Jasper comes driving up right on time. I'd moved all the boxes and bags onto the wide covered front porch. Everyone else was in Martha's room with the door locked, just in case. Martha insisted on having Jonathon's shot gun beside her. I grin, remembering the argument over that. That woman's a pistol. Now I know where Cynthia gets it.

He's alone. "Thank you for letting me come out. I'll get the truck loaded and gone as quickly as possible," he says politely. Apparently he's learned his lesson about messing with me. It's about damn time.

"I'll help. Camille labeled all the boxes so you can find everything reasonably quickly."

"Thank her for me, would you?"

I nod and reach for the first box. He struggles with some of the boxes and I almost feel just a tiny bit guilty. Almost. I'd deliberately packed some of the boxes very heavy so I could show off for Cynthia. We'd tackled his office and packing up his library of ranching books and Westerns. She was focused on getting the job done and I was feeling a little ignored. In a moment of adolescence, I started showing off how strong I was in hopes she'd notice and exclaim over my muscles. She didn't seem to even notice. I'd skimmed a few of his books as I'd packed. The margins of the westerns were filled with very sarcastic and funny comments on the bits that weren't accurate. Two I saw frequently that I'd always wondered too -- "He fired twenty shots from one six gun without reloading. Where can I get one of those?" and "Where'd he get the horse?" The ranching books were filled with notations of things to try and things he'd tried that hadn't worked and why. From what I could tell, they were intelligent decisions and he was an excellent rancher.

"Clint is a good foreman. He won't steer the women wrong," he says suddenly. "He's never liked me much. He knows more about ranching than anyone since the old man. You don't have to worry about the hands either -- they're a good bunch of men and any that aren't, he'll take care of right quick. He keeps the boys in line."

"Martha said Jonathon liked him."

"He was a good judge of character," he acknowledges with a wry smile.

"Sounds it."

"He'd have liked you, gay or no. Not that my opinion means much. Maybe I can start over and try to be a better man than I ever have been."

I don't reply. He's leaving so there's no point in further antagonism. Plus I've already gotten my revenge and I can afford to be nice. Soon, we have all his things loaded.

"I haven't seen any box marked 'computer'. May I at least copy my files?"

"Oh! Yeah, sorry, I forgot. In the box named 'CDs' is a set of CDs I backed up your files onto. I'm afraid for evidentiary reasons you can't have the computer, but I wrote you a check so you can buy a new one just as good. I think that's more than fair."

He looks at the check. "That's more than I paid for that one."

"I know. Camille kept a few books and things that had been bought for both of you. That should cover all the those items as well."

He's quiet for a long minute, then he tears the check in half. "She's always been too good to me. What I've stolen; what I've done to her far outweighs any thing she might have kept. I'm already burning in Hell for all eternity; I don't need to make the flames any hotter. Goodbye and I wish you and Cynthia all the best." He gets in his truck and drives away.

I watch him go. Who the hell was that man? And what will he think when he realizes he doesn't get a damn dime?

"He's gone. No trouble whatsoever." I report quickly.

"Thank god. I was afraid…" Cynthia trails off, rushing into my arms and burying her face in my shoulder.

"He didn't even try to make trouble. It just took awhile to load his truck. As a matter of fact, he begged me to take the computer money and use it take the kids to the city and show them a good time since he won't be able to be around for Christmas this year," I invent. The strange man that tore up the check *might* have wanted something like that. The kids look so upset I had to do something to cheer them up. I know all to well what it's like to know your father doesn't want anything to do with you. I don't think you can get much more uncaring than a bullet in the head. Dealing with them over Thanksgiving so directly will be terrifying, but I'll worry about that later.

"You mean we get to stay with you and Aunt Cynthia?" Jasper, Jr. asks excitedly, though I suspect he doubts it was his dad's idea. At fourteen, he's old enough to know what's going on. He's done a good job of looking after his sisters and the other women for me.

"Everyone is, if your mother and grandmother can travel by then. If not, it'll have to wait for some other time, but I'll take you kids somewhere to do something special. Just us and maybe Aunt Cynthia. How's that?"

"That'd be cool too. Christmas would be better anyway 'cause we have longer off school."


"Syd? Sydney! Shit, call Doc Turner!"

"No doctors, I'm all right. I didn't eat today. Sometimes a lot of manual labor and stress on an empty stomach will make me pass out. I'll be fine after a sandwich or two." Who knew the thought of two weeks with three children was more stressful than -- well, never mind. It rarely happens and we'll leave it at that.

"Oh, thank god. Don't scare me like that again!" Cynthia's crying again and looking more scared than I've ever seen her before and ever want to see again.

"I'm sorry, baby. I know better than to skip a meal. I'm sorry I didn't take the time this morning." I'd rather make out with my girl than eat any day. Well, actual food. I try to sit up, but she won't let me.

"I don't think you should get up so soon."

"I'm fine, really. I'll go make a sandwich or something, okay?"

"Stay here and I'll fix you some soup and a sandwich," she says with her stern 'don't even think about disobeying' frown.

"For Christ's sake, you don't want to poison the poor woman, Sis. I'll get it," Camille teases.

"I can manage something that simple," Cynthia protests.

"I'm sure whatever you bring me will be delicious," I say loyally, mental fingers crossed. She's fed herself for years without killing herself, right? It can't be that bad.

Fifteen long minutes later, I discover that, yes, some people *are* talented enough to fuck up soup and a sandwich. Well, not really fucked up… her choices are just…innovative. She brings me a cup of barely tepid chicken boullion -- she'd gotten it too hot, so cooled it off with cold water, so it was basically pale yellow water -- and a bologna sandwich with the rings still on. She'd apparently assumed it was part of the meat. I don't really care for either in the first place, but she looks so proud of herself, I don't have the heart to say anything. How I manage to eat everything without gagging, I'll never know. Telling her it's delicious is the only lie I've ever told her, I think. Her proud smile is worth every minute of the stomachache I now have.

"Are you sure you don't need a doctor?" Cynthia asks for the hundredth time.

"I'm fine, honey. You've been taking such good care of me, how could I not be?" I answer patiently, knowing I'd be just as bad or worse if our roles were reversed. Most likely, worse.

"You've never been sick the whole time I've known you. You're super healthy. I can't help being worried."

"I know, honey. I really don't get sick much and I almost never pass out. I take care of myself. I don't know what made today different, but I really am fine now. I swear."

"We're still taking it easy for a couple of days before we go home."

"Okay, baby, quiet conversation with your family it is. I would like to go for a horse back ride before we go, though. If I'm good for the rest of the day and tomorrow, can we go for a ride the day after?"

"I forgot I promised. Okay… if you take it easy the rest of the day and in the morning, we can take a slow ride after lunch tomorrow. Maybe we can take J.D. and Jas with us and go fishing. That wouldn't be too strenuous and I know they'd like to spend more time with you. They adore their Aunt Syd," she teases.

"You don't mind me inviting the kids to come visit to us?"

"No… I think it's a good idea. I think we should keep them a couple days when Camille has the baby. Give her a little rest."

I start to feel a little faint. "Um, baby… You won't leave me alone with them, will you?"

"You're scared of them." Her face clears.

"Yeah," I confess sheepishly.

"That's why you fainted," she laughs.

"Yeah." Even more sheepishly.

"I guess that means you don't want kids someday."

"I can't have children," I tell her sadly.

"Physically you mean?"


"I can't imagine you pregnant anyway," she says, mercifully not asking me why.

"Do you want children?"

"I'm not sure. I can't with my job; I don't have time for kids, let alone giving birth myself. I never had a stable partner before. Maybe in a couple years. Is it something you think you'd want with plenty of time to think about it?"

"It scares the hell out of me, but I think that's normal. If it's something you want, I could get used to a little Cynthia clone."

"It's yet another thing to think about some more and revisit periodically. It's too bad you don't have any relatives -- I'd love to have a baby with your genes."

"Well, in a couple years, they could have human cloning down and you could have another Syd of your very own," I joke. I wish I did have a brother -- 25% of my genes mixed with Cynthia's would be great.

"Oh, god. One of you is enough," she teases.

"I can't believe you'd even think about having a kid with my DNA anyway. My dad…"

"Doesn't matter. I love you. I'd love to carry a piece of you inside me for nine months."

I shake my head in disbelief. "I guess I'd better get used to kids in the next couple years."

I just realized I haven't really talked about the kids. I haven't really been around them much -- they've mostly been kept upstairs in the old nursery during our visit -- far away from any potential threat and any discussions about their father. There's three of them -- Jasper, Jr. or J.D., the result of the rape that forced Camille to marry Jasper in the first place, Jasmine or Jas, 13, and Davina or Davie, 10. I've kinda avoided them for obvious reasons. Davie takes after Camille -- sweet, but spineless. Jas reminds me of myself at that age, only happier. She's moody and introspective, but only in that early puberty queer way. I just hope she chooses someone else for the sensitive chat. Can you imagine me trying to give the 'it's okay to be gay, but don't worry about it 'til you're a little older' speech? That's like asking Charles Manson to give a lecture on why thou shalt not kill. J.D. is pretty cool for a teenage boy. He actually knows what deodorant is and his room doesn't look like a graveyard for fallen crockery and clothing. I can see a lot of Cynthia in him.

After a lot of testing of my sanity, Cynthia allows me to play with the horses. Clint brings them to a semi-isolated corral where few people will see my humiliation if I should suck as bad as I fear I will. I really like this guy. He's probably old enough to be *my* dad, but he's in better shape than I am. He brushes aside Cynthia's complicated instructions and makes it short and sweet. "Put your left foot in the stirrup and lift yourself up. Throw your right leg over the horse and try not to kick her. They don't like that much. Hold the reins in one hand, loosely. Don't pull them hard; horses don't like that much either. Don't fall off. Pretty simple."

Ha! I can't even get on the damn thing. Angel, hell, more like a Devil. She keeps moving as I'm trying to lift myself up. I've *seen* people dragged by horses -- so I like Westerns, sue me -- and I'm not about to let that happen to me. I'll never get past second base if I have broken bones. If anyone ever tells you I screamed like a girl, don't believe them. They're lying bastards. I might have let loose with a war cry, but I did not scream. It takes Cynthia whispering an indecent proposal in my ear to get me up there. I'm not sure if that's physically possible on a horse, but I'm damn sure gonna learn to ride well enough to find out. I'm sure we'll have a hell of a good time trying, if nothing else.

I find out immediately that my idea of a gentle nudge and Angel's idea of a gentle nudge do not coincide. She takes off as if Satan himself goosed her with his pitchfork. I remain stationary. Until I hit the ground with much more force than is entirely necessary. Cynthia is nearly biting her lip through trying not to laugh, I note unhappily. Clint isn't even trying to stifle his roars of laughter. I scowl and glare darkly at the world at large. I'm pissed at everyone at the moment. I don't handle humiliation well. I try to restraint my urge to beat someone up. Knowing my luck, the horse would kick my ass. Most likely literally. At least only Clint, Cynthia, and the horses saw. Horses can't talk, Cynthia won't, and I never have to see Clint again. Hopefully he won't tell anyone. I want the kids to continue to think I'm cool.

Try two takes about two seconds longer to fail and this time I hear childish giggling. Jas and JD are standing by Clint and all three are laughing at me heartily. Cynthia is still being kind and merely grinning. I reassure myself it's merely the novelty. She's never seen me do anything poorly before. I have mad skills in a variety of different areas, some of them even safe to talk about with a nun.

I scowl determinedly and attempt to capture the laughing equine Satan.

Ten attempts later, Clint and the kids are holding onto fence posts for support, but Cynthia is looking pissed. "Okay, that's enough. You three are enjoying this too much. What's the joke?"

"Other than I can't ride a horse?" I say, trying not to look as bruised as I feel.

"It has to be a joke, or Clint wouldn't be laughing that hard. He's a really patient teacher; that's why I asked him to help. Who told you to take my fiancee down a few pegs? I thought we only did that to jackass greenhorns."

"Angel is a retired circus horse; belongs to a buddy. Don't know much more of a jackass you want, city lawyer trying to make you and the family sell the ranch."

"Syd isn't trying to make anyone sell anything. She's my fiancee and she's here for moral support and to make sure my family doesn't continue to fuck me over," Cynthia says hotly. "Who told you that?"

"Some of the boys were talking about it in the bunkhouse. I just got in from three days of riding fence. Word is she came in to take advantage of your grandma's passing to get the deed for the ranch and she was going to sell it to some folks back East to make a mess of fancy Eastern houses for rich folks back East. Beat up Mr. Houston and threw him out when he tried to stop her; only giving the women folks and the young'uns a week to clear out."

She takes him aside, away from the children. "Not a word of that is true. Like I said, she came with me to offer moral support and to make sure Mother and Jasper wouldn't keep me from seeing Grandma. She didn't beat up Jasper, though she should have. Did you know he's been beating Camille ever since he raped her so she had to marry him so he could get his hands on the ranch -- and he's been stealing my rightful share of the ranch's profits ever since Grandpa died? She did throw him out when he hit Camille in front of Mother, Grandma, and us and she helped convince Camille to divorce him so he couldn't keep harming her and the kids," she explains in a low voice.

He looks furious. "I suspected he spoke harshly to her, but I had no idea he was raising his hand to her, or me and the boys would've horsewhipped him years ago. You've never seen a dime from the ranch since Jonathan died? You've had to support yourself all these years?"

"Yep. I've always thought Mother kept my share to punish me, so I never bothered to enquire. I was lucky enough to find a decent job and now I do pretty well."

I feel much better. I don't suck at riding. I don't have to kill Clint now; he was just protecting my beloved in his own way. I'm not so sure that having a bunch of men gunning for me is a good thing, though. Some kids weren't getting presents from Aunt Syd this Christmas either. Well, I'll get them presents but they'll have to wait until *after* breakfast to open them. No, wait, Cynthia would never let me open presents before the kids. Damn. She'll probably make me wait until *after* they open theirs. For that matter, what the hell do kids like these days? How many presents can you get them without looking like you're trying to buy them or spoiling them? I haven't had a reason to celebrate since I was a kid myself. Now that I have Cynthia, and a family by proxy, I'm all excited to dive into all these family holidays again. I'm gonna have to ask Martha for advice. She'll know what to do.

"Syd? Syd! Are you all right?" Cynthia asks, frowning in concern.

"Yeah, just thinking, sorry," I say a bit sheepishly.

"Clint is going to investigate what the hell gave the men such stupid ideas tonight while the kids are mucking out the stables. Meanwhile, we're switching horses if you're up to giving riding another try."

Riding again is the last thing I want to do, but pride dictates I have to. So I get up on the damn horse. This one is smaller and doesn't try to dump me on my head. Soon I'm walking around the corral, hopefully looking very cool and sexy and not scared out of my mind. I'm still rather wary, waiting for this one to pull some dirty trick on me. Kinda ruins the fun. My ego deflates a bit when Cynthia mounts Angel and rides her beside me with no problems whatsoever. I guess riding a horse must be like riding a bike, only without wheels or handlebars. For that matter, I can't ride a bicycle either. Don't ask me how I can ride a motorcycle so well and can't ride a bicycle. I've never figured that out either. She looks so damn sexy and outdoorsy. Who would've ever guessed my high society executive was such an outdoors person? Or a bar brawler, either. I grin to myself. Life with Cynthia has yet to be boring. A rancher's daughter is the next to last past I ever expected her to have. The last would be one like mine.

"Whoa! Is she supposed to be doing that?" I ask Cynthia wide eyed. The nameless horse is trotting. I don't think I asked her to do that.

"No, pull back the reins just a bit, gently," Cynthia says calmly.

I do and the horse slows. Hey, this isn't so bad after all. This one has brakes.

It doesn't take me long to work out the basics of horse riding on a different horse. Within an hour, Cynthia pronounces me steady enough to go on a trail ride. She sends the children off to get fishing gear and their little sister. She invites Clint to come along, but he elects to hang around working near the house to keep an eye on the 'womenfolks' with a couple trusted men. I completely forgive him for embarrassing me in front of my woman and the children for that. Cynthia and I go back to the house to gather up the picnic food.

I look at Cynthia in shock. She's just caught a fish with her bare hands. She just waded out into the river, cocked her head, reached down, and pulled out a big fish. Damn. I thought I had some skills, but I can't do that. She hands the fish to Jas to put on the stringer. "How do you do that?" I ask.

She explains it, but it's a bit too complicated for me. Some day. I don't have much luck with a rod either. It's my first time fishing; I'm sure I'll do better next time. It's fun anyway. Davie doesn't want to fish; she sits on a rock with a sketch pad and a pencil. J.D. is out in the middle of the river upstream from Cynthia and me in hip waders throwing his line around in odd ways with little feather thingies on the hook instead of worms. Jas and I are sitting on the bank a ways downstream from Cynthia where I can keep an eye on everyone while Jas is attempting to teach me how to fish. I smile, remembering how pleased she looked when I asked her to help me. She seems like the easiest to get to know. She reminds me so much of myself at that age; at least who I could've been.

"Can I ask you a question, Aunt Syd?"

"Sure." I'm pretty sure what question she's gonna ask.

"How old were you when you realized you liked girls instead of boys?"

Yep, that's the one. I give it a bit of thought. How much truth should I tell her? "That's a pretty complicated question. I guess I always did, but for a very long time…" I pause, trying to figure out how to explain. "Well, it just didn't matter. My parents died when I was younger than you are now and well…" I shrug. I don't want to tell her too much, but I don't want to lie to her either. Don't kids know when you're lying?

"Did you have to drop out of school?"

"I never really went to school until college. My mom homeschooled me, then I taught myself from books from the library. I've read books about going to school and I'm kinda glad I missed out. It doesn't sound like fun."

"It can be sometimes, but not most of the time. I get called names a lot and all my mom says is I should ignore them." She rolls her eyes.

"I don't know, if it's just names, maybe you should. You should ask your aunt Cynthia; maybe she'd have better advice that wouldn't get you in trouble at school or with your mom." Hell if I know what to do with schoolyard bullies. On street, the rules are much different. "I'm pretty sure anything I suggested wouldn't be any more helpful or would get you in trouble."

"I can't ask her; some of it's because of her. You know, she's a dyke, so I'm probably a dyke too. Wild rumors of what she must've done to get kicked out. Stuff like that."

"People will always fear those who are different and people will always envy those who are richer or better at something than they are. People will always put down other people to make themselves feel better. You've got those all covered. Your aunt was different and you're different. Between your mom's family and your dad's, they own most of what, two or three counties? A lot of people are pretty dependent on one family or the other for their own survival and I bet there's a lot of very old feuds over who cheated who in land deals that one of your families or the other came out on top of. It doesn't make it right; that's just how life is and frankly, it won't be any different when you're older. Most people will just grumble behind your back or where you can 'accidentally' overhear. I get a lot of crap myself because I do pretty well -- not in your aunt's league or either of your families', for that matter -- but pretty well and I'm very openly gay. Two things a lot of people dearly despise. You learn to shrug it off over time. Though I have to admit, I bring a lot of it upon myself. I kinda have an attitude problem." Whoa! Where did that come from? It almost sounded… wise. I hope.

"You should listen to your aunt Syd. She's a pretty smart lady. People haven't liked us for years. I got shit long before anyone knew I was gay. That just made it worse. Self righteous people will probably never like us, but what the hell do they know? Most of them have done worse things than have good business sense and fall in love. It's not easy to ignore their remarks, but truly it's usually just jealousy and idiocy," Cynthia says as she sits beside Jas and gives her a hug. "But I'm still sorry that those assholes are giving you shit over me."

At the end of my sensitive chat rope, I kinda tune out the rest of the conversation and just enjoy watching and listening to Cynthia. She's such a beautiful woman, even more so in this environment. Being home suits her. Her eyes are brighter and the shine of the sunlight on her hair makes her look like an angel. I wonder what it's like to have a place to call home, even if for years you weren't welcome. Maybe this can be my home too. I'd like that. I could get used to all this outdoors stuff. Hell, who am I kidding? If it made Cynthia happy, I could get used to anything. This being in love stuff is pretty cool.

Feedback is greatly appreciated: Join my Yahoo group:
Copyright © 2006 by S. Berry. All Rights Reserved.

part 14

Return to the Academy