By A Campfire

By Badgergater

Jess Harper, alone on the trail with only his horse and a campfire for company: a tiny, thoughtful pre-quel to season one's Stage Stop

A big thanks to Hired Hand for the beta.

xx - xx - xx

Andy: "Don't you get lonely?"

Jess: "You get used to it." (Stage Stop)

xx - xx - xx

Jess Harper sat alone by the campfire as he'd done for far too many nights in his short lifetime. He was used to it, these silent evenings with only his horse for companionship. Five years on the drift since the war had ended, and years on his own in the big open before the late conflict between the states, and a lot of those nights he'd spent with only his own thoughts for company.

And darn good company he was, even if he had to say so himself. "Right, horse," he muttered aloud, just to hear the sound of a human voice.

His bay gelding flicked an ear, and ignored him.

"Yeah, guess you ain't much for conversation, are ya, Trav?" So much for equine company.

He hadn't always ridden alone. Jess wasn't a solitary sort by nature but the kind of man who made friends easily, when he had the opportunity or took the risk. He'd traveled the longest with Dixie Howard, more than a year that had been, and a good one. He'd learned a lot from the big man and not just about playing cards, but about reading men and judging towns, about surviving on the fringes: knowing which men were truly dangerous and which projected false fronts like the facades on the most every building of most every town; knowing when to stay and when you'd worn out your welcome in even the most easy-going place; knowing how to judge a man's next moves by his eyes, long before his hands ever moved toward a gun.

He'd rode quite a while with Christie, too, back when they'd been drovers down in Texas after that big eastern shooting match. Hard work, that had been, but honest work.

For a while after that he'd ridden with John McClain, though, for Jess' tastes, John and his friends had always been a mite too casual about which side of the law they were on.

Scouting for the army he'd befriended Billy Jacobs and Major Stanton, though he wasn't a major then, and after, he'd ridden a spell with Kett Darby, too.

He'd trailed out with a lot of men over the years. But sometimes, he reminded himself, sometimes a man really was better off alone.

Better than getting your skull split by the likes of Pete Morgan.

Pete Morgan. Now there was a sorry excuse for a human being. It made his head hurt just to think about that no-good skunk. Jess rued the day he'd ever been dumb enough to take to riding with that lowdown, bushwhacking sidewinder. Any man who'd bust his partner's skull for the poker winnings in his pocket, well, he wasn't much of a man, not in Jess Harper's estimation. Which just reminded him that money was pretty durn soon going to be an issue he couldn't ignore. If he didn't catch up with Pete and retrieve his stolen funds, he'd real quick be forced to find himself a job to replenish his dwindling cash.

Not that he needed much; he was good at living off the land, but there were some few necessities- cartridges, coffee, and tobacco- that required cash money. And it was nice to now and again have the coin to buy himself a decent meal, enjoy a drink, see to it that his hard-workin' horse got a bait of oats on occasion, or maybe even spend a rainy night in a hotel instead of sleepin' on wet ground.

He knew he could earn himself some funds playing cards, but a poker game required a fair-sized stake, if a man was to make a fair-sized haul.

He rubbed his fingers across the butt of the Colt that hung low on his right hip; he might have to hire out his gun again. Seemed like that was the only work he could find that paid a drifter enough to live on. Folks in that line of work, gun work, they knew his name and that he could handle himself right well in a tight spot. He could make good money, sure, but still, something held him back, a sense of a wrongness to it. Deep down inside, it bothered him, being paid to use his iron. There was a risk there, to his life, true, but more importantly to who he was, or who he still hoped he could be, and an even bigger risk to his chances of staying on the right side of the law. He didn't want to end up one of those men with a price on his head, always on the run and hunted by other men.

He didn't know what it was that he wanted out of life, but Jess knew it wasn't a gunhawk's notoriety or reputation. A man ought to make something better out of his days, do something more than just survive, but finding that thing, even knowing what it was, seemed beyond him. He wasn't usually much of a deep thinker. He was surprised at himself for letting his thoughts take so much of a serious turn.

Must be something melancholy in the night air, he mused.

Jess tossed another piece of wood on the fire and watched as sparks scattered, drifting up into the night sky like a whirling cluster of fireflies. The flames flickered and grew, devouring the fresh fuel, but the wind swirled the pungent smoke, sending a choking cloud of it directly into his face, and he waved a hand to brush it away.

A campfire was a cheerful thing for a man alone. He was on his own in these rugged hills, hadn't met another human being all day. Heck, the only evidence he'd seen of people ever having lived here had been a tumbledown, empty shack miles back along a creek he'd followed for a while early that morning. Not a single sign there had indicated anyone had occupied the sagging structure for months, maybe years.

He opened his bedroll and spread his blankets close to the fire to avoid the deepening chill, flopping down and staring into the flames, now burning down to glowing coals.

This was as lonely a place as he'd traveled in a long time. But then, lately, it seemed that everywhere was like that.

Wyoming, he was beginning to think, was desolate country.

Cheyenne was behind him. He'd be hitting Laramie tomorrow. It was a fair sized, wide-open town from what he'd heard. Maybe Pete would be there; it seemed like the kind of hell-for-leather place that sidewinder favored, and if Morgan was there, he could recover his money and soothe his bruised pride. If not, he'd ride on.

Laramie, just another unremarkable town, like the hundreds of other places he'd spent his life drifting through since he'd left home all those years ago. Ride in, ride out, and forget it as soon as you showed it your heels.

"Laramie. Don't reckon we'll be staying there long, Trav," he told his horse, pulling his hat down over his face and burrowing deeper into his blankets, shielding himself against the cold of the night.

No, he wasn't lonely, just because he was alone.

He was used to it.

Or so he told himself.

x- The End -x