The First Step

A Laramie Season 1 fanfic

By Badgergater

An epilogue to Stage Stop that supplies one of those missing answers – where did that gun (Jess’ gunfighter gun that’s hidden by the fireplace) come from?

(A big thank you to Hired Hand for the beta)

(completed 5-25-10)

< ------------------------------------------- >

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” – Lao Tzu.

< ------------------------------------------- >

When he looked back on it later, Jess Harper never could figure out just what it was that changed his mind and led him to stay in Laramie.

Was it Andy’s stinging words haunting him, declaring he wasn’t fit to be anyone’s friend, the kid’s plea honing in on that empty spot deep inside of him? Was it the novelty of the law-abiding Slim Sherman, after they’d rounded up those outlaws, riding after him and actually asking him to stay, rather than bidding him good riddance as he rode away? Was it that he figured that the big, long-legged galoot needed someone to look after him, because, in just one short day, Jess had learned that the guy was prone to jumping into the middle of a fight, no matter what the odds, fueled by pride and principle rather than considering the consequences?

Or was it simply the last straw falling into place, the right time to call it quits to years on the drift? Had he reached the point at which the weariness that seemed to have settled deep into his soul finally caught up to him, after he’d spent weeks chasing down one more so-called friend who had turned on him? Jess wasn’t ever able to explain his decision on that fateful day, not even to himself, because settling down sure wasn’t in his plans.

Whatever the reason, a man who’d spent five years calling nowhere home suddenly found himself accepting Slim Sherman’s job offer and deciding to stay.

After all, Jess had rationalized that day, hiring on at the Sherman spread wasn’t a lifetime commitment. Heck, it was just another in a long succession of jobs. He’d worked on plenty of ranches before, and he could saddle up and hit the trail again any time his feet got itchy. And what with the sad fact that he’d never recovered his money from that low-down skunk Pete Morgan, he could use a steady job, just for a short spell mind you, long enough to build up his stake, anyway.

And Andy, who reminded him of the brothers he’d lost back in Texas long before the war, and the kid’s stiff-necked big brother, they had nothing to do with his decision to stay.

Nope.

Nothing at all.

This was just a job, a chance to put some folding money in his pocket until the big open called to him again, as it inevitably did. Or until his new boss discovered his past and his shady reputation, and, as had happened before, he found himself no longer welcome. That’s the way it usually happened.

And yet, somehow, something about this time didn’t feel that way.

It felt momentous, as if there’d been some great shift in the ground beneath his feet. As if this time it was important that things work out, that there was the chance that something here was worth grabbing onto and holding onto.

Or maybe that knock on the head from one of Carlin’s gang had just plain scrambled his brains, Jess thought. So, after helping clean up that bunch of outlaws, he had ridden back to the Sherman Ranch with Slim, and accepted the job offer. That was how he found himself where he was now, in the ranch yard with the brothers and the old man with the funny hat, all grinning like fools at each other.

His attention was drawn back to his current surroundings at the sound of Andy’s voice.

“I’ll show Jess where to put up his horse and stow his things,” the boy offered eagerly, and Slim nodded in agreement.

Jess took hold of Traveler’s reins and started walking toward the barn in Andy’s wake.

“Supper’s in half an hour. Don’t be late,” Jonesy cheerfully called after them, watching the newcomer and the boy thoughtfully. He was silent a moment before adding, softly, so only Slim could hear, “You think you’re gonna regret inviting that rapscallion to stay?” he asked.

The tall rancher was deep in thought, staring after the retreating backs of his brother and the Sherman Ranch’s new hand. Andy was chattering away, throwing questions at Jess about what had happened after he had left the ranch in pursuit of the outlaws and begging the newcomer to tell every detail about the capture of the Carlin gang.

“Slim?” the old man asked more sharply, staring up at his boss.

“What?” the tall man swung around to Jonesy.

“I asked if you was a’gonna regret askin’ that drifter to stay on here.”

Slim shook his head. “I don’t know, Jonesy. I hope not.” He wasn’t sure what impulse had prompted him to offer Harper a job. He’d seen hundreds of drifters ride through over the years, men on their way to nowhere, or to a boot hill somewhere, looking for something they’d lost, or something they’d maybe never had. They were men who lived recklessly, on the edge of the law, too quick with their guns, too easy with their words, and too loose with their promises. They weren’t the kind of men Slim wanted working for him, or, even more importantly, hanging around his little brother, teaching him things like how to cheat at cards, he thought angrily. And yet … Jess, who’d had no stake in the fight with the Carlins, had ridden after him into the thick of things. Likely saved his life. And that meant a lot, a whole lot.

Maybe it was only wishful thinking to hope that Jess Harper was different, that this drifter only needed a chance to leave his past behind, but there was something he’d seen in the man’s eyes, something that belied the bravado. This gut feeling that he had, maybe it meant that Jess could be something more than just a summer hand.

Then again, maybe it was just indigestion.

Slim shook his head, still baffled by his own actions. Seemed like he was more like Andy than he’d ever figured, taking in strays just like the boy did. But this stray, he could prove to be more dangerous than a coiled rattler.

Well, what was done was done. He’d made the offer, Jess had accepted, and they’d give it a go.

Heck, he didn’t even know if Jess knew anything about ranching.

Guess they were gonna find out.

Slim turned toward the house.

< ---------- >

“You can put your horse in there, and your saddle over there,” Andy instructed when he and Jess reached the barn, pointing at a vacant stall and then to an empty saddle rack. He watched as Jess led his horse into the enclosure, loosened the cinch and pulled the saddle off the bay, setting it aside with the blanket atop it. Finding a brush in a bucket of tools, the newcomer picked it up and went back to his horse, putting some elbow grease into grooming his sweat-streaked mount, starting at the left shoulder and methodically working his way back along the horse’s barrel, flanks, and rump.

The boy, meanwhile, had climbed up to sit on the partition to the next stall, watching his new friend keenly as if he’d never seen a horse groomed before. “That’s a mighty-fine horse you got there, Jess. Texas horse, you said?”

“Yup. Bought him with money from a cattle drive,” the man answered.

“You’ve been a drover, too?” Andy asked, wide-eyed. “Jess, is there any job you ain’t done?”

“Oh, there’s plenty of things I ain’t tried,” he answered with a chuckle, walking around the horse’s rump to start grooming the bay’s right side.  “Yet,” he added.

Andy’s smile disappeared, replaced by a frown. “Does that mean you ain’t stayin’?”

“I ain’t never stayed anywhere for long, not since the war.”

The boy’s smile was back, and his enthusiasm. “I figured you’d been a soldier, and I bet you were a good one, too, the way you can handle yourself. Who’d you serve with, Jess? Slim, he was an officer; he was part of General Sherman’s staff … .”

“He related?” Jess asked.

“No.” Andy’s pride in his brother was obvious as he went on. “Slim served under General Grant, too, course most everybody did toward the end of the war. How ‘bout you, Jess? Did you serve with either a’ them?”

“I wore gray, Andy,” he answered simply, still brushing the bay’s shiny hide.

“You were a reb?” the boy asked in surprise.

“I’m from Texas, remember?”

“Oh yeah, I guess that explains it.” He paused for a moment, but his curiosity kept him searching for more information. “You ever fight in any famous battles?”

Jess stopped with the brush in mid-stroke, poised over his horse’s back. He’d seen battles, and it hadn’t mattered whether they were famous or not, they were things he never wanted to go through again, not even to talk about. He’d tried to put it all behind him these past five years, all the death and the dying and the ugliness of the war, and it hadn’t been easy. His tone was dark and his face hard when he finally answered, “The war’s somethin’ to put behind us, Andy. Ain’t no glory in it, like they say in books and such. It’s ugly. Men die.” Jess, done grooming the bay, tossed the brush back into the bucket and looked over at the youngster. “A smart man don’t want no part of it.”

Chastised, Andy jumped down from his perch and dropped the subject. “You can put your horse out in the corral, if you want.”

Jess led Traveler back outside, opened the corral gate, pulled the halter from the bay’s head, and scratched the horse on the withers. Done, he watched as the bay ambled over to the water trough. Satisfied his horse was taken care of, “Now what?” he asked the boy as he shut and latched the gate.

“C’mon, I’ll show you the bunkhouse. It’s over here.”

Jess retrieved his bed roll and saddlebags from the barn and once again followed as the boy this time led him around the side of the building and opened the door to a fair-sized room. The place wasn’t bad, he immediately decided. He’d for sure lived in worse spaces. Though small, this bunkhouse had a wood floor, several windows with real glass, a choice of sturdy looking bunks with real mattresses that looked comfortable enough, a stove to ward off the night’s chill, and walls that looked to be chinked tight enough to keep out the wind. There was a thin layer of dust covering everything, as if the place had been unused for a while, but otherwise, it was neat and clean.

Jess tossed his gear on the bunk farthest from the door. “Don’t have much of a crew around here, huh?” he observed, noting all the bunks were empty.

“You’re the first, except for at round-up,” the boy explained cheerily.

“Then why a bunkhouse?” Jess wanted to know.

“I guess my Pa dreamt big.” At Jess’ questioning look, he went on, his voice subdued. “I don’t hardly remember him, I was only seven when Pa died, right near the end of the war. It’s been hard times ever since.” Andy brightened. “But that’s gonna change, and real soon now. Slim’s building this place up. Why, someday, this bunkhouse won’t be big enough!”

“I’ll bet,” Jess offered amiably.

Just then, the big brother in question appeared in the doorway, bearing an armload of sheets and blankets. He set them on a bunk, then looked around the room. “Place ain’t much, but it’s dry and not too drafty.”

“It’ll do,” Jess agreed.

The tall man hooked his thumbs in his belt. “Well, you two ought to wash up and come on inside for supper.”

Jess’ eyebrows rose. “Inside?”

“Sure,” the tall man answered. “We all eat together.”

“I’m just a hired hand.”

“Around this outfit, everybody works the same, everybody eats the same. This ranch is small enough, we can all sit down together for our meals.”

“Thanks.” There was genuine warmth in Jess’ reply.

< ------ > < ------ >

He wasn’t used to eating with the boss, and he wasn’t used to grub this good, either, not for a long while. He’d been surviving mostly on his own cooking for the past couple of months, and on the trail to boot, and a break from beans, bacon and biscuits was mighty welcome. Meals like this were going to be a nice benefit of working on the Sherman spread. Might make it worthwhile to stick around for a spell, Jess figured as he chowed down on his second good meal of the day.

Once they were finished eating, Jess slipped back outside, strolling over to the corral. He leaned over the top fence rail as he pulled the makings from his pocket and rolled a cigarette. While he worked, Traveler ambled over and stuck his nose under the cowboy’s hand. Jess patted the sleek head absently, then struck a match and lit the paper. He drew deep on the cigarette and let the soothing smoke slide down into his lungs before exhaling it slowly.

The sound of the house door opening and the crunch of footsteps across the yard told him that someone had come out to join him. They weren’t fast enough to be Andy’s nor slow enough to be the old man’s; that left Slim as the only other possibility.

“Get enough to eat?” the voice confirmed Jess’ reasoning.

“Plenty, thanks.” He took another draw on the cigarette and let his breath out slow, watching the smoke drift upward.

“Good. We start early in the morning. There’s cattle to be moved first off, and we need to be back to change teams on the noon stage. After, you can help me set fence posts down along the creek.”

“Sounds like a full day’s work,” Jess suggested.

 “That’s what we do here. This ain’t no hotel, if that’s what you’re thinkin’.”

“I know that,” Jess answered sharply.

Slim’s reply was stern. “I work hard; I expect everyone around here to work hard.”

“That include the boy?”

“He pulls his own weight.”

“Still needs the chance to be a boy, have a bit of fun now and then,” Jess offered lightly. “Even a man grown needs to take his nose off the grindstone every once in a while.”

The tall man bristled. “Ain’t even worked here a day yet and you’re tellin’ me how to treat my own brother?”

Jess turned around slowly to face his new boss. “I just want to see him get a chance to be a kid, that’s all.”

“And that’s your business because?”

“Because every kid ought to have a chance to be one.” Jess dropped his cigarette, ground it out with the toe of his boot, and muttered a hasty, “Good night,” as he walked away.

Slim stared after him, already beginning to wonder what had ever possessed him to ask this surly, smart aleck drifter to hang around.

< ----- > < ------ >

Somehow, they got through the first day, Slim trying not to fume when his new hand took a break for a smoke or another cup of coffee, but he could feel the tension beginning to build. Yet, as aggravating as the man could be when he goldbricked, when Jess put his hand to a chore, he was never slipshod, and he did seem to have a knack for getting things done. Still, Slim was about to say something when the stage pulled in.

Jess had helped get the teams harnessed and ready, and now, as the fresh four-up was hitched, Slim noted with grudging admiration that the new hand really was good with the horses. He steadied up the fresh teams while the traces were hooked, then took the spent pairs over to the corral, noting a loose shoe on one and the start of a harness gall on another.

So the man did have his good points, Slim was pleased to see.

As they finished up with the teams and waved at the departing stage, Jonesy came out of the house, looking around, then spied Slim and hurried over.

“Driver gave me this,” he told the rancher, handing over a folded slip of paper.

Slim took it, opened it and read it to himself. “Sheriff wants to see us this afternoon,” he announced, looking over at Jess. The man’s face, Slim noted, immediately took on a closed look, and he shuffled his feet uneasily, his fingers twisting in what Slim had already realized was a characteristic of impatience or nervousness on the part of his new hired hand.

“The sheriff? What’s he want?”

“Needs us to give him a statement on that business with the Carlin gang.”

“Oh.”

Was that relief on the man’s face? Was his new hand running from something? “You got a problem with the law, Jess?” Slim asked pointedly.

“No.”

“But?” Slim prodded.

“But I’m not exactly fond of sheriffs and such.”

“Because?”

“Because not many like drifters.”

“Well, you’re not a drifter anymore. You’re working here.” *At least for now,* Slim added the last four words under his breath. “Jonesy, we can pick up those supplies you wanted on the trip. We’ll hitch up the buckboard while you get the list ready.”

Andy had been listening in on the conversation. “Can I go too, Slim? Please!” he pleaded. “I haven’t been to town in a month of Sundays.”

Slim looked down at the boy, then over at Jess, his mouth quirking. “It’s true, you don’t get to Laramie often, so all right. Hurry up and get ready and you can ride along.”

< ------ >

It took only a few minutes for the three of them to be ready for the trip, Slim climbing up on the seat to take the lines, Jess sitting beside him on the seat, and Andy riding in the back. As they traveled along the road at a brisk trot, Slim pointed out things to his new hand, about the range and pasture conditions, land boundaries, water holes and trails, and the roads that turned off to the neighboring ranches.

Finally, they arrived in town and pulled up in front of the sheriff’s office, Slim tying the horses to the hitch rail. Jess paused for a quick look around; he’d been chased out of Laramie so fast the day before that he hadn’t had a chance to see hardly anything of the town.

Slim stepped up on the boardwalk and led them inside, noting his new hand’s reluctant slow pace. “Howdy, sheriff.  You know my brother Andy,” the youngster stepped up and shook the lawman’s hand. “And you remember Jess Harper from yesterday? He’s working for me now.”

“Harper.” The sheriff looked a mite surprised, but he stuck out his hand and Jess shook it. “Good that you’re both here. I need statements from each of you about what happened with the Carlins. Just for my records.” He turned sharply to the darkhaired cowboy. “You *can* write?”

“Read, too, on a good day,” Jess answered sarcastically.

Slim hid a grin.

The men took chairs offered by the sheriff, and for the next few minutes the only sound was that of pens scratching against paper. Jess was done first and then he stood, handing the sheet to the lawman. The sheriff glanced over it, squinting to read the cowboy’s scrawl. “Okay, Harper, this is fine.” Slim finished then and handed over his statement as Jess paced restlessly across the room.

The cowboy walked to the front of the office, pausing to peer out the window into the street before starting back toward the sheriff’s desk when he spied a box sitting on the floor next to the lawman’s desk. “Hey!” Jess reached in. Ignoring the wallet, clothes, blanket and saddlebags, he pulled out a gun, an ivory-handled Colt .45, turning it over in his hands, his face breaking into a smile.

The sheriff stepped quickly back at the sight of the newcomer with the gun in his hand, then relaxed, though his look was stern. “Harper?”

“Sheriff, where’d you get this?” Jess asked eagerly, spinning the cylinder to check that the weapon  was unloaded and undamaged, though definitely in need of a good cleaning.

“I was just packing up those things. They were Pete Morgan’s.”

“I knew it!” Jess exclaimed.

“Knew what?” Slim asked, surprised.

 “That this was the gun Pete Morgan took from me!”

Slim was puzzled. Jess had been carrying a plain walnut-handled iron when they’d met yesterday. He knew that for a fact -- he’d taken it away from Harper in their first confrontation down at the creek, right before Jess had taken it back. Along with his own guns, he remembered ruefully. And Slim was pretty sure the outlaw hadn’t taken anything from Jess during the fight along Baxter’s Ridge, when Jess had killed the man.

“You mean your old friend Pete Morgan?” Andy piped up.

The sheriff suddenly looked alert, a suspicious glint appearing in his eyes. “You’re a friend of Pete Morgan’s?” he asked Jess cautiously.

“Jess came to Laramie looking for him,” the youngster interjected innocently. ”Morgan was his friend until he robbed Jess and nearly killed him.”

Slim threw his brother an inquiring look.

“Jess told me yesterday,” Andy explained. “He rode into the ranch looking for that Morgan fellah; that’s why he came to Laramie. To get his money back.”

Jess had caught the sheriff’s tone of distrust and answered quickly. “Yeah, Morgan and I rode together back in Kansas for a while. Strictly on the right side of the law. I didn’t know he was a thief until one night, after I’d won a nice pot in a poker game, he skulled me. Left me for dead, took my money, and this iron.” Jess hefted the Colt.

The sheriff looked at Slim.

Slim shrugged.

 “You claimin’ this Colt as yours, Harper?” the lawman asked.

“Sure am. I bought it from a gunsmith back in Abilene three, nearly four years ago. Fixed it up myself,” Jess added.

“Fixed it up?” Slim asked sharply as he stepped forward, his face wearing a look of disapproval as he took hold of the gun and confirmed his suspicions. The perfectly balanced weapon had a hair trigger and a filed off hammer and sights. He broke it open and checked the seer, and what he saw left no doubt. “This ain’t a ranch hand’s gun,” he was glaring at Jess, unhappy.

“I ain’t always been a ranch hand,” he admitted.

Slim didn’t try to hide his disgusted expression as he carefully set the gun down on the sheriff’s desk.

Andy, who had been watching with keen interest, reached over and picked it up.

Jess snatched it away. “This ain’t no kid’s toy,” he said sharply.

Andy’s face fell.

Jess regretted his sharp tone, but he kept the gun clutched tightly in his hand.

Tension was rife in the room.

The lawman’s words finally broke the spell. “Harper, I need something more than just your word that gun is yours.”

“Ain’t nobody else gonna claim it,” Jess snapped.

“True,” the sheriff answered evenly. “But all the same, I need some sort of proof.” He looked over at Slim, who shook his head.

“Well, you can rest easy then, sheriff. There’s initials etched on the butt. I had the gunsmith do that back when I bought it. Right here,” Jess turned the weapon over in his hand and showed the lawman. “J H.”

The lawman nodded. “Good enough for me.”

Slim looked disapprovingly from Jess to Andy and back to Jess, glaring. “You just be sure to keep that thing in a safe place.”

“I will,” Jess promised.

< ---------- > < ------ >

After supper that night, Jess sat alone in the bunkhouse. By the buttery light of a single lantern set in the middle of the small table, he went to work on the familiar task of taking the gun apart to clean it. Pete Morgan hadn’t been just a thief and an outlaw, he’d been a man who failed to take care of his tools, Jess thought angrily as he worked, cleaning the grime from both the inside and the outside of the weapon. He had just finished working on the Colt and was putting it back together, so intent on his task that he didn’t hear Andy’s quiet entrance.

“That gun sure is a beaut … ” the boy started.

Jess jumped, lunging to his feet and spinning toward the door, his hand flashing down to his bare hip -- his gun and gunbelt hung by the door.

Andy jumped back.

Seeing who it was, Jess relaxed slowly. “I told you before, you need to be careful about sneakin’ up on a man, Andy.”

“I wasn’t sneakin’,” the boy disagreed.

“Well, make some noise then. Let a body know you’re there.”

“I will.” Andy stepped closer, his eyes bright as they landed on the ivory-handled gun. He’d never seen anything like it. He reached a hand toward it, but pulled it back at Jess’ disapproving frown. Instead, he leaned closer over the table, studying it keenly. “This Colt sure is a fine weapon, but I don’t see any notches on it.”

Jess’ face went cold. “That’s ‘cause there ain’t none.”

Disappointment was plain in the boy’s tone. “You ain’t a gunfighter? But you said … ”

“Not everyone who uses a gun puts notches on it.” Jess’ voice was as cold as his expression.

“Gunfighters do,” the boy countered smugly.

“You know many gunfighters?”

“No,” Andy admitted. “But … ”

“Killin’ ain’t nothin’ to brag about or be proud of, and that’s what notches are. Braggin’.”

“But you … ”

“But nothin’, Andy. Yes, I’ve killed men,” Jess’ blue eyes seemed suddenly dark in the dim light, the shadows lending a dangerous look to his lean face, “but I’ve never wanted to.” Okay, even as he said it, he knew those words were a lie. He had wanted to kill Frank Bannister and his men for what they’d done to his family, but he hadn’t succeeded in hunting down any of them, so it was only a little white lie. He’d killed in the war, and yes, in gunfights, but always and only in fair fights. Something inside him, something he was grateful for, wouldn’t let him do anything else.

“Then … ”

“Andy!” The voice from the doorway was stern, matching the expression of disapproval on the tall man’s face. “Haven’t you got school work to finish?”

“Aw, Slim.”

“Get to it. I need to talk to Jess.”

Andy rolled his eyes and looked over at Jess, but the ranch hand waved him out the door. “See ya’ in the mornin’, partner.”

The youngster left reluctantly, Slim sliding aside in the doorway to let Andy pass. The boy cast an apprehensive look back at Jess and then up at his brother as he left.

Slim waited until he heard the house door open and close and then he stepped into the room.

Jess got up and went to the stove for the coffeepot. He refilled his cup and gestured questioningly toward his boss with the pot.

“No thanks.” Slim’s voice was still quiet.

Jess sat back down and, keenly aware of the look of disapproval on the rancher’s face, stared at his hands gripping the tin cup, waiting for the hammer to fall. He hadn’t even lasted two days. So much for his resolve to try ranching for a while; so much for his hope that maybe this place and these people could somehow be a fresh start. “What did I do now?”

Slim stepped closer, towering over the seated man, his voice sharp as he asked bluntly, “You fillin’ that boys head full of gunfightin’ tales, are ya’?”

“You think I would?” Jess countered, slamming the coffee cup down as he stood, stretching up to his full height but he still had to look up to meet the rancher’s sharp eyes.

“Well, you are one, aren’t you?”

“You knew what I was when you hired me.”

“Mostly,” Slim admitted. “I knew about the card sharkin’ and the shady past part for sure. And the rest, I suspected.” He gestured toward the gun. “But that confirms it. A gun like that has only one purpose, and that’s killin’ men.”

Jess’ shoulders slumped, the belligerence gone, something sad flitting through his expression before it hardened again, masking the feelings underneath. “You tellin’ me to go?”

Slim looked into the man’s face, and for a moment, he saw something there, something that gave him pause and stopped him from saying yes, though the word had been right there on the tip of his tongue, ready to be said. Instead, he let out a soft sigh. “Despite my better judgment, no,” he answered slowly. “But I won’t abide with gunplay. This here’s a workin’ ranch and a law-abidin’ place. I don’t hire gunslicks.”

“I can’t change what I’ve been,” Jess countered stiffly.

Slim’s expression, and his voice, softened as he answered earnestly. “No, but you can change what you are now, Jess. It’s up to you what you want to be. Ranch hand. Or gun hand.” He gestured toward the ivory-handled Colt on the table.

Jess looked thoughtful, and then he asked the question that had puzzled him since Slim’s surprise invitation of the day before. Might as well ask it, he reckoned; this might be the only chance he’d get. “Why’d you do it? Why’d you ask me to stay?”

“Because every man deserves a second chance.”

Jess was looking down.

“Maybe I’m wrong and maybe I’ll regret askin’ you to stay on here; Lord knows it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve done somethin’ that I regretted later. But I think there’s more to you than provin’ how fast you are with that iron. Oh, don’t think you won’t need to use one around here on occasion, yesterday proved that, but a man needs to make a choice about what and who he is. A gun *can* be who he is, it can be all that he is, or it can be just another one of the tools he uses, no more important than fencin’ pliers or a rope or a shovel.” Slim paused, and then he reached out and gently put a hand on the cowboy’s shoulder.

The movement surprised the shorter man and he looked up, meeting the rancher’s steady gaze.

“Is that gun really all that you are, Jess, all that you want to be? I can’t tell you how to answer that question, that’s a decision you have to make for yourself. But what I can do is give you the opportunity to be somethin’ more. I think you’ve got that inside you, if you give it a chance. But it’s up to you to grab onto that chance, and make it yours.”

Jess looked up, wonder, and doubt, in his face.

“Think on it.” Slim nodded, spun on his heel and left, closing the door gently behind him.

Jess sat back down at the small table, forgetting his coffee and letting it go cold. He stared at the gun, then picked it up, feeling its heft and perfect balance.

Surprised at how heavy it was.

Knowing the burden it could be.

Was this something he needed? Was this what his life was all about? Was this who he was or who he wanted to be? Or could it be his past? Something he could put behind him and make a fresh start? He’d never asked himself those questions before.

He was still baffled why an upright, law-abiding man like Slim Sherman was offering him this opportunity, why the rancher was willing to take a chance on a drifter and his less than stellar past.

And in his heart, he knew it was an offer only a fool could refuse.

Mind made up, Jess impulsively grabbed the cloth he’d been using to polish the Colt and wrapped it around the gun. He stood and hurried to the door, heading across the yard and up to the house with rapid steps. He didn’t pause to rap on the door; he was afraid that just those few extra seconds might give him time to change his mind, so he barged straight on in without knocking.

Slim, seated at the kitchen table, jumped to his feet, a look of surprise on his face. Jonesy, sitting across from him, mirrored his action, only a pace behind the younger man.

“Here,” Jess shoved the cloth-wrapped bundle at a startled Slim. “I won’t be needin’ this.” He let his gaze lift for a quick glimpse of the tall man’s surprised face.

Through the thin material, the tall rancher could tell what was inside. “You’re sure?”

Jess nodded. “Sure as I can be.”

Slim held the parcel, feeling the weight of it, and the weight of the moment, how this could be the turning point in a man’s life. He looked at Jess, and the drifter met his gaze with a steady, sure one.

The tall man nodded, then turned and walked over to the fireplace. He pried loose a brick to reveal a hiding place there on the side toward the kitchen. As Jess watched he put the gun inside and carefully closed it back up.

The two men, one a tall, blonde, and settled rancher, and the other shorter, dark-haired, and a loner five years on the drift, looked at each other and nodded.

Neither knew at that moment how the past two days had changed their lives forever.

 

---------- The End ----------

 



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