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Behind the Mask

Chapter Text

ONE

 

Dozing over the town’s weekly newspaper, Deputy Marshal Renfro jolted awake when he heard the babble of excited voices. Swinging his feet down from the desk, he went to investigate; it was kind of hot for so much commotion. He emerged on the sidewalk from shade of the jail to find that most of Cooksville seemed to have gathered to witness Marshal Gerard bringing home the prisoner he had left to hunt down five weeks ago.

Bursting with pride on behalf of his friend, but not remotely surprised that Gerard should have got his man, Renfro waited for his eyes to accustom themselves to the glare of the sun after the dim, cool interior of his office. Accepting Judd into custody, shock prevented him from commenting on Gerard’s appearance while they were in public. Sam looked like a dead man walking, will-power the only thing keeping him on his feet.

While Deputy Newman locked Judd in a cell out back, Renfro studied Gerard.

“You look terrible, Sammy. Jesus, sit down,” he urged, appalled by Gerard’s gaunt appearance.

Sheer cussedness kept Gerard standing by the door. “I got sick. Typhoid, according to the quack in Integrity. I’m over the worst. I just need to rest up for a spell.”

“You got that much right,” Renfro told him forthrightly. “Wouldn’t you know it, the doctor’s just left for Tarrville but - ”

Gerard hadn’t taken in what he had been told. “I just need to rest up for a spell,” he repeated, with the stubbornness of a man with no other resources open to him.

“Damn it, Sammy,” yelled Renfro as the other man headed out the door. He was in time to see the marshal emerge onto the sidewalk, where Gerard collapsed as abruptly as if he had been pole-axed.

 

Gerard recovered consciousness to find what seemed like half the town peering down at him. The audible estimates of how long he had left in this world weren’t in his favor. Prepared to believe them, he regained an interest in proceedings when he became aware that someone was unfastening his shirt. He tried to sit up but his muscles refused to obey him. Taken aback by this proof of just how weak he was, he almost suffered a relapse when he realized that the townsfolk were about to see their elected marshal being stripped naked by one of Cooksville’s oldest inhabitants. Miss Lacey still had a tendency to regard him as the schoolboy she had caught stealing apples.

“Stop making such a fuss, Samuel,” she scolded, her usual astringent manner reassuring Gerard that he couldn’t be at death’s door. “Caroline is trying to discover what’s wrong with you, you foolish boy.”

To Gerard’s relief Miss Lacey turned her attention to the people pressing in on them. The crowd dispersed in seconds; grumbling it was true, but no-one had discovered a way of facing up to an elderly woman who looked as if a puff of wind would blow her away.

Gerard reopened his eyes when he felt fingers busy with the buttons of his pants. “Hey!” His outrage was barely a croak of sound.

“You save your breath, Sam,” Renfro advised him. “Caroline needs to examine you.”

“There?” Gerard managed.

“Oh, hush now,” Caroline told him, relaxing a little when he pulled a face at her. “How does this feel?” She gently palpated his stomach.

Wincing, he tried to push her hand away. “Like you’re poking me in the belly,” he said without gratitude. “Stop confusing me with one of your kids and let me fasten my own pants. When did I turn into a sideshow?”

“When you were dumb enough to collapse in front of half the town,” Caroline retorted with an asperity which imperfectly concealed her concern.

“I just need to rest up,” Gerard reiterated. He managed to push himself up onto one elbow on his second attempt.

“Oh, you’re going to,” Caroline assured him. “You’re coming home with us.” Her firm tone made it obvious there was no arguing with her.

It was a mark of how ill Gerard felt that for once in his life he didn’t even try.

oOo

 

The man still calling himself Richard Kimble yawned and flexed his broad shoulders, but he wore a contented smile as he rode down to the ferry crossing. He took his time because it was too hot to want to rush anything. Damn, but he was tired, although the last eight days had been worth it; because of him a few people were alive who might otherwise be dead. While saving lives couldn’t erase the sins of the past, it went some way to easing the sense of guilt that was never far away.

Exchanging pleasantries with Henry Ritchie, the handsome Negro ferryman, Kimble let the unhappy memories slip away. Dismounting, he stretched the kinks from his spine and led his stallion Red onto the flat-bottomed ferry that would take them home.

Home? He scowled into the middle distance. What the hell was he thinking? It had been five years since he’d dared call any place home - not that he’d ever settled anywhere long, looking for the right place. Ironic, he should finally find what he’d been looking for. He’d been happy here and had no wish to leave Cooksville, which had come to mean so much to him in such a short space of time. He could stay for another two months at most, then he must move on again.

Turning to reply to a light-hearted comment from Ritchie, the severe look left Kimble’s face and he began to relax, happy to be back amongst the people he had learned to call friends. Idly chatting as they crossed the river, he watched the sunlight sparkle on the water with a sleepy appreciation. He’d already known that California was a fine-looking State but Cooksville was one of the jewels in its crown. Not only was it one of the prettiest spots he’d ever seen but the townsfolk were convivial - and law-abiding for the most part. Apart from some drunken cowhands there hadn’t been a single shooting in the five weeks he’d been here - unless something untoward had taken place while he had been away.

Smiling his thanks to Ritchie, Kimble headed up the long curving track which would eventually take him to his house. The heat of the sun on his back reminded him of how long it had been since he had enjoyed the luxury of a bath. Impulse made him turn Red down the narrow track which meandered along the curve of the river. It was cool under the shade of the huge willows which grew here - a welcome respite from the heat of midday. Already in his shirt sleeves with his necktie abandoned and his collar undone, the fine lawn of his shirt clung to his muscled torso. Mopping his forehead with the back of a gloved hand, Kimble glanced at the river again. The water glinted invitingly, making him feel hotter than ever.

Doctors weren’t supposed to go skinny-dipping, but there was no-one to see him in this out-of-the-
way spot and the water would feel so good against his bare skin. Dismounting, he secured Red in the shade down by the water. Stretching, he began to undress. He would swim, maybe even sleep for a while. Perhaps the sun could chase away the nightmare images which haunted him in the darkest hours of the night.

 

Caroline emerged onto the porch in time to see Gerard easing himself onto the saddle with a care which spoke of someone trying to avoid attracting attention.

“And where do you think you’re going?” she called.

Sighing, Gerard swallowed his protest when he saw that Caroline’s glare imperfectly concealed her concern. Dismounting, his expression mutinous, he climbed the steps until they were almost of a height, which meant he was two steps below her.

“Well?” Caroline demanded sternly.

“It’s time I went home, honey.”

“Sam, you can’t!” Her protest was involuntary and heartfelt.

“You’ve got to let me go some time. I’m as healthy as Maverick here. Thanks to you.” Stepping up onto the porch beside her he took her small hand in his own large one and kissed first the work-roughened fingers, then the smooth perfection of her cheek, marveling as so often at her luminous beauty, which owed as much to her personality as to the combination of blue eyes, red hair and a mouth which could lead a man’s thoughts astray even when he was being scolded.

Unappeased, Caroline glared up at him. “You’re in no condition to go carousing round the county.”

“No,” he agreed.

Her irritation melted by the spurious sadness in his voice, she gave a rueful grin. “Oh, what’s the use?” Reaching up, she brushed back the thick dark hair spilling onto his forehead; he needed a haircut. “It’s just that Cosmo worries, you know?”

Gerard nodded. Oddly enough, Cosmo had told him the same thing about Caroline. Even the kids had only just stopped patting him and talking in stage whispers - and a Renfro household where five children were quiet at the same time was against nature. He felt cosseted to death.

“I’m fine,” he repeated, only his real affection for her enabling him to hide his impatience. While the look he received was skeptical, Caroline gave a sigh of defeat.

“I know you are. I only realized how desperate you must be to leave when Alex confessed you’d bribed him to get your clothes. Well, don’t just stand there, go. But take things easy. Good friends are hard to come by.” Her quick, fierce hug made him grunt. “Now git if you’re going.”

Smiling to himself, Gerard rode out of town, ruefully aware of the interest he was attracting from those he passed - presumably folk who had lost their bets thanks to Caroline force-feeding him some of the best home-cooking in the county. While he was weaker than he had anticipated, he felt... Free, he admitted. Grinning, he leaned forward to pat Maverick’s neck. There was no need to ask if Alex had been looking after her, she was sleek and fat.

Rounding a bend in the road out of town and glimpsing the glint of sun on water in the distance, he decided to take a short ride before he went home. Passing from sun to shade, he headed Maverick down the steep bank to the wide river, following the track where the trees leaned out over the almost still water.

It was then that he spotted the body of a naked man sprawled in a small clearing in the undergrowth. Thinking the man must be sick, Gerard dismounted at speed. He had halved the distance between them when it belatedly occurred to him that the man had simply gone for a swim. He must have fallen asleep while he waited for the sun to dry the moisture from his body.

Standing in the cover provided by an elderly oak, Gerard’s palm settled over the bark, the rough texture in contrast to the smooth, muscled body so temptingly close. It was difficult - hell, impossible - not to stare. Satisfied that the stranger really was asleep, Gerard indulged himself and allowed his appreciative gaze to wander.

The body was that of a man, not a youth - a man in his physical prime. Gerard could see nothing of the face, which rested on folded arms, a dark, broad-brimmed hat keeping head hidden, but his muscled back was...beautiful, Gerard admitted to himself, dry-mouthed with lust. The skin golden, the shoulders were broad and the flanks narrow. And the ass... Perfection, he conceded, shifting slightly where he stood when muscles twitched and flexed as the man moved infinitesimally in sleep. Something for a man to get his hands on, or his mouth over, or his...

Oh my. Gerard shifted again. If the speed with which his body had stirred was any indication he must be more recovered than he had realized.

 

Fatigue having dulled his well-honed instinct for survival, Kimble woke only when the stranger was already too close. He played possum, willing his thundering heart to calm, as if it could be heard outside his chest. He reminded himself that if the interloper was Sykes he would already be dead. Same if it was a bushwhacker. Not that it was likely. Renfro ran a law-abiding town. Unable to hear any sound, he ventured to peep through the curtain of his eyelashes and relaxed. He recognized that hunger. He knew what it was to yearn after sweet man-flesh. One word out of place and it could cost you your life. But for now...

It felt good to be wanted. And from the way the stranger was shifting it was obvious he was wanted.

Damn, that was one fine-looking man. Dark, almost black hair, tall, lean - too lean for comfort really - and dressed all in black. That just-parted mouth was begging to be explored.

To Kimble’s regret the man blinked, as if freed from a spell, and backed away until the shadows under the trees swallowed him up. A short time later Kimble heard the sound of a horse moving off. Scrambling to his feet, he cut through the undergrowth, wanting to see which way the tempting stranger was riding - maybe he could contrive some means for them to meet.

A smile lit his face when he saw horse and rider heading for Cooksville; his smile broadened to one of pure mischief when he saw the man take the trail to the left. That path had only one destination - the finest, and only, whorehouse in town.

Scrambling into his clothes, thoughts of sleep forgotten, Kimble headed after the skinny stranger with the tempting mouth.

 

Entering the Ablution Suite Gerard gave a stretch of pure well-being before beginning to whistle happily and occasionally in tune. Having just spent thirty minutes with Euphemia Poole he felt good and relaxed. He was mildly fond of Euphemia and was pleased that his fastest time so far hadn’t inconvenienced her. In fact she seemed to take it as a compliment.

He began to strip, reveling in the sense of belonging in his body once more. He’d performed with remarkable vigor considering Euphemia bore no resemblance to the man who had inspired him. From sickbed to whorehouse in the space of a few hours spoke well for his powers of recuperation, although the sight of that splendid ass twitching in the sun would have roused a dead man. It wasn’t that the ladies here weren’t attractive, just that his preference was for masculine lines and muscular bodies. As a youth he had believed it was a curse to have such inclinations. Various encounters while he was away hunting down fugitives had assured him that he wasn’t the only man to have such desires, although he had yet to indulge in the most intimate act men could share.

Stripped to his red flannel long johns, Gerard leaned over to test the water in the tub he favored. Good and hot. He gave a contented sigh. There was nothing like a quiet soak, not least because he almost always had this suite to himself. Although given that the other tub was full and steaming gently that state of affairs might not last.

The whorehouse lay on the outskirts of town. From the outside it looked like any other large house in the area, Madame Reynard, wishing to be as discreet as possible. Inside, Madame - Denise to old acquaintances, Foxy to a select few - had let her imagination take flight as much as her purse strings would allow. The painted cherubs on the ceilings and crimson furnishings were not too much of a distraction, although the first time Gerard had noticed the naked nymphs frolicking above him he had wound up with a severe crick in his neck and a resolve to try a couple of those tricks when he found the right partner.

Damn, but he liked this Ablution Suite. The water was always plentiful and hot, the soap a fresh bar and if the scent was a little unmanly, well, it was better than the oily, green concoction he’d tried once. There were two tubs and the usual accouterments of soap, a washcloth, razor, strop and scissors. He’d never had cause to use the spittoon for anything but his cigar ash and the fancy chair was too flimsy to risk sitting on.

Reminding himself the water would be cooling, he shrugged out of his long johns for the third time in an hour. His head swinging around when the door behind him opened, he relaxed and gave the improbable blonde entering the room a friendly smile. Sherry was one of Madame’s older ladies and rarely saw clients nowadays.

“It’s good to see you out and about again, marshal.” She set out clean towels before extending her hand for the last of his clothing.

Despite all the evidence to the contrary there was still a part of Gerard that regarded women as fragile creatures to be sheltered and protected. He treated every woman he met as if she was a lady. Which was why his free hand covered his manhood when he handed Sherry his undergarments.

Used to Gerard’s ways by this time, Sherry’s smile was indulgent as she set the long johns over the back of the chair, with his other clothes. His habit of getting dressed to walk downstairs to the Ablution Suite after he had been entertained was well-known within the Establishment. While he enjoyed a second, more leisurely bath, she always collected his boots and gave them a high polish, brushing down his jacket, if it required such attention. Taking up his boots, she left him to enjoy his tub.

Gerard sighed inwardly. He was aware that the ladies here considered him bashful and while it didn’t fit right with his self-image, there was little he could do to change it. He wasn’t comfortable walking around naked in front of women, the habit too deeply ingrained to be shrugged aside at will.

Stepping into his tub, Gerard cursed when his foot knocked the bar of soap into the water. He leaned over to fish out the soap. It was only when he was settled that he became aware of the man who stood framed in the doorway. He made a swift, automatic assessment of the stranger, who was making a thorough study of his own. The man looked to be in his mid-thirties, of a similar age to himself, although the light beard stubble and brim of the hat hid much of his face. It was hard to judge from a sitting position but the stranger looked to be his own height, or perhaps the long, pale duster simply made him seem taller. The man continued to watch Gerard; far from conveying any threat, he looked both curious and amused.

Gerard’s eyes narrowed before he raised an eyebrow. “You want something?” he demanded, his tone more abrupt than he had intended.

The man regarded him blankly for a moment before he seemed to collect himself, the somewhat vacuous look in his eyes replaced by a friendly sparkle that matched the crooked smile.

“Afternoon. The name’s Kimble.” His tone was light and friendly. Taking off his hat, he tossed it onto the nearest chair and approached Gerard with his hand outstretched, knocking the soap off the rim and into the tub as he did so.

“Oh. Here, let me get that for you,” Kimble said with a disarming warmth. Pushing his sleeve up his arm, he plunged his hand into the water.

Gerard almost squeaked when the probing fingers brushed his thigh. Instead he kept a manly silence and turned up his glare a few degrees.

Kimble continued to fish about for the elusive cake of soap. He eventually found it beneath Gerard’s inclined-to-be-ticklish knees.

Gerard’s manly silence was broken by the smallest of choked gasps. Kimble’s grin put Gerard in mind of the eager-to-please exuberance of Cosmo’s long-haired dog - usually just before the damn thing tried to hump his leg.

Kimble extended his hand and Gerard held out his own in automatic response, only to have the somewhat slimy soap pressed into it. Looking absurdly pleased with himself, Kimble turned towards the other tub and removed his duster.

There was a slight splash. Kimble turned around as Gerard began searching in the tub muttering, “I got it, I got it.”

As Kimble turned away to hang up his hat and coat, Gerard was willing to swear he saw the other man’s shoulders shaking.

Much to his relief Gerard found the soap. He cast a wary glance at the stranger, who had sat on the chair to pull off his boots. He looked to be about thirty-five. The face was strong, though the features taken separately were unremarkable; the nose had been broken at some point and the jaw was off-kilter, although whether as a result of injury or nature was hard to determine. The intriguing scar across the chin gave the face a battered look that was strangely appealing, and served only to draw attention to the well-shaped mouth. Women probably found him irresistible. They would like the way strands of the thick, glossy brown hair flopped over his forehead, just begging to be brushed back, and the hazel eyes, more green than brown, that...

Discovering the soap to be oozing between his tightly clenched fingers Gerard slackened his grip. The bar slipped out of his hand and fell back into the water. He cast a glance at Kimble, but he was too busy undressing to notice what was going on so Gerard took advantage of the opportunity to study him at his leisure.

The duster, vest shirt and boots were gone and Gerard’s eyes drifted across the broad shoulders and well-formed back, before skittering away as the man turned around and began to unfasten his pants. Gerard grabbed his soap and with studied concentration built up a lather, which kept his hands and eyes occupied, even if his thoughts were on the stranger. The name wasn’t familiar; Kimble could be passing through, or he could very well be a new resident of Cooksville. He may even have married one of the local misses -

Gerard felt a sickening lurch in his belly and he shot a look at the other man, who was shrugging out of his combinations. No, Kimble did not have the look of a newly-wed, and probably wouldn’t be visiting the Establishment so soon if he was. Much to his annoyance, relief remained his dominant emotion, which made him resentful of his physical response. It was a good thing he’d already had certain needs attended to or Kimble might have got more than he’d bargained for. He might not be familiar with the intricate mating rituals between men and men, but he would swear the other man was flirting with him. Kimble was undeniably attractive but it was a dangerous game to be playing, especially on home territory. Safer to ignore him.

Shooting another glance at Kimble, who was easing into the tub with a sigh of bliss, Gerard realized why that muscular back and splendid ass were so familiar. This was the man he’d caught sleeping; the man responsible for sending him here in the first place. Damn, he should be handing Kimble his bill. Or maybe he’d just take payment in kind...

Drifting off into a hazy fantasy, Gerard’s eyes closed, the soap turning to mush in his hand. He began to relax to the point where he was almost dozing.

“So is this a regular treat for you?”

Gerard opened one eye to peer at Kimble. His grunt could be taken as a yes or a no.

Kimble soaped his chest with a slow, voluptuous rhythm but his gaze remained fixed on Gerard. “I’m usually here pretty often myself. Made the mistake of sweet talkin’ a pretty young thang in town and damn near ended up with a shotgun in ma back and a bride at ma side.”

Gerard repeated ‘thang’ in a tone of mild disgust but otherwise remained silent. That was the most ridiculous accent he had ever heard. Apparently the man had at some point traveled south and felt he had to inflict an approximation of a southern accent on those unfortunate enough to run into him. With the faint hope that what he ignored just might go away - or at the very least let him soak in his tub in peace - he closed his eyes again.

“So are you from around these here parts? I don’t recollect seeing you around. You a gringo?”

Both of Gerard’s eyes shot open at that and he stared long and hard at the stranger.

Seemingly unnerved by the other man’s intense gaze, Kimble’s smile slipped. In an uncertain and strangely deeper voice he asked, “Ah, that does mean stranger, doesn’t it?”

“Gringo,” Gerard repeated, disbelief and something akin to pity in his voice now that he was certain insult had not been intended. He tried to dislike Kimble but it was a wasted effort, his body telling him quite plainly that it wanted to get to know Kimble very well indeed, even if it wasn’t capable of doing so right now.

Kimble rinsed soap from his arms with studied care. He was silent for all of thirty seconds. “So are you a farmer?” The friendly mid-pitch voice was back.

Occupied with rinsing his hair, Gerard chose not to look up. He contented himself with saying pointedly, “Do I look like a farmer?”

“Yeah.”

That got Gerard’s attention. Blinking water out of his eyes, he glared at Kimble, noting not only the twitching mouth but also the fine haircut. His attention switched to the clothes folded neatly on the chair. While the pale duster was ordinary enough, the fine lawn shirt looked expensive and had - Dear Lord, it had ruffles. Ruffles! And there was an embroidered vest. To be fair it was rather fine but it also looked out of place in a town like Cooksville, which while more prosperous than most, prided itself on its lack of ostentation - except for Al Calavicci, who was mayor as well as running the best bar in town. While Al’s vests were loud, even he had the decency not to wear ruffles.

Gerard’s gaze flicked back to Kimble, his expression and tone deliberately disdainful. “And what would you know about farmers, sir?”

“Well ya don’t work in town or I would have remembered seein’ ya. That’s a Texas accent you have if I’m not mistaken. You a cowboy?”

Oh my, the accent was back and even more bastardized than before. Gerard hadn’t heard an accent like that outside of a traveling theater. Someone would have to have a word with Kimble before somebody took exception and tried to remove his head from his shoulders - or something more important further south. Resisting the urge to check out Kimble’s lower regions, he put the now pulpy mess, which was all that was left of his bar of soap, in the dish. He sighed heavily, his air one of sorely tried patience.

“You’re not from around here, are you?” It was more a statement than a question.

Kimble ceased soaping himself and shot a look at the other man from beneath lowered eyelashes. “You can tell?” he asked admiringly. Lifting his head to direct a wide-eyed look of respect at Gerard, he noted with approval the slight twitch of the other man’s beautifully-shaped lips.

“Yeah. You talk too damn much.”

Not looking the least offended, Kimble gave a good-natured smile. “You remind me of my grandma.” Still smiling to himself, he began to wash the more intimate parts of his anatomy.

Gerard looked away, partly to give Kimble some privacy, mostly to stop himself from climbing on top of him. Only then did what Kimble had said impact. His jaw dropping, he gave him a look in which astonishment combined with outrage.

“She always said I could talk a blue streak,” Kimble added sunnily, apparently oblivious of Gerard’s reaction as he began to wash between his toes.

Somewhat relieved by Kimble’s addendum, not only for his own sake but also that of the absent grandmother, Gerard snapped tartly, “Your grandma was right.”

If anything, Kimble’s smile grew warmer.

Gerard gave that smile a suspicious look then sat back, a frown on his face, his fingers drumming restlessly on the sides of the tub. A few seconds later he sat up so fast water sloshed over the side and spilt onto the wooden floor. “What kind of misbegotten accent is that anyway? Are you trying to poke fun, sir?”

Kimble looked at Gerard as if he had said something of incredible significance. “You know, I didn’t even realize I was doing it.”

Gerard stared at him, dark eyes unblinking.

Fidgeting a little beneath that piercing scrutiny, it was only seconds before Kimble seemingly broke. He sighed a shade too dramatically and confessed, “All right, so I was just trying to fit in. In the weeks I’ve been here it seems to me that half the people in this town hail from Texas.”

Gerard had yet to blink.

Kimble held his gaze for a moment before his expression altered in some subtle fashion. It was as if an invisible screen had lifted, yet the change was so indefinable that it was hard to pinpoint what was different. Certainly the wide-eyed ingenuous expression had vanished; now there was something of determination, perhaps stubbornness and inner strength. The strange mood was broken when he gave a conspiratorial grin.

“Some people find it charming.” The accent was gone, and the pitch had deepened, Kimble’s voice holding a deep, velvety richness which had more in common with hot chocolate sauce and underground caverns than misconceptions about how a cowboy spoke.

Gerard heard the voice. A few seconds later the words registered. He cleared his throat and tugged his ear lobe before glaring at the other man. “Well I don’t find it charming. Don’t be a damn fool - quit using words you’re not familiar with or you’ll end up with a gun in your belly. Just be yourself.” He swept fierce, brilliant eyes over Kimble before snapping, “And don’t talk so damn much.”

To Gerard’s relief Sherry arrived with his clean boots. Thoroughly ruffled by Kimble, he was in so much of a hurry to leave that he forgot to kiss Sherry on the cheek and had lost all taste for his usual cheroot. He simply dried himself, got dressed as quickly as was possible and left the room and Kimble’s watchful eyes, aware that the other man had him on the run.

Damned if he wasn’t feeling more restless than when he had arrived.

His unease lasted throughout the journey home and lingered for several hours afterwards. He knew what had made him so twitchy but he wasn’t entirely sure he was ready to deal with it. He could admit it to himself though; he was attracted to this Kimble in a way that made physical desire swamp rational thought.

Hell, he was most definitely not ready to deal with that. If there was one thing he didn’t like it was losing control. With luck he would never see Kimble again.

But it couldn’t hurt to make inquiries.

oOo

Reveling in his freedom, if still not as energetic as he would have liked, Gerard was on his way to see Renfro when he met Deputy Newman outside the Marshal’s Office. A little over Gerard’s height, Newman was of medium build, with curly, reddish blond hair and a face which brought him his fair share of admirers.

“Sam! Good to see you looking healthier.”

Gerard gave the deputy one of his highly sought after warm smiles. He had known the other man since Newman had arrived in Cooksville fourteen years ago. Fortunately Noah had outgrown his initial hero-worship - mostly.

“Yeah, yeah. Is Judd causing any trouble?” Gerard checked.

Newman shook his head. “Not since he realized the circuit judge will be in town next month,” he said with contempt. “Though as we don’t have a gallows we’ll either have to get one built or borrow Tarrville’s.”

“Tarrville doesn’t always wait for the law to take it’s course. Maybe we should talk Bobby Biggs into building us a gallows. He does plenty of carpentering around town. The fact he’ll be burying Judd as well as building the gallows would just be a bonus.”

“Sam,” protested Newman, before he grinned. “I’ll have a word with Cosmo.”

“You do that, young man.” Gerard made himself comfortable on a chair outside the Marshal’s Office. “Has he been keeping you busy while I was away?”

“It’s been pretty quiet. Though we had a ruckus last month with a bunch of cowhands from the Lazy Q but they soon settled down. They’ll be back the beginning of the month with their bonuses to spend. When they hear that the mighty Marshal Sam - ”

Gerard aimed a lazy cuff in the younger man’s direction. “You fancy a dip in that horse trough over there, you keep right on talking, young man.”

Noah’s grin faded as he looked Gerard over. “You still look kind of scrawny. Are you sure you’re fit?”

“The horse trough could become a certainty,” Gerard mused.

There was a note in his voice that told Newman that Gerard had heard the same question one time too many that morning. “Understood, Sam.”

“Is there anyone who doesn’t know I’ve been sick?” Gerard asked with mild exasperation.

“Given how many people saw you collapse outside the jail...”

Gerard gave a long-suffering sigh. “Forget I asked. You had any other strangers in town?” he added, his tone casual. “Apart from horny cowhands, that is.”

Newman gave the older man a shrewd look. “Do you have anyone in particular in mind?”

“About my age and height, fancy clothes, brown hair...”

“Ah, you must mean the new doctor.”

“You mean we’ve finally managed to get our very own sawbones again? That’s excellent news.” Gerard frowned. “How come Caroline didn’t foist his services on me?”

“Because there was an outbreak of cholera in Tarrville the day before you arrived. The doctor’s only just got back.”

“Is that a fact? What have you heard about him?”

Newman groaned. “Don’t you mean what haven’t I heard? The ladies like him. The men either like him or envy him.”

“So the good doctor’s a ladies man?”

“Not really,” Newman replied absently.

Gerard turned to see what had distracted Noah and saw the town’s newest schoolteacher about to attempt to carry far too heavy a load to her wagon. A dainty lace handkerchief fell from her cuff and fluttered to the ground.

“I’ll see you around,” Gerard said, his expression full of affection as Newman hurried over to pick up the scrap of cotton before helping the schoolmarm with her books.

Continuing on his way, Gerard made a mental note to ask Renfro about Cooksville’s new doctor.

 

That evening, sitting back in a chair at the Renfros’ home, Gerard regarded Renfro with patience and with what could only be described as an indulgent eye as Cosmo attempted to convince him that a second helping of beef stew would be a good idea.

“Has Caroline been on at you to get me to eat more?” grumbled Gerard mildly.

“It’s your own fault, Sam. You scared the hell out of her. You know what women are, she’s convinced you’ll waste away.”

A feminine voice sounded from the kitchen. “I heard that! Cosmo, you got that skinny friend of yours to eat some more yet?”

“I’m working on it, honey!” Renfro gave Gerard an ‘I told you so’ look. “At least take some home with you, otherwise the dog will get it.”

Picturing the gangly canine currently sprawled across a large portion of the Renfro porch, Gerard shuddered. “Jeez, Cosmo. The last thing you need is that monster growing any bigger.”

“So you’ll take some?”

“You know, you’re worse than a wife.”

“I heard that, too.” Caroline entered the parlor and went to sit next to her husband, a mild-looking man with brown hair, a sparse beard, and a good-natured face that had been likened to that of a gopher.

Gerard gave her an affectionate smile. “Who said you weren’t supposed to?”

Renfro shook his head at his friend’s apparent insanity. “Oh, you like living dangerously, don’t you, Sammy?”

Caroline gave a passably evil smile. “Watch it, marshal. I might just decide to let Sam in.”

That Renfro’s kids had decided to name their cherished puppy after Samuel Gerard said a lot for the light in which they held him. That Gerard had taken it as a compliment said a lot about the marshal. That the mongrel puppy had not only turned out to have an Irish Wolfhound sire but also a habit of embracing its namesake’s leg and neglecting to let go again suggested a twisted cosmic sense of humor.

Gerard gave Caroline a pained look. “I just got these pants cleaned.”

“Be nice, Sam. And promise to eat more,” Renfro advised him.

“I’ll eat anything you want, just keep that dog outside.”

“Good. I’ll go find something to put the stew in.” On her way out of the room Caroline dropped a kiss on the top of Gerard’s head, as if he was one of her children.

Gerard gave his friend a quizzical look.

Renfro smiled and shrugged before saying quietly, “You really did scare us.” Seeing Gerard was looking a little uncomfortable at hearing such a sentiment voiced, he added in a more teasing tone, “I guess we fell for the legend and figured you were indestructible.”

Gerard pulled a face and hurriedly changed the subject. “So what did I miss while I was away?”

Undeceived by that casual tone, Renfro gave his friend a shrewd look. “Is there something in particular you want to know about?”

Gerard looked startled, then gave a wry smile. “Jeez, am I always so easy to read?”

“Not always. So is something bothering you?”

“Not bothering me. I’m just a little curious about the new doctor.”

“Richard? What do you want to know? Apart from his name, age, location, weight - ”

“Cosmo...”

“Relatives, pets - ”

“I’d forgotten what an irritating son-of-a-bitch you can be. The usual.”

“Oh, you mean everything?”

“Shut up, Cosmo,” Gerard said mildly.

Renfro smiled and decided to answer the question. “Let’s see. His name’s Richard Kimble and he says he’s from the Midwest. He arrived the day after you left to hunt Judd down. Mr. Bailey rented him your old place at Quintum’s Leap.”

“Is the doctor planning to open up a dispensary in town?”

“People keep asking but he doesn’t seem partial to the idea. Says he likes things peaceful and prefers a little space around him.”

“What else do you know about him?” Gerard asked, no longer making an effort to hide his interest.

“He’s thirty-five, a good judge of horseflesh and he won’t carry a gun because he’s tired of repairing the damage they do,” added Renfro, in the tone of one quoting. “Oh, yeah, and he’s single, though Caroline tells me most of the womenfolk reckon he was married and his wife died during her - ” He broke off to give his friend an apologetic look.

“Pregnancy?” Gerard patted Renfro on the shoulder. “Elizabeth died over fifteen years ago, Cosmo. Has the good doctor confirmed this story?”

“Actually Kimble hasn’t said anything. Well, nobody quotes him. But you know how it is, someone asks something, it hits a sore spot and you can’t hide your reaction. The other theory is that Kimble experienced - now how did Caroline’s ma word it? - ‘A grand passion with his one true love, who was locked in matrimony to another.’ Or something like that,” added Renfro vaguely.

Acquainted with Mrs Scully and her romantic flights of fancy, Gerard could well believe it. She was one of the reasons why most of Cooksville believed he was still mourning the loss of Elizabeth, even though any feelings he’d had for her had burned out long before he’d reached manhood. Only the expectations of his grandmother had made him propose to his ‘childhood sweetheart’. He’d done his best to ensure Elizabeth never suspected how little joy his marriage brought him, and she’d always seemed happy enough, but the experience had made him vow he would never again go against what his heart was telling him.

“What do you believe, Cosmo?”

Renfro scratched his sparsely bearded chin and shrugged, looking rueful. “I haven’t given it much thought. We haven’t seen that much of Kimble. He hasn’t been able to make it to dinner yet. The fact is, the couple of times I have run across Richard, we’ve ended up playing poker in Maxie’s.”

Gerard groaned. “How much has he taken you for?” he asked with resignation, refusing to admit to the trace of disappointment he felt that Kimble should behave so shabbily. Even Bruce, Cosmo’s nine-year-old son, was a better poker player than Cosmo - although God help them all if Caroline ever found out he had taught Bruce the game in a moment of weakness.

Renfro grinned at him. “So you know about his talent for card playing?”

“My grandma could fleece you at cards.”

“Richard’s kinder than you are. After the first hand he stopped playing for money and started teaching me a few things.”

Gerard’s eyebrows drew together as he frowned his displeasure. “There’s nothing more dangerous than a little knowledge.”

“Don’t say another word, Sam,” Caroline warned as she rejoined the two men. “He’ll have that deck of cards out again. I suppose he’s told you who’s responsible?”

“We were just discussing Doctor Kimble,” Gerard confirmed. “Your impression, Caroline?”

“Apart from the fact he looks more like a river boat gambler than a doctor?”

“Apart from that,” said Gerard calmly, refusing to rise to the bait.

Caroline gave a philosophical grin. “Richard’s a decent man. Though far too handsome for his own good - or that of the women in this town. Annabelle McDonald’s been making sheep’s eyes at him for weeks.”

“What, Susannah’s youngest? She can’t be more than fourteen,” protested Gerard.

“Sixteen,” said Caroline dryly. “And looking for the romantic hero of her dreams, rather than Max Fischer. She’s taken to the doctor like a kitten to a bowl of milk. Just be grateful her attention didn’t alight on you, Sam.”

“Oh, I am,” he assured her fervently. “How’s the doctor handling it?”

Renfro chuckled. “He looks harried and turns tail. I didn’t think anything could embarrass that man till I saw Annabelle sashay up to him one day. I felt kind of sorry for him,” he added.

Knowing how protective Cosmo was of any child, Gerard nodded his satisfaction.

“I don’t,” said Caroline tartly. “He’s got the rest of the females in Cooksville making fools of themselves over him, too.”

“Figures,” Gerard muttered to himself. He gave Caroline an expectant look. “And?”

“What else is there to say that a person can’t see for themselves?”

“You know, I hope you’re never called in as a witness,” said Gerard, his despairing tone belied by his fond smile. “You must have formed some opinion. Do you like Kimble?”

Sensing that the question was important, without knowing why, Caroline stopped teasing and told the unvarnished truth. “Yes. More, I’d trust him to look after the children. I take it you’ve managed to run into him already?”

Recalling exactly where he had met Kimble, Gerard nodded and fervently hoped Caroline wouldn’t ask for details.

Intrigued by Gerard’s self-conscious air, Caroline had the good sense not to pry. The town wasn’t so large that a man could make weekly visits to Madame Reynard’s without people noting the fact. While the womenfolk publicly deplored the existence of such an establishment, privately there was a lot of excited speculation about what - exactly - went on behind those fancy doors, together with an unvoiced acceptance that unmarried men had certain needs - although that didn’t stop the married women from keeping a beady eye on the whereabouts of their menfolk. Any married man seen in the vicinity of Madame Reynard’s better have a cast-iron alibi and plenty of stamina before he went home. Secure in the happiest of marriages, Caroline smiled to herself. Of course, the failsafe method was to marry a good man like her Cosmo. She gave her husband an indulgent kiss on the top of his head, where his hair was thinning.

“I’ll just go check on the baby,” she murmured, leaving the room. She returned with a bundle in her arms, which she passed to Gerard.

His thoughts drifting, Gerard did not immediately register what he was holding. Expecting to see the pink cheeks and reddish thatch of hair of baby Daphne, he found himself holding a pile of clothes. He gazed at Caroline, mild reproof in his eyes. “I thought we agreed you were only going to buy me a couple of shirts. White shirts. Two shirts.”

“Two of the shirts are white. But you needed a good suit and you’ll look real fine in that. Don’t look so worried, it’s plain black, nothing too fancy. There’s a new black duster, too. If you hadn’t taken off so fast yesterday I could have given these to you then, so quit complaining.”

“I’m not - ”

“You’re always buying things for the children, and if I want to spend a little money on a friend who’s forever doing sweet things for us then that’s up to me - ”

“All right.”

“ - so you just... All right?”

“Yeah. Thank you.” Gerard shrugged. “I know when I’m beaten.”

Caroline was momentarily disconcerted by the ease of her victory but soon recovered. “You’re welcome. I picked out your usual size but - ” she gave him an assessing look “ - I think everything might be too big right now. Eat more before you try on the suit.”

Gerard sighed. “I eat.”

“Sure you do. You need a wife.”

Gerard looked apprehensive. When Caroline got an idea in her head, grown men trembled. “That’s the last thing a man like me needs.”

“Well you need someone to keep an eye on you,” Caroline told him tartly.

At that moment the porch door opened and a man in his early twenties entered the parlor. His lean build made him appear even taller than his height of six foot four. His hair was brown with reddish highlights and his features, while entirely masculine, strongly resembled those of Caroline, making it clear that there was a familial link. He was sporting a beard like Renfro’s, although this one was even wispier and gingery.

Gerard smiled at the new arrival. “Alex.”

“Hi. Has my sister been feeding you up?”

Gerard gave a theatrical wince. “Et tu, Brute. What do you think?”

“I think she has the right idea.”

A squeal of surprise from upstairs and the descent en masse of the Renfro children on a startled Gerard meant the end of adult conversation for the next hour.

Chapter Text

TWO

 

In town to pick up supplies, Gerard forgot his empty store cupboard when he saw Kimble riding by on a fine looking stallion. Gerard’s attention remained on the rider. Flicking Maverick’s reins free of the hitching post, he headed after Kimble, curious to learn what he could about him. Realizing where Kimble was heading, Gerard smiled his satisfaction. While Tuesday wasn’t his usual day for visiting Madame Reynard’s, it couldn’t hurt, he rationalized.

 

Closing his eyes, Kimble sank into the tub and began to relax for the first time in many days as the hot water did its work.

A sound from the doorway made his eyes fly open. The dark-haired man who he had followed here last week entered the Ablution Suite. Inwardly singing Hosannas, Kimble refrained from grinning like a happy fool and settled for a friendly smile.

“Afternoon,” he said cheerfully.

The man nodded an acknowledgment.

Kimble had deliberately not asked about the other man during his last visit and had been too busy out on outlying ranches and smallholdings in the last week to make inquiries. There had been the faint hope that he might be a regular, which was why he’d chosen this day and time for his appointment, even though hope was a luxury he rarely allowed himself.

But the other man was here.

Smiling happily to himself, Kimble felt marvelously relaxed, which was remarkable considering the effect the man was having on him. He rarely experienced such instant wanting and it felt good. He nursed the gathering warmth in the pit of his belly as he allowed his gaze to slide over the other man, who was undressing.

Memory hadn’t played him false, that was one fine-looking man. He was far from heavily built - in fact he’d been downright skinny the first time he’d seen him. A week had made quite a difference; he looked less like a man who was recovering from illness and more like a man who was naturally spare-fleshed, although he could use a few more pounds to fill in some too-deep hollows. The shoulders were surprisingly broad when compared to the lean lines of the rest of the body. The chest had the barest sprinkling of black hair between the flat-muscled pectorals with their small, pink nipples, which just begged to be nuzzled. The ass was... Well, spectacular was the word that sprang to mind; small, neat and sinfully tempting. The legs were long and beautifully proportioned, with just the right amount of hair dusting the hard muscle of thigh and well-shaped calf. Well at least he wasn’t drooling over the man’s fe -

Oh, Lord, he actually had attractive feet.

Kimble shook his head in self-derision, reflecting it was fortunate he would soon be having certain needs attended to. In his current state he would be finished in under a minute. He began to count up to fifty.

He reached forty-eight and made the mistake of sneaking a peek at the other man just as he stepped into the water. Kimble quickly started counting again, this time up to one hundred - after all, he had a reputation as a skillful lover to maintain.

By the time Kimble had himself under control, the dark-haired man was lying in the tub with his eyes closed. Kimble vowed he wouldn’t start to think about the other man’s mouth on his cock, realized he had just done so and had to cough to cover a groan. He slid his fingers back and forth across the rim of his tub, hands itching to slide through the black hair or across the so-tempting chest. The other man was presumably trying to relax, but the shoulders looked stiff with tension, the lines of the face stern, making the expression forbidding. Kimble began to think of ways to relax the stranger, then had to close his eyes and start counting again.

Having been forced to reach three hundred this time, he dared to open his eyes and saw the heat of the water had done its job; the lines of the face were less harshly drawn, that beautiful mouth eased from tight-lipped severity to soft-lipped sensuality.

Longing to hear that rich Texas drawl, Kimble said, “I see you’re a regular then.”

Gerard opened his eyes with apparent reluctance and gazed at the doctor. His intention of feigning sleep forgotten at the sound of that deep voice, he gave the other man a look of supreme patience. “It seems that way.” He closed his eyes again, a clear signal that the conversation was over.

“So how long have you been coming here?”

“A few years. Now if you don’t mind?” Gerard added pointedly.

“No. Sure. Of course not. You enjoy your bath. I’m certainly enjoying mine. It’s nice to find a place so clean and welcoming and - ” Kimble’s voice trailed off in the face of the other man’s glare.

It was at that moment that a woman unknown to Kimble arrived with towels for the dark-haired man. Kimble watched as he dried off, dressed, and left without a word. The doctor grinned to himself and made a mental note to make an appointment for the same time the following week. Closing his eyes to relive the images he had collected of the scowling, dark-eyed charmer, he dozed off.

 

Kimble’s sense of self-preservation was highly developed and the awareness of being watched brought him snapping back to wakefulness, water splashing as he sat upright with a jolt. He glanced around, a strangely hunted look in his eyes, and saw a familiar figure standing in the doorway.

The black-haired man was back.

Without even being aware of it the doctor began to relax, a faint smile replacing the stark fear which had been on his face.

Dark eyes gazed at Kimble for a moment, a brooding light in their depths, before the man re-entered the room. Kimble wondered if he had forgotten something. He watched, puzzled, as the man unbuckled his gun belt and placed it on the chair next to the fresh tub of water, taking care to set the matched pair of ivory-handled Colt Peacemakers straight in their holsters. Then he began to strip off, draping his clothes over the back of the chair before he stepped into the steaming water. One of the ladies came in and took away the man’s boots and jacket.

What the - ? Realization finally dawned. Kimble picked up his watch, which lay on the table next to him. Twenty minutes. He looked over at the other man who glanced away, looking self-conscious but wearing what could only be described as a smug smile.

Twenty minutes?

Deciding he rather liked his face the way it was, Kimble elected to keep his mouth shut but - Twenty minutes! And, oh Lord, that must have included time to undress and dress again. Why dress after bathing if you were only going to head upstairs for a little entertainment?

Though twenty minutes wasn’t entertainment. Hell, it wasn’t even a prologue. That poor man. Someone really ought to do something to help him.

Someone.

His heart sinking, Kimble recognized he was in trouble. This dark-eyed bear-with-a-sore-head had him intrigued. How long had it taken? Two meetings and a few brief sentences? It was the last thing he needed, bearing in mind how long he normally stayed in one place, but... Hell, he was hooked. Now all he had to do was tempt the stranger into reeling him in.

The woman who had earlier given the man his towels entered the Suite and introduced herself as she performed the same service for Kimble.

He accepted the towels with a smile and getting out of the tub began to dry himself. While he was wary of looking up to check, he was willing to swear the other man was watching him again so he took some trouble to make the mundane activity as attractive as possible.

“Is Sherry having a day off?” he thought to ask as he dropped the damp towels onto the chair at the side of the tub.

Euphemia passed him a robe. “She hurt her hand this morning and as it’s still paining her Madame told her to rest up today.”

The show he was putting on for the other man forgotten, Kimble tightened the belt of the robe in a workmanlike way. “I’ll be glad to look it at. How about now, before I see Ann? There’ll be no charge,” he added reassuringly.

Euphemia gave him a warm smile of approval. She had hoped that might be his reaction. “Thank you, Doctor.”

Following the woman out of the Ablution Suite, Kimble paused to give the other man a jaunty wave of farewell. Dark eyes watched Kimble intently, then the head lowered slightly in response.

As they headed for the private living quarters, Kimble introduced himself.

Euphemia gave him a sidelong measuring look. “I know all about you. I heard you got the marshal all riled up last week. That’s quite a talent, he’s usually the sweetest of gentlemen.”

“The marshal? You must have misheard. I’ve met Deputy Renfro but not - ” Kimble broke off and gave the laughing woman walking beside him a look of pained realization. “The man who was in the other tub?”

Euphemia nodded, still grinning.

“That’s the marshal?” He pictured the overly thin, scowling Texan with the compelling eyes and stern yet attractive mouth. A mouth like that had no right being set so prim. A slow grin grew across his face as he thought of the various ways it should be used.

Euphemia smiled at Kimble’s evident amusement. “Yeah, that was Marshal Samuel Gerard. I’m sure you must have heard about him by now. Everybody who stays in town more than twenty-four hours gets to hear about his exploits. Some of the stories they tell are actually true.”

Recollecting what he had heard about the man who had sounded half-saint, half-devil, Kimble said, “I just hadn’t connected the local hero to the sun-baked grizzly in the tub.”

Euphemia’s grin grew wider. “Well I can’t say any man would look heroic flapping in the breeze. When Mother Nature was planning human beings men must have been an unfinished job. There’s little that’s neat about a man’s body.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t say that,” Kimble grinned back. “Some male bodies have their good points, you have to admit.”

“Sure, all points south usually. Speaking of which...” She looked at Kimble’s groin in a pointed fashion and gave a teasing smile. “You look like you’re more than ready for a little entertainment. Maybe we ought to get Ann to tend to you before you tend to Sherry. You go see her like that and she’s likely to think your tastes run to older women.”

“Who entertained the marshal?” Kimble asked suddenly.

“I did. One of the perks of being Madame’s finest.”

“He’s that good, huh?” asked Kimble, a hard to read gleam in his eye although his smile was pure mischief.

Euphemia gave an inelegant snort. “He bathes and he’s quick, once he gets goin’ - ” She broke off, a stricken look on her face. “That is - ”

“You can trust me.” Kimble pinned his most trustworthy expression in place.

She shook her head, confused and wondering at the sense of ease she felt in Kimble’s presence - which was plain stupid given her line of work. “I know, but I shouldn’t be blabbing. It’s just that Marshal Gerard, well, he...”

“You don’t have to say any more,” said Kimble with supreme restraint, wishing dearly she would continue. He wanted to find out about the man. He wanted to know how someone who exuded so much sexual promise could be such a disaster in bed. He found it incredible. And as intriguing as hell.

“No, I wouldn’t want you to get the wrong idea about him. It’s just that... He wasn’t married long by all accounts and... Let’s just say he’s real gentle, like he’s handlin’ fine china, not a real woman. He may not be adventurous but he’s considerate, clean, easy to please and he treats every one of us like a lady.”

“He sounds like a good man.” There was no trace of irony in Kimble’s voice.

Euphemia’s smile was surprisingly fond, given her occupation. “He’s a sweet-hearted man. I just wish I could feel like he got his money’s worth. You could do worse than to get to know him. If Sam likes you, you’ll have a friend for life - one who’ll always be there for you.”

“But not adventurous,” mused Kimble, a gleam in his eyes

Clearly uncomfortable with discussing one client with another, Euphemia searched about for a safer topic, her tone playful. “Madame says you almost wore out Ann last week.”

Accepting that the topic of Sam Gerard was off-limits, Kimble gave an immodest grin. “I did my best. What about you? If a hero like Marshal Gerard is partial to you, you come highly recommended.”

Euphemia favored him with a grin as immodest as his own. “Oh, I’m the best. You feeling strong, doc?” She set off down the corridor to Sherry’s room, hips swaying.

Kimble followed, watching the woman’s progress admiringly. “Always.”

“Maybe I ought to see what Ann is gettin’,” she murmured before knocking on Sherry’s door.

 

Kimble stretched out on the bed, watching Euphemia dress with an appreciative eye. Aware of her audience, she put on a show that had Kimble wishing for the stamina of an eighteen-year-old. Still, he hadn’t done badly. Ann had been waiting for him in his usual bedchamber and neither she nor Euphemia had required much coaxing to make a threesome. He grinned as he recalled Ann’s voiced desire to sleep for a week before she had left, and Euphemia’s wry comment that she would most likely join her. No, he hadn’t done bad at all.

“You’re looking mighty pleased with yourself,” Euphemia remarked as she rolled up her stockings.

“Shouldn’t I be?” Kimble asked, his eyes and voice full of an anxiety that was patently false.

Euphemia considered throwing a shoe at him, but for all her feeling of having known this man for years, she had in fact only known him for a couple of hours. And an awful lot of that hadn’t been conversation, though tongues had certainly been involved. She paused in the act of fixing her hair as this fact sank in. She hadn’t even seen Doctor Kimble until today. She had been with a client when the doctor had called to introduce himself and had been fortunate enough not to need to see him in his professional capacity, so most of her knowledge came from what the other women had said about him. Realizing he was still waiting for a reply, she gave him a quick smile before continuing to fix her black, curly hair.

“Your silence is worrying me.”

Recalling what the doctor had said earlier, Euphemia frowned in his direction. Trusting in her instincts and ability to judge character, she decided to forego the usual ego-stroking. “Are you fishin’ for compliments?”

Kimble groaned in mock despair and pulled the bed covers up over his head. His next words were muffled but ‘dagger’ and ‘wounded’ could be heard.

Having dressed, Euphemia went over to the bed and pulled down the covers far enough to reveal Kimble’s grinning face. Surprising herself, she planted a light kiss on his nose. “I take it I’ll be seeing you next week?”

Kimble gave a sly grin. “What about the marshal?”

“I’m woman enough to take you both on.”

“At the same time?” Kimble wondered aloud. “Maybe we ought to get Ann to lend a hand.”

Euphemia was surprised into a splutter of laughter. “Oh Lord, I can just see Sam Gerard’s face if you suggested that!”

“Wouldn’t go for it, huh?” Kimble said in a sorrowful voice.

“I’m afraid not,” Euphemia said, although whether her sorrow was false or not was difficult to decipher. What was undeniable was the gleam in her eye.

Kimble gave her a quick, penetrating look before settling back against the pillows, taking her hand in his and tracing the length of each finger. His gaze on the path of his fingers across the dark hand and paler palm, he said casually, “It’s a tragedy that a man in his prime isn’t more adventurous and more skilled than some kid having his first fumble.”

Euphemia gave him a reproving look and pulled her hand away.

Duly chastened, Kimble took her hand again and drew her back to sit beside him on the bed. “A smart girl like you should be able to get Marshal Stick-In-The-Mud in a more adventurous frame of mind. Have you ever suggested - ?”

“You forget, he’s a client.” The voice was arctic.

“But you like him,” Kimble observed shrewdly.

“So I like him. That doesn’t give me the same rights as a lover.” The brown eyes held no bitterness or cynicism, Euphemia was simply stating a fact.

“Have you ever been on top?”

A cold look came upon the woman’s face. “I think you’re overstepping - ”

“Look, I’m a doctor. I’m not going to blab. I just like to see people happy. Happy people equals healthy people. All I’m saying is if this marshal of yours is such a good man, how come you don’t think you could suggest something that will be pleasurable for you both? He treats you like a lady, right? Sounds like he’d be the type to want a woman to have as good a time as himself. And you do want him to have a good time, don’t you?”

“Well, yes,” Euphemia muttered uncertainly.

“So maybe it’s time that he got a little education. You’re smart, you can find a way to make it seem like his idea. You’re Madame’s best, right?”

“You bet I am.”

“What will he do if he doesn’t like the idea? Hit you?”

Euphemia gave him a look of outrage. “Sam Gerard would never do that!”

“That’s what I thought. So think about it.” Kimble raised Euphemia’s hand to his lips and kissed the palm. “I have to be going. I have patients who’ll expire without my healing touch.”

“I’ll fix your tub.” Euphemia’s expression was abstracted as she thought over what he had said.

“No need. I kind of like the way I smell right now.”

Euphemia gave an amused snort then ruffled the tousled brown hair before leaving the doctor to get dressed.

 

That evening Kimble spent a happy hour recalling his entertaining time at Madame Reynard’s. His memories featured little of the women and an awful lot of a certain scowling marshal. He was beyond hooked; he was prepared, seasoned and ready to be consumed. All that remained was to discover the nature of Gerard’s sexual appetite.

oOo

 

Gerard glared at the man occupying his tub; the one with the view of both the window and the door. That damn doctor was lying in it for the second time in a row, all freshly shaved and covered in some frothy confection that smelled of... Well, he wasn’t sure what it smelled of but it surely wasn’t meant to be used by a man. He would have to explain tub etiquette to Cooksville’s newest resident.

He took off his clothes and boots and dumped them on a chair, making sure that the boots made a clatter. His eyes opening, Kimble gave him a sweet, sleepy smile. Gerard glared at the other man, but captivated by the full curving lower lip and warm hazel eyes a blank look settled on his face as he struggled to remember what he had intended to say. Nodding weakly by way of greeting, he got in the tub on the left. Which meant he couldn’t see the door without craning...

Remembering his grievance he turned his head to glare but Kimble appeared to have fallen asleep.

Telling himself it couldn’t hurt to look the other man over one more time, Gerard’s appreciative gaze drifted down the long line of the throat, exposed where Kimble had his head back against the rim of the tub. The strong shoulders and defined curve of the biceps showed that this was one doctor who wasn’t afraid of a hard physical work - though it sure was hard to believe right now, thought Gerard, trying to hold on to his sense of grievance as he studied the close-lidded face. The hazel eyes masked, the deep lines from nose to mouth became more apparent; maybe Kimble hadn’t had things as easy as he liked people to think. It was only then that Gerard noticed the silver chain around the other man’s beautiful throat, although he could not see what was on the small silver disk. The chest was muscular, firm and brown-skinned, with just the right amount of hair. His fingertips itching to sift through it, Gerard sighed and picked up the bar of soap.

He shot increasingly annoyed glances at Kimble as he soaped his armpits, making sure to bang the side of the tub occasionally or to whistle loud but he gained no response. He fell silent only when he began to wash the intimate parts of his anatomy, willpower keeping his hands from lingering over the task. Eyes and attention on what he was doing, he darted a furtive glance in Kimble’s direction. He kept splashing to a minimum and was quick, thorough and soundless in completing his task.

He reached over to place the cake of soap in its dish and found bright hazel eyes watching him. The soap catapulted out of his grasp and went skidding across the floor to come to rest next to Kimble’s tub.

“Marshal Gerard.”

“Doctor.”

Kimble felt a glow of satisfaction that Gerard had gone to the trouble of finding out who he was. He gestured to the soap where it lay between their tubs. “You want me to get that for you?”

“I’ve got it.” Gerard reflected that perhaps that damn doctor in Integrity had been right about his needing to rest up, his coordination and reflexes were shot to hell. Though at least he had his strength back, more or less. Another week or so should see him right and it wasn’t worth fighting Cosmo or Caroline about his wanting to get back to work immediately. Besides, if there was any real trouble he would be here to help sort it out. He stretched one arm over the side of the tub, a hand-span away from the soggy bar of soap.

Kimble watched his efforts, a look of mild interest on his face, then reached over to pluck the soap off the floor. He wiped something off it before tossing it to Gerard. “We wouldn’t want any of the ladies slipping on it.”

Gerard gave a grunt of agreement, hiding his satisfaction. Kimble had looked real good with his arm stretched out, the action having pulled the muscles taut. The faux accent had been dropped and he wondered whether the other man’s voice could possibly be deeper than before, or if his memory was playing tricks.

“You really don’t say much, do you?” Kimble observed with a wry smile as he sank back into the water.

Pushing his thoughts to one side Gerard made an effort to respond. “I only say something if I have something worth saying.” He spoke with an aggravating superiority - at least he hoped it was aggravating.

Kimble gave a snort of amusement. “I won’t say the obvious.”

All bristling aggression, Gerard sat up. “And what exactly would that be?”

Looking totally relaxed, Kimble said, “Well you have a number of choices. Let’s see, option number one: bullshit. Option number two: the only people who say that are people who think what they’re saying is so damn important that anyone else has no opinion worth listening to. Got to be careful with that one, it’s commonly found in tyrants and dictators. Then we have option number three: if you only talk when you have something worth saying, it’s a miracle your tongue hasn’t atrophied from disuse. Option number four - Do I need to go on or do we call a truce?”

Gerard gave a reluctant smile. “I’ll take option number one.”

“Good choice.” Kimble grinned, pleased to have got Gerard to smile. It was amazing what a difference it made to the severe-looking face, Gerard seeming younger and far less intimidating.

“Just out of interest, what was option four?” inquired Gerard.

“Oh, a big shoot-out in the middle of town, lots of bloodshed, dogs howling, women screaming and sobbing. It would have been a tragedy,” said Kimble with a theatrical sigh.

“True, but I’d pay for your funeral.”

For a moment Kimble was too astonished by Gerard’s teasing to reply. Shock wore off after a few seconds and he was able to tip his head in acknowledgment of a hit.

“Nice pine box. Covered in lilies,” Gerard added coaxingly.

“Pine isn’t my color and flowers make me sneeze.” Kimble tried to stop himself from grinning like an idiot, failed and tossed his soap into Gerard’s tub.

“I’ve got soap already,” Gerard pointed out as Kimble rinsed himself off.

“I know. But I’m fresh out of rattlesnakes.” Kimble looked past Gerard to smile at Euphemia as she entered the room, carrying towels. He made no attempt to hide his interest as Gerard got out of the tub and dried off.

Thoroughly ruffled by Kimble’s scrutiny, Gerard tried to hide the fact with a fierce scowl.

Kimble gave an apologetic smile. “Was I staring? Sorry. Habit. Being a doctor and all.” He rubbed a hand across his chin before he added in a more serious tone, “I heard you had a fever. Would you like me to check you over?”

Only the presence of Euphemia kept Gerard’s instinctive response from leaving his lips as he fastened the buttons of his shirt. With a start of surprise he realized there had been no hidden meaning in Kimble’s words; he was simply being a healer. Gerard’s scowl faded and he subjected the doctor to a probing look before he shook his head.

“No need. But thanks,” he added gruffly. “It wasn’t as bad as people around here make out.”

Kimble nodded, his smile back in evidence. “I’m glad to hear it.” Glancing at his watch as Gerard went out with Euphemia, he noted the time, then reached for a cheroot.

 

It was thirty-five minutes and a cheroot later that Gerard finally returned to his fresh tub of hot water. A somewhat wrinkled and rapidly cooling Kimble eyed him curiously.

Full of goodwill to mankind, including doctors who stole his tub, Gerard gave Kimble a beaming, albeit embarrassed, smile, undressed quickly and sank into the hot water with a sigh of pleasure.

Kimble eyed the steam enviously then examined as much of Gerard as he could see. A reddened mark decorated the side of Gerard’s neck and a couple of scratches on his left shoulder looked intriguing. He was tempted to ask for details but even he recognized that there were limits. Besides, he didn’t need a verbal account; the dazed look and the general air of well-being told him all he needed to know.

When Ann walked in carrying fresh towels, o ne look at her grinning face told Kimble he would not be getting Euphemia’s services today. Casting a curious look at the man whistling softly to himself, he fastened a towel around his hips and followed Ann out the room, unaware of the eyes that watched him leave.

When Kimble returned thirty-one minutes later Gerard had left.

 

oOo

 

There were few things in life more comforting than the feel of a fat wad of money, thought Kimble as he headed home in the company of the town’s undertaker, Robert Biggs. He felt relaxed and self-satisfied, having relieved a local loudmouth of over a hundred dollars.

Biggs, some fifteen dollars lighter, five of which was residing in Kimble’s left pocket, looked across at the man riding beside him and grinned. “I’ve been waiting for someone to beat him for a while. It’s a real pleasure to lose to you, doc.”

“Anything but ‘doc’, Richard for preference,” said Kimble. “About my winnings...?” he added, his tone would-be casual.

“I wouldn’t have played if I couldn’t afford to lose. Not that I was planning on doing that,” Biggs added with a wry grin. “One thing people are always in need of is an undertaker. I could always take a few dollars as a down-payment if you like. Something nice in pine?”

“Oh, the marshal has already promised to see to that. He’ll even pay for the flowers. So if anything happens to me you know where to send the bill,” Kimble said, straight-faced.

“You’ve met Sam then.”

Kimble’s smile, hidden by the darkness, blossomed across his face. “A couple of times. Being new to town I don’t know much about him. Have you known him long?”

“Since I was a boy. He hails from Texas, just in case that accent of his wasn’t clue enough. He and his family moved out here when he was a kid. Apart from getting into trouble together, once we were a few years older he and I used to court the same girl. You know Mrs O’Brien?”

“Victoria, attractive, blonde, five kids, all redheads with freckles?”

“That’s her. She was the prettiest thing you ever saw. We were both crazy about her.”

“Who won?”

“Mister O’Brien,” Biggs answered wryly. “I take it you’ve met Red?”

“Big, red hair, looks like a bull with toothache?”

“That’s him. He looked even uglier when he was eighteen. No explaining why women chose the type of man they do.”

“So you and Gerard went and drowned your sorrows, huh?”

“Considering I was ten-years-old and Sam was only twelve at the time, I reckon that grandmother of his would have had both our hides!”

Not knowing which question to ask first, Kimble went for the most pressing. “Twelve years old? Are we talking about the same Sam Gerard here?”

Biggs laughed. “Not exactly a ladies man, is he? I guess that’s what falling in love does.”

“Oh?” While Kimble’s tone was nonchalant, his gut twisted. He told himself it was indigestion.

“Yeah, Sam was married for two years. It must be fifteen years ago, now, maybe more. Her name was Elizabeth Collins. She was a real pretty girl. She hailed from Texas, too. Her folks traveled out with Sam’s. After he got over Victoria, he and Elizabeth became sweethearts. They married a few years later.”

“I can’t see him as the marrying kind,” Kimble said, glad of the moon’s desire to play peek-a-boo with the clouds. He had difficulty keeping the curiosity out of his voice.

“He took his responsibilities seriously. Him marryin’ sure made his grandmother happy.”

“What about his parents?” asked Kimble.

“They died in a flash flood when Sam was ten. Ellie Gerard had the raising of Sam after that. She was one tough lady. Small and dainty on the outside but tougher than any man I’ve met inside, you know? She was a good woman, but she expected a lot of Sam when he was a kid. Too much, in my view.”

“In what way?” asked Kimble as he pulled his horse’s head away from the tail end of Biggs’ mare.

“Living up to his father’s good name. Frank Gerard was town marshal when he died. Mrs Gerard was set on seeing that Sam didn’t do anything that might sully Frank’s good name. Lord, she was strict. Sam probably suffered more lickings than the rest of us kids put together. Sometimes I wonder how he stuck it. Not that she wasn’t a good woman, you understand. She thought the world of Sam.” Biggs stopped, his expression impossible to read in the darkness but it was apparent from his voice that he regretted his confidences. “Look, Sam’s a friend. I shouldn’t be gossiping about him this way.”

“I respect that,” said Kimble soothingly. “You don’t need to worry. I’m not in the habit of repeating confidences. You said Sam was only married for two years. What happened? I’d hate to say anything which might inadvertently cause him pain,” he added mendaciously, that only part of the truth.

“It was real sad,” sighed Biggs. “Elizabeth had a fall from her horse when she was three months carryin’. Broke her neck.”

Kimble grimaced in the darkness. “And the marshal?”

“He’d lost his wife and unborn child. His grandmother had a stroke and died a week later. Figure out his feelings for yourself. Sorry,” Biggs added a beat later. “It’s just that Sam’s one of the best friends I’ve got. He wouldn’t let anyone close to him then. He couldn’t have been more than twenty but he sure grew up fast. He rented out his parents’ smallholding and became a deputy. He was voted marshal come the next election. He’s been keeping Cooksville safe ever since.”

Kimble decided to risk asking another question that had been teasing him. “How does a man that mild-mannered stay alive?”

It was difficult to see Biggs in the starlight but his voice made his amusement quite plain. “I take it you haven’t seen Sam laying down the law?”

“Where I met him it would have been impossible to tell what he was.”

A shrewd man, and single himself, Biggs had a fair idea where Kimble must have met Gerard and he gave a short laugh. “Well, there you would have seen Sam at his most gentle. You don’t ever want to get on the wrong side of him. You know he just got back from hunting down a murdering son-of-a-bitch name of Judd?”

Kimble nodded encouragingly.

“Sam contracted typhoid fever. But he still brought Judd in. I saw Sam collapse and I was afraid I was goin’ to have to bury him. Bringing in Judd when he was that close to death is the real Sam Gerard, stubborn as a mule. Don’t let the quiet voice and pretty manners fool you, Sam’s grit clear through to the bone. And you’ll have to travel a distance to find a man more honest. He doesn’t appreciate being lied to though.”

“He has a temper?” Intrigued, Kimble thought of the man he’d met in the whorehouse. Gerard had been all glaring eyes and bristling annoyance but it had been hard to take seriously because he’d been buck-naked and looked like a puff of wind might bowl him over. He might have been a lawman for fifteen years but Cooksville was a peaceful community. Being proud of their local hero the town had elevated him to legendary status. Take that ridiculous story about typhoid fever. Sam had probably eaten some bad meat or contracted a mild fever that had resulted in him dropping a few pounds.

“You could say. When the occasion suits.” Biggs bent over to give his mare a soothing pat. “You break the law, or break your word and you won’t know what’s hit you. I’ve heard it told that grown men have been known to pee their pants when Sam has gone after them.”

Kimble pictured Gerard scrabbling about in his tub for his soap and was glad that the darkness hid his affectionate smile; the last thing he wanted was to offend Biggs.

Clearly taking pride in his task, Biggs continued with his eulogy. “You don’t get to be town marshal and stay marshal by being a pushover. People try to stay on the right side of Sam if they know what’s good for them. He has a lot of people trying to be his friend. Speaking of which...” he gave Kimble’s horse a reproving look as it shoved its muzzle into the more intimate areas of his filly’s anatomy, “...doesn’t that horse of yours know when to quit?”

“Not that I’ve noticed.”

“Molly isn’t in season yet.”

Kimble gave a smile that managed to combine apology with a peculiar pride in his stallion’s virility.

“He’s a fine horse. I hear he’s pretty fast,” Biggs said in a speculative tone.

“That’s true enough,” Kimble conceded, his casual tone failing to conceal his pride. “Smart, too. He’s a thoroughbred, though hunter stock - he couldn’t carry my weight so easily otherwise. I won him five years ago in a card game.”

“Molly won’t be in season for a while...”

Hearing the unspoken but none too subtle request, Kimble said, “If you want to have her covered I’m sure Red here would be happy to oblige.”

“I can’t afford much,” Biggs thought to warn.

“No need for that. You’ll be doing me a favor. Red gets cranky if he hasn’t had any female company for a while. Is she a maiden?”

“She won’t be if that stallion of yours doesn’t quit sniffing around,” Biggs informed him, but his voice when he spoke of the big sorrel was not quite so admonitory as before. In fact, it sounded downright indulgent.

Wondering how to get the conversation back round to a more interesting topic, namely Sam Gerard, Kimble was surprised and disappointed to find they had reached Biggs’ house. He bid the man a reluctant farewell and continued his journey home, trusting Red not to break both their necks.

But he couldn’t stop thinking about Gerard. From what Robert had said it sounded like half the town had grown up with Sam, so finding out about him shouldn’t be a problem. By the time he got to bed Kimble had decided it was time to get to know Gerard better; a whole lot better. For a start, it would be a novelty to meet while they were both fully dressed. Of course, the view wouldn’t be so spectacular but it was time to progress their relationship.

Making himself comfortable in bed, Kimble settled his right hand around his cock, working himself with a lazy familiarity. It had been a while since he’d had himself a bashful lover. Fueled by thoughts of seducing Sam Gerard, he pleasured himself to a sleepy climax.

oOo

 

Kimble’s plans to get to know Gerard better were thwarted when he failed to locate him. A casual comment to Renfro elicited the information that Gerard lived out at El Corazón, a small ranch a few miles west of town. Deciding that he could hardly ride out there and pretend he’d been en route to a patient, because no-one else lived in the vicinity, Kimble reluctantly settled back to work.

His luck changed on Tuesday afternoon when he saw Gerard carrying a large package into the imposing brick building which was the town’s library. Tethering Red to a hitching post, Kimble went inside.

Shamelessly eavesdropping while he pretended an interest in a three month old periodical from New York, the conversation he overheard between Gerard and the elderly man acting as librarian - and once Gerard’s schoolmaster - made it clear Gerard supported the library both with money and donations of books. From comments Kimble had overheard two of the town matrons make, it seemed Clarence Bailey was the town bore; his flat, nasal voice and preference for saying the same thing three different ways certainly seemed to bear out that claim. It was an indication of just how good a job Gerard’s grandmother had done in raising him that he responded politely to a number of personal comments about his skinny appearance and failure to attend church regularly before he made his escape from Bailey.

Kimble stepped artlessly into Gerard’s path just as he was about to leave the building. “Marshal. What a surprise to see you here.”

“And dressed,” said Gerard, deadpan.

Kimble blinked, then told himself he was imagining things if he thought the bashful marshal was examining him with as much interest as he had been examining Gerard. As they left the building together, Kimble began a seemingly artless flow of questions about Gerard’s involvement with the library and town in general.

“Doctor, if you want to know something, just come right out and ask me.” Gerard paused beside Red and absently caressed the stallion.

Kimble gave him an admiring look. “Damn, but you’re quick.”

“No, you’re just not as subtle as you think you are,” murmured Gerard, before his head rose. “That’s young Colin Brewer riding hell for leather up Main Street. I hope you’ve got your medical bag with you.”

“Always,” said Kimble with resignation as he swung up into the saddle.

He forgot his irritation when he heard there had been a serious accident in the freight yard outside town, where a steer had gone loco, starting a stampede which had brought down some loaded crates, trapping an unknown number of people beneath them.

Setting off at a canter, Kimble was peripherally aware of Gerard on his black mare riding beside him.

Hoping Gerard would have the good sense to stay out of the way, because the scene at the freight yard was one of total chaos, Kimble quickly checked on the three men gored by the steer to establish his priorities. One was dead; fighting to stop the two others from bleeding to death, it was a while before he became aware that those threatening to get in his way were out of his line of vision, and a makeshift table, water and clean rags were all at hand when he needed them.

 

Night had fallen before Kimble was able to take stock again. Apart from the man - boy - gored to death during the stampede, seven people had been injured. Biggs took away the body while Kimble sluiced himself down at the pump, so lost in thought that he wasn’t aware of who was pumping the water for him.

“You couldn’t have done more, doctor,” said a quiet voice.

Blinking, Kimble wondered what Gerard had been doing to get so dirty. “I know,” he conceded. “It’s just that this needn’t have happened. It wouldn’t have done if Arnie hadn’t drunk so much that it seemed a good joke to come down here and spook the cattle. What’s a kid his age doing drinking in the first place? Oh, ignore me, Sam. Here, I’ll see to that for you.” Taking over the task of pumping water, he gestured to Gerard, who began to clean himself up.

“Is Arnie related to George Fischer?” Kimble asked as Gerard shrugged into his jacket.

“His youngest brother. The Fischers will take this hard. They had the rearing of the two youngest since their ma and pa died and they did real well, given that George is probably slightly dumber than his horse. I sent Cosmo out to tell them the news. You concentrate on tending to the living,” Gerard added, his voice gentle.

Checking that Kimble’s medical bag was attached to his saddle, he handed the doctor Red’s reins. “I’m hungry. And you must be. The boarding house next to the bakery has an eatery out back. Would you care to accompany me?”

Kimble flexed his aching back, nodded and gave himself up to Gerard’s care. Slowed by fatigue, the next time he noticed his surroundings he was seated at scrubbed table, inhaling the wonderful scent of well-prepared food.

Gaining a little vitality as he ate, Kimble began to relax in Gerard’s company as though he had known him for years. Too tired to be capable of thinking of flirting, he enjoyed the easy drift of Gerard’s voice as he made undemanding conversation. Little by little Kimble began to respond, finding Gerard’s quick intelligence and dry humor the perfect antidote to the frustrations of the day.

“Thanks for bringing me here. I hadn’t heard about this place,” he said as he finished his second helping of apple pie.

“Hetty’s food is so good she doesn’t need to advertise. What are you looking for?”

“My wallet. I didn’t intend to stay this long. I need to check on Billy Bob and Calvin.”

“I’ll settle up here. I’ll trust you for your half,” Gerard added, eliciting a small grin of acknowledgment before the doctor hurried back to his patients.

oOo

 

If George Fischer hated to lose at cards he was even worse at accepting that no-one was to blame for Arnie’s death but Arnie himself. All the Fischer brothers were inclined to act first and think a poor second, their hot tempers getting them into trouble with monotonous regularity. They’d had a number of run-ins with Gerard, always to their detriment, but it never seemed to teach them sense. To give the brothers credit, they were a devoted family, their grief at Arnie’s death deep and heartfelt. Having heard reports of George Fischer’s drunken rantings about Arnie’s death being due to the new doctor, Gerard kept an eye on the situation but took no action. He was on vacation and Cosmo and Noah were both able men. But he made a point of keeping himself informed about Fischer’s whereabouts in relation to Kimble.

After the funeral the Fischer brothers, red-eyed with weeping, disappeared back to their ranch.

oOo

 

In the days following the stampede Kimble had the satisfaction of seeing his patients make good progress, some far better than he had dared hope. He was sure that was due in part to the help of Sam Beckett, who was a skilled herbalist.

Seeking Beckett out in the saloon he ran with his partner, Al Calavicci, Kimble bought him a drink. They sat talking in the back of the saloon, watching Al play pool with Henry Ritchie.

“I’m just glad we’ve got a doctor again - and such a fine one,” said Beckett, his gaze on the bubbles in his beer. “People kept assuming I could help them more than I could.”

“I know,” said Kimble, that a weight of responsibility he had become accustomed to bearing. “But I still want to thank you for what you’ve taught me. And for those supplies.”

Beckett waved that aside with an embarrassed smile. He was an odd mixture of diffidence and arrogance, with a breadth of interests and knowledge that intrigued Kimble.

“I’ve enjoyed having someone else to talk to about my interest. There’s so much we don’t understand,” said Beckett, enthusiasm firing in his voice again.

“Else?” queried Kimble.

“Miss Lacey. You’ve met her?”

“Oh yes,” grinned Kimble. “But I had no idea she was interested in more than scented lotions.” He grimaced when he became aware of his condescending tone. “I didn’t mean...”

“While it doesn’t seem in character, she’s wary of looking as if she’s interfering. Yes, I know,” grinned Beckett. “I told you it wasn’t in character. But I can’t begin to tell you how much she’s taught me. Richard?”

“Does Al seriously think he’ll make that shot?” said Kimble, distracted by the good-natured contest taking place in front of them.

Beckett half-turned on his seat. “He’s done it before,” he said, making a sound of derision when Calavicci missed.

“I’ll remember that,” warned Calavicci in his gravelly voice. “Your shot, Henry.”

“I can wait. Set it up again,” said Ritchie placidly. “That’s one shot I wanna see.”

Beckett returned with fresh drinks for everyone, before reseating himself at the table he and Kimble were sharing.

“You and Miss Lacey should go into business. The town could use a drug store and those preparations of yours which I’ve been using are excellent. You wouldn’t believe some of the snake- oil salesmen I’ve come across,” said Kimble.

“We’ve had a few imagine they’d be welcome in Cooksville - until Sam Gerard ran them out of town. I did suggest we open a drug store to Miss Lacey. Al and I would finance it but she has a dread of being beholden and we couldn’t persuade her that the boot was on the other foot. It’s something I’d like to get involved in - but only with the right partner.” Beckett shot Kimble a hopeful glance.

Looking down, Kimble pretended not to notice. He could think of nothing he’d enjoy more than working with Beckett, even if the man often left him feeling like an ignoramus. Sam was good, if stimulating company, while Al was the worldly-wise half of the team. Along with an eye for a pretty woman, Al had a shrewd head on his shoulders and a dry sense of humor which tickled Kimble’s own. They were men he felt could become close friends - if only he was free to make them.

“How’s that trial with St. John’s Wort going?” he asked, in a clumsy attempt to change the subject.

Seeing more than he knew Kimble would be comfortable with, Beckett allowed the conversation to be steered away from any topic which might commit Kimble to some future action.

oOo

 

When Thursday came around Kimble spent the morning daydreaming about his afternoon visit to Madame Reynard’s, where he hoped to meet Gerard again. Despite Biggs’ assurance that Sam was no pushover, Kimble still failed to see how someone so mild-mannered could function capably as a lawman, though it had to be admitted Sam had a fine line in scowls and could glare with the finest. Kimble was taking great pleasure in thinking about the different degrees of glare. In fact, he was taking great pleasure in thinking about Sam Gerard, period. The heat of his thoughts headed him in the direction of Madame Reynard’s earlier than he had planned but with his mind already on sexual congress he paid the penalty, his premature arousal making riding in his well-fitting pants increasingly uncomfortable.

Still some distance from town, Kimble groaned softly, tried to accommodate his swelling flesh, failed and finally admitted that for sanity’s sake he needed a few minutes in private. Heading Red down to the willows which grew along the bank of this stretch of the river, he tethered the stallion under the shade they cast before taking refuge under the sweeping canopy of a massive branch where it swept down to the ground.

Unfastening his clothing, Kimble made himself comfortable on the ground, the roughness of tree bark at his back, sunlight dappling his engrossed face as he flicked the side of his thumb over the head of his erect cock. Smearing the clear fluid over the blood-engorged flesh, he established a rhythmical stroke, while caressing his testicles, letting his arousal build.

His head went back, exposing the long, vulnerable line of his throat as his eyes sank to a close the better to fuel his fantasy of seducing the bashful marshal.

Now, how did he want Gerard?

Sam was stripping for the tub, he decided. Better still, if definitely the stuff of fantasy, maybe he’d won Sam in a game of poker; won Sam Gerard’s obedience for the night. Sam wouldn’t be unwilling, just resenting the fact he’d been bested. A picture of those black eyebrows drawn together, the dark eyes boring into him, made Kimble grin. He knew how to win Sam over. Sam would be glaring at him, hands on those narrow hips, with a look that said ‘Impress me’. His eyes never leaving Sam’s face he’d sink slowly to his knees in front of him. For a moment he would let his forehead rest against Sam’s groin, just enough to tease, while he caught a hint of his scent. Just letting the backs of his fingers brush against Sam, he would unfasten the buttons of those black pants. Of course Sam would be naked beneath them, and already stirring to greet him. He would breathe on that rising flesh, mouthing the high fullness of the testicles before he began the torment in earnest. Abandoning Sam’s genitals, he would slowly lick his way up Sam’s inner thigh, making it quiver. He wouldn’t touch Sam’s cock again. Not yet. Not until he’d won the first small sound of need, the large hand brushing his head before holding it in place, demanding now.

Breathing fast, in rhythm with his pumping hand and flexing hips, Kimble gave a heartfelt groan as the vision in his mind’s eye changed and he had a sudden picture of Sam Gerard kneeling for him, that beautiful mouth taking in his needy heat and...

Kimble came with a sharp, cut-off cry, his breathing rasping in the ensuing silence. Panting, it was several moments before he reluctantly opened his eyes - but he was still alone. He stared at his semen-covered hand, mourning the waste and the loneliness of it, before he cleaned himself on his handkerchief. Tucking himself back inside his clothing, he got to his feet, refastened his pants and then just stood, wishing things could be different.

The sound of hoofbeats shot him out of the shadows and over to Red. Swinging up into the saddle, he rode out onto the track with every appearance of ease. It wasn’t that he felt any guilt for what he had just done but it had been an intensely private moment, leaving him feeling oddly off-balance and vulnerable.

“Hi, doc,” called Biggs, wearing his normal cheerful expression now he wasn’t working.

In Kimble’s experience undertakers were some of the jolliest men around but aware of how close he had come to being caught out, he was in no mood to consider the significance of that right now.

“Robert,” he nodded, heading over to the other man.

Red caught the scent of Biggs’ mare and Kimble paid the price for his inattention with a hectic few minutes, which left him with his eyes watering from pain after he banged his cheekbone on the stallion’s neck.

“I thought Molly was coming into season,” said Biggs with satisfaction, after only the most cursory of inquiries about Kimble’s well-being. “Could I bring her over tomorrow?”

“Sure,” said Kimble, smiling despite the discomfort from his smarting face. He could hardly blame Red for being horny when he was in the same state himself.

Managing to get away from Biggs after a few minutes, he continued on his way to Madame Reynard’s. Maybe some convivial company would take away the melancholy which had set in since his lonely lovemaking, he thought tiredly, so distracted that he failed to hear the arrival of the twice-weekly stagecoach and ended up covered in dust, with Red registering his protest in no uncertain manner, much to the delight of a group of young boys.

 

To Kimble’s disappointment Gerard wasn’t in the Ablution Suite. Sinking into his tub Kimble finally admitted just how much Gerard intrigued him - and not just because he happened to possess one of the finest asses he had ever seen. There was more to Sam than an attractive body. Back at the freight yard he had been too busy trying to save lives to notice what was going on around him; since then he’d had time to appreciate who had organized the rescue of the men trapped by the timber brought down in the stampede, bringing calm to the chaos with an unthinking assumption of command. Unflappable and dependable in a crisis, there was a fine mind to match Sam’s physical charms - and a kindness he had only belatedly appreciated after his energy levels had risen. Then there was that air Sam possessed which hinted at a level of sensuality which had yet to be explored.

How could he not want to stir that slumbering sexuality to life? How could he fail to want Sam?

He had always appreciated the finer things in life and that included undeniably masculine bodies. And they rarely came finer than Sam’s. He’d always preferred redheads. Now he wanted to run his fingers through thick black hair that needed a damn good cutting. Blue eyes? You could keep them. They were too pale, too commonplace when compared to eyes so dark they appeared to be black - but a black that sparkled with life and fire, amusement seemingly never far away. Sam seemed to promise to fulfill several needs Kimble had been unaware of possessing.

He sat back in the tub and watched his body stir in response to his thoughts. Oh, he had it bad.

Kimble knew his own attractions. Except for that ugly scar on his chin he had a pleasing enough face, one many people thought good-looking; he’d even been called handsome on occasion. He could thank nature and his lifestyle for his healthy body - women and the few men he had come across who shared his inclinations had seemed to enjoy looking at it. He had a full head of hair and all his teeth, every one of them straight, white and healthy. He had been told he had charm and it was true he set himself out to please when it pleased him to do so. People sometimes commented on his voice, although he found this puzzling as there didn’t seem anything remarkable about his accent - certainly not when compared to a certain Texas drawl that warmed a man right through to his core.

Damn but Sam was one fine-looking man.

That was all very well, but it didn’t help unless he could be persuaded to consider a step into unknown and forbidden territory. Did Sam’s slumbering sexuality include a desire to taste male flesh? By all accounts it was all he could do to indulge in female flesh once a week.

Kimble’s thoughts immediately went to the one long-term relationship of Gerard’s that he knew about - his dead wife Elizabeth. It was hard to compete with a ghost. Was she the reason Sam slumbered? Kimble’s thoughts took a sudden, depressing downward turn. He glared at the cake of soap turning to mush in his hand then used it to wash himself, taking no pleasure in the task.

Damn it, why couldn’t Sam just be sexually retarded? Why did he have to have a one true love who’d upped and died on him?

That the town’s women had concocted a similar story to explain Kimble’s failure to court any of them was a twisted joke he no longer found amusing. Concocted stories: the story of his life.

Hell. He was an idiot, he must be to allow himself to think, even for a moment, that there was a future for him in Cooksville, let alone with the local lawman. Even if there had been no ghost of Gerard’s lost love to battle, there was always his own past to haunt him.

His own ghosts.

 

Gerard entered Madame Reynard’s a little later than usual. He was in a happy frame of mind, enjoying his enforced vacation by using the time to catch up on old friendships - and to discover new ones - even if it did feel kind of decadent to be so lazy. He had been busy making inquiries about Kimble and the more he heard the more he liked. Kimble had a habit of ruffling his feathers, but he could handle that. And Richard was... Well, he had charm. It seemed as if most of the town’s women were smitten by the man.

Going into the Ablution Suite he found Kimble had taken the tub on the right again. He wondered which side of the bed Kimble slept on but let that thought skitter away. Making a mental note to arrive earlier next time, he greeted Kimble, gratified when he gave a start of surprise and stammered a response.

Gerard took his time undressing, mainly because he kept casting frowning side-long glances at an uncharacteristically silent Kimble rather than concentrating on the task. Uneasy with such silence, he eased into the hot water, sliding what he vowed would be his final glance at Kimble as he did so.

Richard was frowning, his gaze seemingly fixed on the window. Knowing that all the casualties from the stampede were doing well, Gerard tried to account for the other man’s unhappy air. Failing, he gave a mental shrug and began to wash, whistling as he rinsed away the day’s dust while thinking about their first meeting here.

There had been a strange intimacy to that first exchange which had nothing to do with their location or state of undress. It was something he had never experienced with anyone before and at first it had thrown him to the point where he didn’t know how to respond. He smiled at the memory of Kimble’s unconvincing accent, which had clearly been intended to tease rather than mock - as though they had already been acquaintances, and friendly ones at that. And that oh-so-helpful hand reaching into the tub, supposedly to retrieve his soap.

Gerard realized his dick was responding with more enthusiasm than was desirable and he ceased his pleasant stroking and began to soap his chest. He thought he had played the role of taciturn lawman rather well, although at the time it hadn’t occurred to him that Kimble wouldn’t know who he was. He would have loved to have been present when Richard discovered he had been flirting with the town’s marshal - although he wouldn’t put it past the hazel-eyed devil to do it anyway. The knowledge of who he was dealing with certainly hadn’t made Richard stop flirting.

As he began to soap his genitals Gerard stole glances at Kimble to see if he was watching but he was staring out of the window. Gerard felt a surge of what he reluctantly identified as pique. He looked down at himself with some concern. To his own eye he looked a lot healthier than he had last week, when Richard had practically been panting over him. In fact, even if he said so himself, he was looking pretty damn fine. Worried by the waves of depression emanating from the other man, Gerard finally broke his self-imposed silence.

“You all right?”

Kimble turned his head and Gerard saw the bruised cheekbone. Putting together the things he had heard about Kimble with what he knew of the typical Cooksville man, there was only one possible conclusion. “Whose jealous husband gave you that?”

Kimble looked at him blankly until Gerard elaborated, “The bruise on your cheek.”

“That’s some opinion you have of me, marshal.” While Kimble smiled, he hadn’t lost his air of melancholy.

Gerard set himself the task of dispelling it, while anxious to see if he couldn’t move matters between Richard and himself along a pace. “You have quite a reputation as a flirt,” he said with deliberation. He saw with pleasure that he had succeeded in gaining Kimble’s entire attention.

“You think I’m a flirt?” There was a pleased gleam in the hazel eyes.

“Oh yeah,” said Gerard, before he smiled.

Kimble would have sworn he was immune to any of the wiles folk could come up with to distract him - he wasn’t some horny kid - but he discovered he had no defense against that simple curving of lips. It was the kind of smile that hit the eyes, circumnavigated the major organs and made the toes curl. Dazed, he blinked rapidly, trying to get himself under control. He opened his mouth to speak but nothing happened.

Gerard’s smile deepened, enfolding him in warmth - not to mention heat in some areas.

Kimble’s brain turned to mush. It was a moment before he could gather his scattered wits. There was no future here, he had to remember that. A single smile, no matter how attractive, couldn’t turn him into a tongue-tied halfwit.

That irresistible smile was still in place. Conceding defeat, Kimble returned it while hoping the power of speech would return some time soon.

“You sure you’re all right?” asked Gerard, trying to account for Kimble’s look of stupefaction.

Kimble gave a little cough to clear his throat. “Fine. Just fine,” he croaked. Praise be, he could speak once more.

It was then that Sherry entered with towels for him. Torn between the pull of Gerard’s magnetism and wanting to get himself under some sort of control, Kimble ensured that his back was to Gerard as he rose from his tub. He wrapped a towel around his waist, gave Sherry his usual warm smile and still wet from his bath hurried off to ease the ache that was becoming so familiar.

Chapter Text

THREE

 

The face depicted on the sign outside Maxie’s Saloon was that of a buxom, laughing blonde. Maxie was rumored to be Al’s fourth - or was it his fifth? - wife, though she was no longer around; the only partner in evidence was Sam Beckett, who along with all his other interests found time to play the piano, throw out the rowdies and take charge when Al had to be elsewhere in his capacity as mayor.

Gerard entered the saloon, his gaze sweeping the place to see who was present, checking for troublemakers. He spotted Kimble sitting at one of the round card tables with his back to the wall. The three men with him were all known to Gerard; the youngest, not yet out of his teen years, caused a frown to darken the marshal’s brow. Since his brother Arnie’s death, Max was the youngest of the Fischer clan; over-indulged and full of pride, he had more money than sense and fancied himself to be quite the gambler, as well as a crack-shot with his fancy pearl-handled Colt.

Gerard strolled over to a table close to the gamblers to ensure Max did nothing he might later regret. That the position also offered an excellent view of the town’s doctor was an added bonus.

Kimble was looking particularly fine this evening. The dark green coat fitted him like a second skin, drawing attention to the splendid breadth of shoulder. He was wearing a plain white shirt that looked a lot better on him than the fancy ruffles he sometimes wore. The black pants looked as if they would mold themselves to the flesh they concealed. Gerard dragged his gaze from Kimble’s physical charms to assess the situation. Richard was winning, if the pile of money in front of him was anything to go by. The two older men were looking resigned while a sulky-looking Fischer scowled at Kimble, who smiled sunnily as the game progressed. Poker, Gerard recognized with no surprise. Somehow it didn’t amaze him that a man as devious as he figured Kimble to be would be a devil at cards. Those hands, so talented according to his patients, were quick and agile as they plucked, discarded and shuffled the deck. They were attractive hands, Gerard decided after a careful and thorough study; hands weren’t something he usually noticed about a person but Kimble’s held a peculiar fascination. Hell, there was nothing peculiar about it, Gerard knew full well why they drew his eye. He glanced down at his own large hands with their thick, square-tipped fingers. He thought they looked inelegant and clumsy.

Kimble had several little quirks that Gerard noted: after placing the deck on the table the fingers of both hands would flex and wiggle; after dealing he would tug his lower lip before looking at his cards; after winning a hand, which was often, he would run his hand through his hair before gathering up the pot. What Gerard couldn’t establish was whether Kimble had any mannerisms to indicate whether he was winning or losing. He had figured out the giveaways of every would-be gambler in Cooksville; feeling that gave him an unfair advantage was one of the reasons he didn’t play often. Richard, on the other hand, looked as if he had no such scruples; his eyes positively gleamed when Slim did his usual ear pull that was a sure sign he had a poor hand. There again, Richard was the man who refused to play Cosmo for money because he was such a rotten card-player. Kimble was a puzzle, or maybe he was just plain contrary.

They were getting through a fair few hands, which meant Richard was tugging his lower lip a lot. It was looking kind of swollen, the way a person’s mouth could look when they’d been kissed a whole lot. Gerard looked away before he did something shocking, like pin Richard to the damn table and kiss him senseless.

When he trusted himself to watch with a modicum of detachment he noticed that Max was getting twitchy, his eyes fastened on the deft movements of Kimble’s hands as he dealt. Gerard doubted whether Max was watching Kimble for the same reason as himself. Kimble had just finished dealing when someone stood in front of Gerard’s table. He was about to move his head for a clearer look when Fischer’s voice cut across the chatter and the sound of the piano.

“You’re a damned cheat! I know you’re skimming cards.”

No longer wishing to be unobserved Gerard stood up but everyone’s attention was fixed on the drama unfolding at the table. The revolver in Fischer’s hand was pointed at Kimble’s heart. Gerard saw Al reach under the counter and pull out a rifle. Beckett had stopped playing the piano and was standing beside his partner, whose hand was resting on the rifle. Gerard shook his head, his expression telling them to leave it to him. Al nodded, but the rifle remained where it was.

“Look, kid, you’re making a hell of a mistake here - ” Kimble began. The rest of his words were cut off by a furious Fischer.

“I’m no man’s ‘kid’. I know you. You’re the son-of-a-bitch who let Arnie die and now you’re winning every damn hand. No man’s this lucky at play! I want to see your cards.”

All attention switched to Kimble, whose usually warm eyes were like chips of ice.

Gerard stepped forward. “Max, put the gun away before somebody gets hurt.”

“Stay out of this, marshal.”

Gerard’s gaze flew to Kimble, who was regarding him with an angry glint in his eye. Taken aback, certain he must have misheard, he asked, “What did you just say?”

“Stay out of this. It’s none of your business.” Kimble’s manner was uncompromising.

Unable to think of a reason for Kimble’s reluctance to involve a lawman, besides the obvious one that Max was right, Gerard’s gaze dropped down to where the cards sat on the table.

Kimble saw where Gerard’s attention was focused and his mouth gave a bitter little twist. “Thanks,” he murmured sardonically before switching his attention back to Max, who was looking less sure of himself as time passed.

“Your brother was dead before I got to the freight yard. I’m sorry for your loss but I wasn’t responsible for it. And you know it,” Kimble continued in the same quiet, firm tone. “As for you calling me a cheat, well, that’s one hell of an accusation to make to make about a man. It leaves you with several choices. You shoot me and the marshal there hauls you off to jail. You don’t shoot me but always believe that I don’t play fair and square. Alternatively, you take my word for it that I’m an honest man and a gentleman. Your choice.”

Fischer’s eyes shifted from side to side like a nervous colt meeting danger for the first time. “We could let our guns decide,” he said but he sounded more like a petulant boy than the fearless gunslinger he wanted to be.

“I don’t carry a gun, they kill people. I’m a doctor, it’s my job to try and save lives.” Kimble’s voice dropped, the tone coaxing. “Come on, Max. You don’t believe I’m a cheat, do you?”

“If you show me the cards - ” Fischer began.

“No.” Kimble’s voice was clipped and cold. “You either take my word for it or you don’t. You think a gun in your hand makes you a man?” Hands clenched on the table, he leaned forward, his throat inches from the barrel of the Colt. “All it does is give the illusion that you’re in control, that you have power. But the only control you have is over your own actions. You have a decision to make. Make sure it’s a good one.”

Gerard found he was holding his breath. His fingers curled restlessly as he waited for Fischer’s response. Though outwardly calm, inside he was furious, both with Max and with Kimble for daring to suggest he remain a bystander - as though he could stand aside while Richard, while anyone, got their head blown off by some gun-happy whippersnapper. At the same time he could understand Kimble’s wish to deal with this himself; he would have done the same. But unarmed?

His face seemingly carved from stone, his mouth drawn tight and his jaw set, Gerard’s narrowed gaze was fixed on Fischer, watching his eyes.

Fischer looked around wildly, as though seeking help to solve his dilemma. He was nineteen-years- old but suddenly he looked a lot younger. His eyes fastened on Gerard with obvious relief. “Sam?” His tone was pleading and despite the fact he held a gun he looked afraid.

“You know the right thing to do,” Gerard said matter of factly.

Fischer hesitated before slowly reholstering his gun and looking across the table to where Kimble sat. “Yeah. I do. What I said about Arnie just now, Doctor. I know he was gone before you even got there. As for the cards...” He glanced down for a moment. “I’ll take your word about them.”

Kimble nodded, his face expressionless. “Good decision. In that case, help yourself.” He pushed his hand over towards Fischer before heading for the bar.

Having slid the rifle back under the counter, Calavicci gave Kimble a sympathetic look. “Whiskey, straight? Here. It’s on the house, kid.”

“Thanks, Al.”

Kimble knew who had just come to stand beside him without looking but he did so anyway. “Marshal. Why aren’t you over there checking my cards?” While his mouth smiled, his eyes were fierce. A look of exaggerated understanding crossed his face. “Oh, of course, I should have guessed.” He turned to confront Gerard, raising his arms from his sides. “Here, you better check me over. Especially my sleeves.”

“That won’t be necessary, Richard.” His tone carefully casual, Gerard’s gaze rested on Kimble only briefly before he nodded a greeting to Calavicci, who was watching them curiously. “My usual, Al.”

He nodded and went out back.

Still on edge after the scene with Fischer, Kimble found Gerard’s unruffled air highly annoying. “Checking the cards on the table was enough?” he probed in an acid tone, determined to provoke a reaction.

Gerard gave him a thoughtful look. “I didn’t check the cards. Nor did anyone else.”

He accepted a glass of milk from Calavicci, his gaze only flicking in Kimble’s direction when the doctor turned from the bar to look back at the table he had vacated. The cards lay exactly where Kimble had placed them. The two older men were still sitting at the table, cards in front of them, watching him with concerned looks on their faces. When they saw him looking over they both smiled and raised a hand.

“I think Ned and Slim are waiting for you. You were in the middle of a game.”

“I take it the kid didn’t want to stick around.”

Gerard noticed the slight tremor apparent in Kimble’s hand as he lifted the tumbler of whiskey to his lips but he made no reference to it. “I doubt that Max will feel like showing his face around here for a while. He’s a good kid, he just lacks direction. Arnie’s death hit him hard. And as you’ll have discovered by now, his other brothers are no example to anyone. If you want any sense out of George you speak to his horse.” That, as he had intended, drew a faint smile from Kimble.

“Seeing as how you dealt for a fourth, you mind if I sit in on the game?” Gerard added.

“Are you so sure I can be trusted?”

Gerard’s smile was wry. “Mostly.”

For a second or two Kimble froze, his gaze raking over Gerard in a piercing scrutiny that would have made a lesser man flinch. Gerard met it head on, eyes unblinking, a wry smile still firmly in place. Whatever Kimble saw on his face must have satisfied him because tension seemed to flow from his body. His hazel eyes warm and direct, he returned Gerard’s smile.

“Smart man.”

“Just cautious.”

“Are you a good player?”

“You expect me to answer that?” Gerard asked with some amusement.

“Yes.”

Taken aback, a slow smile crossed Gerard’s face. “Depends on what I’m playing for,” he said after a moment’s pause.

Kimble looked him up and down. “That’s a fine shirt you’re wearing.” He reached out to take an inch or so of the fabric and rubbed it between his finger and thumb.

Distracted by the brush of Richard’s fingers against his breastbone it took Gerard a moment to reply. “Caroline chose...” Suddenly he understood the significance of the action. “You want me to bet my shirt?” he demanded incredulously.

“Sure. Admittedly it may not fit me, you being so skinny and all.”

Gerard gave him a look of outrage. “Skinny! One of these days I’ll show you - ”

“I’ll take that chance. Unless of course you think you’ll freeze on the way home?”

Gerard gave a quick, fierce grin. “I’ll take that chance,” he replied in exact mimicry of the other man. He took a long swallow of milk, having to wipe away cream from his upper lip. He noticed the other man’s quizzical look. “This place has the best dairy cows in town. It’s kind of a sideline of Sam’s. I keep hoping he and Al will open an ice-cream parlor.”

His mind still playing images of himself licking the trace of milk from Gerard’s lips, Kimble gave a vague smile of understanding. “And you were sick.”

“And I don’t care for the taste of alcohol,” Gerard corrected. It occurred to him to ask, “What if I win the game?”

Pushing aside thoughts of himself licking Sam anywhere, Kimble said, “You keep everything I’ve won tonight. Deal?”

His mind on a very different prize he hoped to win in the near future, Gerard nodded.

“Then shall we?” Bowing, Kimble swept an arm out to indicate Gerard should lead the way. “Don’t forget your milk.”

Still smiling, Gerard nodded in return, picked up his glass, and headed for the card table.

 

Richard was showing off. Gerard recognized this as clearly as he saw that he was playing to their audience, which consisted of a goodly proportion of the saloon crowd. Richard had suggested they play a couple of hands to ‘get acquainted’. In other words, he wanted to pick up any of those little giveaways that made most of the gamblers in Cooksville such easy marks. Gerard knew he had no quirks - none that he knew of at any rate - and he was still losing.

Richard was good. Good enough to make him wonder what the hell Kimble was doing playing for crumbs when he could be hitting the big city gambling joints for richer pickings. Kimble shuffled the cards with a fancy move that made them arc through the air and slide perfectly into the other palm.

Gerard sat back in his chair, legs outstretched, and affected a yawn.

Kimble gave his lopsided grin. Ned and Slim had finally admitted defeat and left the table; there were no takers for the empty chairs. It was debatable whether the others were wary of his skill or if they found it more amusing to watch he and Sam.

“Time to get serious - and expand my wardrobe,” he murmured, a wicked gleam in his eye. He offered the deck to Gerard.

“Looks like Sam’s about to lose his one good shirt,” Biggs said from amidst the crowd.

There was a ripple of amusement from the audience, everyone aware of the bet and the stakes.

Without turning his head Gerard said, “I resent that, Bobby.” He paused a beat, then added, “I have two good shirts.”

The crowd laughed approvingly and settled down to await the outcome of the match. While Gerard was not one for cards, rarely playing and never for money, he was clever and cunning and you could never count him out. But Kimble was one heck of a player. The opinion of the majority was that Gerard would be feeling the cold as he rode home that evening.

Kimble took off his jacket; his white cotton shirt was clinging to his body, damp around the armpits and down the center of the chest and spine. The fine material offered a shadowy hint of the flesh it covered. As he twisted around to drape his jacket over the back of his chair the shirt pulled taut, outlining the muscles and nipples it covered.

Gerard dragged his gaze from Kimble’s chest to the pack of cards in his hand; he made a conscious effort to relax his grip on the deck.

“Ready?” Kimble looked supremely confident as he accepted the deck after Gerard had cut it.

“Whenever you are. I’m just waiting for you to make your move.”

Kimble’s eyes narrowed a little as he picked up something odd about Gerard’s tone. Seeing Gerard was regarding him with a quizzical expression, he began to deal.

Gerard watched the shapely hands, the movements deft, without showiness now that they were getting down to the business of playing. As the fingers slid across the cards, his mind filled with thoughts of those hands sliding over his body. It was suddenly too damn hot in the saloon. Feeling self-conscious, as though every man in the place knew exactly why he was feeling the heat, he took off his jacket. When he glanced up to find Kimble’s eyes on him he felt a surge of satisfaction. With supposed casualness he unfastened the top three buttons of his shirt and stroked his throat and collarbones. He was acutely aware of the rub of soft cotton against his flesh but even more aware of the catching of breath and few brief seconds of stillness on the opposite side of the table.

It was relatively early in the game when Gerard became the happy possessor of four queens. He kept his face blank, watching Kimble closely. He wasn’t certain, but Richard had been twitching his thumb slightly when he had a good hand, and he was doing it now. Then again, he’d also been rubbing the scar on his chin now and then, until Gerard figured out the tricky son-of-a-bitch was deliberately misleading him. Either that or he was trying to distract him from the game by drawing attention to his mouth - though Gerard’s eyes didn’t exactly need signposts, they were doing an excellent job of finding Richard’s mouth, time and again, all by themselves.

Kimble took out a cheroot and lit it.

Surely to God Richard was trying to distract him. How was a man supposed to play poker when the handsome devil in front of him kept sucking on that damned cheroot, making his cheeks hollow and his mouth pucker up, putting him in mind of other things that could be sucked...

Richard had better make his move soon.

Shit, he’d nearly discarded one of his queens. Concentrate! Not looking at Richard would be a good start; after all, they had the eyes of half the damn town watching them.

Kimble was ready to show his cards and he signaled Gerard with a tip of his head. With great relish, Gerard fanned out his own hand on the table.

A roar went up from the crowd as they saw his four queens and there was a fair amount of laughter and congratulatory comments. Gerard heard little of it, his attention given to the man opposite him.

Kimble gave a start when the shout had gone up. He glanced around the room, a slight frown on his brow, as though he had only just registered how large an audience they had attracted. There was quite a gathering of people, everyone wearing expectant looks. He tapped his cards against his palm, his gaze fixing on Gerard. His silence brought a hush to the crowd, who were beginning to suspect the doctor was about to pull off a victory. Finally he smiled ruefully and placed his cards face down on the table. Then he pushed the pile of notes and coins in front of him towards Gerard.

“Congratulations, marshal. I guess you’ll be keeping that fine shirt of yours after all.” His voice was loud enough to carry to every man in the room.

The crowd began to laugh again, a few men slapping Gerard on the back, others tipping their heads, smiling with approval at the gentlemanly doctor who was so graceful in defeat.

Gerard smiled vaguely at the men praising his luck - and skill - his eyes never leaving Kimble. Gathering up the cards he reached for Kimble’s discarded hand, which remained face down. Kimble’s palm covered them casually and Gerard’s fingers touched warm skin instead of smooth card. Heat licked through his belly and groin from the slight contact. Kimble swept up the cards and began to shuffle them idly, as though to practice his skill with the deck.

Gerard leaned forward, his voice covered by the noise of the crowd which was beginning to disperse. “You could have had the shirt off my back.”

Kimble gave the other man a look of wide-eyed innocence. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. However, if you fancy a rematch?”

“Not tonight,” said Gerard, tucking his unexpected winnings in his jacket pocket. “I’ll expect you around my place, eight o’clock next Monday. Payday.”

“Ah, you’re expecting to lose then?”

“No, I just want to know exactly how much I’ll have to play with,” drawled Gerard, his gaze flicking over the other man. “You know where I live?”

His cock stirring, Kimble was late in nodding. “El Corazón ranch, right? I’ll bring a deck.”

“You do that. I’ll wear my best shirt. Anything else you’ve taken a shine to?”

Kimble bit back his immediate reply and considered for a few seconds. “Your black boots with the fancy stitching.”

Gerard stood up, shaking his head in a pitying fashion. He picked up his jacket and leaned across the table until his face was less than a foot from Kimble’s, his voice pitched low, so it carried no further than to the other man. “You really ought to aim higher, who knows what you might get?”

Straightening, he shrugged into his coat and strolled out of the saloon, leaving Kimble wondering if he had imagined the hot look in the other man’s eyes. After a moment he concluded he had. After all, Sam had no idea what he had hopes of winning. Not yet at any rate.

If he ever would.

oOo

 

It was no novelty for a doctor to be called out at night but Kimble shot awake to the sound of a fist hammering on his door and a voice shouting his name, his heart racing until he realized it wasn’t the one-armed man, who hunted him down even in his nightmares. Pulling on a pair of pants, he went to answer the door and immediately slid into professional mode as he tried to reassure the panic-stricken father-to-be. Knowing Anja Kaufmann had three of Cooksville’s most experienced, if unofficial, midwives on hand, he refused to gallop all the way out to the farm. After nine children, Anja was probably more experienced when it came to childbirth than he was, he thought ruefully.

The baby arrived with the dawn, the labor so easy that it dumbfounded even Kimble. It was the first child he had delivered since he had arrived in Cooksville and the boy was named in his honor.

This tenth child as welcome in the Kaufmann household as the first had been, their joy lifted the shadow which hung over Kimble and he was whistling as he rode into town for an early breakfast. He was heading for Kelly’s emporium, where the potato pancakes were the best he had ever eaten, when he spotted the familiar lean figure of the marshal disappearing into Joe’s Place, a rival eatery one block up from Kelly’s.

Immediately changing his plans, Kimble hooked Red’s reins over the hitching rail and headed after Gerard. He still owed Sam for the breakfast Gerard had bought him last week. Intending to repay his debt, while getting to know the other man better, Kimble’s plans received a setback when Gerard was greeted by various sallies from three men already seated at a table for four. Joining them, Gerard was soon deep in conversation.

Having failed to catch Gerard’s eye, Kimble selected a seat which offered a clear view of Gerard - and vice versa. To his chagrin the marshal was obviously having far too good a time to notice anyone else. Unashamedly eavesdropping, Kimble could make out little of what Gerard was saying but the studied lack of expression on his face was given the lie by the amused sparkle in his eyes and expansive gestures of his large hands. While always neatly dressed there was something in his appearance, quite apart from the stubble darkening his chin, to suggest he had been up for even more of the night than Kimble - if employing his time less usefully, thought Kimble with a sour disapproval, which did nothing to hide his flare of jealousy from himself.

Damn it. Just because he’d pointed Gerard towards some more adventurous - and satisfying - love-making it didn’t mean Sam had to go visiting Madame Reynard’s more than his usual once a week.

Looking up to find Giuseppe - Joe to all of Cooksville - patiently waiting to take his order, Kimble selected the first meal chalked up on the board.

Sam sure seemed on good terms with those men, none of whom Kimble recognized. They all looked more or less of an age, and were obviously good friends.

“Good morning. Doctor Kimble, isn’t it? I wonder, is this seat taken?”

Looking up, Kimble’s heart sank when he recognized the verbose, elderly librarian. Rising to his feet with automatic courtesy, he made no attempt to resist as Clarence Bailey engaged him in conversation - or rather a monologue which required only an appreciative audience. Mindful of Gerard only two tables away, Kimble became the perfect listener, laughing immoderately at the most minor of witticisms. To his chagrin Gerard left in the company of his friends without giving any sign of noticing him.

The excellence of the food was such that Kimble forgot his disappointment to compliment the perspiring waiter. Jo’s Place did a roaring trade, not least because many of the hungry men were hoping for a glimpse of the three nubile daughters, who worked in the kitchen.

Jo nodded, taking it as no more than his due. “We try. We try. Mr. Sam tells me you will pay for his breakfast.”

Taken aback, Kimble stared up at the plump Italian before a broad grin crossed his face. “And if I refuse?”

“I ask him that. He say he arrest you. Is joke, no?”

Kimble nodded. “That’s right. And as I wouldn’t enjoy a night in jail I guess it’ll be my pleasure to pay for his meal.”

“Samuel isn’t usually so cavalier,” said Clarence Bailey, looking disapproving.

“The marshal enjoys teasing me,” explained Kimble. Ordering fresh coffee for them both, it occurred to him that Gerard’s ex-schoolmaster would be a veritable mine of information about him.

“You and he are friends?” asked Bailey.

“I’d like to think so,” said Kimble, for once telling the unvarnished truth. Of his other hopes he kept silent.

Bailey nodded. “You couldn’t wish for a better friend than Sam Gerard. Where did you meet? I understood Mrs Renfro nursed Samuel while he recovered from typhoid fever.”

“Uh, at...” Feeling unequal to the task, Kimble took a deep breath. “We met when we were both taking a tub. Have some more coffee, sir.”

“Thank you. I’m not detaining you? I know I have a tendency to run on,” added Bailey ruefully. “The penalty of old age, I fear.”

It was then, meeting the faded blue eyes, that Kimble appreciated how much he had allowed overheard gossip to color his view of the other man. While it was true Bailey had a tendency to repeat himself, his verbosity came from nervousness, and far from being a bore, as he relaxed he had displayed a dry humor.

“You do yourself an injustice, sir. I’m enjoying hearing about the town as you first knew it. Though I would never have taken you for a Texan.”

“Unlike Sam Gerard,” smiled Bailey.

Sitting back, Kimble encouraged Bailey to reminisce about the schoolboy whose strict upbringing had sometimes resulted in Gerard breaking out with spells of mischief. - or the times when his ferocious temper slipped its leash.

“You look surprised. Samuel’s a good man but he’s no saint. Surely you of all people must know how much of ourselves we keep hidden from the world?”

The smile faded from Kimble’s eyes, although it remained frozen on his mouth for a few seconds longer. “Only too well,” he said, somber now as his mind returned to the woman who had died - because of him.

“Come now, doctor,” chided Bailey, “you can’t have anything with which to reproach yourself. I’ve been hearing excellent reports of you.”

Oppressed by his memories, Kimble gave a dispirited nod.

“I know Samuel has been taking a keen interest in your progress, but then sick or ill he contrives to keep his finger on the pulse of the town. Like you.” Pleased with his witticism, small as it was, Bailey repeated, “‘Pulse of the town’. Do you see, doctor?”

The present sliding back into focus, Kimble blinked. “The marshal’s been checking up on me?”

“Of course. As I said, he takes a keen interest in everything that goes on in Cooksville. He could be mayor any time he wanted. But he has no interest in political office. Though I don’t despair of changing his mind. He’s a good man. Oh, my goodness, is that the time? I must go.”

 

Kimble was still tucking away his pocketbook as he strolled out into the heat of the morning. Pausing on the sidewalk, he took in all the bustling signs of life around him. Gerard might have a Texas accent but Cooksville had been his home for the greater part of his life. These people had watched him grow up, had taught him, gone to school with him; maybe they’d seen him married, or paid their condolences on the death of his wife. They might even have voted for him. Sam had friends in plenty here.

Unlike himself. All he had was a life on the run and...

“You’ve been standing on that same spot for five minutes now. Are you feeling all right, doctor?”

Startled, Kimble looked up to see the subject of his thoughts standing in front of him, wearing a quizzical expression.

“Sam! Marshal,” he amended hastily.

“Sam’s fine, doctor,” he said easily, seeming to take Kimble’s use of his first name for granted.

“Richard.”

“So we are still on speaking terms?”

“I figure. Though you seem to have been eating for two, the size of the tab for your breakfast.”

“I was hungry,” explained Gerard. “And, as I discovered too late, without a cent in my pockets. Besides, you owed me breakfast.”

“I hadn’t forgotten,” Kimble assured him with a grin. “You owe me twenty-seven cents,” he added, plucking a figure from the air.

“Twenty-seven? Boy. It’s a worry. Can I owe you?”

Kimble considered it. “You have an honest face. I’ll trust you for it.”

“Gee, thanks. How about me buying you breakfast tomorrow? Your patients permitting.”

“I’d like that,” nodded Kimble, just before he swallowed a yawn. Stubble rasped as he rubbed his chin.

“Late night?” inquired Gerard, wearing an expression Kimble wasn’t sure how to interpret.

“Early morning. Delivering Richard Heinrich Kaufmann into the world. How about you?”

“Richard, huh? The first of many, no doubt. I’m glad to hear you were so usefully employed.”

“Unlike you, no doubt,” said Kimble dryly.

“You got me there. I was playing poker with some old friends until Abe’s favorite mare decided to drop her foal. By the time the foal was on its feet and we’d cleaned up I’d forgotten about my winnings sitting on his table.”

“So we’ve both been seeing new life into the world,” mused Kimble as he rubbed his chin. “I could use a shave.”

“Linus down the street is a fine barber,” recommended Gerard, heading for the candy-striped pole which advertised the town’s barber, bath house and laundry. “Just don’t let him persuade you to use that hair oil he bought from San Francisco. I could use a shave myself. Do you mind if I tag along?”

“Not even if I have to pay for your shave,” Kimble said cheerfully.

Gerard’s sleepy-eyed grin acknowledged the hit.

 

Having dozed off in the barber’s chair, Kimble awoke to find himself more fragrant than any man had a right to be. As Linus was busy with another customer, he gave Gerard a look of betrayal.

“I smell like a - a... Damn it, Sam. Couldn’t you have stopped him?” he complained, his nose wrinkling with distaste as he caught a whiff of himself.

“I could, if I’d been awake. There’s something real soporific about these chairs and a warm towel wrapped round your face. Sorry,” said Gerard but his twinkling eyes betrayed him.

Emerging onto the sidewalk Kimble gave him a brooding look, which turned to a downright scowl when two women turned to stare, sniffing loudly as he walked past. “And you can stop smirking,” he told the marshal.

“Me?” protested Gerard, his large hands parting.

Appalled by his longing to kiss the other man, Kimble frowned. Damn it, even fully clothed and in public Sam Gerard exerted a terrible pull on his senses.

Kimble was so preoccupied with not falling over his own feet that it never occurred to him that Gerard might be experiencing similar problems.

 

The following morning Kimble arrived at Jo’s Place to find Gerard already there, at a table for two, offering the slightly out-of-focus smile of a man awaiting his first cup of coffee of the day. They had just ordered their meal when the sound of raised voices drifted in through the open windows, the high, clear tone of the girl’s voice more distinct than that of the man’s. The levels rose as the couple came into view.

“... don’t own me, Max Fischer. You’re not even my beau...”

“...nonsense and you know it. We’ve been walking out together for four months. Darn it, Annabelle, the whole town’s got us paired off. But I’m telling you now, you’ve gotta stop mooning over the doctor this way. It ain’t decent.”

Gerard abandoned any pretense of good manners and eavesdropped avidly, aware with one part of his brain that the varying conversations around the eatery had died away; no-one wanted to miss a word of the excitement outside. His head bowed, Kimble had the hunted look of a man who wished he was a long way away.

“Mooning?” shrieked Annabelle.

“Yeah, mooning. He’s old enough to be your pa and - ”

There was the sound of a slap.

“What did you have to go and hit me for?” demanded Max, aggrieved.

“Don’t you dare sully that dear, sweet man’s name. You, you - hick, you. You’re not fit to black the boots of a wonderful man like Richard and...”

The voices grew fainter as the couple progressed down the street and some good-natured joshing came from some of the other diners.

Gerard looked across the table, smug as cat flicking away the last canary feather. To his gratification he saw that Richard knew how to blush after all; the tips of his ears were scarlet and he was fiddling with his fork.

“‘Richard’?” Gerard mouthed, unable to resist the temptation to tease.

Kimble gave him a bitter look. “There isn’t an ounce of mercy in you, is there?”

“It doesn’t seem like it,” agreed Gerard with a cheerful lack of repentance.

“This isn’t funny, Sam,” protested Kimble. “A doctor can’t afford to have young girls mooning over him. She’s barely sixteen!”

“But ripe for the plucking,” said Gerard dryly. “Always presuming Max Fischer hasn’t already tasted that particular fruit. Annabelle developed early, in every sense. Since her daddy died last year she’s been running wild. With eight other young ‘uns Susannah McDonald has her work cut out just to keep her family fed. Oh my, here we go again,” added Gerard as he glimpsed Max Fischer trailing sulkily behind Annabelle, who was stalking back towards the eatery.

“...boy compared to Richard. He’s so manly, so distinguished, so - so tall,” added Annabelle, who had obviously run out of adjectives.

“It’s not my fault he’s a beanpole with a scarred face,” yelled Fischer.

Gerard almost choked on a mouthful of coffee he had taken. The other occupants of the restaurant seemed similarly afflicted. Sorely tried, Kimble kicked Gerard on the shin. Gerard yelped, only to be hushed by a burly man on the next table, who was anxious to hear what happened next.

“...a man who makes me feel like a woman,” said Annabelle soulfully.

“What has that girl been reading?” murmured Gerard.

“Has he touched you?” yelled Fischer. “Annabelle McDonald, you answer me right now. I have rights and...”

“Oh boy,” said Gerard, as every other man in the place winced.

The argument outside followed a predictable pattern, until it receded into the distance again.

“Oh Lord,” muttered Kimble, pushing away the plate of food which Joe had just set in front of him. He raised worried-looking eyes. “Sam, I swear the most I’ve ever said to her is good morning when I called to treat her sister Betsy.”

Gerard finished chewing a mouthful of bacon. “Young girls form these unsuitable - ”

“Thanks, Sam.”

“ - attachments all the time,” continued Gerard, as if there had been no interruption. Then, because he could see Kimble was genuinely concerned, he stopped teasing. “No-one who knows you would imagine you would behave with anything but propriety with any female, whatever her age. I’ll have a word with Caroline Renfro. No, Miss Lacey would be best for a matter like this. Though that little scene explains why young Max was so set on your blood the other night. It speaks well of him that he didn’t drill you full of holes.”

“I know,” conceded Kimble, absently chewing a mouthful of bacon. “Do you think I should have a word with him? Between the cards, Arnie dying and now this he has every right to hate my guts.”

Gerard set down his fork. “Are you crazy? Listen, Richard, you keep clear of that young man until he’s had a chance to calm down. His brothers, too. Max will see sense once he’s had a chance to think things through.”

“Oh, good,” said Kimble ironically, before he gave his companion a brooding look. “I wish you weren’t enjoying this so much.”

“Me, too,” said Gerard happily. “Tall, huh? I mean, you think she would have talked about your charm, good looks or intelligence but I guess if they’re not present she has to fall back on what’s left.”

Kimble tried to scowl but the attempt was doomed to failure, Gerard’s nonsense helping to put things in perspective. “Everyone told me you were such a good man,” he said, trying to sound disillusioned.

“And now you know better. You concentrate of eating your breakfast,” Gerard told him, before he gave a lazy smile so full of amused affection that Kimble forgot not only his sense of grievance but what had caused it.

 

Busy with patients for the next few hours, by mid-afternoon Kimble was free to ride back into town to buy supplies. Just because he was getting on with Sam so well, that was no reason to forget what had, of necessity, become his cardinal rule - never put down roots. He couldn’t afford to call any place home.

If only he didn’t feel so easy in Sam’s company. Of course, if Sam knew the truth about him...

Shuddering, Kimble pushed the thought away as he dismounted outside the general store. Inhaling the rich, fruity smell of the plug tobacco he slowly made his way to the back of the store. Because the two clerks were busy he began to browse through the goods for sale displayed on the counter. With no great enthusiasm he restricted his purchases to basic supplies for the trail: flour, salt, sugar, vinegar, coffee, beans and salt beef. He couldn’t stay in Cooksville forever, no matter how great the temptation. And that notion of spending a year here, with Sam, was no more than a pipe-dream; a dangerously seductive pipe-dream.

“That’s quite a haul you’ve got there. Are you planning a journey?” asked Gerard, stepping out from between the pot-bellied stove and an open barrel of crackers and making Kimble jump.

Kimble almost dropped the sack of sugar. “I never know when I might have to leave town,” he prevaricated, flirting with the truth because lying to this man outright felt wrong.

“The penalty for being a good doctor, I guess. Is that stuff all yours? Instead of waiting for Wing Lee to deliver it, you’re welcome to load your supplies on my buckboard. It’s out front. I’m almost done here. Thanks Mrs Lee. And a large bag of that candy over there. Yeah, that’s the one.”

Amused, Kimble remained at Gerard’s side. “For Cosmo’s children?”

“No. For me,” replied Gerard.

Kimble helped himself from the bag extended to him, sucking vigorously. “Yuck!” He he spat the candy into the spittoon. “You eat those for pleasure?”

“Hell, no, but Maverick loves aniseed. Here, one of these peppermint balls should take away the taste.”

“You have a sweet tooth?” Kimble tried not to notice how the warm brown gaze caressed his face.

“I don’t like to limit myself,” murmured Gerard. Loading himself up with the supplies Kimble had brought, he headed out of the shop.

It was a moment before Kimble had the wit to follow him. “You buy candy for your horse?”

Gerard loaded the lack sack on to the back of the buckboard. “Sure.” He leaned in close. “But don’t tell anyone, all right.” Patting Kimble on the back, he withdrew again.

Having been certain that Gerard was going to kiss him, Kimble took a moment to catch his breath. His heart pounding, he had the fixed stare of a man desperately hoping his leap of arousal wasn’t apparent to anyone else. His tongue feeling too big for his mouth, it was a moment more before he appreciated that Gerard was patiently waiting for a response.

“Uh, right.” Tying Red to the tailboard, he climbed up beside Gerard. “I appreciate this, marshal,” he said, still feeling awkward.

Setting the buckboard underway, Gerard spared him a quizzical look. “Have I done something to offend you? A while ago I was Sam.”

“Offend me?” Kimble gave him a blank stare. It wasn’t Sam’s fault that he was so acutely aware of him. Odd that it should be easier to cope with at Madam Reynard’s - maybe because you expected to be thinking about sex there. Meeting Sam like this was driving him crazy because he was constantly being ambushed by such thoughts when he least expected them - and it was as disconcerting as hell. He was used to being the one in control; besides, with a man as bashful as Sam someone had to move things along. Though he’d stake his shirt on Sam being a real fast learner.

“So I can take it that’s a no,” prompted Gerard into the silence.

“Uh, yeah. Sorry, Sam. I was thinking about someone else.”

Nodding, Gerard spent the next three miles wondering who that might be.

Chapter Text

FOUR

 

Two days later Kimble was free to stop off at Jo’s for breakfast. He made a point of seeking out Mr. Bailey, who greeted him with restrained but obvious pleasure. Having been doing a little investigating of his own, the doctor had learned that Clarence Bailey’s wife of forty years had died two years ago. Childless and of an age where no-one would think to employ him, he had been in danger of fading away until Gerard had stirred the town into building the library they had been talking about for years. Bailey was appointed librarian and Gerard persuaded the older man to manage his financial affairs when he was out of town as ‘a great favor’. Kimble artfully steered the conversation to his favorite topic.

“I’d assumed Marshal Gerard’s ranch was the family home.”

“No, his father had a small holding to the east of town. Cal Logan took it over some years ago. When Sam married he moved into Quintum’s Leap. He purchased El Corazón from me when my dear wife passed away. It had been a happy home for us both but after Edith’s death it felt far too large and full of memories. I stayed in a boarding house for a while but it... Then Miss Lacey - an admirable woman, I feel sure you would get on - suggested I rent the annex at the back of her house. An arrangement which suits us both admirably.”

“I’m sure it does, sir.” With the kindness which was second nature to him, Kimble encouraged the older man to talk about his wife.

The sound of Gerard’s voice asking if he might join them took Kimble completely by surprise because he had failed to notice the other man coming into the eatery. Looking up, he couldn’t imagine how. Sam was looking... Edible. Mouth-wateringly edible.

Gerard took the chair by the window and Kimble’s eyes narrowed as he studied the other man by the remorseless light of the sun which was streaming into the room. Something was bothering Sam; behind the smile he was almost vibrating with tension.

Kimble’s thoughts were interrupted as Renfro came over to their table and at an invitation from Mr. Bailey joined them for a fresh pot of coffee.

“It’s the doctor I really wanted to see,” admitted Renfro, adding a second spoonful of sugar and stirring with vigor.

“Cosmo’s tactful as ever,” remarked Gerard. “Here, you may as well finish these eggs for me.”

“Why aren’t you eating them?” demanded Renfro, looking like a harried gopher in his concern. “You’re not sick again?”

“Quit fussing. I’m fine.”

The sudden snap in Gerard’s voice made Kimble glance up but he knew better than to comment. “What can I do for you Cosmo?” he asked, providing a distraction in the interests of peace.

“Caroline told me to be sure to ask you to dinner Saturday night - your patients permitting. Third time lucky maybe,” Renfro added.

“Let’s hope so,” nodded Kimble. “Thanks.”

“Good. The second thing - ”

“What about me?” demanded Gerard, although his lightness of tone sounded forced to Kimble. “Don’t I get fed by the most beautiful woman in the State?”

“She didn’t mention you,” Renfro said, before he grinned. “When have you ever needed an invitation? Though I wasn’t thinking. Mr. Bailey, I wonder, would you be free? You’d be most welcome to join us.”

“That’s very kind of you, Cosmo but I shall be escorting Miss Lacey to the poetry recital at the library.”

Making his excuses, Bailey left the three men at the table. Kimble gave Gerard’s abstracted face another curious glance and turned back to Renfro. “Wasn’t there something else you wanted to ask me?” he prompted.

“That’s right. Though it’s not so pleasant. Judd’s due to hang tomorrow at seven a.m. We need someone to certify him dead and I was wondering if you’d be willing to...”

The blood pounding in his ears, Kimble unconsciously caught hold of the edge of the table. “Hanged,” he said in an odd voice. His eyes wide, he stared from Renfro to Gerard and back to Renfro. “You mean a man’s going to be hanged in Cooksville?”

“You must have been aware of the stir the trial caused,” said Renfro, eyeing the doctor in astonishment.

Still and silent, Gerard saw the disgust and fear the doctor was slow to disguise.

“No,” said Kimble flatly.

“Well you must be the only one. It’s a wonder you haven’t heard folk talking. Everyone will be relieved when Judd gets what he deserves. So, will you do it?”

“No. It’s barbaric and I’ll have no part in it. It’s my job to try and save lives,” Kimble added, his voice cracking with his strength of feeling. Tossing money onto the table, his chair scraped back as he got to his feet. “I would have thought better of you,” he added, but his disillusioned gaze was on Gerard.

 

After Kimble left the eatery there was a lengthy silence, during which Renfro fiddled with unused cutlery and shot glances at his companion. “I guess I’ll have to ask Robert Biggs to do it,” he said eventually. “What do you think, Sam? Sam?”

“I heard you,” said Gerard. “Why not?”

Getting to his feet, Renfro paused to study the other man, then sat back down again. “Hey, Sammy. Is there a problem?”

Rousing himself with a perceptible effort, Gerard shook his head. “Of course not. You go on. I’ll see you tomorrow morning.”

Renfro gave him a look of affection. “You don’t have to be there.”

“I do in my book,” said Gerard colorlessly.

 

Kimble lost his breakfast down a side alley. Cold with shock, despite the heat of the morning, he avoided the main thoroughfares because he didn’t want company. After a while he lost track of where he was going, rounded a corner and stopped in his tracks. Rawly new, the gallows were a graphic reminder of what was going to take place. Turning on his heel, Kimble went off to get drunk in Maxie’s Saloon.

Sitting in a corner table with a bottle of whiskey, he was unaware of the unobtrusive eye Calavicci kept on him. It was the first time anyone had seen him take more than one drink and the sight worried them.

Because the whiskey wasn’t helping, Kimble paid his shot and walked back through town to collect Red, unaware of the people he snubbed on the way when he failed to return their greetings. With no emergencies claiming his attention, he rode for miles, appalled that Gerard - and the people of Cooksville - could permit this horror to take place.

 

Sleep impossible, Kimble lit every lamp in the house and kept himself busy working on minor repairs all night, brutal memories sour in his mind. It was still dark when he packed a canvas holdall and slung it over one shoulder before going down to the river on foot. He went in the opposite direction from the ferry crossing because he wasn’t in the mood to see anyone - although he’d left a note of his whereabouts tacked to the front door in case there should be a medical emergency. Because he had forgotten to leave his timepiece at home he couldn’t stop himself from checking it every ten minutes. Seven o’clock found him staring at the mist rising off the motionless water, his mouth compressed, his eyes haunted by memories. Telling himself that brooding wouldn’t change human nature, he went to find a patch of damp earth by the roots of one of the largest willows. While he dug for bait, the strengthening sun burned off the mist.

The silence broken by the sound of a horse approaching at speed made Kimble tense, then remain still as he remembered he was hidden from sight. He wasn’t inclined to be sociable, wanting nothing to do with the townsfolk until he could get the taint of the hanging from his mind. Instead of remaining on the track the horse slowed before it appeared through the trees: Maverick and Gerard.

Sam the last person he had expected - or wanted - to see right now, Kimble checked his timepiece. It was seven forty-seven. He allowed himself to hope that the town might have come to its senses and cancelled the hanging, despite the sentence passed by the circuit judge. One look at Gerard’s face, mercilessly lit by the sun filtering through the branches, told him it was over. All rigid control and jagged movements, so unlike his usual grace as to attract attention, Gerard unsaddled Maverick. When her muzzle nudged his shoulder he paused to rest his head against her neck before rummaging in a pocket for some candy. Even when he fed it to her he did not relax. He looked as if he was wearing his Sunday best - or dressed for a hanging, recognized Kimble, remembering that Sam had brought in Judd.

Too preoccupied to be aware that he was under surveillance, Gerard removed his black frockcoat, narrow black silk tie and black vest. The light cotton of his white shirt clung sweatily to his torso, although as yet the temperature was no more than pleasant. Unbuttoning his shirt, he tugged it free of the waistband of his pants but he made no further attempt to remove it, as if that effort had been enough. One shoulder propped against the trunk of a young willow, he stared blankly ahead of him for a few moments, then sank onto the ground. His back to the tree and his knees drawn up to his chest, he lit a cheroot, only to crush it out a short time later. Running a hand back through his hair, he shook his head, as though impatient with himself. Blinking, his face stripped of defenses, he looked younger and appallingly vulnerable.

Abruptly he pushed himself to his feet, yanked off his boots, pulled off the remainder of his clothing and strode down to the river. Wading into the water and flinching at the initial chill, he was soon swimming strongly, with a speed that suggested he might be trying to outpace his thoughts.

Kimble watched the strong, brown arms cleaving through the water, following the dark head and the pearly skin of Gerard’s ass until the other man was so far downstream he was no more than a dazzling sparkle of water droplets caught in the sun. He had been in danger of forgetting what a strong man Sam was; they would be well-matched, Kimble mused, for once unconscious of the direction his thoughts were taking him as he watched Gerard swim back into view. Tiring, Gerard slowed to a stop close to where he had gone into the river and lay floating on his back. Despite his relaxed-looking pose everything about him shrieked tension.

Hoping he could do something about that, Kimble quietly withdrew from his shelter. Leaving his belongings beside Gerard’s, he removed his own clothing before swimming out to where Gerard floated with his eyes shut.

“Morning, Sam,” he called, when he was still some distance away because Gerard would be in no mood to appreciate a surprise.

When Kimble swam to his side, Gerard nodded, but his expression was guarded.

“When I decided to come fishing, I’d no notion I’d land such a fine catch,” continued Kimble pleasantly.

It was a moment before Gerard caught the reference. “I guess you could have done without me threshing around in the water,” he conceded. More than anything else his flattened voice betrayed his mental state.

“Oh, I intend to get my revenge,” Kimble assured him. He had the satisfaction of seeing a spark of life return to the dark eyes. Hoping his instincts were sound, he yanked the off-guard man under the water before Gerard could suspect what he intended, swimming away as fast as he could, before turning to make his challenge.

“Catch me if you can.”

Spluttering and gasping, his face streaming with water and alive with laughter now, Gerard wiped his face with his hand, his spiked black eyelashes framing his eyes. “You think I can’t catch you?” he inquired.

“Words are cheap, Sam.”

“True. And revenge will be sweet,” conceded Gerard, just before he dived under the water, agile and slippery as an eel.

Yelping, Kimble took evasive action. The somber introspection of Gerard’s face a thing of the past, he set about getting his revenge. Kimble made him work for it. The sunlight on the water was dazzling as they wrestled, ducked and splashed one another. Kimble lost track of how long they spent frolicking in the water but by the time they emerged Gerard had lost the frozen look which had slipped under Kimble’s guard.

Back on shore, Gerard ran his large hands over his face, then back over his thick hair, slicking it to his skull. Water trickled down his neck and shoulders. Unselfconscious as any male animal grooming itself he began to skim his hands over his own body, removing much of the excess moisture.

“That felt good,” he said, catching Kimble’s eyes on him. “It’s been years since I’ve fooled around that way. Though you seem to have had plenty of practice.”

Kimble just grinned at him, shaking his head like a dog to get rid of some of the excess water, before he padded over to his bag, producing an old shirt, in which he had proposed to wrap his catch. He tossed it to Gerard. “Here, this should take off the worst.”

“What about you?”

“I’ll use this.”

Kimble hooked up the shirt he had been wearing earlier and beginning to dry himself without a trace of self-consciousness. Aware of Gerard doing the same thing only a few feet away, he found himself sneaking quick looks at the other man. Odd that this should feel so much more intimate than the times they had shared the Ablution Suite at Madame Reynard’s. Maybe the sense of intimacy was increased because here they were completely alone, with no distractions from Madame’s finest young ladies. Of course, the disadvantage, if it could be called that, was that he was in danger of making his interest in Sam too obvious - at least until he could be sure it would be welcome. Spreading his now soggy shirt over a bush, he settled himself belly down in the sunshine, before patting the thick grass beside him invitingly. A few seconds later Gerard settled next to him, pillowing his face on his folded arms.

The river was deep and the water had been cool so the warmth of the sun was welcome on their bare backs. For a few minutes Kimble was content to soak up the heat, but his thoughts were still too jangled for him to be able to relax properly. Now there was no distraction of physical activity he could not stop picking at the topic of Judd’s hanging.

“I didn’t expect to find you here, today of all days,” he said abruptly into the silence. “I thought you would have wanted to wait to see Judd brought to justice.” His face turned towards the other man, he saw the muscles tense down the beautiful back, as if this wasn’t something Gerard had expected to hear.

“I did that the day I brought in Judd,” said Gerard, each word precisely picked out.

“So you didn’t want to wait around this morning to see him die?” pursued Kimble, unable to leave the subject alone.

“It was my duty to be there, so I was. Robert Biggs certified Judd as dead at seven minutes after seven. What is this, an inquisition?” Pushing himself up into the sitting position, Gerard’s face was set and stern.

Staring into the distance, Kimble was oblivious to the warning signs. “I don’t understand, Sam. How could you be so sure Judd was guilty? What if it was an accident? What if he didn’t mean it to happen?” he whispered haunted by too vivid images from the past.

His eyes narrowed, his mouth thinned by temper, only the fact Gerard belatedly recognized that Kimble had some private agenda made him reply. “Judd robbed, raped and murdered nine women in separate attacks clear across to Tucson,” he said, his voice quiet and without emphasis. “He never attacked anyone who had a chance of fighting back, and he left twelve children orphaned. He needed to be stopped.”

“With a noose?” protested Kimble, before he absorbed what he had been told. “Nine women?”

“That’s right. Andy McDougall called on his widowed sister, who lived just outside town, and found Judd with his knife still red, bent over her. Andy’s fifteen, small for his age and with bad eyesight. He wasn’t armed. But he put up enough of a fight to make Judd run rather than stay to kill him. Andy marked Judd, too. My only regret is that I didn’t catch up with the sick bastard in time to stop him from killing another woman in Orange County. Trust me, he was guilty.”

“I had no idea.” Kimble rubbed his chin. “I didn’t mean to insinuate you wouldn’t - ”

“Didn’t you?” interrupted Gerard, his voice still even.

But still Kimble could not leave the topic alone, haunted by nightmare possibilities. “Who was the hangman?” he asked painfully.

Danger in the air, Gerard’s mouth thinned. “We hired Tarrville’s, not having much call for one in Cooksville.”

There was open relief on Kimble’s face. “Then you didn’t - ?”

“Do the job myself? No.” It was then that Gerard’s temper slipped its leash. “Jesus, Richard! What kind of sick bastard do you think I am? As for Judd’s guilt, if there’d been any doubt do you think I wouldn’t have spoken up for him?”

Gerard’s outburst forced Kimble to understand just how offensive he was being and he dropped his gaze, before forcing himself to meet the other man’s anger. “It isn’t that, I just couldn’t understand why you had to be there,” he muttered doggedly.

Gerard began to dress with despatch; he paused while buttoning his pants to pin Kimble with a deadly stare. “Hey, I’m on vacation. I get bored. Simple enough so even you can understand, I intended to see it was done quick and clean. And to ensure that anyone with the idea of making trouble thought the better of it. The death of a man, even scum like Judd, shouldn’t be a turned into a public spectacle. Thank you for the vote of confidence regarding my motives and character.” Scooping up the rest of his clothes, he turned to leave.

Scrambling to his feet, Kimble flung out a hand, catching Gerard by the forearm. “Don’t go, Sam. Or not like this.” Under the influence of a malignant glare he released Gerard. “I’m sorry. Really. I just... Everything I said came out the wrong way.”

Gerard gave a peculiar little grimace, but he let the bundle of clothing he was clutching fall to the ground.

Only then remembering that he was naked, Kimble pulled on his pants, before sifting through his bag. “If you’ll give me a chance to make a fire I can fix some coffee. I brought supplies with me.” He was unaware of quite how hopeful he looked. “Sam?” he added, when the other man did not respond immediately.

“I heard you.” Gerard exhaled slowly. “I’ll get some wood.” He had moved away before Kimble could reply.

He was gone for quite a while but Kimble was glad of the break, having had time to appreciate just how insulting his insinuations had been.

“I think I got too much,” said Gerard wryly from behind him.

Turning, Kimble smiled when he saw the load the other man was carrying. “Probably,” he agreed. While Gerard set the fire, he took food from his bag, glad he had the forethought to bring plenty. Without needing to discuss it they sat down to share the simple meal of roast chicken, bread, and the apricots Miss Lacey had given Kimble. More comfortable with each other by the time they had finished their meal, Kimble leaned across to pour Gerard some more coffee in the cup they were sharing.

“It’s about time you had some,” remarked Gerard, handing it over.

Taking satisfaction from placing his mouth where Gerard’s had been, Kimble felt a familiar prickling warmth in his groin. “This is a beautiful spot,” he muttered, seeking some distraction.

“I’ve always liked it.” Shirtless, the light breeze playing in his thick, dark hair, Gerard sat cross-legged and comfortable, looking almost as relaxed as when they had emerged from the water.

Kimble rubbed at a non-existent spot on his pants. “About what I said earlier. I’m sorry I kept picking at the subject. Only...” Taking a deep breath, he added in a rush, “I saw a lynching when I was a boy. I still dream about it sometimes.” His deep voice was barely audible.

There was a small silence.

“When we lived in Texas I saw a man lynched,” said Gerard quietly.

Kimble’s head shot up at that. About to speak, he thought the better of it and sat watching the other man’s large fingers fidget with a piece of kindling, snapping it into smaller and smaller pieces.

“The lynch mob was comprised of people I’d thought of as friends, neighbors. When my father tried to stop... They clubbed him unconscious and made me and my ma watch. I’ve never forgotten it,” Gerard continued, his downcast lashes shadowing his cheek.

“It isn’t the sort of experience you forget.” Remembered horrors lurked in Kimble’s shadowed eyes. “Maybe it’s one of the reasons you became a lawman,” he mused, because thinking about Sam was preferable to dwelling on the events which had marred his childhood.

“Maybe,” said Gerard, disinclined for any further examination of his past. Hooking his jacket closer, he took out a small leather case and helped himself to a cheroot. Biting off the end, he tossed the case over to Kimble.

Sharing his match, Kimble watched Gerard’s lean cheeks hollow, the lips purse and felt a sudden surge of lust. He used humor to combat it. “Bet I catch more fish than you before dusk,” he said with deliberate provocation.

“Rod and line?”

“Of course.”

“You’ve got yourself a bet,” said Gerard, although the only sign of activity he displayed was to stretch out his legs as he enjoyed his smoke.

 

Sitting only a few yards apart in a companionable silence, the challenge for which no prize had been discussed became less important as they waited for the fish to come in to feed in the murky depths under the willows.

“I thought you’d given me the best spot at the time,” said Kimble, eyeing his superior haul as they got ready to leave.

“I’m that kind of guy,” Gerard explained. It was just light enough for him to see the other man smile.

“If you don’t have any other plans maybe you’d like to share these fish with me,” Kimble offered.

“It’s lucky you decided to invite me because I wasn’t planning to go home hungry,” remarked Gerard. Taking hold of Maverick’s reins he led her up the trail, Kimble walking easily beside him, the line of fish hanging from one hand.

“Want to toss for who gets to clean the fish?” asked Kimble when they reached the house.

Gerard gave him a pitying look.

“That’s what I thought,” sighed Kimble.

Eating the simple meal with obvious relish, they finished up with a walnut cake Miss Lacey had given Kimble and fresh coffee.

Stealing the last walnut, Gerard chewed with relish, but for all his casual air his shrewd gaze had noted everything there was to see in the kitchen and parlor. Apart from the furnishings the house had been rented with there were no personal items on show, nothing to hint at Richard’s taste or past. If Richard left town tomorrow there would be nothing to show he had ever lived here.

Pressing the pad of his dampened finger to the plate, Gerard sucked it clean of frosting, a thoughtful look on his face as it occurred to him how little he really knew about Kimble. They talked plenty but Richard always managed to slide the conversation away from himself. Testing his theory, Gerard allowed the conversation to wander with seeming randomness; every time the point was reached where a man would naturally offer something from his own experiences, Richard adroitly changed the direction of the conversation. It wasn’t a surprise. For all his hail-fellow-well-met attitude, Kimble had been careful to keep his distance from everyone, as though wary of emotional entanglements on even the simplest level.

Take the Renfros. Richard had claimed he’d been prevented from eating with them because of pressure of work but Gerard knew that was a lie for two of the three Sundays in question. Robert Biggs had mentioned finding it difficult to track Richard down for another game of poker and Noah had joked about Richard being a man of mystery. It wasn’t so funny now it looked as though Richard was trying to hide something in his past; especially if it was something in which he might be forced to take an interest in his capacity as marshal.

While Richard had an easy smile and considerable charm, the smile didn’t always reach his eyes. And why was he so wary of making friends?

Everyone had elements of their life they’d rather weren’t made public - particularly handsome men. And they didn’t come much better-looking than Richard. Did he have a sinister past - some dark, shameful secret?

Gerard thought of the flirtatious charmer he had met at Madame Reynard’s and the compassionate, efficient doctor he had seen working in an emergency and discarded the idea. Doctors often received more attention than they were comfortable with, particularly the unmarried ones, though it sure would be convenient if Richard was starting to feel a need to settle down. All he had to do was make Richard trust him enough to feel comfortable about revealing the man beneath that easy charm.

“I’ve asked you to pass me that plate three times. I guess the lack of response lets me know how interesting my conversation has been.” Kimble tried to look hard done by.

All Gerard noticed was how the light of the lamp turned the other man’s mutable eyes to gold but there wasn’t a hint of romanticism in his prosaic reply. “If you have to ask. Is there any more coffee?”

“Only if you make it,” replied Kimble, watching as Gerard got up to do just that. “From your manner around this house no-one would guess you lived here for almost seventeen years.”

Gerard brought the coffee pot over to the table. “How did you find out?”

Pleased to discover how easily he could read the other man, Kimble said, “Mr. Bailey mentioned that you’d appointed him your agent - at the same time you secured that job at the library for him.” Watching Sam’s embarrassed scowl, he didn’t try to hide his amused affection.

“I don’t like waste,” Gerard muttered. “Clarence is a good man.” While his tone was dismissive, inwardly he was glowing. Richard had been pumping Clarence for information about him. Hot damn, Richard was hooked. Now all he had to do was reel him in - except it was Richard’s play, so he had to wait for Richard to do the reeling. He just hoped Kimble would make his move soon because he wasn’t sure how much longer he could remain patient.

“Clarence isn’t the only good man,” said Kimble without thinking. To his relief Sam seemed to have missed that betraying remark. The last thing he wanted to do was make Gerard self-conscious - or scare him off. “When did you move in here?”

“When I married.”

“Oh,” said Kimble blankly, having conveniently forgotten the ghost of Sam’s wife. “Sorry.”

“For what? Elizabeth’s been dead fifteen years and I’m not the boy who married her. What about you, haven’t you ever wanted to settle down?”

Kimble’s mouth twisted. “No.” He didn’t elaborate.

They both jumped at the banging on the front door, an angry voice bellowing Kimble’s name over and over again.

“Who the hell - ?” Gerard began, before he recognized Max Fischer’s voice.

“Sit down and leave this to me,” commanded Kimble, wearing an expression that made even Gerard pause.

Glaring at the other man’s broad shoulders as Kimble strode out of the kitchen, Gerard stayed where he was, more or less.

“ - are, you bastard. You ever go near Annabelle and I swear I’ll make you sorry. We’re gonna settle this once and for all. Like men.”

Already at the door leading into the parlor, Gerard just stopped himself from crossing the threshold. He compromised by propping himself in the doorway but the closed door meant that all he could hear of Kimble’s voice was a deep rumble before Fischer started up again.

“ - all very well for you to say but if I thought you and she... I’d string you up.”

There was another rumble-filled pause, after which Gerard began to relax because Fischer’s voice had moderated to the point where he, too, became inaudible. After what seemed like forever the front door closed. He reseated himself at the table seconds before Kimble came back into the kitchen.

“Sorry about the interruption. More coffee?” asked Kimble, as if nothing had happened.

“Sure,” said Gerard, watching the other man like a hawk. While Richard’s hand was unsteady his face was calm. Damn, he thought with admiration, how many unarmed men would face up to a young hothead like Max Fischer?

When Gerard finally left, satisfied that Fischer wasn’t about to sneak back, he had plenty to think about on his ride home, including the fact he still knew nothing about Kimble’s past. He consoled himself with the thought that Richard had spent seventeen consecutive hours in his company without any sign of strain.

oOo

Judd had been quietly buried out of town immediately after the hanging, the only people present the Reverend Nicols, Biggs, his assistant and Noah Newman. Cooksville was still jumpy the following day, some of the hotter-headed members of the community aggrieved they had missed the hanging.

Renfro and Newman were much in evidence around the streets, doing their best to defuse a potentially dangerous situation as the afternoon became evening and the town livened up with men coming in from the outlying ranches and farms. The arrival of fourteen cowhands from the biggest ranch in the county with bonus money in their pockets did nothing to quiet things down.

“You’re supposed to be on vacation,” Renfro told Gerard, when he realized the marshal was patrolling likely trouble spots.

“I am. You just go about your business and leave me to mine. Will you quit looking at me like that? I’m just taking a walk and talking to folk.”

“Wearing your Peacemakers?” said Renfro skeptically as they headed down Main Street.

“I just want to be sure you and Noah have backup should the need arise,” said Gerard dryly, before he grimaced. “I hadn’t allowed for how high feelings were running about Judd. You were right.”

“Which is why you sound like you’re about to have a tooth pulled,” noted Renfro, making no attempt at subtlety.

“I bet you’d even kick a guy when he’s down.”

“First chance I got,” Renfro confirmed cheerfully.

“How are the McDougalls doing?”

“Miss Lacey spent the day with Andy and his Ma. And I’ve noticed Sam Beckett and Al Calavicci helping out around the place. It was Jennie who did most of the work and - ”

“Hey, Sam,” called Newman, as he loped down a side street to join them. “What you doing?”

“Talking to you. You have a point?”

“Boy, you’re grouchy tonight,” said Newman, not noticeably cowed.

“He had to admit he was wrong,” explained Renfro cheerfully.

“Ah. It doesn’t happen often,” consoled Newman.

“If it wasn’t for the fact we’re trying to create a certain impression, I’d make you regret that remark,” said Gerard, sorely tried.

Newman just grinned. “I don’t know what you told that young cowhand from the Lazy Q but he’s sure quietened down. He and the other boys headed off to Madame Reynard’s meek as lambs.”

“He didn’t want a shoot-out. He’d just had a few beers too many,” dismissed Gerard.

“So what did you say to him?” pursued Renfro.

“I just reminded him that while speed’s fine in a gunfight, accuracy’s final. He’s young and full of pride but there’s no malice in him - or the rest of the boys. I reckon they’ve settled down for the night.”

Studying his friend, aware that Gerard had no idea of just how formidable he could appear, Renfro smothered a grin. “You could be right,” he said placidly.

“I always am. Well, mostly,” Gerard amended, trying to be fair about it.

“I’ll head down to Rita’s saloon and play a few hands with Bobby Biggs,” said Newman. “It won’t hurt to keep visible until the town’s bedded down. ‘Night,” he said as he wandered off into the darkness.

“I’ll do the same at Maxie’s, though Al and Sam keep a tight rein on things,” added Gerard. “Cosmo, go home before Caroline blames me for the fact she’s hardly seen anything of you.”

“That reminds me, she’s looking forward to having a word with you on Saturday.”

“Understandable,” said Gerard. “I’m that kind of a guy.”

“Because she’s found out who it was taught Bruce to play poker,” continued Renfro remorselessly.

“You told her, didn’t you,” said Gerard, looking betrayed.

“Hey, it was you or me and I have to live with her. Besides, by the time you’ve finished sweet-talking her she’ll probably believe it was a good idea.”

Gerard looked skeptical. “Even I’m not that good,” he remarked, before he clapped the other man on the shoulder. “Go home. I’ll just check out the livery stable before I head for Maxie’s.”

Whistling happily at the prospect of an evening of domestic bliss, Renfro headed off with a casual wave of acknowledgment.

Having circled the darkened livery stable and satisfied himself that the folks living in this poorer part of town were peaceably getting on with their own lives, Gerard slowed his pace when a door opened. In the light spilling out onto the yard he recognized Kimble, medical bag in hand, in conversation with Jésus and Josefina Feliciano.

 

Having reassured the anxious parents as best his halting Spanish would allow, and bid them goodnight, Kimble headed up the street. He was disconcerted when Gerard stepped out of the shadows, wearing an untrustworthy smile.

“Hi, Sam.”

“Richard. I heard you talking to the Felicianos. In Spanish. ‘Gringo’, huh?” Gerard added.

Kimble’s look of puzzlement faded when he placed the reference; he gave a broad grin. “I guess it was only a matter of time before you caught me out. But you were naked in the tub at the time. I figured I was safe enough.”

“You do like to live dangerously, don’t you,” murmured Gerard, but his tone was indulgent. The moon so bright you could almost read by it, he saw Kimble’s expression change.

“Life is dangerous, Sam. You’ve gotta get your fun where you can.”

Taken aback, Gerard let none of his concern or curiosity show itself. “True. Your vests alone get folks pretty riled.”

The good-humored smile returned to Kimble’s eyes. “I’ll have you know my vests come from Paris. France.”

“I can see why they’d want to get rid of them,” conceded Gerard, deadpan. He was relieved to see genuine warmth replace Richard’s unnerving bleakness of earlier. “Have you traveled much?”

“Sam, the vests are imported.”

The cuff Gerard aimed in Kimble’s direction did no more than ruffle his hair. “I can see I’ll have to take you in hand.”

Kimble looked him up and down in a considering way, a glint in his eyes but he had the sense to bite back his instinctive response - or to beg Sam to do just that - and said with total confidence, “You couldn’t. You’re too skinny.” He was disconcerted when the smile vanished from Gerard’s face, which became that of a disquieting stranger.

“You think so?” Stepping forward, Gerard’s manner was daunting in the extreme.

“You wouldn’t,” said Kimble, but with slightly less certainty than before as he searched for the man he knew in those dark eyes.

“Try me,” invited Gerard, the warmth magically back in evidence.

Kimble began to wonder if he had imagined the menace. Conceding defeat immediately, he held up his hands in surrender.

“The first time we met,” began Gerard.

“I saw you at your best,” interrupted Kimble irrepressibly. Receiving a strange look, he recognized too late what he had said and fell silent, looking as close as he ever came to embarrassed.

Untypically, Gerard did not try to make capital of that slip, rationalizing that it wouldn’t do to scare off Richard.

“As I was saying,” he continued in a repressive tone, “the first time we met you had one hell of a southern accent. Well, I should say a bad attempt at one.”

“It was a perfectly good accent,” retorted Kimble hotly.

Gerard gave him a look of pity. “Richard, it was terrible. How far south were you aiming, Mexico?”

“Who made you such an expert?”

“I am a Texan.”

“And therefore an expert?”

“See, I knew you’d come round to my way of thinking.” Evading a smack to the side of his head, Gerard pulled a face at Kimble.

Seconds later they were scuffling like schoolboys; fortunately there was no-one around to notice except Red. The sound of voices further down the street recalled them to the dignity of their respective positions. Pausing to exchange self-conscious grins, they brushed themselves down and straightened their clothing, before getting ready to continue on their way, as if nothing had happened. Unfastening his stallion’s reins from the hitching post, Kimble led Red so he could walk shoulder to shoulder with Gerard.

“Do you really think my vests are that bad?” he asked.

“They suit you.”

“Should I look for a compliment there?” At Gerard’s look of surprise, Kimble added, “You mean you didn’t intend to insult me?”

“Hey, no need to sound so surprised.” Gerard fingered his own dark jacket. “I guess I do dress a mite conservatively.”

“I’d say it was a toss up between you and Robert Biggs in the dazzle-them-with-color stakes,” Kimble allowed.

Gerard gave an involuntary grin. “Well, that dashes my hopes of sartorial elegance. Spare me that rueful look. You can buy me a glass of milk at Maxie’s instead.”

“Haven’t you got any money?”

“I have money, it’s just that I’m cheap,” Gerard explained cheerfully.

“This is supposed to be news?” Fastening Red to the hitching post, Kimble steered Gerard into the bright lights and conviviality of the saloon, conscious of where his hand rested in the center of Gerard’s back.

At the piano Beckett was playing ‘Oh Susannah’ while Henry Ritchie, looking slightly the worse for drink, sang along; he had a fine baritone. Several of the card tables were occupied but the play was honest and good-natured for the most part, Calavicci saw to that.

Ordering fresh milk for Gerard and a beer for himself, Kimble watched as Gerard propped himself comfortably against the bar.

“So,” said Gerard, offering Kimble a cheroot and taking one for himself, “you’re obviously not a southerner. Where do you hail from?”

Pausing in the act of lighting his cheroot, Kimble studied the other man for a few seconds. “Chicago.” It felt good to tell the truth, even if Sam could have no idea how rare a luxury that had become. Once you started to live a lie you were trapped in an ever-tightening circle of deceit, with no way out of it.

“Chicago,” echoed Gerard. “That’s quite a journey. What happened, did you miss your way?”

“That’s right. I was heading for Mexico when I lost my compass.”

“Maybe it was for the best,” mused Gerard. “Your Spanish is terrible.”

“It’s better than his Italian,” said Calavicci, returning with Gerard’s milk in time to hear that.

“If you’re going to insult me at least do it behind my back,” protested Kimble. “I’m going over to see Sam Beckett for some intelligent conversation.”

“You’re too late,” said Calavicci with resignation. “He’s so busy thinking about his new theory that’s the fifth time he’s played the same song. Gooshie, see to our customers,” he called, leaving a short, worried-looking man with bad breath to tend bar while he went over to his partner.

Chapter Text

FIVE

 

Mindful that Richard was going to be at the Renfros, Gerard arrived just before midday, wearing the new suit Caroline had bought for him, along with the shirt Richard had tried to win from him at poker. Had won, Gerard reminded himself. To his relief, Caroline’s scolding degenerated into a fit of the giggles as she conceded that Bruce was already a better card player than his father.

“Ah, but look who taught him,” said Gerard unwisely.

“I hadn’t forgotten that part,” she assured him. “You and Bruce volunteered to do the dishes today, right?”

“Aw, Ma!” Bruce complained, until silenced by a look from his mother, the family disciplinarian.

Of the view he had got off lightly, Gerard gave a resigned sigh, before kissing her on the cheek. “Sure thing, honey,” he murmured.

“That’s what I like to hear.” She gave him an approving pat before she went out of the room, taking her still-trying-to-complain son with her.

“It’s terrible the way you sweet-talk my wife,” mused Renfro. He wasn’t given a chance to continue as Karen and Louise came running in, Louise grabbing one of Gerard’s hands while Karen hung back, smiling shyly.

Gerard eventually made sense of what Louise was telling him, aware that Karen had just clasped his free hand. He knew better than to comment on the fact, just gave her a fleeting half-smile that made them conspirators while Louise continued to babble information.

“A pig,” he repeated, looking at Renfro, whom he knew disliked the animals.

“To fatten up,” mouthed Renfro.

Knowing Cosmo, Gerard looked skeptical. “When did you get him, honey?” he asked Karen, who was inclined to be quiet around her more verbose sibling.

Her younger sister beat her to it. “Uncle Calvin. His pig had babies and Pa said we couldn’t have one but he said yes in the end,” she added, sounding smug. Her cherubic face hid a talent for manipulation far beyond her years.

“Yes,” echoed Karen softly, her eyes shining.

Gerard gently caressed the back of her head. “You like this pig, honey?”

She nodded fervently. “Oh, yes. Come see, Sam. She’s beautiful.”

He allowed himself to be tugged outside, Renfro and Patrick accompanying them.

Inevitably, Louise was chattering away. “We wanted to call him Sam, after you, but Ma said that would only confuse the other Sam. Besides, she’s a lady pig so we’ve called her Clarice. Don’t you think that’s the prettiest name?”

Gerard perjured himself without hesitation. Eyeing the latest addition to the family in her new quarters, it was obvious Clarice had some way to go before she would provide much of a mouthful for the family. He grinned at Renfro.

“She’s kind of small, isn’t she?”

“Louise did the talking but it was Karen who picked her. You might have guessed she’d choose the runt,” Renfro added, resigned to his daughter’s habit of bringing home waifs and strays. “Right now Clarice is almost as skinny as you are. It’ll be interesting to see who Caroline fattens up the fastest.”

Standing at Renfro’s side, Gerard watched the three children stroking the piglet, who accepted the attention as her due. “And when do you plan to explain she’s going to end up on the dinner table?”

“Ssh,” hissed Renfro, an anguished look on his face. “I’ve already got Alex and Caroline teasing me. I kind of hoped you might like to buy me a pig carcass for Christmas?”

“Hope’s cheap,” conceded Gerard. “Do I have to wrap it?” He seemed unaware that he had crouched down and was scratching a blissful- looking Clarice’s back.

“For that I should make you clean her out,” said Renfro, picking up a shovel, “but I see you were smart enough to wear your Sunday best.”

Gerard grinned smugly.

“So did everything stay peaceful last night?” inquired Renfro, after a busy five minutes with the shovel. He spread clean straw with a liberal hand.

His gaze on the Renfro children, who were yelling lustily as they chased Clarice into a mud wallow, Gerard nodded. “Sure. A spell at Madame Reynard’s usually quietens the boys down. They slept off the last of their high spirits in jail, on the grounds it was cheaper than sleeping over the livery stable. Noah kept an eye on them. This morning they were looking bashful, hungover and as pleased with themselves as a dog with two tails.”

Renfro swallowed his ribald reply when a squealing Clarice, closely pursued by his giggling children, returned.

 

“Will you just look at the state of those clothes,” said Caroline with resignation. “I send my girls out looking sweet as can be and they come back filthy and smelling of pig. So do you,” she added to her husband, wrinkling her pretty nose. “Go clean up. If we don’t eat soon, dinner will be spoilt. It doesn’t look like Richard’s going to be able to get here after all.”

Hoping his lurch of disappointment wasn’t apparent, Gerard continued to swing Louise while he laughed and joked with his hosts.

Having eaten and paid his penance by doing the dishes, Gerard took off his fine jacket and shirt and helped Renfro build a new hen-house, Sam the hound having demolished the old one.

 

The children put to bed, the adults were sitting out on the veranda, enjoying the cooler air, when a tired looking Richard Kimble rode into the yard.

“Caroline, I’m sorry I couldn’t get word to you. There was an accident out at Logan’s farm. Calvin trapped his arm in that rusty old presser he insists on using.”

“How is he?” asked Renfro anxiously, Logan a friend since his schooldays.

His face looking bleached of color, Kimble gave a peculiar grimace. “I had to amputate his arm. I had no choice,” he added, when Renfro exclaimed.

“We don’t doubt that, Richard,” said Gerard, his voice at its most soothing, his attention divided between his two friends.

“He’s doing as well as can be expected in the circumstances,” Kimble continued tonelessly. “I’m sorry to have been the bringer of bad news, Cosmo. I didn’t realize he was a friend of yours.” Turning away, his broad shoulders were bowed by the events of the day.

“Richard Kimble, you come back here,” scolded Caroline, taking hold of his arm. “When did you eat last?”

Blinking tiredly, he shook his head. “I don’t remember.”

“Is Cal going to make it?” asked Renfro.

It was the impossible question, but Kimble did his best to be truthful. “I think so. He’s young and fit and I got there just as they got him free. But it’s early days. He’s in shock. He took it well for a man of thirty-three who’s just lost his right arm above the elbow.” He wiped his hand over his face. There were times when he felt no better than a butcher.

“Cal’s been a fighter all his life,” said Gerard into the silence. “And he has plenty of friends who’ll help out until he’s able to get back to work. I’d back Cal with one arm against most men with two. And there are those three boys of his.”

“His mother and Carrie are going to sit up with him tonight. Though he should sleep through most of it after the medication I gave him. I’ll call first thing in the morning,” said Kimble.

“Come into the house and get some food inside you.” Caroline tucked an arm around him as if he was one of her children.

“If you don’t need me...” began Renfro.

“No, honey,” she said instantly, abandoning Kimble to go to her husband. “You get over there. Even if Cal is asleep you can sit with him. Try and make Carrie rest, she has three young ones. In fact, stay over. That way, if Richard’s needed you can go for him.”

“Richard can bed down at my place,” said Gerard. “El Corazón’s a lot closer to the farm than Quintum’s Leap. If he’s needed you know where he’ll be.”

Renfro nodded. “Thanks, Sam. Richard. ‘Night, honey.” Kissing Caroline, he hurried off to the barn.

Gerard steered Kimble and Caroline into the house and saw to it that Kimble sat down.

Caroline turned from the stove with a look of worry. “What about Cal’s medical bill? The Logan’s don’t have much - ”

“Don’t give it another thought. It’s taken care of,” Kimble added, when she stared at him in doubt.

“You won’t get very rich this way,” Caroline told him astringently.

“Didn’t you promise me some food?” While Kimble successfully distracted her he was too tired to be aware of Gerard’s thoughtful survey. Ravenously hungry, he ate everything set in front of him before going out onto the veranda, ostensibly for a smoke. But when Gerard offered him a cheroot he shook his head.

“Maybe later,” he said, stretching out his long legs. Tired enough to have misjudged the distance, he had sat closer to Gerard than he intended, their shoulders brushing. Comforted by of the other man’s proximity, Kimble slid into sleep without being aware he had closed his eyes.

Alex emerged from the house to find Kimble snoring gently, with his head propped on a resigned- looking Gerard’s shoulder.

“Hardly surprising he’s tired,” Alex allowed. “I’m just going to lock up. If the doc wants a bed for the night he’s welcome to bunk in with me.”

“Thanks, but I’ll wake him up and take him back to my place. Thank Caroline for - ”

“You can do that yourself,” she told him, coming up behind Alex. Seeing Kimble’s eyes open, she added, “Hi, Richard. Did you have a good sleep on Sam’s shoulder?”

Kimble gave an unfocussed smile of some sweetness before yawning widely as he sat up. “I thought my pillow was kind of bony.”

Caroline chuckled. “Oh, our skinny friend is starting to fatten up, though you can still count his ribs.”

“If you’ve quite finished discussing me,” said Gerard.

“Sure. It doesn’t take long,” Kimble assured him, getting to his feet and giving a bone-popping stretch. “Sorry about propping myself up on you. You should have woken me.”

“I tried,” lied Gerard, who had justified his decision by telling himself Kimble had earned the rest. “You must have an easy conscience to sleep so sound.” While there wasn’t much light, he was willing to swear Kimble flinched. It was obvious he was troubled by the necessity of amputating the arm of a healthy man. Just because a doctor had to do a lot of unpalatable things didn’t necessarily mean he got used to it.

Having made their goodbyes and ridden off, it was some time before Kimble became aware of his surroundings. “This isn’t the way to Quintum’s Leap,” he said, swallowing another yawn.

“I wondered when you’d notice. My place is closer to the Logans’ than yours. Besides, I wouldn’t like to guess how far you’d get before you fell out of the saddle when you went back to sleep.”

“You could be right,” Kimble conceded.

Tired to the bone, it was a relief to arrive at Gerard’s place. Noticing little of the exterior, once inside, Kimble was aware of space and coolness and comfort as he followed Gerard upstairs. The bedrooms led off the gallery which ran the width of the house above the vast living room.

“Red,” Kimble began guilty, just as he sank onto a chair to pull off his boots.

“You leave him to me,” said Gerard, briskly making up the bed with linen from the carved oak chest. Turning back the sheet, he saw the doctor under it before he put out the lamp.

“Aren’t you going to tuck me in?” asked a sleepy voice.

“Go to sleep, Richard.” Delivering a friendly slap to Kimble’s flank, Gerard strolled out of the room.

After seeing to a few chores he headed to bed himself. But sleep proved elusive. He lay staring across his moonlit bedroom, fully aware of the irony of the situation. He had Richard Kimble in his house and his bed - well, his spare bed - and he couldn’t do a damn thing about it.

But it was a beginning.

 

Awake just before dawn, Gerard padded downstairs and attended to Red’s needs before saddling him. Making fresh coffee, he met Kimble, who was wearing only his pants and a disconcertingly lively expression, on the stairs.

“Morning, Sam. Ummm, coffee.”

“What makes you think it’s yours?”

Kimble relieved him of the mug. “Even you wouldn’t be that cruel.”

“I’m not sure I care for the ‘even’ part,” mused Gerard.

“I was just on my way to the privy.”

“No need. I have a water closet at the back,” said Gerard proudly.

“Right now I could use a spare razor.”

“I guess you’ll have to borrow mine,” said Gerard without enthusiasm. “Don’t ruin the blade.”

“My beard isn’t that stubborn,” protested Kimble, grinning.

“Unlike the rest of you.”

“Then we have that much in common,” murmured Kimble. He followed Gerard out into a large, walled courtyard that was partially shaded by a graceful paloverde tree. At this time of day the air was cool and it smelled of rosemary. A fountain played in the center of the courtyard, large golden fish swimming in the pool beneath. There was even a dovecote.

“This is beautiful.” Kimble strolled around in his bare feet, too absorbed in his surroundings to be aware of the appreciative gaze tracking him.

“I like it,” Gerard conceded but he looked pleased.

“I’m not surprised. As I understand you’ve only been living here two years I suppose I can’t blame the lover’s knot over the fireplace on you.”

“Clarence is kind of romantic,” said Gerard, unmoved.

Suspecting Clarence Bailey wasn’t the only one, Kimble let it pass. Wanting to postpone the moment, he drank some more of his coffee before admitting defeat. “I must get over to the Logan place and see how Cal’s doing.”

“I’ll go fetch my razor for you.”

Ten minutes later Gerard waved Kimble off. But when he went back into the house to attend to some chores before church the place seemed oddly quiet.

 

Pleased with Calvin Logan’s progress, and heartened by the man’s phlegmatic acceptance of the loss of his arm, Kimble had gone home, changed into his Sunday best and decided to join the godly - and, he hoped, Sam Gerard - in church.

It was as the Reverend Charles Nichols’ sermon entered into its twentieth minute that Kimble remembered why he tried to avoid church-going. He had been lucky; in all his time in Cooksville he’d been to church for exactly thirty-three minutes, having been called away to attend patients during every one of his previous visits. For the last three Sundays he’d been out on calls, which he had ensured lasted until the service was over. In a godfearing town anyone in the public eye was expected to attend the church of their religious persuasion on a regular basis. He was tempted to convert to some out-of-the-way religion where the nearest church was hundreds of miles away. Stifling a yawn when Nichols gave no sign of tiring of the sound of his own voice, Kimble mentally began to list the bones of the foot.

Four more minutes passed with agonizing slowness. There were better ways to waste his time. He glanced around, looking for a familiar dark head with the thick hair curling over a crumpled collar. There was no sign of Gerard so he tried to settle down, not wishing to make his restlessness too apparent.

Two minutes later Kimble bit his tongue when he almost started whistling. He tried to identify the tune and recalled it was one Gerard had been whistling down by the river. Images of a wet and naked Sam Gerard refused to go away.

Kimble began to flip idly through the pages of his hymn book as he remembered Gerard as he had seen him emerging from the river. He’d looked like some magnificent animal, water trickling down the smooth muscled planes of the chest and stomach, droplets gathering on the sparse growth of hair between the pectorals, glistening in the line of hair trailing down to a cock beautiful enough to make a man’s mouth water.

Damn.

Kimble shifted, uncomfortably aware of his growing erection. He kept his hymn book open on his lap, hoping he wouldn’t have to trade it for his Bible, which he had purchased because it was large, impressive, and made him look incredibly pious.

Sam all hot-eyed and eager...

Oh shit.

He sat up straighter and tried to pay attention but given a choice between the interminable sermon given by the Reverend Nichols and mental images of an aroused Sam Gerard there was no contest. Which of the two would last longer? Kimble shifted on the seat again.

A stinging cuff to his ear made his head whip around, his expression a picture of outrage.

The subject of his fantasies sat directly behind him, scowling his displeasure.

Gerard leaned forward, his breath tickling Kimble’s neck as he growled, “Will you keep still!”

Kimble ignored the hopeful twitching of his cock and hoped he didn’t look as flushed as he suspected he might. “Am I distracting you?”

“Yes,” hissed Gerard, scowling fiercely.

He had been watching Kimble since he had sat behind him, and was now familiar with the way his hair sat against his skull and the set of his head on those wide shoulders. Richard was a powerful man but then he already knew that. Memories of that splendid body, combined with Richard’s constant shifting on the pew during the sermon had become so distracting that he couldn’t concentrate on anything else, images of Richard pushing back against him in that same provocative way invading his mind. Gerard was at a loss to explain the inane smile on Kimble’s face, until he realized Richard was just being his usual annoying self.

“Sorry. I wouldn’t want to spoil your pleasure.” His voice dripping with irony, Kimble faced front. He started when a booted foot prodded him in the ass through the gap between back-rest and seat. Fighting to subdue a betraying grin, he half-turned, wearing a look of reproach that would have put a kicked puppy to shame.

Unmoved, Gerard leaned forward. “Next time it won’t be my foot,” he murmured.

Kimble choked back a splutter of laughter, his shoulders shaking as he fought to keep his amusement silent.

Realizing the ambiguity of what he had said, Gerard leaned even closer than before to whisper directly into Kimble’s ear. “You know damn well what I meant. Now pay attention or I’ll nail your ass to that pew, doctor.”

“Marshal!”

Gerard turned his head to meet the angry eyes of the elderly man sat next to him. “Mr. Cook?”

“Save your uncouth chatter for outside, I’m trying to concentrate on the sermon!”

A feminine voice behind Gerard added, “And watch your language, Samuel!”

The quickly muffled snort of laughter coming from Kimble’s direction did nothing to alleviate Gerard’s sense of injustice. Feeling about seven years old, he nodded at the elderly lady sitting in the pew behind, then glared at the back of Kimble’s head in displeasure. An awareness of being observed made him turn his head to the right. The entire row of people, consisting of ladies in their twilight years (some of them appearing to be rapidly approaching midnight) were glaring at him in reproof. He gave them a small, almost shy smile of apology which, judging from the general softening of expressions, appeared to mollify them. The glare he fixed on Kimble while he considered methods of murder should have scorched through the dark blue cloth covering those broad shoulders.

No longer having to worry about concealing any embarrassing protuberances from the rest of the congregation, Kimble put his hymn book on top of his Bible and resigned himself to another boring half an hour. As he shifted slightly he sent the books falling back through the gap in the pew to land on the floor behind him.

The hissed expletive which flew from Gerard’s mouth into the silence that signaled the Reverend’s need to draw breath let Kimble know the books hadn’t landed on the floor.

He tried to keep his face blank as he reached through the gap to retrieve the books, which lay beside Gerard’s feet. His wrist was caught in a strong grasp as Gerard leaned forward again, obviously about to give him a piece of his mind. The tanned face was very close and suddenly Kimble was having trouble breathing.

Gerard opened his mouth but no words issued forth. For a moment he felt oddly light-headed and keenly aware of Kimble; of his scent, of the flecks of green and amber in his wide eyes, of the way his wrist felt. Releasing Kimble as though burned, he gave a fierce scowl to cover his confusion.

The muttering and shaking of heads as the congregation identified the man who had uttered a profanity in the House of God did little to help restore Gerard’s equilibrium and sense of dignity.

Kimble picked up his books and faced front once more. Now acutely conscious of the man behind him he abandoned any attempt to listen to the rest of the sermon and indulged himself in highly pleasant thoughts of Gerard. He surfaced from his happy haze only to choke back his laughter when the first hymn was announced as ‘Blest are the pure in heart’. He joined in the off-key singing with gusto.

Finally they were free to go. There was just the obligatory shaking of the Reverend’s hand to get through. Kimble smiled as it became clear that virtually every woman in the congregation was taken with the handsome - and unmarried - Reverend. Kimble cast a disparaging eye over Nichols; his face was pleasant enough but his manner was too smooth, his voice sickly-sweet. And he had far too high an opinion of himself for Kimble’s taste.

He watched the lengthy queue shorten until finally it was his turn to meet Nicols. Apologizing for the disturbance he had caused, Kimble shook Nichols’ hand.

The interlude over, he moved on to greet some of his former patients, skillfully avoiding Annabelle McDonald, although that didn’t stop Max Fischer from shooting suspicious glances his way. Listening to a description of Mrs Palmer’s palpitations with every appearance of interest, Kimble noted that Gerard, who was nodding a greeting at Nichols, liked Nichols no more than he did.

As the group of people he was with dispersed, Kimble strolled towards Gerard, taking time to appreciate the other man’s appearance. Sam was looking exceptionally fine in a burgundy coat that flattered his dark hair and skin tones. The black, narrow-legged pants were worn cowboy style, fitted close around the waist with no belt; the form-hugging fabric made the most of the narrow hips and flat stomach. There wasn’t an inch of Sam that didn’t look honed and taut and Kimble felt himself responding so strongly that he considered ducking his head in the nearest horse trough to distract him from the temptation the other man provided. Needing to collect himself before he dared speak to Gerard, he came to an abrupt halt. Only when he was sure his arousal had subsided to a level where it wouldn’t embarrass him did he continue on his way.

Miss Lacey reached Gerard first. She appeared to be glaring at him, although given that her face was as wrinkled as a raison it was hard to tell. Her head on a level somewhere around Gerard’s ribcage, she prodded him with a ridiculously ornate parasol.

“I want a word with you, Samuel!”

His voice soft, there was real affection in Gerard’s eyes, his expression as gentle as Kimble had ever seen it. “What can I do for you, ma’am?”

Kimble felt the most ridiculous surge of jealousy, until he ruthlessly quashed it.

“You think your Grandmother would have approved of your behavior in church just now?”

Gerard looked rueful. “No, ma’am.”

“Indeed she wouldn’t. You have a responsibility to set a good example to the young ones. They look up to you as their hero. And most of the time I’m prepared to concede that they could do worse.”

Enchanted, Kimble watched a flush creep up the marshal’s lean cheeks as Gerard shifted his weight from one foot to the other. Unaware of the affectionate smile he was wearing, it was a moment before the doctor caught up with what Miss Lacey had been saying.

“...that in mind you’d do well to follow the example set by our doctor here.”

That the last thing he had expected to hear, Kimble gave a small choke of laughter, which he quickly turned into a cough. Gerard noticed him for the first time, his eyes warm with amusement. There was a moment of shared enjoyment at his predicament, then Miss Lacey was turning to poke her parasol none too gently in Kimble’s stomach.

“Though not the way you behaved in church today, young man.”

Recalling his embarrassing physical response to Gerard’s presence, Kimble’s eyes widened with horror. Surely Miss Lacey wasn’t referring to that? He blinked and discovered she was giving him her sternest look.

“And pious looks from those beguiling eyes won’t help you. Don’t think I don’t know who was to blame for Samuel’s lapse.”

“Yes, ma’am,” murmured Kimble, coming clean at once. He wondered if Sam thought his eyes were beguiling, risked a glance at Gerard and unconsciously returned his smile.

Miss Lacey patted him on the forearm. “There now. I won’t scold. While one display of boyish high spirits is allowable you really mustn’t make a habit of it. I know that, like Samuel here, you have no kin around to keep an eye on you so I guess it’s up to me to make sure we don’t have a repeat of today’s disgraceful behavior.” She looked from one man to the other, shaking her head more in sorrow than in anger. Seeing their bowed heads and apologetic faces her voice was milder as she continued to scold them. “Really, boys, you’re old enough to know better.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Kimble chimed in alongside Gerard, when he appreciated that verbal penance was expected of him.

Miss Lacey patted him on the arm. “There now. Oh, and don’t go worrying yourself about Annabelle McDonald. I’ll be having a word with that young lady later today.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” said Kimble with genuine gratitude.

“You men,” said Miss Lacey indulgently. “So competent, yet helpless in the face of a minx like Annabelle. “Well, I can’t stand here gossiping all day,” she added erroneously before leaving to join her friends.

Kimble shook his head in admiration. “That’s some lady.”

“That she is, Richard. You’ll have to go a long way to find a woman with a kinder heart, though she does her best to disguise it. You can’t always judge a book by its cover.” Gerard was disconcerted when, instead of flirting right back at him, Kimble flinched.

“I guess not,” he said colorlessly.

“Of course, with some people that’s because the pages are so full of misdemeanors - like embarrassing their god-fearing neighbors in church,” continued Gerard, hoping to bring a smile back to those hazel eyes.

His spirits magically lifting again, Kimble shook his head in mock sorrow. “And you look such an honest man,” he sighed.

The whole incident in church seeming no more than amusing now that he had a smiling Kimble standing in front of him, it was no surprise to Gerard that Miss Lacey should have noticed the power of those hazel eyes. No man had a right to a smile that attractive.

“Miss Lacey’s normally a smart woman. How did you manage to make a good impression?” Nodding to various friends and acquaintances, Gerard wondered how it was that the whole town seemed to know him while he knew only about half their number.

Kimble looked smug. “I used my natural charm. You should try it some time.”

“I have charm,” Gerard assured him. “I’m just selective about when and where I bestow it.” He looked Kimble up and down in a pointed fashion.

Fully aware he had just been insulted, but even more aware that he was being teased, Kimble frowned and put the flat of his hand against the other man’s forehead, then leaned in close to peer into Gerard’s warm brown eyes.

Startled by Kimble’s close proximity, Gerard took a step back. “What is it?”

“Tell me, how long have you been delusional?” Kimble asked, an intimate note to his voice.

It took a few seconds for the words to register. When they did, Gerard was able to push the hand away and summon up his best scowl.

Kimble was impressed. “Boy, that look must really terrify miscreants.”

The scowl was replaced by a reluctant smile. “In which case you should be cowering in your boots,” remarked Gerard.

“It could happen, I guess. I’ve discovered we have two things in common,” Kimble continued.

“And what would they be?” inquired Gerard, his manner indulgent.

Kimble pitched his voice low, so only Gerard could hear. “You don’t like him much, do you?” He flicked a glance at the Reverend.

“Can’t like every man you meet.” Gerard gave Kimble a pointed look; his expression was severe but the gleam in his eyes betrayed him.

Delighted to find he was still being teased, Kimble remained silent, waiting for Gerard to ask the obvious.

“And what would the second thing be?” Gerard asked, humoring the other man.

“Euphemia.”

Gerard’s eyes widened and he glanced around hurriedly to see if they were within earshot of delicate female sensibilities. “Jeez, Richard, keep your voice down!”

Kimble gave an unrepentant grin. Before he could reply they were joined by the Renfros, who were accompanied by a yelling, racing pack of what looked like far too many children but was in fact only their usual brood of five.

“Morning, Sam. Richard. Thanks for all you’ve done for Cal. How is he this morning? I had to leave before you arrived,” said Renfro.

“Better than I dared hope,” said Kimble. “I’ll be calling every day for the next few days, to make sure there’s no sign of infection beyond what I would expect of any wound. But I’m optimistic.”

Renfro nodded. “I thought he was doing well myself. Considering. I left Alex with them. He and Cal have always got along and Alex has never been able to decide what he wants to do. He’s got a little money from his grandmother, so he’s going to see if Cal and he can go into partnership. Cal with one arm is still worth two of most men and his three boys will soon be old enough to help out more. Alex will build himself a place to live and marry Lucy Henderson, who lives next to Cal. He’s been sweet on her for years.”

“Cal’s a pragmatic man, he’ll know he can’t do it alone,” said Gerard.

“It’s something of a surprise to see you here,” Renfro told Kimble, a twinkle in his eyes now.

“I had time after coming back from Logan’s farm and - ”

“You misunderstand me. I just meant you haven’t exactly overburdened yourself with church-going since you’ve been in Cooksville.”

“I’ve been busy with patients,” said Kimble evasively, not knowing the Renfros well enough to be honest.

“Bullshit,” snorted Gerard, who did. “You just don’t like the Reverend any more than I do. He could talk the hind leg off a jackass and never say a word worth hearing.”

“Ssh,” scolded Caroline. “If some of the good ladies could hear you you’d be in all kinds of trouble.”

“That’s what I’m doing here,” Kimble admitted, coming clean. “I couldn’t avoid church-going any longer without the townsfolk deciding I was a heathen.”

“Oh, no. A disciple of the devil at the very least,” Caroline teased. “Richard, does pot-roast take your fancy?”

“Is that the invitation to dinner you’ve been tantalizing me with for the last few weeks?”

“As formal an invitation as anyone gets. And on the understanding that you don’t get called away again, of course. Think you can fight this bunch,” she nodded at the children, “for the best pickings?”

“That depends. Can I use unfair tactics?”

“Sure, they do. And you’ll have Sam for support, right Sam?”

“I’m invited?” Gerard asked with a patently false humility.

“Since when are you not?” Caroline asked pointedly. She turned to Kimble. “And you keep your cards at home. Between Sam teaching Bruce and you teaching Cosmo, I’m going crazy.”

“Only because I beat you,” Renfro said with glee.

There was a gasp behind him before an older women went scurrying off in the direction of her cronies.

Realizing what he had just said and the interpretation that could be put on his words, Renfro could have bitten off his tongue.

“There goes your reputation,” Caroline said sunnily. “Don’t worry honey, I’ll put her straight at the Ladies’ Aid Society meeting tomorrow.” She gave her husband a teasing grin. “Of course, by that time the whole town will have you down as a wife-beater. You just better pray I don’t get any bruises before tomorrow.”

Renfro groaned and hid his face in his hands, his shoulders shaking.

Four-year-old Louise, broke off from her play to watch her father. With more curiosity than concern, she asked, “Ma, why is daddy crying?”

“No, I’m laughing, see?” Renfro raised his face.

“Then why do you have wet eyes?”

“Boys don’t cry, stupid,” six-year-old Patrick informed his younger sister in an irritatingly superior voice.

Caroline watched the ensuing scuffle with a placid eye while Louise proved that boys did indeed cry. Caroline was forced to take action only when her other children began to take sides.

Renfro gave Kimble, who was watching the scene with some trepidation, an understanding look. “You sure you’re feeling strong enough for this?”

Kimble decided that if Renfro could cope with such things every day and Gerard apparently on a regular basis then he was man enough to handle it. Besides, this chance to spend some more time in Sam’s company was too good to resist. “Just tell me what time to be there,” he answered bravely.

Gerard gave him a look of approval and Kimble decided anything would be worth enduring for another look like that.

 

Dinner with the Renfros had been a pleasant experience, though far from restful. Patrick had taken a liking to the doctor and Kimble found much of his time was taken up with explaining the inner workings of the human body to the boy; fortunately nothing too intimate had been raised.

Louise wriggled herself into a position of maximum comfort where she sat snuggled on Gerard’s lap. In the process she knocked her knee, with some force, into a highly sensitive portion of Gerard’s anatomy. Heroically, Gerard said not a word but there was a sharp intake of breath which meant that Kimble had to turn his snort of laughter into an unconvincing cough.

“Ma was talking about getting Sam fixed ‘cause he’s always cattin’ around,” Patrick confided. Nine-year-old Bruce started giggling helplessly.

Kimble gave Gerard a startled look.

Knowing what lay behind it, Gerard choked, almost dislodging Louise, who had closed her eyes and was beginning to doze.

“How come fixin’ him will stop - ?”

“Time for bed, everyone,” Caroline said firmly, returning from putting the baby down to sleep in the nick of time.

“I like puppies,” Louise murmured, then yawned down Gerard’s ear. She shifted on his lap, smearing an overlooked gravy stain from her cotton dress onto his white shirt front.

He gave the child a tolerant look and rested his chin on the top of her head.

Kimble raised an eyebrow in Caroline’s direction, prepared to explain the facts of life to her curious son if she wished him to do so, though with no great enthusiasm.

Caroline shook her head, smiling. “Very brave of you to offer but I think this is one for Cosmo.”

Renfro looked far from thrilled at the prospect and gave a sickly smile. “Sure thing, sweetheart.”

“Let me get Louise settled then you can have a little talk with your son.”

All the children went over to kiss their father, while Gerard received a peck on the cheek from eight-year-old Karen and was soundly kissed goodnight by Louise, who was looking alarmingly awake for someone who had been drowsy a mere minute ago. Unlike her older sister, who merely smiled shyly and whispered goodnight to Kimble, Louise walked right up and presented her cheek. Kimble dutifully kissed her, grateful that her mother had washed her face clean first. Louise gave him a grin and Kimble got the impression he had passed some sort of test. He gave the gravy stain on Gerard’s shirt a thoughtful look and vowed to wear his oldest clothes on his next visit.

The parlor now free of children, Gerard stretched his legs out and linked his hands across his belly, his fingers twitching every so often, as if he could never stay entirely still.

Renfro came back into the room with two glasses, a bottle of whiskey, and a mug of coffee. He passed the coffee to Gerard before pouring out two small measures of liquor for Kimble and himself. The doctor sat savoring the soothing warmth.

“So, Richard, I heard a rumor that a certain Miss Annabelle McDonald is sweet on you,” he teased. “Are you about to join the ranks of the matrimonially blessed?”

Unaccountably the air suddenly became charged. Discomfited, Renfro’s smile slipped but he didn’t know why he should feel so awkward.

Kimble broke the silence with a laugh that sounded a shade forced. “She’ll grow out of it. As for marriage, I don’t think it’s for me.”

Gerard sipped his coffee, watching Kimble over the rim of the cup. “You say that now. You’ll meet some pretty lady who’ll melt your heart, then you’ll be pitying bachelors like me.”

Kimble gave him an assessing look. “Who’s to say you won’t marry again?”

“Most women have more sense than to take up with a man like me.”

Kimble looked intrigued. “You bite? You’re not housebroken?”

“Worse. I’ve been a bachelor too long to change my ways.”

“Why would anyone be fool enough to want to try and change you?” Kimble asked, reaching for the whiskey bottle.

“Cosmo? Patrick’s ready for your little talk.”

With some reluctance Renfro left the interesting spectacle of a speechless Sam Gerard and an oblivious Richard Kimble and went to do his duty as a father. Not wanting to miss this moment, Caroline accompanied her husband.

Still mentally reeling from the unthinking compliment Richard had paid him, Gerard plucked a cheroot from its case as a means of diversion. “I’m going outside to smoke. You want to join me?”

Idly swirling the whiskey in his glass, Kimble was disconcerted to find Gerard watching him, an intent expression on his face. “Sure,” he said weakly.

They went out onto the back porch. The house was a decent size for a family of eight, the five bedrooms, parlor and kitchen adequate for their needs. Of necessity the house was close to town, although there was space enough for a vegetable patch, stable and two corrals. The horses sounded restless tonight, one of them trumpeting loudly. Gerard glanced around but could see no reason for their restiveness. The evening felt warm but he didn’t think they were in for a thunderstorm.

Kimble made himself comfortable on the long, carved wooden bench and pulled a cheroot from his inside pocket. Beside him, Gerard did likewise and the two men commenced smoking.

Kimble’s thoughts drifted aimlessly from Sam to the progress Calvin Logan was making and back to Sam. He took a pull on his cheroot. Something heavy landed on his lap.

“Jeez!” Kimble’s eyes flew to Gerard then down.

“I was wondering what had become of the damn dog,” Gerard murmured, eyeing the huge canine warily. He shifted his legs away, slowly so as not to draw attention to them. “Watch your leg, Richard.”

“It’s not my leg I’m worried about,” Kimble muttered, reflecting that it was just his luck to have the wrong Sam with its nose pressed against his groin. “I hope Cosmo feeds this thing enough.”

“Too much.” Gerard stared at the dog, which gave him a good excuse to gaze his fill at Richard’s saliva-soaked and, sadly, cloth-covered manhood.

“He’ll leave soon,” Kimble said with a brave attempt at optimism.

Gerard looked up from Richard’s hidden delights to the visible attraction of his face. “Sure he will. In a couple of hours.” He paused and gave the matter some consideration. “Maybe.”

Kimble gave him a sour look. He was tempted to blow smoke in the contented canine’s face but didn’t have the heart to disturb it. The fact it had large teeth to go with its generally big build helped with this decision. Unconsciously he began to rub the spot between Sam’s ears that was guaranteed to cause canine bliss.

Puffing leisurely on his cheroot, Gerard noticed what Kimble was doing and was torn between amusement and the desire to feel those drifting fingers on his flesh, or tangled in his hair. Jealous of a damn dog. Oh my, he had it bad. Richard Kimble better be worth the wait. He slid a look at the other man’s face as Kimble smoked his cheroot, the hollowing of cheeks and movements of the lips making the evening seem all the warmer. Richard would be worth the wait, no doubt about it.

Sensing himself to be under surveillance, Kimble turned his head to see the other man staring at his cheroot. Thinking Sam had caught its distinctive aromatic smell, he paused and with unthinking intimacy offered his own, half-smoked cheroot to Gerard.

“Would you care to try this? It’s imported. Though not from Paris, France,” he added, deadpan.

For a second Gerard was frozen. Richard had been teasing him for some time now but never so overtly. How was he supposed to play this? Then he realized that Kimble was so tired he was unaware of the intimacy of what he had done. Gerard’s hesitation and thought processes lasted a split second.

“Well, if it’s imported, I think I should,” he drawled, his accent more pronounced than ever.

He took the cheroot from Kimble and placed it between his lips. It was moist from Richard’s mouth; not as moist as he would have liked but enough for him to think he could taste the other man. He worked the cheroot between his lips then took a long pull, savoring the taste and smell. A cheroot was a treat he allowed himself maybe once a day. He suspected that they would never have the same savor ever again; they would lack that certain something - namely the taste of Richard Kimble and the moistness provided by a sinfully attractive mouth. He was careful not to look at Kimble in case he wanted his cheroot back.

The noise from the corrals had increased and he looked towards them, unable to account for the horses’ disquiet; they were just doing what horses did naturally. It was only then that Gerard saw what the horses were doing at this exact moment.

“I’ll kill that damned stallion!” He dropped the cheroot, crushing it underfoot as he raced towards the animals.

Kimble jumped up, wildly looking around for the cause of Gerard’s alarm. It was still light and he could not see why...

“Oh, shit.” He raced after the other man.

Sam the wolfhound yawned and clambered up to sprawl across the warmed and now vacant bench.

Gerard had climbed over the corral fence and was heading for the mating horses when a hand grabbed him by the collar and yanked him back. Off-balance, he fell against the fence. Before he could move, Kimble had him trapped, hands gripping the fence on either side of him to form a human barrier with his arms and body.

“Get the hell out of my way! That’s my filly that damn horse is raping,” choked Gerard, energy pouring from him.

Kimble glanced over his shoulder to where the two horses were still joined. “It doesn’t look much like rape to me, Sam. Oh, no you don’t,” he said, using the length of his body to press Gerard back when he tried to break free. “It’s too late to do anything now. The only thing you’ll do is get yourself hurt.”

“I’ll hurt that damn horse of yours,” Gerard growled, glaring fiercely at his captor. It didn’t seem to occur to him that his hands weren’t restrained and so could be used to gain his freedom.

“You could but you won’t,” Kimble said with confidence.

“Why not? Are you gonna stop me?”

Kimble failed to prevent a small smile from forming. “I won’t have to. You’ll stop yourself.”

Gerard held his glare for a few seconds more before it faded; his shoulders slumping, he acknowledged defeat. Sighing, he pushed Kimble away, then patted him on the shoulder. “Relax. You’re right. I won’t.” Satisfied he had reassured the other man, he sank onto the hard-packed dirt cross-legged, waiting with commendable patience for the horses to finish their business.

Kimble swung away to lean against the fence directly behind the seated man. He averted his eyes from the sight of the coupling horses, an unsuspected prudish part of him feeling he really shouldn’t be witnessing the act. By contrast Gerard, who Kimble would have staked money on being the most likely to blush at such a thing, looked completely at ease, watching the animals with an unabashed interest.

Kimble felt himself begin to sweat. Red was clearly enjoying himself, judging by the amount of heaving and snorting he was doing. Damn, he was loud. The black filly stood perfectly still, perfectly calm. An especially violent thrust rocked her forward a few inches and she flicked her ears and gave a snort.

It was impossible not to be affected by the blatant sexuality of the scene. Kimble’s eyes darted about, unwilling to rest on the occupied horses for more than a few seconds at a time. His gaze returned to the man seated at his feet; their proximity was such that if he bent his right leg it would brush Gerard’s right shoulder blade. He resisted the temptation, wishing that Red had been able to do the same. It was then that he noticed he had torn Sam’s shirt; several of the buttons must have been wrenched off when he’d grabbed the man by his collar. The shirt now hung open, baring the nape of Sam’s neck, shoulders and collar-bones. A bead of sweat trickled from beneath Gerard’s hairline to slide through the hollow at the back of his neck and down the spine to disappear beneath the concealing cotton. Kimble wanted to tug the fabric aside so he could watch that bead of sweat as it traveled lower down that muscled flesh; he ached to trace its path with his tongue, to...

He looked away, only to have his vision filled by heaving horse, so he returned his attention to the far more erotic sight of a sweating Samuel Gerard sitting cross-legged and breathing in front of him.

There was another bead of sweat. This one took a different course from the first, trickling down the side of the neck, over the collar-bone and out of view. Kimble moved forward to watch its progress, realized what he was doing and leaned back again.

Damn. He should move away.

His eyes drifted down the strong, straight back, to the muscled thighs and conceded that it required more strength of mind than he possessed to retreat. Trying to steady himself he took a deep, shuddering breath but it sounded horribly loud. He felt too damn hot and he knew it had nothing to do with the heat of the day and everything to do with the man sat so still and silent at his feet. How could something so simple be so erotic?

His hand went out unbidden and he snatched it back, using it to scrape his sweat-drenched hair away from his face. As the sun began to set a slight breeze sprang up, ruffling Gerard’s torn shirt and thick hair. Kimble clenched his hands so tight that his short nails dug into his palms as he denied his longing to touch. He would have to move soon, before his self-control snapped and he gave in to his desire to haul Gerard to his feet and kiss him. Or worse, given that the man was sitting at his feet, his face level with...

Oh, God.

Becoming aware that his body was ahead of him, Kimble turned away to lean over the fence, staring blindly towards the house instead of at the man who was reducing him to a mass of helpless desire simply by being there. His will-power was shot to hell, his need for Gerard burning through him; his every nerve sensitized, every inch of his heated flesh cried out for him to touch and to be touched. Before he had quite got himself under control he heard a noise behind him. He swung around to see that Red and Maverick had finished their activities and were cropping grass side by side.

Rising to his feet from the cross-legged position with an effortless ease, Gerard padded towards the animals. Trusting Sam to have his anger with Red under control, Kimble remained where he was; he didn’t have much choice. He didn’t trust himself within a few yards of the other man.

Gerard went straight to his mare, one hand rubbing her muzzle, the other stroking her neck. His voice was low and gentle as he kept up a soothing flow of words, loving nonsense which at any other time would probably have embarrassed him. His attention was focused entirely on the animal, his expression reflecting both affection and concern. He rubbed the pricked black ears, then appeared to blow softly through his nose towards the mare’s muzzle, an action which she copied. He smiled and went round to the side, still talking gently, his hands traveling across the wither, flank, and strong haunch. Kimble watched as the mare placidly snuffled Sam’s hair, which was the exact shade of her coat, as she allowed her master to check she was not hurt.

A melting warmth suffused Kimble, taking the edge off the heat in his belly. Another feeling snaked through him as he watched Gerard tend to his horse. To his shame he identified it as envy. Needing a distraction he went to Red, who was looking incredibly smug. Kimble shook his head at him but didn’t bother glaring. He glanced over at the second smaller corral where he had placed Red, taking in the size of the fence his horse must have jumped to get to Maverick. He was about to lead Red out of the enclosure when Gerard’s voice stopped him.

“It’s a little late for that. Leave him be.”

Although he heard no condemnation Kimble turned to face the other man and made his apology. “Sam, I swear I didn’t realize Red could jump so high. I’m sorry about your mare.”

“It’s all right. The desire to mate will make creatures do the damnedest things. It’s partly my fault for not noticing Maverick was in season.” Gerard glanced at the corral fence. “Besides, if that horse of yours can jump that high, then if she is gonna be a dam it’ll be one hell of a foal.”

“You’re very forgiving.”

Gerard shrugged. “Not always.” His eyes narrowed slightly as he took in Kimble’s expression. “Will you quit giving me the big-eyed look? I’ve got this urge to pat you on the head and feed you.”

Kimble gave a snort of laughter. “That’s very maternal of you.”

Gerard gave him an amused look. “You do like pushing your luck, don’t you?”

“Of course. That’s why I’m such a good poker player.”

Gerard gave Maverick a final pat before leaving her to roll on the ground. His hand in the small of Kimble’s back, he guided him towards the fence. “Yeah, I’d heard you were pretty lucky at cards. You must have been off-form when you didn’t win my shirt the other evening, huh? That was a kind thing you did, Richard.”

Kimble gave the other man a look of large-eyed innocence. “I just didn’t want to give them any excuse to call me a cardsharp.”

“Sure you didn’t,” Gerard said with patent skepticism. He swallowed, and wondered briefly why Richard’s big-eyed expression was making his throat dry up.

“I’m looking forward to our rematch. You just order yourself some new footwear, ” Kimble said, a gleam in his eye. He gestured at Gerard’s leather boots with their decorative stitching. “I’ll want those after I win your shirt.”

“A man’s entitled to want all he likes,” murmured Gerard. “And sometimes, just sometimes, he even gets what he wants.” He strolled off in the direction of the house.

Following him, Kimble was so busy eyeing the other man’s narrow hips and neat ass that he tripped on a speck of dirt and only just managed to right himself. Grateful that Gerard hadn’t seen that, Kimble had himself firmly under control by the time they got back to the house.

 

Later that evening, as he led his stallion home - although he could not have put into words exactly why he felt uncomfortable at the thought of riding Red - Kimble looked down from the path on the ridge to see Gerard leading his mare home along the track at the bottom of the hill. The rush of warmth he felt at seeing this should have warned the doctor but he was too busy reveling in the marshmallow glow to take heed.

 

Gerard paused to slip Maverick another treat, standing staring up at the multitude of stars while she chewed. He knew he could be downright soft about her, but he’d raised her from a foal after her dam had died and... Ah, shit, he didn’t have to make excuses to anyone, least of all himself. So he’d lost his temper. The feel of Richard pressed up against him had made his anger fade, though it hadn’t exactly calmed him down. He’d had to get away from the man before he wound up yanking him off his feet and onto the dirt below him. The noise those damn horses had been making hadn’t exactly helped. He’d had to focus on the animals to keep his mind off Richard.

Watching their horses couple, he had been intensely aware of the man standing behind him. There again, these days he was so aware of Richard that he’d probably swear he could smell him at thirty yards - upwind.

Some instinct - probably caution - was telling him to wait for the other man to make the first move but, dammit, at this rate by the time he got caught Richard would have forgotten why the hell he was chasing him.

He pictured that slow, seductive smile. No, he wouldn’t forget.

But this waiting game would try the patience of a saint and he was far from being that. Though he suspected Kimble had some strange ideas about him; Richard seemed to think that he was unaware of the looks that were being thrown his way. As though anyone with good eyesight and a fair share of intelligence could be that blind or that dumb. He’d caught a fleeting expression on Richard’s face that was a cross between guilt and what he could only describe as wistfulness. A man had to be careful when he felt needs which society regarded as a sin. He was damned if he’d let Richard slip through his fingers when it had taken this long to find someone he could - Gerard shied away from the word his mind supplied and selected one less dangerous - feel comfortable with. Kimble would find himself being grabbed by the scruff of his neck and - Well it wouldn’t be pleasant.

There again, why shouldn’t it be? He’d be with Richard, and Richard would be with him.

Breathing deeply, Gerard did his best to change the direction of his thoughts because walking with a hard-on was uncomfortable.

Chapter Text

SIX

 

Their proposed card game cancelled when Kimble was called out to one of the outlying ranches, Gerard saw nothing of Kimble around town for a few days. Missing their encounters, he headed off to Madame Reynard’s on the same day, at the same time that he had grown used to meeting Kimble there.

There was no sign of him and Gerard felt too self-conscious about his need for Richard’s company to inquire about his whereabouts.

Sinking into his tub, he reflected on the relative silence that existed when a certain doctor wasn’t around to shatter the peace. The quiet was strangely unsettling. Wasn’t this just typical of Richard? He wasn’t even here yet Gerard could feel his presence all around, filling the very air he breathed; he was sure he could smell him, although he must have been and gone hours ago. Richard filled his mind to the point where he had quite a time trying to concentrate on other things, like breathing normally and not grinning like a fool every couple of minutes.

Gerard began washing himself, trying not to linger over the task. Although if he went up to Euphemia ready for action he could get the business over with in record time; thoughts of Richard had been speeding up proceedings for quite a few weeks now.

He scowled reprovingly at the head of his cock, which was peeking up through the bubbles coating the surface of the water. Dropping his wash cloth over his erection, he hoped without much conviction that it would subside to more manageable levels - after all he didn’t want to lose it completely. God knows it took him long enough to raise the damn thing in this place. Thoughts of Richard on the other hand could raise him in seconds.

Against his will one of his favorite images filled his mind, that of Kimble undressing and getting into the tub. Or was his favorite that of Richard getting out, all slick and gleaming with water, his skin flushed, foam sliding down his body, clinging to the hair on his chest and groin and dripping from the tip of his cock? Richard getting in the tub or Richard getting out? His mind generously played both images several times but he still couldn’t decide.

The wash cloth continued to rise above the bubbles.

Gerard tried to picture a docile and speechless Richard in his bed but even in fantasy the other man stubbornly refused to cooperate. Frustrated, he tried to conjure up another image and suddenly recalled Kimble’s comment about them having Euphemia in common. He had assumed Richard was referring to the brothel but what if he had meant the woman herself? The strong throb of arousal felt too good to deny so he went with the thought. He and Kimble had appointments on the same day. Did Richard go to Euphemia after he had finished? Common-sense told him that she would clean up after he’d been with her but the thought of Richard sliding into that hot flesh...

Gerard looked up to see the object of his fantasy standing in the doorway. For a second he was convinced he had conjured up a phantom; the eyes were heavy, the mouth soft-lipped and slightly swollen, Richard practically oozing sex as he always did in Sam’s fantasies. Then the phantom moved into the room, only a few steps, but enough for the light to fall on the smug grin. The eyes weren’t heavy with desire but held a teasing light.

Gerard’s gaze dropped to the poor concealment provided by the washcloth and struggled to form his usual expression. He almost succeeded.

Kimble tipped his head in greeting then went over to one of the side tables and picked up his watch, which Gerard hadn’t noticed. Kimble’s gaze flicked over him, seeing something - and Gerard could guess what - that caused a knowing grin to spread across his face. When he finally spoke, his voice was as deep as Gerard could have wished for.

“I’m finished here for now so I guess Euphemia is all yours. Go easy on her, she’s had a busy - ” Kimble checked his watch “ - hour and fifteen minutes. Almost a record for me. Have fun, Sam.” Strolling out of the room, Kimble quietly closed the door behind him.

Gerard continued to stare blindly at the place the other man had occupied.

‘I’m all finished here.’

He’d arrived later than usual and had assumed Richard had been and gone. Upstairs. He’d been upstairs with -

‘Euphemia is all yours.’

While he had been thinking of the other man, Kimble had been...

‘ - busy hour and fifteen minutes - ‘

Oh, God.

She would be getting ready to clean up, she would be smelling of Richard, would taste of Richard, would be slick with Richard.

Without conscious thought Gerard got out of the tub and headed for the door. Slick with Richard’s seed, she would be getting ready to wash it all away.

He started to walk up the stairs.

 

Sherry’s eyes flew to Gerard’s face as he passed her; it was without expression but the eyes - the eyes burned. The towels she was taking to Euphemia slid from her arms as she realized the notoriously prudish marshal was completely naked, aroused and dripping water. What was more, he didn’t even seem to be aware of it.

 

As far as Kimble was concerned he had made the perfect exit only to realize he had to go back to collect his medical bag. He was disappointed to find Sam gone from the Ablution Suite. Bag in hand, his attention was attracted by the group of woman gathered on the landing outside Euphemia’s room, which he had vacated only ten minutes before. He waited for one of them to notice him; after thirty seconds of being overlooked, he coughed pointedly. When five heads turned his way and looked down the stairs at him he offered his most charming smile.

“Is there a problem, ladies?”

Five voices answered at once. Kimble made out the words ‘marshal’ and ‘never like this before’ and had dropped his bag and was up the stairs.

“What exactly happened?” Seeing he was about to get multiple replies he added, “Sherry?”

Her motherly face was twisted with worry. “I don’t rightly know. I don’t think he’d hurt Euphemia, I really don’t. But his face... I’ve never seen him look like that - and not just him being buck-naked and... His eyes were... I don’t think he’d ever hurt one of us.” She gazed beseechingly at Kimble. “Delilah went to fetch Walter.”

Having met the tall, muscular man who was both protector to the women and general handyman, Kimble could understand Sherry’s concern. While Gerard must be capable of looking after himself - and just about everyone else if the legend of Marshal Gerard had even a grain of truth - Kimble wasn’t entirely certain what the outcome would be, though he suspected the more lightly built Gerard would fare the worst. It occurred to him to ask on what basis, other than uncharacteristic public lewdness, they believed Euphemia to be in danger. Then he heard a woman cry out, once, then again before the sound was cut off.

His words to Gerard echoed in his ears. Without ceremony he shoved past the group of woman and pushed open the door.

 

Gerard had no recollection of entering the room. On some level he registered that Euphemia was pulling on a robe but he scarcely saw her. Richard had been here. He could smell Richard, not at thirty yards but here, in this room. He advanced on Euphemia and in the distance he heard her voice, sounding amused, saying that neither she nor the room had been prepared. He heard a voice that sounded like his own telling her not to bother. Then they were on the bed, Euphemia beneath him. The scent was stronger now, he could smell Richard, here on the bed, here on the skin of throat, breast and belly. He mouthed that flesh, certain that beneath feminine scent he could taste traces of the other man. His hands pushed aside cloth and roamed across the too-soft body, as if hoping to draw echoes of Richard’s touch through his fingertips. He had probably touched her here - he nuzzled the curve of a throat - would have tasted her here - he suckled a dark nipple, eyes closing as they savored the imagined taste of Kimble’s mouth on this same puckered flesh.

The scent seemed to be growing stronger. Eyes still closed, Gerard followed the trail, his tongue sliding across the twitching belly, seeking some mark of Richard, some sign that he had been here. His searching tongue scraped across coarse hair, sliding through folds and crevices, his fingers joining the quest for - Ah, Richard. Oh, yes, he’d been here. He drew his index finger into his mouth as he savored the strange yet addictive essence he knew to be that of Richard Kimble. Craving more, his tongue slid in deeper, and when it wouldn’t penetrate deep enough he tried thrusting it in further, mouth open, hot and moist, against the soft mound, cheeks hollowing as he tried to draw Richard’s seed from out of the slick channel. He was only dimly aware of the woman writhing beneath him, of her cries, of her fingers tangled in his hair and clawing his back.

The sound of the door opening did not register. But the choked gasp did. He knew who it must be, although he was beyond questioning that knowledge. He slowly raised his head and looked across at the door.

 

Not knowing what to expect, Kimble opened the door to the bed chamber. Red-tinted evening light spilled in through the half-open curtains, falling across the figures on the bed. Whimpering softly, Euphemia looked far from unhappy, although Kimble wasn’t aware of noticing her. His eyes were fixed on the naked splendor of Sam Gerard, the strong line of the back and shoulders and the perfect curve of the buttocks, the skin looking burnished as he seemingly devoured the heated center of the woman beneath him. The cheeks were hollowed, the muscles of the throat rippling, and Kimble uttered something between a gasp and a groan, a sound that seemed to rise up from his groin to escape his open lips. His senses awash, all he could hear were the moist sounds of sucking and the soft cries Euphemia was making, the fingers of one hand curling and uncurling in the sheet.

Gerard’s head turned, eyes like jet pinning him where he stood with his fingers clenching bloodless on the door handle. Transfixed, he watched as a tongue tip slid out to capture a glistening drop from the corner of Sam’s mouth. Then the hot eyes slitted and the head turned aside, returning to pleasure the woman once more.

Kimble saw a stiffened tongue slide between glistening folds and backed out of the room. Pulling the door to a close, he continued to move back, still seeing the image of Gerard completely lost in pleasure. He didn’t realize how far he had moved until a hand between his shoulder blades stopped him from falling down the stairs. His bag was pressed into his hand and he gripped it convulsively, seizing on its normality with relief. He stepped away, anxious to avoid physical contact with anyone, his mind replaying the scene he had just witnessed until he could see nothing else and jealousy was an acid sickness in his belly.

Walter asked what was happening and he laughed, a harsh sound that made him wince. “Euphemia’s having far too good a time to need a rescue party. She’s having the time of her life.”

She was fine. He was the one in danger of losing his mind.

There was some abashed laughter, followed by whispered speculations. He stumbled blindly down the stairs and out the front door before he humiliated himself by returning to the bedchamber Gerard was occupying to beg for what he knew Sam could never give him.

 

Close to being seduced by the skillful hands, even before he felt the sweet, slick slide of a tongue on his aching flesh, Gerard groaned and took evasive action.

At Kimble’s sound of protest he shook his head and took what he wanted even more than what Richard had been trying to offer him. His palms flat over Richard’s hipbones, he took his lover’s cock into his mouth.

Thoughts of protest forgotten, Richard moved helplessly, his head going back, hands tightening over the shoulders of the man giving him such mind-shattering pleasure. Inarticulate sounds escaping his slackened mouth, his eyes were blank and glazed with desire. His thrusts grow more frenzied, his grip bruising now.

His cheeks hollowing, his eyes slitted with pleasure, Gerard came with a sharp, high sound, almost of surprise. The sound of his panting loud in the silence, the remnants of his fantasy slow to recede, it was a bitter moment when he realized he was alone. Then he remembered what had fueled this particular fantasy - Richard’s expression when he had burst into Euphemia’s room - a hunger nakedly shocking in its intensity.

Gerard put his forearm across his eyes. It had taken all his will-power not to reach out and draw Richard onto the bed.

Damn it, Richard better make his move soon or he might find himself being stripped and fucked senseless the next time they met at the whorehouse. And that wouldn’t do either of their reputations any good. Though it sure would be fun.

For the first time it occurred to him that after his performance this afternoon Euphemia would be expecting a lot more from him than the in-out-thank-you-ma’am he had got away with for years.

Shit. Just when he’d got the whole process down to twenty minutes.

Something else to blame Richard for, he mused with sleepy affection. Tired after the exertions of the day, he yawned hugely. Wiping his hands on the crumpled sheet, he drifted off to sleep, his thoughts still full of Richard Kimble.

oOo

 

Shifting on his seat, Kimble looked about the near-empty church with resentful eyes. This was the second Sunday in a row he had bothered to come and if he was going to be pious, the least people could do was be around to witness the event. Sitting alone on the pew near the front, idly flicking through the pages of his Bible, he was so bored he began to read Revelations - until it got way too depressing. He put the book down and tried to make out what the picture in the small stained-glass window was supposed to be. Damn but he was bored. He glanced behind him and saw that a couple more people had arrived. Nodding politely, he wondered if Sam would put in an appearance. His stomach gave a sickening lurch. He’d managed to avoid meeting Sam since disturbing his session with Euphemia.

Since that disturbing session with Euphemia which he had been unable to get out of his mind.

He felt the familiar surge of lust that he always felt whenever he thought about Gerard, although it was quickly dampened by a sense of humiliation and embarrassment. He still hadn’t decided what he would say to Sam. A small cowardly part of him hoped he would have left Cooksville before any such meeting could take place.

Pulling out his pocket watch to check the time, he began to hum until he realized it wasn’t a tune suitable for church, consisting as it did of the exploits of a randy cowboy, a dozen head of cattle and thirteen dancing girls. He began to fiddle with the watch, almost dropping it when he set off the chiming mechanism. The merry tinkling of ‘Yellow Rose of Texas’ had heads turning and Kimble frantically tried to reset the timepiece. Intent on his task, he didn’t notice the man who sat beside him until a spurred boot nudged his foot.

Gerard’s smile widened when a self-conscious- looking Kimble was rendered speechless. Deciding to press his advantage, he leaned close. “I thought I’d best keep an eye on you. I don’t want Miss Lacey thinking you can’t behave properly - or worse, that I can’t keep you in line.” He brushed his boot with its big silver spur and jinglebobs against Kimble’s foot and gave him a look of mock threat.

Kimble managed a small smile before he had to look away, Thursday’s events uncomfortably vivid in his mind. Fiddling with his hymn book, he slid covert glances at the man beside him. Gerard was neatly dressed in a black frock coat and narrow-legged black pants, his marshal’s star gleaming, his white shirt buttoned to the throat. His black boots looked expensive, the big silver spurs wickedly lethal. Knowing Sam’s affection for Maverick, Kimble was surprised to see them until he noticed the spurs looked brand-spanking-new. He laid a mental bet with himself that they would be removed before Gerard rode home. Sam’s expression was serene and there was a strange air about him, almost an inner glow, which made Kimble wonder if Euphemia was responsible.

The church was finally filling up and Gerard shifted to make room for new arrivals. Kimble flinched at the heat pressed against the length of his thigh. He was about to slide further along the pew when an elderly couple sat down on his right, trapping him. His gaze fixed front, he picked up his Bible as a safety precaution, popping it on his lap as he tried to ignore the sensation of Sam pressed against him from shoulder to knee, the sound of his steady breathing and the pounding of his own pulse. And this torture was likely to last at least an hour and a half. Life was so unfair but then it always had been.

 

He eyed with envy the large Bible Kimble was holding. It looked damned useful, especially considering the problem he was having with a certain uncontrollable part of him that refused to listen to reason. Nicols was just getting into his stride and Gerard’s mind started to wander.

Damn, but Richard was a handsome man. It had to be said, he had excellent taste. He looked around, secure in the knowledge that he wanted Richard, and Richard wanted him right back. He noticed Annabelle McDonald gazing at Kimble, clearly hoping to catch the oblivious man’s eye. She wasn’t the only one; he could see at least six other women casting hopeful glances in Kimble’s direction - two of whom were married and should have known better. It felt real good to know those pretty women were wasting their time.

Richard was his, or soon would be.

Kimble continued to stare straight ahead and a devil in Gerard wanted to capture the other man’s attention, to have it focused on him, as it should be. Facing front, his expression innocence itself, he pressed his thigh against Kimble’s.

 

The scent of Gerard was driving Kimble crazy. He couldn’t say exactly what it was, a combination of clean man and... Whatever it was, he wanted to taste it.

Gerard seemed engrossed in the sermon so Kimble took the opportunity to study the ridiculously long eyelashes, which provided a soot-black frame for those brown eyes. His gaze moved on to the wonderful lines of the mouth and jaw. It was such a strong face. But at rest like this there was such a gentleness to it; those creases weren’t caused by frowning or by the heat of the sun but by amusement. This was a man who took pleasure out of life, despite his occupation.

He wanted the right to make Sam Gerard smile.

Becoming aware that his thigh was pressing against Gerard’s, he forced himself to tear his gaze away before anyone noticed him mooning over the marshal like a lovesick schoolgirl.

 

He knew to the second when he lost Kimble’s attention and so was able to steal a look at the man next to him. He knew what that body looked like from their encounters at the Establishment. He’d seen the way Kimble looked at him sometimes and he reckoned he had the measure of the man. Richard would light up immediately, he knew that, just as he knew that with Richard as his lover there would be no nonsense about being top dog. Things would be equal - and incredibly sweet. As sweet as the warm, heady scent of the man at his side, and the full lower lip that drove him to distraction whenever Kimble spoke - and the few times that he didn’t. As sweet as the sight of Richard with his pants around his knees bent over the pew in front.

 

Kimble tried to concentrate on the sermon but Gerard was proving to be one hell of a distraction just by sitting next to him. For sanity’s sake he should move but if he did he would gain the attention of everyone in the church. Besides, he didn’t want to move. He was so aware of Sam that he even felt him twitch. He risked a quick look at Gerard and was surprised to see heat in the brown eyes, which didn’t appear to be focused on anything in particular. The mouth was slightly parted and as Kimble watched, Sam’s tongue flicked out to moisten the dry lower lip. He immediately recalled a similar gesture back at the whorehouse, but then Gerard’s tongue had flicked out to taste...

Kimble looked away but his gaze was caught by the movement of the big hands that lay in Gerard’s lap, the fingers curling and uncurling as though gripping some unseen object. Those hands looked strong and capable. They would bruise his flesh as they gripped his hips, would fit perfectly around his cock; as perfectly as Gerard’s own cock would fit into the cleft of his ass, brushing against the sensitive skin before it slid home.

 

They were alone of course, the door locked, the church still and silent except for the sound of their panting and the moans of pleasure that Richard was unable to hold back as he was slowly and thoroughly fucked. Richard was naked, his arms outstretched along the wooden back-rest of the pew where he tried to steady himself, straining muscles taut beneath the sweat-sheened skin. Still clothed, Gerard had unbuttoned his shirt so he could feel the ridges of the spine pressed against his chest and belly, heat to his heat. His pants were unfastened just enough to allow him to enter the man bent before him. Gerard could almost feel the tight clench of Richard’s ass around his cock as he took him again and again. His thrusts grew wilder, one hand moving from Richard’s bucking hips to take the hard cock in an ungentle grasp until he virtually dragged an orgasm from the other man, Richard’s harsh cry and internal spasms triggering a volcanic response from his own throbbing cock.

 

Kimble was distracted from his fantasies by a small choked sound from the man sitting so close to him. Gerard’s body was rigid, his face frozen; a muscle jumped in his jaw.

To his surprise Kimble saw people were standing up and realized the service was over. Far from attempting to leave, the elderly couple on his right appeared to have fallen asleep, so he waited for Gerard to move.

His gaze fixed ahead of him, Gerard remained seated.

Kimble elbowed him in the ribs, having to repeat the gesture before Gerard turned his head; his eyes were fever-bright. Instinctively Kimble put out a hand to the flushed forehead. Before he could make contact Gerard flinched and stood up, moving along the pew, then on towards the main doors.

Kimble strode after him. “Are you feeling all right?”

“I’m fine,” Gerard said as they went out into the midday heat, the bright sunshine making them squint until their eyes adjusted.

Though highly embarrassed by what had just happened, not to say uncomfortable because of the fierce ache he was experiencing, having almost come in his pants like some over-sexed kid, Gerard was gratified by the other man’s concern. Knowing Kimble, he drew to a halt and got ready to deal with further questions. To his consternation, Kimble walked straight past him and over to a pretty blonde stranger who was clearly waiting for someone.

Kimble lifted the woman up off her feet and spun her around. His laughter was loud and uninhibited. It occurred to Gerard that the man who was known in Cooksville to be a sociable fellow rarely laughed, and never with such joy.

Already the whispering had started as people watched the doctor with the woman who had her arms around him and was kissing him with such enthusiasm. Ignoring the first stab of what he told himself was resentment because envy was such an ugly emotion, Gerard observed the laughing, hugging couple with a fair attempt at professional detachment. He came to a surprising conclusion. Despite what everyone else clearly thought, the woman and Richard weren’t lovers. The kisses were unrestrained, but they were affectionate, not passionate. No, this woman was no threat.

 

“Richard, you look so well!” Kathy told him, when he finally put her down. “It’s been too long. Letters just aren’t the same. Never again, honey.”

“You know why we had to stop meeting,” Kimble reminded her. The happiness on his face dimmed as he realized that only one thing could have brought the woman he thought of as a sister to Cooksville. Used to having promises of happiness snatched from him, his only regret was that he could not stay longer. Leaving the man who had been the source of his brief-lived joy would be the hardest thing he had ever done, requiring every ounce of will-power. Even self-preservation might not be enough to win the battle against that strongest of emotions, which was urging him to stay and try to win Sam and damn the consequences. He was tired of running.

What a mess. What a confusing, impossible mess.

Putting an arm around Kathy’s waist, he kept a smile pinned to his face until they had walked further away from the curious townsfolk. He drew her to a halt beneath the shade of a fine-looking tree. Satisfied they were fairly private, he said, “It’s Sykes, isn’t it?” The smile had vanished from his eyes.

“I’m sorry,” Kathy murmured, placing a hand on his forearm. Richard looked both grim and unhappy and it made her heart ache to see him this way.

Kimble sighed heavily. “Hell. Just when I was feeling safe again. Do you know how long I’ve got?”

“I saw him in Sloman buying supplies in the general store. He looked crazier than ever. He could be on your trail within two days.”

A worried frown crossed Kimble’s face. “He doesn’t know about you, does he?”

Kathy patted his arm reassuringly. “Relax, I’m safe. Anyway, people out here only know me under my married name of Fielding.” She gave a troubled sigh. “That Sykes should have come back into our lives... I don’t know what can have put him back on your trail five years ago - unless it was just bad luck that put you in the same one-horse town at the same time.”

“I guess it doesn’t matter how he found me,” said Kimble with resignation, before he gave her a look of concern. “You’re sure he doesn’t know it was your parents who took me in and raised me as their own all those years ago? Damn it, a blood sister couldn’t be closer to me than you. If he tried to hurt you...”

“Quit worrying about me. If you want my opinion I think he’s been able to keep on your trail by following the description of that stallion of yours. You’ve got to admit, he’s not the most inconspicuous horse.”

Kimble’s chin jutted in a familiar way. “I won’t sell Red, Kath. He can outrun anything, and with Sykes breathing down my neck I might need to make a quick get-away.”

She gave an impatient sigh. “But you shouldn’t have to run. I keep telling you to go to the authorities.”

“I can’t do that.”

She knew better than to pursue that old argument. “Then get a gun!”

Kimble’s smile was sad. “I can’t do that either. I swore I’d never defend myself with a gun again and I won’t.”

Exasperated, Kathy hissed, “You aren’t a murderer, you never were. It was an accident and everyone but Frederick Sykes knew it. You don’t have to live like this.” The twist to Richard’s mouth told her he was as stubborn as ever about what he persisted in regarding as his guilt.

“However you try to pretty it up, I killed his wife and unborn child. Don’t you think that deserves justice?”

“You’ve paid, with years of nightmares and grieving - and you can’t even remember how the gun came to be pointing at Mrs Sykes. Sykes was always a nasty piece of work and he’s just got crazier down the years. We both know what you do with a mad dog.”

“Not an option.”

“Then get rid of that damn horse. He’ll be the death of you.”

Kimble gave her a patient look. “While I’ve been on the run these last five years, I’ve never felt able to settle anywhere for long. Never felt free to strike up a relationship and make a home for myself. I lost that right when I deprived Sykes of his family. But...sometimes it’s so hard. Red’s the only permanent thing in my life. I won’t give him up.”

“Keeping him could be the death of you!”

Kimble kissed Kathy tenderly on her forehead. “How do you think I’ve managed to stay alive this long?”

“Luck?”

“It’s more than that. Sykes isn’t a professional killer, or even a good tracker. He’s just an ordinary man with a grudge - a justifiable one at that.”

“Then by getting shot of Red you’d reduce Sykes’ chances. Anyway, you’re so wrong about him,” she exclaimed with frustration. “Why can’t you see what’s obvious to everyone who meets him? There’s nothing ordinary or normal about Sykes. An ordinary man would have come to his senses years ago. He’s crazy. And don’t you give me ‘justifiable grudge’.”

Seeing Kimble shake his head, Kathy gave up. In her heart of hearts she knew his insistence on keeping that stallion, which made him as memorable as a two-headed man, was less a case of needing a friend on the road and more a case of feeling at some basic level that he didn’t deserve to be happy - that he deserved to be punished. She patted her reticule in an absent-minded way, glad to feel the weight of her Ladies Colt. All she needed was an excuse and she would put an end to Sykes’ craziness herself. But there was no need for Richard to know that. Realizing she had lost his attention, she touched his arm.

“In a minute,” he muttered. A sense of being under surveillance shot his head around. Taken aback, he discovered that far from being private, half of Cooksville were studying him and Kathy with what they fondly imagined to be subtlety. Even then he did not relax, a sense of malevolence remaining. Turning a full three hundred and sixty degrees, he slowly made an inventory of those present, afraid that Sykes might already be here. Instead, he saw Gerard scowling at him. It should have been an intimidating sight but Kimble felt only relief. He had nothing to fear from Sam. He didn’t even have to leave Cooksville this minute.

It was then that it hit him. Some time in the next twenty-four hours he had to leave Cooksville and the friends he had made here. Worse, he was going to have to leave Sam.

“Richard?”

Becoming aware of a painful pressure on his arm, Kimble glanced down to see Kathy staring worriedly up at him.

“Are you all right?”

“I’m fine,” he said, patting her hand in an absent kind of way. “It just hit me that... I like this town. I like these people and... Company,” he breathed as the formidable Miss Lacey approached them.

“Doctor Kimble! I’m glad to see you can behave yourself in church when you put your mind to it. Who’s this pretty young lady? Not your sister, surely?”

Hiding his amusement at such blatant curiosity, Kimble made the necessary introductions.

 

Gerard observed the interrogation of Kimble and the pretty stranger for a minute or two before deciding they needed rescuing. He strolled over to hear Miss Lacey asking Kimble what his intentions were. For one horrible moment he thought she was referring to the young woman and he felt a stab of doubt. Miss Lacey’s next words clarified things.

“It’s inconvenient having you live so far from town.” She spotted Gerard and nodded in his direction. “Now Sam there likes his privacy, too, but he’s happy to be no more than eight miles from folks. If we need him, he can be fetched in a flash.”

Gerard took off his hat and nodded, smiling, at the group before saying to the older woman, “Now Miss Lacey, don’t press the doctor so. Cooksville’s lucky to have a doctor again. Look how long we had to wait after Doc Reisemann died.”

Miss Lacey looked downright defiant. “A man needs to put down roots. It’s not right that he should live in a poky house miles from anywhere. We need someone close by. I need someone who can get a hold of Cuticura Plaster without - ”

“You’re having pain?” Kimble interrupted, looking concerned.

“No, but I like to have some anti-pain plaster by, just in case.”

“Miss Lacey, I see Miss Martha trying to get your attention,” Gerard noticed with relief. He tipped his head at her and gave her a blindingly sweet smile of farewell.

Miss Lacey gave him a shrewd look. After a long few seconds, during which Gerard resisted the urge to comb his hair and check his boots were polished, she nodded and bid them farewell before leaving to join her friend.

“Doctor, you haven’t introduced me to this pretty lady,” Gerard said, his eyes on the Richard’s companion.

Kimble made the introductions with a hint of reluctance that made Gerard smile inwardly.

“Welcome to Cooksville, Mrs Fielding. Are you and your husband intending to move here?”

Kimble gave him a knowing look and mouthed ‘real subtle’.

Gerard’s smile grew a fraction wider.

“No, I’m just here to visit Richard.”

“He’s a lucky man,” said Gerard gallantly. “Richard, if you’re free this evening maybe we can have that game of poker we’ve been promising ourselves. My place at seven.” While it was unconscious, and he would have been mortified if he had recognized it in himself, he was staking his claim. Mrs Fielding might not be any threat but she was an old friend - he wanted to be the one Richard spent the evening with.

Kimble’s smile was warmer than he knew. If he had to leave Cooksville at least he would have this evening by which to remember Sam. “I’m free and I’ll be there. I sure hope that shirt of yours is clean.”

“Shirt?” said Kathy, puzzled.

“That I’m going to win off Sam’s back,” Kimble explained.

“Has Richard always been subject to delusions, Mrs Fielding?” asked Gerard, offering his most charming smile.

Kathy caught herself simpering, so there was more of a snap in her voice than she intended when she said, “I hope you won’t think me rude, but I have to catch the stagecoach at three and Richard and I have a lot to discuss.”

Gerard’s smile was understanding. “Of course. A safe journey, ma’am. Richard.” Inclining his head in the woman’s direction, he put his hat back on as he strolled away. No, this woman was no threat. No threat at all. And Richard was coming around this evening. Happy with life, he began to whistle a jaunty tune until he caught Miss Lacey’s disapproving eye and realized it wasn’t fit for a Sunday - or any other day when in the company of ladies.

 

“So that’s the marshal I’ve been hearing so much about,” Kathy mused, watching as Gerard bent to remove his spurs. The view was magnificent.

Kimble turned a curious gaze on his friend. “I thought you’d only just arrived in town?”

“I did. The stagecoach overturned and a parcel of people on their way to church stopped to help. Well, some helped. Most stayed around for the entertainment. I got talking to one of the women - Caroline Renfro? She said she knew you.”

Kimble nodded. “I know Caroline. She doesn’t normally talk much about other folk.”

Kathy grinned. “Maybe you ask the wrong questions. She told me all the gossip about the brave and handsome marshal. I’m beginning to think she wasn’t exaggerating about the handsome part. It’s a good thing I’m a happily married woman or I might just be tempted to cast my bonnet his way. He has quite a reputation - a good one. And speaking of reputations,” she looked Kimble up and down with a gleam in her eye, “she told me quite a bit about you, too.”

Kimble looked suspicious. “What? Exactly.”

Kathy’s grin broadened. “Let’s just say that for a man who claims he wants to keep a low profile you’ve made quite an impact, one way and another. Saving lives, making friends and winning the hearts of impressionable young schoolgirls.” She cursed her loose tongue when she saw the light go out of Richard’s eyes. Despite the news about Sykes Richard had started to relax when Marshal Gerard had appeared, looking carefree and happy by the time the man left. “You must really like this place. That marshal seems like a good man. It must be hard leaving friends like him.”

His voice harsh and bitter, Kimble said, “What would I know about friendships? I’m never in one place long enough to form any.”

“Bullshit.” Kathy may not have seen Kimble in two years but she still knew the best way to handle him. “Bullshit,” she repeated, part of her relishing the forbidden word and Richard’s expression.

Speechless, Kimble could only gaze at her.

Kathy nudged him in the ribs with her elbow, her expression one of deep affection. “I’ll keep saying it until you admit the truth. You can’t help but make friends. Don’t look so self-conscious,” she told him when she saw his reaction, “it’s not a failing. It’s one of your finest gifts - that and your skill as a physician.” She glanced around, the sensation of being observed becoming unbearable. “Come on. Let’s go somewhere a little less public.”

Chapter Text

SEVEN

 

Gerard couldn’t remember when time had dragged this slowly. He’d been so sure Richard could be coaxed into making his move. He told himself that his crushing sense of disappointment stemmed from the fact he was tired of walking around with his balls in knots. His right hand brought immediate relief, but it was unsatisfactory because it made him even more aware of what he didn’t have. Sighing heavily, he looked around, the house seeming too large for him all of a sudden.

Rain had been threatening for a couple of hours. Now, just when he could have done without it, the heavens opened up and it began to pour; the temperature plummeted. Abandoning hope, he built and lit a fire and closed the shutters before renewing his pacing. The jar of cream he had optimistically placed on the wide stone mantelpiece seemed to mock him. It claimed to cure practically every known ill and he’d been hoping a little application by Richard might soothe the ache in his groin and the fire in his belly.

Listening to the rain lashing the windows as the wind howled around the sturdy walls of the house Gerard surrendered the last vestige of hope. Richard wouldn’t come out in this storm; no-one would except a man who was...

Damn it.

The pounding on the front door made him swing around but none of his excitement showed on his face when he opened the door and saw who stood on the step.

“Hi, Sam.” Kimble sounded oddly hesitant for a man who had sounded as if he was trying to pound down the door.

“Haven’t you got a slicker?” asked Gerard, taking in the finer points of Kimble’s appearance.

The brim of his hat drooping beneath the weight of water, his duster sodden, and rain coursing down his face, Kimble gave him an unamused glare. Pushing past Gerard, he headed for the fire. “I stabled Red. Don’t worry, I made sure he’s secure this time. But I’m - ”

“It doesn’t matter,” said Gerard, smiling. The front door was locked against the raging storm and he had Richard to himself.

“ - too damn wet and cold to want to spar with you right now.” His teeth starting to chatter, Kimble was peeling off his sodden clothes. “H-have you got a t-towel I could use?” he stuttered, when no offer was forthcoming.

“Towel?” echoed Gerard vacantly.

“To dry myself with.” There was an edge to Kimble’s voice by this time. Sam was staring at him all right, but with none of the pleasure he had hoped - expected - to see.

Gerard blinked as if resurfacing from deep waters. “I know what a towel’s for,” he retorted in more of his usual manner. There was something in his smile as he headed out the room which dispelled Kimble’s anxiety.

Gerard returned to see Kimble, minus his boots, shrugging out of his wet shirt. Muscles flexed down his spine, the light of the fire making his skin appear gold-tinged. Crouching down, Kimble held out his hands to the welcoming warmth, his bare toes curling in the thick pile of the sheepskin rug. The waistband of his black pants gaped an inch or so from the small of his back. It wasn’t much, but it still set Gerard’s heart racing.

“Here,” he said, quickly crossing the room. “I made coffee.” He handed the bundle to Kimble and set the mug in the hearth to keep hot

Kimble got to his feet, automatically accepting the bundle Gerard thrust at him. “What’s all this?”

“I hope that’s not a serious question,” said Gerard, made more acid than he had intended by lust. Kimble’s look of surprise made him grimace, his apology covered by a vague gesture of his hand. “It’s a change of clothing. It should fit you. Or were you intending to sit dripping water over my rug all night?”

“Uh, no.”

Gerard tried not to watch but because he had no saintly attributes he couldn’t stop himself from noticing when Kimble unfastened the buttons of his pants. It quickly became apparent that Richard was naked beneath them. Gerard couldn’t help hoping that was for his benefit. He’d dispensed with his own under garments tonight.

Richard wriggling out of those tight, wet pants was one of the most erotic sights he had ever seen. The fabric clung like a second skin and Kimble bent over to drag the material the rest of the way down his legs, almost overbalancing as he lifted one foot up to free himself of the wet cotton.

His cock throbbing in rhythm to the beat of his pulse, Gerard tasted the metallic tang of blood and discovered he had bitten the inside of his lip.

As cool air hit bare skin Kimble began to shiver and he crouched back down in front of the fire, completely naked now.

Gerard caught his breath. All he could see was the strong line of shoulder and back, water trickling from the wet strands of hair on Kimble’s neck, down the dips and ridges of the spine, leading the eye down to the perfect curve of the buttocks and the shadowed cleft.

He must have made some sound because Kimble swivelled around, almost overbalancing. Looking away almost immediately, he reached for the towel which lay on the floor beside him and stood up to dry himself. His skin, which looked flushed from the heat of the fire, grew ruddier as he scrubbed at it, a long steady scouring motion that looked uncomfortable. Droplets fell from his hair onto his dry body and he made an impatient sound before he began to rub vigorously at his head. Finally satisfied he was dry enough, he reached for the clothes provided for him.

Taking up his own mug of coffee Gerard sat back in his big comfortable armchair, his gaze flicking from the naked man to the fire and back again.

Kimble eased into the pair of pants Gerard had provided for him and just managed to fasten them without doing himself, or the tautly stretched fabric, an injury. Picking up the shirt, he paused. “You’re not going to make me win this?” he asked huskily.

Gerard shrugged. “Sometimes it can be sweeter to give something away freely.”

His eyes never leaving the other man, Kimble shrugged into the shirt. It wasn’t a bad fit, although the buttons caused some difficulty, his usually nimble fingers fumbling to secure them. Conscious of the tight press of cotton cupping his genitals like one of Sam’s large hands, he sat cross-legged in front of the fire, eager to soak up the heat; he shifted position slightly so he could watch Gerard, who sat staring into the middle distance.

Firelight played across the right side of Sam’s face, highlighting cheekbone and jaw and emphasizing the shape of his mouth. The shadows cast by the incredibly long eyelashes drew his gaze so strongly that Kimble felt as if some irresistible force was pulling him in. Then Sam refocused, looking directly at him and Kimble was flooded with a heat which had nothing to do with the fire. His close-fitting pants a minor torment, he tried not to fidget, wondering if Sam would offer what it was he most wanted.

Gerard drew a deep, steadying breath. Did Richard have any idea how submissive he looked, sitting with his head bowed and his eyes cast down? Determined to let the other man make the first move in case it all went horribly wrong, he remained silent and watchful. He knew beyond doubt that something was going to happen tonight, desire crackling between them.

Finding it difficult to breathe, Kimble felt increasingly unsettled. The distant rumble of thunder reassured him and he blamed the weather for the tension in the room. Spotting his wet clothes he got up and draped them across the hearth. A sense of being under surveillance made him glance up to see Gerard watching him, his eyes heavy with need. The strength seemed to flow out of Kimble’s legs, although he tried to cover the fact by sinking down in front of the fire.

It had been a mistake to come here, he acknowledged unhappily but he hadn’t been able to resist seeing Sam one more time, no matter how briefly. How dumb could he be? He was too old to believe in fairy-tales. The aching void where his heart should be and the persistent, futile heat in his loins would serve as a reminder why he should listen to logic and not his heart in the future - a future in which Sam could have no part. Kimble’s eyes scrunched shut, his lips parting on a soundless protest.

Gerard noiselessly crouched down, making Kimble start when he passed him the mug which he had picked up from the hearth, where it had sat untouched.

“Here,” said Gerard, gentle of intent.

Kimble was surprised to see his hand was almost steady as he accepted the drink. He took a deep swallow. “Damn, that’s hot.”

“That’s a general idea.”

“I brought the cards but I’m afraid they got wet.” Kimble nodded towards the damp deck spread out on the hearth, cards curling as they dried.

Gerard’s intense gaze never left the man at his side. Richard’s lowered gaze and air of confused vulnerability were having the strangest effect on him. This waiting was the most exquisite torture imaginable; Richard was within his reach, but only if Richard chose to make the first move.

What if he didn’t?

Ice ran through Gerard’s veins. What if Richard was just as afraid of this going wrong as he was? What if...? The hell with it.

“What made you come out in the rain? We could have made this another day.”

The sound of Gerard’s roughened, raw silk voice made Kimble flinch. He licked away the coffee that had spilled onto his fingers, acutely aware of the other man’s unrelenting gaze. “How could I pass up the chance to win your fancy shirt?”

“You could win a lot more than my damn shirt. Or maybe I should just give that away, too.”

There was a husky note to Sam’s voice that touched Kimble clear to the groin. Not sure he had heard right, what he saw on Gerard’s face made the pain inside him all the more intolerable.

“Sam...” he began helpless, with longing. Two blunt-tipped fingers settled gently over his mouth, resting there.

“Don’t. Don’t begin with a lie. We both know you’ve been making promises with your eyes, your mouth - your whole damn body - since the day we met. Well, tonight I aim to collect. It’s time to make your move.”

“How - ?” His voice cracking, Kimble had to cough to clear the lump in his throat. “How long have you known?”

An affectionate smile relaxed the tension on Gerard’s face. “About five minutes into our first conversation. Did you really think I wouldn’t spot what you were doing? You weren’t exactly subtle.”

“I didn’t think... Five minutes?” muttered Kimble with consternation, “I’ll have to be more careful in future.”

“You won’t have to be, except around other people when we’re together.” Gerard’s expression was wary yet determined at the same time.

“I can’t stay,” Kimble protested involuntarily.

“Of course you can. Besides, I won’t let you go,” added Gerard, for whom the world had become a simple place.

Silent laughter rocked Kimble but there was near desperation in his eyes. Gerard’s gentle but inexorable touch forced him to meet those dauntingly honest eyes.

“I won’t let you go, you hear me? I won’t let you.” While the voice was quiet, each word was given a clear and precise emphasis.

His face twisted with more pain than humor, Kimble made a harsh sound of derision.

Gerard’s hand tangled in the beginning to dry hair as he jerked Kimble close, his mouth covering the lips already parting for him.

Kimble was lost the moment Gerard’s mouth touched his, hunger for this intimacy overtaking his good sense.

When Kimble’s hand swept down his body in a possessive swathe before settling on his ass, Gerard sighed against his lover’s mouth. “You shouldn’t have bothered getting dressed. I guess I’ll just have to help you take these off again.”

“Sam, I - ”

“Shh,” Gerard breathed.

As Kimble tried to draw away Gerard placed one hand in the center of Richard’s shoulders but exerted no pressure. “Stay with me tonight?”

Staring into warm brown eyes, his senses assaulted by a heady mixture of sensations, Kimble was lost. Not trusting his voice, he gave a jerky nod. His reward was the lightest of kisses to the corner of his mouth: that and the expression on Sam’s face, as if he was the one doing the favor.

Then Sam had his pants open and was tugging at his shirt. Buttons skittered across the floor and Sam’s thumbs settled over his nipples, which peaked under the attention. Teeth scraped the puckered flesh before Gerard bit him, in just the right way; Kimble moaned, pressing the dark head against him. Gerard turned his attention to the other nipple. Making incoherent sounds, Kimble’s fingers clenched in Sam’s hair while with his other hand he tried to tug Gerard’s open pants down.

Chuckling, Gerard continued his sensual torment, delighting in Kimble’s responsiveness until he saw the wild look in his eyes. Wanting to prolong this pleasure, he searched for some distraction. “What’s this?”

It took a few moments for the hunger to clear from Kimble’s eyes. “What? Uh, that. It’s, uh, it’s Saint Christopher.”

Gerard’s mouth twitched. “You wear a religious symbol?”

“He’s the patron saint of travelers.” Kimble took several steadying breaths.

“It’s real pretty.” Gerard supported the Kimble-warmed chain on a broad finger, watching the way the light reflected on the silver. “More to the point, it’s kept you safe.”

“Mostly. It’s real precious to me. I’ve worn it since I was sixteen.” He watched as Gerard let the small disc swing to and fro. “You really like it, don’t you?”

Gerard looked up, his eyes serious. “I like anything that keeps you safe,” he said, before he leaned forward to take Kimble’s mouth once again.

Kimble made a small sound of frustration as yet again he was distracted from his self-imposed task of removing Sam’s pants.

Gerard kissed him hard one final time, stroked his cheek with a gentle forefinger then stood up to strip off the remainder of his clothing.

Giving a sigh of appreciation, Kimble reached out to touch the beautiful cock which had featured in so many of his fantasies; aroused and golden in the flickering firelight, Sam was beyond anything he could have imagined. Seeing him like this, Kimble could only marvel that he had held back so long - that he had believed it possible to leave Sam before he had explored the delights he offered. The mouth alone was temptation enough to cast aside all caution and ignore the instincts that screamed that danger was close by. Incredible to think he had almost found the strength to pack up and leave this evening. Almost.

Kimble traced the cock from base to glistening tip and back again, totally focused on its sheer beauty. Pausing only to lick suddenly dry lips, he ringed the bobbing cock, fingers gently sliding back the soft fold of skin to ready it before he leaned forward and took Sam’s erect flesh into his mouth with delicate care. He let it lie against his tongue for a moment, eyes closed as he savored the bulk, taste and feel of it as it bumped against the roof of his mouth.

Gerard’s hands clamped over broad shoulders, fingers digging into the muscle before one hand slid up into the thick, brown hair, cupping the back of Kimble’s head. The muscles of his thighs and buttocks clenched and twitched with strain as he fought the imperative to thrust into Richard’s mouth.

Kimble’s tongue began to move, sliding along the swollen vein and velvet length, his head bowing to take in more before moving back to lap and suck at the smooth head. Gerard bucked helplessly and Richard grasped the rocking hips to steady him before swallowing Gerard’s length. His lips brushed the crisp dark curls at the other man’s groin.

Gerard made a sound deep in his throat. The sensation of completely possessing Kimble’s mouth almost overwhelmed him; when he drew away he grimaced. Drawing Richard to his feet, he pulled at the tight pants, muttering with frustration when the clinging fabric was slow to slide down. There was the sharp sound of something tearing but he continued to tug until Kimble was naked.

He pulled Kimble to him, bringing their bodies as close as was possible without actual penetration, before kissing Kimble with a fierce tenderness that deprived both of them of air. The throb of his cock where it nudged and brushed Richard’s was too insistent to ignore any longer. He swung around to grab something from the mantelpiece, pressing the jar into Richard’s hand.

It was several seconds before the contents of the jar and its significance dawned on Kimble.

“Use plenty,” Gerard said. Pausing to brush an open-mouthed kiss against the head of Richard’s cock he sank onto his knees, before leaning forward to rest his arms on the rug and his cheek on his folded arms.

Kimble could only gaze at Gerard, his eyes almost black with desire as they took in the incredible picture of Sam Gerard offering himself up for his pleasure. Kimble’s body responded before his mind began to function again. Kneeling beside Gerard his fingers dipped into the jar to scoop up some of the herbal-scented cream. With great delicacy he pressed a coated finger against Gerard’s twitching anus, slipping past the puckered opening into the welcoming heat.

Desperate with need, Gerard pressed back, too close to climax to want a slow and tender love-making. Kimble returned to the cream-slick entrance, easing away initial resistance with a plentiful application of the silky lotion.

“Do it now.” Trying to control his body’s responses, fine tremors shook Gerard, sweat gleaming on his temples.

Taking a steadying breath, Kimble positioned himself and Gerard before sliding home in one long, sure thrust.

His breath sucking in sharply, Gerard went rigid beneath Kimble as he tried to accustom himself to the sensation. It felt as if Richard’s cock was filling him to the heart and he panted with the effort of keeping still, trusting Richard to take it slow until he was ready. Kimble shifted within him, a slight movement that caused Gerard to bite his lip. Then Kimble sank impossibly deeper and Gerard experienced a pleasure so exquisite it made him buck helplessly.

Kimble gasped, trying to steady the man beneath him but Sam’s wild movements and choked-off demands made him impossible to resist. One hand grasping Sam’s cock, Kimble’s other hand splayed across Gerard’s belly as he hunched over him, pulling him up closer.

Gerard arched and thrust back in time with the strong rhythm Kimble set, fingers clenching and unclenching in the springy softness of the sheepskin rug. Pleasure building to an impossible level, he thrust into the tight tunnel of Kimble’s hand one final time and came in great pulsing waves that sapped him of strength and would have sent him onto his belly but for the arm around him. Both hands needed to support the spent man beneath him, Kimble thrust over and over again, taking Gerard with a desperate ruthlessness. Almost sobbing with the intensity of it, he came with a harsh cry.

It was a while before he had the energy to ease from the man beneath him and roll onto his side, one arm still draped across Gerard’s sweat-damp back.

Dazed, Gerard gazed tenderly at the man beside him before he gave the smuggest of smiles. Richard was his. No doubt about it. He had him now. His contentment bone-deep, he drifted off to sleep to the accompaniment of the rain lashing against the windows.

 

Kimble awoke to the sensation of warm water caressing his genitals. He looked up from where he lay sprawled on his back on the large sheepskin rug, to find Gerard turning even this mundane necessity into a series of caresses.

“You don’t have to clean me,” he murmured, his throat threatening to close up as he watched the other man.

“Yes I do because I aim to put you in my mouth,” Gerard said matter-of-factly. He dropped the washcloth in the terra cotta bowl. “Anything in particular you want, or will you hold your peace and let me have a little fun here?”

“You can do whatever you want with me,” Kimble told him simply, too dazed to think up some smart retort.

Taken aback, Gerard concentrated on the body spread out for his pleasure. “I like this,” he said as he brushed his fingers back and forth through the hair on Richard’s chest. “It feels real nice.” He pushed the Saint Christopher around, circling first one nipple then the other. “I’m afraid I’m a little wanting in that area.”

”You’re beautiful,” Kimble heard himself say.

Gerard’s sharp-eyed look changed to one of bemused acceptance. “Damn, I think you mean that.”

“Of course I mean it. It’s the truth.”

Kimble pulled Gerard down to lie on top of him, taking his mouth in a luxurious kiss. Not wanting to miss a second of potential memories, he kept his eyes open. His hands slid down the length of Gerard’s back, fingers slipping into the warm cleft. It was clear Gerard had cleaned himself but there was still evidence of his possession to be found by an exploring finger. Kimble pressed inward, feeling smooth heat and the steady beat of a pulse, tiny but strong, against his fingertip. Something primitive swelled up inside him when he found traces of his own semen; he pressed in deeper.

Gerard caught his breath sharply and pushed up to meet Kimble’s hand, encouraging further stimulation.

Obliging, Kimble’s gaze fixed avidly on the other man as Gerard’s head reared up, exposing the vulnerable line of the throat. Kimble drank in every fleeting expression and gasp.

Gerard ground his swelling cock against Kimble, who spread his thighs to accommodate him then wrapped his legs tight around him, locking them together. All thoughts of being a gentleman long gone, Gerard stopped leaning on his elbows, sliding his hands under the other man to pull him closer.

When Gerard’s full weight settled on top of him, Kimble caught his breath then relaxed, reveling in the sensation of being pressed into the rug. He was completely covered by Gerard, trapped by the gloriously lean, hard-muscled body that felt far hotter than the fire which blazed in the stone fireplace.

Leaving his mark, Gerard mouthed the junction of Kimble’s neck and shoulder, tasting the salt of the other man’s skin as he traced the collarbones with his lips, nudging aside the silver chain with his nose. He threaded his fingers through the springy chest hair, flicking the nipples.

Kimble bucked beneath him, his fingers deep within Gerard increasing their pace and pressure.

“What do you want?” asked Gerard in a passion-slurred voice. “You want me again? You can. Anything, Richard. Anything you want.”

His eyes glazed, Kimble’s mouth was slack. He swallowed, clearly trying to articulate his need. “You. Need you.”

“You got me.” Gerard shifted so that he was supported by his elbows, then leaned down to plant a hard kiss on the open mouth before he reached out to grab the jar of cream. It had tipped over and some of its contents had oozed onto the rug but there was enough left. He sat up between Kimble’s parted legs and was about to scoop up some cream and apply it to himself. A hand grabbed his wrist.

“Sam, I need you inside me. Please.”

Caught by surprise, Gerard stared at the other man, unblinking.

Mistaking the cause of his lover’s hesitation, Kimble sat up, one hand reaching out to cup Sam’s neck, pulling him close until their mouths met. The kiss was brief, desperate. Brushing his lips over Gerard’s face, Kimble’s voice was incredibly deep.

“Do this for me, Sam. Please.” He nipped along the strong line of jaw and chin, nuzzling the throat then up to the corner of the parted mouth. “I’m begging you.”

Snapping out of his dazed state, Gerard pushed his fingers through his lover’s sweat-soaked hair, his eyes reflecting a fierce tenderness. “You don’t have to beg me for anything. Surely you know that?”

He brushed a kiss on the hand that grasped his wrist, nuzzling the knuckles until Kimble’s convulsive grasp slackened. Released, Gerard moved back a little, one hand caressing the taut length of Kimble’s thighs with long, slow, surprisingly non-sexual strokes. Continuing to gentle his lover, soft-voiced love-words mingled with soothing caresses until the desperate look faded from Kimble’s eyes, the tension which had gripped him easing away. Gerard retrieved the jar which he had dropped when the other man had kissed him and scooped up some cream.

Kimble lay back, his gaze never leaving Sam’s face as the other man prepared him.

Aware of that scrutiny Gerard glanced up to offer an almost shy smile before his attention returned to his task.

Kimble drew in several shuddering breaths, trying to control his reaction to the sight and feel of Sam as he prepared to make love to him. Gerard’s eyelashes cast elongated shadows down his cheeks in the flickering firelight, which also lit his beautiful mouth.

Dammit. He’d never asked for much in his miserable life but he needed this, needed Sam. When had he lost control?

When had he lost his heart?

Placing the jar down with exaggerated care, Gerard’s hand clenched and unclenched to try and control the tremors shaking it. He moved to lie beside Richard, kissing and lapping the salty skin of arm and shoulder as he coaxed the other man onto his side. His hand drifted down the beautiful line of the back to the dip and curve of tailbone and ass, wishing he had the self-control to take his time and explore further. But there would be time for that later. Easing Kimble’s right leg forward, he took a steadying breath and eased into the other man, biting his lip as the incredible tightness gripped him. A sound close to a sob escaped him as he slid deeper into his lover. He was aware of words slipping past his lips but he had no idea what he was saying, or if Kimble heard him. He knew he was clutching Richard to him tight enough to bruise but it was beyond him to loosen his embrace - as if by holding Richard tight he could meld them together. Kimble pushed back with his hips, his voice a throaty rumble as he encouraged his lover, his hand clutching Gerard’s where it grasped his hip, their fingers entwining. Gerard thrust forward, his mouth on Richard’s shoulder, his breath gusting hot and uneven against the strong neck, Richard’s stubble grazing his temple.

It took very little to tip them both over the edge.

Spent, they lay on the rug , slick with sweat and semen, waiting for their rapidly beating hearts to slow down.

From somewhere Kimble found the energy to roll over to face his lover. Gerard gave a tired little laugh of incredulous joy and drew Richard into his arms, smiling against the top of the damp head.

 

Kimble didn’t realize he had dozed off until he awoke to a sense of well-being so intense that he wondered if he had ever experienced it before. The fire had died down and Gerard was plastered down the length of his back, one hand lazily rubbing his torso. It was a moment or so before Kimble appreciated they were both clean and smelling of the rosemary-scented soap Gerard used. He must remember to thank Miss Lacey, he thought sleepily. He liked the way Sam smelled. And tasted. Hell, he even liked the way Sam breathed.

Gerard kissed Kimble’s shoulder. “What do you want, Richard?”

Kimble turned his head to give the other man an incredulous look.

Gerard snorted. “Not that! I wish I could but while the spirit is willing - ”

“I want you to take me to bed, Sam. I want to lie in a bed, with sheets and you covering me.”

The expression in his eyes tender, it was a moment before Gerard trusted his voice, caught by the simplicity of that request and the knowledge that their loving had meant as much to Richard as it had to him. “Whatever you say. You got the strength to move?”

“I don’t know,” Kimble conceded with a faint smile. Laboriously pushing himself to his feet, he held out his hand.

Taking it, Gerard held on tight. Pausing at the foot of the staircase, he kissed Kimble again before a clap of thunder made them start apart, exchange sheepish grins and head upstairs. The thunder was growing louder and flashes of lightning lit the open parlor below them as they walked along the gallery towards Gerard’s bedroom. He opened the heavy, dark oak door and led Kimble towards the bed, pulling the bedding back before stepping aside to allow Richard to get in first.

Shivering in the cooling air, Kimble clambered in with an absence of grace, pulling the covers up to his chin as he lay on his side, waiting for Sam to join him. Gerard did so with alacrity, almost bumping noses with his lover in his haste to get as close as was possible without actual penetration. Soaking up one another’s warmth, they lay motionless, as if struck by a peculiar shyness. Gerard was the first to move, sliding a hand across Kimble’s belly, which twitched in response. Closing his eyes, Kimble was strangely submissive for so vital a man. Gerard began to nuzzle along the jawline, down the throat, sliding back the covers to expose more of the sun-kissed skin. Kimble shivered a little then raised his chin to allow easier access and Gerard took the opportunity to lick and nip his way across the vulnerable throat, rubbing his lightly stubbled jaw along Richard’s neck and collarbone. Kimble gave a low moan and reached for Gerard, moving until he was covering the other man with his entire length. He remained like that for a brief moment, breathing in the scent of Gerard, who lay trapped beneath him, before Kimble rose up onto his elbows and knees to straddle Gerard and continued to make love to him.

When Gerard tried to reach for Kimble his hands were placed gently but firmly, above his head.

“Don’t move,” Kimble commanded.

Gerard’s cock twitched. “All right,” he murmured compliantly, cupping his hands behind his pillow.

As Kimble began to explore every inch of him Gerard’s responses varied from groans of delight to unmanly giggles. Throughout it all Kimble remained completely focused on the play of muscle and the response, taste and texture of flesh, quickly licking away the taste of rosemary so that he was left with the unadulterated taste of Sam Gerard. The covers had long since fallen to the floor allowing him to explore as he would. His hands slid up from wriggling toes, past ankle, calves, knees, sensitive inner thigh, then paused. For the first time since he had begun this charting and marking of flesh he looked up and met lust-dazed eyes but Sam’s smile was warm and loving, and it promised the world.

Kimble tried to smile back, but it was a tremulous thing, a wealth of sadness behind it. He whispered Gerard’s first name and brushed his finger along Gerard’s rigid length. Then he lowered his head and took that beautiful, needy cock into his mouth.

Convulsing, Gerard arched up helplessly when Kimble sucked greedily, as if trying to draw out the essence of his lover by force. It was as intense as before, perhaps more so because this time Gerard had done nothing except to allow his lover to pleasure him. It was over far too quickly, Gerard left boneless and dewed with sweat, which Kimble began to lick away with long, slow swathes of his tongue.

Gerard reached for Kimble’s erection, only to find Kimble sticky and lax. When he opened his mouth to say something Kimble placed a hand across his lips and shook his head. Satisfied that Sam seemed to accept this, he pressed a kiss of infinite tenderness to the dry lips. Suddenly the energy seemed to drain from him in a rush and he rolled onto his back, fingers tightening around Gerard’s when the other man reached for his hand.

Resisting sleep because he didn’t want to lose a second of this, Kimble began to count the seconds between the flashes of lightning and the roar of thunder, but it had nothing to do with trying to estimate how close to them the storm was coming. Every flash of lightning lit the man beside him in an unearthly blue and silver light, illuminating the strong clean lines of Sam’s body. The hair and eyes looked black as night, the eyebrows devilish over the fallen angel’s face lit so harshly in the brilliant bursts of light.

Sam was his. For these few precious hours Sam Gerard was his to love, if not to have and hold as long as he lived.

He slid his thumb along Gerard’s, enjoying the feel of the wide, blunt fingers and the strength in the capable hand, loving the fact it was larger than his own. He waited for the next flash of lightning to illuminate the man’s expression, so he could memorize it and add it to the memories of Sam he had been gathering since the day they had met.

 

The house was more than big enough for the two of them, Gerard decided. He released Kimble’s hand to roll onto his belly, his fingers sifting through the softness of chest hair. His eyes began to close. Comfortable and supremely happy he let his thoughts drift on clouds of dreams and hopes and nebulous plans that began to take shape. Half the town had been after Kimble to open up a dispensary; there was that empty building next to Maxie’s saloon they could fix up. Maybe a dispensary and office in one. It wouldn’t take too long with a little help. Richard had promised to make Karen a dovecote, so he must be reasonably good with a saw, hammer and nails.

He was distracted by memories of how good Richard was with his hands in general. And his mouth. Richard was talented all over.

Oh my, he was a lucky man. He pressed his face more firmly against Kimble’s shoulder, his eyes closed but not sleepy enough to doze.

So that was settled. They would take over one of the empty buildings in town. Quintum’s Leap was way too small and out the way for an office and dispensary. Richard would move in with him. Who would think twice if two lonely bachelors, lately become friends, lived together. They’d need a bedroom for Richard, for appearances sake, but this bed was big enough for two - hell, it was big enough for four.

Richard had only the one horse so there was room enough in the barn.

Plenty of space for his clothes and any other belongings he might have.

He’d have to have a word with him about Madame Reynard’s, of course. Much as he liked the young ladies there, there was no way he was going to share Richard with anyone.

Was there anything he’d missed?

 

He was going to miss Sam. Miss him so much he’d...

Plans. He had to make plans. Had to.

It wouldn’t take long to get to the next town. A ferry across the river, through to Tarrville then west till he hit the coast. Or north? He could go south, make it look as if he was heading for Mexico then....

...miss him so much it would feel like someone had ripped out his heart.

...if he headed east, then south...

What would it be like, to wake up beside this man for the rest of his life; to be at peace?

He’d known hell and tasted heaven. Now hell would be all the more dark; he could feel bitterness seeping into his soul.

Would it have been better not to have known Sam?

Even in his pain, the sensation of his lover pressed up against him was the most wonderful thing he’d ever experienced. When he was with Sam he felt at peace. He’d felt safe the moment he entered this house. And more alive. And happy; for the first time in his life he felt happy. If he died tomorrow it would have been worth it.

But what of Sam? He was a marshal; a man who had dedicated his life to upholding the law. According to Kathy, Sykes was a man who had slipped over the edge into insanity. He didn’t want to die, he never had. But even more than that he didn’t want Sam to die. If Sykes really had gone crazy, he might kill anyone who got in his way. And Sam would get in the way.

He had to leave. There was no other choice. Not if he wanted to keep Sam safe.

 

Richard would have to leave, Gerard realized with resentment. The thought was almost enough to make him open his eyes and find something inanimate to scowl at but logic and lack of energy calmed him. Richard would have to start complaining around town that his house was too small, that he felt too isolated but that he still wanted peace and quiet. That would be his cue to start grumbling about El Corazón being too damn big with just him rattling round inside it. Of course he’d have to be careful or he’d have every unmarried women in town being pushed his way. He could always try that big-eyed sorrowful look he’d seen Richard using on the more persistent matchmakers; it worked for him. Then again, that man of his could have the birds eating out of the palm of his hand if he put his mind to it. Sooner or later someone would ask them why it hadn’t occurred to them to live in the same house - probably Miss Lacey. She’d taken a shine to Richard. She’d probably scold him for not being hospitable enough to offer a roof to the poor, motherless doctor. And of course he would look suitably chastened.

He’d have to fix up the paddock for when Maverick dropped her foal. There was no doubt in his mind that she had conceived. They’d find out in eleven months time. Even if she wasn’t carrying now she soon would be once Richard and Red were here permanently. A little black foal, with maybe four white socks, like her sire.

He’d got money. Perhaps he’d use it to buy half a dozen brood mares; quality stock, maybe Quarter Horses like Maverick’s dam. He wouldn’t be town marshal forever. Besides, sometimes he had to leave Cooksville to hunt down some lowlife - days he could be spending with Richard.

 

The storm arrived overhead with a dazzling show of power. The entire sky lit up, giving for a brief second the brightness of day. Thunder cracked and boomed, sounding mighty enough to split the earth apart. Kimble watched the other man by that brilliance until it was too painful to do so and he had to turn his head towards the window, pretending to watch the light show outside.

 

Gerard listened to the storm and concluded it was nothing to worry about; the rain already sounded like it was easing off and the house was sturdily built.

They would be happy here. He shifted closer to Kimble, feeling warm and safe and happier than a man had a right to expect. He sensed that Richard was still awake but made no attempt to break the silence. This evening had been so damn perfect that words were unnecessary; they might even take some of the magic away. Besides, he was so pleasantly exhausted that the silence was welcome, and it felt comfortable. Could there be anything finer than to lie beside the one you loved? No wonder Caroline and Cosmo had been after him to get hitched for years.

Sleepy, but reluctant to lose any of this first, perfect night with Richard, he played with the chain that held the Saint Christopher, twining it around his fingers. Patron saint of travelers. A ferryman, if memory served him. A marshal ought to be just as good at keeping a man safe.

A shiver ran down his spine, although he couldn’t have said why. He pressed closer to Richard, his unease dissipating as he absorbed the solid reality of the other man. “I love you,” he murmured. Drifting off to sleep he felt more happy than any man had the right to be.

 

He was sleeping. Kimble could feel the warm, steady gusts of expelled air against his neck, the slackening of the grip around his torso.

Sam loved him.

Oh Christ. All he had ever wanted, more than he had a right to expect, given to him and he had to walk away from it.

How was he going to bear it? Sam loved him and he had to leave.

Half an hour passed. It felt like five minutes.

He had to go. He needed to catch the earliest ferry and first he must return to Quintum’s Leap for his belongings. He couldn’t stay any longer.

‘Richard, he looked crazy.’

Crazy enough to kill anyone who got in the way? To kill Sam? He had no choice. He must go. No more innocents were going to die because of him and especially not the man he loved.

Kimble tried to ease from the bed but Sam had twisted the chain of his Saint Christopher around his fingers. Blinking rapidly, Kimble tried to loosen the other man’s grasp. Gerard muttered in his sleep and shifted his hips against Kimble.

Kimble’s eyes scrunched shut in silent anguish. He could do this. He had to, for Sam’s sake. Ignoring the moisture making his eyes burn he unfastened the chain. Closing Gerard’s fingers around the silver links, he brushed the lightest of kisses over the large knuckles. Breathing in Gerard’s scent, he whispered, “I love you, Sam,” then drew back, grief stark on his face. If he didn’t leave now he would never go. If he stayed he signed Sam’s death warrant.

Snuggling into the warm space Kimble had left, the chain still clutched tightly in his hand. Gerard slept on, smiling faintly even in his sleep.

Going downstairs, Kimble discovered the fire was almost out and the room was cold, although that was nothing compared to his inner chill. His clothes were still a damp but he pulled on and fastened the pants, then reached for his shirt before he spotted the white shirt Sam had lent him and been so quick to remove that he’d left buttons on the floor. Picking up that shirt, he pulled it on, fastening the few remaining buttons before he could change his mind.

When he was fully dressed, he searched for a scrap of paper. The dying fire served to destroy his first fumbling effort. Eventually, by keeping his emotions in check, both in himself and on paper, he was able to write the kind of letter that would keep Sam from following him, and so keep him out of harm’s way. He was aware of an icy chill creeping through him and he welcomed it, grateful for the numbness it would bring. When thoughts and emotions had reached a blessedly frozen state he was able to prop the letter on the mantelpiece, gather up his few belongings and leave the house, and the man who held his heart.

It had stopped raining, the storm long gone, as Kimble saddled Red and set off. His watch began to chime as he rode out through the gates, the cheery tinkling of ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas’ in stark contrast to his bleak emotional state. Red snorted with disapproval and danced sideways, not liking the sound, the early start, or the way his hooves sank into the muddy ground. His antics forced Kimble to concentrate on something other than the man he was leaving behind. He checked Red and kept him at a walk until the horse had settled down. By the time they reached firmer ground the house was no longer visible even if Kimble had turned his head to look back; he hadn’t. He’d crossed his pain threshold some time ago.

Chapter Text

EIGHT

 

The track greasy after the heavy rain, Kimble ignored prudence and pushed Red on at an ever faster pace. The quicker he collected his belongings from Quintum’s Leap, the quicker he could be gone.

He was drawn from his state of numb misery by Red’s skittish and nervy behavior. Slowing to a halt, Kimble sat scenting the air like a hound dog.
The clean scent of rain-washed vegetation was tainted with smoke, the light breeze coming from the direction of the house. The acrid stink intensified quickly, a dark gray column of smoke appearing over the steep slope to his left, which masked Quintum’s Leap from view.

Dread clenching his belly, Kimble began to shiver like a whipped puppy. If the house had been struck by lightning the fire would have been quenched hours ago, and the range had been cold when he left. Which left only one option. Someone had - was - deliberately setting fire to his house.

He knew of only one man who would do such a thing. It must be Sykes.

Drenched with the sweat of sheer terror, Kimble slumped in the saddle as though trying to make himself a smaller target - the child he had been when Frederick Sykes had first terrorized him.

Every instinct urged him to flee but he had to be sure. Rational thought always deserted him where Sykes was concerned.

Dismounting, Kimble led Red deep into a stand of young alders, where he would be well-hidden. Moving to the other side of the track he began to treacherous climb up the hillside, using the thick vegetation as cover.

It was so quiet he could hear the crackling of flames above the thump of his own heartbeat.

Reaching a spot which offered a clear view of the house without risking being seen, Kimble stared in horror at his burning house. Then a large figure backed into view, a lit torch in his hand. A one-armed man: Sykes. The man who had been hunting him down since he was a child.

Dear God. Sykes was here already.

For one moment of madness Kimble wanted to emerge from hiding to confront Sykes. End the nightmare his life had become quick and clean. Better that than to be reduced to a whimpering wreck, cowering in the bushes, he thought, scoured by self-contempt. But when he tried to get to his feet his legs refused to obey him.

It was a bitter moment.

Tossing away the torch, Sykes swung around, the amusement on his face stilling, as if he sensed himself to be under surveillance.

Staring into that harsh-featured face, the imperative to survive flooded Kimble’s system. He backed away through the vegetation, then ran as fast as he was able, falling and sliding down the hillside, picking himself up and running across the track to where Red was tethered. Unfastening him, he rode for the ferry crossing as fast as he could, praying that Ritchie would be there early.

He was. More, assuming Kimble must be attending some medical emergency he asked no questions, although as he took in the dandified doctor’s bedraggled appearance his curiosity was obvious.

His gaze fixed on the rapidly retreating west bank of the river, Kimble was oblivious to anything but the still empty road down to the ferry. Sykes hadn’t seen him, he was sure of that, but he might have heard something.

Almost as nervy as his master, Red was still skittish from their dangerous gallop. As the ferry drew up to the mooring the stallion backed into Ritchie with such a force that the ferryman lost his balance, spraining his arm badly in the fall.

In an agony of fear in case he looked up to see Sykes on the other side of the river, Kimble escorted Ritchie back to the smallholding he shared with his elderly father, wife and small daughter. Henry’s wrist was puffing up in front of him. Having checked that it wasn’t broken, Kimble left instructions on the treatment and use of a sling.

“I’m sorry I can’t stay to see to it,” Kimble added, resisting the urge to look out the window one more time. “Don’t forget what I told you about not using that arm until the swelling goes down.” He pressed a curl of notes into Etta Ritchie’s hand. “The accident was my fault. Make Henry take this,” he murmured to her, then he was gone.

“Well,” said Henry, shading his eyes as they watched Kimble gallop away. “At first I assumed the doctor was hurrying to a confinement or some such, but I reckon that’s a man riding as if he has the devil at his shoulder.”

“He looked terrified for his life,” confirmed Etta grimly. “I don’t understand. He’s a good man. Who’d wish him harm? Maybe we should have offered our help.”

“If he’d wanted it, he knew to ask,” said Henry Ritchie senior. A man of few words, he shuffled off to get the shotgun his son kept in case of trouble.

 

Gerard awoke to an incredible sense of well-being. Opening his eyes, he had to close them rapidly when he was dazzled by sunlight. Stretching out, smiling to himself, his eyes flew open when he realized his arm was no longer wrapped around his lover. He pushed up onto his elbows, staring at the cold empty space beside him as if expecting Richard magically to reappear. He listened carefully but knew Richard must have left without waking him. Then he noticed the chain wound around his fingers.

He knew he was grinning like a fool but there were no witnesses and he had every right. Richard had given him his Saint Christopher. ‘It’s real precious to me. I’ve never been without it.’

A love-token. Richard had left him an honest-to-goodness love-token.

Happiness bubbling up inside him, Gerard slipped the chain around his neck. This was the chain Richard always wore. He fancied there was some lingering scent of the other man on it, but the whole damn room smelled of Richard, that wonderful warm musky smell that drove him to distraction.

Naked except for the token of Richard’s feelings and his pants, Gerard went downstairs, noting the absence of Kimble’s clothes. Richard would need to be at home so people knew where to find him in an emergency. The living room wasn’t the mess he’d expected it to be. His clothes and the wash-cloth certainly hadn’t been left folded neatly on the leather couch. The jar that had contained the herbal cream they had used sat in the terra cotta bowl. It was then that Gerard saw the white square of paper propped on the mantelpiece. The sight of his name written across the front sent a shiver down his spine. Shrugging aside his sense of foreboding, he unfolded the letter.

Sam,

What I said last night still stands. I don’t think I’ll ever be returning to Cooksville, for a number of personal reasons.

The fact is, I should never have started this but you’re one fine looking man and I’m only human. I wanted you from the first second I set eyes on you, though I guess you know that. Maybe now that my itch has been scratched I can get back to normal. I hear Monterey has some real pretty women and a whorehouse that’s beyond belief, so I guess I’ll head on over there. It’s a pity you have to stick around Cooksville, we could have had a fine old time with those obliging little ladies.

I hope you’ll understand why I have to do this. But you’re smart - you must have figured out this could never have been a regular thing.

You take care now. Give Euphemia and Ann a kiss from me.

Richard

Richard was gone?

‘I can’t stay here.’ Richard hadn’t been talking about this house last night, he’d meant Cooksville.

Richard was gone and he wasn’t ever coming back. After what had just happened between them, Richard had left him for some poxed whore in Monterey.

The numbness which had seized Gerard began to recede. His belly was full of ice while his throat and head seemed to burn and his eyes felt so hot he was barely able to focus. When he stared at the sheepskin rug it was as though a mist surrounded it, yet he could see details with incredible clarity: the stiffened strands in the center that he knew had been caused by his lover - by Kimble - as he had spilled himself.

Richard was gone and it had all been a lie.

The immensity of his anger drumming in his ears and making him shake, Gerard headed upstairs, taking the stairs two and three and a time. If it was a lie he would purge his home of every trace of the lying son-of-a-bitch. Bed stripped, he manhandled the mattress down the stairs and out of the house. He dropped the bedding and sheepskin rug on top of it, along with his clothes, the bowl, the washcloth and even the remnants of the jar of cream - everything that might ever remind him of the faithless bastard who had stolen his heart, then ground it into the dirt as less than nothing.

Throwing the contents of an oil lamp over the pile, he set light to it, almost singeing himself in the resultant blaze. The mattress swiftly hollowed out as Gerard continued to empty over it oil from the barrel he kept in the outbuilding. Flames shot up, forcing him back for a while. He felt something hot sting the skin over his collar-bone and looked down to find he was still wearing Kimble’s Saint Christopher. Hearing a low animal sound it was a moment before he realized he had made it. Stifling the noise against his clenched fist, he gritted his teeth so hard it made his jaw ache. So much for the love-token. Wrenching the chain from his neck he tossed it into the fire but it fell short, landing in a heap of still glowing ashes.

If Kimble had walked back into the courtyard Gerard would have beaten him bloody. But he was superstitiously afraid of melting down the small token which had kept Richard safe for most of his life. Muttering under his breath at his own sentimentality, he used a stick to flick the chain out of the ashes, catching it in his hand only to drop it when he burned his fingers. This time he had the sense to leave the medallion to cool before he examined it. Several links of the chain had become welded together and the disk was no longer perfectly round. As he rubbed at the blackened metal the chain fell apart. He nodded, the fate of Richard’s token somehow echoing what had happened to their relationship.

Some relationship, he reminded himself.

The sound of the courtyard gates opening shot Gerard’s head up, raw anger on his face but it was only Renfro. Without being aware what he was doing Gerard stuffed the broken chain and the blackened medallion into the rear pocket of his pants and glared at his friend.

“You better have good reason to come barging in uninvited,” he snapped.

Taken aback by the inimical expression on Gerard’s face, Renfro blinked. In all the years he’d known Sam Gerard he’d only seen him like this twice. And both times men had died. “This can’t wait,” he said, his tone conciliatory.

“It’s gonna have to. Now I’m finished out here, I need to clean up. We’ll talk then. No, it can wait, Cosmo.” There was a note in Gerard’s voice which made Renfro pause, even in his present mood.

Leaving Renfro in the parlor while he cleaned up and dressed fully, Gerard went back downstairs only when he was sure he had his expression under control.

Renfro was pacing the parlor with untypical impatience. “So what brings you here?” Gerard asked, still fighting the urge to lash out. He wondered how many hours head start Kimble had, half of a mind to go after him.

Wheeling around, a number of emotions fighting for supremacy, Renfro blurted out, “Richard Kimble.”

For one crazy second Gerard wondered if Renfro could read his mind. Warily he shook his head. “What - exactly - about him?”

“He’s left young Annabelle McDonald for dead and skipped town. He took the first ferry out, looking terrified, Henry said. And he should know. Richard lost control of Red and Henry ended up with a badly sprained wrist. It’s swollen like a bladder.”

Gerard stared at the other man in disbelief. “Richard? You mean Richard Kimble?”

“I don’t like it either, Sam. But the evidence against him is undeniable. He needs to be caught before he hurts any other young girl. I found Annabelle unconscious with her face bloodied and her clothing messed. She’d crawled into the shelter of some undergrowth not twenty yards from Kimble’s house. Later I saw the scuff marks where he must have dragged her indoors just before he set light to the place. It’s a miracle Annabelle got out with no more than singed hair and a few scorch marks before the house came down on top of her.”

“Set light?” repeated Gerard, his mental faculties slowed.

“Uh, yeah.” Renfro rubbed his chin. “Did I forget to tell you your old house has burned down? Kimble torched it. There’s nothing left but some ashes and charred beams. I invited Kimble into my house and trusted him with Caroline and the children. Jeez, Sam, it makes my blood run cold.”

“But what possible motive could Richard have?”

“We both know some men don’t need more excuse than the fact there’s a young and attractive young woman around who they can’t have.” Renfro’s usually warm eyes were cold and unforgiving.

“Was Annabelle forced?” Gerard hardly recognized his own voice.

“No. I left Sam Beckett tending to her.”

“What were you doing out at Richard’s place so early in the day?”

“Susannah McDonald’s youngest is real sick. Around two in the morning she sent Annabelle for the doctor. When neither Annabelle or Kimble arrived Susannah got frantic and drove herself and the rest of the kids over to Beckett and Calavicci’s place. While Beckett tended to the baby - he had a potion which seemed to do the trick - Al checked the route Annabelle would have taken, while I went straight to Quintum’s Leap. I got there soon after dawn. What’s left of the house was still smoking. The yard was a mess of tracks and Red was gone from the stable. It was a good ten minutes before I spotted Annabelle. I went straight down to the ferry because the Ritchies have got a buckboard. That’s when I learned that Richard had taken the first ferry. Apparently he was wet and muddy. His shirt was torn and there were red marks on his throat. Henry said he looked terrified.”

“Richard spent the night here,” said Gerard quietly, pain lancing through him as he remembered how Kimble’s shirt had come to get torn and who had inflicted those marks on his neck. “He came over for that game of poker we’d planned to have and stayed over because of the storm.”

“What time did he leave, Sam?”

“Should I know? He was gone when I got up.” The sense of betrayal which washed over him was as immediate as it had been when he read that damn letter Richard had left him.

“It must’ve been pretty early if you had time for a fire in the yard. I found Kimble’s watch right under Annabelle’s hand. I know Kimble had it in church yesterday because he set it off during the service.”

Gerard looked up as he heard the sound of a horse approaching at a gallop. He opened the front door in time to see Noah Newman dismounting so fast he almost tripped over his own feet.

“Sam!” Newman left a trail of mud in his wake as he hurried across the veranda. He was paler than usual, his hair a riotous tangle of curls; this morning his deceptive air of languor seemed to have deserted him.

“I take it you have some news?” said Gerard dryly.

“You could say that. Is Cosmo still here?”

“He’s inside.” Gerard stepped back to allow the younger man to precede him.

Renfro was already on his feet. “What have you got, Noah?”

“I couldn’t find Richard anywhere but word must have leaked out that he was a suspect because a bunch of hotheads went out to Quintum Leap. George, Pete and Clem Fischer, along with a few ranch hands. They’ve been drinking and talking wild about how to deal with men like that. While they were talking lynch mob, I think it was just piss and wind.”

“Shi-it,” Gerard swore softly. Mumblings about stringing people up weren’t to be taken too seriously - at least not from the townsfolk of Cooksville, who were a damn sight more law-abiding than most he could name. But Fischer had been a problem on more than one occasion. He ran a hand through his hair, worry turning the creases of his face into deep grooves. Licking dry lips, he absently scratched his beard stubble as thoughts ran rapidly through his mind. “Fischer’s a loose cannon at the best of times. Have you heard how Annabelle is?”

“She’s still unconscious - could stay that way for days. She might never wake up. Sam and Caroline managed to stop the bleeding but Annabelle looks terrible. We could sure do with Kimble right now,” Newman added, his expression somber.

Renfro snorted. “Right.”

Newman gave him a considering look. “I don’t believe Richard attacked her.”

Renfro shrugged. “That hardly matters right now.” He stood up, a determined look on his face. “Come on, Noah. We need to find Kimble before Fischer does. I’ll take the ferry crossing, you stay in town.”

By this time Gerard had full control of his errant emotions. “I’ll find Kimble. And I’ll bring him back to Cooksville if I have to drag him feet first.”

Surprised by an unfamiliar note in Gerard’s voice, Newman looked up but when he saw the expression in the older man’s eyes he had the sense to keep quiet.

“You?” Renfro frowned at him.

“You and Noah are needed here.”

“It’s my job to - ”

“No, it’s mine. Don’t argue with me on this, Cosmo. I need to know you and Noah are here asking questions and finding out who in the area attacked Annabelle. The river’s still pretty low. I reckon I’ll be able to use the ford at the back of my West Pasture. That route must cut off a good twelve miles to Tarrville. I’ll see if I can’t get there before Kimble.”

“But you’re supposed to be taking things easy,” Renfro protested.

“You think I’m not capable of finding one unarmed medic?” countered Gerard with a challenging look.

“Yeah, yeah, could whip your weight in wildcats,” muttered Renfro.

“Since I won’t have to, you can quit playing mother hen. Now get the hell out of my house, I have to get ready to leave.”

“You’ll telegraph when you find Kimble?” That Renfro believed Gerard would do so was never in question.

Gerard gave him a patient look. “We’ll probably be back tonight, tomorrow at the latest. I’ll be home before any damn telegram.”

 

Favoring his sprained arm, which was throbbing uncomfortably, Ritchie felt his skin crawl as the one-armed man boarded the ferry, although the stranger had, as yet, done nothing worse than nod in his direction.

“I heard you had a new doctor in town. I’ve been having problems with my stump.” The man gestured to the pinned sleeve of his jacket, which seemed to emphasize the absence of a limb.

Feeling as though those disquieting eyes were seeing clear through to the back of his head, Ritchie allowed his jaw to slacken and a dull note to enter his voice. “We do,” he confirmed, his unease growing. Unless he was mistaken that was blood on the man’s collar and some raw looking scratches on his neck.

“Well I never managed to locate him. Where can I expect to find him?”

Certain the other man already knew the information, Ritchie gave it without hesitation, glad to see the far bank approaching. He was grateful to know his Pa was in the house with his shotgun; he might be old and crotchety but he could still bring down jack rabbits at dusk better than most men he knew.

Sykes began to chuckle, a rich, unpleasantly moist sound. “Not any more he don’t,” he said jovially, an unholy light in his eyes. “It burned down earlier this morning.”

It was only as he turned to mount his horse that Ritchie smelled the smoke on him, saw the large knife in a waist holster and understood why Kimble had looked so terrified. So would he if this man was on his trail. Then he saw the bloody scratches raking the man’s forearm.

“That’s terrible,” he said automatically, having difficulty in securing the ferry with only one usable arm. To his relief no-one emerged from the house to help him.

“Fire is. Only it seems to me you ain’t taking the news the way I might expect. What’s your problem, boy?” A pistol appeared in the man’s hand. “You tell me where Kimble is and you tell me fast or I’ll make you regret the day you were born. Clear?”

His mouth dry, his palms wet, Ritchie nodded and dived off the ferry and under the protection of the jetty just as the man swore and fired his pistol.

 

“...then he skedaddled outta here. I shot at the one-armed bastard again but I only hit his hat,” said Ritchie senior with regret.

There was respect in the smile Renfro gave the older man. “You did good all the same, sir. Thanks to you and Henry it’s pretty obvious who was behind the attack on Annabelle and setting Quintum’s Leap on fire.” He turned as a horse galloped up, Noah throwing himself out of the saddle.

“Cosmo, Annabelle’s regained consciousness. She said she’d just got to Quintum’s Leap when this one-armed man came out of the shadows and grabbed her, demanding to know what she’d done with Kimble. She explained why she was there. He hit her, hard. Next thing she knew she’s inside the house and this one-armed man is emptying the kerosene lamp and firing the place. Luckily he never tried to ra - ” Newman saw Etta Ritchie behind her husband, looked self-conscious and amended what he had been about to say. “Never tried to molest her. She recovered consciousness in a burning house, but managed to crawl free into the shelter of that undergrowth round the side. She swears she saw the man in front of the house, watching it burn. Kimble wasn’t even there. Richard’s innocent.”

Renfro slumped onto the nearest chair. “Thank God,” he muttered, wiping his face with his hand. It was a moment before he looked up. “I hated to think the worst of Richard,” he explained.

Newman patted him on the shoulder. “I know.”

“How is Annabelle?” asked Etta, anxiety plain in her brown eyes.

“She’s got a bump on her head, a black eye, cuts, bruises and is crying fit to bust because her hair’s been singed off pretty bad. If the noise she was making is any indication, she’s fine. It didn’t stop her from holding on to Max Fischer like a lifeline. I think the pair of them did a lot of growing up last night. Annabelle’s a brave girl.”

Seeing Ritchie shivering as he cradled his hurt arm, Renfro said, “Henry, you get that arm seen to and change into some dry clothes.”

“We could all use some coffee, too,” said Etta practically.

“With a shot of something warming in it,” added Ritchie senior. “Hold up, Henry. I’ll give you a hand while Etta sees to our guest.”

 

Dressed in dry clothes, and with a medicinal whiskey inside him and another in the glass he was holding, Henry Ritchie glanced out the window. “I just hope that one-armed devil has really gone. The thought of Etta and the baby out here while he’s on the loose makes my blood run cold. I tell you, Cosmo, he’s loco.”

Renfro nodded somberly. “I’d have to agree with you. It’s my guess he’s long gone. After Richard, I’m afraid. Though Lord knows why. Until that swelling goes down you’re going to find it difficult to manage the ferry. Why don’t I have a word with Alex and a couple of his friends? They could operate the ferry, leaving you to rest up with your family. They could sleep out in the stable so you have the reassurance of some extra manpower around the place. Or you could all come into town and stay with Caroline and me. It’ll be kinda cramped but you’d be real welcome.”

Etta Ritchie stepped forward to smile at him. “We know that, deputy. And we thank you for the offer but no crazy man is driving me from my home. But we’d appreciate the help and company of Mr. Scully and his friends until Henry’s arm is better. I sure hope that little girl hasn’t taken any lasting harm.”

“Me, too,” said Renfro. “I’ll send Alex straight out here.” Tipping his hat to her, he headed back to town.

He and Newman arrived in Cooksville to discover that Fischer and his two surviving brothers had ridden out to bring Kimble to justice. They had taken a home-made noose and plenty of whiskey with them. Renfro and Newman wasted no time in publicizing the truth of what had happened out at Quintum’s Leap and distributing a full description of Annabelle McDonald’s attacker. The way some folk leapt on the obvious there was a risk some numbskull would take Annabelle’s attacker to be Calvin Logan otherwise.

It was early evening before the two men had the opportunity to take stock.

“I thought we would have heard from Sam by now,” mused Newman as he sipped some long-stewed coffee.

“Not if Richard didn’t go to Tarrville,” pointed out Renfro.

“It could be days, weeks even before we get our doctor and marshal back,” said Newman, running a hand through his already untidy hair.

“I’m more concerned about whether they’ll make it back,” said Renfro heavily, his forehead creasing with worry. “Henry was right, Sykes is loco. I’ve been sending wires out to lawmen around the county about a one-armed man and from the replies I’ve already received there’s a pattern forming which I don’t like the look of. In every town Sykes has visited there have been women murdered. Their bellies ripped open. Annabelle was lucky.”

Newman looked sickened. “What kind of man attacks women?”

“Pregnant women, in two of the cases,” said Renfro heavily. “I tell you Noah, I ever get my hands on this Sykes... I’ve sent his description out across half the State but if he’s escaped justice this long I don’t hold out much hope.”

Newman eyed the older man shrewdly. “What’s really troubling you, Cosmo?”

“I’m scared for Sam,” he said quietly.

Sykes doesn’t go after lawmen. Just unarmed women.”

“Sykes is loco. And like a rabid dog he’ll turn on whoever tries to bring him in. I tell you, I’m worried for Sam.”

“What about Richard?”

“Oh, don’t get me wrong. I like him, too. But Richard will have Sam guarding him. All Sam has behind him is a crazy man who won’t think twice about shooting him in the back.”

 

The following day Gerard wired them from the town of Endeavor.

“What the hell’s he doing there?” exclaimed Renfro with exasperation.

“Why don’t you read the wire and find out,” suggested Newman with commendable patience.

Recognizing that the younger man was on the point of doing him bodily harm out of sheer frustration, Renfro had the sense to read the wire out loud.

“‘Kimble not in Tarrville or Endeavor stop Will pursue until capture him stop Gerard stop ’ Would it hurt him to give us a few more details?” complained Renfro, relief shining from him.

“Just tell him to come home - and to bring Richard back with him,” said Newman.

It took Renfro, who had never achieved Gerard’s enviable ability to get straight to the point, almost thirty minutes to compose a wire that wouldn’t bankrupt the marshal’s office.

“‘Kimble innocent of all charges stop Crimes committed by one-armed man called Sykes who rides a pinto stop Sykes still at large and believed to be heading after Richard stop The man’s loco stop Be careful stop’”

“Cosmo, you send that and Sam will - ”

“Noah, just - ”

“Pete, send this amended - ”

“Too late, Noah,” said Pete with the cheerfulness of one who was always first with the news. “I was sending the wire as you dictated it. And there’s no call to glare at me that way. I can’t spend all night waiting on Cosmo to compose a wire that makes you both happy.”

 

The clerk in the telegraph office at Endeavor looked at the wire he had just received for Marshal Samuel Gerard, then shrugged and set it to one side in case Gerard should return to town as precipitately as he had left it. While the marshal was obviously on a wild-goose chase after an innocent man, there wasn’t too much he could do about it. Or not without spending some of his own hard-earned pay to send the wire on to the next town, which he had no intention of doing.

Chapter Text

NINE

 

San Angelo was just as dusty and inhospitable as Kimble remembered it from when he’d passed through about three years ago. The only difference was that the shacks which passed for buildings looked even more rundown. He’d set a false trail so complicated that even he couldn’t remember all the twists and turns he had made. First he’d concentrated on leaving a trail to Monterey. At least three people in Blytheton had overheard him tell a fourth person he was going there so, with luck, Sykes would pick up that trail and not follow him to this godforsaken spot.

He was still wondering why he bothered with it all. During the last five years it had become second nature to plant false trails. Even his name was a damn lie; the person he had been born had died when he was nine years old. Richard Kimble was someone he felt comfortable being, as if he was wearing a favorite pair of boots. He kind of liked Richard Kimble but he was just a role he played, the same as Jack Ryan and David Halloran and all the other names he’d assumed. What was he like, his real self? Was he the man who jolted awake, sweating from recurrent nightmares about death, the man who felt a deep inner need to alleviate suffering in others - or was that just another role he was playing? He felt like a trickster who insinuated himself into people’s lives, always lying to them when, for a brief period, he became their friend, their doctor, their blacksmith, or their carpenter before he upped and left town - often without a word of explanation.

The unhappy confusion of his thoughts had brought him to San Angelo as if he deserved no better. He headed for the hotel, paying for a room in the building which looked ready to collapse about his ears, before he ordered a meal. Sitting at a lopsided table he chewed beef that fought back every time he sank his teeth into it, along with a greasy slop that could have once been some sort of vegetable and something that tasted vaguely like biscuit.

Kimble swallowed the mess down. It tasted foul. It didn’t matter.

Nothing mattered any more.

oOo

 

Gerard cursed and turned Maverick away from the small but bustling community and headed back to the town he had left five hours ago. Nobody had seen Kimble here, or in the last three towns that were the likeliest places a man would stop at if he was heading for Monterey. What the hell was Kimble up to? If he didn’t know better he would have said the man was trying to leave a false trail - he was pretty good at it, too.

That gave Gerard pause for thought. He reined in Maverick while he considered various ideas. For instance, how did a respectable doctor get so good at leaving a false trail? Of course, Richard wasn’t a fool; knowing he would be under pursuit, he could simply be using his brain rather than past experience.

Kimble a rapist? The weight of evidence was against him and he’d already proved himself to be a lying son-of-a-bitch but Richard hadn’t attacked Annabelle. He might not know a whole lot about what lay behind that mask Richard adopted but he was certain of that much.

Gerard blinked. It was the first time he had admitted that, even to himself. Deriding his own romanticism, he set Maverick underway again. Annabelle had probably been attacked by someone passing through town. Richard couldn’t know she’d been attacked or he would have stayed to tend to her. He might be a faithless bastard but he was a fine doctor, dedicated to healing the sick. But if he didn’t know about the attack on Annabelle who was he running from? And looking terrified, according to Henry Ritchie - and Henry wasn’t a fanciful man.

Me, Gerard accepted, acid eating at him. Richard’s running from me. And he’s right to be afraid.

From his high vantage point he stared at the distant mountain ranges which would take him even further north. Plenty of men had hidden themselves out here over the years, but not Kimble, instinct insisted. Whether Richard was aware of it or not, he needed to be amongst people. Turning Maverick around, Gerard followed the instinct which rarely steered him wrong and headed south.

So Richard had ‘scratched’ his ‘itch’ had he? Well, lucky Richard because he, Sam Gerard, hadn’t even begun to rub his. He’d do a lot more to Richard than scratch his damn itch. They’d be picking up the pieces clear to Mexico by the time he’d finished with him. Nobody did to him what Richard had done before walking out of his life to lead him on a wild goose-chase all over the damn state. Gerard pushed his hat more firmly on his head and rode on, a menacing figure dressed all in black, on a black horse.

oOo

 

Kimble stayed longer in Hope than he had planned thanks to two boys with inquisitive minds, an experiment on water displacement, and an old well. He tended to the boys, then went with them to explain to their father why the youngest, Niles, had almost drowned and had a broken arm, and his sibling, Frasier, a lump on his head.

 

It was the same nightmare Kimble always had. The crowd screamed at him, cussing and kicking him as he was dragged towards the tree with its sturdy bare branches and the noose hanging from one of its lower limbs. How could something so obscene look so natural, the rope hanging from the branch as if it belonged there?

He and his brothers used to tie a rope from the branch of the tree outside their house - or his brothers did at any rate. They always said he was too young to climb trees. Louis was the biggest of the Jones boys, so he always did the climbing; Al tied the wood onto the rope because he was real good at tying knots. He’d watch them have their fun, patient because it meant he could be sure the rope wouldn’t snap when it was his turn. They’d push him so he was swinging high, higher than the top of Louis’ head. Now Louis was swinging, his face purple and distorted as the noose tightened around his neck. Al was next, his legs kicking wildly as he choked to death. The crowd were wild-eyed, screaming at his brothers. Fingers dug into his arm, pulling him towards the tree where he would swing with his brothers for the last time. He looked around, trying to find a face that wasn’t twisted with hate. Then people started crying.

This wasn’t supposed to happen. Something was wrong. He looked up to find the third noose, meant for him but it was already occupied by a black-haired man. The black horse beneath the man was driven away and the bowed head rose to reveal a familiar face. The mouth that should have been smiling was gaping open as Sam struggled for air while the life was strangled out of him.

Kimble tried to scream but no sound escaped. There was a rope around his neck, the rough hemp convincing him this was no dream.

Eyes flying open, he surged up knocking the man to the floor before yanking away the noose. Another man drew his gun while a third yelled for the second man not to shoot. The warning came too late. There was the crack and whine of a single shot which narrowly missed Kimble’s head. The second man dropped his gun, a startled look on his face. Kimble lunged for the fallen weapon and brought it up, waving it in the general direction of the three men, whom he belatedly recognized as the Fischer brothers from Cooksville.

“Turn around and get outside, now,” he commanded.

“You filthy bastard! Little Annabelle McDonald is probably dead because of you,” choked George Fischer, purple with impotent rage. “Beaten to pieces, most likely forced first. You’re a dead man, Kimble. If we don’t catch up with you, Marshal Gerard will. He’ll most likely hang you himself to save wastin’ a bullet.”

“I don’t know anything about an attack,” said Kimble blankly. “Did somebody send you after me? A one-armed man?” Now that the three brothers had their backs to him he hastily pulled on his boots, grateful he had fallen asleep fully clothed. While still shocked by the attack, the instinct to survive had taken over.

“No-one sent us,” snarled Fischer. “We don’t need anyone’s permission to see justice done.”

Footsteps sounded on the stairs outside.

“Pete, open the door, then the three of you get outside,” commanded Kimble. Once the door was opened he booted George, the last to move, out the room, slammed the door shut and turned the key in the lock, although he knew it would buy him only a little time. Tossing the gun onto the bed, he grabbed his carpet bag and climbed out of the window, pulling himself up onto the roof.

 

Inside the hotel a flame-haired woman was holding a shotgun on the Fischer brothers. Two men came running up the stairs.

“This where the commotion came from, Reggie?” the youngest man asked, the light shining on the round spectacles he wore.

The woman spoke to him, though her eyes remained fixed on the brothers. “Billy, go see if Mister Walker is all right in there.”

Billy tried to open the door when his knocking gained no response. The woman tossed him a bunch of keys then looked up and down the three men she was holding at gunpoint, a deadly look in her eyes, though her face was serene.

“Well, I don’t rightly know what we have here. What I can see is three suspicious lookin’ characters, one of whom is reaching into his pocket. You want to keep that hand, you take it out of your pocket, nice and slow.”

The hand was brought back into the open, empty. “Look, missy - ”

“That’s Miss Love to you,” she told him in the kind of southern drawl that made sinners of all men. “Now, you mind telling me what you’re doing outside the room of one of my guests?” Her gaze fixed on George Fischer, who looked ready to make a break for the stairs. “Where’s your gun?”

“Kimble has it,” he told her sullenly.

“And which of you fine gentlemen is Kimble?”

“Kimble’s the man inside the room. He’s wanted for rape, and probably murder.”

“Is that so?” She glanced to the left as the door to Kimble’s room was swung open slowly. The room was empty.

“Dammit! You better go fetch your sheriff or whoever the hell is the law in this town,” Fischer exploded. The rifle pointing at his stomach stopped him from taking off.

“Looks to me like you wanted to take the law into your own hands,” Miss Reggie remarked as she spotted the noose on the bedroom floor.

At that moment another man joined the group. He coughed in a pointed fashion, twitching his lapel to ensure the metal star pinned to his coat was noted. “I’ll take over now, Miss Love.”

The woman gave the sheriff a thorough look over before she lowered the shotgun.

Several voices began to speak at once.

 

Kimble ran, hiding in the shadows when he could, grateful for the dark and near-deserted streets. Once in the livery stable he saddled up Red and was about to leave when he heard the sound of a gun being cocked from the stable door. He turned around to find the livery stable owner holding a rifle on him; his expression made it clear he had heard about the incident at the hotel.

“Doctor Walker, you look as though you’re planning to leave in a hurry.”

Kimble sighed and slumped against the stable wall, too tired to lie.

 

Gerard entered Hope in time to see the Fischer brothers being marched across the street. George hailed him like a long lost friend - until he recognized Gerard’s expression, at which point he tried to hide behind the sheriff, who gave Gerard a nervous look.

Gerard followed the sheriff into his office. Fifteen minutes later, after scaring the hell out of the Fischer brothers - and the sheriff, although that had been unintentional - he headed for the hotel. After five minutes with George he knew beyond doubt that none of the Fischer family had been responsible for burning Quintum’s Leap. They had their faults but striking women wasn’t one of them. They were dumb, hot-headed and too prone to wanting to take the law into their own hands but he was convinced they would return to Cooksville without any more trouble. The Fischer family hadn’t terrified Richard into fleeing. So was all this fear and hurry on Richard’s part just to escape his unwanted attentions?

His eyes bleak, Gerard stiffened his shoulders and headed into the hotel. He was surprised to discover the owner was a woman.

“Look, marshal, I have no idea who Richard Kimble is,” she told him impatiently. “The man who took that room was Richard Walker. A doctor and a gentleman, although the two don’t always go together. A Texan gentleman.”

“Texan,” exclaimed Gerard involuntarily. A moment later he remembered the bogus accent Kimble had been using in the Ablution Suite that first time. It hadn’t been a tease then but a man trying to acquire a new disguise. The cynical son-of-a-bitch had been using him from the first day.

“That’s right, marshal, Texan. Is he a friend of yours?”

A disquieting smile crossed Gerard’s face. “No, ma’am.”

“I see.” She cocked her head, studying him. “Well, he was definitely a Texan. Just like you.”

“No, ma’am. He’s nothing like me. Let me see if I’ve got this right. Three men try to murder a fourth - Kimble, or Walker if you prefer - and you just let him walk out of here?” goaded Gerard, interested to see what reaction he could provoke from this formidable and very beautiful woman. The look he received could have melted rock.

“That’s not how it happened. The door was locked. By the time it was opened he’d taken off. What was I supposed to do?”

He’d always found courage and beauty to be an irresistible combination. Gerard nodded, his face unconsciously softening into a smile.

Under it’s influence the fire left Reggie Love’s eyes. The marshal was one fine looking man, though he really should smile more often. “Perhaps the men from your town mistook Doctor Walker for this Richard Kimble you’re so anxious to find. The man who took that room was no child rapist. You ask any of the dozen or so people he’s treated since he’s been in town. You ask Martin Crane, Richard saved his son’s life. Hope doesn’t have a doctor and Richard was a Godsend. He doesn’t even wear a gun. He took a shotgun from one of the men who’d just tried to lynch him. But he still chose to leave the gun behind. I don’t think he’s capable of hurting a fly.”

“Then why did he run?” Gerard asked.

Reggie gave him an impatient look. “If a bunch of drunken fools tried to lynch you, would you stick around for introductions?” She smiled at him then. “You, on the other hand, don’t need an introduction. I’ve heard all about Marshal Gerard. Tell me, are all the men in your town as dumb as those I’ve met so far?”

“I like to think not,” Gerard said tiredly. Even his anger had deserted him. All he could think about was Richard fighting off three men who were trying to lynch him. “I get the impression you liked Doctor Kim - Walker.”

Miss Love’s expression grew thoughtful. “What woman could be immune to that charm? I liked him,” she confirmed a beat later. “And if you believe him capable of that dreadful crime then you’re at least as dumb as those drunken jackasses who tried to lynch him.”

Smiling faintly, appreciating her astringency, if not the insult, Gerard bid her farewell and turned to leave.

“Marshal?” she called impulsively.

He turned back to her. “Yes, ma’am?”

“If you catch up with Richard, tell him to lose the beard.”

Gerard paused. No-one had thought to mention to him that change in Richard’s appearance. “Thank you,” he said quietly.

Cool eyes traveled over him. “I’m not doing it for your benefit.”

Gerard’s mouth twisted slightly. “Well, at least I got that much right.” He turned away so fast he missed the way her expression softened.

 

His boys packed off to bed, Martin Crane had just brewed coffee when the thunderous knocking on his door began. Grumbling under his breath, he went to answer it but he kept one foot behind the door as he opened it; Hope wasn’t a town in which to take chances.

“Yeah, what do you want?” he demanded brusquely. The dark-haired stranger scowling at him was trouble with a capital T.

“Are you Martin Crane, the owner of the livery stable next door?”

“I sure as hell hope so since I’m living in his house. Who wants to know?”

“Marshal Samuel Gerard from Cooksville. I’m trying to find Richard Kimble, who may be traveling under the alias of Richard Walker. He’s a doctor. I believe you know him.”

A scowl replaced Crane’s irritated expression. “Oh, yeah. I know Walker. He took off early this evening owing me two day’s stabling for that damn stallion of his. I heard what happened over at the hotel.”

“So did I. Do you have any idea where he might be heading?”

“He didn’t confide in me. Charity maybe. It’s about twenty-five miles east. Walker said he was thinking about heading north for San Francisco and I told him there’s a train that leaves for there from Charity once a week. Next train’s tomorrow I think.”

“Thank you for your help, sir.”

Crane watched the marshal set off at a canter and closed the door, before setting the bolts. He entered the parlor to find a rather pale Doctor Walker - or Kimble - gazing at his eldest son with a bemused look on his face.

“Doctor Walker, perhaps you would like some coffee? While the beverage Dad produces leaves a lot to be desired you may find it soothing.”

“Coffee would be good,” Kimble said weakly.

Staring after the boy as he left the room, he turned to Crane, his shaking hands tucked into his pockets. “How old did you say Frasier is?” Talking about the boy was easier than accepting that Sam had been following him all this time. It was a continency which had never occurred to him. Hearing Sam’s voice just now, indistinct as it had been, had been like a knife through his heart, the longing to see him acute.

“Ten going on fifty. I still haven’t figured out who Frasier takes after. I used to tease my wife by asking if she’d been playing fast and loose with an English lord.” Crane took a seat opposite the other man but made no attempt to break the growing silence, studying the doctor’s face instead.

Lost in thought, Kimble wasn’t aware of being under surveillance. He knew why Gerard was after him. Having opened up his closely guarded heart only to wake to that damn letter, Sam would want blood. Not that he could remember exactly what he had said but it wouldn’t have been pretty.

He hadn’t wanted to hurt Sam, but then he hadn’t let himself think about Sam’s feelings; he’d had enough trouble dealing with his own. But Kimble hugged to himself the shred of comfort that came from having been loved by Sam Gerard, whatever Sam’s feelings for him might be now. No-one could take that away from him, not even Sam himself.

But the Fischer brothers had said Sam was after him because of the attack on Annabelle. Sam believed he could attack a young girl...

A sound made Kimble look up to see that Frasier had returned.

Taking the coffee from the boy, Crane firmly bid his son good night and waited until he had gone upstairs before he spoke again.

“That was Marshal Gerard at the door. He was looking for you.” He was interested to note that the doctor already knew that. “Even this far from Cooksville we’ve heard of him.”

“Then why didn’t you tell him where I am?” Kimble asked in a tight-sounding voice.

“Damned if I know,” said Crane frankly. “Maybe it’s because by having you here I’m already guilty of obstructing justice.” He sighed when Kimble continued to stare at him, a lost look in his eyes. “All right, so I don’t believe you could do what they’re accusing you of. And not because you saved Niles’ life. Well, not just because of that. I think you should give yourself up to Gerard. From what I’ve heard he’s a good man.”

Kimble ran a hand through his hair, a hunted look on his face. “The reason I’m running has nothing to do with what had happened to the girl in Cooksville. I didn’t know anything about that until tonight. You have to believe me!”

“It’s all right,” Crane soothed. “I do. So what are you running from?”

“There’s a man who wants to kill me.”

“Not one of the three who - ?”

“No. This goes further back. Over twenty-five years.”

“Are you wanted by the law?” demanded Crane, his eyes shrewd.

“No.”

“If a man wants to kill you surely that’s something Gerard can help you with?”

Kimble made a choked noise that sounded suspiciously like a sob but when he looked up he was dry-eyed and there was a bitter smile on his lips. “Trust me. The last thing Sam Gerard wants to do is help me. And in the circumstances I can’t say I blame him. But what lies between us is a betrayal of friendship, not a matter of law.” He drank his coffee in a few mouthfuls. “Are you going to let me go or are you going to turn me over to the sheriff?”

Crane snorted. “I wouldn’t put that idiot in charge of a chicken coop, let alone a town. If Gerard was still around I’d be tempted, if only to make sure you were safe. I heard you left your medical bag back in your hotel room. It’ll be locked up in the sheriff’s office by now. Do you need any money so you can replace your medical equipment?”

Kimble had to clear his throat before he could trust himself to reply. “I’ll be fine,” he muttered gruffly, almost overcome by the other man’s kindness.

“Then you stay here while I get you some supplies for the trail. You’ll be best heading out in an hour or so, it should be quieter then - providing the usual bunch of yahoos don’t start up a ruckus. God, I hate this town.”

“You should consider moving to Cooksville,” Kimble murmured, closing his eyes briefly. “A green and pleasant land.”

“You sound like you miss the place.”

There was a world of grief in Kimble’s smile. “It had its attractions.”

 

Gerard had been riding for almost an hour before he wondered why a man whose boy’s life Kimble had saved would be so angry about that same savior owing him a few dollars. Fury surged through him as he realized he’d fallen for a lie when he had been so close to catching Kimble. Turning Maverick around, he headed back to Hope at a gallop.

 

Kimble set an easy pace, trusting Red to pick his way. The full moon enabled him to see the trail, which was level and free of rocks and vegetation. He’d zigzag south before heading west for San Luis. After he’d rested Red for a day or two he’d set off for Arizona. He wasn’t sure what he’d be doing after that; he was running on instinct, which was fine for the short term but not a whole lot of good when it came to making long-term plans.

Did Sam really believe he’d attacked Annabelle - did his friends in Cooksville? How could they believe he’d harm anyone, least of all a child?

But then wasn’t that exactly what he had done?

His expression bleak, trying to push away the memory of that noose around his neck, Kimble continued on his way, one hand unconsciously going to where his Saint Christopher used to sit.

The sound of a galloping horse cut through the silence and Kimble pulled Red some way off the trail, taking cover behind a stand of alder trees while he soothed the stallion. Red was familiar with the hand on the muzzle that meant silence would be rewarded with some treat. Moonlight made identifying the rider easy. In that eerie glow, Sam’s face appeared deathly pale, his black eyes and hair making him a sinister figure - the impression heightened by the tails of the dark coat flaring out behind him like the wings of some great bird of prey. There should have been the baying of hell hounds as he sped by but there was only the beat of hooves and the labored breathing of the black mare. It was a Sam Gerard Kimble had never seen before. There was nothing gentle about this man, the lines of the face harsh, almost cruel: the face of a predator.

The prey remained hidden until that terrifying presence had disappeared from sight and the sound of hoofbeats had faded into the distance.

 

Back in Hope, Gerard paused only to loop Maverick’s reins to the rail outside the livery stable before he hammered on Crane’s door, waking everyone else in the vicinity if the number of people yelling down at him to quit making so much noise was anything to go by. Most of the heads disappeared when Gerard glared up at them, clearly spoiling for a fight.

Eventually Crane opened the door, a rifle in his hand. Seeing who it was he put the weapon down and moved back to let Gerard enter the house. Gerard filled the doorway with his presence, the hallway seeming darker for his being there. Energy crackled beneath the precarious surface calm, leaving the sense of a storm about to break.

“You lied to me.” While soft, his voice should have been classified as a lethal weapon. “I don’t like it when people lie to me, you son-of-a - ” Gerard’s voice cut off when he realized the older man wasn’t alone.

Crane turned to see the pale faces of his sons. As a former sheriff he was a past master at hiding his fear for himself; it wasn’t so easy where they were concerned.

“Let me pack them back off to bed and you can say your piece,” he said with a semblance of calm, relieved to see the effort Gerard was making to control himself in front of the boys. “Frasier, take Niles and yourself back to bed. The marshal and I have something to discuss.”

“I don’t think I should,” the oldest boy said.

Under the influence of that wide-eyed, frightened gaze Gerard made a conscious effort to relax. The child couldn’t have been more than ten years old yet he was facing up to him. The younger boy, who looked to be around seven, moved forward so that he and his sibling formed a protective shield in front of their father.

Crane gave Gerard a slightly embarrassed look and tried to push the boys towards the stairs. Niles gave a sharp gasp of pain and cradled his splinted arm; big eyes looked up pathetically at Gerard from under a shock of blond hair.

Gerard recognized a master manipulator when he saw one - the kid could have given Cosmo’s Louise lessons. While he knew the boys were trying to protect their father in one of the few ways open to them - and he couldn’t fault them for that - it helped that Crane looked about ready to sink red-faced through the floorboards.

Stripping off his black leather gloves, Gerard stuffed them in the pocket of his calf-length duster and took off his hat. “Relax, boys. I’m not intending to hurt your pa, I give you my word. I just have a few questions for him.” The air of danger was gone as if it had never been.

“Doctor Walker has already left town,” Frasier informed him. There was something gleeful in his announcement.

It was all Gerard could do not to smile at this confirmation that Richard had won himself some more friends. Despite his feelings about Kimble he couldn’t kill an inappropriate surge of pride. He nodded at the younger boy’s arm.

“Did Richard fix that?” He could see that by using Kimble’s first name he had lessened the boys’ suspicions about him.

“Yes. We were attempting an experiment on water displacement. I was knocked into a well by a swinging pail. If someone had held onto the pail when they were supposed to - ”

Frasier’s head came whipping round at that. “You were supposed to hold it! I was supposed to lower it! If - ”

“That’s enough!” Crane shook his head at his sons, looking thoroughly exasperated. “Take yourselves off to bed. Sheesh. I bet this Arachnid guy doesn’t have trouble with his kids.”

“That’s Archimedes, father,” Niles interjected.

“Arachnids include spiders, scorpions...” Frasier began what was obviously going to be a long list.

“Do I want to know this? I bet I could beat your fancy Archimedes in a steer-roping contest.”

Frasier winced. “He’s been dead over two thousand years.”

“There you go. I wouldn’t even have to break into a sweat. Now go to bed. Go count arachnids or something.”

Sparing a final warning look at Gerard, the boys left the two men to talk.

“Smart,” Gerard observed, propping one shoulder against the wall.

“Yeah, they are.”

“I meant you,” said Gerard, not missing a beat.

Crane raised his eyebrows in mock surprise. “Me? Nah, I’m just their father. Take off your duster and come on inside. You can ask your questions while I make coffee.” He hesitated, then added, “Does your horse need tending? Only you left here less than two hours ago and - ”

“Damn! I left her hot. You mind if I go see to her?”

“Sure. Help yourself to whatever you need.”

 

Gerard returned fifteen minutes later to find coffee, a generous portion of meatloaf and a slice of apple pie awaiting him. He gave Crane an enquiring look.

“Just some leftovers.” Crane waited until Gerard had taken a mouthful of meatloaf before adding, “Richard took the other half.”

Gerard paused for a second before continuing with his meal.

Crane sat down. “What do you want to know about the doctor? Richard Kimble, is it?”

“That’s right. I need to find him. Eleven days ago a young girl was attacked in Cooksville around the same time Kimble left and - ”

“Richard’s not that kind of man. I’m a pretty good judge of character - I dealt with some real sons-of-bitches when I was sheriff. He’s a good man - a decent man. Hell, he wouldn’t even take the gun I offered him.”

“You offered him a gun?” It was difficult to sound incredulous through a mouthful of meatloaf.

Crane hesitated for a second then blustered, “Yes, I offered him a gun. He has people trying to kill him. A man has a right to protect himself.”

“I’ve taken care of that problem. The men who attacked him will be held here for a week, which should dry them out. Then they’ll be heading back to Cooksville. Fischer knows me well enough not to try to repeat his mistake. He won’t risk touching Kimble again, even if they do stumble across him.”

Crane nodded, taking Gerard’s word for it without hesitation. “You sure you’ve taken care of all the men?” he asked bluntly.

“That I’m aware of.” Gerard’s eyes narrowed. “Do you know of others?”

“Not really. Richard didn’t say much. But I got the impression he’s running from someone. Just keep your eyes open and watch his back.”

“Will you help me find him?”

“Why, so you can wring his neck?”

Gerard flinched, taken aback by how close Crane had got to at least a part of his plans for Richard. A look of grudging respect settled on his face. “Partly,” he growled.

“That’s what I thought,” nodded Crane calmly. “Now here’s the problem I have. Richard clearly needs help. But when I suggested he give himself up to you he told me that the last thing you’d want to do is help him because he’d betrayed your friendship.”

Gerard’s head reared back at that. “Did he now?” He sounded distracted. He pushed aside the remaining piece of meatloaf, leaving the apple pie untouched. “What else did he say?”

“Not much.” Crane rubbed his chin, studying Gerard intently. “Richard needs help and I think he needs someone like you to provide it. Now I don’t know what history you two have that makes him think he can’t go to you for that help, but I think he’s wrong. You may have a grudge against him but it won’t stop you doing what you think is just. Am I right?”

Gerard nodded. “Yes, you’re right. He didn’t attack that girl. It isn’t in him. Yes, he betrayed our friendship and I’m mad enough to beat the shit out of him - but I want to see him safe.”

“He’s one troubled young man,” Crane murmured, still watching Gerard closely.

“I’m trying to take that trouble away. By clearing his name - ”

“It goes deeper than that. Just go easy on him when you see him. Maybe that way you’ll find out what’s really troubling him.”

“To do that I’ll need to know where he’s heading,” Gerard pointed out, tart because he was only human.

“Verity,” volunteered Crane promptly. “It’s about twenty miles south-west of here. You’ll know you’re heading the right way when you come to the river, although it’s little more than a stream this time of year. Don’t drink the water, there’s a ranch that uses it for their cattle and it’ll make you sick.”

Gerard winced. The memory of typhoid fever was uncomfortably close. “I’d better head out,” he said, getting to his feet. “Thanks for your help.”

“Just find Richard and keep him safe. That horse of his is fast but he only has two hours head start.”

Crane walked Gerard to the stable. Without appearing to do so he checked out the mare. She was sleek and obviously well-cared for, greeting her master with a soft whicker before she nudged his shoulder with her nose. Any lingering doubts he had about disclosing Richard’s direction disappeared, Crane of the opinion that a man who looked after his horse could be trusted.

“See you around, marshal,” he said, when Gerard had saddled up.

“Maybe. We could be heading back this way.” Once in the saddle, it was moment before Gerard saw that Crane was offering him a package.

“The remainder of the pie. And a bottle of whiskey. You and Kimble can share it when you get over whatever grudge you’re holding.”

“Thanks.” Gerard stowed the package away.

Crane placed his hand on Maverick’s bridle. “This town of yours, Cooksville. Is it a good place to rear two boys?”

Seeing there was more than a casual interest in the question, Gerard controlled his impatience to be gone. “I can’t think where you’d find better. There are a lot of families with young ‘uns. A good school with talk of building a second. There’s a river so your boys could fish, swim - ” Despite the darkness he could see Crane’s wry smile. “We have a good library,” he amended.

There was a flash of white as Crane grinned. “Wait till I tell the boys. You take care now. And take care of Richard.” He stepped aside.

As Gerard rode out of town Crane wondered if he had imagined the ominous ring to the marshal’s quietly spoken, “Oh, I will.”

Chapter Text

TEN

 

Kimble stayed in Charity only one night, during which he had the worst nightmare of his life. He stood accused in a courtroom where the judge, prosecutor and the jury looked like Sam. And when they took him outside to hang him, every person in the screaming mob wore Sam’s face. Kimble woke with a yell of terror. The banging and cussing coming from the rooms on either side of the one he occupied suggested he had woken everyone in the vicinity. Lurching from the bed, he stood in the center of the darkened room, sweat slick on his skin. It was unbearably hot and he couldn’t remember where he was, or who - only why. Thirsty, he went over to the washstand. There was a dead fly floating in the water in the ewer but he fished it out and drank deeply, before yanking the only chair, a creaky thing of wicker, over to the windows, and opening them as far as they would go.

Charity never faileth, he thought bleakly as he absently scratched the fleabites acquired during the night. He sat listening to the bedsprings creak next door as one of the occupants turned over; the walls were so thin he could hear the series of loud farts followed by a profane complaint in a sleepy voice, then silence. Naked, with his feet propped on the window ledge, Kimble lit a cheroot. But all he could think of while smoking it was Sam’s cheeks hollowing on the cheroot they had shared. The contentment of those quiet summer evenings seemed a very long time ago.

 

Gerard left Verity only when he was satisfied that Kimble had never been to the town. He knew Crane had told him the truth, which meant Kimble had lied to Crane as well.

Now, if he was Kimble, where would he go? Crane had said Kimble had an hour’s start so - Gerard’s eyes narrowed, his mouth a thin line of displeasure. Son-of-a-bitch. Unless Kimble had headed back north the trail should have taken him straight into Gerard’s path. The bastard must have seen him heading back to Hope.

So Kimble would have gone to Charity, the place he would assume Gerard had already checked. Sly, sneaky...

Gerard pushed Maverick on faster.

oOo

 

 

Kimble had been to San Luis twice in the past, the last time a year ago, when his skills as a doctor had made him useful. The family he had stayed with then welcomed him now with open arms. With eleven mouths to feed, including eight children and a grandmother ancient enough to make Miss Lacey look middle-aged, his money made the difference between enough food to fill their bellies, and enough food for several months, plus new clothes for the little ones. That Kimble also provided free medical treatment was an added bonus.

The oldest child, sixteen-year-old Maria, was getting married. The celebration had started early that afternoon and looked set to continue all evening. Kimble stayed as long as he could bear but the laughter and music only intensified his pain. Needing to be alone, he slipped away to his room when he knew his absence would not be noticed.

The depression which had been clinging to him ever since he’d left Cooksville was wearing him down. Lying on his bed in the room he had been given, he found it impossible to remain still, the sound of the celebrations carrying all too clearly from the square.

He was pretty sure he’d given Sykes the slip within a matter of days. Sam was a different matter - if all those stories he’d heard about him in Cooksville were true.

He headed out of town on foot, aiming for the beach. He heard the pound of the surf before he was within sight of the sea. The strong breeze buffeted him as he trudged across the firm-packed sand towards the only landmark, an outcrop of rock which jutted out over the water. Climbing up onto to flat top, he was cold even with his leather duster. Wrapping it around him, he sank down to watching the surf roll in, white spume slapping against the base of the rock and spraying up.

How was it possible to miss one person so much?

 

Gerard headed for the stretch of beach his informant claimed Kimble had been heading for. Spotting the hunched silhouette on a rocky outcrop, he left Maverick to roam, trusting her not to stray. There was no doubt that he’d found his fugitive but something about the other man’s posture made Gerard falter. This wasn’t the teasing, confident charmer from Cooksville. This man sat with his shoulders slumped and his head bowed, as if the weight of his thoughts was weighing it down. There was something desperately lonely about the way he sat hugging his own knees, as though for comfort. The breeze swept over him, making long strands of the brown hair that had been so glossy and beautifully cut in Cooksville whip about his head, revealing the vulnerable hollows at the base of his neck. Gerard blamed his stinging eyes on the strengthening wind coming in off the sea.

Richard looked so damn lost.

Before anger could give way to the treacherous softness unfurling within him, Gerard quickly climbed up onto the rock and settled a heavy hand on a bowed shoulder.

“It’s time to stop running, doctor.”

 

Kimble jerked around to stare in horror at the man looming above him. Shock warred with disbelief, tangling with horror. There was no time to think, only to react and he threw a punch at Gerard, catching him off-balance.

As he fell backwards from the rock, Gerard grabbed a handful of Kimble’s coat, dragging the other man with him. They crashed into the windswept sea twenty feet below.

Lost to panic, Kimble struggled to free himself, choking on water as Gerard’s grip and the weight of his wet clothes dragged him into the cold depths. Fronds of seaweed billowed around them as they struggled, desperation giving Kimble the upper hand. Managing to free himself, he rose to the surface, gulping air into his straining lungs before he struck out for the shore, sheer terror giving him the strength. They weren’t that far from land but the undertow was strong and it took all his strength to escape the deadly drag of the water. Collapsing belly-down where the shore line met the sea he gasped for air. Salt water coated his mouth as he coughed, the stink of wet sand thick in his nostrils.

Only then did he realize he’d left Sam under the water. Laboriously pushing himself to his feet, Kimble turned to check that Gerard was safe.

 

His gut aching from the kick Kimble had delivered in his frantic break for the shore Gerard struggled against the pull of the out-going tide, rage lending him strength. He was standing thigh deep in water when Kimble got to his feet.

Gerard’s face twisted with fury and he surged towards the shore, weariness forgotten. He tackled Kimble to the ground but Kimble was like a roped cougar, writhing with a violence Gerard had seldom encountered. He finally pinned Kimble’s arms beneath him before putting an arm against Kimble’s throat. Slow to acknowledge he was beaten, lack of air finally put an end to Kimble’s struggles.

Gerard froze when he discovered he was straddling Kimble’s thighs, his weight holding the other man captive. Boneless beneath him, there was despair and a desperate kind of hunger on Kimble’s face as he stared up at him. Mesmerized by those haunted hazel eyes, Gerard was unprepared for the knee that drove up into his groin with a ruthless violence. Lacking the breath for more than a choked gasp, he was consumed by pain. Collapsing onto his side, he curled into himself as he was gripped by nausea.

 

Scrambling to his feet, Kimble lurched towards Maverick. Slipping on the sand and weighed down by his sodden clothing, fear leaned him speed. He was sobbing for breath as he caught Maverick’s reins, although he had scarcely run fifty yards. The mare snorted at his unfamiliar scent but remained passive while he pulled himself into the saddle. Not trusting himself to look back, he spurred her in the direction of town.

 

It was almost a minute before Gerard was able to stand and even then he was still hunched and retching. Finally able to straighten fully, he saw evidence that Richard had ridden off on Maverick. His eyes glittering with fury he started back to town. Pain made him awkward and slower than he would have liked. Pulling out his guns, he checked they had not been damaged by their immersion in the sea before raking his fingers through his hair until it was smoothed back, sticky with salt.

 

Leaving Maverick tied to the hitching rail outside the house of the Ramirez family, Kimble ran inside so fast he lost precious seconds while he regained his balance. To his relief the place was empty; everyone was still at the celebration in the plaza, from where the sound of music and fire-crackers could be heard.

Once in the room he had been using for the past week Kimble threw his few belongings into his carpet bag. Leaving money on the bed , he quickly changed into dry clothing. Pulling open the door, his heart leapt to his throat when he saw Gerard heading up the stairs.

Gerard drew his Peacemaker from its holster. “Hands behind your head, doctor. Do it now.”

When Kimble continued to stare at him, Gerard’s voice hardened. “Richard, do you wanna get shot?”

Released from his paralysis of fear, reflex enabled Kimble to slam shut the bedroom door and haul down the ladder which led via a hatchway onto the roof. Pulling himself up onto the gently sloping surface, it was only as he raced across the tiles, clutching the carpet bag to his chest, his other arm out-flung for balance, that he realized he had forgotten to pull the ladder up after him.

The houses in this part of town were built close together and he leapt from one red-tiled roof to the next, only luck and a good sense of balance keeping him from slipping and falling onto the hard-packed earth below. Everyone was at the wedding celebration and he disturbed only some roosting doves, which shot up in his face, almost causing him to overbalance as he headed down the street.

Behind him the crack of feet hitting tiles grew louder as Gerard closed the gap between them. Sheer terror enabled Kimble to find another spurt of energy. He leapt onto a roof a good eight feet lower, barely keeping his balance as tiles skidded and clattered under his feet. His breath sobbing in his throat, from the corner of his eye he saw a dark blur of motion from the roof above him. He turned in time to see a tile break as Gerard landed on it, unbalancing him so that he slid down the steep slope of the roof and fell over the edge before Kimble could attempt to reach him.

There was a sickening thud as Gerard hit the ground, then silence.

 

Everything hurt but it required far too much effort to open his eyes. The cotton ticking of the mattress cover was rough against his bare skin. Odd. He didn’t remember coming to bed.

Hands were running up his legs: ankles, calves, knees, thighs, then cool fingers were at his groin. Wincing, he muttered an incoherent protest when even that delicate touch became uncomfortable. He sighed his relief when the tender area was left alone, wondering if he had imagined the thumb smoothing his hip in a near caress. The hands continued to roam over his body: belly and chest, skimming his ribs and collarbones before starting to check out his left arm. As love-play went this sure was different. Though not exactly unpleasant.

Trying to ease some of his aches, he gasped when pain flared down his shoulder and back. He froze into place until the worst of it had quietened. He sure was bruised, he thought vaguely, too exhausted to make the effort and open his eyes. As something cool and herbal smelling was gently applied to various sore spots, he began to relax. It was kind of nice to be able to let someone else take charge. Good to be able to trust someone. Drifting in and out of a painful semi-stupor he didn’t question the thought.

But his sense of familiarity grew until he forced his eyes to open, peering through his lashes to see a man covering him with a blanket. Gerard’s head pounded and he felt exhausted but he still recognized Kimble, his smile involuntary and warm with welcome. He knew there was something important he needed to say but the more he tried to think the more his head hurt. A faint sound of protest escaped him.

“Ssh, it’s all right, Sam. You’re going to be fine. Just go to sleep. I’ll be here when you wake up,” Kimble promised in that velvet-rich voice Gerard remembered so well.

Frowning, he watched Richard sit on a rickety chair by the side of the bed. His frown smoothed away when his cold fingers were taken in a warm clasp. Despite his pain, he felt strangely content. His eyes closing, he stopped fighting the darkness.

Richard had come home. Tomorrow they could fetch his belongings from Quintum Leap and move him into El Corazón.

 

A donkey brayed, startling Gerard awake. The noise, combined with the brilliance of the morning sun flooding through the window, stirred up the remains of his headache from his fall. Fall?

Trying to rise, he subsided with a choked sound of pain. He had the sense to stay still until his stiffened muscles stopped protesting so violently. When he opened his eyes again he blinked, but his heavily-breathing audience was still there the next time he checked. There were six children of various sizes staring at him with liquid eyes; some full of curiosity, one fearfully, as though waiting for him to spring. It was no fun having a kid look at you like he expected you to eat him for breakfast so Gerard found a smile from somewhere. When the boy took a hasty step backwards he could only presume it hadn’t been too convincing.

A scuffling sound made him look to the left and he saw there was another child, invisible until now because of his size, being held up to see him by a skinny girl child Gerard took to be the boy’s sister; the toddler’s nose was running. A noise made him look back to his right - Kimble was packing a carpet bag. Events of the previous day flooding back, Gerard opened his mouth to curse, met the trusting eyes of a small plump girl and swallowed what he had been about to say.

Recognizing that Gerard was hampered by the presence of their young audience, Kimble took the coward’s option and stayed back.

“Do you need to hide behind children now?” Gerard felt a savage satisfaction when Kimble flinched.

Taking a deep breath Kimble reluctantly approached the bed. “How are you feeling this morning?” His nervousness was apparent in his voice.

“Like I fell off a roof while pursuing a rapist.” Gerard said the worst thing he could think of, the thing that would hurt Kimble the most, wanting Richard to hurt as he had been hurt.

Kimble flinched. “Sam, I - ”

“Spare me.” Only as his hands curled into fists did Gerard realize he was wearing his own cuffs. “You son-of-a- ” At a frightened sound from the nervous-looking boy he choked off what he had been about to say, but his unforgiving gaze bore into Kimble. His voice throbbing with passionate intensity, he vowed, “I’ll kill you. When I catch up with you I swear I’ll kill you. There won’t be any place you can hide where I won’t find you.”

Kimble leaned over him, urgency on his face. “Sam, you have to listen to me. This is for your own good. You have to let me go.”

My good?” Gerard forced himself into silence, afraid what he might otherwise betray.

Kimble returned to packing his few belongings, then distributed the gifts he had bought for the children; but their squeals of delight failed to penetrate the bleakness of his heart. He felt desperately tired, due in part to the night he had spent watching over Gerard, ensuring he really was all right apart from cuts, sprained back muscles and a lot of bruising. Treating Sam’s injuries, he had been conscious of how much worse it could have been. Then he remembered the badly bruised and swollen genitals - an injury he had inflicted during his desperate attempt to escape. But there wasn’t time to grieve over that now. He dragged in a couple of deep breaths, turning to face Gerard only when he felt he had himself under control.

“I have to go,” he said softly.

He repeated his words in Spanish, so that the children would understand. They crowded around him with an affection he would have found touching if he hadn’t felt so dead inside. All except the youngest child, he realized. Juan had managed to scramble up onto the bed and was crawling up the prone man’s body.

Gerard unobtrusively covered his groin with his cuffed hands to protect his already bruised genitals. Reassuring the child in flawless Spanish, his voice was gentleness itself.

Moved, Kimble had to blink rapidly, his heart aching. Sam hadn’t deserved to be treated like this but what alternative did he have? Sykes was on his trail and it was up to him to protect Sam.

Continuing his slow progress, Juan paused when he was sitting on Gerard’s chest to peer into the face of the interesting stranger who had invaded Ricardo’s bed. Juan’s mouth worked as he babbled in a friendly fashion and a thin trickle of drool slid down his chin to drop onto Gerard’s cheek.

Stepping forward, Kimble lifted Juan back onto the floor. Gerard’s inimical gaze remained on Kimble. Unable to help himself, Kimble wiped the drop of saliva from Gerard’s cheek, his index finger drifting down to caress Gerard’s mouth. Teeth snapped and Kimble flinched, stepping away from Gerard, who looked as if he wanted to kill him.

But of course he did. He had said so, hadn’t he? After all, Sam believed he’d fallen in love with a rapist. If only he knew how bad it really was.

Picking up his bag, Kimble turned in the doorway, his troubled gaze lingering on the man imprisoned more by his hurt body than the handcuffs restraining him. “Goodbye, Sam,” he said quietly.

The memory of the hatred blazing from those dark eyes remained with him for a very long time.

 

It took Gerard only five minutes to convince the Ramirez children to fetch his clothes, but another ten to persuade them to leave the room so he could dress. Ironic that these kids should find him more entertaining than Richard had.

To his relief he found the key to the handcuffs in the pocket of his pants. It took him far longer to dress than he had anticipated, his body slow to cooperate with his wishes. Sweating heavily by the time he had pulled on his boots, the leather of which was still damp after its immersion in the sea, his only desire was to lie down.

As he went downstairs a woman entered the kitchen. She smiled shyly and offered him coffee and food, reassuring him that these had been paid for by Ricardo.

Gerard was so taken aback that he almost accepted. Remembering his manners, he thanked her for her hospitality, congratulated her on her family and left the small house. He exhaled with relief when he discovered Kimble hadn’t stolen Maverick, and that she had obviously been well looked after.

Mounting with an involuntary gasp of pain, for a moment he battled with nausea at the agony from his swollen genitals. Eventually he was able to straighten but because it took all his courage just to stay in the saddle his ride out of town was leisurely in the extreme. Gritting his teeth, he coaxed Maverick from a walk to a trot. The pain riding caused made him sweat but he stuck it out. He had enough ground to cover without further delays. While Maverick was without peer when it came to stamina, Red had an advantage over flat terrain at a gallop and Kimble had a head start; there were several directions he could have taken.

After an hour in the saddle none of these issues seemed as important as they had; his back muscles had begun to spasm, locking him in agony. Logic triumphing over emotion, Gerard turned Maverick around and headed back to San Luis.

 

oOo

 

Gerard’s recuperation was hampered by his sense of Kimble slipping further away from him, and not just in the physical sense. Little by little, he was teaching himself to accept that the man he had loved didn’t exist. With every hour that passed he was losing the man he’d thought he known because this man - this liar and cheat - was a stranger to him. It was time to stop thinking with his balls; he had a prisoner to bring in, that was what he did. He would hunt him down and take him back to answer the charges against him.

It was the first time Gerard had lied to himself in a long time and while he tried to deny the fact the knowledge burned him inside, where it didn’t show.

After three days, the swelling in his genitals had subsided enough for him to be able to ride, although he was still aching in a number of places and sporting some spectacular looking bruises from his fall from the roof.

Having bought fresh supplies, Gerard set off. It didn’t take him long to pick up Kimble’s trail; a stallion as fine as Red lingered in the memory of everyone who saw him.

oOo

 

The attraction of the Palace Hotel was that while Toledo could not boast of the amenities of its near neighbor Tucson, the drinks weren’t watered, there were fewer cowhands and rowdies passing through to cause trouble and the girls were clean. Besides, it was the only hotel in town.

Texas accent abandoned and now going under the name Henry Turner, Kimble had been in Toledo for four days. It had been two weeks since he had left San Luis and Sam Gerard and his appearance reflected his current emotional state. He was unshaven, the shadows beneath his hollowed eyes drawing attention to the lifelessness within.

 

Gerard took Maverick to the town’s livery, his pulse quickening when he saw Red in one of the stalls. Having tended to his mare, he wasted no time in heading for the town’s only hotel, where the worried-looking clerk on reception told him no-one by the name of Kimble or Walker had booked a room. Gerard gave an unnerving smile when he heard that a man answering Kimble’s description had arrived four days ago.

“Take me to his room,” he commanded, pulling back the edge of his black frockcoat to reveal the marshal’s star pinned to his black vest.

“Right away, sir. Is Turner dangerous?” the clerk asked, blinking nervously.

“Not as dangerous as I’ll be if you don’t take me to his room right now,” Gerard growled, bristling with pent-up energy. His hands moved restlessly, one wide palm rubbing the knuckles of his other hand, which clenched and unclenched. Recognizing the clerk’s apprehension, he made a conscious effort to be more pleasant. It wouldn’t do to frighten the man to death. “I just need a key for Kim - Turner’s room. If he’s gone out I’ll wait until he gets back. You might want to stay out of sight. If he takes a look at you he’ll know something’s wrong. The sooner this is done, the sooner we’ll be on our way.”

“Anything you say,” nodded the clerk, his overly large Adam’s apple bobbing as he swallowed.

Gerard took the key with a nod of thanks. Although he knew Kimble wouldn’t be there he felt a frisson of anticipation as he entered his room.

Kimble had left a pair of pants draped over the bed and he picked them up, unable to justify why he felt a need to check them but patting the fabric and thrusting his hand into the pockets all the same. He saw the carpet bag but did not open it; it wasn’t as if Richard was a thief. Just a liar.

After a few minutes pacing Gerard had to remind himself to sit down before the sound of footsteps alerted Kimble to the fact there was someone in his room. The only place to sit was the bed and he felt strangely wary as he approached it. Perching on the edge of the mattress his worst fears were confirmed; as he had expected he caught the scent of Kimble all over the damn sheets and pillows. Hell, there was even - He plucked the brown hair from the greyish, threadbare cotton, rubbing it between his finger and thumb before he realized what he was doing and brushed it away.

About to start pacing again, he stopped himself before he had taken a single step and sat down with enough force to make the bedsprings creak. Immediately his mind was filled with images of Richard when they had made lo - When they’d had sex at his home. The bedsprings had creaked then, and the sheets had smelled of Richard.

Gerard’s shoulders slumped. After a while his back began to ache and he sat back on the bed, his booted feet on the cover, the pillows tucked in the small of his spine, his head against the wooden headboard. Without being aware of it, he dozed off.

 

Bathed, shaved and wearing clean clothes, Kimble headed aimlessly back to the hotel. He went into the bar because he couldn’t bear the solitude of his room, and ordered himself a beer. Life in Cooksville had spoilt him, he conceded. There he’d been able to apply his medical skills and do some good. Now he didn’t have so much as a scalpel to his name, let alone the time to spare to settle anywhere, even for a little while. Not with the sense of Sam Gerard on his trail.

“Henry, are you drinking alone?”

The name he had adopted failed to register until his arm was nudged. He looked left to see a friendly sun-bronzed face and concerned brown eyes. It took him a moment to recall the man’s name and that of his younger companion, a Mexican.

“You feelin’ okay, Henry?”

“Buck, Manolito,” Kimble acknowledged, unaware of how desperately unhappy he looked.

He didn’t see the frown that Buck flicked at his friend but he was aware of Manolito coming to stand on his other side. He was an intriguing man who at any other time Kimble would have liked to know better. He had a chameleon quality that would have let him pass as a vaquero, a confidence trickster, or the son of a don- with a charm that would permit him to get away with more than most men. The man in black was something else entirely. While Buck smiled readily with friends, especially in the company of the charming Manolito, there was a suggestion of a darkness in him. It would be slow to rouse but would mean hell to pay for those who stirred it. When Buck had gone to the aid of a lady who had been accosted in the street Kimble had realized who it was Buck reminded him of - Sam.

Was this what he was reduced to, seeking the shadow of Sam Gerard in others?

“We were going to play a few hands before we head back home. Will you join us?” While Buck knew he should leave the man be, he found himself drawn to the stranger. And, as Mano had pointed out when he had voiced these thoughts yesterday, since when was it his way to mind his own business? Trouble and the troubled had a habit of springing up when he was around. He waited for Henry’s reply, wondering if the other man would accept an offer to return with them to the High Chaparral. His brother John would be agreeable, he knew, and John’s wife would take one look at Henry and be trying to coddle him. If sweet Victoria couldn’t put a smile back on Henry Turner’s face then nothing and no-one could.

“Say yes, amigo, Buck here is persistent - even worse than my sister,” Manolito coaxed.

Kimble pushed his empty glass towards the bartender. “All right, I’m in,” he muttered, taking the line of least resistance.

 

Gerard only realized he must have dozed off when he awoke with a start, eyes flying open as he remembered where he was. He gave a relieved sigh when he saw that Kimble’s things were still here. Groggy with sleep, he rubbed his hands across his face but there was already an energy building inside him that had nothing to do with his few hours rest.

He was going to see Richard.

Gerard frowned, unhappy not only with that thought but with the sentiment behind it. Correction, he was going to capture Kimble and haul him back to Cooksville so justice could be done. He felt no increased satisfaction with that amendment but it sounded a lot more professional.

Time to do his duty. No-one said he had to enjoy it but until this sorry business was over he couldn’t get his life back.

He raked his fingers through his hair and straightened his clothes - after all a lawman had a certain image to portray - before leaving Kimble’s room. The noise from downstairs was considerable, the tinny piano only just audible above the noise of the crowd, who were drinking the bar dry. Sensing his quarry was close, Gerard paused at the top of the stairs. He spotted Kimble immediately, despite the beard. Arresting him was going to be even easier now Richard didn’t look so familiar.

Gerard headed downstairs in a stream of movement that was all animal grace and perfect balance. His face set in a hunter’s mask, his Peacemakers were openly displayed and the star on his chest gleamed. Heads turned to watch him, voices lowering or ceasing altogether as the crowd waited for the drama to unfold. Stepping up to the table, his eyes were fixed on the back of Kimble’s head as he waited for the telltale tensing that would indicate the other man had picked up on his presence. But even though everyone else in the saloon had taken note, Kimble still sat slouched as if the weight of the world was settled across his shoulders. As he was about to toss a bill into the pot Gerard’s hand flashed out to pin Kimble’s wrist to the table.

Kimble’s head shot up, a gratifying amount of shock on his face as he whispered Gerard’s first name.

A dark satisfaction in his eyes, Gerard gave a mockery of a smile, waiting for Kimble to try to break free, wanting him to try because then he would have the excuse to release some of the anger burning his gut.

His wide-eyed gaze never leaving Gerard, Kimble slowly held out his other wrist.

His anger given no outlet, Gerard was all jerky control as he snapped on the handcuffs and hauled Kimble to his feet. He glimpsed movement as one of the men at the table stood up but his Mexican companion put out a restraining hand.

“Of what is Henry accused, marshal?” asked the Mexican quietly.

“Trust me, sir, you don’t want to know.” While Gerard was virtually vibrating with anger, he had sense enough not to announce that Richard was accused of forcing a young girl. He didn’t want a riot on his hands. Drunken cowhands could be a maudlin bunch.

“Well I don’t trust you and I do want to know,” said the man at the Mexican’s side, his voice as grim as his expression.

Gerard readied himself for possible trouble; this wasn’t a man given to bluff or bravado but one who stood by his friends. As he would have done, if Richard had given him the chance.

“It’s all right, Buck,” said Kimble, his voice quiet in the tension-laden silence. “I knew it could only be a matter of time before Marshal Gerard caught up with me. Don’t get involved.”

“It seems to me that someone should,” growled Buck but there was disappointment in his eyes.

“No,” said Kimble, looking down. “I’m tired of running,” he added almost inaudibly.

After what those listening took for an admission of guilt no-one made any further protest when Gerard put a hand to Kimble’s collar and shoved him toward the stairs.

Gerard was dimly aware of the increase in volume from the crowd as he marched Kimble down the landing; it was a relief to slam shut the door to Kimble’s room.

When Gerard lit the oil lamp the resultant light was inappropriately cosy. His gaze settled on his captive with a peculiar possessiveness before he checked the room for anything that might let Kimble escape him again. There was nothing. Kimble had made no attempt to move or speak, staring at him with eyes that seemed too large for his face.

Unnerved by that passivity, Gerard said, “Pack your things. We’ll leave at first light.”

The cuffs made Kimble awkward; when he finished packing he turned to find Gerard staring out the window, although he could have sworn he’d felt Gerard’s gaze scorching his shoulder blades.

Turning his glare from Kimble’s reflection to the flesh and blood man, Gerard snapped, “Get some rest. You have a long journey ahead of you.”

The implication of what Gerard had said sinking in, Kimble stared at the double bed with obvious apprehension.

Feeling flayed by the look he saw on Kimble’s face, Gerard took refuge in anger. “Don’t flatter yourself,” he said bitingly. “Right now it makes my skin crawl to look at you.” Pushing the unresisting man towards the head of the bed, he fastened Kimble’s cuffed hands to an upright support of the rail. “You’ll spend the night there.”

Lacking his usual grace, Gerard readied himself for sleep. Ignoring Kimble, who had sunk to the floor, he dropped his clothes onto the night stand, set his holster on top of them, doused the lamp and got into bed, his back to Kimble.

He was still awake an hour later, acutely aware of every breath Kimble took and the beat of his own pulse in his head.

 

Listening to Gerard’s breathing deepen and slow as he finally fell asleep, Kimble gazed at the man lit by the moonlight shining through the bare window. He was still reeling from the shock of seeing Sam again; he had been expecting another hunter.

It was slowly sinking in that he had been arrested by the man he loved, on suspicion of attacking and forcing a young girl. His mouth twisting in an effort to steady it, he stared at Gerard’s dark head and what he could see of the strong face. He had never expected to see Sam again and while the circumstances were about as bad as they could be, he couldn’t regret it. How was it possible to miss someone as much as he had been missing Sam?

He’d got too used to having Sam in his life in far too short a time. From their meeting in the whorehouse he’d taken to haunting the town, eager for every encounter he could manufacture, never seeing the danger until he had looked into smiling dark eyes one day and realized he was in love. Watching Sam unselfconsciously naked in the light of the lamp just now had only turned the screw another notch. He needed no reminder of what else he had lost besides Sam’s trust.

He should be terrified at the thought of what lay ahead, or bitter that Sam believed him guilty of such a terrible crime. He should be berating Sam for the way he was treating him; at the very least he should be protesting his innocence. There seemed no point. Sam had already made up his mind.

Kimble tried to console himself with the thought that perhaps Gerard’s motives were partly personal. Drawing comfort from that because it was the only comfort open to him, he tried to relax but it was impossible with Gerard only inches away. It seemed to him that the lines on Sam’s face were more deeply engraved than when he had seen him last, an unhappy droop to his mouth even in sleep. He’d come to know Sam pretty well and had soon discovered that his sometimes gruff exterior hid a loving heart. That Sam was so unforgiving with him only showed how deeply he had been hurt. And that was the last thing he had intended.

The floor seeming increasingly hard, Kimble shifted position, careful that his handcuffs should not hit the headrail and disturb the sleeper. Sam had looked so tired.

Resting his face against his arms, Kimble closed his eyes, breathing in the scent of the lover who had stared at him with such hatred just before he had arrested him.

 

It was only when he opened his eyes that Kimble appreciated he must have dozed off, during which time Gerard’s head had moved across the pillow. Longing for some physical contact, Kimble stretched out his fingers. To his frustration the handcuffs prevented him from getting closer and a sound of frustration mixed with pain escaped him.

It was enough to make Gerard twitch in his sleep, murmuring as if in answer. His change of position brought him closer and this time Kimble’s fingers made contact, brushing lightly through the thick black hair. Comforted by the contact, minimal as it was, he shifted until his head was propped against the edge of the mattress. His senses filled with the scent and sound of Gerard, Kimble slept with more peace than he had enjoyed since leaving Cooksville.

 

Gerard awoke to find the room filled with the pale light of dawn. Yawning, he scratched his stubble-darkened jaw, then tensed when he remembered where he was and with whom. Sharply turning his head, he bumped his chin on the brown head that was pushed into the curve formed by his neck and shoulder. For a moment he couldn’t move, then Kimble’s head tilted back and hazel eyes blinked sleepily up at him. Unguarded, there was a soft, unfocussed look to him that made Richard an appealing, yet oddly vulnerable figure.

On the brink of responding, Gerard suddenly remembered where they were, and why. He jerked away as if he had been burned but Richard continued to watch him with that unsettling direct and solemn regard that seemed to see clear through to his soul.

“You son-of-a-bitch. What the hell is it you want?” demanded Gerard.

“You,” whispered Kimble. “I want you.”

That cut to the heart and Gerard’s hand curled into a fist, wanting to pulverize that lying mouth. Instead, he forced his fingers to straighten before he took Richard’s head in an ungentle grip.

The kiss he inflicted was brutal. Tasting blood, he offered no quarter. He wanted emotions he could deal with and lust was just fine by him. Meeting resistance as he tried to draw Kimble onto the bed, he tugged harder. Kimble made a sharp sound that was swallowed in the kiss. Hazed with lust, it was a moment before Gerard’s brain belatedly engaged and he remembered the cuffs fastening Kimble to the bed rail. Releasing him, he rolled onto his side in the direction of the night stand.

“Don’t stop,” begged Kimble in a passion-slurred voice, seeming to have difficulty in controlling his bruised-looking lips.

“I won’t.” Gerard yanked his pants off the night stand, retrieving the key for the handcuffs with an impatience which almost tore the pocket. This bearded man with those lying eyes and bruised lips wasn’t his Richard, but he was going to use him all the same.

“I have no intention of stopping,” Gerard said, his gaze as pitiless as a hawk lining up on its prey.

Murmuring deep in his throat, Kimble seemed unaware that it had been intended as a threat.

It took Gerard some time to unfasten the cuffs; not just because his hands were unsteady but because he couldn’t see what he was doing due to the fact Richard seemed intent on devouring him, the small, fierce noises he made a mixture of pleasure and desperation.

Gerard’s plans to dominate this encounter suffered a further set back when Kimble, finally free, rolled on top of him to claim his mouth, his splayed hands holding Gerard’s head in place. His thighs parting, his arms locking around the other man, Gerard gloried in the weight pressing him into the mattress.

Sanity crashed back in on him only when Kimble’s knee brushed his groin. He shoved Kimble away with a violence which knocked the other man off the bed. Appalled by his own stupidity, Gerard yanked Kimble’s arms behind him, grabbed the discarded cuffs and refastened them.

His senses still clouded by arousal, Kimble blinked at him. “S-Sam?”

Ignoring the sex-drugged look on Kimble’s face and his kiss-swollen mouth, Gerard nearly tripped over his own feet in his haste to get away while he still had a semblance of his right mind left to him.

Kimble tried to follow but was unbalanced by having his hands fastened behind him. The grim reminder of his status stopped him dead. Devastated, he remained mute and still to stare at Gerard.

Taking several steadying breaths, Gerard watched Kimble as if he was a threat - which, of course, he was. No other human being had ever possessed such a devastating power over him.

“Not again,” he whispered, more to himself than the man watching him so closely. Kimble probably couldn’t believe his luck at having found a man stupid enough to let his cock do all his thinking. Hunched with arousal, it was impossible to deny his physical response. Muttering silently to himself, he moved to the point in the room furthest from Kimble. Facing the door, his palms flat against the wooden panel, he took a deep, albeit shaky breath, trying to regain control both of himself and the situation.

Sensing Kimble’s approach, he set his face in a blank mask before reluctantly turning around. He was disconcerted to find Kimble only inches away from him and his head went back slightly, although what it was he feared only he could have said.

“Sam, you must be hurting. Let me do this for you. You look so - ” His gaze never leaving the other man’s face, Kimble sank to his knees, clumsy because his hands were cuffed behind his back. Leaning forward the necessary few inches he planted the lightest of kisses at the point where thigh and torso joined.

Gerard’s cock twitched, every nerve in his body jolting to life. The voice in his head screamed a warning but the sight of Kimble kneeling before him made him deaf to reason. Hating his own weakness - and Kimble for the power he had over him - it was beyond Gerard to push the other man away.

Kimble breathed a sigh of relief that despite everything Sam would not deny him this. He rubbed his face against the hard cock, the stimulation offered by his beard making Gerard gasp and thrust forward involuntarily.

Attempting to use his hands, the metal cuffs binding his wrists reminded Kimble that he was a prisoner. “I want to touch you,” he said softly, wary that his request might make Gerard change his mind about allowing him this much. The longing to taste Sam was close to an ache, his mouth salivating in anticipation.

“I don’t trust you any more,” Gerard told him with brutal truth.

His pain-filled eyes widening, Kimble made no attempt to defend himself.

Disarmed, Gerard could feel his resolve weakening, unable to think of anything except Richard’s warm breath on him. As his cock was taken into the moist haven of Kimble’s mouth he sagged against the door, grateful for its support. Reaching for the gently bobbing head, he snatched his hands away, although that had less to do with concern for Kimble’s comfort than the fact he retained some small shred of control.

Kimble took his time, wanting to make it last while knowing Sam was too close to the edge. He felt the signs of imminent climax and heard Gerard cursing softly as he came. His own orgasm seemed a messy irrelevance that prevented him from concentrating on Sam.

His heart trying to pound its way out of his chest, he rested his head against Gerard’s thigh, only to topple over when Gerard abruptly moved away. Kimble’s blood congealed at the contempt in Gerard’s eyes.

“Sam!” His involuntary protest came from the heart.

“It’s time we were leaving. You can wash up and eat later.” Gerard’s flat tone revealed nothing of the intense vulnerability he was feeling.

“Don’t be like this - ” began Kimble helplessly, fighting a ridiculous urge to weep.

Gerard made an impatient gesture. “Get off your knees, you’re not in church. And wipe your mouth, you look like a drooling idiot.”

“But what about what just happened?” Kimble asked, risking one final attempt to reach Gerard.

“That? I’ve had better. Get moving. And stand up, dammit!” Experiencing none of the satisfaction this opportunity for revenge should have given him, Gerard felt sick, hating the way Kimble’s face drained of all expression.

Pushing himself to his feet, Kimble shivered as he went to get his bag. He stopped when he realized he couldn’t pick it up with his hands cuffed behind his back. He thought he heard a muffled curse before Gerard unfastened the cuffs. His arms fell to his sides, his bag was shoved at him and he took it automatically.

“You have a choice,” said Gerard, in the same hard, unfamiliar voice. “You can leave town cuffed and spend the journey back to Cooksville the same way, or you can give me your word of honor that you won’t try to escape, in which case the cuffs stay off. Break your word and I will shoot to kill. Clear?” He was careful not to look at the cut and swollen flesh around Kimble’s wrists.

Kimble nodded.

“Which is it to be?” Impatience sharpened Gerard’s voice.

“I give you my word I won’t try to escape,” said Kimble listlessly.

“Then for both our sakes I hope you don’t break it.”

 

Their journey was silent for the most part, the arid, empty country they were passing through matching Gerard’s mood. He glared at Kimble occasionally, daring him to speak, but Kimble continued to stare apathetically ahead, which further irritated Gerard. He felt as though he was being punished although he had no call to feel guilty about what had happened back at the hotel. Kimble had played him for a fool, a little payback was to be expected. What he had done came no where near to causing Kimble the degree of pain he had experienced. So why did he feel like he’d stuck a knife in an already wounded man?

He was getting soft, he decided, flexing his neck to try and ease the tension there.

His gaze slid back to Kimble, resentment almost choking him when he recognized the stark unhappiness on his face. There was misery in the too-expressive eyes, the dancing light he had loved to see when Richard was teasing him extinguished, a bleakness there instead and...

Dammit! Dammit! Dammit!

Gerard toyed with the idea of blindfolding his prisoner, just so he wouldn’t have to look at Richard’s expression, but told himself he was made of stronger stuff. Hell, he could resist a pair of sad eyes, couldn’t he? He risked a glance and saw that Richard’s mouth had a decided droop to it.

Shit, Cosmo would laugh himself sick if he could see him now.

They forded the river just before sunset, the water barely reaching the horses’ hocks as they splashed their way across. Gerard took them on for another mile or so, until they came to a likely campsite. Glancing up as he was unsaddling Maverick he forgot mundane concerns for a short time as he took in the spectacular sunset. Swollen, billowing clouds were charged with a blaze of crimson, scarlet and orange, the colors washing everything in an eerie light. His face upturned as he marveled at the sight, it seemed to Gerard that the world was on fire. Turning to share the moment, a sense of helplessness swept over him. Far from being struck by the spectacle nature had provided for them, Richard was slumped in the saddle, his bowed head and the brim of his hat hiding his face from view.

Gerard set down his saddle with a thump that made Kimble flinch. “You’re still awake then. We’ll set up camp just past that clump of mesquite trees,” he said harshly.

Giving a dispirited nod, Kimble dismounted. Ignoring Red’s needs, he slowly walked over to the river bank to stare out across the wide stretch of shallow, fast-flowing water until darkness blanketed the scene.

It was Gerard who tended to Maverick and Red before setting up camp. Firewood was easy to find, along with fresh meat. Quail had congregated under the trees and enough for a good meal were soon killed, plucked, cleaned and set to cook on a double spit over the fire. While keeping an eye on the birds, Gerard made some simple biscuits, too accustomed to fending for himself to think twice about performing the domestic tasks.

His stomach growling with hunger, his mouth was watering long before the birds were ready. The fire spat and hissed as drops of fat dripped into the flames. Gerard kept an unobtrusive check on Kimble but he remained at the water’s edge, seemingly oblivious to the activity behind him. His head bowed, his broad shoulders were hunched, his entire body eloquent of defeat. Gerard exhaled softly as he reflected on how different it could have been. They should have been comfortably settled around the fire, talking easily while they anticipated the pleasures ahead of them: good food, coffee, a cheroot and then hours of making love under the night sky. Instead...

His expression hardened. It was impossible not to wonder who Richard was thinking about. He fought a possessive surge of jealousy. Who was he fooling? Richard wasn’t his. Richard had never been his.

His expression bleak, anger made Gerard clumsy and he almost burned his hand as he shared out the quail and biscuits. He took a tin plate over to where Kimble stood.

“Here, eat,” he commanded, thrusting the plate at the other man.

“Thanks,” said Kimble mechanically, although food was the last thing he wanted. He didn’t want his belly to clench with anticipation, or his mouth to water because that meant he was feeling something - if only hunger - and he refused to feel any more. It hurt too damn much and he was tired of pain. Tired of not having a life. Tired of...

He had never intended to hurt Sam like this.

Without being aware of what he was doing he left his solitary position and went to join Gerard by the fire. Feeding himself from a small carcase, Gerard sucked the grease from his fingers with an unselfconscious pleasure.

A wave of despair swept over Kimble. How was he supposed to leave Sam a second time? Though now he’d made Sam hate and despise him maybe it would be easier. His eyes flicked back to study the face lit by the flickering flames. No, nothing about his relationship with Sam was easy.

The mouthful of biscuit like ashes in his mouth, the scent of the meat was suddenly nauseating. The man he loved was taking him home to be lynched for a crime he hadn’t committed. Ironic, really.

Gerard watched Kimble abandon the pretense he was going to eat any more. It wasn’t surprising he should have lost his appetite, he must have thought himself safe from capture.

His own appetite stolen away, Gerard set the remnants of his meal on the fire. Dishes banged as he scoured them clean before checking on the horses. Sweet-talking Maverick, Gerard felt sorry for the aristocratic-looking Red, who was receiving little attention from his owner. Pausing to groom the stallion himself, because Richard obviously couldn’t be bothered, Gerard spared the horse a few minutes more of his time. Petting both Red and Maverick, he fed them some aniseed candy before heading back to camp.

Shivering now he was away from the heat given off by the horses, Gerard made up the fire. The temperature was falling quickly; it was going to be a cold night. Hunkering down, he warmed his chilled hands at the flames before drawing up the collar of his jacket and pouring himself some coffee from the battered pot. Kimble seemed as unaware of the bite in the air as he was of everything else. Determined that he wasn’t going to waste any more time on the man, Gerard made himself comfortable on his bedroll and lit a cheroot. His long legs outstretched and crossed at the ankles, while he might look relaxed, gazing up at the stars high above them, his mind was full of images of Kimble.

Snapping off a curse, he threw his half-smoked cheroot into the fire, knocked over the remains of his coffee and hauled his bedroll and blankets over to where Kimble sat.

The commotion Gerard made drew Kimble from his abstraction. He blinked and focused on him, as if waking from a deep sleep.

“I want you where I can see you,” Gerard said, as if his decision to move had been challenged.

Kimble gave no reaction, his gaze already sliding away.

Going a few yards off into the bushes to relieve himself, on his return Gerard yanked off his boots, unfastened his holster and settled down for the night. He watched unobtrusively as Kimble mirrored his actions - in fact judging from the direction he took he probably watered the same damn bush.

Gerard closed his eyes when Kimble settled down beside him. Apart from the crackle of the fire and the sound of the river, where the water ran over small boulders in the shallows, it seemed very quiet; even the quail in the clump of trees had stopped calling out to each other. But it wasn’t so quiet that he lost his awareness of Richard breathing less than a foot away from him.

Getting angry didn’t take away the wanting, Gerard conceded tiredly, his heart aching almost as much as his groin. Every rock within a five mile radius seemingly located under his bedroll, he moved again but discomfort couldn’t dislodge the heated images of Kimble at love-play. He was one of the finest kissers of either sex that Gerard had encountered.

Even with Kimble at his side he couldn’t get warm. Turning with would-be-casualness, he stared at the back of Kimble’s head. He was almost certain Richard wasn’t asleep; his body looked too tense and his breathing was too shallow. Gerard was willing to swear he could feel the other man’s warmth across the small space, which was all that separated them.

Sleep seemed further away than ever.

He would take the shortest route back to Cooksville. There was no point prolonging things. When they got back...

A slither of unease pushed sleep even further away. He hadn’t given a thought to what would happen when they got home. Emotions would be running high; Cooksville valued its young and George Fischer and his brothers weren’t the only hot-headed idiots.

Fear for Richard’s safety swept over him. Things didn’t get worse than a lynch mob, where normally decent people combined to create a terrifying, mindless whole. He had never forgotten the horror of what he’d seen happen to the familiar faces of neighbors when he was a child. It was one of the reasons he had become a lawman. Without the rule of law men were worse than animals. No matter how heinous his crime, every man was entitled to a fair trial. On the whole he had faith in the townsfolk and they justified Gerard’s good opinion of them - on the whole. Besides, between Cosmo, Noah and himself such foolishness would never get the chance to develop. Above all else Gerard had faith in his own abilities to control men.

Every man but the one who mattered most to him.

He turned away from that line of thought, mapping out a likely chain of events. He took Kimble back to Cooksville, where no doubt Richard would be able to prove himself innocent - and if Richard couldn’t he’d find a way. Nothing would make him believe Kimble had attacked anyone, let alone a flighty girl who had a crush on him. Once Richard’s innocence had been proved they could concentrate on smoking out the bastard who had attacked Annabelle. But after that, what then?

Having evaded the issue until now, Gerard forced himself to consider what would happen. Richard would most likely leave town. After all, there would be nothing to keep him there - no-one who could lay claim to him. He’d probably travel until he met some man and he’d smile that lopsided smile that made you want to kiss him and of course the man would be unable to resist. Oh, the man might let it play out for a while, just to see that hungry, predatory look creep into Kimble’s eyes. Richard would like that, teasing a little as he let the attraction and the heat build between them. The man would be going crazy with the waiting, wanting Richard so bad he was shaking with the need to take Richard but having to hold back. Then Richard would give that slow, warm smile that reached into the heart of a man and say his name in that rich, deep voice and...

Kimble rolled over to face Gerard. “Sam, do you think - ?”

His eyes on the temptation of that mouth, Gerard was lost. Groaning, he tossed aside the blankets and surged across the small space between them. Pinning Kimble with his upper body, he forced a savage kiss on the slightly parted lips. Kimble made some sound but Gerard smothered it, taking it into himself as he plunged his tongue inside the slick heat. Fumbling with the catch to Kimble’s pants he finally succeeded in releasing the hard flesh he could feel pushing against him.

Kimble shifted his hips to allow their groins to meet, one hand caught in Gerard’s hair while the other caressed his ass. Kimble’s legs locked around Gerard, welding them together as he urged Sam on with small broken sounds. Belatedly scrabbling with the buttons which fastened his own pants Gerard barely got them open in time. Freed of constraint, his cock ground urgently against Kimble’s erection. Gerard climaxed with a soft grunt and a sigh whispered against Kimble’s neck.

Sanity was quick to assert itself. Within seconds he had rolled off Kimble, his eyes closed as if to block out the reality of what had just taken place. His mouth thinned with self-disgust for showing himself to be so needy that he would rut with the man who had humiliated and lied to him more than once. He refastened his pants with fingers that were only slightly unsteady. When he could no longer resist the temptation to account for the soft, moist sounds he could hear he dared to glance at his companion. Transfixed, he was unable to look away.

Mouth-wateringly tumescent, rather than hastening to a quick relief, Kimble was sliding his fingers through the semen cooling on his belly before raising each finger to his lips and sucking them clean, his tongue flicking out to catch any overlooked traces.

It was one of the most erotic sights Gerard had ever seen. “Do it,” he said harshly.

Exhaling softly, Kimble’s hand closed around his cock. He began to stroke himself with practiced movements, squeezing and rubbing until he came with a cut-off sound which for one insane moment Gerard thought was ‘Sam’.

His eyes wide and unfocussed as he stared up at the stars, Kimble slowly massaged their combined seed into the sprinkling of hair on his belly.

“Do you think they’ll believe me?” he asked into the silence.

“What?” Startled by the sound of Kimble’s voice, Gerard had no idea what he was talking about.

“The people in Cooksville. Do you think they’ll believe I’m innocent?”

That the last thing he had expected to hear, it was a moment before Gerard could collect his thoughts. His earlier fears returning, he quashed them ruthlessly. “I don’t know and I don’t care. I’ll have done my duty when you’re back in Cooksville and off my hands.”

He saw Kimble flinch, recognized the hurt Richard had been too unguarded to hide and rolled over, wanting to escape the knowledge that he had deliberately set out to wound him. What kind of a man was he turning into, he wondered with self-contempt.

For one reason and another it was a long time before either man got any sleep that night.

 

The following morning anyone coming upon them would have taken the two men for strangers, so complete was their withdrawal from one another. Very much on his dignity, Gerard became increasingly aggravated by Kimble’s failure to notice that he was being kept at arm’s length. Then he looked at the other man, really looked at him, and felt his heart twist. He had the disquieting feeling that something had broken which it might not be in his power to mend. It took some effort to remind himself that wasn’t his job.

The trail was relatively easy. Water was still plentiful in this area and there were jack rabbits and turkeys to eke out their supplies; this close to the river there was even the chance of fish. But it was disconcerting to discover he had lost his taste for the sun-baked landscape so reminiscent of his childhood, homesick for the lush green, fertile land to be found around Cooksville.

Uncomfortably aware of the apathetic man at his side, the glances Gerard kept shooting at Kimble became increasingly angry as it occurred to him that the man he had thought he had feelings for didn’t exist. Given the variety of names Richard had been using he probably wasn’t even a doctor.

Setting up camp well before sunset, Gerard checked out the river, gave a satisfied nod, stripped down to his red combinations and walked into the cold, fast-flowing water. His toes curling in the chilly mud on the river bed, he bent to catch trout between his hands. Patient and motionless as one of the boulders at the water’s edge, all his senses locked to what he was doing, he began to relax.

By the time he had caught four, fair-sized fish it was almost dark and his teeth were chattering with the cold. But his success as a hunter had done much to lighten his mood. Stripping off his sodden combinations, he wrung out the worst of the water and hung them up by the fire. Scrubbing himself dry, he pulled on his clothing, unaware of how much of Kimble’s attention he had attracted over the last hour.

Busy cleaning the fish, Gerard glanced up and discovered Kimble was watching him with an intensity which stripped him of clothing and defenses. The knife slipped, gashing his palm. His breath hissing inwards, Gerard found his wrist being grasped.

“Let me see that cut,” Kimble commanded.

Gerard pulled away as if he had been touched by a leper. “I can see to it myself.”

“Sam - ” began Kimble, his gaze on the gash, from which blood was still welling.

“How do I know you’re really a doctor?”

“I am,” interjected Kimble, meeting that fierce glare head-n. “I would never lie about that.”

“Just everything else,” retorted Gerard with a bitterness it was beyond him to hide. “If you’re so honest, is Richard Kimble your real name? Given the number of names you’ve been using since you left Cooksville I’ve had to wonder.”

“No, it isn’t,” Kimble admitted. “It’s Jones.” Unable to sustain the contempt on Gerard’s face, his gaze dropped.

About to make some cutting retort, Gerard rose to his feet, his Peacemaker in his hand; his eyes narrowing, he stared out into the darkness, listening intently.

“What?” said Kimble, with an urgency Gerard was too preoccupied to notice.

“It’s nothing,” dismissed Gerard, relaxing. “Just a coyote scouting round.” He reholstered his Colt and hunkered down again.

Trusting Gerard’s judgement in such matters even above his own because he had seen plenty of evidence to prove how alert Sam was, Kimble nodded. But relaxation was beyond him as he watched the other man clean the fish he had caught, all the time favoring the hand he had cut.

After their meal Kimble settled down on his bedroll but the slightest sounds beyond the shifting shadows of the fire made him flinch because he could sense in his bones that somewhere out in the darkness Frederick Sykes was following them.

Chapter Text

ELEVEN

 

Their trail continuing to follow the curve of the river, Gerard became increasingly edgy, often waking in the middle of the night, unable to shake off his conviction that he was being watched. The landscape offered too many hiding places and the West was full of men who would kill for a new set of clothes, let alone a stallion as fine as Red. They met few people on the way to the town of Sweetwater, just a couple of crazed-eyed miners, loco from decades of solitary living. Having to warn off the first, Gerard gave supplies to the second, a toothless, bent-backed old-timer with an equally ancient burro. But the encounters made Gerard wary about others they might meet. On his guard, he went short of sleep to ensure the safety of his prisoner. If anyone was going to have the satisfaction of killing Richard it would be him.

Their conversational exchanges were restricted to the barest minimum. Gerard was so busy trying to lock down his feelings for the man who had never existed outside his imagination that he didn’t notice that Kimble was sick, having contracted a fever a few days after they met the second miner.

They were about ten miles from Sweetwater when Red deviated off the track. About to snap out some disparaging comment about Kimble’s horsemanship, Gerard paused and allowed himself to look at the other man. Slumped in the saddle, Kimble looked to be in danger of falling off his horse. He was sweating heavily, his color pale except for two hectic patches on his cheeks and the purple hollows under his sunken eyes.

A bitter twist to his lips, Gerard accepted that because of his personal antagonism towards Richard he had ignored all the signs of illness, driving the man past his levels of endurance. He hadn’t wanted to notice anything about Kimble because if he did compassion would follow realization and he didn’t want to feel any of the gentler emotions around Richard - not while he was so vulnerable himself. But Richard was a sick man and getting weaker with each passing mile.

“Do you need to rest?” Gerard asked, after ten minutes of watching Kimble sway in the saddle. The midday heat was ferocious.

When Kimble gave no sign of having heard him Gerard repeated the query in a louder tone. Kimble didn’t even blink in acknowledgment. Putting out a hand, Gerard drew Red to a standstill. To his relief, that attracted Kimble’s attention.

“Do you need to rest?” Gerard repeated, seriously worried by this time.

Kimble’s obvious puzzlement at this belated interest in his welfare told Gerard more than he wanted to know about his treatment of the other man. Dammit, he’d taken better care of scum like Henry Judd.

“Rest?” Kimble sounded as if that was an unfamiliar concept. “No.” There was a wealth of weariness in his oddly hesitant voice, as if he had forgotten how to use it. “Let’s just get this over with as quickly as possible.”

Feeling snubbed, Gerard released Red. “Fine. Have it your own way.”

Easing Maverick into a trot, he heard Red follow and paid no further attention to his prisoner until Sweetwater appeared on the horizon. Becoming aware that Red was falling behind again, he slowed Maverick to a stop and turned to see Kimble slumped low over the stallion’s neck, only the fingers wound in the mane and sheer grit keeping him in the saddle. From then on, Gerard rode at his side.

Within an hour they were in town. Gerard stabled the horses and found them a room at the only hotel. Leaving Kimble slumped on the bed, he ascertained that, isolated as it was, Sweetwater possessed a doctor, who was kept busy by the number of mining accidents which occurred just outside the town’s boundaries.

A bluff-looking man with a high color and a fine moustache, Doctor Lawson looked up from his initial examination of Kimble, who had fainted when he had stood up too quickly, to give Gerard a look of loathing.

“You call yourself a professional lawman? You should be ashamed of yourself. Do you hear me? Ashamed. Or does such neglect make him easier to handle? You disgust me, sir.” Quite without fear for his own safety, the unarmed doctor glared up at the far taller man like a terrier at a mastiff.

“I guess I didn’t appreciate how sick he was until it was too late,” muttered Gerard, feeling too ashamed to try to defend himself.

Lawson gave him a stern, searching look. “You don’t strike me as a man who would miss much, if he put his mind to it. What did he do to get himself arrested?”

“He’s being taken back to face charges of - ”

“That’s not what I asked you, marshal. Do you think he’s guilty?”

“That’s for a jury to decide, if the evidence warrants Doctor Kimble going to trial,” said Gerard glibly.

“Doctor? Am I to understand you’ve placed a doctor in handcuffs?”

“After he tried to drown me, kneed me in the groin, stole my horse, then watched me fall from a roof, yes, I cuffed him,” said Gerard in a voice which gave nothing of his true feelings away.

“He did all that?” Glancing back at the feverish man muttering incomprehensibly on the bed, Lawson looked oddly disappointed.

“Are you calling me a liar, sir?”

“No, of course not.” Sighing heavily, Lawson returned his attention to his patient. It was some time before he straightened.

“He has a fever. He requires liquid, and plenty of it, but in small amounts if you want it to do him any good. And food. Good nourishing food. That’s easy to find in Sweetwater. The miners like their victuals and they’re willing to pay for good grub. No alcohol. At least two days’ bed rest. The jail is the last place he should go. It’s always full of drunken miners. Will you take care of him or shall I?” The inference was clear.

“Doctor, when I undertake to do something, I do it,” said Gerard, a warning bite to each word.

“Well, see that you do or you could find yourself with a corpse on your hands. I’ll send the boy round with a cooling potion for his fever, and a tonic. See he takes them. Keep those wrists bandaged. I’ll call in again in two days. I expect to see a marked improvement in his condition.”

Gerard propped his shoulder against the wall. “Why not accept that you won’t goad me into a fight and move on?”

He received another piercing survey, before Lawson relaxed his belligerent stance and gave a reluctant nod. “In the heat of the desert it’s too easy to forget the power of the elements. I may have been hasty in my judgement. I’ll see myself out,” he added, with characteristic brusqueness.

“Your fee?”

“You can settle your account on Wednesday.”

Nodding, Gerard watched the door close behind Lawson, then reluctantly turned to the man tossing and muttering on the bed. How could he have been so blind? It wasn’t Richard’s fault that he’d wanted so much more than one lustful night. Richard was a good man and he didn’t deserve to be punished for not fitting in with his romantic fancies. While he had his duty to perform that didn’t include pushing Richard into an early grave.

Feeling caged but unwilling to abandon the sick man, Gerard paced the perimeter of the room, his nervous energy needing some outlet. Whether he was responsible for this mess or not, from now on he was going to try and be more honest with himself. That meant facing up to the fact there was a part of him still hoping he could turn his dream lover into reality. Fine, a man could dream. He’d just have to keep it in mind that it wasn’t Richard’s fault if those dreams came to nothing.

Noticing Richard’s cracked lips, Gerard stopped pacing to tend to him. With a patience few people would have suspected him of possessing he kept moistening Kimble’s lips with a clean rag soaked in water, trickling liquid, drop by precious drop, into his mouth so that the unconscious man should not choke. After some time had elapsed he had the satisfaction of seeing Kimble recover enough to manage to drink a mug of the sweet water which gave the town its name. But the hazel eyes glittered with fever, Kimble’s skin hot and dry to the touch, and soon he was lost in feverish dreams again, a hectic color staining his cheekbones.

Gerard remained close, continuing to ease liquid into Kimble while he tried to make sense of the broken mutterings. Little of what Kimble mumbled was coherent but one name was repeated over and over again, with mounting terror.

 

As Kimble’s fever mounted, Gerard spent an anxious two days. The hotel owner’s wife maintained a steady supply of clean water, rags and dry sheets after prompt over-payment - and an assurance from Doctor Lawson that the condition wasn’t contagious.

By the second morning Gerard was red-eyed with exhaustion and prone to dozing off for short periods. Lawson paid another visit that afternoon, his fierce glare subsiding after he had examined Kimble, then taken in the finer points of Gerard’s appearance.

“You’ve done well. I’ve an herbal preparation of my own devising for his fever, and another for use as a tonic to stimulate the appetite. You look as if you could use some of that yourself,” Lawson added, casting a critical eye over Gerard. “When did you eat last?”

It was then that it occurred to Gerard that his hollow feeling and unsteady hands might be due in part to hunger. He shrugged.

“I guessed as much. Truth be told, you don’t look in much better shape than your patient. Have a meal and freshen up. The hotel has a washroom and tub and there’s laundry just past Fred Barker’s store. Wing Lee does a fine job. Tell him I sent you and your clothes will be delivered within a couple of hours, clean and pressed. I’ll stay here with - ”

“Richard Kimble. But there’s no need for you to do this.”

“Are you afraid I’ll let your prisoner escape?”

Having learned to look behind Lawson’s adversarial manner by this time, Gerard gave a tired half-smile. “No, sir. He gave me his word he wouldn’t try to escape, which is why I stopped using the handcuffs.” His preoccupied gaze on the restlessly twitching man on the bed, he was unaware of the sharp look Lawson gave him.

“Then why do you hesitate? Take some time off, man. I’d only be working on my smallholding or doing one of a million tasks my dear wife finds to keep me from the sin of idleness. Unless, God forbid, there should be an accident in one of the mines, my services as a doctor are rarely in demand until evening, when the miners start drinking and carousing.”

Gerard allowed himself to be organized with only a token protest, not least because his clothes felt stiff with sweat. There was no point shaving until they got back to Cooksville. It occurred to him that Miss Love had been right, a beard didn’t favor Richard. He’d see if he couldn’t persuade him to shave it off once... Reality crashing back in on him, his eyes scrunched shut before he regained control, squaring his shoulders and heading out onto the main street.

Having eaten a hearty breakfast and arranged for his own and Kimble’s clothing to be collected, cleaned and returned to their hotel room, Gerard bought himself fresh clothes to wear once he’d bathed. Wincing at the inflated prices charged in this out-of-the-way spot, he remembered to purchase candy for Maverick - and Red, who had developed a taste for aniseed. He concentrated wholly on what he was doing, refusing to think of Kimble, the future, or who the ‘Sykes’ haunting Richard’s fevered dreams might be.

The hotel washroom was nothing like the Ablution Suite at Madame Reynard’s. This tub was an ugly, mean-proportioned thing of tin, the whitewashed walls grubby and the smell unpleasant. Sitting on a rickety stool to pull off his boots, Gerard caught sight of something on the ceiling that made him sit up. But far from being one of Madame Reynard’s frolicking cherubs it was only a crack which had been ineptly repaired.

Stripping off his final item of clothing, Gerard stepped into the tub and sank down into water which was no better than tepid. But at least it was clean. It was impossible to relax with his knees tucked under his chin and he resolved to get this over with as quickly as possible. Picking up the soap, he grimaced at the strong smell of carbolic. Somehow he had been expecting the flowery perfume that seemed to impregnate every cake of soap in Madame’s establishment, despite the fact he always requested a plain one. Given a choice between carbolic and flowers he would go with Madame’s choice any day of the week. He was manly enough without needing to go around stinking of carbolic.

The sound of water splashing made him glance up but there was only one tub in this small back room - and no brown-haired, hazel-eyed charmer teasing him from the other tub.

Dammit to hell. Now he couldn’t even bathe without Richard breaking into his ease. A muscle jumping in his clenched jaw, Gerard went about the business of cleansing himself with more vigor than comfort. His throat felt tight and his eyes were smarting enough to make them water, which was ridiculous because this tub was nothing like the one he used in Cooksville - and which would forever be associated with Richard.

But then nowadays everything reminded him of Richard.

Realization of what he had lost sweeping over him, Gerard’s head bowed, his arms wrapping around his chest. It hurt so damn much that for a while he literally didn’t know how to bear it.

 

Kimble was sleeping quietly. Doctor Lawson waited only to give Gerard directions about the doses Kimble was to have before leaving. He waved away the idea of further payment.

“If he doesn’t continue to make a good recovery send for me again. But all he needs is rest and feeding up now. I don’t usually make mistakes about people,” Lawson added in the brusque way he had, “but I believe I may have made one where you are concerned. Good day to you, sir.” He left before a disconcerted Gerard could attempt to reply.

 

Jolted awake by some faceless terror, Kimble found Gerard sitting beside him in an easy chair, his socked feet propped on the mattress. “Sam?” He frowned his lack of comprehension. “Where am I?”

“In bed in the only hotel Sweetwater boasts. You had a fever, it’s getting better. You need to drink plenty. Take this.”

It was a mark of how ill Kimble felt that he took the medicine left by Doctor Lawson without querying its contents.

“How long have - ?” Kimble gestured vaguely, not sure what had happened to him.

“ - we been here? About thirty-six hours. Who’s Sykes?” added Gerard in the same briskly prosaic tone.

“My Nemesis,” muttered Kimble, too ill to think of guarding his tongue.

“Why is he that?” asked Gerard matter of factly, wanting to draw the truth from Kimble while his guard was down.

“Because I murdered his pregnant wife.”

Time congealed.

The muscles of Gerard’s face and neck locked until the ache ran clear down his back. Reality started to shift like sand under the influence of the incoming tide, washing away everything he had believed about Richard Kimble.

“Dear god, no,” whispered Kimble, horror stark on his face when he realized what he had let slip. “I never wanted you to know this. Never wanted you to think badly of me,” he babbled.

Still Gerard was silent.

It was as if a dam had broken as Kimble rushed to make his confession in the hope of lightening a load whose weight threatened to beat him into the ground. Grabbing Gerard’s hand and gripping it as if it was a lifeline, he was gabbling, words tripping over themselves in a near incomprehensible rush.

“I killed his pregnant wife and her unborn baby. I pulled the trigger and she fell down. Sykes’ entire family died because of me and I’ll never be free of them. I can still see the blood and hear - ”

Wrenching his hand free, Gerard backed away from the torrent of words which only confirmed that the man he loved had never existed. Fumbling behind him, he found the door handle. Kimble was still babbling about blood as he stumbled from the room. The corridor was empty, hotel patrons either downstairs sampling the hospitality, or in one of the eating houses. His back to the grimy wall, Gerard wrapped his arms around his torso, as if trying to contain the emotions threatening to rip him apart. The muscles of his face ached with the effort it required not to give rein to his feelings.

He had clung to the flicker of hope that he would get Richard back - perhaps on the journey to Cooksville. Now hope was as dead as that pregnant woman Richard had murdered.

Bile bitter in his throat, Gerard swallowed with determination. Pushing himself from the wall, he made his way downstairs two and three steps at a time, heading out the hotel. He had no destination in mind, knowing only that he needed to move, and to be amongst strangers. They provided some protection from mourning the end of a love that had been so perfect in its promise of a happy future with the man who completed him.

Once he left the main street much of the town was still under canvas, lights, music, drunken laughter and fights betraying the whereabouts of the makeshift bars. Sweetwater might be dirty, crude and dangerous but it pulsated with life and vigor, explaining why so many folk were sending for their families and choosing to settle here.

Three glasses of what passed for whiskey later Gerard admitted defeat and headed back to the hotel and the last person in the world he wanted to face. Bracing his shoulders, he took a deep breath before re-entering the room he shared with Kimble.

The lamp was spluttering, sending shadows jerking around the dimly-lit room. There was just enough light to see Kimble slumped on the floor at the side of the bed. The thin covers had become twisted around his flanks trapping him. His forearms barricaded his face, which was pressed to the mattress.

Gerard approached the motionless figure with something like dread, afraid of what he might find. But when he placed his fingertips against Kimble’s throat he felt the steady pulse of blood and his eyes briefly closed in thanks. Staring at the exhausted man tortured by his past, it was hard to remember the laughing charmer who had seduced him with little more than a crooked smile.

What a mess, Gerard thought tiredly, feeling unequal to the struggle between duty and inclination. Aching with weariness, he stripped down to his pants and shirt, wrapped his Peacemakers in his gunbelt and set them on the night stand before sinking onto the far side of the bed.

 

Gerard was roused from a light doze when Kimble’s muttering disturbed them both two hours later. Looking confused and appallingly unhappy, Kimble seemed surprised to discover he was slumped on the floor.

“You’ll be more comfortable in bed,” Gerard told him. Lighting the oil lamp, he got up to fetch water and drops of Dr Lawson’s cooling mixture.

Drinking slowly and deeply, Kimble shook his head at the idea of food.

“You should eat,” Gerard said quietly.

Assailed by an acute sense of unreality, Kimble stared at him, that banal instruction the last concern he expected Sam to have. “I’m not hungry,” he said at last. His voice sounded strained and hoarse.

“I don’t suppose you are but starving yourself won’t change what happened.” Gerard was surprised by his prosaic tone.

Kimble flinched but he made no further protest, struggling valiantly to finish the food which arrived within fifteen minutes of Gerard placing the order. Visibly revived, Kimble drank some more water, then simply sat, as if exhausted by so much effort.

“Get some sleep,” Gerard told him in the same level tone. “We’ll be staying here until you’re fit enough to return to Cooksville.”

“Where you’ll turn me over to a lynch mob,” said Kimble with dull acceptance.

“Where I’ll turn you over to Cosmo Renfro. You’ll face charges relating to the attack on Annabelle McDonald and the burning of the house at Quintum’s Leap.”

“And my confession that I killed Sykes’ wife.”

“No. You have a fever. What you tell Cosmo when you’re in your right mind is your affair.”

“Sam, I - ”

The hope in Kimble’s eyes twisted Gerard’s gut. “I don’t want to hear it,” he interrupted in a flat voice. “Save your excuses and explanations for someone who cares. It’s my job to take you back to Cooksville, that’s all. Now get some sleep.”

Exhausted by stress and weak from fever, Kimble slid onto the mattress. He was asleep within minutes, curled tight in on himself, twitching as he began to dream.

Gerard remained in the only chair. Listening to the precise tick of Kimble’s watch, where it sat on the night stand, he willed himself not to fidget in case he disturbed the self-confessed killer sleeping across the room. Desire might be as dead as the woman Richard had murdered but his emotions refused to cooperate.

In the bleak lonely hours just before dawn he wondered if it was ironic that he, who prided himself at maintaining the law at all costs, should love such a man - or was it just plain pitiful?

 

For the next two days Kimble ate sparingly and drank everything set in front of him, in between long spells of disturbed sleep that left him with brown smudges under his shadowed eyes. He could have counted on one hand the words exchanged between Gerard and himself. He wouldn’t have believed it was possible to feel so lonely with the man he loved beside him if he hadn’t experienced it for himself. Sam’s continued silence became a burr under his skin, wearing his nerves thin.

Cursing his loose tongue and need to confess, Kimble took care to avoid looking at the other man, afraid of what judgement he would see on that stern face. Small wonder Sam despised him now he knew the truth, he thought despondently. He despised himself. But it was hard to be in the company of the man you loved and accept that man loathed and despised you.

By Wednesday Kimble was strong enough to ride again and Gerard announced they would be leaving. As they rode west out of town, past a sea of canvas, a group of terrified miners rode in from the east, gabbling about the bodies they had found - a man and woman, the latter with her belly slashed opened.

 

oOo

 

Having had far too much time to think, Gerard had come to some decisions about his future. It was time to quit the job he loved. He was up for re-election as town marshal in the Spring and it was obvious he wasn’t fit to hold that office any more - not if he could mis-use the power the job bestowed on him for personal reasons. Once he got back he would make it plain he didn’t plan to stand for re-election. It wasn’t as if he was irreplaceable. Cosmo would make a fine marshal. He hadn’t planned to settle down to breeding horses yet - or alone - but equally he didn’t want the usual form of family life either. Refusing to think about the man he hadn’t yet learned to stop wanting, he eased Maverick into a trot.

One of Newhaven’s deputies stopped them on the outskirts of town, waiting to relieve all newcomers of their weapons. After proving himself to be a marshal Gerard was allowed to keep his Peacemakers as a professional courtesy. He and Kimble proceeded to the town’s only hotel.

As they stabled the horses Gerard watched Kimble murmur sweet nothings to Red as he checked him over, showing his first sign of interest in the stallion for some time. Abruptly Gerard was reminded that this man was a healer, not a killer. Then he remembered Kimble’s confession and his stomach started to churn again.

“If you’re done making a fool of yourself over that horse we’ll check into the hotel,” he snapped, making Kimble jump. He felt a pang of regret when the tiny glimmer of light there had been in Kimble’s eyes faded.

Hiring a room, Gerard headed upstairs, leaving Kimble to trail after him. This room was little different from a hundred others he had occupied, but the bed looked newer, the sheets less worn. They were two floors up, a small decorative balcony running along the front, overlooking Main Street. Taking off his coat, he tossed it onto the bed, then paused to stretch the kinks out of his back and shoulders before glancing over at the apathetic man on the other side of the room.

“Go for a walk,” Gerard heard himself say, before he mentally cursed his stupidity. Not making Richard wear cuffs was one thing but this was rank idiocy.

Kimble stared at Gerard with the first emotion he had shown for days.

“You heard me,” snapped Gerard. His glare dared Kimble to comment.

Nodding, Kimble left the room without a word.

Gerard sat heavily on the side of the bed, his shoulders sagging now Kimble wasn’t here to see his weakness. So much for dragging Richard home, kicking and screaming; the man who had just left the room looked barely capable of walking unaided. He had done the right thing, he knew he had. Call him ten kinds of fool but Richard had given his word and... Dammit, he might be a fool but he trusted Richard to keep it. He had so far.

Still flexing his tension-knotted shoulders, Gerard scooped up his jacket and went out to the barber shop they had passed on the way to the hotel, booking himself in for a bath.

The hip bath wasn’t comfortable enough for him to want to linger over his ablutions but he still had too much time to think. He was certain he was doing the right thing in taking Kimble back to Cooksville. Until they could prove Richard hadn’t attacked Annabelle the town would assume he was guilty and while they blamed Kimble the real attacker could still be around, waiting to prey on another child. If anything happened to one of Cosmo’s children - any child - he would never forgive himself, he admitted, appalled by his lack of professionalism. But what if Annabelle had died without recovering consciousness so she could clear Richard’s name? Well, if she had, he’d just have to work all the harder to find out who was responsible. Then Richard would be free to... Gerard stopped there, not wanting to carry the thought any further. He was finding it best to take each day as it came. He just wished so many plans hadn’t had holes shot through them - if they already been trampled to death.

So much for following his heart. That way only led to pain. It was time to try a different route; plain rational thinking had worked in the past and if it hadn’t made him happy, well, it was better than living with this kind of misery and sense of betrayal. It was time to learn from his mistakes and accept that whatever he felt for Richard, his feelings weren’t shared. No-one said rational thinking was going to be easy.

 

Kimble was aware of leaving the hotel but between physical weakness and emotional turmoil he felt as if he was walking through a fog which blurred everything he saw. Clarity was restored with a vengeance when a tall, brown-haired, one-armed man stepped in front of him.

“At last! Well, well, well. You know how long I’ve waited to find you, boy?” A large hand latched onto the front of Kimble’s shirt, reeling him close before releasing him again.

Sykes! Sweet Jesus, Sykes had finally caught up with him! Cowering, Kimble stared at his Nemesis in horror, the chill of abject terror seeping into him despite the heat of the day. His shoulders slumping, he felt as if he was shrinking, curling in on himself in an attempt to escape notice. The years fell away and he reverted to the terrified nine-year-old who knew he was about to die. Sykes seemed to tower over him, dominating him in the way he always had; the force of his hatred slammed into Kimble with an almost palpable force. The wall behind Kimble prevented him from backing away; without its support he was sure he would have sunk to the ground. He felt as if he and Sykes were the only two people on the planet. Once again he looked into those bright, mad eyes and read his death.

“You haven’t forgotten me then,” gloated Sykes, relishing Kimble’s terror as another man might savor a cold beer on a hot summer’s day. “I see you’ve got yourself a marshal in tow. If you think he’ll be able to protect you, you don’t know me very well. Though I aim to rectify that real soon.”

He leaned in even closer, his breath an obscene caress across Kimble’s face. “You’re safe from me for the moment, boy. But as soon as you leave town, you’re fair game. The same as anyone else who makes the mistake of getting in my way. Did you see my handiwork back along the trail? They were number... You know, I can’t remember how many men I’ve killed - just the women. There’s something special about the women. I favor a slice across the belly. It makes it last.” Sykes stroked a finger across Kimble’s stomach. “I’m still trying to decide how I’m gonna kill you, boy. Not that I’m in any hurry. I intend to take my time over you.”

Frozen in place, Kimble forgot how to breathe. Sykes had just boasted of torturing men - and women. Dear God, he’d tortured women! - to death just for the pleasure of it. He’d threatened to kill Sam for no better reason than the fact they were traveling together. If he didn’t end this now Sam could die because of him.

“Everything all right here, boys?” The sheriff walked towards them, a wary look on his face and his hand hovering close to his holster. “You’re the fella who came in with the marshal,” he added to Kimble. “Are you having trouble?” He turned to stare at Sykes, who began to laugh, his gloating gaze never leaving his prey.

“No trouble at all,” said Sykes cheerfully. “I’ll see you around, boy,” he added to Kimble. Giving the sheriff a look of contempt he strolled off in the direction of the saloon, which offered a good view of both the hotel and the livery stable.

“Is he a friend of yours?” demanded the sheriff, turning edgily to keep an eye on Sykes.

“I’ve known him all my life, one way and another,” said Kimble sardonically. Freed of Sykes’ presence, which always threw him back to his childhood, he had begun to realize that he had never really known the other man.

“There’s no accounting for taste.” The sheriff’s voice was heavy with disapproval. “Whatever’s between you is none of my concern but you can tell Sam Gerard that I run a peaceful town. I intend to see it stays that way. Do I make myself clear?”

Making and rejecting plans, Kimble was slow to respond. “Very clear, sheriff. There’ll be no trouble.” He would see to that. Now all he had to do was make Sam understand that he had to leave.

 

Returning to their hotel room cleaner, if not noticeably refreshed, Gerard was taken aback by the blast of energy which seemed to hit him as he opened the door to their room. It took a moment to identify it as Kimble, so great was the change in him. Gone was the apathy and the air of someone with barely the strength to stand up straight; this man virtually crackled with energy.

“At last! Where the hell have you been?” exclaimed Kimble, slamming the door shut and yanking Gerard into the room. “I’ve been looking for you everywhere. Sam, you have to let me go.”

Thrown off-balance, Gerard could only stare at him in disbelief. “On whose authority?” he asked eventually, his voice deceptively calm.

“Yours. I have to be somewhere else.”

“And that’s reason enough for me to let you go?”

Kimble was too preoccupied to be aware of undercurrents, subtle or otherwise. “It’s important, Sam.”

“Well, that’s a relief. I’d sure as hell hate to let you go for no good reason. You mind letting me in on your secret?”

“There’s someone I have to meet.”

“At a whorehouse in Monterey?” asked Gerard sarcastically.

Kimble pulled up short, a thoughtful look crossing his face. “Maybe.” His smile off-set by the feverish glitter in his eyes, he padded over to Gerard.

“Don’t insult my intelligence,” snapped Gerard, trying to disguise how unsettling he found this version of Kimble. He’d once had to deal with a horse that had eaten locoweed and had seen in its eyes the look he could see in Kimble’s now - a kind of desperate madness, as if some small spark of sanity was trying to reach out for help.

He’d had to shoot the horse.

“You’re right,” murmured Kimble. His caressing gaze traveled over Gerard’s body, lingering in all the obvious places. “This is your chance to be rid of me. Just let me go and I’ll be out of your life for good. You’ll never have to see me again. Isn’t that what you really wanted when you sent me out for a walk?”

Halting as if he’d been punched in the gut, Gerard stared at the other man. If what Richard had said was true then he must be losing his mind, and if it wasn’t then what the hell had he been thinking of? Not his job, that was for sure. Finding it all too much to deal with, he shook his head in denial, still looking punch-drunk.

“Ah, Sam, let me go. For old times sake, eh?” The coaxing voice stroked his senses just as Richard’s expansively moving hand reached for his groin.

Only just managing to evade the caress, Gerard opened the door before he did something he might regret - like choking the life out of Richard for making a mockery of their love. Or what he had thought of as love; it was pretty obvious what Richard thought it had been.

Hiding his hurt behind a stony-faced mask, Gerard was all locked-down control. “I’m heading downstairs. Get any notions of me letting you go out of your head. I have a job to do and I intend to do it.”

“Sam - ”

“I won’t let you go. That’s my final word, Richard.” Gerard left the room but once in the hallway he stopped dead, untypically having no idea what he should do next. He didn’t trust his own control enough to stay with Richard, yet he was afraid to leave him alone, his poorly-masked desperation echoing inside his head.

He was still on the landing when he heard the sound of a window being opened, followed by a scraping noise. Kimble edged into view through the small window at the end of the landing. Using the balcony the man who had given his word of honor that he wouldn’t try to escape was heading for the stairs at the side of the building. Somehow it shouldn’t have been a surprise that Richard would lie about that, too but it was, Gerard’s sense of betrayal as acute as the day Richard had walked out on him. He headed down the back stairs at speed and out of the hotel, using the cover of darkness to slip into the livery stable undetected. His breathing was almost back under control by the time Kimble eased through the side door and headed for where Red was tethered.

Kimble flinched, a small gasp escaping him when Gerard stepped from the shadows to stand dauntingly close.

“So much for your word of honor.” Gerard’s right arm was already moving - not in a punch, but in a contemptuous backhanded blow which Kimble made no attempt to evade or block.

Because Gerard had been certain he would be granted the satisfaction of a fight he pulled the blow only at the last moment. It still rocked Kimble where he stood, catching him half across his cheek, half across his mouth and splitting open his lower lip. Off-balance, he caught hold of the post dividing the stalls, one side of his face feeling as if it was on fire. It was impossible to meet Gerard’s eyes.

“I suppose you proving yourself to be a faithless son-of-a-bitch shouldn’t be a surprise by this time,” said Gerard in the same hard-edged voice. “Put your hands behind your back.”

Kimble closed his eyes as the cuffs snicked shut, trapping him with the man whose life he was desperate to save.

 

Handcuffed to the rail at the foot of the bed, Kimble barely registered his uncomfortable position. He spent the majority of the night feverishly making and discarding plans to escape. Little by little it was sinking in that Sykes wasn’t simply a wronged man with a justifiable grudge against him. In fact he was beginning to wonder if he had ever had a clear picture of events all those years ago. He couldn’t understand why it had taken him so long to see the sickness in Sykes. No sane man behaved the way Sykes had, or went on to maintain a pursuit for all these years, torturing and killing anyone who took his fancy on the way. Sam might be a marshal but he was also a good man - an honorable man. He wouldn’t stand a chance against a back-shooter.

His only option was to free himself, get a gun and force a showdown with Sykes. End it once and for all. It was overdue. He should have died with his brothers. Would have but for Kathy’s father, who had arrived in time to stop the ugly mob from stringing up the terrified nine-year-old boy he had been.

Unless he handed himself over to the sheriff here? No, Sam would simply step in and take over and from what he’d seen of the sheriff he wouldn’t be able to stand up to Gerard. Which put Sam squarely back in the firing line. He had to get away.

Of course, maybe he wouldn’t die in the showdown with Sykes. Maybe he would... He’d already killed the man’s wife and unborn child, how could he contemplate...? Except the sick son-of-a-bitch boasted of killing and torturing men and women.

He would do whatever was necessary to keep Sam alive. It would help if he’d held a gun since that fateful day but he had a good eye, a steady hand and the strongest motive in the world for wanting to survive. He had a lover to protect and no boogeyman from his childhood was going to stop him from keeping Sam safe.

Astonished, Kimble examined these new concepts as he considered the events which had shaped his life from the perspective of a more or less rational adult, not a terrified child burdened by grief and the shock of seeing his brothers lynched.

He’d been holding that big old Colt .45 right enough, but it had been so damn heavy it was all he could do to keep his arm extended. Then Sykes had come up behind him, grabbing at the gun but catching his hand instead. He’d worn a bracelet of painful bruises for over a week, still able to feel the terrible pressure of Sykes grip forcing his finger down on the trigger.

Damn, that was a crazy way to disarm a terrified child. Yet Mrs Sykes had been shot seconds later, Sykes yelling into the crowd that the little bastard had killed his Laura Mae.

He’d fainted around then.

Doctor Wahlund had faced up to that baying mob, taking him home, where he and his wife had nursed him as tenderly as if he’d been of their blood. The next day he’d woken in the bedroom of his new home, with a rope around his neck and Sykes looming over him. Mrs Wahlund had burst in, shooting Sykes high in the arm with her shotgun and driving him from the house. That was the last anyone had seen of the man until Sykes had caught sight of him in Tucson five years ago. But that time Sykes only had one arm. He’d been on his trail ever since.

Doctor and Mrs Wahlund had made him a part of their family to the extent that they moved hundreds of miles east to keep him safe from Sykes. But sometimes, when they thought he slept, they would discuss what had happened. He could remember hearing them talk about the terrible fights as Sykes accused his far younger, spirited, pretty wife of flirting with anything in trousers. Of the bruises she’d been seen wearing, or the time she’d run off, only to have Sykes drag her back home, threatening to kill her if she so much as looked at another man.

Damn. Had Sykes used him to murder his wife under the noses of the whole town?

That couldn’t be the explanation. He was just looking for an easy way to escape the guilt which had dogged him all his life.

But memories seemed to be shifting as the fog in his brain began to clear.

His brothers hadn’t even told him they’d planned to rob the only bank in town. They’d just left him holding the horses while they had gone inside. The robbery must have gone wrong because one moment he’d been eating his apple, the next shots had been fired, killing a bank clerk. The horses had bolted, one sending him flying. When he recovered consciousness it was to find himself staring up at Al’s kicking feet, his brother already in the death throes, the mob which had gathered baying for revenge and retribution. He’d been dragged to his feet and forced to watch Louis die. Somehow he’d broken free and leapt on the man who had appointed himself their executioner, taking Sykes’ gun from its holster.

Dear God. Sykes had killed his brothers. The bastard had strung up his fourteen- and fifteen-year-old brothers.

The blood thumping in his ears, Kimble swallowed hard.

It was some time before he could persuade his memory to move on from the trauma of the event he had never allowed himself to think about in its entirety.

He never had remembered firing that gun, just a terrible pressure against his finger and the sudden jolt as the gun had gone off, knocking him into the body of man at his back. The man who’d pointed the gun at his own wife and pulled the trigger.

Sitting bolt upright, his heart racing, Kimble wiped his face with a shaking hand. If that was true, why had Sykes have spent all these years hunting him down? Unless it really had been a terrible coincidence that Sykes had seen him five years ago? But why did Sykes hate him so much?
Guilt? It didn’t seem likely from Sykes’ current activities. That arm he’d lost. It was the same one Mrs Wahlund had hit. Maybe that’s how Sykes had come to lose it.

His tired brain worrying the problem from every angle, Kimble fell into an uneasy doze until he jolted awake again, his heart racing and with the feeling that he had called out. Images of Sam bleeding to death just out of his reach were still uncomfortably vivid in his mind’s eye.

Slowly calming, he hungrily watched the dark outline of the man on the bed. It was some time before he realized Gerard wasn’t asleep.

“Sam...”

The bedsprings creaked as Gerard moved but he didn’t turn to look at him. “Don’t start, Richard. If I want to hear your voice I’ll be sure to mention it. Talk again and I’ll gag you.”

His face burning with humiliation at the biting contempt in that quiet voice Kimble rested his forehead against the brass foot rail of the bed and waited for the morning and whatever opportunity to escape might present itself.

Chapter Text

TWELVE

 

As they headed for the mining town of Abbeyville, three days ride away, Kimble’s hands were cuffed in front of him for all the world to see. An itch between his shoulder blades, Gerard couldn’t shake off the sense of being watched - and not just by Kimble, who had obviously taken the threat to gag him to heart. The entire day passed without a word being exchanged between them.

The first night back on the trail Gerard did no more than cat-nap while he kept guard, although with Kimble cuffed to a sturdy branch of a paloverde tree he had no worries about the other man escaping. They did without the comfort of coffee and a hot meal in case a fire betrayed them.

By the second day Gerard felt edgy enough to hide high in the rocks off the precipitous route they were taking but the trail behind them remained empty. Because he wasn’t a fool, it had occurred to him that whoever was stalking them must be up ahead - there was only one trail to Abbeyville, which kept close to the creek - or what was left of it until the rains came. Waiting until the light began to fade, he took them back down the way they had ridden. By-passing the comfort of Newhaven he took the shortest route to Palmston, where they could pick up a train almost all the way home.

The route he had selected offered no man-made trail; instead they wound their way through treacherous thickets of scrub oak and alder, with deadly barrel cactus squatting in their midst. After a chilly night, during which Gerard had been hard-pressed to stop his teeth from chattering, the heat of the day was ferocious, the arid air seeming to shimmer, the sun sucking moisture from their bodies.

Knowing he had enemies in plenty from his years spent enforcing the law, Gerard did not waste time speculating about who might be on their trail but the need to be constantly alert was wearing him down.

It was close to midday when necessity forced Kimble to ask Gerard to stop. Retreating into the minimal shelter offered by a clump of squat barrel cactus, whose spines seemed to leap out at the unwary, it was only when he was about to draw down his pants that Kimble realized Gerard had followed him.

“You really enjoy humiliating me, don’t you,” Kimble said, feeling ridiculous with his clothing unfastened, the cuffs making this procedure difficult enough without the added embarrassment of Gerard watching him.

“You humiliated yourself when you broke your promise not to escape. Do what you need to and let’s get on.” But Gerard unfastened the cuffs, then muttered some lame excuse about needing to check on Maverick before he wandered away.

Kimble stared after him, almost overset by that small kindness, gruffly performed as it had been. Thinking of the way he had treated Gerard since leaving Cooksville, the only wonder was that he was still in one piece - but then Sam was a good man. And he must be kept safe.

“I’m done, marshal,” Kimble said a few minutes later, his voice subdued. Standing only a few feet behind Gerard he passively held out his wrists for the cuffs to be refastened.

His mouth compressed, hating everything about this, Gerard clicked the handcuffs back in place before they set off again.

Making camp as it got dark, again they did without a fire. When Kimble needed to retreat into the bushes, Gerard removed his cuffs but he had them waiting when the other man returned to the campsite a short time later.

“Time to put these back on,” he said gruffly, before he cuffed Kimble’s arms behind his back. “Unfortunately there’s no tree strong enough to fasten you to tonight. I know this will make sleeping uncomfortable but you should have thought of that before you broke your word,” he added, as if Kimble had protested.

“Why have you cuffed my hands behind me?” asked Kimble, puzzled.

Dark eyes examined him as if he was some interesting specimen of bug. “So I can be certain you won’t kill me in my sleep.”

Shock slackened Kimble’s jaw, his expression aghast. “Sam, I would never - ”

“Keep your word?” Gerard retreated to his blanket, the cold already eating into his bones.

Shame heating his face, and with no explanation he could offer to the man whose life he was trying to save, Kimble fell silent, but between the cold and Sam’s contempt, he could not settle.

 

The uncomfortable shiftings behind him making it clear Kimble wasn’t asleep, Gerard lay as still as stone, aching with tension as he assessed all the small nighttime sounds. It didn’t feel right treating Kimble this way but he had forfeited any consideration a long time ago, he told himself righteously. When a man broke his word trust was impossible and Richard had betrayed him so many times.

He resolutely steered his thoughts away from those particular memories. They should reach Snake Bend Pass tomorrow. Perfect ambush country. He would need all his wits about him.

He tried to dismiss the edgy feeling which had been dogging him all day; Kimble had never stopped watching him out of those sad eyes and it was driving him crazy. All he wanted was a chance to regroup his defenses, not to ride along with Richard’s unspoken plea to be freed echoing in his ears. He felt as if he had been forcibly relieved of several layers of skin and he needed the chance to recover in private.

A lone coyote began to howl, its call bouncing from rim rock to moonlit rim rock and Gerard’s sense of alienation intensified. In that moment he wished he had never set eyes on Richard Kimble.

 

The rope was getting tighter around his neck and he panicked, even while a detached part of him knew it wasn’t real. There was a flash and a bang and he looked down to see his hand covered in blood. He began to cry and scrubbed at his face, trying to wipe away the moisture, only to find that his face was covered in blood. He could hear a woman screaming and he looked up to find her looming over him, waving a bloodstained bundle at him. Then the face changed and Gerard was lying on the floor, staring accusingly up at Kimble as Sykes sliced open his belly.

Kimble awoke with a yell only to freeze when, by the light of the moon, he saw Gerard watching him without expression. Blinking rapidly to conceal his relief that it had only been a dream, he turned away, curling in on himself to try to generate enough heat to melt the ice in his belly and heart. He flinched when he felt his head touch something warm before he realized it must be Gerard’s fingers. Almost as if Sam had been reaching out to him... Hardly daring to breathe, Kimble remained where he was while blunt-tipped fingers offered the most fleeting of caresses.

 

Hearing the coughing roar of a mountain lion, Gerard quietly left his bedroll to calm the nervous horses before checking the camp. Trying to seem unconscious of the man watching him from the other bedroll, inevitably he had to glance over once, the unearthly glow cast by the moon enough to reveal the discomfort on Kimble’s face. He stifled his instinct to go to Kimble; it was time to use some common sense. Experience had shown that he couldn’t trust Richard any more than he could have trusted Judd. Time to stop deluding himself and concentrate on the job of taking Kimble back to Cooksville.

 

The following morning there was an unnerving amount of life on Kimble’s face.

“Morning, Sam. Look, I’m real sorry about breaking my word to you but I had good reason if you’ll just let me explain. See - ”

Busy saddling up, as if hoping to escape difficult thoughts in motion, Gerard’s expression grew stonier and stonier. His nerves rubbed raw, his patience snapped. “I warned you what would happen if you didn’t keep your mouth shut.” He unfastened his bandana and used it to gag Kimble, knotting the fabric tightly behind the other man’s head.

Kimble’s protest was cut-off when the gag pinned down his tongue. He tried to struggle but his cuffed hands left him with little leeway. Oh Jesus. How was he going to tell Sam now? If only he’d told him before... He swallowed hard, the gag cutting into the corners of his mouth where it had been tied so tightly.

Gerard’s hands were shaking as he got them underway, steadfast in his refusal to feel guilty. Of course, it was typical of the exasperating son-of-a-bitch that Richard’s gaze should be more eloquent than the speech of most men. Staring straight ahead, Gerard concentrated more on not flicking glances Kimble’s way than on the trail ahead.

Despite the difficult terrain as they began the slow, winding ascent up Snake Bend Pass they made such good time that by mid-morning they were close to the summit. An increasing sense of unease distracted Gerard, who returned his full attention to all the small signs of life around them - from the rattlesnake basking in the sun to the flies settled on the carcase of a tiny lizard.

Only when they reached the summit did he let them rest up. The desert behind them, ahead the land showed more signs of green, becoming richer and richer until it was bursting with life close to the river. Tasting grit from the thin, hot wind which had set up, Gerard got them underway back down. Reminded of their insignificance by the towering walls of striated sandstone, the peaks of some smoothed into strange shapes by the elements, he kept up as fast a pace as he dared. They were over halfway down when they rounded the corner and gained a view of the storm clouds approaching with a frightening rapidity. Only then did it occur to him that his unease might be due to this natural phenomenon. Not wishing to be caught in this exposed spot by a storm that could last for twenty- four hours - longer if they were unlucky - Gerard took them the rest of the way down by the shortest, if more dangerous, trail as fast as was prudent.

His sure-footed Maverick became increasingly skittish as malevolent-looking clouds gathered to blot out the sun until it became as dark as night. The crack and roar of the thunder were of near deafening proportions while lightning sizzled, forking across the sky with such power and brilliance that the very clouds seemed to dance.

Searching for shelter in this godforsaken spot, the best Gerard could find was a small cave, which would offer a degree of protection from a direct strike. The cave looked just large enough for two riders and their horses, although the sheer rock walls had the unfortunate effect of magnifying the noise, which had risen to mind-numbing proportions.

It took both men some time and considerable effort to subdue their terrified mounts but eventually the horses quietened with slickers wrapped around their heads. Breathing heavily, having acquired several bruises from his struggle with Maverick, Gerard glanced up and met Richard’s wry expression. Without being aware of what he was doing, he smiled an acknowledgment before Maverick jerked skittishly, demanding all his attention again.

By the time the storm moved on both men were tired from the struggle to subdue their frightened horses but they remounted, the lure of fresh water the only spur they needed.

Four more hours brought them to the river, which the summer heat had shrunk to a fifth of its usual size and power.

Despite the amount of daylight left for traveling Gerard elected to make camp on a small plateau that was more of less clear of the deadly barrel cactus. It was a poor site but he was tired and low in spirits and in need of a chance to regroup his defenses. Besides, Richard looked exhausted.

The storm had done little to clear the air, an itch to Gerard’s skin suggesting it was only a matter of time before it returned. All his attention ostensibly on Maverick, he continued to groom her long after her mane was untangled and her coat gleaming. He was uncomfortably aware of Kimble only a few feet away, although he had not allowed himself to glance in Kimble’s direction. He tensed when he heard an indrawn hiss of discomfort. With no wish to make a production of his concern he allowed two or three minutes to elapse before he glanced across to where Kimble was feeding Red some treat. Kimble’s handcuffed wrists were a mess of cut and swollen flesh after his struggle to subdue Red, his indrawn mouth making it obvious he was in some pain.

“Wait up,” said Gerard into the silence, his gruff voice imperfectly hiding his concern. “The horses have been spooked enough for one day without hearing the clink of those things.”

Trying to avoid hurting the other man, it took Gerard two attempts to unfasten the handcuffs. Intensely aware of being under unblinking surveillance, he felt all fingers and thumbs. His self-conscious scowl intensified when he looked up and met Kimble’s steady-eyed regard. It was only then that Gerard realized the other man had been gagged, and without water since early morning. Muttering silently to himself, he unfastened the gag, moistened it with water from the canteen and began to dab it against the bruised and cut mouth.

His tongue feeling huge, his mouth dry as baked rock, it was some time before Kimble was able to speak. As he croaked his thanks he inadvertently twisted the knife of guilt currently stabbing Gerard.

“Ssh, drink this,” muttered Gerard, handing over his canteen. “Take small mouthfuls. Too much at one time will make you sick.”

Slumped on the ground, Kimble resisted the urge to drain the canteen in one go. In between sips of water he flexed his stiffened jaw, his facial muscles sore and aching.

Having found plenty of tinder-dry wood that would create no smoke, Gerard set about making a fire in a spot where there was the least chance of the light being seen.

Without even being aware of it Kimble fell into a light sleep.

When he blinked awake Gerard was hunkered beside the fire, a tin mug barely visibly in one large hand. His downbent face half-lit by the flames of the fire, his remarkable eyelashes cast deep shadows on his strongly marked cheekbones; he looked alone and appallingly vulnerable. Because it was beyond him to stand by while anyone was in pain, Kimble slowly moved to crouch beside the man seemingly capable of remaining as still as the rock itself. Without glancing up Gerard reached for the coffee pot, refilling and passing the mug to Kimble before gesturing to where the sugar sat.

There was an odd intimacy to sharing the simple comfort of a fire and coffee in Sam’s company. Kimble’s sense of contentment collapsed when he remembered why it was imperative he confront Sykes. But to do that he had to leave and to be able to leave he had to catch Sam off-guard. Looking up, he caught Gerard watching him and met a look of such blazing intensity that it drove all thoughts but one from his head.

“Sam,” he groaned, all the blood in his body pooling in his groin.

“Forget it,” growled Gerard, immediately on the defensive.

“How can I?” returned Kimble with simplicity. Unable to stop himself, he leaned in to the other man.

Gerard flinched when fingers stroked the nape of his neck, his head whipping around, his eyes dark with disillusion. “Save it for someone who cares. I’m not - ”

He was never given the chance to finish, Kimble swooping in to cover the parted lips with his own as his tongue curled into Gerard’s mouth, owning him. Outrage at Kimble’s audacity kept Gerard still for just long enough. Kimble ended the possessive, invasive kiss as abruptly as he had begun it, although he remained disconcertingly close.

“Always thinking of duty. What about you? Who takes care of you? You should have someone to love you. Someone who’ll keep you safe. Someone who loves you.” His voice a velvety caress, Kimble cupped Gerard’s face in his hands. “It should be me, Sam, you hear me? It should be me. I love you the way you should be loved. I’d take care of you.”

“I just bet you would,” retorted Gerard, jerking his head free. He shoved Kimble hard enough to send the off-balance man onto his back. “You must be real desperate to meet this someone of yours if you’re prepared to make a whore of yourself. Love me? I’d sooner bed with a diamondback. Settle on your bedroll. Don’t even think of trying anything else or I’ll shoot you down. You just about crossed all boundaries with that little trick.” His pain was all the greater because for a few precious seconds he had believed himself to be loved, that the greatest of all the lies Richard had ever told him.

“Don’t,” he said, when he saw Kimble open his mouth. To his relief Richard had the sense to heed the warning because he no longer trusted his own controls.

 

Disorientated from the heaviness of his sleep, it took Gerard a moment to place his surroundings because he had been dreaming about Kimble - dreaming that they were together at the ranch. Together and happy. When would he learn?

Through the acid-green foliage of the young cottonwoods which screened their camp he glimpsed Kimble quietly saddling Red. With only seconds to decide how to prevent Kimble from leaving, because shooting him wasn’t a realistic option, despite the temptation, Gerard reached for the lariat he kept looped over the pommel of the saddle he had been using as a headrest.

Unnoticed by the man engrossed in tightening Red’s girth, Gerard noiselessly padded to a position where the rope wouldn’t get snagged in vegetation and spun out a loop. The lariat sang through the hot, still air before settling over Kimble’s head and dropping down over his upper arms as neat as shrugging into a comfortable jacket.

When the rope tightened around him Kimble gave a choked cry of pure panic, the sense of being trapped throwing him back to the terrors of his childhood. As he fought to free himself the rope caught on the collar of his jacket. His frenzied struggles rapidly turned the loop into a noose.

Releasing his hold on the rope Gerard ran to where Richard was writhing on the ground in mindless panic. The disquieting sounds issuing from his open mouth made the hair on the back of Gerard’s neck stand on end.

Unsettled by the commotion the horses shied away as far as their halters permitted; in the process Red stepped on a portion of the rope, tightening it again. Kimble reacted to the pressure like a crazed thing. Already sprawled on his back, he went loco in an uncoordinated battle with some unseen enemy. As he arched and writhed he succeeded only in trapping himself further. Reaching for the rope Gerard was caught by a violently thrashing leg. Unprepared, the ground came rushing up too quickly for him to be able to break his fall and his face smacked into the stony ground, drawing a grunt from him as the pain made his eyes water. Oblivious to the blood dripping from the gash under his chin, he launched himself at Kimble, terrified the other man would strangle himself. He managed to partially pin one shoulder before gradually subduing him.

Lost in his own private hell Kimble’s sounds of distress held little that was human. Choking on the dust storm Richard had raised, and distraught at seeing the man he loved reduced to this, Gerard was forced to use every ounce of strength to keep Kimble on his back, and even then he couldn’t subdue him totally. Having run out of options he punched Kimble on the jaw, the force of the blow snapping his head to one side and temporarily stunning him.

When Kimble went limp Gerard slumped, trying to catch his breath as he freed the other man. It took some time to ease the noose open; the coarse hemp had abraded Richard’s neck and the rope was smeared with blood. Kimble lay lax as a rag doll beneath him, his unfocussed gaze on some far-off place, his mouth slack.

Gerard’s head bowed as he accepted that it was his actions over the last few weeks which had brought Richard to this.

 

Inhaling with gratitude air that seemed sweet despite the strong presence of sweat and horse dung, Kimble slowly regained a sense of where he was. Various sore spots making themselves felt, he tried to escape the small lumps of rock digging into the small of his back and winced as he became aware of new cuts and scrapes. The raw abrasion on his neck barely registered because by then he had realized that the warm weight pinning him down belonged to Gerard. Still trying to work out what had happened, Kimble placed his fingers to the pulse point under the other man’s jaw; it was fast but steady and he remembered to breathe again. Gerard’s face was hidden from view but Kimble could feel him shuddering and he caressed the back of the bowed head with a filthy hand.

“It’s all right, Sam. Whatever it is, we’ll sort it out,” he promised, surprised that his throat should be so sore.

Recalled to their physical proximity Gerard slid free of Kimble with an obvious effort before he subsided beside him, as slack and uncoordinated as a marionette whose strings had been severed.

It was then that Kimble got his first good look at Gerard’s face. His eyes widening as he scanned those much loved features, he absorbed the outward signs of injury, only now beginning to suspect how much deeper they might go. There was blood running down Sam’s cheek from a cut over his right eyebrow and more, far more, streaked down his throat and chest from a deep gash under his chin. His eyes blank, Sam gave no sign that he was aware of his injuries but he was still shivering, his large hands visibly unsteady. Those mute betrayals of the depths of his distress drew Kimble from his self-preoccupation as nothing else could have done. His mind wonderfully clear after the extremity of terror he had suffered, he knew it could have been no easier for Gerard. Sam had the look of a man who had just seen his worst nightmare come true.

Waiting for his strength to return before he tried to make things right, Kimble gave a puzzled frown when Gerard fumbled with the dusty marshal’s badge pinned to his vest. Removing it, he tucked it from sight in a pocket.

“You’re free to go, doctor.” His face devoid of life, he sounded tired beyond belief.

It was then that Kimble discovered his ability to move. Pushing himself up into a sitting position he leaned forward until his hand closed over the bare flesh of Gerard’s forearm, where his shirt sleeve had been ripped. “I’m sorry, Sam,” he whispered. “So very sorry.”

“I know,” said Gerard in the same flattened voice. “So am I. You should think about leaving soon.”

He tried not to notice how close Kimble was sitting to him, or the protective way Richard’s body curved around his own. He wasn’t the one in need of protection. Belatedly becoming aware that his hands were shaking, and of his shaming inability to control that, Gerard locked them together. Looking up, it was then that he noticed the quantity of blood soaked into the other man’s shirtfront.

“How badly are you hurt?” he demanded. An expression he could not account for crossed Kimble’s face - gentleness mixed with exasperation, and something beneath both that he was wary of giving name.

“I’m fine. This is your blood. You’re the one who got hurt.”

“Yeah? That’s all right then,” said Gerard, losing interest.

“The hell it is,” choked Kimble.

Taking Gerard in a fierce embrace and soaking up the blissful warmth of him, Kimble was disconcerted by how close Sam’s bones were to his skin. While Gerard made no effort to escape, nor did he try to respond. Drawing back a few inches, Kimble touched Gerard’s bruised cheek with gentle fingers.

“I know you’ll find this hard to believe after what I’ve put you through but I do love you.” His emotion-husky voice shook with the intensity of feeling he was trying to contain.

“It doesn’t matter,” said Gerard flatly, before what he had been told sank in. “You do?” The naked surprise on his face seared like a brand.

Kimble stilled the impulse to reach out at the last moment because he couldn’t be certain the intimacy would be welcome. “Oh, God. What have I done to you?” he whispered, aghast. “Of course I love you.” His voice cracked, then steadied again. “I’ve loved you for so long that I can’t place the moment it happened.”

His lack of comprehension obvious, Gerard continued to stare at him. Then he was being kissed; tentative, sweet, heart-stealing kisses - except he had given his heart away a long time ago, expecting nothing in return.

Making soft, inarticulate noises deep in his throat Kimble wrapped the other man close. “I love you, Sam.”

Hearing the truth of it in that velvety voice, Gerard came to life. Feeding from Kimble’s mouth like a man starved, his large hands framed Kimble’s head with an aching tenderness. Lack of air finally drew them apart.

“I’m sorry for everything I’ve put you through. I should have talked to you. Should have explained. I never meant to hurt you, Sam. Never.”

A large hand covered Kimble’s mouth. “I believe you. I do.”

His eyes too bright, Kimble stared at him in wonder. “I didn’t expect you to make it so easy for me.”

Gerard gave him a quizzical look. “If I’ve learned anything on this journey it’s that life’s too short to waste any of it nursing a grudge.” About to rub his chin, he visibly thought the better of it; his grimace redirected Kimble’s attention.

“I need to check these cuts on your face while there’s still enough light to see what I’m doing. Do you have any ointment I can use? Only I lost my medical bag in - ”

“I know. I have it. It’s wrapped in my slicker,” Gerard interrupted him. While still pale with shock, he had lost that deadened look which had so worried Kimble. “A doctor shouldn’t have to be without the tools of his trade. There’s no telling when his skills might be needed.” He was made all the gruffer by the expression on Kimble’s face. It was something of a relief to escape that and return the bag to its rightful owner.

Checking what supplies were available to him Kimble swallowed hard when he noted that the basic medicines which had been running low had been replenished. He boiled some water and meticulously washed his hands, experience having taught him that it seemed to reduce the amount of infection and fever in patients. His touch as gentle as he knew how he began to clean Gerard’s face before examining his injuries. The cut under Sam’s chin went deep and was obviously painful but the bleeding had stopped so Kimble decided to leave the cut to see if nature would do her work unaided.

“You’ve hurt your neck,” said Gerard gruffly. “Let me put some of that ointment over the worst spots.”

“Thanks. It burns like fury,” Kimble admitted.

Shrugging out of his ruined shirt, he offered up his neck for Gerard’s touch. The concentration on Sam’s face combined with the clumsy delicacy with which he applied the ointment brought a lump to Kimble’s throat.

“Why did you take off your marshal’s badge earlier?” he asked into the silence.

Gerard replaced the jar of ointment in the bag. “Because I forfeited the right to wear it. When I set off after you I knew you were innocent of attacking Annabelle. I just needed an excuse to come after you and make you stay with me.”

“But - ”

“Don’t make excuses for me, Richard. I’m not proud of the way I’ve mistreated you. You’d best make tracks.” Gerard tried to inject a note of briskness into his voice. He succeeded only in sounding even more unhappy.

Kimble stared at him with disbelief. “You can’t let me go. I murdered a pregnant woman. I confessed!”

Gerard gave him a level look. “You tell me you killed her so I have to believe you. But I don’t think you told me everything. It’s my opinion it happened a long time ago. A very long time ago. And that it was an accident for which you blame yourself. You’re not a cold-blooded killer and you never have been. It isn’t in you. I just wish I could have seen that right away.”

Caught on a surge of conflicting emotions, Kimble nodded, tried to speak and discovered he could not trust his voice to hold steady. While Sam’s uncompromising statement of faith was just what he needed, it overset his shaky controls. He began to cry in a painful, unpracticed kind of way.

An expression in his eyes few people had been privileged to see, Gerard finally began to feel of some use to his lover as he took Richard in a protective embrace.

Anchored by the arms holding him, Kimble rubbed his wet face on Sam’s shirt. His breath still catching, he began to mutter broken phrases into Gerard’s neck.

Continuing to soothe the other man, Gerard pieced information together as best he could. As the enormity of the monstrous trick Sykes had placed on a nine-year-old boy became clear, Gerard continued to circle the back of Kimble’s hand with his thumb, but there was the promise of slow death for Sykes in his eyes. It didn’t take much deductive reasoning to figure out who must have attacked Annabelle and burned Quintum’s Leap to the ground.

Heavy with fatigue, Kimble’s voice began to peter out. “I’m so tired,” he mumbled.

“I know,” murmured Gerard, the murderous look absent from his eyes as he smiled at the man in his arms. “Sleep now. We’re safe. Just sleep.”

“But Sykes is out there somewhere. Somewhere close. I can feel him.”

“I believe you. Don’t worry. I’ll keep a lookout for Mister Sykes,” Gerard promised, a dangerous edge to his softened voice.

Easing away a fraction, Kimble slid his hands up and down Gerard’s torso, as if to assure himself that Sam was safe. “Sykes is a dangerous man.”

Gerard took a patient breath. “Some people would say the same thing about me. No, hear me out,” he added when Kimble would have interrupted him. “I appreciate your concern but I’ve been a lawman for close on sixteen years.”

“I know, I know,” conceded Kimble, still smoothing Gerard’s shirt. “But Sykes is an evil son-of-a-bitch. He’s tortured and killed total strangers, just for the pleasure of it. He threatened to kill you if you got in his way.” Remembered horror colored his voice.

“You met him?”

“Jeez, Sam. Ease up,” winced Kimble, finding himself caught in a vise-like grip.

Gerard rubbed his palms up and down over the flesh he knew he must have bruised. “You gonna answer the question now?” he inquired, refusing to be diverted.

Recognizing as much, Kimble answered him with obvious reluctance. “He was in Newhaven. I literally walked into him. He’s the reason I had to leave Cooksville in a way that meant you wouldn’t want to follow me. Which is why I wrote you that terrible letter. He’s the reason I had to break my word to you,” he added, a tinge of color in his bearded cheeks.

Comprehension relaxed the stern lines of Gerard’s face. He traced his thumb over Richard’s lower lip, careful to avoid the cut he had inflicted. “I should have known you would have good reason. I never should have doubted you.”

The faintest of smiles lit Kimble’s tired eyes. “You think I blame you?”

Gerard ruffled his lover’s hair. “No. And I’m hoping you’re gonna be this understanding about mistakes I make during the rest of our lives together.”

There was pure relief in Kimble’s soft exhalation. “You have no idea how good that sounds.”

Gerard gave him a crooked half-smile. “You’d be surprised.” About to say more, he lost his nerve. He told himself it was too soon but in reality he was afraid. Richard had hurt him so many times he was wary of Richard’s reaction. Because he was too tired to think of guarding his expression, his thought processes were mirrored on his face.

Kimble had to look away from the sight but the knowledge of how greatly he had hurt Sam enabled him to start talking. He spoke quickly, words tripping over one another, as if afraid his nerve would fail him.

“If I could undo some of things I’ve done and said to you, I would. And I’d understand if you’d had enough of me. But if... If you haven’t, would it be all right if I came back to Cooksville with you? To stay, I mean. With you. If you’ll have me.”

It seemed typical of Gerard’s generosity of spirit that he made no pretense of having to think about his decision.

“Oh, I’ll have you. The problem is, I don’t intend to let go again any time in the next forty years.”

Kimble risked looking up then, although his smile was shakier than he would have liked. “That’s fine by me. I never want to have to travel anywhere again.”

“That’s lucky,” said Gerard dryly.

Reveling in the possessive quality in the other man’s voice, Kimble gave an untroubled grin. Abruptly what little energy that remained to him seeped away. His attempt to disguise the fact didn’t fool Gerard for a moment.

“Time you got some rest,” he said prosaically. “Save it, Richard. You need sleep. We’ve said everything that’s important.”

Kimble blinked sleepily. “That would be when I agreed with you,” he hazarded.

Busy setting out the bedrolls with the minimum of fuss, Gerard nodded. “That would be it. Here, I’ll pull off your boots.”

“You don’t need to.”

“I know. Now sit down before you fall down.”

Feeling too drained to argue, Kimble frowned when Gerard settled his own blanket over him. “You’ll need that yourself.”

“No. I’m going to keep watch. So don’t worry if you hear movement around the camp. It will just be me.”

“I’ll sleep sound knowing you’re out there.”

That unthinking declaration of faith brought a light to Gerard’s eyes. While he tried to hide it, his pleased smile refused to remain hidden. “Thanks,” he muttered, torn between embarrassment and pleasure.

“No need to thank me for the truth.”

“Before you sleep, you best take this.” Gerard held out one of his Peacemakers.

His revulsion instant, Kimble swallowed his instinctive rejection. His own feelings weren’t important right now; what mattered most was keeping Sam from harm. Concentrating on the broad fingers of his lover, he took the gun with a silent nod - a private affirmation that he would do whatever was necessary to keep Sam alive. When he finally trusted himself to glance at the man hunkered beside him Gerard’s look of acknowledgment felt like a caress.

Oddly comforted, Kimble was lulled to sleep by the quiet sounds Gerard made as he checked on the horses.

 

It was still dark when Kimble awoke and it took him a moment to place where he was. The temperature had plummeted and he was grateful for the second blanket and his proximity to the fire, which was sending out a good heat. Blearily identifying objects around the campsite, his gaze settled on the motionless dark shadow beyond the fire. Something about Gerard’s stance was all too familiar, the doctor in Kimble wide awake before the rest of him had a chance to catch up. Rising from his bedroll and stumbling when he discovered his sore body was less cooperative than he had anticipated, he went over to Gerard.

“I know you’re in pain so don’t bother denying it. Given how deep that gash under your chin went I’m not surprised. I should have given you something for it earlier. Why didn’t you wake me?”

Maintaining a low-voiced stream of chatter, as much for his own benefit as for Gerard’s, Kimble collected up his medical bag, selecting what he needed from it by the light of the fire.

“I’ll keep watch while you take this and get some sleep.”

“Richard...”

“What? You think I can’t keep you safe? That I’d risk your life?”

“Of course not.” Swallowing down the measure of laudanum and water he was handed, Gerard grimaced, only then recognizing the trap set for him. But he made no further argument. The nerve, rawly throbbing under his jaw had left his entire face feeling as if it was on fire.

“Moving your jaw must be real uncomfortable right now,” said Kimble.

“One thing about doctors, you can always rely on them to state the obvious,” muttered Gerard ungraciously.

Kimble gave a crooked grin. “That’s a ‘yes’ then.” Cupping the ball of Gerard’s shoulder as he unconsciously caressed the bone and sinew he watched as the laudanum took effect and the pain-induced tension on Gerard’s face eased. Ten minutes later he was crouched beside the man already asleep, marveling at the trust Sam had displayed in him.

 

Sunrise found Kimble pissing down the steep slope at the edge of camp, his interest in nature’s majesty secondary to the demands of his achingly full bladder. He had spent the entire night circling the perimeter of their campsite, his nerves jangled by every small sound. Inevitably, with the lure of water so close to where they were camped, there had been a lot of noises to startle him as wildlife came to drink. His jitters had been soothed by the soft snores emanating from Gerard, who had yet to stir. It wasn’t to be wondered at, Kimble conceded as he refastened his pants. He’d given Sam enough laudanum to fell an ox.

Conscious of the weight of the Peacemaker in his belt, and still wondering if he would be able to bring himself to fire it if he had to, Kimble checked out the camp before widening his visual search.

The sound of fast-running water trickling over rocks at the river’s edge made him cast another look of longing at the river. He wanted a bath. And to change out of his rank clothing. His attention caught by his scuffed and filthy boots, he tried to clean one by standing on one leg while he rubbed the leather on the calf of his pants. If anything it looked worse when he finished.

He’d buy a new pair of boots. Hell, he needed an entire new wardrobe - only this time one suited to... Who? He’d been using an assumed name since he was a boy. In the last five years he’d changed his name so many times he’d lost count of all the aliases he’d used, turning his hand to all kinds of jobs because his chosen career had made him too easy to identify. But in Cooksville he had been himself, in more ways than one. It seemed appropriate that in the town that was going to become his home, he should have reverted to the name he liked best and the career he had trained for. Besides, Sam had fallen in love with Richard Kimble. Damn it, he felt as if he was Richard Kimble. Anyway, it would get kind of complicated if he had to explain a change of name to the townsfolk. They needed to be able to trust their doctor.

So, he needed a new wardrobe of clothes suited to the dandy, Richard Kimble. Maybe he’d hunt out some more of those fancy ruffled shirts. Sam hadn’t been able to take his eyes off them.

Kimble paused to study his sleeping lover, losing several minutes in the process. Rightly suspecting himself to be wearing a fatuous grin, he didn’t give a damn. Boy, did he have it - Sam Gerard - bad. Even more amazing was the fact Sam felt the same way about him, despite everything he’d put him through.

His expression softened as Gerard twitched in his sleep and he hunkered down to draw the blankets up a little higher over him. It was reassuring to know Sam didn’t snore too loud, particularly as he would have to live with it for the next forty years.

This was the first time he’d dared to think about the future since he’d set eyes on Sykes five years ago. Damn the man for tricking him into believing he’d murdered a pregnant woman. And for plaguing his dreams. For...

The hell with Sykes. Sam was liable to take up all his attention. He was too used to being a fugitive; now it was time to concentrate on being a lover. Sam’s lover.

The stirring of the horses recalled Kimble to their needs. Petting both animals, he took them down to the river to drink, then groomed them before tethering them again.

Returning to the camp, he made some coffee. With Quintum’s Leap burned to the ground he had nowhere to live, which should make moving in with Sam a whole lot easier to explain. Two bachelors, both with their ‘secret’ sorrows to keep them out of the clutches of the mothers with daughters to marry off. He and Sam, living together at El Corazón...

Light-headed with what he had put down to happiness, it belatedly occurred to Kimble that the sensation might owe something to hunger. Probably because he couldn’t remember the last time he had eaten anything. Setting his hat firmly on his head, he caught a whiff of his own scent and grimaced. He stank worse than a day dead polecat. Retrieving his soap, razor and clean clothing, he headed back down to the river, moving downstream to avoid polluting their drinking and cooking water.

 

Feeling more human in his last clean shirt and pants, and smelling strongly of nothing worse than soap, Kimble pulled on his second boot, stomping the ground to ensure a perfect fit. Glancing up, he froze when he saw the black mare looking at him from the opposite side of the river.

Shit. Maverick. He couldn’t have tethered her properly. Sam would kill him if anything happened to her. Crooning the sort of nonsense he’d heard Gerard serenade her with, Kimble splashed across the shallow stretch of water and clambered up the bank. Maverick studied him with interest, allowed him to approach within five feet, then danced backward, enjoying the attention.

Chapter Text

THIRTEEN

 

Pain threatening to split his skull in two, his arms feeling as if they were being wrenched from their sockets, Gerard tried to blink the blood from his eyes as he discovered his feet weren’t touching the ground. Everything was blurred, spikes of light making him wince. His sight eventually cleared enough for him to see he was hanging between two sturdy oaks, his full weight taken by his outstretched arms, the rope bonds extending from wrist to elbow. The muscles of his shoulders and back jumping with strain told him he must have been tied like this for some time.

Richard. Where the hell was Richard? Turning his head wrenched a grunt of discomfort from him.

“So you’re finally awake. You might come to regret that,” gloated a harsh voice.

Squinting against the pain, the gag he wore cutting into the sides of his mouth, Gerard turned his head and groaned as pain shot up his neck. Eventually he was able to make out the rifle pointing in his direction - irrelevant, given he was trussed tighter than the Thanksgiving turkey. Still seeing two of everything, he tried to focus on the man behind the rifle, the unwashed reek of him an affront because it was so reminiscent of carrion.

The rifle barrel pressed under his jaw, forcing up his head. One arm. The man only had one arm. This must be Sykes.

Where the hell was Richard? Jesus. Was he already dead?

Woozy from laudanum and the blow to his head, grief almost overwhelmed Gerard. Richard was dead. Richard had died while he’d been sleeping.

“Are you listening to me, marshal? I’ve never had me a marshal to play with before. Just the occasional sheriff, though the last one upped and died before I’d had a chance to get started on him. Once I’ve dealt with ‘Kimble’ as the Jones brat calls himself now, I can start on you. Or maybe I’ll let him watch while I see to you. What do you think?” His eyes bright with anticipation, Sykes’ gloated over his captive, running the barrel of the rifle down Gerard’s torso and jabbing a tender spot whenever the fancy took him.

Gerard was so busy testing the knots of the ropes that he hardly noticed. Half-blinded by pain and drying blood, he struggled to keep his eyes open.

Richard was alive. Sykes hadn’t killed him.

But if Richard was alive he could walk in on this at any time. Fastened with his back to the camp, all he overlooked was the steep drop down the hill into mesquite scrub; Gerard did his best to concentrate. Try as he might he could hear little above the thunder of the pulse drumming in his ears but he was just alert enough to recognize that Sykes was using him as a Judas goat to lure Richard out into the open. It would work, too.

At least Richard was armed. Yeah, right. He couldn’t even be sure Richard knew how to fire a gun, let alone whether he’d be willing to - particularly after believing he’d killed Sykes’ pregnant wife. That said, when Richard put his mind to something...

Pain as the rifle butt crashed against his head, left Gerard slumped unconscious again.

 

Shaking with terror on Sam’s behalf, Kimble’s face was set with determination, the borrowed Peacemaker steady in his head. There was no doubt in his mind that he would do whatever was necessary to protect Gerard but at present Sykes was protected by Sam’s body.

Somehow he had to coax Sykes out - even give him a target, if necessary. Except he couldn’t risk being so badly hurt that he couldn’t deal with Sykes and free Sam...

Scanning the area, he noted the shoulder-height scree of fallen rocks. If he could create a decoy, then throw a stone to that spot at the right moment it might give him all the advantage he needed. Sykes wouldn’t expect him to be armed, let alone capable of firing. Sykes was used to the cringing coward who tried to hide...

His years on the run having taught him stealth, Kimble made it to the shelter of the rocks without Sykes’ spotting him. This vantage spot offered no better sight of Sykes - just a clearer view of the blood streaking Gerard’s face.

Making use of some small saplings, Kimble lashed two together in a crude cross, fastened it to the ground and tucked his hat and jacket over it. Pocketing several small pieces of rock, he was easing his way back to his former position when he heard the muffled sound of pain Gerard made as Sykes jabbed him in the belly with the tip of the rifle barrel.

Instinct took over. “Let him go, Sykes!”

The rifle barrel swung up over Gerard’s shoulder, a portion of Sykes’ face coming into view.

“So there you are, boy! I’ve been keeping myself entertained while I waited for you to get back. You want him, you come and get him, while there’s still something to get. There’s not much meat on him. The knife should slip in, soft as butter.”

Sweating with fear for Sam, Kimble was comfortingly reminded that with only one arm, Sykes could only hold the rifle - his knife was still in his belt.

“I could come out but how do I know you won’t kill me?” called Kimble, willing Sykes to change position.

An obscene chuckle crossed the clearing. “Oh, that’s good. You owe me a blood-debt, boy.”

“I owe you nothing,” said Kimble flatly. “You bastard. You lied to me. I didn’t kill your wife, you did.”

“You finally figured it out, huh?” Sykes sounded no more than amused.

“Eventually. You aimed the gun, you depressed the trigger. You shot your own wife!”

“In front of the whole town. I got away with it, too,” said Sykes. “Only you - ” what could be seen of his face was frowning now “ - you were supposed to die. You would have but for that interfering bitch who shot me. Then I had to make a run for it. It took me three days to find a place I could hide-out by which time my arm had gone bad. I lost my fucking arm because of you!” he howled as he lashed out at Gerard, shocking him back to consciousness.

Kimble aimed and fired.

 

His sense fogged by the pain thumping through his head, Gerard heard a roar, followed by a cry and the sound of a body falling.

Richard.

Richard was dead.

A broken cry escaping him, Gerard went berserk. Trying to free himself with the single-minded desperation of a wolf in a trap, he swung himself around despite the ropes binding him. All he succeeded in doing was wrenching his left shoulder from its socket. His vision spiked red, agony stealing away his ability to breathe, he steeled himself for one final effort. Pain blotted out everything until mercifully he lost consciousness, sagging forward in the ropes which held him.

 

“Sam!” Skidding down the slope in his haste, Kimble picked himself up and raced across the clearing, one stride taking him over Sykes’ body. He didn’t need to pause to check if the man was dead - his shot had taken out the back of Sykes’ head.

Muttering feverishly as he cut Gerard down, staggering under the weight of the unconscious figure, he settled Gerard on the ground. His hands unsteady, he grimaced when he noted the dislocated shoulder. Before he saw to that he made himself perform a thorough examination, checking for other injuries. The gash on Gerard’s head was obviously the most serious; his hair was matted with blood and the site of the injury swollen.

Having seen men die from head wounds less severe than this, Kimble tried to control his panic as he cradled the unconscious man. There was virtually no treatment he could offer beyond cleaning the wound and trying to keep Sam conscious. For some reason it was best not to administer pain-killers and to ensure people with head wounds didn’t sleep too deep. Except that Sam was unconscious, his system still full of the laudanum he’d dosed him with last night.

Knowing it would help no-one if he panicked, Kimble concentrated on the one injury he could do something for. Bracing Gerard’s back against the trunk of an oak tree, he took a firm hold of his arm. Using a mixture of manipulation and brute force, he felt the click as the arm slipped back into its socket.

Sweating heavily, although the unconscious man hadn’t stirred, he meticulously cleaned the ugly head wound and manufactured a sling from his shirt for the injured arm. Boiling water and ripping another shirt into rags, he resorted to a tried and tested technique for cleaning wounds and added salt to the water. For some reason it helped to prevent infection, although it stung like fury. While Gerard didn’t recover consciousness, the salt water made him twitch in an uncoordinated attempt to escape the source of discomfort.

Having ensured Sam was as comfortable as it was possible to make him, Kimble was left with nothing to do but will Gerard to recover consciousness in his right mind, with all his faculties intact.

After two hours Kimble paced with no pretense of medical detachment. Gerard was showing no sign of regaining consciousness and although there was no other immediate cause for concern he couldn’t stop himself from worrying.

Thunder rolled across the plain, lightning hissing venomously as it ripped through the multi-layered clouds. Weighing up the risk of moving Gerard or leaving him under a tree that might suffer a lightning strike, Kimble opted to leave him where he was. But he kept a wary eye on the path of the storm.

A too familiar sickly stench reminded him of the dead man; the ants and flies were already busy on the carcase, which had begun to putrefy in the fierce heat. The body would have to be moved away from the camp - and buried to avoid attracting predators, or the dangers of disease.

The last thing Kimble wanted to do was leave Gerard alone while he disposed of Sykes’ body but he could see no alternative. Removing Sykes’ jacket he tied it around the ruined head to avoid leaving a bloody trail. Grasping the body by its ankles he dragged it away in the opposite direction from the camp and the river, his muscles cording because Sykes had been a heavy man. Grunting with the effort, Kimble was never sure how far he had to drag the corpse before he found a spot where there was enough top soil and loose shale to create a grave. Returning to the camp, he took the shovel from the pack beside Maverick, checked on Gerard once more and went back to dispose of Sykes’ body.

 

Gerard shuddered back to consciousness, Kimble’s first name on his lips. The pain in his head reduced to a dull roar, his vision was so blurred he seemed to be looking at the world through a thick sea mist, which fogged everything.

There was no sign of Kimble.

Unable to hear much above the thunder of blood in his ears, and terrified that Kimble might be bleeding to death only a few feet away, Gerard tried to stand and promptly fell over. The pain which shot through his head and left arm was severe enough to drag a whimper from him. Gritting his teeth, he tried to get to his feet and fell again. The third time he conceded defeat and began to crawl, determined to find what had become of Kimble. He was too disorientated to question how he came to be free.

 

It was only as he placed the last rock over grave that it occurred to Kimble that perhaps he should feel something about burying the man he had killed. His only emotion was relief that Sam was alive - and revulsion at Sykes’ gloating confession of evil. Having pushed himself to work at top speed, uneasy about leaving Gerard alone, he didn’t waste time on further reflection. Snatching up the shovel, he headed back to the camp at a run.

Slipping and sliding because he had rounded a bend too fast, he stopped dead, skidding up a small cloud of dust. Stupid with shock he stared around the campsite. He’d left Sam on a bedroll under the shade of the largest oak tree. Now there was no sign of him, or any indication of where he might have gone.

“Sam! Where are you? Sam!”

“R-Richard?”

Trying to locate the other man, Kimble spun around and began to check the undergrowth, calling Gerard’s name as he did so. The next time Gerard responded his voice sounded louder and Kimble ran over to the edge of the steep incline, which eventually leveled out in a tangle of mesquite saplings, jumping cholla and barrel cactus. And there was Sam looking appallingly uncomfortable where he lay wedged between some sturdy roots, lacking the leverage to free himself.

“I see you. Don’t try to move. I’m coming down,” called Kimble, losing his footing more than once during the descent. He just stopped himself from sliding into Gerard.

“Richard?” Reaching out, Gerard clutched Kimble’s shirt front and hauled him close. His large hand curled around the curve of Kimble’s skull as he rested his forehead against Kimble’s. “I thought you were dead,” he said, an ignominious shake to his voice. “I heard the shot and the body fall. I thought you were dead. Or dying. Only I couldn’t find you. Then I fell off the edge of wherever I was and after I landed I couldn’t move.”

“It’s all right, Sam. Everything’s fine now. We’re together. Nothing else matters.”

“I thought you were dead.”

“I know. I know,” crooned Kimble, holding him close.

After a while of breathing in Richard’s scent Gerard gave a long sigh and sagged against Kimble. “You’re alive.”

“Oh yeah. And so are you. I just buried Sykes,” Kimble added.

“I’m sorry you had to use that gun,” muttered Gerard, not sure what to say, in the circumstances.

“I’m not. It saved your life. Mine, too, come to that. You shouldn’t have been moving around with that head injury,” Kimble added in a worried tone. “How do you feel?”

“Fine, except for the fact my ass is killing me. I think I landed on a damn cactus.”

Held fast in Sam’s two-handed grasp, that aggrieved announcement took Kimble by surprise. Caught between tears and laughter as reaction to everything that had happened caught up with him, he slumped, his head hanging, hands limp. While laughter won through, the ragged sounds which escaped him came dangerously close to sobs at times.

Sliding his fingers into his lover’s thick hair, Gerard drew Richard’s head forward to rest against his shoulder.

His breathing unsteady, Kimble tucked his arms around Gerard, his face against his neck as he absorbed the warm solidity of his lover. “After what you’ve been through I should be the one holding you up,” he mumbled.

“You stay where you are,” commanded Gerard, in something approaching his usual tone. “It’ll give me something to complain about later. Besides, I kind of like holding you. It’s still sinking in that we’re both alive.”

“No thanks to me.”

Hearing the bitterness in Kimble’s voice, Gerard gave the bent head a quizzical look. “You care to explain that remark?”

Kimble moved abruptly, as if to deny himself the comfort of an embrace he no longer believed he deserved but Gerard refused to let him go.

“If I’d been keeping a good lookout Sykes would never have had a chance to take us unawares. I dosed you with enough laudanum to knock out Red, then I go downstream to bathe, leaving you unprotected.” Looking up, his eyes were haunted. “I could have got you killed, Sam.”

“Richard...”

“You’re not going to pretend you would have done that?” added Kimble, savage with himself.

“That isn’t relevant,” dismissed Gerard. “This area has enough vegetation to hide a battalion, never mind one man. For all we know Sykes was already camped further down river. He could have caught a glimpse of the fire I lit. You were right a few moments ago. We’re alive. That’s all that matters.”

“So you’d trust me to keep guard again?”

Gerard looked surprised. “Sure.”

Disconcerted, Kimble stared at him. “I do believe you mean that.”

“Great. We’re communicating.”

Kimble blinked. “That was kind of harsh.”

“Richard, my head aches like a son-of-a-bitch, I’ve got an ass full of cactus spines and a lover who feels guilty about taking a bath. Which, you needed. Though another one wouldn’t go amiss.”

“There’s something else you should know. I didn’t fasten Maverick properly.”

“Maverick!” Galvanized into action, Gerard had to clutch at Kimble as he tried to stand.

“She’s fine. I was about to return to camp when I looked up to see her on the other side of the river. I knew I had to get her back - ”

“Damn right you did,” interjected Gerard fiercely.

Kimble grinned. “It’s just that I made the elementary mistake of going after her on foot. She led me one hell of a chase. You spoil that horse.”

“I should’ve guessed it would end up my fault. She’s never got away from me.” While the tone aimed for smug, the discomfort behind it made Kimble’s eyes narrow.

He brushed Gerard’s cheek with a dirty index finger. “It’s time to make you more comfortable.”

“I’ll let you into a secret. That won’t be difficult.”

More worried by that admission than he cared to admit, Kimble hoped he was giving no sign of it. “Yeah, yeah. How many fingers am I holding up?”

“Just the one - and if you don’t take it out of my face I’ll - ”

“Maybe when you’re feeling better,” comforted Kimble. “Save that scowl until you can back it up. Until then, humor me. All you have to do is follow my finger with your eyes.”

“This is stupid,” grumbled Gerard, who hurt in so many places he had stopped trying to identify individual sites. He was finding it increasingly difficult to control his shivering.

“So is having a doctor and ignoring his advice,” Kimble pointed out.

“Advice? You should hear yourself. That hurt,” Gerard added plaintively.

“Sorry.”

“What do you want me to do?” Gerard asked, the expression on Richard’s face defeating him where all else would have failed.

“As I ask would be a start.”

“You get those spines out of my ass and I might consider it. Damn, but it’s cold,” added Gerard, unable to conceal the tremors racking him.

Sweating in the molten heat of mid-afternoon, Kimble said nothing but the lines of worry on his face deepened. When he suggested they make a move back to camp, Gerard grimaced.

“Can we just sit for a while longer? I could use a spell to get used to the idea that we’re both alive and liable to stay that way.” Remembered horrors shadowed Gerard’s eyes but it was the unspoken subtext which made Kimble edge closer and carefully wrap himself around the other man.

 

The steep climb back up to the campsite took longer and cost more than either man had anticipated. Leaning against the trunk of a tree, Gerard was too busy trying to stay on his feet to be aware of subtleties for a while. He finally looked up to find Kimble rooted to the spot, an expression of revulsion on his face as he stood between the severed ropes which had fastened Gerard, a damp, dark stain a few feet away marking the spot where Sykes had died. It seemed an appropriate memorial, thought Gerard, wishing he knew what was going through Richard’s mind. Flint-eyed, his usually warm expression was absent, his eyes looking cold and grey, the generous mouth compressed.

“Hey,” Gerard said gently, when still Kimble did not move.

When Kimble swung around in acknowledgment he looked like a stranger. “We can’t stay here,” he said harshly.

Unsteady from a mixture of pain and exhaustion, Gerard was just alert enough to notice the way Kimble’s gaze kept sliding back to the spot where Sykes had died. “All right.”

The intense heat sucking the moisture from his skin even under the shade of the trees, Kimble ran a hand back through his sweat-clumped hair. “While I was down by the river I saw what looked like a good campsite. It’s set high enough above the water not to flood. And there was what looked like a cave. I could check it out. If it’s safe it will provide shelter from the sun. There’s plenty of grazing for the horses. And rabbit and quail. It can’t be more than a mile or two away from here.” He knew he was gabbling but couldn’t seem to stop. Anything was better than thinking about how close he had come to killing Sam with that shot.

“It sounds perfect,” said Gerard without irony. Pushing himself away from the support of the tree, he willed himself not to fall over. It was just a matter of putting one foot in front of the other, he reminded himself. He had the sense not to try and help as Richard gathered up their belongings, packed their saddlebags and saddled the horses before leading them over.

It was then that Kimble’s feverish activity stopped. “Will you be able - ? Can you stay in the saddle?” he asked bluntly.

“A mile over even ground? Sure.”

With the same mixture of grit and stubbornness which had enabled him to bring home Judd while suffering from typhoid fever, not a sound escaped Gerard as he settled into the saddle, although he landed with all the grace of a sack of flour. It was only when he almost toppled out of the saddle a hundred yards down the track that Kimble’s attention snapped back to him.

“What was I thinking of making you do this? Here. We’ll go back. That camp is - ”

“Tainted with Sykes. We’re almost there,” said Gerard tersely, before he got Maverick underway again.

Riding as close to Gerard as was possible, Kimble remained ready to catch him but they arrived at the new campsite without incident.

Meticulously checking the cave for wildlife and finding it as dry and clean as if an army of housekeepers had worked on it, Kimble’s ability to think and function in a rational manner had snapped back the moment he realized Gerard needed him. It helped that they had left Sykes behind - except for his horse, a strong looking bay gelding which Kimble had hunted out and rescued from where it was tethered because it wasn’t in him to leave any creature to suffer.

Ignoring Gerard’s protests, Kimble helped him from the saddle before deftly setting up camp. With water on the boil and the contents of his medical bag set out, he eased Gerard’s clothing from him, settled him on comfortable bedding and began to tend to his injuries.

“Fuck!” swore Gerard as the third cactus spine was finally unhooked from his rump. His eyes watering, his fingers clenched in the dirt, he glared at the small beetle trundling over a twig on the ground in front of him.

“There are still eight to go,” said Kimble in a tight voice. He knew how much he must be hurting Gerard but dared not give him any more laudanum.

“Something to look forward to then. Damn it, why don’t you just dig - ” All movement behind him stopped and Gerard took a steadying breath. “It’s all right, Richard. I’m fine, just testy. Go ahead.”

“I intend to,” Kimble said, but something in his voice must have betrayed him.

With the sense not to try and turn, Gerard reached behind him and patted the first part of his lover he found. “The quicker you start again, the quicker it’s done.”

Kimble groaned but his voice was steadier as he made the effort to return in kind. “I can take a lot of things but homespun philosophy isn’t one of them. This is going to hurt.”

“That’ll be novel,” muttered Gerard, one hand still flat against his lover’s flank despite the discomfort to his shoulder.

“You might want to ingratiate yourself to the man with the scalpel,” Kimble reminded him. His hand briefly covered Gerard’s before, after taking a deep breath, he went back to work.

 

By the time Kimble had finished tending to his injuries Gerard was shaking with a mixture of weakness and pain. The fingers of one hand locked in the dirt as he lay belly down, his face averted, he was shivering with reaction.

Feeling like a butcher, Kimble tried to ignore the shaking of his hands as he cleaned his instruments and set them out to dry. But a portion of his attention remained on Gerard throughout.

“You should drink some more water,” he said eventually.

Gerard mumbled something vague. After a few painful moments he moved until he was facing Kimble. The marks of strain were printed on his face. Unable to help himself, Kimble cupped one lean cheek.

“I know it hurts to move but you need liquid. Just a little,” he coaxed, supporting the weight of Gerard’s head with one splayed hand.

“Christ, can’t you leave me alone. All I want to do is sleep,” protested Gerard, sulky with fatigue. Pushing the tin mug of water aside, his hand was visibly unsteady.

“I know you do. But try to stay awake just a little longer. I’m sorry you’re in pain but I daren’t give you anything for it after that blow to your head. Please try not to sleep.”

Gerard gave a resigned nod, which made him give an involuntary wince.

Kimble’s mouth compressed and he looked away briefly. Some doctor he was when he couldn’t even help the person who mattered most to him. He cast another anxious look at Gerard, noting the hectic color staining his cheekbones. Sam felt warmer to the touch than he should and it was obvious he had a severe headache.

“Gimme the damn water,” Gerard growled. Squinting against the pounding in his head, he drained the mug. “Go see to the horses. I’ll stay awake while you’re gone.”

“Promise?” Kimble said fiercely.

“I promise,” confirmed Gerard. “Go tend Maverick for me. Go on. Don’t forget to give her some candy. Red, too.”

Slightly cheered by that command Kimble wasted no time in unsaddling the horses before seeing to their needs. But his hopes that he might be overreacting where Sam was concerned were dashed when he returned to the cave. Gerard’s condition had deteriorated to an alarming degree, heat radiating from him, as if he was burning from the inside out.

“How are you feeling, Sam?” he asked, his voice soothing as he crouched beside the other man.

Gerard’s head moved restlessly. “Hot.”

“That’s what I thought.” Moistening a clean rag, Kimble patted Gerard’s throat and face with it.

Licking his dry lips Gerard turned his head until his burning face was pressed to Kimble’s thigh. He lay without moving for so long that it prompted Kimble to check for a pulse.

He managed to keep Gerard awake for another five hours but it was a grim business and Gerard’s temperature continued to rise. He began to drift in and out of consciousness. Continuing to wash him, Kimble ran out of water and was forced to leave the cave to refill the bucket from the river. While he made the trip as fast as he was able, he still wasn’t quick enough for the delirious man. He found Gerard some distance from the cave entrance, his gaze unfocussed as he muttered feverishly to himself. It was obvious he had no idea where he was or what he was doing.

Increasingly afraid for Gerard Kimble half-carried, half-steered him down to the river. Easing Gerard into the fast-running shallows under the shadow of a large ash tree hanging over the bank, Kimble offered his own body as a prop while he waited for the water to reduce Sam’s temperature.

He lost track of time, all his concentration on the dead weight in his arms where Gerard had finally fallen into an exhausted sleep. Chilled and terrified that Sam might die, Kimble watched the sun go down with bleak eyes while he flexed his numb legs. They would have to retreat back to the cave before it got dark. Water drew predators of all kinds and while he wasn’t particularly worried about those on two legs, they’d heard a mountain lion at night and he hadn’t thought to bring one of Gerard’s Peacemakers with him.

By the time he got Gerard back to the cave Kimble was on the point of collapse and Gerard was unconscious again.

 

Kimble never remembered much about the next thirty-six hours except for his terror that he would lose Sam. He knew too well how quickly men died from this intensity of fever and the only means of giving Gerard liquid was to squeeze moisture into his mouth a drop at a time.

Minutes crawled by, broken only when he had to leave Gerard to replenish their water supply.

There were times when it took all Kimble’s strength to subdue Gerard, and others when all that restless energy was so still and silent that Kimble thought his worst nightmare must have come true.

And still the fever did not break.

Even as he held Sam in his arms he could feel him drifting away. Hollow-eyed from lack of sleep and fear, Kimble sat curved around Gerard, willing him to survive. Without conscious decision, he began to talk, hoping his voice would offer an anchor to life. Pride stripped from him by his fear that he was going to lose Sam, it didn’t occur to him to hold back. When he wasn’t telling Sam he was loved and needed and valued, he was scolding or coaxing him. When he ran out of plans for their future he took refuge in the past, offering up every memory he could summon from his relatively carefree existence before Sykes’ brutal invasion into his life. In a way he hadn’t dared do for years Kimble remembered the rough kindness of his brothers, who had reared him after the untimely death of their parents; the moments of sibling rivalry, the petty squabbles and affectionate rough-housing. Later he spoke of the Wahlunds, who had given a homeless child unconditional love and their whole-hearted support. More than anything it was their loving kindness which had enabled him to survive the crippling burden of guilt Sykes had imposed on him.

But whatever he spoke about Kimble always returned to Gerard and the miracle which meant that Sam loved him as much as he loved Sam.

“And I’m not letting you go. You hear me? I’m not letting you go,” Kimble said hoarsely as he squeezed another drop of moisture between his lover’s cracked lips. Apart from the hectic color staining his cheekbones Gerard’s face looked shockingly pale against the near black of his heavy beard stubble. He didn’t stir.

Having been awake for sixty-three traumatic hours, Kimble sank like a stone into the sleep of pure exhaustion.

 

Gerard regained consciousness so slowly that he wasn’t aware of the beginning or end of the process. His lips feeling cracked and sore, his mouth was dry, his thoughts sluggish as bizarre dreams slid away just beyond the frontiers of his consciousness.

Becoming aware that he was held in a loose embrace against a ripe-smelling Richard Kimble, he tried to reach the cup of water which sat just out of reach. Movement was uncomfortable enough to draw a hiss of pain from him

Jolting awake, Kimble stared into Gerard’s eyes and discovered his inability to speak around the lump in his throat. Placing the back of his hand to Gerard’s forehead, he found it damp but only a little warmer than it should be.

“Jesus, Sam,” he whispered unsteadily, fighting to control his inclined-to-quiver mouth and chin.

“Hi,” croaked Gerard, managing to focus on the worried face hovering over his own.

His mouth unsteady, his eyes too bright, Richard was staring at him as if he was the most precious thing in the world. While gratifying, it was kind of unnerving - not least when tears began to slide down Richard’s cheeks and into his beard.

“What?” Gerard demanded, discovering just how weak he was when he tried to move. “What’s wrong?”

It was then that Kimble discovered his ability to speak. “Only you could ask such a fucking stupid question! You scared me to death.”

Me? What did I do?” asked Gerard indignantly. It wasn’t that he wanted any fuss but a little sympathy wouldn’t have gone amiss.

“You’ve been unconscious with a high fever for nearly three days. You didn’t even know me! I was so scared you were going to... That I was going to lose you You scared the shit out of me, you inconsiderate asshole.” His voice wobbling again Kimble wiped his running nose on the back of his hand.

“I didn’t mean to worry you.” Gerard was meek because even in his current weakened state he recognized what lay behind Kimble’s ferocity. He looked exhausted and if the way he was shaking was any indication, he’d probably forgotten to eat, too. While it required more effort than he had anticipated, Gerard touched Kimble’s face with a careful hand, wiping away moisture with the side of his thumb. “Ssh, I’m well now. Thanks to you.”

Taking Gerard’s hand in his own, Kimble offered a shaky smile, obviously embarrassed by his outburst. “I didn’t mean to yell at you. I’m just so... You’re alive and in your right mind. Nothing else matters. Here.” He offered the mug of water but he had to steady Gerard’s hand before he had finished drinking.

“Damn,” muttered Gerard, subsiding without a protest - or much option.

“One advantage of you feeling this weak is that you’ll have to do as I say,” Kimble said provocatively.

Gerard opened one eye. “Make the most of it,” he advised, snuggling closer.

His face aching because he was smiling so much, Kimble allowed himself the luxury of just watching him, one hand flat over Gerard’s heart and that reassuringly steady beat.

 

Slowly regaining strength, Gerard was a little livelier each time he woke up - to the point where twenty-four hours after he had first regained consciousness he was complaining about the pap he was being fed.

“It’s rabbit soup. Yum,” Kimble encouraged.

Gerard looked unconvinced.

“Just drink it and stop complaining.”

Having given the contents of his mug a disdainful swirl, Gerard deigned to swallow another mouthful. “So where’s the rabbit hiding?”

“I guess the bones have been boiled once too often. But until I can get out and set more snares... Oh, that was you being subtle.”

“If it hadn’t worked I was going to resort to brute force and push you outside while I’ve still got some strength left. You need more to eat than those over-cooked beans you’re pushing round your plate. You could use a bath and change of clothing, too,” he added, his nose wrinkling fastidiously.

“Never let it be said I can’t take a hint. I think I saw some sorrel growing down by the river. Are you sure you’ll be all right?”

Gerard’s reply was short and to the point.

Grinning, Kimble went hunting.

 

A meal of plump roast quail, savory beans and fresh biscuits did much to restore Gerard to good humor - that and the sound of Richard whistling contentedly as he pottered around the cave. Watching with satisfaction the improvement to Kimble’s appearance, Gerard battled to stay awake.

“Horses all right?” he asked.

Undeceived by that would-be casual tone, Kimble floated a punch in his direction. “No, I’m taking this opportunity to maltreat Maverick. She’s sleek and sassy and bullying the life out of Red. Incidentally, when did you corrupt him so that he expects candy every time I go near him?”

Looking guilty, Gerard feigned sleep, although a full belly and the unrelenting heat soon made that state a reality.

Satisfied, Kimble quietly set about putting the campsite to rights. Checking on the horses for the last time that day, he returned with fresh water as the sun was setting.

Easing down beside Gerard, he spent a restless night, unexpended energy and the presence of his naked lover providing temptation enough to make him sweat, even if the intense heat hadn’t done so.

 

Thunder woke them just before dawn.

“We’re lucky you found this cave,” remarked Gerard, who was still suffering from a low-grade fever.

“And that we don’t have to worry about running out of water.”

“Now we’ve been grateful for small mercies, we can bitch about the heat,” murmured Gerard, making Kimble grin as he fed the small fire set outside the entrance to the cave.

“If you don’t want hot coffee be sure to let me know,” said Kimble pointedly.

Gerard maintained a prudent silence until he had finished his.

Thunder continued to roll around in the distance; only just audible, it was like an itch beneath the skin, setting nerves on edge.

 

Rested, shaved and having groomed the horses within an inch of their lives, Kimble busied himself washing his and Gerard’s bedding, together with all their clothes. Having draped the laundry over some bushes to dry, hoping the sun would miraculously remove the creases at the same time, he realized he had run out of chores. As if being reeled in on a line he returned to the cave. Settled on soft bedding, Gerard lay naked and asleep - a constant source of temptation.

Stopping in his tracks, Kimble was beset by a wave of lust so acute that it stole away his breath and impeded his ability to think. The ache was all too familiar by this time, his body seemingly destined to remain in a state of priapismic readiness. Mute with longing, his heavy-lidded gaze devoured the beautiful lines of Gerard’s scarred back, only those beginning-to-heal marks of injury deterring Kimble from acting on his desire. His mind blazed with images of them at love-play, his senses forgetting nothing of the taste and feel of Sam’s skin, the curve of his cock, the line of his throat and the expression in eyes so dark they seemed black - until you were close enough to see their warmth.

The sound of thunder which had persisted for two days grew louder, sweat and arousal prickling his skin as he stood and ached with longing for the man asleep in front of him. Wheeling away from temptation, Kimble virtually ran back down to the river and waded out into the water. He swam until fatigue made his arms tremble and stole away his breath. Only then did he trust himself to return to camp, where he manufactured tasks for himself so that he wouldn’t hover over Gerard.

 

Another day passed. The storm clouds continued to mass in the distance, the thunder even closer today, the heat sapping energy and will-power.

Awake despite appearances to the contrary, Gerard fought to subdue his irritation with the slow rate of his recovery. Kimble’s gaze seeming to burn his skin, he lay with his face averted and continued to maintain his even breathing. Believing him to be asleep saved Kimble from the necessity of pretending nothing was wrong. He had been awake enough to know how much time Richard had spent aching and erect but he could say nothing that would help the situation; Richard’s stubborn pride wouldn’t permit it. He knew enough of his lover to be aware that the doctor in Kimble was ashamed of lusting after a patient in his care, even though the patient was his lover.

Only Richard, thought Gerard with fond exasperation, even while he cursed his physical weakness, which meant he couldn’t even offer Richard the relief of his hands or his mouth. Instead he had to lie here, drifting in and out of fevered dreams, feeling useless and oddly dislocated from his surroundings.

 

Having completed the corral and shelter he had constructed for the horses, Kimble had run out of tasks with which to keep himself busy. With little with which to exhaust himself, energy crackled from him, as if he was absorbing it from the rumbling storm.

It took Gerard a while to realize that Kimble’s irritability was caused by more than lust. While he was doing his best to hide the fact, Kimble’s anger had grown to levels where it was impossible for him to conceal it. Snapped at for the third time in ten minutes, Gerard managed to swallow the retort hovering on the tip of his tongue. While it might help Richard if he discussed what had happened, right now attempts to persuade Richard to talk would be the equivalent of pouring kerosene onto a blazing fire. Suspecting the root of all that banked rage Gerard bided his time with a patience few people would have suspected him of possessing. While he knew from experience it was best to work problems out for yourself, it was hard to lie here, useless, and watch Richard’s self-contempt grow for what he obviously perceived as his own weakness. Watching Kimble fidget and fret and cast longing looks outside, Gerard cast around for some excuse that would free Richard from his side.

“The fire’s getting kind of low. We could use some more firewood,” he said casually.

“I’ll see to it.” Gabbling out the words, Kimble left without further ado.

Freed from the tension Richard was exuding, Gerard slid back into sleep.

The sounds of activity were still going strong when he awoke. Checking Kimble’s pocket watch which lay beside him, he grimaced at the tinny music which played as he opened the case. Richard had been working for four hours, with only his Bowie knife - unless Sykes had an ax stashed away in his saddlebags.

Tired of feeling useless, Gerard laboriously got to his feet, appalled by how shaky he felt. Using the cave walls for support, he made it to the entrance to see Kimble busy chopping sturdy branches into kindling. Sykes must have had an ax in his saddlebags after all, thought Gerard vaguely as he stared, heavy-eyed with lust, at the man in front of him.

Naked to the waist, Kimble glistened with sweat; it dripped from his forehead and pooled in the hollow at the base of his throat. His movements were unusually jerky and awkward and there was anger in every line of his body as chips of wood and sawdust flew up to stick to his damp skin.

As if sensing he wasn’t alone Kimble looked up, saw Gerard and dropped the ax to hurry over to him. “You shouldn’t be up. Let me help you back to bed.”

“And when do I get to return the compliment?” asked Gerard, stubbornly remaining where he was.

The ferocity blazing from the hazel eyes gentled. “Yes, I want you. But... ” Kimble ran his hand up and down Gerard’s forearm. “It isn’t that, Sam. It’s nothing to do with you. Really.”

Gerard nodded. “You want to discuss it?”

The shutters closed in the space of a second. “No.”

Because it was a case of sit down or collapse, Gerard allowed himself to be helped back into the cave. “You should take a drink,” he said, shaking from even that small amount of exertion.

Dipping the tin mug in the bucket of water, Kimble drained it in three angry swallows, and emptied the mug a second time, wiping up the moisture which trickled from the sides of his mouth with the back of his hand. As he drank a third mugful, Gerard was mesmerized by the rippling muscles of that long, brown throat.

“Here, use this to wipe yourself down,” he said, handing over one of his shirts.

Kimble reduced the white fabric to a filthy rag as he swiped his face and torso dry. “Damn, but I’m tired,” he admitted, worrying the damp bundle between his hands.

“Anger will do that to a man.”

“Spare me the homespun philosophy!” Pulling a face, Kimble touched him on the arm. “I didn’t mean... Sometimes I wonder just how dumb I am.”

“In relation to what? I could use some water.” Kimble handed him a mugful before settling down beside him, as Gerard had hoped he might.

“Sykes. Me. For being dumb enough to believe his lies. I let that bastard rule my life since I was nine-years-old!”

His own expression under strict control, Gerard listened to the ugliness in Kimble’s voice as he castigated himself.

“From the day he lynched my brothers he’s been invading my life and terrorizing my nights. I thought - no, I knew! - I was a murderer. What kind of man makes a nine-year-old boy believe he’s killed pregnant woman? I’ve spent my life trying to atone for that - as if anyone could. Fuck it, the bastard stole three-quarters of my life!” His chest heaving, lack of air forced Kimble into silence.

“Then it’s time to take back control,” said Gerard prosaically, trying to ignore the male-animal scent of Richard, which was making his senses swim. “Any power which Sykes still has left over you is because you permit him to. Move on. It’s time to take what you want out of life,” he added, his gaze on that lush lower lip.

Making an inarticulate sound of need, Kimble swooped down, clamping his hand around Gerard’s head to hold it in place as he tongue-fucked his mouth. Seconds later he wrenched himself away, his breathing ragged.

“You can barely stand up and... I need to get away,” Kimble choked. With a muffled sound of frustration he strode out of the cave into the rapidly approaching storm.

Regret and understanding in his eyes, Gerard made no attempt to stop him, even supposing he could in his current weakened state.

Lightning ripped across the purple-black sky, the crash and crack of the thunder deafening in the confines of the cave. The heat was intense. One strike and the chaparral would blaze. One brief moment of glory, then it was over, with only the ashes drifting in the air to show anything more had ever existed.

Damned if he wasn’t turning maudlin, able to think only of everything that could go wrong, instead of what had gone right. They had survived and Richard loved him and wanted them to live together. It didn’t get better than that.

Shakily drinking some water, Gerard tried not to worry. It would probably be a while before Richard came to terms with what Sykes had done to him but at least he had breached the first barrier. Anger was natural and healthy and just so long as Richard released it, he’d be fine.

Despite that conviction he couldn’t stop his concern from growing when Kimble didn’t return. Still woozy from the dose of laudanum Richard had insisted he take earlier that day, Gerard pushed himself to his feet and with the support offered by the wall managed to stay that way. Standing at the cave entrance, buffeted by the hot, dry wind, he could see no sign of Kimble.

Walking with the crooked hesitation of a man uncertain if he was dreaming or awake, Gerard went in search of his lover. The sunbaked earth under his bare feet was hot enough to be uncomfortable, while the strong, hot wind scoured his naked body and caused his overlong hair to whip around his face. He shielded his eyes until he was across the clearing and in the shelter offered by a stand of trees.

The clouds were being driven along at a dizzying pace. The looming purple split apart to reveal the swollen orange mass of the close-to-setting sun, which cast an eerie light over the scene. Rounding a bend, and gaining immediate shelter from the worst of the wind, Gerard paused, one hand on the twisted trunk of a juniper tree as he absorbed the picture Kimble made.

Backlit by the setting sun, an extravagance of color bled around Kimble’s darkened silhouette. Propped against the trunk of a sturdy paloverde, the buttons of his pants were unfastened, his right hand working his erect cock. His head was tilted back, exposing the long line of his throat and the jut of his Adam’s apple, around which Gerard loved to lick. His fist moving faster now, his breathing audibly disorganized, Kimble’s eyes were scrunched shut; his face caught in the rictus which accompanied orgasm, the sound which escaped him sounded closer to pain than pleasure.

Aching with regret for the loneliness of the act Richard had been driven to performing, Gerard headed for his lover’s side, making use of what support he could find. Because his bare feet made no sound on the sun-cracked ground, it was his labored breathing which first attracted Kimble’s attention. He opened his eyes to find Gerard in front of him; naked, and gleaming with sweat, his thick hair was tangled by the driving wind. There was an expression on his face which melted Kimble’s protest. Before he could attempt to say anything, Gerard sank to his knees - not with the grace with which he habitually performed actions but hard enough to drag a grunt of discomfort from him.

“Sam, you shouldn’t - ”

“Shut up, Richard,” said Gerard, but his voice was mild. The heady scent of his lover all around him, he leaned forward and began to lick Richard’s cock clean, initial long, slow swipes of his tongue giving way to smaller, wetter strokes. Taking his time, he was all delicacy as he tucked Richard back inside his black pants and fastened them, button by button.

Kimble’s fingers drifted over the dark head bent to him but all he said was, “You’re supposed to be resting.”

“Keep that thought in mind.” Shaking with weakness, Gerard pillowed his head against Kimble’s belly for some much needed support.

“Let’s go back to the - ”

“In a minute. There’s no hurry.”

Correctly interpreting that to mean Sam wasn’t sure if he could walk back unaided at the moment, Kimble slid onto the ground to offer his own body as a support. Their embrace was a loose one; the energy-sapping heat didn’t encourage prolonged physical contact. A line of sweat meandered down Kimble’s skin until it was trapped in the hair on his chest, while Gerard’s skin was damp to the touch, although Kimble suspected that the remnants of fever had something to do with that. His fingers slowly combing through Sam’s hair, he concentrated on the various physical sensations he was experiencing. Sam was right. While it would be madness to shut out the past, it was time to move on. If he continued to dwell on the damage Sykes had done there was a danger that his own life would pass him by - that Sykes would win after all.

The light was gone now, the silence more noticeable than the sound and fury of the thunder had been. The first hard drops of rain thumped fatly down through the leaves, making both men jump. Turning their faces up to greet the rain, it was some time before they appreciated how the force had intensified, or how quickly the temperature was plummeting.

“Sam, we should try to move.” Despite their close proximity, Kimble had to raise his voice to make himself heard.

“I know. This,” Gerard gestured to his position, “seemed a good idea at the time. Help me to my feet?” The wry twist to his mouth invited Kimble to share the joke.

Making a sound which was half-sob, half not, Kimble cradled the side of his lover’s wet face and nodded wordlessly.

Torrential rain running off the heat-packed dirt, their return to higher ground was far from easy and Kimble was half-carrying Gerard by the time they reached the cave. As soon as they were back in shelter he eased Gerard to the ground and handed him some crumpled fabric which must once have been white.

“Start drying yourself with this while I make up the fire.”

“That’s my shirt,” protested Gerard in something approaching his usual tone.

“You thought I was going to let you use the only one I have left that’s in one piece?”

“It would have the merit of ensuring you went around shirtless.” Gerard gave a quick, fierce grin of triumph when he saw the compliment disconcert his lover before Richard thought to cover the fact.

Slicking off the worst of the moisture Gerard tossed the sodden shirt in Kimble’s general direction and snuggled under the blankets. Inconspicuously nursing his sore shoulder, he watched Kimble make up the fire, set water to boil and strip off his sodden pants before hanging them up to dry. Coffee made, Kimble settled beside Gerard, choosing the side where he could shelter him from the cooling wind, which was blowing directly into the cave.

The fire on one side and Richard on the other, blankets tucked around him and hot coffee to drink, Gerard soon stopped shivering. Soaking up the blissful heat emanating from Kimble, he gave a sigh of contentment.

“This kind of reminds me of our first night together,” he offered, as they lay listening to the rain and the howl of the wind, which was blowing smoke from the fire back into the cave.

“Except then I was afraid that one night was all would we have together,” murmured Kimble, the side of his thumb idly describing small circles on Gerard’s ribs.

“Shows what you know,” mumbled Gerard, sounding half-asleep already.

 

Mentally and physically exhausted, and both with injuries to heal, they slept the night away, stirring only to attend to physical necessities before dozing again, and always with the comforting certainty that their lover was beside them - and safe.

In more need of sleep than Gerard, who had spent the last few days in fevered dreams, Kimble was the last to wake. He stirred, yawned and opened his eyes to find himself under surveillance. The unguarded expression on Gerard’s face make him feel both eight feet tall and oddly shy.

“What?” he demanded, wondering if he had been drooling in his sleep.

“Nothing,” said Gerard peaceably.

Kimble snorted. “Then quit staring.”

Gerard gave a wide grin of some charm. “Why, I do believe you’re bashful.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

“Have it your own way.”

“Sam... ”

“I heard you.”

“All right, damn it. If you must know, I am.”

“With me?” Gerard’s tone was incredulous.

Kimble’s fingers plucked restlessly at the pile of the blanket, his eyes remaining on the task as if it required his full attention. “It’s never mattered before that anyone should look at me this way.” His gaze rose to hold Gerard’s. “Don’t ever stop.”

Brushing Kimble’s chin with a clenched hand, Gerard ran his thumb over that beautiful mouth. “I don’t think there’ll be any likelihood of that. You think you’ll be happy living in Cooksville?”

“I can be happy anywhere - with you,” said Kimble simply.

“Just so there’s no doubt in your mind, that works both ways,” said Gerard gruffly.

Drawing Kimble close, he nuzzled the sleep-tufted brown hair. It was some time before he realized that his companion had fallen asleep again. Hardly surprising given how little rest Richard had enjoyed over the last few days. He studied the relaxed face, yet to accustom himself to the healthy growth of untrimmed beard, and considered everything he knew about this man - this decent man who had been made to believe he was a murderer and who had lived with that burden since childhood. And without the corroding bitterness which would have afflicted most men - unless the truth had yet to sink in to the deepest recesses of his soul.

Maybe Richard would never loose the scars Sykes had inflicted on his heart and mind but he’d do his damnedest to ensure Richard never knew another day of misery. Taken aback by the vehemence of that mental vow, Gerard settled Kimble on the comfortable nest of bedding. Satisfied he was unlikely to stir for some time, he eased free of the blankets, eager to test his still-inclined-to-shake legs without an overprotective lover dogging his heels.

 

Heartened by how far he had walked, it was only when Gerard had removed his last item of clothing that he realized Richard was not only awake but dressed, with an expression on his face that was distinctly unloverlike.

“I thought we agreed you’d wake me if you needed to go out,” said Kimble.

“Even your memory isn’t that bad.”

“Your shoulder’s paining you again. And don’t bother lying about it.”

Gerard gave him a narrow-eyed look of displeasure before innate fairness made him shrug. Despite himself, the gesture made him wince, pain from abused muscles flaring down his back and side.

“Maybe this will remind you not to do too much.” Kimble hooked over his medical bag. “Or did you think I wouldn’t smell the aniseed on the horses’ breath?”

“You followed me?”

“Of course I followed you. I was afraid you’d fall flat on your ass. You came close a couple of times. Damn it, would it have hurt to wake me?”

Swallowing his initial irritation because he could see the concern in Kimble’s eyes, Gerard exhaled slowly. “I had to piss. I wanted to see Maverick. And I need to get back on my feet. Yes, I’m sore. It’ll pass. I don’t want any more laudanum. I don’t like the way it makes me feel. Or the dreams I get,” he added grimly.

Kimble gave him a sharp look, then nodded and closed his bag again. “At least put that arm back in the sling I made for you?”

Taking the line of least resistance, Gerard nodded his acquiescence, then sat back to watch as deft fingers tended to him. With his arm supported, the discomfort eased immediately.

“Is that better?” asked Kimble, checking that the knot was out of Gerard’s way.

“It could be worse,” Gerard allowed.

Sinking back onto his heels, Kimble grinned, his teeth looking white against his beard. “Careful, too much praise goes to my head.”

“Thank you. There. Satisfied?”

“No, but that will have to wait until you don’t need to wear that sling.”

“And how long will that be?” inquired Gerard with darkest suspicion. He was going to have to do something about Richard’s tendency to think he knew best. Though it had to be admitted his arm was feeling easier.

“I’ve noticed patients tend to do better if they wear one for two to three weeks at your age. Longer if they’re older.”

“Two to three - ? Now see here - ” Gerard began, spoiling for a fight by this time.

Kimble held up his hands. “Hey, it’s your choice. You want to take it off, suffer more pain than you need for weeks if not months and then risk having a shoulder that will pop out of its socket every time you try to use it, that’s your privilege.”

Busy digesting that, Gerard’s lips moved in silent imprecations.

Kimble left him to it while he set about preparing the rabbit stew intended for their evening meal.

“You want the salt?” Gerard asked gruffly, after several minutes had elapsed.

“Sure,” said Kimble, not one to hold a grudge.

Passing it to him, Gerard sat inhaling the musty odor as he crumbled a sage leaf between his fingers. “If I’ve got to wear this sling for three weeks we’re not going to be heading home any time soon.” His eyes flicked from the crumbs of leaf to Kimble and back again.

Only then understanding why Sam had been so tetchy, Kimble’s face came to life. “You damn fool,” he said forthrightly. “Of course I’m coming back to Cooksville to live with you - whether you like it or not. But we could both use some rest - I’m still pretty sore myself,” he added, with what he obviously imagined to be cunning. “And this is a real pretty spot. I kind of like the idea of us having some time together with no-one else interrupting us every five minutes the way they will once we’re back in Cooksville. You can forget peaceful nights. Most patients decide they feel sick around three in the morning.”

“You can’t wait to get started, can you?” Gerard recognized.

“No,” Kimble admitted. “Though you might want to remind me on the cold, wet nights.”

“Not me, I’ll be sound asleep,” said Gerard cheerfully. “While I was outside I couldn’t help but notice how busy you’ve been making the horses comfortable.”

“I wanted to make sure they had plenty of shade,” said Kimble, a touch defensive because he’d already learned to mistrust that bland expression while amusement lurked in Sam’s eyes.

“Did I say a word?”

“You didn’t need to. Maybe I was over-compensating a tad. Hell, it’s your fault I needed to keep myself busy,” Kimble added with spirit, moving in to the attack.

“I had a feeling it might be,” murmured Gerard. “There’s homesteaders who’d be grateful for accommodation as snug as you’ve made for the horses. About the only thing missing is gingham drapes.”

“I know,” admitted Kimble with a wry grin. “But it was that or jumping your bones. You were just too damn tempting, spread out there, naked. Though sometimes you breathing is enough to get me hard.”

Gerard swallowed, quite audibly. “Would now be one of those times?”

“I’ve only just fastened that sling.”

“Then you can have the fun of redoing it later.”

Peering down at himself, Kimble watched as the buttons of his shirt were slipped open. “You’re supposed to be taking things easy,” he reminded Gerard without much conviction.

“I was kind of hoping you’d be the one doing most of the work,” explained Gerard, beginning a one-handed attack on Richard’s belt buckle.

“You’ve done this before,” joked Kimble, just before he glanced up, the question he would never ask in his eyes.

“Not everything. Or only with you. And if you’ve forgotten already I guess I’ll have to keep going until you do remember.”

“I could be a slow learner.” Kimble looked endearingly pleased with himself.

Not bothering to reply, Gerard eased forward and kissed him with a leisurely expertise. With some cooperation he managed to relieve Kimble of his pants and shirt. Hovering over his supine lover, naked himself by this time, he bent to the man beneath him.

“Take your weight off your left arm,” instructed Kimble. “You could dislocate your shoulder again.”

“Richard?”

That silken note traveled straight to Kimble’s cock. “Yeah?” he managed to mumble, his mouth feeling suddenly full of tongue.

“Keep quiet,” said Gerard.

Callused fingers were moving against his inner thighs, warm breath caressing his cock. Helpless under this most delicate of touches, coherency eluded Kimble. He gave a jerky nod.

“Boy, who’d’ve thought you’d be so easy to train,” mused Gerard. Changing position slightly, his grin was distinctly predatory just before he nipped Richard’s left nipple. Then his mouth was back over Kimble’s, coaxing his lips apart.

On this occasion, of necessity, there was a studied care to their love-making. Mindful of healing injuries they adapted and compromised. Gerard’s muffled swearing as he received an ungentle reminder of several sore spots elicited no more than muffled, unsympathetic laughter from Kimble.

“Say ‘I told you so’,” growled Gerard.

Kimble laced his fingers in the thick, dark hair. “What? That I told you I love you, or that I told you your ass is too sore for me to lie on top of you? There doesn’t seem much point. You’re finally starting to believe the first and you’ll soon learn the second.” If his tone was heartless, the expression in his eyes was not.

“Bastard,” said Gerard. Accepting that a change of plan was called for, his mouth settled around the head of his lover’s cock.

 

“I didn’t mean to grab your ass that hard,” said Kimble, for approximately the seventh time.

Gerard sighed. While Richard massaging his butt was kind of nice, the apologies had grown old. “It’s fine,” he said, mustering his patience.

“Sam, it’s bruised.”

“And my dick’s about to poke a dent in your belly. Can we move on here?”

“Subtlety’s not your strong point, is it,” mused Kimble.

Gerard rejoiced in the return of the teasing light in those hazel eyes as much as was possible for a man in his state. Taking one of Richard’s hands in his own he was about to wrap it around his cock when what Richard was saying began to make sense.

“Yes,” he said. “Oh yes.” Already moving to take what was being offered, a sound of pure frustration escaped him. “No ointment. You used it on my back.”

“Fuck,” groaned Kimble. “Use saliva.”

“Not enough.”

“Then use my mouth,” said Kimble simply, already repositioning himself.

 

“What are you thinking about?” Kimble asked, his voice so velvety and deep that it was a moment before the sense of what he said penetrated.

So relaxed that he didn’t seem to possess a single bone in his body, Gerard rubbed his cheek against Kimble’s biceps like some large cat scent-marking its prey. “I was just wondering how you would feel about us keeping pigs?”

The question was so gloriously, perfectly prosaic that Kimble began to shake with suppressed laughter.

“What?” demanded Gerard, raising his head a few inches. “You mind telling me what’s so funny about raising pigs?”

His fingers sinking into black hair and knotting themselves in that luxuriance, Kimble was careful not to jar the other man. “Nothing. I was just thinking how much I love you.”

“I must think about pigs more often,” remarked Gerard, but his pleased wriggle betrayed him.

Kimble gently kissed the other man’s temples, lingering to taste his skin. The fever stench was long gone; now Sam tasted of them both, combined with a little woodsmoke.

“Can I take it that pigs are out of the question?” Gerard pursued.

“What - exactly - is the attraction of pigs?” inquired Kimble, curious but still amused.

“I don’t have feelings about them one way or the other. But it occurred to me that Cosmo is never going to be able to slaughter that pig he’s supposed to be fattening up for Christmas. And the novelty of playing with Clarice will wear off for the kids, even though they won’t let him kill her. It seemed to me that it would be a neighborly act to take her in.”

“Roast pork,” said Kimble with dreamy anticipation. Fish was beginning to pall, hares and quail having eluded his snares for the last two days.

Gerard looked appalled. “And have the kids know I murdered Clarice?”

“There is that,” Kimble conceded. “We’ll just have to wait and eat her off-spring then.”

“My thoughts exactly,” nodded Gerard, before he subsided again. “I was wondering about a dog, too.”

“I’ve never eaten dog,” mused Kimble.

Lacking the strength to retaliate as he would have liked, Gerard nipped his lover’s earlobe at the same time he pinched Richard’s ass.

oOo

 

Comfortably full of rabbit stew, Gerard lay on the bedroll, staring out the entrance up at the night sky. The stars, remote and bright as chips of diamonds on black velvet, he gently teased one of Kimble’s peaked nipples in an absent-minded kind of way, hugging his new-found sense of peace to him. During these last hellish weeks chasing Richard from one town to the next he’d been afraid he’d lost the man to whom he’d given his heart. What a fool he’d been. The man he loved was snoring into his armpit - and it was the same man he’d met at Madame Reynard’s, minus the burden of guilt which had been weighing Richard down. Not that the terror and misery of those years could be easily dismissed but Richard was a survivor. Besides, he wouldn’t have to deal with it alone.

He brushed the abraded skin of Kimble’s throat in the most delicate of touches. No wonder Richard had expressed such strong feelings about Judd’s hanging - seeing his brothers lynched, then coming close to suffering the same fate when Sykes had broken into the Wahland’s home to get the terrified boy Richard had been. Small wonder Richard had gone loco when that lasso had slipped around his neck..

Christ, they’d been this close to disaster.

As if sensing Gerard’s disquiet, Kimble snuffled and muttered something incoherent, already stirring.

Gerard set his hand over Kimble’s heart. “Ssh. Go back to sleep. Everything’s fine.”

With typical stubbornness, the hazel eyes opened, “The hell it is. What’s wrong?”

“Apart from the fact I’ve just woken you up?”

“Is it your shoulder?”

Gerard shook his head. “It’s fine.”

Kimble propped himself up on one elbow. “Then what are you doing awake?”

“Thinking.”

“What about?” Kimble’s stubble-roughened jaw abraded the skin of Gerard’s shoulder.

“That it’s a miracle you weren’t snapped up years ago.”

The sincerity in Gerard’s voice killed the flippant retort Kimble had intended. More wakeful by the second, he settled an arm over Sam’s mid-section. “For the last five years - since Sykes saw me by chance - I haven’t been able to settle anywhere for more than two or three months at a time. Before then...” He shrugged. “I like the ladies well enough but I never met one I wanted to settle down with.”

“You didn’t hanker after children?”

“No. As a doctor I see too much of other people’s.”

“You’ve never had the chance to settle down before,” Gerard pointed out, doing his best to sound matter of fact.

“I’ve wanted a home - to find that one special person. But somehow I could never settle on anyone. Until I met you. It’s that simple. But what about you?”

“There was a time I would have liked children. It would have given the marriage some focus - I wasn’t the husband Elizabeth deserved. When she died I knew I would never marry again.”

“You loved her that much,” said Kimble dully, suffering torments of jealousy.

Gerard grimaced. “No. That was the problem. And why I still feel guilty when I think about her. Marriage taught me what I had already suspected - that it isn’t in a women to give me what I need to be really content.”

“And you can never admit that to anyone.”

Gerard shrugged. “Exactly. You said you never found a woman you wanted to settle down with. What about men?”

“I was saving myself for you,” cooed Kimble. He yelped when a callused hand impacted with his ass. “No men,” he said seriously. “Or none who mattered beyond a night or so. Not until I arrived in Cooksville and met a skinny, cross-grained lawman with an ass that would tempt an angel.”

“You were watching my ass?”

“It was the second thing I noticed about you,” said Kimble, with truth. “The first was your mouth. Seeing as how we’re both so wakeful, maybe I should refresh my memory. You must have some other good points, even if I can’t bring them to mind right now.”

Chapter Text

FOURTEEN

 

Flicking up a white spume as he snatched water rather than the trout he had been after, Kimble gave an involuntary yell and almost lost his footing.

“One word,” he warned Gerard, whose eyes were sparkling with amused affection.

Perched on the steep slope of the river bank, his knees tucked up to his chest, Gerard did his best to look misunderstood.

“Don’t overplay,” Kimble advised him, pushing back the brim of his hat, currently his only item of clothing. “I can’t believe I’ve spent all week trying to learn how to do this. You made it look so easy.”

“True,” agreed Gerard.

“You can wipe that grin off your face and make yourself useful. What do I need in order to be able to catch a fish with just my hands?”

“Patience.”

Kimble gave a whoop of derision. “What would you know about patience?”

Gerard studied Kimble’s relaxed face with undisguised satisfaction. Since they had resolved their differences - and Sykes’ death - Richard might not smile quite so often, but it always reached his eyes, which had lost their haunted expression.

“More than you it would seem. A fish just swam between your legs,” he told Kimble helpfully.

Wading over to him, Kimble’s mature response to such provocation was to flick water at Gerard. The resulting water fight ended with both of them in the river, weak with laughter as they agreed to a truce.

Having helped Gerard out of his sodden clothing, Kimble began to wring water from his shirt and pants. “Put that sling back on,” he commanded.

“I’m fine,” said Gerard with thinly veiled impatience. He loathed the constraint it imposed on his movements.

“I wish I could believe that. As it is, I know for a fact you’re in pain and - ”

“My choice, Richard.”

Kimble was deaf to the warning. “So help me, if you don’t leave that sling on during the day we won’t be making love later.”

His mouth thinning, Gerard raised his eyebrows. “Modesty isn’t an affliction you suffer from, is it?”

“I’m serious, Sam.”

“So am I.”

In the contest of wills which followed it was Kimble who backed down when he realized he had seriously misjudged Sam’s mood. His shoulders defensively hunched and looking everywhere but at Gerard, he mumbled something that an optimist might have taken for an apology.

Buck-naked, Gerard picked up the discarded sling. “I’ll wear this but don’t ever try that kind of trick on me again. I don’t appreciate it.”

Bristling, Kimble thought the better of the retort he had intended when he saw what looked oddly like defeat on Gerard’s face as he fiddled with the sodden knot of the sling. He wondered who in Sam’s life had used such manipulative tricks to get their own way but knew he would never ask. But it was a mistake he’d do his damnedest not to repeat.

“It was a dumb thing for me to say. It’s just that I lose my detachment where you’re concerned. I don’t like seeing you in pain.”

Looking up, the muscles of Gerard’s face began to relax. “That bodes well for the future,” he said, his flippancy forced because he was aware he had overreacted.

‘Here, let me fix that knot,” said Kimble, gruff because he wasn’t certain how his overtures would be met. “You want to take a seat?”

“Not on that rock in this heat,” said Gerard, one hand running up and down Kimble’s side. “My ass lands on that and our love life’s gonna be a moot point for the foreseeable future.”

“Lucky you thought of it,” allowed Kimble, as he refastened the sling.

“Thanks. It does feel better,” Gerard allowed. His bare backside received the gentlest of pats.

“A lesser man might say I told you so but I rise about that kind of petty gloating.”

“I could tell.” Gerard led the way back up the slope to the dim, cool interior of the cave.

“Why have we come back here?” asked Kimble, having been too distracted by the twitch and flex of Gerard’s backside to question the move before.

“Because the bedding’s soft. It seems sinful to have you naked and not take advantage of the fact.”

Are you sure you’re not just saying this so you can take that sling off again?” asked Kimble with suspicion.

While it was tempting to lie, Gerard shook his head and sighed. “It never even occurred to me,” he admitted sadly.

Kimble didn’t waste his time trying to look modest.

oOo

 

It took another thirteen days before either man could bring himself to admit he was bored. To Gerard’s relief it was Kimble who caved-in first, making the admission in a shamed mumble.

“I don’t have to add “Not with you’, do I?”

“It would never have occurred to me - until you brought up the subject,” said Gerard blandly. Because the sparkle in his eyes always betrayed him, he earned himself a nudge from Kimble’s fist.

“You never learn, do you. So can we head home? Your shoulder has been holding up pretty well - ”

“ - and unless you know what you’re looking for, that rope burn around your neck is hardly visible.”

Kimble’s hand rose to his throat. “I’d forgotten about that.”

“I hadn’t.”

“Sam...”

“I know, I know.” Gerard patted his lover’s bare belly, his palm remaining there in one of his unconscious gestures of possession which Kimble was coming to love.

“I do know,” Gerard added, when he saw that Richard was still looking at him.

“It wasn’t that. I was just wondering when we would head back to Cooksville.”

“It’ll be dark in an hour. Will first light tomorrow suit you?”

Kimble’s nod of contentment gave way to a frown of suspicion. “If you’re so keen to get home why did you wait for me to say something first?”

“I was hoping you’d cave-in before I did.”

“You really are a stubborn bastard, aren’t you.”

“For your information, bringing in law-breakers requires grit and determination.”

“It might sound better than stubborn but it means the same thing. You’re thinking of Judd, I suppose?”

“He’s a good example,” allowed Gerard.

Kimble looked thoughtful. “Tell me, that town where the doctor diagnosed your fever as a case of typhoid. What did you do with Judd while the doctor examined you?”

Puzzled by this line of conversation, Gerard shrugged. “I cuffed him to the foot of the bed.”

“Didn’t the town have a jail?”

“Sure it did.”

“So you could have put Judd in jail while you let the doctor tend to you?” said Kimble blandly.

“Well, I - ”

“Come to think of it, why didn’t you simply leave Judd in that town jail while you stayed in bed and let the doctor tend you? You could have died - and for nothing. Cosmo or Noah could have been telegraphed to collect Judd.” Kimble made no attempt to hide the fact he was enjoying having Gerard on the run.

“Ah - ”

“You know why, because you’re stubborn.” There was open glee on Kimble’s face by this time.

“Dumb, too,” said Gerard, conceding defeat.

“Let’s call it single-minded. It sounds better.”

“You’re loving every second of this, aren’t you,” Gerard recognized indulgently.

“You bet,” said Kimble happily.

“I can’t believe I let you sucker me like that.”

“No?” Kimble was all sympathy. “You’ll get used to it. So how long do you figure the journey will take?”

“What’s your hurry?”

“I’m not sure,” Kimble admitted, rubbing his chin. “I guess... Our time here has been wonderful in some respects. Apart from giving us a chance to heal our wounds, we’ve had time to talk - time just to be together. But I can’t deny that I’ll be happier when we’ve settled into our ordinary, everyday lives back at El Corazón.”

Gerard took hold of one of Kimble’s hands and smiled when Richard’s fingers tightened around his. “This is real,” he promised. “As real as real can be.”

“How did you know that’s - ?”

Gerard did his best to look soulful. “Because I’m a sensitive kind of guy.”

Kimble snorted but his amusement faded to a look of recognition. “You’re half-afraid of the same thing, aren’t you?”

“There is that,” Gerard conceded, flicking a quick, half-shy look his way.

“Well, at least I wasn’t the only one making a fool of myself,” said Kimble philosophically.

“Thanks.”

“Anytime, Sam. Anytime.”

oOo

 

“I appreciate you consulting me about what route we should take but as I don’t remember much about the journey here it’s wasted effort,” Kimble admitted, shifting a little in the saddle.

“That’s probably just as well,” said Gerard, staring straight ahead. “The town of Mother Lode is up ahead. Don’t hope for many comforts. The miners are too busy blasting silver from those hills and the town is geared to their needs. At least the food should be good, though steer clear of the whiskey. If it’s a week old you’ll be lucky.”

Reminding himself that Sam was only trying to be helpful, Kimble refrained from pointing out that he’d probably seen more mining communities than Gerard.

“Tomorrow we can head for Palmston, which is about another day’s ride,” continued Gerard. “We can get the train home from there. Trains used to stop twice a week so we’ll soon be home.”

“Red’s never been on a train.” Kimble’s tone was pensive.

“We could always have him run behind.”

“I’m surprised you’re not more worried about Maverick,” said Kimble with spirit.

“Why should I be? I’ll be traveling with her.” Gerard’s expression dared Richard to make anything of it.

Kimble took his usual amount of notice. “You spoil that horse.”

Unimpressed, Gerard gave him a mocking smile. “You won’t be traveling with us, then?”

“Someone needs to keep an eye on you.”

“Yeah. Right. You know what you are?”

“Yes. Yours.”

The wealth of satisfaction in Kimble’s voice virtually rocked Gerard where he sat. He rubbed the back of his neck. “Just so long as you know that works both ways,” he said, at his gruffest.

Their eyes met, the tender moment ending only when Maverick broke wind loudly enough to make Red side-step skittishly. Gerard eased Maverick after him, then leaned over in the saddle to give Richard a lingering kiss on the mouth.

“That will have to last us until we’re in our hotel room.”

“Then we’d best hurry,” said Kimble huskily, “because I’ve kind of got used to being free to touch you.”

 

While the rise in the land continued to hide Mother Lode from sight, the town’s presence was advertised by a series of explosions.

“Damn, that was loud,” said Gerard.

Kimble was viewing the dust cloud which had risen before glancing at Gerard. Without needing to confer, they eased their mounts into a gallop.

They arrived to find the town in chaos after an explosion which had brought down what looked like half the hillside. Twenty-three miners were known to have died, forty-five were trapped and at least a hundred had been brought out. Because Mother Lode lacked a doctor, a rider had been sent to Palmston, but it would be two days before the doctor would arrive. Taking one look at the provision made for the injured, Kimble turned to Gerard and snapped out a series of orders, knowing he could rely on Sam to take charge.

oOo

Dazed with exhaustion, it was a week before Kimble left the hospital tents which had been erected close to the site of the disaster. Gerard was at his shoulder, where he had been since the rescue operation had been abandoned two days ago. Stinking of week-old sweat, his clothing stiff with dried blood and pus, Gerard looked in little better shape than Kimble. Once the hospital had been up and running, with the help of the townsfolk, who had come out to help, he had coordinated the rescue work until the last of the missing had been accounted for. Since then he had been acting as Kimble’s orderly, doing whatever needed to be done with a matter of fact efficiency, while ensuring Kimble ate and drank regularly and slept for at least four hours out of every twenty-four - something which had been easier to enforce once Dr Gordon arrived with his wife at his side.

Hazel Gordon was small and plump, with the contented expression of a happy woman and an efficiency which matched Gerard’s. “Richard, I thought you were told to go into town for a good night’s sleep.”

“He was,” said Gerard dryly. “Then he and Edward started to confer.”

Kimble gave him a look of betrayal, before his expression sharpened as Edward Gordon emerged from the hospital tent, shaking his head when he saw Kimble watching him. Grimacing, Kimble looked down.

Hazel patted him on the arm. “I know you feel the loss of each man, as Edward does. It’s what makes you such good doctors. You did all you could.”

He had bitten off Sam’s head for offering similar platitudes, but it was unthinkable to do so to Mrs Gordon so Kimble just nodded and kept his sense of frustration to himself.

“Richard, go and get some sleep, man,” barked Gordon, striding over to them. “I feel like a giant refreshed after my sleep and that meal Sam found for me.”

“There is some small difficulty,” said Rachel apologetically.

“No hotel. We heard,” said Gerard. “The stable will do just fine.”

“Certainly not. Accommodation has been offered to you it’s just that it’s a little...”

“For pity’s sake woman,” broke in Edward Gordon, in one of his periodic explosions, “do you have to be so mealy-mouthed. The madam of the local whorehouse has offered you two a room for as long as you want it, and half the town’s women are up in arms.”

“And the other half?” asked Kimble, swallowing a yawn.

“Don’t like it, but concede that neither of you are going to have the energy to take advantage of your surroundings,” said Gordon, with a bark of amusement.

“Well, I hope you don’t imagine you’ll be sleeping there,” his wife said tartly.

Gordon looked faintly regretful. “I suppose it is out of the question.”

“Absolutely,” Hazel said firmly, tucking her arm in his. “Although I would have liked to see those mirrors I’ve heard so much about for myself. Sam, I rely on you to tell me all about them.”

“Hazel!”

She patted her husband’s forearm. “Don’t be so stuffy, Edward.”

Kimble and Gerard stole silently away, leaving the Gordons squabbling happily.

“I don’t care what it costs, I want a bath,” said Kimble, as they headed their mounts towards town.

“And food we can take our time over. Steak.”

“With gravy. And fresh biscuits,” Kimble added dreamily.

“First we have to get back to town. Don’t go falling out of the saddle.”

“Why not? You’d catch me.”

“While I appreciate the vote of confidence, I wouldn’t count on it right now,” said Gerard wryly. “How are your nurses going to take you sleeping at a whorehouse?”

“Not well, unlike Hazel Gordon. That said, Mrs Baldwin finally seems to have seen sense. In fact she and Amber shared the night watch.”

“The battle-ax and the whore,” mused Gerard. The horses fresh, it took some effort to control them and he kept a careful eye on Kimble. “I thought Mrs Baldwin’s declared aim in life was to see Amber tarred and feathered and driven from the town.”

“She mellowed after assurances that Mr. Baldwin had never shown his face at Amber’s door. Since when she declared a truce due to the emergency,” explained Kimble, amused. “Which display of Christian charity was aided by the vicarious thrill she gets listening to some of Amber’s stories.”

“Do you think any of them are true?”

“Well, certainly not the ones about Mr. Baldwin.” It took all Kimble’s remaining energy to subdue Red as they approached the whorehouse, where a small boy with a cast in one eye ran inside, yelling for ‘Miss Amber’ at the top of his voice.

To their astonishment they were greeted like heroes by a small group of townsfolk, none of whom made any of the predictable jokes about their destination. Miss Amber led them into the best room in the house - her own. While frills and lace and a plenitude of pink wouldn’t have been their first choice of decor, they appreciated the thought. Being a woman of sense, she wasted no time in seeing to their comfort.

Eating their first decent meal in over a week, they watched a tub being filled by a parade of children. The legacy of the trade plied here, as Kimble pointed out when Gerard queried their presence. Gerard shared out the coins in his pockets between the various children before closing and locking the door. Testing the water, he nodded his approval.

“You take the tub first,” he said, correctly interpreting Kimble’s expression of longing.

Kimble didn’t make any pretense of arguing or protesting. He even let Gerard pull off his boots while he unpeeled himself from his rank clothing.

“I’ll get someone to send them to the laundry,” Gerard said.

“Don’t bother. I don’t ever want to wear them again. Get someone to burn them - and to buy us new outfits.” Wincing as he stepped into the tub, Kimble slowly sank into the steaming water. Once immersed, he gave a groan of satisfaction as he eased back, the water lapping his shoulders, even if his knees and a goodly proportion of long leg were sticking out.

Relieved to be out of his own noisome garments, Gerard yanked some plump, floral patterned cushions to the floor beside the tub and sank to his knees.

“What are you doing?” Kimble asked sleepily.

“Getting ready to wash your hair.”

Kimble was so tired he had the energy only for an unguarded murmur of pleasure as Sam squeezed a spongeful of hot water over his filthy hair. The soap smelled of rosemary and honey rather than anything medicinal, the pleasant scent tickling their nostrils as Gerard washed and rinsed Kimble’s hair clean. Small moans of pleasure escaped Kimble as strong hands began to massage the knots from his neck and shoulders. Tension beginning to ease, he felt the soapy sponge cleaning him and moved his weighted limbs as instructed. There was a small splash when the soap escaped Gerard’s grasp to fall in the tub. His arm sank deep into the water, his fingers brushing Kimble’s thigh as he located the bar.

“Isn’t this where we came in?” Kimble’s eyes were heavy with fatigue as they drifted over Sam’s face, as if relearning it.

“I don’t follow,” said Gerard, puzzled.

“Madame Reynard’s. The first time we met. Damn, but you were skinny then.”

“That didn’t stop you from making your move as I recall.”

“Hell, no. Not given the splendid view you were offering.” Kimble leaned forward so Gerard could wash his back for him.

“And that would be?” Gerard’s large hands slicked bubbles from Kimble’s shoulders.

“Your ass. Though I’d seen you before we met at the whorehouse. In fact I followed you there.” He turned in time to see the pleasure it didn’t occur to Gerard to hide.

“Yeah?”

“Oh, yeah. You figure we can get any lotion similar to Miss Lacey’s here?”

“What for?” asked Gerard, who was drooping with fatigue, even though he wouldn’t admit it.

Kimble nudged him. “What do you think?”

“That it’s time for you to get out of that bath before the water is completely cold.”

“I don’t mind.”

“I was thinking of me having to use the water after you,” Gerard explained patiently.

All contrition, Kimble left the tub. But his intention of waiting on Sam fell by the wayside. Sitting on the bed, towel in hand, he made the mistake of leaning back against the pillows. He was asleep within seconds.

 

Rejuvenated after a long sleep and large meal, they returned to the makeshift hospital. With the immediacy of keeping men alive gone, the full scale of the tragedy became more apparent. The nature of the injuries sustained had necessitated a large number of amputations; few of the survivors were grateful, some were openly abusive as they railed against the men who had crippled them.

It was a side to being a doctor which hadn’t occurred to Gerard; listening to his lover being verbally abused time and time again, without being able to defend him as he wanted to, left him crackling with suppressed anger.

“Who can blame them,” said Kimble that night, his head propped on Gerard’s shoulder. They lay in Amber’s brass bed, their focus on each other so great that they were deaf to the sounds coming from the rest of the house.

“They’re miners. It’s a risky occupation,” dismissed Gerard.

“Who thinks disaster will ever happen to them? I’ve left them with nothing: job, home, hope - all taken from them. Who’s going to support them - the town? How many of those men I crippled do you think will be alive in a year’s time, if they don’t find the means to kill themselves sooner? For all the good I’ve done...”

“In the case of Genstang and Carter you might be right. But what about all the others?” returned Gerard, sentiment resolutely pressed from his voice.

Kimble’s beautiful hands gestured emptily. “Right now they’re no comfort, Sam.” His arm tightened over Gerard, his face burrowing into the Sam-scented haven between jaw and shoulder. “I’m glad we’re going home tomorrow,” he said in a low voice.

“Me, too,” said Gerard, his thumb describing a circle behind Kimble’s right ear. Stretching out, he turned down the lamp until they lay in darkness. Ignoring the growing lack of feeling in his arm, he kept watch until silence fell even in the whorehouse.

“When we get home I was wondering about asking Sam Beckett if he’d be interested in opening a drug store with me,” said Kimble, just when Gerard had allowed himself to hope the other man might be asleep.

It was a moment before the proposal sank in. “It sure would be popular with the townsfolk. Given the size of Cooksville I never understood why we had so much trouble getting a doctor.”

“Damn, if someone’s moved in while I’ve been away...” began Kimble.

Gerard allowed himself a satisfied smile at the proprietorial note in his lover’s voice. “You don’t object to sharing with Sam Beckett?”

“He’s not a doctor. But he is a damn fine herbalist. I can learn a lot from him and I enjoy his company. I can’t think of a better business partner. He’s one of the most honest men I’ve ever met - and we get on well.”

“A drug store is a fine idea. Uh, if you need some capital to get started I - uh - ”

Kimble twisted to give him a quizzical look. “My my my my my. Not only good-looking, but rich, too.”

Hearing the glee in Kimble’s voice Gerard slid his hand a little lower, so that it cupped the warm laxity of Richard’s genitals. “Well, at least you got the order right,” he said, trying to sound philosophical.

“Yeah, yeah. I’m just lulling you into a false sense of security. It’s late. Go to sleep,” Kimble added in a different tone. “I’ll be fine.”

“I know that.”

“Then sleep.”

“You first.”

Mumbling in exasperation, Kimble snuggled a little deeper into the pillows and much to his own surprise, slid into a deep and dreamless sleep.

oOo

 

Their ride to Palmston was uneventful although they arrived in town just in time to see the train that stopped at Cooksville pull out. It was a four day wait for the next one. Given that Palmston was a thriving community with almost as many amenities on offer as Cooksville, their stop-over promised to be a pleasant one. The hotel Gerard selected offered an ostentatious degree of comfort - and clean sheets.

“Just no decent sized tubs,” mourned Kimble, sitting with his knees tucked under his chin again. “I hope you can do better than this at the ranch or we’ll have to keep visiting Madame Reynard’s.”

Slowly soaping Kimble’s right arm, Gerard paused, his face a purposeful blank. “You’re planning to keep visiting the ladies?”

“What? Why would I want to do that?” Kimble snaked an arm around Gerard’s neck and drew him in for what had been intended for a quick kiss. “I meant for a bath. When I’ve got prime steak at home why would I want scraps?” His eyes widened. “You don’t plan on going back there, do you?”

Relaxed in the other man’s grip, Gerard shook his head. “It doesn’t look that way. Damn. And just when I’d got my time down to twenty minutes, including the time it took me to undress and dress again.”

“We could always hold races,” Kimble offered, straight-faced.

Lost in thought, Gerard absent-mindedly kissed the top of his head. “We could always create our own Ablution Suite. Mr. Bailey gave his wife every comfort so we’ve already got indoor plumbing. There’s plenty of room for a tub big enough to stretch out in.”

“Two tubs,” said Kimble firmly. “Side by side. We could check out the Sears catalogue for two that take our fancy - ”

“ - paint some cherubs on the ceiling.”

Kimble’s look of disdain turned into one of open indulgence. He rose, with some difficulty, water streaming down his body. “You know what I really want?”

Gerard looked so hopeful that it completely distracted Kimble from what he had been about to say.

The door locked and the blinds down, they spent a good part of the morning testing the bed, which if not as comfortable as it had first appeared, was adequate for their needs.

 

Getting dressed for the second time that day, Gerard shrugged into the rich crimson shirt Kimble had insisted he buy and fastened the cuffs as he watched Kimble run a hand over his beard.

“You planning on keeping that?” Gerard asked, having already got rid of his own. While he enjoyed shaving no more than the next man, a beard made him itch.

“I wasn’t, no. I never feel like myself wearing one. The only time I’ve ever grown a beard was when I’ve been on the run from Sykes.”

“Then you won’t need to wear one again.” The open satisfaction in the statement made Kimble turn where he sat on the edge of the mattress.

“You don’t like this beard?”

Gerard grimaced. “I miss seeing your mouth. Even that scar on your chin.”

Kimble’s thumb flicked across the spot. “Really?”

“It looks good on you.” Mortified when he realized what he had just said, Gerard dropped his head, mumbling something under his breath that sounded like an apology.

Kimble just sat there grinning before he went over to the other man. “Looks good, huh?”

“Don’t rub it in. Boy, how dumb can I be?” muttered Gerard. “I didn’t mean I’d rather your face had been broken, just...”

“Sam, it’s fine. Really. Though it’s kind of lucky you like it, given there’s nothing I can do about it. You can blame Red.”

“He threw you, huh?”

“Certainly not,” denied Kimble with dignity. “He was spooked by a rattler and - ”

“He threw you,” said Gerard, failing to hide his glee.

“That’s right, laugh. But yeah, the bastard dumped me the second day I had him. I managed to gash my chin on the only piece of rock in a three mile radius. It hurt like hellfire. Then I had to tend to the gash without the benefit of a mirror.”

“That would account for it then,” said Gerard.

Having been confidently expecting a modicum of sympathy, followed by another pleasurable spell of comfort of the more tangible kind, Kimble batted the back of Gerard’s head with the heel of his hand.

Gerard just gave one of his quick, fierce grins before lightly running his fingers over Kimble’s bearded chin.

“The quicker we get rid of this the better,” he decided. “It only reminds you of Sykes.”

“I saw a barbershop a block down from here.”

“You don’t need to bother him. I’ll see to it personally.”

Conscious of the dark eyes examining his face, seemingly pore by pore, Kimble gave an audible swallow. “This is important to you,” he recognized, without understanding why.

“Hell, yes. This way I get you back.”

“Sam, you must know that - ”

“Of course I know,” he interrupted testily. “I didn’t claim it was rational.” He shot a glance at Kimble’s face. “We don’t have to do this.”

His hands on the other man’s flanks, Kimble drew Gerard close. “It’s no hardship. No hardship at all. You can do anything you like with me.”

There was nothing modest about Gerard’s slow smile. “I know,” he acknowledged.

Kimble placed a hand on Gerard’s chest to fend him off. “Uh huh. We haven’t got time.”

“Given what I’ve got planned for you, no,” agreed Gerard silkily.

Kimble nearly tripped over his own feet.

“No, you were right. We’ll have more energy tonight,” said Gerard, shrugging into his jacket and creating a small dust storm in the process.

Kimble coughed theatrically. “You could use a new jacket,” he announced with decision.

“Nonsense. It’s nothing a good shake and brush down won’t fix.”

Kimble gave him a pitying look. “Check it out for yourself.” He peeled the jacket down Gerard’s arms and held it out for him to see for himself.

Surprised to note the jacket’s shabby appearance and the number of tears and scuffs the soft suede had sustained, Gerard sadly conceded Kimble’s point. “And just when I’d got it worn to my shape.”

“We can look for a new one while we’re out.”

“I guess,” sighed Gerard. Resigned to his loss, he checked the pockets, pausing when he eased his fingers through a tear in the lining to retrieve something small and metallic, though obviously not a coin. His stomach clenched when he found himself staring at the twisted and fire-dulled Saint Christopher.

“What have you got there?” asked Kimble, curious to know what could keep his quick-silver lover still for so long.

“The Saint Christopher you left with me.” Holding it out, Gerard waited for the storm to break. It hadn’t been his to spoil and he’d damn nearly destroyed it.

“My God,” whispered Kimble in shock. “I hope you weren’t hurt when this got damaged.” As if declining to check the evidence of his own eyes his hands lightly skimmed Gerard’s torso, needing the reassurance of touch.

Snapped back to the present, Gerard remembered to smile, unaware that the effort showed. “It’s all right, Richard. I wasn’t injured.”

While sensing he was missing an important piece of the puzzle, Kimble had the wisdom not to pursue the point. “That’s all that matters. I’ll see to the catch for you if you want to wear it. Though the chain’s kind of short. We’ll get a new one in town.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t take better care of it for you,” muttered Gerard. With Richard at his side it was hard to remember that spell of madness.

Kimble gave him a quick, fierce, one-armed hug. “You took care of you, that’s all I care about.” Embarrassed by the emotions that were too close to the surface for comfort, he took refuge in the mundane. “We need to stock up on a few things. Like shaving cream. And I’m clean out of cigars. Then there’s your jacket and candy for the horses...”

Undeceived, Gerard gave him a tolerant look and allowed himself to be steered from the room.

Main street was bustling with townsfolk and travelers with nothing else to do while they waited for their train to arrive.

“Why are we heading out of town?” inquired Kimble, matching Gerard stride for stride.

“Because I’ve just remembered I need to send Cosmo a telegram. I should have wired him weeks ago when we were in Abbeyville - if not before.”

“And he’s gonna be mad at you?”

“More worried.”

“Ah.”

“Then he’ll get mad. Anyway, we’re off to the Telegraph Office to rectify things. He can spread the word to other sheriffs that they can stop worrying about Sykes.”

“I guess.” Kimble’s pace had slowed. “What kind of a reception do you figure I can expect in Cooksville?” he asked, just missing the nonchalant tone he was aiming for.

“Rapturous.”

“I’m serious.”

“So am I. No-one understood why you left. Mad at you I might have been, but even I didn’t believe you’d attacked Annabelle, whatever I might have pretended to you to the contrary.”

“And the Fischer brothers’ lynching party?”

“Between their imagined grievances about Arnie’s death, losing to you at cards, and Annabelle being sweet on you, any excuse would have done. They’ll have had plenty of time to calm down by now.” About to step off the sidewalk, Gerard stopped so abruptly that the plump matron behind cannoned into him. Tilting the brim of his hat to her as he made his apologies, Gerard caught hold of Kimble’s forearm, just remembering in time that they were in public.

“I would never suggest we return to Cooksville if I thought for one moment there was going to be any trouble. You do know that?”

Kimble patted him on the chest. “Yeah. Of course I do. Ignore me. I’m just being - ”

“Realistic. I’ll wire Cosmo. Once we’ve heard from him I can judge better what we should do. We don’t have to go back to Cooksville. Ever, I mean.”

Large-eyed with shock, Kimble stared at him. “Sam...”

“I’m serious. We can live anywhere you want, do anything you want.”

There was no doubting Gerard’s sincerity but hearing that Sam was prepared to abandon the home, work and friends he loved for him left Kimble fumbling for something to say. Fortunately a delivery wagon stirred up enough dust to account for his inclined-to-water eyes.

Leaving others to tell the wagon driver exactly what they thought of him, Kimble and Gerard continued on their way, with Kimble pretending not to notice the worried glances Sam was giving him.

“You look kind of pole-axed,” Gerard said at last. “I needn’t wire Cosmo at all. We could just disappear, if that’s what you’d rather do?”

Kimble gave him a fierce look. “I’m not proposing to do anything of the kind. It’s just...” He rubbed the back of his neck, studied his boots, then flicked a glance at Gerard. “It’s kind of strange to have someone looking out for me the way you do.”

“Get resigned to it.”

“I don’t think resigned is the word I’d use. Wire Cosmo,” added Kimble decisively. “I wanna go home.”

 

They found a number of excuses to loiter around the Telegraph Office while they waited for Renfro’s reply to Gerard’s lengthy wire. Kimble tensed when the clerk nodded to Gerard to confirm that a message was coming through.

“That’s Cosmo,” said Gerard, after a moment.

“How can you be so sure?” asked Kimble.

“He’s the wordiest man I know.”

After a small delay while the formalities were attended to Gerard handed Kimble the telegram. “You read it.”

His hand less than steady, Kimble headed out of the shadowed office and into the sunlight; because the area was deserted he read the telegram aloud in steady voice which gave no hint of his inner turmoil.

“'bvious that jackass in the telegraph office in Endeavor did not give you my answer to your previous wire stop Why the hell have not you wired me before now stop Been worried stop Annabelle fully recovered and engaged bracket not to Richard bracket stop Entire town knows Sykes to blame for attack on her stop Richard much missed stop What took you so long to find him stop Cosmo stop'”

Kimble slumped onto a barrel stacked by the railway line as if his legs had suddenly failed him and waved the telegram at Gerard. “It’s really over,” he said wonderingly.

Gerard clasped him by the shoulder. “I guess now wouldn’t be a tactful time for me to say ‘I told you so’.” His grin betrayed that he hadn’t been as relaxed as he had wanted to appear. “You’re a fool. No-one who knows you could ever believe you’d harm anyone. Though I should warn you that George Fischer gets real maudlin when he’s penitent.”

“At least Max won’t be wanting to put a bullet through my back.”

“Providing he’s the one Annabelle’s engaged to,” Gerard pointed out blandly.

“If we weren’t in public,” began Kimble.

“Don’t let that skinny dog over there stop you.”

“So the two muleskinners don’t bother you?”

“Ah, I didn’t spot them,” Gerard admitted. “Instead of looking superior, you just concentrate on all the things you want to check out in the drug store.”

 

It was early evening by the time they returned to their hotel, where numerous packages were already awaiting them. Gerard had acquired a new jacket of the softest black leather, which clung to his broad shoulders as if tailored just for him. The Saint Christopher had been unkinked, cleaned, polished and hung on a chain - all for approximately three times the cost of replacing it. Kimble was the proud possessor of a pair of tooled leather boots in a shade of glossy chestnut, while wearing a smug expression because he had realized his plans for a drug store were vastly superior to the store in town.

“We could convert the old stable into a drug store if you wanted,” said Gerard, as they entered their room.

Kimble relieved the bellboy of the last parcel and gave him a lavish tip before closing the door behind him. “And have people interrupting us all day?”

“We’ll both be working,” Gerard pointed out blandly.

“What about the days when we’re not? Besides, El Corazón won’t be convenient for everyone and... I want you to myself.”

“I figured,” said Gerard, only now allowing his amusement to show.

“You knew?”

“I had an inkling.”

A promising scuffle was broken up by a knock on the door.

Kimble let in the bellboy pushing a captain’s chair, followed by two maids with hot water, cold water and a pile of clean towels. Another large tips disposed of them smartly enough, leaving Kimble to watch his lover’s preparations.

“You were serious about wanting to get rid of this beard of mine, weren’t you?” Kimble said, amused.

Gerard glanced up from the parcels he was unwrapping. “Absolutely.”

Feeling oddly self-conscious, Kimble seated himself in the captain’s chair, which had been set in front of the freestanding cheval mirror, so that he had a perfect view of Gerard and himself.

“While you’ve got those scissors in your hand you might want to cut my hair. It’s grown kind of long.”

“I know.” Gerard tweaked an errant spike that insisted on poking up in front. “I kind of like it.”

“Excellent. Then I won’t need to visit the barber so often.”

“You mean you’d humor me?”

“And you think I’m sitting here waiting for you to take a razor to my throat because...?”

“Just hush now,” said Gerard, as he started to trim Kimble’s beard.

The combination of Sam’s close physical proximity allied to the gentleness in the large hands which tended him so skillfully was more erotic than Kimble had anticipated. Visits to the barbers were a fact of life but having Sam wait on him felt decadent in the extreme; while half of him reveled in the experience, the other half felt guilty. The beard finally trimmed down and a froth of shaving soap whipped up and applied to his face, Kimble watched in the mirror as Gerard stood behind him, cut-throat in hand.

“No last minute doubts?” Gerard asked.

Smiling, Kimble shook his head, closed his eyes and trustingly tilted his head back to expose the long line of his throat. He sat listening to the scrape of the razor and the slosh of water as the shaving soap and whiskers were rinsed away, all to the accompaniment of gentle gurgles from Gerard’s digestive system, which had begun work on the meal they had eaten earlier.

A caress from the side of a broad thumb accompanied the baring of each new portion of flesh, warm, damp towels wiping away the last trace of hair and soap until Kimble was staring at his exposed face. Feeling naked without the protective covering he had been wearing since he left Cooksville, he noticed that the top half of his face seemed darker. He palmed his cheeks, which were smarting slightly.

“No, don’t get up for a moment,” said Gerard gruffly. “I bought this cream.” He applied some to Kimble’s skin.

“Hey, that feels real nice,” said Kimble, trying to ignore the ache in his loins. “It smells pretty good, too. As in not too much. Where did you get it from?”

“The drug store.”

“Yeah?” Scooping some up with his finger, Kimble applied it to his other cheek in a thoughtful manner. “This is the kind of thing I’m gonna need Miss Lacey’s help with. We might even able to persuade her to make batches for the dispensary. We’d need some manly sounding name for it though because it would never have occurred to me to offer a cream for razor burn.”

“Me either,” said Gerard unguardedly.

“So what is it for?” inquired Kimble with gathering suspicion.

Gerard muttered something incomprehensible and just failed to stop Kimble from snatching up the pot.

“This is to put on babies’ sore butts,” Kimble discovered, outrage informing his every line.

“It works, doesn’t it?”

“Well, yeah. But how could you know that? Unless...?” Kimble gave a hoot of laughter. “You use this?”

“My skin gets dry,” said Gerard, fidgeting.

Tangling his fingers in the other man’s shirtfront, Kimble eased Gerard down to him. “I’d best check for myself. It’s been a while since we kissed bare on bare.” His tone was so seductive that Gerard’s cock was already rising in response to it even before their mouths touched, diffident, as if for the first time. Kimble flicked his tongue across Gerard’s lower lip, teasing his mouth until it parted for him, owning him.

“Better,” adjudged Gerard breathlessly, as they finally drew apart. “Your beard gave me a rash.”

Kimble frowned. “I didn’t notice.”

“It wasn’t on my face. Richard? What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

Nimble fingers busy with the buttons to Gerard’s pants, Kimble looked up, all innocence. “Checking the site of the injury. I am a doctor.”

In the circumstances, Gerard felt it unnecessary to point out the rash was on his left shoulder blade.

Chapter Text

FIFTEEN

 

Having become increasingly talkative as they drew closer to Cooksville, Kimble fell silent as the train drew to a standstill with much hissing of steam and screeching of brakes. Automatically soothing Red as metallic noises echoed through the horse box, he cast a look at Gerard, who was peering out through a crack in the slats of wood.

“I was kind of hoping Cosmo might have come down to welcome us home,” Gerard remarked, pausing to pick some straw from Kimble’s collar. “But except for Charlie’s mangy old hound there isn’t a soul around.” Satisfied that Kimble was looking less jumpy, he helped the guard put the ramp in place and secured it.

“I still don’t see why we had to spend the entire journey with the damn horses,” grumbled Kimble as he led Red down the ramp after Maverick and Gerard.

“Maverick gets anxious.” Gerard nodded to the three passengers who had alighted, and who were heading in the direction of the main street.

“If she has a nervous bone in her body I haven’t been privileged to see it.”

Maverick choose that moment to break wind.

“See? Nerves,” said Gerard smugly.

Handing her reins to Kimble, he helped the guard unload the possessions they had acquired in Palmston. Tying the horses to a hitching post some distance from the track, relaxed now he was convinced there wasn’t a lynching mob lying in wait for him, Kimble turned and eyed the growing pile with surprise.

“I don’t remember buying this much,” he grunted, struggling with a large and particularly heavy crate.

“No?” Gerard looked vague.

Peering between the slates of the crate he had just manhandled down the ramp, Kimble wasn’t totally surprised to see the captain’s chair they’d used in their hotel room when Sam had shaved him. He’d never made love on castors before. It had been...different. Intriguingly different. Worth practicing, in fact. He shared a reminiscent grin with Gerard before the train whistle made him jump.

Red shied, slow to settle even after the train had pulled out, while Maverick placidly chewed another aniseed candy, slobbering affectionately over Gerard’s caressing hand.

“Anxious, huh?” snorted Kimble.

Electing not to hear that, Gerard yelled, “Hey, Charlie! We’re back!”

A tall rangy man emerged onto the porch of his house, squinting as he stepped into the light and loped over to them. “No need to shout, Sam. I’m not deaf. Howdy, doc. It’s good to have you back. My Charmaine’s about due and I was starting to worry you wouldn’t be home in time to attend her.”

“How far advanced is she?”

“Eight and a half months and bigger than my old sow,” said Charlie proudly.

Kimble steadied his twitching mouth and let Gerard step into the gap in the conversation.

“What will this one be, Charlie? Your fourth?”

“Fifth.” Charlie’s gaze moved to the pile of boxes and crates. “You want me to store them out back until you can collect them?”

“I’d appreciate it. I’ll be round tomorrow morning with the buckboard.” Gerard motioned for Kimble to take the other side of the crate. “Given that Quintum’s Leap burned down, the doctor’s going to board with me.”

Charlie peered over the top of the pile of boxes he was carrying. “It makes sense you takin’ the doc in. You must rattle round that old house on your own. Set it down over there. It’ll be fine.”

“I could use the company,” Gerard said, assuming the noble mien of a man bearing up under a secret sorrow.

Muttering sympathetically, Charlie came back outside to wave them off.

“That was one of the most nauseatingly hypocritical displays I’ve ever seen,” said Kimble, as they rode away.

Gerard looked smug. “It’s a gift.”

Kimble was frowning. “If you’re the one with the secret sorrow to save you from matchmaking mothers, what excuse can I give for not marrying - or visiting the whorehouse?”

“An injury no gentleman would discuss in polite company,” said Gerard, straight-faced.

There was silence for a few seconds.

“Why do I have to be the one with - ?”

They both swung round when they heard Charlie yelling behind them; turning their mounts, they cantered back to where he stood.

“What’s the problem?” demanded Gerard, his gaze flicking over likely hiding places for miscreants.

“You’re not heading into town.” Charlie sounded aggrieved.

“No need.” Gerard looked surprised and less than pleased about having to account for his movements.

“Only everyone figured you’d ride in to see Cosmo, so the Welcome Committee’s outside the Marshal’s office.”

Kimble looked wary, Gerard just looked puzzled. “What welcome committee?”

“For you and the doc here. You’ve been gone a while. The town’s real pleased to know we’ve got our very own sawbones at last. Not that Sam Beckett doesn’t do a fine job in emergencies. But he doesn’t claim to be a doctor. Besides, everyone knows he’d rather be pounding potions or fiddling with those contraptions of his. Anyway, Mayor Calavicci thought up the welcome committee. The band’s been rehearsing ever since Cosmo got your wire and figured out what day and time you’d get here. The town ladies have rustled up some banners and a spread. I hear tell there’s gonna be ice-cream from the new parlor that new man, Martin Crane, opened up.”

“So he took my advice,” said Kimble without thinking.

“You know him?”

Charlie’s surprise made Gerard send a mental thanks to Crane, who obviously knew how to keep his mouth shut.

“We met,” Kimble said easily. “Niles, his youngest boy, broke his arm.”

Charlie grinned. “It won’t have affected his tongue, I’ll be bound. That boy can talk for three. I’ve heard of an old head on young shoulders but I’ve never heard anything like those two Crane boys. So you’ll go into town?”

“Sure,” said Gerard. “We’ll even remember to look real surprised.”

 

What the band lacked in skill was more than compensated for in volume, although at least Al Calavicci, wearing the loudest vest Kimble had ever seen, had the decency to keep his speech short. It was only when Gerard nudged him forward that Kimble appreciated that the ceremony was for his benefit.

“Uh, thank you,” he managed. The pained expression on Gerard’s face spurred him on. “I’m glad to be back and looking forward to a long and happy life in Cooksville.”

“So why d’you leave?” called a wag.

Realizing that if Richard’s eyes grew much bigger they’d pop right out his head, Gerard took charge, his distinctive voice with its emphatic rhythms commanding belief.

“Sykes framed Richard for a murder he’d committed himself. Richard set out to prove his innocence. I helped. Richard saved my life. Mr. Sykes is dead. End of story.”

A roar of approval swelled up from the crowd, before various conversations started up as people began to flesh out the bare bones of Gerard’s recital. A smile frozen in place, Kimble flinched when a hand clapped him on the shoulder, but it was only Robert Biggs.

“Welcome home, Doc. Sam, that was pathetic. Could you have left out any more detail if you tried? Only you could make a tale like that sound dull.”

“Thanks,” said Gerard dryly. Watching Biggs wander off to get himself another chicken leg, he turned his attention to those clustering around Richard. It was no surprise to see how many women there were.

“It seems to me you might have left a few things out of that recital,” said Martin Crane from behind Gerard.

He turned without enthusiasm. “Only how close I came to dying.” He became uncomfortably aware that he was the focus of two wary gazes. “Boys. How are you enjoying life in Cooksville?”

“We were finding it here most congenial,” said Frasier pointedly.

Gerard resigned himself to being the villain of the piece for years to come.

“Hey, that’s enough!” said Crane sharply. “The marshal here was just doing his job.”

“If he hadn’t, I’d be dead,” added Kimble, who had been listening to the exchange. “Sam and I are old friends. In fact I’m going to be setting up home out at his place.”

“Thus avoiding the old biddies calling you out in the middle of the night for heartburn or palpitations,” said Crane with a grin.

“That was a consideration,” Kimble allowed.

“I’m glad everything worked out so well,” said Crane. “Call in at the parlor sometime, doc, I’ll stand you the house special.”

“I’ll look forward to it,” grinned Kimble.

As Crane and his sons left Kimble felt a hand slide into the crook of his arm. Looking up, he gave a smile of delight. “Caroline!” He kissed her cheek before glancing around. “Where’s Cosmo?”

“Sulking,” she said serenely. “Hello, Sam.” She pointedly avoided his kiss.

“Uh, honey...”

“Don’t you ‘honey’ me, Sam Gerard. Cosmo’s been worrying himself sleepless about what had become of you.”

Gerard wilted under her disapproval. “I was afraid he might. I clean forgot,” he admitted - mainly because that much was obvious.

“We know,” Caroline pointed out, before her severe expression softened. “I guess I’ll forgive you. You look... It wasn’t quite as easy as you made out, was it.”

“Not quite,” said Kimble. “Quit glaring, Sam. He was sick,” he told Caroline. “I made him rest.”

“You must tell me the secret because it’s more than I’ve ever managed to do,” said Caroline tartly, before she patted Gerard on the chest. “Now you’ve done the pretty with the townsfolk you’re both coming back to our place for a meal. That way Cosmo can yell at you to his heart’s content.”

Busy watching Renfro make his way to them through the thinning crowd, Gerard gave no sign of having heard her. Unsurprised, Caroline went ahead with Kimble, but not so far that they couldn’t eavesdrop. After one backward glance, Kimble was prepared to trust her instincts.

“Sam. It’s been a while,” said Renfro coolly.

“Yeah. Look, Cosmo, I appreciate that - ”

“It’s a pity it didn’t occur to you that some of us might be concerned after all those weeks with no word from you.”

Rubbing the back of his neck, Gerard glanced up through his lashes. “I’m sorry, okay? But I was kind of preoccupied with staying alive. I guess I assumed that after all this time you’d figure I could take care of myself.”

“Against Federick Sykes?” retorted Renfro, but the cold look was gone from his face as he punched Gerard on the biceps. “You’re forgiven. While you’ve been away I’ve been collecting information about Sykes from as far away as Hogston. By all accounts he’s been leaving a trail of death wherever he went. Richard was lucky you were with him.”

“You’ve got that the wrong way around. I’d be dead if it wasn’t for Richard. Sykes was about to kill me when Richard... He doesn’t want to talk about it,” Gerard warned.

“No, he wouldn’t,” conceded Renfro, glancing to where Kimble was happily flirting with his wife. “I guess killing a man would come harder to a doctor. And you can quit looking at me that way. I won’t mention it to Richard. Anyone would think I had no tact.”

“Amazing,” said Gerard, straight-faced, before he dodged the mock-punch aimed his way.

“So what’s this I hear about you putting Richard up at El Corazón?”

“It seemed to make sense. If we don’t rub each other up the wrong way the odds are we’ll make it a permanent arrangement.”

“If Richard could stand your company on the trail, you should get on fine. So, are you gonna let Caroline feed you? She’s convinced you’ve been starving yourselves.”

“There hasn’t been anything as fine as her cooking, that’s for sure. Could we make it next Sunday? Only I’m kind of looking forward to getting home. Besides, it would make sense to show Richard around while it’s still light.”

“Sure thing. It’s good to have you back,” Renfro added gruffly. “Things can be kind of dull when you’re not around.”

Gerard cocked his head. “Should I waste my time looking for a compliment?”

“Only if you’re real desperate. We’ll see you in church, if not before,” said Renfro. Collecting his wife, he headed off in the direction of their house, whistling contentedly.

Catching Gerard’s eye, Kimble disentangled himself from some admirers without committing himself to any of the invitations made to him.

“One joke,” he warned in an undertone.

“As if,” murmured Gerard. The smile in his eyes hardened when he saw the Fischer brothers, who had made a stumbling apology soon after he and Richard had arrived, heading back towards Kimble. On seeing him they faltered and turned away.

“You could make a fortune emptying rooms,” said Kimble, keeping his voice low. “But try that little trick again and we’re gonna fall out.”

About to trade glares, innate fairness made Gerard concede the point and back down. “You’re right.”

Kimble looked suspicious. “When I win that easily I know there has to be a catch.”

“I made another unilateral decision,” confessed Gerard.

“Tell me the worst,” invited Kimble with resignation.

“I told Cosmo we’d rather go straight home so I could show you around in daylight rather than eat with him and Caroline. So we’re having Sunday dinner at their place.”

“Good choice. Now let’s get going while we can. I swear if one more person tries to shake my hand I’ll - ”

“Doctor Kimble! I thought I’d never get you to myself - except for dear Samuel, of course! Where, pray, have you been all this time?” demanded Miss Lacey, prodding him in the chest with the tip of her parasol.

 

By the time they escaped their friends what seemed like the whole town had welcomed Kimble back and many of them had heard from Gerard how the doctor had saved his life.

Kimble was still giving Gerard brooding looks from beneath the brim of his hat five miles out of town.

“Look, Richard, this way everyone took it for granted that I’d take you into my home,” explained Gerard patiently.

Unconvinced, Kimble continued to stare at him.

“And maybe, just maybe you understand, it’s because I’m so damn proud of you I could burst,” added Gerard in a goaded tone of voice.

That the last thing he had expected to hear, it was Kimble’s turn to look disconcerted. He wasted no time in changing the subject. “So when do we reach El Corazón?”

“As soon as we crest that hill up yonder.” Taking pity on his companion because Richard made too easy a target to want to tease him right now, Gerard spent that portion of their ride talking about his plans to breed horses once he had handed in his badge next Spring.

Kimble gave him an affectionate look. “We’ll see. You may have changed your mind by then.” Looking from Gerard to the way ahead he let out an appreciative whistle and reined in Red the better to enjoy the land spread out beneath them. “You own this?” he said incredulously.

“Yep.” Gerard looked as complacent as if it was of his own creation.

“It’s beautiful. I had no idea.”

“Probably because you’ve only been out here at night. Last time it was raining hard enough to make a man think about building himself an ark.”

Kimble’s gaze returned to Gerard. “I hadn’t forgotten my last visit,” he said huskily.

“Richard...” protested Gerard, fidgeting in the saddle. Maverick choose that moment to take advantage of his loss of attention. There was a lively interval before she decided to behave. “One word,” warned Gerard, recognizing the glint in Kimble’s eye.

Grinning, Kimble followed Gerard through the gates and up the drive leading to the ranch house.

Gerard was at the studded oak door, large black key in hand, when he realized Kimble had yet to dismount. “You don’t intend to come in?” he asked quizzically, hoping Richard couldn’t tell how nervous he felt.

“In a moment.”

Stepping off the veranda back into the full glare of the sun, Gerard had to shade his eyes in order to see Kimble’s face. “What is it?” he asked in a different tone, moving to Kimble’s side.

Kimble gave a rueful sigh. “It’s dumb.”

“No surprise there then.” Gerard offered an encouraging pat to Kimble’s calf.

Grinning his appreciation, Kimble dismounted but took his time fastening the reins to the hitching post.

“Am I the problem?”

Kimble swung around, surprise stark on his face. “Of course not! How could you think - ? You’re everything I could want or need. It isn’t you, it’s me. As we rode up it suddenly struck me how much I’ve missed having a home.”

Callused fingers collected those of his left hand, curling around them to draw him close. Pausing beside the door, Gerard handed Kimble the key. “I’ll get a second one cut tomorrow when we go into town. Go ahead.” He gestured to the door.

Enjoying the solid thunk as the key turned in the lock, Kimble pushed open the door and stepped over the threshold. After the heat of the day the air felt cool, although it smelled faintly of woodsmoke and burned wool. The light was dim because the shutters were closed at every window. Unhurried, he turned full circle, soaking in the quiet and sense of welcome.

Home. He was home.

Glancing to where Gerard stood, watching him, he smiled. “We’ll be happy here,” he said with conviction, “but that won’t depend on this house. Home is wherever you happen to be.”

Turning to shut the heavy front door, he found Gerard closer behind him than he had anticipated - so close that he could feel the heat from his body and smell the warm, clean man-smell of him before Gerard took that last half-step and their bodies brushed, jolting heat through him. His arms encircling Gerard, Kimble became aware of the hands mapping his own body. Of a height and power, there was a moment’s hesitation before, by silent accord, the give and take of their relationship was reaffirmed in one slow kiss.

Kimble’s hands settled possessively over the muscled swell of Gerard’s ass. “I want you,” he said baldly.

“I figured as much,” Gerard allowed, his pulse kicking up another notch.

Blood thrumming through his veins, Kimble found the strength of mind to fend him off. “Not like this, up against the front door. I don’t want you getting bruised by those metal studs. You deserve the comfort of that great big double bed of yours. And clean sheets. We’ll light lamps - I don’t want to miss a single detail - before we settle down to exchange a slew of slow, wet kisses.” He dredged in a jacket pocket. “Then I’m gonna apply some of this silky lotion to your dry areas before I...”

Gerard relieved him of the jar and stuck it in his own pocket. “That’ll come in useful,” he said, silencing Kimble’s laughing protest with another kiss.

One hand curving round the back of Gerard’s head, Kimble’s fingers tangled in the thick, dark hair. Nip-kissing Gerard at first, he settled down to an exchange of increasingly lingering kisses. By the time he found the strength of mind to retreat more of his clothing was disorganized and his eyes had a glazed look to them.

“The horses,” he gasped, evading a caressing hand.

His brain obviously suffering from oxygen deprivation, Gerard gave him a blank stare, licked his tingling lips and said, “Uh?”

Kimble brushed aside the hand which had been about to settle over his cock. “While you take care of Red and Maverick, I’ll find clean linen. Light the lamps. Make the bedroom comfortable for us.”

“Horses,” said Gerard, as if memorizing a particularly difficult lesson.

Kimble turned away before he could give way to the terrible temptation to reel Sam in and take him here and now. The need to mark this momentous occasion was the only thing which stopped him. He didn’t know why it should seem so important - it wasn’t as if this would be the first time they had made love in this house - only that he needed to mark the occasion. Last time he’d been acting a lie. This time he belonged. This time he was home for good.

Watching Gerard head out to the Livery stable, Kimble headed for the stairs, going up onto the gallery which ran above the large living area. Entering the first room he came to, he lost some of his confidence when he saw that it offered only a crookedly placed chest and an empty bed frame. Which was odd because he could have sworn this was Sam’s room. A quick check established that the room next door was the one he had occupied the night he’d had to amputate Cal Logan’s arm. The third room was clearly only used for storage and he made a mental note to turn it into a study. He needed to catch up on the latest advances - and to replace the medical books lost on his travels.

He pushed aside the quick flare of anger which came with the thought of Sykes and went back downstairs, puzzling over what could have become of Sam’s mattress. From what Sam had said he’d left to come after him within a few hours of his departure just before dawn.

Barely able to see where he was going, Kimble’s first priority was to unfasten the shutters downstairs. Sunlight flooding the room, he fastened back the shutters and opened the windows before unlocking the double glass-paned doors and stepping out into the courtyard. The fountain was playing and he could hear, if not see, doves. There was already a comfortable looking bench in the shade under some pink roses that were climbing up part of the adobe wall. He paused to run his hand over the lover’s knot carved in the back of the bench and smiled. Perfect, he thought, visualizing Gerard and himself here in the years to come. Though given their temperaments, not too perfect.

Wandering around the courtyard, pinching aromatic leaves, it was a few minutes before Kimble noticed the ugly remnants of a fire. Strolling over to investigate, he stilled when he solved the mystery of what had become of the mattress. Other items, too, from the look of the remains. From nowhere came the memory of the fire-twisted Saint Christopher, and the expression he hadn’t understood on Sam’s face.

Hearing Gerard’s voice, Kimble started, then called out his destination.

“Hey, I thought you were fixing our bed not - Oh. I’d forgotten about this.” Gerard came to a halt in front of the burned-out remains of the mattress. A wry expression on his face, he toed a portion of blackened sheepskin rug. It fell to pieces.

Kimble was finding it difficult to swallow past the lump in his throat. “Was this in reaction to the letter I left you?”

Unmoving beside him, Gerard’s introspective gaze was on the weeks old ashes. “That’s right. Not that I remember much about it. I guess I went a little loco.”

Kimble rested his palm between Gerard’s too straight shoulders. “When I wrote that I wanted to make you hate me enough not to care that I’d run out on you. I hoped that what had been between us hadn’t meant as much to you.”

Gerard’s head turned but he made no attempt to speak.

“I know,” said Kimble, rubbing Gerard’s back in a comforting fashion. “I know now how wrong I was. But at the time I had to hope that because I could see no other choice. I never wanted to hurt you.” His voice sounding increasingly choked, he caught Gerard in a hard, fierce embrace, snuggling his face into the hollow between jaw and shoulder. Sam smelled of their journey, of the beer Robert Biggs had spilt on his shirt sleeve and of Caroline Renfro’s perfume. Beneath those scents he could smell Sam’s starched green shirt and the warmth of Sam’s skin. The scent of him was as life-giving as sucking up air, if more intoxicating. Feeling Gerard’s lips against his hair, he tightened his grip.

“I guess you’re hoping I’m gonna share the spare bed with you,” said Gerard, giving Kimble’s tense shoulders a cautious pat, as if wary that he would break. “It’s all right, Richard. Really. It’s fine now. You’re here.”

“Damn right I am,” said Kimble. Raising his head, the efficacy of his defiant glare was impaired by the over-brightness of his eyes. “I just wanted to keep you safe,” he muttered.

Manfully swallowing a reminder of his chosen career, while making a mental note to educate Richard about whose task it was to protect whom, Gerard patted him again. “Which you did. More, you got Sykes out of Cooksville before he could do any more harm.” His keen gaze missing little, he assessed Kimble. “This,” he gestured to the burned out remains, “is really bothering you, isn’t it.”

Kimble debated lying, met those honest eyes and opted for the more difficult option. “Yeah.”

“Then we’ll dispose of the evidence. Clear it all out into the yard for now, ready to form the basis of another bonfire. It’s been a long time since I’ve held a party. Half the town will probably invite itself. But if I play it right Caroline will organize the women to see to the food and suchlike. Music, good food, a big fire - and firecrackers and such from Wing Lee’s grocery. What d’you think? The kids would certainly enjoy it.”

“So would I,” admitted Kimble, the sparkle back in his eyes. Without further ado he bent and grabbed hold of one edge of the mattress before beginning to tug, in the process causing clouds of fine ash to rise in the air. “Well don’t just stand there,” he commanded.

In an indulgent mood, Gerard let him get away with it.

 

By the time they had moved the mattress and other detritus both men were filthy, the ash seeming to hang in the motionless air. Having hoped to celebrate their homecoming in a totally different way, Gerard had been muttering grumpily under his breath for some time about Kimble’s obsession with what he saw as inessentials.

“Sorry, I didn’t catch that,” said Kimble blandly, wiping his filthy hands on his backside.

“Count yourself lucky.” Gerard cast an irritable glance in his direction.

“Oh, I do,” said Kimble, untroubled. He was learning to interpret Gerard’s growls and none of them bothered him. When Sam was seriously enraged he fell silent and grew still, somehow damping down the energy he usually exuded like a particularly sexy scent.

“Stop humoring me.”

“Anything you say,” said Kimble equably.

Frustration hissing through his teeth, Gerard took an impetuous step forward, which had the unfortunate effect of bringing him far too close to Kimble. He felt hands settle on his flanks before he was reeled in. Richard’s lips were warm and gentle as they moved against his own before Richard’s tongue began to flirt with his lower lip.

Gerard found the strength of mind to move his head. “You’re a devious son-of-a-bitch.”

“I know. You’re a saint to put up with me,” crooned Kimble. His palms cupping the firm resilience of Gerard’s ass, he started to kiss him again, firmly and deeply.

Gerard wrenched free. “No. Uh uh. No,” he repeated, wishing he sounded more definite - and that Richard would stop flicking the tip of his tongue over his bottom lip in that distracting way which always ended up with them making love.

“No?” Kimble nudged his pelvis forward, one hand running up and down Gerard’s bare forearm.

“No.” Gerard was groaning as he said it. “What is this? You come on to me like some fifty cent whore and I always succumb.”

Kimble’s crooked grin avoided any pretense of modesty. “I know. Fifty cents?” he added, raising his eyebrows.

“That does it,” said Gerard in a goaded tone, just before he yanked Kimble closer.

Kimble fended him off with a palm against his chest. “I thought you weren’t going to be suckered?”

“You might be cheap, but I’m easy.”

As hard as a rock with approximately the same level of intelligence because most of the blood in his body had rushed south, Gerard nudged his unresisting companion up against the wall, pinning him there with his body. One palm flat against the wall, he bent his head and began to kiss Kimble, soft, shallow kisses which became deeper and wetter until Kimble was making inarticulate noises while his hands moved busily, baring them both.

Gerard began to rub against him, slow and sure, the pressure increasing and retreating in a rhythm so distracting that it made unfastening buttons a test of intelligence. The rub and scrape of clothing gave way to the heated shock of bare flesh; they were slick with sweat from their exertions and the moisture dribbling from the eye of first Gerard’s, then Kimble’s, cock.

Rough adobe scraping his half-bare back and the naked press of Sam Gerard at his front, Kimble ceded control with no more than a moan of pleasure. His head going back, his Adam’s apple was licked and sucked, then his mouth plundered while a callused hand moved tantalizingly over the head of his cock.

Fiercely predatory, Gerard raised his head. “Turn around,” he said.

Raising eyes drugged with lust, Kimble saw the determination on Gerard’s face and gave a jerky nod. Pausing only to yank off his boots and the clothing puddled around his ankles, he was conscious of Gerard doing the same thing. Kimble ran one hand down Gerard’s torso, the tips of his fingers tangling in the dark hair at the groin.

“Do whatever you want,” he said huskily as he turned to face the wall, palms flat against the sun-warmed adobe. Planting his feet further apart, he flexed his back, giving a wicked grin when he heard Gerard’s sucked-in breath of response. Large hands mapped Kimble’s back and ass, fingers kneading the muscles.

His cock snug between the mounds of Kimble’s ass, Gerard nipped and sucked the nape of the neck bowed to him before he slid a hand round to torment already sensitized nipples, rubbing and pinching them until Kimble was threshing helplessly, inarticulate noises escaping him. A sharp slap to the ass made him still, his head bowing in surrender as the small smart was massaged with a flat-palmed hand. Burying his soft sigh against the forearm braced against the grubby wall, it was an effort to keep his eyes open, let alone for him to be able to think. His body swayed as it continued to respond to Gerard’s sensual assault.

The moist shock of the tongue which probed between the cheeks of his ass made Kimble’s legs shake. As he tried to move the callused hands tightened over his flanks, holding him in place.

“Stay there,” said Gerard.

The nip which accompanied that command just as much as the lotion-slick action of Gerard’s hand almost finished Kimble. His breathing stuttered, steadied, then stuttered again as the first finger entered him, fucking him.

Applying another generous dollop, Gerard sounded breathless and distracted, his sighed “Ah, Richard...” more eloquent than he knew.

“Do it, Sam. Do it now,” Kimble begged, before he sucked in a great mouthful of air.

Gerard’s thumbs changed their grip before his slickly anointed cock eased into Kimble’s body, slowly enough to drive Kimble to mouthing obscenities as he tried to impale himself.

“You’re gonna kill me,” Kimble complained, when his legs were nudged further apart, leaving him totally at Gerard’s mercy.

“I aim to try.” Almost withdrawing, Gerard changed angle slightly before driving home. A whimper escaped Kimble, his mouth slackening as golden sparks went off behind his closed eyes.

“And again,” commanded Gerard, a trickle of sweat dropping onto Kimble’s shoulder.

Kimble remained stubbornly silent.

Gerard gave a wolfish grin. He loved a challenge.

Moving with assurance, his next few thrusts had force enough to shove Kimble up onto his toes. Kimble’s fingers clenched crookedly against the wall, as if trying to find purchase. Unaware of what he did he began to grunt rhythmically in time to Gerard’s thrusts, the flashes of pleasure so intense he almost blacked out. Then Gerard’s palm stopped sliding up and down his cock and closed around it, ruthlessly dragging climax from him. Sweat dripping from his chin, only the wall and the press of Gerard’s body kept him on his feet.

After the merciless expertise he had displayed, Gerard’s own climax was an ungraceful, spastic series of shortening thrusts before he tensed, the tendons of his neck rigid just before he shuddered and came, relying on Kimble’s strength to keep them both on their feet thereafter.

Smarting and sore and under the burden of Gerard’s dead weight, Kimble slowly became aware that it was dark. The sun had gone down while they’d been too preoccupied to notice. Rubbing his nose on the back of his hand, he grimaced when cramp knotted his left calf and he moved involuntarily, stirring a grunt of acknowledgment from his companion.

Easing his softened cock from Kimble’s body, Gerard ran his hands gently up and down Kimble’s sides. “You all right?” he asked, his mouth gentle now over the marks he had inflicted.

Kimble’s head moved to allow him easier access. “I’ll let you know when the feeling returns to my extremities.” The necessary bite absent from his voice, he sounded lazily replete and appallingly smug.

“Boy, I must have been good,” said Gerard complacently.

“You wait till I have the energy,” threatened Kimble as he eased around to face him. “I’ll have you ass up over the back of that garden bench so fast...”

“Yeah?” croaked Gerard.

“Oh yeah.” Kimble’s smile was tender when he felt Gerard shiver in response. Bundling their hastily discarded clothing into Gerard’s arms, he nudged him forward with his shoulder. “Let’s go in. The bedroom was looking kind of romantic when I left it.”

“I hope you didn’t go to much bother. Like I said, I’m easy. Clean sheets are enough to woo me.”

“I’ll have to remember that.”

Gerard ran his fingertips down the hollow of Kimble’s back. “You deserved better than a damn wall.”

Wearing contentment like a comfortable old shirt, it didn’t even occur to Kimble to tease. “I’m not complaining. But you’re welcome to put me between those clean sheets of ours. I’m beat.”

Gerard’s expression of smug complacency changed to one of mild distaste as he took in the finer points of Kimble’s appearance. “You’re also filthy.”

“So much for love being blind. I’ll wash up,” sighed Kimble, before he brightened. “Then I’ll wash you.”

For a man who had claimed to be tired he displayed an alarming level of energy as he headed into the kitchen, already familiar with the layout of the house.

“I was thinking,” he said, sending soapsuds flying with an exuberant gesture of his hand, “we could turn the spare room into a study for me. And we need a new mattress. Though a new bed would be even better. We’ll go through the catalogue, see what else we need to make this place ours rather than the place you bought to help out Mr. Bailey.”

Gerard’s head shot up. “How did you know?”

Smiling, Kimble shook his head at him. “Only you could ask that. Anyway, like I was saying, we need to put our mark on the place. I can turn my hand to most things. I’m a pretty good carpenter.” A thoughtful look on his face, he toweled himself dry in a desultory kind of a way. “Have you got any paper? Only I’ve got this idea for a cabinet in the living room. Sam?”

Gerard obediently found pen and paper.

Still naked and talking nineteen to the dozen, Kimble sat at the kitchen table sketching out his plans while absently eating the bread and cheese Gerard set out.

Sipping his wine, Gerard’s gaze remained on the other man. The meticulous attention to detail in Richard’s plans was no surprise. For all his casual air, Richard had a need for order in his life.

He pulled off another piece of the crusty bread while he watched Kimble’s beautiful hands move expressively before he snatched up another piece of paper and began to sketch again, sending several ink blots flying in the process. He looked up every so often, not because he needed Gerard’s approval but for the pleasure of having someone to share the details of his life with.

Drowsy with contentment, Gerard made all the right responses. But as they planned their future it occurred to him that El Corazón finally felt like home. Or maybe it was just Richard, he conceded, leaning forward to pluck the pen from Kimble’s hand.

“What are you doing?” asked Kimble but he couldn’t suppress his knowing grin.

“If you’ve forgotten, I’d best demonstrate all over again. And don’t give me those big eyes.”

“Or what?” inquired Kimble with interest.

“Or I’ll be forced to kiss you and one thing will probably lead to another.”

Kimble thought about it. “And that would be a bad thing because...?”

“I didn’t say it would be a bad thing, just - ”

“You know your trouble, you talk too much,” said Kimble, taking charge of the proceedings.

The injustice of the remark successfully deprived Gerard of breath even before Kimble kissed him.

 

THE END