dreamed

Ben Wade Dreamed


Contention, Arizona

1:55 p.m.

 

***


Ben Wade dreams…

…of a sky so blue his eyes hurt to look at it. Of a dusty, red-rumbled land, sage and rabbit brush strewn everywhere.

There’s no one around, not Charlie nor any of the others. He’s all alone in the wide open with only the afternoon sun and a shivery breeze for company and he feels…

…odd. 

He has somewhere to be—he knows this. The appointment is important, necessary, but all the same, it doesn’t matter; he knows this as well. Because even with the assignation, a strange freedom is hold of him and all concerns drift away as he takes a deep breath and bends his neck to look back up at the sky.

He thinks: I’m happy. This is what it must be to be well and truly happy. 

He’s still looking up when he hears a sound, like a muffled crack, and he feels the hardbaked soil shift beneath his feet. He looks down to find the earth has broken open and a rivulet of water runs just beyond the toes of his boots. It’s narrow, lazy, carrying dirt and rock away to the south, towards Mexico. 

With another shift and groan, the earth splits further and in a flash, the rivulet is now a quick running river, maybe ten feet across.

He doesn’t panic—he never panics. 

And yet…

…unease slides up his spine and he backs away only to find that the river has grabbed him; he’s ankle-deep in muddy gray water and even through his boots and stockings, he can feel the cold.

Something, maybe just the sense that he’s being watched, makes him jerk his head up. Across the river, on the new-made riverbank, someone watches, hipshot, rifle cradled in one arm. 

It’s a man, dirty from the trail, weary and worn. His face hides in the shadow of his brim, but Ben knows him. Knows that because of this man he won’t be drowning in the icy water that’s now at his knees. 

A warm gladness fills his heart; he raises one hand and smiles. 

The man takes a hesitant step into the river, then staggers back. Red bursts and blooms across his shirt, and he scrabbles at his chest, grimacing. He holds up one hand, covered with blood, and looks across the distance in supplication.

They stare at each other, Ben and the stranger who is not a stranger, both stricken.

The man staggers again, this time forward. Ben tries to shout, ‘No!’ or maybe, ‘Wait!,’ but his voice is bound in his throat and he can only watch as the man loses his balance and tumbles in, down and gone as the river swallows him whole.

A hiccup of laughter, sneaky soft, turns Ben around. Raggedy and lean, a coyote sits behind him on the bank, grinning that coyote grin. 

The coyote laughs again and a clean fury washes through Ben, sharp and bright.

“Wade?”

Ben doesn’t answer. He pulls his gun smoothly from its holster, the way he learned to do at the tender age of twelve. He aims dead on at that broad, slick smile…

“Wade!”

…and…

…Ben Wade wakes.


“Wade.” 

The insistent call cut through Ben’s dream and brought him to wakefulness. Disoriented from the short sleep, it took him a moment to remember where he was. On his back in bed, in the bridal suite of a poor-man’s excuse for a hotel. In a piss-poor town that would soon witness a gunfight the likes of which it would never see again. 

Bound by shackles, with a one-legged rancher for a guard, no less. Who was staring at him with a puzzled expression.

Ben ran his hands over his face and licked his lips. He pushed the dream away and donned his most devil-may-care expression. “Yes, Dan?”

Dan shifted the rifle from arm to arm and shrugged one shoulder. “Just wanting to see if you were all right, is all.”

Ben turned on his side and propped his head up with his hands. Difficult to make it look easy, but he made do. “I’m fine, Dan. Fine as ever.” The sun streaming in through the open window caught the side of Dan’s face, emphasizing the creases around his eyes and mouth, showing up the dirt and blood, making him seem older than he probably was.

Dan looked away, peering to the street below. “You were saying something in your sleep.” 

“I never, ever, talk in my sleep.”

Dan settled back and said with an exasperated, “And how would you know that?”

“Countless lady friends, of course.”

“Well,” Dan said with a shrug, “you were saying something just now.”

The man was stubborn, like a pup with a rag, forever tugging and tugging. It was best just to change the subject. “What time is it?”

“You in a hurry to die?”

“No, Dan, just making conversation.” And he didn’t need his question answered, anyway. The sky was that deep blue of mid-afternoon—he hadn’t slept long, maybe a quarter of an hour, maybe a bit more.

He lay back down and rubbed his face against the pillows, enjoying the way his beard caught on the fine lawn fabric, thinking that his favorite skies had to be Mexico or Colorado. The skies of Colorado were a heavy, thick blue that almost convinced a man he could just reach up and punch a hole through to the stars. The skies of Mexico, on the other hand, were more like turquoise, clear and far-off, but in a dreamy, watery, way. Like you could lie back and float underneath them. Down across the desert, down to the sea.

“You ever been to Colorado, Dan?” he asked absently.

“No, Wade, I ain’t never been to Colorado.” And Dan gave Ben that look, the one he enjoyed more than was good for him. All squinty-eyed and a little confused, saying that he’d been surprised, and how—or what—would he have to pay for letting Ben in on one of his secrets?

Lord, the man had secrets. In the short time of their acquaintance, Ben had learned enough about Dan to show how little he actually knew. It was so unusual as to be almost comical—in Ben’s experience men spilled their guts within five minutes of conversation, coercion or no.  Women weren’t much better. 

“You’d like Colorado, I expect.”

Dan just grunted and began polishing the steel on his Winchester.

“Yes, I think you’d like it just fine.” Ben grinned, knowing Dan would catch it, for all he was making a show of concentrating on the gun. “Maybe when we part ways, we can meet up there.” He rolled to his back and smiled at the ceiling. “I can show you sights you ain’t never seen the like of.”

“Wade, when we part ways, you’ll be going to Yuma Prison and I’ll be going home.”

“To your wife.”

“And my land, yes.”

“Curious way to put it.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Nothing Dan, nothing.” Ben shook his head, mentally tracing the overly ornate pattern of plaster that trimmed the ceiling of the bridal suite.

It wasn’t much of a suite, for brides or otherwise. Even though he’d never had a thought of becoming any kind of bridegroom, he prided himself of the fact that he’d seen more than his share of bedrooms, and knew quality when he saw it. Same went for all things—from horses to guns to clothing. Same for women, married, widowed or spinster.

Starting at the age of fourteen when he was out of the orphanage and on his own, taken in by a girl at who wasn’t much older than himself. Taken in and shown what the mysterious passages in the Bible were all about. 

The strictures against longing and lust, well, he worried on those for a time until the day he shot his first man. After that, he figured he was going to Hell—a little more sin wouldn’t matter—so he dove into women like he was diving into a clear, sweet pond.

He wasn’t yet twenty when he came up for air. By then, he’d been to California and back, by then he’d made his first foray into Mexico and had seen—and taken—his share of life.   

That year, the year he’d turned twenty, he’d decided the outlaw profession was his one true calling. It suited his spirit and he thrived on it. He’d had a few chancy encounters with the end of a noose, back in the beginning, but as with all things, he’d learned his lessons and never made the same mistake twice.

He took up thieving and gathered a crew that aided him in relieving the rich and poor alike of their worldly goods. Those years were good. A few his men had been like poor Tommy Darden—stupid and weak, dead before their time. But enough had proved worthy and he’d kept them on, making sure to stay one step ahead, just in case.

As for women, it didn’t take long to realize that running a gang of cutthroats and murderers was a full time job, one that didn’t mix with love or even simple lust and women became an occasional luxury.

He never regretted that particular decision—women had become commonplace rather than mysterious and he’d come to realize that he wasn’t the settling down type. 

At the ripe age of thirty-five, he’d happened to witness a fist fight outside a Dodge City livery, meeting for the first time a young Charlie Prince. A meeting after which led to a bedroom encounter of another kind. And another chance to break a different set of Biblical rules. 

That liaison was short-lived. Ben discovered that Charlie was good at following orders, had a devious mind and was a demon with a gun, but he was best held at arm’s length, well in the line of sight. He was too impulsive and he never thought of the consequences of his actions. And he was just a jealous son of a bitch, to boot. 

So, a few months after he took Charlie under his metaphorical wing, he put him away, gently but without a great deal of concern. He couldn’t keep Charlie in the gang and in his bed—it just wouldn’t do. And it hardly mattered—by then he knew Charlie would do anything for him, including standing on the fringes of his romances.

He was pondering the wisdom of the association, wondering if it wasn’t time to cut those reins, when Dan leaned forward abruptly to stare out the window. He was frowning again, something he did more often than not and Ben wondered if all he did was worry. He had yet to see Dan smile with anything other than sarcasm.

Ben had met a lot of different types in his long career, but he couldn’t recall anyone so dour, so unflappable. Almost as if Dan had been born with a piece missing from his heart.

But no, that wasn’t right because Dan had more to him than that. Ben had seen it a few times. Felt it too, back on the trail, when Dan had lay on him, rifle stock pressed cruelly to his throat, murder in his eyes. 

Then there was the instance, just hours old, when Dan had lit into those bastards back at the tunnels above Contention. He’d gotten a fierce pleasure out of it, swinging away and hurting them. Ben had seen it, plain as day.

But it was a side that Dan wasn’t proud of, Ben could see that as well because he’d brushed it aside as soon as they were free of the tunnels. Afraid of its power, maybe. Or maybe just content to be the poor rancher, which to Ben’s mind was failure indeed.

It happened to most civilized men, in his experience. War, family—hell, just plain life—ground a man down to nothing but duty. Smothering everything that made him interesting, that made him alive. And life had been grinding away at Dan, dulling his spirit down to the very nub.

But not killed it off, not yet.

All it’d take was a spark to set it off, like a Catherine Wheel. A fiery chain reaction that would push Dan into knowing how life could truly be. How it didn’t have to be all toil and heartache and want.

But what, Ben mused, could be the tinder? Not money, that was certain. Worldly goods didn’t seem to matter much to him, either, which was unusual. And inconvenient.

So, if not money or things, then something more personal, something closer to the heart, powerful enough to break through the noose he had around his soul.

If he had the time, he would do just that. By hook or crook, he’d force Dan to see. Maybe even run off with him, spend some time showing him things he’d remember for the rest of his life. Just an adventure, maybe two.

He turned onto his side and tucked his hands under his cheek. Dan had sat back and was cleaning his rifle again, idly now, stroking the stock, clearly lost in his own thoughts. He flinched every now and then, like a horse shaking off a blow fly. And what was he pondering, Ben wondered. His sick boy back home, his wife? 

No, not his wife, and Ben thought again about Dan and Alice’s leave-taking. A man who was going to be gone for days into danger should rightly hold and kiss his wife as if he never wanted to let her go. He’d held her all right, but even in the dark, Ben had seen that there was something between them, something hard and deep and wide.

He saw it at the dinner table, heard it when they’d retreated behind the closed door of their bedroom. Ben hadn’t been able to make out the details, but he knew defeat when he saw it—when they came back out, Alice’s stony face said it all.

So what made a man leave a women like Alice Evans with only a perfunctory embrace and nary a glance back? A woman any man would cherish and protect; blessing the days he was with her, counting the days lost when he had the bad luck to be gone from her side.

Even Ben, who had never wanted to be a husband, who had never loved truly, knew that much about marriage: it was supposed to be about faith and trust, for ever and always; it was supposed to be about cleaving and never parting.

But Dan and Alice…

Lack of money was surely part of the answer, but not the whole. A man could always come by money, if he was willing to part with a few ideals. 

Maybe that was it. Maybe Dan was too high-minded to do the right thing such as hire himself out permanently to a man like that Hollander or some other wealthy rancher.

Or maybe it came down to that Dan was just hardheaded and his dying property came first.

Ben didn’t understand it. 

Now, men like Charlie and Jackson? They were easy to understand. He knew them down to the tiniest corners of their coal black hearts. Campos as well, for the little Ben knew of the man himself.

His men were simple, one dimensional, like paper dolls.

Dan Evans, though, he was neither simple nor one dimensional. He was a strange mix of depth and openness and secrecy and Ben was starting to think that it would take a lifetime to pry those secrets out. What a challenge—a tantalizing, provocative challenge. 

He shrugged uncomfortably. Every lock had a key, every riddle had an answer. Both just needed time and the right touch. 

But, he thought, as a cool breeze drifted through the open window, in the end it didn’t matter. 

For all Dan Evans fascinated him, he was a challenge to be left unfathomed, untried—it was getting on getting time and soon he and Dan would be taking their own leave of each other. He’d be off to Mexico with Charlie and the boys, and Dan…  

He frowned at the bleak knowledge that Dan would most likely not live past the next hour. If by some miracle he did manage to survive the hell that Charlie Prince was fixing to rain down upon them all, eventually Dan would return to Bisbee to spend the rest of his life bleeding for a land that didn’t give back.

What a waste of a sharp mind and a sharper rifle.

A low knock on the door interrupted his musings and he straightened his waistcoat as he cleared his mind. A fleeting memory of that odd dream tried to intrude, but he cleared that away as well. 

The person on the other side of the door was probably Butterfield, no doubt come to give Dan more bad news, and now was not the time to be distracted by nonsense. So, he put on the face that made grown men back away and got ready to make his move.


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

3:14 p.m.


Later, Ben would always tell himself that he’d had no idea of Charlie’s intentions. Later, he’d say he knew the boy was mostly loco, but he’d always obeyed. If Ben said stop shooting, Charlie stopped.

And he would always deny, even when pressed, that the dream he had dreamed that day in Contention had anything to do with it.

Except…

Later, Ben would relive that day—those ten minutes at the Contention train yard when a cold breeze chilled his face and time froze. He’d remember that even though the air had smelled of gunpowder and cattle, underneath it all was the clean scent of the open prairie. He’d remember that the sun had been so bright and the sky so blue. And he’d remember that when the train had pulled into the station, it felt like the earth was about to shake apart beneath his feet. 

But mostly he’d remember the few seconds it took to climb aboard the prison car and watch…

…Dan Evans smiling up at him. For once not throwing Ben a sullen glare, but a happy smile of pride and relief…

…Charlie, a stone’s throw away, striding through the train yard, his movements stiff and ungainly, his face so twisted that Ben hardly recognized him. 

Was it the dream that made him act so swiftly? Hindsight had a way of convincing, but all he was ever truly sure of was that one minute Dan was down below, and the next he’d dragged him up by force, both of them landing hard while Charlie Prince hurtled bullets like curses…


The guard had the car door rolled back in place by the time Ben shoved Dan off and to the floor. He ignored Dan’s startled, “What the hell are you doing?” and ran his hands over his chest and legs. Charlie was a damn fine shot, surely he’d gotten in one hit?

As if to confirm his worry, bullets slammed into the train again, hitting the door and breaking a couple windows. A woman screamed in the seats behind and the guard muttered a curse, then ran to the front of the car to  pound on the wall. The train started up with a jerk and a jolt. 

Still muttering, the guard came to stand before them with his hands on his hips. He was about fifty-five or sixty; too old to be doing this kind of work, especially as it had made him lazy—his pistol lay on a small stool next to the cage, his rifle was propped up in the corner.

Cocking his head, he said, “I guess you really done something to deserve Yuma prison. Those boys back there, they out to save you or kill you?”

Ben paused. There was a fury curling in his belly; a fury that would soon need release and all thanks to the man lying before him. Somehow in two days, Dan had become important, more important than the men he had ridden with for more than ten years now. 

He clenched his jaw at the newly minted memory of Charlie aiming his Scofields at Dan’s exposed back.

That Charlie was so bold, that he thought he could try and take Dan… 

It was something Ben would never forget, never forgive and Charlie was going to pay with his life. Of course, killing Charlie meant killing the boys, just in case they got ideas, but Ben didn’t have a problem with that. “The latter, now,” he said with a certain amount of bitterness. 

For his unthinking act of high-mindedness had changed his life forever. He’d put one man’s life above all the others, above even his own. It was his one steadfast rule, one he’d had to beat into each man the minute he took them in, and now…

He took a breath, forcing the anger from his mind, his hands. All those things, well, they were for another time. Now he had to take care of the man who had brought him to this unexpected fork in his road. He unbuttoned Dan’s tattered coat. “Did Charlie get you?”

“My boy, William—” Dan pushed his hands away and struggled to stand. 

Ben grabbed his shoulders, holding him down. “He’s fine. I saw him high-tail it out of there with Butterfield.”

“Butterfield’s a fool. He can’t take care of anyone.”

“No, but he knows I’ll come after him if he doesn’t protect the boy.”

“And…” he held up his hand when Dan opened his mouth, “My boys won’t go after him. They didn’t even know he was there. They’ll most likely head to Mexico. They just shot three lawmen, and that means something, even to them. And if I know Butterfield, he’s already wired the cavalry.” Dan tried to get up again, and Ben tightened his grip. “Besides, not even Charlie is stupid enough to try to run down a train.”

Dan glared at Ben. “Wade, if my boy comes to harm because of you—”

Ben couldn’t help himself—he tightened his grip and growled, “You might want to remind yourself that it was you that stepped into this particular rattlesnake’s nest, Dan Evans. It was you that refused to back down and leave when you ought.” He pushed Dan down, not gently, and started in on his shirt. “And you tell me you’re not stubborn,” he added under his breath.

Dan grabbed his wrists and they glared at each other for a long moment. They might have done more than just glare—Dan was itching for another fight and Ben had a good mind to give it to him. But he was also trembling, just a little, so Ben eased back. He asked again, this time more calmly, “Dan, did he hit you?”

Bit by bit, Dan released his wrists and fell back. “Yeah. Mostly, he just put a few holes in the train. I think I got one in the leg, though.” 

He felt his thigh, no doubt planning on examining the wound himself. Ben pushed his hands away, already bending close. “I’ll do it.”

Wordlessly, Dan pulled off his coat and rolled to his side. 

He had two minor grazes on his right arm, both already done bleeding. The back of his shirt was whole, which was a mercy, but lower down, on his left trouser leg, there was a raggedy hole where a bullet had gone clean through. 

Carefully, Ben widened the tear. He couldn’t see much other than the bullet hadn’t entered Dan’s flesh, but, like the arm wounds, it had just grazed the surface. Ben touched the edges red furrow—it was already swelling, the skin hot to the touch. He tightened his lips. He was no doctor, but he’d done his share of bandaging himself up on various occasions. He’d even tended to Charlie’s wounds when there weren’t anyone else. He’d seen shallow cuts like this turn sour in a bare few hours and Dan couldn’t afford more damage to that particular leg.

“Looks like old Charlie took a slice out of you. We’ll get you taken care of, then I’ll go sit in my nice cell.” That was for the guard who was still hovering, looking back and forth between them, confused. “Do you have any bandages and maybe some alcohol?”

“I’ve got plenty of whiskey, but nothing to wrap your friend up in.” The guard took a bottle out of his vest and handed it to Ben.

“He ain’t my friend,” Dan said to the cell bars.

Ben ignored him. “Hold on.” He uncapped the whiskey, took a sip, then doused his kerchief. “This is going to hurt.” 

“I’ve been hurt before.” But he hissed all the same, when Ben pressed the cloth to the wound.

An unbidden feeling, almost a tenderness, washed through Ben and he lowered his voice. “I know you have.” He wanted to do something to show his appreciation for what Dan had put himself through, what no other man had the courage to do. Wanted to do something foolish like lay his cheek against Dan’s thigh as if that would transmit his own strength to Dan.

Mostly he wanted to tell Dan that he’d grown to admire him more than any other man he’d ever met. That his earlier fascination had turned to cautious affection, and for all Dan was a dirt-poor rancher—probably because of it—he was someone to esteem and respect.

But the guard was watching as were the other prisoners, so Ben held his tongue. Dan would most likely hit him for his trouble, in any case.

He smiled at the notion and pulled the kerchief away. The wound was still red, but it was clean, the bleeding slowed. It was would be best if the leg were bandaged—there was only way he could think to do that. He touched Dan’s shoulder. “You need to drop your trousers so I can bind that leg bound.”

Dan was staring at nothing and he jerked his head from side to side. “I’m fine. I’ll just keep the kerchief on it until we get to Yuma.” 

“Dan—”

“It’ll keep, Wade.” Dan shrugged off his hand. His eyes were bright, his face flushed. Ben wasn’t sure if it was due to modesty or the aftermath of the fight. Whatever it was, he wouldn’t meet Ben’s gaze. “I’ve been through worse.”

Ben pressed his lips together. He leaned in close and whispered, “Stubborn.” 

Dan’s lips bars tightened. Ben knew that if he could, he would just hop off the train, vowing never to see Ben again. It was that streak of prideful willfulness that Dan was rich with. If it weren’t so damnably frustrating, it would be charming. 

Ben shrugged, giving up for the time being. “Have it your own way.” 

He capped the whiskey and handed it to the guard, who asked doubtfully, “You boys done?”

“Yes, we are. Thank you for your patience.” Ben got to his feet and waited for him to unlock the cell door.

Dan had pulled himself up and was struggling with his jacket, all the while watching Ben’s every move. “You going in, just like that?” As if it couldn’t be that easy, as if Ben surely had an escape plan all set out and Dan’d soon be chasing him all over New Mexico once more.

“Just like this.” Ben waved to the guard to open the cell, making the gesture too florid. That kind of thing always set Dan’s back up.

The guard unlocked the iron door. “What about him?” He jerked his head to Dan.

“No,” Ben answered before Dan could speak. “He stays out here.” He entered the cell, ignoring the almost instinctive knot of tension that curled in his gut. There was not cause for concern—he’d be out before he knew it. This was just mostly to show Dan that he wasn’t afraid of the cage.

The guard looked Dan up and down. “Who are you?”

“Dan Evans, honest, upstanding citizen of Bisbee, Arizona.” Again, Ben spoke for him, enjoying the surly glance Dan shot his way.

The guard cocked his head. “And just might who you be?” 

Dan answered for him. “This here’s Ben Wade. Thief, bank robber, murderer.” He smirked as he said it. 

The guard locked the cell door behind Ben and peered through the bars. “Ben Wade, huh?” He jerked his head towards Dan. “This fellow brought you in?”

Ben nodded.

“You been to Yuma before, ain’t you?”

Ben nodded again.

“You gonna stay in this time?”

“Doubt I’ll even make it there, friend.” Ben turned to the single bench in the cage. The other prisoners moved over, giving him wide berth. He sat down with a satisfied smile. 

The guard barked a laugh and Dan narrowed his eyes suspiciously. 

Smiling down at Dan, Ben made himself comfortable then covered his eyes with his hat with an ease he wasn’t faking.

It was probably getting on to four and the train still had several stops before they reached Yuma. Tucson, Maricopa, and maybe Gila Bend, if there was anything to stop for. He’d find his chance and take it, like always.

But whatever move he made, he had to be off before they made it to the Sonora. Once they got to that hellhole, he’d have no choice but to stay put. He’d traveled the desert before and he had no intention of doing it again, especially without a mount.

His best chance would be Tucson. It would be well dark by then, the train’s crew would be tired, and they wouldn’t expect him to make a move so soon after incarceration. Best of all, Tucson was big enough for Ben to lose himself into any crowd he found.

It would be hard though, leaving Dan after what they’d been through. He’d made a good companion, for all it was mostly unwilling.

Ben tilted his head to peer from under his brim. Dan was sitting arms-length from the cell, slumped against the car wall. His rifle lay across his lap and one lax hand held the bandage loosely to his thigh. He was sound asleep. 

It must be close to forty hours since he’d last slept—Ben had made sure of that. Now, he lay there, peaceful looking, like a tuckered out kid.

Closing his own eyes again, Ben remembered his dream, only hours old, but seemingly a lifetime ago. 

What would it be like to ride with a friend? A real friend; someone who wasn’t in it for the thrill or the fame or the money? Who would guard his back and mean it? Someone he could talk to when the job was done, share confidences and plans? 

His thought from earlier in the day crept back: drag or coerce Dan away. Make sure his leg healed up nice and proper first, then just run off with him. Force him to ride along until he forgot about his family, forgot about his land waiting back in Bisbee.

It was an insane idea. Dan would fight him the whole way and in the end, take the first opportunity to high-tail it back home.  

Ben shifted on the hard cell bench. It didn’t matter, when all was said and done. Charlie was waiting and that was an assignation he couldn’t ignore.

No, it was off to Mexico or someplace south to rest up. He’d find new gear, a new pistol, and a new mount. Then he’d hunt the boys down and kill them all.

He smiled, adjusted his hat, and fell asleep.


***


Ben slept lightly. He roused briefly when they stopped to unload a few passengers in a town too small for a proper train station, probably Oracle. He listened with half an ear, making no effort to truly wake and soon, the sway of the train lulled him back to sleep.

The next time he stirred, he wasn’t sure what had woken him up. It was still dark outside and judging by their snores, his fellow prisoners and the guard were fast asleep. Except…

He heard it again, a noise he didn’t recognize, but recognized all the same. A soft mumble that turned into a sigh, then a groan. Dan.

Ben crept to the far side of the cage and dropped to his knees. Dan had fallen sideways and was against the bars, asleep. But something was wrong—his mouth was twisted and beads of sweat dotted his forehead. And since the car wasn’t heated and it was too cold for sweat, it had to be fever. Goddamnit. “Dan?” Ben reached through the bars and shook him.

Dan moaned again, this time waking himself up. He looked around, clearly confused.

Ben put a steadying hand on the back of his neck. “On the prison train, bound for Yuma.” 

Dan nodded. He reclined against the support of Ben’s palm and Ben felt his unease sharpen. Dan, in his right mind, would never let Ben touch him, not like this. 

“‘S hot,” Dan muttered. He jerked his arm and his rifle slid out of his grip and fell with a clatter.

The guard woke with a muttered, “Whoa, there.” He fumbled to his feet and staggered over, bringing his lantern with him. He crouched down on the other side of Dan and held up the light. “Leg festering?”

“I don’t know. Can you help me here?” 

The guard grumbled as he set the lantern down but he did as Ben asked. He pulled the stained kerchief away from Dan’s leg. The cloth was stiff with blood but the wound looked clean enough and some of the swelling had gone down. 

Ben touched the flesh—he didn’t feel overly warm. “Maybe the arm?” He reached for Dan’s arm and had just touched him, when Dan jerked and moaned.

“Hush,” Ben murmured, his throat suddenly tight. He pushed Dan’s jacket off his shoulder, and carefully ripped his shirtsleeve open, tearing it from wrist to shoulder. He pulled Dan’s arm free and raised it to the light. “Have to make sure you’re not going to die on me.” He said it in his most jocular voice, but the sight choking any thoughts of further humor.

Because it was easy to see, even in the shifting lantern-light, the bullet hole that had lay hidden from casual sight, just on the inside of Dan’s upper arm. It had probably started out as a small wound, nothing much, but now the surrounding flesh was puffy and discolored. It was a wonder Dan had managed to let his arm hang straight, so painful looking was the wound.

This wasn’t from Charlie’s gun—the hole was too small, too old. It must have happened earlier, probably when they’d escaped from those railroad bastards or maybe when they’d been running the gauntlet back in Contention.

He rotated Dan’s arm, as gently as he could, and found another bullet hole, higher up on his shoulder. The second was on its way to healing, which caused him some relief. For whatever reason, shoulder wounds were tricky. He’d seen strong men lose their entire arm due to nothing more than a simple shot to the fleshy part of the shoulder.

Nevertheless, the first wound was going to be a problem. That nasty discoloration meant that there might be poison running through Dan’s veins, even now.

And Dan had said nothing, just treated the wounds as if they were no more bothersome than mosquito bites. “Damn you, Evans, “ Ben said earnestly as he guided Dan’s arm to rest on his thigh. “What am I to do with you now?”

“He needs a doctor,” the guard said, peering disinterestedly at the wound.

“Yes, he does.”

“Probably gonna die, by the looks of that arm,” he added casually, as if talking about a stray cat.

Ben looked up, neck stiff with anger. He took a moment to breathe, to remind himself that he was in a cell and he needed this man’s help to get Dan off the train. No sense killing him simply because he’d said something stupid. “Where are we?”

“West, out of Tucson.” At Ben’s look, the guard added with a smirk, “Boss didn’t want to stop on account of our famous prisoner.” 

Ben clenched his jaw, holding a tight rein on his temper and worry. “Last time I was in Gila Bend, their doctor killed more men than he saved. Has that changed?”

“Nope.”

“Maricopa?”

“They got a good man, but we ain’t stopping. We’re just slowing down to get the mail.”

“You have to.” Dan had fallen against the wall—he was barely conscious, his mouth thin with pain. “He won’t make it to Yuma.”

“We’re heading straight through. No stops, no delays. By order of the Governor.” The guard spoke with such relish, he’d obviously been waiting to say it. Must have got a telegraph message at one of the stops. 

So, no choice for it. 

Quick as a snake, Ben had the guard by the throat, dragging him over Dan and up against the bars. Dan cried out, but Ben paid him no mind. “This is what we’re going to do,” he hissed. “You’re going to unlock this door. I’m going to get my friend’s things. When we get close to Maricopa, me and my friend are going to jump. Is that understood?” 

He jabbed his thumb into the guard’s windpipe and watched his eyes grow wide with panic. “And you’re going to keep your mouth shut the while because if you don’t, I will snap your neck like a chicken.” 

Ben turned to the prisoners behind him. They were awake, looking on in dull silence. He gave them a steady glance, and one of them held up his hands. “We won’t bother you, mister.”

At that the guard tried to call out, but Ben tightened his grip and cut off his protests.

He held on for a long minute, waiting until the fight went out of the guard, until he fumbled at his pocket and brought out his keys. He held them up. 

“No, you unlock it.” Ben jerked his hand, allowing the guard to stretch his arm to the lock.

With a low snick, the door opened and Ben was out. The guard didn’t bother with anything but submission and it took Ben a moment to subdue, hog-tie and gag him.

When he was done, he scrambled over to Dan. Who was staring at him with accusation in his eyes. Ben tightened his lips. He could give a good goddamn what Dan thought of him. If he hadn’t been so boneheaded in the first place, they’d never be in this predicament in the first place. 

He turned and rifled the guard’s pockets, finding the whiskey and a pocket watch. He took both, then rummaged around the car, looking for anything that would be of use. A length of rope, an extra scarf—there was little else, but he gathered it and bundled it all up in the guard’s jacket. He wished he had his buffalo-hide coat and woolen gloves to give to Dan. It was going to be cold out there.

But it couldn’t be helped and he tossed the bundle to the floor and looked out the window. Maricopa lay in a wide, dry valley just east of the Gila Bend mountains. It was a tiny town, much like Contention, with the usual conglomeration of services and professions. Ben had only been through a few times and never found much to keep him, once he got there.

The town did boast its own marshal’s office, but he wasn’t worried about that. From his recollection, the marshal was older than the guard, and more than a little fond of gin and women. He was probably laid up tight, sleeping it off.

Best yet, the station was some ways from town—Ben and Dan could hole up in the house for a few hours and no one would be the wiser.

He’d get Dan settled, find the doctor, then rustle up a horse. With Dan in someone else’s hands, he could be on his way with no worries, maybe making Nogales by mid-day. 

A thump hit the front of the car and a muffled voice shouted, “Maricopa!” 

Quickly, he slung the stuffed jacket over his right arm, then tucked the rifle under the other. He knelt and touched Dan’s uninjured shoulder. “We need to go.”

Dan kept his eyes closed. “Why?”

“Because you’ll lose that arm, maybe your life, if we don’t get you to a doctor, that’s why.”

“The way I feel right now, dying don’t sound like a bad idea.” 

“You want me to tell your youngest that when I bring your body home?” It was a low blow, but it got the reaction Ben was aiming for. Dan glared and rose to stand propped against the wall.

“Here.” Ben helped him with his jacket. Dan was shaky and weak, and for a moment, Ben thought he’d pass out, but he didn’t. He just took a deep breath, tightened his lips, and glared at Ben as if to ask, happy now?

The train shuddered, jerked, and began to slow down, the brakes whining hoarsely. They were almost there. “Can you make it?”

“Yes.”

“Good.” He looked around again. 

Dan pushed away from the wall and took a few steps. “I’m not your friend.”

“What?” he asked, absently. He had the rifle, the pistol and the whiskey. He wished for biscuits or meat—not for now, but he’d be hungry in a couple hours. 

“You called me your friend. I ain’t your friend.” Dan had made it to the door of the car and was standing there holding on, looking like a stiff breeze would knock him over.

Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. “Let’s discuss that later. How are you feeling?”

Dan gave Ben an exasperated look. “Fine. I’m fine.”

“Then, here… Stand back.” Ben strong-armed the door open and shouted against the noise of the engine, wheels, and wind, “Try to land on your good side.”

“And what side would that be, Wade? I seem to be hurt on all sides,” Dan shouted back.

Ben laughed. Dan was such a prickly character, even when he was weak with pain—it was almost reassuring that he could still be so cantankerous. He patted Dan’s arm and peered out.

It was still dark enough that he could easily make out the tiny beacon of light that signaled the Maricopa station. “It’s about a mile away. Can you make it?”

“I told you, I’m fine!”

Shaking his head, Ben muttered, “Stubborn fool.” He jammed his hat on his head, grabbed the back of Dan’s trousers and shouted, “Now!”

He lunged forward, tugging and pushing Dan with him. They were in the air for a few breathless seconds, then they hit the ground hard and broke apart. Ben rolled once and came to rest up under a rabbit bush. 

Breath stuck in his chest, he lay there a moment, waiting for his lungs to catch up, checking to see if he hurt anywhere. He’d jumped from trains a time or two and he knew what to expect; even so, it never got any easier, landing on sun-baked dirt, brush, and rocks. The skiff of snow hadn’t helped—in fact, he thought as he pulled a stone from under his hip—it almost felt like it made the ground harder.

A clear whistle broke the quiet, reminding him that he couldn’t just lay about. He rolled to his feet and scanned the scene. The train was at the station and he could just make out the conductor—a tiny figure haloed by the glow of the engine lantern—lean out to grab the mailbag. Then the train started up again, picking up speed only to disappear behind a row of hogbacks. The sound of the engine faded as well, and the desert’s silence settled in.

Ben waited for a shout or commotion from the station house. If anyone had been awake, he and Dan might have a problem. The open prison door wasn’t exactly like the grandly lit manger that Jesus was born in, drawing crowds from everywhere, but it surely wasn’t invisible.

But, his usual luck was with him. The night’s stillness went unbroken— no one came running out from the station house.

He took a deep, grateful breath and turned to where Dan had landed.

He was laying, face up, eyes closed, and for a terrible moment Ben thought he’d hit his head and was unconscious or maybe even dead. He tossed his gear to the ground and hurried over. He crouched by Dan’s side and clasped his shoulder. Dan opened his eyes and squinted up at him, even though there was nothing to squint against.

Relief pricked the back of Ben’s neck and he spoke, schooling his voice to an even tone, “Did you land on it?” 

“Some.” Dan struggled to his feet. Ben reached out to help, but he ignored him. Ben sighed. It seemed they were back to where they’d started. “I’ll be all right,” Dan said gruffly.

Ben picked up their things and resituated the jacket and rifle. “So you’ve said. Again and again.”

Dan ignored him. “Where’s my hat?”

Ben looked around, found it, picked it up and held it out. Dan took  and put it on, then headed towards the town without a word.

Ben hitched the makeshift satchel and followed.

Typical of May, it was bitterly cold. Each breath that Ben released obscured his vision and he was reminded of the three days he spent in a Georgia backwoods, hiding out in a cave while the law looked high and low for him. They never found him, but he froze his ass off, waiting for them to get bored and leave the area.

It was a time he never wanted to re-live—on the run with no money and no companions. 

It took them a good fifteen minutes to cross the open prairie. There was little snow to contend with and the moon was shining fiercely, but still, it was work. Dan’s limp grew more pronounced and he stumbled every so often. Ben didn’t make the mistake of offering any help. He just walked slower, trying to make it seem like he wasn’t.

By the time they got within a stone’s throw of the house, Dan was stumbling every few feet and when they stopped, he swayed before he caught himself.

“Wait,” Ben gestured, “stay here.” He didn’t look to see if he was obeyed. He crept to the rear of the house. There was nothing but a trash barrel and a low set of stairs that led to a back door. The line of sight between the house and the town was unobstructed, but the house had no windows on this side. 

Another bit of luck, Ben thought as he inched his way back around and peered through the side window. 

The draperies weren’t pulled back but they didn’t meet proper, leaving him space to see was a large room with a stove, a bed and a big round table. 

A man was asleep in the chair by the stove. His arms were crossed and his boots were propped up on the stove’s base. He wasn’t armed—his gun belt hung on a peg beside the door and his rifle lay on a table on the other side of the stove. A book lay spread on his thigh, as if he’d just tired out and couldn’t be bothered to make it to the bed.

Ben frowned. It wasn’t an ideal situation. It would have been better to find a place that had several rooms in case someone came calling. But their choices were limited and it was better than nothing. 

He signaled to Dan to stay put and snuck along the porch, all senses alerted to any sound that meant trouble. The only bad moment was when he stepped on a rotten board—it creaked like a gunshot and he froze and waited, but nothing happened. 

He crept up to the door and said a silent prayer, then twisted the knob. He smiled—the door was unlocked. He cautiously pushed it open and stepped through. Even then, the stationmaster didn’t waken.

Ben dropped his bundle, got out the rope, then quietly gathered the scattered weapons. Even then the sleeping man didn’t wake. Finally, everything ready, he stood before the man and nudged him with his boot. “Excuse me.”

The man startled and jumped out of his chair, looking wildly around. He was older than Ben, maybe about the same age as the prison train guard, but where the guard had been sluggish and slow, this man was sharp-eyed, already alert. Ben would have to watch him—he wouldn’t be a pushover. “Calm down. Didn’t mean to frighten you.”

“Then why are you holding my property?” the stationmaster asked, looking from Ben down to the guns in his hands.

Ben heard halting steps, then the bad porch board, and watched the man’s eyes narrow when Dan limped in. “We have a situation here and I don’t want it to get worse,” Ben said. He jerked his head back to Dan. “I’ve got someone who needs a doctor.” 

“He your man?”

What an odd expression. “No, he’s a law man and he’s been shot. I need to get him a doctor. He was bringing me in and we ran into a ruckus.” Ben didn’t need to see Dan’s face to know how he’d take the rather abbreviated, and altered, report.

And by the expression on the stationmaster’s face, he wasn’t buying it either, but Ben didn’t care. As long as the old man didn’t cause a fuss, he’d live to see the next day. 

Without taking his eyes off the man before him, Ben nodded to the chair by the stove and said, “Dan, come on in. Sit down.” He waited until Dan came forward, then said to the stationmaster, “Friend, I’m going to ask you to lay down on the floor and tie up your legs with this rope.” He held the length up and smiled.

“And if I don’t?”

Ben said in his most reasonable voice, “Old timer, we both know what will happen if you don’t.”

“Wade…” Dan spoke for the first time; his voice was weak and gravelly, like he’d been shouting for hours. Ben took a chance and glanced to his left. In the yellow light of the lantern, he saw that Dan was pasty pale and he was sweating again. “Do we really need to do this? Can’t I just go into town myself?”

It was a perfectly reasonable question, no cause for Ben to want to growl and tell Dan to just hush up. “You can’t go wandering around in the middle of the night, looking for the doc.” 

It was a flimsy rationale, because in truth, Dan probably could make it. And there really was no excuse, not even a flimsy one, why Ben just couldn’t up and leave Dan to the stationmaster’s care. 

He knew the reason why, but it was something he’d think on later, when he was long gone from Dan and his problems. “You won’t make it and you know it.”

Dan waved his hand, giving up. He limped to the chair and practically fell into it. “All right, all right. Just, don’t hurt anyone, okay?” 

Mollified, Ben asked the station master, “What’s your name, friend?”

The stationmaster grimaced and snatched the rope from Ben’s hand. He lay down on the floor, saying, “You don’t need to know my name, young man. Not if you are going to be tying me up.” He began winding the rope around his ankles. 

Ben had to chuckle at that. “Suit yourself. Make sure you tie that good and tight or I’ll do it myself.” He waited for the man to finish, then gestured for him to turn over. “I suppose you can’t tell me where the doctor is?”

Giving him a sharp look, the stationmaster asked, “Are you going to hurt him?”

“All I want,” Ben said reasonably, waiting for the stationmaster to roll over, “is to get my friend taken care of.” He knelt and made a neat slipknot and wrapped the man’s hands and feet together, then knotted the rope, tight. “And then I’ll be on my way.” 

The stationmaster paused for a long moment. Ben knew he was weighing the odds of Ben doing something rash, of him going out and shooting up the town, looking for the doctor. Finally, he muttered, “He’s on the edge of town, past the livery and cattle pens.”

“And I suppose you don’t have a horse and rig I could borrow?”

All he got was a glare, which he was expecting, so he wasn’t put out. He’d do the same, if their positions were reversed. He pulled the man’s kerchief out of his pocket and held it up, obliging him to open his mouth for the gag.

“You’re getting pretty good at that,” Dan mumbled as Ben tied a knot.

Ben grinned up at him. “I’ve always been pretty good at this.” 

Dan muttered something under his breath, then said, “Practice makes perfect?”

“Something like that.” He stood up. “I’ll most likely be gone a half hour or so.” He pulled out the stolen pocket watch. “Almost two. I’ll leave this with you.” He handed the watch over and Dan took it and cradled it, head bent as if it were the most precious thing in the world. The memory of another such pose was like a jab to his gut and he stood there, transfixed.

Normally, he didn’t regret leaving his drawings behind; they were his mark, showing folks he’d been there, like a dog pissing his territory. But now he wished he’d thought to take his last drawing with him, that even though tearing it out of the holy Bible would be sacrilege, he would have liked to have kept it.

Shaking off his somber mood, he said, “I’ll take his gun and rifle and you’ve got yours.” He picked up the man’s Colt and fit it in his empty holster.

“I’ll be fine.”

Ben paused at the door, then turned around and smiled. “You want me to fetch you anything else while I’m in town?” 

“I’m tempted to say a steak dinner, but knowing you, you’d probably find it. No,” Dan made a shooing gesture, “just go.”

Ben winked and closed the door.

After the light of the room, it was hard to see where he was going, so he walked slowly, at first. The last thing he wanted right now was to trip and cause a commotion. Or worse, hurt himself. A broken ankle would be a fine thing, right about now.

He made it to the edge of town without running into anyone. The place was laid out like so many small towns—an uneven row of businesses and residences bisected by a single broad street. The largest business was some hundred yards away, surrounded by shacks and livestock yards.

Ben paused in the narrow passage between two buildings and looked high and low for any sign of life. This early in the morning, the street was starkly empty. The only sound was the soft crackle and hiss of the watch fires that were set up every thirty feet or so.

The homey smell of the burning wood got his stomach rumbling and he was reminded how long it had been since he had a proper meal. Three days and counting, he figured. Supper at the Evans place didn’t count since the beef had been about as rangy as it got and now that he realized how hungry he was, it was all he could think about.

There was nothing he could do about it now, but he promised himself that when the doctor finished patching Dan up, he’d see what the stationmaster had to offer.

He went on, steering clear of the open street, taking the back alley, instead. He found the livery easy enough—he just followed his nose to the last building on the west side. He snuck up to the door and peered inside. If anything were going to be guarded, it would be the bank and the livery. No one was going to take a chance on losing something as valuable as a horse, not in these hard times. Sure enough, tucked away in the corner by the first stall, a youngster was on guard. And sound asleep.

He hesitated a moment, then decided it was unlikely that another, older, guard was asleep elsewhere else in the barn. Why put the pup out if you had a dog?

He entered the barn quickly and made short work of the young man. He didn’t hurt him too bad, just made sure the boy was out cold. Then, he used the boy’s own clothes and a piece of leather to tie him up. 

Stealing the horse took more time and effort than he would’ve wished. By the time he had chosen a likely mare and got her saddled, he was sweaty and dirty from a clumsy fall when she twisted unexpectedly to nuzzle him. 

Finally, he got her gear on and, feeling as if time were gripping the nape of his neck, he led the mare out, as quietly as he could. 

The doctor’s house was where the stationmaster had said it would be: a couple hundred feet past the livery. Even in the dark, he could see that the yard was neat and tidy in a sort of doctorly way. A small white sign nailed to a porch post confirmed it: “Dr. Fuller, General Practice, State of Arizona. 

Ben stared at the sign and weighed his choices, of which he had only one—he’d try honesty and if that didn’t work, blunt force would have to do. He dismounted and slinked up to the door, then pulled the door chime and waited.

It took what seemed to be a lifetime, but finally, a glow appeared in the windows, growing stronger each second. The door opened and a man looked out. He was dressed in a striped nightshirt and trousers, and held a lamp in one hand and a rifle in the other. “Who are you?” He voice was thick with sleep, but he carried the rifle like he knew how to use it. 

“My name is Dan Evans, out of Bisbee, and I’ve got a sick friend down at the station house. Are you Doc Fuller?” Ben gave him his most charming smile. Everyone is meek and mild here, no cause for alarm.

“I am.” Fuller held his glance for a long moment and Ben was reminded of the way the stationmaster had looked him over. He’d have to remember that this town treated strangers with more than a little caution and keep his distance. Not that he’d ever have to the desire to visit again.

“What’s wrong?”

“We were in Contention a day ago and witnessed a gun fight. I think he took a bullet, but I’m not sure.”

Fuller peered into Ben’s eyes, but then nodded shortly and said, “Let me get my things.” He shut the door, leaving Ben to cool his heels on the porch.

While he was waiting, Ben rehearsed a story in case Fuller was the nosy type. Nothing along the lines of the truth, nothing that would raise the man’s suspicions.

In the end, Fuller asked nothing. He came out, fully dressed for the cold with his bag, and followed Ben with only a few curious glances.  He didn’t inquire about Ben’s past or the horse. As soon as they got close to the station house, he pushed by Ben as if he couldn’t wait to start stitching someone up.

When they crossed the threshold, Fuller saw the trussed-up man on the floor. He stopped in his tracks, but Ben was ready. He shoved the pistol into the small of Fuller’s back, and leaned close. “Now don’t go doing something foolish. I promise you and mister no name over there you won’t get hurt if you just take care of my friend.” He reconfirmed his words, digging the gun into Fuller’s back, forcing him to step inside. 

Over Fuller’s shoulder he saw Dan, looking like death. He’d taken off his jacket and was slumped back in the chair, cradling his bad arm awkwardly to his chest. His shirt was soaked and his face was glassy wet. He wasn’t asleep, but he didn’t acknowledge them or make any smart remarks about how Ben shouldn’t go around hurting people. Ben’s heart jerked in his chest.

Fuller looked over his shoulder and said, “If you’re going to keep that thing pointed at me, you’re going to make me nervous, and you don’t want me nervous if I’m going to help your friend.” 

Ben backed up and dragged a bench over to the table, then sat down, putting the table between him and the doc. “If I don’t keep this thing pointed at you, you might decide to use my friend as a hostage and he’s been through too much already. So I don’t mind making you nervous, as long as you don’t hurt him.”

Fuller nodded cautiously, then sat his bag on the table.

“I ain’t your friend.” Dan voice was hardly above a whisper, but he was bitching and Ben sighed in relief.

“I know you’re not,” he said soothingly. “I know you hate me more than anyone on God’s green earth.” He turned to Fuller. “Well?”

Fuller took off his jacket and unpacked his kit, laying out the usual tools of his trade. “I take it he was shot?”

“In the arm.”

“Hmm.” Fuller held up a bottle, making sure Ben got a good look—laudanum. When Ben nodded, he poured out a measure and fed it to Dan, waiting until Dan’s head lolled to the side and his arm went limp. Then he rolled up his sleeves and got to work. 

First, he loosened Dan’s clothing, his mouth tightening when he saw the shoulder wound. But he didn’t seem especially worried as he poked and prodded. 

At least, Ben thought he didn’t. Maybe all doctors were so unconcerned when they did their doctoring. Maybe it was something they learned when they went to medical school. A class on how not to scare the sick and wounded or the friends of the sick and wounded.

He chuckled silently. His mind was wandering, and that was for certain. Too much running around combined with too little sleep was catching up with him. He still had enough in him to make it through the night, but come afternoon tomorrow, he’d better find someplace to hole up or he was going to do something truly stupid. More stupid than play hide-and-seek with his own gang and the authorities.

“Ben.” Dan had turned and was staring at him, his eyelids half shut. The laudanum was doing its part; he’d be out soon.

“Yes, Dan?”

“Why’d you tell me that story about the Bible?”

Ben stilled. He rarely was at a loss for words, but he should have known better. In the short time of their acquaintance, Dan Evans had surprised him more than a few times, more than anyone he’d ever met. That’s what he got for giving too much of himself—that kind of intimate knowledge was powerful. And dangerous.

He could lie; lying was familiar, was safe. But even as he thought it, he realized he couldn’t—Dan deserved the truth. “I wanted you to know it.” 

Fuller spared him a brief glance, then went back to his own business. He doused the wound with a white powder, packing it in and around the torn flesh. He dusted his hands off and moved on to the second wound.

Dan winced at the first touch. “You mean about your ma and all?” He turned to Ben more fully, the lamplight brightening the green of his eyes. 

Fuller paused again. And even though he didn’t look up, Ben felt as if the entire world was listening in on their conversation. “Yes, about my mama.”

Dan nodded. “Oh.” He opened his mouth to speak, then glanced at the doctor. His eyes shifted back to Ben and he closed his mouth.

And that caught on something deep, elemental, that even though Dan was sick with pain and dizzy with laudanum, he kept Ben’s confidence to himself. That even though he didn’t owe Ben anything, and even though he didn’t like him all that much, he was willing to shut up about it all.

The tender feeling came back, stronger than before, and like before, it made Ben want to do something foolish. Dan’s hand was laying on the table, curled in on itself. He wanted to pick it up, stroke it open and hold on so that Dan would know he wasn’t all alone in this world, that if he wanted, Ben would stay by his side.

He reached out without thinking, reached out before he could stop himself. He hadn’t quite touched when he felt the weight of Dan’s gaze, surprise mixed with warning. He froze. A long moment of blankness took hold as he forced his mind back to where it should be. He turned the gesture into an innocent sweep of fingers, as if he were brushing something off the table.

Still moving with deception, he sat back, too aware that Dan was staring at him, that the knot that had lay curled, dormant, in his stomach had climbed to his throat and he thought in a kind of shock, ‘What the hell was that?’ 

He knew, of course, what it was. 

He also knew that nothing good would come of any tender feelings, not for this man.

Besides, he’d learned long ago that affection and love were twin diseases—they ate away at a man’s concentration and discipline, exposing the bones of his soul to all and sundry.

Lust was better, safer. With lust you could take what you want and be done with it. Satisfy the craving, and you could put it out of your mind. Feed the desire, and you could just walk away.

But this was altogether different and he knew it. He didn’t know how he knew it, but he knew it. He couldn’t count the times he’d felt this same kinship with another human being because it had never happened before. He had never let it happen before.

And in the end it didn’t matter. With time and distance, his unwanted desire would die a quiet, solitary death, as if it had never occurred.

“Could you…” Fuller broke Ben’s paralysis and nodded to the linen bandage he was winding gently around Dan’s arm. Ben reached over with a hand that wanted to shake and held the end in place, ignoring Dan’s gaze. 

The need to be gone was rising again, like a clock ticking louder and louder as he breathed in and out. He needed to be on the road as soon as possible, and not just because he was pushing his luck, sticking around longer than he should.

But he’d wait until Dan was asleep. He couldn’t bear the idea of saying goodbye, and that was an earmark of how far gone he was—he’d had always been good at goodbyes mostly because he’d never cared, one way or the other. This time, though…

He cleared his throat and nodded to Fuller. “You all finished?” 

“Almost.” Fuller examined the bandaged, then wiped the grime off Dan’s face with a cloth. “He’s lost a fair amount of blood, but he should be fine in a few days.” He turned to Ben. “Is he riding with you?”

“No, he stays put. He’s not part of this. He was the man who brought me in.” Dan’s eyes were closed, but Ben wasn’t sure if he was out or just resting. “I’ve got money for his keep and for his trip back home.”

“And me?” Fuller asked. “Will I be spending time with Howard, over there?” He nodded to the stationmaster.

Ben made himself grin. The notion of being gone had eased the hard knot in his throat—he was feeling better already. And it was always a pleasure working with people who made no fuss and accepted their fate. “I’d be obliged. Now,” he stood up and gestured with the gun. “If you’d be so kind as to help yourself to what’s left of Howard’s rope,” he smiled at the station master, enjoying the glare he got in return, “I’ll get you settled.”

Fuller, indeed, made no fuss. He put away his equipment and lay down on the ground, his back to Howard. 

Ben tethered the two men together and stuffed a bandage in Fuller’s mouth. “There,” he said, “nice and comfy?” He waited for Fuller’s nod, then crouched in front. 

He paused, then he spoke slowly to give weight to his words—they needed to hear his seriousness, his intent. “I’m heading out in a minute, never you mind where. My name is Ben Wade and that man there,” he nodded to Dan, “is a rancher by the name of Dan Evans, out of Bisbee. Dan captured me, and on his very own, delivered me to the 3:10 Southern Pacific, bound for Yuma Prison.”

Fear had sparked in Fuller’s eye. “I can see that you’ve heard of me, doctor. Now,” he leaned closer, murmuring, “I expect Mr. Evans to be treated with care and respect. If he is not, if any harm comes to him, I will come back, find you, and kill you both. Don’t think I won’t.”

He waited to make sure they understood, then patted Fuller on the shoulder and stood up, satisfied.

The last thing he had to do was take care of Dan. What he needed was some home care and time in his own bed, but as he wasn’t going to get that any time soon, Ben would have to make him as comfortable he could. 

Circling his arms behind Dan’s neck and back, Ben picked him up with a grunt and carried him to the bed. He was lighter than he should be, mostly skin and bones; just another sign that he hadn’t been living rightly. Ben lay him down gently and arranged his limbs carefully in an effort not to wake him.

He paused for a moment, then loosened Dan’s shirt collar. He’d be more comfortable without his boots, but Ben was loathe to remove the one, not wanting Dan’s amputation to be on view to strangers—he didn’t have to ask to know that Dan wouldn’t want it. And how difficult it must have been, working sun up to sun down with such a disability? It would have broken most men.

Dragging the wool blankets up to Dan’s chin, telling himself it would be better to just leave, Ben sat on the edge of the bed. He kept his back to the fellows on the floor and considered the man before him.

Dan was only a little less filthy than before his doctoring. His clothes were ripped, almost in shreds. He looked nothing like a hero, but Ben figured that once he told his story, the townspeople would probably throw him a party.

Ben squinted, trying to picture him all spruced up for the celebration or maybe for a night on the town. It was impossible, even with his vivid imagination; Dan was too much a part of the dry, barren land he loved so much. Dour and simple, he belonged in a way Ben never had.

He smoothed the blanket over Dan’s chest and wondered what it would take to make Dan smile, a real one, not the ones he’d given Ben, full of derision and doubt. Ben traced the zigzag pattern on the blanket thoughtfully, imagining it.

“What’re you doing?” Dan’s low voice interrupted his thoughts. 

Barely awake, his voice soft and slurred with laudanum and a lightning-quick fantasy of waking up to that hushed, husky voice burned through Ben’s veins. He flushed and drew a deep breath, saying lightly, “Taking my leave of you.”

“Finally.” Dan tilted his head back, looking dead-on into Ben’s eyes the way he had when they were hunkered down in the Contention station, waiting for their missing train. Then his expression lightened and he smiled, gently.

Ben cleared his throat. His belly was tight and he felt dizzy and off-balance. He reminded himself of where he was and that bending down to steal a kiss from Dan would be the ultimate mistake in a day of them. “Indeed.” His voice was too rough and low; he cleared his throat again. 

“Where to?”

“Now Dan,” Ben chided, still trying to school his voice to a more normal tone. “You know I can’t tell you that.”

“To Colorado?”

“What?”

“Colorado. You said that I would like Colorado. We going there?” Dan squinted up with that smile and a faraway look in his green eyes and Ben felt a helpless anger grip his throat. 

His world had been just fine. Traveling with the boys had its ups and downs, and he’d had some close calls—what life didn’t? But it was his life, his choices. 

And then this man comes along and turns it topsy-turvy without even realizing it. Without so much as a pardon me or sorry for the trouble. 

Coming in with his honor and his pride, showing Ben that goodness did exist. That ideals weren’t always bloated talk and foolishness. And that courage could be found in the most foolhardy of actions.

The last thing he needed or wanted in his life was someone like Dan. Goodness was for those that could afford it; honor was for the dreamers who never saw life as it was. He’d understood that long before he ever took to thieving.

And just because he saw something in Dan that sparked desire, well, that didn’t mean he was stupid enough to act on it. “Proverbs, Chapter twenty-five, Verse twenty-eight,” he said softly, absently.

“What?” Dan asked.

Ben shook his head, clearing the vision away and said briskly, “Never mind. And no,” he added as he stood up, “you and I are going our separate ways.” He hurried to the cupboards and found Howard’s meager supplies, rifling through them, searching for the things he’d need on the trail. 

“That’s right, you’re a thief and a killer.”

“Indeed I am,” he agreed congenially. Salt pork, half a loaf of mealy bread and a canteen of water looked to be the extent of it, but it was food and it would keep him alive for another few days. 

“I forgot.”

“Yes, well, when you get clear in the head, you’ll be thankful you remembered.” 

“I’ll be thankful when you’re out of my life.” 

For all the words were harsh, Dan sounded more despondent than anything and Ben gathered up the supplies and turned. “Your wish is my command.” 

All he got in return was that soft smile and a breath of a laugh. 

And that wasn’t right and he found himself walking slowly to the bed. He stood there, looking down. He wished he had his sketchbook, but it was in his saddlebags, somewhere in Mexico, probably. If he had a scrap of newsprint or a leaf from a book he would record the way Dan looked up at him, for once without anger or fear or hatred clouding his gaze. 

He’d never see Dan again. He’d never know if Dan ever managed to make a go of his ranch, or whether his youngest lived to be a man.

For a long moment they stared hard at each other and Ben was reminded of his dream. Water wasn’t swirling about his knees, but he felt as if was, felt that just turning and walking to that door was going to take more strength then he had left.

Later, he called himself all kinds of a fool for what he did then, but he couldn’t help himself. Leaning down, safe from the eyes and ears of the men across the room, he touched Dan’s cheek with the back of his fingers and whispered firmly, “And just so’s you know, I may not be your friend, but you are mine.”

Dan made no response and, disappointed, Ben drew back. He said loudly to Dan, mostly for the men behind him, “I’ll be off now. Give your wife and boys my regards. I hope—” He didn’t finish. Dan’s eyes had shut. He was unconscious, at long last. 

Ben nodded once, then, ignoring the Howard and Fuller, he turned and left.

Outside, the night air was crisp and cold. It washed over his skin in a clean sweep, a balm to the heat stirring in his chest and stomach. 

The sky above was still dark, but a lighter shade of black edged the eastern horizon, telling him that morning was on the way. To the west, the moon was heading for the hills, taking with it what little light it had cast—it was going to get dark before it got light and he was going to have his work cut out for him if he wanted to make it out of the county by sun up. 

He turned to the borrowed mare and she whickered a greeting. He took a moment to stroke her jaw, saying a quick prayer that she would hold up on the hard ride ahead. Then he arranged the supplies in the saddlebags and stowed the weapons. He swung up into the saddle and adjusted his hat.

Three more hours of dark and he’d be in the hills that divided Arizona and Mexico. Four more and he’d be in Nogales.

Hopefully by then, someone would have taken it into their heads to check on Howard, or maybe Fuller. By evening, the whole town would have heard Dan’s story and a telegram would be on its way to Bisbee. Dan would be home within days, back to his life, back to his wife. Safe and sound.

Feeling like he was choking on the fresh, dry air, he whistled softly to the mare and turned her south.



fin.

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

Story notes:
3:10 to Yuma
Dan Evans/Ben Wade
13,100+ words
This story is a mix of the old and new (I borrowed some of the original ending for my story). The second part of this trilogy can be found here.
Many thanks to the fab Dorinda for her careful beta, and to J. for her encouragement.

All characters belong to people and organizations that are not me.