Chapter 2 - Guarded

Corbin stood with one hand on the half-open door and stared at the tall man on his porch.  The man was bundled from the cold and looked down at him. He was over 6' tall, had piercing green eyes, and bore a closely cropped but thick black beard.

"Howdy neighbor."  He said in a deep bass voice and smiled.  The man shifted the strap of the rifle on his shoulder and stuck out his hand.  "I'm Paul, from up on the ridge."

Corbin blinked and swallowed in the half-opened doorway.  "Uh … how … how did you get here?"

Paul's smile slipped a bit, and he slowly lowered his hand.  "I walked down the ridge?" His voice had a patient tone. He jerked his thumb over his shoulder.  "You can see my place from here since I've got a fire going." Sure enough, Corbin could see a smudge of smoke up on top of the high hills to the south.

He swallowed.  "Ah. Ok." He forced himself to function in a socially acceptable manner and fully opened the door.  "Sorry. You just surprised me." He put out his hand. "I'm Corbin. I just bought this place."

Paul's smile was back in full force.  "Good to meet ya, Corbin. And yeah, I know.  Word's all over town about a young fella snapping up the Sexton place."  He gripped the offered hand with a firm shake in his gloved fist. He pointed his chin toward the trailer.  "You need some help with your furniture?"

The comments about his buying the property did not encourage Corbin.  But he thought for only a split second about Paul's offer to help. "Well, if you wouldn't mind, that'd be great."

Paul grinned.  "I don't mind. Let's get it done."

He stepped out with Paul as the tall man carefully unslung his rifle and lay it flat on the porch.  He eyed the weapon. "Why carry the rifle?"

Paul looked at him.  "Grizzly." He motioned over where Corbin knew the stream was.  "They like that water. It's clean, runs all year when it's not frozen solid in the dead of winter, and it means there's a near constant water source for them and other critters.  April is about when they're crawling out of their dens, done with hibernation." He looked critically at the smaller man. "You do own a gun, right?"

Corbin licked his lips, not sure how to answer at first.  He figured honesty would work best in this case. "Uh, yeah."

"Good.  What kind?"  Paul pulled the gate down on the trailer and reached to grab the end of the chest of drawers.  Corbin stepped up to help.

"A .38."

Paul grunted, and the two men began to wrestle the furniture down onto the ground.  "Good for home protection. Bad if you actually have to use it on a bear. It'll just piss one off."  The two of them carried the dresser into the house. Once inside they maneuvered it down the hall into Corbin's bedroom.  Paul looked at him after they shifted it into position against the wall. "You should at least get some bear spray." He patted his hip and Corbin could see a small, mace looking cylinder clipped to his webbed belt, alongside a number of other unknown implements and equipment.

Corbin's lips pressed into a thin line then he nodded.  "Okay." He was well aware he was out of his depth on many aspects of rural living.  And this guy seemed to only want to help him. That brought him to another question. 'Why?  Why does he want to help me? What does he get out of it?' He couldn't help but wonder to himself.

The men continued working, and soon all of his furniture was inside the house and roughly in the positions he wanted.  He'd be able to push and pull them into the exact places they would end up by himself. Though he seemed nice, he didn't want Paul here any longer than he had to be.

To that end, Corbin stuck out his hand.  "Hey, thanks a lot for the help Paul. I don't want to keep you any longer.  I'm sure you've got other things to do."

The tall man looked at his hand, smiled slightly and pointed at his cold, dark fireplace.  "I was planning to help you with that first." To punctuate his sentence he blew out and his breath plumed white in the room.

Corbin lowered his hand.  "I can build a fire."

Now Paul grinned.  "Really." He folded his arms over his chest, the grin remained.  "Can you show me?"

He felt annoyed.  He may not be a mountain man but he wasn't an idiot, and this guy was treating him like one.  And now he felt like he had to prove himself. "Fine." He could hear that there was the edge of challenge in his voice.  He turned, walked out onto the porch and carried the box of smaller bits of wood he purchased from the fellow in town into the house.  Stuffed into that box was newspaper too. He figured he'd have everything he needed to get started at least.

He carefully wadded up a few sheets of newspaper and put them in the clean hearth of the fireplace.  As he did he noticed the shape of the back of the fireplace was strange. It flared toward the living room at an angle.  He hadn't realized that before. It seemed odd, but he mentally filed it away to think about later.

On the newspaper, he put the smallest bits of wood he had.  Which didn't seem all that small now that he was trying to start a fire.  As he thought about the dimensions of the wood he suddenly realized that he didn't possess a hatchet or an ax.  That was another item for his list of equipment he still needed.

Once he had a small pile of wood on top of his wadded paper, he carefully lit the bottom of the newspaper.  As the flame began to catch on the paper Paul wordlessly unclipped a small compact hatchet on his belt, and he walked outside.  Corbin looked over his shoulder with a frown. Then he turned his attention back to his fire.

Well … back to his failure of a fire.  The paper burned, but the sticks refused to light.  Instead, they bubbled water out of the cut ends, and they steamed in the heat from the newspaper.  Then the miserable little attempt silently went out as the last of the paper was used up.

"Shit."  He frowned.  Then he heard the distinctive 'thunk' of an ax hitting wood and he stood up.  Curious, he walked to the doorway and he saw Paul smoothly chopping at a downed conifer about fifty feet from his cabin.  Large chunks of wood flew from his blade with nearly every swing. He noticed that Paul angeled the hatchet first one way, and then he would chop the other so it would bite large pieces of wood out of the felled trunk.

After only a minute or so Paul stopped, snapped the hatchet back onto his belt and gathered the prizes he had gained from his labor.  He smiled as he walked past Corbin with the small armload of fragrant wood into the house. "We'll have it going soon." Paul's deep voice carried no malice or judgment.  There was simply the assured tone of a man who knew what he was doing.

He pushed his irritation aside and watched Paul as he worked.  He knew it was important that he learn everything he can. If this was going to work then he'd have to.  Paul moved Corbin's failed attempt to the side and started with a clean area for his own try. He used a sheet of newspaper and tore it into long strips, then he balled them up into a loose collection of paper with lots of air and surface area.

On top of that, he piled long thin bits of the punky wood that he had gathered.  And he noticed that Paul stacked them in a very loose log cabin sort of configuration.  Again, lots of air between all the pieces, and nothing was crowded. On the outside of this, he carefully leaned some slightly bigger pieces of the resinous wood.

"Okay, let's give it a shot."  Paul pulled a match and lit the newspaper.  It burned quickly, and it seemed to catch onto the wood almost as fast as it did on the paper.  He was both annoyed and relieved at Paul's success all at once. He was cold! The temperature had dipped even more and it was still snowing.  He'd have to turn on the radio soon to see what the weather was going to be like for the next few days.

Paul took the sticks Corbin had tried to use and he gently piled them into a teepee shape above the sturdy little fire that was now going.  They immediately began hissing, and steam began leaking from the ends. "The fire will dry out this wood, and it'll eventually burn." Paul stood up and jerked his thumb toward the porch.  "That stuff out there is REALLY wet. It was probably cut this year. So it won't start anything. But if your fire is hot enough and you have enough coals you can still burn it." He looked at Corbin.  "You'll probably have to cut more of the downed juniper. Use it ½ and ½ with your wet stuff. It'd be best if you could chainsaw it up into rounds and split it."

He must have had a lost look on his face because Paul frowned at him.  He tried to recover. "Ah, yeah. Okay. I can do that." He didn't even own an ax, much less a chainsaw.

Paul didn't buy it, but he had the grace not to say it.  "If you want I can help you."

Corbin set his jaw.  He hated feeling this way but he knew he needed help.  'My first fucking day … and I can't even start a damn fire.'  He sighed at the thought and then surrendered. "Paul, if you wouldn't mind … yeah.  I guess I can use the help." His voice carried a self-deprecating tone.

The tall man only nodded.  "It's not a problem. I'm not up for duty till Friday.  So I can come back tomorrow to help you out. Before I go I'll cut a little more with the hatchet, so if your fire goes out you can start it up again."  His green eyes searched Corbin's face. "That sound all right?"

He nodded.  But the question remained echoing in his mind, and he couldn't let it go.  As Paul moved to head out and cut more wood he asked, "Paul, why are you helping me?"

He turned with a frown and shrugged.  "We're neighbors." Apparently, that was enough, and then he went outside, hatchet in hand.

He stood in the house a moment, and the crackling fire behind him began to throw some warmth and light into the room.  Everything was so different here. He lived for years in the city, and he never knew his next-door neighbors. Sure, he recognized them, but he never even knew their names.  Everyone just kept to themselves, and that's how it was. And here, a guy who lived a couple of miles away had walked over and was helping him chop wood.

'If this is what it takes to fit in, then this is what it takes.'  He took a breath and followed Paul outside. The men spent the next half hour chopping what they could with the small hatchet.  Paul showed him how to use the tool efficiently, and explained that the principals are the same with a full-sized ax. He also noticed that Paul didn't ask if he had an ax.  He was thankful he didn't have to admit yet again how unprepared he was to this man.

'He probably thinks I'm an idiot.'  Corbin thought as they carried the last of the wood they had chopped into the house.  They put the wood into a built-in mortared stone box attached to the fireplace. By this point, the fire was really going, and the house had warmed up some.  Paul put a piece of the wet wood from the porch and one dry chunk they had cut in the hearth.

"There you go.  You should be set for the next hour or two."

He was about to thank him when a mighty growl from an angry stomach reached his ears.  Paul grimaced and put a gloved hand on his coat over his belly. "Jeez, someone's cranky."  He laughed. "Okay, I better head back and get myself fed." The time approached 5 PM, and Corbin was hungry too.

A sudden need to prove himself sparked in his mind.  "Stay for a while. I can cook something." He looked around and laughed.  "Though … you'll have to get my kitchen table put together unless you don't mind eating on the couch."

Paul smiled.  "Table assembly … yeah, I can do that.  Sure you don't mind feeding me?"

"I don't mind."  He surprised himself by admitting that was true.  There was a strange feeling of reciprocity, and the intense need to repay this man.  Not with money, but with time, effort and energy. He knew he was in the negative, and he didn't like owing anything.  He had an acute awareness of the unspoken rule, even though he had never encountered a situation like this before. It was law here, and he was compelled to follow it.

"How's spaghetti with meat sauce sound?"  He found his thrift store pots and pans and opened the fridge to get what he'd need to get started.

"You had me at 'meat'."  Paul stripped off his gloves and then removed his coat.  The house was warming nicely, and they could no longer see their breath in the space.  Paul threw his coat and gloves on the couch and Corbin looked at him as his back was turned.  He now wore a thick flannel shirt along with his Carhartt's and boots. Broad shoulders, narrow hips, tall, black hair a little wild, looked to be in his mid, maybe his late 20s … Paul turned and Corbin went back to prepping dinner.

'He had to be a big handsome bastard didn't he?'  He tried to focus on chopping the onion that was destined for his sauce.  Periodically he would glance over the bar counter where Paul studiously worked on connecting the legs to the tabletop.  Paul seemed focused on his task, and Corbin was able to sneak quite a few looks at him.

'Okay, get dinner done Corbin.  Stop ogling the straight mountain man.'  He refocused on dinner. He WAS hungry after all.  He finished that part of the sauce prep and everything went into the pan to cook.  Then he started the water for the noodles.

"Need help?"  Paul surprised him and he jumped.  "Heh. Sorry." He turned. Paul was almost directly behind him and looked over Corbin's shoulder at the stove.  "Sauce smells good."

'God, he's too close.'  He swallowed. "No. Relax, you've helped plenty."  He bit his lip. "Ah, excuse me." He pushed by Paul in the small kitchen and stripped off his coat as he walked.  He threw it on the couch along with Paul's.

The tall man moved away from the stove and went back to the assembled table.  He grabbed a couple of chairs and placed them next to the table, then he sat in one of them so he could look into the kitchen.  As Corbin walked by to reenter the kitchen he smiled. "Not used to sitting while someone else is working."

Corbin laughed a little.  "It's just cooking. Not really work."

"Is for me."  Paul stretched and he heard a couple of Paul's joints pop.  "When I serve you dinner don't be surprised or offended if it's out of a can."

He looked down at his skillet as he fried ground beef and a little sausage for his sauce, and he frowned in thought at that comment.  'When I serve you dinner …'. Not if, when. He focused on it for a moment, then pushed it aside. 'Don't read into it. It's just how things work out here.  He's being nice is all.'

Noodles were next and they were cooked quickly.  Soon all the components of dinner were done. He put a healthy amount of noodles on a couple of mismatched plates, then scooped sauce onto each of them.  Next, a healthy amount of parmesan cheese topped each of their dishes. He got them a couple of forks and paper towels then went to the table.

He slid the steaming plate under Paul's nose.  "Mmmm …" the man inhaled the scent and obviously appreciated the smell.  "Looks and smells great. Thanks, Corbin."

He smiled.  "You're welcome."  He pulled out the other chair and sat.  When Paul set them next to the table he had done it so they were at 90 degrees to one another and not across.  So they sat close. He again told himself to avoid reading into it. Though he had to watch where he put his knees.  He bumped Paul a few times during the meal, though the man didn't seem to mind. They were both hungry, and they ate in relative silence.  The only sounds were silverware on ceramic and the crackling of the fireplace.

Finally, Paul pushed back his plate with a sigh.  "Wow, really good Corbin." He grinned. "Thanks a lot for the meal."

Corbin wiped his mouth, just finishing his plate as well.  "You're welcome. Thanks for all your help."

Paul nodded, then he stood then gathered the plates and the utensils.  He began to protest as Paul walked to the sink to wash dishes, but he knew it wouldn't do any good.  He smiled at the tall man's back. Then his eyes tracked down. 'Fuck me. Does every man in this town have a great ass?'

"Hey."  He jerked and Paul looked over his shoulder at him.

"Ah, uh … yeah?"  He felt caught red-handed, and an intense blush hit him.  Paul didn't seem to notice.

"Where's your dish soap?"

"Oh."  He went to the sink, Paul stood aside and Corbin pulled the bottle out of the cabinet underneath.  He handed it to Paul. "Here you go." He studiously avoided looking at Paul's eyes. Soon as he handed it over he turned and walked into the living room.

He pretended to tend the fire while Paul washed dishes.  'Get your shit together man. Just fucking keep it together for a few more minutes.'  He chastised himself as he poked at the fire. Sparks flew up the chimney from his unnecessary ministrations.  The water in the kitchen stopped running, and Paul walked around the bar counter in the kitchen into the living room.

"Well, thanks for the meal Corbin.  It was good." He picked up his coat and gloves off of the couch.  "I'm going to head back up the ridge, and I'll see you tomorrow. 8 AM too early?"

He hung the iron fire poker back on the hearth and nodded.  "8 AM is fine with me. Sounds good." He looked at his windows.  "Hey … it's getting pretty dark. Will you be okay walking back? I can drive you.  I assume your place has access at some point on the road?"

"It does, but I'm fine walking back.  It's only a couple of miles and I've got a light."  He patted a holster on his thigh where the end of a mag light poked out.

'Jeez, this guy's a boy scout.  Prepared for anything.' "Oh, okay."  Corbin watched him get dressed to go out into the cold and snow.  "Thanks again for the help."

"You're welcome.  Was a good day." He pulled a knit cap down over his hair and ears, then the hood of his coat came up over that.  "Have a good night." He smiled, the expression genuine and easy.

"Yeah … you too."  He smiled back. Paul turned, opened the door and left.  He watched through the window as Paul gathered his rifle from the porch, then he walked through the snow and disappeared into the darkness.

He stood there, staring out of the window.  Then he let himself loose. He tore at his belt and it came undone, the buckle clinked metallically, and then he unbuttoned his jeans and yanked on them to pull them open down to the limit of his zipper.  His cock tented his boxers and he looked down at it. He began to take it in hand, then his head jerked up. The drapes were wide open, and he was backlit by his fireplace and the lamp in the living room. "Fuck me."  He quickly closed the thick drapes. He just hoped Paul hadn't turned to look at the house. If he had Corbin would have been plainly visible.

He shook his head at himself.  Oh well. Nothing to be done about it now.  He stepped up to the fireplace and pushed his jeans down to his knees.  The boxers joined them, and his cock sprang up when he freed it. He looked down and took a nice firm grip on himself.  He knew he wasn't the biggest guy in the world, but at a little over 6" and with his small waist it looked bigger to the eye.  Plus, and most importantly it worked well.

He stroked fast and he rocked back on his heels.  Knees were bent slightly, and his other hand rubbed up his stomach under his shirt.  "God, I want to fuck that man." His voice was strained and carried desire, aggression, and need.  He imagined it - him, laying on top of the tall, dark-haired and bearded Paul. The man under him writhed in pleasure on his belly as Corbin pumped his hips.  His dick hammered into Paul's body like a machine.

"Fuck …"  He went up on his toes, grunted then he shot.  His come flew from his body and landed in the crackling fire with a steaming hiss.  He continued to stroke, and the rest dribbled down his fist to drip down between his feet on the stone hearth.

He panted and staggered a little.  "Whoa." That was intense … and fast!  He grinned. He wondered how Paul would feel about being great spank bank material.  He laughed at the thought. Probably not good.

He cleaned himself up with a warm washcloth, and he wiped up the mess on the hearth as well.  He checked his phone and it was now just after 7 PM. He changed into sweats and a comfortable fuzzy sweater.  He also wore thick wool socks to keep his feet off of the cold wood floor. Then he tossed another green log, and one more chunk of the dry stuff he and Paul had chopped onto the fire.

He retreated back to his bedroom.  He still had some assembling to do before he could sleep.  About an hour later his bed was finished, and he made it with the flannel sheets he had purchased.  Then he piled on two thick blankets and a very old quilt that he had carried around with him since he was just a kid.  He stopped for a moment and rubbed his hand over the quilt. A smile pulled at the side of his mouth and he sighed. No time for that particular memory.  He went back into the living room.

He found his pad and pencil, then he took a seat at his kitchen table.  A new list began to form of all the things he realized he still needed. After a few minutes of that, he also started thinking about the next day.  Invariably he found himself daydreaming about Paul, and his cock hardened up in his sweats.

He sighed.  Paul was off limits so this was just torture.  "Why am I doing this to myself?" He whispered.  He knew it couldn't happen … even if Paul were open to the possibility, it couldn't happen.

'Remember what happened to Liam.'  He frowned and swallowed, but he forced himself to relive the pain.  'Remember it.'

He closed his eyes as he sat at the table.  He drew in slow breaths and then let them out just as slowly.  After a while, he opened his eyes. They reflected his emotion - his sense of loss, and his resignation.

'This is how it is, from here on.  You're alone.' He nodded as he thought and he tried hard to steel his resolve.  'It's for the best. You know that.'

He knew it all boiled down to discipline.  The fire crackled in the background, and he picked the pencil back up off of the table and tapped the eraser on the pad of paper.  He needed some sort of outlet - some way to bleed off his frustration and energy. He needed a new hobby.

"No … I need a job."  His eyes narrowed in thought.  The very first thing that came to mind was that great coffee shop in town, Hailey Coffee Company.  Maybe that'd work. He could go check it out, see if they needed help. It'd be something really visible.  And maybe it'd keep the rumors down if he's right out in the open for everyone to see and interact with.

Hide in plain sight.  He smiled slightly.

He would play the game.  He would be friendly, and social, and be a good neighbor.  Because that was what was required for him to stay unnoticed.  People in town would get used to him. Paul could feel like he was his buddy.  He would simply have to stay careful. He would have to be guarded.

He had his plan.  And as he sat at his table he wondered if he would be able to stick with it.

But he also knew that he didn't have a choice.

It would work, or he would die.


Author's Note: Please let me know your thoughts about the chapter at the following email address link.   Wayne Gray

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