Slim wasn't a crying man. He hadn't cried for the first death he'd known, an old mousing cat who'd lost a fight with some coyote. He hadn't cried when he'd gone to war and had to leave friends behind without markers. Even when he'd buried his mother and father, he couldn't bring himself to shed the tears that filled his broken heart.
And they didn't come on this fine, warm summer morning. Slim stood in the back door and stared at the yard, waiting for his eyes to burn, but nothing happened. It was just another morning on the ranch. The hens were clucking, no doubt wondering why in the world no one had come out to spread their feed, and the horses were stomping out back, snuffling their complaints. He was sure the cattle needed to be moved on before they munched the west plain dry, and there was still the stack of dishes from the day before yesterday, before everything ended.
Charlie Torch was what the folks in town called a good man: he was a steady deputy, a church going fella, and a devoted family man. He was an obvious choice to be Mort Cory's protege. But he could be a hard man, suspicious too, and he didn't always give everyone a fair shake. He and Slim had butted heads a couple times before, usually when Slim and Jess had joined up on some posse, and Charlie was breathing down some poor old fool's neck about something or other. Slim had always shrugged and said he'd grow out of his suspicious ways whenever Jess' feathers got ruffled (which, naturally, was often).
"Where's Harper, Sherman?"
Slim found he was less inclined to shrug off Torch's aggression, especially first thing in the morning, after tossing and turning all night, worrying about losing track of the murdering girl and her loot, and how to get Jess back for burial. Slim gripped the doorway and forced himself to stay friendly. The man had come to help, after all. "About forty miles thataway the last I saw him. No telling where he is now, God rest him." Slim leaned out of the doorway, and was surprised to see only one horse tied to his porch. Torch had no one gathered with him. "You're alone?"
"I see." Slim didn't see at all. "Is Mort gathering the posse?"
Torch narrowed his eyes at Slim. "Sheriff Cory has other business today, Sherman. I'm here about Harper, and the stage line theft."
"Well, yes, I'd assumed as much - wait. Stage line theft? I was stolen from, but not the-"
"Save it for Mr. Crawford. He's coming in on the morning stage, direct from St. Louis, and he's expecting answers."
Slim recoiled as if struck. "Answers?! For what?"
Torch put a single finger to Slim's chest - he didn't leave it there, but he dared touch him in a way no man in Laramie had dreamed of doing to one of the Sherman men in years - and said, "You pipe down, Sherman. I'm not dazzled by your looks or the way the townswomen swoon over you, sir."
Before Slim could tell that two bit tin plated Charlie Torch where the hell to go, the sound of hooves drew Slim's attention out to the trail. The stage was coming in under a full head of steam. "Excuse me, Deputy. I've got work to do."
He'd planned on getting the horses changed, and having the driver get word into town that he needed help finding Jess' remains and the girl they'd foolishly taken in. Instead, three men tripped out of the stage and shoved Slim away from the vehicle. Two of the men were great big, cowboys covered in dust and cow dung, and absolutely reeking in the already scorching sun. They were hulking fellas, wider than Slim and a little taller, too. They used their size to bowl anything down that stood in their paths, and went about the business of changing the horses none-too-gently.
The third man was a small dumpling of man, pasty white like he'd never seen the sun a day in his life, and soft, softer than a bowl of butter on a sun-warmed windowsill. He was ridiculous, in his wingtipped shoes and pinstriped three piece suit. It looked like the latest fashion, all the way from the shores of New York, or maybe even Paris or London, something Daisy, God rest her, would have commented on and fussed over (after giving those big bullies a piece of her mind, of course). The dumpling man wasn't dressed for the weather or the setting.
Dumpling waddled away from Slim with a sniff, and went to the porch, where Charlie Torch still stood. "Would you be Sheriff Cory?"
Suddenly, Torch was the most solicitous man Slim had ever seen, kowtowing to this little… half baked muffin of a man without batting an eye. "No sir, I'm his chief deputy, Charles Torch. That gentleman there, that opened the door for you? That's Slim Sherman."
Slim walked up to them, head held high, and waited for someone to explain just what the hell was going on. Dumpling wasted no time. "I'm Clive Crawford. I'm the chair of the Overland Stage Company. And you, sir, have a great deal of explaining to do - twenty thousand dollars worth of explaining!"
Slim had tried to be civil through it all. He'd fed them. He'd let them use his facilities. He'd told them his story, the whole thing, about how he'd not listened to Jess' warnings, how he'd given chase but was too far behind… how he'd seen Jess' awful end.
They didn't care. All they wanted to know was where was the strong box, where was the strong box, Slim. Where was Jess and the strong box. Just tell them what they wanted to know. Where'd Jess take the strong box. It would go so much easier for them both, just come clean. Tell them where the strong box was.
But there was nothing he could say that would appease them. As far as he knew, the damn strong box had made it to its destination. Dumpling Crawford stormed out of the house, vowing to take the contract with him. Charlie Torch wasn't any better. "You should just tell us the truth, Slim. You know we'll be watching every move you make."
Slim had gone into town after his 'guests' had gone, but no one would look at him. Folks crossed the street at his approach. The barflies cleared a path in the saloon, while the bartender pretended not to hear Slim speak. He tried to ask men in the saloon, in the barbershop, in the general store, and even just out on the street, to help him look for Jess, but his words fell on deaf ears. He finally mounted his horse, defeated. Jess wouldn't be coming home, wouldn't take his final rest up the eastern slope of the Sherman Ranch. The closest thing he'd get to a grave would be whatever tree Slim planted just outside the bedroom window.
Except, there was a note on the door when Slim got home that evening. The bank was calling in the mortgage - not an impossibly high amount, but much too high in his current bind. He had two weeks to pay the bank, or they'd take the whole damned ranch from him.
Before, he probably could have sent Jess on to sell some stock upstate, and held off the bank a couple days with his petty cash. Now, even if he'd had the cash on hand, he couldn't leave town to make a sale before someone would come and steal the land right from under him, with the sheriff's blessing. He couldn't even plant a tree for Jess, on the land Jess helped tend, the land Jess had grown to love as much as any Sherman had.
Two days ago, he'd been satisfied, surrounded by the small but meaningful trappings of a life well lived and hard earned. He had security and comfort, both in his pocketbook and his bed. Now his bed was cold and lifeless, and his income was gone. And now he was going to lose the home he'd been raised in, too, the home his brother had been born in. His father's dreams were turning to dust, all because Slim had trusted a girl in the grass. A skirted snake.
"To hell with it."
Slim turned his back on the animals and the chores and the bank and the law and the stage line and evil doing women and dead men. He stalked to his desk, took out pen and paper, and after only three angry false starts, managed to pen a letter to a man in Boston.
There's no easy way to say this, so I'll just say it. There's been a tragedy. Jess is dead. We've been robbed, and he died trying to catch the thief. The thief took the petty cash, and apparently stole a payroll from one of the stage lines. The company thinks Jess did it. His name is mud, and apparently, so is mine. The stage contract, naturally, is gone. The people in town won't help me. They won't even help me get Jess' body. He'll have no funeral, Andy. He's just gone.
When I say no one in town will help, I mean no one. Jess and I had some loans, to make repairs and the like a couple years back. I'm not done paying them down, but the bank is calling them in now. I have two weeks to pay them off. But my funds have been taken, I no longer have the income from the stage line, and my help is gone.
I don't care about any of this, not any more, Andy. Jonesy and Daisy and Jess are with the Almighty now, Mike has found his cousins, and you're still finding your passion. If I were alone in this world, I'd shoot myself and let the bank take the blamed ranch. But I'm not. Dad left this place to us, not just me. I know you bought your stake out to keep me from worrying about you making a life back east, but the truth is, Andy, when I die, this place is supposed to go to whatever children you have, or Mike's children if you don't wind up having any either. But the only way any of that can happen now is if you get out here and work something out with the bank. You have to do it now, Andy. And you have to find someone to help you run the place.
You see, I have to clear Jess' name. I have to find that scum of the earth that did this, that ruined our family. I have to see justice done. I saw how Jess met his end - don't ever ask, you don't want to know - and I know I can meet that same fate out there. If I come back, I promise to take the reins again, so you can go back to the life you love, the life we both want you to have. But I have to ask you, little brother, please, if Twelve Mile House ever meant anything to you, please, help me. And if not, then God bless you anyway, Andy. I'll always love you, no matter what you choose.
Love, your brother,
When he was satisfied with what he'd written, Slim sealed the letter up tight, and looked around the cabin. He felt nothing. No sadness, no anger. No relief. Nothing. The house was just a shell, and likely would be forever, at least until he did his final service for Jess Harper.
He took his letter, gathered his belt, rifle and ammo, and stalked out to the corral. He released the horses, all but Dawn, who he brushed down and saddled up. He set out extra water for the other waiting animals, took a final look at the outside of the place he could no longer call home, and then turned his back on the ranch with a chilling finality. "Come on, girl," he said softly to his beautiful gray mare. "Let's catch that bitch."