Zoe's brave words of embracing the memories she'd come to make in the Carlson homestead, and the joy of having met Jess Harper sounded hollow and dead. She looked even less convincing, a watery smile on her pale face. If she felt half as tired as Jess did, it was a wonder she was still on her feet, much less trying to cheer him up. Jess couldn't think of anything else to say, so he bade her a good night, and stalked out of the front door to face the two fools who'd accused them of impropriety.
Jess went out to the barn, where Lars and Garth were still furiously dousing the roofline and stabbing at smouldering piles of hay. “You got no right, you know,” Jess said to Lars' stiff back. “She’s taken a lot of abuse from your stepson who’s more worried about losing an inheritance he ought to know you’d fix him up for, and she’s taken even more abuse from that sidewinder jailbird boyfriend of hers that threatened all of us without a second thought if she didn’t go off with him. But she’s here, Lars. For one more night, she’s here, and she’s thinking she’s more of a burden than the help we all three know she’s been to you.”
“I don’t want to talk to you,” Lars said gruffly, his words half eaten by the wind.
“You don’t have to! And you don’t have to listen to me if you really don’t want to - but you can’t stop me from speaking my piece.” Jess waited for an argument, but Lars fought the fire in stubborn silence.
It was Garth who answered instead. “Go on back inside, get your saloon girl and go back to your own ranch,” he sneered.
“I’ve got no use for Zoe on Sherman land,” Jess said, still talking to Lars' back. “I want to get something straight right here, right now, Lars. I do care about that girl in your house-” and at this, Lars dropped his pitchfork and spun around to glare balefully at Jess. But Jess ignored the flash of temper, and kept talking as if there were nothing to the rage threatening to boil over and take one and all down in the inferno that blazed in the hills beyond. “-and I care for her for one reason: because she reminds me of myself when I first came to Laramie. I was bone tired of the trail, and I wanted a new life, and someone offered it to me. I tried to run, a million times, just like she is now. If Slim Sherman had turned his back on me the way you’re turning your back on Zoe even once in those early days, I wouldn’t be here to help you save your home. I might not be walking this Earth for all I know, because men who live by the gun usually die that way, and die young.”
“There’s a difference,” Lars hissed. “She has come to take the place of the woman I wanted for a wife, under the guise of being a wife. You came as a drifter and was offered a job as a ranch hand.”
Jess glanced over Lars’ shoulder, to see Garth watching them with narrowed eyes. Jess was never a fan of speaking openly about his feelings, his living situation, his circumstance, none of it. He wasn’t comfortable speaking of it to the people he most cared for, the people he thought of as family. He definitely wasn’t comfortable now. But if he didn’t clear the air, right here, right now, and risk a fight with Lars' greedy, no-count stepson, then Zoe would lose her one good chance to turn her life around. Jess took a steadying breath and focused all his attention on Lars, whose impatience was growing by the second. “I was offered more than the job of a ranch hand,” he said quietly. “In fact, the offer Slim made me sounded a lot softer, and a lot more gentle than the offer I heard you make to Zoe - and there was nothing wrong with the offer you made her.”
“You aren’t talking sense,” Lars growled, and turned to retrieve his pitchfork. “I have work to do.”
“I have no use for a woman in Slim Sherman’s house. We have the only woman we need, and that’s because without her, a judge would have taken Mike away.”
Lars went still, and looked slowly at Jess with confusion and vague disgust. Garth’s loathing was more open, and mixed just as openly with unbridled amusement. “I always knew there was something wrong with you two, holed up on that ranch like a couple of turtledoves.”
“Yet you accused me of turtledoving with the woman your stepfather hopes to marry. Pick one, Garth.”
“You lie,” Lars said.
“I’m not interested in your girl, Lars.”
“About Sherman. You don’t take him, or him you, like a wife.” Lars looked like he might lunge or keel over, Jess wasn’t sure which. “You lie.”
“What difference does it make to you? Haven’t I done right by you from the day we met until this moment? Haven’t I been the neighbor you needed since this fire broke out? Haven’t we always been the neighbors you’ve needed? Hasn’t Slim been welcoming to you when you first broke ground here? Why do the reasons I stay loyal to Slim Sherman have any difference in your life, except the fact that Zoe did not do you wrong tonight?” When Lars didn’t answer, Jess took the pitchfork from him, and began to beat at the hay that was starting to catch up again. “I’ll take her back to town in the morning, if you still want her gone. But I won’t drive her through that burning forest in the middle of the night, and I won’t leave you to fight this fire alone either.” Jess stopped and looked at a still gaping Lars. “That is the reason I’m here, you know. Not to steal away your second chance at marriage.”
Jess awoke as the sun began to brighten the ashy, choking haze that covered the valley where Lars staked his claim. He forced himself upright from where he dozed fitfully by the hearth, hoping to get himself and Zoe into a buckboard before either Lars or Garth could start in on them again, or before her meddlesome man could come to wreak more havoc. He stepped outside to relieve himself, and to get a lay of the land, and stopped in his tracks. Fresh tracks led from the hitching post to the open road, a pair of them. Jess swore softly, and went back inside to knock on Zoe’s door.
It was ajar. Jess toed the door open a touch. The bed was empty. There was still an indentation on the pillow where her head had lain, but other than that, she might have been gone for hours. A letter lay on the nightstand, addressed to Lars in great big letters.
Jess hesitated to knock on the other door, the one that belonged to Garth’s room. He knew they had worked late into the night, because he had been forced to stop before they did when his arm began to bleed again. He touched the wound gingerly. He’d hoped she would look at it one last time before they headed into town. He’d hoped for a lot of things.
He went back to Zoe’s room to retrieve the letter. He slipped it under the door, before heading outside to freshen up. There was no hurry now, not on Zoe’s behalf, anyway. He would get back to clearing the forest for the fireline, and then he would get back home, where his efforts were largely appreciated, and where he would be able to set eyes on his family again. He hoped they were alright, that Daisy was keeping Mike busy, that Slim was sleeping in his own bed every night, that the fire hadn’t touched any of the three of them.
Jess turned sharply away from that line of thinking. The fire had come very close to burning down Lars' barn, but it hadn’t touched Jess. There was no reason to worry for them - he was the blamed fool playing Cupid in the middle of a burning mountain. They were fine. He needed to concentrate and get back home, and then he would be fine, too.
“I’ll kill them!”
The shout came from inside the house. Jess stumbled inside, head still wet from the scrubbing at the well, and headed for his gunbelt that lay on the kitchen table. He drew up short when Lars ran into the living room from the back hall, rifle in both hands, face beet red with unleashed fury. Lars stopped short himself, and took in Jess’ state, and in particular, the gunbelt. “I should kill you where you stand,” Lars said.
Jess let his hand drop. “Why?”
“Tell her to come inside and face me.”
Garth came up slowly behind Lars, looking like the cat who’d caught the canary. “Taking off with your new girl? Tired of being Mrs. Sherman?”
Jess sagged. He was going to die at the hands of an enraged friend who couldn’t see past his own madness, and Slim was going to be alone once more. “Don’t leave my body here to burn, Lars. Promise me you’ll take it to Slim.”
Garth scoffed, but Lars lowered his gun. “You still tell that lie?”
Jess laughed, trying to cover the sob that wanted to escape. “I always thought if I ever told someone what we were up to, they’d hang us for it. Never thought I’d hope telling our business would save my neck.” He held his hands up. “It’s no lie. And I can’t tell Zoe anything. She left with her man before I woke up.”
“She had to get past you.” The gun came up again.
“And she did. But I don’t see why you’re angry about that. You said the mistake was made. You practically threw her out on her ear. So she left. And she likely did it as quiet as she did because she didn’t go alone. Go outside, look at the ground. Two riders, headed out soft to the road. I didn’t bother to look any further than that. I figured since you’d made up your mind about the two of us, that you’d washed your hands of her.”
Lars hesitated a moment, before stomping past Jess to see the tracks for himself. When he returned, his face was ashen, and for the first time since Jess had met him, the old man looked every bit his sixty plus years. “No,” Lars said quietly. Then, more firmly, “No!” He went back out into the smoke.
Jess watched the door in shock, before turning to Garth. “You can’t let him ride out there, half cocked like that. He’s liable to get his head blowed off.”
Garth looked around the house. “This was my mama’s house.”
Jess blinked. “You’d let him die, to protect your inherritance?”
Garth’s jaw worked a bit. He didn’t look Jess in the eye. “I done right by him my whole life.”
“And you’d let him lose his because you think that saloon girl is gonna get your cut.”
“I tried to throw her off this ranch! You’re the one convinced him to keep her here! If anybody takes the blame for him biting off more than he can chew, it should be you.”
As disgusting as Garth’s attitude was, Jess could see his point, and it didn’t sit in his craw very well at all. “That’s probably the first true thing you’ve said since I got here, Garth.” He grabbed his gunbelt and went out looking for Lars. There was no sign of him in the yard. Jess looked at the road, and knew he had to stop his friend from riding to a violent death.
It didn’t take long for Jess to saddle up and head out the way the first three tracks of the day had gone. He could see Lars in the distance, riding as fast as he could, which wasn’t terribly. Lars was a farmer, not a horseman. Jess caught up to him with ease, and pulled up alongside him. He resisted the urge to reach out and slow Lars’ mount down. Instead, he asked, “Where are you going, Lars?”
“To win her back.”
“From that loco boyfriend of hers? He might kill you.”
Lars sighed, and some of the renwed fire in his step seemed to cool. “It would be the same either way.”
“I can’t live with that,” Jess said.
“I don’t understand your meaning.”
Jess smiled ruefully. “I could have saved us all the trouble, and not bothered to hear her out, Lars. I could have not taken a chance on her, and told you up front she was lying, and then if you’d kept her on, then whatever happens today would be solely on your head. But I did take a chance on her, and I didn’t tell you she lied, and so I do have to share the burden of what happens to you.”
Lars shook his head. “How can you share this burden with me?”
Jess looked up at the thick smoke that still threatened the valley. “We can both fight this fire, to save your home. That would be an easy burden to share. But there’s something I can do for you that you can’t do so easy for yourself: I was a gunfighter for many years, Lars. Not you. If it comes to a fight, he’ll cut you down in an instant, and then I’d be saving the house for a man who’d sooner let you die than risk losing it to a saloon girl.”
“Yes,” Lars said quietly. “I know.” He pointed to Jess’ bandaged arm. “But you are injured. I am not.”
Jess shook his head. “I can out draw a man fresh out of prison, Lars. He didn’t get my shooting arm. And you don’t have a shooting arm.”
“So you can shoot faster than any of us. I don’t want to shoot anyone.”
“Still, the fact remains, Lars, there might be a gun fight. And I’m the better choice for that.”
“But what good will it do?”
Jess smiled grimly. “Buy the both of you time to try again. You want to try again, right?”
To Jess’ surprise, Lars shook his head. “Not try. I- I don’t want to just try. I did try. I tried, and I didn’t believe. I didn’t listen. But… I find… I am fond of Zoe. I was looking forward to seeing her face first thing in the morning, every morning. Before last night, I was counting down the days before I thought I could do that. Then I saw you. Young and handsome. Strong and capable, even with your arm all bandaged. I thought about how she ran to you when that awful man came to take her away. I thought… she will leave me one day, and Jess is the one she will leave with.”
“Never,” Jess said firmly.
Lars didn’t seem to pay him any mind. “I don’t want her to leave. I wanted to tell her I would have her forever, if she would have me. That I need her. I do, Jess. I have nothing without her.” He hung his head. “I would have killed a man - a friend - if I thought it would bring her back to me.”
“It won’t. But I can ride, Lars. Stay and save your home. Give her something to return to. I’ll bring her back for you, if I can.”
Lars looked up at Jess. “And if you can’t?”
“Then either she was never going to love you, or your friend was meant to die today no matter who pulled the trigger.”
Lars frowned. “I don’t want you to die.”
“I won’t. Not at his hand. Do you want me to take her the message?”
“We go together.”
“Won’t work, Lars.” Jess finally gave in to the urge to take the reins from Lars. “Turn back. Or… do you not trust me?”
Lars sighed heavily. “You are my friend, Jess. I will wait.”
Jess was not overly sentimental. He wasn’t prone to watching couples court wistfully, or to reminiscing on his own love life, past or present. But for some reason, he couldn’t stop thinking about the small, hopeful little lilt to Zoe’s voice when she asked if Lars still wanted her. The sound of her voice stayed with him all the way up the shallow valley and back down the mountain side, until he was on the main road that would take him down and around to home.
Do you still want me?
Something deep in his chest squeezed, and he couldn’t understand it, couldn’t make it go away. Did Lars still want the lying saloon girl? Yes. Yes he did, and he’d said so shamelessly, like Jess wasn’t there. Jess might have seen them consumate their coming union for all of Lars’ loveblinding enthusiasm, if Jess had been the watching kind. Lars still wanted the saloon girl.
At least Zoe wasn’t using Lars to get vengence on someone. Zoe had been too kind a girl for that. She should never have been stuck slinging drinks to dirty old saddle tramps and barflies. She even had tears for a man who’d have kept her under his heavy thumb for the rest of her life, if his had lasted any longer. She wasn’t like the kinds of saloon girls that turned some people’s heads, girls with beautiful faces that hid hearts hardened to the idea of love and giving and sharing.
Of course Lars still wanted Zoe.
Did Slim still want Abbey?
At long last, Jess could see the house at the bottom of the hill, the last stretch before he could stretch out in his own bed, where he would see the people he loved once more.
He pulled up at the crest, and looked.
There was nothing that said he had to go down there. He could just… move on, like he had from so many other ranches, so many other half baked, half starved outlaw gangs, so many poker games. There was nothing holding him to the ranch, especially not after the long blank gaze he had to endure night after night in the days leading up to the fire. The blank gaze that looked right through him, and saw a vengeful saloon girl, a girl with just enough heart to leave Slim alive to miss her.
But he would miss Daisy. She was nothing like his own mother, yet everything like her, and missing Daisy would make him miss Mama even more than he pretended he didn’t. He couldn’t just up and leave Daisy, leave her wondering if something bad happened to him out in this wild western country that was so foreign to her.
And he would miss Mike. He could abandon Daisy with far more ease than he could abandon Mike. The memory of Jess’ oldest brother going off to make his fortune one day, and simply never returning was not one that visited often, but when it did, it made him seek out Mike’s company (and before that, Andy, too, and any number of goofy little boys who’d attached themselves to him in the years both before and after settling on the Sherman Ranch). It had been a long time since he’d given serious thought to leaving the place behind, a time before Mike had shown up.
Jess would never be able to forgive himself for abandoning the boy.
He would go home, then.
He’d go home. He’d hug his fake Mama and his… brother? son? …Mike, and he’d endure Slim’s unseeing gaze until he could bring himself to leave them all behind.
Slowly, he made his way down the gently winding slope, pulling lightly on the reins to keep his horse from galloping joyously back to the home stable. Jess didn’t want to announce his return. He didn’t want to be greeted by Slim’s strange new indifference. Or, worse yet, to find that he was too busy in the house to come say hello.
It took him an eternity to dismount. The truth was he was tired, his arm hurt like blazes, he had dirt and dust and ash in his mouth and ears and eyes, and he was just a little depressed that the one thing he’d set out to do when he’d rode to Lars' place was the one thing he hadn’t: save the man’s home. Jess leaned forward and nuzzled Traveller. “Thank you for bringing us home safe, boy,” he said quietly, and closed his eyes to the world around him.
He heard the back door ease open. He’d meant to oil the hinges, before the fire started. He’d have to get on that. As soon as he got off his horse.
He heard footsteps approaching. Spurred footsteps.
He should open his eyes. Just because he was able to ride in peacefully didn’t mean all was well. If there was trouble in the house, he might not notice from the top of the hill. And if a bushwacker had taken refuge in the house, then Jess was surely a perfect target, laid out on his horse as he was. But he was bone tired, and, well, if there was trouble inside that come out to get him, then trouble could have him.
But it wasn't trouble that approached with jangling spurs. “Jess?” Slim’s voice sounded small and troubled. “You alright?”
“Too much,” Jess said with a sigh.
“Too much? Too much what?”
Jess didn’t know. He had no idea what that was supposed to mean. But it was the only thing he could say, so he said it again. “Too, too much, Slim.”
Warm hands slid along his body, and he felt himself being hauled off his mount. He might have flailed if he had the energy, but he was clean out. So he let himself be deadweight in Slim’s hands, and went sliding off the saddle like soft butter in a hot bowl. He might stayed limp in Slim’s arms, too, if Slim hadn’t tried to support his weight by bolstering his bad arm. Jess hollered like to wake the dead, and that woke him right up.
“What, what?” Slim asked, until he saw the sling and the guarded arm. “Oh, Jess,” he said, and kissed Jess’ forehead. “Come on, come inside.” Slim moved his offending hand down to Jess’ waist, and practically carried him in past a fretting and alarmed Daisy and Mike.
Slim got him to the table in two leg-tangling steps, and dropped him into a chair. “Let me see it.”
“It’s fine, its been tended to,” Jess said irritably. “Just don’t go squeezing on it!”
He’d expected Slim to roar back. Instead, he got a trembling lip, and then Slim went back through the kitchen, to finish whatever he was doing by the back door.
Well. Slim wasn’t thinking about the dead saloon girl anymore.
“Did you get burned?” Mike was practically crawling into Jess’ lap, unaware of the breakdown of his adopted family.
“Mike,” Daisy said sharply, “don’t crowd him! Jess, do you need help getting to bed? Oh, I’ll bet you’re starved!” Before Jess could do more than blink, Daisy was bustling back into the kitchen to clank on the stove.
“I’m glad you’re back,” Mike said, talking quiet in Jess’ ear. “Slim keeps telling us not to worry about you, but he was the most worried of all of us.”
Jess forced a smile for Mike and asked, “What makes you think that, Tiger?”
“Because I heard him praying about it one night. Said he could lose all the old loves he ever had, but he couldn’t lose you.” Mike scrunched up his face. “I don’t know what losing loves has to do with losing you, but he asked for you to come home safe, so he didn’t have to lie to us anymore.”
“Oh.” Jess felt like he’d been kicked in the gut. Or shot in the arm. He sat up, and struggled to his feet, just as Daisy was coming in with a bowl of stew.
“And just where do you think you’re going? Sit, sit, have some supper! You’re in no shape to go running all over the place, so just sit down!”
“I’ve got to talk to Slim,” Jess said, while his stomach protested loudly this walking away from decent grub.
“Is something bad going to happen if you don’t?”
“What? I guess not-”
“Then it can wait. Sit.”
Slim came back in, looking drawn. He looked at the table, and then at the pot bubbling on the stove. “Chow’s on?”
“Yes, but I didn’t think you were interested, since you haven’t touched anything I’ve offered you in three days.”
Slim’s smile was wan, and he went to the sink to wash up. “Sorry, Daisy. I’ve had… other things on my mind.”
“Everything okay, Pard?”
Slim turned around, still wearing the same tired little smile. “Sure, Jess. Sorry about the arm.”
“You didn’t know.”
“Sit,” Daisy said, and went behind Jess to shove the chair behind him until he scooped up by it. “Eat.” She bustled over to load up the next plate, and shouldered her way between Slim and the stove. “You too. I’ll serve you.”
“Daisy, I can-”
“Slim. Go sit with Jess. I’ll bring your food.”
Slim looked as if that was the last thing he wanted to do, but he went to the table and sat on Jess’ right side.
Jess touched Slim’s leg, a light brushing of gloved fingertips that he doubted could be felt through the thick denim that stretched over Slim’s thigh. But he was rewarded with a brief glance, a quick, soft smile, and the press of that leg against his.
Did Slim still want Jess?
Jess knew the answer.