It had taken more than three weeks of meandering, offering themselves up to do heavy lifting at a mill in the Sierras to make enough to fill their saddlebags before ambling on, but Chris could smell the ocean now. It wasn't far west of here, and a piece of him wanted to turn in that direction just to hear those quiet waves slap the rocky beaches. But they'd started seeing signs of civilization again two days back and San Francisco wasn't half a day ahead. He'd get Buck up there, show him sights he'd seen with his own eyes, and then maybe they'd wander back south along the shore.
"Smell that?" Buck asked, standing up in his stirrups. "That's the Pacific Ocean." He said it like he was educating Chris and Chris grinned in spite of himself. He was the one bringing Buck to the Pacific, so it wasn't like he didn't know it was there.
"Yeah," he agreed easily.
"Want to go see?" Buck asked him, looking west. "The water's too cold to enjoy, not like off Mexico, but it's real pretty, Chris."
"I’ve seen it. And we'll see it again soon," he promised. "I want to get into town today."
Buck chuckled, low and earthy like Chris was looking forward to town for the same reasons Buck would. "Town'll be good. I've heard me some good stories about San Francisco, Chinese girls with skin like the sun, sporting houses I'd have to finagle us into, they're so high-fallutin', and dance halls where whole orchestras play."
Chris had heard those stories too, but they weren't what drew him now. He wanted to take Buck up the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay, then hire a spot on a ferry and ride with Buck over rough water to the headlands in the north. But then, maybe a woman wouldn't be so bad either. Buck talked about them with such affection that the piece of Chris Ella Gaines had flensed raw was healing, reminding him that all women weren't homicidal and all whores weren't black-hearted or pockmarked with disease.
"Dance halls, huh?" he asked. "I doubt they'd let folks like us in," he said doubtfully. Their clothes were three days' worn and stiff with trail dust, and their second set, stuffed in their saddlebags, wasn't much better.
"You just trust me, pard," Buck assured him. "You get us to town and we'll get a nice hot bath, get somebody to wash our clothes, see a barber – hell, Chris, you clean up nice."
Chris almost snorted at the absent compliment, a little embarrassed that Buck noticed things like that and a little more embarrassed that he agreed. He did clean up nice and so did Buck, tall dark and handsome personified when his hair was washed and his beard scraped away. But damned if Chris was gonna say that. The man was vain enough without any help.
"All right, then," he agreed. "First chance we get we'll get cleaned up, then take in the sights."
"Now you're talkin'."
It seemed like Buck had forgotten about the ocean as he eagerly eyed the road ahead. Smelters and industry threw smoke up into the air; Chris could already see the haze that hung over the bay and spilled southward through the passes.
"Just a few more miles."
Buck leaned far out and slapped Chris's knee. "I ain't in no hurry."
Funny thing was, neither was Chris. Not really. He glanced sidelong at Buck Wilmington's profile, and grinned to himself. Buck would be in no hurry until he saw the first available woman, and then his story would change. That would be its own entertainment, watching Buck chase skirts or find himself settled in a corner, talking the night away with some woman Chris had been sure would never give Buck the time of day.
He had never imagined company so easy, not over so much time – especially not in as lanky, noisy, and boisterous a package as Buck came in. Buck Wilmington would argue just to keep a conversation going.
Chris realized he hadn't yet heard how it was that Buck came to know the Pacific without having reached San Francisco. But he would, in time. Chris swallowed down a smile and shook his head. He'd hear all the stories, probably enough times to learn them as well as he knew his own. Because he had the feeling this friendship was going to stick.
Startled, Chris glanced Buck's way to find himself the center of all that blue-eyed attention. "What, what?" he said back, uncomfortable.
Buck grinned like he knew a secret. "You're smilin' like you've got something more than town to look forward to."
Chris held Buck's eye for a moment longer, and then shrugged; maybe he did. Maybe they both did.