THE LIGHT IN THE WINDOW
Copyright © 2015 by
Jack Schaeffer and Mark C.
Jack Schaeffer and Mark C.
The Light in the Window is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are the product of the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Charles is a former soldier who fought for American Independence after losing his father to a British bullet and Edward is an Irish farmer who left Ireland and became an indentured servant after a plague took his family. Their paths cross by chance, and they decide to embark on a journey together. Can two men from such disparate backgrounds build a future from the cold ashes of war and sickness in the hostile wilderness of 1780's Ohio?
"Are you sure you won't stay?" asked John yet again to the man who was gathering his meager belongings into a single canvas knapsack, absentmindedly brushing the long locks of his overgrown black hair out of his eyes.
"Come on, John. We've been over this a hundred times. It's time for me to move on."
"But Edward, I'll make you a partner. You'll share equally in the profits. Philadelphia is booming. The war is over, we won, and now there's talk that the city will be the new federal capital. We'll have more construction business than we'll know what to do with. You could be a part of history here. We might even get to build the new Presidential Palace they're talking about."
Edward laughed. "You and your history. I don't want to be a part of history. I want to forget the past, John. All it ever brought me was misery and heartache. I want a future. A different future, far from a big city and all the noise and...disease." He looked out the single, small window of the room where he had lived for the past three years and sighed, the deep melancholy in his soul cracking the surface and exposing his pain again.
John Wilkins, a successful carpenter and lumberyard owner in Philadelphia, had purchased Edward Branson's indenture contract from the captain of the ship "Hopewell" when she arrived from Ireland by way of England. He had given Edward the room under the attic eaves of his warehouse office. It was hot and humid in the summer and cold in the winter, but Edward had never complained. He had generally seemed grateful - and was - for the opportunities afforded him in the business.
John interrupted. "But you can't say your time here with me was bad. I thought we got along well, and I've honored every word of our contract."
Edward, holding up his hand, said, "Relax, John. You're an honorable man, and yes, you've held up your end of the bargain admirably. I've spent my time serving here, and I've learned new skills in a trade I love, and for that, I thank you. But I don't want to run a business, and fight with suppliers, and argue with workers' unions, and all the rest. I want to smell fresh air, see the grasses growing, feel the breeze on my skin, and work the land. I hate the city, John. You know that."
John sighed deeply. "Well, for what it's worth, I know you started out with me as a...well, a servant, I guess. But I hope you know I truly considered you a partner. I would not have half the business I have now if it wasn't for your skills and work management. I only hope I can hang on to it."
Tucking away the last of his simple clothing in his bag, Edward looked up at John and smiled warmly at the man who had indeed treated him like a partner. Edward had been fortunate. Not every man or woman who signed away a part of their life for "free" passage to the New World could say the same. It had been hard work, but Edward was no stranger to hard work. Running a farm in Ireland was hard work, too. Losing it all...was even harder. He shook his head to drive away the sadness once again and reached to shake John's hand.
"It's been an honor to serve you, John. And I thank you...for everything," he said, gripping John's hand firmly.
"Where are you going again?" asked John.
"West, I think. There's a stagecoach leaving this evening for Lancaster. I'll figure it out from there."
"You need anything? Money...what?" asked John, sincerely wanting to help the man he now considered his friend. Edward smiled.
"I've got all I need. I've saved as much as possible and I don't need a lot for now. I'm just anxious to get moving. Thank you again, John. I'm truly grateful." The two men nodded to each other, understanding their parting was inevitable, if not mutually desirable. John stepped aside and watched as Edward descended the wooden steps from his room into the warehouse proper and confidently strode across the concrete floor and out the main door into the noisy, dirty Philadelphia streets.
It was a warm afternoon for early May, and Edward tried his best to ignore the rising stench from the refuse and rot on the sidewalks. Here and there, the cobblestones trapped pockets of dirt, adding to the general mess of the city. The noise of metal horse hooves and iron-banded wooden wheels on the numerous carts and wagons clacking along on the cobblestones was maddening. During his service here, he had longed for the wide open expanses of quiet rural areas and had never truly felt alive until now, knowing he would soon be leaving the noisy, dirty city behind.
The stagecoach to Lancaster departed at the ungodly hour of 2:00 A.M. but Edward didn't mind. The sooner he got out of the city and into the vast, open countryside, the better. Edward weighed the choice of spending part of the night at an inn or just staying up and waiting for the coach. Since he would rather not spend any coin on a room at this early stage of his journey, Edward decided to walk to the Indian Queen Tavern.
As one of the city's prime establishments, the Indian Queen was a known gathering place and favored watering hole for government leaders and Philadelphia's social elite. It also had the distinction of being located on Fourth Street directly across from the stagecoach terminus, making it the perfect place for Edward to dine on a hearty dinner and relax. Hopefully he would be allowed to sit in the main room until the stage departed. If not, at least he only had to walk across the street to await his ride.
After feasting on a rich stew ladled from the hanging pot over the fireplace - full of beef, turnips and carrots - and hot biscuits straight from the oven, Edward leaned back in his chair, his back to the wall, and looked around the dining area while finishing off his tankard of ale. The room was populated with people from all walks of life, brought together by the commonality of food and drink.
Dirty tradesmen lifted their drinks in loud banter, enjoying the end of the work day. Politicians and other gentlemen, some of them still wearing powdered white wigs, sat huddled at tables, discussing all manner of serious business over dinner and liquid refreshment. It was rumored that most of the political work of forging a new country out of 13 disparate colonies happened in pubs just like this one, all across Philadelphia. Since the Philadelphia Mutiny of '83, most of the national governing was transpiring elsewhere now, but there were rumors the new Congress would return to the city soon. Edward had no interest in politics. He just wanted to get on with his life, far away from wars, governments, and especially the city.
He called over the tavern keeper and inquired about staying there until the stagecoach arrived. "Lord, yes, Sir. I cater to the stagecoach travelers, so the door is always open. It can be a bit of bother at times but I do get extra custom from it and who of us can say no to extra money?" Edward smiled knowingly.
His stay arranged and dinner bill settled - a shilling - Edward awaited the stagecoach with increasing impatience. Now that he had severed his old indentured life, he was more than ready to move on with his new adventure. The hours moved slowly, the conversation in the tavern grew more boisterous and irritating, and by 1:30 A.M., Edward couldn't help but step outside and mentally "will" the coach and its horses to appear in front of him and the other two male passengers waiting. A few minutes before 2:00, the coach could be seen in the moonlight, rolling down the street after leaving its first pickup point on Chestnut, a single candle-lit lantern swinging from a hook near the driver's seat.
The brown four-in-hand, looking well-groomed and well-fed - obviously the company owner knew the value of keeping his horse teams well maintained - pulled up alongside the wooden walkway and the driver jumped down from the coach to assist the three waiting passengers. Edward handed him his knapsack and the driver placed it on top of the coach, then did the same with the other two passengers' bags. One passenger was an "outside", saving money by riding outside with the driver. Edward and the other man climbed up the front wheels of the coach and slipped under the leather curtain hanging from the canvas roof. Since there were no women passengers, Edward moved to sit on the last of three benches with his back braced against the coach wall, normally a position given to women as it was said to be the most comfortable. The only other passenger, a young blond-haired man of about 20 dressed in plain homespun cotton trousers and shirt, sat next to Edward on the last bench as well. The driver then closed the black leather curtains, climbed up to the driving position, and whip in hand, flicked the reins and the coach was off, bearing its human cargo on the first stage to Lancaster.
The young man sitting next to Edward promptly drifted off to sleep without introducing himself, something Edward found impossible to do with the constant noise of rattling coach wheels on the pavement and the snores of his riding companion. He spent the next several hours thinking about his plans for the future – or rather his total lack of any coherent plan at all.
His only real goal was to leave city life and return to country living. He had a skill now – carpentry – and he assumed that with westward immigration opening up at an ever increasing rate, surely there would be a demand for building and construction along the way. How far west he would go was yet to be determined.
It seemed like he was still trying to escape his life, not really live it. After his parents moved their small family from the chaos and chronic unemployment of Liverpool, England to the relative tranquility of County Mayo in northwest Ireland, Edward could not have been happier. His youth was spent exploring the green pastures and meandering streams nestled between countless rocky hillsides. As he grew up and eventually married, his life's work consisted of caring for farm animals and learning to grow feed grains for the livestock. His father gradually gave control of the farm to Edward, and over the years he modestly expanded their land and livestock holdings. His family never had much, but they lived fairly comfortably and peacefully off the land, which provided their basic needs, and they bartered surplus grain and sheep wool with the few local merchants when necessary.
But then it was all lost in one long horrible, agonizing fall and winter. The land simply stopped producing crops. The strange relentless dark fog, which had descended upon Ireland for as far as the eye could see, blocked most of the necessary sunlight which the fields required to yield their fruit. In the end, with nothing to feed the livestock or themselves, sickness set in. Typhus spread across the land, wiping out whole families, and Edward's was not one of those spared, taking first his parents, and then finally his lovely wife Adeline and their beautiful twelve year old daughter Molly. Edward was the only one to survive, and then only barely.
Nursed slowly back to health by a local merchant and his wife willing to share from their own meager rations of food, Edward eventually regained enough strength to begin helping the merchant rebuild his business the following season when the fog finally dissipated. It was told in the local pubs that a great mountain in Iceland across the sea to the west had exploded, pouring out ash and soot into the sky, covering nearly all of Ireland and large parts of Europe for months, claiming thousands of lives across the island nations and the continent as poverty and the resulting disease took their toll.
For Edward, staying in the place where he had lost everything became emotionally intolerable, so at 34 years of age, after finally selling his family's farm to a surviving neighbor and gathering only what belongings he could carry on his back, he departed Ireland and returned to England. His goal – a new life in the New World.
Today he had officially completed his required indenture to John Wilkins, payment for his passage to that new life. A life Edward was finally ready to begin. His work for the past few years had been satisfying, and John had been both an honorable employer and a good friend in the end. But Edward had grown increasingly restless, and John's frequent pressure for Edward to court various eligible ladies of Philadelphia's society did not appeal to him at all. While he longed for companionship and love, he knew he would never find it in the arms of a woman born and bred into city life. He was a frontier man, through and through.
The rhythmic jostling of the coach eventually lulled Edward into a restless sleep of sorts, and when the coach made a brief stop at a small tavern alongside the turnpike, the passengers and driver shared a quick breakfast meal while the horses were tended to. The stagecoach was shortly on its way again, the smooth graveled road much quieter than the hard pavement of the city.
The driver had rolled up the leather curtains on the sides of the coach, and Edward looked out into the great pine forests on either side of the turnpike. The road, 24 feet wide in places, cut a swath through dense woods, generally following the valleys and streams at the foot of the Allegheny Mountains. There were more varieties of birds than he had ever seen before. He observed many other animals scurrying among the trees and along the river banks, as well. Beavers industriously building their dams, squirrels jumping from limb to limb, chasing one another in spring's annual mating rituals. Edward smiled, thinking of his own pursuit of Adeline so many years ago. Of course, those thoughts always turned to despair and agony, and he shook his head and tried valiantly to keep his mind on his future, not his past.
His fellow passenger woke up long enough to share his total distaste for the wilderness. He apparently was reluctantly travelling to Downingtown, the halfway point to Lancaster, on behalf of his father's blacksmith business, to procure a collection of horses for rent to Philadelphians in need of personal conveyance. His conversation consisted of a short diatribe on the ridiculousness of having to travel such a distance just to find a horse. Surely they must raise horses closer to town. Edward smiled and said nothing. Thankfully the sullen young man went back to sleep, finding no joy in his country experience thus far.
With only another brief stop to water and rest the horses around the noon hour, the stage coach continued on. Just before sundown, it arrived at its final destination for the evening, the Downing Mill Inn, a tavern built on the east side of Brandywine Creek. Two stable hands were waiting to take charge of the horses, and with some minimal assistance from the driver, the passengers disembarked. Edward noticed his young fellow passenger had taken a sudden interest in the two lads currently unhitching the team of horses.
Edward stretched his back and made a slow turn to take in his new surroundings. The driver had indicated they would spend the night here at the Inn and depart again at approximately 4 A.M., with assurances the innkeeper would knock on their doors to wake them up in time. The driver stressed there was a schedule to keep - he would not wait for stragglers. He then turned and entered the Inn, followed closely by the man who had spent the entire day riding next to him. In the distance, Edward saw his travelling companion now in the company of the stable hands, chatting and laughing good naturedly. Perhaps the young man's journey was looking up, he thought.
Inside, the Inn was alive with a crowd of mostly workmen fresh out of the mills that lined Brandywine Creek in each direction, all seeking refreshment. Edward found a table off to one side and was soon served a delicious meal of wild turkey breast and assorted boiled vegetables, followed by a slice of cherry pie. By the time he had drained his third pint, Edward was tired of sitting and desired a walk around the small town before bed.
Outside, the warm air was filled with the sounds of insects and the fragrance of lilac bushes growing along the front of the Inn. Edward set off in the direction of the stables, a glow in one of the windows to guide him. He was feeling much better, the good food and drink having restored his general good mood. He was once again feeling anxious and excited to continue his journey westward towards a new life.
As he sauntered past the closed stable doors he thought he heard someone moaning in pain. He stopped to listen more closely, now certain that he was hearing someone groaning every few seconds. Fearing someone might be in injured or in real danger, he quietly made his way around the side of the stables and moved quickly in the darkness toward the back of the building, the moans getting louder as he moved cautiously through the weeds, one hand on the side of the wooden stable to guide him.
In the back, the light was brighter, and Edward could clearly hear moans and what sounded like subdued laughter coming from one of the stalls in the interior. Stepping very softly, hoping to avoid any creaking boards, the element of surprise being his only weapon, Edward stealthily moved along one wall down the main open pathway in the center of the stables until he was standing in a position to see into the stall itself.
What his eyes took in shocked him. The young man who had ridden in the coach alongside him for the day was now lying on his stomach across a hay bale, his breeches around his ankles. One of the stable lads, his own breeches completely missing, was humping the backside of the first, from whom the moans were coming. Just as Edward was about to shout out to stop the abuse, the young blond man from the coach turned his head so Edward could see his face, and to Edward's surprise, he was clearly enjoying what was happening to him. Horrified, but unable to turn away, Edward watched mesmerized as the two men continued their rutting until it appeared they each had reached the shuddering peak of their own personal pleasure.
Fearing he would be seen, now that the young men were finished, Edward tiptoed quietly back to the entrance of the stable, finally exhaling the breath he had been holding tightly. Finding his way carefully back to the main street in the dark again, Edward tried to make sense of what he had just witnessed.
He had heard of buggery between men, of course. He had even heard the story back in Liverpool of two men caught in the act and made to stand in the public pillory for one hour while people pelted them with rotten food, dead animals, and rocks. One of the unfortunate men later died of an infection from his wounds.
But he had never before seen it with his own eyes, and he would have never considered the one being buggered would actually enjoy it. Yet clearly his former travelling companion had not only found pleasure in the act, it was likely he had pursued it with the stable lad. Edward was now faced with two questions. The first was should he report what he had seen to the local authorities, and thereby ruin, perhaps forever, the young men's reputations? Or even worse, he could end up being indirectly responsible for their personal injury or death at the hands of a vengeful public, when their only "crime" was sexual relations, though of a most unusual kind.
The second question was even more distressing for Edward. Why on earth had he himself become physically excited while watching the two young men's behavior? Was it simply the observance of someone receiving sexual pleasure with another person, something he himself had been denied for several years now? He knew he had never so much as thought about sexual activity with another man. His wife Adeline had been his only lover, and he had been quite satisfied with that part of his life. After her death, he had considered himself dead to a sexual relationship ever again, as he had no intention of re-marrying at this point in his life. And his own moral code, such as it was, made it impossible for him to seek physical comfort in the arms of a prostitute. He was not above self-pleasure on occasion, but he would have never admitted it out of sheer embarrassment, though he doubted he was the only unmarried man to do so.
In the end, he blamed the lateness of the hour and his own personal conviction that the young men had harmed no one, except perhaps themselves, so he did nothing. He returned to the Inn, received a key to a small room furnished with a single, one-person wire cot supporting a thin mattress and a tiny writing desk. The only light was from a wax candle standing on a flat stone.
Edward slept fitfully, his dreams plagued by a return to the images he had witnessed in the stables. He woke up nearly two hours before his impending departure, sweating, excited, and overwhelmed with frustration. Not knowing what else to do, Edward pleasured himself to relieve the sexual tension, and was finally able to sleep soundly until a loud knock woke him from yet another dream of the two naked young men, this time calling out to him from the stack of hay bales to join them.
After a warm breakfast of eggs and biscuits with gravy, washed down with hot tea, Edward was the first to climb into the stagecoach in the darkness and misty fog of the early morning. He was relieved his previous day's companion was not to be seen in the group of travelers taking the coach to Lancaster. In all, six men of various ages and professions joined Edward for the day's journey ahead. When the stagecoach lurched forward as the horses stepped into their yokes, Edward realized he had never learned the name of the young lad whose life had inexplicably changed his.
The journey to Lancaster was without incident or excitement. The other passengers amused themselves with conversation about their personal successes and achievements and how the coming new order of things would benefit their business interests. Edward listened only halfheartedly, nodding and acknowledging someone when spoken to, but politely declining to really enter into the conversations.
Frankly, he was bored. Bored with business and politics, bored with the banal banter of simple men with simple interests - namely themselves. The only thing on the journey that did not bore Edward was the scenery. He was fixated on the beauty and wonder of nature all around him, and as they rode deeper into the forests and along the occasional open rolling valley, he longed to start a new life, pulled from the very land itself, much as he had done in Ireland. There was something gratifying for him in living off the land. The challenge, the danger, the fight for survival which intrigued him and motivated him in a way city life and carpentry could not.
His mind also kept returning to the images of two young men in the throes of passion. What he had seen the night before was seared into his memory, like a brand on a new calf, and he knew it had awakened something in him he thought would be best kept hidden. It made him uncomfortable and uncertain, raising questions he never expected to have to face. As he had done so many times in his life, he chose to ignore it for now, and returned to dreaming about his immediate future.
After a brief stop along the turnpike for a midday meal and rest for the horses, the stagecoach arrived at Miller's Tavern in Lancaster shortly after 5:00 P.M. Despite having done little but sit on his very sore rear end all day, Edward was tired. All he wanted now was a hot meal, some liquid refreshment, and a place to lay his exhausted body. Tomorrow he would begin to figure out the next steps for his new life.
Charles Adams, hands on his narrow hips, stood on the dirty gravel street in downtown Lancaster, Pennsylvania, mentally looking into his future. If only he could reach the piece of land granted to him in southwestern Ohio Country – 400 acres deeded from the Continental Army as payment for his long service in the war - and then survive the first winter's snows and cold. Two big "ifs", he knew, but he felt he had to try. He had survived the war, surely he could survive this new adventure. The war, however, had taken his father, and his father's wish for Charles' way in life, to become a lawyer. Charles knew he wanted to leave that dead past behind and find his own way now.
"Right then. You've loaded everything on the list?" The question was directed to the owner of the store Charles had chosen to provision his second hand Conestoga wagon. There were several establishments in Lancaster which were catering to the increasing number of settlers heading west into Ohio, and after checking on reputations, Charles had chosen the Pitt Emporium. He hadn't heard any negatives, only good opinions from the locals about the owner, Benjamin Wickam. Knowing a good reputation was vital to business, especially this far away from Philadelphia, Charles felt good about approaching Wickam to provision his journey west.
"Everything's been ticked off the list," the shopkeeper replied, nodding to the piece of paper in his hand. "I substituted a handful of squash seeds for a bit of the corn and added a bag of seed potatoes also. Even if you plant squash and potatoes late, it'll help give you food for the winter. You may get tired of the two, but you and the animals won't starve. If you plant corn too late, you might get nought, so best to plant squash and potatoes too. If you don't get the corn planted by mid-July, save it for the spring planting. I also added a tiny bag of apple seeds. My daughter loves apples and enjoys drying seeds and giving them away. She says by so doing, wherever she goes, there might be apples for her." He laughed to himself, shaking his head fondly.
Charles nodded, appreciating the knowledge he didn't have currently but over time would acquire. "I know the apples will take time, but I can foresee sipping hard apple cider in front of the fire on a cold winter's night. Please thank your daughter for future good times. Now, Benjamin, if the wagon is loaded, let's go and settle up. I can't imagine you would say no to some money changing hands, yes?"
"Sounds good to me, Charles. We'll go in and I'll show you the ledger page I've kept on you." The two men walked through the back door of the general store and into Benjamin's office area, where he extracted a leather bound ledger from an assortment of similar documents, some covered in the dust ever present in such establishments. Twenty minutes later, Benjamin Wickam was a bit richer than he had been that morning and Charles Adams had his provisions for his journey westward.
"This calls for a celebratory libation!" exclaimed Benjamin, once the final transaction was completed.
"I won't say nought," grinned Charles, as he leaned back in his chair, pushing his recent hardships to the back of his mind. It had been a long wearying haul to this point, dealing with his past losses, both in terms of real estate and human life. His father had died defending Breed's Hill, even before the Declaration of Independence had shaken the world. A good friend, who also shared Charles' taste in men, had died of disease after the Battle of Tearcoat Swamp in South Carolina, before the victory at Yorktown ended the War. And Charles' house had been torched and burned to the ground in retribution as the British were leaving Boston. He'd managed to sell the land for a decent price, but he would miss the old homestead. He was proud of his service in the Continental Army, but now it was time for Charles to forge a new path out west and leave his losses behind.
"Will you have ale, or something a wee bit stronger, like port?"
"Ah, if I have port now, the rest of the evening will be lost to me. I'd rather have the ale now and maybe after supper I'll inquire of the innkeeper if he has a drop of port. There is something rather civilized about a drop of port before the fire, replete after a hearty meal, later in the evening. Methinks it'll be some time before I enjoy that bit of civilization again."
"You're staying at Miller's Tavern, right?" Benjamin asked.
"Aye, I'm there another day and night. I traded my old longrifle for a new one and it shan't be ready until then. Martin Meylin promised me it would be ready late tomorrow. He wanted to make sure the rifling was perfect. Can't go off halfcocked to Ohio now, can I?"
"Aye. Tell ol' Miller to pour you a drop of port out of the bottle he has hidden below the bar, not out of the bottle he has on the shelf in back of him. The bottle on show contains dross and he pawns it off on unsuspecting travelers. And I'm glad you sought out Meylin. He produces one fine piece and I've nought heard any complaints about one of his rifles. He's well known in these parts and much respected. A man's rifle can be the difference between life and death on the frontier."
The ale was poured and the two men whiled away the next half an hour with tales of life in Lancaster and life fighting the British over the past several years. Both had stories of hardship and privation to tell, before the peace ended British rule and a new nation was finally established. Charles was glad to share some of what he went through, especially the fact that he had survived it all. At the same time, he was tired of carrying the past in his tortured soul, and once established on his own land, far away from his old life, he suspected he would seldom speak of it again.
A voice came to them, shouting from the outer office. "Hey, Pa! Where'd you put that new axe we got in last week? Joshua Stiller wants to talk to you about a trade for it!" Benjamin's son, Noah, stuck his head around the corner and said, "Oh, there you are. Did you hear me?"
"Aye, not deaf yet, me boy," replied Wickam, slowly rising to his feet, a bit unsteady at first after his drink.
Charles laughed, rising himself, and said, "Off with you then. I'll see you in a couple of days, Benjamin." He nodded to young Noah, then headed out of the store and strode towards Meylin's smithy. He wanted to check on his gun's progress and make sure Martin was on track to finish it tomorrow. He trusted Martin, but the gun meant so much to Charles.
Walking past a barber shop next to a Doctor's office, Charles wondered if he should get his hair cut, but in the end decided not to waste the money. Who would he impress? He could hack at it with a knife himself, if need be, later in the year. He walked on.
Standing alone at the end of a long winding street alongside the river was the Meylin smithy, far enough away from other buildings so the sound of hot metal being pounded on the anvil was not too intrusive on the decent people of Lancaster. Charles stood at the door, listening to the sound of hammer striking metal echoing in the stillness of the warm afternoon.
Inside, the middle of the overheated workshop was dominated by an anvil sitting next to a raging coal forge, the fire reinforced by bellows causing it to glow white hot. On the anvil was a spade, and Martin's assistant, sweaty and shirtless, was raining down hammer blows on the hapless metal. He stabbed the spade back into the coals of the fire and let it rest there for a few seconds as it reheated for the final shaping.
Charles could not tear his eyes from the muscular man, the sweat running in rivulets across his massive chest and down the center of his belly, soaking the abundant hair on his rippled abdomen, the waistband of his cotton breeches now drenched. The firelight cast shadows and light in such a way to accentuate the man's muscles. His nipples taunted Charles' eyes, and he could not help but stare at this Hephaestian god working the forge. He had spotted the assistant before, while talking to Martin, but the baggy shirt worn by the assistant at the time had hidden the magnificence lurking underneath.
Charles had long been aware he was more attracted to men than women, ever since his days swimming with his older cousins in the Brandywine River during hot summer visits. He would nervously jump in the water as soon as he shed his breeches, in the hopes of hiding his instantaneous physical excitement at the sight of the nude, hard male bodies uninhibitedly splashing and frolicking in the water. He claimed a fear of heights to avoid having to jump naked from the rocky ledge ten feet above the swimming hole. His cousins, with their rippling muscles and hair in places Charles had yet to develop, had no such aversion, nor did they make any attempt to hide their own excited physical state from time to time. They would endlessly chase one another up the hill and push one another off the ledge into the river with squeals of laughter.
As he grew older, and eventually bolder, Charles managed to occasionally and very secretly indulge in his desire for male companionship. Whilst in the Army, he had even had some furtive, short lived relationships with men equally lonely and frustrated. But when William Wyler, to whom Charles had grown particularly close, died in a South Carolina swamp with Francis Marion's men, Charles thought his combined losses had finally dried up his heart and his male organ both.
The stunning sight in front of him, provoking such a primal male reaction, proved to Charles he was in fact not dead at all, certainly not in his male anatomy. He had to stagger out the door so as to hide his obvious physical reaction and to allow himself time to settle his rattled composure. Charles was amazed his response was so strong and knew he would have to take matters into hand that evening for sure. He decided right then to return to the tavern to avoid any possible embarrassment and collect himself. He'd check on the rifle tomorrow.
The next morning, a more composed Charles was ready once again to face the world, and he set out to settle a couple of last minute tasks before shaking off the dust of Lancaster, bound for Ohio the next day. He returned to the smithy to receive his rifle, and to his relief, Martin's assistant was not around when the two of them - Charles and Martin - test fired the longrifle several times to ensure the quality of the firearm.
More than satisfied with his new weapon, with its ornate metal work design on the stock and its well-balanced feel, Charles settled up with Martin and bid the man good day. With the certainty that if nothing else, he could always shoot something for dinner out on the frontier, Charles felt a little more confident in his likely success as a country farmer.
On his walk back to the Pitt Emporium, Charles stopped at another small shop and purchased two woolen shirts. They were much too heavy for summer, but in winter's cold the shirts would be a most welcome layer. Back at Wickam's store, Charles located his fully loaded wagon in the alleyway behind the shop. Standing at the tailgate, he ruminated on the rapidly dwindling space in which to secure his latest purchases, hoping he hadn't overdone things. "Just as well," he thought to himself. "If you forget something now, Charles, you can't just nip down to the local store later, can you?"
Charles found Benjamin Wickam inside the store, instructing his son Noah in the proper way to stock the shelves. He stood off to one side and observed the two working together, a father teaching his son the skills he would need to be a success in the mercantile business. Benjamin was patient and kind, and playfully smacked the back of young Noah's head when he intentionally put the bags of flour on the shelf with the label hidden. Noah laughed and turned the bags around properly with a grin.
Charles smiled to himself, remembering his own father doing something similar with him when the two were hunting in the woods outside of Philadelphia so many years ago. Henry Adams was well known as one of the best shots in those parts, and for him, hunting was a serious endeavor. He didn't tolerate foolish behavior when guns were involved, and he taught Charles the skills to shoot as well as he did. Henry was a serious man, but he wasn't above some teasing and playfulness with his son when it was just the two of them in the woods. Charles missed those carefree days with his father the most.
Charles was in high spirits due to his imminent departure and couldn't keep a smile off his face. The grin only got larger when the tavern had lamb - one of his favorites - for dinner, a meal only available for the short duration of the lambing season. He relished his perfectly roasted leg of lamb and fresh bread while washing it all down with ale. The tavern's dining room was full, diners lured by the enticing aromas wafting down the street, and Charles did not see any unoccupied tables. He was surprised no one had yet asked to join him as he sat alone at his table, but he expected it any minute. Little did he know his life would change dramatically when it did.
"Stage coming in!" said a diner sitting at a window after seeing the stagecoach pull up outside. There was a tiny buzz of excitement swiftly drowned out by sounds of people returning to eating a delicious meal. Charles looked up from his lamb momentarily when the opening of the door drew his attention as a handsome man entered.
Edward gratefully opened the painted wooden door of the tavern and entered a crowded room full of diners busy eating and talking amongst themselves. He stood there a few seconds looking for an empty table but when it became obvious there was none available, he just hoped for an empty seat to occupy after his long ride. Or he could just stand in a corner - his backside was a bit sore from the long ride on the uncomfortable stage coach.
Walking further into the warm room, he spotted an empty chair at a table over against the wall and then noticed the sole occupant at the oaken table looking at him with interest. Did he know this man? Perhaps someone he had helped in Wilkins' lumber business in Philadelphia? The man kept staring at him, willing him over in a silent invitation.
Edward crossed the room, brushed his hand through his too long hair, and said to the man, "Would you mind if I occupied this chair?"
"Please...uh, by all means," replied Charles, who could not take his eyes off the black haired gentleman standing in front of him. "The lamb is excellent and the ale is hearty if you are in need of sustenance. The stage just came in, by any chance did you arrive on it?"
"Yes. As a matter of fact, I did. From Philadelphia. It was a tiring journey," he said with a weary sigh. Taking his seat, he looked at the nearly full plate of delicious looking food in front of Charles and his empty stomach demanded he order a plate too. He waved to the innkeeper, who came over and took Edward's order requesting the same meal as the man sitting across from him. When the innkeeper left, he turned to his table companion and said, "My name is Edward Branson. Pleased to make your acquaintance."
"Likewise. I'm Charles Adams. Did you enjoy a good coach ride?" He noticed Edward's lips and wondered if they were as soft to the touch as they appeared to be.
"No real issues, but my posterior is indeed glad the ride is over. Not sure I could last another day." He grinned at Charles.
"What brings you to Lancaster, Edward?"
"I finished my tenure of servitude in a Philadelphia lumber business, and now I'm heading west. I don't have a place in mind, I'll know it when I see it. But I do know I desire a rural atmosphere. I worked a farm in Ireland, but sickness claimed my family and I've sought a fresh start. I've a lifetime of farming experience and I also know carpentry, so wherever I go, I should be able to contribute to my welfare. And you, Charles, is Lancaster your home?"
"No. I'm originally from Philadelphia myself. Been in the Continental Army for the better part of the war. In the morning, my wagon and I will be heading west to the territory of Ohio. I've been awarded a land grant for acreage there and I intend to farm it. The War wiped away most of what I had and like you, I desire a fresh start. It swept away my past but perhaps with the land grant, the War has provided for my future. I'll admit being a soldier is not the ideal training for farming, but I'm willing to work hard at it."
The conversation ceased temporarily as the innkeeper set a wooden trencher - full of roasted lamb and vegetables - in front of Edward, who began to allay his hunger with earnest. The lull in conversation gave Charles an opportunity to scrutinize his table companion more closely and while doing so, a glimmer of an idea sprouted in his mind. He needed more information to fertilize it, and set about trying to learn more of his charming, and decidedly handsome, dinner companion.
As Edward ate, Charles told him of his early childhood in Philadelphia and his family's move to Boston after his mother's death during childbirth, where he had been raised by his father's sister and a nanny, while his father served as a colonial irregular in the British Army. "He often spoke to me of his adventures, well into the night, and I remember as a young boy dreaming of being out on the frontier, hunting, fishing and marching through the forests like my father," said Charles wistfully.
"My father was marching with General Wolfe when they took Quebec, when I was a lad. Years later he relived the glory of those battles over and over again as he regaled me with his tales over dinner and late into the nights. War sounded so grand to a young boy of 10 or 11." Charles sighed, and took another drink of his ale.
"I take it your own experience with war changed your good opinion of the enterprise," said Edward, wiping his mouth clean of any errant meat juices. Charles looked across the table at him, wishing he could kiss those lips. The thought was so sudden, the desire so powerful, it startled him. He realized Edward was waiting for his response.
"Uh...yes...it did, most assuredly. But I think, even knowing what I know now, I still would have volunteered to fight. My father believed in the cause we were fighting for. He was a founding member of the Sons of Liberty in Boston. He, Sam Adams and some of the other Sons would hold meetings in different locales, trying to organize some kind of resistance to the British, and I would secretly follow him and listen to the speeches and get as angry as they were at the injustices being forced on the colonies."
"He caught me one evening. Dragged me by the arm into an alley and cuffed me a good one on the ear - me a grown man of 22, mind you. 'Whatta ya think yer doin', boy?' he said to me. 'Ya want to get nicked and locked up on one o' them ships out in the harbor?' I had no idea what he was nattering on about, but British brutality was legendary in Boston after the massacre. So I steered away after that.
"He never confirmed nor denied it, but I know he was part of throwing all the tea in the harbor that fateful night. I would ask, and he'd just look at me with a twinkle in his eye. I wasn't surprised he'd be one of the first in line when the militia was called out to defend Breed's Hill. He survived the first two attacks, but was killed during the third wave."
"I'm so sorry," said Edward, not sure what to say.
"Thank you. It's ironic that he should die at the hands of the British, the very men he fought bravely with against the French. I asked him once why he changed sides. He said he didn't, the British did. He said he always tried to be on the side of what was right. I guess time will tell if the right side won this war in the end, eh?"
"You talk of the British as if you aren't one of them," said Edward innocently.
"I'm most certainly not British, sir," said Charles, more forcefully than he intended. The two gentlemen seated at the table next to them stopped their conversation and looked over at Edward and a suddenly red-faced Charles.
Seeing he had unintentionally upset his table mate, Edward attempted to make amends. "My apologies, Charles. I misspoke. I take it you now fully embrace the name of American."
"Yes, and I'm damned proud of it. I watched hundreds of men give their lives for the freedom we have now. I may have been born British, but I'll die an American," said Charles with finality. Edward nodded.
"I've been here for three years now," said Edward. "In my heart I'm an Irishman, but I will admit to a great affection for this country. I'm not yet ready to declare myself an American, but I can see that day coming."
"Here, here," said Charles, lifting his pint of ale, his friendly countenance restored. Edward smiled. The meal over and with both sitting back nursing the last of their ale, a person observing them would think them the best of friends. Both felt easy and comfortable with the other and Charles was certain, despite still knowing very little of this man, the offer he was going to present to Edward was the right one for him, and he hoped Edward felt the same.
"Edward, I have a proposition for you. Why don't you join me traveling west? During the journey you can impart such knowledge I may need in the matter of farming, and there is more safety in two of us over one. I hope to provide fresh meat along the way and you can inspect our route and determine if any locale we pass through is agreeable to you long term. What say you?"
Edward paused with his pint halfway to his lips, looking across the table at the man he'd only just met, and silently considered his proposal. He probed Charles' face closely, seeing an honest offer, willingly extended, and he somehow knew Charles was hoping he would say yes. But he hesitated.
He liked Charles. He was friendly enough, and a great story teller. Certainly he was passionate about what he believed in, and he was as determined and apparently capable a fellow as Edward had ever met. But there was something about him...he just wasn't sure he wanted to commit to such a journey so suddenly.
"Charles, I appreciate the offer, and I will gladly think on it a wee bit. Can I give you an answer in a few days?"
"Nay, I depart tomorrow morning at the break of day," said Charles sadly. His dream of riding westward with this wonderful man at his side was fading away quickly.
"Then you shall have my answer in the morning," said Edward. Finishing the last dregs in his tankard, Edward stood and inquired about lodging. Charles informed him there was no room at this inn and his own room here only had a single bed, but down the street at the William Pitt Tavern, there were rooms available, he had heard.
"Where and what time shall I meet you on the morrow, Charles? I need to be off and see about my night's accommodations or I may be bedding down with your livestock."
"I've arranged with Benjamin at the Pitt Emporium to have the wagon and team readied at 7. Soonest started, soonest there. If you arrive beforehand, you can inspect things and recommend anything I have omitted, in my ignorance. I hope you decide to take me up on my offer," he said, extending his hand in friendship.
"Very well, I will bid you good evening, sir, and a pleasant one at that. In the morrow then." Edward found the innkeeper, paid his dinner bill and departed. Luckily the William Pitt Tavern, down the street only three buildings, had two rooms available and Edward was soon shown to one.
Charles, in the meantime, also paid his bill and retired to his room over the restaurant for the night. Looking out the window flanked by two gingham curtains, he glimpsed Edward as he neared the William Pitt and ultimately entered through the front door. Then he was gone, leaving the Tavern's front porch empty once again.
Charles softly cursed his luck at not being able to offer Edward a bed in his room as he would have appreciated his company - and perhaps the chance to see Edward naked before putting on any nightshirt. Edward had unexpectedly stirred his long dead emotions and Charles mightily looked forward to his company during the journey. If only Edward would say yes to his proposition.
As pre-arranged, the morning cook rapped on Charles' door at 5 A.M., although Charles was awake and dressed by then. With a hot meal of biscuits and porridge drizzled with honey fortifying him, Charles left the inn with his case and found himself in short order at the Pitt Emporium's back lot where the team of six horses was being harnessed to his wagon by Benjamin's son, Noah.
He spotted Edward going over his list of supplies with the shopkeeper, and his heart skipped a beat. He came. Was it just to say goodbye, or to join him on an adventure westward?
Charles stepped forward. "Greetings on the day to you both!"
"Ah...the slug-a-bed arises, now all the work is finished," Benjamin teased.
"No, 'twas carefully planned that way. The army taught me to plan my arrival at the most opportune time." He grinned at Benjamin. "And Edward, are you impressed with my preparations? Any further suggestions to make, or do you recommend starting over?" He smiled at Edward, teasing him and enjoying Edward's brilliant smile in response.
"Actually, you two have done an excellent job with supplies. I did have one suggestion to add, and Benjamin has already remedied it, that being a sewing kit. It's something two men would easily overlook but I've made use of one in the past and noticed its lack. Other than that, we are as complete as can be, without having a magician's crystal to peer into the future. I did ask Benjamin about another horse for us to ride, and he sent a clerk to the stable to inquire."
"Wait," said Charles. "You said 'we'. Does that mean you've decided to come with me?"
"Yes. If your generous offer still stands," said Edward. Charles simply nodded, afraid to speak for fear of what he might say or do in the moment. His hands shook with excitement as he searched for a space near the front of the wagon to stow his case. He saw that Edward had already found a place for his near the back.
Edward spent a few moments looking over the horses, checking the yokes and braces, the horses' tails swishing in the morning breeze as they stood patiently under the shade of the oak trees. Charles just looked at Edward, his back strong and straight, supported by hindquarters the sight of which was threatening to undo him. How did this happen? In all his planning and pondering, he never dreamed he might start a new life with a new man.
Of course he was getting way ahead of himself. Edward had made no indication of a romantic interest in Charles in any way. He knew next to nothing about the man, except he was from Ireland, had lost his family, and desired to be a farmer. Not much to go on. But that's what the journey was for. It would be a journey of discovery, and possibly a new beginning for them both.
Their journey together started off simply enough. Edward rode on the horse he had acquired from the stable for a good price - though depleting his cash reserves a bit in the process - complete with saddle and leather bags across the back. There was even a holder for a longrifle, though he had none. He periodically took his hat off and pushed his long, black hair backwards out of his face. The morning sun, with its early warmth, was promising a decidedly hot afternoon for the travelers.
Charles busied himself with leading the team of horses on foot. With a short tug on the bridle of the lead horse, the wagon, heavily weighed down with provisions for starting a new farm in the wilderness of Ohio country, gave an initial lurch as all six horses put their full strength into their task. Soon the wagon began to move smoothly down the street.
In a very short time they were out of the town and onto a narrow track leading west towards Harrisburg. Civilization receded as the forest enveloped them. The two men looked at one another and smiled silently, each glad to be on their way and away from the town of Lancaster. Both breathed in the fresh air, unencumbered by humanity's taint, and gloried in the scents and varied greens and textures of the raw forest.
They were not, however, the only ones on the road. Periodically they would pass a rider or even a wagon or two headed back toward Lancaster. Charles enquired about the road's condition ahead, and was pleased to hear they should expect no difficulties all the way to the next town.
The next few hours were spent in periods of companionable silence interspersed with times of friendly banter as the two travelers got to know each other better. At one point, satisfied the horses would keep a steady, plodding pace without constant guidance, Charles pulled out the side board from under the wagon just in front of the rear wheels, and sat upon on it, while Edward rode his horse alongside him as they talked. Charles would occasionally give a slight tug on the long, leather reins attached to the lead horse, shouting out "gee" or "haw" to keep the wagon on the sparsely graveled road.
With each mile traversed by the turning wagon wheels through the white pine, hemlock and oak trees filling the forest around them, Edward felt the satisfaction he had enjoyed while farming in Ireland returning, and the man beside him had no small role in the return of his spirits, long dormant after all he had endured. He enjoyed conversing with Charles, as well as the comfortable silences that are an inevitable and sometimes most welcome reality over a long journey.
Lunch came and went, two sandwiches Charles had the inn's cook prepare for him, one of which he shared with Edward, while Edward watered the horses, showing Charles a trick - learned years ago on his farm - which made it easier to accomplish the task.
"Just a few hours' travel and you've already taught me a piece. Keep that up and I won't let you go when we reach Ohio." Charles laughed but down deep realized he really did not want to see the back of his companion and it made him a bit sad to think Edward might decide to take his leave and head further west, or worse, decide to take up residence at some locale prior to reaching Ohio.
"Thank you for sharing your sandwich with me. You didn't have to," said Edward, enjoying the rich taste of the sliced beef and spring tomato.
"Fair is fair, knowledge for lunch." After the exchange, Edward watched Charles finish the task of caring for the team and realized he had thousands of such nuggets of information to share with Charles. The present situation reminded him of the countless days, months and years his father had patiently labored with Edward to teach him the finer points of successful farming. When your family's very life depended upon earning a living off the land, you had to know what you were doing.
The evening found them stopped beside the trail, campfire lit and a pot of stew from the inn hanging from a spit and warming. After they ate, Edward and Charles pulled out a feeding trough and fed the horses two at a time, fetching water in a wooden bucket for each of them from the nearby stream. They fell into an easy and efficient rhythm of working together, like parts of a well-oiled machine.
Charles had the first watch while Edward slept on the wagon. The blaze of brilliant stars studding the night sky - visible through the gaps in the canopy of leaves sheltering the travelers - kept Charles and his thoughts company until it was time to wake Edward and change places.
The next few days of travel followed a similar pattern of waking, traveling and sleeping. They did meet several people heading from Pittsburgh, making their way to Lancaster or Philadelphia, and exchanged news. The two learned an outfit had recently built a river crossing raft, large enough for a wagon and its team, and were in the business of providing passage to the Ohio side of the river. Or they could build their own raft and once across, could either use or sell the wood.
The two men decided to look over the options of how to cross the river when they arrived at the new frontier town, but both were leaning towards just paying for passage and not having to deal with making their own raft. Edward was confident his joinery skills were such that he could build a substantial raft, but did they want to spend the time or make the effort when they could pay to traverse the river and reach the land grant sooner?
They arrived in Harrisburg late in the evening of their third day together, both eager for a hot meal and a warm bed. The nights were still cool in that part of the country. Charles went in search of lodging for the men, while Edward drove the wagon to the local stables to bed the horses for the night.
As he approached the barn-like structure, he heard voices raised coming from just behind the open entrance. Stopping the team, Edward debated whether or not to wait out the heated conversation and try not to eavesdrop, or simply interrupt as if he was unaware. He opted for the later, as his stomach was grumbling and Charles had asked him to hurry if he could.
Walking up to the door, Edward heard the sharp crack of a leather strap and then the stifled cry of pain from someone inside. Without thinking, he quickly stepped around the large door into the lighted interior of the barn, and was shocked by what he saw.
A large, sweaty man in simple but dirty clothes, most likely the stable keeper, had a long leather razor strap in his hands, his eyes on the now naked backside of a young man bent over a stack of hay bales. There was a large red stripe across the lad's buttocks which he was rubbing furiously with one hand, while trying to quickly wipe his tears with the other.
Seeing Edward, the older man, nodded. "Be with you right shortly, sir. Got some tendin' to do here first. Git yer hand back, boy, lessen you want t'finish your chores with jes the other one." The young man, who appeared to be a strong bodied lad of 16 or better, reluctantly pulled his hand away from its feeble attempt to shield his exposed posterior to the terror of the strap.
As the strap cracked two more times, causing the young man to jump and cry out against the sting, Edward couldn't help but remember the last time his own father had laid into him in like manner back in the barn of the old Ireland farm. He had forgotten to close the chicken coop door again, and their prize rooster had escaped along with a dozen or more of their best laying hens. By nightfall, they had rounded up all the hens but one. The rooster was never seen again.
He had never seen his father as angry as he was that night, and like the lad before him now, he was stripped down and his backside strapped until he feared he wouldn't survive the ordeal. After it was all over, and he had pulled up his breeches, wincing as the fabric scraped across the raised welts, his father had looked him in the eye, and in a soft and kind voice simply said, "I love you, Edward. I only want the best for you. But what you did endangered our family's welfare, son. Don't ever let it happen again." Edward's heart ached in remembrance of that special moment now.
He watched as the stable keeper hung the strap on a hook on the barn wall while the young man turned to pull up his cotton trousers. Edward couldn't help but notice that despite the obvious pain of his recent affliction, the young man was also more than slightly aroused. Edward remembered his own curiosity at experiencing much the same phenomenon after his father had disciplined him at that age.
Wiping his tears, and only shyly glancing at Edward and then quickly looking away, he spoke. "Pa...I'm sorry I disrespected you by not finishin' my work. It won't happen agin."
"Come here, boy," his father said. The young man held his head up and stood before his father. "You're a good man, Thaddeus. Someday you'll be a father and then you'll understand. If a man don't work, he don't eat, and his children don't eat, either. Now...go on in and git yer supper, and we'll finish the chores together later."
"Thanks, Pa," said the young man as he hugged his father tightly, then turned to walk across the stable yard towards a small log house situated behind the stables. Edward noticed he walked very carefully, probably trying to minimize the rubbing against his abused backside.
"What kin I do ya for?" asked the stable keeper of Edward.
"I'd like to stable my horses for the night, along with my wagon."
"Sure, sure. Let's see 'em and I'll help ya get 'em unhitched," said the man, and together he and Edward made fairly quick work of disconnecting the team from the wagon and agreeing on a price for care of the horses.
As he walked back towards the tavern where he was to meet Charles, Edward couldn't get the erotic image of the young man's nakedness bent over the hay bale out of his mind. It kept mixing together with the vision of his fellow coach rider being happily buggered in the stable at their first stop. Why did he keep thinking about such things? And why on earth was he getting excited again in the remembrance of them? He could feel the tingle in his groin that usually preceded the lengthening and hardening of his member. He had to work hard to keep his stalk from going completely stiff before he met anyone.
Finally shaking the bothersome but intriguing thoughts free, along with the dust off of his shoes, Edward entered the noisy tavern and after a few moments' searching through the teeming crowd of boisterous revelers, found Charles seated at a table for two near the fire, with two pints on the table in front of him.
"All went well at the stable then? Horses and wagon tended?" asked Charles.
"Aye. All set for the night. I'll settle up with him in the morning," said Edward, absentmindedly looking around the room. A waitress dressed in an apron over simple cotton clothes approached, pushing her hair from her sweaty face.
The two men ordered a basic meal of pot roast and boiled potatoes and onions, which was served to them on tin plates. Edward was quiet during dinner, and Charles wisely decided to let him be. It had been a long day, and even he at that moment wanted nothing more than a warm bed with a soft pillow to curl up in for the night.
As they finished their second pint of ale, Charles looked across at his travelling companion. "You know, you don't have to do that."
"Do what?" replied Edward.
"Settle up for the horses. They're my obligation, not yours," said Charles kindly.
"Aye, but I'll pull my own weight on this journey. As long as we travel together, I insist on paying my share of the expense." Charles nodded respectfully.
"As you wish, sir. What say you to repairing to our room? I've secured us two beds and a washbasin in a room upstairs near the back. Hopefully it won't be too noisy and we can both get a sound sleep."
"Lead the way, my good man," said Edward, eager to put the long day behind him. He followed Charles through the crowd to a back hallway and up a long flight of creaking wooden stairs to a hallway covered in a shabby carpeting which had faded from red to grayish pink. Charles opened the door to their room with a black skeleton key he pulled from his pocket, and held it open for Edward to enter.
It was four plain walls, two single beds with coverlets on opposite sides of the room, and a rough wooden table upon which rested a large ceramic bowl and water pitcher. There was a stack of cotton towels on one of the beds for washing. In the far wall, across from the door, there was a single, plain glass window unfettered with curtains, allowing the light of the full moon outside to stream in. They would hardly have need of the large lit candle they were given by the proprietor downstairs due to the moonlight splashing into the room.
Setting the candle down on the table, Edward noticed his case was on one bed, while Charles' was on the other. He immediately opened it and pulled out his normal green nightshirt. It would be nice to sleep in it again, after two nights in his trousers. He removed his shoes and socks, his feet enjoying the coolness of the tile floor, and set them under the bed. He then removed his over shirt and the plain cotton one underneath. It was none too clean after three days and its aroma was noticeable, though one from honest labor. A wash would serve him well.
Over by his bed, Charles busied himself with similar preparations. He, too, was in need of washing, and did his best to ignore Edward, mentally chastising himself for ever fancying the idea Edward would be interested in him in any way other than as a friend. He certainly had given no such indication.
Down to just his breeches, Edward set about pouring water from the pitcher into the bowl and wetting a smaller towel, then rubbing it all over his head, face, and chest. In the moonlight, his muscular torso glistened with moisture from the towel as his body rejoiced in the cooling effects. Charles couldn't help himself and just watched the masculine sight in front of him.
"There's another towel here for you. Help yourself," said Edward, oblivious to the effect he was having on Charles, who was at that moment holding his overshirt in front of his waist in the hopes his physical excitement was hidden from Edward's purview. It suddenly felt like there was not enough oxygen in the room, his chest striving to breathe under the heavy weight of the hormonal rush coursing through him.
Edward turned to him in the moonlight. "Would you mind washing my back with this? I can't reach high enough," he asked, offering his freshly wetted towel to his roommate. Charles swallowed hard, unable to speak, and simply nodded, taking the proffered towel in one hand while desperately holding up his shirt with the other. As Edward turned around again to present his back, Charles lifted a shaking hand and willed it to do the requested task.
Closing his eyes and letting his hand slowly follow the contours of Edward's muscled back, Charles wondered why he was so overwhelmed and uncharacteristically nervous about being almost naked with another man. It wasn't like this was his first time. It wasn't like anything overtly sexual was going to happen. Was it?
Edward had his eyes closed, too, as he was remembering the last time his wife had washed his back while he soaked in the big cast iron tub in the back room of their small home while his wee daughter slept. He remembered the light in her eyes and the playful way she had splashed water in his face. It was so long ago. He remembered, too, what they had done together immediately after his bath and was suddenly aware of his body betraying his thoughts of sexual excitement. He was grateful his back was to Charles.
For his part, Charles had forgotten his own tumescence and had gotten lost in the haze of barely bridled lust for the man in front of him, the man upon whom he now had his hands, washing his naked flesh. He tossed his overshirt onto the bed and used both hands to massage Edward's back and shoulders with the wet towel. Edward was making no attempt to stop him, so he continued his ministrations in the moonlight.
"Let me do your back, now," said Edward in a husky voice. A chill ran through Charles at the thought of Edward touching him. He feared he would lose all control for sure. Saying nothing, he turned to face the wall, pulling his undershirt over his head and tossing it aside. He heard Edward dipping his towel into the water and soon felt the tentative touch of his fingertips upon his own flesh.
Edward marveled at the complex muscle mass adorning the man's back in front of him. They fairly rippled in the dim light, not an ounce of fat on them, developed over years of carrying heavy loads through rough terrain on his many military campaigns. He didn't know it yet, but they had been honed to hold a rifle rock steady while galloping full bore on a horse, no easy feat. As his fingers ran over the ridges as he slowly moved further down Charles' back, he felt his physical excitement increasing. He was now uncomfortably hard in his confining breeches.
Charles was aware of only one thing - his need. His need for physical companionship, long denied, and at the same time his need to not offend his friend Edward with his personal desires. The two needs warred mightily within him as he basked in the glory of Edward's firm touch. Just as he felt the towel slide down upon the small of his back, Charles made a decision.
He reached down and unfastened his breeches, holding them up for a second, then ever so slowly allowing them to slide down, gradually revealing his naked backside to Edward. Once to his knees, Charles let them go, and they puddled around his feet. He held his breath and hoped he had made the right choice.
The washing motion of the towel against his back stopped. There was an electric silence in the moonlit room. True silence, as neither man was breathing now. Charles felt the towel being pulled from the small of his back, and he feared he had erred badly. He heard Edward drop the towel into the water, and assumed he would leave it there for Charles to finish his bathing by his own hand.
Edward's hands were trembling, causing little ripples in the water as he rinsed the towel and soaked it again, finally wringing it carefully so as to not wet the table or floor. Then he turned back to the naked man before him, a sight he had never beheld up close. His eyes were riveted on the cleft dividing the man's legs, fascinated by the curves and shape of Charles' arse in a way he didn't understand, something he had never pondered before tonight.
He touched it. Without thinking, he simply laid his hand near the top of the left mound and held it there, as he began to kneel down on his haunches. When he was eye level, he finally remembered to breathe again, and quickly resumed the task of washing Charles' backside. He was not intentionally being sensual in his movements, it being more an exploration of the heretofore unknown. But the more he touched, the more he didn't want to stop touching. At some point his left hand had moved on its own, holding one half of Charles' arse under his palm, while the other hand completed the cleansing ritual. He finished by slowly running the towel down the divide, his fingers intentionally drifting inward slightly.
Unbeknownst to Edward, Charles had nearly passed out from the combination of not breathing and the sudden outflow of blood from his head to his member, which now stood out from his body more rigid than a blacksmith's hammer. Edward's tentative touch upon his arse was more than he'd hoped for, and even if he stopped now, Charles would at least know he had not offended the man with his bold display. That would be some consolation.
But Edward didn't stop. Charles heard him withdraw to rinse the towel, then felt his hand again upon his arse as he knelt down on his knees, washing first one leg, and then the other. As each finger ran against his flesh, exciting nerve endings he didn't know he had, Charles fought back the moans of desires threatening to erupt from his throat. Moving upwards, Edward once again grazed his arse with his fingertips.
Emboldened by increasing desire, Charles carefully placed his right foot a little more to the side so as to separate his legs more, hoping Edward saw the move as an invitation to wash up a little higher on his legs. For his part, Edward did not hesitate, but gently washed the inner thighs of the man now standing over him. He had a brief thought of venturing higher but stopped himself, his hands shaking again from fear and something else which surprised him - pure lust.
He slowly stood up and Charles stepped carefully out of his breeches fully, pushing them aside with his foot. Then he slowly turned around to face Edward in the moonlight beaming through the window. "By God, he's beautiful," thought Charles.
Edward put his shoulders back and looked straight ahead into Charles' eyes, aware that he was now face to face with a fully naked man. He willed Charles to not look down and see how excited he was by what he had done. He felt the heat of momentary shame rise against his face and neck, but he didn't bow his head. Yes, he had touched another man. Yes, it excited him. Why, he had no idea.
Charles took matters into his own hands, motioning for Edward to turn around and face the wall, while he picked up the towel he had used on Edward's back earlier and rewet it. He began massaging Edward's back again, in long powerful strokes up and down the center, and stretching the shoulders outwards, causing his tension filled muscles to finally relax.
Edward was at a crossroads. In a few moments Charles was going to run out of back to wash, and then what? Would it be all over? He didn't even know what "it" was, this thing happening to him. He was feeling things he hadn't felt with anyone but Adeline, yet...Charles...being with him...like this...had awakened those desires again, and as perplexing as it was, Edward knew he didn't want them to go to sleep again. He simply had no idea what to do with his surging desires now.
His only thought was to do as Charles did, to follow his lead. He seemed to understand what was happening. So he unfastened his breeches, and taking a deep breath, let them fall to the floor. He was left suddenly naked before another man for the first time in his adult life. Despite his uncertainty in what he was doing, he was absolutely certain of one thing - he had never been harder in his entire life.
He heard Charles make a small gasp, then quickly turn to rinse out the towel. There were a few tenuous moments as neither one moved. It was as if they both knew if this continued one minute longer it was going to take them places they may neither have intended.
Charles reached across the space between Edward and him with twitching finger tips, and carefully rested them upon the glorious unclothed arse before him. Never had he seen such a magnificent male form as this. Forged in the kiln of hard work and a hard life, Edward's body was masculine perfection. Charles almost hadn't wanted to touch him, for fear he would somehow tarnish the sculpted Adonis. Almost. But then his own desire persuaded him to continue washing Edward's backside, as Edward had done for him.
Charles did not hurry, but savored each delicious, sensuous moment. He purposely allowed his fingers to graze the groove between the two hemispheres before him, knowing the sensations it would cause, and smiling to himself when he heard Edward make little gasps of pleasure as his nerves twitched over and over again.
After rinsing the towel again, Charles moved down to wash Edward's legs, and this time he nearly chuckled when he realized Edward had purposely widened his stance while Charles' back had been turned. Moving slowly upwards, he paid special attention to the inner thighs, and just at the top, he extended his fingertips slightly and felt some soft flesh brush against them. Edward emitted a tiny yelp, but didn't move. Charles repeated the same moves on the other leg, eliciting a similar response. In just the dim moonlight, Charles could see the red flush of excitement all over Edward's body.
Charles carefully stood up, accidentally allowing his organ to briefly touch Edward's arse as he turned to put the used dirty towels into the washbasin. When he turned back, Edward had not moved. He was still facing the wall. Charles had a good idea the source of his hesitation.
"Edward," he whispered. "You may turn around. It's okay." He was met with silence. "Edward?"
"I...can't. Not...yet." Charles tried not to laugh.
"Aye, you can. Look...you're not the only one." Edward didn't move for a few seconds, then slowly turned his head partially around to peek. Charles stepped to the side to give him a better view of his quite obviously excited and throbbing state. Edward gasped and turned back to face the wall in front of him.
Charles decided to wait him out. Edward's reticence was actually turning him on even more. He didn't have to wait long. Within a minute, curiosity and simple lust drove Edward to turn around, his hands clenching and unclenching as his mind fought against his natural instinct to cover his nakedness. Charles just looked at him in awe.
The fact was Edward was not the first naked man Charles had beheld in such a state. In fact, there had been more than he could count over the years. But this man - this god before him - was beyond his imaginations.
Charles took one step closer to Edward and stopped, noticing him look down at Charles' erect manhood and then quickly back up to his face. Charles waited. Edward took one small step and stopped. Charles let him wait a few seconds, then took a confident step closer. There was no more than two feet between them now.
One more step from Edward, and they could feel the heat from each other's overly excited bodies. Charles' nostrils flared at the primal scent of two men in a state of sexual need. He closed the gap completely. They were now face to face, their manhoods almost touching. Edward felt a drop of liquid emerge from his member. He wanted to look, but kept his visage on Charles' face, looking for him - no, needing him - to lead.
Charles reached up and caressed Edward's shoulder, letting his hand run down his arm, squeezing the bicep in admiration, then allowing his fingertips to graze his forearm and stop. He grabbed onto Edward's hand and held it firmly and did not let go. Edward nodded slightly, approving.
Charles nodded back, and Edward slowly, hesitantly at first, then more boldly, repeated the move with Charles' opposite arm, finally holding on to his hand. He was trembling, with fear and raw desire. Charles squeezed his hands and pulled them together even closer. This time their members did touch, and they both breathed in quickly, then smiled at each other.
Edward started to look down, but Charles let go with one hand and gently pulled his head up by the chin, looking him deep in the eyes. He leaned in closer to Edward's face, his desire unmistakable.
Edward knew Charles wanted to kiss him. Another man was about to kiss him, unless he put a stop to it. But the truth was, he didn't want to. He wanted it to happen. He didn't know why, nor did he really understand all that he was feeling in the moment.
Edward closed his eyes as Charles' lips touched his in a whisper. At first he felt nothing, the other sensations coursing through his body short circuiting any new inputs. But as the pressure on his lips increased, a spark ignited inside Edward, and he felt himself involuntarily lean into the kiss. He suddenly felt Charles' tongue graze his lower lip, and without thinking really, Edward opened his mouth slightly, an invitation to a passionate invasion.
As their tongues explored, Edward felt little electrical pulses run up and down his spine, yet another new sensation to catalog. Charles was still holding his one hand, and now placed Edward's hand firmly upon his own chest, while simultaneously doing likewise, never breaking the kiss.
When Charles lightly grazed his nipple, Edward moaned loudly into his mouth, the sound garbled by the kissing, but its meaning unmistakable. Edward followed suit, and soon Charles was moaning and gyrating his hips, causing his member to rub up against Edward's rigid pole.
Needing fresh air to breathe, Charles pulled back and broke the kiss, leaving the two men panting and shaking. He took two steps backwards, gently pulling Edward's hand with him, until he felt the bed behind him upon which he sat down, inviting Edward to follow suit.
For the next glorious hour or so, Edward learned what the feel of another man's hands on his body could mean. Charles was patient, guiding him silently in the moonlight cascading through the window to the highest heights of male on male passion. Hands explored virgin terrain, touched and stroked foreign flesh, until they reached their ultimate release.
The morning sun beat down with blazing heat, but thankfully the thick forest around them shielded the two men and their animals from its direct rays. The buzzing sounds of insects and the melodies of singing birds filled the air around them, along with the rhythmic clopping of iron horseshoes upon the rocky terrain and the creaking wagon wheels turning upon the axles.
Edward allowed the wagon to roll slightly ahead of him, instead of his usual parallel position, as it gave him time alone to sort out his thoughts, which were considerable. He had awakened at an early hour, the sun barely throwing a hint of light through the bedroom window. He was shocked to find himself naked - and in bed with another man. As quiet as a church mouse, he had dressed, hoping to escape before Charles awakened. Edward shifted in his saddle as he felt the now familiar tightness in his breeches as he remembered once again the naked male form of his travelling companion lying in the bed he had just vacated, still resting in peaceful slumber, a smile of his face and a hardness to his organ, which was unashamedly on display before him.
Edward was frustrated. Why did the sight of a naked man, innocently sleeping, suddenly excite him so powerfully? Perhaps more powerfully than the fading memories of his late wife's tender breasts or the soft curve of her thigh, though he couldn't be sure. Edward trembled as he remembered washing Charles' backside, there in the moonlight filled room at the inn. The feel of Charles' skin - and other things - against his fingertips. The kisses, at first tentative, then exploding in unbridled passion. Things he'd never dreamed of.
That men found comfort in the arms of other men was an uncommon fact not unknown to Edward, however it was not something he ever expected to experience himself. He didn't know how he should feel about it, either. Shame? Guilt? Relief?
It had been nearly four years since he had last been in the arms of his wife and lover, since he had watched the life light fade from her eyes as the sickness took her, just as it had stolen his little girl and his parents before her. Adeline had been his one and only lover, the single person with whom he had experienced the particular pleasures of human physical love. He had never felt the need or desire to look upon another woman in the same way, though perhaps one or two in the county had made clear their designs upon him. He had politely steered clear of all such entanglements.
He had never felt the stirrings of lust for another man. Not even when he and Jimmy McNally and Martin O'Toole had gotten drunk at the local pub after a long day working in the fields, and together had answered the challenge of some other lads to a wrestling match. Outside, with a small crowd gathering, water troughs were spilled to create a large patch of mud, as six strong strapping men stripped fully naked to cheers and jeers, and commenced rolling around in the miry mess, more intent on coating one another with mud in raucous laughter than seeking any particular victory.
Later, as they had taken turns at the well drawing buckets of ice cold water to pour over their heads, there was much good natured banter and teasing, but nothing of an overtly sexual nature to speak of. Yet now, Edward suddenly looked back upon that memory and again felt stirring in his loins as the images of muscled chests dripping with water, sinewy thighs stretched taut as strong arms pulled on the well's rope, and the chiseled naked arses of his friends filled his mind.
To Edward, it felt like something had come alive in him, a deep desire heretofore unknown and unpursued. Now, as he was tasting his first days of real freedom in this new world, this strange new desire was suddenly demanding its freedom, too. He had no idea what to do with it.
Up with the wagon, Charles was riding on the side board, sorting through his own collection of concerns, chief among them the fact Edward had not said but two words to him all morning. He had declined joining Charles for a hot breakfast in the tavern with a shake of his head, and immediately set out to reassemble the team and the wagon. When Charles had arrived at the stable carrying his personal case - Edward had taken his with him - he found everything ready and an impatient Edward eager to start.
He assumed Edward had settled payment with the stable keeper, as they were shaking hands as he approached. Edward tipped his hat to the man and mounted his horse, pushing his long black hair back over his head before hiding it under his hat again. Charles remembered running his hands through that glorious mane the night before and felt his heart quicken a little. Edward nodded to him, an expression on his face which Charles couldn't read.
Shaking his head, Charles grabbed the reins and with a crack of the whip over their heads, all six horses leaned into their yokes and they were off, bound for points west. As they pulled away from the stable area, Charles noticed a young lad carrying a bucket of water toward a horse trough in one hand while rubbing his arse with the other. Curious.
As one mile rolled into the next one, Charles contented himself to let Edward have his space, though he missed their friendly conversations. His father had taught him years ago to let a man be with his thoughts, and to not badger him with a thousand questions. For his part, Charles' thoughts were spent pleasantly remembering the last evening's explorations and discoveries. Edward had shocked him by being a willing participant, but now, in the full light of day, Charles was beginning to have doubts he would ever likely do so again. He sincerely hoped Edward was not so put off by the experience that he decided to abandon their journey together.
For the next hour, Edward struggled inwardly with his thoughts. Ever since he had first sat down to dinner with Charles, he liked the man. He felt like a real friend, and he was sorely in need of one. Aside from Charles, and John Wilkins back in Philadelphia, Edward was for all intents and purposes alone in the world. But now...after what they had shared together...what did it mean for their friendship? Everything felt different somehow. How was he supposed to act?
When no clarity came to his mental turmoils, Edward finally gave them up in favor of practical realities. He was getting hungry, having skipped breakfast to avoid facing Charles first thing in the morning. As long as they were going to travel together, they might as well share a meal, even if he wasn't sure he'd ever want to share a bed again.
"I see a place up ahead where we can pull off and have lunch," said Edward, riding his horse up to the wagon and pointing out the grassy area to Charles, who was driving the team.
"Fine with me, getting powerful hungry here," said Charles, relieved Edward was talking to him again. The tension drained from his arms and shoulders as he let out a deep sigh.
"Makes two of us. I think we have a wee bit of biscuit left, though it may be getting rather hard and stale. Brings back memories of the sea journey from Ireland, choking down the hardtack." Edward had a wry grin on his face, recalling one of the less savory details of his sea voyage.
Charles pulled the team and wagon off the trail onto the grassy area Edward had pointed out. A small, crystal clear stream trickled playfully over its rocky bottom nearby. The two made short work of watering the team, days of repetitively working together paying off. Edward pulled out the cotton sack holding their provisions obtained in Harrisburg and reached in and plucked out a couple of brown biscuits. Handing one to Charles, he remarked ruefully, "At least it fills your stomach."
"If I can choke it down my throat, that is," said Charles, looking askance at the solid brown lump in his hand. A nice hot stew would have been preferable by far.
At that moment, a slight rustling in the green woods across the trail nearby drew their attention and a second later a small black bear cub appeared, sniffing the air around him.
Edward, never having been around American wildlife - he'd only lived in the city - was enchanted with the small creature and automatically began to walk towards it, interested in seeing it up close and curious about it.
"Edward, NO! Get back, the mother will be somewhere nearby!" shouted Charles.
Edward stopped in his tracks, heeding Charles' shouted warning, but the cub, spotting Edward's movements, was now very interested in the human, and began to amble towards Edward and the wagon behind him. Fortunately, the cub was downwind of the wagon, so the horses had not yet caught the bear's scent.
As Edward carefully made a slow retreat backwards, suddenly a loud, low growl came from the woods near the exact spot the cub had emerged. Both men and horses pricked up their ears in alarm. A fully grown female bear burst upon the trail, and thinking her cub was threatened, stood up on her hind legs and raised huge paws adorned with sharp claws and roared at the two men. At over seven feet tall, the bared teeth and menacing roar brought the cub to an immediate halt. It turned around and quickly hobbled to its mother, head down in subjection.
Edward was trying valiantly to make his bladder hold. The fearsome beast was amazing and terrifying at the same time, and try as he might, he couldn't move. His legs refused to obey his mind's command to run. Charles, in the meantime, had whirled around and grabbed his longrifle from the wagon and started shouting at Edward.
"Grab the reins and try to calm the horses!" Edward, the shout bringing him out of his paralysis, ran towards the wagon, passing Charles who by this time was advancing on the adult bear. He began shouting at the top of his voice and wildly waving the longrifle in front of him, hoping to scare off the bear. He knew enough to make himself as formidable an opponent as possible and the odds were good the bear might be warned off. Edward was firmly holding the bridle of the lead horse, barely keeping the team from rearing and running off. His own horse, having been allowed to pasture in the meadow, was nowhere to be seen.
He looked back at Charles and his heart leapt into his throat. Charles was in a standoff with a roaring adult black bear, mouth wide open to expose yellow teeth designed to tear flesh, and he knew if the bear charged, Charles did not stand much of a chance. He would be mauled for sure, perhaps fatally.
The intense pain of possibly losing his friend Charles in a bear attack shocked Edward, taking his breath away. He suddenly wanted to drop the reins and run out in front of Charles and sacrifice himself. Charles didn't deserve to die such a horrible death for his own stupidity.
The cub finally reached the edge of the trail, spurred on by its mother's mighty roars, then plunged into the safety of the green wall of trees behind her. Sensing this, the adult bear began slowly backing up, wanting to turn and go after her cub but needing to ensure the threat to her young one did not get any nearer. Charles wisely did not move forward but kept up his shouting and waving his rifle, encouraging the bear to turn around and make sure her cub was fine. Reaching the edge of the trail, and with one last loud warning growl, the black behemoth turned her back on Charles and lumbered off after the cub, presumably to give it a parental dressing down.
Charles, shaking with the after effects of the adrenaline coursing through his body, dropped his rifle. His knees wobbled while his stomach did queasy somersaults. Kneeling down to try and steady himself, he breathed in deeply several times, trying to get air into his lungs and to clear his mind of crisis-caused tunnel vision.
No longer concerned about horses or wagons or even bears, Edward dropped the leather reins where he stood and ran. He ran as hard and as fast as he could to Charles, his feet slipping on the damp tall grass in the meadow, and succeeded in knocking Charles over as he slid into him. Without hesitation, Edward was on top of him, looking down at his friend, sudden tears in his eyes.
"Are you alright, Charles?" he shouted, grabbing the man's face in both hands.
Charles, suffering from the new shock of Edward straddling his waist, tried to nod his head, to which Edward had a tight grip. "Aye. Mother of God, did you see that beast, Edward? I'd rather face a line of British regulars than stand up to her again. She was so close I could smell her fetid breath."
"What you did was extremely brave, Charles. But don't you ever do something like that again! You could have been killed!" Edward was shouting at him, and then started shaking uncontrollably, overwhelmed by emotions he couldn't name if he tried. Charles reached up and hugged him tightly, pulling him down to his chest. Edward started to resist the embrace, but then gave into it, strange as it still seemed to be held in such a manner by another man. Charles held on to him until his shaking subsided and both men were finally breathing normally again.
Charles released his tight hold around Edward, and Edward slowly pushed off of him, a bewildered look on his face. He rolled over onto his back in the grass and looked up at the blue sky, lost in thought. Rising on now steadier legs, Charles helped an almost reluctant Edward to his feet as well. His face was impossible to read. Clearly Edward was a conflicted man, but at least he had shown no hesitation in revealing the fact that he truly cared for Charles, which gave Charles real hope.
Edward looked deeply into Charles' eyes, as if searching for answers he couldn't find within himself. "Why did you do it? Charge an attacking bear?" said Edward softly.
"I didn't think about it, Edward. I just knew you were in terrible danger and the next thing I remember, I was confronting the beast. All I could remember was wanting you and the team to be fine. I need you to be safe, Edward." Edward started to reply, but no words would connect to make sense of his jumbled thoughts at the moments. He settled for nodding to Charles.
They started walking together back toward the wagon. Deciding to make light of the conflicting emotions coursing through his body, Edward quipped, "You would do anything not to have to choke down those hard biscuits." Charles laughed loudly, the tension fading fast.
"Well...at this point I don't think it wise to put anything in my stomach for the moment. I'd surely lose it the second it was swallowed," said Charles.
"Speaking of losing things...I appear to have lost my horse," said Edward, running his hands through his long hair while turning in circles looking into the forest for his missing animal.
"He won't have gone far, I don't reckon," said Charles. "We can make camp here for now and look for him."
"I'd hate to slow you up, Charles. You go on ahead without me, and I'll search for him," said Edward.
"Are you crazy? You think I'd leave you alone in these woods, without food or horse or gun? Get over it, Edward. No way I'm leaving you. Besides, I already told you, I'm not losing you without a fight. If I'm willing to fight a black bear, I'm willing to fight you."
"Fight me? What are you talking about? Fight what?" said Edward.
"This. You're pushing me away again, just like you did this morning. Using it as an opportunity to separate from me because you're uncomfortable with what happened last night. I understand, Edward. I know it's hard to figure out. It's strange and different, and you don't know what to think. I get it, I've been there."
"You don't know what I think!" shouted Edward, disturbing the birds in the trees nearby. "I don't even know what I think, so how could you?" He was angry and beyond frustrated with the whole situation. His fists were clenching and unclenching. "I didn't ask for this, Charles. You're the one who seduced me. You've confused me."
Deciding it was time, Charles softened his voice and said, "Edward. Please calm down and just listen to me, okay?" Edward did manage to relax his stance and unclench his fists. He nodded to Charles to continue. "You're right, of course. I did seduce you, in a manner of speaking. I took advantage of an innocent situation, my own desire perhaps overwhelming my better sensibilities. I'm sorry, Edward, if I've hurt you in any way. You have to believe that was not my intention."
"I am a man who loves other men. What we did last night was what I wanted. It's what I've wanted since you first sat down to dinner with me in Lancaster. But Edward...are you sure you don't want it, too?" said Charles gently.
Edward looked at Charles, trying desperately to understand his own feelings in light of what his friend was telling him. If he were honest with himself, he had to admit he had shared Charles' desires. Why else would he have dropped his own breeches, fully hoping Charles would touch him the way he had touched Charles?
"Charles...I...I'm not sure. Maybe I...do want...what you want. But it's all so strange and foreign to me. I've never done...what we did...ever."
"I know," said Charles. "Edward, I don't want you to want it, just because I do. I meant what I said. I don't want to lose you. You've become a very good friend, and I'm telling you the truth. Whether or not we become lovers, I still want you to come to Ohio with me. I need you, Edward."
Full of warring emotions, Edward could only nod his head, indicating he had heard Charles. What he needed at the moment was to get away by himself with his thoughts, but first he had to find his horse. "I'm going to look for the horse. I'll...be back...I guess." He put his hat back on his head and turned in the direction his horse had run away, setting off on foot to find it.
Charles, looking ruefully at Edward's retreating back, had been full of hope for a future with Edward as his friend and lover, but he was now painfully aware it may not come to pass. The horse would not have galloped too far once out of sight and sound of the bear, so he figured most likely Edward would not be gone long. He considered unhitching one of the team and riding after him, but held off, giving Edward time to be alone with his thoughts.
As Edward walked away slowly, following the wagon trail, he thought about his feelings for Charles. There was no denying he'd been scared when Charles was almost attacked by the bear. And the overwhelming relief when he wasn't was telling, too. His growing emotional attachment to the man already surpassed any relationship he had ever had with anyone other than his wife.
And then there was the surprising and confusing physical attraction. He didn't understand why it was happening now, when he had never felt sexual desire for another man before...well, ever since he saw the young lad from the coach in the stables, spread out over the hay bales, the look of pleasure on his face unmistakable. And again when he witnessed the strapping of the second stable boy and his obvious excitement at the end of the ordeal. Just thinking about those images again caused a swelling in his loins as he walked.
While he may want to blame Charles for what had transpired between them the previous evening, he couldn't lie to himself. He'd wanted it, too, pure and simple. And he still did. Just thinking about Charles' naked backside again was causing him to breathe heavy and feel light headed. What was he to do about it?
Edward rounded a bend in the trail, and there was his errant horse, grazing on the grass at the edge of the packed dirt and rocks marking the wagon trail. When Edward whistled, the horse reared its head and cantered toward him. "Good boy," said Edward to the steed as he pulled himself up into the saddle on its back and trotted back towards Charles.
While waiting for Edward, Charles finished preparing their interrupted lunch. He set out some yellow cheese, the remaining biscuits, and the last of some ginger cake, containing actual pieces of the ginger root. Charles looked at the brown hardtack and grimaced. How Edward survived on that stuff while sailing across the ocean was a mystery.
He looked up from his meal preparations to see a focused Edward returning, trotting up on his horse. Charles watched him dismount, the stretch of his breeches against his legs outlining the strong muscles Charles knew were lurking there, waiting to be caressed again. He sighed, the agony of pent up desire too much to contemplate.
Edward had a clouded countenance, his face betraying his ongoing inner struggle to reconcile his conflicting thoughts and desires. He walked straight up to Charles and removed his hat, pushing his hair back again, a move Charles found particularly appealing every time he did it. For a second there, Charles wondered if Edward did it precisely because he knew it excited him. Shaking his head slightly at the unprofitable thought, Charles waited.
"I've been doing a wee bit of thinking," said Edward hesitantly. He took a deep breath and continued. "I believe I was unfair earlier when I accused you of...seducing me. I won't deny it was something I wanted to happen, too, though I'm damned if I know why. I feel things...with you...that are...difficult. I don't know if I will ever act on them again. But above all, I want you to know, Charles, that I value our friendship highly, and I hope you will see your way clear to having me continue on with you, at least until Pittsburgh."
"Of course," said Charles without hesitation. "I'd like nothing better. Just know I intend to do my level best to convince you to come all the way to Ohio with me. I could use a good man like you by my side."
Edward frowned at the characterization. "I'm sorry," said Charles quickly. "I said it badly. What I mean is...well, the thing is, I...it's just that, having you with me...I mean, well...working with me...Ugh! It would just be easier...and I like you, and I want you around, so I just thought..." Charles voice trailed off in, incapable of finishing the thought. Edward's frown just grew deeper, causing Charles to despair of offending him yet again.
Suddenly, Edward broke into a wide grin, then an open smile. "Charles...shut up and feed me." Charles gasped, then realized Edward was teasing him, pretending to be upset. The rotten scoundrel!
The tension of the bear attack and its aftermath disappeared as they enjoyed a leisurely lunch. Even the almost inedible biscuits went down easier now that the two men had returned to their familiar and comfortable camaraderie. Charles refrained from broaching any sensitive subject - and noticed Edward did the same - as they finished cleaning up and repacking the wagon. Then they took up their normal traveling positions and set off towards Pittsburgh once again.
In Shippensburg, they stabled the horses and shared a hot meal in Sullivan's Saloon, the raucous clientele a distraction to Charles and Edward, who were fast discovering they preferred the solitude of the forest to the boisterous tavern crowd. They slept in separate rooms - they didn't discuss it. Charles followed Edward's lead, allowing him to make the sleeping arrangements, though not without intense disappointment.
They passed through Chambersburg the following evening and kept moving, deciding to camp out under the stars near the trail. As the fire began to die down after dinner, Edward unrolled a couple of blankets near the burning embers, not bothering to change into a nightshirt, but simply removed the clothing from his torso, leaving his breeches on. As he laid down, Charles approached with his own blankets.
He looked down at Edward, an unspoken question on his face. Edward looked at the flat space next to his blankets and nodded to Charles, giving him unspoken permission to sleep next to him. Charles thought about stripping naked in the dwindling light - it was a rather warm evening - but decided not to. He had a difficult time getting to sleep, the hardness between his legs a constant distraction. He didn't know it, but Edward suffered a similar condition, and both men awakened the following morning tired and irritable.
The next ten days passed by in a monotonous blur of mile after mile of pine forest, the occasional small animal crossing the trail here and there, and the feeding and watering of the horses. The wagon's axle needed to be greased more often now as they went up and down mountains, the stress and strain of the terrain taking its toll on the Conestoga. The horses never seemed to mind what they were asked to do.
They restocked food provisions at Fort Loudon, opting to stay in Gonagle's Inn for the night. The tavern keeper, an Irish immigrant himself, was familiar enough with the county where Edward's family had lived, and the two stayed up half the night reminiscing. Charles listened for a while, then excused himself to find his room. The unfamiliar pangs of jealousy were a bitter pill to swallow as he tried to drift off in the lonely, quiet room. He could no longer deny it to himself - he was in love with Edward. What Edward may have felt for him, beyond a strong friendship, was not clear.
Somewhere between Fort Bedford and Fort Ligonier, Charles used his longrifle and shot two squirrels as the wagon slowly plodded through the forest. He showed Edward how to skin the animals and butcher the carcasses. As Edward held the meat over the open fire on sticks he had fashioned for the purpose, he could not help but admire Charles and the confidence he obviously possessed. His new friend was a crack shot, and his years of campaigning in the army had honed his survival skills to a fine edge. He was a strong and capable man.
When Edward wasn't conversing with Charles about any number of subjects, the most prevalent being those related to farming, he was thinking about him. To Edward, Charles seemed like the kind of man who would likely be a success at anything he put his hand to, not because he was the smartest or the best, but because he was quietly determined to succeed, and would never quit fighting for what he wanted and believed in.
And it was abundantly evident he wanted Edward. There was no mistaking the looks, or the small touches here and there as they worked side by side. At times Edward could almost feel the physical desire pinging off of him, at the same time he was trying desperately to keep his own mounting desires at bay. He was grateful Charles had never pushed the issue, not since the morning of the bear attack. Giving Edward the time he needed to contemplate his future, one possibly spent in the arms of another man, was the wisest thing Charles could have done.
In the height of the blazing afternoon heat, when they were but a day past Fort Ligonier, the last stop before Pittsburgh, the wagon crested a small hill, revealing a rolling green valley with a small river running through it. The water reflected the sunlight through the trees here and there. At the bottom of the valley, Edward spotted a wide basin of still water in the stream, apparently caused by a downed tree creating a bit of a dam effect upstream of it. He was hot and dirty and wanted a bath badly.
He shifted in his saddle and turned to Charles, pointing to the perfect shady spot for a relaxing dip in the afternoon heat. "Care to wash away the dirt and have a swim? This heat is killing me," he said.
Charles, seeing the cool pool of water in the distance, nodded vigorously. "Aye, I'd welcome the chance to cool off myself. Lead on."
Pulling the wagon to a stop next to the stream, Edward and Charles first unhitched the team of horses and brought them water in the trough. They then tied them together loosely and allowed them the freedom to graze in the meadow on the other side of the rocky wagon trail, tails swishing happily in the heat.
A large flat rock stuck out into the stream near the wagon, and Edward was standing on it, his shirts, boots, and socks already removed. Charles stood back by the wagon for a minute and just watched him, his muscular body outlined in the sunlight. He held his breath as Edward unfastened his breeches, his back to Charles, and slowly let them fall to the rock. His naked arse was everything Charles remembered from the one night they had shared together, and from his many fantasies privately contemplated on the trail since.
Edward gingerly stepped into the stream and took two tentative steps toward the makeshift swimming hole, the waters swirling gently around his knees. He twisted sideways to call out to Charles.
"Come on in, the water's perfect."
Charles wasted no time getting to the rock. As he pulled his overshirt above his head, he noticed Edward was watching him intently, now facing him waist deep in the water about fifteen feet away. Charles paused, suddenly not sure if he should continue. Edward nodded to let him know it was okay. Charles slowly removed his clothes, until only his breeches remained. His hands trembled as he tried to unfasten them, knowing the second they were off, Edward would fully know the extent of his excitement.
Taking a deep breath, his eyes never leaving Edward's, he allowed his breeches to drop to his ankles. He instantly felt the sun's heat upon his engorged private parts, as well as Edward's gaze. He watched as Edward looked upon him for a moment, then slowly returned to look at his face again. Then Edward smiled, taking slow steps along the rocky river bottom toward Charles.
As he approached, his own body rose out of the water, and it was now clear that despite the coolness of the river, Edward, too, was equally excited. Finally standing in front of Charles, naked, hard and unashamed, he reached up with his hand, inviting Charles to join him in the river.
Nothing was conveyed directly in words or sounds, but when their hands touched, a deeper connection was established than either would comprehend for a long time to come. They spent the next hour or so frolicking in the refreshing water, swimming and laughing and relaxing, silently acknowledging the physical attraction between them, an attraction which only paralleled that of their hearts and minds.
There was a moment, as Charles stood chest deep in the river with his back to Edward, looking out over the valley around them in wonder, when Edward knew. It came without warning, a stunning revelation which ended all doubts and confusions. It startled him with its impact, and he gasped suddenly, causing Charles to turn in alarm.
"Are you okay?" said Charles, taking a step toward Edward.
Edward nodded, then held up a hand for Charles to stop moving. He did, not sure what was happening. Edward had a look on his face like he was going to bolt and run away again.
"Edward..." Charles started to speak, but Edward again held up his hand for him to wait.
"I'm fine," said Edward. "More than fine, really. I'm happy. I'm happy, Charles, for the first time in a very, very long time. And I owe that to you, my friend." He stopped, as he could feel tears welling in his eyes, and a lump rising in his throat as the emotions started rolling through him. He swallowed hard and pressed on.
"The truth is...I love you, Charles. I don't know what all that means...yet...but I know this without a doubt. I want to be with you. In...every way. In every way a man can be with a man. I'll have to trust you in that. But I do...trust you, I mean. I'm sorry for being distant and moody and...difficult. I appreciate you giving me the space and time to figure myself out. And I believe I have," he said, now taking a step toward a very shocked Charles.
"I don't understand everything that has happened. I don't know what happens next, or what I'm supposed to do. But I know this," he said, now standing face to face with Charles, who had stopped breathing altogether. "I know that I love you, Charles Adams. And I want to spend the rest of my life with you."
Without further preamble, Edward reached up with his right hand and placed it upon Charles' cheek, his thumb wiping away the single tear that had fallen.
Then Edward kissed him. Softly at first, their lips but whispers, one against the other. Edward raised his other hand, holding Charles' face gently, and continued kissing him, until lips parted and tongues invaded, and the heat of the afternoon sun was matched, and then exceeded, by the heat of their unleashed passion together.
Much later, exhausted and deeply contented, both men lay naked upon the rock beside the stream, looking up into the fading sky, dreaming of their future together. A future now filled with hope, joy, and the never failing power of true love.
"That's it for me today. I'm wiped out," said Edward, brushing his soaking wet hair backwards over his head, then covering it all again with his equally wet hat.
"Aye," said Charles. "That's the lot of 'em. Come spring, we should be able to stump these last twenty or so and have double the acreage for planting." He stood up from his task of cutting the bark from the large buckeye tree, the wide naked band around the trunk now showing in stark contrast to the rest of the tall tree.
By "banding" the trees - thus making them die - he and Edward had slowly created and cleared enough farmland from the forest to start planting crops in earnest the following spring. They might even be able to turn a profit next year, as the livestock had increased as well, with Edward's excellent husbandry skills.
The two strong men gathered their tools and set off across the valley floor, now half denuded of trees, the other half cleared of all but the remaining trees too hardened to fell by axe alone. Each tree stood forlornly in the dim evening light, a wide, white ring around its waist, the beginning of its final days.
In the cabin, Charles stoked the still burning embers in the fireplace, and soon had a roaring blaze burning, while Edward set about lighting candles around the main room. They smiled at each other as only lovers do in the flickering light.
"Let's have venison tonight," suggested Edward. He was especially fond of deer meat, and Charles had dropped an 8-point buck, with one shot, two days prior. At the moment the partially eaten carcass was hanging from a wooden tripod out behind the cabin. What they didn't eat tonight would have to be preserved with rock salt tomorrow.
Charles nodded, grabbing his light coat to ward off the chilly late October air, and his long filleting knife. He had thought it a luxury when Edward had proposed the purchase on their last trip up the Ohio to Pittsburgh for supplies. But in so many ways, Edward's experience and knowledge about such things had been proven indispensable in the harsh realities of frontier life. He was grateful Edward had insisted, as he had used it more than he thought he ever would the past few months.
It was a life that far exceeded his expectations. To be on his own land, to face the challenge of establishing a farm from nothing, to succeed or fail by his own determination and strength - all of it was more than he had imagined. More difficult, more fraught with peril, more gratifying, just...more.
He selected a couple of cuts of meat he knew Edward would enjoy. Edward, the most amazing man he'd ever met, and the primary reason for the joy that filled his soul these days. Always smiling, always positive, always ready to tackle whatever task faced them next, of which there was no shortage out here on the frontier.
Turning back to the house, he saw Edward standing out on the back porch under the roof overhang, just watching him. And smiling.
"What?" asked Charles.
"Nothing," said Edward. "Just watching you." He grinned, his eyes twinkling in the fading light of approaching dusk.
"I'll get these started. I'll put some water on to boil and we'll have some potatoes with them."
"Sounds good. I'll get the animals taken care of for the night," said Edward, jumping down from the rail-less back porch. As he passed Charles heading back to the house, he stopped and grabbed his arm. Charles looked at him, then saw Edward's cheeky grin and knew what was on his mind. He leaned in and kissed Edward gently, knowing he wanted more.
"Later. I promise," he said, now grinning himself. Edward turned and happily quickened his pace, eager to get the evening chores finished in favor of more enjoyable activities to come. He was surprised to hear a rustling behind him, only to find an equally eager Charles standing there.
"I'll help. We'll get it all done faster. The meat'll keep for a little while." Edward laughed and together they fed and watered the horses, loosely corralled in a split rail enclosure next to the cabin the two men had built in their first month in Ohio. Edward made sure the chickens had enough feed and water in the tin feeders, mentally counting the growing brood. With the last batch of chicks, hatched only two weeks ago, they had nearly three dozen birds. Hopefully the majority would survive the winter.
Meanwhile Charles fed and watered the goats, their main source of milk. Charles watched for a moment as they pushed and shoved a bit to get at the feed in the trough. He had to laugh. They ate anything that moved - or didn't - all day long, yet every evening acted like they were starving to death. He also noticed that one of them was looking quite large.
"She's pregnant," said Edward, stepping up next to him.
"Really?" asked Charles. "That was fast. Wasn't she the one old man Connaughy gave us in exchange for helping with his barn roof?"
"Yep. She seems to have found a way to get along with the boys here, I reckon," he said playfully. Charles laughed.
Turning around to face the cabin, both men stood there, thinking about all they had accomplished together in only a few months. They were still facing a harsh winter to come, but inside each of them was the certainty they would succeed by being together.
There in the candle light streaming from the cabin windows, Edward turned to face Charles, grabbing his hands and feeling the warmth in his own. He quietly looked into Charles' eyes, seeing the light of love burning brightly in him. It was the light that told him he was finally home.