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A town called Hope

Chapter Text

Introduction

The town of Hope started out as two ramshackle sheds in the middle of the prairie, offering dry goods, livery and somewhere for the mail coach to stop when it needed to – which wasn’t often. 

Out west, in the mid-1800s, nothing stood still for long.  The area around Hope had good grazing and a river that ran for most of the year.  Homesteaders with a handful of cattle had started arriving, staking their claims on small parcels of land.  The dry goods store and livery were joined by a bar offering gut-rot whiskey, beer and lodgings out back in a barn for the itinerant ranch hands looking for work.

The town of Hope grew into her name – she became prosperous, a place where dreams come true. 

Homesteaders were followed by cattle men with money; big families who swallowed up hundreds of acres of land for their cattle.  Big ranches with grand names filled the landscape.  Some things didn’t change - people still looked out for each other because this was frontier country.  You couldn’t survive on your own.  But unlike the early days when Hope was just two ram-shackled sheds, factions started developing.  The little town with the name full of promise became political.  Money talked.  People chose sides.

A jail was built on the main street.

The first sheriff was the youngest brother of one of the big-money cattle men. For the right amount of money he’d lock people up in the jail.  When he’d suffered a heart attack six months later, while sharing a bed with someone who wasn’t his wife, no one had been sad.

The second sheriff was a young man fresh in from New York and looking for a living. He’d studied law and he was handsome as hell.  The townspeople – male and female alike – fell in love with him instantly.

Two weeks later he was dead, shot in an argument with a ranch hand about a bottle of whiskey.

The people of Hope mourned. 

Sadness quickly morphed to panic; without the rule of law everything they’d worked for was threatened.  The powerful ranch owners stepped up against the homesteaders.  The town of Hope teetered on the edge of chaos.

Salvation came from an unexpected quarter.  A ranch owner stepped forward with a name of someone he thought would make a good sheriff.  This ranch owner was quieter than the rest, a hard-working man who paid his ranch hands what they were due.  He attended church every Sunday and made sure every child in the township had food in their belly.  The softness in his voice was deceptive, as was his short-stature.  He fought battles with his brain, not with his fists (most of the time) and the people of the township respected him.

His name was Robert Williams, owner of the Double L ranch.

The third sheriff of Hope is his eldest son, Daniel. 

TBC

Chapter Text

Three years later

Danny checks his Colt revolver is loaded.  The .45 Long Colt cartridges glint gold in the half-light as he snaps the chamber closed.  Shoving the revolver in his hip holster, he tightens his belt.  Satisfied the holster’s hanging at the right angle for a quick draw, he retrieves his Remington shotgun from the shelf behind his desk.  Holding it in his left hand, he takes a deep, steadying breath.

The jailhouse in Hope is a two-room building.  The front room is his office.  There’s a leather-topped desk that he inherited from his deceased predecessor.  The glass fronted bookcase behind it is inherited too.  The coal burner, hot plate and sleeping cot in one corner are his additions: he spends more time here than he does anywhere else.  There’s a cabinet with a collection of Remington and Colt rifles and guns.  Most of them have seen better days though: the township might want a lawmaker but they’re slow to pay for everything he needs.

Behind his office are the cells, reached by a grill door in the back wall.  Three large cells and one small one, each with benches along each side.  There are holes in the bottom of the back walls and long grooves in the floors that lead to the holes.  Those had been his first addition: now he can throw a bucket of water in there and everything drains outside.   The days when the jailhouse had always smelt of sweat and vomit are just a distant memory.

His Stetson is hanging by the door.  He puts it on, tugging it down at the front to shade his eyes.  Taking another deep breath he opens the front door.

Danny blinks at the sudden brightness: it’s midday and the sun is high in the sky.  Fixing a smile on his face he straightens his shoulders, hefts up the shotgun and starts to walk down the main street.  The smile works its usual magic: the people who like him think he’s being friendly, the people who hate him can’t figure out what he’s thinking at all.

The town of Hope has grown in the years he’s lived here.  Back in the day, when he’d been a teenager, it had only taken a few minutes to walk from one end of the main street to the other.  Now his regular patrol takes him quarter of an hour.  Each time it feels much longer than that.

The livery barn is behind the jailhouse.  He waves to the owner, Pete Bailey, as he passes.  Pete nods in reply.  Danny half imagines, half hears, a familiar high-pitched whinny from inside the barn.  Jersey, his horse, has been cooped up for days and he’s restless.  Danny knows the feeling: it seems like forever since they’ve ridden out together to his family’s place, the Double L ranch. 

Two days, Danny reminds himself as he carries on walking, passing the butcher’s and the dry goods store.  Tomorrow the ranch hands at the larger ranches will be paid, many of them getting a whole month’s pay in one go.  They’ll come into town looking for somewhere to spend their money.  As usual the saloon will get most of it.  Most of the ranch hands are young men, barely out of their teens.  By midnight the cells behind his office will be busting at the seams.  During the following day he’ll gradually turn everyone loose.  Tempers will still be running high for a few hours.  But after that…after that he’ll be able to head home for a couple of days.

Just two days until he gets to enjoy his Ma’s cooking.  Two days until he can relax, at least for a little while, without worrying about being shot in the back.

It’s just two days until he can see his little lady again.

Danny’s smile widens with anticipation.  His hips sway more as his strut becomes more pronounced.  He nods to people as they pass, tipping his hat at the ladies.  All this, he’s doing all this for his beautiful Gracie.  And for that reason alone he’ll do the best job he can.

His smile slips as he passes the undertakers.  A cold shiver slides down his spine.  It’s nearly four years since he stood in that store, sobbing like a baby. The passing of time hasn’t made the memory less raw.

Danny jerks away from the memory.  Resting the barrel of the Remington on his shoulder, he lengthens his stride.  There’s an itching sensation between his shoulder blades: he’s being watched.  From beneath the brim of his hat he surveys the buildings across the street, his gaze drifting up to the top floors.  There’s a light breeze today so every window is open.  Curtains are flapping in the wind.  If someone has got him in their sights he has no way of knowing. 

Raising his chin, he carries on walking.

H50H50H50H50H50

The last stop on his patrol is the saloon.  Over the years the first bar has been replaced by a three-storey building.  Downstairs are the bar and the gambling tables.  Upstairs there’re rooms for rent for people passing through Hope.  Up in the attic is where Lottie and her girls work.

It’s Lottie who welcomes Danny as he pushes through the swing doors into the bar.  Even if someone didn’t know what she did for a living, a quick glance at her would give them a good idea.  Women in Hope wear long cotton dresses, with sleeves and a neckline that covers them up.  A cotton or straw bonnet and practical leather ankle-high boots complete their look.  A few of them might wear pants, especially some of the homesteaders who can’t afford any help with the animals.  But even that raises eyebrows sometimes, particularly on a Sunday.

Lottie always raises eyebrows.  Danny suspects it’s one of her pleasures in life, to rattle the world-view of the people of Hope.  Her dresses are designed to make the most of her cleavage and tiny waist.  She adores silk and the latest fabrics from New York.  The many layers of her ankle-length skirt swish as she walks.  No one has ever seen her without her makeup.  Not a single blonde hair on her head is out of place.

The smile he gives her as she drapes her arm across his shoulders is genuine.  He’s been up to Lottie’s attic room.  But it’s not for the reason people think.  In his darkest hours he’d needed someone to talk to, someone who wouldn’t take his deepest fears and use them against him.  He trusts her.  He can count on one hand the number of people he can say that about.

“New dress?” he asks, letting one hand rest on her waist.  The fabric under his fingertips is smooth but not shiny.  Rachel would have known what it’s called.

Lottie blushes under her makeup as a smile lights up her face.  “It arrived on the mail coach yesterday.”  She pulls away to twirl on the spot.  “It’s beautiful isn’t it?”

“It is on you, babe.”

Across the other side of the bar a couple of ranch hands look over.  The word ‘babe’ isn’t in their vocabulary.  There probably aren’t many words in their vocabulary Danny thinks, smiling to himself.  They didn’t spend a couple of years in New York before heading out west. 

Lottie’s gaze follows his.  Understanding dawns in her eyes.  Before he can say anything, she winks and plants a kiss on his cheek.  “Let me get you a drink, honey,” she announces loudly enough for the whole bar to hear.

“You’re terrible,” he mutters under her breath as he lets her lead him to the bar.  “People are gonna talk.”

“Let ‘em,” she throws back over her shoulder, “it wouldn’t hurt you to live a bit.”

Danny swallows down the pang of sadness that’s clogging his throat.  His life hasn’t always been like this.

Carefully placing the Remington on the bar, he nods at the barman.  Freddie Marlow’s owned the Last Chance Saloon for as long as Danny can remember.  In his early 60s, his brown hair is shaved in close to his head, revealing a scar that runs from the top of his skull to the top of his left ear.  Freddie tells people he got it in the army.  Danny’s heard another story that involves an angry husband and a meat cleaver.  Of average height, Freddie’s large girth is hidden under a dirty white apron that’s seen better days.  The cloth he’s using to clean the bar is even dirtier.  The Last Chance Saloon isn’t the kind of place where people complain about the décor.

Décor.  Another word Danny hasn’t heard for a long time.  Inwardly he shakes his head: Rachel brainwashed him real good.

Freddie holds up a glass, revealing it’s covered in finger prints.  “Drink, Sheriff?”

Danny tells himself to smile.  He never drinks when he’s working.  Freddie knows this.  Across the room one of the ranch hand sniggers.  People who don’t drink whiskey or beer are viewed with suspicion. 

Danny leans back against the bar.  It gives him a good view of the whole room.  “Water,” he replies like always.  Every ranch hand in the room stares at him. 

Lottie rolls her eyes at him, her lips curling up in a half smile.  With another wink she turns and works her way through the room.  The fabric of her dress sways in time with her hips.  Every pair of eyes are instantly drawn away from Danny.  As one they watch Lottie slowly walk up the stairs.

Not everyone, Danny corrects, frowning.  It looks like there’s a new stranger in town.  He’s sitting on his own, at a table next to the bar.  He’s got dark, curly hair that reaches his shirt collar.  He looks in his early thirties – the same age as Danny - but his bushy beard is heavily sprinkled with grey.  His clothes are similar to those of the other ranch hands.  The Stetson on the table in front of him has seen better days.  He’s wearing two Colt Navy revolvers though, with ivory handles. 

Two revolvers, in Danny’s experience, signals trouble.  So does the way he’s staring into an empty whiskey glass, his expression shuttered against the world.

Turning back to the bar, Danny raises one eyebrow.  Freddie rests his elbows on the bar, leaning in closer.  Danny fights the urge to recoil as the smell of sweat and bad breath fills his nostrils.

“Came into town a couple of hours ago,” Freddie mock-whispers, apparently unaware that his body odour could down a mule at a hundred paces.  “Henry Bishop says he’s seen him over at the Gables Ranch, looking after the horses.“  He leans in even further, his eyes lighting up with malicious excitement.  “Ben Connor though, he says he saw him in Denver City.  You seen those guns?  He’s got to be a gunfighter.”

Freddie’s got more details but Danny blocks them out.  He studies the stranger, looking for clues.  Ben’s the foreman over at the Horseshoe Ranch.  The owner of the Horseshoe Ranch is Joe Dodson.  Dodson, as Danny’s Pa reminds him regularly, is a man with no morals; he employs people like him. Henry’s more reliable but he still likes to gossip more than Danny’s comfortable with.

Before Danny can say anything, the stranger stirs.  His head comes up, he blinks rapidly, like he’s pulling himself back from somewhere.  Scrubbing his hand across his face, he pushes himself up from his chair.  The chair’s legs scrape across the wooden floor with a loud screech that draws stares.  The stranger doesn’t seem to notice, clutching his empty glass as he heads for the bar.

Danny frowns as the stranger stands at the bar beside him.  He’s limping heavily.  The reason is obvious: his right leg is twisted slightly, he can only put weight on the edge of his foot.

“Whiskey,” the stranger says unnecessarily, the empty glass he slams down on the bar doing the talking for him.  A coin appears in his hand.  He places it on the bar.

Freddie scowls at the empty glass.  He turns the scowl on the stranger.  “You’ve had enough, mister.  It’s time for you to leave.”

Danny feels the hairs on the back of his neck prickle as the stranger straightens to his full height.  “There’s nothing wrong with my money.  You didn’t complain none when you took it earlier.”

“Now you look here—”  Freddie eyes widen, he stops mid-rant.  The stranger’s put more coins on the bar.  It’s not a small amount.

“Just give me the bottle and I’ll go.”

“Let him have it, Freddie.”

Danny doesn’t realise he’s spoken until the stranger turns his head to look at him.  His eyes are blue with long eye lashes that he’s more used to seeing on one of Lottie’s girls.  His face is masculine though, worn but strong.  ‘Reliable’ is the word that pops into Danny’s head. 

The man’s gaze is steady and open as he meets Danny’s eyes.  He seems surprisingly lucid for someone who’s been drinking gut-rot whiskey for hours.  Then his eyes drop to the Sheriff’s badge pinned on Danny’s leather vest.  His open expression shuts down in an instant.

Danny pretends he’s not disappointed.  He’s used to that reaction after all.  He lingers at the bar long enough to check that Freddie slides over the half-empty whiskey bottle.  Then, without another glance at the stranger, he picks up the Remington and heads back outside.

H50H50H50

Retracing his steps along the main street, Danny tells himself he’s not angry.   He’s got no idea who the stranger in the bar is.  He has no need for his good opinion.  Making friends is not why he’s here in the Hope township.  He’s got a job to do.

He’s still telling himself that, stomping angrily, when he realises there’s a commotion ahead.  Cursing under his breath he hurries his pace.

One of Lottie’s girl’s is standing in the middle of the main street.  Her names is Jennie Mae.  At her feet is a basket: it’s tipped on one side with parcels tossed out in the dirt.  Surrounding Jennie are five men on horseback.  Danny’s anger flares as he recognises the brand on the horses: they all belong to Joe Dodson at the Horseshoe Ranch.

“You okay there, Jennie?” he asks, keeping his voice even, as he approaches the group.  The Remington is a reassuring weight in his left hand.

The riders don’t move their horses.  In fact they don’t acknowledge him at all.  Peering around the horses’ legs he can see Jennie staring back at him.  There’s a bruise turning purple on her cheekbone.

Danny sees bright-red anger.  His right hand drifts up to join his left on the Remington.  He’s on the verge of swinging it down, of barging past the horses, when common sense kicks in again.

Anger is the quickest way to die.

Taking a shuddering breath, he brings his right hand back down again.  Taking another one, he rests his hand on the revolver on his right hip.  Careful not to touch the horses, he edges his way into the middle of the group. 

“Someone wanna tell me what’s going on?”

Standing in the centre of the circle of horses doesn’t make the situation any better.  Horses are docile – mostly – but being circled by five of them is still intimidating.  They also give their riders the higher ground.  Danny grits his teeth as the ring-leader sneers down at him.  The man’s name is Harry Dodson.  He’s Joe Dodson’s youngest son.

“Get out of here,” Harry spits, his face twisting with anger.  “This is between me and Jennie Mae.”

Danny edges towards Jennie.  She look’s terrified.  Danny doesn’t blame her: Harry’s in front of them but they’re showing their backs to the other men.  “It’ll be fine,” he reassures her.

“Well ain’t that sweet,” one of the men behind them chuckles.  There’s no warmth in the sound.

“This is a private conversation,” Harry sneers again.

Danny raises both eyebrows.  “We’re in the middle of the main street.”

A looks of confusion crosses Harry’s face.  “So?”

Danny resists the urge to sigh.  Sarcasm is as likely to get him shot as aggression.  Or at least that’s what his Pa keeps telling him.  The four other men are getting restless: their mood is being picked up by their mounts.  If he’s not careful both he and Jennie will be trampled before anyone has a chance to get off a shot. 

The hairs on his neck are standing upright.  Every nerve in his body is screaming at him to run.  Beyond Harry’s horse, outside the stores, he can see people watching.  Not much happens in Hope, every argument draws a crowd.  That doesn’t mean anyone’s gonna help him.  He’s under no illusions – he’s on his own.

“Okay,” Danny concedes, forcing himself to relax.  ”it’s a private conversation.  Mind telling me what this is about?”

Harry snorts.  His horse shakes its head, takes a step forward.  “No.”

“This whore took his money and he didn’t get nothing back.  He’s just asking for what’s due.”

It’s one of the men behind Danny who’s spoken.  Danny resists the urge to turn round. There’s a stunned silence, the man’s obviously just realised he shouldn’t have blurted that out.  But the damage has already been done.

‘Getting nothing back’ could mean literally that.  Lottie’s draws a line at what her girls will do.  Jennie Mae probably refused Harry advances, the bruise is evidence of that.  The trouble it, ranch hands use the same phrase to describe a man whose had issues performing sexually.  The rage on Harry’s face suggests it’s probably a combination of both of these.

Whether any of it’s true or not doesn’t matter.  The whole town’s going to hear about the conversation by sun-down.  Harry’s been publicly humiliated and he won’t take that well.

Jennie know that too.  She’s chanting ‘No, no, no,’ under her breath.  Danny wishes he could reassure her but he’s too busy trying to figure out how to get out of this mess.  Harry’s hand is drifting towards his revolver.  Danny’s sure he can get a shot off first.  But the next shot after that will hit him between the shoulder blades.  It might give Jennie enough time to get away. 

Harry’s hand never touches his revolver.  His horse whinnies and takes a couple of steps back.  Cursing, Harry grabs the reins with both hands. 

Danny freezes, mid-draw.  Harry’s horse isn’t the only one that’s unsettled.  The other men are also struggling as the horses step back.  Confusion stops Danny for a moment, then self-preservation kicks in.  He looks down, to grab Jennie’s hand.  If she’s quick she might make it to the safety of one of the stores. 

When he looks back up, he’s confused all over again.

There’s another horse pushing its way into the circle, next to Harry’s horse.  It’s a beautifully marked pinto, tall, with long legs.  It’s saddled but there’s no rider.  Horses are herd animals.  There’s a newcomer in their midst.  Right now they just want to get to know her.  They’ve got no interest in what their humans want.

A ripple of laughter spreads through the crowd who are watching.  It grows louder, so loud that Danny can hear it over the thumping of his heart.  It drowns the sound of Harry and his men cursing at their horses.  It drowns the sound of Jennie’s chanting which has changed to a desperate prayer for salvation.

A high-pitched whistle cuts through the noise.  The main street falls quiet.  People peer around, looking for the source of the whistle.  Danny tightens his grip on Jennie’s hand, getting ready to run.

The pinto skips sideways, bumping Harry’s horse out of the way.  As they part they reveal the stranger from the saloon standing across the street.  He’s leaning against the hitching post outside the butcher’s shop.  Arms crossed, he’s wearing a lazy smile.  The ivory handles of his twin Colt Navy revolvers glint in the sun.

“Don’t mind her,” he says, lifting his chin towards the pinto, “she’s just making friends.”

Harry reins his horse in, wrenches its head round, aiming straight at the stranger. 

The stranger’s lazy smile disappears.  Slowly he uncrosses his arms.

Whatever Harry sees, he apparently doesn’t like it.  Cursing, he pulls his horse back the other way.  He glares at the stranger before turning his attention back to Danny.  Danny’s skin breaks out in a cold sweat when their eyes meet.

“This ain’t over,” Harry hisses.  “You’re gonna get what’s coming to you.”

“Looking forward to it,” Danny spits back before he can stop himself.  Harry doesn’t hear him anyway: he’s wheeled his horse around and galloped off in a cloud of dust.  The other men are close on his tail.

Danny watches them go in a daze.  Then reality kicks back like a blow to the head.  Lowering the Remington shotgun from his shoulder it’s hard not to start shaking.  It suddenly feels twice as heavy than before.  The fingers on his right hand are cramping, frozen, curled up mid-draw.

Another whistle – lower this time – intrudes on his thoughts.  The pinto’s head comes up.  Slowly she turns and plods over to the stranger.  He retrieves her reins, looping them over the hitching post and tying her up.

“Nice town you’ve got here,” the stranger says, dryly.  Pushing himself upright, he walks towards Danny.  Outdoors, on the uneven surface of the dirt road, his limping, swaying gait is more pronounced.

Danny drags his eyes away, focusing on Jennie Mae instead.  Tears are rolling down her face.  Her lips are moving but no sound is coming out.  Danny knows exactly how she feels.  He holds her close with one arm for a moment.  She’s trembling so bad.  Before he can say anything they’re joined by the stranger who kneels down to put Jennie’s parcels back in her basket.

“Let me—” Danny starts but stranger stops him with a stare.  There’s a hint of underlying anger that’s telling Danny to back off.

He backs off.

Gently, Danny gets Jennie moving.  She’s unsteady on her feet so he’s relieved when Lottie appears, running up the street, her skirt hitched above her ankles.  Fear is written across her face: someone must have gone to the saloon and told her what was happening.

She hovers for a moment, her glance switching between Danny, Jennie, the stranger and then back again.  She’s got questions, that’s clear.  Then the practical side of her takes over – one of the things that Danny admires about her most – and she wraps her arms around Jennie, drawing her away.

Behind Danny, somebody clears their throat.  He turns.

The stranger’s watching him.  His eyebrows are drawn together in a thoughtful frown.  He’s holding Jennie’s basket.  It’s loaded back up with parcels.

Without thinking, Danny reaches out for it.  “Thanks.”  Behind the stranger, he can see they’ve still got an audience.  New people always draw suspicion.  It’s on the tip of his tongue to yell across and remind them who’s just saved his ass.  Instead he hefts the Remington back on his shoulder and nods back up the street.  “You eaten?”

The stranger stares at him.  Then he blinks, surprised.  His lips turn down, then back up again.  Finally he shrugs.  “I could eat.”

“Great.”  Danny doesn’t wait to see if he’s following.  But he can hear footsteps, quickly joined by the sounds of hooves.  Revising his plans, he heads for the livery yard first. 

“I’ll pay for the feed,” the stranger insists a while later as they reach the jailhouse, having arranged lodgings for his horse.

Danny cuts him off with a sharp shake of his head.  He’s not stupid, he knows that horse didn’t just wander in on its own to make new buddies.  Unlocking the door to the jailhouse, he leads the way in. 

“Make yourself comfortable,” he instructs as he puts the Remington back on the shelf.  He places Jennie’s basket beside it, making a mental note to return it later.  “There’s a privvy and wash house out back if you need it.”

The stranger hesitates on the threshold, taking everything in.  He’s wary and Danny gets that.  In his line of work, he’s constantly wary of people too.  Hell, he’s not even sure why he’s doing this.  This guy just saved your life, buddy, his conscience reminds him, sounding very much like his Ma.  True, he thinks as the stranger finally makes a decision and walks in, closing the door behind him.  Then it hits him that as well as saying ‘thank you’, he’s forgotten something else.

“What’s your name?”

The stranger studies him, his gaze sweeping around the room.  “McGarrett,” he answers, dropping his saddlebags and hat on the desk.  “Steve,” he adds after a beat.

Steve.  Danny absorbs the information.  It’s a name that suits the man in front of him.  It’s a strong name.  Weathered.  Nodding, he introduces himself in return.  There’s an awkward moment when it feels like they might shake hands.  Danny grabs the coffee pot before the moment can drag out too long and puts it on the hotplate. 

He’s got beans and steak that he bought earlier.  There’s just enough for two.  As he prepares the food to go into the cook pot – chopping up the beef and adding in beans and water – he keeps one eye on the strang—Steve. 

Steve’s standing in the middle of the room, not moving.  But Danny’s pretty sure he’s not missing a thing.  He limps over to the chair behind the desk.  Pulling it out, he sits down with a wince.  Stretching out his injured leg, he pulls the half-empty whiskey bottle he got at the saloon out of the saddlebag and takes a large swig.

“It aches,” Steve says when he realises Danny is frowning.  He taps his kneecap with his free hand.

Danny stirs the food, sniffing as it starts to heat up.  “We’ve got a Doc in town.  You should let him look at it.”

Steve huffs.  He takes another swig.  “Nothing to be done.  Broke it when I was eleven.  Never set right.”

Damn.  People with disabilities struggle out in the frontier country.  Surviving with all your limbs working is hard enough.  Suddenly all the whiskey makes sense.

Steve’s watching him and that wary expression’s back.  Danny conjures up a half-smile he’s really not feeling; he’s on the edge of an adrenaline crash.  Biting back a sigh he pulls out two tin plates and spoons out the stew.  It doesn’t look very appetising.  His mouth’s watering though – it smells okay.

Steve seems to agree; he scoops the stew into his mouth quickly.  It looks like he’s not even bothering to chew.  Danny tries to take it slower but he hasn’t eaten for hours either.  His stomach is happily full a few minutes later.  He gets up to pour coffee.  Steve accepts his with a nod.

“You a lawyer?” he asks, nodding towards the bookshelf, behind the desk.

Danny’s confused.  Then he realises what Steve’s looking at; on the top shelf there’s a stack of dust-covered law books.  They’ve been there so long he’s stopped seeing them.  “Not mine,” he explains, sitting down on the cot, stretching his legs out in front of him.  “They belonged to the last Sheriff.”

Steve raises one eyebrow, absently rubbing at his knee as he tilts his head to read the spines.  “He still around?”

Danny snorts.  He can’t help himself.  It’s been one hell of a day.  “He’s up in the cemetery.  Lost an argument over a bottle of whiskey three years ago.”

“Oh.”  Steve frowns, his gaze running over the room again.  Pushing himself to his feet, he winces, shaking out his twisted leg. “Where’s your Deputy?”

“Don’t have one.”  Danny looks away.  Part of him is questioning what he’s doing.  Trusting people isn’t one of his strengths.  Or maybe it is, he thinks dryly, when you’re the town’s Sheriff.  He’s too tired for introspection.  Instead, he nods in the direction of the whiskey bottle.  When Steve hands it over, he takes a huge swig.

Seconds later his eyes are watering.  It’s called gut-rot for a reason.  “How the hell can you drink this?” he asks between gasping breaths.

“It’s cheaper than opium.”

The words are delivered casually but Danny still frowns.  Opium’s a killer.  The side effects are horrific, eating people from the inside out. 

Steve’s smiling though, his teeth showing through his beard.  Clicking his fingers for the bottle, he takes another swig.  “Cheers.”

Danny watches, bemused, as Steve swallows.  His Adam’s apple bobs in his throat.  He doesn’t flinch as it goes down.  Danny shakes his head.  The man’s stomach must be lined with lead.

He shakes his head again when Steve offers him the bottle.  Steve shrugs, starts pacing around the small room, the bottle of whiskey dangling between his fingers.  “Why haven’t you got a Deputy?”

Danny blinks.  He’d forgotten they were having a conversation.  “Town council won’t pay for one,” he explains, getting up to pour himself another coffee. 

“That’s stupid.”

Danny chuckles bitterly as he sits back in the cot.  He barely knows this guy.  But already he likes him.  “You might not have noticed but there isn’t a queue of people waiting to help.”

Steve pauses, his bottom lip curling.  Then he huffs under his breath and carries on pacing, coming to a halt at the hole in the front wall that serves as a window.  Leaning his shoulder against the wall, he takes another swig.  “What’s the point?”

“Sorry?”

“What’s the point of doing this?  They don’t look like they’re worth risking your life for.”  He nods at the window, at the main street beyond.

Danny bristles, despite his dark mood.  “How long you been here?  You know nothing about this town—”

“I know plenty of towns like this.”  Steve snorts, backtracks to the seat behind the desk and drops heavily onto it.  He scrubs his hand across his face. “They’ll bleed you dry and then when you really need them they’ll throw you out, leave you to survive on your own.”

Danny lowers his coffee mug.  It’s the longest sentence he’s heard from this stranger.  But still there’s so much unsaid.  What’s making his heart speed though is the bitterness - the raw grief of loss - threaded through every word.  He knows that pain.  He carries it with him every single day.

“It’s my town.”  He raises his chin, looks Steve in the eye.  “It’s my home.” He hesitates then nods, confirming his own thoughts.  The place does hold bittersweet memories. But it’s still his home.  And Grace’s. Most importantly, it’s Grace’s.

Steve heaves himself to his feet.  Flicking open a saddlebag, he stuffs the almost empty bottle of whiskey in it.

Warning bells go off in Danny’s head.  “You leaving?”

Steve smiles but there’s no life in it, no energy.  He looks exhausted.   “Gotta keep moving.  I heard there’s work over in the next township.”  Slinging his saddlebags over his shoulder, he jams his Stetson on his head.  “Thanks for dinner, Sheriff.”  He offers his hand.  “Best meal I’ve had in long time.”

Danny takes his hand, grips a little too long.  The next town is half-day’s ride away.  Steve won’t make it before dark.  “It’s Danny,” he says, tapping his chest with his forefinger.  “And you sure that’s a good idea?  It’s not safe out there at night.”

Danny doesn’t miss the flash of doubt that crosses Steve’s face.  They both know he’s not just talking about coyotes and rattlesnakes.  There are human predators out there, predators like Harry Dodson.

Steve hikes the saddlebag further over his shoulder.  “Me and Doris, we’re good.”  He gives a half-nod.  “Don’t worry about us.”

Doris?”

“My horse.”  Steve grins again and this time it reaches his eyes.  “I named her after my mother.  She’s gentle as a foal but she’s real feisty.  Never gives up.”

Danny finds himself smiling in reply.  “You’re a brave man, Steve McGarrett.  My Ma would not be happy if I named a horse after her.”

Steve’s smile goes out.  It’s like someone’s flicked a switch off.  “She’s dead.”

“Who?”  Danny kicks himself as his brain catches up with his mouth.  He raises a hand in embarrassed apology.  “Your Ma.  I’m sorry.  I was just…I don’t get to talk to people much these days.  Ma always says I let my mouth run away with—”

“It’s okay.”  It’s clear from Steve’s face it’s anything but.  He nods, taps the rim of his hat.  “Nice meeting you, Danny,” he says with a final nod, then limping heavily, he heads out the door. 

Danny watches the door close him behind.  His feet feel like they’re stuck to the floor but his legs are twitching, desperate to be moving. None of this is any of his business.  He’s got more than enough to worry about.  Outside he can hear voices.  People passing by who don’t give a damn he’s in here.  He looks around at his office, at the dirty plates, the coffee mugs, the pushed back chair behind his desk.

He’s tired of being trapped in this prison he’s made for himself.

The sight of their Sheriff running along the main street draws a few curious stares.  Danny ignores them as he heads for the livery barn.  It’s only been minutes, there’s no way Steve can have saddled his horse and left.  His heart’s thudding though as he runs into the barn.  The first few stalls only reveal startled looking horses.  It’s not until he’s nearly at the end of the barn that he finds who he’s looking for.

Steve looks as startled as the horses to see him.  It’s lucky he’s holding a saddle otherwise Danny’s pretty sure he’d be looking down the barrel of a Colt revolver.  He throws both hands in the air anyway.  “I got four empty cells,” he blurts out between gasped breaths.

Steve’s eyebrows shoot upwards.  “You’re arresting me?

What?  No, you idiot.  I’m offering you a bed for the night.”

 

TBC

Chapter Text

Steve startles awake.  Eyes wide, he takes in his surroundings.  He’s in a cell, he realises, his heart rate shooting up. 

He recognises the smell, can make out the bars in the grey light of early morning.  But that’s all that is familiar.  Normally the door to the cell isn’t left open.  And prisoners aren’t usually given a straw mattress to sleep on. 

Pushing himself up on his elbows he blinks away the last traces of sleep.  His leg is aching but that’s normal.  His mouth tastes of stale whiskey: that’s normal too.  He smells clean though.  His bushy beard has been reduced to uneven stubble.  His skin’s not itching from being in the saddle for a week.  And he feels rested.

Pushing himself into a seated position, he groans.  Swinging his legs to the floor, he rests his head in his hands.  Teeth gritted, he waits for the cramp in his twisted leg to pass.  As it gradually eases, his mind wakes up.  With it memories of the day before return.

Danny Williams.  Sheriff of Hope. 

Idiot or hero?  Steve shakes his head, still unsure.  Why the hell would somebody put themselves in the firing line like that?  Living out west is hard enough without painting a target on your chest. 

Pushing himself to his feet, Steve shakes his head again.  The Sheriff is a mean card player though.  Real competitive with a sneaky streak.  They’d played into the night.  Just for once he was glad he didn’t have any money: Danny had won all the matchsticks on the table by the time they’d finished. 

His saddlebags, Stetson and gun belt are on the floor next to the bed.  So is his spare shirt, spread out on the floor.  Steve picks it up, sniffs it, pulls a face.  He’d washed it the night before, scrubbing it clean under the water pump out back.  It’s still wet and it stinks of the cells.  But at least it’s not crawling with little critters any more. 

He puts his weight on his twisted leg.  Cautiously he takes a step.  Satisfied this is going to be a good day he leaves the cell and pushes open the door through to the main office.  Light spews through to the cells. 

The office is empty.  The blanket and pillow on the cot are stacked neatly.  The cards and matchsticks are on the desk where they left them.  The plates and mugs he’d washed the night before are still next to the hotplate. The wood burner underneath is glowing red.  It’s been freshly stacked with wood.

Despite the burner the room feels colder than the night before.  He sighs.  It’s been a long time since he’s had company at night, other than Doris.  He’d forgotten what it felt like.

Noise outside draws him out of his thoughts.  Limping over to the window, he looks out.  The sun’s still low in the sky so it must be early morning.  But there are a lot more people outside.  Most of them are men, ranch hands.  And they’re loud.  Very loud. 

For a second his sleep-doped mind flashes back to another time and place.  They’d been loud, angry voices then, men with hate in their eyes.  His heart rate responses to the sudden spike in adrenaline.  His body’s going on the defensive, ready to fight, when the front door opens.  He’s reaching for his gun before he realises he’s not wearing his gun belt. 

“You’re still here.”  Danny closes the door behind him.  He grins, apparently oblivious to his state of panic.  He holds up a cloth sack.  “I got breakfast.” 

 Steve takes a deep breath, then another one.  Danny’s not waiting for an answer.  Eggs and thick chunks of bacon are being unwrapped and placed on the hotplate.

Steve clears his throat.  He gestures out back.  “I’m just gonna…” 

Danny hums his assent, his attention on the eggs.  Steve walks as fast as his leg will allow him, through the cells and outside to the wash house.  It’s a fragile, wooden structure leaning against the back wall of the jailhouse: it wobbles as he slams the door shut behind him.

Dropping his chin to his chest, he closes his eyes and breathes.  Outside he can still hear raucous voices but his gradually his panic subsides.  Once he’s sure he’s got himself under control again he opens his eyes.  He uses the piss pot, then washes it out.  The night before he’d left the tin bath tub out to dry.  He hangs it back up on a nail in the wall, straightening it up carefully. 

Taking another breath, he goes back into the jailhouse.

His stomach rumbles with hunger.  The bacon smells so good.  Regret washes over him as he goes back into the cell to put on his gun belt.  Retrieving the wet shirt he ties it to his saddlebag: that way it can dry as he rides.  Slinging the saddlebags over his shoulder he steps back into the office.

Danny turns.  His face falls.

Steve swallows down his own disappointment.  This is how it’s got to be.  “Thanks for the bed,” he says, struggling to keep his voice even.  “Best night’s sleep I’ve had in a cell.”

Danny looks from Steve, to the hotplate, and back again.  There’s enough food on there to feed a small army.

Steve looks at his feet, unable to meet Danny’s eyes.  “I can’t…”  I can’t keep taking things.  That’s not how life works.

“It’s just breakfast.”

It’s a simple statement.  A simple request to share food.  But there’s a note of desperation in Danny’s voice that makes Steve look up.  Before he can say anything there’s shouting outside.  A gunshot rings out.

“They got paid today.”  Danny raises a hand for calm as Steve reaches for his holster.  “It’s early still.  That’ll just be a couple of idiots proving they know which way up to hold a gun.”  He turns his attention back to the hotplate.  He flips the bacon.  It sizzles loudly.  “Tonight, that’s when they’ll try and kill each other.”

Damn.  Everyone who lives in a township knows to stay inside on pay day.  It’s only the Sheriff and his deputies who venture outside.  Steve slides the saddlebags off his shoulder and drapes them over the back of the chair.  “It is a lot of food.”

Danny shrugs.  He eyes the discarded saddlebags.  “It’s the only meal I’ll get today.”

Steve chews at his bottom lip.  This is probably the only meal he’ll have for the next few days.  His chances of finding work as soon as he gets to the next township are slim.  It doesn’t matter that he’s good with animals.  Cripples aren’t in high demand.

There’s an empty cooking pot next to the hotplate.  Stepping around Danny, Steve grabs it and heads back out to the water pump.  They’re gonna need coffee.  Lots of coffee.  And whiskey, he thinks, as his leg gives a sharp twinge.

It’s not until he’s putting the filled pot on the hotplate that he realises what’s he’s doing: he’s come to a decision.  It’s probably the most stupid decision he’s ever made.  But he’s nearly broke and he’s tired of always being hungry.  And this guy, Danny, he seems like a good guy just trying to do what’s right.  He’s the kind of man his Pa would have been proud to call a friend.

It crosses Steve’s mind that Danny might think it’s a stupid idea too.  Ranch owners aren’t the only ones who don’t employ people cripples like him. That’s why he limps over to the desk and starts rooting through the drawers before Danny can say anything.  He doesn’t find what he’s looking for until the third drawer.  The Deputy’s badge is right at the back.  It’s clear it hasn’t been used for a long time.

Steve weighs it in his hand for a moment. The six points of the tin star catch the morning light. For something that could get him killed it feels too light.  Scrubbing it against the front of his shirt to get the dust off, he pins it on.  Suddenly it feels very heavy.  He wonders if it was a good idea to pin it over his heart.

The smell of burning bacon makes his look up.  Danny’s staring at him, his mouth frozen in an ‘O’. 

Steve reminds himself to breathe.  “Let’s eat,” he suggests, all other words failing him.  “It’s gonna be a long day.”

H50H50H50H50   

Danny eats his bacon.  The flavour barely registers in his brain.  It’s too busy trying to process the knowledge he’s got a Deputy.  A Deputy he’s known for barely a day.

Part of him – the part that’s been counting down the days to pay day with a growing sense of dread – is relieved he’s got help, even if he’s not quite sure what that help is.  The other part of him – the part which is deeply suspicious, that’s learnt nothing comes without cost – thinks this is too good to be true.

“Why?” he asks as he collects their empty plates.

Steve gets to his feet.  He hitches his gun belt so it rests on his hip.  “Why not?” he throws back over his shoulder, drawing a revolver to check it’s loaded.  “I got no place else to be.”

It’s there in his voice again: grief.  It strikes Danny that he knows nothing about this man who’s about to help him.  The same man who probably saved his life the day before.  His Ma’s dead but he hasn’t mentioned any other family members.  Maybe he really doesn’t have anywhere to be.

Danny’s mulling that over when the front door bursts open to reveal the butcher’s young son.  A fight has broken out in the saloon he reports breathlessly, his eyes alight with excitement. 

“We’re coming,” Danny tells him, thanking him with a small nod.  The boy loiters, seemingly disappointed that neither of them are running out to help.  Danny places a hand on his shoulder, gently guiding him out of the door.  Closing it behind him, he heads for the desk to get his revolver out of the drawer.  “You ready?” he asks, all his concentration on making sure the gun is loaded and he has enough spare bullets. 

“As ready as I’ll ever be.”

Steve’s standing, waiting.  He’s wearing a Colt on each hip.  His Stetson’s tipped slightly downwards, shadowing his face.  It makes his cheeks and jawbone more pronounced.  His eyes are heavy-lidded, giving him a foreboding look.

Danny considers taking the Remington.  It’s not much use in close quarters but the loud bang it makes can be useful.  He dismisses the idea; it’s just another thing to carry.  And he knows from experience he’s going to have his hands full.

He’s rethinking his decision a few minutes later as they walk down the main street, side by side.  It’s always rowdy on pay day but today the air’s electric, crackling with pent up energy.  He can feel it creeping across his skin.  Or maybe it’s just Harry Dodson getting to you, his inner voice suggests.

They draw enquiring stares, even from the drunk ranch hands weaving their way along the street.  Danny straightens his spine, lets his hand rest on his revolver.  It’s strange taking this walk with someone else.  Matching his stride with Steve’s rolling, limping gait, means he’s moving slower than he normally does. 

Looking sideways, he discovers he’s being watched.  Steve nods, the corners of his mouth twitching up.

Shaking his head, Danny finds himself smiling too.

As they reach the saloon the doors swing open and a man flies out, backwards.  He’s quickly followed by another. They both hit the dirt hard enough to break bones.  Apparently the alcohol has deadened their pain receptors – they both scrabble to their feet.  Worse, one of them has drawn his gun.

Danny grabs his own revolver.  Steve’s there before him: his right fist connects with side of the man’s head.  With his other hand he grabs his gun.  Danny’s heart stops when Steve loses his balance, the man’s weight pushing him onto his twisted leg.  Instantly he rights himself – and punches the man again, knocking him out cold. 

The world stops.  Or at least that’s what it feels like to Danny.  The second man’s staring at him, his eyes huge.  Steve’s standing over the unconscious man, a dangerous glint in his eye.  Danny’s suddenly reminded of the gossip in the saloon when he first met Steve: the stranger’s a paid killer.

Everything starts moving again.

The other man bolts, tripping over his own feet in his haste to get away.  Steve’s kneeling down, turning the unconscious man over.  He pats him down for weapons, then rocking back on his heels, he wipes his hands on his pants.

“What the hell was that?” 

Steve looks up, clearly confused.  “We’re stopping them killing each other, right?”

Danny nods.  Then he shakes his head.  “You’ve got two revolvers.  How about using one of them?”

Steve glares at him.  Reaching out, he uses the hitching post to pull himself upright.  “I’m starting to understand why you don’t have a Deputy,” he mutters, stretching his leg out.  “They can’t pay anyone enough to put up with you.”

The words hit Danny like a sledgehammer.  He’s about to open his mouth, to let loose all the grief and frustration he’s been carrying around for years when he looks at Steve’s face. 

Steve’s laughing at him.  He’s damn well laughing.  His new Deputy is insane.

“You think this is funny?”  Danny waves at the unconscious man.  “You’re having fun?”

Steve shrugs, starts walking towards the saloon.  “Maybe?  You know, just a little bit?”

Danny falls in beside him.  “Is there something wrong with your brain?”

Steve rolls his eyes.  “Oh come on.  Don’t tell me you don’t enjoy punching these idiots?”

All the god damn time.  “There are rules, McGarrett.  The Sheriff can’t just do what he wants—”

Steve halts.  He turns.  All humour’s gone. “There’s one rule, Sheriff.  Stay alive.  Every day, you do whatever you need to stay alive.”  His chin comes up, daring Danny to disagree.

Danny opens his mouth but he’s pinned to the spot by the strength of Steve’s stare.  There are thoughts piling up in his mind, so many thoughts, but they going to have to stay there.   Even as they’ve been talking to the noise from the saloon has grown.

“Later,” he promises, checking his gun is in his holster one more time.   “We’re gonna talk about this later.”  He waits while Steve checks his own weapons then in unspoken agreement they push through the doors to the saloon.

On the other side they’re faced with chaos.  Fists are flying.  Tables are overturned.  The smell of whiskey and beer is strong in the air.  The bar staff are cowering behind the bar, ducking occasionally as a glass or a body flies past.  There’s no sign of Lottie or her girls but Danny hadn’t expected to see them: they’ll be safe in Lottie’s rooms out back.

Danny surveys the room, identifying the worst offenders.  Beside him, Steve cracks his knuckles, one hand then the other.  Danny raises his eyebrows: it seems only fair to give his new deputy one last chance to back out.  His new deputy grins back at him.  Taking a deep breath, they both wade in.

H50H50H50H50

Danny yawns, then stretches, reaching for the ceiling with his fingertips.  His office chair isn’t designed for comfort.  Every bruise on his body – and he’s got a few – are making themselves known.

It’s dark outside.  He guesses it’s gone midnight.  He’d lit the lamps several hours earlier.  The cells are filled to bursting but the drunken singing has finally stopped.  It’s been replaced by the sound of snoring: it’s almost deafening.  The worst thing – like it is every pay day – is the smell of sweat and urine.  It lingers for days.

Steve’s asleep.  Stretched out on the cot, he’s got one of the spare Remington’s beside him.  Sleeping in bunkhouses has apparently conditioned him to ignore the men around him; he fell asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow.

Danny gets up, careful not to push the chair back.  The wood burner under the hot plate is glowing red.  He prods it with the poker anyway, causing sparks.  Pouring himself a coffee, he sits back down.  Sipping it, he runs back through the events of the day.  It had gone surprisingly well.  Sure, he’s got cells full of prisoners.  But he’d only used four bullets and all of those he’d shot into the air.

Steve had continuously surprised him.  What he lacks in mobility he more than makes up for in sheer upper body strength.  He’s fast, much faster than any of the drunken ranch hands.  Probably most of the sober ones too.  Several of them had tried their luck anyway.  They were easy to spot: their faces were squished in the ground.

It hadn’t taken them long to get into a rhythm.  Steve subdued them.  Danny marched them back to the jail.  They’d run out of space much earlier than normal.  But by then the more sober ranch hands had taken the hint and rode out of town.

He should be happy – or at least relieved.  But something’s still niggling at him, making the hairs on his neck stand on end.  Harry Dodson and his men hadn’t come back into town.  Sure, he’d been humiliated the day before.  Most men would have kept low for a few days, licked their wounds.  Not Harry: anger and stupidity would make sure of that. 

Danny’s catapulted out of his reverie by the sound of footsteps outside.  He lunges for his gun.  His chair scrapes loudly across the wooden floor.  Steve comes to with a surprised grunt.  In a blink he’s sitting up, the Remington cradled in his arms.  Danny lifts a finger to his lips before Steve can say anything.  Pointing at the door he treads lightly, and puts his ear against the wood.

“Danny. It’s Lottie.”

With a huff of relief Danny pulls back the bolts, top and bottom.  Opening the door just enough to let Lottie in, he quickly peers outside before ducking back in.

“Are you alright?” Lottie asks as he locks the door again. 

“Better for seeing you, babe.”

Danny grins to himself as Lottie blushes.  Underneath her confident exterior she’s vulnerable, constantly looking for acceptance and affection in a world that’s determined to deny her both.  He doesn’t know much about her life before she came to Hope.  But Lottie’s told him her current situation is much better than the one she grew up in.  He wishes he had the words to tell her what a special person she is.

Proving just how special she is, she shows him the basket she’s carrying.  The smell of freshly baked bread fills the air.  Along with two freshly baked rolls there’s ham and cheese, along with two bottles of beer.  Putting the basket on the table, she spreads out a napkin and lays the food out.  To Danny – after the day he’s had – it looks like a feast fit for a king.  Judging by Steve’s expression, he feels the same.

Lottie smiles shyly at each of them in turn.  “Thank you,” she says, quietly, “for keeping us safe today.”

“It was our pleasure, ma’am.”

Steve’s spoken so quietly it’s almost impossible to hear him.  Lottie’s heard though.  As Steve stands up she goes over and hugs him.  Danny stifles a laugh at his shocked face.

“Steve, no one ever calls me ma’am.  It’s Lottie.”

The anger that flashes across Steve’s face is fleeting but Danny knows he didn’t imagine it.  It’s the same anger that had been in his eyes when he’d help rescue Jennie Mae from Harry Dodson and his men.  Danny files it away with all the other questions he has for his Deputy.  It’s rapidly become a long list.

“Food,” Lottie reminds them, cutting through the suddenly tense atmosphere.

Steve still looks angry.  There’s a muscle twitching in his cheek.  But his expression softens as Lottie takes his elbow, tugging his towards the desk.  She waits for Steve to sit down, for Danny to perch on the edge of the desk.  Then she sits on the cot, carefully folding her long skirts under her.  Gesturing with her hands, she encourages them to eat.

Danny consumes his quickly; he hadn’t realised how hungry he is.  To his surprise Steve eats his slowly, lost in thought.  Danny blows Lottie a kiss in appreciation when he finishes.  Steve sits back in his seat, sighing with satisfaction.

He dips his chin at Lottie.  The ends of his mouth flick up.  “Thank you.”

Lottie smiles.  It’s one of her rare genuine smiles, Danny thinks.  It lights up her face.

“Danny and I have an arrangement,” Lottie explains as she carefully folds the napkin and puts it back in the basket.  “He looks after the people of this town.  I make sure he looks after himself.”

Danny ducks his head.  He swallows hard.  She’s right; that is the deal they’ve made with each other.  They’ve just never admitted it out loud.  “I got the better deal.  She’s a great cook.”

Another emotion crosses Steve’s face.  Danny frowns, trying to decipher it.  It’s not anger.  Regret maybe?  Sadness, definitely.  He shakes his head, warning himself off.  A man’s entitled to his secrets.  He’s got a few of his own.

“I gotta go.”  Lottie leans in, pecks a kiss on his cheek.  If Steve looked shocked when he got a hug, he looks even more shocked when Lottie gives him a kiss too.

Danny lets himself laugh this time.  It comes out slightly hysterical.  He really is tired.  Opening the door he gives Lottie one last hug before he lets her go.  He waits until she disappears out of sight then shuts and locks the door.

Steve’s staring at the desktop, a deep crease between his eyebrows.

“Okay?” Danny asks.

Steve blinks, then focuses on Danny.  “Yeah.”  He seems to consider his answer. “Yeah,” he repeats, more loudly.  Looking around him, he appears to come to a decision.

Danny finds out what is a moment later when Steve pulls the playing cards out of the desk drawer.  He shuffles them, splits the pack, shuffles again.  “Get some sleep,” he suggests, not looking up as he starts dealing them out on the desk.    

It crosses Danny’s mind to protest.  He yawns widely instead.  Steve huffs but carries on dealing.  Danny gives in and stretches out on the cot.  Tucking the Remington up against his body he stares at the ceiling.   It’s pay day – he usually doesn’t sleep.  Closing his eyes he wills his body to rest.  Out back he can still hear the sound of the prisoners snoring.  Closer by, he can hear Steve tapping the corner of a playing card on the desktop as he figures out his next move.

Within minutes he’s fast asleep.

H50H50H50H50

Steve tightens his grip on Doris’s reins and pulls her to a halt.  She snorts impatiently.  She’d been enjoying not being cooped up in a stall.  She rolls an eye back to glare at him balefully then drops her head to snuffle at the grass. 

Danny’s beside him, sitting on his horse, Jersey.  Eyes closed, hat pushed to the back of his head, his face is tilted to capture the early morning sun.  As Steve watches, his face gradually relaxes.  It makes him look younger despite the shadows under his eyes.

They’d let the last of the prisoners out a few hours earlier.  Hung over, they’d been grumpy but docile.  Washing out the cells hadn’t been pleasant but he’s done much worse jobs.  He’d been prepared to saddle up and move on to the next township, like he’d been planning to for days.  But Danny had derailed his plans.  Again. 

Steve wraps the reins around his left hand, settles back in the saddle and waits.  The prairie land around them stretches as far as the eye can see.  The sky’s a pale, powdery blue, the sun not quite high enough to burn though the lingering cloud.  A light breeze whispers through the grass, like fingers stroking hair.

He closes his eyes and takes a deep breath.

“My younger brother Matt, he lives in New York.” Danny’s talking just loud enough for Steve to hear.  “He wants me to go join him, me and—” He trails off, starts again.  “Sometimes I think about it, you know?  But then I come out here and—”

“It’s beautiful.”   Steve opens eyes again.  Danny’s watching him, head tilted to one side.  “What?”

“Nothing.” 

It’s obviously a lie.  Steve considers calling him on it.  But this friendship – and that is what it feels like, a friendship – is still new and delicate.  Danny’s good opinion matters to him, he realises.  His breath catches in his chest.  Damn.

Danny’s talking to Jersey, oblivious to Steve’s silent revelation.  Steve pulls in the reins, bringing up Doris’s head.  A light dig with his heels gets her moving again.  There’s a pause then Danny does the same.

Steve tugs the front of his Stetson down over his eyes, blocking the sun.  Good things never last for long; life has taught him this again and again.  He’s torn between making a run for the next township, stopping this before it even starts.  Another part of him just wants to enjoy it. 

Licking his suddenly dry lips, he makes a choice.

“You sure your folks won’t mind me coming over?” he asks, desperately trying to keep his voice even.

Danny raises his eyebrows. “I told you, I always—”

“—you always go to your folks after pay day.  Nothing’s gonna happen in town.  They’ve spent all their money.  I get that.”  Steve twists round in his saddle, so he can see Danny properly.  “They don’t know me, Danny.”

“So?” Danny gives a casual shrug.

“So maybe I shouldn’t be coming without an invitation.”

Danny’s answering laugh is full of warmth.  “You haven’t met Ma.”

Danny—"

His protest is cut off as Danny trots up beside him, reaching for Doris’s bridle and bringing her to a halt.  His lips are pressed together, his eyebrows joined together in a frown.  There’s a pause as he looks away, out across the prairie. 

Steve’s heart sinks.  He’s done the thing he promised himself he wouldn’t: he’s pushed too hard.

“Okay.”  Danny’s eyes meet his.  “You’re right.  They don’t know you.  I don’t know you.  Well, not much.  But…”  He stops, look away and back again.  “I figured that maybe you’d enjoy Ma’s cooking.  There’s a real bed for the night too.  I know it’s not much of a thank you but you know…”  He trails off, shrugging again.

Steve shakes his head before he even realises he’s doing it.  He doesn’t feel comfortable.  Working for his keep is okay.  This sounds like charity.  He hasn’t accepted charity since he was sixteen years old.

He explains this to Danny.

Danny lets go of Doris’s bridle.  His hands go up in the air.  “Would you just shut up?” he replies, his voice creeping up a couple of octaves.  “Please?  Can you do that for me?“

“I can’t—”

“It’s not charity, you stubborn idiot.”  His eyes slide down to Steve’s injured leg.  “I get why this is difficult for you,” he continues more softly.  “I’ve seen the way people look at you.”

Steve jerks Doris’s head round.  This is getting too personal, too raw.  “I don’t need your pity.”

“Pity?” Danny sounds disgusted.  He grabs at Doris’s bridle, pulling her in.  Jersey skips nervously, the tension between the two of them transmitting to the horses.  “Is that what you think this is?  Is that…is that how you think I treated you?”

“No!” Steve drags in a breath: his heart beat is speeding up.  Guilt assaults him as he registers Danny’s hurt tone.  “No, Danny.  It’s not.”

Danny huffs out a breath.  “And you said I was difficult.” Letting go of Doris’s bridle, he strokes Jersey’s neck.  It’s not clear who is calming who.  “Do you want dinner or not?” he asks after a pause.

Steve lets out a breath too, reaching for calm.  “Yes.  Please,” he adds, when Danny raises an eyebrow.

Danny relaxes in the saddle.  Jersey tries to pull away, eager to be moving.  Doris does the same.  Taking the hint, Danny curls the reins around his hand.  “He knows we’re heading for Pa’s,” he explains, patting Jersey again.  “Good feed and a corral full of horses to run with.  How fast is she?”

The question is directed at Doris.  But Steve doesn’t miss the way Danny’s gaze slides down to his injured leg.  He understands the unspoken question: are you gonna be okay if we do this, if we gallop the rest of the way?  

Steve doesn’t answer.  Tugging down rim of his hat, he gives Doris a sharp kick with his good leg.  Instantly her ears prick up with excitement.  They’re moving before Danny can respond.

Leaning over the pommel of the saddle, he tightens his grip with his thighs.  Doris breaks out of a canter and into a full gallop, her whole body stretching out.  Her long legs are made for eating up the ground.  They haven’t done this for the longest time - Doris is the most valuable thing he owns, he treats her with care - so it takes them a few minutes to get into the familiar rhythm.  When they do though it’s like they’re flying.  His blood is thrumming with excitement.  He imagines Doris’s is too.

Grinning madly, he relaxes his grip on the reins slightly.  It’s enough to give Doris her head.  Needing no encouragement she stretches out even further.  Who needs two good legs, Steve thinks, when you can have four instead?

A whooping noise makes him look over his shoulder.  Laughter bubbles up from deep in his belly.  Danny and Jersey are just behind them and gaining.  Danny’s wearing a face-splitting grin that promises trouble.  Jersey’s looking as determined as his rider, ears back, nostrils flared wide. 

Steve’s competitive streak perks up with interest.  With regret he tampers it down.  Doris is nearly galloping at full speed.  As if reading his mind she flicks her ears at him: he know that signal, it means ‘let’s go’. 

Jersey’s pulling up beside them, his mane and tail whipping in the wind.  Danny’s hunched over his neck.  Pulling ahead, he looks back over his shoulder and whoops; it’s the sound of pure joy.

Laughing, Steve urges Doris on.

TBC

Chapter Text

By the time they reach the Double L ranch the horses are flecked with sweat.  Their riders don’t look much better.  They’re both laughing though as they dismount in the livery barn.  Danny goes to the water pump to fill up two buckets.  Steve starts stripping the saddles off.

It’s not long belong before they’re letting the horses out into the corral.  As Danny predicted, Jersey gallops off to join the other horses as soon as Danny lets him go.  Doris holds back until Steve gently tugs her in.  With a backward glance back at him she trots off.

Steve wipes his hands on his pants legs.  Suddenly he feels very nervous.

Danny secures the gate to the corral.  “It’s just my folks.”

Steve tries to ignore the fact that Danny seems to be able to read his mind.  Instead he focuses on the ranch house in front of him.  It gets him nervous all over again.

The ranch house at the Double L is huge, or at least that’s how it appears to Steve.  Single storey, it’s built of wood.  The windows along the front have glass in them, something that’s still rare.  There’s a deep veranda that runs all the way along the front.  He’s worked at more ranches than he can remember.  Not many of the ranch houses look like this.  There’s money here, it’s obvious. 

So why the hell is Danny working as the Sheriff? 

The thought catches him unaware.  He’s been telling himself it doesn’t matter.  But it’s still worrying at him.  Danny’s hiding something.  It’s none of your business, his conscience reminds him – not for the first time.

He doesn’t have time to think about it.  The front door of the house opens.  An older man and woman appear.  They’re both the same height as Danny.  The man is the spitting image of Danny but with grey-hair and a sun-weathered, wrinkled face.  The woman’s face is longer, with a pointed, angular nose.  But the smile is unmistakeable.  Wiping her hands on her apron, she hurries down the steps of the veranda to greet them.

Steve automatically whips his hat off.  Looking down he cringes inwardly.  He’s a mess.  He runs his palm over his chin experimentally; he should have shaved as well.

“Would you stop already,” Danny pleads, nudging him towards the house.  “It’s just my folks.”

Before Steve can answer they’re distracted by an excited yell from the house.  The front door opens again and there’s a blur of movement.  Danny kneels down, arms spread wide in welcome.  A second later and his arms are full.  It’s a young girl with plaited pig tails and a face-splitting grin that looks strangely familiar.

Steve looks on as Danny lifts up the small girl in his arms.  Resting her on his hip, he swings her round.  She’s chatting away, her arms locked around his neck.  Danny’s listening to her, his eyes shining with pride.

Several pieces of the puzzle fall into place.

Steve looks away, fighting against a wave of emotion.  There are memories fighting to escape.  Gulping in air, he tells himself to get a grip.

Danny’s swinging back round again, so he’s facing Steve.  His grin grows even wider.  He’s glowing.  He’s still wearing his leather vest with the tin star pinned on it but he looks nothing like the Sheriff of Hope township. 

“This little lady,” Danny says, planting a sloppy kiss on her cheek, “is my beautiful daughter, Grace.”  He hitches her further up his hip, squeezing her until she giggles.  “Grace, meet my new friend, Steve.”

H50H50H50H50

Danny rocks back in the leather chair in his Pa’s office.  He takes a sip of his freshly brewed coffee.  It’s nothing like the stuff he drinks normally.  His Ma gets it ordered in special from Denver.  It’s the one thing she insists on, the thing she says makes living in the middle of nowhere bearable.

Sitting at his desk, his Pa is writing out checks.  They’re for the store owners back in Hope.  Feed for the animals, food for the family and the ranch hands.  It all costs money.  Danny takes the checks back with him.  It saves his Pa a trip.

The nib of the ink pen scrapes across the paper.  It pauses.  “I heard about Harry Dodson.”

Danny takes another sip of his coffee.  Word spreads fast around the town of Hope.  “He won’t be causing any more trouble.”

Pa puts the pen down.  Pushing his chair back, he turns to look at Danny. His forehead wrinkles in a frown. “You sure about that, son? Those Dodson boys aren’t blessed with any common sense.”

“It’s just his pride that was dented.  He’ll get over it.”

“So I heard.”  His Pa still looks worried but a smile is creeping on his face.  “I also heard Steve’s horse likes making friends.”

“Her name’s Doris.  The horse,” Danny adds, anticipating the next question.  “He named her after his Ma.  She’s passed.”

“Ah.”  Pa looks thoughtful, his expression turning distant.  “You know anything else about him?”

Danny downs the dregs of his coffee.  Getting up, he puts his empty mug on the desk.  “He’s got one hell of a right-hook.” 

“Mmm.  I heard about that too.”

Danny smiles to himself.  He’d recognised a couple of the ranch hands at the saloon the day before.  The men who work at the Double L ranch like to drink too.  But his Pa tries to employ ranch hands who are older, men who know better than to get in a fight on pay day.

The fact that their boss’s son is the town’s Sheriff probably concentrates their brains too.

“Do you trust him?”

Pa.”

“If he’s going to be your Deputy you need to be sure.  I can telegraph some people I know out towards Denver and ask—”

“He’s not staying.”

“What?”

Danny sighs at the disappointment on his Pa’s face.  He knows just how he feels.  Puffing out his cheeks, he plonks back down in the chair.  “He’s moving on tomorrow.  He’s looking for work as a ranch hand.”

“He’s got a job with you—”

Danny slaps his palms on the arms of the chair.  The noise they make as they hit the wood doesn’t represent even a fraction of the frustration he’s feeling.   “I can’t pay him.  You know that.”

“Give me some time.  I’m sure I can convince the town council—”

Danny runs a hand through his hair.  “He doesn’t have time.  As far as I can tell he doesn’t have a family.  He’s on his own.”

Pa’s expression changes from disappointed to calculating.  Danny’s seen that look before.  “No,” he warns, raising a hand.  “No, Pa.  He doesn’t like accepting charity.”

“Neither do I.” 

His Pa’s tone is nearly always easy going.  Danny can count on his fingers the number of times he’s seen him loose his temper.  So Danny’s attention has been grabbed by the fierce tone he’s just used.  It’s a sharp reminder that the land where the ranch is was once untamed.  There are two graves up on the hill behind the house, a testament to the sacrifices made to make this a home.

Danny nods.  Out here they help those more unfortunate than them.  You never know when you’re going to be the one who needs help.

As he goes to find Steve, Danny reruns the conversation with his Pa.  Getting Steve to stay, he hadn’t thought it was possible.  Now the idea’s been floated he’s not sure what to think.  If Steve doesn’t like accepting charity then he’s definitely not going to like being railroaded into becoming the town’s full-time Deputy.

Smoothing his hair down with this hands, he shakes his head.  Somehow he’s managed to make his life even more complicated.  That’s a feat, even for him.

H50H50H50H50

Finding Steve provides him with unexpected entertainment. 

Steve’s been kidnapped by the Williams’ ladies.  He’s sitting on a bench on the veranda, both hands stuck out in front of him.  Ma’s winding wool around them, making skeins she can use later for knitting.  She’s sharing all the latest town gossip.  Grace is sitting next to him, her little legs swinging off the edge of the bench.  She’s chatting too, high-pitched, something about bees and flowers and how pretty they are.

Steve looks shell-shocked. 

Danny steps on a lose wooden plank, it squeaks under his boot.  Three pairs of eyes turns towards him.  Steve’s eyes widen with relief: Danny can’t remember anyone looking so pleased to see him.  He tries to stifle a giggle. It comes out as a snort instead.

“You okay there, Danny?” his mother asks, her tone suspiciously innocent.

“Fine, Ma,” he shoots back with a glare. 

Taking a seat beside Grace, he scoops her up into his lap.  She snuggles in instantly, still talking away.  He kisses her on the forehead.  She wrinkles up her nose in disgust.  He does it again, adding a kiss on the tip of her nose for good measure.  He does it to make her giggle – and because it makes him smile.   Being away from her kills him.  Being back with her reminds him why he does it: she’s safe here, she’s happy.   She’s growing into a beautiful, confident little girl.

Look at her, Rachel.  You did good, babe.  We did good.

“I’ve been telling Steve all about you.”

Danny drags himself away from his memories.  He tightens his grip around Grace.  Ma’s smiling at him but it doesn’t reach her eyes.  Steve’s watching him too, a dint appearing between his eyebrows.  Danny knows he should say something clever.  Nothing comes to mind.

“Your Ma told me about the time you fell in the horse trough when you were five years old.” Steve pauses, meeting his gaze.  “I said I was surprised you could reach it.”

Danny’s brain takes a moment to catch up.  “Is that a short joke, McGarrett?”

Steve shrugs.  A loop of wool falls off his hands.  “I’m just saying it how I see it, Sheriff.”

“It’s Danny.  Dan-ny.”

“Is he always this grouchy?”

“Mostly.”

Ma.”

“Just saying it how I see it, sweetheart.”

“Oh, great.  Now you’re a double act.”

“Triple act.”  Ma reaches over to tickle Grace in the ribs.  “Aren’t we, Gracie?”

Gracie giggles in reply.

Ma carefully slides the wool off Steve’s hands.  Twisting it into a knot, she tucks it into the front pocket of her apron.  Using the chair arm for balance, she gets to her feet.  “Dinner will be ready soon.  You boys want to get cleaned up?”

Danny sniffs the sleeve of his shirt experimentally.  When Grace giggles he gets her to sniff as well.  The face she pulls says it all.  “I guess so.”

“Matt’s shirts are in the trunk in your room,” Ma tells him, taking Grace’s hand to help her off the bench.  “He’s around the same height as you, Steve.” She runs a critical eye over him.  “We’re gonna need to feed you up.”

Steve opens his mouth.  Danny shakes his head.  There’s no point in arguing when his Ma has an idea in her head. They watch silently as Ma and Grace disappear back in the house.  Steve stirs, wincing as he gets to his feet.

“Danny—”

Steve,” Danny parrots, using a whining tone he learnt from Grace.  “Just go with it, my friend.  It’s easier that way.”

Steve stares at the door that’s just closed behind Ma.  He huffs. “You never argue with her, huh?”

“Never.  Not if you want to eat.”

Steve huffs again.  His shoulders drop.  With a wave of his hand he indicates Danny should lead the way.

Danny lets out a sigh of relief.  He’s under no illusions: the argument’s not done.  Hopefully they can get through dinner without incident though.  Speaking of which;

“Short jokes?  You had to go there?”

Steve shrugs expansively.  “Thought I’d get in there before you start with the cripple jokes.”

Danny’s pretty sure his horror at that idea is showing on his face.  “I would never do that—” he blusters.  Then he registers Steve’s face.

Steve’s laughing at him.  Again.

“Sorry.”  Steve sobers as Danny glares. “I figured the short joke would make you…” He trails off, chewing at his bottom lip.  Sighing, he looks down at his boots. He waves his hand across his face.  “You looked…sad.”

Danny looks down at his own boots.  Grief is swirling at the edge of his vision, threatening to push him over the edge.  “I don’t know any cripple jokes.”

There’s a pause.  A hand touches his shoulder.  “That’s okay.  I’ve heard them all.”

When he looks up, Steve’s watching him.  The hand hovering over his shoulder is snatched back.  They’re both nursing the same hurts, Danny realises.  In that moment, it’s clearly written across both their faces.

Danny taps Steve on the elbow.  He holds his hand there for a beat.  “Ma will never forgive us if we’re late for dinner.  Let’s get cleaned up.”

H50H50H50H50

Steve drops down onto the bench on the veranda.  Crossing his arms, he stretches out his legs.  Over on the horizon the sun is slowly creeping to sleep.  The horses in the corral have their heads down, quietly munching.  It’s a warm night, they’ll probably be kept out to save on feed.  On the far side of the corral is the bunkhouse.  It’s similar to the ones he’s lived in before.  The sound of male voices arguing carries on the air.

In the house behind him, Danny’s putting Grace to bed.  Mrs Williams had refused any help with the dishes: she’d shoo-ed him out here.  Mr Williams had disappeared back into his office.  Inside he can hear Mrs Williams walking around the house, closing the bedroom shutters.

It keeps the critters out, his own Ma had always said.  Looking back, Steve wonders why she’d bothered.  The shutters hadn’t kept out the land-grabbing raiders that had destroyed their home.

Pushing to his feet he paces to the edge of the veranda.  His leg is aching like hell.  Drinking whiskey in front of Danny’s family feels like a betrayal of their hospitality.  The voices from the bunkhouse grow louder.  There’s plenty of whiskey in there.

Huffing out a breath, he runs a hand over his chin.  He feels like an imposter.  Tonight he’ll be sleeping in a real bed, with a bedstead and a soft mattress.  He should be over there, his feet hanging off the end of a bunk that’s too short for him, trying to ignore the snores.

Cursing under his breath he berates himself for being stupid,.  Self-pity is an indulgence he doesn’t usually allow himself. 

“There you are.”

Danny’s shouldering his way out of the front door, a bottle tucked under his arm.  He’s carrying two glasses filled with golden brown liquid.  Steve licks his lips; he’s got a good idea what that is.

“East coast rye,” Danny confirms, handing him a glass.  “It’s the good stuff.  Matt brings it back when he visits.”

Steve sniffs it.  The smell makes his nose tingle.  He licks his lips again.  It almost smells too good to drink.

Danny raises an eyebrow.

Steve takes the hint.  The first sip is roaring inferno of taste across his tongue.  Eyes widening, he takes another one.

“Good, huh?”

Steve lowers his glass.  He wants to make this last.  “It’s very good.”

“Pa said you’d like it.”  There’s admiration in Danny’s voice.  It’s clear the two men are close. 

Steve nurses his glass against his chest.  The sky’s turning orange, it’s a breath-taking sight.  Danny’s watching the sunset too, his gaze focused off in the distance.  A tiny smile is playing on his face.

Everything Steve’s seen today has convinced him that Danny wants to be here.  He can see it in Danny’s face.  His love for his daughter is blindingly obvious.  He fails dismally at hiding the guilt he feels for leaving her here.  He has parents who love him.  He has a place to stay.  Ranching isn’t an easy life for anyone but it’s safer than waiting for somebody like Harry Dodson to put a bullet in your back. 

There’s no denying it though, something’s still not right.  Mrs Williams told him about Matt, her other son.  He’s making good money in banking.  Steve believes her: the shirt he’s borrowed is better quality than he’s ever seen, even in Denver.  But in the trunk, alongside Matt’s spare shirts, were dresses.  Dresses for a woman, not Grace’s size.  The only woman who is obviously missing is Grace’s mother.  But Danny’s never mentioned her.  And neither has anyone else.

It makes no sense.

“I know what you’re thinking.”

Steve jumps.  He hadn’t realised Danny was watching him.  Not wanting to answer, he takes refuge in his whiskey glass. 

“You’re wondering why I do it.  Being the sheriff, I mean.”

Steve reluctantly lowers his drink.

Danny raises his own in salute, then downs a large swig.  “Every time I come back here, I think the same thing.  Grace…she hates me going.”

“If it was my family, I’d stay.”  Steve slams his mouth shut as soon as the words creep out.  It’s true – god, it’s true – but it hasn’t come out the way he means.  He can tell straight away Danny’s misunderstood him; lips pursed, a shadow crosses his face.

“Danny—”

Danny cuts him off with a curt shake of his head.  “Bring your drink,” he orders, stepping off the veranda.   “I’ve got something to show you.”

Steve follows, too confused to refuse.  Danny’s heading around the back of the house, past the wash house.  There’s a thin dirt track, just visible in the twilight.  Danny hesitates long enough for Steve to catch up then he’s moving again, the shadowy outline of his body starting to blend with the night.

Worried, Steve looks back over his shoulder.  Lamps have been lit in the ranch house.  Pinpricks of light are escaping through the wooden shutters.  Traversing the uneven ground with his twisted leg isn’t easy.  But at least he can see the way back.

He’s about to yell out for Danny when he sees him kneeling in the grass.  In front of him are two wooden crosses, knee-high.  Painted white, they glow in the half-light.

Danny looks up at him as he approaches.  Patting the ground next to him, he sits on the grass.

Steve considers standing.  Getting up again is going to be a bitch.  On the other hand, this look like the kind of conversation that will go better sitting.  Handing Danny his glass, he drops awkwardly to the ground.

“Who are they?” he asks a moment later.  It feels like Danny’s waiting for him to ask.

Danny hands him back his whiskey.  He indicates at the left-hand cross with his glass.  “That’s Grace.  The first Grace,” he adds, his voice rough.  “She was my younger sister.  She died when she was thirteen years old.”

“I’m sorry.”

Danny nods, puts his glass on the ground.  Rolling onto his knees, he tends the area around the second cross, sweeping the dirt with his hands.  Then he leans in, to kiss the cross. His lips linger, brushing the wood.

Steve’s heart sinks.

Danny retrieves the glass.  He empties it in one gulp.  “This is Rachel.  Rach.  My wife.  Grace’s Ma.  We lost her almost four years ago.”

Grace would have only been a baby.  Danny.

Danny’s eyes are fixed on the grave.  He scrubs at his nose with the back of his hand.  “For a while all I wanted to do was drink.  Ma and Pa…they…they took care of Grace for me.  I just couldn’t…you know?”

Steve sips his drink.  “I know.”

Danny glances at him.  His eyes are swimming with tears.  “One day Pa took the whiskey away.  Told me it was time to starting looking after Grace again.  I told him I didn’t know how.  He said it was time for me to learn.”

“She’s a good kid.”

“That’s not me, that’s Ma,” Danny answers, but Steve can hear the pride in Danny’s voice.  He takes a shuddering breath, then another.  “She’s so like Rach.  Every time I come back--”

“—you’re reminded of what you’ve lost.”

“Yeah.”  Danny places his glass carefully on the ground.  He seems lost in thought for moment.  Then he looks Steve straight in the eye.  “You know what I’m talking about.”

It’s more of a statement than a question.  Steve’s stomach roils with panic.  He finds himself nodding anyway.

It’s been years since he told anyone about his family.  Getting the words straight is surprisingly hard.  “My Pa, he was a teacher.  He and Ma brought us out west when we were not much older than Grace. ”

Danny shifts beside him.  “We?”

Steve closes his eyes.  He can see her so clearly in his mind.  “Me and my sister, Mary.  Since Ma and Pa passed she’s been living in Denver with our Aunt Deb.” 

“That’s gotta be hard.  Being split up.”

Steve opens his eyes.  “We didn’t have any choice.”  In the back of his mind memories are beginning to stir. “We were attacked by ranchers.”

Danny shakes his head: he already knows that means. Back in the early days it’d happened a lot.   “Land grabbers.  They stole your homestead.”

Steve clenches his hands together. “They been threatening Pa for months.  Ma wanted to go but he thought we should stay.” It had been the first time he’d heard his parents argue.  It would also be the last.  “They came one night and they…killed Pa.  Ma…she tried to stop them and she…”  He trails off.  Words are triggering memories.  Memories trigger guilt.

“You got away?”

“Pa gave me his revolvers and told us to hide in the wash house.” He squeezes his hands tight.  “I couldn’t run, not with Mary. So we…we waited until daybreak and headed for the next town.”

Don’t look, Mary.  Don’t look.

“How old were you?”

Steve jerks back to the present.  “Sixteen.” 

Danny shuffles until their shoulders are just inches apart.  “You couldn’t have stopped them.”

“I should have tried.”

Danny shakes his head.  “They would have killed you too.  Your sister would have been alone.”

Steve’s skin turns cold at the thought.  A woman on her own doesn’t have many choices.  His Aunt Deb knows that.  He drops his head into his hands. “My Aunt, she works as a singer in a concert saloon,” he explains, his voice muffled.  “Mary, she waits tables, runs errands for the owner.”

His confession is met with silence.  Reluctantly he raises his head.  Danny’s studying him, eyes narrowed.  He can see the thoughts running through Danny’s head: he already knows what they are.  Concert saloons have been appearing in all the cities.  Providing low-end theatre they’re notorious for the amount of liquor they sell and the serving girls they employ.  In polite society they’re known as ‘prostitutes’.

Anger flares in his chest.  “Mary, she doesn’t do any of those things people talk about.  Aunt Deb would never—”

“Hey.” Danny’s holding onto to one of his wrists.  He’s hadn’t realised he’d been waving his hands.  “I wasn’t thinking that.”

Steve first reaction is not to believe him.  Everybody thinks the women in concert saloons are whores.  Then he remembers Lottie and Jennie Mae.

Danny’s not like other people.

“We figure if we can save enough money we’ll get our own homestead,” he explains, hoping Danny can hear the apology in his voice.  His heart sinks at the knowledge of just how little he’s got saved so far.  “All I gotta do is get paid.”

But first someone has to ignore his twisted leg and employ him.  He wishes he had more whiskey, to drown that thought away.

Beside him, Danny sighs.  It’s a sound full of exhaustion.  Steve’s suddenly reminded of everything that’s happened in the last few days, the fear and heart-thumping tension.  Danny’s been living like that for years. 

“You never answered my question,” Steve says softly, giving Danny a nudge when he doesn’t respond.  “Why did you become the Sheriff of Hope?”

Danny shifts,  It’s nearly dark, Steve can barely see him.  He senses rather than sees Danny place his hand on top of Rachel’s grave.  “I missed her, Steve.  I still do.  Grace was the centre of our universe but after Rachel died…I was lost without her.  Pa knew I needed to be busy.”

“So he got you appointed as the Sheriff?”

“Yeah, I know.” Steve can hear the dry laughter in Danny’s voice.  “He was right, though.  This job, it gives me a purpose.  I keep this town safe.”  He shifts and Steve knows he’s looking at him. “I’m keeping my family safe.”

Steve drops his chin to his chest, his breathing suddenly shallow.  His heart feels like it’s going to burst out of his chest.  He understands what Danny’s saying.  That’s all he wants too.

H50H50H50H50

Danny rolls onto his side, freezing as the bedstead creeks.  He waits for it to stop moving.  Slowly he relaxes, one limb at a time.

The sun is just coming up over the horizon.  Weak rays of light are poking through the bottom of the shutters.  It gives the light in the bedroom an inky blue wash.

Grace’s bed is a few feet away.  Fast asleep, she’s lying on her back, her arms and legs are splayed out in opposing angles.  She’s kicked off her quilted blanket, it’s pooled on the floor by the bed.  Her long hair’s rolled up, secured by strips of flowery fabric.  It’s the latest fashion, his Ma had explained the night before as she’d shown him how to tie them.   Danny’s amazed they’ve stayed in, considering how much she shuffles.

Closing his eyes, he counts to 100.  At 101 he’s still awake.  Giving up, he gets out of bed, carefully.

Grace sleeps on and he’s grateful.  It means he can stand and watch.  Her little chest rises and falls under her pale yellow cotton night dress.  In her right hand she’s holding a knitted toy.  The image stabs at his heart.  Rachel made that toy when she was pregnant.  In this very room, in that corner, sitting on the rocking chair that now holds Grace’s dolls.

His vision blurs and he lets it.  Lottie used to tell him it was okay to feel sad.  He’s not sure that’s quite true.  Not nearly four years later.  Everyone has to move on in the end.

He gently strokes Grace’s cheek with his finger tip.  She’s a deep sleeper like her Ma.  Sighing softly, she shuffles further into her bed.

Danny sighs too.  Emotions are swirling too close to the surface.  He feels hollow inside.  Grabbing his clothes he heads outside, closing the door behind him.  In the corridor his parent’s bedroom door is shut.  So is the guest bedroom door where Steve is sleeping.

Out in the kitchen the wood burner has been cleaned out and relit.  Pulling a chair up he sits in front of it while he puts on his pants and boots.  Pulling his shirt on, he loops his suspenders over his shoulders.  His gun belt is in his Pa’s office.  Putting the chair back, he goes in search of it.

Danny frowns.  Pa isn’t in his office.  Slinging his belt around his waist, he goes back to the kitchen.  Snagging himself a mug of coffee, he heads outside.

Pa is sitting at the end of the veranda.  In one hand he’s holding a coffee mug.  He’s using the other hand to shade his eyes against the low sun.  As Danny gets closer he can see what his Pa is looking at: Steve’s in the corral, feeding the horses.

He takes the seat next to Pa.  “Morning.”

Pa nods. He carries on watching.  Danny sips at his coffee and waits.

“He ain’t bad,” Pa says a while a later.

Danny agrees.  They keep the best horses in the corral.  They’re well-bred, valuable but they are also highly strung.  They don’t like strangers.

Steve has got them eating out of his hand – literally.

“I told him about Rachel.”

His father lowers his mug.  He turns.  “What did he say?”

Danny looks away.  He can’t bear his Pa’s sad expression.  Rachel’s mourned by everyone. 

For a moment he considers how to answer.  Then he decides to tell the truth.  It’s not breaking Steve’s confidence, he tells himself.  He’s trying to help.

Danny explains. 

Pa tightens his grip around his coffee mug.  He raises his mug, pauses, brings it down again.  “That crippled leg of his.  That don’t slow him down none.”

Danny knows it’s not a question: there’s a hint of admiration in Pa’s voice.  He snorts anyway.  Steve certainly doesn’t let it slow him down.

Over in the corral, Steve’s checking the hooves of Pa’s favourite horse.  The last time one of the new ranch hands had tried that he’d ended up with a broken arm.

Pa shifts in his chair, his attention back on the corral.  “I’ve been thinking for a while that John could do with some help.”

John is the ranch’s foreman.  For as long as Danny can remember he’s worked for his Pa.  “He could?”

“Yup.”  Pa tips back the last of his coffee.  “Next week we need to bring the cattle down from the eastern pastures.” He gestures over the bunkhouse, where the first signs of life are starting to stir.  “The boys will take care of most of it.  But John’s not as young as he was.”

Danny doubts John would agree with him: as well as being extremely proud he’s also one of the fittest fifty-five year olds he’s ever met.  But Danny’s got an idea where this is going.  So when his Pa gets up, heading for the corral, he doesn’t say anything. 

When Steve spots Pa approaching, his expression turns uncertain.  Straightening, he carefully lets go of the horse’s leg.  His eyes narrow as Pa climbs over the corral fence, smiling.  Perhaps sensing he’s being watched, he looks over at the house.

Danny raises a hand, gives him a weak wave.  There’s no denying that part of him is panicking: Steve’s going to realise he’s been talking about him.  On the other hand, his Pa is about to offer Steve a job.  If this works it’ll be worth a few angry words.

One of the reasons the Double L ranch is so successful, Danny thinks, is because his Pa gets things done.  Steve’s mulish expression as Pa starts talking suggests he hasn’t understood this yet.  Taking a gulp of his coffee, he grins to himself.

There’s one moment though when he actually thinks it might not happen, that Steve might refuse. Arms crossed, Steve’s staring at his boots.  Everything about his body language is saying ‘keep away’.  Pa being Pa just ignores it; reaching out he rests his hand on Steve’s shoulder and keeps on talking. Gradually Steve starts to relax.

When Pa sticks out his hand and Steve takes it, Danny lets out a breath he hadn’t realised he’d been holding.  He waves and smiles when his Pa and Steve look over.  Steve raises his eyebrows  in silent question but Danny can see the smile threatening to break out.  Then Pa says something and Steve turns to reply.  The two of them start walking to the livery barn, Pa resting a hand on Steve’s shoulder as they talk.

Danny watches until the barn door closes behind them.  Dropping his smile, he turns to go back into the house.  He’s grateful to his Pa, he really is.  Steve deserves all the luck he can get. 

But as he goes to wake Grace, he still wishes he wasn’t riding back into town alone.

TBC

Chapter Text

Steve drifts between sleep and consciousness.  He’s aware he’s in the bunkhouse at the Double L ranch.  In the two weeks he’s been working there he’s got used to the place. 

His bunk is down in the far corner.  It’s quiet, away from the younger men.  It means he can keep an eye on them without intruding on their fun.  It’s not that they’re really rowdy – John makes sure of that – but they like to stay up late playing cards.  It’s his job to make sure it doesn’t affect their work.

John’s given him the job of getting the ranch hands moving in the morning.  It gives John an extra thirty minutes in bed in the morning.  Steve’s an early riser so it suits him just fine.

Steve’s internal clock is telling him it’s not long until dawn.  Gradually he’s surfacing from sleep.  Something’s not right though, not the same as it has been all the other mornings.  His mind sends out feelers, questing. 

Burning.  He can smell burning. 

A horse screams into the night.

His body explodes into action.  Heart thudding in his chest, he throws himself out of bed.  He catches himself as his twisted leg gives way.  Cursing, he grabs the bunk to stay upright.  Using his other hand he retrieves his pants and shirt from the end of his bunk.  Awkwardly he pulls them on.

Now he’s awake he can smell smoke.  The bitter taste is on the tip of his tongue.  For a moment he’s hanging between two moments in time; he imagines he can hear his Pa’s voice yelling at him to run.  Then he’s back in the present and he realises it’s John’s voice; he’s outside, yelling at everyone to come help.

Stuffing his feet in his boots he starts moving.  On the way he shakes every bunk.  Gradually the other ranch hands start waking, their eyes opening wide as they hear the commotion.

Steve ignores them, pushing his way to the door.  Through the gaps in the logs that the bunkhouse is made of he can see slivers of orange light.  For a second he hopes its just the sun coming up.  That hope ends when he opens the door.

The livery barn is alight.

Straw bales are stacked against the outside of the barn, tongues of flames are licking the side.  Inside the horses are screaming; the night before they’d moved all the horses from the corral.

Pulling his shirt over his face he starts running.  He can see John silhouetted against the outline of the barn.  Across the way lights are coming on in the ranch house.  His leg cramps, sending a bolt of pain from toe to hip.  Stumbling, he rights himself.   Then he carries on running.

Doris.  He’d put Doris in there the night before.  His brain blanks out in panic.  Then he remembers he’d left her in the furthest stall from the entrance. 

John’s yelling at the other ranch hands, telling them to douse the straw bales with water.  Steve looks behind him and realises he’s not alone.  Grabbing a couple of the other men he waves them towards the water pump and buckets, gesturing for them to form into a human chain.  If the livery barn goes up, it’s not just the horses that will be threatened.  Next to it is the grain barn: they’ll lose the feed and wagons too.

Luckily they understand his hand signals.  He couldn’t talk if he wanted to.  Already smoke’s starting to clog his lungs.  Pulling his shirt tighter across his face he advances further into the barn.  Vaguely he can remember there’s an axe by the door: he’d been using it the day before for chopping wood. He grabs it.

Every hair on his body stands on end; the horses are screaming with fear.  Swinging the door of the first stall open, he dodges flying hooves.  Swinging the axe he prays he doesn’t hit the horse.  His aim is true, the rope tethering the horse comes free, whiplashing back in his face.

Ducking, he pins himself back against the edge of the stall.  Eyes rolling, the horse bolts for the open doorway, its hooves scrabbling in the dirt as it gallops out of the barn.

Steve pushes himself upright.  He’s gasping for breath.  Getting a better grip on the axe, he moves to the next stall.  Then he moves on to the next, and the next, and the next.

Doris is only two stalls away.  He can see her head over the stall – barely – though the dust and smoke.  Breathing is becoming difficult.  It’s taking all his energy just to move.

There’s a rumbling sound; it’s like the earth’s shaking.  The flames have reached the roof.  A supporting beam plummets to the ground in a shower of sparks.  Steve throws himself to the ground, shielding the back of his head with his arm.

Mouth full of dirt, he risks looking up,  Through the roof he can now see daylight,  The rest of it is well alight.  Looking down he catches sight of Doris: head over her stall, eyes rolling, she looks terrified. 

Doris throws her head back and screams, her hooves hitting her stall in panic.  It’s enough to spur him on.  Half crawling, half staggering, he grabs the axe from where he’s dropped it.  Eyes stinging from the smoke, lungs heaving, he releases the next horse from its stall.

The horse nearly tramples him in its panic.  Scrabbling crab-like across the dirt he avoids it.  Using the axe as an anchor in the dirt he pulls himself to the next stall.  Barely able to see he swings the axe again.

Now he’s only got Doris to worry about.  Perhaps sensing his proximity she screams again.  Crawling on his knees he gets the stall open.  She tugs at her rope: it snaps free.  Exhausted, his arms and legs feel like jelly. 

In the confusion he doesn’t realise at first that Doris isn’t moving.  It’s the frayed rope, hanging from her neck, that draws his attention.  Grabbing it, he pulls himself up, hand over hand.

Twisting it around his hand, he tugs her forward.  In the smoke he can barely see.  The tension on the rope disappears, suggesting Doris is following him.  It’s confirmed a moment later when her shoulder collides with his, shoring him up.  Stumbling, they head for the pin pick of light in the distance.  Steve’s not sure, but he’s hoping it’s the entrance to the barn.

Time slows down.  The light doesn’t seem to be getting any closer.  Then hands are grabbing him, propelling him forwards.  He goes with it, tightening his grip on Doris’ rope.

When they reach the light, it doesn’t seem real at first.  Then his lungs contract, desperate for clean air.  He falls to his knees, gasping.  The rope slides out of his hands.

“She’s alright, Steve.  They’ve got her.” 

It’s John, kneeling beside him.  Danny’s Pa is kneeling on the other side.

Relief washes over him, punching out what little air he has left in his lungs.  The world spins.  He’s suddenly reminded he’s only got one good leg as his body lurches sideways.  Hitting the dirt, the last thing he remembers for a while is Grace standing on the veranda, a knitted toy clutched in her hand. 

H50H50H50H50

Danny sees the cloud of smoke long before he crosses onto the Double L’s land.  It’s a dark blot against the mid-morning sky.  Feeling sick to the pit of his stomach, he urges Jersey on.

When one of Pa’s ranch hands had burst into the jail house that morning he’d hoped he’d been exaggerating how bad it was.  Now he’s not so sure.

Behind him, he can hear another horse and cart wheels rolling over the uneven ground.  It’s the Doc.  Pa asked for him as well.  He’s slow though – too slow.  Gritting his teeth, Danny kicks Jersey again, letting the Doc fall behind.

Jersey’s going at full stretch but it still seems to take forever to reach the ranch house.  Danny pulls Jersey up hard when they finally arrive: his hooves send up a cloud of dust.  Danny jumps down, flinging the reins over the hitching post without looking.  Reaching the veranda, he takes the two steps in one stride.

What he sees does nothing to reassure him.  Many of the ranch hands are sitting down on the veranda.  Faces blackened with soot, they’re coughing hard.  Some of them are holding their hands out, their palms are red and blistered.

Panic growing, he checks over everyone again.  The faces he’s looking for aren’t there though. 

The front door opens.  Danny turns light-headed with relief.  Ma’s there, with Grace close behind her.  Ma’s carrying a bowl of water and strips of old cloth.  Grace is still wearing her nightdress.

“Papa!”

Falling to his knees he opens his arms as Grace runs towards him.  She protests as he pulls her in tight.  Apologising, he plants a kiss on her cheek and lets her go.  Getting to his feet, he pulls his Ma into a hug as well.

She’s trembling. 

Pulling back, he can see fear in her eyes.  Dread turns his mouth sandpaper dry.  “Where’s Pa?”

She smiles, but it’s wobbly at best.   “He’s around the back of the—”

A shot rings out before she can finish.  Danny spins round on his heel.  Now that he knows Grace is safe he suddenly registers the smouldering wreckage of the livery barn.  The far wall is still standing but everything else has gone.

The tears he can see in his Ma’s eyes speak volumes.  Pausing long enough to kiss Grace on the top of her head he heads for the grain barn – and the direction of the shot.

What he sees when he gets there makes his knees almost buckle.  His Pa and Steve are standing over his Pa’s favorite horse.  Steve’s holding a rifle.  The horse is dead, lying on its side.

“Broken leg,” his Pa mumbles, looking over.

Danny nods, swallowing hard.  There was nothing else to be done.   “I brought Doc.”

“Good.”  Pa sighs, a deep shuddering sound.  “That’s good.”

Before Danny can say anything else Pa’s walking away.  It’s just him and Steve left.

“You should let Doc look at that,” he says, his eyes widening as he takes in Steve’s face.  He’s got a cut over his left eye.  It’s bleeding badly.  The back of his hands are painfully red as well.

Steve blinks at him stupidly.  Exhaustion is written over his face.  Taking a step forward, he weaves.

Danny grabs him by the elbow before he goes over.  Reaching out, he retrieves the rifle.  “Give me that thing before you shoot off your good leg.”

Steve snorts as Danny loops his arm over his shoulder.  “I thought you didn’t know any cripple jokes?”

“Shut up,” Danny tells him roughly, his throat tight with emotion.  He’s got a vivid imagination.  He knows how much worse this could have been.

They shuffle and limp their way back over to the ranch house.  Danny’s relieved to see the Doc has arrived and is helping the men on the veranda.  He’s not really a Doctor but he learnt a few skills during the war; he shares them in exchange for a few coins and whiskey.   The bowl of water Ma was carrying is now beside his feet, along with an open jar of thick, white salve.

“Here you go Doc,” Danny announces as they get closer.  He tightens his grip on Steve.  “I’ve got another one for you.”

Steve glares but stays silent as Danny helps him to the floor.  Head falling back against the wall, Steve’s eyes slide closed.

H50H50H50H50

Pa opens his bottle of whiskey.  He pulls out two glasses.  A dash goes into each one.  “Drink it,” he orders, passing one to Danny.  Taking his own glass, he slumps into his office chair.

Danny takes a chair across from him.  The first sip of whiskey acts like a jolt to his system.  He needs it.  Exhaustion is weighing him down.

He’s not the only one.  Pa’s face is grey with tiredness.  His shirt and pants are torn in places, stained with water and soot.  The room smells of burnt wood and smoke.

Outside it’s finally quiet.  Doc had gone back to Hope a few hours earlier. Luckily he’d had nothing worse to treat than burns, bruises and one broken finger.  The ranch hands are in the cookhouse, eating their evening meal.  It’s beans and beef: Danny knows, the family had the same.  Now Ma’s busy getting Grace ready for bed. 

They sit in silence, both lost in their own thoughts.  It’s impossible not to replay the events of the day.  Things could have been so much worse.

The sound of footsteps breaks them out of their introversion.  There’s a quick knock but no introduction.  It’s John, reporting in to Pa like he does every evening.  This time though he’s got Steve with him. 

Danny redefines his own understanding of exhaustion.  John and Steve look much worse.

Pa rouses, waves them in.  “You eaten?”  John nods.  So does Steve.  “Good.  That means you can join us for a drink.”  Not waiting for an answer, he fills two more glasses. 

John looks grateful, he pulls out a chair.  Steve hesitates, still standing on the threshold.  Pa pulls out another chair, pushes it towards Steve.  “You’ve earned it, son.”

Danny resists the urge to roll his eyes when Steve still hesitates.  He raises an eyebrow instead.  Steve’s long-suffering look as he finally sits lightens the mood in the office for a moment.  But they all quickly sober again.

Pa raises his glass.  He acknowledges John and Steve with a dip of his chin.  “Thank you.”

Danny raises his own glass, repeats the toast.  It doesn’t seem sufficient.  Without the barns, the feed and the horses, the ranch would have struggled.  Everything his family has worked for – Grace’s future – would have been at risk.

The cost of saving the barns is obvious though.  The skin on John and Steve’s face and hands is flecked with angry-looking, red patches.  It must hurt like hell.

Danny takes a sip of whiskey, rolling it around his tongue before swallowing.  “How did it start?” 

“I don’t know,” John says, rubbing his face with his hand.  “I got up…like I always do…”

“Did you hear anything?” Danny’s not sure if he’s asking as Danny Williams or as the Sheriff of Hope.  All he knows is he wants answers, so this doesn’t happen again.

John shakes his head.  So does Steve. 

“The first I realised was when I heard John shouting,” Steve confirms, moving his head side to side, stretching his neck out.  “I saw the flames but before that…” He trails off, his face scrunched in thought. “I don’t think anything was different.”

“Everyone knows not to go in there with a naked flame.”  It’s Pa who’s spoken but they all know this anyway.  “I checked the barn last night.”

Danny nods, considering the options.  Even an extinguished flame leaves heat, it can smoulder for hours then reignite.  He finds it hard to believe his Pa would miss that though.  The ranch hands wouldn’t lie about it either: they’d never work again.

“Accidents happen—” Pa starts but he’s interrupted by a knock on the door. 

Ma appears.  She’s gently steering Grace in front of her.  Grace is dressed in a clean nightdress.

Danny half-rises from his chair.  Ma looks more serious than he can remember for a long time.  Grace looks scared.

“It’s okay,” Ma says, looking down at Grace.  But she raises her eyes, meeting Danny’s.

“What’s wrong?”

Grace hesitates as her Grandpa gestures her over.  She looks nervously at everyone in the room.

Her Grandma gives her a nudge.  “It’s okay, sweetheart, you’re not in trouble.”

Danny pulls Grace into his lap.  “In trouble for what?”  Danny knows he sounds impatient.  It’s been a long day for all the adults, let alone his baby girl.  

“She went outside,” his Ma explains, raising one eyebrow in Grace’s direction.  “On her own.  This morning.  Before anyone else was awake.”

“Grace!”  Danny pulls her round so she can see his face.  She may only be young but she knows not to go outside without an adult.  It’s not safe.

His anger flares and is extinguished in a second: Grace looks so miserable. 

“I’m sorry,” she whispers, her face pressed into his shirt.  “I thought I heard something.  I thought it was Grandpa.”

“Tell them what you told me.”

Ma’s voice is soft, encouraging.  Grace looks at the men, shyly.  She tucks her head further into Danny’s chest.  “There were two men.  They were running away.”

Danny already knows the answer to his next question.  He asks anyway.  “Running away from where, Gracie?”

“The barn.”

“Did you recognise them?”  Steve’s leaning forward, so Grace can see his face.  She manages a tiny smile for him as she shakes her head.

Silence falls.

Danny’s barely aware Grace is slipping off his lap.  Absently he kisses her, promises he’ll be there in a minute to tuck her in.  No one speaks as Ma shepherds Grace back out of the office.  The door shuts behind them with a loud click.

Danny curses, under his breath to start with, louder as his anger grows.  This isn’t a coincidence, he’s sure of it.  Pa and John are looking at him strangely.  Steve though…Steve knows exactly what he’s thinking about.  He can see it in his face.

“Danny, you don’t know it was him.”

Pa’s clearly confused.  “Who?”

“Harry Dodson,” Danny growls, ignoring Steve’s warning.  “Who else would it be?”

John looks doubtful.  “Are you sure?” he asks, rubbing his hand across his chin.  “The man’s an idiot for sure but destroying—”

Danny gets up, takes a few paces, turns.  His knuckles turn white as he grips the back of his chair.  “He did it.”   He did it while his family was here, while Grace was here.

The other three men in the room stare back at him.  He can see the doubt in their eyes.  His anger ramps up even further, fuelled by disappointment.  It’s normally the residents of Hope who look like this: he’d expected better from his family.

“So what do we do about it?”

It’s Steve who’s spoken, his eyebrows drawn together in thought.  But Pa and John are nodding too. 

Pa puts his whiskey glass down.  “We don’t do anything.  Not tonight,” he adds, raising a finger in warning at Danny.

“Pa—”

“No.”

“We can’t just let—”

“We don’t know it was him.”

“Who else would—"

“Not tonight, Daniel.”  Pa doesn’t wait for Danny’s answer.  Getting to his feet, he leaves, slamming the door behind him.

John sighs into the silence that follows.  His chair creaks as he leans over to pat Danny on the shoulder, sympathy written across his face.  “You know how much this place means to him.  He’s angry too.”  Groaning, he gets to his feet.  Meeting Danny’s gaze, his expression turns serious.  “Just promise me you won’t do anything stupid. It’d kill him if something happened to you.”

He shouldn’t have made me the Sheriff of Hope then.  “I promise.  I won’t go over there tonight.”

John heads for the door, shaking his head.  “That doesn’t make me feel any better.  But I’m too tired to care.”

Steve watches the door close behind him.  “He’s right.”

Danny slumps back into his chair.  Leaning back, he kneads his eyes with his fingertips.  “About not feeling any better?  Or being too tired?”

Steve huffs.  “Both.”  There’s a pause.  “You’re not going tonight, are you?”

Danny drops his hands.  There’s the normal note of challenge in Steve’s voice but now it’s got a sharper edge.  Danny’s simmering anger responds.  “You going to stop me?”

Steve stares back.

Danny’s on the verge of arguing.  He’s so angry he’ll yell at anything – or anyone.  He’s the Sheriff; that’s what everyone keeps reminding him.  Harry Dodson is threatening his family.

Then he’s remembers that Grace is asleep down the corridor.  So are his Ma and Pa.  This man sitting in front of him has risked his life for this family.  So has John and the men out in the bunkhouse.

The Sheriff of Hope is needed here tonight.

Exhaling loudly, he stands up.  “I don’t know about you, babe, but I could do with some sleep.”  Steve’s eyes widen comically at the term of endearment.  Danny grins.  “It’s a Jersey thing,” he explains, hovering as Steve struggles to his feet.  “I’ll explain it to you,” he promises, standing to one side to let Steve weave his way out of the office.

“Tomorrow,” Steve replies around a huge yawn. 

“Tomorrow,” Danny promises.  Taking a deep breath, he tells himself to let the anger go – for now.  Chewing at his bottom lip he follows Steve out of the house and over to the bunk house. 

Steve stops when they get there. A smile is playing on his lips.  “Thanks for the escort.  I think I’m safe now.” 

Danny lets out a surprised laugh.  He hadn’t actually realised that’s what he was doing.  “Sorry.”  He waves a hand tiredly, “I don’t know what I’m—”

Steve plants his hands on Danny’s shoulders before he can finish.  Tightening his grip, he turns him around.  Giving him a gentle nudge between the shoulder blades, he sets Danny off back in the direction of the house.   “Go to sleep, Daniel.

Danny spins back around: only his Pa gets to call him that.  Instantly he regrets it.  Steve’s grinning widely.  He’s been laughed at again.

Danny waves him off with a gesture usually only seen at the saloon in town.  The sound of Steve’s laughter follows him as he heads back to the house.

Pausing for a moment before going inside, he sweeps his gaze across all the buildings one more time.  This ranch isn’t where he was born.  But it is where he calls home.  There’s no way he’s going to let someone like Harry Dodson take this away from him.

Tomorrow he’s going to sort this out.

H50H50H50H50

Steve swings Doris’s saddle up onto her back.  She huffs her dissatisfaction as he reaches underneath and buckles up the girth strap.  He sympathises with her: the sun is only just coming over the horizon, it’s early, even for them.

“I was wondering if you’d go with him.”

Steve’s heart sinks.  Stupidly he’d been hoping John wouldn’t notice he wasn’t carrying out his normal chores.  Slipping his fingers under the girth strap, he checks its tight enough.  Satisfied, he turns.  He’d laid awake until the early hours practicing what he’d say.  Now nothing works.  It feels like he’s betraying the trust that’s growing between him and John.

John’s watching him, hands resting on his hips.  Eyes narrowed, he’s studying Steve.  “It’s okay,” he announces a moment later, his expression easing.  “You’re his Deputy.  It makes sense he’d ask you to go.”

Oh.  Steve opens his mouth to explain that only half of that statement is true when the front door of the house opens.  Danny comes out, hat on, his Sheriff’s badge pinned on his jacket.  Head down, it takes him a second to realise he’s being watched.  When he does, his expressions darkens.

“You asked if you could go with him, right?” John asks, eyebrows raised. As they watch Danny speeds up; he’s stomping.  John guffaws.  “I guess not.”

“I was going to,” Steve points out.  It feels like he should defend himself.

John looks at him like he’s an idiot.  “Good luck.”

Steve doesn’t notice John’s walked off to the grain store.  All his attention is on the angry whirlwind who has just come to a halt in front of him. 

Danny eyes Doris suspiciously.  Doris eyeballs him back.  “Where you going?”

Steve checks the saddle again.  Danny’s  angry glare is unnerving. “Where do you think?”

“You’re not coming with me.”  Danny’s mouth clamps into a mulish line.

It occurs to Steve that he could just wait and follow Danny. But Danny’s looking for a fight, a way to vent his anger.  That’s something he understands.  So instead he says: “You gonna stop me?”

There’s a moment where he thinks Danny’s going to take the bait.  Danny’s eyes flash with anger.  He braces himself, waiting for the punch to land.  Then Danny throws his hands in the air, cursing.  He paces away, his eyes on the burnt ruin of the livery barn.

Steve strokes Doris’s muzzle.  She huffs warm air into his hand.  Patting her one more time he walks over to join Danny.  Little wisps of smoke are still rising from the burnt ruins.

“I’m your Deputy,” he points out, quietly.

Danny stirs but he doesn’t look at him.  “Who says I’m going to visit Harry Dodson as the Sheriff?”

Steve leans forward to look at the tin badge Danny’s wearing. 

Danny looks down, following his gaze.  His shoulders drop as he exhales heavily. “I’m hoping it’ll stop me doing anything stupid.”

Steve nudges him.  “That’s what I’ll be there for.”

TBC

Chapter Text

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

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

The rest of the conversation does not go well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ah.  How did he take that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

H50H50H50H50

The cattle start dying.

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

Pa sends for Danny.

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

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

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

Very wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Accidents happen, right?”

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

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

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

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

“I know.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Danny’s hands shoot skywards.  “Where?”

“To where the dead cattle were found.”

“You don’t know where that is.”

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

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

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

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

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

Steve—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ecstatic.”

“So you’re getting on your horse?”

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

Danny.”

“Did you just growl at me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So why did they all die here, together?

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

“What do you think?”

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

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

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

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

“We need to keep moving.”

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

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

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

Don’t be silly, Daniel.

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

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

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

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

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

“The water’s tainted.”

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

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

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

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

“Danny.  Look at this.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We’ll get him, Danny.”

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

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

“Can you stand up?”

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m going—”

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

Danny jerks his arm free.  “What?”

“We’ve arranged it.  John and me.”

Danny scowls.  “Pa never said anything—”

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

“You lied to Pa.”

“Well…not really…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m good.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Danny turns his attention to the darkness around them. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What won’t—”

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

“I wasn’t thinking about kill—”

“Yes you were.”

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

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

“Steve.”

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

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

“Yeah.”

Yeah?

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

Danny nods, automatically.

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

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

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

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

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

“No one could blame you.”

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

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

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

“They wouldn’t have—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t see how—”

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

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

“Exactly.”

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

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

TBC

Chapter Text

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.”

“He’s what—”

Danny.”

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.”

“With these—”

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—”

No.”

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.”

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.”

“No—”

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.

Ow.”

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.”

Danny.

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.”

H50H50H50H50H50

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.

“No women?”

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.

Hopefully.

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?”

What?”

“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.”

TBC

Chapter Text

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

Chapter Text

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—”

“No!” 

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—"

“Steve’s right.”

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.”

“It’s okay.”

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.”

Steve—"

“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.

H50H50H50H50

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.”

“Doc—”

“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.

Panic flares.

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.

TBC

Chapter Text

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.”

“We?”

“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.”

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.”

What?

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?”

“Well…yes.”

“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—”

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.” 

“Yeah.”

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.”

“Danny—”

“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?”

“Nope.”

Danny—"

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.”

“That hurt!”

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.”

“You wouldn’t.

“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?”

“Maybe.”

“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.

A home

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. 

THE END