It is time for my ~biennial fic-posting event~ lol

Many of you are probably unfamiliar with this fandom. Though you may have no interest in ever reading this fic, I highly recommend watching the HBO series (and/or reading the book).

Title: A Crowd Is Not Company
Fandom: Generation Kill (AU)
Pairing,Character(s): Brad/Nate and others
Rating: R
Wordcount: ~32,000
Spoilers/Warnings: Very AU. Though I put some effort into researching this era, I'm sure historical inaccuracies and other errors abound, for which I apologize in advance.
Summary: AU, late 19th-century America. Nathaniel Fick arrives in the rural town of Mathilda, Iowa, to build a school. He boards with Brad Colbert, a local farmer, and Brad's six hired men.
A/N: This is for [livejournal.com profile] trolleys, who has been beyond generous with her inspiration, encouragement, and patience ♥



Nate arrives in Mathilda in late August. The harvest is in full swing and farmers are too busy to think about the school or the schoolmaster they hired to come all the way from Boston. Apparently Schwetje's wife doesn't want him in the house in town after all. They tell him he'll have to board with Brad Colbert out on his farm, since Brad has built a house and it's grand enough for a Harvard man. One of Brad's hired men, Ray Person, shows up the next evening to collect Nate and all his things. He drives Nate six miles out of town to Brad's farm, the corn fields almost silent in the heat, no rustling in the wind. Everything is yellow and dusty, the hum of insects is deafening, and Nate would be a little scared if it weren't for the fact that Ray just keeps talking as he drives the buggy with one hand, the horse ambling slowly like it wants to prolong the trip so that it won't have to go back to work.

Nate finds out that Brad is respected and maybe a little feared by his men, that he's a bachelor, that he's a Swede.

"Colbert isn't a Swedish name," Nate says.

"He wa'n't born with that name," Ray says, but he doesn't elaborate. Nate doesn't ask any more questions.

They get to the house after dark. There's a man standing at the porch, silhouetted against the dim light from the kerosene lamps behind him. He looks like a giant, like he's seven feet tall, and he's young, younger than Nate thought he would be, blond hair looking almost white in the darkness. He doesn't say much, just grunts a greeting and shoulders Nate's trunk to take it into the house. They put Nate in a bedroom upstairs, sparsely furnished but clean. There's a cot in the corner and the windows face east.

Nate can hardly sleep that first night because of a strange, tight excitement in his chest that he's never felt before.

*

No one really has time for Nate during those first few weeks. The wheat and hay have been harvested but the corn harvest will continue on into late November, maybe even December, Ray says. Brad and all his men – Ray, "Poke" Espera, Jim Trombley, Anthony Jacks, whom everyone calls either Tony or Manimal, the latter for no discernible reason, and Evan Stafford – are out at sunup every morning and don't come back until sundown. Sometimes they spend the night in the field, because Brad's farm is vast. They've got Walt Hasser to do the housework because he's sick and has to stay off the field.

Walt has a pale face, lips that are almost grey, and he's quiet, smiles a lot. Nate finds out quickly that Walt likes to read. He has a battered copy of Longfellow's Evangeline that apparently Brad bought for him off a tinker who came through town about a year ago. Otherwise he reads the Bible, and the Song of Solomon is his favorite.

He laughs at Nate and his city ways. Nate doesn't even know how to work their strange, enormous water pump. Walt shows Nate how to boil water, how to kill and clean a chicken, all the strange uses corn cobs can be put to. In return, Nate reads to Walt from the books he brought with him while Walt does housework.

Several times Walt has one of his spells. The first time it happens because Walt laughs at something Nate said. He starts coughing, but Nate doesn't think anything of it until Walt stumbles back and knocks a pitcher off the table. Nate stands up in alarm. Walt's eyes are watering, his coughs going sharp and horrible, like there's something in his chest trying to claw its way out. Nate has no idea what to do, but Walt waves him off, taking great wheezing breaths between the coughs that make him sound like he's drowning.

Nate is ready to run out to get Ray or someone to fetch a doctor, but Walt, after inhaling sharply a few times, tips his head back and croaks, "No," at him, very clearly. So they wait it out there in the stifling kitchen. Nate wets a towel for Walt, and he sits quietly, his eyes shut, trying to keep his coughs down. Supper that night is a bit of cheese, some apples, and corn mash. Walt makes Nate promise not to tell, but Nate thinks the men know when they see what they're to eat that night. Ray is uncharacteristically silent, watching Walt like a hawk. Brad watches Walt too, but he doesn't say anything, just makes Jim and Evan clear up the kitchen afterward. Poke goes out to smoke his pipe, Tony disappears somewhere with a cask and a grin that showcases the space between his teeth, and Nate follows Brad out onto the verandah.

"Is this the first time since you've been here?" Brad says abruptly.

Nate is startled; Brad hasn't started any conversations before. "Yes," he replies, knowing exactly what Brad is referring to.

"Walt's got no one," Brad says, staring out over the cornfields, which are grey in the moonlight. He rests his hands on the porch railing. "Mattis wouldn't keep him after he got sick. Doc Bryan is good but he don't know what to do for Walt, and he's almost fifteen miles away. He thinks Walt needs to be taken to see one of them city doctors, maybe put in a sanatorium."

"They might be able to make him more comfortable, but they cannot guarantee recovery. I had a cousin who died in a sanatorium," Nate says.

Brad's hands clench, though his voice remains impassive. "I don't know what to do for him."

Nate wants to reach out and put a hand to Brad's shoulder, to comfort him. But this is the first real conversation they've had, and he doesn't know Brad. Or does he? Sometimes he catches Brad watching him, and when their eyes meet Nate feels like he'd trust Brad Colbert with his life, though he knows next to nothing about him.

"My cousin did everything the most expensive doctors told her to do," Nate says instead. "That didn't change anything. I think it's right that Walt should be here, at least for now, where he has people to look after him, but he can still feel useful. The air is good here, too. Much better than any city."

Brad turns to look at Nate, and Nate gets that feeling again, but this time it's even stranger, like Brad is trusting him, too, putting his faith in Nate's words. It's a little bit frightening, to suddenly know that his words hold so much weight with someone, and especially with a man like Brad.

"I'm glad he's got you here for company now," Brad says.

He turns back to the cornfields and doesn't say anything more. The silence isn't empty, though; it's full of words that Nate has to stop himself from speaking, but he holds them all in, wondering how long he'll be able to keep them to himself.

*

They raise the new schoolhouse on the second weekend in September. Nate's gotten to know a few of the people in town at church on Sundays. Brad, Walt and Nate are the only ones to attend; the other men stay at the house, and Brad doesn't seem to care. It had been a bit of a battle to round up the lumber to build the school, since Schwetje and Mattis said it was needed for a new manse. Rev. Sixta stepped in and barked that there weren't nothing wrong with the old one, and Brad stood by, mostly silent, speaking only to remind Schwetje that Brad had donated nearly half the money for that lumber for a schoolhouse, not a manse. Nate saw the way Schwetje and Mattis glowered at him. It hasn't escaped Nate that Brad is not popular in town. The success of his farm would be one thing if he were willing to take part in their church socials and town meetings and going around to spy on their neighbors to report back to Schwetje and Mattis on everyone's business. Nate is beginning to suspect that he'd been shunted off to Brad's in the hope that he would report back on Brad's doings, and the failure of this plot was turning Schwetje and Mattis against him, making them suspicious.

There are two girls who appear to be sweet on Brad, to the chagrin of their fathers. They try to talk to him after church every Sunday, but Brad always finds a way to excuse himself with a tip of his hat and politely walk away. It is strange, Nate thinks, that Brad doesn't seem to be looking to get himself a wife and make that big house of his a real home. But as Nate himself had made avoiding women an art form back in Boston, he sympathizes and admires Brad's straightforward technique.

They gather as many men from the town as they can, and Nate watches as the schoolhouse goes up in a matter of hours. He tries to help, but knows next to nothing about carpentry, though he's been studying pamphlets and diagrams he brought with him. He's told Brad he wants all the large windows on the south side to minimize shadows and glare on the desks, but those were his only specifications. They would use oiled paper in the windows until the glass they'd ordered arrived all the way from New York.

That evening, as Brad and his men are packing up the tools and supplies they brought in the cart, Nate walks into the schoolhouse, running his fingers over the wood and breathing in the smell of it. There's still a lot of work to be done on the inside, but he'll figure it out. His very own school. He stands there in the dim light, the sunset shining through the still-open windows, and smiles, not noticing Brad in the doorway until Brad says his name.

Nate turns, and Brad is staring at him. Though his mouth his stern, there's something about his face that makes Nate think he's smiling.

"Do you like your new schoolhouse?" Brad says.

"Yes. I like it very much."

Then Brad really does smile, and Nate feels like he's been socked in the chest. But he doesn't say anything, just follows Brad out to the cart. The other men ride in the back, and Nate sits on the box with Brad. They sing songs all the way back to the farm.

*

Nate walks to the schoolhouse every morning to work on things. Brad left him a few tools and the leftover lumber, and they've installed the stove from the old sod schoolhouse, so Nate sets in trying to build and affix the benches and desks. It's hard work; he gets advice and directions from Brad, but Brad can't help him; there's too much work to do on the farm. So he does the best he can with the advice and the diagrams and pamphlets. Though the evenings are starting to cool off, the days are still very warm, and Nate has to shed his jacket and shirt, getting sweaty with the effort of moving things, sawing planks, nailing boards together, sanding things down.

He doesn't have much to show for his first day of work, the bench he'd tried to make looking lop-sided and slipshod despite all his measurements and careful calculations. His arms ache from the unaccustomed movements and he's filthy. Walt had made him a dinner to bring in a pail, but he'd lost track of time and hadn't eaten it, and now he's hungry and grumpy.

That night Brad asks him how he's progressing.

"Fine," Nate says curtly.

Brad says nothing, just watches him, and that makes Nate even madder, because he knows Brad can see straight through him to his frustration at his own lack of skill.

He marches the six miles back to the schoolhouse the next morning with grim determination. Though the families in town don't seem to be in any hurry to start school because everyone is busy with their crops, he knows that come winter, when there isn't as much work to be done and the children are underfoot, they will wonder why their schoolhouse isn't ready yet.

He works hard all morning, ignoring the children who come to stare at him curiously over the sills of the open windows and through the doorway. He's struggling with sanding a plank down when he senses yet another presence behind him in the doorway. Sighing, he turns, expecting another one of his prospective pupils to be eyeing him with suspicion and something like contempt at his incompetence, but it's Brad, his golden hair gleaming like a halo in the sunlight streaming through the doorway. Nate tries not to think of Brad as a ministering angel. But he looks like one, strong and beautiful and benevolent as he smiles down at Nate, who is sitting on the floor, his shirt soaked through with sweat and dust and dirt on his face, his soft hands bruised and bleeding.

"Let me help you," Brad says, coming forward, his hat held in one of his hands.

Nate stands up, and suddenly Brad is before him, so close Nate could reach out and put his hand on Brad's chest. Brad is looking down at him, his eyes soft, and Nate can't believe this is the same unsmiling giant he saw watching him from the verandah that first night.

"I thought you were trying to clear forty acres before sundown," Nate says, trying not to sound as unsteady as he feels.

"I left Poke in charge," Brad says, still just watching Nate, and Nate doesn't know if it's the heat or Brad's gaze but he feels flushed all over, knowing he does not have to do this alone.

"I'm trying to make these benches," Nate says. Brad's gaze finally breaks away, and he regards the sad, lopsided little bench that Nate completed the night before.

"Sure," Brad says, and he picks up a nail, drives it into the wall with a quick tap of a hammer, and hangs his hat there. Then he rolls up his sleeves and picks up a saw.

He shows Nate how to build a bench, and how to affix boards to the pins in the walls to serve as desks. Then, after they complete one, Brad bends over Nate and puts his hand over Nate's to show him how to sand in long, smooth strokes instead of small circular ones. Brad's hands are enormous. Nate has long fingers but Brad's hand, dry and callused and huge, envelops Nate's hand completely and he feels a sudden stab of something in him that makes him panic.

He snatches his hand away and stands up abruptly, backing away.

"I...I think I've got the idea," Nate says, and it's like Brad's eyes are pinning him there, suddenly dark and hard.

"So do it, then," he says roughly, and stands. Again Nate is struck by his height and the way he seems to be filling up the small one-room schoolhouse. Like Apollo, Nate thinks ridiculously, feverishly, Brad all golden strength and beauty, radiant and angry before him.

Then Brad turns and goes outside, and Nate shakes himself mentally. He's never been that afraid of anybody, and especially not of someone he knew was not dangerous.

But maybe it isn't fear, maybe it's something else. That's what Nate is really afraid of.

*

Brad shows up at around midday every day after that, but he does not come near Nate and does not speak to him other than to answer questions or give him directions. Soon Nate is painting pitch on the desks and benches to finish them. Schewtje and Mattis come by with Rev. Sixta one day, and they've got Schwetje's hired man, Griego, with them. When Brad sees them in the doorway, he sets his tools down and straightens, crossing his arms over his chest.

"Well, Nate," Schwetje says, "will school be starting soon?"

"As soon as the slates and readers I ordered arrive," Nate replies.

"Brad here helping you out, eh?" Mattis says, eyeing Brad.

Brad doesn't answer, his face stony.

"You're lucky, Nate," Mattis continues. "Brad here don't usually help nobody."

"He has been immensely helpful," Nate says. "More than helpful. You would have no schoolhouse without him. At least not one fit for students."

"Makes a body wonder why he's taken such an interest," Mattis says, rubbing his chin.

"I take an interest when there's something worth taking an interest in," Brad says impassively, and he smiles at them all, just the corner of his mouth turning up.

"Did you know, Mr. Fick," says Griego, the first words he's ever spoken to Nate, "that the last schoolmaster we had left four years ago because two of our boys took him out back and beat him for giving them lines to write?"

Nate is surprised by how angry this cheap intimidation tactic makes him.

"Was one of those boys you, Griego?" Brad asks.

Griego's smirk vanishes and the set of his jaw starts to look ugly.

"Anyone tries anything like that with Nate, I'll bring my boys out and we'll give 'em a whipping they won't forget," Brad says.

Nate is surprised at the readiness with which Brad issues such a threat, and hastily reins in his own temper. "Surely it will never come to that."

"Sure's it wont," Rev. Sixta barks in the same voice with which he delivers sermons on hellfire and damnation. "There's folks here's would appoint theyselves the law."

"You all'd best be glad there ain't no law 'round these parts," Brad says. "Else I would've had you run off your land long ago."

"There ain't no call to be getting so excited," Mattis says blandly. "No one means Nate here any harm, do they?" When no one answers, he clears his throat. "Good work on the school." He directs this at Nate and not Brad. "I'm sure I'll get word when the shipment comes in, and then we'll see about gettin' started."

"Thank you," Nate says stiffly. "Good day, gentlemen."

They leave, and the schoolhouse is silent again, the late afternoon sun slanting in through the windows and making everything glow orange.

"We'd best be getting home," Brad says finally, after they've avoided each other's eyes for a while.

"Brad," Nate says.

"Yeah?"

"It won't come to that, will it?"

Brad's gaze is piercing, again, and sometimes Nate wonders if there will come a day when he won't be strong enough to hold it.

"I ain't gonna let them drive us out of town," he says.

Nate doesn't quite know when he became a part of Brad's unorthodox family, but he is sure that he is included in the us Brad is referring to, and suddenly the rest doesn't matter. They walk back to the farmhouse in silence, but Nate is content just to be stepping in sync with Brad, matching his long stride and walking beside him.

*

The next evening Brad goes into town for supplies with Poke and Tony, and Ray and Walt are in the kitchen playing cards. Nate asks them why things are the way they are between Brad and the rest of the townspeople.

"Brad was foreman for the family that used to own part of this land," Walt began. "When old man Bush died his wife wanted to move away. She hated it here, she was real young and came out from back east somewhere. So she sold the land to Brad cheap to get away faster and took her kids and left."

Ray takes up the story from there. "I worked on this farm since I was sixteen. Brad kept me on 'cause I had nowhere to go, but he turned most of them other guys out and made a lot of folks mad. He got himself kind of a reputation around here."

"I see," Nate says.

"People is just jealous. Everyone either wants Brad's land or wants to work for him. They all wanna find out how he done so good for himself. He's real smart," Ray says proudly. "But he don't suffer no fools."

"I am glad the importance of education and learning falls under the umbrella of his tolerance," Nate says.

Ray throws his cards down and leans forward in his chair. "Brad thinks it's real important. He just didn't set no store in Schwetje knowing how to hire a good school teacher. He didn't say nothing but I could tell he was surprised when he saw you that first night."

"I haven't proven myself yet," Nate says, though he has to admit that the knowledge of Brad's instant approval of him makes him happy.

Walt smiles at him reassuringly. "You'll probably be fine, bein' an outsider and all. Folks will forgive you for not knowing any better than to throw your lot in with Brad."

"But they're the ones who shunted me off to board here with him unexpectedly. No offence meant to any of you, of course. This is much nicer than anything I was led to expect."

Ray laughs. "There ain't exactly a lot of logic behind the way people feel about Brad."

"I'm sorry to hear that," Nate says.

"No need to be sorry. We make do," Walt said.

Ray rolls his eyes a little bit, but he's still smiling.

*

The mornings are crisp and cool before Nate's shipment arrives, along with the windows. Two crates of slates and books come on the train, and he and Ray make the long ride to the depot in Brad's cart to pick them up. Ray helps him with the crates and the unpacking of them. School will begin the next week. He is to have about fourteen students. Maybe more, come winter. When they're done making the final arrangements, the sun is setting yet again, and Nate looks out the window at the plains stretching before him.

"'While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day, and touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue,'"† he recites.

"It sure is different talking to someone educated for a change," Ray says, tossing a primer he'd been flipping through aside. "Was that a poem?"

"Keats," Nate replies.

"Hey, can I ask you a personal question?"

"You may."

"Why are you here?"

Nate turns to look at Ray, who is regarding him with something like suspicion.

"I mean," Ray continues, "I can tell from your fancy clothes and fancy things and fancy way of talking that you don't need the money, and I'm sure whatever Schwetje and them's paying for this ain't much anyway. Schwetje told Brad before you came that we was getting a Harvard-educated schoolmaster who'd traveled the world. You running away from something? Somebody? You gonna talk poems to dirty kids who can't afford shoes? What's in it for you?"

Nate smiles a little tightly. "Why does anyone come out west? I guess I'm looking for something. Maybe something better than what I've known."

"What could be better'n your book learning and Boston tea parties and having society ladies like in them newspapers all flutterin' around you at parties every night? I think about it, sometimes, what it'd be like to be with a girl all soft and powdered and sweet and not smelling like a barnyard animal."

"I wanted to do something," Nate says. "Something that mattered. I want to use that book learning, as you say, for something, bring it out here where it might do some good. There's so much that goes to waste, where I come from. I've got so I look at a girl like you describe and feel like there's nothing to discover about her. Isn't that wrong?"

Ray whistles. "Jesus, I could discover it a hundred thousand times and never get tired of it."

Nate laughs. "Yes, well, that's not exactly what I mean."

"I know," Ray says, suddenly grave, and he's staring at Nate, his big brown eyes looking uncharacteristically sad. "It's a hard life out here. People are the same the world over. I ain't read many books but I do know that."

Nate doesn't know quite how to respond, and he takes a moment to choose his words carefully. "I'm here to learn as much as to teach," he says.

Ray nods and jumps up from the desk he's sitting on, the rare moment of gravity over.

*

School starts and Ray's prediction is true; most of the children arrive with no shoes and only a wormy piece of fruit in their dinner pails. They are all very young, the ones who are too young to be of much use on the farm. Only a few know their letters, and most are too in awe of the new schoolmaster to recite. Nate is kind to them, however, and soon their natural exuberance emerges. Nate takes them on walks to study the local flora and fauna and reads Emerson and Thoreau aloud by the banks of the creek, though it is but a tiny trickle this late in the season. For the most part they stare at him blankly, but then they are minding him, their attention focused, so he doesn't count it as a waste.

Schwetje and Rev. Sixta come by to observe his lessons one day, and afterward they stay to conference with Nate briefly.

"I'm not sure as I hold with all the talk of fairy tales and magic," Rev. Sixta says.

"The Odyssey is hardly a mere fairy tale," Nate says, wiping down the blackboard.

"Just makes sure they learns their lines and 'rithmetic," Rev. Sixta says, picking up a reader. "And can recite the catechism."

"Of course," Nate says.

"You might be wonderin' why we called you out here," Schwetje says, and Nate turns, setting the cloth down.

"I am," he says. "Pray enlighten me."

Schwetje's eyes dart to the window. "We're growing, Nate. Our town is growing, but life is still hard out here. Those of us who were born in these plains know what it was like to turn nothing into something. We've all worked real hard. But you don't got any idea what it's like to know that people can come in and take what you worked for. The only people who ever come out to Mathilda now are people like Brad Colbert who are just waiting to snatch up everything we've built up, taking it from right under our noses. It's real hard to get people out here, new people, who will see things our way. Heck, it's hard to get people to come here at all. We needed to get you out here, help us learn all them things these outsiders know that makes it possible for them to come in and take advantage. So." Schwetje turns back to Nate and smiles, simple and slow. "Just help us do that, alright?"

Nate is silent, not really knowing how to answer this speech. Then they're all startled by the crack of thunder.

Rev. Sixta hurries to the door. "Looks like we's finally gettin' some rain, praise be."

"You'd best hurry home," Schwetje says to Nate, donning his hat. "If it starts to rain you'll be soaked through." In a flash he's gone.

"Thank you for the helpful tip," Nate mutters, and gathers up his things. After a few more loud cracks of thunder, the sky darkens in earnest. There is no gradual increase in raindrops; it is a sudden onslaught. Nate is worried about his books getting wet more than his clothes, so he decides to wait a while before starting back, hoping the rain will let up soon. He composes a letter to his mother in his head, and gets hung up on describing Brad. After he realizes he has spent nearly three-quarters of an hour trying to decide whether Brad's eyes are blue or grey, he shakes himself and stands up. The rain shows no sign of letting up, but there is no hail, at least, and the lightning has stopped, so he decides to brave the walk, leaving his books behind. He locks up the schoolhouse and has taken no more than ten steps at most before he is completely soaked.

It has been hot enough that the rain feels good, actually, though of course his mother would admonish him and tell him he would catch his death. The dusty roads are now muddy, large puddles forming, and Nate's shoes are soon soaked through too. Nate feels like laughing, water dripping down like a waterfall from the brim of his hat, the air humid and yet cool. His dinner pail fills up with water too many times to count.

By the time the house comes into view, the rain has let up somewhat, but the sky is even darker. He enters from the back door, which is open, probably to let some air move through the house.

Nate is about to walk into the kitchen, but he stops short in the doorway, because Brad is there, and he's peeling his wet shirt off over his head, his suspenders hanging around his hips, a puddle of water at his feet on the floor. There is a strange and elaborate painting on Brad's back, crude but colorful, and Nate is mesmerized by it. He feels his cheeks flush, not knowing whether to back away and hope Brad hasn't heard him or walk in and pretend to be unaffected. Before he can make up his mind, Brad turns and sees Nate in the doorway.

He smiles at Nate, and Nate's heart is thumping wildly in his chest.

"You caught in the rain too?" he says, sounding amused, and Nate doesn't know where to look, feeling like he's been knocked stupid. Brad's neck and arms are tanned, but his torso is very pale.

"Yes," he says tightly.

"Want to take your things off so they can dry over the stove?"

Nate doesn't really know how to refuse without sounding strange. He doesn't know what this thing is that Brad has awakened in him, but it coils in his stomach now, making him hyper-aware of everything, the air, the rivulets of water dripping down his face and neck that make him shiver.

Brad crosses over. "You're shivering," he says. "Here, before you make yourself sick."

He reaches out for the buttons on Nate's shirt, which is clinging to his chest. Nate hastily brings his own hands up and backs away, turning around to undo the buttons and compose himself. He shrugs it off, and when he turns around Brad is looking out the window, hands gripping the window frame tightly.

Nate drapes his shirt over the line just above the stove. "I'll just go up and find some dry clothes," he says unnecessarily. Brad doesn't respond, so Nate leaves, wondering if he gave himself away, if something in Nate's shaking hands revealed everything to Brad, and he feels a little sick, assuring himself that there is no way Brad could know if Nate did not say anything, and making a thousand wild promises to himself that he will never ever breathe a word of it to anyone.

*

Nate wakes a few mornings later to the sound of gunshots and dogs barking, and then the whooping laughter of Jim and Evan. He hasn't really had a chance to get to know them, since they often camp out in the fields and only come back to dump cartloads of corn before heading back out. Brad rides out to check up on them occasionally but for the most part they are left to their own devices. They must have come back sometime in the night.

He gets up and pushes his shutters open just in time to see Brad come storming out of the barn, fury in his face, and pull Jim Trombley up by his shirt collar and say something inaudible to him, right in his face. Then he lets Jim go with a jerk, glares at Evan, and pushes past them to the house.

When Nate goes down to breakfast, he finds Brad silently and methodically cleaning a shotgun at the table, a furrow between his eyebrows. Ray is at the table, too, and Walt gives Nate an apologetic look as he silently sets a plate of beans and toast down before him.

"What was the commotion I heard this morning?" Nate asks. Ray grimaces and raises his hand to his forehead, as if he's saluting Nate for his bravery in broaching the subject.

Brad looks up at Nate briefly, but he goes back to cleaning the gun, and for a few moments Nate thinks his question will be ignored, but Brad finally speaks. "McGraw likes to breed dogs, only he don't train 'em right."

"McGraw," Nate repeats, trying to place a face to the name. "That must be Sally's father."

"Yeah, he's married to Mattis' oldest daughter," Ray adds helpfully.

"Trouble is, they get into henhouses and dig up people's gardens and they bite children. And Trombley keeps trying to shoot 'em."

"Is that a bad thing?" Nate asks.

"No," Brad says baldly. "Not if that was all there was too it. But those fuckers in town are just waiting for an excuse to bring a mob out here and call me out on something, and you can bet the death of one of McGraw's mongrels on my land would be more than enough for him to go crying to Schwetje and Mattis."

"What could they do to you?"

"They may be stupid but I bet they can be real creative," Ray says through a mouthful of beans. As usual, more food seems to have found its way down his chin than into his mouth. "I don't think we really wanna find out."

"Maybe I could have a talk with them. Pay a call on this McGraw," Nate offers.

"Don't involve yourself," Brad says shortly, and he snaps the barrel back in place, laying the gun on the table. "C'mon, Ray, time to head out."

Ray ruffles Walt's hair on his way out behind Brad, and Walt looks after him fondly.

"The more I hear about this situation, the worse it sounds," Nate says. "I want to help but I'm afraid I'll make things worse."

Walt sighs, picking at his food as he always does. "I think Brad thought he was far enough out that he would be left in peace," he says. "But it's hard for him, when he sees things that ain't fair and can't fix them. I think something must have happened to him when he was young. It's like he's tryin' to atone for something. He stays here like he wants to fight 'em, but I don't know why he would. We'd all follow him wherever he went. Well, I would if I could."

Nate looks up from his plate, surprised. Walt hardly ever makes reference to his illness.

"Brad is so good to me, I mean he looks after all of us. He's like our dad. It's easy to forget that he ain't much older'n any of us. And he don't owe any of us anything, but he helps us anyway. He helps me. Sometimes I hate knowing that he'd never leave me behind, because I know that I'm holding him here."

Walt spears a bean with his fork and then drops it, and it makes a clattering sound. He looks up at Nate. "When I tell him that, he says I think too much of myself. But I know it's true. He'd be gone in a second if it weren't for me. I hate that."

Nate doesn't know what to say that wouldn't sound trite. "Don't hate it," was all he could think of. "Be comforted by it. Most people's blood relations wouldn't do as much." Nate thinks of his own family, his absent father, his socialite mother, officious and apathetic uncles and aunts and cousins. "I would think he does it because you deserve someone looking after you. Everyone does. Anyway, you can't be sure that there aren't a hundred other reasons Brad wants to stay. He seems to love his work."

"I'm afraid of what will happen to me if he goes, and I'm afraid of what will happen if he stays. You ain't seen the worst of it yet. People's been nicer since you came. They're afraid of what an outsider will think. But it's bad. And no one will let me talk about it, any of it, not even Ray. He just tells me to shut up, that everything will be alright."

Nate reaches over to put his hand over Walt's wrist. It feels thin under his hand, bony and frail. "Well, I won't tell you that," he says. "But I will say that no one can predict the future, and every man is in charge of his own life. Brad wouldn't stay if he didn't want to, if he didn't think it was worth it."

"Will you stay?" Walt asks abruptly.

Nate withdraws his hand and resumes eating his breakfast. "That will depend largely on whether the good people of this town approve of my teaching methods," he says.

"Even if they don't," Walt insists. "Promise you'll stay. Please."

It's surprising, the vehemence in his voice. "Why?" Nate asks.

"Because," Walt says. "Brad needs you. He takes care of all of us, but he needs help. He needs you."

Nate feels himself flush. Again. He wants to ask Walt what he means, why he would say such a thing, how it is possible that Brad needs anyone. Brad barely even speaks to Nate, and certainly never asks him for help. But he can't bring himself to ask, the words too embarrassing, too revealing.

"Promise," Walt repeats.

"I'll stay as long as I'm welcome," Nate says, because there's something about Brad that has roped him in and secured Nate's unswerving loyalty, just as he's done with these other men who cling to him.

Walt smiles at him, and Nate hopes that what Walt has said about Brad is true, because Nate will never leave now, not if he can help it. It's not the house or the farm or Mathilda that he's binding himself to, though. Somehow he thinks Walt knows this.

*

Weeks pass, and it gets cold. Brad and the men work even harder because the days are getting considerably shorter, and they often don't return until long after dark. Walt has several bad spells that result in being laid up for three or four days at a time. Ray and Evan step in to help with the house chores, and Nate does what he can in the morning before school and in the evening after he returns. But Walt won't hear of staying in bed longer than he needs to, and both times he is up again soon, his breathing labored but steady.

It is a cold Saturday morning early in November when Trombley thinks he sees a dog lurking in the grass. He shoots at it, and is surprised when he hears the pained cry of a woman and not a dog. Brad is out in the south field with Poke and Evan and Ray, and Nate and Tony and Walt are still at the breakfast table.

They run out, and Tony turns a bit green when he sees the woman lying in the grass, blood spilling from her leg, her stomach very noticeably distended.

"Oh, fuck," he moans. "Oh fuck. Fuck," he repeats over and over.

Nate bends over her quickly, feeling for her pulse. "Someone ride for a doctor," he snaps. "We've got to get her inside and try to staunch the bleeding."

"The nearest doctor is a good fifteen miles from here," Trombley says, regarding the scene impassively. "You think she'll make the ride worth it?"

"You, you ride for the doctor," Nate says, keeping a hold on his temper.

Trombley blinks at him slowly for a few moments.

"Now!" Nate barks, and finally Trombley moves toward the barn to saddle a horse.

The girl is very young. She has dirty blond hair, a dirty face, and dirty clothes. Her eyelids flicker, and she moans a little bit.

"Tony, can you lift her and take her into the house?"

Tony is still cursing and seems to be having a hard time bringing himself to touch her.

"Tony?"

Walt arrives on the scene. "Fuck, Manimal," he says.

"Do you all know this woman?" Nate asks.

Walt grimaces. "She's—fuck, what have you done to her, Tony?"

"I didn't do nothing! I didn't know she was—fuck, look at her, God damn."

The truth hits Nate far too late. "Is that baby yours, Tony?"

Tony looks like he's about to cry.

"Get it together," Nate says firmly. "She can't lie here, it's too cold. I wonder that she was out here lurking in the grass in the first place. Was she waiting for you?"

"No! I mean, I didn't—I didn't know," Tony says. "Fuckin'—hell," he says again, and leans down to scoop her up in his arms with surprising gentleness. Still, she cries out, and faints soon after being hoisted up.

They go in the house and Nate directs Tony to put her in his room, since it's the only one besides Brad's that isn't being shared.

Walt boils some water and he and Nate try to remove her dress, Tony pacing in front of the doorway and wringing his hands. They soak the towels in the water to dab at the wound, which is bleeding enough to make a mess, but not so much that Nate thinks it will be life-threatening.

"What was Trombley doing with that gun after Brad's told him not to shoot at McGraw's dogs a thousand times?" Nate asks, the question mostly rhetorical.

"I din' know she was gonna have a baby," Tony moans. "Fuck, we was just having fun. I hadn't even seen her in months. I don't know what she was doing here. Her parents—"

"Yes?" Nate prods, turning to glare at him.

"She must've run away," Tony says lamely.

"So she does, in fact, have parents," Nate says. "And presumably they would want to know where she is."

"Hell, I don't know," Tony says. "I mean, yeah, she got parents. But they didn't want her givin' me the time of day."

"Can you blame them?" Nate says coldly.

"Brad's gonna kill me," Tony moans again. And then he turns and punches his fist at the wall so hard that the bureau on the other side of the room rattles.

"Is that what you're worried about? What Brad will think? She's been shot! Brad is going to be the least of your problems if it turns out that Trombley has killed her and her baby, and all because she came here looking for you, because you didn't do the honorable thing."

"I know, I know," Tony says, and he sinks down on the floor, back against the wall, cradling his injured hand, which is bleeding at the knuckles. "I fucked up."

"What's her name?" Nate asks.

"Lilley," he says. "Lilley Lutz."

"Should we inform them?"

"They probably kicked her out. They have too many mouths to feed as it is, they won't want another. Shit, what am I gonna do?"

Nate ties a cloth around the towel Walt is holding against the wound to stop the bleeding. "You're going to sit here and watch her, for now, until Trombley brings the doctor back. If she wakes up, try to get her to drink some water. Don't do anything stupid, and don't make Walt here do all the work."

"What if they ain't in time?"

"Then you're going to take her to her folks and admit your fault in all this like a man. I've got to go to school; there are children waiting for me. I can't believe she was lurking in the cornfield. Christ," Nate says, and he gets up, wiping his hand on another towel. There's blood on his shirt, so he changes it swiftly, hoping his students won't notice the stain on his dark trousers.

The school day feels interminable, but finally it is time to dismiss the children, and Nate locks up the schoolhouse quickly, running most of the way back to the house.

Jim and the doctor still have not come, and Nate can smell blood and other unpleasantness the minute he walks in. The skin around the wound is inflamed. She feels feverish, and Tony is dabbing at her forehead with a wet washcloth.

"She's in and out," Tony says, distressed, "and she keeps complaining that her stomach hurts real bad. I think the baby might be coming. There was blood down there but it was hard to tell—and this water—I hope they come back soon."

"Do you think he actually rode to get the doctor?" Nate asks Walt in a low voice.

"Yeah," Walt says, "but Doc Bryan is the only doctor for miles and miles. He's hard to track down, and some emergencies is more dire than others. Jim'll find him as fast as he can. He don't always seem to know right from wrong but he's usually pretty good at following orders if you tell him real firm, like you did."

Finally, at around six o'clock, they hear the sound of a gig pulling up. Nate hurries downstairs, and the man who descends from the gig looks stern, but very capable. He's got a mustache and an imposing frown, but he sticks out his hand in greeting.

"Mr. Fick, I presume," he says, and Nate shakes his hand.

"Dr. Bryan. Thank you for coming. She's upstairs."

Dr. Bryan stops on the threshold to take in the scene, and he shakes his head at Tony before setting his bag down and rolling up his sleeves.

"I need to examine the wound, and I'm going to try to stitch it up, but I'll need help holding her down. Which of you is willing?"

Tony still looks green and scared, and Walt looks reluctant, so Nate steps forward. "I can help if necessary."

"Okay. The rest of you clear out, but boil these in hot water and then bring me clean water and towels."

Walt and Tony go downstairs, and Dr. Bryan grimaces and unwraps the makeshift bandage they'd rolled around her thigh. The hole is clearly visible, blood oozing out sluggishly.

Her head moves slightly and her eyelids flutter.

"Good, she's awake," Dr. Bryan says. "I'm going to administer some laudanum, but even that won't dull her senses completely. I'm going to have to make sure there isn't anything still left in there."

"Right," Nate says, swallowing hard.

Walt comes back with the water and the cleaned instruments, and Nate watches as Dr. Bryan cleans the wound and administers the laudanum. Then he directs Nate to hold her still, and he sets in, digging in with his forceps to root around. She jerks and screams a little and then her eyes roll back in her head, but Dr. Bryan directs Nate not to let go. She doesn't wake up anymore, however, and soon he's done.

"How far along is she?" Dr. Bryan asks after he's stitched up the wound and is rolling a bandage around it.

"I don't know. I didn't know of her existence until this morning when Jim shot her."

"She looks to be nearly at term," Dr. Bryan says grimly. "Send Tony in here."

Nate goes to fetch Tony and sits down at the table in the kitchen as Tony climbs the stairs warily.

"Are Brad and the others due back tonight?" Nate asks Walt.

"Yeah," Walt says.

They sit and wait, Walt preparing something for supper and Nate scrubbing at the blood-stained shirts and Lilley's filthy dress. He's just hanging them to dry on the line above the stove when he hears raucous singing that signifies the return of Brad and the others. Jim is nowhere to be found, of course, probably out hiding in the barn with the animals.

Nate looks out the window and sees them pull up. Brad leaps down from the box and is unhitching the wagon when Poke points to the doctor's gig. Brad's head whips around and he immediately runs toward the house.

The door crashes open and Brad thunders in, eyes darting around immediately to Walt.

"Walt," he says, his voice cracking. "You—you're alright," he says, then shifts his gaze to Nate. "Why is the doctor's gig here?"

Nate and Walt exchange a glance, unsure how to respond, and then Ray and Poke and Evan rush in, all wide-eyed and waiting for the story.

"A girl was in the yard," Walt begins reluctantly. "Turns out she was Tony's girl, and she—" He gestures at his stomach, making a kind of circular motion. "He didn't know, Brad," he says, almost pleadingly. "Anyway, she was here, only we didn't know, and—and Trombley thought she was a dog sneakin' around in the grass, and he—he fired a shot at her and hit her in the leg."

"Jim—shot—a woman—a pregnant woman—on—my—land?" Brad said, very slowly, with dangerous calm.

"Hell," Poke said. "Didn't I tell you he was a crazy motherfucker?"

"Holy shit," Ray says, and Evan whistles. Then they all start talking at once, a cacophony of voices, but Nate is silent, and Brad is too, his eyes hard as agates and his cheek moving like he's clenching his teeth.

They're all interrupted by a scream from above, and everyone raises their eyes to the ceiling as if they can all see through it.

"Where is Trombley?" Brad asks quietly.

Nate knows Brad well enough by now to know that he is furious despite the calm tenor of his voice.

"Haven't seen him since he brought Doc Bryan," Walt says.

Brad turns wordlessly to pick up the shotgun sitting by the door on his way out.

Nate hurries to follow him out onto the back porch.

"Brad," Nate says urgently, but Brad doesn't turn, just strides purposefully toward the barn. "Brad. Brad!" He reaches for Brad's shoulder and turns him around.

Brad's eyes are snapping with his anger, and Nate can see how it's barely contained, as if he had only been holding it in for the sake of the other boys, and now, out in the open, with only Nate as witness, it is breaking free.

"What are you going to do?" Nate says.

"I'm gonna find Trombley and I'm gonna scare the shit out of him. I'll shoot his leg off if I have to."

"You can't do that," Nate says firmly.

"I can and I will," Brad says, but he doesn't move, his body tense as a bow string, as if daring Nate to try to stop him.

"He's just a boy, Brad," Nate says quietly.

"Yeah, and he's shot a girl, and now the whole town will be after us, and then what?"

"Shooting Jim's leg off isn't going to change any of that."

Brad throws the gun aside and turns to lean against the fence, his head hanging between his shoulders.

Nate goes forward to stand beside Brad, not getting too close, but wanting very badly to put a hand to his shoulder again and let it linger this time. It's cold enough that he can see every forceful breath Brad huffs out.

"He'll come back," Nate says. "And then you decide what to say to him. You could tell him he needs to leave, or you could give him another chance."

"It's my fault," Brad says.

"Brad," Nate says, trying to keep the impatience out of his voice.

"No, it's— I stir all of them up by saying things I shouldn't say. About Schwetje and Mattis and McGraw and all of them. Trombley's just shooting at the dogs because he thinks that's the kind of revenge we should be taking on them." He turns to look at Nate. "You're right, Nate. He is just a boy. They all are, except Poke. And I shouldn't be giving them stupid ideas about fairness and justice, because there ain't no such thing in the world, and any time anyone tries to bring it about, things usually go to shit and everything turns out wrong."

It might be the most tragic speech Nate's ever heard anyone utter. "That's not true," Nate says. "There's justice in the world. There's justice here, if we only knew how to bring it about. The world is so much bigger than this place. Than Mathilda. Someday you'll see."

Brad shakes his head. "The world," he says, and smiles ruefully. "I know more about it than you think, Nate. Do you know what I think about all the time?"

Nate shakes his head, suddenly feeling breathless. Brad has never confided anything this personal before, and Nate knows they must be on some kind of precipice, these confidences of Brad's the gentle force that will tip them over the edge to plunge into something unknown.

"I think about the ocean," Brad says. "That's all I remember of my father, my real father, standing on the deck of the boat we came on, looking at the waves breaking against the hull. The water was black. And I was sure I would fall in and be swallowed up, if he hadn't been holding me so tight."

His hands clench around the wooden fencepost. "They all died, my dad and my mom and my brothers and sister, they all died of a typhoid outbreak weeks after we got here. They left Sweden because of how bad things were there, how unfair, and they get here and..." He clears his throat. "I don't have anything of theirs, not even my name. Just that memory of the sea.

"So you're right," he says, and he turns to face Nate again. "The world is bigger than this place. But it ain't fair, no matter where you go or what you do."

"I'm sorry," Nate says, feeling foolish.

"Don't be, it ain't your fault. Here, let me show you something."

They walk around to the front door so as to bypass the kitchen, and Brad leads Nate up the stairs and down the hall to his own bedroom, which Nate has never set foot in. Brad goes to the corner and picks up a large rectangular object wrapped in brown paper. He unties the string and removes the paper, and Nate realizes that it is a painting, the frame ornate and looking completely out of place in this spare room.

Brad props it against the wall and stands back, watching as Nate comes forward to peruse it more closely. It's a dark painting, depicting a boat being tossed by the waves in weak light obscured by forbidding clouds.

"It ain't an original. Mrs. Bush left it for me before she went back to New York, because I used to stare at it when I was called in to collect my wages from her."

"Who painted the original?"

"Some guy named Turner."

Nate keeps staring at it, and the longer he looks at it the more he gets the uncanny feeling that he is looking straight into Brad's heart. It's lonely, shadowed, the boat helpless amidst the force of the sky from above and the water below.

"It's beautiful," he says. "I think—I think I see why you don't have it up in the parlor." He turns to watch Brad looking at it.

Brad nods, and then replaces the paper over the painting, tying the string loosely and resting it carefully against the wall where it had been before.

They go downstairs again and wait with the other men for Trombley to come back, or for someone to come down and tell them what is happening, the silence punctured by occasional screams and sobbing from upstairs. They pass a flask around, but Nate refuses. Brad doesn't, but he seems to have a hollow leg, no amount of partaking from it slurring his speech or otherwise affecting him. Ray falls asleep with his head on the table, Evan takes out his harmonica, and Poke carves at a block of wood with his knife.

"We should try to get some sleep," Walt says finally. "You boys have to be up and out in five hours. It's almost one."

Nate realizes with a jolt that he has nowhere to sleep, since his room has been converted to a surgery.

"You'll have to share mine," Brad says, watching him. "If the idea don't offend you."

Nate swallows. "Of course not. If there are some blankets I could spread on the floor—"

"Don't be stupid," Brad says. "The bed's big enough. I built it myself, I oughtta know."

Everything about the idea of sleeping with Brad in a bed that Brad built makes Nate incredibly nervous, but he nods.

It's practical; sleeping on the floor is cold and uncomfortable. So it shouldn't be strange, and none of the other men think anything of it, used to sleeping next to each other out in the open, in tents, in haystacks to keep warm. With anyone else, Nate wouldn't think anything of it either. But Brad has changed everything for him, so much that Nate is starting to wonder if he ever knew himself. He follows Brad up to the bedroom.

"When I finished building this big house, I didn't ever think I'd be able to fill all these rooms," Brad says, setting the lamp down on a shelf and beginning to unbutton his shirt.

"So why'd you build it?"

"I thought I was building it for my own family. This was going to be the bed for my wife."

Nate stares at Brad, frowning.

Brad looks around and sees Nate staring, so he smiles easily. "You wondering what happened?"

"I don't want to pry."

"She worked for Mrs. Bush, and I was a hired man. I used to walk her home from church and town meetings, and she was sweet on me, or she seemed to be. When Mrs. Bush offered to sell me the place real cheap I asked her to marry me. She said yes. We tore down the old house and started building the new one, and she told me she was happy. But there was another hired man. We were friends. She ran off with him to California about a week before I finished the house."

Nate doesn't know what to say, so he just watches Brad, whose smile never wavers.

"Don't need to look like that," Brad says. "I wouldn't have given her what she wanted. She wanted more than a just a house from her husband, I think."

"She would've had you, too," Nate says.

Brad shakes his head and turns his back to Nate, his broad shoulders slumped forward. "No. She saw how it would be; she was always smarter than me. Did the right thing."

"But you were in love with her," Nate says, though it's more like a question than a protest.

"No, I don't think I was. I was still...I don't know."

"What?"

Brad turns to smile at Nate again. "Waiting for something, I guess."

Nate can't tear his eyes away from Brad's gaze, feels paralyzed by it, like a small animal caught in a cobra's stare, and yet he feels no fear.

"Waiting for what?" Nate says, though he thinks maybe he knows, but he wants to hear Brad say it, he wants it so badly.

Brad moves toward him, and Nate can see, even in the dim lamplight, that maybe the drink has affected him after all. His eyes are bright, something unleashed in them, and Nate's breath starts to come faster. He licks his lips.

"Brad," he says. He feels his back press up against the wall, and yet Brad keeps moving forward. "Brad," he says again, a little desperate—for Brad to come closer or move away? He doesn't know, and he hopes Brad will make the decision for him, because—

"Do you know what you walked into, Nate?" Brad says, his voice very low, and he's so close that Nate has to tilt his head back so far to look up at him.

"No," Nate whispers.

Suddenly Brad looks sad, his eyes going soft, so soft.

Then he moves away, and it takes Nate a moment to realize that Brad is gone, across the room already. "We should get some sleep," Brad says. He climbs into the bed and turns his back to Nate. Nate sheds his trousers and shirt and gets in, turning his back to Brad, too, but he's more awake than he's ever been in his life, and he knows he won't sleep at all that night, and not just because of the moans and screams coming from down the hall.

*

Part Two

Part Three

From: [identity profile] trolleys.livejournal.com


OMG YOU POSTED!!!!!!!

You know how I feel about this ;______________; NONETHELESS:

♥ ♥ ♥

From: [identity profile] chlorate.livejournal.com


my courage, it is at the sticking place! due to your unfailing support, of course ;___; ♥♥♥♥♥♥
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