Thanks to Annie, and to Betty for joining in the fun. Much thanks to Shay for a rapid, sterling beta. As always, thanks to Karen and Mary for inspiration and character analysis. This was written as a challenge story; the challenge phrases are identified in the end note. Brief reference to Reconcile but this is a stand alone story.
The shootist rode in with the southwest wind, through the dust kicking up on Main Street. Smitty, working on one of Bill Bates’ big work team in the forge, looked up at the slow rhythm of hoofs in the street, sizing the stranger up with wise eyes. The rig was flashy and tied down, and the man’s gear was dusty but good quality. The gunfighter turned his head, maybe feeling Smitty’s eyes on him; and looked into the forge. He had an ordinary face, unshaven like he’d been on the trail for a few days, but he had eyes that looked like trouble; measuring the danger in any thing he cast them on. Smitty set down the hoof he'd been fitting, straightened his back slowly as the man rode by.
Either trouble come lookin’, or one a’ Jess Harper’s old friends come callin’. Either way, trouble for the Sheriff, and maybe trouble for the boys out at the Sherman spread. And he liked Jess Harper, liked the man’s humor, his way with horses and his willingness to pitch in when folks needed help. Nothing he could do about this but keep an eye out, maybe step in if there was a need.
He stepped back over to the forge, picked up his small hammer and started tapping the shoe into shape. Between the ringing sound of metal on metal he heard another set of hoof beats in the street, moving at an easy jog, glanced up and saw Jess Harper ride past, face set and looking older than his years, right hand drifting over his holstered pistol. Smitty set the hammer and shoe down, stepped out to the door of the forge to call to him.
“Jess!” Harper turned his head, lifted one hand in salute and rode on. Smitty thought for a minute, and then took off his apron, to head for Mort Corey’s office. Two years since the Harper kid rode in and became part of the town. It was time enough to learn the signals when trouble was on the way; and trouble had got here.
Ransom dismounted at the saloon, wrapping the reins around the hitching rail, the automatic habit of a man who was always ready to ride out in a hurry. Jess left Traveler across the dusty main street, keeping his old friend out of the line of fire if trouble broke out. He scrubbed at the whorl of hair between the horse’s eyes with his knuckles, Trav nudging for more. “Later,” he told him, slapping Trav’s shoulder lightly. Jess stepped away, lining up with the saloon doors, and watching carefully for a few minutes. No sign of any ruckus starting up, He loosened the .45 in its oiled holster. He was of two minds, always, about pulling this gun out of its hidey-hole in the chimney. It always felt like takin’ a step back, like riskin’ a return to the owl hoot trail when he did. But some things made the risk worthwhile.
Jess crossed the street, turning his jacket collar up against the chill bite of the wind. Snow comin’… He set his shoulder against the batwing door, made the turn through the little entryway into the warmth and light of the saloon. Ransom was bellied up to the bar, one foot on the brass rail, casual and cocky. There was a little space around the man, more room than usual, out of respect for that tied-down, flashy rig. Jess stepped around the end of the bar, fingers flexing unconsciously. Men moved away from the bar as they spotted him, until there was a clear space between him and Ransom…
“Ransom.” He said softly, and the man turned to face him. Not much change from the last time he’d seen him, on the opposite side of a Missouri range war.
“Har-per.” The man drawled his name out, making a sneer out of it.
“You need to ride on Ransom.” He kept his voice low, not willing to do anything that looked like provoking a fight.
“Because you say so?” Ransom was smiling, the contempt plain.
“When my business is done.” Ransom turned back to the bar.
“It’s done now.” Jess told him. “You got no business in this town. Because if you harm one person in Laramie, hell if you as much as kick a stray cat on the street, I’m gonna take care of you.”
Ransom met his eyes, then looked him over, making it obvious. “I don’t see a star, Harper. What does it matter t’you, what I do in Laramie?”
“It’s my town.” He told him, meaning it in a way he couldn’t have six months ago. He heard the step behind him, didn’t turn. There was no one in this town that would be a friend to Ransom.
“An’ it’s my star.” Mort Corey drawled. “Jess, you know this yahoo?” The sheriff stepped around him, siding him against Ransom, and Jess felt a tension he didn’t know he carried ease.
“George Ransom.” Jess said. “Gun for hire.”
“I know the name. Time you finish that drink, you might wanna ride on, Ransom.” Mort’s voice was easy, with no more threat than if he’d been pointing out the best place to get a meal.
“I’m not of a mind to.” Ransom was equally easy. “Wind’s kickin’ up cold. I got no desire t’sleep out tonight.”
“Fair enough. But come mornin’ I expect you t’ride on.”
“Come mornin’ we’ll see.” Ransom made it sound like a taunt.
“Come mornin’ I’ll be here t’see.” Jess growled, and Mort took a step forward, putting himself between Jess and Ransom.
“Jess.” Mort cocked his head toward the door, and Jess hesitated, driven by a need to end this, to deny Ransom any room to act. Mort crowded him a little and Jess stepped back, then nodded and turned to the door, Mort following close.
“What was that all about, Jess?” The sheriff’s eyes measured him, and right now there was no give in them, no willingness to let Jess have any slack in the reins.
“I gotta letter from an old friend today…came on the noon stage. Ransom was ridin’ in t’Laramie on a job. And for Ransom a job is always a gunnin’. Always.”
“Who? Did your friend say?”
“He didn’t know.” The wind was worming its way down his collar and Jess shivered a little, watching the dust drift like a veil across the street, the swift winter twilight closing in. “I was hopin’ it was me, but he didn’t show any sign.”
“You think it’s Slim?”
Jess shrugged. “Could be. Or you, or the banker, or Bill Bates, or the reverend or anybody. Could be anybody in Laramie. An’ I aim t’stop him.”
Mort nudged him gently with an elbow. “Don’t you think that might be my job, Jess?”
“No.” Jess turned to hold his eyes. “No Mort. Not this kinda gun hand. It takes one just like him t’take him down. That makes it my job.”
“Jess, don’t you go thinkin’ y’gotta protect me. An’ don’t go settin’ yourself up as the law. If I have’t’jail you I will son.” Mort's face was half-lit by the saloon's lantern light, its scored lines harsh as his voice.
Jess nodded, headed across the street to where Trav waited, head low and enduring in the driving wind. No reason t’ride back to the ranch tonight. He needed t’be here until Ransom either left or was taken care of. He led the patient bay to the livery, nodded to Smitty, busy at the forge.
“Take the end on the left, Jess. Everything okay?”
He nodded, realizing all of a sudden how Mort had known to get to the saloon. “Yeah, thanks, Smitty.”
The smith nodded. “Any time, Jess. No need t’take on trouble alone, not in this town.”
It made him feel warm inside, hearing that. It wasn’t a thing he was used to. He ducked his head, suddenly shy, led Trav into the end box-stall, untacked and rubbed him down, quickly. The boarding house might have a room for the night…if not, he could likely bunk down in the loft. He’d gotten too particular, as he got older, to want one of the by-the-hour rooms over the saloon. Slim would say he was getting civilized.
Slim followed Jess into town with the frayed ends of his patience just about trailing behind him. One letter, and his “hand” had been acting like the ground was burning his feet. Jess’d saddled and gone after the last stage, without more than a “see ya, Slim”. In fairness, he’d finished the day’s work, but there was no word about how long he’d be gone, no explanation about why he was riding out, even. Jess always came back, he’d learned that in the past two years, but there was no telling how long, or what kind of shape he’d be in. And he’d had about all he could take of it.
The town was quiet in the cold wind, just dust and tumbleweeds moving on the main street. Slim stopped at the livery; Smitty was gone for the evening, but Alamo nickered, greeting a friend and he peered into the dimness spotting Traveler’s big, plain head over the partition of the last stall.
“All right,” he grunted to the chestnut, and led him into the next stall, loosened the cinch and pulled the bridle off. It shouldn’t take long to find Jess, and if it did, he’d come back and settle his horse later. If he was lucky, though, he’d have both of them on the road back to the ranch within the hour. He stepped out into the main street, pulling his hat lower over his ears. There was a light on in Mort Corey’s office, and the saloon looked busy. Of the two, that was the likeliest place to find Jess. Wait’ll I catch up, he thought, aggrieved. I‘m gonna take care of you.
Jess ate a bowl of Fred's chili, turning down
the offered shot glass. He needed all the edge he could get if he was going to take on Ransom. The man was
upstairs, not as particular as Jess about where he slept; or maybe not planning
to stay all that long. Or most likely, not been paid yet. That thought made his
stomach clench; Ransom's jobs paid on
proof of completion, which meant a body or news of a body. Fred came and cleared the empty bowl, set a
cup of coffee and an empty glass down in front of him; their usual ploy. If
Jess wasn't drinkin' he needed t'look like he was in order t'take up table
He was toying with the empty glass, mind and eyes on the stairwell watching for Ransom, when the last man he wanted to see came around the half-wall. 'Damn,' he thought, sinking a little lower in his chair as Slim turned to the bar for a moment, and then strode to his table, to loom over him, glowering.
“Slim.." he started.
"Decide t'take a few days off?"
That was bad, that tone in Slim's voice was bad. "Somethin' came up." Jess told him, knowing it sounded weak as a newborn calf.
"You don't say." And that was dripping sarcasm. "Were you plannin' t'spend the night when you left?"
"You know I wasn't," he said, nettled. "I got no gear with me, not even a bed roll."
"Plannin' t'ride back in the dark, were ya?"
He hated when Slim baited him like this, especially when Slim was in the right, at least, as far as Slim knew. He dropped his eyes, unwilling to say the words that were too ready on his tongue. If he'd learned one thing in the last two years, it was that one of them needed to stay cool in any quarrel, because the two of them were like gunpowder and a lit match when they were both angry. Slim leaned closer, hooked a foot around the leg of Jess' chair and pulled, so he slid back from the table, holstered side-arm exposed.
"I see you could stop long enough to get this." Slim's voice was unexpectedly quiet as he pulled a chair out, sat down next to him.
Jess met his eyes straight; there wasn't any judgment in them, just disappointment, and maybe worry. "I had to," he told the disappointment.
"Because of the letter?"
And he wanted Slim as far from this as he could get him. "It's personal." He said harshly.
"It is." Slim turned the word around on him, letting himself in. "That's why I'm askin'."
Jess dropped his eyes, shaking his head slowly. Slim said, "Jess. I hate t'see you strap that thing on. It's like...it's like the first step away."
"No." he shook his head again, quick this time. "No. It's not about steppin' away. It's about stayin'. An' it's about there bein' some place t'stay."
"Not this way." Slim sounded so sure, as always. "It never has t'be this way, Jess."
There was a step on the stair, and the clink and rattle of oversize spurs, fancy as the man's rig. Jess stood up slowly as Ransom came down the stairs, the targeting eyes focused on Slim. "Yes it does, Slim. This time..." He bumped his shoulder lightly with his fist, as he stepped between Ransom and his friend, breathed the words out softly.."this time, I'm gonna take care of you."
Ransom stopped at the foot of the stairs, eyes shadowed under his hat brim, but sharp and alert. "Slim Sherman.”
He made it a
drawled insult, and Slim tensed, standing up and away from the table.
"I don't believe I've had the pleasure."
"This is George Ransom, Slim." Jess spoke quietly, but made sure to take charge of the conversation. "Sidewindin' snake-in-the-grass an' gun for hire." He felt Slim tense behind him, stepped sideways to stay between the two men. "No matter what he might say, his business is with me."
Jess put his free hand back, set it against Slim's chest to hold him behind him. "It's with me.” He insisted, meeting Ransom's eyes.
"If that's what you want, Harper," Ransom said easily, and drew immediately, no posturing, no warning, no sign; and Jess was clearing leather too, the gunshots sounding almost at the same time. You couldn't tell for sure who was first, or where the lead went.
Jess knew. He felt the brush of Ransom's slug, death's wing past his right ear, and saw the impact of his own bullet right over the man's heart, right where he'd been aiming. Ransom went down slowly, face emptying out like water running out of a bottle, and there was a long moment of silence. Jess holstered his gun slowly, feeling something cold and painful clutch at his heart, the death cutting a piece out of him, as always. And then he felt Slim's hand on his shoulder, reminder of the reason for it, and took a slow, deep breath. "You all right?" He asked Slim.
He nodded, stood still under Slim's hand until Mort came through the door, looking sad and mad at the same time. Then he straightened, stepped out from under it, undid the tie down and unbuckled his gun belt, wrapping it carefully around the holster from force of habit. Mort knelt beside Ransom, removed the gun from the dead man's hand. "He got a shot off." Mort said quietly. "Jess, you best come to the jail with me 'til I get done takin' statements."
"Is this necessary Sheriff?" Slim's voice, his partner trying to step in to help, as always.
"It is," Mort said. "Too many people saw Jess face him down this afternoon. I gotta be careful t'be sure it's by the book." And then sadly, softly, holding Jess' eyes. "I don't suppose there was any other way?"
Jess shook his head, mutely, then heard Slim's voice saying, "Ransom drew first, Sheriff, and no warning..." and it was warmth like a fire at his back, to know his partner was still there. It stayed with him, made it easier to walk across the street, under the curious eyes of some of the town folk, step up into the office and then follow Mort's silent request, and walk into the cell. When he turned he could see Slim fuming as Mort closed the door, and almost smiled. No point in buckin' Mort on this one, have t'let the man do his job.
Slim came to the cell front, reached through the bars to grab his shoulder, shake it a little. "You look like you can feel a rope around your neck," he scolded. "It's not that way, an' y'know it. And besides...I'm gonna take care of you.” It was half a promise and half a threat, and it made him smile.
Mort kept him jailed a good three hours, while he talked to witnesses and searched Ransom's saddle-bags. Slim left to see to his horse and then spent the time alternately pacing back and forth in the small office, and haranguing Jess through the cell door about taking things into his own hands, running unnecessary risks, and generally being a fool. He almost wished he'd go away and let him jail in peace; almost. Inside, he was glad of the company.
Mort came back with something in his hand he showed Slim, and it made Slim go white for a minute. Mort went to his desk and pulled out Jess' wrapped gun belt, then unlocked the door to his cell, face grim. He handed the belt over and Jess stood still, holding it for a minute, and then shrugging, buckled it on, feeling the weight heavier than it really was, and knowing it. "What is it?"
"Ransom had a promissory note for a thousand dollars, signed by Aaron Clemons." Slim's voice was icy.
It snapped his head up. Clemons was one of the men involved with Matt Grandling's scheme to hijack a payroll shipment. He'd pretended to be the Wyoming line manager, worked to keep Slim away from the relay station, leave it vulnerable. He'd left town before the night the shooting started, so he'd only gotten six months in the state prison. But it looked like he grudged that time, enough to want Slim dead. And Ransom only got paid on completion; this was somethig new.
"He coulda been after you too." Slim was reading his mind again. "A thousand's a lot for one man."
"I wire Cheyenne." Mort said softly. "The US Marshal there's a friend of mine, and a real smart law man. We'll get 'im Jess."
“Ransom only got paid on proof,” Jess snarled. “Clemons wants Slim real bad, bad enough to pay up front.”
“Take it easy, Jess.” Mort said placidly. “Let the law handle it.”
"It's circumstantial." Slim said, naming the fear.
Mort smiled. "Not by the time we get through with him it won't be. You boys don't worry. Get a good night's sleep and then go on home. I'm gonna take care of....this."
He trailed Slim across the street, the wind gusting and swirling cold around them, a pesky tumbleweed dogging their steps like a ghost from the past. Slim was muttering and grumbling about the need to go straight to bed, get up before dawn and ride back to the ranch to tend the stock and get ready for the eight o'clock stage, and Jess swallowed his smile, planning on getting at least a hot breakfast before they rode out tomorrow.
Slim stopped on the boarding house porch, turned to face him, and suddenly it was all right there between them; what happened, what could've happened, what almost happened. Jess felt that cold painful thing at his heart again, and Slim said quietly, "Sometimes it feels like you're drifting back into that life."
Jess nodded, then shook his head, then nodded again, his reaction as confused as his thoughts. "Sometimes.." he started hoarsely, "sometimes it feels like that t'me too." He dropped his hand to the butt of the gun, the gunfighter's gun he kept trying to put away. "Sometimes it's hard t'hold on."
Slim reached out slowly, like he was trying to be careful not to startle Jess, caught hold of Jess' gun arm above the wrist and pulled his hand away from the pistol, gripping tight. And Jess found himself catching hold of Slim's arm in return, feeling the anchoring strength. "Don't let go." Slim told him. "Don't you let go."
rev. November 2011
This was written in response to the challenge; “Write a story based on 'I'm gonna take care of you' and 'don't let go.'”