RAILROAD TIES

 

Timeline:

Since the chronology of 'The Virginian' is very confused (probably due to the change of Executive Producer at the end of 1962) I have arbitrarily decided that the latter half of Series 1 corresponds to 1898 and used dating evidence from 'The Accomplice' in which Trampas was said to have arrived at Shiloh in June 1897, ignoring the fact that the previous episode, 'Fifty Days to Moose Jaw', took place in July/August 1893 and Trampas was already firmly established at the Virginian's side by then.

And guess what, I had the temerity to give the nameless man a name and a family. Whatever next?

 

* * *

 

Wyoming, 1898

 

Late morning sun streamed in through the open doorway of the deserted barn. The horses had long since been taken out and the stalls had been cleaned, feed and water replenished, bedding raked neat and everything left in good order for the day. Now it was deserted, apart from the in-foal mare whose welfare was the Virginian's prime concern at the moment.

Rebuilding the barn after it burned down had taken less than a week, with all the neighbouring families sending men to help and women to cook for them. Shiloh hadn't been so lively in a while. Now it was as if the fire had never happened, except for a few little details - one of which was the mare, her shiny coat blackened and singed by the flames, still waiting for her foal to be born. They had all been anxious about her but he'd personally run a hand along her flank and felt the foal moving inside; only a day or so now and it would be staggering around on spindly legs struggling to comprehend a new world. Birthing new stock never lost its fascination; it was one of the things he loved most about his job.

Stepping into the stall with the mare, he smoothed through her mane and patted her nose. She was a good-natured beast; if not for the barn fire, he would never have had a moment's anxiety about her.

The Virginian's attention was caught by what sounded suspiciously like a grunt - or could it have been a snore? - from somewhere above him. The hay loft over the barn was a favourite place for men who did not feel much like working and preferred to sneak off and sleep for an hour or two. Some of the men spent more time sleeping than working, if the truth were known, and he made a point of checking the loft on a regular basis. Quietly he made his way to the bottom of the wooden ladder, climbing carefully so as not to draw the least whisper of sound from it, and followed the snores to a corner where straw bales formed a protective wall on top of which lay a grey hat. This guaranteed precisely what the Virginian would discover when he rounded the end of the wall.

Trampas lay on his back, hands folded across his flat stomach, booted feet crossed and propped higher than his head. His blond hair was tangled with straw of almost exactly the same colour, his face turned to one side and his expression utterly contented. Almost too handsome for his own good, he had attracted a lot of attention from women over the years and - although the Virginian felt sure Trampas was unaware of it - from men as well. Men who liked men would find Trampas irresistible. The Virginian had cause to know that, being himself a man who liked men.

A bolder spirit might have leaned down and wakened Trampas with a kiss. Instead, the Virginian snatched up the grey hat silently and fingered the brim as all the confusion of his feelings for the man played out in pantomime across his face.

Trampas seemed to sense that he was no longer alone. He snuffled, half-turned, then rolled again onto his back and opened his eyes. The moment that astonished blue gaze turned on the Virginian he flung the hat into Trampas's midsection and took advantage of the ranch-hand's momentary discomposure to further his attack.

"I thought I told you to finish cleaning up the barn and report to me," he growled. "Are you telling me it's all done?"

"Yes, sir, boss-man," Trampas assured him, climbing unsteadily to his feet. He was a good two or three inches taller than the Virginian and under the eaves of the barn he took up almost all the space there was. "You can check if you like. I was waiting for you to come back and I fell asleep; that's not so bad, is it?"

The Virginian wasn't about to make a big argument out of it. "Well, I'm sorry to intrude on your beauty rest," he said sarcastically, "but Betsy's got a list of things she wants from Medicine Bow. Take the buckboard and go round them up - and while you're in town pick up the mail. I'm expecting a letter from the Judge."

Trampas combed the straw from his hair with his fingers, dusted his hat down and put it back on. "I'll get right on it, boss-man."

"Uh-huh. And I want you back here by sundown stone cold sober - understood?"

"Yessir."

"All right. Go on now." Turning his most obdurate expression on Trampas so that the big man would never have guessed how hard he was laughing inside, the Virginian waited while he retreated down the ladder into the main body of the barn, then strolled out into the noon heat.

He remained for some time with one hand propped thoughtfully against a roof beam. Trampas was a wild one all right, no closer to being tame than the mustangs that still roamed hereabouts. No-one with any sense would ever try to put a halter on him. That didn't mean, though, that he could never be caught - and sometimes, in moments of extravagant fantasy, the Virginian dreamed of being the man who could do it. Trouble was he still couldn't decide if it was kinder to Trampas to let him run free, even if that meant leaving himself and his simple-minded daydreams far behind.

 

It was after sundown by the time the Shiloh buckboard rolled back into the yard. Steve and a couple of the men were on their way to the bunkhouse when they caught sight of Trampas on the road and stayed to help unload flour, soap, canned goods and all the other necessaries the Judge's daughter had suddenly decided she couldn't do without. The fact that Trampas had been into Medicine Bow and back without starting a riot in the saloon caused a few raised eyebrows around the ranch, but when the Virginian came out of the house to ask for the mail he made no comment. Trampas pushed the bundle of letters and packages into the foreman's hands.

"There's one for you, boss," he said cheerfully.

"From the Judge?" The Virginian began sorting through the letters.

"Uh-unh, no. I'd say that was a lady's handwriting," Trampas pronounced, relishing the effect of this announcement on his audience. "Leastways, it's addressed to 'Judge Henry Garth's Foreman, Shiloh Ranch, Medicine Bow, Wyoming' - I take that to be you," he added, less certainly.

"That's no way for a girl to write her sweetheart," Steve commented rationally, shouldering a sack of flour from the tail of the buckboard. "Sure don't sound like the language of love to me."

"Well, no, now that you mention it ... " Trampas's words tailed off. The Virginian had isolated the packet in question and was running his fingers over the outside as though he could tell what it contained. Suddenly there was an invisible wall between him and the other men. "What's wrong?" Trampas asked. "Ain't you going to open it?"

The Virginian stuffed the package in his pocket and made an effort to be sociable. "Not right now," he said. "Was there anything from the Judge?"

"Not a line. He coming back any time soon?"

"Well, unless he writes me, I can't answer that," the Virginian pointed out, tolerantly. "Get yourself something to eat, Trampas. Steve, Pete, Barney, finish up here and put the buckboard away, then get some sleep. I want you boys fixing the broken fence rails down by the creek first thing tomorrow morning. That includes you, Trampas."

"Yo," acknowledged the blond cowboy tiredly. Then, as the Virginian headed off in the direction of the bunkhouse, Trampas pushed his hat back on his head and watched him walk away. "Yes sir," he said, half to himself, "that man has some kind of burr under his saddle. Sooner the Judge gets back, the better. Well, now," he continued in a more expansive tone, "don't you boys work too hard now, you hear?"

Trampas's back was turned and he was halfway to a well-deserved late supper by the time the barrage of good-natured insults caught up with his retreat.

 

He was finishing up his meal when Steve came marching into the kitchen with a worried look on his face.

"The Virginian just rode out," he said, without further comment.

"He did?"

"Yup. Told Barney he'd be gone all night, and to let you know you're in charge till he gets back."

Puzzled blue eyes turned on Steve. "Well I'll be ... Figure it was the letter from the lady that upset him?"

"Looks that way," Steve agreed, sitting down and helping himself from the coffee pot. "When did he ever get mail from anyone but the Judge before? Had to be bad news."

Trampas nodded. "Well," he mused, "if it is, that's his business and not ours. I'd better take a walk around and check we're secure for the night," he added, getting to his feet. Slapping Steve with his hat in passing, Trampas marched off to survey his temporary command.

 

He would have faced a firing squad rather than admit that the responsibility of taking care of Shiloh, even for a few hours, had cost him any sleep, so when Trampas patrolled the ranch outbuildings under the cold glint of the moon at 2 a.m. he told himself he had been woken by a noise. It was partly true, too; he'd woken himself up grinding his teeth and had cursed himself for falling asleep in the loft during the day. Then he'd hauled on his pants and boots and crept out of the bunkhouse, slipping past Pete and two others who lounged smoking in the shadowed doorway. They watched him go without comment; the Virginian wandered the ranch often enough in the hours of darkness, and it seemed only fitting that Trampas did so too.

Entering the barn he could make out the soft keening of the mare. Sounded as if she was about ready to drop the foal. Trampas struck a match and lit the lantern before heading down to take a look at her. The poor creature was already struggling; her eyes were glazed, her sides heaving, the straw at her feet a mess of blood and mucus. Sighing deeply, he threw off his jacket and looked around for the coil of rope in case it should be needed. It didn't look as if this particular birth was going to be easy.

 

Trampas and the mare fought with the foal for two hours. Eventually somehow, with a combination of luck and persistence, he managed to extract it in one piece, still alive, and eased it down onto the straw. He threw weary arms round the mare's neck and told her he loved her, but she politely nuzzled him aside and began to lick clean her new offspring. Trampas helped, scrubbing the foal with a handful of clean straw, then sat back on his heels, his whole body shaking from reaction. For the first time in hours he looked around and realised that daylight was beginning to creep in to the barn. Not only that, but there was a dark-clad figure slouching against a roof support just out of reach of the lantern's glow.

"How long've you been there?" Trampas asked abruptly.

"Long enough," the Virginian told him. "Didn't look to me like you needed any help. You should give her some water."

"I know. There's some here. She'll drink it when she's good and ready."

"Uh-huh."

"So where'd you go? Did you have bad news?"

For a long time he thought the Virginian would not answer. Then he said; "The letter was to tell me my brother died about six months back - drowned in a flooded river."

This was by a long way the greatest amount of information the Virginian had ever seen fit to volunteer about himself. Trampas took it calmly, letting the man's apparent trust in him pass without comment. "I didn't know you had a brother, Virginian. What was his name?"

"Joe. Hadn't seen him in fifteen years." It was said almost without emotion of any kind.

"Sounds like you don't care too much," Trampas observed, straightening up and beginning to scrub himself with straw too. The Virginian remained on the edge of the pool of shadows, but where the daylight was breaking in between the slats of the barn walls Trampas could see that the man had his hat pulled low so as to shield his face.

"We weren't close. He left a wife and two children, and his wife's written to me for help. All the hands have quit and she needs help around the farm. Think you can keep Shiloh running while I'm away?"

Trampas looked bewildered. "Sure, but why don't she get herself some new farm hands?"

"If she's desperate enough to ask me, Trampas, she's in deep trouble. What if it was your brother's widow asking you for help?"

"Don't know," Trampas admitted. "Don't think I ever had a brother. Hardly even had parents, come to that. When're you leaving?"

The Virginian looked weary. "I plan to ride into Medicine Bow for the noon train. I'll leave my horse at the Livery."

Trampas nodded. "If that's what you want," he said, his tone subdued. "I guess blood is thicker than water. Now, I think I'm going to find me some breakfast. Some people around here," he added, passing the shadowed figure without a second look, "were up working half the night. Seems to me sometimes the Judge made the wrong man foreman!"

Fulminating in this vein, Trampas strode out of the barn. Had he turned back he would have seen that the face emerging from under the brim of the black hat was twisted into a tolerant grimace, and would have known that - despite considerable provocation - the Virginian was laughing at him yet again.

 

The Virginian's departure from Shiloh later that morning was accomplished without so much as a glance over his shoulder in the direction of the friends he was leaving behind. Not that many of them realised yet he was going; Trampas had played down that piece of information, knowing that some of the men would try to take advantage of him if they thought the foreman wasn't going to be back in a while.

He stood a long time watching the dark-clad man on the grey horse heading off down the trail at high speed. Shouldn't take him more than two and a half hours to get to Medicine Bow and he ought to make the noon train without fuss. After that, who knew when they'd hear from him again? Maybe never, if his brother's widow got her hooks into him.

That wasn't a thought Trampas found comfortable. He'd got used to the way things were at Shiloh since he'd rolled up here a year ago, a rootless drifter on his way from somewhere to nowhere. The Virginian had trusted him and they'd become good friends - or as friendly as you could be with a man who didn't tell anybody his name. Not that they had a lot in common; one blond, one dark; one madcap, one serious; they couldn't have been a greater contrast, yet they'd grown together like a couple of rambling plants trained over an old porch. He'd come to lean on the Virginian like he'd have leaned on family if he'd ever had any, and it had rocked him to learn that his friend still had kin whose call was stronger than that of Shiloh.

Trampas knew that he should have gone along; that was what he'd really wanted to do. A few months ago he'd have ridden out without a thought about the ranch. He guessed he'd grown up a little alongside the Virginian, but even so the minute the Judge showed up Trampas was going to be knocking on his door begging to follow the man wherever the hell he was going. On his own the Virginian could get into all kinds of trouble; that was why he needed Trampas along - to protect him from himself.

 

It was a week before Judge Garth made it back to Shiloh. His letter put an end to nights when Trampas didn't sleep and days when he paced the ranch anxiously trying to make sure he had remembered everything to be done. He seemed to have inherited the Virginian's sense of purpose, which was one of the first things the Judge noticed when Trampas met him at the station two days later, taking his valise and swinging it aboard the pony trap.

"I was expecting the Virginian," Shiloh's owner said mildly. "He waiting back at the ranch?"

"No, sir," Trampas explained, taking up the reins as he seated himself. "He's gone home - some place called Blackstone. Had a letter from his brother's widow and he went the next day." The expression on Trampas's face made further comment superfluous.

"Widow? Joe's dead?"

"Seemingly. You knew he had a brother, Judge?"

"Yes, I knew." The Judge fell silent as though digesting the implications of what Trampas had told him. Then, after some contemplation; "He coming back?"

Trampas shook his head. "Don't know, Judge. He left you a letter up at the house, but he didn't tell me anything much."

The Judge was watching Trampas intently as he guided the trap out onto the road to Shiloh.

"I suppose you're pretty keen to go after him?"

The answer seemed reluctantly given.

"Well, tell you the truth, Judge, I was going to ask you about that. I could be on the noon train tomorrow and get there by the 18th."

The Judge nodded, as though it was simply not a matter for debate. "I'll give you a letter of introduction to the family's lawyer, George Fiske. We've been in correspondence for some years. He's also Amelia's father; that's how she knew where to find the Virginian," he added at Trampas's bemused look. "I didn't think he'd just up and leave Shiloh without a word. He was troubled by that letter, you say?"

"Yessir." Trampas's brevity was eloquence itself.

"Well, then," the Judge said breezily, "you'd better go. And if the pair of you get into any trouble you can't get out of by yourselves I'll expect you to send me a wire. "

"Thank you, Judge. I'll tell the Virginian what you said."

"Be sure you do. You all packed and ready?"

"Yessir!"

"Good. Then I'll bring you back into town myself tomorrow and put you on the noon train. That suit you?"

"Uh-huh, Judge, suits me just fine," Trampas told him with a smile. "Thanks."

"Don't mention it," Garth told him, more amiably than he felt.

 

* * *

 

"Mister?" the kid said, impatiently. "Mister, is your name Trampas?"

Trampas was too busy looking around him trying to get the lie of the land to take much notice at first, but when he heard his name he glanced down sharply at a boy of about twelve with tousled dark hair, thin heart-shaped face and green eyes. There was something oddly familiar about the eyes, something he couldn't quite put a name to.

"What if it is?" he asked truculently.

The kid was looking him up and down like he was something he'd won at a fair.

"If it is," he said at length, "my uncle Hank says to tell you to quit messing around and get in the damn' buggy."

Trampas's expression was thunderstruck. "I don't know your uncle Hank, boy. Matter of fact I don't know anybody in this town save for one man, and he couldn't know I'm here."

"He could if Judge Garth wired to let him know you were coming," the boy told him, unfolding a much-handled grey telegraph form from the pocket of his overall.

"TRAMPAS ARRIVING SUNDOWN SATURDAY STOP GARTH," Trampas read out, handing the form back to the boy. "'Quit messing around and get in the damn' buggy,' eh? Sure sounds like him, I'll admit, but 'Hank'?"

"He's my pa's brother, and his name's Hank," the boy insisted stubbornly. "He came all the way from Medicine Bow, Wyoming, just like you."

"Well, all right," Trampas said, thoughtfully, "I guess maybe his name could be Hank, at that. And you're his nephew?" The green eyes, he realised suddenly. That was where he'd seen eyes that colour before. "You got a name?"

"Joshua William Rawlins," said the boy. "The third. My sister's Angelina Hope Rawlins but we mostly call her Lina."

Trampas shook his head slowly. He'd got used to thinking of the Virginian as a man without any family ties, and now here he was furnished with a full set of relatives. He wasn't sure he hadn't preferred the man when he had been as unattached and free-hearted as Trampas himself.

"The Virginian has a family," he murmured, not realising he was speaking out loud. "Well, it'll take some getting used to, that's all. It'll just take some getting used to."

 

Long after dark the buggy rolled to a halt in front of a single-storey wooden farmhouse with one light showing. There was the sound of a door opening and a voice called out of the darkness; "Trampas? That you?"

"Uncle Hank?" Trampas responded. "That you?"

The Virginian's exasperation was palpable even at a distance. "You want to tell me why you're here?" he demanded. "Far as I'm concerned you're just another mouth to feed."

"Huh." Trampas jumped down and stretched his weary limbs. "I thought you'd be grateful," he said. "Two thousand miles on a hard wooden seat to keep a man out of trouble and this is the thanks I get. I've got half a mind to turn around and go two thousand miles right back to Medicine Bow."

A hand landed on his shoulder in the blackness. "Well," said the Virginian less harshly, "if I had any sense myself that's just what you'd do, too, but another pair of hands'll certainly be welcome. We're bunking in the barn," he added, turning the conversation to practicalities. "You'll meet Amelia - my sister-in-law - in the morning; she and Lina are already in bed. You need any help, Josh?"

"Nope," the boy called back, taking charge of the horse and buggy expertly.

"Your ma left you some supper on the table," was the Virginian's rejoinder. "You go straight to bed afterwards."

"Yessir," Josh replied, leading the horse away.

Guided by the hand on his shoulder, Trampas walked with the Virginian through the darkened yard around to the back of the barn. They did not speak until they had entered the partitioned-off section of the barn that served as the bunkhouse. Then the Virginian struck a match and lighted a lantern, and when he turned back towards Trampas the picture he presented was enough to draw the oddest cuss-word he knew from that young man's lips.

"Shit-damn, Virginian, what happened to you?"

The Virginian's face was a purpled mass of bruises, one eye half-closed with congealed blood, his cheeks swollen where someone had rained punches into his face. There was a clear welt mark from a leather glove knuckled into his forehead, and just visible in the vee of his open-necked shirt was evidence that the trail of damage continued elsewhere on his body.

"I met with some of the Logan boys earlier today," the Virginian told him, indicating a plate of cold food on the table. Trampas sat down to it gratefully while the Virginian poured coffee. "Didn't do any real damage, just - messed me up a bit. It was intended as a warning."

"The Logan boys?" Trampas asked around a mouthful of cold meat pie.

The Virginian was retrieving a bottle of whisky from what was obviously his bunk. Two tin mugs clattered down onto the table and he poured, pushing one cup towards Trampas.

"Cousins of mine. They live on the neighbouring property, Great Hope. They're in negotiations with an outfit called the Charleston, Roanoke and Greensboro Railroad Company. They want to buy up this place and add it to Great Hope. Amelia would be happy enough to sell, but she won't be beaten into letting good farming land go for less than it's worth - and neither will I. I own half this property, Trampas. Pa always hoped Joe and I would farm it together after he was gone, but Joe didn't see it the same way."

"What happened? He run you off?"

"Told me if I ever set foot on his land again he’d kill me. But the Judge went to court and made sure they'd need my signature to sell the land. The Logans don’t know that. Far as they're concerned I'm just a farm manager Amelia hired from out of state. That's why they tried to buy me off first, but they soon gave up on that and started punching ... "

" ... and didn't stop till they were good and tired," Trampas concluded. "So what do folks do for law around here? Or is that a dumb question?"

The Virginian shrugged, and it looked to be an uncomfortable procedure. "Sheriff's name is Tom Logan," he said. "He's always kept out of whatever his brothers might be doing, but that doesn't mean he's not involved. Going to the Sheriff would be no better than giving the land away, Trampas. We have to deal with this on our own."

"And your cousins beat up on you without realising who you were?" Trampas concluded. Well, he'd heard of stranger things happening.

"It was dark. And if they remember that Joe ever had a younger brother they probably figure he died a long time ago."

"All right," Trampas nodded. "Sounds like something we could make use of. You still saying you're not badly hurt?"

"I'll be fine, Trampas. You can take a look in the morning if it makes you happy, but not tonight; it's dark and I'm too tired."

"First thing in the morning, then," Trampas confirmed. "Maybe they won't be quite so keen to take on two of us as one man on his own."

"Maybe not," the Virginian agreed. Then, as though the thought had only just occurred to him; "I'm sure glad you're here Trampas."

 

Morning came around far too soon. Daybreak found the Virginian sitting on the edge of the horse-trough in the yard, shirtless, while Trampas carefully washed his back and shoulders. The morning smelled damp, and was certainly cold, but there was no hurrying the job he was doing. Here and there fibres from the Virginian's shirt had found their way into half-closed wounds and he was carefully removing them, easing away crusted scabs, tutting softly over the mess the man's torso was in.

"I thought you said they didn't hurt you much," he accused the shivering figure beneath his hands.

"Not enough to do any real harm, I said," he was reminded.

"Uh-huh? Well, how come you didn't let Amelia take a look at you?"

The Virginian's head shook vigorously. "I didn't want her to fret."

Trampas recognised a forbidden topic when he came to one. "How 'bout lower down?" he asked awkwardly.

"They didn't kick me anywhere that really worried me. I'm just bruised some, Trampas. I'll live."

"Sure you will. Your shirt, now ... is another matter." In the harsh light of day the deep red corduroy workshirt looked like a filthy rag. "You got a clean one?"

"Somewhere in the house."

"Oh. In that case, you'd better take my spare. But if you happen to meet the Logan boys while you're wearing it, you're going to owe me a new shirt."

"Done." The first glimmer of humour since Trampas's arrival suddenly lighted the Virginian's green eyes. "Well, I guess we'd better make a start on the chores; we need to earn our breakfast. You think you can remember how to milk a cow?"

Trampas glared at him as if he'd made an improper suggestion. "This is a dairy outfit?" he asked, incredulously.

"Cows, hens, fruit and vegetables, corn and tobacco," reeled off the part-owner. "It's good, rich land, Trampas. My pa used to say if you stuck a walking-stick in the ground anywhere around Little Hope it would grow."

Surveying the horizon, oblivious to the Virginian's semi-clothed discomfort, Trampas nodded agreement. A long range of hills swept the skyline to westward, while to the south and east the land shelved away gently.

"Looks like kind country," he agreed. "Come on, let's go find you that shirt before you catch your death."

 

* * *

 

It was a week before the Virginian's bruises faded. The first day or two he let Trampas tend them, and after that he kept his wounds strictly to himself and denied the need for any kind of help. Trampas, acting wisely for once, resolved not to trespass.

There were no more encounters with the Logan boys for the time being, and while their vigilance did not waver, the Virginian and Trampas began to feel a little more settled at Little Hope. It was not long before each acquired a half-sized shadow for his daily chores. Josh gravitated naturally into Trampas's freewheeling orbit chattering nineteen to the dozen; his more serious-minded sister walked in ghostly silence a few paces behind the Virginian wherever he went.

At one time there must have been more than enough work here for the farmer and four men, but two of the hands had quit when the bulk of the dairy herd was sold off immediately after Joe's death. Amelia had continued to work the farm during the spring with one elderly man and a boy of seventeen, but the man had injured his back round about the end of April and the boy had just vanished during the night a couple of weeks later. Amelia had found it impossible to get anyone else to work for her after that and carried on the best she could with the help of her two children, but the work was too much for the three of them and she had reluctantly turned to her husband's brother.

"She sure don't like you, Virginian," Trampas remarked one day, when they were at the top end of the farm repairing a sagging gate. Their perennial companions were home for once, helping out with a big washing.

The Virginian pushed his hat to the back of his head, wiped his forehead with a kerchief. Trampas too was sweating freely, straining to hold the gate in position while the Virginian fitted the crosspiece he'd cut. Neither of them had much idea of carpentry.

"She's no cause to like me," he conceded softly. He was acutely aware that every sinew of Trampas's body had tautened to support the weight of the gate; he'd taken several secretive glances that revelled in the man's physique delineated by sweat-dampened clothing. As long as Trampas didn't suspect he was under such admiring scrutiny there could be no harm in it. "Right at the moment she needs me, which makes it worse. Everything she knows about me she got from Joe, and he was kind of prejudiced."

"Yeah," Trampas recalled, "you said you weren't close. What happened?"

The Virginian chuckled, a deep note of amusement. He might yet find himself having to tell Trampas about his family's rejection of him, but he didn't figure it would be any time soon. Just the basic facts would do for now.

"There was six years between Joe and me," he said. "He was a full-grown man when pa died, but I was still a kid. One day when I was fourteen Joe caught me doing something he didn't like. He got mad and told me to get off his land and just keep going. Told me I was no kin of his and if I ever said I was his brother he’d kill me. I lit out there and then and never looked back until I got to Shiloh.

"My pa and Jacob Logan used to be partners - my mother was Logan's sister. When she died they fell out and split the land. Logan got Great Hope, and pa got Little Hope. Jacob was always trying to take the land back even then, but pa got friendly with Lawyer Fiske and even Jacob Logan knew better than to tangle with the best lawyer in town. Fiske even made sure I drew up a proper legal will," he added, wryly. "You never quite know when you're going to be involved in some kind of - unh - railroad accident."

"That's true enough. You think your brother met with a railroad kind of accident, too?"

"I'm almost sure of it. Jacob Logan would never dirty his hands with murder, but I'm not so sure about his boys. Joe was a big man, but if he'd met up with five of the Logan boys like I did he wouldn't have lasted long. Maybe they only set out to frighten him off his land, but either way he ended up just as dead."

Trampas sighed, giving up all pretence at work and reaching for the canteen of water tucked away in the cool grass at the base of the gatepost. He unfastened it, took a deep swig, then handed it to the Virginian.

"All makes Shiloh seem like a happy place and a long way off, don't it?"

"Sure does. But not so far as it seemed before you showed up, Trampas."

Trampas took a long, thoughtful look at the blue horizon line, gentle wooded slopes, wide sweep of clear summer sky. There was plenty of work for two of them, and he knew he'd have no trouble settling to life here alongside the man he counted as his best and only friend.

"If you're planning to stay on and work this place, Virginian, I'd like to stick around. It's good land - you said so yourself."

"It also has somebody desperate to build a railroad across it," the Virginian reminded him. "If it hadn't - we'd be working dawn till dusk seven days a week. No holiday, lousy food, worse weather and I doubt we'd show a profit in under five years unless we found some crop that pays better than tobacco. We'd have to do our own cooking, washing and sewing, make just about everything we needed here on the farm - and put up with one another's company twenty four hours a day. You'd get to hate it, Trampas. You'd get to hate me."

"Virginian," Trampas said mildly, "you're going to have to start trusting me. When did I ever doubt your word, even for a moment? Nope, I just let you lead me by the nose. So you pull on the rope and I'll follow wherever you want to go."

A tolerant smile was his reward. "Trampas," the Virginian said, "you don't know what you're talking about, and I thank God for that. Now, can we get on with fixing this gate, please? Daylight's wasting."

"All right, Virginian," Trampas told him, returning to his work without a murmur of protest - a new sensation for him. "You're the boss."

 

Only a few minutes later high-pitched shouts reached them from lower down the slope and the bedraggled figure of Lina appeared at the fastest speed her short legs could make.

"Uncle Hank! Trampas! Momma needs you back at the house!"

The men dropped what they were doing and sprinted across the pasture towards the little girl. Trampas arrived first and attempted to calm her, but her terrified and tear-stained face told a story long before she was able to gasp out the words.

"The tobacco’s on fire," she said. "Close by the house. Josh and Momma are trying to put it out."

"On fire?" Trampas echoed, bemused. "That stuff's too green to burn."

He looked up at the Virginian for confirmation and saw only grim certainty. "Anything'll burn if you pour enough kerosene over it."

"Damn," said Trampas. "The Logans."

"Lina, you catch us up best you can," the Virginian ordered, gripping Trampas's arm and steering him away. "Stay away from the fire, now, you hear?" These words were shot over his shoulder as he hurried off down the field, cursing the slowness of his legs; he was not built for foot-racing like Trampas who was soon several yards ahead. Lina picked up her skirts and began to run after them, but even the Virginian's slower pace left her behind almost immediately.

He could not see or smell the smoke until he was a lot closer to the site of the fire, due to the shape of the land and the direction of the wind, but when he stumbled into the reeking cloud he knew at once that his diagnosis had been correct; the scent of burning tobacco was mingled with the oily smell of kerosene. Already Trampas was in the thick of things, directing Josh to dig a firebreak across the large field and shouting at Amelia to bring more water. The Virginian met his sister-in-law face to face as she dashed away to do Trampas's bidding and for once she looked him in the eyes, registering anguish at the destruction of her livelihood. He wanted to tell her it would be okay but he knew that would be a lie. The best they could hope for was to stop the fire spreading any further; the tobacco was already so badly tainted from the kerosene that the crop was a total loss.

The Virginian took the shovel from Josh and began digging, vaguely conscious that somewhere close by in the cloud the blond man, his kerchief over his mouth and nose, was beating down the burning crop with a broom. Josh and Amelia ran back and forth with buckets of water and soaked straw while Lina lowered the bucket into the well over and over until her little body was almost broken by the strain. At length, raking a last load of ruined vegetation back from the firebreak, the Virginian turned around to survey the scene of devastation and fell victim to a burst of coughing which tore at his chest and filled his eyes with burning tears. When he straightened it was to feel a strong and unobtrusive arm around his waist.

"You okay, boss-man?" Trampas's voice was hoarse behind the kerchief and, looking at him, the Virginian gained a clear idea of his own condition. The supporting arm dropped away without comment on either side.

"Did we lose everything?" the Virginian asked despondently.

"Pretty much. Unless the price of corn suddenly goes through the roof, Amelia's not going to have a crop to keep the family through the winter."

Amelia's voice cut across the stillness. "Hank? Trampas? I've got some whisky back at the house."

For a woman who had previously been very reserved this offer was so remarkable that it stopped the pair of them dead in their tracks immediately.

"Be right there," acknowledged the dark man with a tired wave of the hand. "Come on, now, Trampas. We've earned that whisky."

 

It was almost the first time Trampas had been into the farmhouse; he'd never strayed more than a foot inside the door, but now he was ushered to a bench beside the kitchen table with the Virginian close by and a bottle of whisky was planked down between the two of them. Everything smelled of smoke - the furniture, the food, even the whisky - where the wind had carried fumes in through the open door and windows.

Amelia poured three generous measures of spirit and distributed them.

"Hank," she said, "we have to sell this place now, at any price we can get. If we don't get out of here soon the Logans are really going to hurt somebody." A glance across her shoulder in the direction of Josh and Lina made her concerns plain.

The Virginian shook his head. "Over my dead body."

Trampas glanced up sharply. "Now, wait a minute, boss-man, it could just be that way. At any rate it seems to me that a farm with a land war raging over it is no fit place for women and children."

Amelia's eyes were blazing with fury as she faced him. "This is my home, Trampas," she protested. "Josh and Lina were born right in this house. Anybody who wants to take Little Hope land away from us will find they have a fight on their hands. I won't abandon this property just on your say-so."

"Easy, easy," the Virginian soothed, as if to the mare back in the Shiloh barn. "No-one's asking you to. But Trampas is right about the children. Couldn't your father look after them until all this is settled?"

Mollified, Amelia accepted the suggestion as plain common sense. "Certainly. I'll take them to him tomorrow."

"Good - and I'll go with you. Trampas can stay behind and keep an eye on the place until I get back - assuming you can do that without getting yourself killed?" he asked in a tone that was harsher than he had meant.

Trampas grinned. "You'd be surprised, boss-man, how good I am at not getting killed."

"Just prove it to me tomorrow."

Amelia gulped back her whisky. "Well, if we're going into Blackstone tomorrow then we all need to use a little soap and water tonight," she said briskly. "I'll bath the children before supper; you boys can have the bath over in the barn later on. You might bring some more firewood round from the stack for me in the morning, Trampas."

"Yes ma'am," was the polite response as Trampas threw back the last of his whisky.

 

Later that evening Trampas helped the Virginian bring the bath over from the house and set it up in the bunkhouse. Josh and Lina were poised to start ferrying jugs of hot water from the kitchen, while Amelia was busy heating more water for refills. The bath itself was deep and old-fashioned; they set it up out of the draughts close to the stove and began to fill it with water.

Trampas had won the toss of the coin for first bath and was grateful for small mercies, but his mind was not exclusively on the farm and its worries tonight; he had other concerns. For a year now he'd been hoping the Shiloh foreman might come to care for him as something more than a workmate, a friend who was always by his side. He wasn't simple enough not to have noticed how the Virginian’s eyes sometimes seemed almost to devour him, especially when for one reason or another he'd had to remove his shirt. It was both a pleasure and a torture to be with him at such times, when emotion and passion seemed to flow very close to the surface; at times like that it was obvious to Trampas that a case of mutual attraction was being ruthlessly suppressed on the Virginian's side. That wasn't a situation he was willing to continue with for very much longer.

He waited until he had the Virginian's full attention before he began to unbutton his shirt, making every movement slow and deliberate, feeling green eyes wandering longingly across his exposed chest, well aware of the desire that burned behind that opal gaze. He was not exactly surprised when the Virginian turned away as though deny even to himself the fact that he had been watching.

 

Suddenly there was nowhere for the Virginian to hide. The very fact that only a few feet away Trampas was removing his shirt seemed to cause the walls to press in towards him, compacting space and even compressing the air until it was almost impossible to breathe. It wasn't as if he'd never seen Trampas without his clothes before - or at least without his shirt - although he usually tried to be somewhere else when the men were skinny-dipping in the river, pretending to be above that sort of nonsense. In truth he'd have loved to join in, but his intentions might not have been quite so innocent as their own.

"Guess I'll just go stack that firewood for Amelia," he said easily as Trampas kicked off his boots and began unfastening his pants. "Save time in the morning."

Trampas's relaxed drawl stopped him almost in the doorway.

"No need for that, Virginian," he said comfortably, his tone all self-possession. "It's no trouble to me if you want to look at me."

"What?"

The monosyllable was choked from him, but he didn't turn. He remained frozen where he was while the sounds behind told of pants being removed and dropped over the bench. He heard bare feet on the floor, and Trampas climbing into the bath.

"You think I never had men look at me that way before?" Trampas challenged, but his voice was softer now and almost husky. "Sometimes I sort of like it. When you do it, I like it."

In the silence the Virginian's brain teemed. Trampas must be well used to attracting attention from women, but it had never once occurred to him that the blond cowboy might be just as comfortable when the eyes on him were male.

"What ... what do you mean?" A wary response, and still he didn't move, afraid to take this kind of invitation at face value.

There was no direct answer to his question. Instead Trampas said; "Why don't you turn around, Virginian?"

He should walk away. He knew that. Walk away like he always walked away from slim boys in city back-streets who offered themselves for a few dollars -

It took one lifetime to decide and another to act on the decision. Slowly - like some rusted automaton brought to reluctant life - the Virginian managed to bring himself around to face the bathtub. Then impressions rushed in on him; how broad Trampas's shoulders were, how pink his skin, how rumpled his blond hair, how serious his expression. He faltered, remaining immobile in the shadows by the doorway and looking back into the circle of gold shed by the kerosene lamp, held by the vision before him. Then, with a gesture worthy of the Lady of the Lake, Trampas proffered the soap - and the Virginian's feet were moving back across the barn towards him.

"Help me wash my back, boss-man," Trampas half-whispered, trying to keep the timbre of his words as matter-of-fact as possible.

The Virginian obeyed, automatically soaping the area between the man's shoulder-blades. Trampas’s skin was soft, smooth, warm, and he could have knelt there touching and stroking forever, pretending all the while that this was a simple courtesy to a friend, but a large wet hand rose up out of the water, gripped the sleeve of his shirt and halted all movement. He became very aware that Trampas's breathing was almost as irregular as his own and his voice had dropped to a still softer register, scarcely more than a faint breath.

"You look at me," Trampas repeated. "All the time. You watch me work, you watch me eat, you watch me sleep. If I didn't like you watching me, Virginian, I'd have ridden out months ago. Feels good to have your eyes on me, but how come you're so scared to touch me?"

"Because - " The Virginian heard a voice he didn't recognise as his own. It faltered, and he cleared his throat. "Because it wouldn't end there, Trampas," he admitted, regarding the sumptuous body the way a reformed drunk might a bottle of whisky. "You're too much temptation. There are days I can't bear to look at you, knowing I want something I can't have."

"Now just who was it said you couldn't have what you wanted, boss-man?" Trampas asked, in a tone of sweet reasonableness. "I'd have to say I can't think of anybody in the world I'd sooner cosy up to. You don't need to be afraid, Virginian, I promise I won’t hurt you. Why don't you just go ahead and kiss me?"

He was almost purring, his lips so close that every warm breath was an individual and subtle caress.

"There's nothing I'd like better," the Virginian told him, sadly. "Believe me, Trampas. But I don't know if I'm ready to do - what you want me to do."

"I was afraid you'd say that." Trampas's fingers brushed the Virginian’s cheek affectionately. "When you change your mind, boss-man, I'll be waiting. Just pull on the rope and I'll follow right along."

Smiling, the Virginian reached out an unsteady hand and tousled Trampas's hair. Then he tore himself away and before the blond man had a chance to say anything else he had stridden confidently out of the barn. Trampas remained where he was, staring sightlessly into space, his head slowly moving back and forth in a mixture of confusion and denial.

 

* * *

 

It was dark the following evening when the Virginian drew the buggy to a halt outside the farmhouse and handed Amelia down from it. They had barely spoken a word to one another on the journey, so wrapped up had each been in their own thoughts of the farm, the railroad and - in the Virginian's case - of Trampas.

At first the lack of light around the place didn't trouble him greatly, but he was rather surprised when no sleepy-headed blond cowboy emerged blinking to drawl a comatose greeting. With their words of the previous evening uppermost in his mind the Virginian knew right away there was trouble.

"Trampas!"

No weary answering cry of "Yo!" from the bunkhouse.

Glancing towards Amelia, a shadowy figure in the moonlight, the Virginian slid his Winchester out from under the buggy's seat and cocked it. Then he left her waiting beside the buggy and quickly checked out the farmhouse.

"Nobody there?" Amelia asked as he emerged.

"Nope. Get inside and lock the door. Don't open it to anyone but me or Trampas."

Amelia obeyed immediately, scurrying past him into the dark house. He waited until he heard the bolt being pushed across, then he soft-footed towards the barn.

 

"Trampas? Trampas?"

From the moment he entered the cavernous space he knew there was no-one alive in there. There was no trace of a breath, no whisper of clothing, no scent of sweat - just an empty silence that seemed to echo away from his quiet steps. The hair on the back of his neck began to creep; as far as he could tell there was no-one around, but there might be something here to find.

Not a body. Please, not a body.

His hand faltered as he lit the lamp. His shadow was monstrous on the wall as he turned, more afraid than he had been since he left this place fifteen years ago with the hounds of hell behind him.

There was nothing untoward in the barn.

"Where are you, Trampas?" he asked softly.

"Hank?"

He swung round, rifle at the ready, and had almost blown her head off before he realised it was Amelia standing in the doorway.

"Dammit, Amelia," he yelled, his temper in shreds. "I told you to stay in the god-damn house!"

Her face was white and she was shaking in fear, but nevertheless she disobeyed him and took a step nearer. "I saw you light the lamp," she said. "I had to know."

"There's no sign," he said tiredly. Then, glancing over towards Trampas's bunk; "Everything's gone. His clothes. Boots. Gun. Looks like he just up and left."

"But he didn't," Amelia finished briskly. "That's what we were supposed to think, wasn't it? That he'd just gone?" Like the young farmhand who'd gone without a trace earlier in the year, vanished in the middle of the night.

"I guess so." He watched, bewildered, as she checked the press where Trampas had kept his clothing, the nail where he'd hung his gunbelt at night, the shelf on which he'd kept his few personal possessions.

"But he wouldn't just leave," she said, gripping his arm and startling him from his momentary paralysis. "He wouldn't just leave you - would he?"

Puzzled, he frowned down into her face. Then, slowly, he shook his head. "No. He wouldn't just leave - me."

"You two care for each other?" It was said without criticism, but with obvious innuendo.

"Yes."

"We'll get him back," she said. "Wherever he is. I want you to come and stay in the house, Hank," she added. "There's nothing we can do tonight. By daylight there might be tracks, but tonight ... Hank, I'm sorry, but your place is right here. "

He hated to admit it, but she was right.

"I have to put the horse away and see to the stock," he answered.

Amelia nodded. "Thank you."

"And the next time I tell you to stay in the house ... "

"I'll stay in the god-damn house, Hank. Promise."

She was gone before he could bend his weary brain to frame a further response.

 

The Virginian did not close his eyes all night but concentrated instead on keeping the fire fed and the house warm. In the turmoil of anxiety over Trampas all he could think of was the opportunity he'd missed the previous evening, the sweet strong warmth of reassurance in Trampas's touch. For years he'd been the most patient and stoical of men, able to cope with any little disaster without panicking. Now, in the lonely Virginia dark, he faced the fact that all he needed or wanted was Trampas - and it was driving him mad not knowing where the man might be.

 

Along about two or three in the morning there was a sound from the yard. The Virginian hadn't kept a lantern going, figuring that he'd want his eyes to be accustomed to darkness if he had to go outside. He peeked through a window and caught a vague figure moving in the vicinity of the barn. He debated waking Amelia to warn her, but decided to leave her be. He had better not get himself killed, that was all.

Opening the door silently he sashayed across the yard, moving like a dancer on the balls of his feet. The sound of the Virginian's gun being cocked was the first indication the intruder had that he had been observed, and he froze into statue-like immobility.

"Don't even breathe," the Virginian ordered coldly, "or I'll blow your fuck-ugly head off, you son of a bitch."

"Don't shoot, boss-man," a small voice begged from the shadows. "It's me."

"Trampas?"

For a heartbeat he simply could not believe his senses. Then, holstering his gun, he reached out and grabbed at a chilled shoulder. The next thing he knew Trampas had turned and wound both arms tightly around his waist and they were locked together in the night, the Virginian's face pressed against Trampas's neck and Trampas's hands smoothing circles across his back.

"Where'd you go?" he gasped hoarsely. "What happened?"

"Hush, I'm back," Trampas told him, squeezing him to the point of breathlessness. The Virginian squeezed right back. They had never been this close physically; it was as if suddenly they were trying to hide inside one another's identity. "Leaving you alone wasn't my idea."

"I know, Trampas, I know." He made a supreme effort to detach himself from the engulfing embrace, but Trampas's hands sought to re-establish their grip around his waist.

"Don't pull away." A sudden note of uncertainty touched Trampas's tone. "I won't hurt you. I just want to hold you a moment, that's all."

"You're shivering," the Virginian whispered. "There's a fire going in the kitchen. Coffee, too, if you can stand it."

"Not yet."

Despite the darkness there was an intensity in Trampas's blue eyes that took his breath away. He shuddered, feeling the movement run through Trampas's body as well as his own. There had been dreams that started like this, with Trampas pressed close. Then they took a dangerous turn - Trampas's mouth on his, the two of them falling together into something fascinating and forbidden.

"Virginian, tell me the truth. I need to hear you say it."

"The truth?" The Virginian disentangled the arms around him and chafed two icy hands between his own. "The truth is I do want you, Trampas. Guess I always have. I don't want to run away from it any more, but this isn't the time or the place. I want a door we can lock, a bed big enough for two, and all the time in the world."

"You mean it, boss? A room? A bed? You and me together?"

"I mean it, Trampas. Now come on, let's get you into the house," he added, his tone gently encouraging, "and you can tell me what happened."

Trampas allowed himself to be ushered back across the yard. Inside the house the Virginian lit the lamp and blinked in amazement at the sight of him in nothing but torn underwear, his feet raw and bleeding, his face a mass of cuts and bruises, his hair a wild tangle filled with dust. He held his arms wrapped around himself as if to prevent shivering - or perhaps just to cover up his own embarrassment at being seen in this condition.

"The Logan boys came by," he said. "Round about noon. They pounded me up pretty good, knocked me out. When I woke up it was dark and I was somewhere up by the lake. Took me all this time to find my way back. They took my boots and most of my clothes."

"Get by the fire," the Virginian ordered, indicating Amelia's rocking-chair with its patchwork cushions. From Josh's bed he appropriated a thin quilt of LeMoyne Star patches in red, white and blue, wrapping it round Trampas's shoulders before returning to the coffee can and conjuring up a hell's brew the colour of pitch and about twice as strong. "Drink," he said brusquely.

The Virginian busied himself filling a shallow basin with warm water and salt, kneeling to ease Trampas's feet into it and watching the grateful shudder of relief that ran through his whole body as the pain began to dissipate. Then he hunkered down, stirred up the fire, and turned to face Trampas. "You walked from the lake?"

"Uh-huh."

"In the dark?"

"I followed the stars," Trampas told him tiredly. His eyes were wide with apprehension, as if perhaps he thought the light of the lamp would dispel the magic beginning between them. "Guess you thought the Logans'd killed me, didn't you?"

"It ran through my mind," the Virginian acknowledged laconically, washing Trampas's feet preparatory to wrapping them in bandages of clean rag. "That was when I realised," he added, after a long pause, "that I'd let you slip through my fingers - and that I wouldn't be making that mistake again."

Two large hands landed on the Virginian's shoulders. Slowly, not without awkwardness, Trampas's arms slid around the dark man's neck.

"Wherever I am, wherever you are, I'll always find my way back to you while there's breath in my body. You're dearer to me than anyone, Virginian. Maybe that's sinful, but I never understood how caring for someone could be a sin."

"People have strange notions about sin, Trampas. When I walk down the street beside you I know half the people we pass are looking at you thinking what they'd like to do with you. Or maybe to you. There've been times I wanted to hurt men who looked at you like that, because I knew what they wanted and how far I'd go to keep you safe. Some folks might call that envy."

The notion that the Virginian - of all the sane, rational people in the world - loved him to the point of jealousy roared through Trampas's body like his first shot of tequila.

"Virginian," he whispered huskily, close to the man's ear, "one day soon I'm going to love you like you never even dreamed about."

"I know that," the Virginian told him wistfully. "For now - " he paused, trying to contain his emotions. "You're cold, and I can't hold you close enough to warm you. Wrap yourself in the quilt and see if you can sleep."

"All right," Trampas sighed. "If it makes you happy."

The Virginian untangled himself slowly from Trampas's embrace and helped him settle on Josh's narrow bunk, tucking the threadbare quilt around him with many unnecessary touches from hands that could not quite leave him alone.

"Rest up - you'll need your strength."

"You wait, Virginian," the blond man mused, somewhere between sleep and waking. "When I'm rested, I'll just show you - You and me together - "

Coherence faded rapidly; before long Trampas's exhaustion had given way to sleep leaving the Virginian alone again in the farmhouse kitchen, watching the man sleep and knowing that for the first time he did so with Trampas's full knowledge and approval.

"You and me, Trampas," he repeated softly to the sleeping man. "Damned if I ever let you out of my sight again."

 

Amelia stepped into the kitchen as soon as it was light the next morning to find the room unexpectedly full. She had slept heavily, worn out with worry and the exertions of the journey, but had half-heard and been reassured by the gentle murmur of voices in the night. Now a quick glance round showed her one man deeply asleep in the rocker before the remnants of the fire, Winchester braced across the arms of the chair, the effect of which was quite spoiled by her old quilt thrown casually over the top. By the window a second figure, dressed in long underwear and a blanket, was washing its grimy face in a small quantity of cold water in a basin.

Trampas turned as she entered, early sunlight slanting in through the low window adding dazzle to his wide grin. He put a finger to his lips, lifted the latch on the door, and the two of them stepped into the chill farmyard to converse away from the sleeping man.

"Trampas! You're back! What happened?"

In a few words he sketched in his adventures, indicating his bandaged feet and his state of undress.

"I think I have something you can wear," the woman said. "And not a moment too soon, by the way you're shivering. Joe’s old shirt and pants might fit you, and there's a pair of boots my pa keeps here."

The tall man nodded his gratitude. "I'd like to be clean and tidy before the Virginian wakes up; be one less thing for him to worry about."

"Well, I'm afraid we'll have to move him so I can reach the clothes - he hasn't chosen the best place to sleep. Why don't you see if you can persuade him to go on over to the barn and then I can start on breakfast? I'll bring the clothes when I find them."

Trampas grinned at her almost shyly. "Yes, Miss Amelia. Thank you."

Amelia turned back towards the house. "You're welcome, Trampas. The sight of you in your unmentionables is not something a civilised woman should have to put up with at this time of the morning. I'll thank you to hide away in the barn before you put the hens off lay. I'll call you when breakfast's ready," she added with a laugh, and patted his arm as he held the door open for her.

The Virginian was just beginning to stir when they entered. Bleary green eyes turned in their direction as the man made an ineffectual attempt to rise from the chair, but Trampas's hands on his shoulders pressed him back into the seat and fingertips stroking across his cheek silenced him.

"Quit worrying, boss; I'm here. Miss Amelia's going to find me some clothes and make me 'respectable'."

The look on the Virginian's face seemed to imply that nothing short of a miracle would make Trampas respectable, but his sleep-fogged brain would not supply the words.

"You want to move over and sleep in the barn, Hank?" Amelia asked brightly, bustling about with pans and dishes in a manner indicative of breakfast. "You need to catch up on your rest. Trampas is here now."

"Trampas spent half the night walking home barefoot," the Virginian growled sourly.

The blond man grinned at him. "Well, I won't be going dancing for a few days," he admitted. "But I can watch while you sleep. You earned it, boss-man."

The Virginian dragged himself to his feet unsteadily, his legs as weak as the new born chestnut colt's, and let Trampas support his weight for a moment. When he made to put away the quilt Amelia intervened.

"Take that with you," she said. "I need you both out of my way."

"I guess we got our orders," Trampas murmured. "Come along, boss. Are you always this grouchy in the morning?"

"Always," the Virginian confirmed, allowing himself to be steered towards the door with Trampas's arm protectively around his shoulders. "Dammit, I'm not an invalid."

"Well, dammit, neither am I. Will you ease up a little? You're not the only man around here, you know."

Amelia watched them go, shaking her head indulgently, then returned her attention to her chores.

 

By the time Amelia came over to call them for breakfast Trampas had used the Virginian's razor to scrape the stubble from his chin and was looking much more his normal baby-faced self. She brought with her a bundle of clothing including brown cord pants, a cream-coloured rough linen shirt, a green and grey vest, worn black riding boots and a set of underwear patched in three different colours - the masterpiece of a thrifty needlewoman.

"There's no hat unless you care to wear my Sunday bonnet," she grinned, dumping her burden on the plank table. "I guess Joe was wearing his hat when he fell in the river, but it wasn't found with his body."

Trampas nodded, looking through his haul. "Thank you, ma'am."

Amelia indicated the recumbent figure on the lower bunk. "How's Hank?"

"Wide awake and needing coffee," came the disgruntled response. "Trampas, you couldn't whisper if your life depended on it."

"Yes sir, boss. Miss Amelia, I'll just make myself decent and we'll both be there in five minutes. Virginian, are you sure you want to get out of bed just yet?"

"Who could sleep with you crashing about? Besides which, I'm hungry enough for both of us - and we need to hold a Council of War."

 

The three settled down to breakfast only a few minutes later, disposing of bacon, eggs, beans and the remains of yesterday's bread washed down with coffee so strong it threatened to eat its way out of the pot. The men were hungrier than they had realised and ate with dedication, so it was Amelia who, filling coffee mugs for the second or third time, seated herself and began speaking.

"Trampas, my father talked to the railroad agent. He's seen the drawings for the new line; they show a station on Great Hope. The Logans stand to make a fortune if they can attract businesses and establish a township on their land. If we don't sell them our land the only way the line can go is north of the lake. It'll miss Little Hope entirely - but it'll miss Great Hope, too. They need our property for their plan to work - and they certainly won't let us stand in their way for long."

Trampas absorbed this information thoughtfully. "What does your father advise, Miss Amelia?" he asked.

"He figures we should put the land up for auction," the Virginian told him, cutting in. "Spread word the railroad company is interested and hope to start a bidding war. Neither one of us can buy the other out and Amelia can't farm the land without help, so we need to get the highest price we can."

"Uh-huh. And supposing the Logans are the only bidders? There's a hundred ways they could fix that auction - if they ever let it get that far. What's to stop them killing us all before the auction day?"

"They can try," the Virginian said, grimly, "but it won't get them the land. If Amelia and I both die before the children come of age, the next heir to Little Hope is you, Trampas - and then Steve and the Judge and Betsy and most of the hands at Shiloh in turn. They'd have to kill off half the population of Wyoming before they got their hands on a single acre of this property, and the case would be tied up in court for a decade or more. No, they won't kill us. They want to frighten us into selling to them, and believe me they'll do the best they can."

"So ... you're planning on bringing them to us? They've thrashed the tar out of both of us already, Virginian; are you sure you want to give them an opportunity to do it again?"

The dark man shook his head, locking eyes with Trampas across the table as though he had forgotten there was anyone else present. "They picked us off separately," he said softly. "They've never tried to deal with us together. We just have to stay real close and bodyguard one another. I don't know if two of us can handle six of them, Trampas - but there aren't too many options left."

"I just want this finished," Amelia sighed. "Once upon a time I loved this land, but now - after all that's happened - I can't wait to get away from it and live in Blackstone so the children can go to school." Her inheritance already disposed of in her mind, Amelia turned her attention to more mundane matters. "Eat hearty now, boys. Anybody want more beans and bread?"

 

* * *

 

The date of the auction was soon fixed, and then it was merely a question of battening down the hatches and waiting out the intervening time. That the Logans would make at least one more attempt to intimidate them into selling the land was certain. Without Trampas's gun they were short on firepower and tried to stay together in a group wherever possible; Amelia rarely left the house and the two men only moved about the farm when absolutely necessary, bringing the dairy herd down from the pasture to grazing nearer the house.

The chores were much reduced without the tobacco crop; morning and evening milking and feeding the cattle and horses provided the fixed points of the day. Amelia fed the hens and collected eggs, the Virginian tended the vegetable patch and walked around the corn crop, Trampas did minor repairs and mended harness. The men slept in relays, one always alert, constantly with the feeling that somewhere a pair of eyes was observing their movements. Tempers frayed, conversation became a thing of the past, and even their affection for one another began to be lost in the intimidating atmosphere. The air seemed electrically-charged; a thunderstorm could not be far away.

On the fifth day Trampas, never the most patient of mortals, was taking out his multiple frustrations by chopping up firewood behind the house while the Virginian cleaned out the horses' stalls and Amelia kneaded bread dough in the kitchen. They were all in sullen mood, wanting the auction over and the land sold - it mattered little to whom - and to be away from this place.

As Trampas stooped to set another piece of wood on the block he caught the sound of a footfall a short distance away.

"Virginian, that you?"

The lack of an answer caused the hairs on the back of his neck to rise and he gripped the handle of the axe, turning slowly towards the barn. There was no-one in sight. He was half-tempted to shrug it off as imagination, but then he recalled the day the Logans had jumped him; they had appeared from nowhere, without warning. They moved silently and swiftly and unexpectedly.

"Virginian!" His loud bellow brought Amelia to the door of the house, but no movement from the barn. Not sparing a thought for the woman - well-provided for with the Winchester ready to hand - he dashed for the barn, cursing the Logans for leaving him without a firearm. There was no way he could approach stealthily; if the Logans were in the barn they would already be well aware where he was and how he was armed - and they would be waiting for him. He hauled the door open, finding the Virginian inside calmly raking straw.

"Trampas?" A mildly quizzical looked turned on him.

"I called. Didn't you hear me?"

"No. What's wrong?"

"There's someone out there."

The Virginian immediately drew his gun and cocked it. "Where?"

"End of the barn by the paddock. I heard a footstep."

Together they turned towards the door, but too late. It was slammed against them and they heard the latch crash down into place.

"The Logans." The Virginian ran to the door, threw himself against it, peered out between the slats. "They're going towards the house. Trampas ... "

But Trampas was ahead of him, raising the axe above his head and attacking the barn door savagely. Two or three punishing blows splintered the wood, then he drew back and started kicking it and the Virginian joined him, and at that moment the sound of a shot echoed around the farmyard. It took only seconds to make a hole big enough to crawl through. The Virginian went first, Trampas immediately behind with the axe hefted like a weapon of war.

"The house. They're after Amelia!"

There were two figures inside the house and one lurking near the woodpile, and another shot fired low across their path told of a fourth somewhere away to the right. The two cowboys dived right and left, keeping low, Trampas carrying the axe and the Virginian his Colt. Around by the end of the house where the woodpile and the water-trough offered natural cover there was a movement. Trampas made directly towards it while the Virginian stepped left, his narrowed eyes scanning for a target. Two in the house, one behind the woodpile -

"Trampas! Behind you!"

Trampas threw himself down, tucked and rolled, cursing, as without further thought the Virginian fired at the dark figure which had emerged from the shadow of the barn. A sudden scream and a fountain of blood from the falling body were enough at least to stop the man shooting Trampas as the Virginian dived for cover by the water trough. A crash of crockery from inside the house told him the men who had gone after Amelia weren't having it all their own way; he paused just long enough to exchange a glance with Trampas and note with approval that he had provided himself with the downed man's gun and was edging along the fence of the hen run towards the location of the fourth man.

Silently the Virginian signalled his intentions; he was going inside the house. Trampas's blue eyes urged caution, but the Virginian tore himself away, spun around and, still keeping low, kicked open the house door.

One man had Amelia, twisting her arms behind her back and stolidly taking all the kicks her feet could land. The second was standing on the Winchester, a pistol in one hand which waved about dangerously as he tore at her hair with the other. The slamming open of the door stopped him in his tracks and he spun to face the entranceway, at first astonished when no figure appeared in the gap. Amelia took advantage of his distraction to swing back one foot, lift sharply, and land a boot squarely and brutally in the first man's groin, shocking from him a sickened gasp and causing him to loosen his grip. In the next moment the Virginian was inside the house, kicking Amelia's victim still more viciously in exactly the same place and wrestling the Winchester out from underneath him. With its butt end he smashed the other man full in the jaw, producing the satisfying sound of splintering teeth and the rewarding sight of blood. Another cry of pain from outside, another shot - and the kicked cowboy, still shielding his groin, hobbled towards the daylight without his handgun which remained where it had fallen close to the hearth. Amelia disarmed the other and propelled him, spitting and choking, after his kinsman.

The Virginian was right behind and saw them scurry across the farmyard to horses behind the barn. The man he had shot had gone, too, presumably already on a horse somewhere ahead of his brothers. That left one unaccounted for - and Trampas. He rounded the woodpile cautiously, gun at the ready, following half-stifled groans of pain, and found himself staring down at a nightmare scene. Trampas half-lay against the toppled chopping-block, his right hand up to his left shoulder and the front of his body a mess of blood from chin to knees with several ragged wounds open on his arms. A few feet away sprawled the body of the fourth man, flat on his back, most of his head missing. A handgun, fallen from Trampas's bloodied fingers, lay among sawdust by the fence to the hen run.

The Virginian knelt in front of Trampas, wincing as he surveyed several deep gashes.

"Trampas - "

"Did you see him, Virginian? Did you see him?"

"Trampas, I - "

"He's a baby. No more than eighteen. I don't suppose he ever grew a single whisker all by himself."

The Virginian's eyes closed momentarily as he absorbed Trampas's grief. Then without regard for the blond man's injuries he pulled Trampas to him, holding him in a silent embrace and releasing him without a word.

"The two in the house were Clem and Jack," he said. "I figure the one I shot by the barn was Roy, which makes this Byron. He'd be twenty at least."

"Don't alter a thing, Virginian. I killed a baby. He forced me to it, sure enough, but I didn't want to kill him."

The Virginian nodded, wrapping an arm around his waist and helping him back towards the house.

"I know, Trampas," he breathed, reassuringly. "I know."

 

Amelia, who had given every indication of being as tough as her father's old riding boots, let out a cry when she saw the bloodstained mess Trampas had become and immediately found herself rustling up emergency medical treatment in a kitchen which looked as if a hurricane had been through it. The table was overturned, bread dough and china trampled together in an unholy mixture on the oilcloth floor, a small pile of confiscated weaponry languishing on Josh's bunk. To this stash the Virginian added the pistol with the bloody handle with which Trampas had killed Byron Logan.

"Soon as they lick their wounds, they'll be back," he said grimly. "We don't have a lot of time."

"It's odd Sam wasn't with them," Amelia said, not pausing in mopping Trampas's many wounds. "Seems strange he wasn't along to supervise."

"If Sam had been in charge," the Virginian told her, "he wouldn't have left anything to chance. He's a dangerous man, particularly when he's mad."

"Well, killing one of his brothers should get his attention, boss-man," Trampas said blearily.

"You killed one?" Amelia's eyes were huge. "Which one?"

"Byron," the Virginian supplied. "Too old to be Danny," he added, as though to convince himself. "We need to get him under cover before the flies find him - and then I'll ride into town and talk to your father, Amelia."

"You planning on going alone?" Rebellion was writ large in Trampas's expression.

"You're in no condition to ride."

"What if they're waiting for you on the road?"

"I know a shortcut; if they watch the road they'll be wasting their time. Trampas, if Tom Logan shows up with a badge and a posse before I get back I want you to surrender and say you'll tell your story in court. If I'm not around, get word to the Judge to come and defend you."

"Any particular reason you wouldn't be around?" Trampas asked him, deceptively calm.

"None I can think of. I'm going to put Byron in the bunkhouse," he added. "Get away from the house and find a place to hide out in case the boys come back. Take the rifle and Roy's gun."

"I know a place," Amelia confirmed. "It's got a good view of the house."

"Good." Turning away, the Virginian was stopped by Trampas's firm grip on his arm.

"I shot him. Let me take care of it."

"You? Trampas, you're weak as a kitten. Why don't you leave it to me?"

"It ain't right that you should have to clear up my mess, Virginian, especially seeing that he's kin of yours. At least let me help."

The grim set to the dark man's jaw told Trampas that he'd read his friend right. Disposing of his cousin's body, never mind what that cousin had done, would be a painful matter.

"All right. You can take the feet."

 

Amelia watched them leave the house as she began to tidy away the chaos of the fight in the kitchen. The sun had reached high into the sky by this time and glared down mercilessly on the two men as they carried the body towards the bunkhouse. They emerged and fastened the door behind them, and she saw them walk round behind the house. When they returned Trampas was carrying a buff-coloured hat with a chewed cord and a few spots of blood on the brim.

"Let me see that." Amelia snatched the hat from him, examined it briefly, looking up with a stricken expression. "Where do you suppose Byron Logan got Joe's hat?" she asked, rhetorically.

"Could be a hundred ways he got hold of it," the Virginian told her. "Found it, stole it - But," he admitted grudgingly, "I do kind of lean to the belief that Joe was murdered."

He had expected her to flinch or exclaim, but she did neither. Obviously the notion came as no particular surprise to her.

"Then you're riding right into enemy territory," was all she said.

 

For a large part of the afternoon Trampas and Amelia were hiding out in a clearing in woodland on the shoulder of a small hill, where a plank cabin was decaying greenly amid the undergrowth. The glade had a good line of sight down towards the farmhouse and across to Great Hope, together with a substantial portion of the road to Blackstone.

The fugitives had gone to earth in a shallow dugout covered with branches which Josh and Lina had built for themselves in the days when every waking hour was not taken up with farm chores. While Amelia gave way to exhaustion and slept, Trampas mused on what could have gone wrong between the Virginian and his family. The way he heard it the man hadn't put a foot wrong since landing up in Wyoming, which made it difficult to fathom why his own brother would disown him. Had he maybe learned somehow that young Hank didn’t care much for women? From time to time Trampas had been turned away by God-fearing folk who thought he carried some kind of contagion - the same folk who believed the pioneers and soldiers who'd won and held their country to be the epitome of manly virtue and never considered how those paragons had fared without women.

On the trail, men turned to other men. That was just the way things were. In town some of them were just as happy with ten dollar whores, but there were always a few who still preferred one another's company. Like the Virginian. He wasn't for marrying and settling down any more than Trampas was himself. That made them a natural match even without the feelings that had grown up between them. Trampas didn't give his heart any too readily either, but the green-eyed ranch foreman had crept right past his defences and stolen it when he wasn't looking - and there wasn't a damn thing he could do about it now.

 

Skirting the straggling fringe of settlement around Blackstone, the Virginian found himself approaching the painted clapboard house which was both home and business address to Lawyer Fiske. Ringing the bell, he was admitted to wait in an austere formal parlour. He paced the room, restless, hat in hand, fidgeting with the brim as though knocking away imaginary trail dust. He felt awkward and out of place when the perfectly tailored figure of Fiske appeared in the doorway, taller than the Virginian, silver-grey at the temples, smiling a cordial welcome.

"Why, Hank, how are you? Is all well at Little Hope? The children are gone on a picnic but they'll be home by suppertime. Can you stay?"

"Thank you, sir, but I need your help. There's a man dead in the bunkhouse at Little Hope, and it was Trampas pulled the trigger." In a few words he outlined the position they found themselves in. "I have an idea what you'll say to me, Mr Fiske; that an honest man would go straight to the Sheriff. I'll do that willingly if you figure I can trust him."

Fiske regarded him, weighing what he knew of this young man and his family with his experience of the Logans.

"You can trust the law," he said, cautiously, "whatever you may think of the men who deal in it. I don't know how Tommy Logan would choose between duty and kin, but I'll see he treats you and Trampas fairly if I have to call in a Federal Marshal to do it. Other than that, if what you tell me is true you have nothing to fear. Henry Garth will be arriving either today or tomorrow; between the two of us you'll have a defence team money can't buy."

"The Judge? He's coming to Blackstone?"

"He'll be here for the auction, and I suspect he's bringing more money with him than the Logans and their cronies can ever hope to raise. Now, have you decided what you want to do?"

The Virginian took a deep breath. "Trampas and Amelia are hiding out at Little Hope," he said. "They're in danger if the Logans find them. Sam, Clem and Daniel could have rounded up a lynch-mob by now and Trampas is already hurt. They wouldn't have much chance against armed men."

"Very well," Fiske acknowledged, tugging open the drawer of a bureau and pulling out a pistol. "I'll speak up for you to the Sheriff. At least we ought to give him a chance to prove himself."

Realising that this was as far as the older man was prepared to go, the Virginian nodded acceptance. He had put his faith in George Fiske for the past fifteen years, and he was not about to change his mind now.

 

At the Sheriff's office they were told Tom Logan was out of town. His Deputy did not know where, and he was under strict instructions not to stir from the office. He did, however, agree Fiske's suggestion of wiring the Federal Marshal in Greensboro with information about the death of Byron Logan in order to put the Virginian's version of events on record. Fiske dictated the message with the rapid-fire delivery of a slick court-room performer, the elderly telegraph operator covering a form with mysterious shorthand squiggles and calculating the cost with equal speed. Fiske paid him and turned back to the Deputy.

"I've been deputised several times by Tom Logan and by Sheriff Porter before him," he said. "Give me a badge and I'll ride out to Little Hope and take charge of the situation. I'll assure you that this man and his associate will return to answer any charges laid against them."

The Deputy was a young man, stolid and courageous but not particularly bright. If he entertained a moment's doubt of Fiske's motives he banished it immediately, reaching into a desk drawer for a star-shaped badge.

"I'll take responsibility, Al," Fiske assured him in a fatherly tone, scrawling a note for Logan as he spoke. "Tell Tom to meet us at Little Hope. He may already be on his way, but if he comes here you send him along as fast as he can travel."

Outside again, unhitching his horse from the rail, Fiske glanced across to the Virginian. "If Tommy's running with his brothers the odds are he'll be there ahead of us."

The younger man nodded, thinking of the likelihood of Trampas and Amelia surviving an encounter with four of the Logan boys. "We'd best hurry," he replied.

The grim set of Fiske's jaw as he mounted up was all the answer he needed. With one final glance in the direction of his travelling companion the Virginian spurred his horse out of the dusty main street of Blackstone and away towards Little Hope.

 

In the woodland hide Trampas tracked the progress of the sun across the sky. Once night fell it would be cold; he was planning to sneak down to the house to retrieve a couple of blankets. He hadn't mentioned it to Amelia; thinking that far ahead seemed to be assuming that the Virginian would not be back before sundown.

Still, there had to be worse places to hole up than a pleasant glade in soft Virginia farming country at this time of year. If he was out here for any other reason he would have relished the mellow day, the slanting sunlight and the drifting tang of woodsmoke in the air.

Woodsmoke?

Startling Amelia with a sudden movement he edged forward, belly-down like a snake, creeping from cover to look down on farmhouse and outbuildings below. A curl of grey lifted lazily into the air and a flicker of orange licked the farmhouse roof.

"The Logans are here," he whispered. "They've fired the house. If the Virginian sees the smoke - "

"What should we do? Can we warn him?"

He glanced around, taking stock of the situation.

"Best to stay here and keep watch until we see him in the distance. Then I'll slip down and try to get around and warn him they're here."

"And what if it's Tom Logan and a lynch mob?"

"Then we'll head for town on foot and try and find your father. But the Virginian said he was coming back, and I believe him. Now, come on, Miss Amelia, let's get back in our burrow."

The woman gave him one long, measuring look then, reluctantly, began to ease herself backwards into their tiny shelter. Trampas remained where he was for a few more moments, then squirmed around and slithered back to join her.

 

Emerging from a small patch of woodland by a stream, the Virginian reined in his horse at the edge of the trail. Fiske shouldered aside a low branch and drew level with him, both immediately turning their heads in the direction of the farmstead with identical expressions of concern as the smell of burning reached them strongly.

"The house?" Fiske speculated.

"Could be." The Virginian paused to consider the situation. "We'd better split up; one of us could go through the wood towards the back of the house while the other rides in at the front."

"I'll take the front," Fiske told him. "I don't know this land as well as you do."

"Good enough. Be careful."

"You too."

With a nod of acknowledgement the Virginian wheeled his horse around and returned to the woodland path, backtracking through dense foliage. Fiske spurred his own mount onto the wide carriageway that angled across the shoulder of the hill, towards the front of the house.

 

The lawyer slowed his pace a little to allow the Virginian to get into position and eventually came trotting up to the front of the property like an innocent traveller stopping to ask directions - except that there was no-one around to ask. The moment he realised that smoke and flames were billowing from the farmhouse he dismounted and raced towards it calling out his daughter's name. A shot across his bows from the direction of the bunkhouse stopped him in his tracks.

"Far enough, mister."

"Amelia!" Logan gasped. "Where's my daughter? Is she safe?"

"She ain't here. Run off with that manager of hers, most likely."

Coughing, Fiske peered through the smoke. "Sam Logan? What are you doing here? What happened to Amelia?"

Logan advanced, rifle at his shoulder.

"Don't play dumb, Fiske. You're on Logan property and I can shoot you where you stand. Your daughter left, along with those two cowhands she hired. Just up and abandoned the place. We have a perfect right to move in and claim back the land."

Bemused, Fiske tipped his hat to the back of his head and wiped his brow. "Legally, Sam, I doubt that very much," he choked. "You'd have to prove it in court, and you know I'd challenge you every step of the way."

"Maybe so," Sam conceded. "But my brother's dead in the barn there with a bullet in him. He came over friendly-like with Clem and Roy and they were attacked by those two men. Your daughter's running with wild company; ain't no reason a good neighbour shouldn't take over the land and keep it safe, now, is there?"

"Wouldn't a 'good neighbour' be trying to put out the fire before it spreads any further?" Fiske asked, deceptively, as though it was the merest politeness.

Logan shrugged. "House is full of termites and roaches; somebody needs to do something about it."

"I'd think that a man whose brother had been killed might have more important things on his mind that a few roaches," mused Fiske, working on keeping his tone as even and diplomatic as possible, "but I'm sure when Amelia gets back she'll be grateful for your concern."

"She ain't coming back," Sam insisted. "She's gone away, I tell you."

Nodding slowly, the lawyer scanned the farmyard for any sign of Clem and Danny Logan; they must be here somewhere. One in the barn, he guessed, looking out through the shattered doors towards where he and Sam stood. As for the other - he couldn't guess. There were dozens of hiding places available and he would have been visible far enough along the road for them to have a choice of cover. He turned his attention back to Sam Logan.

"Why don't you put the gun down, Sam?" he asked persuasively. "I'm no threat to you. I just called by to see Amelia. If you say she's not here, I'll be on my way."

"Can't let you do that, Fiske," Sammy returned, sweet reasonableness incarnate. "My brother Tommy'll be here before too long, and he's likely to want to talk with you about your daughter an' those two men."

"Good." Despite the tension of the situation, Fiske summoned up a brisk confidence he did not feel. "Then he can make a proper investigation into your brother's death."

"Won't be no investigation needed when I tell Tommy how that blond cowhand jumped Byron," Sammy vouchsafed, with a gator's grin. "That's murder, plain and simple. Your daughter's run off with the men who killed my brother."

"I'm sure there's an explanation," Fiske told him. "It wouldn't be like Amelia to go and leave her children behind; you know that as well as I do, Sam, you more or less grew up together. There's a reason for whatever my daughter's done, believe me."

"She realised she don't belong here," Sammy said, triumphantly. "Fifty years or more this has been Logan land - she knows that. Outsiders get to feelin' uncomfortable with it after a while and they move on. Logans never sell outside family," he added, self-righteously. "We lend, and then we take back. Little Hope is Logan property - always has been, always will be - and that means you're trespassin'."

Fiske held Sammy's gaze evenly, not betraying by so much as a flicker of an eyelash that during the latter part of the conversation his attention had been divided. Creeping along the line of the fence beside the chicken run had come a crouching, dark-clad figure in a black hat, its movements circumspect as it flanked the woodpile and ducked in behind the water-butt, shielded from the broken doorway of the barn and partly concealed in the clouds of smoke that billowed from the house. The noise of the fire was rising steadily, blasts of hot air and sparks belching from the building as its sturdy timber frame and tar paper roof took hold. The wood pile had started to smoulder, curls of smoke lifting from it, and the smell of kerosene was everywhere; in an hour there would be nothing left of house or contents, and there was not a thing that could be done now to stop it.

 

The Virginian's course brought him to the boundary fence dividing the woodland from the Little Hope hen run and woodpile. There were no windows on this side of the farmhouse, but from either end dark smoke was issuing; he gathered the Logan boys were being generous with the kerosene again.

Tethering his horse loosely to a sapling where it could not be seen from a distance, he crept slowly back towards the fence line and looked around for Fiske, finding him held at gunpoint and engaging in a superficially civilised conversation with an agitated Sam Logan.

The Virginian stayed low, listening to the discussion between the two men, grateful to Fiske for holding Sam's attention. From his concealment he caught sight of two separate stealthy movements; within the barn one shape stood back shrouded in shadow but missing nothing, whilst at the far end of the burning farmhouse the swift glint of light on a gun barrel spoke of another man in hiding there. The two missing Logan brothers, no doubt. He edged closer, focusing on the calming timbre of Fiske's voice.

"Well, if I can't leave, what do you reckon to do with me?"

Sam Logan seemed to chew over the question for a moment. Then he said; "It's kinda sad, but I figure you'd have gone into the house lookin' for your daughter. Then the roof'd be likely to fall in on you - but of course there won't be any witnesses, so nobody'll really ever know for sure. Dangerous to live this far out of town," he added. "All kinds of accidents can happen."

"And your brother the Sheriff won't ask awkward questions?" Fiske demanded. The muzzle of Sam's rifle was at his neck now, nudging him towards the house.

"Tommy's a Logan. This is Logan business," Sam confirmed, as if no other explanation was needed.

Recognising the futility of further argument in the face of logic like this, Fiske shrugged and allowed himself to be conducted across the yard towards the house. Within a few paces of the burning building, just as smoke was beginning to sting eyes and heat to tauten skin, their progress was halted by the sound of a gun being cocked and a deceptively soft yet dangerous voice emerged from the angle of the water-butt and the wood-pile.

"Can't let you do that." The Virginian stood up slowly, his Colt levelled at Sam Logan's forehead, acutely aware that he was exposing himself to the possibility of a shot from either of two directions where he supposed the remaining brothers to be concealed. He did not allow the knowledge to inhibit him, however; stepping closer, he faced his cousin squarely for the first time in fifteen years. "Let him go."

Instinctively, Logan tightened his grip on the rifle he held; he did not allow his aim to waver, the barrel remaining pointed at Fiske's head. At the same time Logan's eyes narrowed as he sought through his memory for something elusive about this stranger; something he thought he ought to have recognised.

"And you'd be - ?"

"Amelia's farm manager. The one your brothers beat up on, three weeks back." He paused, eyes flickering briefly in Fiske's direction. "I also happen to be your cousin. My name is Logan Henry Rawlins - and I'll thank you to get the hell off my land, Sam Logan."

The quiet announcement of the Virginian's identity went almost unremarked. To Fiske, of course, it had been no mystery, and Sam Logan's jaw dropped only briefly before he recovered his composure with the single-minded concentration of one who does not intend to be denied, no matter what the cost.

"Hank Rawlins," he said stubbornly, "was a thief an' a runaway. Even if you were Hank, you wouldn't have no claim here - but Hank came to a bad end a long time ago and everybody around here knows it."

"Then everybody knows wrong, Sam," was the Virginian's calm reply. "I'm alive, and I can prove who I am if I have to. I'd be happy enough to let the law decide the claim. Why don't you let Mr Fiske alone? We can settle this properly in court."

"And take ten years to do it? I don't think so. The railroad purchasing agent won't wait for us to sort out the paperwork; he'll buy north of the lake, and those folks up there'll get rich. My grandaddy worked hard for this land, and I'll be damned if any parcel of incomers is going to get between me and what's mine."

"He was my grandaddy too," the Virginian reminded him, mildly. "The last thing he'd want'd be to see his grandsons fighting each other."

"You tell that to my brother Byron!" Sam exclaimed, his voice becoming hysterical. "If it wasn't you killed him, it was that dumb saddle-tramp friend of yours. Either way, if you think you're going to walk away from it you don't know too much about us Logans."

"Trampas shot him in self-defence. Byron came after him with a knife."

"Your friend was trespassing on Logan property at the time," was the rejoinder. "Just like you two are doin' now. We're entitled to remove you any way we can. Clem! Danny! You there, boys?"

An answering shout from the direction of the barn, but from the far end of the house where the third Logan brother had been there was no response. Sam's brow furrowed.

"Danny?" he called again.

"You lookin' for this?" It was Trampas who answered, his voice soft and deadly cold as a snowbank. A moment later he emerged from the billowing smoke, a bandanna around his nose and mouth, one hand bunched in the collar of Danny Logan's shirt, dragging the unfortunate youth along with his feet barely touching the ground. For all the world they looked like schoolmaster and recidivist pupil on their way to the woodshed for yet another session with the cane. "And just you be careful who you're callin' a dumb saddle-tramp."

Green eyes met blue, the Virginian's indebtedness communicating itself in the space of a single heartbeat. "Trampas! Where's Amelia?"

"Safe enough. I made her promise not to come out of hiding until one of us calls her."

"Good. You're outnumbered, Sam. Tell Clem to throw down his rifle and come out of the barn with his hands in the air, or I might have to ask Trampas to hurt your baby brother a little more."

Sam Logan grabbed Fiske's collar and pulled the man back towards him. "Ease off," he said, "unless you want to see the best legal brain in Blackstone splattered across the yard. Thing with you Rawlins," he added, maliciously, possibly not even realising he was acknowledging the Virginian's identity as he spoke, "is you never make good on your promises. If a Logan says he'll do a thing, he does it. A Rawlins, now, he can promise from dawn to dusk and nothing ever happens. You Rawlins talk a good fight," he finished, with a flourish, "but it takes a Logan to act."

"Given some of the things you Logans do when you make your minds up to it," the Virginian drawled, "I'd take talk over action any day. I don't suppose you'd care to come up with an explanation about how Byron came to be wearing the hat Joe Rawlins had on the day he so-say drowned in the river? Did my brother fall in all by himself, Sam? Or did he have a handful of Logans holding him under until he just stopped breathing?"

"Back off!" Logan shouted, seeing the Virginian take a menacing half-step closer. His grip on his silent hostage tightened still further yet the expression on Fiske's face remained perfectly composed, although he had lost whatever colour he may once have had; he was observing and paying careful attention to the subtle interplay of the small group, and had not entirely forgotten the third Logan brother, Clem, thirty yards away in the entrance to the barn. He could still be the one to play the winning hand in this confrontation; depending on which side started the firing either Fiske himself or Sam Logan would die immediately, but Clem would have shot either Hank or Trampas even before that first body hit the dirt. At the moment it was not possible to see how more than two of them could walk away alive, and it looked very much as if neither he nor Hank Rawlins would be among that number.

Clem was hovering at the entrance to the barn, his rifle levelled on the whole group. From where he was he could pick off any of the party, but it would not be easy - especially with the swirling smoke that from time to time obscured his view - to be sure of getting a shot at either Fiske or the two incomers without hurting one of his brothers. At any rate he was not going to take responsibility for firing without a clear instruction from Sam; he was well aware he was not the brightest apple in the Logan barrel and he'd long ago settled into a comfortable pattern of letting Sam do his thinking for him.

"Sam?" he called out. "What you want me to do?"

Briefly Sam ran through his options; shoot Fiske, and Hank would shoot him; shoot Hank, and the blond cowhand Trampas would shoot him. Never mind what Danny and Clem might be able to do by way of revenge, he'd be just as dead. There were no orders he could give Clem that wouldn't immediately be countermanded by the two incomers; the sole bargaining counter he had was Fiske, a man for whom most of Blackstone held a profound respect, and Fiske was the only shield between himself and the two cowboys.

"Stay where y'are," he called back. "We'll take Mr Fiske along for a ride. You keep these men here covered while I get the horses." One quick look around behind him to confirm that his path was clear, and Sam Logan began moving backward towards the bunkhouse end of the barn and the hitching-rail behind it where the Logans' horses were waiting.

"Sam!" Danny Logan, pulled back against Trampas, his body limp as a rag doll, watched his brother back away. "Sam!"

"Don't you worry none, Danny, Roy an' Jack'll take good care of you," the eldest Logan told him. Fiske, with Logan gripping his windpipe, could only stumble backwards at the man's bidding, hands flailing ineffectually in the air. He was incapable of speech, and there was no action he could attempt that would not make the situation a great deal worse. "Clem, you got them in your sights?"

"Sure do, Sam."

"Well, you just stay there till I call you, understand?"

Sam Logan had reached the corner of the barn; a moment later he was out of sight of all the other parties in the farmyard. The sound of a sickening crunch came back to them, followed by the ominous crump of a body falling to the ground.

"Fiske!" the Virginian yelled, taking a step forward. A rifle shot from the direction of the barn pinged past his feet, holding him back in the miasma from the burning house. Trampas threw Danny Logan face down in the dirt and knelt firmly on his back, gripping the Virginian's wrist and pulling him down too. The sound of horses' hoofbeats came from behind the barn.

"Let them go, Virginian," Trampas advised. "We've got this one, and two more lickin' their wounds at home. Sam and Clem can't run for ever."

"Not Sam and Clem," the Virginian nodded. "Look."

On the back trail out of Little Hope that led to the lake there was one man, on one horse, riding as if all the hounds of hell were after him. Sam Logan, making his getaway while the getting was good. Bewildered, Clem remained at the entrance to the barn, his head swivelling from side to side as he tried to make sense of what in hell's name was going on.

"Sammy? Sammy! Come back!"

"Well I'll be," Trampas murmured softly. "Looks like Sam abandoned the both of them."

For what seemed like an age he and the Virginian watched the dark figure on the trail, watched Sam Logan escaping from a situation he had created and which had rapidly developed beyond his ability to control it, and then the sharp crack of a rifle sounded across open farmland and, with a grace he had certainly not possessed in life, Logan slid sideways and dropped to the ground quite dead while the terrified animal he had been riding, relieved of its burden, just kept on galloping and was soon lost from sight over the ridge line of the nearest hill.

"Who - ?" Turning, Trampas met equal uncertainty in the Virginian's eyes.

"Beats me," the dark-haired man shrugged. He squinted, screwing up his streaming eyes and coughing as a gust of wind filled his face with hot black curls of smoke, and a figure on a handsome grey Appaloosa rode calmly into the yard, reins in one hand and a rifle at rest across its lap. It took a moment longer to make out the six-pointed silver star pinned to the figure's waistcoat, but long before that detail reached his conscious mind the Virginian had made the identification and risen to his feet. In full view of the new arrival he carefully made safe his pistol and set it down on the ground well beyond the reach of Danny Logan, then strolled casually past it with his hands at shoulder height and a grin beginning to spread across his fine features.

"Sheriff! I'm sure glad to see you. I'm - "

"Hank Rawlins," Sheriff Tom Logan finished for him. "Welcome home, Hank," he added, his face twisting into a grimacing parody of a smile as he slid down from his horse and aimed his rifle at the Virginian.

"Tom. I'm surprised you'd remember. This here's my partner, Trampas."

"Uh-huh. Throw down your weapon, Trampas, and let my brother get to his feet," Logan instructed. There was no edge in his voice, nothing but a cool professionalism that made it difficult to tell which side, if any, he might prove to be on; yet the Virginian had agreed with Fiske that he would trust the badge, whatever he might think of the man who wore it. He nodded to Trampas to obey.

Matching the Virginian's movements Trampas tossed his gun away, hauled Danny Logan to his feet and half-heartedly attempted to brush him down, and then stepped forward with his hands clearly visible to stand at the Virginian's side. His spine prickled, awaiting an attack from behind by the youngest Logan brother, but Danny made no attempt to strike him. Instead he was calling out; "Tom, Tom, Sam's dead! One a them bastards shot him clear off his horse!"

"An' Sam was all for killin' George Fiske," Tom Logan remarked, his tone as level and uninflected as if he had been talking about some other man's brother. "Somebody had to stop him."

"Fiske's injured," the Virginian put in urgently. "Around the end of the barn. Sounded like Sam hit him with the rifle butt."

"He'll have to wait his turn," was the grim response. "Clem, you can come out of there now. And carry that rifle nice and high where I can see it. Come on, now."

"Tommy? I didn't wanna do it, Tommy," the middle Logan brother wailed. "Sam said I hadta. You know how Sam hurts people when they don't do the things he wants."

"I know that," Tom Logan conceded wearily. "Come on out, Clem, and let me have that rifle. Danny, you stay right where you are. Brother or no brother, boys, I'm still Sheriff of this place - and it's my painful duty to arrest the both of you on suspicion of the murder of Joe Rawlins. Just come along quietly now, no sense in anybody else getting hurt; I lost two brothers already today, and I'm damned if I want to lose any more."

Tom Logan continued to use his powers of persuasion to bring his brother out of the barn, but the Virginian had ceased to pay him any attention. His knees weakening with fatigue, he leaned heavily against Trampas and was not really surprised when Trampas snaked an unobtrusive arm around his waist and supported him. He had become firmly convinced that there was nothing left in this day that could possibly offer him any further shocks or surprises, and was profoundly grateful that it was now so very close to being over. The time would soon arrive when he would no longer need to worry about Little Hope, or Amelia, or Josh and Lina, or the Charleston, Roanoke and Greensboro Railroad or any of the things that had been preoccupying him since the day he had received word of his brother's death. So punch-drunk and bone-weary had he been left by the pummellings of Fate, in fact, that he was almost unable to react when the sound of hoofbeats from the direction of the road eventually resolved itself into the figures of two mounted men, one a Federal Marshal and the other - wearing a Deputy's badge and a concerned expression - quite incontrovertibly the blessedly familiar and reassuring form of Judge Henry Garth of Shiloh Ranch, Medicine Bow, Wyoming.

 

The Federal Marshal - a man in his fifties with a weathered, characterful face - was introduced by Garth as William K Hawkins from Greensboro. He took Clem and Danny Logan into his custody immediately, cuffing them together and leaving them sitting on the ground by the hitching rail while he went up the trail to recover the body of Sam Logan.

"Never seen shooting like it," Garth confided, alluding to the Marshal's accurate long-range dispatch of Sam. He was kneeling over the fallen remnant of George Fiske; deeply unconscious, with cuts and bruising about the face and head, Fiske was however breathing steadily and his colour was good. "He'll make it," Garth said. "Where's his daughter?"

"Trampas has gone for her," the Virginian told him, crouching at his side. "He knows where he hid her," he added, wryly.

"Uh-huh. How'd the pair of you get on out here?" the Judge asked, his tone carefully neutral. "You and Trampas? Anything settled?"

"Maybe," was the oblique reply. "I guess."

"Whatever happens," Garth told him, "I don't want Betsy finding anything out just yet. She's too young for that kind of knowledge. If word ever reaches her you and Trampas are any more than friends, I'll have to ask you both to leave. Keep it entirely off Shiloh property and don't mention it to anyone else on the ranch - not even Steve. The only person you discuss it with is me."

"Understood, Judge. I'm just grateful you'd keep us both on."

Garth glanced up. Amelia Rawlins was running down the hill towards her father, Trampas stumbling tiredly along in her wake. Marshal Hawkins had loaded Sam Logan's body onto his mount and was bringing it back to the farmyard, where Tom already had the horse hitched up and the body of his brother Byron deposited in the Little Hope rig.

"Not that you need the work," Garth mused, surveying the scene. "Come the auction you're going to be a wealthy young man, Mr Rawlins. You and Trampas could set up on your own somewhere. Somewhere there aren't any neighbours to trouble about whether you sleep in two beds or only one."

"Too soon, Judge," the Virginian confided as Amelia and Trampas arrived more or less within earshot. "Much too soon. But maybe one day."

The Judge nodded, rising to meet Amelia. "Maybe," he conceded. "Now, don't worry, my dear," he told the girl as she dropped down beside her father. "It looks a lot worse than it is."

 

The Virginian stepped away, found himself facing an exhausted but still bright-eyed Trampas, and for a long time they just looked at one another without speaking. Eventually, the Virginian said softly; "Nine of us, Trampas. Seven Logans and us two Rawlins. Three dead and four in prison leaves just me and Tommy. How can any piece of land be worth all those lives?"

"It can't," was the unequivocal answer. "Nothing's worth that price, boss-man. Only freedom. And maybe love."

"Love? I'm not sure I know what love is, any more. My folks brought me up to love my family, and one by one the whole family stopped loving me - just because I didn't happen to match up to their picture of how I should be. I'm not a different person, but I don't belong here any more."

"Then you make a new family," Trampas told him, disconcerted by anything resembling self-pity from this very contained and insular man. "Give yourself a new place to belong. There's plenty of people can appreciate you exactly the way you are, Hank. Me, for one."

"You want to be my new family, Trampas?" The question was more abrupt than he had intended it to be, but the emotion behind it was constant - and here, perhaps, in the presence of what remained of Hank Rawlins' birth family, it meant more than ever.

"Thought I already was," the blond man confided with a smile. "Don't worry, boss-man, I'll take good care of you," he added more softly, his tone imparting a caress that in present company he dared not attempt in any other form. "Think I'd let you out of my sight after this? Not a chance."

"And if I wanted us to go back to Shiloh and settle down as if none of this had happened - ?"

"None of it?"

"Could you do that, Trampas? Could you forget?"

"No, sir, boss," Trampas told him sadly, "I couldn't. Go home, settle down, maybe that I can manage, but there's things about this trip I don't ever want to forget," he added, and his voice had dropped so far it was almost inaudible where the Virginian stood only three feet away, "and you're one of them."

A groan escaped the Virginian and he looked up again into searching blue eyes and managed, from somewhere, a reassuring twist of the mouth that was almost like a smile.

"That's kind of what I figured you'd say, Trampas," he confided with a deep, heartfelt sigh. "What am I going to do with you now?"

"Like I said, Virginian," Trampas reminded him, an idiotic grin lighting his face as he looked down into green eyes that unquestionably loved and wanted him, and knew that this was very far from being over yet. "Just haul on the rope and I'll follow right along."

 

The sun was sitting low on the horizon by the time the party from Little Hope returned to Blackstone. Amelia drove the buckboard with her father beside her on the seat and the bodies of the two dead Logan brothers, side by side under her old Star of LeMoyne quilt, resting in the back. Fiske had begun to recover consciousness before they pulled out of the yard; he now sat with a makeshift bandage around his temples and a throbbing in his head, trying to make sense of the world and his place in it with a brain that resolutely refused to co-operate.

The party from Shiloh came next, the Judge flanked by the two younger men, with the two lawmen bringing up the rear.

"How'd you come to be here, anyway, Judge?" Trampas asked as they set out on their slow journey back. "And how'd you manage to turn up just in time?"

"And how did you know Tom Logan wouldn't side with his brothers?" added the Virginian. "He's my cousin, and I didn't know it."

"I couldn't be sure," Garth conceded. "But George has seen more of the family than you have, lately. He felt Tommy was taking his duty as Sheriff seriously and wouldn't let family concerns get in the way. I had that confirmed when I met Marshal Hawkins; Tommy had already told him he thought his brothers were mixed up in a crime and asked him for advice. Hawkins told him to wait until he could get there. I happened to call on the Marshal in Greensboro just in time to find him setting off for Blackstone."

"Just 'happened' to call?" Trampas asked, with a sceptical laugh. "Judge, that's a hell of a coincidence."

"I was on my way to the auction," Garth explained. "But I knew from George precisely what the situation was, and I went along to ask for Hawkins' help. He was only too glad to give it. Sent four of his people to pick up Roy and Jack, and came along with me to Little Hope. We met Tommy on the road."

"Coincidence again?"

"Telegraph. The Marshal wired him early this morning. It's a pity you and Fiske didn't know that before you rode out to the farm."

"So Hawkins never got my wire?" the Virginian speculated, wryly.

"It'll be waiting for him when he gets back," confirmed the Judge.

"What'll happen to the Logans?" Trampas asked, having been turning the matter over in his mind.

"Immediately? They'll spend tonight in the lock-up in Blackstone, and tomorrow morning the Marshal and his people will take them back to Greensboro. I imagine Sam and Byron's bodies will be released for burial in a day or so; we'd better make sure we stay around for the funerals, unless Tom has any objections."

"Well, he won't want me there, that's for sure," Trampas told him.

"Don't be so certain. You could hardly have got those knife wounds from Byron after he was dead, and you only fired once; that gives you a very clear prima facie case in self-defence. As far as I know, Hawkins isn't planning to charge you with killing Byron."

"That's a relief," Trampas conceded. "Wish I felt better about having done it, all the same."

"No doubt," Garth acknowledged, soberly.

"How about - at the trial, Judge?" the Virginian put in. He had been staring off into the distance, as though communicating with the shades of past generations of the Logan and Rawlins families who had worked this land. "You think they'll all hang for killing Joe?"

"Depends whether any of them confess," the Judge told him. "At the moment, I'd say Clem's the most likely one to tell all he knows; that could well save his life. And it might be possible to get Danny's sentence mitigated on account of his age. The other two - I tell you honestly, Hank, I just don't know. Some judges would like to see them made an example of. Others might take Sam's bullying into account and just give them a prison term, but it won't be a picnic either way. I can help them find a good defence lawyer," he added. "I know several people in the immediate area who'd be willing to take it on. We'll do everything we can for them."

"Thank you, Judge. My family appreciates it."

"You realise you'll have to testify, both of you? About the beatings, and the damage to the crops?"

"Yes sir," they both said. The prospect was not a pleasant one by any manner of means, but both accepted it as their duty.

"Well, that won't be for a few months yet," Garth told them. "Best put it out of your minds until then." He cleared his throat, then said gruffly; "The house is going to be full tonight. I've taken you two a room at the Commercial Hotel. One room. To share. I'm paying. Understand?"

"Yes sir, Judge," the Virginian told him, scarcely able to conceal the astonishment he felt at this development.

"Have yourselves a good meal and a decent night's sleep," Garth added, "and both of you have a shave and buy some new clothes in the morning. I'm not having my two top ranch-hands skulking around in public looking like a pair of dissolutes pulled out of the nearest gutter. Next time I set eyes on you, I'll expect you both to be a credit to Shiloh. Clear?"

"Clear, Judge."

"Good." The sound the Judge uttered was somewhere between a laugh and a grunt but the look he turned one the two younger men, one after the other, was indulgent and almost wistful; there could be no mistaking his goodwill towards them, and towards the deep affection and desire that had so inconveniently grown up between them.

 

An hour later, in the Commercial Hotel in Blackstone, Trampas clutched the room key tightly in his hand as he made his way up the stairs, never daring to turn so much as a look in the Virginian's direction. The room the Judge had secured for them was on the second floor, well furnished, with a balcony overlooking the small garden at the side of the hotel. Its large brass bed was comfortably spread with a blue and white Shoo Fly quilt, its tired-looking gold plush chaise-longue amply supplied with cushions, and its ornate mahogany wash-stand and capacious wardrobe marked the room out from the usual trail hand accommodation.

"This'd be the Honeymoon Suite," the Virginian remarked blandly, sitting down on the bed and levering off his boots. He had never been so tired in all his life, and they could have ended up in the root-cellar for all it meant to him at the moment.

"I guess. You figure they're really that short of space up at the house?"

"Not unless the Judge and Amelia are taking three rooms apiece. You heard the Judge, Trampas. There's a reason he put us in here."

"I know it." Trampas's tone was calm, but he didn't meet the Virginian's searching gaze. "So he knows all about you and me?"

"Not exactly. He knew about my tastes right from the start. I figured I couldn't lie to him about the reason my family disowned me. When you came along - The Judge knew I wanted you before I knew it myself."

"So that's why your family threw you out? Because you were queer? How'd they find out? Did something happen?"

Boots off, gunbelt hooked over the end of the bed, the Virginian finally seemed to relax. His hat lay where he had dropped it and he now hung it on the back of the door, turning the key firmly in the lock.

"Remember what I told you about the day Joe threw me off the farm? That he found me doing something he didn't like?"

"Uh-huh?" On the far side of the room Trampas had lowered himself to the chaise-longue and removed his own boots and waistcoat. The gunbelt followed, draped next to the Virginian's over the foot rail.

"Well - " A tight smile distorted the Virginian's expression momentarily, and was soon gone. "I was in the barn with a neighbour boy. We had our tongues down one another's throats and our hands inside one another's pants. We were so close to the point we didn't even hear Joe. 'Course he waited and watched us both come off before he said a word. That was the first time I'd ever done it with anyone else; I thought I'd died and gone to heaven - and then the sky fell in. Joe beat the shit out of me, called me a little whore - things you'd never think anybody'd call a naïve kid of fourteen. He threw me off the farm the same night. I just walked and kept walking until I found work, and by and by over the next few years I wandered west. Took me seven years altogether before I fetched up at Shiloh, but the minute I met the Judge I knew I'd found somewhere I wanted to stay."

"Oh, hell, you're not gonna tell me you lost you heart to him are you?" Trampas asked, suspicious.

The Virginian grinned. "Nope. But he's been a good friend to both of us, Trampas. Sorted out my legal business - and he's paying for all this, isn't he?" His gesture indicated the room and the bed, both of a much better quality than they would normally have rated.

"All right. I can live with that," was the thoughtful reply. "Judge's never let me down yet, and I'm not expectin' him to start. You ever see the boy again, Virginian? The one you had the affair with, I mean?"

"Affair?" his friend laughed, ironically. "It wasn't an affair, Trampas, just a dirty little fumble. We were children playing grown up games. We didn't know what the world did to men who - To queers. Queer men."

"Answer the question." Trampas's tone had turned serious, the other man's evasiveness worrying him more than he would have liked to admit. "D'you ever see him again?"

The Virginian's head lifted. His expression was one of almost unbearable sorrow and spoke of the kind of pain that, no matter how much time passed, just refused to go away. "Not before this afternoon."

"Tom Logan!" Trampas yelped. "I knew it! The way he spoke your name, I knew it. You loved him."

"Maybe," the Virginian acknowledged sadly. "Maybe fifteen years ago I thought I loved him. But look where it got me, Trampas. Tom was everything I wasn't - tall, blond, beautiful, and a full grown man. I was a shrimp - skinny, dark, peculiar-looking. Looking at Tom was like looking at the sun. Well, I got too close to him and I got burned. Taught me a lesson, Trampas. Not to get that close again."

"So how come you were the one who got thrown out? Why wasn't Tom on the run with you? Didn't he love you?"

"Don't suppose he did," was the world-weary reply. "And his pa had a habit of locking him in the woodshed when he was in trouble. I guess he just blamed it all on me, took his punishment and never touched another boy again. Maybe it hurt at the time - but I'd imagine he's got over it by now, wouldn't you?"

"And what about now?" Trampas had begun pacing the room, his long legs propelling him in a restless progress back and forth on the far side of the bed, never once approaching the Virginian where he sat. "Do I need to be jealous? Because your childhood sweetheart just rode in and saved our sorry backsides, and I don't know whether to thank him or shoot him."

"Thank him and say 'goodbye', Trampas," was the sober response. "It's been fifteen years, and even if I'd still cared for Tom before I met you - and I don't know that I did - you would have sent that flying right out of my head together with every other idea I've ever had. Don't you know what happened to me the first time I saw you?"

Far away, the blond man nodded. "I guess I do," he conceded, slowly. "I guess it was roughly what happened to me the same kind of time. 'Falling in love', just like in young ladies' romance papers."

"Nothing like. Nothing like at all. We're not in one of those papers, Trampas. I'm not a European Count, I can't buy you dinners or flowers, and I sure as hell can't marry you in any way the world'd understand - but that doesn't mean I wouldn't want to, if I could. I'm just what you see - a lonely, miserable, queer farm manager making forty bucks a month and my keep, and I don't own much more than the clothes I stand up in. If that's good enough for you, and god knows why it should be, then it's all yours."

"Good enough?" Trampas had sat down again on the other side of the room and was conducting his end of their conversation in a sort of stage whisper. "Good enough? Let me tell you what's good enough for me, Virginian; a man who refuses to let down a woman and children he's never met, simply because they're the family of the brother who hurt him and tried to disinherit him."

"It wasn't their fault," the Virginian protested, sharply.

"Never said it was," Trampas soothed. "You had no good reason to want to help them, but you helped anyway. Just like you helped me and everybody else you ever met up with. You told me the Judge gave you a home and a place you wanted to stay? Well, you did the same for me. I'd have kept on riding, Virginian, if it wasn't for you. Just kept going west until I met the ocean or a bullet, whichever came first. You stopped me in my tracks, and now I don't want to stir a step in any direction you ain't goin' too."

"I didn't mean to stop you."

"I know. But you did. You're the place I want to be, Virginian. Hank. You're where I feel safe."

"I don't want to put you in a cage, Trampas," the Virginian told him, his head bowing under the weight of the revelation. "Just rope you in a little and keep you where I can see you. I don't ever want you further away from me than the other half of this bed. Ever again."

Trampas was on his feet again, moving slowly around the bed. When he arrived in front of where the Virginian was sitting the dark man did not move at first, then without looking up he reached out and put both arms around Trampas's waist and buried his face in the man's chest, listening to his heartbeat, remaining on the bed while Trampas bent over him and smoothed a hand through his hair.

"Hush, friend," he whispered, as if quietening a child. "I'm not going anywhere. Got me a real family at last - you and Amelia and Josh and Lina and all the folks at Shiloh. I wouldn't know how to break away from any of you now if I wanted to - and I sure don't want to. You least of all, boss-man," he added, bending his head to drop a light kiss into the Virginian's hair.

"And we're going to - ?" The Virginian stopped, started again. "I mean, you really want to ... ?" He floundered, unable to express himself adequately. He had paid hookers for their services, like any other man he knew, but since that day in the barn with Tom Logan he had never once found himself in the arms of someone he actually cared about and the words to ask Trampas for what he wanted simply would not form.

"Got us a room with a locked door and a bed big enough for two." Trampas reminded the Virginian of his own words in the yard at Little Hope. "Judge is payin' the bills and he sure as hell knows exactly what we're planning to do, so I'd say it's about time we took full advantage of his generosity."

The Virginian couldn't meet his gaze. There was one rather important detail still bothering him. "You actually know how?"

"Yeah, I know how," was the downbeat reply. "Don't ask me who or when, all right? Sometimes you just need to hustle a few bucks any way you can, and if men offered - I did what I had to do. I ain't proud of it, Virginian."

"So - do I need to be jealous?" the dark man asked, one eyebrow lifting as he drew back and looked up into Trampas's grave expression.

"Of fat businessmen and lawyers? City types who only ever saw a cow if it was loaded in a freight car? What do you think?"

The Virginian grimaced, then detached his arms from around Trampas's waist and leaned back against the bed. "Why don't you take your shirt off?" he suggested, with a smile. "I'd like to see just what I'm getting for the Judge's money."

"I will if you will," was the seductive response. "I want to see if all those scars of yours have healed properly." Trampas was unbuttoning his shirt as he spoke, noticing that the Virginian's hands were not far behind his own.

"My scars? You were the one fighting off a knife man a few hours ago. You have worse injuries than I do, and fresher."

"Well, I don't got scars yet," Trampas protested. "Just a couple of bandages to make me look heroic. Supposed to drive susceptible young ladies and ranch foremen to swooning point when they set eyes on me."

"Huh. Well, you can have all the young ladies you want, Trampas, but you make any other ranch foremen swoon and you'll have me to answer to. Clear?"

"Clear, boss-man."

In what was almost a race Trampas won, his shirt falling to the floor first and a minute later being joined by the Virginian's. Trampas was a little taller, with better muscle definition; the Virginian was slender, more wiry, his skin a beguiling shade of ivory except where the Wyoming sun had tanned him. He rose to his feet in one fluid movement, arms sliding around Trampas's neck, and took an audible deep breath as he sank into Trampas's embrace and their bare torsos met for the first time - as if he was diving deep, deep, into a cold lake and might never re-surface - and let Trampas's mouth close over his and met him with equal, if less experienced, enthusiasm.

Trampas's kiss was everything he had dreamed it would be - sunlight and warmth, reassurance and expectation, comfort and agony, perfect satisfaction of his long-held desires and at the same time nothing like enough. At first he simply gave himself to it, letting Trampas take the lead as if he were guiding him gently around a dance floor, but soon it was not sufficient to be passive and accepting in Trampas's arms and he began to return the kiss heart and soul, his tongue exploring the mouth welded to his, his body beginning to make its own demands as it finally understood the fact of Trampas heavy and solid against it.

"Oh god, Trampas, I - "

"Easy, boss-man," Trampas told him tenderly. "We've got all night. Don't have to go off like a Fourth of July firecracker all in the first few minutes. Besides, we've got a bed here and it looks kinda comfortable. Want to try it out?"

"Sure do," the Virginian conceded. "And I want to - "

"What?"

Almost blushing, as though it was something shameful he could barely bring himself to mention, the Virginian said; "See you. I want to see you. Naked. Everything. I want to touch you everywhere. Take your pants off."

A wicked grin from the blond man. "Anything you say, Virginian," he conceded, unfastening his fly and shucking quickly but carefully out of his pants. He was already at half-mast, the last rays of sunset coming in at a low angle through the lace curtains and painting patterns of grey, pink and gold on his pale skin. The Virginian merely stood there, drinking in the sight of the strong and assured young body, the light blue eyes with their golden fringe of lashes, the mouth as shapely and kissable as any pretty girl's, and he knew he would never find his way back from this moment.

"I'm lost, Trampas," he whispered, helplessly. "I was lost as soon as I saw you, and now - " Words failed him. He reached out one work-hardened hand and rested it on Trampas's hipbone, easing the younger man towards him.

"Uh-unh," was the gentle admonishment. "Naked is a game for two people, Mr Rawlins. Want me to help you with your pants?"

The Virginian's free hand captured Trampas's chin and he looked the man levelly in the eyes before kissing him again, briefly, on the mouth.

"Yes," he said. "My hands are full."

"Not as full as they're going to be," Trampas promised, fingers getting busily to work on the buttons of the Virginian's over-stretched pants while the man's mouth teased at his with the new-found confidence that anything he wanted was permissible, anything he tried would be welcomed. "But just as full as mine," he added, sliding the Virginian's pants to the floor as groin met groin and they sank together, mouths and bodies inextricably entwined, towards the bed.

 

* * *

 

Trampas rolled over into empty space. For the last several hours both sides of the bed had been occupied, but now daylight was beginning to creep into the room and he was alone. He missed the warm angularity of the Virginian squirming uncomfortably beside him; sharing the bed had not felt natural to either of them and sleep had been elusive for most of the night, but there had certainly been something that felt very right about wrapping up together in a place that was theirs alone and letting their bodies become better acquainted.

"Boss?" Still mostly asleep he wriggled around and got an elbow underneath him to support his weight. "Where are you?"

In the shadowed far corner of the room something stirred. The Virginian was on the chaise-longue, propped on his back, wearing his black pants and nothing else.

"Over here," he said sourly. "You kick like a goddamned mule, Trampas."

"Oh. Did I kick you? Sorry, boss." Trampas rolled out of the bed and stood in front of the window. It was on the wrong side of the building to catch the early sun, but as he pulled the drapes aside it was possible to see that the sky had early morning streaks of amber and amethyst with small white clouds piling high as if to herald a glorious morning.

"Kick? That's an understatement," was the bad-tempered reply. "I've seen chorus lines of can-can dancers kick less than you."

"Huh." Irrepressible, Trampas let the drape fall back into place. "Bet they weren't half as pretty to look at."

"No," the Virginian conceded with a shrug. "Probably not." He was silent for a long time, as Trampas poured water from the ewer into the basin and gave his face a sketchy cold wash and wiped it on the thin hotel towel. "Did you ever really think about what we were doing last night, Trampas?"

"Think?" The concept seemed to have startled the blond man. "Nope. Was I supposed to? I wanted you, you wanted me; what's there to think about?"

"I don't know. Hell fire, maybe. The sin of Sodom. Using a body in ways it's not meant to be used."

"It's my body," Trampas objected, raising his voice a little. "Figure if I want to let you or anyone else inside it, that's my business."

The answer did not seem to have satisfied the Virginian. "Aren't you worried about what we did? That maybe it wasn't the end of anything, I mean? Could be it was only the start. Could be there are worse sins ahead."

"Was that a sin? If so, I never saw anybody as eager to go to Hell as you, Virginian. Seemed to me like you had a lifetime of abstinence to make up for; I won’t be able to sit in a saddle for a week. If it's going to be like that every time you touch me, maybe I'd better take up another line of work."

"Is that all that matters to you? A sore backside?"

"Well, I'm just a dumb saddle-tramp," Trampas reminded him. He crossed the room, crouched in front of the Virginian and looked up into troubled green eyes. The sombre expression on the man's face did not augur well either for the day or for any hopes of a shared future. "You sayin' you didn't like it? You've got regrets? What?"

"I'm saying - " The Virginian moved at last, turned and rested both hands on Trampas's shoulders, lifted Trampas's chin and looked deep into his eyes. "I'm saying that it's one thing for me to burn for the way I feel about you, but I don't want you suffering on my account. I love you, Trampas. You ought to know that by now. I should be looking to keep you safe, not letting you risk eternal damnation for my sake."

"Hmmm. Why don't you let me risk it for my own sake, then?"

"What?"

"You think I want you any less than you want me? Suppose I wanted to do to you what you did to me last night? Would you let me?"

Scandalised at the very question, the Virginian drew back. "You know I would. So?"

"So then according to your reckoning I'd have to feel guilty about what might happen to your soul. We're partners, Virginian. Share things equally. Least, that's what I thought you wanted. Share the pleasures and share the dangers. That way we get to stay together," he added, "even if it is in Hell."

"You'd still want it? Even if that was the price?"

"Being in Hell? Can't say I relish the idea, boss-man, but there's no place I can think of that wouldn't be better for you bein' there with me. Includin' that bed over there," he added, with a wicked chuckle.

"Hah! Anybody ever tell you you're insatiable?"

"Nope," Trampas conceded. "Don't think I know too many people who'd use a word like that in the bedroom except you. But now I've got you where I want you, I'll be damned if I let you go."

"You could be damned if you don't," the Virginian reminded him.

"I'll take that chance. Take your pants off and come back to bed, Hank," he added, softly. "Let me show you a few more ways we can make each other happy."

"Happy?" The word was such a pallid understatement of the emotion he had experienced in Trampas's arms that for a moment the Virginian could not equate the two. Since when had such a little word covered such a realm of meanings? "Is that what we are? Happy?"

"That and a little mad," was the reply. "Long as we're together, I don't really care any more."

"No," the Virginian confirmed as he was led back towards the bed. "Can't honestly say that I do, either," he allowed with a weary smile.

 

'Morning, boys!" Judge Henry Garth was already well established at a large round table in the centre of the Commercial Hotel's dining room by the time two perfectly scrubbed, shaved and respectably-dressed cowboys got around to thoughts of breakfast. He had a pot of coffee big enough for a regiment, and the local morning newspaper folded beside his empty plate. "Didn't know how long you'd be so I started without you." Unexpectedly, he got to his feet and shook hands with them both, gripping the Virginian's forearm with his free hand perhaps a little longer than social custom demanded. "All well?"

"Yessir, Judge," the foreman confirmed, aware that a blush was creeping across his face and looking at the floor to try and conceal it.

"Good. Sit down, both of you." They sat, opposite one another, either side of the Judge. He looked from one to the other briefly, and then said in a low but level voice; "The room's yours until the end of the week. I'm planning to head back to Shiloh the day after tomorrow and I'll expect you either to travel with me or be a day behind. In either case your expenses are taken care of until you leave Blackstone. I've spoken to Tommy Logan and Bill Hawkins this morning; they have no objection to either of you leaving town."

A waitress in a checked apron came by. The two cowboys ordered their breakfast almost absent-mindedly, but Trampas flashed her one of his more brilliant smiles and winked at her as she took her departure. The quizzical look on the Virginian's face seemed to trouble him not a whit.

"Hey, now, boss-man, you said - "

"I know what I said, Trampas," the foreman replied, heavily, before he realised that he was being teased and that both Trampas and the Judge were laughing at him. "How's Fiske this morning?" he asked, to cover his momentary embarrassment. He could see life with Trampas being nothing but a long string of embarrassments if he let it; he was going to have to make something of an effort to be a little less sensitive in future.

"Got a sore head, but otherwise fighting fit," the Judge said. "He was all for coming over to breakfast with you himself, but Amelia put her foot down. You're invited to supper this evening instead," he added, "and if last night's anything to go by you're in for a feast. George keeps a very fine cook. Did you boys get a decent dinner here last night?"

Trampas coughed. "Tell you the truth, Judge, we didn't manage to find time for dinner. I could eat a whole cow this morning; just leave the hooves on and put it on a plate."

The Virginian was speechless, and when the Judge's gaze turned briefly in his direction he wished the floor would open and swallow him.

"You know how it is," he mumbled. "We had other things on our mind."

"Uh-huh." The Judge let the comment rest for a moment, then said; "Well, maybe I do know how it is, Hank. Maybe I was your age once myself."

"You mean - ?"

But the Judge did not elaborate, and the breakfasts chose this inconvenient moment to arrive. Trampas celebrated by tearing off a hunk of bread and dipping it into his egg without any regard for the niceties of etiquette usually demanded in an establishment like the Commercial Hotel. He seemed oblivious to the dialogue passing between the Judge and his foreman.

"I don't think this is the time or the place to discuss it, do you?" Garth asked. "After we're back you can both come up to the house for a drink one night, when Betsy's safely out of the way, and I'll tell you a story about somebody I knew a long, long time ago back East. A young man who wanted to be a successful lawyer," he added, with a wry twist to his mouth. "A young man I knew very well."

The Virginian was watching him across the table, and Trampas had at last picked up on the undercurrent of the discussion and stopped eating long enough to let the implication of the words sink in.

"Thank you, Judge."

"Not at all, Hank. Just make sure you don't let your happiness slip away like I did. You might never get another chance."

The dark-haired man looked down at the tablecloth; the Judge seemed to find something desperately interesting on the carved ceiling. It was left to Trampas to change the subject, to steer the discussion clear of these suddenly treacherous waters.

"That's another thing," he said, too brightly. "Are we still gonna be callin' you that when we get back to Shiloh? Or are you leaving Hank Rawlins behind you when you leave town?"

"Figure I'll leave him behind," was the slow reply. "He belongs here in Blackstone. In the past. The moment the auction's over Hank Rawlins will cease to exist again, except in a few legal documents."

"Want me to go back to calling you 'Virginian', then?"

"I wish you would, Trampas. I don't know that I know how to be Hank any more; he's just somebody I used to be, and I've done a lot of growing up since I was him."

"Well, I think if you asked Amelia she'd probably say you did a pretty good job of being her brother-in-law," the Judge said, somewhat gruffly, rejoining the conversation. "And you'd better start figuring out what you want Josh and Lina to call you when George brings them all out to stay at the ranch next spring. 'Uncle Virginian' doesn't sound quite right to me."

"Nor to me," the uncle of that name admitted. "I'll give it some thought."

The Judge sat back in his chair. "Better order more coffee," he said, glancing over towards the doorway. Tom Logan and Marshal Hawkins were on their way across the room, Hawkins brushing trail dust from his hat as he approached, Tom Logan looking worried but stoical. Without invitation they sat down on two vacant chairs, and Hawkins helped himself to a large chunk of Trampas's bread and gave him a winning smile in exchange.

"Been out rounding up transport for my prisoners," he said. "You have no idea how far I had to ride to get hold of a closed wagon suitable for an injured man to lie down in. People just won't lend their vehicles if there's any chance they'll come back with bloodstains or bullet holes in them. I had to choose between a Conestoga and a hearse and I ended up taking the hearse at three times the cost, but it means one of my deputies can ride in the back with the prisoners. Only problem now is which one. Thank you miss," he added to the waitress who had brought him a coffee cup and set another large jug on the table between the five men.

"The boys behaving themselves, Tom?" the Judge asked the Sheriff.

"Mostly," he conceded. "Clem's pretty remorseful and Danny's scared. The other two aren't saying much; Jack can't speak until his jaw sets, and Roy's full of laudanum most of the time. I hadn't seen much of Sam the last few years," he added. "I don't think I knew how much of a bully he'd become. Maybe I could have done something to stop him. I wish at least I'd tried."

"Can't always be responsible for family and the things they choose to do," Hawkins told him, around the rim of his coffee cup. "You did what you needed to do when you called me in. I reckon you'll probably get to keep your job, Tom."

Logan looked at him. "Well, maybe if enough people speak up for me," he conceded, doubtfully. "But I can't help thinking - " He paused, looking directly at the Virginian.

"What?"

Logan glanced briefly around the table. "You and me," he said. "We're the ones our families despaired of. We're the ones that weren't supposed to ever amount to anything. And we're the only ones who are left standing at the end of it all."

"That's called irony, son," Hawkins put in, cheerily. "There's some families so short-sighted they can't see past the ends of their own noses. It's a good job there are folks out in the big wide world with a little better imagination," he concluded. He pulled out a pocket watch, glanced at it, and slammed back the rest of his coffee in one long mouthful. "Better get back over to the jail," he said. "Those deputies of mine should have the men loaded up by now. You coming along, Tom, or are you stayin' for breakfast?"

"I'll ride with you as far as Little Hope," Logan said, getting to his feet. "I want to make sure Fiske's men are over there attending to the herd; I promised Mrs Rawlins I'd check up on what's left of the place for her."

"Good enough," Hawkins told him. "Well, goodbye Judge, Rawlins, Trampas; see you for the trial, I have no doubt."

The three Shiloh men shook hands with the departing Marshal, and acknowledged a casual wave of the hand from Tom Logan as he followed Hawkins towards the door. The man had the energy of ten men half his age, and left a trail of damage in his wake like a small hurricane whipping through the otherwise quiet room.

"It's ridiculous," they heard him say as he passed through the lobby and out into the busy main street. "In this day and age, to have to transport prisoners all the way to Greensboro by road. You people in Blackstone are living in the past - cut off from the world up here, not the first idea about modern communications. Why the hell don't you try and get yourselves a railroad?"

 

* * *