Lance was used to dealing with rough company. As the clerk for the Rhodes Post Office and Train Station, he had quite a few mangy people interact with him. Sometimes poor and uneducated, spewing slurs and spitting in his face. Sometimes rich and looking down at him from over their stuck-up noses, wary about why a brown skinned man was working for the county. Lance didn’t mind though. It was his job, to stand behind the bars of his little office and hand over letters or tickets for upcoming trains. If only it paid more to deal with traveling messages and impatient people.
Then he came along.
At first, Lance didn't know what to think. As the head gossip of Rhodes, it was only natural that he had heard of the new bunch of folks that had shown up in this godforsaken, shithole of a town. Grizzled men on horseback, cozying up to the dumb inbred sheriff.
It was just three of them. A man that was impeccably groomed despite his company, sporting a wonderful, ginger mustache and a dapper coat of shimmering blue. Another who rode a large, black, shire workhorse; nice clothes coated in a layer of dust and a scar across his nose. And lastly, a man with a dark mane of hair crowned with a low brimmed hat, casting a shadow across his face.
Lance wasn’t stupid. He’d seen his fair share of people. People were his business. These men were not the simple, everyday folk from the swamps of Rhodes, they smelled of yankee. They walked like cats of prey, guns gleaming from their holsters. They were rough in everything but their eyes, gleaming sharp like their weapons. These men were Outlaws. He’d seen the scarred one’s wanted poster weeks ago; something to do with big money and death on the line.
Lance didn’t particularly care much, he hated this town, his job, he was bored. These men weren’t doing any harm, on the contrary, it seemed they were doing good for the town.
Especially the dark-haired man.
Lance had seen him come in and out of town, helping strangers with mundane tasks, helping the women who paraded through town crying for equal rights, helping the black doctor get his coach back from a group of Lemoyne Raiders, and even sitting with the wounded veterans who had nothing left to do but beg.
Lance saw him one evening in the town’s only saloon, downing a bourbon and sketching lightly in a thin book. The candlelight from the bar illuminates all the man’s sharp edges, the scruff on his chin, the cigarette between his lips, the depths of his eyes.
Lance could see so much in those eyes, a lifetime of stories, of sadness, of weariness. They were honest and as deep blue as an evening sky. And then those eyes caught Lance’s staring and for a moment it was only them both, the saloon dissolving around him. The man showed no sign of moving, a heavy eyebrow quirked in question. Lance was frozen, this man was handsome and God almighty, make it so no one knew this thought crossed his mind cause he would be surly hanged for it.
Lance wanted to approach him, but he felt as though if he did, it would be like walking into the lion’s den. Lance tugged at his collar, adjusted his small bowler with shaking hands, and turned to leave.
His heart only slowing when he had made it back to his home.
Lance learns the ginger fellow’s name is Coran Smythe. Coran treats him to extravagant tales and plenty of whiskey. He subtly confirms Lance’s suspicions of him being associated with law-breaking degenerates and that he is more than willing to pay Lance for tips on the stagecoaches that go from post office to post office. Coran is silvered tongued, but Lance is not a complete fool.
The next time he sees Coran, the dark-haired man is with him. Hat brim low and head tilted to the side like a stray puppy.
“Keith,” is how he introduces himself. His voice is gruff and blunt and low and quiet. He says no more, allowing Coran to finish the talking. Lance earns two extra dollars and a brush with Keith’s fingers in leather gloves. His heart is galloping like their horses that ride away from the station.
“Hang on, don’t rush me!” Lance notices a figure approach the post office window behind him. He’s had a bad run-in with a few people this morning, this person can surely wait. He makes his way over and lifts his head. Lance didn’t expect to meet deep blue eyes, framed by dark hair. There’s a beat of silence before he asks,
“How can I help you, Mister Keith?” The man in question has a slight curve to his lip as he leans closer to the barred window, body blocking his hands.
“I heard you had something for me?” Oh, his voice, Lance can’t help but appreciate how he chews on his words, long and easy, like he has all the time in the world. Lance sees hidden beneath his gloved palm are two paper bills.
So, he’s here for a tip. Lance can certainly deliver.
“I most certainly do.” Lance goes to his personal drawer in the office and pulls out a card with detailed information about a stagecoach that's making a quick trip. It’s heavy with gold and light with guardsmen.
“This one shouldn’t be too challenging, it’s a long ride but it’s worth it.” Lance hands him the card.
“Thank you very much, Mister...?” He trails off gaze focused on Lance. It’s probing and it’s lingering.
“Lance. Lance is just fine.” Lance smiles and Keith huffs out a reply, tipping his hat and making his way out the door. Gun holsters slapping against his thighs as he heavily walks to his next robbery. Lance briefly hopes he comes back in one piece. He tells himself it’s because of the extra money.
“Hello, Mister Lance, you got anything for me?”
And he does.
Every time he does.
Keith may leave Lance’s workplace, but he can't seem to leave Lance’s mind. He comes in every now and again asking that same question, in that same long drawl. The only difference is that he’s warm, so much warmer. Lance suspects he’s always been that way. He just so happens to have it directed at Lance because he has something of worth for him. Lance likes to think otherwise.
Keith amazes Lance, coming back from risky coach robbery after risky coach robbery, he has Lady Luck at his side. Lance isn’t sure if Keith is aware of this or not. His visitations are arbitrary. When he does show, he’ll slowly and heavily walk up to Lance, his shirt rumpled and vest cinched and his boots muddy, and have a hollow look in his eye until Lance greets him.
Stubble looks good stretched along his smile.
Keith’s smile is wonderfully rare and Lance gets to see it with every passing banter from his lips. It’s easy to see soon that Keith doesn’t care that Lance has freckled, brown skin, or if he’s just a clerk of a shitty town’s shitty post office. Keith sees him as an equal, or at least that's how it feels. He learns little bits and pieces of Keith as he comes to collect information. Of his camp, of his family, of the dream of going West until no law or government can follow.
The next day he comes in, it’s raining. He’s drenched and he looks hollow. Lance heard of the fires and the burning of estates. He knows Keith was somewhat involved.
“Mister Lance…” He croaks it out, voice tired.
“Here,” Lance hands him the card covered in his swirling cursive. “This one, I’m not gonna lie to you. It’s a tough one, heavily armed, but the reward is twice what you usually make.” Lance looks to Keith, watches the raindrops pool at the brim of his hat and drip to the counter below.
“I would recommend a heavy distraction, maybe get some dynamite…” Lance meets Keith’s eyes. They seem to linger.
“So please be careful, Mister Keith,” Lance says. Keith’s lips curve into a soft smirk.
“You don’t need to worry about me,” He says this as he turns to leave, wet footsteps trailing behind him.
“Sweetheart,” Lance finds himself saying. Keith turns toward him, full attention. “It’s my job to worry.” Lance is met with another sweet smile and a tip of a hat and then he’s gone.
The next time Lance sees Keith, he immediately feels relief. Keith and his gruff manner of talking are here and alive and ready for another tip. Lance watches Keith approach, he’s hesitant, which isn’t Keith. He doesn’t care much for playing by anyone’s rules but his. He makes it to the window, eyes shifting towards the occupants of the building.
“Anything I can get you, sweetheart?” Lance asks watching Keith’s slow gait. Lance gets ready to hand him a card. As he goes to give it to Keith, his hand is stopped by Keith’s gloved one. His grip light and his fingers warm. Lance is frozen again, searching Keith’s face; it gives nothing.
“Mister Lance,” Keith looks to him, lowering their hands. His eyes look away and he scratches at the nape of his dark hair. “Would you happen to have some time later this evening?”
Lance feels his eyebrows shoot upwards, Keith’s deep eyes lock onto his, unmoving. His hand still grasping at Lance’s own. Lance takes a breath.
“I do get off work earlier today, but what would you need my time for?”
Keith’s smile makes an appearance, his eyes soft.
“Drinkin’ and talkin’-”
“No stage-coaching today, sweetheart?” Lance interrupts. He feels Keith’s grip tighten and a quick inhale from his nose. He laughs, and oh is that a pleasant sound. One that just courses through Lance from his head to his toes. Tingling and numbing, leaving his heart fluttering.
“Not at the moment, no. There’s something more extravagant I’m after.” Lance feels his face go hot. Keith can’t be serious, Lance looks to him one more time. Nothing but honesty rolls off him.
“I can do drinks,” Lance says removing his hand. Keith’s face falls at that but he’s smiling, nevertheless.
“Good, I’ll see you at the saloon, Mister Lance.”
“See you, Mister Keith. And please be careful.”
Keith chuckles again, tongue tracing across his lips.
“You don’t need to worry about me,” a response full of humility.
“Sweetheart,” Lance all but sighs, “It’s my job to.”
Lance shares a bottle of bourbon with Mister Keith. He learns how well he can down his drinks and Lance is following right after him. It soon becomes a competition between the two. Keith wins in the end, but Lance doesn’t mind. It’s more rewarding to see Keith’s cheeks flushed and hair wild.
Keith’s mouth opens like a flood gate and Lance learns of the places he’s come from, been to, and his dreams of where to go next. He learns of his love for his horse and riding fast. His journey in the mountains and his love of the land untouched by civilization. He sees Keith melt as he downs another shot. So open, all edges smoothed over by a warm drink.
He shows Lance the thin book from before, describing the stories and the people he’s encountered. It’s a sweet book, with wonderful renderings of animals, plants, people, and places. Lance’s heart warms, much like his cheeks have already, at the idea of this grizzled man delicately sketching each line into the paper. Lance then recognizes one of the sketches as himself. Quick, skilled lines that capture a long face, high brow, sharp chin. The sketch is effortless and startlingly accurate. Lance wonders in a drunken haze when Keith had time to capture Lance onto the pages of his journal.
But why was Lance there? Not once, but multiple times, all rushed hatchings of Lance’s face. So, he asks Keith. He’s answered with a hand clapped onto his knee and a whisper of alcohol heavy breath.
“‘Cause yer beautiful and I can’t get ya right.” Keith taps heavily on the page Lance is looking at. Lance is warm. Keith is warm. And beautiful too. Lance thinks. Beautiful like a rushing river, taking you under.
They leave the bar, stumbling over each other and their feet.
Only when Lance reaches his house does Keith quickly press dry lips to his brow. Lance is quick to return the gesture. Lips linger, stubble caressing against faces. Warm hands wander, holding tightly.
The rest of the evening, Lance savors the feeling of Keith and soft sheets, pressed against each other. Lance realizes he’s more of a fool than he originally thought.
Keith tells Lance he wants a change, but he doesn’t know anything other than his family of outlaws and the life that brings. He tells him that he’s tired and Lance can see he wears weariness well in his eyes. He tells him that Lance is a change he won’t regret making. Lance silently agrees, mapping out the skin of Keith’s face, his back. Following along the scars and freckles dotting along the crests of his body. Fisting dark long hair and pressing into searing kisses.
But like most change, it’s never easy.
Something is wrong when Keith bursts into the doors of the post office. His eyes are wild, and he’s covered in dirt and blood. Hat missing, hair matted, lumbering over. He’s shaking slightly as he approaches Lance.
“They know, Lance. I’m not safe here. We’re moving out, moving camp…” He stops his ramblings. Fingers fidgeting. “We can’t stay in Rhodes no more… I-”
“What do you mean?” Lance is confused. He’s never seen fear on Keith’s face before. He doesn’t like it much.
“Run away with me.”
Lance blinks at the man in front of him. Bruised and desperate. He must have misheard.
“Come with me, Lance,” His eyes glimmer with emotions Lance can’t quite place. “You’ll be safe, you’ll have your freedom, you’ll have money… Anything, just... please.”
Keith’s face breaks, he’s pleading. He has no time to waste and yet he’s here. He wants Lance to come with him. To uproot his life as he knows it. To change for him.
Lance takes a shuddering breath and closes his eyes. When he opens them, he moves to whisper to Keith.
“I’m yours, sweetheart.”
Lance leaves with Keith then, much to the commotion of the residents of Rhodes. Lungs burning, limbs pumping, chasing Keith’s back. They make it to his horse, Lance holds fast to Keith’s waist as the mare bolts from the town. He turns, his cheek pressed to Keith’s warm torso, watching it disappear. Watching his choice unfold.
Lance isn’t a complete fool, but for Keith… he most certainly is.