Tuesday, April 5, 2016
TLR Chapter 58
The next morning, just as the sun was rising, Con walked among the sleeping brats nudging each one with the toe of his boot. As the initially disoriented brats woke he commanded, “All right guys, up and at 'em. We’ve got worried people waiting for us.”
Despite the hour, James had already radioed Con and was happy to hear that everyone was accounted for and well. And that they would be home in an hour or so.
Bo stretched and yawned, rousing the twins who had been using him as a pillow.
Mutt opened his eyes reluctantly. It was going to be a beautiful morning, from what he could see, and as much as he'd missed Jeff, he was also not looking forward to what was going to happen when he got home.
He looked around at the other brats and nearly smiled as he saw looks of dread on their faces as well. He patted Troy on the shoulder and smiled encouragingly, despite his own fears. He could hear Ryan yawning on the other side of Troy.
Bo took in the other's expressions and became thoughtful, wondering if he were in for the same as the others. He looked at the twins who were sitting up, nibbling unenthusiastically at the jerky.
"I wonder if this is going to be our last meal." Jare joked. "Any chance we can stop at the restaurant for steak and eggs before we go home?"
Con was also watching each brat as they slowly emerged from their beds. He smiled at the worried looks on their faces. "Come on guys, you act like you’re riding to your doom." He said. "They won't kill you."
"No," Little Jake said, "I'll just wish Shorty had killed me for a couple of hours after he gets done with me. I really messed up."
"None of us is especially innocent here," Mutt replied, “and Con's right. They're not going to kill us."
Troy looked over at the slightly younger twin. "It wasn't your fault, Jake. You didn't make me take Taz."
"I didn't stop you either. And I didn't tell Shorty, which is the first thing I should have done." He replied, pulling his knees up to his chest and wrapping his arms around them, his appetite gone.
"Taz was safe with me, and I’ve ridden wild broncs so I was safe on him." Troy bragged. "I don't see why Shorty would be upset. If Taz hadn't of thro...um, spooked I would have gotten back at the resort without the Tops knowing."
Con noticed the slip and filed it away for later. He had his own issues to deal with when he and Brian got home.
Ryan was uncharacteristically quiet and to Con's experienced eyes was forcing himself to eat more to pass the time than because he was hungry.
"Police the area and let's get saddled up, guys." Con ordered.
They finished what was left of the jerky and water and washed as well as they could. Then the men all got to work, breaking down the camp, putting out the embers of the fire and returning the campsite back to its original condition as well as they could. Brian untied the ropes that had held the shelter's frame in place and rolled them up and stored them back into one of the saddlebags.
They all saddled their horses and mounted up. Mutt offered Troy a hand up then the young cowboy settled behind him on the buckskin. None of them except Troy needed the escort, but they knew that Con wasn't going to leave until he'd delivered them all safely home.
"Brian, I want you in the lead with the rest of you behind him and I'll bring up the rear." Con instructed.
"Yes sir." Brian replied. "You heard the man. Single file, guys. Let's head out."
The mule followed along behind Con at the end of his lead rope.
It took a little over an hour but they all arrived at the resort in relatively good spirits and were all welcomed back with hugs and pats on the back.
No one noticed when Con leaned in toward James and whispered in his ear, looking at Troy from the corner of his eye.
James's eyebrows rose and he glanced in the direction of the newcomer, who was being embraced and kissed to within an inch of his life. He walked over to Ricky and asked him to come over and talk to Con, who mentioned Troy's slip of the tongue.
"You might want to ask him what really happened when he was riding Taz." Con said quietly.
Ricky frowned. Troy was an experienced horseman and it didn't surprise him in the least that he'd taken the most unpredictable horse to ride even though he'd apparently been warned, and told that Shorty would want to clear him to ride the large palomino before being allowed to take it out.
Once he finished speaking to James and Con, he went back to his Niño, pulling him into an even harder hug as he realized that he might have lost the boy for good if the horse had thrown him the wrong way.
Jeff picked Mutt up and twirled him around, hugging and kissing him as though he hadn't seen him in days rather than hours.
Shorty pulled Bo and the twins into his arms and hugged them tightly. "Don't ever do that again." He growled.
"No sir," the twins mumbled. Bo said quietly, “We won’t.”
Coral wrapped his arms around a slightly green complexioned Ryan and hugged him tightly.
He carefully looked Ryan up and down. He hated to admit it but despite his current greenish tinge the young man looked better than he had in days. “I missed you Ry.” He whispered as he wrapped his arm around Ryan.
Ryan snuggled into the hug. “I missed you too, Coral.” He laid his head against Coral's chest and breathed in the scent of his lover. “Is Cas ok? I missed feeding him.”
“He’s ok, Angel. Shorty has been taking good care of him.”
Ryan sighed contentedly and allowed the older man to lead him away toward their bungalow, no longer worried about what would be.
"James are we done here?" Shorty asked. "I'd like to get these three home."
James hugged all of the returned brats in turn. "I think we're all set."
"Thanks James, we’ll talk later."
James patted the man on the shoulder and said his goodbyes.
"I'm going to head over to the lodge and get Brian some breakfast, James," Con said, “And then we'll be heading back home."
"It was good to see you, Con." James said. "You too Brian. Enjoy your breakfast and have a safe trip home."
"We will, JW," the ranger said as he led his brat toward the lodge.
"Come on, Mutt," Jeff said as he put an arm around his husband's shoulder. "We have a few things to talk about." Mutt leaned in toward his husband with a contented smile and went willingly, even though he knew the day ahead was likely to be a painful one.
Bo gestured to the twins. "We have a lot of work to do, taking care of these horses. I think we should get them back to the stables." He suggested.
"Don't we get to eat something besides jerky and water?" Jarrod asked.
"Not until the horses are seen to." Bo replied all business as he took the reins of the mule and the ranger’s mounts to lead the horses back toward the stables, prompting the twins to do the same.
"Go ahead and get the horses settled and I'll get breakfast started," the vet agreed with Bo. He was thrilled that Bo was taking charge of the twins.
"Come on guys, we’re wasting time." Bo grinned at the boys. He watched in admiration as Shorty led the way back to the stables, admiring the way the man spoke and walked. His pulse was racing and he found himself sweating a little, and it wasn't for fear of what Shorty was going to do after breakfast.
Shorty watched the boys until they disappeared into the stables then headed into the bunk house to make good his offer to make breakfast
Bo sighed in relief when he saw Taz. Little Jake smiled when he realized the big horse was home and he went up to him to rub the velvet soft nose. Bo and the twins took care of the horses. They curried, fed and watered them all, cleaned the saddles and tack in record time and went into the bunkhouse only to be met with the delicious smells of the breakfast that Shorty had made.
"Wash up, food’s on the table," Shorty yelled when he heard the front door slam.
"Yes sir!" The three men answered in unison, smiling at each other as they did so.
Bo really wanted to take a shower but he knew there wouldn't be time for that at the moment, so he made due with washing sweat and dirt from his hands and face.
Shorty leaned against the counter watching his guys devour the food on the table. He frowned to himself when he thought about what could have happened to them. Then he wondered when he had started thinking of Bo as his.
Bo glanced up and saw Shorty looking at him. He found himself fighting down a blush and having trouble swallowing his food for some reason. He went back to concentrating on his breakfast. The twins had been eating contentedly and no one spoke.
Shorty saw Bo blush but didn't react to it. At least not so Bo could see.
When the boys finished eating they rinsed their plates and sat back down, waiting for Shorty's verdict.
"First off, you boys need to shower and change; you look like you've been drug through the mud. Hop to it."
The three men jumped from their seats and rushed to their rooms and then to the showers. Jarrod and Little Jake, neither of whom had any facial hair to speak of didn't need to shave, arrived back at the kitchen within ten minutes, still slightly damp. Bo arrived only moments later, clean shaven, and damp hair showing signs of having been on the receiving end of a quick toweling. All wore fresh clothing and looked much better than they had.
"Sit." Shorty ordered.
The three men sat quickly and awaited the older man's next words.
Shorty continued to lean against the counter, his arms across his chest. "Who wants to tell me what brought about the mass exodus of brats yesterday?" he quietly demanded.
The twins glanced guiltily at each other but remained silent. They looked at Bo, who cleared his throat and tried to explain.
"Troy took Taz; Little Jake tried to stop him but couldn't and went after him. Jarrod came and asked me to come along to help find them and get them back before... dark." He stammered.
Shorty looked at Little Jake. "Troy took Taz? He just walked in his stall and took him?"
"Kinda." Little Jake replied, blushing a little. "I was showing him off and Troy decided he could ride Taz. He saddled him up and rode out on him. I know you like to check out all the riders before you let them take Taz out. I was afraid you'd be mad at me for letting him just take him like that, so I took off after him but he had a little bit of a head start on me."
"And I was worried about them so I roped Bo into comin’ with me to find them." Jarrod admitted.
"Little Jake, from what you're saying it doesn't sound like you just let Troy take Taz." Shorty told the worried young man. "But once Troy did take him there were other things you should have done." He said. "Jarrod, when did you get involv..." he stopped and looked at the older twin. "Did you know about this when you told Ricky and me that you hadn't seen Troy?"
Jarrod cleared his throat and avoided eye contact with Shorty, which was all the older man needed to know.
"So you lied to me, to us?" the older man asked.
"Not... exactly." Jare hedged. "I mean, I really hadn't seen Troy, so it wasn't exactly a lie."
Shorty raised an eyebrow.
"Well I didn't." He maintained defensively.
"It wasn't his fault, Shorty." Little Jake said, looking down at the table. "I asked him not to tell you. I was afraid of what you'd say if you knew so I asked him to cover for me."
“If you were afraid then you both knew it was wrong. Didn't you?" the big man stated.
"Yes sir." The twins whispered.
"And I was just as much at fault." Bo admitted guiltily. "As soon as I found out what had happened I knew I should have told you, but I got caught up in the... I guess you could say the adventure. The fun."
"Boys, that Troy took Taz isn't the real problem. That you didn't let me or James or Jeff know what happened and then decided to try and get Troy back before we found out is a problem. A very big problem." Shorty said. Then looking at his stable master he growled, “And I wouldn’t have expected you to go running off without telling me.”
Bo blushed under the stern glare and dropped his gaze to his hands, which were clasped tightly on the table top. "I know, Shorty. It's not something I'd normally have done. Like I said, I just kind of got caught up in it. I didn't really think ahead other than concentrating on getting Troy and Taz home before... ah... dark." He winced; sure that Shorty knew what he'd almost said. "We didn't realize how far out he'd ridden. I'm sorry."
Jare managed a smile and a short laugh. "You couldn't help it any more than we could, Bo. You're as much of a brat as we are. Bigger, actually."
Bo blushed again, feeling both pleased and embarrassed at being called a brat, especially by someone so much younger than himself.
"What makes you think Bo is a brat, Jare?" Shorty asked with a smile in his voice.
"No one but another brat would have ridden out with us without question." Jarrod replied. "Anyone else would have done what you said and called someone."
"And besides Bo said he was a brat.” Little Jake said.
“Oh, he did, did he?” Shorty chuckled.
Bo tried to hide a smile. He knew he was in as much trouble as the others but he couldn't help being a little pleased at his inclusion. "Yeah, I finally had to admit it." He said. "Still," He said, sobering, "I'm really sorry about what I did. I know I'm just as guilty as the boys here."
"Yes, you are, maybe more so," Shorty agreed. "Now the question is, what do we do about it?"
The brats all looked at each other, each unwilling to be the first to admit to what they had coming.
"Extra chores for two weeks?" Jarrod asked hopefully.
"Early bedtime?" Little Jake added.
Bo had no idea of what being a Brat truly entailed yet. He'd only ever seen Jarrod in trouble the one time and he wasn't about to suggest spankings.
Shorty watched all three of his boys squirm in the chairs. He wanted them to think about what they'd done.
Jarrod covered his face with his hands and thought, 'Jeez, Shorty, just get it over with!' He had no idea that he'd said it aloud, albeit softly.
"Bo," the vet started, "what does the schedule look like at the stables today?"
Bo glanced at Jarrod, pretending that he hadn't heard the young man's words and looked at Shorty. "I have rides scheduled at ten and two today."
"Are you taking them alone or is one of the twins helping?"
"I hadn't planned to take anyone with me. They're going to be busy taking care of the horses after each ride and getting a fresh group ready for the next ride."
"And we still have our usual chores to do, cleaning the stables and making sure the feed and water are fresh. And we still have to tend to that mare." Jare reminded the others.
"And we have to do the indoor chores as well." Little Jake added.
"OK, then," the older man instructed, "Jacob, you and Bo have time to get the horses ready for the ten o'clock group. Bo, you'll be in charge of that one."
Jarrod swallowed nervously and looked at Little Jake, who shrugged slightly and patted his brother's leg under the table.
"Yes, sir." They answered.
"And Jarrod, since you are in a hurry to get this over, you can help me clean up the kitchen and you can have your wish."
Bo worried that Jare would pass out with how quickly the blood rushed from the young man's face, but he got up and went out to the stables with Little Jake, ushering the young man out so that he couldn't try to intercede for his brother.
The two men went straight to the schedule and chose enough of the fresh horses for the first riders. They were saddled and bridled in record time. Both were lost in thought and did everything automatically. Neither spoke much.
Inside, a worried Jarrod said, "Shorty, please, don't wallop me when the guests get here? Please?"
“Jare, I would never do anything to embarrass you or your brother."
Jarrod sighed in relief. He knew that Shorty wasn't like that, but he worried that the situation called for more immediate action than he was ready for. "Thanks, Shorty. I'll start the dishes, if you want." Jarrod continued, in a subdued manner.
"Come here, little boy," the taller man said pulling Jarrod into a hug. "You know it would have killed me, killed us if you guys would have been hurt."
Jarrod snuggled into the broad chest. "I know, Shorty, I'm sorry. We weren't thinking. I wasn't thinking. I was just sure Taz was gonna throw Troy no matter how good a rider he thinks he is, and it scared me, especially since he was alone and who knew what could have happened."
"And you wanted to protect your brother too."
Jarrod blushed. "Yeah, Little Jake was beside himself with worry... and... I just didn't want him to get into more trouble than he might already be in." He stopped himself before he could reveal more that would get himself and his brother in more trouble. "And don't blame Bo, please? He was only trying to help us."
"Bo's a big boy and can accept his punishment just as you and your brother will do." Shorty smiled. "And just why do you think Little Jake was going to be in trouble?"
'Oh, shit.' Jarrod thought, mentally head slapping himself. He'd done it anyway. He turned his face away from Shorty and started biting his nails. "Jake wanted to get Taz and Troy back before you found out. That's why he rode out after them. He was hoping he'd get them back home before you did." He admitted reluctantly. "And that's why I went after him. I figured with the three of us looking for him we'd get him back faster and you'd be none the wiser. At least, that's what we hoped."
"Why didn't he just come talk to me? Is he afraid of me?" Shorty quietly asked. He never wanted the boys to fear him. "Are you afraid of me?
"No! We're not afraid of you, Shorty, I'm sorry! I can't say I'm real fond of getting spanked but neither of us is afraid of you. We... well you're always saying how impulsive we are. I guess we just lost our heads and acted before we thought."
"And then once Mutt and Ryan showed up it was more like an adventure. And then Brian showed up and it was, sort of, like... a party of sorts. We just kinda... I guess... thought of ourselves as an old time posse tracking down an outlaw."
"I guess I can understand the thrill of being out in the woods tracking down Troy." Shorty revealed. "But there are certain things that I can't let pass and leaving without telling me or one of the other tops is a biggie."
"I'm sorry Shorty," Jarrod said penitently. "I won't do it again."
Shorty laughed, a big belly laugh. "Oh little boy, if that was only true but we both know that it will happen again." He hugged Jarrod. "And when it does I'll be here to sort it out."
"Are you going to... sort me out... now?" Jare asked with some trepidation.
"No, first you are going to finish cleaning up in here and maybe by then Bo will be out with the guests."
Jarrod didn't know whether to sigh with relief or not at the temporary reprieve, but got down to the business of cleaning up the kitchen with Shorty's help.
Just as they were finishing, Shorty's radio buzzed to life.
"Shorty here, Over." He answered the call.
"We're heading out now, Shorty," Came Bo's voice. "We'll see you at lunch time. Over."
"Ok, Bo, I'll expect you back at noon. Please send Little Jake up to the bunkhouse. Over." Shorty added.
"Will do. Bo out."
Little Jake swallowed nervously, he felt his breakfast fighting with the butterflies in his stomach. Bo put a comforting hand on the young man's shoulder. "It won't be as bad as you think, and it'll be over faster than you know." he said.
"Do you want to wait till your brother is here or do it now, little boy," Shorty asked Jarrod.
"I'd like to get the worst over with, please?" Jare said quietly.
"Ok then," the bigger man said holding out his hand to Jare after he sat back down on one of the kitchen chairs. "Come here." Shorty patiently waited for Jarrod.
Jarrod licked his lips nervously but obediently went to Shorty and stood before him.
Shorty patiently waited for the boy to gather his nerve.
Jarrod unbuckled his belt and undid the button and zipper of his jeans before pulling them and his briefs down to his knees. He didn't need to be told what to do next so he leaned down and positioned himself over Shorty's knees, gripping the rungs of the chair in anticipation.
This was going to be a serious reminder that some rules shouldn't be broken and Shorty wasted no time getting his point across.
Jarrod bucked at the first smack. It was a lot harder than he'd expected and he winced in pain, gasping for the breath that seemed to have been knocked out of him.
Shorty didn't give him time to catch his breath, instead he peppered his backside.
Little Jake walked in just in time to hear the spanking going on in the kitchen. He winced in sympathy and his own backside tingled unpleasantly as he listened to Shorty light a fire under his brother.
Jarrod wriggled and squirmed, gasping for breath and crying outright, promising to be better and not to run off without telling Shorty where he was going, ever, ever again.
Shorty heard the pleas coming from the man across his lap. From experience he knew that once the pleas came from Jarrod the spanking was doing what it was intended to do.
He laid down four sharp smacks to the top of his thighs.
"Ahhhh!" Jarrod cried, trying to twist out of Shorty's grasp. "I'm sorry! I’m sorry! I'm sorry!"
Little Jake shrank back into a corner of the living room, tempted to run back outside and as far from the bunk house as he could before it was his turn, but he couldn't leave his brother, and he knew that Shorty was a patient man who would wait until he came back, and then things would be worse.
Tears ran down Jarrod's face and he tried to wipe the moisture away with his sleeve. "Please! Shorty! Please? Stop?"
One last slap and Shorty stopped the spanking. He slowly rubbed circles on Jarrod’s back until he calmed down.
Jare was grateful that the spanking had ended. He tried to get his breathing back to normal but found his breath hitching. His nose was stuffy and his backside was on fire, but the comfort felt so good he didn't want it to end.
Waiting until Jarrod got some control back, Shorty helped him stand. The young man had kicked his jeans off but his briefs still clung to one of his ankles. The vet gently pulled the briefs back up until Jarrod’s magenta colored butt was covered.
Jarrod buried his head in Shorty’s chest. They stood together with the big man rubbing his back until he felt comfortable to pull away. Shorty led the boy to the couch.
“Lay down while I tend to your brother,” He gently ordered, giving the younger twin a significant look.
Little Jake swallowed hard. He could see the color of his brother's backside through the white briefs, and shivered when he saw the color of the exposed thighs.
Shorty nodded Little Jake in the direction of the kitchen after making Jarrod as comfortable as possible. He stood quietly and waited for the young man to do as he'd been bidden, nearly laughing when he tucked in his rump and covered it as he walked past. He resisted the urge to give the boy a swat just for that but figured he'd be getting what he deserved soon enough.
He sat down on the chair once again and gave Little Jake the same look he'd given Jarrod just minutes before, and minutes later he had another crying brat over his knees, apologizing and promising to be good and begging 'Please, please, please stop now, Shorty, please!'
Seeing that the young man's backside was an identical shade to his brother's, Shorty stopped and comforted the younger man, running his hand through Little Jake's hair and rubbing his back. Little Jake always needed more comfort than his older brother did because he felt not only his own discomfort but Jarrod's as well.
"I'm sorry." The young man sobbed. "It's all my fault. Everyone is in trouble because of me."
Shorty twitched Little Jake's underwear back into place, stood him up and wrapped his arms around him. "Shhhh, little boy. It's not your fault. You didn't force or blackmail anyone into going along with you. They're all adults and they all have minds of their own. They all acted of their own accord. Understood?" He asked quietly.
"But if I had just..."
"What you did or didn't do is in the past now, understand?" Shorty demanded gently, holding Little Jake away a little so that he could look into the young man's eyes. "It's all over and done with, as long as you remember the lesson from today, and don't do anything like this again. Got me?" He asked, giving the young man's shoulders a little shake when he wouldn't meet his eyes. "The only person you got into trouble was yourself, and you know why."
"For not telling you about Troy when it first happened, and for running off without telling you where I was going." Little Jake said shakily.
"Exactly. And you're not going to do that again any time soon are you?"
"No, sir. Never again." Little Jake sobbed into Shorty's shirt front.
Shorty smiled and kissed the top of the blonde head. "Don't make any promises you might not be able to keep, son."
"I'll try to do better." Little Jake hiccupped. "I'll do better."
"I know you will." Shorty said, holding the boy against himself again. "You're good boys. You just have to learn to think before you act. Do you think this will be a good reminder?"
"All right then. You two boys go on and get a little sleep, just an hour or so, and I'll take care of things until Bo gets back."
Little Jake looked relieved and worried at the same time. "That's a lot of work to do, Shorty. It's not fair to you."
"I've been doing this for a lot longer than you've been alive, kid," Shorty said with a smile. "I'll be ok. Now you two just go do what I said."
Little Jake nodded, kicked off the jeans that had been hanging onto one ankle, and went into the living room to rouse his concerned older brother, who had heard the entire thing and who had been unsuccessfully trying to block out the sounds of his brother's punishment by holding a pillow over his ears.
The two boys walked arm in arm up the stairs, shoulders together, to take their naps. Shorty knew that when he went to wake them they'd be in the same bed, arms around each other, and sleeping like babies.
He walked quietly around the bunkhouse, doing the few chores that needed to be done there and feeding Castiel before going out to the stables to check on the mare and muck the stalls. There would be plenty left for the twins to do later in the day and there was nothing pressing that he had to get done unless there was an emergency. He knew Coral and Ryan would come to see the kitten and feed him later and so he settled into the familiar routine, relaxed and at peace for the first time since he'd realized the boys had gone missing.
Shorty loved being in the stables. It brought him back to a time when he was just starting out. He had put himself through college at this very stable, working first for James’s uncle then for James. He remembered coming here as a scrawny boy a few months after his parents died. His father’s brother didn’t want a 15 year old gay boy around so he’d sent Sam, as he was known then, to live with his grandmother in Masonville. She didn't want a gay grandson around either but felt it was her duty to take care of him. It wasn’t long before he was befriended by a young man who was in charge of the workers at a local farm. Grandma was relieved when Dan took Sam in and took him off her hands.
Dan had promised to keep Sam in school but the grandmother didn't care one way or the other as long as he was out of her hair. The older man had made a place for Sam in the bunkhouse and gave him small jobs to do. Less than two years later James’s uncle was gone and James had inherited the farm. The older man had a dream to turn the farm into a resort and allowed both Dan and Sam to stay as part of his dream.
When Sam had first arrived at the farm he was barely five foot four and weighed 90 pounds soaking wet, but working on the farm had filled him out, and by the time he had reached his full height of 6'2" at the age of 17 he was an impressive sight, tanned skin over rippling muscles making the other stable hands stop and stare while he worked. Good food, plenty of exercise and receiving the love and care he needed so badly caused him to flourish. And as much as Dan had loved him, he'd never allowed him to get away with anything.
It was after his eighteenth birthday that Sam had haltingly told Dan that he loved him. He worried that Dan would reject him because of the six year difference in their ages, but to his delight, Dan had smiled and leaned in for a kiss. "I've just been waiting for you to grow up, some." He'd said.
Dan had insisted that Sam go to college. Sam had been unwilling at first, but once Dan’d reminded him about how good he was with animals, especially injured ones, he'd decided to become a veterinarian. Dan had teasingly called him Dr. Doolittle, since he had an uncanny ability with animals of all sorts...even the wild ones.
Dan had helped Sam to find a local college so that he could commute to and from the farm every day. He always insisted that Sam finish his homework before doing his chores which sometimes made Sam angry.
"I don't need to study. I've been working with you, and with Doc Strong for the past three years. I already know everythin’ there is to know." He'd protested.
"Then you know arguing with me about your homework is a lost cause, little boy. So get to it." Dan would say, following up his words with a hearty smack to Sam's backside.
Sam knew that Dan needed help to build James's dream and to him wasting time studying when he could be helping out just wasn't smart. But he also knew enough not to argue with Dan when his mind was set. Sam would grumble quietly but do as he was told.
He'd caused quite a commotion at the school as well. He'd been slouched at his desk, head on his hands, when the professor walked into the room.
"Are we keeping you awake, Mr. Shortelle?" he'd asked snidely. "Why don't you come to the front of the class and name the bones of a dog's leg."
Sam had unfurled like a flag from his seat, coming to his full height as the other students gasped and laughed. Sam dwarfed the professor by at least six inches. Sam had grinned at the snarky professor and rattled off the names of each bone from the hip to the toes without a hitch before going to sit back down at his desk.
"Shorty," someone had whispered with a laugh.
"Who are you calling shorty?" The professor had asked the class in general since he had no idea who had spoken.
Shorty smiled remembering the laugh he and Dan had shared when he told his lover about his day.
"So, Shorty,” Dan had asked, "were you sleeping in class?"
"No sir!" Shorty had said energetically. "I was just resting my eyes. I was up late last night reading the chapter and finishing the homework."
"Then maybe you should get to bed early tonight." Dan had decreed.
"Only if you come with me." Shorty had said with a sly grin.
Dan had held out his hand to Sam. "Come on then."
Con led his brat in to the lodge and found an empty table that would afford them some privacy while they ate.
Brian slid into the seat across from his lover and husband and sat with his chin on his fists, worrying and waiting for Con to speak.
“Let’s order, then we can talk, little boy." the older ranger instructed.
Mike approached their table with two cups and a carafe of coffee. "Good seeing you guys down off the mountain," he said as he poured the coffee.
"It's good to get to the resort, Mike." Con answered.
Brian smiled wanly and took the cup of coffee. "Hi Mike." He said softly.
Mike could tell there was something wrong but knew better than to ask what it was. "Hi Bri," he said. "Do you guys need a minute or are you ready to order?"
Brian shrugged his shoulders. "I'm not really sure what I want." He said evasively, not wanting to admit that he'd been staring at the menu without actually reading it.
Con leaned back in his chair watching his husband for a minute. Finally he answered, “Bring us a couple of the hot cake specials, Mike."
Brian was sure he wasn't going to be able to eat but the smells in the restaurant were so delicious that his stomach betrayed him by growling loudly. Hotcakes sounded good, even to him. He was grateful that Con had ordered for him. He looked at Con from beneath his lashes and asked, "Do you want to talk now?"
"Are you sure you don't want to wait till we are done with breakfast?"
"I don't know if I'm going to be able to eat until you tell me what's going to happen." Brian said haltingly. He was afraid of the answer he was going to get.
"OK babe," Con said, "we can do this now if you want too."
"Yeah... I guess." Brian replied nervously. “Are you going to... you know?"
"You can relax, Brian, I'm not going to spank you this time." Con answered then asked. "Can you tell me why you didn't call me when you first saw the others?"
Brian breathed a sigh of relief at the news. "I dunno. I figured I'd found them and that they were safe. I had it under control for the most part. That's when you found us and I thought, now that you were there it was alright."
"What would you have done if I hadn't of come along?"
"Well, I am a trained ranger." Brian replied, trying not to sound defensive. "I'd have gotten them as close to home as I could before sundown and then called you. I'd have made up camp the best I could using vines instead of the rope you brought, and we did catch fish to eat for dinner."
"Babe, I know you are perfectly capable of handling that situation." Con assured his husband. "But as partners, not only in life but as rangers what is the first thing you are supposed to do when you find riders off one of the marked trails?"
Brian blushed and looked down at the table top. "I'm supposed to get them back where they belong immediately. But, Con, he was so far off the trail we wouldn't have made it back in time. It was so late. And I'm sorry I didn't call you. I was only thinking of getting them through the night.
"Actually, the first thing you are supposed to do is call and report the situation. If you can't get me on the radio then notify Jeff or James." Con corrected the younger ranger. "I know you’re sorry, Brian, but if something would have happened I wouldn't have known where you were."
"I'm sorry," Brian repeated. "I'd have called you, but you found us before I could."
Brian knew that his explanation sounded lame and he blushed even more hotly. He worried that he was digging his own grave the more he spoke. He worried that Con would decide to spank him after all.
Con's eyebrow arched on its own. "Where were you when you first spotted the guys, little boy? Seems to me you said you were on the ridge." The big ranger questioned. "You could have called me from there."
Con waited until Mike served the specials to the two rangers and walked away before he continued. “When we get back home you will be restricted to the cabin and surrounding area. You will keep your radio on you at all times and answer it every time I call you."
Brian's eyes widened as he listened to his top's words. Restricted to the cabin! To Brian that was a death sentence. "For how long?" He asked, trying to keep the heat from his voice.
"Until I think you have learned this lesson."
"But I have learned," Brian tried to wheedle, "I know what I should have done and I'll make sure to keep my radio on while I'm out and I'll remember to check in with you if I see anything."
“You will stay at the cabin. There are plenty of chores to keep you busy," Con firmly stated.
"Con..." Brian tried to argue.
“Brian Kieran this isn't up for discussion.”
‘Oops, double named. Time to stop.’ Brian thought. Aloud he only said, "Yes sir." Being grounded wasn't as bad as it could be, and like Con had said, there would be plenty to do around the cabin to keep him occupied. And Con had said he was restricted to the surrounding area, so that meant he didn't have to stay inside all the time.
"Good boy," Con praised. "Now let's finish up here so we can head home."
Feeling much easier in his chest, Brian said, "Yes sir." and wolfed down his hotcakes and sausages as though he hadn't seen food in days.
Smiling as he watch his husband bounce back, Con stabbed one of his sausage links and brought it to his mouth. Before long both their plates were wiped clean with the last bite of toast.
Con pushed back his chair and stood. He held out his hand to his husband. "Let's go over to the stables and pick up the animals. And you can apologize to Shorty while we're there.”
Brian made a face but took his husband's hand and allowed himself to be led to the stables. Once there they had no problem finding Shorty.
Shorty heard footsteps and was pulled from his memories. "Hey, guys," the vet said as he led the ranger’s horses to them.
Brian looked at the tall man and cleared his throat. "Hello, Shorty." Brian said quietly. “I'd like to apologize for not calling you or Con as soon as I saw the guys. I didn't realize at first that it was a search and rescue party. I... I'm sorry."
Shorty looked at Con and saw him nod. "Thank you, Brian. I know next time you'll remember to call." he said. "But I do want to thank both of you for bringing all the guys home safe.
Brian nodded. "It was kind of fun, actually... but I wouldn't do it again without anyone knowing." He added quickly.
Con dropped his arm over Brian's shoulder. "I know you won't, Babe." He smiled at the vet. "Thanks for watching our mounts, Shorty, but now I think it's time to head home."
Brian leaned in toward his husband, gratefully. He was tired and wanted nothing more than the comfort of their cabin.
“No problem,” Shorty said. “Ride safe and call when you get back to the cabin." The older man laughed.
"Will do." Brian said. "Thanks again, Shorty. We'll see you soon."
After the men mounted up Shorty handed the mule’s reins to Brian and watched them head down the trail.