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Beside the Law

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The town of Silvertown, Nevada, boasted four bath tubs. The two in the back room of Davis’s cookhouse were exclusively for women, and there never was a long line; men used the two tubs at the back of the barber’s shop, and the line there was even smaller.

There was something to be said for soapy water, Cudlip thought, soaping his neck, chest and shoulders and sliding lower in the tub. Easy to get used to smelling better and feeling better. Since the first time, when Ben had had to almost drag him bodily to the barber’s shop, he had become a regular customer, his monthly visits quickly becoming fortnightly, then weekly, then twice weekly. He enjoyed the solitude and the relaxation, and occasionally the good ideas that occurred to him.

“Hello, Cud. Thought I’d find you here.” Ben held out a hand for the soap and started scrubbing Cudlip’s back, with long sweeping motions that started a sequence of small pleasurable shivers running down Cudlip’s body.

“Cut it out, or I won’t be able to get out of this tub.” Cudlip hoped that Ben wouldn’t see the smile that went with the warning. “You’ll have to wait until tonight to have your way with me.”

“Well, that’s what I came to talk to you about.” Ben’s voice was genuinely regretful, the faint accent softening his words. “I can't come over tonight, there’s a special miners’ meeting at the church. They have asked me to attend.”

“Somethin I should worry about?” Cudlip knew that there was some friction between the miners and Cooper, the mine manager. The miners were angry because several men had died in cave-ins and others had fallen ill because of dust and gases, and because they had complained for weeks that wages were too low, with no results.

Ben hesitated for a moment. “No.” He paused briefly, one hand swirling the water in the tub around Cudlip’s chest. “Trust me. I am on their side, but I am also on yours. Maybe the two sides will not clash.”

“Let’s hope so.” Cudlip stood up and reached for the towel. Ben handed it to him, a small irrepressible smirk as he glanced down at some residual signs of interest in his friend’s body. Cudlip smirked back. “And yeah, I trust you. ‘Bout as far as I could throw you.”

 

Late at night there was a knock on the door of the sheriff’s office. Cudlip was still bunking in there, but he had seen a small house at the edge of town; in three months’ time, there was going to be an election for a new sheriff, and if he won, he could rent it or even buy it. When he thought about it, he knew not only that he wanted the job, but also that he wanted to deserve it; he needed to know not only how to enforce the law, but also why. So, at night, he tried to read the few law books Sheriff Ferguson had left him before retiring. A few things made sense, many more didn’t, and he usually went to bed with ideas of rights, duties and responsibilities swirling through his head like tumbleweeds. When he went to bed alone, that is; when Ben visited, they discussed and argued until ideas ended up settling into some sort of pattern, and then ideas and patterns were replaced by passionate experimenting with taking and giving pleasure.

Cudlip recognised the knock and went to open the door as he was, in his underwear and with a pencil stuck in his mouth instead of his usual cigar.

“How’d it go?”

Ben’s face was drawn and grey, there were bags under his eyes and a couple of small vertical furrows between his eyebrows. “Not sure that I should talk about this with you. But,” and he smiled, the open warm smile that had won Cudlip over the first time they had met, “You’re my best friend as well as the sheriff.” He paused. “The miners are angry. Their wages are low. Their living conditions are terrible. Their working conditions are worse.”

“Go on, I’m listenin.” Cudlip went to the bread box, cut a couple of slices of bread and started heating up the pork and beans left over from his own supper. “And what are they fixin to do about it?”

“They have selected six men to go and speak to Cooper tomorrow morning.” Ben nodded thanks as Cudlip put the plate in front of him, grabbed a piece of bread and enthusiastically dunked it into the beans. “I’m one of them.”

“You ain’t a miner.” Cudlip sat down opposite Ben, his lips twitching at the swift disappearance of the food.

“No. But I’m not bad at talking.” He grinned at Cudlip’s smirk. “And there’s a new draughtsman who’s pretty good too. He’s from Germany, his name’s Richter.”

“And if talkin gets you nothin, what then?”

Ben wiped the plate clean with the last piece of bread, stuck it into his mouth, swallowed and gave Cudlip a level look. “Then things will change.” He wiped his mouth, stood up and slid a hand into the open neck of Cudlip’s undershirt. “But it’s not tomorrow yet.” His fingers nestled into an armpit, a caress turning into a tickle, moved towards a nipple and lightly twitched it. “I remember you saying that I had to wait until tonight to have my evil way with you.”

Cudlip felt desire instantly hardening him, as swiftly and urgently as when he had been Ben’s age. Then he glanced up at Ben, saw a hastily-repressed yawn and shook his head. “Or the other way around.” He took a firm hold of Ben’s wrist, stood up and pushed Ben backwards towards the bed. “Now, just this once, are you goin to keep your mouth shut and let me work?”

Ben stretched out on the bed, spread-eagled, grinning. “Let you work, yes, of course. Keep my mouth shut, never.” He was already looking a little less wearied, especially in some places, Cudlip noticed with a chuckle as he started unbuckling Ben’s belt.

“And anyway. There are times when you don’t want me to shut my mouth, my friend.” Ben’s face was impassive, but his eyes were full of teasing laughter.

Cudlip lightly cuffed the side of Ben’s head. “That’s for sure.”

 

The six-men delegation had been in Cooper’s office for over an hour. Most of the two hundred-odd mineworkers were gathered outside it, filling the space between Cooper’s office, Davis’s cookhouse and the first row of the tents and shacks that housed their families. They were smoking, walking up and down, forming small groups that talked in three or four different languages. Cudlip was leaning against a wall, puffing on a cigar, half-listening to the men and turning rights and duties and fairness and obligations around and around in his mind.

“One cave-in after another,” a man with a bushy red beard said bitterly. “In a couple of months we had to pass the hat round a dozen times. Last month it was my cousin, and then Gaetano’s sons. The month before we lost Flaherty, and Evans lost a leg.”

“Majdanski’s brother-in-law is still in hospital. We passed the hat round, but God only knows how many other expenses there are going to be,” a burly middle-aged man said, with an accent that vaguely resembled Ben’s. “Cooper gave five dollars, and expected thanks. We asked him to build timber braces to prevent cave-ins. No, he said, too expensive.” He spat on the ground, and concluded with a word that reminded Cudlip of the illness scurvy.

“In Italy, I was healthy,” a tall, emaciated man said, his breathing fast and laboured. “I come here, and after two years, my lungs are rotten with gas and dust. For eighteen dollars a week, ten hours a day, six days a week. For this we came?”

“Augusto gives me all his wages.” This was the woman next to him, equally tall, but sturdy and belligerent. “We live in a tent, and every month we must pay rent for it. To who? The mining company. Food, milk, clothes, boots for Augusto, where can I buy? At the company store. And who owns the company store? The mining company.”

“It’s an awful situation we are in,” another woman said, looking straight at Cudlip. “And yourself, sheriff, looking on, and likely being on the side of the company.”

“I’m not on anyone’s side.” Cudlip detached himself from the wall and squared his shoulders. “I’m here to make sure no laws are broken.”

“To be sure,” the man with the bushy beard sneered. “And who is it that makes the laws, sheriff?”

Cudlip had been thinking about that for a while, and hadn’t found an answer. He had been in towns that had no lawmen, where the rules were being made by whoever owned the most land or cattle. He had been in towns where the rules were made by the lawmen: some lawmen were honest and some were on the payroll of those who had the real power. He needed Ben, who didn’t know about American law, but who knew about power and about morals. But all this could well end up with him and Ben facing off against each other, as they almost had after fighting Burton and his men; his blood went cold at the thought.

And then the door of Cooper’s office opened and they all filed out, faces grim, shoulders set: the five miners, Ben, Cooper’s foreman Parker, and finally Cooper. Everyone looked tense, dark.

Cooper spoke first, to Parker. “Right. Take down all the names. First these gentlemen here: McManus, Ferrero, Majdanski, Richter, Griffith, and our friend Mr Novak. And all the men standing around here. You haven’t gone to work, and therefore must have two hours deducted from next week’s pay.”

“That’s not fair, Mr Cooper.” The man called Richter had an accent, but his English was almost as good as Ben’s. He was middle-aged and short, but stood straight and confident, like someone who knew who he was and what he wanted. “Unless you are deducting two hours from your own salary, given that you took part in our meeting.”

“I decide what’s fair, Richter. And one more word out of you, and you’ll no longer have a job.”

“Wait a minute.” Ben took two steps forward. “This isn’t between the two of you. First of all, everyone here has the right to know what was said at the meeting. Who speaks Bohemian?”

Several men and women raised their hands. Ben spoke for a minute or so in their language, pointing at Cooper, then at Richter. When he finished, Majdanski spoke briefly in Polish; Ferrero did the same in Italian. The last one to speak was Griffith, and his words had an unusual lilt: “Nothing, we got. No wage rise, no ventilation, no bracing for the tunnels. Absolutely nothing.” He stopped, looked at his companions, and added: “We have no rights, Cooper said. The only choice we have is keep going on like this, or get out, he said.”

“No.” Richter’s voice was unwavering. “We have another choice. We stop working. If enough of us stay out of the pit, there won’t be any silver coming out.” He quickly repeated what he had said in German, and the others did the same in the other languages. “Shall we decide, now?”

A noisy chorus of assent. Cooper scowled at the crowd: “You know what you’re risking,” he growled. Cudlip, standing a little apart from the miners, narrowed his eyes. When they were fighting Burton, it had taken Betty’s death to make Cooper sacrifice that wagonload of silver. And now he was the opponent.

“We know,” Richter said. “It will be hard for us and our families. But our work is the only weapon we have. So. All the mineworkers in favour of stopping work until we get what we ask for, raise your right hands.”

Ben’s hand was the first to go up, followed by four or five others, then a few more, then a forest of raised hands.

“All those against, raise your right hands.” About fifteen hands went up, some slowly, some angrily.

“We down tools. Now. And when the morning shift comes up from the pit, we’ll count their votes as well.”

Cooper’s face was puce, his jowls wobbling. “Parker, take their names. Those who have voted to stop work, they’ve broken the law. Cudlip, arrest them.”

Sheriff Cudlip, you mean. And which law says that people can’t stop workin?”

“They made a contract with me.”

“Not a written contract like the one I had,” Ben pointed out, quietly and firmly. “All they had was a verbal contract, and the rules were set out by you. They had no say on the terms.”

“You keep quiet, Novak. And you, Cudlip, you’re breaking the law, because you’re siding with this mob.”

Sheriff Cudlip to you. And I ain’t sidin with anyone. My job is to keep the peace, and that’s what I’m doin.” Cudlip felt Ben’s eyes on him, and there was warmth in them, and pride. He turned towards the men, pierced by a sharp pang of regret as he remembered the first time he had addressed them, called them bastards, shamed them into stopping their protest, just because he had thought that Ben needed protection. Now he knew better. “All right. So far nobody is outside the law. Let’s keep things this way. Let’s all go home.”

 

A strike is like a siege, Cudlip reflected, stirring the beef and potatoes simmering on the stove in his office. If you’re on strike, you’ve got to hold on until you’re ready to rush out and fight to your last man, or until you’re ready to surrender. And if you’re the bosses, all you have to do is sit and wait for the strikers to starve to death. The miners had been out for nearly two weeks: nobody had yet been fired, but they had been two weeks without pay and without credit at the company store, using up the few dollars they had painstakingly set aside “for a rainy day”. Richter had heard about a miners’ association in West Virginia, and had written to them for help, but when it would come and how much it would be was anyone’s guess.

Cudlip scratched the top of his head. No laws forbade the miners to down tools, but no laws forbade the mining company to starve them into submission either. Which meant that if the laws weren’t written down, it was up to the representatives of the law to decide what the right thing to do was. And live with the consequences, he thought, giving the stew another stir.

A light knock, and the door opened before he could answer.

“Hello, Cud.” Ben flashed him a smile. “Didn’t know you could cook anything other than pork and beans.”

Cudlip ignored the taunt. “You have supper tonight?” Ben shook his head. “Eat with me. I was given a little of the new meat that has miraculously come to Silvertown.”

Ben was closely inspecting the Wanted posters on a wall, and said nothing.

“I’m talkin to you. About the big herd that’s restin by the river, with twenty drovers.”

“Yes, they’re there,” Ben said absently, looking at his fingernails.

“Yesterday you and Richter went for a ride,” Cudlip held up one finger, “and in the afternoon,” he held up a second finger, “two drovers turned up on my doorstep with five steers and forty dollars for the miners and their families.” He looked at the fingers, then at Ben. “I wonder if that’s a coincidence.”

Ben shook his head. “I didn’t know the drovers spoke with you.” He shrugged self-deprecatingly. “Richter and I didn’t want to involve you. You are, after all, the lawman.”

“Ain’t I just.” Cudlip gave the stew one last stir, dished it out onto two tin plates and brought them to the table. “I can’t take sides, Ben.”

“I know. But everyone who can, does. Mr Davis makes huge pots of soup and takes it to the miners’ shacks, because he knows that the women have being boiling weeds with the few potatoes they have left. And Dr Rosenthal visits the shacks daily and treats anyone who’s sick, free.”

Cudlip blew out a frustrated puff of air. “I know, Ben, do you think I’m blind or somethin? I wish I …” He stopped, took a deep breath. “Wait. Be quiet and let me think for a minute.”

Amazingly, Ben did just that, chewing in silence and not taking his eyes off Cudlip’s face.

“Before the war …” he stopped, saw Ben nod, was relieved at not having to explain, “some people I knew worked in what they called the underground railway. It was a scheme to help runaway slaves. That was illegal, just like the heists I was doing with Preacher, because slavery was legal. But that’s how Preacher and I met Sampson, he was a runaway.” His voice thickened; he cleared his throat. “What the underground railway folks did was illegal, but at the same time it was right.”

Ben reached across the table, closed his hand around Cudlip’s wrist, stroked the softer skin of the underside. “Yes.” A pause. “You know, there are other ways of looking at things beside legal and illegal. Like fair and unfair, maybe.”

“Right.” Cudlip grinned, covering Ben’s hand with his fingers. “I knew you would find the right words.”

Ben tickled the inside of Cudlip’s elbow. “And I’ve known you were a good man since the first time I set eyes on you. When you stole my horse and then let me ride back to Silvertown with you.”

“When I thought you were a little soft thing I had to look out for.” Cudlip laughed. “That didn’t last long.” He shook his head at his past naivety.

Ben put on a very credible appearance of childish artlessness. “I thought I was the one who looked out for you. After all …” he let go of Cudlip’s arm, collected knives, forks and empty plates and stood up, “without me, where would you …” He yelped, laughing, as Cudlip reached out and swatted his backside.

“Let’s continue this discussion somewhere else,” Cudlip said with a leer. “Like …” He was about to say your hotel room, when there was a quick, perfunctory rap of knuckles on the door, and Cooper came in.

“I knew I’d find you here, Novak,” he said, with a smile that did not reach his eyes. “Just as well, because I want to talk to both of you.”

Cudlip wordlessly pointed to the one unoccupied chair and lit a cigar while Cooper settled his bulk onto it. They looked at one another in silence. Then Cooper stuck a finger inside his collar, trying to loosen it, gave up and addressed Ben. “You people put me in a difficult situation. The mining manager in Carson City is breathing down my neck, and behind him there’s the Nevada Mining Association. You took us all on, and we can’t bend. So you will have to.” He turned to Cudlip. “And you, Sheriff, will have to make them. With any means at your disposal.”

Cudlip measured him with a long, hard look. “I ain’t makin no one do nothin,’ he said slowly, “because, like I said on the first day, these men ain’t breakin any laws. Only the contract with you, and we know it ain’t worth the paper it wasn’t written on.”

“We appointed you when you were a crook that looked like a beggar and couldn’t even sign his name,” Cooper sneered, “and now look at you, talking to me about laws and contracts. Remember, a real election is coming up soon.”

“Yeah,” Cudlip shot back, “I’m stayin on until then. Up to the people to decide if they want me or not.”

Ben nodded enthusiastically: “They do.”

Cooper slammed a meaty hand on the table. “All right. Now listen. I just put up a sign on my office door. The men will see it first thing in the morning.” He glared, lips pursed. “They have until 8 am the day after tomorrow to go back to work. Those who do will have jobs for as long as there is silver in the mountain. Those who don’t will be fired. This applies to everyone, miners, draughtsmen, engineers.” The last word was spat in Ben’s direction. Ben glared back silently.

“And if you fire most of your miners, Cooper,” Cudlip drawled, “who’s goin to dig the company’s silver out of the mountain? You may as well fire yourself.”

“There are ways,” Cooper snapped. He stood up and headed for the door. “Good night, Sheriff.”

“I know what he means,” Ben stared despondently at Cudlip, looked for the right English word, found two. “Strikebreakers. Scabs.”

 

They arrived at dawn three days later, two uncovered Conestoga wagons drawn by mules and filled to capacity with men whose faces looked different – white, black, Chinese - but whose clothes were similarly ragged, and whose expressions were similarly weary. The Silvertown miners stood in a circle around the wagons, and some were clutching stones, others axe handles, others shovels. Inside the circle, next to the wagons, stood Cudlip, his Winchester cradled in the crook of his left arm, flanked by Dr Rosenthal and a surprisingly sober Mr Davis. Richter and Ben stood outside the circle, unarmed, motionless.

“Welcome to Silvertown,” Cooper said drily as the first men began to climb cautiously out of the wagons, hefting their shovels and pickaxes. “This is the mine office. These shacks and tents is where you’re going to live as soon as we have evicted the families of the men who used to work here.”

A discordant chorus rose from the circle of miners – the words evict, families and bastard shouted out in several languages, as well as what now and the Virgin Mary help us.

“Mineworkers, listen to me.” Richter’s voice soared above the racket. He had found an empty box and had climbed on it, so that he looked taller and his voice carried further. “These men are not your enemies. They’re workers, like yourselves.”

“Workers who have come to take our jobs,” Griffith yelled, and other voices cried out a mix of scabs, stávkokazy, Streikbrecher, crumiri. Three or four men broke out of the circle and attempted to get to the new arrivals, some of whom were ready for them. Scuffles started breaking out, but Cudlip was swift and effective in kicking, punching and shoving men apart, while the doctor and the innkeeper did their best to keep them that way.

“Hold it, you fools,” bellowed Cudlip. “Let Richter and Novak speak,” shouted Dr Rosenthal. “They’re on your side,” added Davis. “I’ll shoot the kneecap off the next man who tries something,” was Cudlip’s conclusive warning.

Ben waited until the uproar had calmed down, then asked the newcomers, “How much did Cooper promise you?”

“Keep your mouth shut,” yelled Cooper, but it was too late. “Sixteen dollars a week,” said an Irish voice.

“Before they went on strike, these men here got eighteen, and it wasn’t nearly enough for them and their families,” Richter said, in English, then in German.

“You take the job, and Cooper will find men who will work for fifteen, or even fourteen,” Ben said, in English and in Bohemian. “It’s always possible to find someone more desperate than you are.”

The newcomers started glancing at one another, muttering softly in several languages.

“We are on strike because we want a fair deal,” Richter said quickly. “Fifty hours a week instead of sixty, so that nobody drops dead of exhaustion, and more men can be given work. And some compensation for accidents and deaths at work, and written contracts, that we have helped to write.”

The newcomers waited for the translations. Then, slowly, a few of them put down their shovels and pickaxes. Some more walked over to the circle of Silvertown miners and wordlessly joined it. Others, wearily, climbed back into the wagons: “Let’s turn around and go home.” Only about a dozen men gathered around Cooper, who angrily waved them away.

“You haven’t heard the last of this,” he growled as the wagons turned around and started back on the long, dusty road to the other side of the mountain.

“I’ll just bet we haven’t,” muttered Cudlip, slapping dust and dirt off his once elegant suit.

“Whatever he’s planning to do, we’re going to hold out,” said Ben, a determined line between his eyebrows. “As long as we can and as hard as we can.”

 

As long as we can, Ben had said. Another week had gone, and people were beginning to talk about giving up. The company store had stopped selling to strikers, and Carson City was a day’s ride away. The miners from West Virginia had managed to send a couple of hundred dollars, but that hadn’t gone very far with nearly two hundred hungry families. The minister had donated the money he’d put aside for a new bell, and it had gone after one day. Griffith, who was in charge of the strike fund, had gone to see Cudlip and threatened to blow his own brains out; Cudlip, threatening to do just that himself if Griffith breathed one word, had given him his own small nest-egg, the hundred or so dollars that he had found in Preacher’s pouch before giving the body to the undertaker.

The sky was changing from grey to pink when Cudlip got up, washed, shaved, made coffee, and realised that he was down to his last three cigars. His own pay was nearly a month late as well. He broke the first cigar into two halves, hoping that a smoke in the morning and another in the evening would be enough. He got dressed, grabbed his watch and frowned at it, blowing an impatient puff of smoke towards the door; it was almost seven, and Ben had said he and Richter would ride through the night and be back from Carson City at six.

When Ben turned up, at half past seven, Cudlip scowled at him. “Thought the Minin Association people killed the two of you and served you up for supper,” he grumbled, hiding the relief and pleasure that coursed through him at the sight of his friend, weary and dispirited-looking as he was.

“There are some decent men at the Association, but their hands are tied,” Ben sighed. “They may reverse the sackings when the strike’s over, but as long as it goes on the best they can do is ignore it. Instead of sending for the Pinkertons or the army.” He muttered something in his language under his breath, something that could have been a prayer or a curse or both. “Anyway, I’m sorry I’m …” His hand moved to his watch pocket, then swiftly moved through the air in a wide, distracting gesture.

Cudlip wasn’t distracted. “You sold your watch,” he said abruptly, remembering the heavy silver timepiece Ben always wore and cherished. He looked Ben over from head to foot. “And your ring.”

“Richter and I had the same idea at the same time. We had a few savings, we thought we could add our watches. The best investment, so to speak. We talked to Rosenthal, he needed his watch, but gave us two rings and his mother’s necklace. We got good prices in Carson City. We’ve shared it all out, and it means that each man has enough for two, maybe three more days.” He grinned and winked at Cudlip. “If I need to know the time, I can always ask you.”

Cudlip shook his head and rolled his eyes. “Come here,” he ordered, and held Ben close for a long moment, kissing his cheeks, mouth and neck, enjoying the slight rasp of unshaven cheeks and chin, and brushing his mustache over all Ben’s ticklish spots, behind the ears, under the chin, in the hollow of his throat. He drew back with an effort, found his hat, slapped it on his head and pulled his Winchester off the wall rack. “Right. I’ll be back tonight. You and Richter, stay out of trouble and keep everyone else out of trouble as well.”

“Where are you …?”

“See you tonight,” he said shortly, striding towards the livery stable. Julius Caesar was intelligent as well as beautiful, they were going to work well together. He hoped.

 

He came back just before sunset, filthy, exhausted and triumphant, a big mule deer buck tied to a makeshift litter secured to Julius Caesar’s saddle. The miners loitering in the main road gathered round, slapping his back in a burst of mostly incomprehensible exclamations and congratulations.

“Food for the families! It’s a lot, for now. I’ll start butcherin it.” Davis’ speech was only slightly slurred. “We’ll give you a hand,” said Ferrero, an arm around his wife. “When we were in Italy, in the mountains, my brothers and I sometimes … found deer as well. And our women helped us.”

Ben kept to the margins of the group, watching and saying nothing, but he was at Cudlip’s side as they walked Julius Caesar to the stable. Neither spoke until Cudlip had watered the horse, unsaddled it and hefted the saddle to a rack. Then Cudlip turned to Ben and put both hands on his shoulders, holding him at arm’s length.

“All right. What’s wrong?”

Ben coloured slightly. “I must apologise to you.” A pause. “And you may punch me in the nose or give me a black eye, if you want to.”

Cudlip laughed out loud. “Oh, I want to all the time, but what for?”

“Because of what I thought when you rode off with your gun.”

Cudlip frowned, then slowly nodded a couple of times. “You thought I’d gone off to hold up a stage, or to help myself to someone else’s payroll. Trustin soul, ain’t you.” He released Ben, reached for the currycomb, turned to face Julius Caesar and began to clean his body in slow, circular motions.

“You are right to be mad,” Ben murmured.

Cudlip spoke mildly, without turning. “I’m not. No point.” He paused, shrugged. “I’ve been a crook and a thief, on and off, for the past thirty years. A few months ain’t enough to change a man’s reputation.”

“No! I was wrong. Wrong to assume, wrong to suspect, wrong not to trust you enough to ask,” Ben said forcefully. Neither man said anything for a few minutes, while Cudlip sponged his horse down and gave him a carrot and some hay. Then Cudlip turned around, smiled and combed his fingers through Ben’s hair, exactly as he had done with Julius Caesar’s mane.

“Stop worryin. I’m plumb wore out, I’m goin to bed. Comin?”

“Does that mean that I am forgiven?”

Cudlip shook his head, eyes crinkling up at the corners. “Idiot.” He saw Ben’s expression change from worry to relief, and then again to worry. “What now?”

“All right, we’re doing all we can to hold out. What if it’s not enough?” Ben paused for a moment, then went on, slowly, his accent becoming stronger as he concentrated. “Let’s hypothesize. The miners are starved into going back, Cooper wins. He has enough influence to back one of his friends against you at the election. You lose. What happens?”

Cudlip suppressed a yawn. “What happens is, I go someplace else. I’ve ridden shotgun on stages, I’ve cut timber, I’ve been a bouncer in saloons. I’ll find somethin I can do, somethin honest so’s I can look at myself in the mirror in the mornin.” He stopped, a cold block beginning to form in his stomach. “What about you? The miners lose, Cooper wins. You get fired. What happens?”

Ben reflected for a moment, then grinned. “I follow you. Like a puppy.” He ignored Cudlip’s loud snort and started speaking fast and passionately, as ideas arose and took shape. “If there’s another mine wherever you go, I find work there, use what I have learned here to plan safer methods of blasting, safer methods of tunnel maintenance. If there isn’t a mine … I may find work in a gun shop, and then patent my invention, a rifle with a telescope connected to the sights.” He leaned closer, close enough for Cudlip to feel the warmth of his body. “Let’s hypothesize some more.”

There was only one way of shutting him up. Cudlip wrapped his arms around Ben, pulled him close and kissed him hard, thrusting into his mouth with his tongue, sliding one hand down to grab his ass and squeeze it. Ben moaned and laughed at the same time, his hands running along the muscles of Cudlip’s back, his tongue doing imaginative things to Cudlip’s mustache, lips and chin.

“What did you say you were? Plumb wore out?” Ben savoured the words while sucking at Cudlip’s neck and grazing it with his teeth, one hand sliding between their bodies to palm Cudlip's erection and caress it slowly.

“Well,” Cudlip gasped, “I seem to have found some energy all of a sudden.” He pulled away and stuck a hand in his pocket, quickly adding up the few coins he had left. “Come on. Between us, we can scrounge up enough to pay for your hotel room for a couple more nights.”

 

Cudlip jerked awake at the clattering of hooves up the street. He blinked: there was at least one hour before sunrise. Next to him, Ben was fast asleep, hair sticking out every which way, eyebrows knitting a little, some plan or other probably taking shape in his mind even as he slept. He got out of bed carefully, so as not to disturb Ben, put on his underwear and glanced out of the window.

For a moment he froze, then he scowled. In the darkness beginning to turn grey, a dozen men were dismounting in front of the hotel; all carried both rifles and sidearms and looked as if they knew how to use them. The one who seemed to be the leader was black, tall and broad-shouldered, with a Colt .44 tied to his thigh for a fast draw. Next to him was another man who looked like a professional, white, middle-aged, flaxen-haired, with a pink face and a Henry repeater. The others were a mixed bunch. One looked Mexican, and Cudlip remembered seeing his face on a Wanted poster; one was tall, lanky and very young, constantly chewing at his fingernails; three or four moved in a way that made Cudlip think that they had been in the army; and one, a little apart from the others, had ice-cold eyes, a double-holster gunbelt and a sneering laugh.

He went back to the bed and shook Ben’s shoulder. “Ben. Time to wake up. We got company.” He couldn’t help briefly running a hand down the younger man’s naked body; both exchanged a quick rueful grimace, and then Ben bounded out of bed and started throwing on his clothes.

“So that’s Cooper’s new idea,” he spat out as he looked out of the window. “Hired guns.” He thought for a moment. “There’s a reward on the Mexican’s head, I saw it on your posters. His name is Jimenez something.”

“Daniel Jimenez,” Cudlip said. “The leader’s called Horace Boyle, he’s got a reputation all over the West.”

They watched the newcomers crowd into the entrance of the hotel, and looked at each other.

Cudlip stuck his hands into his belt. “We paid our bill last night. Let’s go out the back. Can you get a buckboard or a wagon without them spottin you?”

Ben nodded: “I’ll do my best.”

“Good. Meet me in the alley behind my office.”

Walking swiftly and inconspicuously through the back alleys, Cudlip managed to get into his office and pull all the blinds down. Then, moving with the silent speed he had learned through decades when being slow or noisy meant death or hard labour, he unlocked a cupboard filled with the gunbelts, sidearms and rifles that had belonged to Burton and his men. There were old Sharps rifles, Winchesters, a variety of sidearms, and a heavy eight-gauge shotgun. There was also a case of dynamite sticks which somehow hadn’t found its way back to the mines after the confrontation with Burton’s gang.

He heard wheels turning, and opened the back door. Ben had hired, borrowed or stolen a buckboard pulled by two sturdy mules. Cudlip clapped him on the arm, warm waves of pride running through his body: “Quick, give me a hand here.”

Gritting their teeth with the effort of working as noiselessly as possible, they got all the weapons into the back of the buckboard and covered them with a tarpaulin. Cudlip climbed onto the seat, took the reins and released the brake. “Let’s go.”

Ben glanced back towards the bottom of the buckboard. “I had hoped that nobody would ever need them again,” he sighed.

Cudlip looked gloomily ahead, to the first streaks of red breaking the pale greyness of the sky. “So had I. But I kept them just in case.”

When they got to the mine, the news had preceded them. People were milling around, frightened, angry, uncertain. Cudlip pulled the brake, wrapped the reins around it and stood on the seat: “There’s a dozen of them,” he said abruptly. “They’ll be comin here before tomorrow.” He paused, surveyed the crowd. “How many of you can shoot and hit what you’re shootin at?” Thirty or so hands slowly went up. “Good. Look here in the back and choose somethin you think you can use. But don’t do anythin with it until the time comes.”

Majdanski went straight for a Winchester 73: “In the old country, my brothers and I went hunting so that our families could eat.” Tall, hefty Griffith stood around for a while and then lifted the eight-gauge shotgun: “Bloody useless at shooting, I am, but the pellets are bound to hit something, isn’t it.” Cudlip gave him a long look before handing him a box of pellets: “All right, but you’d better be somewhere behind them and not somewhere behind us.”

Richter stood a little away from the weapons. “I never learned,” he said hesitantly. “Never wanted to. Fists, yes, if I had to. But I never wanted to kill another human being.” Ben, holding his modified rifle, nodded, with respect rather than in agreement. “Find the doctor,” he suggested. “He’ll probably need a hand when things start.”

Cudlip spoke again. “We need half a dozen volunteers, to look out for the women and children.” Two grey-haired miners raised their hands, followed by three or four younger men. “Find anyone who needs protection, gather them all together in a safe place, and keep that place covered on all sides.”

“Yes,” one of the older men said forcefully. “We haven’t forgotten what happened when Burton and his men got to the church.”

The men left to round up their charges, and Cudlip posted another four behind rocks along the road that led to the camp: “Don’t shoot as they’re comin in. Shoot as they’re tryin to get out.” The men had pushed several wagons in a row across the road, and the miners who could shoot were standing behind them, handguns and rifles at the ready.

Griffith and his shotgun were on top of the shaft tower. Cudlip waved up at him and called out, “Wait until they’re in front of you.”

“Will do, sheriff bach.”

Ben was looking at the box of dynamite sticks and cursing softly: “Not enough time to rig a fuse and a timer like we did last time.” Cudlip slapped him on the back: “Find three men with strong arms. Majdanski and I’ll be behind the first wagon.”

Ben blinked, then nodded and ran off, to come back with three sturdy-looking Irishmen. Cudlip gave each of them about a third of the sticks and a quick order: “Pick one of us three and stand beside him. You throw, your man shoots. Good luck.”

Then they waited. Cudlip’s stomach was tight, his chest constricting as if he was fighting for air. He slowly breathed in and out a few times: there hadn’t been many shootouts in his life, but he had learned how to control his fear right from the start. He glanced at Ben: he was pale and his tongue was darting to lick his lips, but his eyes were calm and his hands were steady on the stock of his rifle.

The dozen horses rode in slowly, past the rocks, past the shaft tower. Boyle glanced up with an almost imperceptible nod and whispered a couple of words to the man with the Henry repeater. They kept riding until they reached Davis’ cookhouse; there they stopped, without dismounting, and just looked at the row of wagons with men standing behind them. Cudlip focused on Boyle, looking not at his eyes or at his hands but at the whole of him, intensely aware of even his smallest movements.

Boyle broke the silence: his voice was cold and soft, the voice of a man who knows he doesn’t have to shout to be obeyed. “We’ll take you back to your camp. You will pack up your possessions and get out.”

“Or else?” a voice yelled back.

“Or else we’ll kill you.”

“By the time we die, you’ll be dead too. And so will most of your men.” Cudlip’s voice was as cold and soft as Boyle’s; not a shout, not a threat, simply a statement.

Another man’s voice rose. “I know you, Morrison,” it called out to the man with the double holster. “You was there when we downed tools at Gold Run Creek in Colorado. You gunned down Luke and Matt Finnegan.”

Morrison’s eyes skimmed over the wagons and located the man who had spoken; he laughed shortly, filled both his hands and fired. The man who had identified him shuddered and pitched over sideways, and so did the man standing next to him. And then everyone started shooting at the same time.

Boyle had jumped off his horse and was standing behind a half-open door, exposing as little of his body as possible while working the lever on his Winchester, pumping it and firing at the same time; three of the miners closest to him fell, one shot in the chest, two in the head. His flaxen-haired companion was quietly climbing up the scaffolding of the shaft tower; one of the Welsh miners spotted him, yelled “Griff!”, and Griffith looked down and cut loose with his eight-gauge, and the man fell in an untidy heap and did not move again. Almost knocked down by the recoil, Griffith staggered backwards, but managed not to fall; he straightened up, broke the shotgun, inserted fresh shells and pointed the weapon in the direction of two hired guns that were trying to climb over the row of wagons. Both men screamed and fell backwards, writhing on the ground.

Cudlip turned imperceptibly to the Irishman beside him: “Now.” The man lifted his arm, the stick of dynamite rose in a high arc and started falling: Cudlip took careful aim, waited until the stick was directly above the group of hired guns, and fired. Ben and Majdanski imitated him, and the three almost simultaneous explosions filled the air with smoke, screams and the smells of gunpowder and blood. “Again,” ordered Cudlip, and three more sticks rose into the air and exploded, and when the dust began to disperse there were nine corpses on the ground, and six of them were hired guns.

Oh Madonna mia, aiuto, aiuto, aiuto.” A young Italian miner was screaming for help between the cookhouse and the shaft tower, blood gushing from a gut wound. Cudlip was about to sprint from behind the wagon to drag him to safety, when he saw two men racing out of the cookhouse towards him, Dr Rosenthal ahead, Richter at his heels. Richter half-stumbled as he ran, and glimpsed the Mexican hired gun behind them, aiming a pistol at the doctor’s back; with a desperate lunge, he shoved Rosenthal sideways, and shuddered violently as the Mexican’s bullet found his body. The Mexican pitched forward and fell, with two of Cudlip’s bullets inside him.

Cudlip joined Rosenthal, who stared at him in despair, shaking his head. The young Italian had breathed his last, the Mexican was dead, and Richter was going fast. He looked up at them, eyes filling with tears, mouth twisting.

“I have … failed … in my task,” he whispered, coughing blood between words.

Rosenthal bent over him and laid a gentle hand on his forehead. “No. You led the strike. Your comrades have learned from you. And my people say …” he managed to hold back a sob, “that whoever saves one life saves the entire world. You have not ...” Tears streaming down his cheeks, he closed Richter’s eyes.

Cudlip swallowed hard, and tried to lift Richter’s body into his arms, when something slammed into his left side, and his legs gave under him. He went down, his eyes clouding, and all he could see was Boyle staggering and falling, and Ben throwing his rifle aside and bending over him, white-faced and shaking, and then everything went cold and dark.

 

Cudlip blinked as the fog lifted and Dr Rosenthal’s face became a face instead of a blurred blot. “How soon will I be able to get up?”

“Not today for sure.” The doctor spoke slowly, like a parent with a fractious child. “Mr Novak is going to Carson City on your behalf.”

“Not on his own, damn it. He can’t … He needs …”

“Enough, Cud.” This was Ben, coming into focus, glasses on his nose and a stubborn expression on his face. “I’m getting really tired of telling you that I can take care of myself. And, since Mr Cooper’s hands are tied, I can easily take care of him too.”

“Not on your own you won’t.” Cudlip sat up in bed, ignoring the searing pain in his side and the dark looks Ben and the doctor were giving him. “Get Owen Griffith here. And his eight-gauge. If you don’t, I will.”

“Right here, I am,” said a patient, deep Welsh voice. “As the head of the miners’ union and as your friend.”

“Good,” snapped Cudlip, saving the information about the “miners’union” for future reference. “Benjamin Novak and Owen Griffith, raise your right hands and repeat after me: I swear to perform the duties and obligations of a deputy sheriff, namely … “ he had memorised the oath only this far, the rest would have to be made up on the spot, “namely to keep an eye on the prisoner at all times and report his hiring of professional gun hands to the judge and the Nevada Mining Association. Say I do.” He waited until they did, forcing himself not to grimace at assorted stabs of pain, and added: “There are deputies’ stars in a drawer in my office. You can take Julius Caesar along if you need him.”

“No, we’ll take the stage. Cooper’s already in it, the miners are watching him. It’ll be packed, with Cooper’s size, and Griffith’s size, and the eight-gauge. And you,” Ben sounded genuinely threatening, “behave while we’re away, do as the doctor tells you, and don’t get up and about. Or else.” He rested a hand on Cudlip’s right shoulder, fingers pressing lightly, a caress as well as a warning. “See you soon, Cud.”

After the door closed behind Ben and Griffith, Cudlip and Rosenthal exchanged a long look.

“All right. Give it to me straight. How long before I can get up?”

The doctor sighed. “A few days. You’ve got two cracked ribs and a deep flesh wound that may or may not have injured your hip and thigh muscles. And you’ve lost blood.” A long pause. “Fifteen men dead, eight gunfighters and seven miners. And now it’s up to Ben and Griffith to negotiate something with the Nevada Mining Association.” Another long pause. “Could some of this have been avoided?”

Cudlip ran a hand over the thinning hair on the top of his head. “Could we have avoided all the deaths of a few months ago? Could we … I … have made laws that dealt with outsiders comin in to stir up trouble?” He stopped, reflected. “But that would have meant too many laws. And it would have meant Richter as well.”

Rosenthal sat down, rubbed his chin. “My people believe that each man has the duty to act. Some of us believe that if a law is wicked, a man doesn’t have to obey it, and has the duty to act so that it is changed. But ultimately …” He paused and smiled at Cudlip. “Ultimately, there are other things that matter beside the law. Solidarity. Friendship. Asking questions. Taking responsibility. In the past weeks, each of us has had a chance to find out what things matter most.”

“You’re a great help,” Cudlip grumbled, but his eyes expressed the gratitude he felt.

* * * ** * * * *

Five days later, Ben and Griffith were back, without Cooper. They called a miners’ meeting the minute they stepped off the stage. Cudlip attended it as well, sitting on the porch of Davis’ cookhouse, happily puffing on one of the cigars Ben had brought him from Carson City.

“We sat and negotiated until our tongues dried up,” Ben declared. “And the result is, first of all, the miners’ union is officially recognised.” He waited until the questions in various languages had abated, and went on: “Decisions about wages and conditions will be taken by a committee, and at least one member will be a representative of the union. Like Griffith here.” Griffith grinned, a little bashfully. “And if we can set up some system of contributions, so that we don’t have to pass a hat round every time someone is injured or dies, then the managers will have to participate in it, not only the workers.”

“Where’s Cooper?” some voices asked.

“In jail, awaiting trial for hiring gun hands to solve an industrial dispute.” He made a quick gesture to stop the spontaneous enthusiastic applause. “The Mining Association is sending up a new manager, his name’s O’Rourke, he’s a former miner who believes in negotiating. He’s arriving tomorrow, on the morning stage. We’ll have a vote on the strike after hearing what he has to say.”

“It’s good news you’re bringing, but what about yourself?”

“I’ll stay here in Silvertown. I hope that you agree that the mine still needs an engineer.” Grins and a scattering of applause, and the crowd began to disperse. Ben started heading towards his office, but Cudlip’s voice stopped him.

“Hey. Come over here a moment, would you?”

Ben went up the steps to the porch and sat on the railing opposite Cudlip, his feet dangling. Cudlip looked him over. “All well and good, but what is it that you ain’t said?”

Ben blinked and put on his most guileless expression. “I do not know what you are talking about,” he said, his accent suddenly a little stronger.

“Don’t play the innocent foreigner with me. What else happened in Carson City?”

Ben hesitated, then came clean. “The Mining Association offered the manager’s job to me. I refused.”

“What the hell for? You don’t think you’d be good enough?”

“I would be good enough,” Ben said calmly, a plain statement of fact. “But a manager, however open-minded, is always a representative of the bosses. My choice is to be on the other side. And also …” he paused and looked straight at Cudlip, with the determined expression that always sent a shiver of desire down Cudlip’s spine, “it would be easier for me to leave if the Silvertown people lost their minds and elected another sheriff.”

“I thought Silvertown had become your home,” Cudlip said slowly.

Ben shrugged, got off the railing and sketched Cudlip something like a military salute. “I need to go back to the office and write a report for the new manager. See you later.” As he went down the steps towards his horse, he turned around and flashed Cudlip a brief smile. “My home is … anywhere I choose.”

“You’re a damn fool, Ben Novak,” Cudlip said, more to himself than to anyone else, his eyes full of warmth as they followed Ben along the road until he was out of sight.