His head was throbbing with pain and he heard what seemed to be a hundred voices. They were talking through a fog, though; muffled and indistinct.
Ben Wade grimaced as he tried to sit up, but his head hurt so darned bad he just fell back onto the…where was he?
He moved his hand along his side and felt a rough blanket beneath him. Farther away he felt cold, rough dirt. Wade forced himself to open his eyes, but he saw nothing but black. Blinking a few times helped his eyes focus and he realized he was staring at the night sky above him.
He turned his head slowly, closing his eyes as the dull ache in his head seemed to move about. The wave of nausea that washed over him just then only added to his extreme discomfort.
“Ben? Thank God you’re waking up.”
A woman’s voice broke through the fog swirling round in his head and Ben opened his eyes again.
The owner of the voice knelt beside him, and he frowned in confusion as he recognized Emma, the woman from the saloon in Bisbee.
“What are...?” he rasped, but his throat was dry and parched and he broke into a fit of coughing before he could finish the question.
Emma reached for a canteen then helped him sit up before she held it to his lips.
Ben gulped a few mouthfuls down, choking just a bit as he did so, and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. He finally caught his breath and looked at her again.
“What are you doing here, Emma?” he asked, wincing as she touched the back of his head.
“You hit your head pretty hard on that rock. It knocked you out for a little while, and I just want to make sure the bleeding stopped.”
“What rock?” Ben asked, holding still while Emma’s fingers moved through his hair. She touched his scalp gently, but he still gritted his teeth through the pain. When he couldn’t take anymore, he reached up to move her hand away and realized something.
“Where’s my damned hat?”
He turned this way and that as he searched for his expensive black hat, and Emma sighed impatiently as she reached over to his saddle bag and pulled it out.
“Your head might be bashed in and you’re worried about your hat?” she chuffed a humorless laugh. “It’s right here, Ben,” she said, dropping it in his lap.
His disgruntled expression cleared as he perched the hat over his long mussed hair. “So I fell and I hit a rock? What else happened? And what are you doing here?”
Emma looked at him as though he’d lost his mind, and Ben was beginning to think that’s exactly what had happened.
“A rattlesnake spooked your horse and he threw you. That’s when you fell and hit your head.”
Ben was about to ask about his horse, but the black whinnied just then and he turned to see him standing nearby, a brown mare at his side.
“Where did that mare come from?” he asked, turning to Emma with another confused expression. “How’d you find me out here?”
“What are you talking about? We’ve been riding for Mexico all day, crossed the border ‘bout three hours ago, when the snake spooked your horse. We’ve been here since then.” She brushed her soft brown hair out of her eyes. “I was gonna ride south for some help if you didn’t wake up by morning.”
Ben looked at her, his mouth open. “We’ve been riding for Mexico all day?” he finally managed. “We’ve crossed the border? Where?”
“Some small town you said was called Naco,” she replied, watching him. Smiling then, she added, “You said it wasn’t the pueblucho you was telling me about back in the saloon, but we were heading that way.”
He struggled to remember, gasping as a wave of dizziness and nausea washed over him. Bits and pieces slowly came back to him, but….
“We rode from Bisbee?” he asked, his voice weak and strained.
She nodded. “I crawled out that back window with you, remember? You stole that brown mare for me from the stable and we hightailed it outta there. You really musta hit your head hard.”
“You didn’t crawl out that window, Emma, you…” Ben looked at her. “Dan Evans was downstairs when we left the room. ‘Cause of him, I got arrested and dragged all the way to Contention, put on the damned train to Yuma.” He looked down at his lap then. “He was….”
“What in hell you talking about?” Emma asked, nonplussed. “How do you know Dan Evans anyway? He just lives outside of Bisbee with his family, on that poor no-good ranch of his. When did he get you arrested and dragged to Contention?” She shook her head. “You’re talking crazy. You need to lie down and rest some.”
Ben watched as she took his hat from his head and tucked it back into his saddle bag.
“You hungry? You got some dried beef in your bag here.”
He started to shake his head but the dizziness threatened again. “Not right now.”
She threw him a worried glance then closed the saddle bag.
Still trying to make sense of things, Ben reached up and touched his face. He immediately realized there were no cuts. But Byron McElroy had beaten him for killing Tucker. He looked down at his wrists and realized there were no bands from the manacles that he’d worn. He unbuttoned the collar of his shirt and saw there were no black marks from the torture he’d endured at the hands of Mr. Bowles and his thugs. Finally, he moved his left arm, checking for the pain which would have come from the gunshot wound he’d gotten while running for the station with Dan, but his arm didn’t hurt at all.
Emma watched him, shaking her head. “That was some dream you had. But it’s over now so lay back down and we can sleep till morning.”
She helped him lay back, her eyes sympathetic as she noticed the discomfort etched across his handsome face. When he had finally relaxed and was breathing easier, she settled beside him.
“We gonna reach our pueblucho tomorrow, Ben?”
Ben finally smiled. “We sure will, darling. You gonna sing pretty for those people down there? Remember how I said they pay well to hear a white woman sing?”
“I’ll sing for’em if I don’t freeze to death out here tonight.” She snuggled closer and he pulled the blanket over them both, then gathered her into his arms.
“I’ll keep you plenty warm, Emma, don’t you worry ‘bout that,” he said before he captured her lips with his. As the kiss deepened, his last thought was that Emma would give him a much better dream than the first one he’d had.