Chapter One

 

 

SNOW BLEW in front of, behind, and all around the red car, so thick the hood looked white now. Every few seconds, Brian was able to see something on the side of the road. He’d passed a town a ways back and wished he’d stopped. He had been looking for a place to turn around for the past twenty minutes, but he’d found nowhere wider than his car. The needle on the gas gauge took another lurch toward empty, and Brian realized he didn’t have much time left. He had to find a place somewhere, somehow, but he saw nothing but white. Occasionally, he saw a fence post by the side of the road—the only indication that he was actually still on the road. His heart pounded louder and louder. Thankfully, the heater continued to pour out warm air, but that was the only saving grace right now.

Something green stuck out of the snow on the side of the road. Brian pulled to a stop and leaned over to that side of the car. A road sign and another, homemade sign with an arrow pointed down the other street, where he could just make out tire tracks. He took that as an indication that there had to be someone down that way. He made the turn, and the wind changed. It was coming from behind him now and he could see a little farther ahead of him, but no farther to the side. He kept going and going, hoping to see some sign of life, but the tracks petered out and he had to blaze a trail through drifting snow. Brian knew if he didn’t find something soon, he would be totally out of luck.

The wind died down and the view in front of the car opened up. He could see the land in front of him: a few trees and some white mounds off to the left. He hoped like hell those were buildings. Then, just like that, the wind roared back, the opening closed, and visibility got even worse. Brian was barely moving, and the sound under the tires changed as the ride roughened. Brian realized he was off the road and turned the wheel, but he overcompensated. Before he could turn the wheel back, the car started fishtailing back and forth and then spun, and for a few seconds he was going backward. Then the back of the car dropped and came to an abrupt halt, jarring him back and then forward. Thankfully, his seat belt kept him from hitting the wheel or the window, but he was definitely whipped a little.

“Shit!” Brian breathed and blinked a few times, taking stock to ensure he wasn’t hurt. The engine had cut out. He tried to start it again, but though the engine turned over, it just wouldn’t start. He was most likely too low on gas. Brian stared out the windshield for a few minutes in a daze and then became fully aware of himself once again. He unfastened his seat belt and tried to open his door. It didn’t budge, and he pushed harder, but the snow must have been packed around it because it barely moved at all. The wind, however, found the crack and began pushing its way inside. Brian yanked the door closed. He turned on the fan to force what heat he could get from the engine into the car and then turned it off. He left the hazard lights on, hoping someone might pass or see them if there was a break in the wind. Brian knew it wasn’t likely. He felt the heat slowly dissipate as he sat.

After a few minutes, he figured he had nothing to lose. The car was getting colder and colder, so he shifted to the passenger seat and tried that door. It was worse and would only open an inch no matter how hard he pushed. Brian was stuck, he knew it, and there wasn’t a damned thing he could do about it. As it got colder, he decided to try his door again. By rocking it back and forth, Brian was able to get it open about six inches, but he’d robbed the last remaining heat from inside the car to do it. He continued working and managed to get the door to open just enough that he could get out.

Brian stepped into snow that went up well past his knees. The car had plowed into a snowbank that had been built up from past efforts to plow the road, with light snow on top of heavy. The back wheels of the car were away from the road, with the body and front of the car resting on the mound. He wasn’t going anywhere, not without help, and all he could see in every direction was white. Nothing but white. He remembered briefly seeing what might have been buildings during the break in the wind, but he wasn’t sure if he’d passed them already or not. His best bet was to get back in the car, try to keep warm, and hope the wind and storm died down soon so someone would see him. So he got back in the car and pulled the door closed. As soon as the door clicked shut, he wished he’d tried to get to his things in the trunk. He reached for the release and it opened, so he got back out and struggled to make his way around to the back.

He managed to open the trunk and somehow keep it open against the wind and snow as he grabbed his duffel and a small backpack. Then he tried to climb back into the car. He slung the backpack over a shoulder and used his free hand to pull himself along the car to the door. He grasped it and managed to leverage himself around the door. He pushed the bags through the opening and then squeezed inside, yanking the door closed with what sounded like a thud of finality. He wasn’t going out again until something changed.

Brian’s hands ached and his ears and face felt as though they were frozen. He tried the engine again, and it blessedly turned over and started. “Thank God,” he whispered and placed his hands over the vents blasting heat into the space. They tingled along with his ears and face as his skin warmed.

After five minutes he was warm and had stopped shivering. He’d reached for the keys to shut down the engine when it sputtered and then went silent. The only source of heat other than himself was gone. Brian listened to the wind as it howled and raged outside the car. There wasn’t a damn thing he could do. He pulled open his duffel bag and shrugged off his coat. He was wearing a sweatshirt, but he found another and pulled it over his head. Then he put his coat back on. The jeans he’d been wearing were wet because the snow he’d picked up outside had melted in the heat, so he shucked them off, along with his wet shoes, and threw them on the passenger-side floor. He had a pair of sweatpants somewhere, so he rummaged for them quickly because he was starting to shiver again in nothing but his underwear. He pulled on the sweats and then a pair of jeans. He had to get creative, but at least the weight he’d lost in the last few weeks made room inside the jeans for the sweats.

Brian stripped off his socks, then found two fresh pairs and pulled those on. He smacked his forehead. He had left his boots in the trunk. He didn’t dare risk getting his last dry clothes wet now, and he couldn’t face another trip out of the car. He’d just have to work with what he had. He found a hat in the duffel and pulled it on, wishing he’d had it earlier. Then he rummaged for something to put on his hands. He couldn’t find anything and figured he could just shove his hands in his pockets. Then he climbed in the backseat and pulled out the few remaining clothes he had left. In the bottom of the duffel he found a bath towel. He wrapped that around his feet and curled up on the seat with the rest of his clothes like a makeshift patchwork quilt on top of him, resting his head where the seat and back passenger door met.

Other than the wind and his own breathing, the world was silent. Brian lost track of time with only his thoughts to mark its passing. He’d screwed up shit in his life so bad. This was not how he’d pictured his life ending, waiting as cold slowly made its way through the clothing that surrounded him. He worked his hands out of the sleeves of his coat and hugged them to his body. It was a decent coat, but not nearly warm enough for this kind of weather.

The car windows fogged and then formed ice crystals on the inside as the moisture from his breath began to freeze. He’d had such plans for his life. His parents didn’t know shit about anything, and he’d left to make his fortune. He was going to be famous in rodeo. That would show them. His hometown of Casper would throw him a parade when he came to town. Well, that hadn’t happened. He knew now it couldn’t have, no matter what, but he’d been a kid full of delusions of grandeur that the world had slowly pulled away from him. Nothing he planned seemed to happen. He wasn’t talented enough for rodeo, and all he really knew was ranch work, but that didn’t seem to be working out either.

Brian closed his eyes and let the movie of his life play. There was nothing else to do, so he figured he might as well wallow in the screwed-up mess his life had become. He’d had his last ranch job near Cheyenne the longest of any of them. He’d really liked the place too. The owners had been good people and they’d treated him decently, even after they found out about the “liking broncs instead of fillies” thing. But the other hands had been a completely different matter. The news had spread like wildfire, and after that, nothing had gone right. The guys had made sure of that, and then, well, he’d had to leave—in the middle of a harsh winter when no ranch on earth was hiring anybody for anything. His only chance was to find a job somewhere and hope that spring would bring something better. Look at him: thirty-two years old, out of work, crouched in the back of his car trying to stay alive, not really sure he cared if someone rescued him. Maybe it was like his old man had said—he’d have been better off if he’d just curled up somewhere and died. Maybe his father had been prophetic. He certainly had crawled here, and unless someone came along, it looked like he would very well die here.

He tried to see out, but the windows were fully frozen now, and they appeared to have already been covered in snow. Hell, for all he knew, the entire car had been covered in snow and someone could pass right by and never realize he was there.

Brian closed his eyes and willed time to pass faster. If he was going to die, he might as well get it over with. He was thirsty now and growing more so by the minute. His stomach rumbled and gurgled incessantly, telling him it was empty, a condition he’d become accustomed to more and more lately. No, there was nothing to do but wait for whatever was going to happen. Let it come.

Brian tried not to move too much. His body had warmed up the seat where he was lying. The rest of the car was cold as hell. He’d completely lost track of time. One thing he had noticed was that the soft beeping of the hazard lights had stopped. The battery was dead now, and it wasn’t likely anyone would find him. He debated getting out of the car and making a last-ditch effort to find help. But the howling wind reminded him of what waited, and he knew that was worse. They always said to stay in the car. Even as cold as it was, the car was warmer than the wind. That he knew, so he stayed put.

His blanket of clothes began to chill, and he felt the cold begin to seep through his clothing. It started with his feet and legs and worked upward. His feet began to tingle and then ache. He wriggled his toes and rubbed his legs and feet together before pulling them up as close to his body as he could. He also shifted some more of the covering over them, and that seemed to help, but it was only temporary. “So this is how the end starts,” Brian whispered aloud, hoping that if this was the end, it happened fast.

The slow chill continued. He thought back to when he was a kid and said one of the prayers he’d learned a long time ago and hadn’t thought about for years. Then he closed his eyes and waited for the end to come.

Cold washed over him, and the shivering that had started earlier increased.

“David, Phillip, there’s someone in here,” a masculine voice called.

Brian was scared to open his eyes, wondering if he was imagining things. The car door near his feet opened, cold whipped around him, and Brian shook more. He opened his eyes and saw what looked like an abominable snowman moving around in the doorway.

“Bring the blankets from behind the seat. It doesn’t matter if they’re for horses, we need them now.”

Brian opened his mouth, but all that happened was his teeth chattered.

“You’re going to be all right now,” the man said. Brian didn’t know how much longer he would be able to take this cold, and he closed his eyes, shivering uncontrollably.

A weight settled over him, blocking out the wind and cold. It smelled like horse, but he didn’t care. He felt another weight settle, blocking what little light there had been, but also cutting the wind. A hand reached under the blanket, and Brian realized the guy was pulling out his makeshift covers. “Here, take this back to the truck.”

“How are we going to get him out of there, Haven?” another male voice asked.

“David and I are going to carry him. Take his bags and put them in the truck, along with his shoes.” Brian heard the guy shifting around in the car. “We need to work fast. See if there’s anything else in there while I get him wrapped up. We have to get him warm.”

He heard digging and then the passenger side door opened, turning the car into a wind tunnel. “David, help me move him this way.”

Someone took his feet and pulled him along the seat toward the door. “Come on around here.” The passenger car door closed, and all Brian could do was keep his eyes shut and let them do whatever they wanted with him. He was in no position to stop anyone.

“Okay, I have you,” the man said. “Can you stand at all?”

Brian nodded and did his best to balance in the doorway of the car. The wind came right at him and threatened to blow him back, but before it could, the man heaved him over his shoulder and began moving. All Brian saw was the back of legs, coattail, and snow.

Then the wind stopped and warmth, real warmth, surrounded him. A door closed, and everything went quiet except the sound of an engine and a fan blowing heat. He continued shivering, but it slowly abated. His legs began to tingle and then ache. His feet did the same thing, and then finally his toes. He wasn’t going to freeze to death after all.

The truck door opened, and Brian did his best to sit up. The other guys climbed inside and squeezed next to him. It was a tight fit, but he didn’t care. He’d been found and was warm. That was all that mattered at the moment. “Who are you?”

“It’s all right. We have you now,” the more familiar voice said. “The storm is beginning to move on. David saw something red in the snow—your car. Thank goodness we got to you.”

Brian nodded and stared out the window as they began to move.

They didn’t travel long before turning into a drive. A low ranch house appeared ahead of them, with other buildings and barns along the side. So he had seen something—it hadn’t been his imagination. “Thank you,” Brian sighed.

“You’re lucky David here is an eagle-eye. No one else spotted you,” the man who seemed to be in charge said. Brian looked at David and squinted slightly. He looked familiar, but Brian couldn’t figure out where he knew him from. “We’re going to get you inside and we’ll figure everything out. Do you think you can walk?”

“Yeah,” Brian said. The feeling in his feet and legs had come back and they ached slightly, but the majority of the pain was gone.

“Phillip, hon, could you please get his shoes for him? I think they got shoved back there with everything else.” The truck pulled to a stop, and the driver left the truck running. Two of the men got out, and one of them handed Brian his shoes.

“I’ll get him inside, Haven,” Phillip said to the driver. “Go ahead and take care of what needs to be done.”

“Thanks,” Haven said and then patted Brian’s arm. “And call Dakota to see if he can make it over here to check him out as soon as the roads are passable.” Brian turned and watched the man—Haven—fiddle with his phone. “Guys, it looks like we got about an hour, no more, before another band of this crap hits. Let’s get feed out to the herds, as much as we can.”

“I’m Phillip, and this is David,” the slim man said to Brian. “Hold on to your shoes, and I’ll help you in the house, where it’s good and warm, and get something hot in you.” The man turned to David. “Go on and help Haven. If he’s only got an hour, he’ll need everyone. I’ll see to….”

“Brian.”

“Brian, here. No problem.”

“You sure?” David asked.

“Yeah. Go. If we start losing cattle, there will be hell to pay for all of us,” Phillip said. “And tell all the men I’ll put a huge pot of soup on the stove in the house. They’re to come on in once they’re done.”

David hurried away. Brian shrugged off the blankets. He managed to get his shoes on, but gave up on tying them. His fingers weren’t nimble enough to do that.

“Come on. Let’s get you settled and warm,” Phillip said.

Brian slid out of the truck, and Phillip put one of the blankets over his shoulders. Brian walked toward the house, and Phillip held the door so he could get inside. Phillip fussed around him and then took the blanket away once they were in the house. Brian stood and looked around the room, waiting to be told what to do.

“Have a seat here,” Phillip said, patting the back of one of the large chairs. Brian did as he was told and sank into the comfortable chair. Phillip hurried away and then returned with a different blanket. Brian took off his coat and wet shoes, and Phillip draped the soft blanket over him.

“I’m going to get your stuff,” Phillip said. “Just stay here. I’ll be right back, and then I can see about some food.” He left Brian alone, and Brian looked around the room. This was obviously a prosperous place. The furniture was nice, and the floors were gleaming stone tile that extended as far as he could see. The décor was that of a ranch, masculine, but with touches of flair and class. The endearment Haven had used in reference to Phillip hadn’t gone unnoticed. At least maybe these people wouldn’t be running him off because of the gay thing. They might because of the other stuff, but probably not that.

Brian got comfortable, and Phillip came back inside a few minutes later. “I’m gonna take this down to the guest room.” He lifted the duffel and wrinkled his nose. “No, I’m going to wash all this first.” Phillip zoomed away, and Brian wondered if Phillip had any speed other than fast forward. He paid little attention to anything other than the fact that he was warm. When Phillip returned, he brought Brian a plate with cheese and crackers and a mug of what smelled like cocoa. “It’s instant, but it should warm you for now.”

“Thank you,” Brian said quietly.

“You’re welcome. I’m going to start some lunch because I know you’re hungry from the yelling your stomach keeps doing, and the men will be cold clear through by the time they’re done feeding the cattle. Once I’ve got things going, you can tell me what you were doing out there on a day like this.” Phillip flashed him a warm smile that under different circumstances might have given Brian ideas. But judging from the gold band on Phillip’s left hand, he was clearly spoken for. And Brian had already made that mistake one too many times. Nope, he was swearing off guys, period. Didn’t matter if he thought they were interested. He’d gotten into trouble more than once getting busy with cowboys and guys he worked with. Oh, they were happy as hell when he was sucking their cocks or letting them fuck him, but the rest of the time it was tits this and ass that. And most definitely not the kind he was interested in.

The door opened with a bang. “Shit!”

“Haven, what is it?” Phillip asked as he came in from the other room.

“Damn loader decided now would be a good time to take a crap. Mario’s sending one of the guys over to take a look at it. Thank God he said they were done with the feeding on their end, so he’s sending equipment and men, but of course it had to pick today to pull this crap.” He stomped through the house, came back out with a huge thermos, and went straight outside. Brian picked up the plate from the coffee table and began to eat. As soon as the food hit his stomach, he realized he was ravenous. He drank the cocoa, which was a little grainy, but sweet and hot. It warmed him from the inside, and that and the cheese and crackers gave his belly something to do other than growl at him.

Brian watched out the window and listened to Phillip in the kitchen. It was still windy and snowing, but he could see almost out to the road now. He thought he could make out the red of his car by the side of the road if he looked just right. He could have died that close to help.

Rumbling started as vehicles pulled down the drive, a lot of them. Men got off, and the vibrations from heavy equipment rattled the house. The beep, beep, beep sounded as one of them backed up. Brian pushed the blanket away. With all the layers he was wearing, he was beginning to get warm. Thankfully, he was feeling better. “Is there something I can do to help?”

“No,” Phillip called from the other room. “I got things going in here and I’ll be right back in.” Pots clanked and banged on the stove. Soon the heavenly scent of chicken soup filled the air. Brian swallowed and tried not to think about the last time he’d had a real homemade meal. Talk about a last supper. Brian sighed and waited for Phillip to come back in. He wasn’t sure how much he should say about what had happened and where he’d been going. It would only make trouble for both him and them.

The snow seemed to have let up, and Brian stared outside as the yard emptied just as quickly as it had filled, every vehicle loaded with cattle feed. He hoped they were all careful, but then they probably knew every bump and slick spot in this area.

The house continued filling with the scent of food, and Brian’s stomach rumbled again.

“Phillip,” a man called as he pushed open the door.

“Dakota, I’ll be right there,” Phillip called, and he came into the living room as the man closed the door and began shedding cold winter gear. “This is Brian. Haven, David, and I rescued him from his car in the ditch, and he was nearly frozen. We got him warmed up, and I’ve given him a little something to eat.”

“I’m Dakota, from up the road. I’m also a doctor, and I want to check you over for frostbite and make sure you’re truly okay. How long were you in the car before they found you?”

Brian held out his hands, and Dakota looked them over. “I don’t know. It could have been minutes or hours. I lost track of everything.”

“What time do you think you went into the ditch?”

“Maybe nine or nine thirty, I guess.”

“It’s past noon now, so about three hours. As cold and windy as it was, you were very lucky.” Dakota released his hands. “Can I look at your feet?” Brian shifted and took off his socks. His feet were still red. “Can you wiggle your toes?” He did, and Dakota looked at each one. “I’ll repeat myself: you were really lucky. These look close to frostbite. We’ll need to watch them for a few days to make sure all the circulation has come back. Keep them warm and moving. That’s the best thing right now.” Dakota went through the rest of an exam, listening to Brian’s heart and lungs, then said, “You need to take it easy for a little while. That cold air got into your lungs good, so you need to give them a chance to recover as well.”

Dakota began packing things up. “I have to go into town. With this weather, the hospital is swamped,” he told Phillip. “Make sure Haven knows to call if he needs anything.”

“I will,” Phillip said. “Drive carefully.”

“One of the plows is on its way to the house, and I’ll ride in with them,” Dakota said and then turned back to Brian. “I want to look at your feet again tomorrow.” Dakota shared what Brian assumed was a meaningful glance with Phillip, because he nodded slowly. Phillip showed Dakota to the door once he’d dressed again and then stepped outside briefly with him.

“Dang,” Phillip said when he came back in. “The wind and snow are picking up again.” He went over to look out the window and then picked up the plate and cup and returned to the kitchen. He came back with a refill of the cocoa, handed the cup to Brian, and sat down. “I’ll put you up in the guest room for tonight, but I need to know what you were doing out on those roads in a car like that on a day like this.”

Brian opened his mouth, but Phillip cut him off.

“Before that, why don’t you tell me your name?” Phillip said. He might have seemed a little rushed before, but when Phillip concentrated on him, his gaze was intense.

“Brian Applewright,” he said. He’d thought about giving a false name, but figured it wouldn’t do any good. He knew one of the men, David, from somewhere—he just couldn’t put his finger on where. But if they knew each other, a lie wouldn’t hold water. “I lost my job a few days ago at a ranch about forty miles south of here, and I was trying to find work, figure out what to do…. I don’t know. I came through town and thought about stopping, but I had no money, so I kept going, and the weather got worse. I couldn’t see crap and was looking for someplace to pull over when I spun out and ended up in your ditch.”

Phillip nodded once and narrowed his gaze. “Why’d you get fired at this time of year? Everyone is hunkered down waiting for spring, keeping on as few guys as possible. You must have made the cut.”

Brian knew he couldn’t lie, but telling the whole truth wasn’t something he was willing to do either. “I didn’t get along with most of the guys when they found out….” God, it was hard just to say the words. “I’m gay.”

“Ah,” Phillip said.

“Yeah. The owners of the ranch were okay and it didn’t matter to them, but they said my work was suffering. I got sabotaged by the other guys because they didn’t want me around.” Brian wasn’t sure Phillip believed him at first, but he met Phillip’s gaze without flinching. “I worked there for almost three years without an issue, but as soon as word got around, things started happening. Gates were left open that I was supposed to close when I knew I’d closed them, stuff like that.” It was too much to hope that he could get a job here, but at least he had a warm place to stay for the night. “I was suddenly a bad worker, a problem, and a troublemaker all rolled into one. In the middle of winter, I was given my pay and told in the nicest way possible that I wasn’t needed anymore.”

Phillip sat back in his chair and shook his head. “People are dumb sometimes.” He cradled his mug. “I’ll tell you a story. I’ve known Dakota for quite a few years, and I came out here to visit him. When I did, I brought Wally along. Anyway, those two hit it off like nobody’s business. Been happy as clams for years now. But when Wally first got here, some guys decided they didn’t like him. Decided to teach the small guy a lesson. Dakota took out one, and by the time Wally was done, he had laid out two huge men—had them writhing in pain, standing over them telling them that if they moved, he’d shove their noses into their brains. After that, word got around fast. No one messes with Wally or his friends. See, Wally’s a vet, and he helps just about everyone. Rescues lions and tigers. Keeps them in pens out back.”

“You’re kidding,” Brian said. He wasn’t sure where Phillip was going with this, but the story was engaging enough.

“Nope. Used to have one that liked to have his belly rubbed. Damn lion would roll on his back when he saw Wally. Looked like a huge lion carpet.” Phillip chortled. “Guess I got off topic a little. The thing is, just because you’re gay doesn’t mean you have to take the crap folks want to dish out. Here on this ranch, we’re good people. We help our neighbors and do right by folks. We don’t discriminate against anyone. But we don’t stand for any trouble, and the men all know about us.”

“Us?”

“Yeah. Brian, it seems you stumbled into what has to be one of the gayest corners of Wyoming.” Phillip settled back in his chair.

Who cared what the point of Phillip’s story was? “Do you need some help? I’ve been around ranches most of my life. Grew up around Casper. Daddy was a foreman on a ranch before he died. I’m great with horses and I know cattle. I know a little about fixing most things, but I’m really good with leather and tack. The ranch I grew up on, the daughter rode rodeo, and I used to make all her bridles and things for shows. I don’t have the tools any longer, but I could probably get some.”

“Wait a minute,” Phillip said, putting up his hands. “I don’t make those decisions. Hiring is done by Haven and Dakota. I suggest, if you want a job, you talk to them when you see Dakota tomorrow.”

“I thought Dakota lived on the next ranch,” Brian asked, totally confused.

“We merged the two ranches a few years ago. Dakota is like the CEO, and Haven manages the day-to-day work. I do the books, and Wally takes care of the animals.” The wind rattled the windows and Phillip got up, staring out. “Thank goodness,” he said and left the room. The front door opened, and people began filing inside. “Take off your coats and stuff and put them in the laundry room,” Phillip called from the kitchen. “I got soup on, so come sit at the table and we’ll get you all warmed up.”

The guys did as Phillip said, and Brian followed suit, joining the rest of the men around the table in the large ranch kitchen. He sat off to one side and listened while the men talked about the weather and stuff.

“Guys, this is Brian,” Phillip said.

“He the guy they rescued from out of the car?” one of the men asked.

“Yes,” David said from down the way.

Brian nodded to him. In that instant, it hit him. “Davey Newsome?” he asked as the pieces suddenly fell into place.

“Yeah,” David said and leaned forward. “Oh God, I remember you. Brian Apple… something. The last name escapes me, bu