JIM KELLY rode along on his strapping stock horse mare, Shiloh, through the Australian bush. It was early summer in December 1876. The harsh Australian sun had tanned his face and arms to an even bronze. He sat the powerful bay mare easily as she cantered along a vast open tract of grassland. He wore a faded red-checked shirt and slightly frayed blue work pants, with carefully oiled tan buffalo-hide boots. The open scrub flatlands he traversed were about fifty miles west of the Great Dividing Range, which followed the eastern coastline of Australia. Jim turned to call to Mark Turner, who was riding behind him, “You had enough yet?”
A few curses came from Mark, and Jim smiled to himself.
“You could give me a turn with your saddle, you know,” said Mark, who was on a black thoroughbred mare.
“I could. Only Shiloh hates being ridden bareback, and she’d probably buck me off. Then we’d have one horse and one saddle.”
“I don’t care if I never ride again,” grumbled Mark, cantering the black mare to catch up with Jim.
Jim eyed him with some amusement. “You must be pretty sore.”
Mark growled, “Can we stop?”
Jim looked around them but shook his head. “Too open. We need to find a creek or a riverbed, somewhere with some trees where a fire won’t be visible.”
“Well, can we pick up speed, then? Regret’s got a smooth canter. That might help.”
“Okay,” said Jim but reined to a halt. He surveyed the countryside around them. For as far as he could see, the land was flat. Kangaroos bounded casually away as they heard the voices of men, but quickly settled back down to graze, only the occasional flick of their long ears indicating their awareness of the travelers. The heat haze of the afternoon blurred the horizons around him. He squinted and saw a line of blue hills branching off the main range about ten miles ahead of them. Through the shimmering mirages, he could just see some trees at the base of the spur. He turned Shiloh slightly toward them and said, “This way.”
“Why head back into the ranges?” asked Mark.
“Water,” replied Jim and urged Shiloh forward into a canter. Jim heard Mark groan behind him, but the black mare followed Shiloh eagerly. As they passed a large gum tree, a goanna raced along the ground, then up the tree, scrabbling up the smooth bark as quickly as it had run across the flat ground.
They had been riding for about an hour, the big strong mares loping along easily, and then the mares started misbehaving. Shiloh threw up her head and slowed suddenly, nearly pitching Jim forward off her back. He scolded her, “Shiloh!” and urged her on. Regret bucked as they moved on together, and both mares began to flare their nostrils and snort.
“What’s wrong with them—oh, oh, that’s disgusting!” exclaimed Jim, screwing up his nose and allowing Shiloh to stop.
“Oh,” said Mark from behind him. “Is that a dead horse?”
“Smells like it. Couple of days old, by the stink.” In this heat dead animals began to smell within a day or two.
“God. Can we go upwind of it?” suggested Mark.
They turned to ride south upwind of the smell. Suddenly both horses’ ears twirled around, and Regret let out a loud neigh. Mark swung his head to the left. He pulled Regret up, and Jim rode back to him and said, “What is it?”
Mark hushed him with a hand, and in the silence, Jim heard the faint sound of a horse’s whinny.
“Dead horses don’t neigh,” Jim observed drily.
“No, and they don’t call for help, either,” said Mark and kicked Regret toward the sound, his discomfort forgotten.
“Really?” Jim kicked Shiloh and followed him. He had only heard the horse faintly in the distance.
“That was a human voice!” yelled Mark from ahead of him.
By the time they arrived at the source of the whinnying and the smell, Jim had his fingers pinching his nostrils shut. He stared at the scene before him. A eucalypt tree was lying across the ground, fresh splintered wood and a deep black scar up the trunk telling the story of a lightning strike. The tree had pinned a rider and horse beneath it. The horse was obviously dead. A line of blackened hair a handsbreadth wide from its ear and down its neck and leg tracked the course the lightning had taken down its body. The rider was pinned between the horse and the tree, his leg trapped. Another dark gray horse was spinning about close to them, its hooves coming perilously close to the man as it became excited at the arrival of the other riders.
The horses all shied as a huge yellow dingo shot out from the side of the dead horse away from the man and disappeared off into the bush with a growl. Mark pulled out his rifle but lowered it again as the wild dog disappeared.
“Hold Regret,” said Mark, handing her reins off to Jim as he jumped down. Jim had to let his nose go to do so and grimaced as the smell of the dead horse assaulted his nostrils.
The man on the ground stared up at them with glazed eyes and said again, “Help?”
His face and hair were covered in the dust that the horse beside him had stirred up, so Jim could not tell how old he was.
“You’ll be fine. You’re lucky we turned up,” said Mark. He surveyed the situation quickly, then said to Jim, “We have to get this tree off him, and now.”
“You’ll need help moving it,” said Jim, looking for somewhere to tie Regret and Shiloh out of the way. He found a handy tree and tied the mares to it. They snorted at the dead horse and pawed the ground.
Mark said nothing, just untied the line that held the dark gray horse to the saddle of the dead horse, led the horse over to another tree, and tied it up. Then he strode over to a large branch that had obviously broken off the main trunk when the gum tree hit the ground, picked it up easily, and jammed it under the trunk of the eucalypt for leverage. He turned to Jim and asked, “Ready?”
Jim grabbed the prone man by the shoulders and nodded but said, “You’ll never lift that.”
“Just get ready to get him out.”
The trunk of the eucalypt tree rose with surprising speed, but what Jim hadn’t been prepared for was the sudden scream from the man in his arms. His face contorted with pain as the pressure of the tree finally came off his leg, and he didn’t stop screaming even as Jim pulled him out and away from the dead horse. Jim heard a loud thump as Mark released the branch and the gum tree hit the ground on the far side of the horse.
Mark whipped off his belt, wrapped it around the man’s upper leg, and pulled it firm. The man’s screaming eased to low moans of pain. Jim asked, “What did you do?”
“The blood returning is what’s causing the pain. I’m slowing that down by tying his leg back up. We can let it loose gradually over an hour or so. It’s still going to be painful, but he won’t be screaming,” explained Mark and then bit his lip. “Damn.”
“Your medical kit was in your saddlebag, wasn’t it? And that’s back at the Tenterfield jail.”
“Yes. I had laudanum in there and some ginger to chew on to stop him bringing it up. He’ll need that, or more. He needs doctoring and medicines, and he needs them soon. That leg’s been trapped for too long. His blood will turn septic in this heat if we don’t do something.”
Jim looked worried. “We need to get him to a town.”
“No,” said Mark emphatically.
“No? You just said we need medicines for him!”
“We can’t risk it. It’s not worth the risk.” But then his face cleared as an idea obviously came to him. “There’s an Oriental camp ten miles south. Min Yong will have everything we need and more.”
“Orientals?” Jim was instantly wary. The Chinese miners had a reputation for claim jumping and sticking strictly to their own kind. There had been riots over mining rights over the last twenty years and rumors of white men disappearing when they entered Chinese mining camps. “What would they know about medicine?”
“The Chinese? About four thousand years’ worth more than most white doctors do,” retorted Mark.
“Really?” Then Jim glanced back at the young man at their feet and said, “He’s out of it.”
Mark quickly placed his fingers on the man’s neck and nodded. “Pain knocked him out. Probably best at this point. Let’s get this saddle off the dead horse.”
“It’s gonna stink.”
Mark shook his head. “I’m not riding another mile on Regret without a damned saddle.”
Jim pursed his lips. “No, I guess not.”
It took them a good half hour, but eventually they sorted out the three remaining horses. Mark used the branch again to lever the dead horse up while Jim unbuckled the girths and dragged the saddle off it, and then they put that on Regret. The young gray horse only had a flat packsaddle on, so they tied their swags front and back of it to provide a serviceable saddle for the injured man. Mark hefted him up to a sitting position on the horse and Jim helped tie his hands around its neck and his belt to the packsaddle. The man murmured incoherently as they tied him there, then slumped down onto the swag roll in front of him. Mark mounted Regret and led them off at a walk, with Jim behind, keeping an eye on the man and making sure he did not slump too far and fall off the packhorse.
Their progress was slow. The sun set, but about an hour later, Jim was grateful to see the moon rise, low and full, over the range to the east, lighting the countryside around them with a soft yellow glow that turned to silver as the moon gradually rose in the sky.
Mark slowed down to talk to Jim. “See that double peak with the odd-shaped spur along the top of the saddle that looks like a koala sitting there?”
Jim looked and saw the peaks and spurs as Mark had described, edged in silver in the moonlight. “Yes?”
“That’s about five miles north of their permanent camp.”
It was about another hour before they finally saw the glow of a large campfire in the distance.
Mark slowed and allowed Jim to catch up with him, and Jim asked, “What’s wrong?”
“I’m not that sure of my bearings. It could be Min Yong’s people, or it could be an aboriginal camp,” said Mark. “Better stay quiet until we figure it out.”
They rode quietly toward the campfire, and before Jim could hear anything, Mark stopped again, then listened. He turned to Jim in the darkness, and Jim saw a flash of white teeth as Mark smiled and said, “It’s Min Yong.”
“How can you tell?”
Mark hesitated, then said, “Breathe in.”
The smell of foreign cooking came clearly to Jim’s nostrils, and he smiled hopefully. “Reckon we’ll get a meal from them?”
“Absolutely,” said Mark and rode confidently forward. Jim hesitated, then nudged Shiloh back into a walk, not feeling as self-assured as Mark obviously did.
Silence fell as they approached the camp, and Jim, his eyes well adjusted to the moonlight, saw figures in the night, drifting slowly away as they entered the camp, then closing back in behind them. Mark stopped Regret, then called out softly. To Jim’s amazement, Mark fluently spoke the language of the Celestials.
Figures moved up a little more confidently, and then Jim heard an older man come forward and greet Mark with delight in his voice. The words “Mark Turner” were the only ones Jim understood in the barrage of foreign speech. Mark slipped down off Regret and spoke earnestly, gesturing toward Jim and the man on the packhorse a few times as he spoke. To Jim’s surprise the strange-looking older man and Mark hugged each other like old friends.
Jim gazed at the Oriental man. He was bareheaded, and his head appeared to have been shaved, except for a circle on the top where the hair that remained was drawn into a tight topknot that became a long plait down his back. He wore a light-colored, loose shirt, with oblong wooden buttons down the front and flowing sleeves. His pants were tight and dark with what looked like knee-length white socks over them, and his shoes were simple and looked like canvas. With a start, Jim realized the man was looking straight at him, his dark eyes appraising.
Mark said, “Jim Kelly, Tart Min Yong.”
Jim stared at Mark. “You expect me to speak to him?”
Mark shook his head in disgust and burst into a stream of Chinese, glaring at Jim but speaking to Min Yong.
Jim stared off into the distance.
Min Yong nodded and said quietly to Jim, “Would you speak to me if I spoke English to you?”
Jim hesitated, then nodded curtly. “Very well.”
Min Yong said something to Mark in Chinese. Mark looked up at Jim, hesitated, then said, “We will speak English while you are here.”
Jim shot him a look, then asked, “Can they help him?” and nodded at the young man on the packhorse.
“Yes, we can certainly help him,” replied Min Yong. “We have opium and ginger and blood cleaners.”
Jim nodded and nudged Shiloh over to untie the young man from the horse. The unconscious lad slid into Mark’s arms, and Mark carried him, following Min Yong into the largest tent in the rough camp.
Jim sat on his horse, at a loss, surrounded by strange people in similar garb to Min Yong. The Celestials stared at him, unnervingly moving in closer to surround him and Shiloh, who snorted at the proximity of so many people.
When Mark emerged from the tent, Jim breathed a sigh of relief and said, “Let’s go.”
Mark looked surprised. “I was hoping we could stay overnight.”
“I’d really rather not.” Jim hesitated, by now thoroughly unnerved by being stared at and hearing the foreign speech around him. “I don’t really feel safe here.”
Mark reassured him. “I know these people. They won’t hurt us. And they’ve offered to launder my clothes and get the stench out of this saddle for me.”
“That saddle belongs to our young patient in there, remember?”
“A saddle for his life? I’m pretty sure he’ll think that’s a fair trade!”
“You can’t just take stuff off people, Mark!”
Mark gave him a long, slow stare and said, “I’m a bushranger, remember? That’s what I do. Anyway, they’ve cleared out a tent for us, and there’s food just ready.”
Jim wavered, but truth be told, he was tired and hungry. He finally swung down off Shiloh and was surprised when a Chinese boy immediately tried to take her reins. He looked to Mark, who nodded, so Jim released Shiloh to the boy. The boy led her to a copse of trees where a hitching line had been set up and tied her there with Regret and the gray horse.
“Come on,” said Mark and led the way to the campfire.
A large group of people sat on logs arranged in a circle around the central fire pit, and a young woman brought food to them in tin bowls. Mark and Jim nodded their thanks and ate the food, which tasted strange but delicious to Jim. He looked at Mark and nodded. “This is pretty good.”
The time dragged for Jim as many of the people around him simply did not speak English. He sat surrounded by their foreign speech and began to feel the effects of many long days riding. He dozed a little, and then a hand on his shoulder startled him. Mark said, “Come on,” and led him to a tent behind the main tent, a little away from the rest of the camp.
Jim ducked in behind Mark and was relieved to find their swags set up in there already and his own saddle and gear in the corner. A large bowl of fresh water and a jug were sitting next to the saddle.
“Pretty civilized,” commented Jim. He busied himself tying off the tent flap to afford them some much-needed privacy.
Mark walked over to the basin, took a piece of cloth off the side, wet the cloth thoroughly, and then scrubbed it over his hair and face, rubbing vigorously. “You weren’t expecting civilized?”
Jim looked at him. “Look, I know you admire their medicine, but these people are strange to me. I’ll be more comfortable when we’re out of here.”
Mark nodded. “I know. Most people find them strange. But I feel safer with Min Yong’s people than I would in a town where there were coppers.”
Jim sighed, “I guess.”
Mark began to undress, and Jim asked, “What are you doing?” as Mark shucked his trousers and pants. Jim walked up behind Mark and saw him flinch with pain.
“Saddle sore?” asked Jim, running a gentle hand down Mark’s bare inner thigh.
Mark took in a hissing breath at the contact, and Jim felt unusual heat under his hand. He looked at Mark’s legs more closely and gasped. “Your legs are raw!”
“I told you I was uncomfortable. Five days riding bareback, and Regret’s no round pony,” Mark pointed out drily, and Jim whistled as he examined Mark’s body. The skin inside Mark’s thighs was an angry red with several welts and raw places.
“Dammit, Mark! You should have said something sooner. This could get infected,” chided Jim. He strode over to the door and began to quickly undo the ties on the tent flap.
Mark snatched up his trousers quickly and pulled them back on, asking, “What are you doing?”
Jim ducked out through the flap and called, “Stay there!”
Jim walked back over to the fireplace and sought out Min Yong. It was harder than he thought it would be to identify the older man from behind among all the other pigtailed men around the campsite, but then he spotted the streaks of gray in Min Yong’s hair and tapped him on the shoulder politely.
Min Yong looked around, obviously surprised to see Jim. “How can I help you, Mr. Kelly?” he asked in his heavily accented English.
“Min Yong, my friend has ridden for five days bareback, and his legs are raw. Do you have anything that will help him?”
Min Yong tilted his head and considered. “I think I may have something back at my tent. Come with me.”
Jim followed the sprightly old man back to the largest tent in the camp, and Min Yong invited him inside. He looked around and saw a young Chinese woman tending the prone form of the man he and Mark had rescued. The man’s face had been cleaned, and Jim realized he was a lot younger than he had thought. Min Yong nodded a greeting and went to the other side of the large tent, where several trunks were lined up along the sidewall.
Min Yong bent down and opened a trunk, rummaged around for a while, and then pulled out a flat tub of cream. “This will heal his skin quickly. It will not burn, either.”
“Thank you,” said Jim as he took the tub and turned to leave.
Min Yong said quietly, “You would hardly even look at me earlier, yet now when Mark Turner has trouble, you do not hesitate to come seek me out.”
Jim stopped, not turning around. “So?”
“Mark is a good man. He helped my brother and his family escape the massacres down south many years ago.”
Jim did not move. “What are you getting at, Min Yong?”
“If you ever have doubts about him, don’t.”
Surprised, Jim spun to look into the dark eyes of the foreigner.
Min Yong continued, “I know the trouble he has had over the last two years, and I know that when he was just a boy, he risked his life for the life of my brother and his wife and children. Whatever the English say he has done… he has not.”
Jim stared at Min Yong. “You know him that well?”
Min Yong walked up closer to Jim and gazed up at him. “Better than you do, if you doubt him at all. Well enough to say if ever he needs help, bring him to me.”
“How…?” Jim stopped.
Min Yong surprised him yet again by finishing his question for him. “How do I know you will still be with him?”
Jim stared at him. The way the Oriental had said “with him” had sounded like it had a deeper meaning behind it. But Min Yong simply smiled and continued, “If he ever needs help, send for me.”
Jim’s eyes narrowed further, and then he nodded curtly and left the tent. He found his way back to their tent and called, “It’s me.” He lifted the flap and found Mark sitting cross-legged on his swag. Mark looked up at him, and Jim smiled. “You okay?”
Mark shrugged, “Well, let’s just say this is about the only way I can sit down at the moment.” He smiled ruefully up at Jim.
Jim walked over, sat down next to Mark, and said, “Min Yong gave me this. It should help.”
Mark looked at the small, flat, tin tub.
Jim went on, “You two have known each other for a long time?”
“Yes. Our fathers were friends,” said Mark. “So you spoke to him?”
“I didn’t think you would. What did he say?”
“He seems to be under the impression that I’m with you for the long haul.”
Mark looked at Jim appraisingly, then asked quietly, “Is he wrong?”
Jim looked at the small tub in his hands. “Do you see it that way?”
Mark huffed out a bitter-sounding laugh. “Always hedging your bets, aren’t you?”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“Well, what did you mean?”
“I meant….” Jim looked up into the dark eyes of his companion. “That bushrangers don’t live long. We’re gonna get shot or hanged. There’s not gonna be a long haul, Mark.”
Mark looked down at the ground. “If I could change that, I would.”
Jim sighed, “I know.”
Mark was silent and stared at the floor, his dark hair swinging down over his deeply tanned face.
Jim changed the subject. “You want me to help you put this on?”
Mark looked up, his mouth quirking up in a smile. “That sounds good to me.”
“Good,” said Jim and opened the tub.
They both sniffed it dubiously.
“Smells like coconut,” said Mark.
Jim ran his fingers through the white cream and sniffed at them. “And honey.”
He waited for Mark to wriggle out of his trousers and pants again. The bowl of water and damp cloth were near, and Jim picked them up and began to carefully dab the cloth over the inside of Mark’s thighs. Mark tensed and flinched, and Jim said, “Sorry.”
Jim worked slowly up Mark’s thighs and gently around his scrotum and penis, then patted the area dry with the other end of the cloth. Then Jim put the cloth down and scooped out a handful of cream. Mark tensed as Jim touched him, but then his face relaxed, and he said, “It doesn’t sting.”
“Min Yong said it wouldn’t,” said Jim, but he was rather distracted by the fact that Mark’s body was responding to his ministrations. He continued his work, feathering his hand across the inside of Mark’s thighs, spreading the cream over the raw red areas of skin as gently as he could.
“Your shirttails are dragging in the cream,” Jim pointed out, and Mark undid his buttons and twisted out of his shirt, tossing it aside. Jim looked at Mark’s tanned torso, the powerful, broad shoulders, and solid muscles on his arms, and smiled.
“That is soothing,” sighed Mark, smiling as he noticed Jim admiring him.
“Soothing?” smiled Jim, looking mischievously at Mark’s growing erection.
“Mmm,” replied Mark, staring mesmerized at Jim’s hand as it moved across his skin. Jim rubbed soft circles in the hollow at the top of his thighs beside the tendons of his leg. Mark tipped his head back and relaxed, resting back on his hands, which he’d thrust out stiffly to the floor behind him.
“Hell, Mark, look at you,” remonstrated Jim. “I don’t know how you stood the pain.”
“Ohhh… you’re certainly distracting me from it,” murmured Mark contentedly.
Jim looked at him and smiled. “You’re such a sensualist.”
Mark did not reply, simply leaned back on his hands and sighed.
Jim carefully smoothed the cream over Mark’s inner thighs and scrotum, noting that Mark’s erection was now tight and full. Jim could not resist tracing his index finger along the vein on the base and running it up and over the top, eliciting a low moan from Mark.
Jim stopped and pulled his hand away. “We can’t. You’d be too sore.”
“You could just…,” said Mark.
Jim turned his blue eyes up and met Mark’s deep brown ones. Mark’s lips were parted and his eyes were gleaming with lust. The sight sent a jolt of arousal through Jim, and he felt his breathing quicken. He hesitated for a moment, then gave in, leaned over, and very carefully took the tip of Mark’s erection into his mouth.
“Oh God, Jim…,” sighed Mark, leaning back even further and closing his eyes. His body arched up into the contact.
Jim tasted the single drop of salty liquid emerging from Mark’s glans, and licked at it, swirling his tongue around, and pushing it into the tiny hole in the middle. He heard an incoherent noise from Mark as Jim opened his mouth and took Mark’s penis in until it pressed hard against the back of his throat. He slowly lifted his mouth up again, until he had only the glans in his mouth, and twirled his tongue around and around the tip.
“Mmpf…,” muttered Mark, as he sank back onto his elbows, his dark curly hair falling back toward the floor as his head tipped back until all Jim could see of his face was the underside of his square jaw. Jim put the cream aside and braced his hands on the floor on either side of Mark’s hips. He continued to tease Mark’s erection with his tongue, swirling it lightly around and around. Mark was moaning and his erection was tight and bobbing. Jim sealed his lips around the hot, taut skin and slowly lowered his mouth until Mark was fully inside. Then Jim hollowed his cheeks and began to suck, gently at first, then vigorously. Soon Mark was lying back flat on the swag, his hands fisting in the thick canvas, his deep voice moaning repeatedly as his normally iron self-control came undone under Jim’s mouth and hands. “Oh God,” he moaned loudly.
“Shhh,” whispered Jim, and Mark put one fist in his mouth and tried to be quiet, but didn’t quite succeed. The resulting strangled moans sent shivers of arousal through Jim, and his own erection swelled rapidly, becoming painful in his trousers. He reached back and undid them to relieve the pressure. His manhood released and bobbed beneath him.
“Turn around,” begged Mark, and Jim complied, a little mystified until Mark found Jim’s distended penis with his hands and lips. Pleasure lanced along all Jim’s nerves, and he too gave a deep-throated moan of pleasure as Mark drew him into his mouth. Mark dragged Jim’s trousers partway down his thighs, restricting Jim’s movements. With a grumble of frustration Jim scrambled away for a moment, kicked off his boots and trousers, then brought himself back over Mark, who drew him back into his mouth eagerly. The only item of clothing remaining on either of them now was Jim’s favorite red-checked cotton shirt, which hung down loosely off him, draping over Mark’s chest and stomach.
Jim’s legs slowly gave from under him as Mark worked on him with hands and mouth, and he gradually slumped onto Mark, overcome by pleasure. Soon their bodies were entwined tightly and their mouths pumping each other frantically. Jim could feel the heat under his hands where Mark’s body was still red and raw from the saddle and tried to stop his weight from coming down onto the injured areas. He felt his breathing hitch as his balls began to tighten and gave another low moan of pleasure. Mark must have heard it, for his grip on Jim tightened, and he worked his tongue faster.
Jim felt his body begin to rock, beyond his control, and moved his hands and mouth frantically to bring Mark along faster. He felt Mark tense tightly beneath him, then shudder and gasp. Jim felt a rush of satisfaction as Mark’s hot seed poured into his mouth. He drank it down, making Mark whimper with delight. Then Jim felt his own body buck and the rush of his own ejaculation. Warmth and suction pulsed around his member, and he realized Mark was swallowing him down too. Jim moaned around Mark’s penis and tried to hold himself as still and quiet as possible, but his breathing was harsh and ragged, and he had to bite his lip to stop from whimpering out loud.
Afterward they lay clinging together, gasping with pleasure, then slowly released each other. Jim turned around and lay beside Mark, who was still panting. Mark’s dark eyes met his, and he smiled as Jim leaned over to kiss him. Jim tasted the intoxicating salty taste of his own essences on Mark’s lips as Jim kissed him languorously. Mark reached up with both hands and pulled him into the kiss, then broke it off to mutter, “You never did finish with that cream.”
Jim found his breath. “It might take a few goes.”
Mark chuckled his approval and murmured, “I can live with that.” He pulled Jim back into a kiss.