Justice

By Badger                                

Summary: The new sheriff of Laramie meets Jess Harper

Season: Two, when the real Mort Cory appeared

First person POV, Mort Cory

Author’s Note: Thanks to Nan for the always excellent beta.

This fic is for Annie, who loves Mort, too.

 

Life can sure be full of surprises even for an old law dog like me. For example, there’s the totally improbable fact that a hot-headed young former gunslick-turned-ranch hand named Jess Harper has become my unlikely favorite deputy and one of the best friends I’ve ever had.

Now, don’t get me wrong—Jess is responsible for more than a few of the gray hairs on my head, and more than one or two of my sleepless nights, and let’s just say there’s been a couple of incidents I’d just as soon forget. But none of that changes the fact that Jess Harper is someone I’d gladly ride the river with, any where, any time.

Of course, the way things started out, the idea of letting Jess Harper serve as my deputy, much less my ever leaving him in charge of my town, was about as likely as me getting elected president of these here entire United States of America.

You see, the first time I met Jess, I threw him into jail.

oOoOo

It was a Saturday night, which can get petty rowdy in most any frontier town, and Laramie in 1871 was sure no exception. The saloon was raucous as usual that night and young Mister Harper had apparently consumed not only more than a couple of beers but had also done a good deal of damage to a bottle of Windy’s rotgut whiskey as well. He was, by all accounts, having himself a fine old time.

I later learned that he hadn’t been the one to start the whole ruckus, but, in what I’ve since come to know is typical Jess Harper style, he sure as sunrise finished it.

It was those no-good rabble-rousing Delaney boys from over Cheyenne way who picked the fight that night but by the time I got word of the trouble and hiked on down to the saloon, the fisticuffs were pretty well over.  I recall stepping into the bright lights of the saloon to see two of the Delaney brothers down on the floor and out for the count, and the third one all but whupped. In fact, just as I pushed my way in the batwing doors, a dark-haired young fellah threw a first class one-two combination, a hard and fast right jab followed by a roundhouse left hook that was worthy of a prizefight. The last of the Delaneys hit the floor like a pole-axed steer and didn’t so much as twitch.

‘Course, that young yay-hoo was nearly whupped himself, standing in the middle of the carnage with legs braced wide, breathing in hard puffing gasps, and sort of weaving on his feet like a willow tree in the wind. There was blood dripping from his nose and more trickling down his chin from a cut lip and all the while he was smiling wide, as proud of himself as if he’d just mowed down the whole Union Army.

I glanced around the room, searching for the rest of the galoots that must have helped him in the fight because those Delaneys are no slouches in a dust up. Seeing no one, I looked over at the barkeep for help. “Where’s the rest of his army?”

“No army, just him,” the bartender contradicted.

Just this one young man had taken on and taken down three tough as old leather cowboys, every one of ‘em as big as him, or bigger?

I looked him over good. He was young, mid-20’s I reckoned. He was not quite as tall as me, and slender, but built solid like he was all working-man muscle like those good Texas quarter mile racing horses.  He was wearing ordinary cowboy duds but packing a Colt tied worrisomely low on his right hip. Despite the bruises already forming on his face and one eye that was swelling shut and turning black, he was still grinning cheerfully, like he’d just been enjoying the most entertaining evening of his whole life.

“Howdy,” he greeted me in a deep gruff voice, wiping the blood off his chin with a black-gloved hand, the smile never wavering. “I reckon you must be the new sheriff.”

“That's right, young man. I’m Mort Cory,” I answered, the shotgun held firmly in my hands and pointed loosely in his direction.  Carrying that old scattergun might seem like a bit of an unfair advantage, but I’m too old to start mixing it up in saloon fights, especially with a first class brawler like he so obviously was. And it ain’t good for a sheriff’s dignity, nor the condition of his knuckles, to break up a brawl by slugging it out. Of course, the fight was already over and done with, but I had no wish to commence a new set of fisticuffs with the likes of this young scrapper, not when I’d seen the quality, and quantity, of his handiwork.

Not sure if I could trust the young cowboy’s seeming good nature, I kept my voice all friendly like but my shotgun at the ready as I asked, not ordered. “Reckon you ought to hand over that iron, son.”

He looked over at me and then down at his gunbelt before he shrugged and unbuckled it without complaint. Handing it over, he looked around the floor for a minute, then staggered a bit as he bent down to pick up a dusty and worn black Stetson, slapping it on his head at a rakish angle.

I asked the barkeep to round up some volunteers to carry the unconscious Delaney boys down to the jail while I escorted the uncomplaining young cowboy over to the lock up.  He had a bit of trouble walking a straight line down the street—I wasn’t sure if that was a result of the fight or of all the alcohol he’d surely imbibed.  

Once in the jail I put mister flying fists in the far cell and all of the Delaneys in the other, of course, because when those boys woke up, they weren’t going to be considering him as their new best friend. I didn’t want round two of that fracas commencing in my jail.

With all of my guests safely tucked in for the night, I rounded up a towel and a bucket of water for the cowboy to clean himself up. “What’s your name, son?” I asked as I handed the items over to him. I’d only been in town a week; I hardly knew anyone yet and hadn’t met this young yay-hoo before.

“Harper, Jess Harper,” he answered, dipping the towel in the water and wiping the blood off his face.

“You live around here, Mister Harper?”

“Got a job at a ranch just outside of town.”

“And what were you doin’ here in Laramie tonight, young man?”

His grin was decidedly lopsided and his words slurred because his cut lip was already swelling up. “I was just havin’ some fun, sheriff.”

I pointed at the growing lump and bruising on his chin. “Don’t think you’ll be havin’ much fun chewin’ for a bit.”

He chuckled. For a man in jail, he was in mighty good spirits. Of course, that might have been influenced by the amount of spirits he’d so evidently recently consumed. “I’ve had worse. Nothin’s broke.”

“Nothin’ except six chairs, two tables and a mirror,” I reminded him.

His good humor deserted him and his temper sparked. “They started it,” he pointed at the men in the next cell, every one of them still lights out.

I kept my voice even. “You can prove that, Mister Harper?”

“Just ask anyone who was there,” he snapped. “A’ course, anyone exceptin’ them,” he rolled his eyes at the Delaneys.

He had pulled off his gloves and was soaking his bruised knuckles now, and it seemed like he’d been in dustups like this one before, considering the straightforward way he was working at cleaning himself up.

“Why’d they light into you?” I had to ask. In that brief glimpse I’d had of the end of that fight, he’d sure looked like hell on wheels— fists fast as lightning and with a punch that landed hard and true.

The chuckle was back in his voice. “Guess they didn’t like my looks, sheriff.”

“So you didn’t say anything that might have annoyed them?”

“Nothin’ but ‘howdy, boys’. Course, maybe them’s fightin’ words where they’re from,” he grinned, and an infectious grin it was, even if it was more than a mite crooked from the rising swelling on his face.

“Well, young man, you get to sleep it off here tonight, and if your story checks out, you can pay your fine and go home tomorrow.”

His good mood vanished, the snappishness returning and his voice rising with anger. “My fine? I didn’t start anything, sheriff. They did.”

“Town rule, son. Five dollar fine for brawlin’. “

“Five dollars? Since when?” he demanded.

“Since I’ve been sheriff.”

“Well, you oughta be warnin’ a man ‘bout a thing like that,” he groused.

I chuckled. “Consider yourself warned, son.”

He glared at me and flopped down on the bunk, looking peeved.

Ten minutes later when I looked back in to check on him, he was sound asleep, appearing as innocent as a newborn lamb.

oOoOo

My second big surprise regarding Jess Harper arrived the next morning when his boss showed up to bail him out.

I was just starting on my second cup of coffee when Slim Sherman opened my office door.  I’ve known Slim a long time. I was his commanding officer for a while during the late war, and then rode with him over in Kansas for a bit afterwards when we cleaned out that outlaw gang in Adobe Wells. It’s a thing we’ve kept quiet, what we did over there, acting as vigilantes, staying mum about who was involved, but the bottom line was, I knew Slim pretty well and liked him a lot. He’s a good, solid, levelheaded man and a law-abiding citizen if there ever was one.

“Mornin’, Mort,” he greeted me with a wide smile on his broad face as he stepped into my office.

I hadn’t seen him since I’d taken the job in Laramie, but he hadn’t changed much, still tall as a pine tree and skinny as a willow branch. “Help yourself to some coffee, Slim,” I waved at the pot warming atop the potbellied stove. “So what is it brings you into town so early on a Sunday mornin’?”

He was heading toward the stove, his spurs jingling. “I hear you’ve got my ranch hand locked up back there.”

“*Your* ranch hand? Not that hot-headed Harper fellah.” That young brawler didn’t seem the sort that a straight-arrow like Slim would hire, even if there was a shortage of ranch help, which there wasn’t.

Slim poured himself a cup of coffee and, turning back to look at me, smiled again, chuckling low. “Yeah, him.”

“He works for you?”

 “On occasion. When he’s not goldbrickin’.  Or brawlin’,” My old friend seemed to be smiling rather ruefully at his own expense as he sipped the strong liquid.

“He doesn’t seem much like the ranch-hand type,” I voiced my doubts cautiously.

Slim’s voice turned suddenly serious. “Don’t be fooled, Mort. He’s darn good with horses and he can do most any ranch chore that needs doin’. Sure, he’s more’n a bit wild and he’s kinda rough around the edges, I know that, but he really is a good hand, and more importantly, he’s a good friend.”

My eyebrows shot up toward my hairline. “He’s a *friend* of yours?” Imagining that hothead  working for even-tempered Slim was one thing, but seeing the two of them as friends was nigh onto unbelievable.  “How’d you ever manage to be friends with the likes of him?”

The tall man took another swallow of his coffee. “Last year he just sort of drifted in to my place and stayed,” he answered vaguely, looking anywhere but at me.

“Slim, I never met Harper until last night, but you know I’ve been in the law business a long time. I can tell you, I’ve seen his kind before, and he’s nothin’ but trouble from boots to hat.  I’ll eat my Stetson for breakfast if Jess Harper hasn’t walked on the wrong side of the law more than a time or two,” I declared.

“He’s never denied that,” Slim sighed. “I know he’s wavered along the straight and narrow, but he’s got his good points, Mort, even if they ain’t easy to see on first glance.” He looked down, then back over at me. “I kinda surprised myself, hirin’ him on, but my kid brother Andy took a likin’ to him, and then Jess helped me out of a mess with Bud Carlin and his gang.”

“Carlin, huh.” I’d heard that story about how not too long ago Slim had helped end that outlaw’s days on the dodge. “So tell me, is Harper as good with his gun as he is with his fists?”

Slim drained his coffee cup. “Better.”

I frowned. “Your ranch hand doesn’t sound like the type I want hangin’ around my town,” I suggested.

Slim had drained the last of his coffee and set the cup down on my desk. “Get to know him before you make up your mind about him, would ya’, Mort?”

I shook my head. “Slim, I generally trust your judgment. But this yay-hoo—“

The intensity of Slim’s answer surprised me as he reared up to his full height and looked me in the eye, his voice tight and forceful. “Jess has saved my neck more than once. And I can tell you, Mort, with no reservations, that there’s no man I’d rather have at my back in a fight. No one.“

My eyebrows were trying to touch my hairline again. “That’s mighty high praise comin’ from you, Slim.”

“I mean it, Mort.” He had his thumbs hooked in his gunbelt, his jaw thrust forward. “I admit, Jess is a mite touchy, sure, and he’s got a temper that can go off with nothin’ more than a cross-eyed look. And now and again he needs to blow off a little steam and he does something stupid like last night, but underneath all that, he’s a good man. He wouldn’t be workin’ for me if he wasn’t.”

I shook my head. “Okay, Slim. For now, I’ll take your word on him. But I’ll reserve the right to decide for myself.”

“Fair enough,” Slim agreed.

I went back into the cell block to get Harper then. He sure didn’t look like much trouble, more like someone who’d been run over by a stampede. He was sound asleep, snoring slightly, his face a mass of black and blue blotches mixed in with raw red scrapes. One eye was completely swollen shut and black as night to boot, and the knuckles on both his hands were red and puffy. Still, he looked a whole heap better than the Delaney boys, who were stirring around and moaning and groaning in the cell next door.

Harper popped right awake when he heard the keys rattle in the lock as I opened up his cell door. “Seems you’ve been bailed out, young man. Come on.”

He grabbed his hat and jumped to his feet, following me back out into the office.

“Hi Slim,” he greeted his boss cheerfully. “’Bout time you got here.”

The tall rancher scowled at him. “I oughta leave you here, but there’s work with your name on it that needs to be done out at the ranch.”

“Figures,” Harper answered.

I pulled the young man’s gunbelt out of the drawer where I’d stashed it last night and handed it to him. He buckled it on, adjusting the set of the Colt to sit comfortably on his hips before tying the strings round his thigh. Then he pulled the pistol out of the holster and carefully checked the rounds before sliding the .45 back into place.

It was the sort of thing done by a man whose life depended on the readiness of his gun.

“I paid your fine for you,” Slim told him, still frowning.

“Thanks.”

“Don’t be thankin’ me, Jess,” he added, “I’ll be subtractin’ that five dollars out of your wages, come the end of the month.”

The young man’s lopsided smile dimmed a bit at that, but he tipped his hat to me as he followed Slim out the door. “Bye, sheriff. I’ll be seein’ ya.”

Oh, I was plumb sure of that.

And not exactly pleased by the thought.

oOoOoOo

I didn’t see Harper again for near two weeks. During that time, Slim came into town twice, both times stopping by my office to say howdy and deplete my coffee supply, informing me that he was keeping his ranch hand too busy to ride into Laramie or get into trouble.

Harper finally showed up one morning aboard the stage, sitting in the shotgun’s spot atop the coach, cradling a rifle in his hand. He climbed down in front of the depot and went inside. When I walked past a few minutes later, sticking my head in the door to check that all was well, he was seated with Frank Winters, the station agent, a jovial middle-aged fellow who had a cabin down along the creek and a wife and five kids. They were drinking coffee and jawing, Harper laughing as he sat in a chair rocked back against the wall on its back legs, his booted feet propped up on the counter.  They looked like they were pretty good friends.

Me, I just appreciated the fact that, at least for the moment, Harper wasn’t busting up my town.

oOoOoOo

The next time I saw Jess Harper there was big trouble in Laramie.

One Saturday night every month during the summer and early fall, there’s a dance in town.

Regular Saturday nights are rowdy enough, but this being my first dance night as sheriff, I reckoned this one would be extra busy and I wasn’t wrong.

Harper, though, wasn’t the cause of the trouble but surprisingly, turned out to be part of the solution.

As dusk approached, the town filled up quick, folks coming from miles around, some driving fancy buggies pulled by high-stepping teams and others in lumbering farm wagons drawn by heavy draft pairs. Most of the cowboys arrived horseback on their favorite mounts. There were  ranchers, cowboys, homesteaders, teamsters and store clerks, all scrubbed up and decked out in their best outfits.  The music was played with more enthusiasm than skill, but the young folk didn’t seem to mind.

The evening started off peaceable enough, as they generally do. It was my experience, though, that inevitably, somewhere along the way, someone or several someones would start nipping at a bottle that had came stashed in some cowboy’s back pocket, and then things usually got testy before escalating straight on into trouble.

It was my job to be sure that it wasn't serious trouble.

I kept my eye on young mister Harper, figuring that he was a likely one to get himself into the middle of another dustup, but he didn’t. He was having a good time dancing. He must have taken a turn around the floor with every unattached woman there, even the widow McNaulty who was surely old enough to be his mother, if not his grandmother.  He waltzed her sedately around the floor in a more respectful and gentlemanly manner than I’d ever have suspected he was capable of doing. Meanwhile, all the young ladies were batting their eyes at him and standing in line to be his next dance partner, and he was doing his best to oblige each and every one of them. Rancher’s daughter, saloon girl, homesteader’s offspring, he didn’t seem to care and they couldn’t seem to stop staring up into those baby blue eyes of his.

“For a gunfighter, he’s a pretty good dancer,” I observed to Slim as we stood at the back of the crowd, sipping punch and watching the festivities.

“Seems like all the womenfolk have noticed him,” Slim lamented, shaking his head ruefully. “Since I hired him on, the girls hardly notice I’m still around.”

I snorted. “They all like the dangerous ones, Slim. You’re too tame for ‘em.”

He sighed. “Yeah, maybe hirin’ him wasn’t such a good idea after all, at least not for the prospects of my social life,” he said sort of wistfully as he watched Jess two-step enthusiastically with a smiling young lady, her face turned up to stare adoringly into his eyes.

I slapped my tall friend on the back. “Don’t give up, Slim. Your time will come. He can only dance with one girl at a time.”

“Reckon so,” Slim smiled, set down his cup, and headed back toward the dance floor.

That’s when the shooting started.

oOoOo

At the first crack of gunfire, I dropped my cup and turned and ran back toward Main Street just as three more shots rang out, so close together that they rumbled like a single roll of thunder.

I heard shouts from behind me and then the sound of booted feet running along in my wake, but I didn’t have time to look back to see who was following me.  I reached the boardwalk at the west end of town and slowed to a stop, drawing my gun. Straight ahead of me was the stage depot. The office door stood wide open with light shining out into the street. I could see shadowy movement inside.

As I watched, a man stepped outside, nothing more than a shadow moving furtively.

“You! By the stage depot! Drop your guns! This is Sher—“ I didn’t get to finish the shouted sentence.  A shot whistled through the air just past my right shoulder and the shadow ducked back inside the office at the same time someone doused the light and a whole volley of shots poured out of the doorway.

I took cover around the corner of the livery stable. I was wishing I had my rifle when another gun opened up from across the street. Sparing a glance that way, I could see young Harper in his dress-up duds, crouching at the side of the hardware store, his Colt in his hand. He grinned and nodded over at me, then jerked back as a bullet tore into the side of the building just inches from his head, scattering splinters.

He looked up, motioning toward me, and I understood he was intending to head my way. I emptied my Colt at the stage office as the young man bolted from his hiding spot, racing across the street and fanning his iron as he ran. Five feet from me, with bullets snarling over his head, he dove to the dirt, rolling over and over to stop at my feet as more shots erupted out of the stage office.

Once sheltered beside me, Harper jumped to his feet, breathing hard, reloading his weapon entirely by touch, sliding the cartridges into the chambers without looking, his hands working automatically at a task he’d obviously performed hundreds of times before.

“What have we got, sheriff?” he asked, eyes glued on the depot’s front door.

“At least two men in there, maybe three.”

“Have you seen Frankie?” he asked, a look of deep concern marring his face.

“Frankie’s in there? At this time of night? What the blamed for?”

“He left the dance not five minutes ago, said he was gonna check the office because of the payroll."

The mine payroll usually came in on Friday’s run and went on out early Saturday morning, but it had been a day late because the stage from Cheyenne had been delayed by a broken axle. There was at least $5,000 in the stage depot’s safe.

 “Think they’ll try to make a break for it?” Harper asked.

“Could be.  I figure their horses must be over in the alley.”

He nodded. “Slim and a couple of others went ‘round to cover the back. I reckon—“

Just then, gunfire exploded from the alley behind the depot, a volley of shots overlapping each other so tightly that I couldn’t count how many there were, or tell who or how many were shooting.

I ran for the alley, Harper right alongside me, the clatter of running horses growing suddenly louder and abruptly I realized the robbers were riding right at us.  A split-second later they came racing around the corner.  There were three of them, all right, and they were making a run for it, right over us, guns blazing.

Slugs filled the air all around me and I hit the dirt, rolling to one side of the alley. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Harper doing the same toward the opposite side.

Before I’d even managed to level my gun, he was up on his knees and firing his Colt. The first man took a flip off his horse to sprawl limply in the dust, and I thought either my slug or Harper’s hit the third outlaw who seemed to sway in the saddle. He stayed aboard his horse, though, as the horses flashed past us and out into the main street.

Half a dozen townsmen came running into the alley as I got to my feet and hurried to the downed man. Kneeling, I rolled him over and immediately holstered my gun. One look and it was plain he wasn’t going to be causing any more trouble in my town or anywhere else. It was obvious he’d been dead before he hit the ground, a pair of neat round holes side by side in his chest. Seemed like Slim was right about at least one thing--  Harper really could shoot.

Just then Slim arrived, one hand held up to his bleeding shoulder.

“You hit bad?” Harper asked, a concerned frown on his face as he looked up at his boss.

“Naw. Just a scratch.”

“You’d best have the doc take a look, Slim,” I suggested as I climbed to my feet.

“I will.”

Just then, someone shouted “Sheriff! Sheriff Cory!” from inside the depot and I turned and hurried inside, a crowd following on my heels.

The man had lit a lamp and was standing at the back of the small room, holding it high enough so that it shone clearly down at the body lying slumped against the wall by the open, and empty, safe.

It was Frank Winters, and he was clearly dead.

I heard the man beside me suck in a breath and mutter, “No!” Turning, I realized it was Harper who was standing there, staring down at the dead man. That was the first time I saw an expression I’ve since come to know all too well-- his face had gone suddenly cold and dark and ominous, a deadly glint in the blue eyes. He knelt down beside the body, picked up a shell casing from the floor near the dead man, then spun round toward the door. Knowing what he intended, I reached out and grabbed hold of his arm, pulling him back. “Harper, wait.”

“Wait? While those murderers ride away?” he snarled, jerking his arm out of my grasp.

“We’ll go after them.” I looked around at the grim-faced men gathered inside the depot. “I’m gonna need some volunteers for a posse.”

No one was stepping forward. I couldn’t blame them for not wanting to miss their Sunday dinner for the sake of risking their lives chasing outlaws, especially with a brand-new lawman they didn’t know from Adam.

“Well, I’m goin’, sheriff, with you or on my own.”

I recognized that gruff voice as one I knew though the deadly timber it carried was something I’d not heard in it before. Between that look and that voice, I had the sudden feeling that I’d never, ever, want Jess Harper truly mad at me.

“This is about justice, not revenge,” I warned, fixing him with a glare.

He ducked his head and nodded.

I threw Slim a worried look. I’d much have preferred a man I knew and trusted going along on this hunt, but the rancher was hurt. Slim gave a little shake of his head and I knew he wouldn’t be joining us.

I looked around, hoping more men would step forward, but they were all shaking their heads and turning away, muttering about homes and families and jobs. With a sigh, I accepted the situation. Riding posse can be ugly, dangerous work, and riding posse with a stranger ain’t likely to let a lawman sleep easy at night, but I had no choice. “Okay then, Harper. Looks like it’s you and me. Consider yourself deputized. Go get your horse.”

He tossed Slim his frock coat and fancy vest, loosening his string tie and stuffing it into his pocket as he headed off down the street at a brisk walk. In a minute he was back leading a stout bay gelding, mounting up with a graceful jump to the stirrup and swinging aboard in a way that revealed he wasn’t just a rider, but a horseman.

Carl had brought my horse from the livery stable. Meanwhile I’d fetched my rifle from the office along with a bedroll and my saddlebags-- I keep them ready at the office, packed full with extra cartridges and a few basic trail supplies. I mounted up and with a look over at Harper and a nod to Slim, I set my spurs to my mount and rode out of town, the young man galloping his horse along beside me.

We were a mite behind the outlaws but we could smell the dust lingering in the air from their passing.  Once we got out on the open road, the moon drifted out from behind the clouds and the night got bright enough to see the road pretty well. Occasionally we would catch a glimpse of them far ahead, but never close enough or long enough to get off a shot, even with a rifle. We couldn’t close the gap, either—they obviously had horses that were fast, fit and fresh.

We chased the robbers hard for a couple of miles before I gave in to the futility of it and pulled my lathered horse down to a walk.

Harper looked like he wanted to argue as he eased up his winded mount. “Why are we slowing down? They’re gettin’ away!” he snapped.

I tamped down my own impatience and explained. “Harper, we haven’t gained any ground on them since we left town, and they’re far enough ahead that if we just keep charging blindly along, we’re more likely to lose them than anything.  We’ll just have to catch ‘em the slow way.”

He stared at the trail ahead, glaring, and then scowled at me, but he gave in, concentrating on following the outlaws’ trail.  

We had enough moonlight to follow their tracks for another mile until they turned off the road and headed up into the hills. By then, it was only a few hours until daylight. “We might as well make camp and rest the horses until morning,” I told him, as frustrated as he was at having to give up the chase.

He didn’t like it. He didn’t say anything, but he kept shooting me looks sharp as daggers-- if looks could kill, I’d have been dead on the spot. He got down and stomped around his horse, loosening the cinch and pulling off the saddle. He pulled out a handful of grass, twisting it into a makeshift grooming tool and using it to rub down his horse with long, hard strokes that revealed his anger, all the while refusing to look at me.

It wasn’t much of a camp or much of a rest. Neither one of us had much for gear and there was no coffee; I didn’t want to light a fire and let those outlaws know someone was on their trail. Besides, hot as he was, Harper surely didn’t need any coffee to fuel his temper.

oOoOo

Dawn found us back in the saddle. Harper proved to be a good hand at tracking, with a keen eye and a real knack for following a trail, aided by his knowledge of the country. I’ll admit, despite his surly attitude, my estimation of him went up a notch.

After following the outlaws’ sign for nearly an hour, we came on a spot where, like us, they’d stopped for the night. We climbed down and walked around the remains of their camp, both of us circling around and studying the ground for sign.

He was the one who found it. “One of us hit that guy,” Jess pointed to a scrap of blood-soaked cloth, satisfaction coloring his voice.

“They’ll be movin’ slow, then. We’d best be gettin’ after ‘em.”

We mounted up again and rode on, gaining on them slowly but steadily.  Harper rode along quietly; he didn’t complain and he kept alert and aware of his surroundings but his face never lost that look that was dark as a thundercloud ready to spit rain.

Around noon we gave the horses a fifteen-minute break while he and I gnawed on jerky and shared water from my canteen.

“You been on a posse before?” I finally asked.

His mouth quirked. “Been involved with a few. From both ends.”

I raised an eyebrow in question at the odd answer.

“Been on a few, been chased by one, too,” he admitted. “For somethin’ I didn’t do, back in Kansas. I was cleared,” he finished defensively.

Kansas, huh. That where you’re from?”

“Grew up in the Texas panhandle country. Lived a lot of different places, worked a lot of different jobs, since.”

“Such as?”

“Been a drover and a ranch hand, played some cards.“

“Did some gunslick work?”

He looked sharply at me. “Slim tell you that?”

“He didn’t have to.” I pointed at his gun. “Way you handle that iron gives it away.”

He ducked his head and looked away. “You’re an observant man.”

“Pays to be, in my line of work.”

“Mine, too. And I’ve observed that you don’t much like me.”

He was direct, and I admire that in a man. “Don’t know ya yet, young man,” I answered honestly. “Slim says you’re all right and that carries some weight—“

“But?“ he raised his eyes to glare at me and I don’t mind telling you, it was one mighty scary look. There was a very dark side to this young man, lurking not too far below the surface.

“But I like to make up my own mind,” I clarified.

He nodded, not liking my answer but accepting it.

I tried again to ease the tension. He and I had to work together. “You like workin’ for Slim?”

“He’s a good man. Needs to learn to relax some,” Jess answered, standing up and wiping the dust off his britches. “You like bein’ a sheriff?”

“It’s an honest day’s work,” I answered.

I thought I saw his lips twitch in what might have been the glimmer of a smile if he wasn’t so intent on not letting it be one. “Been lawdoggin’ long?” he asked as he turned away and tightened up the cinch on his horse.

“Nearly all my life. Except when I was in the war, of course.”

“Slim said you were his commandin’ officer. Said you were a good one,” he added, grudgingly. He mounted up on his bay, spinning the horse on his haunches with a light touch of rein and heel.

I shrugged, admiring his horsemanship.

“He wouldn’t say that if he didn’t mean it.” Harper wasn’t looking at me when he added. “He says I could learn a few things from you.”

I had no answer to that as I swung up onto my horse.

“I told him that I’ve never been too fond of sheriffs.”

“Not many drifters are,” I replied laconically.

He tugged his hat down low on his forehead. “I’m not driftin’ anymore.” He spurred his horse forward down the trail.

oOo

We rode along quiet after that for another hour before Harper pulled up and climbed down from his horse.

“Find somethin’?” I asked.

“Just gonna give my horse a break,” he answered, striding along through the buffalo grass sprinkled with clumps of sagebrush.

I know how much a cowboy hates to travel on his own two feet, and for a man to get down and walk for the sake of his horse, especially in his town boots, gave me another reason to raise my opinion of the man. Maybe Slim knew this temperamental young yay-hoo better than I’d figured.

With a weary sigh, I followed Harper's lead and dismounted, ruing the fact that my bones were more than a few years older than his.

oOo

 

We were both footsore and tired; well, at least I know I was, by late afternoon. We were back in the saddle again, Jess in the lead, following the outlaws’ tracks, when all of a sudden he pulled his horse to a halt and leaped out of the saddle, drawing his gun as he ducked into cover. I dismounted and hurried forward to join him.

We were at the crest of an otherwise ordinary small hill covered by sparse buffalo grass dotted with sagebrush. From the high spot we occupied, the land fell away gradually, dropping down into a small open flat. On the far side of it was a tiny stream, its meandering path marked by lush green grass and a scattering of cottonwoods.

"There!" Harper pointed down along the waterway.

I studied the area carefully and after a minute I saw what he'd seen—a man’s body lying on the ground, not moving.

"Bet you that's one of our outlaws," Harper offered, eyes fixed intently on the motionless figure.

"Could be," I agreed cautiously.

"His horse is farther down along the creek, to the left."

Harper had good eyesight. Then again, mine had been pretty good, too, when I'd been his age. "I see," I replied, studying the lay of the land, assessing the possibilities of getting down to the body without stepping out into the open. There didn't seem to be a good safe approach, there was almost no cover, the countryside was too flat and too open. "Looks like a good spot for an ambush.”

Harper’s eyes were blazing, every inch of his body taut and tense. “And while we’re considerin’ the possibilities, his murderin’ partner could be halfway to the Canadian border. We ain’t got time to sit here thinkin’.”

I shook my head at the hotheaded young fool. “That’s a chance we take. Maybe we could—"

Before I could finish voicing my idea, he leaped to his feet and ran fast and low to the right, diving to the dirt and rolling behind the slight cover of a clump of sagebrush. I was cursing him for a dad-blamed reckless knothead when he did it again.

I had my gun up, scanning the area for any sign of movement, but there was nothing.

Harper kept moving, rushing across the open ground, dashing from cover to cover, thin as it was, until he was within a few feet of the man. Dropping flat on his belly in the sparse grass, he picked up a pebble and tossed it at the body and then, when there was no reaction, he was on his feet, gun pointed at the prone man. He walked up cautiously, toed the body with the tip of his left boot, and then turned to me, shouting, “He’s dead.”

I hiked on down to where he was, my anger growing with every stride. When I got down to where he waited, I boiled over. "Harper, what in blue blazes did you think you were doing?"

He looked at me defiantly.

"Do you realize this could have been a trap?"

"It wasn't. He's dead."

I shook my head in disbelief at his utter conceit. "And what about the other guy? He could have been lying in wait to bushwhack us. He'd have had you dead to rights, you young fool."

"You were covering me," he answered confidently.

Suddenly, I knew exactly why the Delaney boys had started that fight. He was an ornery, annoying, brash son of a buck and right then and there I dearly wanted to wipe that smug look off of his face myself. Under my breath I counted to ten and then, as patiently as I could manage, ordered, “Go get the horses. They need to be watered.”

He glared at me but did as I’d told him, walking back to where we’d left our mounts and leading them down to a spot where the little creek crossed the trail about thirty feet from me. The streambed was almost empty, I noted, a thin trickle of barely flowing water moving sluggishly along between the occasional deeper pools that were little more than muddy puddles.

While Harper took care of the horses, I knelt down to check the dead man’s pockets. There were a few dollars in his vest, a battered watch and a thin wallet. I was looking in it for a name when suddenly from behind me came one of those sounds that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up straight and a cold shiver run down your spine-- the unmistakable click of a gun’s hammer being drawn back.

“Hands up, boys.”

I raised my hands and stood carefully, dropping the wallet. I could see Harper standing next to the horses, his hands held high as he turned around slow.

Harper was glaring. “So that’s what the face of a no-good killer looks like,” he snarled, “the kind who’d gun down an unarmed man.”

The outlaw wasn’t tall but he was a broad shouldered man with a wide face and a prominent hooked nose, crooked like it had been broken more than once. His brown hair was ragged, in need of cutting, as was his three-day growth of beard, and he was dressed in trail garb coated with dust.

He looked a lot like Jess and I did, grubby and tired, except he had a gun in his hand, a big Remington .44 long barrel pistol, aimed straight at my heart.

The outlaw’s concentration seemed centered on me: I suppose he figured I was the dangerous one, since I was the one packing the star.

 “Grady Thomason!” I blurted out, suddenly recognizing the face as one I’d seen on a wanted poster that had crossed my desk just a few days before. There was, I recalled, a good-sized bounty on his head.

With Thomason’s attention fully focused on me, from the corner of my eye I could see Harper edging away from the horses, cautiously widening the distance between him and me. I knew what he was doing as he took another small, easy step, sliding to his left, followed by another cautious move and another. At the same time, his raised hands were sinking bit by bit, drifting slowly lower toward his gun.

The outlaw flicked a glance over at Harper-- I had to drag his attention back on me, fast, and then keep it there. “You’re one of the men who held up the Rock Springs express office last week, aren’t you?” I said. “As I recall, there’s a wanted poster out on you, and a $500 reward.”

Thomason smiled, not a friendly smile but an ugly sneer. He purely had the drop on us, but with Harper’s move, we were now standing far enough apart that I figured the outlaw couldn’t effectively cover both of us at the same time. It gave us maybe not an advantage, but at least an opportunity to exploit.

Unfortunately, it didn’t last. Thomason suddenly realized what Harper was doing, and waved his gun at the young man. “You, cowboy, get over here. Now.”

Jess dropped his chin and did as he was ordered, unhappily shuffling closer, but the look of pure rage simmering in his eyes, a look that could surely melt granite, didn’t waver.

The outlaw, thankfully, was still focused mostly on me. “Drop the guns, you first, lawman, with your left hand. You, cowboy, keep those hands high.” Thomason still had to shift his eyes just slightly to focus on one versus the other of us.

I had the owlhoot’s full attention as I carefully reached across my body and took hold of my Colt with thumb and forefinger, lifting it out of my holster. I was focused on Thomason’s face and to this day I don’t know why he did it, but suddenly I saw his eyes tighten.

He was going to shoot me.

Harper saw it, too, and in my peripheral vision, I watched it all unfold.

“Thomason!” Harper shouted.

It was a fool’s play, drawing on a man with an iron already in his hand, but I think Harper was just so flat-out peeved that he never even considered any other possibility.

I had to give him his due, though, he was every bit as good with that pistol as Slim had said, and maybe even more.

I’ve seen a lot of fast draws in my time, and while his wasn’t the fastest I’ve ever seen, I’d have to rate him right up there among the best.  Harper was just standing there, all taut intensity and just bristling with anger as he glared at the outlaw, his hands high in the air, thumbs rubbing restlessly against forefingers and then, with that shouted warning, his hand was just a blur flashing toward his iron.  His gun was in his hand so fast I never saw it get there. One second his hand was empty, the next his Colt was clearing leather, lifting up and out and aimed at that outlaw in one smooth and seamless motion, spitting lead.

His shots and Thomason’s melded into one thunderous roar.

I could do nothing but dive to the dirt, scrambling after my own weapon.

Harper went down, a slug kicking his right leg out from under him.

Thomason was still on his feet as silence grabbed hold and gunsmoke drifted away on the breeze. I had my gun up and trained on the outlaw but he was standing as if frozen, knees locked, arms hanging down at his sides, his face fixed in a grimace, his mouth open but not making any sound. Suddenly, the gun slid from his hand and he staggered, fighting for his balance. He stumbled forward with an odd look on his face, swaying, and then he lost the battle to stay upright. His face went all slack and his shoulders slumped and he dropped to the ground like someone had sucked all of the bones right out of him.

I ran toward Thomason, picking up his gun and tossing it out of his reach before turning to Harper. He was struggling toward his feet, his Colt in his left hand, his right one clamped down hard on his thigh, blood welling out from between his fingers. There was a neat round hole in the front of his leg, a more ragged one in the back, and a growing stain turning his dark pants a deep, wet red on both sides. As I walked up to him he latched on to my offered hand and pulled himself to his feet, staggering, all his weight on his left leg, then limping along gamely beside me as we walked over to look down at the outlaw.

Thomason had a hole in his chest, centered right above his heart, big and ragged. Two bullets had made it, maybe three, spaced so close together I couldn’t be sure how many slugs were in there.  Just to be sure, I bent down and felt for a pulse, and as I expected, found none. “He’s dead.”

Harper nodded and a muscle along his jaw twitched, quirking his mouth into a grim caricature of a smile. I couldn’t read his expression—I didn’t know him well enough then to understand it was one part satisfaction, one part relief, and yes, even a bit of remorse thrown in there.

“It’s done,” I said softly, taking the Colt from his left hand and putting it into his holster for him.  “Let’s take a look at you, huh?” I put my arm around his waist and helped him over into the shade from a stunted cottonwood tree growing along the little creek. We were just about there when the hurt must have kicked in. All of a sudden I felt him lurch and he’d have fallen if I didn’t have such a secure hold on him.

He stiffened and made a sharp little “Ahhh,” sound that finished with a pain-filled hiss. His face pretty much drained of all color and he closed his eyes real tight before slowly opening them again.

Oh, I knew that feeling all too well. It don’t usually hurt right when you get shot, but later there comes that moment when the numbness wears off and the hurt grabs hold of you and all you want to do is lie down and throw up.

I got him seated on the ground quick as I could and pulled out my pocket knife, cutting through the tough material of his trousers. The wound was ugly, any bullet wound is, but this one fortunately wasn’t as bad as I feared. It was through and through along the outside of his leg, burrowing through the flesh but nowhere near the bone. Though it was bleeding steady, it wasn’t pumping out blood, thankfully not the kind of wound I’ve seen that could drain a man’s veins dry and kill him in just minutes.

Harper already had his bandanna off and was trying to tie it around his leg as I was pulling mine from around my neck.

“Here, let me do that,” I offered, brushing his hands aside. Taking his bandanna, I folded it over and doubled it up before wrapping it tightly around his leg, adding mine over it. “How’s that feel?”

“Like I’ve been shot,” he snapped, leaning back and breathing hard and fast with a little hitch in each inhalation that told me that the pain was considerable. He stayed put while I hurried over to the horses and brought back my canteen, handing it to him. He took it, gulping down swallow after swallow, and when he was done, pouring some over his face before wiping his hand across his mouth and handing it back to me.

“Thanks.”

I took it and drank long and deep myself—there’s something about a fight that dries a man’s throat. Done, I set the canteen down and fixed a stern look at him. “Young man, that was the second darn fool thing you did today,” I scowled.

He shrugged. “I've done worse.”

I sighed. “I'd imagine so.”

“And it worked,” he added defiantly. “That murderer’s dead.”

I pointed at his leg. “And you could have been, too, son.”

“But I ain’t.” There was a long moment of silence and then he added, calm as if we were discussing the weather, “he was going to kill you, you know.”

I nodded. “He was.” There was no arguing with that. I knew he was right. Jess Harper had just saved my life. Guess I was going to have to cut him some more slack for that.

Harper was looking over at Thomason’s body, his face a harsh mask. “He was the one who killed Frank.”

“How do you know that?”

“I know,” he insisted, digging into his pocket and pulling out a spent cartridge, handing it to me. I recognized it as the one that he’d picked up off the floor the other night in the stage depot, from next to Winters’ body.

“That’s a .44 rimfire cartridge,” he explained. “The others, they carried Colts, used .45s.” He shifted a little on the hard ground and grimaced.

Just then I noticed that he was shivering. I’ve seen that before, too, after a fight, when the reaction sets in, and it’s worse when a man’s been shot. I reckon it has something to do with losing all that blood.  Wordlessly I went back to my horse and pulled down my bedroll, untying it as I walked back over to where he sat. Shaking out the blanket, I wrapped it around his shoulders. He took it without a word, holding it tight with one hand.

I took another look at his wound. “Bleedin’s stoppin’ I think, but we’d better make camp here tonight.” He didn’t object which led me to believe he was hurting about as much as I’d figured, which had to be a lot.

Harper sat quiet while I took care of the dead outlaw, wrapping him in his blanket. The money taken from the stage depot I found in his saddlebags, and I moved it over to my own.

I cooked up the last of the limited supply of grub I’d brought with me, figuring Harper needed a decent meal.  He ate all that I gave him, which I doubt was a credit to my cooking skills, considering how he seemed to be working at eating it rather than enjoying the food. I figured the real reason was more to his knowing that his injured body needed the fuel.

After we were done, I stoked up the fire real good, letting him keep the blanket while I took my ground sheet. I reckon neither one of us had an exactly pleasant night, though I expect mine was a lot easier than his, not having a fresh hole drilled through me.

I did a lot of thinking that evening, though, as I watched Harper sleeping restlessly beside the fire. He’d done a lot of things well on this manhunt. It wasn’t just that he was a good tracker, a good and considerate horseman, a sure shot and, when he tried, a decent trail companion, though he was all those things. And there was absolutely no doubt that the young fool had pulled a bonehead stunt in charging up on that dead outlaw. Regardless, he’d more than made up for it by saving my life. And he hadn’t done that the easy way, no sirree. No, most men, especially men bent on revenge for the murder of a friend, and seeing that Thomason was about to shoot me, would have taken the easy way out and simply grabbed iron and plugged that outlaw without a second thought. Under the circumstances, it would even have been totally legal, because he’d have been doing it in defense of my life. But Harper hadn’t done it that way. He’d called out and given the outlaw a more than fair chance, a far better chance than that owlhoot was about to give me.  It had taken raw courage to do that, and even more importantly, it had taken an impressive sense of fair play and justice.

Harper’s actions had left me with a lot to ponder about what kind of man was lurking under that rough exterior.

I’ll tell ya, I spent a lot more time thinking than sleeping that night.

oOo

In the morning, Harper’s bandage had only a small spot of blood which was a real good sign.  I scrounged through the outlaw’s saddlebags and found a slab of bacon and a couple of dry biscuits for breakfast. Harper nibbled on the food, not consuming much this time, and then I saddled his horse and helped him to his feet.

As you’d rightly expect, his leg had stiffened up during the night and moving hurt him a lot, not that he said anything, of course, but I could tell. Once upright, he swayed, looking a bit green around the gills, but after he was standing, he got his stubborn working and with a determined effort stayed on his feet. I wasn’t too sure about him riding, but he insisted he could and I was already pretty darn sure that arguing with him would only be a waste of breath. I steadied him while he got his foot in the stirrup, and then he let out an ugly groan when he lifted his injured leg up over his horse’s back, his face going white as a sheet. He settled himself into the saddle, jaw clenched so tight I thought I could hear his teeth grinding, and then he pulled down his hat and nodded at me.

I climbed aboard my own horse, taking the reins of Thomason’s mount. I’d slung his body over the saddle, did the same for the other outlaw, too, with the second horse’s reins tied to the tail of the first.  Our little parade made pretty slow going, me awkwardly leading the extra horses while trying to keep an eye on Harper.

He rode with stubborn determination, tight lines around his eyes and mouth belying the pain he was in. He never complained though, just rode along quiet and grim. Every now and then I’d stop and check on him.  “How’s the leg?” I’d ask, and his answer was always either a terse “Fine,” or “Just fine,” or “Still attached.”

We stopped around noon when we came up on a nice flowing creek, and I insisted he get down. His leg was so stiff he could barely hobble along on it, his mouth set in a tight, unmoving line as I helped him off his horse and then a few steps over to sit in the shade of a cluster of pines. The bandage on his thigh was no longer nice and white but splotched with the bright red of fresh blood, though not enough to throw a scare into either one of us. I put on a clean bandage, the last one from the batch I kept in my saddlebags, while he drank half a canteen of water and he emptied the other half before we were ready to head out again.

“Come on, son,” I said, helping him back on his feet. Harper didn’t complain, but I didn’t like the look of him as I helped him back into the saddle. Even with the rest, he looked all done in, pale and wobbly, but from what I’d already seen, I was pretty sure he had no quit in him. He’d ride as long as he needed to, if for no other reason than to confound me.

By mid-afternoon, I realized that there was no way we were going to get back to town before dark. I left the decision up to Harper— he was the one with the hole drilled through his leg. “You wanna camp here tonight and get some rest, or keep on ‘til we get back to town? It’s gonna be three, four hours, maybe more before we’re back in Laramie.”

He raised his head and looked at me, his face revealing his astonishment that I’d so much as considered asking the question. “No need to be stoppin’ on my account, sheriff. Unless *you* need a break.”

Funny thing was, I knew he was totally sincere.

oOo

Hours later, we rode into Laramie. It was long after dark, nearly midnight by my watch and the streets were plumb empty, quiet as a schoolhouse in summer.  We rode down Main Street and I pulled up in front of the doctor’s office, pounding on the door to rouse the medical man before going back to help Harper get down off his horse and climb up the stairs. By the time we reached the door, the doc was there, bracing it open with one hand and holding a lantern aloft with the other, peering sleepily out at us.

“Evenin’, Doc,” Harper greeted him like he knew the man well.

”Mister Harper. What did you do this time?” the physician chided him.

“Got in the way of a slug.”

The doc stood aside to let us in, shaking his head. “I ought to just open up an office right out at the Sherman Ranch, the way you boys keep me in business.”

“It would likely save a few miles on the horses,” Harper answered with a grimace.

I helped him in to the doc’s office, leaving him in the medical man’s capable hands. “You need anything, young man?” I offered, as I turned to go.

“Put my horse up, would ya, Sheriff?”

“Sure thing, son. You rest easy now.”

“Tonight I will, Sheriff,” he answered fiercely.

oOoOo

 

In the morning I went back down to the doc’s place to check on Harper.

“How’s he doin?” I asked as I stepped into the office.

“Oh, Jess’’ll be just fine, sore for a while, but he’ll recover. I’ll send him home this afternoon. You can go on in and see him if you like.”

I tipped my hat to the doc and stepped through into the little room where he let his patients stay overnight. Harper was sitting up in bed and drinking coffee, a thick bandage wrapped around his thigh. Though he looked tired, he did have some color back in his face. “You appear a mite better this morning, young man,” I observed.

“Feel some better, too. Doc does a good job. And he makes darn good coffee,” he smiled, hefting the cup and taking another swallow.

“I sent word with the driver on the morning stage to let Slim know we’re back and that you’re here.”

“I appreciate that, sheriff.”

“Mostly I came down here to tell you that you’re entitled to the reward money on Grady Thomason. There was a $500 bounty on him, and it’s all yours, son.”

He didn’t so much as hesitate. I figured it had never even occurred to him to do anything else with the reward, despite the fact that it was unlikely he’d ever had anywhere near that much cash in his pocket in his whole life. “Mrs. Winters and the young’uns will need it. You’ll take care of gettin’ it to her?”

“Sure,” I nodded, turning to go. Halfway to the door, with my hat already on, I turned back to him and opened my mouth to say words I never expected to hear myself utter, but they were genuine and heartfelt. “Mister Harper, you are hot-headed and stubborn and as ornery as a Missouri mule, not to mention the fact that you have a dangerous tendency to rush in where wise men justly fear to tread. Those are not good qualities in any lawman’s book, young man, and that includes mine.” I shook my head and looked down at the floor before raising my eyes to meet his. “Despite that, son, the fact is, you can ride posse with me anytime.”

He ducked his head and his lips twitched and then they expanded into a real smile as if he’d made his mind up about me in the same way I’d made mine up about him. “I’d be proud to ride with you, Sheriff,” he said. “But my friends call me Jess.”

I found myself smiling at him. I was surprised to realize his answer made me feel good. I nodded. “Thanks, Jess. You take care of yourself now.” I jammed my hat back on my head and walked out the door, realizing I’d just made myself my first new real friend in Laramie.

 

---- The End ---

(And that’s the end of this little fic, but the start of a really great friendship.)

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