A tiny Jess Harper ficlet for the "Eyes are the mirror of the soul" challenge
Episode: Star Trail: Ma is one of my favorite Laramie single-episode characters
Thanks to Hired Hand for the beta.
My name is Caroline Auguste Poole, but folks here about have been calling me Ma for so long, I don't answer to anything else anymore. Even the sign I got hanging above my boarding house proclaims it to be Ma Poole's.
I like to set on my front porch of an evening, in the comfort of my old rocking chair, just watching the passersby. Ain't much else for an old woman like me to do in a town like this one. Not that there's usually much excitement of any kind on the streets of Rock Springs, Wyoming, mind you, but it does pass the time.
Things surely got lively, though, when Jess Harper hit town.
I remember that night real well. It was one of those real nice summer evenings, with a bit of a cooling breeze to ease the lingering heat of the day. A quiet night, after the shooting that had happened just a few days before, quiet of a sort the town wouldn't see again for quite a spell.
Now, lots of people come and go through Rock Springs. Pretty much all of them ride down Main Street, and most all of them stay at my boarding house. Not that it's a fancy place, mind you, but it's respectable, and I take pride in seeing that it's tidy and the food's good. The clientele is drummers, mostly, regulars who come and go, making a living selling to the businesses here, or at least trying to. There's a few others who stop in, people traveling in one direction or another, moving on from somewhere or to somewhere or maybe just moving on. Quiet folks, usually, and rarely anyone as special as him.
Him being Jess Harper.
I watched him ride up the street that night, surveying the scene as he rode, alert in the way of a cautious man sizing up a strange town. Not looking for trouble, no, but wary of it, as if expecting some sort of brannigan could explode under his feet at any second, like firecrackers going off on the Fourth of July.
It's the look of a man who's seen more than his share of trouble.
He sat his horse real pretty, straight as an arrow despite an obvious weariness, and that's what first caught my eye. But the way a man rides doesn't tell you what kind of man he is, good or bad or decent or mean clear through.
He'd been on the trail a long time, it didn't take much to figure that. It was long past dark; his horse was dusty; and despite his wariness, there was a sag to his shoulders that spoke of long, long hours in the saddle. He reined over to the hitch rail in front of my place, pulled his horse to a stop and stepped down gracefully. His tone was friendly, cordial like, as was his smile.
He seemed happy to be in Rock Springs, though what for I had no notion.
Soon as he asked about a room, and knew that he had one, he turned back to take care of his horse.
My estimation of him rose…I do respect a man that'll see to his horse's needs before his own.
When I told him the stable boy would care for his mount, he took my word for it and stepped up onto the porch.
Once he was in the light, I could see a whole lot more. Oh, he was a devilishly handsome young man. Sure, I'm an old lady, but I ain't dead yet, and my eyes work perfectly fine. He had a comely face, a clear expression to go with the broad shoulders and trim waist, and carried himself with grace of a kind that could set a girl's heart all a'flutter.
He spoke to me in a gentlemanly fashion, politely accepted my offer of a free lemonade, and was sincere when he said he liked it.
A well-mannered young man, I decided; someone, somewhere, had taken some pains in his raising.
And then, in my questioning, I told him about Vic Stoddard's sad fate. I didn't mean to spill the news to him in the awkward way I did; I didn't know he was unaware of Vic's passing.
It hit him hard, real hard, that was plain to see.
In an instant, he changed, no longer that easy-going young man. All of the lightness went out of him. Even the weariness vanished, replaced by a taut energy the like of which I'd seen rare times before, among that breed of men who live by the gun.
His expression went from polite and friendly to a deep sadness that told me he truly had been a friend to Vic, and then it flashed to anger, a deep dark vengeful anger. The transformation was quick; a person had to be looking to see it, but it was there.
And it was frightening.
Long ago someone told me that the eyes are the mirror to the soul, and I glimpsed his soul that night.
In that instant I could see that there was a darkness inside of Jess Harper; a dangerous side of him that shouted out plainer than words that he knew how to use the gun that rode low on his hip, and how to use his strength and grace for more than looking handsome on a horse. I shivered in the warm air, not for fear of him, but fear for him.
I've known men like him before: brave, tough, strong men; some good, some bad, some so ugly on the inside you can't believe it don't show clear through to the outside. But that brief glimpse into his soul had shown me that this was not a man of that sort. Jess Harper had a righteousness to him that made me trust him.
I watched him stomp off down the street, toward the saloon and Curly Troy, and I waited for the gunshots, because sure as perdition, there was death in those blue eyes.
I stayed on the porch and rocked in that old chair and was glad there was no gunfire. But I didn't like it much when a few minutes later Curly Troy came slinkin' around, purely up to no good, and gave me that iron to give to my new boarder.
And Jess, when I showed the Colt to him, he latched onto it like he was greeting an old friend.
Some men are born to trouble, and he was clearly one.
Lord above, for one who looks so boyish and speaks so polite, he can be chilling.
Thank goodness Hatch saw what I saw in that young man and took Jess under his wing. The sheriff always could be an ornery, blindsided old cuss, but he did have his saving graces, and making Jess his deputy was one of them.
I wasn't surprised when Jess took up working with Hatch, but I was mightily pleased. I could see plain that the boy admired our sheriff. And folks in Rock Springs, why they took a shine to Jess right off, making him feel welcome, everyone from the preacher to the banker to the school marm to young Emmaline who clerked at the dry goods store and the Baker twins who ranched a dozen miles up the road. It was amazing how every unattached female within a day's ride suddenly discovered a need to come to town and stroll past the sheriff's office.
Jess seemed to be finding life to his liking in Rock Springs. And then things just fell apart; not Jess' fault, a'course. The bank was robbed and with that money gone, folks around town were tense and scared, worried about how to keep putting vittles on the table, me among them. Every penny I'd ever saved was in that bank, and even if it weren't all that much, it was all I had.
Jess worked 'til he was plumb wore out; Hatch was so irritable no one could talk to him, and all the townsfolk were dark and glum, like a mighty storm cloud hung over all of us.
I don't know, maybe one of those desperate folks ransacked Jess' room, but it sure did seem strange that it was his room, and only his room, that was tore up that night.
Almost as if the thief expected to find some certain thing there.
I spent a lot of time puzzling about the oddness of it, but never did speak up about where that ruminating took me, not even to Jess, because that very night Hatch was killed and Jess had more to do than one man could handle.
Oh, we were all right happy to get our money back, no doubt about that, but the town paid a mighty big price for it, what with the death of our sheriff.
Jess didn't stay long after that, which I reckoned would happen.
I didn't want him to leave, not just because he was the best kind of boarder, one who kept his room neat, complimented my cooking, and paid his fare without complaint. Not even because he helped me with the chores and called me "Ma'am" in a very sweet way. Not even because something about him made my heart ache with the memory of my own sons who'd so long-ago departed this earthly vale. It was because of something else I saw in those deep blue eyes, a yearning to belong.
When he left, it near broke this old woman's heart. I know he was going back to a place he loved; he'd told me so night after night, in our conversations on the porch. No, never in so many words; I don't think the word 'love' is one he's used often in his life, nor ever will. But what was calling him back to Laramie was a thing every bit as strong, loyalty and friendship and a soul-deep longing for a place he needed.
I couldn't begrudge him that but Rock Springs wasn't ever the same without him.
Even though he was only here in town for a few weeks, I'll always think of Jess as one of my boys. Now, don't you be telling anyone I said that; sounds like the ravings of a foolish old woman, and likely it is. But I liked Jess Harper. There's a good man inside of him, one that will bloom like flowers in sunshine, providing he gets the nurturing he needs.
I hope those folks in Laramie know how lucky they are to have him.
And they'd best be taking good care of him, or they'll be answering to me.
- The End -