In his arms, Alice, he hated that name, cracked his eyes open every carefully. The tall doctor wasn’t looking at him and didn’t notice so he stared up at the strong, jaw and grimly set mouth as he was carried as easily as a child’s doll out into the rain. He’d hidden the fact that he was awake because a man could be judged by how he acted when he wasn’t being watched, that and he’d long since learned the value of the element of surprise.
He’d woken up at the cool touch to his bruised nipples and been surprised to find himself being washed. When nothing bad happened, he’d stayed limp and still, and pretended to be asleep. A survival skill he’d master easily, and the doctor hadn’t noticed. But those hands were gentle and it had surprised him when they’d examined all of him, cupping between his legs in a touch so careful, so non-violating, that he’d believed the man about not being a threat.
That was a belief he didn’t hand out easily and as attractive as he found the stranger, he’d known his place. Just because the man had made no move on him in the barn earlier when they’d been alone didn’t mean he really wasn’t a risk. Just because he’d refused, twice, to take a turn using him didn’t mean he wasn’t a risk. Just because he’d left more food on his plate than had been offered to him in days didn’t mean he was so feral of a stray dog that food would make him forget the danger.
Than Billy had been shot dead. A sight he’d treasure for the rest of his life, he was certain, which at the time he expected to be very short. He’d been cowering, not because he was afraid to die or afraid of being hurt, but because the sight of him curled up in fear did things to men and it gave him an advantage. But the tall doctor had just stood there, not threatening, not approaching, just stood and watched with cold, angry eyes and something stirred in him that hadn’t for a long time. He wanted. Frightened, in pain, having just been used, again, he wanted the doctor to take a turn.
But the strange man had only sworn and pulled a knife and that was bad. He didn’t present himself to a man only to have said man draw a knife without it being really bad. There were plenty of people in the world that would happily kill a little whore like him for suggesting they use him and he’d thought that was what had walked into his life. The man only seemed to get angry when he begged, which really scared him because begging always worked, and than the knife had flashed but the only thing cut was the ropes. That was too much and he’d fainted, cold away.
And come to with a deliciously tender touch to his abused nipples. The deep self mocking voice amused him and the gentle brushing aside of a tickling curl on his forehead reinforced a sense of safety. He relaxed and enjoyed the gentle touch and had been surprised with the care given him. The welts still stung, even now, three days old since the last had been striped by Abe, and they hurt to be touched. The rumbling voice was soothing and so was the touch of those strong, calloused hands. Those hands spreading him open had sent a shiver of fear easily quieted by soft words. The finger that probed him so clinically didn’t hurt and felt pleasant.
That was it. The doctor took his hands away and rolled him over into blanket that was warmer than anything he’d been wrapped in for a while. Even the sight of his slight arousal had changed anything. But he could feel the man’s eyes on his skin, burning, hungry, and he heard the deep, rushing breaths that over came the controlled man at the sight. It had been sheer torture to stay limp and pretending to unawareness, laying, helpless and vulnerable waiting for the man to make a move. Only, he hadn’t, the only move made was to wrap the blanket around him and lay him down.
He wasn’t fooled, when the doctor returned a short time later to wash and pick out some of the knots in his hair, the hand that brushed across his face smelled of clean, strong male and recent release. The burning gaze he’d felt was from desire but this stranger hadn’t taken his desire out on him. It warmed him, made him fight off a smile and for the first time he felt tight muscles across his shoulders starting to relax as strong hands ran in his hair.
When the lamps had been blown out, there had been a moment of panic at being left alone in the dark cabin with the corpses. A moment quickly eased by being scooped up. So he found himself, held tightly against a broad chest, safe. The rain a cold splatter on the side of his face that ended as they crossed the threshold of the barn. He was set down with care near the fire and at the sounds of dragging he risked cracking open his eyes ever so slightly.
The sight of Abe being dragged from the barn by his heels, a bullet in his head, to be deposited in the rain made him feel nothing. He was curious about this stranger, a man who was a healer, who had washed and bandaged the wounds on his ankles so carefully and tended him with gentle touches, had shot down three men, dumping the one body into the rain, as coldly as ice. It almost seemed like two different men.
The doctor’s return to where his own bedroll was tossed forced him to shut his own eyes. He listened as the man settled in with a groan and the sound of leather and wool rustling as he shifted into a comfortable position. Than, he waited, listening as he lay in the fireplaces dim light until the other man’s breathing leveled out, than deepened to soft snores. Only than did the boy risk turning onto his side to take the pressure from his sore back and allow him to view the sleeping doctor. His last sight as sleep took him was the doctor’s strong handsome face, stubbled and rough, relaxed in sleep.
The smell of coffee woke Tom up. For a moment he slipped into another time and place, where waking up to that smell had been normal but the cold reality of time’s passage and the events of the last night, were quick to return. The smell was odd enough to shake the cover off his head and force him to face the day and the emotional wreck of the child he’d unwittingly saved.
There was little Tom hated more than weeping, hysterical women or children. He wasn’t sure which category he was putting the boy in mentally, but he knew this was going to be a trying day. He’d seen and treated enough women, and a few children, that had been so horribly abused and to the one they were rightfully moody and cried constantly, with no hope of reason reaching them.
He stretched and yawned, scratched at his face and shook off sleep. It wasn’t surprising that the boy was missing, and so was the blanket he’d been wrapped up in, the coffee smell had to be coming from somewhere and someone had to have made it. What was surprising was the light layer of hay that had been tossed down over the blood stain shooting Abe had made. He pushed himself to his feet and went to piss in the corner of the barn. There was no point in waiting until he found the outhouse, he wasn’t staying long enough to worry about it.
Outside, the sun was shining painfully bright, the sky above the trees was sharply blue in a way that only a hard spring rain the night before could bring. Everything smelled washed clean and fresh and in the center of it, half way between house and barn, a fire burned brightly and a beautiful blonde tended it.
The child glanced up and smiled. “Morning.” He bounced to his feet from where he was tending a pot and brushed his hands off on his skirt.
The boy was still in a skirt. This one was in better shape and cleaner but still old and a faded dark red. The blouse that hung on his thin frame was clean, nicer but like the skirt had obviously seen better days, the small white strips cut into the blue and the sleeves were rolled up to his elbows. The boy had bathed, really bathed, his skin glowed, pale from being hungry for so long but really glowed with being clean and just from having beautiful skin. His hair had been thoroughly washed and combed out, the springy blond curls had been braided back but rebellious strands had worked free.
The sight was a far different one than he’d expected to be greeted with. The child stood, expectantly, and Tom glanced around the yard. Two more skirts and blouses, a pair of bloomers and a bonnet all hung drying in the morning breeze, tossed over a near by tree limbs. The blanket he’d left the boy wrapped in was spread out near the fire, a plate, tin cup and spoon sat on it waiting for use. Over near the pigs three bodies lined up and how the boy had managed that Tom didn’t know.
The smile faltered. “I let you sleep but breakfast is ready.” The voice was no longer a soft, shy whisper but even at a normal volume, still sounded more female than male. “I didn’t have time to scrub up the blood inside so I thought you could eat here, like a picnic.” He waved to the blanket, the smile gone to a look of uncertainty.
Tom closed his eyes and rubbed the bridge of his nose. He didn’t remember being smacked on the head any time recently so it wasn’t from some injury, which meant it was real. He opened his eyes and nothing had changed. “You’ve eaten?”
The boy shook his head. “Not yet, sir.” Crouching down to scoop out a heaping plate of cooked oats with dried apples.
The one plate mocked him. “Well, go fetch another plate and cup and eat.”
“Yes, sir!” The child took off running, full speed, back into the house. His bare feet slapped on the wood steps and almost as soon as he’d disappeared inside he returned, plate, spoon and cup clutched close to him.
Tom lowered himself to the blanket and poured coffee into the cup but he left both untouched until the boy had hurried back to join them. “Sit down.” He nearly snapped, not awake and still off guard.
The boy instantly sat, on the ground.
“I’m not going to hurt you, sit on the blanket, the grounds still damp.”
The boy nodded and obeyed.
Tom shoved the already filled plate and mug at the boy while pulling the empty pair from his nerveless fingers. “Eat.” He ordered and scooped out his own plate and poured more coffee.
Wide eyes stared at the massive portion of food. “Thank you.”
“Just, eat slowly, if you get sick it won’t do you any good.” “Yes, sir.”
Tom spooned up a mouthful of the hot, sweet smelling oats and found them quite well made. “This is good, thanks.” He muttered out and sipped at the dark brew, slowly waking up.
The boy smiled into his plate. “I can cook, I just didn’t let them know how well. The coffee is from their stores, they had some but it’s mostly chicory.”
Tom shrugged. “I like it that way. What’s your name boy?”
“Alice.” He forced out. “But you can call me whatever you want.”
“No, your real name.”
That made the boy look up, it had been a long time since anyone had asked that. “My mother named me Alex.”
“You’ve a last name?”
“Horne, Alex Horne, you can laugh, it’s a stupid name.”
Tom just shrugged. “Do you know my name?”
“Doctor Thomas Lambry.”
“Good, call me Tom.”
Tom found himself at a loss of what to say to the child. “How old are you, Alex?”
“I don’t know, sir, I have a birthday in the spring but I don’t know what day it is now.”
He was really listening to hear the boy in the voice but all he could hear was a sultry, slightly smoky woman’s. “It’s April seventeenth.”
“I’m sixteen sir, I was born on the fifteenth of March, the day Caser was killed.”
He about choked on his coffee. “I’m supposed to believe you’re sixteen?” He’d been guessing, maybe fourteen, but had expected thirteen.
“I am, sir, but I’ll tell people whatever age you wish.” He smiled slightly and shrugged. “I don’t look it, I know, I’m small for my age.”
Small in height, slender in width, short of any serious signs of developing into a man, Tom shook his head. The memory of the boy naked in front of him returned. There had been a sign the boy’s voice had changed and there was no doubt that his sex could belong to a sixteen year old and while he’d found little body hair, his legs had a fair covering. Still, the boy was short, the top of his head barely reached Tom’s shoulder and he was so narrow.
“You could be sixteen.” Tom finally agreed. So he felt less of a bastard for lusting for a child, the child was almost a man. The child was older than some of the boys he’d cut on during the war. “You’re still dressed like a girl.”
Alex’s spoon lowered and he chewed the mouthful of oats before answering. “It’s all I have, I’ve always dressed as a girl. I don’t know how to dress as a boy and well, I like it this way.”
“This wasn’t something they did to you?” He’d been assuming it had been a way of humiliating the child.
“Not at all. My mother always raised me to be a girl, no one growing up knew I was a boy.”
That was a curious thought. He burned his tongue on his coffee. “Huh.”
The child only smiled, sweetly, at the odd look in the bright, grey eyes. “Look at me, I’d make a lousy boy. I tried for a while, one of the other men who kept me, he made me try. People kept thinking he was forcing a girl to dress as a boy. It made things more confusing and I was so miserable.”
“Well, that’s close to one of the oddest things I’ve ever heard.” That chased away the bright smile. “You’d best be taking that horse in there and what money you can find and head on back to your mother, where in Virginia?” “North Carolina, but I can’t. She’s dead. For a while now.” The boy glanced to his food. “I sort of thought, well, that you’d be taking me with you.”
Tom laughed, nearly inhaling his oatmeal. “Not likely, boy.”
“I just thought, with how you shot them.”
Tom put his finished plate down and stood, he was going to wash off proper in the creek before heading out, maybe even shave. “I didn’t shoot them for your sake, boy and I wouldn’t think you’d be so eager to sell yourself to someone new.”
The idea that the gentle doctor didn’t want to take him along had never occurred to Alex. “I’m no bother.” He said weakly, growing afraid. “I actually do like men, just not those three. You wouldn’t have to tie me down like they had.”
The words were like hands on Tom’s body and he hoped the creek was as cold as he thought it should be. He stopped half way in the barn and turned, pausing in his errand to fetch his own soap and a change of clothes. “You don’t know a thing about me boy, I could be as bad as they were.” He pointed to the line of bodies. “Or worse, I could be much, much worse. Take their horse, take their money and go home.”
“You aren’t worse, I know you aren’t. You’re a doctor, you took care of me.”
“I pitied you!” He snapped, knowing he was being hurtful, he pulled his things out of his bag roughly and stalked back into the sunshine. “I’m a doctor that killed three men without thinking twice about it. Trust me, boy, I fall into that much worse category.”
Alex watched the taller man stalk away, long strides carrying him toward the creek. He dropped his plate and scrambled to his feet. “I can cook, real good, and I clean well. I’ll wash and mend your clothes.”
“If I wanted a caretaker I’d have stayed with my mother or I’d marry some woman.” Tom shouted.
“I’ll help you with doctoring people, I can be a nurse. Just let me stay with you.” He hurried after the older man.
“I don’t need a nurse! Go home!”
“I can take care of your horse, you won’t have to do anything.”
“I can take care of my own God damned horse! Stay here if you won’t go home!” What did he have to do, kick the puppy to get it to leave him alone?
Alex had almost caught up to the other man and his feet stopped. “I can keep you warm at night, I can keep you so warm you won’t need a blanket.” His voice was pitched low, sexy and for the first time, he really was as hungry for the touch as he pretended.
Tom stopped in his tracks.
“What are you, cold?” Sam had laughed. “Silly, I’ll keep you so warm you won’t need that blanket.”
He turned around and stalked back the few paces to where the boy stood, looking so sexy, so beautiful that Tom’s body wanted to grab those skinny arms and show the child how he was affected. It was the voices from his past, that was all, it wasn’t the pretty blond.
“I don’t bed children.” He snarled. “Besides, the way those brothers were scratching, you probably have lice.” He turned and started back to the water.
Alex stayed in place, shocked. Suddenly he felt lost, so totally lost and overwhelmed. His knees collapsed and he fell in an untidy heap in the damp grass. “Please,” he whispered, not trying to be sexy, not trying to please but with every bit of the growing desperation he was feeling. “Please, I don’t know what to do.”
Tom stopped. The forced pleasantness, the cheerful willingness to be what ever he wanted, was gone from the boy’s voice. It sounded raw and brittle and it froze his feet in place.
“I’m scared. You’re the first person since my mama’s died that’s been nice to me without wanting anything. Please, just for a while, I won’t bother you, I won’t even speak if you’d like. I need to get to Memphis, let me travel with you as far as I can. I’m so tired, please.” His hands were so thin in his lap he didn’t even recognize them.
“Damn it.” Tom took stock of how much of a bastard he was and found it wasn’t quite enough of one. “Leave me alone to wash up and I’ll think about it.” He grudgingly admitted.
“Yes, sir.” Alex answered softly, and drew a long slow breath and forced himself back to his feet. There were things he should be doing while the doctor was bathing and he wasn’t going to just give up and sit in the grass all morning.