When he returned to the bed, holding a shirt in need of laundering, Casey was grinning with shy pride. He thanked Vance for the shirt and mopped himself off gently.
Vance went around the room, picking up stray articles of clothing. Some men, he knew, got drowsy afterward, and some got romantic—perish the thought. Vance was normally in the former category, especially with whiskey in his veins. Tonight, though, that was too dangerous. Casey looked the portrait of harmlessness, but Vance knew better.
“Haven’t you got other places to be?” Vance asked. “Other men to seduce?”
Casey turned around in bed so his feet no longer hung off the side. “I’ve got nowhere to be but here.”
He propped himself against the headboard and folded his fingers across his stomach again, watching Vance get dressed and failing spectacularly to take a hint.
“You’re a handsome man,” Casey said. “I thought it the moment I saw you.”
“You should try paying compliments before you sleep with someone,” Vance said. “It’ll get you into bed faster.”
“You took me to bed pretty quick.”
Vance gave him a look. “Quicker than I’m getting you out of it.”
Reluctantly, Casey swung his legs over the side of the bed and reached down to find his clothes.
“Honestly, I hardly need compliments,” Vance said. “Ladies, on the other hand…”
Casey dropped his gaze. “I’m not…that is, I don’t think I’m interested in finding any ladies in Mullentown.”
“Well, no,” Vance said agreeably. “Why would you be when you have all kinds of other choices? But I’m wondering about this girl of yours—the girl you bit. I don’t suppose she got half so far from Daugherty as you did.”
Casey stilled, trousers in hand. He glanced over his shoulder at Vance.
Vance went on. “I hear how things are down there.” He kept Casey in the corner of his eye. The cowboy watched him nervously. “A man can’t bed a girl without having to marry her. Her daddy’s shotgun is there to make sure of that. But that’s living men, men who can have children with a girl—and girls who ain’t been bit either. What about the bitten, Casey? What happens to them?”
Subdued now, Casey stood and put on his trousers. “We weren’t married,” he said. “She knew I didn’t have money to get a place of our own or anything, and neither did she. Though…” He stumbled a little over the word and went on more quietly. “I thought, maybe when I got back…”
Casey fell silent. Vance finished for him. “After the cattle drive, when you could come back a wealthier man and do the honorable thing. I suppose Daddy and his shotgun liked that idea too. Maybe that’s who suggested it.”
He glanced over his shoulder at Casey, who was studying the wall. His shirt still hung open. Vance crossed the room and began doing up his buttons, bottom to top. Casey watched, his arms hanging limply at his sides.
“What happens, I wonder,” Vance said in a lower voice, “when you go back to your sad little southern town with a new taste for men? Or to put it differently, a taste for men that’s now been satisfied. I won’t say it’s new.” Vance smoothed his hands down the front of Casey’s shirt, feeling with premature nostalgia the hard, flat muscle beneath.
It was a shame, he thought, for so lovely a creature to have been bitten, but the greater shame was for him to spend his time on earth married to a girl he didn’t care for. A shame for Casey and a shame for the girl too, who was probably about as eager to be married as she had been to be bitten and turned.
Nothing for it, though, and it wasn’t Vance’s problem anyway. It didn’t do to get attached to cowboys.
Casey stood, looking thoughtful. Vance gave him a pat on the cheek and crossed the room to find the boy’s boots. “Now, I hardly ever give out advice,” he said, “because nobody listens, but I will give you some. Go back home to Daugherty and marry that girl. Keep your nose to the grindstone and keep your vices to yourself.”
He took Casey by one shoulder and gazed straight into the boy’s eyes. “But whatever you do, even if you ignore me about everything else, get the hell out of Mullentown
Casey’s expression had grown dreamy as Vance spoke. “I could listen to you talk all day,” he said. “You’ve got the most beautiful voice.”
Vance picked up Casey’s hat and his gun and thrust them into his hands. “You say that, but you ain’t hearing what I’m telling you.”
Casey looked at his belongings as if wondering why he was holding them. “Can I see you again?”
Vance held out Casey’s boots until Casey took them. “This is no town for cowboys,” Vance said. “Don’t let my hospitality fool you.”
He opened the door and waited while Casey shuffled, barefoot and laden, into the hall. There he stopped. “I’d like to see you again,” Casey said, this time more firmly. “Will you be back at the Weeping Devil tomorrow?”
Definitely ain’t listening, Vance thought. “And I’m the one who’s supposed to be a fool,” he said, and he closed the door.
* * * *
Casey lay in his bunk after dusk, listening to the other cowboys getting up and getting their belongings together. The bunkhouse was a far more comfortable place to rest than the trail, where each of them had only a shallow hole and a heavy tarp to protect them from the sun. The walls kept out daylight, and the mattress, though thin, was flat and relatively free of vermin. Casey stayed where he was for another few minutes, trying to make sense of the events of yesterday night.
He’d never been taken with another person like that. The sight of Vance had done something to him, struck him down like lightning, and the subsequent events had done nothing to curb his interest. The fact that Casey had been so drawn to a man didn’t exactly surprise him, but he wasn’t sure what to do about it. When he’d returned to the bunkhouse before dawn, the other cowboys had been recounting their own exploits. When it came to be Casey’s turn, he’d gotten as far as saying he’d been invited up to a hotel room, and the others interrupted him with cheering and ribald comments.
Too late, Casey realized they thought that hotel room belonged to a woman
, and by then it was beyond his power to correct them.
What would they say if they knew I was with Vance? Casey wondered. The cowboys were all from tiny southern towns like Daugherty, and Casey expected them to be closed-minded. But Mullentown was different; it seemed like the gateway to bigger things.
Now a few of the others were getting their belongings together and fixing to head south, back to families or homesteads. Casey listened to them talking about conditions on the trail, but he couldn’t imagine following in their steps. There was nothing for him in Daugherty. No job, no family, not even a girl.
It wasn’t the way Vance had said last night—not quite. Casey had slept with her, yes, and he’d bitten her. Afterward he’d repented of it so bitterly that he’d been prepared to marry her.
Except, when she came through her fever and woke up vampire like him, she hadn’t wanted a damn thing to do with him. She’d made it clear she had her own affairs to take care of, and she didn’t need Casey for them.
Casey had sworn off women for fear of a repeat incident. It was a relief to go to bed with Vance, and a still greater relief not to try to bite him. Maybe Casey could learn to trust himself. Maybe there was a chance of a proper life here. Maybe he didn’t have to be lonely, or shunned because of what he was.
That renewed hope got Casey out of bed and putting on his boots.
All the cowboys were expected to leave town in the next couple of nights unless they found other work. Those who weren’t leaving were discussing their prospects. Casey declined an offer to go in search of a job, and another to hunt rabbits—he could feed off his horse if he needed to. Instead, he saddled up and rode into Mullentown proper, stopping only when he reached the Weeping Devil.
Vance wasn’t there, but it was early. Casey sat down at the table where he’d first seen Vance and nursed a whiskey while a truly awful piano player pounded out music. The tables were mostly empty and would remain that way until the Duchess’s singing started to lure folks in. The floor was sticky under Casey’s restless feet.
After half an hour, he returned to the bar. It took him a while to get the bartender’s attention, even though she had no other customers. She was determinedly rearranging the bottles under the bar, and only a ridiculous amount of throat-clearing on Casey’s part drew her away.
“What,” she said.
“You know the man who was in here last night? Vance—”
“Bellamy, right. What about him?”
“I’m trying to find him,” Casey said.
The bartender had a perpetual squint, but now it deepened. “Plenty of people in Mullentown are avoiding that man, and you’re looking for him.”
“Who’s trying to avoid him?”
“His brother, for one thing. Thought everybody knew that.” But she didn’t seem surprised Casey was in the dark. “Orville and Vance are fighting, and one of them’s going to turn up dead.”
Casey took a moment to digest this. “He didn’t say anything about a brother.”
The bartender rolled her eyes. “I’m sure he took you into his confidence.”
He hadn’t, and that was troublesome. Casey wanted to know everything about Vance. For that, Casey first needed to find him.
“So you haven’t seen him?”
“I didn’t say that.”
The bartender did not, in fact, say anything else. She stared at Casey until her implication sunk in. He fumbled in his pockets until he found a bill to put on the bar. The bartender made it disappear. “He’s in the back,” she said.
“The back of what?” Casey asked, and then it dawned on him. “He’s here? Vance is here?”
“Christ! Keep your voice down.” The bartender glanced to either side of Casey, grimacing. “Yes, he’s here. He’s a friend of the Duchess.”
Casey’s stomach seemed to be making the figures of some complicated and uncomfortable dance. But he was thrilled. “Can I see him?”
“I don’t know if I can let just any old stranger back there.”
Casey produced a second crumpled bill, which went promptly into the bartender’s pocket. The woman fetched something from under the bar and marched across the Weeping Devil, Casey trailing eagerly.
When the bartender reached the wall near the stage, she kicked a spittoon to one side and said, “Here.”
Casey looked at the wallpaper, which was red and green and had seen better days. “Here what?” he asked.
In reply, the bartender took what she had fetched from under the bar—it turned out to be a doorknob—into what Casey had taken for a bullet hole in the wallpaper. The bartender turned the knob, a click
sounded inside the wall, and a door appeared.
Casey stared down the hallway on the other side, feeling like he’d seen a magic trick.
The bartender pointed. “First door on the left. I wouldn’t startle them. Any funny business and you answer to me.” She gave Casey a cold, squinty look and then went back to the bar.
Casey stepped into the darkened hallway beyond the hidden door. He followed it around a corner, and found the door the bartender had spoken of standing open. Light and voices spilled from it.
“I’m just remarking,” a man’s voice was saying, “that some people would leave and let the law deal with him.”
Vance replied, and Casey’s heart leaped. “Those people have more faith in the law than I do.”
With restraint he didn’t know he had, Casey stopped himself from walking in. He stood out of sight and listened. This business about feuds with brothers worried him. He needed information.
“But haven’t you heard about our sheriff?” the first speaker asked. “Brought in all the way from White Falls.” The man sounded wry. “He’s helping Mullentown get respectable.”
“Hell, then what am I doing here?”
“I guess it’s not working that well. Seriously, though—”
“Fine.” The first speaker sighed. “But do you have to do that in here? I feel like you’re going to set off an explosion.”
“You wouldn’t say that if you knew how they work,” Vance said.
“I’ll stick to face paint, thank you.”
There was a pause. Casey nodded to himself, deciding this was the right time to enter. He took the two steps he needed to reach the open door.
He had less than a second to take in a tiny dressing room occupied by a rack of bustles and skirts and chemises as well as vests and pants, an oversize vanity with an enormous, cracked mirror, and the person of the Duchess. Of course Vance was there too, seated beside the vanity.
In the time it took for Casey to draw a breath, Vance stood, a revolver in his hand. He leveled it at Casey’s forehead. The Duchess yelled, either at the appearance of a stranger or at Vance’s obvious intention to shoot.
Vance and Casey both froze, Vance with his arm extended, the gun six inches from Casey’s face.
Several long seconds passed.
Casey swallowed past a lump of fear in his throat. “Vance, it’s me.” It was a strange thing to say, but it fit, because Vance stared blankly, and his pupils contracted, as if he didn’t recognize Casey at all.
The expression on his face grew less rigid. Then Vance uncocked the gun and lowered it.
“Who is that?” said the Duchess, his hand over his heart.
“Idiot,” muttered Vance. It was unclear whether he was addressing Casey or answering the Duchess’s question. Or maybe both.
He placed the revolver back on the vanity. On his side of it, the clutter of powder puffs and perfume bottles had been pushed away so he could lay out his guns. A pistol, the twin of the one Casey had just looked into, was disassembled on the surface of the vanity, cleaned and oiled.
Vance sat down again, holstering the first revolver. Wordlessly, he went back to reassembling the gun on the table.
The Duchess looked between Vance and Casey. Onstage he gave an odd illusion of someone who was both female and male, but up close, with his makeup half on, he seemed more ordinary. His eyebrows, drawn in pencil, arched up toward his hairline.
“Do you know him?” the Duchess asked Vance.
“In a way,” said Vance.
“I fucked him last night.”
“Oh.” Visibly relaxing, the Duchess stood and offered Casey his hand. “Gus Meyer. Sorry about the gun to the head.”
“Casey.” He was surprised to discover that the Duchess—Gus—was taller than he was. “I’m a fan.”
“Isn’t that sweet of you to say.” Gus turned on a winning smile. Casey smiled back briefly, but he had eyes only for the man bent over his gun.
Gus seemed to note the direction of Casey’s gaze. “But somehow I don’t think you’re here for me,” he commented.