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Wyoming Territory, 1870.
Elijah Carter is afflicted. Most of the townsfolk of South Pass City treat him as a simpleton because he’s deaf, but that’s not what shames him the most. Something in Elijah runs contrary to nature and to God. Something that Elijah desperately tries to keep hidden.
Harlan Crane, owner of the Empire saloon, knows Elijah for what he is—and for all the ungodly things he wants. And Crane isn’t the only one. Grady Mullins desires Elijah too, but unlike Crane, he refuses to push or mistreat the young man.
When violence shatters Elijah’s world, he is caught between two very different men and two devastating urges: revenge and despair. In a boomtown teetering on the edge of a bust, Elijah must face what it means to be a man in control of his own destiny, and choose a course that might end his life . . . or truly begin it for the very first time.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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1870, South Pass City, Wyoming Territory
A spray of blood hit his face like hot rain, and Elijah Carter clamped his mouth shut.
“Hold him! Hold him!” The rough, angry shout cut right through the bellow of the distressed beast, and through Elijah’s partial deafness.
The rope had slipped when Dawson made the first cut, and the yearling was trying to buck them off now. Elijah and Lovell had it pushed against the fence post and were attempting to hold it there, Lovell against its hindquarters and Elijah shoulder to shoulder with the beast. He didn’t know which of them had the worst end of it. He wasn’t sorry to be out of the way of those back legs, but if the swinging thick skull of the panicked animal collided with his, he’d be in real trouble. Elijah pushed his forehead against its neck. Closer was safer, if they could hold it.
Dawson was drunk, probably. His hands shook too much, and they were weak nowadays. He’d been a good butcher once, back when Elijah first started working with him, scrubbing the floors and the counters in the shop and doing the deliveries. Then Dawson’s drinking had picked up, and now he couldn’t even slaughter a yearling without fucking it up. The blow he’d delivered hadn’t stunned the beast at all, only terrified it.
Elijah’s cheek scraped against the yearling’s coarse coat. He smelled blood and dust.
The yearling pitched forward, and Elijah’s grip slipped.
“I said hold him, you simple deaf cunt!” Dawson grunted.
He didn’t need to see the shape of Dawson’s mouth in the lamplight to make out the words. He’d heard the insult often enough.
Hot blood washed over Elijah’s fingers. He dug his boots in the dirt, fighting against the struggling animal. It bellowed—a long, high-pitched sound that vibrated against Elijah’s face, his hands. It moved through him and jarred his bones.
He closed his eyes as Dawson’s knife passed close in front of his face. He hoped Dawson wasn’t drunk enough to take his fingers with the next cut. He also hoped the lamp hanging off the fence gave enough light for Dawson to finish the task quickly for the yearling’s sake.
Working in the dark was dangerous, but it had to be done. The cattle were mavericks, brought down from the hills into South Pass City when honest men were sleeping. They had to be slaughtered and butchered under the cover of the night, and served up on dinner plates all over town before the deputy came asking questions.
Elijah hadn’t seen the faces of the men who’d herded them into town. There had been four of them maybe, all wearing their hats pulled low. In the darkness, they could have been anyone. Elijah hadn’t stared; it was safer that way. He’d stayed out of the way while Dawson had done business with the men, then Lovell had come to fetch him. And here they were.
The yearling bellowed again.
Blood again. A flood of it this time, as free-flowing and hot as freshly poured bathwater. It turned Elijah’s stomach, and he fought the instinct to pull away.
The animal sank to its knees, and Elijah went forward with it. He could hear its heartbeat echoing inside his skull, in panicked counterpoint to his own. It beat slower, and slower still.
Elijah was slick with blood. He shifted back, his body aching. He kept one bloodied hand on the neck of the yearling, his fingers splayed. It was too weak to struggle now. Its ears flicked back and forth, and its eyes rolled.
The yearling’s breath came in short pants. So did Elijah’s. Kneeling together in the dirt, they waited. Blood, black in the night, pooled around them.
Dawson laughed, lifting his arm to wipe his sweaty forehead on his sleeve. The blade of the knife made an arc in the scant lamplight, held tight in Dawson’s yellow, swollen hand. His skin was like that these days, and his gut was bloated too. Elijah had read enough of Dr. Carter’s medical books to recognize it as cirrhosis. Dawson was an asshole, and with every day, every drink, he moved closer to death. Elijah had more sympathy for the beast than the butcher.
The yearling sighed, stilled.
Lovell dropped a hand on Elijah’s shoulder. “We’re done.”
Lovell never treated him like a fool. Never pulled his mouth into exaggerated shapes to mock the way Elijah spoke. Never laughed at him or slapped him in the head for being slow to understand.
Elijah rose to his feet, bracing himself against the dead yearling. The beast felt more unyielding now than when it had been struggling against them. Dead things always did. The difference between alive and dead was both infinitesimal and immense: the tiny space of a single heartbeat was as wide as an abyss.
He spat and wiped his hands on his bloody apron, for all the difference that it made.
Dawson laughed again, a short, sharp sound that was more like a bark.
Lovell turned his grizzled face to Elijah—the crooked nose, the wrinkled face, the graying beard, the skin made brown and coarse by the sun. Lovell formed his words slowly and clearly. He always did when he spoke to Elijah. Not many people bothered. “Get home before your pa misses you. You hear me?”
Elijah nodded. “Yes, sir.”
He bent down to clamber through the rails of the pen. Near the back door of the shop, he fished in the bottom of the tub of water for the block of lye soap. He made a face as he broke the oily scum on the water’s surface, then rubbed up a lather over his arms. He cupped his hands in the water and splashed it over his face. Water dripped off his nose and lips and back into the tub. Ripples radiated across the dark surface.
He peeled off his apron. It was wet through with blood. It wasn’t the leather apron of a butcher but the calico one of a shop boy who should have been scrubbing the floors with lye and cleaning the windows with vinegar and newspaper, not climbing into the pen to slaughter yearlings. Except tonight, when they had to work fast.
He lifted the lantern down from the hook. His hands were red with rope burn. And hell, he’d be sore in the morning. He wasn’t used to working with the cattle, and they panicked at the smell of blood. All that instinctual fear translated into pure force, and Elijah felt sorry for every beast he’d hauled toward its death.
Dawson said he was nothing but a weak deaf cunt with no stomach for blood, but it wasn’t about the blood. Hell, Elijah was no stranger to blood. He was a doctor’s adopted son, after all, and had seen just as much tissue and muscle stripped bare on the table in Dr. Carter’s cabin than he had in Dawson’s butcher shop. It seemed strange to him that folk were expected to offer comfort to one frightened soul crossing the abyss and not another. A man’s eyes rolled in his head the same as a yearling’s.
He slipped into the shop, balling his apron up in his hands.
He was tired and wondered if Dr. Carter had noticed his absence. Maybe, if he’d been called out himself. Otherwise, Elijah might be able to slip back inside the cabin while he slept. He wasn’t a child—by best reckoning he was twenty—but Dr. Carter worried for him because of his deafness. He worried, and he lectured.
There were things Elijah shouldn’t do.
He shouldn’t stare.
He shouldn’t mumble.
He shouldn’t shout.
He shouldn’t walk around with his head in the clouds.
He shouldn’t go into the saloons or cardrooms.
And he shouldn’t worry if he woke up in the night and Dr. Carter wasn’t there.
Dr. Carter never said anything about Elijah not being there when he woke up though. He probably never thought it would happen. Probably thought he’d raised Elijah better. Dr. Carter was so worried that Elijah might get entangled in the immoral—saloons, card houses, alcohol, and loose women—that he must have thought a warning lecture about the illegal was unnecessary. Elijah didn’t know if he should be proud or ashamed of the way his adoptive father had underestimated him.
Ashamed, he guessed.
He rolled his aching shoulders. He just wanted to get home, get properly cleaned up, and get into bed.
A touch on his shoulder: “Elijah.”
He jumped and spun around. His heart hammered, and he hated that. Hated to feel startled, and stupid.
Lovell sighed and held up an envelope. “Dawson wants you to take this to the Empire on your way home.”
Elijah took the envelope. Money, probably. “The Empire?”
“Straight to Mr. Crane. Understand?”
Elijah bit his lip and nodded. “Yes, sir. Straight to Mr. Crane.”
He wondered if Dawson was paying his gambling debts or if it was something else. Someone must have negotiated between Dawson and the cowboys who’d brought the yearlings down from the Wind River Range. A man like Harlan Crane was in a good position to do that, so maybe that explained it.
Lovell patted him on the shoulder. “Good night, Elijah.”
Elijah tucked the thick envelope into his pocket. “Good night.”
He slipped out into the darkness.
The Empire had sprung up with the boom. The first month, it was a large tent on the western end of South Pass City. The month after that it was a square flat-roofed cabin like most of the other buildings in town. From then, it had grown outward like a paper wasp’s nest. Now it was two levels high, with a large veranda, and stretched all the way to the street behind. It was always busy at night, always full of men and light and music. Shouting and screaming, a cacophony that was impossible for Elijah to comprehend. He couldn’t tell the difference between revelry and violence, and in a place like the Empire it could turn in a heartbeat.
There were fights in the saloons most nights; grievances that began out in the dirt and the rocks of the diggings and were aggravated back in town by liquor and bravado. There were always miners who needed stitching up. Only last week, one of the women from the Empire—one of the whores—had been cut in the face with a razor. Dr. Carter had been sent for, and he’d said later that the man who’d cut the whore had already been dealt with when he’d arrived.
No more was said about the incident, at least not in Elijah’s presence. It could have been shouted from the rooftops for all he knew, but he mostly needed to follow a man’s lips to know what was being said around him. He hadn’t seen anyone get dragged off to the jail, but he suspected the man had never left the Empire. That was the reputation the place had.
The street around the saloon stank of liquor and piss.
There was always a man working the door of the Empire. Always, from what Elijah could tell, the same man. He was big, bearded, and wore a stained shirt. There was a woman with him tonight, wearing her hair loose and her skirts hitched up. Her drawers were showing. Elijah’s face burned just from thinking about how she fucked men for money. He wondered how many men she’d known. He wondered if she liked it.
His heart beat faster as he stepped up onto the porch. He was conscious of his bloodstained shirt, of his shaking hands, and of what Dr. Carter euphemistically called his affliction. Men like this one didn’t know the difference between deafness and idiocy. Elijah fucking knew it, just by looking.
“Whatcha want, kid?”
Elijah had to watch the man’s mouth carefully. His lips were obscured by his beard, making them difficult to read. “I have something for Mr. Crane, from Mr. Dawson.”
The man just stared.
God. Had he mumbled? Sometimes he didn’t know. His face burned as he tried again. “I have something for Mr. Crane, from Mr. Dawson. The butcher.”
The hairy man held his hand out.
He looked at those blunt, scarred fingers, and then back to the man’s face. “I’m to give it directly to Mr. Crane.” He flinched as the man bristled. “Sir.”
The whore laughed at that. She threw her head back. Her throat undulated.
The hairy man narrowed his eyes. “You’re the butcher’s boy.”
“I know you.” The man’s beard split in a gap-toothed grin. “You’re Doc Carter’s son. The deaf kid.” He clapped his hands over his ears and laughed.
Elijah balled his fingers into fists. “Yes, sir.”
“Gorn,” the man said, nodding toward the door.
Gorn. It took Elijah a moment to dredge the words out of the drawl. Gorn. Go on.
Trying to swallow down his misgivings, he went inside.
The light hit Elijah first—lanterns hanging from the ceiling, their glass panes gleaming—and then the noise. A sudden wall of it. Voices, laughter, music—all at once, all too loud, and impossible for Elijah to pick the threads apart into something he could recognize. This noise wasn’t cohesive. It didn’t flow together. It competed, and it made him nervous.
There were too many people, too much happening, and Elijah fought the urge to turn and walk out.
The Empire was probably no better or worse than any other saloon in town. A long bar, the shelves behind it stacked with bottles. A piano. Tables and chairs. Sawdust on the floor. It smelled of whiskey, cigar smoke, and stale sweat.
And people. The Empire was full of people. Miners, mostly. Some townsmen. Whores. And, sitting together at a corner table, four men that might have been ranchers. Might have been anyone, but something about them seemed familiar—their number, their bearing—and Elijah wondered if they were the same cowboys who had delivered the mavericks to Dawson. As Elijah walked toward the bar, the men turned their heads to watch him.
One face stood out more than the rest: a square, stubbled jaw, sun-bleached hair, and eyes the color of the sky after a storm. Those eyes narrowed as the man looked at him.
Elijah dropped his gaze quickly.
God. It was a mistake coming in here.
Soft fingers curled around his wrist, and Elijah started.
“Come with me,” the whore from the front porch said. She looked older close-up. “I’ll take you to Mr. Crane.”
She smelled of perfume and cigar smoke.
He let himself be led through the barroom, toward the stairs. Some men watched him, some didn’t. Someone shouted something that Elijah didn’t catch—the man turned his face away as Elijah watched—but it was followed by openmouthed laughter from the men sitting around him.
The whore laughed as well. Her painted lips made a moue. She tossed her hair over her shoulder. “Special delivery for Mr. Crane!”
More laughter, and Elijah’s face burned.
The stairs creaked as he followed the whore; he felt the movement underfoot.
Most of the doors upstairs were closed. One was open. He glanced in as they passed. He saw rumpled blankets and a woman sleeping with her nightdress rucked up to her dimpled thighs. She lay on her back with one arm flung over her head. She was snoring. Elijah looked away.
The whore drew him on to the end of the hallway and knocked on the door. “Harlan!”
The door opened and there he was.
Harlan Crane. The owner of the Empire, two different cardrooms, and part stakes in a good number of claims around South Pass City. He was a rich man, and maybe a dangerous man. The things that were said about Harlan Crane should have scared Elijah, but they didn’t. Not enough to look away.
Crane was in his forties. He wore a beard and mustache, the usually clean edges blunted with late-night stubble. His face had begun to weather. He had fine lines across his forehead and crinkles at the corners of his dark, clever eyes. A few pockmarks pitted one cheek, and Elijah had found his gaze drawn there. The tiny imperfections made Crane seem more handsome.
“Well now,” Crane said, buttoning up his waistcoat. He slid his hand across the front of his trousers, and Elijah was mortified to discover his gaze following it. He barely looked up in time to catch what Crane said next. “Good evening, young Elijah.”
The fact that Harlan Crane knew his name, and the way that his narrow mouth curled as he said it, made his stomach clench. He dropped his gaze and watched Crane’s dexterous fingers manipulate the buttons of his waistcoat.
Good evening, young Elijah. Everyday words. Banal pleasantries backed by a smile so fucking knowing that it turned Elijah’s word upside down. All of Elijah’s worst, most sinful thoughts laid bare in a heartbeat. Laid bare in that smile. But thoughts weren’t deeds. Weren’t.
“To what do I owe the pleasure?” Crane stepped back, holding the door open.
Elijah hesitated, and the whore pushed him gently inside.
Crane closed the door behind him.
It was a large room. A bed, a writing desk, a tallboy with one door partly open. A mirror tacked to the wall above a sideboard. A washstand, with a folded razor sitting beside a jug and basin. A leather strop hanging from a hook beside the mirror.
French doors opened out onto a balcony that overlooked the street. The doors were latched open. The curtains shifted in the breeze, and Elijah wondered what South Pass City looked like from Harlan Crane’s balcony—as the king of the castle—but he didn’t want to look, too afraid to be seen.
There was a rug on the floor, a proper Turkish carpet with swirls of faded color. It looked like the one from Dr. Carter’s copy of Arabian Nights. Elijah followed the pattern with his gaze. He wanted to touch the carpet and see if it was as soft as it looked. He was imagining the feel of the fibers against his fingertips, and thinking of princes and djinns, when he realized Crane was speaking to him.
“What’s your business here, boy?”
He held up the envelope. His hand shook. “From Mr. Dawson, sir.”
Crane smiled, and Elijah couldn’t tell if he was being mocked or not. Maybe he’d spoken too quietly, too loudly, or carelessly run his words together. Or maybe it was just a smile.
Crane took the envelope. Without even checking its contents, he tossed it onto the writing desk. “I take it that Mr. Dawson was satisfied with the assistance I gave him.”
Elijah didn’t know how to respond. Dawson didn’t tell him shit. He looked down at the carpet again. Frowned at it and tried not to hunch over. It took him a moment to realize that Crane was speaking again.
“Don’t just stand there, boy.”
He flushed. From the tone of his voice, it was obvious Crane was repeating himself. “Sir?”
“Your deafness, Elijah,” Dr. Carter always said, “is very much exacerbated by your lack of attention.”
Elijah looked worriedly at Crane.
Crane crooked a finger at him.
He looked from Crane’s lips to his eyes and worried about what he’d missed. There must have been some words spoken, some order given apart from that curt nod. Understanding didn’t pass in a glance, not like this. It couldn’t be what he thought. Feared. Wanted.
Heat coiled in his belly. Then lower.
Cold dread followed it.
No. He didn’t want it.
This was a precipice he was balanced on. Elijah couldn’t articulate why, but it had something to do with the way he couldn’t read Crane’s smile. He felt a sudden rush of fear and was afraid he was trembling with the strange, sick want that welled up inside him. Almost whimpering because Crane could see it. Wanting to run because he was so very afraid of the unknowable thing that was expected of him here.
Elijah crossed the room, the soles of his boots gliding over the carpet.
Crane held up his hand. A narrow leather strap, thin as a lace, dangled from his fist. “That your only business here?”
He didn’t know what was happening. Elijah felt as panicked as the yearling. He could still smell its blood. Could still feel the shuddering vibrations of its fearful bellows in his bones. It didn’t stop him from continuing to move toward Crane, though. Didn’t stop him from standing right in front of the man, close enough to touch, and wondering, marveling, at how this moment felt so different than any other he’d ever felt in his life.
“You listening to me, boy?”
“You oughta look a man in the eye when you speak.”
Elijah lifted his gaze from Crane’s crooked mouth. “Yes, sir.”
Crane smiled and curled his fingers around the back of Elijah’s neck. “You’re not as dumb as folks say, are you?”
His flesh prickled under the man’s touch. He looked down at the narrow leather strap that hung from Crane’s other hand and wondered again what it meant. Wondered what Crane saw when he looked at Elijah. Wondered why standing in this room with this man made it feel like the entire world had tilted. In a second, he’d fall right off.
He was already breathless.
“Give me your hands,” Crane said.
Elijah—God help me—obeyed.
Crane turned him and bound his wrists. Turned him back again.
The leather was tight against Elijah’s skin. It dug in. He stood there, breathless, not understanding how he had allowed this to happen, wriggling his fingers against the small of his back. He thought again of the yearlings, how some panicked and struggled when they were roped and some just went quiet. Whatever was happening here, now, Elijah didn’t understand it any better than a dumb beast. Whatever it was, it felt as certain as death.
“How much do you hear?” Crane asked him. “You hear me now?”
The roar in Elijah’s skull almost drowned him out, and Elijah struggled to answer. “Yes, sir, I hear you. If it’s noisy, I don’t hear. I-I gotta read lips then, sir.”
“Hmm.” Crane’s mouth quirked, a smile as brief as any Elijah had ever seen. “You ain’t stupid, are you?”
“No, sir,” Elijah croaked.
“Sound it though,” Crane said.
Elijah’s face burned, as though that was the biggest indignity here. As though Harlan Crane hadn’t bound his wrists for some unknown purpose.
Unknown, but dreamed of.
Unthinkable, but necessary.
Crane reached out and ran his fingers through Elijah’s hair. Tugged his head back. “I’ve seen you watching me, boy. Nothing wrong with your eyes, is there?”
“No, sir,” Elijah breathed, his heart stammering.
Crane smiled again, wrinkles appearing in the corners of his dark eyes. He crossed to the bureau and picked up a bottle. Poured himself a drink while Elijah stood and stared and fidgeted.
He had watched Harlan Crane. Couldn’t help it. Because he was dangerous, and because he was handsome. Because he strode down the streets of South Pass City like he was a king and didn’t care about the whispers that followed him. Elijah had envied that. But it was more than envy too. Elijah had known that from the start. Envy shouldn’t make his face burn when he thought of it. Shouldn’t knot his belly the way it did. Shouldn’t make his cock hard.
His deafness wasn’t his only deficiency.
And Crane had seen Elijah’s shameful secret. Seen it and understood it.
Crane was a dangerous man, and Elijah knew it. He was afraid of Crane, but not afraid enough to run.
Crane leaned against the bureau and unbuckled his belt. “Get on the bed. On your knees.”
The word didn’t come. Wouldn’t.
Fear coiled in Elijah’s gut, but he was here now. His hands were bound, fixed; he wished his resolve were too.
Crane’s expression was knowing. “I don’t like to repeat myself, boy.”
Even as his fear spiked, even as he shuffled toward the bed, a part of Elijah was relieved. Yes, he’d believe that was a threat. He’d believe that he couldn’t free his hands, either. He’d believe that this wasn’t his choice at all, that whatever happened, he was blameless.
It was a lie, but he’d believe it for as long as he could.
Elijah knelt on the bed, finding his balance awkwardly.
Crane moved behind him, his body large and warm. His stubble scraped Elijah’s ear. “Do you know why I tied your hands, Elijah?”
He swallowed, shaking now. “No, sir.”
“Because this will hurt.” Crane reached around him and unfastened Elijah’s belt. Yanked his trousers and drawers down. Elijah flinched, and Crane ran a hand over the curve of his ass. “You’ve never been fucked, have you?”
Crane’s laughter was low in his ear. “I ain’t got much patience for virgins. You just grit your teeth and mind you don’t scream too loud.”
It was fear that had drawn him here and held him here, and now that same fear was screaming at Elijah to get away. He twisted, but Crane pushed him forward onto the bed, forcing him to spread his legs and take his weight. Elijah let out a sound that began as a sob in the back of his throat, and was swallowed by the mattress as Crane shoved his face down.
A thumb ran down the crease of his ass, wet with something. Hair oil, Elijah realized. The scent of it filled the room.
And then—Elijah couldn’t see, but he knew what it had to be—the hot, wide head of Crane’s cock pressed up against his hole. Elijah froze in this terrible, wonderful, unthinkable moment, and Crane pushed in.
Pain. Elijah shuddered and moaned like the dying yearling. He whimpered, his cheek rubbing back and forth against the sheet. Squeezing his eyes shut only made it worse. Nowhere to go with his eyes closed. Nothing to do except feel, and it hurt. It fucking hurt, but something in the rhythm, maybe the friction, made his cock hard.
“Tight,” Crane grunted. “Tight little bitch.”
Wasn’t supposed to be like this: on his knees, his back bowed, his face pressed into sheets that smelled of sweat. His bound hands opening and closing against the small of his back. Crane’s fist in his hair.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
It hurt, but somehow Elijah came harder in Crane’s bed than he ever had before under the furtive, urgent attention of his own hand. Something about the pain, something about the fear. Something about the way Harlan Crane saw him.
It took his breath away.
Grady had seen the kid before. The butcher’s boy. He’d first seen him months ago and couldn’t get him out of his head after that.
Elijah Carter, Lovell had told him while wearing a frown like he couldn’t quite figure why Grady was asking. Grady wasn’t sure himself. Elijah was young. Young enough that he looked a little unfinished around the edges, like clay that hadn’t properly hardened yet. Not his usual sort. There was something about him though, something about the way he held himself, silent and watchful. Like he was keeping himself apart.
Mostly deaf, Lovell had added, and Grady had understood then. The kid wasn’t aloof, wasn’t proud. He was just wrapped in silence was all, and not through any choice of his own. Grady had watched Elijah a little more closely after that, every time they came into town to deliver their stolen cattle to Dawson. Saw enough that he’d guessed the kid wasn’t stupid. Just afflicted, and overlooked.
Grady sure as hell hadn’t expected to see him in the Empire, getting led up the steps by one of the whores. The kid’s eyes were as big as an owl’s. Grady could almost see his heart hammering out of his chest. Something about it didn’t sit right.
“Special delivery for Mr. Crane!” the whore laughed, and then they’d climbed the stairs.
Grady burned a little with jealousy. There was no shame in admitting that. He’d had his eye on the kid for months now. It felt a little like he’d been sitting on a decent hand of cards for the whole night, and then some asshole pulled out the aces. There was no use getting sore over it. Plenty of other asses to fuck, if you knew where to look. It had been a while, though, which was the only reason he’d felt angry.
Not because he was actually worried for the kid.
Not because he knew Harlan Crane’s reputation.
He’d just been beaten to the mark was all.
Besides, it was Elijah Carter’s business who he fucked.
Grady watched the stairs for a moment, then turned his attention back to his plate. The Empire did a good meal: beef stew and bread with a whiskey on the side for thirty cents. This late at night it was the scrapings from around the edge of the pot, but Grady was too hungry to care.
“I’m going back to the hotel after this,” he said. “See if I can’t get a bath.”
“You can get a bath here,” Cody said, his eyes dancing.
“Not really my interest.”
Not that Grady minded a girl scrubbing his back and giving him a shave. But what he really wanted was to relax and let the hot water soak out his aches and pains from the trail. He didn’t want to close his eyes and have his peace broken by the sounds of miners and townsmen fucking whores through paper-thin walls. Or be disturbed by whatever noise Elijah was making, either.
That sat sour in his gut.
Plenty of other asses to fuck, but something about Elijah wouldn’t let him go.
“I’ll come with you, I guess,” Matt said.
Grady looked at him in surprise. “You sure?”
Matt was the youngest of his cousins. Twenty-four now, and there was something restless about him that had been growing for about a year or more. Maybe, like Grady, he was just getting tired of stealing cattle. Maybe he couldn’t see the picture of their future that Dale painted, either.
“Yeah, I finish my book tonight and I can buy another one tomorrow before we head back,” Matt said.
Cody rolled his eyes. “Hell, Matty, we’re surrounded by women who’ll suck you off for a half dollar and you want to read a book?”
“Jesus, Cody,” Matt said, flushing. “Don’t say that.”
Cody scraped his bread over his plate, soaking up the remains of the stew. “Why the hell not? You go along with Grady then. I’m getting my bath, and anything else I want, right here.”
Grady shoved his plate away. “C’mon.”
Matt stood, and together they shouldered their way out of the Empire and onto the street. They headed toward the Liberty Hotel by the Exchange Bank. South Pass City was busy tonight, even at this late hour. The saloons and cardrooms were full as the miners rushed to spend whatever they’d dug out of the dirt during the week.
It took a dollar to convince the man on the desk at the Liberty that they wanted a bath made ready, and it took another thirty minutes or so until there was enough hot water in the tub to make it worthwhile.
They tossed a coin for it.
“Fine,” Matt grizzled. “You go first, but I ain’t scrubbing your back.”
Grady settled in the bath, watching the water turn cloudy as he ran the washcloth over his skin. Matt sat cross-legged on the floor and read his latest dime novel in the lamplight.
Grady relinquished the tub reluctantly.
Matt set his book aside and stripped. Sloshed water onto the floor as he sat in the tub. “Aw, hell.”
“You want a shave?” Grady asked him, pulling on his cleanest underwear and hunting for his razor and strop.
Matt leaned back and closed his eyes.
Grady knelt beside him. “Can remember doing this for you the first time. Wasn’t that long ago.”
“It was years,” Matt said, opening his eyes far enough to squint at him. “I’m not a kid.”
“I know that.” Grady scraped the razor over his cousin’s jaw. “Makes me wonder why you’re not spending your money at the Empire, I guess.”
Matt tightened his grip on the edge of the tub. “Not my interest, either, I guess.” He flushed. “I mean I ain’t—you know, same as you.”
Grady snorted, but his stomach clenched a little. His cousins didn’t talk about this. They knew—had known ever since Grady had been careless one night a few years back—but they kept his secret quiet, even among themselves. “I know.”
“Just don’t want to spend my money on that, is all,” Matt said.
Grady regarded him curiously. “You holding a torch for someone special?”
“No,” Matt said, but the denial was too sharp to ring entirely true.
“Mmm.” Grady tilted his chin back with two fingers and worked the blade of the razor against his throat. “Careful.”
The warning wasn’t for the razor.
Matt’s gaze darted to his.
Grady had seen the way Matt looked at Kate—Mrs. Bannister, rather. Dale was married to Bertram Bannister’s sister Janet, which made them a tenuous kind of family, Grady guessed, although Bannister was always making comments about how Janet had married beneath herself. Grady didn’t suppose he’d think any more kindly of the Mullins clan if he figured Matt was sweet on his wife.
Bannister was an asshole.
“Yeah,” Matt said. His gaze slid away again.
Grady finished shaving him and stood up. He wiped the razor clean and stowed it back with his gear, then climbed under the bedcovers. “Don’t fall asleep in the tub, Matt.”
“I won’t.” Matt was already engrossed in his book again, holding it awkwardly over the side of the bath so he didn’t get it wet.
Grady closed his eyes and tried not to think about the butcher’s boy. Couldn’t help picturing that face, though, and wondering what it looked like when it was screwed up with pleasure.
Took him a while to fall asleep.
It was late by the time Elijah limped home. He was afraid he was injured, and afraid that he’d be discovered. But Dr. Orville Carter was still asleep when Elijah crept into the cabin. Dr. Carter’s chest rose and fell slowly, and his whiskered face was illuminated from the dim glow of the stove. His medical bag was resting at the end of the bed, beside his boots.
Elijah added wood to the stove and then stripped off his clothes. They still smelled of cattle, and of dust and blood, and Crane. He bundled them under his cot and then climbed into bed in his drawers.
He lay there until dawn, unable to sleep. Unable to stop fretting about the pain.
As soon as the morning began to soften the darkness, he crept out of bed again. He slipped outside to the privacy of the woodshed, ignoring the chickens that hurried to waylay him, and pulled down his drawers to make sure it wasn’t blood he’d felt wetting him there during the night. He was so fucking relieved to find out it wasn’t because he’d never be able to ask Dr. Carter for help for those sorts of injuries.
He tugged his drawers back up and went back inside.
He lifted the kettle onto the stove and stood there while it heated. He only became aware that Dr. Carter was awake when the man shuffled past him.
“Morning, Elijah.” Dr. Carter wiped sleep from his eyes.
Dr. Carter put his spectacles on and squinted through them at Elijah. “You sleep well?”
“Yes, sir.” Elijah turned his face away before Dr. Carter caught the lie.
Heart thumping, he looked back.
Dr. Carter shook his head and sighed. “You look at me when we’re talking, so that I know you hear me and I’m not just talking to myself.”
“Just . . . just pay attention, Elijah.” Dr. Carter sighed again. “Please.”
He nodded, guilt washing over him. Not a day went by that Dr. Carter didn’t have to remind him. Didn’t have to suffer some small disappointment in him. Only small, but Elijah felt the weight of the thousand or more that had gone before. He thought Dr. Carter must, as well.
“All right,” Dr. Carter said, his expression softening. “Get the coffee made, so we can both wake up before the service, hmmm?”
“Yes, sir,” Elijah said and waited until Dr. Carter went to wash before he turned back to the stove, just in case he had something else to say.
On Sunday morning, Grady went past the Empire. He wasn’t sure what he thought. That Elijah Carter would be standing outside? The Empire in the morning was subdued. A scrawny man with a limp swept the soiled sawdust out the door and dumped it in the street outside.
Sundays were the worst days to pitch up in South Pass City. Usually, they liked to get into town and get straight out again, only stopping to buy whatever they needed for the trip back to Ham’s Fork. On Sunday morning, though, the only places of business open in South Pass City were those that didn’t observe the Lord’s Day. Fine if a man wanted a drink and a fuck. Not so good if he wanted to buy some beans or some boot polish. The saloons were open; the general store was closed until the afternoon.
Grady returned to the Liberty Hotel empty-handed to find that Dale and Cody had crawled out of bed and were feeding their hangovers in the dining room.
“Oh, he’s a snake, all right,” Dale said, slathering butter on his bread.
“Who’s that?” Grady asked in a low voice.
Grady thought of the kid being led upstairs by the whore. “Special delivery for Mr. Crane!” That still didn’t sit right this morning. Crane had a reputation, one that Grady wasn’t sure lined up flush with Elijah’s wide-eyed trepidation. Not that it was any of his business. Grady had no stake in the kid’s welfare.
“A snake,” Dale continued, “but he might as well own this town.”
“Hmm.” Grady caught the eye of the girl serving coffee and waved her over. “The Sherlocks might have something to say about that.”
A man couldn’t take a piss in South Pass City without splashing the boots of a Sherlock.
“Well, it’s not the Sherlocks we do business with,” Dale said. He shook his head and covered his mug with his hand as the girl moved around the table with the coffeepot. “No more for me, darlin’.”
The girl smiled at him and continued on to the next table.
“Pretty,” Cody said.
“Too pretty for you,” Dale snorted.
Cody scowled at him and twisted his head to watch the girl.
“Don’t stare,” Grady said. He took a sip of coffee. “This ain’t the Empire.”
Cody flushed and rubbed the back of his neck.
“You were talking about Crane,” Grady said in a low voice. “Is there a problem?”
“No.” Dale sighed. “No problem. Heard a few things about him is all.”
Dale leaned forward. “Heard that anyone who goes behind his back doesn’t live long enough to profit from it. Heard he had a different name out East and changed it to escape the noose. Heard he killed a man who cut up one of his girls. Killed him right there in the saloon, and nothing ever came of it.”
Grady leveled a stare at Dale. “It’s too late now for second thoughts.”
Dale’s mouth turned down at the corners. “I know it is. I’m just telling you what I heard.”
“Mmm.” Grady reached over and took a crust off Cody’s plate. “Last night . . . That kid . . .”
“The butcher’s boy.” Grady chewed the crust. “You see him come down again?”
“Nope.” Dale glanced at Cody, who shook his head. “But we went upstairs ourselves pretty much as soon as you and Matt left. What’s it matter?”
“Curious.” Dale raised his brows.
“Yeah.” Grady shoved his chair back. “I’m going for a walk. Shops won’t be open until the afternoon. We heading out then or staying another night?”
“We’ll stay another night,” Dale said. “No point leaving late.”
“Fine. I’ll see you later.” Grady left the dining room.
There was no church in South Pass City. There was a graveyard just outside of town—rocky and ill kept, the graves dotted with clumps of scrubby grass and sagebrush—a place for the dead to get close to God, but none for the living.
Every Sunday morning, a small group gathered in the Spicers’ cabin and made a congregation. They were a herd without a shepherd. They prayed and sang together, and Elijah held the brim of his hat in his hands and looked at the uneven floorboards while the muted strains of the hymns washed over him, distant and distorted.
I know not, O I know not, what joys await us there,
What radiancy of glory, what bliss beyond compare.
In the past, Elijah had tried to follow the words in the hymnal, his fingertip jerking along the close-printed lines, but he had difficulty with singing. The drawn-out syllables and strange cadences were entirely unlike the rhythms of regular speech, and they passed outside the narrow range of his hearing. Song was water, tipped from a ewer into a hollow basin. Song swelled, reverberated, and he couldn’t distinguish the words from the echo.
Elijah passed the service in contemplation of his boots, fixing his gaze on the faded leather, worn long ago to softness. If he wriggled his toes, he could see the leather undulating. So could Dr. Carter, standing beside him, who cuffed Elijah lightly on the back of the head to remind him of his manners and then tugged affectionately at his hair.
And Elijah couldn’t think of anything apart from the way Harlan Crane had pulled at his hair and fucked him the night before. He didn’t know for sure, couldn’t know, but he didn’t think it was supposed to be like that.
Elijah shivered. He stared at the floor again and ignored his aching body.
Maybe right about now he should have been thinking about sin and hellfire and burning for an eternity, but that wasn’t why he shivered. Those things seemed as remote and theoretical as they ever had, when surely last night should have brought them into sharp relief. He should have been able to smell his own flesh burning, shouldn’t he? Should have been able to feel the agony of his nerve endings curling and crumbling like candlewicks. Except all he felt was the sting where Crane’s stubble had rasped against his flesh and the ache in his ass that echoed his heartbeat.
He’d liked it. It was wrong, but he’d liked it.
It scared him that he did.
Elijah’s gaze was caught by an old bloodstain on the frayed cuff of his shirt. He turned his wrist to hide it, and wished the informal service would end soon. Maybe, when the little congregation was done with their prayers and the hymns, he would be free to walk to the graveyard with Emily Spicer. She went every Sunday to leave flowers on her mother’s grave. Elijah went mostly to escape town for just a little while.
He lifted his gaze. Emily was standing beside her father, singing the words in her hymnbook.
She looked up when Elijah did—Emily could always tell when he was watching—and smiled quickly. Emily was seventeen, and pretty, and most likely would be married soon to Thaddeus Sherlock.
Dr. Carter could always tell when Elijah was looking, as well. He tugged on Elijah’s hair again.
Elijah flushed and turned his face away. It felt wrong to catch Emily’s smile in this place where God was listening, when last night he had been fucked by Harlan Crane. A sin like that couldn’t be undone, that bridge uncrossed. He was sure it was written large on his face.
Elijah thought of the graveyard above town. Some of Elijah’s own family was buried under the rocky, uneven ground, but he didn’t know where.
Mama had died somewhere on the Trail, Elijah was almost certain of that. He remembered the sound of crying and of the baby’s thin, straining wail. He still heard it sometimes, when he hadn’t heard anything clearly in so long. Elijah had gotten sick with scarlet fever on the Trail; they all had. The baby and his sisters were already dead when the wagon train left them in South Pass City. Elijah didn’t know what had happened to his father. He didn’t remember. He’d been too sick. For a long time, Dr. Carter had thought he was going to die.
When the fever had finally broken, Elijah was deaf.
Brief life is here our portion, brief sorrow, short-lived care;
The life that knows no ending, the tearless life, is there.
Every wagon train that passed through, climbing west, Elijah watched and wondered.
Dr. Carter was a good man. He wasn’t the only father that Elijah had ever known, but he was the only one who counted for anything. Elijah had been young when it had happened, no older than four or five. He didn’t remember his last name, so he’d taken Dr. Carter’s. Dr. Carter had been patient with Elijah’s affliction, speaking to him slowly and clearly. In time, by listening carefully and by reading lips, Elijah had learned to catch most of what was being said to him.
Song would always elude him.
He glanced at Emily again, watched her lips move, and heard the droning of the hymn. The words might as well have been a slurring drunk’s. Elijah couldn’t distinguish them.
Dr. Carter squeezed him gently on the back of the neck, and Elijah flushed and looked down at his boots again. The people around him sang of sin and redemption, and Elijah only thought of Harlan Crane.
He wished that Dr. Carter’s gentle touch on the back of his neck was Harlan Crane’s. Imagined it was tighter, rougher, full of force instead of affection. Affection could be disappointed. Force wasn’t. The warmth that crept through him was shame, he thought. He covered his groin with his hat because the heat was pooling there, and Elijah was afraid of what might happen next.
Suddenly he wanted to be outside again, in the sunlight, on the road out of town. Up in the graveyard, throwing stones at the lizards that skittered along the hot ground, and missing them every time. Tracking the line of the encircling hills with his gaze. Following the path of the sun west. Not knowing and not caring if he was too quiet or too loud.
And then, in the night, he’d go to the Empire again.
The things that he’d felt the night before, he wanted to feel again. He wanted to understand.
All at once, Dr. Carter’s hand felt too heavy, constricting. Elijah fought the urge to shake him off.
And though my body may not, my spirit seeks thee fain,
Till flesh and earth return me to earth and flesh again.
Dr. Carter lifted his hand, but it was only to turn the page of his hymnal. Elijah shifted closer to try to see the words. Too small to read, but he could nevertheless see a break in the text. The hymn was almost over.
Dr. Carter smiled at him, wrinkles appearing at the corners of his eyes. He brought the hymnal closer and tilted it so Elijah could see.
Elijah’s gaze fixed on the last line, and a strange, unaccountable thrill ran through him. In his mind, he saw Harlan Crane’s sly, knowing smile all over again. His heart raced.
His only, His forever thou shalt be, and thou art.
That afternoon, a storm rolled in from the mountains, black and wild. The day darkened.
Dr. Carter always invited a group of friends over on Sunday afternoons. They drank coffee at first, whiskey later, and smoked cigars and played faro. They preferred playing in the cabin to going to the card houses where, as Elijah understood it, the faro boards were usually rigged in the banker’s favor.
Elijah didn’t play. Sometimes he drew up a chair and sat beside Dr. Carter and watched, but not today. Today he was too restless.
He dropped a handful of coffee into the pot on the stove, leaning over it to inhale the steam’s aroma. Sweat slid down his temple. In the winter, he dragged his cot as close to the stove as Dr. Carter allowed, but on summer days like these it gave out so much heat it made Elijah want to escape the cabin entirely. He liked his coffee too much not to suffer it, though. He’d finished the packet of beans to make this pot, which meant that the peppermint stick used for grinding the beans, included in every packet, was his. He sucked on it while he waited for the coffee to brew.
When the storm broke, the day would be cooler.
Maybe he’d go outside when the storm came and walk up to the graveyard to watch the lightning in the Wind River Range. He would wait for the thunder, pressing his palms against the wet earth so that he could feel it. The whole world would tremble as the storm raged above, and laugh at the lizards scuttling for shelter.
Elijah liked storms. He liked to lie on the ground, breathless, as the rain pelted his face and the lightning tore apart the sky. Storms made other men run for refuge. They made Elijah run for open spaces. He couldn’t understand why anyone would want to stay cooped up in a cabin when it was so wild outside.
The coffee brewed, and Elijah carried the pot over to the table.
“Thank you, Elijah,” Dr. Carter said and turned back to his cards.
Elijah forced a smile and retreated to his cot and sat there. He took a book from under his pillow and opened it. He’d always tried to be a good son. He did his chores, and he was quiet in every Sunday service, but it wasn’t enough. How could it be enough? And now . . . now that suspicion that had worried him for years had been proven without a doubt.
Simple deaf cunt.
Whole town knew it except for Dr. Carter. But it was worse than that now. Elijah wasn’t just a disappointment now; he was an abomination.
Elijah didn’t read the book.
He listened to the men talk instead, the back and forth, the rhythm and the cadence, and the pieces of the conversation that were clear enough for him to catch.
“They ought’ve put the railroad through Rock Springs,” George Scully, the draper, said. “The coach comes every day now.”
“The decision ought to have been made by men who know the country. South Pass City is the richest in the territory!” Lewis Cleaver printed one of South Pass City’s three newspapers and was angling to be appointed as the next justice of the peace once the County Board of Commissioners saw sense and got rid of Esther Morris. A woman had no business passing judgment in a court of law, Mr. Cleaver said.
Mostly he said it to sell his papers, Dr. Carter had told Elijah. Mrs. Morris’s son Archibald printed the South Pass News and had feted his mother’s appointment as justice, and Cleaver always took a contrary view to everything his rival wrote. Not a blind man, Dr. Carter said, but one with a very narrow view, because God knows there were more pressing concerns in South Pass City than a justice who wore a dress.
Like the announcement in the papers of gold discovered in the Bighorn Mountains and how men were already packing up to try their luck there. Like the fledgling Wyoming Territory already pushing for statehood. Trying to run before it could walk, Cleaver said. Or like the Union Pacific Railroad and how it was a travesty that it hadn’t been built closer to South Pass City to be of any great benefit. Months later they were still arguing about it.
“They built it on the flat for good reason,” Dr. Carter said. “Too many hills here, and too much trouble with the Arapaho and the Sioux.”
“Well, there’s Fort Stambaugh now!” Mr. Scully exclaimed.
“The fort was built too late to change where the tracks were laid,” Thaddeus Sherlock said, a smile twitching the corner of his mouth. “And ridding the land of every savage between here and the west coast won’t change the fact there are still hills in the way.”
Elijah had never seen the railroad, except for pictures in the newspaper. Something about it seemed almost fantastical. Iron tracks crossing the whole of the continent, being built at breakneck speed. A mile a day, the newspapers crowed, though the pace had stalled for a time in Wyoming while important men argued about where the tracks should go. And men like Mr. Scully were still sore about the decision.
What would it be like to travel on the railroad instead of on coaches that pitched and bounced their way along the wheel ruts in the road? Elijah thought it would probably be as smooth as a magic carpet ride.
He thought of the carpet on Harlan Crane’s floor. He thought of Crane’s bed.
“Tight. Tight little bitch.”
His breath caught in his throat. His face burned. His cock stiffened.
Elijah squirmed, putting the book on his lap and hunching over. If they looked at him, would they know? He was afraid they would. Dr. Carter, and Mr. Scully, and Mr. Cleaver and Mr. Sherlock. And surely Mr. Spicer, his fingers tap-tap-tapping along the spine of his Bible, would only need a glimpse to lay all of Elijah’s sins bare.
If anyone in South Pass City ever built a church and wanted a preacher for it, then Thomas Spicer would be the perfect man for the job. Mr. Spicer always carried a small Bible with him. Sometimes he took it out of his coat pocket and put it on the table in front of him, like other men would with their tobacco. Elijah had often watched the way Mr. Spicer’s fingers were drawn to it. Hardly a minute went by when they didn’t dance across its worn black cover. Elijah wondered if the man realized how often he did it. Nobody else seemed to even notice.
“And it’s only gotten worse since that infernal woman was appointed!” Cleaver said.
“Mrs. Morris’s appointment had nothing to do with any decision about the railroad,” Sherlock said. “It was the surveyors and engineers who chose the route. And Mrs. Morris does the job as well as any man.”
“You would say that since she appointed you a deputy sheriff,” Cleaver huffed. “A woman’s place is in the kitchen, not a courtroom.”
Elijah looked up to see Sherlock laugh. “Makes no difference. She sits right there beside her stove when she passes her judgments.”
“I suppose you’ve got no issue taking orders off a woman!”
Sherlock laughed again. “My aunt built half this town, Lewis. I sure don’t.”
Elijah ran his fingers down the cracked spine of his book. Maybe he should go outside. Up to the graveyard or down to the Empire. Could he do that? Go there? He didn’t know.
The night before, Elijah had fastened his buttons with shaking fingers and fixed his gaze on the floor. He’d heard Crane talking, but the murmured words had been indistinct. It could have been mockery, and it could have been affection. Elijah didn’t know which one would have been worse.
He didn’t know what Crane had said. Didn’t know if the man wanted to fuck him again. Didn’t know if he had the guts to walk into the Empire and find out.
Didn’t know shit.
Simple deaf cunt.
Elijah looked up in time to see Dr. Carter’s palm descending into his field of vision. He sat still while Dr. Carter felt his forehead and the glands in his neck.
“You’re a little warm.”
Elijah shrugged, and the muscles in his shoulders and back pulled. He ached all over from wrestling with the yearling, or being fucked by Crane. He didn’t know which. And he sure as hell couldn’t tell Dr. Carter about either.
“How do you feel?”
“Fine,” he murmured. He didn’t like talking when there were people around. He didn’t know what he hated more, the laughter, or those small, sympathetic smiles that were as sickly sweet as molasses. Sometimes he thought it was sympathy. Not allowed to get angry about sympathy.
“If you say so.” Dr. Carter smiled at him, teeth appearing through his whiskers. “No going out in the rain when it comes, hmm?”
He still didn’t know if he would have run into the storm or run to the Empire. Thunder and lightning, or Harlan Crane. They both made his heart race, both made his breath catch, both made him feel alive.
He hunched over on his cot, opened his book, and listened to the indistinct murmur of the men’s voices as they played.
A while later, the storm broke.
A soulful, gritty western romance that pulled me in and wouldn’t let me go until well past the moment I closed the cover. This was a magnificent blend of historical authenticity, deep characterization and solid plotwork offering so much more than I ever could have imagined.... The writing, tone, characterization, pacing and plot are some of the best I’ve seen in a while and I look forward to more from this author.
It was so good! I am so impressed. I love it!
[H]ad me reeling and cheering at the same time. From the first pages of the books, I loved and hated many of the characters.... A recommended read.
The tragedy, murky loyalties, and general goings on of Sweetwater mix with the ignorance and the everyday heroism of it’s citizens in a rich tapestry that winds its way throughout the book.
Can I say spectacular writing?? Because spectacular writing. And why is that? Because this author can translate emotion for the page, it wraps around me in ways I understand and absorb at a gut level.