Oscar was gone, and I couldn’t find him.
The brush surrounding the new homestead—if that’s what you could even call it—grew dense and completely impenetrable in some spots. A fella could easily get lost, especially a city fella who couldn’t tell an oak from a birch and fell o’er his own outsized feet on occasion. There were wolves in these parts that could kill a man Oscar’s size in an instant—not to mention the bears, coyotes and panthers.
I’d told him time and again not to go wandering around without me, to stay near the ramshackle rooms we were fixing up and not to go looking for whatever he thought he wanted to see.
The kid was trouble. Had been since I’d first laid eyes on him, back in Dawson City, and there wasn’t any way of taming him, much as I’d tried. I supposed, when it came down to it, I didn’t want to tame him any more than I’d wanted to smother the fire that kept us both warm at night and reared up inside me when he looked at me the way he did. He’d nigh burned me with a primal passion that I was still trying to control—or at least understand. It still didn’t make no sense how the two of us came together like we did. But there was no turning back now.
“Oscar!” I shouted into the trees, trying to see my way and take heed of any movement ahead of me. I’d searched all around the sorry excuse for a house that he’d inherited from his dead uncle, and he was nowhere to be found. So now, I headed into the brush toward the creek. I’d already checked the well and he wasn’t there, neither fallen into it nor trying to get water up for a drink. I didn’t know where he was, and I was beginning to panic.
“Oscar! D’you hear me? Get back here right now or I’m gonna tan your pretty hide so bad you won’t be going anywhere for a week!”
As I stepped past a big boulder, something caught my eye. T’was the peacock-blue frayed edge of a shawl, and I stopped in my tracks when I saw a familiar person standing there, looking off into the distance.
“Cal? Is that you?” I said.
But it couldn’t be Cal. Cal was back in Telegraph Creek, whispering scandalous things into the ears of men who paid for her time and attention. The person wearing the shawl turned with a languorous ease and smiled at me. T’was Cal sure enough, even though it couldn’t possibly be.
“Jimmy! My, I’d almost forgotten how handsome you were.”
I blushed, taking off my hat and giving her a puzzled look. “What’re you doing here? How did you get here?”
Cal simply smiled, the dimple in her cheek on the opposite side to Oscar’s. “Has that naughty boy wandered off again?”
She’d rouged and painted her face till there was no sign of the handsome boy underneath, the boy who was a girl for all intents and purposes, except for the tackle between her legs.
“Yes, he has,” I said. “And I’m gonna haul him o’er my knee when I find him.”
Cal laughed and pursed her lips. “Oh, I don’t think he minds that, do you?”
“He’ll mind it this time,” I promised. “And he’ll mind me.”
No matter what games we liked to play involving my hand on his behind, giving him a pretend walloping for being a brat, I’d give it to him this time—like I had once before when he’d wandered off and scared me half to death.
“You know which way he went?” I asked Cal, since I had nothing else to go by.
“There,” Cal said, pointing through the brush. “I heard a gunshot by the river.”
My blood went cold. Fuck. God only knew what he’d wandered into, and for a goddamn second, I almost fell to my knees.
In a moment I’d moved past Cal and I was running, tearing through the brush toward the river, terrified of what I’d find. The crack of a rifle pierced the silence, and it echoed for long minutes as my breaths ripped through my chest.
When I found him, if he hadn’t been shot or eaten by wolves, I was gonna kill him.
Just as I reached the edge of the brush, where it opened up onto the river, another shot echoed through the trees and I opened my eyes, gasping huge gulps of air and blinking at the darkness.
“Hey, hey, shhhh, it’s okay. It’s a nightmare. You’re dreamin’.”
Oscar’s shadow loomed above me in the darkness of the room that was barely a room—just a space with four walls and a fireplace, the fire banked now but the coals glowing red.
I grabbed him and pulled him down to me, hugging him so fierce that he squirmed and protested.
“Stop. You’re hurtin’ me. I can’t breathe.”
I loosened my hold a little so he wouldn’t try to get away, but t’was hard not to keep him in a death grip after that god-awful dream.
“What the hell’s wrong with you?” he said, clutching my shoulders.
“I couldn’t find you,” I whispered, my heart beating a drum in my chest. “I couldn’t find you.” I was breathless, even though I’d not left my bed.
“I was right here—right here in this bed beside you, all night long.”
I nodded against him, keeping him close to prove to myself he was here and he was all right—and so was I. His hair smelled of wood smoke and sweat, and I reckoned we could both use a wash.
“You need a bath,” I murmured, kissing him under his ear where it smelled of his own special musk that I loved.
He snorted. “So do you. I reckon we oughta change into fresh underwear, too, and wash these ones.”
I slid a hand under the blankets, popping the buttons of the flap of his union suit so’s I could skate my palm o’er the swell of his ass, making him squirm in a delicious way, his small, stiff cock pressing against me.
“Well, dammit, it sure is you, Oscar. No one else has a nubby so small and sweet what wants to pretend to be big enough to cause any mischief,” I said, teasing him the way he liked to be teased, so that he felt dainty and delicate and half the man I was. It had seemed strange at first and like he should be offended by that kind of talk. But he loved it, and that was a fact. And I didn’t question it at all no more.
Sure enough, he groaned and pressed his fingertips into my shoulders, rutting against me like a dog.
“Goddammit. What were you dreamin’ about? You were sayin’ my name then you said Cal. Was it scandalous?”
“No. T’was terrifyin’. You were lost, and I couldn’t find you.”
He pressed against me, his nubby rubbing against my thigh through the fabric of his union suit. We’d bought the sets of red flannel underwear when the weather turned right cold at the start of November. Guess we’d had enough of freezing our asses off on our journey and we wanted to be warm, even if it meant looking ridiculous. “Well, you did, didn’t you? You found me good, since I was right here all along.”
“That’s a fact. Thank the Lord,” I murmured, turning his face to mine and finding his lips in the darkness. He opened to me in that sweet way he had of assuring me there weren’t nothing I couldn’t do that he wouldn’t want, as far as any intimacy with his body went. We’d nigh explored every damned inch of each other by now, and I never could get enough of him. I wasn’t sure I ever would.
I pulled away from his mouth and nuzzled into his neck, just to sniff that scent of him I was so fond of. “I’m just so relieved you’re here and t’was all a dream.”
He relaxed into me and offered his long neck for my kisses and for me to run my nose along. The bit of stubble there did something to ignite me, and I lapped my tongue o’er his Adam’s apple, then bit it gently.
“Oh. Jimmy. Hell,” Oscar breathed. “It ain’t even dawn yet, and you wanna keep me awake?” He yawned.
“I’m sorry. Never mind. Just cuddle under these here covers with me. I need to know I got you.”
Oscar stifled another broad yawn. “You got me, all right, in every sense of that word. You prob’ly won’t want me after a few more months. I’m already a nuisance most of the time, ain’t I?”
I didn’t know if he was playing up being a brat or if he truly thought he was a nuisance.
“No, you’re just— My ma used to call it restlessness, when I couldn’t sit still. Said I’d grow out of it, and I guess I did.”
“Yeah? What if I never grow out of it, huh? What if I’ll always be like this?” Oscar said, snuggling into me, wiggling his ass, even though he’d just told me he wanted to sleep.
“Keep still. I’m tryin’ to go back to sleep, and you ain’t helpin’.”
“What if I’m always this restless?” he asked again in a whisper. “Will you still love me?”
I laughed. He was all that and more, this twenty-one-year-old man-child.
“I reckon I will. Can’t seem to help it,” I grumbled, as if me loving Oscar was an inconvenience rather than the miracle of a lifetime that had been wasted with broken men.
“Good,” he said, laying his head down on the feather pillow. “I reckon I’ll still love you, too.”
* * * *
In the morning, we woke to bright sunshine streaming in the new glass windows. We needed curtains. Next trip into town we had a list of things to buy. The big wad of cash I’d looted from Spook and Whitlaw—the outlaws who had stolen and almost raped and killed Oscar—still had some bulk to it. I reckoned that the money was rightfully ours, what with all the heartbreak and fear they’d put us through. Although, in the end, it had shown me plain as day how I felt about him—that I’d go through hell and back just to keep this man safe and by my side. I’d shot both of them outlaws dead without a thought, even though I’d sworn off killing when I’d left the gang. Figured I was doing the world a favor in that case.
Oscar and I—with help from Carson Moore, Timothy Jensen and Timothy’s son, Frank—had managed to shore up one small room of the broken-down homestead that Oscar had inherited from his late uncle. T’was a decent-sized space with a fireplace and a cookstove to keep us warm and fed, but with the big bed on the other wall and a chair and a table in it, the room felt small and close.
That suited the two of us, though, for now, and made it cozy and easy to heat, although we were eager for spring to come so’s we could finish the job and get at least a couple of more rooms added on to this one. T’was a huge job, for sure, but we had a will and the means, and I reckoned we could get some kind of decent home built for the two of us in time.
For now, I was content to wake up under the wool blankets and quilts we’d bought, snuggled beside Oscar, who sighed softly and blinked like an angel, even though the thoughts in his pretty head were more devilish, surely.
“Oscar. How’d you sleep?”
He rolled onto his side and watched me. “Well, ’cept for you makin’ so much noise and hollerin’ my name, pretty well I guess.”
I’d forgotten about my nightmare. Now it came back to me with all its ball-shriveling fear and sense of loss. I frowned.
“Don’t remind me. I never want to have it again.”
“I’m sorry. Maybe you won’t.”
I shrugged. The truth was, I’d been having a lot of bad dreams. Most of them were flashbacks to long-gone days, when I’d watched Whitlaw and Spook do some horrible, bloodthirsty things. And I’d done some myself. Seemed all that was coming back to me in my dreams, and I couldn’t hardly get rid of it. I woke from those nightmares feeling hopeless and riddled with guilt, full of disgust at the way I’d lived my life. But this last one, when I was out of my wits trying to find Oscar, brought back all the terror of losing him to Spook and Whitlaw near the beginning of our journey and how lost I’d felt when I didn’t know where he was or how I would find him before they killed him—or did something worse.
I gazed at Oscar, wondering how I’d ever deserved this handsome, heartbreaking lamb of a man and feeling like any moment God was gonna take him away from me. I didn’t deserve Oscar. I felt that deep down in my bones, and I guess t’was coming out in my dreams. But for whatever reason, he loved me, he wanted me and he’d stayed with me all this time. Now we were setting up a home together, the way we’d do if Oscar was a lady and I wanted to marry her, make her happy and protect her.
I truly didn’t see a difference. The fact that he had a cock instead of a cunt seemed entirely inconsequential. I’d bedded whores more masculine than Oscar. He had the sensitivities, delicacy of feeling and ability to nurture that a woman might. He’d taken care of his horse, Sprite, and he’d nursed the kitten we’d got when we’d first arrived in Port Essington. He’d coddled her like she was his baby, and now she was a big mouser with a fierce disposition that still had the tendency to curl up in his lap for loving when she needed it.
Of course, we couldn’t let on in town what we were to each other, and that was a shame. But t’was a price I’d pay to keep Oscar close. I reckoned I didn’t have to tell anyone what they didn’t need to know. What me and Oscar did in our home was a private thing, and t’was gonna stay that way.
Oscar yawned and gazed back at me out of his sweet brown eyes.
“You look like you’re havin’ your deep thoughts again, Jimmy.”
He kneeled up and took my face in his hands.
“You know it don’t do to brood about stuff. You just wind up workin’ yourself into a mess of feelings you ain’t got no control o’er.”
I nodded and sighed, because he was right.
“I guess t’was different when we were on the road. I was too busy getting us safely from one place t’other, I didn’t have time to dwell on things from my past—or worry beyond our survival.”
“The past is the past,” Oscar said. “I told you that once, and I’ll tell you that again. You ain’t the same man. You told me a bit of what happened back then, and it truly is horrible. But you was misled and mistreated, and you ain’t responsible for the things those men made you do. You gotta believe me.”
I nodded in order to placate him, but I did feel responsible. The truth was, I could have left the gang earlier than I had. I could have distanced myself from those men when I’d realized what they were capable of—and I hadn’t. I’d run with them for years, helping them with their thieving and killing and all-around terrorizing, because I was too lily-livered to leave. True enough that I’d hung in the background, but that wasn’t an excuse.
But Oscar was right. There were things to be done and we’d better get at them, rather than brood under the blankets on this chilly, late-November morning.
“Let’s get them horses fed and watered,” I said, as a lump under the blankets at my feet started moving and making muffled mewls.
Oscar reached a hand underneath and pulled Sprite out into the day. The gray and white cat with enormous ears, named for the horse we’d lost to wolves just outside of town, blinked and stretched on the top of the blankets. She let Oscar pet her for two seconds, then jumped onto the floor to search for mice.
“I swear, those ears get bigger every day,” I said. “She part rabbit?”
Oscar laughed. “Maybe. Anyhow, I think they’re cute.”
He hopped out of the bed and grabbed the poker from where it leaned against the iron stove, opening the hatch and stirring the embers that had mostly faded.
“We’d best get this stove goin’,” he said, “before it gets too cold in here.”
“Sure,” I said, grabbing my pants and pulling them on. “Don’t forget to do up your access hatch,” I said, reaching out to cup his bare bottom in my hand.
“Fuck. That’s your fault,” he said, reaching behind him to button up the fabric flap.
I grinned. “It mostly always is. Pretty convenient to have that bit of cloth be moveable, I’d say.”
Oscar laughed and gave me the wide, impish grin that I loved.
“That’s a fact.”
He winked as I pulled on my trousers and shirt, then sat to do up my boots, while Oscar threw a couple of logs in the stove and stoked it so that they caught and crackled.
We’d spent close to a week chopping wood that now stood in a huge pile against the outside wall of our makeshift house, helping to keep the cold out and in a convenient spot to grab when we needed it. Oscar had learned real quick how to use an axe, and his muscles had bulked up, although he’d always be on the lean side.
He was strong and he was healthy, and that was all that mattered.
Back when I’d found him—an aimless, wisp of a stray in Dawson City—he’d been skin and bones, and filled with a desperation so raw that it hurt to look at. I’d fed him and taken him back to my room to get him cleaned up so’s he’d have half a chance. But what had happened the next morning I don’t think either of us had expected.
Oscar had been full of gratitude for the kindness I’d shown him, and I’d been horny for something I couldn’t hardly imagine until he’d put his lips around me and got me off that first morning, to my shock and his satisfaction. Those were the only skills he thought he had at the time, and I guess he’d wanted to show them off and thank me for what I’d done.
I’d been blindsided by his bold actions and the confusing feelings he’d aroused in me, but I should have known there wasn’t any going back from that moment—that he’d claimed me then and there, and t’wasn’t no use to fight it. As if something had possessed me in that room, I’d hauled his naked ass o’er my lap and spanked him like he was a misbehaving child, when he was the farthest thing from that. But we’d both got off and my world had tipped upside down and backward.
And now we were here, in Port Essington, building a home and making a life together. Back when I’d left the gang and taken up a good, honest career hauling supplies, I never would have expected anything near to this, and now I couldn’t rightly imagine anything else.