Justice Over the Horizon
Posted on Thu Jun 1st, 2017 @ 7:59pm by Jess Harper
Shadows of the Past
Location: Sherman Ranch, Laramie, Wyoming
Timeline: Late Summer 1870
Jess leaned sideways and narrowed his eyes, scanning the rocky and hard packed earth for signs of the track he'd been following. The wind played havoc with the tracks and even Jess, who had trained for tracking and scouting at the knees of his grandmother's Blackfoot tribe, was having a hard time following the trail. Jess reined in his big bay gelding and patted the horse's powerful neck. "We both need a break, don't we, Brim?" Brimstone's answered by twitching his ears and giving a soft snort. Jess dismounted and looped the reins over his arm, leading the horse into the shallow draw. As so often happened in the high country, there was a small natural spring welling up between the boulders of a rock fall. Jess let Brimstone have a long drink before he cupped his hands and took several long drinks himself. He then filled both canteens. While Brimstone grazed on the sparse grass, Jess chewed on some jerky and hardtack.
As he worked on the tough crackers and dried meat, Jess's eyes constantly roamed the landscape. He had been riding for the better part of a day and a half, and the fury and determination that drove him had not abated in the slightest. For once, the longing to keep riding, to see what lay beyond the next hill and over the next horizon was not the driving force that kept him riding. No, it was the image of his friend lying with a bullet in his back that kept Jess moving. He had been riding fence while John brought in a few strays that had gotten through a break. Two gunshots had brought him to where Sherman was working in time to see a trio of would-be rustlers galloping hell-for-leather up the ridge and John laying face-down in the dirt. He'd made his friend as comfortable as possible before riding to the ranch to get John's wife and the buckboard. Marianne had sent Jess to town for the doctor while she took her husband back to the ranch house.
The bullet had gone straight through without hitting anything vital. John would recover, but Jess could not shake the image of seeing him lying there, shot in the back and left for dead over not even a handful of stray steers. Jess had reported the incident to the sheriff and had been duly deputized, authorized to bring the rustlers in if he could find them. To his way of thinking, it was less an if and more a case of when he brought them back. The fury wasn't new. Jess had always been easily angered by what he perceived to be an injustice. He had lived rough, especially in the early years when he'd first set out on his own, but he had never stolen or killed to live. Even at his lowest and hungriest, he had managed to either find work to pay his way or had traded his skills, such as they were, for food and roof.
The determination wasn't completely new either although the reason for it was. Until a few months back, Jess had been living on the drift, going from one job to another, following the wind and his whims. Then, he had ridden into the Shermans' place, half dead with fever from an infected bullet wound. They had not questioned taking him in and nursing him back to health. Upon learning that he was heading into Laramie to take up a job as a guard for the same stagecoach company that they ran the relay station for, they'd immediately offered him a place to live and a job on the ranch, something to help make ends meet. John and Marianne had offered him a home, a place to belong, and people to come home to. He still felt the itch sometimes, the one that had kept him moving for so many years, but John seemed to recognize the signs. He would send Jess on stock buying or selling trips or say nothing when Jess took on extra stagecoach runs.
Jess leaned down and scooped up a handful of water to wash the rough meal down with. The second handful he splashed over his dusty hair and face. He took off his dark blue bandana and soaked it in the cold water, twisted it to ring the water out and tied it back around his neck, sighing at the coolness against his skin. Gathering the reins, Jess gave his signature hop, setting his foot into the stirrup and swinging into the saddle. Touching his heels to the bay's flanks, he guided him back to where they'd left the trail.
The sky was barely light when Jess rolled out of his blanket and got to his feet. He'd lost the tracks late on the previous day. High winds had scoured all trace from the ground. It didn't matter. He thought he knew where the rustlers had holed up. It wasn't the best place to ride into alone, but going back for a posse meant they'd likely escape completely. No, he had to keep going and hope he could get them to surrender peacefully. Except for a few law enforcement jobs over the years and riding guard for freight and stage companies, Jess had never been paid to use his gun. And, despite being hot-tempered and rumored to be quick to draw, he had never killed for vengeance. However, Jess was determined to bring the three men to justice, it would be up to them how that played out.
Jess took the time to make a pot of coffee. If he was right about where the rustlers were, they couldn't go much of anywhere without passing his position. There was an old, long-abandoned, line shack tucked back in a narrow canyon less than five miles from the camp. John had shown it to him one time when they were out hunting. It had been more holes than walls and the way it shuddered and creaked when the wind whistled down from the cliffs, Jess had thought it was going to fall down around their ears. Having tracked the riders this far, Jess felt sure that was where they'd holed up. There was a good amount of cover on the approach, but they could stay in the old cabin indefinitely. John's Pa, the man that had built it, had constructed the cabin around one of the natural wells that littered the high country.
After a meal of coffee and leftover fire-roasted rabbit from the night before, Jess saddled and bridled Brimstone. There had been plenty of grazing for the big bay, and he'd had a good night's rest leaving him edgy and anxious to be on the trail. Jess chuckled and slapped the gelding's neck, "Settle down, big fella. We're near the end of the trail."
The wind cutting down from the highlands had a bitter edge to it. Jess turned up the collar of his jacket and fished in its pocket for his gloves. Winter was some months off yet, but the weather turned cold early up here. He dropped the reins long enough to tug on his gloves, flexing his fingers to stretch the leather. Less than an hour later, he rode Brimstone into the mouth of the little canyon. The only other way out was on foot because the path was too steep for horses, even if they were being led. Brimstone came to an abrupt stop and raised his head. Fearing he was about to sound a greeting to his quarry's mounts, Jess tugged the reins sharply, distracting the gelding long enough for him to dismount and muffle the horse's muzzle against his chest. "Do me a favor, Brim, don't announce our presence here to the world, okay?"
Fortunately, the gelding spied some fresh sprigs of grass nestled against a nearby tree. Jess did not want to hobble the horse, he might have to leave in a hurry. Instead, he looped the reins over the saddle horn to keep Brimstone from stepping on them and used his lariat to secure the horse. He tied the loose end to a low hanging branch, securing it with a quick-release knot. Jess then pulled his rifle from the saddle scabbard, making sure it was fully loaded. After checking his six-gun, he started walking into the draw, keeping close to the shadows cast by the tall conifers lining the ridge.
The shack was hidden by a slight bend in the ridge. Its position was an advantage to Jess as there was enough cover to let him get fairly close. The old shack looked ready to fall down. There were more holes in it than he remembered and half the roof was missing. Just beyond the ramshackle building, Jess could see wood poles set across the canyon where it narrowed the most. Beyond the makeshift gate, he could see several heads of cattle grazing on the sparse vegetation. He sent up a silent prayer that the three men he'd seen ride away from the ambush were all there was in the gang.
"You in the shack," Jess shouted, "come out with your hands up. I'm taking you in to face charges of attempted murder and rustling."
Gunfire erupted from the shack causing Jess to roll back behind the boulder he was using for shelter. Jess shifted to a kneeling position and fired two quick shots from his rifle, eliciting another spate of gunfire from the shack. By the sounds, he estimated only one of the occupants was using a rifle. The hard part was that he would have to try to estimate where the shooters were standing based on muzzle flashes. Jess would have preferred to be in a position where he didn't have to shoot to kill. He'd rather take them in to stand trial, but they did not seem inclined to surrender peacefully. Jess fired again, but this time he remained in a position where he could watch for the return fire. Estimating as best as possible, he aimed for where he hoped would be a non-lethal shoulder shot. When the men inside the shack opened fire again, there was one less shooter.
'One down, two to go,' Jess thought grimly as he continued playing his bizarre version of cat-and-mouse. "Throw out your weapons and come out with your hands up!" Jess shouted again, hoping the two remaining gunmen would surrender. The reply was the same as before, a renewed spate of shooting.
"Damn all to hell," he muttered as a bullet nearly parted his hair. He ducked back behind his rock. Jess popped up and fired, ducking back just far enough to make himself hard to hit. When the two returned fire, he took a chance, stood partially up and fired back, aiming at the muzzle flashes. A man cried out from inside the shack, and the shooting stopped.
Jess approached the shack cautiously, ready to dive for cover should the shooting start again. He stopped several feet shy of the door, "Coming in."
Inside the cabin, one man, barely more than a boy, sat on the floor with his back to the wall, one hand pressed to his shoulder. Another man lay sprawled over a ladder-back chair, the other slumped lifelessly against the other wall. Jess gathered the weapons, making sure they were out of reach. He stared coldly at the boy, "Which of you shot the rancher in the back?"
"M-Mac," the wounded man answered, nodding toward the body of the man lying on the floor. "Please, mister, it hurts."
"Good enough for you," Jess snapped. "Taking you in and if you don't wanna join your friends in the hereafter, you won't be givin' me any trouble."
The ride back to Laramie had not been easy for the boy, and Jess wasn't inclined to make it pleasant. He was relieved to hand him over to the sheriff along with the bodies of the other two rustlers. After giving Randall the location of the shack and the steers in the makeshift corral, Jess rode for home, pushing Brimstone at a gallop. As he trotted the horse into the yard, the house's front door flew open. The Shermans' two sons charged out, both chattering at the same time, barely waiting for Jess to dismount before flinging their arms around him in a welcoming hug.
Jess returned the greeting, looking up as he heard a light, feminine voice say, "He's been waiting for you, and worrying," Marianne Sherman said, giving Jess a good once-over to make sure he was all in one piece. "Andy, Mike, put Brimstone up for Jess." To Jess, she added, "You look tired."
He smiled wearily, "Worn out. John's okay?"
"See for yourself," Marianne patted his arm. "I held dinner, hoping you'd get back."
Jess walked into the house, stopping when he saw John Sherman resting on the sofa, propped up by a stack of pillows. The other man's expression lightened, and his face broke into a grin, "Jess! Welcome home, pard!"
"It's good to be...home," Jess replied, and there was no doubting the sincerity in his voice.