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Sight, blank, and shot

Chapter Text

The ranch house at the end of the road is a neat, pretty sight. Small, tucked in next to the acre or so of forest on the edge of the nowhere town with an ugly streak. Well-built chimney that’s still smoking from breakfast, the wood barely weather-beaten on the porch. It even has a chair to sit, for one, and an empty field where there ought to be cattle. Easily the nicest house in the whole damn town.

God, am I sick of looking at it.

Guess there might be other ways to die than by a bullet in the back. The boredom might just about take me out before I hit fifty.

It's only been ten months since the El Indio gang corpse load and two months since getting this place together. It took me a month to build the fence, range, and shed by hand.

Then the other month? I keep telling myself I’ll buy cattle tomorrow, but I can't quite bring myself to do it. So I keep busy. Whittling wood down to nothingness, riding Riddle about the area (haven’t kept the same horse this long in years), and of course, keeping my hand in with the draw.

Not that I should have any reason to keep that skill sharp. But it helps.

Today, on the other hand, nothing seems to be doing shit for that. And I’ve been thinking a lot about El Indio. Or, as always, the partner I took with me then.

Colonel Douglas Mortimer. Even his name is a wave of memories that I should’ve been able to bury by now. Fierce glances with a sharp sight behind the trigger, but of course there was more than that. Careful questions, and answers I willingly gave up.

Still not all that sure why. But I miss him like hell, far more than I expected or have a right to.

Maybe I ought to do something about that.

After trying my draw at the handmade range out back, I leave it and my thoughts behind, wandering to the front of the house. The grass sweetens with the smell of early summer. It's quiet. It's always quiet, here out of town, at least. On the road I feel the back of my neck prickle, my eyes following my gunsight as I turn where my instincts tell me, pulse jumping with excitement.

Nothing.

Right then. I’m either losing it or have been cooped up here doing all of nothing for too long. I give in and ride Riddle in to town after noon peaks. It’s a hot June and the town of Greygorge is looking as shitty as ever, beaten wood coated with dust blown up from the nearby desert. It's an empty bet. But I know where to head.

One of the reasons I picked this town was that the local busybody has looser lips than old man locomotive. She's friendly to me, at least, and her information is clearer, too. I slip into the General Store that features Penny Candy!  on the dusty outside window.

“Hey, Sarah Jane.”

“Well, well if it isn't the man I've been missing. Manco,” her Southern drawl is more smoothed out than others who grew up as plantation slaves. That's what a little bit of teaching does for you. Well, that and razor-sharp wits and an impressive ambition.

“Can I do you for some jellybeans?” she already slides the newspaper towards me, knows what I'm here for.

“Sure,” I study the headline doubtfully, some panic - mongering about the increase of guns in Blake Valley. I pass her two penny when she serves me up a scoop full of the sweet, brightly-colored candies.

I chew on a few, while she smiles and busies about with the jars. I don't really like them much but I know enough to buy them when she offers. Keeping her sweet, is what I’d call it.

“Any news from town?”

“Someone shot by the North stables. Over a sackful of flour is the story I heard, but I ain't believing none of it.”

“Sheriff make any arrests?”

“The only place he took the man who did it was out for dinner,” she clicks her tongue and we share a dark look. The town doesn't have much of a law to it.

That's a little bit of why I picked it.

“Other than that, there's a dance in a few weeks and a few out of towners expected for that,” she nods and I make a noncommital noise,  “You known you could join the rest of us, sometime. You got any cattle yet? Never mind, you and I both know that ain't anytime soon.”

I study the newspaper, sucking on one of the candies, “Got another question for you, if you don't mind.”

“Shoot.”

“I'm looking for a man by the name of Colonel Douglas Mortimer,” I'm lucky my lips don't trip around the name. She smiles like she expected the question. I sure as hell hope she didn't, “Any word of him round these parts?”

“Mortimer, huh. The colonel turned bounty hunter? No, last I heard of him was near Agua Caliente. Just under a year ago, I think.”

“Nothing from anyone since then?”

“No, not round these parts, and nowhere close neither. You know how I keep an eye on things.”

“Alright,” I pick out a few of the black jelly beans, finding them a bit better, “Thank you.”

“You know, I've been waiting for you to come in here asking after someone. Knew it was only a matter of time,” she raises an eyebrow,  “Someone you're fond of, or someone you’re after?”

“That's my business."

“Everyone's business is my business, and don't tell me that's not why you come here, Manco.”

Mortimer would have called that question indiscreet . The thought sears a little, and I chew a little harder on the sickly - sweet candy.

“Why don't you figure it out then.”

“Oh sweetheart, I already have. I just wanted you to tell me with your eyes,” she tucks her hair into her shoulder, “Your poker face isn't as good as you think it is.”

Well shit, that's it. I fold the newspaper in half and head for the door, not bothering with goodbyes. That's the problem with getting information from people like her. They're always getting information on you.

“Now just you wait here. I got something else you need to know.”

I hesitate at the door, despite feeling pissed off and off-balance, “What?”

“There's a stranger in town at the inn, and he looks like he's bad business. A few lowlifes with him that I wouldn't give the time of day to, and I would guess could barely shoot straight neither,” she clicks her tongue. Sometimes I get the feeling Sarah Jane knows a lot more about life outside a general store than she lets on, “But the one they're with, the stranger, you'll know him when you see him. Dangerous. I don't like him in town, Manco. Not a bit.”

“Yeah, well. That ain't no business of mine. Good day Sarah Jane,” I slam the door a bit, just in case she couldn't already tell.

The rest of the day I ride Riddle up and down the edge of the forest, letting the whistle of the air past my ears chase off the heat on my cheeks. But still. No news for ten months? I grit my teeth and urge Riddle further, as if we might outrun the growing weight in my stomach.

He can’t be dead, I repeat to myself with the thump of hoofbeats.

But how the hell am I supposed to find him?

I pull on Riddle's reins, realizing what a stupid as hell thought that was. I did what Ma would have wanted. I’ve settled. I am going to get that damn cattle, to hell with what Sarah Jane said, and stay in this house until I’m dead.

God, that feels like a long time.

I wake the next day from a sleep worse than the cold desert floor, roll out of bed later than I ought to. The breakfast I throw together tastes sickly with some kind of worry, but I force it down. The rest of the day is spent pacing about, smoking, and whittling. I'm thinking if I leave the house there's a good chance I won't come back.

But I can't just do nothing. That's not in my blood.

I study the third branch I've reduced to a sharp shard and a pile of woodchips. I haven't quite bothered to get the hang of carving anything yet. Just the motion itself is enough, or too much.

By evening I've made up my mind. I slip on the clothes and vest I used to wear on the road, but leave my poncho folded in the bottom of the cedar chest. And I leave Riddle this time, take a walk into town.

Can't leave town without either of those. But I've got to start to do something to find out what happened to Mortimer. Otherwise I'm certain I’ll whittle my hand off.

The bar in town smells like sour tobacco spit and looks just as bad. But it feels like home, pushing open the creaky door to the blank stares. I pull up a seat at the countertop, nodding at the bartender ’s offer of whiskey.

“Well. Look who's finally popped out of his hidey-hole. What’s yer business here, rich man,”

“None of yours.” my fingers itch towards my gun, but I keep a cool head. Stare him down. His friends, local gunmen, shift uncomfortably, but he doesn't seem to catch on. God. I do not have the patience for this.

“Leave him, Jed. He’s the bounty hunter who took down El Indio’s gang. All of them.”

“Him? Alone?” This guy is stupider than a pile of rocks. I give in, slide out my pistol and shoot the hat straight off his head with barely more than a glance. So that’s still something I can do.

The gunpowder smell is searing in the air.

“Wasn't alone. Had a partner,” I take the rest of the whiskey in one go. The man gets up out of his seat, practically runs out the door. His hat tumbles to the floor a beat later. No one speaks.

It’s a nice silence to remember. I used to like keeping peace with such silences. I'm about to ask after what I'm looking for when the creak of the shutter slams.

“What's happening about here?” The moron of a sheriff swaggers in, “Any trouble?”

“It's not as if you've shown any concern for trouble before, sheriff,” I make a show of lighting a quirley.

“I don't believe I caught your name, sir.”

“I don't believe I gave it to you,” in the two months I've been set up here he's never made a point to learn who I am. But I'd expect he's learned from those who know me as a former bounty hunter, never bothered further than that.

“There's no need to be rude. After all, was it your bullet that took off poor Jed's hat?”

This sheriff, so crooked he could swallow nails and spit out corkscrews, has a lot of nerve, “It was.”

He does falter a little under my glance, granted, but he's got friends here. And it's going to head for bloodshed if one of us doesn't back down. It should be me. He flinches a little at the stomp of boots, the chink of spurs on the wooden steps towards the inn.

A man steps down from the rooms upstairs that I almost strain my neck turning to look at. God. He's the spitting image of Mortimer. From a distance, my chest tightens. But when he gets to the bottom of the stairs, it's clear it's not the same man.

“It's alright. We’re fine here ,” the man gives the sheriff the kind of look I would have given, if I was way on the other side of the law. He raises an eyebrow at me. Sonofabitch.

Just as I'm expecting him to sit down next to me, demand something, he takes a seat at a table in the shadow of the staircase, takes out a pack of cards. Shuffles them. I don’t make shy staring, taking in his glass-cut cheekbones and his neatly trimmed mustache. Yeah, he’s nothing like Mortimer, really. The main difference is in the eyes.

That sonofabitch has murder in his eyes, and not just one neither.

I barely notice that the sheriff has sidled off, keeping my glance on the stranger. He deals for solitaire. I wait till he finishes, get my whiskey refilled. Guess I'm doing all the stupid shit tonight. Why not.

Then once he's all set up, I head over to his table, slip all the cards into a stack while keeping eye contact. I don't know who this man is, but he smiles like a snake, like I'm a rat he's about to swallow. Just try it.

“What's the game?” his voice is gravelled, amused but still threatening.

“You choose. I'll deal.”

The bar has gone more silent than when I shot Jed’s hat off, if that were possible. It's then I remember Sarah Jane’s warning. So this must be her stranger all right. His hands are tense on the tabletop, just like mine. I think he can tell I'm looking for a fight.

He smirks. I clench my fist and shuffle again. I can tell we’re not going to get through a game, and I'm thinking this will come to fists, not guns. Probably.

“Better deal for three.”

God above.

I think I forgot how to speak for a moment, and certainly how to keep my face impassive. Colonel Douglas Mortimer pulls up the third chair, giving the stranger a serious nod.  Looking every bit like the ghost in my memories, haggard, but with the sharpshooter glance in his eyes.

My thoughts catch up in time to nod like I don’t know him to his glance. Hell. What the hell is going on.

“Poker?” his voice has more of a rasp to it than I remember. I nod slowly, start dealing hands.

“Penny ante?” Mortimer takes out his pipe and tobacco, flicking his eyes back and forth between me and the stranger.

“Two,” the stranger takes out a pipe, smiling almost suspiciously at Mortimer. I wish it had come to fists, even as I pick up my hand and study the cards. Nine and an ace, different suits. Could be worse, could be a whole lot better.

“Call.”

“Call.”

“Call,” I take a moment to glance at Mortimer, as if out of suspicion, when I lay down the flop. Ten, three, nine. He raises an eyebrow at me. I almost want to punch him, now. Almost. I stare at the stranger for a measure later, just to even the score.

“So what name do you take these days?” the stranger asks, the question meant to be a dig. So he's heard of me. And I think he knows I don’t have a damn clue who he is.

“Depends who’s asking.” I lay down another bet for the next card. Which is a Jack. Worth folding on. Which I do for now.

“I go by Angel Eyes,” he lays down his hand, takes the first pot. I glance sidelong at Mortimer, wondering if this guy is serious. Though his poker face is good, I would have to say Mortimer has the edge of worry in the way his lips tense around his pipe. I light my own quirley, remembering Sarah Jane’s quip about my poker face. Right.

“Manco,” I might as well keep the name that means nothing, the absence of a name.

“So the same, then,” he offers a hand, which I shake after a beat of glaring. Then he turns to Mortimer.

“And I don't believe we’ve met.”

“Yes, but you know who I am.”

“I certainly do, Colonel Mortimer. And you?”

“I've heard word of Angel Eyes,” he gives the man the full weight of his glance, “Do you have business here? “

“Nothing that would interest two ex-bounty hunters,” he regards us over his pipe, glancing up from his hand, “And ex-partners.”

“Surely not,” Mortimer leans back in his chair, “I know I'm here for the cards.”

“It's good company, isn't it,” Angel Eyes smirks.

“Could be worse,” he flicks an eyebrow at me, and though I can tell it's for show, it still pisses me off. Like I'm in the middle of some kind of contest, but I haven't figured out what the rules are. We play a few more hands in silence.

“You in town for a while?” I address it to Angel Eyes. Though really, the question isn't for him.

“Could be,” Angel Eyes puts a considerable bet down for that hand. Which turns out not to be a bluff. Damn.

“You’ve been here some time, haven't you?” he studies his next hand, making it unclear who the question is addressed to.

“I'm retired,” the word tastes ugly in my mouth.

“Yes. Though I did notice a distinct lack of cattle at your establishment. You're still a steady shot?

“What of it?”

“You should decide what you want to do about that,” and before I can deal us the next hand his spider-hands gather up the cards, “I should retire. Gentlemen.”

There’s an unspoken air of ‘you know where to find me' in that exit. I don't know what it is he wants, and I think he's looking to keep it that way. But never mind that bastard. Time to deal with the one still seated in the chair next to me.

“That wasn't very smart, boy.”

“Right,” I want to be angry at him, but relief is thick in my throat at seeing him again. Especially so soon after I thought he might be dead.

“Can we get out of here?” I barely phrase it as a question. Mortimer’s gaze softens a little.

“Alright.”

We walk in silence towards my ranch house. I don't ask how he seems to know the way, seems to know I’ve walked here in the first place. Questions whirl through my mind, tinged with the frustration of the day, but to tell the truth I'm a bit nervous to start asking. The night hums with a warm breeze, the gentle hoots of distant owls. It would be pleasant if it weren’t so damn tense.

“Nice to know I can still surprise you,” he speaks when we reach the drive of my house, with that light, teasing tone he used to when we were partners on the road, nothing more.

Well, I took that when he left, and I damn well ain't gonna take it a second time.

“The hell are you doing here?”

He freezes, face falling for a moment, “I’m sorry, is this - -”

I grab for his arm, tugging him into a fierce hug. I realize after the slight gasp of breath in my ear that this is the first time I've had my hands on him, given that they were tied before. His arms tighten round my waist, the smell of him somehow earthier than I remember.

“No. Just. How? Why now?”

“I…” his hand grazes the scar on my neck, whether on purpose or by instinct, “Daniel, I.”

We both tense up when he says my name. First time since I told him. His fingers settle on my neck.

“Jesus, old man,” I whisper, the memories of Agua Caliente glittering in his tired eyes, “you gonna kiss me this time or what?”

It's slow and careful, but I feel something loosen inside me when his cracked lips touch mine. He has a precision when he kisses, something that I never noticed when I was taking as much as I could of him in Agua Caliente. His tongue still tastes of the sweet ash in his pipe, and I drag my teeth along it. I hadn’t realized the memory had stayed so sharp, faded so much.

By the time we break away, I'm more than out of breath. But I don't let go of him, keep hold of his arm and his gaze.

“Hell. Is that what you came back for?”

“Is that what you were looking for me for?”

My head is spinning so fast I don't bother to ask how he knows, just pull his lapels towards me and kiss him, drinking him in like those ten months have been years.

“Inside?”

“Mmm,” he follows after me, face shadowed in the dim moon, but eyes still on me.

It's even darker inside, and I wonder after lighting a fire. I wonder after a lot of things, like the size of my bed in the small bedroom, or whether the water for the tub still has a bit of warmth in it. It's all a slightly overwhelming buzz in his presence.

“Not sure I expected you to make good on your word,” he studies the bare walls, the traces of woodchips on the floor, “how do you like the place?”

“It's been shit,” I say, because any other lie seems like too much effort. I flick the match to light the oil lamp, the glow alighting the main room. In the lamplight he looks like the road has lived on him, his cheeks slightly touched with raspy hair and his eyes slightly sunken in. Part of the tiredness in them makes me suddenly very glad he came, whatever the reason.

“Miss me that much, boy?”

I smirk a little, moving closer to look him in the eye, “Don't flatter yourself too much, old man. I've just been. Bored. But yeah, I missed you.”

His face flickers with surprise at my admission. Guess it's all in the open now. I cup his face with both of my hands, pulling his sharp cheekbones towards mine. The kiss is soft at first -- but turns ravenous when he pushes me towards the wall, and I don't even bother to push back, just focus on taking as much of his sly lips at teeth as I can.

He makes quick work of my buttons, frantic like we’ve got minutes instead of all night. I have to fight with my fingers to keep up, especially since he's still wearing that damn waistcoat all the time, though the tie is easier than I give it credit for.

I can feel his heartbeat thumping against my chest, his other hand pinning me to the wall. It's more than I expected, hell, closer to something in my fantasies. But something doesn't feel quite right.

Maybe it’s the shake of his fingertips, or the fact that I can’t see his eyes, or more tellingly, the fact that I can’t feel his erection in spite of the fact that I’m harder than I’ve been in a while, in spite of the fact that he’s acting like he can’t get enough.

Something’s not right.

“Mortimer. Mortimer,” he's mouthing my neck something desperate, but it's scaring me more than anything, “Douglas.”

A sharp breath tears out of him, his arms tightening around my bare shoulders almost painfully.

“I,” he shudders like a leaf, resting his head on my shoulder. I run my hands down his back nervously.

“Hey, hey. Just breathe.”

“I'm sorry I. It’s been a long time. I--”

“Just shut up, okay. You’re okay,” I run my fingers through his hair, squeezing at his scalp gently. He nods into my shoulder. Did something happen on the road? Or before? I don't ask now, but am suddenly painfully aware of how little we know of each other beyond some shared vengeance and an ex-profession. If you'd call it that.

Now doesn't seem like the time for indiscreet questions, anyhow. I feel a little off-balance myself, like he might slip away if I don't hold tight enough.

I really couldn't tell you how long we stood there.

“Think the water is still warm from the evening. If you want to take a bath,” I mumble into his ear after the shaking has subsided.

He lets out the smallest laugh, “You think I need one?”

“Well. You've been on the road for a while, yeah?” I brush my lips on the edge of his jaw,  “It's. It can be nice.”

“Alright,” he peels himself off of me, shirt still open, averting my gaze, “I--” 

“It's alright. Really, just. Don't go anywhere,” I pass him the oil lamp from the table.

“Okay.”

He goes into the room I point to next to the bedroom, that has a small tub and somewhere to heat the water. I don’t follow. I don’t particularly trust myself right now. It’s all. A lot. At least I’m too on edge to be hard anymore, though I throw my shirt on the chair by the fireplace, not particularly feeling like having it on.

I build a fire small fire to keep my hands busy while he bathes, keep my mind off everything. As the flames start to pick away at the wood, I watch. Wondering if I should have asked different questions, or any questions at all really. When I hear him get out of the bath I get up instinctively, staring at the glow coming from the room.

“You can come in,” of course he knows when someone is watching, someone is waiting. Those instincts don’t really die.

When I enter the dimly lit room he’s dressed just in a loose fitting pair of boxers. I give him a bit of a once-over, just because he does look damn good, all things considered, then smile at him through the corner of my cheek. He smiles at me weakly, walks over slowly to tug me into a hug.

“Thanks.”

I just nod, squeezing him a moment before I pull back to study him in the lamplight, “You kind of look like hell.”

“Do I?”

“Been a while since you slept?”

“Haven’t in a bed in a while.”

“Come on,” I let go of him reluctantly, let him follow me to my bedroom. The bed is big enough for two, if that's what he wants. Not sure if that’s an indiscreet question, at this point between us. It’s hard to say.

“This okay?” I motion for him to take a sit down on the bed. He tugs me with him.

“Don’t go anywhere.”

“Alright.”

So that’s my answer, then.

It’s easy, for now, to put out the oil lamp, strip off my pants, and fold myself next to his warmth and the clean tobacco scent of his skin. For now, any other questions can wait till morning.

Chapter Text

It's different to wake up warm, rather than with the chill of a dead fire hanging over the room. The quilt is heavy, and the rise and fall of a ribcage next to my chest is a strange comfort. I roll away from my partner with a hint of regret. He's still breathing the deep, slow rhythm of rest that I’m sure he needs. But I’m not sure I can sit with it much longer.

Besides, there's breakfast to be made.

Once I’m dressed, I turn over the questions of the night before while stoking up the fire. Why and how Mortimer-- my mind stutters on his name-- rolled into the saloon last night is one I’m not quite ready to put forward yet, and I don’t think he is neither. But there’s other cards to turn over for now, like who this stranger really is. Mortimer knows that.

What this ‘Angel Eyes’ wants is another thing.

I hear movement in the bedroom, so I figure it’s about time to start putting some eggs and beans on a skillet. I cook over the stove from time to time, but I do better over the fire. It smells like the trail, like being on the road.

Can’t say I don’t miss it.

He steps into the main room just as I’m finishing up the coffee and shucking the eggs into bowls. Which isn’t much like the trail, but it’s something I’ve gotten used to by now. I have to smile a little at how much more he looks like the goddamn fool who invited me into his hotel room to show me his Buntline in El Paso. Tie, vest, cutting tight to the lines of his with body. Easily the most impractically well-dressed bounty hunter I’ve ever met.

I guess I must be staring a bit, because he smiles a little back, taking a seat gingerly at the table against the wall. I offer him the bowl, taking the seat opposite.

“Breakfast, old man?”

“Thanks,” his eyes flicker to mine for a moment, and there's a bit of the tension from the night before. I glance away, focusing on scooping up the beans.

“It's good,” he nods after a silence filled by the scrape of metal on porcelain.

“What I do to keep busy,” I meet his eyes for a moment. Come on, I chide myself. Ask.

“Angel Eyes. Who is he? What does he want?”

How do you know him? I wonder to myself, but bite my tongue on that question. Mortimer swallows, giving me a hard look.

“He's a mercenary and a hitman. One of the best, if not the best, and certainly the most ruthless.”

“What's he worth?” always a good way to judge just how dangerous someone is going to be to take out.

“Nothing. He's never been identified or connected with any of the murders.”

“Right,” I take a sip of my coffee, chancing for a closer question, “And you know this because?”

“I get my information same as you, boy. Just by asking the right questions.”

He's a bit smug as he takes out his pipe, which kind of pisses me off and makes me want to smile at the same time. So it's an old rhythm. But one that doesn't really have a place here, in this cramped and too-familiar room.

Even still, I kick my feet up on the table, setting aside my empty bowl, “Haven't really been in the business for that kind of information in a while.”

“Yes, I see that. You've made good on that promise. It's a nice place to retire to.”

You gonna stick around?  I want to ask, but the question sours in my mouth with the coffee. I light a quirley, surveying the neat wood of the walls with a bit of a frown.

“What did you think you were gonna do after?”

I don't ask what he actually did. Get the sense neither of us are ready for the answer to that question.

He chews on the pipe for a moment, looking distant, “Thought I would feel a lot more finished.”

“Yeah,” I taste the edge of my tobacco and hold his gaze. There’s caution there, and more than a few answers he's not ready to give just yet. That's fine, old man. You can have your secrets. For now.

“Think we should do something about him,” I fumble back to the same talk, noticing too late to catch that I've included him in the ‘we’. Without exactly proposing a partnership.

“That doesn't seem like retiring talk,” Mortimer raises an eyebrow.

“Favor for a friend. And have you retired, old man? What is it you do with yourself these days?” The question comes out little sharper than I want it to.

“I didn't say I wasn't interested in your proposition,” he says it lightly, but his eyes remain guarded. He breaks off the stare after a moment, and that’s not like him neither. So I don’t push, even if my instinct is to move closer to him, ask him what he’s really after. I stay where I am.

“Alright. Do you know what he wants here?”

“That, I have no idea about.”

“Well then we find out. The usual way. I think we should join him, see who he's working for, and get them out of Greygorge.”

“One on the inside, one on the outside?” he worries his pipe with his lips, and the taste of them suddenly hits my memory like a bullet. I bite down on the tobacco, nod slowly.

“If you think that's a good idea.”

“Mhm. In the interest of fairness, I'll go inside this time.”

“Alright,” I feel a bit like arguing, since Angel Eyes did seem to have an interest in my shooting. But Mortimer has already finished up his pipe, and is busying himself with checking the guns in his jacket. So I head for mine on the wall, checking the barrel is still in order from where I left it.

At least I know it hasn't gone rusty.

“I’ll go see what I can dig up from watching them. And ask around. Think I know where to start. There was a murder at the North Stables, few days ago.”

“Mm. Not particularly unusual in these parts, but could be connected.”

“Yeah, you're right. The sheriff is stitched up with them, so we’re not looking at any help from the law if they catch me snooping.”

I busy myself with my vest, and this time I do grab the old poncho from the chest, because hell. Never know when you might need it, even if we’re going on foot. I'm just about finished tugging my boots on when I catch him staring, face more drawn with worry than it needs to be.

“What?”

“Nothing. It's good to have the partnership back, that's all.”

I smirk a little from the corner of my mouth, reaching for my hat, “It is.”

“You be careful, Daniel.”

“Yeah. You too,” I stop, and before I lose the fire in my stomach, tug him towards me by that ridiculous tie and kiss his lips, raw and too hard for it not to hurt when our noses bump together.

“Come in to town after I do, I'll take the other road. Then meet at the General Store when you're finished with him.”

He just nods seriously, one hand lightly at my waist. I slip out the door without looking back.

I take steps into town quickly, feeling more at ease than I have in a while. I'd forgotten the particular smokey smell of the poncho, the weight of it on my shoulders. The other road is longer on foot, but that'll make more time between us, which can only be a good thing. By the time I cross behind the main strip to the north, my senses are singing in a way they haven’t in months.

The back entrance has a man hanging about, looking both bored and like he's attempting to be a threat. I keep to a casual stride, turning beside the stonework, listening at the high windows. It sure as hell doesn't sound like they're keeping horses in there. There isn't much noise except the occasional murmur of voices and the scrape of boots. So I wait.

Haven't forgotten about that part of this line of work.

Over the time of two quirleys, a wagon arrives. A handful of men come out of the entrance, and without speaking, begin unloading heavy wooden crates quickly in towards the stables.

“Morrison wants to expand the operation. Is a second wagon ready for tomorrow night?”

My ears prickle at the name. Now that one, I've heard of. Fortunate Morrison, Blake Valley’s ringleader of more than a few heists. I remember looking at the price on his head and being tempted. Not that I need the money.

“They’ll be there, but they’ll be bellying through the brush. If you can get us some men--”

“We’ll do what we can.”

I chance a walkabout, somewhere between casual and challenging. One of the men unloading a larger crate fumbles with it, and it tumbles off the wagon as he swears a stream in Spanish.

“Watch it with those, Tuco.”

Tuco Ramirez. I remember his name from the papers as well. Small potatoes, compared to Morrison. But a good shot, from what Sarah Jane knew of him.

I’ve just crossed to the other side of the road, faking an interest in the display of the gun shop when the hair on my neck stands up. I turn, one hand on my SAA, my gaze trained to the approaching pair down the road.

Sonofabitch.

Angel Eyes, followed by my partner and smiling like the devil himself. What the goddamn hell are they doing here. I catch Mortimer’s eye, who gives a wary, almost imperceptible nod.

“Manco. Good of you to take an interest.”

That goddamn sonofabitch.

At least this time I have my poker face on, glaring around the quirley, “Like to know who I’m working for before getting a hand in it.”

“I thought perhaps Colonel Mortimer would catch you up. But since you came to me. Well. It’s not my decision.”

He motions with a tilt of his head towards the gun shop, “Shall we?”

“Mm.” It’s just my luck that I was standing in front, like I was snooping. But if he thinks I know more than I do, well. Maybe that’s a good thing, and maybe that’s not.

Mortimer doesn’t look nervous, but then again he always was good under pressure. It's good to have a partner, but the nervousness simmers in my gut in a way that's unusual for me. I steal a glance at him. Doesn't help, but he does have one hand close to his weapon. Probably smart.

Angel Eyes leads us up a set of stairs to a narrow hallway of rooms. When we reach the third room, he takes out his deck of cards, picks the top card off, slides in under the door. There's a shift of movement inside. Then the door unlocks, revealing the ugly mug of Fortunate Morrison himself. Thin and sallow, pale like the city crawler he is, he takes a seat behind the the desk and offers the both of us an ugly glare.

This just keeps getting better and better.

“Who's this,” he demands to Angel Eyes.

“These are the men I spoke to you of.”

“They can shoot?”

Mortimer just nods silently for the both of us. I stare Morrison down, but really, I get the sense that it's not him I should be keeping my eye on. Angel Eyes takes a seat, motioning to us at the other chairs in the room. Neither of us sit.

“How much do they want?”

“He wants seven hundred. His partner--”

“The same,” I cut in, tired of this conversation being guided through Angel Eyes.

“Alright. Show me you’re worth that,” Morisson cocks his head at the open window. I reach for my SAA, and he shakes his head, “Both of you, use these.”

He takes out two beat-up looking Colts from his desk drawer, each loaded with a single bullet. When I pick them up, they’re as dodgy as they look, weighted poorly and I would guess with a bad recoil. I raise an eyebrow.

“You shoot with these, you can shoot with anything,” Morisson nods towards the heavy iron weather vane in the center of the building across the road. I toss the Colt in my hand. He’s not wrong. It’s a shit gun.

The weather vane is littered with marks, so we’re probably not the first. I catch Mortimer’s eye and he smirks just a little. We take aim at the same time, fire, both on each edge so that the vane doesn’t spin. The recoil is painful, almost, but worth it.

“Mhm.” Morrisson nods with approval. That shot ought to be enough for anyone. I drop the hunk of metal on the desk.

“Now try it with your partner's gun,” Angel Eyes drawls around his pipe. Mortimer and I look at each other. He unholsters his Buntline, flips it, and passes it to me. I slip my SAA in his hand, glad it’s not the first time he’s had to use it. I remember scoffing at this gun, even though I was impressed by it.

Impressed by him.

“Try for the church,” Angel Eyes nods at me, eyeing Mortimer for the next question, “It’s got a good range, that one?”

“Mhm.”

I take aim for the steeple, which I know from Mortimer’s trick with the hat that the Buntline can reach. Deep breath in. I feel like I can feel him breathe in with me, slide my finger on the trigger, sight and shot.

Dead center on the cross.

“Impressive,” Morrison’s bushy eyebrows go way up in his head.

Mortimer eyes something on the desk, picks it up casually. A compass, looks like. He glances up at the direction, “True north.”

He cocks my SAA, smiling just out of the corner of his mouth. Breathes in once, I think I see his eyes narrow under those long lashes. Takes the shot.

It’s strangely off center, the resounding ping! setting the weather vane spinning on the windless afternoon. Didn’t think the shot would be quite that bad, seeing how accurate he was with Indio. But he’s still smiling, just a little. He holds out the brass compass as the vane slows to a stop, so that Morrison and I can both see the needle.

The vane stops. Pointing true North. That clever bastard.

Even Angel Eyes has the grace to look impressed, and Morrison looks positively gleeful. I pass him back his Buntline, taking my SAA from his warm fingertips.

“Bravo.”

“And to you.” he offers me a hint of a smile.

“Well, I’m convinced,” Morrison motions to us, “We’ve got a wagon going to Blake Valley at dawn tomorrow. Needs protection. You know the path there?”

“Mhm.” I nod, eager to get out of here as soon as possible.

“You got horses?”

“Yeah.”

“The men with the wagon know where to go. They’ll meet you outside the city, by a river where a twisted oak grows. Take them into the city, and make sure there’s no trouble with the law. Kill if you have to. Understood?”

The both of us nod.

“Good. We’ll pay you when the job is done, back here tomorrow at high noon. Now get out.”

He doesn’t have to tell me twice. Angel Eyes smirks at me as we leave. God above. I’ve forgotten all the parts of this game that I hate. Especially when the players know more than I do.

Just makes it more interesting, I guess. We cross the town in silence until I point out the General Store.

“We can talk in there, if no one’s around.” It’s a quiet afternoon and most of the time the shop is deserted around now.

“So, Fortunate Morrison. But I think we both know that Angel Eyes is playing a game of his own here. Just what it is, though. I’m not sure.”

“That goddamn bastard,” I say under my breath, opening the door to Sarah Jane’s store, “He wanted you to find me?”

“He seemed like he knew where you were, or at the very least wouldn't take me on as a partner without you,” Mortimer frowns, worrying at his lip.

“Well, shit. I guess it’s both of us, just like last time. Best laid plans, right?”

“Well, look who it is,” I look up to the counter to see Sarah Jane, grinning like the cat who caught the canary. Only she’s not grinning at me.

“Hello, Sarah Jane,” Mortimer turns up the corner of his mouth at her in a way that’s tired, but resigned. Familiar.

Hell. I feel thrown off balance in the same way I did at the card table.

“So I guess you found who you were looking for, Manco,” she winks at me. Not how I expected to find out how Mortimer knew I was looking for him. All hell.

“And I’m glad to see him too. So, anything on Fortunate Morrison?” she scoops Mortimer a handful of jellybeans, which he takes with a bit of a shake to his head. She also offers me some. God. Alright then.

“You should have told me that’s who we were going after, Sarah,” Mortimer shakes his head, chewing on a jelly bean.

“You didn’t ask if he was working for any’un,” she smiles wide and innocent, but shakes her head, “I still think this Angel Eyes is the one to watch.”

“He had a good idea where Da-- Manco would be, and insisted on us as a partnership. Which is something to be concerned about,” Mortimer’s face doesn’t slip on my name, but his eyes give him away a little. At least to me. Hell, Sarah Jane doesn’t miss much, but she pretends to busy herself over by the newspapers. Lays out one for each of us, and waves away my offer of money.

“Well that could be fightin’ talk, and he and Morrison could be stringing you up. Hard to say.”

“You know what Morrison’s after?” I jump in.

“Oh now who’s asking the right questions,” she smiles at Mortimer, “You know I like him, and always have. Anywho, Blake Valley’s belonged to Morrison for a good long time. But from what I hear of it the new sheriff, Abraham Lakesley, put a tight noose over the outlaws in the city. Morrison’s probably after getting his territory back.”

“And Angel Eyes?”

“My guess is in it for the money. But we’ll see, won’t we?”

“We will, while you keep hawking jelly beans, huh,” I grumble to myself, picking out the black ones to eat. Sure, I’d decided to do the favour for her, get this guy out of town. But that doesn’t mean I like it.

“You do your part and I’ll do mine, sweetheart.”

“Right. You got a horse?” I address the question to Mortimer.

“Yeah, he got one,” Sarah Jane grins, “Or you could call her his.”

“I’d call her yours, but if you don’t mind lending her--”

“Oh come off it Douglas. Get a move on. And chin up. You've done worse and with no one to watch your back. You take care of him now, Manco, see that I don't have to.”

“Right, I’ll do that,” I’m still a little dazed at the thought of anyone else knowing Mortimer, much less being close enough with him to call him by his name. But he puts a hand on my shoulder and smiles a little bit, so I suppose that question can wait.

We ride out in late afternoon, the road between Greygorge and Blake Valley not long, but certainly distant. I’d forgotten how barren the spaces between towns are, not quite like the desert, but dusty and devoid of green. The rocky cliffs rise to meet us, and the switchback pass with it. It’s a comfortable silence, the crunch of hoof-beats and the evening breeze for company.

Well, not the only company. It’s funny how natural it feels to have real company.

“Alright, old man. You keeping an eye on me through Sarah Jane?” I smirk a little at the question, but sidelong glance at him, see how he takes it.

He keeps his poker face intact, “Sarah Jane knows everyone. But I knew you were looking, and that was because of her.”

“Didn’t expect ‘the same place you get yours’ to be the same person,” I chew my lip a little at his avoidance, but press instead with a different question, “How’d you get to know her?”

That gets a distant smile playing on his lips, “She was a slave on my father’s plantation. We grew up together. More of a sister to me than mine was, at times.”

“Oh,” for some reason it surprises me, that he grew up, well. Not like me, “You seem close.”

“She's the only family I have left,” he smiles almost bitterly to himself, the low sun lighting up his sharp cheekbones. I wait for him to speak again.

“My parents - - they weren't really themselves even before my sister passed. They stopped writing letters to where I was stationed a few years before. By the time I came back, they didn't even recognize me. They died a few years later”

“Mm. So. Were you planning to go back to your plantation, when you’d killed Indio?”

“It’s not mine anymore,” he says, avoiding the question as usual, “It’s hers. Or, Sarah’s family. She decided to take her share and set up elsewhere. Always was a smart girl.”

That’s a bit of a surprise.

“You gave up your family home to...your slaves?” I can't imagine having a home bigger than a room or two, much less one with people to wait on you hand on foot.

“They were my family too.”

There’s such a heaviness in that ‘were', and I think I feel the weight of it in my chest. Though it's been years since I felt anything I might call family. There's a bit of a weighty silence before he speaks again.

“Tell me about your family.”

“That's not even a question and the answer is indiscreet,” It's almost a tease, but it comes out a little sharper than I mean it.

“I'm sorry,” he catches on quick. I almost feel bad. He is speaking a little plainly, for once.

“S’alright. You can ask me anything you like, it's just. There's not much to tell,” I tug on Riddle’s reins to slow him a little, “You know what happened to my father. Me and Ma didn't really have much after that, and the men who killed him did exactly skip town. They owned it. She didn't last too long after.”

I don't mention that she shot herself, because that seems like ancient history by now. Especially here, in the vast expanse of so much dry rock and not a soul in sight.

“Were you young?”

“Thirteen. Not young enough,” not young enough for Ma to stick around, not old enough to make it anywhere. Yet. But God be damned if I was going to let that kill me, without killing my father’s murderer first.

I take a sharp breath. It's a lot to remember what that felt like.

“I was alright. I could make a bit by watching people, giving information to people like me. And I've always been a good shot. So even my Ma knew where I'd end up. Probably wouldn't have bought the place if it wasn't for her. It's what she would have wanted.”

“I'm sorry,” he says it like he really means it this time, and I smile a little, remembering how it felt telling him the other half of this story. Felt like someone understood, for once.

“S’alright. All in the past now, right?” I don't think he really understands this time, but that's not so bad either.

Putting it to words makes it just words, after all.

We make camp on the edge of where the green is starting to edge off of Blake Valley. There's a grove with the murmur of a river that provides good cover from the road, or at least enough that a small cooking fire is possible. Mortimer is far better at campfires than anyone wearing a vest and tie ought to be. Before long, the sun has settled on the distant horizon, and we’re taking a quiet smoke after dinner, watching each other across the crackle of the fire. It’s a while till dawn.

I could get used to this.

“Remember how you slipped the ropes, in Agua Caliente?”

“I remember,” he purses his lips around his pipe. I can tell he’s remembering other parts of that night in Agua Caliente. Me too.

“Show me how,” I fish a small rope out of my rucksack, the soft jute catching on my fingertips.  

“Alright,” he motions me next to him on the dusty ground, taking the rope from my fingers,  “Do you know how to tie a bowline?”

“Maybe.”

“Give me your hands, I'll show you,” he takes my wrists, brushing his thumb over my pulse as he weaves the rope deftly, “Over, under and out. Got that?”

“Yeah,” the smell of tobacco mingled with the sweat of the day, the scent of the fire is making me a little heady. But I’ve still got focus. For now. He hesitates a moment, staring at my neck before breaking the glance and unraveling the knot.

“Alright, now you tie mine like that, and I'll show you how to slip it.”

“Okay,” I shuffle closer to him, looping the rope over his wrists. His wrists are warm, his breath almost close enough to feel on my face. I don’t look up yet. God, but it’s driving me a little insane.

“Tighter. I'll tell you when it wouldn't be possible for me to get out. Okay, little looser than that. Perfect. Tie it like I showed you.”

I run the rope, over, under, out and through. At this point we’re knee to knee and I can feel my pulse jumping in my neck. It’d normally be in me to just give in and kiss the bastard, but god help me. I'm a little scared. I chance to raise my gaze to his.

Thank god it’s him that leans in this time, his eyelashes fluttering shut in the firelight moments before his mouth finally touches mine. It’s as soon as I get my hand to his neck that I can’t hold back any longer. I slip my hips overtop of his, crushing his tied hands to my chest and scraping my teeth over his lips and tongue for the taste I've been craving all night.

“Maybe you should untie me,” he murmurs after what might be several minutes.

“Should I?” I breathe and can feel his cock hardening under me. That's something to remember, but for now he's nodding and I feel like it'll be worth my while to do as he says. Once I get the knots undone I crush his lips to mine again, letting him suck on my tongue gently before pushing right back and tasting the breath of the road on him.

“You kiss like you're in a gunfight, boy,” he murmurs, shedding my vest and working his fingers through my buttons, but more carefully this time. For my part, I loosen his tie, which takes more work in this light, and reach for the buttons of his vest while he shrugs my shirt off my shoulders. He licks at my collar bones teasingly, temptingly, and in the shadow I still can’t get at the damn buttons.

“Jesus old man, your clothes are damn ridiculous.”  

He laughs a little bit, running his fingers along my chest to settle along the sides of my body. Gives me a bit of space to finally work on that tight shirt, which finally gives way so that I can put my teeth and tongue to his chest. He arches just slightly when I lick at his nipple, a soft gasp escaping from him.

“That good?”

“Yeah--” his hands crawl down my back and he sucks hard, then soft on my neck, the feeling sparking all the way too my toes.

“Shit, yes,” I let that go on for a while, reaching around to grab a handful of his ass which also rewards me with a gasp. God but it’s all too much, the heat of the fire feeling like it’s licking my back now, all over me with the need of it. Thankfully his pants are far easier than his shirt, and I fumble them open to grasp his hard cock at last.

His pupils widen in the firelight, his lips parting as I swipe my finger over the tip. I concentrate on working up a gentle rhythm, forcing myself not to go as hard as my heartbeat wants to. It doesn't take much to get him gasping and shivering into me.

“Hold on-- ” he pushes me backwards gently, working my pants open. I close my eyes, waiting for his hand to find me.

It's his lips that close over the tip of my cock, and I make a strangled noise because shit , I did not know that could feel that good.

Doing a little with your mouth isn’t abnormal, but most of the men, women I’ve been with don’t really seem to enjoy it. Mortimer on the other hand, is a goddamn devil with it, rolling his tongue in it and humming gently as he works at the base with his fingertips. When I glance down his eyelashes are shaded with the glow of the firelight and I think I’m harder than I’ve ever been in my life.

“Jesus, god above, shit shit,” I swear as he sucks at the tip. He laughs a little bit around it and I feel it vibrate through me. Why I never liked this much before, well. Guess the old man can teach me some new tricks. His mustache scrapes at the base of my cock and I swear a stream again.

I take that for as long as I can stand it, which is to say not long at all if I want to come after. And there’s still a lot I want to do, still so much of him I want to have.

I push his head off of me gently, smirking at the way he grins, “Okay, okay jesus. That’s. Mm.”

“Good?” he’s almost teasing when he asks, and I kiss him hard to shut him up. I can taste myself on him. God above.

“If you want, I’ve got-- ”

“Yeah, me too. Came prepared,” his bag is closer, and he tugs out a small bottle of oil. I swallow hard when I realize what I want from him.

“You’re not the first person I've done this with but--”

“Have you?”

“No, I haven’t but I. I want you to,” I mumble. He seems to understand.

“I’ll go slow.” and I know he will. So it’s alright. I shuffle onto my knees by the fire, only fleetingly wondering what I look like from this angle. Mortimer lets out a hum of approval, running his hands along my ass before he starts.

It’s strange and yet not-strange to feel someone else’s fingers stretch at the opening of me, just carefully. He runs a hand along the side of my body, and I shiver a little bit. It’s hard to imagine this feeling alright with anyone else. But I’m not afraid. He reaches underneath me, stroking encouragingly, which helps. Feels good.

But it’s nothing compared to when his fingers reach and brush that spot that lights a fire inside me, I have to stifle what could be a scream. He squeezes me gently, reaching inside me again  Feels way better than touching yourself that way. I want more before I can think on it, and he seems to know, slips in two fingers so that it burns like the heat of the fire.

“Okay, okay,” I gasp, the need to have him suddenly more overwhelming than the heat gathered in my groin. But having my knees to the dirt, as good as this is, isn’t the way I want to do it.

“Okay?”

“Wait,” I reluctantly slide out of his warmth of his grip, reaching for my poncho to spread it out on the ground, “Lie down.”

He understands immediately, lays out so I can see the scars and marks of age on his body on the firelight. It's a damn beautiful sight. But I don't linger too long, throwing one leg over him and adjusting my hips overtop of his. Alright. It’s a little painful, adjusting, getting him inside me, but it’s not so bad. I take a breath.

“Daniel,” he says, I glance down at him, smile just a little, and start to move.

This time it’s easy not to hold back, with all of him full and thick inside me, opening my eyes to see his face contorting with pleasure beneath me. Every thrust drives the feeling of the trail, the feeling of burnt-out wholeness, the feeling of so many goddamn things I can’t put words to right to the center of me.

I come when he touches me, yelling louder than I want to, but not giving a damn about any of it. When I get my breath back I look him in the eye and ride him hard, kissing him and biting at his neck until he’s crying out and I can feel him let go into me.

We lie there for a long time, just breathing. Just breathing.

“So why weren't we fucking in Agua Caliente,” I murmur, and he laughs a little at that.

“We have time.”

I'm not sure if he means now or for later, but he's not wrong. Night has just about fallen over the sky. The both of us collect our clothes and redress, since the sweat has long since cooled to a chill. And we’ll need our weapons soon enough.

“Do you wanna rest? Can keep watch if you like. It'll be a time before dawn,” I smile out of the corner of my mouth.

“Alright. Don't go anywhere,” he looks a little unsure, but settles next to me on the poncho still lying on the cold ground.

“Wouldn’t dream of it. Sleep well, Douglas.”

“Thank you.”

The night passes with old, quiet thoughts and the rhythm of counting stars. Haven't done that since I was a kid on the road. The streaks of foggy glow glittering around the stars really stand out. Guess it just seems like there's more to look at, tonight.

It’s just before dawn when the rhythm of hoofbeats reach my ears. Of course no one else would be traveling by night. I reach to touch Mortimer’s back gently, but he’s already flinching into my hand. Same senses.

“It’s time.”

The covered wagon rolls up slowly, heavy with the crates I recognize from today. The guns, supplied to Morrison’s men to support their war. The men barely speak to us when we board, just grunt at the front of the wagon. It's a slow bump towards the city, the tension thick between us.

On the road down to the valley we start to see the silhouette of buildings on the horizon between the short brush. It's still a dark dawn.

“Hold,” A voice cuts through the darkness. Both Mortimer and I immediately train to the sound. It would only take a shot to take the speaker out, and both of us know it.

“Hold, nothing,” the wagon driver calls back, spitting over his shoulder. Idiot.

“You're entering the law and lands of Blake Valley. And in the interests of protecting the people, their lands and their families, we demand to examine your cargo.”

“You're not worth shit, sheriff,” the driver rains a hail of clumsy bullets as soon as the figures come out of the darkness. Two men go down.

Two good men.

Mortimer hesitates, but I don't. The bullet in my SAA hits the wagon driver before I can blink. There's a beat of confusion, then Mortimer’s Buntline takes out the man in the back before he runs.

When the ringing in my ears fades a little, I notice one of the lawmen has his gun trained at Mortimer. I point my gun at him, my heart thumping with panic.

“Leave him,” I say, but the man doesn’t move.

“Drop your weapons,” he drawls. I can't see his face. The others behind him don't have their guns out yet, waiting for orders.

I fire a warning shot, my hands almost shaking enough to miss and hit the lawman in the shoulder. Almost. The man stays steady, doesn’t take his gun sight off of Mortimer. I take a sharp breath.

“Manco! Stop.” Mortimer puts his hands up, making eye contact with the man pointing the gun at him. I warily do the same. Slowly, Mortimer lowers his gun to the ground.

Hell. Alright. Alright. I place my SAA in the dirt as well.

When the man steps forward I can see the star glinting on his chest. The Blake Valley sheriff himself.

“Alright. There's four men dead and as many of mine as there are of that scum. You fellas best start explaining yourself.”

Chapter Text

The shots are still ringing in my ears. The sheriff and his men advance slowly out of the darkness, some of them aiding the two that were hit. I chance a glance at Mortimer, my heart thumping desperately. For once, his fear is barefaced, and god, mine is too.

But now ain't the time for fear.

“What’s your business here?” the sheriff asks sharply, “I’m not going to say it again.”

I find my voice, “There's men coming out of Greygorge with guns. And the sheriff there ain't doing shit about it.”

“Now how's that your concern? You a citizen there?”

“I am,” I try not to glare too much. It's different talking to lawmen. Or taking to them when you want them on your side.

“You must be that bounty hunter then. Mr. Manco, wasn't it?”

“And you're Sheriff Lakesley,” It's pissing me off to have my SAA on the ground, even if the sheriff has his gun put away. I scuff my boots in the sand. A cold breeze whistles between the cliffs.

“I am. Let's cut to the chase, shall we? Why did you shoot the men you were riding with?”

“They were shooting at good men.”

“From your history, Mr. Manco, you haven’t much respect for the law.”

“Can respect those who live by it,” I fix him with a hard stare. I lean down to pick up my SAA, and he frowns harder, but doesn't comment.

“Does that extend to yourself?”

Mortimer snorts derisively, “From how Morrison was driven out of town, I'd say you have no problem bending the law when it suits you, Sheriff.”

“There's no need to be pointed, Colonel.”

Oh hell. I don't have the patience for this and it's clear Mortimer doesn't neither. “Thought we were cutting to the chase. Are you going to arrest us, or are you gonna help us catch bigger fish?”

“Alright. Men, scout the area and search the wagon.”

“You can search it, but we'll be taking it back with us,” Mortimer states in a distant, gravelled voice. The men almost falter, but head forward on Lakesley’s nod.

“And how's that?” Lakesley’s frown is clear, even in the half-light.

“You need to catch Morrison, but you can't while he's under the protection of the sheriff. But if you have evidence to connect the sheriff to illegal activity, you can run him out, and stop Morrison from getting a foothold in Blake Valley,”

“So what are you proposing?

“We take the wagon back to Morrison. We tell him that we were apprehended but that we managed to protect the cargo. Then we arrange for protection from the sheriff, connecting him directly to bringing in illegal firearms to Greygorge.”

“You’re confident they'll trust you?” The sheriff gives him a beady stare in the glow of the beginnings of the sunrise.

“I only need to be confident you will, Sheriff.”

“Mm. I'll tell you, my goal is to get Morrison. I either need evidence tight enough for him to hang or a reason to shoot him,” the sheriff’s frown tightens, “I'm already taking heat from the Blake Valley mayor for how we drove him out of town. But I know he’s trying to come back, and it’ll come to war if I don't put a stop to it.”

I decide he's alright, for a lawman.

“So get the sheriff if you can, but my eye is on Morrison. I want him gone from Blake Valley in the only way that sticks.”

Mortimer just nods once, curt as ever, “Then our business is the same.”

Blake steps closer to Mortimer, in a way that a lesser man would back away from. Mortimer doesn’t. “I don’t believe I know of you, sir.”

“Do you need to?”

Blake’s eyes flicker to me. I shrug, “He’s my partner. And I think we oughta do as he says.”

“Sheriff,” one of the younger men cuts in, “Giles is dead. We better move quick if we wanna patch Tim up.”

He swears under his breath, but to his credit, the man keeps his poker face.

“The cargo is guns, like we was thinking. Bit of dynamite. The men also found two horses not far from here,” the younger man adds,.

“That’ll be Riddle and Mira. You can hold on to them if you want insurance,” I fix the sheriff with a stare, willing him to hurry up and make a decision. Could use a quirley to ease my itchy nerves.

“Alright,” he grunts, waving off the men, “I won't say I have a better shot at nailing Morrison. But if you cross me, I'll have you both strung up for poor Giles’ death. Get me something on Morrison by sundown. And preferably here. I'll have men at this path every day for the next week, and a few on the west side. If you can give notice, even better. But I'll take what I can get.”

“Mhm,” I nod in acknowledgement.

That went about as well as can be expected.

We saddle up the wagon without much more than an exchanged glance. Mortimer takes his Buntline and puts a few false shots through the covering, reminding me of the scar on my neck. He seems almost pale in the half-light, but I don't want to talk plainly with him here. Feels like something tense and stretched is in the air, even when I climb up to sit next to him on the wagon.

At least it’s a bit of a ride back into town.

“Not bad, old man,” I say once we’re far enough for the sheriff’s men to see the back of us, “You've still got it.”

He doesn't say anything for a moment, his mouth hardening in a thin line. “Why did you shoot at them first?”

The coldness in his voice cuts to the bone. I almost snap back, but think better of it, reach for a quirley instead.

“Better to shoot first than let them all die,” the words taste bitter in my throat with the first breath of smoke.

“Better to wait-- it was a serious risk.”

He doesn't look at me when he says that either, all business and distance. Like the way he spoke to me between El Paso and Agua Caliente. Like he's my mentor rather than my partner.

“Cut the bullshit, alright?  What's eating you?”

“Nothing is wrong, I'm just suggesting more prudence.”

Well that ain't shit.

“Look, I didn't like them pointing that gun at you neither, but I couldn't just - -”

“This isn't about me - - “

“Then what the hell is it about, Mortimer?”

His eyes flicker to me for a moment, almost lingering on my face. He urges the horse with a flick to the reins, the heavy wagon dragging along the pass. The morning desert air feels icy.

“You could have been killed, Daniel,” he spits out after a moment.

I want to laugh, it suddenly all making sense, but what right in hell does he have to tell me about risk? I could have been killed every damn day since I left home at thirteen.

“Tough shit, that's every day of my life before this, and y’know what? I've missed it.”

He recoils like he's been shot at. It feels good for a moment, satisfying the hollow anger in my chest.

It feels like shit in the silence after.

We ride wordlessly while the sun climbs towards morning. Breathing is a dull ache, reminds me of the neck graze I still have scars from. But it's not like a bullet wound. I don't know shit about how to patch it up.

It isn't till Greygorge starts to poke out of the horizon that he turns his head to me, the lines in his face scored like the crags of the cliffs. He tugs the horses to a stop, finally meeting my eyes.

“You alright?”

“Are you?”

He opens his mouth, then closes it again. I shuffle a little closer to him, so that our knees are touching. God this is not what I expected. None of it.

“Perhaps not.”

He flexes his fingers almost experimentally, covers my hand with his.

“Why now?” He asks my question from a few days before, asks it to the warm glow of the rising sun. It isn't till he turns to me, tightening the grip of his fingers, that I realize it was an honest question.

“There's no why. Just got bored enough, I guess. Thought about you a lot. You?”

He exhales, lacing his fingers into mine, “Sarah Jane...she was only partially lying. People haven't heard much of me. I've been on the road, not going much of anywhere, looking for folks and finding graves instead. I came back to Greygorge a lot. I. I reasoned out that you'd stick around there, if you settled.”

“You reasoned right, yeah.”

“Mhm. I didn't go far after you bought the place. Kept wanting to check up. See if you had gotten a partnership, cattle, stopped asking after the outlaws from Sarah Jane.”

“So, what. You were circling me, just like I was bounty?” It's an attempt at a joke, but in truth I feel a little off balance at just how far he was willing to go.

“It's what I know. I was thinking about coming by sooner.”

“The hell did you wait so long for,” It's not even a question, or a helpless one at that. I think I'm afraid of the answer. He looks up to the horizon, something searing and distant in his eyes.

“I didn't plan to keep going after I killed Indio,” he says it so flatly, like the words belong to someone else, “But I… I couldn't.”

Oh.

God above. I could have lost him. I hadn't realized how close it was, how different losing revenge had been for him. And yeah, I'd thought about going out myself, in a few bad moments after I'd done my father's murderer. Even later on. But it was never planned, more just-- tempting.

But what else did he have? I'd always had nothing.

“How were you going to--” I break off the question, knowing it's a stupid thing to ask. Can’t think of much else.

“Gun. Like Clara, I suppose.”

“God above,” I white-knuckle grip his fingers, turning my body to face him, reaching tentatively for him, “Can I?”

“Mhm.” He nods numbly, and I wrap my arms around his shoulders, gently at first. Then my grip involuntarily tightens to something fierce when I breathe in the familiar scent of his skin. He exhales a long time, resting his forehead on my shoulder.

“Do you still want to?” I ask when I can force the words out.

“Sometimes. Mostly I wish I did.”

“Okay,” I bury my fingers in his ribcage, “Okay.”

“I’ve lost a lot of people.” He whispers. I know that, I know. But I don't get to lose you. He lifts his arms, resting his hand on the lower part of my back, “Don't want to see you take risks like that.”

I want to say you won't ever lose me , promise him I'm not going anywhere, but it sticks in my throat.

I know I can't make promises like that.

“I know. I know, but. We don't get to just stop.”

He mumbles something I can't hear into my neck, which might be I know. I rub his back, thinking about my ranch house. Thinking about the kind of life I could let myself have.

“Would you even want that?” I ask after a moment.

Could you? I’m not sure that I could. It's been bad enough as it is trying to stick it out at the place. And yeah, part of that was being without him, I'll admit it now. But being on the trail just feels less. Trapped.

“I don't know.”

I at least think I know how he feels.

“We gonna see this through?”

“Mm. Mhm.”

“We’ll talk about what happens next after. I won't go anywhere if you won’t.”

“I won't,” he says it with the usual steely confidence, but with enough quietness that I believe him.

So the wagon rolls forward towards Greygorge again. When I glance over to him I realize that for the first time since I was a kid, I have something to fight for, now. Shit. That's got more fear in it than facing down the barrel of a gun.

It's too soon that we’re doing that again.

Morrison has his own Colt pointed at us when we roll into the North Stables. I suck on the quirley and shake my head.

“They took out the men you had driving it. One of them is dead in the back. You're lucky we could recover the cargo,” I stare him down until he lowers the gun. On the fringes of the stables, I catch the sheriff skulking about.

“Damnation. It's Lakesley, isn't it? Damn him to hell,” Morrison's face contorts. Behind him, Angel Eyes ceases saddling up, a smile playing on his thin lips.

“I mentioned we might need more security yet, though I didn't expect him to be quite this far ahead of us,” Angel Eyes drawls consolingly to Morrison, taking out his pipe.

“We have men to take back the town center tonight, but they ain't shit without weapons. We need to get this to them. Now.”

“What about through the legal channels?” Mortimer states grimly.

“Come again?” Morrison grunts.

Mortimer jerks his head towards the sheriff, “Doesn’t take a fool to know he’s with you. You’d be better off having him ferry the cargo in. Can’t argue with the law.”

“I think we should consider that, given the urgency of the situation,” Angel Eyes frowns over his pipe, “It might make up lost time if we going during the daylight--”

“It won’t be cheap--” Morrison breaks off with a dark look, perhaps deciding that Mortimer and I shouldn’t hear too much. I tilt my head. Now outlaws, I know how to talk to.

“You’ll be paying us for the job, now.”

“The job ain’t finished yet,” Morrison glares, “We’ll pay you when it’s, for both.”

“You'll pay us what we agreed, if you wanna see your cargo,” I say it out of habit, reaching for my SAA. Morrison does the same, our hands freezing over our weapons.

“Now then, I don't see why that's necessary,” Angel Eyes smiles mildly at both of us. Morrison sneers, but stands down. He glances at me, and I do the same. Bastard.

“Perhaps we should speak in private for a moment,” he jerks his head at Morrison, who frowns deeper, but follows. They take the sheriff with them, around the back of the stables where it’s more difficult to be heard. Wish I had ears on every corner of this town like I would have before this. Old habits.

“Angel Eyes seems keen to trust us,” I murmur to Mortimer once they’re out of earshot.

“Not sure Morrison is right to trust him. He seems to, though.”

“I don’t have a good feeling about it neither. But we best stay put.”

I turn back to the wagon, something prickling at the back of my neck. The street is deserted, a wind blowing up dust from the west. In the heat of the sun I can feel the sweat roll down my neck. They’ve left us the cargo, at least.

And they’re back in not too long.

“Right then. We need those weapons into Blake Valley by sundown, if we want to rush the city. There’s men who will help take back our territory, and that damn sheriff with them. So Angel Eyes will take the covered wagon, along with Sheriff Brown. Then the rest of us follow for insurance. If it

He reaches in his suit jacket for a wad of cash, which he passes to myself. I toss half to Mortimer, nodding at Morrison with a degree of respect.

“You going to finish the job?”

I send a considering glance to Mortimer, feeling more than a little nervous as to how quick this is all happening, “Yeah, alright.”

“Fine. I’m bringing in every man I’ve got able in Greygorge, and the men in Blake Valley will follow, once they’re armed.”

I frown, sucking in the tobacco. Desperation,huh. This is gonna be a day for blood, I can already tell. Angel Eyes saddles us up with a few horses with a smile and not another word. During that time thirteen men join us from various parts, each grimmer and uglier than the next.

I sure as hell hope Lakesley is up for this.

The town has a grim silence settled over it by the time the company is ready to leave. We start down the trail again, with Mortimer and I right in the thick of it. God I wish I could say something plainly to him, anything really.

Hell else, at least we’re getting these bastards out of the city. So what Sarah Jane wanted.

By the time we pass the camp of last night, it’s approaching sunset. The covered wagon has gone on ahead, carrying the sheriff and Angel Eyes. We watch and wait. It doesn’t take long for a gunshot to echo across the desert.

Then, with Morrison giving a yell to the skies, we ride. A thunder down the path towards the sound, just at the fork in the trail surrounded by trees. I tense, preparing for the assault of the law. But surprisingly, there’s no return fire, just a body lying in the center of the trail.

It’s the sheriff, stone dead with a bullet straight through his head.

The hair prickles on my neck. I hear the click of several guns surrounding us and am damn grateful Mortimer and I are on the outskirts of the group. It’s just as well, because a trigger happy fool takes a shot into the trees and suddenly chaos erupts and they’re all shooting blind.

Shit.

Mortimer tugs on the reins of my horse, pulling us out of the fray. Lakesley’s men seem to know of us at least, and I draw and take a few shots, figuring we should at least give them a hand.

“Stand down, Morrison. You're nicked,” Lakesley yells over the bedlam.

“It's a set-up! Where the hell is Angel Eyes?” Morrison screams desperately, but his men are in chaos. Gunshots ring out from all sides, men and horses tumbling down.  It’s a bit satisfying to watch, seeing his sallow face turn pale with panic, but he’s not wrong. We have bigger problems.

“Where’s the cargo?” Mortimer calls over the return fire. I swear a stream. Both Angel Eyes and the wagon are nowhere to be seen.

So this is how he was going to use us.

I tug Mortimer by the arm, out of the fray, “He’s taking it himself-- Mortimer, he was always trying--”

“To supplant Morrison, of course, of course .”

“Come on,” I pull at the reins of the horse, having a good sense of where Angel Eyes might go. There’s an old path into Blake Valley - - hard to navigate, but I'd bet good money on the bastard being able to do it.

We’re lucky neither of these horses are skittish. The pass is steep, with the switchbacks winding back and forth, coming out at the southern end of the city. Rocks crumble at the cliff edge. I don't fancy tumbling down with them.

But sure enough, we round a tight corner and the covered wagon is tucked up motionless, no doubt giving the horse a rest before the next leg of the trail. I nod to Mortimer darkly and both of us slip off, guns drawn.

I creep up towards the front of the wagon-- he's got to have heard us by now. I keep my ears straining for the slightest movement, but all I can hear is Mortimer’s quiet footsteps close to mine.

“Put it on the ground.”

Shit. Damn it.

“Both of you,” I can hear the smirk in that bastard voice. I look at Mortimer as we lower our weapons. He looks stony - faced, but his eyes betray his fear. I turn slowly to face Angel Eyes, staring down his Remington pointed directly at me.

“Well done,” Angel Eyes drawls, studying the two of us. Mortimer is only a few feet from me, but that distance has never seemed so long. Shit. Angel Eyes shifts the gun just slightly towards Mortimer, only to see him twitch. He smiles, keeps the gun trained on my chest.

“What do you want?” I spit at him after a moment. I ain't here for these games.

“Just to talk. Talk business before I get to mine. I'm not in a hurry.”

“So talk,” Mortimer’s voice is as bleak as a storm loud.

“You're loyal to each other, aren't you?” He says conversationally, “And you've done good work helping me put aside Morrison. Both are compelling. So what is it you're after with this?”

“Decency. Peace. You wouldn't know shit about that,” I spit at him. Mortimer tenses, but I’m done playing nice with him. He cocks his head, keeping the gun steady at my chest.

“You want peace in Greygorge? It's done. There's no reason for any outlaws to be there anymore. Blake Valley is where they’ll be. So you're accomplished that. What next?”

“Not in the habit of answering questions when I've got a gun pointed at me.”

“I could shoot you, but I think that would be a terrible waste. There's more work to be done in Blake Valley after all, and plenty of money to be paid for it. But more so, it's interesting work. I know that's what you're after.”

“The hell. You want us to join you?”

“I want you to tell me if you can. I'm curious,” he narrows his eyes, “And I'll know if you're lying. But I'm also curious if you will.”

I slowly turn my head to look at Mortimer. He looks sick. God. Why couldn't I have just left the city, gotten on the road, let it all burn as long as I could have taken him with me? Or just holed up in the house, left Lakesley to deal with Morrison and probably take Greygorge down with it?

Or he could have come earlier, could have met me at the General Store rather than the card table when I’m desperate to take something into my own hands.

Why now?

Why end with this?

But I damn well know none of those endings come to us joining this sonofabitch. No matter what he pays.

I ain’t gonna do that anymore.

I hear the click of a gun. Shit. This is it.

“Leave them.”

I whip my head around before I think better of it. Standing beside the wagon in full dress is Sarah Jane, a belt full of bullets over her hips and the Buntline Special in her hands trained directly at Angel Eyes’ heart.

“You think I won't shoot, just try me.”

He draws in a breath, the flicker of surprise and anger such that you could miss it in a blink. He doesn't lower the gun.

“Quid pro quo?” He asks. I don't know what the hell that means, but Sarah Jane shakes her head and scoffs.

“You think I owe you somethin’, you bastard?” It's strange as hell hearing such dirt coming from her. Had her eyes always been that flinty?

“I think you know I'm a quick enough shot to kill him if you shoot first.”

“I do.”

“So what's the name of the game, Miss.”

“Angel Eyes, ain't it? You keep your life, we keep ours. I'm gonna put back my gun, and you gonna do the same. Nobody move till I say so. All of you.”

The two of them lock eyes, slowly holster their guns. It looks more natural than I thought, considering the belt is over her dress. Angel Eyes turns up his lips, somewhere between a smirk and a sneer.

“Well done.”

She sneers at him and spits, “You best run like the devil you is. Take the horse. Leave the wagon.”

Angel Eyes unhitches the horse from the wagon with a flick of his hand, climbs on, and urges the horse forward. She holds out a hand, waiting for him to get a safe distance down the trail, almost into the city.

“Alright. Think we bested him.”

“God above,” I breathe, “Can't believe that worked.”

“That makes two of us, sweetheart,” Sarah Jane says grimly, “You alright?”

“Yeah, shit,” I shake off the panic to cross the distance to Mortimer, who seems rooted to the spot. It feels unreasonably good to tug him close to me. He hugs back, tightly at least. And his breathing is more or less normal.

“It's alright, Douglas. I'm alright.”

“I know. I know. I'm. I'm fine.”

“Yeah?” I squeeze his shoulders slightly.

“Think so.”

It's just as well we break off the embrace then, the hoofbeats of the sheriff’s men are starting to catch up with us.

“You alright, Sarah?” Mortimer turns to her with a relieved smile, “Thank you. I don't know what we would have done without you.”

“Don't know where I'd be without you either, Douglas, so don't think anything of it. We got what we needed. I don't think he’ll be back.”

I nod grimly just as the hoofbeats slow at the clearing. Lakesley dismounts, businesslike as ever.

“What happened? Where's the hitman?”

“Gone, thanks to Sarah Jane,” Mortimer mods towards her, “she's the reason we had an eye on Morrison in the first place. And she's kept two on Angel Eyes, lucky for us. Hid out in the wagon and saved us both.”

“That so,” he sizes her up, though not disrespectfully, “I've heard word of you in Blake Valley, miss.”

“Then you know I know well what you're up to, sheriff. You do good work. I want nothin’ of Morrison in Greygorge, and no usurper of his neither.”

He raises his eyebrows, and his hat. Bet he's not used to be spoken to that way. I'll have to remember that about lawmen.

“Smart woman.”

“But you knew that, didn't you sheriff?”

Mortimer laughs then, a rare and airy sound that loosens the grim weight of the air. The sheriff laughs too, and I smile out of the corner of my mouth.

“I've got a hanging to deal with, but stay in the city for the night. Might want to talk to all of you. Seems that Greygorge has an opening for a new lawman,” he eyes Mortimer and nods at me.  

“As long as I'm back in my store by noon tomorrow, Sheriff.”

“Of course, Miss,” he cocks his head respectfully to Sarah Jane, “And thank you to both of you as well.”

“Not a problem,” Mortimer says, and I nod as well, glancing at the star on Lakesley’s chest. Guess that's what it means to wear it well, or at least best as can. Huh.

It’s good to see it happen at least once.

That night, the three of us find the nearest inn, book three rooms. Sarah Jane mumbles something to Mortimer which might or might not be about how she doesn't need two beds. He tries to smile then, but something in it is tense and drawn. I know how he feels. The day is catching up a little.

So we say our goodnights quickly enough.

As soon as I’ve closed the door, set down my rucksack, he tugs me down to the bed, tumbling on top of me and covering my mouth with his a moment after. It's hungry and god do I want it, the swipe of his tongue and his hot breath on my cheek. But there's the taste of fear in it, and that ain't what I'm after.

“Slow down, Douglas. We’re alright,” I take hold of his face with one hand carefully, “It's over, now.”

“Right,” his brow furrows, struggling against the change of pace even as he leans into my hand. I smile a little.

“I’m not the only one who kisses like a gunfight.”

“Sorry. It's. More like a war. It's what I know,” he  pauses, distant for a moment, “Almost came to that, didn’t it?”

“Yeah, but. We’re here, right?” I push him upwards slightly, still keeping his body close to mine, then turn him over, settling my hand next to his face. He kisses slower, lets me slip my hips overtop of his, a sigh escaping his cracked lips. I unbutton his shirt carefully this time, easier in the light of the oil lamp rather than the fire.

He makes quick work of mine, even while lying down, crawls his hands over my back to tug me back for another kiss. It's nice, but he’s still struggling against something. I can feel the nervous skip of his heartbeat frantic under my fingertips, and I remember something about last night. Remember that I’ve still got that rope tucked in my bag.

“You trust me, yeah?” I settle upwards on my arms

“Of course, Daniel.”

“I wanna tie you up,” I can see the shock flicker through his eyes, but better than that, I can feel his erection swelling under my hips. But his brow is furrowing already like he's trying to reason it out. I shake my head, smiling a little.

“You're always stuck in your head with this, trying to figure me all out. I want you to let go, let me figure you out a little. Let me do this for you.”

He stares at me a moment, face softening in the lamplight, “Alright.”

I roll off of him, fumble in my bag for the rope. The bed has an iron headboard, which I noticed when we entered the room. So something to make use of.

I lean over him, brushing my hand through the hair on his chest, “You want me to stop or slow down, you say something, okay?”

“Mhm,” he tilts his head up almost defiantly, and I lean in to kiss the nervous smirk off his lips. I unravel the rope length under his wary gaze. He offers his wrists carefully, a question in his eyes. I smirk as I fold his arms up above his head, feeling the pulse jump in his wrists.

“This alright?”

“Uh-huh,” he swallows and I watch it for a moment before going to work on his wrists and the iron of the bed.

“Know how tight to tie it, at least. How does that feel?”

“Feels good.”

“That’s good, that’s what you focus on,” I lick my fingertips and pinch the tip of his nipple, enjoying the shiver that goes through his body. He struggles instinctively to reach for me, then shakes his head when he realizes what he's doing. The ropey muscles of his arms look stunning, tensed up in the glow of the lamplight. I take my time kissing him, letting him get used to the bonds and mouthing at the stubble on his cheeks and neck.

When I stroke my thumb along the scar on his collarbone, I can feel his pulse slowing to something less panicked. His eyes, on the other hand, are still searching, still trying to figure out what I might do next. Of course, old man, it’s gonna take more than that to stop you thinking. But I can be patient. We have time.

I glance over my shoulder, noticing his tie lying beside us. So that’ll do it.

“Okay. I wanna blindfold you now, that okay?”

“Think you're not something to look at, boy?”

“You can look at me anytime, old man,” I lay on top of him, grind my erection into his hips, “Want you to feel me instead. Sound good?”

“Yes,” he licks his lips when he says it, which is a sight. I loop the tie round his head, not tying too tight this time, letting my hand linger for a moment in his hair.

“S’good,” he nods and I kiss him thoroughly.

“You're doing so well, Douglas.”

He smiles a little bit underneath the satin of the tie. So time for me to go to work, then. I ease his pants off, taking it slow so that he understands what I'm about to do. When I finally close my hand over his erection it tears a gasp from both of us. His lips part as I start to work up a rhythm, leaning in to gust my breath over the tip.

When I close my lips over his length he groans gently, which makes me regret not stripping my pants off as well, first. Can deal with that after I’ve tried at least to give as good as he gave last night. It’s not as easy as he made it look, taking the length of him down my throat. But it's fun feeling how it makes him shiver and gasp. I take a breath of his musk, teasing my fingers lower along his balls.

From there my hand naturally moves to the soft muscle of his ass, squeezing gently while he shivers and draws up his legs beside me, digging his toes into the mattress. I take a moment to appreciate the view. I could travel down the sinew and muscle of his spread legs all day. But his ass is something to linger at, the shadows casting over the gentle curve of it making my mouth dry.

“Something wrong?” He says after a moment.

“Nah, it's just. Your ass is a damn fine sight, old man,” I lick my lips, glancing over to my bag, “Can I touch you?”

“Yes.” No hesitation there. So I coat my fingers in the oil and lean over him, tracing slow circles around the hair puckered at his entrance. It looks surprisingly tempting, the muscle like a bullet-scar. I lean in, breathe over top of it, and carefully drag my tongue overtop of it.

“Oh god,” he moans, and I smirk even as I probe gently with my tongue along his skin. The sensitivity is incredible, even if the taste of the oil is a little strange. The way his body twitches like a hair-trigger as I suck and drag my teeth at his entrance.

I work him over until I can feel his stomach muscles tensing with my other hand before I take his cock in hand again, feeling the wetness weeping at the tip. I start to work up a rhythm, but he struggles in the bonds for a moment.

“Hold on--” he gasps , “Can you. I want you to - -”

My breath catches in my throat, the raw neediness in his voice taking me by surprise, “Okay, I’m going to let you see this, if you want that.”

“Yes, yes ,” the desperation in his voice goes straight to my groin. I unravel the tie to smile at his glittering eyes, blown-black and so far gone with pleasure. God, it’s a sight.

“I’ve done this before, at least. Do you want me to untie you?”

“No, just-- I want you, Daniel. Please.”

“You’ve got me, alright,” I lick my lips and lean in to kiss him before slipping two fingers inside, opening him up. It’s been a few years since I’ve done this, but it doesn’t take too long to brush my finger along the softness inside him, causing him to cry out. The third finger goes in easy, and I’m starting to feel desperate myself, my cock aching to be touched.

At least my pants are quick enough to slip out of, thank god. I shrug his legs such that they straddle my shoulders, which should give me a better angle without having to untie him.

“You good?”

“Mm-- yes

“Alright,” It takes a moment of pushing to sheath myself inside him, but shit does it feel good. It doesn’t seem too painful for him neither, just tears out another needy moan. That’s a noise I’ve got to drag out of him more often.

“Come on,” he says, demanding at last. So I start to move, driving him hard into the mattress, one hand tight on his ass cheek and the other on the bed, keeping balance as he thrusts back into me. I wonder fleetingly if I should touch him when he cries out a deep, strangled sound, coming in spurts along his chest. Shit. That answers that question. I slow my pace, letting him breathe for a little.

He gets his breath back fast enough, fixes me with eyes that have firelight in them, “Thank you.”

“Your wrists okay? Need me to untie you?”

“Yes I. Alright,” he looks slightly dazed, but narrows his eyes with a bit of the calculative focus I'm used to from him. I slip out of him with a wince from us both, then go to work on the rope. He sits up and glances up at me seriously while I stand over him on the bed, tilting his head back to kiss his forehead.

“I’m going to take care of you now, alright?”

“Okay,” as soon as I’ve said it, he’s taking in my cock with his clever mouth, sucking at the tip hard like he would with his pipe before taking it in far further than I could. God above. Shit.

He grabs my hand sharply, meeting my eyes, and nestles it in his hair before starting to work up a rhythm. It’s hard to believe it feels better than being inside him, but shit, he can take my entire length in, sucking and relaxing until I’m thrusting hard all the way to the back of his throat.

I stifle a scream when I come, the sensation of him swallowing almost knocking me off my feet. He grabs my ass to steady me, slowly folding me down beside him as we breathe together. He smiles and rolls up to grab his pipe while I get my breath back.

“That was unexpected,” he says after the first gust of smoke. His lips pucker in a way that reminds me of a moment earlier.

“You’re good at that,” I mumble inarticulately.

“I know,” he smiles, and I almost roll my eyes, “But you surprised me.”

“Good to know I can still do that,” I figure moving my legs might be a possibility now, and I reach for his wrists, checking them for rope burn and kissing them gentle. He settles under my arm, and I light up a quirley myself, letting his head rest against my cheek.

“So what comes next?” he asks after I’m halfway through the quirley, “You know Lakesley will probably want us to keep watch on Greygorge.”

“Oh,” I frown, realizing he’s right, “Hadn’t thought of that but. You’re right.”

“You could become a sheriff, like you wanted to.”

Hell. That’s a hell of a thought. “You think I could?”

“I think you could do anything you wanted to, Daniel.”

“I’m not sure,” It seems like a lot right now. Hell, even going back to the ranch house doesn’t sound good. He slips his hand over my thigh and rubs it gently, and that’s at least a little bit good.

“I think. There might be more places that need a good sheriff than just here.”

“Being on the road then? It has its appeal. There’s more good we could do, like this.”

“Yeah. It feels. Normal, at least.”

He smiles wistfully, “A home feels unnatural these days for me, too.”

“Yeah. It’s like that,” God, it’s good that he understands. I exhale a breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding in.

“Alright. Well, you know I’m not going anywhere, no matter what you decide,” he finishes the pipe with an air of regret, but not a heavy one, “I think I’m finished making plans for the next little while. Happier to follow your lead until I get my bearings.”

“Alright,” I turn down the oil lamp for the night, “I’ll think about it.”

For the moment at least, sleeping with his back next to my chest is gift enough.

The next morning, with the itch of the trail gentle on my feet, I know what we need to do. And I get the sense that Douglas knows too, from the way he smiles and packs up his bag. Sarah Jane joins us as we leave, still wearing her Buntline across her dress.

“Good to see ya’ll again. Best enjoy that while I can, eh?” she smiles and I wave her off.

She’s sharp, alright. I’ll almost miss those stupid jellybeans.

Lakesley meets us out on the road to Greygorge, with Riddle, Mira, and a third horse that Mortimer rode into town with. The high sun brings out the haggard lines under his eyes, but he looks pleased, at least.

“Morrison will hang tomorrow. We’ll make an example of him, which should show anyone looking to move in on this city that this is a place where the law is respected. Thank you all again for your help, but I’m going to have to ask if you’ll consider being a help to the law yet again.”

I swallow in the late morning sunlight, knowing what he’s going to ask. I hope I haven’t thought wrong.

“Greygorge needs a new sheriff, and I’m hoping one of you will consider taking it up,” He glances from Douglas to me, “I’ve got a few men I can spare for enforcement, but none of them have the smarts and leadership to take on the role. But you know how these outlaws think. That’s a big asset round these parts.”

I take a deep breath.

“Appreciate the offer, Sheriff. I really do. But we’re gonna have to turn it down. Our business is on the road, and not with the law. But you’ve got our word that we’ll be a help to the law, as much as we can be.

The words come more easily than I expect. Thought it’d feel like letting go, but truth is, I know I let that dream die a long time back. And it’s not one you can just pick back up again.

But maybe this is going to be something better.

“Thought you might say that,” he narrows his eyes, a smile playing on his lips, “But how’s about you, miss?”

“You’re asking me to become sheriff? A black woman?” she raises her eyebrows. I didn’t expect this neither, to tell the truth. But maybe Lakesley has something here.

“Why not? Blake Valley owes you a debt, and I’ve got a feeling Greygorge has already been a bit safer under your eyes.”

“You crazy, sheriff. Who in their right mind would--”

“But you want the job, don’t you?” he says, and she stops. He’s got here there. So I guess he is pretty clever, for a lawman.

“You’re smart too, sheriff,” she chews her lip, “Yeah, alright, I’ll do it. You’ve got men who will listen to me? Good shots?”

“They’ll listen, you might have to give them some pointers with the shooting. But they’re not bad.”

“Well alright. I can work with that. As long as you work it out with the Greygorge mayor.”

“I can be persuasive, when peace is involved. You’ve got someone to take over the shop?” he kicks at the dust on the road, and the both of them look towards the horizon where Greygorge lies waiting. Sarah Jane smiles.

“I do, Sheriff. Thanks for asking.”

“Going to be good working with you, Miss. I’ll be in touch by sundown. Keep the town in line, in the meantime.”

“I’ll see it done. And I’m hoping these two will come back from time to time if I holler,” she eyes us, and Douglas nods agreeably.

“Then Greygorge will be in safe hands. Thank you all. Blake Valley owes you a debt.”

“Our pleasure, sheriff,” I say, and I mean it. He tips his hat and heads back in towards the city. I glance at Sarah Jane, “And you have us anytime you need us.”

“That’s appreciated. Now you two come back often, y’hear? Could use an extra gunsight for a town like Greygorge”

“Of course, Sarah. We have the ranch house to look after from time to time. I think we should hold on to that,” Douglas turns to me questioningly, and I nod. It’ll be good to have somewhere to come back to, even if neither of us are ready to call it a home yet.

“Well, anywhere would be blessed and cursed to have the both of you, that's what I say. You take care, now. Stay away from hitmen.”

“You too, sheriff,” I smile at her and she throws back her head and laughs, turning Mira's reins westward back to Greygorge.

I smile out of the corner of my mouth, turning to Douglas, “So where too?”

“I'll follow your lead,” he smiles back easily.

“Honestly, old man,” I pull out a quirley for the road, “you always were better at leading. But hell. Let's see if there's any trouble south of here.”

“With you heading there, boy? I'll bet there soon will be.”

“Then I’m glad you’ll be there to pull me out of it, partner.”