New South Wales, Australia, 1876
MARK TURNER sat shivering in the rough ironbark jail, in a tiny town about twenty miles west of the Snowy Mountain foothills. It was about two o’clock in the morning. He had no gun, and in his arms he held a blond man, who was, against all odds, sleeping. How Jim Kelly could sleep when they were facing the gallows in the morning, Mark did not know. He was relieved, though, that Jim would spend a few of his last hours in peaceful slumber.
Mark looked down at the rough blond hair and dusty face of the young man he’d rescued from certain death a year ago. Jim’s usually mesmerizing blue eyes were closed, and Mark could only see the edge of his handsome face. He reached down and stroked Jim’s face, pressing his fingers lightly into Jim’s skin. Instantly he felt a wash of daydreams rise up about him, like a shifting cloud of images invading his mind. Strange how he could never recall dreaming until the first time he lay wrapped in Jim’s arms. That night in the tent by the billabong on Jim’s selection, Mark had awoken from a terrifying memory of horses and cattle and laughing children being swept away screaming into a pit filled with snakes. It had shaken him to his core until he’d realized it was not an actual memory, but a dream. Mark hated it. The feeling of loss of control and reason, of being swept away, terrified his rational mind and left him sweating and afraid. It had taken him many months to get used to the fact that when he slept in Jim’s arms, the dreams would come. Perhaps something related to the way he felt about Jim freed his mind to wander. Mark decided dreaming was a fair trade-off for lying in Jim’s arms every night and having ownership of Jim’s body, and he said nothing to his lover.
But now he found it reassuring to touch Jim and remember those dreams that he’d at first found disturbing. He even found it strangely comforting that they would go to their deaths together tomorrow. Mark hated himself as the thought crossed his mind that he did not want Jim to live on without him. He told himself he did not want Jim to face such grief alone, but a dark corner of his mind knew he could not bear to give up Jim’s soul to another, even in death. Equally, the thought of living on without Jim was not worth contemplating.
Mark allowed the feeling of possessiveness to wash over him like a hot, seductive tide as he stroked Jim’s face with gentle fingers. He shuddered slightly, and Jim stirred and murmured, “Mark?” in his sleep. He leaned down and kissed Jim lightly on the hair, and Jim took a deep breath in and pushed slightly closer against him. In a few seconds, Jim’s breathing evened out into the rhythm of sleep. Mark decided he would wake Jim two hours before dawn to spend their last hours of darkness making love. So what if they got caught? They were going to be hanged at dawn anyway.
He continued to stroke Jim’s hair absently, and his mind drifted to Tart Min Yong’s killer. He should have dragged the man out of the pub and killed him gradually and painfully. Min Yong had died in agony, and Mark should have taken revenge for his father’s friend just as slowly, not killed him quickly in the heat of anger. As it was, in a heartbeat of blind rage, he had stove in the man’s skull with his fist. Mark felt little satisfaction in that memory, for the sensation had only lasted a fraction of a second. He felt robbed, as though he had not taken a full and rightful vengeance for Min Yong.
Mark remembered the kindness of the Oriental man, how he had taken in Mark as a starving, frightened child and brought him with his family to this warm, open land that Mark loved. How he had fought to protect Mark and enlisted the help of his new friend and neighbor Marshall Turner when it became obvious Mark’s differences were becoming too apparent to hide him even among the Orientals. He ran a hand over the thin scar along the top of his right ear and shivered again.
Mark surveyed his hands, pondering yet another difference. Jim was right; he should have damaged his fist when he killed Min Yong’s killer. The scene played in Mark’s mind from a few hours ago—Jim’s puzzled expression as he turned over Mark’s hand and said, “You don’t break a man’s skull without breaking your fist.”
Mark’s fist should be green with bruises by now, but it was not even painful. He sighed and remembered the whispers of the other children as he was growing up. They had been afraid of his strength, but whispered behind their hands, and his preternatural hearing caught every word: “Devil.” “Demon.” “Freak.”
He remembered the look on Marshall Turner’s face that day at the forge when the blacksmith had said, “If this anvil was a foot closer….” And then Mark had picked it up and moved it closer for him. He was ten, and he couldn’t understand why the smith had made the sign of the cross and why Marshall had grabbed his hand and cried, “Are you burnt?” And then the smith had backed away as they left, and Mark heard the great burly man grunting and cursing as he tried to move the anvil back to where it had been.
“Penny for your thoughts?” Jim asked softly.
Mark looked down into Jim’s familiar eyes. “I was remembering my childhood.”
“You had one? I thought you were born shooting snakes and riding horses.”
“No,” whispered Mark, “I was born the first night we made love.”
He felt Jim sag in his arms and heard him whisper, “Christ! Don’t do that.”
Mark smiled. “We should make love now.”
“We should figure out a way to escape and find the horses.”
“That sounds like a better idea to me!” said a third voice quietly.
Mark stared at Jim. “What?”
“And could you, for the time being, not say that sort of stuff that you were saying just then? Some of us have eaten tonight, you know.” The voice was a harsh and somewhat indignant whisper.
Mark spun around and peered through the gap between the ironbark slabs. Jim climbed out of Mark’s lap, and they both stared incredulously at a young man who stared back at them from outside the jail with a severe look of disapproval on his face.
“Who are you?” asked Jim.
“And how did you sneak up on Mark?”
“He sounded preoccupied” was the very dry response. “Now shut up and tell me which horses are yours.”
“The jet-black mare and the bay with a star and white socks,” said Mark. “Are you going to steal them?”
“Yeah, that too.”
“Oh, well, no matter to us. We hang in the morning,” Mark said decisively and turned back to Jim.
To Mark’s surprise, Jim swatted him over the ear and said in a rough whisper, “Wait!”
Mark winced and rubbed his ear. Jim gave him a curious glance at his pained reaction but then turned his attention back to the outside of the jail.
“I’ve not gone,” the young, sardonic voice came back from just outside.
“We know where there’s lots of gold,” whispered Jim. Mark looked at him, surprised, and opened his mouth to contradict him but found a hand placed firmly over it. He sat quietly listening but couldn’t resist running his tongue seductively over the groove between two of Jim’s fingers.
“Stop it,” Jim said from the corner of his mouth.
“What?” asked the voice from outside.
“Nothing. Get us out of here, and you’ll be rich,” Jim pointed out hopefully.
“I was going to get you out anyway.”
“You were?” asked Mark, puzzled. “Who are you?”
There was a long silence. “You don’t know?”
“Sorry, kid, but… no.” Jim sounded worried. “Should we?”
There was movement outside the jail, and the voice came back, still in a whisper. “I’m not a kid. I’m twenty!”
“Sorry, sorry!” said Jim quickly. “No offense. It’s hard to tell when you’re whispering and we can’t see you.”
Mark said quietly to Jim, “The first law of jail breaking—don’t piss off your rescuer.”
A quiet chuckle sounded outside, and then the voice of their savior came again. “So the black and the big bay. Okay, I know where they are. You’re in luck. They haven’t taken your saddles away yet. They’re in a pile in the corner.”
“Who are you, and why are you helping us?” Mark asked the young man.
A short silence followed. “Never mind that. Here’s the plan. There’s a gap in these boards I can fit an iron bar through. I’ll grab one from the forge. I know you’re strong—you, the big dark-haired one. I’ll saddle up your horses and bring them, and when you hear me coming back—not before—you use the bar as a lever and break open these smaller boards at the corner here. Not before, you understand? The noise will wake the coppers, so we need the horses nearly here before you start making a racket.”
Mark approved. “That sounds workable.”
“I’ll be back in a minute.” There was a quick scuff of light feet, then silence.