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Desert Sand

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Texas, 1868

 

It was midday when Goodnight Robicheaux’s horse arrived at the top the ridge overlooking the tiny Texas town a couple miles away.

 

“Woah, girl,” he said to his horse, pulling at the reins to stop Cherie from immediately setting out down the marigold and cactus-studded ravine. The horse had a tendency to enthusiastically gallop into situations before considering the terrain. Goodnight had once been the same. That was a different time.

 

“Now what have we got here?” he said, patting the Palomino’s golden neck. “That’s gotta be the town of Gruene, don’t you think?”

 

Cherie’s response was to blow an unimpressed stream of air through her nostrils.

 

“My thoughts exactly,” he murmured, looking at the small cluster of buildings on the horizon. “Think they’ve got us some rooms for the night?”

 

He squinted as though he’d actually be able to make out a saloon from this far off.

 

Goodnight weighed the options of just stopping for a quick drink and continuing on his way, versus staying for the night. It wasn’t a hard decision. He wasn’t even sure when the next town would crop up, and the prospect of stretching out on something other than a thin blanket over a slab of rock was too tempting to pass up. Besides. It’s not like he had anywhere else to be.

 

“Lead the way, darling,” he said with the barest flick of his reins, and Cherie began to pick her way down the rocky bluff with sure-footed steps, Goodnight occasionally having to pull back a bit to stop her from breaking out into an overconfident trot. He relaxed when they reached flat scrubland again, and the man and his horse made an easy walk towards the outline of the town that was swimming a little in the midday sun.

 

He’d been on the road for about a year and a half but it felt like longer. He’d tried to reenter his old life in 1865, when his train coming home had finally pulled into Baton Rouge. He could still remember his mother’s face as he’d stepped onto the train platform, steam swirling everywhere. Families were reuniting with their sons, brothers, fathers…but not even his mother's relief at seeing Goodnight had hidden her agony when she couldn’t see his brothers with him. When she hugged him she’d been looking into the engine smoke filling the platform, as though the rest of her sons could be found in its fog.

 

It had never been the same. There were plenty of jobs going around to help rebuild the town, but Goodnight never lasted more than a couple of weeks in any of them. But worse than screaming foremen and dead-eyed laborers were his civilian neighbors, all of them so desperately trying to cling onto their last shreds of southern society. Goodnight felt like he could hardly breathe whenever he sat in some acquaintance’s parlor, listening to the meaningless chatter of the ladies who'd had to stay home and the men who’d chosen to, all bemoaning how hard things had been here with the rations, how many soldiers they’d had to put up in their houses, how many slaves they’d had to let go, and how dreadful Johnny Taylor looked with one arm now…

 

So it had been the open road ever since for Goodnight. Sometimes working on a farm for a few weeks, sometimes putting his particular skills to use if he happened across a fugitive with a bounty on him…it didn’t matter what he was doing, just so long as he could do it quickly, and leave it just as quickly. Anything was better than staying too long in a town with all its people, all its noise, all its clamoring, and the constant swell of bodies pressing in from all sides, crowding him, crushing him, suffocating him, all of them yelling, faces contorted, limbs twisted, so many faces just screaming screaming screaming

 

His horse let out a whinny and Goodnight came to with a jolt. They’d arrived at the town. Shaking his head clear he squared his shoulders and rode steadily down the main street, nodding courteously to anyone who glanced up at him from their porch, only stopping when he hit what had to be the main saloon.

 

Sliding off his horse he tied her up in the shadiest area he could find, giving her a brief pat. He was about to go into the saloon and get a drink for them both when he was distracted by some men running excitedly down the main street.

 

“C’mon, we’re gonna miss it!” one of them called back to his friend.

 

Goodnight looked back at Cherie. She didn’t seem too thirsty yet, and Goodnight wasn’t feeling too dry from the ride either.

 

“Back in a bit, okay?” he told her. And he turned around and set out in the direction the men had been running off in. Washed up and useless though he might have felt these days, no one had ever accused Goodnight Robicheaux of lacking in curiosity.

 

He rounded the bend and saw a cluster of men all crowded around a horse pen, hollering and making bets.

 

“S’cuse me,” Goodnight said with the cordial confidence that someone with his upbringing could never quite manage to shake. People shuffled to let him through with barely a glance and he finally made it to the front of the crowd, standing next to a short, wiry, red-haired man. He placed his hand on the wooden rail of the horse pen and looked inside.

 

Two men stood about five metres apart. The one farther away and facing Goodnight was a large, broad-chested man whose bald head was burning slightly in the sunlight. He was holding a pistol with one hand and beating his chest with the other, shouting jeers at his opponent and getting the crowd riled up. Most of the crowd seemed to be cheering for him.

 

The one who stood closer to Goodnight’s section of the crowd had his back to them, so Goodnight wasn’t able to make out his face. All he could tell of the man was that he had black hair, longer than normal, and that he carried himself with a quiet calm, his shoulders as still as stone.

 

Goodnight looked to the man beside him who was yelling excitedly into the ring.

 

“What’s all this?” Goodnight asked.

 

The man turned to Goodnight, revealing a face that was ugly as a fence post. “Fast draw competitions! Been going on a week now. You’re just in time for the final. They’re playing for real this time.”

 

“You don’t say,” mused Goodnight. “So who’s the talent?”

 

“Well that there’s my man, Alan,” the redheaded man said puffing out his chest. “He’s my bet. If you wanna place one yerself I think Josiah is still taking them.” Josiah was presumably the white-bearded moderator collecting bills in a large, wide-brimmed cowboy hat.

 

“So he’s the frontrunner?” asked Goodnight, raising his eyebrows at the aforementioned Alan who was now lifting his arms in an attempt to get the crowd going, encouraging bets.

 

The redhead scowled. “Well see the one right there in front of us? With his back turned? That one goes by the name of Rocks, Billy Rocks. Goddamn Chinaman’s been sweeping this competition all week.”

 

“I think I heard he’s Korean,” an old, fat man who’d been listening to the conversation chimed in.

 

“What the hell’s the difference?” snapped the redhead.

 

“Only a small ocean,” Goodnight said mildly.

 

“Anyways,” continued the redhead, picking at his impressive front teeth. “Wherever he’s from, his lucky streak ends today.”

 

“What do you mean?” asked Goodnight frowning.

 

The man’s face took on an even uglier twist of satisfaction. “Well see Alan? Yeah? Now see past Alan?”

 

Goodnight stared past the bald man to see another man leaning casually against the fence on the far side of the pen. He was as lean as the redhead, but taller. He had shaggy brown hair and he wore a red flannel shirt that must have been sweltering in the heat. The people around him were yelling and placing odds, but the man in red’s eyes never left the Korean.

 

“That’s Johnny,” the redhead said, voice going conspiratorial. “And he’s already got the drop on the Chinaman.”

 

Goodnight’s eyes narrowed and he looked closer at the man in red. And sure enough, propped up on the fence under a wide sleeve and partially obscured by the flannel cloth was the unmistakable barrel of a gun.

 

“When Josiah gives the all-clear, he and Alan are both gonna shoot, but Johnny’s shot is bound to make it, seeing as how his gun’s already out.” The readhead shrugged. “Easy enough to make the shot look like it came from Alan.”

 

Goodnight’s hand tightened on the rail, his jaw clenching.

 

“You alright, friend?” the redhead asked him.

 

Goodnight felt like he couldn’t breathe for a minute as his grip on the rail became white-knuckled. There was a sudden pulsing in his ears drumming out everything around him, the redhead’s inquiries, the commotion of the crowd… it was all sucked into the background by the screaming in Goodnight’s ears as his vision started to turn red as the man’s flannel sleeve that barely obscured the gun’s glinting steel…

 

“Okay,” Josiah the moderator was calling out in a voice as cracked and gravelly as a desert plateau. “You boys ready to start?”

 

The bald man whooped his agreement, and the black-haired man’s head dipped as though he were nodding. But just as they moved to get into position, Goodnight was vaulting over the fence and striding over to them before he even knew what he was doing. Everyone turned to look at him, the moderator surprised, Alan confused. Goodnight finally saw the Korean’s face, and unlike the other two he looked merely impassive.

 

“No they most certainly are not ready to start,” he said in a loud voice to the moderator, before striding confidently over to the Korean.

 

“I told you I’d only be arriving on Friday, and now I have to hear you’ve been the subject of betting here for a week already?” Goodnight said irately. “Did I or did I not tell you to wait?”

 

The Korean looked sharply at him, and Goodnight staunchly ignored the way the adrenaline of what he was doing was getting his pulse pumping.

 

“And what business is it of yours, might I inquire?” asked Josiah.

 

“As this man’s manager it’s entirely my business,” Goodnight said, wondering what the odds were of his hand getting thrown off if he placed it proprietorially on the Korean’s shoulder. He didn’t chance it and instead continued: “He knows better than to let any betting go on without my supervision.”

 

“I see,” said Josiah. “And does his manager have a name?”

 

Goodnight stared him straight in the eye. “Goodnight Robicheaux, at your service.”

 

An instant murmur broke out like a swarm of bees. Josiah’s mouth fell open, dropping his white beard another few inches, and the bald Alan sent an alarmed look somewhere past Goodnight, presumably at his redheaded friend.

 

Goodnight took advantage of the commotion, to turn to the Korean. “Now if you’d be good enough to excuse me, it seems I need to commiserate with my talent.”

 

And before anyone could protest, Goodnight was taking the Korean man by the elbow and turning them both away. The man gave a jerk, but before he could pull away completely, Goodnight held him there and leaned in.

 

“Red plaid shirt. Brown Stetson. Our five o’clock. He’s got the drop on you.”

 

The man’s eyes widened almost imperceptibly. He slouched his shoulders and angled his body in the direction Goodnight had said. He did it so subtly he might have just been turning to listen better. Goodnight was impressed with the control.

 

“Him and his pal, see the ginger guy over there with teeth like tombstones? They had a plan to make you buzzard bait, my friend. Guess they didn’t take too kindly to you showing them up all week or something.”

 

The Korean stared at Goodnight for so long that Goodnight started to wonder how much English this guy even spoke. Until the man’s eyes narrowed and he asked:

 

“Why are you telling me this?”

 

Goodnight started a bit, genuinely surprised at the question. He was also surprised that he didn’t actually have a ready answer.

 

“Well it’s not a fair fight, is it?” Goodnight finally said, looking into the man’s face.

 

They stared at each other a moment longer and Goodnight felt the back of his neck pricking, wondering if he’d just made things worse for the both of them. To cover his uncertainty he blustered on:

 

“Now do you still want to actually draw with Baldy, who’s probably in on this scheme too? Or do you want me to invent some excuse and get us out of here?”

 

The man looked at him with a face Goodnight couldn’t read, and Goodnight lowered his voice even more:

 

“Because I can, you know.”

 

The Korean nodded slowly, just once. And Goodnight clapped his hands together loudly, turning back to the crowd. It had been buzzing, but the people fell silent again.

 

“Ladies and gentlemen, it seems like my friend here misunderstood the terms of our business arrangement. Strictly no betting to be made on his person without me there, he knows better than that.” Goodnight strode amiably over to Josiah. “Now as a gesture of good faith, why don’t you take the pot from today and divvy it up between the other contestants, and my friend and I will be on our way. How about it?”

 

The white-bearded Josiah looked uncertain, and the bald man looked like he wanted to throw something. But Goodnight added calmly:

 

“You’d have the thanks of Goodnight Robicheaux.”

 

The name seemed to snap everyone into action, and Josiah nodded warily.

 

“I don’t see why not,” he said in the voice of a man who could see plenty of reasons why not, but wasn’t actually sure what they were yet.

 

“Well that’s fine,” Goodnight said with a shark-like grin. “I thank you all for your understanding. And if you’ll excuse us, my friend here and I have some business matters to attend to. Let’s go,” he said to the man whose fate he’d just intervened with, and they made their way over to the rails of the pen. Someone had unlatched the gate, swinging it open, and Goodnight and the man walked through, the crowd parting silently for them. Goodnight spared a glance at the redhead, whose face now matched his hair. Goodnight raised his eyebrows at him and the man looked away.

 

They continued to walk away from the pen, when a shout had them both turning around. It was the bald competitor named Alan, who’d just stepped out of the pen and was staring angrily at them.

 

“You ain’t got no business to attend to,” he yelled, a vein throbbing in his forehead. “Your friend’s just a lily-livered sonuvabitch. Yeah that’s right! You hear me? You was just scared you’d miss.”

 

So quick that Goodnight almost missed it, the Korean was whirling around with three small blades in hand that he sent whipping towards to the man in rapid succession. The crowd screamed and each knife landed with a sharp thwack, pinning the man’s shirt to the fence post before he even had time to blink. The bald man looked down to where he was stuck, and back up at the Korean in shock.

 

The man just stared him down.

 

“I never miss,” he said simply.

 

And with that, he and Goodnight were turning around again and walking away. Goodnight waited until they were out of earshot before letting out a low whistle, chuckling as he looked over his shoulder at the crowd who was busy working the knives out of the fence post. They were still deeply buried. He looked back over at his new companion who was staring right back at Goodnight like he was trying to figure out what to make of him.

 

“I’m Goodnight Robicheaux,” offered Goodnight. Least he could do was give him a name to work with.

 

To his surprise, the other man suddenly looked amused.

 

“So I heard. I’m Billy Rocks.”

 

Goodnight gave him a grin.

 

“So I heard.”

 

 

***

 

Goodnight sat at one of the saloon’s low, wooden tables, idly looking around. He’d already seen to getting a room for the night, and had taken his horse some water. He’d gotten her fixed up in one of the spare stables, ignoring the stares of his new acquaintance as he’d soothingly rubbed her down.

 

Now he was just sitting here waiting at the scuffed table, suddenly feeling awkward about the whole thing. But before he could make sense of what he’d just done, Billy was returning with two frothy mugs of ale.

 

“Here,” he said, setting one in front of Goodnight. It was the one with the least amount of foam. Goodnight’s hand curled around the glass handle.

 

“Cheers,” he said, raising his glass and taking a sip, flicking some of the foam out of his whiskers. He looked back up at the man seated across from him, finally getting what felt like a proper look at his face.

 

It was smooth and angled. Riding in the sun had given it a slightly bronzed look, but it was hardly weathered. The man could have been anywhere from his mid twenties to almost forty. But Goodnight guessed the man was somewhere in his thirties, if only because of the cropped black facial hair around a wide mouth. Not to mention the faint lines beside the man’s eyes, which were were inspecting Goodnight from under the thick black hair that fell in his face.

 

“Are you Korean?” asked Goodnight because he suddenly and uncharacteristically couldn’t think of anything else to say.

 

Billy nodded as he took a sip of beer. He did it casually, but Goodnight could see the tension in the man’s broad shoulders like he was waiting for some kind of judgment.

 

But Goodnight just asked: “How long have you been in America?”

 

Billy shrugged. “Most of my life. Came here when I was ten.”

 

“But not to Texas,” said Goodnight, thinking out loud. “You must have landed somewhere west if you came from Korea and then worked your way inland, no?”

 

Billy stared at him. “Landed in Oregon if you need to know. Went down to California pretty soon after. Stayed there until I was a bit more grown up and then spent most of my time in Arizona and New Mexico. Been in Texas a couple years now.”

 

It was the longest sentence Goodnight had heard him say so far. He liked the man’s accent, his control of English absolute, but with a peculiar inflection like he was tasting the words in his mouth before trying them out. It was a hell of a lot more appealing than half the turkey’s gabble that Goodnight had heard so far in this state. In some ways it reminded him more of the gentle, polished drawl he’d heard growing up in Louisiana, when visiting his cousins in the country on their plantation, sitting under the trees and having conversations and late summer picnics beneath the Spanish moss.

 

“That’s quite a trail,” Goodnight said. “You do this the whole time?” he asked, jerking his head towards the door, referring to the fast draw competition they’d just left.

 

“All kinds of things,” Billy said, eyes narrowed.

 

“I don’t mean any offense,” Goodnight said raising his hands amiably. “That was just some fancy throwing I saw back there. I mean hell, they’re probably still working Baldy out of that fence you pinned him to. Seems like a guy like you could be doing a lot more specialized work with those skills, rather than scamming every backwoods’ hillbilly from here to Oregon.”

 

He met Billy’s eyes which were staring at him hard, like Goodnight was accusing him of something definite.

 

“No judgment,” Goodnight felt compelled to breezily add.

 

Billy leaned forward, eyes fixed to Goodnight’s. “The knives you saw? That’s what you want to know? Okay. For the right price, and the right mark, that used to be for hire. Got it?”

 

Goodnight nodded silently and Billy leaned back, lifting his mug of beer. He raised it to his lips, when he suddenly paused.

 

“But for Baldy it was for free,” he added thoughtfully, his lips twitching up. And Goodnight was surprised enough to let out a huffing laugh.

 

“You pick up all that fancy silverware spinning yourself, or someone teach you?” he asked curiously, between sips of beer.

 

“Myself,” said Billy. The he was looking at Goodnight seriously. “And now I have a question.”

 

Goodnight was suddenly nervous as he took another sip, waiting for it.

 

“You always this fucking nosy?” Billy finally asked, with a quirk to his mouth.

 

“Oh no, I used to be way worse,” Goodnight said cheerfully. “I find in my old age I’ve really discovered the virtues of silence. I’ve picked up a lot of patience.”

 

“And what, stared at it and put it right back down again?” Billy asked, snorting a little, and Goodnight finally felt more relaxed.

 

“Something like that,” he said smiling. He went to take another sip, and noticed with a start that his mug was empty. So was Billy’s.

 

Billy noticed too. “I got it,” he said, already standing up.

 

“You don’t have to do that,” Goodnight protested insincerely.

 

“You saved my life, I think I can buy you another drink,” Billy said dryly. Goodnight chuckled as he watched him approach the bar, holding up two fingers to the innkeeper.

 

When Billy came back the drinks, Goodnight felt a hell of a lot less awkward than he did the first time he’d waited for the man to approach.

 

Gamsahamnida,” he said, taking the proffered drink. And he looked up just in time to see Billy’s eyebrows shoot all the way up to his hairline.

 

“You speak Korean?” he asked incredulously as he sat down, in the most open show of surprise Goodnight had seen from him yet. He seemed more shocked than he had when Goodnight had told him about the men trying to kill him.

 

“I do not,” Goodnight said. “But the town where I grew up had a Korean laundryman. So I can say hello, thank you…and don’t wrinkle my dad’s shirts or I’m the one he’ll be giving a whipping to.” He looked at Billy deadpan.

 

Billy stared back at him until finally the corner of his mouth curved up. “No you can’t.”

 

“No I can’t,” Goodnight agreed, raising his fresh glass to his lips, fighting against the laugh that was bubbling up. “But I fucking wish I could, I’ll tell you that right now.”

 

Billy burst out laughing and so did Goodnight, glowing a bit at finally having gotten the man to crack.

 

Billy was covering his mouth as he shook with laughter, and Goodnight took another sip of beer through his grin. He swallowed and added, “But I can say hello and thank you though.”

 

“Alright,” Billy said, settling down, still with the ghost of a smile on his face. He twirled his glass around on the table before taking a sip. He looked back a Goodnight, seeming a little more animated.

 

“Robicheaux…you French?” he asked.

 

“My grandparents on my dad’s side,” Goodnight said. “I’m from Louisiana which is where they met. They never got my daddy to learn much of it though. Insisted he only speak English.”

 

“What about you?” Billy asked. “You speak any?”

 

“Used to,” Goodnight said. “But not with them. Mostly with my nanny. Well, our main nanny,” he corrected himself. “She was a true Louisiana Creole and only spoke French with me and my brothers and sister.”

 

Goodnight suddenly felt a bit gauche by having admitted to a nanny. Billy had come here on what was likely some tin can of a cargo ship, and here was Goodnight talking about his family with multiple servants like the rich townie that he was.

 

But Billy just looked amused. “So you learned Korean from your laundryman…French from your nanny…don’t tell me you learned Spanish from your gardener?”

 

Goodnight shook his head. “Nah,” he said, already losing against the fresh wave of laughter that was swelling. His lips twitched as he looked at Billy. “He was from Kentucky.”

 

He and Billy lost it again, bent double over the saloon’s table laughing, until the other grizzled patrons started glancing over their shoulders at the two strangers from out of town.

 

“Shut up, everyone’s looking,” Goodnight said, trying not to laugh as he handed Billy his handkerchief for the man’s drink, which had sloshed onto the table a bit from his laughter.

 

Billy got himself under control, wiping up the bit of beer that had splashed out, and pinching his mouth almost like he was trying to squeeze the corners together to stop from smiling. Goodnight looked away in case it set him off again.

 

Billy reached out for his mug, still grinning a bit. “So I’ve heard your thank you,” he said before taking a swallow, the line of his throat bobbing. He set the glass back down, staring intently at Goodnight. “But what about your hello?”

 

Goodnight knew he was asking about Korean again. He cleared his throat.

 

“Annyeonghaseyo,” he said, trying to mimic the exact enthusiastic inflection he’d always gotten from the laundryman every time Goodnight would walk in with a large pack of clothes slung over his back that his daddy had insisted ‘built character’.

 

Billy raised his eyebrows. “Good,” he said, sounding impressed. “You never learned goodbye?”

 

“Never could quite catch it,” Goodnight admitted. “He’d say it when I left, but it just sounded like ‘hello’ again, with a bunch of extra junk at the end.”

 

Billy snorted. “Similar. Depends on if you’re staying or leaving though.”

 

Seeing Goodnight’s confusion, Billy pushed his drink aside, leaning forward and sketching it out with his hand. “If you are staying and I am leaving, you tell me annyeonghi-kaseyo. If am staying and you are leaving, then you say annyeonghi-keseyo.”

 

Goodnight stared at him. “Pal, I hate to break it to you, but you just said the exact same thing.”

 

Billy rolled his eyes. “You stay? Annyeonghi-kaseyo. You leave? Annyeonghi-KEseyo.”

 

In Korean, Goodnight felt like he could finally hear the man’s true vocal inflection. It was richer.

 

“One more time,” he said.

 

“Stay? Kaseyo. Leave? Keseyo.”

 

“Kaseyo. Keseyo,” Goodnight repeated to himself, taking a sip. “Kaseyo, keseyo, kaseyo, keseyo, kaseyo, keseyo…”

 

Billy watched Goodnight’s attempts. “So which one is it?” he asked, interrupting Goodnight’s repetitions.

 

“Pardon?” asked Goodnight, derailed.

 

“Which one is it?” Billy repeated, amused. “You staying or leaving?”

 

Goodnight hesitated. “Right now?” Billy nodded.

 

Goodnight looked at the man’s face.

 

“Staying,” he said. And he reached for his mug and the two clinked glasses.

 

 

 

***

 

Staying consisted of two more drinks apiece and some easy chatter over the next couple of hours. It was some of the easiest company Goodnight had had in over a year of being on the road. Which is why it felt like only five minutes later when Billy was casting a look out the window at the sun that was getting lower in the sky.

 

“I should be going,” he said. Goodnight wasn’t sure but he thought the man sounded a bit regretful.

 

“What, you’re not staying here?” he asked surprised.

 

“I had rooms over the butcher’s shop,” Billy said as he started collecting his things, absently throwing the handkerchief Goodnight had lent him into his bag without noticing. Goodnight didn’t point it out. “But after today I think it’d be best for me to - as you all say - 'get out of dodge', don’t you think?”

 

Goodnight did think. He nodded and they stood up, walking slowly out to the saloon’s porch. He watched while Billy hitched up his horse, a large mahogany coloured beast.

 

Billy glanced up at him from beneath his hat. “Sure you should be staying here? It’s me those guys had it out for, but they’re probably not happy with you either.”

 

“You think so?” Goodnight asked, frowning at the thought.

 

Billy shrugged. “I’m going nowhere in particular but you’re welcome to join.”

 

Goodnight looked at the man he’d just met. ‘Nowhere in particular’ suddenly seemed like a more appealing option than it had this morning. He had half a mind to say ‘hell with it’, forego his deposit on the room he’d gotten in the saloon, saddle up Cherie and join this Billy Rocks to nowhere and anywhere.

 

But then his back gave a twinge and he shook his head a bit reluctantly, tucking his hands into his jacket. “Thanks but I really ought to stretch out for a while. Been riding for an age.”

 

“Suit yourself,” Billy said. “Only if you’re sure those men don’t have it in for you too though,” he added, a faint crease between his eyebrows.

 

“I like my odds,” Goodnight said. He tossed Billy a cocky grin. “You saw them when I gave my name. I’m Goodnight Robicheaux, pal.”

 

“So you said,” Billy said wryly but with a bit of a smile. He looked like he was about to get on his horse when he turned back extending his hand. Goodnight took it in his own. It was calloused and warm. They shook.

 

“Thanks for my life, Goodnight Robicheaux,” Billy said, eyes crinkling.

 

“Thanks for the drink, Billy Rocks,” Goodnight said.

 

They let go and Billy swung himself up on his horse, wheeling it around. He touched his fingers to the tip of his hat at Goodnight, and was off cantering down the main street, back straight, heading out into the desert sunset.

 

Goodnight watched him go for a while, suddenly wishing he was there, riding alongside. He spent so much time on a horse he took the freedom in it for granted. The long stretches of desert between towns could get repetitive. But watching someone else do it…he had to admit the lifestyle did have a certain kind of glamour.

 

But he’d have to save the glamour for another day, Goodnight thought, turning back into the saloon. He was exhausted. He got a glass of whiskey from the bartender as well as his key, and made his way up the saloon stairs to his room.

 

The sun had gone down completely by now and it was dark in the room. He tossed his drink back in one go and fell onto the flimsy mattress that gave a muffled squeak, not even bothering to undress. He stared up at the ceiling as he kicked off his boots, and tried to focus his breathing the way some quack of a doctor had once suggested. The advice had actually helped to settle his pulse a little, but it was too bad the doc didn’t have a way for Goodnight to shut off his brain as well.

 

Goodnight adjusted himself on the bed, curling in on himself a little. Breathe in…out…in…out…

 

His eyelids began to droop…

 

in…out…in…out…

 

His breathing settled…

 

in…out…out…out…

 

out…out…

 

“Out! Out! We’re out of bullets!”

 

The gunfire rained down around them, grey jackets jerking as they got hit before crumpling down onto union soil.

 

Goodnight kept the blue union jackets in his crosshairs, and every one he took aim at went down in a heap. But it wasn’t enough. The grey coats were going down thrashing, being picked off like fish in a barrel. Men were trying to reload, clutching their rifles with shaking hands. Those were the ones that still had bullets. Something exploded near him with a deafening boom, making him jump.

 

“The hell was that?” he yelled out at one of the officers, ears ringing.

 

“Shut your mouth and keep shooting, Robicheaux!” was the hollered response.

 

Goodnight took five more rapid shots, five more lives snuffed out, before turning back to the officer, his face streaked with soot and blood.

 

“It’s our left flank, I’m telling you they’re crushing our left!” he shouted. “They’re gonna have us choked if we don’t spread out!”

 

“I’m gonna have you choked if you don’t shut up!” said the officer. Suddenly he jolted hard, a look of surprise on his face. He opened his mouth as though to say something else, but all the came out was blood, trickling into his beard that was grey from soot. He swayed and landed in front of Goodnight with a thump, letting out a gurgling sound.

 

Goodnight frantically tried to kick his legs out to get away from the body. He clutched his rifle holding down the whine that was steadily rising up in his throat before it could be released into the fiery air like a howl. No one would have heard it though, not through all the commotion of people shouting, cannons going off, bullets ripping through the sky, horses letting out whinnying death cries, the moans of men everywhere, the bursting of artillery shells, -

 

- the cocking of a gun.

 

Goodnight’s eyes flew open and he shot up in bed.

 

“Oh god no,” his whispered, his blood turning to ice, because this was his nightmare, this was his nightmare and it was here standing in front of him, its face a ghastly moonlight-soaked white that floated in the dark room, a specter that had followed Goodnight out of his mind until it was standing here, pointing a rifle straight at him.

 

“Teach you to make a fool of me, smart guy,” it whispered, lifting the gun, and Goodnight knew he was going to die.

 

Just then a figure was lunging out of nowhere as it rushed the specter, planting a steel knife right into its side. Before it could make a sound the figure was yanking the knife out from between its ribs, and jabbing it into its throat. With a twist of the knife the specter’s eyes bulged out beneath its red hair and it let out a faint rasp as blood started to trickle down its neck. It slowly slumped lower, revealing the face of the assassin. Goodnight’s eyes widened.

 

Billy stood behind the man, eyes black, hair wild like he’d been galloping through the night. One hand was holding up the slowly expiring redheaded man, and the other was clenched around the handle of the knife. He slowly pulled the knife out of the man’s throat, the blood on it almost black in the moonlight. His eyes were fixed on Goodnight who couldn’t breathe.

 

And then the red-haired man was finally slumping to the floor, dead, and Billy was wiping the knife blade on his pants, the spell broken.

 

“What the hell are you doing here?” Goodnight finally managed, his blood still cold, and his heart practically beating its way out of his chest.

 

“You said they weren’t gonna come after you,” Billy said, turning the man’s body over with his boot to make sure he was dead. He looked back at Goodnight. “I wasn’t so sure.”

 

Goodnight tried to ease his heart rate down as he looked at the dead man’s face, finally fully registering him as the spectator from the fast draw competition.

 

“His friends are waiting downstairs,” said Billy like he was reading Goodnight’s thoughts, reaching for the dead man’s rifle. “Get your stuff and come on. I’ve got our horses in the alley out back.”

 

Goodnight’s head was spinning but he did as the man said, leaping to his feet and hastily shoving the few things he’d unpacked back into his bag. He was pulling on his boots when a loud bang had him whirling around in shock.

 

“The hell was that?” he asked, his heart leaping up into his throat, remembering in the knick of time not to shout.

 

Billy dropped the rifle back onto the dead man’s chest, which he’d just shot a bullet through. “Buying us time. His friends would expect to hear a shot by now, otherwise they’d be coming up to check what’s wrong.”

 

“Well have you ever heard of warning a fellow, Jesus Christ, you almost gave me a heart attack,” Goodnight hissed, torn between wanting to yell in rage and nerves, but not wanting to give the game away. “You can’t just go around shooting things up and not expect a man to jump, what’s the matter with you?”

 

Billy was giving him an odd look, and Goodnight realized he’d overreacted in his panic.

 

“Sorry,” Billy said, sounding sincere. “You packed? Let’s go.”

 

They left the room and crept through the upper halls of the saloon, Goodnight copying Billy’s steps. The man was slinking in an odd pattern, and Goodnight realized he was avoiding the floorboards that creaked. They arrived at a window in the back of the saloon, which was already propped open. A rope trailed out and over the windowsill into the night.

 

“After you,” Billy said and Goodnight climbed out of the window, glancing down to see Cherie saddled up underneath the rope. Her ears pricked up and she shuffled nervously to see him shimmying down the side of the building, but relaxed when he dropped lightly onto her back.

 

“Hey girl,” he said soothingly, feeling relieved when he heard her familiar nicker.

 

“Your damn horse almost bit my hand off,” Billy hissed as he shimmied down the rope after Goodnight.

 

“Yeah how did you manage to get her out of the stable?” Goodnight asked frowning, shuffling Cherie over to make room for Billy’s horse. “She never lets anyone else touch her.”

 

“Had to make her smell this so that she’d trust me,” Billy said, dropping onto his own horse and tossing a small bundle at Goodnight. Goodnight unfolded it to see it was his own handkerchief he’d lent Billy earlier.

 

“Sorry, didn’t mean to walk off with it,” Billy said apologetically.

 

“I’m mighty glad you did,” Goodnight said, his head still reeling. He shoved it in his pocket. “Let’s go.”

 

Their horses walked carefully down the back alley, not wanting to gallop in case the clattering of hooves alerted anyone inside.

 

“Alley ends up there,” Billy said. “We’re just gonna have to go around the side of the saloon and hope no one inside turns around. When we hit the end of main street we gallop, alright?”

 

They leaned down lower on their horses as they moved breathlessly past a window, Goodnight first. He tried to flatten himself as much as he could, feeling the sway of his horse as they walked past the open window. He could hear someone inside running up the stairs.

 

Once he passed the window he straightened up a little bit, glancing around at Billy who was passing the window now. For a minute it seemed like he’d make it unseen.

 

Just then there was a shout from the upper level of the saloon. “Hey! Ron’s dead he got Ron!”

 

And then another shout from the bottom level: “Outside, they’re outside! Two of ‘em!”

 

“Damn,” Billy swore. “Go!”

 

They both snapped their reins and their horses broke into a sprint as they galloped around the rest of the saloon, taking the corner as tight as any barrel race, before they were speeding down main street.

 

“Yah!” Billy yelled at his horse, catching up to Goodnight and galloping alongside him. They reached the end of the street and the ploughed road gave way to desert scrubland as their horses kicked up dust and dirt as fast as they could go.

 

Goodnight craned his neck around to see one of the redhead’s friends speeding after them on his own horse. The moon was turning the desert into a shadow storm of silver and black, and Goodnight could faintly make out the red flannel shirt of the man who was going to shoot Billy earlier.

 

“Behind us!” he yelled. Billy looked back and his eyes narrowed, recognizing him. He kept hold of his reins with one hand, drawing a large blade out of his vest with the other. It glinted wickedly in the starlight. He waited carefully, slowly drawing up the knife. And with one swift motion he whipped his arm down, sending the knife whistling directly into the man’s chest. Goodnight saw the man’s figure slump atop his horse before quietly slipping off.

 

“Nice one,” Goodnight panted, as they rode at a harder gallop. “You think Baldy’s after us too?”

 

A shot rang out.

 

“Yes,” Billy said.

 

Goodnight turned back again, to see another figure indeed gaining on them.

 

“The way I see it - ,” he yelled to Billy over their trampling hooves. “- is that we oughta leave one of them alive. Otherwise we just look like murderers who killed three of the town’s men and made off in the night. If we leave that one alive then he’ll have to do the explaining as to why that body was in my room in the first place.”

 

Another shot went sailing somewhere past their heads.

 

“Well if you got a better idea than killing him I’d love to hear it,” Billy shouted.

 

Goodnight reached behind him, pulling his rifle up and over his shoulder, the smooth-handled gun a familiar weight in his hand. He veered his gallop until he was bringing his horse right up next to Billy’s. He prayed the racing legs of the horses wouldn’t get caught in a tangle.

 

“Hold these,” he said, thrusting his own reins at Billy. And before Billy could ask what the hell he was doing, Goodnight eased himself up in his saddle, balanced precariously on Cherie’s racing back for a moment, and turned around dropping right back down into the saddle. Backwards. He lifted his rifle.

 

“You crazy?” Billy yelled, now frantically trying to steer both his and Goodnight’s horses at the same time. “And what happened to not killing him?”

 

“I’m not,” Goodnight murmured, trying to keep his rifle steady as he raced backwards on a horse through a desert at night, the only visibility coming from the moon up above.

 

“What, you’re gonna shoot the horse?”

 

“Horse’s saddle-strap,” Goodnight replied, cocking the gun.

 

“What the hell? You can’t make that shot, that’s impossible even during the day, you’re just gonna miss and –“

 

The blast of the rifle interrupted Billy. The bald man in pursuit let out a shout as the bullet went clean through the inch of leather holding his saddle in place. And before he knew what had hit him, the saddle gave an unmistakable snap and the man was sent tumbling off his horse, down into the desert rocks.

 

“Annyeonghi-KEseyo, you piece of shit,” Goodnight hollered after him. He slung his rifle back around his shoulder, carefully turning back around on his horse, and took his reins back from Billy. He looked over at him.

 

“I never miss.”

 

Billy’s stunned face stared back at him. And then just like that, the man burst out laughing, his face breaking into a huge smile. He threw his head back and let out a gleeful whoop over the thundering hooves, and Goodnight couldn’t have held back his own grin if he tried.

 

And as the silver scrubland before them slowly became tinged the dusky golden rose of dawn, the pair dug in their spurs and snapped their reins as they sped across the open desert, both of them racing to beat the sunrise.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

The sun was coming up over the desert bluffs when Billy and Goodnight finally pulled their horses into a walk. The horses were panting from the hard gallop, and the men were in pretty much the same state. They sat breathlessly on their saddles, coming down from the high of their escape. But when they caught each other’s eyes, neither could resist letting out a huff of laughter.

 

Billy twisted in his saddle to look behind him, even though he knew the town wouldn’t be visible anymore. They were miles away by now.

 

“Do you think anyone else is coming?” he turned back to ask Goodnight.

 

“Doubt it,” said Goodnight. “The one we left alive isn’t going to get the law involved, not after what they tried. I wouldn’t go back there anytime soon, but I don’t think we have to worry about any other shadows on our tail besides our own.”

 

Billy nodded. “Sure.” He didn’t usually trust anyone else’s judgment just like that, and he’d only know this man a few hours. But he had already realized this Goodnight Robicheaux wasn’t quite like most men he’d met.

 

Billy stole a look at the man who was now leaning forward to say something to his horse. Weird behavior if you asked Billy. It’s not like he never spoke to horses. He liked the animals just fine. But if he spoke to a horse it was usually just to give a command or to soothe. There was something downright fanciful about talking to a horse like it could understand you, which is what he’d seen Goodnight do several times now.

 

But then again, there was something fanciful about the man himself. Whether it was the man’s collar studs that flashed jauntily on clothes that were already spiffier than strictly necessary, or the excitable and vaguely poetic way words seem to spill out of him, or the way he carried himself tensely one minute, grandiose and slightly affected the next…

 

Oh Billy wasn’t criticizing. It took a lot of grit to jump smack into the middle of that draw competition and spin yarns like Goodnight had done, just as cool as you please. Billy knew the man had substance and anyone with ears could tell he had a brain. But he’d been half on his way to categorizing Goodnight as someone who was simply more flash than faculty.

 

Until he saw the man shoot a gun.

 

Billy shook his head slightly, still amazed. Backwards on a galloping horse at night. Only one man in a million could have made that shot, and as fate would have it that man was riding next to Billy now.

 

Goodnight seemed cheery enough at the moment, still talking to that damn horse, but Billy hadn’t forgotten how haunted the man had looked last night. Anyone would have been panicked to wake up with a gun in their face, but it was more than that. Goodnight…he’d looked like he had the very devil whispering in his ear.

 

At least until Billy had leapt in to jam a knife between that lowlife’s ribs. Trying to kill a man in his sleep…Billy’s knives were far too good for that type of person.

 

Billy was so deep in thought it took him a minute to realize that Goodnight was addressing him again:

 

“Think we’re gonna hit water anytime soon? Cherie and I could use a drink.”

 

Cherie. Of course the golden creature’s name was Cherie.

 

“There’s a stream coming up just between those cliffs,” Billy said, pointing a little ways ahead to where the desert flats gave way to more elevated ground before becoming a canyon.

 

Goodnight looked at him surprised and Billy realized he’d just been asking to make conversation, not expecting an answer.

 

“How do you know that?”

 

“Almost tripped in it on my way out of town. Was right around the time I realized I was an idiot to leave you there and decided to turn around,” Billy said.

 

Goodnight fell quiet for a moment. He looked over at Billy. “I never did thank you, did I?”

 

Billy shrugged. “No need.”

 

“There’s a hell of a need,” Goodnight said. “I’d be dead in that room if you hadn’t been there and that’s a fact.”

 

“And I’d have been dead in that draw competition if you hadn’t been there,” Billy said to him, with a bit of a wry grin. “So I’d say we’re pretty square.”

 

Goodnight grinned back. “Alright. Square. But thanks just the same.”

 

“My pleasure.” Billy might have arrived in America squashed next to his parents like sardines in a can, they might have lived in cramped dingy rooms that had nothing on their clean, spacious house back in Korea, and Billy might have been the object of stares and pointing fingers ever since he could remember. But that was no reason for his mother to let him forget his manners.

 

They reached the canyon’s stream and hopped down, leading their horses to the water. They made sure the horses didn’t drink too greedily after all that riding and risk getting a cramp. Only a mail-order cowboy let his horse fill its stomach with water after a hard ride.

 

Goodnight tore open a packet of biscuits, pulling one out with his teeth, and tossed the packet over to Billy who took one as well. They ate in easy silence, leaning against the smooth rock wall as they watched their horses. They were ambling around the stream bed, Billy’s horse flicking its tail and looking suspiciously over at the Palomino who was picking her way around the rocks, as pretty as any cat and twice as prissy.

 

Billy felt comfortable enough, but not without some awkwardness. It had been so long since he’d shared the road with anyone, and he didn’t know what to say.

 

Fortunately Goodnight took care of that for him.

 

“What’s your horse’s name?” he asked.

 

Billy suddenly felt amused. “What is it with you and horses?”

 

Goodnight glanced over at him with the trace of a smile on his face, like he knew Billy had a joke up his sleeve and he didn’t want to miss it.

 

“Meaning?”

 

“Meaning I’ve never seen anyone talk so much to a horse before,” Billy said, pulling a couple apples out of his bag and offering one to Goodnight, who accepted. “And I don’t know his name,” Billy said, referring to his gelding as he took a bite of apple. “Got him in San Antonio. Traded my last horse for him.”

 

“Swapped out one ride for the next and didn’t even stay long enough for a name,” Goodnight said, shaking his head somberly but with a twinkle in his eye. “You’re a cold man, Billy Rocks.”

 

“I am not,” protested Billy despite feeling a flicker of mirth. “I just don’t go around whispering sweet nothings to animals.”

 

“Are you implying something about my proclivities?” Goodnight asked, taking a bite of his apple, full on grinning now.

 

Billy didn’t recognize the word but he could tell what it meant and his amusement grew. “You said it, not me.”

 

“Well I’m sorry to hear Koreans don’t appreciate horses,” Goodnight said. “Or all you all just a bunch of sheep shaggers?”

 

Billy turned a steely-eyed glare onto the man.

 

“The sheep is Korea’s most respected animal, waygookin.”

 

Goodnight’s eyebrows went up at Billy’s tone. “Sorry.”

 

“We treat that animal with the utmost respect,” Billy said seriously.

 

“I’m sorry.”

 

“We always make sure a sheep is treated properly before having sex with it.”

 

“I said I’m – wait what?”

 

Billy looked at Goodnight, struggling to keep a straight face at the man’s stunned expression.

 

“I’m just fucking with you, man.”

 

Goodnight stared at him with his mouth open, and when Billy’s lip finally twitched up, Goodnight practically exploded in laughter, making their horses jump. Billy couldn’t help joining in, but mostly just at the other man who was now doubled over on the rock.

 

“Oh my fucking god,” Goodnight wheezed. He tried to look at Billy, but a fresh wave of laughter overtook him.

 

Billy’s shoulders were shaking. “You should have seen your face.”

 

“Oh Jesus,” Goodnight said, sitting back up and wiping his eyes. “You actually had me going for a second.”

 

Goodnight was grinning broadly, an uninhibited crooked smile, and Billy confirmed what he already suspected: he liked this Goodnight Robicheaux. After Billy had ridden out of town the first time he’d made it to almost this exact point in the desert before he thought, this man saved your life and you repay him by riding off when your gut tells you he’s in trouble? This is not who you are.

 

It was at that point that Billy had jerked his horse around and had beaten a path back into town as fast as he could go. And sitting here with the man now, Billy knew he’d never have forgiven himself if he hadn’t.

 

Goodnight was still chuckling. “You’re a bastard, Billy Rocks.”

 

“And you walked right into that one, Goodnight Robicheaux.”

 

Goodnight looked at him warmly. “You can call me Goody.”

 

“Goody.” Billy tried it out.

 

Goodnight got up and stretched. “Should we get going? Wouldn’t want to be riding in this canyon when it becomes dark.”

 

Billy nodded. “Gaja,” he said, feeling so at ease he hadn’t even noticed his slip into Korean.

 

“Which one is that?” Goodnight asked curiously. He beckoned his horse who came trotting over at the first flick of his fingers.

 

“What? Oh. Means ‘let’s go’,” Billy said.

 

“Gaja,” Goodnight repeated assiduously as he fed Cherie some leftover apple. Billy rolled his eyes when he realized it was practically half. But he gave his own horse his leftover apple core before planting his foot in the stirrup, swinging himself up and over the large gelding.

 

“Come on,” he said, starting for the mouth of the canyon. It was the same place he’d reached last time, but this time was different because this time he wasn't alone.

 

 

***

 

The wound their way through the canyon, its rocky walls jutting up into the sky and glowing red in the afternoon sun. They followed the stream, taking it single file when the path was narrow, riding side by side when it opened up again. They chatted easily, and Billy learned a little more about the man.

 

He got a straight answer about ‘the horse thing’ – which he’d decided to start calling it just to annoy Goodnight – and found out Goodnight had always liked horses. But having grown up in a town he’d always had to wait to visit his cousins before being able to get in any proper riding.

 

He also found out that said cousins lived on a plantation.

 

“It was really something,” Goodnight said, his eyes far away. “You get some mighty spectacular views in the desert, don’t get me wrong.” He nodded up at the ragged canyon walls that were dappled in gold, casting glinting sunspots onto the surface of the cold stream they rode beside. “But all that green…you can’t imagine how alive it made you feel sometimes.” He frowned. “Or maybe you can. Is there green in Korea?”

 

Billy snorted. “There is green in Korea.” He might not remember much of his early childhood, but he certainly remembered the rolling green hills that seemed to make up his entire country, more vivid and lithe than the most of the forests he came across here.

 

“Well then you know,” Goodnight said, nodding decisively. “Acres of green as far as the eye could see…but then suddenly it would give way to white which meant you had hit the cotton fields. We used to run through them playing hide and seek when we were kids. It would annoy the slaves to no end…”

 

Billy started at the casualness with which Goodnight had thrown out the word. He knew Goodnight was from Louisiana, a Confederate state, and he should have figured the man had had some connections with slavery. But it was just strange to think about in association with the man beside him. As someone who not a white American, Billy felt like he understood more about slavery than most. But also as someone who was not a white American…sometimes he felt like he didn’t understand it at all.

 

Goodnight glanced over as though reading his thoughts. “Look…”

 

“You don’t have to explain.”

 

“I’m not,” Goodnight said. It looked like he was searching for the words. “And I’m not saying I agree with it either. But I don’t think it’s a question of ‘agreeing’. It’s either a part of your normal life or it’s not. And when you’re a kid, every part of your life feels normal.”

 

“And what happens when you grow up?” Billy asked, looking over at him.

 

Goodnight looked down, twisting his reins. “You go to college. You learn some things you wouldn’t have learned back home. And by the time you realize that there are some things that shouldn’t be a part of your normal life, well…next thing you know they’re already declaring war.”

 

“So then you –“

 

“That looks like a good spot to make camp, doesn’t it?” Goodnight interrupted, pointing out a smooth, spacious area of the canyon’s floor, the rocks and cliffs around it high enough to offer to protection, but not high enough to trap them in.

 

Billy looked up at the sky, whose blue was deepening. He could already make out the faintest pale pinpricks of stars. “Okay.”

 

They unsaddled and went about setting up camp, each of them taking down their own bundles of blankets. They compared what kinds of food they were each carrying, and once they’d pooled an assortment of dried beef, root vegetables and hard cheese, Goodnight went to go find wood for a fire and Billy set about prepping a stew.

 

By the time dusk had fallen they were eating contentedly enough, not chatting much. But eventually Goodnight looked over, holding himself a little tighter than before.

 

“So what’s your plan?”

 

Billy took a swallow of coffee, wiping his mustache after. “Like I told you, I’m going nowhere in particular.”

 

Goodnight nodded. They were both aware at this point that the fact that they were still riding together was by choice not by chance. Billy gave a small smile.

 

“And like I told you, you’re still welcome to join.”

 

He might have been imagining it, but he thought the line of Goodnight’s shoulders had eased somewhat.

 

“Alright. I think I heard of a town picking up steam a few days east of here. Been thinking of having a look. We could make our next move there.”

 

Billy was surprised to find himself looking forward to it.

 

“Alright.”

 

They cleared their plates, washing them in the stream. It wasn’t a windy night so they left the campfire going and settled in, lying on opposite sides of the rocky clearing.

 

“Night.”

 

“Night.”

 

Somewhere far away a coyote howled.

 

A branch shifted in the campfire.

 

“Do you snore?”

 

“No.”

 

“Thank god.”

 

The fire crackled.

 

Billy was asleep about five minutes later.

 

When he woke up next it was pitch black. It took Billy a minute to figure out why he’d woken up, and he realized he was shivering a little. The campfire had long since burnt out. He waited a while to get his eyes adjusted to the dark. Once he could make out the shadows of their canyon he got up a bit sleepily and walked over to where his horse was lying so that he could get his second blanket. His horse was a rich brown mahogany and in the sun he shone almost red. But when it was night like right now, the gelding was just a black shadow.

 

Billy had just pulled the blanket out of his pack and was about to go lie down again when a noise stopped him.

 

He looked over across the rocks to Goody. He could sort of make him out, curled up against the wall of the rock face, pressed as close to it as he could go.

 

Billy waited, and there was the sound again. It had definitely come from Goody.

 

He hesitated and looked back at his own spot, and then back again at Goody. He walked over to the man’s sleeping figure with steps as soft as silk and crouched down beside him.

 

Goody was sweating as though he were burning up, but the way he was shivering said otherwise. Fever, Billy thought for a moment, although the man had seemed perfectly sound all day.

 

Then Goody was saying something:

 

“No…no…” he murmured, so quietly that Billy wouldn’t have heard him if he’d still been asleep.

 

Billy raised his eyebrows. He hadn’t had a nightmare in years. He leaned in closer.

 

“It’s not…they’re everywhere…”

 

Those were the last actual words Billy could make out before it became sleep slurred and unintelligible. Then the man started to whine a little.

 

Billy was alarmed. He looked around as though there was someone who could tell him what to do. Were you supposed to wake people in nightmares? He had no idea. Part of him wanted to wake Goodnight, but part of him knew that if this was regular, then the man must have been managing alone for years.

 

Goodnight let out a soft, pained sound, and Billy’s hand reached out on its own accord –

 

- when he was shoved to the side by a huge bulk and sent sprawling onto the ground.

 

“What the…” he said dazedly, getting to his feet again. He came face to face with Goody’s horse standing in front of him, baring her large teeth at him.

 

“Are you kidding me?” he hissed at her in Korean, remembering the way she’d almost taken his hand off in the stable last night. He’d had to shove Goody’s handkerchief in her face, the scent of her master the only thing that had gotten her out of the stable.

 

She blew a stream of air out of her nostrils warningly.

 

“I wasn’t going to hurt him,” Billy said irritably. He held up his hands placatingly, still holding the blanket. “Look, I’m just going to walk over here –“

 

He took a step closer to Goodnight and her eyes rolled back, the whites shining in the dark.

 

“Jesus, you’re a menace. Okay look. See this? It’s a blanket. I know you’ve seen one before. I’m just taking the blanket, and –“

 

He tossed it gently over Goodnight’s sleeping form and took a step back. The horse stared at him phlegmatically. Billy stared back unimpressed.

 

“Crazy fucking animal.”

 

Billy went back to his blanket and lay down again, pulling it tighter around him. He kept an eye on Goodnight but the man seemed to have settled down. Before closing his eyes he saw the horse bend down and whicker softly into Goodnight’s hair.

 

“Crazy,” he mumbled more softly.

 

That was the last thing Billy remembered before sleep pulled him under.

 

 

***

 

 

 

They rode for a couple more days, and if Goodnight didn’t say anything about the time he woke up with an extra blanket it’s because Billy had woken up a little earlier to gently take it off of him before he could wake up, the man’s golden horse staring suspiciously at Billy all the while.

 

He heard Goodnight make sounds in his sleep a few more nights after the first time, but they were never loud. It was like the man expended so much lazy energy during the day that he spent the nights unconsciously reining it in.

 

But the riding was easy, and Billy found himself chatting more with the man than he’d probably ever spoken with anyone, surprised to find that he could be a bit of a talker himself when it was with just one person. In English group settings it could sometimes be hard to know when to jump in. Mostly he just listened to Goodnight’s stories though, always entertained.

 

They kept heading east and eventually reached the town Goodnight had been mentioning. Ever since the war, new towns had been cropping up all over the place. And towns that had already existed were giving themselves full makeovers. Everyone was after a fresh start it seemed. They rode through the town, looking around interestedly at all the building and commotion going on, the town already looking like it was on the up and up. The buildings were huge and people were all calling out to each other excitedly. So many new faces kept riding into town, and the only reason he and Goodnight were even spared a second glance was just because Billy was foreign, not because he was new.

 

They pulled up to a decent sized hotel that had a bar on the main floor.

 

“Spend the night?” Goodnight asked, and Billy nodded. The town had been farther than they’d thought, and they both wanted the chance to stretch out. Billy took care of the horses while Goodnight went inside to make arrangements, which Billy was glad of. It wasn’t every place that turned Billy down, but there was always the distinct possibility.

 

Goodnight came back out, his eyes alight. “Say, I saw a poster in there for a fast draw competition. It’s happening in an hour. Seeing as how I interrupted your last one, what do you say we go over and check it out?”

 

“Seeing as how you only interrupted to stop me from getting shot, I’m not exactly complaining,” Billy said. “But sure, why not.”

 

They headed over to the middle of town where there was a large square, people already gathered excitedly and signing up and making preemptive bets. Billy waited in line while people looked at him suspiciously. When he signed his name in the large leather-bound ledger he looked over at Goodnight, who gave him an enthusiastic thumbs up. Billy shook his head, smiling a little.

 

The competition got under way, and after watching a few of the competitors perform, Billy knew he had this in the bag. Some of them were pretty good, but they weren’t Billy. So when he went into his first round, five opponents, five shots, he blew the competition away one at a time, each shot faster than the last. And when the dust had settled from his last win he twirled his pistol around before sticking it jauntily back in his holster, turning around smugly to look for Goodnight. Alright, he might have been showing off a little. But the last time Goodnight had seen him in one of these, Billy had just been standing there like an idiot with a target on his chest. So what if he wanted to show what he could do?

 

But when he found Goodnight in the crowd, the man was frowning a little. Huh.

 

Billy went over and stood back next to Goodnight who was stroking his short beard, his forehead creased.

 

“What?” Billy asked.

 

“Nothing. Nice shooting. Just…” he looked at Billy a bit confused. “Are you wanting people to bet on you?”

 

Billy shrugged. “Well sure.”

 

Goodnight raised his eyebrow. “ ’Cause you just shortened your odds by a mile. You’ll win this, but you won’t come out of it with as much of the pot as you could if you missed a little.”

 

“Miss?” Billy asked skeptically.

 

“Yeah, element of surprise! If you keep cleaning up like you’re doing you’ll be a sure thing and no one will bet against you. There’s no poetry in it! Your final winnings’ll be smaller as a result.”

 

Goodnight looked at him with a bit of a smile again. “You can either make enemies out of these things or money. Which would you prefer?”

 

Billy snorted remembering their last escape. “Money.”

 

“Thought so. Now get back out there, and in your second round, miss the first three, make the fourth, and miss the fifth.” Goodnight clapped Billy on the back, and Billy walked back into the square bemused.

 

He faced his opponent, a mean looking blond man whom Billy had beat handily in the first round. Billy’s fingers hovered above his holster.

 

When the starting gun went off, it took all of Billy’s will to work against muscle memory, and he purposefully dawdled when reaching for his gun. The feeling of waiting was bizarre. Normally Billy had bullets coming out of his gun before his brain even had time to catch up.

 

He missed again two more times and the crowd leaned forward eagerly. He made the fourth like Goodnight had told him to, and by the time the fifth opponent came into the ring, eyes fixed determinedly on Billy, the crowd was holding its breath. He missed again and a low murmur broke out, people fluttering to exchange bills and start calling out bets for the third round. That was when Goodnight used the commotion to stride angrily into the crowd towards Billy.

 

“What the hell is wrong with you, boy? You decide to get cocky and then end up making me look like an idiot, is that it? I’m your manager and you should show me a little more goddamn respect.”

 

He gave Billy a tiny wink that the crowd wouldn’t have been able to see, and Billy caught on.

 

“Maybe if you spent less time with your horse and more time managing me, I’d have gotten more practice,” Billy shot back, and he saw Goodnight fighting to keep back a laugh.

 

“Well this is not the kind of shooting I hired you for,” Goodnight said scowling exaggeratedly, his voice raised enough for the interested spectators to hear him.

 

“Sorry boss,” Billy said sarcastically. “Lost my aim.”

 

“Well you’d better hope to God you find it again before the next round,” Goodnight said imperiously before heading to the stands, brushing roughly past Billy. When he did he whispered, “Miss one, make two and three, miss four and five.”

 

Billy watched him go back to the crowd and tried to look his best like someone who was annoyed at having been chewed out in public. He squared his shoulders and got ready for the next round.

 

Just what Goodnight said: he missed the first, made the second and third, and missed the rest.

 

Goodnight stormed back into the ring red-faced, and threw his hat onto the ground in a fit.

 

“Goddamn you, boy! What the hell’re ya trying to do?” he yelled vociferously, and Billy had to work very hard to take the man’s cartoonishly outraged face seriously.

 

Billy just shrugged, staring petulantly at the ground.

 

“I asked you what you think you’re doing,” Goodnight hollered.

 

Billy looked back up and unleashed a stream of insults at him in Korean.

 

Goodnight’s eyes popped. “You can’t talk to me like that. Wait, what did you say?”

 

“Come here and I’ll say it slower,” Billy said.

 

Goodnight gave a low growl and rushed at Billy, shoving him. Billy shoved him back, and then the two were grappling, falling to the ground, and the crowd started cheering and laughing, hooting encouragements at the professional spat.

 

“Okay now punch me, make it look good,” Goodnight whispered where they were tussling on the ground, his eyes twinkling.

 

Billy landed an intentionally soft blow on the man’s jaw, but Goodnight snapped his head back and groaned theatrically like Billy had actually socked him one, and it was all Billy could do to not burst out laughing then and there.

 

After another minute of struggling, Goodnight yelled out: “Alright, uncle! Uncle!” And he got to his feet, spitting and angry.

 

“You’re on your own now, you useless pack mule. And you can go back to that hovel I found you in for all I care.”

 

“Fine by me,” Billy called out, seeing all the bets exchanging hands out of the corner of his eye.

 

Goodnight tugged his fancy shirt and waistcoat back into place and brushed the dust off his clothes before reaching down for his hat. He placed it haughtily back on his head and stalked past Billy, looking at him in disdain. But out of the corner of his mouth he said:

 

“Now go clean up.”

 

Half an hour later, Billy found Goodnight back in the bar of the hotel they were staying in. Goodnight was sitting at a table with two mugs of beer, one with a dent in it already. He looked up as Billy approached, wearing a bit of a smirk. “Well?”

 

Billy just wordlessly reached into his jacket and pulled out a thick stack of bills. He tossed it onto the table where it landed in front of Goodnight, who burst out laughing.

 

“Knew you had it in you.”

 

Billy chuckled and pulled out the other seat, sitting across from Goodnight. He reached out for the other mug.

 

They drank companionably for a while, too full of mirth to meet each other’s eyes. But finally Goodnight leaned forward, a bit of a gleam in his eye.

 

“Say…I know all that manager stuff was absolute horseshit…but how about it?”

 

Billy raised his eyebrows and took a sip, and Goodnight continued:

 

“These kinds of competitions are all over the state, every state. We move around enough, you and me, do that show in enough different places, and who’s gonna catch wise?”

 

“Interesting suggestion,” Billy mused.

 

“Come on, what kind of money were you making before on your own?” Goodnight asked. He nodded to Billy’s jacket where he’d put back the wad of dollar bills. “You could get that again easy in any town. And this is just a new town, think of what you could be making in some of the bigger cities!” he said eagerly.

 

It was like he was trying to sell it to Billy from the money perspective, like Billy wouldn’t have had any other reason to stick around. But looking at the man’s eager face, blue eyes lit up like the fresh, invigorating energy of the new town had gotten to him, Billy knew he’d do it for the company alone.

 

“Okay,” he said.

 

Goodnight blinked. “Really?”

 

“Yeah really,” Billy said. “Let’s do it…manager,” he added, with an ironic grin.

 

Goodnight grinned back. “Well if I’m your manager I expect my fifteen percent, I’ll have you know.”

 

Billy reached into his jacket pocket again, took out the stack of bills and split it roughly down the middle. He tossed half of the stack to Goodnight, who caught it, looking at him confused.

 

“Fifty percent,” Billy said. He cracked a smile. “Friends discount.”

 

Goodnight flushed, his mouth opening a little in surprise, but it had a pleased slant to it.

 

And raising their mugs, they each clinked glasses and drained them.

 

***

 

And that’s how Billy and Goodnight ended up riding all over East Texas, entering every competition they could find, and scamming the lot of them.

 

Trying not to laugh when he and Goodnight got into their ‘fight’ was always the hardest part for Billy.

 

And in all the towns, not to mention all the riding between them, Billy learns a lot about Goodnight.

 

The first is Goodnight’s real name.

 

“It’s Arthur,” Goodnight said one night over dinner when Billy had asked. “But my whole family has always called me Goodnight ever since I can remember. They could never get me to sleep after I was born so they kept saying it to me, hoping I’d take the hint. Then it became a running joke that since it was all they ever said to me it might as well be my name.” He’d looked at Billy and added a bit wryly: “Never was a great sleeper, as I’m sure you’ve already noticed.”

 

He learns Goodnight was in the war, but not because Goodnight tells him. He doesn’t talk about it so Billy never asks, but just the same it’s pretty obvious. Billy’s not a genius, but he wouldn’t have to be a genius to figure that one out.

 

Billy also learns a little more about Goodnight’s family. He was the youngest of five, both parents dead now. He seems to have gotten along with them, and mentions them occasionally. He also talks about his sister, married and living somewhere in Louisiana still. But he never talks about his older brothers, just to shortly mention they’re dead.

 

He learns that Goody is a bit of a flirt. Doesn’t matter who they’re out with or for how long he’s known them, Goodnight turns the same charm onto the people around them, flirting outrageously with any woman they come across. He never seems to do anything about it though, which Billy finds curious seeing as how he’s a good looking, well-dressed man and there’ve certainly been plenty of willing women in the towns they’ve come across. But Goodnight seems content to just play the game without ever acting on it, since as far as Billy knows he’s spent every night with Billy since they started riding together.

 

He learns that between the two of them, Billy is the better cook, but Goodnight makes better coffee.

 

He learns that Goodnight is a hell of a good singer, a bit pitchy but with a good tone. He’ll sometimes sing in his saddle to pass the time, or when they’re sitting around a campfire, just whittling and watching the stars, Goodnight’s tenor floating around the campsite in whatever song’s on his mind at the time. Billy knows Goodnight’s just doing it to entertain himself, but even so Billy lies back with his eyes closed and listens and wonders how he ever got so used to travelling alone.

 

He learns Goodnight can be the most social man in the room, swaggering from group to group with a friendly joke for everyone, being the life and soul of any saloon on any given night. He also learns just as quickly that the next day Goodnight can withdraw for hours, posture closed, eyes fixed forward while riding his horse, but his mind years back.

 

He learns that Goody doesn’t have nightmares every night. Just most of them.

 

He also learns that Goodnight is kind, so kind. Billy doesn’t know if he is a kind person himself. He reckons he might be, but no one had ever let him in close enough for him to try. But he’s not kind in the way that Goody is, which is kind like it’s never occurred to him that he doesn’t have to be.

 

So they rode from town to town and the weeks passed, and so did the months. And they kept snaking their way around East Texas, leaving behind a trail of towns with their citizens poorer, and Goodnight and Billy richer for it. Scamming the gun competitions was always fun, and it was also interesting to watch Goody in a crowd. Whether it was holding back a laugh at the man’s grandstanding or sitting back and watching him chat with others, he was always magnetic doing it. But if Billy was being honest, he preferred the time spent on the road in between.

 

“That’s show business for you,” Goodnight had said with a grin one day as they counted greenbacks, his gold tooth winking at Billy.

 

The towns got bigger and more imposing the further east they went, and eventually they hit the bustling city of Austin. The buildings were tall and the streets were busy, all crowded with buggies and carriages, gentlemen in long coats, ladies in wide sweeping skirts, all of them flowing through sidewalks that were lined with honest to god street lamps. Between many of the fine buildings were large rustling parks full of thick trees with gnarled branches, so rich and massive that their leaves were all touching, creating a soft inviting shade.

 

“There you go,” Billy said nodding at the park. “Green.”

 

Goodnight looked over and smiled, but it was forced. And Billy had noticed that the bigger the towns got, the tenser Goodnight seemed to get. Even the man’s ridiculous horse had noticed, tossing back her glossy white mane in her efforts to look at Goody.

 

“Fancy town like this isn’t going to have shooting competitions,” Billy said looking around. “How about we just keep riding?”

 

Goodnight looked at him like he suspected why Billy was suggesting it, but Billy just looked back innocently.

 

“And pass up a chance to eat something other than baked beans and jerky? No way, my friend. And it’s a proper hotel for us tonight.”

 

They found a hotel, grander than any place Billy had stayed before. He hung back in the lobby, feeling out of place in his dusty riding clothes standing on the rich carpet while Goody swanned up to the front desk. Out of the corner of his eye, Billy saw the clerk pointing at him, saw someone who looked like the manager come over, saw Goody spreading his hands affably, and saw those same hands slide more money across the counter than what a room had to cost.

 

Goody came back over to him, clapping Billy on the shoulder.

 

“We’re in,” he said.

 

Billy nodded and followed Goodnight to the stairs.

 

“Just tell me what I owe you for that,” he said to Goodnight’s back, which stopped climbing the stairs.

 

“Billy…”

 

“Goody.”

 

Goodnight kept walking. “Fine. Two rounds of drinks, and your solemn promise to not question how your business manager manages business ever again.”

 

Billy lips quirked up. Try as he might, Goodnight could never quite manage to sound gruff. For all his posturing, the man was gentler than he seemed to realize.

 

“Fine.”

 

“And put on something decent. We’re going out to dinner.”

 

A couple hours later Billy and Goodnight were cutting through one of the town’s parks, walking past curving, wrought iron gates covered in ivy that spilled downwards, gently brushing the gravel walkways. A fountain trickled somewhere in the trees, and Goody looked so content that Billy almost forgot the man’s earlier tension. It occurred to him that this was probably the kind of town Goodnight had grown up in.

 

“This look like Louisiana at all?” Billy asked, jerking his head towards the leafy park in general.

 

Goodnight nodded. “We’re not far from Louisiana you know. I guess they’d look the same. Although I’ve heard rumors of more gangs in Austin than Baton Rouge ever had.”

 

“You want to head there next?” Billy asked. “You could see your sister. You told me she’s still there.”

 

“Maybe another time. She’s not going anywhere. I’ve seen a lot of my family get married, and if there’s one thing I’ve noticed about marriage it’s that it keeps you put.”

 

“You never married,” Billy commented idly.

 

“Nah.” Goodnight grinned at Billy. “Too much of a romantic.”

 

Billy snorted. He looked around the park again, its willows almost diaphanous in the evening breeze.

 

“You don’t miss it?” he asked, still wondering.

 

“Do you miss Korea?” Goodnight countered.

 

“I barely remember Korea,” Billy said, which was true. “But I miss the ocean out west sometimes.” This country felt massive to Billy, and sometimes when he was right in the middle of it, it was like he could feel its entire weight crushing him from all four sides. But when he’d been back on the coast, something about the steady roll of the ocean made him feel a whole lot freer. Like he somehow had more room to breathe.

 

“Well tell you what, one of these days we’ll loop around to California and you can show me what’s so appealing about that glorious west of yours,” Goodnight said.

 

“Ride across the country?” Billy asked. “That’ll take ages.”

 

Goodnight shrugged. “If there’s only one thing we’ve both got it’s time.”

 

And each other, Billy thought suddenly but didn’t say.

 

“Alright,” he said instead. “California.” And at that point they arrived at the restaurant Goodnight had in mind. Billy thought the amount of horses outside was unusual but he followed Goody in.

 

It was a fancy place, waiters criss-crossing in suits that were nicer than anything Billy owned. He felt as out of place here as he’d done in the hotel, avoiding the eyes of the host. But Goodnight guided him to a table in the back of the room, covered with a white linen tablecloth and an oil lamp that Billy could tell was cleaned out regularly. Goodnight took the corner seat as he always did, needing to have his back to the wall.

 

Billy picked up one of the heavy menus, noting, with irritation, the looping script. He could read printed English just fine, but people’s handwriting or fancier print like this still took him longer than he had patience for. And Billy had patience in spades. He’d just let Goodnight order for them, silently thankful the man had good taste.

 

Just then Goodnight was sliding a box across the table to him. “Here.”

 

Billy’s eyebrows shot up. “What’s this?” he asked as he took it, but Goodnight didn’t answer. So Billy opened up the polished box and was looking at a bone-handled knife sitting on a cushion of blue velvet.

 

“Goody…”

 

He stopped when the waiter came by and set down two beers in large curving glasses.

 

“Happy six month anniversary,” Goodnight said with a twitch to his lips once the waiter left again.

 

Billy was touched. He swallowed and traced the handle of the blade.

 

“Thank you.”

 

“Hey, least I could do since you do most of the work. Technically it’s your winnings that bought it,” Goodnight said with a laugh.

 

“I didn’t get you anything.”

 

Goodnight gasped in mock offense. “And here I was expecting flowers.”

 

Billy tried the amber ale the waiter had brought over. Yeah this was definitely a better place than their usual. He licked his lips and looked back up at Goody, mouth curving.

 

“I think I saw some dandelions just outside of town. Could go back and get them.”

 

“I’ll pass,” Goodnight said grinning, taking a sip and leaning back in his chair contentedly, the oil lamp casting a glow around his face. On the one hand it made the lines in Goodnight’s face appear deeper. He and Billy had discovered they were the same age pretty early on, but Goodnight looked older, the lamp showing it now. But on the other hand it was also making his eyes twinkle a little more than usual, and with his hat off, the man’s normally ashy hair was a soft sandy gold.

 

Goodnight snapped his fingers. “See something you like?” he teased, and Billy realized he’d been staring.

 

“Just thinking this place is as over the top as you,” Billy said, unruffled.

 

Goody made a pssht sound. “This place is the epitome of class and elegance, my friend, so I can see how it reminded you of me.”

 

“If you say so,” Billy said, taking another sip of the house ale. Damn they had to come back here some time. Which reminded him:

 

“Is it really six months since Gruene?” he asked, referring to the town where they’d found each other.

 

“Does it seem longer or shorter?” Goody asked laughing, making Billy’s lips quirk.

 

“I’ll let you know.”

 

Billy tucked the box carefully into his jacket and flicked his hair behind his ear from where it had fallen in his face a little. He saw Goodnight follow the motion with his eyes.

 

“Remember that dame from not the last town, but two towns back?” Goody asked suddenly.

 

Billy grinned. “The one who said I…wait, you do it better.”

 

Goodnight took a breath and said in a falsetto: “Only Jesus has the divine right to hair that long, boy, so you had better get yourself to a barber or pray for his holy shears to descend upon your sinful head.”

 

Billy shook with silent laughter the way he did whenever he thought about it.

 

“I thought I was hearing her wrong.”

 

“You heard her perfectly.”

 

When it had happened, Billy and Goodnight had taken great care to avoid the other’s eyes until they’d gotten back to their room, at which point they’d collapsed on the floor bent double, gasping for breath. It was the hardest Billy thought he’d ever laughed in his life.

 

He chuckled again now, remembering it.

 

“You Southerners are a crazy bunch.”

 

“Hey don’t lump me in with her,” Goody said smiling. He took a sip of beer, and his eyes flicked back up to Billy. “I happen to like your hair.”

 

Billy smiled at him over the glow of their table lamp and Goodnight’s lips twitched back in response as he fingered the stem of his glass, still looking at Billy. The silence stretched between them but it wasn’t a bad one. Billy felt a low thrum as he took another sip of beer, realizing neither had looked away yet, and realizing he didn’t want to be the first.

 

And then there was the blast of a gun, a vase on a nearby table exploded into a million fragments, a woman screamed, and everything went to hell.

 

“Get down!” Billy yelled, dropping to the floor. He looked across the floor expecting to see Goody mirroring him, but Goodnight was still sitting in his seat frozen.

 

“Goody! Get down!”

 

There was another clatter of gunshots.

 

It was like the man was deaf. He sat there like a rabbit that was looking into the snapping jaws of death.

 

Billy swore and rushed to him, pulling Goody down onto the floor, shielding him unconsciously. He gave a kick to their table, sending it crashing to the floor where it protected them where they crouched against the wall. Somewhere above them a picture frame cracked.

 

Billy peeked over their makeshift shield, looking out at the commotion in the restaurant. Guests were running and screaming, some lying dead at their tables. One man sat upright in his seat looking like he was still enjoying his dinner except for the splintered monocle he wore, the trickle of blood seeping out of his eye.

 

But once he looked past the chaos and confusion he could make out two distinct groups doing the firing. One table on the far side of the room wore red kerchiefs and they were sending out a stream of bullets to another table: a group of men in dark suits who wore blue kerchiefs.

 

“Gangs,” Billy whispered, remembering Goodnight’s earlier comment about this city having some. “Gangs!” he said again behind him to Goodnight. “You got your gun?”

 

Goodnight hadn’t even heard him. He was crouched against the wall as close as he could go, trembling and talking to himself.

 

“Goodnight!” Billy yelled. “What’s the matter with you, you got your gun or not?”

 

“It’s the left, they’ve got our left,” Goodnight whispered. “They’re everywhere.” He flinched as there was another round of gunshots.

 

Billy swore when he realized he was hearing Goodnight’s nightmare talk. Except this time the man was having one awake.

 

Billy took out his own gun, which had only three bullets. He hadn’t thought to reload since they were only going out to dinner. He turned around and reached into Goody’s jacket, feeling for the man’s hip. Goodnight twitched and Billy pulled his pistol out of its holster, flicking the chamber open. Five shots. Twenty men shooting out there and Billy had eight bullets total.

 

He positioned himself behind the table shelter and took careful aim, one gun pointed at each group. And before they knew there was anyone left alive in the room, Billy squeezed both triggers and eight men went down.

 

The twelve remaining men of either gang all let out shouts and looked around wildly. Billy shoved Goodnight down closer to the floor and took off running along the length of the wall, drawing their attention.

 

“There, over there!” one of the red-kerchiefs yelled, sending a spray of bullets at Billy which cracked a trail into the wall behind him. Billy dove forward and rolled, picking up a dinner knife on the floor and hurling it into the man’s chest. He went down wheezing. Nine down.

 

“He got Albert!” another one of the men with red sashes cried. “Get him!” But all of a sudden the man jerked, his shirt becoming riddled with bullets, the holes in the fabric turning red. The men in blue were apparently taking advantage of Billy’s distraction to wipe out more of the men in red, exactly as Billy had hoped. Two more reds went down from bullets, the wine glasses on their tables exploding. Billy rushed the remaining men at the red table, dodging their bullets that they shot at him in a panic. He grabbed the stems of two shattered wine glasses, whirling around and sticking them straight into the necks of the men nearest to him. He grabbed one of their slumping bodies, holding it up against him like a human shield, lifted the man’s gun and sprayed down the rest of the table.

 

He dropped to the floor and peered out between the restaurants chair legs, counting the cowboy boots that were walking across the ruins of the restaurant floor, spurs jangling.

 

“Come on out of there, boy,” a voice called out. Billy ignored it, hastily searching the ground under the demolished table for fallen cutlery.

 

“We appreciate your assistance in taking out these sonsabitches, but unfortunately you’ve still got three of our own to answer for."

 

Billy glanced back out at the floor, the six pairs of cowboy boots coming closer.

 

“Come on out,” the voice said again.

 

And in a flash, Billy was whirling out from behind the table with a fistful of dinner knives which he swung out, releasing them at the same time. They whirled through the air like disks, four of them planting themselves in the chests of the men in blue. The remaining men squeezed out a few more rounds that Billy dodged, diving to the floor behind another table on a far wall. He grabbed an empty waiter’s tray and a fallen steak knife. He flipped the knife once in his hand and sent it flying out, hitting its mark. One more man standing.

 

The last man roared in frustration, lifting his rifle and squeezing out shot after shot at Billy, who was swinging around the perimeter of the room, holding up the silver tray for protection, ears ringing from the blasts, glasses, and vases and silverware exploding all around him. He reached the long curving bar, said a prayer, and leapt behind it, the liquor cabinet behind the bar getting shot to pieces.

 

He landed with a thump, a stab of pain in his arm that had come from rolling onto a shard of glass. Hard to complain about though, when you could have otherwise been a sieve of bullets. Billy listened to the steady drip of liquor as it trickled out of the cabinet as the gunman reloaded.

 

And then he heard it. Attuned to it after so many months on the road, Billy heard Goodnight muttering out his incoherent nightly stream of war and bullets, talking to bodies that weren’t there.

 

The gunman heard it too. “What the hell?” Billy heard him ask.

 

Billy slowly got to his feet and peered over the bar where he saw the gunman stalking towards the table Goodnight was still behind. Shit shit shit. He looked around wildly for a weapon of any kind, the spilled liquor starting to seep into his clothes.

 

“And just who might you be?” the gunman asked, sneering curiously.

 

Billy’s heart was hammering harder than it had at any point when he was running headlong into a flurry of bullets, throwing out his knives one by one. His heart beat frantically against his chest as the chink of the man’s spurs approached Goody. Then he remembered: his heart.

 

He reached into his jacket to the pocket over his heart where he’d tucked the box Goodnight had given him. Hands shaking for what felt like the first time in his entire life, he drew it out.

 

“The angel of death,” Goodnight babbled nonsensically. “I’m the angel of death, the angel of death…”

 

The man snickered unpleasantly. “Almost,” he said, and raised his rifle. “But not yet.”

 

“Hey jackass!” Billy yelled, leaping to his feet. And when the man swung around, Billy was already sweeping his arm down, the knife sailing through the air and landing straight into the man’s heart. Billy rushed him immediately, dodging the last feeble bullets the man sent out at him, and kicked the knife’s beautiful bone handle in deeper. The man let out a wheezing sound, swayed once, and collapsed to the floor. Dead.

 

It was finally quiet, the dripping from the bar the only sound in the room. Billy walked over to the man, panting as he bent down to retrieve the knife. He pulled it out from where it was sheathed in the man’s heart, dripping with blood. He wiped the blade onto the man’s clothes with disdain and tucked the knife carefully into his belt. Then he finally looked at Goody.

 

Goody was cowering behind the table still, covered in sweat, shaking like he had a fever, his mouth open as he took in horrible rattling breaths.

 

“It’s a box of death, it’s a box of death,” he said, squeezing his eyes shut. He opened them back up, looking up at Billy staring right through him, his face chalk-white. “It’s a box of death.”

 

Billy snapped into action. He rushed towards Goodnight and crouched down in front of him.

 

“C’mon, Goody,” he said, pulling the man forward a little. He felt bad when Goodnight flinched, but Billy still had to check him for injuries. He scanned the man’s torso and felt behind his head, but physically Goody seemed to be all in one piece. But on the other hand…

 

“They’ve got us,” he was babbling somewhere over Billy’s shoulders. “I don’t wanna do it, I don’t wanna do it!”

 

“Okay,” Billy said. “You don’t have to do anything, Goody, just stand up, okay? Stand up.”

 

He tried to pull Goody to his feet, but it was like lifting a dead weight. He bent down again, placed one of Goody’s arms over his shoulder, and lifted them both. He turned to look at the front door, which was when he heard a police whistle.

 

“Shit,” he swore. He looked past the bar to what had to be the door to the kitchens. And not wasting a second, he strode towards them, pulling Goody along with him.

 

He crashed through the kitchen, ignoring the screams of the wait staff who’d been hiding out beneath the tables, and Billy headed towards the backdoor, kicking it open.

 

It was completely dark outside and as Billy looked around wildly he realized they were in an alley.

 

“Oh come on,” he said in Korean, his heart hammering in frustration. He looked down at Goody’s absent face, and back out into the alley. It was like supporting a drunk. There was no way he was going to get Goody back to the hotel like this. Why the hell had they walked?

 

That’s when Billy heard it: a far-off whinnying and a clattering of hooves that grew closer.

 

Then he saw Cherie rounding the corner of the alley, her pale gold hide practically glowing in the darkness. She galloped up to the door where Billy was standing and neighed anxiously at the man in Billy’s arms, shuffling her hooves in the ground. She was saddleless and trailing a rope with a frayed end that she had presumably chewed off at the hotel stable before coming to find them, as tuned in to her master’s condition as she always was.

 

“I,” Billy said, already stepping towards her. “Have never been more glad to see you crazy fucking animal in my life.”

 

He looked up at her and just as he was wondering how the hell he was going to lift Goody up there, Cherie knelt down into a crouch, offering up her broad back for both of them. Billy put Goody on first and swung his leg over behind him, and Cherie stood back up. She was slippery without a saddle and Billy reached out to fist his hand in her creamy mane, holding Goody tighter with the other.

 

They rode through the streets like a ghost. Billy tried to steer her to avoid people several times, but then realized she was already doing it on her own. So he just focused on keeping Goody upright while Cherie galloped silently through the streets, weaving to dodge the streetlights.

 

They arrived back at the stable next door to the hotel. “Good girl,” Billy said as the horse knelt back down so he could slide off, pulling Goodnight with him.

 

He looked at her amber eyes. “I am going to give you all the oats in Texas tomorrow, but for now I gotta take care of him, okay?”

 

She nickered softly and Billy hurried himself and Goodnight up the steps.

 

The hotel desk clerk looked up, taking in Goodnight slumped over like he was drunk, and Billy’s destroyed suit that reeked of spilled liquor.

 

“Sir,” he said aghast. “This is a respectable house. We can’t have our guests –“

 

“Shut up,” Billy said, throwing a fistful of cash at him, fully aware of the irony as he led Goody up the stairs this time.

 

He made it to their room where he gently deposited Goodnight onto one of the plush feather beds.

 

“It wasn’t a fair fight,” Goodnight was saying to himself, the words ringing a bell somewhere back in Billy’s mind. “It wasn’t a fair fight.”

 

“No it wasn’t,” Billy agreed absently, reaching forward to lift the man’s eyelids, peering at his eyes. Only the faintest ring of blue was still visible, Goody’s pupils dilated in fear, his breathing going a mile a minute.

 

Billy left him, but only to go to the liquor stand on the hotel table where he poured a glass of whiskey, dumping in a load of sugar from the table’s tea tray at the same time. He brought it back to Goody.

 

“You’re in shock, Goody,” he said quietly, bending down in front of him, lifting the glass to his lips. “Open up.” He poured the drink into Goodnight’s mouth, covering Goody’s mouth with his hand, forcing the man to swallow.

 

Goody choked a bit, and Billy went back to refill the glass. He did the same thing, and Goody seemed to swallow some on his own this time.

 

Billy sat next to him on the bed and carefully held his hand against the man’s heart. It was racing fit to burst. But some colour was returning to the man’s ashen face, and Billy could feel some of the shaking subside.

 

Goodnight took in a couple of hoarse breaths. “It wasn’t a fair fight,” he said one more time, and Billy remembered where he’d heard Goody say that before: it was one of the first things Goodnight had ever said to him, when he’d stepped into that ring to save Billy’s life.

 

“Oh Goody,” Billy said, finally getting hit with a wave of fatigue from everything that had happened. He drew Goody closer to him and held him there, running a hand up and down the man’s back, as though he could ease out the panic. He leaned back against the bedframe, still holding Goody to his chest, praying for the man’s breathing to slow.

 

Sometime later, Goodnight lifted his head.

 

“Billy?” he asked in a weak, confused voice.

 

Billy tightened his arms around him. “Right here.”

 

Goodnight didn’t say anything else, but Billy felt the man’s arms go tentatively around his back, fingers clutching at the fabric of Billy’s vest. And Billy held him like that until the shaking subsided.

 

 

***

 

The next morning they left their room quietly. Billy had already snuck down to the boiler room and burned the blood-spattered suit he’d worn the night before, and he was back in his normal riding clothes. It felt better.

 

Goody had slept through the night. Billy knew that because he’d stayed awake to keep an eye on him. But the man’s sleep had been dreamless. Probably because he’d already had all his nightmares during the day.

 

The walked through the hotel’s lobby, and Billy wouldn’t be sorry to leave it. Hell, he was itching to get out of this whole entire town. But then a voice cut through his thoughts:

 

“Robicheaux? Goodnight Robicheaux?”

 

Goody turned tiredly around, eyes widening a little as an ox of a man approached them, stumbling into the same hotel after a night at the bars. He slapped his knee when he saw Goodnight’s face.

 

“Son of a bitch, I thought that was you! What the hell’re you doing in Austin?”

 

“Leaving,” Goody said with a smile that didn’t reach his eyes.

 

“Well don’t this beat all, hell I ain’t seen you since Antietam!”

 

Goody flinched and Billy took a step closer, ready to get rid of this man if he had to. But now the man was looking at Billy.

 

“You’re sure enough in safe company here, boy! Hell we all used to call him the ‘Angel of Death’,” the man said with a hoot.

 

“Hank,” Goody tried to say warningly, but it just came out as exhausted.

 

“This sharpshootin' son of a bitch here had twenty-three confirmed kills. Twenty-three! Shoulda seen him up there kickin’ them Union boys’ asses. Man, we had us some good times up there, didn’t we?” the man said addressing Goodnight again, swaying tipsily.

 

“I’ve gotta get going, Hank,” Goodnight said, staring into the carpet like he was hoping to bore a hole in it with his eyes.

 

“Sure thing, sure thing. Well so long, Robicheaux! And next time leave some for the rest of us, why don’t you?” The man chuckled at his own joke, but Goody was already turning to leave the hotel.

 

Their horses were already saddled out front. It was early enough that the streets were devoid of people, which Billy was grateful for. The air was still chilly and dew clung to the grass in the park beside their hotel.

 

Goody placed a hand on Cherie’s back but he didn’t climb on. Instead he looked up at Billy from under the brim of his hat.

 

“Aren’t you gonna ask?” he said to Billy hesitantly.

 

Billy looked back at him. He hadn’t been going to, but he sensed that Goodnight wanted him to say something about what had happened.

 

“Goody, I…I already figured you were in the war,” Billy said gently.

 

Not that,” Goodnight said.

 

“Then what?” Billy asked confused, until he remembered the man’s boasting on Goody’s behalf. He felt a hot current of temper at the callousness but he squared it down to look gently at Goodnight.

 

“Is it the men?” he asked softly.

 

Goodnight looked back down and Billy leaned towards him.

 

“Goody I’ve…I’ve killed men for money,” he said quietly. “Bad men, men whose deaths I agreed with and men who needed to go, but I still did it. And I’m sure it’s over twenty-three at this point.”

 

“I didn’t kill twenty-three men,” Goodnight said.

 

Billy was confused. “Then why was that guy –“

 

“It was two-hundred and thirty.”

 

Billy looked at him with a start.

 

“What?”

 

“Two-three-zero,” Goodnight said in a hollow voice. “The official report had a spot of blood covering the zero.”

 

Billy honestly couldn’t tell if that was a joke.

 

Until Goody swung himself up onto his horse and snapped the reins to ride off before Billy, and Billy realized it was anything but.

 

***

 

Billy let Goody ride a ways ahead of him as they headed back into the desert. It’s not like they rode side by side all the time. And at this point they had a shorthand on the road, where they could pretty much guess where the other would want to set up a camp. So Billy didn’t feel too worried about Goodnight so far up ahead. But still, he kept the pinprick of the man’s outline on the horizon in his sights, like Goody might take it into his head to ride off.

 

Two-hundred and thirty…Billy felt a pang in his chest. He held no judgment towards the number, or towards Goody for that matter. But he just felt sick with grief for Goody. Gregarious, gentle Goody, who had to make everyone around him laugh, or make them come out of an exchange feeling a little lighter than they might have before. Like if he put enough light into enough people, he could somehow make up for all the light he’d snuffed out.

 

He watched Goody’s tiny figure ride ahead of him,and a lot more things about the man started to make sense. And the way he was riding, never looking back, like he was scared Billy wouldn’t be behind him anymore, like Billy was going to come to his senses and ride off…

 

Billy sighed and kept riding after him.

 

Night had fallen by the time Billy reached the outline of the rocky outcropping he’d spied earlier, sure Goody would have stopped there to make camp. As he drew closer, he saw a lit campfire that confirmed it.

 

He rode into the camp and slipped off his horse, tying him up loosely on a log next to Cherie, to whom he gave a pat. He looked around for Goody and found him leaning up against a rock and staring into the fire, a bottle of whiskey in his hand. Billy walked up to him quietly.

 

“I’d take them all back if I could,” Goody said, hearing him approach. “Every shot. It didn’t do anything. It didn’t win anything. No one won anything, not us, not the Union boys. What was the point?”

 

Billy was quiet and Goody continued to stare into the flames.

 

“War has no point,” Goody said quietly, fingering the neck of the whiskey bottle. “Those men who decided on a war…the ones who sat in a room and signed a paper...yeah I reckon they had a point. But war itself?”

 

Goodnight finally looked at Billy who was still standing behind the fire. He looked about a thousand years old. He gave Billy a sad smile and said tiredly:

 

“War is just a carpenter’s son from Connecticut shooting at a farmer’s son from Georgia. And both of you are trying to kill each other…but neither of you knows why.”

 

Billy walked over to where Goodnight was sitting, and sunk down next to him silently, reaching for the bottle between Goody’s fingers. Goodnight looked over like he thought Billy was going to take it away, but Billy just took a sip and handed it back to Goodnight.

 

They continued to pass the bottle back and forth between them, the fire sinking lower, neither of them saying a word.

 

***

 

Billy knew that Goodnight was determined not to come off as weak in front of Billy anymore after the events of Austin, which was why he was currently trying to hide the fact that he had the flu. Even though Billy had already seen him through a full-blown state of panic, it was like Goody was worried that somehow Billy was now going to be intimidated by the flu.

 

“I’m fine,” Goody said waspishly to Billy, when he’d asked for the second time.

 

They were on some other trail to some other town, and Goody seemed determined to reach it before nightfall, judging by the way he kept pressing ahead.

 

“We’re in no hurry,” Billy said. “We can stop here and rest, hit town in the morning.”

 

“Would you shut up?” Goody said turning to him, his brow perspiring. “We keep riding.”

 

Goody opened his mouth as though to say something else, but all that came out was a sneeze.

 

“Goody…”

 

“Not one more word out of you,” Goody said, pointing an unsteady finger towards Billy. “I have never felt better in my life. Is a man not allowed to have a simple summer cold anymore? Christ, you’re as bad as my mother, why she used to always…”

 

He continued to rant weakly and Billy looked at him in pity, but also in fond amusement. The man could be as stubborn as a mule.

 

“…I’m telling you, that’s why no kids seem to know how to swim these days, I mean getting a cold from getting wet? Christ, why don’t we just stop bathing altogether? We as a nation are becoming a bunch of soft touches, yourself included, so I don’t want to hear anything else about colds, or fevers, or…or…”

 

His eyes fluttered and Billy looked at him alarmed.

 

“Goody?”

 

And then Goody was slipping off of his horse, cracking his head on a rock.

 

Goody!”

 

When Goody came to again it was dark out and he was in front of a roaring fire, wrapped in blankets, his head cradled in Billy’s lap.

 

“You’ve got the flu, idiot,” Billy said. “And now a concussion.”

 

Goody coughed and stirred. “Well this is humiliating,” he said weakly.

 

Billy snorted. “Only for you.”

 

He held out a flask of water to Goody’s lips, and the man took a few sips. He heard Goody trying to say something and leaned closer.

 

“Why’re you doing this?” Goodnight asked hoarsely.

 

Billy didn’t know what to make of the question.

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“I mean it’s not ‘cause I saved your life or anything. You saved mine right back. Twice now,” Goodnight said. “It’s like you said yourself, we’re square.”

 

He shifted to look up at Billy. “You don’t have to keep looking after me.”

 

Billy paused for a long time. He held his hand against Goody’s forehead, his fingers lightly brushing the man’s hair.

 

“Someone has to.”

 

 

***

 

They spent a few more days at the campsite while Goodnight regained his strength. Billy considered riding to the closest town to bring back a doctor, but when he suggested it, Goodnight’s fingers had closed around his wrist like he was worried Billy wouldn’t come back.

 

As though Billy was really going to leave at this point.

 

But finally they were ready to leave their little campsite, one of hundreds over the past six months. Billy doused the fire as Goodnight shook out their blankets, a little unsteady on his feet but with his fever finally broken.

 

They reloaded the horses, Billy feeding them both some leftover dried fruit. He ran a hand up Cherie’s neck, scolding her for trying to take more, but doing it fondly.

 

Goody walked over, raising an eyebrow.

 

“Well you two seem to be getting along lately,” he said.

 

Billy shrugged and patted her shoulder. “It’s about time she realizes I’m not going anywhere.”

 

He turned to look pointedly at Goodnight, because it was about time the man realized it too.

 

Goody looked guilty. “Billy…it’s not that I don’t appreciate that but…”

 

“But what?” Billy asked tiredly.

 

“I’m dangerous!” Goodnight said in a rush, taking a step closer to Billy, his blue eyes insistent. “I’m weak, and dangerous, and…and you saw what happened in Austin! You could have been killed. I’m no good for you, and if you keep riding with me I’ll just put you at risk.”

 

Billy was silent for a long time. He looked thoughtfully at Goodnight.

 

“I met someone like you once. He was in the war too.” Billy remembered the twitchy man he’d happened across in a bar, who most of the other men were avoiding. The man had fairly jumped on Billy as someone new, and who hadn’t heard his life’s story yet.

 

“Loud noises made him jump and he couldn’t even look at fire anymore,” Billy continued, and Goodnight was staring at him, hanging onto his words. Billy remembered what the man had told him.

 

“The doctors…his doctors back east…they had a name for it. ‘Soldier Heart’ was what they called it,” Billy said.

 

“Soldier heart,” Goody repeated frowning, looking back at their campsite.

 

“That’s what he said they called it.”

 

“Look…” Goodnight said. “Even if this ‘soldier heart’ were a real thing, it’s still a risk for you. You saw what it can do to me.” His voice was as serious as Billy had ever heard it when he said: “And if you want to ride off, go our separate ways, I’d sure as hell hold you no ill will.”

 

He looked back up at Billy, his eyes sad but sincere. “You sure you wanna hitch yourself to someone with this soldier heart?”

 

Billy looked down, heart hammering but he had to say it:

 

“I’d rather follow your soldier heart than someone with no heart at all.”

 

Goodnight’s mouth opened a little at Billy’s words and he blushed.

 

“Billy, I had no idea you could be so poetic,” he said quietly.

 

Billy looked back up with a small smile.

 

“That’s ‘cause you’ve never shut up long enough to find out.”

 

There was still a hesitance on Goodnight’s face but it was a little more hopeful than before. And when Billy gave him a nod he huffed out a laugh.

 

“Well then. I guess that’s that,” he said, clearing his throat.

 

“That was that six months ago,” Billy said dryly, but the smile he gave Goody was warm. Goody smiled back and something seemed to settle as the air between them shifted. And something about it felt different, but something about it felt just the same as ever. Only better.

 

Which was why Billy might have been biting back a grin as he pulled himself up onto his horse and looked over at Goody.

 

“You ready, my friend?” Goody asked.

 

Billy gave a nod. “After you.”

 

Goody grinned as he flicked his reins. “Gaja.”

 

And with that they wheeled out of camp, picking up speed as they hit the trail again, and were off to wherever the road would take them next.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

“You goddamn son of a bitch, that’s not what I’m saying at all!” Goodnight shouted.

 

Billy’s fists clenched. “Then what the hell are you trying to say?”

 

Goodnight could see the effort the man was putting into not raising his voice, could see the telltale tick in Billy’s jaw.

 

“I’m saying if you just showed some goddamn professional decorum once in a while –“

 

“Professional?” Billy spat out. “What so this is really about being professional?”

 

Goodnight’s mouth opened and he waved his hand uselessly. “…yes!” he finally got out.

 

“Yeah okay,” Billy hissed. “So that’s why we were in a bar drinking in the first place, because you were interested in being professional, is that it?”

 

“There’s a difference and you know it!” Goodnight hollered at him, his face turning red.

 

“Then what’s the difference, Goodnight?” Billy shouted, finally having snapped. “Tell me what the hell the difference is!”

 

They were shouting at each other like they’d shouted at each other in any number of the shooting competitions they scammed. It was a familiar ritual to them: Billy would pretend to miss, Goodnight would stride in yelling, Billy would yell right back, they’d start throwing punches that the crowd wouldn’t be able to tell were being pulled, bets would be exchanged, and odds would be lengthened. And then when all the pretending was over, Billy and Goodnight would scamper out of the ring, pockets full, holding back laughter the entire time.

 

But this time was different because Goodnight and Billy weren’t in a shooting ring. Instead they were in the middle of the room they were sharing on the top floor of a dusty Texas saloon. Their shoulders were tensed and their faces were red as they stood opposite each other shouting. Because they were in the middle of their first fight, their first real fight, and this time no one was pretending and they sure as shit weren’t laughing either.

 

“Well if you can’t see the difference then I’m not about to spell it out for you,” Goodnight said, throwing his hands up.

 

Billy scoffed. “Why the hell not? You explain every other damn thing to me.”

 

“You're saying I think you’re stupid?” Goodnight asked incredulously.

 

“Well you’re sure as hell treating me like an idiot right now!” Billy shouted.

 

“If I’m treating you like an idiot it’s because you’re fucking acting like –“

 

“Don’t you fucking dare,” Billy said, his eyes gleaming warningly as he pointed a finger at Goodnight as sharply as he wielded any of his knives. “Don’t you dare, Goody.”

 

Goodnight’s stomach clenched unpleasantly at hearing Billy’s usual nickname for him said so viciously. But he squared his shoulders and looked back at him angrily.

 

“Well then don’t fucking test me.”

 

Billy laughed unpleasantly. “Test you? Me test you? That’s a good one, Goody, really, you’ve outdone yourself.”

 

“Shut the hell up, Billy, I’m warning you,” Goodnight growled, turning away to walk over to where the bottle of whiskey stood, the one they’d shared so comfortably in this same room only the night before.

 

“I will if you tell me what this is really about,” Billy said, and then saw Goodnight reach for the bottle. “Oh there he is,” he snorted sarcastically. “The professional at work.”

 

“I said I’m fucking warning you, Billy,” Goodnight said in a low voice, his hands shaking with rage as poured a glass of whiskey, some of the amber liquid sloshing out.

 

“Then tell me what you want,” Billy hissed, stalking over to where Goodnight was standing.

 

“Shut the hell up if you know what’s good for you,” Goodnight gritted out, picking up his glass.

 

“Tell me, Goody,” Billy said in a raised voice.

 

“I mean it, Billy.”

 

“Tell me!” Billy shouted behind him.

 

“I SAID SHUT YOUR GODDAMN MOUTH,” Goodnight finally burst out, whirling around and hurling his glass past Billy’s stunned face where it exploded into a million fragments on the wall behind them.

 

Billy turned to look at where the liquor was dripping down the wall, and then back at Goodnight, his lips parted in surprise.

 

Goodnight stood there breathing heavily, his hands tucked into fists, chest heaving, looking at Billy with his jaw clenched.

 

Billy’s mouth closed, his eyes took on a sharp look, and he took a step into Goodnight’s space. Goodnight’s breath quickened almost imperceptibly.

 

“Goodnight,” Billy said, and Goodnight turned his jaw to face him dead on.

 

Billy’s face was a challenge as he looked right back at Goody, his eyes like pieces of flint. Goodnight stared at him transfixed.

 

“Just tell me what you want,” Billy whispered suddenly, the drop in volume so dramatic he might as well have been shouting again.

 

Goodnight’s heart was hammering in anger, adrenaline, and something else as he stared at Billy’s unflinching face right in front of his. The firm line of his mouth, the glint in his eyes, the stubborn and steadfast set of his chin…

 

Goodnight’s lips parted and the glint of Billy’s eyes sparked.

 

Suddenly Goodnight couldn’t look anymore.

 

“I want you to go,” Goodnight said stiffly to the floor. There was silence and he chanced a look back up at Billy.

 

It was like a door had been shut on Billy’s face, any fight that had been in it resolutely shut down, and Goodnight was pierced by a sudden regret that he’d been the one to douse all that fiery tenacity.

 

Billy turned as if to go. But when he looked back at Goodnight, something about his eyes looked almost…sad?

 

“All your fancy talk,” Billy said in a low voice. “And you can’t even talk to me now.”

 

He stepped back out of Goodnight’s space, and Goodnight felt the loss as keenly as if Billy had carved it out. He watched Billy walk silently across the room, reach tersely for his hat that was on his bed, and walk right out, closing the door behind him with a click.

 

The silence was deafening.

 

Goodnight stood there taking in shallow breaths as he stared at the door. The seconds ticked by. It was like he was expecting Billy to burst back in, the line of his shoulders back to their usual controlled but comfortable slope, and wearing that wry inscrutable half-smile that Goody had become as accustomed to on their rides as the desert horizon itself.

 

But Billy wasn’t coming back in and he knew it. And when it was clear that Goodnight was still alone he raised the heels of his hands to his eyes and rubbed them, working away any sting as he let out a huge breath.

 

Jesus…

 

He really wanted a drink but remembered his glass was currently in smithereens on the floor. And somehow he couldn’t bring himself to use Billy’s glass, the only other one in the room. The intimacy of it would have been fine any other time, but not now. He knew he could have just used the bottle, but it was like he could still feel Billy’s eyes on him.

 

He sighed and walked across the room, and slowly started to pick up shards of glass, looking around for a broom that could take care of any splinters that were left.

 

Well. They were probably bound to have a fight someday, Goodnight thought despondently. He just hadn’t thought it would be over something so stupid.

 

Okay, so maybe Goodnight had overreacted. But when that girl had come over and had sat so proprietorially on Billy’s lap, clearly taken in by his exoticism only, Goodnight had felt his tongue turn so sour that he’d immediately raised his glass to douse it in whiskey, absolutely refusing to look at them.

 

He had felt Billy’s eyes on him, uncertain at first. But when he’d realized Goodnight was ignoring him he’d turned a charming smile back to the girl, murmuring things in the low voice that he normally used when making his droll, acerbic comments to Goodnight only, whenever they were laughing silently at the various characters around them.

 

Which was maybe when Goodnight had finally looked over at him and snapped that he had a shooting competition tomorrow and to keep his fucking head in the game because Goodnight was sick of doing it for the both of them.

 

Billy’s eyes had glittered black and he’d stood up abruptly. But rather than throwing a punch at Goodnight - which Goody had honestly thought for a second he might - Billy had just turned on his heel and stalked upstairs to their room.

 

Which is where Goodnight had found him later, silently cleaning his knives and polishing the blades with oil, a common ritual of his when he got tense.

 

A voice had been telling Goodnight to let it go. But watching the rigid line of Billy’s arms as he’d run a cloth up the length of a blade and back down the other side had caused something inside of Goody to shift. And so he’d opened his stupid mouth to needle Billy, to poke and to prod, looking for a reaction until he’d gotten one, and then their voices were raising, their tempers were flaring, and finally they were shouting at each other about everything under the sun except for the one thing they really wanted to shout about, which was that…which was that…

 

Goodnight wasn’t an idiot. He knew things had changed ever since they’d left Austin. Ever since they’d shared things that might have been half-declarations if they’d looked at them a little closer.

 

That was two months ago, and in the time between then and now, Goodnight could practically feel the space between them shrinking. Every interaction of theirs seemed loaded with words and gestures that by themselves might have been meaningless, but all piled up together with the driving forces of their personalities behind them? It was like the space between them lately had been burning, and Goody felt blinded by it every time he even tried to examine things more closely.

 

Goodnight carried the pieces of glass across the room to dump them in the dustbin, looking at the chairs that had been set up in the middle. One had all of Billy’s knife-cleaning equipment still laid out on it, and the other was where Billy had been sitting.

 

Goodnight stared at the empty chair with a pang in his chest. Because he just didn’t know, couldn’t be sure if Billy had been doing the same kind of navel-gazing over their current dynamic that Goodnight was. Every time they lay out on their blankets in a camp before bed, Goodnight’s heart would be hammering so hard he wondered how Billy couldn’t hear it. Or maybe he could and he was intentionally not acknowledging it. But then why had Billy…

 

Goodnight’s heart sped up now, the same way it did every time he remembered it. Barely even two weeks ago. It had started out so innocently, so normally…just the two of them in some anonymous town, out around the back of a saloon, smoking shoulder to shoulder, and gazing out at the blackened desert sky.

 

Goodnight had finished his cigarette first and had reached in his case to take another, remembering too late that it was empty.

 

He’d snapped it shut. “You got another one?” he’d asked, leaning towards Billy, their shoulders nearly touching.

 

Billy had blown out a puff of smoke. “No,” he’d said simply.

 

Goodnight had sighed dramatically, leaning back against the outside wall of the saloon, and Billy had glanced at him amused, from where he was leaning himself.

 

Billy had looked thoughtfully at his own cigarette. It was almost a stub by now, probably just one more puff left.

 

And with a flick of his fingers he was raising it to his own lips to deliberately suck in the last drag of smoke, his lips curled smugly around the paper tip. Goodnight had scoffed and looked back out at the desert.

 

Which is when Billy had rolled into Goodnight’s space, Goodnight jolting when he realized their faces were barely an inch apart. And when Goodnight’s lips had parted in surprise, Billy had just leaned in and gently breathed the rest of the smoke into Goodnight’s mouth.

 

There wasn’t even enough space between their lips for the edge of one of Billy’s knives.

 

And then Billy had flicked the finished cigarette away, leaving Goodnight standing there with his lungs and heart burning in his chest, and was walking back into the saloon just as cool as you please.

 

Goodnight had wanted to go after him. He’d wanted to go after him so badly.

 

Instead he’d stared at the discarded cigarette butt for what felt like an hour as he waited for his heart to stop pounding, convincing himself that Billy had just been teasing him because that was what Billy did. He’d caught onto Goodnight’s preoccupation and was somehow making fun of him and…

 

No. For all his apparent sharpness, Billy was not a cruel man and that was the truth. The truth was that Goodnight was a goddamn coward. He hadn’t gone after Billy then, just like he wasn’t going after Billy now.

 

Goodnight suddenly felt irritated. It wasn’t like Billy had said anything either.

 

But then again…Goodnight softened as he looked at the empty chair, and wondered which of them thought they had more to lose.

 

Goodnight walked over to his bed, the one against the wall like he always claimed whenever he and Billy ended up sharing rooms. He flopped down on the mattress and stared up at the ceiling. This thing they were dancing around was going to have to come out sometime. But until then he would just wait here for Billy to cool off and come back, Goodnight would apologize for being a prick, and they’d share a drink and laugh about the fact that they’d finally actually had a fight.

 

Give him an hour, Goodnight thought, laying back. One more hour and it would all be okay.

 

One hour later Goodnight was cleaning the room to distract himself. Okay so maybe Billy needed two hours, fair enough.

 

Two hours later had Goodnight sitting back on his bed, twiddling his thumbs, counting to a thousand in French just to pass the time.

 

Three hours later and Goodnight was goddamn irritated.

 

You’ve made your point, Billy, he thought in frustration, getting up to grab his hat, and stalking out of the room. If the mountain wouldn’t come to Mohammed…

 

He made his way downstairs to the saloon’s bar where there were still some people milling around. Goodnight didn’t see Billy among them. He walked up to the bartender who was cleaning out a glass with a rag that was old but clean.

 

“You seen my friend?” Goodnight asked, not bothering to elaborate. He knew he and Billy stood out.

 

“Hmm?” the bartender asked, looking up and recognizing Goodnight. “Oh, yeah. He was here for a while. Had to cut him off though.”

 

Goodnight was alarmed. Billy could drink with the best of them, but he wasn’t actually what Goodnight would have considered a ‘drinker’, and he sure as hell never drank alone. And if he’d been sitting here trying to drink the whole bar because of Goodnight…

 

Goodnight couldn’t have felt guiltier if he’d tried.

 

“You know where he went?” he asked the bartender.

 

“No but there’s only one other bar around here,” the man said. “And if he were wanting to continue he’d have gone over to Jim’s place. He’s a little less particular about drunks.”

 

He pointed in the general direction of ‘Jim’s place’ and Goodnight nodded his thanks, heading out.

 

Oh Billy, what are you trying to do? Goodnight thought, quickening his pace.

 

He found the bar easily, a dark and dingy affair, much less inviting looking than the saloon Goodnight and Billy had chosen. He looked around at the grizzled looking characters who dotted the main room, not seeing Billy among any of them. He turned to the bar to see a mean-looking man with a cleft chin and a split eyebrow standing behind the counter, chatting to one of the patrons. This had to be ‘Jim’.

 

Goody walked over. “You seen a Korean around here?” he asked.

 

The man named Jim turned a dubious face to Goodnight. “A what?”

 

Goodnight fought down his irritation.

 

“A Chinaman. You know where he is?”

 

“Oh,” the man said sneering. “Well I don’t mind telling you what I told him. We don’t serve his kind here.”

 

The man turned back to continue his conversation with the patron and Goodnight stood there watching, his blood beginning to boil.

 

He stepped right up to the bar and reached across it, violently grabbing the bartender by the collar and yanking him down, the man’s head cracking against the counter. Everyone’s heads snapped over.

 

“I didn’t ask for your fucking service policies,” Goodnight snarled into the man’s ear. “I asked you where he is!”

 

“You fucking crazy?” Jim hollered. The patron he’d been talking with made a move towards Goodnight, but stopped when Goodnight put a hand over his holster.

 

“Yes,” he said shortly. “So I suggest you tell me where he is.”

 

The man struggled under Goodnight’s grip, eyes glittering fiercely. “Alright! He wasn’t leaving, just drunkenly yelling a buncha Chinese. So I had Arnie here go and fetch the Emery brothers.”

 

“And just who the hell are the Emery brothers?” Goodnight asked, his grip on the man’s neck tightening.

 

“They take out the trash like you and him,” Jim spat out, finally wrenching himself up and throwing off Goodnight’s hand.

 

Goodnight’s temper spiked and he opened his mouth. But just as he was about to give this piece of shit the chewing out of a lifetime, a deep hoarse voice was cutting in:

 

“Over here, son.”

 

Goodnight turned tensely to see an old man sitting in the corner, half-obscured by its shadows. He had a white beard and an eye patch, and was drinking something that Goodnight wouldn’t have used to clean his boots.

 

But the man was staring intently at him from his one visible eye, and Goodnight found himself walking over.

 

“You know something?” he asked the old man.

 

“Sit down,” The man gestured to the chair in front of him, and despite his impatience, Goodnight stiffly took a seat.

 

“Alright, say your piece,” he said tersely.

 

The man looked at him seriously from behind his eye patch. He took a generous swallow of his sour looking drink, but his good eye was perfectly clear as he gazed at Goodnight.

 

“Your friend is in a heap of trouble,” the man said straight up and Goodnight felt his stomach twist.

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“I mean them Emery boys is bad news,” the man said, rubbing the rim of his glass with a dirty thumb.

 

“Bad news how, what are you saying?” Goodnight asked, leaning forward, trying not to sound too frantic.

 

“I’m saying there’s something not right about them, never has been, never will be,” the man said darkly, lowering his voice. “Their family has swapped too much blood over the years. Inbreeding, you know?”

 

He took another sip of his moonshine. “There’s something sick about them all, and those four boys turned out the worst. Started with just wild animals and the like. And nowadays if someone’s goats or lambs ever go missing, well, not too many people who’d like to point the finger where they're concerned. But those boys always need something to hurt,” the man said quietly in his wizened voice. He paused for a moment. “And I’m pretty sure that Wilkes girl weren’t mauled by no coyote last year either.”

 

Goodnight’s hands were in white-knuckled fists on the table, his breath coming faster.

 

“But my friend, what about my friend?”

 

“The Oriental?” the man asked and Goodnight nodded. “Yeah he came in here. Went up to get a drink but Jim turned him down and then he got angry, started throwing things but his aim weren’t too good. So they went and fetched the Emery brothers to handle him. Oh your boy tried to fight, he sure did. Actually managed to sock the middle brothers pretty good. But he was too drunk to manage all four and they dragged him out.”

 

“Oh god,” Goodnight whispered, raising his hands to his face which had drained of all blood. “Oh god oh god.”

 

The man sat there drinking while Goodnight fought to get himself under control because now was not the time.

 

He took in a huge rattling breath and looked up at the man who was eyeing him impassively. “Where’d they go?” he whispered.

 

“They got a hideout a couple miles west o’ here,” the man said. “They’re bound to be in there. If you want your friend back that’s where you gotta go, but I can’t promise you’re gonna come out.”

 

Goodnight nodded. But then he suddenly looked suspiciously at the man. “Why’re you telling me all this in the first place?”

 

The man kept staring at Goodnight with his one good eye. Finally he reached up and lifted his dirty eye patch, revealing a twisted gnarled scar and a milky white iris.

 

“Let’s just say those boys and I didn’t see eye to eye on what happened to the Wilkes girl,” the man said gruffly.

 

Goodnight felt a spike of rage, fear, but also something that was pure determination.

 

“Okay,” he said leaning forward. “You’re gonna tell me everything you know about this hideout, and you’re gonna tell me fast.”

 

 

***

 

Ten minutes later Goodnight was beating a path west as fast as Cherie could possibly gallop.

 

“Come on, girl,” he urged her, his heart pounding as hard as her hoofbeats as she cut a path across the desert.

 

He steered her to the right once he spied a jagged peak in the cliffs up ahead, just as the old man had told him. The mouth of the cave would be under it. That was where the men who took Billy would be hiding out.

 

“Come on,” he practically moaned as he urged Cherie on harder.

 

Goodnight didn’t think he’d ever felt fear like this in his life. Panic and terror, oh he had that in spades. When you’re so overcome that the fear crushes in on you from all sides, clouding your mind, squeezing your body, shutting you down from the outside in…Goodnight knew that kind of fear all too well. Knew the only way to deal with all that force collapsing in on you was to just stop.

 

But this was the kind of fear that was coming from the inside, spurring him on. He had fear pounding through him like a drumbeat, coursing through his veins, but his head had never been clearer and he was completely awake. Because if he stopped for even a second, then Billy…

 

Goodnight snapped the reins harder, digging in his spurs. Not seeing Billy again was simply not an option.

 

He arrived at the base of the cliffs, where there were four brown, emaciated looking mules milling about. He slowed to a stop and slipped off Cherie. He stood there looking at the mouth of the cave, breathing heavily. And all of a sudden he was turning his face into Cherie’s neck.

 

“Oh god,” he said again, fighting back the sudden urge to sob.

 

She waited, gently snuffling at his sleeve while he pulled himself together. And finally he straightened up and wiped his eyes. He adjusted his hat and shifted the weight of the rifle in his hand. And with a deep breath, Goodnight got into character.

 

He began walking into the cave, holding his rifle to the side, not intending to shoot. The old man had warned Goodnight about the long curving tunnel that led to the brothers’ hideout. They’d hear him coming from too far off, and there was no earthly way to sneak up on them. They’d see his shadow on the cave walls before he even got there.

 

If he wanted Billy back, there was nothing else for it:

 

“Hello in there,” he called out down the tunnel.

 

He heard a slight commotion, voices.

 

“Hello?” he tried again, steeling himself as he heard running footsteps.

 

Two men with guns rounded the corner and Goodnight immediately stuck his hands in the air, relieved he hadn’t tried to shoot his way in. The angle of the tunnel meant he’d have been cornered like a dog in an alley.

 

He took a look at the men. “The Emery brothers I presume?”

 

The were ugly men with pale eyes and weak chins, wearing cowboy hats on top of thinning hair. Their droopy hangdog faces looked shocked to see Goodnight standing there in their hideout, looking at back them affably enough.

 

“Give us the gun!” one of them said in a rush and Goody tossed his rifle to them easily, keeping his hands in the air.

 

“I take it you are the Emery brothers then?” he asked, raising an eyebrow.

 

“Who wants to know?” snarled one of them.

 

“The name’s Goodnight Robicheaux,” he said, not seeing any flicker of recognition in their eyes. “And I’m a federal bounty hunter.”

 

This time he saw their eyebrows raise and he continued: “Would it be possible to talk to whoever’s in charge?”

 

The two brothers eyed each other questioningly. Goody stared at them pleasantly.

 

“Get behind Jed here,” the one with the shotgun said as he walked behind Goodnight. “An’ don’t try any funny business. You step outta line an’ your brains’ll be our new wallpaper.”

 

“What a charming thought,” Goodnight muttered as he fell into step behind one of the brothers, the other one behind him keeping his shotgun pointed right at Goodnight’s back.

 

They walked deeper into the tunnel which started to widen, and Goodnight could make out some light flickering further down. They rounded a corner and found themselves in a wide cave, oil lamps causing the light to bounce eerily on the harsh rock walls. Goodnight saw Billy instantly.

 

He was tied to a chair in the middle of the room. His shirt was off and Goodnight could see how much the ropes were cutting into his body. His torso was covered in nicks and scrapes and bluish bruises in the shape of knuckles. Goodnight felt his vision tunnel as he stared at Billy with a pounding in his ears. His fingers twitched.

 

Billy looked up at Goodnight, his eyes widening. Goodnight shook his head at him just the barest amount.

 

Goodnight looked around the rest of the cave. It had a few more chairs, some rickety tables containing a bunch of rusty looking farm equipment, and – Goodnight noted feeling sick – a cage in the corner. He really hoped it was for animals.

 

He looked at the remaining brothers. One of them was tiny, presumably the runt of the litter. The oldest looking one, lean and mangy as a wolf, stepped forward.

 

“Who the hell’re you?” he barked out at Goodnight.

 

“Says his name is Robeecho,” the brother behind Goodnight said.

 

“Robicheaux?” said the oldest brother, his ragged eyebrows lifting. “Goodnight Robicheaux? You don’t say.”

 

“What, you know this dandy son of a bitch, Parker?” one of the brothers asked incredulously.

 

“You were some big deal in the war of Northern Aggression, weren’t you?” the oldest one named Parker asked. Goodnight waved it away.

 

“So they say,” he said. “I never paid much attention to all that.”

 

“He says he’s a bounty hunter now, Parker,” one of them said.

 

Parker looked at Goodnight appraisingly. “I guess it’s possible,” he said slowly. “You got some kinda proof?”

 

“If you’ll let me reach into my jacket,” Goodnight said. And at Parker’s nod he opened his jacket slowly and drew out a bounty hunting license, handing it to Parker who squinted at it. It was the real deal. Goody had tried that business precisely once after the war, and the minute he’d shot the fugitive he was after he’d been wracked with so much guilt and despair that he’d almost turned the gun around on himself from the sheer pointlessness of it all.

 

He’d left that line of business immediately after. But he’d kept the license as a reminder of his lowest moment.

 

“Alright,” Parker said after reading it. “And what the hell brings you here?”

 

“Well the thing is,” Goodnight said, gesturing towards Billy, noting one of the brothers lifting his rifle at the moment. “He’s with me. And I was hoping I could walk out of here with him if it’s all the same to you.”

 

The littlest one yapped in laughter. “We got plans for this one. Come sunrise he’s gonna be deader than a doornail. Just like you,” he said lifting his pistol.

 

“Now now,” Parker said, putting his hand over his brother’s gun. “Let’s not be hasty. We all owe this man a great deal for wiping out as much Union scum as he did. Ain’t you read the headlines, Joe?”

 

“You know I caint read,” the small one muttered.

 

“He’s seen our hideout, Parker,” one of the middle brothers said uncertainly.

 

“And I’m sure he’s able to forget about it,” Parker said, turning the same unsettlingly pale eyes as his brothers onto Goodnight.

 

“Couldn’t find this place again if I tried,” Goodnight said genteelly. “But what about him?” he asked, jerking his head over to Billy without looking at him.

 

“Ah yes, ‘fraid he ain’t going with you,” said Parker. “Like my brother said, we got plans for this one.” His brothers nodded wickedly in their eagerness. “So how about if you leave him, then we let you turn around and walk out of here alive. Alright?” he asked, raising his gun.

 

“That is a generous offer,” Goodnight said nodding.

 

“Glad you think so,” Parker said baring a yellow-toothed grin. “Otherwise you’d have been dead too.”

 

“Suit yourself,” Goodnight shrugged, turning around to go. He walked a couple steps towards the tunnel and stopped, looking over his shoulder. “But he’s worth more alive.”

 

He kept walking slowly towards the tunnel. Stop me, stop me, stop me, he thought desperately, practically screaming it in his head.

 

“Stop,” he heard Parker say.

 

Goodnight paused and turned casually around to see the brothers – and Billy – all looking at him uncertainly.

 

“What do you mean ‘worth more’?” Parker said with a squint.

 

Talk for your goddamn life, Robicheaux, Goodnight thought. Talk for Billy’s life.

 

Goodnight looked between them, playing the surprise for all it was worth. “What, you mean you don’t know who this son of a bitch is?”

 

The brothers all looked at each other, at Billy, and back to Goodnight.

 

“Should we?” sneered one of the middle brothers.

 

“This piece of shit here goes by the name of Billy Rocks,” Goodnight said. “And he’s wanted in every state from Oregon to Texas.”

 

“What did he do?” asked the little one.

 

“Murder,” Goodnight said, lowering his voice looking at them all. “Two of his masters. Just a couple of men trying to get some honest work out of someone, and then their servant here offed them both. After that he looked for more of his own kind who were stuck in the same kind of situations. He’d accept money, food, or favors, didn’t matter. But if they could pay somehow then he’d kill their masters for them too. Out west he’s better known as The Assassin.”

 

The brothers all looked at each other wide eyed, and Goodnight stole a glance at Billy who was looking at the floor. He felt a clench of guilt. Billy had confided that in Goodnight one night, and that story wasn’t Goodnight’s to share. But he knew the best lies needed to have a measure of truth for them to work, and by god Goodnight needed this to work.

 

“The Assassin,” Parker said, slowly looking over the man who was tied to the chair as though he were double-checking the knots.

 

“Been trailing this scum all the way from California,” Goodnight said, continuing his charade in a confiding voice, and the brothers leaned in to listen better. “Was serving a warrant on him for the Northern Pacific Railroad. I found him down in an old redneck saloon in Texas, and all the good ol’ boys didn’t want to serve Billy’s kind,” Goodnight said, nodding meaningfully at Billy. “So this petite son of a bitch took on the whole room bare-knuckled.”

 

The four brothers were now staring at each other and Goodnight, openly stunned.

 

“He managed to get away from me, but I trailed him here. And you boys have no idea how lucky you are you found him drunk,” Goodnight said, shaking his head in false amazement at them.

 

“Sure sounds like it,” the brother with the shotgun said, his mouth open at their break.

 

Parker was staring at Goody. “So what were you saying about ‘worth’? What did you mean?”

 

“Well that’s just why I’ve been so eager to find him,” Goodnight said with a laugh. “You see, dead he’s worth five hundred dollars.”

 

The men let out low whistles as they looked around eagerly at each other. Goodnight watched them calmly, and when they looked back at him he just raised an eyebrow.

 

“But alive he’s worth one grand.”

 

The men openly whooped at the figure.

 

“Holy shit, Parker, we’re rich,” the smallest one said, practically jumping up and down.

 

“Now I was planning on bringing him in myself,” Goodnight continued, looking at everyone except Billy who was staring at him wide-eyed. “But seeing as how you’ve all done the hard part here, well now that just don’t seem fair do it?”

 

The brothers were eyeing him eagerly and Goodnight gave them all a genial smile. “So here’s what I’m proposing. I could use some men like you to help me bring him in, keep him in line, you know what I’m saying?” and then men all gave each other extremely unpleasant sadistic grins that turned Goodnight’s stomach. But he kept his amiable mask. “We take him over to River City, split that grand five ways, and we all still come out of it pretty flush, don’t we?”

 

The three younger brothers were all nodding immediately, but the eldest was looking Goodnight a bit more shrewdly. “You’ve told us the city you’re taking him to, and we’ve got him right here. What’s to stop us from shooting you and taking your share too?”

 

Goodnight glanced at Parker. “You could. And you’re welcome to still take him to River City yourselves. But you need a licensed warrant officer if you want to actually get the money.”

 

Parker nodded, but narrowed his eyes. “One grand split four ways. Me and my brothers. For that we keep you alive. And seeing as how we’re the ones who caught him, well that seems fair enough to me.”

 

Goodnight stared at Parker for a long time. Finally he said: “On one condition.”

 

The men looked at him and Goodnight gave them a wry smile.

 

“I get the credit for bringing him in. And you don’t tell my boss he gave me the slip. It’s embarrassing enough already.”

 

The men barked out laughter, and Parker held out a hand. “Deal.”

 

“Alright,” Goodnight said, shaking the man’s hand. “How about I leave him here with you tonight, meet you all tomorrow with supplies, some shackles, and we hit the road at sunup?”

 

The brothers all nodded at each other, looking eager. Goodnight looked at the one who was still holding his rifle.

 

“I’ll be needing that,” he said as casually as he could. He looked at them all and shrugged.

 

“It’s the one that took out all them Union boys up there. Sentimental value and all that.”

 

The brother who’d taken it looked at Parker who jerked his head in a nod. The man held it out and Goodnight took it back. His palm tingled.

 

“Well adios, boys, and thanks for the capture. I’m much obliged,” he said tipping his hat to them and turning to go. Then he paused and looked around at them. “You know, I almost forgot to tell you what happened after I saw him take on that bar.”

 

“What’s that?” asked Parker frowning at him.

 

Goodnight looked around at them, the metal of the rifle cool in his hands, filling his veins with ice. “Well you see, here’s the thing. After I watched him I said to myself, ‘Goodnight…this is not a man to arrest’.”

 

Goodnight finally looked straight at Billy and said to him: “This is a man to befriend.”

 

And he swung the rifle up, blasting a hole straight through the smallest one’s chest.

 

The men shouted as their brother fell backwards, but Goodnight whirled the rifle onto the two middle ones, firing off two shots in rapid succession, pulling the rifle’s lever so fast his hands were a blur.

 

Goodnight sensed rather than heard the last one coming up behind him, and instinctively raised his rifle as he spun around, sending a bullet shooting straight through Parker’s head, right between those pale eyes. The man crashed to the floor, twitched once, and then lay as still as his brothers.

 

The whole thing had taken barely four seconds.

 

Goodnight lowered the gun, breathing heavily. The sounds of his rifle were still echoing around the cave, the room spinning, disorienting him for a moment.

 

But then just like that, Goodnight lifted his head, drew in a huge breath, and turned around to look at Billy who was staring at him with his mouth open.

 

Goodnight forgot everything else. He dropped his rifle to the floor with a clatter and rushed towards Billy, sinking to his knees so that he could untie the man’s legs.

 

“Jesus, Billy,” Goodnight said, hands shaking as he untied the ropes around Billy’s ankles in a fever. He leaned up and started on the man’s arms, looking up at him frantically as he worked on the ropes around Billy’s torso as fast as he could. Billy was looking at him desperately, and the second the last rope was untied Billy ripped it off his body and the two men were throwing their arms around each other without hesitation, hugging as hard as they possibly could.

 

“I’m sorry,” Billy was saying in Goodnight’s ear. “I’m –“

 

“Shut up, I’m sorry,” Goodnight said. “I’m so so sorry, Billy.”

 

Goodnight didn’t know whose voice was whose anymore, didn’t know anything except that he could feel Billy’s heartbeat pressed against his own chest, proof that the man was alive. He tucked his face into Billy’s neck, gasping a little as he did.

 

“Goody,” Billy breathed, his arms wrapped around Goodnight’s back as though he were trying to squeeze the very life out of him.

 

“Oh my god, Billy,” Goodnight said into Billy’s shoulder, his heart racing, dimly aware that this was the first time they’d ever hugged properly. He tightened his arms and squeezed his eyes shut, forgetting everything but the feeling of Billy in his arms.

 

Once they had both settled enough to realize they really were together and it was all really over, Goody pulled back to look at Billy. If Billy had been drunk before he wasn’t anymore, he just looked tired. Goodnight cast a critical eye over his bare chest, jaw clenching at every cut and bruise. None looked too serious but that wasn’t the point.

 

Goodnight suddenly shuddered to think what would have happened if he’d been any later in going to look for Billy.

 

Billy saw him shiver and leaned forward.

 

“Goody,” he whispered. Goodnight turned to look at him and Billy cupped Goodnight’s face with his warm, rough hands, making Goody’s stomach drop out.

 

“Wait,” Goodnight managed to get out, closing his eyes.

 

“Goodnight…” Billy said frustrated, saying his name like he was thirsty for it.

 

“No I know,” Goodnight said, his eyes flying open to meet Billy’s. He reached up and tentatively placed a hand over Billy’s where it was clasping his face. “I know,” he said meaningfully as he stared at Billy, willing him to hear what he wasn’t saying. “But I just…dammit I just…”

 

He took in a breath. “I just really want to get you back right now so I can make sure you’re okay. Okay?”

 

His hand tightened over Billy’s.

 

“Can we go home, Billy? Please?”

 

Billy brushed a thumb over Goodnight’s fingers.

 

“Yes.”

 

 

***

 

 

 

They walked back into the room of their saloon and Goodnight lit a couple of the lamps, casting the room in a soft glow. It was hard to believe it was the same place they’d stood only hours ago when they’d both been screaming at each other.

 

This time Goody kept reaching out as though to check Billy was still there, and every time he did, Billy would lean into him unconsciously. He was holding Goodnight’s coat around him, the one Goody had gently placed over his shoulders in the cave.

 

“Go sit down,” Goodnight said gruffly, and Billy shucked off the coat, taking a seat on the edge of the bed as he watched Goodnight walk around the room, filling a wash basin and grabbing the first clean rag he could find. He brought them over to the bed where he pulled up a chair, sitting across from Billy.

 

He dipped one of the rags into the water and held it up to Billy’s chest, suddenly uncertain. But when he flicked his eyes up to Billy’s face he was decided, and pressed the cloth to one of the cuts on Billy’s chest.

 

Billy didn’t even flinch. Just kept his eyes trained on Goodnight as he slowly dipped the cloth in the water again and found a new cut to gently press the cloth to.

 

“Goody I’m fine,” Billy said. He suddenly gave a tired laugh. “They hadn’t even gotten started. This is just from fighting with them.”

 

Goodnight scoffed. “Would you just let me take care of you for a change?”

 

Billy nodded and Goodnight continued to dip the cloth into the water, finding new abrasions to treat, dabbing them gently, droplets of water rolling slowly down Billy’s chest.

 

“You okay?” Billy asked him suddenly.

 

“Me?” Goodnight asked incredulously. “Why wouldn’t I be okay?”

 

Billy shifted, the muscles in his chest jerking as Goodnight dragged the cloth over them. “I’ve never seen you shoot anyone before.”

 

Goodnight was quiet for a long time as he continued to dab at Billy’s cuts.

 

“You know,” he finally said in a low voice. “I used to have this commanding officer in the war. And he’d always tell us ‘you have to hate what you’re firing at’.”

 

Goodnight looked up at Billy. “Never really understood what he meant until now.”

 

“I’m sorry,” Billy said again, and Goodnight looked at him surprised.

 

“What the hell do you have to be sorry for?” Goodnight asked, wringing out the cloth and dipping it into the basin again.

 

“I was being an idiot,” Billy said. “And they never would have got me if I hadn’t been drinking.”

 

“And you wouldn’t have been drinking if I hadn’t been a total jackass,” Goodnight said, running the cloth over Billy’s ribs, gently over the bruises.

 

“I was a jackass too,” Billy said quietly. And then his normally composed face suddenly crumpled and it shocked Goodnight more than if the man had sprouted wings.

 

“I thought I was going to die,” Billy said, shuddering as he tightened his jaw. Goodnight tried to shush him but he continued: “I was scared I’d die and leave you thinking that I didn’t…that I don’t…”

 

“Hey hey hey,” Goodnight murmured. “You’re here okay? You’re here.”

 

Billy took in a rattling breath and nodded. And then he was looking back at Goodnight, equal parts baffled and amazed.

 

“I thought I was dreaming when I heard your voice in there,” Billy said in disbelief. “And then you came around the corner. That’s when I stopped being scared.”

 

“Yeah well good for you, I was petrified,” Goodnight muttered.

 

“I wasn’t,” Billy repeated. He smiled a little. “You could talk the devil out of his pitchfork.”

 

The line of his mouth was fond as he looked at Goody who was getting the last bits of dried blood.

 

Goodnight just shook his head.

 

“I’ve seen the devil,” he said seriously. “And that wasn’t him.”

 

He worked his way back up Billy’s chest, his lip suddenly quirking up beneath his ashy beard.

 

“The devil’s got the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Those were just four shitheads on donkeys.”

 

Billy burst out laughing and Goodnight chuckled as he finally dropped the cloth into the basin, his work here done. “Not the end of the world,” he said gently.

 

Billy suddenly sobered up. “No. But if they’d killed me, it would have been the end of my world.”

 

Goodnight looked into his eyes. “Mine too.”

 

Billy stared back at him. “Goody…” he said in a hushed, almost ragged voice, his eyes flicking down to Goodnight’s mouth.

 

Goodnight took in all of Billy, his chest that was still beaded with water and glistening slightly in the glow of the lamp…the sparse hairs on his arms that were standing on end, the skin around them studded with gooseflesh…the way his fingers were still digging into the sheets, the way his breath had quickened, his chest rising and falling almost imperceptibly…

 

Goodnight finally dragged his eyes back up to Billy’s face. His eyes were warmed brown by the light of the lamps around them as he stared at Goodnight longingly.

 

Goodnight ached for him.

 

“Goody,” Billy said again.

 

“Yeah?” Goodnight breathed, eyes lost to Billy’s own.

 

“Tell me what you want,” Billy whispered for the second time that night.

 

The air between them was so thick and heady it could have been cut with a knife as the moment hung suspended.

 

And then Goodnight was surging forward and kissing Billy, claiming his lips with his own.

 

Billy took in a sharp breath and responded instantly, his hand flying into Goodnight’s hair to pull him closer, mouth opening for Goody’s as he kissed him back.

 

Goodnight moaned into Billy’s mouth, his hands shaking as he ran them over every inch of Billy’s golden skin that he could find, Billy arching into his touches all the while.

 

There was no way this could be happening, no way he really had Billy’s skin beneath his palms, Billy’s lips beneath his, Billy’s broad hands pulling him urgently in by his shirt, the man’s mouth taking his like he was starving for it…

 

Actually when it came to who was kissing who harder, Goody was pretty sure this was a draw.

 

He broke away from Billy’s lips with a gasp, but only to lean back in and press kisses to Billy’s jaw, his cheekbones, his eyes, any part of his face that he could reach.

 

Billy panted and his fingers tightened in Goody’s hair as Goody dropped to the man’s neck, kissing his way up the golden column, licking and tasting the skin there in a fever of need.

 

“Goody…Goody,” Billy was moaning and Goodnight bit down gently, making Billy hiss.

 

Billy moved to sit further back on the bed and Goodnight climbed into his lap to straddle him, the motion as seamless as if they’d done it a thousand times before. Goodnight dipped his head and he and Billy were kissing again, mouths working furiously, taking what both had wanted for what felt like so long.

 

“God, Billy,” Goody managed to get out between kisses. He felt drunk, drunk on Billy, drunk on kissing Billy, the feeling of Billy’s lips working desperately against his. Goodnight lifted trembling hands to Billy’s shoulders, rubbing them soothingly as he continued to kiss this man who against all odds had become his partner, then his friend, then his entire goddamn world.

 

Billy’s arms flew around Goodnight’s back as they kissed, hands digging into the cloth of Goodnight’s shirt as he dragged his hands upwards, feeling every part of the man he could reach. Goodnight’s fingers tightened of their own accord where they were resting on Billy’s shoulders, but he rolled his hips forwards deliberately. Billy bucked underneath him, sending a pulse of heat shooting through Goody.

 

“Billy,” he groaned, grinding his hips down again, suddenly overcome by the reality of what they were doing and finding he’d never liked reality more.

 

Billy leaned back all the way on the mattress, dragging Goody with him, and Goodnight tried to avoid the man’s banged up chest. But Billy kept tugging him down insistently until Goodnight was lying fully on top of him, letting out what almost sounded like a sigh of relief at the feeling of Goodnight covering him entirely. His hands snaked down Goodnight’s back and past his hips, until he was grabbing at Goodnight’s ass and pulling it hard so that their hips could be pressed together tighter. He opened his legs slightly underneath Goody’s, and Goodnight felt his head spin at the shift.

 

“Oh god, Billy,” he managed as he rutted down against Billy, capturing the man’s mouth in a messy kiss.

 

They lay straining and bucking together, and Goodnight was pretty sure they could have stayed there doing that for as long as it took, until he heard Billy saying something beneath him.

 

“I need…” Billy was breathing hard, his mouth damp where Goodnight’s lips were still skating over it.

 

“What do you need, Billy,” Goodnight said headily. “Anything.”

 

“Need you inside,” Billy gasped out, his accent roughened in arousal. “Need to feel you.”

 

Goodnight let out a strangled sound as he dropped his head to Billy’s chest, overcome by the idea. He felt Billy’s hands carding through his hair and he lifted his head back up to look at Billy whose dark eyes were pleading.

 

“You sure?” he asked, running a hand up Billy’s thigh. So many times in the past few months he had imagined Billy taking him, imagined what it would be like having Billy braced over him, plunging into him, filling him up to the brim until it burned...but this was about what Billy needed right now.

 

“I didn’t think I’d ever see you again,” Billy said, and Goodnight had never heard his friend sound so desperate. “I’m sure.”

 

Goodnight pressed an open-mouthed kiss to Billy’s heart, gently rubbing Billy’s thigh.

 

“Yeah okay,” he breathed. “Okay.”

 

He pulled back up, already missing the feeling of Billy underneath him as he practically ripped his shirt off, Billy’s eyes tracking every button hungrily. He threw his shirt to the ground and Billy leaned upwards, his hands on Goody’s ribs as he kissed every part of Goody’s chest he could, his mouth dropping sweet kisses over Goodnight’s stomach, tilting his head up more so he could nuzzle at the man’s chest, gasping for breath, holding Goody as close as he could.

 

“Oh sweetheart,” Goodnight said with his eyes closed, burying a hand in Billy’s thick hair, the endearment slipping from his mouth without his notice.

 

They sat there tangled, rocking together, hands caressing, and Goodnight almost forgot what they’d been about to do until he felt one of Billy’s hands tugging insistently at his belt.

 

They stood up and stripped off the rest of the way quickly and Goodnight sucked in a breath as he took in Billy’s entire body. He’d seen Billy naked plenty of times before and thought nothing of it. It’s not like sharing the road allowed for much privacy. But only in the past couple of months had he consciously needed to stop himself from looking anytime Billy got changed or washed himself in a creek, avoiding that burning between them crackling, always sparking, trying to pull Goody closer and closer…

 

But now he could look, and look he did. He looked with his eyes as they brushed over Billy’s body, cataloguing every dip and curve of muscle and sinew. He looked with his fingers as they traced a burning trail down the paths of Billy’s skin. He looked with his mouth as he gently tasted the musk of Billy’s throat, the tang of his collar bones, the salty slick of his chest, the sweetness of his stomach, the burn of his hips, the…the…

 

Billy swore as Goodnight slipped his mouth over him. Goodnight placed his hands on Billy’s hips as he pulled Billy’s hardness deeper into his mouth, needing to take his fill. He pulled back, tongue laving against the ridges of Billy’s length, just to bob forward again, sucking in his cheeks.

 

“Jesus, Goody,” Billy moaned as his hips stuttered forward. Goodnight felt one of Billy’s hands circle around the back of Goody’s head, deft fingers twining themselves in his hair, never pulling, just holding Goodnight in place as he continued to taste Billy, the length of him heavy on Goodnight’s tongue. Goodnight pulled back, his lips rubbing at Billy’s swollen skin. He curled his tongue upwards and Billy actually let out a choked sound.

 

“Smart mouthed bastard,” he heard Billy say above him, and Goodnight chuckled around Billy’s skin, feeling Billy’s hands tightening in his hair.

 

Suddenly Billy was dragging Goodnight back up, his eyes in a daze as he took in Goody’s slick red lips. And then he was moaning and grabbing at Goody’s face, dipping his head forward to kiss him roughly, and Goodnight’s eyes fluttered shut as he kissed Billy back, as good as he got.

 

It seemed like they’d never make it back to the bed, so preoccupied they were with tasting every inch of each other’s mouths, their bodies lined up, both men within such a similar height of each other that their hips slotted perfectly, their chests pressed together, hearts beating fiercely in tandem.

 

But eventually they did make it back down to the bed, Billy’s hair fanning out briefly on the pillow before he was rolling over, and Goodnight was sucking in a breath at the broad expanse of golden skin being offered underneath him. Billy ground his hips minutely against the mattress, the motion causing the dips and knots of his back muscles to shift in a dizzyingly erotic display. Goody ran a hand up Billy’s back, suddenly feeling in over his head.

 

“We’re uh – we’re gonna need something,” he managed to realize with what very little blood was left in his head.

 

Billy turned his head back to look at Goody, his eyebrows bunched in confusion, and then smoothing out. “Kurae,” he agreed.

 

Goodnight looked around the room and his eye fell to the chair near the bed where Billy had been polishing his knives earlier in the night.

 

“Knife oil?” Goody inquired, unable to keep the humor out of his voice, and Billy glanced over to the chair.

 

“Jesus Christ,” he muttered.

 

But he must have figured if it was good enough for his knives it was good enough for him, because he reached out with a limber arm to grab it, flipping it in his hand and handing it backwards to Goody with a: “Sometimes you’re too smart for your own good.”

 

“Needs must, darling,” Goody murmured absently as he dripped some over his fingers. “Needs must.”

 

The oil smelled strong but it slicked his fingers enough for his purposes, and he traced a finger down the length of Billy’s golden back, marveling at the way it turned the man to liquid beneath him.

 

When he reached the last bump of Billy’s spine he kept going, finger dipping between the dimples in Billy’s lower back, dragging lower and lower until Goody was hooking his finger gently into Billy, the tight heat pulling him in deeper.

 

“You alright there?” Goodnight asked as he rubbed between Billy’s shoulder blades with his free hand.

 

“Never better,” Billy gasped out, arching his back. The sight was enough for Goodnight to work in another finger alongside the first, dragging them inside of Billy, rubbing them against the walls inside of him, stroking and teasing on instinct, until Billy was a writhing mess beneath him.

 

“That’s enough, Goody, come on,” he choked out.

 

Goodnight nodded dazedly, withdrawing his fingers to take the oil again, squeezing some into his palm and reaching between his legs to slick himself up.

 

He positioned himself, overwhelmed suddenly at how much he’d always want this for as long as he lived, how much he’d never go back from this, how much he didn’t want to go back from this.

 

“Goody?” asked Billy, mistaking his pause. “You know what to do there?”

 

“What?” Goody asked distracted. “Oh. Yeah. No problem. Read a book on Ancient Greeks once.”

 

Billy started to shake underneath him, and Goodnight realized the man was laughing.

 

“You read a book…on Greeks,” he choked out. “Oh my god, Goody,” he said, his shoulders shaking in mirth.

 

Goodnight laughed too, knowing in that moment that everything was right about this. And he bent down over Billy until he was curved over the man’s back, pressing a kiss to Billy’s shoulders. And then he was slowly, achingly pushing in.

 

“Oh Jesus,” he breathed out as he slid in, feeling himself surrounded by heat everywhere, the heat emanating off of Billy, the heat where the man’s sweat-dampened back was pressed to his chest, the even more overwhelming heat inside of him…

 

Goody drew out and thrust back in again with a groan, sparks going off behind his eyelids. He was braced over Billy, one hand on the mattress, the other arm curled around Billy’s chest, gently, so as to not agitate the skin where it was broken.

 

Billy turned his head back to look at Goody from under heavy eyelids, and Goody turned his head so he could blearily kiss Billy as best as he could at this angle, their mouths brushing breathlessly together.

 

It had never been this good, Goodnight thought deliriously while thrusting, never in all the times he’d tried anything even remotely like this. Not the cousin who’d taken his virginity when he was fourteen, the two of them fumbling impulsively beneath a willow tree on her parents’ plantation, clumsily entering a world they were much too young to understand. Not the older widow who’d taken to the blue-eyed college boy with skills in wooing but not in what came after, teaching him how to love her, and tiring of him once he did. Not the curt, almost punishing grip the soldiers in the war sometimes took on each other, roughly bringing each other off with their hands, never for lust, only for proof they were alive for one more day. Not the occasional whore he’d come across when he was travelling by himself on the road, the loneliness sometimes threatening to consume him if he didn’t take shelter in someone else.

 

None of that had anything on this, he thought as he worked his mouth over the nape of Billy’s neck, loving the way the man’s hair tickled his nose making him huff out breathless laughs, loving the way Billy reached up to where Goodnight’s hand was braced on his chest so that he could tangle their fingers together, loving the dazed breaths that came out of Billy with every one of Goodnight’s thrusts, loving the way his back bowed every time Goodnight sunk into his body, Billy’s warm and willing body…

 

Goody’s toes curled.

 

“Bill...” he breathed out, and Billy reached back quietly to where Goodnight’s thighs were pressing into the backs of his, pulling him in deeper.

 

They stayed like that, rocking together for what felt like an eternity, locked in their own slip of forever that they’d somehow managed find in each other. Goodnight didn’t want it to end. If he wanted anything it was to dissolve so that Billy could absorb him entirely, so he could sink all the way through Billy’s pores and stay inside him forever.

 

But eventually he could feel Billy start to shake beneath him, his thighs beginning to tremble where Goodnight was pressed against him, and Goodnight could feel the man’s heartbeat quickening through his back, still flush against Goody’s chest.

 

Goody trailed his hand down Billy’s stomach and reached between his legs, biting back a groan to feel how hard the man was. He took a firm grip and stroked his hand over Billy’s length, the heaviness in his palm one of the most arousing things he’d ever felt in his life.

 

Billy had stayed relatively quiet through all of this, his ragged breathing and occasional huffs of Goodnight’s name the only things that came out of his mouth. But now a moan was tearing its way out of his chest, so abandoned it made Goodnight’s head spin.

 

“Alright?” he asked into Billy’s neck, tightening his grip on him. Billy turned his head hazily back to Goodnight, managing to kiss his jaw open mouthed.

 

“Goody,” he said into the skin there. “Goody…”

 

Goodnight’s hand sped up and Billy’s breathing quickened.

 

“Oh god,” Billy breathed. “Goodnight…”

 

“C’mon, sweetheart,” Goodnight murmured into his neck, this time completely aware of the endearment as he said it. “Come on.”

 

Billy came with a cry, pulsing into Goodnight’s hand, and Goodnight feverishly worked the man’s slickness back over him.

 

“God, Billy,” Goodnight choked out, trying to control his own pace that wanted to quicken.

 

“Come on, Goody,” Billy gasped, still panting as he came down from the high. “Do it.”

 

Goodnight held back a moan in his throat, fighting to keep his thrusts steady.

 

“I’m not gonna break,” Billy managed to get out between breaths.

 

“Yeah,” Goodnight said hoarsely. “But I might.”

 

And he wrapped his arms tighter around Billy, pressing his face into his back, kissing his shoulders, his mind narrowing down to the heat around him, the roll of Billy’s skin beneath him as he began to thrust faster, his strokes becoming harder, deeper, until he was losing himself in Billy completely, pounding into him, enveloped by the scent of him, the feel of him, the clench of him, every thought he’d ever had being driven out of his head except for –

 

Billy - 

 

Goodnight came with a cut-off shout, biting Billy’s name into the man’s shoulder to keep from yelling it.

 

He spilled into Billy over and over, his body wracked with spasms while every last bit of aching want was wrung out of him.

 

When the shaking finally subsided, Goodnight weakly eased his way out, still holding Billy to him in an effort to stay as close as possible. He was leaning on Billy’s back, his muscles like rubber as he breathed Billy in. The sweat that had beaded on the man’s back felt slick against his cheek and Goodnight nuzzled his beard against his spine. He rubbed Billy’s ribs idly in a way that contrasted the way his heart was still thudding.

 

Billy finally turned underneath him, settling on his back. He smiled lazily up at Goodnight and pulled him down closer until Goody was curled up half on top of him, his head pressed to Billy’s chest. Goodnight felt Billy stroking his face, scratching his thumb a bit into his whiskers.

 

They lay like that for a while, a tangle of damp and sated limbs, just breathing the other in. Goodnight was in a daze, his head rising and falling a little with every breath Billy took. He stroked the man’s skin that was nearest.

 

“That was…” Goodnight started to say, and then found that for once he didn’t have the words.

 

“Mmm,” Billy agreed with him anyways, the sound vibrating through his chest which was cushioning Goody’s head.

 

There was a pause, and then Billy’s voice came deadpanned saying:

 

“Remind me to thank the Ancient Greeks.”

 

It took Goody’s brain a minute to catch up and when he did he burst out into a laugh, reaching behind him for a pillow, which he smacked Billy with.

 

“Fucking smartass.”

 

Billy chuckled and Goodnight shifted until they were lying face to face, smiling at each other. Goodnight reached out to thumb the man’s cheekbone.

 

“You alright?” he murmured.

 

Billy nodded. “Yes.”

 

“I didn’t,” Goodnight sketched out absently with his hands. “Hurt you?”

 

Billy rolled his eyes just the barest amount, but they were shining fondly at Goodnight.

 

“No. But you could always clean me again if you’re worried.”

 

“Smartass,” Goodnight murmured again more quietly. “I’m serious.”

 

Billy shook his head. “No.”

 

“Okay. Good.”

 

“Good,” Billy said, leaning forward to capture Goodnight’s lips with his, pulling back to smile that half-smile and Goodnight couldn’t stop himself from sighing at the angles of Billy’s face.

 

Billy leaned back to the floor rummaging around in one of the bags between the two beds. He came out with two cigarettes that he placed in his mouth, lighting them both at the same time with the scrape of a match. The flame flickered upwards, highlighting the sweep of his eyelashes which cast shadows onto his cheeks. He rolled back over to gently place one of the cigarettes between Goodnight’s lips.

 

Goodnight pressed closer to him and they lay there smoking, not saying anything, not needing to, their hands lightly tracing everything they were feeling into the other’s skin.

 

Goodnight made a humming sound and Billy turned to look inquiringly at him.

 

“I’m just…” Goodnight didn’t really have anything to say at all, he just liked talking to Billy. “That was nice.”

 

Billy took a drag of his cigarette, raising his eyebrows. “Nice,” he echoed dryly, tilting his chin to exhale away from Goodnight’s face.

 

“You know what I mean. Amazing?”

 

“Better.”

 

“Extraordinary?”

 

“Mmm.”

 

“Magnificent?”

 

“Fine.”

 

Billy’s lips were curled around his cigarette in amusement as he ran a hand through Goodnight’s hair, his own hair brushing the tips of his shoulders. Goodnight leaned in and rested his head there, nudging Billy’s foot a little with his own.

 

Goodnight finished his cigarette first like he usually did, always just a little too obsessive about any vice. He turned to look beseechingly at Billy who snorted at him a little. But Billy took another drag and placed his own cigarette between Goody’s lips. Goodnight sucked the tip, still damp from Billy’s mouth, and felt his head spinning from more than just smoke.

 

He exhaled, his head still on Billy’s shoulder and passed the cigarette back, and they continued to share it, both of them beginning to get a little sleepy.

 

But before they could leave this night and go into the next day and whatever that would bring, Goodnight needed to get something out.

 

“I’m glad…” he mumbled into Billy’s shoulder. “I’m really glad I wasn’t just imagining this. You know?”

 

He felt Billy stroke a hand up the inside of his thigh, making him shiver. “You weren’t.”

 

“Well I know that now,” Goodnight said with a laugh. “But I wasn’t sure and…and I didn’t mean to be intentionally obtuse about it or anything. I just didn’t want to risk…you know…losing you,” Goodnight finished more quietly.

 

Billy turned to him, his grip tightening on Goodnight’s thigh, fingers brushing the dark blonde hairs there. “You won’t.”

 

“Okay,” Goodnight said, taking a puff of their cigarette which was slowly getting shorter. He passed it back to Billy, their fingers brushing.

 

Billy smoked it thoughtfully. “I didn’t mean to make you wonder.”

 

Goodnight stared at his face, Billy’s cheeks hollowing around the cigarette, blue smoke flickering out of his lips which suddenly quirked up.

 

“I thought I was being obvious.”

 

Goodnight raised an eyebrow. “Obvious? You?”

 

Billy turned to look at him incredulously.

 

“I breathed in your fucking mouth, Goody.”

 

The laughter came out of Goodnight like a shot as he threw his head back.

 

“Fair point.”

 

He looked up at Billy from where he was lying on the pillows. Billy had smoked the last bits of the cigarette almost down to a stub. He looked beautiful sitting there, sheet around his golden limbs, black hair sweeping past his face and curving over his shoulders, almost unearthly except he wasn’t. Billy was as solid as the earth itself.

 

Goodnight lifted a hand to stroke Billy’s back, and Billy turned to look at him softly.

 

“You know, that reminds me,” Goodnight said, nodding to the cigarette. He looked back up at Billy his eyes twinkling. “I believe you owe me one.”

 

Billy glanced down to the cigarette he was holding, and back at Goodnight’s face.

 

“I believe I do,” he murmured, lifting the cigarette to his lips and taking a deep, burning pull of it.

 

He bent down over Goodnight, his hair falling forwards and tickling Goodnight’s face, staring at him intently. Goodnight drew in a sharp breath, his lips parting and his heart speeding up almost imperceptibly, hooked by Billy’s eyes.

 

And then Billy was gently brushing his lips over Goodnight’s and breathing the smoke into Goodnight’s mouth.

 

Goodnight lay there breathing it in, his head swirling, his eyes closed. He opened them again and saw Billy’s eyes staring achingly into his. And when he offered the man a smile, tilting his chin up as he did, Billy’s eyes softened and he dipped his head down the rest of the way, his mouth closing over Goody’s completely.

 

As they kissed, Goodnight felt Billy flick the cigarette away. And then his hand was sliding back into Goodnight’s hair, Goody’s arms were winding around his neck, and they stayed there with their arms tangled and their mouths locked, kissing while the last bits of smoke trailed and wisped away, until all that remained was them.

 

 

***

 

There was nothing unusual about the ride out of town the next morning, except in how early Goodnight had insisted they leave. He’d hated to rouse Billy who surely needed the sleep. But the whole entire town was giving him the spooks, and he wasn’t too sure about some of the characters he’d seen in the dingier bar where he’d found out Billy had been taken.

 

But as they walked their horses down the street, the sun just beginning to rise, Goodnight saw the old man who’d told him where to find Billy. He was sitting on his porch, looking at them both with his one visible eye. Goodnight quietly handed the reins of his horse to Billy and walked over to him, murmuring in a low voice, feeling Billy’s eyes on his back.

 

Part of him wanted to offer the man some money for his help. Hell, Goodnight would have given him his family’s entire fortune. It was nothing compared to getting Billy back.

 

But when the man’s one good eye glittered in grim satisfaction when Goodnight told him what had happened to the men who’d taken the other one, Goodnight knew that any money would have been seen as an insult.

 

So he offered the man his hand instead and they shook, and Goodnight walked back over to Billy.

 

“Why do I get the feeling I owe that guy?” Billy asked him quietly.

 

“Because you do,” Goodnight said. “But I’ll tell you about it on the road.”

 

“Alright,” Billy said. But before he walked over to his horse, Goodnight saw him pause, look over his shoulder, and and tip his hat at the old man.

 

“Ready?” Goodnight asked, brushing a hand over Billy’s lower back just a ghost more intimately than he might have done a month ago.

 

Billy nodded, and his eyes smiled at Goodnight in a way that told Goody the previous night hadn’t been forgotten. “Gaja.

 

They blazed a trail out of town as the sun came up, not slowing until they reached another nearby town a few hours north. Their supplies were running low and they needed to stock up. Billy took care of any food they might want, and Goody managed to find a doctor, wanting to get some proper bandages in case Billy needed them. When he came back out, Billy was waiting with the packed horses beside the sign outside that said ‘Doctor’ in faded, looping paint.

 

“That took a while,” he commented.

 

Goodnight shrugged. “Better safe than sorry.” And climbing onto his horse they went back onto the road, this time riding a little slower and a little less determinedly than last time.

 

They rode side by side throughout the day, chatting one hour, riding in easy silence the next, and Goodnight couldn’t tell if it felt any different than usual. It didn’t really except for that every time Goodnight looked over at Billy he felt himself flooded with warmth, wonder, and no small measure of luck. These were all feelings he’d associated at one point or another with Billy, ever since the man had decided that Goodnight was somehow worth his time. But this time it was constant and there was the quiet intoxication of something more. And whenever Goodnight took stock of Billy swaying on his horse, his hair wisping beneath his wide-brimmed hat, the calm angle of his eyes, the laid back line of his mouth, now knowing what it felt like on his own…

 

Goodnight really didn’t deserve to feel this lucky.

 

They rode a while longer until they came upon a rockier area, smooth formations sculpted out of sand and rock arching up into cliffs and trailing out into the sky.

 

“Wanna stop here?” Billy asked.

 

Goodnight looked up at the sky. It was a little earlier than they normally broke for camp. But then he looked back at Billy who was shifting a bit uncomfortably in his saddle, and immediately felt like an idiot.

 

“Why didn’t you say so sooner?” he scolded him.

 

Billy shrugged. “I don’t know. Why didn’t you tell me you had the flu until you were literally falling off your horse?”

 

“Oh Jesus,” Goodnight said as he swung off Cherie with deliberate grace, looking obstinately back at Billy. “You’re never gonna let me forget that are you?”

 

Billy smiled a little as he climbed down too. He paused and then looked at Goodnight.

 

“You know I think that’s when I realized?” he said suddenly, and Goodnight looked over at him questioningly.

 

Billy stared back at him, his mouth soft. “When I realized I was head over heels for you,” he elaborated. “Or started to at least.”

 

Goodnight’s mouth hung open a little bit in surprise at the unexpected and uncharacteristically open declaration from Billy, and looked up at Billy’s face.

 

It was a face he’d learned to read over time, which ticks of the jaw meant that Billy was thinking, which twitches to his mustache meant he was closest to laughter…it was a puzzle that Goodnight had never tired of cracking during the eight months they’d been partnered up.

 

But now he didn’t have to puzzle out what Billy was thinking at all, because he didn’t think he’d ever seen so much open affection suddenly written in every line of the man’s remarkable face.

 

“You were being so ridiculous. But stubborn. Clearly sick but refusing to back down and I just…” Billy gave a small smile. “Then you were concussing yourself and I realized.”

 

Goodnight blushed. “Well there’s no accounting for taste,” he said which made Billy laugh, and the warmth he’d been feeling from Billy’s revelation only increased.

 

They set up camp easily, the horses, the fire, and dinner all down to a science at this point. The only area in which there was any hesitation was when they were taking down their blankets to sleep, suddenly pausing as they looked at each other. And then they let out identical aware laughs as they dropped their blankets next to each other, creating one single bed which they sat down on, facing the fire. Neither was that tired yet.

 

Billy took out a packet of cigarettes and had gone to shake two out when Goodnight stopped him.

 

“Yours taste better,” he said with a grin and Billy smiled, lighting just one. He took a drag and handed it over to Goodnight.

 

They smoked in silence for a while, fingers leaving lingering brushes every time they passed their cigarette back and forth. Goodnight felt completely content. Except…

 

“You’re being awfully quiet,” he noted to Billy.

 

Billy raised an eyebrow. “I’m always quiet.”

 

Goodnight actually laughed out loud. “Bullshit. You’re silent, and your silences are louder than any ten stampeding buffalos I know. Right now you’re being quiet.”

 

Billy just shrugged and took another puff of the cigarette, his eyes on the fire.

 

Goodnight reached over and took the cigarette from him, brushing his knuckles against Billy’s jaw as he pulled his hand back. “Billy,” he said gently. “Your ‘mystical mute from the East’ routine might work with everyone else but not with me. What’s wrong?”

 

Billy finally looked at him, his eyes flickering from the firelight. “I dreamt badly last night,” he said quietly like it was costing him something to admit it.

 

Well. This was something Goodnight could understand. Although he was surprised he hadn’t heard anything, given how lightly he slept himself.

 

He lifted his hand between Billy’s shoulder blades, working out a knot from riding. Then he slung his arm around Billy’s shoulders, feeling Billy reach up to trace his fingers where they hung over his chest. He took a puff of the cigarette, exhaled, and handed it back to Billy.

 

“They’re just dreams, Billy.”

 

Billy looked at him, his mouth in an ironic twist. “I’ll take that advice when you do.”

 

Goodnight’s own lip was tugging, undecided on if it wanted to go down or up. It settled on up. “Fair enough.”

 

Billy nodded but he still looked preoccupied. “I was sitting in that chair,” he said in a low voice. “Still tied up. That’s what I was dreaming.”

 

Goodnight’s heart clenched. Billy was always so in control, that being in that position must have gotten to him and then some.

 

Billy was saying something else as he handed the cigarette back to Goodnight.

 

“But that wasn’t the bad part,” he said. “The chair…their fists…that was nothing.”

 

He turned to look at Goody, his eyes full of an ache. “The worst part was thinking I’d never see your face again.”

 

He turned back to face the fire leaving Goodnight sitting there, a cigarette trailing smoke in his fingers, and his head reeling.

 

Goodnight tossed the cigarette into the fire. It wasn’t finished, but that wasn’t the priority. He angled himself towards Billy and turned his jaw, forcing Billy to look at him.

 

“Now I’m only going to say this once, so you’d better get it through those luscious locks and into that thick skull of yours,” he said seriously and Billy looked at him surprised.

 

Goodnight stroked his thumb over Billy’s jaw and softened his voice.

 

“There is not a single universe in which I don’t come back for you. Okay? I will always come back for you.”

 

Billy nodded as he looked at Goodnight, his face motionless but a flicker of wonder in his eyes.

 

“Okay.”

 

“Say it.”

 

“You’ll always come back for me.”

 

“Damn right,” Goodnight whispered leaning in, and Billy leaned forward to meet him in a slow kiss.

 

It was softer than they’d kissed last night. They’d been frantic then, mouths working against each other desperately in so much pent-up need.

 

Now they kissed more tentatively, almost shyly, learning each curve of their mouths, gently teasing their tongues together, tasting each other’s sounds, drinking in the cadence of their breaths.

 

Goodnight felt it when the first spike of lust shot through Billy because it pierced him at the same time, as soft and sharp as any knife. He sighed as he lifted his hands to Billy’s hair, taking out the man’s pin and feeling the hair tumble down around his fingers, arousal growing.

 

Billy tilted his head, deepening the kiss, and Goodnight pulled them both back onto the blanket beside the fire, Billy sprawled on top. Billy ran his proficient fingers down Goodnight’s chest, unhooking buttons where he found them, tugging on Goodnight’s waistband, and before Goodnight could process it Billy had already gotten him half undressed.

 

“Hang on,” Goodnight said already breathing hard, reaching behind him to rummage in his rucksack, looking for the paper bag he’d gotten from the doctor’s. It was full of generic pill bottles and swaths of bandages, but he found the container of cream he was looking for and drew it out. He clapped it into Billy’s hand, who raised an inquisitive eyebrow.

 

“What is it?” he asked.

 

“Petroleum jelly. Told the doctor I had saddle sores. Just thought we could do a little better than your fucking knife oil,” Goodnight said, sitting up with a sly grin.

 

Billy laughed, but his eyes looked at Goodnight hesitantly.

 

“Goody, I’m still a little sore…” he started, but Goodnight leaned forward to nuzzle his face against Billy’s.

 

“I didn’t mean for you,” he murmured against Billy’s lips.

 

Every muscle in Billy’s body drew up in a breath. He jerked his head once, exhaled with a sigh of want, and then kissed Goodnight back properly, his lips making unspoken promises against Goody’s.

 

Billy pushed Goodnight gently back onto the blankets and undressed him the rest of the way, making short work of his own clothes. Despite the fire Goodnight still felt a slight chill from the night air, but then Billy was leaning back over him, bracketing him with all his warmth, their mouths and hips both rubbing together damply.

 

Billy worked his way down Goodnight’s neck, kissing him over his heart, mouthing tender proclamations over his ribs, taking tiny nips of his hipbones…

 

And just when Goodnight thought he was going to go crazy, Billy’s head was bowing between his legs and he was sinking his mouth over Goodnight, his mouth a wet, searing heat.

 

“God…damn,” Goodnight breathed, arousal crackling through his spine. He wanted to throw his head back, close his eyes, but then he would have missed the sight of Billy running his lips up Goodnight’s rigid length, before reaching the tip and swallowing back down again.

 

“Billy…Billy…” Goodnight was saying as he sunk his fingers into Billy’s hair again, fisting it tenderly as Billy kept him in his damp velvet mouth, licking and mouthing and tasting every inch of Goodnight, his hands a warm brace around Goodnight’s hips.

 

Goodnight felt when Billy lifted one of his hands to reach for the container Goodnight had given him. And not even a few yearning breaths later Goodnight felt a slick finger teasing at him and he shivered.

 

“Aren’t you gonna turn me over?” he asked, as Billy tightly dragged his lips up and off Goodnight's length with excruciating slowness.

 

“I could,” Billy said, leaning up to bring their faces level and brushing his lips over Goodnight’s. “But I like looking at you,” he murmured, and slipped his finger inside, pressing in deep.

 

Goodnight arched into it. Not enough, it wasn’t enough…he tried to kiss Billy harder but Billy just chuckled into his mouth, their whiskers scratching, and was slinking back down Goody’s body, back between his legs, enveloping him with his mouth again, finger working inside him all the while.

 

Goodnight’s mind was so narrowed into the feeling of Billy’s mouth around him, his tongue laving at him, his finger stroking tantalizingly inside of him, that he barely even noticed that Billy had already easily worked in a second finger alongside the first. Shoulda figured Billy would be as nimble at this as he was with everything else.

 

Billy continued to work Goodnight open and finally Goodnight couldn’t stand it anymore.

 

“Get back up here,” he gasped out. “What happened to looking at me?”

 

He felt rather than saw Billy smile against his hip, and then Billy was crawling back up Goodnight’s body, slicking himself up. He stopped when their faces were aligned, and tugged at Goodnight’s legs to hook them behind his back. Goodnight’s nerves were sparking in anticipation as he felt Billy gently stroking a hand up his thigh, pressing his hips forward a little against Goodnight.

 

Goodnight looked up at Billy braced over him, a vision, the best goddamn dream Goodnight had ever had. His shoulders and arms were glowing from the fire that crackled and burned beside them. But even that wasn’t as warm as Billy’s eyes as he took in Goody’s face.

 

Billy bent down and rested his forehead against Goodnight’s. His hair fell down around their faces on either side, trapping them both in a world that Goodnight didn’t ever want to leave.

 

“Hey, Goodnight Robicheaux,” he said against Goodnight’s lips.

 

“Hey, Billy Rocks,” said Goodnight, rubbing their foreheads together. And when he wrapped his arms around Billy’s neck, Billy finally sunk into him, filling him up from the inside out.

 

The fire blazed beside them, the slightest breeze whisked through the desert underbrush, and somewhere off in the distance a coyote howled. Neither man noticed, so intent they were in taking everything the other had to offer.

 

It was incredible, Goodnight thought hazily, his arms wrapped around Billy’s shoulders, his fingers digging into his rolling muscles that were slick with sweat, his mind and senses overwhelmed by having Billy over him, around him, inside of him…

 

Incredible, he thought again deliriously, looking up at the black desert sky with its mosaic of stars. Because Goodnight knew he was not a well-adjusted person. Too many pieces of him splintered and scattered to the winds.

 

But when it was Billy who was the one taking him apart…

 

Goodnight didn’t think he’d ever felt so together in his life.

 

 

***

 

Dawn had them loading up the horses, everything packed away, jackets on to stave off the early morning chill.

 

There was the intermittent whistle of birds, the occasional huff of air from one of the horses, and if Goodnight strained his ears he could almost hear the wind teasing groans from the tops of the desert rocks.

 

But apart from the tiny signs of life one learned to look for after a while, the desert was a desolate stretch. Goodnight and Billy were the only two people for miles and miles in its vast emptiness.

 

It shouldn’t have felt so full.

 

Goodnight walked over to where Billy was leaning against a rock wall, riding hat already on, one black boot kicked back against the rock, and smoking a cigarette in his gloved hand.

 

Goodnight stepped into his space. Billy’s eyes flicked up, crinkling with amusement at Goodnight’s expectant expression. He took the cigarette out of his mouth, flicked the ash to the sand below, and snaked an arm around Goodnight’s back, leaning in and kissing Goodnight unhurriedly, his hand a soft, steady weight against him.

 

Goodnight could get used to mornings if they were always like this.

 

Eventually they pulled back, rubbing noses a little as they did, and Goodnight reached up to tease Billy’s collar.

 

“So where are we off to next?” he asked.

 

“I don’t know,” Billy said. His lips twitched. “Wherever you go, I go.”

 

And with that he placed the rest of his cigarette between Goody’s lips and was walking back to the horses, looking expectantly back at Goodnight, his half-smile beckoning for Goodnight to come along.

 

Goodnight stood there for a brief yet endless moment, his heart just about full to the brim.

 

And then he was huffing out a laugh, and taking in the last pull of smoke before walking over to join Billy. They swung up on their horses and exchanged the same resolved look.

 

From then on, Goodnight knew that whenever Billy handed him a cigarette he was saying ‘I love you.’

 

And from then on, whenever anybody asked how they’d met, Goodnight would tell the story he’d told in the cave, the one he’d used when he’d gone back for Billy. Sometimes it’s to make Billy smile and roll his eyes, sometimes it’s to privately remind him that no matter what comes into their lives, Goodnight will never leave Billy behind…

 

But mostly it’s just Goodnight’s way of saying ‘I love you too.’

 

And with a flick of their reins and a clatter of hooves they were off into the sunrise, and onto whatever was waiting for them next.

 

 

 

 

 

The End.