Goodnight Robicheaux has only been traveling with Billy Rocks for about six months when he nearly gets shot in the head. They’re in a shitkicker settlment in the Dakota Territory, where men are eager to spend the gold they find in the creek and when Goody passes the hat around to collect Billy’s winnings, a man with no front teeth and a bad attitude levels a gun at him.
“I don’t give a shit who you were in the war,” he snarls, his six shooter leveled right between Goody’s eyes. “I didn’t fight in it and I didn’t own no slaves." He presses forward until the barrel is resting between his eyebrows. "I oughta blow your fucking head off your goddamn shoulders on principle for having your fucking boy cheat like that.”
“That’s awful rude of you,” he’d replied with a calm he didn’t feel. The pistol was cold against his skin but it could get hot fast, so fast he'd be dead before he could feel the temperature change.
The man opened his mouth to say something else when blood erupted from his throat, spraying Goody in the face like a boat sprung a leak. It’s hot and thick and for a second, he’s not in the cold, wooded mountains but the sweltering, muddy trenches watching the face of the boy’s lying next to him explode into a putty of bone and flesh. It’s over in an instant as the prospector drops to the ground dead and he turns to see Billy standing there, stuck in a follow through position. His hat is still on which means he hadn’t bothered with the fancy work of his hair pin. He’d gone for the quick efficiency of his better knives to take out the threat.
Goody cleared his throat and reached into his pocket for his handkerchief. Billy laughed at him the first time he pulled it out, asking what kind of rough rider carried a pocket square but he wasn’t laughing as Goody mopped the gore off his face. When he was a bit more presentable he turned back to the crowd, that had gone quiet. He gives them the smile that had charmed half Louisiana when he was a young buck and the men in attendance flinch collectively.
“I believe a few of you have yet to make good on your bets?”
Men scramble forward, dropping nuggets, bills and coins into his hat. He waits until the last one is done and then turns to Billy who has not moved except to straighten up, square his shoulders and fold his arms over his chest.
“You going to get that knife back?” he asks when they’re alone with the corpse, jerking his head at the body.
Billy shakes his head. “I’ll buy a new one.”
“Are you sure?” Billy had killed men before in the short time they’d been together. He always took his weapon back.
“Yeah. Let’s go.” He starts walking, making a beeline for the brothel that was as good as a boarding house in this not-quite town. “You need to clean up.”
“Sure thing Billy.”
Word had spread by the time they make it into the building. The working girls don’t want to go near them, which Goody can’t blame them for. He must look like a nightmare with blood all over his face. He stands near the door and lets Billy do the talking for once. The madame doesn’t dismiss him or refuse to talk to him. She just nods at whatever he says and when Billy turns and waves Billy in, Goody follows him up to the room they’ve rented.
Billy pushes him down on the brass bed and points a finger at his chest, accusatory. “Sit.”
“I’m sitting, Billy.”
“Good. Don’t get up.”
“All right.” For an interminable stretch that is probably only about five minutes, they stay like that - Goody sitting on the edge of the bed and Billy standing in front of him staring down at him. Then there’s a soft knock on the door.
“Come in,” Billy calls and the door creaks open.
A young woman with painted lips and cheeks comes in with a large pail of water and a knot of dark rags. She sets them on the floor and looks at them nervously. “Uh, Miss Maggie said you wanted this. Did, uh, did you fellas want anything else?” Her eyes keep flicking from the mess on Goody’s face to Billy and back again and it’s clear what she means. It’s also clear that she’s terrified they’ll say yes.
“No, darlin’. We’re just fine,” Goody says with a smile he hopes is gentle. She looks scared out of her wits. He supposes no smile is reassuring on a face covered in death. “Give the girl something for her trouble will you?”
“This isn’t the Astor House, Goody,” Billy grumbled. He pulled a bill out of the fold they collected from their winnings and handed it to her anyway before basically shoving her out the door. He grabbed the pale she’d brought up and brought it to the bedside.
“Everyone’s lacking in good manners today,” Goody mused, finally sagging as Billy dropped to his knees before him. “What is the world coming to?”
“Goody,” Billy says gently, dipping first rag in the water. From this close, Goody could see steam rising from it. “Shut up.”
“That’s talking,” Billy says, bringing the cloth to his face. The wet rag feels blessedly hot and despite the warmth of the day, it wipes him clean, like the manservant they pretend he is but neither of their pride has ever allowed before.
He sits still under Billy’s ministrations and contemplates the man before him, frowning and focused as he cleans Goody. He’s still wearing his hat. It makes Goody want to knock it off his head, remove the pin from his hair and run his fingers through the strands, pull him him close like that. He wants to hold him by those dark locks that look so soft and press kisses to his face as he whispers his thanks, over and over because he has seen Billy Rocks kill quite a few men since they decided to throw their lot in together but this is the first time he’s killed a man just for Goodnight Robicheaux.
Then again, maybe Goody was kidding himself. Maybe Billy had killed that prospector for his own sake. After all, if Goody were gone, the fifty-fifty setup they have now would fall apart.
No respectable bank would give an Asian man an account in these parts. They’ve been sending big chunks of their winnings back east to Goody’s bank in Louisiana via the Western Union and Wells Fargo every time they hit a big enough city. It’s safer than burying their gains in the dirt and hoping for the best and when they need it, Goody can always wire for the cash.
But what if that man had blown his head off today? What would Billy have done? He didn’t have access to Goody’s accounts. The money, money Billy had done all the work to earn, would have been out of his reach forever. He’d have had to start over, with nothing but his knives and his wits.
Billy could make do with nothing but those two commodities. Goody knew that better than anyone. But goddamnit, the whole point of this was that he shouldn’t have to, not ever again. That’s why they were here together, so that Billy didn’t have to fight so hard anymore and so that Goody didn’t have to be lost and alone. Fifty-fifty. Equal shares.
But like this? With Billy on his knees, taking care of Goody, again (And how many times had he had to take care of Goodnight in the short time they’d been together? Goody had already lost count.) they could never be true partners. Not really.
“I’m not done. Why are you moving?”
He reaches out and Goody bats his hand away. “I’m fine, Billy. You got it. Listen. We need to talk.”
“That waistcoat is ruined. Get out of it,” He plucks at the buttons on Goody’s coat, untying his cravat and dropping it to the floor. “The smell’s making me sick. We’re trashing it.”
“No, hey, stop.” He catches Billy’s wrist before can push the vest off Goody’s shoulders. “We need talk about today.”
“You were stupid. I saved you. The end. Conversation over.”
“And if you hadn’t?” Goody asks. “Billy, what happens if you don’t save me next time.”
Billy’s scowl twists his whole face now. “You’re not going to be stupid. There won’t be a next time.”
“And what if I catch a fever? Or trip down some stairs and break my neck? What then? Billy, be reasonable for just a second.”
“Dwelling on what-ifs is not reasonable either,” Billy snaps, finally yanking the vest all the way off. “Ugh, fuck, it's on your shirt too. Of course, it is. ”
“Billy,” he sighs, trying again. “Listen. I’ve been thinking about this.”
“For how long? Fifteen minutes? Twenty?”
Billy has them there. He’s been thinking about this moment since it happened. But them? He’s been thinking about the two of them, and how they work, since the day Billy agreed to leave Texas with him.
“You couldn’t get to our stash if I’d died today.”
“I’d make do.”
“You shouldn’t have to make do. That’s the whole point. So I was just thinking, next time, we could prevent this.”
“Next time you almost die?” Billy says evenly. “Or next time, meaning when you die. Before me.”
“Well.” Goody rubs the back of his neck. “Yes. To both I suppose.”
Billy sits back on his heels and glares at him. “So you think there’s a way to be prepared for the inevitability of me being solvent after I watch you die. Is that what you’re telling me?”
All the air feels like it’s been pulled out of the room. His throat feels tight with the cravat he’s no longer wearing. “Well, you don’t have to put it like that. I’m just trying to cover our bases.”
“But that is what you’re saying. You think you’re going to die and so you want to set something up for when that happens. I’m supposed to be all right with that, aren’t I?”
Goody tilts his head. “Why wouldn’t you? This partnership is supposed to be about us looking out for each other. That’s all I’m suggesting.”
“I don’t think I get what you’re suggesting, Goody, besides the fact that you think you’re going to die sooner rather than later and honestly, that’s not a suggestion I’m open to.”
“I’m not saying that. I’m just saying-“ He groans and drops his head. “I’m talking about an economic arrangement, just in case the worst should happen.”
Billy is glaring at him harder now. “An economic arrangement.”
“Yes. An economic arrangement, one that would enable you to have full access to what we’ve collected and anything else of mine that could help you if I were gone.”
“What’s in it for you?”
“Yeah. For you, Goody. What do you get out of this little arrangement?”
“I get a partner, fifty-fifty, equal shares, even and fair, until death do us part.”
Billy swallows hard and takes off his hat before standing. “That sounds an awful lot like vows.”
“Well, I don’t think vows are necessary. We’d just go to a town with a courthouse and a telegraph office so we can file marriage papers with my lawyer back south.”
“Marriage papers,” Billy repeats evenly. “Filing marriage papers for the two of us, that’s the plan?”
“If you’re amenable to the prospect. That way, you’d be on all the bank paperwork, and the land I own back in in Louisiana’d be yours too. You know there’s not a court in the country’d give you the share you deserve otherwise no matter what we draw up and I know you won’t take charity.”
Billy laughs and starts to pace. “Oh, no of course not but getting married. That’s not charity.”
Goody watches him move, sleek and graceful and still the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen, all these months later. He wants to do anything he can to put them on the even ground they should have been from the beginning. Billy is his equal, if not his better, and Goody would do anything to show him, to make him understand that all that he has and is belongs to Billy too. “No.”
“And that's why you want to do it. For economic solvency.”
That makes him smile a little. “So you do listen when I speak.”
“Like I have a choice. You don’t anything but talk. But would it hurt you to talk about something worth while once in awhile?”
“It’s like you don’t even hear yourself. You just make noise to fill a room.”
“The fuck you do. Economics? Damnit, Goodnight, economics is a terrible fucking reason to marry someone. It’s no reason at all.”
Goody chuckles, thinking about his brother who married the Lawrence girl before the war simply because their families properties touch even though everyone in town knew they loathed each other. He thought about his friend Isabelle who he’d used to make love with in the woods when they were sixteen who let her daddy marry her off to a woman from New York she’d never even met, twenty-six years her senior (with three children of her own already nearly grown) because she'd inherited a shipping company from her late husband and Isabelle’s family owned docks that their town lived and died on. He thinks about the boys in his company who married to erase family debts and to expand property values of a block of stores. He remembers how much his baby brother Arnaud’s dowry was - how many acres of land his husband walked away with plus an entire household’s worth of slaves, and thinks that Billy is wrong. “You clearly haven’t spent any time back east, mon ami.”
“How far east do you think you’re talking?” Billy spits in his face, coming to a halt in front of him. Billy only throws their true differences in his face when he’s really angry which, thus far, has been twice. Both times has been when Goody don’t something dangerously stupid.
“You knew what I meant.“
“Then don’t act like our worlds are that different. The white man isn;t the only one will who sell his kinship ties and call it a business arrangement. Because we have that where I come from too. I’ve done it. I said never again, you hear me, Goodnight Robicheaux?”
Goody blinks at him taken aback. “You’re married?”
“No, asshole.” He stops and seems to sag in on himself. “I’ve been sold.”
Billy rarely talked about how he got to America and Goody never asked. From the few stray comments he had made, Goody knew that he had been young, younger than he let on for his English to be so flawless. He knew there was an indenture involved, everyone who’d seen his warrant knew that but the idea that his family could have been the one to send him, against his will, in bondage, makes Goody want to scream and cry and cross the Pacific Ocean to beat a few folks bloody who might already be dead by now.
He cuts Goody off with a hand slicing through the air like one of his knives. “What makes a family shouldn’t be bought and sold. That’s my opinion, is all.”
He holds out a hand towards Billy. It’s his right one, caked in dried blood from when he tried to clean his face earlier. When Billy takes it, it isn’t to hold it like Goody was hoping. Instead he goes back to removing traces of the dead man from Goody’s skin with the same methodical care he gives his knives, rinsing the cloth between each firm stroke.
“Billy,” he says gently, “I am not talking about buying or selling here.”
“That’s what economics is,” Billy says, unbuttoning Goody’s cuff and rolling the sleeve up to get at a few stray splatters.
“I’m talking about… Look at me. Please.”
“I’m cleaning up the mess you made yet again right now, Goody. That’s enough of you for the moment.”
“Cher, please,” Goody begs, letting the endearment slip out easy, lubricated by the plea because he stopped pretending to be a strong man long ago, in mud and blood and death, years before Lee surrendered the rotten core of the Confederacy to Grant. “Please look at me.”
“I’m looking,” Billy says, gaze fixed determinedly over his shoulder.
“You’re not.” He holds out his hand. He lets it hang in the air between them, like all the things they haven’t said. Billy has to take what he offers. He’s always had to be the one to take what Goody offered, since the moment they met.
Billy doesn’t take his hand but he does meet his eyes. “You’re supposed to be different. That’s why I’m here. I thought you were on my side.”
“I am. Yours is the only side I can imagine taking, in anything. I swear I’m not talking about buying or selling you or me or any mix-matched combination thereof. I talk too much. You know that. So that’s not what I meant. And I’m not talking about owning, not unless-“ He breaks off because it’s too much. They’ve only been traveling together for six months. Half a year is nothing but the way he feels, Jesus, it’s everything.
Billy’s dark eyes are boring holes in him. “Unless what?”
“Unless that’s what you want,” Goody manages. “To own me.”
“Goody,” Billy says on a sharp intake of breath.
“If you want,” Goody rushes on, filling the air with noise because thats what he does. He talks. He makes noise over the should of his fear, his pounding hear, his terror. He talks so that no one can see the cracks in the shell where a man’s supposed to be. That’s never worked on Billy but he’s trying anyway. “It’d be a formality anyway. I’ve belonged to you since that first damn day, when you knocked those assholes down and then spit blood on the floor at me like some combination of a fuck you and an invitation to dance. I ain't never going to belong to anyone but you. After today, this was just the only way I could think of to protect you, should something happen to me.”
“You want me to own you.”
“You already do,” Goody manages, holding up both hands in a gesture of utter defeat. “You make me feel alive when I was a dead man walking. I’ve been yours since we met. I just…You… Goddamnit. I’m usually better at expressing myself than this.”
That makes Billy laugh, short but loud and real, the kind of laugh Billy saves for when they’re alone. It makes his eyes twinkle and his cheeks crease. “You are. But I think I take your meaning. Only thing is, don’t these things usually go both ways? The belonging. The being owned.”
Goody swallows hard, bracing for rejection. “It can.”
“So I should get a say.”
“You have all the say.” Billy always has all the control in their relationship. Sometimes, Goody feels like he’s crawling after Billy like a dog desperate for a scratch behind the ears from a benevolent master. It’d be degrading if he didn’t like it so damn much.
“And if I were to say yes?” Billy asks, moving forward, close, so close that when he reaches out his hands land on Goody’s shoulders. “What then?”
“Well, that’d depend on if you were still amenable to marriage or if you were wanting to, uh, live in sin as it were.”
“Let’s say I was amenable.”
“Then the next town with a courthouse and a telegraph and a Western Union, I marry you, we send the papers back to my lawyer in Louisiana; and then we get on like we’ve been getting on, but as husbands instead of just partners.”
Billy’s lips quirk up into a wicked little smile, moving his left hand so that his thumb stroked up and down over Goody’s jugular vein. “That simple huh?”
Goody chuckled even as he shivered at the touch. “Probably not.”
“People won’t take too kindly too it, you and me. A chinaman and the hero of the Civil War.”
“You’re not from China,” Goody says, reaching out to take Billy by the waist and pull him closer. Billy just rolls his eyes.
“We’ll figure something out. It’s what we do.”
“It is,” Billy agrees. Then he smiles, mischief in his eyes. “You going to make me take your name?”
“You going make me keep your house?”
Goody laughs. Looking around the brothel bedroom as if to ask 'what house?' “No.”
“You going to make me wait until we’re proper husbands to kiss you for the first time?”
Goody feels like all the air has been sucked out of the room. When he does speak, all he can manage is a whisper. Billy’s lips have him mesmerized. “No.”
“Good. Because I wasn’t planning to.”
When Billy kisses him, climbing into his lap for leverage and what Goody has to imagine is an optimum angle, Goody catches a hint of the dead man’s blood on his lips. It’s coppery and bitter but he can taste Billy through it and that’s best damn thing he’s ever tasted. He is all heat and warm promise and want. He’s the rest of Goody’s life stretching out before him and for the first time since he crawled out of the hate soaked fields of the war, that life is one he is excited to live.