Hector wasn't sure who he was condemning to damnation and foolishness--the battered giant riding next to him or himself.
He looked once more at the huge creature with the blood trickling over his eye and remembered that glance they'd exchanged.
The scene replayed in his head, and his grip on the reins tightened.
The brute was being beaten down, slowly and viciously, the rope tightening against his throat with each round of the increasingly ugly attack. But then he'd looked up at Hector with something that might have been hope if either of them had believed in such a thing.
On his knees, beyond begging...
Misery, fool horse that he was, shook his head and snorted at the pulled reins while Hector came back to the present, breathing hard.
He felt the smile twist on his face. There was his answer. He'd thought for an instant that the fellow had wanted him more than rescue. Perhaps something even beyond that, something that called to Hector's darkest, strongest desires. That meant he was the bigger fool. Oh, no doubt about it. And long since damned to hell and back. But he couldn't have helped his instinctive response to that look.
At least he could curb his instincts and do the smart thing now.
"I'm on my way to San Antonio. You have the rest of the country to hide in, boy. Get."
Stupid to call the hulk who towered over him a boy, but there it was. Despite the abuse he'd suffered, he looked like one of the young recruits Hector had commanded less than a year ago. A boy. If the big fellow took offense at the name, all the better for them both.
The man swallowed and licked the swelling on his lip before he spoke. "I'm on my way to San Antonio, then."
Hector shut his eyes. He didn't have time for this. His physical weakness was coming back, along with the other weaknesses. He wasn't sure how much longer he'd stay in the saddle, but before he fell, he was going to get rid of the evidence that his old perversities could still get a grip on him.
He had more important things to do than think about subdued and bound giants and what might become of them. He had his death to handle.
"We'll both travel better separately." He grasped the pommel to keep from slumping.
He had to finish this quickly. It should be easy enough to deal with a simpleton with a brain that was undoubtedly as thick as his German accent. Dear God, he wasn't sure which one of them stood out more in this Texas countryside. Together they made doubly fine targets for a vengeful search party.
"Not you. You need rest. Food." His unwanted partner kept knee to knee with him on his stolen horse.
The thought of food made Hector want to gag, but rest? Yes. He could use that. If he had a real bed, he'd crawl in and refuse to leave. He couldn't remember when exhaustion hadn't dragged at him. It was making him careless--had made him stop at that cursed two-bit town when he should have ridden on until dark. It probably served him right that he hadn't been able to rest there, and he was almost done for now.
There was no almost about it. He realized he was pitching forward.
The other man reached over to pick him up out of the saddle before Hector could even try to resist. Then he cradled Hector against his chest as if Hector was a swooning girl. Since the dizziness hit full force then, harder than it ever had, Hector couldn't protest.
"I know where to go. It will be safe for a little while. It is not fancy like you are used to, mein Herr, but it is safe to rest there until we are ready to proceed."
He wished he had spent more of his time in Europe studying languages. Perhaps then he'd understand his large companion better. Whatever he'd been called, though, Hector caught the note of reverence in the foreign words.
Hmmm. Like it or not, he'd found himself a companion. He'd tried to do the right thing, but it appeared the devil was intent on rewarding him. If the boy was trustworthy, perhaps it would even be safe enough to take some laudanum whenever they reached this safe haven. The bliss of escaping the unrelenting ache in his body beckoned. For now, he needn't be awake and watchful. He had a guard dog to look out for him.
If he could believe in the big man's words.
Hector forced himself not to give in to the blackness that was edging in. Trusting anyone, particularly a stranger, was stupid, and he wasn't stupid yet. Even if the boy was willing, he might not be able.
Hector raised his hand and touched a welt on his new bodyguard's face. The younger man winced but didn't flinch from his touch.
"How badly are you hurt?"
The man's stoic, battered face melted into something so unguardedly sweet that this time Hector winced for him. "Not so much, sir. I am strong."
He trusted Hector. Hector touched the trickle of blood on the man's lip, and when the slickness of the liquid transferred to his finger, he shivered.
That answered his question of a few minutes back in yet a new way. Trusting Hector made his companion the bigger fool. He had no idea what Hector could do to him. What he longed to do.
It was dark when Hector opened his eyes. He tried to remember what had happened in the last hour or two, but it was hopeless. He'd fought his weakness but obviously not for long. Now he had no idea where he was or what the time might be. Was it night, or was he in some kind of cave? He reached for the tin of matches he kept in his vest.
He didn't like the dark.
When he was about to strike a match, a strong grip caught him by the wrist. "I have a lantern. One moment, mein Herr, and you can save your supplies."
His new bosom buddy hadn't abandoned him after all.
When the lantern's glow grew strong enough, Hector could see he was in some sort of cellar. Hector swallowed. Confined places were not his favorite location, but for once he felt strong enough to firmly tamp down his qualms. He was even rested enough to pretend he was healthy.
"It is all right, yes? This is the root cellar of my mutter." The man reached over, and his huge arm brushed Hector's ear as he stretched past Hector's head. "There are some preserves still here. All is not gone yet."
His voice sounded even more foreign than before, echoing in the shadowed hole. All the echoed voices were harsh with grief.
Hector didn't know why being here made his companion sad, but a root cellar sounded safe enough for the moment.
The boy pulled a Mason jar from a shelf and twisted it open. He dipped what looked like hardtack in the jar and held it to Hector's lips, ready to feed him like a baby.
Hector's stomach twisted at the thought of food, but the smell of peaches touched his nose temptingly. He took a bite. Sweetness coated a slightly stale biscuit. That was an improvement over army food, at any rate. His stomach protested slightly, but Hector chewed, refusing to give in to sickness.
He ought to be able to eat this. How often had he eaten hardtack and forced it down? Hector swallowed, his lips brushing the other man's fingertips. This treat was surprisingly tasty, much better than his memories of the army biscuit.
Last night, I bit into something soft while chewing hardtack.
No, a tenpenny nail.
He remembered his men laughing at the old joke but even more at the greenhorn who didn't know it. Those were early days in the regiment, back when almost any joke was funny.
Much later, he'd dreamed of food. In prison, even hardtack would have been a treat.
The biscuit weighed down in his stomach and he fought retching. He wouldn't, though. Not in front of someone else, especially not someone who was staring at him like an obedient puppy waiting for orders.
"Listen--what is your name?" He needed to ask, to say something to break the grip of old memories and fight down the queasiness.
"Rudolph, sir. Rudolph Mueller." He hesitated and then said, "In the army, they called me Mule."
The nickname appeared far too apt for the strong, broad-shouldered man who squatted in front of him, but Hector decided not to remark on it. "Army, eh? And you were a Yank? I can see how that could cause trouble around here." That had to have been what those taunts had meant, as unlikely as it seemed that anyone but Hector could have Union sympathies in these parts.
"I am a Texan. As much as those hounds in town are, maybe more. But I fought for the United States, yes." His mulish companion hesitated. "And you, you did also?"
"Yes. But where I came from, it was much more expected." If you didn't hire a substitute. My family was more than rich enough to do so. Any warm body would have done for my ignoble military career. Why had I been idealistic enough--self-important enough--to think I in particular was needed? "Generally, no one in Boston except my father wanted to hang me for being a bluecoat."
"Boston? And your father was a rebel?"
"My father wasn't anything except practical. He saw money to be made from a war but saw no reason to lose a son over it."
"Ah. My father also. He didn't want any part of a war." Mule smiled tentatively. "Maybe he was right. Soldiering was not what I thought it would be."
Mule handed Hector a canteen. "Drink?"
Mule was much too trusting a soul. Hector pulled a small silver cup, already tarnished from his travels, from his saddlebag and poured water from the canteen into it. He sniffed it before he sipped it. No reason not to be careful.
"No offense meant, boy. But I've been to places where the kind of water you drink means life or death."
Mule shifted as he waited patiently for Hector to hand back the canteen. That patience made an old, much different hunger stir inside Hector. He'd had others wait for his next move, ready to accept whatever it might be. Damn. That made the old itch for the unnatural fill his lungs. Hector took one short, sharp breath. He ignored his rod beginning to twitch to life.
He wasn't sure he could ignore it for long. It had been a long time since Hector had felt wild enough to tame someone.
"You should be more cautious, Mule. You fell into those scoundrels' hands when you must've known they had no love for you." Hector cleared his throat.
It seemed that Mule couldn't hear the lust that clogged Hector's voice. Mule shook his head.
"I did not fall. They dragged me there. But yes, I should have been on guard. I had seen no one for days. I thought it safe."
"It's never safe. You've jumped from the threat of a noose into a far worse fate."
"It was more than a threat. It was a certain thing but for you. I don't understand, though. What worse fate was I in?"
"Not was. I mean now, Mule. You're trapped in here with me."
"Pfft. I am not afraid of my...my savior."
"I'm no one's savior." Hector laughed for the first time in a long time. "I'm going to take you to hell."
"I have been, thank you. I know the place. This is not hell."
"You don't know me. I'm worse than any of those men you ran from."
Mule snorted but said nothing.
He didn't believe what Hector was saying? Perhaps he needed to be shown. Hector would be pleased to oblige him. He'd see how accepting the big fellow was. It was risky, but hell, the worst that could happen would be him dying a little quicker than expected. And his instincts were pretty damn good. At least nobody had killed him yet for the things he'd done to them.
Hector traced a line down Mule's bruised cheek with the edge of his fingernail, down to his equally sore and swollen throat. Mule flinched at the scrape against his skin but didn't move otherwise.
"You see, I like to sodomize men. Do you understand, boy?" Hector could feel the rising excitement in him and fought to keep his tone calm. Cold. He didn't want Mule to realize his own balls were tight and his cock was hard.
Hector couldn't tell anything from the reply. He leaned forward and laid his fingers against the other man's throat, tightening his grip just enough to make his recipient feel it and to let Hector absorb the pulse that beat fast under his hold. He put his other hand on Mule's thigh, close to his crotch.
Hector spoke again, waiting until his mouth was a half inch from the German's face before he whispered, "But first I like to hurt them. I make them learn to enjoy hurt. Pain and then pleasure and then both together until they can't separate the two in their mind or their bodies. I make men beg for pain. I'll make you beg and cry for me too."
He'd had men try to fight after those words. Others had wept and begged for mercy. Hector liked it either way--bending men to his use was his aim, and how men resisted was just part of the excitement. Mule was big, but Hector knew he could subdue him. He'd done it to bigger men, more resistant than this lost soul could ever be.
Mule's eyes were wide, wide enough that Hector could see them even in the dim light. The German swallowed. Was that surprise? Disgust?
Something stirred near Hector's hand.
Hector looked down and saw the misbegotten son of the devil was hard. Hard enough that you couldn't mistake that bulge for anything other than lust. With that, the inner beast that Hector had tried to cage broke free.