"Hey, buddy. Know where a traveler can get a bath 'round these parts?"
Cam leaned on the post outside his office and squinted down at the stranger. His horse was most likely black, but it was covered in dust, as was the rider. He seemed to be all in black as well, from his hat to his boots, as far as Cam could tell under the thick yellow dust. "Guess you came through the painted desert, state you're in," Cam observed, chewing on a toothpick.
"You guessed right." The stranger swung a leg over and slid down wearily, rubbing his horse's nose and murmuring to it. The stallion whinnied quietly and stamped one foot. The rider led it over to the horse trough and let it drink a little. Cam noted with approval that he didn't let the animal take too much. The man pulled off his hat, banging it on his leg and sending up an ochre cloud. He leaned over the trough and splashed his face, dousing himself several times to get off the worst of the clinging dust.
He sauntered over to where Cam was leaning, and held out a hand. "Name's Sheppard."
Cam shook. "Mitchell: Sheriff Mitchell." The stranger's hand was rough with calluses, cool and damp from the trough. His hair was standing up every which way, wet and spiky. There was dust still ingrained in the lines around his eyes and in his dark hair, despite his ablutions.
"Howdy, Sheriff," said Sheppard easily. It was hard to tell, with the man still so filthy from the road, but Cam reckoned he looked familiar. He'd seen that face somewhere, staring out with those oddly light eyes. He sighed. Probably not good; in his line of work, that meant only one thing.
Cam pointed across the street to O'Neill's bar. "There. Jack'll draw you a bath and set you up with a room for the night. It's a simple place, but honest enough."
"Long as they got beer," said Sheppard, cracking a tired smile. He took his horse's reins and began to turn away to cross the hard baked dirt of Main Street. "Maybe I'll see you there later," he said, glancing back at Cam.
Cam nodded noncommittally. "Maybe so." Definitely so, if he was right in his suspicions. Not that Sheppard would be happy to see him, if that were the case.
Back inside, he leafed through the sheaf of old "Wanted" posters. It was close to the bottom of the stack, yellowed and flyspecked. That same face stared out, the eyes singular despite the image's crudeness. His hair was long and falling into his eyes and he was clean-shaven, with thick stubble. The typeface confirmed it: 'Captain' Sheppard, Wanted Dead Or Alive. A Notorious Thief: $500 reward. Huh – he was too young to have been in the war, so maybe he'd been a cavalry man – he had something of a military bearing. Damn – Cam was ex-military himself. He hated having to bring in another old soldier. What the hell had Sheppard stolen to get a price on his head? Was he a bank robber? Cam folded the flyer and tucked it into his breast pocket, frowning.
He'd have gone to O'Neill's anyway to get his supper, but now he was on the lookout for the stranger. Vala brought him a plate of stew and beans with some fresh-made bread to mop it up, and he thanked her before picking up his spoon.
"You're such a gent, Sheriff," Vala said, leaning on a chair to flirt with him as she always did. He tried not to look at her breasts where they spilled over the top of her stays. Jack didn't require his staff to dress that way; it wasn't a whorehouse, but Vala seemed to like low-cut outfits. Cam busied himself with his food, tearing off a chunk of bread. At first glance there was no sign of Sheppard, and he hoped the man hadn't taken off, spooked by meeting an officer of the law. Hell, maybe it would be for the best if he had taken off.
"My Momma raised me right, Miss Vala," Cam said, like he always did, and she snorted and cocked a hip.
"Raised you to be blind," she teased, sticking out her cleavage and fluttering her eyelashes. Cam flushed.
"Reckon he can see well enough," said a voice behind her, and Cam's head shot up: it was Sheppard, all spruced up and straight from a bath by the look of him. "Maybe he's not buying what you're selling?" suggested Sheppard pleasantly, smirking.
Vala pouted angrily. "I'm not selling a damn thing, Mister; this isn't that sort of establishment."
"Glad to hear it," said Sheppard easily. He slid into one of the seats, raising an eyebrow at Cam for permission. Cam nodded.
Vala huffed. "You're all eunuchs," she muttered. "No fun to be had until Jackson gets back into town."
Sheppard looked a question. "Our local eccentric," explained Cam. "Dr Jackson's got some crackpot theories about the old Hopi ruins. Gone off with some native guides to look at the ancient cliff dwellings." Cam gestured at his food. "You want some?"
"Yeah," said Sheppard, looking hungry. "Been living on jerky and roast snake. Same for me, Miss. And a beer."
Vala made a face and flounced off, muttering "Goddam snakes, Jesus!"
They chatted while the food came. Sheppard damn near inhaled it, and two mugs of ale. Jack made a good brew, but Cam knew it to be deceptive, and Sheppard had been riding for some days, most like, if he'd come across the desert. He was bound to be feeling it.
Sheppard belched, said "pardon" in a desultory manner and then pushed up to his feet. Sure enough, he was swaying, his grin a little skewed. "Whoops. Think I overdid it there. I'm gonna…" He waved a hand vaguely toward the back door, where the outhouse was.
"Don't you fall in, now." Cam watched him pick his unsteady way through the tables and around the other patrons. He lurched into the doorframe, corrected his course and vanished outside. Cam gave it a moment and then followed. O'Neill's eyes were on him, but Cam shook his head. He wasn't going to need help apprehending one tired, saddle-sore drunk, Captain or no.
He collared Sheppard as he was coming back from the crapper, and hustled him into the horse barn, pushing him up against the wall.
"Whoa," said the man, infuriatingly loose and grinning as though he quite liked being manhandled by the local law. "You're a fast worker, Sheriff, but I'm not gonna be much use to you tonight, I'm afraid. I'm plumb tuckered out, not to mention a little the worse for the drink. But, hey, I'll take a rain check for tomorrow." And he leaned in and kissed Cam, arms around Cam's neck, fingers sliding into his hair as he opened Cam's shocked mouth and slipped him some tongue.
Cam decked him, which solved the problem of how to get Sheppard arrested and into the local lock-up out back of Cam's office, but did nothing to settle his erection, which took quite some time to calm down after that goddam kiss. It was confusing, but Cam focused on apprehending the fellow and chalked it up to being lonely and overly celibate. He was the Sheriff, so he felt he couldn't visit the girls down at Janet's place. Plus, his Daddy had warned him about diseases; not that that was likely with Janet being the local healer and herbalist, but even so.
He got Sheppard comfortable on a pallet in the single cell, set out bread and water, and left him to sleep it off. Cam himself found sleep far harder to come by, and in the end he had to take himself in hand. He tried to think about Vala's tits and the corset advertisements on the old cut-up catalogs hanging in the privy for wiping, but at the crucial moment it was the kiss that sent him over, spilling into his hand as he remembered Sheppard's soft mouth, his slick tongue curling against Cam's.
Cam was tired in the morning, needing a pot of coffee and a good splash of water to his face before he could face the day. He took the rest of the pot into the cell, finding Sheppard annoyingly perky and rested. His jaw was a little bruised and he worked it to and fro and rubbed at it thoughtfully.
"Reckon I might have misjudged matters last night," Sheppard said, smiling ruefully up at Cam. "No need to arrest me, though. Just chalk it up to the drink and I'll be on my way."
Cam cleared his throat. "That's not why you're in here." He took out the flyer and unfolded it, holding it up outside the bars where the man could see his own face staring back at him.
Sheppard grimaced, unfolding himself to slouch against the far wall of the cell. "Reckon you're gonna be disappointed, Sheriff. There'll be no money in it for you." His tone lacked all humor now and his eyes were shuttered. "You got a telegraph in this town?" Cam nodded; the railroad office had one. "You check it out, then. You'll find there're no charges against me." Sheppard sighed, and his shoulders slumped. "Now my twin brother, that's a different story. Davey's wanted in three states I know of, after he stole our family's money and took off for California. I been tracking him across the land all the way from Virginia, but I have to say, I'm losing heart. We never did get on, and now my father's dead and gone, I can't say I care a great deal about the family business or retrieving my so-called fortune, so good riddance to him."
"But the poster…" Cam stared at him, open-mouthed. He looked back down at the yellowed page.
"Yeah, that's Davey – or 'Captain Sheppard' as he styles himself. A captain of industry; he wasn't a military man. Might not have gone to the bad if he had been, but hell, there's bastards enough in the army."
Cam nodded; true enough. Christ, he'd been an idiot, but the likeness was exact – how was he to know? He sent off the telegraph, unwilling to be duped. No need to be a poor host, though, so he fetched Sheppard his meals from O'Neill's and made sure his horse Puddlejumper was well looked after.
The day passed in no time. They talked about horses and swapped hunting stories – not that Cam believed Sheppard had killed a bear with just his boning knife, but it was an entertaining yarn. Cam brought out a deck of cards and Sheppard had won a whole pile of toothpicks off him at poker by the time the reply came, confirming the man's story and mentioning identifying marks. Sheppard pulled his shirt up without protest and turned around to show Cam the oddly shaped birthmark at the top of his left buttock. Huh, it really did look like the state of Texas.
Cam was flushed when Sheppard turned around, setting his clothing back to rights. It was just embarrassment, most like, at having made a false accusation. He unlocked the cell, full of apologies.
"No offence taken, Sheriff. It's rare for a felon to have a doppelganger; can't expect you to take a stranger at his word. And you've been pretty good company." Sheppard stretched and yawned, then buckled on his gun belt.
"Expect you'll be moving on." Cam looked away awkwardly.
"Not unless you want me to," said Sheppard, slouching against the wall. He was always leaning, and Cam found his eyes being drawn to the tilt of his hips, to the man's folded arms and his throat, where dark hair curled against the tan of his skin in the open neck of his black shirt.
Cam's throat was dry; he cleared it. "You'd be welcome to stay. It's a nice enough place here, at the Mountain, even if we didn't do right by you at first. I'm sorry for misjudging you, but if you can let bygones be bygones..." He trailed off helplessly.
Sheppard eyed him calmly from across the room. "Not sure what I'd do here, to be honest, if I'm ceasing my wild goose chase after Davey. I've military training so I'm good with a gun. I know horses, too, grew up around 'em. But other than that, I've no formal education. Ran off from home as a boy, to spite my father's plans to groom me up for the business. Well, Davey's got the bulk of that, and welcome to it. I was always more one for the outdoor life, myself."
"I need–" blurted Cam, overtaken by a sudden impulse.
Sheppard was right there, suddenly, standing over Cam somehow even though Cam out-topped him by an inch. "Yeah, Sheriff? What do you need?" he murmured, voice smoky.
"Need…a deputy," managed Cam, swallowing with difficulty.
Sheppard quirked a smile. "Ah. Not quite what I had in mind, but it's a living, I guess, and I'm qualified for the position. Will you be wanting references?"
Cam shook his head. "No, I think we're past the reference stage, Mr Sheppard."
"John," said Sheppard. "Maybe we can start afresh, if we're to be partners." He held out his hand. "John Sheppard: ex-US cavalry, guide, hunter and horseman, at your service."
Cam took his hand and they shook. "Cameron Mitchell. Cam. The pay's not much, but you can bunk down at my place; I've a spare room."
"Now there's an incentive," said Sheppard, with a smile.
Cam flushed. "You'd be very welcome," he said, feeling he was missing something.
Sheppard grinned wickedly. "It's nice to be wanted," he said, and he balled up the poster with his brother's face and tossed it into the wood basket by the stove. "Shall we get some supper?"
As they crossed the street to O'Neill's, Cam matched his strides to Sheppard's and glanced across at him from under the brim of his hat. "I don't suppose you play chess, John?"
"Most certainly do," said Sheppard, holding the door for Cam as though he was a girl Sheppard was courting. An unsettling thought, and Cam dismissed it, rolling his eyes at his own foolishness. "I'm very fond of games," continued Sheppard.
"Well," said Cam, in what he hoped was a friendly and partner-like manner. "We shall have ample time to teach each other what we know, as there's not so much crime hereabouts."
"I'm very glad to hear that, Cam," murmured Sheppard against his ear, letting the door swing shut as he followed Cam into the saloon. "I'm sure we shall get on famously." Cam tried not to shiver; it was just the cool of the room, after the evening sun outside.
"And I have a number of toothpicks to win back from you as well," joked Cam heartily, feeling a little light-headed.
Sheppard smiled, and ushered him to a table. Over by the bar, Vala smirked and gave Cam the thumbs up. Cam frowned and looked away; what was the damn woman on about now?
He turned back to Sheppard, who was watching him, faintly amused. Cam smiled, a little shy. "Are you a married man, Mr Sheppard?"
"You must call me John."
Cam blushed, and nodded. "My apologies. John."
"No. I was, but no longer. It wasn't for me."
Divorced, then? Cam was old-fashioned enough to be faintly shocked.
"And yourself?" asked Sheppard. John. "Have you taken that step?"
"No." Cam fidgeted with his jacket cuff. "My Momma despairs of me, but I never…met the right person, I guess."
"Well," said Sheppard cheerfully, as Vala set their meals on the table. "We must hope that will change."
Cam smiled at him across their plates of roast beef. He raised his glass of ale, and Sheppard clinked his against it.
"To our new partnership," said Cam, feeling oddly happy.
Sheppard smiled. "To us."
- the end -