Jess stood against the wall of the saloon, the chairs surrounding him were jostled together in a mish-mosh of wood and the denim of the folks who were too drunk or shy to get up and dance. The center of the floor was cleared out for the happy folk of Laramie to dance and let go of their troubles. Tonight, the saloon had opened its doors to women on the men's side, a rare occasion that showed just how scared the town had been for the last few days.
Jess wasn't usually the shy type, but he was still exhausted from dealing with the would-be murderers earlier that day, and he was full of confusion at having suddenly been convinced to settle down. On a ranch, no less! It was crazy to think of settling down to be a cowboy. No, not even that. A company man, or the ranch hand for one, anyway. After being a drifter for nigh on to a decade, it was almost unreal to think of himself sitting in one place for more than a week, much less forever.
A second later, a boisterous, friendly voice broke into his thoughts. "Hey, Jess!" Jess focused on the man. Slim Sherman, the tall, blonde, blue-eyed magician who'd somehow convinced him (with the help of the sweet, brave little Andy) to give up the life he knew, and fix fences on a big ranch. The bruises Jess had given him, both out of anger, and later, under threat of murder, had darkened and were now a painful looking mottled mix of purple and yellow. But they didn't seem to be dulling the man's high spirits in the least. He had a huge grin on his face, and was holding a half empty pint of beer. "Why aren't you dancin'?" he shouted over the heads of the other customers.
Jess shrugged. "Not much of a dancer, I guess," he said, not quite as loudly.
"Well come on over here, then! I'll buy you a drink."
Jess almost refused, but he had a feeling that the friendly giant might make an issue out of it. He didn't want any more attention drawn to himself, so he worked his way through the tables and joined Slim at the bar. Slim grinned and smacked his shoulder in a friendly way. "Okay, what'll it be, Jess?"
The bar tender didn't even wait to be asked. He set down a shot glass and poured a good-looking whiskey right up to the top. "Leave the bottle, Hank," Slim said, still smiling. "Jess here saved my life today, so I'm feeling mighty generous."
Jess gave a half-smile to the shiny-eyed bartender. Clearly, Mr. Sherman was well-liked around this place. "Nothing to it, after he saved mine," he said, downing the whiskey and pouring himself another.
Slim gave his shoulder an affectionate pat before getting back to business with his beer. Jess wasn't one to get stone drunk among strangers, but the whiskey was good, and Slim clearly wasn't a total stranger, so he decided he would allow himself to get a little tipsy, just to be sociable. He expected to sit and hear Slim talk to the folks around him about Laramie business, while he listened quietly. But Slim all but ignored the men around him, and focused his attention on Jess. Where was he from? How long had he been drifting? How had he learned to handle a horse so well?
Jess usually hated when people asked him questions about his past, but he found himself opening up more than usual to Slim. Maybe it was the whiskey, or the friendly atmosphere in the saloon. Or maybe it was because he'd gone from thinking Slim was an abusive tyrant, to seeing him as a loving brother with a decent heart and a heavy load on his young shoulders. Maybe it was the fact that they'd gone from raging at each other, to striking out against a common enemy all in one day, and Slim hadn't kicked him out when it was all over. Instead he'd welcomed him with open arms, and not just for the sake of keeping peace with his feisty kid brother, either.
Whatever, the reason, Jess didn't feel the same strong mistrust that he usually felt for people he didn't know well. As it was, Jess answered Slim's questions in good humor, and asked a few of his own. Where were Slim's parents? Where had he found Jonesy? How long had he been running the ranch alone?
Slim answered all of Jess' questions jovially, and then they got on to questions about past lovers (few on either side). Then they talked about anything and everything. Battles they'd seen, hard treks they'd made, parties they'd been to, brawls they'd won and lost. Jess completely forgot to feel shy of the other people in the saloon, and by the time the dancers thinned, and the bar only held Slim, Jess and one or two diehards, he was talking and laughing with Slim as if they'd known each other for years.
Eventually, the bartender called out final drinks, and Slim and Jess decided to call it quits. Jess was over half through with the bottle of whiskey, and Slim could barely walk from the beers he'd been downing. "Think we'd better stay in a hotel tonight?" Jess asked, feeling the whiskey spin directly to his head the second he stood up.
Slim laughed, and nodded. "I'm sure of it, friend," he said, his words slow and sloppy. "Never do to let... Andy see me like this," he said, with a hiccup.
Jess nodded, smiling as his affection for Slim moved up another notch. "That's real good of you, Slim," he said, laughing at the sound of his own slurring syllables.
But Jess was too drunk to explain the depth of his feelings, and how beautiful he thought it was that Slim cared enough about how Andy looked at him, not to show up at night three sheets to the wind. "C'mon, bud," he said. "Less get this room."
They leaned against one another, and Jess guided them to the hotel, while Slim hummed some random tune or other, and chuckled to himself at the sound of it. Jess tried to hurry, afraid that the sheriff of the town might catch them and invite them to sleep in jail. But the two of them made it to the hotel without any problems. He anticipated trouble from the hotel clerk, but the man seemed to know Slim as well.
"Had a good time, eh Slim?" he said with an indulgent smile.
"Yup, you know it, Don," Slim said happily, speaking a little too loud. "This is my new hand, Jess Harper," he said, when Don turned a wary eye on the stranger. "Saved my life today, and Andy and Jonesy's, too!"
The balding clerk smiled. "Well now! Welcome, welcome," he said to Jess. He grabbed two keys and handed them to Jess. "You need help?"
"I'll take care of it," Jess said, forcing a smile. "Thanks, Mister."
Don nodded, and Jess helped Slim up the stairs. He could barely make out the large "14" on the first key, and he laughed at his own drunkenness. Slim had started humming again, and he wanted to get the man into a room quick. He managed to find the right door, and he got the key into the lock after only four tries. He bundled Slim into a chair and shut the door behind them.
By the time he'd got the door closed, Slim was almost on the floor, reaching dizzily for his boots, and missing them by a foot at least. Jess laughed at him, and stumbled into the room, shoving Slim back into the chair. "Lemme do it, you're drunk!"
"You are, too!" Slim said, but he didn't fight. With slightly less trouble than Slim had, Jess got the man's boots off, and pulled off his stockings. Slim started to shrug out of his jacket, and Jess pulled it off him and tossed it onto the other chair in the room. Slim had some trouble getting his gun belt off, and Jess did it for him, surprised and touched when Slim didn't shove him away. It took a lot of trust to let another man take away your gun belt.
Still, Jess felt a little strange about it, so he took off his own gun belt and set both of them aside on the dresser. He turned back and looked down at Slim, who was smiling up at him, blinking slowly. Slim looked at the guns, then back at Jess. He nodded. "You're a good man," he said slowly.
Jess smiled, and shook his head slightly. "You don't know me all that well," he said.
"I know enough," he said, eyes serious, despite the heavy slurring.
Jess stared at him, and he felt a whole heap of emotions filling up his insides. He wasn't sure exactly what all of them were - happiness, trust, the joy of being trusted, the good feeling of having a friend after he'd been without a good friend for years, and a lot more than that, too. He felt like the whiskey must be working in overdrive, and a tiny part of him was pulling on the reigns and screaming at him to back up. But the crazy part of him was in control, boosted up by whiskey and good feelings, and all at once, Jess moved close to Slim, bent down, and kissed him full on the lips.
A second later, he wondered what the hell he'd just done. Slim accepted the kiss for a split second, then suddenly he tensed, and grabbed Jess by the collar. Slim got to his feet, keeping hold of Jess' collar tight. Jess backed up, while the little man with the reigns screamed, "I told you so". Slim kept hold of him, hands shaking, staring down at Jess with something wild in his ice blue eyes. He felt one of Slim's fists tighten on his collar, while the other one let go. Jess cringed. He knew the bright warm moment was over, and he was about to get the tar beaten out of him, but he wouldn't fight it. It was his own fault, and even though Jess was a mean fighter who probably could have held his own against the taller, broader man, he wasn't going to try.
Jess braced himself, but for several seconds, nothing happened. Finally, he dared to look back at Slim's face. The soft, tender-looking lips that had been his undoing were frowning, but the crystal-blue eyes were confused. "Jess." Jess looked him in the eye, but couldn't bring himself to speak. "Jess, what..." He paused, then started again. "I... are you..." He seemed as unable to speak as Jess had been, and he stared at him a little longer.
Finally, his free hand moved. Jess flinched, but there was no heavy blow. Instead, large, warm fingers took hold of his chin, and forced him to face Slim again. There was an almost angry determination in Slim's eyes now, and he pulled Jess forward and kissed him. He moved without any hesitation, holding Jess close, kissing him with the passion and self-assurance of a man who knows what he's doing. Jess slowly raised his hands, and started to stroke Slim's strong arms, responding to the kiss, exploring, seeking out sensitive spots, encouraged when he got a little gasp from Slim, or a tightening of his hand on Jess' face.
Jess was surprised, but pleased when, without breaking the kiss, he felt Slim's hand trail down and start fumbling with his jacket. Jess let go of Slim's arms long enough to wriggle out of the jacket. They stopped kissing just long enough to squirm out of their shirts and jeans, then Jess dared to try and push Slim down onto the bed. But, despite the fact that Jess had nearly been scared sober, the two of them were still well under the influence, and the move wasn't as smooth as he'd planned. Slim tripped backward over his own boots, and landed with a bounce on the bed, with Jess toppling after him.
They laughed at themselves, before getting back to kissing each other. They held one another close, occasionally stroking or gripping the other's hair as the kiss intensified. But they were too drunk and clumsy for much more than kissing, and before long, the passion died down, and gave way to happy exhaustion.
Jess woke up before dawn, from an uncomfortable dream where the number 15 kept cropping up, worrying him for reasons that dream-Jess never understood. He opened his eyes in the pre-dawn, taking in the heavy arm draped over him, and the mess of bedclothes next to him, out of which the arm seemed to be coming. Jess sprang from the bed, suddenly terrified. Slim didn't seem to notice. He wrapped himself further into the covers without even waking up.
Heart pounding, Jess searched quickly and quietly through the clothes, looking for the second key the hotel clerk had given him. He could only imagine what would happen to him if the hotel staff realized he'd spent the night in Slim's room. The well-loved rancher would probably be ostracized, and as for Jess... A wandering drifter who probably just saved Slim so he could corrupt him later, Jess would probably be lynched before sundown.
He shuddered, and quietly unlocked the door, then looked up and down the hall. Empty. Just as quietly, he snuck into the room across the hall, and mussed the bedclothes. He lay down in the bed, to make a head-shaped dent in the pillow, then sat in the chair for good measure. Finally, he half-opened a drawer, fiddled with a curtain, and drank down a glass of water from the complimentary pitcher, leaving the empty cup on the nightstand.
When he felt that the room looked lived-in enough, he crept back out, and ducked into Slim's room, ready to get dressed and hightail it out of there. A murmur came from the bed, and Slim peeked at him from under one of the folds of the covers. He seemed to frown, then beckoned sleepily. Jess hesitated, and Slim murmured. "C'mere. Not sunup yet."
Jess' inner driver was tugging at the reigns again, telling him to get out while he still could. But the bed looked so comfortable, and Slim was looking at him with sleepy but expectant eyes. And the little, rational man inside him had been wrong last night. What the hell?
Jess locked the door, set the keys down on the dresser, and joined Slim in bed. The sleepy little smile, and the arm raised to welcome Jess into the bed, under the covers, and into Silm's embrace, were just absolutely wonderful. Jess didn't need anymore convincing. He'd found home - a place to hang his hat for good. He never could have imagined it, not even twenty-four hours ago, but as he pulled the covers over himself, and settled into the crook of Slim's arm, he knew. Jess Harper's drifting days were over.