for a Deputy. You know…with the new railroad, they figured I’d need some help.”
Steve forces himself not to react to the surge of jealously Danny’s words trigger. “That’s…that’s good, right?”
“Yeah.” Danny doesn’t sound convinced. “Yeah, that’s good.”
“You…er…you found anyone yet?”
Danny raises a finger in warning. “I had this really good Deputy. He’s a tough act to follow.”
Steve sighs. He hopes it reflects at least some of the regret he’s feeling. “I wish…I’d like to but…” He swallows, resting his palm against the photograph still hidden under his shirt. “It’s the homestead, you know? I couldn’t…It’s Aunt Deb and Mary, Danny.”
He breaks off, praying Danny understands what he’s saying. He’s torn. So torn. If he took the job as the Deputy he could still save money to buy a homestead with its own land but it would takes years. What Pa’s offering, he could have Aunt Deb and Mary with him by next summer.
The realisation makes him go light-headed with shock.
“I understand.” Danny’s answering smile is half-power at best. “That’s what I told Pa when he said you could have the homestead anyway, even if you took the job as my Deputy.”
Steve stares at him. “What?”
Danny suddenly looks even more nervous. “Pa said you can have the homestead anyway. I told him…I told him I wasn’t going to offer you the job as my Deputy. It’s too dangerous. You deserve time with Mary and…Ow!”
“You’re an idiot.”
Steve rolls his eyes. “Don’t be a baby. I poked you in the ribs.” He sticks out his hand. “Give me my badge.”
Danny eyes his hand, doubt written across his face. “You don’t have to—”
Steve makes grabby motions with his own hand. “Give.”
“You don’t have to—”
“Damn it, just give me—”
“Are you sure—”
“Don’t make me check your pockets.”
“What? You don’t think someone with a bum leg could take you on?”
“Hey! I never said that.” Silence. “Are you laughing at me, again?”
“Remind me again why I want you—”
“It’s okay, Danny,” Steve cuts in, softly. “I want it.”
Danny’s expression transforms from weary to hopeful, a light coming on in his eyes. Steve closes his eyes against the image. It’s breaking his heart.
He opens his eyes when Danny puts the badge in his hand. He weighs it up for a moment, looking at the way it glints in the sun. Pinning it on his shirt feels so natural. This is what he was always meant to do.
He’s reaching out for Danny before he realises.
“Thought you didn’t like this…touching stuff,” Danny mumbles, his face squished in Steve’s shoulder as he returns the hug.
Steve can’t answer. All the air’s being squeezed out of him. He can feel the photo of Aunt Deb and Mary being squashed between them. He holds on tighter.
Danny pulls away with a mock-groan. “I think you’ve broken something, babe.”
Steve’s heart soars. There’s a familiar hint of grumpy fondness in Danny’s voice that he thought he’d never hear again.
“You ready to get out of here?”
Steve blinks. Part of him is still expecting to wake up in his bunk at any moment and find out this is a dream. “Now?”
“Yes, now.” Danny gives him a nudge. Leaning down, he catches Steve’s eye. “It’s real. Trust me.”
“I know…I just…” Steve looks away. There’re so many emotions bubbling under the surface. Things never work out like this.
Danny puts his hat on. “How about you go tell someone you’re leaving,” he suggests, softly. “I’ll find Jersey some water.”
Jersey. They’ve been riding for days. Steve scrabbles to his feet. He grabs Danny’s shoulder as the world tilts. “You’re gonna need feed and water. Have you eaten? I can get you something from—”
“Hold it. Hold it.” Danny stops him from falling over for the second time that day. “Breathe, Steve. Just breathe. Can you do that for me?”
Steve nods, mutely.
Danny lets go of him. His hands are still hovering. “It’s half a day’s ride to the nearest town. We set out now we’ll make it before dark.” He hesitates, biting at his bottom lip. “I’ve got us lodgings there for the night.”
Steve forces his mouth to work. “Us?”
Danny shrugs. “I kinda hoped you’d say yes. Figured I should plan ahead. And if you didn’t then…” He trails off, shrugging again.
Danny’s trying for casual. Steve’s not fooled. This friendship they have, it’s as important to Danny as it is to him. They stare at each other, lost in the moment.
Jersey shakes his head impatiently. His bridle jingles.
Danny huffs with laughter. He unties Jersey from the hitching post. “Go do what you gotta do, babe,” he says, gesturing at the house. “Me and Jersey, we’ll be over there waiting for you.”
Steve watches from the porch as Danny leads Jersey to the corral. Danny’s talking to him quietly, his head right next to Jersey’s. Jersey’s ears are twitching every time Danny speaks. From a distance it actually looks like the horse is listening. Steve smiles to himself, shaking his head.
Turning away, he goes in search of James McGill. Everyone on the ranch knows that during the day the Boss can be found his office. It’s round the back of the house. Five minutes later he’s back outside, a month’s pay in his hand. McGill hadn’t looked surprised when he’d said he was leaving. If anything he’d looked relieved. Ranching is a tough business. No one can afford to have too many mouths to feed.
Walking as fast as his legs will carry him, he heads for the bunkhouse. His blood is buzzing in his veins. His belongings are where he’d left them, on top of his bunk. Picking up his hat, he swings his saddlebags over his shoulder. The movement reminds him about the photo, hidden under his shirt.
Cursing, he removes it. The photo was worn around the edges anyway. Now it’s got a few more creases. Dropping his saddlebags and hat back on the bunk, he lays the photo on the mattress. Carefully, he tries to flatten it out.
He’s just about to put back in the saddlebags when it hits him. Really hits him. By the summer he won’t need a photo to remember what Mary and Aunt Deb look like. He’ll be able to see them every day if he wants to. Every damn day.
He drops his head to the mattress, resting his forehead on the photograph. For a while all he’s aware of is the sound of his own breathing. It’s all he’s capable of.
The sound of the bunkhouse door opening rouses him. It’s another ranch hand, someone else he only vaguely knows. Ignoring him, he puts the photo back in the saddlebag. Buckling it up takes forever. His shaking fingers won’t cooperate.
Outside, he finds Danny in the corral. Jersey is standing one side of him, his nose buried in a bucket of feed. On the other side is Doris. Danny’s putting her saddle on her.
“She was getting impatient,” Danny says when he cocks an eyebrow at him. “She was worried you’d changed your mind.”
Steve hooks his good foot on the bottom rung of the corral fence and swings his bad leg over. “Nope,” he replies, deliberately keeping his tone light as he drops to the other side. “You’re all stuck with me.”
Danny pauses. Their eyes meet. “Good.”
It’s not long before they’re leaving the ranch behind them. They’re riding side by side. Both the horses are skittish. Shaking their heads, they’re pulling on their reins.
“You think they’re trying to tell us something?” Danny asks him, his mouth twitching with a smile.
“Maybe,” he replies, already flexing his bad foot in the stirrup, checking it’s secure.
He doesn’t get a chance to say anything else. Danny’s already kicking Jersey with his heels, spurring him on. He does the same to Doris, holding on tight as she responds. Danny grins back at him as Jersey gallops ahead. Doris snorts her displeasure, her stride stretching out, impossibly long.
Steve laughs, remembering the first time they’d visited the Double L ranch. That day too, Doris had shown why she was named after his Ma. She hates to be beaten at anything, especially by a man.
Eventually they rein in the horses, easing them down to a steady trot. They’ve got a few days riding ahead of them, they need to pace themselves. They ride together in a companionable silence, swaying gently in rhythm with their horses.
Steve sighs. It feels like a weight is slowly being lifted from his shoulders. He’s been carrying it ever since his parents died. They’d be happy, he thinks, with the way things seem to be working out. They’ll be challenges – not least from the Dodson family – but his family’s faced worse. It’ll be worth it. They’ll have a home again.
He closes his eyes against an unexpected wave of emotion. When he opens them again, Danny’s watching. He looks concerned.
Steve smiles. He hopes it’s reassuring. He hasn’t got the words to tell Danny how much this means to him. Not just the homestead, the job, or even the chance to be part of a family again. It’s their friendship, the trust between them. No one’s given him those before.
Straightening up, he makes himself a promise. The Sheriff of Hope has a vision of how he wants the future to be. Not just for Grace, but for the townspeople too. He’s going to help Danny make that vision become reality. His friend’s been struggling alone for too long.
Danny’s right. Things are changing, slowly. The rule of law is coming to the West. It’s time for a new type of lawmaker to take over – lawmakers like him and Danny. The Joe Dodson’s of the world aren’t going to like it. Eventually though, they’ll learn the new way things are done in Hope.
Steve nods to himself, a smile playing on his lips.
He’s going to enjoy teaching them.