Mike and Danny: In Love
Note that these stories, including this one, are not an endorsement of unsafe sex. They take place many years before the appearance of AIDS and before it was standard practice to use condoms to reduce the risk of infection from sexually transmitted diseases. Remember always: that was then, this is now. Sex is precious, and so are life and health.
He stood in the shower for a long time, letting the hot, hot spray wash over him, the air in the tiny bathroom growing thick with steam. It was good, the water falling sharply on his shoulders and the back of his neck, the thrumming of its steady pressure on his naked skin sinking into his muscleright down to the bone.
The shower in the bunkhouse was a piss-poor excuse for one. The weak spray was like standing in a lazy lawn sprinkler, and the cowboys he shared it with usually used up all the hot water by the time he got his turn.
Baxter's was spiffy and clean, too. Not like the bunkhouse shower where a sludge of soap scum and crotch hair gathered around the drain and streaks of moldy rust crept up from the corners. Not to mention the guaranteed risk of getting athlete's foot if you didn't wear something on your feet.
Happy, he guessed, to have a manly dose of fungus thriving between their toes, his bunkhouse mates mocked him for the flip-flops he used when he showered. And if he left them lying in plain sight somewhere, they'd be sure to turn up missing. Time and again he'd have to hunt for them, finding them usually on the roof of the bunkhouse. Once they'd been tied together with a piece of old shoe string and slung over a cross beam of the windmill.
He'd get mad and give the other men a good cussing out, but they'd just laugh at him. It was a pain in the ass being a new guy and the youngest.
When he asked Owen the foreman one day about moving in with Baxter, he knew it was a long shot. Owen didn't owe him any favors and had no reason to make his life easier, but he'd given it some thought anyway, looking Lonnie over, up and down, and finally saying he'd ask Baxter about it.
"Since his dad's been gone, he could be gettin' a little lonesome livin' there all by himself," Owen had said.
That was only a few days ago, and here he was, his bunkhouse days looking like they were over.
Anyway, he liked the idea of living with Baxter. He'd been watching the man ever since he'd been hired on at the ranch. They'd often be working somewhere around each other in the horse barns. While Lonnie cleaned stalls and swept the alleyways, pushing wheelbarrow loads of manure and urine-soaked straw to a pile out near the corrals, he'd see Baxter getting a horse used to being saddled and ridden or learning how to be reined.
Baxter had a special touch with problem horses, too, and was good at figuring out what was wrong with them and how to fix it. Once he'd worked for weeks with a racehorse someone had brought to him, a horse that refused to go near a starting gate.
Baxter reminded Lonnie of himself. His love for horses ran deep, and he was a quiet man, easy-going. Instead of the teasing and the pranks Lonnie got from the other ranch hands, there'd be a warm smile from Baxter and a "howdy, son" whenever they happened to meet.
But Lonnie had kept his distance. He'd learned not to trust older men, including the last man who had been a father to himwho was not his real father at all. In and out of foster homes from when he was a boy, Lonnie had lived with a series of families, not all of them very good ones.
Over the years, the men he had known there were hard to like, as if they were determined to be that way, believing that a boyespecially a boy nobody wantedneeded hard discipline if he was going to make it in the world. Worst of all were the lickings he got from those who thought Lonnie didn't give them enough respect. He'd stayed with the last family until his junior year in high school, and then he had lit out from his little town in Ohio, heading west.
From when he was young, he'd hung out around horse stables where he could learn all he could. By the time he was sixteen, he could already shoe horses like a grown man, he knew what to do when a mare was about to foal, and he could doctor a sick horse until the vet arrived.
With what he knew, he'd worked his waylying about his ageas far west as Nebraska, always moving on when he sensed someone was on his trail looking for him. Finally here, deep in the Sandhills, he'd found a place he liked, where he thought he could stay for a while.
Now that he was eighteenhe'd always told people he was nineteenhe started to think of himself as a free man. If anyone found him, he doubted they could do anything about it anyway. He'd even felt safe enough to write a letter to a foster brother, Kevina boy he had never forgotten.
He hoped the letter had found him, but he couldn't know for sure. The boy might have been moved to another home, or when the letter arrived, it might have been read by someone else instead. So Lonnie hadn't put a return address on it.
Kevin had cried when Lonnie said goodbye that last night before running away. The tears had touched him to the core, and he had nearly changed his mind about going. He'd be leaving Kevin to face alone the fierce hand and unpredictable moods of the man who'd been their foster father. But as the time had come to go, he knew that he could live under that roof no longer.
He had hugged Kevin, who clung to him, still pleading with him to stay. And then he had torn himself away and was gone, crossing a mile of open fields in the early dawn light to stand by the highway, with his duffel bag beside him and his thumb out. After a while, a trucker with a load of sugar beets had stopped to give him a ride.
He couldn't have said exactly why he sent the letter except that Kevin was his only memory of the past that mattered to him. And the memory never failed to make him feel a little sad. He wanted to believe now that the boy had forgiven him.
In the letter, he had told Kevin he was doing fine and hoped Kevin was, too. He'd also mentioned Baxter, the man who loved horses, for Baxter had been on his mind. It had been hard finding words for this, but he tried to describe sitting on the top railing of a corral fence and watching Baxter with a new horse, his voice a mellow flow of soothing words and the horse's eyes and ears fixed on him, wanting to trust him.
It was not yet a complete thought in his mind, but Lonnie had found himself wanting to trust Baxter, too. In his bunk at night, after lights out, he'd begun thinking more and more about the man, and he'd discovered a yearning that rose in his chest, a desire so strong sometimes it hurt.
When Baxter had showed him around his trailer and they'd stood together in the hall outside the bathroom just now, the man had touched his hand to his backwith the same firm but gentle touch he had for his horses, and Lonnie had felt his heart suddenly swell.
And not just his heart. There had been a surge of excitement in his belly that had quickly spread downward into his groin. When he pulled off his underwear, after closing the door behind him, his cock swung out from him full and heavy.
Waiting for the water to warm up, he'd put his hand to himself, growing quickly hard in his grasp, and when he'd pulled aside the plastic curtain to step under the spray, he reached for Baxter's soap and lathered up between his legs, stroking his erection and coming almost at once in a burst that shot hard against the shower wall.
The force of it had dazed him, and he had just stood there, the water rushing in his face and down his chest. An unexpected sensation had swept through him. At that moment, he knew what he wanted more than anything, and what he wanted was Baxter's arms around him, holding him tight.
He turned off the water now and, stepping out of the shower, reached for a towel. The mirror on the medicine cabinet was steamed over, and he wiped it clear with his open hand, studying himself, his hair wet and falling in twisted strands into his face, a sparse growth of unshaven whiskers on his chin.
As he rubbed himself dry with the towel, he wondered what Baxter saw when he looked at him. Did he see a man grown up or a man still growing up? Did he see someone worth getting to know, someone who would make a loyal friend, someone he could trust, come hell or high water?
Then he looked away from the mirror, suddenly unsure of himself. Maybe he was destined to be a loner all his life, with this feeling that no one would ever get close enough to really know him or care about him.
He'd always thought it was being a kid with no home of his own that had made him an outsider. Yet everywhere he had gone since he'd been on his own, nobody had known about his past, and still it was the same. Others just kept him at arm's length. As if it was written on him in a place only they could see: "Stay away."
Mostly dry now, he wrapped the towel around him and picked up his underwear from the floor. Then he went to the back of the trailer to get something clean to wear out of his duffel bag. He could hear Baxter in the kitchen. There was the smell of food cooking and the sound of Baxter's radio playing music.
Pulling on a pair of jeans and a tee shirt, he looked again around the bedroom. There was a roadmap of Nebraska tacked to the wall and some framed photographs. Baxter was in several of them, sometimes standing proudly beside a horse.
In some of them there was an older manmaybe Baxter's fatherand in one very old picture, a snapshot taken at what looked like a rodeo, they stood together, both of them much younger. Baxter could have been someone else he looked so young, but the big grin gave him away. It was him, all right.
Lonnie studied this picture the longest. The two men togetherfather and sonmade his heart ache. And then he noticed something that had taken him a moment to see. The older man had reached behind his son to put his hand on the young man's back.
And he remembered Baxter's touch in the hallway. He understood it now. Baxter was not Lonnie's father, but he had known what it was like to grow up in the loving warmth of an older man's affection. And that had made all the difference.
"You eat yet?" Baxter said when Lonnie got out to the kitchen.
"Yep. At the house." The cook had laid out the usual spread, some tough pan-fried steak and potatoes. Only the peach cobbler had been worth comment, and he'd managed to get most of a second helping down him before the other hands had polished it off.
"Interest you in a couple spare ribs?"
Lonnie could smell the barbecue sauce. "No, sir, but thank you kindly," he said.
"You absolutely sure, son? Looks to me like you're not eatin' enough."
Lonnie looked down at himself, his skinny frame mostly lost in his clothes. He hadn't put on a belt, and the jeans were drooping low on his hips. The cuffs dragged on the floor around his bare feet.
"Don't seem to matter how much I've et," he said, laughing and slapping his belly. "What I got, though, is all muscle."
Baxter, by contrast, was a big guyample and solidit would take two of Lonnie to outweigh him.
They talked on like this, and finally Baxter persuaded Lonnie to take a plate of foodall of which he ate. They sat on high stools at the kitchen counter, eating with their fingers until their hands and faces were covered with barbecue sauce and grease.
When they were done they stacked the plates in the kitchen sink and turned on the TV, but there was not much to watch except snow and something that looked faintly like a "Wanted: Dead or Alive" rerun.
"That Steve McQueen?" Baxter said. "I like him."
Lonnie had then crawled onto the roof to adjust the antenna, stepping with his bare foot into Baxter's hands and getting a boost up to where he could throw one leg over the edge and then scramble over it. Baxter had given him a flashlight, which he'd shoved into a back pocket, and now he studied the situation.
"I think I see the problem," he said, calling down to Baxter, who went back inside to let him know if anything he did improved the reception. A tree branch lay on the flat rooftop, blown there by some windevery season out here there were plenty of stormsand the antenna had been knocked off kilter.
He reached up and got a grip on it with both hands, trying to right it, the anchor wires singing in the darkness as he forced the tension on them. From under him, he could hear Baxter's booming voice. "That's better!"
He gave it another twist.
"Lots better!" Baxter called out. "That's good."
He gave the antenna a shake, and it looked like it was going to hold steady, at least until the next big wind. He reached down to the branch and tossed it off the roof. Beyond a stand of trees and a machine shed, he could see the lights of the bunkhouse, its door open to the evening air, and the voices of two of the cowboys, arguing over a game of cards.
Then he switched off the flashlight and looked up, letting his eyes adjust to the night. Above him there was a feast of stars, the Milky Way a ghostly glimmer in the dark sky, reaching from horizon to horizon.
He couldn't describe how he felt at that moment, except that something had changed. He was still Lonnie, but he could look up into the vastness overhead and imagine what it was like not to feel all alone in the world.
So little had happened in the brief hour or two that had passed since he showed up at Baxter's door. But he knew already that he was on the verge of being another man's frienda real friendfor what felt like the first time.
"You gonna stay up there all night?" It was Baxter's voice, outside again, calling to him from below.
He stepped to the edge of the roof and looked at the man, standing there in the shadows.
"Comin' down," he said. He got on hands and knees and then onto his belly and put his legs over the side.
Baxter raised a hand to grab one of his feet, and Lonnie let his weight settle into it. Then he let himself slide downward, until he had come to a stop, held in the powerful embrace of Baxter's arms. It felt for all the world like getting a bear hug.
As they went back inside, Baxter was calling him a champion, one arm around his shoulder, and when they got into the porch light, he suddenly said, "Aw, son, look what you've done to yourself."
The front of him, his chest to his knees, was covered with dust and dirt from crawling onto the roof. He started beating at it with his hands and got most of it off, but the tee shirt was a lost cause. It would have to go into the wash.
"I got a clean one of those you can have," Baxter said.
"Naw, don't worry about it."
Lonnie pulled it off over his head, as they stepped inside, and bent to wipe down the front of his jeans with it.
He was about to go put the tee shirt away and get another one when Baxter, who was standing behind him, said, "Wait, what's this here on your back?"
And even before Baxter had touched his fingers to the spot in the muscle along his spine, he knew what he had seen.
"And this," Baxter said, touching him again, lower this time, where his jeansloose around his waisthad slipped down and pulled away from him as he'd bent forward.
"Some scratches," Lonnie said straightening up and turning to face Baxter. "Fell out of a tree when I was a kid."
But Baxter stopped him, holding him now by the arms, and peering closer at the marks in his skin.
"Maybe you did," he said, "but what did you fall on? It looks like it was a belt buckle. And did you fall on it twice?"
Lonnie felt a flood of shame wash over him, and he pulled away from the man's grasp.
"Who beat you, son?" Baxter said.
Lonnie just shook his head, looking down, unable to meet the man's eyes.
Baxter's hands now took him by the shoulders, and all Lonnie was aware of was the feel of their rough warmth on his bare skinand their strength.
"Tell me," Baxter said.
Lonnie took a deep breath, which caught as he tried to fill his lungs with air. It felt like he was drowning.
"It was a long time ago," he said. His throat was tight, squeezing shut around the words.
"Why would anybody want to hurt you?"
Lonnie shrugged. "I don't know."
Baxter's hand now touched his face, and he felt the man's thumb stroke his cheek. He realized that he was wiping away a tear.
Lonnie hadn't cried since he was a boy. He hadn't even cried the day he'd been beaten, just took the punishment without making a sound, which had enraged even more the man who had taken his belt to him.
Now Baxter hugged him again. "If I had a son," he said, "I don't care how much mischief he got himself into, I could never raise a hand to him."
Tears fell hot from Lonnie's eyes now, all the uncried tears of his years. And Baxter said nothing more, just held him until he was done.
"I'm sorry," Lonnie said finally, pulling away.
"No need to be." Baxter let him go.
"A grown man don't cry."
"You'd be surprised."
Lonnie wiped his face with the tee shirt now, and the snot that had run from his nose.
"When's the last time you cried?" Lonnie said, not believing him.
"When I took my dad to the nursing home," Baxter said. "And just about every time I've come back from there since."
Lonnie didn't know what to say to that.
"And I'll tell you something else," Baxter said. "I felt like crying when I saw those belt marks on your back."
"Why do you think?" Baxter fixed him with a level gaze. "Because I like you."
Lonnie just blinked a couple of times.
"If I'd been there when it happened, I'd have beat the shit out of the guy who did it."
He looked at Baxter, who stood there, his eyes filled with kindness. He'd never known a man like this before.
"I can't imagine you doing a thing like that, sir."
"I don't go looking for trouble, but I can't say I've never been in a fight."
Lonnie smiled at him now, and considered the size of him, his arms and his shoulders. "OK, you could probably land a pretty good punch if you wanted to."
"Nothing I'm proud of, but it's happened a couple times."
Lonnie laughed at this, wiping more snot from his nose. This was all too good to be true.
There were feelings rising in him that had to do with something like love, but he had no way to put anything like that into words. He wasn't even sure he knew what love was. Not this kind of love anyway.
"You know what?" he said instead. "I'm thinkin' I like you, too."
Baxter smiled and just looked at him. "I'm glad you're here," he said. "And I want you to stay as long as you like."
"Thank you, sir," Lonnie said and knew he must have been grinning like an idiot.
The TV had been on all this time, and Baxter took him around to show him how the new picture was coming in. Specks of snow, like a half-hearted winter squall, still flickered on the screen, but there in the black and white images they could make out enough of what was supposed to be going on. And they sat down in the two easy chairs to watch until the program was over.
The trailer house was warm inside and he hadn't put on another tee shirt, since Baxter knew now about the marks on his back and there was no need to hide them. So he sat there bare-chested and barefoot, in just his jeans.
Now and then, he glanced over to Baxter, who'd poured himself a little more whiskey, his stocking feet resting on a beat-up leather hassock, his legs open with one knee cocked to the side.
He felt a calm spread through him, a weight lifted from him, and a kind of tiredness from having carried that weight for so long. He knew somehow that when he went to bed tonight, a deep sleep would take him, for the first time in years. Here beside himin a big, gentle man named Baxterwas shelter from the storm that had been the only life he'd known until now.
When it got to be 10:00, Baxter got up and switched off the TV. And Lonnie followed him to the back of the trailer, turning off the lights as they went. Neither of them spoke. The photographs on the bedroom wall seemed to watch them as they got undressed for bed, lit by a single lamp burning softly on a table.
He stood not looking at Baxter, opening his jeans and then stepping out of themnaked now and self conscious. When he turned, Baxter had sat on the edge of his bed in his undershorts, pulling off his socks with his broad hands. His arms and legs were hairy, dark swaths growing in whorls over his full chest. Just as Lonnie had imagined, his belly was ample, his shoulders and thighs heavy with muscle, his arms thick.
Baxter tossed his socks aside and looked up at him, still standing there. Lonnie knew that his cock was stirring between his legs, and he didn't care.
"Get your pillow," Baxter said getting into his bed and making room for Lonnie.
Lonnie turned to pull back the spread from the other bed and took the pillow from it, stepping now over to Baxter and getting in with him. As soon as he had stretched out there, Baxter's arm was around him, pulling him closer, and they lay there together for a while without talking.
There were no words for this anyway. Lonnie let himself go into a feeling he couldn't name, but he knew he was safe here with this man. Safe at last.
Finally Baxter spoke. He touched his hand to Lonnie's chest. "Before it's all over, there's something I need to say."
"Before what's over?"
Lonnie was puzzled. "Sir?"
"Today's my birthday."
"Oh, I didn't know," Lonnie said. "Happy birthday, sir."
"Thanks," Baxter said and reached across him to switch off the lamp.
The movement had brought them closer together, their chests touching now, and before putting his head back on his pillow Baxter found Lonnie's mouth with his lips and gave him a long kiss.
And Lonnie, who had never been kissed before, by anyone he could remember, knew he was falling in love.
Continued . . .
© 2007 Rock Lane Cooper