The damn dust was everywhere.
While part of my mind inventoried what needed to be brushed first, another part was surreptitiously watching Chris lay out our camp site with an economy of motion that made my pants pull tight across my groin. He would decry the notion that he was graceful as a wild cat but I knew better. I had months of experience in learning his movements with half glances, random looks and the use of reflective surfaces where ever we found ourselves.
But I'd never been alone with him like this. After dropping off the prisoner to a grateful sheriff, we'd begun the ride to Four Corners in silence. I was used to that from him. He rarely spoke to me except to order me to do something and I don't know why I'd thought that this trip would be any different.
So, I gave him the gift of my silence while I brushed the trail dust from my jacket before hanging it up on a nearby bush. My hat was next and I brushed it until no more dust appeared. It went next to my jacket while I wondered if I dared take advantage of the lazy stream just a few feet from our campsite. I wanted a bath in the worst way but I didn't want to antagonize Chris by seeming to be more fastidious than he already thought me.
But the damn dust had reached every inch of skin I possessed and I ached to be clean again. Not to mention, I needed to wash my underwear and shirt so I didn't offend my silent partner. I cast a longing look at the stream and thought of the fresh bar of lavender soap in my saddlebags.
"It's safe." He startled me with the comment and I cast a quick look at him. "It's only about two foot deep and there's no poisonous snakes around here."
That was the longest sentence he'd spoken in three days and I wasn't sure how to answer him. "Thank you, Mr. Larabee. If you don't mind, I will just take a quick wash to lave away the dust."
He nodded, his fair hair gleaming in the red glow of sunset. It appeared that his quotient of words had been used up for the day. Ah well, I would survive his taciturn demeanor and live to ride another day. I pulled off my boots and took a moment to wipe them clean before setting them aside and removing my socks. Turning them inside out, I hung them on a lower branch to air. Barefoot, I gingerly walked to the stream edge before unbuttoning my shirt and setting it near by. Then my pants came off and the soft silk drawers that were all I'd been wearing underneath.
The sun had warmed the small bend in the river until the water was almost as warm as the day had been. I submerged myself and came up with a smile. While I preferred a modern tub with unlimited hot water and bath oil for my skin, this would do quite nicely. Lathering the soap in my hands, I washed my hair first, ducking to rinse the suds away. Then I stood up and soaped myself all over before grabbing my shirt and drawers to wash.
A few minutes later, I had them hung up on an overhanging branch and I carefully stepped forth from the water in much better humor than I'd gone in. For the first time, I wondered if Chris might want to do the same and I turned my head to find him sitting by the fire and looking at me with the oddest expression on his face.
I blushed slightly before dropping my eyes and setting the soap back in the wooden box that kept it safe. "If you would like to bathe also, Mr. Larabee, I would be glad to loan you my soap."
He cleared his throat but didn't say anything and I kept my gaze low while I swallowed my hope that we might reach a rapprochement this trip. I kept hoping even though my past experience told me that men like Chris Larabee would never find a man like me worthy of being a friend. It still hurt when I told myself 'I told you so'. Using the old towel that had become thread-worn over the years, I toweled dry and mopped up most of the water on my head.
Shrugging into my spare shirt, I let the tails hang down to cover my groin while I walked back to where my socks were hanging. Hanging my towel up, I exchanged it for my socks. Sitting down on my bedroll, I pulled them on to keep my feet warm. Searching for my comb, I ran it through my hair, combing my hair back in the hopes of discouraging the curls that would form before morning.
"Yes." His voice startled me and I looked up to find him standing in front of me, his hand out.
Soap. He wanted my soap. I swallowed hard and handed it over, making damn sure that our fingers didn't touch. Just the sound of his voice was giving my lax cock ideas above its station. I determinedly didn't watch him walk down to the river, giving myself a stern lecture about what was and what wasn't appropriate. But a splash had me turning to the river and then there was nothing I could do to keep from watching him.
He was beautiful.
His long lean limbs were golden in the last of the sun, laced with the faint white tracings of old scars. There wasn't a spare bit of flesh on his body and the setting sun had turned his wet hair to fire while I watched. Barely breathing, I memorized every inch of him for replaying later in that sad time between going to bed and sleeping. Strong legs disappearing into the cool water, muscular arms wreathed with soap suds, his groin just now arising from the foam and I had to close my eyes before I did something I'd regret.
Not for you, not for you, I chanted over and over to myself. Save it for your dreams, you idiot, I admonished myself most severely and willed my traitorous body to stop hardening. I studiously kept my eyes on the fire and the rabbit broiling there. The can of beans that I'd contributed to our evening meal was beginning to bubble in the small pan and I carefully knelt up to move it to one side so they didn't burn.
"Thanks." A tanned hand appeared in front of me with the box of soap and I took it carefully.
"You're welcome." I didn't know what else to say so I stilled my wayward tongue and said nothing.
He walked around the fire in just his worn jeans and I had to bite my cheek to keep from sighing at the beautiful sight. Chris was obviously not wearing any underwear and I repeated my mantra over and over to keep from drooling. 'Not for you, not for you...' all the while I checked the rabbit and got our tin plates ready to receive our dinner. And that's when I noticed that the small kettle had hot water just at the boil.
My gaze flew up in time to see him drop some tea into it. My eyes widened and my poor tongue got bitten yet again. I was going to be too sore to eat if I wasn't careful. Why in the world was he making tea when for all I knew, he hated it? I tried very hard not to appear too different from the others, drinking their coffee when it was offered and keeping my tea for the moments when I was alone or with Josiah.
I could feel a smile try to form when I thought of the wise man with his kind heart. His travels had led him to far away lands and often we would sit in the old church and share tea with each other. I hadn't realized that Chris had noticed. And in heaven's name, why would he bring tea along on this trip? It hadn't been in evidence earlier when we still had the prisoner.
Confusion seemed to be my natural state these days and I quietly sighed in sympathy with my wayward heart. It persisted in looking on the bright side while my brain was forced to remind me again and again what reality was. Reality was grudging acceptance and mild tolerance - that was all it had been and would be.
"How long does it need to steep?" The voice startled me into looking up
"It ... it should be strong enough now." I pulled my saddlebags closer and brought out the handkerchief that I used to strain out the tealeaves. Chris took it from me and used it in the manner that I always did, apportioning the tea into the two tin cups that sat ready and waiting. "Thank you, Mr. Larabee. The tea will be a nice accompaniment to our dinner."
"Yes," was all the infuriating man said while he began to cut up the rabbit evenly between our two plates.
I spooned up the beans, dividing them between us and accepted my meal from his hand. The tea was strong and hot, which felt quite nice with the cooling of the day. The rabbit was mostly tender and I cut it up into bite-sized pieces for ease in eating. The beans could have used some basil or perhaps a pinch of rosemary. I ate slowly, mulling over my next cooking venture. Perhaps some lemon would tame the rather gamy texture of the wild hare.
Inez was kind enough to allow me the use of the kitchen on Sundays while she went to church. The others didn't know that I was the one who prepared their lunch that day and Inez had promised to keep my secret. My notes on what was liked and disliked were all being kept in my private journal. Some day I wanted to have my own restaurant in some cosmopolitan city like San Francisco where a man could be himself and not what others wanted him to be.
His voice startled me out of my thoughts and I gaze at him across the fire. "Mr. Larabee."
"Ask you a question?" His eyes gleamed in the firelight and the slight smile on his face was definitely a rare sight.
"Certainly, Sir." I pulled my armor tight around me and braced myself mentally.
"You planning on staying in Four Corners?"
"Until there is something to move on to, I gave my promise to stay. My word may not be worth much but I do intend to keep it." I smiled depreciatingly and finished my dinner.
"It's worth something." The man across the fire said to my surprise.
I risked a glance at him and found that odd expression on his face again. "Yes, well, I'd better wash our dishes so we can retire for the night. Are you finished?"
"Yeah. How would you have cooked it?" His words froze me in mid-stretch. "If it was Sunday and I'd brought you a brace of rabbits?"
I literally didn't know what to say to that astonishing statement. "I didn't realize that you were of aware of my Sunday endeavors."
"Saw you once rubbing a chicken with something when the door to the back blew open. Inez closed it right away but I wondered what you were doing back there and when we had roast chicken for Sunday dinner it tasted better than any kind of chicken I'd ever had."
I was blushing and I didn't know how to answer him. He liked my chicken, was all my brain seemed to be able to handle. "Do ... do the others know?"
"Nope, not that I know of."
"Thank you for keeping silent, I ... I like to cook and the others might not ... not enjoy their dinners if they knew that I was the cook." I hadn't stuttered this much in years. What was it about this man that flustered me so badly?
"Might tease you some but I notice they finish off everything on their plates but the painted on flowers." Could that be a smile or perhaps a chuckle from the taciturn man?
"Yes, well that is the best accolade that a cook can receive. I'd best get to washing." I took his plate gingerly, trying to not touch those long brown fingers. I'd forgotten that I was still in a state of undress and I only realized it when he caught his breath, his gaze on my shirttails.
I blushed again and scurried towards the river to wash up and get my composure back. His compliments had confused me to the point that I needed solitude to come to grips with what they might portend. He was only being pleasant to a fellow team member, I argued to myself while I flung the bones of our rabbit feast to the other side of the river. Using my hands, I washed the grease and beans into the flowing water, scrubbing with my fingertips until they felt clean.
Darkness masked my movements and I wished I could wrap it around myself like a cloak to hide me from his gaze. Nothing good could come of this. It never did when I let my defenses down. Only pain ever came from opening my heart. Arguing strongly for dispassionate conversation about cooking, I locked my mind into safe territory and rose to return to the fire.
But Chris was standing between me and the safety of my bedroll. "Ezra."
"Mr. Larabee, it's getting late and I am rather tired." I had to look up into his face and the shadows made him look even taller than usual.
"After I tell you something." He said quietly, his words making the hair stand up on the back of my neck.
"Certainly, Sir, please proceed." I smiled although I was ready to scream.
"I don't have your words so maybe I better just show you." That was a definite chuckle and I had one brief moment of wonder before he came closer and pulled me into his arms.
He was fire-warmed and his bare chest burned me everywhere we touched. But not even that amazing sensation could compete with what he did next. My brain was reeling at the first touch and when his lips covered mine I'm afraid I whimpered. His arms were the only thing holding me up and I could feel his hands branding me through the linen of my shirt.
His. That's what they branded onto me and even though this was only a dream, I knew that I'd never be able to remove that mark of possession. His lips were warm and his tongue traced mine until they opened for him. My lips were his along with every other part of me. The groan rather surprised me before I realized that it wasn't mine but must belong to this dream-Chris that was pleasuring me so beautifully.
My dreams had never seemed this real before and when warm hands slid under my shirt and onto the downy skin of my nether cheeks, I moaned a little and tried to get closer to the man holding me. Hardness met hardness and I smiled dreamily under his kiss. Perhaps I'd be able last out this lovely dream all the way to completion. That rarely happened unless I took an active ... hand in the proceedings.
"Damn, you taste good." His lips were traveling across my jaw and down my throat to the hollow that always turned me to fire.
Something wasn't right. Chris never spoke in my dreams. I opened my eyes and realized with mounting horror that I wasn't dreaming at all. With a wrench, I pulled from his arms and fled back to the river. I stood knee deep in water and trembled as if with the ague. I could feel him approaching and I waded in further.
"Ezra, come on back to me."
"No, not until you tell me why you did ... that."
"I kissed you."
"I love you."
"No. You can't."
"Sorry, but I do."
I risked a glance at him. The new moon gave little light but it was enough to see his face. "You don't even like me."
"Got to say I didn't when we first met." He took a step closer and I backed away again. "But I do now. You're a good man, Ezra Standish. You hide it under all those layers you built up over the years. I think I know why you did it and I respect the courage it took to stay with us here."
"I gave you my word. That doesn't explain the ... the kiss."
He came to the water's edge and crouched so I had to look down to see him. "Felt different the last few weeks and I didn't know why. Reason I picked you for this trip, needed some time alone with you to see why I was feeling what I was feeling."
He stopped there and I took a deep breath then another while he thought about something. Finally the silence grew too much for me and I spoke. "And what were you feeling?"
"Love, the forever-kind-of-love, the same thing I had with Sarah."
"No, that's not possible." I whispered, shaking my head in denial. "You're just confused at the moment. Have you ever even lain with a man?"
"Yeah, I have a long time ago. It was good but we were better friends than lovers."
"Mr. Wilmington." It wasn't really a question. "And Mrs. Travis?"
"She's the most irritating woman I've ever met, kind of like you on a real bad day. She just doesn't have any good days the way you do." His chuckle almost made me smile in return. "I don't love her and I never will. 'Cause I only give my heart to one person at a time and you've had it for awhile now."
I shook my head again, closing my eyes and trying to harden my heart against the seductive words that I'd always wanted to hear from this man. "I don't think I have a heart to give, Mr. Larabee and you would only be disappointed in my body."
"Nope, I wouldn't, Ezra. My name is Chris and I want to hear you say it." With nothing more than a slight splash, I found myself in his arms again. "You can moan it if it that helps?"
The tremors were noticeable now and I tried to escape that firm grip but he held on. And he was kissing me again until I couldn't think at all, only feel. Why had I ever thought that I had a chance resisting this man? I wanted to lose myself in him and not even self-preservation was going to stop me now. It would hurt all the more when morning came and he relegated me to the shadows of his silence.
But I needed him so badly that I would take the joy and use it to bolster the pain that would come. And I gave him my permission with a single word. "Chris."
"Can we get out of the river now, Ezra?" The plaintive question surprised me into laughter and he joined in all the way back up to the bank and across to my bedroll. "I've been wanting to take off this damn shirt since you put it on. You were so beautiful in the water while you were bathing. I tried not to look but I just couldn't help myself."
I blushed and sat down to remove my soaking wet socks and the shirt he seemed to object to, but I was distracted by his wet jeans slowly sliding down those long legs of his. I couldn't seem to catch my breath at the sight of his cock springing forth from the nest of blond curls. I just had to touch him. Wet steel was all I could think of while my fingers stroked over the warm length of him.
"God, Ezra, that feels so good." He groaned and I felt one of his hands comb through my hair. "I could come just like this but I want to touch you, too."
Then the jeans were being kicked away and he was beside me on the blankets, his busy fingers unbuttoning me from top to bottom. I couldn't catch my breath and the firelight gleaming on his skin took away my speech. He was beauty incarnate and I memorized every bit of him for the time when he wasn't there.
"Ezra, please tell me you want this." He leaned over me and I realized with a start that I was flat on my back while he lay atop me like a breathing blanket. "Ezra?"
I couldn't stand the note of uncertainty in his normally commanding voice. "I want this. I want you more than I've ever," I could give him nothing less than my complete honesty, "ever wanted anyone."
And he took my words and me into his capable hands. It had been a very long time since I'd been touched with love and I almost didn't recognize it. But with every stroke of his hand I could almost believe that he meant what he'd said. I burned every place our skin met and that was just about everywhere. My hands trembled when I began to touch him in return but I grew braver when he gasped at a particularly bold caress and leaned in to kiss me hard.
I was in danger of suffocating when he finally wrenched his lips from mine to take a harsh breath. I panted aloud and his eyes blazed into mine before he took my mouth again with all the passion he was unleashing upon me. I lost track of the kisses but I definitely noticed when he slid down my body to loosely hold my rock-hard cock before tasting me.
I think I may have shouted when he slid more of me inside his mouth but it took only a few strong sucks before I was shaking into a release the likes of which I'd never experienced in my whole life. I may have blacked out for a moment because my next memory is of him cradling me atop his body and I wasn't sure how I got there.
"You taste real good, Ezra. If you don't mind, I plan on draining you regularly."
I had no words to answer that amazing statement so I kissed him instead. But he was still hard as ever and I wiggled out of his arms and slid to one side so I could reciprocate. He sighed and I felt his fingers stroking my hair while I ran a gentle finger up the long shaft that bobbed above his groin. So beautiful and so hot that I needed to cool him down. I blew across the crimson crown and felt him twitch all over.
Then I licked my way from the root up to the flaring crown before laving it with broad sweeps of the rough edge of my tongue. He was panting now and I smiled up at him before I sucked the entire crown into my mouth, fluttering my tongue against the vein that brought blood where it was needed.
He was chanting my name with each lick or suck and I thought how much I wanted to hear him say that over and over again. But he was leaking a little for me and I sucked harder so I had more of that lovely bitter taste. Then with a groan, he flooded my mouth with his salty essence and I was too busy swallowing to really taste him. But all too soon he went limp and still so I took the time to leisurely lick his skin in case I'd missed any of his seed.
"Ezra." It was only a whisper but it brought me sliding up his body at once. His eyes were so satiated that I could have cheered but instead I just laid my head on his shoulder and tried to believe that this would last past morning.
"Ezra, I love you." He feathered a kiss against my temple and I felt tears fill my eyes. If only I could believe him. "I love you and I'm going to keep telling you until you believe me with all your heart the way I love you with all of mine. Give us a chance and I promise that I'll hold you safe."
I took a deep breath then another and rose up enough to look into his eyes. Mother had always said that what a man was thinking was in his eyes. Even though I was afraid all the way down to my toes, I decided to trust what I was seeing. "I will try to let down the walls that I have built. I do ... love you, Chris."
"Then that's where we'll start to build a life together. Love is the best foundation there is, Ezra. Well, that and food. My father always told me to marry a good cook. I'm not sure that you're quite what he had in mind but I think you're just about perfect." He said judiciously and I tried not to laugh, I really did but it bubbled out of me like hot water at a full boil.
He joined in and we lay there laughing until we were limp. I'd never known that love and laughter could go hand in hand but I was learning. I could hardly wait for more such lessons. Perhaps I really had won the last and best hand in the game of love. Silently, I made a vow to try my very best to give him all he would need. Including my cooking.
End Dust to Dust