Second Chances

By Badgergater            

Missing Scene: No Second Chance, after defeating Bakker’s bad guys at the ranch.

Jess is thinking about what he’s done

Author’s note: Thanks to Hired Hand for her always excellent beta.

x----------x x----------x

It was late, and the end of a very long day. Reckoning that Jess had already taken to his bunk, Slim thoughtfully blew out the lantern before he entered the bedroom.

The tall man sank down to sit on the edge of his bunk, his shirt untucked and unbuttoned, pulling off his boots with an effort that betrayed how truly tired he was. “Sure has been a long night, Jess,” he said wearily, footwear in hand. Sensing the quiet, he turned toward the room’s second bunk and realized he was talking to thin air--- there was no one else in the room. “Jess?” he called, “Jess?” Getting no answer, he dropped the footwear and stood, padding out to the ranch house's main room in search of his friend and ranch hand.

Finding the room empty, the tall man checked the kitchen, but it was unoccupied as well. With a sigh, he pulled open the door to the front porch and spied his quarry.

Jess Harper stood quietly, one shoulder leaning against the porch post and his back to the house, facing out toward the dark yard. He was rolling himself a smoke with hands that, to Slim’s surprise, shook slightly.

Closing the door quietly, the tall man slipped outside in his stocking feet. "I haven’t seen you do that in a long while," he said softly, pointing to the tobacco. Slim hadn’t wanted his ranch hand smoking in front of his impressionable young brother, and to the tall man's surprise, Jess had respected that request, without too many complaints.

The cowboy shrugged, still looking outward, his hands working steadily at their familiar task.

“I thought you quit,” Slim added.

“I guess I didn't.”

The rancher slumped into one of the old chairs that sat on the porch, suppressing a prodigious yawn, “So what is it that’s botherin' you?”

Jess didn't answer, just silently finished rolling the cigarette before tucking the tobacco pouch into his vest pocket.

“You might as well just go ahead n’ tell me about it now as stew about it all night,” Slim suggested.

“Ain't much night left.”

“That's for sure.” By the time they'd finished up with the sheriff, rounded up the wounded and sent them off to town along with the injured Smudge and the Doc, and then seen to the dead attackers, the moon had long since set. Judging by the stars, it would be only a couple of hours before the sun would be rising. Slim yawned again.

“And I ain't stewin',” Jess insisted.

That was debatable, thought Slim, but he was far too tired to argue the point. Instead, he kept silent, giving Jess time to speak up. Finally, in no mood to keep waiting while his recalcitrant ranch hand figured out how to say whatever it was he wanted to say, he decided to take the bull by the horns and just state the obvious.

“Well, maybe you’re not stewin’, but somethin's sure got you tied up in knots. I know you don't get the shakes after a fracas of the kind we had here tonight. I've seen you in too many fights, and fights a lot worse than this one was. And I know that afterwards, you don't waste time worryin' about the fate of men like Bakker and his thugs.”

Jess glanced his way, rolled his eyes, and turned his gaze outward once again.

“You upset with me because I was the one spoilin’ for a fight tonight?” Slim asked. It was uncharacteristic for the big rancher to have acted the way he had. He had all but sent a handwritten invitation for Bakker and his toughs to show up at the ranch for a gun-play resolution to the battle over the stageline business around Laramie.

“No. I’ve seen you get your dander up before,” Jess replied.

So that wasn't the problem, either. Slim sifted alternate possibilities through his tired mind and finally another idea formed in his exhausted brain. Hours ago, before the shoot out, they had found Smudge trapped beneath the wreckage of his lumber-hauling rig. It had taken some tricky, and dangerous, work to free the man.

“You blamin' yourself for those logs breakin' loose?” From the start, Jess hadn't wanted Slim to take on the risky job of helping the logger, but the tall man had insisted that his ranch hand work the team because Jess was better with the horses than he. The cowboy had given in, though reluctantly. And it had been a near thing, Slim pulling Smudge to safety just in the nick of time before a link gave way and the heavy load tumbled free. A few seconds difference, and both rescuer and rescuee could have been crushed and killed. “Wasn't your fault that chain busted,” the big man added.

“Nearly killed you an' Smudge.”

“But it didn't.”

And clearly, that wasn’t the source of Jess’ moodiness, either. Knowing his friend all too well, knowing that Jess had to be ready before he spoke up about something that was obviously personal, the rancher waited again while Jess dug in his pocket for a match. Finding one, the cowboy struck it against the porch rail, cupped his hand around the flame as it flared to life, and touched it to the end of the quirly. Slim saw the tip of the cigarette glow red as it caught. Jess inhaled, held the smoke in his lungs for a long moment, and finally exhaled slowly.

The bitter tang of the smoke tickled Slim's nose.

“Well whatever it is that’s stuck in your craw, Jess, just spit it out, would ya’? I’d like to be done out here before it’s time to make breakfast,” he prompted, exasperated.

Jess didn’t answer right away but slowly blew out another stream of smoke, watching it drift away into the darkness. Sighing, he finally turned around to face Slim, bracing his back against the porch rail, his eyes still downcast. At last he revealed his dark thoughts, his voice low and rough and full of regret.

“I’ll be riding out after first light, Slim.”

“Riding out? What are you talkin’ about? You been nippin' from the medicinal spirits?”

“No. It’s just… it’s just that it’s time.”

Slim shook his head, baffled. “Well you better be tellin’ me why before you go and do such a dang fool thing.” The words ‘this time’ had popped into his head, but the big man managed, just barely, to hold back from uttering them out loud. “’Cuz I’d sure like to know what happened to get you thinkin’ about lightin’ out.”

There was a long pause, long enough that the tall man was beginning to think that Jess wouldn't answer, and then the dark-haired cowboy finally spoke. 

“Slim, that man I killed tonight, I didn't even know his name. He was just Tracey; don't know if it was first or last or…more’n likely it wasn't even his real name. A man fast as he was, a man who hired out his gun, he'd have himself a reputation an’ be known.”

Someone Jess, in his unsavory past, would have heard of, Slim realized, a cold shiver sliding down his spine. “Bakker probably knows,” he offered.

“Likely wouldn't tell us even if he does, just outta spite,” Jess countered bitterly.

The man was in a very dark mood, Slim realized. He had to get to the bottom of this thing, figure out what had caused this sudden turn around in a man who’d seemed, after a year and a half, to be well settled at the Sherman Ranch. He was not letting Jess walk away from the good life he was building for himself in Laramie. “Maybe Fran can tell us.”

“Maybe. Maybe not.” Jess held the cigarette to his lips, inhaled, and exhaled once more. When he spoke again his voice had a hollow ring to it that spoke of dark and lonely places, the kind hidden deep in a man’s soul. “A man ought to die with his own name, Slim. Even a hired gun's got that right.”

This wasn’t the first time Jess’ thoughts had taken a dark turn; it seemed to happen whenever events pulled the one-time drifter back into his past-- when the strange cowboy Roanie had appeared at the ranch; when his old friend Mac had fallen victim to a lynch mob; when Jack Slade had shown up to fire him. Whenever he was confronted by his past, Jess' uncertainties rose to the surface, the way water bubbled and roiled in a boiling pot, and, Slim had learned, his first reaction was to light out for the freedom of the big open.

Slim suddenly desperately wondered what had happened in those minutes before Jess had shot Bakker's hired gun. He hadn't seen the confrontation that had taken place in the dark but whatever had happened, it was big, because it had seriously spooked Jess, spooked him bad enough to consider riding out, and Slim didn’t have a clue what it might have been. “Tell me what happened, Jess,” he demanded bluntly.

The cowboy drew in one more lungful of smoke, grimaced in sudden distaste, and exhaling, threw the cigarette far out into the dusty yard. He watched while the red tip faded to darkness and then lifted his face to look over at Slim.

“I came up on Tracey in the dark, worked my way up behind him, an’ got the drop on him. Ordered him to unbuckle his guns. But he said he wasn't no way going to jail; he’d rather be dead than locked up. I tried to get him to change his mind but…” Jess stopped.

“He made his choice then, Jess, his gun over his life.” It was a decision Tracy had made a long time ago, the day he'd offered his iron for sale, Slim reasoned, and a choice the man had repeated over and over again every time he’d taken money for strapping on that weapon.

“We all make bad choices, some of ‘em worse than others.”

Jess' voice had a sad ring to it, a tone of understanding for a man cornered by his past. It was a thing Slim could never share. The rancher could never truly understand the way of such men, it was too far outside his realm of existence, far beyond his innate need to see right and justice prevail. “Tracey chose his fate, Jess. You aren’t responsible for what he did.”

“I suppose that’s so,” the dark-haired man sounded unconvinced and utterly weary. Now that he no longer had the cigarette to occupy his hands, they were busy flexing, thumb rubbing restlessly across fingers in the distinct way that clearly displayed his unease to the rancher’s knowing eye.

“That other day, Slim, when I first met him, the day he came here with Bakker, and we walked up the canyon to practice shootin’, me an’ Tracey talked some. He asked me what I was doin' here, workin’ for cowhand wages instead of makin’ a good livin’ with my gun…”

This is a good livin’,” Slim insisted, but the statement was unnecessary.

“I know, Slim, an’ I told him just that. I told him a man could change, but he said it was too late.” His voice dropped lower, almost as if he was speaking only to himself. “An’ for a man who believes that, it is.”

“Every man’s got to ride his own trail, Jess.”

Jess sighed. “I know that. And I know he did what he thought he had to do.”

Slim wasn't sure what Jess meant, if he was referring to Tracey selling his gun to the likes of Bakker, or to his fateful refusal to surrender.

Jess’ voice lost its sad quality and took on an angry edge. “Tracy told me he was goin’ for his gun an’ if I killed him then, I wouldn’t much like myself. He knew I couldn’t gun him like that, couldn’t shoot him in the back.”

“No, you couldn’t," Slim agreed, certainty in his voice. "You're not like that.”

“Neither was he, once.”

“Maybe, but I think that was a long time ago, Jess.”

The wistful, almost haunted tone was back in the cowboy’s voice. “Not near so long as you might think, Slim. The line’s not that wide… and once a man crosses it….” He paused, then added, “I saw the look in his eyes. I know.” Jess was peering directly into Slim’s face now, needing to see the effect of his words, because he was about to reveal the thing that had shaken him clear to his core. “Slim, I holstered my iron, an’ I waited while he turned around, an’ then I squared up and faced him.”

Slim gulped; he hadn’t known a gunfight had taken place that night in the ranch yard. “He challenged you, Jess.”

“And I didn’t think twice about acceptin’.”

“So you shot a man in a fair fight,” Slim didn't have to see the shooting to know that, as sure as he knew the sun would rise in the east in a few hours, “when you had no other choice.”

“Maybe.”

“No maybe.”

Slim saw Jess' face soften for an instant, an acknowledgement of what Slim’s confident words meant to him. And then the words the cowboy didn’t want to utter tumbled out to stand cold and stark between them in the darkness. "Maybe I killed him to prove that I was faster."

“You what?”

“Maybe I was lookin’ for a fight, to prove that I was better’n him, faster.…”

“Bull,” Slim exploded, leaning forward in his chair. “I know you better than that, Jess Harper.”

“Do you?” Doubt was clear in the rough voice.

“Yes, I do.” There was certainty in the reply.

“Well, then you’re dead wrong, Slim. I haven’t changed at all. I stood toe to toe with a man, and drew my gun with one thing in mind, aimin’ to kill him. I felt… I…. I am what I’ve always been, Slim. I’ve been fooling myself an’ you.”

“Sure, you’ve got a temper that leads you into trouble easy enough, there’s no doubt of that. But you’re not cold-blooded enough to kill a man to prove something to yourself or anyone else. You killed him to protect this ranch, Jess; you did it for me and for Andy and for everyone that’s a part of the Overland company, good people like Garth and his missus. And you didn’t do it for money, or fame or reputation or revenge, but for what was right. And that’s a different thing, Jess, a whole different thing. And despite what Tracy was a part of, you gave that gunslick another chance, a chance to do his time and start over.”

“There are no second chances,” Jess countered darkly. “There’s no goin’ back. A man who’s lived by his gun gave up his only chance…”

Slim was on his feet now, taking a step closer, making sure this man he called friend heard his words loud and clear. “That's just not true, Jess. The fact that you're standin’ here, bothered about what you did tonight, that proves otherwise. You're not like Tracey and his kind, not dead inside like a man who sells his gun an’ doesn’t care who gets hurt in the using of it.”

"I've taken fighting wages, Slim."

"I know. And I don't care."

“You sure?" There was less doubt in the voice now, a touch of hope beginning to return like a glimpse of a distant light in the darkness.

“I'm sure," Slim insisted. “There are second chances, Jess, maybe even thirds, for the right man, for the man who will try. Tracey and those men, they forfeited their chance by what they did to Garth’s wife and how close they came to killin’ Smudge. And they weren't worryin' themselves about burnin’ us out, either. You knew that, and you weren’t going to let that happen, and that’s something a good man does, stands up for what’s right.”

Jess sighed, and Slim could see much of the tension evaporate from the cowboy's shoulders. “Reckon you're right.”

“Of course I'm right. And I’m tired. Now come on, let’s quit yakkin’ and get some shut eye before the rooster starts crowing, eh? We got a lot of work to do, come daylight.” Slim put a hand on Jess’ shoulder and steered the shorter man in front of him, into the house, closing the door firmly behind them, shutting out the darkness and the doubts.

x----------x The End x----------x



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