Dude hadn't sung in a long time. Years, almost three—he counted them, now that his head was clear and he could think again, and it made him a little dizzy. But not as dizzy as the liquor, and hating himself, down on his knees for a drink and oblivion. That was the point. He was waking up, and even while he was scared over it, everything coming back so bright and sharp, it still felt mighty fine.
"Want to?" the kid asked him again. Colorado, he was called—a fitting name for Rocky Ryan's son, with all the silver mines Rocky'd found and lost in his wild days out there, but truth be told, it didn't make him think of the mountains. He watched the kid move, watched the shine of his lower lip, and thought of those cool, green Colorado orchards, those fresh upland apples.
Colorado ran a thumb over the strings on that little painted guitar he'd picked up someplace; they shivered and hummed to his touch. "Go on. I'll follow."
He thought a minute, resting easy on the bunk. The cigarette between his fingers smoldered slowly down. Chance's coffee warmed the air. Colorado waited, those graceful, deadly hands gentling the strings back to silence.
"The sun is sinking in the west," Dude finally sang, letting the last note linger soft, getting the feel of it, like the first time a new horse stretched out in its paces. It tasted good to him, and he sang the next line, and then the next. Colorado let him keep on with the song alone, listening with ears and eyes both, it seemed, and a smile curling up on his face. At the chorus, he started a gentle pattern on the guitar, meeting and meshing with the rhythm.
Chance was smiling now too, across the room. He'd always liked to listen, when they were on patrol or riding out. Back those three years ago and more, he'd been one to sit back and bask in the sound, content and sleepy, like a bear in the sun. He had encouraged Dude to sing as nature prompted. And those times Dude felt right with the world, he would, happy enough at Chance's side. After all, wasn't Chance's fault he couldn't sing back.
This boy, though. He picked up the song when he was beckoned, twining round the tune smooth as smoke, and when Dude whistled to him, his face brightened, lips and eyes. They slipped into trading lines back and forth. The way his mouth shaped the words, it was enough to pull a man under. Colorado's lashes swept down at some of the words like they were almost too sweet and shaded to bear.
And then he took the lead as natural as anything. When Dude answered him, that smile kept sparking, coaxing and pleased at the same time. Back came the lead, and then both of them together, Colorado finding the harmony. Dude moved his hat to better watch Colorado's intent face, their eyes meeting as they brought the song in together, voices slowing, easing, sliding to quiet.
Oh, this boy.
Both of the Burdettes and that handful of their men had all been shut in the cells, dusty and resentful and muttering. Maybe some of them were hoping for a good lawyer, but just maybe they were expecting their friends on the outside to come for them, so it was no time to stop watching. That night's patrol, Colorado and Dude walked out together.
They were silent for a long time, each careful and thorough along his own side of the street. Burdette's meaningful loiterers were all gone, not even a cigarette butt to mark their places. The stable—Dude kicked his way in, drawing with both hands—held the livestock it was supposed to and nothing else. They drew closer then, exchanged a glance, and Dude headed for the front door of the Burdette saloon while Colorado slipped around back. But it was dark and quiet, the doors locked, the windowshades up to reveal all the chairs upended on the tables. If anyone was hiding inside, there wasn't a flicker of a light to be seen.
In the end, he kicked in here, too, moving fast with Colorado on his flank. Nothing. They split up and searched, but everyone was gone, Charlie and his shotgun and the moneybox included. The bartop and the abandoned bottles on the shelves were sticky, and the air stank sourly of spilled liquor. So they paced the road out of town a ways, alert for any meeting, any mob readying for a last stand. The sky was inky blue, the moon bright enough to throw a shadow. The desert held nothing, just cactus and lizard tracks and the call of an owl.
They'd been keeping apart, still, so one gunman couldn't get the drop on them both. Partly that, anyway. Dude was also pulling to his own side out of habit, a long long time of keeping safe from what he couldn't have. But the further they walked, the more Colorado slowly drifted in toward him, and he found himself drifting in too despite all his effort. Colorado's boots on the hard-packed dust raised barely a sound. He could've been any one of a half-dozen familiar ghosts pacing just out of reach.
Colorado's sleeve brushed his, once, and then twice, and that was really too close for two men in double-gun rigs to be walking if they wanted to keep the draw clear.
Round the bend Chance always used to call "Coward's Point"—an alcove of rock and brush where hotheads kicked out of town had been known to hole up in order to jump the next passerby—they slowed and stopped. It must've been Dude's idea first, but it seemed to come from both of them, or so close it made no never mind.
He crouched, his eyes by now well-adjusted to the spill of moonlight. There had been men here, and horses, but the tracks milled and crossed and then led in one direction: away from the town. He looked up at Colorado, who stood alert with his hands naturally curving over his pistols, looking into the tangle of brush and around the horizon for ambushers.
"They're gone. Can't follow 'em on foot." His voice, though he kept it hushed, sounded in his head like a shout after so long.
He rose, Colorado's posture changed just a bit, and they were heading back toward town. Their sleeves brushed once more.
"Burdette's men, they've been a thorn here for a long time," Colorado said, though it angled like a question.
"Sometimes feels like forever," he replied. Then he had to leave that lay for a minute, as the weight of the past couple years suddenly bore down on his back, ached in his knees. He hunched his shoulders up a bit.
But Colorado didn't push. He walked along in his easy quiet, their strides matching. The silence was a balm poured over wounds that had only started healing up.
Watching ahead, scanning for spots where a man might hide, Dude said, "Joe got especially bad, when... I was down."
"Seems to me I heard something about that," Colorado said.
It was a good thing he'd had lots of practice lately holding his head up, because he needed it right then. "I bet you heard an awful lot."
"Well," came Colorado's voice, smooth and thoughtful as ever, "People do talk. But lots of times, the more they talk, the less they know." He drifted close enough for their sleeves to almost brush again—and they didn't touch this time, but the very air felt charged with the almost of it.
He remembered singing with this boy yesterday, indulging himself. Harmless enough, he'd thought. But not anymore.
"Now listen, son," he said, careful not to glance sideways. "I'll tell you a little story."
No sound beside him but footsteps, so faint as to be an echo of his own.
"Once there was a Sheriff, name of Chance, John T.," he went on hard. "He had this deputy he'd known for half his life. Fella who'd first come out here, younger than you, with soft hands and a soft little heart. Pure city dude, and so they named him, even after he roughed up. Found he could shoot a silver dollar through three times on the fly. But he still had this soft heart, see."
He drew his breath in a short, fierce sip, like a shot of rotgut. "Chance didn't mind. Ain't that something? Chance always knew, and he still— He was never bothered. But this deputy, he was so... so sick in himself, he just about got to hating Chance for not hating him back properly."
A cool rill of wind passed over the back of his neck, the way the desert had of going cold all of a sudden. He felt far away from himself, like a man in a fever, and watched, marveling, as he burned his hiding places.
"A woman came to town. Said she could fix... him. Chance actually told him he didn't need fixing. But he wanted so much just to be—" No. He couldn't dwell here. That last fight, his pistol suddenly out of its holster. Chance's eyes. "Anyway, this fellow turned and left with her. He was back in half a year. And you can bet your last centavo that he hadn't been fixed one bit. So he crawled right inside a bottle and made to drown himself in it."
"At least he came back here," said Colorado, and it made him jump, automatically looking over. The boy's face was half in shadow from his hatbrim, but for his mouth. "Showed some sense."
Dude stopped to face him, staring into that shadow like he could tear it away. "Better pay attention, now. You ever heard the little rhyme about me in Burdette's saloon?"
"Can't say I have."
And so Dude chanted, his mouth so dry his lips stuck together at the corners: "Un chupito, borrachón—dos chupitos, maricón. One drink, a drunk. Two drinks—" He shut his mouth hard. "How's your Spanish?"
"It's all right," Colorado said.
"Got so I'd do anything for a drink. With anybody. You should've seen—" Chance forced to watch as he slowly drowned himself—two years, down on his knees, creeping round the edges of things, trying not to look at Chance or even remember him (or himself, most of all), trying to turn into someone else, Borrachón.
He had to stop. Those years, they'd be a long time fading, like scars from a blacksnake whip.
"Understand?" he said.
That was not a question that could take any answer but one. Colorado, however, shifted his stance to the other hip and said, "Well, I ain't never seen you except with that star on. And it seems to me like it still fits just fine."
All his built-up arguments, that wall of words he was hastily building up between them, it went crooked and fell, faced with that quiet certainty. How could you fight a voice like that, that said things so soft and steady like there wasn't even a chance they weren't true?
He lifted his hands slightly, dropped them. "I can see why you and Chance get on so well." He'd meant to be bitter, but from the movement of Colorado's mouth he knew he hadn't managed it. And then Colorado's chin tilted up just enough to let moonlight in under the brim of his hat, and his eyes said something more.
Now this...it called for some thought.
Again they turned, as if on some signal, and headed back toward town. His step felt light, somehow, his belly cool and settled as if he'd spat out a gulp of poison along with the story. He heard Colorado's footfalls right alongside his own, and whistled a short refrain to their rhythm.
Colorado whistled after, finding the tune right out of his thoughts.
Down the street all the way back to the jail, they whistled over and around each other, and it felt like more got said there than in the whole rest of the evening.
He saw Chance next morning—late next morning—stepping out of the hotel with a look both sleek and sheepish. Of course, the sheer stockings falling from the window of Feathers' room last night had clearly showed just what those two had finally agreed on between themselves.
He made sure to beam most sweetly as Chance caught up to him.
"Oh, shut up," Chance said, going pink.
"Not a word," he replied, blinking wide and innocent, and grinned as Chance hurried ahead and slammed his way through the jail door.
But later, when Stumpy and Colorado were out fetching in more supplies (a heap of prisoners surely did diminish the food stores), Chance turned away to get coffee from the stove and said, "Looks like I'm fixing to get married."
He rocked back in his chair, the wood creaking beneath him. "Huh. Feathers know about this?"
Before Chance could even finish turning to glare at him, Dude let his smile out, the real one, no fooling around. Chance's glare melted right off; he looked awkward all of a sudden, and almost young. "I was going to wait until I could build her a house," he said, like he was confessing to something. "But then I thought—" He looked down, turning his cup around in his hands.
Dude studied him. "Well, you found something," he said gently. "You don't want to lose it."
Chance peered up and met his eyes. "Yeah." His voice went all soft the way it did sometimes, the way hardly anyone ever heard. "So I guess you meant what you said."
"About taking care of you? Course I did." He shrugged. "Don't know that you need it much."
"I'll need my best man," Chance said.
He swallowed. "You'll have him."
Stumpy's uneven gait thumped up the steps, and they were back, Colorado barely able to peer over the heap of goods in his arms. Dude took the next shift of watching the prisoners; their muttered taunts and insinuations buzzed in the background like flies. He couldn't even hear them over the mixture of thoughts in his head: pride and shame, memory flavored with joy and regret, even pure happiness lined with a peculiar sorrow he couldn't quite put a name to. He sat and tried to muddle through it, or at least let it go by without snagging on the soft parts of his insides. He could hear Chance and Colorado's voices leisurely rising and falling in the front room, and Stumpy's cackle. His warmed-over coffee was welcome, even though, for just a moment, he had expected the first sip to burn going down and taste of Charlie's bitter whiskey.
Only a few more days and the marshal arrived to empty the cells—he reacted a little at the sight of his string of prisoners, having ridden out expecting Joe alone; but in the end the job was the job, and you didn't go far by being easily surprised. He processed the paperwork like a businessman and thanked them kindly before he chained his whole covey into a wagon and rattled away. Joe Burdette shot such poisonous looks behind him that it was surprising the wagon didn't leave a slime trail.
At least they were gone. And a good thing, too, for Chance wouldn't have been much use guarding them. His wedding day was approaching—it was simple and soon, with no family to worry over on either side and no rush to finish up building a house just yet, but even so, he was getting twitchy as a jackrabbit come springtime.
"You'd think he don't even want to get married!" Stumpy said in high dudgeon after Chance had complained of some little thing, gotten flustered, and stomped out to do something important (forgetting his hat on the table). "If he don't even want to get hisself married then why don't he just not and save us all the trouble!"
Dude thought about letting it pass. But instead he took the cigarette out of his mouth and said, "Stumpy, that ain't it."
"Well? You the expert, you can tell us what it is, then!"
"He's scared." He watched the curve of Colorado's back as the boy crouched in front of one of the chairs, fixing its wobbly leg.
Stumpy scoffed. "Like I said. Scared cause he don't want to get married!"
"Nope." He examined the cigarette and flicked it to the floor, pressing it out under his bootheel. "Cause he wants it so much."
Stumpy grumbled about the whole idea, the day, the wedding, Chance's hat taking up space on the table—though of course he'd already been shining up his best shoes for the occasion, and had even bought himself a proper tie he was pressing in the jailhouse ledger to keep flat, so they just let him finish working his temper off.
Colorado rose to brush a handful of wood shavings into the stove. By the time he turned, Dude had his head bent over a fresh cigarette he was rolling. Trying to roll. His hands were keeping steady now, no more shakes, but he still couldn't seem to manage it.
They all waited at the bottom of the stairs, a cluster of men all bathed and brushed and slicked up: Chance of course, the parson, Stumpy, Carlos. Colorado stood to the back, looking out the hotel window.
It was the best man's duty to shepherd the bride. As soon as Chance gave him the nod, Dude went up the stairs two at a time. Chance hadn't ever hesitated to send him on any job that needed doing, and this was the same; even while he felt himself walking gingerly, testing the ground in front of him, he was grateful Chance wasn't holding back or treating him any different. He could always rely on that.
He tapped on the door of Feathers' room—her old room, that was, as after the wedding trip she and Chance would be moving in to the hotel's best suite for the time being. Consuelo peeked out the door and let him in to see the bride.
She turned around, in a silver-gray dress that looked mighty pretty if he had anything to say about it. And what do you know: it was trimmed with feathers. Feathers, on her wedding day, and he suddenly felt cheerful inside. She never had tried to pretend anything or be anyone else, and here she still was, starting as she meant to go on.
Feathers came close to him and took his hands, looking into his eyes. Her hands felt small and firm in his. Then she leaned in and kissed his cheek, and he felt himself go hot all up the back of his neck.
"Thank you," she said into his ear.
He pressed her fingers; he thought he smiled, but he wasn't sure. She took his arm and they proceeded downstairs, Consuelo bringing a little bouquet of wildflowers.
The new Mr. and Mrs. were feted and fed, Carlos bringing fresh bottles of wine before the last ones were even down by half. Stumpy gave a little speech and got all choked up. Colorado ate and drank lightly, smiling often and saying little. Dude made sure their bags were in the carriage, saw to the horses, and sat in a chair placed close to Chance's left elbow. Chance kept looking over as if to check he was really there, his face a study in mixtures of embarrassment, bashful pride (anyone who didn't think the great Sheriff John T. Chance couldn't be as bashful as a girl just hadn't known him long enough or close enough), and a kind of settled contentment that sat on him just fine.
Chance wasn't a handshaking sort of man. But once Dude had helped Feathers up into the carriage and she was blowing everyone kisses, Chance turned from talking quietly to Colorado, stepped right up to him, and gripped his hand.
After a moment, Dude said, "Don't worry. I'll look after everything for you."
"I ain't worried," Chance said in that low voice, giving their joined hands one hard shake.
And off they drove.
He went back in for his hat and his badge, and found Colorado there, leaning against the bar. He had his badge back on too. Dude couldn't remember hearing him say more than a few words together all day long.
"Let's take a turn around the town," he said, and Colorado was right up at his side.
"No." He ushered Colorado out the door first, and put his hat on against the lowering sun. "But now Chance ain't here, there might be those who'd feel free to start some. They didn't sign up to have no lawman they saw get scraped off a saloon floor."
"Or some stranger just in off the trail, neither," Colorado said, his thumbs hooked in his pockets.
They walked up to the jail to retrieve their gunbelts, and out again into the day. He was getting used to patrolling with Colorado now, to the soft even pad of his feet, so unlike Chance's deliberate, hitching step. His profile in the late afternoon light was solemn. Dude found he was missing something, though—that sense of certainty he carried about him, though still so young. That look in his eye that said he was taking things serious on the outside, but had his own opinions on the inside, tucked away.
Burdette's saloon was still closed, though Dude didn't expect it to last forever. The town was quiet now, even sleepy, but sooner or later he figured the bad apples in the barrel would show themselves again. He could wait.
They took their time, making the rounds, the air gradually going sweet with the promise of night's cool. As they made their way back up to the jail, shadows thrown long by the ebbing sunset, Colorado said, "I ain't never been at a wedding before."
"How'd you find it?"
Colorado didn't answer. He leapt up the jailhouse steps to get the door first, and held it for him, smiling. The lamps were lit. Stumpy was inside, feeding the stove, ready for the overnight shift. Dude sat at Chance's desk and carefully wrote his report. Colorado lounged right on the corner of the desk, swinging one leg, drinking coffee. After a time, he started humming softly, and Dude found himself joining in while he wrote, not a word out of place.
The tune kept on between them, even as they bid Stumpy goodnight and headed out again, wandering slowly down the street toward the hotel. The stars were coming out, scattering thick as the night's blue turned to black. A nightbird called , sounding so much like one of Chance's signals that he nearly looked around for danger. But it was just a bird piping somewhere in the dark, and there wasn't much danger here, unless you counted Colorado walking so close. He wasn't sure he counted that. Not tonight.
He held the hotel door for Colorado this time, and their quiet humming trailed away once they were inside and blinking against the glow of a lamp. At the bottom of the stairs, Colorado set one foot on a step, held the newel post, and looked uncharacteristically hesitant.
"Ordinarily," he said, "I'd ask if you wanted a drink with me."
Dude's old self and his recent self had a sudden, fierce tussle inside him, leaving him a little angry and a little short of breath. "Well, why don't you try treating me ordinary?"
Colorado's gaze fell beneath his lashes and rose again, clear and calm. "Come up and have a drink with me," he said. He never did waste time apologizing when he could just mend his ways.
"No thank you," Dude said gently. "I don't need no drink." Colorado looked at him a moment, the soft corner of his mouth curling just the way it had when they sang. Then he led the way upstairs.
In the shadows of Colorado's room, Dude found his hands starting to shake, though he knew this time it wasn't the want of liquor. When he started to sink down on his knees, Colorado stopped him, and that grip on his arms was like iron.
Instead he found himself laid out on the bed and unwrapped like a gift, in that ever-present musing silence. Those secret thoughts were back to be read in Colorado's eyes, flickering on his lip, and they spoke to him of fire. He tried to breathe, and the more he did, tasting Colorado's warmth, the more he steadied and settled, like taking in the pure and healing air of a mountaintop.
They weren't much for talking, neither of them, but he said a few things nevertheless into Colorado's ear. And he made him shiver, too, and hiss, showing that that composure held something deep and fine underneath.
Lying in a bed with someone, feeling his chest up against your back and his tuneful voice lazily humming whisper-soft into your hair, it wasn't something he'd known how to want. Being who he was, and having the life he'd worked for, all at the same time. It sure had taken a lot of insistence to open up his eyes to it, on every front. He wondered if that was how Chance felt, all those times Feathers stepped right up to him and showed him to himself and wouldn't leave off.
"You stayin'?" Colorado said sleepily.
"Mmm." He thought about a few things. "Are you?"
"May not win much at cards...but I know when my luck is in." His voice was drifting off faint.
Their badges lay side-by-side on the table, burnished metal surfaces almost glowing even through the dark, and glancing back the first ray of light when the morning came.