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And The Snow Came Down

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A soft wind has come up, just enough to rustle the tops of the trees. Above the trees the sky is steel grey, the bottoms of the clouds so low it looks like they are touching the tops of the trees. Slim shakes his head as he bends down to pick up a piece of wood to set over with the rest of the wood he has chopped today. He and Jess have been chopping wood every day this week, trying to get enough of a stockpile that they won’t have to worry about it as much once they get snow.

“It looks like we’re going to get snow today.”

Jess looks up at the dark sky and slants a skeptical look at Slim before turning his attention back to the horse he is putting into harness. “Ain’t the first time you’ve said that, and we haven’t gotten any yet.”

Slim grins as he sets another log on the stump. “Yes, we have. We got snow last week.”

Shaking his head Jess moves to the other side of the horse and glares at him, though there isn’t any heat in it. “That was not snow. It was nothin’ more than a little flurry that didn’t even stick!”

Slim laughs as he adjusts his grip on the axe. He and Jess had been riding home from town that day. The sky had been a pale, clear blue, the perfect mid-December day, at least until a sudden breeze had sprung up, much like today. The wind had driven in grey clouds, and it had gotten suddenly cold. A few minutes later, pellets of ice had started falling, driven by the wind. As suddenly as it had come, the clouds and snow had cleared, leaving behind no sign it had ever happened.

Splitting the log, Slim gathers the wood before adding it to the stack. “It doesn’t matter it didn’t stick; it still counts.”

That gets him another annoyed look from Jess, and he smiles. This is the third winter Jess has been here and there are still days he struggles with the cold and the sheer amount of snow they get this time of year. And every year they have this same disagreement, what counts as snow and if it meets Jess’ narrow definition of the word. They never agree, not that it really matters. Slim knows they just do it to rile each other up and he likes the way Jess looks when they start, the snap in his eyes, the way his jaw clenches.

Up on the hill the stage comes into view and Slim leans the axe against the stump. “Is the team ready to go? It looks like Mose is trying to beat the snow.”

Jess looks up the hill. “Yeah. Just got this one buckle to do and we’re set.”

Knowing Jess doesn’t need any help with the team Slim heads for the yard, rubbing his hands together. For December the weather isn’t bad, but he has been out here long enough his fingers are a little sore from the cold, even though the rest of him is warm from chopping the wood. Tucking hands into his pockets he waits for the stage to rattle to a stop in front of him.

Mose is bundled up on the seat, Frank next to him and Slim nods to them. “Daisy has coffee going.”

Frank hops down first, making a beeline for the door and Mose follows him down more slowly. He stops next to Slim, looking up at the sky. “There’s goin’ to be snow.”

Slim laughs as he opens the door so the few passengers, two drummers and an older, matronly type woman who nods a sharp thanks as she accepts his hand down from the stage. “I told Jess the same thing and he didn’t believe me.”

As though summoned Jess comes around the stage, leading the team. “This ain’t the first time Slim said it was goin’ to snow and there was nothin’.”

Mose points at Jess. “Oh, mark my words Jess! There’ll be snow before the day is out, or I’ll eat my boot.”

Catching Mose’s shoulders Slim turns him in the direction of the house and pushes. “Go get some coffee while Jess and I get the teams changed. Daisy will be happy to see you.”

That makes Mose hurry and Jess laughs, shaking his head. “He wouldn’t know what to do if Daisy gave him the time of day.”

“Probably not.” Slim starts unhitching the team on this side while Jess does the same on the other. He knows he should be focusing on the horses, but he can’t help the way he finds his gaze sliding to Jess. Neither of them has their hats on, since they haven’t left the ranch and the sun is low enough, they don’t need them. That means he can see the see the hint of pink on Jess’ cheeks from the chill air and it isn’t much of a jump to think about the things he could do to make that color cross Jess’ face again, and maybe even lower.

The sound of the door opening pulls Slim from his thoughts, and he turns to find Mike on the porch, hands tucked under his arms as he looks at them.

“Aunt Daisy wants to know if you’re coming in for coffee!”

Slim nods as he frees the lead horse from the last trace. “As soon as Jess and I get the horses taken care of we’ll be in.”

Jess points at Mike over the back of the horse. “Get inside before you make yourself sick. You know you ain’t supposed to be outside without a coat!”

Mike grins and turns, bolting back inside, the door closing behind him.

Gathering up the old team Slim slips behind Jess, close enough their arms brush. “Like you never went outside in the cold without a coat.”

Jess glances at him, a quick smile pulling at the corner of his mouth. “Yeah, but that don’t mean Mike needs to know about that. The point is to make sure we raise him to be smarter than we are.”

Slim lets the horses into the corral before returning to help Jess get the new team in place. They are just getting the last lead horse hooked in when Mose leads the way out, the passengers trailing between him and Frank. Slim helps the woman back into the stage before stepping aside for the drummers and a few minutes later the stage is underway.

He looks at Jess. “Let’s get the team stripped and everything hung back up.”

The wind suddenly picks up, hard enough to make the tops of the trees sway and if Slim didn’t know better, he would say the temperature drops several degrees in a second. The clouds look even lower, and he can tell it isn’t going to be much longer before the snow starts in earnest. After living here for so long he can read the Wyoming weather well and he hopes Mose and the others get to town okay.

Jess hunches his shoulders against the wind as they head for the corral. “I swear, I don’t think I’ve ever seen the weather change so fast.”

“Just one of the facts of living here.” Slim opens the corral, waiting for Jess to slip inside before he goes in. The horses are ready to be out of the harnesses and stay still while they strip them. They carry everything into the barn, which is lit by a single lantern and together they get the harness stretched out over the pegs, ready for the next team.

Slim hands Jess a brush, and they go back outside to give the horses a cursory brushing. Going back into the barn Slim fills a few buckets with oats before taking them back out for the horses.

Jess adds more water to the trough before rubbing his hands together with a glance at the sky. “I’m glad we decided to move the herd closer to the house. I ain’t thrilled with the thought of havin’ to go out to check on them.”

Slipping back out of the corral to join Jess, Slim bumps him, hand curling briefly around his elbow to squeeze. It is a pathetic reason to touch Jess, but he can’t help it. He finds himself taking more and more of these moments, touching the other man whenever he gets a chance. But Jess never seems to mind, never standing far from him and leaning into the touches. “They would have wandered back eventually. By now they know where to get the hay if anything gets bad.”

Grinning Jess looks at the pasture where none of the cows are visible. “Only time those damned critters show any kind of sense.”

Slim steps back, freezing when he sees the first flakes start of fall. They aren’t big, bare bits of falling fluff and he smiles. The first few land in Jess’ hair, not melting and Slim reaches over, brushing them away. Jess looks at him, face twisted in confusion. Slim laughs. “Look up.”

Jess tips his head back and the flakes start coming down faster, dancing as they get caught in the steady breeze and tossed around. One lands on Jess’ eyelashes, and he blinks and looks at Slim, eyes narrowed as he takes a step closer. “I don’t want to hear it.”

Rather than saying anything Slim slides his arm around Jess’ shoulders and turns him in the direction of the house, applying gentle pressure to get him moving. “The snow is going to stick too. No more flurries.”

“Oh good.” Jess pushes open the door, quickly wiping his boots on the mat before stepping aside so Slim can come in. “I’ve been lookin’ forward to bein’ cold and wet for the next few months.”

Turning away so Jess can’t see his smile Slim shrugs out of his coat and hangs it up. This is another conversation they have every year, about how Jess hates the cold and snow, but he is always out there with him, working until they’re so cold their fingers hurt, and their clothes become stiff. “Just for a few months Jess.”

Mike is at the table with a glass of milk and a few cookies, and he grins, looking between them. “Is it snowing? Mose said it was going to snow!”

Jess sits down, still mocking glaring at Slim. “Oh, it started snowin’. And Slim says it is goin’ to stick.”

With a whoop of joy Mike slides off his chair and runs for the couch. Kneeling on it he twitches the curtains back. “It is! Big flakes.”

Daisy smiles as she sets mugs in front of Slim and Jess before filling them with coffee. “Good. There is nothing quite like a white Christmas.” She pats Jess’ shoulder when he makes an unhappy sound. “I thought after all this time here you would be used to it.”

Hands curled around his mug Slim looks at Daisy even as he nudges Jess’ leg under the table. “Oh, he is, but the snow is one of his favorite things to complain about. But you should know, every time it snowed, I found him outside with Andy, throwing snowballs at each other.” He shakes his head. “And at me.”

Jess grins, his gaze raking over Slim. “Can’t help it when you make such an easy target.”

Heat races through him and Slim quickly lifts his mug to take a drink of the too hot coffee. It burns but it gives him something to think about besides the way Jess is still watching, him with a faint smile that seems oddly intimate with the fact Daisy is still standing there. These little moments have become more common, and Slim isn’t sure what to make of them.

Mike comes running over and stands between them, hands curled over the backs of their chairs. “Does that mean we can have a snowball fight too?”

Jess nods as he lifts his mug. “If enough sticks so we can make snowballs.”

Slim leans back in his chair, legs stretched out and he feels Jess move, slotting their legs together like this is normal for them and he fights to keep from moving. Warmth is slowly creeping through him and the last thing he needs is for Daisy to notice. He isn’t sure how she might react to such physical familiarity between he and Jess, and he doesn’t want to find out. She is much family as the rest of them and the thought of her leaving isn’t one he wants to think about.

Instead, he focuses on Mike, who is still looking between them waiting for an answer and he smiles at Jess. “Don’t worry. By tomorrow we’ll have more than enough snow for snowballs.”

With a sigh Jess lifts his coffee cup. “It ain’t goin’ to be that bad.” He glances at Mike. “Come sit down and finish your snack.”

Mike rounds the table and climbs back in the chair. “Are we really going to get that much snow?”

Slim nods, feeling Jess’ leg twitch against his and he really shouldn’t be having this much working Jess up, but he really does like seeing the flash of heat in his gaze, the way he looks at him. “Oh, easily.” When Jess glares at him he grins and tips his head towards the window he can see, but the other man can’t. “Go take a look.”

It takes Jess a moment to stand, as he untangles himself from Slim and he takes his mug with him, moving to the window near the fireplace. Slim takes a drink of his coffee as he watches the way Jess’ shoulders fall, and he smiles. The snow is coming down harder, enough that the fence posts of the pasture across the road are mere upright shadows. The flakes are even bigger and wet than they had been, and Slim doesn’t have to get up for a better look.

He already knows the big flakes are gathering on the ground, against the bottoms of the fence posts and the house. With the way the temperature had dropped while he and Jess were outside it won’t be long before there is a carpet of snow on the ground. And based on the number of winters he has seen with clouds like this, it is likely going to continue snowing for the rest of the day and well into the night. These dark, heavy clouds always dump snow like this.

“Come sit back down Jess. You staring out the window isn’t going to make it stop snowing.”

Slim can tell by the way Jess turns to look at him that he didn’t do a good job hiding the laugh in his voice, but Jess comes back and sits down, tangling their legs together like he hadn’t moved.

Daisy shakes her head as she lowers the curtain down on the window by the stove. “Gracious. It makes me glad I decided to make stew tonight. It looks like tonight it going to be chilly.”

Nodding, Slim bumps Jess’ leg under the table, which makes the other man smile. “Glad we filled the wood box this morning. And we have plenty more stacked against the side.” He knows he needs to get up and go over the books, make sure everything is in order for the stage line, as well as more mundane matters. He and Jess are actually caught up with the mortgage and at the general store. For once they actually have money saved up and Slim would like to keep it that way.

But the thought of being responsible isn’t very tempting right now. Not with the way he and Jess are tangled together under the table, Mike telling them about all his plans now that it is snowing, which seems to have grown beyond just the promised snowball fight and Slim smiles. “We can go get a Christmas tree tomorrow.”

Mike sits up in his chair, hands braced on the table. “Can I pick it out?”

Jess laughs, easy and lazy. “You can, but remember we still have to make it fit in the house. You can’t go too wild.”

“I won’t!” Mike slides from the chair, rushing over to Daisy.

Slim smiles. They have been putting off getting a tree only because he and Jess have been busy trying to get a few important things done before this inevitable snow. Moving the herd closer, setting in a good supply of wood and supplies and doing the few repairs that will help keep the house warmer. But now with the snow and the fact Christmas is only a few days away, it seems like it is time to finally find a tree.

He glances at Jess, who looks like he might be planning on taking a nap right at the table, eyes barely open, hands still curled around his mug. “We’ll have to get the ornaments down from the attic today. I don’t think Mike will give us time tomorrow.”

“Probably not.” Jess smiles. “I’m sure we’ll be trampin’ all over lookin’ for just the right tree.” He turns his head just far enough to glare at the window where the snow is still coming down, big, fat flakes, making it look like a falling curtain in front of the window. “Assumin’ we’ll be able to get out of the house.”

Slim reaches over to pat his arm, letting his touch linger, enjoying the way Jess’ mouth turns up in a slight smile. “Don’t worry. The porch will keep the snow from piling up. We’ll be able to get out to get the shovels.”

Jess rolls his eyes. “You ain’t helpin’.”

Slim laughs and moves his hand as Daisy comes over with the coffee pot. “I’m just letting Daisy know we won’t be trapped inside.”

Smiling she refills both of their mugs. “And I appreciate the thought. I was not looking forward to the thought of being trapped inside with a rambunctious nine-year-old for the next few days.”

Jess shakes his head. “We wouldn’t do that to any of us, even if Slim and I had to tunnel out with pots.”

Mike is back on the couch, arms folded against the frame as he watches the snow still coming down and Slim nudges Jess. “Come on. We might as well get the ornaments down now. I don’t think either of us is in a hurry to go back outside right now.”

“Not with the way the snow is comin’ down.” Jess takes another drink before setting his mug down and pushing away from the table. He gets a lantern down from the shelf over the sideboard and lifts the glass. Lighting a match, he holds it to the wick and the cotton catches as Jess carefully sets the globe of glass back over it. “Alright.”

Entering their room Slim grabs the handle for the attic door. He pulls it down, nearly backing into Jess as the ladder comes down. Jess touches his back and he turns, taking the lantern before climbing up the ladder one handed. Reaching the top, he sets the lantern on a steady stack of boxes before moving so Jess can join him.

The chests containing his parents’ clothing are neatly stacked against the outside wall, but everything else is still haphazardly stacked and roughly organized and Slim sighs. “We still need to get up here to clean up.”

Jess nods and shifts his weight as he rubs at his arms. “Yeah, but now ain’t the time to be havin’ that idea. I don’t know about you, but it ain’t exactly warm up here.”

Slim had been doing his best to ignore the chill in the air, but now that Jess mentioned it, he can’t seem to help but notice. It isn’t bad enough for his breath to show, but it isn’t warm enough to stay up here for very long. He rubs his hands together as he looks around the deep shadows cast by the lantern. “Do you remember where we put the box?”

Shaking his head Jess edges a little closer to Slim as he squints at the stacks, where almost nothing is labelled. “No, but we kinda took things down in a hurry last year.”

Last year they almost hadn’t put a tree up, since Andy wasn’t going to be able to come home, but they had changed their mind. It had happened the last few days before Christmas, but it had been enough to add a little cheer to the holiday. Slim remembers carefully packing all the ornaments up and bringing them up here, but he can’t recall where he put them.

He glances at Jess. “I guess we just need to start opening boxes until we find them.”

Jess gestures to the nearest stack, in front of where Slim set the lantern. “I’ll start here.”

Slim moves further into the attic, near where the chests are stacked and starts opening boxes. Some of them are things he and Jonesy boxed up after his mother died and is stuff he has been meaning to go through. Some of it is stuff that can be donated to the ladies’ group in town, to be made into things but there are also some things he and Jess can repurpose for around the house.

Another box reveals different fabrics carefully layered with cedar to keep away insects and he sets the box near his feet. He is sure there is something Daisy can do with the fabric and there is no point in leaving it up here any longer. The box at the bottom of the stack contains soft wool blankets and he stacks it on top of the fabric box. Tonight is going to be cold, and they’ll all get some use out of the extra blankets.

There is a muffled sound from the other side of the attic and Slim turns to find Jess seems to have gotten himself stuck between a stack of boxes and something else and all that is really visible of him is his left leg and backside. Shaking his head Slim picks his way around things to where Jess is. He curls his fingers through the belt loop on the back of Jess’ jeans before leaning closer. “Are you okay?”

Jess cranes his head to look at Slim. “If you ignore the fact I’m stuck, I’m doin’ just fine. I think I found the ornaments and such, but I can’t quite reach.”

“How did they get back there?” Slim doesn’t let go of Jess but uses his foot to slide the stack to the left out of the way, going slowly so he doesn’t bump where the lantern is standing. He steps back and grabs Jess’ left shoulder with his free hand, more to steady him than to yank on it. “You should be able to get out.”

Nodding Jess shifts, putting his weight on his left leg as he steps back, right leg sliding free. He nearly overbalances, stopped only by Slim and he turns to look at him. “Thanks.” He steps back to give Slim room as he gestures. “You’ll probably have an easier time tryin’ to reach it.”

Slim edges into the space Jess just vacated and immediately sees the box Jess was looking at. There are bits of straw protruding from the top and he remembers the ornaments being wrapped to protect them from jostling. He manages to catch an edge of the box and he lifts it out, having to hold it up over his head so it will clear the stack without getting caught.

Jess opens the box to reveal straw and a flicker of a gilt edge, and he grins at Slim. “Guess it’s good thing I thought to try and get back there.”

“At least until you got stuck.” Even in the flickering light from the lantern Slim can see the beguiling flush that spreads across Jess’ cheeks, and he still can’t believe how smitten he is with Jess. It makes him feel like a teenager again and he hopes Jess can’t see it on his face. He tips his head towards the ladder. “Why don’t you go down and I’ll hand you the boxes?”

With a nod Jess heads down and Slim hands him the ornaments first before passing down the blankets and fabric boxes. Grabbing the lantern Slim makes his way down, handing the lantern off halfway, so Jess can blow it out and set it aside. He closes the hatch, making sure it seals before looking at Jess. “We’ll leave the ornaments in here until tomorrow, since there is no reason to tempt fate with Mike running around.”

Jess takes the ornaments and sets them in the corner near the dresser. “Seems like a good idea. What about the other two boxes?”

Slim opens the one at the foot of his bed, which is the one full of fabric. “This we can give to Daisy. It seems like a waste, leaving all this up here when I’m sure she can figure out something to do with it.”

Jess laughs. “With the way Mike is wearin’ holes in everythin’ he owns; I don’t think you’ll get any argument out of Daisy.”

Slim reaches over to poke at a spot on Jess’ shoulder where the blue fabric is newer, thanks to a repair by Daisy after he had snagged his shirt on barbed wire. “I don’t think you have any room to talk.”

He opens the third box, drawing out the blanket on top. It had been his mother’s, the wool edged in a floral pattern. The next one down is his, edged in red and under that is Andy’s, dark green making the wool look brighter. At the bottom is his father’s, edged in dark blue and Slim remembers how his mother had saved up all her money from repairing and making clothing to buy the blanket for him. All of the wool smells of peppermint, filling the room and Slim tosses his blanket on the bed. He leaves the other two in the box, but pulls out his father’s, holding it out to Jess.

“You might want it. I have a feeling tonight is going to be cold, with all the snow coming down.” Slim wonders if something is showing on his face, because Jess is slow to take the blanket, eyes narrowed in consideration. Jess continues to look at him for a moment before going to his bed to carefully spread the wool blanket across the quilt, fingers lingering against the edge.

It sends a shiver down Slim’s back, and he picks up the box with the other two blankets before nodding to the box of fabric. “Grab that.”

He leaves their room, still aware of the way Jess is watching him. Slim does his best to ignore him, which is hard since Jess occupies his thoughts most of time. He goes to where Mike is still watching the snow fall and pulls Andy’s blanket from the box, dropping it on his head.

Mike clutches at the wool before turning to look at Slim. “For me?”

“For you. You’ll want it tonight.” He pulls out the last blanket and holds it out to Daisy. “And for you. It seems a waste to leave them unused in the attic.”

With the way Daisy is watching him, much like Jess had, Slim has a feeling they both know the importance of the blankets, but he isn’t going to take no for an answer. They’re his family now, as much as Andy is and he knows his brother would agree with him. He motions to the box Jess is still holding. “That too Daisy. You can think of it as another present.”

Daisy tucks the blanket safely under her arm and opens the box, her eyes going wide when she sees what is inside. She smiles. “Look at all this wonderful fabric! There are so many things I can do with it, for all of us. Come on Jess, we’ll put it in my room so I can look through it better later.”

Slim watches as Jess follows Daisy like a duckling and he moves to join Mike at the window. Mike has the blanket around his shoulders as he continues to watch the falling snow. The fence posts are still hidden, but he can see the way it is collecting in the yard, which just reinforces his belief they are going to wake up to quite a bit of snow tomorrow.

Mike tips his head back to look at him. “Slim, how much snow are we going to get?”

Shrugging Slim ruffles Mike’s hair. “Probably more snow than you’ve ever seen.”

Mike’s eyes go wide. “Higher than me?”

“I sure hope we don’t get that much snow or we ain’t ever gettin’ out of the house.” Jess stops next to Slim and elbows him. “Don’t go puttin’ ideas like that in his head. We still have to see about gettin’ a tree tomorrow.”

Mike’s attention has already turned back to the snow and Slim risks a quick touch, his hand skating down Jess’ back. “I think you’ll be surprised at the amount of snow we get tonight.” He steps back, hand curling into a loose fist to avoid the temptation of touching again. “I’m going to look at the books, so I don’t have to worry about it for the next couple of days.”

Jess’ smile is quick and bright. “And I’ll be sittin’ by the fire, stayin’ warm.”

Slim shakes his head. “Just make sure all your wood curls make it into the fire this time. You remember what happened the last time they didn’t.”

Jess nods, eyes darting to Daisy’s room. “Ain’t goin’ to be a problem.”

Moving to the desk Slim lights the lantern on the top so he has more light to work with. Sitting down he steals a look at Jess, who is pulling a chair closer to the fire, knife and block of wood in hand. Since the days have gotten shorter Jess has been spending more time whittling, usually in the quiet time after dinner and before bed. By now there is a veritable collection of them around the house, including the horse that lives on the desk now. It had appeared one day, right on top of his books and Slim had set it aside, not wanting anything to happen to it.

It doesn’t take him long to make sure the books are in order, and Slim closes it, setting it aside. The stages will still run through the winter, if the snow doesn’t get too bad, but they likely won’t see anyone from the stage until the spring thaw. The higher-ups in the stage line aren’t the type to brave the weather to check on a few small relay stations.

“What do you think of this one?”

Slim twists in the chair to find Jess holding his latest project so he can see. Just a few days it wasn’t much more than a rough block of wood and now it is a horse, head up, mane blowing back in an invisible wind. Whittling isn’t something Slim has ever had the patience for and he appreciates Jess’ skill at it. “It looks like a horse.”

Jess rolls his eyes, lips curving into a smile. “Ain’t you a lot of help.”

He tosses it to Slim and he just barely manages to catch it, fingers gently curling over the long legs, so he doesn’t break it. He looks at Jess, who is still smiling. “You can have it to go with the other one.”

Slim turns, setting the new horse with the old and can’t help but notice it is a little smaller, the lines finer and together they make a fine pair. He glances at Jess, but the other man is back at work, knife moving smoothly over wood as he roughs out another shape.

Leaning back in the chair Slim scrubs a hand across his face. He has known for a long time now his feelings for Jess aren’t some flash in the pan. He has no idea when his feelings for Jess changed, but none of the eligible women in Laramie, few that they are, catch his attention anymore. Jess, however, is another story. Whenever Jess isn’t at the ranch, he is always the first thing he thinks about when he wakes up and the last before he falls asleep. Jess is the only person capable of pulling him out of a bad mood with just a few words and he knows he is in deep, but he can’t find it in himself to care.

He looks at Jess, who glances at him with a smile before going back to the wood in his hand.

-----

The dishes are almost done, and Slim accepts the last plate from Jess, carefully drying it before stacking it on the sideboard with the rest of them. Daisy is already at the table with her sewing basket, working on repairing the seam on one of Mike’s shirts and Mike is on the floor in front of the fire, reading from one of his books.

Slim hangs the towel on the hook near the stove to dry and looks at Jess who is frowning as he tries to decide what to do with the dirty water. “We can take it out tomorrow. I don’t see any reason to get cold just to do that.”

“First time today you’ve said anythin’ that makes sense.”

Jess grins and slips around him, and Slim knows he isn’t imagining the quick touch of Jess’ fingers, warm and teasing at the same time. Turning he watches at Jess sits in one of the chairs, leaning forward to say something to Mike. He can’t hear what is said but Mike smiles before going back to his book. Settling down in front of the fire is exactly what he wants to do, but Slim knows he needs to check on the animals, especially the chickens.

He gets one of the lanterns and lights it, setting it on the table next to Daisy’s before getting his coat. Shrugging it on he pointedly looks at Jess, who is watching him with a grin. “Don’t look so smug. You get to do it tomorrow, and it will be much colder.”

Pulling his gloves on, Slim picks up the lantern and heads outside. Snow is still falling, the clouds low and heavy and everything feels muffled, even the light coming from his lantern. Slim picks his way through the ankle-deep snow, to the side of the barn, where the small door is protected from the snow by the roof. He steps inside and raises the lantern. His and Jess’ horses are both in the stalls, heads down as they doze and in the far corner are the sounds of the chickens, all huddled together in the hay he and Jess had put down to help keep them warm.

Slim hangs the lantern before getting a little more food for both horses and he fills their water buckets from the barrel in the corner that he had Jess had filled just yesterday. With any luck tomorrow won’t be quite cold enough to freeze the pump and they’ll be able to top off the trough for the horses in the corral. He pats both horses on the withers before grabbing the lantern and heading back for the house.

As soon as he steps inside his cheeks start to sting from the heat and he sets the lantern down. Snow dots his shoulders and Slim is tempted to brush it off on Jess, but he resists the urge. He has done enough to rile his partner up today, and there is still plenty of time tomorrow to get Jess into the snow. Hanging up his coat Slim picks up the lantern and blows it out before moving to set it back with the others. “It looks like the chickens will be more comfortable like that. None of them are running around the barn.”

Jess nods, his eyes closed, hands across his stomach. “At least they show they got brains sometimes.”

Daisy laughs as she snips a thread and sticks the needle back into her pincushion. “And tomorrow you will say they don’t have a single thought between them.” She tucks the shirt she had been working on back into the top of her basket before standing. “Come on Mike. Time to get ready for bed.”

With a groan Mike lowers his book. “But I’m not even tired!”

Slim stops behind Jess’ chair, hands resting on the back. “I’m sure I saw you yawning when I came in. And we already said you could stay up late on Christmas.”

“Got to have plenty of energy too, if we’re goin’ to have that snowball fight you were so eager for earlier today.”

That makes Mike sit up and he closes his book, setting it aside before springing to his feet. “Night Slim, Jess!” He darts for his room, closing the door behind him and Slim grins, moving his hand to briefly squeeze Jess’ shoulder before sitting down. Leave it to Jess to think of the one thing Mike is really looking forward to and wielding that information with a deft hand.

Daisy disappears into her own room, basket in hand and Slim leans forward, setting another log on the fire. Without speaking he knows he and Jess will be staying up a little later. This has become normal over the last few months, since Mike and Daisy came out here to live with them. During the day there is no time to simply enjoy each other’s company, with all the work needing to be done, and all the time they spend either helping Daisy or Mike, or even both at the same time. Just last week Jess had gone into town to help Mort for a few days and Slim had felt oddly adrift without Jess in his customary spot at the table.

He hears the sound of Daisy’s door opening again and her gentle knock on Mike’s door. A few minutes later the doors close again, and this time Jess adds another log on the fire. “How much in the way of work you think we got tomorrow?”

Right now, warm and with Jess next to him, the last thing Slim wants to do is think about tomorrow and going outside, with the way the snow is coming down. But the stages don’t care about the weather and he and Jess have to be prepared for anything. “We’ll probably want to chop wood and check all the harnesses for any stress from the cold weather, but other than that and finding a tree, we shouldn’t have to do much.”

Jess makes a contented sound and slides further down in the chair, feet towards the fire. “Good. I don’t know what it is about snow, but it makes me want to do even less than usual.”

Slim understands. When he had gone out to check on the animals the slight chill breeze and the icy touch of the falling snow had been enough to make him want to go back inside. And tomorrow is going to be more of the same, snow and cold temperatures. “We’ll try to keep being outside to a minimum. I’m not in a hurry to have wet pants and boots all day.”

“Sounds like a right fine plan to me.”

Jess sounds like he is about to fall asleep and Slim steals a quick look, taking him in, a fond feeling curling hot and tight in his stomach. This is something he never wants to have to give up and he reaches over, fingers skimming down Jess’ forearm.

Jess turns his head, eyes slitting open, a warm, inviting smile pulling at his mouth and Slim finds himself suddenly tongue-tied. What he was going to say fades and he settles for tipping his head towards the fire. “Another log?”

He knows he has to be imagining the slight flicker of disappointment across Jess’ face, a trick of the dwindling flames. It makes him want to find the words again, but they seem lost, and he settles for keeping his hand on Jess.

Jess moves, but not enough to dislodge his light touch. “Sleep might be a better idea. Even if we don’t get an early start tomorrow because of the tree huntin’ and everythin’ else goin’ on tomorrow.”

Standing, Slim lets his hand slide from Jess’ arm. “I’m going to check the stove, if you want to light the lantern.”

“Yeah.”

Slim steps over Jess’ legs. He can tell from the heat coming off the stove that the wood is mostly burned down, and he opens the door. Picking up a log Slim uses it to rake the coals into a neat bed for Daisy tomorrow morning.

He sets the log down and checks the lock on the door, jiggling it, the metal cold in his hand. Satisfied that the door is closed he enters the main room, surprised to find Jess standing at the open front door, arms folded across his chest. Slim stops behind him, resting his hand on the frame above Jess’ head.

With the heavy clouds covering the sky the dark is absolute and the only way to tell it is still snowing is to catch the snowflakes that swirl around the lit lantern, glittering in the light before falling away.

Jess twists just far enough so he can look at Slim. “I can’t believe it’s still snowin’. And its goin’ to go on this way all night?”

Slim feels Jess shiver and he moves a little closer, free hand spreading across his side. “Probably. Before it got dark it didn’t look like there was an end to the clouds and this is normal for this time of year.” He dips his head slightly. “You should know that by now.”

Jess smiles, the light from the lantern lighting his face up. “I know, but it still surprises me.”

A sudden gust springs up, sending snow dancing across the porch and Slim steps back, using his hand on Jess’ side to guide him inside. “Stop letting the warm air out. It is going to get cold enough in here once the fire dies down.”

Closing the door Jess turns the lock before looking at Slim. “We’ll be fine. I’m lookin’ forward to takin’ advantage of the wool blanket. I’m sure it’ll keep me right warm tonight.”

“My father never had any complaints about it. Ma got it for him.” Slim glances as the fire, using it as cover to make sure it has burned down enough that he feels comfortable leaving it alone for the night. Not to try and cover for the sudden heat rushing through his cheeks, because he can tell without looking, how his words had surprised Jess. He hadn’t really meant to say it, but Jess should know.

They seem to be caught in a stalemate, neither sure what to say and Slim is glad when Jess finally moves, heading into their room. He moves to follow, only turning down the lantern on the wall for Daisy when she gets up tomorrow.

Their room is still chilly, despite the fact the door has been open all night in an attempt to warm it from the fire in the main room. Slim sits down and pulls his boots off, tucking them under the bed before he stands and starts removing his outer clothing. Jess is ahead of him, already down to his undershirt, his pants hanging loose on him and Slim hangs his shirt up before shedding his pants, folding them to go on the chair in the corner.

Jess glances at him, rubbing his hands together. “Just lettin’ you know now, I ain’t gettin’ out of bed tomorrow unless the house is warm.”

Slim shakes his head, smiling as he turns down the blankets, Jess doing the same on his bed. “We both know the best way to get warm is to get up and moving. And we both know you aren’t going to get anything if Daisy thinks you’re planning on lazing in bed all day.”

“I ain’t sure about bein’ in bed all day, but at least until it warms up some.” Jess slides into the bed and draws the blankets up, fingers gliding over the wool.

Turning down the lantern Slim reaches for his bed as the darkness settles over the room. “Maybe Christmas morning, though I doubt that, with Mike around.”

Jess’ laugh fills the darkness, smooth and warm and it sends a shiver down Slim’s back as he settles into his bed, drawing his own blankets up. Something about the still falling snow outside makes the darkness of the room feel more intimate and Slim stares in the direction of Jess’ bed. He doesn’t have to close his eyes to be able to imagine the curve of Jess’ shoulders, the line of his body under the blankets.

Slim closes his eyes.

-----

The alarm clock hasn’t gone off yet and the room is still dark, given the hour of the day but Slim sits up with a groan. He would love to stay in bed, but now that he’s awake, he knows there is no going back to sleep. From Jess’ bed he hears a similar sound, and he knows Jess is awake too. He laughs and sits up, shivering at the chill in the room. “You planning on staying in bed?”

The sound his words get from Jess isn’t quite human and Slim tosses the blankets back and stands. Without the blankets the room feels even colder. He gropes for the matches they keep on the table between the beds, and he finds it. Drawing one out he blindly lifts the globe on the lantern, and he strikes the match on the wall before holding it to the wick. It takes a moment for the wick to catch and when it does Slim turns it up.

Snuffing the match he glances at Jess’ who has his head buried under the pillow, only the back of his neck and shoulder visible. Slim shakes his head and quickly brushes his teeth but forgoes shaving, not wanting to splash cold water on his face. He gets dressed in the hopes it will make the room seem warmer, but the cold clothing makes him shiver again and he grabs his boots, not ready to put them on while they’re cold.

Jess hasn’t moved and Slim pads between their beds. He touches the back of Jess’ neck, fingers sliding across his shoulder. “Are you going to get up?”

Wiggling an arm free from the bed Jess makes a vague gesture and Slim laughs.

Daisy has a small fire going in the main room and Slim adds a few more logs to the flames before setting his boots down to warm up a bit. He joins Daisy by the stove and leans down to kiss her cheek. “Good morning. Jess should be up shortly.”

“Morning. The coffee is hot, but I haven’t started breakfast yet. I wasn’t sure when you wanted it.”

Getting a cup from the sideboard Slim fills it before going to the front door. He pulls it open, not surprised to find the snow has built up against the door and in the dark, he can’t make out how deep the snow is, but based on how deep it was when he went out last night, and the way the snow was coming down, he has a good idea.

Closing the door, he goes back to the table and sits down. A few minutes later Jess comes out of their room, and he glances at the window.

Slim laughs. “You don’t want to look outside.”

Jess makes a face as he sets his boots down near the fire. “Ain’t lookin’ forward to today.”

Daisy appears around the edge and presses a mug into Jess’ hands. “Don’t worry, I’m planning on keeping coffee going all day and I’ll make sure the three of you come inside. I remember what it was like to have a son who didn’t want to have to come in.”

Jess sits next to Slim, hands curling around the mug. “Can’t believe anyone would want to travel by stage in weather like this.”

“I can’t say I understand it. I barely even want to make the ride into town, and it is much quicker than in a stage.” Slim bumps Jess’ leg under the table. “I guess we’ll get chores done Daisy, while you make breakfast. By the time we’re done, Mike should be up, and we can go ahead and get our Christmas tree and be back for stage changes.”

Jess sighs. “I still think stayin’ in bed was a better idea, but now that I’m up, we might as well start movin’.”

They finish their coffee and Jess pushes back from the table with another sigh. “I guess we might as well turn the horses loose, though I ain’t sure where mine picked up enjoyin’ a good frolic in the snow.”

Slim smiles. “Likely making up for how miserable you are through the winter.”

“I ain’t miserable, I just prefer the weather when it is nicer. Freezin’ for four months out of year just don’t seem like a good time.”

Sliding his arm around Jess’ shoulders Slim pulls the other man against his side. “Don’t worry, I’ll find a way to make it up to you.”

It isn’t until the words are out of his mouth that Slim realizes how they sound, like a promise and Jess is looking at him, a sly, knowing smile pulling at the corners of his mouth and Slim feels caught. Daisy can’t see them and that is the only explanation for the way Jess pats his chest, fingers spread wide before stepping away to grab his boots.

Slim does the same, keeping his head down as he tugs his boots on, glad he put on a pair of thicker socks today. The toes of his boots are still cold, and it sinks into his skin. He stands and pulls his coat on, not worrying about his gun belt. The cold and snow will be enough to keep any rustlers away and they aren’t going to be outside for long.

Buttoning his coat all the way up he pulls his gloves out of the pockets, pulling them on before opening the door. It is still dark outside, though there is a faint lightening of the sky to the east, and he steps off the porch. Cold air burns his cheeks and even in the dark he can see the puff of his breath. The snow isn’t quite knee deep on him, but Mike is going to have a hard time getting around and Slim turns just in time to see Jess come outside.

Jess stays on the porch, in the pool of light, disgust clear on his face. He looks at Slim, noting how deep the snow is. “Oh, this is goin’ to make everythin’ more fun.”

Slim scoops up a handful of snow. It is too dry to make it into a ball, but he tosses it in Jess’ direction, the handful fluttering to the ground. “We’ll have to dig out the big door on the barn, but it won’t take long.” He heads for the barn, Jess following behind in his prints, though he stops at the front of the barn, waiting for him to get the shovels.

There is a skiff of snow in front of the side door and Slim opens the door, glad the shovels are just inside the door. He grabs them both and goes to the front of the barn, where Jess is shifting from foot to foot in the snow, hands tucked in the pockets of his coat.

Jess accepts the shovel and starts tossing the snow towards the corral, where it piles up further around the poles. Slim goes the opposite direction, trying to keep his snow away from the sheltered side of the barn. It isn’t long before they have the snow cleared enough, they can open the barn door and Jess jams the blade of his shovel in the snow pile.

Slim does the same and tugs the door open. “Do you want to let the horses out and get them some feed or collect eggs and feed the chickens?”

Jess grins as he rubs his hands together. “I’m sure you already know which one I’m goin’ to say.”

“I do.” The answer is always the same after the first snowfall, though Jess does help afterwards. He deals with the horses, not wanting to have to pick through the straw the chickens spent the night huddled in to find the eggs. “You going to get the team done while I’m hunting for eggs?”

Jess glances in the direction of the hill still lost in darkness. “You think the stage will be on time?”

Slim kicks at the snow, a plume of it going in the other man’s direction. “I don’t see why not. The snow is loose enough the wheels won’t have a hard time, and they’ll be coming soon, so they don’t lose the light on the late stage.”

“I’ll get the team ready.” Jess goes into the barn and lights the lantern in the near corner before lighting the one in the other corner.

Slim reaches around him to grab a match so he can light the lantern back near where the chickens spent the night. The light shows the chickens huddled together and Slim gets the feed bucket, rattling it as he does. The sound of the rattling feed gets the birds moving, clucking as they follow Slim outside. He spreads the food in the area he and Jess cleared, the chickens immediately going for the feed.

Going back inside Slim hangs the bucket back up, exchanging it for the egg basket. He sidesteps his horse, who is ambling for the open barn door, Jess and his following behind.

Jess grins at him. “Good luck tryin’ to find all the eggs.”

For a brief moment Slim thinks about following after Jess, to get a handful of powdery snow down the back of his coat, but he doesn’t. It wouldn’t be fair, and he has a feeling it might backfire on him. Jess might be smaller than him, but he is quick and knows more than his fair share of dirty tricks.

The first few eggs aren’t hard to find and Slim tucks them into the basket. It takes longer to find the rest, as he carefully combs the hay away, not wanting to break any of them. He is barely aware of the sounds of Jess coming in and out of the barn as he works on getting the team fed and in harness.

There is one egg missing and Slim straightens up. He isn’t going to worry about it, not when the egg isn’t going to go bad in this weather. They’ll likely find it later, when they change the bedding for the chickens and the egg will go outside, for whatever animal finds it first. He heads for the house, laughing when he sees Jess’ horse in the big pasture. The bay is rolling in the snow, throwing it everywhere.

Jess comes out of the barn and stops next to him, shaking his head. “There is somethin’ wrong with my horse.”

Slim bumps him. “Maybe if you rolled around in the snow you would understand.”

A shiver runs through Jess, and he slants a look at Slim. “No. I’m cold enough right now without gettin’ snow all over me.”

Putting his free hand on Jess’ back Slim pushes him in the direction of the house. “Then we can go inside and have breakfast. I’m sure Mike is up.”

Jess leads the way, following their trail from earlier and they go inside.

Mike is already up and fully dressed. He hops down from his seat and comes over to take the basket from Slim. “Is there a lot of snow?”

Shrugging out of his jacket Slim nods. “It snowed most of the night.”

Jess hangs his own coat up before stepping around Slim so he can get to the table. “Enough snow that you might get lost if you ain’t careful.”

Mike shakes his head as he takes his seat back at the table after giving Daisy the eggs. “I won’t! I’m not going to go far from either of you when we go look for a tree.”

Slim refills his and Jess’ mugs before setting the kettle back on the stove, out of Daisy’s way. “Which we’ll do as soon as we eat and do the dishes.”

Mike’s face falls at that and Jess laughs kindly. “You and I can do the dishes, while Slim takes care of the stage. That way we can go as soon as the change is done.”

Watery grey light is coming in through the curtains and Slim leans back in the chair, legs out. He isn’t surprised when he feels Jess’ legs against his and he shifts a little to accommodate him and he knows he isn’t imagining the look of happiness on the other man’s face. It kindles a similar feeling him and Slim smiles.

-----

The stage rolls up just as they are finishing breakfast and Slim gets to his feet, bit of bread in his hand. “I wasn’t expecting them this early.”

Jess shrugs as he pushes away from the table. “Maybe the snow ain’t as bad in other places.” He looks at Mike. “Come on. Let’s get cleaned up so the passengers got a place to sit and get warm while Slim gets the team changed. You goin’ to throw another log on?”

Slim nods, his mouth full of the bread. He finds a good-sized log and adds it to the fire before shrugging his coat on. Despite the fact there aren’t many clouds in the sky a few snowflakes are falling, and Slim has a feeling they might be getting more snow today.

Ted is already out of the seat, and he nods when he sees Slim. “I didn’t think I was going to be early, but the snow wasn’t as much of a problem as I thought.”

Slim nods as he opens the stage door. It takes a few moments for the few men to untangle themselves from the wool blankets, but they all manage to get out. He turns back to look at Ted. “I didn’t either. Why don’t you go inside and get some coffee while I change the team?”

Ted hurries inside without another word and Slim starts on the team. Luckily all the straps are warm from the heat of the horses, making it easy to get them out of the traces and Slim leads them to the corral before pulling the new team. The old team won’t take much work to get cooled down, since even with the good road Ted hadn’t been able to push the team like he would have on a good day.

By the time Ted and the others come out Slim already has the old team half out of harness. He waves at Ted as the man climbs back into the seat and a few minutes later the stage is rolling out, leaving deep furrows in the snow. A few minutes later Jess comes outside, coat buttoned, collar up and Slim smiles. “Already done with dishes?”

Jess steps in Slim’s prints until he is at the corral. “No. Mike is so worked up about goin’ for a Christmas tree Daisy decided it might be better for him to not touch anythin’ breakable. He’s gearin’ up for our trip and I’m startin’ to think he thinks we’re goin’ to be gone for days.”

Laughing Slim works another buckle on a harness free. “He won’t think that when he realizes how hard it’s going to be to walk through all this snow.” He tips his head towards the hill on the right side of the road. “Besides, I remember seeing quite a few trees that will work on this hill.”

Jess urges two of the horses into the corral before closing the gate. “I’m goin’ to grab the saw and a hatchet. I got a feelin’ Mike will be out in a few minutes.”

Slim turns the last two horses loose and gathers up the harness to go into the barn. Jess has the hatchet in hand but is wandering around the barn, peering into corners and nudging things aside.

“You seen the saw?”

Pausing in stretching the harnesses out on the pegs Slim frowns. “I thought we had hung it back up the last time we used it.”

Jess shakes his head. “Not with the rest of the tools.”

Looping the last bridle over the peg Slim rubs his hands together. He and Jess might not always get things put away right after they use them, not with the way they sometimes have to go haring of at a moment’s notice. But everything around the ranch has a place and eventually everything makes it back to that place.

There isn’t any sign they are going to be attacked by Mike so Slim steps closer to Jess. “I’ll go check in the loft while you finish down here.”

“Sounds like as good of a plan as anythin’.”

Jess continues his slow circuit through the bottom of the barn as Slim climbs the ladder to the loft. He doesn’t really think the saw is up here, but it never hurts to check. They have been in and out of the loft, putting up feed for the winter and one of them would have seen it, or tripped over it. He looks around, peering between the bales and stacks, with no luck.

Descending the ladder Slim watches as Jess disappears into the back corner of the barn, opposite where the chickens spent the night. A few seconds later he comes out bearing the saw and he hands it off to Slim.

Slim holds the saw up to the light coming in from the door. There aren’t any visible rust spots on the blade, and he smiles at Jess. “When we come back, why don’t we try to put it back where it belongs.”

“I still ain’t sure how it ended up back there, but I agree.”

The front door slams and they head outside.

Mike is standing on the porch, staring at the snow. The peace lasts for a moment before he jumps off, landing in the deep snow. He throws his arms up and grins. “There is so much snow!”

Grin never faltering he starts making his way towards Slim and Jess, trying to stay in their prints, though it is a struggle as he attempts to hop from spot to spot. When he finally reaches them, his cheeks are flushed and he is panting, breath coming out in clouds. “This is going to be the best.”

Jess reaches out to ruffle his hair. “Why don’t we let Slim go first. He can break the trail and then you and I’ll follow behind. That way none of us have to worry about gettin’ lost.”

Slim smiles, because there is no way they are going to get lost. The sky is crystal blue and from the top of the hill they’ll be able to see for miles in all directions. Mike doesn’t care, if the smile on his face is any indication. No matter what happens this is going to be one big adventure for him, and Slim realizes this is probably the first time Mike has seen this much snow.

Jess is thinking the same thing if the smile on his face is any sign and Slim starts up the road, trying to keep his stride shorter and leave a clearer path behind him. Nearly halfway up the hill he cuts to the right, where they can get up the hill without much problem. He stops a few feet up, to wait for Mike, who is doggedly shuffling through the snow.

Upon reaching him, Mike leans against his leg, breathing hard. “I didn’t think this was going to be so hard.”

Jess stops behind Mike, bracketing him between them and he ruffles his hair. “It’ll be a little easier goin’ up the hill Tiger. Not quite as much snow.”

Slim turns, trying to not think about the way Jess is pressed against his side, warm even through their coats. On the slope above them bits of shrubbery are poking through the snow, the slope enough to keep the snow from getting as deep and Slim touches Mike’s head, fingers brushing against Jess’ as he does. “Ready to keep going?”

Mike takes a breath and nods. “Yeah.”

It takes them nearly ten minutes to reach the top of the hill, where the trees had provided enough shelter to keep the snow from gathering, though there are drifts around several of the trees. Slim nudges Mike. “Why don’t you look around and see if you can find a tree you like.”

Mike nods with a bright smile and starts wandering around the trees, reaching out to touch the needles.

Jess stretches, the hatchet leaning against his leg. “I’m thinkin’ it might be a good thing the snow ain’t much good for snowballs. I don’t think Mike is goin’ to be up for much beyond gettin’ back down and puttin’ decorations on the tree.”

Slim nods. After the walk up the road and the hike up the hill his body feels heavy, and they still have to get the tree home and in the house. Add in the fact he and Jess are going to have to chop more wood today and Slim is starting to wish he and Jess had stayed in bed. He shifts his weight, leaning closer to Jess. “Do you think Daisy would notice if we disappeared for a little bit when we get back?”

“Not if we we’re quiet about it.”

This time Slim knows he isn’t imagining the way Jess is looking at him, the tilt of his head, the warm smile, the promise in his eyes. He wants to kiss him, is working up the courage to lean over and do it when Mike calls out.

“I found one!”

The moment is shattered, and Jess picks up the hatchet, heading towards where Mike is. Slim sighs and presses the ball of his hand against his forehead. He isn’t sure why he hesitated, when it was so obvious. It would have easy, with the way Jess was looking at him, open and relaxed, like it was normal between them.

By the time he joins them Jess is already on his knees in the snow as he pulls snow away from the trunk of the small tree. It isn’t much taller than Mike is, but the branches are full and surprisingly even. Mike looks proud of his find, stroking the branches as he beams at Slim. “Isn’t it the best?”

“It is.” Slim edges around. “Jess, do you want the saw?”

Jess tosses another handful of snow aside before looking up at him. “Yeah. There ain’t much room to get the hatchet in here.”

Slim hands it over before tugging Mike back. “Jess will have it free in a couple of minutes.”

Mike nods, watching intently as Jess works on sawing through the narrow trunk of the tree. “What are we going to put it in?”

“We have an old bucket we can put it in, with some big rocks to keep it from falling over. Then we can decorate it and enjoy the tree until Christmas.” Slim can feel Mike almost buzzing with excited energy and they should have brought a sled with them, so Mike could haul the tree home.

Mike tugs at his hand. “I can’t believe Christmas is in three days! It feels like it is never going to come.”

Jess laughs, twisting to look at Mike as he keeps one hand on the tree. “It’ll be here before you know it, and then you’ll have to go back to waitin’ until next year.”

Mike smiles. “I know, but I have my birthday too.”

Jess resumes sawing and a few seconds later the tree comes loose. He carefully lays it in the snow before standing. He rolls his shoulders and glances at Mike. “You picked a fine tree. Now we just have to get it home.”

Slim holds out the hatchet. “You take the tools and I’ll take the tree. Since you did the hard work of cutting it down.” He is half expecting some sign from Jess, annoyance that he hadn’t taken the opening to kiss him, that his sudden freezing was some kind of rejection. But Jess smiles, still warm, with a hint of teasing and Slim feels his cheeks heat despite the chill arm.

He finds a spot to grip the tree, about halfway up and he lifts it before turning to look at Mike. “Okay. Take us home.”

Mike brings them back to where they came up and he carefully makes his way down the slope, stopping to look back at them every few feet. Jess goes next, with the tools and Slim brings up the rear. The tree isn’t really heavy, but it is awkward, and Slim finds himself sliding in the snow and dirt more than once.

He feels better when they reach the road and Mike runs towards the house, following the path they made on the way to the hill. Jess falls in next to him, breaking a new trail in the snow and Slim shakes his head. “I’ll be surprised if Mike even makes it to dinner with all the running around, he is doing.”

“Maybe ain’t a bad thing. He’s just goin’ to get more worked up the closer we get to Christmas. Might be the only way we get some peace.”

Slim smiles. “You don’t want peace. You remember how excited Andy was your first Christmas here.” They hadn’t gotten quite as much snow that year as they have this year, but they had spent a lot of time outside, ignoring Jonesy’s complaints about how they were all going to get sick. They hadn’t, but it had been fun. Last year had almost been too quiet, with the fact Andy hadn’t been able to come home.

Jess shrugs, slanting a look at Slim. “Maybe just a little quiet. I hope it warms up a little tomorrow, so we can have a proper snowball fight.”

“We might get more snow tonight.”

That makes Jess stop and he looks up before glaring at Slim. “I don’t see any clouds.”

He keeps walking, not wanting Jess to see his smile. “You never know. They might move in when it gets dark, and we’ll wake up to more.” He laughs when he hears Jess start to catch up. “You know how crazy the weather can be.”

Mike is already inside when they reach the corral and Jess points at the barn. “I’m goin’ to go put things back and then I’ll be in.”

Slim nods as he keeps heading for the house. “I’ll make sure Daisy has coffee going.” Even with gloves his fingers are cold and so are his toes.

Entering the house, he stamps his feet to get most of the snow off. The bucket for the tree is already out, against the back wall and well away from the fireplace. Slim carries the tree over, surprised to see there are already rocks in it and he looks at Daisy.

She smiles. “It was the least I could do, while you were out braving the snow for the tree.”

“What did you do with Mike?”

Daisy points at his closed door. “Putting on dry clothing. I don’t need to tell you and Jess to do the same, do I?”

Slim looks down at his pants, the bottoms crusted with snow. “No. Jess and I didn’t get nearly as wet.”

Jess comes inside and shrugs his coat off, hanging it up before crossing to help Slim. He kneels down near the bucket and removes a few of the rocks, setting them aside as he glances at Slim. “You don’t think we’ll need to trim a few of the branches?”

“I don’t think so.” Slim bends a little to get a better look at the bottom of the tree, turning it slowly as he does. The branches at the bottom are long and sweeping, but Jess had cut it close enough to the ground there is quite a bit of trunk without any branches growing out. “We’re good. Take the tree for a minute, would you. Now that we’re inside my coat is too much.”

Taking a hold of the tree Jess grins. “Should’ve thought of that when you first came in.”

Slim can hear the teasing in Jess’ voice, and he unbuttons his coat before pulling it off. “I was just waiting for you. I didn’t want to lean the tree against the wall when I have a perfectly good tree holder outside.”

Jess huffs a laugh and shakes the tree. “If I’d knowed you were waitin’ on me I would’ve been in sooner. We better get this up before Mike comes out.”

Before Slim can get back over to help Jess, Mike’s door open and he comes out, his smile falling a little when he sees Jess is holding the tree. “Oh.”

Slim moves around him, squeezing his shoulder as he does. “Don’t worry. We’ll have it up in just a second.” He takes the tree from Jess and lifts it over the bucket, waiting for his partner to grab the bottom of the trunk. There is a gentle tug, and he lowers the tree, holding it still as Jess returns the rocks to the bucket, wedging them in to keep the tree upright.

At Jess’ nod Slim lets go of the tree, almost expecting it to list. Instead, it stays upright, and he smiles, offering his hand to Jess. Jess accepts and Slim tugs him to his feet, not surprised when Jess is slow to release his hand and even slower to put space between them.

If not for Daisy and Mike it would be easy to lean in and kiss Jess. Slim shakes his head. “I’ll go grab the box of ornaments.”

Retrieving the box Slim sets it on the table and opens it up. He carefully starts picking through the straw, removing ornament after ornament, setting them on the table so Mike can reach them. There are snowflakes, different Santas, wreaths, stars, angels, sleighs and reindeer.

Mike carefully picks up one of the snowflakes and glances at Slim, who smiles. “Go ahead. Decorate what you can reach. Jess and I will take care of the top.”

Jess accepts a mug from Daisy as they watch Mike pick ornament after ornament, not hanging them up until he has looked at the tree from all angles. He nudges Slim, who is nursing his own coffee. “I told you Mike wasn’t goin’ to be up for much more excitement.”

It isn’t hard to see what Jess is talking about. Mike’s face is still lit with excitement, his eyes wide, but his movements are a little slow and he keeps yawning. When he finally can’t get the ornaments on the branches, he turns to look at them. “How does it look?”

Slim sets his mug down. “Great. Why don’t you go have some warm milk while Jess and I put up the rest of the ornaments and then you can put the star on the top.”

Setting his own mug down Jess picks up one of the wreaths and rubs his thumb over the little red ribbon tied at the bottom. “It’s too bad Andy ain’t able to make it home.”

With a nod Slim picks up a reindeer and hooks it on one of the higher branches. This is the first time they’ve really talked about it, and he agrees. Their little family doesn’t feel right without him. “There is always next year.”

It doesn’t take them long to hang the rest of the ornaments and by then Mike has finished and is ready to put the star on top. Slim picks him up, arm across his chest and holds the tree steady with his free hand. Jess hands Mike the star but doesn’t move away, ready to catch it if something goes wrong.

With a look of fierce concentration Mike carefully places the star on the tip of the tree. It wiggles a little but settles and Mike lowers his hands with a smile. He twists in Slim’s arms to look at Daisy, who is watching with a gentle smile. “Look at the tree Aunt Daisy!”

She claps her hands. “It looks wonderful. You three did an excellent job on it.”

Slim sets Mike down, who runs to Daisy.

-----

Exhausted, Slim lazily picks through the wood to find a small piece to put on the fire. Mike indeed hadn’t made it much past dinner before the day had caught up with him and he had gone to bed. Daisy has retreated to her room, and Slim knows it is because she has been working on sewing Christmas presents. Jess is outside checking on the animals for the last time tonight, leaving Slim alone with his thoughts, for at least a little while.

Thoughts, that keep returning to Jess, something that is not at all unusual anymore. Right now though he can’t stop thinking about what had happened in the barn today. He should have closed the distance between them, kissed Jess, if even for a brief moment. It would have been enough, for that moment, to cement the fact they share the same feelings for each other. But the moment has been lost and Slim isn’t sure how to get it back.

When he finally hears the door open, it seems like Jess has been outside for longer than it takes to check on the horses and chickens. “I was starting to think you had gotten lost out there.”

“Don’t have to worry about that. It’s cold enough out there I wasn’t goin’ to walk into the woods. Just spent some time brushin’ the horses, since they spent the day runnin’ wild.”

Twisting in the chair Slim smiles when he sees the snowflakes dotting the dark fabric of Jess’ coat. “I told you it was going to snow again.”

Jess makes a face as he unbuttons his coat. “Isn’t much more than a little bit. Don’t think it will mean much more tomorrow.” He moves to stand by Slim’s chair, hand curling over the back, brushing against his back. “You plannin’ on puttin’ more wood on?”

Slim leans back, feeling Jess’ fingers like brands. “No. I was thinking it might be better to call it an early night. Mike is going to keep us busy tomorrow. Since you promised him a snowball fight.”

Laughing, Jess leans down. “Like you ain’t lookin’ forward to tryin’ to get revenge for last year.”

There hadn’t been an official snowball fight, with it just being the two of them, but Jess had thrown a snowball at him every time they were outside, once they got snow. As much as he tried, he had never been able to catch Jess unaware, or with much more than a glancing blow. He glances at Jess, who is still leaning in. “It might have crossed my mind.”

Jess’ mouth curls into a lazy smile and he straightens up. “I guess we’ll see if you manage to get lucky tomorrow.” He pulls his hands free, fingers trailing up Slim’s back to the nape of his neck. “But I’m thinkin’ you’re right. Headin’ towards bed sounds like a good idea.”

With a nod Slim pushes out of the chair and kneels in front of the fire to rake out the coals. The room gets darker, shadows growing as the flames burn down. Slim gets to his feet and follows Jess into their room, pulling the door closed behind him. The room is warm, but with the door closed it won’t take long for the chill to settle in and Slim wants to be under the blankets before that happens.

Jess already has his boots off, shirt hanging loose around him, and Slim averts his gaze. Even with the almost kiss in the barn it doesn’t feel right to look, and he keeps his back turned as he fights with the buttons on his shirt. Not being able to see Jess doesn’t help though and he feels like is attuned to every move Jess makes, the rustle of fabric against his body. He knows it would be easy to turn and catch Jess, pull him in, to kiss him, but he doesn’t.

Even with the seeming confirmation of their mutual feelings earlier, now doesn’t feel like the right time to pursue anything. He is tired and a quick look shows Jess isn’t even trying to hide his own yawn. They’ll probably both sleep to the alarm tomorrow and Slim quickly finishes changing, before sliding into bed.

The sheets are cool against his toes, and he shifts, listening to the sounds of Jess still moving around, his quiet curse as he pulls his socks off and his toes meet the cold floor. He has to stifle his laugh and he knows he fails when he feels something soft hit his back.

“Ain’t nothin’ funny about cold toes.” Jess reaches up to turn down the lantern before sliding into bed. “I’ll get you back tomorrow.”

Slim draws his blankets further up, knowing full well Jess is probably already plotting.

-----

Waking up is a struggle and Slim reaches over to silence the alarm clock but doesn’t move any further. He hears Jess move, but neither of them makes any attempt at getting out of bed. Stretching Slim can hear the quiet sounds of Daisy moving around in the main room and he stretches. “We need to get up.”

Jess makes a sound. “You goin’ to get warm water so we can shave?”

Slim laughs and rolls over despite the fact he can’t see Jess in the darkness of the room. “What’s keeping you from getting up and doing it?” One of them is going to have to give in, since neither of them shaved yesterday. His face is already starting to itch, and it won’t take long before it is annoying enough for him to regret not shaving today.

“Only seems fair, since you’re closer to the door.”

His blanket slips down and he shivers as cold air flows in the gap. Dragging the wool blanket up over his shoulders he smiles. “If that’s how you want to play it, you can come over here so you’re closer to the door.”

It takes him a moment to realize what he said and how it sounds. Embarrassed heat sweeps across his cheeks and he is glad the room is still dark.

Jess laughs. “Ain’t hardly seem like the time for that.” He sighs. “Fine, I’ll get the water, if you do it tomorrow.”

Slim nods despite the fact the other man can’t see him. “Seems fair.”

He keeps his eyes closed as he hears Jess get out of the bed. As much to give Jess his privacy as to keep from seeing the smile he knows will be on Jess’ face. He doesn’t usually trip over his words like that, but Jess does things like that to him.

Once the door opens Slim slips out of bed and closes the door before quickly dressing. Picking up his boots he opens the door, just in time for Jess who has a bowl of gently steaming water in hand. Jess smiles warmly and Slim knows he likely is never going to hear the end of his invitation when they’re in private.

He steps back so Jess can get in. “Go ahead, since you got the water. I’ll get some coffee.”

“Thanks.”

Slim sets his boots by the fire; glad Jess seems to have added some more wood when he came out for the water. Even with the early hour it feels warm in here and he pads into the kitchen. “Good morning, Daisy.”

“Morning Slim. I thought I would go ahead and make the bread for Christmas today. That way I can make the pie tomorrow and have Christmas day to focus on the roast and everything else.”

Setting the kettle back on the stove Slim smiles. “And I’m sure all that baking has nothing to do with keeping the house warm for the next couple of days.”

Daisy returns his smile and gently hits him on the arm with her towel. “I’ve heard all your plans for today, running around in the snow, throwing it at each other. Wouldn’t you much rather come into a warm house?”

He pulls open the kitchen door and looks out, stars dotting the sky. “Of course. Why do you think Jess and I spent all that time chopping wood the last few days? I knew you were going to be baking and how cold it was going to be. It should warm up later though.”

“I sure hope so. The last thing I need is all of you catching a chill two days before Christmas.” Daisy flicks her towel towards the table. “You might as well sit down. Breakfast is going to be a bit yet and I don’t see any reason for you and Jess to go outside yet. Too dark and the stage won’t be through yet.”

Slim sits down. “You are a wise woman, Daisy.”

She smiles. “My husband said the same thing, many times.”

“I’m gettin’ the feelin’ because he knew sayin’ otherwise would get him in trouble.” Jess grins as he comes out of their room. “And I don’t like bein’ in trouble with you, so I agree with Slim.”

“Funny, there have been other times agreeing with me would have kept you out of trouble, and you didn’t.” Slim finds it hard to look away from Jess and he traces the sharp line of his jaw with his eyes, wanting to reach out and touch it.

Jess stops behind him, fingers gliding across his shoulder as he leans in. “Yeah, but you don’t cook anymore, so not agreein’ with you ain’t such a bad thing.” He taps Slim’s chin with his free hand. “You might want to deal with that before the water gets much cooler.”

“As soon as you move.” Slim can hear the slight strain in his voice, and he is sure Jess can. He can feel Jess’ warmth against his back, the fingers almost absently stroking against his shoulder.

Jess lingers for a moment before stepping back and heading for the stove and coffee.

Slim leaves his mug on the table, retreating to their room. He closes the door and takes his time shaving, as much to be careful, as to get some time to calm his racing thoughts. His chin still feels warm from Jess’ fleeting touch, and he wishes he had actually kissed Jess yesterday. He doubts it would do anything to ease the burning need to touch, to drag his hands over Jess’ skin and feel him. Maybe, at least it would make it easier to think when Jess is close.

Drying his face Slim grabs a shirt and shrugs it on, doing up the buttons before tucking it in. He fastens his belt and sees Jess’ boots still at the foot of his bed. He picks them up and takes them into the room, setting them down next to him. “You forgot your boots.”

“Thanks.” Jess grins and slumps further down in the chair. “I even got my wool socks on, and my toes are still cold.”

Slim sits back down, Jess’ knee pressing against his as he does. “You’ll warm up once we start running around the yard doing chores and throwing snowballs around.”

That makes Jess’ grin widen and Slim sighs.

-----

The morning stage is leaving the yard and Slim turns, just in time to barely avoid the snowball headed towards him. It hits the snow, and he glares at Jess, who is standing near the corral with the team they just changed out.

His partner is trying to look innocent and failing miserably, his grin breaking through. “I had to make sure the snow was good enough to make snowballs with. Mike will be expectin’ to come out here soon and we don’t want to disappoint him.”

Slim is tempted to lob his own snowball at Jess, but now isn’t the time. Jess will be expecting it and he wants to be able to get a good opportunity to pay him back. Instead, he crosses the yard to start helping him get the team out of harness. “It’s already warmer today than it was yesterday.” He bumps Jess as they work. “You were just trying to get a head start.”

“I would never.”

In short order they get the horses turned loose and the harness hung up. Slim tips his head towards the hay stacked neatly in the corner. “Let’s toss some hay into the corral and the pasture for the cows and horses. They’ll still find some forage under the snow but there isn’t any reason to not give them more.”

Slim tosses the last bale over the railing before leaning through to cut the twine. He pulls it loose and tucks it into his jacket pocket. Folding his knife, he puts it in his pocket and looks around for Jess. He isn’t sure where the other man got off to. He had said something about taking the wheelbarrow back to the barn, but he has been gone for longer than that would take.

Shaking his head Slim heads back towards the house, wondering if Jess has gone inside and didn’t tell him. He opens the front door to find Mike spilling out of his room, suspenders hanging down as he works on jamming his shirt into his pants. “Slow down before you fall.”

Mike slides to a stop, grinning as he finally manages to get his shirt tucked in. “But I’m so excited! Aunt Daisy said the snow is good for making snowballs and I’ve been waiting for this all day.”

All day has only been a couple of hours and Slim smiles as he goes to the table where Daisy is busy kneading the bread. “Did Jess come in?”

Daisy shakes her head. “No. I thought you two were finishing up with chores before coming in to get Mike. Why do you think he disappeared?”

“I’m not sure. Knowing Jess there is a good chance he is hiding somewhere making snowballs, just waiting for me to step back outside.” Slim smiles as Mike comes rushing over, suspender straps where they belong. “Do you have your warm socks on, and your underthings?”

Mike nods and grabs at Slim’s hand for balance as he lifts his foot to show him his sock. “I do. Can we go outside now?”

Slim nods. “As soon as you get your boots, coat and gloves on. You don’t need to worry about your hat. We don’t what to lose it out there.”

Letting go, Mike runs to where he has his boots by the fire, and he sits down to pull them on. “Where’s Jess?”

“Outside waiting for us.” He doesn’t know that for sure, but it seems likely. At this point he is expecting to get a snowball to the chest as soon as he sets foot outside. Jess is likely going to focus on him, which is only fair. They want this to be fun for Mike and he isn’t going to enjoy it if he doesn’t manage to hit either of them with snowballs.

As he waits for Mike to finish getting his boots on Slim turns and leans down to kiss the top of Daisy’s head. “I don’t know when we’ll be in, but Jess and I will make sure Mike doesn’t get too cold.”

Daisy nods. “I’ll keep a pot of coffee on, and it won’t take me more than a minute to get some milk heated up for him.” She glances at him. “You three have fun.”

A quick look shows Mike has his coat on and is practically dancing with impatience and Slim moves to join him. “We will.”

Mike tugs the door open and runs outside, slowing down as he hits the still deep snow. Slim closes the door, just as a snowball splatters against the near post, sending bits of snow flying into his face. Hand still on the doorknob he looks around the yard, hoping to see Jess, but there is no sign of him.

“Still just makin’ sure the snow is just right.”

Slim can hear the laughter in Jess’ voice, but he doesn’t move away from the door. “Sure, you are. I’m calling a truce so we can figure out the rules.”

He steps off the porch, half expecting another snowball, but nothing comes, and Jess suddenly appears from wherever he was hiding. They converge where Mike is standing, rolling a snowball between his hands and Slim rests his hand on Mike’s shoulder. “Okay, how are we doing this?”

Jess grins, ruffling Mike’s hair. “I was thinkin’, Mike could be on your team, since you’re goin’ to need the help more than I will. And no leavin’ the immediate yard. Just the front and around the house and between it and the barn. No point in gettin’ the animals riled up.”

Now Jess is just trying to get a rise out of him, and Slim ignores the urge to just tackle him into the snow. “That is fine with me. Mike wanted to win anyway.”

Mike laughs and nods, the snowball still clutched in his hands.

Jess nods. “Then if we’re all agreed it’s fair, I think we each get a few minutes to get to our startin’ spots and then we can start.”

Before Slim can say anything, Jess is moving, disappearing back to where he likely already has a stack of snowballs waiting. Slim crouches down to look at Mike. “Where do you want to start?”

Mike looks around thoughtfully before nodding towards the corner of the house on the Laramie side of the yard. “Over there. That way we have cover and plenty of snow!”

He lets Mike lead the way over, and doesn’t turn around, though he can feel Jess watching him. With all the places to hide around the barn and that part of the yard he can’t think of a single good place his partner might be hiding. There are too many spots and Jess has likely picked one he wouldn’t have ever thought of. They reach the corner of the house and duck around it.

The snow is still a pristine surface, save the few scuffs of a rabbit on the snow. Slim bends down and immediately starts rolling snowballs, packing them before setting them aside. “How do you want to do this? Do we wait for Jess to come to us or go find him?”

Frowning Mike keeps packing snowballs. “I don’t know. What do you think would be better?”

“I think you should go see if you can find him. I’ll stay here and keep rolling snowballs.” Slim knows if Mike goes, Jess will hit him with one, while the rest will seem like near misses. Meanwhile, Jess will likely get hit by every snowball Mike throws at him and will make a big deal out of the whole thing. If he goes, Jess is just going to laugh and hit him every time.

With a serious nod Mike stands and tucks a snowball in each of his pockets and picks up two more. “Okay. I’m going to go find him.”

Slim smiles as Mike plows through the track they made on the way here, one snowball held up and ready for Jess if he appears. He keeps making snowballs until he has a neat pile stacked next to him, waiting for the first sign of confrontation. It comes a few seconds later, a shriek, followed by laughter and Mike yelling.

Mike comes rushing back, his cheeks flushed, and he falls to his knees next to Slim to begin making more snowballs. “Jess got me with one, but I got him with all the rest. I even almost hit him in the face. It’s your turn.”

Gathering up a few of his own ammunition Slim stands and carefully makes his way around the front of the house, knowing his own reception isn’t going to be as welcoming. He reaches the spot where Mike and Jess must have had their scuffle, the snow turned up and kicked in all directions. Putting his back to the house he looks around, worried he can’t see Jess. His dark coat should stand out against the almost blinding whiteness of the snow, but it doesn’t, and Slim has no idea where he is.

A snowball hits him in the arm and he turns, catching a flash of Jess. He throws his first snowball, and it explodes against one of the coops, nearly catching Jess. His next throw goes wild, sailing well over Jess and he curses, crouching down to make another snowball.

Jess reappears, tossing another one in his direction and Slim has to drop to his knees and duck his head to avoid getting hit. He throws his half-formed missile, and it holds together until it explodes against Jess’ shoulder.

Feeling wild Slim scoops up another handful and starts pressing it into a ball, even as Jess does the same some eight feet from him. It turns into a race, to see who can get it done faster and he manages, just barely. He throws, but Jess ducks, tossing his own snowball and seconds later Mike comes running around the house with a yell, snowballs in both hands.

From there it degenerates, snowballs flying every which way, with no regard for who is throwing at who. Slim feels one hit the side of his head, bits of snow falling down the collar of his jacket and he shivers even as he throws another snowball at Jess. Mike is throwing at both of them as fast as he can make them and since they aren’t really dodging, they are both covered in snow.

Jess makes a break for it, around the back of the house and Slim moves to follow, leaving Mike who is consumed with making more snowballs. He hops the fence, not long after Jess and he follows his trail. The snow back here is a little deeper, thanks to drifting and he is having an easier time getting through it, unlike Jess, who is struggling.

He gets close and tackles Jess. Jess yelps as they go down, and Slim ducks, narrowly avoiding an elbow. If not for the depth of the snow the landing would be hard, but it cushions them and Jess twists, managing to get his arm around Slim’s shoulders. He lands on his back, with Slim on his knees between his legs.

They stay like that for a few minutes, both trying to catch their breaths as they look at each other. Slim isn’t proud of himself, when it realizes how they are, him kneeling between Jess’ spread legs, hands in the snow on either side of his head. Jess’ arm is still around his shoulders, holding him close and he feels his heartbeat pick up that has nothing to do with the way he is still breathing hard from the chase.

This is entirely because of their position, the way Jess is looking up at him and he knows he isn’t seeing things when Jess shifts, spreading his legs a little wider. He takes a deep breath and lifts his left hand from the snow, dragging the cold leather of his gloves across the sweep of Jess’ cheek.

He leans down, intent on kissing Jess this time, to make up for yesterday. The other man’s eyes flutter shut and Jess tips his head back.

“Jess, Slim?”

Slim sighs and carefully moves off Jess. Jess, in turn stays in the snow for a few seconds later before he sits up. Mike rounds the corner, face lighting up when he sees them. He struggles through the snow to join them.

“I was wondering where you had gone.” He looks between them and rubs his hands together. “My toes are cold. Can we go inside?”

Jess stands and picks Mike up, putting him over his shoulders like a bag of flour. “Yeah. And I bet Daisy has somethin’ nice and warm for you to drink too.”

Slim slips ahead of Jess, breaking a path through the snow. When they get to the fence he goes over first, taking a giggling Mike from Jess and heading for the front door. As soon as they get inside, he sets Mike down and takes his coat off. “Take your boots off so you don’t track snow all over and then go change. You’re soaked.”

Mike’s pants are soaked up over his knees and his shirt is sticking to him with sweat from running around outside in his coat for the almost hour they were outside.

“We ain’t much better.”

Slim follows the direction of Jess’ finger to see snow crusting his pants and he can feel his shirt, damp under his arms and across his chest and back. “I guess we aren’t.” He looks at Daisy, who is watching them all with a fond smile and a quiet threat in her eyes to not get the floor wet with snow.

“Daisy, we’re all going to change before we all get sick.”

She smiles. “I’ll make sure the coffee and milk are hot. I’ve already got sandwiches ready for when you come back out.”

Jess manages to pull his boots off without falling over and he sets them near the door before padding over to the fire to add another log. “Sounds perfect Daisy. I’m goin’ to get somethin’ warm on.”

Slim follows him, closing the door and he immediately shivers. “Only problem with this is the room is cold.”

Jess drops his hands to his belt and starts working it free of his pants. “Guess you better make it quick then.”

He starts suiting action to words, tossing his belt to the bed before he pulls both of his shirts free, tossing them aside.

Warmth sweeps through him and Slim averts his gaze, working his own belt free. He removes his shirts and pulls a clean, dry shirt from the dresser. The brown fabric is thick and warmer than his usual shirts and he pulls it on, quickly doing up the buttons. He does the same with his pants and underthings, feeling much better wrapped in dry fabric.

Sitting on his bed he pulls his damp socks off and tosses them with the rest of his clothing. He risks a quick look to find Jess shrugging his grey shirt on. “Do you want a dry pair of socks?”

Jess turns and looks at him with a smile. “Thanks. I ain’t sure I can feel my toes anymore.”

Standing Slim opens the top two drawers and withdraws two pairs of socks. He tosses one to Jess. “We can sit with our toes in the fire until we have to go out for the afternoon stage. Maybe by then you’ll be able to feel them again.”

Socks in hand Jess moves to sit on the edge of the bed with Slim, their elbows brushing. “I ain’t goin’ out again today. You’re on your own.”

Slim slants a look at him as he pulls a sock on. “I’m sure I could think of something to make it worth it to you.”

A smile pulls at Jess’ mouth, and he leans towards Slim. “Ain’t got a doubt you could, but we’ll leave it for later. Right now I’m more concerned with gettin’ warm again.”

Slim has a feeling he knows what Jess is talking about and he agrees. His toes are so cold they hurt.

-----

“Gracious, look at the three of you.”

Slim opens his eyes, to find Daisy standing to the side and smiling at them. Mike is asleep on the couch, the afghan spread over him, while he and Jess are slumped down in the chairs, feet tangled together in front of the fire. He glances at Jess, who looks like he might be asleep, the rise and fall of his chest even and deep.

He smiles at Daisy. “I guess that snowball fight took it out of us. At least Mike will be easy to get to bed.”

Daisy glances at the clock. “Which is about now.”

With a heavy sigh Jess slowly sits up. “I got it.” He untangles his feet from Slim’s and stands, stretching his back out. Stepping over Slim’s legs he flips back the afghan covering Mike. “Hey Tiger, time for bed.”

Mike groans and curls up further. Without trying to wake him again Jess settles for scooping him up and carrying him into his room.

Slim scrubs a hand across his face and stands. “I guess I’ll go check on the animals while Jess gets him settled for the night.”

Daisy smiles. “I’m going to be in my room for the rest of the night. I have a few presents left to finish up and now seems like the time, when you’re all about to fall asleep right here.”

“Oh no. As soon as I come back in, I’m headed for bed, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Jess is already there after getting Mike in bed.” His boots are still damp from earlier, but he pulls them on before moving Jess’ closer to the fire. “Night Daisy.”

“Good night, Slim.”

Slim grabs his jacket and shrugs it on, closing it up before stepping outside. The sky is clear, the almost full moon casting enough light for him to get to the barn. He lights the lantern and places it on the hook near the horses. Both animals are dozing, and the chickens are all tucked in the hay, making soft sounds.

He goes back to his horse, scratching along the neck and withers. Jess’ horse gets the same treatment before he goes back to the house.

Inside the fire has already been raked out for the evening and he can see Jess’ hand in the work. Shrugging his coat off he hangs it back up and removes his boots, setting them back next to the fire. He checks both doors and locks and goes into their room. Jess is a lump in his bed and the lantern is down, providing just enough light for him to change and get into bed.

He turns down the lantern and climbs into bed, drawing the blankets up.

-----

The morning stage is on its way and Slim works on the buckle on the harness. The day is clear, without a cloud in the sky and it is a little cooler today, causing the snow freeze, leaving it icy. Jess is working on splitting more wood and neatly stacking it against the side of the house, having already filled the wood box inside.

Mike comes out of the house and carefully makes his way over to Slim, following their tracks to avoid stepping onto the icy snow. He climbs up the corral railing and sits down, watching as Slim removes the harness off the first horse. “Slim, I have a question.”

“Shoot.” The last buckle on the harness is proving stubborn and Slim tugs at it.

“Well, today is the day before Christmas.”

Slim smiles. “It sure is.” There is no way any of them could forget, with the way Mike had come running out of his room this morning, still in his night shirt. He had run around the main room, loudly pronouncing it to be Christmas Eve before Daisy had chased him back into his room with her towel and a laugh.

Mike shifts on the railing. “And tonight, Santa has to deliver presents to all the kids.”

Slim manages to get the buckle loose and he starts peeling the straps from the horse. “He does. Which is a mighty amount of work for one person.”

Nodding, Mike looks at him. “Will Santa be able to find us all the way out here?”

Draping the harness over the railing next to Mike, Slim moves on to the next horse. Mike looks genuinely worried, and it makes him realize this is Mike’s first Christmas not in a town and it makes sense he would worry. The Wyoming territory is vast, and they are twelve miles from Laramie. “Of course, Santa will be able to find us. He found us every year when Andy was here, and he’ll make it here for you too. Santa Claus has magic that lets him find all the kids who are getting presents.”

Mike’s face wrinkles in thought and a few seconds later he smiles brightly. “Okay! I’ve been worrying about that mighty hard today.” He leans forward. “What did you want for Christmas?”

The question is innocent enough and Slim can’t help but look to where Jess is still chopping wood. He seems intent on making sure they don’t have to chop wood tomorrow, which is fine with Slim. Christmas is the one day a year they don’t have to worry about the stage running and short of doing the most basic of chores in the morning, they’re going to spend the day not doing anything. And there is only one thing he wants for Christmas, not that he can say it to Mike.

He drags his gaze away from Jess and goes back to working on the horses. “Whatever I get is fine.” He reaches over and taps Mike on the nose, watching as he goes cross-eyed. “When you get to be my age, there aren’t a lot of things you want.”

Mike shakes his head and smiles. “That seems silly.” He slips down from the corral and smiles. “I’m going to go talk to Jess.”

“Just be careful. You don’t want to get hit accidentally.”

Waving Mike slowly makes his way over to Jess.

-----

Slim turns the last horse loose into the pasture and closes the gate. He and Jess had tossed more hay bales over the fence earlier, as well as a few buckets of sweet feed for the horses. Turning back to get Jess’ attention he finds his partner crouched in the snow, digging around. He hurries over. “What are you doing?”

Jess glances at him before going back to digging through the snow. “My damn knife fell out of my pocket, and I can’t find it.”

By the turned-up snow it is obvious Jess has been looking for a few minutes and it takes Slim longer than it should to realize Jess doesn’t have gloves on. He can see how pink the other man’s fingers are and he crouches down next to him. Pulling his gloves off he pulls Jess’ hands from the snow and traps them between his own, hoping to warm him up. “Do I want to know where your gloves are?”

Jess jerks his head back towards the house, gaze glued to their hands. “Inside dryin’ out. I wasn’t plannin’ on havin’ to dig through the snow to find my knife.”

Slim rubs his hands against Jess’, glad to feel the other man’s hands are starting to warm up. “And here I thought I only had to worry about one child.”

“Hey, that ain’t fair. I’ve had my gloves the rest of the week.” Jess crooks his fingers, twining them with Slim’s. “Besides, I got you to warm me back up, so it ain’t all bad.”

He feels tongue-tied, as much by Jess’ words as the soft look on his face, one Slim knows he’s never seen before. This is the third time in as many days he has been alone with Jess and been completely unable to bring words to what he wants to say. Instead, he ducks his head and focuses on trying to warm Jess’ fingers back up.

After what feels like years, he finally releases Jess’ hands, glad to feel them warm against his palms. He pulls his gloves back on, frowning when he sees a flash in the snow just beyond Jess. Leaning forward he feels Jess’ hand on his chest, bracing him and he reaches into the snow. His fingers brush something and he grabs it, sitting back on his heels to show Jess his knife. “You were close.”

Jess makes a face and takes it, wiping away the snow. “I swear I looked there.” He sighs. “Oh well, the important thing is you found it. I don’t know about you, but I’m thinkin’ I’m cold enough to want to go inside.”

Slim stands, brushing snow from his pants. “Sounds like an excellent plan. We don’t have anything else to do today.”

-----

“No.”

Slim has been dozing for the last hour or so, not ready to face the cold and getting out of bed. Today is Christmas and there isn’t much to do. The complaint from Jess’ bed isn’t unexpected and Slim smiles, rolling over. He thinks about not getting out of bed, but he would much rather get the chores done and not really have to worry about much else today.

Tossing the blankets aside he doesn’t bother with the lantern and gets dressed in darkness and even manages to brush his teeth. There is no reason for both of them to be up. Once he is dressed, he kneels between the beds, hand finding the curve of Jess’ shoulder in the darkness. “Merry Christmas. You can stay in bed if you want.”

Jess huffs a laugh and moves. “Might not want to make that offer.”

Slim smiles, hand gliding down Jess’ arm. “I make it knowing there will be a nine-year-old up sooner or later to open presents.”

That makes Jess groan. “You got a cruel streak some days Slim Sherman.”

“Just a friendly reminder.” With a last pat Slim gets to his feet and leaves the room, closing the door behind him.

The main room is warm and well lit, the fire crackling and Slim can already smell coffee. The ornaments on the tree are catching light from the lanterns on either side, glittering. There are wrapped packages around the bucket, the corners neat and tidy. His and Jess’ packages are neatly stacked in their room, and they’ll have to bring them out later.

He grabs one of the mugs already on the table. “Merry Christmas Daisy.”

“Oh, Merry Christmas.” Daisy smiles, peering around him. “No Jess?”

Slim fills his mug. “I told him he could stay in bed, but it won’t mean much when Mike finally gets up.”

Daisy laughs as she stirs something in a pot on the stove. “It might be longer than you think. With the way he was running around yesterday, excited for today, he could be in bed for hours.”

Curling his hands around the mug Slim leans back against the sideboard as he watches Daisy cook. “I think you underestimate is excitement. I wouldn’t be surprised if he wakes up around the time the sun comes up.”

“Well then, I suppose I should get going on breakfast. We aren’t touching those presents until we’ve all eaten and cleaned up.”

“Of course.” Slim moves out of the way and sets his mug on the table. Grabbing his boots, he pulls them on, wincing a little bit at the still damp toes. This is part of what he hates about winter, how his boots never seem to dry out, no matter how long they sit by the fire. If he goes out now, Jess will have to go out tonight to check on the animals and maybe by tomorrow they’ll have dry boots.

His jacket is at least warm, and he goes out. He can see his breath in the waning darkness, and he heads for the barn. The horses raise their heads when he opens the door and he lets them out, turning them into the smaller corral. The chickens show no signs of wanting to go outside yet and he leaves them, though he has to chase them out of the hay so he can gather the eggs.

As soon as he steps away from the hay the chickens flock back and he removes the lantern from the hook, taking it back to near the doors. He blows the lantern out and closes the door behind him. Later, when it is light and warms up a little, they can let the chickens out and feed them.

Jess is at the table when he gets inside and Slim hands the eggs to Daisy. “I thought you were planning on staying in bed for a little longer.”

“Oh, I thought about it, but then decided I need coffee more than sleep before startin’ Christmas.” He smiles. “I guess that means I’m goin’ out tonight to the barn.”

“You are. Only seems fair, since you lounged around in bed.” Shedding his jacket and boots Slim joins Jess at the table. He glances at the tree, surprised to see all of the presents from he and Jess around the bottom of the tree. “Thank you.”

A pleased blush spreads across Jess’ cheeks and he shrugs. “Wasn’t anything. Needed to be done.”

Daisy joins them at the table. “Breakfast will be a little bit yet. I don’t want to start the eggs until Mike gets up, so they’ll be hot.”

Jess wrinkles his nose. “Ain’t much worse than cold eggs. Get all chewy.”

Silence falls and Slim feels one of Jess’ feet push between his own. It feels daring, with Daisy sitting across from him, but he likes it, the little reminder of what has been brewing between them for days.

Light is coming in through the windows when Mike finally shuffles out of his room, still in his nightshirt. He pauses, blinking sleepily as he looks around the room. His gaze lands on the tree, the pile of presents underneath and excitement spreads across his face. “It’s Christmas!”

Slim grins. Mike’s excitement is contagious. “It is, but first we are having breakfast and doing the dishes and then we can do presents. So, why don’t you go get dressed while we finish getting breakfast made.”

Mike goes back into his room, not quite slamming the door and Jess stands. “Well, he ain’t’ goin’ to give us much time to get sorted.”

Daisy nods. “I’ll get the eggs going if you two want to get the table set.”

Jess hands him plates and Slim sets the table, arranging everything like his mother taught him when he was growing up. Mike rejoins them in a few minutes, dressed but his hair is sticking up in every direction. Slim decides to let the bit of grooming go, as it is Christmas, and it isn’t really a big deal.

Once everything is on the table, they all sit down and pass the food around. Mike remains quiet, focusing on eating, in the hopes of getting to the presents in a timely manner. But there is a lot of food, ham and eggs, toast with raspberry jam Daisy kept tucked away in the pantry and potatoes fried in the fat from the ham.

Unsurprisingly Mike finishes eating first, but he doesn’t ask to be excused, instead wiggling impatiently in his chair as he waits for the rest of them to finish. Slim drains his mug and looks at Mike, who keeps glancing between them and the presents like he expects them to disappear. “Mike, we have to do dishes before presents, so why don’t you go sit in front of the fire and read while Jess and I do that.”

Mike sighs. “Okay.”

Daisy stands, patting Jess on the shoulder. “I’m going to finish up a few last-minute things, but I’ll be right back. I appreciate you two taking care of the dishes.”

“Anytime Daisy.”

Between the two of them it doesn’t take long to do the dishes, since Daisy put water on right before they ate breakfast. Slim hands the last plate to Jess, who dries it before setting it with the rest on the sideboard. He picks up the water and Jess opens the door, so he can pour it in the snow against the side of the house, where it melts through the icy crust.

Setting the pot back on the stove he opens the door and adds another log before smiling at Jess. “I suppose we should think about opening presents, before Mike bursts with anticipation.”

Jess nods, hand skimming down Slim’s arm. “I’ll get Daisy if you want to move chairs around the tree. I don’t think we’ll be needin’ one for Mike.”

Warmth follows Jess’ touch and Slim shakes his head. “No, he’ll be on the floor front and center. We might as well let him hand out the presents.”

“Sounds like fine plan to me.”

Slim moves three of the chairs, which has Mike on his feet, dancing as he waits for Daisy to come out of her room. She appears with three more packages in her arms that she sets with the rest before taking a seat in the far right chair.

Jess sits down, Slim following as he nods to Mike, who is hovering near the tree. “Okay Mike, you’re in charge for handing out the presents.”

He dives on the pile, making sure to find one for each of them before ripping into his own. He holds up the new shirt. “I love it!”

By unspoken agreement between the three of them, Mike ends up with most of the presents. When everything is said and done, he ends up with three new shirts, several different books of fairytales, two bags of different hard candies, a small pocketknife and a collection of whittled horses and other animals Jess has worked on during the evenings after Mike went to bed.

Slim folds his own new shirts up neatly around the tooled belt Jess gave him, knowing how much time Daisy had spent working on them, along with the ones for Jess and Mike. He looks at Mike, who is happily playing with his collection of whittled animals. “Once we clean up Mike, you can play as much as you want.”

With a nod Mike carefully gathers up his presents and carries them into his room. The three of them start collecting the paper and refolding it all, before giving it to Daisy to put away for next year. Jess slips off the chair to get the smaller scraps that Mike had been made in his excitement to open his presents.

Daisy clutches the paper to her chest. “We’ll be having sandwiches for lunch, to use up the ham from yesterday. And that way I can get the roast started for dinner tonight.”

Moving the chairs back, Slim smiles. “That sounds just fine Daisy. After that breakfast, I’m not sure how much any of us are going to eat.”

Jess slips around him, and he feels his hand brush across the small of his back.

“Don’t listen to Slim, Daisy. I’m plannin’ on havin’ at least one sandwich, if not two. You make the best sandwiches.” Jess tosses the scraps of paper into the fire and adds another log. He looks out the window. “That ain’t fair. It’s snowing again.”

With a laugh Slim moves to stand behind Jess, using the cover of his body to return Jess’ earlier touch, fingers skating down his spine, fingers touching his waistband before dropping back to his side. “I don’t know why you’re surprised. It is December.”

Big, heavy snowflakes are falling, not quite thick enough to obscure the pasture railing, but if it keeps coming down like this, by tomorrow there will be more snow.

Jess glances back at him, head almost on his shoulder. “That don’t mean I got to like it.”

“No, but like every year, you might as well get used to it.” Slim loops his finger around one of the belt loops on Jess’ pants and tugs gently. “Come on. We don’t have to do anything until tonight. Find something to do for the rest of the day.”

Jess grins, turning to look at him and standing close. “I know we got that jar of beans. We could play some cards to pass the time.”

“The last time we played, I seem to remember ending up with no beans. And if Mike decides to play, no teaching him to cheat.”

Jess puts on an offended face, but his eyes are bright. “I learned my lesson on that one. Daisy, you want to play cards?”

Daisy smiles. “Oh, I don’t know that I’m any good, but it sounds like fun.”

-----

Jess stares in disbelief at the pile of beans in front of Daisy and the three he has left. Slim feels the same way, though he is completely out of beans. Daisy is either incredibly lucky or she had fibbed a little when she said she wasn’t very good.

She looks between them and smiles. “Well, that was certainly fun. Thank you for letting me play.”

“Yeah. Anytime.”

Standing Daisy round the table and pats both of them on the shoulder before going to her room. Slim shakes his head as he scoops the beans back into a pile. “I can’t shake the feeling we’ve been played.”

“You too huh.” Jess stares at her closed door, arms folded across his chest. “That woman could clean people out if she wanted too.”

Slim laughs. “Don’t give her any ideas. We would be lucky to find a housekeeper half as wonderful as she is.”

-----

Slim feels like there is lightning under his skin and it is entirely Jess’ fault. Ever since they finished playing cards Jess has been up and moving, never settling for more than a few minutes before he is off again. And every time Jess passes him, he goes out of his way to touch him. Any other time, Slim would just assume the other man is being tactile, as he usually is. But the last few days have shown him there is motive behind the touches and he finds himself anticipating the next touch.

Jess pads to the window to look out, though the sun has long since set, leaving it dark outside. He stands there for a few minutes before coming back, fingers skimming the back of Slim’s neck.

It makes him shiver and Slim is glad Mike and Daisy are paying more attention to their own projects than what he and Jess are doing. Mike is carefully leafing through his new books, taking in the pictures sprinkled through out the pages, while Daisy is at the desk, working on letters to send back east to friends. Neither of them seem to be bothered by Jess’ constant moving, the way he keeps stop near him, long enough to tease before moving on.

His skin feels tight, almost prickling with anticipation and he is acutely aware of Jess, no matter where he is. Every move has him watching the other man, appreciating the flex and play of his muscles under his clothing, the curve of his mouth when he smiles at him. Jess disappears around the corner, undoubtedly to the stove and Slim has to tamp down on the urge to follow.

Following him would be easy, to pin him against the door and catch his mouth in the kiss that has been teasing for the last few days. Slim settles for curling his fingers over the arms of the chair and waiting until Daisy and Mike go to bed, so maybe he can get some relief.

After what feels like hundreds of fleeting touches, everyone sending heat rushing through him, Daisy finally stands.

“Mike, it’s well past your bedtime.”

Yawning Mike carefully closes his book. “But it’s still Christmas.”

Jess stops behind Slim. “Won’t be for much longer.”

With a heavy sigh Mike heads for his room. “Good night.”

“Good night, Mike.” Slim can feel Jess behind him, the heat of his body sinking through the back of the chair, settling into his bones and he takes a deep breath. He feels Jess’ hand on the back of his neck, fingers stroking up and down his neck. The simple touch sends arousal curling through him and he sighs when he hears Daisy going into her room.

Rather than stepping back he feels Jess lean over him, chest against his shoulders and Jess’ cheek touches his temple. “I’m goin’ out to settle the animals. I’ll be back in a bit.”

Slim manages a nod, though he feels almost beyond that as he watches Jess pull his boots on and grab his jacket before going outside. Jess’ words had a ring of promise to them, and Slim gets to his feet, needing something to do besides sit here and think about Jess. He rakes the ashes out of the stove which has long since gone cold and sets them aside for making soap.

Once it is clean, he puts in a new stack of kindling so Daisy will be able to start the fire without a problem tomorrow morning. He straightens all the dishes on the sideboard, carefully restacking what Mike had excitedly put away. From there he starts settling the fire. For not doing much of anything today he is tired, and he doesn’t think Jess is going to be awake for much longer either.

He has every intention of sitting back down to wait for Jess, but now that his thoughts have gone to Jess, he finds it impossible to settle. Every spot Jess touched feels warm and he can recall each brush and touch and if it had been Jess’ goal to make him feel a little off-balance and aroused, he had managed just that.

Wandering over to the desk Slim straightens out the books for the stage line, though it does nothing to help. Right now, the only thing that might ease his want of Jess, is more Jess and he isn’t sure how to go about that. Which seems silly after the last few days and he can suddenly recall vividly, how Jess had looked under him in the snow, the flush on his cheeks, the way he had been breathing hard from the chase, lips parted.

Slim shakes his head, glancing at the front door. Again, Jess has been gone longer than it should take to check on the horses and chickens. It stays closed and he wonders if he should go see what Jess is up to. The snow has long since stopped and there isn’t anything between the house and barn to get in trouble with.

He has just about made up his mind when Jess comes in, cheeks pink from the cold.

Jess sheds his jacket, but leaves his boots on, stamping the snow from his feet. “Ain’t very warm out there. Could see my breath and chickens are all huddled together in the hay. Wouldn’t be surprised if they spend the night sittin’ on the horses.”

Slim nods, eyes roving as he takes in Jess. “The cold will make it easier for the stages tomorrow, so they don’t get bogged down in the wet snow.”

“Good. I don’t enjoy the thought of havin’ to dig the stage out of soggy snow.” He glances at the fire before looking at Slim with a slow, easy smile. “You thinkin’ it might be time for bed?”

The hint of promise from before is back and Slim nods, not ready to trust his words. He has no idea what Jess is plotting, but he can tell the other man is up to something, with the way he shifts his weight, the tension running through his body. “Might be.”

Jess grins and stretches before heading for their room and Slim finds himself following, captivated by the other man, as he really has been since the beginning.

The moment Slim pulls the door closed behind him he reaches out and curls his hand around Jess’ wrist, pulling him back. Jess comes easily, with a smile until their chests are touching and Slim looks at him, his other hand settling in the small of Jess’ back. “Teasing like that will get you in trouble in a lot of places.”

He makes sure to keep his voice low, not wanting to be overheard.

Jess smiles and leans in, lips following the line of his jaw before Slim shivers at the brush of lips against the lobe of his ear.

“Ain’t lookin’ to get in trouble with anyone but you and haven’t been for a long time.”

That sends a bolt of lust through Slim, and he turns his head, catching Jess’ mouth in a hard kiss as he uses the hand in the small of his back to pull him closer. Jess’ hands come up, curling in the side of his shirt as he arches against him, and Slim can feel the press of Jess’ arousal against him. Heat skitters through his body, coiling in the pit of his stomach and lower and he nips at Jess’ lower lip, swallowing the startled gasp it draws from him.

With the hand on Jess’ back he plucks at his shirt. He wants to feel skin, to trace the scars he knows are there.

Jess laughs into the kiss, hands releasing Slim’s shirt to skate up and down. He breaks the kiss, biting at Slim’s lower lip before pulling away. “I got a better place for this.”

Slim doesn’t want to stop touching, but Jess has a valid point. Keeping up like this is going to get them in trouble and he reluctantly drops his hands, though he can’t step away until he steals another kiss. “Alright.”

With a grin Jess looks down. “Might want to get your boots on, unless you want cold toes.”

Slim’s curiosity is piqued, and he goes back to get his boots, Jess following after him. He pulls them on and accepts his coat from Jess, shrugging it on, though he doesn’t button it up. Jess smiles and opens the door, stepping outside and Slim follows. It is cold, enough to make his cheeks sting, but he still feels like fire is running through him.

They head towards the barn and when Slim sees the lit window of the bunkhouse, things suddenly make sense. He glances at Jess, and even in the light from the moon can see the pleased look on his face and now he knows why Jess has been late coming in the last couple of nights.

The bunkhouse is warm, the small stove in the corner filling the small space and Slim notices the metal bucket on the floor near the stove, filled with water. Near the window two of the bed have been pushed together, a sheet across the mattresses, a worn quilt folded at the bottom. Next to the bed is a small tin he recognizes as containing salve and he suddenly has a lot of different ideas. He looks at Jess, heat running through him. “This explains why you took so long coming back in.”

Jess shrugs and takes a step closer, his eyes hooded as he watches Slim. “I’ve had plenty of time to think. Been tryin’ to get things figured out.”

Slim curls his hands into loose fists, though he isn’t sure why he is resisting the urge to touch, after what happened in the house. Jess seems to understand and finishes closing the distance between them, until they’re standing like they had been in their room.

Shrugging his jacket off, Slim tosses it to the chair before surging forward to cup Jess’ face. He kisses him, licking into his mouth as he feels Jess clutch at him, pressing closer. He turns, putting Jess’ back to the wall and Jess arches, arousal hard against him. Slim shifts, pressing his knee between Jess’ and his partner takes the hint, parting his legs and Slim drops his hands to clutch at Jess’ ass, pulling him against his thigh.

Jess groans, forehead resting against Slim’s shoulder as he grinds against his thigh. Slim can feel the puff of Jess’ breath through his shirt, the way Jess’ fingers are digging into his shoulder as Jess rocks against him. Slim would love to let it happen like this, to see Jess bring himself to completion on his thigh. But he always wants to touch Jess’ skin, and he wants that now.

They break apart and on unspoken agreement start stripping. Slim can’t help but fumble the buttons on his shirt, caught up as he is in watching Jess peel off clothing. This is different, he can watch, and he finally gives up with most of the buttons on his shirt, as he gets just enough undone so he can pull both shirts off and cast them aside.

Jess’ shirts are already in a pile on the floor, and he is working at his pants. He manages to get his boots and socks off before tossing them aside and then he shoves his pants down, kicking them aside. Reaching down he curls his hand around his cock, thumb gliding across the dampness on the head and he groans.

The rough sound makes Slim move and half dressed he steps into Jess. With gentle fingers he repeats Jess’ motion and Jess clutches at his forearm with his free hand, swaying towards him. Slim kisses him, his other hand curling around the back of his neck, fingers pressing in.

Jess grins at him, hand loosely curled around his arousal. “This would be more fun if you weren’t half dressed.”

He doesn’t give Slim a chance as he pulls away to settle on his back on the bed, legs spread as his arousal curved towards his stomach.

Slim struggles to get his boots and socks off and then undoes his belt, removing everything in one go. He crosses to the bed and kneels between Jess’ legs, hands curling over his knees, thumbs stroking against the inside as he looks at Jess. Dipping his head he catches Jess’ mouth in a slow kiss. Heat is still boiling under his skin, but there is no real reason to rush this. Out here they have hours, and he is planning on making the most of them.

Breaking the kiss he draws back to get a better look at Jess. He recognizes some of the scars on Jess’ body, ones he was there for. There are some he doesn’t, a long, thin one that runs just under Jess’ left collarbone, and he leans down to drag his lips across it. On the opposite side, much lower is a scar from a bullet, and he kisses it before moving lower.

He gently scrapes his teeth across the flat plane on his hip and does the same on the other side, liking the way it makes Jess squirm. One of Jess’ hands moves down to rest on the back of his head, fingers gently twisted in his hair, just touching.

He slides his hands up Jess’ legs, fingers following the dips and lines of muscle and he trails his fingers in, lightly dragging his fingers up the line of Jess’ arousal, enough to make Jess buck into the touch with a bitten off sound. Laughing he covers Jess, kissing him as he lazily thrusts against him, their erections gliding together. “What do you want?”

Jess swallows hard and tips his head back. “Whatever you want. As long as you’re touchin’ me, I ain’t got a complaint.”

Slim presses a kiss to the point of Jess’ jaw before working lower, teeth raking against his bounding pulse. This isn’t the first time he’s been with a man, though it has been a while and he strokes Jess’ side with his free hand, trying to think. It isn’t easy, with the way Jess’ hands are trailing up and down his back, but something occurs to him, and he pulls away, hands sliding down Jess’ legs to curl loosely around his ankles.

Jess is watching him, eyes hooded, body stretched out and Slim can’t believe the amount of trust the other man has in him. He squeezes Jess’ left ankle before releasing him and moving back. “Roll over.”

There is a flash of interest in Jess’ face, and he smiles, doing as he’s told, knees planted in the bed, legs spread, head and shoulders braced with a pillow. Slim gives back into the temptation to touch, hands gliding over the sweep of Jess’ shoulder blades, fingers following faint scars across smooth skin. He strokes down the hollow of his spine, feeling Jess shiver under him and he leans down, pressing a kiss to the small of his partner’s back.

His hands skate lower, over Jess’ hips, thumbs tracing twin lines over the swell of his ass before sweeping back up. Jess makes a sound, arching his back and Slim stretches up, nipping at the back of Jess’ shoulder. Stretching he grabs the salve from the table and removes the lid before dipping his fingers in. He gathers some on his fingers and bypasses the furled entrance to Jess’ body, sliding his fingers lower, smoothing the salve over the thin skin there, pressing just enough to tease.

His touch makes Jess shiver again, and he spreads more salve, over Jess’ scrotum and the underside of his cock, between his thighs, until the skin is slick and shiny, and Jess is rocking back against his fingers. His own erection is heavy, and he slicks it with more salve, biting at his lower lip as he does so. The sight of Jess stretched out like this is making it hard to think and he presses forward, the head of his erection gliding across Jess’ perineum, before sliding between his thighs.

The pressure feels amazing, and he reaches under Jess, fingers brushing over a nipple before sliding lower. Jess’ stomach flutters under his touch as he fights the urge to not move and Slim leans forward, pressing into Jess, kissing the back of his neck before settling back, withdrawing slightly before thrusting.

He wraps his slick hand around Jess’ length, thumb teasing at the slit, as he rocks against his partner. Jess groans, shoving back against him before thrusting into his hand and Slim curls his other hand over his hip, letting Jess set the pace, his movement not quite frantic as he chases his pleasure, caught between his hand and cock.

It doesn’t take long before Slim can tell Jess is losing control. It’s in the telltale way his movements become less smooth, the tension in his shoulders, the way his thighs tighten around his cock. Slim keeps stroking him, thumb tracing over the head until he feels Jess move under him, one hand wrapping around his wrist, fingers digging in and Jess comes with a broken sound, wet heat on his fingers.

The feeling of Jess coming, the tightening of his muscles makes pleasure race through Slim, and he comes with a few more thrusts. He carefully pulls away from Jess, smiling softly at Jess’ soft sound of loss. Heedless of his sticky hand he leans forward and kisses Jess, who turns his head and slots their mouths together, one hand coming up to curl over the back of his neck.

Slim wants to keep kissing Jess, but now that the sweat is starting to dry on his skin, he is feeling cold, and Jess can’t feel much better. He breaks the kiss, resting his forehead against Jess’. “Give me a second.”

Jess nods and flops on his back, legs parted so Slim can still see the slick of salve on his inner thighs. A lazy bolt of pleasure swims through him and Slim has to resist the urge to settle over Jess and kiss him until they can go again. Instead, he gets off the bed suddenly understanding why Jess had put the bucket of water near the stove.

Now that he is thinking about something besides Jess, he can see the stack of towels near the stove. He dips one in the water, which isn’t hot, but is warm and he quickly cleans himself up before wetting another rag. Jess hasn’t moved, is still sprawled on the bed and Slim kneels over him, using the rag to clean him up, Jess making an appreciative sound with every touch.

He tosses the rag aside, since they’ll have to clean up later and climbs back into the bed. Reaching down Slim grabs the quilt and shakes it out, spreading it over them before drawing Jess back against him, arm across his waist. He presses a series of kisses across the sharp line of Jess’ shoulder before nuzzling at the back of his neck. “You could have said something sooner.”

Jess shrugs, the movement languid. “I kept thinkin’ about it, but you weren’t so easy to read.”

Slim laughs, hand stroking from Jess’ collarbone down to his navel and back up. This is just as nice as anything else that has happened tonight, getting to touch Jess just because he can and wants to. Jess must feel the same way, if the way he is getting loose in his arms is any indication. “I could say the same about you. I kept thinking so, but then assumed it was just wishful thinking on my part.”

With a soft laugh Jess curls his hand around Slim’s wrist, thumb rubbing the back of his hand. “Maybe we both should’ve stopped assumin’ sooner.”

Pressing a kiss to the back of Jess’ neck Slim smiles against his skin. “Maybe, though his seems to have worked out just as well.” He stills his hand. “I think we can probably spend a few more hours out here.”

Jess settles closer, hand closing a little tighter around Slim’s wrist. “Ain’t anywhere I’d rather be.”