As promised, Emma woke Ben at dawn with a pitcher of hot water and breakfast.
She also gave him a kiss—which he hadn’t asked for—and would have stayed for more, but he pushed her away, gently, firmly. He watched dispassionately as her face grew cold and pinched, and thought once again that it might have been a mistake, showing up on her doorstep two weeks ago.
He’d wanted a room, no questions asked. She hadn’t asked any, but she’d assumed. And she hadn’t liked it when he’d told her he was there for the lodging, that he had business in town and wasn’t interested in anything else.
Emma hadn’t done well in the past year and it showed. She’d gotten thinner and pale—her illness was taking its toll. Not something Ben was interested in, however, and he’d paid her no mind because she wasn’t who he’d come for.
He rolled to his side and stared out the tiny, curtainless window.
As thanks for the business she brought in, Hollander had given Emma an apartment over his feed store. The space wasn’t much—just a set of rooms that were little more than closets. But the bedroom faced east and it got the morning sun.
There was no sun to be seen today—the sky was a dull steel-gray, ugly and mean. Unlike the day before. Now that had been a fine day and if Ben hadn’t been so preoccupied, he would have enjoyed a ride out north. He had a mind to revisit the area where he first met Dan. The arroyo had been pretty and he’d always wanted to return to see if he could capture its likeness on paper. But for the last week his thoughts had been on Dan, not landscapes, and he’d clean forgot.
And look how that turned out, he thought with a grumble and he turned on his back and laced his fingers over his head, thinking on expectations and how dangerous they were.
Emma had warned him, when Ben had asked casually after the Evans family. She’d told him that Dan had changed since his wife and boy left for Colorado, that he’d become more solitary, more hard-hearted. And she’d been right.
Ben spent those first days shadowing Dan, following him by spyglass as he went from chore to chore, day after day. When Ben found the opportunity to get close enough to watch him without the glass, he was startled to find that Dan had become whip-thin and gray, like the land around him. He didn’t look like he going hungry, but somehow he’d become less.
Twelve months ago, before he’d actually gotten to know Dan, Ben wouldn’t have felt much more than a mean satisfaction at Dan’s changed circumstances. Now all he’d felt was an angry sorrow. For Dan because he’d let himself get so lonely and lost; for himself for caring so much for a man that allowed life to get one over on him.
Ben had never bothered with men that didn’t live their lives the way God intended—free and unencumbered by society’s strictures, completely at peace with their own nature. Even his former associates, murders one and all, had at least that one thing in common—the ability to take what God had given them and twist it to make something of themselves.
He grimaced at his own thoughts because the good Lord knew he himself hadn’t been leading life as he should. By all rights he should be in some dance hall enjoying a pretty girl or, at the very least, planning his next criminalistic act. Instead, he was, by his own will, stuck in a penny-ante town, waiting on a man he’d known, all told, only a few days.
But it was a sorry fact that his life had gone off trail ever since he left Dan Evans back in Maricopa. Well before that, really.
Ben was never one for regrets—they were a waste of time and energy. But the one thing he did regret was his foolishness where Dan was concerned. He’d thought so blithely that Dan would be easy to forget, that the one-sided affection begun on the road to Contention would die a quiet death, worn out by miles, new adventures, and sheer indifference.
He’d been so very wrong.
When he’d left Dan he had one thing on his mind—finding Charlie and the boys. He made it to Las Limeras a day behind the gang only to learn that they’d come and gone. It took him three days to get fixed up with a new horse and supplies.
He’d tracked Jorgensen to Utah, and from there he traveled to Nevada. He found Sutherland and Nez running for Reno and ended their lives on the outskirts of town. Then it was down to Texas for Kinter and Jackson. He assumed Campos would be with Jackson because they’d formed a sort of friendship long ago, but Campos had returned to Mexico.
By then Ben was feeling like a top, spinning in circles, this way and that. He weighed the danger of leaving both Charlie and Campos alive and decided he couldn’t chance it—they’d be a formidable team if they decided to throw in together. He tracked Campos down to a small town outside of Hermosillo and put a bullet in his brain, then another in his heart, just to be sure.
Ben did his killings as he did all his work—carefully and methodically. If he was distracted now and then, he blamed it on his recent brush with the noose.
It wasn’t until he found himself in Cuhilla one bright sunny day with blood dripping in his eyes and facing the wrong end of Charlie’s pistols that he realized ‘distraction’ was too weak a word for his state of mind. He’d lost his focus and gotten soft, plain and simple.
Luckily for him Charlie was just as distracted—when it came down to it, he hadn’t been able to pull the trigger and Ben managed to wing him in the arm. The law, hiding out in the boarding house, intervened at the wrong moment and Charlie got clean away.
Ben had hidden out in the blacksmith’s shed until the Sherif got a posse together and they lit out. When Ben poked his head out, day had turned to night and any chance of following Charlie was gone. The only good thing to come out of the mess was that Charlie had taken off in such a hurry that he’d left Ben’s mare behind—the one he thought lost back in Contention—and more importantly, he’d left Ben’s good hat and his gun belt.
Still bloody from the fight, Ben had strapped the gun belt on and said a brief, fervent prayer of thankfulness. He hadn’t been the same without the Hand of God at his hip.
The next day he made a half-hearted effort at picking up Charlie’s trail, but it was cold. Feeling as if he was at a crossroads, Ben rode north to Indian Wells and holed up in a room over the saloon for three days, thinking on his life and what he’d let it become.
He’d always prided himself on his cunning and adaptability. When a situation got too hot, he altered plans and scooted, never letting false pride or greed get in the way survival.
But he could feel his old ways wearing thin, like a coat that needed to be tossed. Killing his men hadn’t made him blink twice, finding and killing Charlie wasn’t something he was particularly worried about. But what about after, when they were all dead and he was on his own?
He still had much of the money he’d stolen. He had two bank accounts—one in San Francisco, one in St. Louis, both under false names. On the day he had turned forty, he’d purchased a tract of land outside Sacramento, but had never spent even a single night there. He’d bought it mostly for the vain self-assurance that he had a place to run or sell if he ever needed it.
He had most of the things a man needed to live out his days in any way he wanted, only he was beginning to understand that he wasn’t sure what he wanted.
Was robbing and killing going to be the sum total of his days? The old crew was dead, did he want another? And worst of all, did he really want to spend the rest of his life alone?
The questions were like needles under his skin and even now, seven months later, they still irked because he’d never worried about the future because he’d never figured on living long enough to ask any old man questions.
Ben stayed in Indian Wells until he got sick of the place and his own thoughts. He left still unsure as to what his new path should be and where it should lead him. One thing was perfectly clear—he needed to do something about his fascination with Dan Evans and he needed to do it quickly.
As if his doubts had weakened some crucial dam in his own heart, thoughts and memories of Dan began to come, first as a trickle, then as a torrent until it was rare a day when he didn’t think on Dan.
He wondered if that bullet wound that Dan took a year ago was still causing him pain, if the rains had given him some relief, if his boy had recovered from his illness or if he’d gotten worse.
And he remembered odd, prosaic things about Dan—the way he held himself so still when he was surprised or scared; the smooth way he moved, even with the bad leg; the way he looked at Ben—curiosity, attraction, and aversion all jumbled together.
Ben always pushed such thoughts away, but like an itch he couldn’t scratch, they always returned, some at the most inappropriate times. The last was a month ago.
He’d been in Reno, on top of girl he’d met that afternoon, working away, bored and not bothering to hide it. It wasn’t her fault—his heart just wasn’t in it. But when she counterfeited a moan he caught himself thinking that Dan wouldn’t be false during lovemaking, that he’d be honest and true as he was in all things.
It wasn’t the first time Ben had thought of Dan during sex, but it was the last time he didn’t act on it. He finished up, got washed and dressed, the girl forgotten. He rode out, already planning his trip to Bisbee, relieved that he’d finally made up his mind.
But his reception had been disappointing to say the least. Dan had been at once cruel and vulnerable, his words bitten off and thrown at Ben. But maybe that was Ben’s doing. He should have waited until a more appropriate time to approach Dan, but Christ, he’d been so furious, seeing Dan with that boy…
The memory was still too new and Ben clenched his jaw in anger because Butterfield had been one hell of an unhappy surprise.
He’d watched Dan through the saloon window, smiling for once, relaxed and at ease with man almost young enough to be his son. When they left, Ben had purposefully entered at the same time, just to see the look on Dan’s face.
Gall wasn’t the word for what he’d felt when Dan brushed by him with no recognition, no word of hello. Ben had watched them go, watched Dan ride off. Then he’d shoved his way to the bar for the drink Emma had waiting. She told him about the stranger, told him that Butterfield was working with his brother. He ignored her questioning frown, ignored her speculative comment about Dan and Butterfield. He left the bar and stood in the dark street, fighting the urge to bolt then and there.
But in the end he stayed because he never was one to give up on what he wanted, and for good or ill, he wanted Dan.
Ben sighed and rubbed his face, rubbing away the residual jealousy. He pushed out of bed and took off his undershirt. The cheap mirror on the dresser caught his distorted reflection and he turned slowly, this way and that, admiring the marks Dan had given him. A thick red welt on his shoulder, another on his arm, and, if he wasn’t mistaken, one down his back. He twisted, trying to find it in the mirror, but couldn’t.
He poured the water into the basin and splashed his face then picked up the washcloth and washed his chest and arms.
He traced the scratch on his arm with the rag and his smile grew bitter because for all he’d managed to get Dan on a bed, the night wasn’t anything near what he wanted, near what he’d planned. He hadn’t expected a romance, but he’d hoped for a bit more than ten minutes of struggle and release. Something to prove that his recalcitrant longings weren’t in vain, that Dan returned even a portion of his feelings.
What he got was a man so hungry for touch, he could barely stand to be touched.
Ben knew Dan had a chokehold on his own heart, knew he was practically starving for affection. If he had been smart, he would have taken that into consideration, maybe held off a few more days. And he probably would have, if it wasn’t for Butterfield…
He shouldn’t have told Dan about William, though. That was a mistake. It would have been better just to ride on to Silver City by himself and see what he could find. But Dan would never forgive him for not passing on the information and Ben hadn’t wanted to give William the wrong impression, because if that boy tried another trick like the one he’d pulled in Mexico, why then, Ben would most likely kill him.
William had learned, and learned quickly, that if anyone was going to be doing the pawing, it was going to be Ben. Coming into a man’s room in the middle of the night and sliding into bed with him? Ben shook his head at the memory. It had been a stupid move and a very good way to get dead.
It was sheer willpower that had stayed his hand that night. Well, that and the pragmatic knowledge that if he killed William, Dan would never let him come within thirty feet, never mind letting him into his bed. Dan was unreasonable like that.
And it was lucky that Dan hadn’t looked any further than the story Ben gave him, hadn’t pressed deeper. Ben would take the real story to the grave. Not because he cared one way or another if Dan Evans hated him for corrupting his son, but just because it made everything easier.
Ben stopped washing and looked at himself in the mirror. What was he just thinking about a man knowing himself? He grinned at his own self-deception and threw the washrag down.
He was dressed and ready by six-thirty. He relaxed in Emma’s tiny sitting room while he ate his cold breakfast and refined the plan he’d made on his way home the night before.
Dan would have to wait until daylight to start out, would need to come into town to set his affairs in order before heading out. He’d probably need ammunition and food. The only question was, would he head immediately north then west, or west then north? The former was safer, but the latter was shorter.
Ben wandered downstairs at seven. He thought of cooling his heels in the bar because Hollander was gone for the week, but a tiny voice said, no, that he’d better be prepared in case Dan got the jump on him.
Sure enough, he’d no more than walked out the back door, saddlebags over his shoulder, when he saw Dan, riding in from the north, his horse loaded down, packed for a long trip.
Ben tugged his collar up and strolled down the alley between the feed store and the saloon. He stood in the shadows, waiting. When Dan came abreast, he stopped. With that odd sense that he had, he turned and saw Ben. He scowled and didn’t nod.
Ben pulled his hat down and looked up and down the street, then crossed to where Dan waited.
Dan did his own looking around, no doubt wondering how to explain Ben’s presence if someone tattled to the Marshal. The image made Ben smile and when he walked up to Dan, he gave him a big grin. He stepped so close and tilted his head up.
It took Dan a long moment to acknowledge him. “Wade.”
Ben nodded again. “Dan.”
“What are you doing?”
“Just seeing what the plan is.”
“It don’t concern you.”
“Of course it does, Dan. I’m coming with you.”
Dan tightened his hands on the reins and the horse sidled, nearly knocking Ben down. “No you’re not.”
“Yes I am. This isn’t going to be like that pleasure trip to Contention. You don’t want to be alone out there.”
“Wade, you’re not coming.”
Ben reached up and stroked the horse’s thick neck, settling him down, trying to settle Dan down at the same time. He was close enough to feel the warmth of Dan’s body and he ran his hand across the horse’s withers, imagining how easy it would be to stroke Dan’s thigh at the same time. “Now Dan, we can stand in this street, arguing back and forth, causing folks to wonder what’s going on or you can just say yes. I’m coming, whether you want me or not.”
Dan swore under his breath, but he didn’t say ‘no’ again.
Ben grinned up at him. “I knew you’d see it my way.”
Dan ground his jaw so tight the bones creaked. Then, with a great sigh, he relaxed his fists and said, “All right. I need to settle a few things, then I’m off. I’m leaving within the hour.”
Dan looked at him, in surprise. “West, then south. To Mexico.”
Ben frowned. “Mexico? I told you he’s on his way to Silver City.”
“You don’t know for certain, do you?”
Ben said nothing because it was true.
“Listen,” Dan said, slowly, as if speaking to a child, “I’m going to track him from where he was, not where he might be going. The one is a sure thing, the other—” He made a sharp gesture of futility.
Ben held tight to his own rising anger. It was just like Dan to do things the hard way. “It’s a waste of time. You’re the one all hot and bothered about getting to him as soon as possible. If we go south, we’ll lose at least four days, if not more. Who knows where he’ll get to in the meantime.”
“That’s why we need to go to Mexico. Maybe he didn’t head straight to Silver City.”
“And maybe he did. Maybe he’s there right now. We can get to him with a couple days hard riding.”
Ben grabbed the nearest rein and growled, “You’re a stubborn fool, Dan Evans.”
“Did you even bother to look for him, after that night?”
Ben’s anger died, for he hadn’t. He hadn’t even thought about it. “He was already gone, I told you.”
Dan smiled thinly. “I thought as much.” He leaned until he was curved over Ben, sheltering him from the rain. “And what did you do but leave and come here so you could draw some pictures.”
Ben’s anger returned and he pushed closer until his chest was pressed up against Dan’s knee. He murmured, nasty and arch, “Oh, I did a lot more than that. Remember Dan? We both did.” A bead of water ran off Dan’s brim onto Ben’s mouth and he licked his lips deliberately.
Dan’s pale face reddened and he hissed, “Shut up, Wade,” He looked around again, as if the whole town was listening in. “It’s best if you don’t remind me of that right now.”
Ben pushed the horse away again and backed up, shoulders and lips pressed tight. He turned to look out over the open prairie. West towards the horizon there was a thin band of blue where the clouds were lifting. Maybe this whole trip was a mistake, after all. If he rode hard he could make Tucson by end of tomorrow. He could get a train to California and be in San Francisco in three, maybe four days. Winter was coming and it would be nice, spending the next few months being warm, not cold.
And then he remembered Dan’s broken words, his anguish when he said, ‘You’re lying. He would never—’
He sighed at his own weakness and sentimentality, and turned back to Dan. “Very well. I’ll meet you outside the livery.”
He didn’t wait for Dan’s reply but strode to the alleyway. Emma was by the window, watching the exchange. He gave her a hard look as he passed by—she made no move to come after him. He could feel her stare follow him around the corner.
The livery was warm, and Ben took his time, chatting with the unchatty boy as he saddled his mare. He ran through his meager supplies and thought about a trip to Hart’s before decided against it. Emma had told him that Len Hart was someone to watch out for. Not because he was dangerous, but because he’d been cozying up to the new Marshal, trying to get on his good side. For the most part, the citizens of Bisbee minded their own business, but it didn’t pay to ignore the nosy ones.
It would be just like fate, tripping him up when things were getting interesting.
He finished and gave the mare a pat on the shoulder, then brought her to the wide doors. The stable boy slunk back in the shadows, but Ben could feel him watching his every move. Someone must have told him who Ben was. When Ben had first came to town and bought a stall for the mare, he couldn’t get the kid to shut up.
Oh well. It had happened before, it would happen again.
He was leaning up against the door, thinking on the fickle nature of man when the Dan emerged out of the gray day. As if to mock Ben’s choice, the rain slowed then came down harder. Ben thought of the warm bed back at Emma’s, pulled on his gloves, and mounted.
Dan didn’t look at him, or give any sort of acknowledgement when Ben rode up beside him. Ben shrugged. He wouldn’t expected much else. Not yet.
The first leg of the journey was silent and without incident. The world around them was wet and the normally dusty colors of the landscape came alive—browns, greens, golds—all rich and vibrant.
There was little to be seen other than prairie. They passed a home on the side of a hill that looked as if it had been abandoned. But maybe it was just the rain. Ben knew if he had his way, he’d be next to a cozy fire.
Even the animals were in hiding. There were no deer or antelope to be seen and even the sky was empty of the usual hawks and vultures. At one point, a coyote heading north loped along side, only a stone’s throw away. It paid them no mind and Ben watched it, wishing he had his drawing book out and at the ready. The animal finally left them as quickly as he joined them, quickly fading into the brush and gone from sight.
Dan seemed to know where he was going. He led them out of the hills surrounding Bisbee and when they reached the Hereford County plain, he turned slightly south, the way Ben would have suggested if he’d been asked.
At first Dan persisted on riding hard, urging his gelding to a gait that would soon tire the horses if he kept it up. It was a good bet that he wasn’t used to long rides and as Ben had no intention of listening to him complain about an aching backside the entire trip, he lagged behind, obliging Dan to slow down.
The thing that made it interesting, the thing that made Ben smile when Dan wasn’t looking, was that Dan let himself be pulled back. He could have easily left Ben behind or forced Ben to his pace, but he didn’t. He didn’t even try. It gave Ben a measure of hope that the silence and standoffishness would eventually end.
They were half way across the Hereford Plain when the rain petered out and the clouds lifted, then scattered. In one of those abrupt changes that seemed to happen only in the west, the temperature shifted until it was uncomfortably hot. Wade gave a grateful “Hallelujah,” and took off his jacket. He thought it might jolt Dan into conversation, but it didn’t. He rode in front of Ben, stuck inside himself, still slumped over the saddle.
Which was fine with Ben. They were south of a town that had just seen a series of Apache attacks and it wouldn’t do to get lax or distracted.
At ten, Ben suggested a break. Dan refused, saying he felt fine. By noon they reached the mountains west of Hereford and turned south to skirt along the foothills. This time, Ben didn’t ask. He found them a shady spot near the Little Dear Creek. He swung from the saddle, grateful for the respite.
Dan dismounted as well and landed too hard. He grunted softly and grabbed his thigh with both hands. Ben shrugged his shoulders—any gesture of goodwill would be rebuffed and there was only so much pushing away he could take. But still, he was going to have to do something about Dan and that leg, try to work it around so they had more breaks or something like that.
Ben watered the mare, then hitched her close by and got his rifle, canteen, and compass.
The compass told him that they’d come maybe twenty or thirty miles, that they were still heading southeast. He was hoping to make it around the foothills and up to the Walking Creek by dusk, so another three or four hours in the saddle and they’d find a place to bed down. It would be a long day for the animals, but there would be plenty for them to eat and drink at the end of the trail.
Ben turned to find Dan behind him, holding out a strip of meat. Like you would a cur. He shook his head and said pleasantly, “Why, thank you Dan, but no. I believe I’ll catch a few winks. I didn’t sleep all that much, as you might recall.” A snarl was Dan’s only answer and Ben grinned as he turned and looked for a spot in the shade.
He sat down with his back to a warm rock and got comfortable, cradling his rifle in his lap. He watched surreptitiously as Dan found his own spot and tried not to rub the pain out of his leg. “Watch out for snakes and scorpions,” was Ben’s last comment before he let sleep take him.
He slept for maybe a half an hour before Dan poked him awake with the toe of his boot. By his sour expression and bloodshot eyes, it was clear that Dan hadn’t rested at all and when he climbed into the saddle, he sat with a bitten-off curse.
Ben tightened his lips and revised his plans. They had enough water for another day. If they headed more south than west, they’d come up to a small canyon that had sheltered Ben more than a few times. They’d miss the Walking Creek, but would catch the Santa Cruz as it made its way south. Best of all, they could be there in two, maybe three hours. “Dan?”
“We should head south here, into Mexico. It will save us about ten miles, all told.”
“Won’t we run into Apaches?”
“Who told you that?”
“The Marshal. He also said to watch out for Mexican raiders, that they’re holed up all around here. He said once I get to these hills, I should head straight west, then south at Beyerville.”
“Yes, well, he hasn’t been through here lately. I have. There was a raid at Duquesne a week ago. A couple miners died in the fight. Whatever we do, we don’t want to head that direction.” Ben watched Dan digest the news. It was a lie, mostly. A band of Apaches had indeed raided Duquesne, but over three weeks ago. Something that Dan didn’t need to know. The other thing he didn’t need to know was that the territory directly south was more dangerous.
Dan stared at him for a while, as if looking for any lie, small or large. Finally he nodded shortly and made a gesture for Ben to lead. Ben tipped his hat and turned south.
The rest of the afternoon passed much the same as the morning. No surprises, thankfully, and no conversation.
The landscape gradually changed from sagebrush-covered hills to jagged towers of pale, dry rock. The very dirt seemed to radiate heat and if it was high summer Ben wouldn’t have made the journey. He’d have headed north, no matter the extra distance. He’d traveled the region and he’d never liked it. Too many places to get jumped, not enough water or growing things.
He twisted in the saddle. Dan was looking down, rubbing his leg. Ben nodded to himself. Yes, it wasn’t going to be the safest route, but it would give Dan the most relief, in the end.
The sun was far ahead, running towards the western mountains when Ben finally turned and pointed, saying, “When we reach those bluffs, we can start looking for a place to bed down.”
Dan nodded. His silence had changed. He no longer looked angry and out of sorts. He just looked tired and in pain.
Ben heeled his horse to a quicker pace and she responded eagerly. She could probably smell the river for ahead in the curve of the southern-most bluff, ran the tributary of the Santa Cruz. It wasn’t much, but it had been clean the last time he’d been through the area.
When they got closer, Ben searched the hills for movement. All he saw was a great bird that took off from sandstone ledge at their approach.
The bird flew over, gaining altitude as it circled. He leaned back in the saddle to watch it, wishing he had his book out and ready. He closed his eyes a moment, memorizing the image for later. When he turned back around, Dan was staring at him with a puzzled look on his face. “What?” Ben asked.
Dan shrugged and wouldn’t answer.
They made camp at the foot of the bluff, within walking distance of the stream. Ben unsaddled the horses, then led them to water. The water was indeed clean and he thought he might take a watchful bath later on.
By the time he got back, Dan had cleared an area for the fire and was bent over the flames, coaxing it with his breath. Ben watched him a moment, watched the tender way he sheltered the growing fire with his hands. He was a good father, Ben remembered suddenly, thinking on the night he’d been the Evans’ uninvited guest at dinner. Not overly protective, Dan nonetheless treated his boys with love and concern. An unusual thing, in Ben’s experience. But then, most of the men Ben knew would make the worst possible fathers. His own included.
An odd melancholy filled Ben and he watched a while more until something, maybe a small movement on his part, made Dan look up. Ben met his curious glance and shook himself out of his daze. He hitched the horses with long leads and gathered up his gear.
He hesitated a moment before spreading his blanket on the side of the fire opposite Dan. It would be safer if they slept within reach of each other, but he didn’t see that happening, not with the way things were between them. He arranged his saddle and rifle, then sat down with a heartfelt sigh.
Dan unwrapped what looked like was more of the previous night’s meal. It had looked much better last night but Ben said nothing. His mind was still caught up in a lingering sadness and he couldn’t quite say why. Dan shot him little glances every now and then but didn’t speak. He divided the food, giving Ben the larger portion. Even that didn’t jerk Ben out of his silence.
They ate slowly. Only when they were done and the few utensils put away, did Ben’s mood lighten. The sky was shading dark blue to black and he could see the first few bright stars high above. It was too beautiful to be sad for long.
Dan picked up a stick and began to poke at his side of the fire. Finally, when Ben had given up hope of any congenial communication, Dan said abruptly, “What’s this town like, the one where you saw William?”
Ben relaxed back against his saddle and thought. “Small, rough. But not altogether unpleasant. They have a lot of fiestas and festivals.” He’d only been there a handful of times and all of his visits were to cool his heels while on the run from the law. “There’s a river, the Magdalena, that runs north of town and the kids like to swim in it and play.”
“Did you ever kill anyone there?”
“No, Dan, I can’t say as I have. Would it make you feel better if I had?”
Dan poked at the fire harder and sparks flew up and disappeared into the night. “Don’t be stupid, of course it wouldn’t.”
“Then why ask?”
Dan shrugged. “I just want to make sure I’m not riding into a situation.”
“The only situation will be of your making. When we get to town, let me do the talking.”
“I can’t speak Mexican.”
“All the better.”
Dan grumbled something under his breath and threw the stick down. He stood up and got his saddle and blanket. His limp was worse, almost stumbling. When he came back to the fire and bent to toss his gear down, he almost fell over. He arranged everything and tumbled onto his blanket. He must surely be in some amount of pain, Ben thought, because he didn’t hide it, the way he grabbed at his thigh and his knee.
Ben nodded to Dan’s leg, “You need any help with that?”
“You stay on your side of the fire, Wade, and I’ll stay on mine.”
“Dan, you ever hear of the phrase, ‘you catch more flies with honey?’”
“You ever heard the phrase, ‘mind your own business?’”
“I’m very good at minding my own business,” Wade said cheerfully, “it’s what kept me alive.”
“So that’s why you’re always telling me how to handle my boys, how to run my marriage?”
Ben frowned. “When was that?”
“You remember, when we first met up.”
And Ben did remember, but he was surprised that Dan had. “No, that was just making conversation.”
“Until you could get the jump on McElroy?”
“Until I could get the jump on McElroy,” Ben agreed.
Dan made a face and settled back against the saddle. He rubbed his hip and didn’t look at Ben when he asked quietly, “So you didn’t mean it, about Alice?”
Ben raised his eyebrows in surprise. “My opinion doesn’t matter to you, or so you’ve said more than a few times.”
“It doesn’t,” Dan replied gruffly, but he made it a question and Ben shrugged. If Dan wanted to get in to it, Ben would oblige.
“I told you what I thought, last year. This life you lead, it’s not what Alice wants. She wants one thing, you want something else. The only thing left to decide is whether or not you’ll give in.”
“It’s not a matter of giving in.”
“Of course it is, Dan. She’s probably written you a half dozen times, telling you to sell and move to Colorado.” Ben could see he hit his mark and continued calmly, “It’s what any woman would do. So are you going to fall in line or live the life you want.”
Dan shook his head angrily. “There’s no decision to be made. When this is done, I’m going to go back home, raise my cattle, and wait for my boy to get better so he and Alice can come home.” He said it as if by rote, as if he’d been saying the same thing to himself, over and over.
Ben cocked his head. “Do you really think it’s as simple as that?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean your life turned upside down in the last year, in case you hadn’t noticed.”
By the look in Dan’s eyes, the thought had already occurred to him, but he answered with an insistent, “No. It’s the same as it’s always been.”
“It’s already different, Dan, and you can’t go back to who you were. Alice changed it by leaving. I changed it by coming back.”
Dan barked a laugh and shook his head. He scrubbed at his hip, cruelly. “You do have some high opinion of yourself, you know that? So what, one night with you and I’m all moony and starry-eyed?”
“That’s not what I meant, but since you brought it up, yes. And if you didn’t feel it, I did.” Ben leaned forward and gentled his voice. He mostly didn’t care if people heeded him or not, but this was different. “Dan, sometimes a man has to be big enough to know when his world is changing. Big enough to know he has to make a choice—go forward or go back, he can’t stand still.”
Dan jerked his head up, startled, and Ben wondered what he’d said to put such a look on his face. He said, slowly, “Someone said something like that to me, once.”
“And did you listen?”
“What do you think?”
“No, you didn’t.”
Dan answered by turning back to his leg.
“Dan,” Ben said the side of Dan’s face, “you can pretend all you want, but last night didn’t not happen.”
“It happened all right,” Dan growled, “and now I’m thinking it would’ve been better to cozy up with a viper.”
Ben stayed perfectly still as a vicious anger coursed through his belly. Sour like acid, it ran up his gullet until it reached the back of his throat. He didn’t let the words out. He took a careful breath and reminded himself that Dan was often crabby, that he was unused to long trips in a saddle, that he’d only just learned some hard truths about his son. If Ben answered the way he wanted, with cruel, flaying words, who knew what would happen?
He pulled his jacket on and forced the anger back and down. When it had died enough so he could speak in a normal voice, he said, “You take first watch. Wake me in a couple hours.” He lay back and tugged his hat over his eyes.
It was a the smell of frying potatoes and coffee that woke Dan. He lay there, squinting up at a dark gray sky, wondering where he was. He remembered and he sat up too quickly. The world tilted, then righted itself.
Across the fire, Wade was making breakfast. He didn’t look up. “Morning, Dan.”
“What time is it?”
“Six or thereabouts.”
Dan had a blanket covering him—a blanket that didn’t belong to him and hadn’t been there the night before. He glanced at Wade, but he was busy with the pan.
He got to his feet, feeling like he’d been pummeled all different ways. His legs hurt, his neck and backside hurt—hell, the only thing that didn’t hurt were his elbows. He stretched and muttered. “I’m going to go wash.”
“Breakfast will be ready in a few minutes.”
Dan trudged off, not bothering to hide the limp. Wade had been right again—being in the saddle for hours on end was nothing like the trip to Contention. He’d probably loosen up, once he got riding again, but just the thought of getting back in the saddle…
The river was a flat, lazy finger of water, shaded by a row of trees that lined its banks. A broad curve spilled sand for easy access and Dan knelt down awkwardly, grateful for the cushioned earth. He splashed his face and neck, shivering at the cold.
He sat back. The sun hadn’t yet reached through the trees and a fine mist floated above the water’s surface. It trailed sluggishly this way and that, as if moved by an invisible hand. It was a peaceful, beautiful place and in stark contrast to his roiling thoughts.
He reached for a stick and began carving lines into the fine sand, watching as they bled together after every stroke. He made a curve and then a couple straight lines, trying to fashion the bird he and Wade had seen yesterday. It must be something, to be able to draw, to be able to mimic the world with just simple lines on paper. He’d never really thought about it, but now he wondered if he didn’t envy Wade his artist talent. Dan had nothing like it. All he could do was raise things.
He threw the stick away in frustration and ran his fingers through his wet hair. He cradled his head in his palms and thought about the day before, thought how he wasn’t sure he could stand another day like it.
All day long he’d had to stop himself from responding to Wade and his pleasantries. He’d told himself over and over that they had reached no agreement, no accord—just because they had shared a bed meant nothing. He still didn’t like the man, no matter what.
It was just…
Watching Wade smile at nothing in particular, listening to the soft words he gave his mare every now and then—it was the other side of Ben Wade, the side that Dan didn’t know how to parse and he remembered his thought from before—that it was too easy to hate Wade for the wrong things he’d done and almost impossible not to like him for the gentle things he did.
There was a moment from the other night that kept resurfacing every time Dan let his mind wander: they’d just finished and Wade was still a heavy weight, breathing fast in Dan’s ear, pressing him into the soft mattress. Dan had stroked Wade’s hair, the thick muscles of his neck, curiously, instinctively. And it was the thing that almost frightened him, the thing he couldn’t forget—that he knew so easily where to touch Wade, what his wet skin would feel like, as if he’d been doing the stroking all his life.
And Dan hadn’t been of two minds, then. He’d felt only peace and the laxness of spent pleasure. He had even, God help him, wondered if Wade would be around share his bed the night after.
Dan gripped his head again and took a deep breath, wishing Wade were one kind of man, not the maddening mix that he really was.
He reached inside his jacket and felt his pocket to make sure he hadn’t gotten the drawing wet. He hadn’t looked at it yet and wasn’t sure if he ever would, but that didn’t mean he wanted it ruined.
Dan sighed. He could think himself round in circles all he wanted, it wouldn’t fix anything. He just needed to take the days as they came. And maybe be a bit more pleasant to Wade. There was no point in fighting the whole way.
The thing he’d said last night about cozying up with a viper— That had been cruel and unjustified. He’d hit his target right enough, only it hadn’t made him happy—it had made him ashamed. Wade didn’t deserve his anger, not for the simple act of offering to help Dan with his pain.
Resolved to make more of an effort, Dan stood up, brushed the sand off his trousers, and went back to the camp. He moved easier—the brief exercise had warmed his muscles up. That was something, at least.
When he got back, Wade was dishing out breakfast. Dan took a plate with a muttered, ‘Thanks.” He sat down to eat and asked, mostly to fill the silence, “Does this town we’re going to have a name?”
If Wade was surprised that Dan had spoken, he didn’t show it. He squinted and said, “The locals call it Las Limeras, but I don’t know if that’s the official name. I was told that it used to be a favorite spot for rustlers until the local authorities kicked them out.”
“Who are you going to ask about William?”
“There are some men that spend all their time in the square. They know everything that goes on in the town. They might not know where William got off to, but they’ll know who knows, if you get my meaning.”
Dan nodded and took a sip of coffee. He made a face at its bitterness, and looked up to find Wade watching with one eyebrow raised. The sun was finally up and it shone gold on Wade’s face, making his eyes seem more green than usual. He grinned and said, “Don’t look at me. It’s from your supplies.”
Dan shrugged and held up his cup, explaining, “I thought it was all gone. I found the sack tucked behind a rotten onion.”
Wade opened his mouth, then closed it again.
Dan shrugged. “Go ahead, make your comments about how awful a housekeeper I am. It won’t bother me.”
Wade scraped up the last of his meal. He ate the small bite, then murmured, “That’s not what I was going to say.” He rose without another word and held his hand out for Dan’s plate. Dan gave it to him and he left to wash the plates in the stream. Dan got up to do his part, regretting having snapped at Wade, regretting that he couldn’t keep his resolve, not even for an hour.
He shook the blankets free of dirt and dust carefully, thinking that it was going to take some time, learning how not to jump at every little thing Wade said.
He’d taken care of the fire and was tightening the cinch on his saddle when Wade returned, hair slicked back wetly. He came up behind Dan and reached around to fit the pan and coffee pot in the satchel.
Wade’s body was warm and the familiar heat curled around Dan. He held his breath. All he had to do was step back, just a tiny movement into Wade’s warmth and the moment would change from expectation to act.
He didn’t, because he couldn’t. Not in broad daylight, not with the fugitive anger still between them. He held his breath until Wade backed away, then finished up with the saddle.
They rode out, following the river until they had to part ways when the stream took an abrupt shift to the east.
The land they now traveled was about as dry a place as Dan had ever seen. Miles of flat nothing, broken by the occasional cactus. The sun climbed higher and the soft colors of the morning faded to dull yellows and browns. The only bright thing around was the brilliant blue sky above, spreading from horizon to horizon like a blanket.
As they rode further south, leaving the buttes behind, a strange pressure began to build inside Dan’s chest. He hitched his shoulder like a horse shying at a blow fly, trying to rid himself of the feeling. It didn’t go away and it was only when he found himself hunched over his horse that he realized it was the sky—it was somehow too big, too much.
And he imagined it, imagined the thick blue of it falling down upon him, entering his mouth and ears to blind and deafen him. He remembered Zachary’s words—were they only a few days ago?—I thought I’d go crazy, with all this sky. The memory only made the pressure deepen and Dan shivered under the hot sun. Without conscious thought he moved closer to Wade.
Wade glanced over. He must have seen Dan’s dread because he smiled briefly and said, “Dan, did I ever tell you about the time I robbed the Southern Pacific three times in the same week?”
Dan breathed in the heavy air and managed to say, “No, Wade, I don’t believe you ever did.”
“Well, listen, this was what happened—”
And Wade began to tell an outrageous tale of burglary, theft, and general mischief. As the words washed over Dan, the pressure from above gradually lifted. By the time Wade had finished, Dan was much as usual, wondering what the hell had come over him. It wasn’t like him to go all flighty but maybe it was just the heat. “And did anybody die that day?”
“Dan, how many people do you think I’ve killed?”
“I don’t know. Plenty.”
“I only kill those that deserve it.”
“Did the folks on the Southern Pacific deserve it each time you held it up?”
“You’ll be happy to know, Dan Evans, that they all walked away without a scratch. All three times.”
He said it with such snootiness that Dan had to smile. He made sure he was looking away, though, when he did so. “I guess that would make me happy,” he said to the prairie on his left.
“The oddest things make you happy, I’ve noticed.”
Dan looked over in surprise. “Like what?”
“Oh, your cattle, that dog of yours. Furniture.”
“You found that out because you were spying on me, right?” Dan tried for anger, but it was no use. It was as if all the anger he’d had for Wade had been pressed to nothingness by the sky above. And maybe by his gratitude for Wade’s help. Besides, it was too hot to get angry.
Wade smiled. “I had to do something, Dan. It was fairly boring, sitting out there with nothing to do.”
“You could have ridden up. I wouldn’t have shot you.”
“Well, as you yourself said, I didn’t want to ride into a situation.”
Dan nodded, and stared straight ahead, thinking of nothing but how odd it was that Wade had been spying on him and that he had never noticed. He generally was more aware of his surroundings than that.
He was thinking so hard that it took him a moment to realize all of what Wade had said. He turned with a puzzled smile and asked, “Furniture?”
Wade nodded. “Hmm, mm. I watched you the other day, working on that beat-up rocking chair. You didn’t smile but I could tell you were happy. Sanding and carving—it would probably be cheaper to just buy a new chair, you know.”
“I like fixing things. You like stealing things.”
“We balance each other out, then.”
“I don’t know about that,” Dan murmured.
Wade was silent a while more, then he said, almost too casually, “I wasn’t a thief my whole life, you know.”
“I suppose if I ask you about it, you won’t tell me.”
Dan sighed in frustration, but kept the anger from his voice because he was trying, “When did you start drawing?”
“I was on my own a lot when I was very young and it was something to do.”
Dan nodded. There was a wealth of reluctant meaning behind those simple words, but it wasn’t the time or place to push for more—Wade would only fob him off, in any case.
They didn’t speak again, not until they’d reached a row of hills that rose like graduating steps. It was almost noon and Dan was looking forward to a rest. His leg was hurting some, but he wouldn’t mention that, not unless he absolutely had to.
“We’ve got about another eight, maybe nine miles.”
“To Las Limeras?”
Dan straightened in his saddle. He couldn’t see any town, large or small. For some reason he’d expected the town to be flat in the middle of nothing, like Bisbee.
Wade pointed to the lowest hill. “We’ll circle around to the south to avoid the canyons to the north. It’s a bad spot for white people and if we have any problems, that’s where it would be.”
“And remember, I’ve been to this place more than a few times, but even I take care.”
Nervousness itched Dan’s throat and he chocked back a quick remark about Ben Wade being scared. He nodded once and said sincerely, “I’ll stay sharp.”
Wade gave him a small smile, then turned them west. The landscape soon changed again, became more green with familiar scrubby brush and pine. When they got within shouting distance of the butte, they found a creek that was mostly a trickle. They watered the horses, then continued on.
They traveled for another hour, and Dan was about to suggest a rest when Wade reined in his mare. They were on the crest of a hill, looking down on wide, deep depression that was filled with shallow valleys and hills. On the other side a sand-colored mountain rose up as if sheltering the area below. Wade nodded and said, “There she is.” He got out his spyglass and focused on an expanse that seemed nothing but brush. After he’d gazed at it for a moment, he gave the glass to Dan.
He couldn’t see much. The early afternoon sun was already casting a thin layer of blue shadow over the area, concealing more than it revealed. Then he saw a series of straight lines that he’d missed on first glance. He gave the glass back to Wade.
They rode in side by side. Las Limeras was small and tidy. It was laid out in a rough rectangle of white, flat-roof buildings that surrounded an open square. In the middle of the square was a dry fountain.
From Wade’s stories, Dan got the idea that the town would be full of people, maybe in the middle of a party. The only thing he could see were a few chickens in the shade of a building, but no people. That didn’t fool him—he could feel the eyes tracking their progress as they rode slowly past the fountain.
Wade stopped in front of the largest building, dismounted, and led his horse around the corner to the shade. He tied the reins to a ring hitch and waited as Dan followed suit.
Dan didn’t need Wade’s hand on his arm and his soft, “Stay with me,” —he had no intention of leaving Wade’s side.
They in walked together, Wade in front, Dan at his back. It was a bar, he realized as soon as he entered—he could smell the familiar tang of whiskey and beer. Cool and dark, it was a welcome respite from the heat.
When his eyes adjusted to the dim lighting he realized that here must be most of the townsfolk. Scattered throughout the room, they all stared as Wade nodded a general hello. A man got up from a game of chess and rounded the back of the bar. He tied an apron around his waist and waited for Wade to come up.
Dan followed slowly. The patrons didn’t greet him with smiles, but neither did they frown in anger—just a cautiousness that he appreciated. Dan tipped his hat to the man closest and received a grave nod in return.
The bartender jerked his head to Wade and said something in Spanish. Wade replied and they shook hands briefly. What followed was a confusion of foreign words and many gestures. Wade was fluent in the language, or at least he sounded like he was, and Dan watched in fascination.
They talked for only a short time. Dan wasn’t surprised when Wade turned and shook his head. He knew it was no use by the look in the bartender’s eyes, the way he’d shrugged his shoulders. “He says that he remembers William. He came back a few days after I left, but he hasn’t returned.”
The bartender broke in and said something else that caused Wade’s face to darken. Wade answered him sharply and the man nodded. Wade asked a question and the bartender replied with a two words that sound like Silver City. Wade held out his hand and they shook hands again. He turned and with a hand on the small of Dan’s back, he herded him to the table nearest the door
Dan sat and nodded his thanks when the bartender brought them each a glass of whiskey. “What else did he say?”
Wade took a sip and sighed, then stared at the glass as he said, grimly, “It seems someone else came for me, about a week ago.”
Wade looked up. There was something dark and watchful in his eyes and Dan knew he wasn’t going to like what was coming. “He doesn’t know the man’s name, just that he used to ride with me and was young.”
Cold took Dan’s belly. “Charlie Prince.”
Wade tightened his lips and nodded.
“I thought— I assumed—”
“Yes, well, assuming never did anyone any good, now did it?”
Dan frowned and glanced around, as if he’d find Charlie hiding in the dark corners of the bar. He wasn’t, of course, and Dan turned back. Wade’s face was still grim. “So what do we do now?”
Wade looked to the open door and said slowly, “It’s getting late. We could head back, make for the stream where we watered the horses.”
“But this isn’t the country to be riding about in the dark.”
“Can we stay here?”
“We can. There’s a little place on the edge of town that takes in travelers.”
Dan wanted to smile at the notion that the town had an ‘edge.’ “But?”
“It’s a church.”
Wade smiled, his grim expression not lifting at all. “I figured it wouldn’t bother you.”
Dan drank his whiskey in one go and muttered, “ As long as it has a roof and a bed, I don’t care.”
Wade nodded and got up. He dug out a few coins and tossed them on the table. “Neither do I.” He nodded to the bartender and said something in Spanish. Surprisingly, he was answered by several of the men. He nodded to them and touched Dan’s arm, guiding him out the door.
The day had darkened while they were inside. Wade paused in front of the bar and looked around. Dan did the same. The scene hadn’t changed much other than an elderly woman watched them from the doorway of a house across the square, and he wondered what Wade was looking at. “Is it always so quiet?”
“Not always, but then, it’s Sunday.”
Wade shook his head. “I don’t know. Something’s off.”
Which wasn’t what Dan was expecting and he looked around again. Still nothing, but it didn’t ease his mind.
They untied their horses and Wade led them to a house, as he’d said, on the edge of town. It was built much the same as the rest of the town—plain and white with a flat roof. The only difference was the large, fenced-in courtyard on the right that looked to be lined with small rooms. A rough stable and paddock adjoined the house on the left and there was a wooden cross above the door with a figure of Jesus.
Wade handed him the reins. “Wait here.”
He soon came back out with a young boy at his heels. He said something that turned the boy’s face very serious and untied his saddlebags and got his rifle. Dan hurried to do the same. The boy took the reins from Dan and scampered.
Wade smiled after him.
“What did you say to him?”
Wade grinned. “I told him that you were a famous gunfighter and that you’d hang him up by his toes if something happened to your horse.”
Dan frowned. “Did you really? That was mean.”
Wade slung his saddlebags over his shoulder and shook his head. “Of course not. I just told him to make sure the horses fed well and he’d have a reward in the morning.” He grinned at Dan’s expression and went inside.
Dan huffed and followed him in. Like the bar, the interior of the church was cool and dark. It didn’t much look like a church, was Dan’s first thought. He didn’t have a whole lot of experience with Catholic churches, but he thought there’d be at least a few chairs or pews for the parishioners, instead it was a long room with windows that looked out over the courtyard.
He heard heels on tile and a woman appeared at a doorway on the left. She nodded to Dan and spoke softly to Wade.
She was older than Dan and not much to look at—she had deep circles under her eyes and a mouth that turned down. Her dark dress had seen better days. But when she led them outside, the failing sun glanced off her hair, a fiery, startling red.
She led the way across the courtyard, past a tall cottonwood and pointed to the room in the corner. She said something to Wade and he nodded and handed her a few coins. He smiled, in an effort, Dan thought, to charm her. She remained uncharmed. She pocketed the money and left with another sideways glance at Dan.
Wade opened the door and let Dan in first. The room was even more bare than the church—just a tiny square with a single window, an iron bed, a mattress, and a narrow dresser. There was a picture of The Virgin Mary on the wall above the stand.
He turned to Wade and asked, “Who is she?”
“Sister Teresa. She’s also the housekeeper.”
“Where’s the priest?”
“Gone to attend a sick parishioner.”
Dan tossed his bags on the bed. “She has red hair.”
“Yes.” Wade shut the door.
“I thought Mexicans had black hair.”
“How much did you give her?”
“Enough for what?”
Wade hung his saddlebag over the iron railing of the bed. “Enough for her to keep her mouth shut if someone comes looking.”
“Dan,” Wade interrupted and glared over his shoulder, “it’s been a long day. Can you save the interrogation for later?” He took off his hat, hung it on the hook, and began to unbutton his vest.
Dan raised his eyebrow and looked away. The shoe, it seemed, was on the other foot. Usually it was Wade that was the chatty one. It didn’t matter—keeping quiet was all right with Dan—he’d talked more in the past few days than he had the entire year.
Wade took off his vest and folded it over the bed frame. He was wearing one of his grey shirts and sweat had darkened a thin line down the back of his shirt and neck. Dan imagined running his finger down the line, following the valley of Wade’s spine as it traveled down to the curve of his hips. Dan swallowed and turned away.
Fortunately, Wade didn’t notice Dan’s distraction. He pushed the bags out of the way and dropped onto the bed, facing the ceiling. He lay there with one foot on the floor, his hands laced behind his head. Dan remembered the bridal suite and his desire twisted again even as he felt a moment’s contrition. For Wade did look tired and if it wasn’t for Dan, he’d be back in Dodge City or maybe—
A hesitant knock interrupted Dan’s thoughts and Wade was up in a heartbeat, gun out. He stalked to the door and called out, “Si?”
It was the Sister. Wade holstered his gun and opened the door. She had basket of tortillas and two brown bottles in one hand, and a thick striped blanket in the other. Wade gave her another coin with another smile. This time she smiled briefly in return. He watched her go.
Dan felt a sharp tug in his gut and it took him a moment to recognize the emotion for what it was: jealousy. He hunched his shoulders at the notion and followed Wade outside.
They ate in the courtyard, sitting on the dusty wooden walkway, backs to the room. Night was almost upon them and the shadows were long and blue.
Dan let the day sweep over him, thinking of his odd panic earlier, of the bar, of Wade’s unspoken worry. His thoughts grew muddled as he gradually slipped towards sleep. He was almost on the edge when Wade touched his leg and stood up. Dan, as it seemed he’d been doing all day, followed.
He latched the door while Wade spread the blanket.
The whole evening Dan hadn’t thought much about their sleeping arrangement and now he had to wonder at his lack of nerves. Exhaustion, he decided. He was just too damn tired to worry about sharing a bed with Wade.
But his body was waking up and a fine tremor had set up in his belly. Wade had his back to the room and was looking up at the painting of Mary, studying it as he slowly unbuttoned his shirt.
Dan hesitated, then unbuckled his gun belt. He thought about stripping down to his underclothes, then decided against it. It would be easier to hide his body’s reactions to Wade behind several layers of fabric. He did, however, remove his boots. His stump was aching and the only thing for it was a few hours out of the boot.
He crawled to the far side of the bed and looped his gun belt over the bedstead. He rolled up his jacket to use as a pillow and lay down on his back. The mattress was soft and he wanted to groan in pleasure. Which he didn’t because Wade would probably take that the wrong way. He closed his eyes and tried to ignore the sounds of Wade getting ready for bed.
“I’m stuffing your other shirt in your boots.”
Dan nodded without opening his eyes.
Wade got in and the bed shifted with his weight. He tugged on the blanket and murmured, “Dan—”
Dan nodded and rolled so Wade could drag the blanket from under him. The bed rocked again as Wade got comfortable and then there was nothing but stillness.
Dan opened his eyes a crack. The moon was getting smaller with each night, but it cast enough light to see Wade on the far edge of the bed with his back to Dan. There was a good two feet of space between them.
“How’s the leg?” Wade asked without turning around. He’d stripped down to his underclothes and the faint light made the white cotton glow.
“By the way you were limping I figured as much.”
Dan didn’t answer. Even as little as three days ago he would have lit into Wade, angry at the insinuation of weakness. Now it seemed simply something one person would say to another, with no shadings of accusation or mockery. “Ben?”
“Yes, Dan?” Wade’s voice was sleepy and low, as if he was answering from far away.
“How did you and Charlie meet?”
Wade didn’t answer and Dan thought he’d fallen asleep. Then he sighed and turned over. “I was going to say, when I was young and stupid. But that’s not quite right. Charlie wasn’t so bad, when we first met up. Just a little wild. He only got crazy later on when we’d been riding together a while. But he was all right, in the beginning.”
Wade’s voice was sad and his words opened up a whole slew of thoughts that Dan hadn’t the courage to imagine before. He wanted to ask Wade if he’d ever considered Charlie a friend. If there was ever a time where Wade felt even a small measure of affection for him. If Charlie had ever shared his bed because there seemed to be that between them. But he didn’t. It wasn’t his place to ask and he wasn’t sure he wanted to know, in any case.
The bedsprings creaked again and Dan turned his head. Wade was looking straight at him—there was enough light to see the glimmer of his eyes, the way his face had turned soft and thoughtful. “And what about you, Dan? You ever do anything wild and crazy?”
“I did, Ben, the other night.” The disingenuous words were out before he could hold them back, before he thought about what he was saying. It was the first time he’d mentioned, even obliquely, that night and his heart slowed down and the air grew thick.
Wade’s gaze narrowed and sharpened, just as it had when he’d tracked that hawk across the sky and Dan could feel him wanting to move across the cold no-man’s land.
Finally, when Dan was sure he could stand no more, Wade turned back on his side. He said in a voice even softer this time, “You let me know when you feel like doing something wild and crazy again, you hear?”
Dan didn’t trust his voice to answer. He lay there, waiting for his heart to quit beating so hard. The window’s bright outline had moved across the bed and up the wall before he was finally able to sleep.
This. This was what he wished for every day, Ben thought as he lay still, afraid to even breath too hard. And it was a gauge of how far he’d gone that he didn’t snort at either notion because if he did that he’d most likely wake Dan.
For Dan lay warm against him, having moved closer sometime during the night. He lay on his back with one arm flung awkwardly over Ben’s stomach and his head cocked tenderly towards Ben. In the early morning light he looked young, much younger than Ben guessed him to be.
Ben rolled to his side carefully, and studied Dan closer, taking in the way the sun had creased the corners of his eyes, the faint lines that bracketed his mouth. His lips, usually so tight and unforgiving, were parted and Ben’s sleepy lust woke and stirred. It would be so easy to lean in and steal the kiss that Dan had denied him. It would take only a moment and Dan wouldn’t even know about it, so light would be Ben’s kiss because he could be gentle when he chose.
He imagined it, imagined the care he’d need to lean over so the bedsprings wouldn’t squeak, the heat he’d feel before his lips brushed Dan’s.
But no, he thought with a mental shrug, he’d wait. Dan was warming to him, little by little. He was making an effort to be sociable, going so far as to use Ben’s Christian name now and then, although there was a good chance he wasn’t aware of it. When Ben did finally get that kiss, it would be because Dan chose to give it to him, not because Ben had stolen it. He had a feeling that Dan would be worth the wait, frustrating though it was.
That decided, Ben rolled carefully out of bed and got dressed. He buckled on his gun belt and went outside.
Sister Teresa was in the courtyard, standing in the sun with her eyes closed, her arms crossed over her breasts. He’d come across her in the village a time or two, but had never actually talked to her. Her sister Margharita was another story—she worked as a barmaid in the saloon and Ben had seen her more than a few times, plying her trade. He’d never taken her up on her offers, but only because Campos had felt much affection for her. Besides, back then there were other girls to take up his time.
And now, it seemed, that those girls were gone and Margharita had disappeared as well, leaving her young son in the care of her sister. Ben had inquired after her, but Teresa had ignored him, just as the men had when Ben had asked why it was so quiet and where were the women and children.
He had a suspicion that whatever had happened, Charlie was in the thick of it. Ben had made it clear that he and Charlie had parted ways long ago. He wasn’t sure if they believed him or not. He hoped so. They weren’t a rough crowd, for the most part, but they would act accordingly if they thought he was a danger. He liked to think that they knew him well enough to leave him alone, but still, he spent the night half awake, listening for the intruder that never came.
The thought triggered a yawn and Teresa finally noticed him. She hurried back into the house.
Ben turned to find Dan leaning against the door jamb, rubbing sleep away from his face. He looked rested and was standing easily on his bad leg. “Where’s she going?” Dan jerked his chin towards the house.
“Probably to get breakfast.”
Dan scratched his chin and yawned. “I could eat.”
“Don’t expect much. It’ll probably be tortillas again.”
It turned out to be just that with the addition of scrambled eggs. Ben gave Theresa his thanks and received the same response: a blank look that couldn’t hide her fear. He gave a plate to Dan and they ate where they had the night before.
Ben’s instincts were waking up, urging him to be gone. Before Dan was halfway through, Ben pushed to his feet and said, “I’ll just be a minute. Stay here.” He went into the rectory and called for Sister Teresa.
She came out from the kitchen, wiping her hands on a cloth. “Yes?” Her eyes were as blank as they’d been the day before.
“We need to be going, Sister. Can I buy some tortillas and water from you?”
She nodded and said, “Five pesos. I’ll tell Jorge to fill your bottles from the well. Leave the money in your room.”
It was a princely sum, but he was in no position to argue and he brought his hand to his brim only remembering at the last moment that he wore no hat. He didn’t make mistakes like that, but her disquiet was infectious. He went back to the room and got Dan moving without telling him why. He laid a handful of pesos on the wash stand and gathered up his gear.
When they left the church they found their horses ready and their saddlebags packed with food and water. Ben tossed a coin to the boy and climbed up. He led the way out. Dan threw him worried glances every minute or so, but Ben ignored him. The town was just as empty this morning as it had been last night and they rode through at a fast clip. They didn’t stop until they reached the rise above town.
“Wade, will you slow down? What’s wrong?”
Ben turned in the saddle to look back. The town looked sleepy and peaceful. “I don’t know.”
“Was that a fresh bullet hole on the side of the church?”
“It was. The whole town is shot up.”
“I didn’t see anything.”
Ben shrugged. If Dan had looked a little more carefully, he would have noticed the chunk of plaster missing from the corner of the bar, the small holes that decorated the fountain and the bakery.
“Why did we run out of there?”
“I don’t know, Dan, what else would you like me to say?”
“Well, something other than, I don’t know would be nice. I never figured you for the running type.”
Ben snarled and dragged the reins to the left, forcing the mare sideways and pushed up against Dan, thigh to thigh. “I don’t know Dan,” he said, biting off each word as he spoke. “Would you like me to make something up, because I’d be happy to.” His words were mild, but his tone was not and Dan’s face darkened. Before he could open his mouth to argue, Ben touched his knee and tried again. “Something happened down there. Something to do with Charlie and the girl. I asked the bartender and the Sister. They’re scared, but of what, I don’t know. I can’t make it any clearer than that.”
Dan frowned and grabbed Ben’s arm. “Could it have something to do with William?”
Ben tightened his lips and thought about it. “Maybe. I doubt it.”
“Then why are we running?”
Ben shook his head. The things he guessed, they were nothing more than supposition built from the second-hand knowledge that Charlie had been up to no good.
“So what do we do now?”
“What do you think?”
“Silver City,” Ben agreed. He herded Dan before him, up the hill to circle around the butte once more, feeling as if he had a target painted on his back.
They were well away from Las Limeras before Ben slowed the pace and let the animals catch their breath. The sense of danger had disappeared and he let himself relax.
Still, he rode them harder than the days before. They didn’t stop for a noon break, only paused to water the horses at the Santa Cruz, then pushed on.
Dan kept quiet. There was no more smart comments or questions, which was just as well. Ben could hardly tell Dan that his worry, for once, wasn’t for his own hide—it was for Dan’s. If Charlie was indeed somewhere in the area, then Dan’s life was at risk.
Dan could take care of himself, Ben knew that for a fact. And Dan was right when he said that Ben wasn’t the running type—there was very little that frightened him these days. But if Charlie had gone crazy, well then, that changed things a little.
If it would do any good, Ben would kick himself for ignoring the problem for so long. He should have left the others and concentrated on Charlie, first and foremost.
Maybe he’d been right all those months ago, maybe it was time to settle down if he was going to be this sloppy.
If he knew where Charlie was, right this minute, he’d see Dan to the edge of the Hereford plain, then go hunt him down. But for all he knew, Charlie was tracking them this very minute.
The thought made him turn in the saddle again and scan the surrounding hills. Still nothing. “Dan?”
“We have a decision to make.”
“We’re almost to the border. Bisbee is northeast about thirty miles. We can pass through town or we can angle up towards Douglas and Cottonwood.”
“How much time will we save?”
“About half a day’s riding, maybe more. We’ll be going through some rough terrain, but it will be faster in the long run.”
“And it’s like I told you—the area around Silver City is known for Indian attacks. Our best bet would be to ride down from the north, but that will take too much time.”
“So what’s your solution?”
“To do what we did in Las Limeras. Ride in below and come up from the south.”
“Is it dangerous?”
Dan nodded, and then a strange look passed over his face. He shifted in the saddle and looked out over the prairie and muttered, “Wade, I’m sorry.”
Ben squinted, not sure he heard right. “You’re sorry. For what?”
“If we’d gone your way from the beginning we wouldn’t have wasted time in Mexico. We would’ve been able to take the northern route and already be in Silver City.”
Ben smiled slowly. “Dan Evans,” he drawled, “I think this is the first time you’ve ever apologized to me.”
Dan jerked his head around and shot back, “Well maybe you didn’t deserve it, before.”
“And I do now?”
Dan shrugged and eased back in the saddle. “I guess so. You didn’t need to come with me. And it would have been hard going, on my own, you were right about that as well.”
Ben didn’t know what to say. Once again Dan had disarmed him completely with nothing more than simple honesty. He said as lightly as he could, “Well, think on it this way, Dan, if we hadn’t gone to Limeras, I wouldn’t have learned that Charlie Prince is in the area.”
They shared another long look, this one of cautious accord and Ben’s idiot heart warmed his chest. “Come on. If we ride hard, we can be in Douglas by nightfall.”
Try as they might, they couldn’t make the time Ben hoped for. By dusk they were still ten miles or so from Douglas. He thought to push it but when he looked back, he caught Dan gripping his knee. Ben announced that they’d stop for the night and expected a show of bravado—all he got was a short, grateful nod.
The problem was water. They needed to find a spot that was relatively safe and had water for the thirsty animals. The only place Ben knew of within riding distance was a no-name creek that they’d already passed a few miles back. Dan’s face fell when he heard.
The first stars were out by the time they made it to the creek. Ben picked a spot out in the open, among the sage and the whitethorn.
As if they’d been riding together all their lives, they went off to do their separate chores—Dan took care of the horses and Ben made the fire. He heated the tortillas in a pan, wishing he had a little meat or beans. The first thing he was going to do when they got to Douglas, was to sit down before a proper meal.
Dan came back with the horses and without asking, unsaddled them, first his, then Ben’s. He brought Ben’s gear and leaned over the pan. “I’ve got more dried beef. Hold on.” He rummaged around in his satchel and pulled out the grease-stained package. “We’ll buy more when we get to Douglas.”
Ben ignored the ‘we’, and cocked his head at the hard brown meat Dan was unwrapping, “No offense, Dan, but that beef doesn’t look very good.”
“It’s fine. You won’t get sick.”
“I’m more worried about my teeth breaking off in my head than getting sick.”
Dan pursed his lips and tossed the beef in anyway. “I think there’s more coffee, if you want it.”
“That’d be fine. I can use it to wash down the jerky,” Ben added with a sideways glance at Dan. He smiled at the glare he got in return.
When they finished eating, Dan gathered up the dishes and went to wash up. Ben wanted to sit a while more and just do nothing, but he made himself get up to look for more firewood. There wasn’t much to find, but he got what he could and was back before Dan. He shook out his blanket, and fixed up his bed. He lay back against his saddle. That was another thing he was going to do as soon as he got back to civilization: sleep in a proper bed, preferably with Dan at his side. The thought made him smile and he lay there, imagining it.
Dan returned, his hair slicked back, his face shiny wet. He limped heavily and when he knelt to put the cookware away, his face pinched with pain.
Ben tossed woody log onto the fire and said, “I’m wide awake. Why don’t I take the first watch?”
Dan didn’t argue. He dropped onto his blanket and shifted around to get comfortable. “Ben?”
“What did Charlie do that’s got you so upset?”
Ben turned on his side and pushed up on one elbow. The fire was low and he could see Dan’s face. “You mean in general, or—”
“I mean back at Las Limeras, what did he do?”
Ben picked up a twig and began to strip away the bark, bit by bit. The night before, Dan had asked about Charlie and in the same soft voice, too. Ben wondered what it meant, that Dan was so curious about Charlie. “You’re not going to like this, but I don’t know. I just know it can’t be good.”
Ben hesitated, then said slowly, “I was in Sacramento a few months ago and I came across an old timer. We shared a bottle of whiskey and he told me a story about a young lady that got herself killed, outside of Cathedral City.”
Dan nodded and Ben continued, “Anyway, he had family near there and the murder shook the town up. Then he told me the same thing had happened a few months before that, in Victorville. Also,” he added when Dan looked up, “in California.”
Dan turned on his side and mirrored Ben’s position. His hair was dry and the fire picked out the red-gold highlights. “You think Charlie did these killings?”
A log fell in the fire and a handful of sparks shot up to the sky. Ben tossed the twig into the center of the flames and watched it burn, then said, “I don’t have any good reason to suspect Charlie. It’s just, the murders were vicious. Charlie always went too far and had no self-control. Even on the simple jobs he’d end up hurting someone. Charlie never went for women, not like the others…” Ben broke off and shrugged because he hadn’t told Dan the truth about him and Charlie and wasn’t planning on it. , the others, they were bad enough, but Charlie liked it rough and the women mostly didn’t.”
“So you think he did something to that woman’s sister? Sister Theresa, I mean?”
Dan sighed and pushed his hair off his forehead. Ben could practically hear his thoughts and waited for the condemnation, the demands for explanation and regret, but all Dan finally said was, “I guess people can change on you.” He lay back and looked up at the stars.
Ben did the same. The night sky was a velvety dark blue. The moon rode high over the hills to the west, hanging as if suspended by an invisible wire. It was just a white sliver, tipping up as if it was waiting to catch the bright star that shone directly above. “Thumbnail,” Ben murmured.
Ben cleared his throat and said louder, “Thumbnail moon. That’s what my ma always called a moon like that.”
Dan turned his head. The fire was dying and there was only a flutter of orange-red flame left to divide them. It cast a warm glow over Dan’s face and smoothed away the worry lines.
Ben thought of the night before last, the night they’d struggled first on the porch, then on the bed. Dan had been like a wild man, for all he hadn’t struck Ben once. And when he’d pinned Ben down with his hands and his weight, his expression had changed. He’d placed his hand over Ben’s heart, sad and remote, as if something inside him was hurting only he didn’t know what. He had that same look now. “Dan?”
“How’s the leg?”
“It hurts. I’ll be fine.”
And Ben would have left it at that, but Dan didn’t turn away like he always did. He lay there, waiting, and when Ben got up, heart beating a little too fast, Dan didn’t forestall him.
Ben knelt and touched the bad leg. He ran his fingers lightly over the knee joint and down towards the hidden amputation. “It hurts here, doesn’t it?”
Dan shut his eyes and jerked his head, yes.
Ben dropped down in an awkward crouch so he could get the proper angle and he smoothed out the muscle above Dan’s knee and with gentle hands, pushed down lightly. He had no idea what he was doing. A few years ago in San Francisco he’d had a rub-down from a Chinese lady—she hadn’t done much but knead the muscles of his back and neck, but it had felt wonderful. He tried to remember what she had done, tried to transfer that same skill to his own hands so he wouldn’t hurt Dan. “Do you want to take the boot off?”
Ben nodded—if anything came up, it would be foolish to be handicapped so thoroughly out here in the wild. He bent over Dan’s leg and pressed harder. He glanced up—Dan’s fists and jaw were clenched tight. “Does that hurt?”
Dan shook his head.
And little by little, Dan did, first his hands, then his jaw.
Ben had run across amputees before—men that had lost arms and legs to the war. Right after the war it seemed he couldn’t walk down the street without running into a maimed soldier. “The army—is there nothing more that they can do for you?”
“I never asked,” Dan murmured.
Ben frowned but didn’t let his frustration work its way to his hands. “Well maybe you should. Maybe they can help you. They have hospitals, don’t they?” He wanted to add, you stubborn fool, but figured that Dan would take offense and stiffen up and all his work would be undone.
Dan shrugged. “What could they do?”
“I don’t know. Maybe get you set up with another leg, one that doesn’t hurt so much.”
“That’s what Alice says.”
“She’s a smart woman, Dan, you should listen to her.”
Ben expected a smart remark about staying out of other people’s business, but Dan looked up right at that moment and Ben lost his train of thought. Dan’s pupils were dilated, leaving only a rim of clear green and his shirt was open at the throat. Ben licked his lips and wished he had his book out, wished he could capture the moment on paper. And then he reminded himself that they were out where anyone could see, that sex would only make a complicated situation more complicated.
Dan blinked, as if knowing what Ben was thinking, and then he asked quietly, “Are you happy?”
Surprise stopped Ben’s hands. “Happy?”
“You’re always telling me why I’m not happy, but what about you? Are you?”
Ben pushed back until he sat on his heels. He was completely flummoxed.
Dan smiled softly with no ridicule. “I thought so.”
All desire gone, Ben rose and returned to his side of the fire. He lay back and looked up the sky. He was—
He shook his head because he couldn’t figure out what he was. Angry, irritated, confused?
“Yes, Dan?” Ben answered without looking over.
“Thank you. It feels better.”
Ben shrugged uncomfortably and watched the stars a while more.
“Do you see him?” Ben asked softly and Dan nodded. Just ahead, high on a rocky outcrop, crouched a man with his back to the sun. It was hard to see but Dan thought he could make out pale-colored clothing and a rifle cradled in man’s arms.
“Can we go around?”
“We’ve got a river on our left and a canyon wall on our right. We can backtrack to Douglas and circle around, but that will take at least full day.”
Dan turned. Ben was squinting against the afternoon sun, examining the figure. “What do you suggest?”
“We don’t have a choice, do we?”
“None that I can see.”
“Well, then,” Ben turned to Dan. “I’ll go first, don’t make any sudden moves. Follow my lead. If we’re lucky, he’s alone.”
They started up the path, taking shallow the incline slowly. The red wall of stone rose at a sharp angle, forcing them to ride single file. They got closer and Dan was surprised to see Ben salute. The Indian didn’t respond. But neither did he rise and call out or shoot. When Dan tilted his head to look up and back, he was still there, watching. Over the muted din of the river, Dan called out, “I feel like I have a target on my back.”
Ben didn’t turn around. “Then this is the time you don’t do anything stupid. See that crook in the trail up ahead?”
“We just need to make it to that point. The river takes a left and the canyon opens up onto a plateau and beyond that is Cottonwood.”
Dan nodded and waited for something to come flying at him, either an arrow or a bullet. When they got to the bend in the road, Dan breathed a heavy sigh of relief. Ben turned. “Got your heart pumping?”
“It did,” Dan answered with some asperity and didn’t bother pointing out that Ben’s face was as shiny with sweat as his own must be. Ben would probably just blame it on the closed air of the canyon, if he answered at all.
Their growing harmony had evaporated overnight. Ben was quiet and withdrawn, only speaking when necessary. He wasn’t, Dan thought, being deliberately cruel, just…
They’d had an argument of a sort, after their noon break. Dan wanted to push on through Cottonwood and get to Silver City, even if it meant arriving late at night. Ben said no, flat out, that they were almost there, no sense in getting sloppy this close to the finish line. But he hadn’t said it with his usual sarcasm, or even his usual anger. Instead, he was calm and reasonable and distant.
Dan hated it.
They rode into Cottonwood at dinner time.
Dan knew of the mining towns that dotted the Black Range mountains, but he’d never had a mind to visit. He’d heard they were rough and temporary, some springing up overnight only to disappear a few months later.
He expected Cottonwood to be much the same, but it was actually nice. It lay along the foot of a low, broad mountain, and was set out in typical fashion: a single wide road with businesses on either side. Down towards the east end of town, the framework of a new building stood open to the sky.
“Last time I was through they only had one saloon, now they have two.”
“So they,” Dan jerked his head to a group of men laughing too loud on the boardwalk, “can get twice as drunk?”
“We can’t all be saints, Dan,” Ben said, a little bitterly.
It was on Dan’s tongue to object that Ben knew better than most that he was no saint when he saw the sign for Bath & Shave, 25A2. 5 – 9. “I’m going to take a bath.”
Ben smirked. “I’ll race you.”
They ended up not racing. They hitched their horses in front of the new saloon. With a muttered, “Lay low,” Dan crowded Ben out of the way, and led the way inside.
The saloon could have been a kissing cousin to the one in Bisbee—big central room with smaller rooms upstairs. It was crowded for a Tuesday, mostly with men, but there were a few women here and there. Some were prostitutes, a few others sat among the men, playing cards. It was odd, seeing women mix the men so, but maybe that’s just how they did things in Grant County.
Dan pushed his way to the bar and leaned over to get the bartender’s attention. “Evening. My friend and I are passing through and are looking for two rooms.”
The bartender poured a measure of whiskey and slid it to the man next to Dan. “We only have one room left and it’s the most expensive. It’ll cost you two dollars for the night. No baths, but we offer dinner, if you’re hungry.”
Dan nodded. Two dollars was an extravagant amount. “That’ll be fine, and dinner as well.” Dan reached for the cash, but before he could, Ben slid a few coins on the bar.
The bartender was pouring another glass of whiskey and he took the money without looking up. He jerked his head and said, “The room’s at the end, on the right.” He got the key and gave it to Dan.
A group of laughing men entered the bar and the crowd grew thicker. The mass shifted towards the bar and pushed Ben into Dan. He didn’t push back and they were plastered together, chest to back.
Dan sighed because Ben was probably shoving him on purpose. He said over his shoulder. “I need to get cleaned up. I’ll be back in an hour.” He left before Ben could give him an answer.
By the time Dan returned, Ben had captured a table in the back corner and was sitting with his back to the wall. He had a half-bottle of whiskey and was pretending to study the table’s surface, but Dan could see he was peering from under his hat brim, watching the crowd.
Dan dropped the gear he was carrying and sat down. He nodded to the pile of leather and canvas on the chair and said, “I took the horses to the livery and brought your things as well.”
Ben raised one eyebrow. “Thank you, Dan. That was thoughtful of you.”
He made it sound like Dan had never done a kind thing in his life. Dan tightened his lips and ran a hand over his face and damp hair. “Have you eaten?”
“No. I ordered it, though. It should be here any time.”
“Can I—?” Dan pointed to Ben’s glass and Ben nodded. Dan poured a finger of whisky and gulped it down, then moved his chair so he could lean against the wall, mirroring Ben’s pose. His shoulder brushed against Ben’s.
He looked around. No one was paying them any mind but he felt exposed, as if someone might figure out what was between them and make a fuss. It was the first time he’d thought such a thing and he shifted away, trying to make it seem natural, not obvious. From the side of his eye he could see Ben smirk.
Dan poured another drink and cleared his throat. He said, mostly to interrupt the direction of his own thoughts, “Think Charlie was here anytime lately?”
“I hope not.”
That wasn’t very reassuring. “Ben?”
“That business you had in town, that first day…” Dan made a vague sweeping gesture with the glass, “did it have anything to do with Charlie?”
“You went into town to ask after him?”
“I went out to Hollander’s to talk to him, yes. He’s the only that might have seen Charlie close up.”
“How’d you know the wouldn’t tell the Marshal about you?”
Ben turned and smiled. “I already told you that, Dan.”
“That you’d kill Hollander if he turned you in?”
Dan looked down at the table and was silent for a long moment. Then he looked up, straight into Ben’s eyes and said softly, “I don’t believe you.”
Ben’s smile died and his face closed up. He put his arm on the table and said in a low, dull voice, “You need to know something Dan Evans. If Hollander was right here, right now, and he needed killing, I’d pull my gun and shoot him. I wouldn’t think twice on it. And I wouldn’t have to go to church the next day pray for forgiveness, and I wouldn’t lose any sleep over it.” He leaned closer until he was nearly whispering in Dan’s ear. “Just because I like you and want you in my bed doesn’t mean I’m not the man I am. You just see me in a different light now, that’s all.”
Dan didn’t say anything. His heart was beating too fast and too slow, both at the same time. Then he drew a deep breath and murmured, “I don’t know what to do with you.”
“I’m not asking you to do anything with me. I just want you to know—” Ben stopped abruptly and sat back. A young man arrived with two plates, piled high with food. He set them down and left before Dan could think to ask for a second glass. With a muttered curse, Ben got up and made his way to the bar. He came back with a tumbler and gave it to Dan. He pulled his plate to him and ate a few bites, then pushed the plate away. Still ignoring Dan, he rifled through the pile of their things, finding his own saddlebags and was gone without another word.
Dan ate slowly and didn’t taste any of it. He stacked the plates and stood up. On his way upstairs, he stopped the boy and asked for hot water.
The stairs led to a gallery, which led to a narrow corridor, identical doors on either side. He came to the last door on the right and fit the key in the lock.
The room was dark and he had to light the wall sconces by touch. As soon as he was able to see, he lit the lamp by the bed and the one by the chair. He took a look around and smiled grimly at twists and turns of fate. It wasn’t an exact match to the bridal suite he and Ben had shared in Contention all those years ago, but it was a near miss.
Decorated in lace and chintz, it was laid out in the same manner and had the same amount of furniture. The only difference was that the bed was on the opposite side of the room, right next to the washroom.
Dan threw his gear on the chair and went to open the window.
Down below, the streets were mostly empty, but he could see a couple figures here and there, doing nothing. He pushed back the curtain and leaned out. A half a block away he could see the bathhouse. Ben would be in a tub by now, relaxing in the hot water. Dan gripped the lace curtain trying to rid his mind of the image of Ben, naked and wet, maybe leaning back with his head tipped back against the smooth copper edge.
It didn’t work and when the boy came by with the water, Dan took it, grateful for the distraction. He shook out his dirty clothes, stripped down to his trousers, then rinsed all his clothes out and hung them around the room to dry. He was just wringing out his second-best undershirt when he heard footsteps in the hall, then a soft knock. “It’s open.”
The door opened then closed. Curious because Ben hadn’t said anything, he went to the door and leaned on the jamb. Ben was standing in the middle of the room, looking around. His expression was still closed off and grim.
“Look familiar?” Dan asked, deliberately light.
“It does. Did the barkeep say this was the bridal suite? I must have missed that.” He tossed his hat on the table and his bags on top of Dan’s things without looking over.
He hadn’t dried off very carefully and wasn’t wearing an undershirt. His damp shirt clung like a second skin, accentuating the muscles of his shoulders and back. Dan looked down at his hands, startled to find that he was wringing the hell out of his undershirt. At his feet was a puddle of water. He turned back to the washroom and called over his shoulder, “Nope. He just said it was the most expensive room he had.”
“Well, it’s as ugly as the one in Contention, that’s for certain.” Ben’s voice faded away, and then Dan heard the sound of the window being closed and the drapes, drawn. “What side do you want?”
Dan shook out the undershirt and hung it up on the mirror. “I don’t care.”
“I’ll take the window side, then.”
“So you can see the sky?”
Ben paused, then said, “So I can be further away from the noise downstairs.”
Dan snorted at the lie and wiped up the spilled water, trying not to listen as Ben got ready for bed. He could hear the thumps of clothing being removed and thrown aside, and then the squeak of the bedsprings.
It was just the same, he told himself. Just the same as the other nights, save one. Their circumstances hadn’t changed; they had, in fact, gotten worse.
His body, unfortunately, didn’t know that and apparently didn’t care. He gripped the wash rag tight as his stomach knotted up and his heart began to pound. He thought of Alice and the boys. Their faces didn’t come clearly and he closed his eyes in case that would help. It didn’t. He gave up, tossed the rag in the basin, and left the false sanctuary of the washroom
The blinds and curtains were closed and Ben was in bed, sheet pulled up to his waist, hands behind his head. He’d put on an undershirt. Dan wanted to sigh in relief and wanted to complain, both at the same time. “I asked the bartender about Charlie.”
Ben looked Dan up and down. Feeling like a fool, Dan reached for his nearest, and hopefully, driest, undershirt. He pulled it on.
“You were taking a chance,” Ben said absentmindedly, still staring at Dan’s chest and arms.
Dan crossed his arms and shrugged. “Not really. I told him I was from Bisbee and that Charlie had ridden through a couple weeks ago. That me and some of the other ranchers were worried and wanted to make sure the bastard was gone from the county. I mentioned Hollander.” He was talking too much, but at least Ben had stopped staring.
“What did he say?”
“That he knew Hollander. That everyone had heard of the ruckus a few years ago when Ben Wade was sent to Yuma Prison. That Charlie Prince was probably long gone, either dead or gone back home to Kansas.” Dan pushed away from the door and stood next to the bed, not sure if he could get into bed with Ben looking at him that way. “I don’t know how you do it. You walked right in and they never even recognized you.”
“People see what they want to see, Dan.”
Ben looked up. “What does that mean?”
“It means you’re always telling me what a killer you are. That people are selfish and weak and only out for themselves. And that they’ll always be that way.”
Ben frowned. “And?”
“I think you’ve repeated those speeches so many times that you actually believe them. I think that you think you’re so free and clear of life that you don’t see that you’ve never stopped running, not since you were that kid in the train station. And, I think that if you ever did stop running, you’d find that you’re not who you think you are and that there are people around you that you could care for.” Dan took a breath, surprised by the anger that was bleeding out. And the thing was, he wasn’t sure if he was angry at Ben, or for Ben.
He sat down on the bed, facing away from Ben.
“And would that ‘people’ be you, Dan?”
Dan turned around. Ben’s words were coldly mocking, but his eyes filled with a kind of cautious surprise. “I don’t know. I could be, but you’ll probably never let me get close enough to try. It’s easy to hate people for leaving when you’re the one doing the pushing.”
Ben’s mouth parted and Dan leaned on one arm, pressing his unexpected advantage. “I know you don’t think much of me and my views of the world, Ben. I know you think that my faith in people makes me vulnerable and weak. But have you ever tried to see things from my point of view, even once? To see what I see? If you did, you’d learn that faith isn’t a weakness and trust isn’t a lie.”
Dan shook his head and laughed bitterly. “You’ve said I don’t know you. You’re wrong. I know you’ve killed a lot of people. I don’t like it, but I know it.” He touched the back of Ben’s hand. “I do know you, Ben, but I’m starting to wonder if you know yourself.” He held Ben’s gaze and quoted, “Proverbs: Chapter Twenty-five, Verse Twenty-eight.”
Ben went utterly still and Dan stopped talking. He let silence fill the room. He could hear his watch ticking away the seconds, could hear the crowd, one story down, laughing and talking so loud the words blended until it was just noise. Outside, a man was singing a maudlin, sentimental Irish ballad.
And here, in their room, Ben was looking down at their joined hands as if in shock, the distance between them shattered. He was, Dan knew, quickly working out which way to squirrel out of the conversation, and indeed, when his lips tightened and his armed tensed, Dan grabbed his hand and didn’t let go.
Ben jerked his head up, almost snarling. Whatever he was going to say, to argue, it died on his lips. He stared into Dan’s eyes, unmoving as if helpless and trapped.
An odd pity gripped Dan’s heart. Ben had been on his own for so long—learning to trust another human being would be like learning to walk all over again—a couple steps forward and then back down to the ground.
He squeezed Ben’s hand hard enough to hurt and let go. He got up, checked the door, turned down all the lamps save the one on the nightstand, then came back to the bed. Ben’s gaze had changed from blank apprehension to a keen appreciation. Dan undressed down to his drawers, matter-of-factly and with no shame. He dropped his clothes next to Ben’s and didn’t hesitate when he sat down on the bed to remove his false leg.
He took a deep breath and squared his shoulders. There was one more thing he needed to do, but it was going to be harder than he thought. He gripped his thighs and didn’t turn when he said, “I need to tell you something else, Ben.”
When Ben said nothing, Dan took another deliberate breath. “I’m not saying this for any other reason than you deserve to know, and you’ll find out anyway. Alice and I— She’s had enough. She wrote a few days ago to say she’s staying in Colorado. Mostly because of Mark, but also because of me.” His hands clenched into fists, grabbing uselessly at nothing. “I guess you were right, last year. She deserves better than me and she got it.” He didn’t tell Ben about the doctor, and he hoped Ben wouldn’t ask.
The bed shifted and Ben touched his shoulder lightly. When Dan didn’t push him away, he sat up and encircled Dan with his arms and pulled. At first Dan resisted, and then he didn’t because if Ben could give up something as precious as his pride, then so could Dan.
He let himself be pulled back into Ben’s arms, and Ben held him close and whispered, “I’d take that back if I could.”
Dan clasped Ben’s hand, the one over his chest and said, “No you wouldn’t, but thanks anyway.”
Ben rubbed his cheek against Dan’s shoulder
The bar crowd was quieting down. Dan could hear a couple men talking quietly in the street, their voices fading as they walked away.
Dan sighed. It had been a hell of a week. From Bisbee to Las Limeras to Cottonwood. From hoping William was still alive, to the knowledge that he was maybe a day’s ride away.
He sunk back into Ben’s arms and breathed deep. Ben smelled of soap and whiskey.
Ben lay his chin on Dan’s shoulder and spoke softly, “Dan?”
“Will you lay with me tonight?” And before Dan could respond, he added, “Like this, sleeping, nothing else.”
Dan answered by curling into Ben, pushing until they both were under the covers. Ben wrapped his leg over Dan’s and whispered, “Does that hurt?”
Ben nodded. He was close enough that his mouth brushed the back of Dan’s neck, and Dan couldn’t help his shiver.
He was so damn tired and his body was almost numb, but he wasn’t sure if it was possible to sleep. He could feel the same waiting in Ben and he half turned to ask, “Ben?”
“I’m fine, Dan. Go to sleep.”
Dan closed his eyes. He dropped off waiting for Ben to fall asleep first.
Ben woke from a confused dream of Charlie beheading a chicken to a warm kiss on his neck and a hand on the curve of his hip. In an instant the dream vanished and his eyes flew open. Before he could speak, the mouth switched from his neck to his lips.
It was a pale, chaste kiss and he growled and reached up blindly. He found the hard muscles of Dan’s biceps and shoulders and struck. Their lips clashed, then met as he opened Dan’s mouth with his own. He drew back, angled his head, and Christ, he’d been so right—Dan was worth the wait for he kissed like he did all things—quietly, thoroughly, focused.
Ben pulled away and whispered into Dan’s ear, “I thought we were just sleeping.” He turned to look—through the draperies he could see that the windows were dark—it was still early.
“That was you, not me. Besides, I slept, now I’m awake.”
Ben laughed soundlessly and rolled so he was laying on Dan, half on, half off. The sheets tangled around his ankles and when he kicked free, the bedsprings creaked unforgivably. Dan froze, but Ben didn’t give him time to think, time to panic. There was no way he was going to stop, not now, and he’d kill any man who tried.
He reached for Dan’s hand and kissed the inside of his wrist, then the inside of his elbow, kissing away the panic, watching carefully as Dan’s alarm faded and his eagerness returned.
They had been here before only then, Dan’s face and body had been closed up with anger and shame. Now he lay open to Ben’s mouth and body, giving touch for touch, kiss for kiss.
From the next room, someone coughed and this time it was Ben that stilled. The walls were thin and he could hear the scrapes and shuffle of boots against the hard wood floor as if the man was just a foot away. The man coughed again.
That only made it more thrilling, that anyone might hear the bedsprings squeak in rhythm, hear Dan’s breath hitch and stutter as he pulled Ben in closer for another fierce kiss.
Among the skills he’d acquired over the years, Ben had always prided himself on two: his ability with a gun and his bedroom expertise. But now he could feel himself losing that carefully harvested control for he wanted to press Dan into the pillows and eat him alive. It had been far too long since he’d felt that way.
Telling himself to calm down, to take it slow, he reached inside Dan’s drawers, watching as his own hand discovered Dan’s flesh. Dan jerked and arched his back, almost dislodging Ben from his side as he spread his legs wide. He grabbed Ben’s hair, pulling so hard that it actually hurt.
At that, Ben gave up the need for finesse and control—Dan’s abandoned pleasure was overwhelmingly contagious and in a heartbeat, he was undone. He pressed close and began to thrust against Dan’s thigh like a schoolboy, all the while trying to remember not to let go of Dan’s cock, trying to remember keep quiet because of the thin walls.
Dan came gratifyingly quick. He pushed into Ben’s hand and stifled a groan, and then another. When he looked up, he smiled weakly and didn’t wait to catch his breath. He reached for Ben in the same way, his hand warm and wet and strong. Ben shivered at the touch and shoved his face into the crook of Dan’s neck, afraid he would forget reason and call out, even though he’d told himself not to.
In the end, Dan thought for them both—just as Ben’s thrusts became ragged and wild, Dan pressed a shaky hand to his mouth, hard. Ben bit because he couldn’t help himself and he let go and the world faded away.
When he opened his eyes, Dan had stripped off his undershirt and was cleaning them both up.
Dan noticed him watching and he smiled and whispered, “I’ll be back.”
He made to get up, and Ben pulled him back with murmurred, “That can wait. Come here.”
This time there was no awkwardness, no shame. Dan came into Ben’s arms as if they’d been at this all their lives. Ben fell asleep again, still smiling.
When Ben woke again, it was light outside. Dan was already up and mostly dressed, moving around the room in his stocking feet. When he saw Ben staring, he smiled and murmured, “I’m going to see if they have any coffee. You want any?”
“Not now. I’ll be down in a while.”
Dan nodded and slung his bags over his shoulder. He picked up his rifle and turned back to the bed. There was a curious mixture of wonder and hesitation in his eyes and Ben stroked the sheet, inviting and encouraging.
But Dan gave a wry, essentially, Dan sort of smile and shook his head regretfully.
Ben watched him go and lay there wondering if he was angry that his invitation had been declined. He decided not. For a few hours he’d forgotten why he was on this outing and now it was time to get back to work.
He sprang out of bed with a grin and began to pull on his clothing. He had a feeling, a long time in coming, that his world had suddenly righted itself, and he felt more himself than he had in the last year. Hell, in the last two years.
They’d get to Silver City, Dan would find his boy, and then…
…and then they would see what they would see. Nothing had been said about what would happen after William was retrieved. Ben supposed it would be polite to ask Dan what his plans were, but Ben was never concerned about being polite. When it got right down to it, he wasn’t all that worried about Dan’s plans. He’d go home with Dan, and that was that.
He was dressed and ready to go downstairs when a hankering came to him. He sat on the bed with its still-messy sheets and got out his drawing book and pencil. He quickly marked out a sketch, moving fast because he was hungry and was almost embarrassingly eager to see Dan again, even though he’d only left a few minutes ago. Again, like a schoolboy, he thought with a satisfied smirk.
He was finished in twenty minutes. He tore out the page and tucked it away, then gathered up his gear. He was strolling down the hallway, idly thinking that it was getting time for a visit to San Francisco for new pencils because the old ones were down to the nub when he heard a thump and then a muffled crash.
Even then he didn’t hurry. He clattered down the stairs and looked around. The empty room was awash with the bright morning sun and he could clearly see that there was no Dan, no customers, no bartender. Even the boy was gone. He heard the thump again and his lethargic instincts jerked awake. The hair rose on the back of his neck and he pulled his gun.
A third thump and a muffled whine led him to bar. Behind it, trussed up like two turkeys, lay the bartender and the boy. A smashed beer stein lay at the kid’s feet. When they saw Ben, they struggled with their bindings and the boy gave another yelp and kicked the bar.
Ben lay his pistol down and quickly untied them. He didn’t wait for explanations. He strode to the center of the room and turned around, this time truly seeing.
By the foot of the stairs lay a scattering of thick glass. Probably another beer stein. And there in the corner by the window, lay Dan’s saddlebags and rifle, sitting innocently on the chair as if Dan had just left them, not a minute ago.
Behind Ben, like an annoying mosquito, the bartender was droning on. He held up a hand and the bartender stuttered to a stop.
As if seeing it all on a stereoscope, Ben knew what happened, knew who had done the taking. But since it was best to be sure, he turned to the bartender and ordered grimly, “Now you can talk.”
Dan woke in a fog, blind and deaf. His first instinct was to lash out, but he stilled, trying to listen over the sudden pounding of his heart.
He heard nothing at first, and then sounds filtered in. First the squawk of a jay, then the creak of pines as they swayed back and forth. He listened harder and knew without knowing that he was alone. The knowledge calmed him a bit and he opened his eyes. He was laying on a wool-covered straw pallet with his back to a wall.
He touched his head lightly and wasn’t surprised when he found a lump at his hairline that felt as big as a cannon ball. There was no blood, luckily, but it hurt like hell.
He looked around, trying to make out where he was. He thought he was in a cave and he squinted and dark shapes began to form.
He was in a one-room cabin with no furniture, no windows and only one door. The timbers were black with age and stank of creosote. It must’ve been built during the first gold rush—the rotting floor was fashioned out of broad planks of pine that had gone out of style a while back.
He pushed himself upright and waited until the room stopped tipping, then, with the aid of the wall, stood.
The chinking was crumbling as well—thin beams of bright sunlight poked through here and there. He stumbled to a log that looked to be all but falling apart, but its weakness was deceptive—he kicked it several times before admitting that it wasn’t going anywhere.
He followed the perimeter and found the same. Giving up on the idea of escaping that way, he went to the door. As he assumed, it held tight. He thought he could hear the jangle of metal on the other side, but he couldn’t be sure.
He gave it a frustrated kick and then went back to the pallet of wool and straw. His gear was missing which meant Charlie either left them at the saloon or they were with him now. Wherever the hell that was.
Careful of the knot on his temple, Dan gripped his skull and snarled at his stupidity. If he hadn’t been thinking on Ben, hadn’t been picturing just going back up to the room and crawling back in bed with him, he would have noticed Charlie skulking by the foot of the stairs.
But he hadn’t and now he had to deal with it. If he was lucky, Ben was already on his way, but considering Ben had no idea where he was, or even when he was kidnapped, well then, he might be in this cabin for a long, long time.
Dan leaned back and closed his eyes.
Ben was going to kill him. Especially after all they’d been through the last week, all the things Dan had learned about Charlie and what he’d been up to.
But still, first chance he got, he was going to go for Charlie Prince, Scofields or no Scofields. And if Ben wanted a piece of him after he killed Charlie, well then, Dan would lie back and let him.
“I’m sorry sir, I’d like to help you but I simply don’t have a horse to hire out. My own are gone and I doubt you’ll find any others. People are real careful about their animals, what with all the raids in the last few months. I had a family the other day—”
Ben stepped closer and the livery owner jumped back and shut up. “I don’t care about your problems. I don’t care about your family. My horses are dead because of you and I need another.”
The man waved his hands weakly. “Now, sir, that was hardly our fault. Why someone would shoot your horses and take all the others is beyond me. We’ve never had anything like that happen. Maybe it was the Apaches?”
Ben turned away and went to stand at the broad doors. He put his hands on his hips and looked up. The sun was already above the hills, shining brightly down on him. He ground his teeth together because it was way past time he should have been on the road.
He could hear the livery owner shifting nervously on his feet. He reminded himself that shooting the man would hardly solve his current problem. It would make him feel good, yes, but not solve the problem.
In any case, he needed to horde all his anger for the one person who truly deserved it.
He turned back. The man hadn’t moved but his forehead was shiny with sweat. Ben smiled in mean satisfaction and said, “It wasn’t the Apaches and I still need a horse.”
The livery owner held his hands out helplessly. Behind him lay the hulking bodies of the dead horses. It was probably a good thing that the other animals were gone—they’d go crazy at the thick smell of blood.
With no other recourse, Ben picked up his gear and left.
The town was empty of as Ben strode down the center of the street. He made it halfway before his frustration got the better of him. He dropped his bags and stood there, at a full stop.
Since he’d clattered down the stairs so blithely just a few hours ago, all he’d done was scare a few citizens and not much else. He needed to think.
It had been almost two hours since Dan had been taken. Two hours since the bartender had told him that two men had captured his companion at gunpoint, then hit him over the head with a beer stein.
Ben closed his eyes. Two hours was a long time, time enough to do any number of things to a man.
Cruel, horrific things, and Ben pushed away the memory of the second-hand tales of Charlie’s recent exploits and concentrated on what the bartender had said when Ben questioned him further. ‘The younger man said something about a house and they took off north towards Cottonwood Pass and the Little Copper Mine.”
So Charlie was riding with someone new, someone he’d managed to hook into his schemes. Which made no difference, really. Ben had no problem adding another death to his list.
He just need to find them first, and the fury that he’d been tamping down crested and he turned in a sharp circle that did nothing to ease his guilt.
Charlie was deadly with a pistol, but he wasn’t any good at planning ahead. That he managed to get the jump on Ben said he’d either had help or had gone completely off his nut.
Or maybe it was Ben that had gone crazy. Maybe if he’d been thinking clearly none of it would have never happened. Or maybe he was getting too old—
Ben forced a deep, long breath. All the maybes in the world weren’t going to fix this problem, and losing control of his temper wasn’t going to help, either. He touched his breast pocket where the new drawing lay and thought of Dan.
He decided that he was going to have to make someone give him a horse and was trying to decide which building to raid when fate threw him a bone. A rider was coming in from the south, riding fast.
Ben picked up his gear and began walking, striding straight down the middle of the street. When the rider got within spitting distance, Ben pulled his gun and aimed, calling out calmly, “I need your horse.”
The man jerked on the reins and the horse, a mare, skittered to a stop. Before he could utter a word, Ben added, “I’ll pay you for a day’s use. You might as well take it because I’ll kill you otherwise.”
The man looked around furtively. He had a rifle, but it was holstered and no match for the pistol aimed at his head.
Ben spared no time for cajoling. “They can’t help you, if they’re even watching. I’m in a hurry, so make up your mind.” He cocked the gun, already planning on where he’d leave the body when the man jerked his head up and down. He dismounted without taking his eyes from Ben.
“I’d back up if I were you,” Ben said as he approached.
The man’s shock had worn off, but he did as he was told.
Ben mounted quickly. The stirrups were too short, but they’d do for now. He replaced the man’s rifle with Dan’s and lay his saddle bags on his lap. Then he dug a dollar out of his vest pocket and tossed it to the ground. “I’ll leave your rifle on the way out. Your mare will be returned to you by tomorrow. If she dies, I’ll replace her. What’s your name?”
The man swallowed, then growled, “James Moore.”
Ben nodded and turned the horse to the alley and kicked his heels. She leaped forward. When they turned the corner, Ben took Moore’s rifle by the barrel.
The street that lay between the town and the mountain was nothing more than a dirt path but the barkeep said it led to the only road to Cottonwood Pass and Silver City.
When they got to the crossroads, Ben leaned over and tossed the rifle in the bushes and turned the mare north. She took the ascent smoothly and Ben gave her low words of approval. She wasn’t young, but she seemed healthy and strong. Like his own horse and he felt a moment of sorrow. They’d ridden together a long time and he was going to miss her.
Just another thing Charlie would answer for, when Ben caught up with him.
Cottonwood Pass wasn’t much of a pass and after the initial climb, the road leveled out to a wide plateau dotted with pine trees and small towers of yellow and red rocks.
Up ahead, the tail end of the Black Mountains split to the left and right, and somewhere in the center of that curve lay Silver City.
Ben tried to remember what he knew of the area. It had been a while since he’d been through the town. He didn’t remember any Copper Mine, although there had been prospectors by the hundreds, searching for their fortune.
It had been one of his favorite haunts, years ago. That was until Dan Tucker hired on as Sheriff—Ben hadn’t been back since. He wasn’t afraid of Tucker but the man had a well-deserved reputation and Ben hadn’t felt the need to tempt fate.
But Tucker’s presence meant it was unlikely that Charlie was in the town itself. No, most likely, Charlie would play it safe for the time being—he wouldn’t want to take the chance that Tucker would recognize him and ruin his plans. So, somewhere between here and Silver City, Charlie had Dan and was holed up like a spider.
Ben knew he was riding into a trap, knew that Charlie was waiting for him. But if Charlie wanted him so bad, why then Ben would gladly meet him and to hell with them both.
He smiled grimly and called out to the mare. Her ears turned back and she picked up the pace.
He’d ridden a little more than an hour when he spied signs of civilization. All along he’d been following tracks of wagons, the rutted earth hard and worn out which meant either no rain or the tracks were weeks, maybe months old. Just when he was sure he was headed in the wrong direction, he came across the remains of an ore basket by the side of the road, and further on, a busted wheel lay propped against a pine.
His heart gave a small leap and he stood up in the stirrups. There was nothing but the same trees and brush and rocks that he’d been riding through the whole time. He sat back down and rummaged in his bag until he found his spyglass. He tried again with the same amount of success.
Growling in frustration, he got going again. He would have urged the mare to a faster trot, but the road changed from relatively flat to steep ups and downs as the mountains grew around him. The landscape changed as well, and in no time at all he was riding in the cool shade of tall pines among large piles of granite.
He kept watch out in the tricky areas, the places where an ambush was likely, but nothing happened. It was as if he was the only rider on the road and he suddenly missed Dan with a fierce longing that shattered his ridiculous pretense at calm.
It was as he’d thought, all those months ago on the train to Yuma prison. Riding with someone who was also a friend was not only enjoyable, it was also at once peaceful and exciting. He hadn’t expected the latter, and now that he’d had a taste, he couldn’t imagine doing without. He’d spent whole of his adult life avoiding such entanglements and now…
Ben sighed and stroked the mare’s neck when her ears turned back. There was no point in complaining, even if was only to himself—the time for leaving was long gone.
But his anxiety increased with each mile and soon after, he began to look for tracks, stopping every thirty feet or so. He didn’t let the thought fully form that it was almost useless, that looking for tracks in such hard-baked earth was the result of panic, not wisdom. He still looked and he still found nothing. The mare watched curiously as he knelt in the dirt. Ben didn’t have any words of explanation for her; he didn’t have any for himself.
The sun was on his left when he finally stopped in frustration. He took off his hat, wiped his brow, then pulled out his pocket watch. Eleven-thirty. Almost three and a half hours since Dan had been taken.
A sick feeling was growing in his belly that maybe the boy at the saloon had been wrong. Charlie was damned cunning—he could have easily headed north then changed direction just to throw Ben off the scent.
But, no, that didn’t add up—Charlie wanted to be found. Ben knew this as if he’d been listening in at Charlie’s shoulder as he came up with the plan. And if Charlie wanted Ben to find him, he’d make it easy as possible.
Ben picked up the reins and dug his heels and the mare started up again.
And this time luck was with him because he’d gotten no farther than the next long curve when he spied a large camp on the left, down in a wide valley. It was a mine, probably ore or silver.
Hope stirred his chest, and he turned the mare into the valley, giving her free rein to go as fast as she could. On the way down, they ran across a stream bubbling up out of a cache of rocks and the mare drank eagerly. Ben got down as well and had a drink, then filled up his empty canteen.
When he rode in, the mine was in full swing, the workers scattered about like ants. It was an ugly flat area, made uglier by the black holes that ate into the side of the mountain. Like scooped out eye sockets, Ben thought, when he got closer.
Mindful of the last time he’d happened upon a camp, he rode the perimeter until he found the boss, directing a group of men about to go into the mine. The boss was no one Ben recognized, so he rode in and called out a cheerful, “Hello there.”
The man turned. He was some years older than Ben, and non-descript the way miners always seemed to be. His only outstanding feature was his right eye—it was pale milky white.
Ben tipped his hat and smiled briefly. “Hello again.”
The boss nodded, face blank with suspicion.
“I was wondering if you could help me. I was meeting a friend halfway from Silver City and I think I’m lost.” The lie tripped off Ben’s tongue as if he’d been practicing for hours. “He said to stop at the Little Copper Mine. Would that be here?”
“Well, then,” Ben looked around, pretending confusion, “I can’t see any place he might stay.”
The man said nothing. His expression hadn’t thawed a bit and Ben smiled again. “Are there any houses around here, someplace my friend might have stopped at?”
“The only place I know is a couple miles east of here, over that hill.” He jerked his chin over Ben’s shoulder and added, “But I think it’s been empty for a while. It used to belong to the owner of the original mine.”
Ben tipped his hat again and said, “That must be it, then. I must have mixed up my directions. Thank you for your time.” He nodded and turned the horse towards the hill.
Ben looked back. “Yes?”
“You look familiar. Do I know you?”
Ben’s smile didn’t change. “I doubt it. I’m new to these parts.” He didn’t wait for an answer and he could feel the man’s stare all the way back to the treeline.
He continued up, past the road, until he was sure he was out of sight of the mine, then turned a sharp left. It was no good coming in from the south or west—Charlie would expect that.
He rode until he found a loose tower of granite and dismounted in its shade. He tied the mare to a tree and got his spyglass out. “Now, I won’t be a minute,” he told her with a smile, and scrambled up from rock to rock.
When he neared the top, he dropped to his belly and surveyed the area.
All around was an open tangle of hills and valleys as the land turned to mountain. Behind him would be the Little Copper and off to the left, he could make out the tans and yellows of Silver City, maybe eight or nine miles away. Close enough that if he needed a doctor, he could get there easily.
He swept the area with his glass, looking for anything like a cabin. He found it easily enough. In fact, he was almost on top of it and he almost dropped the glass with a startled curse. Down below and to the right lay two small buildings that had to be the place the miner told him about. The structures were simple rectangular shapes, one dark with age.
Ben would have thought them abandoned if it wasn’t for the smoke rising from the house on the left. Both houses were surrounded by low growing bushes and pine trees, except for the space between—it had been cleared of everything but a stand of trees and a pile of rocks.
There was no barn or paddock, and he searched the forest for the horses but couldn’t find them. They were probably tucked away somewhere safe.
He brought the glass back to the houses and examined them closely.
The house on the left looked to be fairly new. It wasn’t fancy, just a rectangle of wood that Ben wouldn’t have paid five dollars for. It had no back door or windows except for a tiny square on the side. It was the perfect place for an ambush and if Charlie was inside, then he must be hating ever minute being stuck inside there. But then, he was even more paranoid than Ben when it came to making sure a hidey-hole had multiple exit routes.
The other house was much older. It had no windows and only a single door that Ben could see. He was pleased to see a shiny new lock on the door handle, but it couldn’t be much of a lock because someone had placed a large rock at the foot of the door. He didn’t have to bet that Dan was inside—he just knew.
With no warning, the door to the new house was jerked open and Ben dropped to the rock. A man came out and stood in the sun, hands on his hips. He looked maybe twenty-five or thirty, dark-haired, medium build. He was no one that Ben knew, which mean he had to be the man that the bartender mentioned. He kicked the dirt and began walking towards the other cabin and only got a few feet before an angry voice called him back in.
Ben smiled. He would know that voice anywhere.
The man scowled, then trudged back inside and slammed the door shut. Ben waited but no one else came out.
So, Charlie and his new friend were down there and they weren’t too happy with each other. All the better.
Ben turned on his back and squinted up at the sky. The panic that had been curling in his gut was gone as if it had never existed. In its place was a familiar calm. He closed his eyes for a moment, taking in the heat of the sun on his face, the warmth of the rock at his back. His world had indeed righted itself and he knew he was back on his true path.
He opened his eyes and glanced down. The mare was looking up at him as if saying, Now what?
Now it gets simple, Ben wanted to say to her, now I get to do what I do best.
He patted the Hand of God and began his descent.
It took Ben the better part of hour to hide the mare and circle up the hill and back down to the east of the smaller cabin. He was being overly cautious, but he didn’t want to fuck things up, not at this stage. At one point a jay scolded at him from above and he dropped to a crouch. He didn’t hear any voices or doors opening, but he counted to two hundred before moving on, just in case.
He’d gotten halfway when he found Charlie’s horses. There were four—probably one of them was from the Cottonwood livery. They were saddled and hobbled together in a small draw and looked at him curiously when he walked by.
Sneaking up to the cabin was a simple matter of using the close-growing trees and bushes for cover. If the cabin hadn’t been abandoned, no one in their right mind would allow the trees to grow thick and close. He was lucky in that.
He was also lucky in the age of the building. The logs were old and rotten, the chinking was yellow and dry. It looked like a good kick would knock the whole thing down, and he almost laughed at the thought, because of course it wouldn’t fall apart that easily, but he’d like to try—just kick the goddamn thing to pieces.
He crept up to the back, out of view of the other house, and whistled softly.
There came the immediate and reassuring sounds of footsteps on wood.
“Ben?” Dan’s voice was low and clear.
“You all right?”
“I’m fine. The door is locked.”
“Give me a minute.”
He peered around the corner. The other house lay far enough to the right that he could see just the lefthand corner. If he stayed flat, he’d stay hidden. He crept forward to the door and examined the lock. It was a new padlock, but the wood it was holding together was old. He pushed away the rock and the door sagged, just a little. He had a couple options. He went with the simplest. He propped Dan’s rifle against the cabin wall and stood at an angle. “Stand back, Dan.”
He waited for the footsteps to stop, looked once more at the house to make sure no one was watching, then aimed and fired once, then again.
The shots rang out loud and clear, echoing all around him. It would take Charlie a heartbeat to realize what was happening, but Dan had already kicked the door open, breaking through the weakened wood. He stood in the doorway, blinking.
“Here!” Ben called out and tossed him the rifle. Dan turned and caught it smoothly then ran low past Ben, using the cabin for cover.
Ben didn’t have time for greetings or relief. There was a commotion at the other house and the door banged open. Ben ran to the corner of the cabin and peered around. The man that wasn’t Charlie had foolishly come out too soon. He was much younger then Ben had supposed, but that didn’t matter. Ben took easy aim and fired and the boy dropped, shot clean through the temple.
Ben paid for it, though. He was still leaning around the corner when Charlie began firing from a window, hitting first the wood near his face, then a tree—he felt the whistle as it flew by.
He jumped back and ran. When he got near the corner, an arm grabbed him and pulled him out of range. He fell against the cabin and smiled. “I hope you didn’t use your bad leg on that door.”
“Never mind my leg,” Dan growled and ran his hands over Ben’s chest and arms. “Did he get you?”
Ben ignored the question and the hands. Dan had a lump the size of a half dollar on his temple and Ben traced the edge of the bruised flesh. “Charlie?”
Dan nodded and Ben clenched his jaw. Bastard.
“Ben?” Charlie shouted. “Hello, Ben!”
They jerked apart and Ben edged to the corner of the cabin. He took a deep breath and called back, “Charlie!” He exchanged glances with Dan, then checked his pistol’s chamber and reloaded.
“Been a long time.”
“Not that long, Charlie.”
“How’s the head?”
“It healed up just fine, thanks for asking.”
“That’s good, Ben. Wouldn’t want to ruin that pretty face of yours, now would we.”
Dan made a noise and Ben looked back. Dan was glaring, almost snarling. Ben shrugged.
“I missed you down in Limeras, I guess.”
Charlie’s voice came from a different angle. He was moving west, probably taking cover behind the stand of rocks and pines. Ben looked back and Dan nodded. Ben called back, “I guess you did.”
“You got the rancher there with you?”
“That’s good. Now we’re all together, just like the good old days.”
Ben turned away from Dan. Something was coming, he could feel it. “Hardly the good old days, Charlie, seeings how you’re trying to kill me.”
There was a pause and it took Ben a moment to hear the low sound of laughter. Charlie was laughing so hard he was almost choking. The hair at the nape of Ben’s neck rose.
“Ben,” Charlie said between hiccups of laughter, “I don’t want to kill you.”
“Then what am I doing out here, Charlie?”
“Ah, Ben, don’t you know?”
Ben opened his mouth, but Charlie didn’t give him time to answer.
“Come on out, Ben. I won’t shoot you.”
“Considering what you were doing not five minutes ago, Charlie, you’ll understand why I don’t believe you.”
“I promise, Ben. I won’t touch a hair on your head.” And his voice had softened and Ben knew he was telling the truth.
He edged closer to the corner and Dan grabbed his arm. “Oh, no you don’t. He’s lying.”
Ben shook his head. “No, he’s not. He’s up to something, but he won’t shoot me, not until he says what he has to say. Whatever that is.” He eased out of Dan’s grasp and warned, “Stay here—if you come out, I’ll shoot you myself.”
He straightened up and walked around the corner, gun aimed high. “Well, Charlie, here I am.”
He heard a rustle in the stand of trees and Charlie stepped out from behind the rocks. He hadn’t been doing well. He’d lost his hat somewhere and his face was burned red by the sun. A chunk of his left ear was missing, but his eyes were as bright as the sky above and as devious as ever. He grinned at Ben and touched his forehead in a mocking salute. “It’s good to see you, Ben.”
Ben tightened his lips, but he made his voice reasonable and soothing, “What’s this all about, Charlie? Just wanted a chat?”
Charlie cocked his head and grinned sadly. “No, Ben, no chatting. That time is dead and gone.”
“Just wanted to talk to you, face to face. I’ve been tracking you and the rancher for a while now, but you know that, right?”
Ben didn’t nod, didn’t shift from side to side. A coldness had set up in his belly, making him ache with dread. “Why didn’t you just shoot us, Charlie?”
“I told you, Ben. I don’t want to kill you—how many times to I need to say it?” Charlie actually had the audacity to sound hurt.
“And Dan Evans?”
Charlie snickered and murmured, “Oh, Ben, I wanted to, believe me. I thought about it more times than I can count. But I needed him alive.”
“Because you would never come here on your own and I was tired of chasing you around. I figured on making you chase me for once.”
“Charlie,” Ben sighed, still trying for reasonable, “why’re you doing this?”
In a quick second, Charlie’s face turned mean and ugly and he all but hissed, “Ben, you should know the answer to that. How many times did you say it? ‘No one man is worth more than the rest. No man is worth dying for. It’s us, or them.’ Us, or them, Ben, and you had the goddamn nerve to put him over us!” His voice had risen and he jabbed a pistol towards the cabin. “Him over me, Ben. That’s what you did, and I hope you rot in hell for it.”
The coldness unfurled and crawled up Ben’s chest. Not many things surprised him, but Charlie’s jealousy sure as hell did. He waited a moment before he spoke—the last thing he could afford was to show any hesitation, any unease. “Then why include Dan in this?”
Charlie shrugged. “Because I’m going to kill him in front of you Ben, and you won’t be able to do a thing about it.”
“You think I care whether he lives or dies?”
Charlie’s face twisted again and this time Ben felt a true brush of fear at the way his eyes glowed, at the cruel smile that bent his lips. “You forget who you’re talking to Ben, but I know you. Backwards and forwards, and yes, you’ll care. And your black heart will break, even if it’s just a little.”
There was a rustling behind him and Ben stepped to the right. Dan was no doubt making a foolhardy plan to come rescue him. “So you’ll shoot him. And then I’ll shoot you. Or, I could just save us all some time and shoot you now, Charlie.”
Charlie had already calmed down and he answered evenly, “You could, but Ben, you know me better than that. I never bluff and I always have an ace in the hole.”
And here it was, the thing he’d been waiting for. “Show me.”
Charlie nodded and backed up to the rocks. He kicked something, then again. A soft cry answered his second kick and he holstered one of his pistols and reached down. He grabbed the something and dragged it out to the clearing.
It was a man, gagged and bound, with his head bowed so far back it was a wonder he didn’t choke on his own throat. “See, Ben, this is my ace in the hole. He’s why the rancher is going to let me shoot him. He’s why you’re not going to stop it.” He kicked the body again, turning it until Ben could see the man’s black and blue face. Not a man—a boy. William was his only thought before Dan roared, “No!” and rushed out from behind the cabin.
Ben was already moving and he met Dan sideways, heaving him into the cabin wall. His back was to Charlie, but he wasn’t worried about that. He was worried about the white rage that colored Dan’s face as he struggled to raise his rifle. “Stop it,” he hissed into Dan’s ear. “It’s what he wants. It’s—”
Dan managed to get a fist free, and he threw a punch. The angle was wrong and his fist landed weakly on Ben’s chin. Ben shoved him back to the cabin, his arm up against his throat, holding him tight. Dan wouldn’t stop glaring at Charlie and Ben shoved him again, harder. “Settle down,” he snarled.
Behind them, Charlie laughed and said, “See, Ben? You think I don’t know you?”
Only the night before Dan had said almost the same words and Ben softened his voice, not quite pleading, “Dan, he won’t hurt William and you’re not going to be Charlie’s sacrifice. Promise me. We’ll find another way.”
Dan said nothing, but he turned away from Charlie and met Ben’s gaze. Whatever was in Ben’s eyes convinced him and he sagged back to the cabin and nodded.
Ben let him go. He rounded on Charlie, holding his right arm out to bar Dan from doing anything foolish. “I’m not going to let you shoot Dan. You must know that.”
Charlie had backed up again behind the rocks. He was half turned away, as if listening to something only he could hear, and the cold knot in Ben’s belly burned anew. “Charlie,” he called, “What the hell is going on?”
“Nothing much, Ben.” Charlie said, absent-mindedly. “Just invited a few more guests to our little party, that’s all.” He smirked, still half turned away. “You see, you were early, and I needed a stall. You honestly didn’t think I was telling you all this for old time’s sake, did you?” His smile died. “How stupid do you think I am?”
The cold shattered and Ben jerked forward. Charlie saw the movement and whipped around, both guns pointed. Not at Ben, but at William. “That’s far enough Ben. And it don’t matter none, anyway. They’re almost within range. Can you hear them?”
And Ben could. Faint, distant sounds of a group of horses, riding in hard. “I’m going to kill you, Charlie.”
And Charlie smiled then, a genuine, understanding smile. “I know you are, Ben. And I know you’ll pay for it. See, back there is Sheriff Dan Tucker, and he’s coming for you. While you were having a grand time with Mr. Evans there,” Charlie managed a leer, “I was a busy. I dropped off a letter to Silver City, special delivery for the Sheriff, in which I admitted my part in the several murders that have plagued the territory.”
Charlie waited for Ben to respond, and Ben couldn’t do anything but oblige, “You’re getting to the good part, I assume.”
“I am, oh, I am. I also wrote that I had been following orders and that you were the one that done the horrible deeds.” Charlie put on his innocent face, the one that fooled people time and again. “One after another, you cut up those poor girls and left them to die. And then you came for me and the rancher that put you on the train to Yuma prison, a year ago now.”
He winked and said confidingly, “Tucker won’t care about the details, just that you’re a menace and need putting down. And he won’t wait for any prison train or judge. He’s hanged men for less and you know it. I imagine that tree over there,” he nodded to a tall pine on the edge of the clearing, “will do just fine.”
“Ben,” Dan stepped up behind him, pressed so close Ben could feel the heat of his breath. “You have to go. Now.”
Ben didn’t turn around, but he lowered his voice. “I can’t, he’ll shoot you.”
“Then he’ll shoot me. He’s going to anyway. But you can still get away.”
At that Ben turned. Dan was serious. He actually thought Ben would leave him to Charlie’s unmerciful hands.“No.”
“I’m not leaving.”
“Ben,” Charlie called out in a sing-song voice, “I hate to break up such a tender moment, but I think your time is up. They’re getting closer.”
Ben turned to answer Charlie and he’d no more than opened his mouth when a rifleshot shook the air, deafening Ben in its wake. He staggered and fell on one hand, then looked up. Dan edged by him, sidling forward, rifle still aimed. He crept up, finally coming to a halt over Charlie. He’d done a good job, Ben wasn’t surprised to see—Charlie lay dead on the ground, almost cut in two.
For the second time in his life, Ben was so stunned he didn’t know what to say, what to do. Dan did, however. He looked over his shoulder and ordered, “All right, it’s taken care of. Go.” When Ben didn’t move, Dan hurried back and reached down and grabbed him by the shoulder, pulling him up with a mighty heave. He hustled Ben to the back of the cabin and into the treeline. “They’re probably riding in from the north. Go!”
Ben shook free. “All right, but you promise me Dan Evans, you tell them the truth, tell them that Charlie kidnapped you and your boy, that you didn’t have a choice, right?”
“Go see the livery man about our horses. You’ll find a mare on the road below. She’s borrowed and belongs to James Moore, of Cottonwood.”
Dan nodded again.
Ben got the drawing out of his pocket and blindly stuffed it into Dan’s jacket. He’d already turned away when Dan’s low voice stopped him. “You’ve got three weeks, Ben.”
Ben pivoted on his heel and dragged Dan in by his neck. He took a bruising kiss and was gone without another word.
Dan didn’t watch Ben go. He hurried back to where his son lay and knelt down. Gently because the ropes were cutting into William’s wrists and mouth, he loosened the bonds, then tore them away. William cried out when his limbs were released and tears rolled down his cheeks. He wouldn’t meet Dan’s gaze and Dan wanted to embrace him, but there wasn’t time. The first rider was already a shadow among the trees and he needed to act.
He tossed the rifle away and stood up, arms raised. “I’m unarmed and so is my boy!” And he hoped it was loud enough for he could hear the soft calls all around as the hidden men signaled to each other—it seemed as if they were everywhere.
A voice called out from behind the house. “Who are you?”
“Dan Evans, out of Bisbee and this is my boy, William. He’s hurt.”
The bushes to his left rustled and a man came out with a rifle pointed straight at Dan. He called out, “Sheriff, they’re unarmed!”
Nine men emerged from behind the trees, rocks, and cabins. They split up—one man knelt by the body in front of the house while another stood at his back. And still another came over and crouched by Charlie.
There was a murmur as the first man got up and strode over to where Dan stood. He paused at a careful distance and Dan didn’t need the tarnished silver badge or the respectful glances of the men gathered around to tell him that the man was the one in charge. Even though he was wearing only an undershirt and no suspenders, his eyes were keen and dangerous. Someone to reckon with, someone to respect. “Bobby!” he called out without taking his eyes from Dan.
A man from the back of the group stepped forward. “Yes, sir?”
“You and James make sure we don’t have any more hiding out in the trees.”
“Yes, sir,” the man repeated. He elbowed the fellow next to him and they hurried off into the trees.
Dan shifted from foot to foot. “Are you Sheriff Dan Tucker?”
“I am. Have we met?”
Dan shook his head. His vision blurred, then steadied. “No sir. I was just told you were coming. By him,” he nodded to where Charlie lay.
Tucker’s gaze sharpened. “There was a Dan Evans involved in a shoot out last year, over in Contention. Are you he?”
“Yes, sir, I am.”
“I heard you took Ben Wade in, single-handedly.”
Dan shrugged. His arms were getting tired. “No, sir. I tried, but he got away.”
Tucker’s stance relaxed. He didn’t holster his gun, but he lowered it. “Still, that was something. I didn’t fare as well when I met up with him a few years ago. You can put your arms down, Mr. Evans.”
Dan lowered his arms gratefully. He pointed to William, “May I—?”
Tucker nodded and Dan dropped down. William’s eyes were open and clear, and he looked up at Dan. They shared a long look and Dan touched his shoulder, expecting to be rebuffed. But William didn’t push him away as he would of not a year ago. He just closed his eyes briefly and said a quiet, “I’m sorry, Pa.”
“It’s all right, son. Just rest a while. We’ll talk later.” Dan had to clear his throat. There was so much they needed to talk about, but he was just realizing what it all mean—he had William back, safe and sound. He stood up.
Tucker had watched the exchange with interest. “I imagine there’s a good story behind this.” He jerked his chin at Dan’s head. “That’s some knot you got there. One of these fellows give it to you?”
Dan nodded. “Charlie Prince ambushed me down in Cottonwood this morning and brought me up here. They already had my son, although I didn’t know it at the time.”
“Charlie Prince, eh? Mr. Parker, here,” Tucker turned to a man standing away from the group. He came forward and Dan was surprised to see he was blind in one eye. “He says he saw Ben Wade earlier in the day. He around here as well?”
Tucker turned back to Dan, his gaze sharp and shrewd. Dan knew he had to answer truthfully. He nodded once and said, “He was.”
Tucker shifted from foot to foot. He raised his pistol again. “Can you tell me what’s going on here, Mr. Evans?”
Dan cocked his head. “Near as I can figure it, Charlie and his friend over there,” Dan nodded to the body by the door, “took my boy to get back at me for last year. I found out about it and came after him. What Wade was doing here, I don’t know. We aren’t exactly friends.” Which was nothing more than the truth. Mostly. If Tucker did any asking around down in Cottonwood, Dan’s story would tumble apart. “Charlie had William in the house and I was in that cabin. I was waiting to be killed but next thing I knew, the lock was shot off and the door was open.”
“By Ben Wade.”
Tucker holstered his gun and put his hands on his hips. “Go on.”
“Well then, I come out and before I know it, Wade’s shooting at that boy. I have no idea who he is.”
Mr. Parker spoke for the first time. “That’s Abraham Mathews’ younger brother.”
Tucker turned to him and Parker nodded grimly. “That’s right. His name is Armstrong Mathews. He came by the other day. Told me he was looking for Abe, but Abe was gone to town to pick up some dynamite we were needing. When he got back, he weren’t too happy to hear about his brother. I guess there’s some bad blood between them.”
Tucker looked over his shoulder. “John?”
The man directly behind Tucker, the one who hadn’t yet spoken but had followed Tucker like a shadow, answered softly, “Yes?”
“Why don’t you and Bobby take Mr. Parker here down to the mine and see what you can find out from the elder Mathews. Watch out and don’t let him get the jump on you. I doubt he’s involved in this, but you never know.”
John nodded and gestured to Parker and they disappeared into the trees.
Tucker had turned back to Dan. “How’d Charlie Prince die?”
Dan said shortly, “I shot him.”
The men around Tucker stirred and he gave them a speaking glance. They settled down. “You shot him with that?” He nodded at Dan’s rifle, and one of his men picked it up. He handed it off and Tucker cracked it open to look at the chamber. He nodded, but didn’t give it back to Dan. “What happened?”
“Not much. Charlie had my boy trussed up there and he was going to shoot him, but I got there first. By the time Charlie and me were done firing, Wade was gone.” He waited for Tucker to ask which way, but just then, William staggered to his feet.
He swayed and Dan caught him. This time he was pushed away, but gently. “I’m okay, Pa. I’ve been tied up for a while, but I’m okay.” William turned to Tucker and said, “It’s like my pa said, Sheriff. Charlie was gonna kill us both, but my pa got him first. He’s not a killer, but it was him or us. I didn’t see Wade run off, but he probably heard you coming.”
Dan added, “We didn’t see him take off, but I thought I heard a horse down yonder, after he’d gone.” He jerked his head to the west. It was a weak misdirection, but he had to say something. “I don’t know if he had the time to make it to his horse; you were coming in fast.”
They stared at each other for a long moment. Dan waited for Tucker to point out that Ben was on foot and an easy catch, but he didn’t. He handed Dan his rifle and put his hands on his hips again. He shifted back and forth and then gave Dan a curious look. “There’s one other thing. Would it surprise you to know that I received a letter a couple hours ago, telling me that Ben Wade was going to be in this location, and was planning on murdering a fellow from Bisbee. That Wade was the one responsible for the string of murders in California, Nevada, and Arizona?”
Dan shook his head and frowned in mock confusion. “I guess I’d be that fellow, but I don’t know anything about the murders. I do know Charlie was like a crazy man, spouting off a lot of nonsense about California.”
Tucker nodded and scuffed at the dirt with his boot. “That was my impression. The wording of the letter was… Angry, to say the least. I heard Wade was killing his own men. I guess Charlie was trying to get back at him.”
“That’d be my guess, Sheriff.”
“Well, Mr. Evans, it looks like you and your son were lucky today.”
“I believe we were, sir.”
“I might need to talk to you some more, but we’ll see. As far as I’m concerned this was a justifiable shooting. We’ll leave the circuit court judge out of it.”
Dan tried not to let the relief show on his face.
Tucker turned towards the house. Dan touched William’s arm and jerked his head to follow. “Do you have a way back to Cottonwood?” Tucker said over his shoulder.
“No. My horse is still in the town. I think. I’m not sure how I got here.”
“Hey, boss?” The man, James, had come up behind them. “There’s a bunch of horses half way down that hill.”
“They have a brand?”
“Two of ‘em do. They belong to Sam McLaury in Cottonwood. I don’t know who owns the others.”
“I don’t know McLaury, but it’s a good bet those other two belong to Prince and Mathews.”
“McLaury owns the livery. I bet he’d want them back.”
“I imagine so,” Tucker said dryly. He watched James off, then turned to Dan. “Well, Mr. Evans, it looks like you have a ride, at least as far as Cottonwood.”
“Thank you, Sheriff. I appreciate it.”
“I need to run by the mine and then head back to make a report. If Ben Wade is running around out here, I want to make sure Silver City is safe. Will you do me a favor?”
Dan’s leg was starting to hurt, but he told himself to just hold on, it was almost over. “If I can.”
“When you get to Cottonwood, see if you can find Sheriff Carsons. Tell him what happened. Then you can be on your way home. I bet you’re looking forward to that.”
Dan smiled ruefully and nodded. “You have no idea.”
They shook hands and Tucker turned away, calling out to one of the men still standing by Charlie, “Leroy. Bring those horses up. We’ll give Charlie Prince his last ride.”
Leroy’s eyebrows raised in surprise. “We’re not going to look for Wade?”
“Maybe he’s somewhere close by.”
“And maybe he’s a mile gone by now. We don’t have the manpower to go traipsing off all over the place.”
That was the end of it. Leroy grumbled as he left and Tucker shook his head.
The rest of the men stood around and talked quietly. A few stared at Dan, but didn’t speak to him. William had regained his color and was practically shaking with nerves. “Pa?”
“Yes, son.” William had grown some—he was at least an inch taller than before and it came back to Dan, his relief and happiness that William was alive and well.
“How’d Wade get away?”
“Not by horse. He told me he left the mare down on the road.”
“How are we going to get her without anyone seeing?”
Dan shrugged and said, “Let’s hope our luck holds.”
In the end it was a simple matter of saddling the borrowed horses with Charlie’s gear and leaving before the men finished wandering around the place. As they rode out, Dan could almost hear the stories that were going to be told tonight at the Silver City saloon—Charlie Prince died cut in half, right outside the mine and Ben Wade came out of retirement to take care of the last of his crew. Dan just hoped he and William would be left out of the gossip.
The mare was where Ben said she would be—on the road below and down a bit. She’d pulled free of her hitch and was in the brush, calmly eating what she could find. Dan got her tied up and they took off.
William had to show him the way a few times when the path disappeared. It felt like the ride took forever and it was maybe even an hour when the road flattened out and William said, “I think Cottonwood is just over that ridge.”
Dan released a breath he didn’t even know he was holding and closed his eyes briefly. It was almost six o’clock. In the last twenty-four hours he’d been kidnapped, reunited with his son, and killed a man.
The other things he’d done, well, he’d think on those at a more appropriate time.
William shifted in the saddle and looked away, then back again, only meeting Dan’s eyes briefly. “I wanted to say, before we get there, that I’m sorry.”
“I know you are.”
“No, I mean, I’m really sorry. About everything. I shouldn’t have said those things to you, shouldn’t have run off like that.”
“I looked for you.”
“You did?” William asked, eyebrows raised. As if he couldn’t believe Dan ever cared enough to go searching.
Dan nodded. “Of course I did. Your ma and I even hired a private investigator out of Tucson.”
William raised his eyebrows, then he looked at his hands and frowned again. “I’m sorry. For costing you so much money.”
Dan shook his head. “It wasn’t the money, William, it was the worry.” He’d never been much for paternal affections, not after the boys had gotten older, but his arms ached to hold William like he had when he was young and something had frightened him.
But no, that wasn’t right, because William had always gone to Alice first; Dan had forgotten that. The divide must have been there for so long, only he’d never noticed it.
William was still looking at his hands, lost in thought. “I just— I don’t want to be a rancher, Pa.” He looked up with wide blue eyes. “I still don’t.”
William’s jaw dropped. “You do?”
Dan nodded. “I’ve had a lot of time to think, and I understand. My pa wanted me to be a tanner.” And just the words brought back the reek of the hides, the overwhelming stench of blood that he could never come clean of no matter how many baths he took. He’d hated every minute of it—another thing he’d forgotten. “Maybe you can go back east to live with your grandma, get an education.” ‘Or with your ma,’ he didn’t add because he didn’t want to get into all that now. “Anyway, it’s all past, and as long as we have the time, tell me what you’ve been up to.”
And with words that stuttered at first, William began to tell Dan where he’d been, all those months.
It didn’t take William long to relate his adventures. Dan figured it was because he left a good portion out. He didn’t mention Ben, didn’t mention California. He said he’d been up to Tucson, then west and back around to southern Arizona. Dan didn’t say it, but it sounded like he’d spent all those months circling Bisbee. He remembered Ben’s comment the night before they’d left—it looked like he was right about that as well.
When William finished, he gave a great yawn and rubbed his eyes.
“When was the last time you slept all the night through?”
William shrugged. “I don’t know. A while now.”
“Well, then, when we get to town, we’ll stop for the night.”
“That sounds nice. Pa?”
William sounded diffident again and Ben hoped it was nothing too alarming. After Charlie, he wasn’t sure how many more surprises he could take. But it turned out to be a good one. William was holding out the broach, the one Dan’s mother had given him so long ago. He’d forgotten all about it.
Dan took it and smiled, “Thank you, William.” He put it in his breast pocket, only then remembering the paper that Ben had stuffed there, hours ago now. He pulled on the reins then drew the paper out.
William was looking at him expectantly, so Dan carefully unfolded the paper, shielding it in case it was something inappropriate. But what he saw wasn’t inappropriate at all. Puzzling, yes, but not inappropriate.
It was a picture of Mark as he’d been almost two years ago. The drawing didn’t look like Mark and, at the same time, it looked exactly like Mark. He stared out with that long hair and those big eyes, eyes that seemed to see everything at once.
Dan took a quick, deep breath and stood up in the stirrups so he could dig into his pant’s pocket. A realization had come to him, and he knew what he would find when he opened the first drawing, the one done weeks ago.
As he’d guessed, this one was a picture of Alice. Like the other, it was the Alice of a year ago with her hair a little flyaway and a worried frown on her beautiful face. And like the other, it wasn’t perfect, but a close approximation that caught something essentially Alice.
Dan handed them to William, wordlessly.
William stared at them for a moment, then frowned and said, “Why’d he draw Ma and Mark? I don’t get it.”
Dan took them from William and looked at them again. There was no message on either, but he didn’t need any. “I don’t know, son. Just one of those things that Wade likes to do to make people wonder.”
William opened his mouth, then closed it again. Dan folded the sheets, each in its own neat square, then tucked them back in his pocket. He called to the borrowed horse and they continued on.
He’d lied to William. He knew exactly what the drawings meant, what Ben had given him. A chance to turn his back on the last two weeks and return to his life as it was. And conversely, they were a reminder of what he was giving up by letting Alice go so easily.
Knowing Ben, they were also a demand that Dan acknowledge his past so that he could go forward with open eyes and a clean conscience.
Dan’s throat tightened and a helpless smile bent his lips. For himself because he’d been caught only he didn’t know it, at the world for being so crazy, but mostly he smiled for Ben.
Ben insisted and announced to anyone within earshot that he needed no one and nothing. That decency and faith and love mattered not at all. Well, he’d just proved his own proclamations false for the drawings were almost love note and Dan thought he’d never seen anything quite so obvious and sentimental.
Dan had to clear his throat before he spoke. “Yes?”
“Are you all right?”
“I’m fine, son.”
They got to Cottonwood just after six thirty. What followed was a confusion as Dan told his story first to the Sheriff, then to the deputy while the Sheriff organized one pack of men to act as sentries in case Ben decided to show up, another to actually go out the next day to look for him. Dan tried to tell them it would be useless, but they didn’t listen.
The livery owner, McLaury, was at the Sheriff’s shoulder the entire time and as soon as he got the chance, he told Dan what had happened to the horses—if Dan had felt even a bit of remorse for killing Charlie it was gone by the time McLaury finished.
By eight-thirty he and William made it to the bar where the barkeep greeted them like long lost family. He told the crowd who Dan was, and Dan told the story for the third time, although much abbreviated. He didn’t mention Ben—the bartender hadn’t put two and two together, and Dan wasn’t about to enlighten him. He figured some part of the truth would get out sooner or later and he wanted to be gone when it did.
By nine, Dan had turned down the fifth offer of a drink when he decided to call it an evening. The crowd was riled up and some were even talking about going out that night to hunt Ben down.
Dan ignored them as best he could. His nerves were scraped raw and he could feel a surprising anger sour his return to safety and his reunion with William. He was the one, after all, that should be wanting Ben Wade brought to justice. The fact that he wanted exactly the opposite disturbed him so greatly he got William up out of his chair where he was mostly asleep and half-carried him upstairs. As they were climbing, the bartender called out jovially that he’d have a meal sent up, right away.
Their room was one closer to the gallery, and not nearly as nice as the one he and Ben had shared. William waved away any thought of food and fell onto the bed. Dan made him take off his boots first, and then he was out.
He was thinking doing the same when the bartender’s boy came up with his gear and a plateful of food. Dan thanked him and shut the door on his offer of another drink. He ate standing up like a horse, leaning against the tallboy.
When he was done, he set the plate down and closed his eyes.
He could hear them downstairs and outside, still arguing about Ben. Most seemed up for it, but a few were against it. Dan hoped the shouting wouldn’t keep him up. He wasn’t used to being around so many people and he hadn’t slept much, the night before.
But, he reminded himself, that hadn’t been the real reason because there had been Ben.
He turned to where his son lay, fast asleep. Not fifteen hours ago he’d woken up in this very saloon, woke up in bed with the man the whole town was arguing about.
He ran his hands over his face. He couldn’t decide if he was ashamed of the act or not, but one thing was clear: for a man who’d led a fairly even life, he had some mighty unusual things happen lately.
He touched his shirt pocket and took out the drawings. He looked at them briefly, then lay them on the table. He removed his boots, then his trousers and shirt and put out the light. He gently shoved William over and got into bed.
He lay back with a sigh. In the morning, he’d get up, find out when the stage came through and arrange for transportation to Colorado. He wasn’t going to make the same mistake he’d made last time. He wasn’t going to push William into ranching. He’d take William to Alice, and together, they’d figure out what to do.
Dan imagined it, imagined the reunion they’d all have, imagined Alice’s face when she saw William. It was a pleasant image and it made him smile, but his last thought before he fell asleep wasn’t for his wife or sons. It was for Ben, and where he might be.
“Go on William, it’s all right.” Dan nodded to William and the boy sprung to his feet and hurried up the aisle to wait by the car door. As soon as the train jolted to a stop, he was through the door and was on the platform.
Dan could feel the eyes again and he looked over. The woman that had been giving him dark looks all day made a face. She straightened her hat and nodded to her companion. They got up, and left without another glance back at Dan.
Which was fine with him. Luckily, William hadn’t noticed the stares or the muted words that were clearly meant for Dan’s ears. The car was mostly empty. William had stretched out on the seats across from Dan and slept most of the way. Dan tried to follow his example but hadn’t been able to relax enough to sleep.
Because the minute the train had started up, a worry had twisted around his heart and it just got worse as the miles went by.
The trip had been quick, quicker than he would have liked. He spent the time staring out the window, watching William sleep, and ignoring the two women up the aisle who seemed to feel he was too dirty to ride with them. He tried not to think on Ben and the past two weeks. It felt almost blasphemous, or maybe it was just unseemly—surely it was wrong to be thinking about Ben when he was on his way to see Alice?
So he tried to keep his mind on plans for the ranch, what he was going to do about another horse because they were a precious commodity and it had been a difficult task, finding the gelding.
But no matter how much he reined in his thoughts, they kept coming back to Ben and when they passed the Colorado border all his worries and uncertainties came tumbling back with a few new ones.
What the hell was he thinking? Taking up with a man, well, that was bad enough, but taking up with a murderer like Ben Wade?
What kind of man did that? What kind of man would part from a wife like Alice, even though she was the one doing the leaving?
Dan sighed and rubbed his palm over the ornate seat cushion. He didn’t know the answers to his questions, and he guessed they didn’t matter, not in the long run. What mattered was where he’d go from here. Ben’d had the right of it when he talked about choices and standing still.
And even though he didn’t know what the hell he was doing with Ben, it was something he couldn’t deny or push away. But he’d have to talk to Alice, first, see if there was any chance for him to make the marriage work, because he should at least try—
Someone coughed loudly and Dan jerked around to find the conductor leaning against a seat, waiting.
“Oh, sorry—” Dan grabbed his bags and left.
The platform was empty when he stepped off the train. Except there, clear down at the end he could see Alice and William, sitting on a bench, knee to knee. Alice was grasping William’s hands and looked to be giving him a scold.
As Dan walked closer, he slowed down until he was a few yards away. He stopped, unable to go further. He touched the drawings in his breast pocket and stared.
Alice was wearing a new red dress and the color set off her hair and lips, making her all the more lovely. Her face had filled out and wasn’t so brown. She looked happy and the worry that had twisted around Dan’s heart unraveled because he knew. Just looking at her, he knew.
Just at that moment she turned and smiled back at him. Dan swallowed his grief, said so long to his doubts, and smiled back.
Again, sweat dripped into Dan’s eyes and he propped the shovel on his hip so he could take off his hat and gloves. He wiped his brow and thought longingly of the shaded porch, not a hundred feet away. He’d stripped down to his trousers because of the heat, but even that had done no good. The day had begun hot and it looked like it was going to end hot. Not unusual for the end of October, but each morning he found himself wishing fruitlessly for an early snow.
He just need to be patient, that was all. In this and other things. Other things meaning, of course, Ben, and where the hell had he got to?
Dan’d said three weeks, but that had been just a figure thrown out haphazardly. He hadn’t expected Ben to be back within three weeks, not really.
But it was going on five and the worry that he went to bed with each night was following him into the next day. After the second week, he made a weekly pilgrimage to buy the newspaper. The paper was always full of everyday matters but never any mention of the capture or death of the notorious Ben Wade. And since no news was good news—or so people said—Dan pushed the worry away and managed one more day.
It was just that he wasn’t sure how much more he could stand and the thought of another search so soon after the last…
He put on his hat and gloves and picked up the shovel. He poked the post hole despondently. Two days ago, on a spur-of-the-moment whim because the waiting was driving him crazy, he’d decided that he needed a new corral behind the house. He staked the area out roughly and got to work.
He figured it would take him another two days to dig all the holes and then another week to put up the posts and the railings. Add all the other finishing touches, and it would be an easy two weeks until he was done.
Time enough to make the decision as to whether or not he’d really take the train to Tucson and then on to California like he’d planned last night when he couldn’t sleep.
He raised the shovel with both hands and stabbed the dirt, hard. He’d always been good at waiting things out but it looked like this time the waiting would get the best of him.
He shrugged his shoulders and had lifted the shovel again when he heard a dull metallic sound, like the rattle of a bridle or spurs. He twisted around. There, just clearing the corner of the house came a tall figure, long legs measuring the distance in quick, eager strides.
Even a ways away, Dan could see that Ben was beat up. He was limping, just slightly, and there was something wrong with his left arm because he was holding it at a funny angle. His face was shadowed by the brim of his hat, but he was smiling, Dan could see that as clear as day.
He wasn’t wearing his usual black coat or vest, and his white shirt caught the noon sun, making Dan’s eyes water. He had to look at the ground to give his eyes some relief.
He looked back up at Ben, now a stone’s throw away. He didn’t drop the shovel and he didn’t go running. He nodded to Ben once, sharply, and turned back to his work. The only thing he allowed himself was a hard squeeze on the shovel handle, wringing so tight he made the wood moan. Then he took a long, deep breath, drove the shovel in deep, and began to dig.
Ben Wade dreams…
…of standing on the edge of the boxcar, on the edge of a contentment he’s never known. He’s looking down at Dan, watching Dan smile up at him. There’s no alarm, no cause for fear; it’s a quiet moment with a dear friend and he thinks it will last forever.
It doesn’t, of course. The minute the thought passes his mind, a vague, cold wind reaches him, strokes his cheek and neck, and he thinks, ‘Here we go.’
Movement catches his eye and he looks up. Charlie Prince is in the yard, not ten feet behind Dan. His legs are spread and his Scofields are aimed with ease at Dan’s back. He’s lost his coat and Ben can see the hole in the center of his chest, see the rich red, wet place where his heart used to be.
He opens his mouth to chastise, ‘Why, Charlie, you’re dead,’ when, in the way of dreams, he’s not on the train anymore, he’s on the porch of Dan’s house and the ground is a dirty white from a light snow.
He breathes in burning cold and the fire stifles everything he would say, everything he would give to stop this familiar moment.
He reaches for Dan to pull him to safety and can’t. He looks down to find that his hands are manacled and his arms are bound to his side.
He makes some desperate noise and Dan’s happy smile dies as he turns…
A single shot breaks the muffled cotton silence and Ben feels the bullet hit his chest. He doesn’t fall. He stands and watches in perfect wonder as a bead of blood becomes a trickle, becomes a stream. He looks at Dan, his neck gone creaky with sorrow. ‘It’s all right,’ he says, ‘it’s just the way of man.’
But Dan isn’t listening—he never listens. He reaches up and says, “Ben—” and his voice is parched with grief, as if it was his heart that took the bullet, his heart that was murdered.
Ben yields to the pain and Dan reaches to catch, but he—
“Ben, c’mon, wake up.”
Dan’s insistent voice culled through the nightmare and Ben wrenched himself from its grasp, his legs and arms jerking as he woke fully. He froze as reality rushed back in. In Dan’s house and bed, with Dan warm at his back. His heart revived as well and began to pound in his ears, making it hard to hear.
“Of course, Dan. Why wouldn’t I be?”
His voice sounded odd in his own ears and Dan picked up on it, as he always did. He pulled Ben to his back, holding him close. “That must have been a good one.”
As usual, they’d rolled apart as they’d slept and the center of the bed was shockingly cold. The cold was a reminder and the dream returned. Ben closed his eyes and felt his heart. It was whole and sound.
Even though he couldn’t have possibly seen the gesture, Dan huffed a little in Ben’s ear and said, “Come here.”
Ben smiled through slitted eyes, and made an effort to restore the balance. “I don’t know how much closer I can get, Dan, you’re practically—”
“Shut up, Wade,” Dan growled. He pushed the dog off the foot of the bed and told him to get, then yanked quilt from where it was twisted around Ben’s hips. He fit himself to Ben, chest to chest, hip to hip, legs to legs. “And pull the covers up, you’re cold.”
Ben tried to think of a joke as he tugged the sheets and blanket and quilt up. Something to the fact that Dan needed to take care, that he was no longer a scarecrow what with all the weight he’d gained in the past few months, but the words stuck in his throat.
Because it wasn’t true. Dan was still lean and Ben loved his weight, loved the way he pressed Ben into the mattress, grounding him for those times when the nightmare came calling. Not that he’d ever tell Dan that, of course.
The dream was no longer a surprise. In the last ten months he’d had it every so often, but usually it was vague, without resolution. This time however—
He spread his legs and wrapped a leg around Dan’s thigh, pulling him closer.
Dan nosed Ben’s head to the side and kissed his neck. “When are you leaving?” Dan was growing a beard again and the soft hair scratched. Ben shivered, then shivered again when Dan smiled into his shoulder.
“Thursday. I want to get to San Francisco by Monday.”
“It’ll probably snow again tomorrow.”
“Not enough to get in my way.”
“If you leave on Thursday, that’ll mean you’ll have stayed a whole four days.” Dan ran his hand up Ben’s shoulder and into his hair. He tugged and added dryly, “Will wonders never cease.”
“Don’t want people to get used to me. Don’t want to get people talking.”
Ben stroked Dan’s spine, marveling at the way he was made. There wasn’t a spare ounce of flesh on him, and Ben could feel the rise and dip of every muscle. “I’ll be back by the end of the month.”
Dan pushed back a little, restlessly. “I haven’t promised anything. You remember, right?
“I remember. You only told me a couple dozen times.”
“Well,” Dan shifted gently, rubbing up against Ben like a giant cat. “just don’t want you getting your head full of crazy ideas like you always do.”
“Now, what would those ideas be, Dan?”
“You know well enough.”
“You mean crazy ideas like you finally getting an extra hand, full time. Or maybe the crazy idea that you take a week off sometime in the next decade.”
“I went up to Colorado with you.”
“More like I went with you,” Ben corrected mildly, not bothering to keep the irritation out his voice.
It hadn’t been a successful trip. They’d stayed at a hotel miles from Alice’s new home and every night Dan returned, spirits low because Mark continued to be sickly.
In an effort to lighten Dan’s burden, Ben had cajoled and distracted, but it hadn’t done much good. He finally got fed up and took off, two days early. When Dan came home via the train and a rented horse, Ben was waiting at the door. By the way Dan pushed him up against the parlor wall, and then upon the table, Ben figured he was forgiven his mutiny. But Dan never mentioned the visit and never asked Ben along when he went back a few months ago.
“Have you heard from young Butterfield?”
Dan nodded. “Got a letter last week. He says William is coming along fine. He likes school, even though he’s behind in everything. And he likes Chicago. He’s made a few friends, even.”
“He coming out again?”
“I have no idea. Probably.”
That was another thing that hadn’t made him happy—the visit by Zachary Butterfield in August. He’d come out unexpectedly—according to Dan when they’d argued about it later—to check on the condition of the new rail line.
Ben had been on his way to Tombstone from Cripple Creek, but a sudden craving had turned him south. He’d gotten in at sunset, tired and dirty, hungry for Dan, dinner, and a bath. When he’d clattered across the wooden bridge, he was surprised to find Dan hurrying out. Dan had turned Ben around, saying something about a visitor. Furious, Ben rode onto Bisbee. He stayed at Emma’s, waiting and fuming. Dan found him later that evening and had asked him to hole up for a few days.
Two years ago, if anyone had pushed Ben away and told him he needed find another bed for the night, especially for a Butterfield, he would have turned around and left all right—and he would have never come back. The fact that Dan hated to do the asking said much; the fact that Ben actually stayed said even more.
It was another thing they hadn’t talked about. “That bother you?
“That your son is becoming just like the Butterfields?”
Dan thought about it. “Some. But things are changing in case you didn’t notice. It might be nice, having a business man in the family.”
Ben didn’t answer. He looked out the window at the white morning sky where snow was waiting to fall, thinking on changes, large and small. The train was the least of it. There had been quite a few dust ups lately as the territory got used to more people, more law. Civilization was cutting a relentless path west and he was already feeling hemmed in.
And as if the external was pushing on the internal, he could feel the same shifts and changes inside his own mind and soul. The Butterfield incident and the way he didn’t react was one example. Another was what had happened in Oracle, not four days earlier.
He’d been feeling restless and decided that a small robbery would suit his mood. He rode into Oracle and staked out the new bank. As luck would have it, the Sheriff had left the day before on a mission of mercy and wasn’t expected back for days. Ben took it as a sign from God. He planned the robbery carefully, waiting until eleven at night to get into position. When the time came, he couldn’t do it—he stalled at a crucial moment. He quietly retrieved his horse and rode out of town. He hated himself for it, but when he thought of Dan and what he wouldn’t say if he knew, well, it wasn’t worth the pain.
He was just outside of Bisbee when it came to him, what he’d done, and when he got to the ranch, he let his frustration out, just a bit. He’d kissed away Dan’s surprise and fucked him on top of the dining room table. Later on when they’d both recovered, Dan repaid him in kind.
Dan broke the silence, saying quietly, “I do have one crazy idea.”
Ben turned from the window and kissed the top of Dan’s head. He was no longer worried about the Oracle incident and besides, Dan was more than worth it. “And what would that be?”
“Glen Hollander came by the other day.”
It would have made things so much easier, Ben thought, if Dan would just let him kill Hollander. It would be so easy—he’d even make it look like an accident. He asked about it every so often, part in jest, part not. Dan always said no. “And?”
“He’s tripled his last offer.”
“And I’m thinking of taking him up on it.”
Ben stopped his kissing, stopped his stroking. “What?”
Dan grinned into Ben’s chest. “Thought that would get your attention.”
Ben took a handful of Dan’s hair and pulled his head up. “Don’t play with me, Dan.”
Dan’s smile died. “Sorry. It’s just sort of funny. Anyway,” he went on before Ben could do something that would really hurt, “I went up north, to Graham County a couple weeks ago to look at a likely bull. I happened upon the prettiest land I’ve ever seen. It’s tucked away among two mountains and has got three streams that I’m told have never dried up. There’s plenty of pasture land. It’s further from the Southern Pacific, but the Union Pacific runs about ten miles north.”
“I take it this property is for sale.”
“I’m not wanted in Graham County.”
Ben let go of Dan’s hair, and brought his head down to his chest. He stroked the back of Dan’s head, over and over, and stared at the ceiling. The remnants of the nightmare had finally left him, and he could think clearly again. “Are you thinking of me staying on with you?”
Dan chuckled, a little bitterly, “How would we do that, Ben? You think folks would talk if they knew you were staying here from time to time? Think what they would say if they knew we shared a place, even if it was out in the middle of nowhere.”
“Then what’s the purpose?”
Dan shrugged. “I want someplace for the boys when I die. The money from Hollander will be more than enough for a couple hundred acres up north. Even with the extra help and the extra cattle, I’ll be able to bank a small fortune. Some of it will go to Alice, if she wants, and I’ll save the rest. And,” he ran his finger across Ben’s collar bone, “it’s lonely and there’s plenty acreage for a house of your own, if you want it. I figure I’ve got another four or five years of ranching in me.”
Dan shrugged again and his face shuttered. “I don’t know. I still haven’t seen San Francisco or anywhere up north. I’d like to see the Pacific—Mark just wrote to me about dolphins. I’d like to see a dolphin someday.”
Ben pushed on Dan’s shoulders, rolling them over so he lay on Dan. “You’d leave this life for me?”
Dan smiled and touched Ben’s chest, right above his heart. “It’s not like we’re going to die, or run off to China. I’ll still visit Alice and the boys. That won’t change.”
“But, yes, I’ll go with you. For a while, anyway. Maybe live where you want to live.”
“I’m not used to one place for very long, Dan.” It was a warning and reminder, partly for Dan, mostly for himself.
“And I’m not used to wandering. We’ll figure it out.”
“More likely, we’ll probably kill each other,” Ben muttered, trying not to let his happiness show.
“Probably not.” Dan was silent a moment, then he tucked Ben’s hair behind his ear and said pensively, “Do you remember what you said a while back, about the nature of man?” He looked deep into Ben’s eyes and stroked the scar on Ben’s temple, over and over.
Ben did, but it was hard to think with Dan looking at him like that. “No.”
“You said, it’s man’s nature to take what he wants.” Dan ran his fingers through Ben’s hair and gripped the back of his skull. “And I guess this is my way of saying I want you, however long it lasts.”
Ben swallowed at the raw honesty in Dan’s voice. He dropped his head on Dan’s chest and made himself comfortable. “Well, then,” he said, his voice gruff with emotion, “I know of a little place where you can ride for days and not see a soul. It’s maybe a three-hour train ride from the ocean and the weather isn’t freezing and it’s not boiling.”
He raised his head and gave Dan a long, sweet kiss, then murmured into his mouth, “Dan, have you ever been to Sacramento?”