Ben topped the ridge and tugged on the reins, not surprised when the mare dropped her head to the ground and began nosing dispiritedly at the sparse vegetation.
He stroked her neck contritely. He’d asked a lot of her this time, but it was almost over—just another hour or so and they’d both be home.
He sat back in the saddle, reminding himself that it wasn’t his home he was traveling to even though he felt as if he knew every rise and arroyo, every stone and tree.
The valley was pretty at this time of day—the sun was tumbling down, throwing the broad expanse into shadow, bringing out the pale lavenders, the dusty greens. It did, however, seem lonely and sad, like something seen through the window of time and memory. Like he’d been gone for decades instead of weeks.
He frowned at his poetical nonsense and got out the spyglass, twisting the ring, focusing on the house far below.
The first thing he noted was that Dan had completed the barn and paddock and had started on the new addition. From the distance it all looked pristine and neat, like a child’s toy. Only…
The ranch was so still. The house was bereft of light, no smoke came from the chimney, no one was about. Even the animals were gone. The porch was free of that mangy dog and the paddock was empty of livestock. Off to the side of the house, the pile of wood that Dan always chopped before breakfast was only half finished—Ben could see the ax buried in a log. As if Dan had stopped suddenly and rushed off to—
He tightened his lips against a sharp worry and reminded himself that Dan was a grown man. He’d long proven that he could take care of himself and his neighbors—Hollander included—knew better than to mess with him. The absence of life meant nothing. Dan was probably just out with the herd, for all it was going on dinnertime.
He put his absurd worry away and put the glass away, as well. “C’mon, girl,” he murmured. “Not far now.” The mare dutifully lifted her head and began her careful descent through the patches of the last snow.
When they got to the creek, he let her have her way and she scrambled down the bank and took a long drink. After she finished, he guided her back up, not having to give her any encouragement. She was new enough that she’d only been to the ranch twice, but that was enough—she quickened her pace, her gait still a little rough.
She’d picked up a stone outside of Tombstone and, distracted, He hadn’t noticed. When he finally did after she’d whinnied her first complaint, he’d dismounted immediately. It had been easy to see which leg she was favoring and he’d lifted her forefoot, examining the frog.
He’d found a small chunk of sharp limestone between her hoof and shoe and he’d pried it out, cursing softly at his own stupidity. He needed her healthy and not just because he’d gotten used to her ways—the last place he wanted to be stuck was Tombstone. Never mind the new marshals and the new laws, the town was becoming too civilized for his taste.
He’d apologized to the mare and led her along the trail a while, watching attentively as she walked to and fro. She made no noise of discomfort and he could see no sign of a limp. After a couple rounds of that, she tugged on the reins and gazed at him steadily as if to ask, ‘Well? What’s all this to-do?’
He scratched her between her ears and mounted and they returned to their journey. He kept an eye on her, but she did well and he’d promised her more than a few times that when they got in, she’d have a good, long rest.
Something even he was yearning for and as the ranch grew bigger on the horizon, he couldn’t help but urge her on.
They arrived just as the sun touched hills.
He pulled on the reins just inside the gate and cocked his head, listening. Up close, the stillness was even more intense but try as he might, he could find no sign of trouble. Nothing was out of place, nothing felt wrong. The place lacked a certain liveliness, yes, but that could simply be that Dan wasn’t around.
He shrugged and dismounted, then led the mare into the barn and stripped her of saddle and blanket. She didn’t like stalls and was more at ease in a paddock, but not tonight—a cougar had made a home for himself a few miles south and without the dog around, he wasn’t going to take any chances. He unlatched the gate. The mare hesitated, then made a beeline for the hay.
He removed her bridle and checked the feed and water trough. He should rub her down, but was suddenly, completely, weary. He picked up the saddlebags, got his rifle, and watched the mare for a moment. She seemed to be standing with ease, but there was no sense in being foolish—he’d get Dan to bring the veterinarian out, tomorrow, if possible.
He left, throwing the bags over his shoulder, and trudged up to the house. The key was where it always was: cached away on top of the window frame. He unlocked the door, then put the key back and pushed the door. It swung open with a loud whine and he froze, motionless.
The interior was as quiet as the exterior but like the other, nothing seemed amiss. Dan’s rifles were in the rack, his second-best axe next to them.
Ben sighed and closed the door, locking it again. All he wanted was to head straight for the bedroom, shedding clothes along the way. He forced himself to do the usual things—he hung up his rifle, hat and coat, then went to take a piss.
He washed up perfunctorily, cleaning off most of the dirt and sweat, leaving the rest. He rubbed his cheeks and chin, debating a shave and a bath. It had only been four days since his last but it would have to wait. It would take at least an hour to heat the water and another half to fill the tub, and that was that was an hour and a half too long. He’d make Dan do it for him, later.
He paused in front of the neatly made bed. Food or sleep? It wasn’t even a contest. He disrobed quickly, leaving his clothes where they lay. He looped his gun belt over the bedstead and crawled between the sheets. It felt so good, the soft mattress and he rolled to his side and pushed his face into the pillow. Dan had washed the bed linens sometime in the last week—they smelled fresh, but with a hint of sweat.
Ben smiled to himself and before he could think his next thought, he was asleep.
An uncounted time later, he roused briefly and opened his eyes a bare crack. The dog was sitting by the bed, tongue lolling, staring straight up at him.
He reached out, touched the dog’s head, then let sleep take him again.
The second time he woke up—this time for good—the windows were filled with dark gray. It was either early evening or early morning. He picked up his watch—six-thirty. Huh. He would have bet he’d slept at least five hours, not a scant two.
He sat up and placed his feet on the cool floorboards, stretching mightily, then pushed to his feet. His shirt and underclothes were gone, but his pants were hanging off the bed frame. They’d been daubed clean—the thick wool was still damp.
He pulled open the dresser drawer and got out underwear and a shirt. The shirt, he was happy to see, had been neatly folded and smelled of starch. Dan must have done as he’d asked during his last visit and gotten his shirts cleaned in town.
Ben grinned as he pulled on his undershirt. He would’ve given anything to see Dan’s face as he explained to the launderer why he needed an extra set of shirts that weren’t his size, washed and pressed.
Last year, he’d made the mistake of teasing Dan about his need to have everything neat and tidy. Dan had frozen up and he realized too late that the habit was a hold over from his married years when he had someone to be neat for. He hadn’t brought the subject up again.
Picking up the shirt, he hesitated, then dropped it back in the dresser drawer. If things went his way, he’d just be taking it off in a few minutes, anyway. He left, padding through the house, enjoying the chill on his bare feet. As March grew to a close, the days were getting longer and hotter. Soon he’d do anything to stay cool.
The lamps and lanterns were lit and dinner was on the stove. His stomach growled, but he didn’t stop to see what smelled so good. The front door was wide open to the sunset and he could see the figure on the porch. He went and paused on the threshold.
Dan was leaning against the post, holding a cup of coffee and staring out at the sunset. The brilliant color outlined his figure, surrounding him with streaky pinks and oranges and Ben’s heart twisted in his chest. It always did that these days when he saw Dan for the first time after an absence. He hated it, the unbidden response, but was helpless against its power.
He waited for Dan to acknowledge his presence, but other than a small twitch of his shoulders, Dan didn’t move. Tease.
Well, two could play that game. Ben settled against the doorjamb, consciously mirroring Dan’s pose, waiting until he could wait no more. “Thank you for letting me sleep.”
Dan nodded and took a sip of coffee.
“Were you out with the calves?” Dan hadn’t been to the barber, and his hair was raggedy at the ends, reminding Ben of those first days. His heart twisted again, only this time with a different kind of ache.
Dan nodded again. “We’ve got thirteen now, just in the last five days. I brought the herd in. There was a wolf sniffing around yesterday. I’ll go out and check on them after dinner.”
“Did you get help like I asked?”
“I did,” Dan said, a little snippy. “I hired Cole Wurthers. He’ll be by in the morning.”
“Do I need to make myself scarce?”
Dan shook his head. “No. He saw your mare. I told him you were a friend from back east.”
Ben nodded. ‘A friend from back east,’ was their standard excuse, weak as it was. He hated it, just as he hated the need for subterfuge, the need to hide from people he had no fear of. But it wouldn’t be he that paid the price if the town discovered that he and Dan had been sharing a bed for a little over a year now.
Dan took another sip of coffee. “I rubbed your mare down. She’s favoring her right leg.”
“She got a stone outside of Tombstone.”
“I’ll get the doc out tomorrow. She’s new, but good.”
Ben straightened up. “She?”
Dan nodded. “Just came out from Pennsylvania last month. She’s pretty, too.”
He couldn’t see it, but he knew Dan was smiling and the ache transformed into an ugly jab of jealousy. “Who ever heard of a woman doctor?”
“Not Bisbee.” Dan shrugged and looked back. Sure enough, he was smiling, just barely. “They were up in arms; told her to forget about working on humans, so she’s working on animals. Kind of the opposite of poor Doc Potter.”
“She’s been out here?”
Dan turned to face Ben, finally. The last of the sun burnished his skin a dark gold and caught the rim of his eyes—even from the distance of five feet, Ben could see their soft green coloring. Dan looked fit, if a little lean, but there was nothing new about that.
“Of course, she has,” Dan said. “She visits all the ranches and farms, checking on the stock. She examined the horses and the herd. She took a look at Rex. He’s doing fine according to her.”
“She thinks the chickens are underweight, though, and wants me to use a feed that costs more than each of them is worth. I told her no.”
“She stayed for dinner the other night when a couple of the cows were having trouble. She thought my potato pie was good and asked for the recipe.”
Dan tipped his head. “Yes, Wade?”
“Will you please shut up about your animals and your lady doctor and come inside?”
Dan didn’t grin at Ben’s acerbic tone, but his eyes narrowed and became somehow warm. He threw his coffee to the thirsty earth and sat the mug on the railing, then walked in calm, measured steps to the door.
Ben retreated, his heart in his throat. As soon as Dan cleared the threshold, he slammed the door shut and shoved Dan hard, falling on him. He leaned in, but Dan was there first, his lips parting Ben’s with a passion that took his breath.
Dan tasted of coffee and whiskey and Ben sighed at the familiarity, sighed again when Dan moaned low in his throat and pulled him in, clutching at his waist and hips with a hunger that couldn’t be feigned and his irrational jealousy vanished as if it had never existed.
It was for this, he thought as he opened his mouth wide, that he’d left Dodge City two weeks early. For this that he’d pushed the mare too hard when he should have let her rest. He bit Dan’s lip in reflective punishment and instant contrition. Dan responded by grabbing his hair in a tight fist and then moaned again, this time almost a sigh.
It was too much, this wild feeling and he stopped kissing, exchanging mouth for a fervent embrace. He held Dan tight, feeling more than hearing the sound of their unruly heartbeats.
A far off howl broke them apart and they froze at the same time, heads turned, listening.
It wasn’t repeated and they relaxed, again at the same time. Ben turned back. And smiled softly.
Dan’s face and mouth were flushed and there was a smear of blood on his lower lip. He brushed it away with his thumb and Dan’s eyelids half closed in pleasure.
“Are you all right?” Dan asked quietly.
“Your hand—” Dan reached for his hand and held it up, palm down.
On the back of his knuckles was a series of scratches. He peered at them and saw that they were actually tiny splinters. They didn’t hurt, but he gave Dan a look, eloquently reproachful, saying silently, ‘See what you do to me?’
Dan’s lips bent in a slight smile. “I guess I should finish sanding the door.”
“I guess you should.”
But Dan didn’t move and neither did Ben.
He wanted to say how much he’d missed Dan, how he couldn’t get through a day without thinking of him or speaking to him even though he never said the words aloud. How every bed he slept in seemed inexplicably large, even though most were barely three feet wide.
He ignored the urge—they didn’t say such things to each other. And if they did, it wasn’t going to be him that started.
Dan smiled as if hearing his unspoken thoughts. “Are you hungry?”
“Which is to be—dinner or bath? I put the water on.”
“Can dinner wait?”
“It can. The potatoes will take another hour.” Dan gave Ben’s waist a squeeze, then pushed him back and led the way to the kitchen. He nodded to the kettle. “Make yourself useful.”
Together they filled the bath, together they stripped Ben of his clothes. He got in and sank back with a heartfelt sigh while Dan set out towels and soap on the chair. He made to leave and Ben grabbed his pant leg. “Where do you think you’re going?”
“I need to put another kettle on and lock up the house.”
He grumbled, but Dan was right. It wouldn’t do to become lax, not now. Like Tombstone, Bisbee was growing. They had two new neighbors, the closest not more than three miles away.
He leaned back and waited, eyes mostly closed. When Dan came back and began to undress, he watched in appreciation. First the shirt and undershirt, then the boots. When Dan got to his trousers, he didn’t hesitate. He revealed his deformity with no shame and Ben’s chest ached all over again, this time in a fierce pride. Not one man in a thousand could do what Dan had done—survive, even thrive, in a place so barren and perilous. Most men would have either died or given up the first year.
But Dan wasn’t most men and when he bent over the tub to scramble in, Ben helped him with hands that insisted on tenderness.
He sank back with Dan between his spread legs and reached for the soap and washcloth, beginning the task of getting Dan clean.
Ben was a hedonist, he knew this. But it had surprised even himself how much he enjoyed taking care of Dan. It had been hard at first—Dan had refused to share even so much as a shave in those early days, and it had taken little steps, like gentling a cantankerous horse. But his patience paid off in the end.
He smiled at the memories, then stroked the soapy washcloth across Dan’s shoulders, enjoying the way his skin flushed in response.
Dan tipped his head back. “That feels good.” And in the same breath he added softly, “You were gone a while this time.”
“I wrote you in Grant, telling you where I was.”
“I didn’t get the letter.”
Ben finished with his back and started on his neck. “Well, that’s because I didn’t mail it.”
Ben hesitated before saying, “I had a run-in with an old acquaintance that last night.” Generally, Dan hated to hear of the times when Ben was doing something he shouldn’t. Which meant he sure as hell wouldn’t be happy to hear that Grant had a new sheriff, one Dan Tucker. “It wasn’t much of anything,” he added. “Just a misunderstanding.”
“Is he coming for you?”
“Not for another three to five years. Maybe less if he behaves himself.”
“Ben,” Dan said reproachfully.
He laid his chin on Dan’s shoulder. “It was him or me, Dan. Would you have wanted it the other way around?”
Dan shook his head, his beard rubbing against Ben’s temple. “No, of course not. I just—”
Dan stopped talking and Ben whispered, “What?” making his voice particularly low, particularly sultry. “What?” he repeated.
But Dan seemed to be done with questions and chitchat. He took the washcloth, tossed it on the chair, then reached for Ben’s hand and brought it around to his cock.
And that was all right with Ben—he tightened his hand, making a ring for Dan to press into, kissing his shoulders and back, all the while saying foolish words like, “Hush,” and, “Easy.”
It didn’t take long and they made a mess of the floor, water everywhere, but that was all right, as well. When Dan tried to twist around to repay him in kind, Ben held him fast, murmuring, “Later.” What he wanted to do to Dan couldn’t be done in a bathtub. It required a little whiskey, a sturdy bed, and a whole lot of time.
They got out soon after and dried off.
Dinner was good. Plain, but good. The dog showed up half way through and spent the rest of the meal at Ben’s feet.
He didn’t talk much, and neither did Dan. Something was bothering Dan and since he had his own way of coming around a conversation, it was best to just let him be, so Ben talked idly of this and that and didn’t press.
Sure enough, when they were done eating and both staring lazily at the guttering candle, Dan muttered, “You didn’t even notice, did you?”
Ben looked around. He couldn’t make out anything different—other than the new door, the house seemed as much as always. “Well, Dan, I can’t say as I—” He rattled to a stop because yes, there was something different. The framed needlepoint on the wall was gone as was the clock. The mantelpiece was bare, even of the Bible. Either they’d been burgled or Dan had gone and done it. He’d said he was going to start sending Alice’s things to Colorado, bit by bit. Ben hadn’t thought he’d go through with it.
He shrugged. “The room looks better. Not so stuffy.”
Dan picked up his fork, ignoring Ben’s words. “I went down to Mott’s last month and ordered new furniture. When that comes in, I’ll ship the rest.”
“Hmm,” was all Ben had to say.
“It was all her mother’s, Ben,” Dan said stiffly.
“She’s got plenty of new to replace the old.”
“It’s not the same thing and you know it.”
Ben opened his mouth, then shut it. He didn’t want this argument, not tonight. Alice wasn’t a bad woman. She’d just done what any mother would do in her place—protect her children, make sure they were comfortable and safe. When she wrote to request delivery of the furnishings, Dan had written back, saying he wanted to leave the house as it was so the boys would feel at home when they came for a visit. It was only after several letters arguing that point that Dan finally gave in and agreed to send the things as soon as he could afford the shipping costs.
To Ben’s mind, keeping the furniture hadn’t been much to ask, and he’d said so. Only once. Dan had jumped down his throat, almost white with rage.
It had been one of Ben’s day-in, day-out trips and he’d left at first light, still so angry he could barely look at Dan. He’d ridden hard to the east, making furious plan after furious plan, each involving a new life without stubborn Dan Evans. He’d decided on a visit to Silver City first and then Kansas City only to pull up short at the top of a mesa. The morning had bloomed, bright and beautiful and he had paused and got off his horse. He walked to a small rise and stood there gazing out at the wide expanse. Not far away, a large hawk had taken to the sky in broad sweeping spirals. He watched it for a while, the serenity of the moment finally weakening the cooling anger.
He’d still been staring up at the bird when a notion had come to him, a small epiphany, as it were. He had realized why Dan had reacted so wildly. All the care and effort in maintaining a proper house for the boys would turn out to be pointless. Alice would make sure it would be pointless.
Ben had read some of Alice’s letters, albeit on the sly, and recognized prevarication when he saw it. She would use circumstances and gentle pretense for keeping the boys close by, especially Mark. Dan would be lucky if they ever came to Bisbee again.
It had made Ben equally angry, the realization, as did the secondary epiphany: that he’d stand by shut-mouthed and let Dan be hurt because it was the only thing he could do.
But even now, some months later, that didn’t mean he had to like it and he rose and picked up his dinner plate and fork. “I’m going to see the mare.” He didn’t wait for a response but set the dishes in the sink, then left with lantern in hand and the dog at his heels.
The night was bracingly cool and his temper died by the time he got to the barn. Dan’s gelding stared at him curiously as he passed by. He gave him a pat on the nose, then hung up the lantern and went into the opposite stall.
His mare was sleeping, curled up on the stall floor. When he entered, she rose with a whinny.
“Hello, sweetheart,” he murmured, “how are you doing, hmm?” He felt her leg—he couldn’t see much, but everything seemed all right. To make sure, he helped her lift her leg. She shifted her weight with no distress and he smiled with relief, then again when she lipped the back of his head.
“How is she?” came a low voice.
He stilled, then eased the mare’s leg down. “She’s fine.”
“Still, I’ll get the doc out. Just in case.”
“That would probably be best.” The mare pushed her head into his chest and he rubbed her ears.
“Have you decided on a name?”
“Not yet.” Which wasn’t true. He’d been thinking of calling her ‘Lily,’ because she had a white marking on her rump that looked like a calla lily.
Dan took a breath—Ben could hear it—then said, “I’m sorry, Ben. I know you’re just looking out for me.”
He turned. Dan was a shadow among shadows. “I am.”
Dan unhooked the lantern and gestured. “Then, c’mon. Come back in.”
He gave the mare one last pat, then followed, back out into the cool night. They were almost to the porch when he asked, “Is she married?”
Dan stopped and looked back with a frown. “Is who married?”
He sighed. “The lady doctor. Is the lady doctor married?”
“Oh.” Dan’s face cleared. “No, though the men of Bisbee would like to change that. Mott Davis is making a right fool of himself over her.”
“She better take care,” he grumbled, his ridiculous jealousy returning.
Dan raised an eyebrow and tilted his head back. After a long moment, he said mildly, “She’s just trying to find a place to belong, Ben. That’s not a crime.” He turned to the house.
Later, after the house was shut tight and the dog put out, Ben lay on Dan, moving slow, trying not to hurt, trying to make it last. He thought of where he’d been, where he was going, and of fortune, both good and bad. And of Dan’s words.
He’d never belonged anywhere, he’d never even given it a second thought. Growing up the way he had, he’d been lucky to have survived those first few years. After a while, he’d gotten used to being on the move and never looked for more. But then Dan Evans had entered his life and changed everything, though he hadn’t realized it at the time. It was an odd thing to think on, the then and the now.
He must have made some noise because Dan twisted beneath him and whispered, “Ben?”
“You all right?”
He reached for Dan’s hand and laced their fingers together, gripping hard. So he’d never had a place to belong as a child? So what? He had one now and that was more than most men achieved, all told. He leaned down and kissed the delicate rim of Dan’s ear, whispering, “I’m fine, Dan. I’m fine.
3:10 to Yuma
Dan Evans/Ben Wade
All characters belong to people and organizations that are not me.