“HELP me, please. Oh God, somebody help me!”
The shouts of the kid who half ran, half fell into the Yass Hotel drew Caine’s attention away from what should have been a quiet lunch with his lover and partner of three months.
“They’re going to kill him. Please, he’s all I have.”
“Who?” Macklin asked, rising from the table.
“These thugs.” The boy was crying now. “They said he was a poofter and they’d kill him for it.”
Macklin’s expression, never soft to begin with, hardened to stone. Caine swore Macklin’s shoulders grew broader as he approached the boy.
“Where are they?”
The boy had barely finished his answer before Macklin was out the door.
“Yes, boss,” the jackaroo at the next table replied, already on his feet and following Macklin out the door before Caine finished speaking. Ian and Kyle, the other two hands who had come to Yass to help him hire new blood for Lang Downs, followed Neil without being prompted, bringing a smile to Caine’s face despite the seriousness of the situation. He still had trouble believing he had won their loyalty.
“I’m C-c-caine Neiheisel,” Caine said, approaching the boy slowly. His heart pounded in his chest so hard it felt like someone was squeezing his ribs tight, making it hard to breathe. He couldn’t go with Macklin. He was useless in a fight, but that didn’t stop his body’s fight-or-flight response. He took a deep breath, shaking his hands slightly to clear the tingling from the rush of adrenaline. “You w-want to have a s-seat?”
“Shouldn’t we go help them?”
Caine shook his head. “Macklin and the others will t-t-take care of it, don’t worry. Wh-what’s your name?”
“Seth. Are you sure?”
“I’m sure. Macklin won’t stand for that kind of nonsense,” Caine promised, his confidence so profound that he got that sentence out without a stutter, even as upset as he was at the thought of that kind of homophobia in what constituted his own backyard and the danger it presented to Macklin and himself. “Where are you from?”
“Nowhere anymore,” Seth replied, his voice so bitter Caine wanted to pull the kid into his arms and comfort him. He remembered what it had been like to be a teenager, though, and refrained, figuring the embrace wouldn’t be welcome from a total stranger.
“What about your parents?”
“Mum died six months ago, and the no-good bastard she married kicked us out the day after the funeral,” Seth said. “It’s just Chris and me now, if that scary dude can save him.”
“That ‘scary dude’ is Macklin,” Caine said, “or Mr. Armstrong to you since you can’t be more than fourteen.”
“I’m sixteen,” Seth retorted quickly.
He was way too small and skinny to be sixteen. Not that Caine thought he was lying. It was just proof of how hard his life had been.
Caine had already decided that was going to change. His great-uncle, Michael Lang, had made a habit of taking in strays at his station, much to Caine’s good fortune. He wouldn’t have Macklin now if Uncle Michael hadn’t taken the foreman in when he was the same age as this kid. Now Caine just had to convince Seth that coming to Lang Downs would be the right choice for him and his brother. “So where are you staying?”
“We’ve got a room,” Seth said defensively.
Probably some flop in a drug house so cheap they could afford it.
“Are you using?”
That was good. Caine was all for lending a helping hand, but he would not have drugs on his land. He had too much to lose. “Good. Your brother’s clean too?”
“What’s it to you?”
“I don’t hire men with drug problems.”
“If all you’ve got is ‘a room’ and no parents and no one but your brother, that pretty much means no future, at least from where I’m sitting. I run a sheep station north of Boorowa. I thought you might like a job.”
“You’re a Yank!”
“And you’re a brat who is about to lose the best chance to come his way,” Caine retorted. “Ask around if you don’t believe me. I’ve been here all week signing on jackaroos. I’ve got space for two more.”
They didn’t really. They’d hired the last of their crew this morning and planned to head back to Boorowa after lunch to pick up supplies and then drive back to Lang Downs tomorrow morning. Seth didn’t need to know that, though. Caine had already seen enough of the boy’s pride to know he wouldn’t take charity.
It wouldn’t be charity. Seth would work harder on Lang Downs than he had in his life. He’d earn every cent they paid him and his brother. He wouldn’t have many expenses, though, so he could put almost every penny away toward college, if he wanted, or into a savings account against the day he left Lang Downs and pursued a different path in life, and if he chose to stay, he’d have a family to replace the one he’d lost with his mother’s death.
CHRIS SIMMS grunted as another hard kick landed on his kidneys, directly below his ribs. He’d tried to fight his attackers, but they were too numerous. He’d rolled into a ball instead, trying to protect tender places in the hope that someone would interrupt and scare off his attackers before they killed him. His whole body hurt, sharp lances of agony each time they landed a blow blending with the sea of pain from the injuries they’d already inflicted, but he clung to consciousness and hope. He couldn’t die because he couldn’t abandon Seth the way everyone else in their lives had done. He just couldn’t.
A shout from the street slowed the blows raining down on him. He lifted his head as an avenging angel bore down on his attackers. His vision blurred when he tried to focus on his savior’s face, but then another blow to his head rattled him. His last thought as consciousness deserted him was that the man looked like he was carved out of stone.
MACKLIN stood over the body of the unconscious kid, rubbing absently at his sore knuckles. He was too old to be brawling in the streets, but that hadn’t mattered when he’d seen the kid on the ground being pummeled by five attackers. He supposed this young man was a little older than the one at the hotel, but not by much. The five hoodlums who’d jumped him had changed their minds when faced with real men who knew how to handle themselves in a fight. Macklin spared a quick nod of thanks for Neil, Ian, and Kyle. Neil had a bloody nose where someone had landed a blow, but other than that, they all seemed in good shape. He’d have a bruise on his jaw in the morning, for that matter. “He needs a doctor, but it doesn’t look like anything’s too broken. Get the ute, Ian. We’ll take him to the hospital and see what’s wrong with him.”
“You don’t want to call an ambulance?” Ian asked.
“He’s unconscious, but he’s breathing. He isn’t bleeding. We can get him to the hospital probably as fast as an ambo can get here, and that way we don’t have to pay for it. I can guarantee he isn’t an ambulance member.”
Ian nodded and ran toward the truck.
“You should call Caine, boss,” Neil said, staunching the blood flow with his sleeve. “He’ll be worried.”
“Once we get this bloke in the ute and we’re on the way,” Macklin said. “He can take the car and meet us there.”
Macklin looked down at the kid, trying to figure out the best way to move him without hurting him worse. “Neil, get his feet. Kyle, help me with his shoulders.”
The kid moaned softly as they moved him, reassuring Macklin more. He might be unconscious, but he wasn’t in a coma or anything. As they carried him out of the alley and lifted him into the back of the ute, one thought stuck firmly in Macklin’s head.
But for the grace of God in the form of Michael Lang, this could have been him.
THE emergency room in Yass was about as crowded and busy as the rest of the town, which was to say not at all. The doctor looked surprised to see anyone, much less someone in the young man’s condition.
“We found five guys trying to kick the shite out of him,” Macklin said. “His brother’s on his way here with our boss. The brother can give you medical background, I hope, but we didn’t want to wait to bring him in.”
“No, of course not,” the doctor said. “Put him on the gurney. I’ll need to do an X-ray and….”
Macklin tuned out the mumbling as the doctor rolled the gurney deeper into the emergency room. The man would do what he could and they’d go from there. He was more concerned with Caine. He didn’t really think the thugs he’d run off would stumble across Caine and realize he was the grazier from Lang Downs, much less that they’d do anything after Macklin had kicked their arses once, but he would still be happier once he could see Caine again to be sure. More than that, though, he knew his lover’s tender heart and could easily guess how this entire situation would bother Caine. Macklin didn’t know the whole story, although he’d bet Caine had gotten it out of the kid’s brother by now, but he knew it couldn’t be good, and that would tear at Caine. As far as Macklin was concerned, nothing was allowed to upset his lover, which meant finding a solution.
Caine arrived a few minutes later, the younger brother in tow. Macklin saw the way Caine’s eyes raked over him checking for scuffs or injuries. He squeezed Caine’s shoulder as the younger brother rushed past him into the hospital. It was a subtle gesture, all Macklin would let pass between them in public, especially here in Yass, but it would reassure Caine for the moment. His lover could strip him bare and check every centimeter of him later.
“The doctor took him for an X-ray,” Macklin said, turning to face the boy who had skidded to a halt in the middle of the lobby when he didn’t see the object of his search, “and I don’t know what else. He was unconscious but alive when we brought him in. He’ll be sore for a while, but he didn’t look hurt bad enough to worry about him getting well.”
“Macklin, this is Seth,” Caine said. “Seth, this is Mr. Armstrong.”
“Thank you for saving my brother, Mr. Armstrong,” the kid said. “You didn’t have to get involved.”
The kid might see it that way, but Macklin hadn’t had a choice, not from the moment he’d understood that homophobia had motivated the attack.
The doctor came back out before Macklin could reply.
“Has the brother got here yet? I need some medical background.”
“I’m Chris’s brother,” Seth said.
Macklin caught Caine’s arm when he would have followed Seth and the doctor. “Let him do this. I need to talk to you.”
“They’re coming to Lang Downs,” Caine said immediately, “as soon as Chris can travel safely.”
“Of course they are,” Macklin said. “What did the kid tell you?”
“They’re orphans; their stepfather kicked them out after their mom died. They have a room here in Yass, but I’m guessing it’s temporary. They need a chance.”
“And we’ll give them one,” Macklin agreed. “Michael would approve.”
Caine beamed the way he did any time Macklin brought up his great-uncle, making Macklin resolve, once again, to mention the old man more often.
“HE’S still unconscious,” the doctor told Seth, “but we expect him to come to any minute. He has three cracked ribs, bruised kidneys, multiple lacerations and contusions, and a broken arm. None of that is good, but it’ll all heal in time.”
“How much time?”
“The bruises and scrapes will heal in a few days. His arm, which will take the longest, will need to be in a cast for six to eight weeks,” the doctor said.
“Which arm is it?”
Seth cursed silently. If it had been his left arm, Chris might have been able to keep working, but he was worthless with his left hand. He’d lose his job, they’d lose their room, and they’d be back to living in the car, trying to stay presentable enough that someone would give them a chance at another job and another room.
Unless they took the offer to go to the station….
“Can I see him? I want to be there when he wakes up.”
The doctor led Seth into a small hospital room where Chris lay on the bed, various machines monitoring his vitals. “Don’t let the wires bother you,” the doctor said. “They’re keeping tabs on his systems, but he’s doing everything himself. As soon as he’s awake, we’ll start taking them off, and once we know he doesn’t have a concussion, we can send him home. Do you have somewhere to go?”
“Yes, of course,” Seth lied. He had no idea where they’d go. Their landlord let them pay by the week since that’s how Chris got paid, but they’d owe rent again in three days, and Seth didn’t know if they’d have enough to cover it. Even if they did, that would only delay the inevitable by a week, because Chris wouldn’t be able to work for some time, based on what the doctor said. “Wake up, Chris,” Seth begged. “We have to figure this out, and I can’t do it by myself.”
They had the offer from the grazier, but Seth didn’t trust it. He didn’t trust anyone but Chris these days. Too many people had betrayed their trust for Seth to believe that anyone but Chris cared about what happened to them. Looking around the room to make sure he was alone, not that he expected anyone to come in, he put his hand on Chris’s. “Come on, Chris. Don’t do this to me.”
He could feel the tears threatening, but he had too much pride to snivel like a little kid. Chris needed him to be strong. He wondered what would happen if he showed up at the restaurant where Chris worked tomorrow to take Chris’s shift. It wasn’t like he’d be doing anything but washing dishes anyway. Surely he could do that well enough to keep a roof over their heads for a couple of weeks until Chris could work again.
The fingers beneath his twitched slightly, drawing Seth’s attention from his spiraling thoughts back to his brother. Chris’s eyes were still closed, but Seth thought he saw more movement beneath the lids, like maybe Chris was waking up. “Can you hear me, Chris? Come on. Help me get this sorted here, okay? You’ve got to wake up and tell me how to fix all of this because I can’t do it on my own.”
Chris’s fingers twitched again, but his eyes didn’t open. “What are we going to do?” Seth asked, hoping the sound of his voice would help rouse his brother. “Even if they let me work your job, they’re going to bitch about school and the number of hours I can work. I’m not sure I can make enough in the hours they’re likely to give me to make the rent. I need you to wake up and give me the solution. You always have the answers, Chris. Now would be a good time.”
Noise in the hallway interrupted him. He jerked his hand back, as if whoever was out there would think him unmanly for holding his brother’s hand. He watched the door for several seconds, but no one came in so he turned back to Chris again. “The men who helped you offered us a job, but I don’t know if they really meant it, or if they’ll still mean it when they realize you broke your arm. The doc says you’ll be in a cast for six to eight weeks. I don’t know much about sheep, but I don’t think there’s much you could do with your arm busted up like that. I guess we tell them thanks but no thanks and hope Mr. Harrell will let us miss a rent payment or two until you’re back on your feet. Just when I thought we were getting ahead a little bit, this had to go and happen.”
“WE HAVE to do something.”
“We will,” Macklin said, his hand back on Caine’s arm again, keeping him from going into the hospital room, “but that kid in there doesn’t know us and doesn’t trust us, and as much as you’d like him to, there’s no reason why he should. We have to be patient and let his brother wake up first. Then you’re going to stay out here with Neil and I’m going to talk to Chris man to man.”
“And I’m not a man?” Caine asked.
“You’re an amazing man, but right now your mother hen instincts have kicked in, and those kids have no idea how to deal with that,” Macklin said. “You want to comfort them. That might make you feel better, but it isn’t going to help them.”
“How do you know?”
“Because I was those two kids when I ended up on Lang Downs,” Macklin said. “I’d run away from home because I was tired of taking blows meant for my mother, going down, and watching her take them anyway. I was tired of homophobic rants and living in fear. I figured even the streets were better than that. I was wrong, of course, until Michael kicked me in the arse and set me straight. He didn’t do it by comforting me, pup. He did it by telling me if this was my choice, then I had to grow up and act like a man, and then he taught me how to do it. That’s what those boys in there are going to respond to, and because I’ve been where they are, I can do for them what Michael did for me. You can comfort them later, when they know us well enough to trust it.”
Caine’s heart ached hearing those words. He’d guessed some of it from things Macklin had and hadn’t said, but hearing it laid out that bluntly made him want to pull Macklin into his arms and heal all the old hurts. He chuckled. Macklin was right about his protective side. “Okay, fine. We’ll do it your way.”