Silence

by Badgergater                                   

Missing Scene for The Replacement, between the end of the gunfight and the tag     

Summary: Take a close look at Slim and Jess standing side by side at the end of the gunfight. Neither one looks happy, and they don’t look comfortable with each other, either. How did they work through the differences that had led them to be on opposite sides of that gunfight?

Author’s note: Thanks again to Hired Hand for her excellent and thought-provoking beta.  (4-27-11)

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"True friendship is sitting together in silence and feeling like it was the best conversation you've ever had." Unknown

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As the gunsmoke cleared from the suddenly silent main street of Laramie, carried away on the freshening breeze, Jess Harper and Slim Sherman found themselves standing side by side behind the wagon.

Jess risked a quick glance up at Slim’s face as he holstered his iron. The big man’s expression was unreadable and Jess’ heart sank. What he’d just done, walking down the street with the other ex-Rebels, might have finished the most important friendship of his life. He couldn’t blame the tall man for that; all the responsibility for his actions rested solely, and heavily, on his own shoulders. Jess gathered up his courage and raised his gaze to meet Slim’s pale blue eyes, seeing the disappointment written there.

He didn’t fault Slim for his reaction. He couldn’t.

He’d always known the big man had a limit, and with a feeling of utter despair, Jess knew that he’d just passed it. The law mattered to Slim, and Jess couldn’t forget Slim’s words that night in front of the saloon, about how, if he couldn’t let go of his past, Jess would be in trouble, with the law, and with Slim, too.

His past had once again reared up and knocked him flat; the past that seemed like it would never stop plaguing him, never let him live the good life Slim had shown him. Slim had tried so hard, and Jess knew he had let his friend down.

Again.

Though standing side by side, they might as well have been a thousand miles apart.

The silence stretching between them was deafening.

Wordlessly, Jess turned away and looked back to see Knute Duncan standing forlornly in the street, looking down at his brother’s body,  alone, confused, scared, lost. Johnny Duncan was dead by Jess’ gun, but the cowboy felt no regrets for that. Johnny had pushed them all into seeking retribution against Paul Halleck when all along their vengeance had been based on a lie. Johnny had been the driving force behind the confrontation, egging them on to fight because of what Halleck had supposedly done to Knute. But it had all been revealed as a cover-up of the truth, of the fact that it had been Johnny who had beaten his own brother, pinning the blame on the Yankee captain, fanning and directing their hatred at the wrong man.

To Jess, there was nothing more loathsome than what Johnny had done, turning on his own brother and nearly killing him.

And with his lies, Duncan had brought Jess near to doing the same to the man he considered a brother as much as if they were blood kin.

Jess felt lower than the soles of his boots. What an ugly, unforgiveable mess he’d dragged Slim, and Mort, into.

If either one of them had been hurt, their blood would have been on his hands.

Johnny had played him like a cheap fiddle, using his friendship for Knute against him, using the bond forged between men who’d fought side by side during the war, tainting it.

Jess looked across at Slim, his glance sliding quickly across the tall rancher’s face because Jess couldn’t meet the ice-blue eyes. He couldn’t say anything, his mouth simply refused to work. His thoughts were flooded with the horror of what could have happened on the street; at the knowledge that Johnny had lied; that Johnny had used Knute and Jess to cover up his own crime.

And because of that no-good skunk, Jess had just betrayed the best friend he’d ever had, betrayed everything Slim had tried to teach him, betrayed everything Slim had expected of him; thrown away every good thing he’d worked for over the past three years.

Gone. Washed away like water down the river.

His only consolation was that neither Slim nor Mort, nor even Halleck, had been hurt.

With the tension still simmering between Jess and his friends, the cowboy turned away to help clean up the mess he’d been instrumental in creating. He and Knute carried Johnny’s body down to Mr. Albee’s, the undertaker; someone else brought McDermott’s.

Jess waited with Knute, understanding the kid’s confusion because it mirrored his own, all the while wishing desperately that the young man could talk and explain. None of this was Knute’s fault; he’d been his brother’s victim, lied to for six long years. But in the end, Knute had been the one who intervened, the one who had saved Jess’ best friends, and for that, Jess would be forever grateful.

Finally, when Knute seemed calm, Jess led the young man back up the street to the boarding house, and left young Duncan in the room the brothers had shared there. “Knute, you stay here. I’ve got some business to take care of, and I’ll be back, well, I’ll be back when I can.” Jess paused a moment, choosing his words carefully. “It might be a real long time, Knute. I think I’m in real big trouble over what happened today. The sheriff might even lock me up for it,” he tried to make his tone joking, and failed.  “So, well, if you need help, you go to Slim Sherman. He’s a good man, the best man I know. He won't let you down.”

The kid nodded, put his hand on Jess’ arm and smiled, conveying his thanks without needing any words.

Jess squeezed Knute’s shoulder in return, smiling sadly at him, then turned away, the grim expression returning to his face as he put on his hat and headed out the door.

He made the long walk down the street feeling like accusatory eyes were staring at him from every window as he stepped up on the boardwalk in front of the sheriff’s office. Pausing outside, he took a deep breath, dreading what was about to happen. There was no use avoiding this moment; a man had to face up to what he’d done.  He opened the door, stepped inside and quickly closed it behind him.

He swept one quick glance around the room. Mort was there, seated in the chair behind his desk; Paul Halleck sat on the bench beside the front door; and oh lord, Slim was there, too, standing next to the potbelly stove, a coffee cup in his hand. Jess still couldn’t look into the face of his friend but instead turned his gaze to meet the sheriff’s inquiring look.

“Jess.” Mort’s voice was low and, while not threatening, it wasn’t exactly friendly, either. It held that warning tone Jess had heard before, the one that said he’d clearly crossed the line and disappointed this man who was friend as well as lawman.

Jess took off his hat, twisting the brim nervously. God, this was so much harder than he’d thought it would be. “Mort, I came to turn myself in.”

Those words changed Mort’s expression from serious to surprised. “Turn yourself in?”

“For what just went on out there.” He waved a hand toward the street.

Mort didn’t say anything, waiting patiently while Jess found the words to go on.

The dark-haired ranch hand couldn’t bear the uncomfortable silence. “For bein’ part of all that,” he added.

Mort glanced up at Slim, whose face remained impassive, then over at Jess. “You shot Johnny Duncan.” It was a statement, not a question.

Jess nodded.

“In defense of Knute Duncan, am I right?”

Jess nodded again.

“So I can’t imagine there’d be any charges on a clearly justified shooting, witnessed by all of us. My deputy agrees with that?” he turned to Halleck.

The deputy nodded in agreement. “Duncan fired on us.”

Jess was confused. He pointed toward the cell block, where Harrison, the other surviving former Reb, was already locked up. “I stood with him against you, Mort, against the law.”

It was the sheriff’s turn to nod. “Yes, you did Jess.” He stopped and let the words hang in the air between them and then, finally, slowly, added. “But I didn’t see you fire at any of us. Did either of you?” He looked at Halleck and then at Slim; both shook their heads negatively. “Now so far as I know there’s no law against being seen in the street with a bunch of fools.”

“When I was one of them?” Jess asked in surprise.

Mort sighed. “Yes, even when you were one of them, son. That doesn’t make you responsible for what they did.”

“But I was.”

“How’s that?” the lawman probed.

“I didn’t stop them.”

“I don’t know that anyone could have. They seemed pretty determined,” the sheriff noted.

“Well, I should have tried harder.” Jess chanced a look at Slim, who was seriously studying the floor boards, his usually open face dark and solemn and totally unreadable.

“Oh, I agree I think you should have tried harder, but I can’t lock you up for that.” Mort’s face was as stern as his no-nonsense voice. “Even though I’d like to.”

Jess’ shoulders slumped in relief. “Thanks, Mort.”

“There’s no need for thanks, Jess. I’m just doing my job,” the sheriff answered, weariness plain in his voice.

Jess was still twisting his hat brim. “Guess I’ll be goin’ then.” He still couldn’t look Slim in the eye. He turned and started for the door, slapping his hat back on his head. Just as his hand touched the door knob, he heard the shuffling of feet behind him, the footsteps sounding oh so familiar, and he paused hopefully. But no words were said, no brotherly hand reached out to land on his shoulder, calling him back, and the moment passed. Resigned to living with the consequences of what he’d done, Jess opened the door and stepped outside, closing it carefully behind him.

Assailed by the bright sunshine, he walked quickly down the boardwalk toward the livery where he’d left his horse. He didn’t relish riding out alone; that solitary way of life didn’t appeal to him anymore. Guess that was one thing he’d learned from Slim that had stuck.

Maybe Knute would ride out with him. He’d get his horse and then go talk to Knute. He’d been thinking about the kid, and about an old trapper he knew, down in Colorado territory. They’d been scouts together in the Army once, a long while back. The man was an expert at Indian sign language, the kind of thing, it seemed to Jess, that Knute could learn, and, though it wouldn’t be the same as talking, he’d be able to communicate more than he was able to now.

Jess found his horse in a stall in the back of the stable and led him out, dropping the lead rope to ground tie the sorrel in the barn’s aisle as he tossed his saddle up onto the gelding’s back. He’d be traveling light. He’d not brought anything to town with him except the clothes he was wearing; everything else he owned was out at the ranch.  He sighed. Three years ago he’d ridden into Laramie with little more than the shirt on his back, so it seemed only fitting that he’d be departing the same way, leaving behind all that he’d gained, and lost, here. Oh, he didn’t regret leaving things behind, they could be replaced, but the people he’d let down, that hurt a thousand times worse than any wound from bullet or knife.

Nothing to do for it now, he told himself. His bridges were burned, nothing left here but cold ashes; all he could do was drift.  There was a lot of country he hadn’t seen yet. Maybe he’d go to California this time; he’d heard it was big and wide and open.

He was just tightening the cinch on his saddle when he heard someone enter the barn behind him, those same familiar footsteps he’d heard back at the sheriff’s office.

The boots stopped a half dozen paces behind him, but Jess felt a cold shiver down his back at Slim’s dark, angry tone. “I should have known. You’re finally gonna do it this time, aren’t ya’? You don’t change, Jess. Things get tough and the first thing you think of doin’ is runnin’.”

It was an insult, and one he wouldn’t have taken from any other man alive. But Jess couldn’t face his friend, couldn’t bear to turn around and see the disappointment he knew would be on Slim’s face. His usual response would have been to rise to the bait of Slim’s anger but not this time; he was tired and worn down and bereft of hope. He had to fight to keep the tremor out of his voice. “Reckon it’s time I moved on. I’ve been stuck here way too long.”

“Stuck? That’s the way you feel?”

“Yeah.”

He heard Slim take a step closer. “So you’re gonna just ride on out of here without even saying goodbye to Daisy? Or Mike?”

“Thought you could tell ‘em.”

“I’ll be damned if I’ll make excuses for you!”

“Then just tell ‘em I’m sorry but I couldn’t stay.”

“And why not?” the thunderous tone was still there in Slim’s voice, an anger Jess had rarely heard in three years, and underlain by something else he couldn’t identify.

“You gotta ask, after what I’ve just done?” Jess countered.

“So you were a fool. You’ve been one before.”

Jess closed his eyes, leaning forward to rest his forehead against the worn leather of his saddle. “Not like this.”

“Now that might be true,” Slim’s voice dropped a note lower but lost none of its intensity. “You’ve pulled some bone-headed stunts in your time, Jess, I’ll sure agree to that, but I thought after all this time you’d have learned at least some sense.” Slim stopped, sighing, his voice sounding resigned, and there was a touch of what could be pleading in the tone now, too. “I thought you’d have figured out by now that you and me, we’re friends, partners, no matter what, even when we disagree. Lord knows *that* happens often enough.”

But not like this, Jess thought as he opened his eyes and lifted his head, unable to say anything, his throat clogged. He had to swallow and swallow again before he could whisper, “I guess I ain’t ever gonna learn some things, Slim.”

The rancher’s tone was resolute now. “So I guess I’ll just have to keep tellin’ ya.”

“I can’t let you do that, Slim.”

The tall man was puzzled. “And why not?”

Jess spun around, his voice like gravel as he looked his pard in the face for the first time and admitted the thing that had scared him the most. “Slim, I could’a got you killed out there today.” He was glad the inside of the barn was dim, dark enough that the tall man couldn’t read the anguish on his face.  “I keep hangin’ around here, lettin’ you stick your neck out over things I done, some day it’s gonna happen. You’re gonna take a bullet on account of me.”

“Jess, I’ve never kept track, but I reckon you’ve saved my life way more times than you’ve risked it.” Slim took a step closer, keeping his voice soft. “I ain’t sayin’ that trouble doesn’t follow you around, because it does. A blind man could see that. And I ain’t sayin’ that I can understand what you did these last couple a’days, because I surely don’t. You were wrong, and don’t try to say you disagree with me because it’s plain you think so too, or else you wouldn’t be actin’ like this, skulkin’ out a’town without a farewell to anyone.”

Slim paused, his voice earnest and sincere and full of hurt for this man who was his best friend. “Jess, I can see how this has chewed you up inside. You didn’t want to be a part of them yet, somehow, you were. But I know this, that man out there in the street today, that was the old you, the one who rode in to Laramie three years ago, not the one who’s here now. Don’t let this thing turn you back to what you were; don’t let it drive you away from your home and your friends and all you’ve accomplished here.”

“It’s too late, Slim.”

“It’s never too late, so long as a man’s alive.”

“Sometimes it is.” Jess turned back toward his horse.

Slim sighed and straightened his shoulders, all the softness suddenly gone from his voice, replaced by stubborn determination. “I ain’t gonna let you go.”

“It’s not your choice.” Jess wanted to sound threatening, but failed; instead his voice sounded defeated and lost.

For a long moment silence reigned, broken only by the nearly inaudible sound of Jess’ horse swishing its tail.

“Jess,” Slim put his hand on his pard’s shoulder.

The shorter man spun around. “I said….”

He didn’t finish his sentence because Slim’s unexpected right jab was planted in his face, the big man’s fist landing solidly on the shorter man’s left cheekbone. Jess folded up and Slim caught him on the way to the ground. “Maybe you didn’t learn anything from me, but I reckon I finally learned something from you, Jess,” he muttered.

Slim tossed Jess up into his saddle, the half-conscious cowboy instinctively clinging to the saddle horn. Leading the sorrel, the tall rancher hurried out of the barn and strode purposefully up the street to get Alamo, who he’d left tied in the alley behind the sheriff’s office.

Mort saw the rancher walk by his office and, puzzled by the sight of the dark-haired cowboy slumped over his horse’s neck, hurried out to the street. “What happened to Jess?”

“He ran into a fist.” At the lawman’s surprised look, Slim added, “I’ll explain later,” and walked on.

Retrieving his horse from behind the jail, Slim quickly mounted up and rode out of town, still holding the reins of Jess’ horse. They were miles down the road and Slim was starting to worry about how hard he’d hit the man when Jess finally started to come around, slowly raising his head and peering around, dazed and confused.

Slim pulled up and helped Jess down off the sorrel, guiding him three steps over to sit on a low, bench-like boulder in the shade of a spindly ponderosa pine. “Here.” Slim handed him his canteen.

Jess took it warily, drinking deeply and wiping his mouth with a gloved hand before handing it back. He ran a hand over his face, wincing as he touched the already swelling cheekbone. “Reckon I had that coming.”

“Reckon you did.” Slim paused, waiting, and when Jess didn’t say more, he added, “We should never have been on opposite sides in this, Jess, but no matter what, I ain’t gonna let you sacrifice your life for a war that’s been over for six years.”

“You should have stayed away from Laramie today,” Jess countered sharply.

“I could no more stay away than you could, and you know it. My two best friends were out there, facing off against each other.” Slim paused, waiting for Jess to answer but when he didn’t, asked softly, “What would you have done, if Knute hadn’t stopped it?”

Jess shook his head. “I don’t know. I would never have shot you or Mort, I couldn’t even have shot Halleck, so… ” he looked up helplessly, his fingers twisting inside the black gloves.

“I figured that, after the other night. But just standing there, you’d have been a mighty easy target. Somebody might have shot you,” Slim answered, and let the silence hang.

“You wouldn’t have.” It was the one thing Jess had been certain of as he’d walked down that street, the moment so unreal he couldn’t describe how he’d felt.

“I was mad enough I might have,” Slim threatened, knowing Jess would understand it wasn’t true. He waited a moment, then sighed and added, “In a fight like that, bullets flying, anything could have happened.”

“That’s exactly why I didn’t want you t’be there.”

“I know.” Slim sighed, sinking down to sit on the rock beside Jess. “You were going to walk down that street and not draw your gun, weren’t you?”

Jess shrugged. “I guess. I don’t rightly know.” He rubbed his chin with a gloved hand. “I knew it wasn’t right, but I didn’t know how to stop it.”

“You could have walked away.”

“You know I couldn’t do that. I swore an oath.”

“And you’d rather be dead than break it.” It wasn’t a question; Slim knew the depth of Jess’ honor. “A man gives his word, he keeps it, no matter the price. We all understand that. But that doesn’t mean you can’t look for some other way to settle things before they get to the point of armed men facin’ off against each other in the street.”

Jess kept his eyes focused on his boots.

“You’ve got too much to live for to be thinkin’ that way,” the tall man reminded his friend.

The cowboy looked up. “And you don’t? You wouldn’t back down on your principles even though you’ve got a ranch and a business to run, and people like Mike an’ Daisy who depend on you.”

“They depend on you, too, Jess,” Slim said, his tone soft.

“It’s not the same, Slim, an’ you know it. Somethin’ happens to me, you’re there to take care of ‘em. I’ve always been the expendable one.”

Slim snorted. “Where’d you get such a confounded fool notion?”

He might as well say it now. “All my life, no matter how hard I tried to stay on the straight and narrow, I ain’t never been more’n one short step ahead of trouble. Someday I’m gonna stumble, and I don’t want it to be here, with my friends watchin’ or mixin’ in, like today.”

“It’s a friend’s job to help you when you stumble,” the rancher answered softly.

Jess shook his head stubbornly. “It’s no good, Slim. I ain’t changed, not down deep where it counts. What I am, what I’ve always been, shows through.”

Suddenly, Slim understood. “And now you think you’re protecting us, me, by leavin’?” He let his anger leak into his voice. “You think I can’t take care of myself?”

“That ain’t it and you know it, Slim.”  Jess looked away, ignoring Slim’s question and instead posing one of his own.  “You thought you could stop it, didn’t you?”

“I hoped I could. There’s other ways to settle our differences than with guns, Jess. The war should have taught all of us that and maybe someday we’ll be smart enough to see it.”

Jess sighed. “I never claimed to be smart as you.” He stood, wobbling slightly but avoiding the steadying hand Slim offered. “You’ve been the best friend I’ve ever had, Slim, and I’m sorry I let you down.”

“You ain’t gettin’ away that easy.” Slim slipped between Jess and his horse, blocking his way.

Jess laughed bitterly. “You never give up, do ya’?”

“No. I can’t. Didn’t you hear what I told you the other day, when you were going to ride out? That you are as much a part of the ranch as I am?”

“I heard.”

“Well, then you sure didn’t listen. I meant what I said. You’re a part of my life, and Mike’s and Daisy’s, and hammerheaded as you are, you are a part of us we ain’t lettin’ go.”

Jess shook his head.  “It’s too late for me, Slim.  I can’t ever forget what I done today.”

“So, don’t forget. Learn to live with it. Come home where you belong, Jess. We’ll work it out.”

Home. Slim had invited him home. His resolve wavered. “I don’t know….”

“Well, I do. C’mon.” Slim put his hand on Jess’ shoulder, his face breaking into a smile. “I’ll bet Daisy’s got supper waitin’.”

“Slim, I ….” He searched for but couldn’t find the words.

Slim turned to face his pard, placing his other hand on Jess’ other shoulder, his expression as earnest as his voice, but with a hint of good humor. “Jess, I’m not gonna claim to understand ya’, because I’m pretty sure I never will. And I’m not gonna say I agree with ya’, because sometimes we’re as far apart as Washington to Richmond. But you do belong here.”

Jess shook his head, still disbelieving. “After what I’ve done?”

Slim nodded.

Jess gave in.

They mounted up then and rode back to the ranch, side by side, surrounded by a silence that this time wasn’t heavy and awkward, but instead held promise and trust.

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