When Perry came into the Saloon, Harry looked up from his game of cards. He glanced at Perry, taking in the long coat over neat clothes, the confident stride, the way he took off his hat as he crossed the room. Deciding that no, not a potential hustle victim, Harry went back to his current hand. He mentally went through the cards in his sleeves, and counted the ones being dealt already. Harry squinted. Was the king of spades gone? They played with a single deck and normally Harry was really good at this, but today he was distracted, thinking about leaving town, and while he remembered the queen of hearts and the whole fucking royalty of clubs, he could not remember the fucking king of spades. He groaned. His opponents looked at him. This was not good.
He carefully looked around. Flight was not an option, too many obstacles between their table and the door. The new guy stood at the bar, talking with the owner, asking questions from the look of it.
“You gonna play or not,” the man next to Harry asked, grabbing Harry's right forearm to get his attention. “What the...”
Uh-oh. The man's hand curled around Harry's arm, squeezing a little, fingers tight against the card that rested inside the sleeve.
Harry sprang up, pulling his arm free, trying his best glare but failing, he just knew it. He was good at cards, at remembering their order up to three decks on a good day, when he concentrated on it, but he never managed a decent poker face. Or a threatening expression. He rolled his eyes and flopped his arms a little, which was hardly threatening but exactly how he felt right now. Then he looked the guy straight in the eye.
“You really don't want to do this,” Harry said. “We both know how this is going to end, you know it and I know it. So let it go. Go to the bar and have a drink.”
Apparently, the guy really did want to do this. At least he pulled his arm back for a swing, and Harry dropped to his knees, diving under the table and out of reach, but before he could sort things out and think of something – which wasn't easy considering the pressure he was under - the table was flipped to the side and Harry let out a sound that was close to a shriek. He scrambled off, into the general direction of the bar. He didn't get there even halfway because he was stopped by someone grabbing his ankle and pulling, and the only thing Harry could think of was to curl into a ball and hope that the other man didn't have a mean hook.
He did have a mean hook. Harry was glad that the guy only got him once, and only to the side and not to his back or face. Still, he whimpered and curled up further. He almost missed the pair of long legs stepping over him.
“Is there a problem?”
Harry made a small sound, expecting the brawl to start in all earnest now. You never asked such a question in a place like this. Never ever. Especially not if the guy addressed is mad because he was just cheated out of a few dollars. Well, would have been if Harry had managed to pull it off or at least grab the money.
Some quiet words were exchanged and Harry wrapped his arms around his head and pulled his knees up. There was a tug at his left elbow, and Harry tensed up.
“Come on, you idiot,” came a voice and then Harry was manhandled into a standing position. Or at least something that would remotely pass for that, and as soon as both his feet touched the ground, he was let go. Harry swayed a little, but then went after the man.
He caught up with him outside.
“I'm Harry,” Harry said and held out his hand.
The man looked at him and then at the hand.
“Uh,” Harry said, letting his hand fall to his side, “Thanks.”
“Perry,” Perry said.
“My name. Perry van Shrike.”
“Hey,” Harry grinned and pointed to Perry and then to himself, “Perry, Harry, Harry, Perry...”
“Please don't do that,” Perry interrupted.
“How did you even survive until now?”
Perry turned and walked towards the side of the building. Harry followed him.
“What were you doing in there?”
“You were asking a lot of questions.”
Perry stopped but did not turn. He breathed in audibly and then turned and tipped his hat back.
“Don't follow me or I will shoot you.”
“For asking stupid questions.”
“I just wanted to say thanks for saving my life in there.”
Which might or might not have been an exaggeration.
“Show your gratitude by vanishing.”
Perry turned again and continued walking. Harry remained where he was, looking after Perry and then shrugging. He'd better pack his things anyway, get his horse from the stable and leave, maybe heading further West.
Harry did not have much to pack, so he was out of his rented room after ten minutes of shoving everything into a saddlebag and rolling up his sleeping bag. He looked around the room one more time. After making sure he had left nothing behind, Harry swung the saddlebag over his shoulder and climbed out of the window and onto the wooden ledge that was going almost all around the building. Slowly, he inched his way towards the rain pipe, testing its strength by pulling it with one hand, and then reached around and placed his right foot on the other side of it.
“What on God's Green earth do you think you're doing?”
Harry startled and slipped, falling right off but somehow landing softer than expected.
“Get off me now, you idiot.”
“Oh, he's talking that means he's not dead. What a shame.”
“What are you doing here?”
“Breaking your fall, it seems. Can you get up now? Before I'm tempted to throw you off a taller building? What are you doing?”
“Uh,” Harry said.
“Tell me you're not weaseling out of paying for your room.”
“Uh,” Harry said again and scrambled to his feet. Nothing hurt too badly, so there might be only bruises the next day. Perry glared at him and brushed his hands against his pants and then rubbed at a particularly bad spot of dirt on his coat.
“You came back for me,” Harry said.
“I didn't. I need someone to take me to the Wilson ranch. This seemed like a good place to start.”
“I can take you there.”
“You know the Wilson ranch?”
Harry looked at him.
“That's what I said, right?”
Harry got his horse so quickly that Perry threw him a weird look and probably suspected him of having stolen it. Which wasn't true. He had had this horse for a while now, which is why she was not throwing him off, but actually following his lead. He had gotten her after arriving with the express, won her fair and square in a game. Well, almost fair and square. At least she liked him. He had attempted to name her, called her every girl's name he could think of, tried Clara and Mary and Bessie. He called her Faith because she stayed with him, and sometimes, she would perk up and look at him when he called her that, so the name stuck.
They were just outside town now, but Perry did not seem in a hurry, so they rode at a pace that allowed for comfortable talking. Harry had to keep the conversation going, but whenever he asked Perry a question, he more or less got an answer. He looked at Perry for a long time, his posture on a horse, the ease with which he rode as if he was born to do this.
“So why are you riding out again?”
“Wilson is suspected of having murdered the son of the man who sent me, so I'm having a look and will ask a few questions.”
“What, wait. We're riding out to a murderer?”
Perry shot him a look so Harry did not dare slow down further.
“Don't they have law people for that? Judges?”
“They do, but sometimes, you want a quicker solution. Justice costs money. Or time. Or both.”
Harry rode next to Perry, looking over at the taller man. He still had not figured him out, why he was here, why he was doing this.
“So, you're, what? Playing justice?”
“No. More like a law man.”
“You're not a killer, are you?”
“No. Don't be an idiot.”
Harry wanted to believe him. He seemed too soft spoken to be a killer, too calm and nice. Well, maybe not too nice, with all the name calling.
“I don't practice justice. Justice is practiced in the court of Judges Winchester and Lynch.”
“Who are they?”
“Who are they? Who are they? Ever heard of vigilante justice?”
Harry looked at him.
“Winchester? The rifle?”
“Yeah, of course.”
Perry looked at him, waiting for the penny to drop. After a too long pause he finally rolled his eyes.
“Do you even own a weapon?”
“I have this knife...”
Perry stared at him.
“Do you own a gun?”
“No, I don't believe in them.”
“You don't... Jesus, almighty. Don't you know anything? And moreover, what judge would take this case? Someone got shot, big deal. They're getting away with something like that around here, more often than not. It's expensive to become a judge, and you might not find a single decent one in these parts.”
“They're getting away with murder?”
Perry laughed at first but then frowned.
“Who taught you anything? Where are you from? Back East?”
“That explains. Oh Lord, that explains a lot.”
“New York,” Harry said.
“How did you get this far alive?” Perry groaned and looked at Harry before running one hand over his face and shaking his head. He held his hand up. “You know what? Don't answer that.”
“Took the coach,” Harry said, suddenly sheepish. He fiddled with his reigns, brushing his fingers over the smooth worn leather.
“Yeah, I bet you did.”
Harry slightly tugged at the reigns, petting his horse when she stopped. Perry turned and rode up next to him.
“Why are we stopping?”
“The ranch is right up ahead.”
“So I'll ask again: Why are we stopping?”
“Uh, because there is a murderer out there?”
Perry let out an exasperated sigh.
“Fine. Wait here. You're not riding back alone.”
“Who says I want to ride back?”
“Harry. Wait here. It won't take long.”
Before he could answer, Perry rode off, leaving Harry alone in the dusk. Harry looked around, but all was quiet. The ranch had been in bad shape for quite some time: broken fences, long yellow grass growing over the wooden posts, and Harry could only guess what the main house would look like, but there was a rundown side building with its roof half fallen in. The place was eerie, and with the sun setting and the shadows getting longer and more twisted, Harry felt the hairs at the back of his head rise.
“Come on, “ he said, looking into the direction Perry had rode off to, “Come on, come on. Get back here.”
There was a rustling coming from the long grass and Harry hoped that it was some animal, hopefully a really small one. A grass eating one, preferably. He wished he could leave, wished so intently that he closed his eyes. A gunshot almost sounded like thunder, so Harry looked at the sky before galloping towards the main house. He knew he should be riding away, as fast as he could, but this was Perry and he might be hurt and there was that little thing where Perry had saved his life twice. Well, he would not have slipped on that roof had Perry not called out, but that was besides the point.
Harry jumped off his horse as soon as she had slowed down enough to do so and was close enough to the main house. He all but hit the ground running, tearing open the door and almost falling into the living room. Missing Wilson by a mere inch, he stumbled in, looking around for Perry, fearing he'd see him on the floor. His eyes fell on Wilson again, at least Harry thought it was Wilson, but then again, it could have been any large angry man with a gun. Harry scrambled away, suddenly realizing what a majorly stupid idea coming here was.
“Harry, get down!”
Without hesitation, Harry dropped to his hands and knees and crawled towards the door, stopping only when he heard the sharp click of a gun being cocked.
“You here with that bastard that came here with accusations? Are you here to insult me on my own land too?”
There was pain exploding in his side, and Harry curled up, shifting slightly so he could now see the man with the gun. It was still pointed at him, and Harry made a sound.
“That a yes?” Wilson shouted.
“Yes, he's with me,” Perry said from somewhere to Harry's left.
Harry had heard people talking about things happening so quickly that they later did not recall what happened when and why they reacted a certain way or how they ended up at quite a different spot than they had started from, but it was the first time Harry experienced it. He remembered seeing Perry, out in the open, standing in the room raised to his full height, poised and gun in hand; Wilson, turning around, pistol already cocked, ready to shoot and trigger finger twitching. He remembered jumping up, for some reason moving forward instead of towards the door, and then his hands were on Wilson's arm, pushing it up just when the shot rang. He remembered Perry shouting and there may have been another shot, but that must have been before, because Harry's ears were ringing and everything got drowned in a dull roar.
And then Perry's face was in front of him, and all Harry could think was thank God, he's alive.
“Of course I am,” Perry said, looking either mad or worried, it was hard to say over the relief Harry felt. “Let's go.”
For the second time that day, Harry let himself be pulled up to his feet, but this time Perry's hands lingered, making sure he had his balance before releasing him. Perry stepped over Mr Wilson who lay face down on his living room carpet, a dusty old thing with holes from constant wear.
“Is he dead,” Harry asked, his voice rough and hurting his throat. He tried not to look at the dark stains still spreading on the carpet.
“Yeah,” Perry replied. “Let's go, chief.”
Harry did not remember getting the horses or riding away. The ache in his ears faded only when Perry motioned to make camp and started a fire; and even then he felt as if he had his head under water. Perry helped him with his saddle, setting it close to the fire. The nights were cooler now, and Harry already missed his rented bed.
When Perry unrolled his sleeping bag, Harry did the same, mechanically and detached, slightly wondering about it.
“He's dead,” Harry said when Perry pressed a cup of coffee in his hands.
“Yes, he is. Harry, listen, he deserved it, alright?” Perry said, voice so soft that Harry looked up, “And thank you.”
“For barging in like that. You don't even have a gun, and if you hadn't distracted him...” Perry broke off and took a sip of his coffee. “Help me with my jacket and vest, will you?”
Harry placed his cup on the ground, and then reached for the lapels of Perry's jacket, gently pulling them back and over Perry's shoulders. After pulling the sleeves off Perry's arms, he shook the jacket and then folded it and placed it on his saddle.
“What's this,” Harry asked, touching Perry's left arm where the shirt was darker.
“Graced, not shot. Just a flesh wound. No bullet.”
Harry knew he stared, he could not help it. His fingers where resting lightly on Perry's arm, next to the spot on the shirt, and when Harry noticed that it was the same height as Perry's heart, he could not breathe.
“Harry? It's fine.”
Harry shook his head, thinking no, it is not, it is not fine, just a few inches to the right and nothing would be fine, but when he finally could breathe around the lump in his throat he said: “Yeah, alright. You got, I don't know, something we can put on that?”
“In my saddle bag. There's a black medicine wrap.”
After Harry had done an amazingly neat job of cleaning and dressing the wound, Perry prepared their dinner, while Harry stretched out, head against his saddle.
“That's why I don't like guns,” Harry stated. He wished there was some whiskey, anything really, sipping the strong coffee Perry made instead.
“They are still useful. Take hunting alone.”
“Nah,” Harry said, pulling the brim of his hat over his eyes, “Don't need to hunt. I always get by.”
“Get by? Get by how? Hustling cards? You're a hustler, Harry, and if you're not careful, someone will shoot you one day over three dollars.”
“You threatening me?”
“What? No, you moron. I said someone, not me. I'd never play cards with you. I saw you in action.”
“That good, hah?” Harry asked and grinned.
“Actually, you might want to work at that sleight of hand where you pull a fucking 5th ace from your boot during a one deck game. Because that is ridiculous.”
“I did that?”
“Yeah. And where the fuck does that 'I don't believe in guns' bullshit stem from anyway? You need to protect yourself.”
“My friend got killed because he did not drop his gun fast enough. He didn't even shoot. He didn't even mean to shoot. I got shot at and I wasn't even holding a gun.”
“Jesus. Sorry. I'm sorry, Harry.”
“Just the way things are, I guess.”
“No, Harry. Come here.”
Harry looked up, tipping his hat back. Finally, he got up and walked over to where Perry sat with his arm in a sling made from Perry's tie and Harry's bandanna. He sat down next to Perry again, looking at the sling and the ruined shirt. It had been such a nice shirt too, somehow unlike the one's he normally saw out here in the small towns. And from up close, he could see that Perry's hair had lighter streaks in it, as if he had spent too much time in the sun and in the sea.
“Where are you from, Perry?”
“What, originally or where am I living? Originally from the middle of this land, and living at the very Western part. But it's not bad, the city is growing and we have the railroad now.” Perry added: “I have a house.”
“Must be nice.”
They sat in silence for a moment, the fire dancing and breaking the gathered wood into smaller parts, cracking and splintering it.
“I'm sorry about your friend,” Perry then said quietly.
“Yeah,” Harry answered, “Me too.”
They ate in silence, and when Perry left to gather more twigs for their fire, Harry felt strangely bereft. He dragged his sleep roll closer to Perry's, setting his saddle next to the one lying there already and felt less alone. When Perry came back, he looked at the new sleeping arrangements with an expression on his face Harry could not place.
“Let's sleep,” Perry said, voice level.
Harry lay down on his sleeping roll, wriggling a bit until he lay closer to Perry and a little away from the fire in case there were sparks. It had been in while since he had been outside like that, and when he looked at the stars above them, Harry felt as if the sky was stretching, becoming more vast and attempting to swallow the earth. He breathed out.
“What is your town like?”
Harry could see Perry's smile, slow and pleased.
“It's a busy town, with good work, ever growing. You can get everything there. It's warm all year and there is the ocean.”
Harry did not know how to ask so he didn't. He thought of New York, the tiny room he had rented there, the constant chatter of strangers, with even more strangers coming in each day, work sparse and badly paid, the rumor of great possibilities out West constant. He had left during the winter, paid for his coach ticket with his savings after listening to one of the recruiters for settlement, promising him the world should he leave. He had only paid half of what the coach ticket would have normally cost, and Harry still was glad he left. After what happened with Richie he had not dared walked the streets anymore.
“Harry. Stop it.”
Unsure, Harry rolled over until he lay on his side and faced Perry. Perry's lips were soft against his, and Harry forgot about New York and the cold there and about being on the run again.
“What are you doing,” Harry whispered, not moving away, just breaking the kiss and resting his forehead against Perry's shoulder.
“You want me to stop?”
Harry thought about it for a moment, listening to the rustling of the land and Perry's heartbeat.
“No,” he then said, “I think not.”
“You think?” Perry sounded amused.
“Yeah, think. That's what you do with your head when you...”
“Shut up, Harry.”
Perry kissed him again, and Harry brought his hands up to Perry's face, first gently touching it, then framing it with both his hands, as if holding on. He could feel Perry smile against his lips when he slipped one hand into Perry's hair. The kisses were gentle, slow, and Harry felt himself inching closer, bringing his other hand up to rest on Perry's arm, carefully as not to brush against the wound, and Perry pulled him even closer, until they lay flush against each other. This time, Perry broke the kiss, looking at him before placing another kiss on his lips, brief, as if an afterthought.
“Sleep now,” Perry said. “We got a long ride tomorrow.”
And Harry did, dreaming of sun-bleached hair and a house near the ocean.