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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental. Note: While authors are asked to place warnings on their stories for some moderated content, everyone has different thresholds, and it is your responsibility as a reader to avoid stories or stop reading if something bothers you. 
2016 - Winter - Rewind: Pre-2016 Themes Entry

Finding Refuge - 1. Chapter 1

Rescued....

Special Anthology: Scars theme.

 

 

Finding Refuge

 

 

Wiley hit the ground with a heavy thud, pain that felt like fire waking him from his exhausted stupor seconds before his head exploded. An angry snarl registered in a mind going quickly dark. His last memory was the retort of a rifle.

 

There was a sound, a hissing noise, and it was as irritating as the whine of a gnat in his ear. What in the dickens was that? And why did his head hurt so godawful bad? Wiley had to struggle to get his eyes opened, and when he did, they grated against what felt like sand. He quickly closed them after seeing flames that shot darts of agony into his brain. His stomach clenched at the riotous pain slamming his newly-emerging consciousness, and he fought futilely to stop his stomach from adding to the misery. Unable to rise, or twist his head, he sprayed bile over his face and neck while his body was wracked with the further pain of retching through a raw, dry throat.

A big, warm hand slipped under his head, lifting it up, and he heard the soothing reassurance of a deep voice telling him he was safe. Safe? Safe from what? He couldn’t form the question, though, as a hot, wet cloth wiped away the foul-smelling mess he’d spewed. He was fully conscious now—and able to identify where most of the pain was coming from… his head, and his left leg. Both hurt like a son of a bitch. Something else he took notice of—he was naked under a supple fur hide. There was one underneath him too, and there had to be something else under that. Damned if it didn’t feel softer than most mattresses he’d slept on. He felt even more naked not knowing where his trusty Colt single-action Army Revolver was. Where the hell was he, and what had he gotten himself into?

Another portion of that cleansing cloth entered his mouth, wiping his lips clean, and his head was slowly lowered until it hit the softness of what he could identify as a rolled up saddle blanket. The familiar smell of horse made its way to his nostrils. His horse? Was Cholo all right? Forcing his voice to work, he was able to ask the question and be understood. “Where’s my horse?”

That comforting voice washed over him, gentle-like. “Your horse is all took care of. Footsore some, but a couple of days rest will fix him up. He’s down in the valley with my mare. Open your mouth. I reckon you’re needing a drink.”

Wiley relaxed slightly at the knowledge Cholo was fine. Being footsore didn't surprise him with all the hard riding they'd done. He’d like being with a mare. He felt coaxing fingers on his face, and complied, parting his lips to feel blessedly cool water drip into his mouth. His stomach was co-operating, and he silently thanked the unknown man for the wetness making its way down his throat. The soothing trickle soon ended, but it was enough. “What happened to me?” he rasped. He risked opening his eyes again, and this time a crouching man blocked some of the brightness of a campfire. He was able to blink away the grit enough to see clearly. It was near dusk, and the man, though big, appeared to be not much past a boy.

“A cougar is what happened, mister. You’re lucky your horse swung sideways or he’d a had you by the neck. Clawed your leg pretty good afore I shot him, though.”

Wiley blinked a few more times as he digested the news. “You shot him?”

“Yessir. Saw you coming, but didn’t see him till you were up underneath where he perched hisself.”

“How tore up is my leg?”

“I’m supposing it hurts a bunch, but other than some fancy scars, it’ll work fine. Might take a few days; got it cleaned up best I could. Had to use some of the whisky from your saddlebags, but I figured you’d not mind.” The young man gave him an uncertain grin before looking away from his stare.

“I’m obliged to you…?”

“Name’s Cooper.” He looked back. “Weren’t nothing. Good sights on my rifle. You can thank it.”

“Why’s my head hurt… Cooper?”

“Wasn’t near as hard as them rocks you landed on.” This time there was a full-on smile, and Wiley saw clean, healthy teeth… something he didn’t often see on the frontier. This fellow had some good raising. “You’ve got a little hole in your head, but it ain’t so deep, and there’s been no swelling since I laid you out here.” He stood up and went to a steaming tin pot set on a rock at the fire’s edge. It was the source of the hissing noise Wiley’d woken up to. Wasn’t near as aggravating now. Cooper dropped the cloth into the hot water, and swirled it around with a stick before lifting it out again. He waited a bit before wringing it out and laying it across a stone boulder.

Wiley followed his movements, fascinated by the dark blond hair that curled in waves atop a nice-shaped head. “Where’s here?” He couldn’t help notice the hesitation in Cooper’s step. “We in some cave?”

“Yeah, some would call it that. It’s more of a rock overhang at the top of a valley, not very deep… just inside the entrance. Didn’t want to chance moving you to my campsite, what with your head and all. Took a while to stop the bleeding in your leg too.” He crouched down again, this time by the fire, feeding a few sticks of cottonwood to it, fiddling till he was happy with the blaze.

Entrance? Valley? “How long was I out for?”

“Since yesterday. Day and a half about now. You getting hungry?”

That long? “I don’t rightly know. I’m just taking stock. My head doesn’t feel like a bull kicked it anymore. My shoulder hurts a little now, but it’s my leg what hurts the worst.”

“Sounds about right. You got a name you go by, mister?”

“Wiley. Wiley Burch.”

“Nice to make your acquaintance, Wiley Burch. Near as I can tell, your shoulder’s only bruised… you smacked the ground hard. Like I said, your head ain’t swelled, so it should be settling down. Don’t imagine the campfire light helped when you came to; saw you closed your eyes right quick before you throwed up. Leg hasn’t bled since last night. Reckon another night before you can move around some. I had to sew it up in a few spots so you need to be keeping it still.”

“You what? You sewed it?” This young man was surprising Wiley to no end.

Cooper chuckled, and Wiley found it a pleasing sound. “Not the first time I done it. Got me a kit and scissors and everything. Had to razor some of that fur off your leg too, just so you know. Don’t worry. I didn’t shave it all off. Still enough to keep you warm some.”

Wiley chuckled too, at the man’s grin. He was realizing just how much this stranger had done to keep him alive, and it was evident he was feeling some relief his patient was okay. “So, you sewed someone up before?”

“Yeah, my pa a few times.” His expression darkened for a few seconds. “And a couple of the ranch hands a time or two. Just like working with a hide unless they’re awake. Then it gets real noisy. I was lucky you got your head cracked. You stayed quiet.”

The grin made another appearance, and in the flickering light of the fire, Wiley was struck by how pretty the man was. Yup, real pretty. “And I was lucky you were around when I cracked it. Thanks, Cooper. You know, I think I got a hankering to eat now. Might get my stomach up off my backbone. It’s been a while since it’s seen food.”

“Coming right up. Got me a soup cooling outside. Some nice cougar broth should go down good.”

“Cougar? Oh, I don’t know if I….” He stopped when the low rumble of laughter erupted from Cooper.

“I was just funning you, Wiley. Couple of young prairie hens and some roots and onions is all that’s in it. It’ll be easy on your stomach. We can have big cat stew for breakfast.” His smirk was an appealing sight to Wiley.

“See you've got some devil in you, for sure. Can’t say I’ve ever chowed down on cougar, and that’s a fact I’m right proud of.”

 

It felt a trifle strange to have his head in Cooper’s lap and be spoon fed. Wiley had been in a man’s lap before, but it’d been for an entirely different reason. He was in this position because his caretaker said it was the easiest way to feed him and make sure he didn’t choke. Seemed to work well enough for them both. He felt better with each spoonful of the warm broth and little chunks of tender chicken, and was soon appreciating the soft but sure touch of the man. He smelled clean and fresh, like sunshine on new-cut hay. Wiley, on the other hand, probably smelled like the ass end of a skunk.

His leg wounds were beginning to itch, but he knew from past experience that was a good thing. They were healing. He hadn’t seen his leg yet, but that could wait. Cooper had uncovered it, ‘so the good air could get at it,’ he explained before he sat down to cradle his head; there’d be no lifting up allowed, to get a good look. Not till morning, Wiley was told. Because of the heat from the fire and the man himself, Wiley folded the soft deerskin down to bare his chest as well. His stomach was soon full, and he felt contented enough to fall asleep.

 

He woke slowly to feel the lightest touch of fingers on his scalp. Damn, he had fallen asleep, and his head was still resting on his rescuer’s thigh. The man was humming quietly… a tune he recognized as the lonely song of a cowboy missing the girl who refused to leave her city home and come west. Every so often, he’d sing a line of the words. It was sad, and it was beautiful. He stayed quiet, but a shiver gave him away.

“You awake, Wiley?”

“Yeah, sorry. How long was I sleeping for?’

“Not much more than an hour, I reckon. You ate pretty good. You want me to rustle up some more? Won’t take but a couple of minutes.”

“No. Had enough, I think.” He shivered again.

“You’re getting cold. It gets mighty close to freezing here at night. I’ll just cover you up and fix the fire. Gonna set your head down again. Ready? Might hurt some.”

“Yeah. Go ahead. I’m feeling much better now.” He wasn’t going to admit to Cooper he’d shivered for a different reason; it was hard enough to admit to himself. There was no jolt of pain when the big guy sidled out from under him, placing his head back on the rolled blanket. He looked into a concerned face as the man moved to his side and leaned over, bringing the hide back up to his neck. As banged up as he was, Wiley felt a strong urge to kiss the full lips hovering so close to his own. He closed his eyes and listened to temptation move away.

His mind immediately went to Cletus. He’d buried the bane of his existence only a couple of weeks earlier. God, he’d loved that damn man, but he’d grown to hate him some too. Truth was, he’d been constant trouble, and never could keep his hands off any pretty man who made hisself available.

The only reason Wiley stood it at all was because Cletus never fell for them; always moving on after he got what he wanted, and never minding what hurt he might have left behind. He used to say he never forced nobody, and Wiley supposed that was true enough. He had been so mad at Cletus in the days before he’d taken a bullet in the back that he’d hardly spoken ten words.

It was a replay of the past that was repeated over and over, where they’d go their separate ways, only to end up together again. If he didn’t go looking for Cletus, then his lover would track him down. The last time, it’d been Wiley doing the tracking.

Countless times Wiley had warned him he’d get hisself killed, but just like his declarations he was gonna leave Cletus for good, they fell on deaf ears. The man’s looks and charm had worked for him so many times, he was convinced they always would. They’d worked on Wiley for ten solid years, ever since they were fifteen-year-old neighbors who’d discovered what they were looking for, in each other.

Wiley had cried buckets when he buried him. Cletus had gone and screwed with the wrong rancher’s son, and paid the final price when he’d been hunted down and shot. Wiley had been missed by inches in the same ambush, and was forced to kill one of the three gunslingers before he and Cletus escaped across a turbulent river. It was a short-lived reprieve, though.

Cletus Tyrone Gallagher died the following day, at the ripe old age of twenty-five, after a long night of hard riding. Wiley never should have believed him when he said the bullet hadn’t done serious damage. He carried some guilt for not checking the wound himself.

He knew, same as Cletus did, the pursuit hadn’t ended with the river, so he accepted him at his word. Not that there was much that could be done with hired killers dogging them, other than hole up somewhere and make one last stand. But, there’d been things he would have wanted to say before the man up and left him, falling dead from his horse… words he’d never be able to say to him again. He’d been living with those regrets ever since, and probably always would.

It had taken them more than three months of chasing to find Cletus, but unlike in the past, these men hadn’t given up. Wiley had only found out they were after the man by accident. He’d done some branding work at a big ranch, and overhearing some of the cowboys talking, he knew it was Cletus they were yammering about. This time would be different. This was a rancher you didn’t fuck with.

So Wiley had set out to find Cletus before they did, and when he’d finally located him, in the middle of talking up a fine-looking man in a saloon, they’d taken off, hell-bent for some distance. Turned out Cletus had run out of luck, and he’d used up Wiley’s in the process. Now, because he’d shot one of those gunmen, he was being hunted too. He was obliged to warn Cooper. He didn’t deserve to be put in danger.

Cooper had just finished exchanging the dirty water for fresh, and was setting it back beside the fire to heat when Wiley called to him.

“Something you need? I’m worried about the temperature dropping. You warm enough?”

Why couldn’t Cletus have been this caring? He let one sigh escape. “No, I’m doing fine. I need to talk to you, though. There’s something you ought to know.”

Cooper came closer, squatting down close to him once more. That urge was back, but he pushed it away. “There’s some awful bad men after me, and you shouldn’t be anywhere near me. It’s not safe. These guys are hired killers, and they mean business. They look to be Mexican, and they don’t give up. Almost caught me a couple of times, and would have if not for Cholo being the better horse.”

“Why are they after you?” he asked like he had no care, looking as calm as an old dog after dinner.

“Shot one of them. They were after my friend, and they got him. Shot him in the back and he died the next day. They’ve been staying right on my heels ever since. Barely had time to give him a decent burial… so you best clear out. I’m mighty obliged for all you done.”

“They won’t find you here. You don’t got to worry about me, neither. Besides, they moseyed on past this morning and had no clue this place existed.”

“This morning? That means they’re near. These guys are good, Cooper. If they don’t find any sign, they’ll double back. Trust me on this.” His body was starting to rise, and Cooper placed a restraining hand on his chest.

“You’re not listening to me, Wiley. This place we’re in? Nobody can find it. It looks like any one of the little mountains in these foothills that go for miles. Just a big old pile of rocks surrounded by scrub and sand, but this one has a hidden valley. A fellow would have to have wings to see it. On the outside, it doesn’t stand out from the others. You can stare right at the entrance and not cotton on to what you're looking at. You rode right by it yesterday, in full sun, and didn’t see the opening. Guess that don’t mean much, though, cause you were barely sitting your saddle.

“Been here going on months, and to tell you honest, I’ve got men searching for me too. I’ve watched many a rider go by and not a one is the wiser. You must have been sleeping when you rode up to this place, because you were letting your horse walk on some pretty rocky terrain. This is ground riders avoid, and I only found this place by dumb luck. I was trying to get some shelter from blowing sand, and I was ten feet from the entrance without seeing it for darn near a day.”

“I’ll be damned. What’s it like out there?”

“It’s a valley down yonder, with a spring fed pond that’s always running. It was once an Indian settlement. There’s a bunch of skeletons straight across from where we are, and they’re old. Terrible old. I think the whole village got some kind of sickness and they all just laid themselves down and died. There’s pieces of old blankets and some teepees and pots and stuff. If any Indians do still know of it, it’s probably considered bad medicine to come here.”

He grinned at Wiley. “I don’t cotton to such superstitions. No bad spirits in this place. There’s deer, though, and small game, but no real predators other than snakes, now that I shot your cougar. We’re safe here, so you can stop your fretting.”

“My cougar, was it?” Wiley smiled, starting to believe it was okay to relax. “How close are we to the entrance?”

“It’s not far. My camp’s at the other end. There’s a couple of caves down there, and I’ve built a little sod house in the trees out near the pond. I was worried about rock falls near the caves, but I haven’t seen a one, so they’re safe.

“The entrance… it’s long and winding, and damn narrow. Mighty closed-in feeling with the tall walls on either side. Can’t even hardly see daylight up top. A man can’t walk through on horseback. He’s got to dismount and tie his stirrups up over the seat of the saddle so they don’t get torn off, and his horse has to be willing. Can’t be spooky at all, cause it’s mighty cramped coming through. Your horse did good. I think he was wondering where I dragged you to, cause he was snorting out there, and came right quick and sure when I picked up his reins.”

“Cholo’s a good one. He does whatever he’s asked. No horse better than an Appaloosa.”

“His name got a meaning?”

“Bought him in Mexico as a long yearling. Good horses down there. I could tell he was a special one. Owner referred to him as a cholo… meant he was part Spanish mustang mixed with a Palouse Indian horse. Seemed as good a name as any. So you drug me in here by yourself?”

“Wasn’t that hard,” Cooper said with a smirk. “Carried you some and drug you some. You’re big and all, but I got some strength to me.”

Wiley looked him straight in the eye. “I can see that. You look a fine man.” He couldn’t help smiling when he saw a flush in the light of the fire. “You said you saw me coming?”

“Yup. Keep lookout whenever I got some time. Appeared to me your Cholo was deciding where y’all were going. I’m thinking he smelled water.”

“More than likely that’s what he was headed for. I was plumb tuckered out. Possible I was getting delirious in the sun, but I had enough sense to know I couldn’t stop. Rode two days straight, day and night, and that was after a few months of me and my friend doing some hard riding. Only let Cholo graze a few minutes at a time, and he had to be long due for a drink. Wasn’t fair to him, but I was trying to put some distance between me and those guns, and he’s always willing. Guess I’ll trust you this is a good hideaway. So, who’s after you?”

“Nothing to worry for. No gunmen. We can talk about it later. Need to be bringing in more firewood for the night. Can’t have you getting cold. Fever kept you warm last night, but that’s all gone.” Cooper looked past the fire as he stood up, and Wiley watched him. He really was a fine figure of a man; tall and sturdy with broad shoulders and a well-formed ass over powerful legs. But that appreciation didn’t deflect Wiley from feeling the reluctance to answer his question. Some men had secrets. He would accept this one's privacy, he reckoned as he watched him disappear into the darkness. None of his business anyway.

He returned a few minutes later with an armful of wood to add to the pile. Wiley’s eyes were drawn to the man’s back as he leaned over. Other than Cletus, he’d never felt such an attraction before. It was confusing him. Cooper turned and their eyes met, and for some reason, the younger man looked away quickly. Did he make him uncomfortable?

“Ah, I should have a gander at that wound before we turn in. I don’t think there’s any reason for me to stay awake tonight. I might use a little more of your whiskey just to be safe.”

“You stayed awake all night?”

“Yessir. You had a powerful fever,” he said matter-of-fact like. “Think you already had it when you met the big cat. Didn’t want to take no chances, so I kept cold cloths on your head and chest. It worked cause you were cooled down by morning. That’s why I was able to go check outside, and saw those men ride by. One was wearing a sombrero.” He raised his eyebrows in question and Wiley nodded. “They looked tuckered out too. I slept a few times here and there this afternoon, waiting for you to shake the cobwebs.”

“I’m damn lucky you were around. I’m not used to be taken care of. I’m beholden, and if there’s anything I can do for you, I will.”

“Just doing what’s right. I’m gonna check your leg now.”

Wiley stared up at the stone ceiling as he felt the hide lifted away. The gentle touch of Cooper’s fingers followed as he pushed on his leg wounds. Wiley assumed he was checking for leakage. He felt no pain as he was examined, only a fear his cock would show some excitement as the other man’s fingers brushed through the hair on his thigh. No doubt about it. He was drawn hard to this man and his kindness.

“Gonna hurt. There ain’t no pus, but I think it needs doing. You’re healing fine and dandy.” Cooper held up the whiskey, and Wiley nodded.

“Go ahead. Whiskey works whether you drink it or pour it,” Wiley said with a grin, just before his breath was taken away by the sudden sting of the alcohol being trickled along the slashes. One good thing was it stopped the process of his cock filling out with blood. That alone was worth the good whiskey.

“These are going to be mighty fine-looking scars when they heal. You’ll be able to tell some stories about the time you fought off a huge mountain lion with your bare hands. Means the same, but mountain lion sounds better than cougar.”

Wiley laughed in spite of the burn. “Yeah, but then I’d have to take my britches down to show them.”

“I don’t reckon anyone would mind.” Cooper stumbled on the last word, and kept his head down. Wiley took it as more joking, but he did wonder.

“Well, just make sure you make them look as pretty as you can.” He could see the corners of the man’s mouth turn up slightly.

“All done, and my sewing job looks darn good. I ain’t above bragging,” he said with one of those appealing shit-eating smirks of his. “No bad spots, so you might be able to move it around tomorrow, like I said. How’s it feel?”

“A hell of a lot better than when I first woke up. You must be getting tired?”

“I surely am.” He stood up and looked around. “I’m worried you won’t be warm enough tonight.”

“I’ll be all right. What about you?”

Cooper shrugged. “Got me a bedroll. I’m not worried. One blanket will do me. I’m good and healthy.”

“What about a mattress? I got yours, don’t I?”

“You need it more than me.”

“Suppose. You got something I can piss in? Can’t believe I haven’t pissed since yesterday.”

“You pissed this morning, Wiley, just so you know.” Cooper smirked again. “You pissed a damn lot.”

“Shit. Don’t know that I ever pissed myself before. Sorry.”

“And you still haven’t, so nothing to be sorry for. I got every drop into a kettle.”

“How in the hell did you manage that?” Wiley was too confused to be embarrassed.

“I could tell by how you was moving around you needed to go, so I pushed on your bladder and made you. Was taught that by an Indian woman who worked for my pa. She taught me lots of stuff about healing, like pouring whiskey on a wound, how to sew a person up, about plants, all kinds of things… had no ma… so she looked after me till she died. Just hold on and I’ll get the tin. Don’t be moving that leg at all.”

Wiley laid his head back down. Now he was embarrassed, but the man didn’t seem fazed with the stuff he’d had to do. He heard him return, but didn’t look up as he felt his cock lifted and the skin peeled back.

“Go ahead. Got you aimed right. Let it go, Wiley.” His voice held humor, but Wiley heard a slight tremor in it too. The need to relieve himself was too strong to ignore, and he paid the situation no mind. The relief made any awkwardness recede away.

“Thanks.” He heard the man go outside and then the splash of piss on rock. The man was taking his own turn. He got a shock when Cooper returned, and after the sound of movement, he felt a warm, wet cloth cleaning his cock and balls.

“Missed a few drops that time. There, you’re all done. Wanna clean your teeth or wait till morning?”

Wiley felt the lurch of his cock as blood flowed into it, and was relieved when the supple hide was pulled back over him. Cooper must have gotten an eyeful before he was covered, though. “Sorry. It does that when it gets any kind of attention.”

Cooper chuckled, and Wiley finally looked at the grinning face. Was the red tinge from the cold? Or something else. “Shoot. That thing’s been hard since I undressed you. No need for sorry. So, your teeth? I got a couple of cleaning sticks made up if you want one?”

“Yeah. That would be great.”

The blond man went out of sight for a minute and returned with a tin cup of warm water and handed Wiley a stick prepared the same as he would have done, with the end separated in strands, like a brush. “Thank you.” He went to work cleaning his teeth, and it felt damn good.

“Not a problem. I can tell you look after yours, same as me.” He sat down and proceeded to perform the identical ritual. Wiley’s eyes kept darting to this intriguing young man, and felt pleasure at his nearness. He didn’t understand why he enjoyed sharing such a simple thing, but he did.

 

When Cooper spread his bedroll on the other side of the fire, Wiley called to him.

“You need something?” he asked.

“Yes, I do. You’re gonna freeze out there where there’s more wind. There’s lots of room on top of this here hide. Plenty for us both, I reckon. It’s a good night for cowboy cozying, don’t you think?”

“Maybe, but I don’t want to be causing any movement to your leg.”

“Is it that, or because I stink?”

Cooper chuckled as he stood in the firelight. “You don’t stink.”

“Have to. Haven’t had a bath in weeks.”

“Yeah, you have. I washed the trail dust off you yesterday, and I bathed you again this morning, after you stopped pouring sweat. Got plenty of soap root growing down in the valley.”

There was that smirk again, and Wiley found himself grinning. He also felt himself getting warm at the thought of the man doing that for him.

“Well, if I don’t smell bad, and you lay on my right side, there’s no good reason not to share warmth.” He watched the man waver with uncertainty, and knew just what it would take. “I’m feeling a mite chilled already.”

“Guess it won’t do no harm if I’m on your right,” he said as he picked up his bedroll and carried it over to add to Wiley’s cover. “We’ll shift you to the left some. Now, I’ll lift your foot and calf the width of a cow’s tail and you shuffle over if you can.”

Wiley nodded, and found it easy to move sideways with his injured leg supported by those big hands. When Cooper slid under the covers, he was tempted to remind him cozying meant sleeping naked, skin to skin for best effect, but decided the man had his reasons for staying clothed in britches and cotton shirt. That clean smell invaded his nostrils once more, along with something a little more interesting. A man’s scent that tickled him deep. Wiley lifted his arm and suggested Cooper was too far away to do any good. The blond man slid closer, and his head ended up resting in the nook of Wiley’s one good shoulder. Contented now, Wiley curled his arm around so his hand rested on the rise and fall of a well-muscled chest. Warmth soon enveloped them as their body heat intermingled. Cooper pulled in a deep breath through his nose, and by the time he’d blown it all out, he was fast asleep. Wiley, with a contented sigh, did the same.

Sometime later, he woke to the feel of an arm draped across him, in the act of pulling him close. A tousled head was at his chin, and Wiley’s fingers were wrapped in soft curls. Reassured, he went right back to a dreamland that centered round the man who held him.

 

Sunlight reached his closed eyelids, and the insistent glare of it had him slowly relinquish his hold on the wonderful, warm place he was so reluctant to leave. The first thing to register was that he was alone. He surprised himself with the sense of loss he experienced at the realization Cooper was no longer holding him. There had been feeling… a need in that nightlong embrace. Was he wrong? Get yourself a grip man; it should be Cletus you’re pining for.

Clearing those confusing thoughts from his mind, he soon acknowledged his need to piss. He blinked until his eyes could handle the newly-risen eastern sun, and evaluated his condition as he lay there. His head felt right as rain compared to waking last evening, and his shoulder too, was free-moving, the ache gone. His leg felt stiff, but there was no throb to it. He expected that would change if he moved, but he was determined to see what the limb could take. He swiveled his foot to the left and the right, and the movement caused only partial discomfort. Raising his upper body and resting on an elbow, he threw the covers aside for his first look at his injuries.

Jeeezus! Cooper had been right. He would have some impressive scars, but what struck him most was the amount of sewing the man had done. He’d had stitches before, and these looked to have been done by a doctor. There was a mess of them; each was neatly tied, and the hardened flesh visible here and there looked to be healing damnable well. The skin had been pulled tight together, much closer than he would have thought possible given the length of the claw marks. He maybe didn’t have the best of times over the last few months, but seeing how close the cougar had come to tearing away his manhood, he decided there was much to be thankful for… besides Cooper.

He looked around for the tin kettle he’d relieved himself in the night before, but it wasn’t anywhere he could see. His trusty Colt revolver, though, was. Cooper had placed it and his holster within arm’s reach, along with a fresh tooth stick in a tin cup of water. Wiley laid his head back down, smiling at the thought of the young man. He wasn’t sure he’d ever met another who would have done so much for a stranger. Life was tough for a cowboy who went where the work took him, and that made a lot of men rough around the edges. Cooper was something special. Did he feel that way because of the loss of the man he had always considered his partner in life? Why was Cletus receding so quickly from his mind? He knew the answer to both questions. He just didn’t want to examine them too closely yet.

He rose up again, and turned his attention to his leg. He didn’t know where his new friend was, or how long he’d be, and the pressure of a full bladder was spurring him on. As long as he didn’t move his thigh muscles much, he should be able to stand and make it the few steps to the outside. Besides, if he didn’t piss, his hard cock was likely to stay that way. Cooper had apparently been subjected to that sight plenty enough since his rescue.

 

He’d made it. He was standing in the warm caress of morning sunshine, and after a few stops and starts, his cock softened enough he had a good flow going. Looking to his left, he caught scattered glimpses of Cooper through the trees, walking around the two horses grazing in knee-deep grass. Taking in the downward slope, Wiley wondered when his leg might be able to handle heading down to where Cholo was. It would be nigh on impossible right now, even using the abundant brush as hand holds, but maybe by afternoon it would be manageable, with a little help from Cooper. He was enjoying the peace and the view when the sound of a gun being cocked had him spinning his head to the right. His hand automatically moved to his left hip, but it was a futile gesture. He was naked, and his gun was under the overhang, still laying where Cooper had placed it.

“We meet again, gringo.”

Wiley stared into the hard eyes of the man who’d stepped out from the shadows of a niche in the dark red rock. He recognized him right away as the man who’d shot Cletus. “How… how did you find me?”

“I don’t give up till my job’s done. Knew you had to be hunkered down around here somewhere. You left blood on a rock outside. A little searching was all it took.” He smiled, and Wiley got a glimpse of rotted teeth before it changed to a snarl. “You killed my brother, and I swore to him I’d make you pay.”

Brother? Shit. Wiley’s mind went to Cooper. Was the other one going after him at this very moment? “I’m sorry, mister. I had no beef with you or your brother. You were the ones shooting at me. Shot my friend in the back.”

“Back or front don’t matter to me. Dead is dead and the man had to die. Your friend?” The man raised an eyebrow, and his face broke into a cruel grin. “Your friend who corn-holed the son of the big boss? I think he was more than your friend, no? We found his grave with the pretty flowers over it. Didn’t plant him very deep, did you?”

“What did you do to him?” Wiley’s stomach lurched because he already knew the answer.

“Dug the bastard up… and left him for the critters. He’s in a few stomachs by now, your friend is. I reckon you know his gun?” he asked, waving the Colt revolver in his hand. “Got his initials on it, all fancy like. Think I’ll keep it. Shoots true. Kind of fitting it’ll be his gun what fills you with lead.”

“You son-of-a bitch,” Wiley said with a snarl of his own as tears tried to make an appearance. Cletus was gone. Cooper wasn’t. He had to keep his head. “A gun’s a gun. Don’t matter which one kills a man. So… your partner hiding in the bushes in case you couldn’t handle me by your lonesome?”

The gunslinger eyed him for a few long seconds, before spitting out a brown stream of tobacco juice.

He was too close to hope he’d miss if Wiley leapt for cover, and too far away to charge. Smart man. There was no getting out of this. Never should have left his damn gun back there.

“You’re going to settle me two scores.”

“What does that mean?” God, he hoped the bastard didn’t mean Cooper would be involved in this.

“Means a rattlesnake got my cousin last night. Took him a long time to die, so I reckon I’ll be shooting pieces off you until your heart gives out. Maybe I’ll start with that dick you were just holding.” He lowered his gun almost imperceptibly, and barked out a high-pitched laugh.

There was a whinny from down below, and Wiley recognized it as Cholo’s. The man’s eyes darted sideways, but not long enough to change his situation.

“You should know I’ll be taking care of your new boy too. I know he’s down there somewhere. It didn’t take long to find you another one, did it? You bury one and another pops up, or did you and your friend have him stashed here? Yeah… I reckon that’s it.”

“What the hell are you talking about? I don’t know the guy. He just fixed me up some. What do you mean, you’ll be taking care of him? He ain’t done anything to you. Leave the kid alone. Just take me outside and kill me, and be on your way. He don’t have nothing to do with any of this.”

The man laughed again, a maddening sound if Wiley ever heard one. “You won’t be leaving here, but he will. I’ll take him with me after he gets a look at your carcass laying on the ground in piec….”

The sudden and almost deafening retort of a rifle rang out, echoing around the stone walls, and Wiley flinched as blood spurted from a gaping hole in the gunman’s chest. He stood frozen as the man stumbled backwards and fell, landing on his back at an awkward angle. Blood bubbled up out of his mouth just before his eyes went blank.

Staring at the damage done by one well-placed shot, he turned at the sound of Cooper charging up the trail. Shirtless, he came to a halt a few feet away, and Wiley, still processing, took in his wet hair.

“You all right, Wiley?” He was out of breath, and there was no hiding how shook up he was.

“Yup. Thought I was a dead man. My leg’s about to give out. Damn good shot. How far away were you?”

“Far enough I was worried some I would miss. Cholo warned me something was going on with the way he was acting. When he whinnied, I thought the guy would see me coming. Guess he didn’t. How close was he to shooting you?”

“Close enough I was worried some,” he replied, grinning. Looking at the blond man, it hit home just how much he didn’t want to die.

Cooper caught the repeat of his words, and his lips curled before his eyes returned to the dead man. “That who was after you?”

“Yup. The one who shot my friend in the back. He said his cousin died from a rattlesnake bite last night. That’s the lot of them.”

“Good. Bastard. No use for hired guns. Told you my rifle had good sights.” There was a hint of a smirk on his face that made Wiley want to laugh, but he didn’t. It was slight, but there was no missing the leftover fear in the man’s voice, or his hands. “Let’s get you back to laying down and I’ll take care of this one.”

“What you gonna do with him?”

“Bury him, I suppose.”

Wiley scowled for a second, and gave the dead man a look of disgust.

“You got a problem with that? Something wrong?” Cooper’s voice, steadier now, reached into his thoughts.

“He went and dug up my friend and left him for the vultures to find. Go ahead and bury him. I reckon that’s the smart thing, but the back-shooting coward don’t deserve the consideration for what he did. Should face him downwards cause that’s where he’s headed. It don’t make no never mind now anyway. What’s done is done.”

Cooper regarded him with compassion before Wiley looked away. “He ought not to have done that. It’s not right. Come on before you fall down. Take a hold of my arm.”

 

Wiley got settled back on his fur mattress after noticing the piss pot had been placed right behind his sleeping place. The man had thought of everything after all. He was glad now he hadn’t looked harder for it; he’d a been shot lying down for sure if he hadn’t gone outside because Cooper would have had no view of Wiley and the hired gun. Cooper was right. There was no bad medicine in this valley, though the dead man might disagree. He watched while his wounds were inspected. “Looks none the worse. Did a good sewing job for sure.” Cooper grinned, but it was forced. “You doing all right?”

“Yup. I am. Appears you’re making a habit of saving me.”

“Seems like.”

“Thanks, Cooper. You’re a fine man, and I’d like to think I can call you friend.”

“I’d be honored if you did.” He blushed, but didn’t look away. “Like I said, you can thank the sights on my rifle.”

“No, sir. I’m thanking you.”

Cooper nodded, and this time he did look away. “I’ll be back to make us some breakfast if you can wait?”

“For certain. I’m in no hurry to eat. Sorry I can’t give you a hand with him.” He gestured in the dead man’s direction.

“Don’t take much to cover a man with soft dirt,” he said softly, “but I better go find his horse first.”

He stood and turned, striding away with purpose, but his shoulders were hunched. The sight revealed in that moment shocked Wiley to his core. It shook him up even more than having the gun pointed at him, and he’d never look at that broad back the same. The naked skin was crisscrossed with ropy scars made by a whip. A fine horsewhip from the size of the lines. They didn’t look all that old either; he could see the angry redness once it was displayed in full sun. Who the hell had given him such a vicious beating? It looked damn personal, and Wiley had to suppress the desire to call Cooper back for answers. Maybe it was something he had no right to ask about. Is that why he’d kept his shirt on last night?

 

He heard the man before he saw him. Cooper had at some point reclaimed his shirt, and judging by his wet hair, he’d cleaned up in the pond again, likely to wash the stink of death off his body.

“He had two horses and saddles, and five guns… both are bay mares with no markings or brands. They look like a thousand other horses. They were hard rode for sure. Wasn’t easy, but I loaded him on one and took them down the other side so I could bury him in the thicker brush. Be hard to find the grave where I put him. Turned the mares loose with ours, and cleaned up the few prints that were out there. Ready to eat?” Cooper sounded like hisself, but something felt different to Wiley.

“I could hear you out there earlier. One mare must have been his cousin’s. Eating’s not a terrible idea. What are you serving?” Wiley tried not to stare too intently.

“How about eggs and biscuits, and I’ll make a stew for supper.”

“Cougar stew?”

Cooper chuckled. “Nah. He’s not rotted enough to be tender, but I do have a fresh rabbit.”

“Have to do, I guess.” He chuckled too. “I do love rabbit. Where’d you get the eggs?”

“There’s prairie hens laying eggs all over the place. Keep a close watch, and I grab them afore the hen sets. Store them in a cave that’s always got some chill. And there’s goats up in the rocks. Lots of good eating around here. I figure the Indians planted a bunch of stuff and now it grows wild. There’s a fair bit of corn I make flour from.” Cooper was rambling, and Wiley let him. “So biscuits and eggs? I can reheat the soup from last night to go with it. Still a bunch of chicken in it, and it’ll be losing its chill by now. Gotta use it up.”

“Sounds a damn fine breakfast to me.”

“All right then. Won’t be long.”

The cheeriness was surely covering up his friend’s nervousness, and Wiley wondered if it was because of killing a man, or something to do with exposing his scars. Killing was never easy, but it was a part of life. The scars were another matter. He’d wait, and if Cooper wanted to talk, he’d listen.

After a quiet meal, Cooper said he had some meat to smoke in a cave down on the valley floor. “Do you think you’ll be all right by yourself for the day? I can make the stew at my camp and bring it up when it’s done.”

“I could help, if you give me a hand.”

“Nope; you can’t. I know you can stand, but try and go down that slope and you’ll bust up all my sewing work even if I half carried you. I can tell your leg needs another day of rest, and so does your head, no matter how good it feels. You can do that here as well as anywhere. I’ll give Cholo a rubdown while I’m tending to stuff. Didn’t have time to do it yesterday.”

“All right. Can’t argue with my doc now, can I? Be just fine on my own. I’ll take it easy one more day. Feeling sleepy anyway.” Wiley got a niggling feeling Cooper needed time to hisself. Whatever was bothering him, now was not the time for talking.

“Good. Sleep’s the best thing for you. I’ll be back around supper time. There’s fresh water in the pail, and the piss tin is still clean, seeing as you chose not to use it.” Picking up his rifle, he walked away and out of sight, leaving Wiley to sort out his own messed-up head. He couldn’t cotton on to any one thing. His mind was traveling from the vision of an exposed Cletus, laying on the ground at the mercy of vultures and anything else that wanted to prey on him, to the exposed carnage on the back of his new friend. More and more, it settled on Cooper, and the guilt and confusion were too much, so he shut down, letting himself slowly drift off into oblivion.

 

He still hadn’t used the piss tin. Two times Wiley had gotten up and walked outside, hoping to get a glimpse of Cooper in the lower reaches. No such luck, though. He’d watched the four horses for a time as they moved up the valley in his direction. It was good to see Cholo just being a horse after the hard riding of the last few months. He studied them for a few minutes, but no mare looked to be in season. Even from a distance, he could tell Cooper’s mount was an exceptional piece of horseflesh. She stood out from the other two, and not just for her flashy coloring. He felt a little disappointment for his four-legged buddy. He was too fine a horse not to be putting some foals on the ground. It was always in his plans if he ever got to settle down.

The only sign of the blond man was a thin stream of smoke coming from an opening in the stone wall that dissipated long before rising any great distance. There was no danger of it being spotted outside their refuge. Even though there was no longer anyone pursuing him, at least as far as he knew, Cooper had mentioned there were those searching for him. More questions about the man. All in due time. The one thing he knew for certain was that he wasn’t in any hurry to leave his new friend… no hurry at all. There was no Cletus to worry about or fret over anymore, and maybe Cooper needed him. If that was the case, he’d have his back, whatever it took. He’d woken up with the decision made. He had nothing to feel guilty about.

 

Supper too, had been quiet. Cooper showed up in early evening, apologizing for being late with the stew after dropping a sack to the floor. Wiley had expected him to smell of smoke, but there was no sign of it.

“You’re late? Thought your timing was good,” Wiley said in response. Something told him the man had fought some demons that day, and he looked tired. Of course, dragging a full-grown man any distance isn’t easy work, never mind the digging and covering. Would have taken a lot of effort just to get that big body up on a horse.

“Stew’s ready. I’ll just put it in the cups. Did you get good rest today?”

“Slept on and off, and I’m still tuckered.”

“That’s because your body’s fixing itself. You weren’t in too good a shape afore the cougar tried to make a meal of you.”

“Suppose not.” Conversation died after that as night moved in. Wiley, his supper well-finished, watched as Cooper got up from his log seat to take their cups and spoons over to the steaming pot and clean them. Next, he watched him rebuild the dwindling fire and bring in more wood, knowing there wasn’t a chance in hell he’d be lying around the next day. He didn’t like not chipping in with the chores. “Cooper?”

The man turned his head, appearing startled for a second.

“Where’s my clothes… and my boots?”

“Did you see your saddlebags over yonder?” He gestured to the back wall.

“Yup, saw them, but not my britches. A man needs his britches,” he said jokingly. “Are they still in one piece?”

“Almost. Got em cleaned and patched some. They need a little more sewing and they’ll be done. Had them soaking and then laid them out in the sun. Brought you a pair of mine that’s got your blood stains all over them.” He gestured to the gunny sack he’d brought back with him.

“My blood?”

“Yeah, from when I carried you in here. You were dripping red the whole time. My shirt’s in there too, but it don’t look much better. They’re clean as I can get ‘em, though, and they ought to fit you good and loose seeing as how I got more flesh on me. Don’t want nothing tight over those stitches of yours. These here,” he said, gesturing to himself, “they’re my Sunday best.” His face lit with the first grin Wiley had seen since his return.

“Sorry I ruined your clothes.”

“Nothing to be done about it. They’re just clothes.”

“What about my boots?”

“They needed some work.”

“They did?”

“Yup. Got them sitting with clay inside them, drying out.”

“You put clay in my boots? Why in tarnation would you do that?”

“Cause they stunk to the heavens, that’s why. Trick I learned. Coat them with clay inside, and let it dry. Then you bang the boots around and the clay flakes off, and the stink with it. Did them twice already, but they needed a third. That was some powerful odor.” He grinned again. “Don’t worry. Do it to my own all the time. Fresh as a daisy, my boots are.”

Wiley laughed. “Reckon they were a wee bit foul. Thanks.”

“Don’t mention it. They’re good boots. Coated the outside with some rendered deer fat. Can’t put that on the inside, though, cause it could turn rancid when you wear them a while. Need proper sheep lanolin for that, but they don’t really need it. Did your latigo straps on your saddle too. They were dry and starting to crack, but the leather’s still good. Your saddle looks dang pretty now with all the grime off it and a good coating of the grease.”

Wiley listened to Cooper, thunderstruck at what the man had spent the day doing. No wonder he looked tired. He’d saved his life, cooked for him, killed for him… buried a man, sewed his clothes and did his laundry, and cleaned his boots and saddle. Why? He had to ask. “Why would you do all that? Ain’t nobody done me so much kindness before. Only one to ever clean my saddle or boots in my whole life, was me.”

The man fidgeted some. “I like you, Wiley. You need looking after for a spell, and I don't mind doing it.” He looked like he’d been caught stealing penny candy from a jar.

“I like you too. I like you plenty. If you need anything from me, just ask. You said someone was looking for you, and if you want to talk, I’ll listen. I’ll stick around as long as you need me to. Count on it.”

“You’ll stick around?”

“If you want.”

A full-blown smile appeared and whatever cloud he’d been under, lifted in that moment. “I thought you’d be itching to head out since all those gunmen are dead.”

Was that the problem? “Way I see it, I got no reason to leave just yet. Got no place I need to be, or anyone to go to. So you got me as long as you want me.”

Cooper looked at him, really looked at him, as if he had trouble believing him. He opened his mouth to speak, but closed it for a time. Finally, he spoke. “Thanks. It’s been powerful lonely here. I’d like it if you stayed. Got lots of work needing doing, to get ready for winter. Don’t know how cold it’ll get, but I don’t want to be caught unawares. Already got a stack of hay cut for the horses, but we’ll need a damn sight more unless we turn those other mares loose.”

Winter? How long was Cooper planning on staying in this valley? Wiley wondered about why he was hiding. It didn’t matter, no how. The man looked happy again, and that was good enough. He was in need of supplies, though. He didn’t want to be any more beholden than he already was. “I had a gander at them today. They’re decent mares; wouldn’t mind keeping them around. I think Cholo would agree.” That brought another big smile to Cooper’s face. “How far to the nearest town?”

Quicker than a scared rabbit, the smile disappeared. “Three hour ride at an easy lope. Small town.”

“Would you be wanting to take a ride in with me? If I’m going to be here for a time, I’ll need to stock up. Get some new clothes, some food supplies, and I’m getting low on bullets. Got money, but I might need more. Is there a bank I could get money wired to?”

The younger man had stopped moving, as if frozen.

“Cooper?”

He turned his head and made fleeting eye contact. “Yeah, there’s a bank and a telegraph office. You won’t be riding for a good week yet. Maybe two. Should have those stitches out first. Lots of bullets in the Mexican’s saddle bags. I, uh… can’t be going to town.”

“Why not?” Wiley didn’t want to stick his nose in the man’s affairs, but he needed to know what the issue was. He couldn’t ride into a strange place not knowing what might come at him.

“It’s a long story.”

“Happens I got me plenty a time, thanks to you.”

“Might scare you off. Probably will.”

“Ain’t gonna get scared off, Coop. Swear on it.”

“You can’t swear on it, not without knowing. My pa called me Coop.”

Wiley didn’t say anything. There was a time for a man to stay quiet. He waited.

Cooper sat down on his wooden seat and poked the fire some. “My pa wants me home. He sent some men after me. I went into town after I found this place, to get supplies, and I heard a man ask about me by name. Said there was a reward. Hightailed it out of there and ain’t been back since.”

Wiley waited for him to say more, but he didn’t. Didn’t look at him either. “Why’s your pa wanting you back?”

Cooper blew out some air. He finally met Wiley’s eyes with his own, and Wiley saw pain. “He wants my money. He don’t want me.” He stood up, and it looked to Wiley that he was going to walk away, but he sat back down instead. “He wants my inheritance from my grandfather. Says the old bastard owes him a dowry for my mom, and that money’s rightly his.”

“How big is this inheritance?”

“Big enough he can buy more land to add to what he’s already got. He’s got thousands of acres, but he wants more. He always wants more. I promised my grandpa I’d never let him have it. He set it up so I can’t get it till I’m twenty. My pa has papers drawn up for me to sign, but I won’t do it. A promise is a promise, and he don’t need it. He just wants to beat my grandpa at something. Wasn’t nothing but hate between them since my ma died after birthing me.”

Wiley heard Cooper’s normally strong voice start to carry a tremble for the second time that day. “He can’t force you to sign nothing, Coop… Cooper.”

“You can call me Coop. I like it. You don’t know my pa. He ain’t used to not getting what he wants. He’s a dangerous man, my pa is.”

“Dangerous enough to do that to your back?” It slipped out because Wiley found himself getting angry.

Cooper hung his head as low as it could go. “Yup,” he whispered.

“Jesus Christ. He did that to his own son for money he don’t need?” He wished he could pace right now. Instead he had to lie there and watch someone he was caring about more than he thought possible, in obvious suffering. The dark gold head slowly rose, and Wiley stared into shimmering eyes he knew were pale blue, but now looked much darker.

“He didn’t horsewhip me because of the money… he did it cause he says I’m an abomination.” His eyes stayed locked on Wiley’s as if waiting for the next question.

“Abomination? Why would he say that?”

“Cause I laid with a man.” This time he did get up and walk away, out past the fire. “I don’t hold you to your swear. I’ll be back in the morning. There’s stew left.”

Wiley almost panicked as he watched the wide back disappear. “Coop!” he yelled. “You git back here… please.” He kept his eyes on the entrance, hoping the man would reappear in the fading light. “I stand by my swear,” he bellowed out as loud as he could.

Wiley got himself stood up, and started walking fast as he was able toward the opening when Cooper reappeared. “You shouldn’t be moving so quick on that leg.” His eyes were wet.

“You shouldn’t have left. I stand by my swear.”

“I heard you. You got a set of lungs on you.” For a split second there was amusement, and then his face turned to stone. “Let’s get you back to bed.”

“I’m standing up. Might as well put a shine to the rocks.” Wiley gave him the most reassuring smile he could before moving farther out to relieve himself. When he turned around, Cooper stood by the fire, staring into it.

Walking toward him, a dull throb hampering his speed, he stopped when Cooper asked, “Need help?”

Wiley didn’t, but he had a good understanding of the man. “You could help me down. Makes it easier. You were right. I shouldn’t have moved so fast.” Firm but shaking hands helped ease him over and onto the fur mattress, and then covered him with the deerskin. Wiley finally managed to catch his darting eyes. “Don’t leave again, all right? We need to talk.”

“Didn’t expect you’d want to talk after what you heard.”

“Before I say anything, could you please just sit yourself down, and stop thinking I’m going to hate on you, because I’m not.” Cooper stared at him a few seconds and then returned to his previous seat. “So you laid with a man. That don’t no way make you an abomination. If it did, then a hell of a lot of us men are abominations. But, what your pa did makes him one.”

Cooper turned his head sharply. “You believe that?”

“I’ll only speak the truth to you. We’re friends, remember?”

He nodded, looking a little less rigid.

“So, do you think your pa is still looking for you?”

“I know he is. He won’t quit till I reach twenty. He’ll give up then, I reckon, if I’m not under his roof.”

“When do you turn twenty?”

“This winter. End of November.”

“All right. So the heat should be off by spring. We could leave then if we wanted?”

“We?”

“Coop. I’m not leaving you alone for the winter. I know you can fend for yourself, but I can go get us supplies, and you can’t. Besides. Happens I don’t want to leave you. Now, tell me about your pa. What’s his name, and whereabouts is his land?”

Cooper looked mighty pleased at Wiley’s pledge. “My pa is Milton Sarasin, and his ranch is about… what’s the matter, Wiley?”

Wiley knew his jaw had dropped upon hearing the name. He closed it, but he couldn’t hide his shock. “I know who your pa is. Worked for him a few months back.” It couldn’t be, could it? “You got a brother, Coop?”

“Yeah. Half-brother. He’s younger than me… almost fifteen. Name’s Niles. Why?”

“I thought….” Which brother was it? Please… not both. “He was pointed out to me when I worked branding a few days at the Sarasin Ranch.”

“Yeah. So?”

Wiley had to know. “Do you mind if I ask you about that man you laid with?”

“If you feel the need to. I’ll only speak the truth to you too.” His flush was noticeable, but he wasn’t fidgeting.

“Was his name Cletus?”

Cooper’s eyes widened, and he stood. “How the hell did you know that? Did my pa…?”

“What? Send me? Jesus, no. Don’t be thinking that… hell.” Cooper slowly sat back down. Wiley wanted to throw up. “So it was Cletus.”

“Cletus Gallagher, yeah. So if my pa didn’t send you, how did you know who I laid with?”

“I didn’t know. Not till right now. My friend I buried? That was Cletus. I thought it was your brother he took advantage of, and I was so angry he used a boy that way. I didn’t hardly speak to him for the time we were running. Running from your pa’s men, it turns out. That man you shot… it makes sense now. He was saying he was going to take you with him… he knew who you were, Cooper. How would he know that from where he was? He must have seen you closer than I thought.”

“I’ll be damned.” Cooper ran both hands through his hair. “This is too much. I thought I’d seen him afore, but a dead man looks different, and my pa has lots of Mexicans working for him. He’d could a recognized my mare from her markings, I’m thinking. Any cowboy would remember her, being so fine and all.

“So, my pa’s men were after Cletus all that time? And you were with him after he disappeared?” The man’s confused turmoil showed, and Wiley let him be. It took him a minute to speak again. “I didn’t know Pa made it a concern, but it ain’t no surprise. He considered he owned me. I heard some rode out after him, but I reckoned they were sent to scare him off. I never thought my pa would want him dead.” Cooper appeared to be processing as he talked, and the struggle of it showed. “So… you knew Cletus was that way?”

“That way? Yes, I knew. Cletus wasn’t only my friend. He was my lover. We were together for ten years, ever since we were fifteen years old.” There was no other way Wiley could see to say it, and Cooper looked like he’d had the wind knocked out of him. His mouth worked a few times like a fresh-caught trout’s on dry land. Wiley gave him time to let it sink in. He had a passel of questions, but they could wait for his friend to get his bearings. Truth be told, he needed the same thing.

As bad as Cletus was, he hadn’t used some half-grown kid for his pleasure. He wished he’d a known that before the man fell from his horse. Wiley thought it'd been the young one he’d seen; turns out he was wrong. No one mentioned another, older son at the Sarasin ranch. Dammit. He’d been so unfair to his lover. Shouldn’t have been so damn angry at him in his final days… should have known he wouldn’t have used a boy.

“You must hate me terrible.”

Startled, Wiley reacted with surprise. “Good God Almighty! Why would you think that?” He regretted his loud tone when Cooper jerked.

“Because my pa’s men killed Cletus… and I laid with your man. I’m sorry. Cletus… he said stuff… and I took him at his word. I didn’t know there was someone… you. Appears to me those are damn good reasons to hate me.” His head hung low again, his eyes focused on the ground.

“Cooper, Jesus. I’m not the least bit riled at you, and I sure as heck don’t hate you. Look at me. And you listen good.” He waited for the younger man to lift his head and look his way. “For the start, you aren’t responsible for what your pa did, so don’t even consider that. And trust me, please; you weren’t the first innocent man Cletus spun his web around, and you sure as hell wouldn’t have been the last if he’d lived. Cletus was an expert at getting what he wanted. He thought nothing of using men and throwing them away. He never saw it as wrong acting, plain and simple.”

“Already figured some of that out, at least where I was concerned, but you said he and you were together. Wasn’t right for your end.”

“Maybe not. I never did to him what he did to me.” He was remembering as he spoke. “I wanted Cletus to change, but it was like expecting a frog to turn blue. He couldn’t do it… not for very long anyway. The last five years about drove me outta my mind. I loved him, but the fact is I got so I didn’t like him much. I’m sorry for what he did to you.”

“I went along with him. I wanted to. Can’t put all the blame on him. Learned what he was about, though, when he took off the night we were seen by one of my pa’s men. He said he’d meet me the next day and we’d run away together, but he never showed up at the spot he told me to wait.

“My Pa did, though. That’s when he lay the beating on me. In front of five men, he ripped my shirt off and whipped me till I passed out. Said I was an abomination and had an evil spirit in me. Locked me in my room and promised he’d beat the devil out of me again after I healed some.

“Got away when he and his men went into town for some drinking. He’ll be angry I took the door plumb apart. He’ll be even angrier I took my mare when I left, but she was mine no matter his plans for her. That was four months ago, give or take. Lucky I found this place before his men caught up with me. He’d a messed up my back again, or worse, if that hired gun from this morning had taken me back.”

Wiley took in the hurt behind the words. “You should be hating Cletus. He ruined your life just so he could get his fun. Going through all that was because he played with you. You shouldn’t be so forgiving. I’m not.”

“Don’t be hating him on my account, Wiley. No point to it. I look at it as he showed me who I was. I was plumb confused before him. Never thought I’d get the chance to… figure it out like I did. I fell for him, sure, but that was my fault, and it doesn’t change that I got some answers I needed. Gotta thank him for those. It’s a powerful gift he gave me.”

“You have to be the best man I ever met. I never considered it like that, maybe cause it hurt me so bad. He was never satisfied with just me.” Tears came out of nowhere, an embarrassment to any cowboy, and he fought them. Only a couple got past his gates.

Cooper’s concern was written all over his face. “Like I said, I don’t hate him, but hearing that, the man was a damn fool.”

“Yeah?”

“Yessir. He was lacking some smarts not to appreciate what he had.”

“Thanks. And, I guess I don’t hate him either. Not really.” Wiley stopped, and realized he spoke the truth. His disgust with the man had faded away, thanks to Cooper. “Cletus couldn’t help who he was. He was too pretty for his own good, so I guess I shouldn’t blame him for taking advantage when men kept falling for him.”

“It’s right you don’t hate him, but I don’t cotton to that thinking at all, Wiley. You’re prettier than he was, and you’re not the kind to take advantage. You’re made different from him. You’re a better man.”

Wiley was thrown for a loop at how forthright Cooper was. He only spoke the truth, and it made his heart move up to his throat that this good person saw him that way.

“So, you said there are lots of men who lay with other men?”

Wiley nodded, taking a few seconds to examine the depth of his feelings.

“Are more of them like Cletus, or are more of them like you… and me?”

Wiley got it was an important question from the younger man, and weighed his words. “Men are men, no matter who they’re inclined to lie with. Some think nothing of stepping out on the one who loves them, and there are lots of cowboys who care nothing for love. They just want the pleasure.

“Others are different, and they love just the one. They’re men like us. Just like with men and women, I reckon most of us who lie with men are happy staying true. There are lots of men who live together for their whole lives. No one says anything, but they are the ones who never marry, and the ones who build the best lives they can. I got me a little spread. It’s not much… it’s isolated, and the buildings need work, but I don’t need much. Been mine for three years, and it’s been sitting empty the whole time because Cletus said he wasn’t ready for that life. He never would have been. I’ve known that for the last couple of years, but I had a hard time letting go.”

“Would you have?”

“Would I have what?”

“Let go. Live on your spread?”

“I don’t know. I loved him, but I was getting damn tired of not being happy. And I’m getting tired of being another man’s ranch hand. Want to build something of my own. On this last run of ours, things were different. He tried, but he couldn’t get me turned around this time. I could tell it worried him, but my anger wouldn’t budge. I don’t know if that was because I thought he’d used a boy not much more than a child, or if it was just that I’d had enough.”

“Can’t believe I’m talking to anyone about this, but I hope someday I find a man like you. I would be true, and honored to share a spread with one man.” Cooper was staring out past the fire into the new darkness.

“I know you would.” Wiley waited, but Cooper didn’t turn his head back. “You could find me if you wanted,” he said softly.

At that, the blond head swiveled, and the intensity of his stare made Wiley’s breath catch. “Are you saying…?”

Wiley nodded. “I’m saying I started hankering bad for you as soon as I saw the man you were.”

“But… what about Cletus? I don’t hardly compare to a man like him.”

“No, you don’t. You’re nothing like him. Should say he’s nothing like you. He could never match up to the man you are. I won’t speak any more ill of him… he had his good points and he had his flaws, but you’re just as pretty on the outside, and a hell of a lot prettier on the inside. I like you, Coop. I more than like you. In all my times lying with Cletus, he never once held me like you did last night. You got a lot of love inside, and so do I. I’d like to give mine to you… if you want it.”

“Hell and damnation, I want it for certain,” Cooper said with a measure of disbelief. “I thought I cared for Cletus, but that was nothing compared to what’s been filling my heart since you… needed me. I about died when I thought you were gonna get shot this morning. I more than like you too, Wiley. I can’t rightly say I ever thought you might feel anything near to what I do, so I didn’t even bother to hope. I just reckoned I’d enjoy your company while I could. I expected I’d end up by my lonesome again.”

“I’m telling you for real, Coop. No need for that kind of thinking anymore cause I’ll be right here with you till you push me away.”

“Truth is, you’re all the way over there,” Cooper said shyly, but with confidence beginning to show in a grin Wiley responded to.

He grinned back, and then chuckled. “We can rectify that sure enough. Come to bed and you can hold me same as you did last night. I’d like it just fine.”

“I’d like it too. Was the best kind of waking up I ever had. Didn’t think I should be holding you like that, but I couldn’t let go.” He blushed, and Wiley let his love fully loose. “I’ll just bank the fire and have myself a piss.” He looked so happy as he leapt to his feet, Wiley felt tears again. These were a different kind, though. A damn nice kind, and he wasn’t worried at all they’d be seen.

It seemed a racoon’s age before Cooper was walking towards him, ready to call it a night. Wiley pulled the cover aside for him, and saw a bit of uncertainty in his approach. “Maybe you could leave off the shirt this time.”

Cooper grinned, and shucked it immediately, his uncertainty no longer showing. “So, does that mean you’re wanting me to keep my britches on?”

“No, sir. I want you naked for proper cozying.” His laughter dwindled when Coop’s britches dropped to the floor. Just like he thought. He was a damn fine man. Damn fine indeed.

Their first tentative, exploring kiss was one he would never forget, and judging by the sound Coop made when it was over, he wouldn’t either. In a moment of clarity, he realized, in the end, Cletus had given him this, and instead of anger, he owed his first love a debt of gratitude. The renewed press of tender lips took away his ability to think of any man but the one who held him close.

He smiled into those lips when he heard Cholo’s happy whinny. Yeah, he’d approve of this one for certain. The pretty man came with a pretty mare.

A huge thank you to my editor, Timothy M., and thank you to Valkyrie for her excellent proofing.

Copyright © 2016 Headstall; All Rights Reserved.
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental. Note: While authors are asked to place warnings on their stories for some moderated content, everyone has different thresholds, and it is your responsibility as a reader to avoid stories or stop reading if something bothers you. 
2016 - Winter - Rewind: Pre-2016 Themes Entry

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I already have Chris Pratt cast in the role of Coop.
Will they start raising horses, all from Cholo the stud? Will they move to Wiley's place? Will they sell it and stay in their idyllic valley? If these two fine fellas and their lives make the occasional appearance, I wouldn't mind it one bit.
Nicely done, Gary

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Westerns are not my favorite genre, but I did enjoy this story! Is Chris Pratt a bit old to be Coop? I'm thinking Chris as Wiley instead. ;-)

 

I'd be happy to read more tales of Coop and Wiley too.

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On 12/24/2016 12:52 AM, ColumbusGuy said:

Okay, I won't say I'm a fan of Westerns now, but you brought me durn close, I reckon. :D

 

I'm glad that Wiley and Cooper found themselves being drawn to each other...and the previously unknown connection had me very worried that that might come between them...but I am happy that it brought Wiley reconciliation with Cletus' actions, and removed the hate he'd been harboring for months. The other added benefit is that Cooper now has no fear of being tracked down, since the men after Cletus and Wiley were the same ones.

 

I envision plenty of healing for both of them now that they're together, and hope Cholo can find his own partner to mosey off into the sunset with.... A big YEE--HAW for this one, my dearest friend.

I reckon that makes me happy, pardner :) . There was another theme called 'Beginnings and Endings' that I had in mind, and some of that is here, in this story... had another idea for that theme too, but never got around to it. Wiley's been hurting a long time in his love for Cletus, but he can let him go now without feeling pain. Cletus gave him Cooper in a roundabout way, and Cooper is the REAL man of his dreams... the kind of man he needs to be happy. And Cletus got Cooper ready for what he truly wanted... and that is a man like Wiley... One thing I should point out... the men after Cletus were not the ones after Cooper... that gunman recognized him(or his mare) though from working for his father. There are still men searching for the young man. :) . Don't worry about Cholo... I made sure he had the start of his harem with the three pretty ladies hehe. Thanks foe reviewing, buddy... cheers... Gary... xo

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On 12/28/2016 01:41 AM, Caz Pedroso said:

A sweet story.

 

I wanted to get hold of the father and Cletus.

 

The father to give him a taste of the 'medicine' he gave his son.

 

And Cletus to shake some sense into him. He should have realized what he had before it was too late.

Thanks, Caz! Cletus was a fool, and Cooper's father was a controlling bastard. In the end, they put Wiley and Cooper together... two men with a lot of love to give... glad you liked it... thanks for reviewing, Caz... cheers... Gary....

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Nice Gary. I've always liked western stories. Even played one ... red dead redemption!
This was a refreshing change.

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On 12/29/2016 01:11 AM, Kitt said:

You hopeless romantic you!

Guilty as charged. And it's too late to change now :) . Thanks for your support, and for reviewing, wonderful lady... cheers... Gary....

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On 12/29/2016 04:03 AM, Mikiesboy said:

Nice Gary. I've always liked western stories. Even played one ... red dead redemption!

This was a refreshing change.

Thanks, tim. Me too... always loved them, so I don't know why the urge didn't hit me earlier. I can see myself writing more of this genre. Thanks for reviewing, my friend... cheers... Gary....

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This is a wonderful western. It has three characters who are so realistic I felt at the end I knew them. I was putting the words into their mouths before I read them. Cletus was perfectly portrayed even though he wasn't 'in' the story at all. Cooper and Wiley managed to fully convey how he was imperfect and yet they both loved him in different ways. While one man's scars were on his back, the other's were in his soul. I believe Cletus had hurt him over and over and even in his grief, he felt relief. Hopefully they can look past their scars and find real happiness. Lovely tale!!! Thanks,

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On 12/31/2016 05:15 AM, Cole Matthews said:

This is a wonderful western. It has three characters who are so realistic I felt at the end I knew them. I was putting the words into their mouths before I read them. Cletus was perfectly portrayed even though he wasn't 'in' the story at all. Cooper and Wiley managed to fully convey how he was imperfect and yet they both loved him in different ways. While one man's scars were on his back, the other's were in his soul. I believe Cletus had hurt him over and over and even in his grief, he felt relief. Hopefully they can look past their scars and find real happiness. Lovely tale!!! Thanks,

Thanks, Cole! I must admit, of the three I wrote, this one is special to me. Probably because of how I loved westerns as a kid, and because I lived every second of this as I wrote it. You just made my day :) . I was worried about getting the dialogue right... staying true to the characters and the time period, but not going too over the top. What you say about knowing them and putting words in their mouths before you read them, is awesome to hear. I couldn't ask for a better review... cheers... Gary....

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