Chapter Sixteen

Galen was in deep thought as he went about his chores. Being unsure of how to handle the situation with Wayne’s theft of Kelby’s puppy was proving to be an insurmountable problem for him. He didn’t want to be a tattle-tale and yet somehow felt if he didn’t tell someone soon, he’d get sick. His stomach was already in knots. He had been gaining weight but now as his appetite once again dwindled, his progress was being hindered. Soon Thomas would notice and want to know the reasons why.

Jordan too had his own problems. He was finding it harder with each passing day to get all his work done. He had been coerced into taking on some of Seth’s chores and the burden was fast becoming more than he could manage. Yet although he and Thad had become good friends, Jordan wanted to avoid involving the other man should a confrontation take place.

Kevin was exhausted. Even though it was after midnight, he had been reluctant to let Lakota spell him at Dallas’ bedside, but the doctor had been very insistent. He’d gone back to his tent but found it hard to sleep. He had made a few comments to Dallas about wanting a relationship with him and that he felt some boundaries were needed.

Dallas had revealed much during his illness. He’d been essentially alone since his mother left. Although he hadn’t been physically abused, the emotional deprivation he’d suffered had been very damaging. Kevin had seen him at his most vulnerable and inexplicably had found himself falling in love with him. Perhaps Dallas’ need had awakened some deep-rooted desire in Kevin to protect and keep him safe, or maybe seeing a broken Dallas had made Kevin stronger. Out of Dallas’ suffering, Kevin had seen how fortunate he himself was and that made him grateful. Whatever the reasons, it triggered an inherent longing and protectiveness in Kevin, and he found himself responding to the younger man.

‘We’ll just get through this and then we’ll have a long talk’ Kevin thought and, comforted by the decision, fell into a deep sleep.

Sometime later, Dallas opened his eyes and groaned in pain as the headache hit again. He felt a wet cloth wiping his forehead and almost purred as it helped ease the pain. Then with considerable effort, he focused his eyes and recognised Kevin. “Where? What?” Dallas was confused. He was unaware of having drifted in and out of consciousness for the past seventy-two hours.

“Well, ‘where’ is the infirmary,” Kevin answer was kind and soft-spoken. “And ‘what’ is when Lakota examined you it was determined you had a low-grade fever, shivers and stomach cramps. Eventually, you admitted to having a morphine addition.” Kevin’s quiet demeanour hid some real fear. Dallas had been in a state of delirium, babbling things about his past he would have preferred nobody to know. Kevin had stayed by his side almost the entire time, rubbing Dallas’ back, then his stomach when the cramps hit, and holding his head during the bouts of vomiting. He had assisted Yancey with Dallas’ care by sponging him down to help keep him cool and patiently feeding him fluids to lessen the effects of dehydration. The shivers had finally abated, the cramps had started to ease and thankfully the young man’s stomach was showing signs of settling. Kevin raised a glass of water to Dallas’ mouth.

“Don’t want it,” Dallas whined and tried to turn his head away. He was dismayed to find he didn’t even have the strength to do that as Kevin’s eyes caught and held his. The warning was clear, ‘drink or else’. Dallas didn’t want to find out what the ‘or else’ entailed so he sulkily drank the water offered.

“Someone needs to keep you in line, and I figure I’m the man to do it.” Kevin hadn’t meant to say this out-loud. He saw rebellion in Dallas’ eyes and heard the muttered ‘says you.’

“We’ll talk later, Dallas.” Kevin’s voice was gentle, and Dallas felt the tears run down his face as he once again silently cursed his need to depend on someone else for assistance.

Dallas was showing slow but steady signs of improvement. However, he still needed to have constant care and observation. The doctor felt that the young man had another two or three days of misery ahead of him but was sure he would make a complete recovery. Kevin had asked for and received permission to sleep in the bed next to Dallas. Lakota had added the condition that Kevin take time during the day to meet his own needs and to fellowship with the other men at least during mealtimes.

Meanwhile, another meal was being prepared for the host of hungry men, most of who had put in a hard day’s work.

“Who is all that for?” Jordan asked out of curiosity, looking at the dish in Walker’s hand that was piled high with food.

“I’m putting this aside for Brock, who will not be joining the rest of us for supper,” Walker explained and set the plate in the warming oven.

“Sure you got enough there?” Jordan joked. “Looks like it would feed at least three men, if not more.”

“Brock and Aiden are the reason we prepare meals for almost three dozen men instead of less than thirty,” Walker laughed. “Everything’s ready, so you can ring the dinner bell, please.”

Walker watched the men slowly file by to fill their plates and cups, taking note of who was eating properly and who wasn’t. He took pride in setting out good, wholesome meals and in seeing his ‘brood’ as he referred to the men, well fed.

“I thought I saw you at the head of the line, Brodie. You don’t usually have a second helping.” Walker grinned down at the young man.

“I’m full but I thought I’d take Yancey his meal. He’s still working in the infirmary.”

“That is very thoughtful of you, Brodie. I’m sure Yancey will appreciate it.” 

“Should I take one to Kevin as well?”

“No need to take one to Kevin though, as he was in earlier and had his supper then.” Walker smiled as he remembered the hasty manner in which Kevin had scoffed down his meal, so anxious was he to get back to his ailing friend.

It had been a difficult day; it being the first day of tilling the land and chopping down trees. Many of the men had spent several weeks incarcerated and therefore, physically inactive. Long hours of unaccustomed labour had taken their toll, so supper was a relatively quiet affair as the men were tired and some were darn well cranky. Several of the younger men were making no effort to hide their resentment for the lone man who showed up for the evening meal looking well rested and dressed to kill.

“That fucking chump did nothing again today,” Spyke complained to no one in particular.

“Sssh, Spyke,” Larry gently admonished his partner. “No one wants to listen to you complaining.”

“Like I give a shit! Doesn’t anyone give a damn that we all worked like fucking horses today while fancy-pants Seth pranced around like he had the world by the arse?” Spyke was too overtired to make the effort necessary to keep his temper under control. “Go fuck it!” he hollered and threw his barely touched plate of food at the object of his anger. Fortunately, he missed his intended target.

Galen, who had been snickering at Spyke’s verbal skills, stared in wide-eyed surprise at the irritated man’s unexpected actions.

Aiden quickly got to his feet, hauled Spkye off the ground and with the younger man securely held under one beefy arm, carried him kicking and hollering from the mess hall. The big Scot strolled over to a log on the far side of the bonfire area and sat down. He gently rocked the exhausted man in his arms until Spyke had cried himself out and was plastered against Aiden’s broad chest, trying to catch his breath and calm the huge gulping sobs shuddering through his slender frame.

Larry, realising Spyke hadn’t eaten yet, grabbed another serving of food and hurried after Aiden. He tried not to spill the milk as he ran to catch up.

Aiden silently acknowledged Larry when the ex-marine sat next to them. Neither man said a word as they waited for Spyke’s breathing to return to normal. Aiden smiled when two arms wrapped around his shoulders and a head of straw-coloured curls nestled into his neck. “Och, what ’tis a mon to do with a wee holy-terror such as yerself?” he gently asked without a note of condemnation.

“I didn’t mean to do it, Aiden. I just got so pissed off,” Spyke murmured as he wiped his tear-streaked face on the big man’s shirt. He looked up through still-wet lashes. “Shit! Am I in trouble with the council?”

“Dinnae fash yerself, lad. Ye’ll have an apology to make to Seth and a bit of a mess to clean up, but I dinnae think ye’ll be drawn ’n quartered.” The two older men chuckled at the eye-rolling exasperation of the youngest one.

Preston gazed around at the others in the silence following Spyke’s outburst. Several younger men moved closer to the older ones sitting next to them, while glaring accusingly at Seth. The lumberjack’s eyes narrowed as he picked up on the surreptitious glances between Seth and Jordan.

Hearing Galen yawn, Preston turned to see him push away his half-eaten meal, curl up with his head on Thomas’ lap and fall asleep. ‘Well, guess that’s one method of escape,’ he thought. ‘Seems to work, too.’

As Kelby watched Aiden snatch Spyke up and carry him away, he moved over to Quentin and whispered, “do you think he’s going to be in trouble?”

“I’m not sure, Kelby, but I think he’ll probably only get a stern talking to,” Quentin softly answered.

 “You know, Quentin, I don’t blame Spyke for speaking up. It’s frustrating how Seth gets away with not doing a thing.”

“I know, Kelby, but I’m sure the council will handle it in their own way.”

“Up to his tricks again, huh?” Wayne scoffed under his breath, scratching the palm of his healing hand. “That lazy stinking bastard!”

Samuel and Nathan, who were sitting with the twins, both looked over at Wayne with stern expressions. They could not help noticing he had been moody and testy the entire evening.

“What?” Wayne cried, looking deceptively innocent.

Wes had fallen silent ever since Aiden carried Spyke out. He kept his eyes lowered to his plate and slowly chewed his food, not paying any heed to his twin.

Wayne continued complaining in an undertone. “When I burnt my hand I still worked! What does he do? Nothing! I hope he gets it good, sooner rather than later!”

“Shut up!” Wes snapped at his brother. “What do you know about it? Why don’t you just leave the poor guy alone?”

“Why should I?” Wayne retorted and then looked over at Seth. He had been worrying about Galen, the puppy and the whole sorry mess he was in and the tension was making him ripe for trouble. “Hey Seth, so who did you cheat today to get your chores done?”

Seth glanced up with his eyes narrowing and his nostrils flaring, but he compressed his lips and held his tongue.

“That was uncalled for, Wayne,” Samuel firmly rebuked him.

“Well, I was just asking!” Wayne said, hoping no one around heard the admonishment.

“But it was meant to make him feel bad, wasn’t it?” Samuel pointed out, reproachfully.

Wayne looked contrite but felt strangely comforted by Samuel’s firmness. “Yeah, I guess.”

“Then can we expect that to be the end of it?”

“Yes,” Wayne mumbled as a certain degree of calmness descended upon him. ‘Will Samuel hold firm over the puppy too, if he was ever to find out?’ the young man wondered to himself.

“Is that how your chores got done today, Seth?” Preston asked the young man sitting nearby.

“Yeah, I just did what I’ve done every day since we got here,” Seth mumbled.

“And you think that gives you justification for getting out of work, young man?” Preston demanded.

Seth shifted nervously but aside from a brief shrug, didn’t respond.

Preston let it go, preferring to wait for the council’s view on the situation. Besides, it wasn’t his place to actually chastise the younger man. ‘Maybe soon, but not yet,’ he thought.

Lakota turned to Thomas who was sitting with Galen just a few feet from him and Gille. “Is what I’ve heard correct? Has Seth been gambling away his chores?”

Thomas looked to the doctor. “I’ve just heard about it. But if it’s true, then I think the council needs to deal with the situation immediately.” Thomas took off his sweater and gently laid Galen down with his head resting on it. He then caught the attention of Lakota and Troy. “Gentlemen, could I speak with you outside for a moment,” he requested.

“Of course, Thomas,” Troy replied as he and Lakota left their companions to follow Thomas.

“I believe we have a problem the council must deal with as soon as possible. If Seth has been gambling with others to divest himself of his fair share of work, we need to put a stop to it immediately before we have a full-scale rebellion on our hands,” Thomas stated once they were out of hearing distance from those waiting inside.

Larry saw his fellow councillors outside and leaving Aiden to gently badger Spyke into eating, walked over to see what the discussion was all about.

“We’ve already had a small battle waged complete with edible missiles,” Troy commented with a grimace. “We need to see that it doesn’t go any further or it won’t be fair to anyone.”

Lakota nodded. “Agreed! Gambling away duties is hardly acceptable. We need to find out who else was involved. Who got coerced into these bets?”

“Excuse me, gentlemen,” interrupted Preston, coming out of the tent and approaching the council

Thomas looked to the man moving toward them. “Hello, Preston.”

“May I express my thoughts on this, please?” Preston asked as he came up to the group.

“Are you aware of what’s going on with Seth?” Thomas inquired.

“I wasn’t certain until tonight, but I may have an idea to curb him of this habit he is developing,” Preston answered.

“Do you know with whom he’s gambling?” Thomas asked.

“Again, I am unsure of who that would be, but I have my suspicions. Someone is deliberately being roped in, I’m afraid,” Preston replied. “If you gentlemen would give me a little time, I may be able to nip this problem in the bud so to speak.”

“Do you have any suggestions on how the council can find out who all is involved, or do you want to handle that yourself?” Larry inquired.

“I would prefer to handle it, if it is alright with the council,” Preston offered.

There was a quick look-around and a consensus was reached.

“Go ahead please,” Thomas replied.

Seeing everything to be in order, Larry excused himself to get back to Aiden and Spyke. He told the group he would be available for a meeting if they decided they needed one.

“If it does not continue, I’ll be fine with letting you deal with it, Preston. However, we must appear to deal with all the men on an equal and fair basis. The council will need to know immediately if any further occurrences arise,” Thomas insisted.

“I will keep you informed of what progress I make,” Preston promised.

Thomas and Lakota returned to the mess hall and Thomas took a seat near Mitchell who looked as tired as he felt.

“Last thing we needed was this kind of trouble.” Mitchell’s softly spoken comment almost went unheard.

“True enough, my friend. It would seem that Spyke and Galen have shared a lack of interest in their supper tonight,” Thomas whispered. “I think they’ve worn themselves out. I’m going to go and put Galen to bed. Then I thought I’d start the evening campfire.”

“I’ll give you a hand then,” Mitchell quietly volunteered. Turning to Hendrik he invited him to assist them.

“Alright, I’ll help you gather wood, but I’ll not be staying for the fireside activity,” the ex-cowboy informed the man. Hendrik still found the campfires too poignant a reminder of his lost lover.

Thomas looked down at Galen sleeping soundly on the ground. ‘The lad could fall asleep on a rock,’ he thought to himself. He bent over and gently scooped the younger man up into his arms and carried him back to their tent.

Troy returned in search of his partner. Locating the young man, he took Levi’s hand in his to lead him out of the tent. “Thank you, love, for taking care of our empty plates. I trust you finished your supper?” The older man raised an inquiring eyebrow in the other’s direction.

“Well, almost. I ate as much as I could, Troy.” Levi glanced around at the thinning crowd of men. Unable to hold back his curiosity, he tentatively asked, “What’s going to be done about Seth?”

“Don’t worry about something that does not concern you.” Seeing the hurt expression on his young partner’s face, Troy softened his tone to take the sting out of his rebuke. “The matter has been delegated to another for the time being.”

Preston re-entered the mess hall. He stood to one side and kept a thoughtful eye on Seth. The young man seemed to be a little uncomfortable. ‘Serves him right!’ the woodsman thought. ‘It might pay to keep him wondering what’s going to happen to him.’ Preston had no intention of making his move in front of the others. He needed private time with Seth.

Kelby stifled a yawn and leaned into Quentin’s side.

“Okay, my friend, I think it is time we called it a day.” Quentin was aware of how hard the day had been on Kelby as a result of the young man still anxiously searching for his lost puppy.

When they got to their tent, both men got undressed and laid down on their pallets. The younger one was asleep before his head hit the pillow.

As people started to leave the mess hall, Nathan, Samuel and the twins got up too. The two older men had first watch that night and wanted to make their rounds. Noticing that Wes’ spirits were still down, Nathan put an arm around the young man’s shoulder in a brotherly fashion as all four men made their way out.

“Hey, what’s bothering you, Minx? Still thinking about Seth?” Nathan gently inquired.

Wes shook his head.

Unconvinced, Nathan prodded. “Why do I have a feeling you’re not being completely honest here?”

“I just wish everyone didn’t jump on him so much. He’s not that bad.”

Nathan frowned contemplatively. “Hmm, I’m not saying he’s bad, Wes, but what do you know that the rest of us don’t?”

“Nothing! Can I stay up with you for the night watch? I don’t feel like going to bed right after the bonfire tonight. Please?”

Wes hadn’t answered his question, but Nathan decided to let it go. “Are you sure you’re not too tired?”

“No, I’m okay,” he muttered, shrugging carelessly and leaning slightly into the older man.

“Oh really!” Nathan smiled, allowing the easy physical contact. There was nothing wily about Wes’ body language. Nathan suspected the young man had been used to carnal intimacy and it was second nature to the young man to reach out and touch without shame and shyness. “You’re more than welcome to spend my guard duty expedition with me. I enjoy having your company anytime, Minx!” he stated, giving him a gentle squeeze.

Wes ducked his head, but his face was beaming.

“Maybe Wayne will stay too. The two of you can keep the fire going while Samuel and I keep our ears and eyes peeled.” Nathan laughed at the groaned response to his teasing.

Preston was not the only one to observe the uneasy eye contact between Seth and Jordan. Walker also noticed it and felt the young man next to him stiffen. The ex-magistrate waited until the tent was all but empty before quietly asking Thad to gather up the dishes while he had a few words with Jordan.

Walker got to his feet and bent to help Jordan to his. Keeping his hand firmly wrapped around the young man’s upper arm, he marched him over to the log next to the wood stove and sat down; indicating Jordan was to join him.

“Why, Jordan?” he softly asked without any preamble.

Knowing perfectly well what the older man was referring to, Jordan didn’t try any avoidance tactics. “He said I owed him.”

“Owed him for what, exactly?”

“For keeping a promise he made to my mother and watching over me throughout our time in jail and during the voyage,” Jordan explained. “But he didn’t cheat, Walker. He never cheats. I’m just a lousy poker player,” he emphatically declared.

Walker sighed. “Jordan, you do not owe Seth anything. There was never any need for him to watch over you, as nothing either of you did would have changed things. The results of you getting pressured into gambling are as follows: first you found yourself with more work than you could handle. Then while you took on Seth’s chores, Galen tried to help out by doing his and some of yours. That left Kelby and Rathye short-handed while finishing off the animal shelters. Do you see how your actions ended up involving a lot of people?”

“I guess I didn’t think of all that, Walker. I’m sorry for causing so many problems.” Jordan’s voice got lower with each word and started to crack as he fought back tears. “Are you angry or disappointed with me?” he asked, tentatively.

“No, I’m neither.” Walker searched the young face in front of him. “Are you afraid of me, Jordan?”

“A bit nervous maybe, but not afraid,” the young man honestly admitted.

“That’s good, because I’d like you to come to me when you need advice or help with anything. Do you think you can do that?”

“Why?” Jordan wondered if there was any possibility of the other man having something else in mind. ‘I better not get my hopes up,’ he admonished himself. ‘He could never possibly be interested in someone like me. Besides, Thad has had his eye on Walker since we first got here.’

“This is a very different life here than the one you were leading, isn’t it?” Walker kindly inquired. Getting a nod, he smiled and continued his explanation. “I am aware of the friendships you are developing with Thad and some of the other younger men, but they too are experiencing feelings of uncertainty while trying to adjust to their new surroundings. I thought both you and Thad might benefit from being able to rely on someone like myself with a little more, hmmm, shall we say ‘life’s seasoning’. I want you to know I am here for both of you. The three of us spend the majority of our day together working side by side here in the mess hall and we share the same sleeping quarters. That gives us plenty of opportunity to watch over each other and makes us easily accessible to one another. So what do you have to say now?”   

Jordan sat quietly contemplating the older man’s words. Walker had made some sound observations and Jordan admitted he did feel comforted by the idea of having a more knowledgeable friend to lean on for support. “Yes, I think I can do that,” he softly agreed, his hazel eyes lighting up and brown curls bouncing as he vigorously nodded his head.

Walker returned the beaming smile and with a nod of his head, indicated they should get up and help Thad. The older man glanced over at his other assistant and frowned when he noticed Thad once again scratching under his shirt after having been told by Lakota just yesterday, as well as being reminded twice today, to leave the rash well enough alone.

Making his way over to Thad, Walker pulled the other man’s hand out from under his clothing and sharply rapped the offending fingers. He chuckled softly at the resulting blush that worked its way up Thad’s handsome face.


No comments:

Post a Comment