Steve looked at McKay, with his goddamn sad dark eyes, then at Miss Maragon on her horse and the Hennessey clan working down to the canyon floor, and fell to his knees beside the Major's body.
The Major's body. Jesus. How could he have let this happen? He should have stopped the Major from riding into this death trap, should have talked faster or smarter or said something high-minded like McKay was always spouting. He should have pinned him down and hog tied him and dealt with the consequences later. Steve could have handled the Major hating him, but dead? What was he going to do now, with the closest thing he'd ever had to a father bled out in the dirt in front of him, shot when Steve had been not fifty yards away?
"What'll I tell Pat?" he asked, not meaning the question for anyone in particular.
"I'll tell her," McKay answered, and his voice was so goddamn gentle Steve wanted to get up and punch him in the face, as unsatisfying as that'd been the first time. He would have too, except that his side hurt like a son of a bitch, and he realised that between being sick and dizzy, he didn't have the legs to stand.
"Major," he said again. He'd meant to die here with him, and maybe he would now. That seemed right. He'd always promised he would. Instead of putting up another fight, he pitched forward, falling across the bodies of Rufus Hennessey and Henry Terrill.
"Who're your people, boy?" That was the first thing anyone asked a saddle tramp like Stevie Leech, and it was the only thing he wouldn't lie about.
"They dead, mister," Stevie answered, this time like every time, "I put them in the ground up in Missouri." That had been two years and three states ago.
The rancher looked him up and down. Stevie knew how this went. At best, the rancher's wife would take pity on him and feed him up and let him sleep in the barn in exchange for pulling weeds or hoeing her garden. At worst he'd be shown to the gate and told to be out of sight by sundown. There might be a shortage of men, with the war two years gone, but a boy dressed in rags who looked like he must have stolen the horse he was riding wasn't a safe bet. Fewer men to work also meant fewer men to defend a place, too.
Indeed, the rancher—a wiry blond man with his shooting arm in a sling—said, "That's a good horse, boy. Where'd you get it?"
Stevie hesitated. Get balled out for stealing, or get balled out for lying? He'd tried the lying the last place, and it hadn't got him tossed out without a scrap. "I took it, mister. I was crossing through Louisiana and there was a man dead, a blue coat, and his horse was just there, all alone." It'd been a grey coat, but he wasn't putting that much truth into the situation.
"Is that so?"
"Yes, sir." Stevie looked up past the rancher to the porch of the great house. There was a girl in knee skirts hugging the doorjamb, features obscured by the cascade of lamplight that haloed her blonde hair. He looked down at the dirt before the rancher could catch him staring.
The rancher sighed. "I don't hold with liars, boy, no more than I hold with thieves." Before Stevie's stomach could sink all the way to his boots, he added, "but there's something to the look of you, something like myself as a youngster, and I believe in judging a man by what he does."
"Everyone around these parts calls me 'Major,'" the rancher corrected. "I was in General Sibley's Brigade until the damn Yankees got my arm."
"Yes, Major," Stevie said. He didn't know exactly who General Sibley was, but he thought that a lot of men had died up north west because of him. "I'm a hard worker," he said. "I'll do anything you like around the place. I can rope and ride. I can clean stables, look after stock, help shoe horses. I've worked a lot of places, Major." None of them for very long, granted.
The Major's expression hardened, his bright blue eyes narrowing. "Steve," he said, "I don't ever want to hear you talk like that again. Only men work on Ladder, and men don't beg."
Steve straightened, drawing his shoulders back. "Yes, Major," he said.
Steve's side hurt, it hurt worse than when he'd been thrown, dragged half a mile and run over by a steer. His whole body throbbed with each heartbeat, and his heart was racing.
He groaned and tried to rub his hand over his face, but his arms felt too heavy to move. When he tried to open his eyes, he had to fight past the sleep sticking them shut, and even then all he took in were some blurry rafters he was pretty sure he didn't recognise. The flicker of the lamplight cast an uncertainty on the place, as though he were looking at it through running water.
"Easy." The voice was soft and deep, and Steve didn't like it. Trying to sit up just let him flop like a catfish one breath from dying. "Easy now," the voice said again, and a cool cloth pressed against his forehead, then his eyes.
Steve croaked, then licked his lips and managed to rasp out, "Where?"
"You're at Big Muddy. You were shot up pretty bad, and it was closer than Ladder."
Shot up. The Major was dead. Steve turned his face away. He would not weep, not in front of the man he realised must be McKay. He wouldn't let him see how deeply this cut him.
McKay pulled the cloth away, but only to cool it with fresh water and rest it over Steve's eyes again. "Easy."
Steve ignored him. He could feel the infection raging though his blood. If he was lucky, he'd rest easy one more time, and then not again.
Steve'd never thought he'd make it to sixteen, and it sure didn't look like he was going to get any older. The blue coat sergeant had him pinned while the lieutenant held a pistol to his left eyeball. Steve's ribs were screaming under the well-fed sergeant's weight, and he was pretty sure he cracked a couple four punches ago. He didn't care. The lieutenant and his little platoon had no business in San Rafael, no matter who had surrendered at Appomattox or lost a fight at Palmito Ranch, and even if they did, they shouldn't have called a the Major a "filthy Reb." The lieutenant'd had that broke nose coming.
Now the blood was streaming down the lieutenant's lean face, choking his whiskers and dripping off his chin into the dirt. "Now, normally I let children be," he was saying. His gun hand trembled in anger, making the muzzle shake and bump into Steve's eyebrow. "But if you're old enough to throw a punch like that, you're old enough to get licked like a man."
Steve took some perverse satisfaction in that. He knew he could take whatever these Yankees could dish out, and if it was a bullet, the Major would hear how he died defending his honour. He tried to spit at the lieutenant, but it just hit the blue wool of the sergeant's sleeve. From the look in the sergeant's eye, Steve hadn't made his whipping any easier.
The lieutenant made a disgusted noise. "Bind the boy to that rail, and—" he started.
That was when the Major rode into town in a swirl of dust and thunder, fifteen hands behind him, demanding to know what in tarnation was going on.
The sergeant stood abruptly, replacing his hold on Steve with a booted foot to the chest. The lieutenant changed his aim, and Steve heard a forest of rifles cocking on either side of him. "This boy yours?" the lieutenant demanded, his voice steadying, though Steve could see his hand was still shaking, in anger or fear he didn't know.
"He is," the Major said shortly. Even though Steve knew he had a licking coming one way or another, his chest warmed at the words. "I sent him into Rafael for the mail, not to redeclare secession. We're peaceful folk out here, save when we need be otherwise."
That made the lieutenant laugh, and he lowered his aim. "Stand down," he said. "Let the boy up, Serge. Name's Lieutenant O'Brady."
"Major Henry Terrill," the Major replied, mildly, and the sergeant grunted at the inclusion of rank, but the lieutenant didn't falter, just cast a sideways look at his subordinate until he moved his boot and let Steve scramble to his feet and cross over to the Ladder side of the stand off. The Major frowned down at him, but he still reached down and ruffled his hand through Steve's hair. "What brings you out west, Lieutenant?"
"We're looking for slaves," O'Brady said. "We're here to tell them they're free now."
Steve leaned against the Major's horse and didn't pay much mind to the rest of the negotiation. His ears were ringing a little from the sergeant's blows, and his ribs stabbed through his chest with every breath. It seemed to take an age for them all to agree that the lieutenant would ride out to Ladder, then down through Big Muddy, and inform the half dozen house slaves of the something complicated about the Constitution. They all knew already, in any case, had for weeks, since the first word had come from Las Lomas in June.
"Don't bother with Blanco Canyon," the Major was saying as the Yankee platoon mounted up, and he explained the many deficiencies of the Hennesseys all the way back to Ladder: a Hennessey was too dirty to know what race he took to bed, too poor to own anything he didn't steal, too stupid to keep a slave from out thinking him and running, even if he managed to steal one, and, in any case, what house would the slave clean? "He lives in the dirt and has children to do the slaving," the Major concluded, and the lieutenant nodded along.
"I know the type," O'Brady said, loud enough even for Steve to hear it, even way back eating dust at the end of the line.
Later, when they were clear of the Yankees—who'd left the major cursing because Cook and her son Elisha had decided to go with them back to Las Lomas where their people were—the Major cut Steve out of the crewhouse for a chat in his study.
Steve had always felt out of place in the big house, and more so when asked to sit on any of the fine leather chairs, especially today when he was still half-covered in blood and dirt, and it still hurt to breathe. All he'd seen of Pat that afternoon had been the edge of a skirt around a corner, retreating from the Yankees.
"How bad you hurt, boy?" the Major asked, and Steve shook his head.
"I'm fine, Major. Just knocked the wind out of me. Was about to go another round when you came up."
The Major nodded and smiled in a way that let Steve know that he knew it was worse than that, but that he admired Steve's self control. He poured himself two fingers of whiskey and then did the same for Steve. "I appreciate what you tried to do in San Rafael," he said, holding out the glass. "These damn Yankees are a plague on our country, and there's not many brave enough to stand up to them."
Steve let the whisky burn down his throat. He wanted to say that he didn't care about the Yankees or the war, but that he wouldn't stand any man speaking ill of the Major, but he knew that he was meant to keep his peace, and speak up at the end, if at all.
"I liked you from the moment I laid eyes on you, Steve, and don't think I don't know your loyalty, and that touches me. Loyalty is what separates a good man from trash like Rufus Hennessey." The major turned to the window, looking out past the balcony at the spread of Ladder before him, open county all the way to the high range. "Sometimes, Steve, you need to learn when is the right time to fight, and when's the right time to wait it out. I've got big plans for this county, and I don't need the sheriff looking for trouble out west, nor General Sheridan, neither. Best he stick to those rabble rousers down by the border. Understand?"
"Yes, sir," Steve said, though he didn't really.
The Major crossed back to stand behind Steve and rest a hand on his shoulder. "Now if you'd got that Lieutenant O'Brady to fight you man to man, that'd have been another thing. A man knows how to defend his honour, but he knows how to do things right, you see?"
"Yes, sir," Steve said again, and he did see now. It was a complicated business, being a man.
Steve only felt pain, his pulse hammered through his skull like a steam drill, and he thought his side might be on fire. Bootsteps on the floorboards echoed though his head, and then the thud of metal on wood, and the creak of the chair, a sigh.
Steve cracked his eyes open and looked sideways at McKay, who was wringing out a sheet.
"This'll bring that fever down," he said, laying it across Steve's chest—well water like packed snow against his bare skin—and wrapping the ends around Steve's neck. McKay's fingers lingered on his pulsepoint, and Steve had to close his eyes again. It stopped him staring at the way McKay's dark hair was mussed and falling over his forehead, and how full his lips were when he wasn't frowning. McKay was wearing the same filthy white shirt Steve last remembered him in, now with blood on the collar and the sleeves rolled up.
"How long?" he rasped. He tried to swallow, but his throat was too dry.
McKay held a tin cup of cold tea up to Steve's lips instead of answering, but Steve couldn't even lift his head enough to sip it, and had to let McKay slide his forearm under his neck and tip his body and the cup at the same time. He'd have complained, except for the relief of the tea on his lips and cooling his tongue.
Swallowing made everything hurt again, the centres of pain spreading out until they overlapped like ripples from a handful of gravel thrown in a trough, and Steve twisted his head away from the cup and bit his lip to keep from groaning. Tears stood in his eyes, but he wouldn't blink them away. McKay settled his head back on the pillow and drew back.
"It's the day after you passed out in Blanco," McKay said. "Miss Maragon and Ramón went on to Ladder, but Ramón said he'd come back when he could."
They'd have told Pat, and Pat would hate Steve for letting her father die—not that she didn't already for that kiss. She'd never have him back as her foreman. Though he knew he deserved both her hatred and her dismissal, Steve felt despair well up past the pain at the thought of leaving Ladder, and that choked him up so hard he couldn't breathe. He couldn't look at McKay, especially knowing he'd be more likely to find pity than disgust in those soft brown eyes, so he stared at the ceiling when he said, "You should have left me there."
McKay laughed. "I tried, on account of Blanco being nearer, but Old Ma Hennessey wouldn't have you."
He'd been deliberately misunderstood, Steve knew, and that was a kindness too. He'd be pretty well pleased right now to damn McKay and his kindness straight to hell, but he didn't have the breath for it.
"Now listen," McKay said, putting his hand flat on Steve's chest to hold his attention. "I wish I didn't have do to this, but I figure you're a little stronger for now. I'm going to pull that bullet out of you; it's none too deep, but its starting to fester. I'd wait for the doctor, but I hear that'd be a few days from Las Lomas, and I doubt you'll keep."
Steve nodded as slightly as he could. He knew how this went, though McKay should have a few men to hold him down while he cut, but he supposed giving the patient a slug of whiskey and then sitting on him while he did the work did the job. Steve blacked out almost immediately, sure that this was the end.
Instead of dying, Steve dreamed. It was the kind of dream that he knew wasn't real even as it was happening, while at the same time its vivid immediacy swept him up. He at once understood he was asleep far away, and knew that he could not change what was happening, and would not wake until he did.
He was in his cabin at Ladder, and he knew it was the night before because McKay was standing in the doorway. Steve sat up in bed and lit the lamp, like he had before, and McKay said he was leaving for San Rafael, like he had before.
"I don't know why you thought you had to come say goodbye," Steve said.
And like before, McKay answered, "The goodbye I had in mind..." but it changed in the middle, and now he said, "needs to be said in private." And then he stepped closer and closer again, until the front of his trousers brushed Steve's nose.
"What do you mean?" Steve heard himself ask, though the real him should have stood and pushed McKay off, knocked him down, shot him, because he knew what this meant even before McKay took his shoulders and pushed him back onto the bed. "What?" Steve asked again.
"I'm doing what you've wanted since I stepped of that stage," McKay said and settled astride Steve's waist, pinning his shoulders to the bed, and leaned down to kiss him.
Steve's mouth was still hanging open, and McKay could have taken him rough right there, but he didn't. His lips pressed a little sweetheart kiss to first one corner of his mouth and then the other, gentle as if he were wooing Steve. Then he paused and smiled, face hovering inches above Steve's. The lamplight cast half his face in shadow and lit the other half so soft that it made him look younger, more Pat's age.
"Do you like this?" McKay asked.
If he'd had control of his own mouth, Steve'd have told him to get off him, to get away, and a bunch of filthy names besides, but in the dream, he answered, "So what if I do?"
Still smiling, McKay said, "Let's find out, shall we?" This time he kissed Steve properly on the lips, tilting his head so that their mouths fit right, and he could run his tongue along Steve's lower lip before drawing away to suck at it, then kiss it again. He seemed to be breathing Steve in. His hands left Steve's shoulders and framed his face, fingertips sliding through his damp hair.
Steve let himself be kissed, as he never had let anyone touch him, certainly not the girls in San Rafael, who just wanted to get the job done and move on. McKay's hands held his head in place, as he kissed more deeply, and each brush of skin sent a flush of warmth through Steve. At the same time McKay's hips shifted against his a little each time he bent down to kiss Steve again; they were starting to stir something. He could feel the creases of McKay's trousers against his dick, cotton underwear not any kind of barrier between them, and he had to hold his his breath to keep from jerking up against McKay.
It wasn't what he wanted, he tried to tell himself. He didn't even like McKay, let alone want him, or any man, in his bed. He should flip this greenhorn onto the floor. He should at least say no. If this weren't a dream he'd come to his senses and say no.
But in the dream, Steve lifted his hands and pulled McKay's shirt out of his trousers so that he could slid his hands up his back. His skin was so smooth there along his sides, soft where Steve was all rangy muscles. He really was a dude, his life made easy by Yankee money, a family willing to pay his way until he could just buy Big Muddy out from under the Major. (Even in the dream, Steve wouldn't think about that. In the dream, Steve didn't yet know so many things.) He dug his nails into McKay's shoulders, his pristine white shirt rucked up between them, a button digging into Steve's sternum.
McKay moaned, and kissed him harder. Their teeth bumped, and McKay was focusing on his mouth like he'd just found water after three days in the brush. He was making high whimpering sounds now, and when he shifted against Steve, Steve felt the hardness of McKay's dick against his stomach.
That, if anything, should have shocked him awake, but in the dream it felt right to reach between them and unbutton McKay's fly with a flick of his thumb, and then take his cock in his hand and stroke it as though it were his own. Each time his hand reached the head, McKay moaned again, until he was too distracted even for kisses and slumped forward across Steve, whispering Steve's name again and again with each stroke, lips just next to his ear, hands still wound in his hair.
"Come on, McKay," Steve muttered. He could feel McKay's whole body shaking every time he moved his hand, his shirt soaked through with sweat and sticking to his chest, his dark hair rumpled and falling into Steve's face. "McKay," he said again, sharper this time. His dick kept rubbing against McKay's ass, and it was driving him mad. "Jim," he said.
"Steve," McKay moaned, lips wet against Steve's ear, and then his whole body convulsed and he came in Steve's hand.
McKay took a handful of deep breaths, each one ruffling Steve's hair, and then rose to his knees above Steve. Steve expected he would get up and buckle his trousers then, or maybe even just roll over and sleep between Steve's body and the wall, letting Steve jerk off in peace, but that wasn't how it went. Instead of leaving, McKay shuffled down until he was kneeling on the floor beside the bed, one hand on the inside of Steve's right thigh, the other flat across his stomach, damp skin to damp skin. He looked up at Steve, eyes dark behind darker hair, and raised his eyebrows, but Steve didn't have an answer. He couldn't move.
Nodding to himself, McKay tugged Steve's underwear down and then leaned in. Steve felt like his whole body was throbbing in his dick, but he still felt as though he couldn't move, that if he moved he'd wake up, and now he didn't want to. Waking up would mean remembering something bad, and if he stayed still, maybe he could lie forever in his own bed, McKay's big hands warm on his body.
"Yes," Steve whispered, and woke.
His side hurt less, marginally less, more having been stepped on by a horse rather than like being kicked by one into a bonfire. The room was utterly dark, but when he shifted in bed, trying to sit up, McKay stirred in the darkness and lit a match. It was almost an image transferred from dreaming to waking, as were the coat of perspiration on McKay's forehead and the utter ruin of his once immaculate hair. His white shirt was limp and clinging to his shoulders.
McKay transferred the flame to the lamp and shook out the match before kneeling next to the bed. Steve stopped breathing, but McKay only lifted the wool blanket to check the wound. "You slept the whole day," he said. "Your fever's down. How's the pain?"
"I'll live," Steve said, throat scratchy again. He forced himself up on his elbows, which made McKay frown, but he wouldn't have McKay manhandling him again, no matter how gentle he'd been. He still had to let McKay lift the cup, however.
This time, he had some kind of marrow broth, tepid, but incredibly welcome. Steve would have drunk it down in one swallow if McKay had let him, but he took the cup away after a few sips.
"I should go to back to Ladder," Steve said, falling back onto the bed, even that tiny effort having sapped him dry.
"It'll keep a few days," McKay said. "Ramón was by this afternoon. He said that a Mr. Henderson is managing the stock, and Miss Maragon is helping Miss Terrill make the arrangements for the Major."
So Steve had been replaced already. Well, Henderson wasn't a bad choice. He would look after Pat, and like as not they'd bury the Major quick in this heat, quicker than Steve could be on his feet to ride to the funeral. "I mean to clear out my cabin."
He regretted the words immediately, because they made McKay give him that hangdog look he'd had over the Major's body, right before Steve had collapsed. He didn't answer, just watched Steve like he was trying to tell how serious he was. His face was beautiful in the lamplight.
Steve shut his eyes again, but the world glowed red behind them. He'd always known that he was damned. His mother had been a strict Presbyterian and had explained about the Elect and how they were uplifted in their righteousness, and so Steve had known from the moment she'd passed that he wasn't pre-ordained for heaven.
And here, in the red darkness, he remembered only McKay's breath in his ear, calling his name. He'd felt those muscles when they'd grappled in the twilight before dawn, and when McKay had lifted his head to drink. Had the fight only been the night before? No, two nights gone now, Steve was missing time.
"Leech?" McKay asked, voice rough with concern.
Steve pressed his lips tight and kept his eyes closed, pretending he couldn't feel the bed shift as McKay leaned over him, or smell the sweat and dirt as he put his ear next to Steve's chest to listen for breath. His mouth would be inches from Steve's, and had this been the dream, Steve would have kissed him. It wasn't. This was the real world, the world in which the Major was dead and it was Steve's fault, where Steve might have thought or dreamed of kissing another man, but then would have gotten drunk and hired a girl in San Rafael to drive the filthy thought from his mind.
"Leech?" McKay asked softly. "Steve, you can sleep now. There's nothing to be done before first light."
Saying nothing, Steve waited until he felt the cot creak again, and heard McKay settle into the chair beside him. Then he took deep, slow breaths until he slept.
They were riding out below the escarpment, ostensibly to find any straggling heifers who'd hidden in the gulches during round up, but honestly because it was a cool spring day and Pat had been away for a year, and wanted to go on a long ride. It was just the Major, Pat, and Steve, with a couple hands outriding in the distance, and if Pat had been talking this gaily about any other topic, listening to her chatter for seven hours straight would have lifted Steve's heart. It hadn't felt the same without her here, and the Major had been moping around the place like a kicked mutt, and nothing Steve had done or said seemed to have cheered him.
"Oh but you're going to love him, darling," Pat told the Major for ten thousandth time. She hadn't said a word about Maryland that didn't somehow involve this fabulous beau of hers. Fabulous fiancé, Steve corrected. How had that happened so fast? "You too, Steve!" she added. "He's so strong and elegant, and I'm sure he's going to love Ladder as much as you do."
Steve cut a sideways glance at the Major, but looked away when he saw that the man was glowing with genuine pride. "I'm sure he will," the Major said. "I've always wanted a son who could take over the reins here, and from the sounds of him, he might just be the fellow."
"I'm sure he is," Pat said, her enthusiasm feeding on the Major's. "Why, you should have seen him the first day we met," and then she launched back into the story about the boating party and the sudden gale that she'd told twenty times if she'd told once, plus the three letters on the topic. The Major had read her letters to Steve, at least in part, not having anyone else to share them with, but Steve hadn't been in the big house much since Pat had been back.
Steve had heard the story about nineteen times too many, and he let his horse fall back so that the wind carried her words out over the range and he could pretend not to hear them. He cursed himself for the disappointment he felt. He'd always known that a foreman would never marry the Major's daughter. She'd always been bound to match with a gentleman, and therefore Ladder had always been promised to another man, one who might keep Steve on, or might bring in his own man, someone who could talk fine and Eastern, and wasn't a half step up from a Hennessey.
"Was he a blue coat?" Steve couldn't help asking as Pat slowed down on her daring maritime adventure.
"Now Steve," the Major started, but Steve could see him watching Pat, interested in the answer.
Pat glared back at Steve, and he made sure his hat shaded his face. "I declare, Steve," she said, and those words answered his question just fine. Maryland may have been a slave state, but the Union had held onto it in the end. "He wasn't on either side," Pat continued. "He was a merchant sailor, and he wasn't a captain until after Appomattox."
Steve almost asked if her beau had been a blockade runner, but he figured pressing the issue wouldn't make the Major any fonder of him. Though maybe he should have, since the Major noted dryly, "Trading for the Yankees is the same as fighting for them, but I suppose one sticks to one's family, and that's admirable."
That was a point Steve would not argue, even if it was becoming increasingly clear that the Major's family did not, and never would, include him, though it would shortly include a Yankee dandy.
"Hope he likes cattle," Steve commented, realising that the sarcasm wasn't really that well hidden.
"I'm sure he will!" Pat said, either not noticing or ignoring his tone. "He'll like everything about this country, you'll see."
"I reckon we will," Steve answered, then turned his horse west, saying that he'd thought he'd seen something up the hills, and that he'd catch up. He spent the next twenty minutes poking through empty scrub and praying to a God he'd long since ignored that Captain James McKay hated the entire state of Texas. That or Steve would find a way to prove himself the better man.
Pat showed up an hour before noon the next day. Steve had been up enough to clean himself and use the pot, with McKay's help, and was lying flat exhausted when she slid off her horse and dashed into the Maragon cottage in one motion, black skirts rustling, hat trailing behind her on its string.
"Oh, Steve!" she cried and would have thrown herself around his neck if McKay hadn't caught her shoulder and told her to go easy, then said he'd leave them to it. It gave Steve a chance to tug the blanket up to his chin. "I'm sorry!" she said, falling to her knees next to the bed and taking Steve's hand between both of hers. "I should have come before. Ramón just said... well I didn't know if you'd be all right, and..." she bit her lip. "And, oh, everything's been perfectly awful, and even if you've been horrible lately, I just couldn't think of losing you too."
Steve didn't know how to answer any of that. He'd assumed that she'd never want him to step foot on Ladder again, but now it sounded as if she wanted him back. That couldn't be right, or if it was, it was because no one had told her what happened at Blanco Canyon. "I'm sorry, Miss Terrill," he said, the words hard to get out with his throat tightening. She didn't seem to understand, so he added. "About the Major, I didn't... I couldn't..." he didn't even know how to start apologising for that day, but he had to say something, so he swallowed hard before saying, "It should've been me, not him. I'm sorry."
"Don't," Pat said. She had tears in her eyes, which were already red, but she wasn't sobbing wildly like she sometimes did when she didn't get her way. "Don't you say that. Henderson told me what you did before the fight."
She did know, then. Steve wanted to look away, but he wasn't a coward, no matter what the Major had said at the end. "I'm sorry," he said again. He didn't know what else to say.
"Henderson said you did everything you could to keep the Major from going in there," Pat said, still holding his hand, "even pretended to quit! But then when he went, you rode with him, and took that bullet so that he wouldn't stand alone."
Steve actually had quit, but maybe he was yellow after all, because instead of telling her that, he squeezed her hands and lay there, letting her forgive him. When his eyes stopped stinging, he said, "Is there anything I can do for you, Miss Terrill?"
Pat dropped his hand so she could scrub the tears out of her eyes. "Get better, and then come home," she told him. She stood, and added, "I'm not promoting Henderson to foreman, so you need to get back to Ladder and help out before he gets his head all swelled up."
"It'd be my pleasure, ma'am," Steve said, realising for the first time that he was talking to the mistress of Ladder Ranch now. "I'll be back as soon as I'm fit to ride."
"Good," Pat said. "That's good. Oh, Steve, I wish I could stay, but..." she shook her head.
"I understand," Steve said, swallowing again. He'd been weepy as a child these last few days, save that he'd never wept much when he was young; he was going to have to be a man again when he left this cabin. "I... I'm glad you took the time to ride out."
"I wake the roosters, now," she said, but she didn't smile. She was looking at McKay, who was coming in with a bucket of water, and before either of them could say anything, Pat mounted up and spurred back to Ladder.
"How's the pain?" McKay asked, which Steve had worked out was his way of asking how Steve felt while not mentioning the possibility of emotion. He'd shaved and changed into a fresh shirt while Pat had been inside, another starched white blouse that was his hallmark and the least practical thing Steve had ever seen.
"You dress like that when you were a sea captain?" Steve asked.
McKay smiled, a genuine smile that flashed white teeth and crinkled the corners of his eyes. "Yes, though I had a different hat," he said, then knelt to check the bandages. "This looks better, little red, but clearing." He put his nose to it, and Steve looked away.
"Why are you doing this?" he asked, finally, like he'd been meaning to since the first time he'd woken up here—yet hadn't because what if the question made McKay realise how ridiculous the whole thing was, and Steve wasn't strong enough to stand on his own yet. Maybe knowing he had a place to go made him braver.
"Seems simple to me," McKay said, straightening to meet Steve's gaze. He seemed to be thinking over the question himself. "I couldn't leave you there to die. I was here, and I know as much about doctoring as anyone else around these parts, near as I can tell."
"But you don't like me," Steve said, his voice nearly plaintive. He silently cursed himself, and said in a stronger tone, "I won't take up more of your time than I have to. I know you don't have much reason to trouble yourself with..." He'd blown that one too. He didn't even know what he was going to say. With a hard-scrabble cowboy like him? With someone who'd done his level best to drive McKay out of Texas? With someone who'd dreamed of kissing another man, not just in this fever, but often? He let the words stand as he'd said them.
McKay studied his face, again, that dark thoughtful look making him look older, in contrast to the lock of damp hair falling across his forehead. It took a while, but finally he said, "I don't know if the Major told you, but my father was killed in a duel not that different from the one I just had with Buck Hennessey; I wasn't quite ten years old, and if Uncle Robert hadn't taken Ma and the rest of us in, harder times still could have fallen. Back then, it wasn't hard to picture being a boy on a stranger's ship, making my own way as best I could. I think of that boy, who might have been; he might still be before the mast, and finding out that ships weren't going to have masts much longer, a bosun if he'd worked very hard, and was no less lucky. That's a lot like a foreman," he added, smiling crookedly. "Only with oceans instead of ranges."
If Steve could have, he'd have walked out right there. "I don't need no man's pity," he snapped, "nor his charity, neither."
"What about understanding?" McKay asked; he hadn't even flinched when Steve had snarled at him.
"You don't understand me," Steve insisted. If McKay had, he'd have tried to ride Old Thunder, or fought Steve in public, actually gotten lost, or otherwise given Steve a damn chance to win in front of Pat or the Major. "You rode up and bought everything you wanted, and now you've tossed me some scraps 'cause you've taken to feeling sorry for me." Ladder would hardly count as a scrap, save that McKay didn't seem to want it.
"Seems to me you're feeling sorry enough for the both of us," McKay commented, and he sounded tired more than anything. He sat back so his ass was on the floor and his knees drew up, then wrapped his arms around them. "I think you're better than that, Leech, but you're hurt now, and we'll let it lie."
It was not the least patronising thing's Steve'd ever heard, even from McKay, but he was too damn tired to argue. Rather, he could keep arguing, but he knew his wits were dimming by the minute, and he didn't want to say anything irrevocable that McKay could hold against him later. He shook his head and twisted his mouth in a way that he hoped made it clear that he wasn't surrendering to anything.
Yet when McKay held up a little bottle he said Pat'd brought, and asked if Steve wanted any for the pain, he didn't say no to the laudanum either.
He dreamed again, the poppy adding the same lucidity as the fever had.
It was dark, and he was riding across country looking for McKay, who was lost, but this time his men weren't with him. He kept calling for McKay, but the night swallowed up his voice, and the darkness hung silent around him. There was moonlight, but no moon, and none of the usual owl calls or crickets or yipping coyote. He knew that no man should be riding this late, but he kept looking.
Steve followed an arroyo up towards the escarpment, sure that McKay has been thrown and fallen in a ditch, but found no tracks, not even cattle, and no McKay. The sand looked freshly washed, though they'd had no rain in months.
When he looked up, he saw the light of a fire, away under some cottonwoods, and he turned towards it. The way the country rolled, the fire was farther than he'd thought at first, and as much as he rode, it didn't seem any closer. He dropped to the ground and led his horse forward, and then he was there: seven cottonwoods around a seep, and a fire between them.
McKay was sitting on a bedroll next to the fire, arm around his knees, absently poking the burning wood with a stick. He looked up and smiled at Steve, looking as crisp and fresh as when he'd come down for breakfast with the Major.
"You're lost," Steve said.
"I knew exactly where I was the whole time," McKay answered, in the same smug way he had in the waking world. "Did you?"
Steve did not. He'd lived on Ladder for fifteen years, and he'd never seen this place before. "We can ride back in the morning," he said, instead of admitting to anything. He hobbled his horse and settled his saddle and bedroll across the fire from McKay's gear. McKay had an English saddle, he realised, and wondered where he'd gotten it. Ladder didn't have anything of the kind.
McKay offered him a flask, once he'd settled, and it turned out to be water, not whiskey as it should have been. Steve drank it anyway. "What are you doing out here?" McKay asked.
"Looking for you. You're lost." Though now, so was Steve. "Miss Terrill thinks you've died."
"No," answered McKay. "I have a compass and a map."
"But why'd you ride out alone in a strange country?" Steve demanded. He wanted to know why McKay did just about everything. None of it made sense to him. McKay seemed to think he could bend the prairie to his Yankee rules, and the damned part was that it worked, and Steve couldn't even work out how.
"I wanted to see it for myself," McKay said. "Everyone kept telling me what to think of it." He paused, looking down at the fire for a moment before glancing up at Steve. The light caught his eyes, and for the first time Steve realised how carefully McKay considered each word before he spoke. "And I wanted to prove to myself if I could do it."
"That right?" Steve crawled around the fire to see the map in McKay's hand, but it was just a blank piece of paper. "Anything else you need to prove?"
"Just this," McKay answered, and he leaned over and kissed Steve. Their mouths were the only point of contact, and McKay trembled as he balanced into the lean. It made the kiss harder, McKay's nose pressing into Steve's cheek, and both of them had to break away to breathe.
Steve could feel his heart pounding, and he voice was ragged when he asked, "And what did that prove?"
McKay smiled. "What do you think?"
Waking, Steve knew he knew the answer.
The laudanum made him groggy, but it did take the edge off the pain, and he was able to stand on his own, if only just. McKay came in with firewood just as Steve was settling back onto the bed.
"Pat said she'd send a wagon in a day or so," McKay said. "We figured you'd be fit for it by then."
Steve nodded. The idea of rolling into Ladder in a wagon bed did not appeal, but the idea of sleeping in his own cabin again did.
McKay opened the stove and added a few logs, then put the kettle on the heat. He turned, dusting his hands on his trousers. Steve tried not to remember how his face had looked in the dream, but he couldn't help wondering if the dream answer was true.
"Why'd you fight me?" he asked. He'd thought at the time that it'd been to prove to Steve that he wasn't yellow, but even then that hadn't seemed right. If that were the case, why not in public, when it mattered? He clearly hadn't been afraid of losing.
Before answering, McKay adjusted the curtains and then settled in the chair, leaning forward so that his forearms rested on his knees and his eyes were about level with Steve's. "When you challenged me," he said, "I was afraid. Oh, not really afraid of what Pat would think, or the Major, or the men, but afraid of the pain, of the physical danger." He held up a hand before Steve could say anything. "I've been a captain for a long time, and there are dangers there, the privations and pain found at sea, but those are different from facing up against one man with nothing but fists between you. It'd been a long time since my last fight, and I'm older now. You're a big man who's used to using his body to prove himself. The fear only lasted a moment, before I understood the situation, and the purpose of your challenge, but it stuck with me all that night, the same way the idea of riding that outlaw horse stuck with me."
Steve's days of not understanding McKay did not seem to be near an end, but maybe he could make sense of that somehow. Then another realisation stung him. "So you'd have fought anyone, it was just that I was handy."
"Well, no," McKay said, but the question had set him back. He looked down at his hands for a moment, and in the early morning light, Steve could see the fatigue in his face: a grey cast under his eyes, and all the lines etched deeper. McKay opened his mouth to speak, then stopped himself, then cast a sideways look at Steve and smiled. "I also wanted you to understand my position, and that seemed the clearest way to explain it," he said. "I am, perhaps, more interested in your opinion of me than I ought to be."
Yet apparently uninterested in either Pat or the Major's opinion. "Why?" Steve asked. It was like a magic word: he admitted that he didn't know something, and McKay told him all his secrets.
"Wish I could tell you," McKay said, still not quite looking up. "Could be that you're a better man than the Major ever thought you were."
Steve laughed, then choked when that made his side ache. He knew and he was sure that McKay knew that Steve was exactly what the Major had thought: a coward and a bully, if a useful one, and he'd be the same for Pat Terrill, as long as she'd keep him around. Having McKay sit here looking at him like that—saying he knew what was going on in Steve's head when he understood exactly nothing—made Steve wish he could get up and explain his opinion to McKay in the way that McKay seemed to think was the only useful method of getting through to Steve.
Problem was he was still too weak to fight, and the more McKay kept talking, the more circles he ran around Steve's thoughts. If Steve let this go on, he'd be roped and hog tied before he knew what was happening. He needed McKay to go away, and to stay gone.
He bunched one hand in McKay's shirt, taking some satisfaction in how McKay flinched back then lifted his chin to take the blow. Instead of hitting him, Steve pulled himself up, gritting his teeth against the pain, and hauled over and kissed McKay on the mouth. It was wet and sloppy, and didn't really connect right, so he ended up kissing McKay's lower lip sideways, then bumping teeth when McKay inhaled sharply. After a second, Steve had to let go because his side was shooting pain out to the tips of his hair. He tried to jerk back so he'd fall on the bed, not on the floor at McKay's feet, but McKay took hold of his shoulders and lowered him back to the bed.
The motion made McKay bend over him, so Steve lifted his head enough to kiss him again, briefly and fiercely, the angle true this time. McKay held perfectly still until Steve fell back onto the bed. "I dreamed about doing that every night since you came," Steve said between gasps. "Don't know if you figured that in along with killing cattle and beating defenceless men."
"I did not," McKay said; his lips were wet from being kissed, and he hadn't drawn away. His hand was still between Steve's shoulder and the bed. "But have you figured in that I'd rather have kissed you than fought you that last night at Ladder?" He sighed, and pulled the blanket over Steve, covering his bare chest before sitting back. "I never wanted to fight you at all," he added, almost too softly for Steve to hear.
Steve stared at the ceiling, his mouth still buzzing from the kiss, and tried to think. He'd expected either to be punched or abandoned, if not one before the other, not whatever this was. "It doesn't work like that in this country," he said.
"Have you ever tried?" McKay asked placidly.
"No." Steve had never touched another man in anything but necessity or anger, nor admitted that he wanted to.
"You keep acting like there're no rules out here, and someone's going to get around to shooting you," Steve grumbled, but he had to admit that McKay seemed to be coasting through just fine and dandy so far.
Instead of rebutting that, McKay leaned back down and rested his forehead against Steve's. He closed his eyes and breathed in. "May I kiss you?" he asked.
No one had ever asked Steve that either, and he half wanted to tell McKay No out of spite, but, he found he could only nod.
McKay tilted his head to kiss Steve again. He brushed Steve's lips with his at first, then ducked back down and kissed the corners of his mouth, one after the other, and when Steve's lips parted, kissed him slow and lingeringly, his tongue following the curve of Steve's lower lip, while his lips moved over it.
It was the slowest, most deliberate kiss Steve had ever experienced, and his whole body shook from the tension that he eventually realised was due to holding his breath and staying perfectly still under McKay's touch, even though all he wanted was more.
Finally, McKay pulled away and asked, "What do you figure now?"
Steve licked his lips. "I don't know."
"Well," McKay said and patted Steve's shoulder, "We'll give it time."
It would not, Steve suspected, take much for him to give in: some weeks to heal, more for McKay to set up Big Muddy as he wanted it, Steve riding over to make sure McKay knew what he was doing, McKay happening into town for supplies at the same time as Steve, round up in a few months, parties at one house or the other over the winter, hunting coyote to keep them off the calves, spring round up again, one season falling into another until their lives twisted around each other like strands of a rope. Steve's life would be much as it always had been, and yet utterly changed.
"Yes," Steve said. "Give it time."
The stage into San Rafael was late, as usual, and Pat had gotten tired of waiting on the hotel steps. "I'm going to Julie's," she said. "Keep an eye out for that stage, won't you, Steve?"
Steve tipped his hat, and tried not to indicate that making an errand boy of the foreman of Ladder in any way rankled. "Of course, Miss Terrill."
He tied her buckboard and team up over by the livery stable, and went in to talk horseflesh with McPherson. He wasn't gone five minute when he heard the bustle of the stage rolling in and came out to see if Pat's beau had made it like his letter said, or if he'd gotten lost or sidetracked somewhere between Galveston and Austin.
No such luck. There was a Yankee stepping off the stage all right, taller than Steve would have expected, but not as lean as Steve. He had the broad shoulders and trim waist of a man who'd worked, and the easy stride that Steve usually associated with old money, for all that he was turning around trying to find his bearings.
Steve had heard an epic about the perfection of this man, and had thought it so much talk, a rancher's daughter swept off her feet on her first visit East, but he had to admit that she had not exaggerated the strong line of Jim McKay's jaw, nor how striking his eyes were. Lord, maybe the Major was right, maybe the two of them would make a Terrill out of this McKay.
Steve sighed, and gathered the team, ready, he thought, to give in gracefully, or at least to try find common ground.
Until, that was, McKay put on his hat.