The first time Billy Rocks had met Goodnight Robicheaux, he couldn't have known. Couldn't have known everything that was about to unfurl from that moment, the moment where he had a knife in his hand and other men's blood streaking his hands and adrenaline making his mind go blank. The moment where he stood shaking in the middle of a Texas saloon, surrounded by still bodies, turning on the back of his left heel with his arms up, ready to fight, waiting to see if another man was foolhardy enough to test him or too prideful to let Billy walk away from dropping five men single-handed.
Behind him, the bartender, bleeding or dead (dead men don't bleed, not like the living do.) In front of him, the wide expanse of the room. Not many men sitting there, given it's a few hours after midday, but enough that Billy wouldn't bet on his own chances of escaping single-handedly.
Someone starts clapping. Billy flinches, draws his right hand back like he's ready to throw.
"Well, I must say, Lord as my witness, that was a hell of a thing to watch," someone says. Billy turns his head a bit; a man at the end of the bar, holding an empty glass in one hand. The man sets the glass down and steps down from his stool, turning to examine the rest of the room just like Billy. He raises his voice a little bit. "That was a hell of a thing to watch."
Dead silence. The man grins and runs his one hand over his beard, which is scraggly and gray, covering most of his face. The look of a drunk: unwashed clothes, untrimmed beard, shaggy hair. Billy wonders how many drinks this white man's had. If he's planning on picking a fight.
"Sheriff, wouldn't you say that was a hell of a thing to watch?" the man says.
"Well, Goodnight," one of the onlookers says, voice less kind, "I guess you could say that."
The man -- Goodnight -- glances over at Billy, grins when he sees Billy looking over at him, and winks, maybe. Hard to tell in the low light. "Well, you're in luck, 'cause if I remember alright, which I think I do, I did just say that."
Silence. Goodnight ambles over 'til he's nearly just next to Billy, looking lost in thought, a little unsteady on his feet from liquor. Billy forces his shoulders to ease and waits.
"You probably oughtta get outta here," Goodnight tells him, real quietly.
Billy does. He doesn't expect Goodnight to follow.
He didn't intend to travel with Goodnight in the slightest. As he's hurriedly fastening his saddlebags to his horse, Goodnight keeps up his rambling, though -- Billy is getting the impression that this Goodnight talks a lot. And Goodnight lights a cigarette and asks where Billy is headed next, and, a little panicked, a little annoyed, waiting for the sound of men on his tail, Billy says, "I don't know."
"Come with me to Dallas," Goodnight says.
Billy glares over his shoulder, but Goodnight is reclining against the stable doors, watching smoke trickle out of his mouth. "Why?" Billy asks.
Goodnight doesn't look at him, just shrugs.
Billy grits his teeth. "I travel alone."
"Well, might be nice to change it up, don't you reckon?"
The bags lashed to his horse are steadied. "You don't even know my name."
"You could tell it to me," Goodnight says. Leans his head over all relaxed. "My name's Goodnight Robicheaux, at your service."
Billy doesn't know why he doesn't just kill this man. Or shake him, at least -- tell him to fetch his things and then leave while he's not paying attention, if he feels like being subtle. "I'm wanted," he says.
"I know," Goodnight says. "You know, I do actually know your name. Or, well, what they say your name is. Seems like bad luck to bring it up, though, don’t it?”
He wants to be immune to Goodnight's charm. Because if there's one thing he can tell already about Goodnight, it's that he's charming. That's the only way he'd managed to warn the sheriff off with just a few words.
(And the only way he’s tempting Billy to give in.)
Charm, maybe a reputation. It's hard to know. Billy tries hard not to think about it, about how Goodnight's attention feels like something he wants to chase. Like he wants to preen and perform enough to keep Goodnight after him. Turns, checks his knives without looking away from Goodnight. Two of them lost in men's chests, men who weren't worth it but men who'd pressed too far past the muzzy line of Billy's pride.
He studies Goodnight in the late afternoon light and wonders if Goodnight's a proud man, too. He doesn't think so, not with the way his beard is untrimmed and his hair is long in a way that makes it obvious his hair's not usually long.
"Okay," Billy says.
The ride to Dallas is only quiet when Goodnight is sleeping. The man is every bit the charming rambler Billy had assumed he was, but there's still something about him that keeps Billy searching. Goodnight tells stories about the war, about travelling the Eastern coast and gradually drifting west into the country.
The first few nights they make camp together, it takes Billy hours to fall asleep. He watches Goodnight twitch and whimper with his eyes screwed closed, lines in his face first blurred by firelight and then, when the fire dies, made stark by starlight.
Goodnight always wakes first, but Billy wakes minutes later, curled up around himself and watching Goodnight talk to himself as he tends to their camp, drawing the fire back up and warming water for coffee, which he insists on drinking every morning. Usually Billy lets himself keep lying under the warmth of his own blankets, savoring the feeling of being awake but relaxed, warm and drowsy.
The morning before they reach Dallas, he even falls back asleep for a quarter of an hour. Wakes back up to Goodnight a few feet away, sprawled against a tree, a book in his lap, squinting as he turns the pages. Billy studies Goodnight for a few minutes, still under his blankets.
For the first time in a long time, he misses the feeling of sleeping beside another body. He misses shared warmth. The comfortable heaviness of someone's arm across his chest. He pretends he doesn't feel this; he pretends for a long time.
Goodnight doesn't talk much, that day they ride into Dallas. Billy makes a few efforts to get him started again -- asks if he's been there before; Goodnight tells a story about being challenged to a duel over a woman's attentions, successfully talking his way out of it.
"Most of the time, I can talk my way outta near anything," he says wistfully. Billy glances over to him -- he likes to ride side-by-side. He's staring up to the sky, face shadowed by his wide gray hat. "Anywhere they know my name, you'd think I could talk my way outta murder." He rolls his head toward Billy, meets Billy's eyes. He has one gold tooth that glints in the Texas sun when he grins. "Then again, guess I already murdered enough to earn that, hm?"
Billy doesn't know what to say to that.
Silence for a long time. "If that bartender knew how many men I've killed," Billy says staring at the space between his horse's ears, feeling his body absorb the shock of his horse's gait across the sun-baked earth, "he wouldn't have said what he said."
"Do tell," Goodnight says. There's something dark and suggestive to the way he says it: like a dare.
Billy has always made a habit of riding with reins in one hand when possible -- his left hand, to be specific. All the better for a fast draw, keeping his right hand at his gunbelt. But today he adjusts his hat, feels the sun beating down on his shoulders, lets the reins fall for a moment so he can roll up his shirtsleeves. He watches the horizon the way he does whenever he's traveling alone. It never seems to change, not at first, but eventually some new town always slips into view, almost without him noticing. "I came to America when I was eight years old," he begins.
And Goodnight listens.
Dallas is chaotic and bright, dusty and harsh. "We could split a room," Goodnight drawls as they're edging up on its outskirts. "Don't mean to oblige you to keep me company any longer than you have to, but I'm hardly flush with spare coin myself. Don't reckon you're much better off."
Billy rolls his eyes, kicks his horse into a trot for a few seconds, turns it over in his mind the same way he'd turn over candy on his tongue as a boy. "How long are you staying here?" he asks. Says it toward the horizon; just trusts Goodnight will hear him.
"Oh, who knows," Goodnight says, voice gone soft again. "'til I got reason to leave, I suppose. 'til I run outta money, most likely."
Billy looks back over his shoulder, sees Goodnight spaced out. "What do you normally do for money?" he asks. This is the most he's talked to another person in a long time. The most he's talked to someone not paying him in years.
Goodnight shrugs, settles back in the saddle. He looks over to Billy, smiles all casual. "This and that," he says. "Been tryin' my hand with bounty huntin', but all that's found me lately is a ridin' companion."
Billy knows his blood should run cold at that: the flippant reminder Goodnight had come looking for him specifically. Goodnight had shown him the warrant, his bounty and his face copied down onto worn yellow paper, then tossed the warrant in their campfire.
But all Billy can do is swallow a smile and cast his gaze back towards Dallas.
They do split a room, one with two narrow beds. Billy's too used to sleeping on wood floors to complain about the mattresses, but Goodnight throws himself down and talks to the ceiling about the house he grew up in. "Nicer than this," he says, over and over again, "but Lord this is better than the army, ain't it, yes it is."
Goodnight talks to himself like that a lot, quiet repetitive phrases like he's soothing a child. Their first night camping together, Billy had woken up in the middle of the night to Goodnight sitting over the half-dead embers of their fire, murmuring to himself: "It's all over, ain't it; all behind us" over and over again. He wasn't sure if Goodnight had known he was awake. He'd turned over and fallen back asleep, too tired to wonder.
After settling in, they eat together in the back corner of the saloon across the street, both of them keeping the brims of their hats down low. Even though their conversation is halting, it's nice to sit near someone, both of you hiding, if from different things. Billy eats single-mindedly, shovelling down food, barely tasting the cornbread he uses to mop up the sauce left on his plate.
It isn’t charm, the way Goodnight offhandedly pushes his plate towards Billy and ignores Billy grabbing at it. Something kinder than charm. “You’re sure?” Billy asks.
“I’m full’sa tick; you want a drink?”
Billy shrugs. When Goodnight gets up, Billy forces himself to eat slowly. He used to eat so fast he’d make himself sick. It’s not great food, but it’s better than hardtack dipped in watery beans ‘til soft enough to chew. The other man comes back a few minutes later with two tall glasses, slides one over to Billy, who’s sucking salt off his fingers. “To easy travels,” Goodnight suggests.
Billy grabs his glass and wordlessly clinks it against Goodnight’s. Goodnight drinks fast, and something in his manner suggests he paid for a couple gulps of whiskey at the bar before returning. He seems easier, more steady.
It's nice, having someone to sit next to, but Billy won't let himself get used to it. It won't last.
It won’t last because Billy won’t let it. Because he isn’t the sort of man to keep companions around. But slowly he admits to himself that he will regret in when Goodnight and him part ways. But then again, that's the consequence of living: bleeding. The minute you stop bleeding, that means you're dead.
It’s weeks later, in another inn, in another town. Billy can’t quite remember all the names, but he could find it on a map if he needed to. Easier to let Goodnight do the navigating, though. Goodnight’s gotten a trim and a shave and looks younger. Something about it riles at Billy. He looks at Goodnight and wants to start something. Not necessarily a fight. But he’ll settle for a fight. That’s usually what he settles for.
So when Goodnight finishes his supper and pushes his plate a few inches away, the way he always does to say have at it if you’re still hungry, that’s the only spark Billy needs. His hands itch.
“I’m not a starving dog,” he snarls.
Goodnight startles; good. Billy does his best to stare him down.
Goodnight gets up. Comes back with a bottle of whiskey from the bar that he settles in the middle of the table even though Billy’s only halfway through his first beer and Goodnight just halfway through his third.
Billy doesn’t know what he’s expecting. A flinching apology, an insult. Instead:
“I know what hunger looks like.” Goodnight’s gold tooth glints in the low light; his voice is dark and quiet. He drags the bottle of whiskey towards himself. The scrape of glass on the tabletop seems louder than it should against the constant din of the saloon. “I ain’t sayin’ I know it the same way you do, but I know what it looks like, I know what it feels like. What was it for you? Railroads?”
“Four months in good ol’ Camp Chase for me, and wasn’t like the boys up north felt much like sharin’ their supper with us rebel trash,” Goody says. He watches the whiskey coming out the bottle like a vulture watches something dying: real keen. He pours ‘til the glass is half-full, then shoves the cork back in the bottle, swirls his glass. “Ain’t sayin’ I don’t understand why they felt that way; real hard to extend the hand of charity to a group of men you perceive as allied with the folks starvin’ your brothers, I know that alright. Four months in a Union camp taught me that mighty well.”
Billy ducks his head a little so he can’t see Goodnight. He doesn’t think; no, he eats. Usually he scoops up hot food with his left hand so the fingertips of his right hand don’t get burned, making sure not to hinder the speed of his quickdraw, but the food’s gone cold, it doesn’t matter.
“I do not want to condescend to you,” Goodnight says, “but neither do I want to be a poor host. You see the dilemma? Tell me, Billy Rocks, when I’m insultin’, and I’ll stop. You don’t tell me, though, I won’t know.”
“Goodnight,” he starts to say.
“Call me Goody,” says Goodnight. “We’re no strangers.”
And they’re not.
After a moment, he grabs for Goodnight’s -- Goody’s -- plate. Might as well. Not a whole lot of talking Billy can think to do, but that seems to settle the matter. At least for the moment.
That night is the night before they head yet more westward, and they turn in early. Billy wakes when something hits the floor, and he hears a sharp gasp--
Goodnight and his nightmares, then. He waits for a few minutes, eyes closed in the dark, waiting for Goodnight to pull himself together, crawl back into bed, pretend nothing’s happened.
It doesn’t happen. Billy fights a sigh and pushes himself up to see Goodnight sitting with his back to the wall, his head in one hand, shaking.
“Goody,” Billy says, real quiet, the nickname for his friend heavy on his tongue, like any new word. “Goody, can you hear me?”
Goodnight nods, but he nods the way people nod when they’re pretending to understand something so they’ll be left alone. He moves jerkily, his eyes seem glassy.
“Goody, Goody,” Billy says, more to himself than Goodnight. He closes his eyes and presses his palm to his forehead. He rubs his eyes, trying to feel more awake. The bright wide moon lights the room up enough he can see Goodnight’s eyes tracking him as he kicks his way out of bed and lowers himself to the floor. He crawls over to Goodnight on his hands and knees, moving slowly, waiting for any sign that Goodnight’s about to snap and panic and attack.
Goodnight lets him approach. Billy shuffles himself up against the wall next to Goodnight until their shoulders press together, and that’s when Goodnight buckles over himself and sucks his breath in through his teeth, half a broken sob in the middle of the night.
Billy isn’t used to comfort -- to experiencing it or offering it. But he reaches out anyways and rests one hand on the back of Goodnight’s neck, draws it down to the the point between his shoulder blades where his spine is still pressed up against the wall. Then draws it back up again, down again. He remembers, vaguely, the way his mother comforted him when he was a child and sick or distraught. She would repeat his name over and over again right into his ear. Billy doesn’t do that for Goodnight, but he edges a little closer and then a little closer and then a little closer until he’s folded half-over Goodnight’s body, his ribcage to Goodnight’s back, one arm wrapped around Goodnight’s shoulders. Goodnight is warm and wiry, first rigid against Billy but slowly relaxing, his breaths slowing. Billy keeps stroking his back, slow and steady, for long enough that he lets his eyes drift closed, lets his touch against Goodnight’s back be the only thing tethering him to wakefulness.
Maybe that’s why it surprises him so little when Goodnight sits up and leans into him; maybe that’s why he pulls Goodnight’s body close against his and shivers a little at Goodnight’s face against his neck, the heat of his breath. Maybe that’s why.
He wakes to Goodnight shifting against him. Thin pink morning light has thrown itself across the inside of their room, and in that light Billy sees Goodnight stumble to his feet and stretch. His shirt has slipped out from his trousers, and were it brighter, Billy might’ve seen skin above Goodnight’s waistline. As it is, Billy twists against the wall and stumbles to his feet, grasping past Goodnight for his own bed, only realizing he’s cold when he kicks his feet under the sheets.
He falls back asleep while watching Goodnight stare out the room’s single window, hands on his hips. Billy has watched a lot of things die; this is the first time he’s had the sense he’s watching something come back to life.