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2007 - Winter - Worth Fighting For Entry

Mendin' Battle Lines - 1. Mendin' Battle Lines

**This is the third part of a continuing series. Underneath This Big Ol' Sky Part 1 and Part 2 can be found as part of the Gay Authors Spring & Summer 2007 Anthologies**

The darkness of night gave way to the light of dawn as Will stepped out onto the old wooden stoop of the old wooden bunkhouse. It would hold together for several years to come, just like the house and the barn would; the stuff built today just didn't have the same quality. Tracey had just brushed past him and, after a mumbled good morning, headed straight for the bathroom. Will imagined a shower would be something much appreciated after having slept outside all night, the early morning dew falling on you, the previous day's clothes sticking to your body, and from the way Tracey had smelled, hay.

Curiosity tumbled through his mind as he watched the sky's cerulean color fade into something that resembled a much more insipid blue. He wondered what those boys had gotten up to all night, and he hoped Casey was still in one piece after the display he had seen the night before. Tracey might not be as thick, or as built as himself or Casey after all the years of work on the ranch, but the guy packed a hell of a punch, of that, he had no doubt.

Tracey could get himself to breakfast, Will decided, his curiosity getting the better of him, the moist soil crumbling around his boot as he stepped of the small stoop and headed toward the main house and the barn. He'd check the barn first, he decided, knowing that if Casey wasn't already inside, that's where he'd likely be. Casey seemed to get some secret comfort inside the walls of that barn, and Will never questioned it, just let him have his space to think things over.

Casey could be hard headed, Will knew that as good as anyone, and sometimes it would take him a while to come around, to warm up to an idea, but somehow sitting in this barn and thinking things over seemed to help him sort it out. Will hoped Casey had done his sortin' last night, since he wasn't in the barn now, he thought, as he headed for the house, and some of Janie's breakfast. Will chuckled to himself as his stomach growled at the idea of Janie's cooking, thinking that if it were true what they say, that the way to a man's heart is through his stomach, he'd have been head over heels a long time ago.

Will heard some rustling as he walked past the old blue pick-up truck, and had he not stopped to look inside the bed, he never would've seen Casey lying there under the thick grey blanket. He laughed as he realized why Tracey had smelled like hay when he saw the way Casey was all nestled in, only a part of his face showing from underneath that blanket. Will's arm lay across the roof of the truck while he leaned against it, and he knocked against the metal, in an effort to wake Casey.

"Morning, Case," Will smiled cheerfully, but he was usually cheerful, so that wasn't surprising.

Casey groaned as the noise intruded on his semi-conscious state, reaching out for the warm body he had held all night, and being unable to find it, he pouted. All this without opening his eyes to the new day, and Will chuckled at his pitiful expression, even if he didn't know what it was Casey was looking for.

"Up and at 'em, Cowboy," Will spoke, and then chewed at his lip momentarily while he waited for the words to register in Casey's mind. Casey's forehead wrinkled slightly as he tried to cock an eyebrow at Will's choice of words without actually having to open his eyes, and Will found that entirely too entertaining, his lip slipping through his teeth in order to spread widely across his face as he laughed out loud.

"Who you calling Cowboy?" Casey grumbled.

Will knew that would get his attention, after all, that's why he'd said it. It was sort of an established practice between the two to distinguish themselves from cowboys; they were ranchers, and that was different. Sure they wore boots and rode horses, but they weren't rodeo-ridin', bronco-bustin', buckaroos. They were business men, even if they did look forward to the Fall Harvest Rodeo and Carnival as much as the next man.

Casey made an effort to get up, his arm snaking its way out from under the thick blanket. He felt disoriented somehow, and he didn't like the feeling. He remembered waking up while it was still moist out, and the moon was still high in the sky, with his arms wrapped around Tracey, but now Tracey was gone, and he was left alone with this disconcerting feeling. Tracey's back pressed into his chest, and his hand in Casey's, certainly felt preferable to whatever this feeling was.

"It's getting late, Case," Will answered, avoiding the taunt he had used earlier, and rapping his knuckles against the cool metal once more.

"I'm up," Casey proved as he sat up, his strong, plaid covered torso emerging from underneath the gray wool. He brushed at his shoulders, probably out of habit, more than necessity, before climbing over the side of the truck, leaving him standing next to Will.

"Good, cause I'm hungry," Will said unambiguously. "Think we can make it through a meal without it turning into an out and out brawl?" and he was only being a partial smart aleck.

"I won't touch him," Casey said certainly. "I'm gonna go clean up," he decided, making his way towards the long, yellow house.

By the time Casey stepped inside, it was clear he wasn't going to have as much time as he'd like, the aroma from the kitchen wafting through the house and settling in his stomach. As appealing as the warm maple syrup was to his senses, as savory as the blueberries Janie had already set out on the table would be in his mouth, he needed to go to the bathroom, and headed upstairs.

His elbows rest on the bed of the old pick-up, as Will looked out across the bluff, at least as far as he could see in the limited light of early morning. He wrung his hands once, before clasping them in front of him, his head dropping with uneasiness from all the fighting lately, as he tapped his thumbs together in thought. He really hoped that the two of them had figured out how to get along, otherwise this would turn into the Battle of Waterloo, and quick.

Tracey approached that comforting porch with the white railings, hungry and curious, if not a little apprehensive. He had cause to be a little hesitant, anxious one might even say, after spending one rollercoaster of a night in another man's arms. Granted, he had wanted to be there, but it still bothered him how quickly he forgot that in favor of a right hook. Besides, he hadn't exactly pegged Casey as the type, so that left him with a bit of a conundrum floating around in his head.

He noticed Will leaning over the truck and called out to him, and his greeting going unnoticed, he recalculated his steps. He thought about saying good morning again, but decided that probably wasn't gonna help any, and instead opted for something more productive.

"Got something on your mind?" Tracey asked him, leaning back against the side of the truck next to Will.

Will lifted his head and looked over at Tracey appraisingly. This would be easier, he thought, if Tracey were a pretentious ass, or a spoiled brat, but as it stood, he didn't believe either. When he looked at Tracey, he saw someone who reminded him a hell of a lot of himself six years ago when he showed up on Kingsman Bluff looking for some temporary work. Little had he known at the time, things aren't usually temporary with Paulette, and he was grateful for that all these years later, even if he would've turn tail and run had he known it then.

"Done fightin'?" he asked simply, even if the question itself wasn't simple at all.

"Done fighting," Tracey agreed with a nod and a rumble in his stomach. His cheeks colored slightly at the sound, and Will laughed out loud.

"Come on, let's go take care of that before you go scarin' off the herd," tossing his arm across Tracey's shoulders heavily.

The two of them entered the warm house only to be assaulted by something that smelled heavenly, and they looked at each other conspiratorially, before their heads swiveled in synchronization toward the dining room in hopes of finding the cause. If they both weren't so hungry, they might have had the notion to look somewhat sheepish about the noticeable display, but instead, they both looked disobliged when all they found on the table was a large bowl of fresh blueberries.

Movement, out of the corner of their eyes, caught their attention, but decidedly, they each looked in a different direction. Will's head turning to the left to find Janie and a huge platter of steaming hot pancakes, while Tracey looked right, seeing Casey coming down the stairs looking suitably rumpled and, absurdly, just as delicious as the pancakes.

Their eyes met awkwardly, and then a shy smile from Tracey was delivered candidly. Casey's hand glided down the banister as he came closer to Tracey, and Tracey remembered the feel of it in his own, as Casey briefly returned the look, the corners of his mouth curving upwards into what Tracey found to be a delectable shape. He hadn't seen Casey smile much since he'd been there, but it was something he certainly looked forward to seeing more of.

Casey was jealous that he had overslept. Not only had he not had a chance to shower yet, but he'd forfeited his chance to wake up with the guy who smelled tantalizing in an entirely different way than the smell he'd encountered when he first walked in the door, wrapped soundly in his arms. Tracey's hair was still moist and darker while it was wet, the blond strands seemingly brown for the moment, and Casey appreciated the contrast it provided against Tracey's fair complexion.

"Morning," Casey mumbled quietly as he walked past Tracey, not stopping for anything more. At least not until his eyes moved from Tracey's, to the three other faces behind him, all of which were expressionless, halting his progress momentarily.

Everyone stood frozen, an inexhaustible amount of questions running through their minds as they watched the two interact, be it ever so briefly. Paulette wondered if she had made a mistake letting Tracey come here, would there always be tension in her home now, would she have to get Jackson involved? Janie wondered which person was going to be the one to cause trouble today and ruin yet another of her meals. Will took the guys at their word, and that meant no more fighting, but he was curious about the way the two of them seemed to have so much to say, but weren't saying a word. That and the gigantic stack of pancakes that was in front of him definitely had potential, too.

It was as if she was a synergist, the way her abrupt presence on the stairs seemed to snap everyone from their paused states, Caty bounding down the stairs obliviously. "Sorry I'm late, Mama," she said hurriedly. "I didn't mean to keep y'all waitin'," rushing past both her brother, and Tracey, to drop into her seat.

She looked up questioningly at Paulette, realizing that she was the only one seated for the first time, prodding Paulette to say, "Well, let's all sit down then and eat before it gets cold," her arms spread invitingly, even if she was rather hesitant about the whole situation.

Paulette sat down, and Will took his seat as well, while Tracey and Casey exchanged one more cognizant look before joining them. Platters were passed, and plates filled, almost silently, save for the ever present show of manners at Paulette's table.

"You're welcome," Tracey returned as Caty took the bowl of blueberries from him. "Would you pass the syrup please?" he asked shyly as his eyes met Casey's.

Their fingers brushed briefly as the warm pitcher of sweet smelling maple syrup was passed between them, and Casey's eyes widened in recollection momentarily before he glanced around, wondering if anyone else had noticed the breath of air he sucked in.

"Thanks," Tracey's voice drawing Casey's attention back in time to see the subtle hints of the smile that was playing at his lips.

"You're welcome," Casey replied traditionally, paying extra attention to the food on his plate. Not only was he starving, but it was a welcome distraction from the knowing green eyes that he seemed to find reflecting back at him every time he looked up.

Janie cautiously reentered the room with a pitcher of apple juice and a pot of coffee, immediately taking note of the strained quiet looming in the room. Hoping silently to herself that she could make it through just one meal without some major argument occurring, she set the pitcher of juice down and poured Paulette a cup of coffee.

"Thank you, Janie," Paulette smiled gratefully. Truth be told, she hadn't slept well last night worrying about the two boys finding a way to get along.

Janie moved around Casey's chair, her long red braid sweeping over her shoulder, as she leaned over and reached for his cup. She filled it with the steaming black antidote, as he glanced up appreciatively at her and smiled.

"Thanks, Janie," he said, grabbing her free hand before she had a chance to reach for Will's cup, earning her attention. She looked at him expectantly, and he obliged, saying, "I wanted to apologize for what happened last night at dinner. Well, practically every meal in the last few days," he blushed. "Anyway, I'm sorry you worked so hard and then I went and messed it up."

She smiled receptively, squeezing his hand in a silent acknowledgment before moving on to Will's cup. Not knowing if Tracey drank coffee, she paused to ask him, "Would you like some coffee, Tracey?"

"No, thanks, but I'd like to apologize, too. I don't normally make a habit of punching people," he said contritely. "It won't happen again," he added assuredly looking at Paulette.

Paulette nodded in agreement, a silent look of admiration for the young man that sat across the table from her. Owning up to your mistakes wasn't easy, and she'd seen him do it more than once now, she noted to herself. If he could just work through his grief and anger, and learn to control his temper, she thought, he'd be right as rain. Somehow though, she knew that wouldn't be an easy task, much like repairing her ranch.

"Casey," she started, her reverie precipitating her words. "I'd like you and Tracey to ride out to the east side and take a look at that fence out there. See what it'll take to repair it so we can get into town for the supplies we need."

"Yes, Mama." Casey answered, chancing a look at Tracey who looked rather uneasy all of a sudden. He'd have to find out what that was all about later, he thought, as another blueberry exploded, creating a rush flavor inside his mouth.

"You'll probably want to wear a hat," Casey suggested as they were leaving the breakfast table. "If you have one," he added ambivalently.

"Like a cowboy hat?" Tracey asked uncertainly, his forehead wrinkled up at the idea.

What little noise there was in the room ceased when Tracey uttered that word, and all eyes were on him suddenly. He wondered what had happened, he'd only asked a question, harmless enough, he thought, as he replayed the conversation over in his head again.

"Twice in one day and it ain't even noon yet," Casey grumbled causing Will to laugh out loud, in turn earning himself a glare that would make the devil himself behave.

Casey's eyes settled on Tracey again as he muttered, "Just wear a hat," and then headed upstairs for a much needed shower.

Tracey looked questioningly at Will and Paulette hoping for an explanation. When none was offered, he shrugged, mostly to himself, and went to look through his stuff to see if he had a hat. He couldn't remember if he had thrown one in his bags or not, what with all the commotion and arguing with his dad. A surge of remnant anger rushed through him, and then just as quickly subsided, as the old blue pick-up truck with a bed full of hay in the back caught his eye eliciting a soft smile to accompany the slight color that could be found on his cheeks.

Tracey hadn't found a hat yet, rummaging through his still unpacked bags, when Will walked into the bunkhouse. Tracey looked up at him when he heard the door open, but then his concentration went back to the task at hand. He really wasn't having any luck, and truth be told, he was a little surprised to find some of the stuff he had found, being unable to remember consciously choosing what to pack. That probably was the point though; he wasn't consciously doing anything, anytime his dad was around.

"I have a few extra," Will tried, capturing Tracey's attention once more. "If you wanna borrow one, least till you can get one of your own."

"Okay," Tracey agreed. "I'd appreciate it."

"What color do you like?" Will called from his room, his voice muted by the walls of his closet. "I got yellow, dark blue, orange, brown, green, or grey."

Tracey's voice smiled. "A few?" he asked teasingly, not mentioning the red one Will wore currently, or that in total, the man owned enough hats to wear a different one every day of the week.

"Do you wanna borrow one, or not?" Will scowling playfully.

"Yellow, please," Tracey decided accepting the hat from Will. "So what was that back there?" he asked, fitting the cap over his head and adjusting the brim to his liking.

"What? The cowboy thing?" Will asked, eliciting a nod from Tracey. "Oh, inside joke," Will explained, while managing to explain nothing at all.

"Okay," Tracey shrugged out of confusion, as much as acceptance. "Thanks for the loaner," he said tugging on the brim once more and heading out the door to meet Casey.

Tracey had only been sitting on the whitewashed steps of the long, comforting porch for a few minutes when he heard the wooden screen door swing open behind him, Casey's boots falling resonantly on the wooden deck. The footsteps walked right on past him and down the steps, only then stopping to turn around when Casey stood in front of him. Tracey looked up at him openly, and finding a large amount of pleasure in the way Casey's brown hair, still wet from his shower, hung down around his face.

Casey watched the blond man who'd slept in his arms as much of the night as he could remember, clearly evaluating him, and the smile that bloomed across Tracey's face created a feeling of fire on his own. Casey wasn't used to being looked at like that by anyone, let alone someone he found just as thoroughly enticing as he did Tracey, and he wondered briefly, if anyone would be able to tell how altogether fantastic that made him feel.

Tracey watched the color creep up Casey's cheeks and delighted in the knowledge that he had such an effect on the beautiful boy with the brown eyes. He hadn't had much time to look into them, he realized, as he gazed into the rich pools of color, his teeth capturing his bottom lip between them, enchanted with the depth he seemed to find there at the moment

"What?" Casey was forced to ask curiously, the way that Tracey's green eyes seemed to be absorbing him completely, the renewed color in his cheeks showing clearly against his fair skin.

"Yeah..." the word was faint as it left Tracey's lips, and almost immediately, he shook his head in disbelief. He could definitely get used to looking into those eyes.

Casey didn't know what to say, let alone what to think, about that single word he had barely heard, so instead he went with, "Will's hat?"

The moment having passed, at least for the time being, Tracey pressed his palms against his thighs and stood up. The added height from the bottom step he stood on made him a couple inches taller than Casey, as he nodded in agreement. "I didn't have one in my bag," he answered.

"You look good in yellow," Casey admitted thoughtfully, and then turned and headed for the barn with a smiling Tracey right behind him.

That is, until they reached the barn, and the stable inside it, and as Casey strode confidently over and stroked his hand down the mane of a brilliant, onyx-colored mare, Tracey's smile faltered. Casey didn't notice at first, his affection for the beautiful animal he was currently nuzzling, occupying his thoughts completely.

"Mornin' Sheba," he cooed at her, and as much as it inspired Tracey to see him tenderly talking to the animal, he couldn't enjoy it fully with all the apprehension he had rolling around inside him. "How's my girl today?"

Casey looked over in Tracey's direction, scratching the long muzzle of the horse, and wondering why he was so far away still. The look he had seen on Tracey's face just a minute ago, had been replaced with that same look of uncertainty he had seen at breakfast, and again he wondered why.

"Pretty, isn't she?" he asked safely while trying to figure out a way to ask what was so obviously bothering Tracey.

"That she is," Tracey agreed whole-heartedly, a small smile issued.

"Well, come say hello to her," Casey prodded gently. "She won't bite, and she don't get spooked easy," he said assuredly.

Tracey timidly walked closer, the size of the horse even more impressive up close, and Casey wondered if the newcomer had ever even been on a horse, the way he was acting. The idea crept up on him so quickly, and was so ridiculous, that he dismissed it instantly.

"Hi Sheba," he said, making an effort to please Casey.

"Alright, out with it. What's wrong?" the guy with the puzzled brown eyes asked him.

Tracey sighed, a combination of embarrassment and anxiety exiting his lungs at a rapid pace. "I'm not real good with horses," he admitted.

"What do you mean, 'not real good with horses'?" Casey repeated.

"Well," Tracey hesitated, "I only ever rode on one once, way back when I was a kid, and..." he trailed off humbly.

"And?" Casey pressed.

"And... I don't think they like me," he rambled out with a pout on his face that Casey found irresistible.

Casey tried not to laugh out loud... he really did, but even the stifled chuckle that did escape, was still enough to make Tracey feel humiliated, and now, Tracey was sitting across the barn on a bale of hay, head in his hands, and suddenly it wasn't so amusing anymore. Casey waked over cautiously, feeling bad for making light of something that obviously was a sore spot for Tracey, and gingerly sat down next to him.

"I didn't mean to laugh," Casey started, "I'm really sorry I did that. It's just... I've been around horses all my life, my first best friend was a horse for God's sake, and I just can't imagine a horse not liking you. Hell, I even like you, Tracey," he apologized, and when Tracey didn't say anything, Casey put a pleading hand down on Tracey's arm. "I really am sorry."

"I don't know what to say," Tracey finally spoke. "I know it's dumb," he admitted, "but I almost don't care anymore, that you laughed, I mean... that's the first time you've said my name," Tracey blushed. "You really like me?"

There were so many things to respond to, Casey thought, not knowing which to start with. At the beginning, he supposed. "It's not dumb," he said, and Tracey believed him, seeing the genuine look in Casey's rich, brown eyes. "And yeah, Tracey," the name emphasized for effect, "I do... like you."

Tracey studied that face again, it seemed like he couldn't get enough of it, now that it wasn't scowling at him all the time, and he smiled agreeably. "We better get started if I'm gonna have to ride a horse anywhere, anytime soon," Tracey ceded, standing up bravely.

"Okay," Casey agreed joining Tracey on his feet. "Thanks for not being mad," he said genuinely. "Besides, I still have the bruise from the last time I pissed you off," he joked.

A sad look crossed Tracey's face, wishing he could take that whole nasty business back, as his fingers hesitantly reached out for the spot on Casey's face where his fist had met it angrily the night before. "I'm sorry, too," Tracey whispered, his fingers carefully dancing across the bruise, leaving them to linger thoughtfully on Casey's lips.

"I know," Casey obliged softly, his hand resting on Tracey's forearm, almost as if to keep those fingers connected to him. "C'mon," he reluctantly said, his hand sliding down Tracey's arm and grabbing Tracey's hand, walking him back over to the stalls. "I think I'll have you ride Sheba then, I know she won't misbehave, and I want you to have fun instead of worrying all day. I'll ride Red, he's a little more feisty," Casey explained.

Tracey watched as Casey readied the horses; saddles, halters, reins, bits, it was all foreign to him, and as daunting as it was to Tracey, he knew it was something Casey cared a lot about, and so that made him want to care, too. Casey led the horses out of the barn, and after tying off Red, who answered the delay of his morning run with a snort, he walked Sheba a few yards away.

"Now, face her, get your body right up against her side," Casey instructed as he stood closely behind Tracey. "Grab the horn with your left hand, and put your right hand on her side, and then put your left foot in the stirrup," he continued as Sheba lifted a foot here and there to steady herself. "Okay, now you're gonna step up into the stirrup, and swing your leg over her backside, got it? Then you can sit down."

"Okay, I think so," Tracey said hesitantly, even as he followed the directions. He counted to three, and then pulled his weight up, Casey's hand on the small of his back, helping him to steady himself. Tracey swung his right leg around, and then he was in the seat, tucking his right foot into the other stirrup. "Oh my God, I did it," he said breathlessly, clearly surprised at himself and the situation.

"Sure did," Casey beamed proudly handing him the reins and grabbing hold of the halter. "Okay, we're gonna walk a little now," Casey said. "Remember, you gotta tell her what you want her to do, just like driving a car."

"Okay," Tracey agreed, not altogether sure about the whole thing. Sitting on a horse that was standing still was one thing, riding on one that was walking, or God forbid, running, was another matter entirely.

Casey walked Tracey and Sheba around outside the barn until Tracey could get her to stop and start on his own, and then he mounted Red, the younger stallion who was eager to get moving, and impatiently braying at his rider. Casey moved off at a slow gait, with Tracey following behind him. Red begged to be run, Casey continually having to subdue him with the reins, before giving up and breaking out into a gallop across the pasture. Tracey watched as Casey ran the strong, auburn colored steed around in a large circle. The man belonged on a horse, that much was certain, Tracey decided, as he watched Casey's strong legs working to keep him upright and in control of the animal, eventually trotting up beside him smiling.

Red seemed happier now, content to canter at a reasonable pace, at least for the time being, and Tracey was thankful that Sheba remained uninterested in running like that. Casey rode alongside Tracey now, pleased that he was able to handle Sheba, and glad that he had been able to try something he had been so worried about, with success. Tracey had never seen someone so in their element and was unable to take his eyes off the guy riding next to him, He was fascinated by everything about him, and the way Casey's longer brown hair was brushing along the collar of his plaid shirt was distracting, offering glimpses of the skin beneath it.

"You're a good rider," he complimented veritably. "How old were you when you first started riding?"

"God, I can't remember a time I wasn't on a horse," Casey answered thoughtfully. "My pa always had us on a horse, even before we could walk," he shrugged. "What about you? What have you always done?"

"Well, I guess photography," Tracey told him. "My mom always had a camera in her hands, as far back as I can remember, and when I was real little, she would let me carry her camera bag around for her, like I was her assistant or something, and she'd take all kinds of pictures of stuff, and when I got a bit older, she taught me how to take pictures, too," the wistfulness in his voice evident.

"You miss her a lot, don't you?" Casey asked bravely, knowing all too well how passionate Tracey could be when it came to his mom. Hell, he wasn't any different when it came to his dad.

"Every day," Tracey admitted quietly.

Casey knew that feeling, the wound that would never be completely healed. Even if you had nursed it, kept it covered until you thought you were healed and thought you were fine again, the strangest things could come out of nowhere and rip that sore spot right open again, and there was no amount of salve or bandages able to guarantee you a complete recovery.

"I know," Casey agreed pensively. "How long's it been?"

"Two years, last week," Tracey confessed as a new wave of shame washed over him, remembering the fight he'd had with his dad that night. He couldn't believe his dad had brought that woman to his mother's house, and on the anniversary of her death, no less. The man had some nerve, and far less tact, but Tracey had learned that years ago.

"Oh," Casey replied stunned. That explained a lot, he thought to himself, as he watched the different emotions play across the blond man's face.

"I know I've said this already, but I'm really sorry for what happened that night, Case. It was stupid, and selfish, and reckless, and dangerous, and... God! What if I would've hurt someone?" he voiced angrily.

"Well," Casey said, not used to being on this side of the same argument he'd been having all week himself, but even more so, being unable to watch Tracey berate himself like this, "let's just be grateful it was only the fence... and the barn," he added as Tracey flinched again.

"You're something else, you know that?" Tracey asked his companion, some combination of shock and disbelief coating his words.

"Yeah, well... I know a little something about grief," Casey rationalized offering a slight smile with his look of understanding.

Jackson Grady's four-wheel drive vehicle rumbled up the gravel drive leisurely, even if he was as thirsty to see Paulette, as a man searching the desert for an oasis. That was the reason he was visiting Kingsman Bluff this morning, and if she wanted a hug, or maybe to go for a walk, well, Jackson thought, he could deal with that, too. Who was he kidding; he made his way up that mountain no less than four times a week just for that very reason, for the chance to give her a little vacation from all the work she did, and it didn't hurt anything none that he thought she was probably the most beautiful woman in Emerson.

Sure, he got something out of it, too. He got Paulette; her smile, the one that lit up her whole face once he could get her to relax just a little, her laugh, the one he tried to provoke, even if she almost always swallowed it at the beginning, and God, the way she smelled, like fresh peaches. Jackson thought it was intoxicating, having caught himself sniffing the breeze as he'd walk behind her for just a hint of the scent more times than he could count. He almost liked nothing more than when she'd decide she wanted to go for a walk, and ultimately he'd end up offering her a hand up, or down, the rocky terrain of the Bluff.

He still thinks about the time when she lost her footing and slipped backward down the hill and landed right in his arms. Her back was pressed as flat as it could be against Jackson's strong chest, and he couldn't decide which he wanted more; to bury his nose in her long, thick, chestnut hair, or to hook his chin over her shoulder and find that creamy, peach smelling skin behind her ear, but either way, he knew she was a good fit in his arms.

A tap on his car window brought Jackson back to the present, his fantasies would have to wait for now, he told himself as he looked over and saw Paulette standing there in the flesh. God, she looks beautiful today, he decided, smiling at her through the window.

"I was beginning to think you were gonna sit in there all day," Paulette mentioned as Jackson opened the car door to step out, secretly hoping that it wouldn't be obvious to her what his daydreams were.

"Good morning, Paulette," he smiled broadly. "You look much better than the last time I saw you."

Her smile faltered momentarily as she tried to remember when that was, and how bad she really did look. As she thought it over, she remembered it had been two days earlier, in the court house. He'd held her in his arms while she'd struggled with the idea Judge Whitman had proposed.

She really did appreciate all Jackson did for her, and she wasn't a fool, she knew that sometimes, he looked at her like she was a woman, and not just any other citizen in the town he was supposed to be keeping law and order in. If she was being honest with herself, she was glad he looked at her like that, like he couldn't decide if it was more painful to look at her and not be able to make love to her, or not to see her at all, like he was looking at her now.

"How are you, Jackson? How was your drive?" she asked safely, backing up a step so he could close the car door.

"Same as always," he answered. "Tell me how you are. How are things with Tracey?" he wondered aloud.

"Oh, well, we're getting settled," she said vaguely. "Coffee? I know Janie would love to see you."

"Alright," Jackson nodded, following her up the whitewashed steps and into the house. Maybe if he could pin her down, he could get a straight answer from her, he thought.

"Have a seat, Jackson. I'll just go tell Janie you're here, and get that coffee started," Paulette said, leaving him in the dining room to wait for her.

The footsteps on the stairs caught Jackson's attention as he turned to see Caty coming down, smiling and looking like a much younger version of her mother. Sometimes Jackson wished he had known Paulette when she was as young, but he definitely liked the woman she had become, so he didn't question it.

"Well, good morning, Caty," Jackson greeted her, smiling, and standing to hug the girl. "How's things?"

"Morning, Jackson," Caty replied as he let her loose from his strong embrace. "Things are fine," she answered, partly because her mama had taught her manners, and you just didn't go complaining about stuff, and partly cause they were.

"Good, glad to hear it," he smiled back at her. "Where are the boys?"

"Well, Mama sent Casey out to look at the fence with Tracey along," she told him, earning a skeptical look from Jackson. "And Will is checking the herd, gonna move 'em soon, I think," she said, her face lighting up at the thought, the mere mention of Will's name.

Jackson knew that look, he'd been on the receiving end of it enough times, and he wondered if Will knew how lucky a man he was. Probably not, Jackson thought, we never do till it's too late.

"The coffee will be ready in a minute," Paulette announced, as she rejoined Jackson in the dining room. "Where are you off to?" Paulette asked her daughter, the maternal need to know where your children are at all times showing.

"Just to the barn, Mama. I'm gonna go see Geronimo," she smiled, thinking of her favorite horse. "See you later," she waved and went in search of the tan-colored animal.

"So... Caty said you have the boys out looking at the fence," Jackson commented, not at all subtly.

"Yeah, need to get it fixed before we're chasing cattle all over the Bluff," she justified shrugging.

"So they're gettin' on alright then?" he asked, getting to the heart of the matter.

"Well, it was a little rocky at first, but things seem to be coming around," she answered as Janie arrived with a tray of coffee, cream and sugar, and a set of cups.

"A little rocky?" Janie huffed. "Hello, Jackson."

"Janie," he replied with a nod and a smile. "How rocky?" he asked with his eyebrow cocked.

"There was a little bickering, some scuffling... you know boys," Paulette tried to shrug it off as unimportant.

"Yes, I do." Jackson agreed blatantly. "What kind of scuffling?"

"It was just a misunderstanding, and I took care of it. There won't be anymore fighting, they both assured me," she said confidently.

"Fighting? I told Casey not to go off half-cocked and do something dumb," he grumbled.

"Well, he did, and he didn't," Paulette said ambiguously. "He didn't do the hittin', but he sure as hell had been askin' for it."

"Why didn't you call me? I'd have come and taken Tracey with me," he pointed out.

"I don't want you to take Tracey with you, I want them to work through this on their own," she said ideally.

Jackson sighed, knowing he wasn't gonna win this one. "Alright, if that's what you want," he said.

"It is," she nodded.


Caty had gone into the barn to see Geronimo, but much like her mama, once she saw something that needed doin', it got done. She'd cleaned the stables, fed the horses, brushed Geronimo, and fed him a shiny, red apple from the bucket she just couldn't get him to forget existed. She was about ready to go get washed up for lunch, and thought it was as good a time as any to try and sneak the box of dishes back into the kitchen that Casey had stored in the barn.

On her tip-toes, she was just able to reach the box, and after a brief struggle, she pulled it down and walked out of the barn. Going around the back side of the long yellow house, just like she had when she'd come out the night before, she heard the sound of laughter floating on what was the beginning of the fall season's crisp air. She smiled to herself, immediately recognizing the sounds as Janie's, and wondered silently what was so funny.

She picked up her pace, her curiosity getting the better of her, and the inquisitive smile she wore turned flat when she rounded the corner to find Will traipsing around with Janie thrown over his shoulder. She was laughing, as much as she could hunched over as she was, and smacking his ass amid demands that he put her down this minute. Neither of them noticed Caty, and a part of her was grateful for that. The other part of her, the part that had loved Will for the last three years and would give anything if he would just love her back, secretly hoped they would see her and realize how much each giggle made her ache to be Janie right then.

Instead, Caty slipped quietly in the open kitchen door and dropped the box of dishes on the counter top, trying to decide if she was more angry, or if she'd rather just cry. She was grateful when she passed through the dining room only to find it vacant, Jackson must've convinced her mom to go for a walk. She climbed the stairs, turning left when her foot hit the landing, and decided when she saw the wooden kitten hanging on her door, that she was close enough to her bed with the white and pink ruffles to let the first tear fall.

She was the first to admit the Janie was a beautiful woman with a great heart. Janie had spent lots of time teaching Caty her way around a kitchen, and the difference between a biscuit and a dumpling, or how to make the perfect pie crust. Sure she was older, in fact, as many years as Caty was younger than Will, Janie was older, but she wasn't old by any means. Caty knew that when Janie found the right man, she would make a terrific mother; she just couldn't bear the thought that Janie or Will might think that he was that man.

If a woman was what Will wanted, a woman is what she'd be, Caty told herself. She thought she was one, maybe if she wore her hair down instead of back in braids all the time, maybe if she unbuttoned another button on her blouse, maybe if she wore some lipstick, or a skirt instead of her Levi's, then again, it didn't make much sense, no matter how you looked at it, to be working in the barn or on a horse in that condition.

Caty knew those things weren't what made someone a woman, after all, look at her mama. She also knew that she'd do practically anything to get Will to look at her like Jackson looked at her mama. The Fall Harvest Carnival and Dance was coming up soon, maybe Caty could get his attention then, maybe if she had a fancy new dress, and did her hair up real nice, it's worth a try, she decided with a newfound determination, wiping her tears away.

Tracey and Casey had been out to the east side of Kingsman Bluff and arrived back to the barn with a list of supplies that would be needed to repair the large hole in the fence. Tracey wondered briefly how his Camaro looked after seeing how the barn and the fence looked, but that had been washed away quickly by the guilt he felt knowing that he had caused all this damage and hurt these nice people.

Paulette seemed to find a way to look past all that, and just see Tracey for who he was. He was glad that she wasn't feeling sorry for him, even if she did, and things seemed to be better with Casey now, he thought, looking over at the man riding beside him. He really was a gorgeous man once he stopped scowling, Tracey decided, remembering the smiles and looks they had been exchanging all morning and catching himself smiling at Casey again.

"You keep looking at me like that," Casey observed as his cheeks colored for the umpteenth time that morning. Every time Tracey looked at him like that, like he wanted to see everything there was to see, and then see some more, Casey couldn't help but remember the feel of the blond man's hair as it tickled his face in the darkness of the early morning, or how good his hand felt in his own, how those same fingers felt on his face, his lips. Damn it, there he went again.

"Does that bother you?" Tracey asked boldly. He'd admit it; he was curious how Casey felt about him. Between the way he swore he had felt Casey's lips murmuring something against his neck last night, and then Casey telling him that he liked him in the barn this morning, he wondered how far that like stretched.

"No," Casey answered automatically. It was the truth, it didn't bother him in the least, in fact, he was rather enjoying the attention from the sparkling green eyes.

"Okay," Tracey replied acceptingly as they rode into the barn at an easy gait.

Tracey watched as Casey dismounted Red Rocket and led him over to the water trough before walking back over to help him with Sheba. Tracey seemed to be able to get on the horse just fine now, but the getting off was another matter entirely. It seemed like his legs always ended up twisted around on the way down, so he waited for Casey to come back over.

"Ready?" Casey asked as he walked up next to Sheba, patting her side, happy she had behaved as he had promised. She wasn't his best girl for nothin'.

"Yeah," Tracey answered in a way that said he had had enough riding for one day.

"Okay, remember what I told ya," Casey said. "Straighten your left leg, like you're standing on the ground, and once you have your other leg around, then step down."

Tracey ran through it in his mind again, he could see how it was supposed to go, it was just making it happen that seemed to be the hard part. Straighten my left leg, he reminded himself, and he stood up in the stirrups, so far so good, he thought. Somewhere between swinging his right leg around and the stepping down part, he realized this wasn't gonna end well, and when his feet did hit the ground, he was sure his ass would be next, but instead, he felt Casey's strong arms wrap around him for the second time that day.

He sank back into Casey's embrace, partly grateful he wasn't hitting the ground, and partly because it felt so damn good. His back pressed against Casey's muscular chest as his hands gripped Casey's arms, the same arms that managed to pull Tracey in even closer. He wasn't sure if it felt like the room was moving because he needed get his legs underneath him again, or because it was dizzying being pressed up against Casey, but he knew he didn't want him to let go anytime soon.

"I've got ya," Casey's low voice rippling through him, each wave accentuating a new sensation somewhere in his body where it met with the contact from the outside.

"Thanks," Tracey swallowed, trying to secure his footing.

Casey turned him, not quite ready to let go of the boy in his arms, and held him just as closely as their eyes met again. Tracey's tongue darted out unconsciously, his mouth suddenly drier than he'd like it, catching Casey's attention as his eyes dropped down slightly, just in time to see it disappear back between his moist lips. Casey caught his bottom lip in between his teeth, the gentle pressure hinting at his thoughts as Tracey's hands took in the strength of the chest they were pressed against.

Casey's hands slid up Tracey's back from where they had been contently wrapped around his waist, until one made it up to his neck, his fingers sliding into the blond hair there, just as his lips closed over Tracey's. The plaid cotton of Casey's shirt crumpled in Tracey's fists as his eyes fluttered shut and Casey's tongue swiped across his, a low moan escaping his throat.

Tracey managed to wriggle his hands free from where they had been trapped in between their bodies, only to use them to pull Casey's lower half into him, eliciting a groan from Casey that matched his own feeling about the additional sensation. Casey's mouth worked over his unyieldingly, and it was either that, or the shortness of breath that made him feel delirious, fantastically delirious.

Tracey pulled his body away from Casey's abruptly as Sheba let out a neigh stridently, apparently her announcement of Will's approach. Casey grabbed Sheba's reins and led her into the stall nervously, as Tracey's fingers danced delicately across his lips as if he was looking for proof they had just been pressed against another's. He exchanged a quick glance with Casey as Will walked in smiling.

"Hey there, Tenderfoot. How was your first ride?" Will asked because he wanted to know, and not at all condescendingly.

"Uh, okay," Tracey stuttered out. "Case is a good teacher."

Will immediately picked up on the term of endearment, and though he raised an eyebrow momentarily, he said nothing. "That he is," he replied smiling. Will was always smiling.

"Jackson's here," Will offered. "Janie says he knows about you two fighting, so fair warning."

"Thanks," Casey nodded, speaking for the first time since Will had walked in.

"I think I'll go wash up for lunch," Tracey stammered out and then with one last look at Casey, headed back to the bunkhouse to try and get a handle on some of the million different thoughts whirling around in his head.

Caty normally would have been ecstatic to see Jackson in her chair at the dining room table for all kinds of reasons, after all, she liked Jackson, and she liked how he looked at her mama. It gave her an excuse to sit by Will sometimes, but now with Tracey there, she would definitely be sitting next to Will, and she just wasn't sure she could do that without her sullen mood showing. Nevertheless, she didn't have a choice, so she quietly deposited herself in the chair next to where Will would be sitting soon enough, offering the couple to her left a half-hearted smile.

Both of them knew of Caty's affection for Will, even if she'd never admitted it out loud, even if neither of them had witnessed what she had earlier outside the kitchen door. It was easy enough to tell that she had something on her mind, and the way her smile didn't quite reach her eyes made Paulette want to go over and hug her baby girl. Between worrying about Jackson and the boys who had yet to arrive to her table, and the obvious anxiousness Caty was displaying, Paulette silently prayed for a calm meal.

Will walked in the front door with Tracey, figuring a friendly escort might give Jackson the impression that things were okay, and they were, mostly, even if Will knew that he had walked in on something in the barn. He hadn't seen anything, but he had a hunch, and usually his instincts were right on, and if that wasn't enough, the way Casey wouldn't even look at him proved his point, at least in his eyes anyway.

"Afternoon Sheriff," Will greeted smiling widely, a strong hand dropping down on the older man's shoulder momentarily.

"Will," Jackson acknowledged. "How's the herd lookin'?"

"'Bout ready to move for the winter," Will said as he took his own seat across the table from Jackson, even if Jackson's attention was focused on the quiet young man taking the seat to his right.

"Sheriff," Tracey said quietly, but respectfully, before his eyes took great interest in the blackberries and strawberries that decorated his still empty plate.

"Mr. Marshall," Jackson replied in his formal manner, he didn't exactly think of this young man as a friend to the family.

"Jackson," Paulette chided, "Tracey's our guest, not some stranger." Her look flitted back and forth between reproach and hesitancy. She knew Tracey needed to be here, for more reasons than one, and she wasn't gonna let Jackson take that away from him, even if she understood Jackson's reasons for being so protective of her.

"Excuse me," Jackson corrected himself, even if it was clear he didn't want to, "Tracey."

"Where's Casey?" Caty wondered aloud, drawing the attention of both the men away from each other and onto her.

"He said he was just going to get cleaned up," Will offered just as they all heard his footsteps on the stairs.

"Sorry to keep everyone waitin'," Casey apologized as he took the one remaining empty seat to Paulette's left. "Sheriff," he added politely.

"Casey, it's good to see you," Jackson said, noticing the slightly swollen patch on Casey's face and frowning momentarily.

"Thanks. How was your morning, Mama?" he asked, changing the subject before Jackson had a chance to say anything else.

"Fine, thanks," Paulette smiled. "We went for a walk and had coffee. What about you? How'd you boys get on?"

"Well, once I got Tracey on Sheba, it was fine," he replied. "Shouldn't be more than a day's work to get the fence fixed," Casey decided as Janie appeared with golden brown, still steaming from the oven, chicken pot pies and fresh biscuits.

Janie placed the platter of biscuits down in front of Jackson, partly because manners dictated that you served the guests first, and partly because she knew if Will got to them first, nobody else would. She served each of them their chicken pie one at a time, starting with Jackson, and moving around the table until she ended with Paulette who smiled, "Thank you, Janie, looks delicious."

"Yes, thank you, Janie," Jackson offered. "So, Tracey, haven't spent much time on a horse?" Jackson asked, a hint of his, disapproval maybe, escaping in his tone.

"No, Sir," Tracey answered with as few words as possible.

"He did fine," Casey assured them. "Besides, Sheba's easy to ride," he announced proudly.

"It's not so much the ridin' part that I have the trouble with, but the getting off part," Tracey blushed remembering the first time he fell flat on his ass, and then the second time when Casey had caught him in the barn, and then kissed him, his tongue instinctively searching his lips again for another taste.

"You'll get the hang of it, Tenderfoot," Will laughed. "Now, someone pass me a biscuit, please," he said all joking aside.

Tracey caught Casey looking at him several different times throughout the meal, each time, Casey looking surprised when Tracey's eyes found his, only to look away again. Tracey wondered how someone who seemed so sure of how he felt, enough to take action anyway, could be so hesitant at the same time. He didn't know, but what he did know, was that there was some sort of silent plea coming from those rich brown eyes each time they met his own.

"So, do you think we can convince Janie to enter the chili cookout this year at the Fall Harvest?" Caty asked randomly.

"Probably not," Paulette chimed in. "If she wouldn't do it all these years, she's not likely to want to start now."

"That's too bad," Casey added. "I'm sure she'd win. Give Mr. Sutherland a taste of the truth. He thinks he's got the best chili recipe in the state, shows what he knows," he added, shaking his head in disapproval.

"I'm looking forward to the dance," Caty slipped the idea in quietly.

"Speaking of," Jackson chimed in. "Will you be going to the dance?" he asked Paulette.

"Those things are for the young folks," Paulette answered, dismissing the idea.

"Oh come on, Mama. Everyone likes to get dressed up and dance with a handsome man," Caty smiled, winking conspiratorially at Jackson.

"Oh, I don't know," she waivered.

"Please, Paulette. I'd be honored if you'd accompany me," Jackson said taking her hand in his. "'Sides, I'd be the luckiest man there, cause I'd have the prettiest lady by my side."

"Alright then," she agreed, "I suppose it wouldn't hurt to have a night out."

"Yay," Caty clapped smiling earning her a wink from Jackson, his way of saying thank you.

After lunch, Tracey excused himself to go for a walk. He needed a little time to clear his head, some time to himself. A lot had happened in the last twelve hours and he wanted to sort through it, absorb it, and maybe figure some things out. There was no doubt in his mind that he enjoyed waking up in Casey's arms, or the way he had smiled at him in the morning sun. He knew that he wanted Casey to kiss him again, and again, and more so, he wondered what would have happened if Will hadn't walked in on them. He wondered... if anyone knew that Casey liked to kiss boys in the barn, he wondered, if Casey knew it.

He walked out across the field that was behind the long, yellow house, noticing that the further wandered away from it, the more the ground sloped downward. He found a rocky path and decided to follow it, climbing as much as walking, he noted, hoping it wouldn't be too hard to get back up later. The warm afternoon sun hung high in the bright blue sky overhead as the ground leveled out once more and Tracey could think more, and strategize less, about how to get down safely.

About a half a mile, he guessed, across the flatter terrain he'd found, he ran into a creek, glad for a drink of the fresh water, before following it a ways to where it turned into a rather large pond. The collection of clear water was inviting, and Tracey had warmed up quite a bit on his little adventure around the Bluff. He looked around, wondering if he was as alone as he felt, if it was safe to take a swim in it.

Casey had managed to slip away after lunch before Will cornered him about what he had walked in on in the barn, before Jackson could ask him about Tracey and the fighting, and he was glad for the distance from it all for a while. He needed some space, some quiet, to think about things. He'd walked over to the pond, his favorite place to go and think, aside from the barn anyway. At least here, no one would be looking for him, he thought, as he climbed up into an oak tree to look out over the water.

He'd only been sitting there about ten minutes when he saw Tracey walking along the shoreline. He wondered briefly how he'd managed to get all the way down here by himself, but suddenly didn't care so much, when the blond haired guy looked around, and then pulled his shirt over his head leaving his chest bare and Casey's curious eyes riveted.

Tracey wasn't as muscular as he was, but he appreciated the difference, he certainly wasn't skinny, just lean, and Casey liked that. He watched from the safety of his tree branch perch, as Tracey sat down and took off his boots, stuffing his socks inside them for safe keeping, before standing up again. He unbuttoned his 501's, one button at a time, and then with one more look around, he hooked his thumbs inside the waistband and pushed them down.

Casey was thankful for the distance as he gasped out loud, realizing that Tracey didn't have any underwear on, and seeing him for the first time, naked and stepping out of his jeans, before dropping them on the pile of his clothes. His face heated up as he remembered Tracey pulling his body against him in the barn, and realizing how little there was between them at the time. That thought excited and terrified him at the same time, but was pushed to the back of his mind, as he watched Tracey's lean, nude body move toward the water.

Tracey waded into the cool water until it was just above his knees, and then dove in, head first, under the water. When his head broke the surface again, it was like a refreshing clarity had washed over him, and Casey watched intently as he shook the water from his blond hair. He'd swam in that pond for years, and he knew just what the water felt like, what it felt like to be free of swim trunks and floating in the water.

He watched as Tracey swam around a bit, floating on his back in the sun, and the way his skin would peek through the water here and there had Casey mesmerized. He was far enough away for Tracey's modesty to remain in tact, but not too far away for the sight to not have some effect on him, he noted, as the tightness in his own jeans became uncomfortable. He knew he'd always appreciated a lean male body over the curves and softness of a female; he'd just never acted on it, well, not since he was fifteen and him and Billy Henderson had been skinny dipping in this very same pond.

He wasn't sure why that was exactly, but while most of the guys in school were talking about the girls and which ones they hoped to rope and ride, he just knew that didn't interest him none. He hadn't really told anyone that he didn't find the same fascination with the opposite sex, but it seemed Will, at least, had some idea. Once Caty had asked him why he never talked about Becky Mitchell like all the other boys did, but he'd just shrugged, and she'd accepted it.

He wondered what they would all think if they knew he didn't want Becky Mitchell, or any other woman for that matter. He wondered what they would think if they knew the things that were going on in his head right now as he watched Tracey's body glide through the water, or if they knew just how much he wanted to climb down out of that tree and turn those thoughts into a reality.

Somewhere inside him, he knew it didn't really matter what anyone thought, but that didn't make it easier to tell everyone that you were different than they were. Then again, he wasn't different; he just wanted what he was attracted to, same as they did, and right now, he wanted Tracey. He didn't know which road he'd take, or if either would be easy to travel, but he knew that traveling with Tracey in his arms, in his heart, in his bed, would be so much better than traveling alone.

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© 2007 Viv
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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. 

2007 - Winter - Worth Fighting For Entry
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Dammit, Viv, I finished the chapter. I just wanted it to keep going and going and going...you need to write way more than 11,000 some-odd words! A million words wouldn't even be enough for me.


Ok, I have to stalk the anthos to see if there's another chapter out there...


FANTASTIC story, Viv! :)

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A lovely story with so many characters fighting for love.  I think Tracey and Casey will win their fight for each other.  I suspect Jackson will also.  I'm not sure who will will win Will, but hope whoever lose will find someone just as great.  I do love stories with wonderful horses.  Sheba is great!

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A house full of spiders with each one weaving its web hoping to catch the fly of its choice.  An intriguing story of opposite-sex and same-sex attractions at many different stages of life and the scheming involved in roping the object of their desire.  Thank you for this wonderful tale.  

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