[Author's note: Sorry, no real erotica here. It may not seem like it at first but, when you think about all the angles, this is a love story.]
Seth Bowman had set his saddle on the back of the lineback dun by the time the man with the badge murmured, "I surely wish you'd change your mind, sir."
Bowman lifted dark eyes briefly and shook his head.
Travis moved in close. His voice wasn't quite steady.
"I need you," he murmured urgently. "Nobody knows this work like you do, with your experience as a peace officer. A dozen people told me that. That's why I hired you. Without you, we may all as well go home."
Bowman gave another wrap to the latigo in silence. He glanced away, to where the others wolfed down breakfast, then at the younger man. "You ain't struck me as the givin'-up kind."
Travis's youthful face twitched behind his sketchy beard. "I'm not." In the poor light, his smile was rueful. "Ordinarily. Here, I don't know what to do. I was depending on you."
Bowman pulled a final wrap through the D-ring and finished off with a neat, flat tie, then pushed the stirrup leather forward and began fussing with the lacings.
"You ain't gonna make me feel guilty," he informed the younger man quietly. Once more, his eyes flicked to the peace officer's face. "I done what I agreed to. Now, I'm goin' home. Like we settled before I come."
"Yes," Travis acknowledged slowly. "But, surely...." He looked at Bowman's dark, set face, its lean cheekbones and hard jaw, and breathed a time or two before going on. "I know what we agreed. At that time, I thought this was a job that could be done in a few days. I'm new at this. You've done it a hundred times. I don't know this country. I don't know the trails - or where the water is. I'm - afraid of leading these men into a situation that will kill them. I don't know what to do."
Satisfied with the lacing, Bowman dropped the stirrup and walked around behind the horse to examine the off stirrup.
"You're sellin' yourself short. And them." He nodded toward the camp. "Just you be the law brains. You got one pretty fair tracker, there, in Morgan. You got a real fair hand with a gun in the Gruber kid, for all his braggin'. Lido's prospected all over the Mazatzals and knows the water holes, box canyons and whatnot. The others got greed on their side, so they'll stick. 'Bout all you need."
Travis's eyebrows climbed. "Greed? For men to want back money stolen from their own bank? Do you think?"
The other man's lean shoulders lifted in the slightest of shrugs. "Maybe." He smoothed the lacing and dropped the stirrup, turning to face Travis, so close to him that they could have spoken in whispers. "Gotta go. Like we agreed on. I give my word. I 'xpect you to keep yours."
"Of course," Travis said reluctantly. "But surely - surely she would understand that you had to stay until the job was done."
"It is done," Bowman said gently. "I hired on to track and guide till the twenty-third, as needed. That's what I done. I give my word, and lemme tell you, boy, if I ever break my word, it ain't gonna be to my woman."
Distress painted Travis's face. He watched as the dark man mounted easily. The dun jogged out of sight leisurely, down the floor of the steep-walled canyon. Travis turned back to the little group of men that was his posse.
It was already over ninety degrees in the shade. By noon, the sun would bake them. He had a hundred questions, but the answers had just jogged off on a big lineback dun.
His voice was too loud and a little wobbly.
* * *
By the time the sun was directly overhead and burning down fiercely, Seth Bowman was where he had meant to be. He tied the dun in an arroyo where the scant shade of the wall would give the tired horse some relief from the heat. He exchanged his boots and spurs for resilient, silent moccasins. On practiced feet, he went down the arroyo, then up out of it by way of a deep, water-slashed cut in the wall. Then there was nothing but rock, cactus, and mesquite. He went slowly, taking every bit of cover there was.
Nearly an hour later, he was able to step in soundlessly under the shade of a huge ironwood and say, "Don't move."
A bleary-eyed redhead scrambled for a handgun that lay beside him on his blanket. Beyond him, a second and third man sat up out of a sound, hot sleep, eyes big and startled.
"I said don't," Bowman repeated harshly. The man with the wooly red beard and mane was assisted into wakefulness by the sound of Bowman's single-action .44 cocking.
He blinked up at Bowman, owl-like, and said, "Oh. It's you."
Bowman's expression might have been carved out of the ironwood at his back. There was a slight curve to his mouth; no one would have mistaken it for a sign of amusement.
"Judas Priest," one of the younger men said. "You scared me about half to death. What's goin' on, Philo?"
The redhead slowly relaxed but did not take his eyes from Bowman's face.
"Never mind," he said. His voice was like gravel tumbling in a drum. By contrast, Bowman's was like velvet.
"Keep your hands away from your guns," Bowman said softly. "Just listen. Don't talk."
"It doesn't have to be like this," the man called Philo said. "Sit down and have something to drink. You look mighty hot."
Bowman considered them for a moment. The muscles flexed across his chest and down his free arm, as if holding on came with difficulty.
"Just shut up and listen." He saw a slight movement and added, "You tell those little snots that when I said, 'Don't move,' I meant not a muscle."
The redhead tore his eyes away from Bowman's and looked around at his companions. "Stop it," he growled. "He'll kill you where you sit."
Bowman watched until their stillness satisfied him.
"They're about half a day from you. They'll be comin'. So far, you've left tracks most any decent tracker could read. Without me, it'll take 'em a time to pick it up, but they'll do it. Bank on it."
"You said you'd keep them away from us! You gave your word on that!"
The curve in Bowman's mouth deepened. "I give my word on nothin' - except to give you a break. I done that. I'm standin' here givin' you another. That's one extra. I reckon you know why you're gettin' that. I wouldn't push my luck, boy, was I you."
"All right." The tone soothed. "But half a day which direction, Seth? Be fair."
The fury that flared in Bowman's eyes startled them. They heard him hiss and then, in something more than a whisper, he said, "You make these boys understand I mean this with all my heart: I'll kill you some way slow if I catch any of you near me. Or mine."
When Bowman had gone, they blinked at each other. Then, Philo said, "Get up. We're going."
"What do you mean, 'we're going'?" came a whine. "Who was he? You just going to let him get away with that? And what are you talking about, going? It's hot high noon!"
The redhead slowly unfolded his slender body from his bedroll. "Yes, I am going to let him get away with that. And it'll get a whole lot hotter if we don't move now. We have a few hours." He began picking up his blankets. "I'm not going to tell you who he was. You're stupid, but you are my kin, and I wouldn't like to see you go after him. He'd kill you."
One of them gave a snort. "That was just wind. 'Seth,' you called him. I don't recollect nobody with a big reputation, name of Seth."
Philo paused and looked thoughtfully in the direction Bowman had taken. He said softly, "I never said he had a big reputation."
* * *
It lacked a few minutes of midnight when Bowman finished rubbing down the exhausted lineback dun and turned it into its home corral. He walked across the narrow yard that separated the barn from the painfully small house, guided by the light from a low-burning lantern left for him by the back door. He stripped off his grimy shirt and undershirt, and doused his head and shoulders in the fresh water waiting for him in the basin beneath the kitchen window. The splash of water masked the sound of the screen door opening on oiled hinges. He didn't hear her until she was upon him, because her feet were bare.
She caught him as he straightened, her arms swooping, heedless of the water that ran from his hair, over his face and chest and back. She said his name and clung. Her mouth was on his mouth, then against his neck.
He held her close. "I'm filthy," he said into her mane of wild red hair.
She gave a denying shake of her head and did not move away. She was shivering in the hot night.
He whispered, "Easy, girl."
"I was so scared. I knew you'd come if you could," she murmured against his skin, "because you promised, but it got to be so late - and when you didn't come, I was afraid you were hurt - or worse." She gulped down a sob.
"I'm fine," he assured. "It ain't midnight, yet, is it? It's still the twenty-third, ain't it? I promised I'd be back by the twenty-third."
"I know." She pulled back just enough to look up at his face with serious green eyes. "I didn't mean to say you weren't.... I heard you washing up and looked at the clock - I couldn't believe I'd gone and fallen asleep, waiting. I'm sorry."
"Don't be sorry."
Her shaking fingers traced his jaw. "You look all in. Are you hungry? I baked bread this morning, and a pie that turned out not so bad as usual."
His fingertips on her lips stopped her babbling. "They're never bad. Hush, now. You're wound up tighter'n a two-dollar watch. I don't want food. I do want outta these clothes I been in for two weeks. Gonna close my eyes till Christmas."
He put his hands on her shoulders, over her plain white shift, and set her back from him a little. "It's done, sugar. I don't know how it'll come out, but it's done."
She licked her lips. "I know - I know it was hard for you."
"Lord, yes," he said, and closed his eyes. "It seemed like I spent my whole life gettin' it done."
He gave her shoulders a squeeze. "Maybe later."
He gently pushed her ahead of him, through the tiny kitchen, into the bedroom. The bed was old, had started out as somebody else's, and had never been the best. Their weight sagged the middle of it, but they would have shared the center of the mattress anyway.
He was drifting off to blessed sleep when she raised her head from his chest.
"I know you didn't want to talk about it. I want to say just this one thing. Thank you. I'll never forget what you've done for them."
For a moment, he didn't move, not even to breathe. Then his hands tightened around her waist and set her away.
"Let's get this straight right now." His words bounced harshly into her face. "I didn't do it for them. Not one little part of it. I done it for you."
He rolled away, up, and out of the close little room in one smooth move.
The screen door bounced twice behind him in the night, its echo dripping with guilt and cherishing.