Warren wouldn’t go so far as to say he went looking for the cracker son-of-a-bitch. More like he went from piqued all the way to pissed because he kept happening to be places where Chris Mannix was supposed to have situated himself and Mannix kept being elsewhere with no respect at all for his fucking time. It wasn’t like Warren was eager to see him. Probably it even would have been good luck not to, given how much blood he’d lost the last time they’d really been in a room together.
It was some kind of professional discourtesy, though, for the man whose inelegant fucking chickenscratch signature was in the books for Warren’s payout to not be anywhere to be found, like Warren couldn’t have found him if he had wanted to, like finding people wasn’t Warren’s entire damn livelihood and profession. ’Course, usually once he found them he got to shoot the pasty motherfuckers in the back and get paid for doing it. No such luck with Mannix, but Warren found him anyhow—found him red-eyed and stinking of hillbilly white lightning and half-asleep in the bed of some whore.
The lady in question was rolling her stockings back up past her knees when Warren came in. She clarified that she didn’t handle black trade. “Girl who does is down the hall. Make her pass a rag across her snatch first, it’s been so long since we had any of y’all in here she’s probably got cobwebs up in there and I don’t know what all. Been making her living playing piano meantimes.”
Which was a whole lot of shit he hadn’t gone and asked about at all. “I ain’t buying. I’m collecting him.”
“He’s supposed to be the sheriff.”
“So I’ve heard. My private way of thinking would be maybe there’s another fellow by the same name and this one waylaid him, slit his throat, and took his work. Only way it makes any kind of sense.” He kicked the nearest leg of the bed hard enough for the wood to creak at him angry-like. “Get your chin off your fucking chest.”
Mannix stirred, but only a little: the asshole had had better reaction-time with a quart of his blood soaking into Minnie’s floorboards.
“He just drunk, is that all? You stuck your tongue in his mouth, you taste laudanum?”
“Nothing but liquor. Laudanum don’t take all the iron out of a man like that anyways.” She held one finger up and, grinning, let it droop back down to her palm. “Every time.”
Warren could maybe find that a little interesting. “Every time?”
“Every time. You his friend or something?”
Mannix showed his first proper sign of life: “He sure as hell ain’t.”
“Thanks for joining us, asshole,” Warren said.
Mannix flicked his fingers at him, like waving him on, like Warren was gonna go anywhere at all on his say-so.
“He’s been in here every day last two weeks. I mean, he pays. But—”
“He pay enough for you to not run your mouth about him to some motherfucker you ain’t never seen before?”
She shrugged. “Not enough money in the world to take away all a girl has for pleasure. But I’ll leave you to him.” She whisked her skirt back down over her thighs and slapped Mannix’s shoulder as some kind of farewell gesture. “Haul Johnny Law here out of my bed and I’ll maybe mount up on you after all. I never had a black fellow before.”
And off she sashayed through the door.
“If you’ve gone and gotten yourself besotted with pay-by-the-hour pussy,” Warren said, “you even dumber than I thought you were, and that’s a fucking achievement. Leave off drooling on your chin and hoist yourself the fuck up before I do it for you.”
Mannix gave a wet sounding grumble and turned his head into the pillow. Warren shrugged, raised up his hand, and clipped him a hard blow on the ear. That brought him up spitting like an angry cat.
“There you go,” Warren said.
“I think my fucking ear is bleeding.”
“I ain’t hit you that hard.”
Mannix stuck some of the pillows up against the headboard and leaned back against them—the angle was satisfactory enough for Warren but Mannix kept eyeing him jumpy and suspicious all the same. “You got a funny damn way of paying back a man for saving your life, major. Twice.”
“Only the first one of those counts for much. Second time you were pretty much just saving your own.”
Now the dumbass was looking at him like Warren had kicked his dog. “My own, hell. I wanted to, I could have left you back there. You sure as shit weren’t any kind of help.”
Which was true—the last part of Minnie’s Warren even clearly remembered was Mannix grinning over at him as he did up that noose, all proud of how those white hands of his knew the steps of it like a piano-player’s knew scales. Like Warren didn't know how they’d come by their education. After that, he had to chase the memories around like marbles scattered out across a floor. Daisy Domergue’s little two-step death dance. Giving Mannix the Lincoln letter, which he couldn't for the life of him think why he'd done and which he'd had to fucking rewrite since. Mannix sticking the blade of Warren’s knife into the cookstove so he could dig the bullet out of himself. Warren’s main occupation for the last stretch of that had been weighing his life down with stones so it didn’t fly the rest of the way out of his goddamn body.
But on principle, he wasn’t letting Mannix get smug. “I wanted to, I could have gunned you down along with Bob or Marco or whoever the fuck he was and taken all y’all out at once. I wanted to, I could have shot your ass when I was shooting Smithers.”
For some reason, that made Mannix grin. “I would never have drawn on you, major. And that would have made it cold-blooded murder, no ifs, ands, or buts about it.”
“Right,” Warren said. “Because murdering crackers like yourself is something I always waited for legal provocation for—now, Chris Mannix, you know that just ain’t so.”
Mannix pulled a face at that and spat off the side of the bed onto the floorboards. “You here for anything in particular, major?” Like Warren had stepped into his office instead of coming upon him sozzled and snoozing in a cut-rate whorehouse.
“I came this way in the first place because for being a sheriff, you were awfully damn absent from any kind of law-keeping. Now that I’m settled in, though, I’m in the mood to point out that coming here every day for a fucking fortnight and not even being able to get it up—”
“It’s the liquor,” Mannix said, scowling like he thought he was some kind of fearsome thundercloud. Warren wasn’t impressed.
“If it was the liquor, you’d start to slur first. It’d hit you from the head down—there’s a whole lot drinking a man can do in ordinary circumstances before that shit ever hits his pecker, and here you are, talking real fine, Chris, so I don’t think so.” He put his thumbs in his coat pockets and let his smile spread out real wide, to the point where Mannix went back to that sleepy half-lidded pose like he didn’t even want to look at him. “You know, you were a stud horse and this happened to you, they’d just take you out back of the barn and put a bullet in your head. And so might the people of Red Rock if you don’t leave off the whoring you ain’t even doing and work your actual damn job.”
Mannix opened his eyes and for a second there was some kind of madness in them as evident as a fleck of blood. Then it was gone again and he came up on his feet all wobbly-legged, which Warren was unconvinced by. It came to him that the reason Mannix was a good hand with the truth was because he was too shitty at lying for anybody to believe him anyway. Especially Warren, who—as much as he didn’t like it—knew him.
“I ain’t what you’d call a proper, run-of-the-mill-like elected official, you know that? I got this job throwing my name in a hat and nobody objecting once it got pulled out, after that fellow plugged the last sheriff. Term’s almost up.”
“Yeah,” Warren said. “I think I read all about that in the newspaper covering all the things I don’t give a shit about. I mean, I pity the citizens of Red Rock plenty, having you in charge, but I ain’t got any kind of permanent residence here.”
“I just thought if maybe you was looking for a partner,” Chris Mannix said.
At first Warren didn’t even register it as any kind of proper sentence, that was how foolish an idea it was, but the trouble with dumbass ideas was first a man laughed at them and then he got to thinking how any notion as swollen up with stupidity as that must have some kind of sneaky brilliance to it.
And he figured Mannix more prone to that kind of sideways thinking than most, because for sure he hadn’t been the smartest of the white folks packed to the rafters back at Minnie’s, but he was the only one still drawing breath.
Besides all that, he was a straight shot, not squeamish about bloodshed, and willing to take orders—almost puppy-eager to be given them, actually, what with the way he’d stayed his trigger finger on Warren’s say-so and all.
“You just gonna ponder while I stand here like an asshole?”
“Standing like an asshole’s what you’d be doing in any case,” Warren said. “Although I guess not all of you being up for standing is part of why you want to get the hell out of town.”
“I can get it up, major, dammit.”
Warren was half-tempted to ask him to prove it, but that was a way of thinking that wouldn’t lead him anywhere good. So instead he just shrugged. “I’ll come by when the ballots go out. You stand your ass for reelection if you feel tied to this place at all, though, ’cause I’m liable to get more sensible without you in the general vicinity with all your hee-haw noise and your distractingly hilarious problems with your prick.”
All that seemed to cheer Mannix up, like Warren had promised him a fucking pony and a blowjob in the measure. He got even sillier-faced than usual and cocked his eyebrows up, which made sense, given that they were about all he could seem to get up, cockwise. “Major, sir, I don’t rightly know that a man who can’t even tell if he’s been shot in the balls or in the leg has that shot-up leg to fucking stand on when discussing a person’s privates.”
“Tell you what,” Warren said, “how about I take aim at you and we’ll see how good you are at sussing out where the bullet’s gone in when you’re nothing but blind fucking pain from the waist down.”
Mannix shrugged, irritatingly fucking serene. “I think I narrowed mine down to about a square-inch without even a peek. That’s another reason you’d like having me along, major: I can navigate the hell out of things. My daddy could have found a squirrel with just one little scratch on its paw in a whole mess of trees, you know, he used to track for men before the war, and my oldest brother—that’s Silas—he taught me how to—”
“Now why do I have the feeling,” Warren said, his lips feeling a little stiff, his hands almost itching to split the skin at their knuckles in the service of making his point, “that I know exactly the kind of tracking your daddy used to do for men before the war?”
Color spilled up past Mannix’s undone collar and into his face, his lips darkening with it, and sure, Warren could think of all kinds of ways to teach him a lesson if Mannix had deserved at all to learn one, not that anything of that nature he did right then wouldn’t end with him tearing the motherfucker in two and coming close to painting the walls with him, getting that blood out of his cheeks and onto the fucking furniture. Especially since Mannix blushed like a virgin about it but still didn’t quit running his mouth:
“Well, you got me there, major, but a man’s got to earn a living, don’t he? Before the war, my daddy was just a working man—took real strife to make him stand up tall, show himself a leader of men.”
“If I’d met your daddy,” Warren said, talking slowly like he had to really think about it, “I don’t think it would’ve taken me ten minutes to prove to you just how tall he wasn’t. See, Smithers got off real light and easy under the circumstances, there being all those people around, me knowing you were over at that dinner table ready still itching to prove yourself for the Cause. I came across your daddy in those woods he tracked so well? You can bet it would’ve gone differently. You could bet your life on that, white boy.” He flicked his finger out against Mannix’s cheek, where all that flush had gone, and Mannix flinched—first toward him, then away.
“Now,” Warren said, satisfied enough for the moment, “I think I’ll take that girl you weren’t able to please and make myself an acquaintance, so you can see yourself the rest of the way out. You’ll find the coffers in your office short a little—I cashed in one, dead as a doornail.”
Mannix said, “You still gonna come back?”
“Before you inflict yourself on the town again?”
“Before I might maybe stand for reelection.”
Warren laughed. “What, you thought maybe I’d change my mind on account of you’re a racist son-of-a-bitch and your heart still beats double-time for your dead Reb daddy? I knew that already. I got no illusions about you.”
“Major, I don’t know. I don’t try to figure on you. And anyway,” he said, back to being sunny, “you don’t have me straight at all. No, sir.”
“I’ll bite and ask what you think it is I’m missing,” Warren said, “assuming you can say it on your way to the fucking door.”
Mannix smiled at him, like it’d perk Warren up to see that mouthful of outsized teeth, and he really did start walking for the door. “You said I was hellfire for the Cause, but major, I never was much in the way of principle, more like I take what’s there. I just don’t like giving up easy.” He took his hat off the dresser, put it on, and tipped it to Warren, his fingers nimble on the brim.
Warren had the girl. She was something of a distraction, but not as much of one as he would have liked.
After that, he stayed gone from Red Rock until the leaves were off the trees; he came back into town two days after some walrus-mustached asshole named Francis Harms got the sheriff’s star pinned to his chest. Wasn’t like he hadn’t known what day all that was happening, but as a matter of course, he thought it best to let Mannix stew a while. When he condescended to ride in, it rankled him a little to find Mannix sober as a fucking Puritan and with his saddlebags neatly packed, like he’d never had a doubt in his mind Warren would come, no more than he’d had a doubt in his mind that he’d come late.
“You think about what you’re doing here?” Warren asked as Mannix saddled his horse. “Because a more reasonable man might find all this a little addle-minded. Maybe more than a little.”
“I thought and thought about it and here I am.”
“That just says something about the quality of your thinking.”
Mannix swung himself up. It was the first time Warren had seen him in the saddle, and he had to concede Mannix sat well, which was a dumbass thing to even be noticing. “What about the quality of your thinking, major?”
“With you around, I imagine it'll get worse.”
And out they rode from Red Rock, with Warren turning over and over in his head why it was that Mannix was so damn blithe about giving up the job he’d run on about so much back at Minnie’s. The money could account for it—he’d fumed up a storm, steam coming off him like he was a locomotive, when he’d found out sheriffs couldn’t collect a red cent on bounties, found out that if the law had its way, he wouldn’t see his pockets lined at all from dragging all those bodies through the snow. Not being able to profit off Joe Gage in particular had taken all the starch out of him, and he’d moped so damn long and hard that Warren, still a little fucked-up from the pain, had gone and slipped him a good bit of the cash under the table. If he thought about it one way, it was a bribe. Though now that Mannix wasn’t the sheriff of even a pissant little town like Red Rock, he guessed he could have just thrown all that money up in the air and watched the wind scatter it for all the good it would fucking do him.
They made camp at a little spot Warren already knew, and for all the bitching Mannix did about them not staying in a proper hotel, he got everything laid out nice.
“I’ll go on and build the fire,” Warren said.
“Like hell you will, major. I didn’t ride out all this fucking way just to let you burn me alive.”
“Despite what you seem to think, Southern boys don’t go up like Roman candles just ‘cause they're within a mile of me happening to light a match.”
“Well, I guess we won’t be finding that out tonight. You just put your feet up.”
Warren, a little bemused, did just that, and watched Mannix lay in a fire and then start peeling potatoes. He was efficient at it. He noticed Warren looking at him and said, “Well, I was always youngest,” and tossed the last sliver into the skillet. “You pack any salt?”
He pointed Mannix towards the bag.
“So,” Mannix said, salting the potatoes and then poking at them intermittently, his head turned so that the fire made his face all pumpkin-orange one side and shadowy on the other like he was some kind of painting, “who we looking for and what’d he do? And how do you find them anyway? I assume if it was easy the law would do it its ownself.”
“Being the shitty kind of sheriff you were, you might not know this, but law tends to stay rooted in the town paying it. Bounty hunters got no roots.”
“It must still be complicated, though. Everything you worked out back at Minnie’s? All that deduction, that Rue Morgue shit? You must have practiced that somewhere.”
Warren stretched out a little and decided he could allow, at least to himself, that none of this was as bad as he’d half-expected it to be, that as fucked-up as it was, there wasn’t anything too unpleasant about smelling a fry-up and getting asked fawning questions about his brain. “Fellow we’re looking for is called Felix Colby. He shot his cousin disputing over some livestock, and dead or alive, he’s worth three thousand dollars. As far as the finding part of it goes, you go wherever it was they did whatever it was they did, which is most usually murder, because people up here in all this nothing and all this cold got nothing better to do than blow each other’s brains out when the weather gets bad, as we almost found out ourselves. So you go to where the cutting or the shooting was done and you ask around about who they knew and where they might have gone. You ask enough questions and ride enough miles and pretty soon you’ll shoot enough motherfuckers in the back to make a good living.”
“And you always kill ’em?”
“You see where not killing them got John Ruth?”
“Oh, that’s right,” Mannix said. “I was meaning to make coffee too, you got any of that?”
Warren was tickled enough by that to get up and make it himself, even though for some reason Mannix seemed put off by that.
Mannix threw some smoked ham in there to cook with the potatoes and then dished it up a couple minutes later with the air of a man presenting a four-course meal with sugar cream pie for desert. It wasn’t bad, but the coffee was better, and Mannix obviously knew it, because he went into a funk and sat with his shoulders up around his ears refusing to talk, which cemented the pleasant nature of the evening.
Warren threw him a bone after about half an hour of that and told him where they were riding to and what they'd do when they got there, and Mannix soaked it in almost thoughtfully. In the dark, with the shadows on his clothes looking a little like bloodstains, with a gun on his hip and killing on his mind, he didn’t look too foolish at all.
They turned in soon enough, but Warren had trouble going to sleep on account of he could hear Mannix fussing a little. At first he was just going to count to ten and then fire a warning shot over Mannix’s head to get him to quit that shit and lie fucking still, but then it came to him that those weren’t at all the sounds of somebody tossing and turning just because he was restless and the ground was cold. Mannix was breathing muffled but hard, panting in and out with his jaw clenched, and something kept rasping against his blanket, and Warren guessed he knew well enough that that something was Mannix’s right hand.
Well, two weeks in bed with one of the finest strawberry-haired whores Warren had ever laid eyes on and nothing at all happening below his belt and here he lay not three feet away from Warren, tugging on himself like somebody just might give him a prize for it.
It wasn’t necessarily an enticing thought, but the nearness of it quickened his blood a little anyhow, and so he started taking care of himself, too, and after a while, he knew Mannix could hear him doing it, and he knew Mannix knew that meant he hadn’t been hard to overhear himself. It ought to have shut him up with shame and consigned him to frustration, but it didn’t seem to; if anything, his efforts seemed to intensify. Warren’s, too. But he knew himself well, knew how to finish up quickly, so he did just that, letting Mannix get an earful of just how loud he was in the newfound silence. Letting him know that Warren could hear every stroke and hitch of breath.
Unequivocally caught jerking off in just these circumstances, in just this company. Caught being just that fucking needy.
Mannix finally came with a sharp, cut-off little noise, like a twig had snapped in his throat, and Warren turned his head and got a look at him—saw that he’d gone and humped the blanket mostly off himself so that he was uncovered from the waist up. Even given the conditions of darkness and the glow off the embers, he was beet-red with humiliation.
“That improve your night any, Captain Chris Mannix?” Warren said. He chuckled. “And if you say yes, is your daddy’s ghost gonna appear and strip the rank off you? Or just tsk-tsk in shame at that display of yours?”
Unbelievably, Mannix chose the route of the fake snore. More believably, he did it badly.
Warren pretty much laughed himself to sleep on that one. In the morning, Mannix burned the coffee and burned the pancakes and then burned his own hand trying to remake both, all of which he seemed to blame directly on Warren for fucking up his head and his sleep and for having some sort of unholy partnership with fire that was just plain bad luck for white folks. A day spent either in the saddle or silver-tonguing folks about their erstwhile cousin-killer wore away Mannix’s determination to be put out, though, or maybe he’d never had much to begin with, because by sundown he was back to chattering and cooking halfway decent food. And by nightfall, he was back to stroking himself, this time with the noises a little louder, almost like he wanted Warren to hear.
The day after that, the first frost hit and they killed a man together, like it was some kind of fucked-up anniversary.
Mannix regarded the frost as a personal affront because he’d had a roof and walls and a shit-ton more blankets back in Red Rock.
“None of which I recall asking you to give up, being that I didn’t come hat in hand to your door begging for partnership.”
“You did come looking for me, though,” Mannix said, grinning a little. “You did, major.”
And he had found him, and it seemed like Mannix might have been forgetting where and how. But for some reason Warren let him saddle up without recalling the incident to his mind, and they went on tracking their quarry to a little dugout they’d heard tell of. When they found it, Mannix was so pleased he tossed his hat in the air and Warren would have shot a hole in it in midair just for kicks if he hadn’t wanted things kept quiet. They dismounted and staked lines for the horses a good half-mile away and then moved in nice and slow on foot.
Warren had considered himself a man who relished killing until Minnie’s had shown him just how hot that relish could run—he’d never loved a damned thing in his life like he’d loved killing brother and sis Domergue or Domingre or Whoever the Fuck. It was better even than setting fire to the prison and hearing the pine boards pop like Indian corn as he ran for the treeline.
It was like that had burned his tongue, though, and made the businesslike work he did in the usual course of things weak pepper indeed. Fancying up the killings didn’t seem to be the answer to bringing back satisfaction in his work, though, or at least he’d pray it wasn’t, if he were a praying kind of man, because overkill was the kind of thing that mite disconcerted the people who paid what passed for his salary. Luckily, though, that thought didn’t appeal to him much. What he missed wasn’t even the thrill—the danger he used to feel before he figured out that real danger was a man under the floorboards gunning for his nuts and a crazy bloodstained bitch with a severed arm swinging from her wrist. It was something else. But Minnie’s had been, in a funny and fucked-up kind of way, the last time he’d felt that particular good thing, whatever it was.
Then he felt it walking that half-mile.
Their boots crunched just a little on the frosty grass, no matter how quiet they were otherwise. Their breath crystallized in front of their mouths.
“What’s the plan?” Mannix said, not just quiet but also with his lips barely moving, like the asshole they were looking for would be able to read them from a wax-paper window so far away.
Warren talked normal, except for the volume: “Good thing about a dugout is they don’t have any kind of abundance of doors, so if he’s in there, he’s stuck with the front. We get close enough to tell, and he probably starts shooting then, if he’s home.”
“If he ain’t home?”
“Then we get in out of the cold and eat his food and sit our asses down in his chairs until he gets home, white boy. And then it’s easy, because he just comes inside and we blow him away.”
“Then,” Mannix said, “if he is home, and starts up with gunfire?”
“Then one of us stays down and shoots back and the other goes up on the roof and stops up his stovepipe and we smoke the bastard out. Only if I send you up there, don’t go shooting him through the top of the head if he comes running out. Remember Bob.”
“Anybody wants to be remembered has to get a more distinctive name than Bob, and Marco ain’t much better.” He rolled his eyes when Warren looked over at him. “No, major, I won’t go shooting anybody in the head. And it was you who did it the first time anyhow.”
“I figured that for incidental at the time.”
“All the same.”
Warren said, low and careful, “Brings back memories, don’t it?”
Mannix turned towards him, all puzzlement.
“Raids during the war, sneaking up on somebody who didn’t know what he was in for, careful where you put your feet but you’re talking all the time anyway even though you ain’t supposed to. That all sound familiar?” Mannix nodded and then in one smooth movement Warren took his knife and pressed the blade of it tight against Mannix’s throat until just one single drop of blood ran down his neck. It wouldn’t even have been that if Mannix had known to stop right away, but something about Chris Mannix always had to push.
Pushy or not, though, what he was best at was survival, same as Warren, so he fixed himself to stay still. Warren watched the blood track down his neck; watched the thin crescent of late autumn air appear and disappear between Mannix’s throat and the blade as Mannix breathed in and then out again. He took his thumb and drew that hot little bead of blood off Mannix's neck and touched it to Mannix's lips. White boy's breathing got awfully ragged with that, like he just might huff and heave himself into a slit throat after all.
“Something else I used to do when I was on this kind of thing,” Warren said, “was draw off a little tension. Now, not having a partner for as many years as I did, I got used to doing it myself, but since I got you here, I could make use of you.”
“I don’t know what you’re on about, major,” Mannix said, but that hard-on of his begged to differ, even got so bold and brash as to suggest that Mannix had all kind of things in mind, all kinds of ways of being made use of he wouldn't mind at all.
And that was all Warren had wanted to know, really. But he held the knife there a few seconds longer just to see if Mannix would get even harder. No disappointment on that score.
He slid the knife back down into its sheath and damn if Mannix didn’t look so fucking disappointed he could cry.
Mannix hushed up quick, spotting the same thing Warren did—a silhouette passing in front of one of the dugout windows.
The first bullet ripped through the air right between them, sending them diving away from each other and hitting the ground. “Ah, shit,” Warren said. He braced his pistol against his arm and fired back more for show and self-respect than anything else: bullets didn’t cut well through sod and even as good a shot as he was, the odds of making one of those bitsy windows at this distance didn’t excite him any. Mannix followed suit but was squinting just as hard at the prospect.
“Go around,” Warren said. “Up on the roof.”
“You got no cover.”
“I’ll be fine.”
Mannix actually stood there like he was gonna object again, but then he just said, low and serious, “I can’t run so fast as I used to, what with the leg,” like Warren hadn’t taken a bullet in his own that had fucked him up even worse. He seemed to be offering the fact like a kind of apology. Then he did finally go.
It took about a dozen more bullets exchanged back and forth between him and the asshole in the house before Mannix popped up on the dugout roof like a gopher up out of the ground. Warren had better things to do than watch him—try not to get shot, primarily—but he saw well enough when Mannix’s success came about a couple minutes later and got crowned with that hillbilly ear-to-ear grin of his. He’d stopped the stovepipe up with Smithers’s coat, which Warren was forced to approve of, though he stopped caring about it a minute later when a bullet finally creased his left shoulder.
Not long after that, the smoke flushed their quarry out. Mannix had taken the prohibition on shooting from above seriously enough that what he did instead was throw himself down on top of the bastard and wrestle with him until he could finally gut-shoot him and kick his gun away and step down so hard on his hands that his boots probably broke all Colby’s fingers.
“Don’t you feel obliged to rush, major. Seems to me like somebody needs a lesson in the consequences of reckless fucking gunfire.”
Warren would have taken him for fooling around or showing off, but Mannix seemed about as close to steely as he ever got.
“We’re gonna kill him anyway,” Warren said. “That’s a short and pointless education.”
“You want the shot, at least?”
“Don’t mind if I do.”
“I have money,” Felix Colby said.
Warren kicked him in the mouth. “Yeah, and you spent it all on fucking bullets, asshole, and then you shot them at me. You want to try the bribe before the gunplay."
Colby got a hangdog kind of look at that and spat out some teeth. “This is the story of my whole fucking life.”
“Always a little late, huh?” Mannix said. He hunkered down and patted Colby on the shoulder like he hadn’t just shot him in the belly. “That ain’t necessarily on you—sometimes bad luck just sticks to people that way, no rhyme or reason to it.”
“Would you get out of the way so I can shoot him?” Warren said.
“Well, sure, major. All you had to do was ask.” He straightened up and stepped a couple feet back.
Warren gave the only piece of advice he really had, which was that it all seemed to go a little smoother if you closed your eyes. Colby did, and Warren put a neat hole through his chest.
“Easy as pie,” Mannix pronounced. He holstered his gun. “You want me to take a look at your shoulder?”
Warren didn’t. He had no special fondness for the way he’d kept himself in the fucking shooting gallery of the wide open plain and sent Mannix running like a jackrabbit; the bullet wound seemed like a fair price to pay for stupidity and he could deal with it himself. But after he got his coat and shirt off, he got to thinking the obstacle here was that he’d end up with a crick in his neck keeping his head turned that hard to the left for the whole business, so he gave in and let Mannix do it.
They went inside the dugout for it and Mannix poured some water from the pitcher into a bowl and got a clean-looking rag and a needle and thread. He settled down in front of Warren like he’d done this kind of thing a thousand times before, but of course he wasn’t content with projecting any kind of quiet competence, he had to chatter on about it, and endlessly:
“I used to fix my brothers up all the time—Matt and Pete especially never met a fight they wouldn’t bust their knuckles up in and lose a couple teeth over, not as many as that Colby fellow of course, and then for sure during the war, everybody learned a little stitching and how to dig out a bullet. You too, probably, major, isn’t that right? Now I got to dab in a little here, you’re gonna be sore. And there you go. I mean, for sure I didn't ever imagine myself doing this kind of work in these exact circumstances, but then life takes us where it takes us. You ready to get stitched up?”
Warren motioned for the nearest brown bottle. “Not until I lower the level in that by a couple inches.”
“Don’t mind if I do myself,” Mannix said, and he fetched them glasses and poured.
After they’d had just enough for Warren to feel more comfortable with the world, Mannix sewed him up real pretty. His fingers were warm and steady on either side of the wound and when he finished up, he petted his thumb once or twice across the intact part of Warren’s shoulder and then clapped him on the whole of it like only an asshole would ever do and made the pain flare up again. Something had shifted behind his eyes: there was some kind of spark there. He undid his belt and slid it off, holster and all, onto the table right alongside his glass with the little bit of amber left in the bottom.
They dragged the body into the lean-to and decided they’d stay the night—no sense turning down an unoccupied bed and a decent pantry’s worth of food and liquor so close to sundown—so Mannix went and brought the horses up close to the door, rubbed them down, gave them water, set them to graze. Since his coat had gotten half-burned and half-filled with smoke, he came back in shivering and rubbing his hands together. But not talking.
Warren had cleaned the stovepipe out and laid in the fire again and Mannix stood in front of it for a tick to warm himself. Then he said, “Well.”
“Well, you had a knife on me earlier.”
“Yeah, Chris Mannix, I did. And you seemed to mind it something terrible.”
Mannix flushed up red. “What were you thinking of doing?”
“I think I made myself pretty damn clear.”
“You shouldn’t talk like that, major.”
“You shouldn’t pretend so well at being a dumbass,” Warren said. “I thought you were stupid when we met and then I thought you weren’t—you sussed it out about the Lincoln letter, you sussed it out about the paltry fucking Domingre gang and it not having no fifteen men in Red Rock, you got us both out of the storm and kept us from bleeding to death—yeah, Mannix, I’ll give you that much, I’ll go that far. But what I thought you knew even when I thought you were stupid was that I really only got two uses for Southern white boys. On your knees with your mouth open or on your back with your breath stopped.”
“Or one leading to the other,” Mannix said, with a sudden curve of a smile, like his mouth couldn’t help but be delighted at the mention of it.
“But I have a soft spot for you, Chris. I’d kill you nice and fast.”
“At least you had the good sense to pull on me.” The smile was gone, but Mannix was still only half-turned towards him, his hands still pointedly out and empty, still held up by the fire even though his fingers must have been almost crackling with the heat by then. “You’d have to take anything like that, if you wanted it.” Like he wasn’t standing there so stiff-cocked he must’ve been dying from it. Like Warren hadn’t already heard him beating off almost within arm’s reach.
It was fine. Warren wanted it like that, too. Mannix would act like he didn’t want it and Warren would act like he didn’t want him to.
He drew his pistol then instead of the knife, purely for the distance, and he waved Mannix over, liking the way Mannix’s mouth fell open just a little when he saw the long barrel of that gun.
“I fired one shot, and you heard that,” Warren said calmly, “so I know you know I got five more I can put in you if I feel the need. And then I got yours, since you were careless with it.” And he did almost admire how deliberately and how early on Mannix had done that, like a man laying bait in a trap he meant to step into, even if he worried the teeth would crush his leg.
Mannix licked his lips. “You really shoot me, major?”
Warren answered by pulling the hammer back.
There was quiet for a moment, the both of them just listening to the wind whistle by outside, sounding high and lonesome.
“Yes, sir,” Mannix said finally. He lowered himself down slowly to his knees.
“Hold up a minute there.”
“The only thing I’m gonna ask you to do with that mouth ain’t gonna involve talking except for you to say ‘yes, sir,’ you hear me?” He didn’t wait for an answer—even having just said it, it was possible Mannix would balk at having it so baldly laid out for him. “You’re getting ahead of yourself. I want to be nice and comfortable while you suck me off, while you’re down on your knees. How do those planks feel? You have to admire him going to the trouble—most folks would be content with a dirt floor for a dirt house, but he went and laid in boards, and I like to think he did it just to devil white boys all hot and bothered to get their mouths open for black cock. Your knees hurt?” He tilted Mannix’s chin up towards him with the muzzle, made him make eye contact. Let him feel the burnished steel against his throat and the soft underside of his jaw and compare that to the knife. “I asked if your knees hurt, Chris Mannix.”
“Hell, my heart breaks for you. They’re gonna have to hurt a little longer.” He stretched out his leg. “I’ll need my boots off.”
Mannix stayed so still for a moment Warren thought he really would have to decide what to do with that gun, but then, as slow as molasses and as delicate as if he were handling rose-petals, Mannix turned down toward Warren’s boots and carefully undid the strap of one. The slide of the leather tongue through the clasp seemed to nearly put him over the edge, because he stopped and breathed hard for a couple of seconds. Warren would have gotten more of a kick out of it if it hadn’t tightened a spring in him too. Mannix’s hands looked whiter than ever against the black leather, so Warren told him to linger there a little, his fingers splayed out, palms against the toe of his right boot, five pressure points to either side. When Warren let him move again, he brought one hand around to the heel and limbered the boot off him smooth and easy, sliding it down Warren’s calf and into his own lap—
Warren made sure he heard the hammer lift again. “Don’t you even think about going and taking care of yourself that way. You do the other and you keep your hands and anything of mine off yourself.”
Mannix made a rough little sound in his throat and then, pained as if Warren had cut him ear-to-ear with that knife after all, scratchy-hoarse: “Yes, sir.”
He dealt with the left boot then and was careful to draw it off far from his hard-on, not even letting the leather brush him, and Warren said, “That’s good,” and some hot color rose up hard again in Mannix’s face. Warren made note of it.
“You comfortable now or what?” Mannix said.
“You comfortable now? How are your knees?”
“They fucking hurt.”
“You want to tack anything on to that?” He’d let his gun hand relax, but he lifted it upright for that. Mannix’s face contorted like he couldn’t spit out that “sir,” so Warren never-minded him and took his cock out instead and let Mannix appreciate what he’d be undertaking. As big as his eyes got, he either hadn’t done it before or he hadn’t done it with anyone worth mentioning, anyone who’d had the good sense to know what to really do with him.
“That’s all right,” Warren said generously. “You take your time. I haven’t gotten tired yet of pointing a gun at your head, and it’s kinda cute, that cherry look you got, so fucking impressed. Which you ain’t even bothering to fucking deny.”
“You said I couldn’t say nothing but ‘yes, sir,’” Mannix said, like he wasn’t saying something else right then, like he hadn’t just said something else a minute ago, like he hadn’t put his gun on the table to begin with.
“Then I’m gonna say whatever I like, and you’re going to ‘yes, sir’ me all the way, Chris, until you feel like you can’t stand it anymore, and when you can’t, you’re going to put your mouth on my cock and make yourself useful. You understand that?”
“You never got it up for that whore, nice as she was, high-titted as she was, sweet-smelling, but you laid yourself down on that camp blanket and you went to flogging at yourself like your life depended on it, same way you’re gonna suck on me in just a minute. Isn’t that right?”
“It kept you up nights, back in fucking Red Rock, that star burning a hole on your chest and you knowing what you knew about yourself, about how bad you wanted it.”
“You said back there you didn’t like giving up easy, but you gave up real easy and real sweet for me, didn’t you? Unbuckled that belt of yours and put that pistol down like a sugar bowl.”
“Yes, sir,” and hell if he wasn’t almost smiling again, despite everything.
“All I had to do to Chester Smithers to get him down on his knees and you go like a shot, without a shot, you fuck your own hand just knowing I’m around, take my boots off nice and pretty. What are you going to do if I put this down?”
Mannix didn’t answer.
“That’s right,” Warren said, almost gently. “I forgot. You only got one line you memorized for this whole thing, so let’s hear that again.”
Mannix’s voice barely over a whisper: “Yes, sir.”
“You almost ready to be good for me? Be the kind of Southern white boy keeps himself alive?”
Warren could tell he was—he didn’t need Mannix’s “yes, sir,” for that, though he liked hearing it anyhow. It was in Mannix’s face that he had forgotten all about his knees and even forgotten all about his cock. Except for Warren, that motherfucker was gone. But he didn’t want Mannix quite that way, so he pushed a little:
“And what would your daddy think, Chris Mannix, seeing you like this?” It was almost like Warren had slapped him, but he stayed down all the same, so Warren needled a little more, even though he was so hot he half-thought he’d burn down if Mannix didn’t get started soon. But this was how he had felt with Smithers, telling him that tale about his boy, conscious of the dryness of his tongue inside his mouth and the feel of the air against his skin, half-drunk off the stakes of it and off his own words too, and why not? “You think he’d like knowing what became of his youngest out in the big bad world? You think he’d be proud of what happened to his name after he passed it on to you? Like seeing you down there and waiting for me to fuck your mouth? How stiff your prick is?”
Mannix closed his eyes. Some kind of shiver passed over him almost like a hum.
He’d properly seen Mannix to his best advantage coming up off Minnie’s floor all covered in sweat and blood, making that nice shot on Domergue, or maybe a minute or two before that, tearing her story to shreds with vicious and intemperate glee: both times, Mannix choosing him, and Mannix would choose him now, Warren knew it. Mannix wanted to. He just needed Warren to show him how.
So Warren did. Gave him something he knew Chris could say yes to and keep that strange fucking honesty of his.
“You care about this right now more than you ever cared about your daddy. Or damn near anything else.”
“Yes, sir,” Mannix said. His voice was a little raw, but he was looking right at Warren, and his eyes said he could have killed him or done he-didn’t-know-what, but the motherfucker was still down on his knees, still doing as he was told, still letting Warren say that shit to him when he’d have bet every cent he ever pulled out of Red Rock’s bounty fund that Mannix knew the pistol wasn't loaded, hadn't been loaded ever since Mannix had left him to go move the body. The scent of gun oil was still in the air from where Warren had cleaned it and he had a nose, didn’t he?
But there he was. Warren was sure of him, and he was a strange fucking thing to be sure of: same as before.
He reached out with his left hand and dragged his fingers through Mannix’s hair and then used a handful of it to pull him closer.
“Then do what we both know you’ve been wanting to do,” Warren said, and Mannix did. He wasn’t what anybody would call practiced, but he committed to the task in a straightforward kind of way, and Warren mostly didn’t pull his hair too much but let him work out on his own what was best. He’d never thought of himself as much inclined towards generosity, but it felt like Mannix had earned himself a little reprieve. But he kept looking up at Warren—he would pull back all the way and tease the head of Warren’s cock delicately with just the tip of his tongue and give Warren some fucking look overloaded with hellfire frustration, to the point where Warren was pissed off enough by it that he wanted to ask Mannix to lay off a minute and clarify. If, that was, he’d cared more about Mannix’s strangeness than he did the cocksucking he was, outside of that, enjoying plenty.
But he did land on it after a while. He wasn’t sure he liked knowing the workings of Mannix’s mind that well, but evidently he did, because he laid the muzzle of his pistol flush up against Mannix’s temple and Mannix practically went and crooned around his cock out of sheer fucking pleasure.
“That’s what you like, Chris?” He followed the bobbing of Mannix’s head with the gun, staying with him for the whole of that nod, keeping his hand steady even as Mannix rewarded him for that kind of consistency by taking as much of Warren into his throat as he could. “Then you feel that, boy. You feel that and you go ahead and feel yourself. That’s it. You’ve earned it, being so agreeable, giving me that sweet open mouth of yours.”
He came a little bit later and since Mannix was still hard, hard and looking kind of dazed to be coming to with his pecker in his fist and Warren still in front of him, like he’d had some shameful dream that then wouldn’t get decent and melt away, Warren had a kind of mercy on him: slid the gun barrel into his mouth and let him finish stroking himself off like that. He wasn’t bad to look at that way, his lips closed almost prissily around cold steel, flushed and desperate, a little bit of dried come at the corner of his mouth. It wasn’t a good thing, him deriving some kind of enjoyment just from watching Mannix bring himself to a close.
Mannix leaned right back off the gun afterwards, practically admitting that he’d known it was bullshit—the son-of-a-bitch always seemed to know that kind of thing, even when Warren didn’t want him to—and then he spat on the floor a couple times to clear the taste of gun oil and spunk out of his mouth. Which seemed optimistic.
“Don’t you tell me how I feel about my daddy, major,” he said.
That made him grin, and he was put in a better mood by it. He flicked the cylinder out and spun it around, making Mannix get a nice long look at all those empty chambers—behold his shamefaced lack of surprise—and then he poured them both some more whiskey and pushed one of the glasses over to Mannix’s edge of the table.
“Now you can drink that,” Warren said, “or you can try something, on account of what I said or did or whatever the fuck you like. But I think you’re gonna drink.”
“Fifteen men or no fifteen men,” Mannix said, sounding awfully wistful for a man still down on his knees, “I maybe still could have made a pretty penny going with Domergue.”
“You got about half all those bodies anyway, Domergue fucking included.”
“Be shut of you though, wouldn’t I, major, sir?”
“You really trying to tell me you didn’t think of that before?” Warren said. He reached out and tapped his ring against Mannix’s glass. “Are you down or are you up, white boy?”
“Well, I guess I’m up,” Mannix said, sounding disgusted with himself. He righted himself and came over and downed the shot and then slumped in his chair. “Damn, major. You can’t tell me it makes any kind of sense for you either because I know it don’t.”
“Just drink and shut the fuck up,” Warren advised.
They didn’t talk about it in the morning. About the only thing Mannix said at all before they left the dugout was to ask if they were going straight back to Red Rock with the body, and he seemed relieved the answer was no.
“You lose too much time that way,” Warren said, because somebody had to teach him the trade and there was nobody else around, as if anybody else would have even had the patience to school Chris Mannix in anything to begin with. “Going back and forth to jurisdictions every time you happen to kill some bastard. When the weather's cold enough for them to keep a little, I don’t make a habit of stopping by the law unless I’ve got at least three dead assholes tucked under my arm—that’s the kind of coin that’s worth going out of your way for the stop.”
And that was it for breakfast conversation—they were able to strip Colby’s pantry mostly bare without doing much except holding things up and shrugging yea or nay at each other—and mostly it for the morning, except Mannix pulled his horse up flush beside Warren’s at maybe ten in the morning and gave him the silliest grin Warren had ever been unfortunate enough to witness. He almost had to yell to be heard over the wind.
“One!” He gathered his reins up in one fist and held up one finger for good measure, like Warren needed an example.
“The first time you came back to Red Rock!”
“I’m about to abandon any kind of idea of making decent time. One what, the first time I came back to Red Rock?”
He couldn’t dampen Mannix’s spirits at all. “One body, major. One itsy little thousand dollar bounty slung over your saddle-horn and you came all those miles for it? No, sir.”
Warren slapped the rump of Mannix’s horse hard and sent him off on a tear, which at least bought him a minute or two in which he could pretend he lived in a world bare of Chris Mannix and all the trouble he brought with him. Mannix made his way back looking sour.
“My legs are about to cramp now, thanks to you. I had to about pull him up with my fucking knees.”
“A smarter man would learn a lesson from that.”
“Smart man wouldn’t be here in the first place.” Mannix rubbed at his jaw in a showy kind of way and Warren couldn’t tell if he meant it as reproach or some fucked-up kind of flattery. “You got yourself leading the one we got loaded with carrion just so you could smack mine around? And you wonder why you ain’t never had a partner before.”
“Who says I wonder that? You a damn object lesson in why I didn’t until you must’ve knocked me on the head getting us out of Minnie’s, jarred my brains some.”
“I don’t got to listen to you insult me,” Mannix said.
That night, though, he listened to it plenty. The firelight painted him up again and made him a little more interesting to look at and Warren told him that and reflected on it some and then said given how much better Mannix looked all red from the fire and purple-shadowed on the other side, Warren ought to do the world a favor and make those colors stay on him a little longer.
Mannix let him do it without the gun. Warren slapped his face a couple times and Mannix turned his head against the palm of Warren’s hand on the last one and sort of mashed his mouth up against him. Neither one of them was satisfied by it, so he pushed Mannix face-down in the cold, damp grass and jerked his shirt up and his pants down. Mannix balked then, but he stilled when Warren smacked his ass and the backs of his thighs; soon enough he even got up a little on his elbows and knees and started rocking into each blow. Warren let him get his hand underneath himself and he wasn’t surprised at all when—his own callused palm finally sore—he yanked Mannix face-up again and saw he’d come like that.
“There you go,” Warren said, reaching around the other side of him to cup his hand against Mannix's ass and feel how hot his skin had gotten. “That’s good. You like getting that little piece of what you deserve?”
“Oh, yes, sir,” and he didn’t sound cowed that time or embarrassed at all, he sounded like it was only decency keeping him from another one of those shit-eating grins.
So Warren clipped him on the cheek again, backhanded, and then Mannix really did smile, couldn’t help it any longer. His hair had gone every which way. Warren dug his fingers into Mannix's ass and listened to the whimper he got at that, which was really something.
“You’re coming along nicely, Chris. You don’t need much breaking-in at all. You know what you’re gonna do now?”
“Make you come, sir.”
Warren shook his head. “I make you come, whether you want to or not and at fucking gunpoint if I've a mind to, or I let you, if I'm feeling nice. Now I’m a mite disappointed—I thought you were a man who understood the importance of little details like that. What are you going to do now, boy?”
Mannix thought it over. Warren liked that look on him, liked being the gleam at the center of that strange fucking magpie mind of his. It seemed natural, Mannix all turned over to him like that.
Warren rewarded him for thinking so hard about it: stroked along his jawline and up into his hair, just petting him like that.
“I’m going to let you—”
“Wouldn’t you like to be let? It’s a nice thing, major.”
He supposed he couldn’t argue with that.
Mannix smiled that quicksilver smile of his at what he took for agreement. “I’m going to let you use me, going to let you come on me, in my mouth. Going to let you do whatever you like.”
“Now that,” Warren said, tracing Mannix’s lips with his fingers until Mannix opened up for him and sucked on them, all hot and wet and eager, like he was starved for it, “sounds awful promising.”
It wasn’t until the next day that Warren realized Mannix had gotten himself another damn coat.
“And I was not two fucking feet away from you at the time, major,” Mannix said, while he field-dressed the rabbit Warren had shot. “Was you distracted, sir? Now I wonder what might maybe have been the cause of that?”
“Sure. Go on and tell yourself that me not having paid you enough mind for the day to know what you had on or didn’t is some kind of testament to whatever fixation you imagine I’ve got. I never knew a man as like to lay waste to coats like he’s Sherman burning Atlanta.”
Mannix seemed almost aghast, like somebody's prudish offended aunt. “Major, don’t go making light of that. Now you know—”
“Now you know I don’t want to hear. Where’d you rustle it up, anyway?”
“Colby. Where else?”
Warren got a genuine laugh at that. “Mannix, did you ever in your life have a fucking coat you didn’t take off a dead man?”
Mannix shrugged and wiped the blood off his knife. “Dead men don’t feel no cold. The one I had—let’s see. The one I had when you and me met, the grandfather of this one, I got in Alabama. Now, major, they don’t make no decent coats in Alabama. You kill a man in Alabama and then head to Wyoming, you’re looking at a cold fucking winter and your ass half-froze off besides, which is why I was so glad when you and John Ruth and OB picked me up.”
“It’s John Ruth and OB you should be glad of. I’d have let you freeze the other half of your ass. Pecker too.”
“Like Smithers’s boy?”
“It was my impression you considered that story a tall kind of a tale.”
“Well, when you told it before, I wasn’t what you’d call acquainted with your habits, was I?” Mannix frowned a little at that but didn’t leave off turning the spit. The drip of rabbit fat falling into the fire continued coming nice and regular. “You use that knife and gun on me on account of my daddy? Because I have to tell you, major, he never saw much action during the war. It wasn’t until after that that he really made his name.”
“You’re thinking that’s gonna dissuade me? Give me a higher opinion of him?”
“No war crime if there wasn’t a war.”
“I don’t give a shit about war crimes. That’s all hashed out in a court of law, and nothing done in a courthouse is ever much favorable to a black man—or you want to tell me they dragged your ass in front of a colored jury for all the shit you did?”
Mannix snorted. “Carpetbaggers would have if they could have.”
“Carpetbaggers would’ve done it to fuck with you. Which is, I’ll grant you, a noble cause, and I’d pour them a drink for it. But in the end, they don’t give a shit either. Which you also know.”
“But they think you love them,” Mannix said, looking up from the rabbit to smile at him, like this was an ordinary fucking conversation and they were just talking over a picnic or some shit like that, getting ready to pass a pitcher of lemonade back and forth. “They think all you folks are gonna fall down and kiss their boots for them. Be gentle as little lambs because you’re so fucking thankful.”
“White men always want things done for free, and out of fear or gratitude don’t really make much difference. But you’re distracting me from my point, Chris Mannix, which is that the war wasn’t any kind of holy cause for me either. Hell, the way Lincoln dragged his feet, wasn’t nobody sure anything would happen at all. I don’t give a shit Smithers broke some kind of rule. He broke a fucking promise, and it wasn’t even his goddamn promise to break.”
“I knew you for the sentimental type,” Mannix said. “Making me spill half my blood on the floor just so we could pay our fucking respects hanging Domergue proper.”
“If you’re trying to piss me off, keep talking that way.”
“Well, I’m just saying. So did you or didn’t you?”
“Did I or didn’t I what?”
“Trick Smithers’s son.”
Like the whole point of it all was whether or not some mangy-looking white boy had had the privilege of sucking on Warren’s johnson before Warren had lit his path out of the world, like that had ever been what Warren was trying to tell him. Which was that with Mannix the gun and the knife both had been about something else. As fucked up as it was, Chris Mannix had never broken any kind of promise to him. As fucked up as it was, he’d maybe even done the opposite.
Mannix got surly over not being properly answered, though, as was one of his less becoming traits—though Warren was somewhat spoiled for choice as far as those were concerned—so Warren delayed them a while. He used the gun again, and he was rougher, and the whole time, he told Mannix how his mouth wasn’t half so warm as Chester Smithers’s had been, how his daddy would just be rolling over in his grave over how poor a job his boy did of cocksucking, how if this was all the good there was of him Warren might as well just put a bullet in him now and shop around for somebody better, because it wasn't likely he could do any worse. Mannix whined and gave it his fucking all while Warren used every trick and distraction he had to keep himself from coming. If he got Mannix's jaw sore enough, maybe he wouldn't run his fucking mouth so much all the time. He kept that up until there were actual tears of frustration at the corners of Mannix’s eyes, kind of pretty in their way, and Warren figured he’d learned some kind of lesson, even if it hadn’t been the one Warren had wanted to teach him.
Mannix drew his own gun when it was all done and held it down at his side, his whole arm so nervy-still Warren could see the effort it was taking him not to raise his hand. “I could kill you for that.”
“Yeah?” Warren said, like he was really curious. “On account of which part?”
Chris went red and settled for, “On account of fucking all of it,” and then he slammed his pistol back into its holster and he swung himself up in the saddle and winced when his ass hit it, and Warren thought it was kind of funny, how little Mannix knew himself, and how quickly he forgot what he did know, even when there was plenty to remind him.
They didn’t do anything that night on account of Mannix still being in a damn mood, and then they didn’t do anything the next day either, or the day after, to the point where Warren could have made the argument to himself that they’d be best-served letting things taper off in that regard. Mannix would still make a serviceable partner even if he proved a lousy lay. He could have made that argument, but he didn’t. Could’ve made the argument that if Mannix wasn’t going to be cooperative, Warren could have just made him so. Killed him, even, while they were out in the wide lonesome without another soul around. If the two of them even counted as souls themselves, which he wasn’t all that sure of.
But he didn’t make that argument either. He was pissed at himself about it.
So there they were, stuck on a long ride after a seven thousand dollar bounty Warren had thought was promising, stuck not killing and not fucking and not getting along, either, when Warren had been making a gesture, damn Chris Mannix and his cracker thick-headedness. He was about ready to say they should head on back to Red Rock in case the days swung back to warm and Colby started moldering; about ready to say that once they were there, Mannix could stay there for all Warren cared. Let him take his fucking moodiness out on his own kind for a change.
Then they killed their second bounty, not the seven thousand dollar fellow but a lesser one worth only seven hundred fifty and therefore not generally worth Warren getting out of bed.
How it happened was, having nothing to go on, they were on the wildest goose chase Warren had ever been ill-served enough to participate in, and were settling for riding around looking into all the nooks and crannies fugitive men tended to find: outlaw hideouts and the like. Mannix was irritatingly helpful with it, having gotten all that hand-me-down knowledge from his daddy about chasing down runaway slaves, so Warren both followed up on his suggestions and wanted to beat him silly for making them. Between that and Warren’s own days killing Indians, they had a pretty impressive command of the landscape, and yet they couldn’t get it to shake out their man, and what they got instead was a scrawny, ginger-headed fellow who had done something Warren couldn’t really recollect. Drowned somebody in a horse trough, as it turned out, but the general consensus around his town was the fellow had needed drowning, so they weren’t so much begging for justice as halfheartedly saying they guessed they wouldn’t turn it down.
Evidently the dude had thought his victim better liked or himself a little more feared, because he hadn’t just hidden out, he’d gone to the trouble of laying snares all over the fucking place. And Chris went and stepped in one.
One minute, he was leading his horse through the little patch of woods, ears pricked for the sound of the creek they were headed towards, and the next, he was upside-down and howling like he’d been shot.
Actually, Warren had heard him get shot before, and he hadn’t pitched as much of a fit about that, which meant he’d saddled himself with a partner with no sense of fucking proportion.
“All you’re achieving by caterwauling is alerting whoever’s got you strung like that that he can pour himself a drink and fucking celebrate.”
Mannix shut up for about two minutes while Warren scoped out the horizon and then started up bitching again: “Major, will you cut me down or not?”
“I’m about thinking not,” Warren said, though he already had his knife out.
But that was when the ratty-looking man came bursting out of the trees behind them, running screaming and pell-mell towards Mannix with an ax up in the air. Warren didn’t have time to drop the knife and draw on him, so he just stepped up, not even thinking it over, and met the fellow’s throat with his knife. The skin parted like cheesecloth but he went on and cut down to the bone anyway because it seemed like he could still half-hear the thunder of those footsteps on the ground.
He was all over red with the man by the time he was done, and then he went and cut Mannix down and put that knife to his throat, too.
“All right, major,” Mannix said, real soft. “All right.” He moved nice and slow and kissed the inside of Warren’s wrist, just past the hilt of the knife. Then he took his clothes off without being told. There was a welt coming up around the ankle where the snare had caught him. Most of the marks Warren had left on him, though, had faded away by then.
Warren couldn’t have said why his hand was trembling just a bit, except the comedown from the action, but past that kiss, Mannix didn’t act like he saw the knife vibrating a little in the air.
All the blood on Warren was still warm, but it wouldn’t daub off much on his hand, so in the end he slicked it off the blade itself with one fingertip. There it felt hot, like the sun on the steel had kept it almost alive. It was as vividly dark as paint.
He brought that wet finger up to Mannix’s chest, just above his heart, and wrote on him carefully. Something Mannix could read just as well upside-down. MW. Like a signature on a letter. Like a brand. Every inch of Mannix seemed to shake as he looked down at it, but he made no move to wipe it away, even though Warren had taken the knife off him by then. A little, anyway.
“That’s good,” Warren said. He wiped the rest of the blade clean on the jut of Mannix’s hipbone, leaving a wide red slash behind. Mannix let that stay, too. “Nice and good and sweet, that’s what you want to be for me right now. Now go lie down over by him who was going to split you right down the middle like it was butchering-time. I want you messy and marked-up, but don’t go spoiling my handiwork.”
“No, sir.” He lay down, back and hips and ass on the bloodied ground, roots nudging up against him, rocks doing the same. Warren could have let him lie there as punishment, and it would have been punishment after a while, of that he was sure.
But he had other things in mind.
He got down on his knees, tracking blood onto his pant-legs, and took his cock out: Mannix made a little sound in the back of his throat at that but stayed pliant, stayed still. Warren approved of him for it, stroked his open thighs, even stroked his cock a little. The wind pushed through Mannix’s hair and parted it, ran over his skin and made gooseflesh Warren soothed away with the palms of his hands. Then he rubbed the two of them together, Mannix’s cock hot against his own, that building scorch of pleasure at the center of the cramps in his legs, the hunch of his back. Mannix wasn’t the only one in danger of disappearing into this. The friction made him close his eyes, drop out of the world, but then he opened them again, because he wanted to see Mannix as he came, wanted to see his fucking initials on Mannix’s skin. Mannix had gotten hold of them too and was helping out, his lips shiny with spit, his chest shiny with sweat.
“Fuck,” Warren said, moving harder against him, and damn if Mannix didn’t grin at him like what they were doing wasn’t serious at all: grin and hike one of his legs up behind Warren and dig his bare heel into Warren’s ass, push him forward further.
“Yeah, major,” he said breathlessly. “Yeah.” He put his hand up and curled his fingers around the back of Warren’s neck.
They both came after that, not too far apart from each other. Then they were just two men on chilly ground next to a body all covered in stiffening blood, Mannix matted with it, Warren pretty damn dappled himself. But he had to think neither of them minded. He kissed Mannix then, which was probably a mistake, but it felt like the necessary seal to put down on the whole thing, the way the rest of it had been the seal to put down on the whole fucking fight. A nice touch.
He gave Chris a hand up off the ground.
“You don’t get dressed again,” he said, like nothing had happened, “you’re liable to freeze.”
“I don’t get some of this off me, I’m liable to stick to myself and never be able to get bare-ass again. And that would be a crying shame, wouldn't it?”
Warren looked him up and down. “I wouldn’t shed a tear.”
The fucking kiss had shot his credibility all to hell, though, because Mannix didn’t so much as blink, let alone scowl. Warren watched him a while to see what he’d wind up doing about being so matted down in the back with a dead man’s blood and he had to give Mannix credit for some spark of ingenuity when he hit on rolling his coat around in the dewy grass and then rubbing it back and forth over himself like a towel. The bonus of all of it was it made him look even more ridiculous than usual for a bit. But at the end of it he was mostly clean.
Except for Warren’s initials. Those he left, exactly as he would have if he’d forgotten about them. But when he buttoned his shirt up over them and put them out of sight, there was another one of those dark flushes on his face, like some storm cloud gathered up underneath his skin.
“Not bad,” Warren said, meaning it. “But you’ll never get the blood out of that.”
“Well, that’s no worry, major,” and just like that the storm vanished in favor of pure stupid contentment. It wasn’t even that he was hiding anything: it seemed like he just only had room for one feeling at a time, and he’d gone and picked it. And the son of a bitch all but sauntered back over to their dead fellow and divested him of the neat little fawn number he’d been wearing. Which was itself, Warren was forced to point out, bloodied a fair bit down the sides, though the man wearing it open and flapping had spared it the worst of the damage.
“That and it’s a shade too small for you.”
“That’s no worry neither.” He flashed Warren a grin. “I imagine I’ll have lots of opportunities to pick out another. Now. Who the fuck is he?”