A Hard Ride Home
better than most folks trying to make a life in the west.
    "Jesse, here." Warren beckoned with a smile and a wave of his hand. He wore his work clothes, and with sawdust on his trousers and mud on his boots, he didn't look so much like a man who would kill without blinking—like a man who had shot down a couple of homesteaders to show Jesse he meant business the first time he'd told Jesse he'd best do whatever Warren said. They'd been the first dead bodies Jesse had ever seen, but far from the last.
    Jesse walked into the open stall slowly, careful not to startle the little black foal. With the smells of fresh hay and horse shit ripe in his nostrils, Jesse almost forgot what he was here to do. He sank to the straw beside the foal and ran his hands across her wet flanks, crooning to watch her velvety ears perk and twitch.
    "She'll take after her sire," Warren said, stroking her approvingly. His hands brushed across Jesse's briefly, and Jesse's breath hitched.
    "I'm surprised to see you here before noon, boy."
    "You scared me down at the saloon. Figured I'd come meet the trouble head on instead of waiting all day and working myself up," Jesse said. It was half true, at least.
    "Are you prepared?"
    Jesse's skin washed over with a chill. He hadn't prepared, his mind on riding and the stables and keys and maps and the sleep tincture in his pocket. "No. I forgot."
    Warren said nothing, his hands still mapping out the foal's muscles and spindly, wobbly legs. When he'd felt her all over, he stood slowly and held his hand out to help Jesse up. By the weight of Warren's grip, Jesse knew what he was in for. Warren led him down the clean, quiet hall. He had the most newfangled stable in the country. The stall doors gleamed, the wood polished as fine as any parlor table.
    "I can stop by the kitchen, sir." Jesse matched Warren's pace easily, but he found himself dragging behind as if his feet had turned to stone. "Won't take me but a minute."
    "Something on your mind to make you forgetful?" Warren asked, his tone casual and easy. He stopped at the last empty stall and guided Jesse to take the iron bars in his hands.
    "Like I said, you scared me good. Haven't been thinking straight." The bars were cold and solid.
    "Keep your hands there, or I'll lash them there." Warren brushed the dust and horse sweat off his fingers by wiping them down Jesse's ribs.
    It tickled, the feeling a sweet, funny lurch that made Jesse's stomach turn. "Walk back with me; I'll get ready and get you a drink and we can go slow. You'll like it more," Jesse said. He never sounded like this, not this unsteady. He'd have been better off staying quiet, but now he truly was nervous, and it prickled in his throat and made him want to talk until things were right again.
    "I believe you're getting spoiled." Warren wrenched Jesse's trousers down and squeezed his ass with both hands. "Bedding those soft, easy women. Making eyes at the sheriff. You're forgetting your place, boy."
    Jesse closed his eyes tightly, listening for some sign that the vial had broken or shifted when his trousers pooled around his ankles. He heard nothing but Warren's breath.
    Then Warren spat on him and pushed the cold spit into him.
    "Fuck, Warren," Jesse hissed, keeping as still as he could so he didn't kick at his trousers and knock the vial out of his pocket and into the sawdust. "That ain't enough, you know it—"
    Warren opened him with a blunt, slow press of his cock, and Jesse stopped talking. He bit his lip until his teeth tore the soft flesh and blood filled his mouth in a tangy burst, and he meditated on his own cold hatred as Warren tugged him back, over and over.
    *~*~*
    When they settled into the library an hour later, Jesse poured Warren's whiskey from a crystal decanter and added the clear liquid from the vial. His hands didn't even shake. Anger made him bold, made his bones feel stronger and his skin feel hot and prickly all over.
    "I didn't hurt you, did I?" Warren asked, voice fond

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