BETTER LUCK NEXT TIME

By ALWrite

 

Ben Wade is meeting a young boy in a train station. Will the story of his life repeat itself or can he make sure little Tommy gets a better chance in life?  

 

Four years after the events in "3:10 to Yuma"

 

Chapter 1: Tommy

 

"Good-bye, Mr. Warner. It's been nice meeting you."

 

"Major."

 

Ben Wade tipped the brim of his black hat in greeting, and Major Halliwell stepped on the train. Ben Wade, known to Major Halliwell as Ben Warner, wealthy horse breeder and owner of the 'Horseshoe Ranch' in South Nevada turned to leave, when his eyes fell upon a small boy sitting on a bench at the station guarding a carpet bag and clutching a small hat in his hands.

 

The boy was a meagre little thing with pale hair and fair skin. He was observing the people around him but kept looking into the direction of the street as if expecting someone.

 

For a moment Ben Wade found it hard to breathe. A sudden memory hit him like the butt of a rifle: once again, he was eight years old and sitting in the train station with a Bible on his lap waiting for his mother to return with their tickets. Once again he could smell the stale air in the old room, and hear the rhythmic sounds of the departing trains that had been his companions for three whole days. Once again he could feel the dread that had welled up in him as the sun set for the third day and he became certain of the fact that his mother wouldn't return.

 

Meanwhile the boy had noticed the man who was watching him. Carefully he looked him over. When Ben's gaze met the boy's the boy dropped his eyes - only to fix them on him again from under his lashes. He kept looking at the man, at his elegant black velvet jacket, his black hat, his stocky strength as if expecting something.

 

 

The boy's eyes finally travelled up to Ben's face a second time, and they looked into each others' eyes. Ben took it as a cue to walk over.

 

"Hi there," he drawled and managed a somewhat strained smile.

 

The boy had held his eyes with a scary expression but didn't answer.

 

"Who you waiting for, boy?" he tried.

 

The boy remained silent.

 

"You know, not answering ain't polite," he said to the boy. The boy didn't know what to do. His eyes were huge, and they were glued on Ben's face. Slowly Ben sat down on the bench beside the boy. Then – slowly so as not to scare him - he turned around to face him.

 

"What's your name, boy?"

 

"Tommy." The boy swallowed, then – with a look at the black-clad imposing man beside him he said, "Thomas Dalton, sir."

 

"How old are you, Tommy?"

 

"Eight, sir."

 

Ben swallowed. Why did he have to be eight?

 

"And why are you sitting here in the train station all by yourself?"

 

"I'm waiting for my Mummy... my mother."

 

 

Not his mother, dear God. Anyone else but his mother.

 

Ben nodded encouragingly at the boy and smiled.

 

"She gets money for our tickets."

 

The smile vanished from Ben's face.

 

"How..." It came out almost like a squeak... no. He had to clear his throat first. "How long's she been gone, boy?"

 

"Not long," Tommy said.

 

Ben recalled that during his ordeal all those years back there had been several people curious enough to ask him the same questions. He had always reassured them that his mother was just around the corner and could be back any minute.

 

"Long enough for you to be hungry?" he asked, remembering a sweet old lady who had asked him that question and had fed him a few biscuits before being ushered away by her impatient husband.

 

Tommy looked at Ben but didn't know what to say. He hadn't eaten for two days, but that had been because his mother had forgotten to bring food for their train ride... or so she had said.

 

"Tommy..."

 

They both turned at the sound of the pleasant, almost musical voice. Ben could see a young woman – a pretty little brunette – rushing over to where they sat.

 

"Who are you?" she spat at Ben.

 

Ben smiled his most charming smile, stood up, and touched his finger to the brim of his hat. "Ben Warner, Ma'am. Pleased to meet you."

 

She turned to look at Tommy. "What did I tell you about talking to strangers?"

 

Ben couldn't suppress a smile. Were all mothers alike? He, too, had had this lecture from his mother and had tried to obey – as if at the end of those three lonely days he could have had any choice...

 

The boy was looking really contrite now.

 

"Ah... Ma'am... it wasn't Tommy's fault," Ben came to his rescue. "You see... the boy was sitting here all alone, and when nobody came I decided to keep him some company." And at the flaming stare the woman gave him he added, "One never knows what rogues are about now, do we?" He smiled his famous Ben-Wade-smile, the one that was guaranteed to melt every woman's heart, but it was lost on the woman's back for she had turned and picked up the carpet bag.

 

The boy flashed a wide thank-you-smile at him. Without realising it Ben smiled back at him and put his hand softly on the boy's shoulder.

 

"We are leaving, Tommy."

 

"Where are we going, Mummy?"

 

"We are going to the saloon. I've found a job there. We will eat and sleep there for a few days until I have earned enough money for our tickets."

 

The word 'tickets' stirred something in Ben. He wondered fleetingly how long she would have to 'work' for those tickets.

 

Tommy looked up at his mother in a hopeful way. "Can we eat tonight, Mummy?" he asked shyly.

His words made Ben understand that the boy wasn't used to eating regularly. No wonder he was so small. Ben's gaze fell upon the woman again. She, too, was extremely skinny. Her skirt was modest and not modelled to bring out her waist and hips, and her blouse was buttoned up all the way to her throat. Her collarbones stuck out clearly under the thin material. Her slender fingers stroked her son's cheek. She smiled down at him, a smile full of tenderness and warmth.

 

"Yes, Tommy. We will have a warm meal tonight. And every night we are here."

 

Tommy's bright smile forced Ben to look away. He knew exactly what a cutthroat employer Jenkins, the owner of the saloon in Pah-Rimpi, was. The girls working for him had to pay so much for their keep they rarely got enough together to buy themselves a new dress or a decent bonnet for church on Sunday. If the woman intended to work in his saloon she would have to work a long time in order to be able to pay for anything more than the mere basics.

 

The woman had gathered her carpet bag and taken Tommy's hand. Without as much as an acknowledging nod towards Ben, she turned and led the boy away.

 

"Good-bye," Tommy managed to say to Ben, then he was rushed off by his mother.

 

Ben decided not to ride back to his ranch but to rent a room in the hotel instead. After a good meal there he headed for the saloon.

 

It wasn't difficult to spot Tommy's mother. She was the only one in a simple homespun dress. For a moment Ben's eyes surveyed the scene. It was early evening. There were a few men drinking at the bar, four men played cards at one of the back tables, and two men were sitting at another table, dallying with the girls. The usual chattering, laughing, drinking. No unknown faces or strange behaviour. A typical weekday in the only saloon in the little town known as Pah-Rimpi.

 

Ben leaned on the bar and waved over Jenkins, the owner. Then his eyes returned to Tommy's mother. She was collecting glasses from the various tables.

 

"I see you have a new girl," he said to Jenkins.

 

"Yeah..."

 

Jenkins was never sure what to make of Ben Warner. As barkeep he took pride in the fact that he knew all the important men in town and the surrounding ranches. After all, even the married men showed up in his saloon every now and then to buy a girl for something they couldn't get at home. But Jenkins had never been able to assess Ben Warner.

 

Sometimes he came in with a business partner for a drink. Once or twice they had extended their entertainment and Warner had paid for girls. But he had always spoken to the girls directly, never to him. Jenkins didn't quite admit it to himself, but as he was standing opposite Ben Warner with Ben's gaze turning from the girl to him he was scared of the man.

 

"How much does she charge. Do you know?" Ben asked him.

 

Jenkins hesitated. The new woman didn't look like one of the whores. And Jenkins knew that Ben Warner saw this, too. What was the man up to?

 

"Most of the girls charge 2 dollars... 5 dollars if you want the whole night. Only Cindy can charge more," he said with a nod towards the youngest of his whores.

 

 Ben nodded in understanding. "And how much does she have to pay you?" Ben asked quietly with a nod towards the new woman. His voice was silent, almost purring, but Jenkins heard the steel behind it.

 

 

"Two dollars for the night," Jenkins said.

 

"Isn't that a bit much considering that the other girls only pay 1 dollar," Ben said.

 

Now, how the hell did the man know what the girls had to pay him?  Jenkins raised his chin in defiance. "She has a son. He eats and sleeps here, too."

 

Ben nodded again. "Hardly fair to charge her double for the same room and the same bed, is it?"

 

"Mr. Warner, sir..." Jenkins started to defend himself but a gesture from Ben shut him up. He got out his wallet and put two dollars on the bar in front of Jenkins.

"Here is the rent for tonight for her and her son – including a good breakfast tomorrow. Understood?" Jenkins nodded and put away the money.

 

"And make it plenty of food. She looks damned skinny to me."

 

Again, Jenkins nodded.

 

"Now give me a whisky, and then call her over. No other men for her tonight." Jenkins did as he was told.

 

"This man here requires your services," Jenkins said to the woman when she approached the bar. Ben had had his back to her but was turning slowly when Jenkins spoke.

 

Her shocked face made him smile. "Ev'ning, Ma'am..." he drawled and touched the brim of his hat.

 

"Shall we go up?"

 

"No. Not this man," she said to Jenkins.

 

Jenkins shot a scared look at Ben, who ignored him.

 

"Don't worry. I can pay up. You can ask the other girls," Ben said with a smirk.

 

 

She understood that she had no choice. If she wanted to stay in the saloon that night with her son – and she did, it was the only place she had been able to find – then she would have to submit to this man. Slowly she turned and started walking up the stairs. Ben followed her to a small room at the back.

 

As soon as Ben had closed the door behind them the woman started to undo the buttons on her blouse. Silently she dropped the blouse. Her bodice was tied in front, and she started to undo the laces when Ben's hands covered hers to stop her. Scared, she looked up at him. He shook his head.

 

"No. Not this."

 

Her eyes told him that she didn't understand.

 

"Where is the boy?" he asked.

 

Her look turned from confused to scared again. She didn't reply.

 

"It's already late. He should be in bed, asleep," Ben continued, "not wait for his mother to... finish her work."

 

Now her eyes blazed fire. Ben laughed out loud. "That's better, darlin'. – Now... where is he?"

 

She clearly didn't know what to make of him. He chuckled, patiently waiting for her response.

 

"He is waiting outside."

 

"Good." Ben dropped into a chair. "I have a business proposition for you."

 

Ben's 'business proposition' was very simple: he needed a cook and a housekeeper, and the woman needed work. She and her son were to come to Ben's ranch. She would work for him  "...however long it takes for you to get together the money for your train tickets...," he drawled. When the woman hesitated he continued, "How long do you think you need to earn enough money to be able to buy those train tickets when you have to pay Jenkins 2 dollars a day?"

 

It was true. She would have to satisfy at least one man daily to simply pay their keep, not to speak of their food, a much-needed pair of trousers for the boy, and, of course, the train tickets. And she would need to buy food for their journey as well.

 

"Do you want your boy to see you do this job? Hear the talk in the saloon? Be around these men and women?" Ben had pressed home his point.

 

In the end she had agreed. She wasn't sure why he did what he did. There must have been other women in town whom he could have asked to cook for him. Did her work include more intimate 'services' as well? She didn't dare ask, didn't dare imply anything in case she might create an idea in his head that hadn't been there in the first place. And she didn't really want to know. She grasped at the straw of taking her boy out of the saloon, to allow him to be on a ranch and away from prying eyes.

 

"I'll pick you up in the morning after breakfast. My foreman is coming into town with a wagon, and he'll take you and your belongings to the ranch," Ben said as farewell. At the door he turned again, handle in hand. "Oh... I've paid Jenkins already. So you don't owe him anything."

 

The relief in her face was so palpable, he couldn't help smiling. He tipped the brim of his hat with his finger and left.

 

Tommy was excited. He had never been to a horse ranch before. He sat at the back of the wagon, balancing on sacks full of sugar, flour and wheat, and soaked everything around him up like a sponge.

 

Ben guided his horse closer to the boy. "Do you want to ride in the wagon, Tommy, or are you coming with me on the horse?"

 

Tommy's face cracked into a wide smile. He tried to climb up close to Ben, but the flour and sugar in the sacks kept on shifting, and he would have lost his balance had Ben not grasped him quickly enough. He pulled the boy up and sat him in front of himself in the saddle.

 

Tommy grasped the pommel, then he beamed a smile up at Ben that made Ben's throat go dry.

 

"How about it? Shall we go faster?" he asked in order to mask this sudden unbidden emotion. Tommy nodded enthusiastically.

 

With a nod to the driver and a "See you at the ranch, John," Ben urged the horse on to a canter. Within minutes he and Tommy were gone from sight.

 

"Do you like it, Tommy?" Ben asked.

 

They had reached one of the outer meadows of the 'Horseshoe Ranch'. There was a herd of 30 horses grazing on the still meagre grass in the winter sunshine.

 

"Are all of those horses yours?" Tommy asked in awe.

 

Ben chuckled. "Those are the young stallions that I sold yesterday. They will go north to Pit River in a couple of days. The army there needs new horses."

 

"So many!"

 

"There will be many more near the house. Stallions, mares, the yearlings from last year, and soon there will be the new foals."

 

Tommy stared up at him adoringly. He hung on his every word. Again, Ben had to swallow to contain his feelings. He, too, had been a boy like Tommy, and he, too, had looked up to a person with total trust once. What was that upwelling emotion he felt when he looked into Tommy's eyes... was it regret?

 

"How about it? Are you hungry, Tommy?"

 

"Yes."

 

Ben chuckled. Of course. A boy of that age could eat all day. And Tommy was so tiny, he would need double portions to fill out. The meagre, weasel-like face told its own story: the boy had known hunger. Quite like Ben himself had all those years ago...

 

At the end of the third day the station master had gone to fetch the sheriff. But the sheriff hadn't known what to do with an eight-year-old boy who claimed to wait for his mother and who refused to leave the station because his mother 'had told him to stay there and read the Bible'. In the end the sheriff had hauled him to his office, but Ben had managed to escape. He had been surviving on the streets by stealing food – mostly apples and bread – but it had been really tough to hide all the time, especially since he hadn't known the town well. During those first weeks alone on the streets two feelings had been dominating his life: fear and hunger.

 

When they arrived at the ranch Tommy's mother was already there waiting in the main house.

 

The main house was a two-story building. Inside a huge fireplace dominated the space. In front of it were several big and comfortable armchairs, ideal for relaxing in front of a warm fire after a busy day. Along one of the walls there stood a big stove with lots of kitchen utensils hanging from the walls. A simple but well-made table with four chairs stood in front of it. There were no ornaments or personal items of any kind. Everything was solid and functional – a man's home.

Upstairs were four bedrooms, the largest of which belonged to Ben. He had meant to put the woman and her son up there in one of the spare rooms but she insisted that she and her son sleep downstairs in the 'servant's quarter', a small room adjacent to the kitchen and the storeroom.

The ride from Pah-Rimpi to the ranch had taken all day, and everybody was exhausted. After a simple supper during which Ben made clear he expected Tommy and his mother to share his meals and not put him in the role of the 'gentleman-rancher' who was to be feared or pampered, it was time for the boy to go to sleep.

Ben watched Tommy being tucked into his bed by his mother. They both folded their hands and said the Lord's Prayer, then his mother bent over and kissed him good-night. Tommy hugged her tight, they smiled at each other, and then the boy snuggled under the bedcovers, closing his eyes.

 

The ritual he had just witnessed was so tender and touching Ben had to swallow painfully. He couldn't remember his own mother ever doing something like this. Most of the times she had been too busy with her chores to waste time with anything or anybody.

 

The adults returned to the kitchen. The woman started to clear the table and wash the dishes. It gave Ben another chance to really look at her. He wondered how old she might be. 25, perhaps 27, he guessed. She had a pretty enough face but she seemed exhausted. Was she tired from the long ride or tired from life? Ben couldn't quite determine this. She was small and skinny, much too skinny in his eyes. Her blouse and skirt were very simple and didn't compliment her at all. The best feature was her hair - it was light brown and looked very soft.

 

"Where you from?" Ben asked.

 

"California," she answered.

 

"Why'd you leave there?"

 

She stood bent over the dishes and didn't answer his question. It made him suspicious.

 

"Is there anything I should know? You hiding from someone?" he asked.

 

She hung her head for a moment, then she shook it. "No. But I needed to take Tommy away from there."

 

Ben considered this for a moment. So his first impression of her had been correct: she was first and foremost a mother. What might have happened? Her hands clasped a plate. She didn't want to talk about it, he could plainly see that. He thought of the tender smile she had given Tommy in the train station and their mutual prayer a few minutes ago and decided to drop that subject.

 

"What's your name?" he asked her softly.

 

"Rachel..."

 

Rachel. For a moment he was almost shocked. How fitting her name was. Rachel, mother of Benjamin... For him this defined her very well: she was all-mother. He couldn't help smiling. The woman had finally turned to meet his gaze and caught his far-away-smile.

 

"It's a pretty name," was all he said before he started climbing the stairs to his bedroom. But then he remembered something and stopped. "One more thing..."

 

"Yes?"

 

"From now on when you cook, you cook lots of food. Both you and Tommy look damned skinny to me. You need filling out a bit. And I am a man doing a man's work. You have seen the storeroom. There's everything you might need. No need to be stingy. So tomorrow we'll have a good breakfast." He smiled at her and nodded. "Good night."

 

Later that night Ben lay awake in bed, trying to wrap his thoughts around what had happened this day. God knew he had never planned on a family or anything – not with his past, anyway, - and suddenly he found himself being responsible for a young woman and her child.

 

Tommy had really gotten to him, he mused. Something in the boy had seemed familiar, had touched him deeply. He couldn't quite put his finger on it. Well, whatever it was, he would find out. Ben smiled into the darkness; he felt content and happy. The feeling lasted until he fell asleep.

 

"I'll teach you, you lazy bastard!"

 

Fists rained down on him. Ben tried to protect his face and head, and so the fists found their way onto his chest, into his stomach and – when he fell and tried to roll away – into his kidneys.

 

Dorsett had been drinking again, he could tell. It wasn't easy to avoid his beatings. This one had been triggered because, according to Dorsett, Ben hadn't brought in enough firewood. In the beginning Ben had tried to avoid these moments of rage, but he had since learned that it wasn't possible. When Dorsett was drunk the slightest trigger was enough for him to launch his fists – or the horsewhip – on the boy.

 

When Ben tried to evade the blows, he was beaten worse. When he screamed out in pain, Dorsett enjoyed himself even more and continued. Over time Ben learned that the only way to deal with Dorsett was to let him give vent to his fury. He tried to take his mind off the pain by counting the blows that rained down on him or by guessing the number of kicks after which Dorsett would stop...

 

After two years he could shut down to anything that Dorsett was capable of inflicting upon him. He even managed to smile in the face of his aggressor...

 

Ben opened his eyes, but he didn't wake up. He was still within the dream. That night he drifted in and out of nightmares of pain and humiliation, always on the edge of despair, always on the brink of consciousness as a relief from the pain. It was as if he was meant to suffer again through all the beatings he had gotten at the hands of Dorsett in the space of one short night...

 

When Ben woke in the morning he was drenched in sweat. For long moments he couldn't force himself to get up. It had been years, no, decades since nightmares of his past had disturbed his dreams. Not even during his forays into the deepest recesses of lawlessness had he experienced such anguish. Why now?

 

 

Chapter 2: Life on the 'Horseshoe Ranch'

 

During the first week certain rituals established themselves: Ben would be the first one up early in the morning, usually before sunrise. He would make himself a coffee, and then go out to talk to his ranch hands, distributing the work that had to be done that day. After this he would saddle his black gelding, Ribbon, for an extended ride along his property, checking on the horses which were located on the outer meadows. After returning from his ride Tommy and his mother would be up and a hearty breakfast would be ready. After breakfast the real work started – shoeing horses or tending to sick ones, teaching young ones to get used to human touch, to halter and tack. Sometimes there was a yet wild horse that had to be broken in, but most of the times the young horses were trained to respond obediently to their rider and to learn what they were supposed to be able to do as working horses.

 

For Tommy this was a great opportunity to observe Ben and the other ranch hands, and whenever possible he would stay glued to Ben wherever he went and hang on his every word.

 

In the evening when the day's work was done, Tommy was sitting at the dinner table reading aloud stories from the Bible his mother had picked for him while she prepared dinner. Often Ben would join them, reading a book in front of the fireplace or sitting at the dinner table doing some book-keeping. After dinner Tommy had to go to bed, and after cleaning up the kitchen Rachel vanished in their room, too. It was difficult for Ben to engage her in a conversation but he hoped that she would lose her shyness over time. For the time being they were still getting used to each other.

 

"'A certain man went down from Jer.... Jerus.... Jerusla...'"

 

"Jerϊsalem," Ben supplied the word.

 

"...Jerϊsalem..." Tommy repeated.

 

They were all sitting at the table. Tommy was reading the Bible story his mother had given him while she was peeling potatoes for supper. Ben was writing a letter to a prospective customer.

 

 "'... to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his ra... raiment... What is 'raiment', Mummy?" Tommy asked.

 

His mother looked up from her work but couldn't answer.

 

"It means 'clothes'," Ben said quietly. "It is an old word for 'garment'."

 

Tommy read on. The story about the good Samaritan was meant to teach support to people outside one's group, to bring the idea of altruism to people who weren't by nature cooperative. Tommy had no problem grasping the idea. When his mother implied that he should take it as an example for his own life, and the way he should treat people Tommy said, "The Good Samaritan is like Mr. Warner, isn't he, Mummy?"

 

Astonished at that connection Ben and his mother looked at him.

 

"Well... the people in the train station and in the saloon didn't help us. But Mr. Warner did."

 

It was another of those moments when Ben's throat constricted, and he had to deal with a sudden wave of strong emotions. Ben knew hero-worship. Charlie Prince had adored him, and he had been willing to do anything for him. But Tommy was a boy, and he was only beginning to learn about the world and the people around him.

 

Ben knew the Bible well. The Good Samaritan in the Bible story had helped the injured man without any profit to himself. Ben knew he wasn't like the man in the story. He knew there had been a certain selfishness behind his act. He had wanted them on his ranch for... well, for what? What reason had he had to bring them here? It had been a burning need in him at the time, a need he couldn't quite put his finger on... yet.

 

Rachel lowered her head. Ben could see that she had blushed. "Yes, Tommy," was all she said.

 

At the end of the third day in the train station someone had complained about the boy sitting there all day. While the station master had gone to fetch the sheriff a crowd of people had assembled, and they had been discussing his situation quite openly.

 

"The Lord loves all orphans," one of the women had said. 'Orphan' was a word Ben had read in the Bible, and since it mostly referred to 'fatherless' he deemed it would be okay. His father had died a couple of days ago, and in the Bible people who tended to orphans were always rewarded. Perhaps someone would help him find his mother...

 

"He's been left behind," he heard a man say. "The boy is from bad stock. You can see it in his face."

 

"Oh, I don't know," another woman said. She was plump and had a sweet face. "He seems like a nice boy."

 

"If his mother really left him behind, then there must have been a good reason for it," someone else said.

 

Tears blurred Little Ben's vision. The people around him discussed his situation callous to the fact that he was around. He was scared. Why wasn't his mother here to pick him up and tell those people to leave him alone? When the sheriff came and asked if someone knew him or could take care of him, the people had scattered very quickly, muttering about not wanting to invite trouble into their homes by taking in a rabid stray from the streets. The sheriff had had no choice but to take him to his office and lock him up for safekeeping. On the way over Ben had managed to run away.

 

"Tommy is a clever boy, " Ben said. His mother smiled, a soft smile tinged with pride.

 

"You know... he could go to school," Ben added.

 

"No." Her answer was immediate and somewhat unexpected.

 

"Why not?" Ben asked, genuinely curious. "It's not that far. One of the ranch hands could take him in the morning and pick him up in the afternoon..."

 

"No." This time she actually looked back at him.

 

"The boy would learn a lot of things besides Bible stories," he started again.

 

"Please..." Her voice was quiet now. She looked at him imploringly. He could see that this was important to her.

 

Ben looked from her to Tommy. Tommy, too, was surprised by his mother's behaviour. When tears began welling up in her eyes Ben gave in without a second thought. After all, who was he to stop her? Whatever her reasons were, she was  Tommy's mother. She knew best, didn't she?

 

Two nights later – it was still February - the foaling season started when one of Ben's favourite mares dropped her first foal. It was late at night when John, the foreman, came to summon Ben to the event, but Ben woke Tommy anyway so that he could witness what would happen.

 

Tommy didn't have any experience around horses yet. Ben put him in a spot where he could watch but wouldn't be in the way in case anything went wrong and the men needed to interfere. Ben himself tended to the mare. He had picked her out of a huge herd of young mares personally, and – as with most of his specially chosen horses – he had managed to build up a close bond with the animal. It was this bond that he was relying on now. It was a young mare, this was her first foal, and, naturally, she was nervous. It was late at night, and apart from Tommy and the foreman John nobody was present in the stable. John was sitting in the back of the barn out of sight of the mare but ready to help should he be needed.

 

The first signs of the mare's impending ordeal were clearly visible: she was extremely skittish, and had been lying down and getting up for some minutes now. Ben kept murmuring to her, sometimes humming a tune. Then, all of a sudden, the mare's water sack broke, and the fluid shot out of her body and trickled into the thick layer of straw below her feet. She heaved a sigh, and then lay down as if exhausted but Ben knew better. He had managed to look at her rear. John shot him a look, a question. Ben just said, "White," and John nodded, and settled back onto a pile of straw, obviously relieved.

 

Tommy kept his eyes on the face of the mare when Ben touched his knee to get his attention. He pointed to the mare's rear where a white balloon had appeared. In it Tommy could see two feet – the tiny hooves and slender legs of a foal.

 

Tommy's eyes widened. Between the two long legs a nose appeared. He could see the foal's head slide out slowly, its impossibly long front legs leading the way out into its new world.

 

Then the movement stopped. Ben and John tensed. The mare panted, and Ben took up his reassuring murmuring again. Tommy felt utter trust in the man who seemed to be in total control.

 

The reality was different, though. Ben didn't feel like being 'in control'. Emotionally, it was quite the contrary. Ben loved this horse. She was a pretty little thing, almost completely black except for her white fetlocks and a little white blaze on her nose. She was the perfect female equivalent to his old gelding, Ribbon, the horse that had shared the last years of his life as an outlaw. Perhaps this had been the reason he had fallen in love with her the moment he had spotted her in that herd. He knew that he would take it very hard should something happen to his favourite. Getting out the foal's shoulders was always the hardest part at a foaling. So far everything had been normal, and there was no need to interfere. However, if the mare wouldn't manage to push out the foal in the next ten, fifteen minutes, there would be a problem.

 

"Steady, little one, you're doing fine. Good girl..." He drew the word 'girl' out and gave it that tinge he had developed especially for this mare. It was like a personal name, and the mare reacted to his voice. Alone in a small stall – without a herd to guarantee her safety from predators – this man's voice was her only means of reassurance that the world was all right. She relaxed visibly, taking in deeper breaths than before, resting.

 

A few minutes later Tommy could see another wave of movement run over her belly, and she began straining again. With a cry – not unlike a woman's scream during her labour – the mare pushed out the foal's shoulders. Almost immediately afterwards the slender body of the foal was sliding out of her and into the straw.

 

Ben smiled and looked up at Tommy. Tommy's eyes were huge. His hands clung to his seat and he didn't – couldn't – move. He just stared at both mare and foal.

 

Ben itched with stepping closer and touching mother and child, but he knew that it was essential to wait. The two animals needed to bond with each other without interference. Furthermore, the mare needed to rest a few minutes. The foal wasn't stillborn; he could see this from its tiny movements. Soon it would struggle to break free of its placenta, and the mare would get up, and the umbilical cord would be broken. But for now they were both trying to adjust to a new situation. Ben talked to the mare in the tone of voice the mare recognized as companionship.

 

She snorted and - against his better judgment - Ben slid into the stall and knelt down beside the mare's head. He simply couldn't hold back. He petted her head and neck, and in low words whispered to her what a good girl she was and how beautiful she had been during her ordeal. Unknown to their onlookers the mare welcomed his presence by hanging out her tongue for him to tug. It was a small game that the two of them had developed by chance, and the mare usually used it to get his attention and some extra patting and caressing. She used it now to reaffirm the bond she had with that one particular human and to tell him she needed his touch.

 

Ben recognised it immediately for what it was. His eyes glazed over as he gently tugged at her tongue and then continued to caress her.

 

"It's alive." Tommy's voice was full of wonder.

 

Ben looked at the foal which had managed to struggle through the foetal sac that had surrounded it. It shook its little head as if in wonderment at the world it found itself in, and Ben couldn't suppress a smile. Edging slowly towards the little life, he reached for the foal's head and held it softly. Then he proceeded to clean the animal's nostrils and mouth. He laughed at the foal's attempts to shake him off.

 

"Stubborn little thing, are you?" he said softly, then peeked between the foal's legs. A wide smile appeared on his face. Slowly he petted the mare again, then he got up.

 

The mare chose this moment to get up on her legs, too. Her movement broke the umbilical cord, and the foal was now on its own. After another moment of confusion about the world it found itself in the foal pushed itself up on its forelegs, then shook its head again. The mare turned to her offspring, and started licking. Ben left the stall.

 

John looked at him expectantly. Ben smirked. "A filly."

 

John groaned, then the two men struck hands.

 

"You owe me $5, John," Ben said.

 

"Yeah... can't think why I do this. You always win, Boss."

 

"Look!" In all the time Tommy had not taken his eyes off the foal. He was whispering, still awed. "It stands!"

 

The two men turned and watched. The foal had managed to get up on its legs. But his body was all legs and coordination wasn't easy. It was struggling to balance. When it tried a tentative step towards its mother, it slipped and fell.

 

Tommy winced, John and Ben laughed.

 

"What happened? Is it sick?" Tommy asked Ben.

 

"No." Ben shook his head. "It takes some practice to stand and walk. Just give it some time, and it will walk over to its mother and start drinking."

 

The little filly looked almost exactly like her mother – her coat was black, and she, too, had the beautiful white fetlocks her mother had. All that was missing was the blaze on its nose. After another attempt she managed to stand and – carefully - swayed over to her mother and looked for her udder... under her front legs.

 

Ben and John laughed.

 

"'Tis not there." John laughed so hard, the tears were streaming down his cheeks. But perhaps that came also from the strain of having witnessed a miracle you wanted to cry about while as a man you weren't supposed to.

 

After her frustrating attempt to find nourishment at the wrong location, the little one teetered around in the stall, dropped her first feces – something that elicited another relieved smile from both men – and finally managed to find the milk bar. The mare started nosing and licking at the little one's black coat which was still damp from the birth. Ben, John and Tommy kept watching for some time, but then Ben held out his arms for Tommy to come down from the wall he was still clinging to. Tommy hugged him tightly. It was his release to having witnessed a very special event. Ben didn't put him on the floor. After nodding to John who would stay for some more time to watch the animals, he carried Tommy to the house and only set him down when he was in the house and outside the small room Tommy shared with his mother.

 

"Good night, Tommy," Ben said quietly, tousled the boy's hair and left.

 

Tommy watched him walk up the stairs to his bedroom. Never in all his life had the boy imagined there were wonders like the one this man had just made available to him... 

 

When he couldn't be with Ben, Tommy wandered the ranch. Initially his mother had been worried, but Ben had pointed out that there was nothing hostile on the ranch, and besides she couldn't tie her son to her apron strings. Tommy was allowed to go as far as the river, a natural boundary not too far from the main house which served as a major water source. It was an ideal spot for a young boy who wanted to explore the world around him.

 

Tommy was wandering along the riverbank that sported the first spring greenery when he saw a rabbit lying on the ground. It wasn't moving, and when Tommy approached he saw that it was almost unconscious. Its leg had been caught in a sling that had pulled tight and made it impossible for the animal to free itself. By the time Tommy found it, the rabbit had almost passed out from thirst.

 

Carefully, the boy freed the rabbit's leg from the sling. At his touch the animal revived somewhat, trying to get up and run off, but it was too weak to do anything. Tommy held it in a tight grip and carried it back to the ranch.

 

"Hiya, Tommy, what you got?" one of the ranch hands inquired.

 

Tommy walked over and presented his treasure.

 

"Wow! Hey, boys, have a look! Tommy found a rabbit in the trap that Vince set!"

 

Several of the men came over and slapped Tommy on his shoulder. Tommy felt very proud; he had done something to earn the respect of the men.

 

"Give it to Sam," someone said to him. Sam was a friendly man and incredibly fat by Tommy's standards. And he always had outrageous stories to tell. To the ranch hands Sam and his stories were a source of constant amusement; they didn't take him seriously. The reason the ranch hands treasured Sam was because he was a good cook. When Sam took the rabbit off the boy he held it up by its hind legs. The rough handling stirred the last vestiges of survival instinct in the rabbit. It tried to writhe out of the fat man's grip.

 

Sam placed the rabbit on a table, took a knife, and with a quick cut slit the animal's throat.

 

Tommy's eyes opened wide when he saw the blood flow onto the table, and he screamed a high-pitched wail. Then he turned and ran towards the house. The laughter of the men was in his ears, and he could hear one of them shout after him, "Men don't cry, boy!"

 

He rushed towards Rachel when he entered the house, burying his face in her skirts.

 

"Tommy, what happened?"

 

Between sobs and hiccups he told her about the death of the animal, and how they had laughed at his tears. She hugged him tightly.

 

Ben had been upstairs in his bedroom searching for something, and came down that very moment. He saw Tommy cling to his mother crying and caught her words.

 

"No. Men don't cry. But you are a little boy, and crying is alright, Tommy. You cry as much as you want to."

 

"You cry as much as you want to."

 

Martha held him while he cried. He had been trying to help her against a customer who had turned brutal. But Ben was only ten, and he had no chance against a grown man, especially a man who got it into his head that a whore had to obey his every whim no matter what. When Ben had launched himself at the man in a futile attempt to help Martha, the man's fists had smashed him to the floor. While the bruises in Ben's face turned from red to purple Martha held him and softly crooned.

 

"You are a good boy, Benjamin. Stop crying now. I'll be all right. Don't you worry about me. Sometimes these things happen, and a man hits a woman."

 

"I would never treat you like that!" His hands clasped Martha's skirts, and in a fit of rage and desperation he tore at the cloth while burying his head in her soft body, crying his fill.

 

A mother hugging her crying child. A warm feeling coursed through Ben while he watched Rachel and Tommy. The way she stroked the boy's hair, again and again, while murmuring words to soothe him... he stood rooted to the spot, transfixed by their sight. Only after Tommy had calmed down he walked down the stairs to join them.

 

"Tommy, I'm having a look at the new foal. Are you coming with me?"

 

By now many foals had been born, but Tommy never failed to tell Ben all the details that had impressed him. And he never tired of standing in front of the stalls listening to Ben telling him about the future of the little creatures.

 

But the little black filly that had been born first was their favourite. Ben kept checking on her and her dam regularly, and Tommy, too, could be found climbing up the wall of the box and peeking into the nursery – as he did now.

 

"Well, what do you think, Tommy?" Ben asked.

 

The little one was three weeks old now and had learned to use its legs. It was no longer stalking tentatively around in the box, but walked as comfortably as its impossibly-high-legs would allow.

 

"What is it doing now?" Tommy asked. The foal had lowered its head and was scratching behind its ear with its hind leg.

 

Ben laughed.  "It is itchy. Only small foals can scratch themselves like this. When they get older, their body fills out and they are no longer all legs."

 

The little one was shaking its head. The itch was still there.

 

"Can I ride it?" Tommy asked.

 

"No. It's much too young for that. If you want to ride you need a grown horse. But the little girl needs a name," Ben said. "What shall we call her, Tommy?"

 

His arm came around Tommy's shoulder. Tommy looked up at him. "I can name it?"

 

"Yes, if you like."

 

Tommy was looking the foal over intensely, pondering the grave task he had been given. Ben chuckled inwardly at the thorough inspection the boy gave the animal. 

 

"What if we call it 'white legs'?" Tommy asked, pointing to the foal's fetlocks.

 

"With a horse you don't say 'white legs'," Ben explained. "You call it 'fetlocks'."

 

"'Fetlocks'... 'fetlocks'..." Tommy repeated discovering the word. "Can we call her that?" he then asked Ben.

 

"Fetlocks?" Ben asked amused.

 

"Yes." Tommy nodded enthusiastically.

 

Ben laughed. "All right. 'Fetlocks' it is."

 

"You know, when you are staying on a horse farm then you have to know how to ride, Tommy. You wanna learn?" Ben asked as they left the stables.

 

"Yes!" Tommy was thrilled. His days were becoming more and more exciting, and now a completely new thrill awaited him.

 

Ben smiled when he saw the boy's enthusiasm. "Let's get over to the men's quarters. We'll ask John for a nice calm horse for you so your mother won't need to worry. Come on," Ben said and together they walked over to find the foreman.

 

"You mean she doesn't just cook...?" they heard when they opened the door.

 

"That's right," one of the men said, "he's got her for two jobs: a cook to fill his belly, and a doxy to fill his bed."

 

There was laughter, and the man who had spoken turned around, basking in the glory of being the centre of attention when they spotted their boss standing in the doorframe.

 

The men froze on the spot, anxious about how Ben would react. John the foreman saw Ben's eyes go hard and braced himself for what was to come. The man who had spoken stood in the middle of the room facing Ben. In a vague attempt to make light of his words he smiled at his boss and raised his hands in a gesture to placate... when the shot came.

 

Too stunned to even give a yelp of pain, the man looked at his leg. Blood was oozing from his thigh. He swayed and fell on a nearby chair. While the other men still didn't move, John relaxed. He had seen worse from Ben Warner.

 

"You were saying...?" Ben's voice was quiet but nobody was deceived by its softness. He had just shot one of his ranch hands.

 

"Nothing." The man gritted his teeth. The pain hit him, and he clasped his leg. The others were still unsure as to what to do. They shifted uneasily on their legs, but nobody dared draw attention to themselves.

 

"John, see to his leg, will you?" Ben asked. "Take him to the doctor in town. I don't want to see his face on this ranch again."

 

"Yes, sir."

 

"Come on, Tommy, let's go." Ben turned and left the men's quarters. Tommy was scared. The man whom he had begun to adore had just shot someone and remained as calm as ever. Lingering behind, Tommy could hear the comments of the men.

 

"Dammit, John! Why didn't you say something?"

 

"I told you to shut your mouth, didn't I?" John said. "Ben Warner doesn't like anyone talking bad about women. You should have listened to me."

 

"What's Mike gonna tell the doctor?" someone asked.

 

"If he's clever, then he'll tell the doctor it was an accident. And he'll take his month's pay and leave Indian Springs," John said.

 

"You are damned calm about it, John," another man said. "Why do you stick up for Ben Warner?  The man shot his ranch hand.  Hell! It could have been any of us!"

 

"Mike brought it on himself. Warner doesn't like loose talk. And he ain't no bad boss, either. I could be dead now. Ben Warner saved my life. So you think twice next time you say something," John said, efficiently shutting up the men.

 

"Tommy!" Ben called from the corral outside the men's quarters.

 

Tommy turned and ran. He wasn't sure about what the man had done wrong, but he definitely didn't want to make Ben angry.

 

"Come on, boy, let's find a horse for you. John is busy now," Ben said when Tommy joined him. It was the corral where all the working horses were kept. Most of the horses belonged to the ranch hands, but there were always some spare horses just in case.

 

Tommy didn't know this yet. To him all the horses were alike. They were brown, black, white, bay etc. but Tommy didn't perceive differences between them beyond colour yet. He didn't know that most of the horses on the ranch were untrained, some were unbroken and hadn't felt the weight of a saddle yet, although Ben always made sure that all the horses allowed to be touched and being lead on a halter.

 

Ben was eyeing up a brown gelding. The horse was slightly smaller than the rest, and he was a good working horse. Obedient to the point of boring. He would make a perfect teaching horse for Tommy.

 

Tommy had been watching Ben. "What is a 'doxy'?" he asked him.

 

Ben spun around at the speed of a cobra. The fury in his face scared Tommy and he quickly raised his arms in a vague attempt to protect his face from the hits he was sure would now rain down on him.

When Ben saw Tommy's gesture he immediately understood that Tommy had seen violence before – and that he was scared that he, Ben, would hurt him. Images of Dorsett, his old tormentor, ran through his mind. He recalled what Rachel had told him, that she had wanted to take Tommy away from their old life. He began to understand what she had meant. A burning desire to make Tommy's experience with grown men better than the ones he had had in his own life filled Ben. He took in the image of the small boy in front of him, who was still hiding his face behind his raised arms and didn't even dare to peek out at what happened around him. Slowly Ben crouched down in front of Tommy. When Tommy didn't dare to come out of hiding, Ben used his hands to softly lower Tommy's arms.

 

"Am I scaring you, Tommy?"

 

Tommy didn't know what to reply. He looked into Ben's blue-green eyes, so serious, so patient, and knew that the man was waiting for an answer. Taking a leap of faith he nodded at him. "Yes."

 

Ben shook his head. "You don't need to be scared of me, Tommy. I wasn't angry at you, I was angry at Chiltern."

 

Tentatively, Tommy smiled at Ben and received a smile in return.

 

"So, what is a 'doxy' then?" he asked Ben.

 

Ben took a deep breath. "'Doxy' is not a good word, and Chiltern knew this."

 

"He meant it as a joke, didn't he?" Tommy asked.

 

Ben shook his head. His eyes were serious again. "It wasn't a joke. He offended your mamma... he deserved what he got. Your mamma is not a 'doxy'!"

 

Well, whatever the word meant, for Tommy it was plain now that Ben had wanted to protect his mother. It was something Tommy had wished to do all his life, but had never been capable of. Gratefulness for Ben's deed washed over him, and he was proud that this man was on their side. From now on neither he nor his mother would have to fear anything.

 

Tommy's first riding lesson was the most exciting thing the boy had ever experienced. Once he had managed to climb on the back of the horse with Ben's help, Tommy discovered a whole new world. The steady and soothing movements of the horse, the control he could exert over it with reins and legs and best of all, the view he had from horseback made him feel ten feet tall. Eagerly and with complete trust he tried to do everything Ben asked him to do. His legs were still a bit too short to find a firm grasp around the horse's belly and he didn't know how to manage the reins without twisting his wrist, but for Tommy it was all a grand adventure. He was about to become a rider, perhaps a cowboy, perhaps even a rancher, and it definitely put him a lot closer to his idol, Ben Warner!

For Ben it held a revelation of a different kind. He had never been a teacher to anyone. Sure, Charlie Prince – and others – had worshipped him and tried to imitate him or fulfil his every wish, but that wasn't the same. Their worship had set him aside, apart, and Ben had had to act aloof, the gang leader who was untouchable. But now there was this boy who looked at him as if he was infallible, who listened to him and tried to do his wish not to gain an advantage but in an attempt to imitate and to please him. Both of them discovered each other and themselves in this encounter.

 

After nearly two hours in the saddle Tommy was totally spent. He hadn't done much more than get his horse into walk and trot – Ben deemed it was too early to try canter - and slow it down again. It had been hard work. Totally exhausted but profoundly happy, he slid off the saddle and into Ben's waiting arms. Tommy hugged Ben tightly. Like after the foaling he needed to express his gratitude and the emotional closeness he felt to this man. The shock he had received initially at Ben shooting his own ranch hand was completely forgotten.

 

Overspilling with his enthusiasm, Tommy ran into the house. He simply had to tell his mother everything about his newly-found passion for horses. She listened but didn't go beyond a smile and a "How nice for you, Tommy" in her acknowledgement of his pursuit. Tommy's bubbling excitement that amused Ben was lost on her. She didn't seem to relate to anything her son told her about.

 

Ben watched her, her movements, her body. He observed how the light reflected in her hair and face, and he realised that Chiltern's mention of the word 'doxy' had not been without its effect on him. The idea had wormed its way into his mind. A seed had been planted, and it was waiting to grow.

 

Even at dinner Tommy couldn't stop reliving his riding lesson. Repeatedly Ben corrected what he said and supplied the proper horseman-terms. Tommy asked a lot of questions. In fact, he didn't even stop after Rachel had pronounced it time for him to go to bed. When Ben mentioned that he should obey his mother Tommy insisted that Ben tuck him up.

 

Ben and Rachel exchanged a look. Ben read in her eyes that she viewed this as a trespassing into her own territory, but she wasn't given any chance to voice her opinion. Tommy grabbed Ben's hand and dragged him towards the room, obviously keen to talk on and on...

 

"Can I try canter tomorrow?" Tommy asked when he was crawling into bed.

 

"No. That's too early. Tomorrow you will have to practise getting on the horse on your own."

 

"The horse is too high. I can practise that when I'm taller."

 

Ben laughed. "That's not the point, Tommy. If you can't get on your horse, how are you going to ride?"

 

"You can help me get on."

 

Ben laughed again. "And how are you going to mount if you want to ride somewhere all by yourself?" he asked.

 

Tommy hadn't considered this. He was happy to do everything together with Ben.

 

"So," Ben resumed, "tomorrow you will practise mounting and dismounting properly. And I promise you that when you can do that we'll go on an outing together."

 

"Together?"

 

Ben nodded. "We'll take our horses, our sleeping bags, put some food in our saddlebags, and we will ride outside the territory of the ranch and camp somewhere."

 

"Yeah!"

 

It was the first really unrestrained sound Ben had heard from the boy. No shrieking, no shouting, no punching or kicking... ever since he had set eyes on Tommy the boy had been a model of good behaviour – as his mother would have called it. Ben, however, hadn't failed to notice the underlying caution in everything Tommy did, his ever-present shyness and timidity. The sound symbolised more than mere excitement. Tommy was beginning to lose his fear.

 

"One more thing, Tommy," at this Ben lowered his voice and gave it a slightly threatening tinge, "you will also learn to tend to your horse. Today you just slid down and ran off. Do you expect the horse to get its tack off all by itself?"

 

Tommy wasn't fooled by the threatening sound. He grinned at Ben. "You teach me that, too?"

 

Ben nodded.

 

Tommy snuggled under the covers, and smiled at Ben. "Good," he said, then he heaved a deeply-satisfied sigh and closed his eyes. Ben combed his hair out of his face and rose.

 

"Good night," Tommy called out to him when Ben had reached the door.

 

"Good night, Tommy."

 

The next day was tough on Tommy. He tried to mount without help, but failed getting into the saddle again and again. Some of the ranch hands were looking on and made fun of him until Ben chased them off.

 

Ben finally took pity on Tommy and hauled him onto the horse and into the saddle. From then on Tommy was fine. The horse was calm and obedient, and walking, stopping, turning the horse and getting it to walk backwards were not such a big deal. Tommy grasped it all easily. Only when Ben suggested that he should practise getting on again did his spirit sink. Ben smiled inwardly. The boy was so easy to read. Naturally, he didn't like to repeat failure; he liked to succeed. Didn't everybody?

 

"Okay, Tommy, then we'll do that tomorrow, but remember, you have to manage getting on all by yourself – or we can't go on our outing."

 

"I'll get you for this!"

 

The sudden shout cut through their talk.

 

Matt, one of the ranch hands, came running out of the men's quarters hotly pursued by Jason, a newcomer to the ranch. When Jason reached Matt he shoved him hard, and they both fell on the ground. Jason started to punch Matt, and Matt tried to roll away from him. There were a few more minutes of writhing, and kicking in the dust, then Matt managed to get up and whipped out a knife. Taking a defence stance, he waited for Jason to make his next move.

 

The shot rang, and the knife whirled out of Matt's hand and into the dust. Calmly Ben walked up to the two men, gun in hand.

 

"Into the stables, both of you," he said.

 

At that moment Rachel came out of the house. "Tommy! Get me some eggs from the hen house!"

 

Tommy slid off the horse and looked at the two men and Ben, who were walking into the stables. He followed silently. The eggs could wait.

 

The two men were standing in the stable, eyeing Ben warily. Ben had never sat down any rules against fighting. He knew too well that anger and frustration had to be released somehow, and men working and living closely together got on each others' nerves frequently. As long as nobody was killed or hurt so badly they couldn't work he didn't really mind. But Tommy had been around. Without being aware of the true cause for his interference, Ben had stopped the fight from getting ugly because he felt protective of the boy, trying to shelter him from things that he himself had been subjected to.

 

When Ben was sixteen years old he managed to get a job as a cowboy on a cattle trail. He was new to cattle driving, but nobody bothered to teach him anything. The men that had been hired for the trail were a raw lot, much given to fighting amongst themselves, and several of them didn't see the end of the trail. Ben was the youngest, a newcomer and greenhorn, and they frequently singled him out to pick on him. He learned about fist-fighting, knifing and gun-fights the hard way.

 

When the surviving men delivered the cattle several weeks later, Ben was among them. He had seen two men bleed to dead from knife wounds, another man had been shot in the guts. It had taken hours for him to die.

 

Ironically, Ben had managed to stay alive because of the lessons he had learned with Dorsett. He instinctively knew when to cower and when to fight back. When he had stood in front of a knifer wanting to take him down, he had fought back ferociously, and – having had an advantage at some point in the fight - had killed the man. When he got up from his adversary's lifeless form he had looked around, his silent gaze daring anybody to take him on. The others had gotten the message. From now on everyone left him alone.

 

Ben, too, ignored the other men as much as he could. His horse became his only companion. During the weeks on the trail he managed to bond so well with the animal that it followed him everywhere and answered to his whistle. Ben found that he preferred the animal's company, its reliability and steadiness to any human contact. It established once and for all what would become common behaviour for the future gang leader Ben Wade: in a group of men he was apart. He was a loner.

 

The two men were waiting in the stables, their guts churning in fear. A few days ago they had seen Ben shoot their pal Mike because of him bad-mouthing his woman. They weren't sure what was to come.

 

 

"What was this about?" Ben asked.

 

Suddenly both men were interested in their feet.

 

"I'm waiting." Ben's voice was a soft purr. Goose pimples rose on the men's skins. Unsure of what to do they looked at each other. Then Matt gave Jason a push, urging him to speak.

 

Jason cleared his throat. "Matt and I... we... well, last night we rode into town to have some fun in the saloon, and I chose a girl, and I went up to her room, and then when I... when she... when we... well... Matt came and told me I was wanted in the livery where we had put our horses, and while I was gone he took my girl...!"  At the last words, Jason had turned angry again.

 

"Hey!" Matt defended himself. "I only thought she shouldn't have to wait. I didn't know when you were coming back."

 

"But you didn't pay her! You took the money I had given her to pay her!"

 

"Well, I figured, she did the job only once, so she should get paid only once."

 

"Oh, yeah?" Jason hurled at Matt. "When I got back she told me she already worked for that money."

 

"Hey, I was doing you a favour. That girl ain't that good, you know. Next time you should pick a better one!"

 

"It was my money! She said you told her you were my friend and I always paid for you, you bastard!"

 

"You telling me you ain't my friend no more?"

 

Ben had had a hard time staying serious during their conversation. But when Matt claimed friendship he just couldn't control himself any longer. He burst into laughter. Matt was known for playing all kinds of tricks on his fellow workers. Sometimes they laughed good-humouredly, sometimes it got him into trouble. No matter how many beatings he got for his antics, he always did it again – especially with the new guys who didn't know him yet. It was just the way he was. Ben had to admit this was one of his better attempts at gaining an unfair advantage, and he was curious what Jason would make of it.

 

Jason saw himself laughed at. He hadn't been around for very long, and wasn't sure which side Ben Warner was on. Yeah, it was kind of funny what Matt had done. Only not for him. He was the victim, wasn't he? The girl had thrown him out when he had demanded his money back. After all, she had worked hard for it, or so she had said. Three dollars was a lot of money for him. He needed a new holster for his gun, but the girl had seemed more alluring. Dammit! Matt had played a mean trick on him. He should beat the shit out of him for it!

 

"Make up your mind, Jason," Ben Warner said. "What do you want?" The fun was over, he wanted normalcy established.

 

Jason considered his words. "I want my money back," he said, looking at Ben.

 

"Not from me," his boss said with a completely innocent look on his face. "I didn't enjoy the girl."

 

It broke the ice. Matt and Ben couldn't help laugh at that, and Jason couldn't stay serious either.

 

Jason held out his hand to Matt. Matt took it and shook it. Jason shook his hand off. "Not the hand, man!" he shouted. "I want my money!"

 

"Oh, sorry... yeah," Matt answered, pulling three crumpled one-dollar-notes out of his pockets. He handed them over to Jason, who took them with a sour face. Matt's hand was still extended toward him. He was waiting.

 

Jason looked at the hand another moment, then a smile crossed his face, and he chuckled at it all. The two men shook hands and left the stable.

 

Tommy had witnessed everything. He hadn't quite understood the problem but he had grasped that there was some money and some cheating involved, and that the cheating seemed to have been funny. At least the black-clad tall man he adored seemed to think so.

 

When Ben turned he saw Tommy. "Shouldn't you be in the hen house collecting eggs for your mother?" he asked the boy.

 

Tommy had completely forgotten about the eggs. He turned and ran - and bumped into his mother, who was looking for him.

 

When Ben returned to the house for dinner that evening Tommy sat at the table reading the Bible. He looked miserable. His mother stood at the stove, her back turned to him.

 

"Go on, Tommy, I can't hear you," she said.

 

"And they came to the place... which God... had told him of; and Abraham... built an altar there... and laid wood in order, and... bound..." Tommy's voice was getting smaller and smaller until his last words were only a whisper. He looked up at Ben, and Ben could see that he was scared.

 

"What are you reading, Tommy?" Ben asked him.

 

"He's gonna kill his son," Tommy said.

 

Ben had recognized the quote. "Abraham and Isaac?" Ben inquired.

 

Tommy nodded silently, his hands clutching the book.

 

"Tommy..." his mother intervened while stirring in the stew she had on the stove, "it is about obedience. Abraham is obeying God. Read on, and you will see what happens."

 

Tommy's eyes were huge when he looked up at Ben. The misery in the boy's eyes spoke to Ben in a way that did not allow for second thoughts. That boy had been hurt by his father, and now his mother wanted him to read a story about a father who was willing to burn his own son?

 

Ben walked over and gently took the Bible away from Tommy. Tommy's eyes filled with tears. Ben crouched down in front of him and ran his fingers through the boy's hair.

 

"You don't need to finish this, Tommy. I have a better story for you," he said. "But first we'll eat.  How long until supper?" he asked Tommy's mother.

 

"A few minutes. – Tommy, wash your hands before supper," Rachel ordered her son.

 

Gladly, Tommy got up, poured himself some water in the washbasin and began washing his hands. Ben joined him there. Together they washed and exchanged smiles – two friends who had conspired against a scary world.

 

Tommy's mother filled their plates and carried them to the table.

 

"It is time that Tommy learned about obedience. He is always running off playing instead of helping around the house. And he never follows orders. He always wants to do things his way," she said.

 

Ben knew this wasn't true. Tommy followed orders – albeit not immediately and to the letter. As young as he was he was still easily distracted by more interesting tasks.

 

"Oh, he will learn," Ben said between bites. "All in good time."

 

After supper Ben took Tommy up to his bedroom.

 

Tommy had never been up there before, and he was amazed when he saw the huge shelf along the wall which was stacked with books.

 

"So many books...!" he breathed. He looked at Ben and beheld a new man – one who had read every book there was in the whole world. No wonder Ben knew about everything.

 

Ben smiled at his obvious awe. "Now, Tommy... I'm sure that we'll find a good book for you here, one that teaches you about obedience."

 

He scanned the shelves, pondering... Tommy was only eight years old. Most of the books on the shelf he couldn't understand yet. But then Ben saw one that might just fit.

 

Tommy saw Ben reach for a thick volume, browse through it, read a paragraph, and finally close it. He handed it over. Tommy looked at the title.

 

"Fairy Tales... by Brothers Grimm" he read, then looked up at Ben. He didn't know what was in the book but the scared look from before supper was replaced by a look of utter trust in the black-clad man who could be so hard and yet was so gentle with him.

 

Ben smiled down at Tommy. "If your mother wants you to learn about obedience, then perhaps you should start with the story 'Little Red Riding Hood'. I think you'll like it."

 

He patted Tommy on his shoulder. "Now you go off to bed."

 

"Yes, sir."

 

Ben watched Tommy descend the staircase. 'Obedience'... how did one learn about obedience?

 

"I'll teach you obedience!"

 

The whip came down on the boy's back and made him howl out. This time the stalls he had mucked out weren't clean enough. It didn't matter – for Dorsett there was always a reason to use the whip on Ben.

 

He loved humiliating the boy. Just beating him up wasn't enough. He relished the boy's begging. Ben was clever, and once or twice he had used that knowledge and cowed before the man. But his easy compliance had backfired. He had had to learn that there was a certain level of aggression that Dorsett always had to get rid of no matter whether Ben begged or not. And after begging him to stop and getting a gleeful laugh and more beatings in return, Ben couldn't bring himself to ever cower again.

 

Gritting his teeth against the pain, he made himself count the blows that Dorsett delivered. It took his mind sufficiently off the pain. His triumph came when one day Dorsett was too spent to continue beating and Ben hadn't begged. Rolling on the floor and trying to stifle his tears, Ben figured that this time he had won over Dorsett. It wasn't to be the last time.

 

Dorsett never stopped venting his fury on Ben. But Ben perfected the art of not feeling the pain, of circumnavigating the humiliation he had always felt before by counting the blows and – when Dorsett started to get weaker – smile inside and made a wager with himself how many more blows it would take for Dorsett to exhaust himself and to stop.

 

When he was in control of this game, Ben took the next step: he smiled up at Dorsett when he felt that Dorsett would stop soon. Naturally, his smile would make Dorsett hit him again with renewed fury. But even that would wear thin after some more blows. And Ben hung on, endured, and did not cower.

 

After three years in Dorsett's 'care' there came the point when Dorsett didn't find it as fulfilling any more to hit him. It had been Ben's final victory.

 

During the next evenings Tommy was sitting at the table discovering the wondrous world of fairy tales. He read about malice and justice, about heroes and princesses, about treasures to be won and to be lost, and about magical animals. Ben had made him read aloud the story of 'Little Red Riding Hood' to prove his point to Rachel, and he could see that she had never heard of the fairy tales before either.

 

An idea crossed his mind: maybe he should be 'educating' her, too, to become a bit more responsive to his needs. Tommy was coming along just fine, and who knew what might become of her...

 

Chapter 3: Education

"'The cabin of Uncle Tom was a small log building, close adjoining to 'the house,' as the negro par excellence designates his master's dwelling. In front it had a neat garden-patch, where, every summer, strawberries, raspberries, and a variety of fruits and vegetables flourished under careful tending. The whole front of it was covered by a large scarlet bignonia and a native multiflora rose, which, entwisting and interlacing, left scarce a vestige of the rough logs to be seen. Here, also, in summer, various brilliant annuals, such as marigolds, petunias, four-o'clocks, found an indulgent corner in which to unfold their splendors, and were the delight and pride of Aunt Chloe's heart.


Let us enter the dwelling. The evening meal at the house is over,...'"

 

"Boss!" John entered the house without knocking first.

 

Ben, Rachel, and Tommy were sitting at the fire. Although it was late April, the evenings were still quite cold. It was past dinner time and Ben was reading to Rachel and Tommy from 'Uncle Tom's Cabin'.

 

"What is it, John?" Ben asked when his foreman interrupted them.

 

"The bay mare has started, and I think the foaling's not going right this time."

 

Ben was up immediately. Before he could leave the house Tommy was at his side, grabbing his hand.

 

"Me too," he said.

 

"Tommy, you must go to bed," his mother corrected.

 

"No, please!" Tommy held onto Ben's hand, looking imploringly up at him.

 

"No!"

 

John rarely spoke up, so his 'No!' made Ben listen. He understood immediately. Tommy still clutched his hand. Since the Bible incident Tommy had focused all his attention on Ben, spending almost every minute of his days with him. Ben considered Tommy's wish. By now the boy had seen quite a lot of foalings. It didn't matter if he didn't see this one – especially if something went wrong.

 

"Not this time, Tommy," Ben said to him. "You can see the next foal. John and I are busy now. You do as your mother told you and go to bed."

 

And when he saw Tommy's crestfallen look, he added, "Tomorrow, I've got something in mind for your riding lesson, so you better sleep now."

 

Early the next morning Tommy ran into the stables to see the new foal. But there was no foal, and the mare was gone, too. Ben brushed past him without as much as looking at him and went straight to the house and up into his bedroom. Tommy followed him. When Ben lay down on his bed fully clothed and placed an arm over his eyes Tommy asked, "What happened to the foal?"

 

 

Tired, Ben took his arm off his eyes and looked up at the ceiling. "It's dead, Tommy. The foal and its mother, they are both dead."

 

"Does that mean they are stiff and cold and you can't touch them?"

 

If that was the boy's concept of death, well... it was as good as any other.

 

"Yes, Tommy," he answered, placing his arm over his eyes again, "they are stiff and cold." He didn't want to explain any further, didn't want to be reminded of the bloody mess this death had been. All he wanted to do was shut it out of his mind.

 

Blood.

Blood by the bucketful.

A smashed skull and brains seeping out.

A dead form lying in front of him in the hay.

In his hands an axe, blood dripping from it.

This time he had hit back.

To take a stand.

To change what his life had become once and for all.

The whip had bitten into his flesh, and he had turned away from it, taken the axe, turned back and wielded it.

Dorsett.

Dead.

He didn't take the time to bury the man – what for? With Dorsett gone and Ben the only one around who hated him enough to kill him, he would be the only suspect, and he would hang for sure. There was nothing left but to run.

So Ben took a horse, two canteens and saddle bags and ran.

He was fifteen.

 

 

When Ben woke up, drenched in sweat, it was late afternoon. He had slept almost the whole day. Well, it didn't really matter. John was a good foreman, and he had taken care of the ranch before.

 

Dorsett. When would the memory of this man ever be gone?

 

From below he could hear Rachel's voice talking to Tommy. "Tommy, stop reading this and get out your Bible," Rachel said, busy with peeling potatoes and slicing carrots.

 

Tommy wasn't too fond of the Bible stories Rachel still picked for him. Mostly they were dry and tedious, and the lessons they offered were not to his taste. At that moment he saw Ben coming down the stairs. Perhaps Ben could help him delay his Bible lesson.

 

"But the book from Mr. Warner is good, Mummy..."

 

"The Bible is the best book there is. It teaches us about all the important things we need in life," Rachel said to Tommy.

 

Ben was still shaken and wrapped up in the feelings the dream about Dorsett had evoked. He was in dire need of getting grounded again. He brushed past Rachel, took a glass and gulped down two glasses of water. Then he took a deep breath and let himself sink slowly onto a chair.

 

Tommy still wanted to get away from reading his Bible story. "What are the important things in life, Mummy?" Tommy asked.

 

Ben smiled inwardly hearing Tommy's question. He was curious how his mother would answer this.

 

"Well... the Bible teaches us what is right and wrong. It teaches us about obedience, and about humility and gentleness..."

 

At that Ben cocked his eyebrow at her. 'Gentleness' was not something he connected with the Bible, and he would have loved to challenge her on this, especially since he knew the Bible well enough to quote easily from it to support whatever point he wanted to make in a conversation. But then he decided on another way to join in the conversation, by adding other things the Bible taught you about. Both Tommy and Rachel were astonished when Ben opened his mouth and casually said, "Love."

Rachel smiled, certain that he wanted to support her point, but then he smirked at her and extended his statement to "Love between men and women."

 

She froze. "I don't believe the Bible teaches us about... this," she said in a curt and clipped voice. To emphasize her point she took the pot filled with potatoes and put it on the stove rather forcefully.

 

Ben's look at her was all innocence. "Oh, but it does," he said with a smile.

 

Tommy's eyes were huge when he heard Ben contradict his mother in this way. He knew Ben was boss, but he also knew that his mother was always taking a firm stand where the Bible was concerned. He was interested in learning the outcome of their verbal sparring.

 

For once Rachel spoke her mind, sure in her knowledge of the Divine Word. "The Bible teaches about God's love for us, not about..." – here she hesitated because of Tommy, then looked firmly into Ben's eyes,  "...carnal pleasures."

 

For the first time she had addressed Ben directly and of her own volition. Finally. Ben had so been looking forward to this, to find something – anything - she would care about enough to leave her snail shell and take a stand on. He was anxious to find out who she was, to test her mettle. The corners of his lips turned up ever-so-slightly when he started quoting to her, "'I have compared thee, O my love, to a company of horses in Pharaoh's chariot.'"

 

He got up and walked over to where Rachel stood. His fingertips softly stroked her cheeks and neck while he continued, "'Thy cheeks are comely with rows of jewels, thy neck with chains of gold.'"

 

 

At his touch she froze again. He smiled at her.

 

"'Behold, thou art fair, my love, behold, thou are fair, thou hast doves' eyes. Thou art all fair, my love, there is no spot in thee.' ... Song of Solomon," he added with a patronizing smile, backing up his quotes as he usually did.

 

"There is more, but it is not fit for the ears of a small boy," he said. Her face flushed a deep red, and she turned away and bent over the sink. He stepped closer and whispered in her ear, "'Thy navel is like a round goblet, thy belly is like a heap of wheat, thy two breasts are like...'"

 

Although she had felt paralyzed at first, when Ben continued quoting in her ear and at the mention of her breasts she bolted and gave a push. Ben looked down at her while she stared at him. His smile deepened, he gave a slight bow and left.

 

The next morning when she came into the kitchen she found the Bible lying on the table. It was opened at the 'Song of Solomon', the verses he had quoted to her underlined with pencil.

 

Tommy hadn't forgotten Ben's words from before that he had something special in mind for his next riding lesson. Impatiently he waited until Ben had distributed the work and made his usual rounds to check on the horses.

 

This morning Tommy learned how to brush and clean his horse. As usual, he was eager to learn and to copy whatever Ben demonstrated. He even learned how to pick the horse's hooves, although he wouldn't be able to do this on his own for quite some time yet. Ben was proud of Tommy. He was learning fast. And he was never afraid to try something Ben suggested, following his idol's lead and trusting him completely. When they had finished the last hoof, Ben put the horse's leg down and stretched.

 

"Now that you've learned that, too, I think it's time for a reward, Tommy. Come on. Let's saddle up both our horses."

 

"We are going riding together?" Tommy asked.

 

"Yep. Got something in mind for you, boy."

 

Ben was leading Tommy into town, stopping in front of the grocery. Apart from foodstuffs, the Millers also had a stock of ready-made clothes both for adults and children, and Ben headed straight for the rack.

He bought Tommy a complete outfit: shirt, trousers, boots, and a vest. When Tommy understood what Ben intended to do he was thrilled. A thought that had vaguely dawned in him before was slowly taking shape. His feelings towards Ben Warner were still a bit confusing. Sometimes he didn't know what to make of the man, but then grown-up men always did things you didn't completely understand and were sometimes afraid of. Nevertheless, for Tommy everything added up to one thing: Ben Warner was becoming his father.

 

Naturally, Tommy wanted to get clad completely in black like Ben was, but unfortunately only boots and pants were available in this colour in his size. Mrs. Miller insisted that with his crisp white shirt and beige vest Tommy looked like a real cowboy and rancher "...just like Mr. Warner here," she cooed. Tommy insisted upon wearing the clothes immediately, and so Mrs. Miller put his old clothes in an empty feeding sack which they tied to the pommel of Tommy's saddle. Then she curled her finger at Tommy.

 

"Come here, young man."

 

She led him to the back of the store. On a low shelf stood a row of glasses with homemade candies. Tommy had never tasted candies before. Mrs. Miller took out a sweet fruity one and handed it to him. Tommy's face cracked into his wide smile that Ben knew so well by now. It did the good lady in. She tousled his hair and smiled down at him all motherly.

 

"What a pretty little young man you are."

 

"Are you ready to go, Tommy?"

 

Ben paid Mrs. Miller, then touched the brim of his hat in greeting. "Mrs. Miller."

 

Mrs. Miller nodded and smiled. Both she and her husband were very fond of Ben Warner. Tommy ran up to Ben. His bubbling joy needed an outlet and – as usual – he used physical contact to express himself, hugging one arm around Ben's waist. Ben smiled down at him and placed his hand on his shoulder. Together they left the store. Ben helped Tommy mount the horse, and they were just about to set off for the ranch when Mrs. Miller stopped them.

 

"Tommy!"

 

Tommy looked back and beheld the good lady waving at him to come back. She was holding up a bagful of her fine candies. Tommy cracked his smile and slid down the saddle, running up to her. Mrs. Miller caught him in her arms and swung him around, then handed him the candies. Tommy thanked her, she tousled his hair again, and the boy returned to Ben... where he found out it wasn't easy getting on his horse all by himself.

 

Ben and Mrs. Miller exchanged a smile, then Ben reached down and pulled Tommy up on his horse and they made for the ranch.

 

"Who is that man over there, Mr. Jones?" a young man asked, pointing to the retreating back of Ben Warner.

 

Jones, banker in the town of Indian Springs and a passionate horseman, looked into the direction the young man had pointed. "That's Ben Warner. He owns the 'Horseshoe Ranch'. I'm sure you've heard of it. It's the biggest ranch around here. Wonderful horses.  Are you fond of horses, Mr. Evans?"

 

The young man hesitated a moment, an idea crossing his mind. "Yes, I like horses. You say, he's got good ones?"

 

"He has the best horses you can find. And they are well-trained, too. I bought a horse from him a year ago, and it is a good, reliable mount. Never let me down. - Now, are there any other additions you wish to include in the contract or did you consult me only because of the names?"

 

"No. I'm fine with the contract. Just the names. My mother insists that the contract contains both our names, not just mine."

 

"Very well, just as you wish. And your brother's name is?"

 

"Mark. Please make out the contract in the names of Mark and William Evans."

 

When Tommy returned all excited about his new outfit, Rachel didn't react the way Ben had hoped.

 

"Tommy, clothes cost a lot of money, and we don't have much money."

 

At her words Tommy's pride in his new outfit died on the spot.

 

"It won't cost you a cent. I gave it to Tommy as a gift because he has learned so well," Ben intervened, stepping beside the boy and placing his hand on his shoulder. Tommy responded by hugging Ben around the waist, a gesture that wasn't lost on Rachel. But she didn't dare confront her employer head-on.

 

"We are in no position to accept such gifts, Tommy" she said to her boy and turned away.

 

For some reason she didn't approve. Ben could only suspect she was jealous of the friendship he and Tommy were developing. But why would she want to ruin Tommy's moment? He had been so proud to be given clothes exactly like those a grown-up wore. Perhaps she didn't want to be beholden to him.

 

Ben squeezed Tommy's shoulder lightly, so Tommy would look up at him. "Tommy, go find John and tell him I want to see him."

 

When Tommy had left the house Ben stepped up to Rachel. "Don't be threatened by my gifts for your boy," he said, hitting the nail straight on its head. "I like Tommy a lot. Don't spoil his fun – he's so happy with this outfit."

 

"We cannot accept gifts," she insisted.

 

"Why not?" Ben asked, astonished.

 

"It's not our place," Rachel said and turned again to the dishes.

 

Ben walked up close behind and placed his hands softly on her shoulders. "If you don't like your 'place' in this household, perhaps we could discuss another one." Ben had lowered his voice to that soft honey-timbre that had melted many a woman before.

 

Rachel turned, eyes open wide, staring at him incredulously.

 

 

His hands had left her shoulders when she had turned. They were now softly touching her cheeks, angling her face so that he could kiss her on her forehead. After one of the softest kisses Ben Wade had ever given to a woman in his life he let go of Rachel's face and left the house.

 

Rachel could still feel his hands on her cheeks and his breath on her face. Ben's voice had woken a panic in her that she had hoped to have left behind in California. 

 

Chapter 4: Surprises

 

A day later a surprise awaited Ben.

 

"Mr. Warner, sir, there's a visitor for you."

 

John, Ben's foreman, led a young man into the house, a man Ben recognized immediately. It was William Evans.

 

Time stood still as they looked at each other. John was beginning to get nervous when William decided to speak. "I would like to speak with you, Mr. Warner."

Ben gestured for William to sit down in front of the fireplace, then he nodded to John, who left. Rachel had been sitting at the table mending clothes. She didn't wait for Ben to say anything. She gathered everything together and left without a word.

 

It took a few minutes for Ben to understand how the Evans family had come to end up in Indian Springs.

 

"Oh, Mr. Butterfield paid us, all right. 1,000 dollars in cash, just as Dad had made him promise. It helped us buy a new herd and build a new barn, stock up on feed, and so on. We did quite well. But a couple of weeks ago things changed. You see, Mr. Butterfield was leaving for Chicago. He was going back to the railway's head office, and mother wasn't too sure Hollander would really leave us alone with him gone. So we decided to leave, too. - I guess that for her the ranch held too many memories of father..." he added wistfully.

 

Ben nodded. He had developed a grudging respect for Dan Evans during their two-day journey to Contention, and especially later on. He couldn't remember how often he had thought of Dan Evans during those first months when he had been building up his own ranch, working his fingers to the bone and sweating his soul out.

 

"At first mother wanted us to go back East where we still got family," William continued. "But Mark and I didn't want to go to a city and become men in fancy suits. We wanted to be farmers like Pa. And we decided that with all the money from Butterfield we could find better land to farm, you know, a more fertile spot."

 

Ben nodded while observing William. The boy was... what? Seventeen, maybe eighteen years old. And he was already talking and behaving like a fully-grown man. But then, the events in Contention had led to his growing up faster than others. And William had always had a strong personality to begin with, pitting himself against his father from a very early age...

 

"The foal is all right again!" Tommy was bursting into the house, and running over to Ben, almost launching himself at him before he realized that there was another man sitting in the armchair opposite Ben.

 

William had seen Tommy with Ben in town but hadn't realized they were close.

"That's good, Tommy," Ben said. "Then we can put it back with the others."

 

One of the foals had hurt its leg on a nail in the stall. Tommy had spent hours in its box in the barn trying everything he had learned so far on the little creature.

 

Tommy was eying up William Evans, who in turn studied him with a strange look. Tommy edged closer to Ben, touching him for reassurance. Ben placed a hand on Tommy's shoulder and squeezed it lightly.

 

"It's allright, Tommy. I'll come and have a look later. Run along."

 

Tommy complied.

 

"And how come you are here in Nevada?" Ben asked William.

 

"That's a coincidence. A business companion of Mr. Butterfield's mentioned a farm near Indian Springs which had belonged to some friends of his by name of Letterman..."

 

"Oh... so it is you who bought that farm," Ben intercepted.

 

William nodded. "Yes. The farm is in good condition, and there's plenty of land with it to graze cattle. So we came here."

 

"And how is your mother... 'Alice', wasn't it?" Ben asked.

 

"Yes. I didn't know you knew her name."

 

Ben smiled. He rarely forgot the name of a woman, especially one with such beautiful green eyes. He remembered only too well how he had tried to charm and intimidate her during his stay in her house, and how he had promised to return her husband to her – a promise he had failed to keep.

 

"Mother and I will tend the farm. My brother Mark will be going to school."

 

"Your mother never re-married? She's a pretty woman and must have had many offers."

 

William shook his head. "She can't get over father. I don't think she'll ever marry again."

 

"Your father was an extraordinary man," Ben admitted. They both fell silent, diving for a moment into their memories of the late Dan Evans.

 

Then William laughed softly. "You know, father once told me that I might come to understand him once I walked in his shoes.  I scorned him and said that I would never do that." He laughed again. "And here I find myself building up a farm looking out for my mother and my younger brother." He looked into the flames, not expecting an answer.

 

"One man alone on a farm is not much," Ben said.

 

"No, it isn't. But we plan to hire a few hands. We still have enough money left from father's... from Butterfield..." William's voice trailed off. As much as the money helped them build up a new life, he would have preferred to exchange it for a living Dan Evans at his side.

 

Ben nodded and got up. He took a bottle of whisky from a cupboard and poured two drinks, handing one to William. William downed the drink, coughed a bit, then looked at Ben. "I am here to buy two or three good horses from you."

 

After a tour around the main stables Ben took William Evans to a corral to see some of the horses he had for sale. Tommy had been playing in the vicinity and ran over to join them. The easy way with which Tommy ran up close to Ben and stood beside him at the fence, one arm around his waist didn't escape William's notice. Nor did he fail to see Ben Wade's hand first stroking the boy's hair, then resting on his shoulder as had become their ritual. They were obviously very affectionate with one another.

 

"You know... Contention... our ride...," William began.

 

Ben looked at him seeing he had some trouble speaking. He waited patiently for William to continue. Two young stallions picked a none-too-serious fight, and Tommy was mesmerized. But neither William's nor Ben's minds could be lured from the past by the stallions' actions.

 

"I admired you," William finally managed to say.

 

"Yeah," Ben said, "guess you've found out by now that that was wrong."

 

William turned to face Ben fully. For a moment he looked again like the coltish 14-year-old boy he had been when they had first met.

 

"No, on the contrary," William said, "I can see now that I was right."

 

Ben was taken aback. The admiration in William's eyes was still there. But when his eyes darted over Tommy Ben realized that the admiration wasn't any longer for the outlaw he had once been but rather for the man who had managed to bond with Tommy, the man who had built up a horse ranch, who had turned his back on his old life.

 

After William Evans had picked two horses he said his farewells to Ben and Tommy.

 

"I'll send someone over to your farm with the horses tomorrow," Ben promised.

 

"I'll have the money ready."

 

They shook hands. William held Ben's eyes. "Mr. Warner," he said. The way he stressed his new name made it clear to Ben that he wouldn't have to fear exposure from William and his family.

 

"Mr. Evans," Ben replied with a slight smile, "pleasure meeting you again."

 

After William had left Ben turned to his foreman. "John, see to it that the two horses he chose and the young bay mare he liked so much are sent over tomorrow. Do it yourself, will you?"

 

John nodded assent.

 

"And only accept payment for the two he officially bought," Ben added.

 

Again, John nodded. He glanced at Ben with a look in his eyes that Ben couldn't quite interpret. But then he was boss, and his orders weren't questioned.

 

"What do I say, Boss, if he wants to know why?"

 

"You say nothing. Just that you are not accepting more than the sum I told you."

 

Tommy had listened in on the exchange. "Why don't you want him to pay?" he asked Ben.

 

Ben smiled down at him. "Sometimes, Tommy, it's better when people still owe you something. Makes them feel they should do something for you. Makes them be on your side. Not necessary to get every cent out of people when you don't have to..."

 

Tommy didn't understand what Ben was trying to explain. As a matter of fact it was a concept that could not be understood by a child, could not even be understood by open and trusting adults dealing on a basis of equality. But it was perfectly understandable to someone who didn't trust others, and who had made it a habit to use people's own emotions and weaknesses for his own ends. Only a master manipulator like Ben Wade would see an advantage in people owing him.

 

A week later all the foals and mares were put out to pasture in a meadow not too far from the main house. The weather was steady now, the sun was getting warmer and warmer, and there was no reason to raise weaklings who couldn't stand a bit of rain or a gust of wind.

 

For hours Tommy and Ben stood at the fence watching the foals discover the world. Tommy asked, and Ben answered, and both felt comfortable and content in each other's company.

 

"What happens when the foals are big?" Tommy asked Ben.

 

"When they are grown, the stallions will be separated from the mares. By then I will have decided which horses to keep and which to sell. – See that little chestnut colt over there, Tommy?"

 

Ben was pointing to a young colt that was strutting around as if it were the centre of the world. In fact, Ben had watched the little one attack an older – and taller - colt only the day before. The older colt had backed off and run, hotly pursued by the little chestnut. Right now a bee buzzed around its head, and the little animal shook its head, jumped, kicked, even tried to bite the bee to get rid of it.

 

Tommy and Ben laughed.

 

"He is still mighty small, but I've got a feeling he's gonna be a fine stallion one day. I'm pretty sure I'll keep him."

 

"Why do you need stallions? It's the mares who make the foals, isn't it?" Tommy asked in all innocence.

 

Ben looked down at him and smiled, an amused smile that spread all over his face, lighting his eyes with mischief.

 

 

"What?" Tommy had seen the smile and interpreted it. He didn't like being laughed at.

 

"You need a stallion, too, Tommy, to make a foal. Yeah, the mare gives birth to it and suckles it, but first the stallion has to put it there."

 

"Where?"

 

"Inside the mare."

 

"The stallion does that?"

 

Ben nodded.

 

"How does he do it? Can I watch?"

 

Ben smiled. "Not now, Tommy. You'll have to wait until summer."

 

"When is summer?"

 

Ben laughed aloud at Tommy's eagerness. "Soon, Tommy."

 

When they came in for dinner a letter was waiting for Ben. "A soldier from the army brought it," Rachel informed him.

 

The letter was the reply to his offer to the army in Fort Towson which he had sent weeks ago. An officer had arrived in Indian Springs to check out the horses Ben had for sale.

 

Ben smiled. This was good news. Anybody coming so far to look at his horses was seriously considering buying them. The officer had probably been referred to Ben by other army officers he had sold horses to. Selling horses to the army was good business. They always needed new ones, and the best thing was that they never lacked the money to pay for them.

 

That evening Ben was in a particularly good mood.

 

Tommy was reading a fairy tale. Rachel was bent over the bowl pouring water to wash the dishes and pots. Ben took his plate over to her and walked up close from behind.

 

She hesitated, not sure what he was up to. Acutely aware of Tommy sitting at the table she didn't know how she should react.

 

Ben, too, was aware of Tommy. He simply placed his hands on her shoulders and whispered in her ear, "Don't be scared, Rachel. I'm in no hurry."

 

In spite of his calm words she froze, detecting that his words implied a deadline.

 

He chuckled, remembering something he hadn't connected with her name before.

"But I won't be waiting for seven years either - like Jacob did for his Rachel in the Bible story." For a short moment he rubbed his nose in her hair. She didn't move.

 

Why didn't she ever speak up for herself? She was always so silent, too silent. Sometimes it was as if she wasn't around at all. Was she too scared to act freely and speak her mind? He decided to confront her, give her a chance to tell him off if necessary, but to tell the truth!

 

"Tell me," he said, his hands on he shoulders, turning her around so she had to face him, "are you afraid of me?"

 

His eyes were insistent. And serious. Rachel could see that he wanted an answer. Again, she was in a dilemma she knew only too well.

 

He asked her if she was afraid? What could she answer to that? If she answered 'Yes' he would hit her. She knew this. If wouldn't be the first time she had given the wrong answer to a man. So there could be only one answer.

 

"No," she said.

 

Ben relaxed visibly and – in his wake – so did Rachel. Both seemed to be relieved that some sort of danger was over.

 

So she wasn't afraid of him. She was only shy. Too shy to be active, perhaps even too shy to allow herself to relax around him – yet. He would have to be patient with her, patient – and insistent.

 

Ben released her shoulders. "Good night," he whispered.

 

The next morning Ben rode into town to meet the army representative and his adjutant that had come to see the horses. Together they spent all morning checking on yearlings that Ben meant to train over the summer and autumn. Individuals were picked out, lassoed and their physique and character was evaluated. As usual, Tommy stayed close to Ben, soaking up everything that he did and said. Tommy had never seen army officers before, and the two men in uniform intimidated him at first. More than once he touched Ben who - by now unconsciously – understood his need and touched him back reassuringly.

 

"Tommy, run into the house and ask your mother to make some coffee for us all, will you?" Ben said to Tommy after many hours of negotiation and showing dozens of horses.

 

"Yes." Tommy ran off.

 

The Major laughed. "You have a fine son there, Mr. Warner. I wish my soldiers obeyed my orders as quickly as he does yours."

 

Ben smiled. He didn't correct the Major's error.

 

"When will you start breeding this year, Mr. Warner?"

 

"Another week or so. The first mares have already come into heat, but I am not sure about all the pairings yet. Once I am I'll group the mares and their foals into five, maybe six groups and give them each a stallion to... keep busy," Ben answered with a smirk.

 

The two officers laughed at that. "Nice way to keep busy," the adjutant said, and Ben and the Major nodded their heads and laughed.

 

"You have fine animals, sir," the Major said. "I understand you started this ranch only four years ago."

 

"Actually, it's only three. But I did have good horses to start with."

 

"Major Jefferson from the Regiment in Fort Gibson told me he has never before bought such well-trained horses. You sold him some stallions a couple of months ago which after they've been gelded are to be sent to the army fighting at Pit River."

 

Ben smiled. He remembered the deal well. It had been the day he had laid eyes on Tommy and Rachel.

 

"Yes. He drove a hard bargain, picking out all the best ones. He has a good eye. Shall we have a coffee now?"

 

After the officers had left, Tommy and Ben spent all afternoon repairing and tending to tack. Normally, this was a job for a ranch hand but Ben enjoyed teaching Tommy, and he had found out that Tommy was more comfortable learning from him than from any of the other men, John excepted. He taught him to clean the leather, to grease it to make it soft, and how to exchange or repair it when it was damaged. He explained the pieces of the bridle, and lectured him on how a young horse was taught to get used to the strange situation of having a bridle tied around its head and a snaffle bit put in its mouth. The longer they sat the more questions Tommy asked, and Ben explained. 

 

After hours of sitting and working and talking like this Ben stretched and groaned. "You hungry, Tommy?" he asked. Tommy nodded.

 

"Let's see when we can have dinner," Ben said, and together they walked into the house.

 

Tommy's mother was sitting at the table bent over a large bowl of potatoes. Beside her was a plate full of carrots. Lentils were already boiling on the stove.

 

"When is dinner?" Ben asked.

 

She looked up. "Another hour."

 

Tommy didn't look too happy. Ben walked over to a basket where there were some apples left from last summer. They had become all wrinkled and dried up but were still very tasty. He took out two apples.

 

"Here, Tommy... catch!" he called and tossed one to Tommy, who deftly caught it. Ben smirked and winked at the boy. They both started munching their apples.

 

Rachel opened her mouth in protest. "But..."

 

Ben stood close to where she sat, so he just bent over and kissed her on the mouth, a soft, juicy apple-kiss. "We're hungry," was all he said as apology.

 

She froze. Her eyes displayed her confusion. Before her confusion could turn into panic Ben turned to Tommy. "Come on, Tommy. We still got work to do."

 

And the two partners in crime went outside, Tommy with quick steps lest his mother drop her confusion and find something for him to do, Ben with a satisfied smirk on his face.

 

Chapter 5: Summer

The more self-assurance Tommy gained the further he dared to wander off from the main house. Life was great. It was summer, and the days were sunny and long. Sometimes it was hot enough to bathe in the little river near the house, but most of the time Tommy just lay in the high grass hiding from everybody's view with the book of fairy tales Ben had given him. For Tommy the only setback of summer was that Ben didn't have much time for him any more. He was busier now than ever, overseeing and joining in the training of the young horses, after having made sure the next generation would see the light of day.

 

The breeding mares and their foals had been grouped into five sections, each of which had a prime breeding stallion in their company. There were two more stallions which Ben kept as back-up should some of the mares in the groups fail to get with foal by their designated stallion. And indeed, as Ben observed the small herds over the weeks, there were a number of mares who didn't get along within their group or with the stallion, and Ben took them away from their herd and paired them up with one of the two back-ups. Other than that slight correction Ben thought it best to let nature take its course. And it was easiest, too. His major task during summer lay elsewhere.

 

Every man on the ranch was busy breaking in and training the youngsters so that they would be ready for sale in autumn and winter, thereby making space for the next generation. Ben spent all days from sunrise to sunset at the various training grounds, making sure that the ranch hands didn't ask too much of the young animals, supervising their lessons. Again and again he made them slow down or stop altogether, until the youngster had calmed down enough to be willing and able to continue.

 

Most of the ranch hands had been with Ben since he had started the ranch, and they knew what he wanted from them. Although privately they joked and griped about being less important than the horses to their boss, they knew that Ben's methods actually worked. John had been with Ben the longest, but even he was stopping his work every now and then to watch Ben handle some horses by himself. His soft touch, his murmuring, and especially the fact that he had known each single horse from the day it was born, and – even more important - the horse knew and trusted him, gave him an explicit advantage. Just like Tommy they learned to please him, to reaffirm their bond with him as their leader, and the youngsters Ben trained by himself were simply the best.

 

It was that special touch of its owner with horses that gave the 'Horseshoe Ranch' its good reputation.

 

Lazy, lazy, lazy. Nothing to do but to read. Or to lie in the grass and dream. Or to sleep in a shady spot.

 

Tommy had succeeded in disappearing just in time. Rachel wanted him to help her put order in the hen house and farmyard. Tommy hated chickens! He didn't mind going in there to collect their eggs for breakfast or perhaps even a cake – but anything like cleaning up after them, feeding them or, God forbid, touching them was beyond endurance. They stank! And they squawked! He had taken off the moment Rachel had mentioned the hen house.

Strolling along one of the meadows Tommy observed the stallion circle a particular mare of his herd. Something wasn't right with the mare. She seemed skittish to Tommy. The stallion danced and pranced around her, and even bit her in the flanks. When the mare turned her back to the stallion Tommy was sure that she meant to kick him hard. Instead she raised her tail. The stallion came closer. Tommy tensed in anticipation of the inevitable kick from the mare, but no such thing happened. The stallion stopped. He raised his head and pursed his lips. Tommy had no idea what that meant. He had never seen a horse do that. But it looked funny, and so Tommy walked to the fence to watch what else might happen.

 

Nothing much. The stallion got up on his hind legs and mounted the mare. Strangely enough, the mare did not kick out at the stallion, but Tommy failed to understand why the stallion would do something so strange? Did he want to ride the mare? Could a horse ride another horse? The stallion couldn't get on properly, and Tommy was reminded of his own failed attempts to mount his horse. But the stallion didn't slide off the mare as Tommy expected. Instead he strained and pumped – how stupid this stallion was to actually think he might get on this way. Why did he want to get up the mare's rear in the first place? To be able to see further?

 

After some more straining the stallion finally gave up.

 

Nah, this wasn't really interesting, Tommy decided. But the stallion's action had given him an idea: he decided to practise mounting his horse.

 

"I can do it!" Tommy stormed into the stable and rushed over to where Ben stood.

 

"You can do what?" Ben asked rhetorically.

 

"I can mount on my own!" Tommy was bursting with pride.

 

"You sure?" Ben teased him.

 

Tommy nodded vigorously.

 

"Okay, let's see it."

 

They walked outside, and Tommy demonstrated his skills while his horse stood patiently. Ben patted its neck. The boy had been practising all morning. The poor horse must be totally fed up with his efforts.

 

"See...?" Tommy had just about managed to climb up, but now he sat absolutely straight, practically begging for praise. After all, it was his first big success, something he had managed to do all by himself!

 

Some of the ranch hands were around, and their cheering and whistling made him feel ten feet tall.

 

"All right, Tommy, I can see it's time for our outing," Ben said, somewhat reluctant to praise him openly in front of the other men. He walked to the horse's side and reached out his arms for Tommy to slide into.

 

Tommy hugged him hard, burying his face in Ben's neck.

 

"You did well, Tommy," Ben said quietly to the boy. "I'm real proud of you."

 

As soon as the words were out, Ben froze. Where had that come from?

 

Tommy hugged him with all his strength, his little cup overflowing with happiness. It made Ben swallow hard. The boy loved hugs. He needed them for his frail ego. And, damn, but they felt good, Ben had to admit. Maybe he needed them, too.

 

"You better run and tell your mother we'll be gone tomorrow, eh?"

 

Ben put Tommy on his feet, and the boy ran off while Ben released the horse into the corral, shaking his head. Taking care of his horse first was a lesson Tommy still hadn't grasped yet.

 

Excited would have been an understatement. Tommy was thrilled to bits at the prospect of spending two whole days with Ben. He sat on his horse, straight and proud, waiting for Ben to finish checking the contents of their saddle bags.

 

Sleeping bags, rifle with ammunition, matches, a candle, coffee and some food, plates and spoons, knife, canteens filled with water, coffee pot and two mugs. Brush and some oats for the horses... they were ready to go.

 

The outlaw Ben Wade would have taken the opportunity to have a well-stocked house nearby to help himself to some additional luxury like books, food, cash, and perhaps a few valuables that could be sold. But the rancher Ben Warner only wanted to camp out for one night, giving a sheltered boy some excitement by showing him how to sleep rough.

 

Ben chuckled. What a long way to come.

 

"Tommy. You have forgotten your pajamas," Rachel said, holding them out to her son.

 

Ben almost laughed out at that. "He won't need that."

 

"What about a blanket? It's getting cold at night."

 

"That's why we got sleeping bags," Ben lectured her with a superior smile. What did she know? She could read his thoughts in his smile, and it raised her blood. But she forced herself to speak calmly.

 

"Have you got enough food?"

 

She couldn't quite let go of them. No, Ben corrected his thoughts, not 'them'. She couldn't let go of the boy. It was just as important for her to learn to let him go as it was for him to learn to be on his own.

 

"We'll shoot something. Bird, rabbit, squirrel... And it's only one night. We'll be back tomorrow." He lowered his voice. "Then you can feed us both."

 

Her look was astonishment and incredulity at the same time. Had he really meant that or was she imagining things? Did he mean to imply something... indecent?

 

But Ben's eyes gave nothing away.

 

Rachel reached up to touch Tommy a last time, but the boy wasn't paying attention. In his thoughts he was already miles away, the hero in the middle of some grand adventure...

 

Ben walked over next to Rachel and handed Tommy a canteen filled with water. "Here, Tommy, hang this on your pommel, so you have it handy."

 

While Tommy complied Ben edged closer to Rachel, whispering, "You'll be safe tonight, Rachel. I'll be gone. Nobody to... tempt you." He placed a short peck on her cheek, too fast for her to react. Then he mounted his horse.

 

Before he and Tommy left Ben turned back once more and gave Rachel a serious look. "If anything's wrong you call John. He knows what to do. All right?"

 

She nodded.

 

Ben and Tommy had left the territory of the 'Horseshoe Ranch' behind. In the far distance there were mountains, their vegetation and the reflection of the sunlight giving them a blue shade. A river wound through the land in front of them, trees were sparsely dotted around, their green leaves swaying in a soft breeze.

 

Ben led Tommy south, along the river. He meant to leave the pastures behind and give Tommy a taste of the dry desert that was only a few hours ride away.

 

"Do you like it here, Tommy?"

 

"Yeah," Tommy said. He was referring to the adventure of riding into unknown territory at the side of his hero whereas Ben merely meant to find out if Tommy liked the land surrounding him.

 

"'And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden,' ... 'and out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food,' ... 'and a river went out of Eden to water the garden'..." Ben quoted, stringing together fragments and bits to echo his own appreciation of the beauty in front of him.

 

"Which book is that from?" Tommy asked.

 

An amused light stole into Ben's eyes. The mention of the Lord hadn't impressed Tommy.

 

"It's from the Bible, Tommy."

 

Tommy didn't like the Bible. It was a book that was too thick, and it was filled with strange ideas that didn't make sense in the life he observed around him. But Ben seemed to like it, and he knew the Bible really well.

 

"Why do you know so much of the Bible?" Tommy asked curiously.

 

 

Ben paused a moment, not sure what to reveal to him. "When I was your age, Tommy, the only book I'd ever seen was a Bible. Only book I ever read. I read it over and over. Was the only thing that kept me going sometimes. You know," he continued, "some of the stories in there are real good. Make you understand a lot about people. What they do. How they tick."

 

Ben fell silent, lost in thought. After some minutes he laughed remembering something from his past. "One day I told one of the older boys on the street about something I had read in the Bible. He didn't believe me. I tried to prove it to him, but I didn't remember where I'd read it. The Bible is a real thick book, full of stuff. I looked through it but I couldn't find the story again. So he laughed and called me a liar."

 

"What did you do?" Tommy asked. He couldn't imagine anyone calling Ben a liar would survive.

 

Ben chuckled. "I ran. He was older than me and much stronger. Could have beaten me to pulp if he wanted to. When he clenched his fists, safest move for me was to run off."

 

Ben looked at Tommy and saw Tommy stare at him incredulously. Ben laughed mirthlessly. "Didn't like it one bit," he admitted to Tommy. "But it taught me. From then on when I read something in the Bible I wanted to remember I memorised where I'd read it. So I could find it again."

 

They rode on, both lost in thought. It was a while before Tommy spoke again."When the other is stronger, and you don't want to run, what can you do?"

 

Ben wondered which direction his thoughts were running. "Your father beat you a lot, Tommy?" Ben probed. He looked straight ahead, keeping his voice casual, trying to make as little fuss about the question as possible.

 

 

"Only one time. Mummy wasn't there when he got home, and so he beat me up. When she came home and saw me she cried."

 

Ben tried hard not to show his feelings. A warm rush washed over him at Tommy's mention of Rachel's tears. Again, it confirmed the mother-image he had of her.

 

"The next morning Mummy and I walked to the train station, and then we left on the train."

 

'I had to get him out of there.' Wasn't that what Rachel had said to him when he had asked her why they had left their home? Now Ben understood.

 

"We were on the train for two days," Tommy continued, "but then we had to buy new tickets, and Mummy said she had forgotten the money back home. So..."

 

So she sat you down in the train station. And the only job she could find was in the saloon, Ben added in his thoughts.

 

"So I waited for her and..." Tommy fell silent.

 

Ben turned in his saddle, and they looked at each other.

...and then I saw you. Saw you standing there, all black and mysterious, all dominant and in control. And then you came over to talk to me... More than actually thinking the words in his head Tommy felt them pound in his chest. He was well aware of the impact that day had had on his young life.

 

They held each other's gaze. Ben finally smiled. He was just as happy as Tommy that their roads had converged and they had found each other.

 

"How could you keep silent about something like this?" Alice Evans hurled at her son William.

 

She had just returned from town where she had spotted a man she knew very well... a man she had found out to be the wealthy rancher Ben Warner and not the outlaw and killer Ben Wade for whom she had taken him at first sight.

 

"Mum, it wasn't Ben Wade's fault that Pa died."

 

"If it hadn't been for him your father would still be alive!"

 

William sighed. He knew that his mother had never forgiven his father for joining that posse that had meant to bring Ben Wade to justice. But perhaps it was just as likely she had never forgiven herself for not having been able to stop him, for not having been able to say a few words that made him feel cherished enough not to go out to find his self-esteem in that aberrant adventure.

 

Mark Evans looked on with a worried look. He knew that his mother hated Ben Wade, but Mark hadn't known that he was in Indian Springs. "Can't we tell the sheriff?" he asked when both Alice and William fell silent. "Then the sheriff can put him in jail."

 

"Nobody will put Ben Warner in jail," William said, as ever willing to lecture his little brother, "he's the richest man in town."

 

"But he killed Pa!" Mark exclaimed.

 

"No, he didn't," William said. "Pa was shot by one of the gang."

 

"Ever since you returned from Contention you have been defending Ben Wade. For my part, I think Mark is right, and the people in town should learn the truth about the rancher Ben Warner!" Alice Evans spit out, contempt and hatred thick in her voice.

 

"Ma... please... don't do anything rash," William implored before his mother vanished in her room, smashing the door shut behind her.

 

It was already afternoon. The landscape Ben and Tommy were riding through had changed. It had become a lot drier and more barren. Small, thorny bushes had replaced the lush green of the meadows. Soon the horses would have to pick their way through stones and rocks.

 

Tommy liked it, though, Ben could plainly see that. They had ridden at a leisurely pace and talked about a lot of things. Tommy wanted to know everything about Ben, and Ben had told him about building up the 'Horseshoe Ranch', about the hard work, the occasional set-backs, his dreams and future plans for the ranch, and he had kept Tommy entertained with numerous tales about special horses he had encountered along the way. After all, Ben 'Warner' had no other past but his ranch.

 

"Are you hungry, Tommy?" Ben suddenly asked. They hadn't eaten any of their provisions yet.

 

"Yes," Tommy nodded. Now that Ben had mentioned it he realized he was so hungry he could eat a horse.

 

Ben had spotted some movement not too far away. "Do you like rabbit?" he asked. He took out his rifle without taking his eyes off a spot not far in the distance, aimed and shot. Tommy hadn't seen anything, but a rabbit lay dead beside a wild rhubarb – its last meal.

 

Ben taught Tommy how to make a campfire, and then set about skinning the rabbit when he felt Tommy's eyes on his hands holding the knife. "Do you want to do it, Tommy?" Ben held out the knife.

 

Tommy shook his head. Instead he watched Ben prepare the animal, his feelings swaying between pity for the dead rabbit and constantly growing hunger and impatience.

 

They had eaten and were sitting at the campfire. It was still daylight.

 

"Did your father go out riding with you, and did you sit at a fire?" Tommy asked Ben.

 

Ben had indeed been thinking about his own father, but the thoughts were hardly pleasant ones. When his father had been home he had usually been drunk.

 

"No," he said. "My father never did anything like that with me."

 

Tommy felt that there was more but was too afraid to ask. He still held Ben in awe, and although he didn't fear him any longer because by now he had learned that Ben wouldn't ever hurt him, he was still scared of a certain unpredictability in Ben's actions every now and then.

 

"When I was as old as you, Tommy," Ben continued staring into the flames, "my father was already dead."

 

"And did you go away with your mother in a train, too?" Tommy asked, trying to identify with him. But when Ben looked at him Tommy saw a stranger staring back. For long minutes Ben was lost in thought. His eyes displayed his emotions as the past kept rushing through his mind. Tommy remained still and watched. He instinctively understood that – wherever Ben was in his mind – it wasn't a good place to be.

 

For almost a year Little Ben had managed to survive on his own on the streets. But then winter came and he ran out of luck. The food was not as abundant, and what was there was locked away inside the stores, and it became increasingly hard to steal anything. People wore layers of clothing and the chance of stealing a purse was zero. Ben tried begging but people weren't generous with 'strays'. Ben was reduced to sipping water from puddles. Once he managed to steal a bone with meat from a stray dog. Eating even once per day had become elusive.

 

Sometimes he fainted because he hadn't eaten for days on end. Upon waking he would find himself huddled up in some corner. Once he even woke in the middle of a street – dizzy and desperate. Weeks went by like that, and the only thoughts left in him were how he could get something to eat and where to sleep without freezing to death.

 

That day he had tried to find some warmth inside one of the many saloons, but the owner had thrown him out and so he was huddling beside the swinging doors, still outside and able to run away if necessary but close enough to profit a little from the warmth inside.

 

The wind was howling around him, his stomach growled, and his vision began to blur...

 

"Wake up, boy. You can't sleep here." A soft hand stroked his long and mud-caked hair. He looked up and into the painted face of a woman. Her eyes and hair were dark brown, and she wasn't young anymore, not like his mother had been. But her hand stroked over his cheek, and it was soft and warm. There was a smell of flowers around her. How could this be? It was winter, there were no flowers now. Ben didn't know yet that it was the smell of cheap perfume. All he knew was that a lovely woman was smiling down at him. Her name was Martha.

 

Martha, who fed him.

Martha, who took him in and cleaned him.

Martha, who was a whore in the saloon.

A lifetime ago...

 

All those years later sitting at the campfire opposite Tommy Ben knew that Martha had saved his life. If she hadn't taken him in that day he would have died, either from starvation or from one of the many illnesses that afflicted the weak and the homeless, and that folks referred to as 'cleaning the streets of strays'.

 

Tears blurred Ben's vision. He had completely forgotten about Tommy, who felt increasingly uncomfortable. In order to mask his shyness about Ben's tears Tommy got up to relieve himself in the bushes away from the sleeping area as Ben had taught him. Tommy, too, was in thought and not too alert about his surroundings but he might not have understood the danger anyway. His stream hit a few stones behind which a rattler rested in the sun. The animal, attacked by a warm stream of urine, writhed to move away but saw its way obstructed by Tommy standing there. It rose, its tail and rattled a warning.

 

It was then Tommy realized he was in danger, but with the urine still flowing and his eyes fixed upon the snake he simply couldn't move. Instead he screamed a high-pitched scream.

 

Ben was on his feet in no time. Just a few steps forward, and he saw Tommy standing in front of a threatening rattle snake. Survival instinct and conditioning kicked in immediately. Tommy was still on his high-pitched scream when Ben's shot killed the rattler.

 

As the last drops fell from Tommy's prick, he fell silent and just stood there staring at the dead animal. Ben had shot its head off. Just hitting it would have been enough to send it flying and get it away from the boy, but this time he had been exceptionally lucky in his accuracy. Tommy looked at the smashed head and couldn't move.

 

"Tommy," Ben said from a few steps behind him, "are you okay?"

 

 

He was reloading his revolver as had been his habit ever since he had learned how to use a gun. Tommy turned and Ben saw that only now he became fully aware of the danger he had been in. His lips quivered and his eyes filled with tears. Ben crouched down and opened his arms. Tommy hurled himself in Ben's arms and cried.

 

Ben hugged him – it was a tight, almost painful embrace. His eyes fell on the dead rattler behind the boy's back, and it hit him that he could have lost Tommy! Lost him to a whim of nature, a coincidence because the boy hadn't been cautious enough, because he didn't know the wilderness yet, because Ben had not looked out for him properly!

 

What would he do without Tommy? He had gotten so used to the boy tailing him, had gotten used to explaining everything he did to the little fellow – as if his work before had made no sense at all. Breeding horses, breaking them in, training them, year after year, expanding his estate... it was a never-ending circle, a circle that held its own reward, and Ben had taken pride in how the ranch had come along. But ever since he had taken Tommy and Rachel in to live with him, his soul had come alive – even if it meant suffering nightmares and flashbacks of a painful past. Tommy featured foremost in his thoughts and actions whether he wanted it or not. And Rachel, too. She had been the cause of several wet dreams of Ben's lately. He wouldn't want to be without either of them.

 

When Tommy had calmed down Ben led him to the dead animal. "Have a look, Tommy," he said. "It's dead. It can't harm you now."

 

To emphasize his point he picked up a dry stick and poked the dead snake. He handed the stick over to Tommy, and Tommy did the same. Yes, the snake was dead. Ben had saved him again. Who else but a father would do something like this?

 

That night Ben tucked Tommy up in his sleeping bag and sat beside him a long time until Tommy was finally asleep. The dead rattle snake. He couldn't get out of his mind the way Tommy had poked the snake to make sure it was dead. The look on the boy's face had been a mixture of fear, disgust and – excitement. And in a flash it came to Ben: this was exactly how he had felt when he had stood over Dorsett, holding the axe still in his hands.

 

The next morning after breakfast Ben insisted Tommy climb on the back of the horse all by himself. He figured that after the encounter with the snake the boy needed more self-assurance. But it was as if Tommy had changed overnight. Gone was the scared little boy who didn't know how to approach the world. Tommy helped Ben clear away their stuff, doused the fire with dust and rocks, and wrapped up his sleeping bag all by himself. It was as if Tommy's brush with death had given him a new and better grip on life.

 

When it was time to mount and leave Tommy's action took Ben completely by surprise. He led the horse to a boulder, climbed on it, and from there stepped easily into the stirrup and mounted. Ben acknowledged Tommy's ingenuity with a wide smile and a hand on his thigh.

 

"From now on, Tommy, you are able to ride all by yourself." He smiled at Tommy. "But for today you will have to bear up with me at your side."

 

This elicited Tommy's smile. Ben had wanted to engage in a light banter during their ride back to the ranch, but Tommy's mood was still too grave for that. On their way back he remained silent, wrapped up in his thoughts.

 

"Something on your mind, Tommy?" Ben finally asked him.

 

Tommy looked at him. "Can I call you 'Dad'?"

 

The question hit Ben without warning. For a moment he didn't know what to respond. "Why would you want that, Tommy?"

 

"Well..." Tommy wasn't sure how to explain. "John and Matt and Jason told me that everything they learned they learned from their fathers. And you teach me stories and riding and tack making and everything. So you are like... well... " He fell silent.

 

Ben pondered the concept a moment. "Tommy, you know I am not really your father. And you have learned many things from the ranch hands, too. Not everyone who teaches you something is your father."

 

"I know that." Tommy looked at him and Ben understood. The boy didn't talk about learning to play poker or mending a broken fence. He talked about their personal bond. He talked about experiencing the world with the support and within the safe shelter of someone who guided him. Someone like Ben.

 

The way the boy looked at him now Ben was reminded of the thoughts he had had after killing the snake. Was Tommy a son to him? – Yeah, when all was said and done he was. Perhaps this was as close as he would ever get to having a son of his own. But there was another obstacle.

 

"Tommy, I don't mind you calling me Dad, but you should ask your mother first. She will have something to say about that. After all, I am not your real father."

 

Tommy didn't see the problem but he agreed anyway. "Oh... okay. I'll ask her."

 

Along the way back Ben thought about Tommy's wish. He had to admit to himself: He liked the idea.

 

Rachel was shaken to the core when Tommy stormed into the house and told her everything that had happened during their outing – including how a rattlesnake had threatened him, and he had been saved by Ben. He embellished Ben's interference to the point of heroism, and Ben realised that Tommy was picking up on story-telling. No wonder. He had been reading stories now almost every night before going to bed. Ben liked a good story himself. There was no harm in that.

 

Both Tommy and Ben were exhausted after the long ride, so they didn't notice that Rachel was quieter than usual. She had a hard time controlling her tears. The shock that she could have lost her boy had hit her hard.

 

After dinner it was time for bed, and Tommy insisted that Ben tuck him in. Ben recognised the request for what it was: Tommy viewed Ben as his father. There just hadn't been a good opportunity during the evening to ask Rachel about their agreement.

 

Rachel was happy to have a few minutes to herself. She needed to have a good cry. Between sobs that she tried to stifle as best she could, she could hear Ben and Tommy talk about their trip and laugh about some joke. There was no evening prayer with Ben, instead they talked about adventures yet to come. Eventually Ben got up after giving the boy a last smile.

 

When Ben turned around Rachel was standing in the door. He could see that she had been crying. He looked at her seriously, and she managed a strained smile, then she turned and they both left Tommy to sleep.

Ben followed her into the kitchen. She stood over the sink not very intent on handling the dishes but lost in thought. He walked up close, then put his hands on her shoulders and softly spoke into her ear.

 

"Let's go upstairs. I've been patient long enough, don't you think?"

 

She straightened somewhat under his words but gave no reply other than to drop the towel with which she had dried the dishes. They made their way into his bedroom. The moment Ben closed the door she started on the buttons of her dress. Without as much as a look towards him she took off her chemise and hung it on the back of a chair, then proceeded silently. Her quiet movements reminded Ben of the day he had first seen her and she had tried to take off her dress for him in that room above the saloon in a desperate attempt to make some money.

 

For a second this thought sobered him. He wanted to put his hands on hers to stop her like he had before. But then he didn't, wondering how she would proceed. There had to be a difference this time.

 

One by one she took off her clothes. When she was taking off her petticoats she held on to the back of a chair for balance. Her back was turned to him. She didn't hesitate to take off her bloomers, and she only needed a few minutes to loosen her corset and shrug it off. She hung every bit of clothing on the back of the chair. Only when she was stark naked did she pause a moment, not daring to turn around and face him.

 

Ben looked at her body. Her skin was very pale, almost transparent. Not even her face or hands were tanned. She almost never left the house, he realized. She was still a bit skinny for his taste although compared to her first weeks at the ranch she had filled out nicely. Her legs were straight and shapely, her buttocks round and soft.

 

Ben caressed her with his eyes before he walked up to her, still fully clothed. He came close enough to slide his hands around her and cupped her breasts. His mouth was on her neck placing a soft kiss on it while he was smelling her hair. His fingers teased her nipples, and he could see goose pimples rise on her back... It made him smile, not the usual predatory smile he kept for the whores down in town, but a soft smile full of tenderness. She was standing still to his touch, and he couldn't quite determine whether it was because she was shy or because she was waiting for a signal from him.

 

"Don't worry, darlin'," he drawled softly, "I'll make this good for you."

 

She gave a little whimper. While he held on to her breasts he planted little kisses around her neck and shoulders, rubbing his nose into her hair every so often. He loved the smell of her hair.

 

She did nothing to encourage him but remained totally passive.

 

For a moment he hesitated again, wondering what it might be that she wanted or was waiting for, then he decided he would just do what he felt like until she stopped him.

 

He let go of her and started taking his clothes off. She shifted slightly when she felt him move but still didn't turn around. For a moment his hand gently stroked down from her neck along her spine to the crevice of her buttocks. Then he continued to take his clothes off.

 

"Take the pins in your hair out or they'll hurt you when you lie down," he said softly.

 

While she fumbled with the numerous pins and placed them on the bedside table, he finished undressing. Her hair fell down below her shoulders, soft light brown hair, glowing in the dim light of the lamp.

 

When she felt him come up behind her she scrambled into the bed and hid her body under the blanket. She avoided looking at him.

 

Ben slid under the blanket beside her and started to caress her body. At first he didn't elicit a response. She just kept staring ahead of herself while his hand moved from her belly to her breasts, teasing her nipples. He bent over her to kiss her. His fingers twisted her nipple, and her whole body squirmed. He had meant to kiss her lips, but when his finger twisted her nipple she moved and turned her head, and so he chose to kiss her throat instead.

 

She was writhing beneath him, but she didn't make any sound, and so he couldn't quite decide whether or not it was from excitement. Her body didn't keep still, and in her movements she rubbed against him, making him get harder and harder. He knew he couldn't wait much longer, so his fingers dove between her legs to see if she was ready for him.

 

No, she wasn't. Her sex was still dry.

 

The dilemma he faced was not easy. Should he just take her, carefully, slowly? Perhaps his body would communicate to hers what to do.

 

In all his life Ben had only bedded whores. They knew the score, they knew what to do so a man entering them didn't hurt them too much. But Rachel was not a whore. He didn't want to scare her. And he liked his women willing and participating. Sex wasn't much fun otherwise.

 

If he could be patient enough now to teach her that his touch wasn't something to shrink away from perhaps in a couple of weeks she would be willing to share the pleasure of his bed as she had been willing to come into his life for the sake of the boy.

 

She looked at him with those rabbit-eyes of hers. No. He had no choice. She didn't communicate, and he couldn't read her well enough yet. And he wouldn't risk hurting her. His pleasure would simply have to wait.

 

'Be patient', he reminded himself when he bent over her again and kissed her face, then her throat and neck. His hand roamed the curves of her body, up and down, up and down, until he touched her between her legs again.

 

Ben buried his face in her neck and hairs while his hand caressed and stroked between her legs slowly and persistently.

 

"Stay calm, darlin'," he murmured. "It won't hurt, I promise."

 

He played with her folds, stroking her soft flesh. She was still tense. But she would just have to learn in her own good time that his touch did not hurt, no matter what she had experienced before.

 

He kept burying his nose in her neck and hair, softly murmuring words of reassurance, and occasionally kissing or sucking on her earlobe while his hand persistently rubbed her.

 

He wouldn't give in. Rachel knew it. From what she had learned of this man over the months she had been on his ranch she knew that his patience was endless. This, and his stubbornness when he wanted something. More than once she had watched how even a wild horse in the end gave in to him, to his will, to his caresses, to his soft murmuring.

 

His aim was to break her, just like his horses, and she stood no chance. She would have to give in to him. It was the price to pay for staying on the ranch, for taking Tommy away from prying eyes, for keeping him safe.

 

So what did it matter if a stray dog sniffed at her skirts? She could always wash afterwards...

 

His touch was soft, so soft... Only once in her life Rachel had known a man who had touched her softly....

 

So Rachel did what she had done before, she shut out the semi-darkness of the room and closed her eyes. Behind the black of her eye-lids she conjured up the image of the only man she wanted to touch her body...

 

After what seemed like an eternity Ben was rewarded for his patience. Her body seemed to move against her will, pressing against his hand, opening to his touch. He could feel the slowly gathering wetness on his fingers and moved to look into her face. Her eyes were screwed tightly shut. He saw it and buried his face in her neck and hair again, returning to the murmuring while with his hand he kept stroking her intimate parts.

 

His hand became more daring, and her body responded to it. Her movements became more and more urgent... until finally he felt her shudder and relax. She had made no sound, not a single moan or sigh. If Ben hadn't had his fingers in her at that very moment and hadn't felt her clasp down on them he wouldn't have been sure she really had reached her peak.

 

She kept her face hidden from him.

 

"Now, are you ready for me, darlin'?" he asked but she didn't react. He moved on top of her and settled between her legs. She turned her face away and screwed her eyes shut again, branding his careful movements as an unwanted invasion. For a moment Ben thought about giving up. But his body had other ideas. He had been hard for so long it began to hurt, and he knew instinctively that if he didn't continue now he might never get another chance with her.

 

As carefully as he could in his present state he entered her. She tensed nevertheless, her whole spine becoming rigid. He stopped any movement and looked at her. Braced on his elbows Ben used his fingertips to caress her forehead and temples.

 

"Shhh, darlin'... don't be scared. Look at me."

 

She shook her head, her eyes screwed shut.

 

"Look at me..."

 

His voice was still soft but she had heard the steel behind it. She opened her eyes and looked into his blue-green ones. They were full of concern for her.

 

"Tell me, am I hurting you?" he demanded.

 

Defiantly she shook her head. He wouldn't let her hide behind her eyelids. Another humiliation she hadn't contemplated. He held her gaze with his while moving in and out of her. Ben had meant to move slowly, to give her some time, to make her come again, but he couldn't wait any longer, he was too close to his own peak. A few more pushes – he could feel her stiffen again – and he was there. It was a relief but it wasn't satisfying. He settled beside her and meant to draw her into his embrace but she turned away from him, got up and started to dress.

 

"What are you doing?" he asked her. Astonished, she turned to look at him.

 

"Come back in here." He patted the bedsheets beside him.

 

"I've got to do the dishes."

 

"They can wait till tomorrow. It's late. Come here."

 

She hesitated but his look said he wouldn't concede this point. She shrugged out of her clothes again and, gingerly, climbed back and hid under the sheet. Ben reached over and drew her into his embrace. He could tell she was not used to this. She didn't know what to do, didn't dare at first to lay her head on his chest, did fidget with her hand until, finally, she dared place it on his chest beside her head.

 

It took a long time until she relaxed and her breathing became regular. When he felt the tension leave her body he spoke. "There's no need to be afraid of me, Rachel. I promise I won't hurt you. Who knows? In time you might come to like it. Most women I know do."

 

She didn't answer and Ben didn't expect her to. He sighed. It would take a long time to get his message across.

 

A warm body next to him, hugging him in his sleep.

 

Martha was a whore. She served men to feed herself – and Ben. So whenever she had a customer Ben had to make himself scarce. At first Ben obeyed without protest, but after he had learned that sometimes men hit the prostitutes they paid for he became fiercely protective of Martha. Without her knowing, Ben hid in her room while she served her customers, observing both participants in the game – or business – of sex, learning how it was done, but also learning what it could mean: that for some it was the only closeness they had, for others it was a means to exert power, and for a few it was used to inflict pain.

 

At night he slept in Martha's bed. From the day she took in little Ben she never accepted offers from men wanting to stay overnight. No matter how hard up she was, their evening ritual of snuggling up and falling asleep in each other's arms was sacred.

 

Ben's nights in Martha's bed were peaceful. It didn't matter to him that the sheets were crumpled and often soiled, or that they reeked of sex and sweaty bodies. All that mattered was that Martha would take him in her arms and hug him tightly against the evils of the world outside. In the darkness they talked. Martha told him about her past as a young girl and the dreams she had once had for herself, and Ben whispered about his times out on the street.

 

In time Martha got to hear all his secrets, how he had roamed the streets desperate to find food, how he had been bitten by a stray dog when they had fought over a bone with meat, a wound that had been very painful, how he had endured the cold and people's abuse, but most of all how alone he had been.

 

Martha was the only one who knew about Ben's momma, and she wondered how a woman could just turn and leave a sweet boy like Ben behind. But she wasn't judgmental. She had seen too much to cast the first stone at anyone. And she, too, had gotten rid of children she had conceived. After all, she was a whore. That was how she earned her keep. She couldn't afford a swollen belly that kept customers away. Oh yes, when she had still been young she, too, had dreamed about picket fences and the perfect husband who would give her a bunch of kids, but reality had hit her hard. She had buried the dream and with it any motherly feelings she might have once had. It had been little Ben who had brought it all back to her again. Ever since she had picked him up all dirty and starving he had woken something in her heart that she had believed lost: Ben was as close as she would ever get to a child of her own.

 

Martha was grateful for every night he shared her bed and she was allowed to hug him.

 

When Ben woke the next morning he still felt the warmth of Martha's body beside him and the smell of sex hung in his nostrils. He opened his eyes and beheld Rachel lying spooned next to him. A smile crossed his features and then subsided. He wasn't exactly proud of what he had done the night before, but he would make it up to her. For a moment he buried his nose in her hair and breathed in, then he carefully rolled out of bed.

 

The mares and their foals were still standing and lying closely together, sleeping in the rising sun. It was a picture of perfect peace. Ben had stopped his horse Ribbon and was watching their first movements, the mares calm and secure, the little ones eager to discover another day. Why was it that a man who had had sex felt at peace with himself? Ben wondered if it was the same for women.

 

When he returned from his ride, Tommy and Rachel were up and breakfast was ready. Before Rachel could make a move to sit down at the table he walked over, took her in his arms and tried to kiss her. But she stiffened and evaded his mouth by turning away, her arms hanging limply at her sides. Her reaction triggered something in him he had not believed to ever feel in the presence of a woman: degradation. Without as much as a second thought Ben grabbed her hair and forced her into his kiss – a hard and short one – then he let her go and sat down at the table exchanging his usual morning greetings with Tommy.

 

Rachel was pale when she sat down, and Ben didn't feel too heroic. He had meant to put their relationship on a somewhat better ground but her rebuke had made things get out of hand. He kept looking at her, waiting for a gesture from her to find his nerve for an apology. But she never met his gaze, and in the end he gave up.

 

Tommy felt uncomfortable between the two adults, and he decided to ask his mother about the one important thing that kept occupying his mind.

 

"Mummy, can I call Mr. Warner 'Dad'?"

 

 

Ben was looking down at his plate, and for a moment he closed his eyes. Tommy's request couldn't be timed worse. A quick glance at Rachel's face confirmed this.

 

"Whatever gave you that idea, Tommy?" she asked her son, disapproval dripping from her voice.

 

"Mr. Warner doesn't mind," Tommy said in defense.

 

Rachel shot a look at her employer.

 

Ben looked up with a serious and honest look. "He is right. I don't mind," he said to her. Her look clearly said she didn't agree with him. More, it accused him of being the instigator of the idea.

 

"Mr. Warner is not your father, Tommy. He is just the man who employs us so we can earn money for the train tickets we want to buy."

 

"Train tickets?" Tommy's voice was as small as he felt. "When are we going?"

 

Ben tried to shut down mentally. He wasn't any more prepared to hear her answer than Tommy was.

 

"Soon." It was all Rachel said. The word shut both of them up efficiently. Tommy was gagging on his breakfast, and Ben's eyes were glued to his plate, his stomach digesting the food faster than his mind could digest her words.

"There's something else," Ben said calmly, heading straight for the lioness' den. "I want to teach Tommy how to shoot."

 

"No!" This time her answer came quickly. And her stance was firm. But Ben was prepared for this. Women never wanted a man to hold a gun – no matter what their reasoning behind their attitude was.

 

"Right now he can't defend himself." Ben spoke assertively. He knew what he was doing. A man needed to be able to handle a gun - even a law-abiding citizen did. Her reaction to his words spooked him.

 

Rachel stood up and screamed a high-pitched "Nooooo!" raising her hands to her cheeks in terror. Her eyes had glazed over, and she was blind to her surroundings. For a moment it seemed as if she stood in front of the most horrible thing imaginable, screaming her soul out. Both Tommy and Ben stared at her aghast. They didn't know what to do.

 

Slowly, Rachel came out of her stupor. Realising what she had just done, she took a deep breath and tried to calm down. With a voice hoarse by her strained attempt to control it she said, "Tommy will never wear a gun."

 

Then she left. For her the matter was closed.

 

Ben understood that there was an issue here, an issue that might have to be addressed. But not right away. Too much had already happened, too much had been said – and things had gotten off in the wrong direction. But he wasn't willing to give in either. Not this time. Not where Tommy was concerned. Not when she had just rebuked him both as a man and as a friend and protector of the boy!

 

He looked at her retreating back and beheld a different woman. It was as if the previous night and this morning's rejections had taken off the halo Ben had put upon Rachel. She was no longer only Tommy's loving and doting mother, a role in which she was to be adored. Now she was his woman, too, and it was a role in which she disappointed. The bright morning light painted her in a different light for Ben: she had shrunk down to eye-level.

 

After breakfast Ben left. He had the urgent need to put some distance between himself and the house... or was it Rachel? Or perhaps the bad taste of his own guilt?

 

He led Ribbon along the well-trodden track to the outer meadows. One of the foals caught his eye. The little colt tried to reach something lying beyond the fence. For a horse so young it was extremely stubborn and determined. It just wouldn't let go of its idea. After perhaps the sixth or seventh effort the colt succeeded. It shook its head and gave a triumphant whinny.

 

Ben laughed. Success felt the same to everyone, no matter what species you were. That colt would definitely not be sold. Ben leaned forward, resting his arm on the pommel of the saddle. The little colt had moved on and was enticing one of the others to play.

 

Tommy.

 

He was just like the foals in the meadow. He wanted to learn and experience the world around him – all the world. And he was learning well, soaking up everything Ben taught him and never afraid to try out things Ben confronted him with. But unlike the colt's mother who just stood aside watching calmly, Rachel wouldn't let Tommy grow without interference. Why this need to tie him down? To hold him back, to limit what he might become? Why did she try to spoil the friendship he shared with Ben?

 

A thought kept nagging at his mind. Ben turned Ribbon and headed toward the town.

 

Upon his return to the ranch Ben summoned Tommy and together they rode off to some remote spot. In a clearing well out of sight and earshot of both the house and the stables Ben put a gun in Tommy's hands.

 

"This is a Derringer, Tommy. It's a small gun – right size for you. Once you've become a man you'll get another one."

 

Tommy took the gun. It was still a little bit too big for him to grip comfortably but he didn't notice this. He had seen guns before but he had never been allowed to touch one.

 

Ben saw that he had no idea how to handle the weapon.

 

For the rest of the day Ben introduced Tommy to shooting. He demonstrated how to open the weapon and how to load it, told him about various sizes of guns and bullets, explained that later he would show him how to clean the gun properly before he finally put it in his hands.

 

Now Tommy was ready to try. His hands were still a bit too small to fit the handle and pull the trigger easily, but after some effort he managed to get off a shot. The sound scared him for a moment, but then he became aware that he had been the cause of it, that he had control of the weapon. And just like the riding, this brought on a rush of excitement, and the rush of another emotion: he felt empowered. Tommy was sure that from now on no one would be able to frighten him again!

 

"Can I try for real?" he asked Ben.

 

"You mean hitting something?"

 

Tommy nodded.

 

"Okay. Let's see." Ben scanned their surroundings, then he pointed to a place straight ahead of them. "See over there, Tommy? The tall tree?"

 

Tommy nodded.

 

"See the lowest branch? See the birds' nest? Try to aim for that."

 

Tommy tried eagerly, but when his shot rang the bullet was far off the mark.

 

"Don't be so hasty, Tommy. You are in no hurry, you are only just learning."

 

"But I want to be as fast as you!"

 

Bang! The shot reverberated in the canyon. The rattler lay dead beside the young outlaw. It had been sliding by, not threatening him, but Ben had grown nervous. He had been on the run for three days now, sure the posse had picked up on his trail. His fear of capture had made him act hastily and without circumspection. In a canyon a shot could be heard for miles. Both he and his horse were tired to the bone, but now that he had shot the rattlesnake there was nothing else to do but mount again and ride on as fast as possible.

 

"Being quick isn't everything, Tommy. First you must know how to handle your gun. And then you must learn to hit your aim. When you practise on this, you will get quicker." Ben's voice changed, it became grave and serious. "But first, Tommy, we have to make a deal."

 

Tommy looked at Ben curiously. A deal? He was already big enough to do a deal with his idol? – The ranch hands did deals with each other all the time, most of which Tommy didn't understand. But it sounded very grown-up to him.

 

"What deal?" he asked Ben.

 

"Your mother doesn't want you to shoot, right?"

 

Tommy nodded.

 

"So we can't tell her. We come here as often as we can, and you can practise. We'll have to hide the gun so your mother doesn't find it. And only you and I will know about it. Deal?"

 

"Yes."

 

Ben held out his hand and Tommy did the same. They struck hands like two grown-ups. Tommy smirked, a trait he had definitely picked up from Ben.

 

"All right. Now, you aim for something easier. Let's see... "

 

That night when Tommy had gone to bed and Rachel had finished washing the dishes and wanted to join him, Ben's voice stopped her.

 

"I want you to come to my bed from now on."

 

It was all he said. Rachel froze. But whatever reaction Ben had expected from her, she didn't pick up the gauntlet. Without even turning to face him she continued on her way, this time turning towards the stairs. She climbed them and vanished in Ben's bedroom, closing the door behind herself.

 

Ben was still standing downstairs beside the kitchen table. He was dumbstruck. She hadn't even tried to argue, hadn't even tried to bargain her side of the deal. What? His saving the boy had bought her? Or was there a more cunning scheme behind this in the long run? Was this her particular version of the battle of wits that was evolving between them? If so she had just scored a point; she had definitely managed to make him feel cheap. Ben took a deep breath. What would he find upon entering his room? Well, there was only one way to find out...

 

When he entered his bedroom Rachel lay hidden under the covers, her clothes lay folded on the chair. He didn't undress but sat down beside her.

 

"Rachel... look at me."

 

Her eyes wore an expression he couldn't interpret. As usual, she didn't say a word. Ben knew people, and he knew how to read them, but this talent of his seemed to fail him where Rachel was concerned. He just couldn't get through to her.

 

Gently, he took a curl of her hair and rubbed it between his fingers. He didn't speak. One of his virtues was patience – it paid off with his horses; he had thought it to pay off with this woman. But he also knew that sometimes patience wasn't enough, and you had to prod a horse to do something it didn't want to do on its own.

 

For countless minutes he stroked her hair, waiting for a reaction, a question, anything. When Rachel didn't speak he said, "I don't want us to be opponents."

 

But even this admission didn't elicit anything from her. He finally stood up and undressed, then slid under the covers beside her.

 

"I'm not gonna hurt you, you know that, don't you?" he asked her. His eyes held hers, and she knew he expected an answer to his question. She nodded. What else could she answer? She knew that sooner or later he would use violence to get what he wanted, so it was best to give in to him. It was just a trick of his when he wanted her to say first that everything was all right. Wasn't it?

 

"Trust me, Rachel," he whispered when he bent over her...

 

"Gentle, Ben. A woman wants to be treated gentle."

 

Entering Martha's world had meant facing men and women whose major pursuit was sex. The girls in the saloon all took to Ben. His unruly chestnut hair, his blue-green eyes, but more than anything his need to be mothered turned most of them into mother-hens. They pampered him and fussed about him, and they poured all their love and care that they weren't allowed to give to anybody else onto the boy. In turn, Ben did everything he could to please them. His manners changed to that of a child-gentleman simply because the women responded to it. He heard their 'girlie-talk', learned about their longings and their unfulfilled desires, and their wish to be courted instead of bought, of being cherished instead of ordered around. Ben never forgot these lessons.

 

The men in this world stood in stark contrast to the softness of Ben's female 'friends'. A few men were decent enough to respect the women they paid as human beings, but most of them went about their 'business' with a brutality and callousness that was intimidating. They masked their insecurities with gruffness, sometimes even with downright viciousness.

A whore – even though she performed a 'service' that was agreed upon and wished for - was never entirely safe from her customer. Ben had learned this when he had spotted bruises on Martha's arms one night when she hugged him. From that moment on he hid behind the curtains in her room – just to make sure nobody hurt her again. He was ten at the time and never would have stood a chance against a grown-up man, but this very thought never occurred to him. When Martha had found out that he had been watching her doing her 'business' she had had a screaming fit and thrown him out of her room. But Ben was too clever for her. Whenever he saw Martha dally with a man in the saloon and it became obvious the two would soon get up to her room he ventured there first and hid somewhere.

 

Once a man spotted him crouching behind the armchair when he got undressed. Luckily, the man didn't get angry. He was amused by Ben's actions. "Wanna learn how to do it right, boy?" To placate the man Ben had nodded reluctantly, and the man had laughed good-naturedly, shoving him out softly and telling him he would teach him later. But Martha knew better than that; Ben had been there to protect her, and she wondered what he made of her encounters with men, and how deep-rooted his fear of losing her might be. This night, when they would cuddle up with each other she would have to talk to him about it...

 

"Gentle." Ben had never forgotten Martha's words.

 

Ben was 25, when he hit St. Louis and found himself in the bed of one of the most beautiful whores he had ever seen. She was hardly more than a girl, perhaps 17 or 18. And new to the job, too. She didn't yet know how to pleasure men.

 

"Don't worry. I'll be gentle."

 

"They say you are an outlaw. They say you even killed people."

 

"Yeah... well, man's gotta fight back. But I won't harm you, girl. Don't be scared."

 

He had stayed all night, introducing her to many things she hadn't encountered before. And he came back. Again and again. Whenever he had the money to spare he spent it on the girl, experimenting with her, trying out things he had secretly watched, things that hadn't meant anything to him as a boy but were tantalisingly exciting now as a young man...

 

And the girl responded to him, relaxed with him and let him do whatever he wanted to do, lead her to wherever he wished to go. She was cute, she was soft and nice, and she was available. It was a pity she was also dumb, couldn't hold up a decent conversation if her life depended on it. But still, the girl gave him some of the best sexual experiences Ben had ever had...

 

When Ben was waking from his dream of the young whore he had enjoyed all those years ago, Rachel lay cuddled up at his side, her head and arm on his chest. With his free hand he started to stroke along her body – her side, her hip, her buttock, along her thigh and back up again until her body reacted to his touch. She lay back, unknowingly giving him access. Carefully, he climbed on top of her, bending down taking a nipple in his lips. He smiled when the nipple hardened under his lips' attention, and exploratively sucked at it. Rachel moaned. He smiled again. It was only a matter of time when she would accept him.

 

She moved her legs and he took the opportunity to move in-between, his hand sneaking down to spread them more and hitch up one leg around his hip. At that moment Rachel woke with a start.

 

"Shhh... Rachel, it's me. Don't be scared."

 

He had been making love to her earlier, and so it was easy to slide into her on their juices. Ben was in his forties, a man in his prime, and the constant presence of a young woman in the house acted on him like a mare in heat assaulted the senses of a stallion.

 

As he was moving in her now, it was too dark to see anything.

 

And so it was easy for Rachel to close her eyes and conjure up her favourite image again without him ever getting a chance to find out...

 

Chapter 6: Exposure

"You see, Mrs. Evans, a lot of people depend on Ben Warner's ranch here in Indian Springs. Without him, without the supplies his ranch needs, a lot of people would be out of work. The grocer, the smithy, the tack makers... he's their best customer - a paying customer, and an honest man. I can vouch for that. And from what I have heard about him from his ranch hands he is a fair boss and a good horseman. I have had business with him and know him personally. You can trust my judgment: he is an honourable man."

 

Alice Evans smiled at these words. "Mr. Jones, where I come from, a rich man always presses his advantage when he has it."

 

The banker shook his head. "No, Mrs. Evans. Ben Warner is not like that. You can rest assured that the farm you bought will prosper, and there won't be any interference from him. Why should he try to elbow out other farmers when he has enough for himself?"

 

Well, that thought was a bit naive, Alice Evans thought, but she didn't answer. Instead she smiled and bowed her head in greeting. "Thank you. Good-bye, Mr. Jones."

 

"Good-bye, Mrs. Evans."

 

Ben looked for Tommy in the stables but he wasn't there. He finally found him in the men's quarters. Yeah, he should have suspected that. More and more often Tommy joined the men. Over the last weeks, after their outing, he had become comfortable in their presence. He didn't mind their jibes at him any longer and never took them personally. Tommy thrived on company. And some of the men took an interest in the boy, taught him about their work and let him lend a hand.

Ben was watching the scene. Three of the men were sitting around the table playing poker. But the others, too, were deep in the game, betting on the outcome. A new guy, Brad Dillon, was the centre of attention. He was winning handsomely, and Tommy was smitten with him.

 

Ben watched two of the games, then told Tommy to go to bed.

 

"Oh... no... please..."

 

But one look at Ben's face silenced the boy. He hung his head and walked out. Ben stayed to give a few orders to his foreman.

 

"John, first thing tomorrow, we need to pick out the foals that can be separated from their dams. We'll move them to the big meadow with direct access to the river. Before we release them, we brand them. So I need you and at least one more man."

 

"Yes, sir."

 

"Next, I need two volunteers to repair the fences on the north meadow."

 

The north meadow was the furthest from the ranch, and again and again wildlife was tearing down parts of the fences. Repeatedly the men had suggested Ben use barbed wire but he would hear none of it. He didn't want to risk his horses hurting themselves on the wire. The north meadow was the largest, and he usually used it for the young stallions who could be a wild bunch when fighting out their rankings.

 

The men groaned. Nobody was particularly keen on spending a day repairing fences. But having to ride all the way up there and not being able to be back in time for meals was doubly hard.

 

Ben was insensitive to their groaning. "Well... draw straws if you must. But two men will go up there." He turned to leave but stopped again at the door. "Dillon..."

 

The man looked up from his game but gave no answer.

 

"I want to see you tomorrow morning before breakfast.  Have a good game, boys."

 

At dawn the next morning Dillon knocked at the door. Ben was already up and had made himself a cup of coffee.

 

"Come on in." Ben's face revealed nothing.

 

The man came in slowly. Now that he was in Ben's house he didn't feel as cocky as in the men's quarters. He stood in the kitchen, turning his hat in his fists, wondering why he had been summoned.

Ben sat down with his coffee, leaned back in the chair, and smiled up at the man without saying a word. His whole posture said 'I am boss', and Dillon understood the message. He coughed. Ben smirked at his nervousness. Calmly he took another sip of his coffee.

 

"Had a good game, yesterday, did you?" he asked off-handedly.

 

"Yeah..." The man ran his hand through his hair and relaxed somewhat.

 

Softly Ben put the cup down on the table. "No bruises, no broken bones... so I guess they didn't find out you cheated on them," Ben said just as casually.

 

Dillon's posture changed in an instant. But before he could even think about any reaction to Ben's words Ben had already cocked his gun. Dillon froze on the spot. He hadn't realized Ben was armed. Ben rarely wore his gun in the house but Dillon suddenly realized that Ben had anticipated this turn of events, perhaps initiated it.

 

They sized each other up. Dillon took a step back and – with effort –took a deep breath, and then relaxed his stance visibly. He raised both his hands slowly, their palms turned towards Ben, the message in his new posture clear: he did not wish to fight.

 

"I want you gone," Ben said to him. "You will help John and Matt deliver the horses I sold to the Army in Fort Gibson. When you are there you will excuse yourself and find somewhere else to go. Got it?"

 

Dillon nodded. Ben uncocked the gun and put it on the table. Then he took out his wallet and put money on the table.

 

"Your month's pay. Although I'm sure you won enough from the boys to tie you over for some time. - And now get your face out of here."

 

Dillon pocketed the money and left. Tommy was standing in the door of his room. In the background Rachel was getting dressed.

 

"Come here, Tommy."

 

Tommy walked over to where Ben sat.

 

"What has he done wrong?" Tommy asked.

 

"He cheated," Ben answered.

 

"But he won!" Tommy exclaimed.

 

Rachel appeared, pinning up the last strand of her hair. "Tommy..." she started, but a gesture from Ben shut her up. He turned to the boy.

 

"People don't like it when you cheat, Tommy. They beat you up for it. When the boys find out that Dillon cheated on them, then they will beat him up. Maybe worse. They may shoot him. You know what happens then, don't you?"

 

Tommy shook his head.

 

"The doctor will have to come and tend to him. Maybe someone even gets killed, then we have a dead man. When the boys are sick or dead they can't work. And yesterday I said that there is a lot of work to do on the ranch, right?"

 

Tommy nodded again.

 

"So I can't let them fight and kill off each other. It's better that Dillon is gone."

 

"But he was winning so much money!" Tommy exclaimed.

 

"Tommy," Rachel intervened, "the Bible tells us that 'money is the root of all evil'."

 

Ben looked at her, not certain if she was simply making a statement, or if her remark was directed at him and his wealth.

 

"Not the root of all evil. There are other roots as well," he said. "And money can be quite useful."

 

Tommy was unfazed by both Rachel's sermon and Ben's lecture. What he wanted to say was important, but Ben obviously hadn't heard him. Again, he tried to explain his thoughts.

 

"First, there was a little money on the table, then one or two men had it, and then he won. And he won more. And he lost, too, but it didn't matter because he had so much money. So he could lose and lose, and it didn't matter. And then he won again – and had everything!"

 

Ben had listened intently. It wasn't the cheating or the money itself that had gotten to the boy. Tommy wasn't greedy. And although he knew that Ben had to pay for the goods they bought in town, he had no idea about prices or the privileges that money could buy. What seemed to fascinate him was the way the money had flowed into and out of the hands of the players. Tommy had realized that once you had enough money, you couldn't be without again because money bred money, and with enough in store you could always be certain to weather even the harshest conditions...

 

Ben took Tommy by his shoulders and moved him to stand in front of his face.

 

"You know, it would have been the same had they used pebbles from the river, or matches," he explained to Tommy. "And you are right. Once you have enough... pebbles..." he deliberately exchanged the word 'money' because of Rachel's presence, "then you can even lose some but it won't be too hard on you. You can still hang on and on – until you win again."

 

"It's good to have a lot of money, isn't it?" Tommy asked Ben.

 

Ben tousled his hair and smiled. Tommy frowned, deep in thought.

 

"But how do you get money without others to win it from?"

 

Now, this was a bit too close for comfort. After all, the man he was talking to hadn't exactly 'won' his money. But then Ben had an idea. "You wanna learn about money, Tommy?" he asked.

 

Tommy nodded.

 

"All right. Today we are branding the young ones and I have to make sure they are all right, but tomorrow or the day after we'll ride into town."

 

Ben took Tommy to the bank. There he explained to Mr. Jones about Tommy's interest in money. For two whole hours the banker explained to Tommy the importance of a bank and of his job as a banker, of how cash flow was created and kept alive, of how the value of money changed when there was nothing to trade it for, and so on.

 

Tommy was fascinated. He asked and asked, and Mr. Jones was happy to explain. He had finally found someone who found the ways of money as fascinating as he himself did. Several times they joked and created would-be scenarios involving huge amounts of money – some of which ended up in a puff of smoke, some of which created a happy utopia.

 

Ben watched them both. He had never figured Jones as a father-figure or a teacher. He and his wife didn't have children. But the way he was capable of relating to Tommy was nothing short of magical. The two had clicked from the first moment.

 

Tommy himself was a boy changed. He was soaking up everything that Jones had to offer like he had been born and bred to that subject. He was open and vivacious, his whole body language changed, and he grasped even the more complex scenarios easily. What Ben had already suspected was confirmed in this initial encounter: Tommy would make a perfect banker. He was a clever little boy, and the work on the ranch and the reading of books simply wasn't challenging enough for him. Not any more. It would be a waste, no, it would be a crime to keep his talents locked up like his mother wanted to do.

 

Ben decided there and then that it was time for some changes.

 

"Mr. Jones..." he interrupted the banker's explanations.

 

"Yes, Mr. Warner."

 

"Would you mind teaching Tommy about the work of a bank? Teach him properly, I mean? Take him in as an apprentice? Well... when he is a bit older and has finished school, that is?"

 

"School?" Tommy was electrified. He knew that his mother was against it, and that Ben had given in again and again on the subject.

 

"I'll talk to your mother, Tommy, don't you worry," Ben said to him, his usual gesture of stroking the boy's hair and resting his hand on his shoulder like a promise. Tommy looked at him seriously.

 

"She will say no again." He was sure of it.

 

Ben squeezed Tommy's shoulder. "I'll convince her."

 

"And as soon as you've finished school, you can come to me and start learning the business. Maybe one day we will be partners, Tommy," Mr. Jones said, filling Tommy's heart to the brim with happiness.

 

"Mr. Warner is one of the best men I've ever met," Mrs. Miller said while she packed some salt and coffee for her customer, Alice Evans.

 

"Indeed?" Alice couldn't keep the irony out of her voice.

 

"You may think he is cut from a rough cloth, Mrs. Evans, but that only proves you don't know him. I can assure you he is quite charming."

 

No doubt about that, Alice thought. I remember the outlaw Ben Wade trying to charm me with tales of his girl in San Francisco, conjuring up improper thoughts about the two.

 

"You don't seem convinced," Mrs. Miller continued. "Then let me tell you a story you might not have heard about him. About two years ago my boy Jonathan was bitten by a wolf while he had been visiting someone on a nearby farm. You see, it was a cold winter then, and the wolves came closer than ever before. – Anyway, my boy was bleeding and he tried his best not to cry out at the pain he had. But I could see how hard that was on him. The doctor said his wounds were dangerous, and that he needed a certain medicine to help him make sure he wouldn't develop an infection. Well... he didn't have any of the medicine left but he was sure the doctor in Pah-Rimpi would have it in stock. As you may know Pah-Rimpi is a whole day's ride from here, and the medicine was very expensive. Ben Warner was in town when my boy was brought in, and he heard the doctor and what he said. We didn't know him so well, because he kept to himself all the time. All we knew was that he was rich and had no family. When he heard the doctor's words Ben Warner looked at me and said, 'I've got a fast horse. I'll get the medicine for you.' My husband told him that he would pay him back whatever the medicine might cost - even if it meant selling the shop, and Ben Warner just nodded."

 

Mrs. Miller fell silent. Alice Evans had listened to her story, memories of her younger son Mark in the throes of tuberculosis and the money scarce because of the constant need for medicines coming alive with it. When she focused again on Mrs. Miller she saw the good woman's look fastened on her.

 

"Ben Warner brought back the medicine that saved my son's life. And he never asked for a single cent. He just claimed the doctor in Pah-Rimpi hadn't known the price and he would take it up with our doctor later. But nobody ever asked us for money in all this time."

 

At that moment Ben and Tommy entered the grocery store.

 

"Mrs. Miller!" Tommy exclaimed and ran over to be caught by her and swung around as she always did regardless of who else she was serving at the time. She put him down on his feet, patted his head, and then turned and handed him a candy. With this the ritua completed, she turned to meet Ben's gaze.

 

"Good day to you, Mrs. Miller." Ben smiled his most charming smile, knowing that the woman appreciated it.

 

"Mr. Warner. Good to see you. Do you know Mrs. Evans?" Mrs. Miller turned towards Alice Evans. It was then that Ben realized they were not alone in the store.

 

Alice Evans. - Yes, he remembered her very well, her composed behaviour, her pale complexion, but most of all her stunningly green eyes! But when she looked at him he had a hard time recognizing her; she had aged beyond his imagination. Impossible. It had only been... how long? It had been four years only since he had seen her. To him she looked as if she had aged more than a decade. There were numerous lines in her face, and they weren't the lines a face accumulated when its owner laughed – they were worry lines. Dan's death must have been hard on her.

 

His face, which had turned serious at seeing her again, changed into a smile – a different smile. Alice Evans might not perceive its nuances but it was tinged with guilt.

 

She looked into this face that she had envisioned so often in the past four years, and always with a combination of hatred and a surge of guilt. For Alice Evans it was as if time fell away, and they were sitting at the dinner table again listening to the remarks of the outlaw Ben Wade. He hadn't changed a bit. Everything was still there, the same elegant black clothes, the same charming smile, the same amused look. If anything he even looked better than four years ago. He looked younger, more comfortable in his own skin, his movements springier. How was that possible? He should be dead!

 

"Pleased to meet you, Ma'am," he drawled, touching the brim of his hat. Alice nodded in that restricted, ladylike fashion he had seen in her before, but then she felt her behaviour to be a bit too strange. Mrs. Miller would notice. After all she had come to learn about the rancher Ben Warner; she didn't want to draw any attention to herself. But what to say to the seeming stranger?

 

"My son William is full of praise for the horses he bought from you," she said by way of conversation. But then she was at a loss again as what to add.

 

"He told me the two of you are tending the farm on your own," Ben said. "It's a lot of work for only two people."

 

"We tried to hire a few ranch hands, but right now, there is nobody to hire."

 

Ben nodded to her words. True. It wasn't the season to hire. The cowboys and ranch hands went with the movements of the herds – and it would be a few months yet before those men would hit town.

 

"I'll send two of my men over for a couple of months," Ben said. "Just long enough to help out William, and so that everything gets into shape on the farm. Then it'll be easier to handle."

 

Alice looked astonished. In the background Mrs. Miller smiled. Good thing that Ben Warner had entered the store, she thought. She hadn't felt too good gossiping about the man even though, naturally, she had only good things to tell about him. But this was even better. So Alice Evans could see for herself what a fine man he was.

 

"I couldn't..." Alice tried to fight off his offer.

 

"Don't bother about payment, Mrs. Evans," Ben said, all formal and polite. "I'll take it up with young William. Anyway, it'll just be for long enough to tide you over, till you find suitable men."

 

Tommy was moving to stand beside him, and – as usual – slid his arm around Ben's waist. Automatically, Ben's hand combed the boy's hair and then rested on his shoulder as was their ritual.

 

Alice Evans lowered her eyes. "Thank you, Mr. Warner. We appreciate your help."

Her eyes were truly stunning. For a moment, in the almost-smile she gave with her answer, Ben had seen again that beautiful woman he remembered. Her eyes had sparkled, and their green colour had turned a shade darker. Perhaps there was still a chance for some man to bring out again that beautiful girl in her that Dan had once married. Alas. It wasn't to be him.

 

With a somewhat regretful smile and a squeeze he turned to Tommy. "Would you like some candies, Tommy?" Ben asked.

 

Tommy's face lit up like a Christmas tree, but just as suddenly the lights went out again. "No." He shook his head.

 

"Why not?" Ben inquired.

 

"Mum is not going to allow it. She says candy is only for special occasions, and we are not rich enough to eat it all the time."

 

For a moment Ben's eyes grew cold. Rachel knew well that a few extra cents for candy didn't bother him. He knew it was her way of setting herself and Tommy apart from him and the life he wanted them to have together. Ben failed to understand why Rachel used the boy to get back at him. She actively tried to diminish what the boy could achieve and the joy he could have. No. He wouldn't stand for it. The day he couldn't outwit Rachel hadn't seen the light yet. He bent over and placed his hands on his knees, eye-to-eye with Tommy for another plan of conspiracy.

 

"How about I hide the candies in my room? Each day after dinner and before you have to go to bed you come up to my room. There we read as we always do, and meanwhile you can have as many candies as you like. And your mother won't know."

 

Ben smirked at him, and Tommy smirked back. Tommy raised his hand, and Ben struck it with his. Deal.

 

"Mrs. Miller," Ben said, "the young man wants a collection of your best candies – and make this a bagful. After all, it will have to last some time."

 

When Tommy and Ben looked at the ladies their indignant faces told them eloquently that they didn't approve of the deal. Tommy was still young enough to feel bad about it, and promptly lost his smile. But Ben put an arm around his shoulder protectively and smiled again at Mrs. Miller. It was his 'Come-on-I-know-you-can't-resist-me'-smile, and, naturally, it worked on the good lady. She shook her head, laughing and just waved at Tommy to follow her to the candy glasses.

 

Ben's eyes swept again to Alice Evans, and she, too, became a recipient of his smile. She lowered her head in the face of it, but Ben could see that her lips twitched in amusement.

 

He stepped closer. "William is a fine boy. Let me know if there is anything else I can do for you and your family."

 

It was as close as he could come to admit his share in Dan's death. Alice Evans, widow of the late rancher Dan Evans, and the outlaw Ben Wade exchanged a long and serious look.

 

Then Alice nodded and turned to leave. She stopped again at the door, turning to face him. "It was a pleasure meeting you, Mr. Warner," she said and Ben answered with one of his smooth bows, and his finger on the brim of his hat.

 

On their way back to the ranch Tommy was eying Ben repeatedly without speaking up.

 

"Well, Tommy, are you going to tell me or are you going to keep silent?" Ben finally asked.

 

Tommy stopped his horse. They were almost in sight of the main house. Ben stopped, too. Tommy had a serious look about him. Now he was getting really curious.

 

"I want to call you Dad."

 

His voice was urgent. This wasn't the scrawny, little boy any longer he had once seen in the train station, Ben realized. Tommy knew what he wanted, and he stated it more and more often. He was aware that he would have to fight his mother over it, but he wanted it anyway.

 

The thought made Ben's throat constrict, and he swallowed hard. Yes, if he was honest with himself he felt exactly like the boy. He wanted to hear Tommy call him 'Dad'.

 

After years and decades of solitude, of loneliness even in the company of others, the outlaw Ben Wade was finally ready to settle down and become a father.

 

"Then from now on, Tommy, that's what you'll call me."

 

It was all Ben said, all that he needed to say. They shook hands on it. Ben knew that this time their bond couldn't be broken by Rachel.

 

Chapter 7: Thanksgiving

 

"By the way, I want you to come into town with me tomorrow," Ben said to Rachel when they were sitting at the dinner table.

 

"Why?" she whispered.

 

"Don't look like a scared rabbit. The annual Thanksgiving is coming up, and I want you to have a dress for it."

 

"I don't need a dress," Rachel tried to protest feebly.

 

Ben fixed her with a stare. "I already arranged it with Mrs. Reed, the seamstress. She's waiting for you." The matter was closed.

 

The next day Ben and Rachel were off together, leaving Tommy in the care of John. Rachel sat in the wagon beside Ben like a lamb which expected to be led to its slaughter. The previous night she had tried to talk Ben out of it. But Ben had pinned her under his body, smiled into her face and informed her that he wanted to be escorted to the festivity 'by the most beautiful woman in town'. Then he had started to kiss her nipples, and Rachel hadn't dared mention it again.

 

At the seamstress' Rachel had the most frustrating experience. She had meant to get the simplest dress available but Ben had already talked to Mrs. Reed and ordered a very elaborate and expensive dress with lots of lace and ribbons. When Rachel was forced to try it on, she blushed a crimson red and was deeply embarrassed. The dress was a blazing green colour and was showing off her figure, narrowing her waist and accentuating her breasts. With such a dress there would be absolutely no chance for her to remain in the background during the festivities.

 

For once in her life Rachel tried to argue with Ben Warner about something concerning herself. But neither he nor the seamstress – who thought it charming to finally meet 'Mr. Warner's much-too-modest lady' – were prepared to listen to her. A feeling of panic began to add to the initial dread she had felt.

 

Mrs. Reed promised to finish the dress in time for Thanksgiving, and Rachel was escorted back to the wagon by Ben. They didn't leave the town immediately. Ben stopped in front of the grocery to get a bag of candies for Tommy.

 

Rachel remained in the wagon. She felt like a freak on display. Everybody who passed looked at her more or less openly. The people all knew the wagon but they had never seen the woman, and they were curious. The expression on Rachel's face didn't invite any greeting, though, and much less a conversation. She felt awful. If the townspeople were that curious already how much worse would it be at Thanksgiving?

 

There was someone in town, however, who had seen the woman before. With a malicious smile on his face he did not walk over to greet her but rather left silently in order to find someone he knew would be very happy indeed to learn about this particular woman's whereabouts.

 

Ben lay spooned behind a naked Rachel. He had made love to her that evening... or rather they had had sex. She still didn't relax fully in his arms. He looked down on her face so peaceful and trusting in sleep. Carefully, softly, he began to caress her. He knew from experience that when he kept his touch soft, she would relax in her sleep and not wake up.

 

There had been nights when he had tried to wake her with his touches, tried to make love to her when she was still half-asleep, hoping to lure her body into a mood that her mind didn't allow. It had never worked. The moment she became conscious of what he was doing she was all defense, especially when she came out of sleep... as if he was some danger to be constantly aware of. Naturally, he would try to calm her, reassure her that he meant no threat. She would then acquiesce to his touch, but she never welcomed his love-making.

 

He realized that she didn't want to see anything and would only allow his touches in the dark, and he accepted it for the time being. Only with her eyes screwed shut she was willing to let her body take over and enjoy the encounter. And each time she orgasmed Ben hoped that eventually she would 'come around', and that one day she would actually open her eyes to look at him...

 

Very carefully so that he wouldn't wake her, Ben kissed her neck. She smiled in her sleep. He snuggled up to her, and she moved to fit better into his embrace. Ben closed his eyes and breathed in the scent of her hair.

 

It was these moments when he touched her, and her body rather than her mind responded to him that Ben used to convince himself that with enough time and patience there might be something like 'love' waiting for them at the end of the road.

 

Thanksgiving morning Rachel was not in the kitchen. Ben found her outside near the hen house vomiting.

 

"What is it, darlin'?" Ben asked, full of concern for her.

 

She wanted to turn away from him but he wouldn't let her. Her face was wet with tears.

 

"Tell me..." he said, cradling her cheeks in his hands.

 

"Nothing. I ate something bad."

 

"You sure?"

 

"Yes." She turned to walk back to the house, but felt dizzy and swayed. Ben grasped her shoulders to steady her.

 

"I think I'll have to lie down again." Her voice sounded small and defeated.

 

Ben picked her up in his arms. "I'll carry you."

 

She tried to resist him but she was too weak and her mind wasn't on it. He carried her to the house and into his bedroom. He insisted she went straight to bed. When he closed the door behind him he could hear her cry.

 

Thanksgiving wasn't what Ben had expected. Without Rachel he felt strangely out of place, and he realized that he had actually wanted to show her off to the townspeople. His gaze swept over the groups of people standing around, drinking, laughing, chatting. Not only the townspeople, but also the families living on farms and ranches around the town were present. Except for church on Sunday, Thanksgiving was the only occasion everybody could come together, and it was definitely a better chance to catch up on the gossip and have some fun than church was. The women as well as the men grouped together, chatting and gossiping about people they didn't know, and even more ferociously about the ones they knew.

 

No. Being with people had never been his favourite pastime. He would always prefer a book or the company of a good horse to any human.

 

Unseen by others the outlaw Ben Wade came to the surface, cynically musing about the endeavours of people he did not feel any connection with...

 

Mrs. Reed was disappointed. She had mentioned the dress she had made for 'Mr. Warner's lady' to several of the town's ladies, and they had been eager to see Rachel and to make her acquaintance. Seeing Ben Warner alone inspired the imagination of some scheming female minds and gave rise to a colourful palette of gossip.

 

Tommy stayed close to Ben. There were several children running around. But although Tommy eyed them up and felt drawn, he was too shy to go over. Ben prodded him to join them, and Tommy finally did. It didn't take more than a couple of minutes, and Tommy was running around with the others, chasing, screaming, laughing.

 

When Ben spotted Miss Hargrove, the schoolteacher, standing all by herself, he smiled. It was a perfect opportunity to introduce Tommy to her and to announce that soon she would have another pupil.

 

"Why the hell not?" Ben's voice rang out, angry and frustrated.

He and Rachel were arguing about Tommy. Ben wanted to put the boy in school, and Rachel had refused – as usual. It was unbelievable; as weak as she was where she herself was concerned, she didn't give in on the subject of school for Tommy.

 

Why would she refuse him an education? And the company of other children? Ben simply couldn't understand it. And she wouldn't explain her reasons.

 

"I don't want him to go," was all she said.

 

"Rachel..." Ben started again, placing his hands on the back of a chair and leaning his weight on them. All of a sudden he felt a hundred years old. This constant fighting was so tiresome. A hot anger shot through him. He should grab her shoulders and shake her so hard that she would beg him to stop! – But he knew he could never do this. Not to her, not to any woman.

 

He took a deep breath.

 

"Please, Rachel... I don't want to fight you," he said, eyes imploring.

 

"Then don't."

 

All the ranch hands were gone. Most of them were away delivering horses to customers. They wouldn't be back for several days. Even John and Sam, the cook, had left the ranch. Sam had gone into town to buy provisions, including some special things he intended to use over Christmas, and John had asked for a day off. Ben, Rachel and Tommy were alone.

 

It could have been a perfect occasion for playing family, Ben mused. Instead, their fight over Tommy's education had driven a wedge between them. Ben and Tommy might be able to hide Tommy's shooting lessons from Rachel, but it was impossible to hide something as big as going to school. And why should they have to hide something like that in the first place? Rachel should be proud that Tommy was such a clever boy!

 

Ben shook his head. It was no use. He had spent hours brooding about her reasons. She wouldn't say. All she did was refuse. In the secrecy of his bedroom she had told him that – should he indeed intend to make the boy go to school against her explicit wish – she would pack their bags, take Tommy and be gone.

 

Ben stood no chance. He and Tommy loved each other, but even the bond they had wasn't strong enough to make a boy turn against his mother and stay with a stranger. And Ben would never seriously consider having Tommy make such a choice. A boy could not leave his mother. It was out of the question.

 

And so they were back to square one again.

 

Ben had taken Ribbon for an extended ride to cool off. He needed to calm down and find his poise again, and he knew that checking on the pregnant mares and thinking about next year's foals would soothe him.

 

Hours later he returned to the house.

 

When he entered the scene he saw made him stop dead in his tracks. A man stood in front of Rachel, whispering to her. He couldn't see the expression on her face, the man's body blocked her from his view.

 

Ben's entry had been very quiet, and the two hadn't heard him. He observed them silently for a moment, his blood rising in his veins. The man's stance seemed to imply that he was threatening Rachel, but Ben couldn't be sure. Ben gave the door a push with his heel to close it with a slam.

 

"Who are you?" he asked at the same time.

 

Rachel and the man jumped apart at the noise. The man turned and beheld him. A surprised look gave way to a wide, insolent smile.

 

"Wade," he said. "Ben Wade."

 

Ben frowned. He had never mentioned his real name to Rachel, hadn't wanted her to know. A quick look in her direction confirmed that she had heard the name before. She stared at him, and Ben saw the look in her eyes change to pure horror. But now was not the moment to think about what this might mean for the two of them. His focus had to be the man standing in front of him. He knew this man as well as the man knew him.

 

"Dalton," Ben acknowledged him with a nod. Speaking out the name aloud it hit him: 'Tommy Dalton'... it was how Tommy had introduced himself in the train station. Frank Dalton, one of the most vicious and most ruthless of all the outlaws Ben had ever met, was Tommy's father.

 

And Rachel his wife.

 

No wonder she still behaved like a scared rabbit after all these months, and no wonder she didn't dare fight back for herself. A lot of other things fell into place, too, that she had never wanted to go to town to be seen by anyone, that she hadn't wanted Tommy to go to school or mingle with the other children. She had been afraid someone might recognize them and breathe a word to Frank Dalton about it. But Dalton had found them anyway. Ben wondered how.

 

Dalton's smile bode no good. His gaze had swept across Ben's hips. Ben wasn't carrying his pistol. It was in his bedroom – well out of reach.

 

Dalton turned his back on Rachel, sure she wouldn't ever attack him, and tapped his gun playfully against his own cheek. "Now, let's see... what should I do with you? I still owe you, Wade, you know..." His voice was artificially soft, too soft not to have a double meaning.

 

Ben and Dalton had met once, an encounter Ben hadn't forgotten because it had almost cost him his life. His intelligence had won over Dalton's viciousness. That, and perhaps a good portion of luck, if truth were told.

 

"You know," Dalton said with a derogative wave of his head towards Rachel, "it was her who got your bullet out of me."

 

Ben's gaze swept briefly over Rachel. Her hands were clinging to a shirt she had been sewing on. But her eyes had changed. They held the look of a woman who had given up. Ben wondered how many such scenes she had witnessed before.

 

"But she won't be getting my bullet out of you," Dalton continued.

 

Ben raised his chin.

 

"Get away from her, Dalton," he said quietly.

 

Dalton laughed. "You ain't ordering me, Wade," he said. "I have the gun."

 

Ben contemplated making him laugh harder to distract him, but Dalton took a step back towards Rachel.

 

"She ain't your woman, you bastard! You stole her!"

 

Without turning Dalton grabbed behind him and seized Rachel, clenching his fist into the collar of her blouse. "And you liked it. I know it!" he yelled at her.

 

Dalton was shaking Rachel hard, but the moment Ben made the slightest move towards them he pushed her away and pointed his gun at Ben. Ben's gaze swept over Rachel again. She was pale and scared. Ben tried to gesture to her to back off, perhaps even silently leave but she didn't pay any attention to him or anything else. She was in a stupor, in a world of her own.

 

Dalton rambled on. He was working himself up into a rage. Ben couldn't quite determine whether this was good or bad. Perhaps now Dalton would become careless. But then, perhaps it would make him even more vicious and unpredictable.

 

Ben's instincts were alive and in play. Dalton was like Dorsett, someone who simply had to vent his fury on a weaker person, and right now, without his gun, it wasn't only Rachel who was the weaker one.

 

What if he had a gun? Or another weapon? Ben was nothing if not honest with himself, and he knew that even with his gun he might be the one losing here today. When had he last outshot a marshal, a sheriff? Or another outlaw? It had been years since he had had to think in terms of survival. The outlaw Ben Wade had become the rancher Ben Warner, and the rancher Ben Warner wasn't up to the challenge in front of him. The plain truth was he stood no chance.

 

Similar thoughts had crossed Dalton's mind, Ben could see it in his eyes. His smile became scheming, and he slowly moved his weapon as if trying to determine where to aim the shot...

 

BANG!

 

A surprised look crossed Dalton's face. He staggered.

 

Ben had ducked and jumped aside the moment he had heard the shot. Old habits die hard. He meant to seize the opportunity to jump Dalton, but then he caught the look on Dalton's face and froze.

 

Dalton raised his hand to touch his heart and took a laboured breath. There was a hole in his shirt. It was Dalton himself who had been shot. No blood was oozing from the wound, and when Dalton took another laboured breath Ben knew why; his blood was seeping inside, filling his lungs. The shot that had taken them all by surprise had come from the storeroom.

 

In the frame of the storeroom door stood Tommy, the small Derringer pistol in his hands. The moment Ben spotted Tommy holding his gun Dalton saw him, too. Hatred settled on his face. But he couldn't do anything about it. He staggered, tried in vain to suck in air, and fell.

 

Rachel screamed.

 

Dalton had dropped his gun, and Ben watched him for a moment to assess the situation. Dalton's attempts at getting air into his lungs were getting desperate. He would soon be dead. It was only a matter of minutes. Ben walked up to him and kicked Dalton's gun far out of his reach. Then he turned to Tommy.

 

Tommy was still holding his Derringer in both his hands, pointing it to the dying man. The look on his face was the same look he had given the dead snake.

 

"Tommy..."

 

Ben tried to sway Tommy's attention away from Dalton but the boy didn't seem to hear him.

 

"Tommy..." Ben started again, "don't. Put the gun down. You don't need to shoot again."

 

Dalton seemed to confirm this. His breaths were more and more laboured, a rattling sound confirmed that his lungs filled not with air but with blood. His whole body writhed in a vain attempt to survive.

 

Tommy was still standing rooted to his spot. Ben cast a glance at Rachel. Apart from her initial scream she hadn't made another sound. Silent tears were rolling down her cheeks.

 

Dalton took a last breath, then his whole body relaxed and his face contorted in a vicious smile.

 

Tommy's hands started shaking.

 

"It's okay, Tommy. He's dead now. It's over," Ben said, not sure he should approach the boy. The way Tommy held his gun he might well shoot it off towards the slightest movement. Tommy's next reaction surprised him. He lowered the gun and walked over to the fireplace, picking up the poker.

 

At that Ben sprang into action. He blocked Tommy's access to Dalton's body.

 

"No, Tommy, there's no need for that. He's dead. Just look at him, and you can see it. He won't hurt anyone ever again."

 

At Ben's words Tommy woke out of his stupor. He dropped both the poker and his pistol and heaved a sob. A second later Ben was crouched down in front of him and they hugged.

 

"He wanted to kill you," Tommy cried.

 

"It's okay, my boy. I'm safe. He can't hurt me."

 

"He wanted to shoot you!"

 

"Shhh... It's all right. I'm still here. You saved me, Tommy. Shhh..." Softly stroking Tommy's hair, Ben looked at Rachel.

 

At that moment John barged into the house, pistol in hand. "Was that a shot?"

 

He took in the scene, a dead man lying on the floor, Rachel in tears – and Ben and Tommy hugging, a gun and a poker lying beside them.

 

Ben's mind was already thinking ahead. "Where are the others, John?" he asked.

 

John shook his head. "Nobody here yet. I'm the first. I was on my way back when I heard the shot and came as fast as I could."

 

"Good."

 

Ben and John exchanged a quiet look of mutual understanding. Together, they dragged out the dead body and buried it in a spot nobody ever passed. When John asked who the man was and Ben gave the name of Frank Dalton, John whistled in surprise and admiration.

 

Another secret to share with the man he called 'boss'.

 

After burying Dalton Ben and John rode off. They had to make sure Dalton hadn't brought any backup with him.

 

They found two of Dalton's men. After Ben and John got the information out of them that there were no more men lying in wait anywhere else the two men shared the fate of their boss Frank Dalton.

 

It was over.

 

Or was it?

 

John had been at Ben's side ever since Ben had started building up his ranch. They knew each other. Ben had once saved John's life, so John owed him. But could Ben be sure of John's silence in this?

 

"John..." he started.

 

John knew what Ben was thinking. "I ain't seen nothing, Boss. Nothing and nobody."

 

Ben held out his hand, and John took it.

 

Ben had refused to consider letting Rachel sleep alone in this night. She lay beside him, looking up at the ceiling with unseeing eyes, lost in her thoughts. Ben lay propped up on his elbow, his head resting in his palm. He was watching her. Neither moved nor spoke. Suddenly they could hear sobs from downstairs.

 

"Tommy!" Rachel sat up, but Ben was already out of bed and went downstairs to fetch the boy. He carried him upstairs and placed Tommy into his bed beside Rachel. When Ben joined them in bed Tommy turned and clung to him, and Ben hugged him back, murmuring to soothe him. Rachel stroked over Tommy's hair and back.

 

The adults shared a look. Ben's eyes were full of worry. Rachel smiled her shy smile at him. "It's okay, Tommy. He won't hurt you ever again. Ben is taking care of us now."

 

It was the first time she had spoken his name of her own free will. Perhaps there was a chance left for them now that Frank Dalton was dead and buried and Rachel didn't need to fear the past any longer.

 

His large hand covered her small one on the boy's back. He smiled at her before he looked at Tommy. "That's right, Tommy. No need to be scared. I'll take care of you."

 

He looked deeply into Rachel's eyes. "I'll take care of the two of you."

 

"The three of us," she whispered, casting her eyes down.

 

Ben froze. What had she just said? Could she mean...?

 

He touched her cheek and softly turned her head so she would look at him again. She answered his unspoken question with a nod.

 

Ben smiled at her. "So we are a real family now," he concluded, pulling both her and the boy into his embrace. He could see that she still felt uncertain about this.

 

A child.

 

A child of his own. For the first time in years Ben Wade closed his eyes and silently prayed... prayed that everything would turn out all right.

 

 

 

THE BEN WADE TRILOGY:

A MOTHER FOR TOMMY AND LILLY (Set 4 years after Better Luck Next Time)

A FILLY OF SPIRIT (Set when Lilly is 16)

 

BACK TO LIBRISCROWE

 

*The quote at the beginning of Chapter 3 is from the book "Uncle Tom's Cabin"

by Harriet Beecher-Stowe.