Chapter One

 

THERE IS a rhythm about riding a horse, a steady beat and regular creak of leather from the saddle in time with the horse’s gait. Jim Kelly was used to the wind in his face, the dust from the faster horse ahead, and the intermittent flight of flocks of galahs up into the gum trees as they were disturbed from their feeding. When he dreamed, this would be the backdrop he dreamed against. But he didn’t notice it, just as he didn’t notice breathing.

The man who—much to Jim’s disquiet—shared those dreams, rode ahead of him on the black mare, Regret. Jim did not understand the connection between them that allowed Mark to recite Jim’s dreams every morning as they awoke in their shared swag and Jim ran his hand through Mark’s dark, wavy hair. But Mark’s reports on his dreams were always accurate, and Jim had come to accept that, as he did their unusual relationship. He supposed it was something that happened to all men when they slept together. It did not seem the sort of thing people wrote about in books. He smiled at the absurdity of the thought.

Jim’s reverie was broken by a very unlikely event. Mark was one of the best horsemen Jim had ever seen. He and Regret usually flowed along, moving together as one. So when black limbs and hooves shot every which way and Mark’s tall figure suddenly disappeared over the front of the mare, it took Jim several long seconds to register what had happened. Mark had fallen off Regret.

Regret had gone from a fast canter to a dead halt in a heartbeat, and only Mark’s shout of dismay and subsequent cursing alerted Jim in time for him to avoid the pair. In fact, it was more Jim’s big mare, Shiloh, managing to sidestep, rather than any quick use of rein or leg on Jim’s part, that saved them galloping straight into Regret.

“Are you all right?” Jim called.

Mark answered with a blue streak of swearing. Obviously nothing was wrong with his lungs. Jim turned his horse around and looked at Mark. There didn’t seem to be anything broken, as Mark stood up fine and used both hands to dust himself off.

“What in God’s name scared her?” asked Jim. He drew up beside Regret, who was snorting at the ground before her feet. It was then Jim heard the growling. A small ball of orange-brown fluff stared up at him with frightened, glaring brown eyes. The dingo pup yapped fiercely once at the huge animals standing around it, but then yelped, frightened by its own bark. Shiloh leaned down and, with flared nostrils, blew hot air over the puppy. The pup tried to jump aside and rolled over, legs beetling in the air.

“It’s a dingo pup,” observed Mark.

Jim refrained from complimenting him on his razor-sharp observational skills and wondered out loud, “What’s it doing out here all by itself?”

Mark shrugged, and Jim dropped down off Shiloh, holding her reins. He put his hand down to the puppy, and it snarled and bit him, so he cuffed it gently, sending it rolling over and over.

Just then Jim smelled something foul. “Oh, I think the mother might have died. Smell that?”

Mark nodded and walked toward the smell. They led their horses that way, and the foul stench intensified. Jim screwed up his nose and nodded at the sight of a dead dingo lying a few feet off the trail. The body gave no clue as to how it had been killed, but Mark guessed. “This close to the road, could it have been shot?”

“I’m not rolling it over to see,” said Jim.

Mark walked back, pulled out his handgun, and aimed it at the puppy. Jim realized what he was about to do and pushed the gun upward at the last second, and Mark, with his characteristic reaction speed, did not pull the trigger. Instead, he looked at Jim and asked, “What? Do you want to knock it on the head and eat it? You wouldn’t get more than a snack out of that pup and probably a case of worms for a chaser.”

Jim shepherded the puppy with his hands, suffering a few more bites. Finally he managed to scoop it up. He said to Mark, “For a doctor, you really need to learn a bit more compassion, you know that?”

Mark looked confused. “Right. But it’s an animal.”

“Here, hold—” Jim checked quickly. “—him, while I mount.”

“Are you serious?”

Jim handed him the puppy. Mark made a face and promptly dropped the puppy. Luckily it landed on its back on a thick clump of soft grass.

“What are you doing?” Jim protested angrily. “Did it bite you?”

Mark did not reply, but scruffed the puppy quickly before it could run away, and handed it to Jim, who had mounted Shiloh.

Jim took it and checked it over for injuries. He tucked it in his shirtfront, leaving his hands free to hold the reins. The pup growled rhythmically at him. He said, “Shut up,” but to no effect.

Mark remounted Regret, and Jim repeated, “Why did you drop it? Did it bite you?”

Mark shook his head and looked at Jim. “No, it didn’t bite me. It’s just that… I could feel what it was feeling. Its thoughts.”

Jim looked into Mark’s worried brown eyes and reassured him. “Well, we already knew you could do that.”

“With you,” Mark pointed out.

“And now with animals,” replied Jim.

“I don’t feel anything from Regret,” said Mark, “or Shiloh.”

Jim shook his head and shrugged, but with the slight movement of his chest, the tiny growling puppy bit him hard with its needle-like puppy teeth, right on the nipple. He swore violently, and Mark laughed.

After a few seconds, Mark grinned wryly and said, “I think my vocabulary just increased by about twenty swear words.”

“Shut up!”

“Do you still think it was a good idea?”

Jim ignored him, nudged Shiloh’s sides with his legs, and rode on.

After a while Mark asked, “What are you going to call that thing?”

“Oh, so now you want me to name him. You were going to shoot him!” Jim thought for a moment and said, “Lucky.”

“Oh, that’s original,” said Mark with a sarcastic smile.

“Well, you think of something better!”

Mark pursed his lips. “How about Runner?”

“Runner? That’s terrible!” chuckled Jim.

They rode along, tossing out ideas but, after a few miles, decided to leave naming the pup for a few days until they knew what he was like.

 

 

AFTER A few nights with the pup crawling up to snuggle around their necks for warmth in the swag, he earned the ignoble name of “Shivers.” As Jim pointed out in the pup’s defense, it was approaching winter, and they had finally, after many diversions, reached their destination—the high country.

Mark rode up to the top of a high, almost bare ridge covered with short, dense, grayish-green grass and loose stones, with the occasional twisted shrub that barely came up to the horses’ backs. He waved expansively at the silvery-gray landscape of endless rolling hills just like the one they were on and said, “The Snowy Mountains.”

Jim sat in silence, surveying the bleak landscape of hills and distant blue peaks that were not tipped with white. Shivers poked his tiny head out from the opening in the front of Jim’s coat. Jim eventually spoke in a disappointed voice. “There’s no snow.”

“Well no. It’s only the beginning of June. The snow doesn’t usually come in until mid- to late-July.” Mark sounded a little defensive.

“Oh.” Jim looked around. “Hey, look, horses!”

Mark moved Regret up closer to stand beside Shiloh and asked, “Where?”

“There’s a herd running through that valley over to the east there. About fifty, by the look of it.”

Mark looked for a long time. He shook his head, frustrated. “Can’t see them.”

“They’re about twenty miles away,” explained Jim, pointing.

“I thought my eyesight was good, but you leave me for dead when it comes to far-sight, Jim,” acknowledged Mark.

“Come on. We have to find a rock to camp under.” Jim smiled, and they urged their horses down the steep slope. As they rode Jim suggested, “There’s probably water and shelter in the gullies.”

“As long as we don’t get rain,” cautioned Mark. “We don’t want to get caught in a flash flood. I think we should collect our water and head up the lee side of one of these hills, find a clump of trees to camp under.”

Jim looked around at the low, twisted shrubs dotted sparsely about. “A clump of trees? Right.”

“I’ll sit up and bag a roo. Your pup there looks like he could use some meat on his bones. We can boil him up some fat and fill his little belly.”

“And you were going to shoot him,” said Jim with a smile.

Mark pretended not to hear, which Jim knew was ridiculous, because Mark had excellent hearing. Mark rode on ahead, and Jim reached down to pet the dingo pup reassuringly. Shivers bit him.

 

Chapter Two

 

THERE WAS a bone-deep dry cold in the bleak hills, despite the lack of snow. Each morning Jim found the top half inch of the water in the billy frozen over. When he led the horses down to drink, he noticed that any standing pools in the creek had ice around the edges.

At night they untied their swags and made them into one large bedroll.

Jim moved his body down into the swag and found himself rapidly entwined in Mark’s warm limbs. Mark buried his nose in Jim’s long hair and breathed in. “I want you.”

Jim smiled and kissed him. “It’s too cold to climb out on top of the swag.”

“We’ll do what we can in here,” Mark said as he slipped his hand inside Jim’s pants and took a firm hold of his erection. Jim kissed him some more.

Mark began to move his hand up and down, tightening it until Jim was rocking into the pressure with little moans of approval. Jim’s mouth fell open as his breathing became harsher and more rapid. “You’re gonna mess my clothes up,” said Jim. It was a halfhearted protest and only made Mark chuckle at him and close his hand tighter.

Mark murmured in his ear, “It’s not like you have to worry about how you smell. You’re not going to get that close to anyone. If they get too close to you, I’ll shoot them for you.”

“You’re a bad man.” Jim could feel his body begin to tighten up and his stomach heat.

“I know,” whispered Mark. He slipped a finger over Jim’s erection and spread the slick precum there over the sensitive tip. Jim moaned as Mark rubbed expertly over the tip with his rough, trail-worn fingers and squeezed around the shaft. He pressed just hard enough to elicit the maximum pleasure from Jim’s now sensitized nerves.

“Oh God, Mark,” Jim whispered. Pleasure coursed through his body from the sole point of contact, and he shivered in anticipation as he began to buck into Mark’s hand.

Mark nuzzled up and down Jim’s neck. “Come on, relax.”

“I am relaxed.”

“You’re never relaxed in bed,” countered Mark as he rolled over to pin Jim under his considerable lean weight.

His hand stopped moving, and Jim groaned in protest, “Uh, don’t stop!”

Mark ignored him and kissed him gently and thoroughly. He waited until Jim said, “Oh, come on, Mark!” before moving his hand again. This time Mark set a quick, hard rhythm on Jim’s shaft and flicked his thumb expertly across the tip with every movement, making Jim gasp and throw his head back.

Jim felt his climax building and pulled Mark as close as he could, slowing Mark’s hand down. Jim pushed hard into the pressure, clothes forgotten, everything forgotten as he sought the pleasure Mark’s hand was bringing him. He looked up to see Mark watching him intently, the dark eyes locked onto his face, evidently savoring every moment of Jim’s ecstasy. Something about that sent Jim over the edge, and he cried out harshly and felt his body erupt into an intense climax. Jim closed his eyes and let the bliss take him as Mark pinned him to the swag and the hard ground.

After a while Jim managed to ask in a husky voice, “Do you want me to return the favor?”

“No. No, I’m fine,” said Mark, smiling.

“I don’t know how you do that. Bringing you off always leaves me desperate to get some.”

Mark nodded, his dark eyes watching Jim intently, until Jim asked, “What?”

“Your face. Just your face,” Mark said cryptically.

“What about my face?” Jim asked dubiously.

Mark smiled, shook his head, and kissed Jim. “Nothing. It’s just so perfect when you’re like this.”

Feeling embarrassed, Jim protested, “Don’t be silly.”

Mark rolled off him and onto his back but kept an arm across Jim’s body. “All right.”

Jim felt a soft touch to the top of his head and looked up into the anxious brown eyes of the dingo pup. “Hey, little fella! I’d forgotten about you.”

The pup licked his face anxiously and growled a tiny, fierce growl at Mark, who laughed. “I think he thought I was attacking you!”

Jim petted the little creature and put him under his arm on the other side to Mark. The pup snuggled up to the warmth of Jim’s body and was soon fast asleep.

Jim rolled over languidly to survey Mark. “So. Who are these friends of yours that are going to give us work?”

Mark looked thoughtful. “I think Shorty—Macca—is our best bet.”

“Is his name Shorty or Macca?”

“Macca to his face. Shorty only ever behind his back, unless you really want to piss him off.” Mark smiled to himself.

“I won’t ask how you found that out.”

“No, probably best not to. Anyway, he minds a big run just south of here. But he runs his cattle everywhere, because all the leases around aren’t taken up yet. A place that big is our best bet for staying scarce. And Macca’s sensible. He hates the coppers. A constable shot his big brother, who was only eighteen at the time.”

“Why? What happened?”

“Macca says they were running their young horses in to brand. The constable was well-known in these parts and turned up at the place. He picked the best mare for himself and, when Macca’s brother said he couldn’t have it, had him charged with stock theft. Said they had got the horses off his father’s run up north.”

“Shit. Bastards, all of them.”

“Yes,” agreed Mark. “Anyway, the boy pulled out a gun, and the constable shot him. Of course, it wasn’t reported like that by the police. They all said that the constable shot a cattle duffer. Macca went to court and asked the judge, if his brother was duffing cattle, why didn’t the whole lot of them get charged for it? He told the judge the police were crooked, and he had eight witnesses to back up his story. But you know what the law’s like around here.”

Jim shook his head. He knew too well indeed, after what had happened to Mark. “What happened in the end?”

“Macca’s old man is doing life in Melbourne Gaol because he walked into the pub the day after the trial and blew the constable’s brains out. Macca was fifteen and took over the run for his dad.”

“That stinks.”

“Doesn’t it just,” Mark agreed. “But it means that Macca has no love for the law, so he won’t dob us in. And he won’t hire anyone who would. The local constabulary avoids his place like the plague for fear they’ll get shot themselves and shoved down a deep gully never to be seen again. So you see, you’d be safe there. As safe as anywhere.”

“We’d be safe there, you mean,” Jim corrected him.

“What?” asked Mark, looking puzzled.

“You said ‘you’d be safe there.’ Surely you meant both of us would be safe there?”

“Yes, of course,” Mark said.

Jim kissed him, and Mark responded by wrapping his strong arms around his lover and pulling him close. Soon Jim heard Mark’s breathing deepen and realized he was asleep, and then he let himself drift into sleep also.

The next morning, Jim awoke with a start when a shot sounded just outside the tent. He struggled up out of the swag and grabbed his rifle. Mark was not in the tent, nor was Shivers. Jim burst through the tent flaps and looked all around. He spotted Mark walking down the hillside with the pup trotting at his heels. Mark bent down to pick up a wallaby by the tail, and Jim heard him laugh as Shivers sank his tiny teeth into the dead wallaby and was lifted off the ground as Mark picked it up and turned to come back up the hill.

Jim sighed with relief. He had thought the troopers must have caught up with them, or—and his face darkened at the thought—that Mark might have decided to take matters into his own hands and shoot the dingo pup. Jim was glad the pup was not dead.

He watched them walk up the steep, stony slope. Shivers was on the ground now but still being towed along, trotting with his teeth sunk firmly into the carcass. Mark came up to Jim, grinning. “Hey! Told you I’d get a feed for your pup.”

“You scared the living bejesus out of me. I thought it was troopers.”

“Oh! No, just me.” Mark looked down as a fierce growl from Shivers caught his attention. He grinned even wider and asked, “Got a rope?”

“Sure. Why?”

“Because I don’t want a mixed grill of wallaby and dingo. Little bastard’s not planning on letting this go, by the looks. You’ll have to tie him up so I can cook it, otherwise I reckon he’ll jump in the fire to get it.”

Jim laughed and went to get a rope.