It takes a lot of bullets to kill a man, and twice as many to down two.
Sundance doesn't like the way the rickety train keeps jostling Butch's head like that. His neck all limp and puppet-like. Not even small luxuries back here in the cargo carriages, just crates and stowaways. A stunted little woodcreeper hopping about the musty floor since Bolivia, unable to find the crack in the wood it'd snuck in by. It bristles at Butch's nasal snores; at least he's asleep and not unconscious.
He never snored before, but a hard fall jolted his face out of alignment, his nose bruised across the bridge and scabbed inside where the blood dried before they could clean it.
He's handsome enough, still. He'll make a joke about it when they reach still water and he can examine his battered reflection. Sundance is sure of it.
Sundance shifts on the floor, his limbs stiff. His legs are tangled up with Butch's, the two of them propped opposite each other in a small clearing made by the forest of crates and sacks around them. Sundance mostly keeping Butch upright with his tired legs. His trousers and boots so dusty he looks like a bronze statue, long unwashed, from the waist down. He scratches at his jaw; he wants badly for a razor.
If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.
Butch stirs in his sleep, cradling his bad hand. Sundance nudges his foot, not too hard, and watches him frown awake like a child.
"Dreamin'," Butch mutters, groggy. He hasn't sounded fully sober since the shootout, though neither of them has touched a drop.
"Ain't no use in that," Sundance retorts. "C'mon, up." Painful creaking and a wince at every bent joint as he clambers up, scooping Butch up under his armpit and holding him around the shoulder like a backwards sling. "Up. It's our stop."
They manage to get only one horse, Butch relying on his foggy remembrance of rustling as a brash kid and Sundance soothing the beast with soft utterances; he's always been good with them. They seem to trust his quietness. No time or chance for hunting down a saddle, so they sit squeezed tight together on the horse's back, pushed forward, Sundance with his palms braced either side of the mane, and Butch's hands clasped together around his middle.
The right hand is weaker, considerably. Sundance reckons he'll have to teach Butch to shoot with his left.
They're travelling north-east, the sun rising sluggishly to their right. Out here in the parched desert swathes of New Mexico, all the sun's focus seems to be on the two of them, bearing down on them as soon as it's high enough. Sundance can always tell when they're travelling north; they spent so long meandering southwards, down towards Butch's fetid dream of Bolivia. Now, despite the emptiness, they seem to be headed towards civilisation. Back up near Sundance's ragged roots.
"Where's your head at?" Butch mutters behind him, all of a sudden. His voice is close and muffled – his head has lolled forward, forehead pressed into Sundance's tense shoulder.
Sundance gives him a grunt of acknowledgement; what're you gabbing about?
"I'm always quiet."
"Ain't the same if I got no spirit to keep on at you," Butch says. His hands are tight and stiff around Sundance's middle.
They ride on a mile or two more. And then Sundance hums a low melody Etta taught him once, a learning song she sang with her young class, teaching their ABCs or numbers or whatnot. He can't recall the words. Just the tune.
Hums it for Butch until he comes over brusquely bashful, and clams up into silence once more.
Another train out east.
Sundance stands Butch to attention outside the backwater station, pats down his pockets. It hurts Butch to put his hand down into the fabric, and he knows it, and he rolls his eyes all the same. Sundance fishes out a couple bloodied cents; they've changed clothes, of course, since the shootout – snatched from clothes lines and discarded until they found something that fit right. Clambering around carriage floors has opened up fresh wounds on Butch's thigh, bled through the lining.
Sundance holds the money out in his palm. "Spit," he orders, his own mouth too parched. Butch rolls his eyes again, spits, and watches Sundance clean the pennies.
There's time until the train, so they backtrack, find a pokey reading room, and huddle in the corner over a shared cup of coffee and crackers without butter. Sundance's leg twitches, agitated. The last time they were seated and supping, an army descended upon them. He wants to wash his dusty hands and face in the privy, knows he smells of horse and sweat, but he's nervy to leave Butch's side; the man can't run in his sorry state.
Butch puts his hand on Sundance's knee, below the table, passes the strong coffee over.
They are dead men, now. Nobody hunting them out here.
They catch their easterly train, Sundance heaving Butch up into the cargo hold. "All this hassle and you're still a dead weight," he chides, slumping next to Butch as the train hisses and bucks and pulls out of the station, two men heavier than it has any right to be.
"You just got fast hands and weak arms," Butch retorts, his eyes closing. "Always did."
Butch weighs less than he ever has. Far less than times years back when Sundance mostly carried him drunk out of bars, tripping over his own damn feet, making sharp getaways before the girls Butch left blissed out and languid in the inn rooms upstairs could realise the money he'd left was less than half what they'd agreed. Butch is thin as a deer, and hungry, and using all his damn energy to snap back at Sundance.
One of the cargo crates yields bags full of potatoes, and they lug one overboard before jumping off themselves, a mile or two out from the next station. Some place just within the bounds of Illinois. Sundance has always found Illinois to be a flat, oily sort of place, the people greasy too; but the river that wends through it is fresh, a blue wash across a blackish state.
His feet don't quite take his weight anymore, and they both land ass-down, hard, in the mud by the train tracks.
"Jesus," Butch says, smirking to himself and then showing his teeth to the heavens, as though God's in on the joke. "Look at us. A pair of old fools."
"We ain't old yet," Sundance gripes. He heaves Butch up; tries to do the same with the potatoes but can't lug the whole, heavy sack; snicks it open with his pocket knife and makes Butch carry as many as he can fit in his crossed arms.
They set up camp near the Macoupin Creek. Not much to settle into; Sundance has emptied out the rest of the sack and bought the hessian along for them to sit on, and it's been a dry enough few days that collecting wood for a fire takes less than an hour, even at their slow pace.
Sundance wanders down by the water, scoops up a couple of the bright yellow pond lilies that sway all along the placid creek. The water's cold enough to bite, but the both of them need to bathe badly; it can wait until they've eaten. There's plenty of hours left in the day.
Butch picks the petals off the lilies with Sundance's knife, like he's whittling wooden toys for children, and finally begins talking. He sounds tired, older, but his voice is so welcome that Sundance feels his chest contract. He's blathering about Australia: "In Australia, y'know, every man's a thief or a son of a thief. They've got honour in Australia, Sundance, that's what I'm saying – nobody'd rat you out, they'd rather pitch in for a fair share of the takings. We could go into business in Australia, almost legitimate-like."
"Says you," Sundance murmurs, smiling. He stacks their vegetables across a makeshift grill, damp wood laid across more of the same, criss-crossed either side of the warming fire.
"Says I," Butch retorts. "We'll find a wall with a hole in it, and start a new gang."
"Better to find the men before the hideout."
"Ah, you're no fun. The hideout's half the thing. Part of the image. Get the right sorta men that way. Ain't nobody wants to bring their haul back to someone's grandma's crooked basement."
The potatoes and tubers are hot to the touch and hotter to eat, both of them chewing with their mouths open like spoilt children. They could use plenty of salt, but they're filling, a necessity, and the creek water judged clean enough to drink, even if perhaps it's not.
Butch lies himself down with his arms outstretched after he's eaten, exhaling like he's consumed a great steak and a glass of decent scotch. His shirt settles against his concave stomach. Laid out like that, all his joints look out of alignment, his cheeks pale wherever he's not tanned, sallow under the eyes and around his jaw. Sundance watches him, just watches him breathe. He always did watch Butch, when Butch was talking or making his deals or running his schemes.
With his eyes still closed, Butch raises his right hand up tentatively, unwraps the black cloth bandage around the bullet wound there. It comes away crusty and brittle, moreso than Sundance would've liked to see, and Butch clucks his tongue at the ache of it.
A few days back, Sundance worried he might have to saw the thing off. It looks to be healing just fine. An ugly, puckered wound – he might be able to twist his littlest finger right through the hole if he put enough pressure into it. In one side of Butch's palm and out the back. He could put his mouth to it, do the same with his tongue.
It strikes Sundance, not for the first time at all, that he is a violent sort of man. He had thoughts like that back with Etta, too. That he often wanted to put his fist in her hair, near her scalp, and clench it tight, or bite down at the top of her thigh and leave his teeth there for minutes at a time.
He has not acted upon such things. Acknowledged them; dismissed them.
"You look like a damn tin can on a fence," he says, poking at the fire.
"Full of holes," Butch agrees genially.
Sundance takes off his shirt and boots, rolls up the hem of his jeans, and sits himself comfortably at the edge of the creek. His dusty feet shy away from the water at first, toes curling and flexing, but after a minute or two he starts to relax, leaning back on his flat palms and turning his face up to the sky. The setting sun leaves a sultry bruise across the landscape, blues turning to purples, white clouds licked with fiery borders, but there's a stillness to the violence. Like the aftermath of a raid. Fading exhilaration, chasing its tail across the sky.
Butch is naked and floating on the water's surface, the pond lilies bumping around him like curious pups. Trickles of water catch on the scars of his skin, edging around them politely. He’s always looked happy in the water; grateful for tin baths, pulling off his clothes to test the depth of shallow ponds, or fully clothed, any old oasis in the long desert, trusting the sun to dry him out after.
Sundance finds the water kind of tricksy. Took boats out with family friends when he was very young, a scrapper in New Jersey – his pa liked fishing, he recalls, though he doesn't recall much else about his pa save for the leather of his belt – but it was generally assumed he could swim, if a rough wave tossed him overboard; nobody thought to ask, nobody thought to teach him.
He cups his hand and scrubs his face with the fresh water; does it a couple of times to feel clean, combs his damp hands through his overlong hair. Still needs that shave. Butch too. He always liked to be smooth-cheeked; said it gave him a naivety that made folks trust him. "Don't need a baby-face to make people think you're an idiot," Sundance had said. Both of them laughing.
"Get in the water," Butch says, suddenly.
"You shut your mouth and keep swimmin'."
Butch flaps his arms, rocks himself upright and stands up tall in the water; it comes up to his thighs and no higher. His hands planted on his hips, a crooked smile on his face, rough tuft of hair between his legs, around his cock, a shade darker than his straw-blond coif.
"I'll eat my hat if you drown in this," he says, all sass. The water's revitalised him. He's thin, sure, but with some food in him and the layer of grime sluiced from his skin, he looks like the same cocky bastard Sundance went into business with all those wistful summers back.
"You only got so many hats," Sundance grumbles, unbuttoning his jeans all the same.
He cusses the whole time, and Butch laughs, and tries to kick Sundance's feet out from under him, get his head under the water. "Lie back, just lie back," Butch says, half-guffawing, while Sundance rubs the heel of his palm in his face to ward him off. They tussle a little, the lilies scattering, until Sundance relents enough and lets Butch stiffly manhandle him into place, a hand out for Sundance to lie his back on until the water takes his weight, muttering softly, "Gotta trust the water, it'll hold, not too tense now—"
Butch holds onto Sundance's wrist while they float, for ballast and reassurance. The lilies snuffling in around them once more, when they've settled. Like flowers around gravestones.
Sleeping arrangements are not discussed. The both of them presume the night will get cold, and Butch's limbs are starting to stiffen again after their long soak. Sundance lets him dictate, lets him find some half-comfortable position he can stick for a few hours, and then wraps around him wordlessly. No blanket; the hessian sack beneath them; a wreck of bullets and gold bars behind them and only a vast maw of uncertainty ahead.
They make it up to New England on the backs of stolen horses, crouched in haulage carriages, guessing when ticket-takers will make their move down to the third-class train carriages and hopping off at the station before. Pick-pocketing old women tottering up to the dining car, selling their jackets at every town and stealing replacements; Sundance even sits on the edge of a mid-town fountain and scoops up a handful of coins tossed in by hopeful children and hopeless romantics.
They scrape together enough for a night at a rotten inn, good-time girls in the back rooms and card-sharps at every other table. Sundance's hands itch for a good game of blackjack, and if his head were fully together, he could triple their meagre bankroll in a night. But nobody bets with mouldy cents at a card table.
They drink watered-down beer on the upstairs balcony, and nobody bothers them. They look like tramps who’ve had a good day's begging. Sundance mutters about his family back in Jersey.
"Had a great uncle or great-great or any number of greats – what I'm saying is, he was an old man when I was born and older still by the time I had any sense in me. Not rich per se but he owned a few plots of farmland, rented it out at insensible prices to Hamptons boys who thought themselves men of the land." He drinks, grimaces at the taste, and watches Butch watch the girls cooing at passers-by from the porch of the inn. His head's crooked towards Sundance, though; he's listening. Always paying attention, even if only three quarters of it.
"So this well-to-do uncle up and dies when I'm about eight or so, and I ain't know a jot about money at that time, but of course there's a big scrap in the family about who gets all this old man's cash, who gets the land – and he's got all this collateral too, a little apartment in New York City, all manner of gold squirreled away in banks, a deal just about to push through on a fourth spit of farmland out near Tabernacle – and he's got this wooden hunting cabin out in the Adirondacks. Nothing special, just an overnight place, probably stank of deer's innards 'cause the old man's hands shook like hell and he still tried to gut the things in that hut with his own two palms. Went on for years, all that arguing. I recollect my pa pulling a gun on his own half-brother at one point. Over the goddamn dinner table.
"In all the mess, that little cabin got forgot about. No worth in it except for firewood. My family was too hard up to hunt for leisure. The place's still empty as far as I know anything about it."
There is a long silence after this story. Butch is facing down still, towards the girls, but his eyes are glazed in concentration. All the froth has bubbled out of his beer glass. "You all done with your tales?" Butch says, some affected lightness in his tone.
It occurs to Sundance that, apart from his full name, Butch knows damn near nothing about his past. Or, at least, didn't until now.
"That cabin – that where we're heading?"
"It sure is," Sundance says. He doesn't ever speak without meaning to.
Sundance thinks about shaving off his moustache – it gives him away, always has. But he looks at his drawn face in the dirty mirror, and can't quite manage it. Gotta be something there to recognise, something of the famous old days.
They sleep on one bed, Butch settling first and Sundance pressing his front up against Butch's back, so there's only one of them vulnerable while they sleep. No need for it. But it's habit, by now.
They have a close call in New York state that isn't, in fact, close at all.
Sundance is not a paranoid man – jumpy men have no use in his business, targets and liabilities – but he has none of Butch's petulant optimism. Perhaps it's the context that riles him. Buying cheap boxes of shot from the general store, cans of meat they can pick open with knives around a makeshift fire, woollen socks for Butch because his stolen boots ended up a little small, rub holes around his littlest toe and heels. His hand's on the box of bullets when he thinks he overhears it: LeFors, a grey murmur from the back of the store, a death knell three shelves away.
He pays his money and pockets his bullets. Everything else in hand. Walks slowly from the store without turning back around.
Their hotel in Corning is a little too rich for the likes of them. Chandelier in the entranceway, but it's a front: the benches are leftovers from the town's dying timber business, and most of the incoming glass folks'd turn their nose up at such a place. For two runaways with only coins to their name and their rental history a string of brothels and stables, it's a drastic change.
"We got enough for one night, and I'm tired of smelling like hay and horsehair," Butch had complained amiably. Sundance has always been vaguely weak to his whims. Hole-in-the-Wall. Union Pacific. Bolivia.
"Let's stick around," he says gruffly, when he gets back to the room. Butch looks up in mild surprise, fixing up his belt and his shoes lined up next to the bed ready for walking.
"Fair enough." He shrugs.
They've never much questioned each other. Not that Butch has ever proved himself particularly trustworthy, not to the everyman. He was born a charmer, a handsome smile and eyes that reflected a seascape he'd never seen; women were easy for his gentlemanly graces, though Butch preferred quantity over any particular quality. He had a way of wooing menfolk too, though not into bed – wheedling and persuading and using a skewed sort of logic that made sense at the time and none of it hours later.
It was as though, with a sole glance, he'd known none of this would play out with Sundance. They had shook hands, when they went into business; long before that an unspoken agreement had been made. Men tended to call it friendship, and perhaps that's what it was. Perhaps.
They hole up in their hotel room another two nights, not leaving even for food. Butch complains jovially, his spirits much higher though there's still a lollop in his gait and Sundance helps him more than once over to the jakes and the sink, irrationally standing guard. Every time his stomach rumbles: "Listen a'that, Sundance! Like a baby kickin'."
"Get on out," Sundance barks back.
Hunger eventually drives Butch to philosophy. Desperate times. Musing aloud on what fateful whim brought them to their current straits; nothing particularly maudlin about his thoughts, though they wander about less clear-headedly than Sundance would like to hear.
The two of them lie on one of the two beds, legs bent and arms lounging behind their heads so as not to seem as weak as they feel. Talking about old jobs, old women, young women, the last good meal they ate, the thickness of a wad of cash, the weight of a piece of gold compared to a copper cent in the cradle of a cupped palm. "You miss Etta?" Butch asks once, later afternoon, around dinnertime.
Sundance grunts noncommittally.
"Thin ice," Butch agrees.
They doze rather than sleep. It's hard to keep routine without meals and pocket watches (pawned several towns back in the hope of a good steak, or a whore for Butch's company; spent now on avoiding LeFors). Butch with his nasal snore and an open mouth, Sundance always curling in on himself as he sleeps, perpetually prepared for cold nights. Too many nights outdoors out on cold rock with only a cowhide jacket and Butch nearby for warmth.
He does wake, fitfully, in the late hours; slept right through the evening. Butch – he can hear shuffling – is not yet asleep. The two of them haven't been taking shifts with any real purpose, just years of habit and thievery. A familiar rhythm to that shuffling, brisk but not steady, and Butch grinding his teeth together in frustration every now and then. He was always stubbornly right-handed. Sundance learnt in his teenage years to fire a gun with each hand, though the left was more often than not a deterrent; it looked a fierce threat, and stayed men flanking their weaker side from shooting back. His aim was never as sharp on the left.
"You'll get nowhere like that," Sundance mutters, voice low, and if the fact of his consciousness startles Butch, he doesn't show it.
Sundance pulls Butch towards him gruffly, their bodies fitting together neatly, same height, same sort of build. He's careful enough of Butch's damaged right hand, pulling it up to his chest and grasping the wrist in a sort of sling-hold, a sort of embrace. Butch has been seeing to himself politely, still tucked into his jeans, though they're unfastened and he's hard. Dry. Sundance spits in his right palm, frees up Butch properly, presses tight against him, and goes to it.
What Sundance thinks about is this: he and Etta lovemaking in the little house she owned in the middle of nowhere, just the one bedroom and Butch always consigned to sleep swaddled up in blankets in the kitchen. It was a brisk winter, and Etta had kissed Sundance's neck, licked over where he had nicked himself shaving in the cold, and said, "Let's have him in here, huh, Harry? Let's bring him in, it's silly out this evening—"
Butch starts up a low grunt a few strokes before he comes, lingers on the noise when he shoots off. It's a pained, grateful sort of sound, and coming from anyone else, it might've sounded pitiful. Instead, Sundance feels the groan echo low in his stomach, as though Butch's few wrung-out seconds of pleasure are coursing from his skin, through Sundance's fingers, right into the beating heart of him.
His hand and the sheets are a mess. Butch buries his face in the thin pillow for a moment, exhales, then gets up, limping to their little pile of worldly goods to find a handkerchief or something close to clean Sundance's hand.
"No bother," Sundance mutters. "Sink'll do fine."
There are two beds in the twin room and, for the first and only time that night, they use them both.
How Butch found out what was eating at Sundance, he doesn't know, but the fact of the matter is, Butch takes their last cents down to the nearest eatery while Sundance is dozing, buys a cup of coffee to look civil, and strikes up a conversation with strangers about whether that LeFors fella ever caught those two bandits he was chasin' after.
"He's dead," Butch announces, sitting on the edge of Sundance's bed, just avoiding his feet. "LeFors. They found him a week back, some couple hundred miles from here. Something must've spooked his horse, bucked him, dashed his brains out on a rock in the middle of nowhere. Dried blood all over that damn hat.
"D'you know he never got a single penny for killing those banditos Yankees?" he carries on, his tone dangerously light. "Mexican army took 'em down. Who'd have thought? Bodies shot up so bad there was nothing left of 'em."
"That so?" Sundance says, finally. He breathes out, a long exhale that feels almost smoke-like, all the grit and heaviness emptying out of his chest and lungs. His skin feels eroded, worn down from running – even standing still, he's been running away this whole time. Self-preservation is a wearying damn pastime.
"How much cash we got?" Sundance says, rubbing at his face and sitting up.
"Stone cold broke," Butch replies, grinning.
"Sounds about right," Sundance sighs. "C'mon – c'mon. Time to go."
The Great North Wilderness seems another country to the plains of Wyoming. They could never want for cover here, the trees dense and uncaring, long having settled their land wars and grown like towering giants alongside each other. The air is thinner here, no grit and grain in every lungful, but a fierce, grasping freshness that pushes and pulls at Sundance's throat and nostrils. No longer the sun watching their slow progress, its haughty gaze blocked by the high canopy, but curious blackbirds, thrushes, warblers whistling sweet songs to one another – perhaps to them as well.
Their horse is proud and sturdy, her hooves indenting the soil with every step, her head high as though she knows, as surely as anything, the way they have to go. For a mile or two, Sundance tried to sit forward enough in the saddle that Butch's belly wouldn't be pressed up against his back; but they settled into the ride, weary to keep up that daft pretence, and now they slot in together like a pair of old spoons. The same dents and scratches. Tooth-marks and pocks.
He has only a vague guess where the cabin is, having visited it just the once in his young childhood. Butch ribs him good-naturedly for the oversight, but as the forest merges and blends like wet cursive, all the trees blurring into one and the same for their indistinctiveness, he falls quiet; trust and hope. He leans his head forward on Sundance's shoulder, resting there; hunting for sleep, Sundance supposes, but he finds comfort in the touch. Every time they stop across a little mound or ridge, his mouth nudges downwards into Sundance's coat. Unasked-for kisses, unknowingly given, against the leather.
Sundance play-fought, once, with Etta about it: she had asked him, full of cheek, what Butch's kisses were like. "Why don't you find out for yourself?" Sundance had spat back, focused on lighting his cigarette more than her dainty feet playing around his thighs and crotch.
"So we can compare?" she'd said, grinning, sliding her bare toes up, up, up.
"What are you talking on about?" Sundance had frowned. He'd grabbed her foot and kissed the heel of it, his moustache against her tender skin making her squirm and laugh, and she had taken his cigarette out of his lips and kissed them and kissed them. She'd looked thoughtfully at Butch, when he interrupted them with a cough and a complaint about where dinner was at. Looked at him thoughtfully and then back at Sundance's lips.
"She had ideas in her head, that girl," Sundance says aloud. No context, but Butch picks up on his idle thoughts nonetheless.
"You gonna tell me you miss her yet?"
"I miss her, sure." Sundance shrugs. Knocking Butch's nose softly with his shoulder. No harm done. "But I ain't mourning for her, and I hope she ain't for me neither."
Butch hums low in agreement. Neither of them are wise men. But sometimes, Sundance thinks, they can manage at least to make some sense of their own small world.
And on they go; and on, and on.
The cabin is a forgotten husk in the middle of an overgrown clearing. "And here I was expectin' a house," Butch grumbles plainly, Sundance helping him down stiff and aching from the horse's back, "and you've brought me to a pile of firewood."
The smell of years-old dust is familiar and heavy, the same smell as any place left unsettled in the desert for more than a week. Out here in the woods, it seems, it takes decades for ghosts to weave into the cracks and crevices. There's a faint cured-meat stink, not as bad as Sundance might have suspected; fishing rods propped in one corner with their strings rotted clean away, a mouldy cleaver on a creaking tabletop, metal buckets empty where rust has eaten holes around the bottom. All of these Sundance empties out into the makeshift yard, clearing leaves away from the front of the cabin with the toe of his boot. The horse sniffs at everything curiously, recoils, haughty.
The bed-sheets on the cot are musty and cobwebbed. Butch leans his weight on a window until it croaks open in a coughing splutter of debris and chipped wood; they drape the sheets across it for some air. "Get dustin'," Sundance tells him, not wanting Butch to shoulder any of the heavy lifting.
"Aye sir, yes sir," Butch replies, trying to curtsey on his good leg. He uses his jacket as a cloth, waves it as high as he can reach in the corners of the lowish ceiling, scoots spiders out with his feet and wards a perching thrush out the front door with flapping arms and a great deal of foolish yelling.
A few tins of old meat, useless in the pantry. A rotted bag of potatoes. All thrown out. The faucet spitting and spluttering for a minute or two, running water that turns from brown to silty yellow and then finally clear. Sundance cups a handful of it, brings it to his mouth, then sticks his head under the running tap and drinks his fill. Holds the faucet on for Butch to do the same.
"It'll do," Sundance says, as though convincing himself, hands on his waist and feet astride the creaking floorboards.
"It'll do," Butch echoes. So much gentler.
Routine is a strange and unfamiliar thing these days, but an innate habit nonetheless; they fall into it comfortably.
Exploration yields wry treasures: an overgrown, corrugated metal sheet nailed up to the back wall, sagging on its posts but sturdy enough to tie the horse under, give her some cover and a place to rest. Sundance knows they'll have to turn her loose sooner or later, but for now, everything will do.
A wooden shed, too, with a thick and rusting padlock that Butch opens with the butt of his pistol. The outer wood's borne the brunt of the years, and everything inside seems useable – sacks of coal, butchers’ knives and a sharpening stone, a pair of decent rifles and a bandolier of rounds, even a little grill basket that looks like it could be cleaned up well enough. Butch leans on the doorjamb and whistles low at it all.
"You might've planned all this ahead," he says, something sly.
"Dumb luck," Sundance mutters. But it does look a little that way. As though he's whisked Butch out here with just less than anything they might need, tired of their life above the law and wanting to settle, homely, just the two of them. Hell, they found a faded pack of cards in the cabin, underneath the cot bed, and spent two hours contentedly playing poker with imaginary stacks of chips. Butch's face has always been too readable for poker. Excitable when he gets a decent hand.
With all the time in the world open to them, Sundance finally teaches Butch how to shoot from the hip. Fills up his pistol and stands behind Butch, getting the plant of his feet right, the jut of his shoulders, his fingers curled around the gun right, not used to delicate procedures. "Never saw the need to shoot straight," Butch mutters, missing his target tree trunk for the seventh time. "It's the image of the thing, ain't it? Automatic truce if you're both carrying a gun."
"Clearly you never cheated a man at cards," Sundance tells him dryly, correcting his stance again. "Don't aim at the tree, aim through it."
"I can't damn well see what's through the tree, the tree's in the way."
So it's Sundance that hunts, in the mornings when the rabbits aren't so skittish and the fatter birds are pecking at worms on the forest floor. A young deer here and there, in the open patches on a lucky day; Sundance calls Butch over with a low whistle, and they watch the creature for a while. They're used to desert animals, hard scales and gritty brown, cold-blooded things with no ounce of grace. Dew drops cling to the faint tips of the deer's fur, crystalline in the morning sun. Butch's blue eyes wide as ever, no need now to squint in the fierce sun, just basking in the sudden elegance of nature.
Sundance shoots it down with two bullets, and they skin it, salt it, grill it. It's good. Steaks on the first day, and stew for a few after.
Butch goes out foraging one afternoon while Sundance whittles sticks into sharp points, makeshift traps for leaving out overnight, and comes back running, spilling berries out of his pockets and grinning like he's struck gold. He's gabbing a hundred miles an hour – did he hear it, did Sundance hear it, a goddamn lion, a mountain lion, distant but clear, thunderous, thought it was thunder at first, in the middle of the day, barely even realised until it'd near stopped, a terrible and wonderful thing – and Sundance just looks down at his pile of spikes and says, "Better fetch me a bigger stick, then."
Butch laughs like he's drunk. Adrenaline has always affected him so. Infectious. He lights up the clearing.
Most times they pack up for the night, they're still glowing, inside and out, from the warmth of the evening fire. Proper sleep now, no disgruntled dozing and half-woken dreams; they curl back-to-back on the cot bed and spend the hours from dawn until dusk asleep. Glorious.
Sundance does wake up, on occasion, with the world still dark and his palm at his crotch. Unzips his jeans – when it's summer proper, he supposes, they'll sleep buck-naked – and brings himself off steadily. No point rushing it. Butch's back is an anchor, a constant point of reference, and it makes Sundance feel earthy and full rather than weightless. He used to think of Etta, when he reached that point of urgency; would think of her small waist and her hands and the way she sometimes kissed the holster of his gun on her way down towards his dick.
But now he doesn't need to think of her at all. Butch's back. Solid, pressing against him. The most familiar thing left in his life. Sundance leans into it as he speeds up. Leans into it as he comes, doesn't bother with trying to stifle his low, throaty keen. After all this, they're surely past that now.
Sundance wakes with the dawn, drowsy, with his dick still out of his pants and his body turned to the empty dip on the other side of the mattress.
Butch is gone. Not gone outside to loose his bladder, or gone foraging, or gone fetching kindling for the nightly fire; he is gone. A little dirt on the floorboards where his boots often sit, the horse untethered and missing too. Butch is not the world's greatest scribe, but Sundance looks a little anyway for a note in his sloping hand. More childish than ever, his writing, now that he has to hold the pen away from his puckered palm.
Sundance fixes up his clothes and wanders out into the clearing in front of their cabin. His cabin; his uncle's cabin, he supposes. Nothing in this world truly belongs to the two of them, save for the long-spent money they stole and divvyed up a lifetime ago.
He kicks at the ashes of their fire, swears. Fills his gun with bullets and goes into the woods to shoot at the birds.
On purpose, Sundance doesn’t sleep. Sits outside feeding the fire until a few hours before dawn. Solitude treats him like a bad parent, neglectful and bitter. He never got along with it, and Butch mocked him genially for it more than once: "Must've been lonely if you shacked up so easy with me."
Eventually he shuffles to bed, wearily angry, and lies on the right-hand side of the bed with his arms crossed under the thin blanket.
Butch always made the plans. How is Sundance meant to plan for the rest of his life without Butch when Butch makes the plans?
He sleeps an hour, maybe two. He dreams of the horse bucking Butch in the middle of nowhere, rocky terrain and a cut to his forehead that won't stop bleeding. Dreams of lone mountain lions that haven't fed in a week. Dreams of US marshals with long memories, good eyes for faces, and decent gun-hands.
Come dawn, Butch is still gone.
He feels like an infant, like a fool. Kicking at dirt and wasting bullets on trees that care nothing for his mortal troubles. He scares off three hares, too distracted to hunt, and has to make do with tough leftovers for breakfast.
He should stick to their routine. He should clean himself down at the brook, fetch a bucket or two of clean water, check his traps, keep busy. He shouldn't mourn over a man who's well past due a visit from the reaper by now; the both of them should be dead a dozen times over.
Only, Sundance always thought they'd go together. No sense in thinking otherwise. They were so entangled.
Stupid and stubborn, he marches inside and grabs one of the creaking wooden chairs, and plants it in the mud in front of the cabin, and sits there. Watching for movement in the clearing.
He'll give it a day. He'll give it a day, and then—
He's asleep when Butch comes back. Fell asleep in the chair, his knuckles white from gripping the arms, his head lolled forward onto his chest so that it takes him a moment to register the sound of a horse's eager approach, to look up, to focus, to find Butch in front of him; exhausted but smiling fit to bust, with two huge sacks slung over the horse's back and not a single ounce of remorse in his eyes.
Butch jumps down from the horse with an easy skitter, a spring in his step, and hauls his sacks down from her weary-looking hide. They're so full he can't carry them above ground, has to drag them along, hollering at Sundance their bulging inventory: "Lake Placid's a village so small you could spit from one end to the other, Sundance, but damn, they know how to cater to a traveller! Potatoes, greens, seeds for 'em too, got us some fresh pork – well, ain't as fresh as I'd like it now, but still good, still good – salt for your catch, more salt than this horse wanted to carry, let me tell you – and look, traps and what-have-you, tools for the soil, I ain't even know the names of half'a these things but we'll learn, we can learn 'em, become right proper little farm hands, the two of us—"
He talks himself into exhaustion, beaming at Sundance. Straightens up a little when he sees Sundance's tight fist clenched around the arm of the chair.
"I didn't think it'd take me so long," he says, suddenly bashful. "Stayed overnight in the village and trotted on through the next night."
"You stupid son of a bitch," Sundance tells him.
"Come on, now. I didn't think it'd take me so long."
In his youth, Sundance was known for being remarkably even-tempered. A good shot with a rough mean streak, but it took a lot to coax it out of him. Only when he took up with Butch did his stolid nature start to crack and crevice more often. Personal slights against him and his travelling partner by crooked card-sharps and men who wanted more than their fair cut of the earnings. Butch's lawless ideas taking them one step too close to the inside of a jail cell or the barrel of a ranger's gun. Sundance didn't lose his temper when all he had to care about was himself.
"You stupid, goddamn son of a bitch—"
He almost charges towards Butch. He assumes, they both do, right until the last second, that he's going to bring his curled fist crashing into Butch's jaw.
Sundance kisses him with the sort of force that staggers them both backwards. All the anger and desperation of that punch he meant to throw, all of it pressed up against Butch's dry lips.
They have never really—stunned one another. Too comfortable for that. Butch was never even nervous the first time he said to Sundance: come on, Kid, let's rob a bank, what else are we good for? He knew what Sundance's reply would be, even in those early days.
So even when the force of his kiss dies down, deflated, Sundance stays with his forehead pressed against Butch's; not prepared to pull back and see that glint of shock in his bright, bright eyes.
He stays like that so long that Butch, far more gently, knocks their mouths together again. "All right?" he murmurs, biting softly on Sundance's bottom lip. "All right now?" His hand against Sundance's rough jaw.
"Fine," Sundance gripes quietly, pulling Butch in by the waist. His muscles are tight and weary from his long travel, and they need to get the meat into the cabin, and the horse is braying from hunger behind them. "Goddamn you," he murmurs, kissing Butch again, and a second time, and a third, the taste of him, the smell of him, everything exactly as he always thought it would be. "Who else have I got if I ain't got you?"
"You got me," is all Butch says. Out here in the quiet wilderness, nobody else for miles. Mouths touching. "You still got me."
Even an army didn't have enough bullets to come between them.