-- Often people attempt to live their lives backwards: they try to have more things, or more money, in order to do more of what they want so that they will be happier. The way it actually works is the reverse. You must first be who you really are, then, do what you need to do, in order to have what you want. -- Margaret Young

Title: On the Frontier
Author: Jae Kayelle
Pairings: Sam/Josh, Josh/m, Sam/m, Sam/f, and a hint of other m/m and m/f/m.
Rating: NC17 overall (see Author's Notes #2)
Disclaimer: characters belong to NBC, Aaron Sorkin and John Wells Productions. No copyright infringement intended. No profits made from this work of fiction.
Summary: a hundred years ago boys grew up faster, but falling in love with your best friend wasn't any easier then than it is now.
Author's Note #1: this is an Alternate Universe. Familiar names are used, and in some cases altered. Liberties were taken with some representations, while other characters, and their relationships to each other, remain fairly true to canon. Just suspend your disbelief and maybe you will enjoy the ride.
Author's Note #2: this is an m/m slash fic overall. It also contains m/f scenes that are rated PG13 to NC17, and some G rated chapters. It really is a Sam/Josh fic. Honest.
**Important** Author's Note #3: there are some scenes of underage sex. One of the characters is 14 when he has his first experience. I tried to write it tastefully (and the few additional scenes in that timeframe), so that it won't squick anyone who ventures to read it. Later, there's a non-consensual sex scene that contains mild violence. Also, in deference to the list mommies' wishes that this story be labelled properly, I rated each chapter accordingly and added warnings where needed.
Author's Note #4: this story was conceived September 7, 2001.

On the Frontier by Jae Kayelle

***

California, May 1883

The warm afternoon sun shone down on them as they clustered on the train platform in Broken River. Jed and Abbey Bartlet had come to the station to meet the McGarrys. Josh clung to his father's hand while his sister, Mallory, clutched their mother's skirt. The Bartlets were about the same age as Leo McGarry, which was to say old -- at least thirty. The children had been told that Broken River would be their new home or, rather, home would be a ranch nearby in the valley where Leo had bought land next to the Bartlet spread. Josh had been born and raised in Boston, and was accustomed to the busy noises of a big city. This place was very different. It was busy in its own way just not as much. It was smaller for one thing. Leo said Broken River was named for the crazily zigzagging tributary that ran past the town. There were around a thousand citizens; just enough to warrant the railroad building through the town, and it was growing.

Josh took a moment to glance around the train station and beyond. The Sierra Nevada Mountains were a mauve haze in the distance, blending with the midday sky. Somewhere to the east was Yosemite where Half Dome and El Capitan stood guard. Leo had talked about the mountains during the trip, and had pointed in their direction through the train window, but one big rock looked much the same as any other to Josh. Leo had promised to take them to the park one of these days for a closer look. Right now Josh turned his attention to something far more interesting -- the young boy peering around Jed Bartlet's pant leg.

"This is Sam," Leo told his family, indicating the youngster with the mop of dark, shaggy hair falling into his wide blue eyes. Sam was barely six years old. Josh felt like a grown up because he was already nine, and taller too.

Wriggling free of Leo's hand, Josh walked around behind Uncle Jed so that he could get a better look at the little boy who was staring at him while chewing on a thumbnail. Ordinarily, Josh would not have made the first move. He was fairly shy by nature and this entire cross-country adventure only made him more reticent around strangers. However, those blue eyes drew him closer.

"I'm adopted," Josh said.

"I know what that means," Sam replied.

"Bet you don't."

"Do t-too."

"Tell me," Josh challenged. Even as he said it he wondered if that was really he who was speaking so boldly. He was marginally conscious of having crossed a self-imposed boundary.

Sam answered him. "Means you're pa and ma aren't really your pa and ma. You belonged to somebody else first."

Josh heard a sudden intake of breath, and then Abbey's stifled laughter as she was delighted at her son's acumen, yet perhaps mindful of Josh's loss.

Jed crouched down beside the two youngsters, sweeping Sam's hair out of his eyes. "That's right, Sam. Uncle Leo and Aunt Jenny recently adopted Joshua. His folks passed on two years ago, and Josh needed someone to look after him and love him the way your mother and I love you."

Sam had turned his serious gaze from his father to Josh, considering the older boy. Bit by bit his slightly introverted demeanor changed, and he took a hesitant step towards Josh.

"Then I'll love you, too," he declared, and took Josh's hand in his own smaller one, tugging on him to follow to a horse and carriage standing nearby. Josh followed willingly, never taking his eyes off this small person who had suddenly become very important to him. He didn't understand the significance; he only knew that he now had a friend named Sam.

"Boys, wait." Abbey caught up with them, put her hands on her son's shoulders and whispered in his ear loud enough for Josh to hear. "Samuel Norman Seaborn Bartlet, that was rude. You haven't said hello to Aunt Jenny or to Mallory. Go say hello. Go on." She gave him a tiny shove.

His fingers clamping onto Josh's sleeve Sam marched up to them, and only then did he let go of Josh. He reached up to Jenny and waited for her to accept his proffered hand. When she did he bowed gravely and said, "Ma'am." Then he turned to Mallory, who was about a year younger than he, and stopped cold. He stared at her while she stared back at him. Screwing up his face he twisted his upper body around so he could see his father, one eyebrow lifting in query.

At Jed's nod, he turned back to the little girl. Before he could do anything Mallory surprised him by standing on tiptoe to kiss him on the cheek. Sam reacted by propelling himself backwards one giant step, swiping the back of his hand across his face.

"Yuck!"

"Sam!" Abbey admonished.

Jed and Leo were greatly amused and burst out laughing. Jenny frowned and turned to comfort her daughter as she burst into tears. Josh merely smiled. When his sister kissed Sam he'd felt vaguely uneasy, though he didn't completely understand why. He didn't want Mallory to be Sam's friend, and so Sam's reaction made him happy.

"C-can we go home now?" Sam asked. "I wanna show J-Josh my pony."

"Can I have a pony, too?" Josh asked Leo.

"You almost have to have one to get around these parts, son."

Beaming from ear to ear, Josh said to Sam, "Let's go!"

The boys raced to the carriage and climbed the spokes of the big wheels so they could sit in the back. Mallory, apparently over the rejection of her move on him, ran after them and clambered up as easily as the boys. She planted herself on one side of Sam and grabbed his hand. Sam pulled free and moved closer to Josh. Perhaps warned by his mother's admonishment from earlier, he endured the girl's close proximity without complaint though he made it clear he was not pleased that she was now glued to his side.

"She's just a kid," Josh told him as if that explained everything. "She gets mushy with all the boys."

Sam's blue eyes filled with relief as he grinned at Josh. "I have a hiding place at home where she can't f-find us," he whispered with his hand cupping Josh's ear. Josh felt chills travel up and down his spine, partly because of Sam's warm breath tickling his ear, and partly because he realized that Sam really did like him better. Back in Boston all the kids liked Mallory because she already knew how to act like a lady, and because they knew Josh wasn't quite like them. The fact that he had been orphaned and then adopted seemed to be an obstacle preventing any of them from accepting him; it set him apart from them. Josh always felt like an outsider and it was only Leo's patience and attention that kept him from running away. Now here he was in yet another new place far from everything he found familiar.

He regarded Sam and asked diffidently, "Are we friends?"

"'Course!" Sam said it with such conviction that the last threads of Josh's trepidation melted away under the warm gaze of the little boy at his side.

#

Sam's hiding place turned out to be the juncture of three sturdy branches high up in a huge oak tree at the Bartlet ranch. Josh had never climbed a tree in his life. He stood at the base and watched how Sam scrambled upwards like a monkey in one of the books Leo had given him to read.

"C-come on! It's easy. Put your hand on that knot near your head and your foot on the r-root. Then you just climb."

With Sam coaching him, Josh found that it was indeed easy to climb a tree. Soon he was sitting on a thick branch about ten feet off the ground next to his new friend. The distance looked like a hundred feet to him and he was so exhilarated he thought if he jumped off the branch he could fly.

Apparently, Sam was a mind reader. "Don't jump. I did last summer and broke my arm. Ma f-fixed it for me, but it hurt real bad and I couldn't go riding for a long time."

"Why not?" Josh didn't know anything about riding a horse but didn't think having a sore arm would stop someone.

"P-punny...p-punnyment." Sam looked frustrated as he struggled with the word.

"Punishment?" Josh asked.

Sam smiled his thanks. "Yeah! P-punnyment." His frown reappeared with his stutter.

"Punn-ish...say it. Punn-ish," Josh encouraged.

"Punn...ish."

"Yeah. Now punish-ment. Ment."

"P-punnish...ment. Punishment! You're smart, Josh," he said admiringly.

Sloughing off the praise even though on the inside he was bursting with pride, Josh asked, "Your folks wouldn't let you ride because you fell out of the tree?"

Sam shrugged. "Ma said it's 'cause I was up here in the first place."

Alarmed, Josh moved to get down. "We should go."

Sam grabbed his arm. "S'okay. Haven't you ever d-done anything you're not supposed to?"

With a sudden jolt deep in his gut Josh thought about one very big thing he'd done wrong. "Yes," he whispered.

"Tell me."

His mouth worked but it took him a minute to get any sounds out. "My folks...my folks and my big sister," he stopped.

"Tell me," Sam insisted. When Josh chanced a look at him, he saw only friendship in those big blue eyes.

Trying again, Josh said, "They told me not to light a lamp without adults around. My folks were upstairs in their room. Joanie was in her room. I wanted to get a book...I like reading. I wasn't allowed to read after bedtime..." he trailed off and glanced at Sam who nodded as though he understood. Josh continued, "I found a match and lit a lamp, and got comfortable on the big chair in the library with a book. I guess I fell asleep. When I woke up I smelled smoke. I'd knocked over the lamp and the drapes and books were on fire." He stopped talking, his chest heaving as he struggled to breathe while he relived that horrible moment in his home.

"What happened?" Sam looked so serious, picking up on Josh's mood.

"I couldn't find my way out at first. So much smoke!" He gulped. "I ran out of the library and yelled for my momma and poppa. I heard them yell back at me to get out of the house. I tried to go upstairs to them, but the stairs caught on fire. I had to go back down. The last thing I heard before some men came in and dragged me out of the house was Joanie screaming for help. The men wouldn't let me go back inside. The house burned down." He paused. "They all died."

Blinking back tears that spilled over anyway, Josh turned away so Sam couldn't see him cry and he stared out over the green pasture.

Sam shifted closer and awkwardly reached up to put an arm around Josh's shoulders. Then he leaned his head against Josh's right arm. Somewhere in his misery, Josh heard Sam crying along with him.

#

The sun was sinking lower in the sky when they returned to the house. As they walked inside Abbey greeted them in the foyer, which opened into the parlour.

"Do I need to ask where you two have been? Sam?"

Sam lowered his head, and whispered, "The tree."

"Oh, Sam. What am I going to do with you?"

The younger boy looked up at his mother. "I'm s-sorry. I wanted to show Josh."

Abbey's stern expression softened. "Of course you did. That tree is your special place. If you're going to continue going up there please be careful every time. Or did you learn your lesson last year?"

"Yes, ma'am."

Turning to Leo and Jenny, she told them, "We have a huge oak tree in the south pasture. Sam climbed it last year and fell out. He broke his arm."

"I didn't fall, I jumped!" Sam blurted, then clapped a hand over his mouth as he realized what he'd said. "Oops," he muttered from behind his fingers.

Abbey regarded her son in consternation. "Go to your room, young man. The least you could have done is change out of your good clothes before you went gallivanting. And now you're corrupting Josh."

"What's cor-corrupting?" Sam asked curiously.

Clucking her tongue, Abbey pointed behind her towards the stairs. "It means you misbehaved and you're making Josh just like you. Upstairs."

"Can Josh come, too? We'll be quiet and good. Josh wants to see my toys."

Knowing she was fighting a losing battle in the face of the inherent goodness of her son, despite his slightly rebellious streak, Abbey nodded. "Go ahead," she sighed.

The boys raced upstairs.

Abbey returned to the living room and sat next to Jenny on the settee.

"Sam's normally such a good boy, but you'll need to keep an eye on Josh from now on. Our little angel has a bent halo and he might influence your son. Being an only child and living out here Sam doesn't get to see many other children. Lord knows how he'll be with Josh, although so far they seem to be getting along well."

Jenny didn't say anything, but her eyes settled on Mallory who was playing quietly on the floor.

Leo noticed and spoke up, "Josh is a good kid, too. Maybe being around Sam will bring him out of the shell he crawled into after Noah and Rebeccah and Joanie died. He's not withdrawn exactly, but he hasn't talked about the fire to anyone since just after it happened."

"Such a tragedy," Jed shook his head. "Poor kid being orphaned like that."

"I'm sure he thinks he's responsible," Leo told them.

"He is responsible," Jenny said coldly.

"Aw, Jen..."

"You know it's true, Leo. The boy told the neighbours that he lit a lamp and he wasn't supposed to do that without adult supervision."

"He has a name, Jen."

"My best friend died in that fire, Leo. She was a vital young woman and now she's dead because of that boy's carelessness."

"And Noah was my friend."

The two glared at each other across the room. Then Leo sank deeply into the winged back of his chair and stared into the fire. A heavy silence descended on the room.

Finally Jed spoke up. "Leo, I'll take you on a tour of the ranch tomorrow."

"I helped you build this place, Jed. Remember? Thanks for trying, though. My wife and I have been having problems lately, as you may have noticed." His voice rose slightly and his glare grew fiercer. Jenny ignored him by talking to Mallory in low, almost cooing tones.

"Well," Abbey placed her hands on her knees and then stood. "Dinner should be ready now. Why don't we all go into the dining room? I'll get Consuela to send the boys down."

They all headed to the dining room in silence.

At the top of the stairs Josh and Sam hurried back to Sam's room before they could be caught eavesdropping. Flopping down side by side on the bed they stared at the ceiling.

"Your folks don't like each other, do they?" Sam asked.

"No," Josh sighed. "Well, it's more like Jenny doesn't like me and she takes it out on Pop. Mallory is her favourite."

Sam digested that, and then asked, "What kind of a dumb name is Mallory anyway?"

Turning his head to face Sam, Josh grinned back at him. "Suits her. Dumb name, dumb sister." Even though he knew his adopted sister was not stupid, it felt good right then to pretend she was. Having Sam stick up for him felt good, too.

"We are friends," he said wonderingly.

"Told you. Best friends," Sam replied. "Later I'll take you to the barn so you can meet my pony, Topper."

Josh's smile grew so wide his face felt like it would split. He had a best friend for the first time in his life.

###

Josh had had a private tutor in Boston to supplement his regular schooling. Josh's problem was not with his studies as much as socializing within the structure of the institution; it affected his learning. Leo paid for a young woman to come to the house after school and go over lessons with his son. Josh quickly caught up, but he never felt confident in his contact with the other students. He remained quiet and shy, and his reticence became more pronounced after the move to Broken River -- except when he was around Sam.

Despite Sam's initial wariness when they first met it turned out he was naturally extroverted. Josh admired Sam's friendliness around everyone -- even people he'd never met before, and wished he could be more like him. If not for Sam being so outgoing the two boys might have taken a lot longer to become friends. Worse yet, they might never have become friends at all. After three months of tree climbing, riding, swimming, fishing, teasing Mallory, and rainy afternoons spent reading with Sam he simply could not imagine his life without the younger boy.

At the end of the summer it was time for Josh to return to school. In Sam's case it was time to start. As soon as Sam had shown interest in books, he had received some home schooling from his parents and could now read almost as well as Josh. Sam basked in the warm glow of his parents' proud and confident looks. Josh nearly burst with delight that his best friend was so smart.

The first day of school began when the boys' parents dropped them off at the one room schoolhouse in Broken River. Mallory wanted to go too, especially when she saw all the children she'd never met. Jenny assured her she could meet them another time and frowned at the boisterousness of the other students, calling them rowdy and ill mannered. Leo held onto Josh a moment, bending down to speak to him.

"You gonna be okay, son?"

Josh nodded, even though his stomach ached at the thought of spending the whole day with these strangers. Leo gave Josh's shoulders a reassuring squeeze.

Sam grabbed Josh's hand. "C'mon. I'll help you."

The adults laughed, and Josh smiled in relief. With Sam by his side he had nothing to worry about.

"Let's go," he said.

#

The first day went well. Their teacher, Mrs. Landingham, was nice. She was a little older than Sam and Josh's parents, with long blonde hair that she wore pinned back. She had a tendency to keep her arms folded in front of her. That trait along with her serious expression made her seem strict and humourless, but the children quickly learned that was just her way and she really wasn't like that. Well, except for the strict part and the fact that she hardly ever smiled. Her twin sons were students in the class. Just about to enter their teenage years, they were quietly meticulous with their work.

Mrs. Landingham let the class out early because it was their first day, but sent them off with homework suitable for each age group. Sam and Josh raced home to the McGarry ranch, took their studies up to Josh's room to finish together, and then went riding. All in all, it was a satisfying beginning to the year.

The first sign that things were not going to run as smoothly as they hoped came later in the week when Mrs. Landingham asked for a volunteer amongst the older children to read aloud to the class. Sam eagerly raised his hand. In the face of Sam's insistence that he "could so read" she relented. Josh hadn't raised his hand, but he did smile proudly for Sam.

Standing beside his desk, Sam held his book in front of him and began to read. The giggles began when he stumbled over articulating some of the words. Frustration laced his voice making his stuttering worse and the laughter louder. Finally Mrs. Landingham shushed the class with a stern admonition. She walked over to Sam and gently urged him to sit down.

"I can tell you know how to read, Sam. You're very good at it and you understand all the words. For now, though, we'll have someone else read to the class."

"I c-can do it," Sam said in a hurt tone.

"I know you can, but I'll tell you what -- if you stay after class every day I'll work with you and see if we can clear up your speech problem."

Sam looked up with hopeful eyes. "Really? For how long?"

"As long as it takes. I'm not promising anything but I think I can help."

"Josh has been helping me, too."

She glanced to her right at Josh. "Has he? You're very fortunate to have such a good friend."

"He's my b-best friend." Sam looked at Josh who gave him a quick, bright smile.

"All right then. Let's get back to work."

#

Sam and Josh stayed an extra hour at the schoolhouse that day while Mrs. Landingham patiently worked with Sam to overcome his speech impediment. Josh sent him huge doses of best friendship via eyes narrowed in concentration, since he was too shy to encourage Sam out loud in front of the teacher. They didn't make a lot of progress, but the boys left in a good mood, holding out hope that the school year was going to be enjoyable after all.

#

The others' taunts continued, however, and despite Sam's best efforts he could not altogether rid himself of the stammer. He grew despondent and morose. Josh hated to see his friend ostracized by the other students, knowing what it was like to be the outsider. It hurt Josh to see Sam' natural exuberance obscured by this dark cloud.

Sam rode in silence next to Josh, who kept reining his little sorrel mare over so that she bumped into Sam's pony, Topper. They covered a slow quarter-mile before Sam realized what Josh was doing.

"Qui-quit it."

The mare nudged Topper in the shoulder causing the Welsh pony to snap at her neck. Sam jerked the reins and both horses settled.

"Cut it out, Josh."

"You're awfully quiet."

"Yeah."

"Still upset about what happened in class?"

"No."

"Are you lying?"

"Yeah."

"Look, just ignore them. They're all stupid, especially that Steve Onorato. He doesn't know any better than to pick on people."

"It's not people he's picking on. It's me."

"I know," Josh said quietly. "Say, have you noticed that you hardly ever stutter when it's just you and me talking? You still have trouble with some words, but it's not nearly as bad as when you're in front of the class or talking to strangers."

"S-so?" Despite his indifferent expression, Josh could tell Sam was listening with interest.

"So, next time talk only to me. Pretend the others aren't even there."

"I don't know, Josh," Sam was doubtful.

"What can it hurt to try?"

"Nothin', I guess."

"Promise me you'll do it?"

That earned him a smile. "Okay. I guess I can try. M-maybe it'll work."

A sudden cacophony of noise that seemed to come from all sides startled the horses causing them to shy violently in fright. The boys struggled to regain control of their mounts while chaos erupted around them. They were being rushed from the left and the right. Josh recognized Steve Onorato, Johnny Hoynes, and Billy Tiner among others running towards them from the brush shouting wildly with arms waving. Josh's mare danced excitedly, tossing her head under the tight rein. Somewhere behind him, he was aware of Sam's pony rearing up repeatedly. Sam was a good rider and Josh hoped he could hang on.

"Steve, you jackass!" Josh was furious. He knew the older boy was the instigator of the attack. He liked to cause trouble and had appointed himself Sam's worst enemy.

"Leave us alone!" Sam yelled. He was magnificent. In the midst of his struggle to control Topper, Sam was using the ends of the long reins to whip Billy across the back and shoulders. He wasn't doing a lot of damage but those thin strips of leather had to sting. It was enough to keep Billy at bay. As far as Josh was concerned, if the fifteen year old was stupid enough to get that close to the plunging horse's hooves he deserved to get stomped on.

Sam clung to the bare back of his horse like a leech until the pony started to buck. When the hindquarters left the ground Sam wasn't prepared. He lost his grip and slipped around. Throwing himself onto the horse's neck he grabbed fistfuls of grey mane, but the pony grew frantic under the unbalanced load and bucked harder. Topper put his head down, ripping the reins through Sam's hands. The friction burned them and Sam let go. Losing his last means of control over the animal, Sam hung on for a few seconds and then lost his grip. He dropped to the side to land in a heap near the stamping hooves. Josh's heart was in his mouth as he saw 600 pounds of maddened horse step all around Sam's inert body.

"Sam!" Josh screamed, his hands full with his own frightened horse. "Get up! Get out of the way!"

Their attackers jumped back and then darted out of the way as the pony struck out with his back legs, one sharp hoof narrowly missing Johnny Hoynes' shoulder. The other kids raced away in several directions and vanished into the woods. Johnny hesitated, looking down at Sam lying in the road. He ran around the perimeter of the area and made an attempt to get to Sam. Topper swung his hindquarters towards him again, forcing him back.

Josh leapt off his mare and hit the ground running. He got in front of Sam's crazed horse and called to him in a low voice trying to calm him. Steve and Billy were yelling from the side, which only served to confuse the pony more. The horse turned to face the new sounds, but his hooves were still getting too close to Sam and could do serious damage. Desperately, Josh lunged for the trailing reins. He finally caught one and tugged on it attempting to guide the horse away.

"Be careful, Joshua!" It was Mrs. Landingham, pulling up in her buggy. Seeing her, the other boys turned and ran off.

Josh tried to control the horse and not step on Sam himself. He realized Topper was not ready to be calmed down, and was going through the equine equivalent of hysteria. Remembering how Sam had used the ends of the reins as a whip, he did the same striking the animal's neck with the one in his hands. The pony rose up and twisted to the side. Josh slapped it on the rump and sent it away. He didn't bother to watch as the pony galloped off into the distance. Instead he dropped to his knees next to Sam.

His friend was unconscious, but breathing.

"Sam!" He got his hands under his friend's shoulders and started to lift him into his lap.

"Don't move him!" Mrs. Landingham appeared next to him, her skirts trailing in the dusty road. "We need to check for broken bones."

While Josh stroked Sam's forehead with trembling fingers, Mrs. Landingham ran her hands gently but firmly over the younger boy's arms and legs.

"Is he all right?" Josh asked.

Mrs. Landingham didn't answer directly. "It's a good thing I was headed to see Sam's folks about him," she said as she continued to check for injuries. As her hands passed over Sam's ribs, the boy moaned.

"He's coming around and I don't think he's too badly hurt. I'm not a doctor, though."

"His ma is!"

"I'm aware of that," she said sharply. Then she spoke more softly, "We need to get him to Dr. Bartlet. Help me put him in my buggy."

Josh ran to lead her horse closer. They grabbed Sam's arms and legs and lifted him into the buggy. Sam's moans grew louder as they inadvertently jostled him, and he seemed on the verge of waking.

"Easy, Sam," Josh soothed.

"Josh?" The long lashes fluttered open to reveal groggy eyes.

Josh smiled down at him as they settled him on the seat of the buggy and he helped Mrs. Landingham get in beside Sam.

"I'm here. We're gonna take you home so Aunt Abbey can look at you."

"She's seen me lots of times." His voice was weak but it made Josh feel better. If Sam was joking, then he couldn't be too badly hurt.

"Funny fellow," was Mrs. Landingham's dry comment. "Joshua, you ride on ahead and warn his folks."

Obeying, Josh caught his mare, which had only wandered as far as the nearest patch of green grass, and swung himself up onto her back. He kicked her in the flanks and set off at a breakneck pace for the Bartlet ranch, grateful his riding had improved over the summer.

When he got there, Jed, Abbey and a couple of ranch hands rushed out to meet him from the direction of the barn.

"Josh! Where's Sam? His pony came back without him." Jed barely controlled the anxiety in his voice.

"We had some trouble. Some kids jumped us and Sam got thrown. Mrs. Landingham is bringing him in."

Before the family could ask any more questions the buggy entered the yard at a fast clip. Mrs. Landingham skilfully brought the rig to a stop and the Bartlets rushed to help her remove Sam from it. Jed carried their son into the house with Abbey at his side running a professional eye over Sam.

They laid him down on his bed, and then Abbey made everyone stand back from the bed while she checked on him. Finally their hovering got too close, and she banished Jed and Josh from the room altogether, shutting the door after them.

"No! I want to stay with him!" Josh fought to get free of Jed's restraining hands.

"It's okay, Josh." Jed pulled him towards the stairs. "Come on, we'll sit over here and that way if Sam needs us, we'll be nearby."

Relenting at the compromise, Josh plunked himself on the top step next to Jed, where they both sat and worried. Finally the door opened again and Abbey emerged. They went to her.

"How is he?" Jed asked.

"He'll be fine. He just had the wind knocked out of him when he fell, and he bruised his ribs so they're going to be very sore for a while. Other than that he seems all right. I gave him something to help him sleep, and I'm making him stay in bed until tomorrow just to be sure."

"Can I see him?" Josh pleaded.

"Go ahead," she smiled. "He's waiting for you."

Josh hurried into the bedroom shutting the door partway. Sam lay in the bed looking flushed and pale at the same time. Gingerly sitting next to him, Josh leaned in to get a good look.

"You okay?"

Sam nodded. "Hurts, but Ma says I'll heal. Somethin' about having a hard head and stubborn bones."

Josh laughed with sheer relief. "That sounds like you."

"Where's Topper?"

"He came home by himself. He's in the barn."

"It wasn't his f-fault. Those boys scared him."

"I know."

"Don't let Pa do anything."

"What would he do?" Josh didn't understand.

"He might shoot Topper if he thinks he bucked me off."

"Shoot him! Why?"

"That's what you do to a rogue horse."

"It wasn't his fault!"

Sam smiled tiredly. "That's what I s-said."

"Oh. Well, I can tell him what happened."

"Thanks." Sam's hand stole out across the comforter to rest on top of Josh's. Twisting his own around so that it was palm up, Josh gripped his friend tightly and watched as the medicine took effect and Sam drifted off to sleep. The traumatic events of the day left Josh trembling in the after effects. "I was so afraid I'd lost you, too, Sammy," he whispered.

Voices floated in from the hallway. He heard Uncle Jed asking a question.

"Do these young ruffians have names?"

"They do," the teacher stated matter-of-factly, "but I'll deal with them."

"They could have gotten my son killed, Mrs. Landingham. They cannot get away with that."

"And they won't. I said I'd handle it. Some of them are most assuredly already frightened. There's no sense in you going after them like a bat out of hell and scaring a year's growth out of them."

There was a pause before Jed spoke, "Tell me again why I thought it was a good idea to bring you here to be the schoolmarm."

"I am not a marm," she replied indignantly. "I am a teacher and I can teach you a thing or two, Josiah Bartlet."

Abbey chuckled. "She could, too."

"You stay out of it." Jed did not sound angry.

There was another snort of laughter from Aunt Abbey, and Jed said, "Apart from being assaulted by schoolyard bullies who don't know enough to do their bullying in the schoolyard, how is my son doing at school?"

"He's been making progress with his stutter. It's improving, slowly to be sure."

"Thank you for helping him," Josh heard Abbey say.

The teacher clucked her tongue. "Don't thank me. It's more Josh McGarry's patience and influence than mine that's helping Sam."

"How so?" Jed asked.

"Josh has been working with Sam to get him to learn how to enunciate properly. He's done wonders."

"And what about Josh?" Abbey queried. "He's such a shy boy. How is he managing at school?"

"I've been teaching for a few years now, and it never ceases to amaze me how rapidly children change. Sam started off being so outgoing, but quickly became reluctant to speak up in class. Josh began as the shy one and has gradually been opening up simply by helping Sam. He's Sam's protector in a way, and it's given him so much confidence. In return, Sam is now becoming more like he was at the beginning of the school year. They are very good for each other. Also, they are two are extremely smart little boys. They could go far."

"Let me get this straight," Jed said. "You're telling us that our outgoing little boy turned sullen and was afraid to speak."

"He's coming back around," Abbey put in.

Jed continued, "And Josh, who was shy and retiring, will someday run for office."

"I can't predict his future vocation, but that's more or less what I'm saying, yes," Mrs. Landingham agreed.

"We'll have to tell Leo this. He often wonders if he did the right thing moving out here."

"As far as Josh's welfare is concerned, I'd say he did a very good thing, and the additional benefit is that their friendship is helping Sam as well."

Josh gripped Sam's hand tighter. "Y'hear that, Sam? We're good for each other."

###

The bullying never really stopped, but after Sam's accident at least John Hoynes relented. He and Sam were not friends. However, after Josh told Sam how Johnny had tried to prevent him from getting trampled that day, they both gained a vague respect for Hoynes that lasted throughout their school years. Billy Tiner moved away with his folks two years after the incident. Only Steve Onorato clung to his troublemaker reputation, and Josh hated him for it. Whenever Steve tormented Sam, Josh stood between the two with his fists balled and fire in his eyes. It wasn't unusual for Josh to wind up with a black eye, while Steve often went home in worse shape.

By the age of fourteen Sam had flourished into a good-looking youngster. He was now of equal height to Josh, with long legs and arms and a lanky body. "Skinny" Josh called him in an affectionate and teasing voice. Josh had filled out more and had broader shoulders. They both had longish hair, but Sam's seemed to grow twice as fast as Josh's. Josh overheard Leo tell Jenny that Josh was going to take after his father, Noah, who had had a receding hairline. It worried Josh. He developed the habit of running his hands through his frizzy mop to get it to stand up, vainly hoping it would look like there was more there. In contrast Sam's thick, dark mane always seemed to hang in his eyes. At least Josh could grow a scraggly beard while Sam didn't even have peach fuzz yet.

Lots of girls flocked around Sam whenever he went into town and Sam thrived on being the centre of their attention. Josh had his fair share of female admirers too, but unlike his friend, who now rarely stuttered, he found himself tongue-tied around them. His awkwardness didn't seem to dissuade any of them. He liked the attention, but was sometimes confused. The few times he sneaked a kiss from a willing girl, it wasn't the enjoyable experience some of the other boys his age claimed it was. He wondered if he was doing it wrong -- although the girls he kissed appeared to like it.

Josh found himself living in a perpetual state of uncertainty about his body. It bewildered him by reacting in ways he did not understand and usually at the most embarrassing times like when he was standing at the chalkboard, or when he was simply walking past girls. When their housekeeper changed his sheets she must have guessed what he'd been doing and likely told Jenny. It only gave his stepmother one more reason to hate him. His face grew hot just thinking about it.

As far as he could ascertain, by listening in on conversations the other boys at school had, he was something of a late-bloomer, which only added to his discomfort. He kept quiet about all of it for a long time, but it finally became too much to keep to himself and he had to tell someone. The only person he could confide in about anything this personal was Sam who, as it turned out, had just begun going through similar changes.

"It's awful, Josh," Sam complained to him one day. "I mean, it feels great and I like doing it, but when I think about Consuela finding out and telling Ma I could just die."

"I know. Can't stop, either, can you?"

"Don't want to," was Sam's sheepish confession. They both laughed at that.

Leo had tried to talk to Josh a couple of years earlier about what he called "the opposite sex", and Josh figured out that he meant girls. Both of them had been embarrassed and were vastly relieved when the conversation was over. Josh walked away no more enlightened than he had been beforehand. Sam had told him that his mother took over for his father when they finally had what she called "the talk", since Jed was not very good at it, either. Unfortunately, Abbey used mostly medical terms and rushed through the explanation so quickly that Sam wound up as under-informed as Josh.

The boys talked about "it" a lot, but since neither of them had any real expertise, they could only query each other and speculate about what it would be like. They knew how animals mated, but couldn't quite grasp the concept of humans doing the same thing. Just to be sure they weren't overlooking anything they discussed it in depth anyway, but concluded that it was completely unlikely for men and women to do it that way. Then Sam caught Josh looking at him strangely and asked what he was thinking.

"Nothin'," was the only answer Josh would give him, obviously flustered to have been caught staring. Sam watched his friend closely for a few minutes and then let the matter drop. It did not pass his notice that Josh seemed incredibly relieved that the subject was changed.

One day Sam found a promising looking book in the library and sneaked it out of the house. It was called "Gray's Anatomy" and had a lot of detailed diagrams of the human body -- inside and out -- with explanations of how things worked. The chapters on reproduction were especially interesting. Even better, however, was the small box he discovered tucked away in the attic. Under the lid was a sheet of paper with the words "French erotica" written on it. He didn't recognize the handwriting on the note. When he lifted the paper to see what was under it, his eyes nearly bugged out. The box contained photographs and postcards depicting scenes Sam had never imagined. He had to share this prize with Josh.

Sam collected him and they went to a small clearing of brush down by the river. It had been one of their favourite spots since they were children. Not even someone passing close by could tell if they were there as long as they kept quiet. There was enough room for both of them to stretch out and watch the clouds in the summer sky, or the stars at night, while they talked about whatever was on their minds. It was where Sam declared at age ten that he was going to be a lawyer like his Uncle Leo, and Josh informed him in a superior tone that he had made the same decision when he was eight.

Deciding to save the best for last they set the box aside and opened "Gray's Anatomy" first. Holding the book across their knees, they sat side by side and slowly flipped the pages. The book had a lot of technical information that told them much of what they wanted to know. After a while, however, it felt like homework so they turned to the box of photos. Both were silent at first, looking at the pictures with increasing fascination.

"I think I know now why Pop got all flustered when we had that talk," Josh finally commented, his eyes glued to a picture of a naked woman and a naked man arranged in what looked like it had to be a painful position.

"Do people's limbs bend that way?" Sam wondered.

"Sure, if she puts her leg up here." Josh had his hand halfway to his shoulder when his imagination caught up with him. "Oh."

"You're blushing."

"Am not."

"Are so..." Sam poked Josh in the ribs, unerringly getting him in a ticklish spot.

Josh flinched and laughed. "Cut it out."

Sam zeroed in again, this time purposely tickling Josh. Leaning away from him, Josh tried to ward off the evil fingers.

"Stop it, Sam!" he begged, but Sam ignored his pleas and tackled him instead. Josh tumbled over onto his side with Sam falling on top of him, still tormenting him.

Josh squirmed under the assault and pushed at Sam's shoulders to get him off. Sam was skinny but he had a wiry strength that made it difficult for the bigger, more muscular Josh to succeed in his purpose. Lying half on top of Josh, Sam dug in with the determination of a child. Despite his recent growth spurt, Sam was still mostly a boy with a boy's zest for fun. The top of his bowed head was pressed up under Josh's nose. The scent of soap assailed Josh's nostrils. It was a familiar scent. It smelled like Sam, but it had never affected him so strangely before.

Josh's head spun and he got a recognizable fluttery sensation deep in his belly. Sam moved again, laughing, his knee rubbing against Josh's thigh. The flutter grew stronger. Josh felt the blood rush from his head. Suddenly he sat up wide-eyed, shoving Sam away with one burst of strength.

Sam sprawled on the grass and looked at him in confusion. "Hey, what'd you do that for?"

Gulping for air, Josh gained his feet. "I gotta go."

"Go where?"

He scrambled up the bank, boots sliding on the grass. Running across the field he heard Sam call his name, but he didn't look back.

#

Standing on the front porch, Abbey stared out across the yard to where Sam wandered listlessly under the trees kicking at offending pinecones. When her husband, dusty from a day's work on the range, trotted his horse up to her, she nodded in the direction of their son.

"He's been like that since yesterday. There's obviously something bothering him," she noted, "but he won't tell me what it is."

Jed swung down out of the saddle. "Boys his age are always bothered by something, Abbey. I seem to recall being bothered by you when we met."

Not really trying to hide her smile, she looked at Jed. "We met when you were twenty and I was a mere girl of eighteen. That's hardly an accurate comparison." She paused. "Do you think it's a girl that's got Sam so moody?"

Jed shrugged. "Leo said that Josh is acting the same way. He tried to talk to him, but Josh shied away from any mention of Sam like our son had the plague."

"Oh no. Did they have a fight? It would be a shame if they did."

"Could be their first one. They've been friends for a lot of years now and always seemed to get along fine." Jed frowned. "Leo and I had our first fight when we were about that age."

"There's barely a year's difference between you and Leo. Sam and Josh are three years apart and they're maturing at a different rate. It might be a case of Sam feeling left out, of Josh discovering girls and Sam being a bit too young yet to appreciate the delicate sex."

Jed snorted. "Delicate?"

"Yes, delicate," Abbey said firmly. "And don't forget that I can still beat up on you so don't disagree with me."

Holding his hands up in mock surrender, Jed shook his head. "I learned long ago never to disagree with you. Not where you can hear me anyway."

Abbey patted his cheek. "Smart man."

They shared a smile, but the sight of their despondent son once again captured their attention as he walked alone among the fir trees. They watched him for a while, and then went inside to discuss what they were going to say to him when he came in for dinner.

#

Leo sighed and picked up his scotch. Swirling it around in the glass he stared into the amber liquid. He was sunk deep into his favourite chair. He seemed to spend a lot of time there lately, creating an invisible wall around himself.

"Are you listening to me?" Jenny asked.

"Yes, dear."

"Then what did I say?"

"Something about shopping," he muttered, not really interested.

"That's right. I want to take Mallory shopping."

That statement permeated the thickening alcohol-induced fog in his brain. He peered at his wife through bleary eyes. "Wait. Aren't you always saying that there aren't any good stores to shop in Broken River?"

"And that's why we're going to take a little trip." Jenny spoke with exaggerated patience. That fact alone told Leo that she was feeling anything but patient, and he suspected he knew why.

"Where to? San Francisco?"

"Boston."

He sat up straighter. "Why the hell would you want to go across the country to go shopping? Frisco's closer."

Sitting on a chair across from him Jenny said, "It's not exactly a shopping trip, Leo. I'm taking Mallory and we're moving back home."

"This is home, Jen. We've been here for nearly nine years."

"It may be your home, Leo, but mine is in Boston."

As they stared at one another, Leo found he didn't have the energy to fight to keep his wife with him on the ranch. He supposed he should care, but it seemed like too much trouble.

"Are you taking Josh, too?" He knew the answer to that question.

"No. Josh is your son."

"Yeah. You never did show much interest in his welfare. It was always Mallory. Only Mallory."

Jenny looked tired as she stared into the fireplace. "We're leaving tomorrow afternoon on the train. Our bags are packed."

He nodded. "You planned this well."

"I know it seems like I don't care about Josh. It's not that I don't want to. I...can't, Leo. Every time I look at him, I see his mother and father and that poor dear sister of his. I remember their screams as their home was engulfed in flames."

"You weren't there."

"I can imagine it. I hear it in my head."

The silence hung heavy between them.

"It wasn't his fault, Jenny," Leo said wearily. "It's not like he set fire to the house on purpose."

Standing, she said, "Look after him, Leo. He needs some guidance now. I don't know what's bothering him, but he looks miserable."

"I'm surprised you noticed."

Her mouth tightening, Jenny spun on her heel and went upstairs. Leo cursed softly under his breath and reached for his glass. Lifting it to his mouth he hesitated and then set it back down. Rubbing his hands over his face he growled into his palms and then slapped them down on his knees. Standing, he followed Jenny upstairs.

#

Three more days passed during which Josh continued to avoid Sam. Jenny had taken Mallory and moved back to Boston. Leo spent most of the time inside a whisky bottle. Jed and Abbey finally persuaded him to bring Josh to their house and moved them into the spare rooms. It was harder for Josh to stay away from Sam, but he managed it for the most part. They ate meals together, but Josh wouldn't meet Sam's eyes at the dinner table. He let Sam ride ahead of him on the way to school and continued to ignore him in class. Mrs. Landingham noticed the distance between them, but she didn't have any better luck in getting Josh to open up than had the other adults in his life. Sam then decided he was the only one who could get Josh to talk to him again.

#

It was easy to track him. Sam knew all of Josh's hideouts, since they were his as well. It took him quite a while to go to each one, but he finally spotted Josh's mare grazing in the pasture near the river. Josh was in their clearing, the place where they'd been the day Josh had bolted like a rabbit. Sam was determined to find out the reason for his friend's recent odd behaviour.

He dismounted his horse and tethered him to a tree a fair distance from the mare. He didn't want the horse's friendly whinny giving him away. Sam figured he'd have to sneak up on Josh to have any chance in getting him to talk. Briefly he thought about carrying his lariat with him in case he had to rope Josh to a tree first. He decided that was silly and then walked towards the clearing, taking the long way around so as not to excite the mare.

Sliding down the riverbank Sam thought he heard a voice. As he got closer to the hiding spot, he was fairly certain he heard something. Listening hard he crept towards the thicket. It sounded like Josh but he couldn't make out the words. Then the voice got louder, and Sam realized that he wasn't talking at all. It sounded more like a groan. Alarmed, Sam crashed through the brush certain his friend was injured.

What he saw brought him up short. Josh lay on his back with his pants down around his knees, his shirt pulled up, and his fingers curled around his erection.

"Josh!" Sam blurted out at the same moment that Josh gushed semen onto his belly yelling Sam's name as he did. Thinking that Josh was just surprised to see him, Sam stepped forward.

Josh's reaction confused him as he cried out, "Sam!" a second time. It dawned on Sam that his friend was just now realizing that he was there. Josh wriggled onto his knees and tried to pull up his pants. It was an impossible position to be in for that purpose. He lay back down and lifted his hips so he could yank his trousers up. Then he got up on his knees again and finally stood, turning his back on Sam to fasten the buttons.

"Go away, Sam."

Hearing a catch in Josh's voice, Sam stepped up close behind him, touching him on the shoulder. Josh flinched from the contact, still facing away.

"Josh?"

"Please go away, Sam."

"No. Not until you tell me why you've been avoiding me."

"Oh, Sammy. You weren't supposed to know."

"Know what? Talk to me, Josh. I thought we were friends."

"We are..."

Reaching out, Sam put both hands on Josh's shoulders. This time his friend did not pull away, but he trembled under Sam's touch.

"Josh, talk to me."

"No."

"If you're embarrassed about what you just did, don't be. I do it too. You know I do."

Slowly Josh turned around, his face flushed. "Yeah. I guess you do."

"So what's the problem? Is it because I saw you? I didn't mean to intrude. I thought...I've been worried about you because you wouldn't talk to me. Did I do something? Let me fix whatever it is."

"Sammy, you can't fix it. I'm just mixed up about stuff is all."

"We always tell each other what's bothering us. Why not now?"

Josh shrugged, looking at the ground. "I dunno. It's different now. I'm going to be going away to school in a few months. I guess I'm just worried about that."

"All the more reason for us to spend as much time together as we can. We won't see each other for nearly a year after you leave."

"Yeah."

"I'm going to miss you, Josh."

Josh looked like he was going to cry so Sam moved closer, wrapping his arms around Josh's back when he tried to keep the distance between them. Inch by inch the tension left Josh's body, the last of it evaporating with a wrenching shudder as he finally brought his arms up to return the embrace. Sam rested his head on Josh's shoulder, tucked up under his ear. The two young men clung to one another there in the clearing. Sam felt the hot tears that leaked from Josh's eyes running down his neck, but he didn't care. He was with Josh again and that was all that mattered.

On the Frontier 4/18

Rating for this part: NC17

** Warning: Sam is 15 now and involved in a sexual situation. If reading about an under-aged character having sex makes you uncomfortable, do not read any further.

To make up for time lost during the period of awkwardness between them, the boys became inseparable over the next few weeks. As their parents observed, they were living inside each other's skin again. Josh had a strong personality but he often let Sam take the lead in their relationship. Not always, though. He continued in his role of protector, and if someone threatened his friend Josh was like a bulldog snapping and barking in their face. Sam could handle himself, too, but rarely got the opportunity to do so and didn't seem to mind.

#

In honour of Josh going away to university, Jed and Abbey threw a party. Also, Sam had turned 15 several months earlier; Josh would soon be 18, and all seemed to be good reasons to celebrate.

The festivities were held the night before Josh's departure. Friends, neighbours, and many of the ranching families surrounding the town were invited. Food and drink were in abundance. Music was supplied by a group of fiddlers, and the big yard in front of the Bartlet home was set up as a dance area. Even Mrs. Landingham was there with her husband and their twin sons. The Landingham men worked on the family ranch while she continued to teach school.

Sam offered to help with refreshments but Abbey told him to go find Josh and enjoy himself. He did not hesitate, but took off at a run searching the revellers for his friend. He found Josh trying to get out of dancing with Becky Robstad. The girl held Josh captive by his hands. He was standing at arm's length from her looking very uncomfortable.

"C'mon, Josh. It's easy. You just put your arms around me and start dancing."

"It's the dancing part of dancing that I have trouble with," Josh confessed.

"I'll teach you." She hauled on him so that he was suddenly pressed up against her.

Sam watched from a few feet away. Becky was a pretty blonde who had had her eye on Josh for most of the last year. If she was looking to snare him before he left to go back East to school, Sam figured she was out of luck. His friend wasn't interested in commitments, nor was he particularly interested in Becky. She didn't seem to understand any of that while it was obvious to Sam, but then he knew Josh. Becky didn't know him at all -- not at all. After observing Becky's misguided attempts at charming her man, Sam had enough and stepped forward.

"Becky, I think Darren Miller wants a dance with you," he told her. It might not have been a lie; he hadn't spoken to Darren all evening, but knew that the boy had a crush on Becky. Surely he'd want to dance with her.

"He does?" Her blonde ringlets swung as she looked around for Darren.

"Yeah, he's over there by the punchbowl."

She glanced at Josh, who refrained from looking interested. Reaching a decision, she said, "Um, Josh, I should go see..."

"Yeah. Go ahead. See you later, Becky."

"Right. Later." Her attention was no longer on her reluctant dance partner as she walked away, presumably in search of Darren.

"Thanks, Sam."

Grinning, Sam said, "You looked like you needed to be rescued."

"Yeah, she's kind of pushy. Now if it had been Melissa Evans, I might have sacrificed myself and danced with her."

Sam's smile faltered. Gamely forcing his expression back to the way it was, he said, "Maybe you should find her and ask her."

"What? No. I was joking, Sam." Josh really looked at him. "I'm not wasting any more time. This is our last night together. I'm spending it with you."

Suddenly feeling like he owned the world, Sam touched Josh's sleeve. "Come on, then."

"Where are we going?"

"You'll see."

Winding his way through the crowd, Sam led him to the barn. Climbing up to the loft they settled comfortably in the hay. The music flowed up to the rafters and beyond, and the laughter of good friends enjoying themselves followed. The young men sat cross-legged, facing each other in the light filtering up from the lanterns strung around the yard.

"I'm going to miss you, Josh. Who am I gonna talk to when you're gone?" Sam's voice wobbled. All of the fear and melancholy he'd been experiencing lately welled up. "Dammit! I wasn't going to do this." He rubbed at his eyes.

"Sam," Josh said softly. "It'll be okay. I'll write, and you can write me every day. It'll be summer again before you know it, and I'll come home. We can spend the whole summer together."

"Yeah."

"Won't be long before you'll be going away to school, too. We can be roommates at college and when we're both lawyers we can open that practice we talked about."

"Sounds simple."

"It is simple," Josh insisted. "It will happen. I promise."

Blinking, Sam mustered a smile. "Okay. Then I promise -- too."

"Good."

Changing the topic, Sam asked, "Did you dance at all tonight?"

Snorting, Josh replied, "You know I'm not much of a dancer. I can get by, but I don't know any of the fancy steps. The girls like it if a fella can do more than a two step."

"Trying to impress the girls, are you?" One of Sam's eyebrows quirked up at the end of the question, as he contemplated the idea of Josh dancing the night away with Becky and Melissa, not to mention Jean, Rose, and Della, who had also been eyeing his handsome friend.

"No. Gee, Sam. What's with you tonight? I'm not dancing with anyone. I'm here with you because I want to be. I'm not interested in any of the girls, just you." He froze, his eyes wide. "Uh, I mean...that is, that didn't come out right."

The beat of his heart hesitating in its rhythm, Sam said quietly, "It sounded fine to me."

Josh simply stared back at him, and for one of the few times since Sam knew him his expression was unreadable. He reached out, "Josh..."

Jumping to his feet, Josh paced away. His hand running through his hair, he said mostly to the piles of hay nearby, "I might have to learn how to dance properly when I'm at school. I hear that they have a lot of parties."

Sam got up and moved closer. "I know how."

"Huh?"

"I know how to dance."

"When did that happen?"

Grinning at the less panicked tone in Josh's voice, Sam said, "I've always known how to dance. Ma taught me when I was really little and I remember it."

"How come I didn't know that?"

He shrugged. "Maybe because you never noticed? You don't always see what's right under your nose, Josh."

"Show me."

"What?"

"Sh-show me."

"Now who's the stutterer?" Sam teased.

"Please, Sam? Will you teach me how to dance? I don't want to be the outsider again. Not at college. I couldn't stand it."

Impulsively, Sam moved closer and looked up into the worried hazel eyes of his best friend. Taking Josh's left hand in his he pulled gently, leading him out of the shadows and over to the middle of the hayloft.

"Okay, you know how to get started?"

Josh nodded. He was biting his bottom lip, but placed one hand on Sam's shoulder. He let Sam take the other one so that their palms were pressed together with fingers interlaced.

"Listen to the music and just follow me."

With Sam leading they managed a few awkward turns around the loft, letting the strains of music from outside guide them. Josh relaxed almost immediately, his eyes on his feet as they moved. After he stepped on Sam's foot the third time, Sam called a halt.

"Maybe you should lead," he said. "You're going to have to...with the girls, and you're taller than I am."

"'Kay." Taking a deep breath, Josh began again. It went far better this time, and soon they were dancing effortlessly in perfect synchronization. The hand that Sam held on Josh's shoulder slipped down to his bicep, his fingers gripping the muscle. Mirroring his movement, Josh slid the hand at Sam's waist down to his hip. Sam moved closer, his eyes still fixed on Josh's face. Shifting his grip on the arm again, Sam turned it into a caress. The warmth of Josh's hand in his own radiated down Sam's arm. In fact, heat came off both of them in waves.

Neither noticed when their dance slowed to a shuffle. Standing very close, their eyes were locked in a stare that threatened to melt Sam from the inside out. Rising up on the balls of his feet, he brought his face up to Josh's, hesitating just a moment before he touched their lips together. Noses bumping, they found the right position and finally kissed. Mouths clung and pressed in again and again. Sam parted his lips slightly and found Josh's tongue at the entrance. He opened for him, and stroked along the side of it as Josh curiously explored the interior of Sam's mouth.

Adjusting their hold on one another, Josh's arms went around Sam's back while the younger man hung onto Josh's neck and shoulders as if he was saving Sam from drowning. It wasn't enough. Needing more, Sam pulled Josh down into the hay, and manoeuvred him onto his back. Then he lay down on top of him. They shifted around until Sam's knee was between Josh's thighs. Sam rested his weight on his elbows and gazed down at Josh's flushed countenance. Their bodies were all hard planes and ridges chafing one against the other as they moved restlessly.

Sam was acting purely on instinct. He'd never gotten this far with any of the girls his age that flirted incessantly and then flounced off the moment he tried to kiss them. Peeking out of the shallow implications of that thought was the realization that he had never wanted to do anything more with them than to kiss them. It was always Josh who occupied his dreams. He moved then, his pelvis rubbing against Josh, and felt his interest returned tenfold.

Groaning, Josh lifted his hips to increase the contact. The heat between them made Sam sweat and his erection throb.

"J-Josh?"

"Yeah?" Josh sounded breathless.

"I need...I need you to..."

"I know, Sammy. Me too." Josh reached up to cup Sam's face. He drew him down across his chest and their mouths met in a hungry kiss that was clinging and wet and hot. They were somewhat awkward in their inexperience, but their passion made up for the lack.

Wriggling on top of him, Sam ground into Josh. He had to become a part of him. He was on fire and the only relief was in the form of Josh.

Sam's hands went to the belt buckle digging into him from below. If he could get Josh's pants open... Evidently Josh had a similar idea as he fumbled with the buttons on the shirt Sam wore. His hands slipped inside it to stroke the skin, his touch inflaming Sam.

"God, Sam. If you don't hold still I'm gonna finish too soon."

"Can't help it. Moving feels so good."

Sam got up on his knees. Pushing his pants down, Sam dragged Josh's trousers past his hips. He indulged in a little exploration, his hands finding the source of Josh's heat. He stroked the length of it briefly before lying down on top of Josh again. They moved together, finding a pace and rhythm that suited them, rubbing and pushing, blindly seeking a goal that felt maddeningly elusive.

Stretching up for another kiss, Sam moaned when Josh took his bottom lip into his mouth and nibbled on it. "This is what kissing is supposed to be about," Josh murmured.

"Mm hmm."

Squirming harder, needing relief right now Sam desperately bucked his hips. Josh thrust up, meeting and matching his unrestrained movements. Then sweet triumph roared through Sam, while Josh quaked with his own release.

His head resting on Josh's chest, Sam listened to the frenzied beat under his ear. Josh gulped air while his hand stroked Sam's hair.

"That was incredible."

"Uh huh," Sam agreed shakily. It was more than incredible if there was such a word to describe the momentous event. He licked his lips. "I love you, Josh."

They were both startled at the unexpected sound of Leo's voice. "Josh! Are you up there?"

"It's Pop!" Josh whispered, sitting up and dislodging Sam from on top of him.

They scrambled to their feet, brushing hay off their clothing and out of their hair. They hurriedly pulled their pants up, and Sam buttoned his shirt.

"Josh? Sam!" Leo's voice was closer. They both leaned over the railing and saw Leo looking up at them from the floor of the barn. "We need to get home, Josh. Our things are at our place and we have to make sure you're all packed for tomorrow."

"Be right down, Pop."

"Hurry up, then." Leo walked out of the barn.

"He'll know, Sam. He'll know what we've been doing."

"Maybe he won't," Sam offered. He was wondering how he was going to get inside the house and clean up without his parents finding out. His skin was sticky under his clothing. They would find out, too. He couldn't see how he was going to keep this a secret from them.

"Sam, you have to promise me you won't talk about it with anyone."

"Who am I going to talk to?" Sam didn't like Josh's anxious tone. He said and did stupid things when he got upset like that.

"I don't know. Just don't do it."

"Okay. I won't." If he sounded a bit petulant, Sam figured he was owed it. Josh was getting that look on his face. It was the one he wore right before he said something that made Sam want to slug him in the jaw.

"This can't happen again, Sam. We can't ever do this again."

That was it -- the stupid thing. Sam's fists clenched at his sides.

"Josh," he began.

They heard Leo again. "Josh! Get down here now. I'm leaving without you." Then he muttered, clearly audible to their ears, "Like that's a threat that will work. Josh!"

"I'll be right down." He turned and headed for the ladder.

Sam caught up with him, his hand on Josh's arm. "Josh, wait. We need to talk."

Shaking him off, Josh said, "Nothing to talk about, Sam. I gotta go." He clambered down the ladder with Sam following.

Catching up with Leo, they found themselves with Abbey and Jed in front of them, too. Jed put his arm around his son, but hesitated before leading him across the yard towards the house. Sam did not miss the look his father shot his mother. She looked puzzled and something passed between them. He hated when they did that. Meanwhile Leo guided Josh along behind them. At the porch, Jed stopped and spoke to his guests as the music died down.

"I want to thank all of our good friends and neighbours for helping us celebrate our sons' futures. Tomorrow Josh leaves for Harvard University in Massachusetts to pursue his dream of becoming a lawyer, and next week Sam begins his second last year of school. He's informed us that he, too, wants a legal career. Sounds to me like we'll all have to watch our backs once they set up practice."

The crowd laughed appreciatively. Many of the people present had watched the boys grow up and knew them well. Sam stood between his parents, taller than both of them, and thought about how he wanted to strangle his best friend. Josh glanced in his direction and then looked away again. Sam gritted his teeth, convincing himself he was only angry instead of also feeling hurt and disappointed.

"Continue to enjoy yourselves, folks. Abbey and I will be back out shortly to join you." Jed waved and the fiddlers took it as a signal to begin playing again. Another one of those incomprehensible looks passed between Sam's parents. "Inside, you two."

With his father gripping him firmly by the arm, Sam was propelled into the house ahead of Josh. In the parlour they were made to sit next to each other while the adults stood over them. No one looked happy. Sam felt the heat coming off Josh where their legs touched. It should have made him feel good, but it didn't.

His arms folded across his chest, Jed glared at them both. Confirming Sam's fear that he had picked up on the uncharacteristic mood between the two young men Jed said, "All right, you two. What's going on? Did you fight?"

Sam and Josh saw the way out at the same time and started talking over top of one another. Jed stopped them just as quickly.

"Hold it. One at a time."

Glancing at Josh, Sam took the initiative. "We weren't fighting exactly. We went up to the loft to talk and things got out of hand."

"That's usually how fights start. Go on." Jed prompted them with a wave of his hand.

"We, uh, disagreed on what we're going to call our firm when we're both graduated from law school," Josh lied.

Sam groaned inwardly, keeping his eyes down lest he give it away. It was such a dumb thing to say.

"That's it?" Leo exploded. "You fought over something that's years down the road? Of all the dumb things..."

Sam smirked. Just like he thought.

Abbey came over to sit on Sam's right side, her arm going around him. He heard her quiet intake of breath and turned to look at her. She seemed startled. He didn't understand why. Then she smiled sadly and hugged him. Confused, he hugged back.

"My baby," she whispered in his ear, and released him.

Leo and Jed were still talking with raised voices, directing their frustration at the boys. Abbey spoke quietly, "Jed. Leo." A minute shake of her head stopped both of them from further ranting.

Yet another one of those looks passed between Leo and Abbey this time. Staring at her, he said, "Okay, Josh. Let's go home. You can say your goodbyes at the train station tomorrow."

Now he was really confused, but Sam figured if they were going to get off this easy he had better not argue. Just before Leo hustled him out the door, Josh shot Sam a puzzled look. Sam raised his eyebrows in his version of a shrug. Then one corner of Josh's mouth quirked up and Sam felt an answering smile arrive on his mouth. It was going to be very difficult to stay angry with Josh he thought, before remembering that he wasn't so much mad as disappointed, and his smile vanished.

#

The conductor was calling for the passengers to board. Soon Josh would step aboard that train and leave behind his home and family. He was headed for Cambridge, which was close to Boston, a city he vaguely remembered from childhood, but it wouldn't be the same. Boston had Jenny and Mallory, not that he planned on spending much time with them, but Leo had let them know Josh was on his way. Broken River had Sam.

He looked at his friend whose glower indicated he was still angry...or something. At least Sam met his eyes. That had to mean something hopeful. Josh tried a tentative smile. No response.

Abbey reached up to put her hands on his shoulders and Josh turned to face her. She was obviously trying not to cry, but her tears didn't dare fall without her permission.

"You take care of yourself, Josh. Eat right and get plenty of sleep and come back to us healthy, you hear?"

Josh bent to wrap his arms around her shoulders and pressed his cheek against her hair. "I promise, Aunt Abbey."

Jed was next and grabbed Josh in a bear hug that left him breathless. "Study hard, son. You'll be a success. I know it."

"Thanks, Uncle Jed."

Josh wavered between reaching out to Sam and getting on the train. Leo took the decision away from Josh by putting his hands on either side of his son's face. As he gazed into Leo's warm brown eyes, Josh knew he had to succeed at school.

"The best thing that ever happened to me was when you consented to be my son. I'll always be proud of you, Josh, no matter what you do or who you become."

"You're coming with me to get me settled, Pop. Remember?"

"I know. Humour me. I'm being all fatherly here."

Swallowing hard, Josh threw himself into his father's arms and hung on. Then the train whistle blew and it was time to get on board. He looked again at Sam. Those big blue eyes he always got lost in gazed back at him, and he realized by the lack of recrimination in them that Sam was waiting for something.

Josh took a step forward, chewing on his lip. "Sammy, I..." He couldn't finish the sentence. He knew what he wanted to say, but couldn't do it. He could not and would not ruin Sam's life by letting him think that what they had done in the loft last night would lead to anything more.

His face crumpling, Sam rushed the rest of the distance between them and they hung onto one another never wanting to let go. "Come home soon, Josh." A shock went through him when he felt Sam's warm lips brush his neck. Josh tightened his hold knowing he did not deserve his friend's love.

"Come on, son," Leo said quietly. "Time to go."

Reluctantly, Josh let Sam slide out of his embrace. "Goodbye, Sam."

"Bye, Josh."

Then Leo led him to the train and they boarded. From the window of their compartment, Josh looked out and wished he could do something to wipe that sad expression off Sam's face. All he was able to do was wave goodbye and watch as his best friend waved back.

On the Frontier 5/18

Rating: R -- Sam/f

After seeing Josh and Leo off on their cross-country trek, the Bartlets returned to the ranch. Sam went straight up to his room without saying a word to either of his parents. Abbey watched him climb the stairs; the droop of his shoulders and his heavy gait emphasized his despondency. After he disappeared from view, she turned to Jed.

"Poor dear. He's really going to miss Josh."

"We'll all miss having Josh around. It was like having two sons."

Slipping her hand into the crook of her husband's arm, Abbey led him into the parlour. "We need to talk," she said firmly.

"Am I going to regret this talk?" he asked letting her escort him to his favourite chair. He lowered himself into it and looked up at her expectantly.

"Sam had sex last night."

It took Jed a moment to form a response to that statement. "Is that what that whole thing was all about in here?" he asked finally. "You behaved like your son told you the world was coming to an end, and he didn't say a word."

"He's your son, too, Jed."

"He's fifteen, Abbey. Most fifteen-year-old boys are interested in girls."

"Sam isn't most boys. He had sex last night with Josh. It was written all over their faces."

Jed remained quiet for a few moments. Finally, he said, "Yeah. I noticed."

"I knew you had. I would have said something sooner, but didn't want us to have an argument before bed last night." Abbey asked, "What are we going to do about this?"

"Do? What is there to do? They're best friends. They love each other."

"Sam is too young."

"Obviously not, if he figured out how to have sex. Besides, Josh might meet someone while he's away at school and that will be the end of it." Jed picked up a newspaper, unfolded it, refolded it, and put it down unread.

Abbey watched him. "Not the end. Our son's heart will be broken."

"Possibly not. I went away to school. I met you, and Leo's heart is fine. He didn't wither up and die just because you and I got married."

"That's different," she countered.

"I don't see how. Leo and I became lovers at sixteen. Here we are twenty years later and we're still good friends. Besides, you never seemed to have a problem with my relationship with Leo."

"I don't have a problem with your relationship with Leo. I love Leo almost as much as you do." Abbey said sternly, her voice quavering, "You're my husband and a grown man. Sam is my son, my baby."

"He's not a baby anymore." Jed opened his arms and Abbey sat in his lap, settling in for a hug. Jed ran his hand down her side and let it rest on her hip.

"M-Ma? Pa?" They both turned to look at Sam standing in the doorway.

"Come in, son. We were just talking about you," Jed beckoned.

"I know." He moved further into the room, and stood with his hands jammed into his pants' pockets. "I heard."

Their eyes meeting briefly, Jed and Abbey looked back at him. "How much did you hear, Sam?" Abbey asked. The hand clutching her husband's arm tightened slightly.

"Most of it." Sam fidgeted, uncomfortable under their gazes.

Jed cleared his throat. "Now, son. I hope you don't get the wrong idea. Your Uncle Leo is a very good friend of ours, and the three of us have been through a lot together..."

"It's okay. I guess you and Uncle Leo are kinda like me and Josh." Sam pulled a hand out of his pocket and scratched the side of his nose. "You love each other. The difference is you both chose different paths and got married. I don't know what will happen with us. Right now all I'm sure about is that I love Josh. I want to spend the rest of my life with him even though he isn't sure of what he wants."

"That's a very mature observation, son," Jed told him.

"I just wanted you to know that Josh and I," he stopped, and then tried again. "Well, I love him. He didn't want me to tell anyone about us, and I promised I wouldn't, but I thought since you figured it out I should," he paused, and then finished in a rush, "I should at least admit the truth to you both." He bit his lip in an effort to stop it from trembling.

"Honey," Abbey said gently, reaching out to take his hand in hers, "did Josh make you do that with him?"

"Of course not!" Sam said indignantly. "Josh isn't like that. He loves me too. It was my idea. I wanted to and he wanted to, so we did."

He shoved a hand through his hair, pushing it out of his eyes. "Anyway, I just wanted you to know."

"How do you feel, Sam?" Abbey asked.

"Lonely," he said bleakly and walked out of the room.

#

Nearly a week passed during which Sam's parents observed that he was doing a fine job of brooding. He spent a lot of time writing something; a small sheaf of papers seemed to be ever present. When asked if he was writing a letter to Josh, he replied that it was not a letter and then went back to scrawling intently.

Abbey said, "Spend some time with him, Jed. Take his mind off Josh."

"I don't have time to go fishing or whatever it is that he'll want to do. I'm a busy man. I have a meeting with the Cattleman's Association later this afternoon."

"So go fishing another time. Take him with you into town. Don't you want to spend time with your son?"

"Of course I do." Jed softened his glower. "All right. He can come with me. Maybe we'll stay in town and get dinner, just the two of us."

"That would be wonderful. Thank you, darling."

The corners of Jed's mouth turned down. "Some father I am that you have to thank me for paying attention to my son."

"Nonsense. You're a good father. Take him with you and, while you're at it, see that he gets a haircut."

#

Jed and Sam left early enough so they didn't have to rush. Keeping their horses at a walk, they ambled along enjoying the warm day. Jed glanced over at his son who rode in morose silence.

"Who said you could be so tall?" Jed asked.

Startled at the sound of his father's voice, Sam looked up, one corner of his mouth quirking up at the teasing tone.

"You can't be my son," Jed continued, "and you certainly don't take after your mother."

"Pa," Sam laughed.

"We must be feeding you too much. Look at you. Growing like a bad weed, all arms and legs. I think we just won't let you eat for a few weeks. See if that shrinks you back down to Bartlet size."

Accepting the good-natured joking, Sam let his gaze drift back out to the horizon where it had been earlier. He leaned heavily on the saddle horn.

"Sam, I wish I could tell you that you'll feel better, that what you're feeling now will go away. A young man's first love is something he never forgets. The pain will dull after awhile, but it will always be there. It might be more difficult for you since you and Josh are such good pals. I only hope you find your way back from the disappointments of this experience, and that your friendship with Josh doesn't suffer."

Looking like he might protest the very idea that their relationship would be altered, Sam hesitated. When he finally spoke it was to say, "I hope so, too."

#

Broken River could hardly be called a boomtown, but through trade and commerce its population had risen steadily and it was now a busy community of about twelve hundred. As Jed and Sam rode down the main street they saw the farmer's wives shopping at the new dry goods store, or peering in the dressmaker's window to look at the latest fashions from back East. They heard the pounding of hooves coming up behind them and watched as a bunch of cowhands from a cattle drive camped outside of town rode past them, headed for the saloon to spend their hard-earned money. Jed nodded to some of his colleagues visiting in front of the telegraph office. The men acknowledged him by calling greetings to him and Sam before they picked up their conversation again. There were now several restaurants in town proclaiming either "Home Cooking" or "San Francisco Style" meals. Farther up the street was the upscale Delmonico's, which was where Jed had to go for his Cattleman's Association meeting. First, however, he took Sam to the barbershop.

Sam emerged from under the white barber's cape with hair that was shorter than it had been in years. He looked more like the nearly adult man he had become recently. Swelling with fatherly pride, Jed swallowed hard at the sight of his tall, handsome son with his newly shorn locks.

Fidgeting in front of a mirror, Sam ran a hand repeatedly over the top and back of his skull. He still had a thick head of hair; it was just neater and inches shorter now.

"You look fine, son," Jed reassured him and paid for the haircut. Sam glanced forlornly at the pile of hair the barber was sweeping off the floor, and then he followed his father out of the shop and down the wooden sidewalk. Crossing the street on the way to Delmonico's they passed by a corner building where several women leaned out the upper windows and called to men on the streets. Jed kept walking, keeping one eye on Sam to make sure he was still with him.

"Hey, good lookin'."

Sam's step faltered. His head whipped around and up when he realized the dark-haired girl in the second story window was talking to him.

"Yeah, you. Good looking." She winked at him.

"Come along, son," Jed urged. Sam followed, but kept glancing over his shoulder.

Jed stopped then and looked contemplatively at Sam, who was staring over his shoulder at the girl. He held a hand out to stop Sam who kept walking, not noticing when his father halted. "Let's go back this way."

"Where are we going, Pa?" Sam asked as his father headed down a side street.

"Looking for a door," Jed told him. When they came upon a nondescript entrance near the back of the building, Jed looked around and then went inside. He motioned for Sam to follow him.

#

Lamps with tassels dangling from the shades lighted the interior of the building. The wallpaper was cream and red and gold. Several long, low couches lined the room and men and women were on them. The men sat and smiled a lot while the women draped themselves all over them. A man seated at a piano played some ragtime and generally kept the mood in the room upbeat. It seemed to be working as raucous laughter filled the air.

Sam gaped as he hung back near the door. His father nodded to an older lady with white-blonde hair piled high on her head. Jewels hung from her neck and wrists, and rings lined her fingers. She came forward to greet Jed.

"I don't think I've seen you in here before, Mister Bartlet."

"You know who I am," Jed stated, not quite asking a question.

"Everyone in Broken River knows of the richest man in the county. What may I do for you?"

He took her aside and spoke to her in a low voice. Sam watched as Jed pulled out his wallet and passed her a few bills. She smiled knowingly and turned to one of the other women, whispering to her. Sam was really getting curious as to what was going to happen. The second woman went upstairs and came back down a few minutes later followed by the dark-haired girl who had flirted with him. She walked straight to Sam and put a hand on his arm.

"Hello. I'm Laurie." She smiled at him, and Sam had the sudden feeling that she knew more about the situation than he did.

"Um, I'm S-Sam."

"Would you like to come with me, Sam?"

"J-just a minute, please. Pa?" He tugged on his father's arm to lead him away from the women. When they were far enough away, he whispered, "What's going on, Pa?"

"Well, son, I have to get to my meeting. I thought, since you and Laurie over there had made a connection, that you might want to spend some time with her, and maybe get to know her. You don't have to do anything if you don't want to. Laurie is a businesswoman. She knows a lot about these things, so don't worry. Just follow her lead and do whatever feels right." Sam's attention had wandered again, his gaze going to the pretty young woman who was still flirting with him, batting her eyes and smiling. "Sam? You can come to Delmonico's after you're done. All right?"

"Sure, Pa." Sam didn't understand what Jed meant but he trusted him, and Laurie looked like someone he might want to know better. He barely noticed when Jed went back out the same door they'd used to enter the building.

Laurie took Sam by the hand and tugged gently. He went with her upstairs and down a hallway. He heard noises emanating from the rooms, noises that he recognized, and he put two and two together. The answer made him slow his walk down the hallway. Laurie pulled on his hand.

"Come on, Sammy."

"Don't call me that." That was Josh's name for him. No one else got to use it.

She frowned. "Okay. I won't. Please come with me?"

Sam relented and continued walking. She took him into a room that had a bed and not much else. His conclusions were confirmed. He was in a bordello. His father wanted him to have sex with Laurie, or maybe not. He had said that Sam didn't have to do anything. He was letting him make his own decisions.

Laurie closed the door behind them. Going over to sit on the bed, she patted the mattress beside her. Sam hesitated then walked over and sat down. Up close Laurie was even prettier than she'd looked from out on the street. When she smiled it came straight out of her dark eyes. Her brunette ringlets framed a lovely face. Sam could tell just by looking that she was sharp-witted. There was just something about her that shouted intelligence. She wasn't vacuous like some of the girls he had seen down in the lobby.

Leaning closer, Laurie placed a soft kiss on his lips. Sam let it happen. He wasn't going to be a monk just because Josh didn't want him. After a moment Laurie pulled away. Reaching for her, Sam held her and kissed her back. She was a good kisser and he found he liked it, and he liked how soft she was under his hands. Lying down on the bed, Laurie drew him down with her, running her hands over his back and hooking a leg around one of his. Sam kissed her enthusiastically, while Laurie writhed underneath him. She moaned his name in his ear while biting the soft flesh of his lobe. Instinctively, he began to thrust, hesitantly at first then with growing fervour, his hips pressing his stirring erection against her. She was softer than Josh overall, but where their lower bodies met she was both hard and soft. Before either of them could get too worked up, she pushed him off of her and got off the bed. Her hands went to the fasteners on the back of her dress, expertly undoing it. The low cut frock dropped to the floor leaving her standing in frilly undergarments.

Sam's mouth went dry as he ran his gaze up and down her petite figure. She removed her camisole and then the rest of her clothing.

Staring openly, Sam scooted over to the edge of the bed and reached out to touch her. He ran his hands from her elbows down her arms to just above her wrists. "You're very pretty."

Even though she was completely bared to his gaze she stood boldly in front of him. "Thank you, Sam."

Laurie moved to stand within the circle of his arms and bent to kiss him again. Sam kissed back. Then he stopped.

"I can't."

"Don't be afraid, Sam. I promise to be gentle with you."

"It's not that."

Puzzled, Laurie tilted her head. "What's wrong?"

"I can't... I'm not..." he glanced down.

Misunderstanding, Laurie said, "I swear I felt some interest down there, but I can help you with that, Sam." She knelt on the bed beside him, her hand reaching for his belt.

He clamped a hand on her wrist. "Don't."

"Oh, please don't tell me you think you want to be a priest. There's one every month."

"No. I want... I'm in love with someone."

"And your father doesn't know about her, so he thinks he's doing you a favour by leaving you here with me. Well, I won't tell your father or your girlfriend if you don't." She went for his belt again, and once more he stopped her.

"That's not it."

"Have you and your girlfriend loved yet?"

"I...I can't..."

Laurie's eyes went wide. "Oh. You mean you can't get it up? You're a little young to be having problems like that. Have you gone to a doctor?"

"No! That's not what I'm saying." Sam felt his face grow hot. It was really embarrassing discussing these things with a stranger.

"Well, what then, Sam?" She sat back and put her hands on her hips, clearly losing patience with him.

"It's not a girl that I love."

"Oh. Oh! I never would have figured you to be one of those."

"One of what?" Sam got defensive.

"You know -- a fella who likes other fellas. It's okay. I mean if that's how you're made, there's nothing I can do about it. Although, I'd like to try." She winked at him saucily.

Sam grinned back, relieved that she wasn't going to call him names or make fun of him. Laurie pulled her undergarments on and lay down again, taking him down with her, and settled in next to him. She rubbed the back of his hand while she played with his fingers.

"Tell me about your young man. What's he like?"

"You really want to know?"

"Sure. Your father paid for my time. We might as well make use of it. Besides, I like you, Sam. You're nice, not to mention very good looking." She grinned when he blushed.

"He -- his name is Josh -- he's my best friend. He's away at school now. In Cambridge."

"That's back East, right?"

"Uh huh. He's going to be a lawyer. So am I."

"So he's older than you?"

"Just three years," Sam told her.

"What does he look like?"

Sam pictured Josh in his head and smiled fondly. "Taller than me, really good looking, too."

"He must be somethin' then."

"He has curly hair that gets kinda wild. I love it when he messes it up with his hands. His smile is shy and nice. It makes me warm inside. He's a really good man; kind, smart, considerate."

Laurie's eyes glistened with moisture. "He sounds wonderful and you obviously love him. Lucky guy."

"Me or him?"

"Both of you."

"Josh doesn't want us to ever be together again like that."

"You mean you and he did...something?"

Frowning at her, Sam replied, "We made love. Yes."

"Sorry. I wasn't sure how much you know."

"I'm figuring it out," he admitted.

"Maybe you can convince Josh to change his mind. If you love each other..."

"Yeah. Maybe." Sam changed the subject. "How old are you, Laurie?"

"Nineteen. How about you?"

"I'm fifteen. Do you do this a lot?"

"Taking young men to my room to talk to them? You'd be surprised how many fellas only want to talk."

"Really?"

"Yup. I can usually persuade them to have some fun, too."

"Have there been others like me?"

"I can honestly say, Sam Bartlet, that I have never met anyone quite like you. You're special, and I mean that."

They didn't talk for a few minutes; they just lay quietly holding each other. Laurie put her head on Sam's shoulder and ran a finger down his chest until he stopped her just south of his belt buckle. "You sure you don't want to have some fun?"

Laughing, Sam got off the bed and pulled her to her feet. He kissed her hard, but there was nothing overtly sexual about it. Laurie wrapped her arms around his neck and waist.

"I'm just savouring you. Give me a minute," she told him and Sam enjoyed the embrace, resting his face in her hair. She smelled good and, he admitted to himself, she felt good, too. Lightly he ran his palms down her back. Finally he pulled away.

"I have to meet Pa."

"Yeah. See you around?"

"Maybe." Sam wasn't sure how his parents would react to him having a friendship with Laurie.

"We'll say we will and maybe it will come true."

"Okay." He turned to leave.

"Sam? I hope you and Josh find happiness together."

He mustered up a tiny smile for her. "Me too."

#

When Sam entered Delmonico's he saw his father and Mr. Landingham, Mr. Harris, and a dozen or so other ranchers seated around one of the big tables. They all wore intense expressions.

"Say you'll do it, Jed. We need you. If the government continues to undercut beef prices we'll all be in trouble. We need someone like you in Sacramento. You have a college education, which is more than a lot of us here can claim. You understand things about the economy."

"I always hoped my doctorate in economics would come in handy," Jed said dryly. "I need to think about it and discuss it with my family and with Leo when he gets back. Give me a week and I'll give you my answer then."

They agreed and the meeting broke up. Seeing Sam by the door, Jed said his goodbyes to the ranchers and walked over to him. Putting his hand on Sam's shoulder, Jed steered him outside.

"How are you, son?"

"I'm fine."

Jed appraised him. Sam grinned bashfully. "Laurie was really nice. I like her."

Ruffling Sam's hair, Jed said, "Then your afternoon went well?"

"Yup." Sam had already decided not to tell his father the truth about his encounter with Laurie unless he asked a direct question.

"That's good, son. I'm glad to hear it."

"What is that those men want you to decide?"

"Well, Sam, it seems they want me to run for Governor."

"You gonna do it?"

Jed slid his hands into his pockets and smiled slightly. "I haven't decided yet."

On the Frontier 6/18

Rating: NC17

Cambridge, Massachusetts

The door to his room banged open startling Josh so badly he dropped his essay. The pages fanned out across the floor. Bending to retrieve them, he glanced up at his visitor. John Hoynes closed the door and looked at the mess.

"Sorry about that, McGarry." Hoynes always apologized, but never truly sounded sorry. Josh simply glared at him and gathered his papers.

"What do you want, Hoynes?" They rarely called each other by their first names. It was usually McGarry and Hoynes, or when John was being particularly himself, he called Josh "Lyman", which was the surname of Josh's birth parents. Somehow, the confounding man had found out this fact years ago and never forgot it.

He and Josh had encountered one another on campus during Josh's first week at Harvard and the junior had taken the freshman under his wing, showing him where classes were held, where the library was, and introducing him to their professors and other students. Josh wasn't entirely certain he wanted to be friends with Hoynes, but so far they had gotten along well enough. He wondered if anyone was ever really a friend with the older man. Hoynes was smooth and polished and something of an enigma.

Hoynes leaned against the desk while Josh tidied his papers. "You like music, right?"

"Yeah."

"There's a string quartet recital tonight in Boston. Thought you might want to go."

"Who else is going to be there?" Josh asked.

"I don't know. People. What difference does it make?"

"It makes a big difference if those guys you've been hanging out with lately are going to be there. If they are, I'm not going."

"Come now, McGarry. You don't approve of my choice in companions?"

"It's not up to me to approve or disapprove. I'm just saying, if they are going to be there, I don't want to spend time with them."

Hoynes nodded, and Josh frowned at him. If he ever understood the man, the world would surely come to a standstill. "You know your own mind. That's good," Hoynes said finally.

"So glad you think so," Josh replied sarcastically.

Smiling in an irritating manner, Hoynes asked, "Do you want to go or not?"

"Sure. Sounds fine."

"Great. I've hired a hansom cab to take us into town. I'll pick you up at seven." And then he departed as quickly, but less noisily, as he'd arrived. Josh stared at the closed door a moment, shrugged, and went back to work.

#

Despite his original misgivings, Josh enjoyed the evening away from his studies. Even he recognized the signs that he was becoming a hermit. His normal routine consisted of going to class and returning to his room to study. He also ate and slept occasionally, only because he remembered Abbey's words to him before he left home. Even less occasionally he had dinner with Jenny and Mallory. It was still early in the school year. He thought he might do more socializing once he got past his first set of big exams. For now he immersed himself in his studies, sublimating his overwhelming loneliness. He missed Sam dreadfully.

The recital was pleasant, and the performances were well executed. Hoynes seemed to appreciate the music as much as Josh did. Other young people were there, some as couples, many in groups, and Josh did not feel uncomfortable attending with Hoynes.

After the concert, Hoynes directed the driver of the cab to take them to the house he shared with four other young men. It was a large residence that looked like it might have been a boarding house at one time. When Josh asked about it, Hoynes laughed.

"It belongs to my father," was his explanation.

Josh took another look around. Hoynes Senior had to be very wealthy if he could afford to buy and furnish a house, and let five young men live there virtually unsupervised. John explained that they had a cook at meal times and a part time housekeeper. Leo had money, Josh knew, but he hadn't bought a house for his son, which was fine with Josh.

On the way upstairs, Hoynes introduced him to two of his roommates. One was sprawled on the stairs attempting to charm his way into a young woman's clothing. She was not rejecting his advances. Josh tried not to stare as he and Hoynes stepped over the amorous couple. The second fellow came out of his room wearing only a smile and carrying a bottle of wine. Two voices, one female, one possibly not, begged him to come back inside. He shrugged and ran downstairs.

Hoynes looked at Josh. "Don't let the boys scare you off. They're a great bunch, but they like to work off the stress of the day's classes in inventive ways."

"Ah-kay. Uh, look. Maybe I should just go home." Josh pointed over his shoulder, already backing up a step.

"Wait. I want to show you something and then you can go. I won't stop you. I'll even send you back home in the cab. The driver is waiting outside." He went to a window. "See?"

Josh looked outside. The cab was indeed waiting by the curb.

"What did you want to show me?"

"Good man." Hoynes beamed at him. "It's in my room."

They entered and Josh looked around. It wasn't much different from his place. A bit tidier, perhaps.

"Well?" Josh asked. He was feeling the need to return to familiar surroundings.

Hoynes sat on the bed. "I must confess I merely wanted to spend more time with you. I like you, Josh."

"You called me Josh."

"It is your name, isn't it?"

"Well, yeah, but you always," he trailed off. "Never mind."

"Do you like me, Josh?"

There was something off about this conversation, but Josh couldn't figure it out.

"Ye-es."

"Sit down. I won't do anything you don't want me to."

Understanding hit Josh with all the force of a mule kick to the stomach. He turned and paced to the far side of the room. How did Hoynes know? Could people look at him and know that he liked men? To be honest, he liked only one man that way; he was really only attracted to Sam. Glancing back at Hoynes, he experienced some doubt. He was so tired of second-guessing himself, but he couldn't help wondering if maybe it wasn't just one man. He loved Sam as a friend but was also attracted to him sexually. Maybe that attraction meant more than what he thought it did. He thought he might like Hoynes, too. There was something simmering below the surface of their friendship. Maybe he liked men in general, after all.

Hoynes reclined on his elbows and studied Josh. After a moment, during which Josh was aware of the scrutiny but did not really see it, Hoynes got up and approached Josh. Placing his hands on Josh's shoulders, he rubbed gently.

"Relax. I only hoped that we might continue this evening by getting to know each other better. If that's going to be a problem for you, then you can leave. No hard feelings."

Staring into the blue eyes, nothing like Sam's clever, passionate blue, Josh finally saw the spark of desire there. Hoynes was so good at masking his feelings that Josh hadn't noticed it before. Now it burned brighter by the second. Hoynes leaned in until their faces were almost touching. Josh didn't feel at all threatened. In fact, he was kind of surprised to find he felt some desire for this man. Maybe it was because he was lonely and was being offered the chance to have sex. It wasn't like he had ever sought out a partner. Sam was the only one he wanted, but with Sam it went so far beyond physical need. He hadn't met anyone else who appealed to him enough to want sex with him on a casual basis, until now.

"Is this a trick to humiliate me?"

"Not at all. I merely want you in my bed. Tomorrow night it could be a young lady who catches my eye. Next week it might be another handsome young man." As he spoke, he ran the tip of his tongue around the edges of his lips.

"Will there be obligations or repercussions afterwards?" Josh asked, his mouth dry.

"No." Hoynes waited for Josh to make a decision.

Hoynes was lying. Josh knew that. Clearing his throat, he let his gaze drift down to Hoynes' mouth. He was just so damned lonely.

"Okay," he whispered.

"Excellent." Hoynes ran his hands down Josh's arms, and then urged him over to the bed. "Sit down. Please," he added when Josh hesitated.

Josh sat. He watched in fascination as Hoynes, who was barely more than a stranger to him, crouched at his feet and ran his hands along the outside of his thighs. That simple touch was enough to stir the beginning of an arousal. He shifted backwards, lifting his foot off the floor in a confused attempt at escaping.

"Easy, Josh. It's all right."

Josh tried not to flinch when John's hands skimmed over the front of his pants. Hoynes quickly undid the buttons on Josh's pants, freeing the erection trapped behind the cloth. Lowering his head he began doing things with his lips and tongue, things Josh had no idea could feel so good, things that quickly made him achingly hard. He put his hands behind him on the bed and leaned heavily on them; his head dropped back and mouth opened as countless sensations charged through him. He lifted his hips and began to thrust into Hoynes' mouth. The other man held Josh down but otherwise stayed with him. He swirled his tongue around the head of the shaft, and then he closed his mouth on Josh, sucking hard. Josh was knocked flat by the culmination. His hands slid out from under him and he bounced once on the mattress before subsiding.

Climbing up alongside him on the bed, Hoynes ran a hand over Josh's chest. "How was that?" he asked.

"That was amazing." Josh was panting lightly, feeling too smug to care that he'd just shared an intimate moment with this man.

"Glad you think so. You are going to reciprocate, I hope?" Hoynes rubbed his hand between his own legs.

Josh sat up, suddenly losing his haughtiness. "I-I never did that with anyone."

"I figured as much. It's all right, Josh. If you're willing, I'd like to teach you a few things. All you would have to do is lie there and enjoy yourself."

"But how would that help you? I mean," he broke off, blushing furiously. His limited knowledge of the subject made him unable to even imagine what Hoynes wanted with him.

"Let me show you," Hoynes said in a soft voice that did much to allay Josh's fears, and proceeded to do as he said he would.

Josh protested when John began to remove some of their clothing; it was unexpected, but Hoynes quickly put him at ease with soothing touches. Almost as soon as Josh felt more comfortable with their mutual nakedness, Hoynes drove him wild by stroking and licking him in places where he'd never been touched. More accustomed to the intimacy now, Josh pulled Hoynes up from where he was lapping at Josh's nipples. Bending his head, he tried to press his lips to John's, but the older man jerked away.

"No kissing." The expression on Hoynes' face precluded argument.

"Ah-kay," Josh croaked, baffled.

Hoynes slid down Josh's body, continuing what he'd been doing. When he had Josh squirming under him, he rolled off to the side and reached for something in a bedside table. Josh turned his head but missed seeing what it was. Then he felt Hoynes stroke him down there with wet fingers. When one finger slipped into his body, Josh tried to pull away from the intrusion.

"Easy, Josh. You want to learn, don't you?"

"Ye-yeah."

Hoynes grasped him by the hips and flipped him onto his stomach.

"What are you going to do?"

"I won't lie to you. This might hurt at first, but if you relax it will hurt a lot less."

"What are you...?" Josh didn't get to finish repeating his question before he felt something bigger than a finger bump up against him. He gasped when it slid inside, filling him. "Oh, God!"

"How are you doing, Josh?"

Through gritted teeth, he replied, "Fine."

"Just fine?" Hoynes laughed. "Let's see if we can do better than fine."

He pulled Josh up onto his knees and spread his legs, the angle causing him to go deeper. Josh thrust back and yelled when Hoynes banged against him far inside. Distantly he heard John laugh with delight, but Josh was too busy experiencing the unimaginable waves of pleasure washing through him. They strained together, Hoynes pounding Josh from behind and Josh groaning louder with each push. Reaching around, Hoynes took Josh's second erection of the night in hand and pumped him in rhythm with their thrusts. Then Hoynes shuddered and pulsed his release with Josh following soon after. John pulled out right away and fell to the side. Josh simply collapsed where he was, his face smashing into the mattress. He turned only enough to ease the pressure on his nose.

He was so relaxed now he felt limp. His eyes closed. Then from far away, he heard Hoynes speaking to him. "Get up, McGarry. Time to go home."

"You are home," Josh mumbled.

"Not me. You need to get out of here and back to your place."

"Don't think I can walk."

"You won't have to. The carriage is still waiting for you."

That information sank in, and Josh pushed himself up with trembling arms to a sitting position. Turning to Hoynes, he nodded. "All right."

Getting off the bed, Josh reached for his clothes and dressed as quickly as he could despite the deep ache of nearly every muscle. When he glanced at Hoynes again, he saw that the other man was stretched out on the bed, not bothering to cover up his nudity. Josh took a good look. Then he smiled to himself. He felt very little for John Hoynes other than some gratitude for showing him a whole new world.

"Um, I'd appreciate it if no one ever finds out about this," Josh said, his voice low.

Hoynes reached for a pouch of tobacco and a paper. "What is there to stop me from telling, oh, let's say, Sam?"

"You can't tell Sam!"

Making a placating gesture, Hoynes said, "Calm down. I didn't say I would tell him or anyone else. I have a reputation to protect too, you know. However, perhaps you'd like a little insurance?"

Josh nodded.

"All right. How about this -- you agree to do this again whenever I ask, and I won't tell a soul about our relationship?"

Opening his mouth to protest, Josh realized he had no say in the matter. It was either agree or pay the consequences. Hoynes had lied to him about there being no repercussions, like that was a surprise.

"Is it a deal?" Hoynes asked without looking up.

"Yes," Josh said tonelessly.

"Good. See you around."

Josh watched him roll his cigarette. Then he walked out moving as gracefully, and with as much dignity, as he could gather. He did not allow himself to react to the soreness of his body until the door closed behind him, and then he only winced before going on.

He stepped around the roommate and his conquest curled up asleep together on the stairs. The primary thing occupying Josh's mind as he climbed into the hansom cab was that Sam did not trust Hoynes, and the chances were excellent that he would never trust Josh again if he found out what Josh had done with Hoynes. The best thing to do would be to stay in Cambridge even over the summer. He had to stay away from Sam in order to preserve their friendship, or at least until he figured out a way to tell Sam the truth without the risk of losing his love and respect.

On the Frontier 7/18

Rating: NC17 -- Josh/Hoynes, Sam/f, and Sam/m

Throwing the letter onto his desk, Josh then threw himself onto his bed. He bounced twice with the force of his landing, nearly tossing Hoynes into the wall.

"Watch it! I'm here, too, you know."

Josh turned to him and asked, "Why?"

"Why what?"

"Why are you here? I'm just a convenience for you. We both know that."

"Works both ways, Josh. Without me you'd be just another lonely young student thousands of miles from home, miserable because he can't be with his one true love." Hoynes nodded towards the opened letter resting on the desk. "That is another letter from Sam, right?"

"Yeah," Josh sighed. Another letter from Sam filled with news from home. Sam was going on with his life. He had a new interest -- writing. Borne out of a need to find his sense of self now that Josh was away, he said, he had turned to putting his thoughts and feelings down on paper in story form. There was a man who had moved to Broken River recently and started a newspaper. Tobias Ziegler, or Toby as Sam called him, was interested in Sam's stories and wanted to print one in the first issue of "The Broken River Connection." Josh had snorted at the name and then realized it was a good name for a community paper. Leave it to Sam to find this man and make friends with him almost the moment he arrived.

"Uncle Jed is running for Governor of California."

"Is he now?" Hoynes sounded interested without investing much into it. Josh wondered how he did that.

Sam didn't punctuate his letters with mushy talk. He kept them simple; always closing with how he missed Josh and signing them "Love, Sam." In Sam's first letter to him there had only been one mention of what had transpired between them that last night in the hayloft. Josh hadn't acknowledged it, and the next letter, which arrived more than two months after his response, had not referred to it either. He was sure that by not mentioning the incident he had hurt Sam's feelings. The relief he had felt when Sam's next letter arrived caused Josh to sit on his bed and hold his head for a long while before finally opening the letter and reading it. Sam had chattered away about everything but the forbidden subject; and even at that Sam hadn't once made Josh feel bad about how he had handled it. No wonder he loved Sam.

"You going to answer it?"

Josh turned to the man lounging beside him. What had started as an arrangement shaded by blackmail was now virtually a relationship -- exclusive from Josh's side, expedient from Hoynes'. Josh knew Johnny was seeing others. He'd said as much. Josh didn't care. It wasn't like he felt any deep emotions for the man. It was simply that he received somewhat regular sex without the need to look for a partner. Hoynes came around or, more usually, summoned Josh fairly often. It was enough. Josh's conscience reminded him that he loved Sam and should remain faithful to him. Josh argued that it was better for him to stay away and let Sam find his own life and lovers. Josh was certain that arguing with his conscience meant he had lost his mind. He thought it had probably happened shortly after he had arrived at Harvard and was due to the heavy workload the professors had piled on him.

"Well?" Hoynes prodded.

"Are you still here?" Sighing, Josh said, "Yeah. I'll answer it. I answer them all. He's my friend, my best friend."

He still couldn't tell Sam about John. Sam wouldn't understand.

Needing to expend some energy, he started to get off the bed so he could pace. Hoynes pulled him back down. "Hey!"

"Later," Hoynes said, leaning over him. "Answer it later. Right now I want your undivided attention." His hands were already busy opening Josh's pants and delving inside.

Surging up, Josh wrestled Hoynes onto his back and straddled his legs. "My room. My rules."

A light appeared in the back of John's eyes. "All right. Sounds like fun."

Fun? Not hardly. Satisfying at best, but that was all Josh wanted out of it.

#

"I think I'm going to burst."

Laurie glanced over at Sam. "I can fix that, you know."

Sam laughed. "No. That's not what I meant."

They were lying on a blanket on the riverbank not far from the hiding place he and Josh had once shared. Laurie did not know about it, as Sam hadn't taken her there. It was enough that she came to him here as often as they could arrange it.

Laurie rolled over and arranged herself artfully over his prone form, plucking at the buttons on his shirt. "What did you mean?"

Uttering a long low sound, he said, "I don't know. I'm just frustrated, I guess."

"Like I said, I can fix that."

"Laurie, no. You know I'm waiting for Josh."

"He's been away nearly a year. If you continue to wait for a man who won't even talk about the most intimate moment of both your lives in a letter, who has decided not to come home this summer to see you, you will burst," she finished vehemently and pushed herself away, sitting up with her back to him.

"Hey," he said softly as he sat up and reached for her, his fingers wrapping around a ringlet of dark hair. Tugging gently until she slapped his hand away, he asked, "Is something wrong?"

Scooting around to face him, she said, "Yes. It's wrong for you to waste your life waiting for Josh. You're a beautiful young man, Sam. You're sixteen years old, and you can have anyone."

"Beautiful?" he laughed self-consciously and turned crimson.

"Yes. Beautiful. I swear, Samuel Norman Seaborn Bartlet, I look at you and I want to cry. You're so sweet and kind, and your soul just shines through your eyes. Your beauty is a reflection of your soul."

Meeting her eyes, he said quietly, "Maybe you should be the writer. That sounded like poetry."

Her gaze dropped to his mouth then back up to his face. Sam took the hint and leaned forward the few inches that separated them. Just before their lips met, he whispered, "Never should have told you my full name."

She replied, "It's a perfect name for a lawyer."

Then they kissed and conversation ceased for a time. When they broke apart, Sam got to his feet and pulled her up after him. "Come on. Bring the blanket.'

"Where are we going?" she asked, following him along the steeply angled bank and endeavouring to keep her footing. He took her by the elbow, steadying her.

"You'll see." They went a short distance and rounded some brush. Sam pushed aside the branches until she joined him in the clearing, where tall bushes circled a patch of lush grass. Sam took the blanket from her and spread it on the ground.

"What is this?" she asked.

"A special place." Sam bit his bottom lip and then said, "Josh and I used to come here when we wanted to talk, to get away from our folks, or just be together. It was our little hideout."

Laurie covered her mouth briefly. "Oh, Sam. You brought me here? This is the nicest thing you've done for me." She threw her arms around his neck.

"I figured it was time." He held her tightly, and briefly buried his face against her shoulder. When he lifted his head they met in another kiss. At last, Sam focused all of his considerable passion on someone other than Josh. There was a part of him that grieved for the loss of the fidelity he had clung to all this time. He deeply mourned the diminishing of the wonder and heady rush of his first love. It was time, though. Josh didn't want him. He'd made that clear by his continued absence, and by not acknowledging their one moment of intimacy. That night in the barn, Sam had used every instinct that he possessed to fulfil the burning love he had for Josh, and to make the experience outstanding for his best friend and would-be lover, but it hadn't been enough. They had satisfied themselves on a primal level, and Sam had ridden the wave of romantic bliss for the next two years, but apparently for Josh it had only been about the sex. He just didn't see Sam in the same way. Josh did not want or love him.

Sam's eyes blurred by a glimmer of unshed tears. Blinking them away he worked at the fastenings on Laurie's dress, fumbling a little. Laurie pushed his hands away and quickly had her dress off. Sam helped her remove the remainder of her clothing and then stepped back to look at her. When she shied away from his gaze, he asked in surprise, "What's wrong?"

She shrugged, and half turned away, her hands drifting up to cover her breasts. "I've done this more times than I can count, but this time is different. Don't ask me how or why. It just is."

Sam nodded but didn't reply. Instead, he began to undress. Laurie helped him, and then he lowered her to the blanket, covering her nude body with his. He leaned on his forearms, gazing down at her.

"A momentous occasion," he joked uncertainly.

"I won't charge you for it." They both chuckled and their nervousness dissipated.

"I've been waiting so long," Laurie told him.

"I know, Laurie. I just hope it's worth it."

"It already is."

#

Josh continued to study and play just as hard. He and Hoynes met often. By the second semester of Josh's sophomore year, John was spending more time with Josh than any of his other lovers. For Josh it was still a matter of convenience.

Letters began arriving from Leo containing not so subtle hints that Josh should come home for the summer. There were fewer messages from Sam and none of them were signed "Love, Sam." A knot the size of Texas had begun to form in Josh's gut. Maybe he was doing the wrong thing by holding Sam at bay. Only by exhausting himself with sex was he able to sleep at all and thereby escape the worry and the guilt.

#

"Damn it!" Sam crumpled the pages in his hand.

"No cursing allowed in my place of business," Toby said without looking up. He was setting the type for the next edition of "The Connection" and did not want to make a mistake. "And that better not be my newspaper that you just wadded up."

"How do you stay married to this man, Andrea?" Sam grumbled.

"I'm a martyr, Sam." The young couple exchanged an intimate smile, which Sam watched openly. He enjoyed being around Andrea and Toby and witnessing their love for one another. It made him feel good. Toby was about eight or ten years older than Sam, Andrea was a year or so younger than Toby, making them closer to Sam's generation. It was different from watching his parents cooing at one another.

Regarding the crumpled paper in his fist, Sam answered Toby, "It's a letter from Josh. He's not coming home again this summer. He's been away almost two years and now he's going to make it three."

Andrea Ziegler went to Sam and laid a comforting hand on his arm. "I'm so sorry. I know you were looking forward to seeing him."

"Why won't he come home, Andrea? Does he hate me that much?"

"I can't answer that. I don't know him, but it's hard to imagine anyone hating you, Sam."

Ducking his head, he muttered, "Thanks. I just wish he'd answer some of my questions instead of writing about his life in Cambridge. It doesn't sound all that exciting anyway. All he does is study."

Sam knew he sounded whiny and petulant. He sounded like Josh used to when they had privately groused about parental curfews, or the extra lessons that Mrs. Landingham had given them with the reasoning that they were smart young men and had the ability to go far. The reminder of Josh disturbed him.

"Sam." Toby spoke softly. "If you're going to help me, get your ass over here."

"What am I going to do about Josh?" Sam asked, doing as he was told.

"Write another story. Set your feelings down on paper. That always helps, right? Besides, our circulation goes up every time one of your stories appears in the newspaper." Toby turned his head causing his kippah to fall to the side. He automatically lifted a hand to set it back on his crown.

"When are you going to start paying me for my work?" Sam asked, grinning impishly. Toby's gruffness was helping him get over his mood.

"You get a free copy of the edition in which your stories appear! That's more than a city editor would give you. If you have complaints take it up with the owner of the paper."

"You are the owner, Toby."

"Yes, I am." Toby began in a reasonable tone, but his voice quickly escalated to a shout. "And as owner, editor, and, apparently, sole typesetter -- since you aren't helping -- I make the decisions. My decision is to keep paying you in contributor's copies because the paper hasn't shown a profit yet, and I can't afford to pay you in cash!" His kippah slipped again and he clapped a hand over it to prevent if from falling off his head. Andrea went to her husband to adjust his skullcap for him, producing some hairpins to keep it in place, and attached it to his thinning hair.

"Calm down. I was just kidding."

"What does a baby goat have to do with it?" When Sam started to protest, Toby flared up again. "Learn the proper usage of words or don't try to sell another story to this paper."

"This paper doesn't pay me so technically it's not a sale."

Andrea chuckled. "Give it up, Sam. You can't win." She smoothed Toby's collar and kissed him on the brow.

Sam watched the intimate scene and blushed. Yet, it gave Sam hope that someday he would have someone do small things for him simply because he loved him. One tiny part of Sam still hoped that someone would be Josh.

#

It was spring and that should have been reason enough to celebrate being alive. Josh gripped Hoynes' hips so hard that bruises were sure to appear later. Pounding into John was the only way to deal with his wretched state of mind, and Josh made the most of it. John liked it rough, and Josh was only too happy to oblige. It was spring, and instead of being home in California making slow, sweet love to Sam, Josh was on the other side of the country having meaningless sex with another man. Hoynes still refused to permit kissing between them. Kissing might have helped make the situation more bearable. Instead, Josh was left with a deeply seated frustration that nothing he did would completely assuage.

#

Sam used to love the spring when he and Josh had fished and then gone swimming in a cool stream, or rode their horses for miles, sometimes galloping up to the top of the high pine tree covered hills overlooking the Bartlet and McGarry properties. This spring started off looking like it would be just another unmemorable season, so Sam decided to make it worth remembering. It was the beginning of May, and he had turned seventeen just over a week ago. Another birthday passing without Josh there to help him celebrate. Another reason to make this year count for something, to make up for the disappointments of the past two years.

This year was already looking up and the reason was right there beneath him in bed. Sam reached down and urged his partner to turn over onto his stomach.

They were in the other boy's bedroom. Kyle lived halfway between Broken River and tiny Sierra. His parents were away for a few days, and they were taking advantage of that. Kyle and Sam had eyed one another every time the older boy rode into Broken River with his family for supplies. Sam spent a lot of his spare time with Toby at the paper. The office of "The Connection" was next door to the general store where Kyle's family bought their dry goods. A few quick conversations and Sam figured out that Kyle wanted him, or perhaps it was due more to the mutual groping in the alleyway behind the store, and the longing glances as Kyle rode away on the supply wagon, than any actual declarations.

They'd been together a few times, quick, frenzied humping at the back of the barn, with their pants around their knees. This was their first time taking it slow and easy and horizontally. Kyle was sweet natured if a bit highly strung at times, affectionate, and eager to please, and Sam liked him as a person. He didn't know him well enough to consider him a friend, certainly not a good friend like Josh or Laurie. Sam realized being intimate with someone he hardly knew wasn't the smartest thing he'd ever done, but he felt he was a good judge of character and saw something trustworthy in Kyle that allowed him to take the leap of faith.

"Will it hurt?"

Sam winced at the trepidation in Kyle's voice. Older by a year, Kyle suddenly sounded far younger. Sam had not yet lost his virginity to a man in this manner, but he knew what it was like to fear penetration. They had talked about it. Kyle knew more about it than Sam did, though he wouldn't say how he had gained this knowledge. It sounded like something Kyle wanted to try, but Sam couldn't imagine the act being done to him. It was only at Kyle's request that they were about to pursue this avenue.

Leaning down, Sam stroked Kyle's back and shoulders, easing some of the tension out of him. "Shh. It'll be all right." He hoped it would be all right. He didn't know why he said it would be all right, because he really wasn't sure about this. Kyle had begged him to go this far, but now that they were about to do it Sam was faltering. A big part of it was the idea of being this intimate with someone who wasn't Josh. Sam could convince himself that going all the way with Laurie wasn't the same thing because she was a woman, and the workings were different. If he committed this particular act it should be with Josh; only Josh was in Cambridge and apparently not interested in ever being intimate with Sam in any way ever again. He felt the crack in his heart widen just a little more and ruthlessly shoved all thoughts of Josh from his mind.

Bending down, Sam kissed Kyle's shoulder blade and nuzzled the blond hair near Kyle's ear. "I promise not to hurt you, but are you certain you want to do this?"

"Yes." Kyle's voice was strong and sure. That was a good sign, and it made Sam feel better. He massaged the firm cheeks nestled between his thighs, feeling Kyle relax further. Sam spent a few more minutes rubbing the muscles of his partner's shoulders, back, and legs. Finally all of the tension was gone, and Sam reached for the bottle of oil. Despite his trepidation, his misgivings, and the vaguely ever-present sorrow he felt because he wasn't with Josh, Sam was attracted to Kyle in a big way. He was hard and ready for this. His erection bobbed eagerly out in front of him. Only a great deal of patience, and the desire not to hurt Kyle, had kept Sam from just plunging in and achieving selfless gratification.

Sam poured a small amount of the oil into his hands. Kyle had spelled out all of the details of the act -- as he knew them -- for Sam beforehand. Sam parted the twin globes of flesh, stroking one trembling finger between them.

"Kyle! Are you home?" The disembodied voice of a man floated up from downstairs.

Abruptly Kyle sat up, and Sam fell off to the side. "Hellfire and damnation! It's my father. He'll kill both of us and do it again just to be sure we're dead."

"I thought you said they were going to be away for a few days."

"That's what they told me! Quick! Go out the window!"

"We're on the second floor, Kyle." Sam hopped around on one foot trying to get his other leg into his pants. Then he grabbed his shirt and pulled it on, not bothering to button it while he picked up his boots.

"There's a tree. You can swing down from the branches."

"I don't get along with trees. I fall out of them."

"You'll be okay. Hurry! He's coming upstairs!" As Kyle hustled Sam to the window, he stole a quick kiss and then struggled to get his own clothes on. Sam clambered out the window, hearing it shut behind him. He slid along the rooftop on the seat of his pants until he reached a sturdy looking tree branch. He swung down to the ground, helped a good deal by gravity, and ended upright and mostly intact.

Swearing under his breath he stole around the house until he reached his horse, which he had fortunately hidden from the view of anyone approaching the yard from the main road. He led the gelding for a quarter mile before he dared to mount him and gallop away. It was only then that Sam's heart slowed its wild pounding in his chest, and a smile found its way to his lips. Nearly getting caught like that was more exhilarating than frightening. They would have to find a way to be together again soon.

On the Frontier 8/18

Rating for this part: NC17 just to be safe -- Sam/Laurie (NC17 slash shall rule again... Patience, people *g*)

Someone rapped on the door of his room. Josh walked over and yanked the door open, fully expecting to see John. He asked, "Since when do you knock?" Instead, Mallory stood there looking smug. His sister always looked smug.

"Expecting someone else?" she asked.

"Uh, yeah. A friend."

"Will I do for now?" She walked into the room.

"What do you want, Mal? I have to go out in a minute." He didn't actually have anywhere to go, he just wasn't up to having a conversation with his sister. He always felt drained of his energy when he talked to her.

"Mother and I haven't seen much of you lately. We want you to come to dinner this week."

"I'm not sure I can make it. I have a lot of studying to do. Final exams are coming up."

"Which is almost the same excuse you gave last time, only I believe then you said one of your professors had sprung a test on the class and you needed to do extra studying. Come on, Josh. You're not fooling anyone."

Immediately thinking she knew about Hoynes, he cautiously asked, "What do you mean?"

"I mean a lot of students develop dangerous habits to help them cope with school. Some drink too much. Some overindulge in drugs and other things. What's keeping you from socializing in a normal manner?" She looked up at him, hands clasped behind her back.

"Socializing in a normal manner? What textbook did you eat for breakfast, Mal?" he asked.

"Are you okay, Josh?" she countered. "You've been awfully distant this year."

"Did you come here to invite me to dinner or to lecture me?"

"Both," was the prompt reply.

Josh couldn't help but grin in response. "At least you're honest."

"Always. And, to be even more honest, you look like hell."

"Mal!"

"You do. You have circles under your eyes; you've lost weight -- even Mother noticed the last time she saw you, and that's why the dinner invitation; and you look overly stressed. So what is your drug of choice, Josh? Alcohol? Is it some kind of pills? Oh, Josh. You're not really taking drugs are you? Please, Josh, tell me the truth," she begged.

Taken aback by her cross-examination, he stared at her in silence. He wanted to ask what had taken her so long to care. What had taken her so long to ask these questions? Neither she nor his stepmother had shown anything other than a familial obligation of interest in his life. Since he had moved to Cambridge, Mallory stopped by occasionally, or Jenny invited him for dinner once in a long while. Josh had avoided them for the most part, only showing up at the house often enough to keep them from sending the authorities around to check up on him or to keep them from contacting Leo. He never wanted Leo to worry about him.

"I hate to tell you this, Mal, but your mother isn't concerned about me. I know these invitations come from you and not Jenny. She only goes along with it because you ask her to."

"Josh, that's not true," she began.

"It is, Mal, and that's okay. I don't mind. I got over my," he paused, searching for the word he wanted, "my disappointment a long time ago. I never blamed Jenny for shunning me. When I was a kid, I even thought I deserved it. Now I know that Jenny just can't make herself accept me as her son. You're a good person, Mal. Maybe we're not exactly friends but we get along, and I know you care. That's all I need."

Mallory said nothing to dispute his stark summary of their relationship, though Josh could see in her face that she did not disagree with him. However, she had a one-track mind. "I don't need to see you every day to know that something is wrong."

Something was very wrong. He was using sex as a crutch. He was using sex with a man who likewise used him for his own purposes. How unhealthy was that? "Uh, no. I mean I'm just homesick. I miss Pa and Sam."

"Are you sure that's all?"

"That's all? I haven't seen my best friend in nearly two years, and it's my fault. We hardly ever write to one another anymore; again I'm taking the blame. I'm reasonably sure he hates me, and I want to go home to see if I can salvage our friendship. In fact, I just want to go home!" He stopped and blinked. "Where did that come from?"

Mallory stared back at him. "I wish I knew. So are you staying here again this summer and, if so, what's keeping you here, Josh?"

He thought about it. What indeed? John? He knew Hoynes wasn't good for him. He'd known it all along. Was it really as simple as saying the words, "I want to go home," out loud to make him think straight?

"Apparently...nothing."

"So when are you going back?"

"As soon as possible." He smiled and felt his spirit lighten.

Mallory smiled back at him. "Then I'm going with you."

#

Josh waited until he'd written the last exam to go home. His future was as important to him as rectifying the past. He descended the few steps to the train platform and looked around. Broken River had changed while he'd been gone. He had caught a few glimpses of the town as the train chugged slowly into the station. Main Street stretched farther north now to accommodate more businesses. Two streets had attached themselves to the outskirts and were inexorably filling in with houses. Unsure of whether to be glad the town was growing or to be saddened that his childhood memories were suddenly wrong, he accepted the changes.

"Josh!"

"Pop." Smiling, Josh opened his arms and embraced Leo as tightly as he could. Even Leo had changed. He seemed shorter and less substantial, with a few lines showing on his face. He had last seen his father at Christmas five months ago and wondered what had happened to cause the physical changes. Or had they always been there, but Josh had been too preoccupied and wrapped up in his own selfish little world to notice?

"Where's Mallory? I thought she was coming with you."

"She's arguing with the conductor. Trying to tell him how to do his job." They exchanged knowing grins. Then again, Josh thought, some things never changed; his sister had been bossy all her life. "Where's everyone else? Don't I rate a homecoming?" Even as he asked it, he knew the answer to that question.

"Jed has a thing he has to do in Sacramento," Leo explained. "Abbey went with him."

"Governor Bartlet. That's great. What about," Josh paused. "What about Sam?"

"You asked me not to tell him you were coming home."

"Yeah, I know. I just thought," he trailed off, unsure what he had thought.

"What, that maybe Sam would read your mind and show up here anyway?"

Josh grinned self-consciously, realizing that that was exactly what he had hoped would happen.

"I gotta tell you, Josh. I was surprised and thrilled to get your wire with the news. What changed your mind about coming home?"

Gazing downwards, Josh said, "Can we talk about that later?"

"Sure we can, son. Whenever you're ready."

"Thanks."

Looking uncomfortable, Leo said, "I, uh, I'm not sure where Sam is. Maybe, maybe you should prepare yourself for a less than enthusiastic welcome from him."

"Yeah."

"Son, he's bound to be upset. You haven't..."

"I haven't been home for two years. I know." Josh nodded.

"Two years, Josh." Leo looked sad.

"Yeah."

"If I hadn't gone back East to see you, I would have forgotten what you look like."

Josh glanced sharply at his father. He saw that Leo was only half serious, and relaxed somewhat, no less miserable with his decision to stay away. It had weighed heavily on him.

"I know. So, how is he?"

"Sam? He's doin' great."

"Good."

"Papa!" Mallory finally emerged from the train, followed by a dazed looking conductor. When the man saw her fly into Leo's arms, he shook his head and went in the opposite direction. Josh noticed and hid his smile. He waited quietly while his father and sister had their reunion.

Mallory chattered to Leo, grabbed Josh by the arm and towed him along as they walked toward the carriage Leo had waiting. On the ride home Josh kept looking behind them, hoping to see Sam pounding madly up the road on his horse, trying to catch up. After a couple of miles, he knew it wasn't going to happen and sat with his eyes straight ahead, barely listening to Leo and Mallory.

#

"Oh, Sam! SAM!" Laurie screamed, her nails digging into his back as he moved over her.

Sam grunted and thrust once, twice, three more times before he followed her into climax. He finally sagged and fell on top of her, lying still for a few moments. He roused himself and started to roll off, but Laurie held him fast in her arms. She also kept her legs wrapped around him, making sure he wasn't going anywhere. Sam made another perfunctory attempt to free himself, gave up, and settled his head on her shoulder.

"Sam?"

"Yeah."

"What's wrong?"

"Not a thing."

"Sam."

Sighing, he said, "Laurie."

She released him, letting her legs fall to the blanket on which they lay. "Sam, you're not really here."

"It feels like I am."

"You're not really here when we're together."

Lifting his head, Sam just looked at her for a moment. "I swear I heard my mother say that to my father one time, only she was talking to him about one of her causes and he was trying to read the newspaper."

"What is that supposed to mean?" Laurie asked sharply.

"It means that you've been sounding more and more like a wife than a lover."

"Are you saying that I nag you?"

Heaving a sigh, he peeled himself off her and sat up. "No, Laurie. I'm saying that you've been asking more of me than I can give you."

"Oh? All I ask is that," she began angrily and then stopped. "No. Let me start over. Lately when we're together in this little place, loving one another, it feels like you're present in body only. Do you understand what I'm saying?"

He just stared at her. Laurie grabbed a handful of grass and yanked it out of the ground.

"Your mind is someplace else. It feels like, I feel like I'm with a man who paid me for my time. I might as well be entertaining a customer, someone who only wants me for my body. I can't take that, not from you. What we have is supposed to be special. It's not special anymore."

He turned away to stare off through the trees, his mouth a tight line. After a moment he looked back at her. "I'm sorry."

Brown eyes met blue. "So am I." She reached around to gather her clothes and began to get dressed.

Sam remained where he was. "Laurie, are you in love with me?"

Biting her bottom lip, she replied, "Yeah, I am."

He nodded. "I'm sorry for that too, but mostly because I'm not in love with you."

She gave a little gasp and jerked away as if he'd slapped her. Sam got onto his knees and crawled over to her. "I really didn't mean to hurt you just now, or any of the times we met here. I do care about you very much. I just can't...I just can't," he stopped talking, at a loss for words.

"You just can't give me your heart. I know." The tense lines of her body softened, and she stood up to finish dressing. Sam also began pulling on his clothing. Laurie finished before he did and waited for him, her arms folded loosely across her abdomen. When he was done, she said, "I know I'm going to regret saying this, but I want to keep seeing you. It can be here or wherever we can be together. Getting only part of you is better than nothing at all. I do have my pride but for you, Sam, I'd throw it all away."

"Don't do that, Laurie."

"I love you, Sam. I've never been in love before. All the men I've been with and you're the one."

"You deserve someone who can love you back."

"I'm not going to stay at Hildy's forever. I've been saving my money so I can get out of that dump of a town. I hoped you'd go with me or take me with you wherever you go, but I can find my own way in the world."

Sam was silent for a few moments. "Can I take you back to Broken River?" he asked finally.

"I have my buggy, but I'll let you escort me most of the way," Laurie said airily, obviously trying to keep things light.

Sam tried to smile and managed a little one. "I'd like that."

About ten feet away outside the privacy of the clearing, having heard enough, a lone figure clenched his fists. He stayed hidden until they rode off before he went to untie his horse, and ride away in the opposite direction that Sam and Laurie had gone.

#

Josh walked into the house. It looked the same as he remembered it; it even felt just as empty. When Jenny and Mallory lived there it had been filled mostly with anger and sorrow. Now it was still just a house and not really a home. He and Leo had been more comfortable living with the Bartlets. Even though he and Sam had not been speaking at that time, Josh missed the warmth and brightness of being a part of a real family. Between Leo being there with him, Abbey's maternal kindness, the smell of Consuela's delicious cooking wafting out of the kitchen, and Jed's corny jokes and endless trivia, it made for wonderful memories.

Leo walked in behind Josh carrying some of Mallory's bags. A hired hand entered last with the rest of the luggage.

"Well?" Leo spoke to his children. "You two know where your rooms are."

Mallory ran up the stairs, and the ranch hand followed with her bags. Josh remained where he was in the foyer. He turned to look at his father.

Leo tipped his head to one side. "Oh, go on with you. You want to go find Sam, I presume."

"Yeah. Do you mind? It can wait, though."

"But you can't. Go. Bring him back here for dinner if you want."

Grinning broadly, Josh said, "Thanks, Pop. I'll just go change my clothes first."

"Yeah, yeah." Good naturedly, Leo waved him off. "Oh, the men have been exercising your horse while you were away, so if you want to take her she's good to go."

Josh picked up his suitcases and ran up to his room. He had a good feeling about this day.

#

Sam rubbed down his gelding, put some hay in the manger, and walked out of the barn, headed for the house. All he wanted was a hot bath and maybe a short nap before dinner. He was tired and sticky after the afternoon's playtime with Laurie. Even his ribs hurt. Laurie had quite a grip.

"Hey, Sam!" Al Kiefer, the ranch foreman, trotted up on his Appaloosa and swung down before the horse came to a complete stop. "I was just going to look for you. We've got two men down."

"What happened?"

"A calf spooked. It kicked Burt in the chest and then dragged Crazy Joe through the fire we had built for the branding."

"Are they all right?"

"We took them into town. Would have been handier if Doctor Bartlet was here, but old Doc Williams should be able to fix them up."

"So they're not badly hurt?" Sam asked.

"Burt's ribs caved in some, and Crazy Joe managed to roll over onto his back before he went face first through the fire. Looks like his leather vest protected him."

"Thank God."

"You said it. Anyway, now we're shorthanded and could use some help over at the site." He nodded at the men working in the far corral. "You up for it?"

"Of course."

The foreman pointed over Sam's shoulder. "Think maybe your friend can give us a hand, too?"

Sam turned to see whom Kiefer meant. A grin broke out on his face.

#

Josh took every shortcut he could remember to get over to the Bartlet ranch as quickly as he could. Fortunately, Leo had built their house on a piece of land just a few miles from the Bartlet home. When he loped his mare into the yard, Josh's eyes swept over the familiar sight before him. It was a busy place. It looked like they were branding. The calves' bawling for their mothers rang out across two corrals. Then he spotted Sam. The unmistakable mop of hair gleamed under the hot sun despite the lingering cloud of dust, tawny streaks exposing the black hair for what it really was - dark chestnut brown. Josh clucked to the mare and urged her to take him to his friend.

He dismounted at the corrals and forced himself not to run to Sam. He was supposed to be an adult. Racing over like a giddy schoolboy was not the impression he wanted to make. And so he walked.

Sam was bending over a calf, the long lines of his body stretched out. The sleeves of his shirt were rolled up to his biceps revealing honey-golden skin. Sam straightened and swiped the back of his wrist across his forehead to keep the sweat out of his eyes. He hadn't seen Josh.

As Josh watched, Sam turned in his direction. His mouth suddenly dry, Josh was unable to call out. His pace slowed; his eyes fixed on Sam.

Then a young man with hair the colour of wheat stepped into Sam's line of sight, and said something to him. Sam grinned affectionately, his gloved hand going out to touch the other man on the shoulder.

Josh stopped. That touch looked like a caress. He watched as the blond man leaned towards Sam, this time speaking into his ear. Sam laughed and spoke to him; their conversation was close and personal if their body language was anything to go by.

His heart thudding painfully Josh took one more step towards them and then stopped again. He was undecided whether to keep going or to turn and walk away. Just then Sam laughed again and shook his head. His gaze left the blond's face and settled on Josh. Sam's eyes opened wide, and for just an instant he looked happy to see him. Then his expression altered. His smile remained, but it was cool, distant. It was the smile of someone Josh did not know, a grown up version of his friend. He stood his ground as Sam approached.

"Josh, you came home."

"Yeah, I guess I did."

"Leo didn't say anything."

"I asked him not to." Josh shrugged. "I wanted it to be a surprise."

Sam nodded, his blue eyes studying Josh's face. "Well, it was certainly that, all right. Are you feeling well, Josh? You look kinda pale."

Clearing his throat, Josh blinked and looked away. "Yeah. I didn't get outside much in Cambridge. Spent most of my time indoors studying and stuff."

"So you said in your letters. Didn't say much else, but I got that part." Sam's voice had an edge to it, cutting and building toward something.

"I know I wasn't exactly forthcoming..."

"Not exactly forthcoming? You hardly told me anything personal. You said that you were studying and going to class, and you talked about Harvard and your professors. I didn't want to hear that. I wanted to know how you were. What were you thinking and feeling? I didn't care about a bunch of strangers. I cared about you."

The use of the past tense was like a physical blow to Josh. "All I can say is, I'm sorry."

Sam lifted his head slightly, his shoulders went back, and his spine got even straighter than it already was. "Too little, too late, Josh. I've moved on with my life. I suggest you do the same." Sam's voice was low and harsh.

The blond man had been hovering just beyond them, and now he walked up behind Sam to stand protectively at his shoulder. He glared at Josh with undisguised hostility. Josh recognized a display of staking territory when he saw it. "We need you, Sam," the young man said.

"Who's your pretty friend?" Josh asked. "Is he keeping your bed warm?" As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Josh wished he could take them back. The look on Sam's face was one of barely controlled fury.

"His name is Kyle," Sam's eyes blazed. "He is my friend. Whatever else he is to me is my business."

"Sam," Josh began.

"No, Josh. I really don't want to talk to you right now. Besides, we've got work to do." He stared at Josh as if waiting for him to say something else.

Josh nodded and walked away. He mounted his horse and rode out of the yard without looking back. Outwardly he kept calm. Inside, his emotions roiled, and the acid in his stomach churned.

"Well, that could have gone better," he spoke aloud. The mare's ears swivelled around to catch the sound of his voice. "Sam very likely does hate me now, and I think, no, I'm sure, I hate Kyle. Yellow-haired pretty boy -- what could Sam possibly see in him?"

The mare didn't answer him, of course, but Josh had reached his own conclusions. Kyle was there. He was present in Sam's life. He was also extremely attractive and attentive. It was difficult to compete with someone like that. It was difficult but not impossible.

On the Frontier 9/18

Rating: NC17

**Warning: non-consensual sex in this chapter.

Sam and Kyle returned to the branding, but after a few minutes Sam felt someone watching him. He looked up and saw that Josh had come back. After a moment of simply staring at one another, Josh turned away from Sam and walked over to Kiefer to speak to him. The foreman pointed to where Sam was working, gave him a pair of gloves, and sent him over.

"I'm here to help. Looks like maybe you can use an extra hand."

"Thanks. I suppose we can," Sam said graciously, thawing just a little.

Josh waited until Sam threw a rope around a calf before grabbing the animal by the neck and holding it down. Meanwhile Kyle kept the line wrapped around the calf's legs taut, and Sam pulled the heated iron out of the fire. The three young men worked in silence. After awhile they fell into a pattern that found Sam and Josh working shoulder-to-shoulder, taking turns wrestling the calves to the ground while the other did the branding. Kyle was the one who cut the animals out of the herd, roping them and leading them over for branding. Sam spared him a quick glance once and saw the sullen expression on the blond's face. At least it was a change from the scowl that had been there earlier.

#

It was well past sundown by the time they finished with the branding. Sam's body ached; he was so tired he could barely see straight. Kiefer ordered the men to put out the fires and go get some sleep. He went over to where Sam and Kyle had propped themselves up against the corral. Josh sat nearby on an overturned barrel, his hands dangling loosely between his knees.

"Thanks for your help, boys," Kiefer said. "We couldn't have gotten it done today without you."

Sam just nodded in acknowledgement. His eyes were threatening to shut.

Kiefer chuckled and clapped Sam on the shoulder. "I know you help out a lot around here, Sam, but you more than pulled your weight today. You all did. Bet you boys sleep well tonight."

Rousing himself, Sam pushed off from the fence. "I don't have any doubts about that. You'll make sure Kyle gets paid for the work he did, won't you, Al?"

"You bet. That'll be at the end of the week, same as everyone else. What about Josh?"

"Leo's rich. Josh doesn't need the money." Sam glanced over to see how Josh took that and saw that he was propping his chin up with his fist. He merely blinked in response.

"See you in the morning, Sam. Good to see you again, Josh." Kiefer walked off at a slow pace, his hunched shoulders evidence of his fatigue.

Sam touched Kyle on the arm. "Will you get in trouble if you stay here tonight?"

His sleepy brown eyes sparking a bit at that question, Kyle replied, "Probably, but I'm too tired to ride home. Maybe I could get an hour's rest and then go home?"

"Stay. We've got plenty of room. Besides, I don't want you stumbling around in the dark or falling off your horse along the way. What about you, Josh? Does Uncle Leo know you're here?"

"Uh, yeah. He does. I can stay, too."

Sam gave him a searching look, then led the way to the house. He was tired and cranky. The anger he'd felt upon seeing Josh earlier was starting to rise up again, gathering steam the more he thought about it. Then it deflated suddenly. The earlier rage had been compounded by surprise, confusion, and the fact that he'd already been tired before Josh even showed up. Now the reasons for his anger were still present, but exhaustion won out. Sam wished he could have the afternoon back to start over. He sighed, no longer out of sorts but definitely still tired.

Kyle walked beside him in silence. Sam turned to him. "Hey."

A smile flitted across Kyle's face. "Could I sleep with you tonight, Sam? Just sleep. That's all."

Glancing back at Josh who was stumbling along a few paces behind, Sam said, "I don't think that's such a good idea. Not in my parents' house."

"You don't seem to mind being with me in my parents' house," Kyle hissed, also looking back at Josh. "Besides, I only want to sleep beside you and wake up with you."

Sam ran one finger down Kyle's arm. "Not this time. Okay?"

Kyle accepted his decision with a grimace and didn't say anything more.

#

Apparently Consuela had seen them approaching. She had three plates of hot food set out on the table when they walked in the kitchen door. As Sam and Kyle went straight to the table, drawn by the smell of beef, carrots, and potatoes that were smothered in rich gravy, Consuela waylaid Josh by wrapping him in a big hug.

"Joshua! It is so good to see you again."

Scrunched up against her, his arms pinned to his sides, Josh said, "I missed you too, Consuela, and especially your cooking."

Laughing, the housekeeper released him and ushered him to a seat. She poured each of them a glass of cider. "Ernesto saw you working in the corrals today and brought extra water to the house for bathing. Such a good husband -- I didn't have to ask him. It's heating on the stove. When you are finished eating you can clean up."

The boys exchanged looks. They were so tired it was possible they would fall asleep at the table. Bathing sounded like it would draw on energy better used for getting upstairs to bed.

Consuela correctly interpreted their looks. "No one sleeps in fresh, clean sheets in this house without removing the dirt from their bodies first. You will wash up here in the kitchen, and remove your boots before going upstairs. No tracking through the house."

"Yes, ma'am," was the muttered response from Sam and Josh. Kyle just looked a little scared of Consuela. They all ducked their heads, concentrating on their meal.

"I'm going home now. Be good."

When she left the kitchen, Josh asked, "Do she and Ernesto still live out back in the guest house?"

Sam looked at him. "Yeah. They do." He wondered briefly if Josh had asked that question because he was curious or to show his knowledge of the Bartlet household. Sam noticed the way Kyle frowned in Josh's direction and knew that he clearly thought it was the latter. This was Kyle's first time inside the house. He'd been to the ranch a few times, and only when Abbey and Jed were not at home, but Sam had never brought him inside or even considered introducing him to his parents. He didn't want to examine too closely his reasons why he hadn't done that.

They finished eating and bathed quickly. Sam and Josh washed their faces, hands, and the back of their necks, only undoing a few buttons on their shirts. Kyle, however, pulled his shirt right off, and ran the washcloth over every inch of the front of his torso, before reaching over his broad shoulders to get at his back. Sam watched him openly. Kyle was an attractive man, all muscles and taut, sun-bronzed skin. Sam knew what that skin tasted like, what it felt like to be held in those strong arms, and how that body glided against his at the height of passion. Remembering that he and Kyle weren't alone, Sam wrenched his gaze away, swinging it right to Josh. Sam flushed. He was suddenly aware that Josh was also watching Kyle, though he didn't seem at all enthralled, and Sam experienced momentary confusion. Then Josh turned and looked at Sam. Everything stopped.

Sam let his gaze wander over Josh, taking in the pallor from too much time spent indoors, the wild hair that was beginning to run away from his forehead, and the hands that until today hadn't done any rougher work than hold a textbook in nearly two years. He saw intellect, compassion, and trust, the latter making Sam's gut twist. He also saw some disquiet as Josh glanced one more time at Kyle and then back at Sam.

The brow between the kind, beautiful hazel eyes crinkled slightly and then levelled out even as Sam's hand lifted from his side, itching to smooth it for Josh. Sam let his hand drop. Josh's Adam's apple convulsed once.

Sam tore his gaze away. "I'll show you where the guest rooms are."

Kyle glared at Josh who ignored him. Kyle was not subtle, Sam noted for the hundredth time since meeting him.

Recalling what Consuela had said, they took their boots off and left them by the back door before going upstairs. Sam put Kyle in the room at the far end of the hall and Josh in the one next to that. Sam's room was closer to the stairs, and there were two bedrooms between his and Josh's. He mumbled a "Good night" and retreated to his sanctuary, closing the door behind him. Sam stripped out of his clothes, pulled back the sheets, and flopped bonelessly onto the bed. He was out the instant his body hit the mattress.

#

Knowing fingers danced across Sam's body, playing him like a musical instrument. They ran lightly up and down his legs causing him to stretch and flex, still more than half asleep. A hand grasped his burgeoning erection and squeezed just enough to make him twitch against the palm holding him. A mouth replaced the hand, warm and wet and active. He was licked and sucked, the pressure changing moment by moment, engulfed and released, engulfed and released. Sam began to thrust into the haven given to him, mindlessly lifting and falling over and over. He came quickly, crying out, "Josh!"

His hands reached out blindly and found a thick head of coarse hair. That felt wrong. Opening his eyes at last, Sam looked down his body and saw Kyle staring sourly back at him and lying between his legs, his mouth inches from Sam's flaccid shaft,

"God, Kyle. I'm...I'm sorry." He squinted at the mid-morning sun streaming through the window, feeling incredibly awkward.

Sitting up, the older man forced a smile. "It's all right."

Kyle wore nothing but that strained smile; his clothes were in a pile near the door. His hand dropped to his lap where he casually stroked his arousal. The carelessness of his movements was at odds with the potency of his erection. His cock was dark purple and stood flush against his belly.

He leaned closer to Sam and started to run his hands up and down Sam's arms, massaging his shoulders before moving on to his hips and thighs. Bending down he lapped at Sam's navel.

Shivering under the attention, Sam closed his eyes. The ministrations continuing, relaxing him, until he nearly fell asleep again. Sam felt the bed shift as Kyle moved up, resting his weight on top of him. His eyes fluttered open to see Kyle's face inches from his own.

"What you said, it hurt."

"I know. I am sorry." Sam made no move to touch Kyle.

"You could make it up to me."

Frowning slightly, Sam asked, "How?"

"Let me inside you."

Sam's eyes widened. "No."

"I'll be careful."

"I said no."

"It only hurts a little."

Sam did not like the way this conversation was going. "How do you know? Is it second hand information again from that source you won't talk about?" He watched Kyle closely and saw the truth. "No, I guess you get your knowledge in a more personal way."

"Not since we've been together, Sam. I promise."

"You know what, Kyle? I don't care if you've been with someone else. I don't even really care that you lied to me, but you are not doing that to me." By "that" he meant penetration. He wasn't ready for it, was certain he wouldn't like it, and he really did not like the way Kyle had brought it up again as if it was payment for Sam calling out Josh's name during climax.

Sam pushed at Kyle to move him. Kyle centered his weight so that he didn't budge. "Get off."

"Come on, Sam. We can do something else. Anything you want." His hand moved between their bodies, fingers curling around Sam's balls and gripping them tightly. His mouth descended on Sam's in a bruising, punishing kiss. Sam gripped Kyle's neck, pressing against it until the other man moved his head enough for Sam to turn away. Kyle slipped his free hand under Sam's hips lifting him slightly, his erection pushing at the entrance to Sam's body. His cock began to slide into the tight channel. Kyle's eyes were half shut as he thrust his hips and drove deeper.

"I said, get off!" His heart pounding, Sam pushed Kyle again; but the other man was bigger and heavier, and Sam barely moved him. In a burst of adrenaline, Sam squirmed around enough to bring his knee up under Kyle and shoved. It was enough to dislodge the other man. Once Sam got out from under him, he swung his fist, connecting solidly with Kyle's jaw. Kyle fell back on the bed, landing near the edge of the mattress and then slipped off, falling to the floor. Sam crouched on the bed looking down at him, ready to strike again.

For one long moment they traded fierce, stubborn looks, and then Kyle got to his feet. It didn't appear like he was going to try anything else. He stood aside while Sam dressed quickly in the same clothes he'd worn the day before. Kyle stood there naked with his arms folded across his chest, rubbing his jaw. Sam was relieved to see that Kyle was beginning to wilt.

"Get dressed. You're not staying here."

Moving slowly Kyle pulled his clothes on and then went out into the hallway. Sam followed him out and down the stairs, holding the front door open for him.

"Have to get my boots."

"Get them."

Kyle went to the kitchen and came back wearing the boots. Turning, he said, "Sam, why...?"

"I told you we can't do anything in my house yet you tried it anyway. I said no, Kyle, and still you forced your way!"

"Is this rule because of your folks or because of Josh?"

Seized with unreasoning anger in the face of Kyle's single mindedness, Sam gripped the door handle so tightly his knuckles hurt. "Leave now."

Kyle strode out of the house; and Sam shut the door firmly behind him. He wanted to slam it, but refrained. He sagged against it, his head tipped back.

"I heard something. Sam, are you okay?"

Sam jerked his head and saw Josh standing a few feet away watching him with concern written all over his face. "I'm fine," Sam said doggedly.

Moving closer until he was an arm's length away, Josh said, "You're shaking like a leaf in a high wind."

Taking stock of his body, Sam became aware that his nerves were twanging and every muscle and tendon was strung tightly enough to ache. "Surely not that bad," he said after a moment, knowing Josh's observation was true.

"You sounded upset a minute ago." Josh's voice was soft. He took another step forward bringing him within Sam's personal space.

Sam said, "He...I knew Kyle wasn't going to last. Us together, I mean. I knew from the start that we had little in common."

"But you were attracted to him so you got involved anyway," Josh said.

"Yeah," Sam whispered, gazing up into Josh's hazel eyes. He blinked. "I don't feel so good, Josh." He turned and yanked the door open, running outside to throw up into Abbey's flowerbed. As his stomach emptied itself of last night's meal, he felt a soothing hand rub circles between his shoulder blades and another on his arm keeping him from tumbling off the front porch. When there was nothing more to bring up, he sat back on his heels and leaned into the embrace of strong arms.

"Poor Sam," Josh soothed.

Sam's feet slid out from under him and he sat down hard. Josh went down with him, his arms still wrapped around Sam's front; and Sam lay between Josh's legs resting against his chest. They sat there. Sam trembled while Josh whispered comforting words and rocked him. After a while, a carriage drove up to the front of the house. Abbey, Jed, and Mallory rode in it while Leo rode his horse alongside. At the sight of the two young men sprawled on the porch, their family hurried to them.

Abbey got there first. She crouched down and felt her son's forehead. "Sam? You're so pale. What's wrong, honey?"

"M'okay," he mumbled.

"He was sick. I think he's okay now," Josh offered.

"Why were you sick?"

"Must have had too much sun yesterday," Sam replied. It was the most plausible thing he could come up with, not wanting to give the real reason for his indisposition.

Abbey studied his face. "How many times do I have to tell you to wear a hat when you're outside? What did you do yesterday?"

"Helped with the branding."

Jed walked up and squatted beside them. "We have men we pay for that kind of work, son. Why were you out there?"

"A couple of hands got hurt. They're okay but they weren't up to working yesterday. I helped out. So did Josh." He moved then, getting his feet under him and stood up. Josh stood also, keeping both hands on Sam to steady him. Sam was reluctant to move away from his touch, but he did giving his thanks with a tiny smile. Josh returned it shyly.

"I declare, Sam. Life is always a drama with you."

He turned towards the speaker. "I thought you moved to Boston not Atlanta, Mallory. You sounded like a Southern belle just now."

Haughtily Mallory lifted her chin and blushed at the restrained laughter from the others. Leo stepped up behind her and put his hands on her shoulders. She glanced towards him with gratitude.

"I figured you'd be gone awhile yesterday, Josh, but overnight is a bit much," Leo teased.

"Sorry, Pop. They needed help so I stayed longer than intended. By the time we got done I was too tired to ride home."

"That's okay, son."

"Well, this is quite the welcome home," Jed said. "Anything else we should know?"

Sam traded a look with Josh. There was no way he was going to tell them about Kyle. Instead, he said, "Nothing...except don't look in the flowerbed."

On the Frontier 10/18

Rating: NC17

After he got everyone to stop fussing over him, Sam went back up to his room. He needed to be alone. He dragged the linen off the bed, and then sat shivering on the bare mattress. A little while later when Abbey asked him through the closed door if there was anything he needed, he asked for hot water for a bath claiming he was stiff and sore from the exertions of the day before. While he waited, he sat staring unseeingly, not really thinking, and trying not to feel. It was Josh who came up next to tell him the bathwater was ready. Sam waited until he heard Josh leave before emerging from his room.

He undressed slowly. Carefully, hesitantly, he checked himself and found a few spots of blood from where his flesh had been torn. The blood was dry now, so he decided not to worry about it. Besides, he didn't want to have to explain to his parents why he had been bleeding down there.

Lowering himself into the water, he let the steam envelop him and sank down to his chin. The cleansing heat seeped into his pores, and he stopped trembling, his muscles unclenching at last. His eyelids were just beginning to slide shut when there was a gentle knock on the door. It opened and Josh poked his head in.

"May I come in?" Josh entered without waiting for permission, but Sam ignored that. He drew his knees up to his chest.

"So, how are you? I mean, you looked pretty green for a while there." Josh sat on a chair a foot away. "Do you want to talk about it?"

"About what? My particular shade of green?"

"Sam."

"There's nothing to talk about."

"Something happened between you and Pretty Boy in your room. I heard a thump like something or someone hitting the floor, and I got a glimpse of him when he left. He'll have a nasty bruise on his chin for a few days."

Sam stared at his knees while he drew circles around one kneecap. "Nothing happened, Josh. You're imagining things."

In a sudden movement, Josh reached out and grabbed Sam's right hand. "Am I? Then how do you explain this?"

He held Sam's hand up so that they both could see the broken skin across the knuckles and the slight swelling. Sam merely stared at it.

"You punched Kyle, didn't you?"

Sam pulled his hand free and submerged it in the water. "Go away, Josh. I'd like some privacy."

"Why'd you hit him? What happened?"

"Josh, please..."

Standing, Josh said, "If you want to talk about it, I'll listen." He opened the door and went out.

The door closed behind him. Sam stared at it for a long while and then submerged completely in the water, coming up with his hair plastered to his head.

#

Everyone had gathered in the kitchen for lunch. Jed and Leo sat at one end of the table talking over coffee, while Mallory and Abbey chatted at the other end. Consuela busied herself at the stove. Josh let his attention drift in and out of both conversations, not really picking up enough information to know what any of them were discussing. When Sam entered the kitchen, Josh cast a critical eye over him. He looked better. His colour was more normal, though still a shade too pale. His hair was damp and swept back from his forehead. Those vivid blue eyes that Josh had so often dreamed about flickered around the room without really settling anywhere. He kept his right hand with the bruised knuckles out of sight in his pocket.

Abbey went to him and put her arms around him. "Sam, are you feeling better now?"

"I'm fine. Sorry about what happened out there."

"Don't be silly. You couldn't help getting sick."

Sam gave his mother a one-armed hug. "I'm glad you're home and you, too, Pa. How did things go in Sacramento?"

Jed leaned back in his chair. "It's the strangest thing. Every time I go there they seem to think that I'm the governor of the state. They ask me to do all kinds of things that have to do with politics. Can't imagine whatever gave them that idea."

"You can handle it," Sam grinned, "but why are you home now?"

"We decided to come home earlier than planned. Your mother has no patience for socializing with politician's wives, even though I keep telling her she is one now. She denies it, of course. We left the city right after breakfast. This way we got to come home to one of Consuela's delicious lunches. And don't think that I travel on my stomach, because that would be a fallacy."

"Right," Abbey smiled.

"It's good to have you back." Sam then turned to Josh's sister. "How are you, Mallory?" His tone was slightly formal, but if Mallory noticed she didn't comment on it. Josh was glad of that. Sam didn't look like he was quite up to dealing with the Mallory McGarry take-aim-and-fire type of conversation just yet.

"I'm fine, Sam. It's good to see you again." She smiled coyly at him.

Josh rolled his eyes. He recognized the signs. Mallory was flirting with Sam. It was one of many constants in her personality. Put a handsome man in front of her and she flirted.

Fortunately, Sam was either oblivious or else he was merely being polite. "I apologize for my earlier remark about you being a Southern belle. I was caught in an awkward moment and not thinking clearly."

"You're such a gentleman," Mallory said with obvious sincerity. "No harm done, but apology accepted."

Sam walked around the table and sat down next to Leo who reached over and put his hand on Sam's shoulder, gently squeezing. "How ya doin', kid?"

A mildly sheepish grin appeared on Sam's face when he replied, "I'm okay now, Uncle Leo."

"That was quite the reception you gave your folks."

"Yeah."

"Just as long as you're all right."

"I am."

"Good."

Abbey set a glass of liquid in front of him. "Drink this."

Sam regarded the glass suspiciously. "Is that the salty sweet stuff you used to pour down me when I was a kid?"

"There's honey, corn syrup and a pinch of salt in that. It will replace the nutrients you lost." Making a face, Sam fingered the side of the glass. "Sam. Drink it."

Sam picked up the glass and sipped at the contents. Then he downed most of it. "It doesn't taste as bad as I remembered."

Mallory was still gazing raptly at Sam. "Will you be attending Harvard in the fall, Sam?"

"Not sure. I've applied there and to George Washington University, too. Theirs is the first law school to be established in the country. It would be wonderful to go there because of the sense of history, and the fact that it is in our nation's capitol," he said. "Besides, it's a good school."

Josh's stomach dropped. "But I thought," he stopped and tried again. "We always talked about going to Harvard together."

Sam finally turned to look at him. "I haven't decided yet. Just exploring my options."

"It's always good to have options, son," Jed noted, "but you don't know anyone in Washington. I mean, I'll be there occasionally, but at least if you go to Harvard, you'll have Josh to show you around; and Mallory and her mother are nearby in Boston."

"I haven't made any decisions. There's still time."

"Did your friend go home, Sam?" Consuela asked.

Josh noticed that Sam suddenly lost the colour he had regained, so he answered for him. "He left early this morning. I think he said he was concerned about his folks wondering where he was all night."

"What friend is this, Sam?" Abbey asked.

Finding his voice, Sam told her, "Kyle Murphy. He helped with the branding, too."

"Have we ever met him? I don't recall that name."

"Uh, no. You haven't met him."

"Well, the next time he's here be sure to introduce him to us. You know we want to meet all of your friends."

"I will." Sam flicked a glance Josh's way.

Josh wondered suddenly about the kind of man Sam was turning into. He kept things from his parents; he had been having what Josh presumed to be a sexual relationship with another man. Had Sam ever told them about what he had done with Josh? He looked at Leo who was deep in conversation with Jed. What would Leo say if he found out about him and Sam or, worse yet, about him and Hoynes? What would any of them think if they found out about the twisted liaison he had indulged in for the past two years? It was Josh's turn to feel ill. He had managed to forget his anxieties for a short time, but now they were back in full force.

Sam was looking at him more intently. Josh turned away, afraid the truth showed on his face.

"Josh, do you want to go to town today? You could meet Toby Ziegler. You'll like him, maybe."

Managing a quiet chuckle, Josh asked, "Maybe I'll like him?"

Sam lifted one shoulder. "He's kind of prickly and takes some getting used to."

"Sure. We can do that. I'd like to meet Toby." Anything to spend more time with Sam was good with Josh. As long as Sam was in an amiable mood there was a chance they could begin to repair their friendship. This overture was a good start.

"I have an idea," Abbey said. "We should have a party. Josh and Mallory are home. That should be sufficient reason to celebrate, right?"

"Excellent idea, Darling," Jed exclaimed, clapping his hands together. "We'll invite all our friends and neighbours. When do you want to have it?"

"How about Saturday night?"

"That's only four days away. Will you have enough time to get everything ready?"

"I will if you help out, Pumpkin," Abbey replied sweetly, fluttering her eyes at him.

"Ah. I guess I just volunteered," Jed said submissively. Leo grinned at him.

"I knew you would understand." Abbey turned to their son. "Sam, you be sure to invite Tobias and Andrea when you see them today, and maybe Kyle could come as well?"

"I'm not sure if Kyle can make it, but I'll ask Toby and Andrea."

"Good. Josh, if you have anyone you want to invite, you go ahead and ask them," Abbey told him.

"Can we ask Mrs. Landingham? I'd sure like to see her again."

"Josh, your Uncle Jed makes sure that Delores Landingham is at every one of our parties. In fact, if she can't attend we aren't allowed to have the party."

Josh grinned at her. "Maybe Sam and I can ride over to see her tomorrow."

"I'm so pleased you came home, Josh. Sam was miserable without you."

Sam avoided his gaze so Josh could not tell if he agreed with Abbey's statement or not. "I was pretty unhappy without him, too."

That got a response out of Sam. He looked over with raised eyebrows. His expression remained otherwise unreadable, but Josh was positive he saw a spark of something in those unfathomable blue eyes. He hoped the spark was real and not just in his imagination.

#

Josh went home with his father and sister to get cleaned up, and then returned to the Bartlet ranch to meet up with Sam. His heart beat faster than normal at the thought of spending the day with Sam.

The ride to town was spent mostly in silence. They travelled a couple of miles before Sam finally spoke up.

"We need to talk." Josh looked over at Sam riding beside him on his sorrel gelding. The younger man was staring straight between his horse's ears, but Josh was fairly certain that Sam was speaking to him and not the horse.

"Ah-kay. You first. I'm sure you've got some questions for me."

Sam turned to him, his face reflecting turmoil. "Why didn't you ever say anything about what happened between us the night before you left for college? Was it that awful? Was I...that bad?"

"Ah, Sam. No. It wasn't you. It wasn't anything you did. I just got scared."

"Of what?"

"Of getting too attached to you, even though it was already too late for that. I spent nine years falling in love with you. It was all right as long as you didn't know about it. That night when you kept pushing me and I couldn't hold back any longer and we...did what we did. Hell, I don't even know what to call it. Was that making love? It was for me."

"It was for me, too, Josh."

Josh cleared his throat and continued, "We were best friends since the day we met, right?"

"I thought so," Sam replied coolly.

"Ouch. I deserved that." Josh rubbed his eyes. "Anyway, a part of me has always been afraid of losing you. I felt guilty for my parents and my sister dying in that fire. When I was little, I was convinced I was going to be punished for the rest of my life and that I'd never have anyone to love ever again, or anyone who would love me. To find you and Pop, Jed and Abbey after my family died was like this magnificent gift that I fully expected to be taken away from me at any moment."

"Josh," Sam began.

"Let me finish. When I realized I was in love with you and that maybe you felt something more than friendship for me, I got scared. Maybe none of this makes any sense to you, but it did to me then. Now I'm not so sure about anything I think or feel except for one thing. I do love you, Sam."

"I still don't understand why you wouldn't talk about it."

"It felt wrong, Sam. As much as I love you, it felt wrong to be sexually attracted to you. You're so smart and beautiful and too good for me. To want you for your body, too, just felt wrong somehow. And I was afraid I wanted you more for the sex than for who you are. I'm not explaining it very well. I'm sorry."

"Are you saying that you put me on some damn pedestal because you idolize me?"

"Uh, yeah. I guess maybe that is what I did...sort of."

Sam wheeled his horse around so that the gelding's head was across Josh's knee. Both horses danced nervously, picking up on the intense emotions of their riders. The metal bit dragged along Josh's leg and then banged against his knee, shocking him through to the bone. He cried out in pain.

"Hey!"

"You stupid son of a bitch! You arrogant jerk! How dare you treat me that way?" Standing in his stirrups Sam looked like he wanted to hit Josh. His fist was curled in a tight ball. Josh reeled back just from the look of fury directed at him. "That's what this is all about? This is why you didn't come home last summer?"

"Sam, what's going on? You don't lose your temper like this."

"How do you know? You haven't been in my life for two years!" Sam jerked the reins and kicked his horse in the flanks. The gelding bucked once, and then leapt into a startled gallop. "You don't know me!" Sam yelled over his shoulder.

Josh urged his mare to follow. "Sam! Wait!"

Sam left the road and crashed his gelding through some brush, heading across country and away from town. Josh chased after him. They plunged through trees for a quarter mile before breaking out into the open. The horses raced across a meadow with manes and tails streaming behind them. Sam leaned down, his body low over the gelding's neck. Josh copied him, the distance between them getting shorter. His mare was smaller but she was also faster. He clucked to her and was rewarded with a burst of speed. Then Sam veered off towards more brush.

He was just disappearing into the trees when Josh got there. The trees were mostly saplings and farther apart here making it easier to ride without fear of getting decapitated by a low branch. Josh's mare pulled up alongside the gelding. Both animals were speckled with lather. In a move Josh knew was foolhardy, he reached out and threw an arm around Sam's shoulders. His hand slipped and he grabbed the sleeve of Sam's shirt. He tugged and felt it rip. In a desperate move, Josh curled his hand around Sam's elbow and pulled again as hard as he could. Sam fell back against him, accidentally pulling on the reins. His gelding turned to the left, getting in the path of Josh's mare, and both horses slowed in their headlong rush. The riders overbalanced and tumbled backwards to the ground.

Brushing dirt and leaves out of his hair and off his clothing, Josh sat up. "Okay. Ow." He rubbed his back.

Nearby, Sam pushed himself to a mostly upright position, and then fell back onto his elbows. "That was so stupid, Josh. You could have killed us both."

"Oh? And galloping through a forest was a smart thing to do?"

"Nobody told you to follow me."

"Why did you take off like a whiny kid?"

"I did not whine."

"Well, you sure as hell didn't act like an adult. What's wrong, Sam? Talk to me. Please?"

Pulling his legs in so that he sat cross-legged, Sam dug his fingers into his hair, and then lowered them to cover his eyes. He stayed like that for a long time until Josh was certain he wasn't going to speak again.

"It's Kyle," he said at last.

"Kyle? Oh, this is about that fight you had with him this morning. Was...was it a lover's spat?"

"No. Yes, we were lovers, but it's not what you think."

"Right now, Sam, I don't know what to think. I guess I can understand why you got involved with him. He's very handsome and..."

"And nothing," Sam interrupted. "That's all there is to him, his looks. It was fun but it was just sex. That's what I thought, anyway. He thought there was more. He's jealous of you and picked up on my feelings for you as soon as you arrived yesterday."

"So he's a handsome, jealous guy. What of it?"

Sam's cool demeanor slipped. "This morning h-he tried to c-claim me as his."

"What? What does that mean, claim you?"

"He wanted to do things I'm not comfortable doing. He tried to f-force me. That's why I hit him."

"Oh my God. He tried to rape you? I'll kill him!" Josh got to his feet, looking around for his horse. Both animals had come to a halt and wandered back to graze a short distance away. He set off towards them.

"Josh, no!" Sam ran up and caught him. "It's okay. Kyle isn't that bright. He just got carried away. He had an opportunity afterwards to attack me, but he didn't take it. I don't think he'll be a problem anymore."

"Why are you defending him? Don't tell me that he just got carried away. He tried to rape you!"

Sam turned away, his mouth pinched at the corners. Josh thought he looked a little grey. Then Sam lifted his head and faced him.

"Yeah. He did." He stared bleakly, swallowing hard. "It's over now. Between Kyle and me, I mean."

Josh reached for Sam, wanting to comfort him. Sam pulled back just enough to show that he didn't want to be touched. Josh ignored the signals. Putting both of his hands on Sam's shoulders he leaned in and gently brushed his lips across Sam's. For just a second he saw that same flash from the morning of what he hoped was desire, and then Sam closed himself off. He retreated without actually moving.

"Don't."

"But..."

"No. I mean it, Josh."

It crossed Josh's mind that Sam must have said no to Kyle, and look where that got him. Letting his hands slide down Sam's arms he released him.

"I'm sorry, Sam. I love you, but I won't push you."

"Thank you, Josh."

He sounded so formal. Josh's heart was breaking. He tried to convince himself that Sam just needed time to recover from the attack by Kyle, but what he kept thinking was that Sam didn't want him. He'd stayed away too long.

On the Frontier 11/18

Rating: PG13

"You do know how to get home from here, right?" Josh had to ask, thinking of the many times Sam's questionable sense of direction had gotten them lost when they were younger. They held the horses to a walk.

"Of course." Sam answered with so much conviction that Josh almost believed him, that is until he remembered that conviction was a standard Sam-response.

"Uh, isn't it the other way?" Josh pointed back the way they'd come.

"We're not going home. We're going to town so you can meet Toby and Andrea."

"Right. I forgot." Josh had gotten turned around during their dash through the trees, but he was reasonably certain that they still weren't going the right way.

"I don't think we're," he stopped when Sam interrupted him.

"Look, I know where we are. If you think you can do better, go ahead."

Sam was a bit cranky today. Josh could live with cranky. He'd just keep an eye open for a familiar landmark. Once they got over the next ridge, he might be better oriented.

"Why did you stay away, Josh?"

The abrupt change of subject threw him. After a moment Josh replied, "I already told you."

"No, you told me why you were scared. Why did you stay away?"

"Same reason."

There was an audible sigh, and then Sam did not say anything more for a while. They rode another half mile when Josh gradually became aware he'd been hearing cattle bawling for some time. It was getting louder; maybe that's why it impinged on his consciousness now. Sam heard it too and pulled up on the reins.

"Are we still on Bartlet land?" Josh asked.

"Yeah, we're close to where it meets your father's and Hoynes' properties. There shouldn't be any of our cattle around here, and I think I heard Leo say that he'd moved his herd to the south pasture so the grass could grow back here. Besides, the pasture is way over there past that brush and on the other side of the ravine."

Maybe Sam did know where they were. Josh nudged his mare in the ribs so she moved closer to Sam's gelding.

"Shouldn't we check this out? Find out whose cattle those are?"

Sam dismounted and led the gelding forward, so Josh did the same with his horse. Stealthily, they crept to the top of the rise and looked down into the gully. There were at least twenty head of Hereford cattle down there. Some had the Bartlet brand, some were Leo's, but most bore the stylized JPH for John Phillip Hoynes.

Lying flat on the ground, Sam whispered, "Last I heard Hoynes was raising Texas Longhorns. Unless he recently switched to Hereford, those heifers are ours and Leo's."

"Mister Hoynes is rustling?" Josh whispered back, lying next to him.

"Or someone on his payroll is. They're probably taking our cattle to market in the next county where there will be less suspicion about the breed."

"Look!" Josh pointed further up the gully where several men had a branding fire stoked. Sam and Josh watched as the men led the Herefords toward the fire one at a time and burned a brand over the original mark.

"Can you make out who they are?" Sam asked, squinting a little.

Josh stared at him and then looked at the scene below. "Yeah, it's Hoynes' foreman, Seth Gillette, and some of their ranch hands. How come you can't see them?" Sam didn't answer him. "Well?"

With obvious reluctance, Sam replied, "It's possible I need eyeglasses. Just for reading."

"And for seeing, apparently."

"The sun is in my eyes."

"It's not in mine."

"Which is why you can see them and I can't," Sam retorted in a harsh whisper.

"I meant we're looking in the same direction at the same angle and the sun isn't bothering me."

"Well, the sun isn't bothering me either, and I can see just fine."

At the sound of another voice behind them, Sam and Josh rolled apart and started to get to their feet. They subsided as the hammer was pulled back on the Colt .45 that was pointed in their faces.

"Stay where you are. Well, well, well. Look at what I caught. Little S-S-Sammy Bartlet and his shadow Josh McGarry." Steve Onorato taunted, making fun of Sam's former speech impediment. "Long time no see, fellas. How ya doing?"

Josh and Sam glared at their childhood nemesis. Neither of them spoke.

Onorato went on. "I should say that I haven't seen you around for over a year, Josh. I've had my eye on Sam for quite a long time."

"Aren't you supposed to be in prison, Steve?" Josh was amazed that Sam could stay so calm, when all Josh wanted to do was shove his fist so far down Onorato's throat he could pull him inside out by his balls. Surprised by his own reaction, Josh discovered he still hated Onorato for tormenting Sam all those years ago.

"I spent a little time in San Quentin, yeah. Been out for a while now. Keeping a low profile, earning an honest day's work on the Hoynes' payroll."

"Honest?" Sam was incredulous. "You're stealing cattle!"

Not taking his eyes off Onorato, Josh spoke to Sam, "What was he in prison for?"

"Bank robbery and accessory to murder. He ran with the Curtis gang."

The Curtis gang was a notorious band of bank robbers that made the news across the country; Josh recalled reading about them in the Boston newspapers. Three innocent bystanders had been killed in one of their raids. So, Onorato had ridden with them, and now he was out of prison and holding a gun on them? Josh swallowed his fear. Onorato was potentially more dangerous now than just a schoolyard bully from their childhood.

"Okay. Enough chit chat." The tall, dark-haired man waved the pistol at them. "Get up. You're coming with me."

They stood up and walked ahead of him towards the camp in the gully. They went about ten feet before Sam turned and planted his fist in Onorato's solar plexus, doubling him over.

"Run, Josh!"

They both took off but had only run a short distance when another of Hoynes' men stepped out in front of them firing his Winchester into the air. At the loud report from the rifle, their horses bolted. Onorato walked over to where Sam and Josh stood trapped. He rubbed at his stomach, wincing in pain.

"Now you're asking for trouble, S-S-Sammy. That wasn't nice." To the fourth man he said, "Bring 'em."

#

Josh's arms and shoulders ached from having his hands tied tightly behind him for hours. He wasn't sure exactly how long it was since Onorato had brought them down to the campsite, but the sun had set, and the moon was rising in the night sky. Gillette had given Sam and Josh a derisive look when they were dragged towards him and ordered them bound and gagged. The gag hadn't been necessary until Sam took his fury out on the rustlers, spitting curses and threatening to wreak all manner of violence on them once he got his hands free. In fact, he'd planted a few solid kicks to the shins and upper thighs of their unsuspecting captors, before Gillette told his men to tie Sam's ankles as well as his hands. If Josh wasn't so scared about what would happen to them after the rustlers were finished changing brands, he'd have cheered Sam on. As it was, he was sure they were soon going to be killed.

Josh squirmed trying to get comfortable. It felt like he was sitting on a rock, or maybe it was a twig since it was about three inches long and narrow. He shifted around some more, inadvertently bumping his shoulder into Sam as they sat back to back. Then he realized what he was feeling under him. Flexing his hands Josh managed to gain precious room within the constraints of the rope. Wiggling fingers that were stiff from having their circulation slowed, he got his forefinger and middle finger inside his back pocket. More squirming rocked him against Sam again. Sam twisted his head and made a sound like, "Mmph?" through the bandana over his mouth.

Shaking his head to indicate that Sam should be quiet, Josh struggled to get his fingers deeper inside that pocket. Finally he touched the cool metal of his pocketknife. He stopped for a few seconds to make sure Onorato or Gillette, both of whom were crouched down by the campfire speaking in low voices, didn't see him. The branding was done. There was no reason for the rustlers to remain where they were unless they were trying to decide how to dispose of their bodies. That thought inspired Josh to get busy.

Grasping the knife more securely, he tugged on it until it slid out enough to get it between finger and thumb. It was out. Now all he had to do was open it. Feeling around with his thumbnail, he located a blade and slid it out of the casing. Turning it around until he could begin sawing on the ropes was a slow process, but he managed to cut his finger. He ignored it and kept hacking at his bounds.

The ropes frayed and split apart at last. Casting a worried eye towards the campfire, Josh turned just enough to get a fix on Sam's ropes and quickly severed those as well. Then he motioned for Sam to scoot around so he could cut the ropes around his ankles. With the ropes cut, Josh removed his gag and pressed a finger to his lips, motioning that Sam be quiet and head for safety. Sam nodded and pulled his gag off too.

They made it to the cover of some trees and climbed the side of the gully. At the top they found Sam's gelding idly cropping grass. The mare was nowhere to be seen.

Sam placed a gentle hand over the horse's muzzle, to keep him from whinnying a greeting, and grabbed up the trailing reins. He swung up into the saddle and kicked his foot free of the stirrup so that Josh could climb up behind him. He held out a hand, which Josh firmly grasped, and pulled him up. As soon as Josh was settled behind the saddle, Sam urged his horse to a fast walk. They did not want to draw attention to their escape. Then a distant shout soon alerted them to the fact that they had been discovered missing. Sam kicked the gelding's flanks, and they set off at a gallop with Josh clinging fiercely to Sam, his arms wrapped around his friend's waist.

They got a good head start, and in the dark shadows of the forest it would be nearly impossible to find them. Sam turned the horse into the densest part of the woods. The moon was full overhead, however the thick canopy of pine branches blocked out all but a few silver rays of light. Sam was forced to slow the gelding to a walk, or risk he and Josh getting swept off the animal's back by a branch jumping out of the darkness at them. Even worse, the gelding could stumble or even break a leg on the uneven ground. If the horse were injured they'd never get away from the kidnappers, and it was a very long walk back home.

The sound of hoof beats grew closer. Onorato's voice rang out in the crisp night air telling the men to fan out and find the boys.

The ground was softer here and a thick carpet of pine needles muffled the horse's steps. Taking advantage of being able to move more quickly with less chance of being heard, Sam kicked the gelding in the flanks and sent him off at a gallop. They raced up a small incline, and broke through the tree line into the open with shocking suddenness. Galloping across a meadow that was too exposed for Josh's liking, they shot over to the far side and the welcome cover of more trees. Sam pulled on the reins and the gelding skidded to a stop on his haunches, like the well-trained cowpony that he was. The horse stood with sides heaving and blew out a few breaths; the double load he carried was taking its toll. The two young men watched the trees on the far side of the meadow. They still heard voices but they seemed to be receding.

"I think they turned back," Sam whispered.

Tightening his grip around Sam's waist, Josh murmured back, "Let's go while we're still ahead."

Sam clucked softly to the gelding, and the horse gamely set off at a lope. Only after they were fairly certain the sounds of pursuit had faded away in the distance did Sam slow the sorrel to a walk. Josh continued to hold onto Sam who made no objection.

"Do you know where we are now?" Josh asked to break the silence.

"About five miles from home."

"'Kay." Josh felt he could relax now. He wasn't sure why, but he was experiencing a sudden unshakable faith in Sam's directional sense.

They rode along, bathed in the cool moonlight that shone much stronger where the forest's darkness was less intense. Josh's face was close to Sam's head. Just a slight shift forward, and he could breathe in a heady scent that was sweat and heat and pure Sam. He took a chance and tried to rest his chin on Sam's shoulder. The position was uncomfortable and awkward, since he was the taller of the two and perched on the rump of the horse. After a bit of thought he began nuzzling Sam's ear with his nose and settled his cheek against soft, silky hair. Sam did not speak, but he didn't pull away either. Josh felt the tension radiating off his friend at first. Then Sam uttered a sound that indicated at least partial surrender, and he leaned back ever so slightly into the circle of Josh's arms. Contented, Josh closed his eyes and smiled against the side of Sam's head.

Sam's hand dropped lightly onto Josh's, which lay possessively across Sam's abdomen. Questing fingers walked up the back of his wrist to his fingertips and stopped.

"Josh?"

"Yeah?" Josh was happy to have reached this truce, however temporary or permanent it might be.

"Your hand is wet." He looked down at it struggling to see in the near-darkness, "No, it's.bleeding, Josh."

"Oh. I cut my finger back there before we escaped. It's nothing."

Sam reached into the front pocket of his pants and drew out a white handkerchief. "It's clean," he assured Josh and passed him the reins to hold while he tore the linen into strips and wrapped one around Josh's finger, tying it tightly. He lifted the hand to his lips and slowly deposited a delicate kiss on the tip of the wounded finger.

"All better?" he asked, looking over his shoulder, his voice low in his throat.

Shocked at the uncomplicated sensuality of the act, Josh was rendered speechless so he just nodded.

"Good," Sam said and took back the reins. Cradling Josh's hand against his body, Sam did not speak again. All too soon they were within sight of the Bartlet home.

As they rode into the yard, they heard a relay of shouts from the ranch hands. The half dozen men, Al Kiefer included, were mounted and looked ready to ride. Jed, Abbey, Leo, Mallory, Consuela, and Ernesto all poured out of the building and met Josh and Sam as they rode up to the house. It sounded like everyone spoke at once, asking questions in English and in Spanish.

Josh was reluctant to let go of Sam but knew it was time. He slipped to the ground. His legs were a bit rubbery, and he was suddenly more tired than he'd first realized. Adrenaline had kept him going until now. He was light headed too, from not having eaten since the early lunch. Sam dropped down beside him and steadied him with an arm around his waist. After they took a couple of steps, Josh felt Sam stumble. Sam hadn't eaten anything all day and had lost last night's supper. Josh understood the closeness was more to hold them both up than out of any need to touch, although he hoped there was that, too. He caught Sam's eye and saw what this time he knew for sure to be their old attraction flaring up. Too bad they were surrounded by family and so exhausted that they were not likely to stay conscious for much longer, or Josh would have ravished Sam with kisses.

As they were escorted to the house, they related what had happened. Jed was livid, storming around the parlour while everyone else found seats. "Thieves! Kidnappers! I'll send Al to get the Sheriff. Let him deal with those men."

"Calm down, Jed," Leo said. "It's too late and too dark for anyone to go out there tonight. At first light we'll fetch the Sheriff and then go after them. Just be thankful our boys came back to us."

"How did you know we were in trouble?" Josh asked, looking at his father beside him on the settee. Mallory sat on the other side of Leo, staring at her brother with solemn eyes and being uncharacteristically quiet.

"Your mare came back to our barn alone, son. I went out looking for you until it got dark and then we came here. We sent some men into town. Toby hadn't seen Sam today. No one knew where either of you were." Leo grabbed Josh by the back of the head with both hands and just held him, staring into his eyes. "I was so scared, Josh," he whispered hoarsely.

"I'm sorry, Pop. I never meant to worry you."

His eyes wide, Leo gave him a tiny shake and then released him. "That's okay. You're fine. We can all relax now." By his tone of voice Josh knew Leo was still rattled and wouldn't completely relax for quite a while. He slipped an arm around his father's shoulders and held him, trying to convey that he was safe.

The conversation shifted back to speculation about the rustlers, and whether Hoynes knew about the illegal operation by his employees. Josh tuned it all out sagging against the cushions at his back.

Sam slumped in a chair across from him. He propped up his head with one hand and tried in vain to keep his eyes open. They slid shut for the third time as Abbey finished placing a proper bandage on Josh's finger. She turned around in time to see her son falling asleep.

"Come on, off to bed with you two. Unless you want something to eat first?"

Both of them declined. Eating sounded like it required effort Josh wasn't sure he could afford to expend right now. He just wanted to get some sleep.

Abbey went on, "Mallory, it's past your bedtime as well. You are all staying here tonight."

On the way upstairs Mallory touched Josh on the sleeve. "I'm glad you're safe, big brother. You too, Sam."

Sam mumbled his thanks and kept climbing the stairs. Josh gave his sister a tired smile. "Thanks, Mal. I never thought I'd be this happy to see you again."

Mallory took the comment in the spirit in which it was intended and swatted playfully at him. She said, "Good night," and continued to her room.

Sam stopped at the door to his room and Josh halted beside him. Gazing up at Josh, Sam told him in a low voice, "I wish I could invite you in. Just to sleep, of course."

"Of course." Josh smiled. It was wonderful to hear that light-hearted tone in Sam's voice again, even if it was laced with exhaustion. "Y'know, I've been back two days and haven't spent more than an hour in my own home yet. Also, just being around you has run me ragged both days. Life with you is always interesting."

"Interesting? Is that the best you can come up with?" Sam stepped closer. For half a second it looked like he might kiss Josh, as his eyes dropped to the older boy's mouth. Then he merely lifted a hand to caress Josh's cheek. When he let his hand fall, Josh knew Sam wasn't ready for anything more intimate yet. At least now he had hope that he would be, perhaps soon.

Sam's voice quavered when he spoke next. "I was afraid tonight, Josh. I was afraid that we were going to die."

Beating down the sudden wave of terror that had not been far from the surface throughout their ordeal, Josh whispered, "Me too."

"I realized that I couldn't stay mad at you," Sam continued. "If we had died out there it would have been with things unsettled between us, and the reasons for that seem trivial now."

"For the record, I'm more sorry than I can tell you that I stayed away last summer."

"It's okay now, Josh." Sam yawned, and then smiled apologetically. "Maybe we can talk about it tomorrow?"

"Gladly. I missed talking to you, Sammy."

"Good night, Josh." Sam entered his bedroom and slowly closed the door.

"Good night, Sam."

On the Frontier 12/18

Rating: PG13

It was the second day in a row that Sam had slept late. He wandered downstairs in search of breakfast and Josh, and found both in the kitchen. His mother told him that Al Kiefer had been sent to get the sheriff and that Jed and Leo had ridden out with some of the men to meet them near the ravine. Jed left orders for Sam and Josh to stay around the house until someone returned with news. The boys ate breakfast mostly in silence.

They were both starving after all the adventure and the fact that neither of them had eaten much the day before. Consuela watched as they devoured everything on the plates of eggs, bacon, and flapjacks she set before them, and then she made more, which they also ate with enthusiasm. She and Abbey traded amused looks.

Sam insisted on doing his chores even though he was hours late and they had probably been taken care of already. He announced he was going over to the barn to check on his horse.

"You want to help?" he asked Josh.

"Right behind you," Josh quickly replied, getting up from the table and following him out.

Abbey watched them go. She was so pleased they were getting along again. Sam's reactions to Josh's absence, going from hope to disappointment to simmering anger and finally to resignation, had been painful to witness.

#

Running a brush over his gelding's flanks, Sam leaned one arm on the horse's back and looked at Josh, who was grooming the horse in the next stall. His mare was at home in her own barn, and Josh was just trying to be useful. When Josh glanced his way, Sam smiled and returned his attention to his task.

Josh slapped the horse on the rump and then came around the partition. "Sam?"

"Uh huh?"

"Have you ever thought about how your folks would react if they knew you like men?"

Sam looked up. "They know."

"What?"

"They know. Well, they know about us...you and me."

"I thought we agreed we wouldn't tell anyone?"

"They guessed or possibly figured it out somehow. I overheard them talking one day after you left for Cambridge. They didn't seem too upset. Just worried that I was too young or that you made me do it. I told them it was my idea but that we both wanted it."

Josh sagged against the wall. "God. I had no clue. Wait. What about Pop?"

"I'm not sure if he knows. Pa tells him everything, though, so he might have told him about that."

Josh digested that. Then he asked, "You didn't get a lecture about how you have to carry on the family bloodlines?"

Sam laughed. "We're not horses or cattle, Josh. My folks accepted that I...that I like men. Oh hell. They know I love you, Josh. They think of you as part of the family so it's okay with them."

"Really?"

"Really. Well, Pa did give me another option."

Josh frowned. "What kind of option?"

"Promise you won't tell anyone? I mean it. If my mother ever finds out, she'll tan Pa's hide and nail it the wall and then come after me."

"Okay. For Uncle Jed's sake, I promise not to tell."

Sam did not miss his exclusion in that promise, or Josh's sly smile. "He took me to Madam Hildy's in town."

"The bordello?"

Sam nodded.

"What did you do?"

"I spent time with one of the girls," he said casually, watching for Josh's reaction.

With narrowed eyes and a different inflection, Josh repeated, "What did you do?"

"Her name is Laurie. She's really nice, with pretty eyes and long dark hair. She made me feel comfortable before we even kissed."

"You kissed her?" Josh's voice rose on the last word.

"Seemed a shame not to. She was lying there all naked and everything." So he was embellishing a bit and changing the facts. Josh's response was worth a day in hell for lying.

"Naked?" Josh squeaked.

Greatly amused, Sam managed to keep a straight face. "Why is it that you're jealous of Laurie but not Kyle?"

Pacing away, Josh turned around and came back. "I'm not jealous."

"Sure you are."

"All right, I am," he admitted. "If you find out you like girls, you might get married someday and raise a bunch of kids; and I'll have to visit every Christmas as pathetic old Uncle Josh, and pretend I don't want to drag their father off to the barn and have wild sex with him."

"Excuse me?" Sam's tone dropped below freezing.

"I'm sorry. That sounded really bad in a 'it wasn't supposed to sound that way' kind of way."

Sam relented. "It's all right. I understand. Josh, I didn't have sex with her that day."

The relief on Josh's face touched Sam. Josh's jealousy came out of love, not possessiveness, unlike Kyle's feelings towards him.

"But," he began.

"Aw, no. Sam..."

"I have to say this. I don't want you finding out later and feeling hurt because I never told you. I did have sex with Laurie after that. Many times." Sam looked Josh directly in the eyes as he spoke. "At first we were just friends. She was someone I could talk to about you. In fact, I told her about you that first day. She was always encouraging, telling me to keep believing that you and I would be together someday. When you sent that last letter saying you weren't coming home this summer, I gave up. She was there and she was more than willing."

"How much?" Josh breathed, staring up into the rafters.

"I don't understand."

"How much did you have to pay her, Sam?"

Sam froze. He couldn't move. He could barely think.

Josh looked at him then, and his expression was one of a man who knew he had just said the wrong thing. "Oh, God. Sammy, I'm really so very, very sorry."

"She's a friend, Josh. Didn't you hear me? And she never charged me."

"She fell in love with you too. Didn't she?" Josh guessed, and Sam's anger fled at the look of sadness on his friend's face.

Turning away, Sam started grooming his horse all over again. He brushed the hair with hard strokes, disturbing a bit of dust left from the last grooming. The gelding snorted and Sam went easier. It wouldn't have hurt the animal, but he wasn't inclined to take his mood out on an innocent horse.

"I suppose I should be flattered by all this fierce emotion I seem to inspire in people -- you, Laurie, Kyle. It's just that it gets ugly, Josh. It turns the people I care about into monsters, and I'm the one that ends up getting hurt. Laurie's reactions were fairly mild. She made it clear how she feels about me, but offered to be with me even knowing that I love you. Kyle, well, you know how he responded." Sam swallowed that bitter memory and went on. "I like Laurie, and I'd like for us to stay friends as long as she's willing. I can't trust Kyle anymore. I misjudged him. And then there's you, Josh. You're the one I love. Please don't make me regret that."

"I can't help how I feel, Sam."

"I know. I just want you to think before you act. That's all. I can forgive a lot of what you do and say because that's what friends do. But my patience only goes so far. I will not be used as an object. I will not tolerate anyone behaving like a fool on my behalf. You're a smart man, Josh. You'll go far, and I want to be right there beside you."

Josh turned his hazel eyes on Sam. "I want you with me, too, even though I don't deserve you."

Sam took the two steps separating them. His hands closed gently on Josh's arms just above the elbows.

"Stop talking that way. You've got to get over this sense of inferiority or whatever it is that's making you think like that. I am no better than you, and you are no better than me. We love each other. Shouldn't that be enough?"

"Yes," Josh whispered.

Sam released him, but Josh reached out and took him into his arms. He pulled Sam hard against his body. Sam could feel the beginning of Josh's arousal through two layers of clothing and his own rising to meet it. When Josh's mouth descended on his, Sam welcomed it. Josh softly bit down on Sam's bottom lip. Sam slid his arms around Josh's back, holding him tightly. He thrilled to the feel of the hard masculine body against his, and the lean muscles under his hands. They turned around in the narrow confines of the stall. Sam bumped into his horse. The gelding nickered and stamped. Josh pressed forward, and Sam backed into the horse again. This time the animal objected more strenuously by grabbing Josh's pants leg with his teeth.

"Hey!"

The young men separated and stood gazing into each other's eyes. "I guess we'll have to try this again another time and place. Someplace where there aren't any spectators." Josh glared at the sorrel that was now munching unconcernedly on some hay.

"Yes, somewhere more private would be a good idea." They were startled by the sound of Mallory's voice. She stood in the aisle of the barn with her arms folded in front of her. Her expression was stormy. "That way unsuspecting people won't find out the hard way that their brother and his best friend are doing something...unnatural."

"Mal, you don't understand."

"Shut up, Josh."

"Mallory, please listen," Sam tried.

"Shut up, Sam. I don't want to hear it." She spun on the heel of her boot and strode out of the barn.

"Well, that could have gone better," was Josh's comment.

"We need to talk to her, Josh. She's upset."

They ran out after her and found she'd only gone as far as the door. She was leaning against the wall out front.

"Mallory, please listen to us," Sam pleaded.

"I'm listening, Sam. Go ahead. Explain to me why you were kissing my brother. Shouldn't you both be out chasing girls?"

"Josh and I love each other," he said gently.

Pulling her arms tighter against her body, Mallory shifted away from him. "You're friends. Of course you love each other."

Sam glanced over at Josh, asking a question with his eyes. Josh spoke to his sister in the same kind tone Sam had used. "It goes deeper than that, Mal. Sam and I want to be together -- as lovers."

She looked from one to the other, understanding dawning. "But that's bizarre! Men don't have sex with each other."

Realizing that Jenny's over protectiveness was at work behind this state of denial, Sam told her, "It happens, Mallory. More than you know."

"It's just unnatural."

Josh slipped an arm around Sam's waist and said quietly, "We don't think so."

Mallory stared at them both and then settled her gaze on Sam. He was beginning to become uncomfortable until she finally spoke. "My mother always said that you would be a bad influence on Josh -- that the two of you together were just plain trouble." That said she turned and strode towards the house.

"But, Mallory..." Sam moved to go after her.

Josh stopped him. "Let her go. She only strikes out at people when she's confused. She'll think about it, and then she'll either accept us or tell us that we're going to hell to pay for our sins."

"Is she that pious?"

"No. She's just Mal." Josh put his hands on Sam's shoulders. "I'm kind of glad she interrupted us, and well, I guess your horse helped."

"Why are you glad about that?"

"I want you so badly I can taste it, but I know that you're still not ready. Besides, our first time together -- our real first time -- should be in a bed not in a barn. I want us to go slow and get to know each other completely, the way we deserve. There shouldn't be any chance of interruptions, or in case we get caught, we do it so fast that our heads spin."

"I don't know," Sam teased, "I like the thought of making your head spin."

"I know what you mean," Josh said huskily, "but I'd like to remember it afterwards."

Sam stretched up and planted a warm kiss, full of promise, on Josh's mouth. Josh deepened the kiss, his hands pulling inexorably on Sam's shoulders to bring him closer.

Drawing back, Sam said, "Speaking of getting caught, maybe we shouldn't do this out in the yard where any of a dozen people can see us."

Licking his lips, Josh replied, "When I'm with you, I don't care who finds out. But, you're right. Okay. No more fun stuff except in private. I'll wait as long as it takes."

Sam grinned at him. He could have all kinds of fun with Josh as long as he cooperated like that.

"Why are you smiling?" Josh asked suspiciously.

"Oh, no reason."

"Sa-aam?"

"Come on, there are still chores to be done." Sam walked away knowing Josh's eyes were glued to him, watching his retreat with impatience.

On the Frontier 13/18

Rating: PG13

It was mid afternoon by the time Jed and Leo arrived home with the sheriff and their makeshift posse. The riders dismounted in back of the house, and they all went inside.

"Did you catch them, Pop?" Josh asked his father, while eyeing the very tall Sheriff Lionel Tribbey looming in the Bartlet kitchen doorway.

"No, we did not," Tribbey answered for Leo in a vaguely sarcastic tone. He dumped himself on a chair at the table and nodded his thanks when Consuela put a cup of coffee in front of him. She also poured coffee for the others as Leo and Jed joined Tribbey at the table. The other men remained standing. Tribbey continued, "They were gone by the time we got there. We found their camp and followed their trail as far as the river and then, of course, we lost it. We came back here to regroup and try another direction."

Josh was beginning to wonder if Tribbey was always so angry and presumptuous. He glanced over at Sam who was keeping his distance from the big man.

Tribbey ran a hand through his prematurely greying hair. He couldn't have been much older than his mid thirties, yet there was more salt than pepper in his brown hair. "Knowing who we're looking for will help in the long run. They can't get far."

"Has anyone talked to Mr. Hoynes?" Sam asked.

Jed shook his head and took a sip of coffee before answering. "No. Jack is out of town until the end of the week. I left word with his wife that we'd like to talk to him as soon as he gets back, and asked Colleen to come with him to the party on Saturday. By the way," he looked at everyone in the room, "you're all invited. Bring your appetites and your dancing shoes."

There were murmurs of thanks from the crowd of men cluttering up the kitchen.

Tribbey slapped his palms on his legs and stood up. "Dancing and having parties are all well and good, but we need to catch those rustlers. Who's with me?"

Jed raised an eyebrow at Leo who grimaced, but they both stood as well. The other men put their coffee mugs aside and filed out of the kitchen ahead of them.

Sam went to his father and asked, "Can we go with you this time?"

"No, son. It's too dangerous. Who knows what Onorato and Gillette might do if they get backed into a corner? I can't risk you boys getting hurt."

"But Pa..."

"Sam, what you and Josh did last night was very brave. I'm proud of both of you, but I need you to stay here and look after your mother. I'm leaving a couple of men to stay on lookout in case of trouble. You know where I keep the guns, don't you?"

"Yes."

"Good. Now chances are those men are headed for Mexico by now, but just in case, I want you to load a rifle and keep it here with you. Don't leave the house."

"Jed," Abbey started to protest.

"Now, Abbey. Sam knows how to shoot a gun. I taught him myself."

"Oh, and you're such a good shot, Mister Economics Professor." Abbey's tone held no recrimination, but her expression was worried.

"Yes, well, I can hit the broad side of a barn, and Sam is a better shot than I am." He reached out and gently cuffed the back of Sam's head. Then he gave Abbey a long and steady look, and went to where Leo was waiting for him. Leo nodded reassuringly at Josh and Mallory, and then he and Jed walked out together.

Josh wasn't pleased at being left behind like they were children, but he wasn't too keen on getting shot at by desperate criminals, either. Better to defend the home front, he supposed. Sam met his eyes, and Josh could tell his friend was a little more upset than he was at their circumstances; but there was nothing for them to do now except wait.

#

Fed up with being cooped up inside, Sam and Josh went out onto the front porch for some fresh air. Sam cradled a Winchester in his arms while Josh, who was better at close range, held a shotgun. One of the ranch hands was patrolling the back of the house and another was near the front gate.

"Do you think Gillette will come back this way?" Josh asked.

"No. He's not stupid. He'll head for Mexico like Pa said."

"'Kay." Josh nodded. He needed to broach something with Sam, but didn't quite know how to do it. Now wasn't the ideal time to discuss Johnny Hoynes, but he was afraid if Sam found out from the wrong person, it could shatter their relationship.

He'd been stalling ever since he got home, not that there had been many opportunities to discuss it. First there was the branding. Josh had wanted to show that he was home as more than just a visitor. He wanted to show Sam that he still fit into his world, and so he had pitched in and worked alongside him.

Then there had been Sam's confusion and anger about Kyle's attempted rape, the wild ride through the pines, the discovery of the rustlers, and finally their kidnapping. The perfect time to tell Sam about Hoynes would have been earlier in the barn when Sam was so open and loving with him, but Josh's courage had fled. He was afraid to tell him, plain and simple. He hadn't wanted to ruin things now that they were back on solid ground in their relationship. Josh knew he had to tell Sam sooner rather than later. Sam had been honest with him about Kyle and Laurie. It was the least Josh could do to tell him about Hoynes, especially considering that he and John had shared only their bodies and not their hearts.

Shaking himself free of his musings, Josh looked at Sam. His friend was searching the horizon with narrowed eyes. Perhaps sensing Josh's gaze on him, Sam turned then and smiled. Josh's resolve to tell Sam about Hoynes melted with the force of that smile. Okay, so he was a coward. He was a coward who hated to see Sam's love turn to anger or perhaps even distrust. Not ruining Sam's peace of mind was more important to Josh than what Sam might think of his deception. He never wanted anything negative to happen to Sam ever again, and he certainly did not want to be the cause of it. Maybe he would wait until life settled down to normal and then pick a quiet time when they could just sit and talk.

"We'd better get back inside," Sam said. He rubbed his fingers on the back of Josh's hand in a gesture that made his friend's skin tingle. Josh turned his hand over so that their palms were tightly pressed together.

Sam squeezed back and then slipped his hand free. Josh followed him back into the house.

#

The boys played gin rummy at the kitchen table for a while to alleviate the boredom and the tension of waiting. Consuela kept busy by starting supper. Abbey went upstairs for a while but promised to come down to help with the meal. Mallory was reading in the parlour.

Suddenly, they heard noises inside the house. It sounded like a cry cut off abruptly and a muffled thump. Reacting instantly, Sam grabbed his rifle and ran out of the kitchen into the front hallway. He peered around the corner. Josh came up behind him.

"See anything?" he whispered.

"Not a thing. You go upstairs, and I'll go to the parlour to see if I can find out anything."

"Uh, uh, uh. I wouldn't do that if I were you." Steve Onorato stepped out in front of them with his arm across Mallory's throat and his pistol pointed at her head. The girl's eyes were filled with fear as she put up a struggle to free herself. Onorato jerked his arm, and she settled down. "You really ought to lock your windows when men like me are around. It was just too easy to get in here and grab the girl."

"Just how stupid are you, Steve?" Sam asked. "Coming here when there's a posse out looking for you." If looks could kill, however, Onorato needed to say his prayers.

Ignoring the question, Onorato said, "Back up, boys. Go to the kitchen. I know your cook is there, and I want you all where I can see you."

Sam and Josh slowly backed towards the kitchen with their hands raised. They still had their guns but it was impossible to get a shot off at Onorato as long as he held Mallory as a shield. Josh did not want to do anything to harm his sister. She was fearful but staying calm. He caught her eye, silently trying to convey that they would get her out of this.

"Put your guns on the table. Go on." Onorato gestured with his elbow, never taking his gun away from Mallory.

Josh took a step away from Sam. It was a long way around the kitchen to get to Onorato's other side, but he had to try. There wasn't anything they could do when they were both in the line of fire should Onorato decide to turn his weapon on them.

With his attention focused on Sam, the outlaw replied, "The way I figure it, coming here was inspired. The posse will be chasing Gillette all the way to Mexico if need be while no one will look for me almost in plain sight. This way I can carry out my business and then head over the mountains. With no one following me I can take my time riding south to the border."

Sam chuckled. "You've been reading too many of those dime novels, Steve. You sound just like the desperado who tells everyone exactly what his plans are and makes it easier for the lawmen to catch him later."

A look of surprise crossed Onorato's face. It was clear that he had been thinking like a villain in one of those monthly periodicals.

Sam and Josh caught each other's eye and burst out laughing. Onorato's face darkened.

"Shut up! Just shut your mouths!"

"No. You shut yours." Josh looked in the direction of Abbey's voice. She stood in the doorway behind Onorato holding the barrel of a rifle against the back of his head. "I'm a doctor. I know exactly where to blow a hole in your head so that it will empty your brains the fastest or the slowest way possible. Trouble is, you don't appear to have very much grey matter -- that's a medical term for the material making up the human brain -- so whatever I do you're going to be splattered all over the far wall rather quickly. Why don't you save Consuela and me the trouble of having to clean up the kitchen and just put your gun down? Nice and slow. On the floor."

Onorato had listened to Abbey's threat with growing fear. His eyes darted from side to side trying to see her. Since she was directly behind him he couldn't do that. Finally he gave up and released Mallory, who ran to the far side of the room and into Consuela's arms. Then Onorato bent down and put the gun on the floor.

"Good," Abbey said. "Now lie down. Face down and put your hands behind your back. Sam, get some rope and tie him up. Give him a taste of what he put you boys through last night."

While Sam ran outside to the back porch to get the rope, Josh moved forward keeping his shotgun trained on the outlaw. Abbey's rifle never wavered. Sam returned and quickly bound Onorato's hands, jerking the rope tighter than was necessary.

"You don't need to cut off his circulation, Sam. We don't want his hands to fall off. Not yet, anyway. Just tie him tight enough so that he can't get loose." Sam complied with his mother's wishes and loosened the bonds just a bit. He sat back on his heels to look at the man lying on the floor.

They heard the front door open and someone rush through the house to the kitchen. Danny Concannon, Leo's foreman, skidded to a halt beside Abbey. He stared at Onorato and then at Abbey. Turning to her he removed his Stetson, and his curly red hair sprang up in defiance.

"Ma'am...Doctor Bartlet, I spent the day tracking this fellow back here. I came to warn you that he was headed this way, but I see you already figured that out."

Smiling, Abbey handed Danny her rifle. "Would you like a cup of coffee, Danny?"

"Uh, sure. Yes, Ma'am. Thank you." He looked at Josh. "Hey, Josh. I heard you were back."

"I haven't spent much time at home yet, Danny. Good to see you, though."

Sam stood up. "You're a little late for the party, Danny, but I'm glad you could make it."

"Hey, Sam. Guess you didn't need my help."

"Ma had it under control."

"Would you care to stay for supper, Danny?" Abbey inquired. Josh looked at her. She was still outwardly calm, but there was a note in her voice that betrayed her. The adrenaline that had sustained her was gone.

Sam noticed it too and went to her, putting his arms around her in support. "Why don't you sit down, Ma? We can help Consuela."

"I think I will sit down," she replied and went to the table. With Sam's help she carefully lowered herself onto a chair. Josh sat down next to her and held her hand. She squeezed back and smiled. "I'm all right, Josh. Thank you, dear."

Consuela shooed Sam away from her stove but accepted Mallory's help in preparing the meal. As the household's daily routine staggered towards normalcy, the last of the tension lifted.

Danny's eyes roamed around the room, taking stock and seeing that everyone was okay. "Maybe I should go check on the boys outside. Onorato knocked them both unconscious before coming in here. Would one of you fellas keep a gun on him until I get back? I'll stick around until the posse returns in case Gillette or some of his cronies also decide to come this way."

"Bring those men in here, Danny, so I can examine them," Abbey told him.

"Yes, ma'am."

Josh picked up his shotgun and sighted along it, while Danny left the house. Onorato glanced up from the floor, saw the gun trained on him and laid his head back down. He didn't know enough to keep quiet, though, determined to get in one last insult.

"So, S-S-Sammy, you gonna go play with your boyfriend later?"

Josh shot a horrified look at Sam who was staring in disbelief at the man on the floor. Sam took an involuntary step towards Onorato.

"Or maybe you'll visit your girlfriend instead?"

"Shut your trap, Steve." Josh pushed the muzzle of the shotgun in the man's back.

"Hey, a man's gotta work off some of the day's stress. Sam here is mighty popular. Some men can't get a girl to look at him twice but Sam has to make choices whenever he wants some. He can go to pretty little Laurie at Madam Hildy's or to that Kyle Murphy. Must make you feel real manly, huh, Sam? Tell us how you like it, Sam. Have the three of you ever done it together?"

"That is enough!" Abbey thundered. Grabbing the shotgun from Josh's hands she shoved it against Onorato's face so hard his mouth twisted to the side. He cried out but she ignored him. "How dare you speak to my son that way? Josh, get this trash out of my home!"

Josh and Sam grabbed Onorato by the feet and dragged him out the back door. Danny was just returning with the two men who had been knocked out. He had his arm around the shoulders of one while the other followed along behind holding his head.

"What's going on?" Danny asked.

Dumping Onorato on the back porch, Sam and Josh straightened up. "We're throwing out the garbage," Josh explained, keeping an eye on Sam. His friend's expression was tight and closed off. Sam walked to the far end of the porch and came back with another length of rope. He dragged Onorato upright and bound him to the railing. This time he jerked the rope tight and did not loosen it despite Onorato's protests.

They helped the two wounded men inside so Abbey could look them over. While she tended to them, Danny went out back to keep an eye on Onorato. Josh sat where he could watch Sam, who leaned against the doorway with his hands shoved deep into his pockets. Josh knew Sam was hurting and embarrassed. Unable to stand it any longer, Josh got up and went to him.

Speaking softly, Josh said, "Everyone who has ever met Onorato knows he's full of hot air. No one will believe what he said about you."

Sam just shook his head. He did not speak.

#

The posse returned a couple of hours after sundown, weary and empty handed. They were surprised as they rode up to the back of the house and saw Onorato tied to the railing. Questions were asked and answered until Tribbey took charge of his prisoner, throwing him over the back of a horse like a sack of flour. Taking several men with him, the Sheriff rode to town. Dismissing the ranch hands, Jed and Leo sat down to a warmed up supper.

While they ate, Abbey and Josh filled them in on the details of the day's events. Sam spoke up a time or two but otherwise remained quiet. While Consuela cleared the table Abbey suggested that Jed and Sam join her in the parlour to talk. They were gone for quite a while. A couple of times Abbey's raised voice could be heard. When they returned the tension was gone from Sam's body, and Abbey looked like she'd been crying. They were both smiling, and Jed began pestering Consuela for dessert. Josh looked questioningly at Sam who mouthed, "Later," and offered up a smile that did a lot to set Josh's mind at ease.

As soon as they could, they went outside to sit on the front porch steps. Josh sat closely beside his friend.

"Well? What did they talk to you about?"

Sam ran his thumbnail across his knee. "Ma told him about what Steve had said, and they asked me if it was true. I said it was. Ma wanted to know what I was doing with a prostitute and that's when Pa confessed that he had taken me to Madam Hildy's. I thought Ma was going to kill us both. You should have seen the look on her face. But she calmed down, and lectured us both about propriety and needing to avoid scandal now that Pa is the Governor. He pointed out that this happened before he ever agreed to run for office. Ma explained that I have to stay away from Laurie. I said Laurie is still my friend and that we were always careful not to be seen. It's only because Steve must have followed us that he found out. Maybe he was jealous or something. The next time I see Laurie I'll ask her if he was one of her customers."

"Wait. Didn't you just say that you're supposed to stay away from her?"

Sam nodded. "Yeah, but my folks agreed that I can say goodbye to her. Laurie's not going to be happy when she finds out we can't see each other again."

"What about Kyle? Did they say anything about him?"

"Just that I have to stay away from him too. Pa wanted to get Sheriff Tribbey to talk to him." Sam looked at Josh sideways.

"Why? Oh. You told them what Kyle did to you?"

Nodding slowly, Sam whispered, "Ma started crying and Pa got mad. I finally convinced them to let it go. Kyle isn't a threat to me. They're both going over to talk to him and his parents tomorrow. Just to make sure."

Sam shivered, either from the cool night air or in reaction to everything that had happened lately. Josh hugged Sam to him and kissed him on the temple.

"So it's over?"

"I guess so. Gillette is still on the loose, and Pa wants to talk to Mister Hoynes when he gets back from his trip. Otherwise, it seems things will settle down. For a while, anyway." One side of his mouth turned up as he leaned against Josh. "I hope."

"Shh. It'll be okay. Say, I still haven't met your friend Toby. Maybe we can go to town tomorrow?"

"Sure. I'd like for you two to meet."

"'Kay." Josh hesitated. "Sam, there's something I need to tell you."

Sam turned to look at him. Josh looked into those weary blue eyes and suddenly didn't have the heart to add to Sam's problems, especially not now that things were getting better. Josh admitted to himself that he still wasn't ready to face Sam's potential wrath.

"It can wait, though. We can talk another time."

"Whatever you say, Josh." Sam was so trusting as he snuggled closer into Josh's embrace. All Josh could do was hold him tighter and hope he didn't end up destroying that trust. He hoped he was worrying needlessly. After all, it wasn't like he had done anything wrong. No, it was simply who he had done it with. Maybe Sam wouldn't find that to be too big an obstacle towards forgiving him.

On the Frontier 14/18

Rating: PG13

Thursday afternoon Sam took Josh to meet Toby Ziegler. Andrea was at the front counter of "The Connection" when they walked in the door. The press could be heard clanking in the back room. Andrea looked up as the boys walked in.

"Hello, Sam. Tobias has been wondering where you were."

"Uh oh. Is he mad?"

"He's always been mad but, no, he's not angry with you."

"You've definitely been married to him for too long. You sound just like him," Sam teased. He put a hand on Josh's arm. "This is my friend, Josh McGarry."

Andrea's looked over at him in surprise. "The same Josh who wasn't coming home this summer?"

Josh had the grace to look mildly embarrassed. "That would be me, yes." He held out a hand and Andrea took it in hers.

She looked at him speculatively and said, "You are a handsome fellow."

Josh blushed.

Grinning at his friend's reaction Sam teased, "I've always thought so."

"Aw, Sam."

If Andrea made anything of the exchange, she said nothing. "Tobias is in the back. Go on through. He'll be glad to see you even if he denies it."

They found him talking to himself, or possibly he was talking to the press. The boys stood and watched him a moment, their presence unnoticed.

"Good darling. Give me just one more edition, and I won't ask anything more from you until tomorrow," he loudly coaxed the machine.

"Toby?"

The older man turned suddenly, his hand automatically flying up to catch his kippah as it began to slide off. "Sam, it's not polite to sneak up on people."

"I'm sorry."

Toby's dark eyes flickered from Sam to Josh. "Who are you?"

Josh walked forward extending his hand. "Josh McGarry, sir."

Toby reached out to shake Josh's hand but then realized his were grimy and held them up for the boys to see. A hint of a smile appeared in Toby's beard. "Sir, he says. You can stay. I'm still undecided about the hired help behind you there."

Sam fell into their old pattern of banter. "I'm not officially hired help until you pay me a wage."

With a dismissive wave Toby said, "And I'm not paying you a cent if you continually show up late or -- and this part is important -- at all. Do you have another story for me?"

"Not yet. I started one but I've been busy. Things happened at home." Sam's smile clouded over.

"Oh? Is everything all right?"

"It will be."

Josh heard the ghost of the ordeal with Kyle in Sam's voice. He moved closer to him to place a comforting hand on his shoulder, and Sam leaned into it gratefully. Toby walked over to them.

"Your parents are well?"

"They're fine. They came home yesterday. We had some trouble with cattle rustlers."

"Tell me about it."

"I'm not sure I can. The sheriff is trying to make some more arrests."

"More arrests? How many were involved in this? Do you know their names?"

Josh spoke up. "It's probably best if Sam doesn't say anything more. The case could be compromised if this gets into print."

"Do you think I would print something like this?"

"I don't know you, but you are a newspaperman."

"You're exactly right. It's my job to exploit any news that falls into my hands." He gave Josh an appraising stare. "Sam said you're studying to be a lawyer."

"That's right." Josh met his stare head on while Sam looked from one to the other, waiting to see how they got along.

"You'll do fine."

Josh realized he'd just received high praise from this strange man. A quick glance at Sam's relieved expression partially confirmed his belief.

"Just watch out for that one." Toby nodded in Sam's direction. "He'll give you a run for your money."

Sam beamed. Josh grinned back at him. "I hope so. We're going to open a legal practice together."

"Any plans beyond that?"

"I'm not sure what you mean," Josh said.

"Never mind. It's nothing."

Sam spoke up. "I think Toby is referring to something I said awhile back. I told him that I could see you running for political office someday and I'd be your campaign manager the way Uncle Leo was for my father."

"Oh, that." Josh was pleased Sam had remembered those childhood conversations in which they'd discussed their futures. In his mind that future was all a very long time distant. He noticed Toby eyeing Sam as if he had an opinion that he wasn't sure he wanted to express. Toby ended up changing the subject.

"Give me a few minutes to finish up here, and then we can go out for a beer."

"A beer?" Sam's voice rose along with his eyebrows.

"You're old enough. Besides, I know the new owner of the saloon so we can bend the rules if need be. Now Sam, don't tell me you've never had a drink of alcohol."

"All right. I won't tell you."

"It's time you experienced that rite of passage. What's wrong with your father that he never introduced you to this ages old tradition?"

"There's nothing wrong with my father. It just never came up."

"What about you, Josh?"

"Uh, I drank beer a couple of times. It's all right...I guess." Josh did not tell them about the parties he'd attended with Hoynes at which he'd gotten cross-eyed drunk.

Toby regarded them both and sighed heavily. "I can see my work is cut out for me. Only one beer! I'm not trying to corrupt you. We'll go to the saloon, but you don't have to drink. I really just want to introduce you to my friend. Now, get out of the way for a few minutes. Go talk to my beautiful wife. Go."

They did as they were told. Andrea was writing down some information for an advertisement, the financial backbone of the paper's existence. When the customer left, Andrea turned her attention to the boys.

Sam told her, "My mother wants you and Toby to come to our place for a party on Saturday. Can you make it?"

"I'll talk it over with Tobias, and we'll let you know. Thank you, Sam. Thank your mother for us."

"I will."

The three of them visited for a few minutes until Toby emerged from the back, wiping his hands on a towel. Andrea commented, "Ever since we started the newspaper Tobias has had ink under his nails. It won't come out."

"It will come out. I just don't try very hard to remove it. What's the point? It will only be there again tomorrow."

"I see. Perhaps you can try harder before dinner tonight?" Andrea smiled patiently. "Sam has invited us to a party on Saturday. Another opportunity for you to wash your hands properly."

"That's Shabbat."

"I know, Toby," Sam replied apologetically. "Maybe you can come by after sundown?"

Glancing at his wife who nodded, Toby replied, "That sounds like an excellent compromise."

Josh had remained quiet for a while, but now he saw an opportunity and spoke up. "Excuse me, Mister Ziegler. You're Jewish, aren't you?"

Drawing himself up straighter, Toby said, "I am."

"My parents were Jewish. They died when I was little. I'll always be grateful to Leo for raising me, and I love him but I, uh, I sometimes wonder..."

"You wonder what it would have been like to have been raised in the faith of your heritage."

"I know so little about it. Do you think we could talk sometime?"

Andrea laughed. "My husband's favourite subject."

Toby smiled at her and then said to Josh, "I would be pleased to answer your questions. You come by anytime."

"Thank you, sir."

"Toby," the older man said.

"Toby," Josh repeated, smiling.

"Careful, Josh," Sam warned. "He'll put you to work and you'll end up with ink under your fingernails. I know it isn't as easy to remove as Toby will lead you to believe."

"I wouldn't mind helping with the paper while we talk."

"I like this young man. Now can we go get that beer?"

"Are you going to see Flamingo?" Andrea asked.

"As a matter of fact we are."

"Give her my love and tell her she must come by for dinner one night next week."

"I will."

#

Flamingo's was a refurbished saloon that had recently been taken over by a new owner from San Francisco. Sam had heard about it but had not set foot in the building in his life. As far as he knew, his father did not go there either. He wasn't sure about Leo, who still drank from time to time when he got melancholy. His habit was not as serious as it had been when Jenny had lived with him. Sam glanced at Josh and wondered if he was aware of his father's ongoing battle with alcohol. As long as Leo kept busy, as he did working closely with the newly elected Governor, he seemed to drink far less than at other times.

Toby went inside and held the batwing doors for Sam and Josh. The place was almost deserted; there were only three customers there, but it was the middle of the afternoon. By nightfall the place would be bustling. Whenever he had come to town in the evenings, Sam had seen many men going in and had heard music and laughter from within as he stood out on the street.

As they entered the saloon, a tall, elegant woman behind the bar looked their way. "Toby! Get your lovely self over here."

The three men approached the bar. Toby went straight over while Sam and Josh hung back shyly. They watched as he leaned across the bar and clasped the woman's hands, speaking to her in a low voice. She looked to be around Toby's age with reddish blonde hair and warm, intelligent eyes. When Toby realized that Sam and Josh weren't beside him, he waved them closer.

"This is Claudia Jean Cregg. CJ, these two are Sam Bartlet and Josh McGarry."

"Pleased to meet you, Sam and Josh. Welcome to Flamingo's."

She smiled warmly, and Sam liked her immediately. He glanced at Josh and saw that his friend was quite simply stunned and was trying not to stare dumbstruck at the woman.

"You can call me CJ," she told them. "If you ever have to write it down there aren't any periods. Just the name."

"A name without initials," Josh said inanely and then blushed.

CJ didn't seem to mind. "You are a sweetheart. And you," she turned to Sam, "are quite possibly the most beautiful young man I have ever seen."

It was Sam's turn to blush. He mumbled his thanks.

"Two minutes," Toby said. "Two minutes and you've reduced them both to babbling idiots. That's a record even for you."

"A woman has to refine her skills or she'll lose them." CJ smiled.

"My men here and I would like a beer each. Can you accommodate us?"

Studying the two younger men with what Sam supposed was an expert eye, CJ said, "I can do that."

Three mugs were set on the long bar. Toby took a long drink from his and Josh also drank without hesitation. Sam lifted his glass and sipped at it. Realizing he was being watched he hid his reaction as the liquid hit his taste buds. Ugh. Not pleasant. He drank again to be polite and then set the mug down on the counter.

Once Toby and CJ settled deeply into conversation the way two old friends inevitably will do, Josh leaned in so that his shoulder brushed Sam's and his breath warmed Sam's cheek. He could smell the beer on Josh's breath. "I hated it the first time I drank beer. Took me a while before I tried again."

"You mean you like this stuff?" Sam whispered back.

Shrugging, Josh said, "It's an acquired taste."

Toby remembered they were there and changed the topic to include them in the conversation. "So, what do you think of the place and its owner?"

"Why is it called Flamingo's?" Sam asked.

Laughing softly CJ explained. "That was my stage name. My publicist convinced me that the flamingo is a beautiful bird. He liked the exoticness of it. I think it's damned funny looking, but the name stuck. Anyway, I was a cabaret singer and also performed in a few plays in San Francisco. I had a little fame."

"Why did you move here? Broken River isn't interesting."

"Oh, but it is. I got tired of the phoniness of my life, never sure if people liked me for who I am or what I was. I knew Toby and Andrea had moved here in search of a new beginning so I followed them out. Used my earnings and bought this place. I named it Flamingo's as a joke. I must say, though, so far I'm having a grand time living in Broken River."

Toby said, "We're glad you're here, CJ. Oh, Andrea wants you over for dinner next week."

"I'll be there. May I bring someone?"

Warily Toby asked, "And that would be whom?"

"His name is Michael. I knew him in the city."

"Is he visiting?"

"Tobias Zachary Ziegler, you are not my father, and you do not have to check up on my dates."

"Just looking out for your well being, Claudia Jean."

"I can take care of myself."

"Of that I have no doubt. Just humour me."

Exasperated, CJ said, "Yes, Michael is visiting, though he wants me to return to San Francisco with him. I'm trying to convince him to stay here with me."

His eyebrows climbing, Toby said, "All...right."

An amused expression on her face, CJ shook her head and turned her attention to Sam and Josh who had been listening to their exchange with fascination. "Drink up, fellas. You do like the beer?"

Josh nodded and gamely drank more. Sam brought the mug up to his lips where the smell assaulted his nostrils. He set the glass back down.

"I'm sorry. I guess I'm just not thirsty."

CJ smiled softly. Sam could see in her eyes that she understood. Looking more closely at her, Sam realized that she was just a few years older than Josh. No wonder Toby behaved paternally towards her. He was like that with his younger friends even though he wasn't yet thirty years old. Andrea called him "Grandpa" when he acted that way.

"Well, you come back anytime, and you don't even have to drink the beer."

Sam smiled self-consciously, soothed by CJ's touch on his arm. "Thank you."

"We should go now," he said. "We have to invite Mrs. Landingham to the party. If you would like to come, CJ, you're very welcome. It's at the Bartlet ranch on Saturday night. Toby and Andrea know the way. Bring your friend if you like."

"Thank you, Sam. I think I'd enjoy that. Might be a good way to get to know more folks from the area. All I meet in here are drunken cowboys and grouchy newspapermen. It's a treat when fine young men like yourselves come in."

Josh and Sam gazed admiringly at her. Sam's appreciation of the woman grew by the minute.

Toby nodded in their direction. "See you this weekend, Sam. Good to meet you, Josh."

"Thanks for the beer, Toby," Josh said.

"Yeah. Thanks." Sam tried to inject more enthusiasm into his tone, but they all saw through him. He shrugged with a self-deprecating smile, and Toby chuckled in response.

Josh placed a hand at the small of Sam's back as they walked out of the saloon. Sam liked that, slowing his pace just enough to increase the pressure of the warm palm touching him.

Out on the boardwalk, Josh asked, "So, you really hated the beer?"

"It was awful."

"Sissy boy," Josh teased.

"Oh, and you're such a manly man." Sam grinned at his friend.

"Y'know," Josh said thoughtfully, "I could easily fall in love with CJ. That is, if I wasn't already in love with you."

"I know what you mean. She's wonderful." Then Sam belched, tasting the beer again. It wasn't any better the second time around. "'Scuse me."

Laughing, Josh slung an arm around Sam's shoulders as they walked back to where they'd left their horses. Josh said, "It's good to be home."

"Not as good as it is to have you here."

While Josh smiled happily, Sam's heart did somersaults. Oh, yes. Having Josh back in his life was a very good thing.

On the Frontier 15/18

Rating: NC17

Josh started Saturday with all the good intentions in the world of telling Sam about Hoynes. The day before Sam had travelled to Sacramento with his mother to get his eyes examined. They were expected to return too late for Josh to go over to talk to him. Leo had kept his son almost too busy to notice that he'd spent the entire day without Sam in it.

He shovelled his breakfast into his mouth as quickly as he could swallow. Leo looked on with some amusement. Mallory stared in disbelief. When he realized they were watching him, Josh stopped with a forkful of eggs midway to his mouth.

"What?"

"Are you afraid your food is going to get cold?" Leo asked.

"Uh, no. I need to talk to Sam."

"So, what else is new?"

Mallory made a face. "You sure that's all you want to do is talk?"

"What is that supposed to mean?" Josh fired back before he could stop himself.

"Just that the last time I saw the two of you together you weren't using your mouths for talking."

"Mallory!"

"Mallory," Leo was calmer than Josh. "Do you have something to say?"

"Yes, I do. He and Sam..." She tried again. "They were..."

Josh lowered his fork and waited.

"C'mon, Mal. Out with it. I have to get to town and I haven't got all day." Leo regarded his daughter steadily.

"Josh and Sam were kissing in the barn," she blurted.

His mouth hanging open, Josh could do nothing but blink. He hadn't thought she'd actually tell Leo. He turned to his father for his reaction.

"Josh," Leo said, "is that true?"

"Yes, sir. We didn't know Mal was there."

"Obviously not."

"Pop, I love Sam."

"Like that's a surprise."

"Sam and I were together...you know. Just the one time, though." Josh ignored Mallory's expression of disgust as she realized what he meant.

Leo was calm when he said, "So Abbey and Jed told me awhile ago. Apparently they figured it out the night before you went away to school, and Sam confirmed it. How come you didn't say something before now?"

"I wasn't sure how you'd take it. I was afraid you were going to order me to stop seeing Sam."

"Josh, I would never do that." Leo looked like he wanted to say more. Instead he turned to Mallory. "Honey, would you leave us alone for a minute? I want to talk to Josh about this."

"Fine. I don't think I want to hear it anyway." She tossed her napkin on the table next to her plate, got up, and walked away.

As soon as the kitchen door closed behind her, Josh said, "She called us unnatural."

"Son, you're going to face a lot worse than Mallory's revulsion if you go this route with Sam or another man. Not everyone is as understanding as Sam's folks are or as I am."

"I found that out a long time ago in regard to a lot of things. You pretty much spoiled me for the rest of the world." Josh offered a smile and was relieved to see his father return it.

"I just hope that growing up under my lenient attitude doesn't make living out there more difficult for you."

"Nah. I'm pretty smart. I can figure things out for myself."

Grinning, Leo said, "You're a damn sight more than pretty smart. If Sam is who you wanna spend your life with, all I can say is you can't do any better. He's very lucky to have you too. Just be careful and don't let the narrow-minded fools tear you two apart. It's not gonna be easy. And don't flaunt it in front of people you don't trust with your life."

"Thanks, Pop." Josh got up and went around the table to hug his father. He drew back and asked, "By narrow-minded fools you don't mean Mallory, do you?"

"Of course not!"

"I didn't think so."

"Your sister is a clever young woman. She's been mollycoddled by her mother all her life, is all. Poor kid probably didn't have a clue that men could love men."

"That's how I see it too." Josh hesitated before continuing. "Listen, Pop. Can I ask you something? How come you know so much about that?"

For a minute it looked like Leo wasn't going to answer. Then he said, "Aw, Josh. You don't wanna know."

"'Kay," Josh nodded, accepting that.

Leo kept talking though. "I mean I'm not sure if what I have to tell you is something you'd want to hear."

"It was Uncle Jed, wasn't it? You and he were lovers." Josh felt like he was treading forbidden territory.

"Yeah." Leo was so quiet Josh wasn't sure he'd heard the answer.

"Yeah?"

Nodding, Leo said, "It was a long time ago. We were about your age, and then he met Abbey, and a while later I met Jenny."

"Do they know?"

"Jenny doesn't. I thought long and hard about whether to tell her or not. She'd never understand, not that it matters now."

"What about Aunt Abbey?"

"Jed told her before they married. It took her some time to work through it, a lot of time, actually. He was afraid he'd ruined his chances with her, but didn't want it to come as a surprise later. He wanted them to start off without secrets."

"Obviously she was okay with it. They got married."

"Abbey is one hell of a dame, Josh. Like I said, it took her awhile; but once she accepted our past relationship, she made that marriage work and so did Jed. Even more amazing is that Abbey accepted me as a friend. Of course, we never gave her any reason not to trust either of us."

"Does Sam know?"

His mouth twisting into a smile, Leo exclaimed, "You mean there is something about Sam that you don't know?"

"Aw, Pop."

"Why don't you go ask him about it?"

"So, I can go see him now?"

"Just don't spend all day there. I need you to help out here later, and we have to get ready for the party tonight."

"Thanks, Pop."

"I missed you while you were back East, Josh. It'd be good to spend some time with you now that you're home."

His throat closed up, but Josh managed to say, "I missed you too, and I promise I will stay home more. I just really need to talk to Sam. There's something I have to tell him before he finds out from someone else."

"Something bad?"

"Could be, especially if I'm not the one to tell him."

Leo eyed him a moment. "Yeah. Go."

Josh hugged him again and ran for the door.

#

He sought out Sam when he reached the Bartlet ranch, finding him in the barn doing chores. Sam looked up from mucking out a stall and grinned widely when he saw Josh.

"Hello!"

"Sam," Josh smiled back. "How did it go in the city yesterday?"

Dropping his gaze, Sam told him, "I need eyeglasses. We're going back in a few weeks to pick them up and get them fitted."

"Bet you'll look cute with them on."

"Cute!" Sam was indignant.

"Handsome, then." Josh was quick to mollify him. "You're handsome now. I'm sure they'll only emphasize your beautiful blue eyes."

"You think my eyes are beautiful?" Sam asked delightedly.

"Absolutely."

Glancing around to make certain that no one was nearby to see them, Sam leaned forward and quickly kissed Josh. He started to move away, but Josh caught his arm and pulled him back for another kiss, lingering a bit longer before releasing him. They were standing there grinning at each other when Al Kiefer appeared at the entrance to the barn. There was something about the way he loudly cleared his throat, and how he hesitated before walking in that made Josh think Kiefer had seen them kissing. Josh traded a look with Sam whose blue eyes reflected some anxiety.

Kiefer was his usual steady self, however. Except for the perceptive expression on his face, there was no sign that he had seen anything out of the ordinary. "Morning, Josh."

"Hello, Al."

"Say, Josh, you got some free time today?"

"Sure. Most of the morning is free, anyway. Pop wants me to come home later and do chores."

"Would you mind helping us out here again? There are a few things Mister Bartlet wants done before the guests arrive, and we're short handed with Burt and Crazy Joe still out. I've got Sam here lined up for a few things. He said Kyle wouldn't be back, so maybe you can lend us your muscles."

Conscious of the way Sam's face turned stony at the mention of Kyle, Josh forced a laugh and said, "My muscles are pretty out of shape, but you can use them if it'll help."

"Every little bit helps."

"Hey!"

Laughing, Al clapped him on the back and said, "You can ride up to the north pasture and repair the fence near the gate. Shouldn't take more than an hour or so. After you've done that, come back and find me. I'll have something else for you to do. Sam, when you're done here I'd like you to..."

Josh tuned him out. The morning was shaping up to a point where he and Sam were going to be separated again. Well, he would just wait until Al left, and then he'd tell Sam about Hoynes.

He watched in dismay as Kiefer only walked as far as a few feet away, sat down on a bale, and started repairing some tack. He couldn't talk to Sam with Al right there.

Kiefer looked up. "Josh? Is there a problem?"

"No. I'll just go get my horse and ride up...to the pasture...now."

Kiefer gave him a bemused glance and returned his attention to the bridle in his hands. Sam's left eyebrow lifted questioningly at Josh. Shaking his head, Josh said, "I need to talk to you later. 'Kay?"

"Sure. We'll have plenty of time after chores."

"Right. See you later."

#

He used the ride out to the fence line to rehearse what he was going to say to Sam. By the time he was done fixing the sagging wire on the fence, Josh had memorized his speech. Feeling more confident, he rode back to the barn. Dismounting, he went in looking for Sam. He found Kiefer.

"Al? I'm done with the fence. Do you know where Sam is?"

"He's chopping firewood. There's a can of paint and a brush over there," Kiefer pointed behind Josh. "You can touch up the trim on the outside of the barn. Make it look good for tonight. The dance floor will be set up closer to the house, but most of the guests will be parking their rigs down here. We want it to look fresh and neat."

"Ah-kay." Dutifully, Josh collected the paint supplies. He shot Al a look, wondering if the foreman was conspiring to keep him away from Sam. "Um, Al? Is there a reason why you keep sending me and Sam to opposite ends of the earth today?"

Kiefer's brow creased and then smoothed out. "Oh, you mean because of earlier? No, Josh. I'm not keeping you two apart on purpose. I figured out a while ago that you and Sam are more than just friends. Admittedly, I am a bit protective of Sam. Nearly everyone living and working on this ranch is, but then we feel the same way about you. We watched the two of you grow up."

"So, you don't have...a problem with us? Sam and me...together?"

Smiling kindly, Al replied, "No, I don't have a problem. Besides, it's your lives. What anyone else thinks shouldn't matter."

Waves of relief washed over Josh. "Thanks, Al. I appreciate that and I'm sure Sam will too."

"Good." Kiefer slapped him on the arm. "Now get to work."

Josh grinned. "Yes, sir."

#

Standing on a ladder to reach the window on the loft, Josh diligently brushed white paint onto the wood surrounding it. A bit bored with the job by the time he'd started the third window, he searched the distant ground hoping to see Sam. Looking across the yard, he spotted him near a pile of wood. Sam had his shirt off. Josh watched as Sam placed a cord of wood on the chopping block and raised the axe overhead. His skin glistened with sweat in the mid-morning heat. Josh imagined how it trickled down the strong back and chest, trailing over Sam's muscles. Now Sam had muscles. He had continued to do heavy work over the past two years while Josh had toiled over books. Sam's body was a sculptor's dream. It certainly was Josh's dream.

"Josh!"

Al Kiefer stood below him on the ground, looking up. "Watch what you're doing, will you?" He pointed.

Looking at where Al indicated, Josh saw that he had inadvertently painted over a windowpane. There was a wide swath of white across the glass.

"Sorry. I'll clean it up." Sheepishly, Josh did just that. He was careful to keep his attention on his job after that.

They took a lunch break at the house. Josh walked in looking for Sam and found him with his parents, Leo, and Mallory. Most of the talk around the table was about the party later that evening. Abbey and Consuela had been hard at work all morning preparing food. Delores Landingham was coming over later to help, and Mallory promised to assist as well. The men listened for a while, and then began to speak of politics and beef prices.

Josh stared across the table at Sam until he looked up. "I need to talk to you," Josh mouthed.

Sam nodded. Leo caught the exchange. "Sorry, boys. Josh has to come home with me soon as we're done here. You'll see each other tonight."

So Josh went home again without having talked to Sam about Hoynes.

#

Josh was taking care of their livestock when he saw Sam walk into the barn. The time was getting close for the party to start. His family had decided to forgo supper, knowing that there would be plenty of good food at the Bartlets.

"What are you doing here?" Josh asked. "Not that I'm not happy to see you." He smiled at Sam who sauntered closer, an impish grin on his face.

"I came to take you away from all of this. Let's go down by the river."

"Oh. I can't, Sam. I promised Pop I'd finish the chores before the party."

"I know. I just talked to him. He said you could go as soon as you're done with the horses."

"Really?"

"Really. Come on. I'll help you and we can go sooner." Sam grabbed a pitchfork and started dumping hay in the mangers of occupied stalls.

Josh went back to what he was doing. "Sam, I've wanted to talk to you for awhile now. There's something you need to know."

"Like what?"

"It's about stuff I did at college." Josh's courage fled again. He decided to work up to the part about Hoynes. "I...uh, I went to a lot of parties, and my grades dropped. That's partly why Pop went out to see me last Christmas. He gave me a hard time about it. I asked him not to tell you because I was ashamed of myself."

Blinking, Sam came closer. He leaned the pitchfork against the wall.

"That's not like you, Josh. To neglect your studies, I mean."

"I know. Things are different when you get away from home, Sam. I was lonely and missing you. This...these fellas invited me to their parties, so I went. It was fun at first, but after Pop arrived and gave me a talking to, I buckled down and studied harder."

"It's okay, Josh. Nobody's perfect." Sam rubbed Josh's arm. When he smiled, Josh momentarily blanked out. Then Sam leaned closer and brushed his lips across his. The tip of Sam's tongue flicked out, gently tasting Josh. Shivering in response, Josh reached out and pulled Sam hard against him. Leaning backwards slightly within the circle of Josh's arms, Sam pushed his hips forward and rubbed against Josh.

"God, Sam! What you do to me..." Josh yanked him closer and met him in a hungry kiss. Just as abruptly he broke it off. "There's more."

"More?" Sam asked innocently, all the while doing not so innocent things to Josh's ear with his teeth and tongue.

"Yeah." Josh shivered again. "There are other things I have to tell you."

"It can wait." Stepping away, Sam said, "Let's hurry and finish the chores. Then we can go down by the river. If you want, we can talk there. That is, if you still want to when I get through with you." He winked.

Josh's brain more or less shut down. Sam was all but telling him they could make love at long last.

"Work fast," Josh told him.

#

The prospective lovers rode down to their special place. Dismounting, they nearly tripped over themselves as they rushed into each other's arms. When they surfaced from the kiss for much needed oxygen, Sam tugged on Josh's hand.

"Come on. I have a surprise for you."

They stepped through the brush to the inside of their special place. A large, soft blanket laid spread out on the grass. Next to it was a bottle of red wine and two glasses.

"Sam?"

"I have a confession of my own to make. Remember when I told you about Laurie?"

"Yeah?"

"I brought her here. There was nowhere else for us to go. Anyway, I thought this would be a good way for us to reclaim it...you and I, that is."

"Sammy," Josh said around the lump in his throat. He kissed him on the forehead. "Why did you bring wine?"

Sam lifted his shoulders. "Seemed like the romantic thing to do."

"But you don't drink."

"I can stand a sip or two. Just enough to christen our reunion."

"Now that is a very romantic thing to say. Where did you get it?"

"CJ. I told her I had a date."

"Which is the truth?"

"Which is the truth," Sam agreed.

"Just checking," Josh said, moving closer. Sam stepped into his arms then. Josh ran his hands down Sam's back, and settled them on his hips, pulling him forward. They kissed hungrily for a few moments until Josh remembered that he had something to tell Sam. "Wait. We should slow this down."

Sam gazed at him, his blue eyes so soft and full of love. "Right. This is about us, not just sex."

"Sam..." Josh melted.

"Come on. Time to do the christening." He knelt on the blanket. "Josh?"

Josh sat next to him and watched as Sam fumbled with the cork in the wine bottle.

"CJ showed me how to open this...if I can just...there!" The cork popped free, and he picked up the glasses, handing them to Josh. He poured a small amount in each one, re-corked the bottle, and set it aside. "Should we make a toast or something?"

Touched, Josh replied, "If you want to. Might be appropriate."

Sam held up his glass. "To the future. May we never be apart again."

"And may we only know happiness together," Josh added, and watched as Sam's eyes misted over.

Blinking rapidly, Sam said, "To us."

They clinked the glasses together and drank. Sam looked at his glass, licking his lips. "Not bad. Tastes like fruit juice."

Grinning, Josh said, "Careful. That fruit juice has a bit of a kick to it if you drink enough of it."

Sam regarded his wineglass again and then drained it in one swallow. Smacking his lips, he set the goblet aside on the grass and reached for Josh's glass to place it next to his. He got up on his knees and "walked" over to Josh. Placing his hands on either side of Josh's face, he dropped a series of the gentlest of kisses on the other man's mouth. When Josh's eyelids fluttered shut under the sweet assault, Sam kissed him on his eyes.

"Sam, I need to talk to you."

"Not now, Josh. Please?"

There was a note in Sam's voice that Josh could not ignore. He opened his eyes. Sam gazed back at him with such longing it pierced the last barrier of Josh's resolve to tell him about Hoynes. He knew he had to tell him, but now was not the time.

"Make love to me?"

"Yeah." Josh smiled at him. Reaching out, he began to unbutton Sam's shirt. His hands were trembling, and he worried about that. Then he felt similar tremors in Sam's hands as he, in turn, worked at the buttons on Josh's shirt. Sliding the garment off Sam's broad shoulders, Josh realized that it was finally happening. He and Sam were together the way they were meant to be.

The rest of their clothing seemingly vanished. Gathering Sam in his arms, Josh lowered him to the blanket and covered his body with his own. One of his legs slipped between both of Sam's. His lover tensed up slightly, but then took a deep breath and forced himself to relax. Josh raised himself up on his arms so he could gaze down at the beautiful man underneath him.

"You're tanned all over," he said. Indeed, Sam's skin was lightly bronzed a honey gold over every visible inch.

"I am?" Sam looked down at himself as if noticing that fact for the first time.

"Yeah, you are. Is it because of you being here with Laurie?"

"Probably. Does that bother you?"

"A little," Josh admitted.

"Good. I like it that you're still jealous even though you have no reason to be."

Josh indulged in letting his eyes roam up and down Sam's body. "Sam," he said after a minute, "you talk too much."

"So, I should shut up...?"

"...and kiss me. Yeah."

"All right." Sam threaded his fingers through the hair at the back of Josh's head and pulled him down.

While their mouths were engaged, Josh's hands went exploring. He mapped the planes of Sam's hips and flat stomach, traced the curves of the biceps, and skimmed lightly over the broad chest. When his hands slipped underneath to stroke the firm, rounded ass, Sam jerked as if the touch stung him.

"It's okay," Josh soothed. "I won't do anything to harm you."

"I know," Sam replied, but there was still fear in the back of his eyes.

Josh decided to take his time in order for Sam to enjoy this experience. More than ever he felt overwhelming love bubbling up along with a strong sense of protectiveness.

"Sammy? Did Kyle injure you? Physically, I mean?"

Turning his head away, Sam tried to hide his misery. "He tore me. I bled a little."

Josh's first reaction was anger. He wanted to find Kyle and kill him for doing this to Sam. Then he calmed down for Sam's sake, and asked, "Did you go to a doctor?"

Giving his head a small shake, Sam replied, "No. I couldn't let Ma look at me...there. It was just too embarrassing."

"What about the doctor in town?"

"I didn't go. Josh, can we not talk about this now? It's kinda ruining the mood."

"I'm sorry, Sam. I needed to know before we do anything that might hurt you again."

"Oh... I'm not ready for that yet, anyway. I'm not sure I ever will be."

He looked so despondent that Josh's heart dropped into his stomach. "Shh. Let's take it one thing at a time. We'll find other ways to make love. I know a few."

"Yeah?" Sam looked interested, and some of his despair lifted.

"Absolutely. Just lie back and relax. Let me do all the work."

"But..."

"Hush! This is about your pleasure. I'll take my turn later."

With that, Josh kissed him firmly on the mouth to quell another protest. Then he trailed his lips across Sam's face to tickle an ear with his tongue. Sam squirmed a bit when Josh's breath warmed him. Glancing at him, Josh was relieved to see a happy smile on that remarkable face.

Moving lower, Josh randomly dropped kisses and small bites all over Sam's chest and abdomen. He grinned when he saw the muscles involuntarily jump under his nose. Occasional low moans guided him in finding out what Sam liked as he licked and kissed his way lower and lower. He avoided the engorged penis on his way down. Sam reached out blindly with one hand to try and make him stop there, but Josh playfully swatted him away and continued on his trip. He nuzzled the inside of Sam's left thigh before crossing over to his right knee. Raising the leg, Josh licked a path around behind it. Sam moaned louder, and Josh catalogued that response for future reference. He got down to the feet and spent some time there nibbling on Sam's right ankle before crawling back up his body. He paused at the left hip and then continued north, stopping to tongue first one nipple to a hardened peak and then the other. Sam's head tossed from side to side as he gripped the blanket in both hands.

"Josh, I want...I need you to..." He was nearly incoherent with desire, but Josh knew what he meant. Sliding back down, at last he centered his attention on the most sensitive part of Sam's anatomy. Taking the stiff organ into his mouth, he licked around the tip. Finding the vein on the underside he ran his tongue up from the base and then engulfed the head. As Josh closed his mouth and began to suck hard, Sam bucked his hips. Holding him down to prevent getting speared in the back of the throat, Josh started to piston up and down the shaft. His jaw ached already, but he hung in, determined to last as long as Sam did.

Finally, Sam came with a shout; and hot seed poured down Josh's throat. He swallowed as much of the bitter fluid as he could and wiped the rest off his chin and mouth. Watching him through long, dark eyelashes, Sam pulled him down so that he could taste the remnants on Josh's mouth and tongue.

"Love you." Sam looked exceedingly relaxed now, sprawling across the blanket.

"I love you too, Sammy."

Abruptly, Sam surged up and Josh found himself lying on his back with Sam sitting astride his legs. Running his hands lightly over Josh's ribs, he leaned down to lap his tongue up Josh's breastbone.

While Sam did a thorough oral exploration of Josh's upper torso, Josh moved restlessly under him. He was achingly hard and needed to climax soon. He arched upwards striving to rub against Sam, but his lover stayed maddeningly out of reach.

"Patience."

"Sam," Josh pleaded.

"Soon."

Giving Josh a bit of his own medicine back, Sam used his mouth and tongue to excellent advantage. He licked and nipped the length of Josh's body until Josh was nearly mad with the need for release. Sam wrapped his fist around Josh's shaft and pumped it a few times. Then he lapped his way up and down it. Josh writhed under the attention. At last, Sam took him in his mouth. Josh was thankful that he was soon going to be allowed to finish.

Then Sam began to hum. Josh's eyes shot open, and he stared down the length of his body. Sam lifted his eyes and smiled around the erection sunk deeply in his mouth. He kept humming. The vibrations from his throat surrounded and penetrated Josh from tip to root, and then he was coming in waves of hot, gushing seed. Sam swallowed nearly every drop, licked him clean with loving strokes of his tongue, and released him.

Sam sat up and smiled like the proverbial cat with the late, departed canary. He continued to watch Josh, who struggled to form a coherent sentence while his brain came back from complete meltdown.

"Do that again," he said finally.

Sam laughed. Glancing down at Josh's flaccid shaft, he said regretfully, "Not just now, I don't think."

"Later?" Josh asked hopefully.

Sam crawled up the length of Josh's body. "I promise." Then he kissed him soundly and sat up again. "Come on. A quick swim and then we'd better get home so we don't miss the party."

"Party?" Apparently, Josh thought, he wasn't going to get beyond really short sentences any time soon.

Sam got to his feet, pulling Josh up with him. "Party."

"'Kay," he mumbled and followed Sam to the river.

On the Frontier 16/18

Rating: PG13 (language)

Early Saturday evening the party was already in full swing. Although it seemed as though the entire county had shown up to take advantage of Bartlet hospitality Sam knew that wasn't quite true. There were some faces still missing, people he knew had been invited but who had yet to arrive -- Toby and Andrea, and CJ and her beau, among them. Everyone was wearing clothing that if not exactly their Sunday best, was still fancier than their everyday work clothes. The ladies wore brightly coloured dresses, happy to have an excuse to dress up a bit. The men had polished their boots, and some even went so far as to wear suit jackets and ties. Most of the ranch hands had string ties with silver bolos. Sam's hair was brushed back from his forehead. He wore freshly pressed black pants and a crisp white shirt. He also wore a tie and felt like he was at last one of the adults. When his father's friends spoke to him, they treated him as a man, and not a boy. Satisfaction wrapped itself around Sam for much of the evening.

Sam and Josh were nearly inseparable for the first couple of hours. Still basking in the lingering afterglow of their first real lovemaking, they were hard put to keep their hands off each other. Not wanting to make public the true nature of their relationship, they settled for staying within easy reach of one another and refrained from touching except in the most innocent of ways. At one point Josh went to speak with Toby and Andrea, while the neighbours from the other side of Bartlet land pulled Sam away. As Josh ambled off, Sam followed him with his eyes and then turned to give his full attention to the Carters.

After awhile Sam noticed that Josh was still deep in conversation with Toby, so he decided to let him be. No doubt he was asking Toby all sorts of questions about his Judaic heritage, something that Toby loved expounding on more than anything. Sam had spent many hours receiving answers to his share of questions on the subject in order to get to know Toby better. Now was Josh's time. They would talk later and maybe Josh could tell him what he had found out.

Sam watched Mallory dance with her father once and then most of the single young men. She was definitely in her element tonight. Head back and hair flying as she was spun around, her laughter rang out as she appeared to be having a genuinely fun time. To Sam's surprise, Leo spent a considerable amount of the evening talking to a tall, red-haired young woman. They stood side by side, not looking at one another, and yet there was something about their body language that indicated an attraction evolving between them. It was difficult to tell who invited whom out onto the dance floor, but they moved of mutual accord and the woman settled into Leo's arms in a most natural way. Sam grinned as he watched them. It was good to see Leo enjoying himself. He spent far too much time alone.

Sam was so busy watching the guests that he didn't see the man approach from behind. When the hand came down on his shoulder, he was startled, springing forward one step before he realized who it was that had sneaked up behind him.

"Kyle!"

"Hello, Sam." The young man seemed uncomfortable. His head was down, and he only met Sam's eyes by looking up through a fringe of blond hair.

"What are you doing here?" Sam glanced around. No one else was nearby.

"I just wanted to see you and to say that I'm sorry. You know, for what happened the other day."

"Oh."

"Uh, I don't mean to intrude. I didn't know that you were having a party. I just came by to collect my pay from when I worked that day...you know, the branding?"

"Right." Sam drew in a shaky breath. Seeing Kyle for the first time since the other man had forced himself on him made Sam's stomach clench and his palms sweat. "You need to talk to our foreman. He's around here someplace."

"I already saw him and got the money. He's over there waiting for me to leave."

Sam turned in the direction that Kyle indicated and saw Al Kiefer talking to Danny Concannon. Both men were standing so that they could clearly see Sam and Kyle. Sam relaxed somewhat just knowing that they were keeping an eye on him.

"Your parents came by to talk to my folks yesterday," Kyle said.

"Yeah, they said they were going to do that."

"Your father...Governor Bartlet told me that he wouldn't deny a man an honest day's pay, and so it was okay for me to come here to get it."

"That sounds like something he'd say, all right," Sam agreed, wondering at the unreal quality of this conversation he was having with the man who had assaulted him.

"They told me they wouldn't go to the sheriff about what happened if I stay away from you. They agreed that I could talk to you one more time because...I...I want to apologize for what happened in your room. I didn't mean for it to go that far. I got carried away because...well, you always make me so crazy for you I can't think straight. I wanted you so badly. I guess I was jealous of Josh too. It was obvious from the minute you laid eyes on him that he was all you could see. I was upset because you and I had spent a lot of time together, and he showed up, and all of a sudden you forgot I was there," Kyle finished in a rush.

"That's not what happened," Sam protested. "I told Josh to go away, and I behaved the same as I always had towards you."

"Sam," Kyle said gently, "your mouth was saying one thing, but your eyes and your body were telling it all differently."

"I didn't realize," Sam started to say and then trailed off. He truly hadn't been aware that he had done that.

"Anyway," Kyle went on, "it was fun being with you this year. You still make me crazy. I'll miss you."

Sam remained silent, unsure of what to say if anything. Then Kyle leaned forward, kissed him firmly on the mouth, and walked away. His lips feeling bruised, Sam watched him go. He realized that Al and Danny had witnessed the kiss. Even though Josh had told him that Al knew they were in love, Sam's face grew hot and he had difficulty looking at the foremen. When he did give them a shy glance, both men smiled at him and he felt slightly less embarrassed.

He saw Kyle skirt the edge of the dance platform and walk towards his horse. That was when Sam noticed another young man waiting, holding the reins of his horse and Kyle's. When Kyle walked up, the stranger handed him his reins. They both swung up into the saddles. Just before they rode away, Sam got a good look at the other fellow. Sam felt the last of his tension melt away. As he'd told Josh, Kyle posed no threat.

Feeling a sudden and powerful need to be near Josh, Sam walked quickly towards where he'd last seen him. He found him still on the front porch talking to Toby and Andrea. Josh looked great with his dark pants and vest over a blue shirt. Even his curly hair was somewhat under control tonight. Toby broke off what he was saying when he saw Sam approach. All three of them turned towards Sam.

"Are you all right?" Andrea asked. It made Sam wonder what she saw when she looked at him.

"Sam?" Josh looked worried.

Keeping his eyes fixed on his boots and his hands crammed into his pants' pockets, Sam answered, "I'm fine. I just...I just talked to Kyle."

Josh put his hands on Sam's shoulders and bent his head trying to see into his eyes. Finally Sam looked up, and Josh asked, "What did he want?"

"It was nothing. He came to get his pay from Al, and he wanted to see me one more time."

"Where is he? I'll throw him off the place!" Josh bolted towards the steps.

Sam hauled him back, dragging on his arm. "Josh! It's all right. He's gone. Al and Danny kept an eye on him while he was here. It just rattled me seeing him again."

"Who is this Kyle?" Toby wanted to know, reacting to Josh's anger.

Josh answered for him. "Some guy who got rough with Sam the other day."

"Did he hurt you?" Andrea asked.

"I'm fine."

Toby's face reflected his outrage. "This lout shoved you around, or...or whatever he did, and he got away with it? He was allowed to walk away, and you insist that everything is fine?"

Shaking his head, Sam replied, "Everything is fine, Toby. I am fine. I was upset at first. It's nothing."

"It's not nothing, Sam!" Josh said.

Glaring at him, Sam willed him not to say another word. Shoving his hands through his hair, Josh spun away and took a deep breath. When he turned back he was still agitated but calmer.

"Sammy, I apologize."

Reaching out Sam grasped Josh's wrist. "I'm all right, Josh. He just surprised me. That's all."

"Should we let the Sheriff know about this man?" Toby asked. His dark eyes burned as he scanned the crowd, possibly searching for Kyle or the Sheriff, or both.

"No. He's gone. Pa saw to it that he won't bother me again." Turning to Josh, Sam managed a smile as he relocated his sense of humour. "Get this, Kyle has a new friend, and he looks a lot like me."

Frowning, Josh quietly asked, "Are you sure that's the end of it? You were mistaken about him once before."

"Yes," Sam said firmly. "It's over and done with. Let's go find Mrs. Landingham. I saw her dancing with my father near the punch bowl."

#

Some time later CJ arrived. She was accompanied by a man whom she held close to her side, her arm threaded through the crook of his arm. When she saw Sam and Josh talking to Delores Landingham, she stopped to introduce her friend.

"Hello, you two. I'd like you to meet Michael Peterson."

Peterson nodded to the boys and tipped his hat to Mrs. Landingham. Sam introduced his former teacher to the newcomers.

Peterson had jet-black hair and pale skin. A nasty scar breaking up his left eyebrow gave him a sinister appearance. His smile, however, was charming and did much to soften his looks.

"Have we met, Mr. Peterson?" Mrs. Landingham asked.

"I don't believe I've had the pleasure, Ma'am."

"Michael has lived in San Francisco his whole life," CJ explained.

"Well, that can't be where I've seen you before," Mrs. Landingham responded. "I was only there once and that was for my honeymoon. Probably before you were born."

Michael chuckled. "It's a fabulous city. You should visit there again."

"Perhaps someday."

"There's Toby and Andrea," CJ said. "Excuse us. I want them to meet Michael." The couple moved off.

Watching them go, Mrs. Landingham said, "He seems so familiar to me."

Josh shrugged. "I don't recognize him."

"Me either," Sam put in.

"Oh well," Mrs. Landingham said, "I could be mistaken. Besides, this is a party. I'm here to have some fun. Is someone going to refill the punch bowl?"

#

Josh saw them first.

John Hoynes, Senior, and his wife Colleen arrived in a buggy that Mr. Hoynes drove himself. Right behind them was their son Johnny on a dappled grey horse. Josh's breath caught in his throat. He watched Johnny dismount and casually wrap the reins around a hitching rail. The Hoynes family was well respected in the community and were cheerfully greeted by several of the guests. They spent a few minutes visiting with some of them.

Josh couldn't help staring at the young man with whom he had shared his body for much of the last two years. Johnny Hoynes appeared to be completely at ease among the partygoers. He moved confidently, smiling and shaking hands. Taller than most present, he bent slightly at the waist in order to hear better what was said to him. Like his father he was dressed in a suit and tie, and he looked to be every inch on his way to becoming a successful lawyer. His father said something to him and Mrs. Hoynes prior to seeking out Jed, Abbey, and Leo. Just before Johnny followed, he glanced up. His gaze locked with Josh's, and Josh knew that Hoynes had been aware of him since the older man arrived. Hoynes winked and joined his parents.

There was a hiss of breath, and Sam said, "I wonder what Old Man Hoynes is going to say to try to get out of the rustling charge?"

Distracted, Josh said, "Um, I don't know."

"I see he brought Junior with him. Isn't that just great?" Sam's voice was drenched with sarcasm.

Turning to look at his friend, Josh asked in what he hoped was a casual voice, "You still don't like him?"

"I haven't seen much of him since he went away to school, but he came home last summer, and we ran into each other in town a few times. He was such a jerk. Do you know what he did?"

"No," Josh said quietly.

"He tripped me one day as I was passing him on the street. He tripped me, and I fell flat on my face in front of half a dozen people. He just stood there looking down at me wearing that damned smirk. I swear I thought we were suddenly transported back to childhood when he used to pull dumb stunts like that. The jerk." Sam seethed quietly for a moment. "He was at least polite enough to ask how you were. I told him you were going to school at Harvard, and he said he'd look you up on campus. Did you ever see him around school?"

"Uh, yeah. I...ran into him a few times. He seemed more mature than what you described."

Unimpressed, Sam replied, "Maybe it's just me he likes to torment."

"Well, there was that time when he tried to help you. Remember when those boys spooked your pony and you got thrown? Johnny tried to stop Topper from stepping on you."

Slightly less disdainful, Sam said, "Must have been an aberration of his character. Besides, that was a long time ago. We were just kids. Come on, let's go find out what his father has to say to Pa and Uncle Leo."

Striding away, Sam left an unprepared Josh where he stood. Okay. This wasn't going to be easy. Maybe he should have tried harder to tell Sam the truth about Hoynes. Reluctantly, he followed Sam.

After greeting the Hoynes family, Jed invited them into the house. Abbey and Leo went along, and Lionel Tribbey bounded up the steps to follow them inside. The boys caught up and went in too.

They all settled in the parlour with Josh and Sam leaning against the doorframe. John sat with his parents and gave Josh a cool, knowing smile. Josh looked away. After Abbey sent Consuela to get coffee, the men began talking.

"I'll get right to the point, Jack," Jed said bluntly. "Some of your men have been stealing cattle from Leo and me. It looks like they hit a few other ranchers in the area."

Jack Hoynes stared at Jed a moment and then laughed outright. "That's ridiculous. My men would never do something like that."

"Seth Gillette, Steve Onorato, Ed Blaisdell, and Larry Wilson." Leo ticked each name off on his fingers.

Hoynes shook his head, preparing to deny it again. Tribbey spoke up, "They not only did that, they also kidnapped those two young men over there and were preparing to kill them and then make good their escape."

"I see. This is all based on the word of two boys."

"I am twenty years old and certainly old enough to recognize cattle rustlers when I when I see them," Josh said firmly. "Besides, Onorato came here the next day and threatened my sister and Sam's family."

"That's right," Tribbey added. "If not for the quick thinking of Dr. Bartlet, he might have killed someone. When I got here, the Bartlets and young Joshua had the situation under control. Onorato is currently residing in my jail. He gave us the names of Blaisdell and Wilson who now keep him company."

"What about Gillette?" Hoynes asked.

"Apparently on his way to Mexico. I've wired the sheriffs of neighbouring counties, and the US Marshall's office, to keep an eye out for him. Wanted posters are going up from here to Nogales as we speak. He will be apprehended."

"The question remains, Jack," said Leo, "is whether you knew about this rustling operation."

Colleen Hoynes clasped her hands in her lap and looked questioningly at her husband. "Yes, Jack. Did you know about it?" There was something in her voice that indicated she already knew the answer to her question.

All eyes in the room were on Jack Hoynes. It looked like he was going to deny it, but then he sagged just a little. "I knew. That is, I caught Gillette in the act a month ago and ordered him to stop. I...never bothered to check up on him again."

"Don't you think that would have been a good idea?" Jed asked.

Hoynes' eyes dropped. "Years ago I gave Gillette free rein to run the ranch as he saw fit. I had other interests. He built my ranch into what it is today. If not for him, I wouldn't be half as rich as I am. I figured he knew what he was doing so I turned a blind eye. As long as he didn't get caught... Look, I know it sounds incredibly naïve of me..."

"Ya think?" Leo interjected.

Going on as if he hadn't been interrupted, Hoynes said, "I never wanted to be a rancher. We only moved out here so Colleen could be close to her family."

"Father!" The dismay in Johnny's voice was evident. Even Josh felt embarrassed for the Hoynes family. Sam tugged on Josh's sleeve, and they left the room, going outdoors again.

"Damn," was Josh's only comment.

"Yeah," Sam agreed.

The door behind them opened, and Johnny shot outside. Brushing past them, he ran down the steps and vanished into the crowd.

"You want to get something to eat?" Sam asked as they stared after him.

"Sure. Sounds good." Josh wasn't too hungry but figured he should eat something.

They filled two plates and took them over to the barn where it was relatively quiet. They sat on straw bales just outside the doors, eating in silence for a few minutes.

"Do you think the sheriff will arrest Mr. Hoynes?" Sam asked.

"Maybe." Josh chewed and swallowed a piece of chicken. "Technically he is an accessory."

"I feel sorry for John and his mother. Finding out like that."

"Do you think they didn't know?"

Sam lifted one shoulder. "It looked like John didn't. The way he reacted." He left the thought unfinished.

"Yeah," Josh said quietly. He was thinking of the expression on John's face when he heard his father's confession.

"But Mrs. Hoynes might have known," Sam went on.

"My mother didn't know a thing about it!"

At the sound of John's voice, Josh leapt to his feet, spilling the remains of his meal to the ground. Sam stared at him in alarm, puzzled by his behaviour. Hoynes emerged from the darkness of the barn. His face was colourless.

Agitated, he paced back and forth before them with his gaze fixed on something only he could see. "Neither of us knew. It was all my father and Gillette."

Taking a step forward, Josh tried to calm the other man and said, "Hoynes...John, it's okay."

"How can you say that? Cattle rustling is still a hanging offence. At the very least my father is facing time in prison. Josh, this is serious!"

"I know." Josh was unable to think of anything comforting to say. He turned to Sam for help.

His reluctance showing, Sam got to his feet and said, "Maybe our fathers won't press charges." It was obvious he was grasping at straws.

Hoynes rounded on him. "Oh sure. Your parents have never liked me. Not since we were all kids. They'll use that against my father."

"Well, you never gave any of us a reason to like you," Sam pointed out.

His expression changing, Hoynes straightened. Suddenly he was much calmer. Josh recognized the look. John was about to cause trouble.

"Wait..." Josh approached him with his hand out pleadingly.

Ignoring him Hoynes spoke directly to Sam. "I was pretty mean to you back then," he agreed.

"As recently as last summer you were still bullying me. Maybe that's your trouble, Hoynes. You're still just a bully. You never grew up. You get your kicks by causing trouble. Real mature, John."

"Yeah? Well, here's another one you can add to your books. You have been keeping score haven't you, Sam? Did you know that your boyfriend and I have been lovers for two years?"

Josh's heart stopped. It picked up its beat again, inexorably and painfully. He watched for Sam's reaction, but there wasn't one. It was as if Sam hadn't heard what John had said. His expression didn't change. Then there was a barely noticeable twitch at the corner of his mouth and Josh knew that Sam had heard.

Hoynes wasn't finished. "That's right, Sam. Josh was a virgin when I got hold of him, but he's a fast learner. We fucked hard and we fucked often and Josh liked it. He said I was using him, but he used me too. He showed up at my house at all hours of the day and night, begging me to let him in. He wanted my dick up his ass so bad he didn't care if he missed his classes." Hoynes paused, tilting his head to the side. "Oh, didn't he tell you this?"

Sam stared at him for what seemed to Josh like a very long time. Then he dropped his plate on the bale and stalked off.

"Sam, that's not how it was..." Josh shot a murderous look at Hoynes and went after Sam. "Wait, Sam!"

Catching up with him, Josh matched his stride. "I've been wanting to tell you since I got home, but the time was never right."

Sam kept walking. "I need to be alone right now, Josh. Please go away. We'll talk later after I figure out how I feel." His voice was devoid of emotion, and that told Josh that he was furious.

"Oh. Sure." Josh slowed and then stopped. "I love you, Sam," he called softly. He was sure Sam heard him, but his friend did not look back.

After a moment Josh went back to the barn. There was no sign of Hoynes out front, so he entered the darkness of the building. He came across Hoynes leaning against the side of a stall. His arms were folded along the top rail, resting his chin on them.

"John?"

"Shouldn't you be with your boyfriend?"

"Sam's mad at me right now, like that's a surprise!"

There was a sigh and then Hoynes said, "Guess I handled that badly."

"You think?"

Turning his head at last, John said, "I was upset about my father and lashed out at Sam."

"You've always had it in for Sam. Why?"

"It's going to sound stupid."

Josh said, "Try me."

"His parents love him. Hell, his parents love you. I never had that."

Confused, Josh said, "Your folks are alive..." In his mind that alone equalled loving their children, and then he flashed back to how Jenny had treated him. "Or maybe they don't show their feelings?" he guessed.

"They show anger. That's the main one. Occasionally they show disappointment. Just once I wanted them to remember I was there," he finished in a whisper.

Suddenly Josh thought he understood why John sought out the company of men and women. He might be looking for affection of some kind, and yet he didn't let anyone get too close. He had never allowed Josh to kiss him, and he sublimated everything into a sexual experience. Hoynes was a mass of contradictions, and Josh knew he had no hope of helping the other man sort them out. Actually, he didn't want to help.

"You know what, John? I feel badly that you had such a rotten childhood, but what you did to Sam was inexcusable. Do what you want to me, but leave Sam out of it!" Josh whirled away, running both hands through his hair. "God! How could you do that? What kind of a man are you that you would deliberately and maliciously say those things? Was it some bizarre, backhanded way of getting back at your parents for not loving you? Sam was right. You still haven't grown up. Try it, John. You might find that more people will actually like you."

His fists clenched, Josh said more quietly, "I love Sam and I don't want to see him hurt. I should have told him about what we did. It wasn't fair that he found out the way he did. I need to find him and tell him that."

Hoynes cleared his throat as if to say something. Josh waited and when no apology was offered, he walked away in disgust.

#

Sam was sitting on the back step of the house with his hands hanging down between his knees. He looked up when Josh approached. Josh couldn't tell what Sam was thinking, but took a chance that he wasn't planning on pounding him into the dirt and sat down next to him.

"Hey."

There was a long pause, but Sam finally responded. "Hey."

"I have something I want to say to you. It's about Hoynes and me."

"So is it true?" Sam's voice was a little hoarse, but he didn't sound angry.

"Yeah, Sam. It is." Josh kept his gaze steady on Sam's face. He was wide open now and wanted Sam to see the truth -- all of it. "I already told you that I was confused about you and me. John was available and he was willing. He seduced me. I fell for his lines. I was so damned lonely, Sam. That's no excuse, but I was missing you, and John was there, and it just happened. Afterwards, I knew you would be upset if you found out."

"So you went ahead and fucked with him a whole bunch more times?" The derision in Sam's voice stabbed Josh in the gut. Sam wasn't taking this calmly. "Good way to fix your mistakes."

"I don't have any excuses for what I did, not that you'd accept any from me."

"You're right about that," Sam said coldly.

"Sam, please forgive me. I'm so, so sorry for what I did. I love you. Hoynes was just a convenience."

"It's not so much that you had a relationship while you were away. I did the same thing. But it was Hoynes! Of all people, Josh. What could you have been thinking?"

"I wasn't. I...I wasn't thinking. He was there. I was there."

"Josh," Sam shook his head. His expression was one of disappointment. "You should have told me sooner."

"Yeah. I should have," Josh agreed.

The sound of someone clearing their throat made them both look up. Hoynes stood a few feet away looking uncomfortable. "Sam, I...it wasn't my place to tell you about Josh and me."

"No, it wasn't. Josh should have said something before it got this far."

Hoynes took one step forward. "Josh is a big boy, Sam. It's not like I forced him to continue our relationship."

"Go away, John. Stay out of my life, and stay out of Josh's life while you're at it."

Hoynes looked as if he'd been dealt a physical blow. Perhaps the outright rejection was what it took for him to completely realize the damage he had done. Nodding jerkily, he said, "I won't bother either of you again. Goodbye, Josh." He walked away.

The silence stretched until Josh thought he couldn't stand it any longer. "Talk to me, Sam? Yell at me. Say something."

Keeping his eyes straight ahead, Sam said, "I don't want to lose you, Josh. You weren't the only one who made mistakes these last two years."

So, they still had the prospect of a relationship. "Your only mistake was that you were too trusting, Sam. You need to be more careful. Not everyone is as honourable as your parents and your true friends."

A slight nod, and a glimmer of a smile in Sam's profile led Josh to say, "You can always trust me. From now on, that is."

Sam turned his head and regarded Josh with appraising eyes. "What am I going to do with you?"

There was just enough lightness in his tone that Josh took a chance and replied, "Kiss me?"

His long eyelashes fluttering, Sam dropped his gaze to Josh's mouth. He looked up and then leaned forward. Their lips met and clung. Josh slid his arms around Sam drawing him closer. A few seconds later Sam wrapped Josh in his embrace, and held him tightly.

Josh was starved for Sam's kisses and pressed back hungrily. Communicating his willingness to forgive, Sam used the contact to seal their fate. Josh knew all of this in that brief span of time, and simply lost himself in the kiss. He also knew that they still had a ways to go before everything would be completely all right between them. He vowed then and there to do what he could to make sure that they achieved total harmony and stayed that way.

Frontier Justice 17/18

Rating: R (violence)

Sam withdrew from Josh's embrace, and stood up. "Come on. As much as I enjoy sparking with you..."

"Sparking?" Josh laughed, and also got to his feet. "That's a...quaint term."

"Courting?"

"Courting works for me."

Sam nodded. "As much as I enjoy us courting, we should get back to the party. The last time we were at a party together we ended up in the hayloft."

"Yeah," Josh blew out a long, heartfelt sigh. "Let's not do that again. As fun as it was, it seems like it was the catalyst for all kinds of bad things. I don't feel like going around the mulberry bush again."

"Agreed." Sam was thinking specifically of what had just taken place with Hoynes. There was a residual cramp in his belly from that confrontation. He hadn't realized just how angry he was until the image of Josh in bed with Hoynes had assaulted his mind. He was still shaking inwardly but the anger was receding.

"Besides, we've grown beyond that."

"We certainly have."

"We've grown up!"

Sam laughed. "You say that like it's a surprise, but you're right. We have grown up. We're adults. We should act like adults."

Josh held out his hand. "Deal."

Solemnly, Sam shook it. "Deal."

Then they ruined the effect by giggling like children. Sam wound his arm around Josh's waist and leaned in for a kiss. Josh willingly gave it to him, and they indulged themselves for a moment.

Pulling back, Sam said, "We really ought to get back to the party." He gazed up at Josh, drinking in the sight of his handsome lover. Josh's hazel eyes were heavy-lidded, giving him a sensual look. Sam whimpered and stole another kiss, suckling on Josh's bottom lip.

"What was that sound you just made?" Josh asked when they separated.

"I didn't make a sound." Sam was fully aware of what he had done, and was mildly embarrassed about it. So much for resembling an adult, he was reduced to primal whimpering just from looking at Josh.

"Ah-kay." Clearly Josh did not believe him, because a smile played around the corners of his mouth.

Sam was thankful they knew each other as well as they did, otherwise, after all they had been through, they would have grown apart instead of growing more solidly together.

"Let's go," he said.

"One more." Josh brushed his lips across Sam's. They grinned at each other.

"Let's go," Sam repeated.

#

Toby and Andrea were in the middle of changing dance partners when Sam and Josh rounded the corner of the house. Toby grabbed CJ around the waist and cavorted with her, while Andrea accepted Jed's invitation to dance. Standing on the sidelines, Abbey and Michael were clapping along with the music. Then Michael bowed to Abbey, she curtsied deeply, and off they went.

Josh blinked. "How long were we gone anyway?"

Amused, Sam said, "Quite a while, apparently. By the way, did you notice your father's partner?"

Swivelling his head around to look where Sam was indicating, Josh said, "Partner? Who? Where?"

"Over there. I saw them earlier."

Leo had one hand on the waist of the red-haired woman, his other one firmly clasping hers as he swung her around. They were definitely looking each other in the eye now. Leo's smile was as broad as Sam had ever seen. His dance partner seemed to be having the time of her life, too.

"Is that going to be my new mother?" Josh wanted to know. "She looks like she's my age...or younger."

Sam rubbed Josh's back between the shoulder blades. "She's pretty, and it looks like your pa likes her."

Josh stared at the couple for a few minutes. Leo stayed in physical contact with the woman at all times, even when the dance steps separated them. Finally he said with a smile, "Yeah. He does like her."

Sam turned to Josh. "I wish we could dance together."

"Oh, that's about where everything started the last time. Maybe we should just, you know, be an audience."

Grinning, Sam agreed. "It's probably safer that way."

"Samuel. Joshua."

Sam turned and saw Mrs. Landingham approach with her husband, who had his arm around his wife's waist. It looked like he was holding her upright.

"Are you all right, Mrs. Landingham?"

"Oh! I'm fine," she laughed quietly to herself.

"She's had a bit too much punch," her husband grinned. "Once a year she lets loose. It's usually on July Fourth, but she's hit her stride a bit early this year."

"Maybe I'll also let loose then again then, too." She giggled.

"We'll see, dear. We'll see." To Sam and Josh, George Landingham said, "I'd better take her home. The boys are staying for a while longer."

"Do you need help?" Josh asked.

"We'll be fine. Good night."

"Good night," Josh said.

"Thanks for coming tonight," Sam added. He watched them go, keeping an eye on them in case Mr. Landingham had trouble getting his wife into their buggy. He got her settled, and then climbed in beside her. He shook the reins and clucked to the horse.

They were just pulling away from the barn when another rig flew up the road and into the yard. Mr. Landingham hauled back on the reins to avoid a collision, his horse danced nervously. The driver of the second rig pulled her lathered horse to a skidding halt.

"It's Laurie!" Sam took off at a run towards her with Josh on his heels.

As Sam reached for her, Laurie tumbled out of the buggy into his arms. Her hair wildly covered her face, and she was crying.

"Sam, he's going to come here tonight!"

"Calm down, Laurie. Who is coming here?" He brushed clinging hair off her wet cheeks and gasped when he saw the livid bruise under her left eye. "Who did this to you?"

Fingers clutching Sam's shirt, Laurie sobbed, "He knocked me out. He's insanely jealous, Sam. He said he was coming after you!"

Gripping her arms a little tighter, Sam tried again for a coherent answer. "Who are you talking about, Laurie?"

"He said he watched us down by the river. He f-followed us when we went there, Sam. He watched us...listened to us m-make love." Her big brown eyes welled up again, and she broke down in helpless sobs.

Sam held her close, rubbing her back soothingly. He looked over her head at Josh who stared back at him in concern.

"Maybe we should take her to the house so Aunt Abbey can help her?" he suggested.

Nodding, Sam said, "Good idea. Come on, Laurie. My mother is a doctor remember? She'll take a look at that shiner of yours."

Laurie lifted a shaking hand to her face, gingerly touching the bruise, and burst into fresh tears. Sam led her to the house with Josh walking on the other side, ready to help even though he probably felt as powerless as Sam did.

Abbey saw them before they reached her and rushed over to them. Taking Laurie out of Sam's hands, she asked, "What happened, Sam?"

"This is Laurie. You know, my friend from town that I told you about?"

Abbey shot him a quick look, recognition dawning on her face. "I see. Well, what happened to her?"

"Someone beat up on her. She might have been unconscious for awhile."

CJ was nearby and had seen the young woman's distress. She approached, going to support Laurie on her other side. "Tell me what to do."

"What is your name, please?" Abbey asked in that tone that said there had been a lot of information thrown at her all at once, and yet she was going to deal with everything in a calm, professional manner.

"I'm CJ Cregg, a friend of Toby and Andrea's."

"She's from San Francisco originally," Sam added.

"Ah. Welcome, CJ," Abbey said. "Will you help me get Laurie up to one of the bedrooms so I can examine her? Maybe once she calms down she'll be able to tell us what happened to her."

The women went inside the house. Before following them, Sam glanced around. Toby, Andrea, Mallory, Leo and his friend, and the rest of the guests were still dancing and having a good time, oblivious to the drama on the front porch. Just before he entered the house, he caught his father's eye. Jed's expression was questioning, but he was too far away for Sam to explain what has going on. There wasn't anything either of them could do, so Sam gave a half wave and went inside with Josh.

What happened next seemed to happen in slow motion. Sam closed the front door and turned. His mother, CJ, and Laurie were halfway across the front hall and almost to the stairs. Josh moved around to stand slightly behind Sam. Emerging from the parlour to the left was Michael Peterson, a pistol in his hands. At first, Sam's brain did not register the gun; he saw it but did not comprehend the threat.

He stepped forward, a question on his lips. Josh slapped a hand on his shoulder, yanking him backwards. That was when Sam realized the weapon was pointed at him. Laurie turned around, saw Peterson, and screamed. Abbey pushed her and CJ to the side, yelling for Sam and Josh to get out of the way. Peterson spun around aiming the gun at the women.

Sam's instincts kicked in. He rushed the intruder and tackled him, his shoulder colliding with Peterson's ribs. They tumbled to the floor, the momentum from Sam's rush sliding them halfway across the foyer. Distantly he heard Josh yelling. While Sam rolled around on the floor with Peterson, trying to land a punch that counted, the other man freed the pistol from under his body and brought the weapon up against Sam's chest. Sam froze and fell back with his hands out to his sides. The barrel of the gun followed him down. Sam's heart was pounding so hard he was sure it was going to burst through his skin. The only thing he could see was the huge muzzle of the pistol.

"Sam!" Laurie screamed. Scrambling to her feet, she raced forward and kicked Peterson in the side. He rolled out of the way still clutching the gun. Sam got to his knees and swung his fist at Peterson's head. The other man ducked under the punch and lunged for Sam. There were several voices shouting different things, but Sam was too busy to figure out who was saying what. Falling backwards, he kicked out with his foot and connected his boot with Peterson's left arm. Unfortunately, Peterson held the gun in his right hand and did not lose his stubborn grip on it.

Several things happened at once. Laurie rushed Peterson again, momentarily drawing his attention away from Sam. When Sam started to dive in, Peterson swung the gun back towards Sam. From somewhere behind him, Sam heard his father shout with deadly intent, "Don't you dare!" Peterson's eyes tracked over Sam's right shoulder, and then a maniacal gleam appeared in them. He cocked the hammer on his pistol.

A blue and black blur rushed into Sam's line of vision, just as an explosion slammed up against his eardrums, nearly deafening him. Something impacted against Sam's body driving him to the floor again. His head banged against the hardwood as whatever had hit him collapsed on him. There was a lot more shouting, some of it sounding hazily familiar, most of it too jumbled to sort out. All he knew was that his head hurt and there was a heavy weight across his torso and legs.

"Sam? Are you all right, son?" His hearing was out of kilter, and the voice sounded like it was under water, or maybe he was. Gentle hands lifted him by the shoulders and pulled him out from whatever held him down. He looked to see what it was and his gut twisted. "Josh!" he yelled, struggling to get away from whomever was holding him. "Let me go!"

Wrenching free he scuttled forward. Josh lay sprawled on the floor with blood seeping from a wound in his chest, the growing stain darkened his shirt, and the edges crept further outward. His eyes were open and they slid over to look at him.

"Sammy?" he asked weakly.

Tears blurred Sam's vision as he leaned over the man he loved. "Josh? Oh, God! Josh!"

Abbey appeared on the other side of Josh and pulled his shirt open, expertly probing the gunshot wound and rolling him onto his side momentarily so she could see his back. She gave swift orders for towels and warm water to be brought to her. Then she reached across Josh to put her bloody hands on Sam's shoulders and force him to look at her.

"Sam. Listen to me. I need room to work here. The bullet is still in Josh, and it must come out. You have to get out of my way. Now, go!"

Jed tugged on Sam from behind and got him to his feet, leading him over to the stairs where Laurie sat huddled and trembling. When his father sat him down beside her, she edged closer.

"Is he going to be okay?"

It took two tries for Sam to find his voice. "I don't know." Blindly, he reached out and put his arm around Laurie. While she clung to him, Sam continued to stare at Josh lying on the floor.

Gradually, he became aware that Sheriff Tribbey, Leo, and a lot of other people were in the foyer. The Sheriff chased everyone out except Leo, Toby, and Andrea, who immediately offered her help to Abbey. The door opened again, and Mallory slipped inside. She took in the scene and ran for her father. CJ stood near Sam and Laurie, leaning heavily on the railing. Sam reached a hand out to her. She took it. Her hand was cold and clammy.

"I swear...I swear I have no idea what happened here. I...I don't know why Michael pulled that gun."

Squeezing her icy fingers, Sam told her, "It'll be okay, CJ. Josh will be okay." He realized his hands were possibly colder than hers; he clutched her again in the vague hope that it would comfort her.

She tried to smile at him but failed miserably. Sam looked over to where Tribbey was handcuffing Peterson, with the prisoner's gun tucked into the sheriff's belt. Getting up on shaking legs, Sam walked over to them.

"Why? Why would you do such a thing?" he asked Peterson.

"Laurie is mine," the gunman said.

"What?" Sam didn't understand.

Peterson sneered and looked away. Tribbey jabbed him in the back. "Answer the man's question."

He turned away from Sam and spoke only to Tribbey. "I've been visiting her regular ever week since I got to town. She belongs to me. Sam has been taking her out to the river for months. She never even took money from him. I love her! He doesn't love her. I do! Laurie belongs to me."

Tribbey shook him once. "Fool! No one belongs to anyone. That young woman is not your property. Come along. I've got a nice jail cell with your name on it."

He started to lead Peterson away, but something tripped Sam's memory. "Wait! Mrs. Landingham was certain she knew you from somewhere. She's usually pretty accurate about most things, so it must be true. Who are you really?"

Peterson rolled his eyes. The much taller sheriff gave him another good shake. "Tell him your name."

Reluctantly, Peterson said, "It's Tiner. Billy Tiner."

"From school?" Sam exclaimed. "You moved away years ago."

"And, look, I came back."

"Unbelievable!" Tribbey growled. "You're the one Onorato told me about. You were acting as the go-between for the rustlers when they sold the cattle just outside San Francisco."

"Onorato has a big mouth," Tiner complained.

Tribbey dragged him towards the door. "If that young man over there dies, you'll have worse things to worry about than rustling charges."

"I wasn't aiming for Josh. I was aiming for Sam!"

"Then you're also a lousy shot!" Shoving him out the door, Tribbey paused only long enough to ask Jed, "Will you send someone to my office to let me know about Josh?"

"I will," Jed promised quietly. Tribbey and Tiner went out and the door closed behind them. Jed walked over to Sam and put his arms around him. "Josh will make it, son."

"He has to, Pa!" Sam buried his face against his father's shoulder. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Leo, paler than a ghost, walk over on trembling legs and sink to the floor near where Abbey worked on his son.

Josh was even whiter than his father and lay so still. The pool of blood under him had been wiped up, but crimson streaks remained fanning out across the floor. Sam thought that his heart would shrivel to a cold lump if Josh died.

#

Abbey had the men move Josh upstairs to a bedroom as soon as she thought he was stable enough. After she removed the bullet, she went downstairs leaving Andrea to watch over him for the moment.

Sam saw her coming downstairs wiping her hands on a towel. "Ma? Is he alive?"

"Oh, baby. Yes, he's alive. Right now he's holding his own. The bullet tore up his shoulder but missed his heart and lung. Mostly he lost a lot of blood, and the shock to his system was severe."

"What are his chances?"

"Well, his chances are as good as his will to live. He's young and healthy. Other than that, I'd say it's no longer in my hands."

"Can I see him?"

"Not just yet. He's still too..."

Andrea appeared at the top of the stairs. "Abbey, come quick! He's bleeding again."

Abbey rushed back up leaving Sam sick with worry. As he stared after her, Leo walked up to him. Turning towards him, Sam noted that his uncle had aged in the last few hours.

"He'll be okay, Uncle Leo," Sam told him with such conviction he almost believed it himself.

"Yeah. He will." Sam could tell Leo had his doubts too.

#

Sam woke up to voices. He was angry with himself when he realized he'd fallen asleep while Josh's life was in jeopardy. Lifting his head, he saw that most of his family and friends had settled in the parlour with him. Toby, seated in a chair next to the settee, noticed that he was awake and rubbed Sam's shoulder comfortingly. Mallory was curled up on the arm of Leo's chair with her arms around her father's neck. They both looked empty. CJ and Laurie both appeared to have been crying since he last saw them. His mother leaned over him. He stared back at her, terrified of what she had to say to him.

"You'd better go up now, Sam." Abbey said. Her expression didn't tell him a thing. "And prepare yourself for..."

Peeling himself off the settee, shrivelled heart thumping out its last beats, Sam raced out of the room and up the stairs.

As he entered the room he wanted to close his eyes so that he would not see his best friend's lifeless body on the bed. He tried to shut them, but they refused to obey his commands. And so, he walked in with his eyes wide open.

Please, don't take him. Sam's lips moved but no sound emerged.

Josh lay still against the pillows, all colour had fled his body. A bandage covered his chest.

Please, take me instead.

Sam stopped two feet from the bed. His legs were leaden, and he had to concentrate hard to get them to take him closer. He stopped again. Staring at Josh, he watched for some movement -- any kind of movement that would prove Josh was still alive.

Please.

Sam inched forward and finally reached the bed. He lay down and rested his head on Josh's stomach, one arm draped across him. The tears that leaked out of Sam's eyes soaked the wool blanket under his cheek.

"I l-love you, Josh. I want that to be the last thing you hear so that you'll know that f-forever. I love you." Then Sam gave in to his grief and sobbed uncontrollably.

The room was too quiet, filled only with the sounds of Sam's anguish. His shoulders heaved with emotion.

"Quit...shaking the bed."

On the Frontier 18/18

Rating: NC17

"Josh?" Sitting up, Sam could do little more than gape.

Abbey entered the room, slightly out of breath. "Oh, Sam. I started to tell you to prepare yourself for how he looks. I was afraid you'd think the wrong thing when you saw him. I'm so sorry I gave you the wrong idea."

Looking away from his mother and back to Josh, Sam whispered, "You're alive."

"'Course," Josh's voice was hoarse, roughened by his trauma. The dark circles surrounding his eyes emphasized the ashen tones of his skin.

Sam moved closer.

"...shaking the bed...again."

"Sorry." Sam grinned through the tears drying on his cheek and reached out to lightly brush his fingertips across Josh's cool forehead.

Abbey put her hand on Sam's shoulder. "Leo insisted that you should be allowed in first as soon as I knew one way or the other what Josh's prognosis was. Let me check his bandage and then we're going to let him sleep."

Sam got off the bed, but hovered nearby until his mother finished.

"I want to stay."

"I'm sure you do, but Josh needs his rest. Either Andrea or I will be here with him."

"I'm staying."

"Sam," Abbey tried again.

"I just want to be here. I'll keep out of the way. Please, Ma?"

Sighing, Abbey said, "As if I've ever been able to say no to you."

"You said no when I wanted to stay up late."

"That's because you were seven at the time, and Josh was staying over. I knew if you didn't get to sleep when I said lights out you'd both stay up all night talking. Oh, you think that's funny do you, Mister McGarry?" she asked, looking pointedly at Josh.

Sam turned in time to see a weak smile flutter around Josh's mouth.

Abbey gave in. "Fine. Stay."

Just then Leo, Mallory, and Jed arrived sporting expressions that ranged from worried to hopeful. Abbey saw them, heaved an exasperated sigh, and said, "Fine. You can all stay, but if a single one of you says or does anything to prevent that young man from getting his rest, you're all banished."

"Yes, ma'am," they said in a ragged chorus.

"I'm going downstairs for a few minutes."

As his wife passed him in the doorway, Jed told her, "I'll just stay a minute. I only wanted to see how Josh is."

"He should make a full recovery. As long as he gets his rest," she added for emphasis over her shoulder.

Leo was perched on one side of the bed and Mallory was on the other side with Sam. Both McGarrys were wiping away their tears. Jed went over and touched Josh on the shoulder.

"You get well soon," he told him. "Our family can't function without you." Jed stood by the bedside for another moment then squeezed Josh's uninjured shoulder, patted Leo on the arm, and left.

While Leo placed a trembling palm against his son's cheek, Mallory clutched Josh's hand in her own. She sniffled happily and turned to grin at Sam.

Sam waited while they spoke to Josh, and then, as soon as he could, claimed a spot next to him against the headboard with a pillow at his back. The room quieted as they all settled down to watch Josh sleep. Sam picked up Josh's left hand and simply held it. When Abbey returned, the first rays of light were beginning to creep up in the eastern sky. Josh was asleep and the rest of them were well on the way. Sam's eyes grew heavier by the moment, but he managed a grateful smile for his mother. She touched the hair of both young men, and then found a chair on which to take up her own vigil.

#

Two days after the shooting, Sam sat by Josh's bedside reading from his latest story when Toby and Andrea knocked on the open door of the bedroom.

"May we come in?" Andrea inquired.

"I was hoping you would come by." Josh smiled warmly. His right arm was strapped across his chest to immobilize it. He spoke to Andrea, "Aunt Abbey told me you helped her remove the bullet from my shoulder. Thank you." He lifted a hand from where it rested on the covers.

Andrea took it and sat next to him on the bed. "We've only just met you, Josh. I know we will all be friends for many years."

"Hope so." Josh was sincere.

Toby cleared his throat. "I brought books for you to read when you're able. They're in English and Hebrew. They might help you understand your heritage better."

"Thank you, Toby. These are wonderful."

Sam relinquished his spot by Josh's side. "Maybe you could read to Josh from one of them now? My voice is about to give out."

Toby hesitated.

Josh said, "Please, Toby? I'd like that. It's difficult for me to hold a book for very long with one hand. My shoulder starts to protest after a few minutes."

The older man took off his jacket and sat in the spot vacated by Sam. He opened one of the texts and began to read. His rough voice softened as he spoke the words he loved. His audience sat quietly, listening and learning.

#

Throughout the week Toby had stopped by for an hour everyday to read and talk, usually with Andrea along. Six days after the shooting Josh received a new visitor. On this day CJ appeared in the doorway.

Josh waved her in. She hovered near the door a moment, hesitant about entering. Sam went to her, took her hand much as he had the night of the shooting, and led her into the room. He urged her to sit near Josh, and then he sat on her other side.

"How...how are you, Josh?" she asked softly.

"I'm doing well, CJ."

"Really? I mean you're not lying to me, are you?"

"I'm not lying. I'm still sore and I can't lift my arm very high. Aunt Abbey said it would improve over the next few weeks."

"That's good." She smiled even though her eyes were leaking badly.

"Why are you crying, CJ?"

"Josh, I'm so...I feel so...bad that you got hurt."

"It wasn't your fault."

"It was! If I hadn't come to Broken River then Michael wouldn't have followed me."

Sam interrupted. "But Michael used to live here. We knew him when he was Billy Tiner. Chances are he would have come back sooner or later."

"That poor girl who was involved with him was lucky he didn't kill her. What was her name?"

"Laurie." Sam winced at her words. "It sounded more like he was involved with her. Laurie is too smart to get caught up in a relationship with a man like Tiner."

"You know her well?"

"She's a good friend."

"Is Laurie your girlfriend?"

Glancing at Josh Sam replied, "Kind of. We're not together now."

Changing the subject CJ said, "You two fellows are such good friends, and you're so good for each other. I can tell."

The two young men traded slightly apprehensive looks. It sounded like she knew they were closer than just friends. Or maybe she was just guessing. Josh said with false calm, "We've been friends since childhood."

"Best friends," Sam added.

"Absolutely," Josh agreed.

"Well," CJ smiled, "It is apparent that you two share a deep affection. It's wonderful to see."

"I feel lucky to have Sam in my life," Josh said, reaching out to pat the arm of his love. Sam squeezed his hand out of habit. Then he realized what he was doing and let go. CJ's eyes followed his movements.

"Well, I'd say your friends are the fortunate ones to have you in our lives," CJ told them.

#

The day following CJ's call Josh was feeling much stronger. The cautious touches he and Sam had been indulging in advanced to heavy petting and kissing. They were so literally wrapped up in one another that they failed to hear Abbey's arrival until she spoke sharply.

"No exertion, Josh!"

He blushed under her gaze and mumbled his agreement. Now he knew how Sam felt. His mother was intimidating and possessed frightening insight into the minds of young men. Sam looked just as cowed as Josh felt.

There was one surprise visitor later in the day. Laurie walked into Josh's room wearing a dress that could only be described as demure. Her demeanour was shy. The bruise on her face was either healed or cleverly masked by makeup.

When Sam looked up from his notebook and saw her, he immediately walked over and took her into his arms. She clung to him with her face pressed against his chest. Then she stepped back, turning to the young man propped up by pillows on the bed.

"Hello, Josh. I'm Laurie."

Laughing, Josh held out a hand until she took it. "Pleased to meet you, Laurie."

"Well, I can certainly see why Sam fell for you. Such a handsome fellow."

Josh blushed while Sam grinned at both of them.

Her expression changed and she dropped her eyes to study the floor in front of her. "You got caught in the middle of my messy life. I would like to apologize for that."

"Oh, for Pete's sake," Josh exclaimed. "First CJ and now you. It wasn't your fault I got shot. You have no control over other people's actions. Billy is a dangerous man. I'm just glad you weren't badly hurt when he hit you."

"Thanks, Josh," she said quietly, and then turned to Sam. "Listen, the other reason I'm here is to say goodbye."

"You just got here."

"Funny, Sam." She reached up to touch his cheek, her hand trailing further up to brush a stray lock of hair off his forehead. "I'm moving to San Francisco. It's time. There's nothing for me here now. I'll always cherish our friendship, but I know that Josh is your life. You know, part of me is always going to resent what you two have together because you chose Josh instead of me. I'm sorry for saying that. No, I'm not sorry. I love you, Sam." She looked miserable.

Sam pulled her back into his arms. "You'll find someone, Laurie."

"Hope so." Tears spilled out of her eyes. "If I can find love that's half as good as what you and Josh have, I'll consider myself very, very fortunate." Despite her words, her tone was wistful.

#

Nearly four weeks after the shooting when Sam and his mother drove the rig into their yard, Josh was sitting on the front steps of the house. He stood up at their approach and walked over to meet them. Helping Abbey out of the cart, he kissed her on the cheek.

"Hello, Josh. Why am I not surprised to see you today?" she smiled at him.

He grinned at Sam before answering, "You said if I was healed within a month you'd give me a clean bill of health."

"Yes, thank you for reminding me. I can't think of how that might have slipped my mind," she teased. "Come along into the house and I'll check your wound."

As Josh followed her, he looked at Sam walking by his side. "Hey, you look really handsome today. Or maybe I should say you look cute?" He referred to an earlier conversation in which he'd teased Sam about how he would look wearing eyeglasses. He had called him cute, a phrase to which Sam had objected.

This time instead of becoming indignant, Sam ducked his head. He was wearing his new glasses. He and his mother had gone to Sacramento early that morning to pick them up. Silver-coloured frames emphasized the blue of his irises. He smiled shyly before looking up with more confidence.

"I'm just being honest. It's the new me. Honest, upfront, and forthright." Josh had made a promise to Sam the night of the shooting. He intended to keep it, even about the little things.

Sam touched Josh's arm. "I like the new you."

"How are you feeling, Josh?" Abbey asked.

"I feel great."

"How's your shoulder? Is there still some stiffness?"

"Some, but I can lift my arm without screaming in pain now." He was only half joking.

"All right. We'll go upstairs so I can examine you."

Jed and Leo stepped out onto the porch. Abbey greeted them with, "Shouldn't you two be getting ready to go to Sacramento tomorrow? I believe the new session begins next week. It'd be a shame if it started without the Governor."

Leo spoke up. "The delay is my fault, Abbey. I wanted to find out how Josh is before we go."

"We both do," Jed added. "We're not going anywhere until you give Josh a clean bill of health."

"Well, then. Let's see how he is." Abbey motioned to Josh to follow her. "I agree that is the more important thing."

#

When Josh came back downstairs, Sam was waiting for him. He had been sitting on the bottom step, but jumped to his feet at Josh's approach.

"So, what's the verdict?"

Josh looked at him steadily and said, "Let's go outside." He led the way to the front porch, Sam hurrying along beside him.

"What did Ma say, Josh?" Sam asked anxiously.

Josh stopped and faced him, his expression bleak. "She said... Well, Sam, she said I'm completely healed!" He broke out into a huge grin.

Sam whooped and threw himself into Josh's arms. Catching him, Josh locked his hands around Sam's back and swung him around. When they stopped spinning Josh put Sam back on his feet, but held him trapped within the circle of his embrace.

Sam's long fingers splayed across Josh's chest, unerringly finding the spot where he had been shot. Sam gently traced the edges of the scar with sensitive fingertips. It felt strange through the fabric of the shirt. Sam wanted skin on skin.

Proving that he could read minds, Josh whispered, "I want to make love with you now."

"Here on the porch?"

"Sure." Josh grinned at him. "I don't care who sees us."

Josh had an opportunity to test his statement as Jed and Leo approached the house. Sam tried to pull away, but Josh held him tightly and then rubbed his shoulders in an effort to calm him down. He watched as Sam and his father eyed one another. Sam's face was bright red, but he met and held Jed's considering stare.

"Hello, Pa."

"Son, you don't have to be ashamed of who you are. We know you and Josh love each other. It's perfectly okay with all of us. And you don't need our approval to live your lives the way you see fit."

Josh felt the tension recede from Sam's body as he said, "Yes, sir. Thank you for telling me, Pa."

Sam leaned back slightly, resting his weight against Josh's chest. Josh wrapped his arms more tightly around the younger man and settled his cheek in silky hair.

"Then again, if you two are going to do anything to, uh, celebrate Josh's good health, I'd rather not know about it. Leo, you and I should go on a double date tonight with our womenfolk. There are strange sensations in the air today."

"Margaret and I already have plans. She said she has something important to tell me. I think she's gonna accept my invitation to come to Sacramento. We're having a late dinner in town."

"Sounds romantic."

"Could be." A sparkle lit his eyes. "Could be."

"I wonder if my wife would like some romance tonight," Jed mused.

"Sure she would, Pa. Ask her," Sam told him.

"I'll bet she would at that. You take after her, don't you?"

"Yes, I do."

"Even though you're still too tall to resemble either of us." Jed winked.

"Yes, sir." Sam gripped Josh's hand, trapping it against his stomach.

"Well, see you later. Or not."

"We'll be here to see you off on your journey tomorrow, Uncle Jed. Pop, I'll be home later."

The older men raised their eyebrows but walked away without further discussion. Sam turned within the circle of Josh's arms and stared at him, puzzled.

"What was that all about? Aren't we going to, you know, celebrate?"

Josh bit his lip. "Sam, remember what I told you awhile ago about how I wanted our first real time to be in a bed?"

"I remember, but we were together down by the river that night."

"And it was wonderful, but I still want us to do it right."

"Now who's the romantic?" Sam teased. Then his expression changed. Josh watched as first realization and then worry chased across his features. Finally, his face cleared and Sam looked up at him through his eyelashes, sunshine glinting off the lenses of his new glasses. "I don't want to wait, but I will."

"My house tomorrow after our fathers leave?"

"It's a date."

"Wear your glasses. They make you look even sexier than you already are."

Sam leaned in and brushed his lips against Josh's. The kiss deepened, as most of their kisses did. They couldn't bear not to be physically connected in some way, and kissing was one of the best ways in their frustrated history together to connect. "Anything for you."

#

Josh saw Sam arrive at the house, and was waiting for him in the open doorway by the time he got up the front steps. Sam's face glowed with the power of his smile. His hair looked shiny and fluffy, no doubt freshly washed. Josh chuckled to himself, as he had also taken a bath no more than an hour ago.

"Missed you," Josh said, taking Sam into his arms before the door closed.

Sam plastered his body to Josh, his lips seeking the welcoming heat of his lover's mouth. When they broke apart, Sam told him, "Missed you too."

"How long were we apart?"

Sam thought about it and said, "Couple of hours."

"Too long." Josh kissed him again. Sam's lips parted, and Josh slipped his tongue in, deepening their contact before drawing back slightly.

"Who's here today?" Sam asked as they began trading nibbling kisses.

"Just you and me. Our housekeeper went to visit her sister who's having a baby. She won't be back until the day after tomorrow at the earliest."

"So this is why you wanted me to come here. You knew we'd have the place to ourselves. Clever man."

Josh grinned. "Figured you would appreciate my amazing powers of reasoning."

"I appreciate everything about you."

"You're so discerning."

"Love me, Josh." Sam's voice grew rougher. Want and lust darkened his eyes. Josh's body responded by sending all available blood straight to his groin. His hands slipped down to Sam's hips, pulling him flush against him. Josh shoved his pelvis forward, and ground his stiffening erection against Sam who groaned in the back of his throat and tried to climb inside Josh's skin.

Josh asked, "Tell me what you want, Sam -- slow and easy? Romance?"

Gripping the back of Josh's head to pull him back down, Sam said fiercely, "We can have romance anytime. I want you. Now."

"Let's go to my room."

Kissing and groping along the way, by the time they reached the bedroom Sam had his hands under Josh's shirt stroking the skin of his stomach. Josh slipped his fingers under the back of the waistband of Sam's pants. He stretched to reach the firm rounded flesh under the material, but all he could touch was Sam's lower back. Impatiently, he pulled his hand out and clamped it on Sam's ass, yanking him closer.

They quickly undressed while trading frenzied kisses. Sam's glasses ended up on the bedside stand. Throughout their impassioned dance they'd worked their way over to the bed. When the back of Sam's legs hit the edge of the mattress they both tumbled down. Josh fell on top of Sam still kissing him. Sam hooked one leg over Josh's legs and arched up trying to connect, mindlessly rubbing.

"Josh," he panted. "I've been hard all day just thinking about being with you."

Josh thrust his hard length alongside Sam's and Sam pushed back. The pleasure of his friction of velvet and steel meeting Sam's heat and strength momentarily outweighed common sense. Then the fragment of his brain that was still functioning told Josh to slow down, or it would all be over too soon.

"Sam. Sam! Wait. We need," his words were swallowed by Sam's questing mouth. He kissed him back, sucking on the curious tongue that had invaded his mouth, and then he wrenched away. "We need to slow down. We're going too fast. Please? I want this to last."

His eyes wide with accelerated desire, Sam said, "I want it to last too, but I also need you to put me out of my misery here. Can't we just do it fast and hard now and then do it again and again and again?"

Josh laughed. "Sounds good to me but humour me, Sam. I want to memorize you. I want to watch your face when you come. I want to remember this time forever."

Sam's face softened as he replied, "Oh, Josh. How can I disagree with that? I was greedy and thinking only of my own pleasure."

"We've both waited so long for this day. Can't blame you for being impatient. Let's take it easy this first time. It'll be better for both of us."

Flopping back on the bed, Sam lay there breathing hard. Josh looked down at his beautiful lover, sprawled wantonly across the mattress. His lips were swollen, his face flushed, and his pupils were so huge the blue of his eyes almost disappeared. And then Sam smiled.

"What?" Josh asked smiling back at him.

"You have the kindest eyes." He trailed a finger along the side of Josh's face. "Every time I look into them I'm reminded of just how much I love you."

"Sam," Josh said, amused, "those two statements have nothing to do with each other."

His brow crinkling, Sam replied, "They made sense to me. In my head."

Grinning, Josh placed a soft kiss on Sam's forehead. "Then that's good enough for me."

Sam bit his lower lip. "Josh?"

"Yes, love?"

"I'm ready. I want you...inside me."

"Oh, Sam. You...?"

"I'm sure. I might have lost you last month. I was so afraid," Sam's voice cracked.

"Shh. I'm here. It's okay."

"I want it so badly."

"All right. Move up on the bed."

Sam wriggled into place so that his head rested on the pillows. When Josh turned to face Sam, he saw his lover looking at him with such desire Josh felt like he was the luckiest man in the world.

Josh stroked Sam's shoulders and then ran his hands down the strong arms and over the broad chest. Sam pulled him over so that Josh lay on top of him, his weight settling between Sam's parted legs. Growing bolder, Josh ran one hand down the centre of Sam's chest, pausing to encircle the nipples. Sam writhed with pleasure. Josh looked down to where Sam's penis lay half-hard against his thigh. As he watched, it filled and jutted proudly erect. His own cock twitched at the sight.

Taking Sam's heavy organ in the palm of his hand he stroked the length and ran his thumb over the head. Sam bucked his hips in response.

"Josh!"

Leaning down to kiss him, Josh said, "Easy. We've got time and lots to do."

Sam hooked his foot over Josh's hip, digging his heel into his ass and holding him down. "You started it. Besides, I have done some of this before, Josh. And I don't want to take it easy. I want you in me. Now!"

Josh had his doubts about how accurate that sentiment was. He was still determined not to hurt Sam. Since taking it slow was not going to happen, he could at least be careful. Josh reached for the Vaseline on the side table and brought it over to the bed, setting it aside for the time being. He watched Sam's eyes track his movements and saw that he still had some trepidation about what they were about to do.

"Sam."

"It's okay." Sam threaded the fingers of both hands through Josh's hair and looked at him steadily. "I love you. I want to do this."

"But," Josh began.

"I love you and I trust you."

How could he argue with a statement like that? Stretching out beside Sam he took him in his arms and kissed him on the shoulder. Then he placed his lips at the spot between shoulder and neck where it always made Sam shiver.

"Josh," Sam breathed. He surprised Josh by slithering down a bit so that he could tongue Josh's nipples to erection. As he suckled them, the sensation went straight to Josh's cock, making it jump. He was so achingly hard he needed relief soon. Sam closed in on Josh's scar, tenderly kissing the edges of it. The sensation was almost unbearably erotic.

He took Sam by the shoulders and eased him back up so that they were face to face. "Sammy, we have to do it soon, but before we do I want to tell you something."

"What is it?"

Josh swallowed convulsively. "God, Sam. I am so sorry about Hoynes."

"Don't bring him into our bed. He has no place here. I forgave you weeks ago. If anyone apologizes here, it should be me for getting involved with Laurie. Without my connection to her, Peterson -- or Tiner or whatever the hell his name is -- would never have shot you."

"Maybe we should kick them all out of our bed?"

"Good idea. I love you. You love me. What else is there?"

A lump suddenly filled Josh's throat. Sam was right. It was that simple.

"How'd you get to be so smart?"

"You must be rubbing off on me."

"Or I could rub against you," Josh said lightly and shoved his groin against Sam to prove his point, their coarse, curling hair mingling.

Sam laughed and pushed back. "Just hurry up."

Josh fumbled for the Vaseline and scooped some out of the jar. He reached between Sam's parted legs and slowly pushed one finger inside his body. The muscles clutched at his finger.

"Relax, Sammy." Josh used his other hand to rub circles on Sam's belly. "Easy. I won't hurt you."

Sam exhaled and Josh's finger slid further in. He pulled it out, and then inserted two fingers.

"Is that okay?" He wriggled the digits. Sam groaned, thrashing his head on the pillow. Josh pushed in just a bit further. He must have brushed that magic spot because Sam arched upwards.

Josh removed his fingers and took Sam into his arms, covering his face with kisses. Sam blinked rapidly. When he could focus again, he clamped his hands behind Josh's head and said, "Please, Josh? Now?"

Rolling with him, Josh ended up on his back with Sam spread out on top of him. Josh urged him to sit up.

"It'll be easier on you this way," he told him.

While Sam threw a leg over Josh's and straddled him, Josh quickly slathered more Vaseline on his erection and then met Sam's gaze.

"Ready?"

Sam nodded drawing a shaky breath, but then he mustered up a smile, so Josh put his hands on Sam's hips. As Josh held him he raised up to position himself, reaching between his legs for Josh's penis. Then he sank down impaling himself on the rock hard shaft. Sam's eyes widened and his breath caught as the thick column invaded his body. With Josh's help he sank down slowly until he was utterly filled.

They moaned simultaneously. The unbelievable sensation of being surrounded by Sam's tight, hot channel was nearly too much for Josh.

"Sam!" he gasped.

Rising up, Sam let Josh's cock slide nearly all the way out and then plunged back down on it. His breath was forced out in ragged pants. Josh arched upwards meeting Sam on his downward thrusts. Sam groped for one of Josh's hands and used his free one to wrap around his own cock. As he pumped it, Josh placed his hand over Sam's and they drove together.

"Soon," Josh grunted.

Sam had a look of fierce concentration on his face. He caught Josh staring at him, and suddenly bestowed a blinding smile on him.

Sam squeezed his inner muscles tightening them around Josh, and suddenly Josh shot everything he had inside him. Sam threw his head back and yelled. Then he spurted hot semen all over Josh's belly and chest. Sam fell forward landing in a heap in Josh's welcoming embrace. He lay trembling, while sticky essence fused their bodies together. Josh held and rocked him.

"Shh. I love you. It's okay. I love you."

Lifting his head, Sam said, "I'm fine, you big dope. I love you too." His blue eyes grew sleepy and he put his head back down on Josh's shoulder. "Going to sleep now."

Josh tightened his hold on Sam. His own eyes blurred by tears not yet fallen, he fell asleep whispering, "I'll love you forever, Sam."

On the Frontier: Epilogue

Disclaimers and notes in part 0

Rating: PG13

1920

Sam leaned against the tree with one knee bent and his foot braced against the trunk. His head was back as he puffed on the cigar. Josh watched him for a few minutes, enjoying the view of his lover enjoying a good smoke. Neither of them drank much. One vice between them couldn't hurt unless they counted each other as vices. Finally Josh walked over and gently plucked the cigar from Sam's lips. Holding it aside, he leaned in and kissed Sam who tasted of burgundy flavoured smoke.

"Hey."

"Hey," Sam returned, his smile crinkling the corners of his eyes. Josh gazed at him, as captivated as he had ever been. Sam had aged well. If anything he was more beautiful at forty-three than he had been at seventeen. His face bore the strength of character and maturity now. It only complemented his looks.

Josh was doubtful about his own appearance, although Sam told him he found his deepening dimples to be sexy. There was also some nonsense about how his high forehead meant he possessed great intelligence. Josh snorted inwardly. To him it meant his hairline was receding. If Sam loved him in spite of perceived flaws -- "imaginary flaws" Sam called them -- then Josh wasn't going to do anything to discourage him.

Josh gave Sam back his cigar and leaned next to him against the tree.

They were both lost in thought. Josh was fairly certain he knew what Sam was thinking, but was more preoccupied with his own musings. This certainly wasn't Broken River where they'd opened their law practice years ago. They'd come a long way since then, each finding his strengths and weaknesses and concluding that they were, as always, at their best together. The road had been long, winding and rocky. Both had stumbled once or twice, but had agreed to put those times behind them and never to speak of them. They had overcome the obstacles thrown in their way, and if Josh had anything to say about it, they would always be together.

"Don't I have a say in it?"

"What?" Startled, Josh turned to look at Sam.

"You were talking to yourself again, love," Sam teased.

Josh sniffed. "I prefer to call it thinking aloud."

"Yes, love."

"So, uh, what is your say?" Josh asked. Sam made a face at the awkward phrasing and Josh caught it. "Literary snob," he told him.

Smiling indulgently, Sam replied, "My say is that I agree with you a thousand percent. We will always be together."

His throat closed up, and Josh struggled to speak. Sometimes he was such an emotional fool, but only around his family and Sam. Especially Sam.

"It's all right, Josh," Sam told him, seeing his dilemma. "I know. Me too."

"When we were young..."

"We're not old now," Sam protested.

Smiling, Josh started again. "When we were younger, did you ever think that we'd turn out like this? That this would be how our lives would end up?"

Sam wound an arm around Josh's back and held him close for a moment before letting go. He made no effort to move away. They stood with their shoulders and arms touching. "We are nowhere near the end of our journey, love. To answer your question, I thought things would be different. I believe you know that."

"Yeah. I do. It still surprises me sometimes."

"Regrets?" Sam asked softly.

"No," Josh said firmly. "Never that. It feels right, where we are now in our lives. This is who we are and where we are supposed to be."

"Agreed. You're awfully good at what you do, Josh. If you ever have any doubts, just ask me, and I'll remind you of that."

"Ah-kay, but only if you promise to do the same."

"Deal."

"Deal." They shook on it, and Josh was reminded of the time they had done that long ago. Just as before they laughed at the solemnity of the moment.

"I couldn't do it without you, Josh," Sam told him.

"Works both ways, my love." Josh smoothed the lapels of Sam's overcoat, running his gloved hands across the broad shoulders simply because he needed to touch Sam. "We should go inside. Ready?"

"It's not my day, Josh," his lover reminded him.

"I know, but I like to fuss over you."

"As if I hadn't noticed that little personality quirk before."

No one could see them where they stood without their knowing it, so Josh stole another kiss. Living together in secret under the public's eye was a feat worthy of masters of subterfuge. If Josh said so himself, he and Sam were extremely good at it. If they were found out, so be it. They were together, would stay together, and that was all that mattered.

"Let's go inside," he suggested.

When they walked into the White House, family and friends greeted them. Toby and Andrea and their daughter, CJ and her husband, Leo and his wife Margaret and their three children, Mallory and her fiancé, and Jed and Abbey called to them. Josh's grin was at least a mile wide as he watched Sam walk toward his father.

Josh was now Sam's Chief of Staff, the way Leo had been for Jed. After sitting in the House of Representatives for two terms, Josh had realized that he could accomplish more good behind the scenes than he ever could on his own personal quest for power. This felt right.

"How do you do, Governor Bartlet?" Jed asked with a twinkle in his eye.

"President Bartlet." Sam embraced his father. His voice hoarse with emotion, he said, "Congratulations, Pa."

After hugging his father and mother, Sam stepped back to let the others continue their conversations with and around the newly inaugurated President of the United States. While everyone was laughing and talking at once, Sam stood next to Josh.

"He'll make a great President," Sam said proudly.

"One of the best," Josh agreed. "Who knows? Maybe someday you'll follow him here."

Sam looked at him, his blue eyes searching Josh's face. "Maybe. Let's cross that bridge when we come to it. Whatever I do, whatever we do, it will only happen if you swear we'll be together."

"Every step of the way," Josh promised.

# end

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