in any way from the original work. The story is strictly for entertainment purposes as a work of fan-fiction. Copyright Darcy and Isobel 2007.
He Lays in the Reins
by Darcy and Isobel
One more tired thing, the gray moon on the rise
When your want from the day
Makes you to curse in your sleep at night
-- He Lays in the Reins
Calexico & Iron and Wine
The cloudburst passed over again, going by as quickly as it had come. Outside, the air freshened and cooled, and in the adobe mission church, the young man slept on, his body half reclined on the hard wooden pew. A shaft of sunlight pierced the gloom and in the span of half an hour's transit, slid from one of Cort's broad shoulders to the next, highlighting his sleeping face. Wade cocked an eye and hurried his strokes, grateful for the brilliant light. He barely allowed himself to admit it, but the truth was his once keen sight had begun to fail him. Poor vision and the tuberculosis that forced him to fight for every breath were the reasons he'd shinned on down to Mexico, away from those who knew him. With the instinct of his kind, he sensed that between the Pinkertons and the men he'd ridden with, his life wouldn't be worth a damn. If they saw him now, weak and sick, one of them would kill him just to claim the glory of being the man who shot Ben Wade.
He didn't blame them; he would have done the same. Only the strong deserve to survive. That was nature's law. It was Ben Wade's law, too. Over the course of his life, he'd had little pity for those who were weak or stupid. Like Cort's idiot. He'd have put the poor bastard out of his misery long before now, was it up to him.
While he sketched the sleeping priest, the niggling memory that tickled at the back of his mind continued to take shape, like some ghostly specter flitting just outside his peripheral vision. If only he could turn his head fast enough to catch it, he could work it out. The impression it left in his brain was as elusive as catching a deep breath. But Ben Wade loved the challenge of solving a knotty puzzle. He was willing to wait and work on this one, so long as he didn't die before he figured it out.
He glanced across the aisle to Cort's face again. He wished the padre would wake up and open his eyes. He needed to see them to draw them, and besides, Wade didn't much care for this quiet, the deeply resonating silence of an all but empty church house. It reminded him too much of the grave, and that was coming for him soon enough. The only sounds were his scratching pencil and labored breath, and an occasional mumble from Cort. Wade was just about to throw a pencil at his head when the young priest gave out with a loud snort that echoed off the high church walls and woke him.
Wade grinned as he watched a still groggy Cort reach down to scratch his groin.
"First thing a man does...check to see if it's still there." Wade's lips twisted into an amused smirk. "Used to having the place to yourself, son?" he asked, nodding at his scratching hand.
Cort jerked his hand away and had the good manners to look embarrassed. "Most times," he said with a sheepish grin. Righting himself in the pew, he stretched and yawned, then furrowed straight brows. "Lord, I was dead to the world. How long was I asleep? You need to take a leak, Ben?"
The older man shook his head. "Not long." His eyes moved back to the portrait on his lap. It seemed the more he learned about Cortland Davis, the more curious he got. He was godly and he had a streak of kindness in him wide as the Rio Grande, yet he seemed like anybody else, a normal, red-blooded, crotch-scratching man.
Abruptly, he asked, "How does a preacher fill his time, anyway? What do you do all day? Pray? Study on ways not to think about women?"
"Oh, I still think about women." Cort shook his head, pushed his long hair back when it tumbled into his eyes. "But I reckon my days are pretty full. During the week I go to see my parishioners. You know, spread the word, visit the sick. Sometimes I pitch in, help with their chores when there's a need. And there's plenty to do around here," he said, his eyes sliding to the open door. His grin was wide as he joked, "Hell...now I got to build a chicken coop."
Wade laughed, appreciative of the humor. "Your flock scattered far and wide?"
"Pretty far. Not many towns out this way."
Wade held the pencil between his thumb and forefinger, turned the paper and began to shade. "You got a mule or something? A horse?" he asked, without looking up. "Or do you travel shank's mare like a pious man ought?"
"Lately I've been a pious man," Cort said, watching Ben's pencil as it moved across the paper. "About wore out my brogans tramping all over Creation. I had a mare, but a few months back she stepped into a hole and broke her leg. I had to put her down." A pained look passed over his features. "She was a good old girl. Plain as a mud fence, but she was a smart horse. Came to me like a dog when I whistled for her."
Ben looked off into the distance, his eyes wistful. "You know I always liked animals more than people. A man takes the time to train a good horse, a good dog, and he can depend on them. Seems to me the gentler you are with an animal, the better. Men are animals too, but they're a violent breed. You got to be hard on men; it's the only thing they respect, but animals " Wade stopped short, shook his head. "I never could stand to watch a man whip a horse or kick a dog. Anyway," he looked up grinning, as if he'd caught himself becoming overly sentimental, "When I'm dead, you keep my horse. He's a good boy, strong. Got a gait on him as easy as your granny's rocking chair. It'd give me a measure of peace to know he'd go to a man who wouldn't whip him."
Cort clasped his hands between his knees, looked down on them, humbly grateful. "Much obliged, Ben. That's a beautiful animal, better than I could ever afford. I'll take good care of him for you. What's his name?"
pencil stopped briefly, started moving again. "I call him Dan. Just
ol' Dan." His voice was soft as he said, "Ya know Cort, something
about you puts me in mind of a man I knew once, a damn good man. Only
man I ever met that couldn't be bought."
"You kill him?"
"No." Wade met the young man's eyes unflinchingly. "But it didn't help him any, crossing paths with me. If I asked forgiveness for anything, it would be that."
Cort sat up from his slouch, his expression hopeful. "So ask."
"No. That torment, I deserve."
As if in agreement, a sudden crack of thunder boomed overhead and echoed through the valley. The solid timbers above shivered and for the first time, Cort saw a hint of trepidation in the old man's eyes. Wade said softly, "That's God's vengeance coming for me."
Rain pattered on the mission roof. Cort offered with gentle humor, "And there's the rain of our Savior's love, come to wash our sins away."
"Don't know about that," Wade rasped as he dropped his eyes. "Seems when I read the Bible as a boy, I got fouled up in the Old Testament where the Lord was all fire and brimstone. As much as people talk of Jesus, I never saw much evidence of His influence in this world."
Cort's attentive expression encouraged him to go on. Again Wade was reminded of Dan Evans, the steadfast father, bound and determined to set a good example for his rebellious son and save his dying ranch by putting a killer on a prison train. He wouldn't quit, not even when it was plain the effort would likely end his days on earth. And he said he wasn't stubborn
"Would you like me to read to you from the scriptures some, Ben?" Cort offered. "Might give you peace."
The pencil scratched, and Wade didn't bother to look up. "No thanks. I read the Bible once. I was eight years old. My daddy had just got himself shot over a drink of whiskey, and Mama said we were going back east to start over. She sat me down in the train station with a Bible and told me to read it. She was going to get our tickets. I did what she said. Read that Bible from cover to cover. It took me three days." He looked up from his sketch, and his eyes were at once cold yet wounded. "She never came back," he said, his tone so matter of fact that a cold chill shivered down Cort's spine.
Such cruelty, he thought, to leave a little child on his own. He could picture it in his mind's eye, the little boy perched on a bench, a Bible on his lap. Obedient to his mother through three long fearful days, until someone, a stationmaster, a ticket seller, or maybe just some stranger told him she wasn't coming back. Cort thought of what that must have felt like to a little boy, and his heart ached for eight year old Ben Wade, whose mother had discarded him without a thought.
The silence grew heavy as lead in the darkening church. To hide the pity in his eyes, Cort got up and went to the fire, added a few more sticks of wood. He was warm, almost hot, but Wade still shivered from fever. Unbuttoning the collar of his shirt, he stopped at the alcove of the Virgin to light some candles.
Wade's eyes tracked him, his gaze coming to rest on the placid face of the plaster statue.
"A mother does a thing like that to her own child," he began, his voice carefully controlled, "you'd think her boy would hate her for it. I suppose I did from time to time, but I never stopped loving her either. Even a bad man loves his mama. Ain't that strange?"
"I don't think it is," Cort answered quietly, and thought, Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. He cleared his throat and went on, "It's hard on a woman alone with a child."
Ben settled back, seemed to stir from his waking dream of the past. "Sounds like you know something about that," he prodded. Looking into the young man's eyes again, glittering in the light of the candles, he asked the question that had been itching at him. "Where'd you get them green eyes, son? From your mama?"
Cort nodded, the hint of a smile playing on his lips.
"Tell me about her."
Wade shrugged. "Because I suspect you had a sweet mother. You're too kind-hearted to have been raised by someone who didn't care. After lo, these many years, I have come to believe a man's character is formed from the very beginning, when he's still tied to the apron strings. Comes out in him when he's full grown."
When Cort's brows furrowed in suspicion Wade grinned, and for a moment he looked young again, like a boy contemplating mischief. Cort imagined him as a little boy, reckoned he'd been as much of a charmer then as he was now, and wondered how his mother could have left him to face the rest of his childhood alone.
Wade's faded eyes wandered the shadowed church, took in the flickering candles. They put him in mind of O'Shea's wake and shaking his head, he cracked, "You know, I never thought I'd be a guest at my own funeral. All we need is a goddamn wreath with a ribbon saying Rest in Peace." Bending to his sketchbook again, he asked casually, "What was her name, your mama?"
"Anna. Anna Cortland Davis."
"And you all lived in Texas? What'd your pa do?"
Cort's eyes fastened on the sketchbook. For the first time, he saw that Wade was drawing a picture of him. Self-conscious but curious, he brought a candle and leaned to look over Ben's shoulder.
"I never knew my father," he answered softly, watching Wade's pencil move in short skillful strokes. "His name was Newlin Davis, and he was a businessman, Mama said. Owned an interest in a bank up in Denver." Cort shrugged. "Said he got himself killed on a trip to Missouri. He was going back east to St. Louis to raise capital and the stage was set upon, whether by robbers or Indians, the cavalry didn't know for sure. By the time they found the bodies, there wasn't much left of them to tell. But nobody ever heard from my pa again." Cort squinted at the drawing and drawled, "Are you trying to flatter me, Ben Wade? I ain't that handsome of a feller."
He leaned closer, his eyes intent on the face on the paper, and the leather thong he always wore around his neck slipped out of his shirt, the wooden cross swinging in front of Wade's eyes like a pendulum. He drew back as startled as if he'd seen a snake. A flash of green sparked in the candlelight, and his quick eye caught sight of the ring that Cort had threaded on the leather. Ben's hand shot up to grab the cross. He held it still between his thumb and forefinger and stared, the color draining from his face.
He'd had it made up special by a Jew in San Francisco. Picked everything that went into it himself, even drew a sketch of what he wanted so there'd be no mistake. He'd know it anywhere, the band of filigreed California gold studded with square pale green emeralds, chosen because they matched Velvet's eyes.
His voice was low, dangerously soft. "Now, where'd you get this pretty bauble?" He tightened his grip on the cross and the thong bit into the young man's skin. Cort was forced even lower until they were eye to eye, Wade's were flat and cool, Cort's questioning, confused. "You steal it?"
"Let go, Wade," Cort said quietly.
Christ almighty...Velvet's ring. He'd given it to her the last time he'd seen her up in Leadville. Had it half in his mind to ask her to marry him then, and he reckoned she half expected it. Surely seemed to be waiting for something that last night they spent in her bed. She'd been nervous, giddy, and her kisses were extra sweet.
And he might have done it; the words were on the tip of his tongue. He held them back because of the job he had coming up. He was going to rob his first train. The take would be higher than usual, trains carried a bigger payload than stages. But on the other hand, the job was a lot more dangerous. Ben Wade bit back his declaration and decided to wait until he could come back to Leadville in a blaze of glory, his pockets full of more money than Velvet had ever seen. Sweep his light o' love up and carry her off, the envy of every man in town.
But the truth of it is, a man who makes his living stealing is naturally greedy. Turned out that job led him into another one, and then another, each robbery taking his crew farther south into the badlands to prey on the Butterfield Line and the Southern Pacific. He'd come into his own then, learned what a man of his talents could do, if he was fearless and cruel enough. He'd terrorized the Arizona banks and stages until a run of bad luck got him locked up in Yuma prison. Not that he'd stayed in the calaboose long, but all told, he'd been away from Leadville almost a year and a half by the time he made it back to Colorado. And when he got there, Velvet was long gone. He'd never heard from or of her again.
With her ring warm in his palm, Wade's fevered brain spun the possibilities and he immediately imagined the worst. He didn't stop to think that Cort Davis was too young to even have been born back then. All he could see was Velvet traveling alone, the stage set upon by John Herod and his gang of cutthroats. And this sorry son of a bitch in front of him took her ring, collected it in a poke with the rest of the loot. Did he rape and kill her too? Laugh while he did it?
Was he as bad as me? Wade thought, knowing he'd have done it all and never blinked an eye. His gaze went cold and flat as a rattler's staring down its prey.
Cort's stomach clenched and his mind reeled. The fever's making him crazy, he thought. But nothing's more dangerous than a wounded animal. He tried to pry Wade's fingers apart while he said firmly, "Ben, turn me loose now."
The muscle under the old desperado's eye jumped. "Where'd you get this, Killer?"
Killer. Like a bullet to his heart, the old nickname made Cort recoil hard enough to snap the leather thong. "Don't call me that," he warned, stepping back.
Wade opened his clenched fist to examine the ring more closely. It seemed so tiny and elegant next to the crude wooden cross, still warm from lying against the young man's chest. The emeralds sparked green fire in the candlelight, the gold gleamed like Velvet's hair. And though his eyes were too weak to see them, he knew there were words carved inside the band, fancy French words the Jew had suggested. Je reviens. I'll come back.
Cort held out his hand and there was no mistaking his anger. "Give it to me, Wade. Dammit, that's my mother's wedding ring, all I have left of her."
Her wedding ring? Well, not quite.
Ben Wade looked past his hand to the sketch in his lap, and it came to him with the vivid brilliance of a lightning strike, the piece of the puzzle that had been eluding him all day. It was so obvious he wondered how he'd missed it. But that's what happens when something is hidden in plain sight, you never see it, he thought. The young man's face, its gentleness, those cheekbones, the green eyes...they were Velvet's. And the arrow straight brows, the cleft chin, the strong nose, those were his own.
Cortland Davis, from Texas by way of Arizona.
And Velvet, last he'd heard, went back to her family in Texas.
Texas was a big place and those were some long odds, but a betting man knows that the longest odds always pay off.
He raised his eyes and went weak as he looked into the face of his own son. Velvet's son. Licking dry lips, Ben tried to speak, but his tongue was stopped by a merciless bout of coughing. Despite the fist pressed to his mouth, a stream of blood ran down into his beard, staining the grizzled whiskers. He lay helpless, wracked by a spasm so violent he could do nothing but let it take him.
Cort moved quickly, turning the old desperado on his side so he wouldn't choke. It went on forever, the deep tearing coughs, the heaving for enough breath to stave off suffocation. Wade's wasted body seemed too frail to fight on much longer, and Cort thought he would die, right then and there.
But the spasm passed, and an exhausted Ben Wade flopped bonelessly back on the pillow. His eyes were closed and his chest heaved, but after a short time he said as if driven to apologize, "Forgive me, son."
"You scared the hell out of me," a shaken Cort managed.
"Scared the hell out of myself," Wade admitted. "Sweet Jesus, that hurts. Like my chest's been ripped apart. A bullet would be more merciful." He eyed Cort hopefully.
"I'm not going to shoot you, friend. Don't even ask."
The stubborn strength that had often stymied John Herod was plain as Cort shook his head and said, "No."
"It ain't that. I got to piss somethin' fierce."
Cort's head came up and his smile was relieved. "Well, that I can do for you. Think you can stand up?"
"Yeah, if you help me. Take me outside. I ain't gonna make water in a church." His eyes slid to the statue of the Virgin. "For sure not in front of the Lady."
It took a monumental effort. Wade managed to stand, but he couldn't walk a step. Cort lifted him in his arms like a child and carried him outside; set him on his feet where he could lean against the adobe wall. It had stopped raining for the moment, but night was coming on fast. There wasn't a star in the clouded sky, and though he knew the moon was on the rise, Cort couldn't see it.
Wade let go, his urine spattering on muddy ground, then stood leaning weakly against the church. "You got my horse tied up?" he asked suddenly.
Cort knew what he wanted. "Not tied, but he's corralled. I could bring him to you if you want."
For a moment he thought Wade wouldn't answer, but he finally said, "Never mind, let him be. I reckon he'll do without my goodbyes." He buttoned his britches, pushed off the wall to sway weakly, his eyes mutely imploring. Again Cort carried him, marveling at his slight weight, the heat that rose from his body. As gently as a mother, he laid Wade in bed and covered him with the blankets.
The outlaw eyed the empty bottle of Rose Bud lying on its side on the floor. "Reckon I'll try some of that wine now, son," he said weakly. "And I hope to hell it gets me drunk. Maybe then I won't notice when I die."
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