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In A Strange Land

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Ray leaned against the dining car’s door and watched his men frisk the crowd; it was a fucking fancy one, dandies and darlings all the way, a far sight from the lower class cars further back. The appearance of four armed and dangerous desperados had stood out here mighty fine, anyway, and the first barked order to put up hands or they’d blow this place to scraps and lacy tatters, well. That had rung just swell off the crystal decanters and goblets. There hadn’t been a scrap of resistance, which Ray found frankly dull. But this was the last step of their plan, and maybe the most important, for all its simplicity. He’d have to cope with the boredom a bit longer.

Lilley was filling his sack like a reverse Father Christmas, grinning behind his bandana and shaking the bag noisily, while Stafford and Trombley stomped behind him, waving their guns like idiots, leaning in to snarl and sneer at the cowering patrons. Putting on a damn show, which was the aim, of course, though to Ray’s mind they were being awfully common about it. They’d learn some style with time, Ray supposed. He sighed, and tipped his hat a bit lower down to shade his eyes, slouching more.

He couldn’t put a finger on it immediately, but as the boys moved steadily down the line, something changed subtly in the car. The idiots, of course, green goddamned colts that they were, hadn’t noticed, but a prickle ran down Ray’s spine and he dropped his hands to his pistols and waited. He didn’t know quite what had drawn his eye yet, but he waited, watching, and it slowly dawned on him.

The young man, all in dove grey and white, stood in one smooth motion and put a pistol to the back of Lilley’s head, seconds after he’d dropped a gleaming silver pocket-watch in the sack. For a single moment, but for the sway of the train beneath their feet and the dusty orange blur of the desert outside passing by, everything was still, motionless. Then Lilley made a shocked, startled sound of distress and Trombley and Stafford raised their guns, shrieking like harpies.

Well, hell’s bells. Maybe this chaperone gig wouldn’t be so boring after all.

“I’ll be having that watch back,” the man said, smart and even. Well-enunciated, too—an Eastern boy. “And the ladies their jewelry, and the men their wallets.”

“Hell you will, mister,” Stafford snarled.

“Oh, I think I will, but hell has nothing to do with it.” Oh, cocky, and smooth as top-shelf whiskey. Now there was style.

“You’re outgunned, partner. Drop it.” Stafford kept blustering and Trombley kept his gun high, but they’d orders not to shoot up passengers unless it was completely unavoidable. ‘Murder’s so common,’ as Brad liked to drawl when the boys got rowdy. ‘We’ve got better places to put our bullets than in civilians.’

Ray was chaperoning the pups on their first engagement, mostly because young Trombley had a tendency to shoot first and think later. Brad was in the back, taking care of real business. Ray had protested being demoted to governess, but this wasn’t turning out to be the cakewalk they’d expected.

Some were taking courage from their lone hero’s stand, some old fussbudgets fingering their forks like they might like to leap into the fray—and Ray did hate the thought of an old lady getting ventilated, so he fired a shot into the ceiling. The sound was deafening—that set the civs all back to quivering and cowering. All except the man in gray.

Ray smirked beneath his bandana and tipped his hat back up with the still-smoking pistol. “I’d do what the kids say, friend,” he called out, still slouching against the doorframe. The man didn’t look away from his target, and the way he held his gun was straighter and truer than any gentleman dandy should. Very interesting.

“Why’s that?” the man said tersely, “And I’m no friend of yours.”

“Aw, shucks. Well, I won’t hold that against you,” Ray said, and rocked back on his heels, grinning, then started to saunter slowly forward, eye out for trouble. “First,” he said, raising a finger on one hand, “Because there’s four of us and one of you, in case the mathematical situation we’ve got here has escaped your noticed, and as you appear to have one pistol and several of us have double that, the situation worsens considerably. Second, hard on the heels of the first, is this: you really willing to die over some fripperies, friend? I mean, the hats are nice, you like the hats, boys?” Ray plucked a bonnet from a nearby lady, all peacock feathers and shimmer and turned it over in one hand, considering. “Look like something the boss would enjoy?”

“Christ,” Lilley swore quietly, and Trombley didn’t bother to rebuke him for taking the good Lord’s name in vain for the fuckteenth time, pale and twitching. This kind of restraint wasn’t his style—Ray didn’t have much time before a bloodbath became inevitable, and that wasn’t in the plans, not at all.

“I’m not your friend. This is your friend,” the man said tonelessly, tapping his gun against Lilley’s fair, empty head, green eyes narrowing. “You don’t want him to die. That gives me leverage.”

“Very astute,” Ray agreed. “He may be a loud-mouthed bone-headed idiot, but he’s our loud-mouthed bone-headed idiot, and I’d hate to lose one of our little lambs on this, their very first train job.” He put his free hand to his chest and sniffed theatrically. “They grow up so fast.”

The man blinked at him, looking momentarily nonplussed, then his expression smoothed back out again. “Then we’re agreed?”

“Ooh, did I say that?” Ray asked, mock-widening his eyes. “Not much of a debater, are you? Putting words in a fellow’s mouth, damned impolite, is what I’d call that. Let’s return to the subject of shooting. Third, and maybe most importantly of the lot—lots of lovely fashionable ladies in this car, I can’t help but notice.“ Ooh, and the gentleman in gray didn’t like that, did he? What a hero. “And furthermore, I can’t help that think we both have a vested interest in keeping bullets from flying, and you seem a civic-minded sort. I’d hate you to make me start shooting here, with all the innocent bystanders afoot and at our mercy, armed only with cutlery.” No response but a slight tightening of the man’s remarkably pretty mouth—Ray couldn’t help but think it’d be more than a pity if he did wind up having to shoot the fellow. Mouth and complexion like that was hard to come by out here, in the heat and sun and hardship. “What’s your name, friend? Oh, sorry, you’re not my friend, I remember. But I’m yours. So what should I call you, darling? Green Eyes? Buttercup?”

The man interrupted hurriedly, perhaps sensing Ray was more than willing to keep going, and to get more lewd, at that. Pretty and intelligent. “Lieutenant Nathaniel Fick.

“Nate! Charmed to make your acquaintance, Nate. I can’t give you my name in return, so sorry, I’m sure you understand. So what do you think, Nate?” he asked, waving the bit of haberdashery. “Suit me?”

He’d gotten close enough that he could see the green of Fick’s eyes, bright and fierce. Fick regarded him coolly, then licked his lips and looked back around the car. A military man, and he’d obviously been willing to shoot and kill Lilley if necessary. Christ, but if Ray didn’t generally loathe all military men. He might have to make an exception for this one, with his ability to carry a thought in his head and follow it through to the logical conclusion. He’d maybe even be able to carry a decent conversation, under better circumstances.

Moreoever, making him unusually singular in Ray’s estimation, he seemed to care less about heroics and derring-do than he did the welfare of the people around him. Mighty unique in these parts.

“Doesn’t go with your complexion,” Fick said finally, proving Ray’s point, and when Ray grinned at him his mouth twitched a little in response.

“Might suit you better, Green Eyes—I mean, Nate,” Ray agreed. “How about I trade you for that lovely piece of a pistol in your hand?”

The stand-off continued for a tense moment, and Trombley’s fingers were tightening on the trigger again. Ray raised a hand at him, waving him off, not looking away from Nathaniel Fick. Help me out here, he mouths. Friend.

“I’m not your friend,” Fick repeated, looking vexed, and then finally he sighed, lowering his pistol. “But it is a nice hat.”

Lilley scuttled backwards immediately and Stafford caught him around the shoulders, pulling him in close. Ray jerked his head towards the back of the car.

“Go on, get going, my darling varmints,” he instructed them, and they beat feet as he liberated Fick of his pistol. “Mighty obliged, Lieutenant.” He tipped his own hat again.

“Didn’t seem to have much choice,” was the dry response. “And I believe you still owe me a debt.”

“Well, now, this isn’t my hat to give,” Ray told him sadly, tossing the bonnet back to its owner and making a small bow to her. She cringed away. And he’d been so polite, too. Ah, well, couldn’t win them all. “But such perspicacity deserves reward. Don’t worry, Green Eyes, I remember my debts.”

A last bow, and he was backing out the door and beating feet himself to the last train car, past the hogtied and gagged guards in the cargo area and to where Brad was waiting, scowl firming in place on his face, eyes narrowed and annoyed above his bandana.

“Where the fuck have you been, Ray?” he asked, perched above the coupling between the cars, the wind whistling hot and dry all around them. Ray’s tool bag was wedged nearby, and Ray tucked Fick’s piece in the back of his trousers and bent to work.

“Oh, you know me, Brad,” he said, grinning up at his partner from beneath his lashes. “Just making friends.”

***

“Lieutenant Fick,” his dining companion said, leaning in a bit closer than propriety would deem proper. “That was mighty brave of you.”

“Thank you, Miss Casey,” he replied, loosening his collar a bit and gratefully accepting a cool glass of water from the shaken attendant. He’d had a hell of a job on his hands calming down the dining car. It’d taken at least a half an hour, though he no longer had his watch to check. He’d longed to go tearing through the cars after the robbers, but he strongly suspected the bandits were clever enough, given the show they’d just put on, to have already left the train well behind. “I’m afraid it didn’t do much good.”

“Still, standing up to the Company! And I do believe that was the Telegraph Kid himself,” Casey confided, leaning even closer in. Nate was forced to push his own chair back a hair to preserve her modesty. Then her words registered.

“You knew that man?” Nate asked, leaning forward before he could help himself, and Casey flushed prettily, fanning herself with a lace confection that had somehow escaped the robber’s notice. Nate can’t help but think the Kid—whoever he was—would have delighted in toying with it during their, ah. Negotiations, so to speak.

Truly, Nate couldn’t hold with the man’s low aims, but he had to admit there was a queer sort of honor to the fellow. Nate considered himself an excellent judge of character, after the years spent watching his father hold counsel on law, and this robber had been, to his estimation, earnest in his desire to prevent blood being split.

And he’d been damnably charming, too, for a common criminal.

“The Telegraph Kid runs with the Company—it’s, oh, you’ll find out once you settle in Encino, Lieutenant, but there’s a fair few blackguards in our territory. The Kid's the Iceman’s right hand man, and they say the only thing faster than his tongue are his fingers.”

“Oh,” Nate managed, blinking.

“I meant his draw, Lieutenant,” Casey said, pinking again and fluttering her fan, smiling coyly.

In honesty, though he didn’t like to think it of a lady, Casey sounded frankly titillated. It did all sound a bit like one of those penny dreadful novels his sisters loved back home. Nate had thought those to be exaggerated drivel, but perhaps the talk of cowboys and lawlessness and rogues and the damsels that loved them weren’t so far off the mark after all.

“Why do they call him the Telegraph Kid?” Nate settled on asking, figuring that to be safe territory.

“Oh, it was dreadful, Lieutenant Fick!” Casey gushed. “We didn’t know for the longest time, but he somehow managed to tap into our telegraph lines—we’d just got them in town, you see, and it seems for some time he’d been using them to send false messages to the lawmen from the mayor. Oh, it was quite a mess. They still don’t know how he accomplished such a thing, but my uncle assures me the wires are safe once more.”

Damnably charming and damnably clever, if he knew how to manipulate telegraph wires out here, Nate interpreted, impressed anew. Though that had been obvious enough from his conversation—he was indeed as quick-tongued as Miss Casey had implied. Nate had the feeling he’d have enjoyed the fellow’s conversation quite a bit more under better circumstances, if they’d been on the same side of the law. A pity.

“He’s a cocky little shit,” the gentleman across the aisle interrupted, setting down his glass with a loud sigh. He was dressed smartly in black and had a scowl that could curdle milk. When Nate blinked at him, nonplussed by the breech in etiquette, the man only scowled further, then smirked, tipping his head. “Still, the Company’s a damned sight better for the town than the local Pinkertons, Lieutenant. You’ll see.”

“Oh,” Casey said, cheeks paling a bit, and for the first time she leaned back, a tiny frown marring her pretty face. “I’m sure I don’t know much about that, Doctor. Mr. Griego and his friends are gentlemen, and good merchants, too.”

The man made a noise that could be charitably described as a snort. “’tween them and McGraw’s men, they drain them Mexicans dry,” the man continued, and Nate realized belatedly he must be rather far to the wind, this being the third time at least he’d seen the fellow glass be refilled. “Ain’t right. We made a deal when we took this territory, and we goddamned well should honor it.”

Nate knew he should turn the conversation for the sake of his dining companion, who had boldly settled herself at Nate’s table on the strength of their brief conversation at the train depot back East, but he did, he reasoned, need more intelligence on the dynamics and politics of the town he aimed to help manage. And Casey, he marked, seemed to be changing her demeanor, something sharp and mean in her eyes. He turned slightly in his chair, then leaned across the aisle to offer his hand.

“Timothy Bryan,” the man said, reaching over to take it, the cool assessment in his eyes belying the level of drink in his glass. “Call me Doc. You must be the new lawman they’re shippin’ in to shape us up. God save you.”

“Lieutenant Nathaniel—”

“Fick. Yeah, I heard when the Kid was needling you. Not a bad job, Deputy. Their new crew’s a mite jumpy, it seems. Coulda been a mess. You handled it well, for a first meeting with the boys.”

“…my thanks,” Nate said, bemused, and forbore to repeat his regrets on being unable to thwart them entirely. “I’m pleased to make your acquaintance, but I haven’t been sworn in yet. You can call me Nate, if that suits you.”

“Uh huh. You know anything about what you’re walking into, son?” Bryan asked, taking another swig of his drink, eyebrows beetling. “Maybe you should be getting back to your mama, miss. No lady needs hear any of this talk, and I’m sure she’s worried after all the… kerfuffle.”

“I should think I can keep my own counsel,” Casey said stiffly, but when Bryan continued to regard her silently, stood and arranged her skirts. Nate stood hastily and bowed as she swept back towards the first class car.

“Hmph,” Bryan said, watching her go. “She’s a pretty thing, but she’s Schwetje’s niece. You’ll want to be wary; anything said to her goes back to him. Right Dictaphone, that one.”

“Schwetje? He’s the mayor of Encino, isn’t he?” Nate asked, a little startled. “There’s good reports of his work back East.”

“And they’re all horseshit, pardon my language,” Bryan said frankly. “Only man less competent and empty-headed than our esteemed mayor is the sheriff. And don’t get me started on Godfather.”

“…Godfather?”

“The governor in these parts. Keeps his fingers in all the pies in New Mexico, I assure you. Lord, you’re in for a bang-up time, friend,” Doc snorted, then waved down one of the waitstaff. “A drink for the Lieutenant, before he descends into perdition and sorrow and ever-lasting frustration, like the rest of us poor townfolk.”

Well, this wasn’t the intelligence he’d hoped to receive, but Nate vowed to reserve judgment as Bryan continued on. Surely things couldn’t be as black as all that.

***

New friendship with the Lieutenant aside, the rest of the train job had gone off without a hitch. The car detached like a dream, slowing easy to a stop as the train chugged on, and Brad and the rest of the boys were able to unload the cotton, feed, lumber, books, and steel for their relocation to the reservation on the south side of town.

Just as they’d hoped, the tizzy and outrage from the dining car had taken up the bulk of attention when the train pulled in the station. Whole lot of fuss for the loss of a bunch of trinkets, Lord love the rich. By the time the alarm was raised as to the missing cargo, a sight more important, Brad and Ray were installed back in the saloon, Ray at the piano and Brad behind the bar with his taps and maps. The gang spread out, drunk more on their success than anything imbibed.

Lilley, Stafford, and Trombley were in the highest spirits of the lot, the tale of their first exploit getting taller in the telling until there was a whole dining car full of federal marshals that they’d daringly shaken down, and a general the likes of Washington himself who had struck Lilley down.

“I didn’t need Ray’s help,” Lilley said stoutly. “The whole car was under our control, pissing themselves like puppies. We had the—” Then he glanced over to the door, and his face went white, his jaw snapping shut. Poke and the others melted back, donning their server’s uniforms—though woe betide any who approached them. Those in the know wouldn’t. Ray smiled at his piano, playing a sweet little run of notes to go with the loud jingle of gold-plated spurs.

“Person!” McGraw crowed striding into the room, flinging open the double doors and no doubt beaming around grandly. “Fire up those keys, we’ve got a new deputy to welcome. Colbert, five bottles of your finest.”

“Coming right up, sir,” Brad said placidly, and Ray shot him a look beneath his lashes as he played a few bars of ‘I’ve been working on the railroad.’ Just enough to make Brad’s glare sharpen before Ray shifted to something more sprightly and less incriminating. He didn’t turn for a time, but when he did, Fick was staring right at him, looking a tense, a little perplexed and a lot suspicious.

“This here fellow has the fastest hands in the West, they say,” McGraw said, his dumb face beaming all over. “Play him that fingerbuster, Person, you know the one.”

“Don’t I know you?” Fick interrupted, eyes piercing and just as copper-green as Ray remembered.

“May well do, sir,” Ray returned, dancing his fingers up and down the scale and biting his lip on a grin as he widened his eyes. Innocence incarnate, that was Ray Person. “My pa worked the railroads. Spent some time back East, once or twice.”

“I believe it was more recent than that,” Fick continued, a muscle in his face ticking, then he turned with a look Ray was well-familiar with—resignation and defeat—to McGraw. “Sheriff, I have reason to believe that this man was involved in the heist today on—”

“Aw, Nate, that’s flat ridiculous! Person was here all day, tickling the keys for our happy townfolk!” McGraw cried, slinging an arm around Ray’s shoulders and shaking him. Through long practice, Ray kept the melody going despite it. “Besides, you told me yourself you didn’t see the rascal’s face.”

“But sir,” Nate protested, looking a mite desperate around the eyes, but McGraw was already continuing.

“Nate, my boy, you’ve got a lot to learn about running an operation on the frontier lands. We know who the real enemy is out here—the Company! Operating out on that damn reservation. We’ll teach you how to pick the good from the bad. It’s all the natives, son. They resent the superiority of the white man.” McGraw clicked his tongue sadly, drawing his face up to a caricature of sympathy. Baptista and Poke were standing stony-faced and holding pitchers of ale not two paces away. Ray never could decide whether McGraw was simply too stupid to realize they spoke English, or if he was truly that malicious. With McGraw, it was truly a toss up.

He didn’t know how his friends bore it; if Ray had the urge to strangle the motherfucker with piano wire, it must be a thousand times worse for them, Even Rudy had, on occasion, punched a wall and leave the room when McGraw and the Pinkertons entered it, and he was the gentlest man Ray knew.

“Well, aren’t you just a right fount of Christian charity and wisdom, Sheriff,” Ray said, dripping sincerity as he drifted into what he’d dubbed a drinking hymn, rollicking and religious all at once. “I’m sure one day those poor disadvantaged bastards will learn to appreciate you like they should.”

McGraw looked touched, even a little misty-eyed. Nate had been staring at him in horror, though now a small quirk of despairing humor touched his lips.

“We can only hope, Mister Person,” the sheriff said, actually sniffing, Lord save them all.

Nate, the poor stubborn lamb, just stared between them a moment longer, then squared his jaw and tried again. “No, that’s—sir. I don’t believe any of the men I saw had native blood, by the eyes and hair alone—

Adorably optimistic, Ray concluded a bit fondly, then threw caution to the wind and winked at him. Nate stopped mid-sentence, looking outraged, then opened his mouth again, but it was too late—McGraw had spotted Schwetje coming in the door and was already barreling over to call for more drinks and to talk about their glory days in Mexico, slaughtering women and children. Such heroes, they were.

“He’s right, Lieutenant, you’ve got a lot to learn,” Ray said dryly, and spun around on his stool to look Nate up and down. Still as tall and lean as he’d been that afternoon, and with as lush a mouth. Lovely. “Lucky for you I am just stuffed full of knowledge, ripe for the picking. Any requests?” he asked, as one of Pinkertons, stinking of cologne and cowshit, staggered closer.

“What?” Nate asked, sounding young and lost. Fuck, now Ray felt almost moderately bad for the poor bastard. Lost little lamb seemed, at the moment, an understatement—except when Ray remembered how coolly Nate had handled his sidearm on the train.

“Any requests,” Ray repeated, sing-song, tapping the keys and shooting Nate another wink and a grin. “Songs. I’m out of fashion with the music back East, but you can hum me a few bars. I have a good ear.”

“No thanks, Mr. Person. I’m afraid I couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket,” Nate answered, tone firming again to something chill and frosty, and then he was moving away, waving off the offer of girls, booze, and cards in equal measure from the lawmen and government in the town. He looked around for a moment, looking decidedly out of place, enough that something stupid in Ray’s heart twanged a chord, then he tipped his hat to the general populace and left the saloon, back straight and stiff.

“What’s the phrase?” Ray pondered when Brad came up to set some watered whiskey next to his long-ignored, dusty sheet music. “Tall drink of water. Sad, disillusioned water. Spilled all over a man on a hot day. That’s the one.”

Brad quirked an eyebrow. “Mind on the music, Ray,” he drawled, something tightening around his mouth. Touched a nerve, there.

“Sir, yes sir,” Ray agreed agreeably, and starting picking out something suitably raunchy on the keys. The quicker the sheriff got liquored up, the quicker he’d leave to wreak havoc somewhere else.

“Doc says he’s not a bad sort,” Brad continued later, conversation picked back up with ease. He was leaning a hip on the piano and looking towards the door with narrow, thoughtful eyes.

“Not in the slightest,” Ray agreed. “Poor bastard’s a real gentleman.”

“He might cause trouble,” Brad murmured, and fuck if Ray couldn’t see the wheels turning in Brad’s crooked, canny brain, then he went back to the bar, leaving Ray thoughtful and a bit worried. “Stay away from him, Ray. He knows your voice, and we don’t know him or his aims. Try, for once in your life, to bite your tongue.”

“Hey,” Ray protested, taking one hand off the black and white to press to his chest. “I can keep quiet.”

“The day you die, maybe,” Brad sighed, then thumped him on the shoulder, eyes still decidedly set to a frequency that read ‘worried’—the slightest narrowing of his eyebrows and tightness at his temples. Brad always worried too much, but it’d picked up especially after that bitch from Tempe had nearly sold them all up shit creek. She’d had green eyes too, Ray remembered. Hard to forget. And Brad had fallen for her lure—hook, line, and sinker, so to speak.

Still. This was different—Ray hadn’t fallen for any line, not that Nate had tried to feed him one, more’s the pity. Brad was being ridiculous. Besides, Ray was confident that the general incompetence of McGraw and Schwetje combined was enough to thwart whatever bad luck a pair of green eyes might bring, whoever they were attached to.

The Company had a plan, and nothing was going to swerve them from it. Smart, clever, big-hearted deputies sniffing around or no.

***

Nate had stopped at the inn long enough to drop off his trunks before he’d been swept off on a glaringly biased town tour—one could tell just by glancing around at the glaring disparities between the rich and wealthy side of town, and the other—by Mayor Schwetje. McGraw came with, two sheets to the wind. The fact that Schwetje only slapped him on the back and laughed at that gave Nate a powerful sense of foreboding that not even the conversation with Doc had produced.

He’d met Sixta, the town tailor, who’d promptly invited himself along on the tour and given Nate a rather blistering opinion not only upon his own dress, but on that of all the citizenry they passed by.

Nate stopped in the middle of one of these diatribes, outraged, at the sight of the town stocks. A man was hanging there in the afternoon sun, lips cracked and breath wheezing, not even a hat for his head. Nate gladly suffered the side-eyes given him when he demanded water for the poor fellow.

“Bleeding heart, eh,” McGraw drawled, and slapped Nate hard on the back. “We’ll learn it out of him, never fear, gents. He just hasn’t seen what trouble these rascals give us yet. Why, this Mexican gent’s in stocks for stealing water. And we need that water to keep our cattlemen in business, after all.”

“All men deserve fair treatment, regardless of the offenses given,” Nate said stiffly, and bent to offer the tin cup of sun-warmed water to the man, horrified at how quickly it was drained. “It’s too hot a day for the stocks. This man should be in a cell.”

“Ah, maybe you’re right,” McGraw said slowly, looking for the first time a touch thoughtful, and directed one of the trailing lawmen to follow suit, then almost immediately began bragging about his extreme nobility and largess, as though what he was offering wasn’t the barest scrap of human decency.

Maybe Bryan had had a point, Nate thought, then banished the thought at once. Sympathizing with the criminal element here would get him nowhere. He had to strike a hard, firm line and keep to it.

The thought kept creeping back in, however, over the course of the day, as he kept having to speak up, regardless of the toes he knew he was stepping on, over the other officers’ conduct, and the condition of the jail cells, and of the way the men treated the locals.

Ain’t right, Doc Bryan had said. Nate couldn’t find it in him to disagree.

When he followed McGraw into the saloon that evening and came face to face again with the Telegraph Kid--Ray--he’d already been very nearly at the end of his patience. It was too much—a criminal lying to his superior, his superior ordering Nate to ignore it. And the realization that the criminal was the one Nate would prefer to answer to, to ask questions of—Nate was too tired and too heartsick to deal with any of it.

When he finally returned that evening to his room at the inn, he was tired to the bones, aching and sore like it was the depths of a Massachusetts winter. He loosened his tie and sank onto the bed—well stuffed and clean, smelling sweetly of the wildflowers in the vase nearby—and closed his eyes, trying to marshal his thoughts.

Very well. So the reports sent back East had been inaccurate. Bryan had been right; his cousins had been right. This was not the posting Nate had hoped for, a chance to put the laws his father practiced into place in a new territory, a new land. Law here wasn’t what he’d learned, what he knew.

Nate took a shuddering breath, then another, and another. He’d only just arrived; there was no cause to feel as though the weight on his shoulders was crushing and suffocating so early on.

He put a hand over his stinging eyes, tired and frustrated. It wouldn’t due to dwell on it. Instead he tried to summon the indomitable spirit of his father, fierce yet kind to his last, gasping breath, and the quiet strength and determination of his mother, who had worked until her fingers bled to secure this opportunity for her son after his father had passed. He’d hope to send for her and his sisters soon.

That would clearly have to wait some time. He’d be damned if he saw them here, where the lawmen leered whenever they had the chance, and the roads were dusty ruts, crossed constantly by cattle—the land chewed clean and barren by them. Nate wanted better for his family than that. He wanted better for this town, this country than that.

Well, then. He’d just have to make it better. He had a measure of the town, now, and work to do. He’d find a way to get a foothold, to start small and make subtle changes that added up. Maybe he’d talk to that Colbert fellow at the saloon—he’d struck Nate as a cool-headed, clever sort, as did one of the ranchers he’d met that afternoon, a thoughtful if haggard-looking fellow by the name of Patterson.

He certainly wouldn’t talk to Ray Person. That way, he was sure, lay madness, and he had trouble enough to be getting on with.

It was only after he’d centered himself and opened his eyes that he noticed the telegraph on the nightstand, the firm black type on yellowed paper.

Friend, I hope this finds you well. It grieved me to my heart to think of you, stranger in a strange land, unable to keep good time. I’ll share some advice, out of the goodness of my heart and regard for your steady hand. Look to the sun. XOXO

Well-read and familiar with the Good Book, Nate noted distantly. The quotation from Exodus was annoyingly apt. Strange, in fact, seemed a bit of an understatement.

Then his gaze caught on the wardrobe across the room. Heavy, good wood—mahogany, and carved onto each panel was a stylized, curling sun, the rays breaking spiraling out. He’d never seen anything like—it was handsome. He got to his feet numbly, and crossed the room, pulling it open, and hanging from a peg in the back was his father’s watch.

In the silence of the room, he could hear the tick of it, beating like a heart, warm in his hand.

***

“New lawman bought himself a damn fine horse,” Walt said the next night, spinning on Ray’s piano stool.

“Off, you varmit, before you despoil my lady,” Ray retorted, outraged, and then when Walt sighed and acquiesced, set to spinning himself. “Did he now? Fine eye for horseflesh?”

“Better than yours, not that that says much,” Walt said agreeably.

“Rich fucker,” Brad said, cleaning a glass. Bastard had ears like a fox, Ray thought fondly, and saluted him lazily.

“Generous and rich, that’s the kind of combination we like, Bradley, darling.” Ray grinned when Brad shot him a dirty look and a lewd gesture.

“No, I don’t think he’s rich,” Walt said thoughtfully, slow and considering. He was tan and blonder than Brad from his work in the sun, and if he hadn’t been so sweet on his missus, Ray thought he’d have had a torch a mile high to lug around.

None of the Company minded much when two men took to the sheets, not out here, where bonds were strong between their band and trust was so hard to come by. One of the few good things about this town was that Ray didn’t have to hide, so much, how easily his eyes strayed to men and women both. Ray had slept with a fair few of his friends, but he knew Walt didn’t deserve that kind of tarnish, deserved better than Ray and had it, besides, so he tried to limit the eyes he made. Even if Walt was taken and wouldn’t notice them, it was still easier on Ray, that way. Not to think of it.

A towel flicked Ray sharp and stinging on the cheek, and he yelped, rubbing at it.

“Mind on the music, Ray,” Brad warned, the observant bat-eared, hawk-eyed son of a horned leprous toad.

As though anyone was in the godforsaken saloon but them. For as possessive as Brad got of Ray’s attentions, you’d think he was sweet on him. But the Iceman had no heart for romance, not for anyone, not anymore. And certainly not for an self-educated, foul-mouthed railroad brat, however clever his hands were. Still, he did get mighty, well. There was a reason half the Company joked that Ray was his missus. Really, Ray was half certain that was most of Brad’s problem with the new deputy, honestly—if Ray took a shine to someone, Brad was sure to not.

As though anyone could honestly get between them. Ray though sometimes--anyway. He was getting pathetic again. Mind to the music wasn’t a bad motto to live by, really. Keep playing, keep moving, keep going.
“What did you mean, Walt?” Brad continued, setting aside his glass and spreading his maps out on Ray’s lovely lady once more. It was comfortingly familiar, the careful smoothing of the paper beneath Brad’s large hands, the way his eyes crinkled as he regarded the inked canyons, the faint but vitally important lines. Dozy bastard was more interested in maps than men, or women—probably would be even if these particular maps weren’t so damned valuable.

“Well, he didn’t have the bank for his horse. He paid me with this,” Walt explained, and showed a lovely, gilt shaving mirror and razor, engraved and set with a large pearl. “Figured we could get something useful out of it, and a half-year’s water, besides.”

Ray whistled at the fineness of the rig. “You scammin’ our lovely deputy already, Hasser? Even one of your ponies ain’t worth that.”

“Aw, shucks, Ray, you know I wouldn’t,” Walt scowled, and gave Ray’s stool a kick. “He seems nice. He asked another horse for the whole of it. One for the deputy, and one for Patterson.”

Ray let out a long whistle. “What nobility. Good on Brian for conning him into it—that nag was about to go belly-up.” Being a rancher in these parts was a thankless task, with Schwetje and the town’s merchants measuring each drop of water from the town’s wells and selling it high. Nate stepping in might well keep that ranch afloat, at least until the winter rains came again.

And next year, things would be different. If all went to plan.

His introspection on Nate’s possibly ill-afforded largess—shit, Ray hoped someone wouldn’t have to step in before the fellow bankrupted himself—was interrupted by Walt sheepishly admitting he’d taken the walking windbag on himself.

Ray was, obviously, duty-bound to tease him for it—Walt was worse than a schoolkid for taking in strays, even if said strays did tend to thrive under his careful hand, and go on to bite the bejeezus out of Ray. Fucking horses. Give Ray a train any day

“Now, Ray, Clementine’s a fine horse, she’s never thrown anyone else.” Walt was still protesting when Poke and Pappy wandered in, shaking the dust off their boots. “She must just hate having dumb, inbred railroad brats on her back.”

“Now that’s a tune I’ve heard sung in these parts before,” Poke said, shoving his hat back and grinning. “What’s this mangy cur done to one of your fine ladies now?”

“Slander, it’s all slander,” Ray insisted. “The horses love me.” No one called him on the lie, possilby out of pity, so Ray carried on. “How’s the missus?” Ray changed the subject, and started up some Brahms. “The girls doing well?”

Sure enough, Poke bit. He was a predictable son-of-a-bitch, at times. “Wonderful, perfect, too good for me,” Poke said, face immediately softening and brightening all at once. He was such a family man, it was a little sickening. He helped himself to a glass of Brad’s beer after a nod from the man in question, then settled himself on a nearby stool. He was chewing on something, though, that much was clear from the look on his face. Asking Poke what was what would just draw out a meandering pointless bullshit lecture on Ray keeping his grubby nose to his fucking self, so Ray kept quiet. The only man more loquacious than himself he knew was Antonio Espera, and whatever he had to say would come out colorfully soon enough.

Sure as winter rain, Poke drained his glass and leaned back, looking thoughtful. “Ray’s new Anglo lawman’s with them now, in fact.” Well, hell’s fucking bells. Poke was mighty protective of his women, especially around the lawmen, and rightfully so. Brad raised his head and stared at Poke, no longer a mild-mannered tavern-owner and cartographer, but the Iceman, head of the Company—the shift was tangible, like a chill blowing through the summer room.

“He’s not my Anglo lawman,” Ray protested automatically, and then went on gaping and shooting worried looks Brad’s way.

“What? On the reservation?” Walt asked, blue eyes wide. “Is everything, uh—will he—?”

“Nah, he won’t see nothing he shouldn’t. What kind of backwards organization you think we running, horseman?” Brad’s hackles visibly went down, and everyone relaxed. “No, he said he wanted to meet everyone in the township. Then the fool started helpin’ with the chores and before you know it he’s got himself invited for midday meal.” Poke’s face was a picture, that was for fucking sure. He didn’t look like he knew whether he wanted to scoff, sneer, or smile. “Now the girls are teaching him Spanish,” he continued, clicking his tongue. “Maria’s got them running around teaching him caballo from his cabeza. Says he can’t do justice for the people if he doesn’t know their tongue.”

“Schewtje won’t like that. McGraw, either,” Brad said darkly, his clipped educated syllables more pronounced, as always, when he was stewing over something.

“Fuck them, I like it,” Poke declared, leaning back and giving Brad a look. “Not often a white man stoops to meeting with my people.”

“What am I, a turkey?” Ray asked, aggrieved, because he’d staggered out of Poke’s motherfucking pueblo often enough, laden down with food and scolded raw by Maria for his language, table manners, and general everything. It was nice. Like having a family, of sorts—Poke’s pa had worked the same line as Ray’s, when they’d put the railroad in back in the ‘80s, and Ray could actually speak, or at least understand, most of the languages Poke produced at the drop of a hat.

“Like you count, perrito,” Poke laughed, flashing a mouthful of white teeth. “Men with better opportunities taking themselves our way, hombre, that’s a rare bit of metal in this dusty, godforsaken earth. ‘Sides, you talk Spanish like a buck-toothed baby with a mouth full of tobacco. Even after all my girls’ hard work.”

Rude. Accurate, but rude. “Mi corazon, señor,” Ray protested sadly, and put a hand to the organ in question. “Wait, hold up. So you’re Spanish today? I thought you were back to working the Apache angle.”

“It was Navajo last night,” Pappy said, smiling slow and amused. “It’d take more than Brad to map that the Espera bloodlines.”

“I contain multitudes, unlike you paleface little puddles of piss,” Poke snorted, and thumped Ray hard on the back.

“Now, Poke, if you’re calling me shallow,” Brad drawled from the counter, smile curling back slightly onto his face. “I’d have to call you right on the mark, for once in your miserable life.” The scowl returned, and the smile was a distant dream of rain on a July morning. “You shouldn’t have left Fick there. Is anyone with him but the girls?”

“If you think Maria can’t handle herself one sad scrawny little Anglo,” Poke warned, and Brad slowly tipped a head. “He won’t see nothing he shouldn’t, man.”

“He shouldn’t be there at all. He’ll get himself into trouble, and draw attention where it shouldn’t be,” Brad muttered, polishing something vengefully.

“Let’s talk about our next take,” Ray said, heading the next argument off at the pass, before Brad could really get his dander up. “We need penicillin and laudanum. Doc says he’s running low, and you know the town brats will get the most of it.”

“Hm. Fine. Keep an ear to the wires, see when the shipments will be coming next. Don’t stay too late—you know we’re going mapping again in the morning,” Brad advised. Ugh, horseback, again. Why the world couldn’t be run through by trains was beyond Ray sometimes. “And don’t smoke up. Next time you’re too busy to notice you’ve caught fire, I’ll put it out with whiskey. We can’t spare the water.”

Poke was grinning, the sadistic fucker. Ray gave him a two-fingered salute, then gave his keys a last loving stroke before getting to his feet and pointing at Walt and Pappy.

“Don’t you desecrate my Molly while I’m gone,” he said, eyes narrowed, but Walt just gave him an angelic smile. Obviously missed notes and Irish caterwauling were going to be inevitable, tonight. Resigned, Ray absented himself to the attic to tend to his beloved mess of sharp, sparking, speaking wires, to see what words were out there drifting among the stars.

***

Armed with the vocabulary of a toddler, Nate greeted Mr. Espera and Mr. Reyes in Spanish when he entered the saloon that evening. The two shot each other amused looks, then Reyes said, biting his lip, “Brother, that was—an excellent effort?”

“That bad?” Nate asked ruefully, but was pleased—he’d spent the last few days being given the same blank, borderline-unfriendly look that all the lawmen in this town seemed to receive. A bit of effort, no more than was the most basic common decency, on his part was being met with a more than favorable response, in his opinion.

“Aña says you’re worse than Ray,” Espera told him, an actual smile stretching his face. “And she has plenty to say on the subject of Ray’s pronunciation. Really, he’d do fine if he just didn’t talk so damned fast.”

“Yes, he does seem to be quite the fast-talker,” Nate offered dryly, looking around the room again. He took off his hat to make a small bow to one of the saloon girls, who laughed in his face, then spotted Person, spinning at his piano stool and talking animatedly to the owner again. Colbert had previous seemed a blank slate to Nate—not unfriendly, precisely, but distant and cool. Now laugh lines showed at the corner of his eyes, and he was looking down at Ray with visible fondness. Ray, for his part, had his head thrown back, the long line of his neck bared as he laughed.

Nate startled when he glanced back to Ray’s companion and found the man glaring at him, face not blank, but decidedly unfriendly, blue eyes burning even from this distance.

“Thick as thieves, those two,” Reyes said, after a moment’s silence.

Was the entire town a member of this Company? Nate wondered, and struggled to stifle his disappointment once more. This wasn’t his home, this wasn’t the military or government he knew, but if a gang of thieves and ruffians was preying upon the innocent in this town, regardless of his personal feelings, he had to uphold the law.

“They seem to have rather different temperaments?” he offered finally, and this produced a laugh from Espera and a serene smile from Reyes.

“Brad can be…intense,” he said finally.

“Intense, my ass. That man’s deranged. Doesn’t trust a soul outside Person, and what does that tell you about his sanity?” Espera huffed, still smiling, but with an edge to it. “Or about Person, if you look at it sideways, like.”

“Ah,” Nate said, and fingered the silver watch in his pocket for what felt like the hundredth time since his first night in Encino. “I’ll… keep that in mind.”

“See you do, brother,” Espera said, smiling, then rattled something fluid and smooth off in Spanish—Nate didn’t catch a single word of it—then thumped Nate, hard, on the back. “Hate to see you forget. You’re a nice guy, for an Anglo.” Then he spit to the side and was strolling off, thumbs in his belt loops, to lean over the game that a boisterous group of young men was playing, the tone of his voice blistering even if it was unintelligible.

“Give it time,” Reyes added a moment later, smiling faintly. “Keep working on those Rs, brother. I’m sure you’ll improve if you keep practicing.”

“Thank you,” Nate said, obscurely sure he’d been paid a high compliment, and oddly warmed and worried by it all at once. What was he getting himself into? What was Espera trying to warn him of, and what was Reyes trying to advise patience upon?

They seemed fond of Ray. The man was charming, and a friend of the Espera family. Perhaps, understandably, they worried Nate would uncover solid evidence of his law-breaking ways.

Nate touched the warm metal in his pocket again, the familiar whorls of his father’s initials, and then picked his way across the floor, nodding to the men he’d been introduced to, until he’d come to the side of Ray’s piano.

Ray was picking something sweet and utterly filthy out on the keys, a song Nate recognized from his days with the enlisted men back East.

“Mr. Person,” he said, keeping his voice even.

“Oh, call me Ray,” was the response. “And I’ll call you—”

“Deputy Fick,” Nate interrupted, and was unsure of what emotion exactly he was experiencing when Ray talked over him and called him by his Christian name.

“—Nathaniel.”

“I prefer Nate,” Nate responded automatically, then swore silently to himself. Done was done; he was not enough of a blackguard to take permission back once given. “Nathaniel was my grandfather.”

Nate,” Ray repeated after him, enunciating the T, and then glanced over his shoulder. His eyes were very brown, warm and dark and thickly lashed. “What brings a law-abiding deputy to a saloon? Shouldn’t you be guarding the wells, mm?”

“I am not yet given that honor, no,” Nate replied, pushing any thoughts that engendered as far down into his chest as he could, where it burned like a hot coal. “Apparently that is reserved for more—seasoned men.”

Ray spit to the side, wet and easy. Nate wrinkled a nose and he glanced back and laughed. “You’re not kissing enough asses, Nate. Get that nose good and brown, you’ll get your chance to stand out in the dark and take bribes with the rest of them if you just try a little harder.”

Ignore it, Nate counseled himself. But found himself saying anyway, stiffly, “I’m sure the authorities in the town are as concerned for the welfare of their citizens as myself.” Water was life and death in this town; Nate knew that already, after only days here. To take bribes for it was—unthinkable.

“Oh, Nate,” Ray said, and then played something dirge-like and slow, until someone nearby shouted and flung a hat at him. “You’re breaking my heart.”

“Thank you,” Nate said, hand closing over his watch again.

“Pardon?” At least Ray could be, on occasion, overset and confused. That was comforting, somewhat.

“This was my father’s,” Nate said quietly, barely audible over the din of drinking men. He turned the watch over in his hand, let the yellow light of the saloon lanterns turn the silver gold. “He saved for decades to buy it. Glad it found its way back to me.”

“Not the foggiest what you’re referring to,” Ray said after a moment, airy and light, but his shoulders had tensed and the music sounded, briefly, stilted. Nate felt his own shoulders itch with the sensation of cold blue eyes upon them.

“Ray. I know that was you on the train,” Nate replied, quiet and low, barely audible. The words felt heavy on his tongue.

“What a mean thing to say,” Ray returned lightly, his eyes on his hands, refusing to look over, no matter how Nate tried to catch his gaze. “Do I strike you as that kind of rapscallion? I’m just a humble fingersmith.”

“Humble’s one word for it,” Nate tried.

“You trying to trick me into handcuffs, Nathaniel?” Ray said, and finally let Nate catch his gaze, tantalizingly bright beneath his lashes.

“I—” Nate stuttered, and then said, not thinking of Ray stretched out and held still, in cuffs or otherwise. “I just wanted to thank you.”

“Mm. Think of a song you want me to play yet?” Ray asked, his fingers seemed to slip into something soft and slower than a drinking crowd called for.

“Think of anything you want to tell me yet?” Nate asked in return, thinking of the way eyes followed him around the town. The way Maria had watched him consideringly before teaching him agua, comida, familia.

“Oh, I can think of any number of things,” Ray said. “I’ll pick for you, then.”

It took Nate a moment to recognize the song on piano—he’d only heard it sung before, and then by tone-deaf Marines—but when Ray started on the chorus, it clicked. “Blow the man down, darling, blow the man down,” Ray sung, lilting and laughing.

“Way, hey, blow the man down,” a toneless voice intoned. “Ray, you’re singing our song.”

“Bradley!” Ray exclaimed, spinning where he sat, his fingers still keeping the melody running. “I thought you’d abandoned me for your topography again.”

“Named a dead-end slot canyon after you just now.”

“Flattery will get you everywhere,” Ray laughed, and for a moment, Nate saw Brad’s face thaw again, young and amused.

“I should go,” Nate said uneasily, and was frozen for a moment by the gaze Colbert pinned him with.

“Maybe you should,” Brad said, and Ray made a rude noise with his mouth that left his lips rather red and wet.

“Goodnight,” Nate managed after a moment, and then made his way to the door, trying not think of anything in particular—the town wells in moonlight, the sideways smile on Ray Person’s mouth, the knowing looks Reyes and Espera shot him from the bar.

It’d been a long day; Nate needed to sleep, and start the next day anew.

That was all.

***

“What are you doing, Ray?” Well, hell. Brad hadn’t even waited for the saloon doors to close on Nate’s fine form to get started. That boded well.

“Nothing,” Ray said defensively, then winced. “Being polite,” he corrected hastily. “Friendly-like. Scoping out the opposition. Getting insights into the enemy mind. Reconnaissance work.”

“Ray.”

Then Brad’s bony hip was shoving Ray over on the stool, until they were both sitting precariously, one cheek on and one off, while Brad scowled at the keys and interrupted Ray’s important job of providing joy and entertainment and melodic accompaniment to the townfolk by stubbornly picking out the line from Celebrated Chop Waltz.

“That fucking song,” Ray heard someone swear, but whatever, this was their saloon, and if Brad and Ray wanted to play a fucking dumbass chopsticks duet, then they fucking well would.

“He could ruin everything,” Brad said, head down and tongue between his teeth as he stubbornly corrected his fingering. Fucker had no hands for this, however good his draw was. It made Ray feel obnoxiously fond of him. “He’s sharp, Ray. He’s going to figure it out, if he keeps coming around.”

“Poke likes him,” Ray offered. “The idiot children even like him. After that train showdown, they think he’s stone cold—aw, don’t get your dander up, goosey, you’re still the iciest snowbelle at the ball.” Ray’s ass was nudged slightly further off the stool and he had to brace his feet hard against the floor and shove back just to keep from falling to his death and dishonor. “He just—fuck you, you’ve got an ass the size of Texas, you freakish giant—got here, give him a chance.”

“Exactly, Ray,” Brad said, and gave up the battle, standing up. Ray glared—he was well used to Brad’s looming from the heights above. “Fick just got here. How about we all exercise a little caution before you go inviting him along on our goddamned excavations and heists?”

“Christ, Brad.” Ray rolled his eyes and tried not to think about how quickly the newest deputy in town had gotten beneath his skin.

“Lord’s name in vain,” Trombley hollered as he staggered past with a platter of beans and rice.

“Fuck you,” Brad and Ray hollered back simultaneously, and Ray grinned down at the keys and played something a little more Sousa, a jaunty marching beat with a bit of the marine hymn in it. Brad noticed, and his eyes narrowed again, so Ray sighed and went more civvy with it.

“OK, partner,” he said finally, and felt more than saw the way Brad relaxed next to him. “I’ll play a cautious hand. Just for you, my turtledove.”

“Stow the malarkey, Person,” Brad said, and smiled crookedly. “We ride out before dawn tomorrow. Better play our customers out better than that. These gentlemen want to hear some drinking tunes.” His voice raised on that last, and there was a hearty guffaw of agreement from the dames and ranchers in earshot.

Ugh, more horsework, in the canyonlands. Ray didn’t see why he had to tag along, when they had Brad the Wonder Boy and Poke and Baptista to pick their way through the ancient drainage paths and back. But Ray had the eye for waterworks and wires, and thus was dragged along like so much flotsam and jetsam on the back of Hurricane Clementine.

“Can’t you get me a new pony for Christmas?” he wheedled Walt later, when they were saddling up in the cool, dry night air. The stars were sharp and clear enough to see by, even without much of a moon. And what he saw was that Clementine had already stolen his hat and was munching it with an air of deliberate malice.

“It’s July, you dumbfuck,” Walt laughed, and then did some weird black magic where he talked in all low, soft clucks to the horse of the damned, and she lay the hat in his hand as easy as pie.

“Ugh,” Ray said, and resigned himself to what was sure to be a long, annoying, hot day, and didn’t wonder how their deputy was getting on in their absence, or if he noticed their absence at all.

***

The dust and sand was gritty in Nate’s teeth at the end of his days working, and his colleagues didn’t get any more tolerable, and it didn’t seem possible to get enough water in him through the course of the day. His skin felt tight and drawn, his lips perpetually cracked, even after one of the girls at the saloon laughed and offered him a tin of untinted beeswax—“it’ll keep that mouth pretty and pink,” she’d winked, and Nate suspected his cheeks had bloomed a similar shade.

For all that, though, there was something about this country that sat well with him, especially when he left the town and visited the reservation. The way the sagebrush perfumed the early morning air, and the colors, especially at sunset, all orange and glowing golds.

“Have you ever seen such a sky,” he’d asked Patterson the other day, checking in on him after rumors of a cattle-rustling gang down south had come down the wire. Now Nate had paused against one of the barbed fences, prickling his hands even through the stiff leather gloves, and stared up at the endless, aching blue of it. No clouds, or smog, just heaven spread out above them, baking bright in the July sun.

“Every damned day, friend,” Patterson had laughed, and thumped him on the back, then clicked his tongue for their horses. Good ones, too—Hasser had a fine eye, and a fair hand, and Nate already felt like his girl, Annie Oats, understood him better than any of his fellow lawmen.

That was the work Nate enjoyed—when he had the freedom of a morning to do his own patrols, to check on the ranchers, the folk on the reservation.

The rest—he tried not to think of it when he didn’t have to. The absent way McGraw belittled the men under his care, the way he glossed over the infractions of the Pinkertons and his deputies. Espera and his wife had been in town, looking at the bolts of cloth in the General Store, their girls wide-eyed at the array of candy and dolls on display, when Miss Casey had swept by and spit at their feet.

Nate had, naturally, asked her to apologize.

It hadn’t ended well. It had, in fact, ended with a reprimand from his sheriff and a visit from the mayor.

The look on Tony’s face in the store stuck in Nate’s throat even now, painful every time he swallowed. The banked rage and resentment.

“This is our land,” he’d said in Spanish. “These assholes—”

Nate hadn’t learned enough yet to understand the rest, but the tone, and the gist, and the sentiment, he got well enough, especially after Maria started yelling at Tony for using that language in front of the girls.

Nate just had to be patient. It got harder to remember that each day.

Cattle went missing from the reservation; he’d had to tell Tony and Rudy he was forbidden to investigate. That, too, stuck in his throat—it seemed these days he might never swallow again without pain. He’d had a coughing sickness before, as a child, and it felt uncommonly like, for all he knew it was a mental rather than medical condition.

The saloon was quiet these days—when Nate walked in, he got glances and cold shoulders. And Ray wasn’t at his piano.

It was very quiet.

Colbert, behind the bar, looked positively murderous, but Nate was a lieutenant, and faced down worse, and on the third day of Ray’s absence, after being met by evasion and winces by all the men and women he’d obliquely approached, he’d made his mind up.

“Where’s Mr. Person?” he asked grimly, and forbore to drink from the glass Mr. Trombley slid his way down the bar, pulling a bizarre face as he did, looking apologetic and apprehensive all at once.

“None of your business,” Colbert said, mouth lifting in an obvious sneer.

Nate tried again. “If he’s in trouble, it’s my duty as a lawman to—”

“Think twice about whether you really want to finish that sentence,” Brad said, deadly quiet, and Nate closed his eyes and took a breath, then another. Straight-talking. He knew, somehow, that Colbert would respect that, if nothing else.

“I just want to know if he’s alright,” he managed to get out, proud his voice was level. “I—miss the music.”

“I’ll just bet you do,” Colbert muttered, and turned to his maps again, spread out over a portion of the bar where customers were frankly forbidden from sitting. He checked an instrument, and made another notation, quick and with a sure hand.

Nate stayed where he was, and finally, Colbert lifted his head, regarded him coolly for a moment, then sighed.

“He took a bad fall from a horse. He’s—Doc says he’ll be alright, if infection doesn’t set in,” he said gruffly, and then looked down again with the air of someone who’d forgotten what they were looking at. “We done?”

“Oh,” Nate said faintly, and felt that thickness in his throat again as he tried to swallow. He picked up the beer and took a sip. It was good, dark and brown, salted in the local way that had first alarmed and now just seemed—right. “Well. If you could tell him I asked after his health.”

“Will do,” Trombley called, and then went white when Brad turned to glare. “Thanks, Deputy Fick.”

“Nate, please,” Nate said, and set down the glass to go. The second he pushed open the saloon doors, he heard the talk start up again, buzzing and low, and felt desperately, bitterly alone.

Maybe Annie needed another currying, he thought, and went to take her head in his hands for a moment and breathe in the dusty, hay-sweet scent of her.

He’d go see Doc when he was done, he thought. It was just being a responsible lawman, checking on the health of his friend—his—

On Person, he thought, and then made himself stop thinking for a time.

***

It wasn’t that Ray didn’t know he was a piss-poor patient, but he’d been here for days, and he was fucking bored.

Brad had stomped up the stairs earlier, at least, and dumped a bunch of wires on his bed and said, “Fix it,” before stomping out again. Though Ray had to first get over his outrage that someone had been fucking with—and breaking—his make-shift telegraph station and yell and holler and swear a bit first, he at least tried to do as Brad asked.

The poppy Doc had him on, though, made everything blurry, and even beneath the haze of the drugs his leg fucking hurt, so Ray was stuck making little obscene animals out of spare copper bits and not anything useful. He really wanted a smoke, but Brad had ferreted out all his hidey-holes earlier with insulting ease. Fuck, this was the fucking pits. How was a man supposed to forget how badly his leg ached, or how it’d looked with the bones white poking out the skin and red all around with blood—anyway, how was he supposed to forget all that if he didn’t have a cigarillo? Or a piano, or actual fucking working wires, or—

A knock at the door startled him out of his fuming. Who the fuck would knock? Not even Ray fisting his cock and pouting at Doc had deterred the bastard from barging in whenever he damned well pleased. And Brad, well. That went without saying.

“Enter all ye who have abandoned hope here,” Ray called bemusedly, then frowned, vaguely certain he’d mangled something there.

“Not sure that’s how the saying goes,” Nate said, and Ray sat bolt upright in bed, scattering big-dicked donkeys and little wire phalluses everywhere.

“Nate!” he said, delighted, and waved his hands at him. “Nate, Nate, you’ve come to see me in my hour of need! My hero.”

“Nice to be someone’s,” Nate laughed, but it wasn’t the right kind of laugh, the kind he’d startled out of Nate before. Ray frowned and reached out again, hand opening and closing.

“’s wrong? Come sit and tell your Ray-Ray all about it.”

“I rather think you’ve more to complain about than I do,” Nate said ruefully, and took off his hat and took a hesitant step into the room, looking behind him warily. Ray was momentarily confused—were Gunny’s men coming? A rattlesnake with legs? A—oh, oh, that was adorable.

“Oh, Brad. He’s out, don’t worry. And anyway, Nate, Nathaniel, don’t you worry. His bite’s worse than his bark.”

Not reassuring, Mr. Person,” Nate told him, and pulled a chair next to the bed. He looked tired, Ray noticed, and damnably lean and close and he smelled like sweat and horse. Horses, ugh. Horses were way worse than Brad.

“I’ll protect you,” Ray promised. Nate had come to see him. Ray! And Nate, in a room with a bed. The stuff dreams were made of, if it weren’t for his fucking leg.

“I’ll hold you to that when you’re feeling well again,” Nate said dryly, and looked down the sheets at Ray’s elevated leg, at the stained brown dressing wrapped around it. Doc wasn’t due back to change it and cause unholy pain for some time, thank the fucking Lord for small favors. Hopeless cause aside, no one that saw Ray swearing and sweating and teary-eyed as Doc poked the gunk down there would ever find him beddable ever again, Doc had assured him. It was touching that Doc had ever thought he was, though when Ray said as much into his pillow, Doc had just slapped his ass and told him he’d had too much poppy juice.

“So what have you done to yourself?” Nate asked, fiddling with the brim of the hat resting on his knee.

“I hate horses, Nate,” Ray said earnestly. “Hate them. Trains, they got tracks, horses, they just—go wherever the fuck they want.”

“Maybe next time you should ride two-along,” Nate suggested, and Ray beamed again.

“So smart, you’re so smart. That’s what Brad said, too. Both so smart. But I’m not a kid, that’s for kids. Babies. I’m short but I’m a man, Nate. All man. I can prove it.” Time to waggle his eyebrows—it took a moment and probably a series of weird faces, but Ray was pretty sure he managed.

“I’m sure,” Nate said after a long few second, his own eyebrows raised. “Maybe another time. You’re sure you’re alright?”

Yes. Yes yes yes, another time! Ray grinned at Nate dopily and said, “Alright! Oh, yeah, alright. Doc said I probably won’t lose the leg, probably. But I’d make a good pirate, I don’t mind.”

Nate looked a little green, so Ray wiggled his hands at him, let his fingers dance an invisible arpeggio. “These are the money-makers, Nate. Don’t worry your pretty head about me.”

“You—well. You do have nice hands,” Nate said hoarsely, and then caught one of them, warm and dry and hello, this was better than Ray had ever hoped for. He ought to get thrown from horses every day. He said as much and Nate scowled at him, fingers tightening on Ray’s wrist.

“Don’t dare,” he ordered, and Ray essayed a salute with his free hand.

“So what brings you to my sickbed, friend?” He hesitated, then added, unsure and sure all at once he probably shouldn’t keep talking, but doing it anyway. “We are friends? Right?”

“If you like,” Nate said softly, head down and eyes on their joined hands. “You weren’t in the saloon for a while. I—missed the music.”

“You missed me,” Ray said, satisfied and warm despite the chills he’d had all day, snuggling down in his blankets and beaming. “I’m the best conversation you’ll get in this town.”

“May well be,” Nate agreed, face still drawn, and when he glanced up to meet Ray’s eyes, he looked tired again. Lost.

“’s wrong, Nate?” Ray asked again, and tugged his hand until Nate huffed out a smile, a real one that temporarily flashed across his whole face and made his eyes light. He inched his chair closer and let Ray wrap his hand around the strong firm muscles of his lower arm, the shirtsleeves rolled up and the skin beneath Ray’s callused fingers fine and smooth.

“You’re incorrigible,” Nate said, and yes, Ray knew that tone, he’d heard that tone in Brad’s voice, and it meant that he was in. Once you started sounding fond of Ray, there was no going back, no sirree, no take-backs. Nate was a goner.

“So don’t incorrige me,” Ray joked, and then tugged again, let his fingers play something pretty and sweet on Nate’s pulse. “Hey, hey, Nate. What’s wrong?”

How do you know something’s wrong?” Nate asked, sounding exasperated, but he didn’t pull away, and then he sighed, shoulders slumping. “I don’t—I don’t know what I’m doing here.”

“Keeping me from losing my mind? I’m so fucking bored, Nathaniel Fick. Stay with me.”

“Not here,” Nate said, serious, waving his free hand around the room. “Here. In Encino. In New Mexico territory.”

“Ohhhhhhhhh,” Ray said, the penny dropping. “Oh, man, babydoll, you hit that rock bottom sooner than I thought. Goddamned toadsuck out West, ain’t it? Not like the states.”

When Nate didn’t respond to the babydoll, Ray knew it was worse than he thought.

“A head of cattle was taken from the reservation two nights ago,” Nate continued, after a beat. “And I’ve been forbidden from investigating it.”

“And... you’re surprised?” Ray guessed. “McGraw told you them varmints didn’t know how to manage a herd and got what was coming to them, the poor damned savage little things. Yep. I heard it before. I can see it on your face. He’s a daisy, ain’t he?”

“I helped with the fences last week!” Nate burst out, and dropped Ray’s hand, getting to his feet and going to the window. “The sheriff said—but I saw them, those cattle didn’t wander off. I know--dammit.”

“You’re such a peach, Nate,” Ray noted sadly. “Peaches don’t do well here. Well. Canned ones, but don’t get canned. Or. Nate. Come back?”

“Hm? Oh,” Nate said, and stopped gripping the windowsill and glaring at the sunset like it’d fucked his mother, and came back to the chair at Ray’s bedside, gripping that instead.

“What are you doing here?” Ray asked, wonderingly. “Why—why’d you come. This ain’t a place for civilized types, you’re mighty—mighty civil. Nate.” Ray could see him back East so easily. He didn’t fit here, his gray smudged and his hair limp and his eyes sad.

Nate stared at him with sad, sad green eyes. It made Ray’s heart hurt. “I want—I came out here to help, not hurt. I heard—everyone hears tales, about the lawlessness. The Wild West. I wanted to make it better.”

“Only so much a man can do,” Ray said, and closed his eyes, letting his fingers twitch against the sheets. Fuck, now his heart andhis leg hurt. Would keep hurting, and hurt worse when Doc came, until he finally doled out more medicine and let Ray sleep again.

“I want to make it better,” Nate repeated, and then, sounding abruptly closer. “Ray.” His fingers brushed Ray’s sweaty temples, cool and soothing.

“That’s your first mistake,” Ray said dreamily. “Such a peach. Get all bruised.”

“I can take a bruise,” Nate said softly, fierce, but then he laughed when Ray said, “’Cause you’ve got the stones?”

“That I do,” he agreed, and smiled at Ray, eyes crinkling. They looked even greener, close up.

Then someone from the door said, “What the fuck is he doing here?”

Nate, who had been so close, so close that Ray felt like maybe—maybe he was missing something, jolted upright, fingers leaving Ray’s hair.

“Mr. Colbert,” he said, sounding choked, and Ray thumped his head against the pillow. “Doctor Bryan invited me, I—”

“Came to visit me in my hour of need,” Ray said, and then registered with annoyance the slur of his words. Fuck, he was cold.

“Go to sleep, Ray,” Brad said, sounding like shit whiskey, burning and mad. Then he softened again, going to the wardrobe and pulling out a blanket and arranging it over Ray carefully. Softy. So soft.

Sleep,” Brad repeated, cuffing his head gently, then he was hard again, glaring and cold as he pulled Nate out the door.

“Don’t hurt him,” Ray called mournfully, and gritted his teeth and tried to stop thinking or feeling or worrying, for a while.

Nate had come to visit him. How about that, he thought, and flexed his hand, staring at it. Fucking pity his leg hurt too much for him to get hard enough right now. He’d really like to use his hand on himself right now, the feel of Nate’s fingers still on it.

***

“What a damned cold thing to do, Deputy,” Brad growled, pulling Nate down the stairs roughly enough that Nate nearly overbalanced. “Questioning a drugged man.”

“What?” Nate asked, outraged, and then yelped as Brad nearly pulled him off his feet again.

“Call that admissible evidence?” Brad sneered, and pushed Nate out the door, into the dusk and dust. He stood silhouetted against the light of the room, tall and proud, and Nate felt spitting mad enough that he nearly considered taking a swing. “Going to take that to court?”

“He’s my friend,” Nate countered hotly, and didn’t take a step back when Brad advanced.

“Try to get your friends arrested often?” Brad asked, low and cold. What was—oh. “You think you can come to our town, our land, and tell us right from wrong, like it’s one of your cities, like you know a goddamned thing about the people here.”

“I’m trying to learn,” Nate countered, and felt it again, that sharp sticking sensation in his throat again. “I want to help.”

“Go home, Fick,” Brad said, and turned. “You don’t belong here. And there’s nothing you can do to help.”

Nate left the Bryan property, swearing and chilled despite the hot night air. It couldn’t be—no place was beyond hope, and he could help, and he would. Tomorrow, he vowed, finding Annie and burying his face against her warm neck, he’d do what he’d been wanting to do since he arrived.

He’d go to the governor. He’d talk to Ferrando. There had to be something he could do, at least.

***

Finally, oh, finally, blessed freedom. Ray let Brad hover as he leaned heavily on his crutch and stomped grandly into the saloon.

“Let’s hear some fucking noise, your man with the magic hands is back and better than ever!” he called, and was gratified to see heads swing around and an appreciative roar start up. “No one’s touched my lady, have they? She’s a one man grand, fuckfaces.”

No, of course not,” Walt lied, and Ray would have been mad, except then he came up and near swept Ray off his damned good foot into a hug. “Oh, Ray. Ray, god, I’m so fucking sorry.”

“Oh, shut your piehole, Hasser,” Ray said thickly, and took advantage of Walt being a handy makeshift crutch to ruffle his hair. “Not even one of your hellbeasts can keep me down for long. And,” he allowed graciously. “Snakes are fucking scary. Can’t blame Clem for boltin’. She’s—” he hesitated, then admitted it. “She’s a good horse. I’m just a fuck-poor rider.”

Walt kept his head against Ray’s neck for a moment, and Ray reflected sadly on the fact that it did fucking bupkis for him. Gone for green eyes, Brad had been right. There must be some devilry to the color, it was the only explanation.

And, speak of the devil, there Nate was at the bar by Poke, with—holy fuck, with an array of glasses around him, all empty, and he was draining another as Ray watched, long throat working. Damn.

Walt saw him looking and winced. “Lawman had a bad day,” he said lowly, and helped Ray along. “Went to see Godfather himself.”

“It didn’t go well?” Ray guessed.

“It didn’t go well,” Walt confirmed, looking a mite wrecked himself. “He’s—takin’ it hard.”

“Poor hombre thought he’d come out and win the West,” Rudy said, coming up out of nowhere like a goddamned cool breeze on a summer night, silent and deadly handsome. “Hard thing to learn, brother. Hard thing to learn.”

“If I never hear the word savage again,” Ray heard Nate say, the slightest slur to his speech, and as Ray watched Poke shook his head and pounded his shoulder.

“We all savages, dog,” Poke said, and then rubbed Nate’s back. There was absolutely no reason whatsoever that that should make Ray feel mean and green. There was that color again, jealous and curling through his skin. Dammit.

“Damn right,” Nate said sadly, and then raised his glass and waved it at Trombley again. “Another?” he asked hopefully.

“Whoa, buddy, think you’ve had enough,” Ray said, dragging Walt over. Well, he just didn’t want to see Nate get himself into trouble, that was all. One drunk sheriff in the town was more than enough to deal with. A drunk deputy of Nate’s caliber and stature and pretty, pretty fucking face—well. That was just asking for trouble.

“Ray!” Nate said, lighting up momentarily, and then as Ray watched his face fell. “You were right, Ray,” he said sadly. “I am a peach.”

“Long as you’ve got stones, friend,” Ray said carefully, and fuck, he’d wanted Nate to wise up, but it still was a damn shame, seeing the look on Nate’s face now. “You think of a song for me to play yet? Gotta warm my baby up, I know she’s missed me.”

“We’ve all missed you, Ray,” Nate said, so sincere Ray nearly leaned over and kissed the dumb fuck—why, why in the name of God’s dry and dusty Earth would anyone really—actually miss--Nate was just drunk. Obviously.

“Watch out, lawman,” Poke said, broad smile on his face and laugh choked down in his voice. “You don’t wanna make Colbert jealous.”

“Shut it, Espera,” Brad said placidly. “Nate’s alright.”

Nate looked almost watery at that, wide-eyed and awed and Poke outright laughed, then.

“Well, I’ll be damned,” he said. “Another round for the deputy, the man that changed the Iceman’s mind.”

The Iceman. “Oh,” Nate said, eyes getting even wider, and then he swayed on his stool. “Oh, it’s—I wouldn’t tell. I won’t! I’d—I’d arrest anyone else. I wish I could arrest that fucking—” His face was breaking Ray’s heart again as he stared down into his glass.

“Quit it, I’m the only man allowed to bring tears to men’s eyes in this bar,” he said, glaring exaggeratedly, and then laughing high and helpless when Nate very solemnly put a hand to his mouth, eyes round.

“Sorry,” he said, muffled, and Ray groaned.

“Okay, no one’s ever letting Fick drink again. Who brought our golden boy to this miserable state?”

“Ferrando,” Nate said, switching instantly back to dark and serious. “And fuck you, Ray. I’ll drink if—if I want.”

“Uh huh,” Ray said, and shook Walt off, taking up his actual crutch again so he could stump a little closer. “Buddy boy, you are a sight for sore eyes.”

“You are,” Nate said, and leaned against him, his side a warm, hot line against Ray’s. “‘m glad you’re well again, Ray.”

“Fit as a fiddle,” Ray lied. His leg still hurt, sharp and dull in turns, and Doc said he’d never walk quite the same again, but his hands were fine, and that, Ray told himself, was what mattered. Even if he couldn’t do quite the same work he’d done with Brad before. They’d make it work.

“Ray, I want—I want to help however I can,” Nate said, turning his face and talking into Ray’s vest. And yes, yep, there was that feeling he hadn’t gotten with Walt, a fizzing in his blood that shot through his veins and straight to his cock. “I don’t care about—laws.”

“We’ll talk when you’re sober, baby,” Ray soothed, and let himself cup the back of Nate’s skull, feel the fine hair tickling his fingers. Brad was watching them from behind the bar, eyes shuttered. “I’m gonna go play piano now, yeah? Brad, don’t let the whores get him.”

“I can handle whores!” Nate said indignantly, face still mashed against Ray, and he laughed along when this produced a round of jests and mocking from the men around them. “I can.”

“Wait, now, I need to hear this story,” Ray said, because he’d never claimed to be a good man, and if a drunken Nate Fick was going to tell tales of his exploits with scarlet women, well, Ray was all motherfucking ears.

“Go do what we pay you for, Ray,” Brad said, and flicked a towel at him. “Nate’s right. We’ve all missed your dulcet tones. Pappy and Walt don’t hold a candle.”

“You sweet talker,” Ray crooned, and then elbowed Walt, who was grinning ear to ear nearby. “And I fucking knew it, you piano-fondling scallywag.”

“She’s just so pretty, Ray,” Walt said earnestly, hand to his heart. “Don’t tell my wife, will you? It’ll break her heart.”

“Oh, I’ll tell her,” Ray threatened, and went to go reassure his baby that he still loved her and wouldn’t let the bad, fumble-fingered men touch her ever again.


***

Nate, Nate was, as he’d never been in his life, not even with the Corps, drunk. But it was good, it was. He could swallow now, the lump in his throat a little less painful and sharp. He’d come in earlier, ready to turn in his badge and go home, to give up, when Brad Colbert, of all people, and caught his elbow, looked him in the eye, and then, without saying anything, poured him a drink.

“Sorry,” he’d said, and Nate had stared at him, trying not to let any of the poisonous, painful words out, but Brad just looked back at him, looked, and Nate knew, suddenly, without anything said between them, that he understood.

And now Ray was here, his voice ringing out and laughing, the room loud and boisterous and joyful again. And it felt like—maybe Nate couldn’t fix things, make them perfect. But he could help. Not the way he’d thought. But maybe. Maybe that was okay. Maybe that was alright.

“We need a man on the inside, anyway, my man,” Reyes was saying, deftly replacing Nate’s beer with something sweet and strangely—green tasting? Juice? “Cactus, not the fermented kind,” Reyes said, smiling with all his teeth. “Good for you. Keeps you watered, brother.”

“Oh,” Nate said, and nodded sagely along. “Thank you,” he said seriously, and Reyes—Rudy—smiled at him and gave him a slight push, so Nate acquiesced. He’d wanted to go over there, anyway, had wanted to all night, even before Ray got there, just to be where he’d been before. Cradling the cup of cactus juice, he made his careful way through the throngs of men and women to the piano, where Ray had stopped singing and was just picking something out, slow and sweet.

“Hi, Ray,” Nate said.

“Hey there, Green Eyes,” Ray said, turning to grin up at him over his shoulder. His dimples were showing. So different than before, when he’d lay frighteningly feverish in his bedsheets, staring up at Nate with bright, glassy eyes and a confused, slack mouth. And even then his mouth had been—distracting. “Alright?”

Nate considered a moment. “Better,” he concluded.

“So tell me about these whores,” Ray asked immediately, like he’d been waiting hours to say it, and Nate groaned and put the cool glass against his forehead.

“I will regret telling you that,” he predicted.

“Oh, definitely,” Ray purred like a damn cat, and then nodded at a nearby stool. “Pull up a chair, Deputy.”

“Don’t call me that,” Nate said automatically, hot and sure. “Not here.”

“Nate, then,” Ray said, slow smile curling. “Nathaniel.”

Nate,” Nate insisted, and Ray laughed as he dragged a stool over, sloshing his cup as he went. “Oh, damn.”

“You’re fine,” Ray said. “Lord knows you saw me worse a few days ago.”

“You were fine,” Nate said stoutly, and dragged the chair even closer, close enough to feel the heat of Ray, even through his clothes. “You are fine.”

“What a sweet thing to say,” Ray said, running his damned, damned, damnably entrancing fingers over the keys. “You say that to all the saloon’s girls?”

“No, I don’t. I didn’t,” Nate denied, because he’d never been with any of these saloon girls. Not these, hadn’t wanted to. But there had been one, back East, once. It was a good memory, and Nate said, unthinkingly, a little dreamy as he leaned into Ray’s side, “But she was nice. I liked her.”

“Oh, Lord love you,” Ray yelped, laughing loud and throwing his head back, and there was his neck. Hm. Nate reached out to touch his pulse, and felt the laughter vibrating under his fingertips. “Seriously, Nate, you are a goddamned embarrassment. We’ll have to teach you to hold your liquor.”

“And beer,” Nate agreed, embarrassed, but not enough to not keep touching. He could still feel Brad’s eyes on his back, like before, but it was different, somehow. “She was, though. She was nice. I didn’t, I didn’t know what to do, but she showed me.”

“I just bet she did,” Ray murmured, so soft Nate thought if he hadn’t been so close, he wouldn’t have heard. “Taught you to use that mouth?”

“Yeah,” Nate agreed, licking his lips, then shifted on his stool, remembering. “Where to put it. How to make her wet.”

“Fuck,” Ray said, sounding strangled, and Nate held out his glass of cactus juice, concerned, but Ray just waved it off. “You will kill me, Nathaniel Fick.”

Nate,” Nate repeated again, aggrieved. This wasn’t hard, not like— “And no, I won’t. I wouldn’t. I won’t let anyone arrest you, or—or.”

“You’re the sweetest fucking peach, you really are,” Ray said, and curled a hand around Nate’s hip, steadying him before he knew he needed it, his other hand still dancing along the keys, a blur of singing notes.

“All bruised up,” Nate said, not sure even what he meant, just feeling that ache in his chest again, and closed his eyes.

“Not what I meant, Nate,” Ray’s voice came to him. “You’re lucky I’m not as black-hearted as I seem. But we’re revisiting this conversation. If you—in the morning. If you want.”

“I want,” Nate said, opening his eyes, and Ray was very, very close. “I want so much, and I can’t have it.”

“Some of it, maybe,” Ray said, and Nate sighed and closed his eyes and rested his head on Ray’s shoulder, and the next thing he knew, it was morning. And, very sincerely, he wished he was dead.

“Oh god,” he said.

“Water?” a cool voice offered, and oh, perfect. That was just great. Wonderful. He pried open his sticky eyes and Brad Colbert was smirking at him, holding out a tall glass.

“Thank you,” Nate said carefully, and took it. Damn, even that slight movement made his head feel like an eggshell being cracked against a bowl, some hellish omelet about to be cooked with his brains instead of yolk.

“If you hurt him, I will kill you,” Brad said, leaning back and still smiling.

“Duly noted, Mr. Colbert,” Nate muttered, side-eyeing him over the glass. This kind of talk first thing in the morning was a hell of a thing to confront a man with, but he rather thought that was exactly the kind of conniving, clever, bastard of a man Brad was.

“So how do things look in the sober light of day, Deputy?” Brad asked, leaning in and eyes sharpening, and Nate knew, suddenly and with complete clarity, that he was looking at the Iceman now. Bane of this half the territory, clever and deadly, when he needed to be.

“It’s Nate,” he replied, and kept Brad’s gaze. Brad held it a long moment, then nodded.

“We can use you,” he said, leaning back and regarding Nate in—who the fuck’s bed was this, Nate wondered suddenly. “To run distractions, if nothing else. We’re using the old Pueblo irrigation systems. There will be water on the reservation, soon. Their own water.”

“Oh,” Nate said wonderingly, then, realizing. “Oh. No, Schwetje won’t like that.”

“We aim to keep his attention away as long as possible,” Brad continued, watching him still.

“I see,” Nate said, wheels turning slowly and painfully in his alcohol bruised brain. “I’ll do whatever I can.”

“It won’t be easy. Schwetje’s hung innocent men for less. And don’t expect a trial, either.”

“I know that, Brad,” Nate said, annoyed, sitting up in his shirtsleeves and glaring. “You think I don’t?”

“You don’t know a lot, yet,” Brad said placidly, and tipped his head to him. “But you will. And I mean it, about Ray. If your damn fool attachment continues.”

Nate went red. Lord. Lord, he’d been drunk last night, but he remembered thinking, and—he remembered leaning in, his mouth against Ray’s throat. It was against the law, and maybe the Good Book, but what good were printed words, here? In this place.

He considered, and then thought, simply and almost easily, To hell with it. If he did have an—attachment to Ray, and if it was reciprocated, well. He wanted it to continue.

“Glad to hear you say so,” Nate said, draining the glass and leaning back against the sheets. The daylight was breaking; it was only now dawn. “He’s a good man.”

“He’s a fuck-headed inbred filthy son of a railroad man’s whore,” Brad drawled, smiling tightly. There was something shuttered about his face now, as he leaned back and folded his arms over his chest. “But he has the occasional redemptive quality.”

Nate bit down on the automatic defense that had risen to his lips—a man who could hijack telegraph wires, and talk circles around any man alive all while playing a sonata, who could wield his tongue as cleverly as any pistol, clearly had more than the occasional redemptive quality. But then, he was Brad’s right-hand man. Brad clearly knew that. And now he was smirking at Nate knowingly.

Perhaps a change of subject was in order. Nate’s face still felt hot, thinking of the shameless way he’d behaved the night before, and Ray was—Ray was abrasive and sharper than a spur, certainly, but he was also kind. The thought that he might just have been being kind to Nate—

“Do you know Mayor Wynn?” he asked, instead of getting ahead of himself. “I ran into him at Ferrando’s. He seemed to understand my complaints about the, ah. Conduct in Encino, though Ferrando—”

“So long as Ferrando’s shit doesn’t stink enough for Washington to smell it, Ferrando gladly lets the rest of the state fester in its own foul fecundity,” Brad drawled, kicking his legs out and looking amused. “But Mike’s not bad. Punched McGraw in the face last year.”

“Lucky bastard. I’m glad I shook his hand,” Nate said feelingly, and was rewarded by a bright, nearly blinding smile.

“You might fit in here better than I thought,” Brad said. “Don’t disappoint me.” And with that and no further farewell, he stood and strolled out, leaving Nate to swear and fumble around the room for his shirt and boots. His pocketwatch was on the bedside table, next to a washbasin, and Nate spared a thought to wonder who’d half undressed him.

Then he saw the tin of peaches and the familiar scrawling handwriting of the note on top, which read, succinctly, Breakfast! xoxo Ray

Nate pocketed it and the watch, settled his hat on his head and his badge on his chest, and set off to work that day, humming.

***

This was an occasion, Ray figured, that called for a bath. Even if Nate did come to his sense in the miserably sober light of day, Ray’d feel better knowing the reason wasn’t that he could knock a man dead at three paces. And, as he was currently lamer than a three-footed jack-rabbit and still apparently pale enough to milk his infirmity for all his worth, he currently had the three black lambs of their criminal clan going back and forth with buckets to fill Brad’s monstrous tub for him.

“Waste of water,” Brad grumbled, but didn’t say no outright, and that was admission enough that Ray was getting mighty pungent. Sickbed sweat was the kind that clung, even after rigorous application of perfurme and wet cloths.

“Well, I’m not scrubbing with sand. And besides, all the good dirt and sweat on this here hide will make a fine fertilizer. I’m just doing my civic duty, Brad.”

“No man or beast would be fit to eat the crops your wretched hide would bring to harvest, Ray,” Brad retorted, making a face, and leaned against the door to watch Ray fumble with his trousers.

“Braaaaad,” Ray whined, until Brad sighed and came to help with his boot.

“Steady,” he said, and then Ray was scrawny and naked before him, a fine specimen in the eyes of God, though, for some reason, Brad wasn’t meeting his. As though they hadn’t seen each other nakeder than this after the one disastrous job they’d pulled in Reno. “Wait before you get in, I’ll heating a kettle or two. You don’t need to catch chill and ruin all Doc’s good work just when he’s got your lazy ass back upright again.”

“It’s hotter than hell’s own whorehouse already,” Ray protested, and shimmied into the cool tub water before Brad could keeping clucking and fussing. Worse than a hen with her chicks, sometimes.

“So?” he asked, splashing a bit just to see Brad scowl. “Did our drunken transplanted hothouse peach meet your exacting standards, eye color aside?”

“To which standards are you referring, Ray?”

“Oh, come on, I know you interrogated him this morning.” Brad said nothing, just started cleaning his nails with a knife. Ray felt a smug smile growing on his face. “You like him, don’t you! You think he’s swell. You think—”

“I think he’ll do,” Brad interrupted, shooting him a glare. “If he’s got the patience to put up with your ignorant ramblings more than a minute, he might have the fortitude to be useful here.”

“Poor lamb didn’t know what valley of hell he’d wandered into,” Ray agreed. “But he’s got teeth, Brad, I tell you. Wait and see. I’m putting money on it now, he’ll make mayor here some day. Just gotta get rid of Encino Man first.”

“Hm,” Brad said, which meant he was already scheming, the evil wheels in his brain turning away. Bless him. Ray’d leave him to it, for now. At the moment Ray had far more lewd plans for Nathaniel Fick on his mind. If things went well, anyhow.

Ray made it out of the tub, dried himself up and thumped carefully up the stairs back to his room to find a contingent of assholes standing around his wardrobe, clucking.

“What the hell are you gonna wear, Ray?” Lilley asked, shaking out a tattered vest and scowling.

“Don’t matter,” Walt argued, grinning hugely. “You heard the Deputy. He likes Ray’s dimples. He thinks Ray has the best smile.”

“Get out,” Ray said, glaring, and surreptitiously glanced over to see if his breakfast offering had been left behind. It had not. Oblique proposition made and accepted, Ray thought gleefully, and then tried to summon up an Iceman scowl as he shook his cane at the interlopers.

“You can borrow my vest,” Trombley offered, which, Ray was touched, but the vest in question embroidered with squash blossoms by his lady love, and Ray just didn’t have the complexion for blue.

“No, his shirtsleeves, rolled up,” Rudy suggested, leaning against a wall and smiling beatifically. “But trim your nails.”

“Kinda forward,” Walt mused. “Going to meet his lady love half-dressed. But he does have nice forearms, doesn’t he?”

“Seriously, I will tie the lot of you to the traintracks, so help me Brad,” Ray threatened, but the grin on his face simply refused to stop crawling back on.

***

It was a longer day than anticipated, spent at McGraw’s side being trained in law, and being smiled coquettishly at by Miss Casey, and being forced to turn a blind eye to Griego’s magically multiplying head of cattle. Nate, for the first time, started biting his tongue and using a good deal more diplomacy in his dealings with the lot of them, and was rewarded with dumb grins and arms slung around his back.

“I knew you’d see the light of our Western day soon, Nate, my lad,” McGraw said broadly, and shook Nate roughly. Nate forebore to mention that they were the same age, and, remembering Ray’s tact, said only, “I’ve got competent teachers, sir,” in the best admiring tone he could manage. Well, and it was true, if only a half-truth.

Knowing that his brown-nosing was to a purpose helped ease the shame of it, but still, he was glad when the day ended and McGraw was leading the men to the tavern, where, if tradition held, they would promptly get soused enough to go carousing elsewhere.

Ray was at the piano again, and the room looked right once more, whole. He was, Nate noticed, in his shirtsleeves, drawn tight along his shoulders and forearms bare. A cigarette clung to his lower lip, and when he heard Trombley call out Nate’s name, he turned and flashed Nate a wide, dimpled smile.

His first inclination was to make his way across the bar, set the tin of peaches, still heavy in his pocket, on the piano’s lid, and lean in and ask Ray what the devil they were doing. And if they could do it somewhere else, and if—

But instead Nate just raised a hand and, then, looking to the side at his sheriff, made his way first to the bar and ordered a round of drinks. McGraw beamed wider than ever, and Nate managed to steer him around one of the serving girls deftly, distracting him with talk of what McGraw thought the best shift management would be and where the scoundrels of the Company might strike next.

Brad, polishing a tap, just nodded to them and went back to his work, but Nate thought he saw a glimmer of approval in his eyes.

“Well, doesn’t someone learn fast,” Ray said, a curl of warm laughter in his voice, when Nate finally disentangled himself and made his way to the piano, a glass of Rudy’s cactus concoction in hand.

“So I’ve been told,” Nate admitted, and then flushed a little, a memory of the night before flashing back to him at once, and somehow he couldn’t but lick his lips. Ray’s eyes had definitely zeroed in on Nate’s mouth, the whiskey-brown of his irises almost eclipsed by the darkness of his pupils. The rhythm of his hands stuttered slightly, and he swore and he turned back to the keys.

Now wasn’t the time to discuss it. Nate had to wait, be patient and not hustle all the customers out of Brad’s bar before closing time. “Ah,” he said, shaking off the impatience. “I brought you a drink.”

“Rudy’s fruity cactus concoction?” Ray said, still looking intently down at the ivory. He sounded aggrieved. “He’s been forcing it down my throat all damned week. Says it waters a man.”

“Well, maybe you should have another then,” Nate suggested, settling a hip against the piano and watching the deft movements of Ray’s hands, the cording of the muscles in his forearms. He looked up to Ray’s face, and saw him biting his lip, and had to pause a moment, unsure at the heat that suddenly seemed to suffuse the room. “Ray, you look—”

Ray still didn’t look up, just exaggeratedly rolled his eyes and took the glass deftly, keeping the melody going one-handed as he took a swig. “A mess, a disaster, a train off the rails, I’ve heard it all, Nathaniel, believe you me.”

“I was going to say hot,” Nate finished, because Ray did, the hair at his temples dark with sweat, and the back of his shirt sticking to his skin, damp and dark.

“Maybe. Maybe a bit,” Ray said, handing him back the glass; their fingers brushed, and the sensation was uncommonly vivid, and seemed to linger even after Nate set the glass back on the nearest stool, put his fingers in his pocket, flexing them. “’s more the pedals, though, it wasn’t so bad last night but Doc’s got me off the poppy and the footwork—”

That—that had never occurred to him, the footwork involved in the piano’s pedals, and without thinking of anything but the way Ray had looked in that bed, feverish and for once tongue-tied, Nate sunk to his knees . He took Ray’s bare foot in his hands, cupping the arch and regarding the slim bones of the ankle, the red swelling that started at the shin and disappeared beneath bandages. “Are you sure you’re fine to play? I could work the pedals, if you’ll teach me. Will you—”

He looked up and was momentarily struck speechless by the look on Ray’s face, intense and raw. And registered where he was, the position they were in, Ray’s skin hot in his hand. It’d be easy to lean in, Nate realized, and wet his lower lip again, unthinking.

“Oh, damn,” Ray said faintly. “Oh, you devil. I don’t deserve—no, fuck. Fuck this.”

“What?” Nate asked, lost, and Ray drew in a shuddering breath and closed his eyes, then opened then and glanced around, before declaring dramatically.

“I—oh, mercy, how my foot does pain me, I’m like to pass out.”

“That so,” Brad said in a booming, carrying voice, leaning over the bar and raising an eyebrow at the two of them. Nate, still on his knees, felt himself going scarlet. “Well, how perfectly horrible to hear that, Mr. Person. Maybe Deputy Fick wouldn’t mind helping you to your room for the evening.”

“What’s that? Oh, the poor fella,” McGraw cried from the card table, tongue sticking out of the corner of his mouth as he fumbled the cards. “Consider it an order, Deputy, get that man bedded down at once. We can’t lose the best pianist in the West!”

“Sir,” Nate said faintly, and wobbled to his feet. Ray looked up at Nate, their positions reversed, and winked, his eyes bright and his smile wicked, and Nate thought—okay, yes, perhaps they should hurry.

There were a lot of side-eyed looks and sniggering as Nate helped Ray through the crowded room to the back staircase, but as Ray’s hand had slipped beneath Nate’s jacket and managed, somehow, damnably clever as always, to find skin, Nate found he didn’t care in the slightest.

***

“I hate stairs, I hate horses, I hate stairs,” Ray gasped as he leaned heavily against Nate, trying to get the man to fucking move, already, but Nate just said hoarsely, “Easy does it, Ray,” and kept toiling along carefully, helping Ray over each lift.

Then, finally, they were on the landing, and then unlocking Ray’s door, and then in Ray’s room, with Ray’s bed, where Nate had laid tangled in Ray’s sheets just that very morning.

“Nate, you bastard, were you trying to—” kill me down there, Ray had been about to say, but then he was shoved back against the closed door and Nate was so close, breath soft and cactus-scented against Ray’s lips.

“Ray,” he said, and then, with a full body shiver that Ray could feel against him, leaned in and pressed his mouth carefully against Ray’s cheek. “I want—”

“Fuck, Nate, tell me your whore taught you to kiss better than that schoolboy shit,” Ray teased, heart thudding like a twenty-one gun salute in his chest as he got a hand around Nate’s neck and tugged him down, hard. Oh, oh and his whore had, because Nate just grunted a moment, surprised, and then his mouth opened, wet and hot, and he had a thigh between Ray’s legs and was making the most delicious, torturous sounds against Ray’s tongue.

“Wait, I—we should—I want to do this properly,” Nate rasped, dragging his head back and looking stubborn and debauched.

“I got you peaches,” Ray said promptly. “That’s fucking proper, that’s Western courtship, don’t you know anything? Tin of syrup and fruit and you eat it, and then we fuck.” Nate’s eyes went wide at that last, and he pulled back, letting Ray slide carefully down to his good foot again. Ray worried, suddenly, that he’d gotten it wrong, gone too far—

Then, “Is that so,” Nate said slowly, raising an eyebrow. His mouth looked red and swollen already, and a sharp edge was starting to creep into his smile, and all told, it was a look Ray could get used to on him. “But I haven’t eaten it yet.” And the bastard pulled the tin out of his pocket and wiggled it at him, grinning now. And still he wasn’t kissing Ray, or getting naked, or anything.

“Oh, people think you’re so sweet,” Ray complained, reaching out and swearing when Nate just smirked and leaned further back. “Little do they know. You’ve been sent from Satan to torture me for I don’t know what reason, admit it. I’m injured, get back here, come here.”

“And I thought you said you didn’t like canned peaches,” Nate continued, and then, annoyingly, was hauling Ray off his feet and depositing him on the bed.

“I like you,” Ray said, sprawling back and splayed out before Nate, accidentally honest and feeling more naked than he had that morning in the tub.

“That’s good, Ray,” Nate said after a moment, eyes bright, and then crawled between Ray’s legs to kiss him, stupidly sweet and soft again. “I like you, too.”

“Spending too much time with the sheriff, you’re losing,” Ray gasped, and then what, when had Nate gotten his shirt undone? Ray arched up under his hands, smooth and firm. “Losing your mind.”

Nate rolled his eyes. “He’s not the one making me lose my mind tonight,” he retorted, and leaned in to press his mouth to Ray’s racing pulse, just like he had the night before. This time, though, with intent, and nipping teeth, and Ray swore, staring at the ceiling. “I like you,” he repeated, and moved back up again, kissing Ray’s cheek—his dimple, Ray realized, and that in no way should make him feel flushed and giddy. “You’re—you make me crazy, Ray.”

“The feeling is more than mutual,” Ray told him sincerely. “You fucking tease, with your mouth, talking about getting girls wet.”

“Want me to get you wet, Ray?” Nate asked, wide-eyed with mock innocence, and then deliberately and slowly licked his lips. Ray glared, and then he took one of Ray’s hands and kissed the fingertips, soft at first, and then wet, his tongue flickering out, and Ray’s eyes possibly rolled a bit back in his head.

“I love your hands,” he said, looking up at Ray through his lashes, and then let his teeth scrape the pads of Ray’s fingertips, along the calluses, and Ray, yeah, Ray loved his hands, too, loved working with them and using and touching and feeling and seeing the world through his fingers in ways that eyes never could, but he’d never known they could feel like this, like there was a direct line between them and his cock.

“They love, oh fuck, they love you too,” Ray stuttered, hips lifting again and his cock jerking hard when Nate pressed him back hard down against the mattress and sucked two fingers down completely, tongue moving at the skin between. “God, oh, fuck, oh—fuck me.”

Keeping his eyes open was difficult, but he by God and all his angels and Satan and all his demons made an effort, because the sight of Nate’s face right now—Nate looked, Ray thought a little dementedly, happy, his cheeks flushed and hollowed as he sucked, and his eyes so very fucking bright.

“You filthy fuck, you love this,” Ray breathed, and Nate pulled off and smiled at him.

“Is this not how they do it out West?” he asked, licking his teeth, and Ray managed somehow to roll him over and climb on top, hissing out a breath as he banged his leg and pushing through the pain to find that shivering, hot good feeling again, thrumming in his veins.

“I’ll show you how we do it out West, Nathaniel Fick,” he said, and kissed the smartness out of that mouth as he worked his wet hand down Nate’s smallclothes and found his cock. Nate let out a low, deep moan against Ray’s lips, and Ray thought it was, possibly, just maybe, the best thing he’d never thought he’d ever hear.

***

Ray was, Nate realized halfway between getting him naked and getting him onto the bed, easy, in the best way. He was ornery and contradictory and nothing Nate had ever expected to find, here, and Nate felt blindingly lucky to have been in the train car that day. He thought, maybe, he’d wanted this even then, as Ray had stalked towards him with his eyes crinkled in a smile, the light of a challenge in the brown depths.

And his hands, god—Nate felt like one of Ray’s wires now, live and crackling.

“Ray,” he pleaded, and wasn’t sure if he was asking Ray to keep going or stop, it was so much, so suddenly, so—“Ray.”

“That’s right, lawman, beg me for mercy,” Ray said, and bit hard on Nate’s collarbone, and fuck, Nate couldn’t be loud, couldn’t be—sound carried, here, he knew, between the thin walls, but he wanted to be. He turned his head and hissed into the pillow there, panting, and distantly heard Ray swearing above him before his head was turned roughly and Ray was kissing him again.

“You should be illegal,” Ray gasped, and then rolled off Nate. “Help, dammit, I can’t get these fucking—fucking things—”

He had his belt off and his trousers down around his knees and it should have been comical, Ray’s red mouth scowling and his cock bobbing, even redder and wetter, against his belly.

“Technically I think this is,” Nate noted, and summoned the coordination to carefully pull Ray’s trousers over the bandage, pressing kisses to the unhurt skin as he went, smiling as Ray set to swearing again. “All the best things are, here, aren’t they?”

“Topsy fucking turvy,” Ray agreed, and soon as his limbs were free set to divesting Nate of the remains of his own garments. “Look at you, you look like you’re waiting to be robbed.”

“You already robbed me,” Nate laughed, and wrapped a leg around Ray’s waist, pulling him in closer until their cocks were aligned and ah, fuck, this wasn’t—this wasn’t like a woman at all, and he didn’t know what came next, but he trusted Ray knew the way.

“I gave it back,” Ray protested, and pressed his mouth back over the bruising spot at Nate’s collar. Nate could feel him smile as Nate shuddered beneath him.

“Not what I meant,” Nate said, and then tried to scowl as Ray hooted a laugh and leaned back to look at him.

“Nate Fick, are you insinuating that this scallywag you see before you stole your heart?”

“Are all people out West so verbose when they’re trying to tup?” Nate managed, flushing hot again, but Ray was grinning too broadly for Nate to mind much. Nate liked that look on him, liked Ray on him, liked how easy and simple and straightforward this was, here, their skin against each other’s. As though after, all the confusion he’d found here, there were still some honest truths, like Ray’s heartbeat against his.

It’d have been easy to give up, and it still was hard, hard going, hard knowing how much wrong there was in this land and how much he wanted to right it, to be able to ride in on a horse like the papers said real heroes did, back East. Reality was harder, and difficult, but Ray—Ray made it a little easier to bear it.

“Whatever you’re thinking of isn’t me,” Ray said, and flicked Nate between the eyes. “At attention, lieutenant.”

It had been, but Nate had been sentimental enough for one evening.

“Would you fuck me, Ray?” he asked instead, and was rewarded by seeing Ray Person, for once, speechless. It didn’t last more than a few seconds time, of course, but Nate still considered it an accomplishment.

“You bet your sweet ass I will, sir,” Ray told him, and wriggled a moment. “Ah, hell, my leg—but no, hey, wait, did your whore teach you this? Come up here, come—”

Nate let Ray arrange them, putting his limbs where Ray pulled and tugged, and then somehow he was straddling Ray’s chest, hands braced against the headboard and staring down at Ray’s face as he brushed his lips over Nate’s cock.

“Oh hell,” Nate said faintly, and held on.

Fastest tongue, and fastest hands, he remembered, and had to concede it was true. Ray’s tongue was a weapon in every way, and it was taking Nate apart now, slick and sloppy and so fucking—and his hands were sliding along Nate’s ass, firm and sure. When Ray’s fingers slid in, and twisted, Nate gave up on silence and just said Ray’s name, again and again, until Ray pulled him in even closer, deeper in, and Nate couldn’t last any longer.

“Jesus,” he said after his heart had stopped deafening him and he could breathe again. He slumped, hair falling in his face, and stared down in frank awe. “Ray.”

“Baby, God, you gotta,” Ray slurred, mouth redder than Nate had ever seen it, and Nate unclenched a hand from the wooden frame to reach down and touch it, press his wet lower lip. Ray’s hips, he realized, were thrusting up against air, and his fingers were still slick and wet inside Nate—and it made sense, it was just easy to slide back. “Nate.”

“Yeah,” Nate hissed between his teeth. “Like that, just—you stay still, dammit, I’ll—oh, fuck.”

“Sir, yes, sir,” Ray said faintly, and Nate had to lean down to kiss him, salt slick and filthy, and Ray wrapped his arms around Nate’s shoulders, clutching at the back of his neck and making desperate, tiny sounds as Nate found a rhythm and rode with it.

It was like being drunk, almost, except he was surreally aware of everything around him, Ray’s wide brown eyes as Nate rocked back against him, took him in.

“This okay?” he asked, panting, and laughed when Ray blinked at him, then glared and said, “Don’t, don’t ask stupid questions, and don’t for the love of fucking Christ stop.”

Nate raised an eyebrow and then cut-off mid tease when Ray got a hand around Nate’s cock and starting pulling it, matching Nate’s thrusts and twisting his fingers, and his other hand steadied Nate’s hips when he started losing the rhythm, just bucking up, wide-eyed and gasping.

“Nate, that’s it, oh, fuck, oh Christ, that’s it, Nate, like that—” A steady stream of the words, just hoarse and against Nate’s skin as he slipped further down. “So good, so good for me, such a—fuck, Nate, you’re so good.”

He came again and, only through years of training and determination, kept himself from melting and collapsing, long enough that Ray thrust up once, twice, again, then shuddered and took his release himself, biting down on Nate’s arm hard and letting out a last, muffled, curse.

“I take it back, you’re heaven on Earth,” Ray said a minute later, and palmed Nate’s ass lazily. Nate cracked open an eye, fondly resigned to the fact that Ray was apparently still capable of speech. “Closest a man can come. Sent from above. My hero.”

“I’m nobody’s hero,” Nate replied sleepily, and closed his eyes again, listening to the thump of Ray’s heart. “I’m from Baltimore.”

“Yeah, well, that’s okay,” Ray said. “I guess you’ll do anyhow.” And kissed him. “Go to sleep, Nate, we’ve got a train to rob in the morning.”

“Be there with bells on,” Nate murmured, and let himself go.

***

The next day, Nate watched as McGraw swore and Schwetje paced and pounded his fist against the supply car’s door, welded shut in some ineffable, bizarre curl of metal and wire, and Nate said comfortingly, putting a hand on his shoulder, “Don’t worry, sir. I’m sure we’ll get them next time.”

They stayed a while longer, poking about fruitlessly, and when Nate spotted one of Trombley’s embroidered handkerchiefs tangling in a coupling, he pocketed it.

He gave it to Ray that night, whistling ‘I’ve been working on the railroad’ as he dangled it over the keys, and Ray snatched it from his hands, smiling brighter than the noonday sun.