HE LAYS IN THE REINS
By Darcy and Isobel
(A Ben Wade and Cort story)
One more drink tonight as your
gray stallion rests
Where he lays in the reins
For all of the speed and the strength he gave.
-- He Lays in the Reins,
Calexico & Iron and Wine
Something woke Cort Davis, an unfamiliar sound that penetrated the adobe walls of the Mission de Hermosillo. Eyes open in the pre-dawn darkness; he held his breath to listen. Nothing, silence. Then it came again: the thud of horse’s hooves on hardpan, and a man’s muffled cough, harsh and rasping. Cort threw off the meager blanket of his narrow bed and pulled on his trousers without bothering to do up the buttons. He slid the galluses up over his shoulders and stepped into his brogans, then eased the door open. Standing with his eye to the crack, every sense straining, he saw nothing unusual. It was difficult to resist the urge to take up the poker from the fire, but he’d sworn to renounce violence and he meant to keep his vow. He fingered the wooden cross at his throat instead, and sent a quiet prayer of protection heavenward.
The cold night air drew the warmth from his body as he stood near the open mission door. In the fading light of a waning moon he scanned the darkness, but saw no sign of the rider he’d heard. Shivering from the cold, he nearly convinced himself it was nothing. Just another nightmare of riders in the night. But the cough came again, this time from behind him.
He wheeled around, startled. “Who’s there?” Cort called into the darkness, then repeated in Spanish, “Quein es?”
“Just a ghost…” came the disembodied reply, followed by a hacking cough.
Squinting, Cort barely made out the shadow of a mounted man, and wondered how the hell he’d gotten the drop on him. Dressed in black on a black horse, he nearly believed he might have been a ghost, if not for that ravaging cough. The moonlight glinted off polished leather and silver spurs. Cort caught his breath, his heartbeat quickened and his fingers tensed. Even after his years at the mission, those gunfighter’s reflexes were still sharp. He clutched his hands into fists, flexed them, but let them fall to his sides.
“Can I help you, friend?” Cort called to the shadowed horseman.
The man’s voice was deep, roughened by years of raw drink and tobacco. “Well, that depends. Are you Christ hisself?” At Cort’s silence, he answered, “Then I reckon not.” The man sounded weary, but resolute. “I’m dying, friend,” he confessed quietly. And the cough that followed seemed to prove his statement.
A wary Cort approached slowly. His hand on the bridle, he looked up into his visitor’s haggard face.
“House of God open?” the shadow man asked, nodding toward the mission church.
“The house of God is always open,” Cort answered. “Have you come to receive the sacraments?”
For some reason, the question made the man laugh, and caused another fit of hacking coughs. Closer now, Cort could see him leaning heavily against the neck of his stallion, grasping the mane to keep himself in the saddle. Eye shine in the moonlight proved the specter a living man, and not a ghost. He reached for the rider as he half dismounted, half fell from the saddle. Cort caught him around the waist, steadied him before he lost his footing.
The night rider’s wheezing breath smelled of disease and whiskey. “The sacraments?” He asked, putting a heavy arm around the younger man’s strong shoulder. “Every way of a man is right in his own eyes: but the Lord pondereth the heart. No, I don’t expect even I have the balls to beg forgiveness now.”
This close in the darkness, Cort could make out a mane of thick grey hair beneath a black hat. “There’s always forgiveness if you ask for it,” he counseled gently, walking the man towards the open door.
The reply came low, and sounded regretful. “Not for me, son.”
Cort had seen other men like this, sunken as low as a man could be. His heart was moved to compassion and he invited quietly, “Come inside.”
If the dark rider wouldn’t let him tend his soul, at least he could tend his body in his final hours.
* * *
Inside, Cort eased him down on the bed, then struck a match and lighted his lamp. His curious gaze rested on the stranger’s face.
The rider raised an eyebrow, a strangely amused sparkle in his eyes. “You’re the Padre? I would have figured you for a hired hand.”
Cort leaned to stir the embers of his banked fire into life and tossed a few sticks of fatwood on the coals. When they burst into flame, he set his speckled pot on a cast iron trivet to heat what was left of his suppertime coffee. Straightening, he faced the man who now occupied his bed. “You would have figured right, a few years ago. But things change.”
The man rearranged the blanket to cover his chest and turned his face to the fire. “Fear thou the Lord and the king, and meddle not with them that are given to change...’ Proverbs 24. That heat feels good. I didn’t realize how damn cold I was.”
“Nights are cold here. One blanket do you?”
The man smiled. “I’d take another if you’ve got one.”
Cort moved to the foot of the bed and dropped to one knee to open a carved wooden chest. He removed a woolen serape, brightly striped in red, blue, and yellow. One of the villagers had woven it for him last Christmas and he’d never used it, thinking it too gaudy for a priest’s bed. “I see you know your Bible,” he commented, shaking the blanket loose of its folds before tossing it over the stranger’s thin form.
“Thank you kindly,” the man said as Cort tucked it around him. “I know the Bible. Read it from cover to cover when I was a boy.” His eyes changed, hardened, and he looked away as he said, “Some things stick with you all your life.” His gaze came back to sweep Cort, wise eyes took him in from head to foot. “You know, you don’t seem very priest-like. This a new calling for you, son?”
Cort met his eyes unflinchingly. “You could say that. Reckon I’m still learning how to be priestly, got a lifetime of bad habits to break. Maybe I never will learn to be pious enough. Like you said, some things stick with you all your life.” He took up a towel and removed the coffee from the fire, poured out two tin mugs full.
The man in the bed watched him, and though his eyes were fever bright, they still held the glint of keen intelligence. “Wouldn’t happen to have any Rose Bud whiskey around, would you?” he asked. “I could surely use a drop or two in that coffee. Purely for medicinal purposes, you understand.”
He smiled, and Cort was reminded of a mischievous boy, devilish and charming. He shook his head, no.
“Well then, you mind going outside again? I got a bottle in my saddlebag. A drop of liquor would set me up just fine for the night. Ease the tightness in my chest.”
Without replying, Cort went. The man’s horse was still where he’d left it, the reins dragging the ground. Big and black, it was contentedly cropping the sparse grass that grew in patches in front of the mission. Cort dug in the saddlebag, but the first thing his hand contacted was cold hard steel and tooled leather. He withdrew the pistol and holster, his eyes picking up the glint of blued metal and gold. Cort slid the pistol from its leather sheath. A Colt’s single action, it had been customized with a gold crucifix on the ebony grip.
He knew that Colt. Knew it, and the man who owned it. “I’ll be damned,” Cort muttered under his breath, cradling a gun known far and wide as deadly in its owner’s hands. The Hand of God. He looked over his shoulder at the door to his quarters. Ben Wade… it was Ben Wade who lay dying in his bed. He thought of the legendary outlaw who had robbed trains and stages with seemingly little effort, led a gang as mean as a pack of rabid dogs, indiscriminately killing those who got in their way. His name carried enough sinister weight to impress even a son of a bitch like John Herod, who had hated him because Ben Wade was more famous than he was.
Herod should see him now, Cort thought, his face a stony mask. No wonder he won’t ask the Lord’s forgiveness.
He slid the pistol back into its holster and wrapped the belt around it to make a neat tight package. Holding it like he would a sidewinder, he searched until he found the whiskey, then shoved the gun down into the saddlebag. Carrying the bottle by the neck, he took it back into his lean-to room off the church where he silently poured a healthy dram into the stranger’s coffee.
Wade nodded his thanks and invited, “Help yourself to a drink, Padre.”
Cort poured a slug of whiskey into his coffee. “Don’t mind if I do.” He raised the mug in salute. “To your health.”
The stranger spluttered and choked back a laugh, swallowed scalding coffee. “I’ll be damned,” he grinned. “A priest with a sense of humor, and he drinks ardent spirits, to boot. Son, I am purely amazed...and gladdened. It appears my final hours won’t be without convivial company.”
Wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, Cort raised his mug again, the corners of his eyes crinkled in a smile. “A drink on a cold night never hurt anyone. Whiskey is the devil’s tool when its abused, that’s for sure, but a little now and then is a pure pleasure. All things in moderation, friend.”
The stranger chuckled. “Tell that to the drunkards sleeping it off down at the saloon.”
“I have,” Cort drawled. “They didn’t appreciate the advice.” He sipped again, set his mug down on the bedside table and offered his hand. “My name is Cortland Davis, though the people here call me Padre Diego.” He waited for the stranger to give his name.
“Ben.” The man reached for his hand and suddenly grasped it, using Cort’s strength to haul himself upright as his shoulders convulsed in a fit of coughing. He covered his mouth with his other hand, but Cort saw the blood spatter his knuckles and got up to get a rag to use as a handkerchief. He tucked it into Ben’s fist and then laid a hand on his brow, frowning at the heat radiating from his forehead.
Wade gasped and lay back, his chest heaving as his starved lungs dragged in air. When he’d caught his breath he rasped, “It’s the consumption, friend. I reckon you worked that out already. Like I said before, I’m dying.”
“Your fever’s high,” Cort told him. “There’s a woman in the village who’s good with herbs and such. I’ll fetch her back here in the morning.”
Ben shook his head. “No thanks. There ain’t a goddamn thing she can do for me now. It’s too late. If it’s all the same to you, I’d rather die in peace without having to swallow some damn greaser potion that’ll only make me feel worse.” He reached for his cup and said, “This is all the medicine I need.”
It wasn’t a bid for pity. Cort stared at his face, saw acceptance and even peace there. He nodded in agreement. The stranger was right, he was far gone already. Cort wondered if he’d last the night, reckoned he’d have a burying to do sometime soon.
“Could you stand something to eat?” Cort looked over his shoulder and jerked his chin at a cupboard near the door. “Don’t have much, but there’s tortillas and some cheese...”
“Maybe later. This will hold me for now.” Wade cocked his head, looked at Cort with interest. “Seems to me I’ve seen you somewhere before,” he began. “Your face is familiar.”
The young priest pushed long chestnut hair back from his green eyes and studied the older man in his bed. Ben Wade, he thought silently. Yes, they’d met once. Years ago, back when Cort was still riding with Herod, playing right hand to the devil. But those were days long past, ones he’d rather forget. “Maybe so,” he answered without conviction.
Wade had silver streaks in his thick hair back then, not this mane of grey. But even though disease had aged him, withered his once powerful body, his eyes were still keen and brilliant blue. Those eyes observed him now as Wade sipped coffee and rested back into the bed again.
“What kind of bad habits you trying to break, son?” Ben asked, watching his reaction intently. “Gambling, drink? Whoring?”
“Wickedness,” Cort answered simply.
Ben Wade looked amused. “And you think serving the Lord now is going to buy you a seat at the right hand?”
Cort shot him a look. “No, I don’t.” Hot coffee and whiskey warming his blood, he leaned against the wall and said, “But it’s better than going down that road again. Service and atonement brings peace of a sort.” He watched Wade’s face intently, shifted attention away from himself. “What about you? Feel the need to make your amends to the Lord? Dodge the fires of hell?”
Wade looked into his coffee. “Day I die, I’m getting sprung from hell.” He chuffed a mirthless laugh that started a new fit of coughing.
Cort stood and took the tin cup from Ben’s hand, watched with concern while he gasped for breath that seemed more and more elusive. When Wade finally calmed, he rested back against the pillow, exhausted. The rag he used as a handkerchief was stained a vivid crimson.
“Go on and rest, Ben,” the younger man encouraged gently. “I’ll see to your horse.”
Wade’s blue eyes tracked him. “Could I trouble you to fetch my saddlebags first, son?”
“No trouble.” Cort took up his black cassock from a hook on the door and shrugged it on for warmth. Outside, he clucked his tongue and the well-trained horse came right to him, a beautiful animal, what he could see of him in the dark. He thought about the pistol tucked inside the saddlebag, the lethal, legendary Hand of God, but he took it inside anyway. Figured if Wade wanted to shoot a man from his deathbed, it’d be just as well.
The old desperado seemed to be asleep. Cort set the saddlebags down beside the bed and eased the door closed behind him. Outside the wind had picked up and sent the clouds scudding across the moon. It was still dark as Egypt, but dawn wasn’t far off. Cort led the black to the makeshift stable, no more than another lean to with one side open to the elements. But there was hay and grain, and straw to cushion the hard ground. Once he had the fine-tooled saddle off and the bit out of his mouth, Cort brushed the animal down, watered and fed him. The night was turning colder, as it always did just before sun-up. He blew on his stiff hands, went back inside to his fire and his coffee.
He took care to be quiet, but there was no need. Cort was surprised to find Wade leaning against the headboard, the pillow behind his back, sketching in a leather-bound notebook by the firelight.
“Thought you were going to rest,” he chided softly.
Wade didn’t bother to look up. “Got to thinking I’ll be a long time dead. Why waste what little time I got left asleep?”
Cort felt the old man’s eyes track him as he poured water from the pitcher into the basin and washed. The pencil made soft scratching sounds, hardly audible over Wade’s ragged breathing.
“So tell me, Cortland Davis, where you from?”
“Texas, by way of Arizona.” Cort turned up the lamp and squinted into the broken mirror. Taking up a straight razor from the old crate he used as a table, he scraped whiskers from his chin. “Why do you want to know?”
Wade didn’t stop sketching. “You interest me, son. An interesting man is a precious commodity in these parts. Got family?”
“None to speak of. Not since my mother passed.”
“Same here. Only child. No one to miss us when we’re gone, huh?”
“Suppose not.” Cort dried his face with a towel. “You have your affairs in order, Ben? Anyone I should send word to?”
Wade shook his head. “There ain’t a living soul in this world gives a damn about me …except maybe to wish me dead. I reckon they can do without knowing I’ve passed on to my just reward.” He looked down at the sketchbook he held, then squinted up at Cort. “You ever been to Leadville, son?”
Turning to look at him, Cort shook his head, no.
Wade’s eyes were fever bright, and he was lost in memory. “There was a joint there run by a blind Irishman and a girl…her name was Velvet. I suppose if I could write to anyone, it would be her. But she’s long gone.”
Velvet. A whore’s name. “You know where?”
“I heard she moved on to Texas, went back to her family. But hell, that was nearly thirty years ago now…” His voice sounded almost wistful and his pencil went still as he mused aloud, “Where the hell did those years go? Only thing a man can say for sure about his life is that it goes fast…no matter how long he lives. I never expected to last this long, thought I’d be shot dead or hanged long before my hair turned all grey. But the time still went by so fast…”
Cort didn’t know what to say. Nothing seemed right...not words of comfort, nor the promise of a better world to come. Silent, he went to his cupboard for the bread and cheese to make a simple breakfast.
Quiet, observant, the niggle of a memory becoming a certainty, Wade watched the young man and when his back was turned, he lifted his arm high and deliberately let his sketchbook fall. It landed flat and the loud report as it struck the floor had Cort spinning in a crouch, his hand instinctively moving to his right hip.
Wade dabbed at his lips with the handkerchief to hide a satisfied grin. “Sorry...” he apologized. “Damn thing slipped off my lap. But I got to say, you’re pretty quick there, Padre Diego.” Settling back, he eyed Cort warily. “As I live and breathe...Cortland Davis. I remember you now. Rode with John Herod, didn’t you? His right hand man? Killer Cort?”
Cort said nothing, but his eyes gave him away. Wade shook his head, his grin wide. “Well, well. Ain’t that something? You were fast, son. Almost as fast as me.”
Slowly, Cort straightened, struggling to keep his expression neutral against the sinful pride that threatened to overcome him. Wade remembered him, and something about that simple fact made Cort’s heart glow. He drawled around a grin, “I was faster than you. But like I said, things change…Ben Wade.”
The stranger, no longer anonymous, gave a wry chuckle. “You know me, too.”
Cort nodded. “Tombstone, the Oriental Saloon. We played a game of poker once. Must be close to ten years ago now.”
His mind took him back to a night when John Herod bought an hour’s time with a whore and ordered his second in command to keep an eye on the boys. They were a wild bunch, had a tendency to likker up too much when they needed to keep a cool head. Watching his boss ascend the wide staircase with the whore on his arm as demure as a bride, Cort had taken his usual seat in the corner with his back to the wall. He kept one eye on the boys and was deep in a game of five card stud when the infamous Ben Wade pushed through the batwing doors. Cort could see it even now, how the man had stopped and looked around like he owned the place, smiling when the noisy room went quiet. A few of his boys were with him, but he must have reckoned he didn’t need them to back his play. He’d sent them off to carouse on their own, and sauntered over to Cort’s table to ask, grinning, “My money any good here?”
The Hand of God was on his hip, ebony grips a stark contrast to the gleaming gold crucifix. Some said that cross was made of pure gold, rendered down from a stolen cache of old Spanish pieces of eight. His clothes were just as fine, a broadcloth coat, embroidered ribbon on the seam of his trousers and the band of his hat. Without raising his eyes from his cards, Cort had shoved a chair back with his boot, a silent but brash invitation to the man with the fearsome reputation.
He expected trouble, but Wade was a friendly player. He won and lost with equal aplomb, and though he talked through most of the hands, quoting the Bible just as easily as he told dirty jokes, he won more often than not. Maybe the others let him win out of fear. There had been some wary faces at that poker table. Cort watched the older man with interest, even admiration. Wade was garrulous, easy going and quick to smile, and generously bought several rounds of whiskey for his fellow players. And Cort had found himself enjoying the man’s company. Ben Wade might have been cut from the same cloth as John Herod...they were both stone cold killers, but Wade was friendlier. He didn’t have the stern coldness that kept John aloof and unapproachable. Cort sensed Wade was more dangerous for that very reason. He was a seducer, able to lull his victims into a false sense of comfort. But courting danger had always given Cort a thrill back then. Playing cards with a killer like Ben Wade was like poking a rattler with a stick. Amusing until it turned and bit you.
One by one the others dropped out until only Cort and Wade were left to play. Cort still had a pile in front of him almost as big as Wade’s. The game went on well past midnight, each winning and losing almost equally. It might have gone on all night if a pretty green-eyed whore named Silky hadn’t ambled over with a hip-swaying walk to bring Wade a fresh glass of whiskey.
“I didn’t order that,” he said, without looking up from his cards.
She trailed her hand along the back of his neck and rested it lightly on his shoulder. “I know you didn’t.”
He looked up at her then, and his eyebrow hooked in interest. “What else do you know, honey?”
Silky winked, and on her it seemed charming, not brash and cheap. “Cost you ten dollars to find out, handsome,” she purred.
The grin that curved Wade’s lips went to his eyes. They sparked interest and he turned his attention back to the table only to pick up a five dollar gold piece, toss it into the pot, and say jovially to Cort, “This is the last hand for me, friend. I’m feeling the urge to go upstairs and have a visit with this charming young lady.”
A laugh that dissolved into a cough brought Cort back to the present. Wade had been deep into his own reminiscences. He hawked into his handkerchief and reached for his whiskey-laced coffee. A sip or two put him to rights, and he went on as if there had been no pause for old memories.
“The Oriental...Christ, I had me some good times there. Heard Wyatt Earp owns a quarter interest in the monte game there now. You know him too?”
Cort shrugged. “I know enough to stay away from him. The man’s got a temper.”
“He does indeed. Works both sides of the fence, to boot. He’s not an honest outlaw like me, and he ain’t a man to cross unless you know how to handle a gun.” He pulled the blankets higher on his chest and asked with a wicked gleam in his eye, “Now, how’s old John Herod these days? Still chasing my glory?”
“I wouldn’t know. I haven’t seen him in a long time.”
Wade nodded. “I reckoned as much, seeing as you took up wearin’ that collar backwards. John Herod didn’t hold with religion. You had a falling out?”
Cort busied himself with the bread and cheese. “You could call it that.”
Wade sighed, frustrated. “You’re as close-mouthed as...well, as a damn priest. You going to tell me what happened, or do I have to go to hell wondering?” He nodded toward the chair. “Set a spell and talk with a dying lunger. You and John were tight as the bungs on a barrel. What happened? He steal your girl? Cheat you out of your cut?”
The young man forgot his breakfast and folded his long lean body down on the spindle-backed chair in the firelight. Though his hands were clasped in his lap, his thumbs twiddled nervously while he spoke.
“Few years ago, John and I were up in Nogales, taking the bank. Just the two of us; one of our ‘family’ outings. I suppose we got cocky, tarried a bit too long. We walked out onto a street full of Federales and got shot up real bad, about killed our horses getting away. Out in the desert, we came across a lonely old mission. The Padre there was a young man my own age, name of Joaquin. He hid us, tended our wounds, fed us. What little he had, he shared. We were there for days, talked for hours, read the Bible some. Then when we were well enough to make it back across the border, Herod told me to shoot him. Said he’d report us to the Federales, identify us. When I said no, John put a gun to the back of my head and started to count down from ten.” Abruptly, Cort’s nervous fingers stilled, and his eyes dipped with shame. “So I shot the priest. And you know the worst of it?”
Rapt, Wade shook his head.
“The Padre, he forgave me with his dying breath. A man does a thing like that for you...” he stopped, swallowed back the bitter bile of regret. “Well, I reckon you got to show it wasn’t for nothing. So I’ve renounced violence,” he said firmly. “I’ll never kill again.”
After a long silence filled with only Ben Wade’s rasping breath, he said, “If it’s any consolation, I would have done the same thing. When it comes down to it, everyone generally wants to live.” The young man didn’t look consoled. “So you killed the priest, and it soured you on the sporting life. That’s understandable. There was a time I would have called that sensitive conscience a weakness in you, but I reckon I’ve gone weak myself,” Wade mused. “I find myself thinking of things I done or didn’t do, regretting some...” He let the sentence trail off.
“Killings?” Cort prodded.
Wade closed his eyes. “No. Every man I killed was an asshole. I’m talking about women. One woman, anyway.” He sighed, looked into the distance as if he were looking back in time. “I was stupid not to ask for her hand, but I was young and full of beans…”
Wade nodded wearily. “Women were a dime a dozen in Leadville. Never saw such a town for whores except for Dodge City. I didn’t know that she would be the one I could never forget.”
“Tell me about her,” Cort said quietly.
“She was a whore, but she was smart as a whip. Ran that joint up in Leadville with old blind O’Shea and made herself a pile.” He opened his eyes and looked at Cort. “Drove the men crazy. They all wanted her because she was choosy...wouldn’t take just anyone’s money. But she cottoned on to me, and we had a hell of a good time.”
He pointed to the bottle, and Cort reached for it, poured another shot into his tin cup.
“There were women in that town could do things to a man he’d never forget. The kind of things make you blow your wad in no time flat. Velvet was different. Kind. She was a lady, all perfume and silk. And when you were with her, it felt like love. Maybe it was…” Wade said wistfully. “All I know is, one day I came back to town and she was gone. O’Shea swore he didn’t know where. Wouldn’t change his tune even when I put my gun to his head.” He brought the cup to his lips again and paused to say softly, “She had the prettiest green eyes I ever saw.”
He raised the cup, let the whiskey slide down his throat. “But she ran off. Seems like all the women I love run off sooner or later. Reckon they don’t find me congenial company.”
“Maybe you scared them off.”
Wade shrugged. “Maybe. I got that fearsome reputation. But you know friend, I never raised a hand to a woman. Women are for sweetness, for gentling.” His eyelids dropped and he sighed, half asleep, “I surely do like women. But you really are a priest, huh? This ain’t just some hideout for you? A swindle?”
Cort smiled a little wistfully. “Nope. This is real enough.”
“Give up women…I could never do that.”
The first rays of the sun pierced the wooden shutters and slid across the striped serape. Cort rose quietly from his chair and bent to pick up the sketchbook, his eye on the rise and fall of Wade’s chest. He’d fallen asleep.
ON TO PART 2
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