A License to Kill alternate scene fix-it fic
Author’s Note: The improbability, no, impossibility, of Jess’ mode of escape in this episode annoys me to no end (and from the discussions of this episode, it affects others the same way). So I spent a lot of time trying to come up with a plausible fix—and at last, here it is….
Thanks to my always excellent beta, Hired Hand.
Jess Harper was furious. He was so damned mad, in fact, that his anger had overridden his hunger and his thirst. He hadn't even asked Slim for a drink of water or some food to eat—it would probably have just choked him anyway, he fumed.
Because Slim Sherman had betrayed him. Slim, who was his employer, his friend, the one person he trusted more than any other in the whole world, the man who was supposed to be there to help him, had done just the opposite.
Slim had helped Jarrett, the so-called marshal who was no more a lawman than Jesse James was.
In fact, it had been Slim who had come up with the idea of snapping Jess’ handcuffs around a tree trunk, ensuring that Jess couldn't escape in the night.
Some friend he was, Jess thought bitterly.
Frustrated beyond words, Jess gave a jerk on the cuffs that held his arms wrapped around the small tree. Nothing happened, of course. The tree didn’t even wiggle. He yanked again, ignoring the sharp sting as the metal bit into the skin of his wrists, too angry to care about the damage he was doing to himself.
He gave another tug against the cuffs, as hard as he could, rattling the chains that linked the manacles. The tree didn't budge. Instead, pain sliced deeper into his own raw skin.
Jess ignored the sound of approaching footsteps, though noting they were familiar ones. He didn't turn around as the steps came up behind him and stopped. He didn't need to see who it was; he could sense the tall figure looming over him.
"Jess..." Slim started in a soothing voice, keenly aware of the prisoner’s smoldering fury.
"Pulling at those cuffs, you'll only hurt yourself," Slim suggested softly.
The chained man laughed bitterly, defiantly giving another futile pull against the cuffs' unyielding metal. "Better broken wrists than a broken neck."
"It won't come to that," Slim insisted.
"Rrrright. You takin' up readin' tea leaves now days?"
"I got your message, and I came here to help you, Jess. I know you're upset..."
"Upset? Why would I be upset?” Jess rattled the shackles again. “I'm chained to a tree and on my way to a hangin'. What could I possibly be upset about?"
Slim sighed, realizing there was no talking sense to Jess when he was in such a mood. "Try to get some sleep, huh? We've got a long ride tomorrow."
"Not long enough, not near long enough." The thought of soon arriving in Willow, where he was convinced he would be hung, sent shivers down his spine.
Slim leaned down and patted his friends' shoulder, but Jess flinched away from the contact, not over his anger or his fear. Slim just plain didn't understand what Jess was facing-- he'd never been to Willow, didn't know the hold the Wilkey family had on the town. Old man Wilkey had been like one of those lords or kings from the old days-- his word was the law, and his son was just like him. The Wilkeys wielded the power of life and death in that town. No matter how good Slim's intentions, no matter how strong his faith in right and wrong, he was only one man against all the men Wilkey's money could buy.
And that was a lot of men.
Jess heard Slim walk away and from the corner of his eye saw the tall man slowly return to his bedroll.
Jess ignored the blanket Slim had brought over for him-- how the heck was he supposed to find a way to sleep? Even if he wanted to, with his arms wrapped around the tree trunk, it would take a contortionist to comfortably lie down to rest.
Wearily, Jess leaned forward, resting his forehead against the trunk of the tree.
He wanted to trust Slim, he really did. He wanted to believe in the fairness of the law the way the tall rancher did, but he couldn't. All his life experiences had shown him that guys like Jess Harper didn't have a chance. The deck was stacked against him. He couldn't prove he was innocent-- it was his word against that of Jarrett and Wilkey.
He would lose.
And that meant losing his life.
It was as if he could already feel the rough hemp of the rope biting into his neck. Jess convulsively inhaled a great gulp of night air and fought back the panic.
Chained to a tree, caught like a wolf in a trap.
He fought the restraints blindly then, knowing there wasn't a chance in hell that the tight cuffs, even slick with blood, would slip over his big hands. Having thrown rational thought to the wind, he jerked and yanked and tugged wildly, fueled by desperation, heedless of the mounting damage he was doing to his wrists.
Neither the cuffs nor the tree yielded in the slightest.
Heart pounding, lungs heaving, Jess finally stopped, recognizing the futility of what he was doing. Brute strength wasn't going to win him his freedom.
Calming his wild breathing with a slow inhalation and exhalation, he forced himself to consider his situation. Rational. Calm. Logical. Think through his options. Find an answer.
He glanced over toward the banked campfire and the two men sound asleep beside it, thankful that the murmuring of the stream had covered the noise of his wild struggles.
Think your way through this mess, Harper, he ordered himself. You can’t break iron cuffs; you can’t pull down a tree.
Find another way.
What options did he have? What weapons were at hand? No gun, obviously. And Jarrett had emptied his pockets, including taking the jackknife he always carried tucked into his boot.
So, no way to overpower Jarrett.
How could a chained man get free? There was no way to slip out of the cuffs, no way to climb the tree and slide the shackles over it.
Think, Jess, use your head.
Break the chains. But how? The iron bracelets weren’t brittle. There were branches he could break off from the tree, but they weren't strong enough to pry apart the links. There were rocks within his reach, but he couldn't smash the heavy chain apart. And even if he could, neither of his captors would sleep through the kind of noise he'd make doing it.
Boots? No help there.
Spurs? Not sharp enough to cut through the tree trunk. Too blunt to pick the lock…
His heartbeat suddenly quickened with a wild hope. The spurs were too blunt to pick the lock of the handcuffs, but his belt, rather, the buckle of his belt... yes!
Getting the belt off was the first trick. He had to climb back to his feet, snuggling up to the tree and using his hands to awkwardly pull himself up. He twisted his arm as far around the tree as he could, hugging it, hissing at the pain of cold metal rasping against the raw torn skin of his wrists, ignoring the blood dripping down his fingers. Holding his chest tight against the tree, he had barely enough slack in the chain holding the cuffs together to be able to reach the buckle, undo it and triumphantly pull his belt free.
Elated, he took hold of the buckle, bent the tongue forward, and tried to insert it into the handcuff's lock.
It didn't fit!
Jess' heart sank and he cursed under his breath. He wasn't going to give up, however. Looking around, he spotted what looked to be a rock made of granite. Sitting down once again, he stretched his leg out as far as he could, hooking the toe of his boot around the stone and pulling it closer. Once he had it near enough to grab, he picked it up and set it beside the tree trunk. Taking hold of the tongue of the belt buckle once more, he scraped the edge of the metal tip across the rock, like stropping a razor.
A sharp, metallic “scree” sound startled him. Jess whipped his head around to check on the sleeping 'lawmen' beside the fire. Had they heard the noise? Jarrett hadn’t moved but Slim rolled restlessly in his bedroll. Jess held his breath, but thankfully Slim settled deeper into his blankets and didn't rouse. Jess didn’t move until Slim once again stilled, then he resumed his work. This time, he unbuttoned the cuff of his shirt sleeve and draped the cloth over the belt buckle to muffle the sound.
He went back to work once more, more carefully this time. His trick was working, the noise was less, though not entirely silenced.
It was slow, hard work, trying to hone the point of the belt buckle’s tongue. It kept slipping in his sweat slickened fingers. He nicked up his hand time and again, blood making his grip even less secure. But Jess persisted and finally, having worn a groove in the stone, he succeeded in sharpening the metal.
This time when he tried it, the slender metal fit inside the lock of the cuff. He worked it around, again and again, trying to catch the mechanism of the lock. His fingers grew numb from gripping the tiny metal bit, and he had to fight to contain his frustration. Time was passing, way too much time, and Jess was beginning to think it was hopeless, when suddenly, he felt the metal bit catch the locking mechanism.
A faint almost inaudible click and the cuff swung free.
He could hardly believe it.
Jess cast a hurried glance over at Slim and Jarrett, both still sound asleep, then got carefully to his feet. The open cuff dangled loosely from his left wrist, the other cuff still tight around his right. He'd worry about that later, when he was safely away.
Adrenaline hummed through his veins as he tiptoed past the sleeping figures beside the fire. His heart was racing wildly as he walked toward the horses, praying none of them would nicker at his approach. Traveler raised his head and pricked his ears before Jess reached the animal’s head, placing a soothing and quieting hand over the horse’s nose.
One quick stroke of the silken muzzle to calm the horse, then Jess tugged the slip-knotted reins free and leaped bareback onto the little bay. He spun Traveler on his haunches, turning the horse away from the camp and dug his heels into the animal’s side.
He was free.