‘See you, Goody,’ said Billy, swinging up into the saddle, eyes already on the road ahead. Goodnight’s heart warmed at his unemotional public farewell; their real leavetaking the previous night had been private, passionate and protracted. The wagons were already in line, surrounded by a bustle of last-minute loading, their escort assembling with more dignity out front of the hotel.
‘Here,’ he said and dipped a hand into his coat to bring out his flask and toss it up to him; Billy caught it, flashed the briefest of smiles and tucked it into his jacket.
The sound of hooves and jingling spurs announced Vasquez and Teddy trotting along the street to join them. ‘Ready, Billy? Changed your mind about coming with us, Goody?’
Goodnight grinned. ‘For the thrill of the open trail? Desert nights, new towns brimming with promise?’
‘If only,’ said Vasquez. ‘Three weeks trailing along in the dust of the wagons, with Sam who will keep us in order.’
‘Give him my regards,’ said Goodnight, ‘and take care of Teddy here – don’t let him succumb to the lure of the big city.’
Teddy rolled his eyes, but Vasquez wheeled his horse and leaned down, face suddenly serious. ‘And you keep an eye on him for me, eh?’
It was no surprise to Goodnight that Faraday had stayed away from the morning’s departure: he was still Rose Creek’s hero, more than the rest of them together, and rightly so by anyone’s estimation, but since he moved out to the farm with Vasquez he was seen less and less in town, flinching from scrutiny and sympathy alike.
‘Don’t worry,’ he said quietly, ‘I’ll see he does alright.’ Vasquez nodded, then straightened up to follow the others to his place in the line.
Whips cracked, oxen strained their necks against the yoke and the small train began its slow creaking progress out of town, Billy pacing along by the lead wagon on his grey. Goodnight unhitched his mare and mounted up himself, turning her head in the opposite direction. To see them heading out up the incline and disappearing over the horizon in a haze of dust brought home to him both the smallness of the town in its tranquil valley, and the scale of the change they’d undergone. Almost two years since Bogue and his men were brought down – time enough to heal and to mend, but they were still feeling out this new life one step at a time.
For Goodnight, the decision to stay and put down roots had been easier: recovery had been long and painful for him, and though he admitted it to no one, had left him with the first hint that summer must eventually turn to autumn, the whisper of age on the back of his neck; the prospect of more years of new towns and hard trail sleeping, always moving on, no longer appealed. Laying aside his rifle and picking up a pen had a kind of inevitability about it, though he suspected that the ready market he had found for his essays and observations was testimony as much to provincial newspaper editors’ difficulty in filling their pages as to his literary talents.
For Billy, always more cautious, more restless, change came harder. The folk of Rose Creek were welcoming, no doubt of it, yet Billy would always stand out – there was no one else like him in this town, and that, coupled with his natural reserve, meant he fitted less easily into the life around him. In the beginning there had been as much labour on the reconstruction of the town as any able-bodied man could do, but as the townsfolks’ lives settled back to farming, crafting and shopkeeping it had become plain there was no niche here for Billy’s particular skills.
It would work, in time, Goodnight was sure of it, and they were fortunate that time was something they had. Meanwhile, though, Billy chafed at the limited horizons of their situation. What he said was that he wanted to escape the confines of small-town society, to see the wider world again, sleep under the stars, but at heart they both knew that what he needed was to reinhabit his old life, to be Billy Rocks, knife-fighter again, reclaiming the skills that gave him status and pride. Goodnight had seen the enthusiasm with which he packed his saddlebags, the eagerness in his face as he sharpened and polished his knives: a month’s escort duty with the wagons to Odessa was the least of it.
As he reached the bend in the road Goodnight looked down on their house in its hollow sheltered by the cottonwoods and was filled with a sense of pride. Building the house had been the best form of physical therapy, working his muscles until they were more powerful than before, strengthening his bones, making him forget his knitted injuries in the happy labour of sawing and planing, hammering and mortising. Now the boards and shingles which had been shiny new were already beginning to weather, the house growing into the space around it: a paddock for the horses on the open side, a path worn down to the trees and the creek on the other, woodpile neatly stacked by the wall.
Being here alone for the first time would be odd. Billy and he had laboured side by side on the making of it, from the first evening pacing out the foundations to the last nail hammered home, creating a place for the two of them; every plank and doorway, every floorboard and shingle, spoke Billy to him. And every object in the house spoke him too: the curl of his fingers around the handle of a mug, his legs stretched out in the chair, his shoulders under his heavy winter coat on the peg, his lithe figure leaning on the rail of the porch. Whether Goodnight moved through the house, sitting at the table, cooking at the stove, or followed the path down to the creek to fetch water, Billy’s presence rang clear beside him at every step.
More than anything else, when he lay down alone on the rustling straw mattress, their bed spoke Billy-and-Goodnight together: the roughly-made bedstead salvaged for them by Vasquez when they were both too weak to fend for themselves, conjured up on that first day, mended and restrung, in unspoken gratitude for their part in Faraday’s miraculous survival; the quilt that covered it, patched for a double bed, gifted by Emma Cullen, as a wordless acknowledgement of what they were to each other; the brown bearskin which Red had left rolled up by their door as a silent gift. They had seen out that first winter twined together for warmth under the fur, rekindling the spark burnt low by injury and weakness; they had tended each other ill in this bed, made love in it, staggered to it drunk and seizing with laughter, spent the quiet of sunny mornings lazing and talking in it.
Goodnight’s thoughts naturally slipped away to Billy, out on the trail, underneath a blanket, or maybe just stretched full length on bare rock with his hat over his face, and fear trickled unbidden into his mind: what if Billy were injured? What if he took fever, were shot? Tension rose like a bubble in his chest, constricting his breathing, and now he had no comforting warmth to curl into, no steadying voice to banish the uneasy thoughts. He sat up again, relit the lamp and tried to slow his breathing. This was foolish. He reached automatically for his flask, then remembered Billy tucking it into his coat as he left, and that at least made him smile. He got up again to find a bottle and glass and took them out to the back porch where he sat for some time, listening to the sounds of the night: the distant murmur of the creek, the sudden sharp bark of a fox, the swoop and flutter of a bat. He fell asleep later, picturing Billy with his hat over his eyes breathing slow and even by the fire, but his sleep was restless and he woke early, one arm thrown out to the cold space beside him.
In morning light his anxiety seemed unreasonable, his mind throwing up possibilities to torment him needlessly: in reality they were a bare day’s journey away, wagons and escort slowly winding their way along the road to Edison where Sam would join them; in the event that they were attacked Billy and Vasquez would, he was certain, be delighted, competing to see who enjoyed the chance to spread some mayhem the most. Nevertheless it left him restless at his work, and by afternoon the thought of Vasquez was a prompt to saddle his horse and ride out to the Cullen farm.
He called briefly at the farmhouse to pay his respects to Emma, coming away with an invitation to supper on Saturday, then rode out across the fields where the ripening grain was shining in the sun. The cabin was at the far edge of the property among a stand of trees, distant enough to gain Faraday and Vasquez much-needed privacy. It was smaller than his and Billy’s place, as suited to two men who spent half their lives outdoors, but as sound and well-designed as any project with Vasquez’ capable hands behind it, a low one-storey house with a stone chimney and a porch out front to catch the sun, stables to one side behind, its shallow steps and gently graded paths a subtle accommodation to the effects of Faraday’s injuries.
Goodnight shouted a greeting as he rode up but got no answer, and no dogs chasing out to investigate him either, so he left his mare to graze and headed round the back, where he found Faraday out with a young bay horse, taking him through the first steps of training to bridle and rein. Rather than interrupt the painstaking repetitions Goodnight stopped to watch from a distance, intrigued to see him absorbed and intent in the work, handling the animal with a calm authority unlike his habitual restless impatience.
Eventually one of the dogs barked and Faraday turned to see him. 'Goodnight! How long you been there? Should have said.’
‘Interesting sight to watch,’ said Goodnight easily, loping over to lean on the railing, ‘and not like time’s something I’m short of. Fine creature.’
‘He is, ain’t he?’ said Faraday, running a hand over the horse’s flank. ‘And he’s a firecracker – high-strung, vicious, the trader said, but no horse is vicious naturally, just badly broke.’
‘Your Jack being the exception?’
‘Oh, Jack’s vicious to order,’ said Faraday proudly, ‘that’s real training. And this one’ll make someone a damn fine horse.’
‘Don’t let me interrupt you,’ said Goodnight, but Faraday said with an easy grin, 'Can hear the whisky calling, can’t you?’ and began to untack the bay; his missing fingers made him clumsy with the bridle, but Goodnight knew better than to offer help, and they didn’t hinder the gentle strokes to the horse’s neck and flank that soothed and calmed him. They left him in the corral and walked slowly back to the house, Goodnight matching his pace to Faraday’s.
‘This fancy enough for you?’ asked Faraday, rummaging in the messy kitchen and holding up a bottle, then leading the way through the house to the sunny stoop at the front. Once they were settled on the porch, Goodnight careful to take the chair on his hearing side, dog stretched at their feet, Faraday asked, ‘To what do I owe the pleasure? Would have been over Thursday anyway, so must be something to bring you out here.’
‘Looking for company, truth be told,’ said Goodnight. ‘Odd having Billy away.’
Faraday gazed out over the fields where the roof of the farmhouse was just visible. ‘Know what you mean. Plenty to do here, always is, but I’m used to having that damn Mexican around trying to tell me how to do it. And I have to cook for myself, and my cooking is shit.’
Goodnight chuckled. ‘Can always come and eat with me when you run out of clean dishes.’
‘Might even take you up on that. Or, better, we can wager dinners when we play.’
‘Can’t see how that would work in my favour,’ observed Goodnight. ‘Still, they’ll be back before too long. Should be an easy trip.’
‘Sure,’ said Faraday, ‘three weeks there, day or two of drinking, one week back. Won’t be enough for Vas, he was complaining it would be tame.’
‘Billy was hoping for the chance to use his knives. I can’t believe I’m turning into such a grandpa, fretting over it.’ He swirled his glass. ‘But after all that’s happened …’
Faraday exhaled, hand scratching at the head of the dog beside him. ‘Wish I were there with them. New town, new games, new marks, was always my way, then when it got too hot, head for the next.’
‘Could have gone,’ said Goodnight, but Faraday snorted. ‘I’d be no use out there now.’
He looked at Goodnight thoughtfully. ‘You could have gone, though. Why not?’
‘Considered it,’ said Goodnight, ‘but I’m not aiming to go courting trouble again.’
Faraday snickered. ‘Yeah: courting trouble’s what Vas was born to do. He ever tell you his story about the horse thieves and the rattlesnake?’
‘No,’ said Goodnight, and when he’d finished recounting it, ‘Reminds me of the time Billy and I got jumped on the trail up Gunnison way, I think it was …’ and they traded tales back and forth as the sun went down.
Mindful of Vasquez’ request Goodnight asked before he left, ‘You faring all right, cooking apart? Chores need doing?’
‘No,’ said Faraday shortly, ‘Can see to it myself.’ But Goodnight had seen the empty bucket in the kitchen, and when he stood up to leave he excused himself to step outside, took it to the well to refill and set it in its corner.
‘Be over Thursday?’ he asked as he mounted up. ‘Come early if you want to eat.’
‘Won’t say no to that,’ said Faraday.
Goodnight left him poking dubiously at something on the stove and rode home thoughtfully. He understood Faraday’s pride, his touchy reluctance to accept help, and more than that, he respected it: his own experience of injury, trivial though it now seemed in comparison, had shown him enough of gratitude to know how threadbare it could become. Everyone in Rose Creek owed Faraday a debt for his unflinching courage, but it was hard even for him to escape a sense of guilt when he saw the price he had paid, and most could not conceal the awkwardness which Faraday inevitably felt as condescension and pity.
The talk of Billy had steadied him, convincing him that his decision was right – Billy needed to be himself, to do what he did best, not to be stuck at his side, purposeless and frustrated, in a tiny town. Certainly it was bound to be strange, being apart: during their travelling life separation had been unnecessary, would have been unwise, but now, with a settled home, spending time apart was normal. Goodnight would stay; Billy could range and return. And it was just a month. Hardly any time.
Saturday’s dinner at the farmhouse was a sociable affair: when Goodnight arrived he found Emma Cullen, Abner and his wife Sarah and the farmhands all packed in around the table, Faraday already there. As they passed plates and dishes the talk was all town gossip: farming prospects, the new dry goods business, Trent’s plan to reopen the mine. It was a warm bath of trivial chatter, and it took him a while to notice how subdued Faraday seemed, a sharp contrast to the aggressive good humour he normally showed to his friends. Goodnight was as easy and sociable as ever, a performance that came naturally to him, but from the corner of his eye he caught the awkward scrape and rattle of Faraday’s cutlery, the way his head turned to chase the conversation, and he felt again a stab of sympathy. If he found himself adrift without Billy’s silent presence to anchor him, without their shared glances of amusement or warning, how must Faraday feel without Vasquez’ easy affabililty to buffer him? He could understand his partner’s desire to see beyond Rose Creek, just like Billy, but it was painful to see Faraday struggling with a half-heard conversation about people he never saw, his condition laid bare by the loss of Vasquez’ blanket of affectionate attention.
As they left Goodnight made sure to come up beside him at the top of the steps, saying ‘Come by Monday, if you’re willing; thought I’d do an afternoon’s fishing and could use the company,’ and taking the opportunity to slide an unobtrusive hand under his elbow to steady him.
‘Might just do that,’ said Faraday with the flash of a smile. ‘Thanks, Goody.’
That night he woke suddenly, heart pounding, throat raw, the image of Billy stark before his eyes. Not Billy as he’d seen him last, riding out of town with the wagons, nor asleep by the campfire, but lying cold and sightless, chest bloodied, abandoned in the desert. Goodnight shivered, pulling the quilt around himself, wrapping himself in Billy’s scent, but he couldn’t stop trembling: the clarity of his vision was like a punch to the chest. It could have happened. How would he know? Billy could be dead now, shot in an ambush, fevered, crushed under a sliding wagon, buried somewhere out there that he would never find. He might wait three weeks to see Vasquez and Teddy ride back without him, faces sombre; he might never see him again.
He reached out an arm, patting about blindly in the dark until his hand lighted on the case Billy had left. When he struck the match and lit the cigarette, seeing it flare and catch, he thought of Billy’s deft fingers rolling it, striking the match for it, of his lips drawing on it, as he’d done a hundred times on other nights in other rooms. He drew in the smoke and heard his quiet voice, felt his hand on his back, summoned him back into being to send the fear dropping down into the still dark pool of his mind, sitting in the night with the red glow for company until his thoughts wound grainy and slow. Eventually he crushed out the stub, rolled himself into the quilt and slid into the depths himself.
He carried a little of the ease with him into the morning, but as he sat at his writing anxiety wound like a cat around his feet, leaving him staring at the pages for minutes at a time, ink dried on his pen; when he lifted his head from his papers to a ringing silence, or when he saw his horse grazing alone in the paddock, it set a tiny cold bead rattling at the back of his skull, gifting him an insidious vision of what might so nearly have been, of what might still be, whispered his dream. Try as he might, the image from the night kept rising before him, and he was more than glad when Faraday appeared riding down the path to the house, fishing rod over one shoulder.
‘Shouldn’t you be working?’ asked Faraday, as they strolled down to the creek together.
‘Have been,’ said Goodnight, ‘six pages of well-expressed criticism of the Chinese exclusion proposals, ready for the mail to Prescott.’
‘And they pay you for airing your opinions?’
‘Seems there’s an appetite for it,’ said Goodnight. ‘Likewise, shouldn’t you be?’
‘Horse needs to rest as well as to work,’ said Faraday.
‘Ah yes,’ said Goodnight as they passed under the trees, ‘“the bow that is never unstrung will break”.’
‘You talk a whole lot of shit,’ cackled Faraday, but Goodnight smiled serenely. ‘And you’re in for a long afternoon of it.’
It was pleasantly cool in the shade of the trees, the creek pooling smooth and brown, insects dancing above the dimpled surface. ‘This is a good spot,’ said Goodnight, and they laid out their tackle on the creekside. Out here in the open his own unease lessened and Faraday’s injuries too seemed less obvious: he stretched his leg as he sat, and handled rod and line with some of his old dexterity.
‘Always did enjoy fishing. Envy you that, having the creek right by.’
‘Abner did us a favour selling this plot,’ agreed Goodnight.
It was as relaxing as he’d hoped, out in the sun and the breeze, afternoon empty of anything but patient expectation, and his spirits rose.
‘Strange enough to see all of us settling down,’ remarked Faraday after a while, ‘’cept Red of course, not his way.’
‘He’s young,’ said Goodnight. ‘But yes, even Horne the mountain man, married with a litter of ready-made grandchildren. Surprises me still sometimes.’
The sun filtered through the leaves as birds chattered above them and Faraday suddenly grunted, hauling in his line and pulling in a wriggling silver fish. ‘See that!’ he cried triumphantly, and Goodnight had to smile at the boyish enthusiasm in his face.
Once he was settled again, line recast, Faraday went on, ‘Vas is strange that way too - hiding out, dangerous fugitive, and now it seems all he wanted to do was find a farm and put in a day’s work.’
‘We don’t always know ourselves,’ said Goodnight, ‘never thought I’d settle in the one place.’
Faraday scoffed. ‘You’re the only one surprised by that, Goody – nothing you want more than a house and your own chair on the porch. But Billy now …’
‘Yes,’ said Goodnight. ‘Billy.’ He was silent for a while, contemplating his line where the water swirled round it, then continued, ‘It’s difficult. We can’t go back to what we used to, fighting and shooting, we both know that – we’re slower now, after what happened, even him, and there’d come a day when he wasn’t quite quick enough. No, he needs another way, but whether he can find it here… Billy’s carved his own path, more than any of us, and he’s not one to let people tell him what to do.’
‘Everyone knows he’s the boss of you,’ says Faraday slyly.
‘Pot, kettle,’ said Goodnight. He looked sideways at Faraday, casting his line again. ‘What about you? It works for Vas, we can all see that, but is Rose Creek working for you too?’
Faraday laughed humourlessly. ‘It’s fine. But it ain’t like I get a choice.’
‘Thought you liked horses,’ said Goodnight.
‘I do. But Rose Creek has to do for me now. Look at me, Goody. I can’t walk easy. Can’t ride for a whole day. Can’t hear right. Can’t draw a gun or palm a card. What would I do? Breaking horses – it’s good, works well – but it’s my only trick left to play.’ He paused and took a breath as though to continue, then let it out again.
‘What?’ asked Goodnight.
‘Nothing,’ said Faraday. ‘C’mon, you’re not even trying to trouble the fish. We’re not here to do nature study for the newspaper.’
By the time they were getting hungry they had a good haul of catfish, and as Faraday had caught most of them Goodnight considered it fair exchange that he gut and cook them; Faraday sat at the table, glass in hand, and watched him.
‘You eat like this all the time, it’s no wonder you’re getting soft round the middle.’
Goodnight turned from the stove to glare at him in outrage. ‘Front door’s behind you, Joshua, and Jack’s outside.’
His reaction made Faraday grin with delight. ‘No need to fight it, Goody, I’m sure Billy appreciates it.’
‘If you want to eat,’ said Goodnight, waving a fork with a menacing air, ‘you’ll withdraw that comment right now.'
‘OK, OK,’ said Faraday, holding up his hands, ‘you’re all whipcord and sinew.’
‘Damn straight I am,’ said Goodnight, creasing into laughter. He turned the fish in the skillet. ‘If you’re going to insult people you really need to learn to cook.’
‘Oh, I can shift for myself,’ said Faraday defensively. ‘Good to know I can.’
‘Why?’ asked Goodnight, flipping the fish onto two plates. ‘Not like you’d really need to.’
‘Well…’ Faraday shifted awkwardly. ‘Me and Vas – it’s not like you and Billy, is it?’
‘How d’you mean?’
‘Well, we just made acquaintance, then all this happened, and I was hardly awake for the first few months, and now …’
‘Self-doubt? From Joshua Faraday? Am I hearing right?’
‘Hey, you’re talking to the world’s greatest lover, you know.’
Goodnight choked on his fish. ‘I really did not need to hear that.’
‘But you and Billy – how long were you travelling together?’
‘Nine years,’ said Goodnight, turning his glass in hand and seeing Billy sitting across the table from him, lifting an eyebrow.
‘Like you said, must be odd without him.’
‘Like missing my right arm,’ said Goodnight absently. ‘But it’s only a month.’ He straightened up, abruptly conscious of his lapse into sentiment, and said, ‘C’mon, drink up. No reason to get maudlin here.’
Faraday needed no further invitation to do just that, and by the end of the evening both he and Goodnight were red-faced and snorting as they tried to outdo each other with outrageous tales. Goodnight had to heave him up, swaying and cursing, onto Jack for his ride home, awkwardness forgotten, and when he wove his own way to bed it was with the image of Billy as drunk as he was, wearing the boyish grin that only he saw, collapsing onto the bed beside him. I can do this, he thought as he crashed down into sleep. I have to be able to do this.