The landscape unfurled beneath the coach, a never ending ribbon of dirt road and clear sky. The stranger watched the world pass through the window, and was grateful not to be in the same harsh company he'd been keeping since his rescue in the Ward's barn. There were three other people on the stage with them, folks who were already aboard when they'd left Sheriff Cory behind in Buckeye. They were cordial enough when Sherman had dragged the stranger aboard behind him, but the group was insular, and made no small talk at all.
For that, the stranger was grateful - they were both too tired to engage in any social niceties, and neither of them was quite ready to believe that the ordeal was over. Sherman tried to keep careful watch of the road at first, probably afraid that the law in Buckeye would reach out a long, vindictive arm, and snatch them back into the maw of twisted justice if he didn't personally see to their unfettered escape. The stranger couldn't blame him - he understood that kind of fear, and half expected the same. But he could also understand the bone-deep weariness that came from being caged with no hope for salvation. So when Sherman's eyelids began to droop, the stranger decided to keep quiet watch over both the dusty trail that spun out behind them, and the slumbering giant before him.
When the stagecoach paused in the good Reverend Cady's town, the stranger resisted the urge to get off and give the tightwad, penny pinching townies in Cheyenne a piece of his mind. He kept his peace, and decided to leave it in the hands of fate and the good lord above. He was was equally unwilling to alight when they stopped in Laramie, though he was certainly curious about the town that caused him and Sherman so much grief. But Sherman had made it clear when they'd bought their fare - there was nothing in town for him, no reason to stop. So the stranger bit down on his curiosity and sat stiffly in the stagecoach while they picked up a mail parcel. The stranger wouldn't make Sherman face the folks who'd let him down, not until he was damned good and ready to.
Soon, they were on the road again, a dusty dirt road which surely became lush and green and something vaguely familiar. He'd never been so far north before, not since the Wards. But all the same, there was a mix of calm and excitement that filled him, both a wild giddiness, and soothing sense of peace. He sat up and watch with budding excitement as the stagecoach sped through the forest, and began to take in a long, gentle curve.
He'd have let Sherman sleep until they reached Canada, but he saw a sign as the road bent - 12 Mile House, Sherman Ranch Relay. The stage soon began to slow, and the trees suddenly cleared away to reveal a modest looking ranch house tucked away against the bottom of a dusty hill. The stranger reached out and shook Sherman's knee. "Hey. Hey, wake up."
The stage ground to a stop in front of the ranch house, and the thunderous sound of hooves on hard packed dirt soon gave way to impatient knickering and snuffling, and the creak of wood as the driver dismounted. The sudden stop jerked everyone in the cab just the littlest bit - except Sherman, who'd slept through the warning, and hadn't braced himself for the stop. He jerked forward, the whole front of his body landing squarely against the stranger's chest. There were gasps from the other passengers, but the stranger just held onto Sherman's shoulders. "Hey,"he said again softly. "You know anything about a twelve mile house?"
Sherman sat straight up, red faced, and scrambled back in his seat. "Why do you a-"He cut himself short when the door was nearly yanked off its hinges.
The driver stuck his head in. "Just a brief stop after your stint in Laramie, folks! We're gonna change the team and check the wagon, so there'll be a real quick layover here. Go on inside, I smell a pot of hot coffee waiting, and a pot full of stew if you're hungry!"
The other passengers scrambled off the stage, talking quietly amongst themselves about the wild beauty of the land, and the stark difference between this house in the middle of nowhere, and the near gentrification of Laramie and every other town like it. The stranger just sat there, watching Sherman, who watched the passengers, the driver, even the brawny young man with bright yellow hair that lead a pair of overworked horses to the corral by the barn.
"What's wrong, Sher- Slim?"
Sherman jerked his attention from the youth working with the horses, and gave the stranger a sharp look. "You don't know where we are, do you?"
"The sign said 12 Mile House, Sherman Ranch Relay."
Sherman's face grew wistful. "Yes, Jess. But that doesn't mean anything to you, does it?"
The stranger raised his eyebrows slowly. "The name is Sherman. It's the closest relay to Laramie. I assume we live here?"
Sherman's face turned hard again. "Maybe. Maybe they just kept the name."
It was the stranger's turn to frown. "What, this fella here ain't your kin?"
"I don't know that man,"Sherman said roughly.
"Well, maybe he's a new hand. You've been gone a spell, ain't you?"
Rather than answer, Sherman shoved past the stranger and jumped down to the ground. "You there!"He began to stalk towards the young man with balled fists and a set jaw.
The stranger could just hear the young ranch hand's curt answer from his seat in the stage. "The food's inside the..."The hand trailed off as he looked hard at Sherman, before finally asking, "Slim?"
Sherman stopped just shy of the corral gate, but he didn't speak. The hand slowly walked towards the gate, staring at Sherman with deep intensity. The stranger wasn't sure of what to make of any of the scene, but he was half afraid Sherman was fixing to fight for this land. He didn't want Sherman to wind up back in the clink, not when they could just find somewhere else to start their lives again. He got down from the stage as quietly as he could, and headed for the pair facing off at the corral.
As he got closer, the stranger could see the young man's freckled face more clearly, and realized that the young man really was just a boy, probably just starting to sprout whiskers. His body might have been broad and hardened by long days of tough work and good food, but there was a sweet simpleness in the face that said this boy was no threat. So, then, why the stand off?
"Slim?"The boy had gone breathy, and his face soon changed from guarded confusion to pure joy. "You're okay?"
Sherman too began relax his stance, and he cocked his head to one side. "Mike... Williams?"
"Slim!"The boy closed the gap between them in two bounding steps, launching himself over the coral gate at Sherman's neck. They went tumbling to the ground, like a pair of frolicsome lion cubs. The sounds of exasperated pain and unbridled joy filled the air and echoed off the hill to the north.
The stranger paused, suddenly bereft of a mission. Jealousy tightened his chest, though he couldn't why. Possessiveness for Sherman? Desire for such a warm welcome for himself? The realization that Sherman didn't need his protection after all, and likely wouldn't ever again?
Before the stranger could give solid thought to the emotions bubbling inside him, the boy, Mike, turned a suddenly wary eye on him. For a split second, the boy looked ferocious. Nothing and no one would come between him and his reunion with... whoever it was Sherman was to him.
And then the clouds cleared, and radiant sunshine burst forth from the boy. "Jess Harper!"
In an instant, Mike was on his feet, scrambling towards the stranger like a runaway mustang. The stranger stood there, locked in place by shock and confusion, and then he was one of the tumbling lion cubs, embraced by a boy a good half head shorter than him, and almost half again his own body weight. "You're alive, you're alive, you're alive,"Mike chanted, over and over.
"What in the Sam Hill is all this ruckus?" A door slammed, back and forth, as someone stalked from the side of the house. "So help me if you're out here fight- Slim!"
Mike scrambled off the stranger, and they watched as Sherman raced towards the house, towards the outstretched arms of another tall, dark haired man. The stranger tamped down on the surge of jealousy that rushed him - maybe this new man would be happy to see him too.
And then he was on his feet, his arm dang near pulled out of the shoulder socket from the sheer force of Mike Williams'enthusiasm, and being dragged to the teary eyed reunion. "Look, Andy, look!"
The newcomer pulled his face from the crook of Sherman's shoulder, and the stranger gave a slight start. Though his hair and eyes were dark, the resemblance was uncanny - this was another Sherman, to be sure. And he was looking at the stranger with tears in his eyes. "I don't understand,"he said, his voice shaking. He turned to Sherman - to Slim Sherman - and said, "I thought... your letter..."
"I was wrong, Andy."And then Slim reached out and pulled the stranger to his side, tucking him under his wing. He looked up at the house, his face twisted between a grin and a sob. "I was wrong about a lot of things."Then he looked at Mike, and back to the man wearing his face. "I see you found Mike."
"He's only been here a couple weeks - I had to hire a man from Pinkerton's to find him, but I did. Good thing too - the folks from town aren't too much for ranching anymore these days, and I wanted someone I could trust to help me out, not a drifter."
The stranger stiffened a little. He felt a reasssuring squeeze on his shoulder, and Slim said with a laugh, "As I recall, you didn't used to have a problem taking in strays."
"He still likes strays,"Mike said. "Just yesterday we went and got us a-"
"Not now, Mike,"Andy said smoothly. "And anyway, there's a world of difference between strays and drifters. Drifters come and go. Strays get lost, until they find their home."He looked at the stranger fondly, and reached out to tug his sleeve. "Right, pardner?"
The stranger didn't know what to say. He realized he'd hesitated too long when Andy and Mike shared a look, and the happiness on their faces dimmed a little.
"Boys, um... Jess has something going on in his noggin that's a little different from what we're used to. He's gonna need some time to adjust to things."Slim sighed and tugged the stranger in a little tighter. "Come on. There's passengers in the house, and we're covered from head to to in trail dust like you wouldn't believe. I want to know how you managed to save the ranch, and I've got some things to tell you two - things about Jess, and me, and that... woman."
Mike went off to finish with the horses, and Andy went back inside to tend to the alarmed passengers. The stranger could just hear them clucking like a bunch of hens as the door swung open and shut. Slim stood staring at the house, like he couldn't believe it was still standing.
Kind of the way he'd stared at the stranger when he'd first seen him in the courtroom in Buckeye.
The stranger looked at the house, too. He'd hoped that if he'd ever gotten back home, that he'd be barreled over by a whole slew of memories. He'd assumed he'd at least get a tingle of familiarity. But so far all he had was the beginning of some new bruises from Mike's enthusiastic greeting, and disappointment that there wasn't more memory for him.
"You okay?"Slim was no longer staring at the house, but looking at the stranger with some concern.
The stranger shrugged. "Guess I thought it'd be more familiar to me."
Slim looked concerned. "It might take time, Jess."
"It might not come back at all."
"It might not."Slim's smile was small and wistful. "Hey. Mike might need help with those horses. I'm gonna see-"
"No,"the stranger said. "No, go help Andy. I'll help Mike."Before Slim could protest, the stranger turned and practically ran to the corral.
"Hiya, Jess,"Mike said with a smile, though he wasn't so bright as before.
"Hi, Mike."The stranger paused. He turned his face away and mouthed the words again. Hi, Mike. He half expected to see a small boy covered in mud and trailing a dog, two raccoons and squirrel behind him. But when he turned back, it was the same broad shouldered man-child who'd slammed him into the dirt. "So... what did you hide in the barn?"
Mike's grin was big and wild again, and for a second, the stranger was afraid of getting rammed to the ground once more. But Mike channeled that energy into hitching horses and checking the wagon, and telling the stranger about the two mama cats and their horde of bouncing, rolling, running kittens that was making life damn near impossible for the poor horses.
By the time Mike finished telling him about the one night he and Andy had foolishly tried to save the horses sanity by bringing the cats into the house, tears of laughter were rolling down the stranger's face, and he was holding his still tender wound with both hands. He hadn't hurt so much there in a long time. The pain felt good.
While he was still chuckling, the passengers filed out of the house, talking animatedly amongst themselves, and promising to stop in again on the newly reunited Sherman brothers. They had a kind word for Mike, too. But then they stopped to look curiously at the stranger. He never ate! Would the stage be terribly late if they bought him something for the road?
"Oh, no, folks,"Slim said, and his rich voice had a warmth to it never heard in Buckeye. "This here is Jess Harper. He bought into the ranch when we sent Andy here off to school. Andy's a part owner by blood, but Jess is a part owner by ink."
"And sweat,"Andy said.
"And heart!"Mike chimed in.
Again, the stranger didn't know what to say. The passengers all grew quiet again, but the quality of the silence wasn't like it had been when they were stuck on the stage together, separate souls brought together by the coincidence of travel. This time, they seemed thoughtful, respectful. Finally, one of the ladies turned to Slim. "That's why he watched you so while you slept. He probably wanted to make sure he brought you back to your boys in one piece. My husband's partner was the same way. Worst day of his life, the day he came to tell me my Martin wouldn't be coming home to me anymore."She patted the stranger's hand. "Well, Mr. Harper, you can go inside and have your supper in peace, now. The family's all together again."
"Yes, we are,"the stranger said quietly, and moved to stand in the shadow of the stagecoach. He could just see the younger men helping the passengers onto the stage, but he saw Slim watching him with narrowed eyes.
Then the driver was in the seat, the stage began to move, and a plume of dust kicked up as the fresh team of horses began their journey northwest. The three men of the house filled the vacuum left in the wake of the stagecoach. Slim spoke first. "We can talk to Mort when he gets back to town about whatever money you think you might owe him. Andy told me he sold his house in St. Louis to cover the mortgage. We're in the black again."
"Why would Jess owe the sheriff money?"
"It's a long, ugly story, Mike,"Slim said. "Mostly his to tell, when he's ready. But the short answer is, Jess needed some things, and Mort took care of the bill."
"I'm not gonna be happy to see him retire,"Andy muttered. "He's making noises about that, you know..."
"I'll just bet,"Slim grumbled. "What he didn't make any noise about was you being here, taking care of the ranch for me. I half expected the place to be razed to the ground, to make room for a hotel or something! I don't know why Mort didn't tell me everything was okay - could have saved me a lot of worrying!"
"You didn't ask, Slim,"the stranger said. "You just got on the stagecoach and hauled me in after you, and hang the rest!"
The three of them stared at him, before bursting into laughter.
"What's so funny?"
"Oh boy,"Mike said, wiping tears of laughter from his eyes.
"He don't need no adjustment time,"Andy said.
Slim shook his head and ruffled the top of the stranger's head. "That was a classic Jess answer. You're what's so funny!"He turned to the others. "Come on, I'm bushed. I want to lay on the couch and get waited on hand and foot."They started to go inside.
The stranger stared in stunned silence at the three men headed for the front door. They weren't the right sizes, not anymore, but he could see it, clear as day. The two boys from the dream, laughing and playing at the foot of the golden man whose laughter filled the sky. The stranger thought his chest might burst open as finally, finally, familiarity settled on him. It wasn't a great surge of memory, and the pieces didn't all lock perfectly into place, but for the first time in as long as he could remember, he felt comfortable.
Slim ushered the boys in ahead of him, and paused on the porch. "Jess? You okay?"
Jess smiled at him, slow but certain. "Yeah, Slim. I'm good. I was just thinking, it's good to be home."