Know When to Hold 'em
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by Madeleine Urban, Dar Mavison, Catt Ford
Category: Gay Fiction/Romance
Cowboys, outlaws, and gamblers--all possess a touch of allure, a hint of danger, and a whisper of adventure. Follow your heart to the Wild West, where the weather can change your life, the mountains shelter you from harm, and horses lead you home. Ride over the African plains under the endless sky. And sail the rivers of the South playing games of chance and sipping a stiff drink. Know When to Hold 'em is about more than cardsharps and roundups--it's about how the gamble of a lifetime can change you for the better forever.
Stories included are:
Serengeti by Madeleine Urban
Poker Face by Dar Mavison
Rendezvous by Catt Ford
Fancy Pants by Connie Bailey
The River Flows South by John Simpson
Back in the Saddle by D. G. Parker
eBook Publisher: Dreamspinner Press/Dreamspinner Press, 2008 2008
eBookwise Release Date: June 2009
9 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [292 KB]
Reading time: 193-270 min.
Serengeti Madeline Urban * * * *
"Passion is the quickest to develop, and the quickest to fade. Intimacy develops more slowly, and commitment more gradually still."
~ Robert Sternberg
I remember real clear the day Chopper darkened our doorstep.
It was an average early summer day, as average as average can get. The sun was high and golden yellow warm, and the air was dry and dusty--but not too much so. Rainy season was coming in. The wind blew through the waving red oat grass, the copse of bushy Jackalberry trees that sheltered the camp, and the open layout lodge with long, wide windows and hand-hewn log walls. The wind acted like it lived here, just as much as myself. Which it did, and well we knew it. There is no containing Africa.
The hired fellas and native Dorobo kids, they were tending to their chores, cleaning up the stalls, checking the fences, reinforcing the trap boxes, inspecting the vehicles. Cowboy'd loaded up before dawn to drive into Arusha and check the job boards--summer season wasn't even a week off, and we were still a man down. He wanted an expert shot, I wanted a rough course driver. And Boss--Boss insisted on someone who would pull his weight, unlike the last two pansies. And I wasn't one to say anything to cross Boss.
Alookin' at Chopper's arms as he walked up the dirt road, I figured we might be lucking into something.
It's been about ten years now, I reckon, and while that luck had a good run, it came to a quiet and painful end. Now we're just sitting. Waiting on the house to collect. Watching as the Serengeti goes on around us, despite us. * * * *
"Hey, Captain, someone's acoming in!"
I looked up from the papers I had in hand and pushed back from the desk. One pistol went in the belt, but I left the rifle behind, on account of being neighborly. This close to the national park, we rarely had trouble approach camp. I walked out onto the porch, boots clomping, and stuck a thumb behind a suspender strap.
A dark-headed man with a medium-sized pack over one shoulder and a shooter over the other had just entered the wide iron gate and was walking past the wooden and wire-fenced animal pens. The hyenas made out a fuss, as usual, but the man paid them no mind. His head tilted up, eyes hidden by dark glasses, and as he made his way past the Dorobo kids we paid to tend the milk goats they chattered excitedly. I watched him the whole time, taking his measure. He was tall, very tall, taller even than Boss, who was the tallest man about. He was broad of shoulder and had muscles that couldn't be missed under a simple black tee, light bush trousers tucked into heavy boots and a beaten-up broad-brimmed hat to keep the sometimes unfriendly sun off. He looked like he knew his way around the dark continent.
"Jambo," I called out once I figured the man was within earshot.
The man raised a hand in greeting, keeping his other on the pack strap. He stopped several yards from the porch. "I'm looking for Bwana," he said. I raised a brow in mild surprise. The accent was clear Australian. No wonder he appeared comfortable with the rolling grassland dominated by sky.
"Boss is around here somewhere," I said, voice kindly. "Might I inquire as to your visiting?" I drawled. "Long stretch of the legs from Ngorongoro." About 10 miles, I'd figure.
"I'm here for the job," the man stated baldly, and my other brow joined the first.
"Is that the way of it? We have a man driving into Arusha today to check the boards. Might be he comes back with someone already," I said regretfully, watching the man curiously even as he shook his head.
"I'm better than whoever he can find," the stranger said confidently.
"Better at what, pray tell? I'm supposing you know what we do here," I said.
"You're legal trappers, working for zoos and species propagation programs, you're a contact with the local Dorobo, you're a wildlife recovery station and you're rangers at Serengeti National Park," the man answered knowledgeably.
I nodded slowly, the tilt of my chin and shift of my eyes showing I recognized the truth of the words even if I didn't know where they came from. "Well then. Done your homework. So you know what kind of man Boss is looking for."
"Overheard in a bar in town," the man said with a jerk of his head back Ngorongoro way.
The grin split my face. "Suppose you would," I agreed. We tended to spend a fair amount of time in that bar, supporting the local economy. "Care to have a sit down? Boss--that's Hamilton McLean--wanders about, he'll show."
"Thank you," the stranger said, approaching the two low wooden steps to the wraparound porch that was open to the air, no posts but a good awning.
"I'm Nathan Foster," I said, offering a hand.
"Ric Baxter," he said, taking my hand and shaking it firmly.
Now, it wasn't too much later when we were sitting on the porch benches, drinking lemonade that Kubwa--Boss's cook and long-suffering houseman--brought out from the kitchen, and Boss came wandering, just like I said he would. "Jambo, Boss," I said, raising a frosty glass.
The scruffy man in loose dusty trousers held up by suspenders approached the porch, pushing the hat back from his face as the sleeve of the even looser cotton shirt slid down his raised arm. His hair was worn clipped close, though he wore a couple days' worth of whiskers and mustache with it. He was long and rangy, whipcord lean and just as mean when you got on the wrong side of his temper. I try not to do that all too often. He stopped with one foot on the lower step. "Don't reckon we expected visitors today," he commented neutrally.
"You're not wrong," I confirmed, glancing to Baxter, who sat still, face mostly unreadable because of the dark sunglasses. "Man walked in from Ngorongoro about the job. I figured a little hospitality wouldn't go unappreciated."
I should have known then--should have seen it. I remember thinking that Boss seemed a mite unsettled, more tense than usual, but you never knew with his mercurial moods. So when he looked over Chopper and glowered, I thought it was just a warning to the stranger. Just his run-of-the-mill crankiness.
Boss frowned fiercely, though I couldn't suss what problem he'd have with any of that. He stood in that same place for a long moment and then he shifted, climbed up the two stairs and entered the house without another word. I blinked and turned my chin toward Chopper. "Welcome to Kambi Alfajiri."
I smiled and leaned back against the wooden wall of the house's exterior. "Dawn Camp."
Boss had likely come in to clean up for dinner--Kubwa kicked you out if you came to the table with dusty boots and dirty hands--and so we had time to finish the lemonade and show Baxter to a room. He dropped his gear without comment, though he seemed to like the view out onto the savanna behind the camp. There were giraffes nipping leaves off trees well within sight.
"You long in Africa?" I asked curiously.
"Not long," Baxter admitted. "Not too much a difference, though."
I didn't ask him what brought him to Tanzania, that would be passing rude. "Real work starts in three days, but there's plenty prep to keep us all busy. Breakfast is 7 a.m., lunch noon, and dinner 8 p.m., unless we're out in a travel camp. Kubwa lays a fine spread, we eat well."
He didn't ask about pay, which made me think he was familiar with this kind of setup. Room and board, pay on top considering the hard work and more than occasional danger, but it was a satisfying life, and the only one for me since I came to Africa. The dark continent, she'd gathered me in and wouldn't let go. I wondered if he felt that way about his home.
"Bath's at the end of the hall, we on this wing share it out, Boss and Kubwa are on the other side of the house. Most of us crash out midnight or so, accounting for the day's labor."
He nodded, still looking out over the tall grass that moved like waves in water. "I'll leave you to get settled. Kubwa rings the bell when it's time to hit the table. I'd take the time to clean up," I suggested before turning to leave.
I raised an eyebrow and looked back--it was unusual to hear my given name. "Most often answer to Captain, so if I miss first call, don't think it's me ignoring you. Go on."
Baxter tilted his head. "Thanks."
A ghost of a smile haunted my lips. "Thank Boss," I said. He slowly nodded, and I felt sure about him being a quiet man who would keep to himself.
Was I ever wrong. * * * *
It didn't even take two weeks.
We were out on a week's hunt, looking for wildebeest for a proper zoo that had contacted one Richard Brandenberg--turns out our Cowboy was better connected than we knew. We'd taken tents with us, and Kubwa for his cooking, so it wasn't like we were roughing it in the fairly well-set traveling camp. Cowboy and I were sitting next to the fire pit in our wooden folding chairs, smoking, drinking, generally having a good lay back, when we heard raised voices.
"There they go again," Cowboy muttered. "Chopper's gonna get hit." Baxter was christened Chopper in the first week by the Dorobos who'd been impressed by his biceps as they watched him chop wood. We'd all taken to the nickname.
"Getting to be commonplace," I answered casually. And it was. Chopper and Boss did not get along. Even the first night they'd snapped and sniped at each other over dinner as I watched in dismay, sure that the Australian would be sent packing.
If Boss fired him, Chopper sure didn't listen.
It seemed awful well like they argued over every little thing. Who would drive the jeep instead of the truck. What orders should be filled first. How to fix a barbwire fence. What kind of liquor was good for getting well smashed. Basically, any little detail either of them could think of to jaw over.
"I think they should just fuck it out of their systems," Cowboy said. I looked over at him in shocked disbelief. The firelight turned his shoulder-length, mussed hair a shiny gold, marking the laugh lines around his eyes and the corners of his mouth, and setting his grass-green eyes to glowing. I'd noticed these things several times over the past few years and managed to keep dismissing them. "What?" he asked. "You don't think so?"
I must have looked like some sort of hooked fish, because the older man sitting next to me laughed, his voice deep and warm. "Last time I saw that much sexual tension between two men--well--I don't think I have seen that much tension between two people before."
"You think they'd fuck before they'd kill each other?" I asked, the wheels in my head spinning, tractionless, caught up in thinking about new possibilities I had long dismissed as wishing for the moon in my pocket.
"Well, that's what I'd do," Cowboy said with a smug grin. He pushed himself to his feet and looked over in the direction of Boss's tent. "I think I might have the better tent of the two of us."
I frowned again, feeling like I was two steps behind this whole conversation. "Why?"
"Your tent is on the other side of Boss's. Mine is on the far side of Chopper's--which is sure to be nice and quiet. Sleep well," he poked before walking off into the trees, taking his dark-voiced chuckle with him.
Was I hearing an invitation? I was still too shook to think it out. So I stayed by the fire a while longer, a while after the yelling stopped, and a little while longer, thinking all the while. Finally I chanced going to my tent, sighing in relief when I saw the lanterns in Boss's tent were out. It was later that night when I woke up out of a sound sleep groping around for my pistol. Some sort of animal was huffing and growling and making some other odd noises just outside the tent. Was it the lion that had mauled one of the fellas on guard duty? That would account for the pained moans I was hearing.
Then I heard something clearly recognizable and sat straight up in shock. It was a low, tortured rasp: "Boss.... "followed by stronger grunting and choked gasps.
Jesus. I hoped Cowboy didn't get this wind of this. He'd be insufferable.
The moans and shifting and slapping of flesh continued for quite some time, more than enough time for me to react, get hard, and then do something about it, biting my lips as I listened to smothered moans and shaky sighs about ten feet away. Goddamn. I decided right then and there to bunk with Cowboy the rest of the week. But it was quiet the next night. And the next. So I didn't have to move, and I was unaccountably irritated over it.
I asked Cowboy about it a few weeks later, and though greatly amused, he admitted he hadn't noticed anything before or after, and he spent the most time with Boss of any of us. Just the sniping and the yelling, as usual. It didn't happen again, not that I took wind of.
For six months I watched and listened, sometimes skulking about, feeling all kinds of fool, but there wasn't anything to see. And then work season was over as October closed, and without so much as a goodbye, Chopper strode right back out of Dawn Camp, pack over one shoulder, gun over the other, pay in his pocket.
I watched him move down the dusty trail and just happened to look over at the small animal barn. Boss was standing in the doorway, watching Chopper walk away. * * * *
The next May, I was unloading kitchen supplies with Kubwa from the herding truck when the boys started hooting and hollering outside, so of course, I had to investigate. Cowboy came out of the house and met me at the gate. I had to smile. Here came Chopper up the dirt road, same sunglasses and hat, same boots and pack, rifle over his other shoulder. The big man was smiling as the Dorobo kids jumped and danced around him.
"Jambo," I said when he got to the gate.
"Jambo, Captain, Cowboy. Got a job for me this season?"
I grinned. "You know it. Your room's ready."
We'd exchanged a few pleasantries when another voice broke into the conversation. "So you came back."
I tilted my chin to see Boss standing at the corner of the emu corral, tucking gloves into his belt, his face its normal, inscrutable frown.
"Not too bad a place to work," Chopper said.
Boss nodded slowly. "Well, quit standing around." He stalked off toward the small barn, and Chopper walked into the house.
Cowboy just chuckled and headed back to his gun cabinet. I snorted and shook my head. The next morning I woke to a strangely familiar bickering and smiled. * * * *
The next few years followed the same pattern. Chopper would show up, ready to work. He and Boss would clash and bang--literally--and then the rest of the season would pass peacefully. Cowboy thought it was funny how I now considered hearing that daily verbal tussling peaceful. I was taken with the idea that Boss and Chopper liked arguing, and so they kept it up. It seemed as good an explanation as any.
One day, real early in the season, sitting in a baobab tree with a rifle while Cowboy set up a mongoose cage, it struck me.
"You know, I think Boss likes Chopper."
Cowboy laughed. "You just now figuring that out? Jesus, Captain. I thought you were supposed to have good eyes."
I frowned and nudged Cowboy's knee with the end of my boot. "You telling me you already knew?"
"I knew the second year when Chopper's tent sat empty that whole first week's trip," Cowboy said, finishing the lashing down the cage.
I sighed. I should have known, I supposed. Come to think of it, the normally buttoned up Boss did seem to bristle whenever Chopper walked up the lane, but after that first trip out on the savanna and a week of fucking he actually turned human. I'd taken to bunking with Cowboy on that particular trip, so much so that the boys didn't even set me up a tent anymore. They probably thought we were snaking each other, too. Damnit.
"So I guess we can tell the boys to forget about Chopper's tent next week?" I said.
"I'm supposing it wouldn't be unexpected, for that trip anyway. It's the only time they quit yelling and fuck instead. And tell them to put Boss's tent on the other side of the mess tent from us, or we won't get any sleep," Cowboy answered as we climbed down the tree.
"Doesn't that strike you as passing unusual? That they only get together that first trip out of Dawn Camp?"
Cowboy shrugged. "Get it out of their systems, like. Then it's just their shitty moods. Those two are like vinegar and water."
I agreed as we climbed down and walked back to where we'd wait for the rodents to come looking for their food. Cowboy had the right of it--when busy season came approaching, Boss got more and more tense. Then when Chopper showed up, he'd take his temper out on him until Chopper snapped, and they fucked like mad. The rest of the season they just bickered and huffed, snarling like wet lions, but their tempers weren't quite so sharp.
Cowboy and I sat side by side while eating lunch. It was comfortable. And it stuck with me that he'd said "we won't get any sleep."