The stallion sidled about nervously, shying away from the men that tried to corner him to force a saddle on his back. He neighed once, a frantic sound, when he found no way to escape and his stance became all tight and rigid muscles, flanks shining with sweat.
With the sun hammering down on them lot the men would only succeed in giving themselves heatstroke if they kept it up - only Campos was smart enough to stay away from the paddock and enjoy the show from the shade of a crippled tree.
Charlie snorted in disgust when Jorgensen stumbled away from the angry horse and hit the dirt. The greenhorn yelped like a puppy as he rolled to avoid the stamping hooves. He came to his feet, coughed up dust and dove straight back into the fray.
They had picked up the black stallion during their last robbery and boss hadn't said nothing when the men decided to take him as a bonus, not satisfied with the money they had filched from the corpses. 16 hands tall with some Arab attributes showing through in the small head and fine gait, that hadn't been a bad idea. But pity for them proud would-be riders was that the stallion had a temper and knew a saddle only good enough to trample anyone down who tried putting it on his back. Had been a near thing forcing him along to the abandoned farmhouse they stayed at and into the hastily repaired paddock.
The stallion's ears turned back, lying now pinned flat against his head, a clear warning to stay away. Charlie watched as he jumped to the side, nearly knocking Kinter over, and cantered to the opposite corner, giving them a wide berth.
This was getting boring, men and horse dancing around each other in a wild chase, with pebbles and sand scattering everywhere. The cheers and shouts began to annoy him almost as much as the dust did that settled on his white leather jacket in a thin layer of reddish filth.
No, that wasn't it. It was stupid, but the scene made him remember things he would rather forget. Charlie had been cornered like that animal once, fighting tooth and nail during Civil War. He had been single-minded in his goal to stay alive and what amounted to 'free', to the point where it had felt as if his body had moved to kill without a thought. Like he had been an onlooker, seeing but not feeling the blood on his hands.
That distance had never quite left him, making it easy to pull the trigger without regret. A life meant nothing, just another face in the crowd, all gray, no vivid thing left to stand out. In the end, surviving like that hadn't done him any good, had pushed him into another corner, where he lay defeated, no choice left but starving to death.
For whatever reason, Ben Wade had cared. Had stepped in when Charlie had nearly been killed by some drunkards.
The first thing Charlie had felt on coming to had been pain, the throbbing in his ribs and pounding in his head. But what he had seen – heavy boots and the golden glimpse of the Hand of God, a second before warm blood had spattered on his face.
It hadn't been kneeling before him that had made Ben Wade larger than life... - Stupid, to think about that because of a stallion that needed to be broken properly.
Charlie's hands gripped the slat more tightly, making the old wood groan, and yelled, “Get lassos and be done with it!”
The short distraction having turned sour, his attention settled where it always did: boss sat close by on the fence, his face shadowed by his Stetson and gaze fixed on where his pencil flew over the paper of the small book he kept in his breast pocket.
Sketching again – the horse, most like, Charlie hadn't ever seen Ben Wade drawing one of the outfit.
“Gents,” Ben Wade's quiet voice cut through the clamor like a knife, “that's enough. Why don't you go to town, keep your eyes and ears open?”
No one was fooled by his mild tone; it sure as hell wasn't a suggestion. Yet the men had no reason to complain and wouldn't have dared to anyways.
Gathering information meant hitting the saloon and the chance to spent their money on cheap booze and whores. Wasn't as if they needed encouragement to fuck and get cockeyed.
Charlie stayed where he was, not interested in anything Contention had to offer, while the five of them scrambled to leave the paddock and get their own horses that stood tied to what was left of the stables.
“Yeah, boss. Be back tomorrow with news,” Kinter said.
“You do that.”
Silence settled over the decrepit farm ground as soon as the horizon had swallowed the sound of retreating hoof beats, only disturbed by the rhythmic scratching of bold strokes and that was a soothing sound to Charlie, one that had kept him alert and focused through many a night's watch.
The horse seemed like-minded. Having circled the paddock to check if there really was no opening it now stood, head held high and ears turned towards them; watching warily.
The sun was setting when the boss finished his sketch, closed the book with a quiet slap and put it away, his eyes fixed on the stallion.
The horse hadn't relaxed; neither had Charlie. Not wanting to be caught staring he had resumed lookout duty, because sooner or later trouble would come their way. Maybe the sheriff, maybe Pinkerton's pissed at them for losing another Southern Pacific Railway pay-packet.
Charlie accepted the offered Stetson for safekeeping. “Boss?”
He got a good idea of what Wade was up to when his boss slipped down from his perch like he was above getting stiff muscles and slowly moved towards the stallion.
Charlie didn't protest - the boss could handle himself and didn't like being questioned as a rule - but his free hand wandered closer to his holster, ready to draw one of his Schofields.
The black beast's ears switched back instantly and it sidled again, trampling down the few blades of grass having survived drought and boots. Yet Wade moved closer confidently, not in a straight line but veering off now and then, keeping a close eye on the horse's stance.
It took Charlie a moment to realize what that was about: a predator would take a horse head on, going for the throat.
The horse reacted, body language going from aggressive to alert and then interested, ears pointing forward. When the boss finally stopped, back turned towards it, something seemed to shake loose and it took a hesitant step forward. It nickered softly.
Charlie wasn't surprised; what Ben Wade wanted came to him...
It wasn't quite a smile, but too soft around the edges to be a smirk – an invitation. Charlie was torn between what it would mean to drop down on his knees before this man and wanting to suck him so badly his own cock twitched.
And Ben Wade didn't do nothing, only watched him, waiting for Charlie to step away or swallow his pride and come to him. And he did, felt the calloused hand cupping the back of his neck, no pressure, and then his knees hit the ground...
Another nicker shattered the memory. The horse had drawn close enough to Wade to take in his scent; its muzzle skimmed over brown hair and its stance relaxed.
Charlie could see the boss smile, a slight upward twist at the corners of his mouth and then Wade moved, the stallion following him with fluid movements, head high; excited. They made a full round inside the paddock, slow walk and trot, and only then the boss turned and touched the horse, slow caresses from forehead to muzzle.
“There's a good boy.”
Charlie would have sworn that he hadn't looked away, but suddenly Wade sat bareback on the stallion and guided him with the pressure of his legs, as if he had never ridden another horse.
Charlie moved to open the gate for them and reached up to offer him the Stetson; Wade took the hat with a nod. He had cantered to the other end of the farm before he stopped and turned the horse around.
“You coming, Charlie?” Ben Wade called.
Charlie did, following three paces behind like always, never knowing or caring where his boss might lead him.
The few patches of grass they passed were bright green, the sun a startling orange and yet the darkening sky was nowhere near as blue as Ben Wade's eyes.
[Man is the only animal that can remain on friendly terms with the victims he intends to eat.]