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Bisbee, Arizona

March, 1881

 

***

Ben topped the ridge and tugged on the reins, not surprised when the mare dropped her head to the ground and began nosing dispiritedly at the sparse vegetation.

He stroked her neck contritely. He’d asked a lot of her this time, but it was almost over—just another hour or so and they’d both be home.

He sat back in the saddle, reminding himself that it wasn’t his home he was traveling to even though he felt as if he knew every rise and arroyo, every stone and brush. 

The valley was pretty at this time of day—the sun was tumbling down, throwing the broad expanse into shadow, bringing out the pale  lavenders, the dusty greens. And yet, it seemed lonely and sad, like something seen through the window of time and memory.

Ben frowned at his poetical nonsense and got out the spyglass, twisting the ring, focusing on the house far below.

The first thing he noted was that Dan had completed the barn and paddock and had started on the new addition. From the distance it all looked pristine and neat, like a child’s toy. Only…

The ranch was so still. The house was bereft of light, no smoke came from the chimney, no one was about. Even the animals were gone: both the porch and the paddock were empty. Off to the side of the house, the pile of wood that Dan always chopped before breakfast was only half finished—Ben could see the ax buried in a log. As if Dan had stopped suddenly and rushed off to—

Ben tightened his lips against a sharp sigh and reminded himself that Dan was a grown man and could take care of himself, that his neighbors, Hollander included, knew better than to mess with him. The absence of life meant nothing. Dan was probably just out with the herd, for all it was going on dinnertime.

He put his absurd worry away, put the glass away as well. “C’mon, girl,” he murmured. “Not far now.” The mare dutifully lifted her head and began her careful decent through the patches of the last snow. 

When they got to the creek, he let her have her way and she scrambled down the bank to take a long drink. After she finished, he guided her back up, not having to give her any encouragement. She was new enough that she’d only been to the ranch twice, but that was enough—she quickened her pace, her gait still a little rough.

She’d picked up a stone outside of Tombstone and, distracted, Ben hadn’t noticed. When he finally did, when she’d whinnied her complaint, he’d dismounted immediately. It had been easy to see which leg she was favoring and he’d lifted her forefoot, examining the frog.

He’d found a small chunk of sharp limestone between her hoof and shoe and he’d pried it out, cursing softly at his own stupidity. He needed her healthy and not just because he’d gotten used to her ways—the last place he wanted to be stuck was Tombstone, not with the way the town was going downhill.

He’d apologized to her and led her along the trail a while, watching attentively as she walked to and fro. She made no complaint, but finally stopped, gazing at him steadily as if to ask, ‘Well? Are we going or not?’

Ben mounted and they returned to their journey. He kept an eye on her, but she did well and he’d promised her more than a few times that when they got in, she’d have a good, long rest. 

Something even he was yearning for and as the ranch grew bigger on the horizon, he couldn’t help but urge her on.

They arrived just as the sun touched hills. 

He pulled on the reins just inside the gate and cocked his head, listening. Up close, the stillness was even more intense, but try as he might, he could find no signs of trouble. Nothing was out of place, nothing felt wrong. The place lacked a certain liveliness, yes, but that could simply be that Dan wasn’t around. 

Ben looked around once more, then shrugged and dismounted. He led the mare into the barn and stripped her of saddle and blanket. She didn’t like stalls and was more at ease in a paddock, but not tonight—she waited patiently while he unlatched the gate then entered of her own accord, allowing him to remove her bridle before making a beeline for the hay.

He stroked her neck as he checked the feed and water trough. He should rub her down now, but he was suddenly, completely, weary. He picked up the saddlebags and watched her for a moment. She seemed to be standing with ease, but there was no sense in being foolish—he’d get Dan to bring the vet out, tomorrow, if possible.

He left, throwing the bags over his shoulder, and trudged up to the house. The key was where it always was:cached away on top of the window frame. He unlocked the door, then put the key back and pushed the door. It swung open with a loud whine and he froze, motionless.

The interior was as quiet as the exterior but like the other, nothing seemed amiss. Dan’s rifles were in the rack, his second-best axe next to them.

Ben sighed and closed the door, locking it again. All he wanted was to head straight for the bedroom, shedding clothes along the way. He forced himself to do the usual things—he hung up his rifle, hat and coat, then went to take a piss. 

He washed up perfunctorily, cleaning off most of the dirt and sweat, leaving the rest. He rubbed his cheeks and chin, debating a shave and a bath. It had only been four days since his last but it would have to wait. It would take at least an hour to heat the water and fill the tub and that was that was an hour too long. He’d make Dan do it for him, later.

He paused in front of the neatly made bed. Food or sleep? It wasn’t even a contest. He disrobed quickly, leaving his clothes where they lay. He looped his gun belt over the bedstead, then crawled between the sheets. He rolled to his side and pushed his face into the pillow. Dan had washed the bed linens sometime in the last week—they smelled fresh, but with a hint of sweat and Dan.

Ben smiled to himself and before he could think his next thought, he was asleep.

***

An uncounted time later, he roused briefly and opened his eyes a bare crack. The dog was sitting by the bed, tongue lolling, staring straight up at him.

He reached out, touched the dog’s head, then let sleep take him again.

***

The second time he woke up—this time for good—the windows were filled with dark gray. It was either early evening or early morning. He picked up his watch—five after six. 

He sat up and placed his feet on the cool floorboards, stretching mightily, and pushed to his feet. His shirt and underclothes were gone, but his pants were hanging off the bed frame. They’d been daubed clean—the thick wool was still damp. 

He pulled open the dresser drawer and got out clean underwear and a clean shirt. The shirt, he was happy to see, had been neatly folded and smelled of starch. Dan must have done as he’d asked, last visit, and gotten his shirts cleaned in town.

Ben grinned as he pulled on his undershirt. He would’ve given anything to see Dan’s face as he explained to the launderer why he needed an extra set of shirts that weren’t his size, washed and pressed.

Last year, he’d made the mistake of teasing Dan about his need to have everything neat and tidy. He’d frozen up and Ben realized too late that the habit was a hold over from his married years when he had someone to be neat for. Ben hadn’t brought it up again.

And he really couldn’t complain. He himself wasn’t too fond of dirt and liked to be clean whenever possible. 

He picked up the shirt, then hesitated before laying it back in the dresser. If things went his way, he’d just be taking it off in a few minutes, anyway. He left, padding through the house, enjoying the chill on his bare feet. As March grew to a close, the days were getting longer and hotter. Soon he’d do anything to stay cool.

The lanterns were lit and dinner was on the stove. His stomach growled, but he didn’t pause to see what smelled so good. The front door was wide open to the sunset and he could see the figure on the porch. He went and paused on the threshold.

Dan was leaning against the post, holding a cup of coffee and staring out at the sunset. The brilliant color outlined his figure in streaky pinks and oranges and Ben’s heart twisted in his chest. It always did that these days when he saw Dan for the first time after an absence. He hated it, the unbidden response, but was helpless against its power. 

He waited for Dan to acknowledge his presence, but other than a small twitch of his shoulders, he didn’t move. Tease.

Well, two could play that game. Ben settled against the doorjamb, consciously mirroring Dan’s pose, waiting until he could wait no more. “Thank you for letting me sleep.”

Dan nodded and took a sip of coffee.

“Were you out with the calves?” Dan hadn’t been to the barber, and his hair was raggedy at the ends, reminding Ben of those first days. His heart twisted again, only this time with a different kind of ache.

Dan nodded again. “We’ve got thirteen now, just in the last five days. I brought the herd in. There was a wolf sniffing around yesterday. I’ll go out and check on them after dinner.”

“Did you get help like Iasked?” 

“I did,” Dan said, a little snippy. “I hired Cole Wurthers. He’ll be by in the morning.”

“Do I need to make myself scarce?”

Dan shook his head. “No. He saw your mare. I told him you were a friend from back east.”

Ben nodded. ‘A friend from back east,’ was their standard excuse, weak as it was. He hated it, just as he hated the need for subterfuge, the need to hide from people he had no fear of. But it wouldn’t be he that paid the price if the town discovered that he and Dan had been sharing a bed for a little over a year now.

Dan took another sip of coffee. “I rubbed your mare down. She’s limping.”

“She got a stone outside of Tombstone.”

“I’ll get the doc out tomorrow. She’s new, but good.”

Ben straightened up. “She?”

Dan nodded. “Just came out from Pennsylvania last month. She’s pretty, too.”

He couldn’t see it, but he knew Dan was smiling and the ache   transformed into a sharp pain of jealousy. “Who ever heard of a woman doctor?” 

“Not Bisbee.” Dan shrugged and looked back. Sure enough, he was smiling, just barely. “They were up in arms, told her to forget about working on humans, so she’s working on animals. Kind of the opposite of poor Doc Potter.”

“She’s been out here?”

Dan turned to face Ben, finally. The last of the sun burnished his skin a dark gold and caught the rim of his eyes—even from the distance of five feet, Ben could see their soft green coloring. He looked fit, if a little lean, but there was nothing new about that. “Of course. She visits all the ranches and farms, checking on the stock. She examined the horses and the herd. She took a look at Rex, says he’s doing fine.”

“Dan.”

“She thinks the chickens are underweight, though, and wants me to use a feed that costs more than each of them is worth. I told her no.”

“I—”

“She stayed for dinner the other night when a couple of the cows were having trouble. She thought my potato pie was good and asked for the recipe.”

“Dan?”

“Yes, Ben?” Dan asked with false innocence.

“Will you please shut up about your animals and your lady doctor and come inside?”

Dan didn’t grin at Ben’s acerbic tone, but his eyes narrowed and became somehow warm. He threw his coffee to the thirsty earth and sat the mug on the railing, then walked in calm, measured steps to the door. 

Ben retreated, his heart in his throat. As soon as Dan cleared the threshold, he slammed the door shut and shoved Dan hard, falling on him. He leaned in, but Dan was there first, his lips parting Ben’s with a passion that took his breath.

Dan tasted of coffee and whiskey and Ben sighed at the familiarity, sighed again when Dan moaned low in his throat and pulled him in, clutching at his waist and hips with a hunger that couldn’t be feigned and his irrational jealousy vanished as if it had never existed.

It was for this, he thought as he opened his mouth wide, that he’d left Dodge City two weeks early. For this that he’d pushed the mare too hard when he should have let her rest. He drew away and bit Dan’s lip in punishment and contrition. Dan moaned again, almost a sigh, and Ben stopped kissing and held him tight. He felt more than heard the sound of their unruly heartbeats, as he drank in the sensation of Dan’s body against his own.

A far off howl broke them apart and they froze at the same time, heads turned, listening.

It wasn’t repeated and they relaxed, again at the same time. Ben turned back. And smiled softly.

Dan’s face and mouth were flushed and there was a smear of blood on his lower lip. He brushed it away with his thumb and Dan’s eyelids half closed in pleasure. 

“Are you all right?” Dan asked quietly.

“Hmm?”

“Your hand—” Dan reached for Ben’s hand and held it up, palm down.

On the back across the knuckles was a series of scratches. Ben had to peer down to see that they were actually tiny splinters. They didn’t hurt, but he gave Dan a look, eloquently reproachful, as if to say, ‘See what you do to me?’

Dan’s lips bent in a slight smile. “I guess I should finish sanding the door.”

“I guess you should.”

But Dan didn’t move and neither did Ben.

He wanted to say how much he’d missed Dan, how he couldn’t get through a day without thinking of him or speaking to him even though he never said the words aloud. How every bed he slept in seemed inexplicably large, even though most were barely three feet wide.

He ignored the urge—they didn’t say such things to each other. And if they did, it wasn’t going to be him that started.

Dan smiled as if hearing Ben’s unspoken thoughts. “Are you hungry?”

“Starving.”

“Which is to be—dinner or bath? I put the water on.”

“Can dinner wait?”

“It can. The potatoes will take another hour.” Dan gave Ben’s waist a squeeze, then pushed him back and led the way to the kitchen. He nodded to the kettle. “Make yourself useful.”

Together they filled the bath, together they stripped Ben of his clothes. He got in and sank back with a heartfelt sigh while Dan set out towels and soap on the chair. He made to leave and Ben grabbed his pant leg. “Where do you think you’re going?”

“I need to put another kettle on and lock up the house.”

Ben grumbled, but Dan was right. It wouldn’t do to become lax, not now. Bisbee was growing too fast. They had a new neighbor, about three miles away, true, but still…

He leaned back and waited, eyes mostly closed. When Dan came back and began to undress, Ben watched in appreciation. First his shirt and undershirt, then his boots. When he got to his trousers, he didn’t hesitate. He revealed his deformity with no shame and Ben’s chest ached all over again, this time in a fierce pride. Not one man in a thousand could do what he did—survive, even thrive, in a place so barren and perilous. Most men would have either died or given up the first year. 

But Dan wasn’t most men and when he bent over the tub to scramble in, Ben helped him with hands that insisted on tenderness.

He sank back with Dan between his spread legs and reached for the soap and washcloth, beginning the task of getting Dan clean.

Ben was a hedonist, he knew this. But it had surprised even himself how much he enjoyed taking care of Dan. It had been hard at first—Dan had refused to share even so much as a shave in those early days, and it had taken little steps, like gentling a cantankerous horse. But his patience paid off, in the end.

He smiled at the memories, then stroked the soapy washcloth across Dan’s shoulders, enjoying the way his skin flushed in response.

Dan tipped his head back. “That feels good.” And in the same breath he added softly, “You were gone a while this time.”

“I wrote you in Grant, telling you where I was.”

“I didn’t get the letter.”

Ben finished with his back and started on his neck. “Well, that’s because I didn’t mail it.”

“Hmm.”

Ben hesitated before saying, “I had a run-in with an old acquaintance that last night.” Generally, Dan hated to hear of the times when Ben was doing something he shouldn’t. Which meant he sure as hell wouldn’t be happy to hear that Grant had a new sheriff, one Dan Tucker. “It wasn’t much of anything,” he added. “Just a misunderstanding.” 

“Is he coming for you?”

“Not for another three to five years. Maybe less if he behaves himself.”

“Ben,” Dan said reproachfully.

He laid his chin on Dan’s shoulder. “It was him or me, Dan. Would you have wanted it the other way around?”

Dan shook his head, his beard rubbing against Ben’s temple. “No, of course not. I just—”

“What?” Ben whispered into Dan’s ear, making his voice particularly  low, particularly sultry. “What?” he repeated.

But Dan was done asking questions, done talking. He took the washcloth, tossed it on the chair, then reached for Ben’s hand and brought it around to his cock.

And that was all right with Ben—he tightened his hand, making a ring for Dan to press into, kissing his shoulders and back, all the while saying foolish words like, “Hush,” and, “Easy.”

It didn’t take long and they made a mess of the floor, water everywhere, but that was all right, as well. When Dan tried to twist around to repay in kind, Ben said held him fast, murmuring, “Later.” What he wanted to do to Dan couldn’t be done in a bathtub. It required a little whiskey, a sturdy bed, and a whole lot of time.

They got out and dried off soon after. 

Dinner was good. Plain, but good. The dog showed up half way through and spent the rest of the meal at Ben’s feet. 

Ben didn’t talk much, and neither did Dan. Something was bothering him and since he had his own way of coming around a conversation, it was best to just let him be, so Ben made idle chitchat and didn’t press.

Sure enough, when they were done eating and both staring lazily at the guttering candle, Dan muttered, “You didn’t even notice, did you?”

“Notice what?”

“The house.”

Ben looked around. He couldn’t make out anything different—other than the new windows and door, it was the same as always. “Well, Dan, I can’t say as I—” He rattled to a stop because yes, there was something different. The framed needlepoint on the wall was gone as was the clock. The mantelpiece was bare, even of the Bible. Either they’d been burgled or Dan had gone and done it. He’d said he was going to start sending Alice’s things to Colorado, bit by bit—Ben had thought it had been sadness talking.

He shrugged. “The room looks better. Not so stuffy.”

Dan picked up his fork, ignoring Ben’s words. “I went down to Mott’s last month and ordered new furniture. When that comes in, I’ll ship the rest.”

“Hmm,” was all Ben had to say.

“They were her mother’s, Ben,” Dan said stiffly.

“And she’s got plenty of new to replace the old.”

“It’s not the same thing and you know it.”

Ben opened his mouth, then shut it. He didn’t want this argument, not tonight. Alice wasn’t a bad woman. She was just doing what any mother would do in her place—protect her children, make sure they lived in comfort.

But Dan had wanted to leave the house as is so that when the boys visited, they would feel at home. To Ben’s mind it wasn’t much to ask, something he’d said only the once. Dan had jumped down his throat, too angry to hear reason.

Ben had found that Dan was annoyingly contrary when it came to Alice and her new husband. For the sake of peace and a sympathy he took care not to indulge, he’d learned to leave it alone, learned to shut up.

But that didn’t mean he had to like it. He stood up and without a word, cleared the dishes. When he was done, he called out to Dan, still sitting at the table, “I’m going to see the mare.”

He didn’t wait for a response. He picked up the lantern and left, the dog at his heels.

The night was bracingly cool and his temper died by the time he got to the barn. Dan’s gelding and mare were both awake and they stared at Ben curiously as he passed by. He gave them both a pat, then hung up the lantern and went into the opposite stall.

His mare was sleeping, curled up on the stall floor and when he entered, she rose with a whinny.

“Hello,” he murmured, “how are you doing, hmm?” He felt her leg—he couldn’t see much, but everything seemed all right. To make sure, he tried to lift her leg. She shifted her weight with no distress and he smiled with relief, then again when she lipped the back of his head. 

“How is she?” came a low voice.

Ben straightened, but didn’t turn. “She’s fine.”

“Still, I’ll get the doc out. Just in case.”

“That would probably be best.” The mare pushed her head into his chest and he rubbed her ears. 

“Have you decided on a name?”

“Not yet.” Which wasn’t true. He’d been thinking of calling her ‘Lily,’ because she had a white marking on her rump that looked like a calla lily.

Dan took a breath—Ben could hear it—then he said, “I’m sorry, Ben. I know you’re just looking out for me.”

Ben turned. Dan was a shadow among shadows. “I am.”

Dan unhooked the lantern and held out his hand. “Then, c’mon. Come back in.”

Ben gave the mare one last pat, then followed, back out into the cool night. They were almost to the porch when he asked, “Is she married?”

Dan stopped and looked back with a frown. “Is who married?”

Ben sighed. “The lady doctor. Is the lady doctor married?”

“Oh.” Dan’s face cleared. “No, though the men of Bisbee would like to change that. Mott Davis is making a right fool of himself over her.”

“She better take care,” Ben grumbled, his ridiculous jealousy returning.

Dan raised an eyebrow and tilted his head back. After a long moment, he said mildly, “She’s just trying to find a place to belong, Ben. That’s not a crime.” He turned back to the house. Ben followed.

***

Later, after the house was shut tight and the dog put out, Ben lay on Dan, moving slow, trying not to hurt, trying to make it last. He thought of where he’d been, where he was going, and of fortune, both good and bad. And of Dan’s words.

He’d never belonged anywhere, he’d never even given it a second thought. Growing up the way he had, he’d been lucky he’d survived at all. And he’d told himself that again and again, over the years. But all that had changed the day he met Dan, though he hadn’t known it at the time.

He must have made some noise because Dan twisted beneath him and whispered, “Ben?” 

“Yes?”

“You all right?”

Ben reached for his hand and laced their fingers together, gripping hard. So he’d never had a place to belong as a child? He had one now and that was more than most men achieved, all told. He leaned down and kissed the rim of Dan’s ear, whispering, “I’m fine, Dan. I’m fine.



fin.

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

Story notes:
3:10 to Yuma
Dan Evans/Ben Wade
4,200+ words
This ties in directly to the first story, Ben Wade Dreamed. It lies somewhere between The Lost Sheep and Colorado.
All characters belong to people and organizations that are not me.