Chapter 4 - Guarded

 A couple of days passed and despite a clear forecast the weather continued to act fitfully.  It snowed off and on until about five inches of the stuff had accumulated. All of the locals were only mildly surprised by this.  It wasn't typical, but it does happen. Though it was supposed to warm up today, which meant it would be a slushy, muddy mess if that forecast held.

That early Saturday morning he parked himself on the couch at his aptly named coffee table, There was a steaming mug of the liquid that sat within reach on the table, and he smiled down at the notepad in his lap.  His fireplace was going and he had already eaten a hearty bowl of oatmeal. It was toasty and comfortable in the cabin.

Corbin toyed with the idea of raising chickens for eggs, but at first, he didn't know if they could survive in the snow, and the sub-freezing temps during the night.  His feet wriggled in his wool socks, and he happily looked over the bullet points he had written about "Project Fresh Eggs", which is what he called his latest research into chicken rearing.

After a search on his phone, he discovered chickens could survive there if they were taken care of correctly.  He would need to build a fenced in area to protect them from predators. They would also need a coop, which he would have to figure out how to build as well.

He found some hardy cold-tolerant breeds, ones that would continue to lay eggs through all but the darkest and coldest winters.  He decided he would check with the local ranches, see if there were any chicks of the breeds he was after for sale. But first, he needed to prepare his space to raise and house them.

He finished his coffee, dressed for the weather, then headed outside into the warming and sunny day.

On the eastern side of the cabin, there was a spot largely devoid of trees, and he walked around it with a critical eye.  He thought about the sun, how it tracked, and how much light a coop would get throughout the year. He picked up a downed branch, and he scratched out the approximate outline of the dimensions he had in mind in the melting snow.  Then he walked around each side of his imaginary chicken coop and yard and assessed the size and placement.

As he frowned in thought he heard the rolling engine sounds of a diesel and he turned to look at his road.  Sure enough, he could see a dark blue truck slowly making its way toward his house.

'Paul.'  He had managed to avoid thinking about the handsome man all morning.  But that was decidedly over now. He wondered what was going on, and he walked out to the turnabout in front of his cabin as the truck crawled along the icy gravel road.

Finally, the truck stopped and Paul got out.  He was dressed for work, and there were smears of dirt and mud on his Carhartt pants, coat, and boots.  Corbin's cock twitched - all the dirt, grime and the carhartts just added to Paul's appeal.

He clamped down on his desire and walked over.  "Well, howdy neighbor."

"Hey, Corbin."  Paul smiled, but it looked a little strained.

He noticed.  "What's going on?  Everything all right?"  He was genuinely concerned.  All the other times he had seen Paul he had always seemed so unflappable, and he couldn't help but wonder what could throw a man like him.

Paul sighed, scratched his head under his knit cap, and a bit of his black hair sneaked out in a rebellious curl.  "Well, I may have bitten off more than I can chew this time. I'm building a new workshop, and I need help raising the support posts."  He looked ashamed that he had to come ask for help. "If you're busy, or just don't want to help then it's fine. I'll ask some of the guys from the crew next time they're off duty."

He grinned.  "I can help. And of course, I want to."  He was secretly thrilled that Paul needed him.  Then he frowned. "'Off duty?' That's the second time you've said that.  What do you do?"

"Ah, I'm a paramedic and firefighter with the Hailey Fire Department."  He nodded. "We also get to do a little search and rescue here and there as well."  Paul looked thoughtfully at him. "You don't forget much do you?"

"I try hard not to."  He responded. And he was impressed.  "Firefighter, paramedic, and rescue? All of that's important stuff."

Paul actually blushed at the compliment, and Corbin found that incredibly endearing.  "Ah it's a living." He took a breath. "So, what time would be good for you? Not trying to pressure you, just curious as to when to expect ya."

He tapped his chin in thought.  "I guess it depends. You gonna have a nice can of chili ready for me when I get there?  Or maybe I just get fruit cocktail? Not sure if your cooking skills include heating something on the stove."  He said with a grin and Paul narrowed his eyes at him.

"Guess you'll have to take your chances, smart ass!"  The tall man pushed him gently and laughed.

He smiled back at Paul.  Things between them seemed good again, and that made him happy.  He liked Paul … and it was nice to be around him. So long as he could control himself.

"Well, let me get a few things handled here and I can head up.  Ten minutes and I'll be ready to go."

Paul offered to drive him up to his place.  He said the road could be tricky the first time around and wanted to point out the more hazardous bits.  After they finished he'd drive Corbin back home.

A small alarm bell sounded in his mind as he closed up the house and made sure the fire was banked.  Harris' warnings about turf, and choosing carefully when he allowed himself to be in someone else's arena echoed through his brain.  'If you choose to enter an environment someone else controls, make sure you trust that person.' He had said. 'You can't go through your new life not trusting anybody.'  Corbin still remembered his dark eyes as he spoke. 'But pick and choose carefully.'

He thought about the words as he walked out to join Paul in his truck.  His hand was on the door handle, and he suddenly decided. "Okay. Let's get going."  He opened it and clambered up into the cab, then shut the door. 'So … I guess I'm trusting Paul.'  Though he did surreptitiously check and ensure he still carried the .38 in its chest holster.

Paul drove over Corbin's road, then he got to the highway.  He then went straight forward onto another gravel road that led almost due south from the highway.  Corbin gripped onto the handle above the door as they bounced gently over what can only loosely be described as a road.  Luckily the truck had nice shocks, and Paul drove slowly. He wasn't sure how his old beater of a vehicle would handle the rutted track that led up to Paul's home.

"Sorry about the road."  He frowned. "I really need to pay for another load of gravel."  He expertly drove over the obstacles and trouble spots on the way.  And he pointed them out as they went. Corbin made a mental list of all the really gnarly spots.

They slowly climbed in altitude, and after a few minutes, they pulled onto a large flat area.  A small but beautiful thick-walled home sat, and faced north toward the valley they had just driven up below.  It had a green metal roof, and the walls looked to be covered in a thick plaster of some kind. It was colored a light brown, and blended well with the surroundings.

"Whoa."  He stared at the house.  "That's gorgeous Paul."

Paul grinned, his pride evident.  "Thanks. Built it myself." He laughed.  "Only took two years!"

He parked and the two of them got out of the truck.  "Come on. I'll give you the tour." Before they walked inside he noticed a solar array on the roof, and a solar hot water heater … almost like his own set-up down in the valley.

They entered the home, and inside Corbin was dumbfounded by the view.  A large double-paned picture window showed the valley below, and he could plainly see his little house, a couple of miles away and almost 1,000 feet lower in elevation.  Conifer forest stretched before him, interrupted here and there by rare works of man. "What a view." He breathed.

Paul moved to stand beside him and nodded.  "Yeah. I gave up south facing for it. Which means it takes a little more to heat this place.  But… the walls are super insulated. So I get by okay." Paul nodded as he looked out the window with him.  "Totally worth it to wake up to this." Corbin had to agree.

He revealed the house was built from straw bales, stacked up like building blocks and contained in a supportive wooden frame.  It was hyper-efficient when it came to insulation against the cold and the heat. The floor was a cement slab and it was insulated below to avoid the chill of the ground.  A thick lime plaster sealed the bales both inside the house and out to keep them safe from the elements, and to provide thermal mass.

There was only one bedroom, and the space was overall small.  Paul said it was only about 600 square feet. But it was well put together.  Spaces served multiple functions, and there was almost no wasted area.

The only source of heat was a small woodstove, and Corbin grinned at some dry spruce stacked in a box beside the stove.  'He's using the wood we cut.' He felt strangely happy about that. The inside of the place was nice and warm.

While they were in the small but cute kitchen he noticed a dutch oven bubbling away on very low heat on the stovetop.  Paul must have started it before he drove down the ridge. He could smell something savory. 'Maybe beef?' Paul didn't volunteer what was in the pot, and Corbin didn't ask.  Though his curiosity was definitely piqued.

After the tour, the guys headed outside.  Paul took him behind the house to a cleared and leveled patch of earth.  There was also a compacted layer of gravel, and Paul explained it was to help keep the work area from becoming a mudpit.  "Without the gravel I'd be standing in about two inches of mud after the sun thaws the ground - which has pretty much happened already.  As it is it's muddy enough, even with the gravel." He was right. The sun had melted most of the snow  on Paul's property, and now it was a wet mess of clay-rich mud.  He felt as if it tried to suck the boots off his feet everytime he stepped anywhere off of the gravel Paul had put down.

There were six large poles that lay on the ground.  Corbin walked around and looked at them. And he could also see six holes were dug.  The holes marked the corners of the planned workshop, and then there were two more for the middle.  He frowned. He could see long skids at the back corner of the work site. It looked like Paul had attempted to lift the pole up by himself, and it slid away from him in the mud.  He pointed. "Really? You tried to do this solo?" 'He could have hurt himself,' he couldn't help but think.

Paul shrugged.  "Not my best moment, I fully admit."  He grinned. "I'm stubborn."

Corbin snorted and shook his head.  "Okay, so I'm guessing I'm here to help with this."  He pointed at one of the posts which lay next to the hole in the ground.

"Nailed it."  Paul smiled. "Ready to get dirty?"  The poles were covered in thick muck and mud.  There was no way to do the job without getting royally filthy.

He sighed.  "There better be some canned chili in this for me."  He narrowed his eyes. "Fruit cocktail and I'm gonna feel underpaid."

The tall man grinned and joined him at the end of the post farthest from the hole.  "I'll see what I can work out. Might need some help with the stove. They're complicated."

Corbin laughed.  "Okay, let's do this."  He reached down, and the two of them strained to lift the post.  He wasn't as strong as Paul, but with his help they managed to get it up on end.  Sure enough, mud rained down from the post as it rose into the air. They both grimaced as it fell on them.  

He knew better, but he made the mistake of reflexively looking up, and a big glop of the cold clay-rich mud landed directly on the left side of his face.  "Shit!" He shook his head, and some of the mud flew off of him. "That was fucking stupid!"

Paul tried hard not to laugh.  "Are … are you okay?" They struggled with the post while Corbin could only see out of his right eye.  He continued to curse, and they managed to walk the slick, heavy post over to the hole. With a final twist it slid into place with a satisfying "thunk".

"I'm fine.  Just a dumbass."  He flung mud off his hands, then reached and wiped his eye and face semi-clean.  Paul looked at him, and obviously only barely controlled his laughter. Right now Corbin looked like half of his face had been painted with clay.

He finally got his left eye open and looked at Paul.  "So … don't look up."

That did it.  Paul broke into laughter and shook his head.  The smaller man joined him. He really liked to hear the tall man laugh.

They spent the next hour getting the posts righted and put into their holes.  He noticed that the bottoms of all the posts were treated with some sort of resin.  Paul told him it was to help preserve the wood. He said they would last for decades in the ground.

By the time they were done, they were both absolutely covered in mud and clay.  But Paul looked at the posts, and a satisfied expression rested on his dirty face.  "This is great." He grinned at Corbin. "Thanks so much. This is all I really needed help doing, at least for now."

The blonde man nodded.  "No problem." He scraped mud off of his neck and flung it onto the ground with a grimace.

Paul looked at him, amused.  "I probably should have warned you about the mud.  Sorry."

He shrugged.  "It had to get done regardless."  He smiled. "This had better be SOME chili."

Paul laughed and his green eyes danced.  "Come on."

They stomped off as much mud as they could out on Paul's flagstone path, and then walked to the porch and removed their boots.  About the only clean thing visible on them were their socks. Corbin stood at the entrance to the pristine, clean little house and sighed.  "I'm gonna just take off my outer layers. That okay?" Mud fell from him every time he bent a limb, same as Paul. "I'll leave all this out here on the porch and put it back on for the drive home."

Paul smiled, his expression appreciative.  "That's really nice of you. And a good idea."  He nodded and reached for his coat zipper. "Yeah, let's do it."

The men stripped off their muddy clothes, and they both got down to their long underwear, socks and t-shirts.  He couldn't help but notice a nice bulge in Paul's crotch. He looked away, and tried to think about anything else.  He was only partly successful, and he pulled on himself till his half-awake cock pointed down his leg and was a little less obvious.

While he undressed he also very carefully unbuckled the harness to his holster while he took off his flannel shirt.  The harness with his .38 went with the shirt, a process that was completely covered by the material. Paul didn't seem to notice anything amiss.  It pained him, but he left the gun in his pile of clothes on the porch.

The two of them entered, and thanks to the additional cooking over the span of time they spent out working, whatever was on the stove now smelled amazing.  "Mmmm …" He sniffed appreciatively. "That's definitely not fruit cocktail."

"Nope."  Paul walked to the stove, and Corbin followed closely behind him.  He pulled the lid from the pot and revealed a slowly bubbling beef stew.  It was thick, meaty and looked very rich.

"Ohhhhh shit."  His mouth watered.  "Okay, all is forgiven."

Paul only smiled.  "First thing, we need to scrub up."  Paul went to the bathroom and ran a bucket of warm water.  Then the two of them went out to the porch where they could make a mess and not get the house filthy, or clog his pipes with clay.  They both hurried through a quick cleaning to remove most of the grime from their hands, faces and in Corbin's case, his hair. Then they went back inside, both shivering a bit from the cool air.

Corbin stopped at the woodstove and put his hands out to absorb the warmth while Paul went into the kitchen and pulled a couple of bowls from the cabinet.  "When you're ready, come on over and have a seat. I'll serve it up."

Corbin nodded, and after one more deliciously warm moment at the stove he walked into the small area off of the kitchen.  He took a seat at what looked to be a custom-built table, one tailored to the space, and watched as Paul scooped a healthy portion of the stew into each bowl.  Then the tall man pulled a cob of bread from the top of his fridge. He cut a couple of thick slices for each of them, and smeared butter on each one. Then he stuck the ends of the bread into the stew.  He grabbed a couple of spoons, and turned to carry it all over to the table.

Paul put the bowl down in front of him and Corbin swallowed as he salivated.  It smelled amazing. "I feel that you may have misrepresented your cooking skills."

Paul chuckled.  "I like to lower expectations.  That way there's less disappointment."

They dug in.  The stew tasted as good as it smelled.  And the bread was really good too. He was pretty sure it was homemade.  He dipped the buttered sourdough into the stew and then slowly chewed what may have been the best single bite of food he had tasted in months.

He looked up at Paul.  Those green eyes stared at him.  "You like it?" Paul asked. There was apprehension in his voice, as if it were possible Corbin didn't enjoy the food.

"Of course I do.  It's … it's absolutely delicious."  He licked his lips, and Paul continued to stare.

Paul swallowed, then he reached and put his hand on Corbin's.  The blonde man looked down and his breathing increased.

"I'd like to kiss you,"  Paul said quietly. Corbin looked up to his face and Paul's green eyes were so intense.  They seemed to draw him in.

'God, I'd fucking like that too.'  Corbin thought. He struggled. He needed to say no.  His logic fought against his desire.

Paul could see the struggle on his face.  He gently reached up, put his hand behind his head, and pulled him in.

Corbin made a small, desperate noise as they kissed.  Paul's tongue tentatively explored his lips, and he opened his mouth to welcome the invader.  His hand ran up Paul's back, and stopped on the back of his neck. Their kiss slowly increased in intensity.


He inhaled sharply and pushed away, from Paul.  He panted. "I … I'm sorry." Corbin looked down and shook his head.  "I can't …"

Paul looked at him, his face surprised and disappointed.  "I'm sorry. I just thought … I thought this is what you wanted."

The blonde man tried to lie, he tried to say he didn't want Paul, but instead, he shrank in on himself and shook his head.  "I just can't." He couldn't look at Paul's face. He couldn't look at those eyes.

Paul looked at him a moment longer.  He took a breath, and let it out in a rush.  "Okay." He picked up the spoon for his stew and glanced up at an unmoving Corbin.  "At least eat. And, I'm sorry if I misread you." He looked back down at his bowl. "It won't happen again."  He said with a dispirited whisper.

They both ate the meal silently.  After they finished Corbin stood, collected the dishes and washed up.

Wordlessly the two of them dressed in their now dry, but still filthy clothes, and they got into Paul's truck.

Corbin stared out of the window as Paul drove down his road.  Both of their minds churned through thoughts and emotions.

Eventually, the truck arrived in the turnabout at Corbin's house and rolled to a stop.  Both men sat there. He struggled to say something to Paul that wasn't damaging, or that would lead him on.  Paul beat him to it. "Hey." Corbin looked over. "I'm okay, just being your friend." He smiled sadly. "But man … you gotta stop making me think there's hope.  I see the little glances, and the looks from you."

The blonde man flinched.  "You're … you're right." He took a breath.  "Okay. I'm sorry for that." He nodded. "I'll do better.  Because … I think it'd be nice to have a friend."

Paul pressed his lips into a thin line and nodded.  "Sounds good. Thanks for your help today." He smiled, but the expression was tired.  "See you later, neighbor."

"You're welcome.  And see you later."  He got out, and Paul pulled around the turnabout to head back up the gravel road.

He watched the truck go until it rounded the bend.  He drew in a deep sigh, and went to his porch. There he again stripped off his muddy clothes, so it wouldn't get all over the house.  After he removed all of the things in his pockets and his gun, all of the clothes went into a bucket of hot water to soak.

He spent the rest of what remained of the day sitting with his pad of paper in his lap and his pencil in hand.  He intended to draw designs for his chicken coop and the attached, wired-in run. But he constantly found himself daydreaming.

Eventually, he gave up.  He went to bed early, and he lay there in the warmth of the blankets.

He couldn't help but think of Paul.  He couldn't help but struggle with the knowledge that Paul now absolutely knew he was gay.  The way he returned Paul's kiss left no doubt about that. 'A new guy in town named Corbin, who is gay.'  He set his jaw. The damage was done. It would either cost him or it wouldn't.

He frowned and pulled a pillow close.  He clung to it, and after some time he dropped off to sleep.

Corbin dreamed.  And for the first time in two years, it wasn't Liam he saw there.

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

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