“HAVEN! What in hell are you doing there watching nothin’?” His father’s sharp voice carried across the quiet rangeland to where the young man was standing near the gurgling water. “There ain’t nothin’ over there for you, boy.” His father’s voice got louder, and Haven turned around, sighing softly before walking away from the fence that formed the border between his family’s land and the neighboring ranch. Moving toward his father as the tall man strode across their rangeland toward the small river, Haven stopped himself from taking one last look. “Come on, there’s no use lookin’, ’cause what’s over there don’t matter,” his dad added sharply, and Haven ducked the halfhearted swipe his dad took at his head.

“I was just looking, wondering why their land looks so much better than ours.” Haven made sure he was well away from his father when he said that. If he were close enough, his dad would take another swipe at him, and this time he’d be aiming to hurt.

“You know why. Them fags take more than their fair share of the river and don’t leave enough water for us. ’Sides, I won’t have you looking and watching them. Whatever Jefferson Holden did wrong with his son, I don’t intend to do with you.”

Haven fell into stride beside his father. Nearly the man’s height and almost as broad, Haven knew he shouldn’t have anything to be afraid of when it came to his father. “What makes you think Mr. Holden did anything wrong?”

“You reap what you sow. And Jefferson Holden must have sown something pretty bad to be struck down sick like he was and to have his son turn into some kind of sissy.” Kent Jessup turned away from Haven, spitting out a wad of his chewing tobacco before hauling out the can from his back pocket. “You sure you don’t want some?” Kent asked, offering Haven the tin. “It’ll make a man out of you.”

Haven shook his head, keeping the disgusted look off his face. He’d tried that stuff once and nearly thrown up. Arriving in the yard near the barn, his dad said nothing as he peeled off for the house, and Haven continued on toward the barn. There was plenty to be done. “Don’t be shirking your chores,” his dad called as he walked up the steps into the house.

“Ain’t me shirking chores,” Haven said under his breath as he walked into the barn. At least it was clean and all the horses were out in their paddocks, not that there were many of the large animals on their ranch. Opening the tack room door, he went inside, grabbing Jake’s bridle, checking the leather to make sure it was still sound—something he now did habitually after the reins broke on a set a month ago. Looking around, he saw how old everything looked, and he realized that was because his dad hadn’t bought any replacement equipment in years. Even the trucks the ranch lived and died by were almost two decades old.

“Haven, that you?” A deep voice called from outside the door.

“Yeah, Kade, it’s me,” Haven called as he finished gathering what he needed.

“Thank goodness.” Haven heard the relief in the man’s voice. He knew that tone well. Everyone on the ranch walked on eggshells around his dad; it wasn’t just Haven. “You heading out?”

“Gonna ride fence for the afternoon.” It was one of the chores he liked. It got him away from the house for hours, even an entire day at a time. “Need to check the western borders. In the spring, I noticed that some of the posts might be weak, and we’ll need to move some of the herd down there in a few weeks, particularly if we don’t get any rain.” He knew he was testing the fences that bordered the Holden ranch, and if his dad found out, he’d probably be angry as hell for some stupid reason.

“You want me to ride the range, check for any weeds?”

Haven smiled. “Sure. Grab your gear and I’ll meet you in the yard, saddled and ready, in half an hour.”

Haven watched him go. Kade had energy and a real will to please, and when Haven’s dad wasn’t around, he did great. Setting his gear on pegs outside the stall, Haven followed Kade outside. He whistled for Jake, and the chestnut gelding came right over, tossing his head excitedly. Taking him by the halter, Haven led his horse into his stall and started the grooming process. Jake loved to be groomed and moved into every stroke of the brush almost like it was a lover. If the big baby had been a cat, he’d have purred.

Slipping the bit into Jake’s sensitive mouth, Haven finished saddling the horse, checking the girth twice before leading him out into the yard. “You ready, Kade?”

“Yup,” he answered excitedly, climbing into the saddle. They headed out across the range, through the shallow water, before heading west toward the ranch border fence. “Haven.”

“Yeah,” he answered as he made for the line of fence posts.

“Why’s your dad hate Dakota so much? He’s never been anything but nice to everybody, far as I know. Helps everybody out when they need it and more than most, from what I hear.” Kade didn’t look up as he watched the pastureland around him, looking for anything that could make the cattle sick.

“The only thing I can figure is because Dakota’s queer.” Haven saw Kade’s head jerk up at the word. He knew he shouldn’t have used it, especially with the feelings he himself had had for as long as he could remember. Haven knew Kade was looking at him and he needed to cover somehow. “Not that it matters to me, but then Dad always held with that church stuff. I never paid it no mind,” he added as nonchalantly as he could. Haven made his way toward the fence line, with Kade a little ways away watching the ground. “Maybe it’s just ’cause Dad’s jealous or something. Everything that happens, he tries to blame it on the Holdens, always has. God himself could sweep down in a blaze of glory, and he’d blame the Holdens that God’s brightness hurt his eyes.”

Kade snickered, but said nothing more before riding off to continue checking the range. Haven moved closer to the fence, watching the wire and posts as Jake followed the route he knew well. A few of the posts looked as though they might be ready to give, and Haven dismounted, holding Jake’s reins as he checked, but they held fine, and he remounted, continuing on his way. In a few places, he saw where posts had already been replaced, and he made a note to thank Dakota the next time he saw him. There was no way he’d tell his dad, who would only yell that Holden had been on his property rather than being grateful that the man had actually fixed the fence for them.

At the far end of the range, Haven looked back along the line before starting down the back section. He saw Kade weaving through the range and let his thoughts wander. He liked it out here alone where he could think, away from his father’s stiflingly vocal self-righteous convictions. Fencing and posts passed by as he and Jake slowly made their way along the back of the range. Post after post, acre after acre, passed by them. A few times, he pulled Jake up to check posts and to help keep his eyes sharp.

At the far corner of the range, he dismounted and fished in his saddlebags for pliers. Jake lowered his head, feeding, looking content, as Haven worked to fix a break in the fence. Twisting the barbed wire back together, Haven worked carefully, keeping his gloved fingers away from the barbs, but as he repaired one break, another section of wire pulled away from the post. “Damn it!” Haven swore—there just wasn’t quite enough wire left to really fix it. After working awhile, Haven finally managed to knit the break back together.

Crack! The sound had Haven jumping out of his skin. Looking around, he saw the dark clouds of a storm rolling in fast from the west. “It’s okay, Jake. Let’s go home.” Haven could feel the horse’s nervousness, and he opened the saddlebag to put his tools away. Crack! Boom! Thunder rolled through the air, making the ground shake. Jake reared, and Haven found his butt bouncing on the ground as Jake raced away in a complete panic, hooves tearing up the ground as he got smaller and smaller, galloping back toward the barn faster than Haven could ever hope to.

“Shit!” Haven hollered as the wind picked up. With nothing else to do, Haven began walking the fence line back the way he had come. If he were lucky, the storm would be dry, bringing wind and noise, but no rain. But he doubted that as the next gust of wind carried the scent of water on it, and he picked up the pace, practically running.

Haven looked around, but knew what he’d see: nothing at all for miles in any direction except open range and fence. There had once been a range cabin just beyond the fence, but it had fallen down in a storm a few years earlier, and his dad was too cheap to rebuild it. So he had no choice. He had to walk and pray. He knew Kade was far away and had hopefully made it back to the ranch.

Another crack was followed instantly by a clap of thunder that had Haven holding his ears and clamping his eyes shut. He swore he could almost feel the heat. He sure as hell could smell the crackling in the air. Looking up, he saw smoke rising from the range just to the west. “Holy fuck,” he said to himself, eyes wide in fear, “the range is on fire!” Haven hurried, racing along the fence line as the smoke grew in intensity, spreading in the nearly dry grass.

The first raindrop splatted against his shoulder, big and full, followed by several more. Looking up at the nearly black sky, Haven checked for swirls, but saw none. As he continued to hurry along the fence line, the wind picked up again as the sky opened up, sheets of rain wetting him to the skin in an instant. At least he didn’t have to worry about the fire, but the rain picked up even more, buckets of water driven past him by gale-force winds, his wet shirt flapping in the wind.

With no shelter at all, his only choice was to continue trying to get home. Haven knew it wasn’t safe out in this weather, but he didn’t have a choice.

Finally, he reached the fence corner and began the turn toward the house. He could barely see, the water blowing into his eyes. “Haven.” Hearing his name in the wind, he tried to call back, but just got a mouthful of water. Peering through the gloom, he saw a figure on horseback materialize on the other side of the fence. “Haven, is that you?”

“Yes,” he called into the wind as a horse and rider came closer on the other side of the fence. “Dakota?” He couldn’t see for sure who it was in the yellow rain gear.

“Climb through the fence.” Dakota got off the horse and carefully spread the wire. Haven did the same, gingerly threading himself between the sharp barbs before standing next to the snorting horse. “Get on behind me, and we’ll get you inside.” Dakota mounted the huge horse before pulling Haven up behind him. Haven held on tight as the horse began to move.

“How can you see in this?”

“I can’t, but Roman knows the way, and he’ll get us back to the house. Just hang on.”

The horse began to move, and Haven closed his eyes, holding on to Dakota, letting the other man’s body shield him from at least some of the wind and rain. Periodically, the sky lit up and thunder rocked the air. Haven tensed, expecting the horse to throw them both and bolt, but he didn’t. A few times, Haven heard Dakota soothing the horse.

Finally, the wind seemed to stop even as the rain continued sluicing down his back. Moving his eyes away from Dakota, he saw the barn and other buildings, lights casting their rays through the downpour. “Get down and go on inside. If I know Wally, he’s looking out the windows worrying himself about both me and you.”

Haven slipped off the horse, feet landing in the mud. Dakota dismounted and led the horse into the barn. Looking around at the unfamiliar yard, he made for the light on the front porch. As his foot touched the steps, the front door opened and a slight man stood in the square of light. “Come on in.”

“But I’ll drip everywhere,” Haven said, standing on the porch, dripping all over the wood floor. He recognized the man from town and knew this was Wally, the new vet in the area. He hadn’t met him properly yet, but at least he knew who the man was.

“It’ll clean,” Wally said before backing away, motioning him inside.

As soon as he stepped on the rug, the door closed behind him, and Wally handed him a towel. “Take off your shirt and get yourself dry. I pulled out some dry clothes of Kota’s. They might be a little big, but they’ll be warm and dry.”

Standing in the warm room, Haven pulled off his shirt and began toweling himself off, starting to shiver. When he was outside, he hadn’t had time to worry about anything other than getting out of the storm, but now he was cold to the bone. “Thank you.”

“It’s no trouble,” Wally said with a smile. “The bathroom’s right down the hall, first door on your left. I set the dry clothes in there for you, and don’t worry about dripping, you won’t hurt anything.”

Haven nodded, clutching the towel around his shoulders as still more thunder rumbled and the lights flickered, but stayed on, thank God.

Padding down the hall, dripping everywhere, Haven found the bathroom and shut the door, stripping out of his soaked clothes and drying himself before pulling on the warm sweats Wally had set out. Finally, he felt warm and dry.

“Just leave your wet things in the tub, and I’ll get them in the dryer for you.” Wally’s voice drifted through the door.

“Okay, thanks,” Haven answered, setting the clothes in the tub like Wally asked before drying his hair. He remembered his cell phone in his pocket and fished it out—dead and fried. Stepping out of the bathroom, he padded into the living room as Dakota walked in the front door, minus his rain gear. “You okay?”

“Yes, thanks to you. The storm came up so fast, and then the thunder spooked my horse and he ran off,” Haven explained, feeling like a fool for being caught outside like that. “How’d you find me?”

Dakota took off his shoes before stepping the rest of the way in the house. “Wally was out checking Schian, and he saw you riding fence, but he didn’t see you return. And when the storm broke, he told me you were probably in trouble.” Dakota walked through the room. “Make yourself comfortable. The storm’s going to last a while,” Dakota said just before disappearing down the hall.

“I’m sorry to be such a bother,” Haven told Wally, who was finishing up drying the floor with an old towel.

“It’s no bother. By the way, I’m Wally Schumacher. I’d shake hands, but I’m down here,” Wally said as he finished cleaning the floor and stood up. “I’m just glad Dakota was able to find you. It’s been a while since I saw a storm come up as fast as this one did.” Thunder sounded again, this time from farther away.

“I should call my dad to make sure he knows where I am. Kade was out with me too.”

“Phone’s right on the counter, help yourself.”

Haven picked up the receiver and dialed the number. It was answered on the first ring. “Dad, it’s me.”

“Haven, what happened to you, boy?”

“I’m fine. Jake ran off, and I was stranded on the range. Did Kade get back okay?”

“He and Jake both got back at the same time. I take it you’re okay. You know, you could have called sooner. When will you be back? The storm’s made a mess, and we’ll need to get it cleaned up.” Haven noticed the nearly complete lack of fatherly concern, not that he’d come to expect any. It had been a long time since his dad had shown any concern for anything except what he wanted.

“I’ll be back once the storm lets up.” Without waiting for an answer Haven hung up the phone, glad that both Jake and Kade were okay. The rest could wait until morning. There wasn’t much anyone could do about anything now, no matter what his dad said. Once the rain let up, it would be pitch black, anyway.

“Everything okay?” Wally asked as he handed Haven a steaming cup of what he thought was coffee, but with one whiff, the scent of rich hot chocolate filled his senses.

Haven sipped the warm chocolate, sweetness sliding down his throat. “I guess.” Haven looked up and saw Dakota coming down the hall pushing an older man in a wheelchair, stopping and positioning him next to the sofa.

“Dad heard voices and wanted to meet our company. Dad”—the older man’s head turned slowly—“this is Haven Jessup. Haven, this is my father, Jefferson Holden.” Dakota’s dad began to tremble and lifted a hand with twisted fingers, shaking it at their guest, and Haven set down the mug, moving away.

“Dad, what are you doing? I know you don’t get along with Haven’s dad, but you can’t take it out on him.”

The hand stopped shaking and settled back on the arm rest. “Okay, Kota.” Jefferson extended his hand, and at first Haven wasn’t sure what to do, but then he realized Jefferson was offering it, so he stepped forward, shaking it carefully.

“I’ve heard a lot about you,” Haven said, and Jefferson made a dismissive sound. Haven released the older man’s hand.

“Dad, if you can’t behave, I’ll take you back to your room. Haven is a guest in our home, and regardless of what’s between you and his father, it has nothing to do with him.” Dakota walked to the window and looked outside. “The rain’s letting up. I can probably take you home whenever you’re ready.”

Haven finished his hot chocolate and handed the mug back to Wally. “It was nice to meet you, Mr. Holden. I have heard a lot about you from other people in town, good things. I never listen to my father when it comes to other people. I like to make up my own mind.” Haven turned to Wally. “Thank you for everything. I’ll return the clothes tomorrow.”

“You’re welcome.”

As Haven walked toward the door, he felt a hand brush his arm. “You are welcome here anytime,” Dakota’s dad said haltingly, and he seemed to smile. Haven smiled back and followed Dakota outside into the wet night and into near chaos.