24 Dec 1954
Saw you got to the ranch this morning. Good people here.
Hoped you’d follow me.
Prayed you’d get out before they came for you.
Meet me at the well, usual time. Be careful.
SIMON WOOD folded the piece of paper and slid it into his back pocket. He’d find a way to get it to Chip Henson later in the day. Chip had arrived early that day, looking road-weary and filthy. They’d seen each other at breakfast, of course, but not by a flicker of an eyelash did they acknowledge that they’d made a prior acquaintance.
Simon’s mouth curved into an involuntary smile. He knew Chip in every sinful way. He’d seen the man naked and begging—taken him so hard that Chip had been weeping and cursing his grandmother’s name at the end. Oh yeah, they had prior acquaintance.
But it was dangerous to even admit they knew each other. In fifties America, Simon knew there were two things you couldn’t be, and one was a commie. Simon’s smile morphed into part snort, part laugh. He certainly wasn’t a communist.
At breakfast he’d muttered his hello when the boss introduced Chip to the hands and kept his head down, focusing on his eggs. They ate well here, although he missed Susan’s cooking.
It wasn’t perfect at the Lost Cow Ranch. The boss was a mite too fond of his liquor, and the missus had to work twice as hard to keep the ranch afloat. But they were good folk, and for the first time in months, Simon felt safe.
Maybe, if he and Chip kept their hands off each other, they could stay for a while. Maybe.
HE WAITED an hour by the mill before Chip showed. The cowboy slid off his horse and into Simon’s waiting arms, his hat tumbling off his head as Simon held on to him tightly. Simon pulled him into the shadow of the mill, pleased that he could finally bury his chilly face in Chip’s neck, his nostrils full of the strong, rich scent of his man.
“I thought you weren’t coming,” he managed eventually. “Didn’t know if you’d get my note.”
“I nearly didn’t,” Chip said. “Lorne and Brad were waiting for me with rifles before I left.”
“How did you get away?”
“Lofty and I jumped them and knocked ’em both out before they could shoot me.”
Chip shuddered with the emotion, and Simon hung on even tighter, aware of just how close he’d come to losing him.
“I love you, Henson,” Simon said gruffly, feeling Chip dig his fingers almost painfully into Simon’s back. Simon relished the pain. It reminded him they were both still alive.
“Love you too, Woody.”
Simon huffed into Chip’s neck at the nickname. “Next time we go together.”
Chip pulled back to look at him. “Don’t be stupid. We can’t take that risk.”
“I’m not leaving you again,” Simon insisted stubbornly.
Chip stepped back and slid his hands down Simon’s shoulders to grasp him around the upper arms. “Don’t, Simon. You know we can’t risk anyone finding out about us. I only just escaped this time. Next time it could be you, and I can’t have that.”
Simon stared at Chip, seeing the lines around his brown eyes, carved deeper into Chip’s face in the year he’d known him. “And I’m not gonna to spend my life wondering if you’re goin’ to turn up. We can’t be together as lovers, but we can be together as friends.”
“What are you saying?”
“If keeping us safe means we stop fucking, then….”
Chip pressed his lips together, then gave a short nod. “Friends.”
Simon went to step away, but somehow he ended up with his mouth mashed against Chip’s, his hands tangled in Chip’s hair, and Chip’s erection a rigid line pressing into his hip.
The throaty noises Chip made as they kissed just ramped up his excitement.
Simon growled deep in his throat and pushed Chip against the mill wall. “Fuck, I’ve missed you so much.”
“Missed you too.” Chip hauled Simon down to kiss him again.
“No lube,” Simon groaned.
“Ya got spit.” Chip’s hands were busy at Simon’s flies.
“It’s gonna hurt.” Simon was just as busy, dragging Chip’s jeans down his legs.
“Don’t care, not now. Just want you.” Chip turned in Simon’s arms and placed his hands against the rough wall.
Simon pulled Chip’s ass toward him, bare and beautiful, and all his. He ran his work-roughened hand over the tight asscheek. “You’re so fucking beautiful.”
Chip laughed roughly. “You need to see the doc, Woody. I ain’t beautiful.”
“You are to me. You’ll always be more beautiful than any of them painted whores in the Drink.”
“Thanks, I think.” Chip gasped as Simon spat on his fingers. “Hurry.”
Simon held Chip’s shoulder and slowly worked his fingers into Chip’s ass. “Just you wait. I’m not gonna hurt you.” He withdrew his fingers and spat on them again. He worked Chip until he was as prepared as he could get him.
Chip smacked the wall as Simon pushed in.
God, he was so tight. Simon wanted to ram in until he couldn’t go any farther, but he wouldn’t hurt Chip. “Too much?”
“Faster,” Chip gritted out. “I’m not gonna break.”
Chip might not, but Simon felt he was about to fly apart at the seams. He sank into Chip’s heat until he could rest against Chip’s back. He breathed across Chip’s ear, feeling the man shiver.
“Don’t let me go,” Chip whispered.
Simon held him tighter. “I’m never gonna let you go.”
“That’s all I needed to hear.”
Simon needed to move, but for a moment he just wanted to stay exactly where he was, Chip’s body tight around him and Simon’s senses full of his man.
One year earlier. January 12, 1954. Tamar Ranch
“THIS IS Simon. He’s taking Mickey’s bunk.”
The foreman introduced Simon to the rest of the hands, a mixture of Anglo and Mexican. The young Mexican boy in the corner narrowed his eyes and every muscle in Simon tensed, prepared for a confrontation. Simon didn’t recognize him. He looked barely wet behind the ears, but the hand just nodded at him and went back to his food. Simon relaxed a fraction, praying he hadn’t forgotten the kid in some drunken fumble somewhere dark. He had to be careful and keep his cock in his pants. He couldn’t afford to let the rumors start again.
“They can introduce themselves.” The foreman left him standing awkwardly at the table.
No one seemed that interested in him. They grunted and went back to their dinner.
“There’s food left over if you want some.” The missus waved a ladle at one of the huge pans.
“Please, ma’am,” Simon said respectfully, and his stomach growled in response. He hadn’t eaten more than some bread in three days, and the smell of stew and fresh-baked biscuits made his mouth water.
One of the men got to his feet. “Sit here. I gotta check on Li’l Daisy. She was favoring her leg.” He took his plate over to the stone sink in the corner.
Simon muttered his thanks and sat down. The missus placed a huge plate of food in front of him.
“I wish we had Mickey here,” the foreman said. “He knew what he was doing with the horses.”
Simon paused midmouthful. “I know some about horses.”
“We all know some, cowboy,” said one of hands. “We just don’t know enough.”
Simon looked at the hand who’d spoken. Solid body, weathered face, dark hair, piercing blue eyes, and a sardonic expression aimed at him. The guy had one of those movie star chins—like… what was his name? That Kirk Douglas fella.
“I’ve worked with horses all my life,” Simon said. “I know enough.” He stared at the hand. He wasn’t going to take shit on his first day.
“We could use the extra help with the horses,” the foreman said. “Eat your dinner and go find Lorne at the stables. See if he needs a hand.”
Simon nodded, concentrating on eating and not smirking at Mr. Movie Star. He wasn’t joking about his skill with horses. If he’d had the smarts and the dough, he’d have become a vet. As it was, he knew more about horses than most folk, and they’d learn to respect his skill when he saved them a horse. That wasn’t bragging. That was honesty.
He made short work of the food in front of him and didn’t argue when the missus filled up his plate again.
The other hands had cleared away their plates. Simon noticed with amusement that they all washed up their own. The missus had trained them well. When he was finally full, he walked over to the sink to do the same, receiving a pleased smile from her. The missus was more country than pretty, with long hair like golden corn caught back in a ponytail, but when she smiled back at him her eyes lit up and gave her true beauty.
“Where are the stables, ma’am?” he asked as he washed up.
Tamar Ranch was a rambling old homestead, and he hadn’t explored it yet.
“The last two barns past the main house,” she said, taking his clean plate.
“You’re a polite one, aren’t you?”
He nodded. It paid to be polite. Hands as a whole were a rough-and-ready crew, and he was the same, but his mama had instilled manners in him with the back of her hand, and he always treated the boss’s family with respect.
As he left the house, Mr. Movie Star came out of the nearest barn and eyed him suspiciously.
“Where’re you going?”
It was on the tip of Simon’s tongue to ask what the hell business it was of his, but this was his first day, and for all he knew, the fella could be family.
“The stables. I’ve got a knack with horses.”
Movie Star nodded and visibly relaxed. He walked with Simon toward the stables. He was a similar height to Simon, maybe an inch or two shorter, but well over six foot. “We need that since Mickey went. Most hands on the ranch can take care of the horses, but none of us are experts.”
“Have you been here long?” Simon asked curiously.
Movie Star frowned. “What’s it to you?”
“Nothing. Just making conversation.” Jeez, the man was touchy.
“Sorry. I’m not used to talking about myself.”
Simon waved his hand, accepting the apology. “No worries. What’s your name?”
“Chip, Chip Henson.”
“Simon Wood. I was pleased to find work here. My last two ranches folded.” Not the last ranch, and no need to tell Chip the exact reason he left. They did fold, but after he left.
Chip nodded. “The drouth’s taken a lot of businesses.”
Simon wanted to ask more questions, but they had reached the stable. He blinked at the sudden darkness inside. Three men were clustered around a large bay gelding.
“Brought the new guy,” Chip said to the foreman.
“Good. Get over here, Woody, and tell me what’s the problem.”
Simon bit back the growl at the unoriginal nickname and studied the horse.
“The horse is over here,” the foreman pointed out.
“I know, but if I’m examining the animal, I want to look at the whole animal.”
The foreman snorted derisively. “Huh, well you can take all the time you need, Doc Woody, but some of us have got work to do, and I need to know whether this horse is fit for work.”
“Mickey did the same,” a short, grizzled hand pointed out.
“He was soft in the head as well,” the foreman said.
“And he was the best horseman around.”
The foreman snorted again. “Get over here.”
Simon got, Chip on his heels. “What are the symptoms?”
“He’s losing weight,” the young Mexican said, patting the horse’s long neck. The gelding looked miserable. “His coat is poor, and he’s sensitive to the touch around his belly.”
The foreman grunted in agreement. “And he’s a grouch.”
“Only to you.” The short guy laughed.
“All the horses hate you,” Chip added.
“Ha-ha!” the foreman said sarcastically.
Short Guy cackled. “And the humans.”
Simon observed the horse while the in-jokes played themselves out. “Is he eating?” he asked when there was a break.
“First he was just being fussy. Then he stopped eating a week ago.”
“Any other symptoms?”
“He’s been grinding his teeth, and he belches a lot.”
Simon nodded, patting the bay on the neck. “You need the vet now. I think he’s got an ulcer, and if it goes untreated….” He trailed off, leaving them in no doubt what he meant.
“Shit, really? The boss is gonna be pissed,” Short Guy said.
The foreman nodded. “Marshall’s on his way.”
Simon raised an eyebrow. “Marshall?”
“The vet. He’s the other side of the Drink, so we only call him out if we have to.”
“So this was a test?”
“Kinda. You made some bold claims. I needed to know if you can back ’em up.”
Simon nodded. “I’ve been treating horses since I was a young’un. If I don’t know, I’ll always say get the vet.”
The foreman looked at Short Guy. “Take him to the boss. Tell him he’s passed.”
Chip looked at Simon. “See ya later.”
Simon grinned and followed Short Guy out of the barn. “What’s your name?” he asked.
“Lofty?” Simon said skeptically.
“My name’s Al Lofthouse, but I’m short.” He shrugged. “They all call me Lofty, even the boss. We all got nicknames. Most of ’em polite.”
They crossed the yard to the ranch house. Outside the kitchen door, Lofty pointed at the mat.
“Wipe your feet every time you enter the house. The missus gets cranky if we bring in mud. She’ll make you mop the house in payment.”
Simon did as he was told, always careful to obey the rules of the house.
Lofty opened the door. “It’s Lofty with the new hand,” he called out loudly. He glanced over his shoulder at Simon. “The missus is deaf in one ear. She likes you to make a noise so that she doesn’t get scared.”
Making a mental note of that rule, Simon followed Lofty through the large house to the boss’s office. The boss had recently rebuilt the ranch house, and the downstairs was mainly one long room, light and airy. Used to ranch houses that were little more than shacks, Simon liked the open-plan style immediately.
On the Tamar Ranch, the foreman did most of the hands-on work. The boss was concerned with the business and some kind of expansion he had planned with other landowners in the area. Simon had heard a little about it when he was on the Rill Creek spread, but he hadn’t been interested enough to learn all the details.
Lofty knocked at the office door and waited for the boss to say “Enter.”
In Simon’s eyes the boss was a young man—at twenty-four, the same age as him, but already married. The gossip in the area was that it was an arranged marriage to join two large adjoining spreads. The boss had taken over after a stampeding herd had killed his father, and from what Simon had heard, the young boss had a good reputation and treated his family and workers kindly. That was more than could be said for many of the ranch owners he’d worked for.
“He passed, Boss,” Short Guy—Lofty—said.
The boss fixed Simon with a hard stare. “Good. We need a horseman who knows what he’s doing. And I don’t wanna be calling the doc out for nuthin’. You’ll work with Lofty this afternoon and Chip tomorrow. The posts need resiting on the south road.”
Simon bit back a groan. He hated digging holes for posts, and the sun had baked the land solid. By the end of the day, he’d have blisters on his hands and a sore back. So much for needing a good horseman. He knew better than to complain, however, so he tipped his hat and followed Lofty out of the door.
“Most of the hands are moving the herd to new grazing. The lower pastures have dried up,” Lofty said. “The fences haven’t been replaced since the boss’s granddaddy was the boss, and they’re way beyond repair.”
Simon shrugged. “I don’t like digging holes, but it needs to be done.”
Lofty clapped him on the shoulder. “You’ll do well here. The last two hands quit within a week. Didn’t want to do menial work. They wanted to be ‘proper’ cowboys.” He managed a wealth of sarcasm in his tone. “City boys, both of ’em. They thought they’d spend the days riding and chewing baccy, like them film stars.” Lofty spat derisively on the dirt.
“They were from the city?” Simon asked doubtfully.
Lofty nodded. “The Drink.”
Simon kept a straight face. “The Drink” was the local name for Brewer’s Divide, the nearest town. Population three hundred, it bordered two counties, hence the name. It was a joke that the main industry was moonshine. Hardly a city, but Simon doubted Lofty had ever been to a real city in his life.
“I’ll need to pick up my gloves,” Simon said as they reached the stoop.
Lofty nodded. “I’ll meet you back at the stables. You can ride Mickey’s horse.”
Simon collected his gloves and headed for the stables. Inside, Chip was saddling a large palomino. “That’s Mickey’s Li’l Daisy,” he said, pointing to the black mare in the end stall.
“Why didn’t Mickey take her with him?” Simon asked as he fetched a saddle.
Lofty gave him an odd look. “He could hardly take her to the grave.”
Simon took a step back. “He’s dead?”
“Yeah. Same accident as the boss’s daddy.”
“I didn’t realize. Chip said he left.”
“Guess we don’t like reminding the boss about his daddy.”
“I’m sorry,” Simon said.
Lofty pressed his lips together. “It was bad.”
He said nothing more, and Simon concentrated on getting Li’l Daisy ready.
“Most of the equipment is in a shack near the fence line,” Lofty said as he mounted Miss Sara. All the horses had “proper” names—a penchant of the old boss.
Simon nodded and mounted the mare, following Lofty out of the barn. She was a placid creature, too tame for Simon’s liking, but beggars couldn’t be choosers, and he was definitely a beggar. He tied a neckerchief over his mouth and nose. Several years into the drought, the dust was awful and seared down your lungs. He’d been caught in a dust storm on a previous ranch. He lived, but the animals around him didn’t. The ranch didn’t last long after that.
Tamar Ranch seemed to be surviving better than some of the spreads he’d been on, and he mentioned it to Lofty, who grunted.
“Land has got springs that haven’t dried up yet.”
“They’re lucky,” Simon said. Part of the reason he’d been on the move so much was the bank foreclosing on the previous ranches. During his time in Korea, he’d had dreams of finding one ranch to work out his days, maybe making foreman. Instead he’d come back to the worst drought since the thirties. The drought had become a drouth, a prolonged drought, the worst in living memory. Even the old-timers agreed it was worse than the drouth of the thirties. The optimism that there’d be rain by the fall had vanished with each arid winter that passed.
Lofty grunted again.
They rode in silence for a while, just long enough for Simon to turn his thoughts to where he’d come from.