I stared at the cabin and tried to collect myself. Deep breaths didn't help; those worked to calm me, but I wasn't uncalm. Not afraid either, despite my dream. I had my guns, with which I knew I was damned fast compared to anyone but a traveling-show trick-shooter, and the best he could possibly muster would be a stick of firewood. Besides, he never could've done me so much damage if he hadn't stabbed me in my sleep. Even unarmed I could take him if I didn't start the business lying down. No, I wasn't afraid.
But I wasn't ready to see him either. How was I supposed to talk to him? How should I think of him? What should I see when I looked at him? I'd gone off the beaten track and now I was lost. Steering by dead reckoning for a mountain that might be a mirage, and I was pretty sure he didn't believe in the destination. If I did something as stupid as tell him to shed his evil old life and build a clean new one here, he'd laugh at me.
No. He wouldn't. He'd just stare at me with blank animal eyes.
He wouldn't be grateful, that much I knew. Only now did I begin to understand why. As I stood there in the cold before dawn, staring at the mossy log walls of his prison, I started to imagine how things looked from his perspective. I thought I'd spared his life, but that wasn't how he'd see the situation, was it?
He knew what he had coming. He'd been ready to face it. Without remorse, but unflinching. Then I'd had an attack of conscience, and instead of meeting a simple death -- Murphy, however angry he was, would never have come up with anything worse than a hanging -- he was locked up waiting for God-knows-what. Maybe death, maybe not. Maybe a chance to escape, maybe not. Maybe something halfassed and unintentionally horrible, like turning him out empty-handed, out of some sense of fair play, to get lost in the canyons and die of cold or thirst. Perhaps we'd decide to break his spirit, and he wouldn't know if we could do it.
Something ugly, in any case. Yes, the kind of man who could stab me in my sleep wouldn't imagine he could get a clean slate. He didn't know what a clean slate looked like.
But then again... he was young. Even if he was older than he looked, even if he was my age, that was still young enough to be full of hope even when hope made no sense. Even if that hope seemed cruel now, even if he told himself a thousand times that it was false hope, at least I knew it was real. I knew I was honestly giving him a chance. And so was May, and if Murphy wasn't exactly encouraging about the enterprise, at least he could be trusted not to jump the gun. Davey Quinn was not old enough to really give up without trying, and that was all it would take.
So: patience. I resolved not to get upset, not to go out of my way to scare him, and to make sure he knew I wasn't expecting miracles. That would be enough for now.
With this thought to hold me steady, I set the lamp on the chopping stump, slung my rifle over my back, and went to lift the bar. As soon as the bar was free of its brackets, I dropped it on the grass and stepped well clear, just in case he came barreling out and tried to brain me with a log. But there was only silence.
"Davey," I called. "I know that shot woke you up, did you go back to sleep?"
There was a scuff from inside, a creak of floorboards. The door swung. Davey leaned against the doorpost, arms dangling, eyes half closed. He looked at me with a poached sort of glare. His dirty hair was flattened on one side and corkscrewing any which way on the other. Several days' beard darkened his chin. I wouldn't have recognized him for the same man as before if you'd put two photographs side by side. I forgot to say anything, and so we just stared at each other for a while.
Then he did something that shocked me: he smiled. It was just a crooked twitch of one, but that's definitely what it was.
"You look like hell," he said.
After a startled hesitation, I returned, "So do you."
"I'm apparently not allowed a razor. What's your excuse?"
"Somebody stabbed me," I said dryly.
The mad little crack of his smile widened. "Anyone I know?"
"Some guy," I deadpanned. "He went thattaway."
Belatedly, it occurred to me that maybe he wasn't joking. Maybe he was insane and didn't remember anything. But then he flashed a grin, coughed a laugh, and looked away, hitching his rumpled shirt to make it hang straight. I got a glimpse of the expression he was struggling to control, and though there was no name for that mixture of relief, wariness, and anger, it was probably about the sanest thing he could've done in the circumstance.
"Come in the house," I said. "Breakfast'll be on by now, and then we're hunting a coyote that got into the chickens." I took one more step back and gestured him toward the lamp.
As he lit my way to the house, I studied his back. You can tell a lot about a man from his back. Davey straightened his spine and squared his shoulders twice during the short walk, fighting a tendency to hunch and stoop. A battle between pride and... cold? No, he didn't hold his arms close in, nor pull up his shirt collar. Pride and fear, then. Pride was winning. I didn't know if that was a good thing or not.
May and Murphy watched Davey like cats when we came in. Davey gave each of them an unflinching look, as if to declare he still wasn't sorry. Then he blew out the lamp and offered it to me. I pointed to where the other spare lamps stood; he put it up there. He had to go on tiptoes just a bit to do it. Suddenly my throat was blocked and I couldn't breathe. Choked by pity.
I turned quickly to yank out a chair and fall into it. Let Murphy take it from here. I wasn't about to open my mouth and sound like a fool.
"You sit there," Murphy said. Davey took the indicated seat, one where we could all see him and he couldn't reach any of us. May set the last dish on the table -- a big blue earthenware bowl full of biscuits -- and warily took her own seat. She gathered her skirt as if to twitch it farther from Davy, but turned the gesture into a general smoothing-down.
Then Murphy cracked a grin and plundered the plate of bacon as if this was just an ordinary morning. Everyone breathed a little easier.
What talk there was around the table concerned only food. I tried not to look at Davey any more than I had to, but I still caught him blinking fast as he shoveled syrup-soggy pancakes into his mouth. He looked like some poor sailor who'd been rescued from drowning, kissing the ground and swearing to never go near the water again.
However stony he might try to look, he wanted to live.
Sun slanted low through the pines, cutting beams out of mist. Far ahead, Murphy was nothing but an occasional glimpse of black hair or gray coat as he followed a trail I couldn't make out. Davey and I lagged behind. I was still weak from so much time abed. As for Davey, maybe just chose to stick close to me as the one less likely to kill him for making a wrong move, but he gave a sense of wanting my company. I kept wary even so.
"How's your finger?" I asked after a while.
His slim brows twitched down in puzzlement. I had to look away. Even bedraggled as he was, he was still a handsome bastard, and that was something I didn't want to notice just now.
"The one I broke," I reminded.
He held out the hand for me to see. It looked perfectly fine. "Turned out you just popped it out of the socket. She put it back in for me, it's all right now."
"Miz May did?"
He made a vague noise of agreement.
"What, can't bring yourself to say her name?"
There was no reply from him. I didn't prompt him further. Two can play at the uncomfortable-silence game, and I reckon I'm the better player. We picked our way over the rocky ground, ducking under low branches, making such a racket that Murphy must've been glad we were far behind. I wasn't much of a woodsman to begin with, and here where everything was dry and prone to crackle, I was as bad as a herd of buffalo. Davey, despite being smaller, somehow managed to be even louder.
Murphy showed against a low ridge for a moment, framed by an opening in the trees, then descended out of sight.
"I didn't know," Davey growled suddenly. "For whatever it's worth. Until he told us, I didn't know anyone wanted the woman dead." When I didn't answer immediately, he went on in a calmer tone, "I wasn't hired to kill anyone. Just scout the place and report back. I thought it was about Augustus Murphy's cattle rustling, not Silas Murphy's inconvenient mistress. Not that I can prove it."
I considered my reply for some moments. "I think I believe you," I said slowly. "You panicked, didn't you?"
He nodded tightly.
"Murphy was on to you, so you lost your nerve."
"I couldn't see any way to get out alive unless I killed the two of you." He glanced at me, stone-eyed again. "Don't get me wrong. I'm not pleading my case."
What else do you imagine you're doing? I thought, but knew better than to point it out. I heaved a heavy sigh. "Kid, you were set to kill me in my sleep, so don't think for one second I'm soft on you. That said, it's good to know you're not the type who gets hired to murder women."
"Why do you care what type I am?"
Now it was my turn to refuse to answer.
We topped the rise where we'd last seen Murphy, but saw no sign of him. I was out of breath. I sat down on a rock and took off my hat to feel the sun. The day was shaping up to be fine. It'd be warm enough for shirtsleeves by noon. Davey sat down by my feet, plucked up a stalk of seeding grass and began picking it apart with his thumbnail. Silence gathered; little by little, birdsong returned.
Davey's head came up suddenly. He turned this way and that, listening. Shortly I heard it too: a soft, high whining, like some small animal in distress.
He scrambled up and bolted into the trees. Cursing under my breath, I stumbled after him. He obviously wasn't trying to escape, but I still had to keep track of him or I was going to look like a real blockhead when Murphy came back. Fortunately, with the quantity of noise he was making, there was no question of losing him.
I followed him down into a dry ravine, and there he stopped, going to one knee to peer under a tangle of exposed roots. I said, "What're you looking for?"
He just shook his head.
From above, where we'd been sitting, Murphy's voice called down: "What in hell are you two wandering off for?"
"Down here!" I called, though no doubt he could see perfectly well where we'd trampled a trail. I moved around behind Davey, trying to see what he was after. He reached into a hole under the roots, digging it wider with his hands.
Murphy, closer, called, "It was a wild dog bitch. I found her up that way about half a mile. One of them long-leg yeller dogs the Injuns keep."
Davey slowly pulled something out of the hole. It squirmed in his hands and whined: a tiny brindled puppy. The look that came over his face answered half my unspoken questions in a single moment.
"I hit her better'n I thought, I guess; she was already dead when I --" Murphy broke off as I came up toward him and pushed him back the way he came. "What's the matter?" he said suspiciously.
"Wait up there a minute."
I shook my head. I didn't want to explain, for the same reason I didn't want him to see Davey's face right now. "Look, just give him a minute," I said in a near-whisper. "Please. Trust me."
Murphy's eyes narrowed, but then he nodded and turned around.
I waited a short time myself before I went back down the ravine. I hoped Davy would've pulled himself together in the interval, but he hadn't. If anything, he was worse. He was sitting crosslegged in front of the den, two puppies squirming in his lap now, caged by his arms. His head was bent over them so I couldn't see his face, but there was no mistaking the way his shoulders jerked. He was crying like a baby.
How lonely must it be, I wondered, to stand accused but unjudged? Neither condemned nor forgiven. Waiting for the gavel. Maybe not even for the right crime. I couldn't guess why finding the wild dog's out-of-season litter broke the dam, but broke it was, and it looked like it'd be a while before he was done bawling.
Well, I wouldn't shame him by commenting, but I couldn't walk away and leave him on his own. If nothing else, he was a prisoner. I shucked my coat as I approached. Sat down on a root and offered it to him.
He turned his face away, refusing to see me, though he didn't stop sobbing.
"Wrap 'em in this," I said.
He sniffed hard and looked up at me, uncomprehending.
"You have to keep 'em warm when they're that little. Go on, take it."
Slowly, he reached out and took my coat. Still staring at me. Tears still cutting through the grime on his face.
"I'll square it with Murphy. You'll have to train them not to bother the chickens, but if you can do that, they can guard against coyotes and suchlike."
His face crumpled in renewed grief, and he bowed his head. "Am I going to live long enough for that?" he whispered hoarsely.
"Yeah. I reckon you will."
"Because you're a dumb kid, Davey," I sighed. "I guess lots of folks die for being a dumb kid, but that don't mean they deserve to."
He buried his face in the puppies' fur and wept himself out.