Texas is a punishing state. No matter how often Zach returns, no matter the long days and nights he spends riding across its landscape, he'll never get used to how it goes on forever, endless nothing in all directions. He's seen men go crazy for want of a landmark, a town, another face aside from the dozen men he's spent twenty-four hours a day with for weeks. He's seen men brawl out of boredom, and he's seen them sneak off away from the campfire together in the night while the rest of the men pretend not to notice. He's been one of the men sneaking away himself. Texas doesn't change you, but it does split you open and reveal your guts.
He supposes he has no one to blame but himself for the fact that he's back here again. Several of the boys he used to ride with have settled in Kansas or Missouri, gotten ranches of their own. They pay other men to drive their cattle to the railheads now. They've traded their bedrolls for feather pillows and their work clothes for tailored suits. Each time Zach makes it back to his home in California, he thinks this will be the time he settles down himself, but another rancher or would-be rustler offers him some money and he finds himself heading east again, the open range calling to him like a siren song.
It's the freedom, he thinks, on the rare occasion he allows himself to consider such things. He knows he's wearing out his body, knows the pay ain't worth the danger. These days, a man's about as likely to die of exposure or trail fever or be shot by an angry farmer or a band of rustlers than he is to make it to his destination. But he likes to measure his life in finite chunks. He likes to know that after a matter of months, he'll be free again, and he can choose to do anything or nothing. He can laze about in Kansan saloons and drink himself blind. He can take a temporary job as a ranch hand during the heat of the summer or the dead of winter. Nothing to tie him down. No obligations. Not a care except where he'll get his next meal and where he'll lay his head at night.
It's an addiction, to tell the truth. Some men long for stability, some want riches, but Zach just wants the freedom.
This drive starts out the same as all the others. It's twelve of them for the 2500 head of cattle, plus the boss, plus the wrangler. And the cook, of course.
He's the goddamn wrench in all of it, and Zach knows it from the moment he lays eyes on him. Perched up on the seat of the chuck wagon with the reins held loosely in one big hand, he squints into the sun with eyes the same shade as the endless Texas sky. He's prettier than damn near anyone Zach has seen west of the Mississippi, but he doesn't seem to know it. Any attention makes him fold in on himself, those pretty eyes shuttering with distrust. They all got stories, and they all got scars, but this man wears his right on his sleeve, no hard shell to cover them over.
Chris is his name, though Zach doesn't find that out from him. He overhears the boss—Karl—giving him gentle orders the first night out on the trail, his voice soft in a way it never is when he's barking at the cowboys. Karl clearly favors him, but that's not all that strange. The cook is always someone of some status, someone trustworthy enough to take care of the supplies and ration precious water and perform basic medical care. He's the person all the cowboys have no trouble showing deference too, because they know in many ways their lives are in his hands. But Chris seems to inspire a particular softness in Karl and soon in the others, and though Zach tries to resist—he knows how foolish it is to leave his soft underbelly exposed—he soon finds himself softening too.
He has come a long way from that first drive, when he was barely more than a kid who rode off one day in search of riches and adventure. It had been just him and his mother at home then, his father having died some years earlier and his brother married and living a few towns over, with a respectable job as a banker. Zach ran off without telling his mother in advance, because he knew she would try to stop him and would probably succeed. Instead, he left her a note and set off in the middle of the night, a little money in his pocket from the odd jobs he'd managed to scrape up at neighboring ranches. With that money, he bought himself a horse, and he rode that horse all the way to Texas, because everyone knew that was where the money was. Honest money or dishonest, it didn't matter.
When he got there, they were practically begging for cowboys. Everyone thought they were going to make their fortune selling cattle, and a lot of those people were right. Ten dollars a month felt like immense riches to him at eighteen, and all his food would be paid for along the way, so that money would go right into his pocket. Plus, they were driving up to California in those days, which seemed serendipitous, because he was starting to regret the way he'd left his mother all on her own. This way, he could stop in to check on her, give her some money, let her know he was okay.
That drive took almost six months, and it would be the longest one he'd ever go on in his life. Most of the men were much older than him, some of them thirty or forty years older, and all had been hardened by life. Zach kept mostly to himself, barely saying two words to anyone else the whole time, so by the time they made it to San Francisco, his voice felt rusty. The only person who had been gentle with him on that drive was the cook, so maybe that's where his soft spot for Chris comes from.
He did go see his mother, who slapped him and then hugged him, but a week later he joined another drive headed up to Oregon, and after that, he rode out to Arizona and did a couple shorter drives from there, but pretty soon he was back in Texas again. The drives to California were petering out by then—it was too long and cost too much money—but the railroad had made its way to Kansas, and the cattle trade was seeing a boom. Soon Zach was sending money back to his mother every few months, with enough left over in his pocket to drink himself stupid at the end of every drive.
The years have weathered him, worn him down. He once could talk the hind leg off a mule, but now he keeps to himself mostly, knowing that the trail offers a certain kind of companionship but not the lasting kind. Better not to get too attached when the best you can hope for is riding off in different directions at the end of it all. Worst case, something on the trail gets you. A couple years back, a bunch of men Zach had a working relationship with rode back east to war and never returned—and good riddance to them, the traitors. Many that did come back, came back in gray uniforms, and they might as well have been dead for all that Zach cared to associate with them after that.
So it's strange that Chris gets under his skin when he's had years of practice keeping people at arm's length. It happens slowly, then all at once, so he never has time to guard against it.
Ten days out on the trail, just before dinner when the sun skims the horizon, Zach wanders away from the others to relieve himself and ends up snakebit.
It's his own fucking fault. He was walking too quiet when he knows it's better to make a racket when he's going off into the brush. Before he even manages to get his belt undone, he feels the fire-hot pinch of fangs on the side of his calf, and first he swears under his breath, then louder. "Karl," he bellows. He scans the ground around him and sees the infernal thing slither off into the bushes, satisfied that its work is done. Himself satisfied that the danger is over for now, he sits right down in the dirt, knowing full well that running back to the fire will only compound the issue, pumping venom faster through his veins.
"Karl!" he yells again, but Karl is there, at his side, hand gripping his shoulder. "Rattler," Zach says through gritted teeth. "Better get Chris."
But then Chris is there too, with a lantern from the chuck wagon, and he's already pulling the knife out of his belt and muscling Karl out of the way.
"You stupid or something?" Chris asks as his fingers go to Zach's belt, unbuckling it and then yanking it free of its loops. "Managing to get snakebit like some greenhorn. You born yesterday? Huh?"
Zach wisely bites his lip and sits quietly as Chris yanks off his boot, pushes up his pant leg, and makes a quick tourniquet of the belt just under his knee.
"You need a swig?" Karl asks from somewhere behind Zach's other shoulder. He swishes a flask next to Zach's ear, but Zach shakes his head.
"Nah, thanks," he says, though he knows what's coming. A good belt of whiskey never dulls the pain as much as he wishes it would anyway.
The knife in Chris's hand flashes in the lantern light, and that's all the warning Zach gets before he feels another flare of pain in his leg, almost as bad as the snake bite itself. He groans and lets his head fall back, but he snaps it back upright when warm lips seal themselves against his skin.
Zach has known men of Chris's ilk to use a cup heated with a candle to suck the poison out—a more modern solution for an increasingly modern world—but Chris is kneeling there in the dirt with his own mouth pressed to Zach's calf, sucking and then spitting, wiping dark blood off his mouth with the sleeve of his shirt. Zach shudders and drops down on his elbows, like it might help if he can't see quite as well, but it doesn't help one bit. Chris is still outlined in lamp light, head bent to the task, hair falling across his forehead and brow furrowed with concentration. Even in the growing dark, Zach can see all these details clearly, and when he closes his eyes, he can still see them. The heat of Chris's mouth cuts through the heat of the poison and sears this moment into Zach's brain.
He must pass out, because next thing he knows, sunlight is filtering through his eyelids, and he can feel the world rocking and bumping underneath him. He can smell coffee beans and salted meat, a clear sign that he's been laid up in the wagon. He tries to open his eyes, but his lids feel heavy, impossibly so, and he thinks maybe it would be easier if he slipped back into the sweet embrace of sleep—possibly forever, if she's inclined to keep him.
"Oh good," says a voice—Chris's voice. "You're awake."
How he can know that when Zach hasn't opened his eyes or made the slightest sound, Zach doesn't know. Chris could say he has a sixth sense, and Zach would believe him.
"You can quit playing dead now," Chris says. From the direction of his voice, Zach can tell he's sitting up on the seat of the wagon, driving the oxen. "It wasn't even that bad of a bite. Your clothing did its job. You'll be back in the saddle tomorrow, probably."
How long have I been out? he wants to ask, but he can no more open his mouth than he can open his eyes. Instead, he lets out a muffled grunt and swivels the foot of his bit leg back and forth, testing. He aches, sure, but it could be worse. Out here, it could always be worse.
"Drink?" he asks once he gets his rusty vocal chords to work.
"By your right hand," Chris says.
Zach inches his fingers outward until they bump something that makes a sloshing, liquid sound. He gets the cap off the canteen and brings it to his mouth, careful to tip it slowly so he doesn't spill any of the precious water onto the boards beneath him. It's difficult to swallow lying down, but wetting his tongue is good enough for now.
"You only slept the night," Chris says, as if he knows that's what Zach would ask if he could. "We got back on the trail maybe an hour ago."
"Hmm," Zach says to let him know he heard. Some of the fog has begun to clear from his mind, enough to know he should count himself lucky. Not only does he still have his leg, but he doesn't have to spend today sitting in the saddle under the hot sun, and if he plays his cards right, he might get out of it for tomorrow as well.
"The others are picking up your slack for today." There Chris goes, reading his mind again. "I told Karl we'd have to see if you're well enough tomorrow."
"Think I will be?" Zach croaks. He starts to prop himself up on one elbow, then decides that's too much work and lays out flat again. "Well enough, I mean?"
"Oh, I reckon so." Zach can't see Chris well, sitting with his back to him, head and shoulders out of sight and silhouetted in sunlight, but he can hear the grin in Chris's voice, and that conjures up the image plain as day. Unlike many of the other men, Chris has shown himself to be free with his smiles. They light up his whole face and crinkle the corners of his eyes. Seeing one of them is like seeing an oasis in the desert.
"Any chance I can convince you not to snitch on me?" Zach says, flopping his arm across his face.
Chris laughs at that. "Come on, now. I can't make myself seem too soft-hearted, or I'll have a new cowboy laid up in my wagon every day. Y'all will be stomping around out there looking for rattlers."
"Oh, I very much doubt that." The more Zach wakes up, the more the pain in his leg grows. Not as bad as last night, but bad enough he wouldn't repeat the experience, not even for the chance of spending a day or two riding in the back of the wagon.
They lapse into silence after that, and Zach thinks about going back to sleep. He knows he has it in him to doze all day if given the chance; restless nights on the cold, hard ground have left him with quite a deficit to fill, and even with the chuck wagon bouncing over the hard dirt, it's more comfortable by far. Chris has layered several blankets underneath him, and though it's no feather mattress, it's better than a dusty bedroll and Simon's infernal snoring.
But just as he starts to close his eye again, Chris asks, "What's your story?"
"My story?" Zach cocks an eyebrow at him, even though he can't see.
"Everyone out here has a story," Chris says.
"Is that so?" Zach lets his eyes fall shut, a smile curling the corner of his mouth. "What's yours then?"
He expects Chris to dodge the question or turn it around on him again, but to his surprise, they spend the next good while catching each other up on their lives. Chris is Texas born and raised; his father was a stage actor in a past life, but when his mother got pregnant, it was time to search for a better living. There was more land out west, and some said more opportunity, though Chris grew up poor nonetheless, his parents' ranch barely scraping by until Karl took pity on them and offered Chris's father a stake in his business in exchange for Chris's labor. Chris spent most of his teenage years learning how to run a cattle ranch, and he went on his first drive when he was only fifteen. It all makes sense now, why Karl favors him so.
To Zach's surprise, he finds himself telling his own story as well. Maybe it's that he has nothing better to do, lying on his back in the increasingly hot wagon. Maybe it's that Chris told his story first, with an earnestness that set Zach's heart beating funny in his chest. Maybe it's just that he's been hankering for a real conversation for some time now, and Chris is the first good excuse that's come along. Whatever the case, the prattles on about his brother and his mother, about California and the ocean and the hills made of gold, until the wagon slows, a sign they're about to break for a midday meal.
"Stay put," Chris says as he hops down from the wagon's seat. He peers back through the canvas at Zach, fixing him with a glare. "I mean it. Don't get up. I'll bring you a plate."
He can sit, at least, and he's just managed to push himself upright by the time Chris brings him a bowl of beans and salt pork, a biscuit that's liable to break his teeth but tastes like heaven all the same. He didn't realize how much of an appetite he had until now, and once the food is gone, he feels almost himself again. Oddly weak, still a little tired, but himself.
"How's the leg?" Chris asks. He ate his meal in silence at the other end of the wagon, like he thought he had to keep and eye on Zach, and Zach can't pretend he didn't appreciate it.
"Not too bad," Zach says. "I wouldn't want to walk much on it, but it isn't paining me too badly anymore."
"Come here and let me see it. In the light."
Zach scoots obediently to the back of the wagon and dangles his legs over the edge. Chris shakes his head at him and makes Zach sit sideways instead, so his leg is propped up, then he pushes up Zach's pant leg and carefully peels back the bandage. His fingers are gentle on Zach's calf when he probes around the edges of the wound. He leans close enough that Zach can even feel his breath on his leg, and Zach has some difficulty suppressing the shudder that threatens to snake its way up his spine.
"I'm gonna put some more iodine on this," Chris says, and he steadies himself on Zach's thigh as he hops up into the wagon. Zach feels the imprints of his fingers long after he has found the needed medicine and returned.
"Does that really even help?" Zach asks, turning his face away. It's not that he can't bear to see the wound; it's that he can't bear to see Chris bent to the work, his expression as focused as it is concerned. "Or does it just dye my skin orange?"
"You think I'm a medical doctor?" Chris flashes a grin at him. "If I were, I wouldn't be out here treating snake bites. But if you go to a medical doctor, they'll stain your skin orange just the same, so I figure if it's good enough for them, it's good enough for me."
Chris wraps his leg in a clean bandage and then gives it a little pat, as if that's an official part of the treatment. He tugs Zach's pant leg back down too, though Zach could have done that himself. He finds his prefers the backs of Chris's fingers skimming the skin of his calf anyway, and he wonders when it was exactly that he got comfortable thinking about Chris in such familiar terms. They haven't been on the trail long enough that he can blame it on loneliness. He's gone without human contact for far longer than this without losing his ever-loving mind about it.
It's just Chris, Zach thinks. The man has black magic in him. Or some kind of magic, anyway.
Three weeks later, they're finally out of Texas, but the plains of the Indian Territory don't look a hell of a lot different. It's not as dangerous here as it once was. Karl pays the tribes for right of passage, and they're pretty much left alone—which won't be the case once they get to Kansas. The farmers nearer to the railroads are getting tired of all the cattle coming through, trampling the forage their own cattle might eat, spreading Texas cattle fever to their herds. But the beef men and the railroad men want their money, and the people back east want to eat, so anyone who wants things to change has to take matters into their own hands. Ranchers along the trail have been known to patrol around the borders of their land, threatening to shoot any man or beast that gets close. No one cares about a dead cowboy, not when so few of them have any homes or families to miss them. If a rancher has ever been hanged for such cold-blooded murder, Zach hasn't heard of it.
Even though the greater danger is still to come, Karl's company spends their days on high alert and their nights herding the cattle in shifts, keeping them in as tight-knit a group as they dare. Even if the Indian tribes aren't as great a concern, it's lawless out here, a magnet for roving rustlers and outlaws. On the nights with no moon, none of them sleep a wink—not even Chris, who tosses and turns in his bedroll until Zach wants to holler at him to give up the pretense, come over to the fire and tell tall tales with the rest of them. It's funny how a man can get used to sleeping with that racket of stomping and champing and lowing, but he can never get used to the looming danger that tells him he could die in his sleep.
The danger doesn't come in the middle of the night, though. It never really does, even though their primitive brains tell them that's the time to be afraid. Instead, trouble comes when they've settled into a comfortable rhythm, when they're riding along under an endless blue sky, the cattle are doing as their told. The horizon is invisible beyond the surging mass of bodies, but even that seems just the way it's supposed to be. Zach is whistling quietly, the fingers of his free hand tangled absently in the horse's mane. The last thing he expects is the sound of gunfire, and the whistle as a bullet whizzes past inches from his nose.
"Fuck!" someone cries out behind him—John, it sounds like.
"Watch!" shouts another, as if they can stop bullets with the power of perception.
Zach acts on instinct, swinging himself out of the saddle and taking his horse by the reins. This isn't the first time he's been shot at, though he reckons some of the men in this group have more experience in this area than he does. Either way, he sees no reason to panic. Karl may lose a few cattle, but he can damn well afford it. In fact, it's probably he only option here he can afford. They don't yet know who's shooting at them, and if one of them ends up on the wrong side of the law, Karl may never be allowed to drive his cattle to Kansas again.
Sure enough, he hears Karl's voice yelling over the din of gunfire and panicked animals, telling the others to holster their weapons and herd the animals to the west. They might not be able to outrun a small band of men on horses, but those men are likely only trying to scare them off, or some of them would be dead already. Better to turn tail, even if they lose a few days in the process.
Zach hears more shouting from somewhere to his right. The horses are screeching and pawing the air, and Chris is in the thick of it with the wrangler, a young woman named Sofia. It's rare to have a woman on the trail, but Karl swears by her, and he lends her his protection, so they all show her the respect she deserves. She has earned that respect many times over so far, and it seems she may be about to earn it yet again. She and Chris are tugging on ropes, trying to calm and shush the horses in compliance, but the whooping and hollering and groaning and stampeding aren't making for a calm environment. They likely don't stand a chance.
"Christ," Zach mutters under his breath, then heads their direction, pulling his own horse along beside him. "We gotta move," he yells, as if they don't already know that. "Throw me a rope."
Sofia tosses him a couple leads, and he reluctantly swings himself back up into the saddle and loops the ropes around the horn, calling to Chris over his shoulder, "Get back to the wagon! You're gonna get left behind."
The noise around them has become deafening, the men shouting and whistling at the herd, hooves pounding the dirt as they all try to change direction at once. Dust rises into the air in a dense cloud, so Zach has to pull his bandana up over his nose and duck his head against it. Another gunshot rings out, then another, but Zach guesses they aren't shooting into the men now, satisfied that their warning is being heeded.
"Zach!" Chris calls, before Zach has a chance to turn and ride away. He squints through the haze and sees Chris's face pinched with worry, his eyes fixed on a point somewhere to Zach's left. Zach follows his gaze and sees the problem plain as day. The wagon, maybe a hundred yards away in the middle of the writhing mass of animal flesh. It might as well be an island—a lone sandbar in the middle of a stormy sea. The cattle surge around it, knocking it so it rocks precariously this way and that.
No way could Chris get to it now. He'd be trampled to death.
"Get up here," Zach barks, holding a hand out. Chris doesn't argue, only jogs over to him and wraps his hand around Zach's forearm, and together they swing him up into the saddle behind Zach. His horse grunts her protest under him, and he makes a soft shushing noise, then reaches back to grab Chris's arm and anchor it firmly around his middle. "Hold on," he says, "like your fucking life depends on it."
He doesn't have time to worry about whether Chris is going to fall off the back of the horse and land underneath the stampeding herd, but he waits until Chris is gripping him tight enough to nearly steal his breath before he spurs his way backwards, toward the gunfire, toward the danger.
"What are you—?" Chris yells into his ear, breathless.
"We gotta move them north a little," Zach calls back. "Get 'em away from the wagon, before the shatter the goddamn thing. Pass me that whip."
Chris lets go only long enough to press the handle into Zach's palm, then wraps his arms tight around Zach's waist again and presses in close enough that the brim of his hat nudges the back of Zach's neck. It's smart, getting close like that so he doesn't catch the mean end of the whip on the back swing. Smart, is all. Zach admonishes himself for thinking even for a moment that it could be anything else.
The first crack of the whip is loud as a gunshot, and the herd responds to it in much the same way, their eyes rolling in their skulls as they struggle to get away. Zach cracks the whip into the air until his arm aches, and even then he doesn't stop. It's working—slowly but surely, it's working. A couple of the other men catch on to Zach's plan and fall into formation, Simon appearing almost at his shoulder just as fatigue sets in so that he doesn't think he could raise his hand one more time.
"It's rustlers," Simon yells to him, though Zach is wound so tight he can barely process the words, much less care about their implications. "I think they've managed to split some of the herd off."
"Let 'em," Zach snarls. Right now, all he cares about it making it through this alive. If Karl fires them all on the other side of this, so be it. But the man has over two thousand head of beef. He can afford to lose a handful.
"John took some boys to head them off," Simon says.
Stupid, Zach thinks. They might not make it back. But again, he can't let himself think about that right now. Right now, he has to get Chris to the wagon, and get them all out of here, and then he can worry about who might live and who might die. Or maybe he'll decide none of that is worth worrying about at all, as long as he and Chris come through it okay.
The herd has thinned a little new between them and the wagon, enough so that Zach dares to ride toward it, slow and mincing, holding the horse tight between his thighs to keep her secure in her path. He feels Chris's grip on him tighten, and he hands the whip back to him so he can put it away, give him something to do other than try to squeeze the breath out of him. When his arm curls around Zach again, Zach puts his own hand on top of it to gentle him. They're almost there. Forty yards. Twenty.
Zach tugs at the reins to stop even with the wagon's seat and gives Chris's arm one more squeeze. "You got it from here?"
The chuck wagon isn't rocking anymore, the cattle thinned out enough that they're giving it the wide berth their used to. Chris will have to drive slow, but he does need to drive, or he'll be trailing behind them all, which isn't at all safe when there are bloodthirsty ranchers around. Zach hasn't heard a shot in a while, but none of them should be tempting fate.
"I got it," Chris says. His hand clamps like a vice on Zach's shoulder as he makes the hop from the horse to the wagon. They are running out of new places for Chris to touch him now, Zach thinks.
Now isn't the time to follow that thought to its logical conclusion, its question of where Zach wants Chris to touch him next.
"I gotta go back and help the boys," Zach says, reluctantly.
"Go," Chris takes up the reins and whistles at the horses, getting their attention. "I'm fine. Go on. Get."
Zach tugs his bandana down so Chris can see his expression. "Holler if you—"
"Zach, go." Chris's eyes narrow, his jaw taking on a stubborn set, and he clucks to his team.
That's that. Another cloud of dust begins to rise from under the wheels, and Zach pulls his bandana back into place. He turns his horse away and whistles needlessly at her out of the side of his mouth. In the distance, the other men are still working to get them out of this mess, and Zach sees at least one horse running around loose. There is chaos to mend, work to do—always.
He'll catch up with Chris later, or he won't. Either way, he shouldn't care this much.
It's later than usual by the time they stop for the night, and they have to make camp in full dark. By the time Zach returns from checking his horses for injuries and beating the dust off his clothes, the fire is roaring and a bubbling pot sits atop it, but Chris is nowhere in sight. Karl, Simon, and John sit close together, murmuring in serious tones like they're reporting on the mistakes of the day, but the thought of going to join them makes Zach feel weary down to his bones. This has been the longest damn day he's had in a while, and all he wants to do is sit and eat in silence.
They lost about a hundred cattle in the skirmish—not enough to seriously diminish Karl's prospects, but still enough to sting. A different boss might be storming around the camp, demanding they all make amends, but Zach has come to learn that Karl isn't that kind of man. He has his little tempers, but for the most part, he's level-headed and fair. A man like him would have accounted for the likely losses of the trail—from sickness or lameness or weather or rustlers. In the grand scheme of things, losing a hundred is nothing. If they make it to Abilene without losing any more it'll be a goddamn miracle.
Zach goes to the fire and spoons himself out a bowl of grub, then turns and heads for the wagon. Either Chris will be there or he won't be, but it'll be quieter there, away from the light and the food and the endless rehashing of where they went wrong, how they can fix it for next time. They went wrong coming out here in the first place. They can fix it for next time by getting some sense in their head and leaving the cattle trade. As if any of them ever could. No matter how fed up Zach gets, he can't talk himself into believing he'll ever be satisfied with anything different.
"Zach?" says a voice. It's Chris, sitting on the back of the wagon in the dark, a smudge without a face. Zach hesitates, rocking onto his back foot, but Chris puts out a hand and pats the planks next to him. Zach takes the invitation and hops up beside him, settling his bowl into his own lap.
"You alright?" he asks, though he knows Chris is. In hindsight, their day was stressful but not near as perilous as it could have been. If it took Zach's heart ages to settle again after Chris jumped off the back of his horse, that's his own fault.
"I'm fine," Chris says. "Just wanted some quiet." He nudges Zach's arm with his elbow. "Eat up. I'm sure you need it."
Zach does need it. As much as his mind wants to flit off to other things, the endless churning in his stomach demands he focus on the task at hand. He eats quickly and in silence, shoveling too-hot spoonfuls of stew into his mouth one after the other, barely tasting it. He can feel Chris watching him, his gaze greedy on the side of Zach's face, but he tries to ignore it until he's scraping the bottom of his bowl. When he goes to set the bowl aside, Chris takes it from his hands instead.
"Seconds?" he asks, glancing toward his own empty dish.
"No," Zach says. "Thank you."
Chris's hand twists in his collar and yanks him backward and pulls the canvas shut behind them, plunging them into total darkness. Zach hardly gets a chance to take stock of the situation before Chris is dragging him in close and breathing hard against his mouth, the other hand skating its way down his stomach, making his intentions all too clear.
"Tell me to stop," he says.
"No," Zach says again.
They're kissing then, all at once. Zach can't remember the last time he kissed someone, but he knows no one has ever kissed him quite like this before, deep and slow and sure. The trysts he's had with other cowboys on dark desert nights involved more teeth, more tearing of clothes and avoiding each other's eyes and pretending they were both pretending the other was a woman. Chris kisses him like he knows exactly what he's doing and who he's with, like he's trying to learn Zach from the inside out, memorize him in every way that counts.
He shoves his hand inside Zach's pants without opening them first, and in the confined space his grip feels as all-encompassing as the endless prairie sky. Zach has to turn his face away and bite down hard on his bottom lip to keep quiet. They aren't nearly far enough away from the others for this, but Chris doesn't seem to care one bit, because he nips at the corner of Zach's jaw, squeezes and strokes him, mouths at the shell of his ear like he's trying to drag sounds out of him.
"Christ," Zach hisses, and he pushes Chris away roughly, sending him sprawling across the boards before following him down. "You want to get caught?"
Surprise flickers across Chris's face like he hadn't even considered that, and it's that—that innocent expression—that makes Zach groan. Chris may look the part of the seasoned cowboy—with sun-lines on his forehead and gold streaks in his hair and calluses on the inside of his fingers from holding reins all day—but he's too good for this life. Too good for any of it. Zach kisses the corners of his eyes, the pads of his fingers, and lets him know it.
They have added at least a week to their trek. Karl decides it's too dangerous to head back to the trail, so they hang to the west, figuring they'll cut back in around the Kansas border. For a few days, they all ride a little tenser in the saddle, their heads swiveling this way and that as they try to spot danger before it spots them. But no danger comes, no more angry farmers on their tail, and eventually the atmosphere returns to normal.
Zach spends those few days thinking not of bullets and stampedes but of Chris. The way he writhed under Zach's hand and under his mouth. The way his fingers curled in Zach's hair. The way he bit his own lip almost bloody trying to stay quiet. Zach thought he'd experienced all manner of illicit encounters in his life—some he enjoyed and many he did not—but he never experienced anything quite like Chris. Chris is a man who knows what he wants; that much was clear the moment he first put his hands on Zach. And yet he seemed so innnocent in the way he didn't think to get them farther away from the others first, or to hide the mess afterward. Zach still has a soiled bandana shoved in one of the pockets of his saddlebag, waiting for a creek or a good rainstorm to clean it.
Chris is a distraction, and it's fortunate Zach does most of his work by rote, or else he'd have managed to get himself fired by now. His thoughts are so consistently elsewhere that he begins to worry the others will notice. That his desire is so intense it circles about him like an aura, visible to all who look his way. But nothing changes, no one notices, and so, they grow more reckless.
They've barely ducked behind the wagon before Chris fastens his mouth to Zach's neck, slides a finger between the buttons of his shirt so he can touch skin. "You'll be the death of me," Zach growls against Chris's lips, and Chris only laughs, like it's a joke. Like death isn't actually on the menu and they haven't both evaded it many times over.
Maybe that's the draw, Zach thinks. Maybe Chris enjoys the danger—the danger of the open range, the danger of almost getting caught. He seems unassuming at first, but Zach supposes that no one signs up for a cattle drive unless they have a little taste for chaos. Even Karl, who is trying to hold them all together, has been known to organize boxing matches and other pointless feats of testosterone during their downtime, like if they are bored for more than a handful of minutes, they might burst in to flame.
The implication is, maybe Chris doesn't want him at all. He only wants the thrill, and Zach is the one most readily able to supply it.
Still, Zach finds himself tip-toeing to Chris's bedroll in the middle of the night, waking him with a hand across his mouth and then leading far enough away that the fire is a pinprick in the distance and they can't hear the men who are herding the cattle through the night. They rut there in the dirt, and Zach would feel like an animal except for the way Chris keeps whispering nonsense in his ear and the way his own hand strokes Chris's flank like he's a spooked horse that needs comforting.
Some nights he lies awake until sunrise, thinking of the way Chris laughs, the crow's feet at the corners of his eyes when he squints into the sun, his long and capable fingers. Whatever Chris's motives are for stealing secret moments with him, Zach's doesn't have to guess at his own motives. When Chris sucked that venom out of his leg, he injected his own kind of poison in its place, and it's circulating hot and deadly through Zach's veins even now.
If Texas is the magnet that draws him in, Kansas is its opposite pole, repelling him. He hates the monotony of it, the way you can ride for days without seeing a single meaningful landmark. He hates how low the sky seems, like you could reach up and touch it. In Texas, the sky stretches up to heaven itself, but here it presses down on you, making you feel boxed-in even amidst all that open space.
They drive the herd across a swollen river near the border, and it's a nightmare from top to bottom. The cattle try to scatter, struggling against the rushing water, and Zach has to switch horses three times when his others get exhausted from swimming alongside the unruly animals. Once the last stragglers cross the water, Zach is soaked—half sweat, half river water—and his feet have gone numb.
Karl graciously allows them a short afternoon break in which they bathe and wash their clothes in shifts. Chris will go last, Zach knows, so he hangs back himself, riding the perimeter with Karl to keep the animals settled while the others are away. By the time he strips off his clothes and wades into the water after Chris, he's exhausted, his limbs heavy, and he can only grin and shake his head when Chris splashes him, clearly aiming for a little innocent horseplay. It would be a good excuse to put their hands all over each other in front of the others, but Zach doesn't have the energy, so he contents himself with watching soap and water sluice down the smooth, tanned plane of Chris's back.
The way Chris moves, his hands roaming slow, his face angled toward the sun, Zach thinks he's getting a show, and not for the first time he wishes they weren't about to be called back to work, that they could have some time to sit on the riverbank with their arms around each other, enjoying the heat of the day instead of cursing it, enjoying each other's company instead of rushing from one moment to the next before reality intervenes. He almost says as much out loud—he doesn't think the others could hear them over the rushing water—but he fears Chris's reaction. He fears making himself a fool.
Abilene is a bleak place. Stinking, muddy stockyards out by the railroad tracks. Stinking muddy streets running past a general store, a haberdashery, a saloon, a hotel too large and fancy for the likes of Zach to ever be allowed inside. It has grown over the past couple years as the cattle trade has boomed, but Zach can't quit seeing it as it was the first time he ever set foot here, when it was barely a town at all, just a blip in the middle of a stretch of Kansan nothingness.
Karl cuts them loose with many verbal thanks and a stack of bills pressed into their hands—minus the cost of the lost cattle, of course. He tries to extract promises that he'll see them all again next season, but none of the men can commit to that. They'll go with whoever's paying best when they're ready to head back out on the trail, or whoever is willing to take them on when they're at their most desperate. Some of these cowboys will ride from one cow town to the next, blowing their money on gambling and women until they have nothing left, and then they'll ride back to Texas to beg for work. Some will head west to try to find work sooner. Zach has usually been in the latter category, but he's not sure now. He's not sure about much of anything, except that he needs a whiskey and a good night's sleep in a real bed.
Chris will be going back with Karl in a few days' time, that much is certain. The chuck wagon is Karl's, and Chris's folks are in Texas waiting for him and for the money he'll bring back. But Karl has to wait for payment on those cattle, so Chris has to wait too, and Zach will get a little more time with him.
Or will he? It occurs to Zach as they're tying their horses up outside the saloon that he still doesn't really know what's going on in Chris's head, whether the past couple months have been a way for him to pass the time or something more than that.
They don't speak to each other as they head inside, shoulder to shoulder, or when they sit down at a table and Zach waves over a waitress. Zach orders a whiskey, and Chris holds up two fingers, then sets his hat on the table beside him and runs the fingers of both hands through his hair. He looks tired—but then, that's only fair. They're all tired, and Zach doesn't think that just because Chris sat in a wagon all day that it makes him any less deserving of a good, long rest.
There are women milling about at the back of the room—the kind of women who would usually have come to try to entice them upstairs by now—but they stay away as if on instinct as Zach downs his whiskey in one gulp and orders another, while Chris props his chin in his hand and stares absently out the window.
"How long you gonna stay for?" Chris asks at long last, once they've both had ample time to take the edge off, glasses sitting empty between their hands.
"Long enough to see you off," Zach says. It's the closest he's come to a real confession. He can't bear to look at Chris's face to see if recognition dawns there.
"And after that?" Chris asks. "What're your plans then?"
Zach shrugs and scratches the back of his neck, where the skin is rough with dirt and dried sweat. He may trade some of his hard-earned money for a bath tonight, if he can convince one of the women to draw him one.
"You could come with us," Chris says, and Zach's head snaps up so fast that if he hadn't given himself away before, he surely has now.
"Come with you?" he repeats. "And do what."
It's Chris's turn to shrug now. "There'll be room in the wagon for you, and there'll be more work in Texas than there is here. Maybe Karl would hire you on. He seems to like you."
Zach doesn't know if Karl likes him any more or less than the other men, and he certainly doesn't know whether he needs help on his ranch, but he can't help but consider the option anyway. Because it's Chris who's asking, Chris who cares what Zach does next.
"I was thinking about going back to California for a spell," Zach lies, looking sideways at Chris. "It's not hard to find work there in the fall. Even the winter, sometimes."
Chris catches his eye and holds it, his mouth pulled into a thin line. The silence stretches uncomfortably, long enough that Zach regrets trying to wind Chris up. He should have told the truth: that he'd happy follow Chris to the moon if that's where he wants to go, and if he thinks he can make a place for Zach by his side.
"Well then," Chris says at last, picking his hat up off the table and putting it back on his head. "Suit yourself. I'm beat. I'm going to get a room."
He stands and tips his hat to Zach, a silent good night. The gesture drops like a hot stone into Zach's stomach and sits there, glowing and scalding him, long after Chris has disappeared up the stairs.
Zach falls onto the bed and sinks into it as though it's made of clouds. Nothing feels as good as that first mattress after weeks of sleeping rough. It doesn't matter if he can feel the straw poking through it or hear the sounds of sordid business being done in the room next door. He could sleep through a tornado now, he thinks.
But he's wrong. He doesn't sleep. Can't. He rolls onto his side, stares at the light coming in under the crack in the door, and thinks about how Chris is somewhere nearby, laying on bed like this one, maybe not sleeping either. What did he mean, asking Zach to come with him to Texas? He should be more careful asking a man a thing like that; some of the ones who will bend you over out on the trail don't feel the same once they're back among civilization. Zach could have taken it poorly. He could have gone to Karl and told him he may want to think twice before taking Chris on drives in the future.
Instead he's laying here wondering where this softness in his heart come from. He swears it didn't exist months ago, before he met Chris. A smarter man might begin the work now of trying to harden it up again, but all he can think about is the way Chris tipped his hat at him, the way his fingers slid along the brim, the way his eyes fell to Zach's mouth before he turned away. Zach could pretend he still loves freedom more than anything else, but he knows if he rode out onto the plains looking for work, that image would play in his head all day long, all night too, and all he'd want in the whole wide world would be to see it again.
He sits up in bed, wishing he had summoned the energy to have that bath after all. It might have knocked him out. Instead, he's looking at a night of pacing the floor like a caged animal, restless even though he's finally under a solid roof.
Footsteps in the hallway—a girl, Zach thinks at first, coming to check on him or going to her own room farther on. But no, the steps are too heavy, and they stop in front of his door, two shadows Zach can see underneath it.
Zach stands up before the first knock and opens the door before the second, and he's both surprised and not surprised at all to see Chris standing there. He's hatless again, and his shirt is half unbuttoned, like he stopped himself in the middle of getting undressed. A strand of hair falls across his forehead, and it's all Zach can do not to reach out and push it back into place.
"Come to Texas with me," Chris says, as breathless as if he ran here. Zach has to grab him by the front of his shirt and reel him into the room before he can say any other foolhardy things within earshot of everyone in the place.
"For someone who once gave me a lecture about treading on snakes," Zach says, "you sure don't seem to look where you're putting your feet."
Chris lets the quip fly by him, but he waits for Zach to shut the door before he says again, "Come to Texas with me."
Zach is too tired to dance around this anymore. Chris laid his cards out on the table, and it's time for Zach to lay his in turn. "What else would I do, huh?" he asks, taking Chris by the elbows and reeling him in. "Where else would I go, but with you?"
Chris kisses him like he means to leave bruises, and for once, Zach doesn't care. If he is marked up tomorrow, so much the better. He's already branded on his heart. Let Chris brand him on the outside too; Zach will go get the hot iron himself, if he wants to do it that way.
They stumble to the bed, and Zach reaches deep inside himself and manages to find enough energy to strip Chris of his clothes, reduce him to a shivering, sobbing mess, then curl up behind him on the bed and hold him close. They fall asleep like that, wrapped around each other, and in the morning, when Zach opens his eyes, Chris is still there beside him, his face peaceful in dreaming.
Zach thinks back to a memory, the first time he rode along the banks of the Red River and saw the bronze hills dotted with green and the clear sky above, a shade of blue he swore he'd never seen before. He thought then that he could be a cowboy forever, if it meant he got to ride through country like that, see beauty like that every day of his life. Now, he looks at Chris's face—the curve of his top lip, the sliver of collarbone visible beneath his shirt—and he feels that same feeling, the slow shedding of the person he was before and the tender new-skin version that could lie down beside a person and wake up with them too and not feel trapped or caged in. Chris is a whole new kind of beauty, and Zach plans to explore every part of him.