Their first time stinks of lanolin and just of whiff of cowshit. That’s rustling for you.
It’s foul weather, the rain hitting the ground so hard the mud jumps up to meet it, and all Butch has is a drenched serape and a hat that feels more like a gutter.
He and the Kid are huddled up together, squashed up so damn close that their thighs have gone ahead and gotten friendly with each other. That’s the only spot Butch is dry, where he’s pressed up against Sundance.
“When you think about it,” he says, talking loud to be heard over the rain, “rustling’s some of the most inclement work a man can take.”
“I don’t have to think about it. I’m in it.”
“Look at them.” Butch nods at the cattle. “See, they don’t mind getting rained on. The way they see it, grass is grass whether it’s wet or dry, so long as it’s healthy. They just carry on being themselves. A man’s different.”
Sundance tilts his head forward, agreeing with that much, and his hat spills out all the rain that’s gathered on the brim. There’s a lock of his hair a little longer than the rest, dark like honey now that it’s wet.
“A man needs variety,” Butch says, warming to his theme. “He wants the choice of having something on a rainy day that he doesn’t have when the sun’s out. See, that’s why rustling’s no good, not for us. You’re just following the cows around, doing what they tell you, waiting for your chance to make a grab. No way for any kind of change, see? Now, what kind of life is that for two independent guys like us?”
“Independent,” Sundance says under his breath. Butch can see the stubble on his jaw. In another day—he couldn’t say how he knows this for sure, but he believes it—the grain of that stubble will turn soft, and the Kid will have himself the makings of a real beard to go along with that damn mustache.
Independence, yeah. If he were really so all-fired independent, he wouldn’t be working this crummy job at all; he’s only here because they got run out of Chicago, and they only got run out of Chicago because of the Kid’s gun.
But what the hell was Butch supposed to do, just split from him? That night, Kid was halfway through tossing all their shirts into one trunk, not even bothering to tell them apart, before it seemed to hit him that Butch might not want to stick so close so close to a man who now had one hell of a bounty on his head. Sundance’s eyes right then, looking at him, were like nothing else Butch had ever seen. He was just standing there, holding one of Butch’s shirts by the collar and letting it dangle down, and he looked like he’d just been shot.
Butch said, “Now’s not the time to go looking for a missing button, Kid. Just pitch it all in. We’re in a little hurry here, in case you haven’t noticed.”
“Oh, I noticed.”
Sundance could have sounded a little happier about getting the company. But then, he wasn’t the kind of man to parade his happiness around, generally. From him, it was enough that he dropped Butch’s shirt in the trunk and threw one of his own in after it. There was sweat shining in the hollow of his throat, gleaming in the the dusky light.
Independence. Well, they’re independent from everybody else, anyway.
“What we need is a different line of work,” Butch says.
“Every line of work’s the same when you come right down to it.”
“That’s no way to think about it. You think about it like that, you’re giving up before you even get started.”
Sundance says, “You really want variety, Butch?”
There’s something too edgy and cocksure in his voice, like the question’s a razor he’s dragging along. He’s shifted positions, just a little: his knee digging into Butch’s, blunt and hot like the barrel of a gun.
Butch could be wrong about what he’s thinking—about what’s been stretched out between the two of them for weeks now, what might have just jumped all their firebreaks for good—but he doubts it.
“Right about now I’d settle for distraction, if you had any to offer. You don’t talk much, of course—”
Sundance gets one hand beneath Butch’s serape and fans out those quick-draw fingers of his against the wet denim resting tight up against Butch’s cock. His look is hard and daring and questioning and crazy all at once.
Butch says, “I guess a natural man of action doesn’t need to do as much talking.”
“I guess not.”
Somebody else—a coward or a righteous man—might think twice before hitching himself to a fella with those eyes, but if Butch were that kind of man, he’d have left Sundance all the way back in Chicago. They’ve been heading for this ever since then. At least since Sundance stood there waiting for him, his fingers hooked into the collar of Butch’s shirt like he could wring the life out of it—and maybe even further back then that.
When it comes right down to it, this doesn’t feel like the start of anything. When they get to each other, out there in the rain, it feels like this is what they’ve always been doing and nothing much has really changed at all.
With Etta, the start’s just as muddled. For one thing, Butch only gets the first part of it in flashes.
Their rustling days—short-lived as they were—are well behind them. By God, they’ve got variety now, and the spice of variety just happens to be bullets.
Butch is well-spiced around one shoulder, like piece of meat ready for the frying pan. He’s breathing in and out between clenched teeth, trying to keep himself from being sick; every beat of his pulse seems to make him tense up around the bullets, makes it feel like they’re drilling down into bone. It would be one thing if he could rest, but he can’t. He has to keep his feet moving, shuffling along against the hardpan. If he gives up, the Kid will have to haul him around like a sack of laundry, and they’ll be even slower than they are now.
Hell, the Kid is half-dragging him even as it is. His arm’s across Butch’s back, his fingers digging hard into Butch’s armpit.
Sundance has one of the best poker faces in the business, but he’s a lousy liar. He must know it, too, because he hasn’t even tried to tell Butch he’s going to be fine.
This is the kind of crazy they are for each other—Sundance thinks he might as well be dead already, pessimistic son-of-a-bitch, but he’s still breaking his back lugging Butch all over creation.
“Getting help,” Sundance says—grunts, really—when Butch makes some kind of noise against him. “And shut up and save some of your breath for a change.”
“How many years you been waiting to tell me that?”
“All of ’em,” Sundance says. He turns his head abruptly and sort of presses his face to Butch’s sweat-soaked hair. It’s bruising and desperate, and since that’s always been how the Kid gets tender, Butch guesses this just might be it.
Before he can answer the gesture in kind, the world turns sideways on him.
The next thing he knows, he’s propped up in some spindly kitchen chair, sloppy and boneless like he’s on a bad drunk, and there’s a woman there with them.
She’s in nothing but her nightdress, the cotton shift thin and white, and it’s plain to see, in another minute, that the reason she’s not better fixed for company is that Sundance has a gun on her.
“You can put a shawl on, cover up,” Sundance mutters.
The woman’s eyes, coal dark and coalmine deep, fix on the Kid. She lifts her chin and pulls her long, thick hair forward until it’s falling down over her breasts. “Is that better?” Her voice is sharp.
“Fine,” Sundance says roughly. “Just don’t change your mind later and start wailing about it.”
“I’ll try to restrain myself.” She’s looking at Butch now. “Your friend’s awake.”
Sundance whips around—all of him but the gun, which stays steady. His mouth hooks up on one side, crooked as a darning needle. “Leave it to you to go into a goddamn swoon right before you could be useful sugaring all this up.” He rubs his thumb across one of Butch’s eyebrows, hitting a bit of blood that’s dried there and started itching him, and then he seems to let his touch just keep on traveling, tracing a streak of sweat until it’s wiped clean.
Butch might even be able to get some words out if he could think of what to say, but it’s all knotted up somehow.
Later, on the other side of another one of those pitch-tilts into the dark, there are Sundance’s hands, reeking of whiskey, stitching him up. Butch gets a bleary look at the gun all the way over on the table, one of the furthest places he’s ever seen the Kid put it. The lady’s still with them; she passes Sundance a rag dripping with water. She seems like she’s meant to be looked at, like she’s a woodcut or a photo all stained sepia. She gives gives him a drink of the same whiskey that washed Sundance’s hands—but that’s later, and by then she has her hair up, the nape of her neck a mellow gold in the lamplight.
Butch sleeps all day. God only knows what he misses.
At night, the whole house is dark and drawn up on itself, like a closed fist. Butch guesses the bed he’s in belongs to the woman—Etta, he thinks Sundance was saying—because he doesn’t know who else’s it would be. The sheets smell good—sharp and stingy from a lye scrubbing and softened up with the smell of Etta’s hair and the musk of her body. She’s sitting beside him in the same spindly chair he bled all over when he got here. She’s reading by candlelight—got some papers on her laps.
She sees him looking. “Compositions,” she says—the first thing she says right to him, that he remembers. “Your friend’s taking a bath, if you were wondering.”
She’s an even more impressive woman than he thought if she got Sundance to haul water in. He says, “I’m surprised I can’t hear him singing. Usually as soon as he gets soapy, he’s got a caterwaul to wake the dead.”
She smiles. “I think he was more concerned about waking you.”
Butch nods at the papers. “You’re a schoolteacher?”
“Looks that way,” Etta says. She sounds sharp again—voice like gin, all shot through with juniper.
“You don’t like it?”
“I wouldn’t mind it if I felt like there was something else on its way.” She scratches her pen against the paper, making inky little tracks. “I don’t like feeling like I’m falling and it’s just a matter of waiting until I hit the ground.” It’s the kind of thing somebody could cry over, but her eyes look dry.
Butch can only really guess at the feeling she’s talking about, but he’s a good guesser. And he’s laid up for a week or more—that’s another guess. He thinks about the Kid’s gun laid out on the table, ordinary as a sugar bowl, and Etta’s dark hair curling up just a little against the neckline of that flimsy nightgown. He doesn’t think about the word variety, not then—and when he thinks about it later, it doesn’t feel like what he means. He doesn’t know that he’s ever meant it, really. But that’s the problem with being philosophical—you hit on notions that no one’s bothered naming yet.
He says, “Sundance is something else—now that’s known far and wide. ’Course, he’s more here than on his way, but I can see how he might be a change from compositions.”
Etta looks at him, and he doesn’t know her enough yet to tell what she’s thinking.
In the end, Butch spends a week in her bed, which means most everything he hears on those nights is happening somewhere else. There are knocks on the walls, mostly, like the place has filled up with ghosts. He hears the rug scrape against the floor, rubbed up and down the floorboards in time with somebody’s hips. That surprises him, since he knows there's a pallet out there. They could get comfortable, but it seems they don't want to.
He sees them, just the once, on a night when he’s finally got his feet under him again. He’s restless enough to think of going out into the moonlight with a new-rolled cigarette: he wants fresh air and smoke all at the same time, that’s how sick he is of being cooped up. It’s gotten so he’s pissy about it—that’s not like him, and there’s nothing worse than a man feeling out-of-tune with his own nature. And since he doesn’t hear the things he’s learned to listen for, he guesses he’s got a clear enough path to the front door.
But he doesn’t, as it turns out. They’re just starting off slow tonight.
Sundance is sprawled back in Butch’s chair—that’s how he persists in thinking of it, though of course all of them have been in it now, and Etta must have broken it in well before they ever came along—with his knees far apart, his cock hard and pressing at his jeans. He’s got his gun in his hand—a sight so natural and right with him that it takes Butch a moment to even see it there. He’s pointing it at Etta, who’s down to nearly nothing but her drawers and a pair of stockings. Her dress is all puddled up on the floor. Her face looks like she might as well be frozen—except her lips are parted and wet, and Sundance’s look the same.
Butch doesn’t know what to make of it, not at first. He can't say he knows what to make of it later, either.
But Etta’s the one who sees him first. She wraps her arms around herself, and just like that, her face is mobile again, her cheeks stained dark. There’s something about her that’s like a wild colt, a spooked one.
Butch is surprised to find he doesn’t know which name he wants to say, which one of them he wants to check on.
Etta says, “It’s all right, Butch.” Her voice is shaky but sure. Her hair’s all rumpled up.
Butch looks at Sundance, who dips his chin a little. That’s answer enough: Butch doesn’t need any more or any less.
He says, “I was just going outside for a minute. Thought I’d have myself a smoke.” He sounds ordinary—at least he sounds about like what he remembers of ordinary life.
“Maybe I’ll join you later,” Sundance says. His voice is the lightest thing about him—his body looks heavy like this, nothing but muscle made to pin a person down.
Butch nods and goes on past them, out into the night. With the stars and the full moon, it’s brighter outside than inside, and all the grass around him looks silver. The windows all around Etta’s are dead white, their curtains still pulled shut.
Hell, he’s got no cause to be feeling lonely and sorry for himself. Plenty of things don’t last forever. He doesn’t even know what has him so riled—what’s got him frozen out here like somebody’s got a gun on him. He knew they were making love; he wanted them to, he was happy for them. All that’s as true now as it was an hour ago. He just didn’t know that they would come up with something he can’t reach, something he can’t understand.
He’s smoked a little more than he meant to, by the time Sundance comes out to meet him, and he’s been standing longer than he has in days; every bullet-hole in him is throbbing like a separate sore tooth.
Sundance stands beside him, quiet for a moment, and then says, “You look like you’re about to fall down.”
“Looks aren’t always deceiving.”
“You should get your ass back in bed.”
“Now, she’s a good woman,” Butch says, just like someone’s been arguing otherwise.
“Yeah,” Sundance says, the word as heartfelt as anything Butch has ever heard from him. Then he takes Butch’s chin in his hand, roughly, and turns him so he can cover Butch’s mouth with his own. It’s hard and graceless, and there’s nothing about it that suggests it’s coming from a man who’s turned out to be independent of him after all. That relaxes Butch a little, and he can admit he wanted relaxing.
Sundance doesn’t know how to treat a woman.
Sundance scoffs at that, his hat tipped down low and easy. Here he is, supposed to be helping Butch keep an eye on the comings and goings at this piddly little bank, and he looks like an old man about to nod off in his chair. He’s been a little like this ever since he partnered up with Butch and a little more like it still since he met Etta. He’s a loyal sonofabitch, but he’s ornery about it: he gets jumpy and sulky and tired when he remembers how much of himself he’s staked on other people. When he thinks about it, he’s liable to get contrary and not be too big of a help on this kind of work.
Well, that’s fine. Butch brought him along more for the company anyhow, as sorry a thing as that is to admit.
Sundance says, “I never had any complaints.”
“That’s just because you look the way you do. If you were ugly, it’d be different.”
“That you speaking from experience?”
“That’s me speaking from a lifetime of human observation. Now, when’s the last time you bought Etta something nice?”
“You buy her enough for the both of us.”
“It doesn’t mean the same coming from me as it would from you.”
“If you say so, Butch.” He looks at Butch for a moment, expressionless, and then tilts his hat down the rest of the way over his eyes and—so much for partnership—goes ahead and goes to sleep.
Butch says, “If you keep on being this lazy, I ought to short you on your take.”
“Go ahead,” Sundance says without opening his eyes.
“I won’t, but it’s the principle of the thing.”
Because there’s a right way and a wrong way to go through life, even if the Kid won’t admit it. Being an outlaw’s no reason to be a disgrace. And a man ought to take care of a woman: buy her what she likes, take her out for good dinners, make her laugh.
It’s what Butch likes doing, anyway. Hell, he even does all that for Sundance.
To step in and do it for Etta—since Sundance isn’t the right kind of man for it—feels natural enough. He’s not so foolish he doesn’t know why, either. He’s a soft touch, all right, and he’s got more spoiling in him than Sundance will ever take. The little gifts he gets for Etta—the fancy candy, the silver-backed hairbrush—and the little things he does for her—learning just enough on that harmonica to play her a song or two, walking out through the wildflowers with her—
It’s not all just because Sundance won’t give it. It’s also because Sundance won’t take it, either.
But there gets to be more to it than that, and he knows she feels it too, because she goes ahead and tells him so.
They’re in Denver, the three of them, but it’s just Butch and Etta at the table when they get to talking about it. Sundance left to play cards, and Butch coaxed Etta into dessert. Now he’s drinking coffee and watching her eat some kind of silky-smooth chestnut and fruit ice cream that came shaped like a fluted vase. He watches as she scoops up part of a cherry all wrapped up in white.
“You know, Butch,” she says, “I like being here with you, just the two of us.”
She sounds almost like she’s dreaming, but not quite—more like she’s telling him about a dream she’s had a little while now to think over.
He says quietly, “I like being here with you too, just the two of us, so that’s fine.”
“When I started loving Sundance, it was because of how he was with you. How much he wanted you to get better.” She touches her glass of wine but doesn’t drink any more out of it, and Butch thinks she might want him to know she’s no worse than tipsy. “Then for a while, whenever I looked at you, it felt like another way to see him—to see the man who was his partner, his friend, his—all of that.”
She meets his eyes. Her ice cream’s melting on its fancy china plate, the shape of it easing away to nothing. Butch just nods: too small a movement for anyone else to notice it. And Etta goes on.
“You’re not much like him, really,” Etta says. “You’re much easier to talk to. And the conversations, once we get to talking, tend to be a little more pleasant. I—” She takes a drink after all, even though Butch thinks it’s almost a shame to spoil the taste of the ice cream. “I had the idea I liked you for filling in whatever gaps he left behind. That makes sense, doesn’t it? But you’re my friend too, now, not just his. You’re more than someone I look through just to see him. I see you—and I see you in him, too. And in the end, I suppose you’re alike in most of the ways that really matter.”
He supposes they both are.
Butch takes her hand. He knows what she means—and talk’s even his forte, but he couldn’t have said it how she did. When it comes to getting to the heart of things, Etta has him beat.
They do give each other what they don’t get from Sundance, sure, but it’s gotten different. He’s not having coffee and dessert with Etta because Sundance won’t, or because he can’t have it with Sundance, he’s having it because he likes sitting across the table from her in the gentle candlelight, likes sharing some of that ice cream off her spoon. Etta Place has to have the prettiest smile in all creation, and that’s a fact.
He holds her hand a lot less lightly than he once meant to.
He’s still holding it when Sundance comes back, flush and good-tempered from it. He looks at Butch and Etta’s hands there on the table and there’s a beat, a single one, where it all might go wrong. Then he just says, “I was starting to worry the two of you might just go on on mooning after each other like a couple of kids.”
“You’ve never worried about anything a day in your life,” Butch says. “And why don’t you mind your own business, anyway?”
“You can have the rest of this,” Etta says generously, nudging her plate over to Sundance.
He pokes his spoon into what’s left. “Why’s it all melted?”
“We were talking.”
Sundance takes a bite. He says, “I thought I might join another game after a while, one that goes a little later.” He meets Etta’s eyes first and then Butch’s. “Maybe even a lot later.”
“You know something?” Butch says. “You aren’t half as subtle as you think you are. And I’m not even sure you think you’re that subtle either.”
Etta laughs, covering her mouth with one lace-gloved hand.
An hour later, in the hotel room, Butch takes that glove off her hand, rolling it slowly down her fingers. He kisses her palm and her fingers. He can smell the dab of perfume at her wrist, against the delicate white skin.
He kisses her mouth now, tasting her—chestnuts and sweetness and dry red wine.
“I’d like to take your hair down.” He sounds goddamn breathless, like he’s run all the way here, spent all those months of dumb, half-realized lovesickness heading for this moment at some breakneck speed.
This time when she laughs, he puts his mouth against her throat and feels the vibrations there. She’s the sweetest instrument imaginable.
“You see?” she says. “I told you that sometimes you’re exactly alike. He always asks for that.”
She takes out the pins, each one slipping free with a noise like rustling silk, and her hair loosens pin by by pin until it falls down around her shoulders and back, thick and wavy and just what Butch wants to sink his hands into. He doesn’t need her to tell him that the way he looks at her is different from how Sundance does it; he can see it in her eyes. Anybody can damn him for a fool, because he probably is one, but he wants her to have everything she wants; he wants the both of them to have everything they want. Butch spent a few years being hungry, and he doesn’t want that for Etta or Sundance—he doesn’t want them to feel any part of that. He’s knotted up so close to both of them that he’ll never get free or even want to. He strokes Etta’s hair, close to the nape of her neck where it smells the most like her, and he hears a soft gasp catch in her throat.
“You make it all feel new,” Etta says. She’s as breathless as he is.
It doesn’t make a single bit of sense, because there’s nothing new about him—when it comes to men and women both, he’s been a weathered veteran for years. And he’s known Etta for so long now that it’s almost like it was with Sundance, like they’re slipping sideways into something that was there all along.
But all the same, his heart’s pounding and his mouth’s almost too dry to talk. He twines some of her hair around his fingers and presses his lips to it.
When it all comes down around them, when Lord Baltimore and Joe Lefors decide to run them to ground, it’s all Butch and Sundance can do to make their way to Etta’s and sit there in the dark. Neither of them is bleeding this time, just exhausted and sore and half-starved.
“Bolivia,” Sundance says. “Is that it?”
If he could have come up with another way out of this, doesn’t Sundance think he would have by now? He’s too tired to get into a half-decent argument, and that’s a sorry thing. “It’s what I say.”
Etta won’t cast a vote. All she does is stand, her skirts sweeping against the ground. “Right now the only thing that matters is that both of you need some sleep. I still have that pallet—”
Butch touches the back of his chair. He can still see the bloodstain on it, from when they first met her.
He says, “If we were better men, we might apologize for always coming here needing to be fixed up.”
“Well, I’m not a better man, and I won’t,” Sundance says. “If I hadn’t dragged you here the first time, you’d be dead, and I’d be—” He stops, his mouth snapping shut. Butch is so close to him that they almost share a skin, especially after they’ve been on the trail and out in the wild as long as they have been now, but even he’s not sure what the Kid was ready to say.
“You’d be working for Harvey,” Butch says.
“The hell I would.”
“All right, Harvey’d be working for you, do you like that better? And either way, there’s a chance you wouldn’t have Mr. E.H. Harriman of the Union Pacific Railroad hounding you to death.”
Sundance glares at him, like despite them having spent the last few weeks killing themselves to stay ahead of the best damn trackers alive, he can’t be bothered to give a damn about it. There’s no way to get him to even speculate about some setup where Butch died and they never met Etta, he’s too bullheaded to even entertain it. It all makes Butch think he’s never loved the Kid more than he does right now. He reaches over and touches Sundance’s leg, where there’s dirt caked into the denim so deep that the damn jeans might fall apart the next time they’re in the washtub. Sundance grabs his hand and holds it hard enough to hurt.
Etta says quietly, “You two could have the bed, if you want it.”
They’ve never done that here. Etta’s has always been just for Etta’s; that’s always felt right. But now—
“You’re not sleeping on that pallet,” Sundance says, still sounding like he’s fed up with everything. He looks away from both of them, out towards the window, and mutters, “No reason to even use it.”
“That’s—” Crazy, Butch was going to say, but then, it could be that Sundance is a more innovative thinker than Butch has ever given him credit for being. In just this one way, anyhow. “That’s true enough, all things considered.”
He sees Etta swallow. He won’t press her, if it’s too much. She wanted more out of life than she was getting, but that never meant that she wanted all of this, all of them.
This is more than they’ve ever done before. No quiet agreements, no understandings, no juggling—just the three of them in the same bed at the same time, with no pretense that one of them ought to be somewhere else.
But what Etta says is, “We’ll have to make do when it comes to pillows. I only have the two.”
“I’ll go without,” Butch says. What he feels would be lighting up the whole house right now, bright as a bonfire, if anyone else could see it. He adds to Sundance, “Then I can just push you half off yours in the middle of the night, when you’re too tuckered out to stop me.”
“You and your plans, Butch,” Sundance says.
Him and his plans. He has another one, too: whatever they’re doing, it deserves to be commemorated somehow. They can’t take a honeymoon, of course, but they can do the next best thing—they can give themselves a long time to not worry about anything but which of them is going to wake up with a sore neck. It doesn’t matter how often they work, there’s never any money, so if you look at it like that, they don’t lose much by going a while without working. Besides, the good thing about bank robbing as a career is the banks are always there. They wait for you.
He settles in between Etta and Sundance, his head in the divot between their two pillows.
He says, “Australia.”
“I thought it was Bolivia,” Sundance says, half into his pillow.
“It was Bolivia, now it’s Australia. There’s plenty to say in Australia’s favor.”
“Well, that doesn’t mean you have to say it.”
“And it’s a longer trip,” Butch says, ignoring him. “It takes a lot longer to sail from here to Australia than it does from here to Bolivia. You don’t get seasick, do you? Just because you can’t swim? Etta, what about you?”
“No.” She rests her chin against his shoulder. “I’d like a long trip.”
“Fine,” Sundance says. “Keep us from working, if that's what you feel like. Beggar all of us, I won’t stop you. Just let me sleep, dammit.” He reaches up under his head and moves his pillow, pushing a little bit of it towards Butch, and all in all, it feels like more than enough to start from.