FLAMES from the bonfire reached near to the stars. Tory watched, amused, as Wicasha played “Old Black Joe” on harmonica with startling skill and Franklin danced around the fire. Tory kept his distance. The huge bonfire with lashing flames and loud snaps frightened him. He cowered in a chair by the front door. Away from the strong blaze, he studied the flames play off Franklin’s shirtless and perspiring torso. He seemed surreal in the conflagration. The music took Tory, and before he had even a chance to ponder, he was clapping his hands and stomping his feet in front of his chair. Franklin approached him. Embarrassed, Tory stopped, breathless.
“Why aren’t you stomping with us by the fire?” Franklin asked.
“It’s a bit hot,” Tory said.
“Nothing like working up a good sweat,” Franklin said.
“Yes, but I think I’ll just stay here where it’s cooler.”
“You have a fear of fire?”
Was he that easy to read? He worried he might have mentioned his fear of fire in one of his letters to Franklin, but he failed to recall. He did not want any more coincidences between him and “Torsten.” Grateful for the darkness that concealed the flush that burned his cheeks, he said, “I suppose I’d rather live without a fire so big.”
Franklin chuckled. “All right, then.” And he went back to join Wicasha.
Wicasha continued blowing on the harmonica while he and Franklin cavorted around the fire. “Little Brown Jug” flowed from Wicasha’s broad lips as easily as the breeze that kissed the red-hot flames. Tory again stomped his foot and clapped his hands to the quick rounded rhythm. Even the hogs seemed to enjoy themselves. He heard them snorting and rustling about their pen with extra volume.
Music and laughter flowed for another hour until the waxing moon rolled above the eastern peaks and the stars dimmed. Franklin, exhausted, slumped near Tory against a tree stump.
“I’m plum tuckered out,” he said. “You played those reeds extra nice tonight, Wicasha.”
“You look rode hard.” Wicasha stuffed the harmonica in his pocket and chuckled.
“I’ll be sleeping as sound as a bear in January tonight. Almost feel like going for another dip.”
“I think I’ll head back,” Wicasha said. “You boys have a good night.”
Wicasha’s departure left a piercing quiet over the gulch. Franklin suggested they go for one more quick swim to wash off the sweat. Half an hour later, dried and dressed in clean undergarments, Tory and Franklin rested by the creek with the moon hanging directly above.
“Nice this time of year, isn’t it?” Franklin said, his voice low and deferential. “The creek’s a perfect temperature; the air is soft.”
“Sure is nice,” Tory said.
“Always liked laying here at night, with the moon reflecting off the creek, the fish jumping,” Franklin said. “I remember first time I laid here and heard the trout snapping. I went down to check, and one jumped so high it bit me on the nose.” He chuckled. “Then I thought, maybe he was giving me a kiss, welcoming me home.”
“Yes, I remember.”
“You remember?” Franklin shot him an inquisitive look. “How do you remember?”
Tory’s breathing stopped. He had to watch himself. Relaxing moments like this often knocked him off his guard. He’d remembered reading one of Franklin’s letters in which he’d written about the trout kissing him “like a long-lost cousin.”
“You been talking with Wicasha again,” Franklin said, yet his tone was casual, unconcerned. He fixed his gaze on the moon’s gray light slicing through the canopy of the trees.
“Oh, yes.” Tory exhaled, relieved. “He tells me many things about your life here, like how once that fish kissed your nose.”
The ensuing silence soothed Tory’s nerves. The gentle ping of the running creek made him smile. Both stared toward the moon. No awkwardness lingered in the stillness. They were now at that junction in their relationship when quiet between friends failed to bother them, Tory was certain.
“Autumn will be here soon.” Franklin’s husky voice reached Tory’s ears as exquisitely as the slow brush of the breeze. “I can hear it coming.”
“You can hear the arrival of autumn?”
Tory cocked his head upward, trying to pick up on Franklin’s meaning. Night birds sang as usual; the leaves rattled in the breezes coming off the mountains; the creek gurgled slowly; some hidden rodents foraged under the duff. He thought he heard even the “kissing trout” jumping for insects. All typical sounds for Moonlight Gulch. Then, yes, he was certain. He could hear it.
“I think I know what you mean,” he said, lifting his head higher. “The sounds, they seem… crisper. The leaves rattle more pronounced in the breeze, as if they’re harder, drying up. And the rodents are foraging more earnestly, as if stockpiling for winter.”
“Yes, exactly,” Franklin said with a merry lilt to his voice. “You do hear it, then.”
Proud of himself, Tory rested his head back against the soft pine-covered earth. A few more minutes of silence had passed when one of Walt Whitman’s poems floated through Tory’s mind as softly as the curl of the thin black cloud above him.
“The sounds of autumn remind me of a poem by Walt Whitman,” Tory said. “You like Walt Whitman?”
Franklin tittered. “Sure I like Walt. Even met him once.”
Tory propped himself up on his elbow and peered at Franklin under the blue mist of the moon. He had never mentioned that in any of his letters—at least not the ones Tory had received. “You did? When?”
“During the war. In a veteran’s hospital in Maryland. When I lost my arm, he was there helping care for the injured. I liked him. Nice old guy.”
“He’s my favorite poet,” Tory said, gazing into the star-loaded sky.
“I don’t reckon I got a favorite poet,” Franklin said, “but there’s some in the Black Hills, although probably not of Whitman’s caliber. They’re just cowboy poets.”“I like cowboy poets,” Tory said, his voice high with sincerity. “Whitman is a cowboy poet of sorts. Would you like to hear one of my favorite poems of his?”
“Sure. Go ahead.”
With the back of his head resting on his woven fingers, he gazed at the expanse of the Milky Way and recited word for word as best he could a poem he’d carried in his memory from the first time he’d read it, ending with:
In the stillness in the autumn moonbeams his face was inclined toward me, And his arm lay lightly around my breast. And that night I was happy.
Only in the thick silence of night and heavy breath that followed his reciting of the poem did Tory fear he had crossed a line with Franklin. Where was he? So far away he seemed, with his face still turned toward the starry sky. Franklin did not stir from his supine position. The cool air from the mountains swept the hair from his forehead. The moon, the same moon described by Whitman, reflected in his green eyes. What must he be thinking? Had Tory’s reciting of the poem unsettled him?
Finally, Franklin, with a slow and deliberate movement, turned his head toward Tory. “That’s perfect,” he said in a near-whisper. “How fitting for where we are right now.”
“Yes, I know.” Tory swallowed, unable to meet his glowing eyes. “I thought it was too.”
Franklin turned back to the moon and stars. “Very romantic.”
Tory let the silence linger a moment, then he said, matching Franklin’s reverential tone, “Do you like romantic things, Franklin?”
“Yes,” he said matter-of-factly. “I do like romantic things. You wouldn’t believe it by looking at me, but I do have a bit of a sentimental poet in me, I reckon.”
Of course Tory knew that Franklin had a poet inside him. He had perceived it from the first time he’d read his advertisement in Matrimonial News. Franklin was more than “softhearted.” He exhibited the kind of strength that came only from gentleness. Tender masculinity pulsed in his veins and compacted in his bones. Like a shepherd who watches over his flock with stalwart, brutish conviction, yet capable of showing the most doting affection. That was all inside Franklin Ausmus.
A shudder rushed through Tory’s limbs. Franklin’s body, so close, so warm, so within hand’s reach, like the lover in Whitman’s poem, infused him with a quaking happiness that he had not known since Joseph had leaned in to kiss him for the first time.
But wasn’t it all a mere quixotic fantasy? Franklin was as untouchable, as unreachable, as the stars above them. Moisture evaporated from Tory’s mouth. He raised his head off his hands to swallow. With the sudden rush of a breeze off the mountains, a pang of regret swept over him.
Review coming soon on Our Story: GLBT Historical Fiction at GLBT Bookshelf.