Ben Carter stood at his window and gazed down at Two Knives' dusty main street. Nothing doing down there, not a soul to be seen even though it was past eleven in the morning. He was bored, restless and frustrated. He'd been cooped up in this damned hotel room for longer than he could remember, and he wanted out. Toby was having none of it, insisting he stay put until his wound was healed enough that it wouldn't tear open if he moved.
Ben estimated he'd been here approaching three weeks; the first week he didn't remember too much about - he'd been asleep or dosed with laudanum for most of it, and he had only sketchy memories of week two. He remembered waking up at all times of the day or night to find somebody sat in the chair next to his bed, looking concerned and asking what he needed. Usually it was Toby or Monica - the young woman from the saloon -but occasionally, late at night, he'd awake to find Cort sitting there. Once he thought he'd seen Ben Wade in that chair with his hat pulled low and his boots up on the edge of the bed, but that was probably just a dream.
He'd been too sick and disoriented to pay much attention to his various nurses but by week three, as his wits returned and his memory tended to stay where he needed it, he began to realise something had changed. He never saw Cort in the daytime; his buddy only ever seemed to grace his bedside late at night and Ben Wade was completely absent. He'd repeatedly asked what was going on but both Toby and Cort refused to tell him until he was stronger, and their stone-walling was making him mad.
More frequently now he was left alone in the daytime, with only some dull books to keep him company. A few times he'd gotten out of bed, determined to leave the stagnant smelling confines of this hotel prison and reclaim his life. Every time he'd regretted it - the movement pulling on his wound and making it ache like hell for the next few hours - but it was definitely on the mend. Yesterday Toby had officially allowed him to leave bed and walk up and down the corridor a few times. Although his shoulder nagged and throbbed with a dull pain, it was bearable and he said as much, keen to be back on his feet.
To his surprise Toby concurred and today he was finally being allowed downstairs to take lunch in the cafeteria, right after he'd taken a much needed bath. All he was waiting for was the hotel porter to tell him his water was ready so when the tap on the door finally came, he opened it eagerly.
But it wasn't the porter, it was Monica and she gasped and then giggled at the sight of him wearing only bandages and drawers. Ben felt himself redden as he ripped a blanket from the bed and wrapped it tightly around himself.
“I'm sorry ma'am; I thought it was the porter.”
She shook her head, smiling mischievously. “Don't be embarrassed, Ben, I helped Toby give you more than one bed bath.”
Ben's blush deepened and he didn't know where to look for a moment, electing to stare through the window at the street. There was some old dude on a grey nag making his way out of town, heading north, and he kept his eyes firmly on the rider. He wanted to look at Monica but didn't dare in the present circumstances. She was a pretty enough girl; nothing breath taking or what you'd call beautiful, but Ben liked her plenty and she appeared to like him as well. She seemed to spend more time in his room than she did in the saloon and they'd had a few conversations - ones Ben could recall anyway - that established some common ground and shared interests.
“Toby says you're coming downstairs for lunch today.”
He glanced at her through his fringe.
“Right after I've taken a bath. I don't reckon I smell too good right now.”
She nodded and continued to stand in the doorway, as though expecting him to say something else though he couldn't fathom what it might be. Eventually she spoke again.
“They serve good beef pie here on Wednesdays. It's my favourite…”
Finally realisation hit and Ben blushed again, embarrassed anew by his bad manners and ignorance.
“I'd be honoured if you'd join me, ma'am, perhaps recommend some other items from the menu…”
Monica's face lit up and she beamed at him. “Shall we say one o'clock?”
She bounded from the room before he could stammer out a reply, calling something about changing her frock. Ben sat on the edge of the bed, excited and elated but it didn't last long. How much did Monica know about him? She thought he was brave and decent for shooting the men harassing her in the saloon, but had anybody told her he was on the run, a fugitive from the law and keeping company with two notorious outlaws? A part of him hoped somebody had spilled the beans; it would prevent any awkward questions over lunch.
The door to his room banged open and he pulled the blanket tight again, but this time it was Toby, informing him the bath was ready and he'd probably need some help washing. Ben thought on that for a minute before deciding he was right, and figuring it a good opportunity to ask some awkward questions of his own.
The bathwater was warm, rather than hot, but the temperature was about right given the heat of the day outside. Ben thought back to the last time he'd bathed and realised it was in the chilly waters of the Colorado River, sometime during that interminable boat ride. He lounged in the tub and eyed Toby, sitting by the door and engrossed in his thoughts.
“You gonna tell me where Cort and Wade are now?”
Toby glanced over. “Cort wants to do it.”
Ben was irritated. “Cort can go to hell. I never see him anymore and I've waited long enough.”
Toby shook his head stubbornly. “He'll be along tonight; you can wait a little longer.”
Ben slapped his hand down smartly in the tub, sending water spraying across the floor.
“Dammit kid, you tell me or I'm heading over to the saloon and getting some answers.”
Toby gazed at him for a moment, unperturbed by his outburst, and then he shrugged.
“Those cowboys you shot were part of a gang; twenty outlaws or more all camped a few miles south of here. They use the town for supplies and getting drunk.”
Ben eyed him impatiently. “So?”
“Ain't you wondering why they didn't come looking for payback?”
It hadn't occurred to Ben, though in truth this was the first he'd heard of any gang, and he gazed at Toby expectantly.
“I hope you're gonna tell me.”
“Cort and Wade joined up with 'em. They ride out every day to plan raids and come back after dark. That's why you never see 'em.”
Ben pulled himself upright in the bath and stared at the kid, not wanting to believe what he'd just heard. He could understand Ben Wade hooking up with a bunch of desperados, since that was the very essence of the man, but why would Cort jeopardise his standing with the US Marshal's office by joining a real outlaw gang?
“They done any robberies?”
Toby shook his head. “They got some idea about a train but it ain't happened yet.”
Ben scratched at his hair, bewildered. “What the hell's Cort thinking? If he robs a train he'll be an outlaw for real.”
Toby looked at him quizzically. “He's thinking of you, Ben. If he hadn't joined that gang would have come looking to kill us all. We couldn't run on account of you being hurt.”
Ben cursed quietly. If he hadn't gotten involved in somebody else's fight in the saloon, hadn't shot those men, they'd all be in another state by now.
He was still brooding on it as he sat down to lunch in clean clothes and fresh bandages. He'd considered wearing his gun belt but when he buckled it on the weight dragged on his shoulder and the injury affected his balance, making it impossible to draw cleanly. He'd left it hanging from the bedpost.
He checked his pocket watch and found he had a good half hour to wait before Monica joined him. He passed the time nursing a beer and looking out the window at the dusty street. It seemed he'd been doing that all day and not a second of it had been interesting. He'd chosen a seat that afforded a view of the saloon, up at the north end of town, wanting to watch Monica cross the street in her frock, and now he gazed at the lopsided old building and let his thoughts wander. Inevitably they headed in the direction of Cort and he pondered what his buddy was doing now, hoping he wouldn't be foolish enough to engage in any actual robbery, though with Ben Wade around that might be a tall order.
His peripheral vision caught movement and he glanced up the street. What he'd seen was a dust cloud just outside town, big enough to indicate a good many riders. Ben didn't pay it much mind, figuring it was some of the outlaw gang heading into town for dinner, even though their camp was in the opposite direction. He went back to watching the saloon and became so absorbed in thoughts of Cort and Monica that he almost jumped out of his seat when Toby threw himself down opposite. He cursed and rubbed at his shoulder, which was twinging from the shock.
“Dammit Toby, who invited you?”
Toby grinned. “I know you're expecting company, figured you could use a chaperone.”
Ben scowled. “You can chaperone my ass.”
Toby shrugged. “Well I'm hungry and I'm eating in here. I can do it across the room if you like.”
“Yeah, I'd like that. I don't need your yap when I'm trying to talk to a lady.”
“Trying's the word, Ben.”
Toby smiled impudently and moved himself to another table, not too distant and well within earshot of whatever Ben and Monica chose to discuss. Ben was about to insist he move again when his eye was drawn back to the window. The riders were on the edge of town and there were a lot of them, easily more than thirty and far too many to be the outlaw gang. Alarm bells started ringing in Ben's head and he stood up, heart pounding, eyes never leaving the street.
“Toby, get your butt over here.” Dread made his voice hoarse and Toby didn't offer any of his usual bullshit, just hurried over and followed his gaze.
“Are any of them with Cort?”
Toby squinted and stared for long moments. “Don't recognise any of 'em...”
His voice trailed off and he stared at Ben, his eyes wide.
“It's the damned posse, ain't it?”
“I reckon so.”
Toby swore and Ben tried to get a grip on his whirling thoughts. His time was up, that was for sure; he couldn't even shoot a gun, let alone jump on a horse and hightail it out of town. His stomach twisted as the dusty lead rider came into view and he recognised the red, moustachioed face of Governor Farleigh. Toby saw him too and his voice went tight with fear.
“What we gonna do? Shall I fetch the guns?”
Ben shook his head. “I can't shoot for shit.”
“So what we gonna do?”
There was only one path Ben could see clearly and he needed to tell it quick.
“You need to get gone, Toby, and fast. Scoot out the back door and find someplace to hide until this is over, then find Cort and tell him what's happened.”
Ben's mouth was dry and he fought to get the words out clearly.
“Tell him not to come after me, he'll only get himself killed. Find some way to tell the US Marshal what's happened, tell 'em to come get me out of Yuma prison. I figure that's where I'm headed.”
Toby's face was ashen. “I can't leave you, who knows what Farleigh's gonna do.”
Ben scowled at him. “Go dammit. There's no sense both of us getting taken. I reckon you got about two minutes before that posse arrives.”
Tears were pricking at Toby's eyes and he looked about to say something else, but then he just nodded curtly and dashed out of the room.
Ben sat back in his seat and watched the posse ride past the saloon and up to the hotel. A group split off, went round back and he prayed Toby had gotten out in time. He watched grimly as Farleigh dismounted by the porch and tethered his horse, four others following his lead. All of them came inside and he heard their feet clomping across the lobby. He looked past the row of mounted men outside, all of them pulling rifles from their saddle holsters, and over towards the saloon. He could see Monica standing on the porch, wearing a pretty blue frock, and he tried to memorise that vision. God knew he'd need it later.
The door to the cafeteria banged open and he got slowly to his feet as Farleigh came in, wearing a triumphant smile and flanked by his four companions, all of whom were pointing pistols at him.
“Dining alone, Cartwright? Isn't that sad.” Farleigh's voice was smug. “Where are your buddies?”
Ben forced himself to smile in what he hoped was an equally smug fashion. “They ain't here.”
“Of course not.” Farleigh came across the room until he was standing only a few inches away. “All of 'em run to an outlaw gang and left you with a gunshot wound. Is that how it went, Warden?”
“If that's how you want it to go, Governor.”
Farleigh's hand whipped out and backhanded him across the mouth. It was hard enough to knock him sideways and he struggled to keep his balance, tasting blood in his mouth and cursing the pain from his shoulder.
“Don't play me for a fool, boy. I got ears in this town, how else would I know to come fetch you now?”
Ben's mind returned to the old feller he'd seen riding north a couple of hours back, and realised this wasn't bullshit. Farleigh carried on talking.
“I know Thompson and Wade are leading that gang, and I know that kid Furnley stays here to nurse you. Where is he now?”
“Long gone.” Ben wiped blood from his chin. “Rode out to the gang when he saw your dust.”
“Is that right?” Farleigh motioned his compadres forward. One of them pulled a pair of shackles from his belt as he approached.
“You gonna give us trouble, Cartwright?”
Ben shook his head. He was in no condition to put up a fight so he stood quietly as the man pulled his arms behind his back and chained his wrists. He wasn't gentle and Ben winced and nearly swooned as his injury was agonisingly wrenched. Coughlan was watching, a smile pulling at his mouth.
“That's gotta hurt a man took a bullet in his shoulder, but you'd better get tough. It's a hard ride back to Yuma.”
Ben sneered at him. “Especially when you got a gang of outlaws up your ass. You think they won't come for me?”
Farleigh stepped up close and murmured in his ear, words meant for Ben alone.
“I'm counting on it, son.”
A second later Farleigh's fist slammed into Ben's injured shoulder and his knees buckled as excruciating pain exploded all over. He hit the floor about the same time as he blacked out.