Artist: Maria Fanning

The Bitterroot Range rose above the tops of the evergreen forest surrounding the ramshackle, tin-roofed house. A wiry young man strode out the back door and tripped down a set of three steps. His father, walking with a decided limp, followed along behind. An old woman caught the screen door before it slammed shut and watched the two head for the corral. Her throat nearly closed up on her as she perceived something different in the manly grace of her grandson. A deep frown marred the natural dignity of her features. She was worried about the boy—and he was a boy to her way of thinking. The outside world was reaching out to claim him. Her lips moved in an ancient Chippewa prayer, muttered in the mother tongue.
“You watch out for this bronc,” the father said. “He’s a bad one.”
The younger man spoke in a clear baritone. “Mean, maybe, but I see good horseflesh under those rollers he’s blowing. He’ll make a good working horse one of these days.”
The father switched a strip of rawhide to his other hand. They’d use it to blind the unruly buckskin while they put leather on him. “Likely, but there’s lotsa outlaw to leech outa him before that comes along. You ain’t rodeoing, so don’t be shy about pulling leather. And don’t let your mind get carried off by that other stuff.”
“That other stuff looks like a way to bring in some good money.”
A thundercloud hid in the look the older man shot his son. “We doing all right. You got a roof and a meal and clothes on your back. What else you need? Besides, you bring in extra for breaking mustangs.”
The younger man’s mouth tightened, but he held his tongue. It wouldn’t do let on there was lots more involved than a little money.
They worked for twenty minutes just to put tack gear on the cold-backed animal. This one would fight the gear every day of his life. The father held on to the bronc’s flaring nostrils, and twisted fingers in one of the animal’s ears while the youth wrangled a light saddle into place.
As soon as the rider swung onto his back, the buckskin went up on his hind legs and came down hard. He tried out some stiff-legged crowhops before turning loose. The horse spun and sunfished his muscled body in a graceful arc before swapping ends—going up one way and coming down facing the other direction. His bucks were arm jerkers, powerful.
The youth looked to be glued to the horse’s back. Taking his father’s advice, he held on to the saddle horn during the worst of the leaps. If the blessed mustang would just tire out before he did, he’d have it made. And tomorrow, the pony wouldn’t fight so hard. And the next day….
They must have been going at it for thirty minutes before the horse stumbled.

Chapter 1

I drove north out of Las Vegas on I-15 in a peculiar state of mind. Nothing had gone right on this so-called vacation of mine. The jaunt, carefully planned for months, had gone off track right at the beginning. Stan Mancuso and I had intended this as a get-drunk, get-laid trip to celebrate the anniversary of his divorce and to christen my recent one. At virtually the last moment, our Denver architectural firm, Sullivan, Sligh & Associates, had unexpectedly landed a large new contract that demanded Stan’s immediate attention. That should have been warning enough. Yet, stubborn Roger Mackie refused to delay the trip for a single day. Roger Mackie… that’s me. Off I went alone to exhale city grime and inhale some pure country dust.
I don’t usually like to be burdened with a car in Las Vegas, but upon arrival at McCarran International Airport, I took a shuttle to the rent-a-car center and picked out a Mercedes-Benz as close as possible to the new 1998 sedan sitting in the airport parking lot back in Denver. Perhaps it was precognition of how disastrous this visit to Sin City would turn out to be.
The concierge at Caesars Palace set the tone for the rest of my visit when he couldn’t find my reservation. Three conventions in Las Vegas had filled every hotel room in the town from five stars down to two, and one night in my substitute room hard against the elevator shaft in a low-tier hotel didn’t permit me what little sleep I wanted. The tables and slots joined the conspiracy and wreaked havoc on my wallet.
The late show at one of the hotels gave me a full quota of bouncing boobs and bare legs, something my absent partner would have been salivating over, but I was so out of sorts that I only mildly enjoyed the visual feast. The cute little strawberry blonde I met at a bar show later spiced things up for a few hours, but there was no real connection between Shirley and me other than body parts. I was secretly glad to see her go.
When it occurred to me I had merely traded one noisy crowded city for an even noisier crowded city, I packed the rented car, planted my butt in the driver’s seat, and headed north without a plan or even a clue. Before long, I was tired, sick of the road, and hoped never to hear “Too Close” or “You’re Still the One” ever again. The songs had endlessly recycled through the car radio for the past two and a half days. If I stumbled across Next—whoever the hell that was—or Shania Twain or Madonna or the Backstreet Boys any time soon, I wouldn’t be responsible for my actions. Nor did I need to learn any more about our president and a female intern.
How I found myself in Montana 800 miles from Las Vegas, I’m really not certain. But I could tell anyone more than he should want to know about the Kosovo war and the Unabomber. Damn, I had to buy some tapes for the car’s sound system. I came to the sudden and belated conclusion that I should have headed south to Phoenix or Tucson. Arizona’s a grand state, and I’ve always enjoyed myself there.
Butte, a quaint old mining town on the western slope of the Continental Divide, proclaimed itself as the “City That’s a Mile High and a Mile Deep.” Some of the old mining shafts dropped five thousand feet below the earth’s surface. Many tunnels and corridors ran beneath the town’s streets. The place got its name from the big hunk of rock nearby and its aura from gold and silver and copper mined here since the 1860s. However, the Art Chateau, the World Museum of Mining, and the Copper King Mansion could occupy me only for so long. I snapped more photos than I wanted with my Canon Powershot 67X, and after a tour of the US High Altitude Sports Center, I was breathing a little easier and the knot in my gut had begun to ease. I spent the night in a downtown hotel only to wake in the morning completely at a loss for something to do.
After a hearty breakfast, I-90 led me out of town, and an innocuous turnoff to the west drew me deeper into the Bitterroot Mountains. I must have been recovering from my foul mood because the scenery started to hold some interest again. These hills were a part of the same great Rocky Mountain chain as those around Denver, but they had a different feel… craggier, wilder somehow. If I had been the outdoors type, I would have bought a tent and camped out in the crisp mountain air.
Nonetheless, before long this trek started to look like the latest in a series of mistakes, because the road degraded, the traffic evaporated, and I was absolutely alone without an idea of where I was. My anxiety level soaring as the gas gauge dipped, I came to a place where the road widened. An old log building stood to the left. At the sight of two antiquated gasoline pumps in front, I pulled over and stopped. The sight was so novel that I grabbed the Canon and clicked a couple of shots of the place.
Inside, the building was low ceilinged, but much larger than it looked from the outside. If I had been on the Navajo reservation, I would have guessed this was an old-fashioned Indian trading post. I had no idea if they had such things up here, although there were plenty of Native Americans in Montana. The trading post or store or whatever it was had goods crammed in every corner, was dimly lit, and gave off a pleasant, homey atmosphere. A grizzled man of about sixty waited on an elderly woman buying a few basic groceries. The Caucasian trader stood six foot three or four—brawn going soft. He finished with the lady and turned to me.
“Come right on in and look around. Got a pot of coffee on, and you’re welcome to join us.” He gestured toward a distant corner dominated by a potbellied stove with a few cane chairs grouped around it. At this altitude the warmth was inviting. Someone was seated in one of the chairs beside the stove.
“Thanks. I’ll take you up on the offer. But first I’d like to gas up the car.” I halfway expected him to say he was out of gasoline.
“Easy done.” He turned to the stove at the rear. “Johnny, can you come pump this fella some gas?”
“Yessir, Mr. Beasley.” An indistinct figure rose from his chair with animal grace. A moment later, a young Native American emerged out of the semigloom and walked toward us with the strong, languid movement of a mountain lion… unhurried, efficient, powerful.
“Give Johnny your keys,” the trader said. “He’ll gas up for you. You want it filled?”
I nodded. “Yep. To the brim.”
When I told him what I was driving, he told the kid to give me the premium. I agreed and asked for a restroom. The shopkeeper directed me to the back of the establishment, where I took a leak and puzzled over my reaction to the young man now gassing up my car. Occasionally you run into someone who catches the eye and won’t let go. Someone whose physical presence engages the entire you. I’d experienced it only once before in my life.

When I was eighteen, a family with two teenaged sons moved next door. One was a year older; the other, about my age. The first time I saw Hank, I felt like somebody had punched me in the breadbasket. I didn’t understand it, but there it was. I struck up a friendship with his younger brother just to have an excuse to hang around. In time Hank and I became friends as well.
He knew the effect he had on me, but he accepted my slavish adoration as his just due. After all, he was an athlete, played a mean jazz piano, excelled in school, and was handsome and popular. Why shouldn’t Roger Mackie, a so-so student, mediocre athlete, and slow developer worship at his feet?
That summer I learned why he put up with me. I was tremendously flattered when he asked me to go on an overnight camping trip with him but a little surprised when his brother didn’t come along.
He parked his old Ford pickup about a mile away from the spot he had chosen as a campground, so we hiked in. After we set up the tent and rolled out our sleeping bags, he hooked them together into one big bag, saying it was going to be a cold night.
We cooked and fished and ended up going swimming in our shorts. I wondered about that, but again I didn’t protest. When we turned in for the night, we were naked because our jockeys were still wet. His thigh rested against my hip, but somehow I didn’t mind. We talked and, of course, the subject turned to sex. He told me in great detail how he had been putting it to Maven Enright. Then he complained that he had a hard-on thinking about it and invited me to feel it. When I didn’t answer, he put my hand on it. It was big… bigger than mine and hot and hard. My face felt touched by fever. I left my hand where he’d put it. He told me to pump his thing. Feeling a little daring, I did so. Then he put his hand behind my head and tried to lower me to him. I objected.
“What are you, a cocktease?” he asked.
“I didn’t tease nothing.” I hadn’t minded when he just wanted me to touch him. In fact, I sorta wished he’d feel mine.
“Hell, you been looking down at my crotch ever since I met you. Now’s your chance. Take it.”
My cheeks burned again. Why’d he have to say it like that? “I already felt it.”
“Yeah, but take a look at it.”
“I’ll do it tomorrow in the light.”
“It’s hard now, Rog. Go ahead. Look at it.” He threw back the bedroll.
So when he snapped on a big 9 volt camp light, stupid Roger got up on his elbows and took a closer look. And it was something to see. Long and throbbing and leaking out the end. My own cock started to stiffen. While I was examining his, Hank put his hand behind my head and forced my face into his groin.
“Take it.” There was an edge to his voice.
“No!” I mumbled through his pubic hair. My chin rested on his balls. His cock throbbed along my left cheek.
“Just lick it.”
“No!” I shook my head for emphasis, and my lips brushed his shaft.
“Come on. Won’t hurt anything.”
He grew angry when I struggled to bring my head up out of his lap. When I was free, I turned away from him. Shivers ran down my back. Would he quit now? Did I even want him to?
“Sorry,” he said. “I got so hot I lost it.” His hand came to rest on my shoulder. “You okay?” I nodded. “Can I move up close to you… get warm?” he asked.
Without waiting for an answer, he spooned himself against me. His penis pushed against my buttocks. He was still hard.
“That feels good. About as good as Maven.” He hunched against me.
“Rog, you like it, and I’m going to prove it to you. I’m going to take hold of your cock, and you’re going to get as hard as I am.” I tried to shield myself, but he simply brushed my hands aside. “Oh ho!” he said. “You’re already as hard as a rock. See, you do like it.”
Was that true? I didn’t know, but I had butterflies in my stomach. And his hand on me felt good.
He rolled me over onto my stomach with his body atop mine. Before I knew what he was doing, he had forced his knees between my legs. He rested both his hands on my buttocks and spread them. His cock touched my sphincter. I flinched and squeezed my eyes shut.
“Don’t make this any harder than it has to be.”
As he paused to smear something on the tip of his cock, I felt paralyzed. Run. I should kick him and run! But my mind—and possibly my glands—betrayed me. I twisted my torso to stare at that hard, pulsing, intriguing column of flesh and swallowed hard. I think I mumbled the word no, but perhaps it was only in my mind. And then he shoved his hips forward and penetrated me. I thought I’d been stabbed! But he paused and the pain subsided. After that he took his time thrusting in and out of me as I lay still and tried to understand what was happening. Oh yeah, I was getting fucked. I knew that. But what I didn’t understand was why I wasn’t fighting him like mad. Why wasn’t I kicking and slugging him where it hurt? Somewhere in the middle of all this, I moaned and said something that sounded like “more.” Then I realized it felt… good.
I still remember his climax. He groaned and grunted and called out my name. My body quivered as his jism squirted into me. I felt somehow content until he abruptly jerked out of me and turned away. Then a feeling of shame flowed over me as my insides throbbed and my unfulfilled cock pulsed in the darkness.
It probably legally qualified as rape, but I never told a soul. How could I? Everyone would know it couldn’t have happened if I hadn’t allowed it.

I shook my head. Surely that wasn’t what I was experiencing now. Then how did I explain the butterflies in my belly? No, my reaction was simply that I admired attractive people. Although a broad-brimmed black felt hat had shadowed his features in the dim lighting of the store, I knew without a doubt I would find Johnny handsome when I saw him clearly. And he was well put together. The silhouette that had approached with the light behind it had been broad-shouldered and lean-hipped and small-waisted.
I wiped my face with a wet paper towel and tried to explain something else to myself. Why had the sight of that young man brought back a memory I’d worked so hard to forget? No, repress. I met a girl in college. Hell, I met a lot of girls, some of whom I took to bed. That was where I met the woman who was to become my wife. Our subsequent divorce had nothing to do with sex. The sex was great. Julie Ann was great; she just wouldn’t share me with my budding career. She was jealous of the time I had to devote to it, especially when I made partner. I’d been surprisingly ambivalent when she’d left. She was a good woman, and I’d miss her terribly, but I wasn’t willing to make the adjustments to my life she was asking. Since our breakup I’d been coasting, but when the time came, I’d find a new ladylove. I tossed the paper towel into the disposal container and went back into the store.
The big merchant met me with a hand out. “Adam Beasley. Pleased to have you in my store.”
Fighting the feeling that my recent thoughts were painted all over my face, I accepted his shake. “Thanks. I’m Roger Mackie.”
“Where you from?” When I told him Denver, he asked if I was headed up to Canada.
“No. Going nowhere in particular. I think I’ll head back to Butte and go on down Arizona way.”
“Hmmm. Well, here’s your coffee. I fixed it black, but we’ve got the pissant stuff if you want it.”
I laughed and relaxed. “Black’s fine.”
We sat in the warm glow of the stove and talked for a while. Johnny came back to return my keys and claim a chair off to one side where he wordlessly followed our conversation. It was all I could do to keep from staring at him. From time to time, I glanced his way to include him in the talk, and slowly put together an impression. He was somewhere around twenty. Lean without being thin. Almost square-faced, although his hat probably distorted that somewhat. Moderately heavy brows. Huge black eyes, slightly canted, with the lushest lashes I’d ever seen on a male. Thin nose; not long, not short. Wide mouth. Strong chin with a slight cleft, but no sign of a beard. Ears close to his head. And long, dark hair falling to his shoulders. His complexion was two shades darker than mine with a slight rosy hue. He sat forward in his chair, elbows on his knees, every bit as handsome as I had known he would be. Blindingly so. Occasionally, he fiddled with three heavy, beaded bracelets on his left wrist. They looked to be tribal ornaments of some sort.
Beasley’s store had such a homey atmosphere that I stayed and listened to him talk for an hour. His family had run this store for a hundred years. Folksy yarns and mountain wisdom oozed from the man’s pores. When I finally rose, he went back to the counter and toted up the bill for my gas and the few snacks I picked out.
As I prepared to leave, he stopped me with a question. “If you’re heading back to Butte, can you give Johnny here a lift?”
“Sure. Glad to. You ready to go, Johnny?” Despite my words I was a bit uncertain. One look at this kid, and I’d relived an incident long buried in the recesses of my memory banks. Shaken by my visceral reaction to him, my inclination was to keep my distance. Until I met his magnificent gaze. Then I knew sharing a ride with a young man so exotic, so good-looking, might be interesting.
He ducked his head shyly and mumbled, “Minute,” before disappearing in the direction of the restroom.
“He’s a good kid,” Beasley said. “Part of the Two-Guns family. They’re good people. Chippewa folks that got cheated out of their land and their tribal standing. Only band of Indians in Montana who don’t have their own reservation.”
Beasley went on to explain the youngster helped farm the family land and broke broncs for extra money. He’d lived in these mountains all his life. Went to high school down in the town but never liked it down there.
“Johnny’s shy, and kinda backward at some things, but he’s okay,” the trader finished. “Hope you don’t mind giving him a ride. He’s gotta catch a bus this afternoon.”
“Not at all. Glad for the company.”
“His grandmother volunteered him to go pick up some things his older brother left when he got himself killed about a month back. Don’t know why she wouldn’t let me make arrangements to have them shipped back here.”
“Is it… er, the brother? I mean his body?”
“No. He’s buried down in Tucson. He had a wife, and she saw to that. The family up here didn’t think much of her. She’s not traditional. So the kid has to go and bring back some family things. Religious things, I’d guess. I know there’s a calumet that’s gotta be over two hundred years old.”
“Old pipe carved out of red stone. Some say it belonged to Sitting Bull. Anyway, it’s things that mean enough for the old woman to pawn everything she owns to raise the price of the ticket.”
“How—” I broke off my question as the boy appeared at the back of the store.
The trader answered my unasked question. “Breaking up a fight in some bar and paid dear for it, I gather.”
Johnny came forward carrying a small bag and his black hat in hand. It was the first time I had seen him without it. He was a stunner. He had scrubbed his face and combed his sleek, hair.
“You ready, Johnny?” I asked.
“Yes, sir.”
“My name’s Roger Mackie,” I said, offering to shake. “Most people just call me Rog.”
He hesitated a moment before accepting. He held his hand straight rather than cupping mine. I clamped down anyway and shook it. “Johnny Two-Guns,” he said in a low voice that seemed to rumble.
“Say,” Adam Beasley stopped me as I prepared to leave. “You say you’re thinking on going to Arizona?”
“Yeah. Think I’ll hit Phoenix and maybe Tucson. Been a while since I’ve been there. Like to see the country again.”
“Tucson. That’s where Johnny’s headed. I might be butting in where I’m not wanted, but he could spell you driving if you was to take him along.”
The idea appealed to me immediately, even though only minutes before I had been hesitant about a short ride to Butte. Now a long trip seemed attractive, but I had been burned by impulse actions before. “Can I see your driver’s license, Johnny?”
He pulled out a current Montana license, and damn, even the kid’s official photo was handsome as hell. I looked like a crotchety gnome in mine. He was not quite twenty-one years old.
“He does some driving for me,” Beasley volunteered. “Always careful. Don’t take chances. Johnny don’t talk much, but he’s still good company. Easygoing.”
Johnny’s complexion darkened at the trader’s praise, and the butterflies in my gut went wild. I immediately capitulated. “It’s okay with me, but I’m stopping overnight in Las Vegas and at least one night in Phoenix. If we get tired driving, may spend the night somewhere else along the way.”
“Just need to get there as soon as I can,” Johnny replied, stringing together damn near a dozen words at once. “But no special hurry, I guess.”
“Sure would take a load off his family if he could cut his expenses in half,” Beasley said.
I suspected men like Adam Beasley rarely went out on a limb for a young man, so maybe the guy deserved some help. I decided to sweeten the deal. “Johnny, I’ll tell you what. You ride along and keep me company, do some of the driving, and talk to me now and then, and I’ll get you there plus buy you a bus ticket back home. How does that sound?”
“Sounds good. But I don’t talk much.”
“But you can. I heard you. So the cat’s out of the bag. You tell me about you, and I’ll tell you about me. Then we’ll talk about what we’re seeing on the way.”
“I can do that, I guess.”
“I’ll cover our meals and rooms. We’ll share a room.”
“Aw, I’ll just sleep in the car.”
For some reason my belly butterflies fluttered. “You don’t have to do that. Nobody’s told me I snore.”
He chuckled at that, his face lighting up. “Me neither, I guess.”
The trader promised he would return Mrs. Two-Guns’s pawned goods, so Johnny handed over his trip money to the trader. The big man gave him a twenty. “So you won’t be completely busted.”

Johnny accepted it with obvious reluctance and carefully stowed the bill in a worn wallet. Then we went outside where I asked Beasley and Johnny to pose for a picture in front of the trading post. Together… and separately. Then I asked Beasley to take one of Johnny and me.

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