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Up on the Range

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The sheriff slammed into the office with a hearty “Goddammit!” instead of a “G’day.”

Diego looked up from last month’s newspaper (fresh off the stagecoach that morning). “Trouble, Sheriff?”

“That Black Knuckle, I tell you!” The Sheriff bustled around the office like she couldn’t decide where to plant herself.

Diego folded the paper carefully for the sheriff to peruse after him, cleared his throat, and said in what he hoped was a neutral tone of voice: “What about him?”

“He’s only gone and stolen half a dozen eggs from Ben Schneider’s coop this morning! And that ain’t all.”

Diego frowned – that didn’t make any sense, even by Black Knuckle’s mercurial standards. He waited for an explanation. He didn’t trust his voice not to break if he faked anymore nonchalant interest.

The sheriff obliged him with more information about Black Knuckle’s depredations around town: “He also stole the tablet of bitter chocolate I ordered in special on the stagecoach.”

She took off her hat, slammed it down on her desk, and ran her hand through her tangled hair.

“Goddammit,” she muttered. “I was gonna make eclairs.” She pronounced it eee-clairs.

A fly buzzed in the dusty air.

Diego opened his mouth to fill the silence, he wasn’t sure what with, when Lucy saved him by bursting into the office and announcing that Black Knuckle’d made off with the Widow Johnson’s prize horse White Star. Again.

The sheriff grabbed up her hat with an annoyed snort. “That boy’s caused nothing but trouble since the day he slipped off the back of his daddy’s horse and cartwheeled down Main Street for no good reason whatsoever. Weren’t never anyone that happy to arrive in this town.”

Diego stood up to follow her outside and found something to say at last.

“That’s how he got his nickname, did you know that? He did cartwheels at the schoolhouse one time, slipped on the waxed floor, and twisted his finger, so it turned the color of a blackberry. He just laughed about it, all insouciant-like.” Despite Diego’s best efforts, his tone turned wistful at the memory.

The sheriff turned just inside the door to scrutinize Diego, and so it was her back rather than her face that the fella coming into the office collided with.

After they’d untangled themselves and the sheriff introduced the newcomer as the new deputy, she told Diego: “You go on home. I’ll bring Ricky along to look for Black Knuckle, show him the ropes. Might as well get his feet wet chasing the sole reason our crime statistics stay high year in, year out.”

“Oh, um.” Diego wouldn’t have minded slipping out early, but he didn’t want to put the new guy on the spot. “You know I have the nightshift, Sheriff.”

Sheriff Schaefer half-smiled, clapped a hand on Diego’s shoulder, and nudge-walked him to the door so they’d be out of Ricky’s earshot.

“You don’t think I’d make you work the nightshift on your birthday, son,” she said.

“I didn’t think you remembered. No reason why you would.”

She shook her head. “Knucklehead. I’ve only known you since you were yay high. Only reason I gave you the nightshift was so I could surprise you later on with them eclairs, but obviously that ain’t gonna happen now. So go on, get. Go get a drink, find someone pretty to dance with.”

Diego was very touched. Not wanting to overdo it with his boss, he touched the brim of his hat politely and took himself off.

He was not surprised to find White Star tied up behind his house, looking as gorgeous as ever, all sleek black haunches and the eponymous white star on his forehead. A grimy sheet of notepaper was tied on a string around the horse’s neck. It said “giddy-up.”

Diego didn’t hold back his smile, though he shook his head in dutiful disapproval. He knew he should’ve returned the horse to the Johnson ranch right away, but his curiosity got the better of him, as it tended to do where Black Knuckle was concerned.

Once he’d saddled White Star and mounted up, he wasn’t much surprised to find that the horse seemed to know exactly where he was going. Black Knuckle had been “borrowing” (his choice of word) White Star every month or so since the horse had foaled.

White Star ambled through the late afternoon, climbing steadily up into the hills, stopping occasionally for a mouthful of grass, still succulent in patches of shade, or a scratch against a fragrant sage bush. Yep, that horse knew just where it needed to go.

While the sky purpled and spangled above him, Diego rode up to a cleft between some striated boulders, ringed with more blooming sage, where a small fire burned in a ring of stones and an outlaw waited for him.

Black Knuckle stood up from tending the fire, hitched his thumbs in his belt, and smiled at the sight of Diego. “Well, well, look who rode in on the evening star. Hello there, partner,” he said softly.

Diego was glad of the gathering dark. He could feel blood rushing to his face while he dismounted and tied up White Star, keeping just outside of the circle of firelight.

He cleared his throat. “You got yourself a new hat.”

Black Knuckle ran the brim of his black Stetson between his fingers. The whisper of his skin on the felt sounded louder in Diego’s ears than the crackle of the fire.

“New hat, same shiny ol’ me.” Black Knuckle was still smiling, his eyes catching the firelight. “I’m so glad you came.”

It was the sincerity in his voice rather than the flattery in his words that spurred Diego on. He crossed from the lengthening shadows into the firelight and kissed Black Knuckle right on the mouth, for here no one could see them and jeer, and Black Knuckle did look as shiny as ever, and Diego had missed him. (Despite everything, Diego always missed him when he wasn’t around. And despite never having witnessed anyone get jeered at for any reason in the town where he’d spent his whole life, Diego was always fearful of the possibility.)

Their hats got knocked off into the dust, and neither of them cared. Black Knuckle leaned his whole body into the kiss, his mouth slipping from Diego’s lips, whispering over Diego’s stubbly chin, to roost on his neck, where the skin was smooth and Diego’s pulse beat and his Adam’s apple did a quick two-step in response to Black Knuckle nuzzling his throat.

Black Knuckle pulled back. “I made something for you,” he said, wicked to the last.

Diego wasn’t sure he could form whole words on his tongue. He’d been panting under Black Knuckle’s mouth, his whole body aflame just from that first touch, and now they were back to playing a game.

He pulled his wits together and said: “Don’t suppose you thought to steal a cup of sugar too, did you? That chocolate the sheriff ordered from the city was s’pposed to be bitter.”

The silence, which lasted just a beat longer than usual when Black Knuckle’s silver tongue was involved, told Diego it was about even odds if the birthday cake concealed in – if Diego had to guess – Black Knuckle’s saddlebags would prove edible or not.

Black Knuckle laughed. “‘Course I stole some sugar too. I made something sweet for my sweetheart. You don’t think I’d mess that up, now do you?”

Again that sincerity snagged Diego, a fishhook to his heart, and stole all his usual caution clean away. Black Knuckle really was a thief.

Diego moved in for another kiss and was met with eager joy like the first day of springtime.

“Thank you,” he said between kisses, his hands going to the small of Black Knuckle’s back, Black Knuckle’s hands traveling farther south on Diego’s body.

Another kiss, then, quickly, before Black Knuckle devoured him again:

“Can we eat it later?”

Starting to sound breathless, Diego had to explain he meant no insult to Black Knuckle’s baking endeavor:

“I’ve just missed you.”

The truth of it terrified him, out in the open like that, but there it was, so he added another truth: “It’s dull in town when you ain’t around.”

Black Knuckle pulled back again, but he also turned Diego in a semicircle, like they were dancing, maneuvering Diego toward the blanket spread out in a lee of rock, out of the wind, visible now that Diego’s eyes had adjusted to the shifting firelight and shadows.

“Wouldn’t need to miss me if you’d let me stay in town,” Black Knuckle teased while he pushed and Diego pulled him down to the blanket, crushed sage perfuming the air around them.

“Wouldn’t need you to keep outside of town if you’d quit stealing,” Diego countered and snatched another kiss, or would have done if Black Knuckle hadn’t been leaning in to give him one already.

Black Knuckle shifted just enough to fit his hand between their bodies, catch Diego’s shirt buttons between his fingers. He kissed Diego’s throat again, then the cleft between Diego’s collarbones, and on down Diego’s chest, clearing the impediment of the shirt as he went.

He’d unbuckled Diego’s belt, and Diego was holding his breath at what he knew would follow, when next Black Knuckle spoke:

“You know they wouldn’t care if they knew, Diego. People of that town, they love you.”

Diego’s breath left his body as from a gut punch. Black Knuckle’s lips yanked him out of it, his stubble brushing Diego’s stomach below the bellybutton, Black Knuckle’s lips parting and his teeth grazing Diego where his private hair began. Diego felt tossed here and there, like a horse drug him down Main Street.

“Happy birthday,” Black Knuckle whispered, and opened the piss slit on Diego’s pants, and bent his head.

Diego took the thickening night and the sage and the fire inside himself on a deep breath of air. He gripped Black Knuckle’s soft hair and stroked Black Knuckle’s cheek, his jaw, the corner of his wet mouth, where the thin skin stretched taut as Black Knuckle bent over him and showed him how much he’d missed him. Diego let it all swirl together inside him and fill him up, till he felt like he’d burst.