Reconcile


by Gail


With thanks to Annie and Jennifer at the relay station. Long may it live! With much thanks to Mary, whose insights into the actor and the person who brought Slim to life were invaluable. And as always this is for Nachuma. I know editing me is like getting legged up on the kind of horse that bucks, kicks, and jumps-up-and-down before taking the bit and going to work. Thanks so much for riding out the bucking and kicking, and for being a constant inspiration.

No money being made, no copyright infringement intended. And as always, all errors are mine. This occurs about ten months after “Medicine Trail”; it will stand alone.

 

It was one of those beautiful spring days that fooled you into letting your guard down, into thinking that winter had finally lifted its claws out of your hide. Jess lifted his head up to taste the wind, reveling in the strength of the sun on his face. So glad to see this much light in a day, so much that he was riding down from the north range well after the four o’clock stage had run through, and the sun was still two hands above the horizon. He was still not too fond of winter. Slim teased him that his ass was too narrow to keep a saddle warm enough to sit in. The cold bothered him, sure, but it was the shortness of the days, the way the sun grudged to stay around that bothered him the most. That and the clouds that sometimes moved in with the Alberta Clipper, hanging over the land for days, until everything was colorless and gray. But this now, this was near about perfect, even if the wind was just cold enough to make him glad of his gloves and jacket.

 

He rode up over the gentle swell of the hill just north of the ranch, seeing the smoke rising out of the chimney, and thought about Slim starting supper, and the heaviest of the day’s work behind them now, and the long, sociable evening ahead, before they turned in to sleep. Fiddle-footed as he’d been, who’d a thought he’d come to this, spending each day in one place, doing the same work, day after day. Trav pulled on his bit, sneaking his pace up as he spotted the barn, and Jess indulged him, wanting to be home, too. Because maybe what he felt inside right now, maybe that was what happiness felt like.

 

There was a buggy he didn’t recognize in front of the house, a fine looking matched pair of bays tied up to the little hitching rail. He unsaddled Trav at the corral, turned him loose to roll, with a forkful of hay and the promise of more attention later, and headed for the house, curious about the visitors. Slim had the door open as soon as his boots hit the porch, and he looked like something good had happened.

 

“Come on in, Jess. Someone here you need to meet.”

 

There was a big, well-dressed man standing by the fireplace, features hard to make out in the dimness of the house, after the brightness outside. Jess pulled off his hat and hung it on a peg and started to pull his gloves, so he could shake hands.

 

“Jess, this is…”

 

And he could see that face clearly now as he turned, the smooth, liar’s face with the eyes that were shallow and flat as a snake’s. “Matt Grandling,” he named him, and swung his fist, quick and hard, everything in him twisting into the punch, and felt it connect in the softness under the man’s jaw, felt the satisfaction of seeing Grandling lifted a little with the force of it, staggered back against the stones of the fireplace.

 

“Jess!” Slim grabbed him before he could follow up, one arm across his ribs as he pulled him back. “What the hell’s gotten into you?”

 

“It’s okay, Slim.” Grandling straightened up, rubbing his jaw. “Jess here thinks he has good cause for what he did. He’s wrong, but I know why he did it. No hard feelings, right Jess?”

 

“That’s not for you to say,” he growled, shrugging Slim off. “What are you doin’ here, Grandling?”

 

“That’s enough, Jess.” Slim’s voice was sharp, that voice he used when he decided it was time to be the boss. “Mr. Grandling is here on Overland business. You owe him an apology.”

 

“No.” He kept it short. “And whatever business he’s got with you, you better be checkin’ your pockets before he leaves.”

 

“That’s enough!” Slim grabbed his shoulder, hard enough to bruise, and shook it a little. “Maybe you better go cool off some place.”

 

It stopped him, that he’d made Slim that mad, and his anger was cooled as swiftly as if he’d had cold water poured over his head. “I’ll be in the barn,” he muttered, and walked out quickly, hearing Slim apologize behind him.

 

*****

 

 

“No need to apologize for your hired hand, Slim. Harper always was a hothead. I knew him in Kansas.” Grandling paused, as if just struck by something. “But he can be a dangerous man. If you don’t mind advice on first acquaintance, be careful of him.”

 

“Jess is all right.” Slim said shortly, still angry over the outburst, but glad that Grandling wasn’t taking offense.

 

“As you say.” Grandling shrugged it off, as if it were a little thing. “Shall we get back to our business?” He took his seat again, at the table, and picked up his coffee cup. “The Overland is expanding the Laramie-to-Cheyenne run, and we need someone to supervise it. It will be too big to leave the day-to-day running up to the Dakota office. As I told you earlier, you’ve done very well here, the station has a good reputation, and there’s a chance of advancement in the company for you.”

 

“Meaning what, exactly?”

 

“We’d like you to take over as Wyoming supervisor. At first, it would be just the Cheyenne-to-Laramie line that would concern you. But as the line grows, your responsibilities would extend right across the territory, as far as Jackson. You’d draw a good salary, two thousand a year, and a share of the profits. What do you say?”

 

Two thousand.. “That’s…that’s a generous offer, Mr. Grandling.”

 

“You’d earn it. You’d be based in Cheyenne and spending a lot of time on the line, inspecting the relays, contracting for stock, that sort of thing. And we’d expect you to find more business for the company, get people used to the idea of shipping by stage, when possible. It would mean giving up this place, of course.” Grandling glanced up casually, but his eyes were measuring.

 

“What? I…no. No. Sorry, Mr. Grandling, I can’t do that.” Slim stood up, feeling the disappointment, wanting the interview to be over now. “This land…this was my father’s dream, and he passed it on to me. Sorry, but no deal.”

 

“Oh, I didn’t mean sell out.” Grandling was quick and smooth, rushing in to repair the damage. “You don’t have to give up the land. Just the relay station. You can’t possibly run that if you’re covering the line. Why, you could lease it out to the company, make some money for yourself while someone else does the work and keeps the property up. And then, if you change your mind, you’ve always got it to fall back on.”

 

“Lease the station?”

 

“Sure. You’d be moving to Cheyenne anyway. The company would put someone else in here, for as long as you liked.”

 

“I don’t know. I don’t know as I like the thought of a stranger here.”

 

“Well, think about it. It’s not the only solution. But don’t think too long, Sherman. The line will need an answer within the next week.”

 

*******

 

 

 

Jess curried and brushed Trav until he shone, using the familiar, repetitive work to keep his mind quiet. But what he felt…that was something he couldn’t shut down, an edgy, worried feeling. He heard the buggy pull out, at the sharp, spanking road trot of good standardbreds. But he couldn’t bring himself to go into the house, not yet, and he stayed with Trav until it was dark enough to need a lantern. His stomach grumbled at him, and he left Trav to his hay in peace, stepped out to the corral to roll and light a smoke. He was just drawing on it when he heard Slim’s step behind him.

 

“Been a long time since I’ve seen you smoke.”

 

He dropped the cigarette, ground it out with his heel. “Tobacco’s stale.” he muttered.

 

“You planning to eat tonight? Or do you want me to throw it out?”

 

“I could eat.” He followed Slim into the house, relaxing a little in the warmth from the fire. Slim brought a couple of cups, poured coffee.

 

“Well, sit. I’ll bring it.”

 

“Slim..” he started, awkwardly, not knowing how to explain himself.

 

“Jess, you embarrassed the hell out of me tonight. You attacked a guest in my house. I’d like to know why.” Slim looked like a man holding his patience with both hands.

 

“Matt Grandling’s no good.” he said, flatly. “He’s a sharper, Slim.”

 

“A sharper. Of what? Cards?”

 

“Cards, stock, ranches, women, other people’s money.”

 

“You know this for a fact? You can prove it?” And Slim spoke with that Sherman stubbornness, insisting on the kind of evidence you took to court. The kind of evidence that didn’t always give you the truth.

 

“I know it. I can’t prove it. If I could, he wouldn’t be walkin’ around free.”

 

Slim set a plate of stew in front of him. “You got first hand knowledge?”


“No.” He took a bite of the stew, too hungry to wait for it, but at the same time knowing where Slim was going with his questions, and knowing he was going to lose the argument. “No, Slim, if I had first-hand knowledge I’d have proof. It’s just…things I’ve seen happen to people. Good people, that got mixed up with Grandling. They always lost, all of them.”

 

“Anyone bring charges? Or file suit?” Slim brought his own plate, sat down opposite him.

 

“Dammit Slim, you know they didn’t. How many different ways do I got to tell you?”

 

“I’m trying to get you to see what you’re doin’ Jess. You’ve got nothin’ but vague suspicions, maybe coincidence, and that’s the reason you attack a man who happens to be my boss.”

 

“Your boss.” The stew was suddenly tasteless, and he set the fork down, mechanically.

 

“He’s the new western supervisor for the Overland.”

 

“Slim, I’m sorry. I didn’t know.” He made himself meet Slim’s eyes; Slim had that dead level, stubborn look he got when it was the world that best be bending to his will.

 

“You didn’t think, you mean. Jess, you can’t keep going off half-cocked like this.”

 

“Half-cocked!”

 

“He’s offered me a job.”

 

He felt something settle in his stomach, like a lump of ice. “What kind of job?”

 

“Wyoming line supervisor. It’d mean moving into Cheyenne, working out of there.”

 

The ice spread up into his chest, like his heart was freezing. “And this place? You’re selling out?”

 

“No. I don’t know exactly what I‘m gonna do, but no, I’m not selling.”

 

And me? he thought, and couldn’t bring himself to say it.

 

“I haven’t made up my mind yet. About the job.” Slim’s eyes were down, his hands toying with his fork.

 

“Yeah. Well. Let me know when you do.”

 

“Jess. It’s real good money. Good enough, in two years I could own this ranch free and clear.” Slim’s voice was pleading for understanding, even if the words didn’t.

 

“That sounds too good to be true.”

 

“It does, doesn’t it.” Slim smiled, finally meeting his eyes.

 

Jess shoved his plate away. “Reckon I’m not as hungry as I thought. I’ll wash up.”

 

“I’ll get it Jess, you had a long day.”

 

“All right. Thanks. Reckon I’ll turn in. Slim...I just, I want …” Slim waited for him. “You know how they say, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is? Just, be careful.”

 

Slim’s face closed down tight. “Goodnight, Jess”

 

 

******

 

 

It took just minutes to wash the few plates, put the uneaten stew up in the spring house for tomorrow. Slim lingered on the porch, watching the stars brighten. Matt Grandling reminded him of men he’d known during the war. The important men from Washington who showed up at the General’s staff meetings, with messages from the government, with money, with political knowledge. Grandling had that look, the self-confidence, the good, expensive clothes, the look of a man who never went hungry. He was not the kind of man he’d ever wanted to be. But he was the kind of man with the power to make the ranch safe, finally. To take the everlasting burden of worry off his shoulders, maybe make it possible to send Andy to college, get him the kind of education their father had wanted for him.

 

If it sounds to good to be true, it probably is. Damn it, Jess. If there’s no trouble you have to make it, or look for it where it doesn’t exist.

 

Thinking about Jess brought guilt with it, because that was the thing he hadn’t talked about with Grandling, hadn’t let himself think about until now. This is his home. He’s fought for it and bled for it and sacrificed for it, same as you. You can’t make a decision about it and not think of him. And you know he should have some say. And damn him, he’ll never ask for it.

 

 

*****

 

Grandling was back the next morning, reining his team into the yard before the first stage, calling his name with urgency. Slim stepped out on the porch to meet him, surprised at the early, unexpected visit.

 

“Mr. Grandling. What brings you out so early?”

 

“Get dressed in your town suit, Slim.” Grandling looped his reins around the brake, a man not expecting to stay long. “There’s some important people coming into town on the first stage. You need to meet them, since you’re going to be working directly with them.”

 

Jess was standing in the barn door, still looking half asleep.

 

“You mean, come into Laramie?” Slim weighed the demands of the day in his mind, how much time a trip to town would take.

 

“Exactly” Grandling reached over to slap his shoulder. “Put on your suit, my boy, and pack enough clothes for a couple of days. There will be a number of important meetings. You need to become known to these men.”

 

Jess had moved out into the yard, carrying his saddle and obviously listening.

 

“I haven’t said I’d take the job, Mr. Grandling.”

 

‘Oh nonsense, of course you’ll take it. It’s just a question of working out the details.”

 

Jess heaved his saddle to rest over the corral rail, started to walk toward them, and Slim felt his tension rising. “I can’t leave this place for that long. It’s too much work for one man.”

 

“Well, if you’re worried about Harper’s ability to handle things, I’d be glad to send one of my assistants out.”

 

“That’s not it,” he said quickly. “Jess can handle things as well as I can. It’s just, this is a busy time of year with the rest of the ranch work. We run cattle too, Mr. Grandling. Jess has been hazing strays the last two days. ”

 

Grandling looked patient and tolerant, as if talking to a green boy. “Sherman, you need to decide whether you want to be a hardscrabble rancher the rest of your life, or make money. If you need ranch hands I can loan you the money to hire them, until your first paycheck comes through. But don’t throw an excellent chance away because you don’t have competent help.”

 

Jess had stopped moving, face flushing with rage.

 

“I didn’t mean that.” Slim said, feeling as if he were being squeezed between two rocks. “Look, I can come in for the day. We’ll see how things go after that.”

 

Jess turned on his heel, headed back to the corral rail, and Slim followed him. “Jess..”

 

“Reckon I’m not huntin’ strays today.” Jess’ face was averted.

 

“You’ll have your hands full just managing the team changes. I’ll be back before dark.”

 

“Will you.” He pulled his saddle off the rail, balanced it in his arms.

 

“What’s that mean?”

 

“Just that you haven’t decided to take the job yet, and Grandling’s already got you dancing to his tune.” Sharp and angry.

 

“Now just a minute..”

 

“Sherman!” Grandling’s voice, from the rig. “ We need to leave, soon. Give your man his orders, my boy, and get dressed, quickly.”

 

Jess glowered at him. “Well? Any orders? Boss?”

 

He controlled his anger with an effort, feeling as if things were moving too fast, out of his control; Jess and Grandling between them pushing things. “I’ll be back this evening.”

 

 

*****

 

 

Grandling’s ‘important men’ were an odd collection. Hard faced men with hard hands, not like the business men he was familiar with. But they seemed to know the line, speaking knowledgeably of coach schedules, of mail and light freight contracts. Except, there didn’t seem to be much point to the meeting. Nothing was decided; just a review of information that any relay station operator should have. He got increasingly restless as the day wore on, and Grandling insisted he stay for supper at the hotel , “to talk over details, my boy.” He agreed reluctantly, anxious to be back at the ranch. There was a lot to settle with Jess, if he was going to take this job; and it looked, more and more, that he was.

 

It was near dark by the time he left, head a little fuzzy with the whiskey Grandling had poured him during the meal, and after. He’d had to be almost rude to get away; Grandling’d seemed determined to keep him there.

 

The house was quiet when he rode up on it, just a low lantern in the main room. But there was something strange, something it took him a minute to figure out. The corral fence was down on the side opposite the house, and the corral stood empty, no relay team from the last shift taking their ease in it, no fresh string for the first run, the way there should’ve been. “JESS!” he yelled, and the door thudded open, his partner stumbling out of the house sock-footed, lantern in hand.

 

“Slim? What’s wrong?”

 

“The relay horses are gone,” he snapped. “Didn’t you notice? Didn’t you hear anything?”

 

“No, I didn’t hear anything. I settled them down an hour ago, and there was nothing wrong then. What happened?”

 

“How the hell should I know? I just got here.” He reached down and snatched the lantern from him, wheeled Alamo around to search for sign, leaving Jess to find his boots in the dark, or not. Two rails were down, in the characteristic way of fences that stock had been leaning on.

 

“They weren’t run off.” Jess’ voice, calm and quiet beside him. “It looks like they just drifted out. I’ll go after them at first light.”

 

“That helps a lot. First stage through is at eight. You won’t have them back and ready by then.”

 

“Won’t be the first time a team has had to take a double pull.” Jess bent to lift a rail, sliding it back into place.

 

“Now is not the time for it to be happening.”

 

“You afraid this will ruin your chances at that job?” Jess’ voice was neutral; you couldn’t tell what he thought, one way or the other. “I could try an’ go now, if you’re that worried.”

 

“Don’t be stupid, Jess” he snapped, because he was that worried. “You can’t trail ‘em in the dark. I just wish that you’d kept better watch is all.” Knowing it was unfair, and a little angry at himself for the unfairness.

 

Jess bent his back to the second rail, not even bothering to look at him. “I’ve been managin’ team changes and passengers all day, Slim. Were you expectin’ me to sit up all night and baby-sit ‘em?”

 

And that hit raw, right on his own guilt. “I expect you to do your job,” he snapped, and Jess muttered, ‘hell’, and turned away, headed back to the house, face sullen.

 

By the time he’d settled Alamo his head was clearer. But Jess was asleep, and there was no point in waking him for an apology. It would do, in the morning.

 

 

******

 

 

 

Jess was gone by the time he rolled out of bed, even though the sun hadn’t cleared the horizon. The stove was lit, and there was coffee keeping warm on it, but Traveler wasn’t in his stall. Worry gnawed at him, no matter how hard he tried to push it away: he hoped Jess was tracking the relay horses, and not riding out on him, angry at the way he’d been treated.

He wasn’t back by the time the first stage rolled in, and Slim found himself trying to explain to Grandling, who’d traveled out with the first run, why there was no fresh team. And the worst of it was the fatherly little lecture he got from Grandling: “Slim my boy, I’m disappointed. It’s difficult to convince the other managers that you’re competent when your hired hand can’t keep track of the horses.”

 

“We were short-handed yesterday,” he responded curtly. “You had me in Laramie all day.”

 

“The first thing a good manager needs to know is how to delegate. If Harper can’t be trusted, you need to replace him.” And that sounded smug and disappointed at the same time, as if Grandling had been proved right, and Slim a fool not to have listened.

 

“You’ve been down on Jess since you arrived. I told you, he’s been a good hand.” He could hear the truculence in his own voice, and it made him angrier.

 

Grandling lifted a hand, a placating gesture, unhitched his saddle horse from the coach’s back rail. “It’s part of my job to inspect the line; to show up unexpectedly and see how the station managers handle things, day-to-day. And it’s part of my job to point out weaknesses in the operation when I see them. It will be part of yours too, my boy, if you get the position.”

 

He mounted easily and turned the horse away from the coach, forcing Slim to step back, out of his way. “Slim, I’m sorry, I’m not trying to tell you your business. I just don’t want to see a promising young man lose a chance like this for something that could be easily avoided. Now, you need to be in Laramie at noon, if you’re going to speak to the Dakota manager. And I strongly recommend that you do that.”

 

“Mr. Grandling, I don’t understand. You had me in Laramie all day yesterday, and there didn’t seem to be much point to it.”

 

Grandling frowned. “You haven’t met this man. And you need to, Sherman. These meetings aren’t for you to make decisions in; they’re for the others to size you up, decide whether you become one of them.”

 

“But I thought…”

 

“Oh, I want you in the position. But mine isn’t the only word. You need to impress these men.”

 

“All right. I’ll be there.”

 

 

******

 

 

It took much longer to find the relay teams than it should have. He’d ridden out at false dawn, and should have been able to find them and return them before the eight o’clock stage. As it was, it was midmorning before he finally caught up with them, near the old canyon ranch. Way too many miles for a grazing animal to move on their own. And the country way too rugged for any animal to drift into by happenstance. He roped them, ran a long line through their halters, and started back with the string. They’d been hazed, had to’ve been, and that meant that the corral coming down wasn’t an accident. And those rails had been sound when he’d turned them out. No matter what Slim might think, he wasn’t stupid, or careless. He put Trav to a long, reaching trot, eager to get back. Too many things weren’t right. And Grandling had to be behind it all. He had proof now, he could make Slim believe him.

 

******

 

 

It was nearing eleven by the time Jess rode in with the relay horses, and Slim had been on tenterhooks for the past hour, kept Alamo saddled and tethered at the hitching rail.

 

“It’s about time. What kept you?” He stepped off the porch to swing the corral gate open.

 

Jess looked at him like he’d grown a second head. “They were a long way off. Slim, somebody hazed ‘em. Had to, for them to travel as far as they did.”

 

“Maybe something spooked ‘em. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. I’ve gotta get goin’, or I’ll be late.”

 

“Doesn’t matter!” Jess took a deep, slow breath, obviously holding back anger. “ Slim, listen, somebody ran these horses clear to the canyon ranch. And that means somebody musta let ‘em out, deliberate, last night. Can’t you see there’s something going on? And I’ll bet whatever you’re payin’ me this month Grandling’s behind it.”

 

“You’ve had a burr under your saddle about Grandling ever since he showed up. Let it go, Jess. I mean it.” Slim fought to stay reasonable, not to get drawn into an argument. “The horses got out. Something spooked ‘em and they went further than you expected. Grandling couldn’t’ve had anything to do with it, I was with him all day yesterday.”

 

Jess swung down off Traveler, fatigue showing in the way he moved. “That don’t mean he’s here alone, or that whatever he’s playin’ at doesn’t have others just like him involved. “

 

“That’s enough, Jess. I don’t wanna hear anymore about it. You can’t use Grandling to excuse…” He caught himself, sharply, knowing he was being unfair again. But it meant so much, the new job, the money.

 

“To excuse what? My mistake? My carelessness? Maybe, my stupidity?” Jess sounded bitter.

 

“I have to go to Laramie. We’ll talk about this later.” He made it sharp, wanting to put an end to this.

 

“Yeah, right. When you get back.”

 

Jess led the string into the corral, started unhitching them, and Slim hesitated , then thought, I’ll be late, I have to go. He mounted Alamo, leaving it unsettled between them.

 

 

*****

 

 

 

Slim missed the Dakota manager. Grandling told him he’d had to leave on the noon stage, and made a big deal over reassuring him that it didn’t really matter. So much so, that he knew it did. Just one more thing going wrong in a week that seemed cursed. He had a few drinks with Grandling at the saloon, and then there was another round of meetings. This time it seemed to have purpose; they were discussing a possible spur between Casper and Medicine Bow, cutting miles off the Cheyenne-to-Casper loop for towns west of Laramie. It made sense, and Slim found his opinion was asked, about usable roads, how many teams were needed, where relay stations should be sited. It stilled the little, niggling sense of wrongness he‘d been feeling. Grandling insisted he eat dinner at the hotel with the other men. And somehow, it was past sundown when he looked up from the dining room table to see Jess standing in the doorway, looking tired and dusty and very, very angry.

 

“Slim. I need to talk to you.” His voice was quiet enough but it held that intensity that promised things could get physical.

 

“Excuse me.” He moved quickly to the door, drawing Jess out into the hall, and then into the chill evening air on the porch.

“Jess, I’m sorry, there were meetings today I didn’t know were going to happen.”

 

“And you forgot you left me with the relay station for the second day running?” And that was anger, and accusation.

 

“There was no way to get word to you.” He felt impatient with guilt.

 

“Mose isn’t talkin’ to either of us?”

 

And Jess was right, he could have asked Mose to take a message. He could have gone home himself, come to that.

 

“Slim? Is there some problem?” Grandling stepped out on the porch.

 

“No problem” he said quickly

 

“Big problem” Jess said at the same time. “I don’t know what your game is, Grandling, but I promise you, it’s not going to work. Not this time.”

 

Grandling lifted an eyebrow, turned to Slim as if Jess wasn’t even there. “Is there something you need help with, my boy?”

 

“He’s not your ‘boy’,”. Jess snapped.

 

Jess. Shut up.” Jess looked at him, fists clenching and unclenching, and for one moment he thought he would have to fight him, and then Jess turned on his heel and walked away.

 

“Harper is a hired gun with a hair trigger temper,” Grandling said, as matter of fact as if they were discussing a horse. “I don’t know why you have him working as a ranch hand. He’s useful in a fight, of course, but I would think he’s a liability to your business.”

 

“Jess is my friend,” he said defensively.

 

“Is he? Forgive me, but most of what I’ve seen suggests otherwise. Well, you’re the best judge. I must say, though, he’s a definite liability to the relay station. I’d like to suggest you start using a man I know of, who’s been working in Cheyenne. He’s a top hand, and absolutely reliable.”

 

“I’m not firing Jess.”

 

“There’s no question of that. But certainly, with you gone from the station so often, you could use the extra help. Well? What do you say? I can telegraph Cheyenne, and have him come in on the morning stage.”

 

Slim hesitated a moment, and then thought of Jess, who looked as if he hadn’t eaten since yesterday. We need the help anyway. If this is a good man, it’s the fastest solution. “All right. Send for your man. I’ll let Jess know we’ve got help coming.”

 

“Before you go, Sherman, there’s something you should know about Harper…”

 

 

******

 

 

There was a worry in him that Jess couldn’t tie to anything in particular, just Grandling’s presence, and memories from a time in Kansas. But there was nothing he could point at, nothing he could take to Slim, and say ‘Look…this is the proof you want.’ No way to make sure that his friend was safe.

When you tracked, you looked for little things, things that didn’t fit. A twig broken, grass blades bent and bruised, a stone showing white where a shod hoof scraped it. There were little things enough, that he could bring to Slim. The problem was, he was pretty sure he wouldn’t listen.

 

 

*****

 

Slim heard out Grandling’s story in a haze of anger and disbelief. It was bad enough hearing Jess’ name dirtied like this, but he had to sit and listen at the table full of Overland men: Grandling insisting that Jess’ “past” was a problem for the line.

 

“I don’t believe it.” Slim made it flat and cold, wanting to put an end to the talk. “I’ve known him two years. Jess is as straight as they come.”

 

Grandling shrugged. “Ask him, my boy. And then come back to me with his story and I’ll find proof, one way or the other.”

 

Slim stood up. “I’ll do no such thing Mr. Grandling. I am not going to my friend with hearsay accusations, especially accusations like that. Good night.”

 

He’d taken two steps toward the door before one of the other men spoke up.

 

“Sherman!” It was Williams’ voice, the lean, quiet man Grandling had introduced as the Colorado territory supervisor. Slim half turned, and Williams said “This concerns us all, Sherman. We’re all responsible for what travels on the line. We got a right to know.”

 

Slim hesitated, letting his eyes travel from face to face around the table, seeing the rigid demand that he give in, and do this.

 

“Slim, it’s not such a hard thing to do, is it?” Grandling made it sound almost reasonable. “Just ask your friend a few questions, that’s all. But we have to know. And Slim, if you can’t guarantee the safety of the line at your relay station, maybe the Overland shouldn’t continue to use your ranch. I would hate to tear up the contract, my boy, but if we can’t resolve this I may have to.”

 

“Now just a minute..” He started, touched on the raw, and Grandling continued as if he’d never spoken.

 

“It’s easily settled, Slim. Ask your friend about Kansas, and bring his answer back to us. If there’s nothing to the story I heard, well and good. But I will wager you he tries to turn it back on me. And that would be cause for concern.”

 

In the end, he agreed, because he couldn’t see a way around it, because somehow it was not just an issue of the new job, but even whether he kept the relay contract. And because, finally, he trusted Jess to stay his friend, no matter what.

 

******

 

He found Jess in the saloon, sitting at a back table, with an untouched glass in front of him. “Mind if I join you?”

 

“Suit yourself.” Jess’ hands toyed with the glass.

 

“Eat dinner yet?”

 

“No, an’ why is that any of your business.” Still not looking at Slim, and his voice sounded like he was one drink away from starting a fight.

 

“If you’d stop bein’ so touchy…I was gonna buy you a steak.”

 

“Not hungry. I’ll be headin’ back to the ranch in a little while.”

 

“Jess, I’m gonna bring in another hand…”

 

Jess held so still it was as if he’d turned to stone, his eyes down, on his glass.

 

“A man named Jackson who’s been workin’ the line out of Cheyenne.”

 

“You telling me to draw my pay?” And his voice sounded as if he was asking the time of day.

 

“No, for…dammit Jess, of course not. I just thought you could use the help, with me bein’ gone as much as I have been.”

 

“And Grandling suggested him because I can’t keep up with the work.” Jess’ voice held no feeling, not even anger.

 

“No matter what I say, we keep comin’ back to Grandling.”

 

“Because he’s behind every last thing that’s happened here, since he stepped out of that fancy rig of his. If you’d just listen to me, Slim.”

 

He took a deep breath and tried to gather his patience. “Okay, Jess. I’m listenin’.”

 

“There’s too much that’s wrong here, too many little things. It’s like when you track, an’ you look for the bent grass. It’s like that, the way things don’t add up.” Jess’ eyes were measuring, wary.

 

“Things.” He felt totally off balance. “What kind of things?”

 

“Well, all these meetings for a start.”

 

“Jess, you know I’m sorry about leavin’ you with so much work. That’s why I hired this hand…”

 

Jess shook his head. “That’s not it Slim, it’s what you said yourself, there’s not much point. An’ why always in Laramie? He’s always pullin’ you away from the ranch an’ there’s gotta be a reason.”

 

“There’s a point today,” he said reasonably. “We were talkin’ about a spur line. And you can’t expect all these managers to ride out to the ranch and then ride back.”

 

Jess was starting to look a little desperate, like a man whose hole card was too low. “And why does Grandling always ride out to tell you about these meetings? Why not just send word by Mose or one of the other drivers? And where does he go afterwards? He could wait for the return stage.”

 

“Jess, he’s probably riding out to the other line stations, or talking to some of the ranchers that provide stock. He talked about that, this morning. It’s part of the job.”

 

Jess dropped his eyes. “Slim I tried to tell you about him, that first day.”

 

“I’m listening.” Slim said impatiently. “You just haven’t said anything that makes good sense.”

 

Jess toyed with his drink, face closed and giving nothing away. “So when does this Jackson start?”

 

Slim blinked at the abrupt change “He’s coming in on the Cheyenne stage, tomorrow.”

 

“That soon, huh. You made up your mind quick enough.” And that sounded like hurt.

 

“It’s a lot of work for one man, Jess.” Slim offered, trying to soothe him.

 

Jess shrugged and tossed his whiskey down. “All right. I’ll see you when I see you, I guess.”

 

“Jess, I gotta ask something…”

 

Jess’ eyes were wary. “Something Grandling told you about.” he said flatly.

 

He held onto his temper with both hands. “He said he knew you in Kansas, said you were part of a range dispute there. Had to do with the Western Trail cutting across ranch land without permission. Said you hired out to the trail herds coming through. Said you guaranteed ‘em they’d get through, and they asked no questions about how you did it.”

 

“He said all that, did he.” Jess’ eyes looked past him, staring into some memory.

 

“He did.” He waited for Jess to deny it, to get angry at the accusation. Jess just looked at him, with that unreadable look he had sometimes. “Well?”

 

“Well, what? You want me to say it’s not true? Are you gonna believe me if I do? And if I say, some of it’s true but it’s not the way Grandling said, what then?”

 

“Then I’d believe you. But Jess, I just have to know what did happen.”

 

“Because it means that I’m somethin’ different than you thought.”

 

“No…I” Because I want to be able to put this to rest, to go back to Grandling and the managers with something that will end this forever. Because I need this job, and I need the relay contract more, or I might lose the ranch. Because I don’t want to have to choose between you and the ranch.

 

Jess was waiting for his answer, and Slim could see the moment when he’d taken too long to answer, in the way Jess suddenly looked beaten. “ I been here near two years, Slim. You don’t know me by now? I gotta answer what some tinhorn sharper says or you lose trust in me?”

 

“Jess, dammit. You want me to just take everything on trust.. What you say about Grandling, what happened before I met you…” He knew he was being defensive, knew he shouldn’t have let himself be pushed into confronting his best friend with hearsay.

 

“Yeah. Reckon I do.” Jess got up, pulled his hat on. “That’s what friends do, Slim. I thought…I thought that’s what family did, too.”

 

“Is that what this is all about? Me takin’ sides with you in some old quarrel you had with Grandling?” Wanting to understand, and to make amends.

 

Something changed in Jess, something Slim couldn’t identify, but for a moment he looked like a stranger, someone he’d never met before. And he knew suddenly that he was wrong, and more wrong than he’d ever been, about Jess, about what this meant to him, but he didn’t know how or why.

“It’s whatever you want to think it is,” Jess said dully, and turned away.

 

“Jess…”

 

His partner kept walking, out of the saloon.

 

 

******

 

He let Traveler pick his own pace home, and the little bay ambled along at a ground-covering walk, sure-footed and calm. It gave him a chance to think, and he knew he needed the time, needed to think it over, or he’d likely do something sudden, something he’d regret. ‘Cause just right now there was an ache in his chest, right over his heart, and he’d need to get over that before he talked to Slim again. Slim had no business coming to him with hearsay like that. And there was no way to answer hearsay, and Slim knew that too. But it was Slim, and that meant there was a good reason. And that likely meant that Grandling was squeezing him, somehow. He could see the play, clear as daylight. He just couldn’t see the details or the why of it. But a good part of it would be to get Slim on his own, force a split between them. So he had to let his anger go, had to stop worrying about what he thought Slim owed him. And he had to stay smart enough not to fall into Grandling’s trap. He rubbed his chest with his knuckles, absently. Because the ground had shifted a little under his feet, and despite all the thinking, that hurt bad.

 

******

 

Jackson was a man who smiled easily, but there didn’t seem to be anything friendly in it. It gave Slim the uneasy feeling that he was being laughed at. The man was polite enough, and knew the line, and the mechanics of running a relay station. And he was quick-moving, and quiet, just following Slim’s orders without question, and barely nodding when he was introduced to Jess. There was no good reason, up front, to tell Grandling he didn’t want him here.

 

Jess was unusually quiet, with nothing to say to him, or to Jackson. The hostility was clear in the way he moved, the straight line of his mouth, and he was stiff-legged with tension, as if waiting for Jackson to draw on him. Slim found himself on tenterhooks, waiting for the explosion to happen. But the two men worked together throughout the afternoon, without conflict; the work of the relay station going smoothly, if without the sense of fun Jess had always brought to it.

 

Grandling showed up on the noon stage, in what was becoming a habit; with his horse trotting behind the stage, and with yet another demand for Slim’s presence in town that evening. Slim tried to push the uneasiness aside, Jess’ words about Grandling’s behavior niggling at him. Jess just shrugged when Slim told him he was riding in. He made no comment, and was distant and somehow indifferent, as if he no longer cared about Slim’s choices, about what might happen to the ranch. Jess turned away, his eyes looking out over the western road where the ridge line hid the big empty plateau beyond, and the far line of the mountains.

 

He’s already gone. It’s just a matter of time now. Maybe today, when I come back, I’ll find out he’s ridden out. Slim felt helpless, unable to change how Jess felt, unable to control what was happening.

The four o’clock stage came through, Jess and Jackson switching out the team efficiently, without conversation, but without obvious conflict. And Mose brought their mail, handing it over with that sympathetic look that mail from the bank always gave him. Slim knew the date his note payment was due, without reminder. But the bank always sent it ten days in advance, anyway. He knew it was just business, just a matter of form. But it was like getting poked with a stick, a reminder of how thin the edge he walked was.

And right now, how much he needed this Overland job.

 

It was past time to head to Laramie; he’d left it late, wanting to keep an eye on things at the ranch. Slim saddled Alamo with reluctant hands, feeling almost superstitious about leaving. As if leaving would be the last straw, the action that would change everything forever

 

“You sonuvabitch!” Jess’ voice, raw with anger. Slim heard something clatter and break in the yard, and the unmistakable sound of fist hitting flesh. He slid past Alamo’s flank, out of the stall just in time to see Jackson flying backwards through the barn doors, Jess driving his fists into the man’s midsection. Jackson stumbled backwards, putting his hand out for balance, and closing it on a pitchfork that was stuck into a hay bale.

“Jess, what the hell..” Jess pulled up, and Jackson swung the pitchfork at his head, the handle glancing off the side of Jess’ head, staggering him.

“STOP!” Slim bellowed, grabbing Jackson, and narrowly dodging the fist the man threw at him. “What the hell is going on? What’s wrong with you two?”

 

Jess had dropped to his knees, one hand to his face. Slim could see a trickle of blood along his cheekbone, and felt so much rage inside he had to let go of Jackson before he hit him.

 

“Ask your friend Harper”. Jackson spat. “And then ask him why everything’s gotta be done his way. Sherman, if you want somebody to run your relay station, you need to make sure they can get through the day without this hot head going after them every time he disagrees with something.”

 

“Jess?”

 

Jess pushed himself to his feet. “What?”

 

“What started it?”

 

“Why ask? You’re gonna believe what you want to.”

 

“Dammit..” he caught himself. “I’m askin’ because it’s my ranch, and as far as I know both of you still work for me.”

 

“Yeah, well that’s what I thought too. Maybe you need to explain that to Jackson.”

 

Jess walked away, still holding his face.

 

“What was that all about?” Slim asked Jackson.

 

“He’s a hothead, with a real bad attitude. All I did was turn the relay string out in the corral until I had a chance to rub them down, and Harper started running his mouth about me misteatin’ ‘em. Your friend needs to stop jumpin’ to conclusions.”

 

“Jackson, if you’ve got a problem with something Jess says, you bring it to me. But you lay hands on him again, and you’re gone. Any problems between the two of you I’ll settle.”

 

“Tell him that.” Jackson growled, and walked out through the back entrance, headed toward the bunkhouse.

 

 

******

 

 

He found Jess at the kitchen pump, drawing up water to wash the blood from his face.

“Let me take a look at that.” Slim reached out to turn Jess’ face toward him, and Jess shrugged him off.

 

“It’s nothing. That snake fights like he handles horses. When in doubt, find something to beat ‘em with.”

 

“You saw that?”

 

Jess’ shoulders slumped. “No, Slim.” His voice was toneless. “I made it all up, just so I could get into a fight with him.”

 

“Jess, I just…There haven’t been any problems all day, and then all of a sudden…”

 

“Yeah, all of a sudden.” Jess wrung water out of clean cloth, pressed it against his face, wincing a little. “Did you notice that this blew up as soon as your back was turned? Ever think that might have been deliberate?”

 

“That doesn’t make any sense.”

 

“It doesn’t if Jackson’s on his own.”

 

“Are we back to Matt Grandling, again? Jess, I told you…”

 

“Aw hell.” Jess pushed past him, moving toward the room they shared. “You better get goin’, Slim, you’re gonna be late for another important meeting.”

 

And he was so tired of the conflict, tired of battling Jess on this. He pulled up his patience, trying to be fair. “We’ll talk about this when I get back.”

 

“Just do me a favor. Try to remember who your friends are.”

 

That stung. “Maybe,” he snapped “you need to remember who pays your wages.”

 

That got no response. He collected Alamo and rode out, feeling the conflict like a burn in his gut. Hothead. Jumpin’ to conclusions. Never could do things any way but his own. Never could just take an order.

 

He shrugged his shoulders, trying to work the tension out. Because he wasn’t completely fair. And because he needed this job, needed for Grandling to be what he seemed to be, needed Jess to go along with what he wanted, and stop questioning. Needed to be right about what he was choosing, more than he’d ever been right before.

 

 

 

******

 

 

Jess was asleep by the time he got back. But the ranch was secure, two strings of relay horses in the corral, ready for the next day. Maybe Jackson wasn’t such a bad idea. The station was too much for one man, day to day; they needed the help. And it had been a business-like meeting, a discussion of next year’s Wyoming budget that made good sense, filled in some holes in his own understanding of how the line worked. It had eased a little that suspicion that Jess’ words had started, about Grandling’s behavior. But not all of it.

 

You need to be here. It was like hearing Jess’ voice in his head, and he resented it. He eased into their shared room, moving quietly so as not to disturb him. He would have to resolve this, one way or another, make a choice and move on to a new life, or stay with the life he’d already built. You need to be fair. He’s given you sweat, blood and loyalty, and you owe him. And most of all, he’s given friendship. It took a long time for sleep to come.

 

 

*****

 

 

 

He sent Jess into town the following day for supplies, thinking to give him a break. It was Saturday, and a slow day for the relay station; only two runs scheduled. It was normally a day to pick up the routine chores that got delayed by the demands of the week. And it was a nice day to make the drive in; the spring sun warming the land, the big Wyoming sky clear and blue as a turquoise stone, after a week of grey overcast. Jess had given him a brief smile, as he reined the buckboard onto the Laramie road.

 

He found Jackson a willing enough worker, if inclined to complain. Most of his complaints took the theme of the ways in which Jess didn’t pull his weight. Slim tolerated it for awhile, and then had enough.

 

“Look, Jackson, he’s been workin’ here two years now, and he’s pulled double his weight. I’m not about to let him go on your say so. And if you want to stay here, maybe you better decide you’re gonna work with him.”

They were checking harness. Jackson stopped and turned to him with something ugly in his face. “Sherman, you’re gonna need somebody to run this place, once you take over the line. Grandling said that was why you wanted me here. If anybody’s gonna have to make up their mind about who they work with, it better be Harper.”

 

It shocked him, how far Grandling had thought he could go. “It’s still my place, and Grandling doesn’t say who works on it. ”

 

Jackson’s face closed down. “Suit yourself. But I’m not gonna be anybody’s excuse for a fight. You need to settle Harper down, or I will.”

 

“You’ll leave Jess alone, or you’ll leave, period.” He hung the crupper he was working on, holding on to his temper.

 

“I won’t start anything,” Jackson’s voice was matter-of-fact. “But I will finish it.”

 

He heard the buckboard coming into the yard, before he replied, and then Mort Corey’s voice, calling his name. He stepped into the yard, to see Jess pulling the team up next to the spring house, and Mort walking his horse over to the barn. Slim stepped out to meet him, eyes on Jess’ turned back. “Mort, what brings you out here?”

 

“Jess had a little trouble in town.” Corey’s eyes went past him, and he turned to see Jackson standing in the doorway, obviously listening.

 

“Why don’t you finish that harness.” Slim made it an order. “Mort, step down, there’s coffee on the stove.”

 

“No coffee, thanks Slim. I’m in a hurry today.” Corey swung off his horse, led him over to the corral, Slim following. Out of earshot of Jackson, he noticed, and wondered what Mort was worried about having overheard.

 

“Look, Slim, I don’t know if you know what’s going on in town, but that group of Overland people are stirring things up pretty good.”

 

“How do you mean?” he asked warily.

 

“Oh, talkin’ big about how much money is gonna be comin’ into town, with the line growin‘, and how key the Sherman relay station is to all of this. And what a liability Jess is.” Mort’s eyes studied him.

 

“What does Jess have to do with anything?”

 

“That he’s dangerous, and the investors don’t want him around, and that they might choose to run the line north to Casper, and leave Laramie to die on the vine.”

 

“That’s the craziest thing I ever heard. You must’ve heard wrong, or people are getting it twisted up.” He could hear his own defensiveness.

 

“I heard what I heard.” Mort was curt. “I agree that it’s crazy, and nobody in their right mind should believe it. But enough people sayin’ a crazy thing long enough, and people get to thinkin’ there’s somethin’ to it.”

 

“You came out here to tell me this?”

 

“I came out here because Jess got jumped in the general store over this, by a couple of the Rocking D boys. Reckon they don’t care one way or another, but it was Parker and Curtis, and those boys are always lookin’ for an excuse for a fistfight.”

 

“Anybody hurt?” Jess had looked okay, but there was no telling how much damage he’d done, to himself or to the Rocking D hands. And hearing this was like being pulled in two, between what he needed to keep the ranch and what he needed to keep his friend.

 

“Not enough to trouble Doc. Jess is maybe bruised some, but so are they. Nothin’ got broke too bad. But a couple of the women, includin’ Mrs. Robey and the mayor’s wife, were in there when this broke out, and I had half the town council in my office complainin’ about what a ‘bad element’ Jess and the two hands are, before the dust settled. It might be a good idea for Jess to stay kinda close to home until things settle down a little.”

 

“And this was over the Overland managers complaining about Jess?” He couldn’t credit it. Except his memory kept showing him the calculating look in Grandling’s eyes, whenever Jess’ name came up…

 

“Like I said, it was an excuse. Slim, you know your own business best, but I don’t like what I’m hearin’, an’ I don’t like the way things seem to be settin’ up. I’ve seen this kind of thing before, hearsay aimed at someone until they’re cut off from their friends, and their good name is dirtied. From where I sit, it looks like the Overland is dead set on gettin’ rid of Jess. “

 

“It wouldn’t be the first time. And it’s still my place. An‘ you know nothin‘ anybody says is gonna make me doubt Jess. ”

 

Corey nodded, remounted. “All right. Slim, you need any help, you know where to come.”

 

“Thanks, Mort.” Slim watched him ride off, and tried to think. He was pulled two ways, and had been for days. But he couldn’t see a way out. He needed Jess to just back him on this, and stop fighting him so hard. He couldn’t fight himself and Jess both.

 

 

 

******

 

 

Jess was in the spring house, stacking the perishables on shelves when he caught up with him.

 

“Mort tell you what happened in town?” Jess kept his back turned as he worked.

 

“Yeah. You okay?”

 

“Couple a’ bruises is all. The Rockin’ D boys got the worst of it.” Jess’ voice was even, without the usual defiant joy that showed up when he was explaining a fight.

 

“What started it?”

 

“Dammit, Slim.” Jess slammed a crate of provisions down, then obviously caught himself. “You know damn well what started it. And you know what the cause of all of this is, an’ what I don’t know is why you can’t see what’s right under your nose.”

 

“Maybe you better explain it to me, then.” he snapped.

 

“Grandling’s up to something.” Jess said flatly. “I can’t see it clear, but he’s been behind everything that’s happened, from the relay horses goin’ missin’ to Jackson pickin’ a fight with me, to what’s goin’ on in town. An’ he’s leadin’ you around by the nose with this promise of big money.”

 

“An’ that’s enough, right there.” It caught him on the raw, Jess’ words piled on Mort’s like something rubbing on a blister. He grabbed Jess’ shoulder, roughly, turned him so he could face him. “Are you hearin’ yourself? This sounds crazy…what possible reason could Grandling have for doin’ all this? An’ look at yourself. Two fights in two days. You’re actin’ like a hot-headed kid, Jess. It’s gotta stop.”

 

“Or what?” Jess rubbed absently at his split lip. “You don’t want me to notice what’s happenin’, you don’t want me to talk about it, you don’t want me to fight. What exactly do you want me to do, Slim?”

 

“I want you to follow orders, an’ do your job,” he said, exasperated.

 

Jess closed down, right in front of his eyes; the fire gone as suddenly as it had come. “Sure.” His voice was flat. “As long as I can.”

 

“What’s that supposed to mean?” But Jess walked out of the spring house without answering

 

 

******

 

It came to a head with the afternoon stage run, as if everything he’d been trying to hold off broke through at once. Grandling drove in just ahead of the run, filling the house with his booming voice, his talk about the big things happening with the line and with the promise that there’d be a decision soon, about the new job. Jess vanished, as if there weren’t enough room for him with Grandling there.

 

“Harrison’s quite impressed with you, my boy.” Grandling said, jovially, while Slim tried to remember which of the silent, hard-faced men was Harrison. “Says you know more about the line than he does…what’s that?”

 

Slim could hear someone shouting, in the yard, and Mose came through the door, face anxious; Mose never came in without knocking. “Slim, you better get out here, quick. Jess is fightin’.”

 

He followed him out to the yard, at a half run, saw Jess and Jackson rolling around in the dust, the stage passengers huddled up against the coach. He waded in, grabbed Jess and pulled him off Jackson, half throwing him toward the corral, then hauled Jackson to his feet. “Get into the barn and stay there.” he told him. Jackson nodded, oddly cool.

 

“Step on into the house, folks.” Mose, shepherding the nervous passengers, freeing Slim up to deal with Jess. “There’s coffee inside, we’ll only be here long enough to change teams.” He nodded to Slim, his worry showing plain in his face.

 

Jess was bent over the pump, wetting his bandana when he walked up. “Dammit, Jess, I told you to stay out of trouble.”

 

“Tell Jackson.”

“It takes two to fight.” Slim said, knowing he wasn’t reasonable, and not caring, thinking about having to talk to the passengers. “I’ve told you ‘til I’m sick of telling.”

 

“An’ maybe I’m sick of hearin’.”

 

“An’ sick of workin’ here?”

 

Jess froze.

 

“Maybe you need to leave, if you can’t do your job without gettin’ into a fight with somebody.” He regretted the words as he said them, too late to call them back.

 

“Maybe I do.” Jess said quietly. He straightened, headed for the corral gate, the picketed relay string.

Slim moved to help him, trying to make an apology of it, the two of them changing out the string in minutes. Jess was silent.

 

“Look, Jess, I’m not meanin’ for you to go: it’s just...I can’t have this happenin’, the Overland doesn’t want the passengers duckin’ fistfights.”

 

“Seem to me it’s the Overland that’s startin’ the fights.” Jess led the tired team over to the corral, turned them out. “Or don’t you care how this is goin’ ?”

 

“Jess, I told you, I don’t wanna hear any more about it. You gotta stop pushin’ this.” He felt near desperate with the need to get this under control, frustrated with Jess’ stubborn refusal to let it go.

 

“I can’t.” Jess rested his hands on the corral gate, head bent over them. “I can’t, because…” he fell silent.

 

“Slim, my boy, you need to deal with the passengers.” Grandling’s voice, and he was suddenly aware that Grandling was watching all of this.

 

“Jess..” he started, awkwardly. “I just need this job, bad. We’ll talk this evening.” He tuned away before Jess could respond, went into the house to make amends Jess slipped in a few minutes after the passengers boarded, wordlessly headed to the bedroom, Grandling watching him from his seat at the table.

 

“Slim.” Grandling’s voice was serious. “You have to get Harper under control. The whole line knows you have a hired killer working here. And now he’s brawling in front of passengers, brawling in town. It makes the line look bad. If you can’t control him you need to let him go.”

 

And everything he’d been trying to avoid was right in front of his face, the forced choice between his friend and his future. “Mr. Grandling,” he started, feeling his way into it, knowing there really wasn’t a choice; but not quite ready to give up on the hope for an easier future. Before he could finish Jess came out of the bedroom, and he had his saddlebags slung over his shoulder.

 

“Jess!” He followed him out to the porch, saw Traveler saddled and tied at the corral fence, and felt his stomach drop into his boots.

 

Jess stepped down into the yard, and then turned to look up at him. “I don’t wanna leave, Slim.” His voice dragged, as if each word hurt. “But I can’t just stand by an’ do nothin’, can’t ignore what’s happenin.’”

 

“You tellin’ me it’s you or this job with the Overland? You runnin’ out on me?” He could feel his anger rising, at Jess, at Grandling, at the stage line, the bank and being constantly squeezed between two hard places. He heard the step on the porch behind him, turned his head to see Grandling standing in the doorway.

 

“Maybe I am.” Jess sounded truculent, his own anger showing .

 

“Sherman.” Grandling intruding, as always. “If you’re having trouble deciding between a hired killer and the stage franchise, you’re not the man I thought you were.”

 

“I never hired my gun out. Never.” Jess fronted him, ignoring Grandling, his feet a little spread, that coiled, tense posture that he took in a gun fight, and Slim felt his anger boil over in response.

 

“No? That’s not what Grandling says. And he says he knew you, in Kansas.” Slim heard the baiting tone in his own voice, reckless of the consequences, tired of being pulled between Jess and Grandling.

 

“I was there. So was he. That don’t mean he knew me.”

 

“What does it mean, then?”

 

“Slim, I was never a killer. It was never about killing for someone, for money. You gotta believe me.”

His voice was tense, urgent with the need to convince him, and Slim thought, I will not be railroaded by our friendship. I won’t let him use that to force me into something I don’t want to do.

 

“Jess, it doesn’t seem like I gotta do much of anything. Prove what you‘ve been sayin‘, about Mr. Grandling, or let it go. ” He spoke deliberately, slowly, feeling like he was pushing them all into a corner but too angry to care. Saw the stunned pain on Jess’ face, and then it was gone, so quickly he thought he might have imagined it, shuttered behind a still, closed look.

 

“Maybe not.” Jess’ voice was level and toneless, all the fire gone out of it, out of him. “Reckon that’s what you think of me.” He turned on his heel and headed for his horse, waiting patiently at the corral fence.

 

“Jess…”

 

“Let him go, Slim.” Matt Grandling’s voice matter-of-fact. “You don’t need a man like that around, one you can’t trust.”

 

“I trust Jess, “ he said angrily, stepping down off the porch.

 

“I meant trust to take orders,” Grandling said smoothly. “Someone you don’t always have to be going behind, to make sure they’ve done what you wanted.”

 

Jess had swung up on Traveler, and he ignored Grandling, stepping out into the yard to stand at Traveler’s shoulder, set a hand on Jess’ knee, stopping him. “Jess. I need you here.”

 

“You don’t need me, Slim. You got Grandling and his bunch.”

 

“Hell. Can’t you leave that alone?”

 

“It won’t leave me alone. Don’t you see? Don’t you see what Grandling’s doin’?” Jess leaned down, eye to eye with him, but with every expression locked away, all the truth in him hidden. “Slim, what you think of me has been more important than almost anything. But I can’t lie to keep that opinion. And I can’t stop bein’ who I am. Not for you or anybody else.”

 

Slim started to open his mouth, started to say, ‘I’m not asking you to’ and then stopped because he was. He was asking Jess to change. And he didn’t know whether he had the right or should, and in that moment of indecision the time when he could have stopped him, could have changed what was going to happen, passed.

 

Jess straightened, sighed. “So maybe this is for the best.” He touched his hat brim, and jogged Traveler out of the yard onto the Laramie road, moving the horse at the slow, steady road pace of someone who intends to travel a long way.

 

*****

 

He found himself riding into Laramie without remembering ever making the decision to go there. And once there, he didn’t have the heart to go any farther. Just wore out. He told himself that he was tired from the long day, needed to get a good night’s sleep before pressing on. Tried not to dwell on being too sick at heart to keep riding. He stepped down at the livery, caught the blacksmith’s eye and tilted his head toward a stall, and Smitty nodded. He led Traveler in to the stall and was suddenly caught in the memory of the last time he’d left the ranch, thinking it might be forever.

 

“It’s what you do for family… that means you gotta remember you’re family.”

 

Almost a year ago, now, that Slim’d said that to him. And those words had seemed so important, more valuable than gold. But maybe they didn’t mean the same thing to Slim, maybe they were just something tossed out without thinking, something light-meant, without true value. So everything he’d thought he’d built on them was just a house of cards, blown apart by a stranger just breathing heavy on it.

 

Traveler shifted, impatient, and he roused himself to undo the cinch, pull the saddle and pad from the gelding’s back. Slim’s friendship had meant so much, after all the years on the drift. And Slim had done so much for him. He’d tried to pay that back, with every bit of loyalty and feeling he had in him. But maybe, for Slim, it wasn’t really friendship. Maybe it was more like charity, something you did for a stray dog, because you were a good man, and didn’t want anything to suffer.

 

He pulled the brush and curry comb out of his saddle bag, started working on Traveler’s back, getting the dried sweat out so he’d rest easily. Boot heels sounded on the packed dirt of the aisle, and he glanced around to see Mort walking by .

 

“Evenin’ Jess. Not goin’ home tonight?”

 

And that word was unexpectedly painful. “No,” he said hoarsely. “Stayin’ in town overnight.”

 

Mort looked curious but let it lay without questioning. “All right. Enjoy yourself.”

 

“I aim to.”

 

Home. That wasn’t a place, it was the people. For awhile, home had been the Cheyenne, but that was a dream, even if the ties went deep. And then home was Slim and Andy and Jonesy, but that shrunk down a little, even though the others still lived in his heart. And now home was Slim. He stopped and leaned his head against Traveler’s neck, suddenly so weary he couldn’t keep moving. It had never been easy to leave, never, not even right at the start, when he was so new to the place. No matter what Slim and Jonesy thought, it’d been like ripping the heart out of his chest, every time. Only one time, ever, had he thought he’d wanted to leave, and even then it was like tearing himself in two. And sometimes, the only way he could do it at all was because Slim was smiling at him and telling him the door was always open, to come home.

 

Traveler swung his big head around, nibbling and pulling at Jess’ vest, and he straightened, pulled the slice of apple out of his vest pocket and gave it to the horse. Time to keep moving. Hay and oats for Trav, and maybe a drink for himself, and then likely bed down here in the livery. He’d learned a long time ago that sometimes all you could do was keep moving.

 

 

*****

 

Mort Corey made a habit of checking in with his deputy before heading home for supper. Tonight there was no deputy in the office; he had Frank out on a special job. But the habit of walking by the office was too strong to ignore. He stepped in and took a seat for a minute, a little troubled in his mind. Jess had looked like something was eating at him, bad. Not like someone looking for trouble, but like someone trouble had already found. He reached into his top drawer, pulled out the wire that had sat there for the past two hours, and reread it, thoughtfully. Too much that didn’t add up, and too many people acting out of character. And his gut said it was all tied to the information in the wire.

 

******

 

Jess was headed toward the saloon when he spotted Jackson’s horse, hipshot and head low, in the stall closest to the barn door. He stopped to run his hand over the bay’s neck. Rode hard and left to stand in his own sweat; typical of how Jackson treated horses. He rubbed the gelding’s withers in mute apology for the mistreatment. What was Jackson doing in town? Slim wouldn’t be inclined to let him come in for a night out, not after what happened this afternoon; and with Jess gone, there’d be too much to do to get ready for next week’s runs. So Jackson had either sneaked out, or quit, and whatever Grandling had in mind probably didn’t involve Jackson quitting. They’d worked too hard at making sure he was the only ranch hand left on the Sherman spread. All the suspicion in him came to a sharp point; it was one more thing wrong, and one thing too many. Time to talk to Mort; this morning, he’d had his own suspicions.

 

 

******

 

“ So you got your insides in a knot because Jackson rode into town on a Saturday night.” Mort’s face was skeptical, but something hid below it, something he maybe wasn’t ready to share.

“Because it’s one more thing that’s wrong, and one more thing that Grandling’s behind.” Jess said, calling on all the stubborn he had in him. “Mort, you know I’m not likely to jump to conclusions.”

 

The sheriff’s mouth quirked. “Well…fly off the handle, maybe, but jump to conclusions, no. So what do you think is goin’ on?”

 

“I don’t know. All I know, is Grandling is bound and determined to cut Slim off from everybody but him and his friends, an‘. keep him away from the ranch as much as he can. It’s gotta be somethin’ at the ranch, or somethin’ to do with the stage line. An’ I know it’s somethin’ that’ll hurt Slim.”

 

Mort nodded. “All right. Let me show you a wire I got today.”

 

Jess scanned it quickly. “Five hundred thousand?” It was a number he couldn’t get his mind around.

 

Mort nodded. “It’s a mint issue of new currency. I haven’t known it to happen but once before in twenty years, an’ that was during the war. It’s moving from Philadelphia to San Francisco; by the Overland stage from Fort Leavenworth through to Fort Collins. The Army will pick up the escort again there, but they were too short of troops to manage it through the territory. So Wells Fargo is providin’ security while it travels by coach. Every law officer along the way was notified two months ago. The wire just lets me know it’s comin’ through my territory tomorrow.”

 

Jess looked at him, suddenly angry. “You knew this, an’ you didn’t warn us?”

 

“Jess, you know I couldn’t. But it was reason enough for me to be lookin’ a little sideways at Grandling myself. At first, I thought this special run was why he was here. But when he never came to me, an’ I found out what was goin’ on, I started to get suspicious.”

 

Jess stood up, feeling the fear digging spurs into him. “We gotta get out to the ranch. Slim’s alone out there…”

 

Mort stood up slowly. “There’s no ‘we’ happenin’ here, Jess. An’ anyway, I got Frank keepin’ watch out there, an’ a couple of Miller’s deputies from Cheyenne are with him. Anythin’ jumps off tonight, they’ll move in.”

 

“I gotta get out there, Mort.” He felt near frantic, thinking how he’d let his anger and pride drive him off the ranch, when Slim needed him.

 

“I’m goin’, Jess.” Mort stepped to the gun rack, pulled down his shot gun and checked the chambers. “Slim’ll be fine. He’s got three good men bodyguardin’ him, an I’ll be there in an hour. But you’re the one man in town I don’t want out there. You’ve been the target all along. I think Grandling is tryin’ to set you up for the blame on the robbery, an’ I don’t want you anywhere near the ranch or the line right now. An’ I need somebody I can trust to stay here, an’ keep an eye on the town for me. From what you tell me, Jackson rode in, and Grandling is probably on his way back from the ranch himself. I need you to watch ‘em for me, in case I got this figured wrong.”

 

Jess hesitated, torn.

 

“Jess. If nothin’s happenin’ I‘ll talk to Slim, explain what I suspect. He’s more apt to listen to me than you right now, I’m sorry to say.”

 

And that tipped the balance; that and the thought of maybe getting a chance to get his hands on Jackson. “All right, Mort. But if Jackson rides out I’m headin’ back to the ranch.”

 

“Jess…”

“It’s the best I can do. I won’t lie to you, an I won’t put Slim in any more danger than he already is.”

 

“Fair enough.” Mort picked up his hat. “Oh, by the way, you’re deputized. I think there’s a badge in the drawer if you want one.”

 

He pushed through the door into the early evening, leaving Jess alone in the office. Maybe an hour to moonrise; there’d be a lot of light on the road, still, and Jess wished him a fast trip.

 

 

*****

 

 

Slim ate a solitary meal, cleaned up, and it was lamp lighting time, and there was nothing else to distract him from his thoughts.

 

The house was so empty it almost felt big. And it seemed cold, without another person in it, even though the night was warm enough. Matt Grandling had blown into the ranch, a personality as big and tumultuous as a tornado, and then blown out again. And just like a tornado, had left wreckage in his wake.

 

Jess. Why do you have to be such a knucklehead? Guilt tweaked at him, like a burr under his clothes. This is not like the last time. It’s not. There’s no reason to believe there’s some danger. This is just Jess being territorial, maybe a little jealous. Making something out of nothing, and then going off half-cocked, as usual. Except, when had Jess ever been truly jealous? Or territorial, unless it was on Slim’s behalf. And he’d always been almost too willing to give someone the benefit of the doubt.

 

Why couldn’t you just tell me? he thought, exasperated Instead of poking and prodding and pushing for a fight, until you finally got one. Instead of pushing me, challenging everything I told you to do. Because otherwise, it looked like I couldn’t control my own station… His thoughts jolted to a stop. Because that was really the reason, right there. Because he’d gotten so needful of being in charge, so afraid of looking like someone who could be pushed around by his ranch hand, that he’d stopped listening to his friend. And because with Jess, the most important things never got into words at all.

 

He’ll come back. He always comes back. And I didn’t push him out for good, did I? I told him I wasn’t meaning for him to leave, just wanting him to take orders . He felt the blood beat up in his face when he remembered that, how arrogant that was, like he still wore a lieutenant’s bars, and Jess was some insubordinate private. And with the shame of that was the memory of the look on Jess’ face when he put Grandling’s word over Jess’.

God, I’ve been a fool. Grandling played me like a gambler plays a drunken trail hand., with his promise of good money. And Jess won’t be back. That look on his face, that was the look of a man who’s just had a door slammed in his face.

 

He strode over to the pegs by the door, lifted his gun belt off one and started buckling it on. He’d have to go after him, that was all. Go after him and get him to listen, maybe apologize to him. Jess would have gone to Laramie first, and he could ride that road blindfolded; no problem on a full moon night like tonight. He slid into his jacket, pulled his hat on, and that was when he heard the hoof beats, coming fast. For one moment he felt joy, and then realized it was more than one horse coming in. He opened the front door, the light from the table lantern spilling over his shoulders. That was when the shooting started.

 

*****

 

Grandling and Jackson were in the hotel dining room. Jess ignored the repressive look he got from the manager, Robison, flashed the badge at him, and took a seat in the lobby to keep an eye on them. He tried to force himself into the focus he had when he hunted or tracked, nothing outside the job he was doing. But part of his mind was on the ranch and what could be happening there. Be all right. If anything happens, I’ll never stop until I’ve taken down both of these yahoos. That’s a promise. But please, please, be all right.

 

******

 

 

Whoever was shooting at him seemed more inclined to keep him pinned down than to kill him. Maybe five minutes into this, and if it weren’t for the fact that he was running out of ammunition, he wouldn’t be breaking a sweat. But it seemed like that was what his attackers were counting on, almost as if they knew exactly how much he had on hand, and were bent on exhausting his supply. They were all too close to succeeding and it was probably something he deserved ten times over. Because Jess had been right, and he knew it in his guts and his bones. And where the hell was Jackson? There was no sound from the bunkhouse, no indication that Jackson was still on the ranch.

 

There was a change outside suddenly; more firing, but coming from the ridge behind the corral, rather than the yard, and it seemed to be aimed at his attackers. And then he heard the resonant ‘boom’ of a double barrel, and began to think that his luck was in.

 

The firing from the yard dropped off, raggedly, and then fell silent, and he heard maybe the second most welcome sound he could think of: Mort Corey’s voice barking “Drop your weapons.” Slim stood up cautiously, mindful of a stray shot, peering out around the edge of the door. Looked like Mort and three other men, and they were tying up a group of five in the corral. Mort turned his head and called, “Slim? You all right?”

 

“Yeah.” He stepped down off the porch to join them, recognizing the faces of two of his former ‘business partners. ’ “Grandling” he spat, and Mort nodded.

 

“Jess is mighty worried. I left him in town to keep an eye on things, but he was pawin’ the ground to get back here. He’d figured out it was a trap of some kind, he just didn’t know what it was about. And then he spotted Jackson ridin‘ in tonight, and that brought him to me.”

 

“What was it about?”

 

“A five hundred thousand dollar currency transfer. Slated to come through by Overland tomorrow. Special run.”

 

“I didn’t know.” He felt stunned, by more money than he could imagine, and by Grandling’s nerve in making a play for it.

 

“Well, Grandling was the man supposed to tell you, and he wasn’t about to. Looks to me like he was gettin’ Jess out of the way, an’ likely wantin’ him to take the blame. These yahoos were supposed to take you out, or at least take you hostage, and they’d pick off the run tomorrow. Neat plan.”

 

“You knew about the run.”

 

“I did. I wouldn’t have known there was trouble on the way though, if Grandling hadn’t been stupid enough to mess with you an’ Jess. That told me right there that somethin’ was far wrong, what with neither one of you actin’ like yourselves, an’ all the crazy rumors in town.” Mort turned away, watching his deputy jerk one of the shooters to their feet. “Frank! Let’s get ‘em on their horses. No need to be too particular about their comfort. It’s a short ride.” Mort seemed as relaxed and slow moving as always.

 

“How’d you keep Jess in town?”

 

Mort grinned. “Deputized him. That boy’s got a bump of responsibility the size of Texas. But I’m thinkin’ you best get a move on an’ let him see for himself you’re okay, Slim. Grandling is in town, an’ so’s Jackson, an’ I don’t think Jess has a whole lot of patience left with either one.”

 

 

*****

 

 

 

Grandling and Jackson lingered long over dinner, then cigars and coffee. For awhile he thought they were gloating over the way their plan was working, but the longer he watched them, the more he realized that they were waiting, and getting increasingly worried while they did. The other men that Slim had mentioned were nowhere to be seen; he was beginning to think that they were what Grandling was waiting for. It made the skin between his shoulder blades itch, thinking about what the others might have gotten up to. The only thing that let him hold on to his patience was that Grandling was obviously not happy. Something was going wrong for him, and that was good news.

 

An hour crawled by, and then another, and Grandling finally threw the butt of his cigar into the fireplace, stood up restlessly. He said something to Jackson, and then the two of them left through the outer door to the porch, and Jess eased through the front door, to tail them to the saloon. The moon was near the top of the sky, and Mort still wasn’t back. It wasn’t enough to know that things were going wrong for Grandling; he needed to know that things were going right for Slim. He stood just outside the batwings, debating with himself. He needed to know, and he needed to keep the town safe. Mind finally made up, he stepped into the saloon, gun drawn.

 

Neither Grandling nor Jackson noticed him until he was right over the table. “Put your hands up.” he said softly, and Jackson shoved his chair back violently, hand starting for his gun and then freezing as Jess met his eyes. “You’re under arrest.” Jess said levelly. “Take your gun belt off with your left hand. Slowly.”

 

Jackson responded calmly, without any sign of emotion. Grandling sat still, hands raised as nonchalantly as if he were stretching.

“What is this all about, Harper?” Grandling sounded as unconcerned as if he’d handed him a bar tab.

 

“You’re under arrest.”

 

“On what charge?” Grandling was still as calm as Sunday-go-to-meeting.

 

“Suspicion.” Jess told him defiantly. “Of theft. And assault.”

 

“I had nothing to do with attacking Sherman.” Grandling said defensively, and Jess’ gun wavered as he fought the desire to lay its barrel across Grandling’s sneering face. Jackson took that moment to make his move; Jess could just see his hand drop, the little hide-out derringer falling into his palm, and spun quickly, crouching, His gun and Jackson’s fired at the same time, and he caught his breath, waiting for an impact that never came. Jackson staggered back, right arm falling limp, and dropped to his knees, face twisted in pain. The men at the tables had scrambled up, pressing back against the walls. He knew the faces; townsfolk, Curtis and Parker from the Rockin D.. Nobody trying to interfere. Nobody jumping in to help, either.

 

“That was real stupid.” Jess told him, feeling the surge in his blood that a fight always brought.

 

“Jackson never was too bright.” Grandling said agreeably, standing up. “Well Harper, I’m going to be on my way. No hard feelings?”

 

“You’re crazy. The only place you’re goin’ is a cell, until Sheriff Corey gets back.”

 

“Oh, I don’t think so. You see, I know you won’t shoot an unarmed man. I knew that about you in Kansas. Hell, you won’t even shoot an armed man without giving him a fair chance. So I’m going to walk out that door now, and you’re not going to be able to stop me.”

 

“I’ll watch this one for you Jess.” Smitty’s voice, the blacksmith stepping forward, his own sidearm in his hands, eyes on Jackson.

 

Jess nodded his thanks and holstered his side arm, undid the tie down and the belt and slid it across the bar to Sam, eyes still on Grandling. “Watch this for me?”

 

“Sure Jess.”

 

“To get out that door, you’re gonna have to go through me,” he told Grandling.

 

The big man shrugged, ambled forward, deceptively casual. “If that’s what you want” he said agreeably, and kicked Jess in the side of the knee.

 

The pain turned his vision black, and he dropped to the floor, hands down to break his fall at the last minute. He could hear Grandling moving, and reached out blindly, to catch his ankle, jerk his leg out from under him. The two of them got to their feet at the same time. Curtis was there, shouting some kind of protest at Grandling, and Jess shook his head fiercely, to clear his vision and stop Curtis. “He’s mine.”

 

Grandling smiled, and lunged at him, both hands reaching, and Jess caught the glint of the knife blade at the last minute, twisted to one side, so that Grandling staggered past him, and he felt his body ready itself, the pain in his knee fading out of awareness.

 

******

 

Slim came through the doors as the fight started and was moving in when Mort grabbed his arm, jerked him back. “This is law business, Slim..”

 

“Then take care of it” he whispered, harshly, fearful of distracting Jess. He saw the knife come out as Grandling got to his feet, and Jess twist out of line, fluid as water, as Grandling lunged. The big man was astonishingly quick, catching himself before his momentum took him too far, turning to slash at Jess in the same motion. Jess jumped back, pulling himself out of range, and then lunged forward himself, like a pouncing cat, knocking the blade to one side with his forearm, then closing both hands on Grandling’s knife arm. He pivoted, obviously trying to take Grandling down, and the injured knee betrayed him, so he staggered a little, and Grandling freed his knife hand, punched out once to Jess’ gut. Jess grunted, frozen still for a minute, and Grandling pushed forward, snatching at Jess with his free hand.

 

Slim shouted, starting forward, and Grandling was turning toward him, the knife blade red in his hand. The shotgun boomed in his ear, and Mort Corey shouted, “Hold it!”

 

Grandling stood still, smiling a little, raising his left hand as if surrendering, and then took a long step toward Slim and a handgun went off. Slim watched Grandling jerk and then drop to the floor, and looked past him to where Smitty was standing, gun in hand. “He has a hide-out gun.” Smitty said calmly. “I saw it drop.”

 

Jess took a step toward Grandling, eyes fixed on him, all the grace gone out of his movements.

 

“Jess?” Slim kept his voice soft, like he was gentling a wild animal

 

Jess turned his head to look at him, something lost and feral in his face. Almost as if he didn’t remember him. Almost as if the last two years had been a dream, and he was still the same lawless drifter with no home but the saddle. Then his eyes changed, and Slim saw the gratitude for his presence, so strong it made his throat close up. He couldn’t say anything, just stretched his arm out toward Jess, offering sanctuary. Jess turned toward him, swaying a little, and you could see his shirt, wet with blood, sticking to his side. Jess took a step, and another, and the right knee buckled under him, and Slim was at his side, arm curving across his back in support. Jess sagged against him, and Slim grabbed hold of his belt, holding him up.

 

“I gotcha, Jess. It’s okay”

 

“I’m just a little tired.” Jess whispered, leaning into him, boneless as a rag doll. Slim bent and slid his arm under Jess’ knees, lifted him, felt the wet heat of blood on his side, as he held Jess pressed against him.

 

Mort Corey was there in a moment, arms stretched out to take some of the weight, and Slim shook his head, stubbornly. This was down to him, and Jess.

 

Mort said, “My office, Slim. It’s close. Frank! Get the doctor. And have somebody move that.” Mort jerked a thumb at the body on the floor, and the deputy pushed out through the saloon doors.

 

“C’mon, Slim. You can take a little help.” He felt Mort’s arm around his own back, steadying him against Jess’ weight, guiding him out of the saloon, the few steps down to the dusty street and across to his office. Jess’ head was heavy and still against his shoulder; he could barely feel the lift of his breathing, even held close like this against his own chest. He balked a little at the cell door, thinking how Jess feared arrest, and Mort made an impatient sound.

 

“It’s clean and quiet, Slim. Let’s get him tended to first, then worry about the rest of it.”

 

He nodded mutely, settling Jess down on the cell’s cot as carefully as he could, holding his head and shoulders up while Mort slid a pillow under them. Slim started unbuttoning the blood-soaked shirt, pulling the tail out of his jeans. He caught his breath when he saw the long, jagged knife tear, plowing deeper into Jess’ side until it ended just under the ribs. Grandling had wanted to kill. At least there was no blood on Jess’ mouth, no evidence that the knife had gone into his lung. But his breathing was short and rapid, so shallow he could just barely follow it. And the wound still bled, oozing sluggishly. Mort pressed a wad of clean cloth against it, and Jess barely responded, just the faintest sound of protest.

 

“C’mon partner.” he coaxed, sliding behind him on the cot, lifting Jess’ shoulders so he could brace him against his chest. “Just breathe a little deeper for us, okay? Just…keep breathin’.”

 

He met Mort’s eyes over Jess’ head, saw his own deep worry mirrored there. The door banged open, letting in Frank and Dr. Jenkins, and he felt the relief of being able to turn over the responsibility.

 

Doc took the situation in quickly, then dropped his bag next to the cot and started rolling up his sleeves. “I need a lot of clean cloths, Mort. Ask Mrs. Griffin at the restaurant if she’s got any hot water; if not, see if she can heat you some, quickly. And stoke your stove up, we’re going to need to keep him warm. Slim. You stay right where you are. I need you there…”

 

It went really quick from that point. Jess was dosed with laudanum, the doctor muttering about not wanting to depress his breathing any more than it already was, then probing Jess’ side with gentle ruthlessness, cleaning the wound patiently. His face set in a frown when he reached the deepest part of the tear, and he listened to Jess’ chest carefully. Then he sighed, looking up to meet Slim’s eyes. “I think it’s the diaphragm, not the lung. I’m going to stitch him up; if we’re lucky, that’s all he’ll need. But I need you to stay right there and keep his chest elevated so he can breathe. If you can’t stand it, tell me now, and we’ll have someone else do it.”

 

“I can do it.” He braced his back against the wall to steady himself against Jess’ weight and his own fear.

 

Jess got colder and colder in his arms, despite the roaring fire Mort got started, hot enough to bring out sweat on the doctor’s face. Slim focused on Jess’ shallow breathing, until the rhythm became the only thing he knew, as if his own heart and lungs were the force that drove Jess’. The doctor worked and worked, until it seemed that the whole night must be spent just like this. He remembered Jess telling him about the sweat lodge, and thought that this must be something like it: a ritual focused on healing, with the acrid scent of the carbolic solution standing in for sweet grass, and with his own silent chant repeating over and over, in his mind and heart. ‘Keep breathing…keep breathing.’ He could feel the stove’s heat on his face, hotter than a summer day, but inside the dread was like a piece of ice in his chest.

 

When he could finally think clearly enough to measure time, he realized it was barely an hour, from the time the doc arrived until he finally straightened, pulling out a handkerchief to wipe the sweat from his face.

 

“All right. We can bandage this up now.” The words brought Slim out of his narrow focus. He was suddenly aware of the other people there; Mort offering the Doc a basin of steaming water, and Mrs. Griffin standing by, lined face sympathetic as she nodded to him, a towel in her hands for the doctor. Mrs. Robey there, from the church, with a stack of clean bandages in her hands. Frank was opening the door for Reverend Robey, who held a big serving bowl in his hands, something savory steaming inside. So many people, coming to help Jess. Coming to help them.

 

“He means a lot to this town, Slim.” Mort’s voice at his shoulder, Mort’s hand holding out a glass of whiskey for him. Understanding why he was so unbalanced. “He’s helped a lot of people, and they remember. Here, drink this. You’re as white as he is.”

 

John Robey and Frank took Jess’ weight from his arms, leaning the unconscious man forward so the doctor could wrap his bandage.

 

“Slim.” Doc’s voice was sharp. “Go eat some stew. And wash up. I need you later.”

 

Slim moved numbly to Mort’s desk, accepted the bowl and spoon Mrs. Robey handed him.

 

“He’ll be all right, Slim, “ she spoke with serene confidence. “ We’re praying for him.”

 

“I don’t understand.” he whispered.

 

“He’s a good man. The whole town knows it. It doesn’t matter what a few saloon rowdies try to say. He’s one of ours. You eat now, Slim. Jess will need you, tonight.”

 

Slim looked around the office, suddenly remembering Grandling’s partners. “Jackson? And the others?”

 

Mort’s smile was humorless. “Locked up in the livery, with Smitty and Curtis standin’ guard an’ prayin’ they try somethin’. Don’t worry, Slim. You just take care of Jess.”

 

For months afterward, he was still so attuned to Jess’ breathing that any change in it would jerk him alert, fear choking him. That night, Doc insisted Jess be kept sitting up so he could breathe easy; something about the knife lacerating his diaphragm, so the muscle had spasmed, keeping his breathing shallow. If he lay flat, his breathing would stop periodically, exhausting him. He had to be watched closely, propped up if his restlessness moved him out of a safe position. Slim spent that first night sitting behind him, back against the cell’s wall and Jess leaned against his chest. He was a little fevered, restless as the laudanum wore off, but Slim learned that a touch or a word could calm him. Slim dozed fitfully, snapping into near panicked alertness whenever Jess’ breathing caught, watching the slow, gray return of daylight through the cell’s window.

 

He heard Mort stirring in the next cell, then the whispered, “Morning, Slim” as the sheriff stood up, moved to stoke the stove up again. “How is he?” Mort asked, voice soft

 

“The same, I think.” He felt Jess’ forehead; a little warm, but no worse than before.

 

“Want me to spell you?”

 

“I’m okay for now. Maybe later. Is there any coffee?”

 

“Comin’ up. If the doctor is okay with it, we can move him to the hotel this morning. Robison stopped me on the street last night, offered a room for as long as you need it.”

 

“Robison!” The hotel owner was notorious for his opinion of Laramie’s “bad element”, and anyone who didn’t wear a suit.

 

“I told you Slim, Jess means a lot to this town. And so do you. People want to help.”

Mort busied himself at the stove, while Slim thought about what he’d said, feeling a little guilty, a little shamefaced over how he’d misjudged the town.

 

“Slim?” It was a hoarse whisper, Jess stirring a little, as if wanting to sit up on his own and changing his mind.

 

“Hey, pard. Welcome back. How’re you feelin’?”

 

“Fine.” Jess turned his head toward the sound of Mort working at the stove, and Slim felt him stiffen.

 

“Jail?”

 

“You’re not in trouble, Jess. It was the closest place last night, and the doc didn’t want to move you after he sewed you up. We’ll get you to the hotel as soon as he says it’s okay.”

 

Jess sighed, then coughed shallowly. Slim felt the muscles of Jess’ back tighten against the pain, where he leaned against him. “Slim..”

 

“Take it easy, Jess. The doc’ll be here soon.”

 

“Are we good?”

 

“Yeah. Yeah, we’re good.”

 

“What happened in Kansas…” Jess’ breathing caught on a rasping sigh.

 

“ I understand. You can tell me later….”

 

“It was never about who I’d kill for.”

 

“I know. It’s always about who you’re willing to fight for.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“It goes both ways.” He made it a promise and a reminder.

 

Jess didn’t answer, and Slim looked down at him, found closed eyes and realized his partner had slipped into the easy sleep of exhaustion.

 

 

 

*****

 

The day slid into an odd, peaceful rhythm. Reverend Robey arrived with the doctor, to announce casually that he’d arranged for a number of the men of his congregation to cover the relay station., freeing Slim to look after his partner without worry: “We have commitments for two days, and if need be we can stretch it to four. So don’t worry, Slim. You and Jess have friends in this town.”

 

He stammered his thanks, and John Robey smiled in acknowledgement, then stepped into the cell where the doctor was changing Jess’ dressing, to bow his head momentarily, then leave, with the air of a man who had completed a good day’s work.

 

Doc looked up and caught Slim’s eye, giving him a rueful smile. “Well, whether it’s Reverend Robey’s prayers or my sewing skills, this looks pretty good, Slim. I think we can move him to the hotel.”

And even the responsibility for that was taken out of his hands by his…their friends. Mort brought the stretcher from the doctor’s office, Frank was there by the time he returned with it, and the two of them carried Jess the few yards down the street to the hotel. Robison contradicted every belief he’d ever had about him, by leading them through the lobby to a bright, comfortable room on the first floor, waving off Slim’s offer of payment and promising a meal within the hour. The only thing he had to do was tend to Jess.

 

 

******

 

 

The day had worn well on toward evening before Jess was fully awake.

 

Doc Jenkins visited twice during the day, sharing his satisfaction both times. Even Jess’ injured knee was pronounced ‘sound, just badly bruised.’ He finally admitted to Slim how worried he’d been; that the internal damage was more severe than it seemed, that Jess would go into irreversible shock, or that the lung had been damaged. “Harper luck.” he murmured to Slim. “It looks as if everything that could have gone wrong has gone right. Don’t tell him that, Slim. This young man takes too many risks as it is.”

 

He nodded and thanked the doctor, and sat back down in the comfortable arm chair Robison had provided. And pondered the workings of fate and friendship, and maybe, faith.

 

Jess had an easy day, sleeping deeply, not even rousing to the doctor’s probing. He was so still, leaned back comfortably against a pile of pillows, that Slim began to relax his tense vigilance, dozing in his chair with one hand on Jess’ bed in case he should move.

 

Mort spelled him for lunch, and a chance to move around, stretch muscles tight from too many hours of sitting still. People approached him on the street to ask after Jess, and to promise support if the Overland tried to make trouble. It was a beautiful day, the sky clear blue, not a sign of a cloud, and the first fragile greening showing in the trees. Maybe it was really spring now, the long hard winter gone for good. Maybe it was time to make a fresh start. He took a deep slow breath of air, feeling like he’d been holding his breath for way too long, and started back to the hotel.

 

He opened the door to find Mort asleep in the arm chair, snoring gently, and Jess’ eyes watching him from the bed. “Hey, pard.” He moved quickly to Jess’ side, to reach out and feel his forehead, as if it were a long-established habit. “Looks like things got a little backward here…Mort’s supposed to be watchin’ you.”

 

Jess smiled at him. “Slim” His voice was a hoarse whisper, and his eyes and hair looked too vivid against a face that was far too pale. “I was awake. We were talkin’ when Mort got sleepy.” Jess moved a little, and coughed, shallowly, grimacing against the pain.

 

“Easy, pard.” Slim reached out to pull Jess’ shoulders forward, shove the pillows down a little to support his back. “Better?”

 

Jess nodded. “Slim, I wanna tell you about..” His breathing caught, and Slim helped him lean forward, rubbed his back until his breathing eased.

 

“Hush, Jess. No need to talk about anything.”

 

“Got to. I gotta be sure you know about Kansas.”

 

“Kansas doesn’t matter Jess.” His voice was harsh in his own ears, distorted by the guilt that sat in his throat like a rock.

 

“It does.” Jess’ eyes pleaded with him.

 

“All right. “ he promised. “But later. After Mort leaves. Unless you want to tell him too?”

 

Jess shook his head, mutely, and Slim leaned him back against the pillows, moved to shake Mort awake, gently, and send him on his way with thanks. Mort moved to Jess’ bedside to clasp his shoulder briefly, something wordless passing between the two of them, and then the older man said bluntly, “Son, you gave an old man heart failure last night. In the future, you let your friends help. That goes for you too, Slim.”

 

Slim closed the door behind him, got Jess to take some water, and then waited.

“Tom Cameron.” Jess husked. “I was workin’ for him, in Kansas. He had a little spread, an’ he’d buy an’ sell horses, dealin’ with the trail herds movin’ through, an’ with the cavalry. Grandling was a stock contractor…We never knew, exactly, what his business was in all this, but…” He had to stop, to catch his breath, and Slim bit his tongue, not to ask him to wait. “The herds started drivin’ right through Tom’s spread, he lost stock, an’ one day he rode out to meet a trail boss an’ didn’t come back. We found him back shot on his own range..”

 

“Grandling?”

 

“Couldn’t prove it, but it started a range war. A lotta small landowners got hurt. An’ Grandling suddenly had a lotta money.”

 

“He was selling passage to the trail herds.”

 

Jess coughed shallowly, and then accepted the water he held to his lips. “No one could prove it.” Jess let his head sag back against the pillows, eyes closed. “It’s what he told you I did.”

 

“Why didn’t you tell me this?”

 

“Then it was just my word against his, and you were already doubting mine.”

 

“Hell, Jess…” He stopped, anguished. “It wasn’t that I thought you were lyin’. “ He struggled to find the words, ashamed. “It was that I didn’t want to know what the truth really was. An’ somehow, I thought if I didn’t know, it wouldn’t matter.”

 

“It mattered to me.” Jess’ eyes were still closed, his face weary. “I tried to help Cameron’s family, but after awhile his widow just couldn’t fight anymore, and she sold up. To Grandling. She wasn’t the only one in that fix, an’ somehow Grandling ended up on the winnin’ side every time. After she sold out, I left Kansas.”

 

“Jess…”

“Let me finish, Slim. I understand about not wantin’ t’know things. But I couldn’t stand you thinkin’ I was a killer.”

 

“I never…I never thought that. I know you’re no killer, Jess. Reckon …I got stupid.”

 

Jess’ lips quirked. “That’s my job. Don’t do that no more.”

Slim leaned forward, took hold of his partner’s shoulder because right now, he needed to let his gestures fill in the meaning for what his words couldn’t manage; the need to hold on to the partnership, hold on to his friend. “Jess, what you said that night you rode out…I don’t deserve for you to think so highly of me. I got stupid, and I forgot who my friends are. . And I’m ashamed of that. I need to ask you to forgive me.”

Jess reached up to clasp his forearm. “Yeah”

 

Slim’s throat caught. “Just like that.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

*****

 

 

He took Jess home two days later. Doc Jenkins gave reluctant permission, maybe swayed by the longing in Jess’ face, and John Robey lent his buckboard. They padded the wagon bed well, and Jess rode home lying propped up in the back, despite his complaints. Mort and Frank “rode shotgun”, Mort helping him to get Jess settled in the house And all the trouble was worth it, for the look on Jess’ face.

 

The ranch was in good order, Bill Bates there when they arrived, to give a laconic report of the morning stage run and brush off Slim’s thanks. “You got an Overland man waitin’ to speak to you, in the barn. I told him to stay out of the house, told him Overland ain’t too popular in Laramie right now. I’ll be gettin’ on for home now, Mary’ll be waitin’ lunch on me. You give Jess our best, Slim.” He mounted his flea-bitten grey and ambled out of the yard. Slim stood on the porch until he was over the rise, and then straightened his shoulders, ready to deal with whatever waited for him in the barn.

 

“Want me to brace him with you?” Mort Corey’s quiet voice at his shoulder. He turned to look at his old friend.

 

“No, I can handle it.“

 

“Whatever comes, you know the town’s behind you.”

 

“I do. Thanks, Mort.” Frank was mounted already, and Mort stepped up into the buckboard, reining out with a touch of his hat brim in farewell

 

He couldn’t put it off any longer, and stepped off the porch, toward the dimly seen figure standing in the barn’s doorway.

 

 

******

 


Jess was sleeping lightly when he stepped into their room, and it gave him a chance to look at him, without being jawed at for “fussing”. Still too pale, but there was some color in his lips now, and the shadows under his eyes had faded. The high-boned angles of his face looked too sharp with the weight he’d lost, but the lines around his eyes and mouth had eased, and his breath was steady and deeper than it had been. All told, not so bad. He’d seen the stew that Bill had left on the stove, covered and warming, and thought it had probably been Mary Bates’ homecoming gift to them. He’d ladle a little out for Jess, and tell him the news while he ate.

 

 

*****

 

 

 

“So Grandling was running a bluff from beginning to end, with all his big talk about a new job. McCrary, the Overland’s lawyer, was pretty apologetic when he told me about it; seems he bamboozled them too, and they went for it hook line and sinker. So much so, that the Wyoming manager wasn’t paying attention to what he was up to.”

 

Jess was sipping his stew, his eyes concerned over the lip of the mug. “So the job was part of the game?”

 

Slim nodded. “Just an excuse to move in on the station, get me out of the way, until they could make a play for the bank funds. They weren’t countin’ on you, though.”

 

“I’m sorry, Slim. I know you were countin’ on that money.”

 

He shook his head. “It was never real, Jess. Anyway, Grandling was afraid of you, so he was tryin’ everything he could think of to get you off the ranch. He knew you’d figure it out if he gave you half a chance, and knew you were tough enough to stop him.”

 

Jess flushed. “Don’t give me so much credit, Slim. I’d already seen what kind of man he was.”

 

Slim shrugged, dipping a spoon into his own stew. “I got played for a fool. I can’t tell you how sorry..”

 

“Stop”. Jess growled the word, startling him. “Stop apologizing for tryin’ to look out for Andy, tryin’ to save your ranch. I woulda done the same thing, in your boots. An’ you apologized so much I’m gettin’ sick of listenin’ to it.”

 

Slim grinned at him. “Don’t be so polite about it. The upshot of it is, the Overland is too embarrassed to have any complaints about how I handled things. And they’re increasing the franchise money a little, to say thanks for stoppin’ Grandling.”

 

“So that’s good, yeah?”

 

“It’s good. You know what the best thing is, though?”

 

Jess shook his head.

 

“You’re still here.”

 

He took a deep breath. Jess was still as a stone, a tentative hopefulness in his eyes. “You’re family Jess. You have been, since the day you got here.” Like a lost brother coming home, he thought.

 

“Slim..”

 

Jess sounded a little choked up, and Slim looked away to give him privacy. “You belong here. This is your home. Nothin’ and nobody takes that away from you, while me an’ Andy are alive.”

 

He glanced back at Jess, saw his partner’s face turned away, hiding what he was feeling, as always.

 

“Thanks, Slim.” It was a bare whisper. “Reckon… I best keep you alive then.” Jess’ mouth quirked. “Not that I wouldn’t do that, anyway.”

 

“Keep yourself outta trouble, first.” Slim growled, and went to get more stew.

 

 

*********

 

Two weeks later, Mort rode out with a letter from the Wells Fargo company, and what Jess called a “shit-eatin’ grin” on his face. It held a bank draft from the company, for five thousand dollars, reward for “protecting the company’s assets and bringing to justice a gang of robbers wanted in Kansas.” Mort solemnly announced that he’d brought the letter so he could provide an “armed escort for the newly wealthy ranchers.” The three of them rode into Laramie together, to deposit the draft and make a payment on the ranch note, and to ceremoniously share a drink in the saloon.

 

“That’s half the note paid off.” Slim raised his glass, meeting his partner’s eyes over it. “To bein’ half-way home..”

 

“Naw.” Jess shook his head. “Not for me. I’m all the way there.” He lifted his own glass in salute. “To bein’ home.”

 

The end.



 



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