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Kindred Spirits

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Daniel Armstrong gazed, with regret, across the small gap separating him from the White Man's child. The boy's father had refused to bring Daniel out here; though not out of malice or prejudice. Jack McKenna had not wanted to take his money for a trip to a mountain that he believed no one could climb, but Daniel knew better. He had been here before when he was but a child. He recalled walking for four long days beside his aging father - helping when he could - but his father had been proud and, for an old man, still fairly strong.

Strange, but the memory of that journey, and of the climb through the hidden passage to the secret valley, was sharper now than ever before. He could see the way so clearly he knew he could find it even in the dark. In comparison, his more recent memories had become indistinct, and often he could no longer remember what he had eaten for breakfast that day even though there was little else of consequence filling his days.

Daniel was seventy-nine years old and he had spent the past decade in a nursing home in Willow Creek after his son decided he was too much trouble. The nursing staff fed him heart medicine - drugs to prolong his life - but he knew his time to die was imminent. He could feel it in his old and weary bones, but he did not want to die in the hospital. He knew his destiny was to die on Mount Thomas where his father, and his grandfather, and so many generations before them, had passed away peacefully.

Daniel reflected back on the past two weeks spent being the dutiful patient while only pretending to take the tranquilized drugs they also fed him. When they least expected it, he had made his escape, slipping from the home during the visiting hours when there were so many people coming and going that nobody took stock of names and faces. He took the first Greyhound heading towards Bend in Oregon, and then he took advantage of a two hour rest break to contact an Outfitters that could assist him across the foothills to the base of Mount Thomas.

Once more his luck had held for he had chosen McKenna Outfitters. Or was it not luck but destiny?

Daniel gave a wry smile. His son should have been here by his side, helping him on this final journey, but he had not spoken to his son in many years, having lost him to the white man's world of casinos and opulence. He gave a bitter smile. The old ways had fallen by the wayside as the young clamored to the white man's world; making it their own.

Daniel watched the flickering flames of the small campfire play across the young man's sleeping face. When he arrived at the bus depot in Bend he had not expected to find this old soul in a young body waiting for him. When the father, Jack McKenna, refused to bring him to the mountain, it was this boy who had sat down and said "I'll take you"; his words brooking no argument even from his father.

A more foolish man would have been wary, perhaps believing this child saw financial gain rather than the unselfish fulfillment of Daniel's need. However, Daniel had seen something in those sky-blue eyes that told him Brick would have brought him here to Mount Thomas even if Daniel had not one cent to his name.

He had proved this on the following day.

Daniel had seen the police truck pull up while Brick was preparing the horses for their ride out to Mount Thomas, and he saw the boy speak with the young deputy, looking down at a picture but shaking his head in the negative. Until a few hours ago it had seemed possible the deputy had been seeking another man, but then Brick had asked him outright why he had run away from the hospital. Now he knew Brick must have lied to the Police about him. Only Brick had not known the full story, and he had become quite agitated when Daniel had a severe attack that required his heart medication.

Once again a foolish man would have read the signs wrong; believing Brick's intention in turning back tomorrow without making any attempt to climb the mountain was out of self-preservation. However, Daniel knew the boy genuinely cared about him and was only doing what he believed to be the right thing for both of them. It saddened Daniel he had to betray the boy's trust by sneaking off in the middle of the night but he had come here to find his final resting place. He could not allow anyone to prevent that; not even this caring child.

The bitterness fell away from Daniel's smile. Brick McKenna was a kindred spirit - and he was the son Daniel would have wished for his own. He had spoken more to this boy in one evening than he had to anyone else in the past ten years, and Daniel could only put it down to the presence of that old soul inhabiting the boy's body; drawing him in. The spirit within the boy was restive, ceaselessly searching, but Daniel knew Brick had no idea of what his soul was looking for. Knowing there was very little time left for lengthy discussions, he asked, at first, about the brother who had died, wondering whether this was the spirit the boy's soul was seeking.

"Tell me about Guy."

"He was my best friend. He used to cover for me a lot. He fought for me... he was everything I wanted to be. Partly because he was everything Jack wanted me to be."

"What is it that troubles you?"

Daniel sighed as he recalled Brick's reply. Although Brick had loved his brother, he had also been jealous of him for being their father's favorite son. Eventually, his poor relationship with his father had soured his relationship with Guy, and Brick felt he had no choice but to leave the ranch and follow what he believed was his own dream. However, after more than two years of absence - except for very short and unsatisfying visits - he had returned home; disappointed and disillusioned. During those years while he was away trying to carve himself a niche out on the race circuit, Guy died in a freak accident. Brick had not only lost the opportunity to make peace with his brother, but Guy's death had robbed Brick of the chance to say goodbye.

His young heart was full of regrets.

"You know that I am dying, Brick?"

At first the boy would not accept Daniel's life could be at an end. He believed modern medicine would prolong anyone's life indefinitely, and that every day brought forth discoveries of new treatments, but Daniel had lived long enough. He was tired of living. He had done all he wanted to do in this life and now he wanted to rest. He made a promise that he would take Brick's goodbye to the spirit of his brother, hoping that would give the boy's soul some peace.

After a while they stopped talking, enjoying a companionable silence broken only by the sounds of nature and the crackling of the campfire. Daniel stared deep into the flickering red and orange, letting the spirits speak to him through the flames. He was expecting them to allay his fears for the day ahead but instead what they relayed to him filled him with amazement.

Yes. Brick was an old soul, and he had been traveling through the long centuries in hope of being reunited with another lost soul; one who would complete him. In the flickering flames Daniel saw faces from the past. He saw the boy as a grown man still filled with the same love of nature and its wonders, and he saw another soul inhabiting a man with hair of gold and eyes of forest green. He watched as their life stories played out in the tongues of fire, saw their souls' destiny destroyed by the end of this young one's life at the end of a rope. The other soul had joined him in oblivion soon after, awaiting the rebirth that would give them one further chance to become united. Daniel knew that if he looked harder still into the flames then he would see more lives for these two souls stretching back through the centuries.

Daniel sighed. How long had these two souls been apart, desperately trying to find their way back home to each other? How often had they come so close only to fail as death cheated them once more?

Brick had laughed when Daniel first told him of his soul mate; afraid to believe in the spirit world. He had mocked him in his soft but pleasant way, but Daniel had felt no animosity at this. After all, Brick was a white man's child brought up in a white man's world.

"Can you give a description of this soul mate? I don't want to turn her away should she turn up on my doorstep one of these days."

"Hair the color of sun-ripened wheat. Eyes of forest green. Oh, and it's a man not a lady."

Brick had laughed, his boyish laughter floating around the still air.

"Not exactly gone for men in the past, you know. I'm more of a lady's man."

"And that is why your soul is still searching for its mate. You must look beyond man and woman. That is just flesh and bone."

Brick's laughter had faded; a small frown gathering upon his brow.

"So how would I know... him when... if he turns up?"

"Your soul will know him. As will your heart. All that is left is for you to give yourself to him: heart, soul, and body."

"Body?"

They had fallen silent, each filled with the thoughts their words had invoked, and then they had settled down to sleep.

Daniel's thoughts came back to the present. Inside, he could feel the end of his life approaching; a peacefulness stealing over him as he listened to the sounds of nature surrounding him. He could hear the whispers of his ancestors in the rustle of the leaves and upon the slight breeze that caressed his cheek. This was the land of the coyote; of the elk and the Indian. This was where he knew he was destined to end his life from the moment he held his own father's hand and felt that life slip away.

With painstaking care, Daniel reached across and brushed a strand of burnished, red-gold hair from where it fell over the boy's forehead. He muttered a small prayer to the spirits to let this old soul find peace, and then Daniel walked away on surprisingly silent feet.

****

Although he had only a few hours head start, Daniel felt no fear Brick would catch up with him before he reached his destination. He was almost certain that Brick would never find him at all without the assistance of a helicopter to take him high upon the mountain. It came as a shock when he heard the boy calling out his name, and he looked back to see Brick close by.

Daniel came to a rest and watched the small figure grow larger until Brick was sitting down by his side. They sat in silence for a while, gazing out across the valley and into the distance where other mountains rose majestically into the bright sky.

"You here to take me back down?"

"No."

Daniel smiled in relief, knowing that he would not be able to stop Brick if that had been his intention. He knew his life was ebbing fast, and he felt a quickening of fear slide over him.

"You go. Leave now if you wish... or you can stay... hold my hand."

When Daniel felt those young, warm fingers clasp his own, he felt a burst of happiness. It no longer mattered that he did not have his son beside him for the Spirits had been kind enough to send a surrogate. He squeezed the hand tightly for a moment, letting his gratitude carry unspoken, and then he relaxed. Daniel gazed out across the landscape, filling his heart and mind with the beauty of this sacred place, and slowly his spirit began to soar free.

*****

Brick sighed as the old man's grip loosened, letting the hand drop away. He did not have to check Daniel Armstrong's pulse to know the old Indian had passed away for he had felt the life leave him. However, Brick didn't feel sad for Daniel. Daniel had been granted what he wanted; the chance to die with dignity in the same place where he had held his father's hand on that last day.

He did not pretend to understand all that the old man had told him over these last hours of his life, and yet the words had affected him deeply.

For all of his life Brick had been seeking something; his soul restless. He thought he had been looking for the excitement of the race track but, after two years spent changing tires in the pits, he knew it was not the life he wanted. Some writer, Tom Wolfe, had once said you cannot go home. Brick had hoped the author was wrong and, strangely enough, his heart was more at peace here in the wilderness of the Cascades than it had ever been at the NASCAR tracks. However, he knew the restlessness that had driven him from his home was still with him.

Could Daniel be right? Could he be wanting for a person rather than a thing? Could he be looking for this soul mate?

His thoughts turned to Mattie Gibbons. They had been lovers and friends, spending so many hours lying together in the sweet meadow grass talking about his dreams. There was a time when he had believed they might be soul mates. However, when he left home that first time, he had convinced himself it was purely because he could no longer stand to compete with his brother for their father's affection. Jack had always favored Guy, but then Guy was always the dutiful son who saw the business through their father's eyes, whereas Brick had inherited their mother's spirit for excitement and adventure. Towards the end, Brick could do nothing right in Jack's eyes, and Guy could do no wrong.

Still, if this was the only reason why he had left to follow his insane dream of becoming a racing driver, then why had he not told Mattie? Why had he not given her the chance to go with him? If she was his soul mate then why had he left her without a word?

He had thought about her almost every day while he was gone trying to fill the aching void in his soul unsuccessfully. When he returned home he had seen her again, and he had wanted her. Brick smiled softly as he remembered the warm curves of her body melting against him as they made love. He had asked her to marry him even though she was betrothed to a friend, and she had said yes.

It was only with hindsight Brick realized she was also a part of why he had left his home and family, and it was guilt and not love for Mattie that had consumed him during his time away from here. He sighed. Although it had not seemed to be so at the time, it was fortunate Mattie broke off their engagement soon after and returned to her fiancé.

Brick glanced across at Daniel Armstrong, seeing the peace upon the old man's face as it relaxed into a death mask. Daniel had found what he was looking for; and Brick wondered if he would ever find that peace within himself.

****

Four Years Later:

"Haven't you ever taken a vacation?"

"What for? I got everything I need right here."

Roy swept his arm around to encompass the forest that encircled his small ranger's cabin, ignoring the skeptical look in his nephew's eyes.

"There's nothing here but trees."

"And animals... jagged peaks, deep valleys, cascading waterfalls and over 300 glaciers." He said, quoting the advertisement for the Northern Cascades National Park.

"People?"

"There are campers, and the ranchers, the people from the nearby town."

"People to talk to?"

"I talk to people all the time. I give lectures on conservation at the high school, I represent the National Park Service at meetings of the Rancher's--"

"What about sex?"

Roy froze, mouth agape ready to find some response to Jesse's question but how the hell was he supposed to answer that one? He blinked once in confusion; having never thought that aspect of the Forest life would interest Jesse.

"Must be some going on around here. There were enough fawns born--"

"Yeah, but I'm talking about the people kind."

Roy shook his head in shock. What the hell kind of person did Jesse think he was? Had someone been spreading vicious rumours about him?

"I don't go around peeking into people's tents to see what they're up to."

"No wonder you live out here alone. You haven't got a clue."

Roy frowned, and then it dawned on him exactly what kind of sex Jesse was referring to.

"I have sex." Roy blurted out, affronted by the implication that he was some weird, celibate recluse, and then he remembered whom he was having this conversation with. "What am I saying? This isn't any of your business... and aren't you a little young to be talking about other people's sex lives?"

"I'm almost eighteen."

Something clicked and the ghost of a mischievous smile crossed Roy's face.

"Noticed you've been seeing... a lot... of Lucy Rockwell. Are you and she..?"

"I'm no monk, though I reckon you must be."

Roy snorted in amazement. "How the hell did we manage to get from me taking a vacation to a discussion on *my* sex life."

"Non-existent sex life."

Roy turned his back on Jesse and started to walk away, deciding he had taken enough from his hormonally charged nephew for one day.

"Maybe if you went on vacation then you might meet someone to have sex with."

Roy turned; flabbergasted, and then another piece of this puzzling conversation slipped into place.

"This isn't about my sex life. It's about yours. You want me to go on vacation so you can set yourself up a little love nest in my cabin."

"Damn right. Do you know how cold and uncomfortable it is on the ground, even at this time of year?" Jesse trailed after Roy. "You know, I don't care if you are Gay. Being Gay's cool with me." Roy turned in shock and some of that shock must have registered on Jesse. "Overheard Mom and Dad talking about why you never married, and Dad said it was because you weren't so keen on the girls."

"I am not having this conversation," Roy mumbled to himself. He turned away once more and walked into his cabin, moving quickly to the refrigerator where he had placed a cold beer for just such an occasion as this. He had always believed that he had managed to keep his personal sexual preference for men a secret from his family but, now, it was obvious that his brother had guessed. Roy ripped the tab from the beer and sank half of it in one long swallow. Frank had never alluded to it; even with a lightly dropped hint. How long had Frank known?

"So? Are you going to take that vacation?"

Roy faced Jesse; hands open, eyes wide in both shock and exasperation.

"Sure. Why not? I'll just pack my bags, find myself a nice man and let you turn my home into a cat house."

"Now who's being immature." Jesse shook his head in annoyance, and then his eyes widened, a grin spreading across his face. "You could go to Florida. Sun, sea, sand, sex and Mickey Mouse."

"Mickey Mouse?"

"Okay, maybe not Mickey Mouse. What about the Grand Canyon?"

"You're serious. You really want me out of here."

"Yes. I'm serious. You've got no love life of your own... and you're cramping mine."

Roy pulled on his brown work jacket with its emblem of the Northern Washington National Park emblazoned upon the left upper sleeve, and then he drew on his matching baseball cap. He was still shaking his head and mumbling to himself about sex-crazed teenagers as he climbed into his truck and drove away.

The National Park Service had located the main Ranger control center for the district in Wainwright. Roy headed there first to check in and to make sure everyone knew what assignments they had for today. He felt his spirit lift as he drove the eleven miles to the small town nestled near the eastern edge of the Cascade mountain range. The ravages of a harsh Winter had all but disappeared along with the snow, leaving the forest warm and moist with the scent of a new Spring. The North Cascades Scenic Highway had been recently re-opened once the snow lying on it had melted and the risk of avalanches had passed. Roy rolled down the cab window and let the warm breeze fill the truck along with the joyful sounds of nature. He could see new growth on the trees, and he slowed when an elk raced across the highway, disappearing quickly into the thick undergrowth.

Roy grinned. He loved it here, far away from the noise, bustle and pollution of the cities, and he had only a single regret for what he had left behind. His father. His father had expected him to take over the family's construction business even though he was the younger of the two sons.

Roy grimaced, aware that he had just ruined this perfect moment with thoughts of the past. Frank had been his father's favorite because Frank excelled at everything. Their father had placed all his dreams on Frank's shoulders, pushing him through college, knowing Frank had the potential to be whatever he wanted; a doctor, a lawyer, a politician. On the other hand, Roy had always been the quiet one and no one ever figured he would amount to much. That was why their father had wanted him to join the business, though he made certain Roy knew that he did not expect too much from him but, by then, Roy had his own dreams. His father had never forgiven him for running away to fulfill those dreams even though it was his father who had, inadvertently, given them to Roy.

Roy recalled his sixteenth birthday; the day his father had dropped him off in the forest with no food, no map, no water, and left him to fend for himself in some bizarre rite of passage. Twelve days. That was how long it had taken him to find his way home whereas Frank had managed it in two... or was it three days? If it hadn't been for Frank then Roy wondered if would still be out there in the forest; a pile of rotting bones. He had been cold, hungry, lonely and frightened when Frank appeared out of nowhere with a map and food only to turn around and walk off without a word. It still took Roy several days to reach home but those final days were the ones he recalled with pleasure.

Knowing that Frank was out there, watching over him, had taken away his fear of the strange world around him. He spent the time listening to the sounds that had previously frightened him, distinguishing the different bird calls from the sounds of other animals. He watched small rodents burrow into their tiny homes, and he saw the drama of life and death played out around him in a hundred different ways as each creature learned its place in the ecosystem.

By the time he reached home he could think of nowhere else he would rather be than back in the Cascades studying the creatures, both animal and plant, that were an integral part of the mountains. He pushed himself to improve his grades and gained a scholarship majoring in earth sciences and natural resource management.

Roy's spirit lifted once more as the pleasures of the present replaced those angry thoughts of the past.

All too soon the town came into view and he pulled over into his reserved parking space. He had first come here as a Junior Park Ranger, working through the short summer season, but had returned seven years back as the District Manager. With the fast approaching summer he knew there would be plenty of work ahead for him including the arrival of seasonal staff to help with the sudden influx of tourists. It meant he would be forced to spend a lot more time in his office rather than out in the field but it was a necessary evil that he felt he could live with. The summer season tended to last only from mid-June to mid-September, and then life would return to normal once more.

Roy took off his jacket and hung it up on the hook behind the door to his office. He passed back into the main area and stopped by the coffee machine. One of his staff, Morgan, came up beside him.

"You okay, Roy?"

"Jesse's staying with me for the spring break. I just had this weird conversation with him. He reckons I need a vacation."

"Well, you haven't left the area in almost seven years, except for your brother's funeral. And I wouldn't call that a vacation."

"Et tu, Brute?" Morgan laughed as he recognized the quotation from Shakespeare. "I don't understand why anyone would think I need a vacation. You just have to look around you to see I've got everything I want right here. Mountains, lakes, rivers--"

"Company?"

"I got you for that." Roy gave Morgan a grin.

"For a few beers after work, yeah. But what about companionship, someone special in your life? I got my wife and my kids... who have you got?"

"Don't need anyone. I've got my work, my research. I don't have time for relationships."

"We all need someone, Roy. Even if it's just someone to share the triumphs and tragedies of the day."

"Still say I've got you for that." Roy glanced up with another grin.

"Reminds me. You haven't forgotten about the meeting over at the town hall?"

Roy's eyes widened in horror. He looked at the clock high on the wall and swore, shoved down his untouched coffee and made a dash for his room to grab his jacket. He gave a quick wave as he raced out of the door, ignoring the good-natured laughter that followed.

Roy knew he was in trouble from the look on the Park Manager's anger-flushed face. He quickly took his seat beside Conway. He and Conway had never really seen eye to eye about anything, only able to tolerate each other because they did not work together that often. However, Conway was, essentially, his boss as he had control over the whole park whereas Roy was only responsible for one sizable portion. Conway spoke quietly out of the corner of his mouth as the debate raged on around them.

"So glad you could tear yourself away from your nature studies to join us."

Conway had made it abundantly clear in the past that he felt Roy spent too much time inside the park doing his research, and not enough time at his desk in administration. On the other hand, Roy had a good team and he felt they were more than capable of doing the administration work without his direct supervision. They knew where he was, and they could contact him any time there was a problem.

"...Extend the logging operation to completely strip Western Hemlock from the lower slopes of Mount Baker--"

Roy interrupted, a frown crossing his face. "Wasn't that area logged two years back?"

"So?"

"The trees there won't have had time to recover. Hemlock might be softwoods, and sustainable forest, but even they need time to grow."

Conway snorted. "If you had read the report I sent up a week ago then you'd know that area is being stripped for new cattle grazing land."

"You didn't send any report. I would have been told if something that contentious arrived. Turning that land into grazing will destroy the habitats of several species that have made that part of the forest their home."

"I hardly believe the endangered species act is relevant here. After all, we are conserving--"

"Yes. Conservation. Isn't that why we are here? Not tearing into the forests and destroying the natural beauty of the Cascades by turning everything to pasture."

"One tiny tract of land... five square miles. It's hardly mass-scale destruction of the Cascades."

"But where does it end? This week it's Mount Baker. Where are you planning to strip the forest next week? The old growths at Diablo Lake?"

One of the ranchers stood up; his lips tightened in a white line of anger.

"Mayor Talbot made promises of extended pasture land along that stretch, and that's what we are going to get."

"Ranger McLean. Outside. Now." Roy followed Conway from the hall to a private area. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"

"My job. Protecting the Park land from--"

"Your job is doing what you are told. You are here to supervise this logging operation on behalf of the National Park Service and not to debate the politics of--"

"Politics? Yeah. That sounds about right. Is this all part of Talbot's re-election campaign? Sweetening up the Rancher's association--"

"Stop right there." Conway was furious; his breath coming hard, lips pressed together tightly. "I don't like the way you run your district. I don't like the way you alienated the Chairman of the Rancher's Association over a goddamn wolf. I don't like the way you think you know better than me and all those people in there... and I don't like you."

Conway turned his back on Roy for a moment and then he faced him again.

"You're due some vacation. Take it. Take two weeks and use the time to consider your options. When you get back I want either an apology or a transfer request on my desk. Dismissed."

Roy bit back the angry retort that threatened to spill from him, aware that it would not do him any favors if he spoke his mind now. Instead, he swallowed hard and turned away; eager to put as much distance between him and Conway as soon as possible, even though it meant leaving his beloved home.

He strode from the town hall, his body still bristling with anger both at the contempt of the people for the forest surrounding them, and at Conway's attitude. He stopped on hearing his name.

"McLean. Roy."

Roy looked back. "Come to gloat, John. Seems like you might be getting my transfer to Alaska after all because I sure as hell am not going to apologize to that piece of shit."

John Rockwell raised an eyebrow at the uncustomary profanity but Roy did not feel like being civil right at this moment.

"I know we've had our differences of opinion in the past but at least I've always known exactly where I stood with you. You've never bowed to political aspirations or to the power games like some others I could mention. I respect that, Roy."

Roy felt some of the anger dissipate but, instead of pride, he felt a creeping sensation of sorrow and resignation flow over him.

"I appreciate that, John. Though it doesn't change anything." Roy sniffed in self-deprecation. "Looks like I'm off on an enforced vacation."

"I have an old friend lives down in Oregon. Runs an Outfitters near Bend, in the Cascades. Why don't I give him a call, see if he has room for you at short notice."

"Cascades?"

"Well, I know it isn't Disney World but..."

Roy shook his head, feeling the irony of the situation as he recalled the conversation he had with Jesse only an hour or so earlier. It seemed that Jesse was going to get his wish after all.

"I'll call you at your cabin when I've got a reply."

Roy nodded and reached for the hand that stretched out towards him.

"Thanks, John."

****

Brick waited just outside the Evergreen Stage Lines office as the Greyhound drew in. He held up the sign that proclaimed 'McKenna Outfitters' and hoped that this unscheduled visitor wasn't a pompous ass like the last one. Mr. Johnson had spent the entire week finding fault with everything he saw and did at the McKenna ranch, and even Jack had been relieved when the cab drew up to take the man back to the city.

As to this latest guest, all Brick had was a name: Roy McLean. Jack had mentioned that he was a friend of John Rockwell, so Brick watched for any stereotypical rancher types in their early fifties wearing cowboy hats and boots. He grinned brightly at every likely looking man who descended the few steps from the bus, his eyes widening when a tall, lean man with bowed head stopped and peered up at the sign from beneath the peak of a dark baseball cap.

The peak concealed the man's face but Brick felt a rush of electricity run through his body, his blood pumping harder and draining southwards to his groin. There was something about the strong torso in a baggy white T-shirt, and the long legs encased in comfort-fitting blue denim and desert boots that called to him. The man stood up straight and pulled off his cap - the long strands of his hair reflecting pure gold beneath the warm sunshine - and Brick fell headlong into the forest green eyes.

With a start, Brick realized that they had been standing there for at least a full minute, just staring into each other's eyes. He cleared his throat and motioned to the sign that formed a barrier between them.

"Roy McLean?"

"Yeah."

"I'm Brick McKenna."

"McKenna? I was expecting someone a lot older."

"So was I."

They exchanged a grin, and Brick held up his hand. His heart seemed to thump even harder in his chest as McLean's hand gripped his in welcome; the physical contact of those strong warm fingers reverberating through him, turning his blood to liquid fire. He could feel each individual finger wrapped around him, his mind forming pictures of those fingers wrapping about another part of his anatomy.

Brick pulled back with a start, suddenly confused and embarrassed by his reaction, but he could see that Roy McLean was equally flustered.

"I'll.. I'll go bring up the truck while you get your bags."

"Sure."

Brick closed his eyes and blew softly as Roy turned away, simultaneously dismayed and excited by the mere presence of this man. His thoughts returned to that conversation with the old Indian all those years ago.

So how would I know... him when he turns up?

Your soul will know him. As will your heart.

Brick folded the McKenna sign back up and walked to where he had parked the truck. He climbed in and started the engine, still desperately trying to regain control of his racing heart. More echoes from the past filled him as he remembered that strange conversation with Daniel Armstrong.

Not exactly gone for men in the past, you know. I'm more of a lady's man.

And that is why your soul is still searching for its mate. You must look beyond man and woman. That is just flesh and bone.

"Christ."

Brick had taken the old Indian's words to heart at the time, and he had stopped looking at only the pretty girls that entered his life. In doing so, he discovered a new world where two men could find pleasure in each other, but none of them had ever struck him like this. None of them had set his blood singing in his veins. None had ignited such a passion inside him with just a single glance.

Brick pulled up by the kerbside and waited while McLean dumped his two bags in the back of the pick-up. He glanced down at his hands on the steering wheel and saw that they were shaking. He clenched his fists tight around the wheel until the knuckles were white and bloodless, and then he let go, forcing himself to relax. McLean climbed in beside him and Brick, unconsciously, drew in the scent of this man and found his nerves steadying as Roy McLean filled his senses.

The ride out to the ranch took almost forty minutes and Brick found his soul soaring as McLean showed an open appreciation for the scenery surrounding them. He caught himself gabbling as he tried to describe some of the natural wonders he could share with this man. Brick spoke of the lakes and trees, of the wild open spaces filled with sweet meadow grass and wild flowers. McLean took it all in, responding in a voice that was as soft as the spring rains that gently scoured and cleansed the land.

The journey was over far too soon and Brick was loath to part company. He made some excuse about it being his job to settle in the guests, and he led McLean over to the vacant guest cabin.

"It may seem a little primitive but it has hot and cold running water, toilet facilities and even a television."

"Television? Haven't had one of those in some time."

Brick laughed softly, in disbelief that anyone in this modern age would be without television. Even he was partial to watching the NASCAR racing when the powers that be deigned it worthwhile showing it in their stretch of the wilderness.

"I'll let you settle in and freshen up. Lunch should be up at the ranch in about half an hour. Just come straight in and take a seat."

"Fine." Brick nodded and started to back away. He turned away in annoyance when he realized he was acting like a lovesick puppy. "Brick?" Brick turned back, his eyes meeting those soft green ones again. "Thanks."

"You're welcome."

****

The days past by too fast and, despite his earlier misgivings about taking any kind of vacation, Roy found he was enjoying the time spent with Brick McKenna. The younger man had a zest for life and a love for the natural world that matched, and in some places, surpassed even his own.

Roy lay back on his bed and stared up at the ceiling in his cabin. He had come to the Outfitters with no set agenda, thinking only to spend his time walking through the peaceful land while he made a decision about his future. Instead, he had rarely stopped to reflect on Conway and the choice he had to make.

He grinned, knowing the cause of his distraction. That first night had been the last day for a small group of friends from New Hampshire. Hosts and guests had spent that evening sitting around a campfire - about three hundred yards from the ranch house - eating steaks and singing old trail songs. As all those present were adult, there had been beer too; not enough to let anything get out of hand but sufficient to add an extra buzz to the evening. Roy had felt out of place at first - not knowing anyone present - but Brick had taken a seat by his side, their legs often touching as they drank and sang.

Roy stretched out on his bed and sighed in a mixture of frustration and pleasure. If he closed his eyes he could see the flickering flames highlighting the hints of red and gold in Brick's hair. Brick's eyes had glowed with an inner fire, his pupils large and dark as he leaned in close to talk, and Roy groaned, his body tingling in remembrance of the light touch of Brick's hand upon his thigh. Another memory - the brush of their fingers as they passed food and bottles between them - sent a strong pulse of desire racing through Roy's body.

Roy smoothed the palm of his hand over the slowly hardening bulge at his groin, enjoying the friction of the cotton of his boxers upon the sensitive flesh beneath. He closed his eyes and licked his lips in hunger as he visualized Brick's strong, callused hands touching him, holding him. His own hand mirrored the image in his mind, slipping beneath the cotton, pushing the material aside as he wrapped his fingers around his swollen flesh. He rubbed across the tip with his thumb and moaned softly as new waves of pleasure coursed through his body, radiating out from the sensitive head; his hand moving faster as the sensations built higher and higher. His thighs quivered; his muscles turning to liquid and then he was gasping out Brick's name as he climaxed; his warm seed coating his hand and his naked belly and chest.

Roy trembled in pleasure and brought his hand up, fastidiously licking at the creamy, bittersweet fluid trickling between his fingers and wondering whether Brick would taste the same.

He lay back, letting his heart gradually slow back to normal.

****

On the second day they had gone out on horseback, traveling northwards through the foothills of the Cascades and stopping for lunch beside some of the white rapids of the Deschutes River. The Deschutes was every bit as magnificent as the fast flowing rivers that criss-crossed the Northern Cascades, and all his fears for the future were quickly forgotten; swept away in the racing currents. Night was falling by the time they returned to the McKenna ranch, and Roy was astute enough to recognize the relief in Jack McKenna's eyes as they rode slowly into the stables to unsaddle the horses. It was obvious that Jack had expected them back much earlier and that he had been concerned for the safety of both his son and their guest.

Still, it had been a good day. No. It had been a perfect day with a perfect companion; one who seemed to know when to speak and when to ride by his side in welcome silence.

On the third day, Brick had coaxed him into riding those white rapids and Roy grinned as he recalled the exhilarating experience. The roar of the water had filled his ears and yet he had still heard every word Brick yelled as clearly as if they had been standing in a silent forest glen rather than racing along the river. It was almost as if every sense within his body was finely attuned to Brick McKenna. He could hear him, feel him, scent him and almost taste him upon the light spring breeze and within the heavy spray that coated his lips but, more than that, he had a strange feeling that Brick knew him too. There had been one scary moment when he thought the raft would capsize but then they were through and floating on the fast, smooth waters beyond those rapids.

They had spent the remainder of that day lying quietly on the riverbank, watching the water flow by and, all the while, Roy had taken covert glances at the man stretched out beside him. After a while they started to talk about themselves, discovering so many similarities between them.

Both of them had an elder brother who had died in an accident. In Brick's case, his brother, Guy, had died when he lost his balance on the hand bridge that spanned a gorge across the Deschutes, and he had plummeted to his death. Roy's brother, Frank, had met with his fatal accident on a skiing trip in the Northern Cascades; falling over the edge of a sheer mountain face as he tried to save Jesse's life. Even after all this time, Roy could still not relate the broken and bloodied body he had located at the bottom of the cliff as being his brother.

Another similarity was that neither of them had been the favorite son but, unlike Brick, Roy's father had died before he could heal the breach between them. They spoke of their love for the forests, mountains, rivers and lakes; laughing when they realized how much they both enjoyed the outdoors.

However, for all the traits they shared, Roy wished one of them was a preference for men.

There were moments when he could almost believe that Brick saw more to him than just a new-found friend but it had to be wishful thinking. Roy gave another heartfelt sigh. He did not want to ruin their budding friendship by making any unwanted moves on the man, not when they had only a few short weeks to be together, and so he decided that he would try to be content with his fantasies alone.

Having destroyed the warm and fuzzy mood, by lamenting over what he could not have with Brick, Roy pushed himself up from the bed and went into the small bathroom. He stripped off his semen-soiled boxers - balling them up and throwing them into a corner of the room - and then he turned on the shower. The water was gloriously hot; the steam filling the tiny room as Roy luxuriated in the heat of the shower. He grabbed the shower gel and slicked his body in warm suds, washing away the sticky evidence of his solitary passion. Roy dunked his head beneath the water flow; letting the thunderous sound of fast running water fill his hearing, hoping to drown out even his thoughts. He threw back his head and let the powerful spray cascade over his face, loving the hot fingers of water trickling over his still sensitive flesh.

A wonderful, tingling sensation swept through him; a distant sound intruding upon his revelry, and he turned slightly, catching a flash of movement from the corner of his eye. Roy flicked away the long strands of hair plastered over his eyes and gazed around the empty bathroom. He frowned, the pleasure of the moment fading as he wondered what had caught his eye. He turned off the water and stepped out of the shower, quickly wrapping himself in the large bath sheet. He stepped back into the main room and straightened in surprise, holding the towel tight around him as he found Brick seated on his bed.

Brick gave him a chagrined smile.

"I called out and got a little worried when you didn't answer."

"Was in the shower."

"Yeah. I know... now." Brick looked and sounded a little flustered; the vulnerability bringing out a protective streak within Roy. "Umm... I was going to take a drive into town. Grab a beer. I wondered if you wanted to join me."

"Jack mentioned some place called the Bear Trap."

"Nah. That's just for tourists."

"I'm a tourist." Roy grinned, his heart warming at the brilliant smile that came back at him.

"No. You're no tourist, Roy."

"Give me ten to get dried and dressed."

"Okay. Be waiting for you in the pick-up."

****

Brick dropped into the driver's seat and leaned his forehead on the wheel, wondering how he had managed to get out of Roy's cabin without making a complete fool of himself. When Roy had not responded to his knock he had let himself in, and quickly realized that the older man was in the shower. However, when Roy had not answered his second call, Brick had felt an incredible terror steal over him, almost believing that some freak accident had ripped Roy away from him before he even had the chance to make his true feelings known.

In a moment of sheer panic, Brick entered through the open doorway into the bathroom, and then had frozen in awe.

When Daniel Armstrong told him to go beyond gender, Brick started looking at other men with fresh eyes and, in doing so, he opened up a whole new world for himself. He still preferred to bed a beautiful woman but he could no longer deny an attraction to a good-looking man. Never being one to be too cautious, Brick let his curiosity guide him, and those few sexual encounters with other men revealed the power and pleasure of being with someone equal in physical strength and needs.

However, he quickly discovered that the world of most Gays was not for him. He did not want to have sex with just any willing man - or woman even. Unlike many of the people of both genders that he had met in the past four years, he needed an emotional attachment to the person he bedded. Although he had taken several lovers of both sexes over this time, none had lasted long for Brick knew that he had not found the person Daniel Armstrong had described on that last night of his life. However, after four years he had been ready to discard the yearning that those words had evoked within him, slowly losing faith in the old man's vision.

It had taken a single moment in the bus depot to re-ignite those fantasies; one split second of eye contact that had seared a path straight into his soul. But how could he turn this fantasy into reality?

There were moments when he thought he saw a spark of interest that went beyond the deep friendship that had leaped, spontaneously, between them at that first meeting. He saw in Roy someone who shared so many similarities with himself but, more than that, Roy was a kindred spirit. He was someone who seemed to understand the forces that drove Brick. Any differences between them only seemed to enhance the pleasure of their new found friendship.

However, it was this friendship that was causing his indecision.

Brick didn't want to lose it, and he was afraid that by revealing the full depth of his feelings for Roy, he might destroy what they had built together.

Brick moaned and bowed his head. For all his previous experience with men, none of it had prepared him for the shock waves of desire that had flooded through him on seeing Roy luxuriating in the steamy heat of the shower. Brick had been dismayed when the shower screens they ordered for the cabins turned up incorrect. He had specified frosted glass and they had sent clear panels but, now, he was filled with gratitude. He closed his eyes and dwelt on the clearly seen image of Roy through the shower screen.

Daniel had told him to look beyond flesh and bone, and he had spent the past four years wondering if this soul mate would possess only those two beautiful features described; hair of sun-ripened wheat and eyes of forest green. The rest of the package could easily have been someone who made the Elephant Man look like an Adonis. Instead, Roy McLean was more beautiful than his wildest dreams.

Rivulets of water trickled down the long, lean legs; the soft blond hairs darkened and flattened against the pale flesh. His eyes were drawn first to the soft curve of Roy's ass, seen in profile through the clear glass, and he watched the underlying muscle flex as Roy stretched and moved sinuously beneath the cascading curtain of water. Roy arched his back as he tipped his head to let the water flow over his face. Strands of golden hair - darkened by the water - fell back, only to flop across his face when he turned slightly towards Brick. The green eyes were closed; the blond lashes forming a spiky crescent beneath them, and his flushed lips were slightly parted. His smooth skin was slightly pink from the rasp of a razor and the power of the sprayed water.

As those spiked lashes quivered, Brick came to his senses, and he stepped back into Roy's bedroom, not stopping until the backs of his knees collided with the bed and he sat down heavily.

Moments later the bathroom had fallen silent except for the small sounds of Roy moving about, and then Roy was standing on the threshold; a large bath sheet wrapped around his lower half while his well-muscled chest glistened with tiny droplets of water.

Brick moaned, banging his head softly against the steering wheel in the pick-up as his mind focused, once more, on the curves and angles that comprised Roy's torso. He saw the smoothness of muscle contrasting with the sharp definition of ribs; his fingers itching to slide across the slippery flesh. He wondered what those droplets would taste of if he licked them from the pale skin. Would they be saline; retaining a hint of musk from the warm flesh over which they traveled?

The sound of a cabin door closing brought his head up and, seconds later, Roy was opening the passenger door and climbing in. Brick took a moment to breathe in the freshly showered masculine scent; grinning shyly, he switched on the ignition and pushed down on the gas. The pick-up moved off quickly, leaving the ranch far behind.

****

One beer led to another and, before long, both he and Brick were swapping stories relating to the people they had met. Brick had known from that first evening that Roy was the manager of the Northern Washington district of the Northern Cascades National Park. Roy had not always worked in the Cascades though and, as a Park Ranger, he had worked in several areas ranging from Biscayne in Florida to the Crater Lake National Park in Oregon.

However it seemed that, no matter where he went, the tourists were always the same.

Brick could agree with him there. Like Roy, he did enjoy meeting most of the people who came into his world. They might not know much about the great outdoors but they brought with them tales of modern life and their own images of sights created by Man that Brick might not have learned about in any other way. They also kept him in touch with the world beyond the beauty of the Cascades, in a way that was far more real than the CNN broadcasts that he caught rarely.

Like Roy, he loved to see the transformation as they lost that pinched, stressed look and let the clean air clear out the pollution in their lungs and minds. There were very few, like Johnson, who could not let go of the stressful lives and modern appliances that they had left behind in the cities.

"You never did say why you came here."

Roy took another swallow of beer - his eyes becoming unfocused for a moment - and Brick wondered if he would get an answer.

"Mark Conway. He's the Park Manager for the whole of the Northern Cascades... and he's a real sleaze. Cannot even guess how much of the Cascades has been lost forever due to his backhanders from local politicians. The current Mayor of Wainwright wants to get re-elected. To do that he needs the Ranchers' votes, and to get those votes he needs to give the ranchers something in return. Five square miles of Western Hemlock, Douglas Firs, elk, bears and other wildlife just lost their habitat; the whole area turned into cattle grazing land."

"And you objected."

"Loudly... publicly."

"So what's the deal?"

"Spend two weeks considering my future in the Northern Cascades. When I go back he expects either a note of apology or a transfer request." Roy took another swallow. "And I'm not going to apologize."

"You could put in a request for Crater Lake?"

"They don't have the openings, not even as a Park Ranger, and I expect that... that..." Brick could see that there was a derogatory word for Conway at the tip of Roy's tongue but Roy refused to say it. "I expect he'll have me transferred to Alaska where I'll spend most of the year in darkness and snow, or to some desert location where I'd fry by day and freeze by night."

Roy swallowed the last of the beer.

"Seems to me then, that the only choice you got is to apologize."

"Not going to do it. I backed down once when I should have held my ground; though the law wasn't on my side that time so there was little choice. This time though, it's a matter of pride, and principle."

Roy held up his hand and gained the waitress's eye. She brought them two fresh bottles of Bud - their third of the night - and set them down on the table.

"I do have one other choice. I could resign. I've got enough put by to keep me going for a few months."

"I got an idea." Roy gazed at him with intrigue apparent in his face. "How about I speak to Jack. Been times when we've had to turn away business because we hadn't got a guide to show them around. You might not know this area that well... but I figure you'd learn pretty fast."

"I don't know."

"Used to be Jack, Guy and me. Now there's only Jack and me, so he can't deny we could use an extra hand. Only trouble is, it won't pay good."

"Hell, Park Ranger doesn't exactly pay that well. Not that I ever needed much... but the Cascades are home to me. It's where I want to stay."

"Then it's settled. I'll talk to Jack."

"Brick. Won't matter to me if he says no. Just knowing you wanted to make that offer makes me feel a whole lot more optimistic about the future."

"Well, well. Brick McKenna. This your new boyfriend."

Brick sighed inwardly, forcing a tight smile onto his face as he looked up at Randy Bishop. Randy's old man had a tract of land running close to the McKenna ranch but, although they were practically neighbors, they had never been friends. An argument in the Bear Trap with Randy when Brick first returned home had lost them access to Bishop land for more than three months, until Jack and Randy's father had come to a new arrangement. For his part of the deal, Brick had promised to stay well clear of Randy. It was a shame that Randy didn't do the same. Brick spoke softly to Roy, but loud enough that Randy would hear too.

"Ignore him and perhaps he'll go away."

Unfortunately, Randy had been drinking heavily and he did not want to give up his McKenna baiting.

"How far you gone with this one, Brick? You sucking him or is he fucking you?"

Brick shoved back his chair and started to rise but he felt Roy's restraining hand on his arm.

"Let it go, Brick. He's not worth it."

"Ooh... lover boy asking for restraint. Bet that doesn't happen too often." He took on a higher pitched voice. "Oh fuck me, Brick. Harder."

The bar seemed to fall silent as every head turned to look at Brick and Roy. Brick shook off Roy's hand, grabbed his jacket and strode out of the bar; back stiff, face tight with anger and embarrassment. He knew this was going to happen sometime, after one of Randy's cronies caught him kissing that guy outside The Cascade bar last month, but why did it have to be now? Why did this have to come to light when he was trying to build a firm friendship with Roy? And what the hell was Roy going to think of him now?

"Brick. Brick. Wait up."

Brick stopped; his head bowed in anger and grief as Roy caught up with him. He felt the hand on his arm again, hating the powerful sensations that rippled through him to his groin. He wanted Roy so badly but now he doubted he would even have his friendship.

"Is it true?"

"Is what true? That I like men as well as women? Yes." he responded belligerently.

"Why didn't you tell me?" Roy squeezed his eyes shut. "What the hell am I saying? I can hardly judge you when I never..." Roy moved until he stood in front of Brick. "Been so long since I let anyone in that I'd forgotten the signs to look for."

"Well, you don't have to worry about me making a move on you."

"Why? Don't you find me attractive? I know I find you..." Brick looked up with his eyes widened in startlement even though Roy didn't finish the sentence. "Only difference between us is that I never cared that much for women... least not in that way."

Brick reached out with a trembling hand and pushed back a lock of gold hair that had fallen across Roy's face so he could see the truth in the desire-filled eyes.

"Damn. And we've already wasted so many days--"

"It's not been a waste. We spent that time getting to know each other." Roy's eyes narrowed. "You won't be ashamed of being seen with a man? With me?"

"I know I shouldn't be... but these are small town minds, and not even Jack knows about..." Brick let the words hang, not needing to say them aloud.

"He's not going to take it well."

"He never has with me. No matter what I did it was always the wrong thing... though we've come to some sort of mutual understanding over these past four years."

Brick sighed. Now Randy had revealed Brick's inclination towards men as well as women, there was every chance that everyone who knew him would know about it before the end of the week. Including Jack.

"I'm going to lose all the ground I gained with him."

"But?"

"But I can't pretend I'm something I'm not. And I can't pretend all I feel for you is just friendship. I don't want to hide what I feel."

"Good. Because I'm sick of hiding too."

Brick looked up at the darkening sky.

"It's still early but let's get back to the ranch 'cause I figure I'm going to have to tell him tonight... before he finds out from someone else tomorrow."

They drove back to the ranch in silence, neither of them certain of where they were headed within their own relationship but each silently hoping that they would take that first step tonight. As they pulled up beside the ranch house, Brick cut the engine and then took a deep breath. Roy laid his hand on Brick's thigh; his voice velvet soft.

"Want me to go in with you?"

"No. But thanks anyway. This is something I need to do on my own."

"Okay. I'll head back to my cabin so you'll know where to find me if... if you need to talk later."

Brick leaned over, one hand reaching to draw Roy's face towards him. Their mouths met, pressing firmly together. Brick licked the warm flesh and sighed as Roy's lips parted. He slid his tongue into the welcoming heat, humming softly as it met its blunt-tipped mate. Blood rushed to Brick's groin, his senses spinning as the ecstasy of this first kiss stole over him. Eventually, he pulled away - feeling breathless - and grinned into the pleasure-soaked eyes that were barely visible in the darkness of the pick-up's cab. His heart was beating rapidly, and he knew that if he reached out he would find Roy's pulse racing just as quickly.

"Just to make sure you know I do find you attractive... and I want you." Brick stepped outside the pick-up but stuck his head back through the open driver's window. "I'll come over as soon as I've talked with Jack."

"Okay."

****

Roy sat alone in the pick-up for a few minutes before finding the strength to walk across to his cabin. He pulled the door shut behind him and sank onto the bed, his head still spinning from the feel of Brick's lips upon his own. There was no denying the passion behind that kiss and he licked his lips; his tongue sliding over the swollen surface as he tried to recapture the taste of Brick McKenna.

So far he had heard no raised voices and no sound of a vehicle engine starting up. He had to assume that either Brick was still trying to figure out a way to tell his father, or that his father was actually listening to him.

Another five minutes passed and then he heard a gentle tap on his door. Roy walked over and opened it, standing aside to let Brick enter and then closing it softly behind him.

"How did it go?"

"Not sure."

Roy grabbed two glasses and the small bottle of bourbon he had brought with him to the ranch. He poured each of them a generous measure and handed one to Brick. Brick sank onto the chair by the door, grimacing as he swallowed a mouthful of the fiery liquor.

"I came right out and told him. Said I wanted him to know before he found out from someone else."

"And what did he say?"

"Nothing. He just looked at me with that shocked and disappointed expression of his... and said nothing."

"You were there a long time for nothing."

Brick took another swallow and then looked directly into Roy's eyes. "When I reached the door he asked me if I was sleeping with you."

"And?"

"And I said, not yet."

Roy felt a trickle of pleasure course through him at the promise implicit within those words, even as he felt sorrow for the way this evening had turned out between father and son. Some of Roy's regrets for the past left him as he realized how lucky he had been. His father had died before Roy found the courage to tell him of his preferences and, until a week ago, Roy had believed his brother had died without knowing as well. His only living relative was Jesse and he gave a wry grin in knowing that he did not need to explain anything to his nephew. Roy sighed as he saw the despair that hunched Brick's shoulders; watching as those incredible eyes dropped back to the drink held tightly in both hands.

"So what happens now, Brick?"

"I don't know. Depends on Jack, I suppose." The bright blue eyes were still focused on the amber liquor within the glass. He raised his eyes to Roy once more, revealing some of the despair he had to be feeling. "Can I stay here tonight?"

Roy nodded, smiling gently. He watched as Brick placed his drink on the small dresser before standing to pull off the heavy red-checked shirt that he wore over his T-shirt. Roy moved over to the door and set the lock; turning in time to see the white T-shirt stripped off and dropped onto the chair that Brick had just vacated.

Roy swallowed hard, his eyes grazing the lean, well-proportioned and well-defined chest. Only a smattering of light brown hair marred the smoothness of Brick's skin; the hair thickening as it arrowed down beneath the waistband of his jeans. Roy stood up and pulled off his T-shirt, then mirrored Brick as they stripped off the rest of their clothing, discarding the items without a second thought. Once naked they stood and gazed at each other, letting their eyes have the pleasure of touching every centimeter of revealed flesh. The man standing before Roy was perfection; long, lean muscles and lightly tanned skin, his beautiful shaft standing proud from a thatch of brown curly hair, the tip glistening as the first dewdrops of want beaded on the head.

Roy knew just by looking into Brick's lust-filled eyes that his body met with equal approval. He held out his hand and Brick clasped it none too gently, reaching for him like a man drowning in a river of emotion. He reeled Brick in, letting his other hand caress the slightly stubbled cheek before leaning in to claim those desire-blushed lips. Roy sighed as Brick's arms enfolded him, the callused palms smoothing down his back to cup each ass cheek, crushing their erections between their close-pressed bodies.

They kissed deeply, bruisingly, feasting upon each other's mouths like starving men at a banquet. Brick pushed harder against Roy and they fell back onto the bed, hips still grinding into each other as Brick covered Roy with his body. They rolled until they were on their sides facing each other, mouths still crushed together with passionate abandon as they thrust up hard against each other's aching flesh.

All too soon Roy could feel the start of his climax; a warmth spreading out to encompass him; mind, body and soul, and then he was soaring free, his vision full of bright stars. He barely registered the new warmth that flooded between them as he swallowed the gasp of pleasure falling from Brick.

They held each other tightly as the sensations ebbed away, replaced by a different kind of warmth that radiated to the depth of his soul. Their kiss gentled with tongues licking and lips nibbling and, though the beat of his heart slowed, Roy knew it would never be the same again. Something deep inside him had finally come home within Brick's arms.

****

Two Years Later:

Jack McKenna strode from the ranch house with a purposeful step. They had a group of young people arriving within half an hour who were expecting to go out on a trail ride, so those horses needed to be saddled up and ready to ride. He reached the door to the stables and stopped as he heard Brick's laughter, realizing that his son had beaten him here once more.

A handful of straw came sailing over the top of one stall and Jack grinned as he heard a cry of indignation. Brick stuck his head around, still laughing playfully, eyes widening as another pile of straw hit him in the face. He spat out several straws of hay.

"You two carry on fooling around and those horse will never be saddled in time."

Jack grinned as he heard Roy's soft chuckle, and he shook his head, turning to walk back outside.

Two years ago Brick had made his startling revelation; shocking Jack senseless so he was unable to find a single word to say in response until Brick had reached the doorway. Dozens of emotions had passed through him as he pulled back the curtain and watched Brick disappear into Roy's cabin that night. His first impulse had been to deny it all, and he had stood frozen by that window for maybe twenty minutes before the light in the cabin was extinguished. Then anger had filled the void, and he had made it almost halfway to that cabin, intending on throwing Roy off his property, before the next emotion had hit him hard.

He had stopped mid-stride, bathed in moonlight; his feelings all screwed up.

The last time he had tried to change Brick, he had lost him for two long years. Over the past four years they had come to a new understanding; a new acceptance of the forces that drove each of them. He had always known the restlessness within Brick, feeling impotent as he tried but failed to figure out what Brick needed to be content with his life. Part of that had changed the moment Roy McLean stepped off that bus and into Brick's life, and Jack could not deny the friendship that had blossomed so quickly and deeply between them within such a short time.

That night, Jack had turned back to the house, finally willing to let Brick dictate his own life's direction and needs without censure, even though it broke Jack's heart.

He smiled wryly at that distant memory. At the time he had been certain that Brick would come to his senses; that Roy would leave at the end of his short stay and everything would return to normal. Jack paused on that thought. There had been no chance of that happening as Bishop had taken great delight in mentioning Brick's indiscretions and those newly discovered sexual preferences. Jack was grateful that Brick had, at least, warned him so he was prepared for the innuendos and blunt remarks that followed over the following months.

However, Roy never went back to the Northern Cascades, except to tender his resignation and collect his belongings. Instead, he rented a small cabin just this side of Bend and, soon after, Brick packed up his belongings and moved in with him.

It took a few more months before Jack realized that this was not just a child's rebellion against the constraints of his father. Brick and Roy were more than mere lovers; they were best friends too, each completing the other in a way that Jack could only envy and admire in equal measure even though it confused the hell out of him. In addition, all of Brick's restlessness disappeared and he, finally, had the contented son that he wanted.

As to Roy, he started to help by taking the walking trails when they were understaffed, and gradually, Jack realized what an asset he was to the business. It took a while but they became friends; firm friends and maybe a little more besides. Jack grinned softly. Roy could never replace Guy, but he came damn close. He had even increased the business by enticing art groups from all over the country to use McKenna Outfitter's as their base for wildlife studies in the Cascades.

Eventually, Brick and Roy had to find a new place after Roy's lease on the cabin ran out. By then, Jack and the others in the family business had come to terms with Brick's chosen partner in life, and so Jack invited them to move back into the ranch together. That had been almost a year ago to the day and he had never regretted that decision, finding that Roy's knowledge even lightened the load on Lee - Guy's widow and the only one holding together the business administration - giving her more time to spend with her children and a chance to pursue her own happiness.

A minibus pulled up beside the ranch and Jack watched as a group of six women jumped out and grabbed their backpacks. He sighed, remembering that first time a feminist fitness group had come to McKenna. On that occasion Jack had no one to guide them so Brick had hired a local man, Walter, forgetting that Walter was a chauvinist of the highest order. It had been a complete disaster but, this time, Roy would be their guide.

The women stood around, waiting patiently but showing that no-nonsense, aggressive attitude that Jack had become familiar with from feminist groups over the years. He stood aside, wondering how Roy was going to handle this group on an overnight camping stop, and was surprised when Brick followed Roy out of the stable.

His eyebrows crawled into his hairline in surprise when, after helping Roy heave his backpack onto his shoulders, Brick stepped around and kissed Roy thoroughly, ravishing his mouth in a way that left no doubt as to their relationship. In all the time they had been together, neither of them had shown any outward signs of the depth of their love in front of the guests. They were all too aware of how most people viewed homosexual relationships so they tended to say their goodbyes in private.

Jack looked back at the women, expecting them to be shocked and outraged but, instead, they were hiding grins and nudging each other. He shook his head, realizing that Roy and Brick had disarmed the women's aggression towards Roy in one simple, loving act.

Jack moved up to stand beside Brick as the small group of walkers started on their trail, holding his arm up in farewell while his other arm dropped over Brick's shoulder.

"What do you say we grab a coffee before that other group arrive?"

Brick turned; his bright blue eyes softly unfocused and full of the love he felt for Roy. His cheeks reddened slightly in embarrassment at being caught in such open adoration but then he laughed softly.

They walked back towards the ranch house in silence, with Jack's hand still upon Brick's shoulder, and his thoughts wrapped warmly about his son and his son's best friend.

THE END