You spend enough time with someone, you get to know them, good and bad. Cole and I usually got along without much trouble, but it's like anything else you live with. Your wife, your horse, your clothes, even your own self. Some days, they rub you the wrong damn way.
We'd fallen in together so easily. When you step up to help a man who's facing seven-to-one odds, it makes him inclined to feel positive about you, though Cole probably hadn't needed the help. But it was like the routine found us. I did what he said, he listened when I had something to say, and we sorted out the rest of it between us.
Once we finished that first job in Trinidad, Cole wanted to head south, and I figured he had a plan. It didn't much matter to me which way we went. One of the things they taught me at West Point is that some men are leaders and some men are followers. I still believed that, but I'd learned that most men had it in them to be both. And on that day, and many days after, I was following Cole.
We had occasional disagreements, which never escalated into arguments. I didn't like the way he made the coffee, and he started making it stronger. He asked me not to whistle first thing in the morning, and I agreed. If you depend on a man to watch your back, like Cole depended on me, then small things stay small, as long as you're both willing to bend a little.
Everything went so smoothly for the first few months that it came as a shock to me the first time I saw Cole lose his temper. We'd passed through a town named Starkville, and though they had lost three marshals in two years, the local businessmen hadn't been willing to play by Cole's rules. Cole and I continued south, but when we stopped for a few days in Los Luceros, word reached us that a gang of outlaws had ransacked the town. The citizens had tried to stand up to them, and they'd died. The man who brought the news sat in the saloon, regaling anyone who'd listen with the most gruesome details he could conjure.
The third time he laughed about it, Cole got up from the table and smashed his face into the bar.
Everyone around us was too surprised to react at first, as shocked as I was by the sound of Cole's fist impacting flesh. I sympathized with Cole, because I had met those same people who were now dead, but most places don't look too kindly on the kind of violence Cole was displaying. It wouldn't take long before the onlookers got over their surprise. I stepped up behind Cole and pinned his arms, struggling with him as he fought to get free.
In my time as a soldier, I had seen every kind of rage and hate that men can display. Some men are cold in their fury, and quiet except for the sound of breath whistling through their clenched teeth. Given Cole's quiet competence, I would have expected him to behave like that, but he was screaming, his chest heaving under my hands and a glancing blow landing on my leg. He would have broken my nose by slamming his head back if I hadn't been fast enough to avoid it.
"Virgil!" I shouted his name a few times, and that finally seemed to cut through the fog. He let me pull him away, and neither of us looked at the man who lay moaning on the floor as we walked out the door, mounted our horses, and rode out of town.
We didn't speak of what had happened, because it wasn't necessary. But I'd seen a new part of Cole, and I knew to be prepared for it. The next time it happened, I brought the man a bottle of whiskey and a few dollars, and let him know that Cole was sorry for breaking his arm. And Cole was sorry. I knew that. It was just something that rose up in him every once in a while and took over, leaving him no choice.
The worst I ever saw him was years later. He nearly killed a man, and I never found out why. I was out getting some food while Cole sat in the hotel, reading one of his books. When I came back, I expected to find him drinking coffee and ready to quiz me about the difference between 'deprecate' and 'depreciate.' Instead, his hands were around Chuck Olson's neck, his fingers pressing in so hard that they were white around the knuckles. I got in there, worked my fingers under his and broke his hold. Chuck lay gasping on the floor. I would deal with him later.
I half-dragged Cole up the stairs to his room, dim in the fading sunlight, and kicked the door shut behind us. The momentum carried us to the bed, where I dropped him, and then took two steps back in case he took it in his head to lash out at me. He just sat there, calming himself down, head bowed like an exhausted horse's.
I'd used up quite a bit of wind getting him into the room, so I hooked a foot around the leg of the room's one chair and pulled it over. It creaked when I settled down into it, and as the sun set, the two of us sat there and didn't say anything, just like usual.
For some reason, though, I didn't feel like sustaining the usual. Maybe it was the darkness. Maybe it was the ache of an old wound in my thigh, a bullet crease I'd gotten a year ago in a gunfight that looked like it might go the wrong way. A lot of it was realizing that Virgil, in a killing rage, looked like many of the soldiers I'd known in the war, and I didn't think any man should be fighting a war unless he was in the middle of one.
I scooted my chair close to the bed, close enough that I bumped my knees into his, and wrapped my hand around the back of his neck. It was damp with sweat. I didn't try to say anything, since there wasn't anything that wouldn't be meaningless noise. Instead, I just pulled him in close to me, so he would know for sure that I was there.
Our foreheads touched, and before I was aware, the touch had almost turned into a kiss. I had seen all the ways men could offer each other comfort, but it had never occurred to me to take part. I didn't think it had ever occurred to Virgil either, but I had to admit that I hadn't had my eyes on him every moment we'd been together. There were plenty of times he'd been off on his own and I'd figured he was with a whore, but Virgil had always been more comfortable with men than with women. They spoke his language.
He tilted his head a little, and his lips just barely brushed mine. I could feel his breath on me, so hot that I could hardly bear it. I let my hand drop down to his shoulder, and then I let myself drop down to the floor in front of him, on my knees. There wasn't anything I wouldn't do for him, and if this was what he needed, it was an easy choice.
The next morning, we rode out of town, heading for a place called Appaloosa, where they needed some law and order to stand up to a group of outlaws. The sun was shining down on us, and I didn't have much to do besides think and handle my gelding, who was a little fractious. After a few hours, I concluded that I didn't have much to think about. I didn't regret what we'd done, but that knowledge, that memory, would always be with me, like a tune in the back of my head.
"I've been thinking about what we're likely to face in Appaloosa. It seems to me that it may be a bit of a challenge."
I agreed that it might.
"I knew Jack Bell, and he was a good man. Not the kind of man who would walk into a situation he didn't think he could get out of. But also not the kind of man who would ab-…abro-…what's the word I'm thinking of, Everett? Something to do with responsibilities?"
"Abdicate," I said.
"Not the kind of man who would abdicate his responsibilities."
I suggested that many men might find it hard to remember their responsibilities when staring down the barrel of a gun.
"But not us."
"Not us," I said. The horses padded their way along the dirt trail, calm now, heads nodding with each step.
"I do like that about you, Everett," Cole said.
I thought maybe when he said like, he meant love, but for once, I wasn't sure.