"I have to go," he said and there was naught else to say. Duty called and he would not turn aside to take an easier path. The things he believed in demanded he give a full accounting of himself and he would. And if it pained him to leave his beloved behind, he would learn to mask the pain. He was a soldier, or he would be by the time they headed down South. He was a soldier and he would hold himself as befitting a man of honor.
Taking Henry's hand one last time, he kissed his fingers, then pulled away. "I'll be back," he promised.
As he always did, he kept that promise and returned to the rich, fertile lands of the Hudson River Valley older and wiser. But Henry was gone. Taken by pneumonia. Kneeling by the plain marker beneath an elm tree where they had often sat and talked of the future, Brian wept that he had survived battles where men had died in the thousands, survived and prospered, while Henry had passed away.
He ached. And all the medals and commissions couldn't fill the empty space inside him. He could not stay here.
So he said goodbye once more to what was left of his family and headed West, employed to ride shotgun on the stagecoaches carrying travelers and delivering mail to the frontier, a dangerous job but he was a crack shot and he cared not if he lived now that Henry was dead.
For five long years he traveled the trails from Chicago to San Francisco passing through some of the most beautiful and perilous country on earth. He had no home to speak of, resting his feet on whatever hotel bed he could find in whatever town he happened to be in. There had been men: furtive encounters that made him miss the gentle love he'd had with Henry even more. None of the men moved him as Henry had, none of them touched his heart. He'd last been with a man in Frisco six months ago, an episode so disappointing that he swore off men altogether. If he could not have love then he'd have nothing.
The stagecoach was ambushed some eighty miles outside of San Francisco. Bandits had come out of the woods firing before they cleared the treeline. The coach was stripped of everything of possible value and both driver and passengers were left for dead. Brian, however, was not dead. But, by the pain in his gut, he wished he was and knew that he soon would be. The horses were gone, they were far from help. At best, he hoped to find some quiet place to die away from the carnage left behind by the robbery.
Slowly, painfully, he crawled away from the coach into the forest that flanked the trail. Dizzy and exhausted from the short journey, he propped himself up against a tree and shut his eyes. The bullet had gone through him he thought but he had no strength to staunch the flow of blood from the wound and so he would die here alone as he had lived.
As he did most evenings, Justin went for a ride through the woods. It helped pass the time of which he had too much. He could have returned to New York but there was nothing back there and no one. He had come out West to be free: of his family, of the city, of his desires. His unnatural desires. He'd turned his back on a career in law and traveled westward courtesy of an inheritance left to him by his grandfather. As soon as he'd reached the age of majority, he'd packed his things and headed for California where a man could be alone. At first that had suited him fine but now he longed for companionship, longed for someone to hold him at night when the temperature dropped and a chill hung in the air.
He supposed he could have gone on to San Francisco but he loved his cabin in the woods and got along with the few neighbors he had; he had no hope of ever leading a better life elsewhere.
His horse snorted and fought the rein snapping him out of his woolgathering. Patting the horse's neck as he looked around, he said, "What is it, Raph?" Then he saw what had disturbed the gelding. There was a man, slumped over by a tree, half hidden by the grass and other flora. "Christ," said Justin as he dismounted. He did not need this, this interruption to his routine, to his life. Probably a gunman or some other unsavory character who'd gotten his comeuppance. But as Justin got closer to the man he put all such thoughts from his head. Even wounded and pale from blood loss, the man was strikingly handsome. Justin touched him tentatively, assuring himself that he was, indeed, unconscious and not dead. Alive. And handsome. And much taller than Justin. How in the hell was he going to get him onto the horse, much less carry him into his house? Aware that he was wasting precious time, Justin knew he had to try. Half the man's midriff was covered in blood. If he didn't get help soon, he'd die. Sliding his arms around the man's chest and clasping his hands together, Justin stood up, surprised at how light the man was. He managed to drag him over to where Raphael was tethered and then found himself in a bit of a situation. As light as he was, Justin could not lift him onto Raph's back. He had to try and wake him up, see if he was able to help Justin help him.
Slapping the man's face repeatedly, Justin was rewarded with murmuring. "You've been shot," he told the man. "I'm taking you to my cabin. But you have to help me. I can't lift you. Can you get up in the saddle?" With Justin holding to his belt to steady him, the man raised a foot high enough to place it in the stirrup. He cried out as he rose into the saddle and promptly fainted, slumping over Raph's neck. Clearing the man's foot from the stirrup, Justin got on behind him and prayed that they'd make it back to the cabin.
After a short but harried ride, they arrived at his place and Justin slid down from Raph's back, then tugged on the man's belt until he slipped from the saddle. He would have fallen to the ground except Justin was there to half-catch him. Then, arms hooked beneath the man's arms, Justin dragged him inside. With no thought to the beautiful quilt that graced its top, Justin tumbled the man onto bed, then found the bolt of cloth he'd been saving for a new quilt and wound it around his abdomen. It would have to hold while he went for the doctor. Assuring the man that he'd return even though he was unconscious, Justin jumped back onto his horse and rode for town.
Opening his eyes and seeing a young, blond man standing over him, Brian asked, "Am I dead?"
"If you are," Justin said with a grin, "that'd make me an angel. And I'm no angel."
Brian smirked, then grimaced in pain. "I don't think that's where I'd end up anyway."
Seeing the flash of pain cross the man's face, Justin asked, "Is it bad?"
"Bearable." Brian closed his eyes and concentrated on breathing for a moment. "I suppose I have you to thank for saving my life."
"I found you and brought you here. The doctor saved your life."
Brian lifted the edge of the covers, saw the bandage about his middle. “Cut me open?”
”Had to. Bullet was still in you.”
The quilt dropped. "Did they…find the stagecoach?"
Justin's face darkened. "You were the only survivor."
"How long have I been here?"
"Three days. Off your head the entire time." Justin laughed. "I'd love to see you drunk."
"No, you wouldn't," Brian assured him. He’d been told more than once that he was a mean drunk and he believed it. "I don't know your name."
"Justin. Justin Taylor."
Brian raised a weak arm to take the man's hand. "Brian Kinney. Thank you again for finding me under that tree. I thought I was gone die." He lowered his eyes. "Probably deserve to," he said softly. Again he had escaped death while better people had died. "You got a sheriff around here?"
"Marshal. He's been around to look at you. Probably be back in a day or so."
"Any idea why the stagecoach was held up?"
"Usual, I suppose."
"We weren't carrying a payroll or anything valuable. Just folks moving west, few clothes and what money they had on them for various and sundry things."
"Desperate people do foolish, sometimes evil things. And there are some desperate people in California, Mr. Kinney."
"Gold rush is over; people don't know what to do with themselves."
"There's farming. The land is good land."
"Not everyone's meant to be a farmer."
"I suppose. But there are other trades besides killing."
Justin glanced at the guns he'd taken off Brian and put on a nearby table. "Have you always been a hired gun?"
Following his glance, Brian saw the tools of his trade, the guns he used to protect. And kill. "Once I was a farmer. A very, very long time ago."
"Did you tire of it?"
"I found myself believing in a cause." Brian grimaced, thinking of the idealistic fool he'd been.
"Strongly enough to fight for it?" Justin asked, assuming Brian had fought in the War Between the States. Ex-soldier, the frontier was full of them.
"Yes." He closed his eyes, tired of talking and unwilling to speak of Henry and the heartbreak that had driven him out west when he could have settled down back east and lived a quiet, unassuming, and lonely life.
Saying nothing more, Justin left him to rest.
The smell of food roused him from his sleep. Chicken it smelled like. Maybe soup. That would be good. Any food would be good. He was starving, a rare enough occurrence for him that he attributed it to not having eaten anything for the past three days and his last meal before that had been some boiled beans and salted pork he'd gotten at a stagecoach station they'd stopped at some twenty miles back along the trail.
He must have made some sound because Justin came over with a worried expression.
"Are you all right?"
Brian smiled ruefully. "Just hungry. It's been a while since I last ate." A smile answered his, only it seemed to fill the room with light. Justin went off, still smiling, to fix Brian something to eat. It was at that moment that Brian really took note of his host. He was not much younger than himself, in his early twenties maybe, blond with blue eyes, compact and very pleasing to the eyes. Brian could imagine his slender body flushed with excitement, the raw sounds he'd utter as they fucked but he put those thoughts away from him. He'd sworn off men and he meant to keep his vow.
It always started out this way, him smitten with some feature, some aspect of a man only to realize, in the end, that it wasn't enough. Golden hair and blue eyes weren't enough, neither was a smile as bright as a summer morning rising to the east of the Sierra Nevadas. It was not enough.
"Don't get up," Justin told Brian as he came towards him with a bowl of soup.
"Don't worry. I don't think I can."
"Doc left a bottle of laudanum."
"God bless him."
Justin gave Brian a spoonful of the drug, then sat next to him and fed him. "He says you're lucky I came long when I did."
The specter of death floated before Brian's eyes. "He's right. I listened to a lot of men die on the battlefield from gunshot wounds. Specially in the gut."
"That must have been horrific." Justin couldn't imagine what it must have been like, being in a battle, killing other men. He hated killing even chickens to eat and couldn’t bear to shoot any deer. Something about the eyes.
"Some things you never forget. I'll never forget that: the sound of men dying. Some callin' on their mothers, some on God. Didn't matter. Only folks could hear them weren't in any position to help."
"Who did you call for?" Justin asked as Brian had sat dying with his back up against a tree.
"No one. I knew I was gone die alone."
"But you didn't."
"Shows what I know. Never was too bright." Despite wanting to do otherwise, he closed his eyes.
"To the bone." Exhaustion had come over him all of a sudden, like a snow flurry.
"I should have let you eat in peace." Brian had only taken a few mouthfuls of soup. "I talk too much. Comes from living alone, I suppose."
The flurry blanketed him and he began to drift. "I suppose."
Justin pulled the quiilt up around his chin. "You sleep."
As was becoming their routine, Brian woke to find Justin sitting in the chair beside the bed, this time reading.
"Bible?" croaked Brian.
One of those bright smiles appeared, then vanished; why, Brian didn't know. "No. Poetry," Justin explained.
"Never been too keen on poetry myself."
"You look like a dime novel man to me." Sensationalist novels about wild west adventurers. Brian looked like he had stepped out of one.
A smile cracked Brian's face. "My life is a dimer," he said, echoing Justin's thoughts. "Yours too, now that you've took up with me."
"I think you took up with me." Justin paused. "After all, you're in my bed."
Brian laughed, then grabbed his side. "Christ!"
"Sorry." Justin got the laudanum. "Here." When the look of pain had faded from Brian's face, Justin sat back in his chair and breathed easier himself. "I'm going to stop talking."
"Period?" Although he'd only known Justin for a short while, he couldn't imagine the young man not talking.
"Who are you going to talk to then?"
"Raphael." At Brian's raised brow, he said, "My horse."
"Ah." His forehead crinkled. "I had a horse once."
"What happened to him?" asked Justin, forgetting his vow already.
"Left him with a friend when I went off to subdue the Confederacy."
"Couldn't you get him back? After the war was over?"
"My friend had died." He looked down at the beautiful quilt covering him. Wondered if some woman had quilted it for Justin, a mother, a lover. "And I didn't want anything with me that could die too."
"You must have been close."
"Had that horse for years," Brian replied, deliberately misunderstanding.
Justin knew it but wouldn't let him off easily. "I meant your friend."
"Boon companions," he admitted; then added, "Can we not talk about him?"
"You shouldn't be talking at all. You should be resting."
"I am." As Justin turned to his book once more, Brian said, "Read to me."
A flush of color crept across Justin's cheeks.
"I assume you can read. Got the book," Brian teased.
"I can. It's just... I've never read to anyone before."
"I'll be your first."
At that the color deepened in Justin's cheeks and spread to his forehead.
"Did I misspeak?"
"You don't have to unless you want to. Give me another dose of laudanum and I'll sleep."
"No. It's all right." A faint smile graced his lips. "I think I might like reading to you."
"Go ahead then."
"It's poetry," Justin warned although he'd already told Brian that. Nervousness made him forgetful.
"I'll risk it,” Brian said with a twinkle in his eye.
Justin began reading in a clear, strong voice.
"When I heard at the close of the day how my name had been received with plaudits in the capitol, still it was not a happy night for me that followed;
He would never have imagined. Brian turned his head, unable to face Justin. It was as if someone had looked into his heart and put his feelings into words. Coming home from the war to a hero's welcome, wanting nothing more than to lie in Henry's arms as he had before he'd left. But Henry had gone on without him. And there had been no cool nights of love, no joy, no happiness. And it was too much. It was still so painful. Tears rolled down his cheeks and he shook as he wept for his lost love.
"Please, let me be, Justin," he whispered with all the strength he had left. The young man departed and Brian felt vaguely guilty that he had run him off from his own home but the pain was so great that he could only clench his teeth in an effort to keep from sobbing. "Henry..." The word slipped from his lips and he turned his face into the covers and let the tears and the sobs come.
He had drifted off finally, crying himself to sleep, the pillow still damp even hours later. Must have cried in his sleep. If this was what poetry was like, he was glad he'd never bothered before. He ached, his body ached and his heart ached, ached for a man he could never be with again, who still haunted him. If only he could forget the love they'd shared. He'd thought he had but he knew now that he had only postponed his day of reckoning. Justin probably thought he was a madman. Worse, a deviant. Weeping over another man. And yet, Justin must have felt the same way if he were reading poetry of that nature.
Wondering where his savior was, he saw him, hesitantly nearing the bed. Must have been watching from some other vantage point. "Are you all right?"
Ashamed of his tears, Brian nodded.
"I'm sorry. I shouldn’t have..."
"What?" Brian asked. "What do you think you know?"
"That you loved him," Justin said tentatively.
"He was my friend."
Justin expanded his hypothesis. "That you were lovers."
Brian said nothing for a moment then, "I shouldn't have gone."
"To war. I should have stayed home. With him." A tear appeared. "But I... I convinced myself that I was doing the right thing, doing what I believed in."
"Not as important as he was. As he should have been."
"Enough men fought for the cause, they didn't need me." He wiped his face. "He needed me. And I wasn't there. So he died alone." He looked away. "I should have too."
Justin kept quiet for a while, then said, "Mr. Whitman, the man who wrote this poem, worked as a volunteer in the infirmary. In Washington."
"I've heard of him. He wrote that poem about President Lincoln."
"Yes," said Justin. " 'Oh Captain! My Captain!' "
"I loved him," Brian said softly. "Henry," he explained. "I loved him." He waited for Justin’s response.
Equally quietly, Justin said, "I'm certain he knew that."
"You think about all manner of things when you're dying. Nothing's certain in your mind but death." Brian raised a shaky hand to his face. "He probably... He probably thought I'd forgotten him." And he gave in to the tears once more.
Justin patted his shoulder to calm him. "He knew that you loved him, just as I do. And I've only known you a few days, fewer since you were either asleep or unconscious most of the time." Brian chuckled. "You were fortunate to share what you did with him. Be grateful for that."
He heard the sad tone in Justin's voice, sadness for himself as well as Brian. "And you?" he asked, not looking at his host to give him that bit of privacy to collect his thoughts. "Have you never loved another?"
"You're fair to look at," he said and felt Justin smile. Turned and saw that it was so. "There's never been anyone special?"
"No," he said and busied himself with plucking a bit of nonexistent lint from the quilt that covered Brian. "I was always too afraid."
With good reason. Men who loved other men were not looked upon with favor. Just the suspicion of having unnatural urges was enough to damn a man in the eyes of his neighbors and acquaintances. "You were right to be."
"How… How did you and Henry…" Another blush.
"We grew up together, were like brothers." Smiled. "Closer than brothers. And when I realized that I loved him, I found that he loved me as well. Had loved me that way for a couple of years. He was always the smarter one." His smile faded. "It's been five years and it still feels the way it did the day I rode home to find that he was gone."
"You shared a home?"
"He had his own place. Folks had died when he was sixteen. I helped out on the farm. Lived there more than I did at my folks' place. Afterwards, after I found out he'd died, I couldn't stay there. His relatives inherited his farm and I couldn't stay with my folks, not missing him the way I did. So I came west." Giving the memories time to subside along with the pain, he then asked, "What about you? Your folks live here?"
"No. Back east," Justin explained. "I came west by myself. Inherited some money from my grandfather and decided that I needed a change of venue."
"Didn't want to marry well and open up a practice?"
Justin looked surprised. "How did you…?"
"You don't look like a farmer. Look like a lawyer or a doctor. Businessman."
"My father is a stockbroker."
"What do you do?"
The young man shrugged. "I paint."
"A fair likeness?"
"Fair," replied Justin, a hint of pride in his voice.
"It's beautiful country for it," Brian said and then he gave a barely audible sigh.
Rising, Justin said, "I'll get the laudanum." Brian's hand on his arm stopped him. He looked down at his guest.
"Thank you. For saving my life… and for understanding."
Freeing his arm, Justin cupped Brian's face, fingers stroking a cheek lightly covered with stubble. Such beautiful eyes, the color of an autumn day in the mountains: the brown and gold of fallen leaves sprinkled with the green of the last flower stems. "I'd like to paint you when you're feeling better. It's all the thanks I need." Then, faintly embarrassed by his admission, he went to the find the laudanum.
Alone again with his thoughts, his houseguest/patient asleep, Justin revisited their earlier conversation with joy and sadness. On the surface, Brian seemed to be the answer to his prayers: a man who loved men, indisposed and in his care for the foreseeable future. They got along well enough despite the differences in their backgrounds and enjoyed one another's company, they were easy companions. And that was all they would be. Brian was heart wounded and still very much in love with Henry. Each time he said his beloved's name, the depth of his love proclaimed itself. Against such feelings, Justin had no recourse but to respect Brian's memories, help him heal, and send him on his way no matter what he felt for the man.
Taking a sheet of drawing paper from his desk, Justin began yet another sketch of Brian. While Brian had lain unconscious, Justin had drawn him, the man's strong features attractive to him, to his artistic nature. He had not permitted himself to feel anything else. But now that he knew Brian was like himself, how could he prevent himself from feeling what he had so longed to experience?
As he created Brian's likeness on paper, Justin indulged his fantasies. He had seen Brian's naked body, had washed him, cleaned him of piss and shit and blood, and he imagined what it would feel like to touch him with a very different purpose. To slide his hand down the long, smooth column of his neck; across his broad shoulders; around his nipples, along his lean torso. He had bathed Brian and even with a surgical incision marring his skin, he had captivated Justin. The flat belly; the thatch of curly chestnut hair at his groin; the long, sleepy penis resting between his slender thighs; legs that seemed to stretch to the Pacific. He was as perfect and beautiful a man as Justin had ever seen. He could only imagine how striking he must look astride a horse, his thighs gripping the powerful sides of his steed. Could only imagine how it would feel to have Brian lie upon him and touch him, touch his penis…
He looked down at his drawing and his eyes widened in alarm. He had drawn Brian naked, penis rampant above his belly. Face hot, Justin folded the paper in half and made for the fireplace but he couldn't destroy his work and so he hid it away in his desk drawer. If only it were as easy to put aside his thoughts. Still, he had to try. Brian needed him to get well; what he didn't need was unwanted advances from his caretaker.
Their days took on a comfortable sameness. Justin awoke as the sun rose and tended to his livestock, fed Raphael and talked with him for a while, then he returned to the house and stoked the fire if it had gone out. It was autumn yet but the days were cool and the nights chilly. When the fire was ready, he put on a pot of coffee and fixed breakfast, then woke Brian to eat if he hadn't already awakened. Justin could tell that it bothered Brian to be waited on, to have someone else wash his face and hands and then feed him like a baby but he was still very weak and tired easily. It would be a while before he could do these things for himself. Justin didn't mind and told him so and yet Brian fretted.
He had never been one to be cooped up inside. Why read when you could ride the countryside? Why write in a ledger when you could till the soil? He was used to labor of one sort or another and to lie idle like fallow land chafed him. He long to be free, not tied down to a bed, trapped by and in his body. He hated feeling useless, hated even more the fact that he was useless and helpless to fend for himself, to do even the smallest task. The doc had been out and checked him over again and, satisfied with his progress, warned him to remain in bed and do as Justin told him. Under strict orders from the physician, Justin was to administer medicine and orders with alike authority.
With nothing to do, Brian began to read the book of poems Justin had. He'd gone to school until he was old enough to be of real help on the farm and then he'd stopped. He could read and write a little, well enough to have understood written orders in the Army but his vocabulary was limited. Still, Mr. Whitman's poems were written in plain language Justin had told him, the language of the common man. His goal, Justin said, was to bring poetry to the people because he believed that there was poetry in every day lives. At first Brian had scoffed at the idea but then he thought of the poem Justin had read and how it had spoken to him of his own life and he began to believe that Mr. Whitman's goal might be achievable. So he read the book, Leaves of Grass, a little each day, propping it on his chest and working through the words as if they were a field sown with ripe corn, ready to be harvested.
The worst part of the day for him was when Justin saddled Raph and went for their daily ride. Mostly to keep the horse exercised but also to give Justin a break from nursing him. He knew Justin needed a rest from his duties and he urged him to go even on the days when Justin would just as soon not go. Yet he missed him when he was gone and he fought the feeling of despair that would assail him. He wanted to be out there riding a horse, feeling the wind on his face, but he was confined to bed. He tried to feel grateful, knowing how close he'd come to death and knowing that, once healed, he could resume his life. So many men had died in the war, died on the trail, he had seen so much death and yet he lived. And he was grateful. Still, it was hard.
Also, he found that he missed Justin when the young man was gone. Missed the sound of him humming as he worked inside or out; missed his bright smile that lit the cabin better than any lantern; missed his calm, soothing voice that reassured Brian when he feared he would never be as he had been: strong, capable.
Gradually, day after day, he began to realize that he had come to depend on Justin for more than just feeding him or giving him his medicine or washing him: Justin kept his spirits up and his hopes alive. And, although Justin had joked that first time Brian had awakened that he was no angel, Brian had begun to think of him as his very own angel keeping watch over him.
The bedcovers were barely pulled past his hips and his naked chest glistened with a thin sheen of sweat. The fire roared and it was hot in the cabin, that being the reason for Brian's sprawling nakedness. Of course, he'd always been naked beneath the covers but most times he'd been concealed. The beauty of his body assaulted Justin as he stepped inside the cabin, having returned from a trip into town to buy necessary supplies. And he'd wanted to ask the doc if it was okay for Brian to get up and move about a little. He'd been in bed for three weeks now and was about to succumb to cabin fever. The doc had agreed to one walk per day to the privy and back and, if that proved too taxing, to confine Brian to the cabin with strict orders to get an additional week's worth of bed rest before attempting the walk again.
As if he were being directed by his body's desires and not by common sense, Justin put down his bundles and knelt at the bedside. Of its own volition, his hand approached Brian's chest and molded itself around his breast. He could feel Brian's nipple draw up to a point, press against his palm. "Oh, God," he whispered and he drew his hand away and fled from the bed, from the cabin.
He wandered in the woods afoot, lost in his thoughts. Had he really been about to accost a sick man? A man without any means to defend himself? Who depended on him for his every need?
There had been men before who had expressed interest in him. In New York and San Francisco. Maybe he’d been wrong not to avail himself of their offerings. If he had, maybe he wouldn’t be so desperate now. But he’d never felt for any of those men what he felt for Brian. Perhaps it was their situation. He’d taken care of the man for the past three weeks and they’d gotten acquainted although Brian had spent the first three days fading in and out of consciousness. It was certainly the case that he’d never gotten to know any of the other men who’d propositioned him. Too fearful. Afraid to accept a dinner invitation for fear the other diners would know what was happening and would suddenly form a lynch mob and tar and feather them.
So now what to do? Of course, there was only one thing he could do: ignore his feelings. Put them aside and concentrate on helping Brian.
Hoping Brian had slept through his earlier appearance, Justin returned to the cabin and was greeted by Brian’s bright eyed gaze.
”How was your ride?”
”Fine, thank you.” He was glad to see that Brian had pulled his covers back up to his waist. Picking up his bundles, he went about putting the supplies away.
”So what did the doc say about me gettin’ out of this bed?”
”He says you can take one walk to the privy per day.”
”One walk to the shithouse?” Brian asked incredulously, spurring Justin to laugh.
”Well, it’s not a walk in the woods but you’ll get to see the yard and the barn. And you can see the mountains in the distance.”
”Beggars can’t be choosers, I suppose.”
”You can meet my horse,” Justin said, barely suppressing a grin.
”Yahoo!” Brian yelled with very little energy.
”Tired?” asked Justin, worriedly. Brian had been sleeping a great deal, which was to be expected, but sometimes the weariness seemed to overcome him quite suddenly.
”I think I slept too long.”
”Your body needs the rest.”
”If it doesn’t take too much out of you. If it does, you’ll have to satisfy yourself with the inside of the cabin.” Justin looked on in alarm as Brian threw back the covers. Of course, he was naked beneath them. “What are you doing?” he said, averting his eyes.
”Getting dressed for my walk.” Brian glanced around for his saddlebag, then realized that it’d been left with the stagecoach. “Shit!”
”My saddlebag.” He drew the sheet back over him in dismay. “Everything I owned was in it including a change of clothes.”
Justin walked to a wardrobe in the corner of the room and opened it. Turned around holding Brian’s pack. “Marshal had it. The stagecoach company said it was yours. I suppose it helped that your name was embossed on the inside.”
”Thank God. I didn’t cotton to wearing a sheet and I don’t think your pants would fit as you’re rather, ah, petite.”
”Petite!” blustered Justin. “I am not petite!”
”Well then, short.”
”We don’t all need stilts. My legs are quite long enough to do the job,” sniffed Justin.
”And what job would that be?”
”Reaching the ground,” he said and tossed the saddlebag onto the bed.
Brian barked a laugh. “That they are.” Reaching for his bag, Brian took a whiff of his underarms. “Whew!”
”You are due for your weekly bath,” laughed Justin.
”Maybe this time I can do it on my own.”
”I didn’t mind,” Justin said and then blushed at the implications.
Grinning, Brian said nothing, only began to go through his bag to find his clothes, especially his drawers. He didn’t mind doing without but he got the feeling Justin would prefer if he wore them.
”I’ll heat some water and you can bathe,” said Justin.
”Don’t have to be heated. I spent two years in the army and five years on the trail washing with cold water. Long as I got soap, I’m fine.”
”You’re still ill. Hot water would be better for you.”
”You’re the boss,” referring to the doc’s orders putting Justin in charge of Brian’s recovery.
”You should keep covered while the water’s heating up,” Justin told him, going off to the kitchen.
Brian did as he was told, more to spare Justin any further embarrassment than out of concern for doctor’s orders. Even though he’d taken one in the gut, he felt relatively good aside from being weak which was to be expected. He had been extremely lucky that the bullet had passed through without doing major damage to his insides. Lucky that Justin had found him when he did and gotten the doc out to his place in a hurry. He was also lucky to have someone like Justin taking care of him. It had been a while. Not since Henry had anyone cared enough about him to do even the smallest kindness. Sure there had been men who would have fucked him but cared about him? Justin was the first since Henry to do that.
With a soft smile, Brian thought of his eighteenth birthday. Henry had cooked and they had feasted on venison and pound cake well into the night. That had always been Brian’s favorite, glazed or plain. Since leaving home, he hadn’t bothered to celebrate his birthday. Hadn’t had the desire to or anyone to celebrate with. God, he remembered lying down next to Henry and running his hands over his firm muscles and thinking he would always have a place by his side.
Less than a year later, he was marching with the Union Army. He’d resisted enlisting for two years and then finally made up his mind. Not long after he’d joined up, the draft was instituted and riots broke out in New York City over the number of immigrants being called up, especially Irishmen, poor men who could not buy their way out of serving like the sons of New York’s wealthier families. Not everyone felt as he had that it was his duty to help preserve the Union. As for the issue of slavery, well, he didn’t believe in it but he was no abolitionist. Still Mr. Lincoln had called and he had answered and given his full measure as a soldier and a man of his word.
Had it been worth losing Henry? He’d told Justin that he should have stayed home and let other men fight but he knew that was mostly his grief speaking. Still, if he had known that Henry would die, would he have remained on the farm? And if he had, would Henry have lived?
Justin nudged him from his thoughts as he returned with a basin of warm water, a soft cloth, and a bar of soap. Despite Brian’s protests that he could manage on his own, Justin insisted on washing his back for him. Brian closed his eyes and lost himself in the movement of Justin’s hand across his shoulders, moving in circles down his spine like a bird he once saw spiraling in the sky. It felt so much like Henry’s hand, strong yet gentle. He remembered the evenings he and Henry would bathe in the kitchen, taking turns in his tin tub. One would crouch by the side and wash the other as a prelude to making love. Henry would rub the bar of soap over Brian’s chest and belly and then drop it in the water as he reached for his penis, stroking it to fullness.
With a barely suppressed groan, Brian moved his shirt over onto his lap. He was so ashamed. Justin would think he was some kind of animal.
”I can do the rest,” he replied abruptly. So Justin surrendered the cloth and retreated outside to give him some privacy.
When he was done bathing, he dressed slowly, already tired just from washing, and crept to the door. Once there, he grasped the frame and caught his breath. Two and a half weeks in bed had sapped his strength. He didn’t know if he could make it onto the porch much less all the way to the outhouse. The privy walk which he had mocked had become an unachievable task.
Having seen Brian at the door, Justin came up onto the porch. “Are you all right?”
”I'll have to see the sights another day.”
Immediately, Justin came inside and helped Brian return to the bed.
”I didn’t think washing would take that much out of me.”
”You bathed and you made it to the door, I think that’s a pretty big accomplishment considering how long you’ve been abed.” Hoping Brian wouldn’t mind, Justin tucked him beneath the covers.
”I didn’t mean to be rude.”
”I… I just wanted to do it on my own.”
He wanted to come clean. “And you touching me…”
”It felt so good,” he confessed, helpless to keep the words inside him.
Justin’s cheeks were pink. “I liked touching you.” Suddenly daring, he pecked Brian on the lips, then pulled away and took the basin of bathwater away to be discarded outside.
Brian freed a hand and touched his fingers to his lips. Felt them curl into a smile.
Eventually Brian made it to the privy and met Justin's horse and chickens and walked the property. Evenings, he and Justin sat on the porch watching the sun set. Nights, he lay in bed looking across the room and down at Justin who slept on a spare bed he'd made up on the floor weeks ago when he'd first brought Brian home, his life bleeding away by the moment.
The kiss was not spoken of. It was not forgotten by either of them but they did not talk about it. Did not reference it. Did not look one another in the eyes for fear of seeing the ghost of the moment.
Each day Brian grew stronger and they came closer to the time when he'd be well enough to leave. Still they carried on as if that day would never arrive. Brian began to help Justin around the place even though his host begged him not to for fear of a setback. Brian helped and Justin accepted his help and they did not speak of what had grown up between them.
Brian had just returned inside to rest when the man appeared. Having gone into the barn to saddle Raph for his daily walk, Justin heard the sound of hooves and stepped out into the yard thinking it was the Doc back to check up on Brian's progress. Maybe the Marshal with news. It was neither. Immediately, Justin's hackles went up.
Riding a sleek chestnut stallion, the man himself was just as appealing. Dark hair and eyes and a smile that crossed his face the moment he saw Justin. He tipped his head in Justin's direction. "Sorry to startle you."
"You didn't," Justin replied and wiped his hands on his pants.
The man got down from his horse. "I bought a parcel of land not too far from here. They said in town that I had neighbors, I thought I'd ride out and get acquainted." He held out his hand. "Troy Lassiter."
Troy's smile broadened and he seemed a bit reluctant to release Justin's hand but he did. "Good to meet you." He gestured to the house. "You live here alone?"
"Yes. Well, not at the moment. I have a houseguest. He was wounded. I found him and brought him back here." Why he felt obliged to explain Brian's presence, he did not know.
"You're a good man. Lotta folks might have left him to die."
And what could Justin say? That he couldn't have left a handsome man to expire in the woods? He wondered if Troy would take offense. He didn't think so, not from the way the man was looking at him, had been looking at him since he arrived. "What about you? Is your wife waiting at home?"
"I don’t have a wife," Troy said, moving closer to Justin, one hand still caught in the reins of his horse. "And you knew that." His smile softened. "You're very beautiful, Justin Taylor."
Justin took a step backwards. "And you're very forward."
"Man never got anything by being a shrinking violet." Then he added, "Unless you and this man…"
"No," Justin said hurriedly and he didn't know why. Why did it matter to him what Troy thought of his situation? It was none of his business what Brian was to him. What was Brian other than his patient? he asked himself. Outside of sharing one brief kiss, their relationship had remained a virtuously chaste one. And here was Troy offering… What exactly? Not trusting himself to ask, Justin fell back on his best defense: silence.
Sensing his mistake, Troy tried another approach. "Forgive me for being blunt. I didn't mean to offend you. It's just that…" He paused and smiled again as if he were helpless to do otherwise. "It's not everyday I meet a man who shares my predilections, especially one as beautiful as you."
Justin's cheeks flushed. "Stop saying that," he whispered.
"That you're beautiful?" Troy asked, closing the gap between them once more.
"Yes." He did not object however when Troy took hold of his chin and tilted his face upwards.
"But you are," the man told him and then he kissed Justin's mouth.
Justin grabbed Troy's leather vest, not to make him stop but to keep himself from slipping to the ground. His legs could barely support him and his heart was racing. Moaning into the kiss, Justin opened his mouth wider as Troy's tongue slipped between his lips.
Watching from the window, Brian turned away and began packing his saddlebags. The time had come for him to go.
Justin parted from Troy and stood staring into his eyes. God, it would be so easy to love him. Or, at the very least, to fall in love with him. But Troy wasn't the one he wanted. The man he wanted was inside his cabin. With a twinge of regret, Justin said, "I’m sorry. I guess I should have explained."
"He's more than just a houseguest," Troy guessed.
"Yeah," replied Justin with a wry grin.
Troy laughed. "Well, if you change your mind," he said as he climbed back into the saddle, "I'm just a couple of miles to the west." He waved as he rode back down the trail.
Touching his lips, Justin shook his head, then decided to skip his ride. He and Brian needed to talk. The sight that greeted him when he walked inside the house momentarily silenced him, then he found his voice. "What are you doing?"
"Leaving." Brian wouldn't look at him.
"I don't want to be in the way."
"You're not in the way."
"Might be." He didn't want to say anything about the man he'd seen outside but he couldn't help himself. "Especially if he's coming around more often."
"Who? Troy? He just bought a parcel of land to the west of here. He was out meeting the neighbors."
"He kiss all the neighbors like that?"
Justin laughed. "If he can get away with it, I imagine he would. Least the men." He laid a hand on Brian's arm. "I sent him on his way."
"He'll be back."
"No, he won't," Justin assured him.
"Because I told him the person I wanted was waiting inside the cabin." He smirked. "I was really hoping you'd be naked and in bed."
"What?" Brian exclaimed. Where had his shy, reclusive host gone?
Dumping the saddle bag on the floor, Justin reached for Brian's shirt, began to unbutton it. "Guess I'll have to do it myself."
"I know you've done this before."
Brian pushed Justin's hands away. "No."
"No?" asked Justin, hands returning to Brian's shirt only to be pushed away once more. "Why not?"
"Because I meant it when I said I'd sworn off men. This isn't what I want." But it was, God help him, it was all he wanted.
Not taking no for an answer, Justin placed a soft kiss on Brian's neck. "I think it is."
"I love you."
"No, you don't." They hadn't known one another long enough even though his heart told him he loved Justin.
"Yes, I do."
"And you love me."
"You don't love me?"
Justin had a way of tangling up a man's thoughts until he didn't know what he was thinking. "No. I mean, yes. I—"
"Then shut up and kiss me."
So he did. He kissed Justin until it felt as if they were climbing the highest peak of the Sierra Nevada mountains, the air thin and icy cold, burning their throats. Breaking apart, they gasped for air, then joined together once more, unwilling to be separated for very long.
The bed clear of Brian's saddlebags, Justin pushed him back onto it and straddled him.
"I thought you said you've never been with a man."
"I haven't. But I have a very vivid imagination."
Laughing abruptly, Brian pulled Justin down for another kiss. "I do love you," he said, suddenly serious.
"Good. Because I have no intention of letting you out of this bed."
"No?" Raised eyebrow.
"Not until you've shown me everything I've been missing."
"Might take a while."
"Got food, got firewood, got nowhere else to be."
Staring into Justin's eyes, Brian said, "Promise me something."
"You won't let me go."
Justin shook his head. "Never. I may be an artist but I've got a grip you wouldn't believe."
"That'll come in handy," Brian said, smirking.
"What?" Then Justin blushed. "Brian."
The man laughed again. "You've got a lifetime to keep doing that," and he kissed a cheek warmed by embarrassment. And then his lips wandered until they found Justin's lips and he placed a gentle kiss upon them.
With wonder in his voice, Justin said, "I can't believe I've missed that all these years."
"Well," boasted Brian, "I don't know if every man kisses like that. I'm a fairly good kisser."
"You're the best."
"You've only kissed one other man."
"One's more than enough."
Eyes on Justin's, Brian began unbuttoning the younger man's shirt. When it was completely unbuttoned, he slipped his hand inside and palmed one side of his chest. He could feel Justin's heart beating beneath his hand. "Don't be afraid."
"I'm not," he assured him. "I'm excited," he said with a twinkle in his eye.
Laughing deep in his chest, Brian kissed him once more upon the mouth, then moved down his throat to nestle among his breastbone, his fingers stroking Justin's left nipple. With his leg between Justin's he could feel his lover stiffening and latched onto his nipple to suck it softly.
Justin felt his penis harden and press against Brian's thigh which was firm between his legs. Trapped beneath him he couldn't move, could only throw back his head and pant as Brian sucked his nipple and rubbed his leg against the mound of Justin's cock. Clutching Brian's back and buttocks, Justin began to rut against him. "Brian, Brian…"
Knowing how close he must be to ejaculating inside his pants, Brian released Justin's nipple and rolled off of him. Began unbuttoning his pants. Slipped a hand inside and grasped his member firmly. Stroked him from base to tip, the tip already seeping. Justin arched his back and began thrusting into his fist. Covering Justin's mouth with his own, Brian kissed him through his climax. While Justin recovered, Brian brought his hand up to his lips and licked Justin's seed from his fingers.
"Oh God…" Justin whispered and then groaned as Brian kissed him, letting him taste himself on his tongue which he thrust inside Justin's mouth.
Pausing to strip them of their remaining clothes, Brian then eased Justin back onto the bed and spread his legs as he kissed his way down his torso. When he reached his navel, he thrust his tongue inside causing Justin to shiver deliciously, bringing the tip of his cock into contact with the underside of Brian's chin. Which meant all Brian had to do was dip his head to capture it between his lips. Justin shuddered and cried out as Brian's lips slid down the length of him and, irrationally, pushed at his head to get him to release him. But Brian tightened his grip and continued to suck him, Justin's moans urging him on even as his hands continued to tug at Brian's hair. Tasting Justin's juice on his tongue, he pulled off and gave the head a final kiss. Began burrowing behind his sac.
"Brian… Brian…" Justin moaned. He was so hard and so hot and he wanted to scream but he kept biting back the sound and it was building up in his belly and he was so afraid if he screamed the entire valley would hear him.
Brian parted his cheeks and swiped his hole with his tongue and Justin shouted, back bowed, fists entangled in the quilt. Pushing back on Justin's thighs, Brian bent him in two and began thrusting his tongue inside his pucker, the sound of Justin's cries in counterpoint to his forays. The cries only increased in volume as he inserted first one finger and then another inside the writhing man.
"Brian, please… please…" Justin could barely form a coherent thought let alone a coherent sentence. But he knew what he wanted, he wanted more, wanted to feel Brian inside him, wasn't even sure if that was possible only that he wanted it.
Sensing his need, remembering his own need however many years ago it had been, Brian ceased his torture and climbed upon his lover. Kissed him deeply. "Do you want me inside you?" he asked.
Justin turned his head so that Brian couldn't see the naked want in his eyes. "Yes."
Although he could have used his own spit, Brian decided for Justin's first time something extra was needed. Justin kept jars of rendered fat for cooking in the springhouse and had brought one into the house. Finding it and opening it, Brian dipped his fingers inside and put it by the bed so that they wouldn’t mistakenly use it afterwards for cooking. Rubbing his fingers together to lubricate them well, he covered his cock with the fat and then eased his fingers inside Justin once more, gently sliding in and out of his hole. "How does that feel?"
"Good," breathed Justin, which didn't even begin to describe how it felt. He wished he was a poet, to find the right words but, by the smile on his face, Brian only needed what words Justin could give him or, better still, just the smile that flittered across Justin's lips in answer to his own.
Withdrawing his fingers, Brian lifted Justin's legs onto his shoulders, the fine hairs on his legs tickling his skin. "I want you to relax. I won't hurt you, not purposely."
"Will it hurt?" Justin asked, imagining how it would feel to take Brian's member inside by way of what seemed to him to be too small an entrance to his body.
"A little. At first. But then it'll feel better."
"As good as when you put your mouth on me?"
"Better." Brian positioned himself at Justin's opening and pushed. His lover cried out in pain. "Push down, Justin," he instructed, pausing for a bit to see if his instructions would be followed. When it seemed as if Justin were trying to do as he'd said, Brian pushed again. This time the head of his cock passed through and he rested, waiting for Justin to accustom himself to the fit. "All right?" he asked and Justin nodded, a tear in the corner of one eye. Knowing that the sooner Justin was used to him being inside him the sooner he'd begin to enjoy it, Brian eased forward, slowly but steadily until he was completely buried inside. Justin breathed in and out of his mouth, willing his body to accept the intrusion. "That's it. That's it. Ride it out."
"Oh…" Justin moaned and he looked aside.
Brian leaned over and kissed his cheek, his neck, his chin, until Justin turned towards him once more and then he kissed his lips as well.
In a shaky voice, Justin confessed, "I didn't know what it would be like."
"It isn't over," Brian told him. "It gets much better. Trust me."
"I do," he said with a brave smile and then his lips shaped an "O" as he gasped. Brian had begun to withdraw without notice and the pain had caught him off-guard. Squeezing his eyes shut, he endeavored to breathe as Brian backed out of him and then thrust forward again. Crying out, he bent his head forward, burying it in Brian's chest as the man continued to move in and out of him. Then, suddenly, something miraculous happened. Falling back upon the bed, Justin gasped again, this time in pleasure. Toes which had been curled against the pain, wiggled as a delicious curl of pleasure wrapped itself around his body from the inside out.
"Yes," hissed Brian and he lowered his head and licked Justin's throat. Between thrusts he asked, "How… does… it feel… now?" and received a throaty growl in answer. Justin's legs slipped from his shoulders and wrapped themselves around his waist, his heels digging into Brian's back, urging him to thrust deeper, harder.
"Ah!" he groaned and flicked his tongue over his lips. "So good. So good."
"Is it good?"
"Yes." Justin's fingers pressed into Brian's sides and up around his shoulder blades, drawing him closer. He sighed as his cock slid against the ridges of Brian's belly, moaned as Brian's cock delved inside his hole. Filling him up, yet with just enough space between them so that Brian could move back and forth, in and out, sometimes hitting something inside him that set him to gasping for air and clutching Brian's back. He could feel his excitement creeping up on him once more. Head spinning, he could only call Brian's name as it got closer and closer.
"Let it out," Brian told him and he did, shouting as he ejaculated.
Justin could feel Brian jut against him, thrusting through muscles that had suddenly begun to spasm and knew he was in the midst of his release as well.
Brian collapsed upon his smaller lover but for a moment, then pulled out and lay to the side of him, Justin crawling into his arms and curling into his ribs.
"Thank you," he whispered against Brian's sweat drenched skin and Brian kissed the crown of his head in answer.
"Maybe I should have done this while you were still unconscious."
Brian grimaced as he lay on the bed naked, knowing that Justin was only half-teasing. He was a terrible model, not used to sitting or standing still for very long. Henry had said that he was a fidgeter in body and soul, one of those people who never rested. Even in sleep he tossed and turned. To him, being still was tantamount to death. Yet, he had put down roots with Henry or, at least, had planned to do so once he returned from the war. Now he wondered if he had really intended to or if the war had been only the first in a long line of excuses. As unpleasant a thought as it was, he had begun to see the truth in it; in his actions of years past, in the haste with which he had left the farm and Henry.
Now there was Justin, looking to make a home with him. Could he stay here and be happy? Could he make Justin happy? If he couldn't, it would be better for him to leave now before their lives became any more entwined. Justin would hate him for a while but he would heal and maybe that dark-haired fellow down the road would help him and, in time, he would forget Brian. But would Brian ever forget him? Hadn't it been years and yet he'd never forgotten Henry? He knew, in his heart, that if he left Justin, he would never forget him and he would ache for him for all the days of his life.
Why leave here? What waited for him beyond the peaks to the east? Nothing. He'd traveled those trails and he knew that nothing awaited him back there. He knew nothing and no one awaited him in Frisco either. Fast men who'd trample his heart were not what he wanted. He'd had them. He knew what he wanted and who he needed: a home here with Justin.
Having watched him at his deliberations from his knees at the side of the bed, Justin asked, "Have you made up your mind?" Pencil still moving over paper.
"How did you…?"
"I'm onto you," Justin said, smiling gently. "I know you. I've waited all of my life for you."
"And if I say I need to go?"
"Then I'll wait for you." He paused, then began drawing once more. "But you're not going anywhere."
"No. I'm not. Well, I may go into town to see about buying me a horse. Nothing as fancy as that gelding of yours but still…"
Justin laughed, "And we can ride off into the sunset together."
"Together," agreed Brian, "I like the sound of that." A wicked grin crossed his face. "Maybe we could drop by our neighbor's place and invite him to dinner one evening."
Justin's laughter grew in volume. "You! You're incorrigible."
"And all yours," Brian promised, taking Justin's pencil and paper away and pulling him onto the bed.
"What's it like? Being a gunfighter?" Justin asked, lying with his head on Brian's stomach and eating the last of the pie he'd baked the day before. Sweets had a way of disappearing around Justin.
Both of Brian's eyebrows went up, a sure sign that he was amused. "I'm not a gunfighter. I rode shotgun on the stagecoach. I'm handy with a gun but I'm no Jesse James or Wild Bill Hickock."
"Have you ever been in a gunfight?"
"Other than the War?"
Justin sobered. "There was that."
"Justin, there's nothing exciting about killing. I felt sick most of the time. I'd get up, tell myself that I could die at any moment, then I'd go out and try to live another day. Same thing on the trail." He fell silent, then asked, "What's it like being an artist?"
"You joshing me?"
"No." He reached down and caught a bit of pie filling on his finger. "Seems to me it's harder to create something than to destroy something. More important too. So what's it like?"
Having gotten distracted by the sight of Brian's finger slipping between his raspberry lips, Justin answered the question. "It's, I guess it's like farming except that it's a lot more exciting than farming."
"Shit, Justin, almost anything's more exciting than farming."
"I thought you loved farming."
"I did. But I didn't think it was exciting. I thought it was… purposeful."
"You like having a purpose?"
"I don't know. I like being idle."
"But you're not. You draw, you paint, or you think about drawing or painting."
"You know me too well." He thought for a moment. "What are you going to do?"
Brian snorted. "Well, for one, I'm going to do something about that pitiful patch of ground you call a garden. And I can hunt, I suppose. Maybe do some trapping. Make you a fur coat."
"I don't need a fur coat."
"You'd look mighty fine lying naked against a fur coat."
Sharing Brian's vision, Justin said, "Maybe a small coat."
"Luckily, you're, ah…"
"Ah, what?" asked Justin with fire in his eyes. He really hated being teased about being small.
With a grin, Brian replied, "Petite," and he rolled off the bed and out of Justin's reach.
Since Justin had ridden Raph into town for the mail and supplies, Brian decided to go exploring on foot. Knowing how close he was to the site of the stagecoach ambush, he kept the cabin in sight and confined his explorations to the woods near the house. In all the time he'd been at Justin's place, he'd never gone to the spot where his life had changed so drastically. Even when he'd gone to Frisco to settle with the stagecoach company, he'd taken a circuitous route.
It was so beautiful here, even with snow on the ground. He knew why Justin had chosen this particular area. In the distance to the east he could see the Sierra Nevadas, rising majestically above the land, their peaks entwined with the clouds. There was game aplenty in the valley where the cabin was situated. He 'd seen deer droppings and hoof prints if not the shy animals themselves. Perhaps they'd come out of hiding in the spring. There were bears too, he imagined, but he hoped not to see any of them, especially having left his guns behind at the cabin. Being with Justin had gotten him out of the habit of wearing them. Truthfully, being ill had done it. He'd been too weak for too long to even think about strapping on any iron. And now that he was well again, the guns seemed foreign to him, as if they belonged to another man.
Glancing at the sky, he saw that an hour or more had passed. Justin would be returning soon. If he caught him outside in the cold weather he'd have a hissy fit and Brian had been on the receiving end of one too many of those to look forward to another. Justin was unreasonable when it came to Brian's health. He said he'd spent too much time nursing him back to said health for Brian to fall ill again. Hurrying back, he thanked his lucky stars that he made it home before Justin. Chuckling at the thought of a former gunman being afraid of an artist, he warmed himself before the fire.
Justin pushed through the front door, the smell of fried ham and fresh biscuits greeting him. "Sorry," he called out as he entered the house. Cooking was not one of Brian's favorite chores even though he could put together an edible meal if pushed to do it.
He looked up from the stove. "You're back late."
When no other explanation was forthcoming, Brian decided to leave it be. Justin would tell him when he was ready. Until then they could sit down and have the meal he'd prepared.
"Your biscuits are getting better," Justin said, the first words he'd spoken since they sat down.
"Not bad," Brian agreed. "Still not as good as yours."
"Practice makes perfect."
"This mean I'm going to be cooking more often?" Brian said with a laugh. When Justin didn't join him, he grew even more worried. "Just tell me," he said. "Whatever you're afraid to say, just say it."
"My father died. There was a letter," Justin told him, "waiting for me in town."
"I'm sorry." Although he hadn't seen his own father in years, they'd at least parted on good terms. He knew enough of Justin's past to know that he and his father hadn't.
"I'm not. He hated me. For turning my back on the family. I've been dead to him for years."
"Still, he was your father."
There was no point in talking about his father any longer not when there were more important things to talk about. "My mother wants me to come home."
"Visit's probably long over—"
Brian forced himself to take the last bite of his ham biscuit and to chew it thoroughly before speaking. With each chaw his heart beat faster until he could hardly catch his breath. "You have a life here."
"That's what I intend to tell her."
Justin avoided Brian's eyes. "In person. You're right. A visit is long overdue. And there are some things we need to say to one another." His father was dead but his mother was still alive and maybe there was a chance for them to do better by one another. "I can help her with my father's estate and clear the air between us." He reached for Brian's hand. "And then I'm coming home."
Brian closed his fingers about Justin's. "You want me to go with you?"
"I want you to but I need you to stay here and look after the place. Take care of Raph."
"Who's going to look after me?" asked Brian aware that he was pouting and not caring. Not waiting for an answer, he got up and cleared the table.
"Bri?" Justin eased behind him and slipped his arms around him. Laid his head upon Brian's back. "Please, don't be angry with me."
"I'm not." And he relaxed as Justin knew he would. "I'm just… angry. At your father for dying and your mother for needing you when I need you."
"I need you too."
Brian turned in Justin's arms and embraced his lover, then gently cupped his face with hands roughened by farm work, tilling the land and planting crops, and gripping a gun's handle, shooting and killing and taking lives. "I'll be here when you get back," he said with a kiss.
And Justin smiled. "I never expected you to be anywhere else."
Having sent word on ahead by telegraph to let his mother know he was coming, there was nothing else for Justin to do but board the train. Brian walked by his side to the station, Raphael and Brian's horse, a palomino named Fool's Gold by his previous owner, settled in at the stables. As much as he'd teased Justin about Raphael, he'd gone out and gotten an even fancier horse.
They spoke little to one another on the way to the train platform, having said their private goodbyes the night before, both of them "making damn fools" of themselves according to Brian. Instead of resting, they'd spent the night making love and crying like a couple of widows. In the light of day, however, they were clear-eyed and tight-jawed as Justin boarded the train that would take him back East. Waiting until Justin had taken a seat in the Pullman car, Brian waved to him, then left the station. They'd agreed it would be best for both of them.
With Fool's Gold out in front and Raphael tethered by his lead, Brian rode back to the cabin to await the day when his lover would return.
"When I Heard At The Close Of The Day"