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The Exile

Bisbee, Arizona

September 1880

***

 

Dan Evans rides. 

He follows a trail he knows by heart, taken, as it were, at least once a week for the past eleven months. Other than tracks made by his own horse, the trail has no official pattern made by man. South, then west, then south again until he tops the ridge. He pulls on the reins, but the ride is as familiar to the gelding, and he’s already stopped and tugging on a nearby rabbit brush. Dan absent-mindedly pats the horse’s thick neck and examines the valley below. 

Bone-dry and dusty, the road to Bisbee is a streak of ugly yellow amid the pale green scrub brush. It cuts in twists and turns until it reaches the open prairie, then straightens out as if following a ruler. Dan has always figured the road below was made first by a river, then continued by man when the water dried up. 

A few times the road has been washed out by fast-moving rainstorms, but only briefly. Then it dries, hard-baked and unforgiving as if it never had anything as gentle as water flow over its surface.

Last week Dan caught a long-legged wolf scrounging around on the valley floor, near where he’d found Byron McElroy, that first day. The sight of the wolf had made Dan’s heart jump and he’d reached for his rifle. Before his fingers could touch the stock, the animal was gone, loping through the brush, up and over the ridge.

Today the road is empty. There’s no movement of any kind. No living creature, mammal or bird. Dan waits, almost day-dreaming, only it’s not really day-dreaming. It’s reliving a moment and he can almost see the figures appear, fading in like ghosts are supposed to do. 

Memories have their own path, their own trail, but that doesn’t mean he has to follow them. Before this particular memory can become thought, he forces it into his mind’s strongbox with the others, out of the present, back to the past where it belongs. 

He pulls on the reins and brings the horse around. He heads back home.

 

_________________

Dear Daniel, I am sorry I have not written in the past eighteen days. We’ve been quite busy and—

Dan jerked and stumbled as a jackrabbit broke cover, not three feet away. It took off across the prairie, leaping here and there until it disappeared down a wash.

He adjusted his hat and looked around before he could help himself. There was no one in sight—just the grey-green brush, the red buttes, and the miles of vast September-blue sky.

He grunted at his foolishness. He knew better than to get distracted this far from home. If he twisted an ankle or worse, it would be some time before he could get to town, even on horseback.

He squared his shoulders and cleared his mind, focusing on the wire in his hands. During his morning rounds he wasn’t very surprised to find a section of his new fence down and a couple of his cattle already on Glen Hollander’s land. He’d shooed them back and got to work mending the fence.

A few months ago he’d painstakingly installed a mile-long fence between the two steep bluffs that guarded the northern-most boundary of his land. It had been a long-time problem, the lush, narrow valley that carried the creek that flowed from Hollander’s land. The cattle liked to wander into the valley to get out of the sun or for a drink. But cattle had no idea of property lines and sometimes they crossed over onto Hollander’s ranch.

At the high point of summer, Hollander’s men had shot three of Dan’s herd before he could stop them. The next day he went into town, bought supplies, and began constructing the fence without Hollander’s agreement. It had been a bone of contention between them ever since. Twice the fence had been damaged, twice Dan’d spent precious time fixing it.

When he’d ridden out this morning and found a new section down with the wire curling uselessly around the posts, he swore at Hollander’s sneakiness. He checked to make sure his herd was safe,  then turned his horse to Bisbee.

Hollander was in his office, drinking coffee and reading a newspaper. He wasn’t surprised when Dan strode in. He hadn’t even argued much, once Dan told him the problem. He just said that the Evans cattle must’ve spooked and got clean through.

Dan didn’t bother calling Hollander on his lie. He knew the fence had been tampered with, knew that Hollander wanted Evans cattle to stray through just so he could have the pleasure of shooting them.

In the past, Dan had been powerless against the man the entire town considered its leader. He would’ve had no recourse except to plead and maybe even beg. But things had changed since then—Dan had changed since then.

He just stood there silent, while Hollander fidgeted, then growled, and finally got out his cash box. Dan scooped up the coins that Hollander tossed without counting them, and left, thinking what he always did when he and his old enemy crossed paths these days: life sure was different since he’d come back from the dead.

A year ago, when Dan had returned home from Maricopa with his arm in a sling, riding a borrowed mare, he’d headed straight to Bisbee. He was tired and sore, but he wanted to make sure that Grayson Butterfield had honored the deal made in Contention. Hollander wasn’t in his office but his clerk was and he’d given Dan a wide-eyed stare. When Dan asked quietly for Mr. Hollander, please, the clerk jerked his head towards the saloon, still staring.

And Dan had gotten the same reaction from the townspeople as he walked down the dusty main street to the saloon. People had stopped what they were doing and gaped, as if seeing a ghost.

With growing unease, Dan found Hollander in the saloon’s back room, playing poker. Like his clerk, Hollander’s mouth dropped open when he saw Dan. He’d shut it quick enough when Dan asked him about the contract and agreed tersely that, yes, Dan owned his land free and clear. That there would be no more damming of the creek, and that Hollander and his men would not step foot on Evans land.

Dan nodded and returned to the bar. Emma was waiting with a drink and, as the crowd gathered round, she told him why everyone was amazed to see him.

Butterfield and William, she said, had arrived not a week before and the tale of Dan Evans and Ben Wade was soon on everyone’s lips. Butterfield had organized a search party and they’d headed out to Yuma. The warden had no news of Dan and could only say that Wade had escaped somewhere between Contention and Yuma. The search party headed back to Contention, but no luck.

Three days later, Butterfield returned to Bisbee with the news that Ben Wade had been seen in Mexico, but no one knew where Dan had got to. Reluctantly, they all assumed he’d died by Wade’s hand and his body dumped somewhere between Contention and Yuma. Butterfield posted a reward for news of Dan and left for Chicago two days later. Dan arrived home the day after that.

A little dazed by the news of his death, Dan had turned down the Callister brothers offer of another drink, got on his horse and rode out as fast as the mare would go, eager to get home to ease his family’s minds. When he strode through his door, he kissed Alice, hugged his sons, then went straight to the bedroom and fell on the bed. He slept for two days straight.

A few days later he went to town to settle up his accounts. He was shocked anew to find that it hadn’t been a dream, that the townspeople  were glad to have him back and did indeed hold him in some regard.

As for Hollander, Dan waited for the retribution that never came. Hollander still hated him, that was certain, but he avoided Dan, even went so far as to cross the street rather than meet up with Dan, face to face. It was odd.

But then, a lot of things were odd these days. Ten months ago, if anyone had asked, Dan would’ve said he was the same man he always was, that his adventure with Ben Wade had changed him not at all.

It was only after a few weeks back home that he realized that he no longer fretted the way he used to, that he no longer felt the pressure to do everything just so. And conversely, that he was more restlessly and distracted than he’d used to be.

Part of his new ease was the money, part of it was the way his family behaved around him. Alice had lost her worried frown, and from time to time Dan would catch her looking at him as if he was a stranger. William had shed his antipathy and, for a few months, followed Dan around like a puppy. And Mark—

A sharp, familiar pain bit deep in Dan’s chest and he fumbled and dropped the wire he was wrapping around a post. The last time he’d seen Mark, the boy had been so changed that Dan didn’t recognize him.

He brutally shoved the memory away, shoved the pain away. He straightened and looked at the sky. Clouds were piling up on the horizon, their dark bellies heavy with rain. He picked up the wire and got to work again. He didn’t have time to waste thinking about the past and the things he couldn’t change.

***

Dan was tired when he made it back home. His new dog was waiting on the porch and he ran out to meet Dan, only to get under the horse’s hooves, as usual. Alice had insisted he get a dog, not just to protect the animals and the property, but also for the company he no longer had. He’d ignored her suggestions until he found Mott Davis in front of Hart’s, handing out three-month old, half-breed pups to anyone who would take them.

Dan had picked a mostly black male and was still getting used to it. He kept tripping over the dog for it seemed to go out of its way to play at his feet. He was annoyed at first, then not, because it was nice having someone waiting for him when he got home, even if it was just a dog.

He hadn’t got around to naming it yet and figured he should pretty soon. Mark had written a special note, excited about the new addition. He wrote that they should name him Rex because ‘Rex’ meant ‘king’ in Latin. Dan thought the name a bit extravagant for a dog that wasn’t taller than his shin and not much to look at.

With the dog still dancing around the horses legs, Dan muttered down at him, “Rex.” No, it still didn’t sound right.

He told the dog to get away and dismounted, then led the gelding to the paddock with the dog following. He pulled off the saddle, blanket, and bridle and watched as the horse gave a happy shake and skittered into the middle of the paddock for a roll. The mare turned to look at the three of them, then went back to nosing the dirt.

The gelding was new as well, bought with Southern Pacific money to replace the one Dan had lost in Contention. He was a big brown beast with a white muzzle and a gentle temper.

Dan hadn’t gotten around to naming him, either.

Just one more thing to add to a list that was already too long, he thought with a sigh. The most crucial thing wasn’t finding names for the animals, unfortunately. Top of the list was the extra hand he hadn’t yet hired. He needed to do it soon—Alice told him so, every letter she wrote.

Dan wasn’t sure what he was waiting for. He had the money and the ranch was doing well. His herd was healthy and increasing, and soon the work would be too much for him and he’d have to get someone in. Alice said it was guilt because of the way he’d gotten the money. And that he’d earned every penny given him so he might as well spend it. Dan figured she was right about the former, but it didn’t make it easier doing the latter.

He watched the horses a moment more, then hefted the gear and carried it all into the barn. The barn was another new thing, one that gave him complete and unreserved satisfaction.

Butterfield had done more than just abide by the terms of their agreement. He’d gotten Hollander to fork over cash for a new barn, a new paddock, and all the equipment and feed lost in the fire.

Butterfield had even thrown in some of his own money for ‘general improvements.’ As he’d told Alice, he was more than grateful for Dan’s assistance—he was grateful for his own life, for he surely would have died in Contention, if it hadn’t been for Dan.

Dan had argued when Alice had shown him the bank draft, but she’d argued right back. The money, she said, could go a long way to fixing up the house like they’d talked about and the new room for William because he was getting too big to sleep with Mark. Dan finally accepted the gift with a good deal of bad grace.

Still, he couldn’t hate the barn, try as he might. It was larger than the original, had space for at least three more horses, and a proper tack room. It even smelled good.

Dan grinned to himself as he heaved the saddle over its mount and hung up the bridle. Ever since he’d been living alone he’d catch himself thinking foolish thoughts—things so out of the blue and unlike him, that he’d wondered what was going on inside his head. Like the other morning when he found himself in the middle of the prairie, staring wistfully up at the noon sky, day-dreaming about Colorado and the places in Colorado he hadn’t yet seen.

He’d thought from time to time that the stray thoughts were a sign that he’d been alone too long, but he couldn’t ever make himself worry too much about them. He figured as long as they didn’t hurt him, they weren’t doing any harm.

He imagined what Alice would say to that rationalization, the worried frown she’d get, and his smile died.

He checked the horse’s feed and water and trudged to the house.

As always, he paused at the threshold, then forced himself to continue on in. Walking into the house that still had Alice’s little touches here and there, that still had some of the boys’ things laying about was almost painful.

It was getting better, but still…

Dan washed up perfunctorily. He’d have a proper bath in a few days, probably on Saturday. It would be easy to skip that childhood ritual, but he knew he had to keep some semblance of civility or he’d just turn wild. His hair and beard were longer than ever and he’d shear it all off, but it wasn’t that important and he couldn’t be bothered. He kept telling himself that he’d get to them both one day, or just go into town and visit the barber. He could afford it.

He made a simple meal of fried salt beef, beans, and bread. He ate quickly with his head down, then fed the leftovers to the dog. He washed and dried the dishes and went out to the porch.

The storm he’d been waiting for had circled to the north and the darkening sky above was clear. The sun had dropped behind the hills and it cast last-minute rays up to color the remaining clouds all shades of purple and orange and pink.

When he’d come out west, all those years ago, he’d left Alice and the boys in a hotel and spent two weeks traveling with three other men, each looking for just the right spot to make a home. On their way from Silver City to Tucson, Dan left the group to investigate what lay beyond a nearby ridge and happened upon a wide stretch of prairie hunkered down between two low mountain ranges.

He’d stopped in the shade of a scrubby pine, dismounted, and stared a long while, captured by the rough beauty of the land. There was nothing like it back home—it was open and spare and called to him in some mysterious way.

He hadn’t expected it, that sudden, fierce love. When the doctor back in Massachusetts told him that Mark needed a drier climate, that some place out west would be best, he’d figured at the most he’d tolerate the move. Now he couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.

He watched until the brilliant color bled away and the first stars came out, then sat down and lit the lantern. He pulled out the envelope that had been burning his breast pocket ever since he’d picked up the mail. He’d started to read the letter on the way home, but only got through the first few sentences before deciding to wait until a more private time.

He slipped out the two sheets of paper and unfolded the first. It was thin and delicate and smelled of Alice’s perfume.

Dear Daniel, 

I am sorry I have not written in the past eighteen days. We’ve been quite busy and I just haven’t had the opportunity. We took the train to Denver last week. Mark was very excited, almost too excited, Doctor Height said. The Doctor accompanied us, of course. He has family in the town of West Denver, and we visited with them. His mother is very pleasant. She is from Massachusetts as well, and we had quite a good time, talking about familiar places. She says she thinks she might know your family, on your mother’s side. If you ever write to your mother, will you ask if she knows of the Gunderson family?

Mark is doing well (which I should have said at the very first). His new treatment is hard on him, but he always rallies and becomes so chipper and bright-eyed. Doctor Height is pleased. He told me the other day that when we first came to the Sanitarium, he had not been hopeful. But now he feels that Mark has turned a corner. The news made me cry, as you can imagine. I thought of you, out there by yourself, and wished you could share the good news with me.

Mark has made a sweet drawing for you, which I’ve enclosed. It’s a likeness of your new dog. He’s after me all the time for a dog. I’ve told him it’s impossible, but he still wants one. I’ve heard birds are better for people with consumption, but I can’t imagine a boy would want a bird. 

Doctor Height tells me that Mark would benefit greatly from another visit from you. I told Mark not to hope for much, as you have the calves to look after. Have you hired anyone yet? It would be so good for you, to get some help. 

Mark would love to see you, as would I. Doctor Height has invited us to stay with his family as his guests at their annual family picnic in West Denver. He tells me it would be good for Mark, being with children his own age and would not pose a risk to them. Perhaps you could come as well? Doctor Height has already written his Grandmother, and she’s eager to meet Mark. The date is soon, set for the 18th of September. Please write and tell me you can make it.

I need to stop, Daniel, and get Mark ready for bed before I leave. He sends his love, as always.

Alice

Dan read the letter twice, then unfolded the other piece of paper. He smiled painfully at the cheerful drawing of what was clearly himself with a small dog by his side. Across the top, in big black lettering was the words, ‘Papa and Rex,’ and in the corner, at an angle, was, ‘Mark Evans, 15 September 1880.’

Moisture pricked Dan’s eyes and he ran his thumb over the neatly written signature. Mark’s letters improved with each note. Alice had written in her last letter that Dan wouldn’t recognize him, so tall was he getting.

Dan leaned back against the post and tried to imagine it. Mark and William favored the Evans side of the family: lanky and thin, with dark hair and clear blue eyes. Only Dan was the changeling, with his green eyes.

Taking a trip that soon would be difficult. Winter was around the corner and a train ride up north would be tricky. But the alternative was unbearable. If he didn’t go now, he wouldn’t get a chance until late spring and that would mean he’d lose an entire year of Mark’s life. He’d already lost one son—he couldn’t stand to lose the other.

Dan unfolded Alice’s letter again and looked it over. She no longer asked of William. When Dan realized it, months ago, he’d thought of writing to insist that William might still be alive, that just because they hadn’t heard anything in months, that didn’t mean the worst.

Dan hadn’t written. Alice had enough on her plate with Mark—if it eased her mind, imagining William beyond her help, who was Dan to argue? It was months since William had run off and even with the man that Dan had hired, no news or trail had been found.

He could be anywhere, the investigator had cautioned. San Francisco, New York—even on the other side of the world wasn’t out of the realm of possibility. What he hadn’t said, what both Dan and Alice knew, was that he could just as easily be dead. He’d been so angry, the day he’d left, and who knew how far away his anger had driven him.

Dan should have gone after him immediately. Alice had told him so, over and over. But the spring calves were arriving and he had no choice. When he’d realized William was gone for good and not just in Douglas, hiding out, he made several useless trips to Tucson and even as far as Abilene. But he found neither hide nor hair of his eldest son.

After the last trip, made almost six months ago, Dan had come home to find Mark at death’s door and Alice in a panic. The town’s new doctor advised a proper facility, so Dan had sent Alice and Mark up to Colorado to a sanitarium that was supposed to do wonders for consumptives. And as soon as he talked Tom Callister into looking in on the herd, he had followed. He spent a week in the small town of Colorado Springs, watching helplessly as Mark lay in a bed that was far too big for him, fighting for every breath.

Unwilling but unable to do anything else, Dan left soon after. He told Alice he’d be back when he could, maybe within the month. Three months later, he returned to Colorado Springs for a quick four-day trip. He’d been dreading the sight of Mark even though Alice had assured him that he was doing much better.

And indeed, he was. He’d been waiting for Dan on the front steps of the sanitarium. He’d so changed much that Dan didn’t recognize him at first. He was thin and his hair had been shorn off so that he looked like a scarecrow, but his eyes were bright and he looked wonderful to Dan.

That was the trip where Dan met Robert Height for the first time. Height was young and handsome and brilliant. He specialized in consumption and had done research in London and Vienna. He was enthusiastic and pleasant and very much infatuated with Alice.

It was an awkward three days. When Dan got back on the train, he couldn’t help his sigh of relief.

In her next letter, Alice made a half-hearted suggestion about selling the ranch, and Dan knew she wasn’t surprised when he immediately wrote back, saying, no. 

But how could she ask it of him, after all they’d been through? It was something Dan didn’t like to think on because in a way, Alice was right: he should sell the ranch. Bisbee was growing by leaps and bounds, now that the railroad was near completion. He’d make a tidy profit, enough to start fresh somewhere else.

Hell, Hollander would give him twice what it was worth, just to be shut of him. But he couldn’t do it. It was his, and he loved it. Almost as much as he loved his two boys, he wasn’t ashamed to admit. Besides, Mark needed something for his very own, when Dan died.

But Alice didn’t understand it and her letters came less often and grew more distant. Eventually, she stopped writing about selling the ranch, and began writing of Dr. Height and what a miracle worker he was.

Dan tightened his lips and folded the papers carefully before he could crush them. He slipped them back into the envelope and stuffed it into his trouser pocket.

He pushed to his feet and, followed by the dog, went to do his nightly check of the grounds and the livestock. Everything was as it should be, so he called it a day.

He locked up, banked the fire, and told the dog to stay in the kitchen.

The bedroom was quiet and lonely, but Dan ignored the silence as he undressed slowly. A crackle reminded him of the envelope and he sat it on the dresser next to the empty flower vase. Sometimes he liked to reread the letters, right before he slept.

The last thing, the final thing, was the leg. He sat down on the bed and unbuckled the boot. Today had been a good day—his leg hardly hurt at all. But he massaged his thigh and knee from habit, just to ease the muscles that would grow stiff at night. Alice was trying to get him to buy a new boot, but he didn’t want to spend the money on something that was just a vanity.

He crawled wearily into bed. The night was going to be hot so he didn’t bother with the quilt. He rolled to his back and sank into the soft mattress with a long sigh. The bed rocked as the dog leapt onto the foot. After a cursory glare, Dan ignored him.

Out of the corner of his eye, the letter caught the lamplight. He wouldn’t read it again tonight. The thought of Alice and Dr. Height had brought him a little low.

Dan knew Alice wouldn’t betray him with the young doctor, but he also knew she wanted the kind of life she was now living—in a city where it was safe and clean, where Mark could get the care he needed. She’d changed since coming out west. When they’d set out, she’d been as excited as he. It was probably one of those things: people wanting what they didn’t know they wanted. Or in this case, wanting what they used to have.

The logical side of him realized it was one thing to know Alice wanted a more genteel life, and an entirely different thing to watch her actually get it. And that was hardly her fault, he kept reminding himself.

A memory, almost a year old now, crept into Dan’s thoughts before he could stop it: I bet Alice was a real pretty girl before she married you…

Dan jerked his head hard enough to shake the memory loose, and he reached for the lamp. He doused the light, closed his eyes, and slept.

***

“Mr. Evans, Mr. Evans!” Dan finished dismounting and turned to find young Billy Wurthers charging up the middle of the street, kicking dust as he ran.

It was two days since Dan had fixed the fence. He’d found another rent a few hours ago, only this time it was a large section, covering at least forty feet, and the wire was gone as well. He’d rounded up the cattle, driving them as far away from the tear as he could, and had ridden hard into town. He was going to deal with Hollander once and for all.

“Mr. Evans.” Billy skidded to a stop and caught his breath. “You have a visitor, he’s in the saloon.” He jerked his thumb and added, “He said if I was to see you, I should tell you he’s asking about you.”

“Who is it?”

“No one I know. He’s all dressed in black, though.”

Dan’s back stiffened and his gut knotted up. He knew of only one man that wore all black, and if he was here, bold as brass…

Dan pulled his rifle and followed Billy. When they got to the bat wing doors, he signaled for the boy to leave.

He cautiously pushed the doors open.

There were only a few men about at this hour. One was hunched over the table in the far corner. The second was leaning against the bar, back towards Dan. As Billy had said, he was dressed in black from head to foot, but Dan could see by his height and stance that it wasn’t Ben Wade. Dan breathed a sigh he called relief, and said, “Hello?”

The figure turned. Dan was taken aback to see the pleasant features of Grayson Butterfield. Butterfield smiled briefly when he saw Dan. He pushed away from the bar and they shook hands. “Dan Evans. You’re a sight for sore eyes.”

“That’s probably the truth, considering.” Dan said gruffly. He took off his hat and ran his hand over his hair. He wished he’d thought to clean up before coming to town. Butterfield always made him feel dirty and second-class.

“Have a drink with me.” Butterfield led the way to a table near the big front windows. Dan sat down, rested his rifle and hat on the chair next to him and took a good look at the man he hadn’t seen in almost a year.

Grayson Butterfield had changed. His clothes were as pristine and fine as ever, his skin still pale and smooth–both of which should have made him look prosperous and content. They didn’t. He looked exhausted and his blue eyes were a watery red, as if he’d been on the road for days.

Emma brought a bottle and poured two glasses. “Dan,” she said with a nod in his direction. Dan gave her a quiet hello and avoided her glance.

Emma had approached him months ago with an offer to ease his loneliness. He felt sorry for her, stuck in a town like Bisbee, but not sorry enough to chance picking up anything he’d have to explain later. She’d taken his rejection in stride, and if things had been awkward between them since, he still didn’t regret his decision.

He drank the whiskey down in one gulp.

Butterfield didn’t drink. He sat there, lost in thought as he turned his glass round and round. Finally, he looked up and said, “How’ve you been?”

“Good. Busy.”

Butterfield nodded. “How’s the ranch?”

“Good.” Dan thought about the last few weeks, but couldn’t come up with anything other than a second, “Busy.”

Butterfield smiled faintly. “Still a man of few words, hmm?”

Dan cocked his head and hid his answering smile.

“Miss Emma says you don’t come into town all that much anymore.”

“Just been keeping to myself, is all. Not a lot of call to socialize, these days.”

“I heard your wife is in Colorado. Is it because of your youngest?”

Dan nodded. “He got real bad, early in the year, and the doc said he needed to be in a place where they could take care of him all the time.” He shrugged, then added, “My oldest, William, ran off a few months after I got back from Contention.”

Butterfield nodded and Dan could see the news wasn’t a surprise. Which stood to reason—the town loved gossip more than anything.

After a strained pause, Butterfield downed his whiskey and said quietly, “I myself have had troubles. My wife of twelve years died last month.”

That explained the black. Dan frowned and muttered, “I’m sorry.” He poured Butterfield another drink, even though it wasn’t his to pour.

Butterfield turned to look out the window and said absently, “She was out one day for a stroll and was bitten by a snake or spider—the doctors weren’t sure which. Her leg swelled up and turned black. They amputated, but she died ten days later.”

His voice was bald with pain and Dan didn’t know what to do, what to say, so he repeated, “I’m sorry. Grayson.” It felt awkward, using the first name, but Butterfield’s face lightened and he turned and gave Dan a weak smile.

“Thank you, Dan. I appreciate it.” He drank the rest of his whiskey and pushed the glass out of the way. “Now, I imagine you’re wondering what I’m doing here.”

Dan nodded.

“I’m out here for a few days on railroad business, but I had some news that I thought might interest you.” He paused to look Dan straight in the eye. “Ben Wade’s been seen in the area.”

Dan blinked. His heart stuttered, then began to beat in dull, thick strokes.

“It’s been so long since anyone’s seen him, we all thought he’d left the country or was dead, but a Union Pacific man swears he saw him in Pima County, only a few weeks ago.”

Dan nodded again, the only movement he seemed to be able to make as shock worked its way up through his belly to his chest. His hands and feet were cold, he noticed dimly. He cleared his throat. “Are you sure?”

Butterfield nodded. “Sure enough to make the trip out from Tucson to Bisbee, just to let you know.”

“Are you asking me to hunt him down?”

“No,” Butterfield said firmly. “No, nothing like that, Dan. I just wanted you to know.”

“You think he’ll come after me?”

Butterfield gave Dan a long considering look and shrugged. “Actually, no, I don’t. You’re the one man I’m not worried about.”

It was a strange statement. Dan didn’t know what to make of it.

Butterfield reached for his glass and began turning it round again. “You know about Wade’s men, don’t you?”

Dan frowned and shook his head. “What about them?”

“Jorgensen was found dead up north of Page, almost a year ago. Then it was Sutherland and the Apache, outside of Reno. Frank Jackson and Charles Kinter were found a few months after that in Abilene, dead as well.”

Dan didn’t bother showing any false grief over the news. Those bastards deserved everything they got.

Butterfield nodded as if hearing Dan’s unspoken thoughts. “And that fiend, Campos? He died eight months ago in Mexico. He was found in an alley with a bullet in his brain and another in his heart.”

“Someone’s killing Wade’s men?”

“Or he’s killing them himself.” Butterfield paused and picked up his glass, then put it down. Dan knew he was about to get to the main reason for his unexpected visit. “Do you recall anything from your time with Wade—anything about his plans? Did he tell you he was going to kill his men, and why?”

Dan was shaking his head before Butterfield finished speaking. “No, he told me nothing. I was out of my head, mind you, but I don’t remember anything.” Which was a lie of such magnitude that God should strike him dead, right in this chair.

“That’s what I told the Board. They still have that bounty on Wade’s head. They were going to rescind the offer, then this came up. It’s a lot of money to keep out there, indefinitely. We thought, since we hadn’t heard anything all summer, that he was dead, and now,” Butterfield shrugged, “he’ll be too tough to catch if he’s holed up somewhere, or gone straight.”

“That hardly seems likely,” Dan said dryly. “What about the Federal warrant?”

“There’s been so many times Wade slipped through the law’s fingers, I think if they had really wanted him, they’d have caught him by now. And since he hasn’t bothered the Southern Pacific in eleven months, I’ll be ordered to leave him be.”

Dan clenched his jaw. It was typical—the law might as well not exist as far as Ben Wade was concerned. Then he asked about the one man Butterfield hadn’t yet mentioned, the one that was the worst of them all, “And Charlie Prince?”

Butterfield shook his head and said, “No one has seen or heard from Charlie in over nine months. I got news that he was trying to gather up a pack of men in Mexico, but from what I hear, that didn’t pan out.”

“So Wade’s cut him loose? That’s strange.”

Butterfield nodded and was quiet a moment, then said thoughtfully, “I’d lay wages that Charlie knows Wade’s been killing his own men, that he knows he’s on the list as well, and is taking pains to make himself scarce.”

“You think he’s hiding out, hoping Wade won’t find him?”

Butterfield raised one eyebrow. “Wouldn’t you?”

Dan didn’t answer. If Ben Wade was after him, he knew he couldn’t find a hole deep enough to hide in. Wade was like a force of nature that way: implacable, resolute. If he wanted Dan, he’d find him. But Charlie was another matter— “I think Charlie Prince is more than a little insane, but he’s also clever. I can’t see him running for very long.”

Butterfield nodded and pulled out his pocket watch and opened it up. He sighed and pushed back his chair. “Well,” he put away the watch and stood up, “I have to be off. It was nice seeing you again, Dan.” He held out his hand and Dan stood and took it. “I’m sorry about your wife and your sons. If I see William, I’ll be sure to let you know—he’s a good boy.”

Dan put on his hat and picked up his rifle. He nodded to Emma and followed Butterfield outside. They paused in the street and Butterfield turned to Dan. “Do you have business here in town?”

Out in the clear daylight Butterfield’s eyes were even redder, and Dan felt another measure of pity. “I need to have it out with Hollander. He’s been messing with my fence again.”

“Do you want me to come along?”

Dan smiled. “No, I can handle it. He doesn’t like me anymore than he did before, but he’s left me be, for the most part.”

“He’s afraid of you.”

“Seems so.”

Butterfield grinned, and this time his smile reached his eyes. “It’s good to see you doing well, Dan. Let me know if you hear anything about Wade, will you?”

They shook hands once more and Dan watched Butterfield walk away slowly.

‘Doing well.’ 

Dan wouldn’t have called his life or any part of it, ‘doing well,’ but maybe from Butterfield’s perspective, it was. He suddenly wished William were around so he could have seen and heard Butterfield. William had the wrong idea about life, and no idea about perspective. Dan had never been able to get him to understand that everyone had a burden, no matter how rich or famous.

Dan shouldered his rifle and turned towards Hollander’s building.

As usual, Hollander was behind his desk, counting his money. Lawrence Ingerson, one of Hollander’s oldest hires, sat behind him in the shadows, reading a paper. Hollander looked up when Dan walked in, then put the cash away. “What can I do for you, Evans?”

“Same as last, Hollander.”

Hollander frowned. “The fence? I don’t know anything about it.”

“Sure you don’t.”

Hollander pushed back his chair and propped his boots on the desk. He lit a cheroot, insultingly slow, then shrugged. “I don’t care if you believe me or not, Evans, but I spent the entire week here in town, taking care of business.”

Dan asked sarcastically, “So you’re telling me my fence just up and broke? All by itself?”

Hollander shrugged. “It’s your fence, your problem. I’m not paying to have it fixed, not when I didn’t do it.”

“What about your men? They been in town the entire week, as well?”

Hollander smirked and said, “What they do in their free time is their own business.”

Dan scowled and looked around. Ingerson stood up and put his hand on his hip. Dan weighed the situation, then decided it wasn’t worth it. He nodded tersely and left.

He strode down the street, letting his frustration lengthen his strides. He hated to admit it, but Hollander had been telling the truth. So it was either one of Hollander’s crew or common vandals. But that didn’t make much sense; his property was out of the way of all the important routes. Free grazers were a possibility, but unlikely—the fence wasn’t that long and his land not that tempting.

Dan shrugged mentally and unhitched his horse. He swung up in the saddle and turned the gelding towards home.

He was on the outskirts of town when he felt a strange pressure, like an invisible hand, heavy and warm, on the back of his neck. He turned in the saddle and scanned the town. There were only a few people on the street and they were going about their business. He couldn’t see anything or anyone unusual, try as he might.

He turned back around and told the gelding to get along. The town was far behind when he finally felt the pressure ease and disappear.

***

By the time Dan got home the sun was on the wrong side of noon. He’d stayed too long talking to Butterfield and missed most of the day, missed the chance to repair the fence. He crossed his fingers that the cattle would be sensible and stay on Evans land and spent the next hour in the kitchen garden, hoeing out the weeds and stray plants while the dog looked on.

The vegetables were coming in fine. He’d already had a crop of tomatoes come and go, and the carrots were about ready to pick. He wasn’t sure about the squash. The leaves looked a little scraggly and limp—he hoped he hadn’t planted the seeds wrong. But then, he didn’t like squash all that much, so it wouldn’t be a huge loss if they went bad.

He’d never been much for gardening—that had been Alice’s provenance. But after she had moved and it was left to him, he’d discovered the simple joy in waiting for the plants to break through the soil, in the rhythm of the hoe. He understood, now, why Alice would go out to the garden after they’d had an argument about money, or when she was worried about Mark. The work was mindless and soothing, and somehow made problems go away.

When Dan hung up the hoe and took off his hat, he was in a soft mood, calm and relaxed. He had more chores, the endless process of a ranch, but a warm wave of laziness washed over him. All the work could wait—right now, for no reason at all, he wanted a bath.

He went inside and filled the kettle and the Dutch oven with water and set them on the stove. He lit the waiting kindling and watched until it was time to add more wood. After the fire was steady, he went into a room he hardly ever used and stood in the middle, lost in thought.

Besides a few pieces of furniture, one of the luxuries he’d purchased with the railroad money was a proper indoor bathroom for Alice. It connected to their bedroom and had its own small window that looked west onto the open prairie.

It was small and simple, but it had a big cast-iron bathtub that stood in the center of the main room. Alice had loved the bathtub. The day the room was finished, she’d filled the tub with scalding water and refused to get out until the water grew too cold to bear.

Dan had grinned at her, saying her skin looked like the outside of peach pit. She had splashed water at him and laughed when he got soaked. Later, after the boys were long in bed, they’d come together sweetly and she told him how much she loved him.

Dan rarely used the room. Like the house, it had too much of Alice everywhere, with its white paint and flowery curtains. He felt large and clumsy in this room, as if he didn’t belong in something so nice and pretty.

He’d thought about dragging the tub to the pantry, where the old one had stood before, but he hadn’t. Alice and Mark would return one day, and it felt almost blasphemous, the idea of altering the room that Alice had loved so much.

The loneliness that was never too far away tugged at his heart and he forced himself to move, to shake out the emptiness. He went to the kitchen to check on the water. It wasn’t boiling, but it was close enough. He hefted the kettle and the pot to the bathroom and emptied them into the tub.

He made three more trips that way, adding cold water at the end, until the tub was filled halfway. He got a towel and bar soap and set them on the chair by the tub. The dog stood on his hind legs to see inside, and Dan said sternly, “No bath for you.” He pointed to a corner and the dog reluctantly slunk away, eyeing his every move.

Not wanting to get the bathroom dirty, he stood in the doorway to disrobe. First his shirt and undershirt, then his boot. He had to prop himself against the doorjamb to unbuckle the leg. As always, he avoided looking at the mangled stump. It still made him sick, every time he looked at it—he doubted he’d ever get used to it.

Lastly, he slipped off his trousers and drawers, and hopped to the tub and slipped in. The hot water enclosed him. He drew a deep breath and sank until his head was covered. He floated submerged, staring up at the water-distorted ceiling until he lost his breath and had to come up for air.

He missed so many things from back home—the town, the woods, but this was the thing he missed most—water. The ocean, the rivers, the lakes—there was none of that here. When he thought about it, which wasn’t very often, he had to wonder how he stood it.

He had a faint memory, one of his oldest, of falling into a creek near his home and his mother picking him up and laughingly holding him to the sky, saying, you’re my waterbaby. He must have been two or three back then, because he thought he could also remember that she’d turned and said, ‘Daniel, see? He’s a waterbaby.’

It was a cloudy memory, one Dan was never sure was real or imagined. He liked to think it was real, liked to think at some point his father had been around when he was young, that there was a time when his parents had felt some sort of affection for each other.

Daniel Evans, Sr. died when Dan was younger than Mark was now, and Dan could barely remember him. When his father died, his mother changed overnight. Then changed again when Dan’s much-beloved older sister died from a fever when he was fourteen. Her death broke his mother’s spirit, and their home became a place of perpetual mourning. When the war came calling, Dan didn’t hesitate to answer.

He hadn’t seen his mother in years. Dan had promised her that he’d bring the family back for a visit, but he hadn’t kept that promise. She hadn’t seen Mark since he was five, didn’t know that William had run off.

Frowning at the thought, he reached for the soap and began washing vigorously as if that would wash away the past. He started with his foot and worked up. When they were first married, Alice had teased him about it, saying he didn’t have to be so regimental about bathing. He told her it saved time and made sure that all of him was clean. He left his hair for last and it felt good, scrubbing out the dust and grime of the last four days. He really did need to get it cut, though—wet, it was past his shoulders.

When he was done, he lay back and relaxed. The soapy water was still hot and it made him sleepy.

He thought about the day, about Hollander, about Butterfield and his news. What were the chances that Ben Wade was still alive? Very good, it seemed. Dan should have known that Wade was one of those people that was too bad, too ornery, too damn real to do anything as ordinary as die.

He grinned softly and with a mental command he could feel, he let loose the lock he had on his memories and they tumbled out, one after the other. Memories of Charlie Prince and his fellow criminals, of the crabby train guard and the doctor from Maricopa who’d fixed his arm, and finally, of Wade himself.

In the past year, Dan had never thought of Wade of his own volition—the memories came as if by accident. A month ago when he’d overheard Len Mott going on about the problems with the Apaches, he’d pictured Wade’s response, imagined his sharp smile as he went in for the verbal kill. Or when he had to meet with the new bank president, a man whose shoes were so shiny they caught the light, he remembered Wade’s snide comment about Butterfield and had to hide a grin.

Dan always pushed those memories away as soon as he was aware of them, simply, and effectively, by thinking of something else.

It wasn’t hard—generally, his memory wasn’t ever that good. Alice could remember much of her childhood, so could William. But Dan had a difficult time calling up the past and usually the pictures that came with the memories were vague and confusing, as if he’d been half asleep the whole time he was living.

The week he’d spent with Wade was no different. The Apache attack, the trouble with the railroad men, the gunfight with Wade’s men—all Dan could remember of those times were bits and pieces, not the complete whole.

But Wade himself? Dan’s recollections of him were distressingly clear.

All he had to do was close his eyes and Wade’s face and form realized perfectly, as if he were standing not a foot away. The elegant black clothes, the long legs. The small smile he got when he did something especially cruel, the way his green eyes lit up when he laughed.

His hair, Dan remembered with a small pang, curled at his neck and was a thick, true gold.

Dan stirred restlessly, causing a small wave of water to push against his body. He did it again, trying to dislodge the weight that had settled behind his chest because it seemed to him now that he’d never not stopped thinking of Wade, that a ghost-Wade had walked with him, rode with him, every step of the last eleven months.

And why that should be, he did not know. All told, he’d known Wade a handful of days. Not nearly enough to truly know a person or to feel bound to them.

Nevertheless…

By the time Wade had got him to the Maricopa train station, Dan was slipping in and out of consciousness. He could never remember how they got from the train to the station or just when the doctor arrived—he couldn’t even remember how he got in that bed.

What he did remember were things that he wished he could forget—the way Wade took care of him, the things he’d said when he thought Dan wasn’t awake. How, at the very end, he’d stood above Dan, looking strangely lost. He’d leaned over and touched Dan’s cheek with the back of his fingers, gently, as you would a child or a loved one.

Dan could feel that touch as if it had just happened and he ran his hands up over his thighs, to his chest, then his face. He stroked, then scrubbed at the spot. It was only fantasy, he assured himself, that he could still feel the year-old touch.

But somehow the memory that burned deepest was Wade’s simple words of friendship. Of the friendship he felt for Dan. He’d seemed so resolute and sure, as if no one, not even Dan, could change his mind.

Dan had no friends. Not since the before war and that was almost sixteen years ago. During the war, he’d forged a friendship with a man from the town next over, and it had been a pleasure sharing a tent, a fire, and conversation. The friendship had lasted until their unit was split up. Dan never saw his friend again. He’d gotten wounded during the next skirmish and after that he had no time for anything but pain.

Dan wondered what it would be like to have such a friend, now that he was older. Someone to help him out with those two-person jobs that came up more often than not. Someone he could spend an evening with talking about the ranch, or what was happening in the world around them. Maybe even just someone he could play a hand of poker with.

The men of Bisbee, they were friends with each other. Every time Dan went to the saloon, there were men together, talking, laughing and playing cards. Dan was usually the only one alone.

Even Hollander had a friend from a neighboring ranch, south towards Douglas. They met up from time to time. Dan had seen them in the back room of the saloon, talking and laughing, no doubt gossiping about the people on the other side of the curtain.

Dan imagined it, imagined it was him doing the chatting and laughing, enjoying the company of someone other than himself. He couldn’t build a complete picture—he’d fallen out of the ways of friendship and he’d never been much of a conversationalist in the first place.

Although, he mused, that wouldn’t matter with Wade. Wade was a chatterbox, gregarious and mouthy. He’d more than likely fill in the gaps made by Dan’s lack of conversation.

Imagine having a cutthroat, thieving murderer for a friend? It was such a ludicrous notion that Dan grimaced with black humor.

But…

Dan’s grin died because he couldn’t argue that it would also be an adventure, having the notorious Ben Wade as a friend. Wade had said he’d been everywhere and seen everything, and Dan believed him. Dan’d never had a hankering to see much beyond Bisbee until he heard Wade’s stories. Now he thought it might be interesting to see what lay west of Arizona.

That was, Dan reminded himself firmly, if he’d been stupid enough to encourage a friendship with a criminal like Wade. Which he hadn’t no matter how many times Wade had offered. In any case, it would’ve been a mighty short friendship since Wade would likely end up on the wrong end of a rope, if he wasn’t dead already.

Dan moodily ran his hand over the water’s surface, wondering again if it could possibly be true, if Ben Wade could still be alive. It really made no difference to him except he didn’t like the idea that a killer had escaped justice, even if that same killer had saved his life more than a few times.

He shrugged away the twists and turns of his own thoughts and brought himself back to the here and now. He put the memories back in their proper place and reached for the bucket. He poured the last bit of water over his head and shouted at the cold. The dog echoed his yelp and Dan grinned down at him. “Think I should call you Rex?”

The dog sat up, grinned, and yipped again.

“All right, Rex it is.” Dan pushed himself out of the tub and carefully got out. Rex trotted over. “It’s a good thing no one else is here or they’d think I was crazy, talking to a flea-bitten dog.” Rex didn’t answer.

Dan hopped into the bedroom and over to the bureau. He looked back. Rex had followed, but was standing in the doorway, facing the main part of the house, on alert. With a low growl and a bark, he took off. Dan heard him scrabbling through the rooms, his rapid barking fading in the distance. Probably off to scare away a coyote or maybe just to harass the chickens. It was something they were still working on, the idea that chickens were part of the ranch and to be left alone.

He shrugged at the dog’s behavior and pulled on a clean pair of drawers and undershirt. He thought about wearing the clothes he’d had on earlier but decided against it. He put on his last clean pair of trousers and then his leg. He needed to do laundry soon.

When he finished dressing he hauled the bath water to the garden, then went to stand on the porch.

The sun was on its way down. The empty feeling of earlier came back, but it was muted, without teeth. He was lonely, yes, and he missed the comfort of his wife, the noisy presence of his boys, but his situation could be worse.

Almost a year ago he’d been at the end of the rope. Now his land was his, truly his. He had water, a solid roof over his head and a healthy herd of cattle. And he’d hold onto it until Mark was of age, or William returned.

Dan stood there a moment longer, trying to convince himself that the land was all he’d ever need, then he went inside to make his supper.

After the meal he did his chores and checked on the animals. On his way back to the house, he whistled for Rex, and the dog came running from behind the barn. Dan patted him on the head and told him he was in trouble for being gone so long, then they both went in. Dan locked up and went to bed.

He woke up later that night, sure he’d heard something outside. He sat up. Rex was stretched out on the foot of the bed, looking towards the door, but not alarmed. He didn’t bark or whine, and eventually laid his head on his paws and looked sideways at Dan.

Dan listened a while more until sleep dragged him back down. He lay back, promising himself that he and Rex would have another discussion in the morning, this time about who was allowed on the bed, and who was not.

***

The next day the quick trip to mend the fence turned out quicker than Dan had planned.

When he got to the section that had been cut, he was startled to find the entire length had been restrung. He rode up and down the line, making sure he was in the right place. When he realized that yes, this was where the fence had been damaged the last time, he dismounted and examined the wire. Sure enough, someone had clipped the old pieces short and added the new lengths.

He turned in a circle, thinking he’d see that very someone in the distance, but all he found was the open prairie and a cow and her calf, watching him curiously.

He looked down a the fence again and gently fingered a barb. The only thing he could figure was that Hollander had ordered his men to repair the damage. Which didn’t make since because Hollander had never done anything to make reparations, other than hand out a few coins.

He rode back slowly, glancing around every once in a while to see if he was being followed. He wasn’t, but he couldn’t shake his unease. It was an odd thing, the fence—he wasn’t sure why it bothered him so.

When he got home, he was out of sorts and his regular schedule of working until late afternoon held no attraction. He wandered around the house, touching this and that, almost blindly. Finally, after picking up and setting down the Bible for the third time, he put on his hat, fed Rex and the mare, and re-saddled the gelding.

He had no excuse for quitting so early, but it was Friday, and today, that was all the excuse he needed.

***

The streets of Bisbee were unusually busy and Dan tipped his hat to more than a few people as he rode through the milling crowd of surveyors, prospectors, ranchers, women and children.

He hitched the gelding as near to the saloon as he could and went inside. The bar was as noisy and as crowded as the streets. Dan thought about retreating, then decided to just deal with the commotion. He pushed towards the back and made a place for himself at the bar. He caught Emma’s eye.

She smiled at him and brought his favorite whiskey. “Afternoon, Dan. To what do we owe the pleasure?”

“Just feeling like a visit, is all.”

Emma sat a glass down poured with an expert twist of her wrist. “Having a holiday?”

“Something like that.” He tossed back the whiskey and slid the glass forward for another. The alcohol burned as it traveled down his gullet and he smiled at the warmth it brought.

Emma poured another measure and leaned forward, pretending to wipe the countertop. “Feel like taking a bit of a holiday upstairs?” she asked quietly.

Dan hesitated and glanced up to the room above. For the first time he was tempted with the idea of spending a few hours with her. It would be a simple business arrangement and a nice way to end the week. He sighed and shook his head. No matter how far away Alice was, no matter how much the touch of another human hand would be pleasant, it wasn’t worth it. He shrugged one shoulder and said, “I’m sorry.”

Emma flushed slightly and said, “Dan, I swear, you’re the only one who has ever turned me down.” She capped the whiskey bottle. “Alice is lucky.”

She turned away, but Dan reached over and touched her arm. “Emma, it’s not that.” He shrugged again and muttered, “I mean, it would be wrong to take advantage of you like that.”

Emma pursed her lips, then smiled, honestly and sweetly. She leaned in again and whispered, “Now you’ve done it, Dan Evans. Now I’m half way in love with you.” She laughed at the look on Dan’s face, then returned to her other customers.

“What did she say, to make you blush so?” a jovial voice asked at Dan’s shoulder.

Dan turned to find a stranger at his side, staring straight at him. He was younger than Dan by ten or so years and clean-shaven, with fair skin burned red by the sun. His clothing was expensive, but worn with recent work. He hadn’t been out here for very long.

Dan sipped his whiskey. The man’s eyes were a startling ice blue. They reminded Dan of someone, but he couldn’t think who. He asked cautiously, “Who are you?”

The stranger stuck out his hand and Dan grudgingly sat his glass down to take it. “Zachary Butterfield. And you, I believe, are Dan Evans.” Butterfield laughed at Dan’s surprise. “I see you’ve made the connection.”

“You’re Butterfield’s brother?” Dan shook his hand again, this time in earnest.

“Indeed I am.” Zachary let go of Dan’s hand and propped an elbow on the bar. “My brother brought me out here to learn the railroad business and I decided to stay on in Bisbee for a few days longer.” He caught Emma’s eye and pointed at Dan’s glass. “I wanted to meet you, you see,” he added with another grin.

Dan watched in puzzlement as Emma poured Zachary a drink.

Zachary sipped the whiskey, then wiped his mouth. “I’ve caught you by surprise.”

Dan shrugged.

“Is that man Glen Hollander?” Zachary pointed over Dan’s shoulder, and Dan turned to look. Hollander was in the back, talking to Frank Adams. Dan nodded. “My brother told me about him, as well. Said he was a hard son of a bitch.”

Zachary announced the words so casually, so cheerfully, that Dan was jolted out of his speechlessness and he laughed out loud. “That he is. Would you like to sit down?” He nodded to a table on the far side of the room.

Zachary picked up the bottle with another nod to Emma and said to Dan, “Lead on.”

Dan threaded his way through the crowd to the small round table. He sat with his back to the wall and waited until Zachary sat down before asking, “So, how do you know about me?”

Zachary poured them each a glass. “Would it surprise you to know that your name is almost a legend at my family’s dinner table?”

Dan smiled, bemused. “It would. Why?”

Zachary rested his elbows on the table top and said, “Because when my brother came home for a visit last year, all he could talk about for those two weeks was you and what a hero you were and how you coolly brought Ben Wade himself to justice when no one else could, even though the bastard got away.” He leaned back in his chair and gave Dan a blinding white smile.

Dan opened his mouth, then shut it again. He looked out the window, then back to Zachary, trying to work through the shock. He couldn’t imagine tight-lipped Butterfield going on about anything, especially someone as unimportant as himself. And he couldn’t imagine anyone thinking he was a hero, no matter what he’d done.

Dan shrugged and looked down at his glass. “I wasn’t a hero. I just did what had to be done.”

“Gray said you’d say that.”

Dan shrugged. “Anyone would have done the same.”

“And he said you’d say that, also.”

“Butterfield—”

“Call me Zachary. ‘Butterfield’ all by itself always sounds like a circus name to me.”

Dan was surprised into laughing again. Except for the bright blue eyes and the fair hair, the two brothers couldn’t be more dissimilar. Grayson Butterfield was serious and focused and arrogant. Zachary Butterfield seemed as if he was born with a smile on his face.

Generally, Dan didn’t trust cheerful people—from his experience they tended to be foolish and lacking in brains. Zachary was different. Even though they hadn’t shared more than a couple dozen words, Dan could see the sharp intelligence lurking behind his lighthearted face. “You’re not like your brother, are you?” Dan said, unthinkingly putting his private thoughts into words before he could stop himself.

But Zachary didn’t seem to mind. He grinned and said, “I can outshoot him, outride him and out drink him, but no, we’re not alike except in feature. He’s always seen the rocky side of things.” He grew somber. “But then, Gray’s had a hard time, lately.”

“He told me about his wife.”

Zachary nodded. “It was such a sudden turn. One day she was fine, the next she was dead. I’d known her since I was thirteen. I’ve only brothers so she was a sister to me, to us all. My parents are still in mourning.”

Dan swallowed and nodded. He knew that grief, for all his was over twenty years old now.

Zachary reached for the whiskey and poured another drink. “And here I am, spoiling your afternoon.” He smiled again but Dan could see the effort it took.

Dan shook his head. “No, no, it’s fine. I don’t mind.”

“Well, then, how about I spoil it some more and get you to tell me how you brought Wade in. I heard you all lost a half dozen men.”

The last thing Dan wanted was to talk about himself, but the sadness was still in Zachary’s eyes and it was a little thing, providing a distraction. He cleared his throat, took off his hat, and began telling the story of his encounter with Ben Wade and his gang.

***

By the time Dan finished talking, by the time Zachary was done with his questions, the sun had long since set, suppertime had come and gone, and Dan’s throat was dry. He hadn’t talked so in a long, long time.

The only thing Dan didn’t speak of were the days after Wade had got him on the train. He’d never told that portion to anyone, not even Alice. He’d convinced himself, on the road home from Maricopa, that the omission was necessary, that there was no sense telling a tale no one would understand. A year later, the deception no longer bothered him.

But as to the rest, he found it was surprisingly enjoyable, sharing the story. Zachary was a good listener and asked good questions.

He asked if McElroy had really died on that cliff or if he’d survived the fall, if there’d been any revenge from the Apache tribe they’d had a run in with, if the townspeople of Contention ever faced any reprisals for their part in their deaths of the marshal and his deputies.

Dan didn’t know the answers to the questions and it made him a little ashamed. He should have at least inquired after McElroy.

No one, as far as he knew, had ridden out to see if McElroy had died that day or not. Dan doubted anyone could survive that fall, even one as stubborn and rawboned as McElroy. He said as much, and Zachary nodded gravely.

They were quiet a moment, and then Zachary sighed and sat back in his chair. He looked around and said, “Well, Dan, I’ve taken up enough of your time and it looks like they could use the table.”

Dan glanced up and to his astonishment, he saw that every table and every corner was filled with men and a few women. Emma was hurrying in from the back room with a tray of glasses and a harried look on her face.

Dan shook his head. He’d been so engrossed in his companion that he hadn’t noticed the saloon filling up. He hardly ever did that, become so lost in a conversation that he forgot his surroundings. It was nice, though, just sitting and talking—he felt unusually peaceful and relaxed.

They stood at the same time, and as Zachary led the way through the crowd, he said, “Is there any place to get something to eat? I missed my dinner and the hotel doesn’t serve past eight.”

Dan had to lean in close to be heard over the noise. “The boarding house across the street has meals at all hours.”

Zachary smiled back at him. “Is the food any good?”

“Do you care?”

Zachary laughed and shook his head. “Not really, no. I could eat a dead dog, I’m that famished.”

Dan rolled his eyes at the idea, and they left, making way for a group of newcomers as they passed through the bat-wing doors.

The night air was refreshing after the heat of the saloon and it washed over Dan, cooling his warm cheeks. He put on his hat and looked up and down the street. Except for a group of men down by the grocer’s, they were alone and an odd tension replaced some of the ease. He turned to Zachary and said abruptly, “I should be heading home. Got my animals to see to.”

“Sure I can’t talk you into coming with me?”

Dan shrugged. It would be pleasant, eating something other than his own cooking—the company would be nice, as well. “I guess not. Maybe some other time?” He hadn’t meant to make it a question.

Zachary cocked his head and said, “I’m in town until next Wednesday, staying at the new hotel. Gray wants me to ride out to meet with the surveyors on Monday or Tuesday and we always eat Sunday supper together. How about tomorrow night? I can come out to your place, if you like.”

The tension receded and Dan smiled. “That’d be fine.” He unhitched his horse as he gave Zachary the directions. He swung into the saddle. “I’ll see you tomorrow?”

Zachary put his hand on the gelding’s neck and stroked him slowly. “Is seven okay? I think Gray will keep me busy until four or five.”

“Seven is fine. I should be done with my work by then.” Zachary reached up and they shook hands.

Like the other day, he wasn’t a few feet down the street when he felt the same sense of presence at his back and he knew Zachary was standing there, watching him. He twisted in the saddle, thinking to give his new friend a mock frown, but the street was empty.

Dan turned back around and rubbed his neck. He wondered if he was going crazy. He’d heard more than a few tales how men went clean loco after spending too much time alone on the Arizona plains.

The feeling persisted, however, and he heeled his horse harder than usual, anxious to get out of town.

As before, the pressure disappeared as soon as he got a distance from town. By the time he got beyond the first low rise, the feeling was gone and he was able to relax and review the evening. He replayed the conversation, thinking on the Butterfield brothers and how they were alike and not alike.

When he got within sight of the house the gelding picked up the pace, eager to get to his feed. Rex was waiting at the bridge and they all came in together.

It wasn’t until the horses were taken care of and the chicken coops locked tight, that Dan noticed something odd about Rex. He knelt in the dust and called the dog to him.

Mark had wanted Dan to make Rex a collar, had even gone so far as to make a drawing of what it should look like. Dan hadn’t made it yet. He’d meant to, but there were so many other things to do first, he’d clean forgot.

Rex had a collar now. It was thin and black with silver studs every inch or so, and wrapped around the leather was a sheaf of paper tied with a string. Dan stroked Rex’s head and stared at the collar a long moment. Finally, he unfastened the buckle and took the collar off.

He got to his feet and looked around. There was no one around, but he didn’t expect there to be. He called Rex to him and hurried into the house, his neck itchy as if someone was behind him with a pistol aimed at the back of his head.

He locked the doors and tossed his hat on the peg. He hesitated before building a fire—he usually didn’t start a fire after eight but he was feeling the need for warmth and light. He fed Rex,  then, finally, sat down at the kitchen table and lit the lantern. He ran the collar through his fingers, examining it once more. It was beautifully made, crafted more carefully than he would have done if he had made it. On the inside the leather was stamped, Woodley’s Tack & Feed, Benson, Arizona.

Dan traced the paper still wrapped around the collar—it was thick and creamy and expensive. Bisbee had nothing like it. He’d found that out when he went to buy Mark a birthday gift of drawing paper and pencils.

He shrugged because he was delaying the moment and he knew he was going to open it, so he might as well get it over. He tugged on the string and unrolled the paper.

He wasn’t sure what he expected. Maybe a letter from Hollander containing new threats or something from Mark, although how it would get to Arizona and around Rex’s neck, Dan couldn’t figure, because—

Dan took a deep breath.

His mind was turning in circles and no wonder for he was looking at a drawing of himself, mending a barbed wire fence. It didn’t look much like him; his face was hidden and he hadn’t worn that jacket in over a year, but still, it was him. Behind him, in the distance, were a couple cows were and further back lay a shadowy line of mountains.

Dan picked up the drawing and studied it again, turning it to the light to see better. The figure was crude, and here and there the artist had scratched out a line to start over. There was no signature on the sheet, but then, Dan thought bitterly, it really didn’t need one.

Everyone knew of Ben Wade and his drawings.

At the thought, Dan jumped up and dropped the paper on the table. He grabbed the lantern and hurried outside with Rex at his heels. Of course the drawing was by Wade, of course he was somewhere on the grounds.

He searched the perimeter of the house and the barn. He searched behind the chicken coops, and even looked in the old outhouse. Finally, out of breath, he walked to the edge of the prairie and stared into the dark. Rex sat down beside him and barked once.

Dan’s heart was hammering in his chest and sweat had broken out on his temples. He swiped the moisture away and wondered what the hell he was doing, standing in the dark, hoping to catch a glimpse of his one-time adversary. If Wade had come for him, he sure as hell wouldn’t be sitting in the dirt, waiting for Dan to find him. More likely he was in town with a girl, drinking and talking, charming everyone in sight.

Or maybe he was already long gone and had left the drawing just to tease and frustrate. Muttering, “Damnit,” Dan turned and limped back to the house.

The drawing was still lying on the table, waiting for him. He picked it up warily as if had teeth and studied it one more time. He noticed a few more details: the calf was missing a leg and his own false boot had a tiny hole in the toe. Dan wasn’t sure if the missing leg was intentional or not, but the hole sure was.

Swallowing hard, he carried the drawing to the fireplace and held it over the flames. He tried, but his fingers wouldn’t unlock, and he couldn’t force them. With no conscious decision, he went into the dining room and got the Bible down. He blindly tucked the drawing between two pages, then put the book back on the mantle.

Feeling a bit foolish, Dan called Rex to him and investigated the house, making sure Wade hadn’t pulled a fast one while his back was turned. Finding no one, he locked the doors and the shutters, and went to bed.

***

That night Dan dreamed of Ben Wade. It was a simple, unambiguous dream that jerked him awake and made him curse and swear in shame. He pushed away the covers and stared at the fluid staining his drawers. He swore again and muttered a fervent, ‘Thank God’ that Alice wasn’t there.

He cleaned himself off, changed his drawers, and crawled back into bed. He’d had such dreams before, twice, and he knew wouldn’t be able to sleep again. He lay there until the animals began to stir and the sun brightened the windowpanes. He got up slowly to the day’s chores, more tired than he’d been when he’d gone to bed.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Dan Evans! You in there?”

Dan jerked his head and dropped the lid back on the pot. He wanted to kick the stove in frustration. He should have known better. He shouldn’t have tried making supper. It would have been easier and cheaper to ride to town and purchase a meal from the boarding house, but his pride insisted that if Alice could cook, so could he.

He supposed if he hadn’t been so distracted by the previous night’s events, he would have made a passable meal, but as it was…

He wiped his hands on the dishcloth and went outside just in time to see Zachary Butterfield coming up from the paddock.

Zachary had a large basket in his hands and was dressed more formally than the day before, in a wool suit and a white shirt that was a little dusty from the ride. Dan stopped himself from running his hands over his own dirty clothing. He hadn’t had time to clean up.

“I hope you don’t mind…” Zachary called out and jerked his head to the paddock where his mare was nosing Dan’s. “She’s not mine and I didn’t want her standing about.”

“No, it’s fine. Where’d you get her?”

“Miss Emma knows a man that lends mounts from time to time. Here, can you take this?” Zachary came to stand at the foot of the steps and held the basket up to Dan.

“Sure. What have you got there? It’s heavy.” Dan hefted it to take a peek, but whatever was inside was wrapped up tight in a white linen cloth.

Zachary smiled sheepishly up at Dan. “Now don’t get mad, but I know how it is, being a man on your own. I ordered supper last night at the boarding house. They had a decent stew, and I thought…” He trailed off, and smiled again.

“No, it’s fine. And smart,” Dan said, wryly. “That way you won’t take ill from my cooking. Come on in. The kitchen is this way.”

Zachary took off his hat and followed him. “That bad, eh?”

Dan sat the basket on the table and turned to the stove. He lifted the pot lid to reveal the congealed mess of potatoes, carrots, and beef. He picked up a spoon and poked at a hard potato. “You could say that. Alice made this all the time. I don’t know what I did wrong.”

They stood over the pot, looking on, until Dan realized that Zachary was chuckling, silently. He put his hand on Dan’s arm and said, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but that is the most godawful looking stew I ever did see. Even could do better than that.”

“I should make you eat it, just for that,” Dan growled.

“Then you’d be the one getting me to the doctor when I come down with the gripe.”

Dan couldn’t help but smile.

Zachary, still grinning, clapped Dan on the shoulder and said, “If you find a place for this,” he held out his hat to Dan, “I’ll get started on that.” He turned to the basket and began untying the knot. “Before I forget, have you heard what happened to one of Glen Hollander’s men?” He looked up, and Dan, in the middle of hanging up the hat, paused. At his questioning look, Zachary nodded gravely. “They found him this morning out by Glen’s property line, his throat slit from ear to ear.”

Dan set the hat on the hook, then sat down at the table. “Who was it?”

“A Darnell somebody or other. Miss Emma said he’d been with Hollander only for a short while.”

“Darnell Baylor. He’s an asshole.”

Was an asshole.” Zachary corrected with a shrug “And yes, that’s what I’ve been told.”

“I was here all day.” Dan’s tone was defensive, but hell, he knew what people would say—it wasn’t like his feud with Hollander had been private.

Zachary went back to the basket. “That’s what I told Hollander. He was in his saloon, swearing up and down that it must’ve been you, but everyone, including the marshal, said no, you wouldn’t have done it.”

Dan picked up some of the string Zachary was untying and twirled it about. He’d never felt much for Baylor other than dislike, but still, that was no way for a man to die. “Baylor was a thief and a cheat. The whole town knew it. Probably stole from the wrong man.”

“That’s what Miss Emma says,” Zachary said with a grunt. The knot had proved tough but he finally got it. He pushed aside the linens and said, “Now, I wonder, what do we have in here?”

Dan shrugged off his unease over the news of Baylor’s death and bent over to watch Zachary root around in the linen. “You don’t know?”

“I just told the proprietor I needed a meal for two and I wanted it by five p.m., sharp. They sure gave me a lot of linens, didn’t they? Oh—”

Zachary had finally made it to the food and he hesitated, then looked up at Dan. The devil was in his eyes and his lips were pressed tight with humor. “They must have thought I was picking up dinner for my sweetheart.”

Zachary pulled out the items: a large dish of vegetables, another of beef, and a loaf of brown bread wrapped up in a floral napkin, all of which, to Dan’s mind, didn’t seem romantic in the least. But then he brought out a candle with its own holder, a sheaf of yellow flowers that had been tucked along the curve of the basket, a napkin-full of hard candy and a bottle of wine.

Dan’s face heated and he asked, “I wonder where they got the flowers?” mostly to fill the awkward silence.

Zachary was snickering, almost giggling, thought Dan sourly. It wasn’t that funny.

“Sorry, Dan.” Zachary took a breath and struggled to stop. “Guess you’re going to have to make do with little old me.” He looked down at the basket again and gave a hiccup of laughter, as if he just couldn’t help himself.

“Idiot,” Dan said, but he was grinning now, as well. “Put it all in the dining room. I need to get cleaned up. And leave the flowers here.”

Zachary opened his mouth to say something, probably something smartass by the look in his eye, but he shut it at Dan’s glare and meekly picked up the bread and meat.

Dan left to clean up, knowing Zachary was going to start laughing the minute he was out of sight.

After the awkward start, supper turned out more than pleasant. Zachary was a talker and had many stories to tell of growing up in the South, and then Chicago when the family moved north. In some ways, their childhoods had been similar, in others, they couldn’t have been more different.

It turned out that Zachary was eleven years Dan’s junior, and the youngest of a large family of boys. He’d been expelled from school twice, and each time had talked the headmasters into taking him back before his parents found out. His brothers all worked for the Southern Pacific, but he wasn’t sure if he wanted to follow in their footsteps.

He had a large group of childhood friends back in Chicago that wrote him once in a while, and a couple sweethearts that wrote every week. He’d been to Canada once, Mexico twice, and Europe four times. He spoke French and Spanish and a smattering of Latin, none of it very well by his own admission.

He was, Dan was surprised to find, a staunch abolitionist. Dan thought all Southerners were pro-slavery and said so. Zachary told him that more than a few of his friends had disagreed with popular Southern sentiment, and that even though he was a youngster during the war, he’d had several rows with his elder brothers about it. Only Grayson, he said, also believed slavery to be wrong.

Zachary was very sure of himself and had many opinions, but he was charming, and as the evening grew old, Dan found himself charmed.

They’d finished the wine and had moved on to whiskey when Rex trotted in, interrupting Zachary’s story of how his eldest brother had talked him into joining the Southern Pacific instead of running off to visit the Suez Canal. He called Rex to him and bent down and stroked his head. “We had a dog like this one, back home.”

“You mean a half-breed mutt?” Dan smiled to show he was joking.

“Aw, don’t you know the half-breeds are the strongest, smartest dogs around? Give me a good mongrel over a pureblood any day. Where’d you get him?” He scratched Rex behind his ears with both hands and the dog closed his eyes in pleasure.

Dan pushed his plate aside and leaned on his elbows. Night had fallen and the fire was dying, the candle already dead. Through the open window he could hear the grumble of thunder in the near distance and it smelled like it might actually rain. He hadn’t felt this content in a long while, and it came to him that he was happy. “A fellow was selling them in town, four or five weeks ago. He’s a good dog, just a little stubborn.”

“He’ll settle down soon, I bet. Where’d you get the collar?” Zachary fingered the leather. “It’s pretty fancy.”

Dan sat back. The question, for all it was a simple one, had thrown him. For a brief amount of time, he’d forgotten Ben Wade and his gift. “Found it,” he muttered.

Zachary looked up at him. “Really?”

Dan shrugged awkwardly. He’d never been any good at lying. Problem was, he couldn’t tell the truth. And why that should be was a mystery. There was no call to protect Wade from discovery and no one would blame Dan if he did alert the marshal.

Zachary stared at Dan, then nodded. He sat up and said, “That’s okay. You don’t have to tell me.”

Zachary’s words were low, friendly, and Dan felt like a fool for lying to him. “You want another whiskey?” He picked up the bottle only to find it almost empty. “How’d we manage that?”

Zachary held out his glass with a smile. “Don’t look at me, I’ve been talking too much to drink.”

Dan poured the dregs into Zachary’s glass and said, “I’ve got an extra bottle in the kitchen.” He pushed back to stand up, but Zachary waved him down.

“No, Dan. Don’t get more on my account. I’ve had enough as it is. In fact, I should be going soon.”

Dan craned his head to look at the clock. He was more than surprised to find that it was going on ten. “Huh.”

“Told you I was talking a lot. I made you lose track of time.”

Dan put the watch away and said without thinking, “I liked it.” He flushed and looked down at the table. Damn his mouth, anyway. “I mean, it’s been a while since I had company. I’ve forgotten what it’s like.”

Zachary smiled at Dan. “That’s the first time anyone’s ever said they appreciate my verbal skills.”

Dan shrugged again. His restless embarrassment grew, pushing him into movement. He picked up the dishes and carried them to the kitchen.

He set them down on the sideboard and stared out the window, unwilling to turn around when he heard footsteps behind him. His face was hot and the back of his neck burned. He wasn’t sure what discomfited him more—the admittance that he was lonely, or the realization that he didn’t want the evening to end.

And just yesterday he’d been fretting over the lack of a friend. It served him right. He didn’t remember friendships being this confusing, when he was younger.

“Dan?”

Dan picked up the plates and sat them in washbasin. “Sorry. Just not used to people.”

“I know.”

Dan turned around. Zachary stood on the other side of the kitchen table and in the low light he looked somber and grave and more than a little like his brother.

“When I first came out west, years ago, I was amazed by the space,” Zachary said. “I’d never been to a place that was so damn big, even in Canada. I thought I’d go crazy with all this sky. Back home, it’s a easier, more cozy.”

Dan nodded. For all that Zachary’s words were ambiguously abstract, he understood. “It was like that for me, as well. Only, you get used to it after a while and grow to like it.” Dan crossed his arms. “After the war I needed to get away from people for a while. I’d had enough and wanted some peace. Being out here helps.” He thought to mention the real reason, Mark, but didn’t. If Zachary knew as much as he claimed, there was no need.

They were both quiet for a moment, then Zachary sighed and said, “Dan Evans, I believe that’s the first real, personal thing you’ve told me so far, including yesterday.” He smiled straight into Dan’s eyes and Dan felt something tug on his heart.

The happy mood of the night came back, wrapping Dan up in warmth, like cotton wool. He felt not himself, as if he might do or say something foolish. And suddenly, he wanted Zachary to leave, and he didn’t want him to leave.

He gripped his elbows tighter and stepped back until he was pressed against the sideboard, the dull edge digging into his hip. “Well, don’t get used to it,” he said with a false smile, “my wife, Alice, always says I’m the most shut-mouthed person she’s ever met.”

Zachary laughed with Dan, but he looked away at the same time. Something that had been growing between them, delicate and frail, had broken. Dan had broken it, on purpose. He didn’t want to name the thing, but he could feel its small death.

Without another word, they gathered up the things from the meal and put the basket back in order. Zachary handed the wilted flowers to Dan with a small smile. Dan hesitated then laid them on the sideboard.

He lit the lantern and they walked out together. Rex trotted between them, then took off as soon as they down to the paddock. Dan helped Zachary saddle his horse and arrange the basket. Finished, they walked the horse out of the paddock and Zachary mounted easily.

Dan looked up from below. The thunderstorm he’d been expecting all week had arrived and was low overhead, framing Zachary with its darkness. It cast a shadow over him, giving him a somber, unhappy air. Dan frowned. “You sure you want to ride out tonight? I’ve got plenty of room.”

Zachary shook his head. “It will do me good. Clear my head a bit.”

“If you’re sure.”

“I’m sure. A little rain won’t hurt me. Will I see you tomorrow?”

Dan shrugged. “I don’t know. I’ve got to check on the herd. I’ll make it if I can.” It was a feeble excuse, and Dan realized it the minute the words were out of his mouth.

“Look for me at the saloon. I’m not too fond of the hotel.” Zachary held out his hand with a smile Dan wasn’t sure he deserved and they shook briefly.

With a smile and a wave, Zachary rode off.

Dan waited a long while, watching him grow smaller and smaller until he disappeared all together.

He looked up at the sky again. The air smelled sharply of lighting and his restlessness returned. He looked towards town. If he hurried, he could catch up with Zachary, make sure he got back in one piece. Lightning flashed above, quick and violent. It was followed within seconds by thunder, as if nature was telling him he should just stay where he was.

Shaking himself out of his worry, still on edge, Dan shouted for Rex, “Hey dog, come on!”

He didn’t wait for an answer. He rounded up the mare and called to the gelding to follow. He really needed to get to naming that horse sometime.

He hung the lantern by the door and got the horses settled, warm and snug. He was trying to remember if he’d locked the chicken coops when both lighting and thunder rocked the barn. His heart jumped and he ducked without meaning to. The storm was just about on him and he needed to move quickly if he didn’t want to get wet. He finished up and was hurrying to the doorway when his senses, dulled by the pleasant company and the whiskey, jolted awake.

Someone else was in the barn.

Like the white lightning that flashed again, bright through the barn door, a shiver raced up Dan’s spine. He whirled but he wasn’t fast enough. A weight, heavy and strong, landed on his back, shoving him forward and forward until he hit the barn wall, face first.

With all the food and alcohol in his belly he should’ve been dazed with surprise, but he wasn’t. He knew exactly who was up against him, smelling of leather and sweat, breathing hot in his ear. “Evening, Wade,” Dan said, as evenly as he could.

The breath in his ear hitched, released, and he was free.

He turned slowly.

The barn was mostly shadows, but there was enough flickering light to see Ben Wade standing a distance away. At his feet sat Rex, looking as if he belonged to Wade, not Dan.

Dan sighed shakily and fell back against the wall. It seemed like he’d been waiting for this moment all day, all week, maybe even all year—it was a relief having the waiting over.

Wade looked much the same as he had the last time Dan had seen him—fancy waistcoat that caught the faint light, neat black suit that didn’t. He had the same bowler hat except this one had a plain black trim.

The only thing different, the thing that made Dan’s heart jerk in his throat when he recognized it for what it was, was the look in Wade’s eye. Now, that was most definitely unlike the last time they’d shared a glance. Dan thought of Butterfield’s remark about Wade’s intentions and wanted to laugh.

For Wade was looking at Dan as he’d looked at McElroy and that asshole, Tucker. As he’d looked at Charlie Prince, that day in Contention, right before Charlie had started shooting. Head forward, eyes narrowed with a dislike that bordered on hatred. His right hand were poised over his gun as if just a hint of movement from Dan would bring him to action.

Dan thought of his rifles and pistols, back in the house. Too far away to do any good if Wade had, indeed, come for him.

They stared at each other while the storm broke and the rain came. It pounded and shook the roof, sounding for all the world like an approaching train.

Finally, unable to stand the silent tug of war any longer, Dan said loudly, “You going to say anything or just shoot me, because if it’s the latter, can you get it over with? I’m tired.”

Wade blinked, then blinked again. He straightened and relaxed his stance, but not his gaze. “Hello, Dan.”

Dan said nothing. He’d remembered Wade’s form rightly, but had forgotten his voice. Forgotten the low, rough-silk quality of it. It had always set Dan’s teeth on edge, and now was no different.

“How’ve you been, Dan?”

And that was another thing Dan had forgotten—the way Wade liked to say his given name, adding it to every other sentence whether it was needed or not. “Fine.”

Wade cocked his head. “You on your own?”

Dan could tell that Wade knew the answer to his question, but he only said, “That’s none of your business.” Lighting flashed, followed by a muted roll of thunder. The storm was moving off already.

“Then your guest is gone for the night? He’s not coming back?”

There was something vicious in the way Wade said, ‘guest,’ and Dan hoped he didn’t know Zachary was Grayson Butterfield’s brother. “He’s gone.”

“For the evening?”

“That’s none of your business,” Dan repeated stonily.

Wade smiled for the first time. “Ah, Dan. I’ve missed these exchanges of ours.”

Dan ignored the way his belly tightened at Wade’s smile and muttered, “I haven’t.”

“Are you going to invite me in?”

“You’ve already been in. The other day, right?” It was a shot in the dark, but he saw he hit his mark when Wade’s smile turned to a smirk.

“Maybe I have and maybe I haven’t.”

Dan looked out the open door where the rain was already slowing, then back at Wade. He could keep him out if he really tried, but it was pointless. And dangerous. Wade might be smiling, but his eyes were still watchful, still wary. Dan remembered the way he’d attacked Tucker, the blood on his face after McElroy had beaten him for it, and his happy smile when he’d rolled to his back to lie at Dan’s feet

Heart still beating rough and ragged, Dan muttered, “Well, come on then, if you’re coming.”

He reached for the lantern and left. The rain was soft now, almost done—it hadn’t done much other than cool the air and moisten the ground.

Dan couldn’t hear Wade behind him, but knew he was there, following his every move. It made him nervous and he slipped in a patch of mud near the porch. He would have fallen if it wasn’t for Wade’s hand on his back. His palm was warm and firm through Dan’s shirt. Dan shook him off and stomped inside.

When they got to the kitchen, Dan hung up the lantern. Wade headed straight for the cabinet where the liquor was stored. Rex had followed them in, still at Wade’s feet.

Dan watched Wade get the last bottle of whiskey down. “Make yourself at home why don’t you?”

Wade turned and smiled as if Dan had said the most pleasant thing. “Why thank you, Dan, I believe I will.” He jerked his head to the fireplace and said, “Go lie down, dog.” Rex trotted to the fire and curled up. Wade held the bottle out to Dan with a questioning look.

Dan shook his head. “I’ve had enough.”

“I’ll have mine in the dining room. Will you join me?” Wade didn’t wait for an answer. He turned to the other room, pausing when he spied the flowers on the table. He picked them up and gave Dan another smirk, then left the room.

Dan hesitated. The last thing he wanted was to trade barbs with Wade, but he couldn’t very well leave him in there, alone. He sighed and followed slowly.

Wade was sitting where Zachary had sat, not so long ago. The sight made Dan’s jaw clench. He wanted to tell Wade to move, but Wade would just ask why and Dan didn’t have a good answer. So he sat down at the table, on the opposite end as far away as possible. He shook his head when Wade held up the bottle again.

Wade took off his hat and set it on the table. His hair was dark with sweat, but the ends curled gold and his light beard caught the faint firelight. He looked tired. Tired and careworn. There was a new scar on his brow, half hidden by a lock of hair, and he’d lost weight. But his eyes were the same: bright and knowing and devious.

His gaze never leaving Dan, Wade poured the whiskey into the glass that Zachary had used and raised it to his lips. He took a sip, then sighed. “How do you find me, Dan?”

Dan smirked, deliberately cruel. “Older.”

“And wiser?”

“Can’t say.”

“I hear you’re working this place all by yourself. How’s the arm?” He looked Dan over appraisingly.

Dan stopped the twitch of his shoulders before it could become a self-conscious shrug. “Fine.”

“You need a shave and a haircut.”

“I’ve been busy.”

“Where’s Alice?”

Dan felt a lick of anger heat his breast. This cat and mouse game was typical—he needed to stay calm. “Like I told you, Wade, none of your business.”

“Now Dan,” Wade said in mock reproach, “the way I heard it, your youngest took sick and you sent them both to Colorado.”

“You been asking about me?” Dan pressed his lips together. He’d meant to sound mocking, not complaining.

Wade finished his whiskey in one swallow and said simply, “Yes.”

Dan frowned and reached for the bottle. He poured a measure, telling his hand not to shake because Wade was still staring and it was making him nervous. He gulped the whiskey and returned Wade’s glance, stare for stare.

Wade smiled and picked up the flowers. He held them up and pretended to smell them, then tossed them down. A petal broke off and Dan’s anger grew. “Who’s your new friend, Dan?”

“You been asking about him, too?”

“Do you really need me to answer that?”

“No,” Dan conceded with a heavy sigh. “He’s no one, Wade. Leave him be.”

“You two have a pleasant meal?” Wade nodded to the flowers.

The lick of anger became a flame and Dan leaned back in his chair. He wanted to rush over and hit Wade, but he just clenched his fists and growled, “You were out there the whole time, weren’t you?” He didn’t know why it made him so angry, but it was galling, the idea that Wade had been spying on him, spying on Zachary.

“Not the whole time, no. I had business in town.”

“Business. What kind of business?”

“This and that.”

“This and that,” Dan repeated, mockingly. “You rode in there, bold as you please, I suppose.”

“Dan, I go where I want, you know that. Besides, the town’s grown in the last year and there are a lot of new folks that have never heard of the name Ben Wade.”

“The marshal has and he’ll shoot you as soon as look at you.”

Wade grinned. “Probably, if he can catch me. So far he’s more interested in keeping Emma company than actually doing his duty.”

“He’s all right,” Dan muttered. “He’s only been here a few months. We had to wait a long time for a new one. Your boys made sure of that.”

“Well, they won’t be bothering you anymore, Dan.”

“Yeah, I heard about that.” Dan sat back and smiled, slow and mean. This was something he could use against Wade and it almost made him happy. “Heard they’ve been dying, one by one. You have anything to do with that?”

“What do you think?”

“I think you got tired of your gang and killed them. I think you’re a murderer and a thief.”

Wade raised an eyebrow and smiled indulgently. “I seem to remember hearing the same words out of your mouth, over a year ago. You remember, Dan? The day I saved your life?”

“I remember I didn’t ask for anything.”

“No, Dan, you never do.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Wade sat back, out of reach of the firelight. His eyes glinted when he said, “It means you haven’t changed. You’re still the same ornery, go-it-alone, son of a bitch you ever were. And even when a person goes out of their way to help you, you have no kind words of thanks.” By the time he’d finished speaking, his expression had altered, had become dark and angry.

Dan thought on the words, thought about the meaning just swimming under the surface. In a flat voice, he murmured, “You killed that man.”

“As you just said, Dan, I’m a killer. To whom are you referring?”

“You know who I mean. Hollander’s man. You killed Hollander’s man the other night.”

Wade reached for his glass and didn’t answer.

“You slit his throat.” Dan leaned forward and asked, “Why?”

“Why do you think, Dan?” Wade took a sip.

“Quit your bullshit, Wade. Why?”

But Wade wouldn’t answer. Irritated, Dan looked about the room and his glance fell upon the Bible. The drawing was sticking out from between the pages and Dan caught his breath as understanding came to him.

Turning back to Wade, he said slowly, “You repaired my fence, that second time.”

Wade tipped his glass in Dan’s direction.

“And you killed that man because he done me wrong?”

“He was heading out to poison your cattle. I heard him boasting about it the night before, at the saloon.”

“And your business in town, I take it that was with Hollander?”

Wade nodded. “We’ve come to a little agreement, he and I. He’s to leave you alone, completely, and I’ll let him live. A fair trade, to my mind.”

Dan shook his head, out of words. Wade was crazy. All that murdering and stealing had left him completely crazy. “I don’t need anyone to stand up for me, Wade. And I don’t need you to do any killing for me, period.”

Wade smiled, cheerfully. “Well, to be completely honest Dan, I didn’t kill Baylor. I went there to put the fear of God in him and he got all agitated and stumbled and fell on his own blade.”

“That don’t make it right!” Dan pushed up out of his chair and began pacing back and forth, jerkily, because his leg was starting to hurt. He hated when Wade talked like that, hated the mocking tone of voice that said all of Dan’s worries and concerns were of no great importance. That doing the decent thing was of no great importance.

Frustration got the best of him and he rushed over to Wade. He leaned over him, forcing him back in the chair. “How many times do I need to tell you, I don’t want you or your help.”

But Wade didn’t react the way Dan expected, not at all. Instead of a matching anger, he relaxed into his seat and looked up at Dan like a cat looks at a dish of cream. He shifted again, spreading his legs as if he was making himself comfortable for the night, and smiled. “You sure about that, Dan?” he asked, his voice scarcely louder than a whisper.

Dan swallowed thickly. Once when he was very young, he watched from the safety of his house while a mountain lion stalked a young buck. The buck saw the lion, but didn’t move as if frozen in place. Dan watched in horrid fascination as the lion pounced on the buck, easily killing it. It sank its teeth in the buck’s neck, shook it a few times, then dragged it into the woods.

He spent the next week pondering the incident, wondering why the buck hadn’t even tried to escape.

He didn’t wonder anymore. Like the deer, he was stuck, rooted to the floor by Wade’s eyes and words, words that seemed to echo all the way to his very soul.

He knew what this was—he’d seen it more than a few times during the war. Men pushed by loneliness, and fear, and freedom from everyday restraints, willing to take pleasure in ways they normally wouldn’t.

He just wouldn’t have expected it of Wade, he thought, and then knew it for the lie it was. On the trail from Bisbee to Contention, in that small station house in Maricopa, Dan’d seen how Wade looked at him, felt the purpose in his gaze and had known his intent for what it was.

And he’d ignored it all because, he’d told himself, it didn’t concern him.

Self-deception was never a pretty thing, he thought shakily. His heart was pounding and his fingers were cold. And none of it because he was afraid.

Dan pushed away from his desire the same time he pushed away from Wade, moving so quickly he stumbled. He grabbed hold of the table’s edge and righted himself. Holding on to the table so hard a splinter drove into his thumb, he muttered, “You need to go.”

He expected Wade to mock his fumbling, maybe call him a stubborn fool. He didn’t. He stood and took a step forward.

Dan held himself still and didn’t look up. “Wade, you need to go.”

“Who was your friend, Dan?” Wade asked softly.

Dan shook his head. “I told you—”

“‘No one,’ yes, you told me,” Wade interrupted. He took a step closer. “You’re a terrible liar, Dan Evans.” He took another step. “And I hope for his sake, you’re telling the truth.”

Dan jerked his head up. “Or you’ll do what? Kill him?” He cracked a smile, trying to make a joke out of the words. Wade didn’t laugh.

“No, just scare him a little. Make him question his choice in friends.”

“That’s ridiculous.”

“Just protecting my interests, is all.” Wade came up to stand right front of Dan. He was close enough that Dan could feel his heat, see the tiny lines in the corners of his eyes. Dan shook his head and made to slide past, but Wade grabbed his arms and didn’t let go.

And that was another thing Dan had forgotten, how fast Wade could move when it suited him. William’s whispered words of awe from long ago echoed in his ears and Dan pushed the memory away—he didn’t want to be thinking of his son right now. “You have no interests here, Wade,” Dan growled. He twisted, but couldn’t break Wade’s hold.

“Yes I do, Dan. You might not know it yet, but I certainly do.”

“And this is, what?” Dan stopped struggling. He straightened slowly and turned to face Wade, stepping in until they were chest to chest. “Payment for services rendered back in Contention?”

If Dan thought outraged sarcasm would break Wade’s focus, he was mistaken. Wade bent his head and Dan jerked back. But all Wade did was brush his cheek against Dan’s so he could whisper, “You don’t owe me a thing, Dan. I waited a year, and I’m done with waiting. That’s all.”

That voice, that damnable snake-charmer voice. It made Dan feel things he didn’t want to feel. Weakened him and turned his insides to water.

He tried picturing Alice, tried to remember her face so she could break the hold he was under, but all he could see were Wade’s eyes, dark now, serious and measuring. All he knew was that he’d been lonely too long and he ached to press into Wade, to forget everything and everyone outside this room.

He took a shallow sip of air, then another, and on the second breath he was able to ignore his body’s demands. He didn’t turn his face away when he repeated dully, “You need to go.”

Wade waited for a moment that felt longer, then stepped back. “All right, Dan. I’ll go. For now.”

He didn’t look regretful for the abbreviated evening, and for some contrary reason that sharpened Dan’s anger. “I suppose that means you’ll be back?”

Wade smoothed his hair and put on his hat. “I have another matter to attend to, but, yes, I’ll be back.” He made for the door. “I know you’ll be waiting.”

Dan dropped back to the table, ran his hands over his face, his hair, and clasped them behind his neck. “I hate you.”

Wade was at the door, but he paused and turned. He smiled, almost sadly, and said, “No, you don’t, Dan. You wish you did, but you don’t. You haven’t hated me for a long time.” He touched the brim of his hat and left.

Dan didn’t move. He waited until he heard a horse whinny, heard his horses call out in response. He waited until he heard hoof beats clatter over the bridge, then fade away. He waited some more to make sure Wade was truly gone, then he pushed to his feet and looked around.

Except for the candle dead in the middle of the table, the room felt much as always, quiet and calm, as if the evening had never happened.

Dan closed his eyes because the calm was a facade. He thought if he listened hard enough he could hear the room echo all the anger and roiled emotions that had bled out, this last hour.

But, he reminded himself, maybe he’d also hear the laughter from earlier, when Zachary had been here.

Only which was real, he thought with sudden insight, which was true? The laughter or the anger?

Dan cursed softly at the confusion in his mind and began to clean up. He cleared the table and washed the dishes. He threw the ruined stew away and, after a moment’s hesitation, he tossed the bouquet after. He locked up and called out to Rex, still in the kitchen with his head on his paws. “C’mon, dog.”

He was washing up for bed when he remembered the dream of the other night. He stood before the mirror, staring at his own face. He touched his cheek. If it had been a portent, then it was a mighty sorry one. What had happened tonight was nothing like the dream.

He wasn’t sure if he was relieved or disappointed.

***

The next day Dan stayed at the ranch. He told himself that he’d been ignoring the herd far too long even though it had been less then fourteen hours since he’d checked on them. He found them safe and sound near the creek. He inspected the fence, making sure it was still whole. When he came across the section that had been mended, he gave it only a passing glance.

He rode out to the ridge, but stayed only a short while before turning around. He spent the rest of the day repairing the rungs on Alice’s favorite sitting chair. He tried not to think about Zachary and refused to think about Wade.

Later in the evening he sat down to answer Alice’s latest letter, but only got as far as the salutation before putting pen and paper away. He was in no mood to write. He went to bed early and didn’t dream.

The day after that he spent much the same—riding out to check on the herd, then back home to work on the house and the barn. He washed out some clothing. He thought about the letter to Alice, waiting in the desk, but went to bed that night without writing any further. He just didn’t know what to say to her.

Dan knew why he didn’t want to leave the ranch, knew what he was waiting for, but he never let the thought fully realize into knowledge.

On the fourth day he woke up, heartily sick of himself and his inability to act on what he was now thinking as The Ben Wade Situation. He got up, butchered a hen that wasn’t laying, fed the animals, and rode to town.

He arrived just before eleven and went straight to the bathhouse. For two bits he got himself a proper bath and a shave. When the barber held up his straight razor and asked, “How much,” Dan stroked his beard and said, “All of it.”

Again, he gave himself no reason why, he just acted blindly.

When he was clean and shaved, he got dressed and stood outside on the boardwalk. He turned his face to the sun and closed his eyes for a moment. The air was cold against his naked cheeks—it felt odd, but good. It had been a while since he’d been without a beard. Well before the war.

His next stop was to pick up the mail. The clerk handed him a letter from his mother and one from Alice. He pocketed them and hesitated before walking on down to the saloon. If Wade was still in town he’d most likely be with Emma, but it was Wednesday and Dan wanted to catch Zachary before he left. He needn’t have worried about any unwanted confrontations—there were only a two men at the bar and neither were Wade.

They weren’t Zachary, either, and he thought about heading to the hotel when a voice called out, “Hello, Dan.”

Dan turned to find Emma behind him, listlessly sweeping the floor. She didn’t look well—her normally pale skin was waxy, and there were dark circles under her eyes. But she smiled when he came closer. “Well now, don’t you look good. Although, I almost wouldn’t have recognized you without that beard you were hiding behind.”

Dan ran his hand along his chin and grinned sheepishly. “I probably wouldn’t recognize me, either.”

Emma went back to her sweeping and asked, “You looking for anyone?” She said it casually, bent over her task, but there was a cautious quality about her words that gave Dan pause.

“No,” Dan said slowly, “no one in particular.”

“As you can see, we don’t have a big crowd today,” she said with a laugh that sounded forced. “Most of the men are at that meeting about the mine.”

She was hiding something and a worry he didn’t know was there tightened his chest. “Emma, have you seen Zachary Butterfield?” he asked sharply.

She looked up and he could swear she was genuinely confused at the question. “No, Dan. I haven’t seen him in a few days.”

But Dan was already through the door. Emma called out his name—he ignored her. He hurried down the street to the new hotel on the edge of town.

The small lobby was empty when he got inside. It was plain, holding only a desk, a sofa, and a fancy hat stand. He looked around and spied a door on the other side of desk, hidden by a hat stand. He leaned over the desk and called out an urgent, “Hello?”

A woman came out, wiping her hands on a dishcloth. “Yes?” She was older than Dan, handsome, and very pregnant.

Dan took off his hat and said, “I’m sorry to startle you, ma’am, but I’m looking for someone.”

She frowned and then her face cleared. “You’re Dan Evans, aren’t you? I met your wife, before she left town. I’m Mrs. Randolph.” She looked at him curiously—it was probably Dan’s own guilt that saw her expression as judging.

“Yes, ma’am, that’s me. Is Zachary Butterfield staying here?”

She frowned again and, as if his anxiety was contagious, said quickly, “He was. He checked out yesterday. He seemed to be in a bit of a hurry. Let me ask my husband.” She vanished into the back room.

Dan waited, turning his hat round and round. Nothing had happened to Zachary, he was sure of it. It was just the past few days that had got him so jumpy…

A door slammed and Mrs. Randolph finally returned with her husband in tow. Dan vaguely remembered seeing him at Hart’s a while back, angry at the price of soap. Mrs. Randolph gestured between them and said, “Bill, this is Mr. Evans. You met his wife last year, remember? Mr. Evans is looking for the younger Mr. Butterfield.”

Bill Randolph held out his hand and Dan shook it. “Pleased to meet you—I’ve seen you around. I was going to ride out to your place tomorrow. I have something for you.” He gently moved his wife out of the way and reached under the countertop for a stack of papers. He shuffled them about, saying, “It’s here somewhere. I know I— Ah…” He held up a small envelope and gave it to Dan. “Mr. Butterfield had to leave unexpectedly. His brother came to fetch him and they left at noon.”

Dan took the envelope and nodded to the Randolphs. He went outside and ripped the envelope open. Zachary’s hand was bold with a heavy slant. The letter read:

My dear Dan,

I’m sorry this will catch you unawares, but I’m leaving Bisbee immediately. Gray’s youngest daughter has come down with the Influenza and he’s beside himself. He said he could make the trip alone, but I hate to have him do so, what with one thing and another. 

I don’t know if or when I will ever see you again. I want you to know that I enjoyed our visits. If I ever have chance to travel to Arizona in the future, you can be sure I will make a special trip to your place. 

yrs.,

Zachary

Post Script~ I informed the Boarding House Manager of his mistake with the meal and he laughed a good five minutes. I wanted to give you fair warning, in case he chooses to rib you about it. zb

That was all. Zachary hadn’t been run off by Wade, as Dan had feared. He wasn’t lying dead in a ditch somewhere with his own knife stuck in his throat.

The anxiety that had been choking Dan’s throat gave way and he breathed a sigh of relief. He folded the note carefully and tucked it and the envelope into his pocket. He turned to find Mrs. Randolph still standing at the counter, staring at him unashamedly through the big glass window. She nodded as he turned and left.

Feeling the need for a drink, Dan went back at the bar. He asked Emma for a cup of coffee and a shot of whiskey. He sat in the corner by the window to read his letters. His mother’s was the same as always— long and confusing, with too much information about people he no longer remembered and too little about the people he did.

Alice’s letter, written on fancy crested paper, started off pleasant enough:

Daniel, 

As you’ll see by the postage, I’m writing from West Denver, at the house of Doctor Height’s grandmother. We set out a week early as the weather was especially fine and it seemed a shame not to take advantage of it.

Mark is doing so well that I’m considering staying longer than the week. The air is dry and the altitude is low enough that he’s much more active than he is at the Sanitarium.

Doctor Height is staying on as well. He’s out right this minute, showing Mark how to fish on one of the small creeks that run through the town. Mark, as I’ve said, is doing fine. His coughing bouts are fewer and he’s grown even more. We had to purchase new boots for him, two sizes larger, if you can believe it.

The people here in West Denver are very friendly, and there is much to do. Doctor Height has promised Mark a trip to the opera house. As you can imagine, Mark isn’t looking forward to that. We’ll see. Maybe Doctor Height and I will go alone. I hate to miss any chance of seeing a performance, it being so long since the last time.

And now the reason for my letter: It won’t surprise you, I’m sure, to learn I’m considering moving here permanently. I know what you’ll say, Daniel, but Mark is doing so well, and we must think of him. When you come for a visit, we’ll sit down and talk about it. I haven’t mentioned anything to Mark. He loves you so and I know he would miss you, but his health must come first.

I can hear the boys on the stairs. Mark is laughing and talking very loud. They must have caught a fish. 

Please write when you can,

Alice

Dan reread the note and dropped it on the table. He looked out the window and tried to make sense of what he’d just read.

Alice wasn’t coming back and she had no expectations that he would sell the ranch. And that, in not so many words, meant separation or divorce.

His stomach felt like lead. He picked up the letter and reread the last two paragraphs. He pushed aside the coffee and gulped down the whiskey, then stuffed the letters away and left without a word to Emma. He strode to the livery, got his horse, and gave the boy a penny.

As he rode out of town, onto the open prairie, Alice’s words repeated in his head. ‘…I’m considering moving here permanently.’ It wasn’t even a reassuring, ‘we,’ and just the thought made the lead in his belly melt into a brief but violent anger. She could’ve had least taken the trip to tell him herself instead of write it in a letter.

He kicked the gelding hard, and he had a short, fast run. He had gotten very far when he remembered all the things Alice had sacrificed for him, for the boys, and his anger withered and died. He reined in the horse and stroked him contritely.

He wouldn’t blame her. Life in Bisbee was hard and it was tedious. Most women didn’t last a month—Alice had managed to hold on for five years. When they’d first came out and he’d found the place, he told her it would be rough, but an adventure.

Some adventure. She had left her family and community for this—a land as dry and barren as it could be. She had no friends, no women her own age or social standing to visit with. She must have been so lonely, he realized suddenly. She’d spent her days cooking and cleaning and not much else.

Dan knew that loneliness, that sense of never-ending sameness. If it weren’t for Zachary and Wade, and hell, even Hollander, all he’d have were the uniform days of working and sleeping.

Now his quiet life was turned upside down, first by his wife, then by a man he’d thought long dead.

Dan shifted in his saddle as the night with Wade came back in a jumble of images and unwanted feelings and he had to admit he was glad Wade had escaped the noose. No matter how perverse and sinful it was, hatred wasn’t what he’d felt four nights ago.

The acknowledgement settled the tension still residing in his belly and when he got home he ate a good dinner, read for a while, then went to bed. He slept soundly and dreamed he and Wade were riding side by side next to an ocean’s restless blue edge as a late spring snow fell all around them.

The next morning he fidgeted about the house with Rex at his heels. At ten he rode out and spent the day with the herd, just watching them go about their business. A formless anticipation infused his senses—he felt at once nervous and calm, as if fate, so long in coming, was just around the corner and all he need do was sit back and wait for it to happen.

When he returned home just before dusk, he wasn’t surprised to see smoke drifting from the chimney and a soft yellow glow lighting the windows.

He took his time riding in.

He stabled the gelding and the mare, and looked in on the chickens. He methodically chopped the timber that he’d been meaning to get to for the past two weeks and stacked the logs on the porch. Finally, he gathered up his rifle and saddlebags and walked into the house.

A fire was burning bright in the fireplace and something good smelling was frying on the stove. There was even coffee. Dan went to the stove and leaned over the coffee pot. He took a deep breath. It smelled wonderful. Wade must have brought it with him—Hart’s had been out for weeks.

He wandered into the dining room. He found Wade sitting by the fire, an open book on his lap, without coat or vest, looking as if he owned the place. To complete the picture, Rex lay at his feet with his head on his paws—he had the collar on, Dan noted. Wade smiled and put the book down. He said, mildly, “Dan. It’s about time. I was thinking of sending the dog out for you.”

“His name is Rex.”

“Rex?” Wade leaned over and fondled Rex’s ears. “Well, the name suits the collar if not the dog himself.”

Dan stood still and looked at Wade. He felt as if he was on the edge of a knife-sharp ridge, able to fall either way. He could summon up the dormant anger sleeping under his surface. He could storm and shout. He could even raise his rifle and blow a hole the size of his fist through Wade’s chest.

He did none of those things. He reached up and hung the rifle on the rack, then went to Alice’s bathroom to wash for dinner. He stripped off his shirt and poured water into the basin and scrubbed thoroughly, shivering at the cold. He dried off and combed his hair. He changed his dirty clothes for clean. He did those things mindlessly and didn’t look at himself in the mirror.

When he returned to the dining room, Wade was serving the meal. He’d set the table with the good china and the linens that were a wedding gift from Alice’s mother. Dan shrugged away his irritation and sat down. He unfolded his napkin and said, “Where’d you get the food?”

“I raided your larder.” Wade sat a plateful of beef and potatoes in front of Dan.

Dan poked at a tender piece of meat and made a face. It didn’t look like anything that came from his stock but he wasn’t about to say that to Wade. “I didn’t know you could cook,” he muttered.

“I can do a lot of things you don’t know about, Dan,” Wade said with more than a measure of insinuation.

Dan ignored the statement, ignored the flush that burned his cheeks.

Wade sat in Alice’s chair and made a show of unfolding his napkin. He settled it on his lap and leaned over to grin confidingly at Dan. “I see you took my words to heart.” His eyes caught the lamplight and they shone a clear leaf green.

“What words?” Dan looked away and rearranged his fork and knife, suddenly remembering the fork Wade had stolen what use he’d found for it. His gorge rose and he had to clear his throat.

“The beard.” Wade cocked his head and squinted. “It makes you look different—younger, less angry.”

“I didn’t do it for you.” Dan got up to get a cup of coffee. At the door, he turned and said, “Do you want your coffee now or after supper?”

“After, please.”

Dan paused. The ‘please’ almost broke him out of the charade of good manners they were playing at. He shook his head and went to get the coffee.

They didn’t talk the entire meal. Wade ate with his usual gusto, but with better manners than the first time they’d eaten together. Dan should have known the brute act had been for show, but back then, Wade had been just a cipher, just a legend. All Dan knew at that point was that Wade was a killer, and since killers weren’t known for their good table manners, he’d expected nothing more.

Dan reminded himself that he didn’t know Wade any better, that it would be a mistake to let his guard down. Still, as the evening progressed, he found it difficult to maintain the distance as he knew he should. Because, he found, that even though Wade didn’t speak, that didn’t mean he was silent.

He’d catch Dan’s eye from time to time, holding his glance so long that Dan was forced to look away. At one point, they reached for the water pitcher at the same time and Wade, with a smile and a nod, conceded the pitcher to Dan, but not before he stroked Dan’s fingers softly.

Dan blushed unwillingly and it came to him that Wade was trying to seduce him. If it wasn’t so unexpectedly and bizarrely charming, he would have laughed out loud.

After supper they took their coffee to the porch and sat side by side, like proper friends. The night air was cool and the sky a deep dark blue.

It was agreeable and Dan was wondering if they’d manage the entire evening without going for each other’s throat when Wade spoke, “I hear young Butterfield left the other day.” He didn’t look at Dan but continued to stare out at the night.

Dan sighed. At least they had an hour of accord—that had to count for something. “His niece is ill. He’s not coming back.”

Wade took a sip of his coffee. “Good.”

“He’s a decent man.”

“I’m sure he is.”

“When did you find out?”

“Who Zachary is related to? The day I saw you two together, at the saloon.”

Dan frowned and turned. “When was that?”

“Last Friday. You were so wrapped up in each other, you never even saw me.” Wade looked sideways and had the effrontery to wink. “Emma told me who he was, that you two had just met that very night.”

“Is Emma spying for you now?”

Wade ignored him. He said, still in that inanely pleasant voice, “And you didn’t notice me the second time when I passed you by as you were leaving.”

Dan thought hard—try as he might, he couldn’t place the moments Wade was talking about.

“Yes, Dan, you were that engrossed in young Butterfield.” Wade turned and looked so earnestly innocent that Dan’s hackles rose. “Emma told me she thought you’d be asking for a room any moment, that you were practically—”

Dan was out of his chair and on Wade before he could think about it. They fell to the porch, wood splintering, porcelain breaking, coffee spilling everywhere. After a moment’s struggle, he pinned Wade’s shoulders and straddled his chest. All the anger and frustration and loneliness that had been gathering in his body churned up and his blood sang with the need to beat that knowing look from Wade’s face. He snarled and brought his fist up and back—

Only, Wade wasn’t smiling, wasn’t mocking. He was angry, but he lay waiting for Dan’s hand, calm and cool. Dan’s fury leached from his muscles, bit by bit, and he drew a quick breath and then another. He slumped over and rested his fist on Wade’s chest. “Why’d you go and say that?”

“Because I wanted to know.”

“Know what?”

“I wanted to know how you felt about Butterfield.”

“Zachary,” Dan corrected him.

Wade pressed his lips together and narrowed his eyes. “And now I guess I do.”

The world went utterly still. Or maybe, thought Dan, it was him that had stopped. He could hear the horses in the barn, could feel a breeze move past his cheek, but it was all distant, as if he and Wade were suddenly in a space all their own and the world outside ceased to matter.

He opened his fist and laid his hand directly, deliberately, over Wade’s heart and pressed. Through layers of cotton and silk he could feel the steady thrum of Wade’s heart and it came to him that even Wade would die one day. That nothing—not charm nor cunning nor speed—would stop it from happening.

A profound sadness engulfed Dan and he bowed his head. Life was so damn short and a man’s circumstance could change so fast. He’d lost his leg to a fellow soldier in a matter of seconds. One minute William had been yelling at him in furious anger, the next he’d saddled his horse and was off, never to return.

And after sixteen years of marriage it had taken Alice only a handful of months to decide she was done with him.

Dan raised his head. Slowly, holding Wade’s eye, he bent over and, as had been done to him, he rubbed his cheek against Wade’s. He pushed back up and sighed, “Wade, you don’t know nothing. You think you got all the answers, all the power. But who’s the one that came running back, because it wasn’t me.”

For once Dan caught Wade by complete surprise—his eyes widened and he drew a quick breath. Gone were the smirks and the carefully constructed mannerisms designed to confuse and incite.

Dan felt a thrill race from his gut to his chest. It was something to see—Ben Wade at a loss for words. It gave Dan a fierce sense of power and the strength to act.

Without another word, he pushed easily and awkwardly to his feet, picked up his coffee cup, and went inside. He locked the back door, banked the fire, and put out all the lamps, save the one he carried to the bedroom.

The room was silent with reproach. Dan paused at the threshold. He’d only ever touched one other person in this room, and his conscience was shouting at him.

He brutally shoved knowledge and concern aside. He didn’t care if this was wrong, didn’t care if it made a mockery of his marriage vows. For once in his life he was going to do what he wanted, without reservation, without a thought for the future. Words from a year ago echoed in his soul and he understood them now, a little. ‘It’s mans’ nature to take what he wants.’

He set the lamp on the bureau and waited for Wade to come to him.

He didn’t wait long. He heard footsteps behind him. They paused where he’d paused, then continued on. The bedroom door was shut.

Dan didn’t turn around. “Did you lock the front door?”

“Yes.”

“And the shutters?”

“Yes.”

“What about the dog?”

“He’s inside.”

He nodded, satisfied. With a hand that shook, he reached for the lamp, but Wade whispered, “No.” When Dan didn’t answer, he added, “I want to see you.”

Dan swallowed hard. Since his injury, he’d never undressed in front of anyone other than his wife and the army doctor. And even then he did it quickly so as not to sicken them with his deformity. He shrugged his shoulders and made himself turn.

Wade was standing by the door, coat and vest gripped tight in left hand, head forward. He mirrored his own pose of the other night—intent and held in check, as if he’d pounce at any second. With a thrill, Dan wondered who was the mountain lion and who was the deer.

Neither, he decided with resolve. He thrust away from the dresser and Wade growled and threw his coat and vest to the chair. They rushed at each other and met at the foot of the bed, grappling more than embracing.

Wade grabbed the sides of Dan’s head and snaked in to kiss him, but Dan jerked his head and broke away. His kisses were for Alice, even if she didn’t want them anymore. Wade’s eyes narrowed and there was a moment when Dan could feel the dangerous path he was walking and then it was gone. Wade nodded in angry assent and went for Dan’s neck instead.

Pleasure set streaked up Dan’s spine and he arched into Wade, forcing his mouth to his throat, forcing their bodies together.

They did a graceless dance as they moved to the bed, each trying to disrobe the other. When Wade—his shirt hanging out of his trousers and halfway off because he wouldn’t let go of Dan long enough to remove it fully—bent sideways to drag the bedclothes down, Dan leaned in and bit him on the inside of his elbow, then again when Wade hissed in pleased surprise.

They managed the rest of their clothes lying down. The only bad part was when they got to the leg. Wade, as if anticipating Dan’s shame, turned away while Dan got the boot and his trousers off. He pushed everything to the floor and scrambled under the bedclothes. He touched Wade’s shoulder and held the covers up. Wade turned and crawled in.

Without a word of request or warning, he lay on Dan and gripped his wrists. And Dan forgot his missing leg, his absent family, and the rest of the world. Wade was heavy with muscle and his weight pushed Dan into the mattress, bringing memory to the surface.

The last time he’d had Wade on him was back in Contention, back at that grocers, held down as a whirlwind of bullets and his own fear deafened him.

He bucked against the memory and the weight. Wade smiled and thrust smoothly in response. Dan bucked again, this time in pleasure and when Wade laughed out loud, he wrapped his arms and good leg around Wade and pulled him in, wanting to kiss him so very badly that he had to turn his head to the pillow for a moment so his body wouldn’t betray him.

To make up for the self-denial, he let himself bite and grasp and tug—all the things he’d never allowed himself with Alice.

If Wade was surprised at his fierceness, he didn’t show it. He met Dan movement for movement, using his hands and mouth expertly, muttering syllables that never became words.

The pleasure came in waves, then, and Dan followed it eagerly, blind now to everything but the need for fulfillment. He finished that same way—mind blank, so focused on the shivery delight that he saw black at the very end.

It took him an uncounted moment to gather his wits, to calm his breath. Wade had finished right after him, and his face was still buried in Dan’s neck, hot and prickly.

Dan didn’t know what to do—his limited experience was no guide. Touch or push away, he chose touch. He tentatively stroked the back of Wade’s head and neck where his hair curled wet with sweat.

Wade stiffened and Dan stopped, his hand hovering uncertainly. With a great sigh, Wade relaxed and settled into Dan as if he’d never move. Dan stroked his hair again and again.

He thought to stay that way but after a few minutes his leg started to hurt, and he wasn’t sure he should be holding Wade as he would have Alice. He made a half-hearted attempt at getting loose, but Wade caught him before he could get up. Without a word, Wade slid off him, turned on his side, and pulled Dan to him.

Dan lay rigid with surprise. Of all the unexpected things of the night, this was the most unexpected. If he’d ever let his mind’s eye run wild enough to imagine what a night with Ben Wade would truly be like, this was the last thing he would have thought of.

He tried to relax, but the unfamiliar press of muscle, bone and hair was unsettling. He lay there, stiff and unyielding, sure he would never be able to sleep. Some of that must have translated to Wade because, with a huff, he leaned up and gathered Dan’s hair off his face and neck, then kissed the spot behind his ear. As if that were the signal he’d been waiting for, Dan’s mind let go of worry, and sleep gradually pulled him under.

***

Dan slept lightly. He slipped in and out of consciousness, aware the entire time of Wade behind him, holding on tight, fast asleep. Any other thoughts were vague, without substance, and underneath it all ran the knowledge that he was content.

He was skirting the edge of true of wakefulness when Wade finally stirred. He nuzzled Dan’s shoulder and murmured, “What time is it?”

Dan pushed up to look out the window. It was dark as pitch outside, much too early to get up. He fell back into Wade’s warmth and said, “I don’t know—maybe two or three? My watch is in the kitchen. I can go get it, if you like.”

He didn’t move, but Wade pulled him back anyway and said, “No, Dan, wait. I have something to tell you. I should have told you days ago, but…”

Dan made a questioning sound, and turned to his back, trying to clear his mind of sleep. The lamp was guttering and they’d pushed the quilt to the ground sometime in the night. He wasn’t cold though—sleeping with Wade was like sleeping on top of a fire. He closed his eyes and smiled softly. For all he hadn’t slept much, he felt good. His leg, he noted, didn’t hurt at all.

But Wade was silent too long and Dan opened his eyes and turned his head.

Wade was on his side, propped up on one elbow with his head in his hand. The sheet covered him to his hips, and Dan could see a long red scratch on his shoulder, another on the tender curve of his arm. His face, always so filled with expression, was blank and watchful.

A sliver of alarm woke Dan up completely. “What is it?”

Wade made a movement that wasn’t quite a shrug and said flatly, “I saw your son, William, about two weeks ago.”

Dan sat up so fast he knocked Wade onto his back. “What?” His pleasant exhaustion was gone as if it had never existed. “Where?”

“Mexico.”

“What was he doing in Mexico?”

Wade shook his head. “I’m not going to tell you that.”

Dan frowned. “What?” He leaned in and gave a small laugh that held no humor. “Of course you are, you have to.”

“No I don’t. You’ll be angry.”

“I’m halfway there already.” And he was—he could feel the fear and worry that always appeared at the thought of William sour his stomach.

Wade’s eyes turned hard as glass. Dan had seen that same measuring glance before and knew he wasn’t going to like what was coming. “Very well. But remember, Dan, you asked.” He took a breath and said, “He found me, he said, so he could join me and my men.”

Dan shook his head and said, “No, he didn’t.”

“Yes, Dan, he did.”

Dan shook his head again and tried to make sense of Wade’s words. He knew William had been having trouble, knew he’d been unhappy with the slow pace of life in Bisbee, but he never thought… “You’re lying. He would never—”

Wade threw back the bed covers and got out of bed. Dan looked away quickly but not before he saw a third long scratch down Wade’s back—he must have made that one, as well. “That’s just like you, Dan Evans. If you don’t want to see something or believe something, it just doesn’t exist.” He began to dress, pulling his clothing on almost viciously.

“Where are you going?”

“Away.”

Dan opened his mouth to protest because the news was bad, yes, but not bad enough to run away. And not bad enough to be so angry in return. His heart sank as he watched Wade jerk on his shirt and button it up. Wade wasn’t the type to run—whatever he hadn’t yet said must be really something.

He sat up and gathered the sheet around him. His leg had started to hurt. “You’re not telling me everything.”

“It doesn’t matter, Dan.” Wade leaned against the bureau and pulled on his boots.

“Ben,” Dan said slowly, distinctly, “tell me.”

Wade, done with the boots, paused in the middle of reaching for his vest. He didn’t look up. “You’re not going to understand.”

“Then I won’t understand. Tell me.

Wade picked up his vest and pulled it on. He sat on the bed, his back to Dan “Your boy, he came to me a couple weeks ago. He’d been searching a while, he said. He was in California when he got word I was in Mexico, so he high-tailed it down south. By the time he caught up with me, he was pretty beat up. He didn’t say how he got there or with who.”

He shrugged and Dan thought he was going to stop, but after a moment, he went on, “However he tracked me, he found me. He hung around a few days and finally made his offer.” Wade tightened his lips and Dan wanted to reach around and cover Wade’s mouth with his hand because this was going to be bad and he wasn’t sure he could stand it. “Only, he didn’t want to join the gang, so much as he wanted to—” Wade hesitated, then made a gesture, stark and universal.

Dan shook his head. It wasn’t possible.

“He thought it was my price for letting him stick around. He said he knew Charlie was gone and that I’d need—”

“No.”

Wade turned his head. “Dan—”

“No, “Dan interrupted, his voice rough as sand, “I don’t believe you. You’re lying, you bastard.”

Wade twisted around and up. He stood next to the bed, his face steadily earnest, for once. “Dan, listen to me. It’s not what you think. He’s got a bad case of hero worship, that’s all. And he’s mixed up and wants to come home, but he doesn’t know how—”

Dan threw off the sheet and scrambled to his feet. He grabbed Wade’s shoulders and hissed, “Did you— Goddamn you, Ben Wade, did you do anything to him?” He shook Wade as if that could make him take it all back, make it all untrue. Wade broke his hold and Dan fell back on the bed.

Wade stood above him, fists clenched at his sides, eyes cold. “Calling me names isn’t going to make this better, Dan, and no, I didn’t touch your boy.” His fist tightened, and he added, bitterly, “Even have that much decency.”

Dan put his head in his hands. He gripped his skull, thinking that if he pressed hard enough, he could forcibly remove the words Wade had just given him, just rip them out and forget them all…

But the words were there, resounding like a bell. His stomach turned over—he was going to be sick. He looked up and asked, “Why are you telling me this now?” He gestured to the room, to the bed.

Wade’s expression didn’t change. “Because he’s too good for the life I lead. Because when you go to him, you need to know what he’s been up to or you’ll never get him back. Because I wanted one—”

He bit off the rest of his words, but Dan didn’t care to know what they were. He was aching to reach out to Wade, to reach out and strike his beautiful, lying mouth. “Where in Mexico did you see him?”

“South of Nogales, in a tiny town that’s barely a spot on the map. He told me he was heading to New Mexico.”

“Where?”

“Silver City.”

Dan shook his head and said, “Silver—that’s right in the middle of Apache country.”

“Yes, it is.”

Dan slumped back. “Why didn’t you stop him?”

“I tried but he’s as stubborn as you. When I turned him down, he was gone before I knew it.”

Dan nodded. His chest hurt and he wondered if it were possible for his heart to just break clean in half. He said without looking up, “You better go.”

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Wade bring his hand up, but he didn’t touch. “Dan, I—”

“Ben, don’t.” His throat felt like gravel, as if he’d been shouting for days on end, and he was pleading, but he didn’t care about that. He needed Wade gone before the feelings roiling around in heart and head consumed him entirely. He looked up. “Just go.”

Wade opened his mouth, then closed it again. He collected his gun belt and coat. He left without word of goodbye and Dan was grateful for that small mercy.

Feeling like he’d aged fifty years, he got out of bed and struggled to the bathroom. He poured the basin full of clear, cold water. He washed his body harshly, knowing it was for penance, knowing it would be of no use. His skin and muscles ached where Wade had touchedas if he were already marked by Wade’s hands and mouth.

He grimaced at the thought and scrubbed harder.

He got dressed in clean clothes and put on the boot. He stood before the bureau and picked up the photograph of Alice and William, taken in Massachusetts when William was just a baby. He’d been so sweet and lovable, back then.

Dan remembered Wade’s words and he flinched. Rage and hot grief boiled up and over. Carefully, he put the photograph down and reached for the empty vase. With a raw shout, he threw it as hard as he could. It hit the far wall with a resounding, satisfying crash that did nothing to ease his pain.

He tipped the photo onto its face and turned.

The bed was a shambles—the sheets spilled all over the place and the quilt was still on the floor. The naked mattress looked raw and the room smelled of sex. The shame Dan had been ignoring crashed over him and he hurriedly pulled up the sheets and then the quilt as if that simple act could hide his mistake. He fell onto the bed and stared up at the rough ceiling, his eyes burning.

His mind wandered and he found himself thinking not of William or Alice, but of the day eleven months past when his life changed without his even knowing it.

He’d been so scared, back in Contention. Waiting in that lavish bridal suite, waiting for his life to be over because he knew he wasn’t going to be alive after three fifteen p.m.

During the war, some of Dan’s fellow soldiers had told of how, when they’d thought they were going to die, all the bad things they’d done had passed through their minds. Dan hadn’t felt anything like that when he got his foot shot off. He’d just felt anger and fear and pain.

But waiting for Charlie Prince, waiting for his time to be up, Dan’d thought of all the things he still wanted to do with his life, all the regrets, all the times he hadn’t quite measured up. He’d thought of Alice and the boys and how he’d failed them. He’d thought of his land and how it might end up in Hollander’s hands after all.

Sitting in that chair by the window, trying to take his mind off his cold fear, he’d watched Wade out of the corner of his eye, stretched out on the bed as if he was there of his own free will. Watched the way he took up the space with his long legs and arms, looking like a big black crow on a field of snow.

And then, when Wade had dropped off to a restless doze, Dan had watched unashamedly. He’d even turned in the chair so he could see better, see how Wade’s expressive face softened in sleep. When Wade muttered sharply and jerked his hands towards his chest, Dan had felt something bite in his own breast, as if his heart was sharing whatever pain Wade was experiencing.

He’d gotten up and touched Wade gently, calling his name to bring him from wherever he was, then quickly sat back down.

Had he felt this unwanted affection, clear back then? Two weeks ago he’d have laughed bitterly at the thought and gone on to assure himself that all he’d feel—no, all he’d ever feel—for Ben Wade was disgust and hatred.

But it wasn’t always so. He hadn’t felt disgust and hatred when he’d looked up at Wade, standing in the doorway of the Yuma-bound train. Gratitude and an unexpected sense of camaraderie, yes. And he’d smiled up at Wade, Dan remembered with surprise. He’d actually smiled up at Wade, clear and open, with all his heart. He’d forgotten that, what with everything that came after.

Proverbs, Chapter Twenty-five, Verse Twenty-eight.

It had taken Dan a while to figure out what proverb Wade had recited softly when he’d thought Dan was out of it from pain and exhaustion. Dan wasn’t a scripture man—he’d had to wait until he got home, and then he had to wait for a little privacy to open Alice’s Bible and find the quote. He that hath no rule over his own spirit is like a city broken down, without walls. 

Was that what Wade had felt, broken and without walls? If so, then Dan could sympathize because that was how he felt at this very moment. His mind and body felt loose and horribly free, as if all his certainties and priorities had shifted and tumbled. And he knew that even after all he’d said, after all his protests and repudiations, given the chance, he’d invite Ben into his bed once more.

Dan swore and pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes, wishing the mild pain would make the image of Ben, naked and wild, disappear from his mind’s eye.

But it didn’t, and Dan got no sleep that night.

***

The next morning came overcast and threatening, as if the land echoed Dan’s own disheartened mood. It didn’t matter—he rose determined and resolved. He wasted no time for thoughts of Ben and the night before. The only thing that mattered was his son, out there on his own.

He tidied the kitchen and wrote a quick note to Alice. He didn’t relate any details, just explained that he might be gone a long while, and that he was going to ask the new marshal to arrange for the care of the ranch.

He gathered his traveling clothes together and packed as much food and water as the gelding could carry. He took the last of the available cash, hidden beneath a board under the bed. Lastly, he got his weapons, choosing his old rifle and his new pistol.

He sat them on the kitchen table, only then seeing the folded piece of paper, laying in the middle of the table, weighted down by the salt cellar.

He stood there for a long moment. He could see the dark marks faint through the paper and knew what it was. Ben had left him another memento.

The lost feeling came back, draining his will, threatening his resolve.

He swallowed hard and picked up the drawing. He didn’t open it, but carried it to the fireplace and crouched awkwardly. He held the paper over the sleeping embers and watched, frozen, as the low heat browned the edges. It was only at the last minute, right before the edges actually burned that he pulled the paper away.

Silently cursing his weakness, he folded the drawing into a tiny square and tucked it away in his shirt pocket. He had no intention of opening it—he just didn’t want anyone else to find it.

He fed and watered the animals, then saddled the gelding. It took a while to organize the supplies and by the time he was done, it had started to rain. He led the gelding out of the paddock and swung up into the saddle.

Rex was sitting on the front porch looking forlorn. Dan pointed to him and said, “Stay.” He didn’t glance back to see if he’d been obeyed. A needle-sharp rain had begun to fall, and he needed to be on his way.

He nudged the gelding and he was off, head up, heart sore.

fin