A knock on the door sent Luke’s heart thudding. Who the hell was out there in this storm? Either it was good or bad—nothing in between. From experience he assumed it was bad. He picked up his rifle and cautiously opened the door a crack.
A blast of icy, frozen pellets and freezing wind slammed into his face. From the darkness a voice said, “Sorry to trouble you, sir, but I’m caught in the storm. I wonder if I can put my horse and wagon in your stable and take shelter.”
The voice was soft, with an edge of desperation. The man must have followed the railroad track into town. Luke’s house was nearest to it. “Who’s with you?” The last thing he wanted was an entire family with little children in his tiny house.
“Just me and my horse.”
Babies or not, he would have let them in, but he was relieved the man was alone. “Wait a minute.”
Quickly he lit the oil lantern, then pulled on his coat and hat and went outside. The storm was blinding, but he could make out a wagon drawn by a shivering bay horse. Holding its bridle, Luke led the animal around the back of the house to the stable. The man opened the doors while Luke led the wagon inside. He closed the doors behind them, dulling the roar of the raging wind, and for a moment they looked at each other. Even in the lamplight he could see the other man was young and sweet-faced.
“You can put your horse in the stall beside Pretty Girl.” He gestured at the stall where Pretty Girl turned her head to the intruders. “Try to get your wagon over by mine.”
After some maneuvering in the small stable, the wagon was stowed out of the way. While the younger man unhitched the horse and led it into the stall with soft words of encouragement, Luke threw a bale of hay down beside it, and the animal began at once to eat.
“Thank you, sir,” the young man said. From his wagon he took a piece of burlap sack and began to rub the lather from the horse’s sides. “That feel better, Pip?” he asked the horse gently. “I’m so sorry I put you through this.”
The way he treated his animals said a lot about a man, and Luke liked what he saw watching this man brush down the horse while talking to it so sweetly.
The young man looked at Luke and smiled. “It’s freezing out there, but Pip is overheated from the work of pulling the wagon through deep snow. I should have stayed put, but I can be overconfident sometimes.”
Luke didn’t respond at once. The cadence of the young man’s voice reminded him of Holland’s, except that Holland was older than this boy and had a deeper tone.
“Do you mind if I sleep here, sir?”
The stable was snug for the animals but not for a man. “You can sleep in the house. You’ll freeze out here, but leave your weapons with your wagon.”
When he had finished caring for his horse, the young man tossed his handgun into the wagon beside his rifle and pulled out a canvas sack. Luke held the lantern high to lead them back through the black, biting storm to the house.
“You can hang your coat on the hook beside mine,” he said brusquely when they were inside. He wasn’t going to get friendly with this stranger, just do the decent thing and let him ride out the storm in safety.
“Thank you, sir.” He took Luke’s coat and hat from his hand and hung them for him, then put his own on the other hook. Surprised by the gesture, Luke didn’t know what to make of the young man.
“It’s cozy,” he said, looking around the house.
The comment made Luke look around too. Crumbs from his morning meal still littered the table along with the empty oyster tin. He was glad he’d straightened the bed, but he felt quite suddenly ashamed of the unswept floorboards and dusty shelves. “I don’t have a wife,” he said by way of excuse.
“What’s your name, boy?”
A hand as calloused from the reins as his own stretched toward him. “Samuel Smith. Sam.”
“Name’s Luke Chandler.” When Luke shook Sam’s hand, it was freezing, but his grip was strong. “You’re cold. Come to the stove.”
Luke could have kicked himself. Did his voice sound too soft, too concerned? He was sick of watching everything he said, being careful of his tone, or of inadvertently giving away private information. Living alone on his own land would be perfect for him. He’d be his own boss. No more working with rough men in the gold mines who talked about nothing but where the nearest whorehouse was. No more working on another man’s ranch. He was his own man from now on.
“I thought I was going to perish in the storm. I’m fine now. Thanks for taking me in.” Sam smiled, producing a dimple in his left cheek.
By God, he was sweet. For a moment Luke prayed the storm would be over by morning so he could send him on his way. The last thing he needed was a repetition of the White Horse Tavern. By himself Sam didn’t stand a chance against Luke, who was older and much stronger, but if Sam got the other men against him, he’d be run out of town on a rail—tar and feathers optional.
While Sam warmed his hands at the stove, Luke noticed their coats. Hanging side by side, two men’s coats looked good together. Luke found his gaze riveted on them before looking at Sam again. The young man had thick, soft, dark blond hair. It was long, past his shoulders. A lot of men wore their hair long outside of the cities, but Luke’s was dark and curly, so he kept it very short for fear of looking unmanly. “I don’t have much food, and there’s nothing to buy in the stores until the train comes through, but I can give you a can of oysters.”
“There’s not going to be any trains,” Sam said. “The train’s stranded in deep snow at the Tracey Cut.”
“I know that. A telegraph came through to Fuller’s earlier today, but they’re digging it out.”
“No, sir.” Sam shook his head, making his long hair fall across his face. “Last I heard, the railroad company has suspended all efforts to get the train out till spring.” He pushed his hair back behind his ears.
“We’ll starve to death by then!” Luke felt like an idiot for his outburst. Like it was Sam’s fault the train wasn’t coming. “Looks like I’ll be living on hay,” he said more quietly.
Luke wished it was daylight so he could see Sam better, but even by the light from the oil lantern, he saw the brown eyes, the smooth, fair cheeks, and the slenderness of youth.
“Don’t worry. I brought food.” From the canvas sack the young man pulled out a cloth bag of cornmeal and a huge slab of salt pork. Again he stuck his arm in the sack and pulled out several large potatoes and a few onions.
Luke looked at the food with relief. He’d share what he had, and willingly, but he was glad Sam had brought supplies. “I’ve got a water pump and a sink.” He pointed at the amenities with pride. “The pump was a bonus when I rented the house for the winter.”
“It sure is.” Sam smiled.
Without further ado, Sam set about making a meal. He stoked the stove as if he were in his own home and then found a knife and began to slice the potatoes and salt pork, all the while saying nothing.
When the salt pork was frying in the pan, he added the sliced potatoes and onions, filling the house with the delicious aroma of good home cooking. Sam pumped a little water into a bowl and began to make corn mush cakes. Luke sat near the stove on one of the straight-backed chairs, watching Sam working away at the table. Every now and then Sam looked at him, smiled, and then looked down again as if he was shy.
“How much food did you bring?” Luke asked.
“Enough to last through till spring. I knew I was coming too late to plant a crop, but I didn’t think I’d hit storms like this. I set out at the end of September, and it’s taken me this long to get to De Smet because the weather’s been so bad.”
“So you were headed to De Smet? Not just passing through?” Luke asked.
“Yes, sir. I claimed a quarter section.”
So he must be twenty-one years old. The law said a man must be at least twenty-one to claim land.
When the meal was ready, Sam found the tin plates and knives and forks without asking where they were. In such a small house it wasn’t difficult to find things. He set the table like they were in a hotel or something and then looked at Luke with a smile that twisted Luke’s insides so painfully he couldn’t decide what he wanted more—the food or the man.
The food he could have, but he’d better not make the mistake of laying a hand on Sam, not if they were to live in the same town. He got up to swing his chair to the table when Sam grabbed it and did it for him. Surprised once again by the young man’s good manners, Luke sat down and picked up his fork. He was anxious to dig in when he noticed Sam with his head bowed and his hands clasped.
He wanted to say grace!
Luke put his fork down, and Sam looked up and gave him that smile again. If he’s teasing, I’ll beat his ass and throw him out into the night to freeze. It’s hard enough to ignore his handsome young face without him acting all coy and then outraged if I touch him.
“For what we are about to receive, may the Lord make us truly thankful. Amen.”
“Amen,” Luke repeated.
The food was delicious after a month on plain corn mush, beans, and a few canned oysters. Luke tried not to stuff it down, but it was gone before Sam was halfway through his plateful. The men in the gold mines ate like animals, and by the time he’d left, his manners were no better. “Thank you,” he said when he was done.
Sam paused, his fork halfway to his mouth. “You’re welcome, sir.”
“You might as well call me Chandler if you’re going to stay.”
A hopeful expression lit Sam’s eyes. “Can I stay till spring? I’ll never get a shanty put up on my quarter section now. The snow’s too deep, and I need to buy a stove.”
Till spring? This boy would drive him insane before then. “There’re a couple of hotels in town, the Beardsley Hotel and Mead’s. You could stay there.”
“That would be expensive. I wanted to save as much money as possible for seed wheat,” Sam said.
Luke shrugged. “Stay if you need to,” he said, as if he didn’t care.
“Thank you!” Sam smiled wide with gratitude. “I have enough food for both of us. That should be worth the price of my rent.” Luke watched him finish his meal. Sam ate carefully, mouth closed when he chewed, elbows off the table.
He must think I’m a pig.
With the last mouthful eaten, Sam rose. “I’ll clean up.”
At the sink he washed the plates and cutlery under the cold-water pump and carefully wiped the crumbs off the table. Luke kept his gaze on his boots until Sam joined him, bringing the other chair from the table to the stove. Feeling contentedly full and with the presence of another person cutting the emptiness of the little house, Luke sat in silence, knowing there was nothing he wanted more than the companionship of another man. Love was a thing he had given up on long ago. He’d settle for companionship.
“Should I put more coal in the stove, Luke?”
He’d told Sam to call him Chandler. “No. It’s time for bed. I’m not wasting coal at night, not now that there’s no train coming to bring more. You got any in that wagon of yours?”
Sam shook his head.
“Best get to bed, then, and put out that lantern. That’s the last of my oil.”
Both men stood up, and Sam swung the chairs back to the table. He blew out the lamp while Luke closed the hatch on the stove. What was left in the stove would burn for a couple more hours, but the house would be freezing by morning.
Feeling miserly complaining about oil after the splendid meal Sam had provided, Luke stripped down to his red flannels, hanging his clothes on the nail by the bed before sliding under the heavy quilt and blankets and pulling them over his shoulders. In the pitch darkness he turned his back to the room, acutely aware of Sam’s presence, listening for every sound, wondering where he was. He must have taken his boots off, because Luke could no longer hear his footsteps.
“What the hell!” Luke cried out when he felt Sam slide into bed beside him. He turned to face him, though he couldn’t see him. “Where’s your bedroll, boy?”
“I left it in the wagon. Do you want me to retire out in the stable?” In the darkness Sam’s voice sounded scared and very young.
“No,” Luke said as gruffly as he could. “You can get it tomorrow.” He didn’t want to sound like he wanted him there, but he didn’t want to worry about him freezing to death in the stable either. “You can sleep here. Just don’t toss and turn all night, or I’ll kick you out.”
“No worries, Luke.”
“I said call me Chandler like you would any man you might be friends with.”
The boy pulled the quilt up to his neck. “Chandler,” he said quietly.
“And move over! You’re stuck right up against me.” Sam shifted his slender body.
Luke turned his back again. The bed wasn’t that big. There was no more than an inch of space between his back and Sam’s hip. He’d never get any sleep now, not with Sam lying beside him. Even with the icy snow scouring the roof and walls of the little house while the wind wailed across the prairie, he could still hear Sam’s soft breathing. Then Sam rolled onto his side and scooted in closer, pressing his belly into Luke’s back.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing now?” Luke shouted at him. He sat bolt upright as if outraged, though he wanted nothing more than a piece of this healthy, handsome young man.
“I’m cold, even in my under flannels. It must be forty below outside.”
“If you managed to get here all the way from…where the hell did you come from?”
“I left Volga this afternoon right after the storm stopped.”
“You managed to travel all that way in forty-below temperatures, so you can sleep just fine without crowding me. Now move over.”
“Yes, sir.” Sam rolled onto his side with his back to Luke. It took several more minutes for Luke to calm down. Only when he heard the young man’s deep, even breaths did he finally fall asleep.