Three and a half years in the making (and eleven days overdue), I present to you my journeystory big bang submission. So much love to my enthusiastic and supportive betas, ivorygates and princessofgeeks. This is such a better story because of their knowledge and hard work. All mistakes are entirely my own.
Walking and reading at the same time was a skill Daniel had mastered at an early age. He'd been on the road for about eight hours now, on foot for maybe five of them, after catching a lift out of Chicago from a truck driver and flagging down a Packard a few hours back that carried him an additional thirty miles or so, south to Chicago Heights and from there west onto the Lincoln Highway. The August afternoon sun was hot, but not uncomfortably so, and if he held his book close to his chest, the brim of his Panama hat kept the glare off the page.
He'd walked to school in this manner for years. Glance up every couple of sentences, be aware of other people in your path, keep your ears open, pay attention crossing the street. The same streets, buildings, people even, day after day. But with a book in hand, you took a step away from the ordinariness of your life.
There wasn't much ordinary about today, though, and his book mostly dangled at his side, a comfortingly familiar companion but incapable of holding his attention for very long. There was too much to be seen, and the whole purpose behind Daniel's mad decision to ship his things ahead and strike out west via foot and thumb, had been to see some of the country, the sights, and the people along the way. Trains were all well and good for getting you where you needed to go, but after spending years cooped up in classrooms, libraries and museums, he was restless and itching to stretch his body instead of his mind, breathe fresh air, sleep rough, get closer to nature. Not rattle around on a noisy, smelly train, entirely isolated from the land it whisked you through.
Passing a stand of Eastern Red Cedar, he filled his lungs with the aroma of juniper. Maybe after another day or two he'd be bored. Maybe he'd run out of energy, or get blisters, and be buying a ticket at the next train station he came to. Hopefully… Daniel heard an automobile coming up behind him. He stopped and turned to stick out his thumb. Hopefully he'd be flagging down enough rides that he wouldn't have the chance to get weary or bored, and maybe he'd even find some good company if he was really lucky.
The auto swept past. Daniel started walking again, brow creased slightly. Those had been his initial thoughts, at any rate, but it was becoming just a little alarming how much time he'd had to spend on foot so far. He hadn't planned on a great deal of traffic on the road, but he had expected more drivers would be willing to stop and give him lifts, even if they were only short ones.
Still, he told himself cheerfully, he had plenty of time to get where he was going, and it wouldn't be any kind of failure if he realized enough was enough, and decided to hop a train and get there faster. He frankly didn't know what was going to happen on this trip, or how he would react. This was really as much about getting to know himself as it was about getting to Denver and starting the next phase of his studies. Getting rid of some cobwebs before they developed cobwebs of their own. Having an adventure, small though it may be. Learning what he was made of.
Trying to figure out where he fit into the world. If he did. If he didn't, wouldn't it be better to know?
The sound of another motor came to his ear. He stopped, turned, stuck out his thumb. Smiled broadly. He wasn't going to worry about the future today. He was young, healthy, and hadn't felt this alive in years. It was amazing what sunshine, exercise, and a distant horizon could do to a fellow, besides making him a little footsore.
The approaching auto was an older Model T Ford touring car, with its roof folded down, and a windshield but no side window glass. It was slowing. Stopping. Daniel stepped closer. The driver was a man probably somewhere in his early thirties, with strong, regular features, dressed in brown trousers with a matching vest, and a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up to just below the elbows, topped with a green striped necktie. His eyes were shadowed by the brim of his grosgrain-ribboned straw boater. "Good afternoon!" Daniel said.
Thin lips below a straight nose curled into a pleasant smile. "Afternoon! Where are you headed?"
"As far as you can take me down the highway?"
"You're in luck. Climb aboard! You ought to be able to squeeze your knapsack into the back seat."
Squeeze was the operative word. The seat and the floorboards were already packed with the driver's belongings. There were duffel bags, and a camping stove, and a picnic basket that smelled wonderful, a paper sack with books in it, a fishing rod and creel. Daniel shifted things around and got the knapsack stowed, with his book inside it. He took a second to remove his Panama hat and wipe his brow with his handkerchief before climbing up onto the running board and stepping into the auto. "Thank you, I really appreciate this."
The Ford started moving. "Not a problem. It's a warm day for walking."
Daniel recognized a conversational opening when he heard one. "Oh, I don't mind it. It's not really that hot. Not like July was. Or July in Chicago, at any rate. Whereabouts are you from?"
The driver shot him an amused glance from what Daniel could now see were brown eyes. "Chicago. And you're right about July. That was some oven we were all baking in. I'm surprised the lake didn't start boiling."
"Name's Jack O'Neill." The man took his right hand off the wheel and extended it to Daniel.
"Daniel Jackson. Pleased to meet you." It was a good, firm handshake. A tingle ran down Daniel's spine. He resolutely ignored it. "Are you traveling far today, Mr. O'Neill?"
"Jack." Daniel nodded his gratitude. "Call me Daniel."
"Well, Daniel, if my map is accurate – and what are the odds? – there's a roadside camp about four hours or so west of here where I'm planning to spend the night. That suit you?"
"Suit me?" Daniel could hardly believe this sudden turn of events. There'd be no need yet to start worrying about blisters, and he'd be many miles closer to his destination. It surprised him how relieved he felt. "It beats the heck out of my plan of walking until I drop and sleeping in a field somewhere."
"If this camp turns out to be a mirage, half of your plan will likely come to pass."
Daniel jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "I've got a groundsheet and the world's smallest pillow in my knapsack, so I'm set either way. It's honestly the walking I'm happy to be finished with for the day."
"That thing looked pretty heavy when you were slinging it in the back. What all else have you got crammed in there?"
Daniel laughed self-deprecatingly. "Probably more books than I should. I tried to employ some restraint, but I'm not convinced I was successful."
"You could still stand up straight, so I guess you can't have overdone it too badly." Jack grinned at him. "What else?"
"Changes of clothing, towel and soap, shaving kit, a water canteen strapped to the outside, collapsible cup, a tin plate, fork and spoon, pocketknife, and some bread, cheese and apples. What else? Candles and matches."
"Could've poked an umbrella through those straps. You never know when it might rain."
Daniel's eyebrows went up. "You're right. I never thought of that."
"Toilet paper? Insect repellant?"
"Toilet paper I remembered!"
They both chuckled.
"I've got the advantage of more space and not having to carry it all on my back, so I've got just about everything you've got plus a few luxuries you don't. I've got the running board over here loaded up with five-gallon gasoline, water, and oil cans, and the storage space under the back seat has all the usual tools for automobile maintenance and repairing tires and so forth. I have a kerosene cookstove, pot and a skillet, bedroll, a real pillow in a canvas case, my fishing gear, a coffeepot and a can of coffee, flashlight…"
"Coffee," Daniel sighed. Then immediately apologized. "I'm sorry, that sounded like I was assuming…"
Jack shrugged a shoulder. "We might as well pool our resources for as long as we're together. For example, I have a picnic basket full of fried chicken that I'll be happy to share with you in exchange for one of your apples for dessert."
"I can't argue with a deal like that." At least, Daniel didn't suppose it would do him much good to argue. And the chicken had smelled awfully good when he was poking around in the back seat. "What happens in the morning?"
"Ha. No, I meant what are your plans?"
"Ultimately? I'm headed for Denver. I've got a job waiting there for me."
Jack did a double take. "What? No. Are you kidding me?"
"I'm going to be attending the University of Colorado, in Denver, starting next month."
"Well, this is Fate, or something."
"It's incredibly good luck for me," Daniel said, preparing to willingly toss all his earlier plans to the wind. Who was he to argue with Fate? Travelling in an open automobile would still provide plenty of fresh air, and they might yet end up sleeping under the stars on other nights, if not tonight. "But there I go assuming again. If it's an imposition of any kind…"
"Hell, I'm glad of the company. I'll be even more glad if the Ford gets stuck on a muddy road and I've got you to get out and push!"
"I'll push." Daniel beamed at Jack. "I'll be glad to push."
"Sweet." Jack smiled at him crookedly.
Daniel inhaled. “So, what sort of job is waiting for you in Colorado, Jack?
“Fellow I served with comes from money. He’s opening up an airplane manufacturing plant.”
“Airplanes?” Daniel wasn't expecting that.
“Oh, yeah. The next big thing. Flying’s really going to take off over the next few years.” Jack shot Daniel a grin.
“Oh, that’s… that’s funny.” Daniel shook his head, and also tried to shake off the effect that smile of Jack's was beginning to have on him.
“Get used to it.” Jack was still grinning, eyes on the road. “My sense of humor isn’t for the weak of heart.”
“I’ll do my best,” Daniel said in a deeply serious tone of voice. “So, you’re going to work in this plant?”
“Not exactly. Somebody’s got to test the planes when they come off the line.”
“Oh! You’re a pilot!”
“You flew in the war?”
“Right. That’s where I met my buddy. We were the only two Americans at our airfield for a while, so we spent a lot of time talking about home and what we were going to do when the war ended.”
“The only Americans?” Daniel frowned.
Jack waved a hand. “This was back before America got in it. We were volunteers serving with the Royal Flying Corps. Royal Air Force, they’re calling it now.”
“Sure.” Daniel nodded slowly. “I’ve read about men doing that. Volunteering. So did you go up to Canada, then?”
“You have been reading. Yep, enlisted in Canada and trained there, then they sent us all overseas. Al, that’s my buddy’s name, he was there a few months ahead of me, so I first met him when I got over to England.”
“You must have both been very lucky,” Daniel said tentatively.
Jack turned to him. “Huh?”
Daniel lifted his hands. “Things were pretty bad, weren’t they? For pilots?”
Jack made a face before facing front again. “Al wasn’t a pilot; he was ground crew.”
Daniel didn’t want to press the subject, although he had half a dozen questions on the tip of his tongue. Jack had just evaded talking about the high mortality rate among British pilots, and pilots in general, no matter their country, and might be tiring of the subject altogether. Lots of veterans didn’t like talking about their war experiences, according to newspaper and magazine articles he'd read. Daniel decided to keep quiet, and wait and see if Jack would continue the discussion on his own.
A minute passed before Jack spoke again. “I was luckier than a lot of guys I knew, that’s no lie. Luckier longer, at any rate.”
“How long were you in?” Daniel asked.
“I enlisted in 1915,” Jack answered.
“Wow.” Daniel raised his eyebrows. “That’s…you had a long war.”
“I’ve got the gray hairs to show for it, too.” Jack’s fingers tapped on the steering wheel.
Daniel had noticed them, below Jack's hat brim. He was noticing a lot of things about Jack. The shape of his brows, the unusual bend to his thumb, the evenness of his teeth behind the crooked smile. “Did you…?” Daniel bit his lip.
He smiled apologetically. “You’ll let me know if I ask too many question, right?”
Jack chuckled. “I’m not planning on leaving you on the side of the road, if that’s what’s worrying you.”
“I’m glad to hear it. My sore feet are pretty happy about it, too.”
“My feet were always happy I hadn’t enlisted in the Army.” Jack braked to a stop at a crossroads. “What’s that signpost say? We keep going straight here, right?” He leaned over toward Daniel and squinted past him.
Daniel pressed back in his seat and barely managed to stop himself from an audible intake of breath. Jack was just plain devastating this close up, with eyelashes that most girls would be jealous of and that scattering of prematurely silver hairs glinting at his temples. Daniel quickly turned his head away.
“Straight ahead?” Jack didn’t sound certain. Which was understandable now that Daniel was looking at the signpost, which seemed to have at least twelve different handpainted signs and arrows. “Ah, yes, there it is!” He set the Model T moving again. "What were you going to ask?"
"I don't remember," Daniel was forced to admit. Because it went right out of my head when you… Oh, God, this may have been a horrible mistake.
"We've got a long drive ahead of us. It'll probably come back to you. Or you'll think of something just as good."
"I am the inquisitive type," Daniel said ruefully. "I'll probably talk your ear off, asking too many questions."
"That's still better than me having nobody to talk to but myself, so don't worry about it. As long as you know I don't have to answer any of them I don't want to, ask as many questions as you want." There was an edge of warning in his words, but his tone was light, and his smile reached his eyes.
Daniel exhaled. "I'll try not to make you sorry you ever said that."
That made Jack laugh outright. "Obviously the only safe thing to do is to get my questions in first, then. So, what are you studying? What year are you in? What are you going to do after you get your degree?"
Daniel bit his lip. "Actually, I already have two degrees."
Jack turned to look at him, eyebrows high. "No fooling? You must be older than you look."
"I started college at sixteen."
Jack whistled. "And now you're…?"
"Twenty-one. I just finished my bachelor's degree in linguistics, and I received my degree in anthropology the year before."
"What made you choose those fields?"
"My parents were anthropologists." Daniel paused, but Jack didn't comment on his use of the past tense. "At least, my father was, officially. My mother acted as his assistant after they married. And I just find languages fascinating. I don't have a terrific ear for them, for speaking them, I mean. But I can make myself understood, and understand a native speaker, in about eight languages. And I can read and translate in a few more."
"I'm guessing that's useful for an anthropologist?"
Daniel smiled. "It certainly doesn't hurt! And I love studying, but I'm not sure even I would want to pursue two subjects that were entirely unrelated."
Jack darted him a sideways look. "No?"
"So you're not off to Denver to study the violin now?"
Daniel laughed. "No, I'm beginning work on a Master's degree in anthro. My Chicago professor recommended Denver, where his mentor's been building a top-notch department from the ground up since the campus opened ten years ago."
"I'm seriously impressed. Here I thought I was giving an ordinary fella a lift, but instead I'm ferrying one of the great minds of the twentieth century to his next achievement."
Daniel was quiet for a minute, wondering if he'd come across as a braggart.
"I'm not ragging you," Jack said. "I think it's great. I read a lot, but I sure never even considered going past high school."
"College is mostly reading."
"Yeah? In that case, I grant myself an honorary degree."
Daniel grinned. "In what?"
"History, I suppose. Or maybe literature? I read the classics."
"A double degree, then."
Jack beamed. "Sweet."
"So, what kind of work did you do before the war? When you weren't busy reading the classics?"
"I worked part-time in my cousin's father-in-law's machine shop starting when I was sixteen. A few hours after school on Thursdays and Fridays, and a half day on Saturday. A third of what I earned went into the family coffers, and a third into a savings account, and the rest I got to spend however I wanted. Mostly that went to buying pretty girls ice cream sodas and Coca-Colas at the drug store fountain, I guess."
"That sounds reasonable to me." It was probably how most high school boys would want to spend their money, Daniel supposed.
"Even my mom couldn't argue with it, and she'll put up an argument about just about anything." He grinned. "Anyway, I went to work at the shop full-time after graduation, and about six months later I went to work for Mr. Hoover." He looked at Daniel with raised eyebrows.
Daniel tried to interpret that look. "The Secretary of Commerce?"
Jack chuckled. "The vacuum cleaner magnate. The Hoover Company had opened up a plant in Chicago. I started out making parts, but then they put me in assembly, which was as boring as it sounds. So I started hanging out with the fella who repaired the machines in the shop, and he showed me a little of what he did, and pretty soon they had me assisting him with the maintenance after my regular shift ended. And then they took me out of assembly and put me into the repair shop and taught me how to fix the vacuum cleaners that didn't work right after assembly got through with them."
"Not boring?" Daniel thought Jack's tone had changed.
Jack shrugged, and one corner of his mouth turned up. "I like working with my hands. Yeah, yeah, assembly…but that was different. No challenge there. No skill needed, or brains either. Just manual dexterity."
"You like puzzles."
"I do. And I like taking things apart better than I like putting them together, apparently. So I got plenty of that, between the machine maintenance and the vacuum cleaner repair work."
"Oh, I didn't realize you were still doing both. That's a lot of ice cream sodas!"
"Ah, I was looking to the future by that point. Most of my two-thirds went into the bank. Plus, I set myself up with a nice little sideline making evening service calls to households in my part of town, to perform maintenance and repairs on their Hoover machines. What?"
"Oh," Daniel said, "I was going to comment about how ambitious you were, but then I realized that I put in the same kind of hours studying. The sad difference being that I don't make a nickel at it."
"You'll get your payoff down the road," Jack said.
"Oh, I know."
Jack chuckled. "Meanwhile, you get to ride in mine!" He patted the Ford's dashboard affectionately. "Every single hour spent delving into the dusty entrails of a vacuum cleaner was totally worth it."
Smiling at Jack's pleasure, Daniel could only hope that his own hard work would reward him one day with something that would give him equal delight.
It was dusk when they reached the campgrounds, and a good thing that it wasn't any darker, since the sign – Cabins For Rent – was concealed by bushes until they were right on top of it. Jack had to put the auto in reverse before making the turn-off. "You'd almost think they didn't want any business," he griped.
When they'd passed through the tree line, they found a large clearing with a series of small cabins ranging along both sides of the narrow road, which was lit by a score of electric lights strung overhead from poles. Five youths were playing some kind of a noisy, disorganized game in an open space to the left. Automobiles were parked in front of several of the cabins, and the smell of wood smoke drifted to Daniel's nostrils.
On the right was a cabin with an electric light by the screen door and a sign saying: Manager. Jack tooted his horn and swung himself over the side and down, leaving the motor running. He stretched luxuriously, yawned, and went to rap on the door. There was no answer. "Hello?" Still nothing. Jack came to stand next to Daniel, one foot on the running board, and his arm along the top of the door. "I'm starving."
"I am, too."
A short man came bustling along the road toward them. "Good evening," he called. "Sorry to have kept you waiting."
"Not a problem," Jack said, shaking hands. "We just got here."
"I'm Sorenson, the manager." He extended his hand to Daniel. "Two bed cabin for you gents?"
"Well, come on in. We'll take care of the necessary now, so you can leave as early as you like in the morning, then I'll show you to your cabin."
Jack followed Sorenson, and Daniel bit his lip and squirmed a bit. Should he have gone in, too? It might have been less awkward than asking Jack later how much his share cost. Well, it was too late now. Going in after the fact… Daniel stretched his arms out to the side and uncricked his neck. Probably Jack would just tell him what he owed, and if not, he'd simply bring it up himself. He worried over the most inane things sometimes. He let his right arm drop onto the door frame, where Jack's arm had been a minute ago. Daniel licked his lips, picturing the hairs on Jack's forearm, his profile, backlit by the electric light... "Stop that," he whispered to himself.
He was really enjoying Jack's company, really starting to like him as a person. He wanted to continue to get to know him, without sullying what he hoped would become a friendship by the time they reached Colorado. He didn't want to be uncomfortable around Jack. He had to get a grip on his thoughts. They were wrong, and they stood to ruin this experience. He frowned, impatient with himself. He was usually better at controlling these unnatural impulses that plagued him.
The thought scampered across his mind that maybe that was because he'd never met anyone quite like Jack before now. He shifted his feet and clenched a fist. What difference did that make anyway? It didn't mean anything. Jack was handsome, friendly. And would be horrified if he knew Daniel was sitting out here thinking about him this way. A tiny sound escaped Daniel's lips.
He hated feeling weak, when he wanted to be morally strong. He prayed quickly, silently, for additional strength to resist temptation.
The screen door creaked open. Jack walked around the front of the auto and swung himself in, while Sorenson climbed on the running board next to Daniel. "About seven cabins along, on the left." The Model T moved slowly along the road. "Pump is here on the right, there's a bucket in your cabin. Outhouses are back behind the cabins on both sides. This is you. Park wherever you want, except in the middle of the road." Jack pulled ahead a few feet and reversed off the road. Sorenson hopped down as Jack braked to a stop alongside the cabin and shut off the motor. A child screeched with laughter somewhere on the other side of the road. "If you want a fire, you share the pit next door. Nobody's taken that cabin yet, but it's still early."
Daniel climbed down and opened the auto's rear door, pulling out his knapsack. Sorenson was opening the cabin's door while Jack hooked the screen door back. "Sheets are clean every Monday." He reached to the left as he crossed the threshold, and Daniel heard the button click as he pushed it to turn on the light, a single uncovered bulb in a ceiling fixture.
The light revealed a utilitarian room, with screened windows on three sides, two single beds along adjoining walls, set perpendicular to each other, with a brown blanket at the foot of each, and a wash stand with a enameled tin pitcher and basin, standing beneath a small, round, stainless steel wall mirror. There was a dish for holding soap and a rack for towels, assuming you'd brought your own, and the promised bucket on a hook. A soot-covered hurricane lantern and a box of matches sat on a ledge. Daniel set his knapsack down next to one of the beds, and turned to see a small square table with two chairs next to the front window. It held a squat vase filled with wildflowers. Daniel smiled with instant pleasure. A homey, welcoming touch in this bare room.
"If there's anything you need, you know where you can find me."
Jack extended his hand. "Thank you, Mr. Sorenson."
"Enjoy your stay, Mr. O'Neill." At the door, Sorenson turned. "Oh, and if you do build a fire, make sure it's out before you turn in. There's a bucket of dirt." He jerked a thumb toward the next cabin. "You'll see it. Good night!"
"Good night," Daniel said, following him out, heading for the auto. "How much are we bringing inside?"
"Everything in the back seat." Jack pulled out the picnic basket. "Here's the most important thing."
Daniel chuckled and set the basket aside. "Aren't you worried about someone trying to steal the things stored under the seat, or on the running board?"
"They'll have to make noise doing that, and I sleep light." Jack tucked his canvas-covered pillow under his arm and gripped two duffel bags. "Anybody who comes poking around is going to get what they've got coming to them."
A tiny thrill ran through Daniel's body at Jack's words. He blinked. "I believe you."
They continued unloading the auto. Jack brought the cooking stove in last. "Get the screen door, would ya?"
Daniel unhooked the screen door from its open position and followed Jack into the cabin, setting the picnic basket down on the table as the door banged shut behind him. "Are we going to eat in here?"
Placing the stove against a wall, Jack sat on the edge of his bed and opened one of his duffels. He glanced up at Daniel. "I thought we'd have a fire. Sound okay?"
"We don't have anything to cook, and it's a little warm…" Jack shrugged
"So, a little fire?"
Jack snorted and flashed his teeth.
The cabin suddenly felt very small. "I'll go get water," Daniel said, reaching for the bucket.
"Okay." Jack had pulled out a flashlight, a container of Flit, and a tin plate. "I'll get started on the fire." He stood and reached for the box of matches, shoving it into his pocket. He picked up the picnic basket and as they parted outside, said, "Don't forget to bring those apples."
There would still be one chicken leg apiece for the morning, and they could toast some of Daniel's bread over the fire they'd light under the coffee pot. But for now, stomachs were satisfied, bones and apple cores had been disposed of during a visit to the outhouse, and their tin plates had been washed, as well as their hands and faces. You couldn't eat fried chicken without making a mess.
Their small fire was crackling pleasantly. Daniel sipped from his cup of water and looked up at the sky from the log that formed their bench. Because of the electric lights strung along the road, he could only see a few of the brightest stars. The night was fairly quiet, now that the youngsters were all presumably tucked away in bed. There were other fires, and occasionally a voice or a laugh would drift their way, or a couple would stroll past, offering a hushed, "Good evening." At the end of the road, the generator that supplied the electricity provided a steady background hum. Crickets chirped insistently.
Jack was rolling a cigarette. Daniel watched his hands at work, creasing the paper, tapping the tobacco from his leather pouch, moving the paper constantly between his thumbs and fingers, forming a cylinder. When his tongue came out to lick the paper's adhesive, Daniel quickly looked back up at the sky. He heard the scratch of a match, and the scent of tobacco perfumed the air.
Jack had offered him one. Daniel had told him that he didn't smoke. But for a split second he'd considered accepting, for the intimacy of taking what Jack had made with his two hands, placing it in his mouth…and then undoubtedly having a coughing fit which would make him out to be a fool, and maybe even a suspect sort of fool. He could only hope that a couple more days of Jack's company would inure him to the man's appeal.
Daniel suspected he was a fool, if he believed that would happen.
A breeze made the fire dance and sway. Daniel took off his hat and set it beside him, letting the wind ruffle his slightly damp hair. It really was too warm to sit around a fire, but he was enjoying it all the same. It was so different from sitting hunched around a study lamp, surrounded by books and papers. Ah, well, if he was being a fool, at least he was experiencing life at the same time. A different sort of learning experience than he was used to. Less expensive then college, too.
Which reminded him. "Jack, how much do I owe you for my share of the cabin?"
Jack had been raising his cigarette to his mouth, but he lowered his hand. "No, forget it. We're fine."
Daniel hadn't been expecting that response. Maybe Jack thought he was poor? He admittedly didn't have a ton of money to throw around, but he was in no danger of going broke. The Ballard Family Trust, begun by his maternal great-grandfather with the money he had made in the early years of the steel industry, would never make Daniel rich. His grandfather had lived extravagantly, and his mother had spent a good share of it indulging his father and keeping up the style of living to which she was accustomed, but what remained was still going to pay for all of his education with enough left over to support him for a few years beyond that while he established himself in his career. "I…I can afford to pay." His trustee, Mr. Fox, an elderly lawyer in a Pittsburgh firm, watched every dime with an eye to the future, but believed at the same time that 'Boys your age need to have fun,' and controlled the purse-strings with an relatively generous hand, accordingly.
Jack exhaled smoke. "It isn't necessary. Don't worry about it."
Daniel didn't know what to do. Would he be rude to keep pressing the point? Should he really just stop worrying about it, and save himself the cost? He was fairly certain what Mr. Fox would tell him to do. "I'm not entirely comfortable with you paying my way like this," he finally said carefully.
Jack laid a hand on his arm, which made Daniel start a little, and looked at him steadily. "Look, I'm figuring it this way: when we get where we're going, I'm going to be earning a steady paycheck. You're not." He took his hand away. "I'd be stopping for the night anyway, and the cabin would have cost me the same if I were alone. They don't have single rooms. Now, if you want to pay for your own food along the way, I won't give you an argument. Although I won't let you starve yourself, either. But as far as the costs to run the auto or stop somewhere, you're pretty much doing me the favor by keeping me company." He smiled at Daniel.
Daniel felt himself flushing. "You just haven't had enough time to get tired of me yet."
Jack chuckled. "I might say the same. Say, maybe you want to help with the driving?" He took a long draw on his cigarette.
Daniel gulped. "I don't drive. I've never…I don't know anything at all about automobiles." It took an effort to keep his voice level. He fixed his eyes on the trail of tobacco smoke spiraling up into the darkness.
"You and half the drivers on the road. Tell you what – I'll give you a lesson in the morning. See how you take to it." His cigarette traced a red glow as he waved his hand.
"Sure, okay. If you're sure I won't smash it up." Daniel's throat closed up as he felt trepidation bordering on outright panic at the very notion of getting behind the wheel of an automobile, but he didn't know what else to say without getting into things he'd rather not discuss.
"Nah, I'll pick a wide open spot. You'll rattle along just fine."
Daniel poked nervously at their campfire with a stick, and decided to try changing the subject. "Your Ford doesn't seem to rattle all that much, actually. I mean for an older machine. I was sort of surprised. I mean, you hear jokes about pieces falling off Model T's at every pothole and rut." He smiled tentatively at Jack, inviting him to be amused.
Instead, Jack's face went blank, and he stared off into the night for several long seconds, leaving Daniel wondering if he'd said something horribly wrong and insulting. "Well," Jack finally said, "she spent four years up on blocks while I was away. So there isn't as much wear and tear on her as you might expect."
"Oh, I see."
Jack looked at him. "No, you don't."
Daniel was struck silent by the pain he could see in Jack's eyes. What sort of memories had his careless question stirred up? Memories of the war, of fallen comrades?
Jack took the stick from Daniel's hand and began listlessly poking at the fire. "The folks at the Ford dealership said she needed her engine turned over every so often. You know, just let her run for a few minutes to keep her in tune." He smiled mirthlessly. "Give her a good cranking." He took one last drag on his cigarette, tossing the butt end into the fire.
Daniel tucked his hands under his arms and frowned into the fire, wary of what he might hear next and wishing he could take back his words. He'd desperately needed to change the subject, but why, oh why, couldn't he have said something, anything else?
"So I asked one of my friends to do that for me. To come by the house. Take care of it." Jack stood abruptly and, with a violent movement, threw the stick over the roof of the cabin. "After a couple of years of regular visits, my wife left me for him."
Daniel found himself on his feet, reaching out to put a hand on Jack's shoulder. He jerked his hand back quickly, but Jack had noticed.
"All water under the bridge by now. I gave her a divorce and they got married." He grimaced and shrugged. "I hope they're happy."
"That's…" Daniel hesitated, watching Jack for a reaction, then continued, "that's very generous of you." Astonishingly generous.
Jack shook his head slightly and waved a hand in negation. "I never blamed Sara. You could look at it that I left her first."
"To fight a war!"
"For someone else's King and Country, at least in the beginning. No, Daniel. I abandoned her, plain and simple. She never deserved that." Jack kicked at the fire. "You about ready to turn in?"
"I'll sit here for a little while longer," Daniel said, hastily suiting action to words and sitting back down on the log. He needed some time to himself to absorb what he'd just heard. And Jack could probably use the time alone to compose himself for sleep after talking about something so emotionally painful. "I'll take care of the fire before I turn in."
"Okay." Jack stretched and gave Daniel an awkward look. "Don't be too long. You need your rest before your first driving lesson."
Daniel groaned. He'd actually forgotten for a moment.
Jack snorted. "Hey, you don't have to drive if you don't want to. But you might as well have the lesson anyway, right? You never know when something like that might come in handy. And at any rate I can teach you how to crank her up for me."
Daniel looked up at him, relieved. "That sounds so much better."
Jack looked at him questioningly, then shook his head at him and reached down to give his hair a swift, rough tousle. "Good night, Daniel."
"Good night." Daniel swallowed as he watched Jack move away into the darkness, toward their cabin. His scalp was tingling. And he wasn't going to be sleepy any time soon.
Daniel was nudged awake. "Wha?"
"I'm going to start a fire for the coffee. You can wash up and get dressed."
Daniel blinked. "Is it morning already?" He felt like he'd just shut his eyes.
Jack chuckled. "'Fraid so."
Daniel was seized by an enormous yawn that lasted until after the screen door had banged behind Jack. He sat up and scratched his upper arm. Jack had already made his bed, dressed, probably had washed first, and – Daniel closed his eyes for a second and scrunched up his nose, trying to remember – yes, he'd been freshly shaved. And he'd slept through it all. He scratched his arm again, and lifted up the short sleeve of his B.V.D.-brand union suit to see if he'd been bitten by a mosquito last night, in spite of the Flit that Jack had sprayed. Nope.
He rolled out of bed and unbuttoned the union suit to the waist, peeling it off his shoulders as he crossed to the wash stand. Jack had rinsed the basin out when he'd finished, so Daniel poured in water from the pitcher, grabbed his washcloth, and started soaping up. After he dried off, he shrugged back into the B.V.D.s and got dressed, wincing a little as he laced up his shoes. No blisters, no actual sore spots, but his feet were definitely complaining about the amount of work they'd been called on to do the day before. It was just as well his initial, perhaps rather ill-conceived, plan of hitchhiking had been so fortuitously altered.
He flapped a hand in Jack's direction as he headed for the outhouse. When he came back, he went over to the campfire.
Jack peered up at him. "Aren't you gonna shave?"
"Can't I have coffee first?"
Jack grinned. "It'll be a few minutes. You are not a morning person, are you?"
Daniel shrugged and sniffed. Blinked a few times. Scratched. Maybe he'd been bitten by something else, and the bump wasn't showing yet? "Okay, I'll shave."
Jack stood and walked back to the cabin with him. "You can give me that bread of yours, and your plate."
"Right." Daniel dropped his hat on the bed and burrowed into his knapsack. "Want the cheese, too?"
"Sure. We can always pick up more supplies when we stop for gasoline."
Jack left with the food and Daniel dug out his razor, poured a little clean water over the end of his shaving stick, and began rubbing it over his face, creating a lather. He lifted his razor, stopping when he saw his bleary eyes in the mirror. He gave himself a shake. That coffee couldn't be ready soon enough.
After breakfast, Jack brushed his teeth and Daniel discovered he hadn't packed a toothbrush.
"We'll run across a drug store eventually. Just put some of this on a wet finger and swab it around." Jack handed him his can of Pepsodent powder. "I'm going to go fill up the crankcase and the radiator."
So Daniel did as suggested, only to find that in the end he'd used a lot more powder than he normally would, and that without the aid of a wetted toothbrush he had no easy way to rinse his mouth out. His cup was already packed into the Ford, the basin still contained his shaving water, and he was sure to wind up with half the contents of the pitcher all over himself if he tried to drink from it. He tried twice pouring from the pitcher into a cupped hand, but by the time he moved the pitcher out of the way and lowered his face, most of the water had trickled away. Finally he walked outside with the Pepsodent in one hand and the pitcher in the other, where he handed both to Jack and cupped his hands. "Water," he said, in a spray of peppermint-flavored froth.
When Jack was finally done laughing, he poured water into Daniel's hands, waited while Daniel drank and spat, and then poured twice more.
"Thank you," Daniel said, with what little dignity he could muster, and took the pitcher back inside, where he toweled off his dripping chin.
When he came back outside, Jack had finished stowing everything away in the auto, and was just replacing the front seat cushion after topping off the gasoline tank underneath the seat. He secured the gasoline can back in its spot on the running board, and bounced on his toes. "Ready for your introduction to the wonders of the Model T?"
Jack clapped him on the back. "I'll go easy on you."
"I wasn't kidding when I said I know nothing at all about automobiles."
"I won't get too technical. You don't need to know why something works the way it does, just how to make it work." Jack climbed into the Ford from the passenger side, leaving the door open.
Daniel stepped closer, trying to look relaxed.
"There's an extra step or two when the weather's colder, and first thing in the morning, but here's the basic summertime procedure we'll use most. Turn the key on the coil box to the 'battery' position. Pull the choke out a bit. Hand lever's all the way back, so the engine's in neutral and the parking brake's on. This lever on the left of the steering column's your spark advance. The main thing to remember is you want that retarded before you start cranking. Always." Jack looked at him sternly.
"Got it," Daniel replied. He hadn't got it at all.
"You do that by pushing it all the way up. Then the throttle lever, over here on the right, gets pulled down about a quarter of the way, to give it some gasoline. Doesn't matter what order you do it all in, just as long as it all gets done."
"And then you crank. But since the machine's been sitting all night…" Jack reached over and turned the key to the off position and pushed the choke in. "Cold start, key off, and we'll be using the outside choke. Everything else is the same."
"Spark retarded, hand lever back…throttle at one quarter." Daniel gestured toward the first two levers in turn and touched the throttle lever.
Jack's face lit up. "Very good!" He made a shooing motion. "Let me out."
Daniel backed away and followed Jack to the front of the Ford.
"Warm start, we'd just give her a crank, and the engine should turn right over. Always crank with your left hand, and keep your thumb next to your fingers, not on the opposite side of the handle. In case the engine backfires, and the crank comes back at you, your hand will be knocked away." Jack did a mock demonstration. "Right hand, and you've maybe got a broken arm."
Daniel decided to take his word for it. "Left hand, and forget that humans have opposable thumbs."
Jack gave him a look over his shoulder. There was a glint in his eye as he replied, "Pretend you're still a monkey, if that'll help."
Daniel laughed at the reference to Darwin's theory. So far this wasn't so bad. It was interesting. Kind of fun. Or was that just because Jack was the teacher?
"Now, I just said only crank with the left hand, but what we're doing here is priming the carburetor, which is a little different. You use the right hand on the crank, because your left hand is pulling the choke, see? Down here under the radiator."
Daniel bent down to see what Jack's left hand was doing. "Okay."
"Pull on the choke, push in the starter handle until you feel it engage, and work the crank up and down a couple times, going from nine o'clock to two." Jack moved the crank as he spoke. "Nice and easy." He released the choke as the crank returned to its beginning position. "Want to lean in and turn the key to 'battery'?"
Daniel nodded. "Okay." He leaned in the open passenger door and turned the key, then returned to Jack's side.
"This part takes a little muscle. Not much." Jack grinned at him. "I think you're capable."
Daniel settled his hat more firmly. "Thanks a lot."
Jack reached for the fender with his right hand, for balance and leverage, as he threw himself to the right, bringing the crank up and over with a sharp pull. The motor started and the crank spun back into place. "Not so hard."
"I'll be willing to try my hand at it."
"Next time we stop." Jack smiled at him. "Okay, now I'll fill you in on the rest of the Model T's mysteries." He climbed up behind the wheel. "First I'll adjust the spark advance and the throttle, until the engine's running smoothly." He suited actions to words, and the auto, which had been shaking, quieted down considerably. "And turn the key over to 'magneto'."
"I mostly understand how a battery functions, but I know nothing at all about magnetos."
"It's all done with magnets."
"Yep. Um, squat down there by the running board, I guess, and I'll show you the foot pedals."
Daniel squatted, which put him at about eye level with Jack's lap. He quickly directed his eyes to the floorboards.
"Left to right, clutch, reverse and brake. The clutch pedal has three positions. All the way down is low gear, and all the way up is high gear. Halfway down, like now, puts the transmission in neutral. Of course, we're already in neutral because the hand lever is all the way back."
"And the parking brake is on."
"Right. When I move the lever forward until it's straight up, we're still in neutral, but the parking brake's come off, so I've put my right foot on the brake pedal. If instead I used my left foot to push the clutch down, we'd start moving forward in low gear. Left foot on the reverse pedal, and we'd move backwards." Jack mimed depressing the pedals. "Make sense?"
"With you so far."
"If I would push the hand lever all the way forward, that puts it in drive. The clutch would come up all the way, and we'd be moving in high gear. At that point, until I need to brake, I don't need my feet at all. Just use the spark advance and throttle levers to keep the engine ticking smoothly and control my speed." Daniel concentrated on Jack's hands, making tiny adjustments to the levers. "To brake, you have to be in neutral, which you can do with either the hand lever or the clutch pedal. Stepping on the reverse pedal works, too, to slow you down. I use 'em both so that one band doesn't wear out faster than the other." Jack pulled the hand lever all the way back and took his right foot off the brake. The automobile jerked slightly but held. "That's it." His fingers tapped against the steering wheel.
Daniel stood up. "Most of that made sense."
"Did you have questions?"
"Not now." Daniel climbed in. "I'll probably think of some while I watch you drive." He'd watched Jack drive for hours yesterday, without having a clue what he was seeing. It would be even more interesting today. He smiled ruefully. As if he needed an excuse to watch Jack.
"So what do you think, now that the mysteries have been unveiled?"
"I frankly don't know how you do it. It's a lot more complex than I thought."
"It isn't hard. Really. It gets to be second nature in no time. Did you want to get behind the wheel and try any of it yourself?"
"No." It came out a lot louder than he meant it to. "No, but thank you for the lesson. It was very interesting."
Jack didn't answer, just set the auto in motion – hand lever up, clutch pedal down. They rolled slowly past the line of cabins and the manager's office. Clutch to neutral, right foot on brake. Right turn onto the highway, brake off, clutch down, throttle forward, spark adjusted. Hand lever forward, throttle and spark adjusted. High gear. They were silent for a while, Daniel staring out his side of the automobile, teeth pressing into his bottom lip. He sensed Jack looking at him.
Finally Jack spoke up. "Look, I obviously made a mistake here; I can see that. I'm sorry to get the day off to such a bad start. Let's forget about it, huh? I just thought you might enjoy it, that's all."
"I did." And he had. For all the wrong reasons. Watching Jack's hands with their covering of fine hairs, crouching down by his legs, seeing the muscles working in his thighs as his feet moved between the pedals, determined not to let his eyes stray higher…but being too weak to stop himself from glancing, again and again. He couldn't tell Jack any of that.
But he could let a different secret go, and hopefully clear the air between them and set Jack's mind at rest. "I did, but…you probably gathered yesterday that my parents are dead. They were killed in an automobile accident."
The Ford swerved a little as Jack reacted.
"My father was driving. He lost control on an icy road." The next part was hard. Did he need to say it? Hadn't he said enough? Daniel felt the tension in his hands, his shoulders, his back. No, it wasn't enough. He needed to let it all out. He glanced at Jack and met his eyes. Jack was waiting for the rest. He could tell that Daniel wasn't finished. Daniel took a deep breath and tried to relax. "The auto went into a river, and they were drowned."
"Jesus," Jack said softly. "I'm so sorry, Daniel."
Daniel nodded and breathed deeply again. "I was ten years old. I had nightmares for months after that, where I was with them, where I was the one behind the wheel…" If he closed his eyes right now, he'd see their faces through the water, drifting away from him as he strained to reach out to them. But he didn't have to talk about that part. The tension was draining from his body, leaving him limp. "I don't think I'll ever drive."
"There's no reason you have to. I'm sorry that…"
"Oh, you couldn't know. I should have said something. It's…it's just crazy to still get so upset over it after all these years."
"No," Jack said sharply. "There's nothing crazy about it. We all have our nightmares."
Their eyes met again, briefly, but long enough for volumes of understanding to be spoken.
"Does this seem like an unusual amount of traffic?" Daniel asked. He'd seen four automobiles make a right turn onto their heretofore sleepy country road at the last intersection, before the Model T reached it, with several more still waiting to turn. Almost as many autos at one time as he'd seen altogether in the last four hours.
"Yep. Wonder if they know something we don't know?"
"Maybe we'll find out."
"Maybe we won't. Maybe it will forever remain a mystery…or maybe not." Daniel saw autos turning left ahead of them.
"Shall we have a look-see?" Jack suggested lightly.
"Oh, let's do."
Jack laughed and turned left onto a twisting dirt road. A bumpy, twisting dirt road. "This would be where parts start falling off," he said loudly, slackening his grip on the steering wheel, letting it twist and jerk, only making minor corrections rather than trying to fight it.
Daniel held onto the windshield frame. The line of autos ahead of them slowed, and Jack shifted into neutral and braked. Then Daniel saw the hand painted sign. "'Fundraiser picnic for First Baptist Church. Help us build anew. All welcome. 35 cents.'"
"Sweet. Nobody cooks like church ladies."
Jack was right about that. Devilled eggs, tart lemonade, pineapple upside-down cake, iced tea, every variety of pickle known to man, Parker House rolls, potato chips, Boston brown bread, buttermilk, ginger snaps, blackberry, peach and tart August apple pies, baked beans, corn on the cob, potato salad, pork chops, fried chicken, watermelon, cole slaw, and sugar cookies.
They ate like kings underneath a spreading elm tree. Off to their left was the half-completed skeleton of the new church building, the forty-five-year-old building in town having been destroyed by lightning that spring, they'd been told, along with the county courthouse. To their right a game of baseball was underway, shirtsleeved men and older boys playing, with the little boys, young girls and whichever women weren't engaged in serving food at the moment cheering them on.
"Wonder how the Cubs are doing in Cincinnati," Jack mused, whittling idly on a stick.
"Do you play?"
Jack looked at the game, then back at Daniel. "Not on a full stomach." He tossed the stick over his shoulder and put his knife away. "However…" He pushed himself to his feet. "I think I'll join the smokers over there for a while."
Daniel swatted at a fly, and shoved his empty plate farther away. "Okay. I'll stick here in the shade."
Jack nodded and moved toward the small group of men gathered in front of a fence.
Daniel took off his jacket and laid it down beside him, then slid down onto his back and tilted his hat down over his eyes. Maybe he would catch a few winks. He hadn't slept all that well, constantly aware of Jack's breathing, crickets chirping, of automobile and screen doors slamming shut at all hours of the night, incessantly worrying about the driving lesson to come in the morning. He was used to nights short of sleep when he was studying, but after a day of fresh air and unaccustomed exercise his body had needed a lot more rest than his mind had allowed it to get. He didn't think he was going to have that kind of problem tonight.
The fly, or a new fly, buzzed in his ear. At least he thought it was a fly. Maybe he'd been snoring. He removed his hat and rolled up onto his elbow, peering in Jack's direction.
Jack had climbed up onto the fence and was sitting on the top railing, apparently deep in conversation with one of the men. The only man. The others had wandered away in search of more food, a word with their wives, to join the baseball game, or who knew what. Maybe there was some hard cider being consumed behind the church in defiance of Prohibition.
This man had stayed, though. Daniel couldn't tell much about him from this distance, but the impression he got was of a well-built man, closer to his own age than Jack's. Something about the way he moved spoke of youth. And he seemed to be moving a lot. Leaning a hip against the fence. Clinging to the top rail and arching away. Putting his back to the fence and his elbows on the rail, twisting his neck to peer up at Jack. Like…he was posing.
Calling attention to himself. To his body.
Daniel sat upright. Jack's hands were both on the railing. He wasn't smoking. He'd finished his cigarette. But he was still there, talking to this….this…
Daniel inhaled. This knife twisting in his gut, he recognized it. It wasn't bad food, or too much to eat. It was the knife he used to feel at eleven, twelve, thirteen, when one of the cousins he was raised with after his parents' death received the love and attention that Daniel had craved. At fourteen, fifteen, when the boys around him, his few friends, all started mooning over girls, drifting away.
He'd known Jack for slightly less than twenty-four hours.
Jack jumped down from the fence and shook hands with the other man. Daniel hastily turned to look in the other direction. How could something like this happen so quickly? It went beyond his increasing inability to control his own physical attraction to Jack, this instinctive recognition of the stranger's behavior and this pained reaction to it. It was beyond unnatural desire; this was a demand, a possessiveness.
He wanted Jack to be his and his alone.
It was utterly insane. He heard Jack approaching, whistling as he came, and squeezed his eyes shut, telling himself to calm down. Nothing had really changed. Jack could still be his friend, his companion. Daniel just had to be stronger than ever, because now he had even more to hide.
This trip had been partly to learn about himself. So now he'd learned he could fall in love, and in just the space of a day. Hell, that nearly made him sound normal. Normal people fell in love, some of them at first sight. It was almost funny. Hysterical, in fact.
Jack's hand tousled his hair. Daniel's shoulders hunched. "Hey, want to get back on the road?"
"Sure." Daniel got to his feet, shrugged into his jacket, and bent again to pick up his hat. Jack was gathering their dirty plates. "I think I nodded off for a few minutes."
"I nearly took a nap, myself, talking to this clown." Jack shot a wary glance over his shoulder. "Talk about full of himself."
The knife in Daniel's stomach went away. "My turn to crank the Ford?"
Jack's expression lightened magically. "You betcha!"
The Ford's engine had just stopped, without any warning. Jack had steered it to the side of the road and let it coast to a halt, and now had his head underneath the cowl, shining his flashlight into the guts of the machine. With a mutter, he walked around to the other side and lifted up that cowl as well. After a few seconds he lifted his head. "Come and hold the flashlight, would ya?"
Daniel hurried to his side and directed the beam of the flash where Jack indicated. Jack tossed his hat and coat into the front seat, grabbed a wrench, got down on the ground on his back, and wormed his way underneath the auto. Daniel saw half of Jack's face appear, then one of his hands, feeling for something. "Well, dammit." Jack sighed. "Pull me out."
Daniel shut off the flashlight and laid it on the front seat before bending to grip Jack's ankles. Jack used the running board as leverage to help Daniel pull him clear. He sat up and brushed dirt from his hair. "That wasn't it." He stretched out his hand, and Daniel helped him stand.
"No clue." Jack scowled. "It isn't any of the obvious things, and it isn't the one weird thing that I've been shown how to fix." He looked from left to right. "I guess I could try starting her again."
He didn't ask Daniel to do the cranking. His own efforts produced no result.
"What? Don't worry, someone will come along and give us a tow."
"No, I was just…did I do something wrong?"
"Back at the church. When I helped you start…"
"Oh!" Jack scrunched up his face. "No, Daniel. Not even a chance." He gave Daniel a sharp poke. "Hey! Wipe that look off your face. I'm telling you the truth."
"Okay. It just seems like such a…"
"Coincidence? Yeah. Because it is one. Let it go."
Daniel heaved a sigh. "Okay."
"Okay. Hey, do something for me?" Jack reached into the back seat and pulled out one of his duffel bags. "I've got a clothes brush in here somewhere." He dug around until he found it, then offered it to Daniel with a raised eyebrow.
"Oh, sure." Daniel waited for Jack to turn around. He inspected the cleanliness of the brush and said, "I'll get your hair, first." He stroked the brush through Jack's hair gingerly, then started on the collar of his shirt, and proceeded down his back, using quicker, firmer strokes.
"Is it coming off?"
"Mostly. Good thing you're wearing a blue shirt today." Daniel scrubbed in a different direction at a stubborn streak of dirt.
"Should have put down the groundsheet from my bedroll. Or get myself a tarp, and always carry it."
Daniel paused at Jack's waistline. He put his free hand over his mouth and closed his eyes briefly. Looking over Jack's shoulder, he asked, "Did you want me to do the rest?"
Jack twisted his neck around and reached out for the brush. "Here, I'll do it. You can get anything I miss."
Daniel didn't watch. "I'm surprised you don't already carry a tarp. You seem like the type to always be prepared." Great, that sounded like he was nagging, or making fun.
Jack snorted. "Believe it or not, I've never gone on a long drive like this. In Chicago, you break down…" He passed the brush back to Daniel. "You break down, you find a pay phone."
Jack had missed a spot. Daniel gripped Jack's waistband to draw his trouser fabric tight and brushed vigorously, trying to ignore where he was brushing.
"Or you hop on the El and call your mechanic from home, with your feet up."
"Got it," Daniel said, stepping away and studiously focusing his attention on cleaning dirt off the bristles.
"Thanks." Jack stuffed the brush back in his duffel and began to close it up. He stopped. "Wanna play cards while we wait?"
"Not for money."
Jack laughed as he pulled out his deck.
Daniel was deeply in imaginary debt to Jack when they heard a team of horses approaching from the direction they'd been heading. They got to their feet and Jack waved an arm. "Hello!"
The man pulled his team up. "Whoa. Howdy. Trouble?"
"Yes, sir. Can we trouble you for a tow to the nearest town with a repair shop?"
"Well, you can, but you can't tonight."
Daniel looked at the position of the sun in the sky. He wouldn't even call it evening yet. Of course farmers kept different hours than most people.
"We just come from there, see? Can't ask the horses to do it all again, and with an automobile hitched to them, to boot."
"I understand." Jack nodded. "Well, thank you anyway."
The farmer tugged at his hat brim thoughtfully. "Our place is just up the road, here. Be glad to set you up in my barn for the night, and have you in town by the time the Ford place opens up in the morning."
Daniel looked at Jack.
Jack rubbed his chin.
"They've only one mechanic working tonight, and he told me he had two jobs still waiting 'sides the one he was working on."
"I'd say that settles it," Jack said. "We thank you."
The farmer looped his reins and climbed down. He was a thin man, and not very tall. "Royal Maresh."
"Jack O'Neill. Daniel Jackson."
Mr. Maresh had the roughest hand Daniel had ever shaken. His eyes were shy, but friendly. "Let's see about getting your machine hitched up."
Mr. Maresh introduced them to his wife, a tiny woman with flyaway gray hair, who immediately invited them to come in and sit down to supper. Jack turned down the offer after a glance at Daniel. "Thank you, ma'am, but we just ate not long ago."
"You wouldn't be putting us out," she insisted.
"We wouldn't do your food justice," Daniel told her honestly. "You see, we ate at a church picnic."
"We ate everything in sight," Jack said, grinning boyishly.
Mrs. Maresh laughed and squeezed her husband's bony shoulder. "I like men with good appetites. I suspect you'll be hungry then for a good breakfast in the morning?"
"I suspect you're right," Jack agreed.
After his wife went back into the house, Mr. Maresh played host by pointing out the perfectly obvious pump and outhouse, and helping them carry their gear into the barn. A milk cow gazed placidly at them from her stall. Daniel climbed the ladder into the hay loft and Jack tossed their bags and his bedroll up to him. When he came back down, two cats were winding around Mr. Maresh's ankles. "Theodore and Clementine. Guess you won't mind their company?"
"I'm personally very glad to meet them and see that they're on the job." Jack bent over to offer a hand for the cats to inspect.
Daniel looked anxiously up at the loft. Vermin. He hadn't thought about that. Lovely. Not the sort of nature he'd been hoping to get closer to.
Maresh jerked a thumb. "Gotta unhitch the team."
"I'll help," Jack offered.
Maresh looked at him askance. So did Daniel.
"I spent summers at my grandparents place in Minnesota. Pigs, chickens, horses, cows. It's been a few years, mind you, but I can still curry a horse or muck out a stall."
Daniel raised a hand. "I can watch and learn."
They both laughed at him.
There was a bench built onto the side of the barn. They sat there and read, talked, played cards. They drank the pitcher of lemonade that Maresh had brought out to them, pouring it into thick glass beer steins. "Guess it don't matter much if they was to get broken. Not now. Few years back," the farmer had said, "before this fool Prohibition, I'd've had something a lot better to put in those glasses for you."
"And I wouldn't've said no," Jack had responded. "But this is a delightful treat for us. Thank Mrs. Maresh for us, please."
The fields of wheat all around them glowed golden, then orange as the sun sank in an explosion of color. At dusk they finished up the heel of Daniel's loaf of bread, along with a bit of his cheese and an apple apiece. No lights ever came on in the farmhouse; the Mareshes had already gone to bed. The constant clucking emanating from the chicken coop had diminished as they followed their owners' example. Clementine was purring in Daniel's lap. He hoped Theodore was patrolling the loft. "I'm ready to turn in," he told Jack, after a prodigious yawn.
"I'm going to have one last smoke. Hit the outhouse and then I'll light your way." Jack handed him the flashlight.
Jack had rolled a cigarette but not lit it by the time Daniel came back. He took the flashlight and followed Daniel into the barn, lighting up the ladder for him. They'd already spread out Jack's bedroll and Daniel's ground sheet earlier, so when Jack backed away, holding the flashlight high, Daniel found his bed easily. "I'm in," he called down.
"Be up in a few."
Daniel took off his shoes and socks, placing them above his head, where Jack wouldn't trip over them. After a moment's thought, he put his glasses inside one of the shoes. Somehow that seemed like a safer place for them than his hat, with the cats roaming around. As he continued to undress, his eyes adjusted to the moonlight coming in through the open loft door. As he lay back, he could see the rafters above him, and when he rolled onto his side, wrapping himself in the groundsheet, he could see two eyes staring at him. "Theodore?"
Theodore came over and butted him with his head. Daniel lifted a hand to stroke him, closed his eyes, and the next thing he knew it was very early in the morning, and Mr. Maresh, lantern in hand, was coming into the barn to begin his daily chores. When Daniel blinked his eyes open, Jack, silhouetted against the dim light outside the loft door, was half-dressed. "How do you do that," Daniel mumbled.
Daniel sighed and rolled onto his back. Clementine climbed onto his chest and stuck her nose in his face. "Gah!"
Jack crouched down and said in a low voice, "Come on. Let's give him a hand."
Daniel nodded. Clementine patted his face with her paw. "Get this monster off my chest," he said, staring into the cat's shining green eyes and smiling.
Jack scooped her up. "Get a move on." He draped the cat over his shoulder and started down the ladder.
Daniel sat up and peered over the edge of the loft. Jack wasn't wearing a shirt over his skivvies. Chores could be dirty. No shirt. Yawning, he fished his glasses out of his shoe and squirmed into his trousers. Jack and Mr. Maresh were talking in rumbles below. Shoes. Down the ladder without stumbling. He rubbed at his eyes and slid his glasses back into place. "Put me to work."
Jack tousled his hair, which was probably already plenty tousled, since Daniel hadn't thought to comb it. He'd even forgotten his hat. "But keep it simple. Somebody hasn't had his coffee yet."
They washed up later at the pump, holding Jack's shaving mirror for each other in turn, and stowed away their gear and freshly filled canteens in the automobile before putting on their shirts and jackets, slicking down their hair, and heading into the farmhouse for breakfast. The sun was still barely up in the sky.
"Good morning, ma'am."
"Good morning, boys. Set yourselves down. Food's just about ready." Mrs. Maresh bustled around the kitchen, distracted. They took seats at the spotlessly scrubbed table, perched atop a wide linoleum rug whose faux-Oriental pattern would have been better suited to a wealthy home's parlor. "Sleep all right?"
"Very well, thank you," Daniel said, greedily accepting a cup of coffee and waving away the proffered sugar bowl with a smile.
"Good, good. Royal, can you get this jar of honey open, please, while I dish up?"
"This is awfully good of you, Mrs. Maresh," Daniel said when she put a loaded plate in front of him.
"Pshaw. We've got nuthin' if we ain't got eggs, and to spare. And today's my baking day, so might's well use up this old bread. You give Royal a break, helping with his chores, so you surely have a good, solid breakfast coming to you, is what I say. 'Sides, it's right nice to have some young mouths to feed around here again. Our boys are all grown up with places of their own, now."
"We certainly do thank you, ma'am. A real farm breakfast is a treat for us city slickers," Jack said with a grin.
Mrs. Maresh wiped her hands on her apron and blushed. "Tuck in then. Ain't nuthin' wrong with your appetites, is there?"
"Nothing wrong with mine!" Daniel's mouth had been watering since he came into the kitchen. He set to work devouring the smoky ham, toasted bread with honey, and hashed brown potatoes topped with three sunny-side-up eggs, while the actual sun officially started its day by streaming in through the fluttering gingham curtains with increasing authority.
Mr. Maresh dropped them off at the Ford repair shop just after it opened. He shook hands with them both and was ready to leave, when Jack held out a quarter. Maresh shook his head, lips tightly pressed together.
"I was hoping," Jack said, "that you'd do us the favor of picking out some small treat for your wife, to thank her for taking us in and being so kind to us. Daniel and I would sure appreciate it."
It was the perfect thing to have said. Daniel watched as Maresh's face changed. "Nancy likes her chocolates." He allowed Jack to drop the coin into his palm. "She'll be right pleased, boys."
Jack clapped him on the shoulder.
The mechanic, Corky, identified the Model T's problem after only a few minutes, and had the necessary parts in stock to do the repairs. "Two hours, I reckon. I got this other job to finish up from yesterday. We got a few restaurants along Main Street, if you want to grab yourselves some breakfast."
"Mrs. Maresh fed us already. I guess we'll just walk around and kill time," Jack said. "See the sights."
"Ain't none," Corky laughed.
"Well…" Jack lifted a hand.
There were a handful of locals gathered around the office stove and the large coffeepot it held. One of the men said, "I can help you kill some time."
Daniel turned his way. "You can?" he asked with a smile.
"I run the movie house. We got a new picture starting tomorrow, so I need to run it this morning before we open for business, check that it's all right, got all the reels numbered right, do any splicin' and so on. You gents are welcome to sit in."
"I'd be happy to see a picture."
"Well, come on with me then."
Shoulder-to-shoulder with Jack in the darkened movie theater, laughing at Buster Keaton, Daniel couldn't remember ever being happier.
Movie over, auto not yet ready, they'd walked through the streets of the town, peering in shop windows, talking about the movie, about other movies, laughing until Daniel's face ached. A cup of Corky's strong, bitter coffee killed the last quarter of an hour until the Ford was ready to take to the road again.
By mutual agreement they drove on straight through the noon hour. It wasn't that there was a sense of urgency or need to make up lost time; they were just still full with Mrs. Maresh's good food. "I take back what I said about nobody cooking like church ladies. Farmer's wives know their way around a kitchen like nobody's business," Jack had said.
Daniel's head was turned to the side, as he watched a field of corn slide by, hypnotic row after row after row, shimmering slightly in the mid-afternoon heat. In his mind's eye he was seeing Jack, stripped to the waist, washing up at the pump before breakfast, wet skin gleaming in the early morning light. Jack's voice startled him. "Somebody's got trouble."
Daniel straightened in his seat, blinking, as Jack slowed his machine. There was another Model T pulled over to the shoulder on the opposite side of the road, with the cowl off and a bare-headed man in overalls bent over the engine. Jack pulled up beside him and braked to a stop. The man raised his head, wiping his brow with a forearm. "Afternoon," Jack said.
"A hot one," the man agreed with a nod.
"Need any help?"
That got a sour grin. "Not unless maybe you gents have better vocabularies than me. I'm just about plumb outta swear words."
Daniel laughed. So did Jack, who jerked a thumb towards Daniel. "This particular gent speaks about a hundred languages. He could probably help you out some."
Daniel leaned forward, brain scrabbling through ideas. He opened his mouth, but the man shook his head. "Thanks all the same, friend, but the wife'd shoot me if I come home with more bad language than I left with."
Jack chuckled. "Can we offer you a drink of water, then? We've got a full canteen."
"A little water would go down a treat, thanks."
Daniel reached a canteen out of the rear seat and passed it to Jack, who removed the cap and handed the canteen over. The man drank thirstily, his sweat-damp throat working. When he offered the canteen back, Jack said, "You sure? Have some more if you want."
The man shook his head. "Naw, thanks. That's made life worth living again. 'Preciate it." While Jack was screwing the cap back onto the canteen, the man put a foot up onto the running board and leaned his elbow on the door sill. "'15?"
"Good shape." He peered at the dash. "Lot of 'em older machines don't get took care of like they oughta."
Jack stroked the curve of the wheel. "She can be temperamental, but she's a good gal. Sure we can't help you any with yours?"
"Mister, fixin' these miserable machines is what I do." He smiled at them both ruefully. "Just mostly other folks', is what I prefer."
The man stepped away from Jack's machine. "Word of advice from the expert, mister?"
"I'm all ears."
"If you ever get a chance to move up to the '19?"
"Don't you do it." He turned his head to spit in the general direction of his automobile. "Don't you do it." He sketched a salute, grinning.
Jack lifted a hand in farewell. "I won't!" He took his foot from the brake and stepped on the clutch, and the auto got underway.
Daniel waved a goodbye. The man gave him a nod and then turned back to his own machine, rubbing his hands together.
"Ah, memories," Jack said.
"Why, it seems like just yesterday, doesn't it? My, my. How…"
"…time does fly," Jack said with him.
Granger's Café, Home Cooking, the sign read. Ahead three miles. Daniel's mouth was watering by the time they reached the cafe, because Jack had talked about food nearly non-stop during the intervening time. Farm food, French food, Minnesota specialties, Chicago restaurants. When Daniel had protested, "You're killing me," Jack had just laughed, poked him in the arm, and started listing his favorite pies.
Daniel was resolved to get back at him, somehow, someday. He mused on ways as he washed up at the pump beside the two-story building, watching Jack putting their freshly filled canteens back in the auto and re-securing the five-gallon water can on the running board. But as soon as the screen door of the café banged shut behind them and the aromas from the kitchen filled his nostrils, he realized that a good dinner was probably going to make him forget all about revenge.
A bald man in a long white apron was filling coffee cups for two men seated at the small counter. He nodded at them pleasantly. "Sit down anywhere, gentlemen."
They hung their hats on the rack by the door and chose a small, square table underneath the ceiling fan. The sun was low enough in the sky that it was blinding if you sat facing the windows. Daniel learned that quickly, and got up from his seat opposite Jack's and moved to take the chair next to him. At Jack's raised eyebrows, he succinctly explained, "Sun."
"Howdy." The bald man set two glasses of ice water on the table.
"Hello," Daniel replied.
"Name's Matt, so just sing it out if you need anything."
"Thank you, Matt. What's looking good today?" Jack asked.
"It's all good. I married a cook, by golly. You can't go wrong with my Emily in the kitchen."
"That's what I like to hear." Jack rubbed his hands together.
"Now, just about everything's up on the board, there, or I can just tell you what we've got, seeing's how I'm here?"
Jack gestured grandly. "Speak to us."
Daniel hid a smile.
"All right, what we've got for you is our dinner plate, that comes with choice of meat, soup, potato, dessert, and side dish, with coffee or milk or cold lemonade. That's 35 cents. For 40 cents you get another side. Our meats today are ham steak, meatloaf and pork chop. Soups are vegetable and beef barley. And we serve 'em just barely hot enough, in this weather. We can do your potatoes just about however you want 'em, but I'll confide to you that Emily's got a way about her with a frying pan."
"I'm sold." Jack winked at Daniel.
"For sides we've got beets, carrot raisin salad, or corn on the cob. We can talk about the desserts after you've eaten, I reckon."
"Oh, um. The meatloaf, the vegetable soup, Emily's fried potatoes, the corn…"
"Splurge, Daniel. Spend that other nickel."
Daniel grinned. "Okay. After all, breakfast was a long time ago, right? Carrot salad."
Matt looked up from his order pad. "Coffee?"
"And for you?"
"Coffee, beets, corn, barley soup, fried potatoes, and the ham steak."
Matt tucked the pad into his apron. "Coffee coming up right now."
"You know," Daniel said as Matt walked behind the counter, "we're not going to have to eat at all tomorrow."
"Speak for yourself. And we haven't even gotten as far as the pie, yet."
"Maybe we can bring in our tin plates and take it with us."
Jack patted his stomach. "Depends on how big my ham steak is." He winked at Daniel again.
Daniel looked away and picked up his water glass. What was with the winking all of a sudden? Not that he minded, based on the way his toes were curling inside his shoes. He tried to imagine himself being the sort of person who would wink back at Jack. Casual, fun Daniel, ready with a wink or a wisecrack.
Matt appeared with a tray, which he balanced on the corner of the table to unload. In addition to the coffee cups and saucers, there were spoons and a little jug of cream that matched the sugar bowl, with its own spoon, that already sat on the table next to the salt and pepper shakers. There were two sets of flatware and two folded cloth napkins. There was also a small glass dish of ice covered with a saucer holding curls of butter. And there was a cloth-covered basket of bread and rolls.
Daniel tried not to laugh at the look on Jack's face, but it was a hopeless battle.
"I think you might have been right about not eating tomorrow," Jack admitted. He flipped back the cloth and offered the basket to Daniel with a smirk.
Daniel reached in, put his hand on a Parker House roll, and looked up at Jack as he lifted it out of the basket. Wink! Come on, wink!
Instead he laughed again, as Jack studied the basket solemnly, saying, "Now what am I hungry for?"
It was all good. It was too good not to eat. Wonderful, warm bread, delicious soup, corn that tasted fresh from the fields (and probably was), Emily's famous fried potatoes. The meatloaf was juicy but not greasy, and seasoned just right. Even the carrot and raisin salad was probably the best Daniel had ever had, and how filling could it be?
But he really shouldn't have had that second roll with dinner.
"I'm unbuttoning my pants the second we get in the automobile," Jack muttered out of the corner of his mouth.
"Oh, God, yes," Daniel agreed fervently.
"Church ladies and farmer's wives got nothing on Emily."
"We're definitely on a winning streak."
Matt came over with his tray and began to load up their emptied dishes. "Ready to hear about the desserts?"
Daniel willed himself not to groan. Just then there was a clatter of footsteps pounding down a wooden staircase.
"Pa! Pa, it's working! I got it working!" A boy of about thirteen, with a mop of dark blond curls, came rushing up to their table.
"All right, all right! No need to make such a ruckus about it."
The boy gaped and protested. "But, Pa!" He turned and ran over to lean on the counter. "Ma! Come quick, Ma!"
"My boy, Davey," Matt said, in that sort of offhanded way that isn't offhanded at all.
Daniel set eyes on the architect of their feast for the first time, as a broad-shouldered, but otherwise tiny woman, hair tucked into a cap, appeared in the doorway to the kitchen, large wooden spoon in hand. "What are you shouting about, son?"
"Oh, Ma, it works!"
Emily looked over and caught Matt's eye. "You'd think he invented radio, wouldn’t you?"
"Oh, Ma. Come upstairs and listen! There's music playing. All the way from Kansas, Ma! You gotta come hear!"
"I can't leave my stove. Now, you know better, so don't you be making that face. It'll still be working when I get a chance to come up, won't it?" Emily bustled back into the kitchen.
Davey spun around. "Pa?" he said hopefully. "Please?"
The café door opened and two women and a man came in. Matt went to greet them.
"What's the excitement about, son?" Jack asked. "Did I hear something about radio?"
Davey took a step towards the table, mouth open, but then hesitated, shooting a glance at his father. "I'm not supposed to bother…"
"We're interested," Daniel said hastily. "What's going on?"
Davey came closer, face beaming. He put his hands behind his back. "The postman brought the last parts I needed for my crystal set today, and I've been working on it all day, rigging up the antenna wire and the ground and wrapping the coil and everything, and now it works!"
"You're receiving Kansas, you say?" Jack asked, raising his eyebrows.
"Yes, sir! Kansas is coming in right now, and before I heard a man reading the Lincoln newspaper, and there was someone giving a speech about something – something political, I guess – only I didn't find out where that was."
"What you want to do is keep a pencil and some paper close by, so you can write it all down. What you heard, and when, and from where."
Davey nodded excitedly. "Yes, sir, I already started a log. Do you have a radio?"
Jack shook his head. "Ran across them some during the war."
"Davey! You bothering my customers?"
"Oh, no, Pa! They asked!"
"You'd better get back upstairs, all the same."
Davey's face fell. "Well…"
"Ah!" Jack held up a finger. "Daniel, are you too full to climb a flight of stairs?"
Daniel sat up straight, grinning with anticipation. The closest he'd ever come to a radio was seeing one advertised in the newspaper. "Nope."
Jack stood up and put a hand on Davey's shoulder. "Matt? Okay if my friend and I go upstairs with Davey to see his radio? I find myself keen to hear what songs they're playing over in Kansas."
Matt wiped his hands on his apron as he came over. "That'd be fine. You know I'd come myself if I could, Davey. I'm dying to listen."
"We'll listen later, Pa. I'll show you everything!"
Matt gently tugged Davey's curls. "Don't keep these gents too long, now."
"No, sir. Come on!" Davey beckoned, and Jack and Daniel followed him, at a slightly more sedate pace.
Davey's bedroom was a modest size, but not small enough to feel cramped with the three of them in it. His neatly-made single bed was pushed against the wall, with two miniscule shelves hanging above it holding a few books and an alarm clock. A large wardrobe that looked like it had been around since before the Civil War stood in the corner at the foot of the bed, a well-polished desk stood just inside the door, and a table with one leg that didn't match the others, that had undoubtedly once resided in the restaurant, stood against the wall under the open window.
Two wires ran from the window to the contraption sitting on the table. "This is it!"
Jack walked to the window and bent to stick his head out. "Ground and antenna wires."
"Yes, sir. Here's the tuning coil." Copper wire wound around an empty Quaker Oats container. "And the crystal detector, and the cat's whisker."
Daniel bent over to peer at the fine, pointed wire just touching the crystal. Jack leaned down next to him, and Daniel found himself staring at Jack's eyelashes. He straightened up quickly, biting his lip. It would be hard to get more inappropriate. What a time and place to choose to be weak!
There were two earphones on a y-shaped wire. Davey had put one to his ear and was listening intently and smiling. "They're still playing music!" He looked up. "It's just phonograph records, of course. I hear in places like New York you get to hear live orchestras playing, but I don't know if that's ever going to happen around here." He offered the earphone to Jack, and pushed the other one towards Daniel.
Daniel raised it to his right ear just as Jack raised the other to his left ear, and the wire wouldn't stretch. He was about to switch to his left hand, but Jack stepped in closer and turned his body toward Daniel a bit. There was enough slack now. Daniel placed the phone against his ear and listened eagerly. And there, from out of the ether, not loud but perfectly audible, came music. A trumpet, a piano. Something jazzy, which was just coming to an end.
Now there was a man's voice, announcing the next record. "I'll Be With You in Apple Blossom Time."
"Hey, I remember this one," Jack said, grinning. And as the song began, he swung back to Daniel's side and slid his right arm around his waist. "May I have this dance?"
Young Davey laughed in delight.
Jack shuffled his feet quietly from side to side, swaying his upper body. Not really dancing, not really going anywhere, since they were attached to the radio. Just a bit of fun.
Well, Daniel couldn't really dance, but he liked fun as much as the next fellow. He watched Jack's feet and moved with him, and did a good job of ignoring the arm around him. When he was able to look up, he saw Jack was grinning at Davey, who was seated on one of the two chairs around the table and looking positively radiant with pride. Daniel felt a rush of pleasure and gratitude at having been invited to share this experience. "Thank you, Davey. This is pretty terrific."
"Yeah? Aw, that's great. I'm glad you let me show off."
"Will you two hush?"
Daniel laughed and Jack's arm squeezed him. And suddenly it wasn't simple fun any more, but the kind that left a fellow breathless. "I think I'm too full for this, Jack."
Jack's arm left him instantly. "Yeah, I'm feeling a little heavy on my feet myself."
Daniel had to hand it to himself. He certainly knew how to kill a good time.
They said their goodbyes to Davey and left him trying to tune in another station. They paid their bill, shook hands with Matt, sent their best regards to Emily, used the outhouse, washed up once more at the pump, and left with a half dozen peanut butter cookies wrapped in waxed paper.
"This," Jack waved the cookies before tucking them into the basket on the rear seat, "is all I am eating tomorrow. If that." He slid behind the wheel and motioned Daniel to start cranking.
When the motor was turning over, Daniel climbed in. "How did they manage to half kill us for only 40 cents?"
"Because they are very, very good at what they do, Daniel," Jack answered solemnly. "Please pardon my uncouthness." His hands went to the waistband of his trousers. "Ah! Much better. Feel free."
Considering the knot he still had in his stomach, it was probably a good idea. Daniel followed suit. "Ah."
Jack set the machine in motion. "And please forgive any future, forthcoming uncouthness."
Daniel's chuckle somehow turned into a burp. "We'd better make that a mutual pact."
Jack extended his right hand. "Shake."
They shook. Daniel told himself to relax. All was well. He'd handled the situation promptly, and Jack hadn't noticed anything, because there wasn't anything to notice. He leaned back in his seat, suddenly feeling exhausted.
"'I'll be with you, to change your name to mine. One day in May…'"
Daniel turned his head. Jack winked.
They drove on for another hour before Jack announced that he could hardly keep his eyes open. Daniel sat up straight, blinking. "Do you need to pull over?"
"I know it might seem early to stop for the night, but don't think I didn't hear you snoring a minute ago."
"It's all that food," Daniel groaned.
Jack grimaced. "I was hoping to make it to the next camp, but I'm figuring it might still be about an hour and a half away yet, or more. I'd just as soon find a good spot to pull off the road and make camp, then walk around for a while. Settle our dinners."
"That sounds fine to me. There might still be light for reading or cards after our walk."
"It'll be reading, and you'll be on your own. I may fall asleep walking."
Daniel gave Jack a sharp look. "I can't tell if you're exaggerating."
Jack yawned hugely, and blinked. "That answer your question? Remind me never to stuff myself that way again."
Daniel laughed. "I'll give you a swift kick."
Jack yawned again. "Whoa." He tilted his head back and looked up at the sky. "You know, I think the weather might be changing. Sometimes that makes my head heavy like this."
Daniel peered in all directions. It didn't seem any darker or cloudier than before. He sniffed the air. "Rain, you mean?" he asked doubtfully.
"Could be. Could be my imagination." Jack shrugged. He steered the auto around a curve. A stand of trees appeared in the distance, around another bend of the road. "Up ahead might be good." He applied the brake when they got closer. "Hop out and see what the ground's like."
Daniel climbed out, paused to button his trousers, and to stick his tongue out at a chuckling Jack, and walked toward the trees which stood thirty feet back from the road. The ground took a sudden dip at one point, and he backtracked to angle off in search of a more even path. He turned and waved an arm.
Jack set the auto in motion, following Daniel's trail. He stopped ten feet short of the trees, turned in a wide circle to face the road, and shut off the motor, climbing out and stretching. And immediately grabbing for the waistband of his trousers.
"Wisenheimer. And you do realize that this auto can handle uneven ground a lot better than you can?"
Daniel crinkled his nose. "Walk?"
"Check out what's the other side of the trees? Besides our latrine?"
They walked for three quarters of an hour, through tall grass, over a stony field rich with clover, the scent of it filling the air as their feet pressed the flowers underneath, along the edge of a cornfield humming with the sounds of insects. Once they heard a dog barking, far off in the distance. Jack talked idly about his experience with using radio for air-to-ground communication during the war, and about songs that were popular in England and France at the time. Daniel talked about the songs that had been popular in America back then, and about the nearly dozen different ragtime bands that had sprung up among the student body at his college. That segued into a discussion about cylinder versus disc recordings, with Jack firmly of the opinion that cylinders produced better sound, and Daniel firmly of the opinion that Jack needed to move past the 'teens and into the 'twenties. They squabbled amicably as they headed back to the auto.
“It depends on what you’re listening to. You young people, with your raggedy-time music,” Jack joked, “you can’t even tell the difference between a good sound and a tinny one.”
“And just what are you listening to that sets you apart from the ragtime aficionados?”
“Opera.” Jack hesitated before he said it, and darted a look at Daniel to check his response. “I like opera.”
Daniel tried and failed to make that fit with the image he'd been forming of Jack. “I have to admit, that’s about the last thing I expected you to say. What got you started on opera of all things?”
“My aunt Joan. She sang in the chorus of just about every production that ever came through Chicago, before the city got its own company in 1910. We went to see her, and…” he shrugged, “I just fell for it all. Music, costumes, lighting.”
“How old were you?”
“Eight? Eight or nine. I’d catch the streetcar after school some days and go to her apartment. She’d take me to rehearsals, or we’d listen to recordings and she’d tell me the stories, and translate some of the arias for me.”
“Did your schoolmates know about all this?”
“They knew I had the O’Neill temper, and that I was good with my fists. And that no one had better insult a member of my family.” Jack gave him a meaningful look.
Daniel raised his hands. “I didn’t say anything.” He grinned.
They arrived back at the auto, removed their jackets, and started setting up camp.
“Did you want to sing in the opera when you grew up?”
“You heard me singing a little while ago. That ought to answer your question.”
Daniel laughed. “Hey, you were in tune.”
Jack unrolled his bedroll and sank down on it, getting out his tobacco pouch. “Maybe, if the freight company managed not to smash everything up, you’ll come by and listen to some of my recordings sometime.”
Daniel would have said “Sure” even if he hated opera with a passion, instead of knowing next to nothing about it. Jack had just invited him to do something together after this journey ended. Maybe they were going to stay friends. And, maybe, as they both settled in and got involved in their new lives and made other friends, it wouldn’t last. But the door was open, and Daniel had his foot in. He was smiling as he stretched out on his side on his groundsheet.
“Sweet,” Jack said, not looking up from the cigarette he was constructing. “But I think I may have to break down and get a Gramophone soon, too. They seem to be taking over the market, so it’s harder to find new cylinders that have what I want.”
“A Victrola?” Daniel asked, watching his hands.
“I’ll probably stick with Edison.” Jack licked the seam on his cigarette and plucked loose shreds of tobacco from the ends. He looked up at the sky as he struck a match. Shaking the match out and drawing on his cigarette, he said, “I still have a feeling there might be rain on the way. I think I’ll put the top up and get the side curtains on the Ford before it gets dark, then we can hop in if we start getting wet out here.”
"Does your head still feel heavy?"
"The walk helped some, but I'm still about ready to conk out."
Daniel pulled a book out of his knapsack and put his hat on the ground. "Finish your smoke, and I'll help you." He rolled onto his back, head propped up on the knapsack, and opened to the bookmarked page. Within seconds he was immersed in another time and place, except for that part of himself that was aware of Jack's presence at all times, filling the background of his existence like the hum of the insects and the song of the birds, like the wind rustling the leaves of the trees. Vibrant and soothing at one and the same time.
Daniel woke when a raindrop plopped onto his eyelid. He sat up. "Jack." The air was filled with the scent of dry soil thirstily drinking in water.
Jack sat up and said crankily, "I hate it when I'm right."
They'd loaded nearly everything, clothing, even their hats, shoes and Daniel's glasses, into the Ford and loosely attached the side curtains into place before they went to sleep, so it was only a matter of getting the bedroll and groundsheet crammed any which way into the back seat and themselves and their pillows ensconced in the front. Daniel held Jack's umbrella over them both and pointed the flashlight, while Jack wrestled with the final recalcitrant curtain fastener and the rain changed from drips to a rapid pattering.
And then they were in, a little damp, a little breathless, and Jack was leaning over Daniel, taking the flashlight and helping him get the curtain snugly fastened behind them. Daniel smelled tobacco, faint on Jack's breath.
"Good night, again," Jack muttered, clicking off the flashlight and slouching away to his own side of the automobile.
Daniel listened to the rain, to Jack's steady breathing, as the windshield and celluloid curtains steamed over, enclosing them in a private world. He wondered what time it was. He wondered if he was ever going to get back to sleep. He studied the outline of Jack's body, dimly visible. If Jack could sleep with one shoulder so, and his head just there, maybe Daniel could get comfortable in a mirror image of his position.
Then again maybe not. He shifted restlessly, annoyed with himself. Since when was it so hard to sleep? True, sitting up wasn't a method he'd consciously tried to employ before, but it was obvious that it could be done. The proof was sitting beside him, sleeping as sweetly as on a feather bed. He snorted and tried to unkink his neck.
"Can't you sleep?"
Jack yawned. "Want a shoulder?"
For a second Daniel wasn't certain he'd heard right. "I can't sleep on your shoulder."
"You haven't tried yet." Jack changed position. "Come on, it's okay. Won't bother me."
"You tossing and turning would. Come on."
Would and had. Daniel winced. "If you're sure?"
"Put the world's smallest pillow between you and the world's boniest shoulder, and let's get some sleep."
Daniel chuckled and, not completely reluctantly, did as he was told. And lay there listening to the rain, and Jack's steady breathing, and the pounding of his own wayward heart, until it slowed…
He woke once to find his hand on Jack's thigh. He drowsily removed it, placed it in his own lap, and fell back to sleep.
As usual, Jack was awake first. While Daniel slept on, he'd removed the side curtains from the Ford and brewed a pot of coffee. It might have been the aroma that finally woke Daniel, disoriented and groggy. His groundsheet was draped over him and Jack's pillow was under his head. While Daniel blinked at it from the corner of his eye, Jack, crouched next to the stove, spoke without turning. "Five minutes."
Just once, just once, Daniel told himself as he stumbled off across the soggy ground to their latrine, knapsack, trousers and shoes in hand, he'd like to, if not actually wake up first, which might be asking far too much, be awoken when Jack began to stir. Did Jack have foggy moments? Did he stretch and yawn and wipe the sleep from his eyes? Was his expression soft and content as he started his day?
Daniel, having changed into a clean union suit, shirt and socks, donned his trousers and shoes, and, with a sigh, schooled his own no-doubt soft expression before heading back to the camp. He needed coffee.
The coffee was ready and waiting in his cup. And Jack had the peanut butter cookies from the café out on his tin plate. And a contented smile on his face.
The sky was an incredible blue, filled with fluffy cumulus clouds. It was an absolutely beautiful day for a drive, once they'd gotten past the muddy roads where it had rained. Daniel had actually had to get out and push at one point. He'd used Jack's clothes brush on his trouser cuffs and shoes after the mud had dried, which hadn't taken long in the sun's steadily increasing heat.
Being healthy types, in spite of their over-indulgence the night before, they'd followed up the cookies with an apple, shared as they drove, Daniel eating half and then passing it along to Jack. In the early afternoon they ate the remainder of Daniel's cheese and again shared what proved to be the final apple. Luckily, the next time they stopped to fill up the gasoline tank, a clever farmer's wife had set up a stall across from the station and they were able to re-stock their depleted food inventory.
They didn't need much – they could technically reach Denver by the following evening, if they pushed on far enough today. Jack shrugged that idea off. "I'd just as soon take an extra day and get to Denver fresh, with plenty of daylight left. We'll have some food for the road if we need it, and it'll be just as good in Denver if we don't."
Daniel had no argument with that proposition. He could wish they were driving to California.
Soon after their stop, three figures appeared up ahead, close together, at the side of the road. When they got nearer, Daniel saw that they were three young girls, and that the one in the middle was being supported. "Jack."
"I see 'em." Jack brought the Ford to a gentle stop alongside the youngsters. "What's the trouble, girls?"
"Ruth hurt her ankle," the smallest said.
"Hush," said the tallest. "We're not supposed to talk to strangers. Pa said."
"Your pa's a smart man," Jack agreed, easily. "That's an excellent general rule. How much farther do you have to go?"
The tear-stained Ruth looked up the road and gave a little sob. Clearly it was quite some distance.
"Sometimes there are emergencies," Daniel said. "Please let us help."
"We can't get in the automobile!" The tallest looked positively scandalized. Ruth sobbed again. "Pa would skin us!"
"There's no room for you anyway. But maybe you could stand on the running board?" Jack suggested. "I'll go nice and slow, and you can hop off any time you like. Ruth, maybe you could stand closest to my friend Mr. Jackson and hang onto him."
Daniel understood that he would be the one hanging on to Ruth, in fact. He gave a small wave of his hand. "Hi! That's me, and this is my friend Mr. O’Neill. What are your names?"
Ruth was already climbing aboard, wincing and gasping when she put weight on her injured ankle. "I'm Ruth Jenkins, and they're my sisters, Emma and Beth."
"Nice to meet you," Jack said. "Who's who?"
The smallest child nearly fell as she attempted to climb up onto the high running board. With an exclamation, her oldest sister boosted her up next to Ruth. "I'm Beth," the little girl said.
"Well, why don't you and Ruth both hang on to me?" Daniel said, twisting to get a hold of both children. Their warm, skinny bodies felt both alien and pleasantly comfortable in the crook of his arms at the same time.
"You coming, Miss Jenkins?" Jack asked.
"Pa won't like it," Emma said, still standing beside the auto, looking anxious and indecisive.
"I'll talk to him if you like," Jack offered. "Ruth mustn't walk on that ankle if she doesn't absolutely have to."
"No," Emma admitted. "I guess."
"Climb on!" Daniel said cheerily.
Emma climbed on.
"Ready?" Jack asked. There was a chorus of yeses, including the one that Daniel added, and Jack said, "Hang on!" and set the auto into motion.
The two small girls clutched Daniel tightly. "You okay, Emma?" he asked.
"Course I am. I've ridden in an automobile before. Ma got took to the hospital by the doctor when she was having Beth, and I got to go along 'cause Ma wanted me."
"I'll bet you were a good help to her."
"Then I rode in a nautomobile, too!" Beth shouted in Daniel's ear.
"That's right!" Jack agreed. "You absolutely did."
"But you don't remember, like I do."
"Where was I?" Ruth asked.
"You were only little," Emma said scornfully. "Ma didn't need you."
"Was I with Pa?"
"No, Pa was with us, silly."
"Where was I?"
"You were with Grandma. You were just underfoot."
"How old were you, Emma?" Daniel asked quickly, when he saw Ruth's mouth open in protest.
"I was seven," she said proudly.
"When will I be seven?" Beth asked.
"Oh, in a year or so," Emma said loftily. "Oh, Mister, we're getting close."
Jack slowed down. "The house hiding yonder?" The white farmhouse was barely visible from the road, tucked away behind rows of ten-foot-tall golden sunflowers.
"Pa really will skin us. Maybe he'd skin you, too."
"Tell you what." Jack pulled the auto over and swung out over the side. "I'll show you something. Hang onto Ruth for a second, Daniel."
Emma helped Beth climb down. Ruth stared at Daniel. "What's he gonna show us?"
"I have no idea."
Jack beckoned Emma. "Hold your hands out in front of you, facing up. Now cross your wrists. That's it. Now, see I do the same thing, but my hands are facing down." He bent down to approach her height. "Now when I take hold of your hands, our hands and arms make a little seat. For Ruth. See?"
"Now you do it with Beth, with your hands on the bottom, because you're strongest." The two girls clasped hands. Jack came to lift Ruth down from the running board, giving Daniel a wink. "Now, honey, you just sit yourself down, and put your arms around their necks. There! Can you carry her?"
"I can," Emma said. "You won't drop her, Beth?"
"No, I won't," Beth said stoutly.
"I'm right skinny, Pa says," Ruth said.
"Today, that's a good thing," Jack said with a smile. "Now, Mr. Jackson and I had better disappear, if you're sure you've got her."
"Thanks, Mister. We've got her. Thank you!"
"Thank you!" Ruth waved back at them, and then clutched at her sister's necks as they gave a little lurch.
"Shorter steps, Miss Jenkins! Beth sets the pace, mind," Jack said.
"I set the pace, Emma."
Daniel burst into quiet laughter as the girls wobbled their way towards their house, squabbling.
Jack paused to lift his hat and wipe his forehead with his forearm, then climbed back into the auto and grinned at Daniel widely. "Let's get going while the going's good!"
"Let's save our skins, by all means!" Daniel agreed, still laughing.
Jack set the auto in motion. "Cute kids."
"You were really good with them."
Jack was silent for a moment, then smiled somewhat twistedly at Daniel. "I thought the same thing about you."
"Me? Really?" Daniel thought about it. He'd felt comfortable enough with the girls, and he seemed to have said all the right things to make them feel comfortable in return. But Jack had been running the show, just like he'd done with Davey the day before. Daniel wasn't convinced he would have coped well at all, if he'd been on his own. "I don't know anything about children."
Jack's hands tightened on the steering wheel. "You'll learn when the time comes. You're a natural."
Daniel doubted the time would ever come. He couldn't picture himself married, with a family. Someone's father. Although it might be quite nice, actually, to be a father. It was the being someone's husband that was the sticking point.
When they crossed a bridge over a narrow, swiftly moving stream, Jack decided it was too good an opportunity to pass up. "There's got to be a fish or two in there just waiting for me. We said we're in no hurry, right?"
"True. I'll be happy to relax and bury my nose in a book while you try to entice the fish."
"Get out my little stove, my frying pan. We've got those potatoes and the onion that we picked up back at that farmstand. Can't you just smell it, Daniel? Can't you hear it sizzling?"
"No, but I'm looking forward to it!"
Jack turned the auto off the road, and they bounced slowly along a narrow dirt track that ran above the river bank. There were wheel ruts that showed they weren't the first to come this way. "We could stay here for the night," Jack mused. "Get far enough away from the main road to have some privacy."
"That's fine with me."
"You know what I'm thinking?"
"Does it have something to do with fish?"
"No, but it has something to do with their stream."
Daniel looked at him blankly.
"Oh! I could certainly do with a bath." It sounded cool and refreshing. They had towels and soap, and clothing to change into. He would just have to keep his distance, without seeming too prim or shy. He could move a ways downstream and bathe while Jack fished…actually, the problem didn't exist until Jack was the one whose clothes were coming off. So Daniel could bathe without worrying unduly about his modesty, and later he'd determinedly bury his nose in a book when Jack took his turn.
They found a mossy spot surrounded by trees and brush, about ten feet from the bank, elevated a few feet above it. "Fewer bugs, less likelihood of critters," Jack said. Daniel spread his groundsheet and Jack laid out his bedroll. Together they set the kerosene stove up, got their plates and cups ready. Jack took the potatoes down to the stream to give them a scrub, and Daniel followed to fill their canteens.
As they were climbing back to their camp, Daniel said, "I'm going to take my bath right away. Ever since you brought it up, I've been realizing how hot and sweaty I feel. I'll join you with my book after I dry off."
"Okay. I'll take mine while the fish are cooking."
Daniel grinned with relief. That had been easy. "You're going to trust me alone with the food?"
Jack poked him in the shoulder. "You can stir the potatoes. I'll be back before the fish are ready to turn."
"You're that certain it's going to be fish, plural?"
"Would you rather eat bread and cheese again?"
"We finished the bread two days ago," Daniel reminded him.
"So we'll have potatoes au gratin. Sort of. Not that it'll be coming to that." Jack smirked. "Have faith, Daniel."
Daniel put his hand over his heart. And smirked right back.
When Jack had gone down with his rod and creel, Daniel stripped down to his B.V.D.s and socks, then paused to consider. He wanted to wash the union suit out, but which would be more awkward: walking down to the stream naked, or undressing at the edge of the stream? In the end he just left his socks on, and carried his towel and union suit strategically. When he'd climbed down to the bank, he moved diagonally downstream from Jack, dropped his towel on the bank and waded into the stream.
"It's cold!" he shouted He heard Jack's replying laughter behind him. The stream wasn't very deep, barely thigh high in the middle. He could see that the bottom was strewn with pebbles. Kneeling didn't sound like such a great idea. He could sit down, but he was pretty sure that he'd lose his soap when he tried to get up again. So he crouched. Not the most elegant of positions. If anyone was watching. Worth it to feel clean and cool for a change. He gave his union suit a good scrub and tossed it up onto the bank before washing himself.
But to wash his hair…he sighed. Kneeling it was. He sank forward and dipped his head quickly. Fortunately the pebbles were worn smooth, but they were still rocks. He scrubbed the soap over his scalp. This was really a two person job, he mused. One to hold the soap. He could have lain down and immersed his entire body if he didn't have to worry about hanging onto the soap. Maybe he could even get his back scrubbed for him.
Oh, enough of that! He could see where these thoughts were leading, and he had no intention of being trapped in this stream until he was fit to be seen leaving it. He pitched the soap up onto the bank and immersed his body entirely, holding his breath while the burbling water rinsed it clean. Pity he couldn't keep his thoughts clean in the same way.
He combed his hair back with one hand as he rose from the water and walked to the bank. He didn't look to see if Jack was looking. Without his glasses he might not be sure, anyway. He gave the union suit a final rinse, wrung it out and draped it over a bush to dry, then toweled off cursorily, and headed back up to camp and fresh clothes.
In the end, Jack caught three fish ("Breakfast!" he crowed), while Daniel leaned against a tree stump and read quietly, bareheaded and barefooted, feeling nearly naked but wonderfully cool without any B.V.D.s beneath his clothing. He'd decided he just didn't want to put on his other pair, which he'd already worn for a couple of days, over his freshly cleaned body. With any luck the pair he'd just washed were going to be dry enough to wear by bedtime. Nainsook dried pretty quickly.
He glanced up from his book from time to time and was struck anew each time by the contentment he could read in every line of Jack's body. It wasn't until more than an hour had passed that Daniel realized a random passing stranger would more than likely have been able to read the same sort of contentment radiating from him. How many perfect moments had they had together already? How many more would he be allowed?
He'd been going through life blind, ignoring all chances at happiness. He wanted these days and nights with Jack to never end.
Daniel stirred the sliced potatoes and onions heating in the pot, and listened to the fish sizzling in the skillet. He didn't turn to watch Jack bathing in the stream. He could visualize it clearly enough without looking. Visualize everything. Because Jack had perfectly casually stripped off while carrying on a conversation about fish he'd battled with and defeated, and the various ways he'd cooked them.
Daniel had already seen Jack in his underwear, and half out of it, but he'd never seen him taking it off. It was the new fashion of separate underthings, something Daniel had never thought to try himself, something famously brought back from the Great War by the doughboys, and, he supposed now, the airmen, and maybe sailors and marines, too. The underpants buttoned to a separate yoke and there were tapes on the sides…he wasn't quite sure how it all worked. He only knew union suits: B.V.D.s by preference for quite a while now, long woolens in the winter and nainsook, short-sleeved and -legged, for the summer months.
It was safer to think about Jack's underwear than what it contained. What he shouldn't want. He stirred the potatoes vigorously. Can't have it, shouldn't want it, don't even know exactly what it is that…he'd only seen paintings on Greek vases. Classmates had snickered; Daniel couldn't breathe.
Jack was so alive. So here and now. Even his underwear was modern and intriguing. He was no painted figure on an ancient piece of pottery.
Daniel moaned softly and closed his eyes. So what would it hurt to think about it? Why was he hurting himself by trying not to? Was it such a sin? He could never make himself right. That was clear enough by now. After years of trying, he'd accepted that he was never going to be like other men. He wasn't hurting anyone. Jack didn't know, couldn't possibly know and still – God – undress in front of him. He heard sounds behind him as Jack climbed up to the camp. "The fish want you," he said loudly, and briefly buried his face in his hand before nonchalantly picking up his book.
"Not half as much as I want them," Jack answered, crouching down by the stove in a clean set of underthings. The back of his undershirt clung to him damply.
Daniel held his book so he couldn't see if anything else was clinging anywhere. He looked higher up to find Jack's hair standing all on end. He burst into laughter.
Jack twisted his neck around. "What? Oh." He grinned and swiped at his hair. "You don't think this look could catch on?" He turned back to flipping the fish in the skillet. "Coupla minutes on the fish. How're the potatoes?"
Daniel picked up his fork and poked it into the pot. "Couple of minutes should do it."
"I'll just comb my hair then, shall I?" Jack rose easily and bent to pick up his trousers from his bedroll.
Daniel buried his nose in his book as Jack dressed.
"I gave your union suit a flip. It's drying pretty fast."
"Yeah, I figured it would be dry enough to wear by bedtime." Daniel looked up and found Jack combing his hair. Jack's hand paused.
"I assumed you had a second pair."
"That is my second pair. The first pair is my insurance plan if those aren't dry enough." And…he'd just announced to Jack that he was naked under his shirt and trousers.
Jack slid his comb into his pocket. "Plans are good. Food's even better. Let's eat."
The food, simply seasoned with salt and pepper, was delicious. They buried the bones, along with the heads and the rest of the detritus from when Jack cleaned them, well away from their camp, and they wrapped up the third fish in the waxed paper Jack had prudently saved from the peanut butter cookies, then wrapped it again in a two-day-old newspaper and put it in the picnic basket, which Jack suspended from a rope slung over a tree branch. "Won't smell up the Ford, and hopefully won't attract any nocturnal visitors. And will be mighty tasty in the morning."
Daniel washed their pots and dishes in the stream while Jack sat on a small rock nearby, smoking and watching the ending moments of a vividly pink and violet sunset. They'd given their campsite a good spray of Flit before they came down to the stream, and done the same at the water's edge to keep themselves from being eaten alive by the swarms of tiny insects that were coming out to play as dusk approached.
Jack was silent as he smoked. Daniel was humming softly to himself as he gave each clean item a wipe with a towel and placed it aside. A bird called out, sounding as though it were directly overhead. Its last note was still ringing in the air when Jack spoke. "Those kids today…"
Daniel thought of the little girls and smiled. "Yes?" Jack didn't say anything for a while. Daniel frowned and scrubbed at the skillet with a thumbnail.
"Sara and I had a son. We called him Charlie."
Daniel froze, his hands in the water and his head raised. He looked unseeingly across the stream.
"He was born a little less than a year after we were married. He was the most beautiful…" Jack's voice broke.
Daniel was afraid to move, to speak. The bird overhead called out again. An answer came from across the stream, causing Daniel to turn his head and breaking the spell. He took a couple of slow, deep breaths. "What happened, Jack?"
"Influenza." Jack's tone was bitter. "He was only two. Only…and we…we lost him. We lost everything."
Daniel pulled the skillet out of the stream and rose, wiping his hands on his shirt. He walked to Jack and knelt beside the rock, putting a hand on his shoulder.
Tears were running down Jack's face. He sighed. "Those sweet little girls…"
Daniel thought he understood. Jack had been picturing what Charlie would have been like at Beth's age, Ruth's, Emma's. Imagining Charlie with siblings, maybe. Imagining the family he should have had.
"When I carried Ruth…" Jack looked down at his upturned hands.
Daniel remembered how the girls' slender bodies had felt fragile in his arms, how protective he had felt toward them..
Jack sniffed and turned his face toward Daniel. "It wasn't even one of the big outbreaks. Not even a dozen kids died. I just never understood why Charlie had to be one of them."
Daniel reached for Jack's hand and pressed it. "I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry." Tears were running down his face, too. He wiped at them.
Jack looked at him, opened his arms, and they were embracing, Jack's face buried in Daniel's neck. Jack's body wasn't fragile; it was broad and strong. Daniel couldn't protect him, but he could offer comfort. 'We all have our nightmares,' Jack had said. A parent's greatest nightmare. There really wasn't much Daniel could do or say, just hold Jack for as long as Jack wanted to be held.
That wasn't for long. Jack heaved a sigh and cupped the back of Daniel's head for a second before pulling back. "Thanks," he muttered. "I shouldn't have burdened you with all that." He dug a handkerchief out of his pocket.
Daniel pushed himself to his feet. "I'm glad you felt able to confide in me." He pulled out his own handkerchief, wiped his damp eyes, and blew his nose loudly, at the same second Jack did.
Jack laughed a little. "That'll scare the birds." He stood and moved to the bank of the stream. "I'll finish up these pots. Go grab your skivvies and go up and change." He looked up at the rapidly darkening sky. "Shine the flashlight down for me when you're ready, okay?" He crouched down.
Daniel hovered behind him for a second, then followed his instincts by extending a hand to press Jack's shoulder briefly. "Okay." As he picked his now-dry B.V.D.s up from the bush they were spread out on, Jack spoke.
"Daniel? It was all a long time ago, now."
"Okay. See you in a few minutes."
Up at the campsite, Daniel changed into the B.V.D.s and draped his shirt and trousers over the side of the Ford. He went over to Jack's open bedroll to pick up the flashlight, and stood for a second looking over at his own groundsheet about four feet away. Acting on instinct again, he pulled it nearer to Jack, until it was little more than a foot away. A silent representation of his sympathy, and a reflection of a new sense of intimacy.
Somewhere up the quietly chuckling stream, a frog burst into full-throated song as Daniel shone the flashlight down the bank to signal Jack and light his way.
Daniel woke to the warm weight of Jack's body against his back, and the press of Jack's hand over his mouth. He jerked in surprise and rolled his eyes up to his right, where he could make out the shape of Jack's head silhouetted against the gray and pink of the dawn sky. "Look." It was nearly silent against his ear. Jack lifted his hand an inch and pointed past Daniel's nose, then dropped it to lay across his chest.
Daniel looked, squinting without his glasses. A family of deer were down below at the opposite bank of the stream. One fawn stood with its front legs in the water, spraddled wide as it drank. A second fawn was rubbing the side of its head against its mother's leg as she drank. Daniel inhaled in surprised delight, and felt Jack shifting cautiously behind him, pressing in even closer. The stubble of Jack's cheek caught and rubbed against his own, and Jack's breath ruffled his hair. Daniel was very conscious of his heart hammering in his chest, first from his surprise awakening, then from Jack's nearness, now from Jack's increased nearness. Hammering against Jack's open hand.
Jack's other hand slowly came into view, and the way he was practically on top of Daniel suddenly made perfect sense, because the hand held Daniel's glasses, which Jack had obviously been stretching up to retrieve from their position of nighttime safety inside his hat. Daniel took them and slipped them on with the minimum amount of movement once Jack's face had retreated.
Details sprang into view: the ripples of the stream, the spots dappling the fawn's coats, the way the water dripped silver from the doe's muzzle as she lifted her head and scented the air, her ears twitching back and forth. The first fawn moved farther into the stream, its faint splashing sounds carried to Daniel's ears by the breeze that laid the tufts of tall grasses dotting the bank over on their side. He slowly became aware of the chorus of birdsong that had been going on in the treetops the entire time. The world had wakened while they slept. Or he slept, anyway.
Jack's hand still covered his heart. Daniel's traitorous mind told him that he could get used to that. He suppressed a shiver as he remembered the interplay of stubble. It was something he hadn't ever let himself think about: how it would be, how it would feel. Two unshaven faces, close, brushing against the other, rubbing. He'd felt it now and he was never going to forget. He could get used to that, too. Wanted that, now. Wanted to feel it, rough, under his lips. He bit his lip, hard, and closed his eyes in dismay. He was becoming erect.
When he quickly opened his eyes again, unwilling to miss a moment of the tableau beneath them, the second fawn had joined the other in the stream and was drinking its fill, white tail wagging, while its twin walked around it and nosed at the doe when she lowered her head for more water. Jack's hand patted his chest, and Daniel couldn't help but react with an elated smile, despite the embarrassing condition he was in. A pure, transcendent moment like this would have made the whole journey worthwhile to him, borne out his decision to embark on it, no matter how else things had turned out. Having someone special to share it with made it all the more precious.
Nature held such infinite beauty, quietly offered up to those who put themselves in a position to see. Daniel had never wanted to go through life fighting against his own nature. He had never found himself ugly, even at the worst of times, when he had been struggling to understand his lot. No. He knew he was a good person, who had always tried to do the right thing. He wasn't ugly, and how could he ever have thought himself defective? He was as he had been created, and the hand that had crafted these deer was a sure and powerful one. Daniel blinked away the mist that suddenly obscured his vision.
There had to be a plan for someone like him. He just had to stop resisting it.
He grew flaccid, slowly, as he lay peacefully in Jack's embrace, unintentional as it might be, and basked in the simple glory of being alive and hopeful, at the dawn of another new day.
They were both quiet at breakfast, but as Daniel washed and dried their dishes at the stream, he could hear Jack whistling as he broke up camp and loaded the Ford.
"I'll be there in a minute!" The whistling started up again. Daniel looked up at the hazy sky and shook his head, smiling. It was already uncomfortably humid—rare for these parts—and promising to turn into a real scorcher, the trip he never wanted to end was drawing to an inevitable close, and he had no idea what his future would look like, even viewed through a new, more forgiving lens.
All he knew was that Jack's whistling made his heart glad.
He dried the last fork and placed it into the picnic basket with everything else, carrying it with him as he scrambled up to their camp.
"Come look at the map." Jack had it spread out on top of the engine cowl.
"What am I looking at?"
"A detour, maybe." Jack ran his finger along the road they were on. "I was planning to take the turn-off here, and come at Denver from the northeast, but if we do this instead," his finger trailed to the west, "we pass right near a couple of small cities in northern Colorado. We could pick one and make a night of it. A nice restaurant meal, maybe a movie, there might be music or dancing somewhere, real beds to sleep in, in a honest to goodness hotel. Sort of celebrate making it this far." His finger made circles around the area on the map as he looked sideways at Daniel.
"And then come at Denver from the north in the morning." Daniel traced the road south from Jack's finger. "We'd be practically there."
"We'll have farther to drive today, it'll be getting dark, but according to the map it's a paved road part of the way so it should hopefully be easy driving. And tomorrow we can sleep in, have a lazy breakfast, and still be in Denver while there's hours of sunlight left to find our way around. So, whaddya think?"
"I think it's a great plan."
"Sweet!" Jack began folding up the map, lips pursed to whistle.
"And, Jack," Daniel laid a hand on his arm, "when we find that restaurant tonight, dinner's on me." Jack tilted his head and looked like he was considering protesting, but Daniel just winked at him, smiled broadly, and moved away to load the clean dishes into the back seat.
They'd decided to stop at the first of the two towns. "If it's a dump we can change our minds and try the other one, instead," Jack pointed out, "but I'm all for stopping at our first opportunity." That option became moot anyway when they had a flat tire before they reached the first city. By the time they'd emptied out the back seat to get at the tools stored under the cushion, wrestled the tire off the wheel, replaced the punctured inner tube, patched the shoe, refilled the tire from the air bottle, and mounted it back onto the wheel, all in a sticky heat that was unusual for that elevation and which seemed barely mitigated by the setting of the sun, all either of them really wanted was a bath and a cold drink.
After asking directions, they dropped the Model T off at the Ford dealership to have the inner tube repaired or replaced, have their patch job vulcanized, and have some recommended maintenance performed. They washed some of the worst oil and dirt off their hands and faces before taking their things for the night and, per instructions, walking three blocks south to Main Street and turning west for the hotel. The temperature was by now dropping rapidly, but Daniel's clothes were still sticking to him. If he were back in Chicago, he'd say rain was on the way, but here at the foot of the Rockies he had no clue.
The three-story brick hotel's front entrance was flanked by large stone urns ablaze with red zinnias. They carried their bags through the carpeted, club chair-strewn lobby and up to the old-fashionedly ornate front desk.
"Hello, gentlemen; what can I do for you?" the clerk asked.
Jack set his duffle bag down. "Got two rooms for us?"
The clerk frowned and consulted the register, then turned to check the array of numbered hooks and corresponding keys on the wall behind him. "I'm afraid we don't. We had a family that came in and took three rooms, and we have two reserved by regulars that'll be coming in on the 9:30 train. We've already received a confirmation telegram, which we don't insist on, but…and looks like our last two-bed room was taken while I was on my dinner break. We do have one room left, with a full size bed, if you don't mind sharing."
Jack tapped his fingers on the counter and turned to look at Daniel. "Well, I already know your snoring won't keep me awake. Do you kick in your sleep?"
Daniel raised his eyebrows and hoped he wasn't visibly flushing. "How would I know?"
The clerk laughed behind his hand. "It's a nice, comfortable room, gents. Or, if you'd like, I can telephone around to a couple of rooming houses and see if they can set you up. Is it just for the one night, or are you staying in town?"
"Just for the night. Daniel?"
What to say? "Anywhere there's a bathtub, a decent mattress and a genuine pillow is fine with me." It was the truth. The nonchalant shrug was less truthful. Daniel wasn't quite sure just what he hoped Jack would decide.
Jack lifted his shoulders in turn, and the corners of his mouth turned up as well. "Can this establishment meet my friend's requirements?"
"Yes, sir," the clerk said smartly, spinning the register around and offering a fountain pen. "You'll find bathrooms at either end of the hall, with plenty of soap and towels. No extra charge."
Jack signed the register with a flourish. "What's the damage?"
"Three dollars at check-out."
Jack nodded, leaning against the counter and smiling amiably. He pulled a quarter from his pocket and twirled it between his fingers. "Hot, dusty day for travelling. I'm downright parched. What's a thirsty man do in this town?" He laid the coin delicately on the counter.
Daniel stared, wide-eyed, his mouth hanging open. Was Jack really…?
The clerk licked his lips. "If you gents like chop suey, you can get a great meal at Wen Chai's, about five blocks from here."
"I love chop suey." Jack edged the coin towards the clerk.
"It can get crowded in the restaurant, them being real popular, so they built an extra dining room downstairs." The clerk placed his fingertips on the coin and smiled at first Daniel, then Jack. "Go right to 4th Street, then right for another block and a half. Just tell them Lon sent you, and they'll give you a good table downstairs."
"Thanks, Lon." Jack released the twenty-five-cent piece and it disappeared into Lon's pocket in a flash.
"Here's your room key. If you'll please leave it at the desk when you go out. Need any help with your bags? No? Okay, you're on the second floor; 219's down on the left. If you need anything, just shout."
Jack saluted him with the key and picked up his bag.
Yes, Jack really had bribed the desk clerk, and Daniel was soon going to be visiting his very first speakeasy. "Thank you," he said, bemused, and followed Jack toward the staircase.
In a cozy curtained partition, Daniel lay back in the lukewarm water for a moment of reflection before washing. The night ahead promised to be interesting, fun, and maybe even exciting. Chop suey was good enough on its own, but eating it in a secret underground speakeasy would probably enhance the flavor. He grinned. And washing it down with something illicit sounded pretty good. It had been a long, dusty drive, with the paved roads proving to be mostly hypothetical, and yesterday's cold bath in the stream had started to feel like a dream. But then everything since Jack woke him up this morning had had a bit of a dream-like quality to it.
Daniel smiled and flicked at the water. Should he stick to beer tonight? He wasn't a very experienced drinker. Born at the wrong time, cut off by Prohibition, not much of a partier at college, even when it had been legal if you were the right age. Stick to beer or throw caution to the winds? He leaned forward with a splash. In other words, get drunk so he wouldn't be nervous about sharing a bed with Jack?
He picked up the pitcher from the stand beside the tub, dipped it in the water, and emptied it over his head. He started scrubbing his hair with the bar of soap. There wasn't a single thing to be nervous about. He wasn't nervous. Jack was his friend; he'd slept on Jack's shoulder in the auto; they'd shared an embrace last night; and, yes, people sometimes woke up with an erection – it might be slightly embarrassing, but it wasn't something to be nervous about. He rinsed, twice, and wiped at his eyes. It would actually be nice, to have Jack warm and sleepy, close beside him. Nearly as close as they'd woken up this morning.
He was smiling as he began scrubbing his chest. Better not to get too drunk. He wanted to remember everything.
Bathed, shaved, hair neatly combed, dressed in their cleanest clothing, shoes polished. Jack had even borrowed a splash of aftershave from a man who came in to use the tub when Jack was finished with it. Daniel had kept getting whiffs of it as they walked to Wen Chai's, past darkened store windows, an all-night diner, and a brightly lit movie theater surrounded by parked automobiles.
But here in the cellar, the air was so full of aromas that Daniel couldn't pick Jack out of the mélange. Food, of course. Lon had been right about the great food – they'd smelled it from half a block away and grinned happily at each other. A reek of perfume from two small town would-be flappers at the next table with their dates, constantly shrieking with laughter. The waxy hair pomade of their Chinese waiter. Tobacco, but not Jack's familiar cigarettes. He'd purchased a cigar from a stand in the hotel lobby, and its smoke curled toward the tin ceiling to join the rest of the patrons' smoke, barely disturbed by the slowly turning fan fixtures. And then there was the aroma of beer and hops, seeming to hover below all the other scents, just over the table, in a miasma so thick it was like having a mouthful of suds. This was not a bad thing. The beer was of shockingly good quality. Daniel was on his third glass.
Jack was maybe on his fifth? Daniel had lost count. But he didn't show any signs of being drunk. He was relaxed in his chair, listening to the piano player's mediocre efforts, not talking much. Daniel stretched his legs out contentedly. They didn't need to talk.
The two of them had been talking to each other for days. Getting to know each other, their life stories, their tragedies and triumphs. Now they could sit in comfortable silence and watch other folks at noisy play, at work bartending or waiting tables, and turn their heads idly to watch newcomers as they arrived in a steady trickle that threatened to eventually flood the room. When a new couple pulled up chairs to join the flapper party next door, Daniel shifted his chair to give them room and ended up shoulder-to-shoulder with Jack at their tiny table.
Jack nudged him and smiled broadly, lifting his glass in a mock toast. His eyes were dancing.
"You love this!" Daniel blurted.
"You bet. I miss these days. A saloon on every corner, a bartender who knows your name, something nice and frothy in a mug or a glass." Jack took a gulp of beer. "I used to go with my dad to a place called Mulligan's, when he decided I was old enough. We'd moved around a few times, but Mulligan's was always his place. Even if he had to take the streetcar to get there, that's where all his cronies were." He flung an arm around Daniel. "I miss cronies."
Daniel laughed and let himself lean into Jack a little. "I was just telling myself that you hardly seemed like you'd been drinking at all, but I'm reconsidering that assessment."
"I'm going to let you in on a secret, Daniel."
Daniel tilted his head back to see him better. "What's that?"
"There is no 'h' in assessment."
Daniel covered his mouth hastily before a sound that was too close to a giggle could escape. "I'm not much of a drinker."
"You just need more practice. Curse the Volstead Act!" Jack shook his fist dramatically.
As Daniel laughed, a man leaned in from the table next to Jack. "Cheers, pal!" He extended his cocktail glass, and Jack clinked it delicately with his beer glass.
"They'll never lick us," Jack said solemnly. He clinked glasses with Daniel, while their neighbor tilted his head back and drained his glass, raising the empty and calling loudly for the waiter.
"I think you've found a crony."
Jack burst out laughing.
A few minutes later, the waiter dropped off their neighbor's refill, took Jack's order for two more beers, and began wending his way between the tables, an empty beer glass and five or six cocktail glasses, half of them full, balanced on his tray. Someone leaned their chair back at just the wrong moment, and the tray's contents smashed to the ground in a loud explosion of breaking glass. In the chorus of hoots and exclamations that ensued, Daniel missed whatever happened at the neighboring table. When he looked, the man had his palm pressed against one eye, his fingers splayed, his mouth open wide.
Jack had leaned over and was speaking to him, rapidly, but calmly. The woman with him had her hand on his shoulder. After several seconds the man lowered his hand to the table, and his companion covered it with hers. He looked at Jack. Daniel could see him struggling to focus. It was a little quieter now, and he could hear Jack.
"Just a little noise. All's right with the world. You're safe from anything barring a police raid, friend. Everything's okay here. Everyone's safe."
Shell shock, Daniel realized abruptly.
The man's expression eased a bit. He nodded.
"We don't have to clean up the mess, right?" Jack said. He smiled encouragingly. "And we didn't get a gin bath."
"Right," their neighbor said, and reached for his cocktail with a shaking hand. "Cheers."
Jack toasted him. "Cheers, pal."
They walked arm-in-arm back to the hotel, after Daniel had staggered a little when they emerged onto the sidewalk. It wasn't that he was drunk, he told himself, he was just pleasantly tipsy. The cool night air felt good on his face. There had been a rain shower while they were in the speakeasy, and the oppressive humidity of the day was gone. The sidewalk was damp, and drips fell from the rolled-up awnings of the businesses they passed. A horse-drawn street sweeper passed them going in the opposite direction, swishing through the puddles. They exchanged greetings with the driver, their voices nearly echoing in the otherwise deserted street. The movie theater was dark now. The diner had one customer, drooped over a cup of coffee, while the cook sat reading a newspaper. He glanced up without interest as they passed. The respectable portion of the city was already sleeping, and the rest of it was still downstairs at Wen Chai's.
They picked up their key at the desk, wishing the night clerk a good night, and went up to their room. Jack opened the window wider to let in more fresh air. "You care which side of the bed?" He took off his jacket and hung it over the back of a chair.
"Doesn't matter to me." Daniel pulled back the covers on the side nearest to him, and sat down to take off his shoes. Jack was shrugging out of his suspenders and unbuttoning his shirt cuffs when Daniel left to go down the hall to the toilet. When he came back, Jack was barefoot and bare-chested, damp from washing up in the basin. His shirt and undershirt hung from hooks along the wall.
Jack shrugged back into his suspenders. "Next."
He left the room, and Daniel stripped down to his B.V.D.s and gave his face a quick scrub. He climbed into bed and stretched out beneath the sheet. So this was what a real mattress felt like. It seemed like an eternity had passed since he set out on this journey.
He'd come a long way, and not just in miles. He smiled and stretched again. He'd get through tonight, everything would be fine, and they'd reach Denver by the afternoon. And Jack would still be part of his life. His toes curled happily.
When Jack came in, he paused by the door. "Hit the lamp."
"Right above you."
Daniel chuckled. He was still a little tipsy. Of course there was a lamp right over the bed – he'd just been idly staring at it! He twisted and reached for the button, turning it on.
Jack turned off the overhead light and set the Yale lock, then padded over to the bed. He turned his back as he shrugged out of his suspenders and unfastened his trousers. Daniel watched as he stepped out of them, then turned his attention to the ceiling as Jack sank onto the bed and pulled the sheet up to his waist. "Oh, this is nice."
"It's a good mattress," Daniel agreed quickly.
Daniel nodded and Jack switched off the lamp. Darkness flooded the room initially, but as Daniel's eyes adjusted he realized that a street lamp near their window was shining in through the open curtains. As he turned his head to look that way, his gaze fell on Jack's naked chest. Right there. Rising and falling as he watched.
Daniel shut his eyes and turned to face the ceiling again. He felt his own chest rise and fall, felt his groin tighten. He wished he hadn't looked. He inhaled as quietly as he could. A beer or two too many, and Jack next to naked beside him, and…well, okay, he was reacting the way a man like him might be expected to act. It was okay. He'd won this battle. It wasn't wrong. He wasn't ashamed. He just had to control himself because it wasn't fair to Jack otherwise. Daniel was acutely conscious of his own breathing, trying hard to keep the sounds soft and regular. With a faint smile, he supposed that it was marginally better than being acutely conscious of every breath Jack was taking.
Naturally, inevitably, that thought was all it took for his ears and his brain to take on a life of their own, balancing his sounds against those emanating from the man lying beside him, picturing that bare, lightly furred chest filling, picturing the long, bare legs below it. And what lay in between. Daniel clenched a fist as he felt himself beginning to harden. His own body was going out on strike against him like a damned Wobbly.
He tried to recapture his earlier feeling of confidence. Just make it through this night and everything would be great. Keep thinking good thoughts. Be calm.
But he felt more tense, more aroused with each passing second. The pores of his skin were aware of Jack. And was he crazy, or was Jack’s breathing as closely controlled as his own? It didn't sound right. Could Jack be reacting to him? Sensing…understanding…even growing angry? No. Not that. Please, not that. Daniel had to relax.
Or pretend to be relaxed. He coughed and carefully shifted over onto his side, facing Jack. There. Nothing to hide. Just a man in the process of falling asleep, getting comfortable. Daniel swallowed dryly and winced. Could Jack hear that? He opened his eyes.
Jack’s face was inches away. He was looking at Daniel.
Daniel froze on an inhalation.
Jack whispered his name.
A tremor ran through Daniel’s body.
“Daniel. I’m not drunk. And I don’t think you are. Are you?” When Daniel didn’t answer, Jack reached over and tentatively touched his hand where it lay on the pillow. “Daniel? If you want to?”
Daniel opened his hand and Jack was holding it. Holding his hand and offering…
Jack squeezed urgently. “Do you want to?”
Daniel squeezed back, and Jack was moving across the inches that separated them before his excited “Yes” had time to escape his lips.
And then there was nothing but Jack's lips, against his throat and his cheek, and the corner of his mouth, and Jack's arms clasping him. Jack's hands, moving and clutching.
Jack's erection, pressing against Daniel's and making it grow. Jack's breath…mint-scented. He'd brushed his teeth. Daniel wished he'd thought to do that. If he'd only known…had Jack known? That didn't matter. Focus.
Then Jack's hands both slid down to Daniel's backside and squeezed, and nothing was in focus after that. The skin of Jack's shoulders was damp under his hands. He didn't remember putting his hands there. Broad shoulders. Shoulder blades. The dip of the spine. There weren't two layers of cloth between his hands and Jack tonight. And Jack wasn't distraught. Daniel's own eyes were a little damp, though. Not grief, not fear.
He hoped he wasn't about to find out he was one of those people who cried when they were happy. That would be embarrassing. He slid one hand farther down and touched the waist of Jack's underwear. Should he go underneath? He tasted the skin of Jack's throat with his tongue. His fingertips slid an inch below Jack's waist. He thought he liked this new kind of underwear, that let you touch a person.
"Jack." Daniel didn't even know what he meant when he said that, but Jack responded by taking Daniel's jaw in one hand and kissing him on the mouth. Was that what he had wanted? Was that in his voice for Jack to hear? Daniel slid a hand to the nape of Jack's neck, and kissed him back. His nails dug into the rise of Jack's butt as Jack's tongue pressed against his lips.
Jack exhaled against Daniel's mouth.
Daniel opened it. Jack's tongue came sliding in. They were French kissing. He'd read about this. Something else famously brought back by the doughboys. And airmen, obviously. He thrust his hips up.
Jack broke the kiss and began fumbling with the buttons of Daniel's B.V.D.s "We don't want a mess, do we?"
Daniel began to burn with a heat like the sun. He reached for Jack's underwear, felt for the tape at the side and pulled at it, trying to loosen it.
Jack's hand stroked up his arm. He chuckled in Daniel's ear. "You do yours, I'll do mine." He rolled away.
Daniel wasn't going to mess around. He pushed the sheets back, rolled to his feet and began stripping off. He stumbled stepping out of the B.V.D.s and had to put his hand down on the bed to stop himself falling. His head spun as he bent over. "Whoa."
Jack was kicking his underpants off. "You okay?"
That was a stupid question. That was a stupid question. They were naked. They were both naked. "Jack." Daniel put a knee onto to the bed and fell across Jack.
He could feel Jack's hardness against his abdomen. He moved to his right. "Oh, God!" They were together, pressing against each another. He moved. They slid against one another. Jack's arms came around him. The room spun and Daniel faltered. "You…you…" He rolled onto his back and tugged at Jack.
Jack's weight was on him. The room stopped spinning. Jack was his focal point, his center, his anchor. Jack's hips were moving, slowly, then faster. Driving against him. "Yes." It was all he could say before his brain stopped functioning entirely, and he was climaxing. Clutching Jack. Wanting, failing, to say Jack's name. Falling from the sky back to Earth.
Jack groaned, and Daniel felt, with a shock, the splash of his seed, warm on his belly. Wanted, failed to say Jack's name. Tried to hold him tightly, but his arms wouldn't do what he asked.
He wasn't sure exactly what had happened.
But it was wonderful. He was limp from gratitude, joy, and an utterly fantastic orgasm. The very first one he hadn't given himself. He opened his mouth to try, again, to say Jack's name, and hiccupped instead. He covered his mouth and laughed.
Jack pushed up from him, staring. His face changed, hardened. He rolled away and sat on the side of the bed, running a hand through his hair.
Daniel felt a dagger of ice in his stomach. "Jack?"
"This shouldn't have happened." Jack rose, stepped into his trousers, shrugged into his suspenders, and left the room without another word.
Daniel sat up slowly. His shoulders hunched around his ears, which were ringing with the sound of disgust in Jack's voice. He wanted to run, to hide his shame. He turned on the light over the bed, stood and began to rapidly dress, his brain stuck in a short loop of static confusion. He wouldn't run; he'd take whatever Jack had to say to him like a man, but he'd be ready. If Jack wanted him gone, he'd be ready to go. He wasn't going to be thrown out.
He gathered his things and crammed them into his knapsack. He picked it up. Put it down again. Picked up his hat. Sat, nearly fell, on the edge of the bed, worrying at the Panama's brim.
Jack had started it. Daniel didn't know how it could be his fault. What had gone wrong?
The door opened and he shot to his feet, dropping his hat.
Jack looked at him, looked down at the hat on the floor, looked slowly up the length of Daniel's body and met his eyes again. "You're leaving?" he finally said.
Daniel blinked at him. There was no disgust in his voice. That had sounded more like fear.
Jack closed and locked the door, and leaned back against it, face perfectly blank. Waiting for an answer.
Daniel swallowed. "If you want me to."
It was Jack's turn to blink. "I don't."
Daniel could feel his face rearranging itself, expressing his puzzlement.
Jack straightened and pushed away from the door. "I don't," he repeated, walking up to Daniel.
"You…the way you left the room…"
Daniel took a deep breath. "If you don't tell me what went wrong, I can't fix it. I want to fix it, Jack."
Jack reached up and cupped his cheek. "There's nothing to fix." His hand fell away. "You're so damn young. And inexperienced. You'd never done any of that before, had you?"
Daniel bit his lip and shook his head.
"And you're a lot more drunk than I thought." Jack's voice hardened, and the disgust was back, muted now.
The penny dropped. "You thought you took advantage of me! Oh, Jack. That's…" Yes, it was almost funny, but he mustn't laugh. "Nothing could be further from the truth."
Jack's mouth twitched. "Yeah?"
"I wanted you so badly. You have no idea how much." Daring in his sense of relief, Daniel took a step forward and threw his arms around Jack.
Jack's arms came around him with no hesitation. "So I'm not a jerk, just an idiot?"
"Now you've got it."
Jack tousled his hair and said gruffly, "Speaking of idiots, just what were you planning to do? Start hitchhiking at this hour?"
"I don't know. I wasn't thinking that far ahead." And now he didn't have to. Daniel hugged Jack tighter.
"Don't you know…" Jack pulled back to look him in the eye, "Don't you know that I would've been the one who picked you up? It's Fate, remember? You and me, Denver." He gave Daniel a shake. "You and me."
Breathless, Daniel just nodded.
"Don't forget it," Jack muttered before giving him a short, hard kiss, and burying his face against Daniel's neck.
Daniel stroked the warm skin of Jack's back. "I won't," he promised, still breathless, and beginning to feel aroused, although he wasn't entirely sure that was an appropriate response to Jack's display of vulnerability. "Jack?"
"I can't help being young."
"No," Jack agreed, his shoulders shaking a little.
"Jack?" Daniel started to smile.
Jack slid a hand down to Daniel's butt and squeezed gently.
"I'm not so drunk any more."
Jack lifted his face and pressed the side of his skull against Daniel's. "I scared it out of you, huh? I’m sorry."
Daniel made a dismissive sound. "Jack?" He could feel it as Jack's face broke into a wide grin, and he heard his huff of breath. "What was that other thing you said?"
Jack moved against him languidly. His answer was a sultry purr into Daniel's ear. "Why, I don't recall."
Daniel pressed his hips forward. "I don't have to stay inexperienced. Do I?"
"That would be a crime," Jack growled. "A waste."
Daniel felt Jack beginning to harden against him. He gasped. "I want to see you this time."
Jack pulled away and was naked in seconds. "Then look. Look at what you do to me."
Daniel looked. He touched. He held Jack's length in his hand, caressed it with his thumb, and felt the weight of it decrease as it continued to lift. Jack gripped his shoulder. Daniel looked up to share his delight, his smile changing to an inner chuckle as he gave into an impulse and reached up with his other hand to grasp Jack's chin. Now all Daniel needed was a beard, and the two of them could pose for an ancient vase, although strictly speaking, since Jack was older, their positions should be reversed.
"What?" Jack asked.
"I'll tell you sometime." Daniel looked down again. He liked this position just fine.
"I guess you like what you see." Jack's voice was pitched low. "I don't have much to look at, though." He plucked at Daniel's seersucker jacket.
Daniel backed away, licking his lips. "Actually I could see you better if you got into the light more." He started taking off his jacket.
Jack looked over his shoulder at the pool of light that covered the bed. "Well, if you're sure you don't need any help…"
Daniel felt heat rising to his cheeks. "I think it'll be quicker if you don't help." The smile Jack gave him made Daniel feel dirty in an entirely wonderful way as he unbuttoned his shirt.
"Ah, the impatience of youth," Jack said. He walked around to the side of the bed and turned the sheets back with a flick. He arranged himself on the bed, under the lamp, raised a knee and touched himself. There were spots of color high on his cheeks.
Daniel stared. Awareness of the rest of the room vanished, and there was only Jack, spot-lit. Waiting.
"Aren't you supposed to be undressing?" Jack's voice was smug and vibrant.
"I forgot for a second," Daniel muttered. He raced through getting the rest of his things off, as Jack laughed at him quietly. And then he was on the bed, moving Jack's hand aside, gripping him. He moved his hand up and down. Jack made a sound. "Do you like this? Should I do this?"
Jack nodded, but stopped his hand after a few more strokes. "It's sort of dry. You could get it wet first."
Daniel froze. "I could…" he swallowed. His mouth was suddenly so dry that to finish repeating Jack's sentence would be an outright lie.
"You don't have to," Jack said gently.
Daniel looked at him. "I…"
"It's okay. Just lick your palm."
Daniel summoned up enough spit to do that, and resumed the motion of his hand. He observed Jack's breathing, the changes to his skin color, the small, possibly involuntary movements of his head and limbs with one part of his mind, while the other part... "I want to," he blurted. "I really do want to."
"It's all right. Give me your hand." Jack tugged at Daniel's wrist, turned his head and spat into Daniel's palm. "Really hard now." His voice was tight.
Daniel put his wet palm back on Jack, and gripped himself with his other hand, trying to squeeze back the tide that was rising in him. Jack's flesh was a glistening deep red now, searing hot against Daniel's skin, a living thing that craved and responded to his touch.
Jack ran his fingers through Daniel's hair, tugging just a little. "I'll suck you in a minute," he gasped.
Daniel moaned and worked his hand faster. Jack's legs straightened. His head arched back, exposing his throat. His eyes closed. And then, with a long groan that rose and fell in pitch, his head jerked up off the pillow and his warm seed spurted all over Daniel's hand. Daniel had to tug at himself to keep from following Jack into climax, biting his lip and shutting his eyes for a moment. Then he stared, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, as his slick hand milked Jack dry.
"Ah." Jack released his grip on Daniel's hair and caressed it. "Uh. Uh."
Daniel stopped his strokes. "Jack," he said, amazed and dizzy with arousal. He dropped his face onto Jack's stomach, watching with one eye as Jack's erection diminished while he continued to hold it. "Jack." There was a note of pleading in his voice this time.
Jack moved, slowly, until Daniel was flat on the bed and Jack was raised up beside him on an elbow, gazing down at him from a flushed face. "I loved that."
Daniel smiled, his chest swelling.
"And I've fallen in love with you." Here was that careful blankness on Jack's face again, as he waited for a response. But up this close there was no hiding the anxious hope in his eyes.
Daniel's lips parted on a gasp. He reached up to touch Jack's face. "I knew I loved you the day of the church picnic."
Blankness became relief, and relief swiftly turned into joyful triumph. "That long ago? Sweet!"
Daniel pulled him down into a kiss. He felt Jack's heart hammer against his breastbone. And then, with a shock that had his hips thrusting urgently into the air, he felt Jack's hand sliding down his body. When Jack released his mouth, Daniel gasped as Jack's lips and tongue followed the path his hand was blazing.
"I'm going to take care of you now," Jack murmured just before he took Daniel into his mouth.
And take care of him he did, with slithering tongue and suctioning cheeks, and searching hands. Daniel felt as though he were being engulfed head-to-toe, by just that one warm and vital mouth, loving him. Making love to him.
Jack was in love with him. This has to be heaven, was his last thought before he was overcome.
They'd cleaned themselves up and were sitting propped against the headboard, naked under the sheet, Jack's arm around Daniel as they talked quietly.
"How did you know?" Daniel asked. "When you asked me if I wanted to, how did you know?"
"How you felt about me? I couldn't be positive."
"No, I mean how did you know…what I was? That I would even consider…"
"What you were? Pretty much from our first handshake."
Daniel remembered the tingle that had run through him. He blinked. "You felt that."
Jack shrugged. "Saw what you couldn't hide."
"I certainly tried." Daniel couldn't believe he'd been that transparent. "I never had a clue about you," he admitted. "I still can't see anything, looking back."
"Really?" Jack tapped Daniel's shoulder. "Can you reach my tobacco pouch?"
"Sure." Daniel leaned to pick it up from the nightstand, grabbing the ashtray, too, and putting it on his thigh.
"I gave myself away a dozen times. Guess you just didn't know what to look for."
"And I'm not about to enlighten you! You know how I feel; you don't need to know anything about any other men."
Daniel made a contented sound.
"Hey, I hate to let go of you, but I'm not gonna be able to roll a cigarette with you there."
"Let me try." Daniel took the pouch from Jack.
Jack nuzzled his ear. "Guess you've been watching, huh?" He sounded pleased.
Daniel creased the paper and sprinkled tobacco into it. "I love watching your hands." He started forming the paper into a cylinder, moving his thumbs up and back. Jack nuzzled his ear some more. Daniel bit his tongue as he delicately tucked the flap of the cigarette under. "I love being touched by your hands."
Jack made a wordless sound.
Daniel was smiling as he lifted the cigarette to lick and seal it. He plucked loose bits of tobacco from the ends and dropped them back into the pouch, pulling the string with his teeth to close it. He gave one end of the cigarette a pinch and a twist, and turned his head to place it between Jack's lips. Jack struck a match, and in the spark of it, his eyes, shadowy underneath the lamp, were lit with a warm awareness as he gazed into Daniel's. Daniel didn't need to be more experienced to know with certainty that that warmth would be heat if the two of them weren't already sated. A shiver ran through him, and Jack's arm tightened around his shoulders.
The tip of the cigarette glowed. Jack dropped the match into the ashtray, deliberately brushing the heel of his hand against Daniel in the process. "I'm glad there haven't been other men in your past. But it's hard to believe, with the way you look. Which is great, by the way. I may not have mentioned that."
Daniel felt himself blushing. "Well, if anyone else noticed, I wasn't paying attention."
"Had your nose buried in a book, huh?"
Daniel chuckled. "Nine times out of ten. But…" he put his hand on Jack's thigh, "I wouldn't have wanted to notice. I…I guess you could say I've been at war with myself. With what I believed to be wrong."
Daniel rubbed his fingertips against the sheet over Jack's thigh, concentrating on that. "Did you ever fight that war?"
"Is this where we talk about my marriage?"
Daniel exhaled and ducked his head.
Jack tapped ash into the ashtray. "Maybe a different war than yours. Maybe just a different theater of war. I was always attracted to men, but to women, too. You?"
Daniel shook his head wordlessly.
Jack squeezed him. "I fooled around some with another boy when we were kids. Joined the football team my sophomore year, even though baseball was the only sport I cared about, just because I had a crush on the quarterback. Not returned." He chuckled ruefully.
"His loss," Daniel murmured. Jack's hand caressed his shoulder.
"But I always liked girls, too. Dated, took a date to the homecoming every year, went to the senior prom. I love women. And when I met Sara everything just seemed to fall into place. I had such incredibly warm feelings when I was near her." Jack took a drag on his cigarette and puffed smoke at the ceiling. "So I proposed. And she said yes."
"And…you were in love, and happy, and started a family…"
"All of that. Yeah."
"You don't have to…I know it hurts." Daniel twisted to look at Jack.
Jack waved his cigarette. "Let me just finish by saying that, in retrospect, knowing what I do now – well, to be honest, I suspected it at the time, too – I wasn't quite the husband that I might have been. As much as I loved her. I don't think she felt neglected. I hope not, anyway."
"Oh," Daniel said softly.
"Women are peaches. Men…yeah. Excite me."
"I'm glad. I'm shocked to hear myself say it, but I'm glad." Everything he'd said and done in this room tonight had been shocking. It had been the best night of his life. "When you say 'knowing what I do now'…you're not talking about me, are you?"
Jack touched Daniel's face with the hand holding his cigarette. "And this is the part where we talk about the war."
"You met someone," Daniel realized.
"Yeah. But the story has to start at the beginning. And the beginning was Charlie. I told you I abandoned Sara." Jack drew harshly on his cigarette. "There was more to it, though." He exhaled on a sigh. "When I went to Canada to enlist, I never expected to come back."
"You mean you didn't want to come back," Daniel said, horrified.
"Don't worry, that's all well behind me." Jack looked Daniel in the eye. "I told you it was a long time ago."
"I don't like even thinking about it." Daniel pressed himself compulsively against Jack's side.
"A lot of things changed for me once I got over to Europe. I started making friends with Al, the buddy who's giving me this job in Denver. And, believe me, it only took one close call with the Germans to make me realize that I didn't really want to die at all, no matter what 'Fritz' had to say to the contrary."
"And then?" Daniel urged.
"And then along came Robin. Robin, for crying out loud. Can you get any more English than that?" Jack smiled fondly and shook his head.
"You loved him?"
"Ah." Jack shrugged. "It wasn't like that. I cared for him, sure. But I couldn't let myself care too much, see? He could be gone at any moment. Well, 'Fritz' and Al and Robin between them gave me a bunch of reasons to live, and I've never looked back. Even when the letter came from Sara asking me for a divorce, I was devastated, sure, but I knew I was going to go on living. I was going to survive. Unless I got knocked out of the sky and my number was up, you know? But I'd made my choice, and I knew who I was, finally." His arm tightened around Daniel.
"What happened to Robin?"
"He made it. Got shot down and taken prisoner at the end of August in '18. He has a little limp now, from the crash, but he's okay."
"Good." Daniel found it impossible to feel jealous.
"He was probably around your age when I met him. I hope I don't have a weird thing for younger men." Jack pretended to look worried.
Daniel poked him in the side. "I don't even know how old you are."
"I guess it never came up, did it? I'll be thirty-two in October."
Daniel did the arithmetic. "Then you were only a few years older than Robin when you met him."
"Yeah, but I'm an antique compared to you."
"Eleven years and a bit. I think I can manage not to hold it against you."
Jack ground his cigarette out in the ashtray. "You'll probably meet somebody," he said, sounding casual. "At the university."
"I'll meet dozens of people. None of them will be you," Daniel said firmly.
"Don't kid yourself. Nothing lasts forever." Jack's mouth twitched. "I'm no prize package."
"You're a good man. A…a moral man." Daniel paused, very surprised that he'd said that, both because he'd never thought about Jack in exactly those terms, and because twenty-four hours ago he would have considered them both to be equally immoral men for what they had just done together in this bed. If Jack was still moral in his eyes, it followed that so was he, himself. It was a comforting realization. "I'd be proud to be more like you."
Jack cleared his throat. "You know, love is just a word, and then somebody says something like that…" He cleared his throat again, and Daniel saw that he was blushing. "I guess maybe you really are in love with me."
"For days now, like I said." Daniel put the ashtray back on the nightstand and twisted on the bed to look at Jack. "But we couldn't have been here together like this if that doe hadn't brought her fawns to the stream."
Jack's lips parted and he tilted his head. "I knew something had changed. It was me holding you like that, when I woke you up?"
Daniel raised his eyebrows. "Oh, no."
Jack's head moved back an inch. "Oh."
Daniel grinned. "Don't get me wrong. It was very exciting. It was wonderful." He paused to make sure that Jack recognized his sincerity. "But it wouldn't have changed my entire life."
"Ah." Jack blinked at him. "So how did a few deer splashing around in a stream change your life?"
"They were so perfect. So beautiful."
Jack nodded slowly.
"God made them that way. And He made me, too." Daniel swallowed. "I've always thought that there was something wrong with me, that something had gotten…twisted up in my head. I've spent my life trying to change myself, or if I couldn't change, at least to try to do the right thing." His right hand was waving in the air. Jack reached out and took it. "Falling in love with you was wrong, but it wasn't wicked. Thinking too much about you, on the other hand…well, I've always tried not to dwell on, on…"
"Sex." Daniel felt himself flush.
"All men think about sex, even the ones whose faith tells them they shouldn't."
"I wouldn't have had any way to know what normal men thought about."
Jack winced on his behalf.
"Yeah." Daniel was silent for a moment, concentrating on the warmth of Jack's hand on his. "But now I've realized that I'm one of God's creations, as much as anything in Nature. My nature isn't an indication that I'm weak or twisted. It's what He gave me." Remembering the peace he'd felt lying in Jack's arms, Daniel smiled. "I don't have to fight against it." He squeezed Jack's hand. "I could say 'yes' to you."
Jack looked uncomfortable. "I'm glad you're not fighting that battle any more. It's a losing one. But, Daniel, I have to tell you…God and I haven't exactly been on speaking terms for a long time now. I'm sure you can understand why."
"Oh." Charlie, of course. "Yes."
"I hope that doesn't bother you."
Daniel shook his head. "Not at all. It's always seemed an innately personal matter to me."
"Good. Because I want you in my life." Jack's grip on his hand was intense.
"You're still a good and moral man, whether or not you worship or believe in the same things that I do. You've got me in your life, Jack, from here on."
"Okay." Jack's hand relaxed. "Sweet. We should make plans." He yawned.
"Or we could sleep." Daniel adjusted his pillow and reached up to switch off the lamp.
Jack chuckled. "I suppose." The bedsprings creaked as he moved to lie beside Daniel, his head nearly on Daniel's pillow. After several seconds he said quietly, "We can't make the kind of plans I'd really like to. Ever. You know that, right?"
Daniel felt a pang. "We'll take what we can get." He put his hand over Jack's heart. "I've been lonely and confused. Now I have you." He blinked suddenly heavy eyelids. "And you have me."
Jack leaned in and kissed him. "That's everything, I guess," he said softly. "Sweet dreams, Daniel."
Daniel didn't wake up with an erection in the morning after all. He woke up smiling. But he was hard soon enough. A simple look and a touch from Jack was all it took.
Jack, who had already been up, and who had shaved and brushed his teeth again. And then come back to bed to lie beside Daniel. Had he watched him sleeping? Daniel hoped he hadn't been drooling or snoring. He didn't want to imagine what his breath must be like. But what did it really matter?
What did anything matter, when he could hold Jack and taste him, a little nervously at first, but then with increasing confidence as Jack used his forearm to muffle the sounds Daniel was drawing from him, sounds that meant he was doing something incredibly right. And it felt right. He would be thinking about this all day, remembering the slide and the heat and the salt of Jack's flesh. The tang of the fluid he leaked.
Daniel let Jack push him away at the climactic moment. He was more than satisfied to watch again, as Jack used his own hand this time to bring himself to completion.
Seconds later, he used the same hand on Daniel.
Daniel muffled his cries on Jack's shoulder.
A stack of fresh, hot flapjacks delivered glistening with melting butter and promptly smothered in maple syrup, four strips of bacon and two sausage links, and constant refills of their coffee mugs with a dark and bitter brew that Daniel could easily become addicted to. The nearly deserted diner of last night was bustling this morning, and it was no wonder, with food and coffee this simple and good.
Of course, a plain crust of bread would probably taste pretty heavenly this morning, all things considered. The surreptitious pressure of Jack's foot against his underneath the table would just about guarantee it.
Daniel couldn't stop smiling.
They didn't talk much. Too many ears. Their eyes said it all, when their glances met. But mostly they looked out the window, down at their plates, or idly at the other customers.
It was a shame they had to hide what they felt from the rest of the world, but it was glorious just to feel it.
As they walked over to the dealership, to retrieve the Ford before returning to the hotel to check out, Daniel remembered walking arm-in-arm the night before, and he put a hand on Jack's shoulder for a few seconds. Jack half-turned his head, but didn't look at him. He was smiling. Daniel dropped his hand. "I've been thinking about something, Jack."
"When we're all settled, and we have some idea what our schedules look like…if you have time…"
"Oh, I'll find the time." They stopped at the curb and waited to cross the street.
"You don't even know what I'm going to ask."
Jack looked at him, probably a little startled by the tremor Daniel couldn't quite keep out of his voice. "You already know my answer." He nudged Daniel. "Anything. Just ask."
Daniel waited until they'd crossed the street and were walking past the side of a corner drugstore. "I was wondering if you were still offering driving lessons." He stopped when Jack did, and they looked at each other.
Two women carrying packages were right behind them. Daniel pressed his back against the brick wall of the drugstore, at the base of a huge painted advertisement for Calumet Baking Powder. Jack automatically lifted his hat as the women passed between them, but never took his eyes from Daniel's. "I'd be happy to give you lessons, if you want," he said slowly. "I'm surprised, though."
Daniel's palms were sweaty. "Me, too. But I seem to have embarked on a new policy of moving on from the things in my past that have been holding me back. So far I like the way that's making me feel." He swallowed. "I'd like to try it with this."
Jack stepped closer. His eyes were warm and encouraging. "Sounds like a good policy to me." He cocked his head and pointed with his thumb.
With a nod, Daniel pushed away from the building and they resumed walking.
"And there's another benefit," Jack added.
"Yes, I'm aware," Daniel answered, a little smugly.
They both began laughing quietly. A valid reason to spend time together. Another answer for the world. They wouldn't just be two strangers who had become unlikely friends in the course of their travels – fast enough friends that the friendship would continue despite the difference in their ages and the different circles they would be moving in – now they would have something visible to point to and say, 'See? This is why we meet. Here is the task we've taken on. What could be more natural, after riding along together for so many days?'
People would have time to get used to seeing them together, hearing them speak of each other, and no one would find it strange that sharing and accomplishing a goal would cement a friendship. It was perfect.
"Yup," Jack said with a wink as they entered the Ford garage, "one of the great minds of the twentieth century."
For days now, as they drove toward the Rockies, they'd been rising to higher and higher elevations. At first it had hardly been apparent that the roads they were on had been climbing. Later the slope of the road was obvious to the eye. Eventually they'd had to start topping off the Ford's gasoline tank more and more often, as steeper inclines and the law of gravity meant that fuel wouldn't reach the engine if there wasn't enough of it in the tank.
Today, on their approach to the Mile High City of Denver, Jack had been studying his maps constantly, measuring the distances from each source of gasoline to the next, calculating in the margins of a newspaper the probable mileage per gallon of fuel in the low gear that was required for most of the uphill driving. "Also have to figure in the decreased drag, and lower percentage of oxygen in the atmosphere…"
Daniel watched him scribbling away. "I'm very impressed."
Jack shot him a grin. "Here you thought I was just a pretty face? I'm a pilot, Daniel. I spent years doing this kind of math, sometimes in my head while I was calculating how not to crash behind enemy lines. The good news? If I've neglected to carry a ten today, we won't be falling out of the sky."
"That's a cheerful thought."
"I'm in a cheerful mood." Jack had winked before returning to his scribbles.
Daniel knew just how he felt.
Morning had turned to late afternoon, as they stopped at every gasoline station, crawled up hills, and pulled over frequently to add gasoline to the tank, and water to the radiator from the five-gallon cans fastened to the running board.
Finally, on one hill, the Ford seemed to meet its match. The engine began to labor and stutter. "Ah, the grade's just too steep," Jack pronounced. "We'll never make it with what's left in the tank." He checked behind him and swung the steering wheel to the left, then put the auto in reverse, then forward again, maneuvering until the nose of the auto was pointing downhill.
"Wha…? There's…Jack, there's still some gasoline in the can. We don't need to go back." Jack looked at him and started laughing. "Do we?" Daniel asked, completely confused now. "If we go back, we'll still end up with the exact same amount of fuel when we reach this point again. Unless you're thinking of buying another can?"
"What's in the can we already have is going to get us all the way into Denver, if we play our cards right. Because there aren't any more service stations between here and there. At least none on my maps." He was grinning as he watched an automobile coming toward them.
Daniel frowned at him. "So why aren't we putting it in the tank?"
Jack laughed again, his eyes dancing. "What's your hurry? You remember what I said about all the gasoline sloshing to the back of the fuel tank on hills?"
"Right. Gravity." What was he missing? What was so damned hilarious?
A powerful Hispano-Suiza swept past them with a short blast of its horn, taking the hill like it was nothing at all. Daniel glared after it.
"So, Daniel, where's all the gasoline now?" Jack steered and backed the auto again, moving them over to the left-hand side of the road, right back where they'd been, except pointed the opposite direction.
"At…at the front of the…" Daniel stared at him.
"Today's driving lesson, Daniel." Jack winked at him as he flung his arm over the seatback and twisted to look over his shoulder. He stepped on the reverse pedal. "Sometimes the only way to get a Model T up the hill is to come at it backwards!"
Daniel sat with his mouth open for nearly half a minute, staring through the windshield at the receding scenery. He started to laugh. Jack lifted his hand from the seatback for a moment and gave Daniel's neck a quick squeeze.
It all seemed appropriate somehow, when Daniel thought about it. He was approaching his future while looking his past full in the face. Looking back at how far he'd come, the roads he had followed on his journey to this point in his life, the signposts he'd misread or disregarded.
He'd travelled unknowingly on the road to Damascus, and it had taken a 1915 Model T to carry him along it to his moment of blinding clarity. Daniel smiled at the notion as he gazed into the distance.
The Ford rounded a curve and Daniel inhaled sharply, feeling the thinness of the air that filled his lungs. Just that abruptly, the view that his eyes were taking in had become entirely new. He felt his pulse quicken.
He couldn't see what lay ahead, but he had Jack by his side. He looked at Jack's hand on the steering wheel, firm yet relaxed, and turned his head to gaze at Jack's intent profile, once that of a stranger, now familiar and loved.
He had everything.
This Is My Father's World
This is my Father’s world, and to my listening ears
All nature sings, and round me rings the music of the spheres.
This is my Father’s world: I rest me in the thought
Of rocks and trees, of skies and seas;
His hand the wonders wrought.
words by Rev. Maltbie D. Babcock, 1901
arrangement by Franklin L. Sheppard, 1915