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Four Nights in September

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On the first night out of the village, Vin is flying. He rises sharply on an updraft and glides in the cloudless sky, the pressure of the air against his wings and tail changing with every small movement. Two thousand feet beneath him, the ocean lies, blue and calm, barely streaked by ripples, reflecting the dazzling sunlight. Vin is heading for land, the rocky shore on his right, where his companions are waiting for him.

Out of nowhere a deafening shot blasts out, and Vin feels it searing his breast and a wing, and feels himself beginning to drop. He spreads his wings to break the fall, but they can’t take him back up; his body is getting heavier as it plummets down, the rippled surface of the ocean is rising towards him, he’s going to hit the water head first, the impact will shatter him.

He cries out, shudders deeply and opens his eyes. The sky is pitch black, he’s lying on the hard ground in a tangle of blankets. He can barely make out Chris, beside him, half out of his bedroll, shaking him awake.

“Vin. Vin, wake up.”

He breathes in deeply, the air smells of leaves and pine cones.

“Is it your leg? Did the wound get infected?”

Vin frowns and shakes his head. No, no throbbing, no fresh pain in the thigh where he caught a bullet. It must have been the whisky they drank before bedding down – they had a bottle and raised their cups four or five times, to the men they had left behind, both living and dead.

“You were shouting your head off,” Chris says quietly.

“Ain’t good at holdin my liquor,” Vin mutters. “Next time you see me bendin my elbow, just shoot me, all right?”

“I will,” Chris promises. He squeezes Vin’s shoulder, gives it a light slap and rolls over. Soon his breathing is slower, peaceful. Vin manages to get his own breath adjusted to Chris’s regular rhythm, and it isn’t long before his body relaxes and his eyelids grow heavy. He goes to sleep smiling wryly at himself.

 

On the second night, he’s sitting in a saloon. He smells sawdust, beer, whisky, and cattle on the clothes of the three drovers standing around him. One of them spits out something about goddamned bounty killers, and it stings, because Vin had only been a bounty hunter for a couple of months, and the few men he brought in were all alive, if somewhat the worse for wear. Vin grabs his beer mug and flings it into the man’s face: he sees blood spurting from his nose, and at the same time he grunts as a fist hits him in the ribs. Gasping for breath, he turns around and throws a punch at the jaw of the nearest man; but there’s two of them, and they push him into a corner and start hitting him together, in the stomach, in the face, in the groin. He loses consciousness as two hard, calloused thumbs start pushing into his eyeballs.

He comes to, and hears himself speak, but he doesn’t know if it’s English, or his inadequate Spanish, or the few words of Swedish from his childhood.

“What the hell, Vin. You haven’t touched a drop tonight.”

Vin is glad that the campfire has gone out and there’s no moon, so Chris can’t see the heat rising to his face. “Look. I talk in my sleep at times. Happens to lots of men in our line of work.”

“You never acted up like this when we were travelling to the village. Or when we were getting ready to fight.” Chris finds a cigar and lights it. Now he wants to talk this over. Damn him, he went straight for the jugular.

“That’s right,” Vin says. He regains control of himself and says casually, “It happens after jobs. Doesn’t last long. Two, three days, and then I’m as good as new.”

Chris looks sceptical, but doesn’t push it. He reaches for his canteen and passes it over. “Drink.”

The cool water tastes good. Vin relaxes a little, and some other thought creeps out from wherever it had been lurking, and comes out of his mouth before he can clench his teeth shut. “We’re hittin the border town tomorrow. Tonight’s the last time you’ll have to nursemaid me.”

Chris grounds his cigar into the soft, dry earth by their bedrolls. “Shut up and go back to sleep,” he says shortly, but there’s a little laughter in his voice. He slides into his blankets, then pulls out an arm and throws it lightly across Vin’s body. “Goodnight.”

“Goodnight,” Vin answers, and it comes out more cheerful than mocking. His body is tethered, less likely to fly off or get into saloon brawls. Sleep catches him almost unawares.

 

On the third night, he’s riding. He needs to get somewhere fast, he’s got an important message to deliver, and his horse is in full gallop, belly low, hooves pounding a straight, dusty road that stretches out as far as the mountains. Vin knows that there’s a ravine ahead, and that he needs to swing aside to find a low crossing, so he starts pulling on one rein. The horse begins to slow down and move sideways, but a snake streaks out of nowhere and slithers across the horse’s path, and the horse rears and bolts, racing straight for the ravine. Vin kicks free of the stirrups, but the edge of the ravine is in front of him and the horse is plunging downwards, hooves kicking air.

He wakes with a jolt, gasping for breath and clutching the blankets on his side of the hotel bed. Chris hasn’t woken up, something to be thankful for. Vin feels an urgent call of nature, he needs to get up. He carefully lifts the blankets, gets out of bed, opens the door without any noise and pads down the icy-cold hallway to the privy. The urgent necessity taken care of, he runs a little water over his hands, gets out into the hallway and leans against a wall, shivering in his long johns, but needing a few minutes by himself to think. About what happened a few hours ago, in the saloon.

He was bellied up to the bar, sipping a beer and envying Chris, who was sitting at the back table, absorbed in a poker game, which – unlike himself – he could afford. Two hard, calloused fingers tapped his right shoulder; he turned around and grinned at the tall, middle-aged man in worn chaps and leather vest.

“Howdy, Mr Allshorn. It’s been a while. Still bossin cattle drives?”

“Yeah.” Allshorn motioned the bartender for two shots of whisky, set one in front of Vin, then surveyed him. “Heard you’d kind of given up drovin. Pity.”

“Why?”

“Because I’m startin my last drive of the year day after tomorrow. And my point rider just quit.” He took a small sip of his drink. “Any rewards on you that I should fret about? Anyone after you for any reason?”

Vin shook his head. “Nope. Got shot in the thigh last week, but it’s almost full healed.” He gulped down his whisky. “You’re lookin for just one man, right?”

Allshorn nodded. “That’s right, don’t need any more than that. You’re a good drover, and handy with that gun of yours if need be. I’m offerin you forty dollars a month and all you can eat. But I want an answer first thing tomorrow. It’ll give you time to settle your business here if you’re comin, and me time to find another man if you ain’t.”

And now it’s a couple of hours before dawn, time to make up his mind one way or the other. Vin shivers again and hugs his bare chest. He’s flat broke, the offer is ten dollars a month more than he’d got last time he went on a cattle drive, and Allshorn is a good trail boss, knows his job and knows how to treat his men. It’d be really foolish to turn him down.

He goes back to their door and pushes it gently. Chris is awake, lying on his back, his arms linked behind his head. Vin glances at the triangle of dark hair on his chest, at the broad shoulders, then quickly looks away and goes to sit at the foot of the bed.

Chris looks him over. “Any dreams?”

“Yeah. Sort of.”

“Want to talk about them?”

“Not particularly.” Vin shrugs and slides back between the sheets. “Cold as hell outside. I ain’t gettin up before ten o’clock.” He turns over onto his side. “G’night. What’s left of it.”

 

On the fourth night, he’s on a freight train, in the cab, by the rear door. He’s the fireman, shovelling coal into the firebox, covered in soot and sweat. Chris is the engineer, sitting on a stool by the throttle, sticking his head out of the window to see if the tracks are clear. The train is speeding through some plains, the land is brown, farmers are beginning to plough the fields. There are highlands ahead and the train is heading for them, puffing away as it begins to lose speed. It’s going to be hard work going up the grade, but they’re used to working together, they’ll get to their destination on time.

Vin starts shovelling faster, he gets into a good rhythm. After a while Chris taps his back, he wants to relieve him at the firebox. Vin nods thanks, sits down on the stool, smiles, grabs hold of the whistle cord and pulls. The whistle fills the air, long and ear-splitting; Chris shakes his head, Vin smirks, the train puffs on up the hill.

Vin wakes up frowning. No hold-ups. No brake failures. No landslides. Nothing across the tracks. Amazing. He can hardly believe it.

It’s almost daybreak. Allshorn’s drovers must be ready to move their herd out. Chris and Vin have a bit of money: yesterday Chris did well at another poker game, and Vin found a day’s work at the saw mill, loading timber onto some wagons. Great – but how long can they keep going like this, one day at a time? And, incidentally – how long can Vin get away with hiding the other need he feels in the morning, after he’s answered the call of nature?

Chris opens his eyes, turns towards Vin, and informs him, “When you don’t shout, you snore.” Vin thinks about steam engines and whistles, and huffs out a laugh.

“Sorry, friend,” he says, not really meaning it. “Tell you what, I’m goin to sleep in the barn tonight.”

“No,” Chris says.

“Why not?”

“Because last night at the poker table I heard something interesting.” He sits up and looks down at Vin. “Wells Fargo has two stagecoach relay stations. One’s not far from here, near Las Cruces, and it’s fully manned.”

“And the other one?” Vin asks, keeping his tone casual.

“The other one’s in Socorro, halfway between Albuquerque and Santa Fe. It’s run by an elderly couple who are beginning to find it hard to keep it going. They spread the word that they’re looking for two men.”

Vin takes a deep breath and smiles up at Chris. “I’m in.”

“Figured you would be. They want to meet us before deciding.”

“Fair.”

“Yeah. I sent them a telegram. They’re expecting us the day after tomorrow.”

“Takin a lot for granted, ain’t you.” Vin narrows his eyes a little. But he doesn’t really mind all that much. In fact, the thought of being bossed around – by this one man, and just a little, and only some of the time – is beginning to feel downright exciting.

“No.” Chris’s voice is cool and his eyes are amused. “I sent the telegram after I found out you’d turned down the droving job.” He gives Vin a level look. “You know, sooner or later we’re going to have to learn to talk to each other.”

Vin makes a small noise of agreement, yawns and turns on his side to sleep, and also to hide things that had better wait a while before being shown or talked about or whatever. “I used to know a fella in San Antonio,” he says drowsily, settling down. “They hanged him. His last words were Life wasn’t meant to be easy. "

“Life with you probably wouldn’t be,” Chris says drily, and before lying back down he lays a hand on Vin’s bare shoulder and leaves it there for a moment, warm and firm.

They can wait, they have time. Vin smiles to himself and goes to sleep, curious to find out if and what he will be dreaming.