In most senses Bran had been invisible at the Hayden saloon the couple of months he'd been there. But as he came out of the back room into the main saloon hall, carrying the bucket of water Levi Yost, the saloon keeper, had told him to use to freshen the bowls in the rooms upstairs, he looked at the tall Christmas tree in the corner. Sadie, Katie, and Faye were busy happily decorating the tree with colorful bows from their own drawers. The tree had been his idea.

At first Levi had given him the fish eye when he'd suggested that a tree would liven up the room and make more men come into the saloon. The saloon and brothel manager had been skeptical.

"We don't need no reason to entice the men to come in here; they show up on their own and fill the place every night. And I just don't know. A live fir tree indoors? I've heard of it, of course, but that's more for those hoity-toity sissies back East."

It was a Christmas tradition that had come from back East, for sure, Bran knew. His family back in Pennsylvania had always had a Christmas tree, bringing the tradition with them from Germany. It was one of the few family memories Bran still had. He'd lost his family to an Arapaho war party when coming over the Rockies below Hahn's Peak in a wagon train. Somehow Bran had been overlooked in the slaughter and had been taken in, here in Hayden, Colorado, on the Yampa River, by the family that owned the livery stable.

Bran had lived with them for a few years, being treated more like a slave that the Union not long ago had fought a war to get rid of. But when old man Toliver had found Bran laying under his son, Quin, on a haystack in the back corner of the livery one night, Bran had found himself working at the Hayden saloon the next day and living in a shed out back.

"That's the place for you," Toliver had said, "and you keep away from my son, you hear?"

And since old man Toliver was holding a shotgun when he'd said that and was looking real mean, Bran had agreed to stay away from Quin-although it had been Quin, of course, who had accosted him.

Bran hadn't been told his duties at the saloon would involve lying under men, although Bran had no illusions that it would come to that. The saloon did have a male prostitute for men who swung that way, the life of a cowboy on the range helping to make a man settle for another man-Sadie, Katie, and Faye, being the girls for the regular customers-and Bran was small, blue eyed, with curly blond hair and had a body that was perfectly formed, and thus ripe for the job. But Bran hoped that he'd have found a way to move on-or back to Pennsylvania to find family-before it came to that. Yost had him carrying water, cleaning up the rooms upstairs between uses, keeping fires going in the fireplaces now that winter was setting in in the valleys of the Rocky Mountains, and doing general fetch and carry duties.

As it turned out, Yost was pleased with the Christmas tree idea, not least because the girls were enjoying decorating it so much that they were bouncy and flirty with the customers, which seemed to be increasing the saloon's revenues.

Bran had worked through the women's rooms on the west side of the second floor and was moving over to the east side, when he became aware that the "best" room on the front east corner was in use. The women had a "best" room at the front on the west corner to entertain the more important and high-spending men too, but this one was the "best" room for Sam, the male prostitute. Behind that room on the east was Sam's room for regular customers, which, of course, wasn't near as grand, and then Sam's own bedroom was behind that, at the back, which wasn't grand at all. It was grander than the shed Bran was sleeping in, though.

From the sound, Bran knew there was quite a session going on in the "best" room. He hadn't realized that any of the rooms were in use this early in the afternoon, but Levi had told him to change the water and towels in all of the rooms, so Bran knew he'd have to slide into the front-east "best" room as unobtrusively as possible and get on with his business.

It was groans and heavy breathing that he was hearing, but it wasn't Sam. Sam was off in Kansas visiting his sick mother. The guy who was moaning was Caleb, Sam's temporary substitute from up Slater Creek valley. Business had picked up with him here. He was younger, fresher, and, some of the clients said, better looking and with a better body than Sam. Levi was making noises about maybe Sam just not coming back, but Bran had talked with Caleb. He just wanted to have money to rebuild a barn for his foster father up in the valley. He wasn't looking for this to be permanent.

Caleb was making more noise than he usually did. Bran decided this meant his customer was extra demanding. He clicked the door open and moved around the side of the room to the water bowl on a bureau. There was a pail beside the bureau. He'd have to empty the old water in that, put fresh water in the bowl, exchange the towels, and creep back out of the room with the dirty towel and pail of dirty water.

It was a big room and fancier than the regular rooms. Both of the "best" rooms were just that, outfitted more like fancy parlors, with red-velvet coverings on the walls and heavy drapes at the windows, upholstered chairs at the fireplace, a braided rug on the floor, and a copper bathtub in the center of the room.

In the "best" rooms, the clients were treated to a bath before the sex. The women and Sam liked using these rooms the best, of course, because they got the men clean for probably the only time in a month-and before if not during sex. The sex usually started when the men were still in the tub, and Bran saw that there was no difference here. Water was sloshed out of the tub and onto the floor like there had been some sort of wrestling match going in the tub-which probably was true. Bran hadn't been called on to fill the tub with water heated up down in the back room of the saloon-one or both of the serving girls must have done that-but he knew he'd be the one to have to clean up after Caleb and this man were done.

The man was tall, broad shouldered, and barrel and hairy chested. Probably in his forties, but a hands-on worker, because he was heavily muscled. His waist wasn't thin, but his abs were laid out in plates like the illustrations of Roman soldiers Bran had seen in picture books.

From what Bran could see of the root of the man's cock as he fucked Caleb at the foot of the four-poster bed, the man was big in that department too. His balls certainly were big. They were flapping on Caleb's buttocks as the man worked on Caleb's hole. Caleb was on his back, running along the foot of the bed, one leg extended to the floor and the other one running up the man's torso. The man was standing on the floor with one leg and had the other one bent on the bed. There were pillows under the small of Caleb's back that turned his pelvis up to give the customer a deep angle.

Caleb was naked and the man was naked too other than that he was still wearing his boots. Bran wondered how they had managed that-whatever had gone on in the tub before this-with the man still wearing his boots. Keeping one's boots on wasn't that unusual, though. One of the things the prostitutes were careful to do was to make sure the man's spurs weren't still on the boots. The prostitutes only made that mistake once. Bran had seen customers in these rooms who didn't even take off their hats-just opened their flies and bent Sam or Caleb over the bed.

Caleb's eyes followed Bran as he moved through and back out of the room. They seemed almost to be pleading with him for some sort of help, and he was groaning and moaning to beat the band. Bran needed no more evidence than that to know that the man was huge in the cock department. But there was no help to give Caleb. He was doing what he was here to do-what he was being paid to give.

Bran trotted downstairs with the dirty towels and pail full of dirty water with mixed feelings. The man's body was powerful looking and it was arousing to think of accommodating a huge cock like the man must have-Quin's cock hadn't been oversized. Neither had been Mr. Toliver's, whose problem with Quin fucking Bran had probably been more one of jealousy than propriety.

The light was dim in the back room when Bran got down there. He threw the dirty towels on the pile beside the wash tub and went out into the back yard and dumped the bucket of dirty water, leaving the door to the outside open when he'd returned and pumped clean water into the pail from the pump at the sink.

He didn't know whether Toliver had been in the room all the time or had come in through the open door, but he suddenly found himself in the embracing arms of a strong man behind him, a man who was panting heavily, a man who held a calloused palm over Bran's mouth and pulled his head back, arching his back to the man's chest. Bran's britches were being jerked down from behind and fingers were forcing themselves in his channel. And then a man's cock. Bran knew it was Mr. Toliver because of the crook to the right of the cock. Quin's cock crooked to the left.

Toliver was in high fuck, and Bran was just standing there, taking it, half in relief, because it had been a while since Quin had last fucked him and Bran had left the "best" room upstairs in arousal, when Levi Yost walked in on them.

If Bran expected Yost to intervene, he was mistaken.

"If you do it in the saloon, you pay for it, Cale," was what he said. "You want to take that outside?"

"I'll pay," Toliver growled, not missing a beat in his pumping.

"Best if you come through the front and make it all proper the next time then," he said. And after standing there a minute to watch the stroking, he left the room.

Afterward, as Bran was sweeping out the saloon's bar room and taking sidelong looks at Faye finishing up with ribbons on the tree, Yost called Bran over to the bar.

"You'll be taking up the slack during busy times for Caleb and for Sam when's he's back now, Bran. I wasn't sure whether Cale was shitting me before-whether you took cock-but now that I know you do, you might as well be making the saloon more money. You got a problem with that? If so, you'd best be finding someplace else to work and sleep."

"No, Mr. Yost," Bran answered, his eyes looking down at the floor. "I don't have a problem with that."

"Well, you say yes and we invest in getting you set up here, you are contracted to us. Understand?"

"Yes, Mr. Yost."

It just meant that now more than ever Bran wanted to be able to move on from here.

* * * *

Jeremiah Carlin rode out of Hayden and turned up toward the south end of the Slater Creek valley, which dropped down between ranges of the Rockies from Wyoming territory into the new state of Colorado. He was headed due north rather than northwest to his cattle ranch on the Elkhead River. He'd spend another Christmas and New Year's up at his mountain cabin near Antelope Gap pass on the western range. The ranch hands thought that was where he headed off to from the ranch, but he still had needs, so he'd come down to Hayden first.

Two years. Time for him to be alone up at the cabin. The hands could take care of the ranch. He wouldn't be fit to be around until early January. This would be the third Christmas since he'd lost Seth-at Christmas. One of those freak accidents that is easy to have on a cattle ranch. Jeremiah had been completely unprepared for it. He was twenty years older than Seth. He should have been set for life. He was the one who should have gone first.

And he couldn't even mourn properly at the ranch. He couldn't have owned up to what Seth meant to him. Some of the ranch hands-the cook, Clyde, certainly-had known. But it wasn't something that anyone could talk about in the open. Many of the men did it; they just didn't talk about it. He couldn't mourn Seth in the open.

It had been Clyde's suggestion that first Christmas-spoken softly and with great care-that Jeremiah go on up to the cabin for the rest of the season. He could let loose there, or withdraw into himself. Anything. Anything that came naturally to him. He usually only used the cabin in the spring and fall-to hunt from. It too easily could get snowed in in the winter. And in the summer he was busy with the cattle drive up into Nebraska, to the stockyards in Omaha.

But snowed in was maybe a good thing the way he was feeling. Clyde had been right. He needed to be alone in that season. And withdrawal, just laying under blankets and watching the fire-and putting away the liquor. Hoping it put away the ache as well. That's what had worked, as well as anything could, these last two years.

The horse snorted, bringing him back into the present as they approached the narrow southern passage into Slater Creek valley. He sniffed the breeze. Snow. It would be snowing up in the mountains soon. Down here too, probably. Good.

He got to the cabin as twilight was licking its way down the eastern slope of the western range. He could still see up into Antelope Gap, but there were snow clouds hovering over the western side of that. It would snow before morning here at the cabin.

He put Becky in her stall in the small barn and made sure she had enough to eat and drink to last for days. When they had a big snowfall up here, it would get real serious. There would be days he couldn't make it as far as the barn.

Opening up the cabin then, he left the shutters on the two windows and started up a fire in the fireplace before unbundling. It was just the one room, with a fireplace at one end, a window and door on the front, with a porch along the front of the cabin. A window on the opposite end from the fireplace. A door off the back. That just led down a narrow corridor to the outhouse. After that first winter up here, Jeremiah had learned the hard way that he needed a clear path to the outhouse. So, he could say that his cabin was fancier than most up here.

Cupboards along the back wall. Two overstuffed chairs at the fireplace, Seth's untouched in the last two years. A small, rectangular table, with four straight-back mismatched chairs, in the middle of the room, between the doors on the front and back, and the double bed at the end opposite the fireplace. There was a grizzly bear rug in front of the fireplace between the two chairs there and a braided rug between the table and the bed. He'd once had a single bed. When he had found Seth, one of the first things he'd done here and at the ranch was put in double beds. It had only been here, though, that they could be free to fuck without restraint. Seth had been a yeller when fucking with abandon. And Jeremiah had a cock that made him want to yell.

With the fire going good, Jeremiah stripped off a couple of layers of clothing and cooked beans and a slab of fatback over the fire, with a coffee pot sitting directly in the fire. He ate alone, hunched over the table, trying not to think any thoughts at all, but with Seth-and his times with Seth, here, sitting by the fire, and over there on the bed-drifting in and out of his mind. That wasn't a reason not to be here, though. It would be the same down at the ranch. But down there, it would be the men being in the Christmas spirit-or trying to. Jeremiah wasn't so selfish as to be down there, all glum and mournful, and keeping the men from getting into the spirit.

He hadn't unshuttered the windows on purpose. It wasn't just to keep the heat in. It also was to keep the world out. Being alone, in the silence, that was all he could take in this season. He did, though, hear the wind and a shushing noise through the chinks in the log cabin walls. He went over and opened the door. It had started to snow, but was still in a tentative state of getting that done.

Good, he thought. He closed the door, went over to the bed, crawled in, still dressed-he'd had a bath down in Hayden that would hold him over for several days-turned his face to the wall, pulled the comforter over him, and laid there for an hour before sleeping, thinking of the good times he and Seth had had in this bed.

* * * *

It had snowed in the night, but not too badly. When Jeremiah left the cabin to check on Becky, though, he could see the clouds were still ominous looking over the western range. From experience, when it looked like this, they were in for a lot of snow, and even if you could get up to the top of Antelope Gap from here, the snow would be so deep on the western slope that you couldn't get down into the Yampa valley.

He heard whinnying as he approached the barn, and it sounded like more than just Becky, so he was somewhat prepared when he entered the barn to find a painted pony stalled next to Becky-the two of them having a friendly conversation-and a young, blond-haired man bundled up in a blanket and lying on strewn hay in the third stall. He kicked the young man's boots, and Bran sat up and rubbed his eyes.

"Had a good sleep in my barn, did ya?" Jeremiah asked gruffly.

"Uh, sorry," Bran answered at the end of a big yawn. "Really sorry. I thought the place was deserted until I saw the horse stalled in here. But I needed someplace to get out of the wind and snow. Really tired. Sorry. Thought I'd be up and gone before whoever owned this horse showed up. Lots of feed and water here. Thought she was being left alone during a hunt or something. The cabin looked all boarded up."

"And you didn't see smoke risin' out of the chimney? City boy, are you? Can't hunt in weather like this. Well, won't begrudge you the shelter, but you need to be up and . . . say, do I recognize you from somewhere?"

"No, I don't think so. Yeah, and sorry about not knowing better. I've come from Pennsylvania." Bran, in fact, did recognize Jeremiah. He was the big-dicked customer working Caleb over in the "best" room just a few days ago.

"Headed where?" Jeremiah asked.

"To California. Just passing through here. Sorry, I'll be up and on my way."

"Not for a while, you won't, I reckon, unless you go south from here into Hayden and then west through the wider gap in the Rockies."

"Uh, I was told there was a pass up this way."

"There is. Antelope Gap. But it's surely snowed in on the western side already, and it will only get worse for the next couple of days. You'll need to lay up somewhere and wait for it to reopen, unless you hurry and go south to Hayden."

"Uh, I don't really want . . ." No way he wanted to be going back toward Hayden. He hadn't asked anyone's permission when he'd left, and he had no idea what being contracted to Levi Yost meant.

"Suit yourself. I guess you can hole up here, if you've got your own grub. I won't begrudge you feed for the horse. Becky will like havin' the company. But you'll have to stay out here."

"Stayin' out here is fine with me, thank you kindly. I have enough hardtack to last until I can get across the mountains."

"Well, just so you keep quiet like. I came up here for the peace and quiet-and to be alone. That's why the cabin looks boarded up."

It was well after his dinner of beans, fatback, and coffee that it hit Jeremiah where he'd seen Bran before-in Hayden's saloon. In the room where he'd fucked that sweet young piece substituting for Sam. If the guy was in that room . . . He surely was a sweet young piece himself. In some ways he reminded Jeremiah of Seth.

He went to bed and tossed and turned. The longer he thought about Seth and the young man out in the barn, the more aroused he got.

It was snowing harder in the night as he left the cabin and walked toward the barn.

The young man was bundled up in the third stall, shaking a bit because it was cold out here without the benefit of a fire. He wasn't asleep though. Jeremiah kicked his boots.

"I have seen you before, haven't I? In the Hayden saloon."

"Maybe yes," Bran answered in a small voice. "I've been working there." He didn't think it would go well with him to lie about that. He too hadn't slept, more because of being aroused by what he'd seen this man doing to Caleb than because of the cold.

"You one of Levi Yost's boys?"

Bran hesitated, but yes, over the past couple of days he had definitely become one of Levi Yost's boys-and a favorite of the customers, who were always pleased with fresh meat and who were showing up at the saloon in droves now, probably at least partly because of the Christmas spirit Bran had introduced by suggesting they put up a tree.

"Yes, I was. Not anymore, though," he said.

"Well, we can work out your sheltering and some grub for breakfast in a barter exchange unless you're not willing."

Bran was willing.

"Oh shit, oh fuck. You're so fuckin' big," Bran cried out as Jeremiah started to stuff his cock in. The older man was crouched between Bran's legs. Both of them were fully dressed except for Bran missing the britches Jeremiah had pulled off him. Jeremiah had an arm under Bran's waist, lifting his pelvis up to the cock, while Bran had his arms thrown over his head, clutching at the rough boards of the stall, trying to hold steady at what became the thrusts of a huge battering ram.

"God, I've never had it this big!"

"I can-"

"No, no. I seen you doin' Caleb. I knew it would be big. Do it. Ram it in me!"

Soon, Bran was reduced to sobs and moans and groans as he clutched at Jeremiah's neck with his hands, fighting to bring the older man's lips down to his, and eventually succeeding, even though Jeremiah hadn't wanted this to have any intimacy at all. He just wanted the meeting of his animal need, to fuck someone hard to forget, in only briefly, Seth.

* * * *

Bran once again was awakened by a kick to his boots. It wasn't day yet, but there was a good five inches of snow on the ground, which was reflecting light from the attempt of the sunrise to peek over the Hahn Peak ridge to the east, across the Slater Creek valley.

"Figured you could use some hot breakfast," a gruff voice said. Bran opened his eyes to see Jeremiah standing over him, a plate of porridge in one hand and two mugs of steaming coffee in the other, his fingers laced through the handles. Bran was sore, but he didn't regret the previous night at all. Jeremiah was, indeed, the biggest man he'd ever taken. And he would be OK to be taken by him again.

He sat up and accepted the plate and one of the mugs. Jeremiah crouched down on his haunches and held the other mug of coffee in both hands, letting the warmth penetrate his hands.

"It snowed again last night."

"I could tell," Bran answered.

"Definitely no going over Antelope Gap today."

"Oh . . . well."

"How did you come by that painted pony there, son? You didn't steal it, did you?"

"It's from Toliver's livery down in Hayden," Bran answered. "I did work for the Tolivers. They didn't pay me."

"But they didn't give you the horse, did they?"

"No, not exactly."

"Being as you are coming direct from Pennsylvania . . ." he said it so both knew he didn't believe that one, ". . . then you probably don't know that men get strung up around here for stealing horses. No trials necessary."

"Oh."

"I should turn you in. Take you down to Hayden and turn you over to Cale Toliver-and maybe even to Levi Yost. I doubt Levi gave you leave to go either. Bet you have some sort of contract there. Place is owned by Warren Savage, owner of the Big O ranch. Mean son of a bitch. Bet you didn't know that either. He's not likely to let an investment run away."

"I . . . just . . . want to be movin' on," Bran said in a small voice. "So . . ." He gave Jeremiah a plaintive look.

"So, I'd say, seein' as how the snow is only slowly getting' here from over the mountain, that I'd best take that painted pony back down to Hayden and leave it where it will be found but folks will think it broke out of the livery by itself."

"Oh. You'd do that for-?"

"I should be overnight doin' it and I'd best get to doin' it. Eat up on that breakfast and then come into the cabin. You can stay there while I'm gone. I'll show you what's what there."

There wasn't much to show, and Bran stood by the door to the corridor to the outhouse, trying to keep out of the way, while Jeremiah rummaged around for what he needed to take with him.

"It's mighty nice of you to do this for me," Bran said.

Jeremiah answered with a grunt.

"I wish there was something I could do to show how grateful-"

Jeremiah looked up at him. Bran could see it in the man's eyes. There was certainly something Bran could do.

They fucked on the braided rug, Bran on all fours and Jeremiah crouched over him, fucking him like a dog. Bran had moved toward the bed when they'd both realized what they were going to do, but Jeremiah had pushed him down on the rug, saying in a rough voice, "No, not on the bed. Not there. The floor's good enough."

Once Jeremiah was gone, Bran looked around the cabin. He needed to do something else to show his gratefulness. The cabin was so drab. It wasn't long until he was out in the forest, picking out a tree and chopping it down with an ax he'd found in a stump in the yard. He brought that in and got it stood up in a corner on the fireplace wall. He went out and chopped wood and brought it in and stacked it on the other side of the fireplace.

He looked critically at the tree. It needed something else to make the cabin look Christmassy. He went out in the barn and scrounged around, finding an old stirrup here and some tops of tin cans there, and bits and pieces of metal elsewhere. The tree looked better with those stuck in its branches, but it still didn't look very Christmassy.

He threw open the shutters inside the two windows and let the light in. That did it. The light shining off the metal ornaments really brought in the spirit. Candlelight and light from the fireplace would do it at night.

Having brought in the light, though, he saw how dusty and dingy it was in the cabin. He used most of the time Jeremiah was gone cleaning out the cabin. Then he went back into the woods and brought in branches of holly, with a profusion of red berries. Putting those here and abouts in the cabin really brought in the season.

He didn't know why Jeremiah didn't want him to use the bed to fuck him, but he respected that he didn't-and he thought the aversion might extend to him being on the bed at all-so he slept on the braided rug the night he was alone. With the fire going, it was much better than trying to sleep in the barn had been.

It snowed again that night, bringing the depth outside to more than six inches. Bran went to sleep thinking of Jeremiah's big cock-and what he'd done with it-and masturbating himself to sleep.

* * * *

Bran sensed more than heard Jeremiah return in the late afternoon of the second day. The falling of the snow made a sound, which surprised him. Only being on the silent mountainside as he now was brought home to him that snow-in conjunction to the whistling of the wind-could make a distinctive sound. But so too did the clop of the horses and the jangle of their straps and bridles and of Jeremiah's spurs.

The horses. More than one.

Bran went out on the porch of the cabin to welcome Jeremiah and saw that he had an extra horse. It wasn't the painted pony, however.

"Another horse?" he asked as Jeremiah dismounted.

"I came back by way of my ranch. The horse is packing extra food supplies. And you'll need a horse if you're going across the mountain."

"But I have no way of paying."

"Yes you do," Jeremiah said, giving Bran an intense look, a bit of a smile on his lips.

Ah, yes, I guess I do, Bran thought-on my back, with my legs open. There's always that. Jeremiah led the horses into the barn, which was not easy-there now was more than eight inches of snow on the ground. While he was doing this, Bran went back into the cabin and walked over and sat down by the fireplace. He felt a little deflated that he'd still be thought of as just a hole to relieve Jeremiah's needs. He'd been euphoric when they'd fucked in the cabin-even if it had been on the floor. It's like he was being let into the man's world. It's what had led him to do all of the decorating and . . .

Jeremiah had moved into the cabin and just stood there, his jaw dropped and his eyes wide open.

Bran smiled, waiting for Jeremiah to compliment him on what he'd done to brighten the place up and make it feel more Christmassy.

But Jeremiah's reaction came in a bombastic explosion. "What the fuck? What's all this for? And, you, get out of that chair. That's Seth's chair."

Confused and wounded, Bran sprang from the chair. "What's wrong?" He also wanted to yell, "Who the fuck's Seth," but he didn't.

"What the fuck have you been doing while I was gone? Moving in on me? Trying to be Seth? Well, you're not Seth, dammit. Get the fuck out of here."

"No, I'm not Seth. I'm not trying to be anybody but me. I'm Bran. Bran." It hit him then that they had never, even in their most intimate moments, referred to each other by name. He didn't know this man's name, and this man had never asked him for his name. "My name is Bran. I'm a person. I'm not just a fuck toy. My name is Bran. Not Seth, whoever the hell that is."

"What the fuck? Get that tree out of here. Get out now. NOW!"

Close to sobs, Bran grabbed for the tree and pulled it out of the cabin, past Jeremiah. He dragged it through the snow, to the barn, and propped it up in a corner there. He collapsed into a sitting position leaning up against the side of the stall not occupied by a horse, and cried and rocked himself back and forth, staring at the tree, trying his damnedest to try to pull some sense of Christmas out of it.

He heard the shutters in the house slam shut and went to the barn door. The holly branches had been tossed out into the snow as well. He went back into a fetal position, facing the tree, and rocked back and forth, back and forth. Well after dark he pulled some hardtack out of his saddlebag and made a dinner of that. He went to the door and scooped up some snow to quench his thirst. The cabin was dark, buttoned up tight. But there was smoke coming out of the chimney. He hadn't thought to look up there before, but he did so now.

At least the man had some warmth.

It was cold in the barn, and it was still snowing. It must have been more than a foot deep out there by now. Even with the snow falling, the moon was peeking through from somewhere and reflecting off the snow. The landscape was ethereal even if Bran had no reason to appreciate that.

Then he calculated. It was Christmas Eve. He went back into the barn and sat, cross-legged, in front of the Christmas tree, his teeth nearly chattering from the cold despite the blanket he'd wrapped around himself.

"Silent night, holy night." He found he was humming the tune. Then he started to sing it to himself, in low, hesitant Pennsylvania Dutch, almost the original German, phrases, his Omar-his grandmother-had taught him, the notes coming between slight sobs.

He felt so alone, so utterly alone. And rejected. He had no idea what he'd done wrong. And now what? What was he supposed to do? What did the man want him to do? He could saddle that horse and leave now, tonight. But how far would be get in this snow? And in what direction? And would the man come after him as a horse thief? He hadn't earned the horse yet. The man had made clear he had to earn it on his back. Was what he had already let the man do enough? Probably not. He could go out on foot. He wouldn't make it far in this snow. But did it really matter anymore? Was there anyone who cared?

At length he drifted off into a fitful sleep, resolved from moment to moment to rise and trudge out into the snow, but much too cold to start doing it.

* * * *

"I'm so sorry. So very sorry."

Bran wasn't awakened by a boot nudging him this time, but by the man scooping him up off the ground in the barn, moving his cramped and aching limbs out of the fetal position, kissing him on the cheeks and mouth, tears streaming down the man's face.

"I'm sorry. Forgive me . . . Bran, was it? My name's Jeremiah."

Something had happened to the man in the night, something had worked on his heart in the snowy, snowy night and had turned him completely around. Bran didn't ask him what. He was just thankful-considered it a Christmas present and miracle-that it had happened.

Jeremiah carried Bran into the cabin and over to beside the fireplace, where he had a roaring fire going. He rubbed Bran's hands and feet and limbs as he pulled frozen clothes off the young man, stopping only long enough to get a good slug of brandy down Bran's throat before he was sitting in his chair by the fire, Bran in his lap, facing away from him, with one leg draped over a chair arm, and commencing to rub other areas of Bran's body-his lips, his thighs, his belly, his pecs and nipples, his cock, and, finally, the inside of his channel with a pumping cock as he gripped Bran's waist and raised and lowered the young man's channel on the cock.

He was repeatedly whispering, "Your name is Bran; your name is Bran."

Jeremiah fucked Bran in the chair and on the bearskin rug in front of the fireplace, with Bran on his belly and Jeremiah closely covering his back and, with Bran slightly raising his hips, Jeremiah stroking slow and deep inside him.

And, at last, Jeremiah took Bran to the bed, covered them both with the quilt and side split the young man while turning Bran's face to his by cupping his chin and holding his lips in a deep kiss. An arm was wrapped around Bran's back and a thumb was thrumming his nipple.

Bran gently turned the older man on his back, licked his way down through the hair on his chest, while Jeremiah moaned-and then grunted and groaned as Bran's mouth opened over his cock. After riding the cock to a mutual ejaculation, Bran collapsed onto Jeremiah's chest and the two men drifted off to sleep.

When Bran woke in the morning, the cabin was flooded with light. The shutters on the windows were open. He could only see glittering white beyond the panes of glass. The tree was back in the cabin, standing, not particularly straight, but standing in the corner. The holly branches were back in the cabin, if haphazardly scattered about. Jeremiah, bare-chested and in skivvies, was kneeling by the fire, frying a mess of eggs and bacon. He was humming. The smell that permeated the cabin was of fresh-roasted coffee.

He turned and saw, Bran, still naked, sit up in the bed. The quilt dropped to his waist.

"It's Christmas morning," Jeremiah said.

"Yes," Bran answered, wondering if anything, anything at all was going to be said about the previous day and night.

Evidently not. "There must be at least a foot and a half of snow out there." Jeremiah said it like it was the best possible news he could have to convey on a Christmas morning.

"Is there?" Bran asked.

"It's stopped now. But it will be days, a week or more probably, before Antelope Gap will be passable." Again, he made that sound like it was a present. And Bran took it that way. But a present for which one of them? Or maybe both.

Jeremiah stood up from the fireplace and turned, the frying pan in one hand and a spatula in the other. His skivvies were pulled down in front by the weight of his heavy cock and balls so that Bran could see a line of curly pubic hair along the line of the man's lower belly. The tenting promised that he was in erection. His body was magnificent. A heavily muscled mature man at his peak.

"Three eggs or four?" he asked.

"Three, but for now I want a cock. Just one, but it's got to be big. Inside me. Now." Bran was tossing away the quilt, turning toward the side of the bed, grabbing his ankles, and lifting and spreading his legs.

The eggs were stone cold by the time they ate them. Neither of them complained.

* * * *

It was eight days later. Eight nights of Bran being in Jeremiah's bed, but rarely sleeping there at night. Catching naps in the afternoon as Jeremiah chopped wood and cared for the horses, so that he would be awake and aware of everything Jeremiah was doing with him-to him, inside him-in the night.

The snow was almost completely melted outside the cabin now, and when Bran looked up the mountainside toward Antelope Gap, he could see more rock than snow-and blue skies overhead. But each time he looked up there, Jeremiah would come up beside him, put an arm around him, and say, "Not yet, I don't think. Not safe up there yet." And more often than not, he then would pick Bran up in his arms and carry him back into the cabin and fuck him-in Jeremiah's chair or on the bearskin rug, or bent over the table, or on all fours on the braided rug. Rarely on the bed during the day. But always on the bed, repeatedly-in the dark-in the night. Repeatedly because Jeremiah almost always apologized for the size of what Bran had to accommodate after the first fucking and Bran would respond by demanding a second one.

The afternoon of the eighth day Bran was laying a fire in the fireplace and Jeremiah was standing at the window at the front of the house. The windows had been unshuttered, except in the dead of night, since Christmas day.

"You need to take a crap," Jeremiah said in a soft voice. "And you need to stay back there and quiet until I come and get you."

"I don't-"

"You need to go on back there now," Jeremiah said, giving him a hard look and standing at the front door.

As Bran was moving in the connecting corridor behind the cabin to the outhouse, he heard the front door open and Jeremiah go out onto the porch.

He crept back into the cabin and took a peek out of the window to the front porch. Four riders were strung out across the front of the cabin, one more forward to the other. Bran scurried back to the outhouse.

"Hello, Warren," Jeremiah called out. "What brings you up into the mountains in the winter? I ain't seen no stray cows-yours or anyone else's."

"Strange that you'd be up here in the winter too, Jeremiah," Warren Savage, owner of both the Big O ranch and the Hayden saloon, said. His voice was a friendly one. The two men were both cattle ranchers. Such men normally held together, sharing interests against the increasing encroachment in the region of sheepherders and farmers.

"Christmas. I like to celebrate it alone in beautiful surroundings. Have done it for years," Jeremiah answered. "Even have a tree, which I understand are real popular in the East now. Want to come in and see it?"

Bran started to creep back to the corridor to the outhouse in panic, but Savage's answer stopped him and he returned to standing beside the window and straining to hear.

"No, thanks. They put up a tree in the saloon this year too. Good for business. I guess we'll continue doing that for Christmas."

"So, what brings you and your boys up this way?"

"Looking for a missing man. A city boy from down in Hayden. Been missing since before Christmas. His name's Branton Niederman. Goes by Bran. You ain't seen anyone like that up here, have you? Short, but in good shape. Blond. Looks young, but isn't a child no more."

"Old enough to make his own decisions, is he?" Jeremiah asked.

"Left some obligations in Hayden. But mostly we're worried about him. His folks want him back real bad."

"His folks?"

"Yep. You seen anyone like that up here from before Christmas?"

A fifth man was nosing over toward them. Jeremiah could see that he'd been in the barn.

"Two horses in the barn," the newly appearing cowboy said to Savage as he approached.

"Both with brands from my ranch on them, did you see?" Jeremiah quickly said. "Needed an extra one to carry supplies up here. I'll be staying a spell." He then turned to Savage. "Just me up here, Warren. If I see a man answering that description, I'll surely let you know. But until then, a Merry Christmas to you."

"And to you too, Jeremiah. Quite a snow we had up here. You look like you took the brunt of the storm right here."

"Yep. Almost two feet before it stopped. But it's meltin' off pretty good now."

"It seems to be, yes. Don't know if you heard, but for the first time in years, it didn't bury Antelope Gap on the west side. Folks over there said that, despite the snow, the pass never got shut down. Ain't that something?"

"Yep, that sure is. You take care now. And I hope you meet up with your man. But if he walked up this way into the storm, I doubt you'll be finding evidence of him before spring-and maybe not even then. Bears have gotta eat too."

Savage tipped his hat and the five riders turned and rode off.

Jeremiah waited until they were well out of sight before he gave Bran the signal that he could come out of the outhouse, where he had scurried to before Jeremiah could find out he'd been by the window.

But Jeremiah somehow had known Bran was there. "You heard?"

"Yeah, I heard everything real good," Bran said. "But I don't owe them anything down in Hayden and I'm of age. He didn't say anything about the painted pony, did he?"

"No, he didn't say anything about the painted pony. So, it looks like we fixed that up. But I meant whether you heard what he said about Antelope Gap. He's saying it's safe to go over that pass now-in fact, always was."

"But . . . if they're out there looking for me . . ."

"Maybe it's not that safe," Jeremiah quickly said. "But at night, of course." Jeremiah obviously wasn't looking for an excuse to see Bran off.

"Yeah, there's nighttime," Bran answered. They both looked at each other like they were thinking that the purpose of the night for them was something far different from riding over a mountain.

"Guess you have two choices then," Jeremiah said.

"Two choices?" Bran's heart began to beat fast.

"Yes. You can go over the mountain tonight-or you could wait and go down to my ranch with me in a couple of weeks. I've got enough food up here for two for a couple of weeks. And I got plenty of room down in the ranch house if you're interested in going in that direction rather than over the mountain. So, what are you thinking?"

"I think you know what I'm thinking," Bran said, a smile taking over his face. "But what are you thinking?"

"I'm thinking of what we could use to darken your hair. Just for a while. Just until Warren Savage stops lookin' for you."

 

Habu

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