Ben Wade dreams…
…of a sky so blue his eyes hurt to look at it, of a dusty-red rumbled land, strewn about with sage and rabbit brush.
There’s no one around, not Charlie or any of the others. Ben’s all alone in the wide open with only the afternoon sun and a shivery breeze for company. He feels…
He has somewhere to be, he knows this. It’s important, necessary. But all the same, the appointment does not matter; he knows this as well. A strange freedom is hold of him and he takes a deep breath and bends his neck to look back up at the sky.
He thinks ‘this is what it must be to be well and truly happy.’
He hears the sound, like a muffled crack, before he feels the hardbaked soil shift beneath his feet. He looks down to find a rivulet of water running just beyond the toes of his boots. It’s narrow, lazy, carrying dirt and rock away from him to the south, towards Mexico.
With another shift and groan, the earth splits open and in a flash, the rivulet is now a quick running river, maybe ten feet across.
He doesn’t panic, he never panics. And yet…
Unease slides up his spine and he backs away only to find that the river has grabbed him; he’s ankle-deep in cold, muddy gray water and he can’t move.
Another noise jerks his head up, suddenly wary. Across the river on the newly-made riverbank someone watches, hipshot, rifle cradled in one arm.
It’s a man, dirty from the trail, weary and worn. His face hides in the shadow of his brim, but Ben knows him. Knows that because of this man he won’t be drowning in the icy water that’s now at his knees.
A warm gladness fills Ben’s heart; he raises one hand and smiles. The man takes a hesitant step into the river, then staggers back. Red bursts and blooms across his shirt, and he scrabbles at his chest. He holds up one hand, covered with blood, and looks up at Ben in supplication.
They stare at each other, Ben and the stranger who is not a stranger, both stricken.
The man staggers again, this time forward. Ben tries to shout, ‘no!’ or maybe, ‘wait!’, but his voice is bound in his throat and he can only watch as the man loses his balance and tumbles in, down and gone as the river swallows him whole.
A hiccup of laughter turns Ben around. Raggedy and lean, a coyote sits behind him on the bank, grinning at Ben with that coyote grin.
The coyote laughs again and clean fury washes through Ben, sharp and bright.
Ben doesn’t answer. He pulls his gun smoothly from its holster, the way he learned to do at the tender age of twelve. He aims dead on at that broad, slick smile…
…Ben Wade wakes.
The insistent call cut through Ben’s dream and brought him to wakefulness. Disoriented from the short sleep, it took him a moment to remember where he was. On a bed, in the bridal suite of a poor-man’s excuse for a hotel, in a piss-poor town that would soon witness a gunfight the likes it’d probably never see again.
With a one-legged rancher for a guard, no less, who was staring at him with a puzzled expression.
Ben ran his bound hands over his face and licked his lips. He pushed the dream away and donned his most devil-may-care expression. “Yes, Dan?”
Dan Evans shifted the rifle from arm to arm and shrugged one shoulder. “Just wanting to see if you were all right, is all.”
Ben rolled to his side, and propped his head up with his hands. Difficult, what with the shackles, but he made do. “I’m fine, Dan. Fine as ever.” The sun streaming in through the open window caught the side of Dan’s face, emphasizing the creases around his eyes and mouth, showing up the dirt and blood, making him seem older than he probably was.
Dan looked away, peering to the street below. “You were saying something in your sleep.”
“I never, ever, talk in my sleep.”
“Well, you were saying something just now.”
The man was like a pup with a rag, forever tugging and tugging. It was best just to change the subject. “What time is it?”
“You in a hurry to die, Wade?”
“No, Dan, just making conversation.” And he didn’t need his question answered anyway. He hadn’t slept that long, maybe a quarter of an hour, maybe more—the sky was that deep blue of late afternoon.
Ben dropped his head and rubbed his face against the pillows, enjoying the way his beard caught on the fine lawn fabric. His favorite skies had to be Mexico or Colorado. The skies of Colorado were a heavy, thick blue that almost convinced a man he could just reach up and punch a hole through to the stars. The skies of Mexico, on the other hand, were more like turquoise, so clear and far away they were. Like you could lie back and float underneath them, as if on a river. Down across the desert, down to the sea. “You ever been to Colorado, Dan?”
“No, Wade, I ain’t never been to Colorado.” Dan gave him that look, the one Ben enjoyed more than was good for him. The all-squinty-eyed look that said Ben had just surprised him, and how, or what, would Dan have to pay for letting Ben in on one of his secrets?
And Lord, the man had secrets. In the short time of their acquaintance, Ben had learned enough to show how little he knew Dan. It was a conundrum and a half, and he was starting to think that it would take a lifetime to pry those secrets out of Dan, so close-lipped and untalkative as he was.
Unlike the tedious, ex-living Byron McElroy, may he rot in hell, getting to know Dan had been a challenge. It would be vastly entertaining, finessing the rest of those hidden thoughts, one by one. “You’d like Colorado, I expect.”
Dan just grunted and began polishing the steel on his Winchester.
“Yes, I think you’d like it just fine.” Ben grinned, knowing Dan would catch it, for all he was making a show of concentrating on the gun. “Maybe when we part ways, we can meet up there.” He lay on his back and smiled to the ceiling. “I can show you sights you ain’t never seen the like of.”
“Wade, when we part ways, you’ll be going to Yuma Prison and I’ll be going back home.”
“To your wife.”
“And my land, yes.”
“Curious way to put it.”
Dan looked up, frowning. “What do you mean by that?”
“Nothing Dan, nothing.” Ben shook his head, mentally tracing the ornate pattern of plaster that trimmed the ceiling and cornices of the bridal suite.
It wasn’t much of a suite, for brides or otherwise, in Ben’s estimation. Even though he’d never had a thought of becoming any kind of bridegroom, he prided himself of the fact that he’d seen more than his share of bedrooms and bridal suites, and knew quality when he saw it. Same went for all things. Same went for women, married, widowed or spinster.
Starting at the age of fourteen when he was out of the orphanage and on his own, taken in by a girl who wasn’t much older than himself. Taken in and shown what all the mysterious passages in the Bible were about.
The strictures against longing and lust, well, he worried on those for a time until the day he shot his first man. After that, he figured he was going to Hell—a little more sin wouldn’t matter none. So he dove into women like he was diving into a clear, sweet pond.
That year, the year he’d turned twenty, he’d decided the outlaw profession was his one true calling. It suited his spirit and he thrived on it. He’d had a few chancy encounters with the end of a noose, back in the beginning, but as with all things, he’d learned his lesson and never made the same mistake twice.
So he took up banditing and gathered up a crew that aided him in relieving the rich and poor alike of their worldly goods. Those years were good. A few his men had been like poor Tommy Darden, stupid and weak, dead before their time. But enough had proved worthy of Ben and he’d kept them on, making sure to stay one step ahead of their greed, just in case.
As for women, it didn’t take Ben long to realize that running a gang of cutthroats and murderers was a full time job, one that didn’t mix with love or even simple lust and women became an occasional luxury.
Ben never regretted that particular decision; by then, women had become commonplace rather than mysterious. By then, he’d come to realize that he wasn’t the settling down type. By then he’d chanced to break up a fight outside a Dodge City livery, meeting for the first time a young Charlie Prince. A meeting after which led to a drunken bedroom encounter of another kind. And another chance to break a different set of Biblical rules.
That liaison was short-lived. Ben discovered that Charlie was good at following orders and a demon with a gun, but he was best held at arm’s length, well in the line of sight. You never knew what the boy would get up to, and besides, he was a jealous son of a bitch.
After Charlie had hitched his wagon with Ben and his gang, Ben put him away, gently, but without a great deal of concern. He couldn’t keep Charlie in the gang and in his bed—it just wouldn’t do. He knew Charlie would do anything for him, including standing on the sidelines of his romances.
Movement caught Ben’s attention; Dan had leaned out the window to peer down to the street. He was frowning again, something he did more often than not. He caught Ben’s glance and turned his frown upon Ben.
Ben scratched his jaw, studying Dan as he went back to the rifle in his lap.
For all he’d only known Dan a bare handful of days, Ben figured it was a sure bet that Dan had seen only one angle of a bedroom. He was that sort: no light, no sounds, his wife on her back and him on top. Unimaginative.
But, Ben thought, he wasn’t being fair, not really. Dan Evans had another side to him. Ben had seen it more than a few times. Felt it, too, back on the trail, when Dan had laid over him, rifle stock at Ben’s throat, murder in his eyes.
Then there was the time Dan’d lit into those bastards back at the tunnels above Contention. And he’d gotten a fierce pleasure out of it, swinging away and hurting them, Ben could see it, plain as day.
But it was a side that Dan wasn’t proud of, Ben could see that as well. Dan hid it away; afraid of its power, maybe. Content to be the poor rancher, which to Ben’s mind was failure, indeed.
It happened to most civilized men, in Ben’s experience. War, family—hell, just plain life—ground a man down to nothing but duty. Smothering everything that made a man interesting, that made a man alive. And life had been grinding away at Dan, dulling his spirit down to the very nub.
But not killed it off, not yet, judging by the look in Dan’s eye when Ben caught him unawares. There was something lurking in those green eyes, something quietly desperate and hungry…
All it’d take was a spark to set it off, like a Catherine Wheel. A fiery chain reaction that would push Dan into knowing how life could truly be. How it didn’t have to be all toil and heartache and want.
But what, Ben mused, could be the tinder? Not money, that was certain. Worldly goods didn’t seem to matter much to Dan, either, which was unusual. And inconvenient.
So, if not money or things, then something more personal, something closer to the heart, something powerful enough to break through the gag Dan had around his heart.
If he had the time, Ben would do just that. Force Dan to run off with him, spend some time showing him things he’d remember for the rest of his life. Just a little adventure, maybe two.
Ben turned onto his side and tucked his hands under his cheek. Dan was cleaning his rifle again, idly now, stroking the stock, clearly lost in his own thoughts. He flinched every now and then, like a horse shaking off a blow fly. What was he thinking about, Ben wondered. His sick boy back home, his wife?
And Ben thought again about Dan and Alice’s leave-taking. A man who was going to be gone for days, into danger, should rightly hold and kiss his wife like he never wanted to let her go. But there was something between them, Dan and his wife, something hard and deep and wide.
It was between them at the dinner table, behind the closed door of their bedroom where they went to argue. Ben hadn’t heard what was said, but he knew a test of wills when he saw it. And it was a test that Dan failed in front of them all.
When they came out, though, Ben didn’t need to guess who’d won the battle: Alice’s stony face told the entire story.
What made a man leave a women like Alice Evans with a perfunctory embrace and nary a glance back? A woman most men would cherish and protect; blessing the days he was with her, counting the days when he had the bad luck to be gone from her side?
Even Ben, who had never wanted to be a husband, knew that much about marriage: it was supposed to be for ever and always; it was supposed to be about cleaving and never parting.
But Dan and Alice…
Lack of money was surely part of the answer, but not the whole, Ben thought. A man could always come by money, if he was willing to part with a few ideals.
Maybe that was it. Maybe Dan was too high-minded to do the right thing like hire himself out permanently to a man like that Hollander or some other wealthy rancher.
Or maybe it came down to that Dan was just hard-headed and his dying property came first.
Ben didn’t understand it.
Men like Charlie and Jackson, Ben understood them down to the tiniest corners of their coal black hearts. Even Campos was easy to figure, for the little Ben knew about the man himself. His men were simple, one dimensional, like paper dolls.
Dan Evans, now, he was neither simple nor one dimensional. He was a strange mix of openness and secrecy. Sometimes, when Ben would catch his eye, Dan’s face would cloud and his eyes shutter, leaving Ben out, making him wonder just what the hell Dan was hiding.
Ben shrugged uncomfortably. Every lock had a key, every riddle had an answer. Both just needed time and the right touch.
But, in the end, Ben thought as a cool breeze drifted through the open window, it didn’t matter none.
For all Dan Evans fascinated him, he was a challenge to be left unfathomed, untried, because it was getting on getting time, and no matter how much Ben loved a good puzzle, he and Dan would be taking their own leave of each other, soon. He’d be off to Mexico with Charlie and the boys, and Dan…
Ben frowned at the bleak knowledge that Dan would most likely not live past the next hour. If by some miracle he did manage to survive the hell that Charlie Prince was fixing to rain down upon them all, eventually Dan would be back in Bisbee to spend the rest of his life bleeding for a land that didn’t give back.
What a waste of a sharp mind and a sharper rifle.
A low knock on the door interrupted Ben’s thoughts. Straightening his waistcoat, he cleared his mind, and put on the face that made grown men back away.
A swift memory of that odd dream intruded and Ben pushed that away as well. The person on the other side of the door was probably Butterfield, no doubt come to give Dan more bad news, and now was not the time to be distracted by nonsense.
Later, Ben would always tell himself that he had no idea of Charlie’s intentions. Later, he’d say he knew the boy was mostly loco, but he’d always obeyed, before. If Ben said stop shooting, Charlie stopped.
Ben would always deny that the dream he had dreamed that day in Contention had anything to do with it.
Later, Ben would relive that day; those ten minutes at the Contention train yard when a cold breeze chilled his face and time froze. He’d remember that even though the air smelled of gun powder and cattle, underneath it all was the clean scent of the open prairie. He’d remember that the sun was so bright and the sky so blue. And he’d remember that when the train had pulled into the station, it felt like the earth was about to shake apart beneath his feet.
But mostly he’d remember the few seconds it took to climb aboard the prison car and watch…
…Dan Evans smiling up at him. For once not throwing Ben a sullen smile full of suspicion, but giving him a happy smile of pride and relief.
…Charlie behind, striding through the train yard, his face so twisted that Ben hardly recognized him.
Was it the dream that made Ben act so swiftly? Hindsight had a way of convincing, but all Ben was ever truly sure of was that one minute Dan was down below, and the next Ben had dragged him up by force, both of them landing on the floor of the car while Charlie Prince hurtled bullets like curses…
The guard had the car door rolled back in place by the time Ben pushed Dan off of him. He ran his hands over Dan’s chest and legs. Charlie was a damn fine shot, surely he’d made one hit?
As if to answer his worry, bullets slammed into the train again, hitting the door and breaking a couple windows. A woman screamed in the seats behind them. The guard swore and ran to the front of the car, pounded on the wall, and the train started up with a jolt.
Still muttering, the guard came to stand before them with his hands on his hips. He was about fifty-five or sixty; too old to be doing this kind of work, Ben thought, especially since it had made him lazy—his pistol lay on a small stool next to the cage and his rifle was farther away in the corner of the car.
Cocking his head, he said, “I guess you really done something to deserve Yuma prison. Those men back there, they out to save you or kill you?”
Ben paused. There was a fury curling in his belly; a fury that would soon need release and all because of the man lying before him. Somehow in two days, Dan had become important to Ben, more important than the men he had ridden with for going on ten years now.
He clenched his jaw at the newly minted memory of Charlie aiming his Scofields at Dan’s exposed back. That Charlie would be so bold, that he thought he could try and take Dan down…
It was something Ben would never forget, would never forgive. Charlie was going to pay. And killing Charlie meant killing the boys, just in case they got ideas. “The latter, now,” he said with a certain amount of bitterness.
For his unthinking act of high-mindedness had changed his life forever. He’d put one man’s life above all the others, above even his own. It was his one steadfast rule, one he’d had to beat into his men from the time they first rode with him, and now…
Ben clenched his jaw and opened up Dan’s coat. All those things, well, they were worry for another time. Now he had to take care of the man who had brought him to this unexpected fork in his road. “Did Charlie get you?”
“My boy, William—” Dan pushed Ben’s hands away and struggled to get up.
Ben grabbed his shoulders, holding him down. “He’s fine. I saw him high-tail it out of there with Butterfield right behind. Butterfield knows I’ll come after him if he doesn’t protect the boy.
“And…” he held up his hand when Dan opened his mouth, “My boys won’t go after him. They don’t even know he’s there. They’ll most likely head to Mexico. They just shot three lawmen, and that means something, even to them. Butterfield has probably already wired the Cavalry.” Dan tried to get up again, and Ben tightened his grip. “Besides, not even Charlie is stupid enough to try to run down a train.”
Dan glared at Ben. “Wade, if my boy comes to harm because of you—”
“You might want to remind yourself that it was you that stepped into this particular rattlesnake’s nest, Dan Evans. It was you that refused to back down and leave when you ought.” He pushed Dan down, not gently, and started to unbutton his shirt. “And you tell me you’re not stubborn,” he added under his breath.
Dan grabbed his wrists and they glared at each other for a long moment. They might have done more than just glare, because Ben could see Dan was itching for another fight, but he was also shaking, just a little, so Ben eased back. Taking a deep breath, he asked again, “Did he hit you?”
Dan released his wrists and said, “Yeah. Mostly, he just put a few holes in the train. I got one in the leg. Can you look for me?” He held his hand out to Ben.
Ben helped Dan stand, and turned him round to face the tiny cell. He pulled off Dan’s coat and tossed it to the floor.
Dan had two minor grazes on his right arm, both already done bleeding. His back was whole, which was a mercy, but lower down, on his left trouser leg, there was a ragged tear where a bullet had gone clean through.
Carefully, Ben widened the tear and prodded the skin around the wound; it was already swelling and hot to the touch. Ben tightened his lips. The wound needed tending; it would fester soon enough and Dan couldn’t afford more damage to that particular leg.
“Looks like old Charlie took a slice out of you. We’ll get you taken care of, then I’ll go sit in my nice cell.” That was for the guard who was hovering nearby, looking back and forth between them, confused. “Do you have any bandages and maybe some alcohol?”
“I’ve got plenty of whiskey, but nothing to wrap your friend up in.” The guard took a bottle out of his vest and handed it to Ben.
“He ain’t my friend,” Dan said to the cell bars.
Ben ignored him. “Hold on.” He knelt behind Dan and tugged the loose fabric of Dan’s pants, widening the tear further. He was right; it didn’t look good. The wound was deep, a rough furrow that was bleeding freely. He was no doctor, but he’d done his share of bandaging up the boys after various fights, and he’d seen shallow cuts like this turn sour in a bare few hours.
Ben uncapped the whiskey, took a sip, then doused his kerchief. “This is going to hurt, Dan.”
“I’ve been hurt before.” But he hissed all the same, when Ben pressed the cloth to the wound.
An unbidden feeling, almost a tenderness, washed through Ben and he lowered his voice. “I know you have.” He wanted to do something to show his appreciation for what Dan had put himself through, what no other man had the courage to do. Wanted to do something foolish, maybe lay his cheek against Dan’s thigh and offer up his own strength.
Mostly, he wanted to tell Dan that he’d grown to admire him more than any other man he’d ever met. That his earlier fascination had turned to cautious affection, and for all Dan was a dirt-poor rancher, maybe because of it, he was someone to esteem and respect.
But the guard was watching, as were the other prisoners, and in any case, Dan would most likely kick him in the knee for his trouble.
Ben pulled the kerchief away. The wound was still red, but it was clean and the bleeding had slowed. He needed to bandage the leg and there was only way he could think to do that. He stood. “You need to drop your trousers so I can bind that up.”
Dan had turned away and was staring out the small window on the other side of the cell. “I’ll be fine. I’ll just keep that kerchief on it until we get to Yuma.”
Ben reached for his shoulder. “Dan—”
“It’ll keep, Wade.” Dan shrugged off Ben’s hand. He gripped the bars and his face had flushed. He wouldn’t meet Ben’s eye. “I’ve been through worse.”
Ben pressed his lips together. He leaned in close and whispered, “Stubborn.”
Dan’s grip on the bars tightened as if he wanted to strangle them. Ben knew that if he could, Dan would just hop off the train, vowing never to see Ben again. It was that streak of prideful orneriness that Dan was rich with. If it wasn’t so frustrating, it would be charming.
Ben shrugged, giving up for the time being. He picked up Dan’s coat and settled it over his shoulders.
“Are you boys done,” the guard asked, sarcastically.
“Yes, we are. Thank you for your patience.” Ben turned to him and waited for the guard to unlock the cell door.
Dan was watching them, his head cocked to one side. “You going in, just like that?” As if it couldn’t be that easy, as if Ben surely had an escape plan all set out and Dan’d soon be chasing him all over New Mexico, once more.
“Just like this.” Ben waved to the guard to open the cell, making the gesture too florid. That kind of thing always set Dan’s back up.
The guard unlocked the iron door and turned to look Dan up and down. “Who are you?”
“Dan Evans, honest, upstanding citizen of Bisbee.” Ben spoke for him, enjoying the surly glance Dan shot his way.
The guard nodded to Ben. “And just might who you be?”
Dan answered for him. “This here’s Ben Wade. Thief, bank robber and murderer.” He smirked as he said it.
The guard locked the cell door behind Ben and peered through the bars. “Ben Wade, huh?” He jerked his head towards Dan. “This fellow brought you in?”
“You been to Yuma before, ain’t you?”
Ben nodded again.
“You gonna stay in prison this time?”
The other prisoners moved over to give Ben room. He sat down. “Doubt I’ll even make it there, friend.”
The guard barked a laugh and Dan narrowed his eyes suspiciously.
Smiling up at Dan, Ben made himself comfortable then covered his eyes with his hat with an ease he wasn’t faking.
It was probably getting on to four p.m. and the train still had several stops before they reached Yuma. Tucson, Maricopa, and maybe Gila Bend. He’d find his chance and take it, like always.
But whatever move he made, he had to be off the train before they made it to the Sonora. Once they got to that hellhole, he’d have no choice but to stay put. He’d traveled the desert before and he had no intention of doing it again.
His best chance would be Tucson. It would be well dark by then, the train’s crew would be tired, and they wouldn’t expect him to make a move so soon after incarceration. Best of all, Tucson was big enough for Ben to lose himself into any crowd he found.
It would be hard though, leaving Dan after what they’d been through. He’d made a good companion, for all it was mostly unwilling..
Ben tilted his head to peer from under his brim. Dan was sitting arms-length from the cell, slumped against the car wall. His rifle lay across his lap and one hand held the bandage loosely to his thigh. He was sound asleep.
It must have been close to forty hours since Dan had last closed his eyes. Now, he lay there, peaceful-looking, like a tuckered out kid.
Closing his own eyes again, Ben remembered his dream, only hours old now, but seemingly a lifetime ago.
What would it be like to ride with a friend? A real friend; someone who would watch Ben’s back and mean it. Someone he could be honest and open with? Who could handle himself and wouldn’t always need watching or bullying or ordering about?
His thought from earlier in the day crept back: Drag or coerce Dan away. Make sure his leg healed up nice and proper first, then just run off with him. Force him to ride along until he forgot about his family, forgot about his land waiting back in Bisbee.
It was an insane idea. Dan would fight him the whole way and in the end, take the first opportunity to high-tail it back home.
Ben shifted on the hard cell bench. It couldn’t matter, when all was said and done. Charlie was waiting and that was an assignation Ben couldn’t ignore.
No, it was off to Mexico or someplace south to rest up. He’d find new gear and a new mount. Then he’d hunt the boys down and kill them all.
Ben smiled, adjusted his hat, and fell asleep.
Ben slept lightly. He roused briefly when they stopped to unload a few of the passengers in a town too small for a proper train station, probably Oracle. He made no effort to truly wake and the sway of the train soon lulled him back to sleep.
The next time he stirred he wasn’t sure what had woken him up. It was still dark outside and judging by their snores, his fellow prisoners and the guard were fast asleep. Except…
He heard it again, a noise he didn’t recognize, but recognized all the same. A soft mumble that turned into a sigh, then a groan. Dan.
Ben crept over and dropped to his knees. Dan had fallen sideways and was against the bars, asleep. But something was wrong; his mouth was twisted and beads of sweat dotted his forehead. And since the car wasn’t heated and it was too cold for sweat, it had to be fever. Goddamnit. “Dan?” Ben reached through the bars and shook him.
Dan moaned again, this time waking himself up. He looked around, clearly confused.
Ben put a hand at the back of his neck. “On the prison train, bound for Yuma.”
Dan nodded. He leaned back against the support of Ben’s hand and Ben felt his unease sharpen. Dan, in his right mind, would never let Ben touch him, not like this.
“‘S hot,” Dan muttered. He jerked his arm and his rifle slid out of his grip and fell with a clatter.
The guard woke and got up, bringing his lantern with him. He crouched down on the other side of Dan and held up the light. “Leg festering?”
“I don’t know. Can you help me here?”
The guard grumbled as he set the lantern down and reached over Dan to pull the stained kerchief away. It was stiff with blood but the wound looked clean enough and some of the swelling had gone down. “Maybe the arm?”
Ben reached for Dan’s arm. At his touch, Dan jerked and hissed, “Don’t.”
“Hush.” Ben pushed Dan’s jacket off his shoulder. As carefully as he could, he ripped Dan’s shirtsleeve open, tearing it from wrist to shoulder. “Have to make sure you’re not going to die on me here.” He said it in his most jocular voice, but the sight of Dan’s arm choked any thoughts of further humor.
It was easy to see, even in the shifting light of the lantern, the bullet hole that had lay hidden from casual sight. Just on the inside of Dan’s upper arm, it had probably started out as a small wound, nothing much, but now the surrounding flesh was puffy and discolored. It was a wonder Dan had managed to let his arm hang straight, so painful looking was the wound.
This wasn’t from Charlie’s gun, it was too old. It must have happened earlier, probably when they had escaped from those railroad bastards or maybe when they’d been running the gauntlet back in Contention.
Ben tugged on the shirt sleeve and found another bullet hole, higher up on Dan’s shoulder. The second was on its way to healing, which caused Ben some relief. Shoulder wounds were tricky. He’d seen strong men lose their entire arm due to nothing more than a simple shot to the shoulder.
Nevertheless, the first wound was going to be a problem. There might be poison running through Dan’s veins, even now.
And Dan had said nothing, just treated the wounds as if they were no more bothersome than mosquito bites. “Damn you, Evans, “ Ben said softly, “what am I to do with you now?”
“He needs a doctor.” The guard said, casually, as if were talking about a cat that had been wounded.
Ben looked up, neck stiff with anger. He took a moment to breathe and remind himself that he was in a cell and he’d need this man’s help to get Dan off the train. No sense killing him simply because he’d made Ben mad. “Yes, he does. Where are we?”
“West, out of Tucson.” At Ben’s look, he added with a smirk, “Boss didn’t want to stop on account of our famous prisoner.”
Ben rubbed his jaw, holding a tight rein on his temper and worry. “Last time I was in Gila Bend, the their doctor killed more men than he saved. Has that changed?”
“They got a good man, but we ain’t stopping. We’re just slowing down to get the mail.”
“You have to.” He looked at Dan, slumped against the wall, mouth thin with pain. “He won’t make it to Yuma.”
“We’re heading straight through. No stops, no delays. By order of the Governor.” The guard spoke with such relish, he obviously had been waiting to say it. Must have got a telegraph message at one of the stops.
So, no choice for it.
Quick as a snake, Ben had the guard by the throat, dragging him over Dan and up against the bars. Dan cried out, but Ben paid him no mind. “This is what we’re going to do,” he hissed to the guard. “You are going to unlock this door. I am going to get my friend’s things. When we get close to Maricopa, me and my friend are going to jump. You’re going to keep your mouth shut the while because if you don’t, I will snap your neck like a chicken.” He jabbed his thumb into the man’s windpipe for good measure and watched his eyes grow wide with panic.
Ben turned to the prisoners behind him. They were both awake, looking on in dull silence. He gave them a steady glance, and one of them held up his hands, “We won’t bother you, mister.”
At that the guard struggled harder, but Ben had a good grip and they both knew it.
With a black look, the fight went out of the guard. He grudgingly handed over his keys.
“No, you unlock it.” Ben jerked his hand, forcing the guard to stretch his arm to the lock.
With a low snick, the door opened and Ben was out. The guard put up a half-hearted fight, so it only took Ben a moment to subdue, hog-tie and gag him.
Dan stared over at Ben with accusation in his eyes. Ben could give a good Goddamn what Dan thought of him. If he hadn’t been so boneheaded in the first place, they’d never be in this predicament.
Ben rifled the guard’s pockets and found the whiskey and a pocket watch. He stuffed both into his pockets, then rummaged around the car, looking for anything that would be of use. A length of rope, an extra scarf—there was little else, but he gathered it and bundled it all up in the guard’s jacket. He wished he had his buffalo-hide coat, and woolen gloves to give to Dan. It was going to be cold out there.
Ben tossed the bundle to the floor and looked out the car’s window. Maricopa lay in a wide, dry valley just east of the Gila Bend mountains. It was a tiny town, much like Contention, with the usual conglomeration of services and professions. Ben had only been through a few times, and never found much to keep him, once he got there.
The town did boast its own Marshall’s office, but he wasn’t worried about that. From his recollection, the Marshall was older than the guard, here, and more than a little fond of gin and women. He was probably laid up tight, sleeping it off.
But best yet, the station house was some ways from town—Ben and Dan could hole up in the house for a few hours and no one would be the wiser.
He’d get Dan settled, find the doctor, then rustle up a horse. With Dan in someone else’s hands, Ben would be on his way, maybe making Nogales by mid-day.
A thump hit the front of the car and a muffled voice shouted, “Maricopa!”
Quickly, Ben slung the stuffed jacket over his right arm, then tucked the rifle under the other. He knelt and laid a hand on Dan’s uninjured shoulder. “We need to go.”
Dan kept his eyes closed. “Why:?”
“Because you’ll lose that arm, maybe your life, if we don’t get you to a doctor, that’s why.”
“The way I feel right now, that don’t sound like a bad idea.”
“You want me to tell your son that when I bring your body home?” It was a low blow, but it got the reaction Ben was aiming for. Dan glared and rose to stand propped against the wall.
“Here.” Ben helped Dan put on his jacket. Dan was shaky and for a moment, Ben thought he’d pass out, but he didn’t. He just tightened his lips and glared at Ben as if to ask, happy now?
The train shuddered, jerked, and Ben could hear the low whine as the brakes hit the wheels. They were slowing down, almost there. “Can you make it?”
Dan pushed away from the wall and took a few steps. “I’m not your friend.”
“What?” Ben looked around again. He had the rifle, the pistol and the whiskey. He wished he had found some sort of biscuits or meat. He wasn’t hungry, not yet, but he would be in a couple hours.
“You called me your friend. I ain’t your friend.” Dan had made it to the main door of the car and was standing there holding on, looking like a stiff breeze would knock him over.
Jesus, Mary and Joseph. “Let’s discuss that later. Now, can you make it?”
Dan gave Ben an exasperated look. “Yeah, I’m all right.”
“Then, here…” Ben strong-armed the door open and shouted against the noise of the engine, wheels and wind, “Try to land on your good side.”
“And what side would that be, Wade? I seem to be hurt on all sides,” Dan shouted back.
Ben laughed. Dan was such a prickly character, even when he was weak with pain. It was almost reassuring. He patted Dan on the arm and looked out.
It was still dark enough that he could easily make out the tiny beacon of light that signaled the Maricopa station. “It’s about a mile away. Can you make it?”
“I told you, I’m fine!”
Shaking his head, Ben muttered, “Stubborn fool.” He jammed his hat on his head, grabbed the back of Dan’s trousers and shouted, “Now!”
He lunged forward, tugging and pushing Dan with him. They were in the air for a few breathless seconds, then they hit the ground hard and broke apart. Ben rolled once and came to rest up under a rabbit bush.
Breath stuck in his chest, he lay there a moment, waiting for his lungs to catch up, checking to see if he hurt anywhere. He’d jumped from trains a time or two and he knew what to expect; even so, it never got any easier, landing on sun-baked dirt, brush and rocks.
A sharp, clear whistle sounded and Ben jumped up. The train was at the station and he could just make out the conductor, a tiny figure haloed by the glow of the engine lantern, lean out to grab the mail bag. Then the train picked up speed and disappeared behind a row of hogbacks. The desert silence settled.
Ben waited for a shout or commotion from the station house. If anyone had been awake, he and Dan might have a problem. The open prison door they’d jumped out of wasn’t exactly like the grandly lit manger that Jesus was born in, but it surely wasn’t invisible.
His usual luck was with him, it seemed. The night’s stillness went unbroken; no one came running out from the station house or any part of town
Ben took a deep, grateful breath and turned to where Dan had landed.
Dan was laying there, face up, eyes closed, and for a terrible moment Ben thought he’d hit his head on a rock and was unconscious or maybe even dead.
He leaned over to get a better look and Dan opened his eyes to squint up at him.
Relief pricked the back of Ben’s neck. He spoke, schooling his voice to an even tone, “Did you land on it?”
“Some.” Dan struggled to his feet. Ben reached out to help him, but he avoided Ben’s hand. It seemed they were back to where they started. “I’ll be all right.”
Ben picked up their things. “So you’ve said. Again and again.” He re-situated the jacket and rifle and started walking.
“Shut up, Wade,” Dan growled at him, “where’s my hat?”
Ben looked around, found it, and held it out. Dan took it without a word and passed Ben, making for the house.
Sighing, Ben hitched the makeshift satchel and followed.
It was bitterly cold; each breath Ben released obscured his vision and he was reminded of the three days he spent in a Georgia backwoods, hiding out in a cave while the law looked high and low for him. They never found him, but he froze his ass off, waiting for them to get bored and leave the area.
It was a time Ben never wanted to re-live—on the run with no money and no companions.
It took Ben and Dan a good fifteen minutes to cross the open prairie. There was little snow to contend with and the moon was shining fiercely, but still, it was work. Dan’s limp grew more pronounced and he stumbled every so often. Ben didn’t make the mistake of offering him any help. He just walked slower, trying to make it seem like he wasn’t.
By the time they got within a stone’s throw of the house, Dan was shaking and he swayed when they stopped.
“Wait,” Ben gestured, “stay here.” He didn’t look to see if he was obeyed. He crept to the back, first. There was nothing but a trash barrel and a low set of stairs that led to a back door. The line of sight between the house and the town was clear, but the house had no windows on this side.
Another bit of luck, Ben thought, as he inched his way back around and peered through the side window.
The room was dimly lit by a lantern, but there was enough light to show a large, single space with a stove, a bed and a big round table.
The stove was in the middle of the room, between the table and the window, so Ben could easily see the man, asleep in the chair. His arms were crossed and his boots were propped up on the stove’s leg. He wasn’t armed; his gunbelt hung on a peg beside the door and his rifle lay on a table on the other side of the stove. A book lay spread on his thigh, as if he’d just tired out and couldn’t be bothered to make it to the bed.
Ben frowned. It wasn’t an ideal situation. It would have been better to find a place that had several rooms in case someone came calling. But their choices were limited and it was better than nothing.
He signaled to Dan to stay put and snuck along the porch, all senses alerted to any sound that meant trouble. The only bad moment was when he stepped on a rotten board that creaked like a gunshot. He froze and waited, but nothing happened.
Ben twisted the knob and said a silent thanks to the Lord for their continuing luck: the door was unlocked. He cautiously swung it open and stepped through. Even then, the station master didn’t waken.
Ben sat down his bundle, got out the rope, then quietly gathered the scattered weapons. He stood before the sleeping man and nudged him with the toe of his boot. “Excuse me.”
The man startled and jumped out of his chair, looking wildly around. He was older than Ben, maybe about the same age as the prison train guard, but alert and sharp-eyed. Ben would have to watch him—he wouldn’t be a pushover like the guard. “Calm down. Didn’t mean to frighten you.”
“Then why are you holding my property?” The station master asked, looking from Ben down to the guns in his hands.
Ben heard halting steps, then the bad porch board, and watched the man’s eyes narrow when Dan limped in. “We have a situation here and I don’t want it to get worse,” Ben said. He jerked his head back to Dan. “I’ve got someone that needs a doctor.”
“He your man?”
What an odd expression. “No, he’s a law man and he’s been shot. I need to get him a doctor. He was bringing me in and we ran into a ruckus.” Ben didn’t need to see Dan’s face to know how he’d take the rather abbreviated, and altered, report.
And by the expression on the station master’s face, he wasn’t buying it either, but Ben didn’t care. As long as the old man didn’t cause a fuss, he’d live to see the next day.
“Dan, come on in. Sit down.” Without taking his eyes off the man before him, Ben nodded to the chair by the stove. “Friend, I’m going to ask you to lay down on the floor and tie up your legs with this rope.” He held the rope up and smiled.
“And if I don’t?”
Ben said in his most reasonable voice, “Old timer, we both know what will happen if you don’t.”
“Wade…” Dan spoke for the first time; his voice was weak. Ben looked over. In the yellow light of the lantern, Ben could see Dan’s color wasn’t good and he was sweating again. “Do we really need to do this? Can’t I just go into town myself?”
It was a perfectly reasonable question, no cause for Ben to want to growl at Dan and tell him to just hush up. “You can’t go wandering around in the middle of the night, looking for the doc.”
It was a flimsy excuse, because in truth, Dan probably could make it. And there really was no excuse, not even a flimsy one, why Ben just couldn’t up and leave Dan to the station master’s care.
Ben knew the reason why, but that was something he’d think on later, when he was long gone from Dan and his problems. “You won’t make it and you know it.”
Dan waved his hand, giving up. He limped to the chair and practically fell into it. “All right, all right. Just, don’t hurt anyone, okay?”
Mollified, Ben asked the station master. “What’s your name, friend?”
The station master grimaced and snatched the rope from Ben’s hand. He lay down on the floor, saying, “You don’t need to know my name, young man. Not if you are going to be tying me up.” He began winding the rope around his own ankles.
Ben had to chuckle at that. “Suit yourself. Make sure you tie that good and tight.” He waited for the man to finish, then gestured for him to turn over. “I suppose you can’t tell me where the doctor is?”
Giving Ben a sharp look, the station master asked, “Are you going to hurt him?”
“All I want,” Ben waited for the station master to roll over, then he knelt and made a neat slip knot and wrapped the man’s hands and feet together, “is to get my friend taken care of.” He knotted the rope, tight. “And then I’ll be on my way.”
The station master paused for a long moment. Ben knew he was weighing the odds of Ben doing something rash, of Ben going out and shooting up the town, looking for the doctor. “He’s on the edge of town, past the livery and cattle pens.”
“And I suppose you don’t have a horse and rig I could borrow?”
All he got was a glare, which he was expecting, so he wasn’t put out. He pulled the mans kerchief out of his pocket and held it up, obliging him to open his mouth for the gag.
“You’re getting pretty good at that.” Dan was watching Ben tie the gag.
Ben grinned up at him. “I’ve always been pretty good at this.”
Dan muttered something under his breath, then said, “Practice makes perfect?”
“Something like that.” He stood up. “I’ll most likely be gone a half hour or so.” He pulled out the pocket watch. “Near two. I’ll leave this with you.” Dan took the watch and cradled it, head bent over it as if it was the most precious thing in the world. The pose was like a jab to Ben’s gut and he stood there, transfixed.
Normally, he didn’t regret leaving his drawings behind; they were his mark, showing folks he’d been there, like a dog pissing his territory. But now he wished he’d thought to take his last drawing with him, that even though tearing it out of the holy Bible would be sacrilege, he would have liked to have kept that one drawing.
Shaking off his somber mood, Ben said, “I’ll take his gun and rifle and you’ve got yours.” He picked up the man’s Colt and fit it in his empty holster.
“I’ll be fine.”
Ben paused at the door, then turned around and smiled. “You want me to fetch you anything else while I’m in town?”
“I’m tempted to say a steak dinner, but knowing you, you’d probably find it. No,” he made a shooing gesture, “just go.”
Ben winked and closed the door.
After the light of the room, it was hard to see where he was going, so Ben walked slowly, at first. The last thing he wanted right now was to trip and cause a commotion. Or worse, hurt himself.
He made it to the edge of town without running into anyone. The town was laid out like so many small towns: an uneven row of buildings bisected by a single broad street. The larger buildings were some hundred yards away, surrounded by shacks and livestock yards.
Ben paused in the narrow passage between two buildings and looked for any sign of life. This early in the morning, the streets were empty. The only sound was the soft crackle and hiss of the watch fires that were set up every thirty feet or so.
The homey smell of the burning wood got Ben’s stomach rumbling and he was reminded how long it was that he had a proper meal. Three days and counting, he figured. Supper at the Evans place didn’t count since the beef had been about as rangy as it got.
When the doctor finished patching up Dan, he’d see what the station master had to offer.
Ben found the livery easy enough—he just followed his nose. He snuck up to the door and found a good spot to watch. If anything was going to be guarded besides the bank, it would be the livery. No one was going to take a chance on losing something as valuable as a horse, not in these hard times. Sure enough, tucked away in the corner by the first stall, a youngster was on guard, sound asleep.
Ben thought a moment, then decided it was unlikely another guard was asleep elsewhere else in the barn. He entered the barn quickly and made short work of the young man. He didn’t hurt him too bad, just made sure the boy was out cold. Then, he used the boy’s own clothes and a piece of leather to tie him up.
Stealing the horse took more time and effort than Ben had bargained on. By the time he had chosen a likely mare and got her saddled, he was sweaty and dirty from a fall when she twisted unexpectedly to nuzzle him.
Feeling time gripping the nape of his neck, Ben led the mare out, as quietly as he could.
The doctor’s house was where the station master had said it would be: a couple hundred feet past the livery. Even in the dark, Ben could see the yard was neat and tidy. A small white sign nailed to a porch post stated, “Dr. Fuller, General Practice, State of Arizona.”
Ben stared at the sign and weighed his choices. The honest approach would be best, and if that didn’t work, blunt force would have to do. He pulled the doorchime and waited.
The man who finally opened the door was dressed in a striped nightshirt and trousers. He held a lamp in one hand and a rifle in the other. “Who are you?” He voice was thick with sleep, but he was tall and lean, and he held the rifle like he knew how to use it.
“My name is Dan Evans, out of Bisbee, and I’ve got a sick friend down at the station house. Are you the doctor?” Ben gave him his most charming smile. Everyone is meek and mild here, no cause for alarm.
“I am.” The doctor held his glance for a long moment and Ben was reminded of the way the station master had looked him over. He’d have to remember that this town treated strangers with more than a little caution.
And, an opposing amount of foolish trust because the doctor nodded shortly and said, “Let me get my things.” He shut the door, leaving Ben to cool his heels on the porch.
While he was waiting, Ben rehearsed a story in case Fuller was the nosy type. Nothing along the lines of the truth, nothing that would raise the man’s suspicions.
In the end, the doc asked nothing. He came out, fully dressed for the cold with his bag, and followed Ben with only a few curious glances. As soon as they got close to the station house, he pushed by Ben as if he couldn’t wait to start stitching someone up.
When they crossed the threshold and Fuller saw the trussed-up man on the floor, he stopped in his tracks. Ben was ready. With a pistol in the small of Fuller’s back, he leaned close and said, “Now don’t go doing something foolish. I promise you and mister no name over there you won’t get hurt if you just take care of my friend.” He reconfirmed his words, digging the gun into Fuller’s back, forcing him to step inside.
Over the doc’s shoulder he could see Dan, looking worse than before. He’d taken off his jacket and was slumped back in the chair. He held his bad arm awkwardly to his chest and his shirt was soaked in sweat. He wasn’t asleep, but he didn’t acknowledge Ben or make any smart remarks about how Ben should not go around hurting people.
“If you’re going to keep that thing pointed at me, you’re going to make me nervous.” Fuller said as he sat his bag on the table. He nodded to the station master and shrugged out of his coat.
Ben dragged a bench over to the table and sat down, putting the table between him and the doc. “If I don’t keep this thing pointed at you, you might decide to use my friend as a hostage and he has been through too much already. So I don’t mind making you nervous, as long as you don’t hurt him.“
“I ain’t your friend.” Dan voice was hardly above a whisper, but he was bitching and that almost made Ben sigh in relief.
“I know you’re not,” Ben said soothingly, “you hate me more than anyone on God’s green earth.” He turned to the doctor. “Well?”
The doctor rolled up his sleeves and unpacked his kit, laying out the usual tools of his trade. “I take it he was shot?”
“In the arm.”
“Hmm.” The doctor fed Dan a spoonful of laudanum and then got to work. His mouth tightened when he came to the shoulder wound, but he didn’t look especially worried. Or maybe all doctors looked so when they were doing their doctoring, Ben thought.
Maybe it was something they learned when they went to medical school. A class on how not to scare the sick and wounded.
Ben chuckled silently. His mind was wandering, and that was for sure. Too much running around combined with too little sleep was catching up with him. He still had enough in him to make it through the night, but come afternoon tomorrow, he’d better find someplace to hole up or he was going to do something truly stupid.
“Ben.” Dan had turned to him and was staring at him, his eyelids half shut. The laudanum was doing its part; he’d be out soon.
“Why’d you tell me that story about the Bible?”
Ben stilled. He rarely was at a loss for words, but he should have known better. In the short time of their acquaintance, Dan Evans had surprised him more than a few times, more than anyone Ben had ever met. That’s what he got for giving too much of himself. That kind of intimate knowledge was powerful. And dangerous.
Ben could lie; lying was familiar, was safe. But Dan deserved the truth. “I wanted you to know it.”
The doctor spared Ben a brief glance, then doused the wound with a white powder, packing it in and around the torn flesh. He began on the second wound.
Dan winced and said, “You mean about your ma and all?” He turned to Ben more fully and the lamplight brightened the green of his eyes.
The doctor paused again but didn’t look up. Ben felt as if the entire world was listening in on their conversation. “Yes, about my mama.”
Dan nodded. “Oh.” He opened his mouth as if to speak, then glanced at the doctor and closed his mouth again.
And that caught on something deep and elemental in Ben, that even though Dan was sick with pain and laudanum, he knew to keep Ben’s secrets. That even though he didn’t owe Ben anything, and even though he didn’t like Ben all that much, he was willing to shut up about it all.
The tender feeling came back, stronger than before. And like before, it made Ben want to do something foolish. Dan’s hand was laying on the table, curled in on itself. Ben wanted to pick it up, stroke it open so that Dan would know he wasn’t all alone in this world, that if he wanted, Ben would be by his side if he needed him.
Ben reached out before he could stop himself. He hadn’t quite touched Dan’s hand when he felt the weight of Dan’s glance on him. He realized what he’d almost done and pulled back, making the gesture as natural as he could. As before, this was the wrong time, the wrong place. Nothing good would come of any tender feelings, not with this man.
For Ben had learned long ago that affection was a disease—it ate away at your concentration and discipline, exposing the bones of your soul to all and sundry.
Lust was better, was safer. With lust you could take what you want and be done with it. Satisfy the craving, and you could put it out of your mind. Feed the desire, and you could just walk away.
But this was altogether different and he knew it. He didn’t know how he knew it, but he knew it. He couldn’t count the times he’d felt this same kinship with another human being because it had never happened before. He had never let it happen.
And in the end it didn’t matter. With time and distance, Ben’s unwanted desire would die a quiet, solitary death. It would be as if it’d never happened.
“Could you…” The doctor nodded to the bandage he was winding gently around Dan’s arm. Ben reached over and held the end in place while the doc finished up. Dan was still staring at Ben, but Ben kept his eyes focused on the linen.
The need to be gone was rising in him again, like a clock ticking louder and louder. He needed to be on the road as soon as possible, and it was best if he said his goodbyes when Dan was mostly out of it. Ben had always been good at goodbyes because he never cared, one way or the other. This time, though…
Ben cleared his throat. He nodded to Fuller. “You all finished?”
“Almost.” Fuller wiped the grime off Dan’s face with a cloth and studied him a moment. “He’s lost a fair amount of blood, but he should be fine in a few days.” He turned to Ben. “Is he riding with you?”
“No, he stays put. He’s not part of this. He was the man who brought me in.” A brief glance at Dan showed that he had passed out. “I’ve got money for his keep and for his trip back home.”
“And me,” Fuller asked. “Will I be spending time with Howard, over there?” He nodded to the station master.
Ben cracked a grin. The notion of being on the road was making him feel better already. Besides, it was a pleasure working with people who made no fuss and accepted their fate. “I’d be obliged. Now,” he stood up and gestured with the gun. “If you’d be so kind as to help yourself to what’s left of Howard’s rope,” he smiled over at the station master, enjoying the glare he got in return, “I’ll get you settled.”
By the time Fuller was down, back to Howard, Ben had made his plans. He tied the rope, tethering the two men together and stuffed a bandage in the doctor’s mouth. Crouching down, he paused before he spoke slowly, giving weight to his words. “I’m going to be heading out soon, never you mind where. My name is Ben Wade and that man there,” he nodded over to Dan, “is a rancher by the name of Dan Evans, out of Bisbee. Dan captured me, and, on his very own, delivered me to the 3:10 Southern Pacific, bound for Yuma Prison.”
Fear sparked in Fuller’s eye and Ben leaned closer. “I can see that you’ve heard of me. Now, I expect Mr. Evans to be treated with care and respect. If he is not, I will come back and find you and I’ll kill you both.”
He waited to make sure they understood, then Ben patted Fuller on the shoulder and stood up, satisfied.
The last thing he had to do was make Dan as comfortable he could. What Dan needed was his wife’s care and some time in his own bed, but he wasn’t going to get that, so Ben would have make do.
Circling his arms behind Dan’s neck and back, Ben picked him up with a grunt and carried him to the bed. Dan was lighter than he should be, mostly skin and bones; just another sign that he hadn’t been living rightly. Ben lay him down gently and arranged his limbs carefully in an effort not to wake him.
He paused for a moment, then loosened Dan’s shirt collar. He’d be more comfortable without his boots, but Ben was loathe to remove the one, not wanting Dan’s amputation to be on view to strangers, knowing Dan himself would not want it. How difficult it must have been, working sun up to sun down, with such a disability. It would have broken most men.
Dragging the wool blankets up to Dan’s chin, Ben sat on the edge of the bed, his back to the fellows on the floor, and considered the man before him.
Dan was only a little less filthy than before his doctoring. His clothing was ripped, almost in shreds. He looked nothing like a hero, but Ben figured that once Dan told his story, the town’s people would probably throw him a party.
Wanting to push Dan’s matted hair off his forehead, Ben tried to picture him all spruced up for the celebration or maybe for a night on the town. It was impossible, even for Ben’s vivid imagination; Dan was too much a part of the dry, barren land he loved so much. Dour and simple, he belonged to nature in a way Ben never had.
Smoothing the blanket over Dan’s chest, Ben wondered what it would take to make Dan smile, a real one, not the ones he’d given Ben, full of derision and doubt. Ben traced the zig-zag pattern on the blanket, imagining it.
“What’re you doing?” Dan’s low voice interrupted Ben’s thoughts. He was barely awake, his voice soft and slurred with laudanum.
A lightning-quick fantasy of waking up to that hushed, husky voice burned through Ben’s veins and he flushed. Drawing a deep breath, he said lightly, “Taking my leave of you.”
“Finally.” Dan tilted his head back, looking dead-on into Ben’s eyes the way he had when they were hunkered down in the Contention station, waiting for their missing train. Then his expression lightened and he smiled, gently.
Ben cleared his throat. His belly was tight and he felt dizzy and off-balance. He reminded himself of where he was and that bending down to steal a kiss from Dan would be the ultimate mistake in a day of them. “Indeed.” His voice was too rough and low; he cleared his throat again.
“Now Dan,” Ben chided, still trying to school his voice to a more normal tone. “You know I can’t tell you that.”
“Colorado. You said that I would like Colorado. We going there?” Dan squinted up at Ben with that smile and a faraway look in his green eyes and Ben felt a helpless anger grip his throat.
His world had been just fine. Traveling with the boys had its ups and downs, and he’d had some close calls—what life didn’t? But it was his life, his choices.
And now this man came along and turned it topsy turvy without even realizing it. Without so much as a pardon me or sorry for the trouble.
Coming in with his honor and his pride, showing Ben that goodness did exist. That ideals weren’t always bloated talk and foolishness. And that courage could be found in the most foolhardy of actions.
The last thing Ben needed or wanted in his life was someone like Dan. Goodness was for those that could afford it; honor was for the dreamers who never saw life as it was.
And just because Ben saw something in Dan that sparked desire, well, that didn’t mean he could be stupid enough to act on it. “Proverbs, Chapter twenty-five, Verse twenty-eight,” he said softly.
“Never mind. And no,” Ben spoke briskly and got up, “you and I are going our separate ways.” He found the station master’s meager supplies, and rifled through them, searching for the things he’d need on the trail.
“That’s right, you’re a thief and a killer.”
“Indeed I am,” Ben agreed. Salt pork, half a loaf of mealy bread and a canteen of water looked to be the extent of it, but it was food and it would keep him alive for another few days.
“Yes, well, when you get clear in the head, you’ll be thankful you remembered.”
“I’ll be thankful when you’re out of my life.” For all the words were harsh, Dan sounded more despondent than anything.
Ben gathered up the supplies and turned to Dan. “Your wish is my command.” All he got in return was a breath of a laugh.
He walked slowly to the bed and stood there, looking down. He wished he had his sketchbook, but it was in his saddlebags, somewhere in Mexico, probably. If he had a scrap of newsprint or a leaf from a book he would record the way Dan looked up at him, for once without fear or anger or hatred clouding his gaze.
Ben would never see Dan again. He’d never know if Dan ever managed to make a go of his ranch, or whether his youngest lived to be a man.
For a long moment they stared hard at each other and Ben was reminded of his dream. Water wasn’t swirling about his knees, but he felt like it was, felt that just turning and walking to that door was going to take more strength then he had left.
Later, he called himself all kinds of a fool for what he did then, but he could not help himself. Leaning down, safe from the eyes and ears of the men across the room, he touched Dan’s cheek with the back of his fingers and whispered firmly, “And just so’s you know, I may not be your friend, but you are mine.”
Dan made no response and, disappointed, Ben drew back. He said loudly to Dan, mostly for the men behind him, “I’ll be off now. Give your wife and boys my regards. I hope—” He didn’t finish. Dan’s eyes had shut. He was out, at long last.
Ben nodded once, then, ignoring the station master and the doctor, he turned and left.
Outside, the night air was crisp and cold. It washed over Ben’s skin, a balm to the heat stirring in his chest and stomach.
The sky above was still dark, but a lighter shade of black lined the horizon telling him that morning was on the way.
To the west, the moon was heading for the hills, taking with it what little light it had cast. It was going to get dark before it got light and Ben would have his work cut out for him, if he wanted to make it out of the county by sun up.
The borrowed mare whickered a greeting and Ben took a moment to stroke her jaw, saying a quick prayer that she would hold up on the hard ride ahead. Then he arranged the supplies in the saddlebags and stowed the weapons. He swung up into the saddle and adjusted his hat.
Three more hours of dark and he’d be in the hills that divided Arizona and Mexico. Four more and he’d be in Nogales.
Hopefully by then someone would have taken it into their heads to check on the station master, or maybe the doctor. By evening, the whole town would have heard Dan’s story and a telegram would be on its way to Bisbee. Dan would be home within days, back to his life, back to his wife. Safe and sound.
Feeling like he was choking on the clean, dry air, Ben whistled softly to the mare and turned her south.