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In Bear CountryKiernan KellyErotica/Romance2006 by Kiernan KellyFirst published in www.torquerepress.com, 2007CONTROL: PUBLISHER="Torquere Press" PUBURL=www.torquerepress.com
Ain't that always the way.
Seems like as soon as a man got his feet up under him, the earth would start to shaking and knock him right back down on his ass again.
Just once, Pride would have liked to see the sun come up with a dollar in his pocket and a roof of his own over his head. Hell, right now he'd settle for two bits and a broad-brimmed hat. 'Course, it never worked out that way. Every damn time he'd managed to pull his ass from the fire, God had seen fit to hold a lit match to his britches. This time was no different.
Truth was, Pride didn't hold much with God and figured that the feeling was mutual.
Pa would've had a jaw-full to say about that, Pride reckoned, but Pa was ten years in the ground and no doubt looking over God's shoulder, helping Him light the match. Although if Pride had his way, Pa would be roasting on a slow turning spit over the hottest fire in Hell instead.
Just fourteen when his father had died, his back sporting the scars of his old man's attempts to save his sorry soul, Pride had been scooped up, dressed in gray, handed a rifle, and pointed toward the North. Nobody asked him if he believed in the Cause. Hell, Pride was so wet behind the ears that he hadn't even figured out what the Cause was until the War was nearly over. Green and scared, he was lucky he hadn't shot his own damn foot off that first year.
He'd seen sights during the four years he'd fought in the War that no youngster should ever see, sights that stillhaunted his dreams from time to time. Men, or what used to be men before the cannonballs had ripped through them, lying on green fields soaked with crimson, crying out for their mothers. Blue or gray, black or white, it made no difference in Pride's eyes. Both sides had bled the same red. Women and children starving, walking with rags tied to their feet, burned out of their homes, their hollowed eyes cried dry. Entire families on the move, carrying their sick and dying with them, forced out by hunger or by stronger neighbors with bigger guns. The dead buried in shallow graves, or simply tossed to the side of the road, left to rot in the sun.
Pride had somehow managed to come through the War with his hide, if not his soul, intact--dented and dinged but still covering his bones, only to get rounded up after the Surrender with the rest of his division and sent to the Rock Island prison camp for two years. Those two years were worse than any he'd ever lived before or since, including the four spent crawling on his belly in the mud, blood, and shit during the War.
What little food they'd been thrown was half-spoiled, the water fouled by livestock and men alike. Filth-covered, their uniforms worn until they were shredded and tattered into gray rags. Most had no shoes, their feet turning black with frostbite. Pride watched more men die when the cold came that first winter than he had in any skirmish he'd fought in. For a while it looked like Pride might join them, suffering as he had with a fever that hadn't cooled for days. The bullets and sabers had missed killing him, but the damned prison camp had near done him in.
When he'd been released from Rock Island with nothing but empty pockets and an emptier stomach, he'd wandered southwest. Living off the land as best he could, he'd snare a squirrel or a possum here and there, or a rabbit now and then. Got lucky once or twice noodling fish out of the water with his bare hands, but he went hungry more often as not. His bones poked up through his skin feeling sharper than a porcupine's quills. Still, he'd survived.
Eventually, Pride had found work riding fence for a rancher in Texas, working long and hard until both his fingers and his ass had sprouted blood blisters. Saved every nickel he could, buying nothing that he could do without--hadn't chawed tobacco or tasted nothing more refined than 'shine in years except at Christmas, and wore his pants and shirt until they weren't much more than holes strung together with thread. His coat had been worn through at the elbows, ragged at the bottom, and had only one button left. His hat had been beaten to hell and back, and wasn't much more than a misshapen lump atop his head. He did with what he had, and if he didn't have it, he did without. But after four years of pinching pennies, he'd managed to save enough in the grimy, rolled up sock he kept shoved inside his boot to buy a half-dead horse and a beat-up saddle, a rifle, a coat, a new hat, and hopefully, a better life.