May 1882 Colorado
Dan swallowed a yawn and crossed his arms a little tighter about his chest. With his eyes closed, his other senses had sharpened and he could hear the fitful buzz of a nearby insect, could smell the heavy moist scent of the drying earth. And above and below it all was the intermittent scritch-scratch of pencil on paper.
It was soothing, the noise of Ben drawing, his little sighs when he got something right, his tiny huffs when he got it wrong. Dan let the broken rhythm push him towards a deeper stillness until all he felt was the rock at his back, the late sun on his chest and shoulders, the cool breeze on his cheek. And Ben at his side.
It had been a long day, today. Ben’d figured they’d ridden at least eighteen miles, maybe twenty. A good distance considering this was their third day on the trail and the going had been rough.
Back in Bisbee, Ben had wanted to take the train to Colorado, but Dan said no. They’d argued long into the night, back and forth, until Ben finally acquiesced. They went to bed—Ben testy because he hated giving in, Dan secretly content because he’d managed not to give away the reason for his ‘damnable pighheadedness,’ as Ben called it.
And it was a fairly simple reason, really: the day before Dan had gone to town for supplies and news. While in Hart’s he’d overheard Mott Davis tell Marshal Weathers that Ben Wade had been seen riding into Cochise County just a week prior. Weathers, a short, scrawny man with a fiery need to prove his worth, had vowed that if Wade so much as stepped one boot on Bisbee soil, he’d shoot him dead.
Dan had paid for his supplies and nodded to the marshal and Davis, then left as casually as he could. He got home and spent the next eight hours convincing Ben that sitting in a stuffy train would be tedius, what with the beautiful spring weather, that they could just as easily ride since they were in no hurry.
He wasn’t so much worried about Ben dying by Weather’s hand—Ben was as good a shot as ever, maybe better. But he was just as contrary and Dan knew that if he had any inkling of the boast, well then, he’d waste no time sneaking into town, just to see if he could pull a fast one on the marshal.
So north and north they rode, skirting around the hills and mountains until they came to a land of pale yellow canyons. Dan had never traveled so far north and found the landscape odd, almost eerie. Vast uneven areas of nothing but canyons, one leading to another in a dizzying tangle.
Eventually they turned east and the chalk dry canyons gave way to red stone pillars covered with dots of green bushes that ran rampant from the late spring rains.
But even with the greenery, even with the flowers that bloomed here and there, it was almost forlorn in its quiet. When Dan mentioned that he’d never seen such a lonely maze, Ben had pointed out where someone had gone and drawn shapes and animals on the rock face. The drawings were old, he’d said, maybe done long before the Ute that still roamed the land. Dan wasn’t sure about that but he didn’t argue—the drawings weren’t like anything he’d seen before. Besides, Ben read more than he, so it was possible that he knew what he was talking about.
They hadn’t gone much further when the clouds rolled in for a late morning storm. They took shelter under a boulder that was as big as a house. It sat perched on a bed of smaller rocks, as if a giant had picked it up one day and set it down, willy-nilly. What with the size of the rock, its precarious looking angle, and the lightning bouncing around, an unbidden shiver had run up Dan’s spine and he’d wondered if the lightning would hit just so, jolting the rock from its bed, crushing them to nothing.
Ben must have seen his fear for he touched the back of Dan’s neck and casually mentioned that the boulder had been there the first time he rode through the canyon, almost twenty years ago. He went on to tell stories of that time and the things he’d seen.
His voice was calm, soothing, and it settled Dan down. But he was glad when the storm passed and they were able to journey on.
By early afternoon the muddy ground had dried and it was hot again. Dan suggested a break and they stopped where the canyon opened up into a wide river and an even wider valley. He figured Ben would sleep some as he liked to take a siesta in the afternoon—instead he got out his drawing book and started in.
The scratching stopped and Dan opened an eye. Ben was frowning at the paper, but it was the good frown, the one that said he was both pleased and surprised by what he saw. He held the book at arm’s length to look again.
The past few days had been cloudless and sunny and Ben’s winter-dark hair was brightening, becoming the streaky gold that Dan loved so much. His face, as well, was a pleasant color that turned his eyes more blue, his lips more rosy. Not four days ago Dan had kissed those lips, had felt them on his own skin. Not four days and already it was too long.
His heart began to beat thickly and his body stirred. He shifted again, letting his shoulder touch Ben’s. Nothing. Except Ben tucked the book against his belly and made a slight adjustment to the drawing. Dan leaned harder and whispered, “Ben?”
“Hmm?” Ben murmured without looking up.
“Ben,” Dan said again and he shifted his weight to his other foot.
Ben paused in his examination and looked up. His gaze was glassy, distant, but Dan could see the instant he returned from wherever he went when he was in the middle of a drawing. His eyes focused, the blue becoming dark as his pupils widened and his lips curved into a pleased, happy, smile. He glanced quickly around as he closed the book. With a tiny jerk of his head, he led the way behind the boulders, then around a few others to stand in the shade of a large, oblong rock, well hidden from the path.
Dan didn’t wait—he grabbed Ben and knocked the book from his hand, the hat from his head even as he was kissing his lips and unbuttoning Ben’s vest, trying to get to the flesh that he knew would be solid and warm.
Ben was unusually pliant and he took the kisses Dan gave him, saying sweetly low, “What’s got into you?”
“I don’t know.”
“Must be the heat.”
“I’m not hot.” Dan gave up on the vest and started in on the pants because that’s what he cared about, if he was honest.
“Must be the loneliness.”
“I’m not lonely.”
“Must be the—”
Dan sighed and bit Ben’s bottom lip. “Ben. Shut up, will you?”
Ben laughed the laugh that always raised the hair on the back of Dan’s neck, that always made his legs go watery weak only he was never going to tell Ben that, never, ever, ever—
He found Ben’s flesh and squeezed with just the right pressure and Ben moaned and gripped his arms with such force that Dan could feel his fingers through his thick jacket. He dropped his head into the crook of Ben’s neck and squeezed again as Ben pushed and sighed.
Dan didn’t tease—he stroked with steady, knowledgeable fingers, finishing Ben thoroughly, not quickly.
Ben was still gasping when Dan unfastened his own trousers because he’d forgotten that, he’d been so eager to get at Ben. But Ben pushed his hands away and took over as Dan knew he would. He pressed Dan up against the stone, pressed them together using his weight and his hand, muttering something about what he was going to do to Dan when they got to Boulder and found a proper bed, the words slurred and shaky as if he’d been drinking.
It took hardly a moment. And it wasn’t fair, he thought muzzily as Ben kissed him then pulled back to clean him off with his handkerchief. It wasn’t fair that barely a touch of Ben’s hand did the job. He’d wanted the sweet moment to last a while longer. Oh, well—there was always a next time. He took the handkerchief from Ben, folded it neatly and stuffed it in his pocket, then pulled Ben close.
“I’m thinking,” Ben said in his ear.
Dan nuzzled his neck. It wasn’t so long ago when he would have made fun of Ben for such a comment. “Hmm?”
“This is a nice spot. We’ve food and water. We won’t make it to Las Campanias, not tonight, so let’s take our ease. You said your boy isn’t expecting you before Friday, right?”
He nodded. It was a good plan. The horses needed rest and as for the location—they were in the arms of the canyon, safe and sheltered. No one could approach from above or from the west, not without them knowing it.
They drew apart. Ben helped Dan with his trousers; Dan fastened the buttons on Ben’s vest. Then Ben picked up his book and they ambled back around the rocks.
The day hadn’t changed much. Same clouds, same slow heat. The horses had wandered off a few more yards. Dan checked their hobbles, got his rifle and called out, “I’m going to scout around.”
Ben opened his book again, nodded without looking up, already engrossed.
Dan smiled wryly and headed off, down towards the river.
It wasn’t far to the mouth of the canyon. He followed the path until he came to the swiftly flowing, mud-brown river. Carefully, because it wouldn’t do to tumble, he slid down the short slope to the willows that lined the river and pushed through them until he got to the sandy bank.
This close, the river’s rumble was a roar and it flowed even faster than he’d supposed. It was wide—wide enough that he figured if he lobbed a rock across he couldn’t hit the other side. Probably due to the spring rains and his heart jumped a little at the thought—if it was raining this heavily up north, perhaps those same rains would make it south to Bisbee. Not that he was worried so much about that, what with his own creek and all, but a little extra moisture never hurt.
He ripped a long willow branch from its mates and stuck one end in the river, watching as the water eddied around the leaves, the stalk.
“Dan Evans! What are you doing clear down there?”
Dan dropped the branch and jerked around, almost falling in his haste. Ben was up on the trail, hands on hips, scowling. “Nothing,” he called out, shouting to make himself heard over the river.
“Well, come away! You could get swept away and then where would I be?”
Dan grinned and then realized that Ben wasn’t joking, wasn’t playing around. He was angry and he almost was never angry at Dan these days.
He shrugged and slogged back through the brush. Ben helped him up the gravely slope. And then he stomped back up the trail, too fast for Dan to keep up.
They were mostly silent as the evening came on. They built a fire and fixed a simple meal. Ben decided that they’d sleep not in the shadow of the boulders where a snake or two might be hiding, but near the path, out in the open. As usual, he spread their blankets side by side and put their rifles in easy reach. Not as usual, he didn’t say much, just went about his business as if he were alone.
And he stayed that way, even after they were down, Dan on his back, Ben curled away from him. Dan thought they’d fall asleep that way and he wasn’t sure what to do about it. There was something working in Ben and he knew he had to give him his peace, even if it killed him. He watched the stars for a while, thinking on Ben and all the things he still didn’t know about him.
He was almost asleep when, finally, Ben fetched a great sigh and turned on his back, his shoulder meeting Dan’s. “I suppose you’re wondering what’s got into me?”
Dan couldn’t help his smile at the familiar words, but he kept his eyes on the stars. “I suppose I am.”
“It’s just a lot of foolishness, really…”
Dan finally looked over. The moon was still heading uphill and there wasn’t enough light to truly see Ben’s expression, but he thought he saw reticence, doubt, and just a bare hint of fear. It was such an odd, unexpected combination that without thinking, he turned over on his bad side and carefully placed his arm across Ben’s chest. “What is it?”
Ben looked at him for the longest time and didn’t speak. Then with a small twist of his lips, he covered Dan’s hand with his own and said quietly, “I need to tell you something, Dan. About something that happened to me a couple years past, back when we were in Contention in that bridal suite, waiting for the three-ten to Yuma…”