Mike Stillwell stood on the porch just outside his office and stared out across the dusty ground to the corral where a lean figure was striding around a bucking mechanical bull. He could just make out Smokey's soft voice, straining to be heard above the grating of metal as the bull twisted and turned. Upon the monster's back was a new boy; a thirteen year old who had been caught one too many times with someone else's property in his possession. Darryl was one of the lucky ones. Most boys caught on multiple offences ended up in Juvenile Hall, a corrections program that did little to set them back on the straight and narrow and was more likely to push them deeper into crime.
The boy went flying through the air, sending a dust cloud into the air as he hit the ground. Mike grinned when Smokey gave the boy a consoling slap on the back, seeing the grin spreading across the faces of both boy and man.
Smokey was another of his lost lambs brought back into the fold but, unlike the others, he was a grown man, rather than a boy, when he was brought here to work off his debt to society.
"God moves in mysterious ways; his wonders to perform."
Mike had never taken any event at face value, and was always looking for God's hand in every incident so he had known from the moment Smokey Banks chose his truck to steal, out of all those available in the parking lot, that their paths were destined to cross then run together. Of course, Danny O'Neil had been the catalyst; the dying boy had reached out to Smokey when no one else would, his short life making Smokey question the way he was conducting his own life.
Those first few months had not been easy. He had started off by treating Smokey as he would any adult but quickly learned that, despite his years, Smokey was more like a recalcitrant child, his nomadic upbringing and lifestyle having never given him the stability he needed to find real maturity. Although he had become one of the best rodeo stars on the circuit, he could not handle the fame and money that had come with it, squandering every cent on booze and gambling until his debts had far outweighed his income.
Since Danny's death Smokey had cleaned up his act. He had stopped drinking to excess and he had stopped gambling. Without the alcohol riding through his veins, or the hangover splitting his head, his performance on the circuit had improved, his reputation rising once more. When his enforced time at the ranch had come to an end, Smokey had told them he planned to return between competitions, and Mike had taken it at face value, hoping it was the truth. It had taken him a while to realize that, to Smokey, this ranch had become the stable place in his nomadic existence; the one place that he could call home.
He raised a hand and waved when Smokey glanced in his direction then grinned when the younger man climbed up onto the mechanical bull and set it going, seeing the handsome face light up with an inner joy that only a few like Danny had ever truly recognized and understood.
It had been awe-inspiring to see the changes in the boys who were brought to the ranch, to follow the path of their healing whether it be of mind or spirit. He had seen Smokey set out on that same journey, watched as the gaunt, haggard look faded. The tightness around the eyes had eased and the too-hollowed cheeks had started to fill, the thin body taking on a little more meat and muscle. Less whiskey and decent home cooking had done that, bringing a vitality and glowing health that had been missing before.
He had hoped that Smokey would fully embrace Christianity, allow himself to be born again, but Mike knew everyone had to choose their own path. He was certain that there was one thing holding Smokey back but, until the man was willing to share his experiences, then all Mike could do was wait and take pleasure in the changes that he had seen.
Linnette rode passed, tipping her hat to him and smiling as she nudged the horse towards the corral. The Bull came to a halt and Smokey jumped off, strutting over to the corral fence with a wide grin plastered across his handsome face. Mike watched as the two chatted.
He had thought there was something special developing between his niece and Smokey, had believed the friendship they had forged would blossom into much more, but their friendship seemed to have grown only so far then sputtered to a halt. Neither seemed upset with the platonic relationship but Mike often felt there was more emotion lavished on the horses than on each other. Mike had his suspicions but he kept them to himself.
The sound of a car approaching brought him back to the reason why he was standing out on the porch. He stepped off the porch and walked slowly to the car, watching as a sullen young man pushed open the door and alighted. The dark sunglasses hid the man's eyes but Mike knew they were flicking in all directions, checking out the place. Mike smiled. He had seen that same wary expression on the face of every person who had ever come to him unwillingly and, as the man pushed back the glasses, staring straight at him with open hostility, Mike sighed deep inside.
He remembered his earlier thought, that God moves in mysterious ways. Well, here was the latest mystery, another lost lamb like Smokey Banks; a man rather than a boy. Mike recalled the day he had been sifting through the piles of letters that begged assistance for this boy or that. Normally, he would have rejected the one from Jasmine Jarvis immediately, having already set the age limit for the boys taken in at fifteen years of age. Eddie Jarvis was twenty-six. Mike had placed the letter on the negative pile along with dozens of others, to await the attachment of Ellen's stock letter of rejection and then the craziest thing had happened. A hawk had flown right into his office through the open window, its wings flapping hard in terror, the air currents and its claws sending papers spinning before being strewn across his desk and floor. It took a few minutes to carefully guide the bird back out through the window, without suffering any bites or clawing from the sharp beak and talons, and he had flopped back into his chair in exhaustion once it had been accomplished.
His eyes had followed the trail of devastation around the room, seeing the torn papers strewn about and he had sunk his head into his hands, eyes closed. When he opened them he saw the letter from Jasmine Jarvis right under his eyes, her son's name standing prominently out from the page.
Eddie Jarvis stepped from the car, his eyes darting in all directions as he gazed around the sort of place he had only ever seen in a movie theater before today. It was the stuff of westerns with its low lying wooden buildings, wide open spaces, corrals and horses - and he wondered why on Earth he had been brought here. He pushed back the glasses as a man approached, his eyes locking onto the welcoming stranger, giving him a hostile look. Just because he had been sent here did not mean he had to be nice about it.
Eddie ignored the outstretched hand as he waited for the police officer to join them.
"I'm Mike Stillwell. I own and run this ranch. I'll show you where you'll be sleeping then you can take some time to freshen up... and then we'll have a talk about the rules here."
"Don't follow no rules except gang rules."
"Well. Consider this your new gang, and I'm the leader. Now, shall we? Unless you'd rather go back with the officer?"
The man let the threat hang, and Eddie scowled. He had already spent enough of his life in one form of prison or another. At least this one had the illusion of freedom attached to it, the sight of something other than the high brick-built walls surrounding the exercise yard. He adjusted the scarf tied around his neck and followed Stillwell towards one of the small buildings.
Stillwell paused on the threshold.
"Treat this like a fresh start and.. who knows... maybe it will be. What have you got to lose?"
The door was closed behind Stillwell and he found himself in a comfortable if plain room. Investigation revealed his own bathroom with shower and fresh, soft towels, and he grimaced. That was two things this place had over the usual institution. Least he would no longer have to watch his back when in the shower, wary of the other men hanging around, appraising him before deciding if he was worth the risk of taking.
He stripped off his sweaty clothes, that shower beckoning to him, leaving the scarf until last. Eventually, he removed the scarf to reveal the jagged scar across his throat, a constant reminder of the day he tried to make like the big boys but ended up getting his throat cut. Raping that new kid had seemed like a good idea at the time, a way of showing he could be a player rather than a victim. The act itself had been quick and unpleasant, for both of them, any pleasure lost in the knowledge that he neither liked nor wanted that other boy despite his natural preference for men. Afterwards, he had made his threats to Santana, though never intending to keep what he had done a secret. After all, the whole point had been to raise his own status in the hopes that it would keep others from doing to him what he had done to Santana. Eddie had never expected Santana's reaction. He had expected the boy to cry himself to sleep; he had not expected to feel the cold steel slide across his throat; had not expected to see his own blood gushing through his fingers.
He had been rushed away by the guards, sent to the nearest Emergency Room and then spent the next six weeks breathing through a tube cut into his windpipe just below the damage. The knife had damaged some of his vocal chords, giving him a deep rasp, but at least he could still talk. He'd learned, later, that Santana had put it about that he was dead, using the incident to elevate himself in the eyes of the Chicano gang within Juvie Hall.
They never returned him to that particular facility, and no one ever alluded to what he had done to Santana. Instead, he served out the remainder of his original sentence in Arizona, but, upon leaving there, he had returned to LA and had fallen back into his old habits; running numbers and selling guns for the local mafiosi. Another stint in Juvie Hall had followed, and then he was considered adult and sent to prison, getting his first full taste of what it meant to be a pretty kid in world without women. Once he got out of there he had been determined to keep his nose clean but no one would offer work to an ex-con so he found himself forced back into stealing. Some how, during the last two years, he had managed to stay one step ahead of the law, but his luck had not held. He was caught stealing a car to sell on the black market for parts.
As a multiple offender, he knew that this time he would be sent down to some place like Oz, and he had no illusions as to what would happen to him in there. He'd already had a big taste of it in prison, and yet, he had been annoyed when his mother had told him about this ranch, and about the letter she had written begging for him to be accepted.
Stillwell had said 'What have you got to lose?'
"Sure won't be my virginity. Lost that ten times over", he mumbled as he stepped into the shower.
Smokey checked out the new guy as Eddie ambled across the yard to Mike's office. The jeans were ripped across the knees, with another tear just under one ass cheek but Smokey knew this was a fashion statement rather than a sign of poverty. A baggy white T-shirt, hanging loose, and those dark glasses completed the look but Smokey found his attention caught more by the fluid movement, the grace in the slightly smaller and yet nicely-built figure. He licked his lips, glancing around, self-conscious of the fact that he had been openly appreciating this new arrival.
He had learned over this past year that Mike had a policy of never revealing anyone's history, figuring that a person could not make a fresh start if they were shackled by another person's opinion on their past actions. It made some sort of sense although Smokey had a few misgivings, but he knew Mike would never put anyone into danger so, whatever crimes Eddie had committed, he did not considered Eddie violent.
Ten minutes later, Mike and Eddie were walking towards the livery. Smokey decided to join them. He could not prevent a grin spreading across his face when Eddie came up close and personal with a horse for what had to be the first time in his entire life. The wide-eyed panic, muscles tensed ready to flee, brought a snort of laughter that he quickly suppressed after Mike's admonishing look in his direction, and Eddie's hostile glare.
Smokey leaned back against the wall, the grin turning to surprise when, after getting over his initial fear, Eddie actively sought contact with the horse, rubbing its ears, petting its thickly muscled neck. The horse reacted unexpectedly to the gravely voice crooning softly to it, nuzzling against Eddie's dark hair and snorting gently.
"Can I learn to ride him?"
"Her. It's a mare... but, yes. You can learn to ride her."
Mike laughed softly. "Once all your chores are done."
Eddie glanced around the livery at the piles of horse manure that needed to be shoveled - and at the buckles and the leather saddles and reins that needed to be cleaned.
"Deal. Where do you want me to start?"
Smokey shook his head in wonder as Eddie grabbed a shovel and started working with enthusiasm. He was tempted to stay and watch a while longer but, instead, he followed Mike out of the livery, leaving Eddie behind under Linnette's supervision.
"Never seen Bonny take to someone so fast. He's a natural."
Mike grinned. "Perhaps, later, you can give Eddie his first horse lesson."
By four-thirty, the sun was well beyond its zenith, the hottest part of the day left far behind as both man and beast started to wind down after a day's hard work. The boys were all tired, eager to finish their chores so they could go clean up before supper. It was the time of day Smokey liked best, peaceful like in the early morning before everyone started to rise, but without the chill that settled in the air overnight.
He took a moment to study the sweat-soaked man who was seated on a hay bale polishing the metal links on a set of reins, mesmerized by the slim, agile fingers that worked so efficiently. Eddie looked up, giving him a wry grin.
"You up for a ride?"
A shadow passed across the blue eyes, confusing Smokey. Eddie had seemed so eager to go riding earlier that day.
"It's okay if you're too tired. We can take the horses out tomorrow instead."
Those blue eyes widened, eyes darting towards Bonny, that inner light shining from them once more.
"Yeah. A ride."
"You wanna get changed first? Grab a shower."
"Do I have to?"
"No. But you gonna have to stay downwind of me if you don't."
Eddie grinned broadly, plucking at his grubby clothing and realizing he probably reeked of the manure he'd been shoveling.
"I'll saddle up the horses while you're getting showered and changed."
"Can I ride Bonny?"
"Hell. Why not? She could do with some fresh air."
Eddie smiled, his eyes watching the easy way Smokey rode as he was led slowly through the scrub land. Smokey had shown him how to sit, how to hold the reins, even how to hold his feet in the stirrups, but had not let him loose. Instead, it was tethered to the pommel on Smokey's horse, for his own precaution. It had grated on him at first, but then he realised that Smokey was right. A horse was not a car. It had a mind of its own, and he'd already nearly tumbled off the back when Bonny stopped suddenly, hind legs bending as she squatted to pee. He grinned. Couldn't remember any car doing that, and no car he'd ever driven took sudden side steps to reach a tempting piece of vegetation. He felt safe enough to start a conversation with the older man.
"How long you got til you can leave?" Smokey looked back at him, the green eyes narrowed questioningly. "Or maybe you aren't one of the bad boys."
A grin lit the handsome face and he watched as Smokey pushed back on the brim of his hat, rubbing one gloved hand over his forehead.
"I was one of the bad boys... but I'm here of my own free will now. Don't owe these people anything... except my gratitude for giving me a fresh start, and probably for my life. They're good people, Eddie."
"Yeah. Well, that's what they say about the prison psychologists."
Smokey gave a wry grin at the venom in the dry response, wondering if Eddie knew he'd just let slip a little information about himself. So Eddie had been in prison? Smokey pursed his lips, realizing how close he had come to ending up in prison after stupidly stealing Mike's truck, even though he had not intended to keep it. He had wanted it only so he could catch up with the repo man who had repossessed his trailer. Even so, it had earned him 90 days sitting in jail, or 90 days helping out at the Saguaro Boys Ranch. Wide open spaces or a ten by ten jail cell? He'd chosen what seemed to be the far better option, at face value, little knowing at the time how much that decision would impact on his life.
His thoughts returned to Danny O'Neil, a sick boy whose heart had been strong enough, and large enough, to draw him back from the edge of self-annihilation. Oh, he was never suicidal, at least not consciously, but it had been only a matter of time before his lifestyle - the drinking and gambling - brought him to a sudden end. Eventually he might have drowned in his own vomit after a heavy drinking session, or been beaten to death as payment for the money he owed. Or he might have been gored by a bull because his reactions had been dulled by the alcohol flowing through his veins.
Whatever, he had been given a fresh start, a chance to leave the drinking and gambling behind and regain the respect of the people within the rodeo circuit.
They rode on in silence after that, each trapped within their own thoughts.
Another month had passed and Smokey found himself increasingly drawn to the younger man, finding himself mesmerized by the slide of muscle over bone as Eddie cleaned out the livery and toted hay bales. He was beginning to hate the tight sensation that filled his gut, and the pressure of his aching shaft straining against the front of his tight denims. Also, he was beginning to hate the way his stomach flipped, and his heart hammered whenever Eddie pressed by him. He knew what it meant, had hoped he had drowned out that need for a man with the succession of pretty girls found cruising the corrals at the Rodeo shows.
He knew what he was, and what he wanted. He could not even escape the growing desire, not wanting to upset Mike by taking off for no obvious reason. They were both aware that the start of the rodeo season was still another month away.
The moon rose early that evening, lighting up the sky even as the sun dipped below the distant horizon. It was the kind of night Smokey loved, the stillness of the warm air beckoning him from his room, reminding him of the sun-heated water that lay nearby. It was a good night for letting the moon, starlight, the gentle breeze and that warm water caress his flesh, allowing him leave all his troubled thoughts behind.
He took his time, strolling slowly beneath a starlit sky but when he came to the pond, he froze. There was another figure, naked and pale beneath the moonlight, lying in his favorite place. He was caught by the smooth flesh, by the shadow where the softened sex lay complacent against the strong thigh, heart hammering in his chest once more as he gazed upon the ethereal form. The rustle of a small animal close by snapped him out of his trance and he turned to walk away.
"Randolph Scott was gay."
Smokey glanced around him in confusion, wondering who Eddie was talking to and then he realized they were all alone in this place.
There was a slither of movement as Eddie turned onto his side, raising himself up on one elbow until he was looking straight at Smokey.
"Said, Randolph Scott was gay. One of cinema's greatest cowboys. Did over a hundred films. He was gay."
"And the point being?"
"Ain't nothing wrong with a gay cowboy."
"You talking about me?"
The perfect white teeth gleamed in the moonlight. "I've seen the way you look at me, but I think you've been too scared to notice the way I look at you back."
Smokey felt his stomach flip, trying to recapture visions of Eddie, to see if there had been disgust, desire or indifference in those brilliant blue eyes. He took a step back when Eddie rose to his feet in one fluid motion, the pale figure slowly moving toward him. Eddie stopped only an arm's length away, eyes appraising him slowly from head to toe.
"I'm no virgin. Pretty boys don't stay virgin in prison... but I think you are. I think you've been fighting your need, and I think you'd like to give in to it with me."
"Real certain of yourself, aren't you?"
"Yeah. Come on. I don't bite... not unless you like that kind of thing."
Indecision held him, but the magic of the moment, the ethereal figure and the starlit sky, gave him an inner strength and he allowed himself to be drawn over to the warm blanket that Eddie had spread out under the stars. Nimble fingers dragged at his clothing, slowly undoing his shirt and pushing it from his shoulders. His breathing became ragged as they lowered the zip on his denims, the palm of the strong hand cupping his hardened flesh and rubbing him gently. He was hardly aware of losing the rest of his clothes, blinking suddenly in realization that they were both naked, and both aroused by each other's presence.
Eddie bit into his lip, trying to muster up even more of the confidence that he did not feel. He had wanted Smokey from the moment he heard that soft chuckle as he shied back from his first contact with Bonny. He had spent the past month watching Smokey, enjoying the way he moved, the way his body anticipated the twists and turns on that mechanical bull. It had been a long time since he had actually wanted to feel another male body against his own, and this was the body that had set his blood on fire.
Eddie reached out, fingers stroking across the firm chest, feeling the rapid heartbeat beneath his fingertips. The skin was as soft and silken as he imagined it would be. He traced the outline of a scar, recalling a TV advertisement where a rodeo rider described all the injuries he had sustained; the broken bones, the gashes and bruising. Eddie did not need to wonder why they did it, why Smokey did it. He had seen the sheer joy in the handsome face as he fought the mechanical beast beneath him, could imagine how much greater the experience could be riding on the back of a living creature. That thought made him shiver. He wanted to ride Smokey, wanting to feel that body bucking beneath him but, more than that, he wanted both of them, possessed and possessor, to feel the sheer joy of their union.
A moment of shame filled him as he recalled the last time he had possessed another body, the brutal way he had used Santana for his own ends, the sexual relief insignificant compared to the power he had felt for no longer being the victim. Unfortunately, as he lay in that hospital bed, wondering if he would ever again be able to breath without a tube, he realized that all he had done was exchange one victim state for another, and lose part of his soul in the act.
As he reached out to the beautiful man standing before him, Eddie felt a moment of peace, a feeling that, if he gave his love to this man then he would regain a part of what he had lost in Juvie Hall. He felt the slight tremor racing through Smokey, and drew him close, lips parting as they alighted on the trembling flesh of the creamy throat, feeling the rapid pulse beneath his touch. He smiled as the callused hands touched him for the first time, running down his back to hold tightly on his waist, too shy to journey further.
Their mouths met in a first tentative kiss, tongues probing gently, tasting each other, their fear fading until they were plunging freely in joint possession, tongues entwining, mouths sucking deep and hard.
Almost as one being, they fell to the blanket in a pile of tangled limbs, the kiss unbroken until Eddie slid away to nuzzle against the clean-shaven face before sucking on one ear lobe. He heard the deep moan as he breathed into the small shell of the ear, whispering sweet nothings to the man held tight in his arms, making promises in the darkness that he hoped could hold up in the light of the day.
With infinite care, Eddie pulled back and encouraged Smokey to turn onto his stomach, kissing away the fear that had crossed the desire-filled face. They both understood what was happening, and what would happen next but, this time, Eddie had no intention of forcing himself on someone. He wanted a willing partner to help him reclaim part of his soul, and he wanted that someone to be Smokey Banks. His only regret was that he had never expected this to happen, and so he was not prepared. Spit would offer little in the way of lubrication, although it was far better than using nothing at all.
His hands roamed freely down the moonlit back, gliding over the firm muscles on the lean torso, feeling the ridges of rib and spine. His finger trailed lower, dipping into the crease between the ass cheeks and enjoying the tremor that rippled through Smokey when his finger rubbed across the tight ring of muscle. He moved back up the strong body, coaxing Smokey to lift his hips higher, to give him greater access to the sweet, hidden places. Sucking on one finger, he returned it to that special place, teasing it inside slowly, loving the way the muscle contracted spasmodically around him, drawing him in further.
Eddie reached beneath Smokey with his other hand, fist enclosing the hardened shaft and sliding along the silken length to the uncut head. The friction of his hand dragged back the foreskin, exposing the sensitive tip to his touch. He ran his thumb along the slit, smearing the precome across the bundle of nerve endings. The shaft jumped in his hand, more precome beading on the tip, easing the friction of his hand as he drew his hand back to the root of the proud shaft. The moan of pleasure sent a frisson of delight through him, sending his own passion rising higher.
His hand moved more rapidly along the firm flesh, driving Smokey towards annihilation even as his finger thrust into the tight channel. He felt the muscles relaxing and contracting around him, felt the shaft jerking as Smokey came in his hand with a gasp of pleasure and pain. Eddie stroked the spent seed over his own shaft then smeared the residue inside the tight channel before positioning himself.
He gave soft reassurances as he breached the tight muscle, hands petting the trembling flesh. He knew from experience how uncomfortable the sensation of being filled could be, the burn of the stretched muscle sending jags of pain radiating outwards, but he also knew how good it could be too. He wanted it to be good for Smokey, wanted him to feel the pleasure that came from willingly giving over control to another. He strained to stop himself from burying his shaft deep into the beautiful body, waiting for a sign from his lover that the pain was easing. It came at last, a soft sigh as the muscle gave a little, as Eddie inched forward slowly, sliding himself inside the hot channel, feeling the exquisite pressure against the whole length of his aching flesh.
He pulled out slowly, moaning as the sensitive tip rubbed against the silky inner flesh, head bowing down until his forehead touched Smokey's perspiring back. His hands took a firm grip on the lean hips and he thrust back inside, pulling Smokey back against him, crying out at the increased friction. Smokey bucked beneath him, a quiet gasp of pleasure and pain filling the air.
They thrust together, Smokey's body clenching tight around him as Eddie's shaft brushed across the sensitive inner gland. He was getting so close, could feel the tightening in his sac, the warm sensation building in his gut but he wanted Smokey to be with him when he came. Eddie released one hip, his fingers seeking and finding Smokey's hard shaft. He timed his thrusts to the slide of his fist around the swollen shaft, slamming hard into the receptive body, his own cries of passion spiraling as the warmth spread from his gut to his thighs, burning along his nerves and sending him racing into oblivion.
When he regained his senses, he realized he had collapsed upon Smokey's sweaty back and he rolled to the side in an ungainly fashion, his muscles too unsteady to coordinate. He flopped down onto his back, one arm spread wide while the other reeled in the warm, pleasure-sated figure until Smokey was sprawled against his side, legs entangled with his own.
Eddie turned his head to place a soft kiss on his lover's temple then looked back up at the stars high above. He felt Smokey shift until they were both lying on their backs looking up into the clear night sky.
The moon set, drifting below the horizon, and drawing a black cloth across the sky and the land. The stars were tiny pinpoints of light twinkling against this backdrop of dark velvet.
"I raped a man.. a boy... once. I was young and scared, and I decided to take the gospel... and the facts of life, at face value. 'Do until others as they would do until you' but do it first. I'm not proud of what I did, in fact quite the opposite, and I paid in part."
His hand touched the scar around his throat. He did not know why he needed to tell Smokey his darkest secret, to reveal his greatest shame but he did not want this darkness to come between them. Better to reveal the type of low-level scum he was up front, while he still had the strength to pull away, than see the disgust in Smokey's eyes further down the line.
The silence lengthened and Eddie closed in eyes in expected loss. He turned his head slightly as Smokey turned to face him, the soft voice of his companion reached his ears.
"Did the other boy do that?"
Eddie nodded, any possible words catching in his throat.
"Then it seems to me you've already paid for what you did... and I don't just mean that scar around your neck. I'd offer you a fresh start with us but, to be truthful, I don't want to pretend what happened between us didn't happen."
Eddie found he could breath again, unable to stop a grin of relief crossing his own face. He had been granted forgiveness by the one person who had come to matter to him above all others. The silence lengthened again but, this time, there was no tension left in the air. That soft voice called to him again and he strained to hear the words.
"When I was a kid I used to climb up onto the roof of our mobile home and lay back, gazing up at the sky. Even stole a book from the library; one showing all the constellations, just so I knew where they were and what they were. My Pa found that book, and he beat me black and blue. 'We ain't got much' he said 'but what we have we earned'."
Eddie followed the direction of the pointing finger into the night sky.
"See those three? The bright ones in a line? That's the belt of Orion, and if you follow the line of those stars you'll come to the brightest star in the sky, Sirius."
"Sirius. My ma calls that the dog star. Not so glamorous a name."
A soft chuckle sent new warmth flooding through Eddie. "That's cos it lies in the constellation Canis Major, the greater dog."
"What about that one? The reddish one above that belt of stars."
There was silence as Smokey followed his finger.
"That's another part of Orion; a star called Betelgeuse..."
"Like in the film?"
That soft chuckle again, but Eddie knew he was not being laughed at for his ignorance.
"Not quite, though it sounds similar."
They fell silent, letting the cooling air sweep across their sweat-soaked bodies until Eddie noticed Smokey was starting to shiver.
"Will that water still be warm?"
"Maybe we ought to wash off some of this stickiness then wrap that blanket around us until we dry off."
"And then you can tell me more about the stars."
The water still retained some of the heat from the day and Eddie let it flow over his head as he sank down into the water's warm embrace. When he resurfaced, he saw the pale figure of his lover close by. He kicked out and reached for Smokey, hands running over the warm skin. Their bodies entwined, sinking beneath the surface as they kissed, only pulling apart when the need for air became imperative.
By mutual agreement they headed back to the blanket, shivering as the cooler night air chilled their flesh. Eddie buried his head against the warm, wet shoulder, arms wrapping themselves around the lean figure.
"I want this again. Not just the sex part... I want you. Feel like it was destiny that I came here and found you, and I don't want to let go now I have you."
"Me too sounds so inadequate, but it's the truth."
They dressed quickly and walked slowly back to the low-lying ranch, pausing on the threshold to stare deep into each other's souls one last time, then parted with no more words between them.
Mike Stillwell sighed deeply as he sank down into his office chair. The balmy evening had called to him, sending him out to wander under the starlit sky, down to the creek where the only sound was the rippling of water as it flowed slowly past.
He had been dwelling on several problems all at once. The first had been where he could find a replacement for Linnette. She had decided it was time to fly the nest, to take her chances in the wide world, and had accepted an offer to train horses in Chile. Also, he had been pondering on his suspicions regarding Smokey, having almost convinced himself that Smokey's former succession of women was just a smoke-screen to hide his true nature, from both himself and from the rest of the world.
Despite his Christian spirit, he had no deep-set opinions against homosexuality, and was willing to accept that it was all part of God's great works on Earth. He had been trying to find a way to reach Smokey, to coax him into exploring this aspect of himself so that he might find greater peace. What he had seen down at the creek told him that God had already taken a hand in it, that God had found his own messenger in the form of Eddie.
He sat up sharply, a smile curving his lips and he gave silent thanks.
In a single month Eddie had proved that, though born a city-slicker, he was a natural with the horses. Already he was a superior rider, as if he had been born into the saddle. Tomorrow he would offer Eddie the chance to take over the Livery from Linnette and, when the time was right, he would let both men know that he held nothing but pleasure that, with God's help, they had found in each other what they both had needed.