“Over here,” you say, and I walk up to you. Quickly and efficiently, you help me to slide my arms out of my shirt. When I wince, you say nothing.
I turn my back to you. You inspect the new gash between my neck and my shoulder, the new mark that for the rest of my life will remind me that men in our line of work, after dealing with the men who face them, must also look up and behind. You whip a clean bandana out of your pocket, pour a little whisky on it and clean the wound, carefully and thoroughly. You can’t see me biting my lips. I can’t see your expression either.
“Hold still, damn it.”
I do, and stand stock-still until you are done. I turn around. The lines between your eyebrows are deeper, your mouth is a thin line. You ball up the bandana and shove it back into your pocket.
“It’s clean. Get dressed.”
I put my shirt back on, trying not to show any reaction to the little white-hot stabs of pain in my neck, shoulder and arm. Then I sigh, look straight ahead, at the sparks coming out of the campfire, and try to say my piece.
“All right. So I was careless out there. But I took care of two of ‘em. And I thought that the third one …”
“I don’t give a damn what you thought. The third one shot you. If he’d been a better shot, and if I hadn’t been there, you’d be dead, and I’d be taking you to your funeral.” You clench your fists. “Take another chance like that again, and so help me, I’ll beat you till you can’t stand up.”
Hell no. I stopped having the shit beaten out of me when I was fifteen, I ain’t starting all over again here. With you least of all.
“You can try,” I say, and I mean it. You can move fast, but I’m younger, and I know how to fight dirty, shoulder wound and all.
And then, whoever wins, we’ll ride off in opposite directions.
I don’t want that either.
I glance at the fire. Our bedrolls are on the same side of it. You put mine between yours and the fire.
I open my mouth to speak again. I’m taking another risk, maybe worse than the one I took a few hours ago. But I have no choice.
“I must’ve scared the pants off you,” I say.
You don’t say anything, you just slide into your bedroll and turn your back to me. I get into my blankets, pain flaring up to my neck and down to my waist, and lie facing away from you, on my uninjured side. The other one is throbbing. I will definitely remember, next time.
You speak without turning. “You’re free to get yourself killed any time you like. But I’m not going to watch it.”
I lie in silence. I’m not going to ask you if you’re planning on riding off on your own in the morning. If you do, you won’t let me follow you. You’re right – each of us is free to choose.
No. You’re wrong.
“I’m not free,” I say, and each word has to struggle hard to push its way out of my mouth. “Any man who has … a friend … or family, he ain’t free to choose. He’s got to think of each person he got feelings for.”
You sit up, ramrod-straight. With some effort I sit up too, not so straight. Your eyes are hooded, your face impassive.
Damn you, you want me to do all the heavy lifting here. Unlike some other times, when we’re in an affectionate mood, and you want me to enjoy myself, and you push me down on my back, and do all the work, and laugh as you watch me lying there and going to heaven. Now, neither of us is laughing, and I’ve got to make the effort and find all the words. I don’t mind. I owe it to you.
“It ain’t easy,” I say, and no truer word was ever spoken. “I’ve been takin care of myself for near twenty years, and now, everythin I do, I got to think if it’s goin to sit well with you or not. Take a job or not, spend some money or not. And I got to explain why I do one thing or another.” I blow out a long breath. “It was a lot simpler when I was on my own.”
“Yeah,” you say. You light a cigar, spit the end out, take a long puff. “A lot simpler. No questions to answer, no explanations to give.” You pause for a second, your body relaxes a little. “Nobody to watch out for,” you say, kind of grudgingly. “Nobody to scare the hell out of me.”
I feel a small grin break out. “So. Both of us in the same trap, again.” Then I stop grinning. “But. From where I stand, it’s worth givin it a try.”
You shrug. “Same here.” You put your cigar out. “Let’s get some sleep. Does your back hurt?”
“Good. Serves you right.” You wait for me to settle on my good side, then turn in your bedroll until you can fit your body around mine, your chest close to my back, a light arm across my waist. The swelling I can feel through the blankets, pressing lightly against my butt, is satisfying in more ways than one – serves you right too, for giving me the silent treatment.
There will be other times when things go wrong. Other arguments. But basically we’re on the same side. Kind of reassuring. I close my eyes.
“Stop thinking,” you say.
“Right. Goodnight,” I say, and sense you half-smiling at the smugness of my voice.